Sunday, July 15, 2018

You Can't Stop A Wave But You Can Surf-2

"A more prosperous way down would be to work at community scale"

Part Two

According to both Jimmy Carter and Kris De Decker, whom we quoted in Part One, we can only solve energy poverty and energy decadence if we manage to decouple human need satisfaction from energy intensive ‘need satisfiers.’

“By equating what is ‘required’ with what is ‘normal,’” write UK energy poverty researchers, 
“…we actively support escalating expectations of need, which runs counter to objectives like those of reducing energy demand… To achieve demand reduction entails challenging embedded norms rather than following them.”

Cuban family by Peter Menzel, Material World, a Global Family Portrait

"Energy services could be reduced (smaller TVs or lighter and slower cars, or less TV watching and car driving) or replaced by less energy-intensive ones (using a bicycle instead of a car, buying more fresh instead of frozen food, playing board games instead of watching television)."

Icelandic family by Peter Menzel, Material World, a Global Family Portrait

Combining sufficiency with efficiency measures, German researchers calculated that the typical electricity use of a two-person household could be lowered by 75%, without reverting to drastic lifestyle changes such as washing clothes by hand or generating power with exercise machines. 
Although this only concerns a part of total energy demand, reducing electricity use in the household also leads to reductions in energy use for manufacturing and transportation.

A more prosperous way down would be to work at community scale: public transport, public bathing houses, community kitchens, bicycle kitchens, laundrettes, libraries, internet cafés, public telephone boxes, and food cooperative home delivery services.

This R2B2 kitchen unit by German designer Christoph Thetard (not for sale) combines three kitchen appliances with a central driving spindle. The heart of the unit is a treadle powered flywheel that works as short-term energy storage, capable of delivering up to 350 watts mechanical power to the appliances. Similar to late 19th century machines, and contrary to today’s kitchen devices, it is built to last.

If you need electricity for some important thing (such as torque to haul an Easter Island statue up from the quarry), throw a party. This is a beer powered 2 kW array.

The pedal power that can be delivered by the average person over a sustained period of time was clocked in 1984 at 75 watts or 1 “hup” (human power). An average person can sustain one hup all day, 2 hups (150 watts) for roughly two hours, 3 hups (225 watts) for about 30 minutes and 4 hups (300 watts) only momentarily. Elite athletes have been known to hit 2000 hups in short bursts.

The average North American family (you too, Canada!) would need 14 of these running 24/7. It is no wonder the voters rejected Jimmy Carter’s message. If they followed the voluntary reduction path pledged by Obama in Paris they would still need 6 or 7 of them. The average Greek family (of 5) would need 1.4 of these running 24/7, or 3 running 12 hr per day. A family of 10 would need twice as many because the number is calculated on kWh per capita per country.

At present rates of emissions by 2020 there will only be 1000 gigatonnes left of the atmospheric parking space provided for carbon dioxide emissions for the remainder of the century. At 40 GtCO2 per year (present rate), that will be gone by 2045. If the world could cut emissions by half — an amazing feat — it would get us to 2070 before we lose the IPCC’s 66% bet of staying within an imagined non-catastrophic guardrail. 

With each succeeding UN meeting it has become apparent that the only way we will stabilize climate and have a chance of returning to the comfortable Holocene where mammals with sweat glands are possible would be by deliberate removal of CO2 from the atmosphere by human intervention. 

Because of how long CO2 naturally remains in the atmosphere, there is only a limited time, if any, to bend the curve before self-reinforcing tipping points take the situation beyond our control. Assuming we have not already passed that threshold, the longer we delay, the steeper the pitch must be on the descent.

From where we stand now, in 2018, to have a realistic chance of averting disaster, we need to reach an 11 percent decline rate per annum from 2036 (preventing catastrophic climate change above 2 degrees) or better, a 20 percent decline slope (limiting ourselves to dangerous climate change at around 1.5 degrees).

This type of curve will not be easily achieved. An 11 percent decline slope is the inverse of doubling your fossil economy every 7 years — so, halving every 7 years. Try to imagine half the numbers of commercial passenger flights in 2025 as today, or half the numbers of gas-powered engines. Half the numbers of WalMart SuperStores bringing full cargo ships from Shenzhen to Houston. Then halve that by 2032 and again by 2039. You get the picture.

