Sunday, January 28, 2018

Yarrow's Spiderweb

At the farmhouse kitchen sink, looking out a window at the front yard, I saw suspended, hanging in air, a long, thin twig and slender leaf. Slight, intermittent breezes moved the dangling tree debris about, made it obvious against the gray sky. It hung about head-height above the lawn, bobbed up and down and around a few inches.
I guessed the twig was attached to a very thin thread of spider or caterpillar silk. But with no tree branches at least 30, likely 40 feet above the twig, this was a very long thread. The length and strength of this nearly invisible, whisker-thin strand of spiral protein impressed me. To stretch so far, to remain whole, tugged by breezes, tiny coiled-coil protein fibers, with amazing strength and flexibility.
Next day, out the kitchen window, I saw the twig was still bobbing slightly at head-height. This strength and persistence further impressed me.
Feet planted, I started to take photos. Suddenly, the twig flew at me — swung directly at me, forced me to bend back. I almost fell, stumbled sideways, tried to set my feet, snap another photo. I had to wait for the twig to stop swinging, and hold position long enough to snap the shutter.
I managed to click the shutter twice, when a new breeze blew the twig at me again — this time more vigorously, and I had to step backward. The twig blew higher, for longer time while I tried snapping photos of an erratic moving object.
Eventually, wind relaxed, twig returned to hang over the bare patch, I tapped the shutter button again. In the vigorous wind, I thought the thread had stretched and lengthened. But surprise — its height hardly changed! Evermore impressed by the tenacious strength of almost-invisible spiral biostructure.
Suddenly, a third time, the twig twirled toward me. Forced to evade it, I stopped snapping photos. Three times wind blew this bobbling body straight at me, forcing me to hobble and stumble around to get my photos.
Astonished the almost invisible thread didn’t break, I assumed the force of the wind had stretched the slender strand of silk, lengthened its coiled proteins, by inches, even a foot. I expected the twig to swing back closer to the ground. But the wind passed, the twig sank, slightly low at first, then slowly rose back head-high, as if the thread stretched, then recoiled and tightened.
Is a spiritual intelligence embedded in this land? Is this ghostly trick or treat by a twig a Halloween gift from a poltergeist? A mystery message from an Earth Spirit? My respect deepened for spiders and caterpillars. Amazing a single strand of spider thread kept twig and leaf suspended head-high in two cool, moist, unsettled days.
— David Yarrow, November 2017 (edited with permission)

Spider silk arrives at the end of an unbroken 400 million year strand of continuous evolution. Some silks are for structural support, others protective enclosures. Some absorb energy, others transmit vibration.

Each spider and each type of silk, produced from different glands and spin techniques, has a set of mechanical properties optimized for its function. A dragline silk, the kind observed by David Yarrow, is produced in the Large Ampullate gland and has tensile strength greater than high-grade steel alloy. Draglines are for the web’s outer rim and spokes and also the lifeline by which spiders dangle.

Spiders make webs that can span rivers but the strands are so thin and light they could circle the earth and still weigh less than 500 grams (18 oz.). If while transecting the Earth the strand crossed the poles or the Sahara it would not weaken. Dragline silks can hold their strength below −40 °C (−40 °F) and up to 220 °C (428 °F) — more than twice the boiling point of water.

Silks are extremely ductile — able to stretch 5 times their relaxed length without breaking. They are adhesive — created by a two-compound pyriform secretion from the Flagelliform gland. They are spun into patterns that polymerise under ambient conditions, become functional immediately, and are usable indefinitely. They are waterproof but biodegradable, versatile and fungal resistant while remaining compatible with most other materials in the environment. At the end of their life, many webs are simply consumed again by the spider to reclaim the embodied metabolic energy.

A spider web preserved in amber, thought to be 110 million years old, shows evidence of a perfect “orb” web, the most famous, circular kind one thinks of when imagining spider webs. An examination of the drift of those genes thought to be used to produce the web-spinning behavior suggests that orb spinning was in an advanced state as long as 136 million years ago.  Wikipedia

Some wandering spiders will leave a largely continuous trail of silk impregnated with pheromones that the opposite sex can follow to find a mate. They may also produce sperm webs or egg webs. Some webs are impregnated with venom. Some water-borne spiders build a diving bell of silk. Some canopy spiders balloon or kite on airborne weaves.

