Sunday, July 21, 2019

How the gourd killed the whale

"It was a dried gourd that brought whales to the edge of extinction in the 19th Century. "



For some time now I have been writing in this space that our Achilles Heel as a species may have come at a fork along our evolutionary biology pathway many millions of years ago. Relatively few others of our fellow creatures decided to follow our lead, and for good reason. We decided to sweat.

Having sweat glands conferred an immediate advantage, the type of advantage our kind also seems to select for, rather than thinking through the more distant implications. Only primates — such as humans, monkeys, and apes — and horses have skin covered by sweat glands to regulate their body temperature through evaporation of water. Maximum sweat rates of an adult human can be 2-4 liters per hour or 10-14 liters per day. Dogs and cats, which have just a few such glands, accomplish temperature regulation by panting, which evaporates water from the moist lining of their oral cavity. Elephants manage it with capillaries in their giant, flapping ears (Woolly Mammoths, unfortunately, lacked those and were hunted to extinction).

As bipedal athletes, our ancestors could not dash as fast as deer, boar, or zebras but had the advantage of sweat. We could keep up a fast pace longer than our prey could. As the prey overheated, they were forced to slow down. As we overheated, we only needed to refill our water reserve— hence the gourd. It became as important as the spear. Fear, anxiety, stress, and pain can also cause us to sweat because our biological instincts kick in and prepare us to run. 

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. I have been following his writing on biophysical economics, system dynamics modeling, and metahistory for more than 20 years. His blog in English is Cassandra’s legacy. His most recent book in English is Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green 2014). He was also the author of The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer 2011).

In essays just this month so far, he seems to have debunked the notion that the Roman Empire fell from climate change, but raised the possibility that its fall caused a climate change; described how Earth’s ecosystem controls climate by the biotic pump; how the mountain Ebih “melted into a vat of sheepfat” in the 3rd Millennium BCE; and how in times of crisis the panicked elite do not react with reasoned debate, but with the usual combination of lies, damned lies, and propaganda.

I was delighted to have the chance to experience Ugo in person when he gave a lovely workshop entitled, La Grande Transizione — Da Dove e Per Dove (The Great Transition — From Where and To Where) at the annual convergence of GEN-Europe in Comune di Bagnaia, Italy, this week. What was surprising was not what he said, because he left many of the questions he raised unanswered, but how he lectures.

Describing how Herman Melville developed his empathy for the whale, Bardi donned Ahab’s top hat and fastened his sister-in-law inside a raincoat so that her arms were replaced by empty sleeves for fins, then set out with a spear to chase her around the tent.

How did these small humans in their rowed boats kill these leviathans, he asks. Why didn’t these mammals, who were much faster and stronger, merely swim away? He holds up the gourd.

In whaling, the gourd takes the form of an empty oak cask, attached to a line. If the harpooner can toss a barbed dart into the thick skin of the whale as it passes his boat, the whale is doomed. The barb may cause some superficial bleeding but is not fatal by itself. Attach a cask to its line, however, and now the whale is unable to dive to safety. As it swims, pursued by the rowboat, the drag of the line wears it out. Eventually, the boat overtakes the whale and delivers the coup de grâce, usually by a lance driven through the creature’s heart.

 In a 2004 post to the Oil Drum, Bardi wrote:
In his 1878 book, Alexander Starbuck cited several factors for the decline of production of the whale fisheries in times that for him were recent. He seems to have believed that it was not the extermination of the whales that caused the decline but, rather, the increase of the human population which led to “an increase in consumption beyond the power of the fishery to supply.” But it was also clear to him that the cost and the length of voyages had increased beyond reasonable limits. He did cite “the scarcity and shyness of whales” as a problem, but he stops short of saying that the whale stock was depleted beyond recovery. Most likely, the concept of “extinction” was alien to him, as it was to most of his contemporaries.
Our perception problem with crude oil is equivalent to that of Starbuck, and indeed it is perhaps more severe. The concept of the terminal depletion of a mineral resource is alien to us, since there have been no worldwide precedents. In addition, we are apparently just near the midpoint on the production curve, so we still have to experience the peak, the associated price rise, and the decline. What the future has in store is uncertain: perhaps an energy equivalent of the “rock oil” of Starbuck’s times will materialize in the near future. But if it does not materialize we will have to live with depletion and before long begin to see lamps going out.
So what is our lesson here? Bardi never really got to that, but my takeaway was that we humans have immense technological hubris but little empathy. Bardi said we have developed empathy for honeybees, pandas, and whales but are unlikely to do that for mosquitoes and cockroaches. Unless we can imagine ourselves within the web of life, instead of seeing ourselves as its masters, we are doomed.

I think we risk destruction by many separate routes. We can fill our gourds to slake our thirst, but these days the water is likely contaminated with microplastics. The plastic spear Bardi used to illustrate his whale story is killing more whales now when it is discarded than Ahab could have with forged iron at the tip of a wooden pole.

