Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Great Pause Week 56: The Upside of Work


"Unicorns and angels are real, and anyone could become rich just for being famous."

Ökodorf Freie Republik Wendland at May 1980 Gorleben Protestcamp

We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.

 — expression in the Soviet era

In his breakthrough role as beatnik Maynard G. Krebs on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” actor Bob Denver had an audible brand. He was unable to say the word, “work,” without a voice break, the inflected half of the word rising a couple octaves. That speech impediment was generally understood by a 1959 TV audience as denoting the beatnik aversion to labor, a false stereotype, not unlike later tropes about dirty hippies or pacifists spitting on veterans. 

During the 2020 election cycle, Democrat Andrew Yang tried to explain how Krebs was not wrong, just 50 years early: 

“We are in the midst of the greatest calamity in generations. Tens of millions of jobs are gone — for good. We’ve seen 10 years’ worth of change in the last 10 weeks. Forty-two percent of the jobs lost during [the pandemic] are not returning.”

Before Covid, half of all USAnians were employed in five sectors:

Administrative/clerical (including call centers)
Sales/retail
Food service/food prep
Truck driving/transportation
Manufacturing jobs

Covid devastated anything related to travel or hospitality. In the next decade, robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology, machine-to-machine communication and 3D printing will destroy much of the rest. Yang merely narrated the Fourth Industrial Revolution for those who don’t stay current with such things. He said we needed to retool, reduce the work week, and move to Universal Basic Income. Work less and work smarter. Work, at least in the way Maynard G. Krebs thought of it — and most conservatives still do — is over.

The Universal Basic Income idea has been around for almost as long as Dobie Gillis. In Alaska they call it the Permanent Fund, a subsidy every resident receives from the State’s lucrative oil and gas extraction fees. In Cherokee, North Carolina, it is the check every tribal member gets from Indian casino revenues. Both those places defied conservative predictions. UBI lifted children out of poverty and kept them from lost lives in welfare lines, prison, or the military.

Lately I have been partaking in the invitation-only app for iPhones, soon to be on Android, called Clubhouse. The app is like Burning Man without the sand or psilocybin. While I find it a bit of a mire with way too many people having way too much idle time — like what royal courts must have been like in the 18th Century? — it also provided a rapid tour of the culture of Silicon Valley c. 2021. It is a shame it cannot be preserved in amber.

I was struck by the fragility of it all.

Imagine you have 90,000 followers on Linked-In, your podcast has a million downloads, your YouTube channel has global subscribers, your Clubhouse room and your Twitter feed have tons of followers, you have a couple PAs to return your DMs, and your brand is locked and loaded for sale to the highest bidder any time you are ready. You are thinking 7 or 8 figures could tempt you, maybe when it stops being fun.

Then a previously uncharted comet leaves an EMF wake that fries phones over one third of the planet, wiping clean the internet until it can be rebuilt EMF-proof.

Or, maybe something a little more probable — while you were scanning Google Analytics for the latest eyeball valuations at your posh rental in one of the forested burbs outside Santa Monica or Melbourne there comes a midnight knock on the door and you have to flee in your pajamas and return two days later to sift through the ashes of everything you owned.

My daughter was not even in the 1000-year floodplain when a flood wrecked her house in Nashville a few years ago. She rebuilt, sold it and moved to higher ground. Last month her old house got its second 1000-year flood.

Andrew Yang is right about one thing. This is not your daddy’s world anymore, kids. Most GEN Z’ers know that if they skip the old path of cubicles and assembly lines and can succeed as influencers, the lucky among them will build a 7-figure side hustle while spinning at the gym listening to World Beat. Unicorns and angels are real, and anyone could become rich just for being famous.

So what happens when a bot uploaded by a teenager in a chat room in Turkey drops a worm into all the national electric reliability networks and puts them down permanently? Or maybe that same teen has access to a school CRISPR lab and she inserts a gene into a bacterium that lets it eat through all the world’s grains before her high school teacher can engineer a hunter-killer?

What happens when a supervolcano freezes equatorial latitudes for successive summers? Or instead of an Evergreen container ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal, a war with Iran blocks the Straits of Hormuz, cutting off half of the world’s oil?

If any of those happened, we would enter that cyclical phase of history, be it Mayan, Mongol, or Modern, where the macro mega-system can’t inflate anymore. Attempts to compensate for de-growth with debt, ie: borrowing from the future, will run their course. Then the Ponzi scheme runs out of fresh meat. Ironically, it may not even require some catastrophic event. It could already be baked in the cake we are brunching on.

In 1970… [the] hippies learned the ancient virtues of hard work, good hygiene, and crop rotation.
 — Jim Windolf, Sex, Drugs and Soybeans, Vanity Fair Green Issue, 2007. 

As James Howard Kunstler recently observed, debt only works in the youthful growth phases of economic pulsation, when the prospect of being paid back is statistically favorable. 

Now in the elder de-growth phase, the prospect of paying back debts, or even servicing the interest, is statistically dismal. The amount of racked-up debt worldwide has entered the realm of the laughable. So, the roughly twenty-year experiment in Central Bank credit magic, as a replacement for true capital formation, has come to its grievous end.

Modern Monetary Theory has it that the nation which claims a monopoly on issuing money can “create” new money ad infinitum with no negative consequences. We can borrow any amount into existence, whether trillions or quadrillions. Of course these are trillions or quadrillions of dollars, euros and yen, not trillions or quadrillions of fish or cubic meters of topsoil. Kunstler, after classical environmental economists Herman Daly or Robert Costanza, calls this “prosperity without wealth.”

The error is thinking we never have to worry about paying it back because we can always “create” more. To anyone not raised in Southern California after 1950, the errors of this approach should be patently obvious. Inflating a modern technological economy with virtual wealth that buys it real things from somewhere else in the world, some place where hunger makes labor cheap, creates still more virtual wealth. Virtual wealth is almost indistinguishable from the real kind — because it can buy what it needs — until something comes along to expose the grift.

Kunstler, whose “History of the Future” series of books painted a watercolor of life after illusion popped, sans climate change, said the Biden/Harris “Build Back Better” is precisely the opposite of what should be done under the circumstances. We should rather “downsize, downscale, and re-localize all our activities to bring them back into sync with actual productivity — that is, raising food, making real stuff, and trading it.” 

He says “Build Back Better” is mainly 

“… malinvestment folly now because we’re nearing the end of mass motoring and commercial aviation as we’ve known them. If we even have electricity twenty-five years from now, it will come from much-reduced grids on a much more regional basis. The bottom line for all this is that pretty soon every corner of the country will be on its own amid quite a bit of social disorder and financial wreckage. So, whatever energy you actually can marshal to Build Back Better, save it for your town or your local community. And remember, all of the attempts by a national government to control these events, and coerce its citizens in the service of that, will only lead to a more ineffectual and impotent national government that nobody has faith in, confirming the fact that you are on your own.”