All these miraculous feats are made possible by carbon. The silken strands are woven from amino acids, primarily glycine (C2H5NO2 ) and alanine (C3H7NO2). Credit must go to the spider for the way in which these are arranged. Silk production is a pultrusion, similar to extrusion, with the subtlety being that the force is induced by pulling from the glands rather than being squeezed out. As a thread is pulled away from the body of a spider, whether by the spider’s legs or by the spider falling under its own weight, shear stress and ion and pH changes induce the liquid silk to undergo a phase transition and condense into a solid protein fiber with specialized molecular organization. Depending on the gland that crafted the protein and controlled movements within the spinnerets, the silk can be for dragline, adhesion lines, temporary scaffolding, attachment points, the web frame, egg sacs, capture spiral, or prey cocoon.

Silks are often referred to as a block co-polymer. The short side chained alanine is mainly found in the crystalline domains — giving strength. Glycine is mostly found in the elastic semi-amorphous regions with their helical and beta turn structures. These two carbon chains interplay to give spider silk some of its extraordinary properties, but the carbon rings in pyrrolidine (CH2)4NH keep the silk moist and gluey while also warding off ants. Other enzymes protect the lines from fungi and bacteria that might otherwise digest the proteins.

New applications are being discovered for its mechanical, conducting, electrical, biocompatibility and immunologic properties. Spider silk has been experimentally used in garment weaves, electrical sensor and actuating devices, suture threads, biomimetic muscles, nerve regeneration, and ligament tissue repair.

Nicola Maria Pugno at the University of Trento and a team of researchers in Italy and the UK found a way to incorporate carbon nanotubes and graphene into spider silk and increase its strength and toughness beyond anything that has been possible before. The resulting material has properties such as fracture strength and toughness higher than anything ever measured.

Pugno’s team collected 15 Pholcidae spiders from the Italian countryside, sprayed the spiders with water containing carbon nanotubes or flakes and then measured the mechanical properties of the silk the spiders produced.

Giving spiders water that is infused with carbon made them weave silk stronger than any known fiber. Could this lead to a new class of bionic materials? As yet, no one has been able to make this work commercially, but not for lack of trying. Kraig Biocraft Laboratories (Trading Symbol: KBLB) is focused on commercialization of genetically engineered spider silk.

The problem with commercializing spider silk has always been the ornery attitude of spiders. As the Italian researchers described it:
Unlike the case of the largely available silkworm silks, large-scale spider farming and synthetic production of spider silk still remain to be achieved, due to its complex structure and the territorial and cannibalistic nature of spiders. Moreover, naturally spun fibres, obtained by forcible spinning, harvesting or extracting spidroin from glands, have reduced mechanical characteristics with respect to naturally-spun ones, due to the CO2 anaesthesia of spiders and the consequent loss of active control of their silk spinning. Research to improve the mechanical, conductive or magnetic properties of spider silk has been limited. This is due to the difficulty of developing an adequate spinning methodology, balancing extrusion, drawing, yield and purity. … Attempts to improve or modify the mechanical, magnetic and electrical properties of spider silk have been reported, using techniques such as melt-spinning, templating, powder coating, atomic layer deposition and iodine doping, but they remain to be adequately perfected, especially at large scale, using naturally spun spider silk fibres.
The graphine doping test was proof of just how hard spider farming can be.
The best mechanical performances are observed for the samples after the first collection. The second collection does not show mechanical enhancement with respect to the first or to RS [control], probably due to a physiological spider weakening during segregation, since neither additional food nor water were available during the experimental period, except SWNTs and graphene dispersions. In the cases marked with an asterisk in Figs. 5b,c, the second collection was impossible since the corresponding spiders died. Note that spider 5 died after the first treated dragline silk collection, but was able to spin the silk with the maximum increment in mechanical performance, whereas spider 7 spun the silk with the highest absolute values and survived.
Kraig Labs was originally interested in competing with the Chinese raw silk market worth $3–5 billion per year. After inserting genes from the golden orb weaving spider into silkworm strains, the lab produced 20 separate caterpillar clones, each with unique properties, able to spin silk with the strength, flexibility and resiliency of spider silk. Now Kraig is looking at the much larger, $120 billion technical textiles market. A 3rd generation modified silkworm is expected to spin fibers exceeding the strength of spiders’ and may incorporate gene sequences that release an antibiotic and to develop sutures and bandages that help patients to heal faster and to reduce scarring.