One real problem we will face stems from that evolutionary decision about sweat glands that our ancestors made. 

Orcas, thanks to subcutaneous fat stores, can withstand water temperatures ranging from 0° to 30–35°C (32–95°F). Certain species of tardigrade, including Mi. tardigradum, can withstand and survive temperatures ranging from –273 °C (near absolute zero) to 150 °C in their anhydrobiotic state. Humans have no such tolerance.

Certain sharks, tuna, billfishes, birds and mammals, including ourselves, are endothermic, or “warm-blooded” in common parlance. We have a larger number of mitochondria per cell than ectotherms, enabling us to generate heat by increasing the rate at which we metabolize fats and sugars. If we get too hot, we sweat. If we get too cold, we shiver, sit in strong sunlight, bundle in furs, or burn fat faster. 

To sustain higher metabolism, we need several times the food intake of ectothermic animals. Endothermism has its advantages, such as a constant core temperature for optimum enzyme activity. We are not only ourselves under the skin but an entire community. Our human microbiome is optimally advantaged at 37°C (98.6°F). 

But endothermism also has disadvantages. If we get too hot we try to slow our metabolic burn. That is what happens during sleep when our core temperature drops typically 1°C. It’s also why the greatest threat to life during heat waves may be during the night when bodies cannot stay cool enough to survive. 

When relative humidity is 100%, sweating does nothing to cool us. Hotter air can store more water than colder air. When the human body is exposed to constant temperatures of approximately 55°C (131°F) longer than a few hours, death is almost inevitable. In the early stages, we may try to slow heat generation by ceasing activity. If the heat persists, the effects of our diminished metabolism damage our central nervous system first, especially the brain and those parts concerning consciousness; then heart rate and respiration decrease; judgment becomes impaired as drowsiness supervenes, becoming steadily deeper until we lose consciousness. Mammalian muscle becomes rigid with heat rigor at about 50°C (122°F), with that sudden rigidity of the whole body rendering life impossible. 

Humans may catch lethal hyperthermia when a wet-bulb temperature (heat index) is sustained above 35°C (95°F) for six hours. In these conditions, if the temperature of the surroundings is greater than that of the skin, the body actually gains heat by radiation and conduction.Peter Sinclair writes: "Stepped outside yet today? Today in the midwest is what a normal summer day will be like in a few decades." National Geographic: "In less than 20 years, millions of people in the United States could be exposed to dangerous "off-the-charts" heat conditions of 127 degrees Fahrenheit or more...."


Sadly, hyperthermia occurs in birds, insects, fishes, land animals, and plants of course, too. The sacred lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) can sustain 20 degrees C (36 degrees F) above air temperature while flowering by breaking down starch in their roots, consuming oxygen at a rate of a flying hummingbird, but lacks a similar ability to cool itself. Many plants do not flower, do not fruit, and do not reproduce themselves when it is too warm.

We will need better tools than gourds if we are going to survive this time. We need to discover empathy. And then plant a whole lot of trees.


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Sunday, July 14, 2019

Good Times Traveled

"Water may stain the frescos, earthquakes may close the tunnels, but the temples will survive."





I had only just posted somewhere that I was on my way to Damanhur when a friend texted me to make sure I visited the Time Travel Chamber. I never discovered that but it did not matter. The entire Temples of Humankind project was designed as a conversation through time, easily on par with sending the music of Blind Willie Johnson and Chuck Berry beyond the Solar System (in the sense of passing the termination shock) into the Kuiper belt and then, in about AD 41977, to Andromeda.

For those who put humanity’s odds at surviving the present century past what any respectable bookmaker would take, which is where Carl Sagan stood when he dispatched Chuck Berry to the stars, the Temples offer an opportunity to ink our species’ final tableau.

Falco Tarassaco (Hawk Dandelion), nee Oberto Airaudi (1950–2013), was born with the unusual gift of remembering not only all his past lives but all his future ones, some 600 in all. Doubtless, this was quite a burden for a little boy, but in one future incarnation he had been an interplanetary delegate to a council of elders and was appointed to be pre-incarnated in Turin in 1950 in order to rescue our planet. He was able to un-shoulder some of that responsibility eventually to thousands of followers, who crafted his vision and mission into Damanhur, a federation of spiritual communities launched in Northern Italy in the early 1970s.

In some 30 books, Falco described a distant point in space from which our consciousness arose and then crossed light years to reach us, the earlier civilizations that came and went in the quest for utopian living arrangements worthy of that gift, and his sense of indefatigable optimism that everything was all happening to a grand plan with a very, very happy outcome. If your unbounded soul could resonate with any of that, you were more than welcome to join him at Damanhur.