I am less pessimistic about the impact of trillionization on public works a la the 1930’s WPA and CCC. I hold some hope that much of the virtual money coming from NFT auctions in Clubhouse can be used to reverse climate change, which Kunstler largely ignores but without which the odds of any of us getting out of this century alive are very long. Sooner than that, on the question of whether the money we are exchanging becomes worthless, the odds run highly favorable.

One industry that is going to skyrocket in coming years, and be able to employ vast numbers of the dispossessed, is drawdown. For example, ChargerHelp trains workers and pays them $30/hr to maintain and repair EV charging stations, both hardware and software. ClimeWorks is building carbon scrubbers that turn air into stone in Iceland, powered by volcanic vents. Carbon Trust has developed a product carbon footprint label. Earth Restoration Camps are spreading faster than their conceptualizers ever conceived, filling with the multitudes of GEN-Gaians willing to put their shoulders to the task of creating a realistic, doable way forward. In a short time, the drawdown sector will scale from almost nothing to many times larger than all the present fortune 500 companies combined. Chevron and BP see this and are repositioning accordingly. Exxon Mobil calls it b.s. and will die choking in its own stranded assets.

The question I have for a young person just getting out of school and thinking of starting a career on their smartphone is, “Really?”

_____________________

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

#RestorationGeneration

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Great Pause Week 55: The Secret Life of Weed

"Legalization of cannabis may be, for the global climate, like re-creating the fossil fuel industry from scratch."


With the domestication of wheat, some 10,000 years ago, the plant world split. Some became crops and others became weeds.
 — Elizabeth Kolbert, Under a White Sky (2021)

Cannabis is now the United States’ highest-value cash crop, even where it is still illegal. Thanks to the genius of ATF top gun Harry Anslinger in the 1930s, marijuana moved to that rank decades before it was legally grown. 

It sits in the top export product ranks for Mexico, Colombia, too, and likely some nations in the Middle East and Asia, even while enduring the occasional kabuki eradication effort. 

Patchy criminalization at the US federal level (interstate transport, for instance) compels each state to develop local markets, irrespective of the suitability of their seasons or climate. The Central Valley of California holds no special advantage over the Rocky Mountains of Colorado or the Green Mountains of Vermont since it’s all indoors now. While the localization of trade is a very healthy development, the indoor grow room is an abomination.

Here in México I have a neighbor who was just given a puppy. I can see by its paws it is going to be quite large when grown. My neighbor works on the ferry and is away at work from an hour before sunrise until an hour after sunset every day. In summer months that can be 16 hours. Because the dog likes to escape the yard to look for his master or just be a dog, my neighbor locks him inside the house when he leaves. As I write this, the pup’s low moan can be heard through a closed window. That will continue off and on all day. Multiply that times ten million and you have the fate of dogs in much of the world.

Why should a cannabis plant be any different?

A recent paper in Nature Sustainability concluded that legalization of cannabis may be, for the global climate, like re-creating the fossil fuel industry from scratch. Picture a grow room in Humboldt County like Col. Drake’s first rig in Pennsylvania. The grass may look green, but more so for customers and investors than to carbon auditors. 

California’s grass already soaks up, or soon will, more power than is produced by all its wind farms. Every kilo of dried flower represents from 2,283 to 5,184 kg of CO2 or equivalent greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere

Look at that again. 2 to 5 thousand times the carbon content of the weed itself is going to atmosphere and ocean from its production. You make the problem even worse when you go for the top-shelf indoor-grown varietals. Believe me or test for yourself — the bottom-shelf outdoor products are just as good.

“Twenty percent of the public uses marijuana … this is not some new scary group of people that’s going to start doing some new scary thing. … In 10 years this is going to be as normal as when you go to the Boston Common and see a movie and you can buy a drink.” 

 — Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commissioner Shaleen Title, October, 2018.

Windowless indoor spaces under full-spectrum mercury lights with hooded CO2-infusion and climate control to the fraction of a degree are transforming warehouse districts and abandoned shopping malls from California to Colorado. So much so that Illinois has made outdoor cultivation illegal. Elsewhere, state utility boards have offered cheap industrial rates and multimillion-dollar rebates to relocate to the largest indoor growers. In more than 40 percent of those indoor farms — each the size of a city block — lonely weed, silently howling for blue sky and a full moon overhead, will never see the light of day while it is alive. In the other 60 percent, the plant may spend more than half its life potted under a plastic hood, hopped up on vitamin brews, before finally getting outside to soak up some tanning rays — a last request before the reaper walks its row, scissors in hand. 

State permitting authorities in Palo Verde, California report that one cannabis company has asked to build its own private fossil-fuel power plant to match its 55-acre industrial park. According to Evan Mills writing for Slate, this is larger, at 25 city blocks, than a Hollywood Studio complex — passing enough electricity every day to feed 90,000 homes at So-Cal consumerist lifestyle standards. Indoor cannabis uses more energy than all other pharmaceutical manufacturing, Operation Warp Speed vaccines included.

All of this carbon footprint is disturbing, but it’s hard to argue with the business logic of five or more harvests per year of perfectly uniform and genetically identical hybrids. Few things are more comforting to millionaire venture capital investors or banking institutional lenders with quantitative dollars to ease than predictability. But they need to be discomforted. Due diligence would surely reveal there is no profit when there is no planet. Massive carbon footprints, persistent toxic agro-cides and grow media, bee, butterfly and hummingbird kills, and plastic and mercury proliferation are all in the opposite direction of green. 

“No company that ignores either climate change or biodiversity loss should be getting funding.”

— Ibrahim AlHusseini, CEO, FullCycle Funds

In the world of weed, some things may still need to be illegal. Indoor cultivation is one of them. And someone should let the dogs out, too.

“I used to live in a world of objects, and now I live in a world of subjects. And so, I am never alone.” 

 — Monica Gagliano

Do plants have a secret life, as Cleve Backster tried to tell us half a century ago? Some years ago, while consulting on a permaculture design in Amazonia, I took time out for a 10-night ayahuasca retreat. While there, I met a man who had been part of the US Army’s 20-year project on parapsychology that formed the basis for the 2004 book, The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson and, loosely, the George Clooney comedy of the same name. This man, a serious psychic, was on a month-long “dieta,” consuming mostly teas, pulps, and porridges made from the bark, roots, and leaves of a single tree, and then using ayahuasca and a shamanic guide to commune with the spirit of that tree. This may sound bizarre, but in 2019, Ellie Shechet profiled researcher Monica Gagliano, Centre for Evolutionary Biology, School of Animal Biology, University of Western Australia, for The New York Times:

As environmental collapse looms, we’ve never known so much about life on earth — how extraordinary and intricate it all is, and how loose the boundary where “it” ends and “we” begin.
Language, for example, doesn’t seem to be limited to humans. Prairie dogs use adjectives (lots of them) and Alston’s singing mice, a species found in Central America, chirp “politely.” Ravens have demonstrated advanced planning, another blow to human exceptionalism, by bartering for food and selecting the best tools for future use.
The list goes on. Leaf-cutter ants not only invented farming a couple million years before we did, but they have their own landfills — and garbagemen. Even slime molds can be said to make “decisions,” and are so good at determining the most efficient route between resources that researchers have suggested we use them to help design highways.

