Wednesday, June 4, 2008

This Season's Cicadas

"[N]o unbalanced deficiency in the animal kingdom can ever reach any conspicuous magnitude, because it would make itself felt at the very first step, by rendering existence difficult and extinction almost sure soon to follow."
Alfred Russel Wallace

Every year, tree people from around the Midwest gather in the annual Heartwood Forest Council, like so many ents. Because there is much to be said, and the council is a very patient, it takes several days to say it all or decide what to leave unsaid for another year. Hosting all this is an old treekeeper named Andy Mahler, who puts in the time each year, both inside and outside of the meeting, to make sure from small acorns emerge giant oaks.

At the opening of the council meeting this year, in the endangered Shawnee State Forest near the Ohio River, he stepped to the center of the circle and paused to observe a natural phenomenon. “Those pencil holes all around your feet,” he said, as everyone turned and looked down at the ground, “those are the cicadas emerging from 17 years underground, sucking on tree roots.”

I paraphrase. “Imagine that today is the day you felt the call, and emerged from the dark, damp earth that was all you knew, into a world of light, and sound, and breezes. It is blinding, disorienting, completely strange. And you start to climb. And as you are climbing you are getting stiffer, your body is becoming hard, and it is slowing you down, becoming hard and brittle, but then you discover that you have wings.

"You stop and back out of your old shell and you let loose of the tree and fly. And to your amazement you discover that there are millions of others, just like you, flying around all over the place. And you can sing! Everyone is singing and flying and having a fantastic wild orgy! For the next 2 weeks you have this crazy party, and it seems like it will never end, but and at the end of the 2 weeks you begin feeling very, very tired, so you nibble at some branches, lay your eggs in the cut you made, and die. This might be the end of the story, but then that branch falls to the ground, and those eggs get buried in the soil, and eventually hatch some larvae that suck on tree roots and after 17 years the process repeats.”

Andy was trying to imply the Forest Council is sort of like the wild orgy part of the cycle, ending with the eggs, except that some of these old cicadas will be back again next year to spread their wings again. So perhaps it is more apt to consider this a metaphor for our civilization, incubating for millennia, emerging from underground with the advent of the modern technological era, fueled by fossil sunlight, flying around like crazy bugs for a few hundred years, and then coming to the realization that this is the fin de siécle, and when we are done this night, nearly over now, we are going back to ground, not to emerge again, as our offspring, for a long, long time.

I have been using this tag from Bill McKibben in my email signature: “Civilization is what grows up in the margins of leisure and security provided by a workable relationship with the natural world. That margin won't exist, at least not for long, as long as we remain on the wrong side of 350.”

The 350 refers to the parts per million, by volume, of carbon-equivalent greenhouse gas concentration in the globally-averaged atmosphere. We are at 387 and climbing. We used to think we were relatively safe up to around 450, which would allow us to mid-century to curtail our emissions, well into the post-petroleum era. Now we know better. Crossing 350 had consequences that are unfolding with breathtaking speed. We need to get back down to that without delay. And yet, we industrious humans are still increasing our annual additions, not reducing them.

The McKibben quote prompted an exchange with Mark Robinowitz, who wrote:

“McKibben is delusional. The idea that we are somehow going to reduce existing carbon in the atmosphere before the end of oil is Disney thinking. He knows about Peak but will not mention it in his greenwashing pontifications. He has no interest in asking why we didn't make the necessary changes, and his ‘80% reduction by 2050’ mantra is one of the most ridiculous slogans ever invented - since it allows politicians to claim they are green while voting for more highways and clearcuts and skyscrapers and all sorts of nonsense. Do any of the people praising this slogan plan to be in office - or alive - in 2050? Did Exxon-Mobil invent this slogan as a sly trick? Why is the environmental movement so full of this absurdity? Sigh.”

I was interested to hear what Professor Tim Flannery said at a business and sustainability conference in Parliament House, Adelaide, on May 19. Like Jim Hansen and other top rank climatologists, he said the science shows the world is much more susceptible to greenhouse gas emissions that had been thought eight years ago, when 450 was the old 350.

Regardless of what happens to emissions in the future, there is already far too much GHG in the atmosphere, he said. Echoing McKibben, he proposed that we now actively launch efforts to take greenhouse gases out of the air. He proposed adding sulphur to jet fuel to reflect more sunlight back into space, a process called “enhanced global dimming.”

He also suggested carbon be taken out of the air and converted into charcoal, then ploughed into farmers' fields to make terra preta, replicating the black soils of the Amazon. He proposed that developed countries with scant land, soils or climate to plant forests pay poor farmers in tropical zones to do it, possibly through a direct purchase scheme like eBay.

Finally — and here is where Hansen, Flannery, Gore, and most enviros come together — all conventional coal-fired power stations which do not use ‘clean coal’ technology (a will-o'-the-wisp that is touted by coal lobbyists and echoed by politicos as if it actually existed – or will ever exist) — should be closed by 2030. The Romans had a term for the will-o'-the-wisp that seems apt when applied to our coal plants: ignes fatui (from ignis ("fire") + fatuus ("foolish").

Like my friend Mark, I have reached a realistic assessment of our prospects and decided its all over but the graduation party. It is no fault of our generation — the species was flawed to begin with. We are linear thinkers with opposable thumbs. How lame is that?

It is ironic that Alfred Russel Wallace was right in a sense but had the timing wrong when he wrote in the seminal essay on evolution he sent by packet boat from the Malay Archipelago to Charles Darwin in 1858:

“The action of this principle is exactly like that of the centrifugal governor of the steam engine, which checks and corrects any irregularities almost before they become evident; and in like manner no unbalanced deficiency in the animal kingdom can ever reach any conspicuous magnitude, because it would make itself felt at the very first step, by rendering existence difficult and extinction almost sure soon to follow.”

The flaws of homo sapiens sapiens only manifested their self-extinguishing potential when played out against the backdrop of planetary homeostasis manipulation. In so doing, our species broke with Wallace's assumption that there is a fail-safe mechanism in nature that would prevent bad apples from spoiling the barrel. At 6 degrees, 12 degrees, or 24 degrees warmer, all possible and even inevitable scenarios now, although perhaps centuries distant, it seems unlikely lifeforms much higher than thermophilic bacteria will survive on our desert world.

One delightful irony I noted in the talk I gave at the Forest Council is that in sending probes to Mars in search of extraterrestrial life, we inoculated Mars with microbes from Earth. A billion years from now, something may come of that.

And so the carousel goes, round and round, the painted ponies up and down.

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