The community ran into a patch of trouble with authorities for a few years when an ambitious public prosecutor tracked rumors to the secret entrance of the temple complex, where Damanhurians had for a dozen years been quietly (using loud music to conceal the sound of jackhammers) hewing subterranean chambers in the mountain behind their home without benefit of licensed engineers or the required permits. After four intense years of legal battles to save the excavation from demolition, in 1996 the temples were given legal recognition as a national treasure and, a decade later, Damanhur was proclaimed a model of a sustainable society by the United Nations.


As one wanders from brightly-lit chamber to chamber within the temples, moving alternately between levels hand-hewn into the hard myanite of the mountain, one is struck not only by the amazing skills and artistry of the Damanhurians but by the pervasive optimism that each face etched into the marble floors, murals, and statues portrays. Here, In fresco and tile, are some 800 individual smiling Damanhurians, past and present, immortalized now and forever in the deep rock inside this Alpen landscape, kilometers above sea level.

Longyearbyen, Norway, the Arctic home of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, was chosen for its stability to safeguard millions of the world’s most genetically important seed — 13,000 years of agricultural history — from nuclear war, asteroid strikes and other disasters, but it is already at risk because it turned out to be in the fastest-warming part of the world. Heatwaves have partially melted the permafrost, flooding the vault with water, forcing caretakers to dig drainage ditches. The seeds are stored at a cautious -18℃, cool enough to remain viable for 1,000 years, but the cooling system relies upon the surrounding natural permafrost, snow, and ice, and if the present warming trend continues, the average temperature at Svalbard will increase by 8.3℃ (14.4°F) by 2100. Farewell, sweet corn.





When surface temperatures exceed the capacity of mammalian sweat glands to hold our bodies within the narrow bounds of organ function, calibrated over the course of a billion years within a climate that never varied more than 5 degrees; when melting glaciers and expanding water molecules add scores of meters to sea levels around the coastlines of the world; and when green methane skies send fireball lightning rolling across the lifeless Sandhills of Nebraska; these Damanhurian chambers will abide. Water may stain the frescos, earthquakes may close the tunnels, but the temple will survive. They are a postcard through time.

Some bright blue day millions of years from now, Martian astronauts, the progeny of microbes hitching aboard an unsterile rover to the Red Planet, may return to a restored Earth and discover this cavern and all the treasures it holds. Perhaps one of them will be Falco himself! The message this great work of art conveys, while poignant, is joy-filled and grateful for good times had. What more noble work could there be? Hodor!


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Sunday, July 7, 2019

Clash of the Negative Emissions Titans: Cannabis, Meet Biochar




"These signs and portents point to a coming Anthropocene that will not be your daddy’s World War II."

  If you are a billionaire captain of industry, what are you willing to spend to assure some legacy — any legacy — remains of the contributions you’ve made, after you are gone? Not many would say none. It is a human trait to want to be remembered.

When we look down the long, dark tunnel of our future towards the prospect of leaving behind near-term human extinction — possibly the extinction of life on Earth — it kind of puts a crimp in that kind of thinking.

If you are in that category, how now do you spend a billion dollars to be remembered; to have anyone even around to remember anything?

This past week a few hundred researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and climate activists huddled together in Ft. Collins, Colorado, which bills itself the “Napa Valley of Beer,” at the Biochar and Bioenergy Conference put on by the US Biochar Initiative.

The first speaker, Erica Belmont from the University of Wyoming, was a co-author of the recent study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration: A Research Agenda. She spoke about the various pathways for getting to net zero and then negative emissions (drawdown) by 2100.

https://www.chelseagreen.com/product/burn/
I actually found the NASEM study lacking in ambition, mainly because even under the best of all worlds it estimated the most humans could hope to achieve was a drawdown rate of 20 GtCO2/y (billion metric tons of CO2-equivalents per year) by 2100 using all technologies at almost any cost. Kathleen Draper and I had already shown how the world could achieve a drawdown rate of more than 50 GtCO2/y by 2060 or thereabouts from just setting a biochar content standard for all new asphalt and concrete. When you consider that the entire human emissions of greenhouse gases is already 47 GtCO2/y and rising, after which we need to calculate additional methane from permafrost, CO2 from wildfires, and other effects of climate change, the difference between her 20 Gt and our 50 Gt is an existential one.

UNEP 2017, The Emissions Gap Report
There are a number of options for NETs (Negative Emissions Technologies) that need to go from theory to field trials to industrial scale at a pace akin to that of the mobilization for war in 1941. Back then, the nation spent hundreds of millions to go from producing Fords and toasters to making
Shermans and bullets, overnight.

This time we are talking about trillions and there will be no country or industry left untransformed. The heat waves now crossing Europe on one side of the world and Alaska on the other should focus attention the way California wildfires were a wake-up call for climate deniers in John Birch country. These signs and portents point to a coming Anthropocene that will not be your daddy’s World War II.