Actually, slime molds have already recapitulated maps of the Tokyo rail system.

In 2014, Gagliano and co-workers published a study, Experience teaches plants to learn faster and forget slower in environments where it matters, concluding that like animals, plants acquire a huge amount of information from their environment, memorize it, and organize behavioral responses. That paper referenced findings of transgenerational stress-acquired memory; plant root neurobiology and epigenetic retention; immunological response in wild tobacco; plant touch stimuli; drought ‘trained’ transcriptional responses in Arabidopsis; and an anti-predator, learned, thorn-exposing mechanism.

We have known for some time that plants recognize common threats and will share nutrients and defensive remedies to an entire mixed-species community as they communicate these threats. They can count. They can feel you touching them. Just because they lack nervous systems similar to animals does not mean they do not use external neural networks, such as long webs of fungal mycelia, to pass along encoded messages. It does not mean they do not feel pain, wish you well, or mourn the loss of their friends and family members.

Dr. Gagliano worked with multiple plant shamans, or vegetalistas, in Peru. There she bathed in the foul-smelling pulp of an Ayahuma tree that in the bath instructed her to “train young plants in a maze and give them freedom of choice.” The Ayahuma also helped her diagram a 2017 study investigating pea plants’ use of sound to detect water.

The only time I was ever kicked off an airplane was when I was boarding in Lima for a return flight to the States. Fresh clothing being in somewhat limited supply to me then, I had worn a “relatively clean” shirt I had previously put on after taking an Ayahuma bath some days earlier. To my warped olfactory capacity, I imagined it smelled vaguely floral. The flight attendants made me disembark, rush to the nearest lavatory, and put on a different shirt. Only after I passed their sniff test was I allowed to reboard and take my seat. Shechet continued:

“I’m really interested in the notion of plants as teachers, what we can learn from them as models,” said Robin Wall Kimmerer, an author, botanist and SUNY professor, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. “And that comes from my work with indigenous knowledge, because that is a fundamental assumption of indigenous environmental philosophy.”
Dr. Kimmerer doesn’t see Dr. Gagliano’s experiences as mystical processes so much as poorly understood ones. 
“Some of the medicines that people have made are sophisticated biochemistry over a fire,” Dr. Kimmerer said. “You think, how in the world did people learn this? And the answer is almost always, ‘The plants told us how to do this.’ This is not a matter necessarily of walking in the woods and being tapped on the shoulder, but indigenous cultures have sophisticated protocols that are research protocols, in a sense, for learning from the plants. They involve fasting, ceremonial practices that bring one to a state of such openness to the conversations of other beings that you can hear them.”
“Have you ever had an experience like that?” I asked.
“I have,” she said, preferring to leave it mostly at that. “Suffice it to say, I have had experiences of intense focus and attention with plants where I came away knowing something that I didn’t know before, and it’s quite incredible. You feel like, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’” 
The problem with talking about these experiences, Dr. Kimmerer said, is that they “are grounded in a cultural context that is so different from Western science that they are easily dismissed.”

With cannabis responsible for so many of our creative artistic expressions, scientific and literary realizations, and intellectual breakthroughs over so many years (see Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind), doesn’t it seem reasonable now to allow this plant to live outdoors with a measure of the dignity and respect it richly deserves?

And puppies too?

References

Ellis, J., The Lives They Lived: Cleve Backster, The New York Times, Dec 21, 2013

Gagliano, M., Renton, M., Depczynski, M. et al. Experience teaches plants to learn faster and forget slower in environments where it matters. Oecologia 175, 63–72 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-013-2873-7

Shechet, E., Do Plants Have Something To Say, The New York Times, Aug 26, 2019

 ________________________


The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My latest book, Plagued, is out now. A children’s version of Dark Side of the Ocean called Making Waves, may be out by Christmas. Please help if you can.

#RestorationGeneration

“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”

— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.


Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Great Pause Week 54: Wolves, Elephants, and Whales

"It would be a mistake to imagine the greatest super-wicked problem of our time being solvable by spending trillions of dollars."

 

 
I have now established the fact that every kind of whale that swims the ocean we can get within 100 feet of, I have every reason to suppose. I may entirely prevent all whales from sinking, and it now only wants me well made Weapons and the way to float them prepared for use and ship fitted for one more cruise to make the thing complete to place the whole whaling business upon a brand and sure basis and destroy all chances of the whaling business becoming improfitable, which will soon occur unless some one brings forth the means to make the other whales available to mankind that have never before been so
....

 — Thomas Welcome Roys, 1858

Ours is a story about wolves, elephants and whales. It is a story about how our kind relates to other creatures — about the choices we make in obtaining our food and making shelter. Humans are not unique in having the ability to devise strategies to obtain food and habitat, but we have capabilities that are well outside the normal range for other animals, carrying impacts we are only beginning to understand.

For thousands of years, humans have remained largely oblivious to how our lifestyle choices have been affecting other creatures and ignorant of the broader ramifications. Science has only recently extended enough to encompass a few of those connections, but such knowledge is still embryonic. 

Humans have only been in our present form for less than half a million years. The average lifespan for a species is many millions of years. Wolves, elephants, and whales sit astride trophic cascades — ecosystems billions of years in the making and elegant across myriad domains and dimensions. In recent posts I explored some of those aspects through the eyes of wolves and elephants. This week we’ll try to get into the heads of whales.

Humans began hunting whales for food at a time when almost all wild animals were viewed as either meat or a threat to our safety. In the dance of predators and prey, wild animals were our adversaries, whether big or small. Once a clan of humans was able make tools to hunt and kill something as large as a mastodon or a whale, we were the top predator. It was not that we had stopped fearing wild animals, rather that we knew we were capable of making them fear us.

We need to appreciate that all fear-based strategies tend towards accomplishing exactly the opposite of their purpose. They set consequences in motion that reduce the very security we expected. 

In January 2019, a 38-foot-long male baleen whale, about the length of four parked cars, washed up dead in Florida’s Everglades National Park. Baleen whales like humpbacks and right whales are rare in the Gulf of Mexico. When the whale was dissected, a sharp piece of stiff plastic, not much bigger than a credit card, was removed from its second stomach chamber. By tearing the stomach, the plastic had killed the whale, which is not unusual, unfortunately, but there were bigger surprises awaiting the biologists performing the examination.

