Sunday, June 17, 2018

The people in range of secret frequencies




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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