Once you get religion about it, what next? The tendency is towards action; to throw money around wastefully at first, but then to gradually distill down solutions that work. You have to be nimble and responsive because this is a fluid theater of war and stuff happens fast.

But don’t worry. Sit back and roll a fatty (assuming you live in a full-legal state like Colorado). Hemp might just save us all.

Slide Deck courtesy of Wilson Hago and VGRID via USBI
 Shortly after Dr. Belmont left the stage, Wilson Hago of VGRID Energy Systems gave his powerpoint in a breakout session, in which he showed the various products and services now coming to market that use biochar and, once at scale, will massively reduce atmospheric carbon and reverse climate change. Just four of those emerging markets will bring $170 billion in sales in 2020.



Kathleen and I toured a production site owned by Biochar Now just outside Fort Collins and saw what Hago was talking about. Using technology no more complicated than could be made in the early 19th Century, Biochar Now was producing hundreds of tons of biochar for everything from cleaning algae blooms off lakes and ponds to carbon filament for 3D printers. They have $10 million in orders from hemp producers who like theirs blended with bokashi.


So, Mr. Captain of Industry, put that in your pipe and smoke it. Gaze out at the horizon and think of all the good places you should invest.

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Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Real Climate Debate

"That lump in your throat you feel listening to someone laying down hard truth in a poetic way is actually the one piece of the human genome most likely to rescue us."



Climate came up only briefly in the first two Democratic debates. In the first, Rachel Maddow asked whether the candidates had a plan to save Miami. In the second, the moderators asked less than half of the candidates to briefly explain their position on the issue and the first of those (Kamala Harris), after her standard climate soundbite, pivoted to North Korea and Russiagate. Biden and Sanders saw it as a green energy issue—we just need more electric cars.

A more serious and determined debate has been going on outside, as a new wave of scientist-engineers surge through international conferences and refereed journals testing theories about how to recover some hope to sustain life aboard our damaged spacecraft before it passes a yet-unlocated threshold beyond which there is no recoverability.

The new tech they are pimping might be categorized generally as geoengineering, but that tends to toss both wizards and prophets into the same bag, so perhaps the tech side should be split between natural solutions and artificial ones. For carbon dioxide removal, the natural ones are afforestation/reforestation, soil rejuvenation, biochar, holistic management, chinampas, and marine permaculture. The artificial ones are BECCS (Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage), DACCS (Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage), and enhanced weathering. To delay the inexorable impact, solar radiation management is a separate category from carbon dioxide removal, and includes things like painting cities white to reflect sunlight (which would not even approach balancing the loss of sea ice at the Arctic), spraying reflective particles into the stratosphere or over large ice masses (which has to be continuously repeated, at great expense, or the bottled-up heat returns in a rapid surge), and seeding the oceans with megatons of iron sulfate to stimulate plankton and algae (another perilous treadmill—get off it if only if you want to die)

 And apart from that stage, a different discussion is happening amongst what I would call the realists, although others may just call doomers. In an open letter to David Wallace-Wells published in The Ecologist, April 4, 2019, eco-scientists Rupert Read, John Foster, and Jem Bendell chastised the best-selling author of The Uninhabitable Earth for donning what they considered rose-colored glasses.
We are unconvinced by your claim that because we engineered this mess, so we must be able to engineer an escape from it. While that may be a neat journalistic turn of phrase, it is logical nonsense.
Climate change was not intentionally engineered by humanity. The self-reinforcing feedbacks that are further heating our world show us how the complex living system of Planet Earth is beyond direct human control. So, we have no precedent for humanity intentionally engineering global change. 
We understand you may wish to offer your readers some hope. However, your argument offers a continuing license for the hubris which has led humanity into climate-peril in the first place.
You point out that since “a decarbonized economy, a perfectly renewable energy system, a reimagined system of agriculture and perhaps even a meatless planet” are in principle possible, we have “all the tools we need” to stop tragedy in its tracks. And yet that would require us, as you also sardonically note, to rebuild the world’s infrastructure entirely in less time than it took New York City to build three new stops on a subway line.
Harsh words. After reading both Wallace-Wells’ Uninhabitable Earth and Bendell’s Deep Adaptation, I feel the critics probably went over the top. They are accusing Wallace-Wells of hanging on to unrealistic hopes while not making adequate preparations for the likelihood that those will prove groundless. I don’t think Wallace-Wells shied away from urging adequate preparations at all. And to hoist Bendell’s petard (whose ideas are not novel despite his overnight celebrity but should really be attributed to Guy McPherson), his advice is to “give up all hope of solutions without giving up on hope itself,” which is giving up on the prospect of adequate solutions, or more precisely, that humans have the genetic capability of accepting them and changing in time. I know, it’s a mind-bender. That’s why these guys get paid so much to philosophize in academia.