If you imagine that renewables will surge to fill the gap, you really have a vivid imagination and should consider a career writing childrens’ stories.

Hansen, 2018

Avoided emissions will not be adequate. Even replacing fossil fuels with sunlight, wind, and firewood will not bring carbon back into the safety zone fast enough. In most scenarios renewables will only help to fill a growth gap in overall supply increases.

An international team of climate scientists, economists and energy systems modelers have built a range of new “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways” (SSPs) that examine how global society, demographics and economics might change over the next century.

These SSPs are now being used as scenarios for the latest climate models, feeding into the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) due to be published in 2020–21. They are also being used to explore how societal choices will affect greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, how the social inertia impeding the climate goals of the Paris Agreement could be overcome.

The SSPs are based on five narratives describing broad socioeconomic trends that could shape future society. These include one green economy approach and four variants of business as usual. 
Here is how they predict the energy mix will play out through the remainder of this century. Each chart takes 2010 as the starting point, lining up nicely with that last image we used — of global energy consumption.

SSP1 takes the “Green Road.” Consumption is oriented toward low material growth and lower resource and energy intensity. This would be where everyone begins to live more like that family in the yurt. SSP2 is business as usual. The world follows a path in which social, economic, and technological trends do not shift markedly from historical patterns. 

SSP3 is regional rivalry, where reaction to peak oil causes a reflexive turn towards violent tribalism and hoarding. Population growth is low in industrialized and high in developing countries, which creates migration pressures worldwide. Low international priority for addressing environmental concerns, coupled with rapid climate change, leads to strong environmental degradation in some regions. 

SSP4 is exploitation of the poor by the rich. Over time, a gap widens between an internationally-connected society that contributes to knowledge- and capital-intensive sectors of the global economy, and a fragmented collection of lower-income, poorly educated societies that work in a labor intensive, low-tech economy. Investments in both carbon-intensive fuels like coal and unconventional oil, and also in low-carbon energy sources, keep wealth inequality growing. 

SSP5 is Burning Man. There is a push for economic and social growth coupled with exploitation of abundant fossil fuel resources opened by new technologies and the adoption of resource and energy intensive lifestyles around the world. Bill Gates and Elon Musk invest in geoengineering.

It is difficult to find earthly biophysical support for these projections. In the green pathway (SSP1), emissions peak between 2040 and 2060 — even in the absence of specific climate policies, declining to around 22 to 48 gigatonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) per year by 2100. This results in 3–3.5°C of warming by 2100. All 5 pathways end in climate change that should be deemed unacceptable, and some would end higher order civilization. SSP5, the high-growth energy-intensive pathway, shows the most overall emissions of any SSP, ranging from 104 to 126 GtCO2 per year in 2100, resulting in warming of 4.7–5.1°C.

So those are your choices, friends. You can follow the path being laid out by IPCC and the United Nations and it marches you to the Gates of Hell. You can shortcut that process if you follow the path being laid out by the current administration of the United States or its right wing clones soon to follow in goosestep across Europe.

Or you could follow the path mapped by Jimmy Carter on April 18, 1977 and learn to surf. Ride the wave to the beach. Learn to live on less and do it with style and panache. One way or the other, living on less is in our common future.

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Sunday, July 8, 2018

You Can't Stop A Wave But You Can Surf-1

"Will common sense conservation be enough? Probably not."


Part One

Below is a kite sailboat outracing a 1000 HP speed-boat. Three years ago a lone kiteboarder out-sprinted a 50-meter racing yacht in San Francisco Bay. Team Oracle was in practice sessions for the America’s Cup when they got their clock cleaned.
Whether you come at this from peak oil, financial collapse or climate change, we are about to have a radical shift in global energy.

Peak Oil began its tour of the memesphere more than 70 years ago when Shell Oil geologist Marion King Hubbert started drawing waves on a chalkboard.
A chart of discoveries and production of crude oil published in Scientific American in 1998 lent renewed urgency to Hubbert’s forecast. Oil geologists were predicting global oil production would plateau soon and start a gradual decline.
The actual peak for conventional crude came in 2005, but by then the oil companies had a card up their sleeve — hydrofracturing — that opened up previously inaccessible reserves. Just look at what happened to fossil production in the United States, the first to frack.
Hall and Laherrere, 2018
There is just one hitch. Well, actually a couple. Fracking involves cracking rock as far as a mile deep in the Earth, and stimulating gases or fluids trapped there to rise through the fissures and be gathered in wells, then directed to the surface.