For those concerned about the risks of genetically engineered spiderpillars being scaled into the trillions, the company’s choice of a trademark will not be reassuring — Monster Silk®.

This story, though, is not about genetic engineering. The story is about carbon. Life depends on carbon. What we term “organic chemistry” is shorthand for carbon chains and the molecular structure of living things. For a variety of reasons, life cannot arise from silicon or any similar element with covalent bonding. If can only come from carbon, formed only under the special conditions of the death of a star.

After a radiant life lasting billions of years, a star runs out of hydrogen. It begins to cool, change color, and expand into a red giant. At its core, helium is compressed until the forces are strong enough to begin fusing nuclei (proton-neutron pairs or “alpha particles”) to form larger atoms such as carbon. The red giant begins to collapse until the central temperature rises to 108 million °Kelvin, seven times hotter than the core of our Sun. This creates a situation called triple-alpha, by which nucleosynthesis of heavier elements begins. The power released by the birth of carbon is approximately proportional to the star’s core temperature taken to the 40th power and the density squared. As such extreme temperature spikes it causes the reaction rate of fusion to spike. This positive feedback cycle becomes a runaway until the fuel is exhausted.

This process — a “helium flash” — lasts only seconds but burns 60–80 percent of the helium in the star’s core. During the flash, the star’s energy production can reach approximately 100 billion solar luminosities, comparable to the luminosity of a whole galaxy. Compared to a birth of helium, the birth of carbon is as royalty.

Arriving on the solar wind some 4 billion years ago, carbon stardust lingered for a time in Earth’s atmosphere before hitching a ride on a raindrop and falling into the ancient oceans. There it bonded with hydrogen to form some of the earliest chain molecules we call “organic.” As these molecules formed nucleoproteins and began to reproduce themselves, the oceans came alive with a carbon food web. Carbon became a common denominator of all known life that followed.

Arachnids emerged at least 380 million years ago from crab-like chelicerate ancestors. They were among the first to leave the sea and move out onto land; the oldest known land arthropods. Indeed, they helped form the land by building the first soils.

We are, like spiders, carbon creations that have learned to use carbon as tools. We harvest it for food, we burn it for fuel, and lately, we have even relearned the lost skill of building soil with it.

We inhabit an era when the natural carbon cycle has been disrupted. We can take credit for that. Now we are compelled to learn to put it back the way it was. We won’t do that by breaking the rules. We just might if we can learn from David Yarrow, and spiders, and remember that carbon is our friend.

Thanks for reading! Please consider sharing it around. My open banjo case catching for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. A version of this essay may appear in my next book, Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies, due out from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Hawaiian Missile Lullaby

"Q: What should one do to prepare for an incoming ICBM just minutes away?
A: Hug. Smile. Your short life was pretty good, wasn’t it? Reach for your ukelele.

This story has made the rounds and most people by now have caught it. A tech worker in the emergency management office in Honolulu screwed up and sent this alert out on Twitter:

Hawaii is 20 minutes as the missiles fly from North Korea, but it was not until 38 minutes had passed that the State government issued a retraction. US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard did not wait for that to tweet that it was a false alarm. In the meantime many people panicked, at least one fatal heart attack occurred, and children were being stuffed down storm drains.

Hawaii had already begun preparing for a nuclear attack before the President of the United States had taunted North Korea with that “my button is bigger than yours” tweet. 

How anyone prepares for an incoming ICBM frankly baffles us.

In a bygone era the government would make civil defense films and slide shows and require them to be shown in schools. They installed large sirens and urged people to buy bomb shelters.

People were advised to stay in their shelters until the extent of the impact is known. Some people might in theory be told to stay inside for up to two weeks to avoid the radioactive fallout. What they would do after 2 weeks was left to science fiction writers.