Readers of this blog will know that I am of the opposite persuasion. Thanks to what we have discovered about epigenetics, we have not arrived at a predetermined genetic cul-de-sac. We can, to borrow from John Lilly’s sensory-deprivation tank studies, “re-metaprogram the human biocomputer.” Thanks to what we have discovered about memes, temes, ecosystem regeneration camps, and ecovillages (now being installed in China at breathtaking speed), we are not limited by the cultural inertia of human history since Sumer. And thanks to natural climate solutions of the kind I listed above, especially biochar in all its potential applications, we are not constrained by any shortage of technical solutions, without resort to geoengineer quackery. We know precisely the acreage of forests required and the rates of planting and watering we are capable of. We know how to address the ocean feedback mechanism (exsolvation) with biochar and kelp forests. We know how to pull the fossil fuel IV out of our arm and go cold turkey without getting delirium tremens.

What we don’t know, is how to stop the quarreling and get it done. In this, I think Wallace-Wells and his critics agree. So would McKibben (Falter), Diamond (Upheaval), or Jamail (The End of Ice). Our impediments are mainly behavioral, not technical. McKibben’s approach is to take to the streets, where we can see inspiring protests by Greta Thunberg’s School Strike and Extinction Rebellion. I question, though, whether street protest really works or just makes people feel good by agitating their tribal instincts. Diamond says the problem is (putting on my best Strother Martin impersonation) “a failure to communicate,” for which he lays blame to social media and cheap airline flights. Agreed, Facebook global hegemony and the banalization of the commons is making it far worse, but it is hopeful to see Elizabeth Warren and others going after the Googazonbook social media combines and threatening to break them apart. Jamail says the upside of the fixing response is an upwelling of the human spirit. He gives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s New Green Deal as an example. That lump in your throat you feel listening to someone laying down hard truth in a poetic way is actually the one piece of the human genome most likely to rescue us.

In a Truthout essay published last March, Jamail wrote:
Anyone who thinks there is still time to wholly remedy the situation must answer the question: How do we remove all the heat that’s already been absorbed by the oceans? Invigorated activism, as heartening and important as it is, is not going to completely stem these tides.
Thus, the third level of activism, adaptation, comes into focus.
Adaptation is new territory. Here is the realm of healing, reparation (spiritual and psychological, among other ways) and collaboration. It is strangely rich with a new brand of fulfillment and unprecedented intimacy with the Earth and one another. It invites us to get to the roots of what went astray that has led us into the sixth mass extinction. Given that with even our own extinction a very real possibility, even if that worst-case scenario is to run its course, there is time left for amends, honorable completions, and the chance to reconnect in to this Earth with the utmost respect, and in the gentlest of ways.
Read, Bendell and Foster conclude their open letter to Wallace-Wells with this piece of advice:
It is not that acknowledging the hard truths which you present so starkly might still enable us to avoid climate disaster. For that it is, as in practice you so clearly demonstrate, now too late. Rather, it is the hope that through accepting the inevitability of such disaster for our present civilization, we may yet find our way to genuinely transformative change, capable of avoiding terminal catastrophe for humanity and the biosphere.
The sooner we realize that humanity won’t have a Hollywood ending to climate change, the more chance we have to avoid ours becoming a true horror story.
In that, I think we can agree.
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
― Wendell Berry
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Sunday, June 23, 2019

Riding the Whale’s Tail

"Our biological and cultural blinders are equal in every way to those worn by Material Evangelists in the Nineteenth Century."

De Agostini Picture Library, Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), 1886 engraving, Germany.
Herman Melville, when not otherwise occupied by life’s rigors aboard his whaling ship, the Acushnet, stared out to sea and mentally composed his masterpieces. In Chapter 111 of Moby Dick, he wrote:
“There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John. And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly; for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming, still; tossing like slumberers in their beds; the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.
“To any meditative Magian rover, this serene Pacific, once beheld, must ever after be the sea of his adoption. It rolls the midmost waters of the world, the Indian Ocean and Atlantic being but its arms. The same waves wash the moles of the new-built Californian towns, but yesterday planted by the recentest race of men, and lave the faded but still gorgeous skirts of Asiatic lands, older than Abraham; while all between float milky-ways of coral isles, and low-lying, endless, unknown archipelagoes, and impenetrable Japans. Thus this mysterious, divine Pacific zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth. Lifted by those eternal swells, you needs must own the seductive god, bowing your head to Pan.”
Melville’s florid Victorian prose, like hip hop both loved and reviled, affixes him steadfast to his culture and era, stringing around him like Christmas lights myths and fantasies that expose both the amazing accomplishments of mankind and the horrific crimes it inflicts against nature and itself.

Melville begins the passage speaking of the Pacific — ”Peaceful One” — as a watery grave, ending the lives and dreams of countless people. Nothing is said of ending the lives of countless whales, the purpose for which the ship beneath his feet was constructed.