After making skull measurements and studying the whale’s DNA, they realized they had found an entirely new species. By January, 2021, marine scientists had genetically sampled and identified up to 36 more individuals of the same genotype in the Caribbean and Northern Gulf of Mexico. 

It is difficult to pinpoint the precise moment in history when humans started hunting whales, but we know that by the 16th century industrialization of whaling was already reducing ocean populations. Right whales are relatively slow swimmers with a maximum speed of about 7 knots. They could be hunted by men in rowing boats and killed by harpoon, spear, or lance, or netted, as they were in Japan. Right whales also float when dead, rather than sink. The huge head, extending a third the length of the body, some 16–17 meters, contains valuable oil and 4-meter long baleen plates that were the commercial polymer fibers of their day. Valuable fat was also extracted by melting blubber in open pans. Whale meat was sold in fish markets.

The population of slow-moving right whales was so decimated by the second half of the nineteenth century that it nearly ended whaling. The American fleet retired and the Norwegians took their place. Norwegian technology went faster, deeper, larger. 

Imagine the surprise of blues, fins, sperms and humpbacks in polar waters above the Bering Strait when the first Norwegian coal-powered steam whaler appeared, firing rocket grenades from its bow. An eyewitness to that 1856 encounter reported:

“We shot twenty-two Leviathans [blues] killing one, twenty-six Humpbacks killing four, and four Finbacks killing none. Nine Leviathans were made to spout blood, twelve Humpbacks and two Finbacks, which is proof that our aim was tolerably good and the shells all exploded.”

A 100-foot blue whale is equal in weight to 25 elephants or 150 oxen and might have held 52 tons of oil to illuminate the 19th century urban nightscape of Oslo for months. While blues can make speeds of 30 knots and like their relatives the fin, sei, and humpback, will sink if killed, none could match speeds of coal and diesel whalers, or dodge cannon- or rocket-fired and grenade-tipped harpoons towing steel cables (collectively called the “Svend Foyn” method, for the Norwegian inventor). Whale oil became so plentiful that the bottom dropped out of the market by 1905, to about $1 per ton in current dollars.

While commercial whaling is now illegal, discarded credit cards are not the only hazard to whales in the Anthropocene. Plastic of all types is an exponentially growing threat whales and other marine creatures are evolutionarily ill-prepared for. They are similarly unprepared for deafening blasts of military-grade long-range sonar, geology-probing seismic detonations, and ultra-low frequency submarine communications. They are defenseless against estuarine outflows of pesticides and pharmaceuticals that alter appetite, fertility and mental clarity. These are things that kill in ways their natural evolutionary process could never have anticipated.

The discovery of a new species in 2020 revealed that even animals as large as four parked cars may have thus far escaped our notice. How many go extinct every year? We can only guess, based on limited knowledge and tentative, untested algorithms. Recorded vertebrate extinctions since the 16th century — the mere tip of the true extinction iceberg — give a rate of extinction of 1.3 species per year, more than 15 times the pre-industrial background rate. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that some 20% of all species are in danger of near-term extinction.

This year, another 140 million people will be born, or about 384,000 per day — the size of an average city. So, where do we put another city today? And another tomorrow? Usually, it is either on farmland or in former forest. Of course, it seldom happens like that, although there are examples of whole cities being erected quickly for particular needs, such as Washington DC or Brasilia. 35,000 years ago, three million hunter-gatherers “needed” community, shelter, health care, clean water, clean air, and about 3,000 calories a day of nutritious food. Today, people still need those same things.

Since the start of agriculture around 11,000 years ago, the biomass of terrestrial vegetation has been halved (Erb et al., 2018), with a corresponding loss of >20% of its original biodiversity (Díaz et al., 2019), together denoting that >70% of the Earth’s land surface has been altered by Homo sapiens (IPBES, 2019). There have been >700 documented vertebrate (Díaz et al., 2019) and ~600 plant (Humphreys et al., 2019) species extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more species clearly having gone extinct unrecorded (Tedesco et al., 2014). Population sizes of vertebrate species that have been monitored across years have declined by an average of 68% over the last five decades (WWF, 2020), with certain population clusters in extreme decline (Leung et al., 2020), thus presaging the imminent extinction of their species (Ceballos et al., 2020). Overall, perhaps 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the near future out of an estimated 7–10 million eukaryotic species on the planet (Mora et al., 2011), with around 40% of plants alone considered endangered (Antonelli et al., 2020). Today, the global biomass of wild mammals is <25% of that estimated for the Late Pleistocene (Bar-On et al., 2018), while insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions (Wagner, 2020; reviews in van Klink et al., 2020).
Freshwater and marine environments have also been severely damaged. Today there is <15% of the original wetland area globally than was present 300 years ago (Davidson, 2014), and >75% of rivers >1,000 km long no longer flow freely along their entire course (Grill et al., 2019). More than two-thirds of the oceans have been compromised to some extent by human activities (Halpern et al., 2015), live coral cover on reefs has halved in <200 years (Frieler et al., 2013), seagrass extent has been decreasing by 10% per decade over the last century (Waycott et al., 2009; Díaz et al., 2019), kelp forests have declined by ~40% (Krumhansl et al., 2016), and the biomass of large predatory fishes is now >3% of what it was last century (Christensen et al., 2014). 

 — Bradshaw and Erhlich, Ghastly Future 

In a 2021 paper for Frontiers for Conservation Science, population prophets Paul and Anne Ehrlich joined with other scientists in describing our predicament. By their estimate, of the estimated 170 million tons of living biomass of terrestrial vertebrates on Earth today, most is represented by livestock (59%) and human beings (36%). Less than 5 percent of this total biomass is left to wild mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

A mass extinction is defined as a loss of ~75% of all species on the planet over a geologically short interval — generally anything [under one] million years (Jablonski et al., 1994; Barnosky et al., 2011). At least five major extinction events have occurred since the Cambrian (Sodhi et al., 2009), the most recent of them 66 million years ago at the close of the Cretaceous period. The background rate of extinction since then has been 0.1 extinctions per million species per year (Ceballos et al., 2015), while estimates of today’s extinction rate are orders of magnitude greater (Lamkin and Miller, 2016). 

The Ehrlichs and their co-authors observed that for most of history, human ingenuity has inflated the natural environment’s carrying capacity for us by developing new ways to increase food production, expand wildlife exploitation, and enhance the availability of other resources.

We’ve seen this in the case of wolves, elephants and whales. With the availability of fossil fuels, sonar fish finders, and satellites, we have gone well beyond long-term carrying capacity (the planet’s biocapacity), at the expense of all the “lesser” species.

Paul Ehrlich says we make a mistake by sugar-coating this or suggesting there is some easy way out if we just adopt renewable energy or change our diets. He says, “a good communication strategy must ideally undercut [optimism] bias … and ‘tell it like it is.’ “

“Anything else is misleading at best, or negligent and potentially lethal for the human enterprise at worst.”