In the wake of recent US-Korean belligerence, Hawaii had begun its new Civil Defense campaign for the 21st Century. 
The campaign involves 30-second television advertisements, which will air on all local broadcast networks for six months, as well as educational brochures, which will be printed in six or seven languages and distributed to hotels for tourists. It will still take several months for the campaign to be rolled out, but the public service announcements are expected to start airing in September.
Hawaii schools will also begin practicing drills specifically for a missile attack — in addition to earthquake, fire, and active shooter training. The drills will be similar to an active shooter response, where schools go into lockdown and students shelter in place.

It is difficult to say whether this kind of campaign is designed to placate the calls for “something” to be done, to instill a sense of security, or to make people more afraid. Mostly, it accomplishes the last. 

And yet, people are not yet afraid enough to act.

We are reminded of the false dogmas of the air campaign strategists in World War II who imagined, with no supporting evidence, that London could be bombed into submission, or Berlin, Köln and Dresden, or, for that matter all the major cities of Japan. With horrific civilian carnage, the bombmasters chased this illusion to the end of the war, only to discover from postmortem studies that bombing instills quite opposite emotions in the bombed populations — camaraderie, perseverance and nationalism. But this guilty knowledge did not keep the US from missile bombing civilians again in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

Whether you call it false dogma or fake news, there is a lot of disinformation flying around, some of it planted to gain advantage for less than noble causes. But then there is the South Korean Olympic Committee. They are very small in number and yet found a way to pull the US back from looking up launch codes. 

Vipin Narang is Associate Professor of political science at MIT,
focusing on nuclear proliferation and strategy
Many more thoughtful people need to get strategic and innovative in finding ways to quell tooth-and-claw battles between dinosaurs while taking care not to be crushed underfoot. Like Umair Haque, we should all be asking how far the decline of American Empire will go… transgression or annihilation?
M.I.T. Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky, speaking last year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was asked about the Korean situation by Democracy Now! news anchor Amy Goodman. Chomsky responded: 
… the real question is: Is there a way of dealing with the problem? There are a lot of proposals. Sanctions. A big new missile defense system — which is a major threat to China and will increase tensions there. Military threats of various kinds. Sending an aircraft carrier, the [USS Carl] Vinson to North Korea…. Those are the kind of proposals as to how to solve it.
Actually there’s one proposal that’s ignored. It’s a pretty simple proposal. Remember: the goal is to get North Korea to freeze its weapons and missiles systems.
So, one proposal is to accept their offer to do that. It sounds simple. They have made a proposal — China and North Korea — have proposed to freeze the North Korean missile and nuclear weapons sys­tems and the US instantly rejected it. And you can’t blame that on Trump. Obama did the same thing. A couple of years ago the same offer was presented, I think it was 2015, the Obama administration in­stantly rejected it.

And the reason is that it calls for a quid pro quo. It says in return the US should put an end to threaten­ing military maneuvers on North Korea’s borders, which happen to include, under Trump, sending of nuclear-capable B52s [and B1 and B2 bombers] fly­ing right near the border.
Maybe Americans don’t remember very well, but North Koreans have a memory of, not too long ago, when North Korea was absolutely flattened, liter­ally, by American bombing. There were literally no targets left.
I really urge people who haven’t done it to read the official American military histories, the Air Quarterly Review, the military histories describing this. They describe it very vividly and accurately. They say there just weren’t any targets left. So what could we do? Well, we decided to attack the dams, the huge dams — a major war crime. People were hanged for it at Nuremberg, but put that aside. And then comes an ecstatic, gleeful description of the bombing of the dams and the huge flow of water which was wiping out valleys and destroying the rice crop, “upon which Asians depend for surviv­al” — lots of racist comments — but all with exalta­tion and glee. You really have to read it to appreciate it. The North Koreans don’t have to bother reading it. They lived it.
So when nuclear-capable B52s [etc.] are flying on their border, along with other threatening military maneuvers, they’re kind of upset about it. Strange people. And they continue to develop what they see as a potential deterrent that might protect the regime, and the country in fact, from destruction. …
Honolulu Magazine ran what it called “worse case scenarios,” of what would happen if North Korea sent a missile to Hawaii. Oddly, the magazine’s editors kept to a small blast radius by calculating for a 200-pound warhead with a yield of 10 kt TNT, a third to half less powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 54 years before.