He is quick to acknowledge he is merely a visitor to these realms, a gypsy rover. He calls the genocidal Californian settlers “the recentest race of men,” acknowledging that the Chinese, Indian and Hebrew cultures are far older, but avoiding all mention of those equally ancient red and brown races California settlers slaughtered to make their “new-built towns.” 

Nonetheless, Melville claims for the white Christian race dominion over all, lifted upon “eternal swells” and thereby transported hither and yon, for they have now become as gods. He makes the obligatory bow to Pan, the half-man/half-goat, patron saint of shepherds and the Greek embodiment of nature, from whom men’s powers issue.

I don’t imagine Melville intended his simile to be a comparison of how the recentest race of men is like a fornicator of goats, but there you have it. He probably intended it as a nod to Mother Nature as having the final say in all the affairs of man and beast, always a good point to make, especially when embarking upon a great ocean crossing aboard a frail wooden craft. Still, ignoring genocide on land and below the oceans are two sides of the same ignorance. The extermination of whales and sea cows followed the destruction of buffalo and passenger pigeons as surely as panning for California’s gold over the bodies of squaws and Chinamen followed the broken treaties of the Black Hills.

In another passage in Moby Dick, perhaps my favorite, Melville stares into the eyes of his prey.
Far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. And as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the same time, and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence. Even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their newborn sight.
Melville acknowledges the sentience and spiritual lives of the whales whose existence he is ending in order to light lamps in Nantucket, and compares his prey to human infants and nursing mothers, but then he wraps his observation in a caveat that while they seem sentient, they are really just staring mindlessly. These are not human, after all, much less Christian.

Painting by John James Audubon and Robert Havell, Jr., 1836
This failure to lend thought to the unique intellectual capacities of each species and their entangled contribution to the mind of Gaia enabled Melville and his contemporaries to hunt to extinction the Steller’s sea cow (27 years after Europeans discovered it); sea mink (for its fur); Labrador duck (for its eggs); New Zealand grayling (by deforestation); Canary Islands oystercatcher; Caribbean monk seal; Saint Helena large and small petrels; Pallas’s cormorant; eelgrass limpet; great Auk (the only species in its genus, killed for feathers to make pillows); and Japanese sea lion (for body parts used in traditional medicine).

Contrast Melville’s describing the ocean first as “this wondrous world,” and then, just 20 words later, as “those watery vaults.” When we hear today that ocean plastic will soon outweigh all fish combined, or that a quarter of global fisheries have ‘collapsed’ and, without significant changes, more than half of the world’s marine species may soon go extinct, Melville’s “wondrous world” slips into the watery vault in our minds. Human biological evolution gave us the genetic endowment of denial, arguably to get us past the mind-numbing recognition of our own mortality and be able to carry on in spite of that erstwhile-forbidden knowledge. Our constructed cognitive barrier, and the mechanism for breaking through it, is better explained by Ajit Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

Wrapping themselves in Christianity, those of Melville’s era were able to rationalize slavery, genocide, and all manner of destruction of the natural world by setting it against a backdrop of humans being called by God to serve a higher purpose. Of course, Christians were not unique in this regard — similar strains of tribal exceptionalism flow through nearly every religion and culture. Melville celebrated his own tribe by narrating in elegant detail how it had come to dominate even something as vast as an ocean and its greatest inhabitants.

However, with every sign and potent around us now screaming, this is the time we need to fully transition away from racist tribalism, “speciesism,” and the extractive models of economics and politics that are ruining the planet. Despite being hindered by disinformation designed to perpetuate false wealth concepts and concentrations, it is not too late for us to become conspiratorial regenerates.

Melville’s era is not unique or distant to our own. When we catalog biodiversity loss but do nothing to stem it, withdraw from the Paris Agreement and cancel debate rather than face up to climate change, and behave as if the throwaway, consumerist society we are extending to the farthest reaches of the world was ordained by God and our birthright, our biological and cultural blinders are equal in every way to those worn by Material Evangelists in the Nineteenth Century.

But in the end, in Moby Dick, t’was the whale that killed the whalers, all save Ishmael, spared to tell the tale. Pan got the final word.


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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Carbon in the Dale

"Rather than put back the coal mines, we should seriously think about putting back the forests."


My trip this week to Carbondale was to have been another stop on the book tour — a regional development conference and biochar masterclass — but it turned into a glimpse into why President Cobblepot may be elected to a second term by the abused and beaten citizens of Gotham.

The economic engine for Carbondale had once been coal (hence the name). The coal under this part of the world began as forest and swamp when the US Midwest was located near the equator. 250 million years later, Illinois was where the dark stones were encountered first by Europeans setting out to survey the new continent, in 1673.

An earthquake (lying along a precursor to the New Madrid fault perhaps) likely caused the terrain to suddenly go below the sea and the pressure of rock over millions of years created today’s coal and shale. Note the grey area on this state map. You can see that only a small fraction of those black rocks have been exploited over the past 300 years.