Evolution is about tradeoffs. Thus it has ever been and shall ever be. Whenever a species gained a skill it gave up another. It got worse in some area in order to get better in another. When one species moves into a new ecosystem, other species are wedged out. Species-ization is specialization and vice-versa.

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle asked us to imagine losing all the airline pilots. 

“Or all the heart doctors. That is what extinction is. We are the only species on earth that caused another to go extinct. Our species is reverent about knowledge. We developed Generational knowledge. We could not have extinguished the saber tooth cat without spears and flint points which were generational knowledge. That broke the tradeoff requirement (to a degree) because we developed collective skill specialization.
“The former vision of “limitless fish in an infinitely productive ocean” has been shattered in one generation. “Greatly expanding demand to feed growing populations of people coupled with the means to find, capture, and transport animals from all parts of the sea to distant lands have drastically altered the nature of ocean ecosystems in a few decades. Even familiar staples of the early part of this century — cod, herring, haddock, pollock, halibut, several kinds of salmon, and tuna — are in sharp decline after years of heavy fishing pressure”

The ancestors of modern cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) transitioned from land mammals to marine during the Eocene about 50 million years ago. To reduce drag, their bodies streamlined and shed body hair. To survive cold, they grew thicker skin that lacked sweat glands and had a subcutaneous layer of blubber. Fins and flukes replaced forelimbs and hind-limbs. To go deep they evolved collapsible lungs and a flexible ribcage. They increased oxygen stores in blood, muscle, and brain and learned to perform rapid turnover of gases at the surface with blowholes. They lost the ability to synthesize melatonin from sunlight, but relied on diet to provide that. Gone were saliva, olfactory receptors and hair-and-claw keratin. They lost a kind of blood clotting that could cause damage on deep dives but kept the kind that heals wounds. They evolved a type of sleep that let one brain hemisphere sleep while the other kept up movement for breathing and heat generation.

For communication, they moved from vocal calls that might be heard across a forest to low-frequency sounds that can travel underwater for hundreds of miles, and pod-distinctive songs that identify them to their kin. To the human ear they sound like clicks, whistles, grunts, groans, thwops, snorts and barks. The sperm whale can broadcast its tak-tak-taks at 235 decibels, enough to kill a human at close range. Human speech, by comparison, can only attain 60 to 65 dB. A rock concert is 115 dB.

Whales and dolphins are not big fans of heavy metal though. They like to hear music played on the lute, harp, flute, and similar instruments. In the sixteenth century sailors would serenade whales and dolphins under moonlight. When a pod of 3000 beluga whales became stranded by ice, trapped in shrinking breathing pools in the Arctic Ocean, a Russian icebreaker, the Moskva, came to their rescue, but they would not follow the ship to open water. The belugas were weak and afraid of the 400-foot ship and its propellers. No one knows how to speak beluga, so the rescuers slowly opened larger pools for the animals to breathe, feed, rest, and relax. Helicopters dropped them fish. Yet, they still refused to follow the ship in the canal back to the open ocean. Anaïs Remili, writing for Whale Scientists described what happened then:

One person on the vessel recalled that marine mammals react to music. And so music began to pour off the top deck. The crew played all kinds of music from pop to classical. After multiple experiments, the entrapped belugas started to react to classical music and approached the icebreaker. 
Using classical music, Moskva slowly herded the pod back to the open sea. Captain Kovalenko reported by radio to his headquarters: “Our tactic is this: We back up, then advance again into the ice, make a passage, and wait. We repeat this several times. The belugas start to ‘understand’ our intentions and follow the icebreaker. Thus we move kilometer by kilometer”. The operation took weeks, but by the end of February 1985, an estimated 2000 whales reached the ocean.

As they evolved, cetaceans gave up many features, but one organ grew larger — their brains. At 8,000 cc, it is over five times the volume of ours. In some, like porpoises, the two hemispheres and jaw work like radar domes, echolocating distant objects by sonar clicks. A sperm whale detects its prey by sending clicks from the front of its nose and receiving the echo back in a fatty sac beneath its mouth. Operating most of the time in full darkness, it can pinpoint a small squid a mile away.

Human speech is analog. Whale speech, coming from a much larger brain, is digital. Each click contains a series of smaller clicks containing a series of even smaller clicks, and another, even smaller. The time intervals within these clicks are on the order of milliseconds, yet sperm whales can replicate them exactly. They can also make precise revisions, reorganizing the pattern of the clicks within a click and then sending it back to a neighbor, all within a fraction of a second. Human voices vary constantly in volume and frequency. The same word spoken twice will never be exactly the same. Milliseconds are well outside our range of resolution. 

Cetacean frontal lobes contain neurons called spindle cells, also found in humans, dogs, and a small handful of other species. They are thought to allow for rapid communication between distant brain regions, to process emotions, interact socially and feel love and empathy for others.

In 2007, on a sailing trip to the island of Mauritius, something happened to Fabrice Schnöller that would change the course of his life. BBC reporter David Cox told the story in 2016: 

As his boat approached the coast, giant towers of steam began exploding out of the water. One by one the columns closed in, until they surrounded the whole boat. Curious as to the source of this strange ocean phenomenon, Schnöller grabbed his snorkling equipment and a camera, and jumped in.
***
Glancing downwards, Schnöller froze. Out of the darkness, a series of giant dark monolithic shapes were heading directly towards him. It was a pod of sperm whales accelerating towards the surface.
***
The whales surrounded him, staring with large, unblinking eyes. At more than 60 feet in length and weighing approximately 125,000 pounds, they dwarfed him. But rather than swallowing the helpless Schnöller in one giant gulp, the whales appeared to be deeply intrigued.

After scanning him, the rhythm structure of their sounds began to change. Schnöller later realized that these were the patterns that we believe sperm whales use to communicate and send information. The whales appeared to be speaking to him.

They stayed for two hours, circling, staring and showering him with bursts of sound, before vanishing once more into the deep. Schnöller was entranced.

In 2009, Schnöller began a new project called DareWin to decode sperm whale speech.

“In France we say that you see the soul of a person through their eyes,” he says. “With sperm whales you really feel a connection, which is totally different to other animals.
***
In one incident in 2011, a calf began jostling Schnöller with its nose. He held up his hand to gently move the whale away, and felt a sudden hot pain through his arm. Such was the power of the clicks coming from the calf that his hand was paralyzed for several hours.”

But some moments are worth such risks.

“The most incredible experience was when I got in the water and there was a female who had just given birth minutes beforehand.… There was a big pod of more than 30 whales and given that when an animal gives birth, it’s at its most fragile, I was backing away. But instead, they integrated me in the midst of their group and the mother pushed the little new-born sperm whale towards me. It seemed like they could understand what I was about and that I wasn’t a threat.”
“So far the best connection we can establish with them is through play,” Schnöller says. “They don’t come just to stare at you. If you do nothing, then they leave after five minutes. But if you do something playful, then they stay. They love it.”
***
The whales may even use sound to “touch” each other. “We believe that, as a pod, they caress and touch each other at short distances using acoustics… They emit very strong and heavy sounds, which vibrate inside the others like a deep caress, and that is how they display affection.”