The first hitch is that it is expensive. Even the most profitable companies in the world have been feeling the pinch at present oil prices. The second hitch is that it is only ambulatory care, not a cure. You can see the problem in the upper right corner of the chart above. Fracked formations give up their gas in a burst and then production falls off rapidly. Because of this companies are forced to blast more fractures just to keep pace. The sweet spots are quickly exhausted and what are left are the more expensive, less productive dregs.
Hall and Laherrere, 2018
The third hitch is really the most serious, although its been economically externalized by the oil companies. Only some of the fracked gas makes its way to the wells. A lot of it finds fissures not connected to wells and goes straight to the atmosphere. Also, wells leak. All of them. Anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of the reserve goes to the atmosphere through casing cracks, brittle seals, and shifts in the earth, often caused by other nearby drilling.
Methane is 20 to 100 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than Carbon Dioxide
Strapped for cash to keep feeding insatiable consumer demand for petro-utopia, oil companies and governments do what they had always done. They print money. And print. And print. Oh, and sometimes they flip real estate.
That dark cloud you might have noticed on the horizon is the simply gargantuan sovereign debt of $217 trillion. The US leads the pack, with over $20 trillion in debt, but the EU is not far behind with $18 trillion. Japan has racked up $11.5 trillion and Britain has $7.5 trillion. Global debt is more than three times the size of the global economy, the highest it has ever been. The debt is made up of three groups: non-financial corporates, governments and households. The only ones who are doing well are those in the financial sector, and they are now buying private islands and stocking up on canned goods and ammunition.

Then we have Paris. We’ll always have Paris, won’t we? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told the 195 assembled heads of state, essentially, their goose is cooked. Smell that fine odor wafting from the kitchen? It is starting to smell a little burnt. It might be time to take it out of the oven.
VanVuuren 2018
In fact, it is already too late. We will pass the 1.5 degree “aspirational goal” for arresting climate change in a few years, and 2 degrees in another decade or two. We are on a path for nearly 4 degrees by the end of the century, and that assumes everyone meets their pledges to reduce, not a very safe assumption. One of the biggest emitters has already announced it is reneging and is pulling its rusting coal plants out of mothballs. 5 degrees by 2100 is more likely.
Delegates gathered in Marrakech and Bonn to try to find a way back from the cliff and made very slow progress. What is required, beginning about 2020, is a gradually steepening decline in fossil emissions, followed by a half century of negative emissions, or drawdown. There is nothing technologically or economically standing in the way of drawdown now, the impediments are all social and cultural.

Probably the largest impediment is an epidemic addiction to growth. It is still a political mantra most places. 

Consider what happens if you propose degrowth. In 1977, Jimmy Carter was briefed on Hubbert’s curve and rushed to tell the public that serious cutbacks would be required. Carter explained that exponential functions have doubling times, and in each successive doubling more is produced than in all the previous doublings combined. Unsustainable on a finite planet, he said.
"The world now uses about 60 million barrels of oil a day and demand increases each year about 5 percent. This means that just to stay even we need the production of a new Texas every year, an Alaskan North Slope every nine months, or a new Saudi Arabia every three years. Obviously, this cannot continue.
"The world has not prepared for the future. During the 1950s, people used twice as much oil as during the 1940s. During the 1960s, we used twice as much as during the 1950s. And in each of those decades, more oil was consumed than in all of mankind’s previous history.
Hansen 2018
"World consumption of oil is still going up. If it were possible to keep it rising during the 1970s and 1980s by 5 percent a year as it has in the past, we could use up all the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade"
Carter then laid out ten principles, among them “we must start now to develop the new, unconventional sources of energy we will rely on in the next century,” the country had to reduce gasoline consumption by ten percent below its current level, and by the end of his first term there should be solar energy powering more than two and one-half million houses.