One of the most fascinating lectures I heard at the New Climate Economy forum here in Carbondale was provided by Seth Feaster, Energy Data Analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. I am going to include many of his slides in this post, with gratitude to Seth and IEEFA for making those available.

His first was a picture of what Peak Coal looks like for the US.

  
Then how this plays out regionally. Appalachia has been in steady decline since 1990, while the Powder River Basin didn’t hit the skids until 2008. Illinois is what they call the “Interior,” where production has declined about 40 percent over the past 30 years.


The arithmetic behind the U.S. coal industry is simple: 90% becomes thermal coal for things like making steel, producing electricity or heating homes. Exports of that are minor. The other 10% is metallurgical coal, most of which gets exported. Of thermal coal, 93% goes to electrical production.


However, since 2005, coal has been the second most expensive choice of fuels for electric generation, after heavily-subsidized nuclear, so naturally, utilities are moving away from coal and nuclear and into cheaper natural gas and renewables.



Today there are seven industry-disrupting technologies, none of which favor coal.


If you look at wind’s share of electrical generation, it is poised to become the dominant fuel across the Midwest.


Coal is no longer a “baseload” source because wind has turned out to be so reliable when you operate over a large enough area and have a smart grid that can shift power from where it is most abundant to where it is demanded. In only ten years, operating coal plants went from being on line almost 80% of the time to being off line 80% of the time.


Gas, by itself, is undercutting coal on price; and has a greenhouse gas emissions advantage. Wind, by itself, is undercutting coal on price with an even larger emissions advantage. Solar, likewise. Together, gas and renewables are complementary in managing variable demand; coal is not. Because it is no longer baseload power, it becomes even more expensive when its plants go offline and sit idle in off-peak periods. Together, renewables plus storage have advantages over gas, and storage is now disrupting the traditional market structure. “Baseload power generation” is becoming an obsolete concept. Storage is the base.

Preliminary figures show that in 2018, nearly 15.4 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity retired or was converting to natural gas. New announcements continue to add to the list of coal steam plant closures expected over the next six years. Another 32 GW (10%) has been announced as closing by 2024.


As the roar of a coal train pulling through town rattled windows, Feaster delivered all this bad news with sympathy but without pulling punches. For undiversified local and regional economies, the impact will be devastating and long-term. Carbondale is in the crosshairs. It can expect and is already experiencing:

Loss of power-plant jobs;
Loss of coal-mining jobs;
Loss of tax revenue and royalties;
Cascading bankruptcies, with loss of service jobs, health-care and pension benefits.

He told the crowd that all too often, responses by communities begin only after considerable deterioration or complete loss of their financial resources. Communities foolishly try to keep mines open with public ownership or by turning to Washington for bailouts and tariffs. They may even pass ordinances restricting alternatives. This is a fool’s errand.

The good news is that energy independence is becoming possible for larger consumers of power and homeowners alike. It can come not only from wind and solar but from biomass and a rebounding forest products sector. Unfortunately, Carbondale, like many towns, is not preparing itself to go this way. It has chosen, by default and inertia, to remain undiversified — wholly dependent on just two failing industries.

At the Fuller home.
The rapid demise of coal since 2008 is death by 1000 cuts to Carbondale. However, for the latter half of the 20th Century, economic vitality for the city relied more on a second industry — higher education. The city was home to Southern Illinois University, former teaching sinecure of R. Buckminster Fuller (his 1960 dome residence is now on the National Register). Every fall, 20,000 students would return to spend their money in the town, boosting the local economy.

Then, Illinois was struck not only by floods, fires, and furious winds (called “Derechos”), but by Tea Bagger politics. In the post-Millennium neoconservative political upheaval ironically engineered by the coal king Koch brothers, subsidies from state governments were pared away from universities, hospitals, water projects, and civic good. All across the Midwest previously thriving communities began to wither and die. SIU’s freshman class this year will number less than 1000, thanks to the double whammy of vanished state subsidies and higher tuition. No new professors are being recruited. Those that are working are termed, not tenure-tracked. There is barely enough money to pay the grounds crew.

While in Carbondale I rented this 3-bedroom house for $27 per night. Eighty percent of the homes on this street are for sale and/or for rent. Same for surrounding streets.
In the elementary schools, surveys of children reveal that 40 percent of residents are now underfed, as their parents — those that managed to keep their homes — are buying groceries paycheck to paycheck. Local schools have begun to give children take-home junk food like power bars on Fridays to get them through the weekends until the federal program gives them a choice of Fruit Loops or Captain Crunch at the school breakfast on Monday. And this is not just in Southern Illinois — the same scene is being replayed across the heartland.

If Adolf Hitler were to come through on a campaign swing and tell these people their days as victims were over if they will support him, they would all don brown shirts and fall into rank.
President Cobblepot merely promises to reopen the coal mines.