By the end of this century we may have seen the last of these great creatures. Alternatively, they may have taken the path to salvation in a choice made 50 million years ago, and it will be they who survive this century and we who perish. Any other conclusion is, to paraphrase Paul Ehrlich, “misleading at best.”

References

Bradshaw, Corey J. A. et al, Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future Front. Conserv. Sci., 13 January 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419

Bar-On, Y. M., Phillips, R., and Milo, R. (2018). The biomass distribution on Earth. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 115:6506–6511. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1711842115

Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., Barnosky, A. D., García, A., Pringle, R. M., and Palmer, T. M. (2015). Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: entering the sixth mass extinction. Sci. Adv. 1:e1400253. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1400253

Cohen, Joel E. How Many People Can the Earth Support? New York: W. W. Norton & Company 1995.
Earle, Sylvia A., Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1995.

Rosel, Patricia E., Lynsey A. Wilcox, Tadasu K. Yamada, and Keith D. Mullin. “A new species of baleen whale (Balaenoptera) from the Gulf of Mexico, with a review of its geographic distribution.” Marine Mammal Science. 10 January 2021 https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12776

 


The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

#RestorationGeneration

“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
 — Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Great Pause Week 53: Shirley's Story

"Solomon James said, with tears in his eyes “I don’t know who’s the first to put the chains on her, but I’m glad to know I was the last to take them off.”"

Digital painting from photo by Gopan Nair, Miss Beautiful Eyes (2015)


Mary Helen Blanchard, an educator with over 30 years teaching and writing experience, would often take her 3 children and classroom students to visit the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo in Monroe, Louisiana. There they would visit the zoo’s only elephant, a lonely elder named Shirley, with a crooked leg and torn ear. Then one day she was gone. Old and ill, the zoo sent her to a little known Elephant Sanctuary just starting in Hohenwald, Tennessee. She would be the fourth in their rescue herd.

The earliest known proboscidean has been found in southern Algeria. It is the fossilized skull of a swamp -living animal from the early Miocene epoch, some fifty-four million years ago. The beast apparently stood less than three feet tall, but the anatomy of its head reveals the characteristics of a once present prehensile trunk, hallmark of all proboscideans. Biologists love to speculate on the origin of the prehensile trunk. Under what circumstances might such a structure be advantageous? The ecological setting of some later proboscidean finds indicates they were aquatic or semiaquatic creatures, like the Algerian species. Perhaps this is a vital clue. Perhaps, speculation runs, natural selection favored the evolution of an organ that could harvest vegetation while the animal was in shallow water. A rudimentary trunk, which is formed from the lips, palate, and nostrils, could do that job. True or not, the trunk became an important organ for proboscideans, and its evolution was eventually accompanied by the evolution of tusks. Anyone who has seen an elephant uproot a tree knows what a potent combination trunk and tusks are.
Fully half of proboscidean history was played out in Africa, during which time several major subgroups appeared. Beginning about twenty million years ago, descendants of these groups eventually expanded into every major landmass in the world, with the exception of Antarctica and Australia. The head count of species in the Proboscidea across the globe at that point in prehistory now stands at close to two hundred. It was a diaspora of an extraordinarily successful brand of animal, and the group dominated the Age of Mammals. The fact that only two species remain in today’s world is yet another reminder that dominance is not forever: it never has been in the history of life, and it never will be.

— Leakey and Lewin

In 2012, Lawrence Anthony passed away at home in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. Anthony grew up in rural Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi and was known for his unique ability to communicate with and calm traumatized elephants. In his book The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild, he wrote that the only way he could save elephants that were categorized as violent and unruly and in danger of cull by both poachers and game wardens, was to live with them. 

“To save their lives, I would stay with them, feed them, talk to them. But, most importantly, be with them day and night.” 

Then, when Anthony suffered his fatal heart attack, a strange thing happened. A herd of elephants he had known, some of whom he had rescued and rehabilitated but had not seen for years, appeared on his doorstep. Two separate herds had traveled 12 hours through the night to get there. They stood around the house in an apparent vigil for two days, then dispersed. 

Something similarly remarkable happened in Hohenwald, Tennessee last month, but to get to that part of this story, we have to return to 1999, when Shirley left her Louisiana zoo bound for Tennessee. As she was offloaded she was guided into a concrete stall inside a large steel barn. As the other elephants returned for the night she extended her trunk through the bars and made friends. Later, as darkness fell, an elephant named Jenny came in from the field and suddenly an angelic host of trumpets from the barn were heard over in the main building where the staff was eating supper. A film crew accompanying Shirley from Louisiana went to see what all the commotion was about and recorded the moment.


Decades earlier, Shirley and Jenny had been in the same circus. Jenny had been an orphaned baby just arriving from Africa when she met Shirley, who adopted and cared for her. Now, reunited after decades apart, their joy shook the barn walls and made the ground tremble. That night, after the film crew and keepers left, they bent the 3-inch steel bars separating them so that they could embrace.

Carol Buckley, Executive Director of the Sanctuary, later told a PBS NewsHour interviewer, “That was the love that started our elephant family.” 

“Before Shirley’s arrival, the elephants had been imprisoned companions. After Shirley met Jenny, they were sisters and aunts to the mother and daughter. Shirley and Jenny were inseparable.”

Jenny had come to the sanctuary 2 years before, quite ill. She had scars and other traces of misuse and abuse from her past life. She had been exposed to tuberculosis. An attack by a bull elephant had a crippled her back leg, which harbored a hidden bacterial infection that later flared up and likely resulted in her death.

The circus ship Fleurus during the fire in June 1963.
Bob Brooks, Yarmouth County Museum and Archives


Shirley bore similar scars. She entered circus life as a juvenile from Asia 60 years ago. It is possible I saw her perform in the 1950s when my parents took me to Madison Square Garden for the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey three-ring show. Then in 1963, the Al G. Kelly and Miller Brothers Circus’s boat, Fleurus, caught fire and sank at dock in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Elephants, lions, leopards, bears, llamas, zebras, horses, trained dogs and other animals were aboard. As luck would have it, the tide and starboard list of the ship allowed rescuers to lay heavy planks from the wharf to the boat, giving the elephants an escape route as the fire raged. Although badly burned on her back and legs, Shirley made it off. The scars from that fire would later be worn as the loss of half her right ear and the discoloration of her face.