One is left wondering why anyone would downplay the power of modern atomic arsenals in this way. What possible good would it do? Would it reassure people with expensive homes in the outlying suburbs? Would it suggest that perhaps fallout shelters might actually work? Would it give someone the idea to stuff their kids down a storm drain in the event of a tweeted warning?

Ten kilotons is child‘s play. North Korea tested a 150 kt device last year — 15 times larger. The blast pattern would look like this:
Inner to outer: fireball, lethal x-ray radius, blast radius, 3d degree burn radius

Within the yellow area anyone hiding in a storm drain would be instantly vaporized. Between the airport and Waikiki Beach roughly 80 percent would be killed by blast pressure or burns. 

Q: What should one do to prepare for an incoming ICBM just minutes away?
A: Hug. Smile. Your short life was pretty good, wasn’t it? Reach for your ukelele.

The average warhead in the US arsenal has a 100kt yield and weighs 2 tons. A couple dozen of those little puppies might be packed into a single MIRV “delivery vehicle.” A more typical choice for a city killer ICBM would be a Minuteman III missile dropping a W-78 warhead with a yield of 350 kt. 

Assuming such a weapon were to be centered on Honolulu, the blast radius would extend past Diamond Head. Effects radii for 350 kiloton airburst (smallest to largest):
Fireball radius: 0.63 km (1.27 km²) 
Maximum size of the nuclear fireball; relevance to lived effects depends on height of detonation. If it touches the ground, the amount of radioactive fallout is significantly increased. Minimum burst height for negligible fallout: 0.57 km.
Air blast radius (5 psi): 4.95 km (77.1 km²) 
At 5 psi overpressure, most residential buildings collapse, injuries are universal, fatalities are widespread. Optimal height of burst to maximize this effect is 2.2 km.
Thermal radiation radius (3rd degree burns): 7.67 km (185 km²) 
Third degree burns extend throughout the layers of skin, and are often painless because they destroy the pain nerves. They can cause severe scarring or disablement, and can require amputation. 100% probability for 3rd degree burns at this yield is 10.7 cal/cm2.
For more information about the model, click here.

Okay, so the supreme GOP leader’s nukes really are larger. But wait, North Korea’s ICBMs can’t just hit Hawaii, they can reach the entire continental United States from Key West to Bangor.

Suppose instead of an incoming missile, an adversary, be it North Korea, a Colombian drug cartel, or a crazed BitCoin Billionaire were to pack plutonium into a drone midget submarine. Weight is no limit, so they could wrap a Tsar Bomba (the largest hydrogen bomb ever tested) in its U-238 iron-man suit to give it the maximum 100 Mt punch. In Honolulu, the 3d degree burn radius would extend 74 km, to Molokai. 984,000 people would be in the blast radius. Never mind the radiation effects.

Of course, if you have a drone midget submarine why limit your target to Hawaii? Any coastal city would do. If you sailed up San Francisco Bay you could reach 8.9 million people, not including fallout.

Now suppose North Korea, the cartels, or that wicked billionaire decide to build not just one such submarine but ten, or 100?

A five-bomb array from drone submarines
Yes, surely those duck and cover drills will be helpful then.

It seems to us what might be more helpful would be for the United States to once more participate in the UN disarmament talks and return to the path of dismantling and banning all nuclear weapons, forever. After all, you never know who might be elected President some day.

Thanks for reading! Please consider sharing it around. My open banjo case catching for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal. My next book is Carbon Cascades: Redesigning Human Ecologies, due out from Chelsea Green Publishers later this year.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Battling the Titans

"Just as the cold air that precedes the arrival of Nosferatu, a deep and foreboding chill is being felt at ever lower latitudes."

Daniel Avilés’ Poseidon
North America fell into a pocket in 2017 but it was not the pocket of banksters. It fell into that in 2008.