Carter urged that prices should generally reflect the true replacement costs of energy. “We are only cheating ourselves if we make energy artificially cheap and use more than we can really afford,” he said.
Peter Menzel, Material World, a Global Family Portrait
“We must ask equal sacrifices from every region, every class of people, every interest group. Industry will have to do its part to conserve, just as the consumers will. The energy producers deserve fair treatment, but we will not let the oil companies profiteer.”
Carter called the challenge the country faced “The Moral Equivalent of War.” We all know what happened next. A deep state cabal, working with the country’s enemies, engineered an October surprise that replaced Carter with a bumbling, affable, senile Hollywood actor who resolutely kept the nation out of that war. It was morning in America. Oil man Dick Cheney ran for Congress.

Bill Clinton opined: “You can’t get elected by promising people less.”

Emissions and energy use are usually framed in terms of national and international percentage reductions, but the energy use per head of the human population varies enormously between and within countries, no matter how it is calculated.
Peter Menzel, Material World, a Global Family Portrait
If we were to divide total primary energy use by regional population, we’d see that the average North American uses more than twice the energy of the average European (6,881 kgoe versus 3,207 kgoe, meaning kg of oil equivalent). Within Europe, the average Norwegian (5,818 kgoe) uses almost three times more energy than the average Greek (2,182 kgoe). The latter uses three to five times more energy than the average Angolan (545 kgoe), Cambodian (417 kgoe) or Nicaraguan (609 kgoe), who uses two to three times the energy of the average Bangladeshi (222 kgoe). 
Peter Menzel, Material World, a Global Family Portrait
According to Kris De Decker writing for The DEMAND Centre:
The highest energy users worldwide can contribute 1,000 times as much carbon emissions as the lowest energy users. Inequality not only concerns the quantity of energy, but also its quality. People in industrialized countries have access to a reliable, clean and (seemingly) endless supply of electricity and gas. On the other hand, two in every five people worldwide (3 billion people) rely on wood, charcoal or animal waste to cook their food, and 1.5 billion of them don’t have electric lighting. These fuels cause indoor air pollution [8 million child mortalities per year — more than malaria], and can be time- and labor-intensive to obtain. If modern fuels are available in these countries, they’re often expensive and/or less reliable. 
And if provided at that scale, they would wreck the climate even faster, which would seem to be the conflicting agenda of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Decker, Low Tech Magazine 2018.
Decker suggests that:
Focusing on energy services or basic needs can help to specify maximum levels of energy use. Instead of defining minimum energy service levels (such as 300 lumens of light per household), we could define maximum energy services levels (say 2,000 lumens of light per household). These energy service levels could then be combined to calculate maximum energy use levels per capita or household. However, these would be valid only in specific geographical and cultural contexts, such as countries, cities, or neighborhoods — and not universally applicable. Likewise, we could define basic needs and then calculate the energy that is required to meet them in a specific context. For example, central heating and daily hot showers are only a few decades old, but these technologies are now considered to be an essential need by a majority of people in industrialized countries.
Sadly, these days in the industrial world, even the energy poor are living above the carrying capacity of the planet. For example, if the entire UK population were to live according to the minimum energy budget that has been determined in workshops with members of the public, then (consumption-based) emissions per capita would only decrease from 11.8 to 7.3 tonnes per person. The UN Development Program’s Paris-based target is less than 2 long tons C per person per year. The ‘floor’ is 3–6 times higher than the ‘ceiling.’ We need to get to 2 metric tons per capita.

Will common sense conservation be enough? Probably not. And just how much is 2 tonnes per year?

164 to 227 hamburgers

one fifth of an automobile

1.9 m2 of concrete floor or swimming pool


one-eighth of a single BitCoin transaction

We’ll get to some more difficult choices in the next installment.

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Sunday, July 1, 2018

Kahului Underwater

"Such as slippage has not occurred for 100,000 years, but it has happened some 15 times in the geological record of Hawaii."
Imagine just for a moment an event that may or may not happen in human history. Imagine it happening today.

There are at least 15 giant landslides toppling into the Pacific from the Hawaiian Islands in the past 4 million years, with the most recent happening 100,000 years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. One block of rock that slid off Oahu was the size of Manhattan.

The South Coast of the Big Island where Kilauea Volcano is active has a brittle lava shelf perched above the ocean, but not the size of Manhattan. More like Santa Catalina, California, or Cortes Island, British Columbia. Still, big enough to ricochet a 1000-foot wall of water around the Hawaiian islands. If the tumble causes large offshore earthquakes there could be trailing waves. The shadows of the islands themselves and its sheltering bays would likely spare Honolulu, but the Big Island and nearby Maui could be devastated.