When she was 30 years old and traveling with the Lewis Brothers Circus, Shirley was attacked by another elephant and severely wounded. Several bones in her leg fused together, creating an abnormal angle and shape. From then on she walked on three legs, her right hind quarter carried like a dangling weight. She performed for two more years before being sold to the Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo, where there was only room for one elephant and she would not see another for over two decades. Nonetheless, perhaps because of her boat experience, she was so reluctant to enter the truck to go to Tennessee that she had to be painfully winched in by one foreleg. When she arrived at the Elephant Sanctuary, her keeper of 22 years, Solomon James said, with tears in his eyes “I don’t know who’s the first to put the chains on her, but I’m glad to know I was the last to take them off. She’s free at last.”

When Shirley turned 70 in the summer of 2018, her birthday was not only celebrated at the sanctuary, but at the Yarmouth County Firefighters Museum in Nova Scotia. “Shirley survived the circus life, survived the Fleurus ship fire, and has survived all these years, so it’s only fitting we have a party in her honor,” Curator Nadine Gates said. The event included birthday cake, punch, and some of Shirley’s favorite treats — watermelon and bananas.

Carol Buckley told PBS that the bond between Shirley and Jenny was never more touching than in the last days of Jenny’s life. There are few things harder to bear than a parent’s loss of a child. 

“The day before she died, Jenny had been down and she wouldn’t get up. Shirley stood by her and insisted that Jenny get up. Jenny just couldn’t get up. Then Jenny stood up but she had to lean on Shirley to keep up. If you looked at Shirley’s face, you could see that she knew that Jenny was dying. Jenny dropped to the ground and Shirley walked into the woods.”
“After Shirley left, Jenny started to make this rumbling noise. With each exhalation, she would rumble. It was almost like a singing. As Jenny did this, Bunny and Tarra (two sanctuary elephants) came running over. We thought that was it and she was going to die. And then Bunny and Tarra started trumpeting and rumbling. At a certain point, I turned to Scott (Director of The Elephant Sanctuary) and I asked him how long this was going on. He said 58 minutes! Well, she continued for another two hours. Jenny lived through the night and was even perky and silly. She passed in the morning. And when she died, she did a vocalization that I had never heard. It was like a trumpet. It was very low and got quieter and quieter. She passed very peacefully without straining or exerting herself.” 
“To experience this ritual was amazing. I had never seen anything like it.”

Shirley stayed in the woods until Jenny passed. She didn’t eat for two days. She was comforted in her grieving by the Asian elephant family, particularly her “sisters” Bunny and Misty.

On February 22, 2021, it was Shirley’s turn. Age 72 and feeble (the average lifespan of an Asian elephant in captivity is 48 years), she had become the second oldest elephant in North America. Jellybeans were her favorite treat, but knowing that Shirley loved all but the licorice-flavored beans, the staff would carefully pick those out. Her handlers were aware she was going when she laid down in the barn and would not get up. After her death the other Asian elephants came to say their goodbyes. Her sister Tarra quietly spent hours at her side. There was no trumpet chorus this time, just a silent vigil.


At one time, Asian elephants ranged the entire length of the Silk Road from Syria and Iraq east across Asia south of the Himalayas down to Indochina and the Malaysian archipelago. Today they are listed on the ICUN Red List as endangered. Their population has declined an estimated 50 percent over the past 75 years, leaving fewer than 40,000 in the wild. The Chinese Asian subspecies went extinct in 1986. Habitat loss is their greatest threat, and 70 percent now live outside protected areas. Counting both African and Asian elephants, some 35,000 were illegally killed in 2020 — 100 per day — mainly for ivory. 

According to an estimate by Vaclav Smil, 10,000 years ago humans and their livestock were a mere 0.1 percent of the entire live weight of mammalian biomass. The other 99.9 percent was in elephants, deer, gorillas, and so on. Today, 95 percent of terrestrial animal biomass is in the eight billion people and their cows, chickens, pigs, dogs, cats and goldfish. This turn planetary evolution has taken shows no signs of reversing direction, or even slowing. 

Global production of meat and milk is projected to more than double by 2050. When considering this in terms of land area, consider too that a natural, wild elephant herd requires a minimum of 1000 square miles (2600 km2) of habitable reserve, although a sensitivity analysis shows even that may not be enough. Even slight variations in events like droughts and floods, which we know will grow dramatically this century, can elevate the risk of extinction. Of the parks and game reserves in Central and Southern Africa, 35% are now considered adequate in size to support wild elephant herds, but even these are infringed by human expansion; ie: logging, mining and cattle ranches. 

Raising and slaughtering some 55 billion food animals consumes 30 percent of the earth‘s entire surface and 80 percent of the total land occupied by humans. Subtract feed crop production and the area currently taken by grazing cattle is 26 percent of the ice-free land surface of Earth.

With nowhere left to roam and an inhospitable climate in the wild, the last remaining elephants may go, like Shirley, Jenny, Tarra, Bunny and Misty, into captive exhibitions, performing for circuses until they are too old and unwell, and then, if they are lucky, to some remote hilltop in Tennessee to die, along with their memories. 

The future we leave our grandchildren may include meaningless books about a king named Babar or a baby named Dumbo. They will have no real world references for such creatures, any more than we have for dragons and fairies. Nor will we be able to explain how two separate wild herds knew Laurence Anthony had died.

References:

Begon, Townsend and Harper, Ecology: From Individuals to Ecosystems, 4th ed. London: Blackwell (2004).

Bradshaw, Corey J. A. et al, Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future, Front. Conserv. Sci., 13 January 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419

Leakey, Richard and Roger Lewin, The sixth extinction: patterns of life and the future of humankind, Journal of Leisure Research 29, 4: 476 (1997).

Masson, J. M., and S. McCarthy, When Elephants Weep : The Emotional Lives of Animals, New York: Delacorte Press (1995).

Schwagerl, C. The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How it Shapes Our Planet, London: Synergetic Press (2014). 

___________________

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

#RestorationGeneration

“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”

— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.

 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Great Pause Week 52: Climate Fatigue

"“People want to eat the same thing and that’s sort of a condition of humans, but also you want to innovate so you don’t get bored, and that’s life. That’s cooking.”"

 

No sooner had I finished working up a recipe with my sister to accompany the story last week about grasshopper delicacies, than a Spanish friend said, well, if you like Mexican insects, you have to try chicatanes

A chicatane is a flying leaf-cutter ant — actually the ant queen — found in many parts of Central America. She evacuates her ground nest at the start of the rainy season lest she drown. Although you might find chicatanes in the farmers’ markets of Puebla, Chiapas, Veracruz, or Hidalgo from June through August, they are most sought after in the state of Oaxaca, where they sell for up to a thousand pesos a kilogram, about $20 per pound. 

By carefully watching the patterns of the nest, fearless ant-hunters know when the moment of the queens’ flight is coming. Whole families of men, women and children rise at midnight, don heavy gloves, boots and headlamps, and trek up the mountains to the anthills to wait out the exodus, sometimes until 4 or 5 in the morning. 