In 2017 it found itself niftily enveloped by the ingenious pincer movements of three generals. First, the Southern attack by General Poseidon, God of the Oceans, striking at Houston before making amphibious landings on the coasts of Florida after devastating aerial attacks on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Next, the Western attack of General Hephaestus, God of Fire, reducing Santa Rosa and much of the Los Angeles foothills to ashes. Finally, the cyclone bombing invasion of the North by Moroz-Voevoda (General Winter).

Four decades of climate data now show that the jet stream — usually referred to as the polar vortex this time of year — is weakening. Normally a freight train circling the Arctic, it has slowed to more resemble a curious python, poking its nose below the Great Lakes more frequently and for longer looks. Just as the cold air that precedes the arrival of Nosferatu, a deep and foreboding chill is being felt at ever lower latitudes.
In a bomb cyclone, the temperature difference between the two air masses leads to a steep and rapid — meteorologists often use the term “explosive” — drop in atmospheric pressure. The air starts to move and, aided by the earth’s rotation, begins to rotate. The swirling air can bring high winds and a lot of precipitation, often in the form of snow.
— Henry Fountain, Why So Cold? Climate Change May Be Part of the Answer, The New York Times (January 3, 2018)

Do we imagine that we mere mortals are any match for these titans? Did Vitalian facing Proclus at Constantinople learn nothing from Marcus Claudius Marcellus whose fleet was incinerated by the Sun at Syracuse in 212 BC? How could Hitler fail to recall the folly of Napolean’s winter attack on Moscow? 

These generals we face today have been here before. They sank the Spanish Armada, gave us the 556 and 1816 years without summers, and raised the Tōhoku megatsunami to a height of 40 meters. They are secure in their invincibility.

California and Florida provide black and white contrasts in the choice of responses. California leads the nation and the world in its proactive stance to climate adaptation and mitigation. With its cap-and-trade program, launched in 2012, and its regulations targeting carbon-intensive businesses, California has become a leading example of what it looks like for governments to lean in and accept climate change. Democratic Governor Jerry Brown stole the limelight from Donald Trump’s denialist Republican emissaries to the COP-23 talks in Bonn when he pledged the state’s trillion-dollar economy would decarbonize faster than any other.
Brown also said he intends to push for even tougher greenhouse gas emission reduction goals that will be far more difficult to meet by 2030. The current goal is to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases to 1990 levels by 2020. California’s carbon emissions law already has cost industrial polluters nearly $2.3 billion in permit fees. Starting next year, the law will include fuel distributors in the same cap-and-trade marketplace as utilities and major manufacturers.
— The Associated Press, November 14, 2014

Florida displays the opposite response. With 8,436 miles of coastline (compared to 3,427 mi for California and 3,359 mi for Texas), and 30 percent of its most popular beaches disappearing underwater by mid-century, Florida’s Republican governor Rick Scott placed a ban on uttering the words ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming’ or ‘sustainability,’ in any State publications or public remarks. According to the Miami Herald,
“The policy goes beyond semantics and has affected reports, educational efforts and public policy in a department with about 3,200 employees….”
The second-term governor has repeatedly said he is not convinced that climate change is caused by human activity, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. He has good reason to be in denial.
With just three feet of sea-level rise, more than a third of southern Florida will vanish; at six feet, more than half will be gone; if the seas rise 12 feet, South Florida will be little more than an isolated archipelago surrounded by abandoned buildings and crumbling overpasses.
— Jeff Goodell, Goodbye, Miami, The Rolling Stone

Goodell interviewed a 71-year-old climate researcher who told him, “If you live in South Florida and you’re not building a boat, you’re not facing reality.”

And yet, in 2017, the rain fell on the just and unjust alike. The fires came, the seas rose, and the ice descended.

Nature does not give a hoot for politics.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Malthus was Real

"Must we not go with either a bang or a whimper, but in an orgy of mutual self-gratification, and congratulations?"

What good is it to escape the climate gallows if, as we walk out the jail door into the sunlight, we are greeted in the courtyard by Malthus, bearing a scythe?

On the scythe is inscribed:
If the subsistence for man that the earth affords was to be increased every twenty-five years by a quantity equal to what the whole world at present produces, this would allow the power of production in the earth to be absolutely unlimited, and its ratio of increase much greater than we can conceive that any possible exertions of mankind could make it…. yet still the power of population being a power of a superior order, the increase of the human species can only be kept commensurate to the increase of the means of subsistence by the constant operation of the strong law of necessity acting as a check upon the greater power.
— Malthus T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population (Oxford World’s Classics reprint, Chapter 2, p. 8).