What are the chances? The ongoing 2018 eruption began along a knife-like surface fault from Leilani Estates to Kapoho on the ocean. That knife’s edge is where lava from deep down reaches the surface in scores of outcrops, some now forming cinder cones. Between that edge and the sea is the older shelf at risk of slipping— about 75 square miles of heavy basalt. 

Such a slippage has not occurred for 100,000 years, but it has happened some 15 times in the geological record of Hawaii.
Sitting about 30 feet (10 m) away from today’s Ka Le (South Point) seashore are boulders the size of cars. Some 250,000 years ago, a tsunami tossed the enormous rocks 820 feet (250 m) up the island’s slopes, said Fernando Marques, a professor at the University of Lisbon in Portugal.

The good news is that Hawaii doesn’t have to fret about a Fukushima-like disaster. Hawaii, along with Rhode Island and Vermont, passed laws that say no nuclear plant shall be constructed nor radioactive material accepted without the prior approval by a two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature. Hawaii has no nukes, including university research reactors.

Another piece of good news is that while landslide tsunamis may have a devastating local effect, they lose their power in the open ocean and don’t destroy distant coastlines like earthquake tsunamis. San Diego, Long Beach and Santa Monica can now exhale. That said, it might be a good idea to postpone that Hawaiian cruise ship excursion you were planning until after Kilauea’s eruption subsides.

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sargon and the Sea Peoples

"For hundreds of years, stories of marauding Sea Peoples were told to frightened children."

  Back in 4300 BCE, Sargon of Akkad found the grain farming good in the broad, flat alluvial valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Being an accomplished bully and not fond of toiling in the heat of the sun himself, he assembled a gang of thugs and enslaved weaker people to work for him. They built vast irrigation systems, knocked down forests and opened up much of the fertile Mesopotamian Plain to oxen and wooden plows. With good soil, good seed and adequate rain, his tribe prospered and applied their surplus to erect a number of market cities that were considered quite grand for the period.

You can’t just knock down forests and dig long irrigation ditches and expect Nature to let you off scott-free, however. The plowing opened the soil to the sun and killed the rich microbial life built by those erstwhile forests. Irrigation made the fields salted and addicted. Major lakes silted. Without the trees and their fungal network, the weather changed. It stopped raining.

After a mere 130 years of prosperity, the Akkadian empire collapsed abruptly in 4170 BCE. There was general abandonment of agriculture, dramatic influxes of refugees, and widespread famine. The same calamity befell much of the rest of the region. Poorer tribes flocked to wealthy Akkad seeking help.

Faced with the rising tide of hungry people, Sargon’s successor thought a good solution would be a 112-mile-long wall, roughly the distance by patrol car between Brownsville TX and Rio Grande City, which Akkadians dubbed the “Repeller of the Amorites.” They may even have claimed they were going to get the Amorites to build it, but those clay tablets haven’t been located yet.

Fast forward a few decades and we find Akkadian cities in ruins, the plains desertifying, and smaller sedentary populations farther north around the shores of Lake Van trying to eke out a frugal living eating grasshoppers and frogs. It was a rough come-down from former glory.

Of course, the Akkadians were not entirely to blame. Their changing climate was also influenced by 1 to 2 degree cooler sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic that changed rainfall in the higher elevations. In their haste to develop, they had not left themselves any safety margin.

A few thousand years later another serious drought struck that part of the world — much of it within what is now Syria and Palestine — and by this time the population was much larger than back in Sargon’s day. The first wave of these “Sea Peoples” washed over Egypt in the second year of Ramesses II, 1276 BCE, but rather than build tent cities to house them, the Pharaoh simply trapped and slaughtered some 6000 people arriving in boats with all their goods, and then sent his chariots to drive stragglers back into the sea. A bit of a blowhard, Ramesses claimed a great victory and had the story inscribed in stone and read on ceremonial days.

Ramesses II
The Syrian drought continued, however, and Ramesses son, Merenptah, writes how, in the fifth year of his reign (1209 BCE), Libyans allied with the Sea Peoples to invade Egypt and were repulsed with 6000 casualties. Six thousand seems to be a popular number when you are killing Sea Peoples.