When the ants begin to emerge, the gatherers rush forward to bag them. Those who cannot afford rubber boots may have brought buckets of water to stick their feet into while they bend over to gather. A bite that is strong enough to sever the leaf of a tropical tree is not something you will quickly forget, and less so scores of such bites all at once.

While I have yet to find chicatanes in the MasterClass recipes of Gabriela Cámera, they are still prepared in the traditional way in Oaxaca. The cooks remove the wings from the queens and place them on the comal, a flat cooking sheet on an open flame, and add a pinch of salt. Once toasted, they are removed and ground with herbs in a metate or molcajete, a stone mortar and pestle. Moistened with broth they are simmered in a saucepan or pot to a thick paste before being spread onto handmade tortillas fresh off the comal and garnished with minced chiles and requesón, panela, or queso Oaxaca.

The paste can also be combined into mole with chicken, armadillo or deer meat, or folded into masa, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed in clay pots to make chicatane tamales.

Mexicans sell chicatanes from their homes or in the markets, as they have since before the arrival of Hernán Cortez, but some will be kept for eating throughout the year. No respectable pantry is without a jar of flying ants.

One month after Mexican cuisine was declared by UNESCO an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, I attended the gala opening dinner for the 2010 UN climate conference in Cancún. The spirits of the thousand or more delegates had been battered by the debacle the year before in Copenhagen, when an effort led by the United States and other oil exporting nations thwarted the progress of 150 countries, forged by the European Union, China, the island nations, and South Africa. Five years later these same delegates would agree to a climate treaty in Paris, but for now, in Cancún, what was needed was a sense that humanity was even worth saving. México delivered.

From around the nation, the Mexican president and the chairman of the COP pulled together some of the finest chefs, who set forth long tables of Mexico’s most treasured delicacies, prepared to perfection. Mariachis struck up a lively tune, toasts were made, and everyone feasted.

This memory causes me to reflect on the pandemic of this past year and lessons that are largely overlooked now, but which will bear important fruit when we take on the larger, existential, global crisis in our future. 

Some of those lessons are boredom, ennui, resignation, and impulsive action borne of false certainty.

On February 26, 2021, the Washington Post ran a story by a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter that described growing optimism in the US medical community. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths had fallen steeply in previous weeks, not just in the United States, where 15% of the population had received at least the first stage vaccination, but worldwide, where vaccines were often unavailable at any cost. The World Health Organization reported an 11 percent global decline in cases and a 20 percent drop in deaths in the final weeks of February.

Experts who believe that summer could be much improved remain cautious about the near term, with highly transmissible variants circulating that could cause a spring spike in cases and with pandemic-weary Americans tiring of restrictions. Continuing to be careful for just a little longer as more people get vaccinated could help ensure people get the summer they want, experts said. 
“It’s clear there isn’t going to be some on-off switch where we wake up and the virus is gone,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University. “How it all turns out depends a lot on the virus’s behavior but also on us humans and what we choose to do.” 
***
Rasmussen said public officials urgently need to convey that message of hope so that Americans reeling from a long winter will continue to wear masks and distance this spring and buy time for the rapid increase of vaccinations. Only then will the glorious summer many are imagining become a reality. 
“Everybody’s burned out and exhausted. They’re hitting their mental breaking points,” Rasmussen said. “But we’re in the last stretch of this terrible marathon, and people need hope so they’ll be able to make that last dash to the finish line.” 

I have a real problem with this messaging. I hope we don’t repeat this when we are deep into reversing climate change and need to dig still deeper for stamina and willpower. 

Sadly, it has been like this since the early days of the outbreak. Words like “message of hope,” and “dash to the finish line” are juxtaposed with “reeling from a long winter,” “burned out and exhausted,” “mental breaking points,” and “terrible marathon.” Despite being told by virologists and epidemiologists that this is not how it works, most of the population has been conditioned to the on-off metaphor. There is “normal” and there is “crisis.” After the crisis has been dealt with, we will get back to normal, right? When someone speaks a harder truth, as Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates have, their advice is discounted. The truth is that this crisis is not close to over, and there are even bigger ones coming.

Instead of being prepared for normalcy, we should all be preparing for an even greater readjustment from our lives previously lived.

Instead of being prepared for normalcy, we should all be preparing for an even greater readjustment from our lives previously lived. In the early days of the Covid, I described the hammer and the dance, a paired metaphor put forward by Tomas Puelho. The concept was elegantly simple, and endures. It was what spared New Zealand the ravages experienced in Europe, the UK, the US, and Brazil. When outbreaks happen, you put down the hammer — lockdown quarantines, distancing, mask mandates, contact tracing. As soon as the numbers get better, and you have traced down the origins of the outbreak and have it contained, you can reopen in stages — the dance. Each stage is a test. Overstep and you find yourself back in hammer mode. Step carefully and you can step farther. 

What happens when countries or states hammer when they should dance is that people get mad and act in foolish ways. What happens when places dance when they should hammer is that the virus gets worse, hospitals are overwhelmed, caregivers die, and no amount of more dancing will get you out of it. Your only choice is a heavy hammer. Consider how this applies to our climate predicament.

In Cancún, over sweet melons sliced like floral arrangements, the leaders leveled with the delegates. Copenhagen had failed. There was no pretty way to put that. More importantly, the UN’s long tradition of multiculturalism and fair dealing had been undermined by a cabal of the powerful, self-interested wealthy. None of the elected officials were going to put it quite that way but we all knew that was what they meant. Everyone understood we had been rolled. More importantly, nobody wanted to have it happen again. And so began the process that took us to the Paris Agreement, with its 5-year stocktake ritual and putting science in the driver’s seat. A hammer approach. That, in turn, has led from abstract goals like 350 parts per million or 1.5 degrees of warming, to more demanding audits like net-zero by such and such a date. With a void in leadership from the Clinton, Tillerson and Pompeo State Departments, all of whom favored prolonging the dance, unexpected players like transnational corporations and local governments stepped in and forced the hammer approach.

However, when it comes to changing your lifestyle from one that puts 16 tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year to one that takes 16 tons out, the psychological stamina required for a two-week quarantine after travel is child’s play. Wearing a mask to the super-market, getting a temperature scan, and keeping a 6-foot distance in the checkout line is nothing compared to relocating from coastal cities — or offering refuge to migrant islanders —or changing your family’s diet from one that traces centuries of traditions. Those are hammers from Hell.

Gabriela Camara says, “People want to eat the same thing and that’s sort of a condition of humans, but also you want to innovate so you don’t get bored, and that’s life. That’s cooking.” 

What we can learn from the pandemic is that remodeling your home, starting a garden, learning a new language, losing some of that excess body fat, and getting really healthy is a good thing to be doing. Now, let’s do that for our planet.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”

— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.

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