“Howard County, Iowa voted by 21 points for Obama in ’12 and by 20 points for Trump in ’16. That’s a 41-point swing. What’s up? That’s what Democrats have to figure out.”
— George Will, on Real Time with Bill Maher, June 14
My mission in town was to get everyone to look up to the sky. I had the audacity to tell them we can take carbon from the atmosphere, make energy, transform CO2 into coal, and profitably employ people burying it back in the ground. While the crowds are yet small, they are listening.

I am telling my audiences on this tour that when biomass is heated to 400 to 1200°C in the absence of oxygen it volatilizes all the elements save carbon, and it alters the molecular characteristics of carbon, such that it bonds to itself with very tough bonds that are difficult for normal weathering or hungry microbes to break. As a result, it becomes very long-lived in the soil or other structures and is unlikely to bond with hydrogen or oxygen and return to the atmosphere, typically for thousands of years. We have the example of 250 million-year-old biochar derived from ancient forest fires to prove it. We also have Buckyballs (Buckminsterfullerene).

Where does that biomass come from? Before the Industrial Revolution, and before coal mining stripped the forests from Southern Illinois, there were 6 trillion trees on Earth. Today there are 3 trillion. There is a lot of room there to put them back. India showed how it could be done by planting 50 million in a single day. At that rate, we could plant 1 trillion in 50 years. But that is just one country. And, unlike the artificial trees being crafted in laboratories that will require billions of dollars and gigawatts of energy, the actual tree, on the other hand, pays for itself, no taxes or coal mines required.

Forest economies, of course, supply much more than woody residues from forest industries. They provide oxygen, clean air, coolth, and biodiversity. They tick many more of the boxes for sustainable development. They provide, as we heard in the conference, “thriveability.”

Look at just one part of that new landscape — biochar for concrete and asphalt. In concrete, biochar replacing sand or aggregates will decrease weight, increase compression, tensile, & flexural strength, resist spalding and cracking, improve flame retardance and fire resistance, provide infrared and electromagnetic shielding, regulate humidity, serve as insulation, and remove odors, smoke, pollen, dust and mold spores from the air. Under the roads and sidewalks, it cleans air, cleans water, feeds tree roots, and reduces the urban heat island effect.
When you sequence the carbon, you can boost the bottom line and have a very fast return on investment. So, for instance, biochar can start by filtering water and then become a compost accelerant and then become fertilizer. Or biochar can start inside bricks and later, when the building is torn down, become a mine reclamation filter media and soil builder. It can filter sewage and then go into roads or bridges. Because of the heavy metals and pharmaceuticals in municipal wastes, they are unsuitable to make biochar intended for farming or gardening but are okay to make biochar for tires or fuel cells. These are what Kathleen Draper and I called “carbon cascades.” It is the foundation of a new climate economy. It places new value on forest products, and since we will need a lot more forest in the future, it provides a way to pay for that without taxes.

The emerging market for this is enormous. Almost beyond cataloging. It is entrepreneurially target-rich. Biomass-derived biochar is a valuable tool for everything from storage batteries to refrigerants to fuel cells to electric vehicles. For places like Carbondale, this can be a development driver for the coming century, with Cool Lab biorefineries serving as enterprise hubs upon which the entire community is supported in meeting its transition and development goals.


While actions by governments in support of these changes are important, the real initiative must come from the bottom up. It must be community-led innovation. This can only be accomplished by financial incentives that meet basic needs, permit rapid expansion of the industries and are ethically based in community values.

That said, there is no avoiding a very significant redesign for our global civilization. In a very short time, that change will require a shift of global industrial economies no less profound than that which transformed Western and Soviet manufacturing in 1940. For the owners of factories, steel mills, mines, and myriad enterprises, a paradigm shift would have to transform their holdings from carbon-polluting to carbon-trapping almost overnight. In 1940, entire industrial economies switched instantly from producing consumer goods to providing war materials. It was a rational response to a visceral threat.

It is going to get warmer. Here in the Midwest, winters will be harder, and summers will be brutal. We are in a period that anthropologists call liminal, or between paradigms. It is a period of great uncertainty, malaise, and strife. We need to provide the calm, strong influence that perseveres to the next stage. We will need to bring a lot of our home food production indoors to be sure we have enough in the worst years. We have to stop denying that seas are rising and weather is getting worse. We have to stop marching to the tune of snake oil salesmen and Cobblepot politicians or their media minions.

Hang in there. Be the future you want to see. Go there and live it, now. It is already here if you know where to look.

Rather than put back the coal mines, we should seriously think about putting back the forests. That is the way to put the Carbon back in Carbondale.

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Hey, Y’all. I notice my support dropped off this past month. Maybe more people are experiencing the hardships I just described, or maybe I am not doing my job of giving you new information you won’t find elsewhere. If you can and want to, then help me get my blog posted every week. Tell your friends. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

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