Then Merenptah’s son, Ramesses III, in c. 1200 BCE was informed they were coming again. The populations fleeing drought-stricken Syria had already destroyed the Hittite state and Ramesses III wrote, “they were coming forward toward Egypt.” Ramesses also makes the first recorded mention of the Israelites as one of those groups trying to illegally migrate into Egypt.

“If they would just report to processing centers they could apply for asylum,” Ramesses III might have said. But secretly he set ambushes all along the border and made especially effective use of his archers, positioning them along the shoreline to rain down arrows on approaching ships. Once the ships’ passengers were dead or drowning the vessels were set on fire with flaming arrows so that not even children could escape. Then Ramesses III turned his archers toward any survivors who made it to land. Egyptian records again detail a glorious victory in which many of the Sea Peoples were slain and others taken captive or pressed into the Egyptian army and navy or sold as slaves. For hundreds of years, stories of marauding Sea Peoples were told to frightened children.

Ramesses’s border defenses were so expensive they drained the Royal Treasury. This led to the first labor strike in recorded history.

Century-long droughts can be found at many points in the historic record. California experienced a 240-year-long drought that started in 850 CE and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years. Mexico experienced an abrupt climate shift between 800 to 1000 CE that brought dry conditions to the central Yucatan for 200 years, curtailing the era of monumental Mayan architecture. Lowland population densities plunged from 200 persons/km2 at the peak of the Late Classic period to less than half that by 900 CE. City complexes of more than 50,000 people, like Tikal, were abandoned to the rats and weeds.

Houston and Miami take heed.

Challenged by unprecedented environmental stresses, cultures can shift to lower subsistence levels by reducing social complexity, abandoning urban centers, and reorganizing systems of supply and production, as the Maya, Akkadians, Romans, Tiwanaku, Mochica, Athenians and many others have done, but more often — and even in those cases — they failed to recognize what was happening until it was too late to escape unscathed. They waved their arms, followed militant leaders, found convenient scapegoats, increased debt, took to the streets in protest, overtaxed their most vital resources, and kept trying to grow their way out as if growth was the only solution they could imagine.

It never works. Sometimes civilizations go the way of the Easter Islanders. Other times they are conquered and destroyed by an even more desperate and militant neighbor they foolishly made into an enemy.

George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but he was peddling his Harvard theory of cyclic history and really could have done a better job of thinking that through. His actual theory was that both those who do not learn history and those who do learn history are doomed to repeat it.

Samuel Clemens added greater depth to Santayana’s theory, fifty years earlier, when he said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Last week, speaking at Wells College, I concluded by saying, “As a global culture, we can create social norms that would permit us to sustain healthy economies and ecologies into the turbulent climate future we cannot now avoid. There are neither technological nor resource barriers to prevent that outcome.” There are, however, biological limits, including the psychology of sunk investments.

Sad to say, even if the 45th President of the United States had not cheated and bullied his way through his education and actually studied history, it would not have made any difference. We are just in that part of the cycle now where stupidity trumps the obvious. The queues of refugees may not be quite the same as the Sea Peoples, but they rhyme.

Originally published at Thanks for reading! If you liked this story, please consider sharing it around. Our open banjo case for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The people in range of secret frequencies

"Fossil fuels are reaching up to pull us into their grave.

Approaching the vernal equinox in the Fingerlakes region of upstate New York I am at the annual meeting of the International Society for Biophysical Economics. At the end of the first day we took a short pre-dinner tour to the other side of Cayuga Lake and Taughannock Falls, one of the highest east of the Rocky Mountains (66 meters). The site provided an interesting metaphor because the waterfall and gorge are an example of ahanging valley, formed where the stream-carved valley meets the deeper, glacially-carved Cayuga Lake drainage. As the gorge retreats westward it exposes more of the Devonian shale near the fall’s base.

The Late Devonian extinction was second of the six major extinction events including the one now in progress, and eliminated about 19% of all families, 50% of all genera and at least 70% of all species. While the shale is named for its discovery in Devonshire, England, that part of the world at that time was in the Southern Hemisphere, part of the supercontinent, Gondwana. The Caledonian mountains were growing across what is now the Scottish Highlands and Scandinavia, while the Appalachians rose over America, all on that supercontinent.

As the scientists gathering from China, Russia, England, Australia, Latin America, Africa and beyond peered from the overlook down into the gorge, they were staring back 400 million years to a time when there was widespread anoxia in oceanic bottom waters, corals died, the rate of carbon deposition shot up, benthic organisms were devastated, especially in the tropics, ice melted from the poles and sea levels rose. The Devonian shares much in common with our present extinction event.