We have a friend that owns a house on a Mexican island and when, just as Ishmael’s irrepressible urge to take to the sea, we feel the need to write, we imprison our self there and look for inspiration. We become Old Testament Ishmael cast into the wilderness with his mother. We talk to the birds. God hears.

We have been doing that seasonally for more than ten years and it has produced a number of satisfying books, works of art, architectural and ecovillage designs, and even the occasional inspiration. We solved the climate crisis — discovered in a jar of dirt brought back from the Amazon.

Mysteriously, the village we visited those many years ago, whose principal products were fish, leisure and hammocks, has left. In its place stands Jakarta, Mexico City, and San Juan. Blame that fellow over there in the dark shroud, Señor Malthus. He arrived a few years ago and this place has never been the same.

He was preceded by kiteboarders, birders and wild side guides leading groups of bug-eyed backpackers practicing their Spanish while snorkel-toting seniors checked off their bucket lists. There came whale shark divers whose thousand peso 3 hour boat ride was the magic wand waved over leaky fishing skiffs changing them into glistening Whalers with fiberglass sunshades above tall scout nests and 1000+ hp arrays of Yamahas bumping along at 60 knots.

Simultaneously came splendiferous hotels and restaurants, drawing Michelin chefs from Italy, Argentina, Switzerland and France. An Expat Italian community formed, then Spanish, Brits, the Americans (North and South). Everyone had discovered paradise and were telling their friends to come and bring the dog.

Until this guy Malthus showed up.

Reckonings come like rain after the drought. The drought is what is happening now, as the weight of three-story buildings pushes into the mud foundations of this barrier island. Sidewalks trap storm surges that used to wash over and leave as quickly as they came.

The air smells of burning plastic and rubber from the mountains of trash piling up at the dump. The sewage plant, ever-full, overflows into the lagoon when it is not backing up drains in the streets. The diesel electric plant roars so loud as to now require a great enclosing wall, and yet still can’t keep pace with the need for more light.

The water may be backing up the drains or eroding the beach, but there is never enough in the pipes from the mainland pumping stations, so it comes by barge for sale in pricey bottles, the heavy delivery trucks leaving depressions in the sand that become first puddles, then lakes, when it rains. They are deep enough to swallow the unwary.

Where once only bare feet and bicycles wandered, now rush golf cart taxis and mopeds, only to be replaced by ATVs and scooters, then again by noisy motorcycles and open Humvee-like off-road monstrosities, replete with booming PA speakers and dancing light shows. The New York minute has captured time from the hammock-weavers.

The island, a tiny part of México’s largest nature reserve and once a sacred rendezvous for sea turtles, egrets and crocodiles, is sinking under the weight of the human cargo ferried across each day from the mainland.

Mangroves, its only hurricane hedge, are felled to make room for more beach. There are each day nearly as many men raking seaweed away from high-class resorts as going out to fish, which is just as well for the fish, devoured and decimated by AI fleets of sonars, GPS and radio chatter. Chilean sea bass and Alaskan salmon fill out the menus in the sky bars.

And yet, after the rain there are flowers. After the next hurricane there will be fish, and whale sharks, too. Given the ferocity of the sea, there may only be those. With no coral reef left to remake it, this speck of sand will be gone, likely within this century.

Have we no sense of limits, or are our hormones an ancient doomsday clock, tick-tock in our genetic code, programmed to end our line when we reach this moment?

Must we not go with either a bang or a whimper, but in an orgy of mutual self-gratification, and congratulations on the numbers of our grandchildren, though they be cursed by that same clock?

We can’t say we weren’t warned by the celebrated Mr. M, but given the choice between prudence and oblivion, we chose the latter. We have free will. We will jealously take that to our graves.

Is there a way out? Sure. Birth control. Vasectomies are great sex without all the grandchildren. Will we use it? Not a chance. Apparently we’d prefer a Malthusian correction. Whether that will come in time to appease an angry climate god, well, that is the question, isn’t it?




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