Another effect of those changes was the deposition of fossil hydrocarbons, largely because the lack of oxygen in the ocean allowed them to be trapped without decay. We are looking down into the formation of the fossil fuels and they are reaching up to pull us into their grave.

“We have to make the momentous choice between brief but true greatness and longer, continued mediocrity.”
— William Stanley Jevons, The Coal Question (1866).

In his conference invocation, Neil Patterson opened with Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen, “Words Before All Else,” the Haudenosaunee liturgy with a spoken refrain after each statement of truth, “and now we are of one mind.” In the Tuscarora language he shared with us the gifts of each of our relations, and then reminded us that everything we need is provided for us and all we have to remember is to give thanks.

I am writing this from the back of the auditorium and the conference has only just begun but my guess is that nothing we will hear will be any wiser than that. My own 30 minute talk in the first session was a biophysical critique of negative emissions technologies and a reminder that the Paris Agreement’s targets will require a 11 to 20 percent annual decline slope for energy and consumables for the duration of this century. For those in this audience still struggling to imagine a future with the creature comforts of the late 20th century extended (or even enlarged) to a warming world of 10 to 12 billion humans, these concepts are incomprehensible. They would prefer to grasp at straws like nuclear power or clean coal to sustain the unsustainable.

“Dry heaves are just nature’s way of demonstrating negative marginal utility.”
— Kent Klitgaard, Wells College

“I don’t know how you would teach the dinosaurs to be optimistic about the asteroid.” 
— Charles A.S. Hall

I am reminded of Col. Creighton S. Abrams famous words from the Battle of the Bulge, “They’ve got us surrounded again, the poor bastards.” Some of us were trying to design some way for civilization to cope at a lower level of complexity, returning to nature’s all-wise fold, while others were trying to tweak the built environments and pedagogy of the colleges where they teach in hopes the problem will be solved by some kind of fairy dust invented by the next generation, or the one after that. Queue the economics lecture on discounting present value.

“Systemic overshoot can’t grow its way into sustainability.” 
— Kent Klitgaard

Gloria Steinem said, “The truth will set you free but first it will piss you off.” We can see in numerous ways how finite the biosphere is and how humans have been pushing beyond natural boundaries in what seems to be 100 years of miracles of engineering until we suddenly recognize we have been burning the 400 million-year-old furniture all this time and now the house has caught fire.

“What we are seeing is just the outer bands of a shitstorm we are not prepared for.” 
— James Howard Kunstler

By diminishing the capacity of nature we have been steadily been decreasing our own resilience, our margin for error, placing our own species in the queue for extinction. We can hope to build adaptive capacity but ultimately are limited by factors we are powerless to change, like the ability of mammals with sweat glands to cool their bodies after the world average temperature exceeds 7 degrees of change. Some millions of years from now we will be that dark layer at the bottom of the waterfall: the Anthropocene shale.

“Lest we forget,” Charles A.S. Hall said, “Cassandra was right.”

hieroglyphic stairway
it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
I’m riding home on the Colma train
I’ve got the voice of the milky way in my dreams
I have teams of scientists
feeding me data daily
and pleading I immediately
turn it into poetry
I want just this consciousness reached
by people in range of secret frequencies
contained in my speech
I am the desirous earth
equidistant to the underworld
and the flesh of the stars
I am everything already lost
the moment the universe turns transparent
and all the light shoots through the cosmos
I use words to instigate silence
I’m a hieroglyphic stairway
in a buried Mayan city
suddenly exposed by a hurricane
a satellite circling earth
finding dinosaur bones
in the Gobi desert
I am telescopes that see back in time
I am the precession of the equinoxes,
the magnetism of the spiraling sea
I’m riding home on the Colma train
with the voice of the milky way in my dreams
I am myths where violets blossom from blood
like dying and rising gods
I’m the boundary of time
soul encountering soul
and tongues of fire
it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I can’t sleep
because my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the earth was unraveling?
I want just this consciousness reached
by people in range of secret frequencies
contained in my speech
— Drew Dellinger

© 2017"hieroglyphic stairway," from the book, Love Letter to the Milky Way, by Drew Dellinger




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