Sunday, August 1, 2021

The Great Pause Week 72: Homo Gestalt

"The popular meme of returning to the growth patterns of the past still holds sway."

“There are grave doubts at the hugeness of the land, and whether one government can comprehend the whole.” 
— Henry Adams

As a young man doing solo hikes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire I learned a very important lesson, which may have saved my life more than once. If you lose the trail, don’t plunge ahead hoping to find it again. Retrace your steps until you are back on it.

I remembered that when I was lost in the back alleys of Medellin after midnight. I remembered in dense fog in the Great Smoky Mountains. I remembered it when, being out for a week north of Harpers Ferry during Hurricane Agnes, the rain had pounded my brain to mush, visibility was a blur, and the trail had become a river. I retraced and made it back.

What needs to be done now is very simple. Whether we will choose to do it soon enough to matter is more complicated. Social inertia binds us unnecessarily. We want to continue forward momentum. We don’t want to give up our hard-earned progress.

Ongoing natural disasters in the oldest cities of Netherlands, Belgium and Germany; a heat dome scorching the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia; snow in Brazil; unprecedented forest fires in the Western states and Russian Arctic, making their own weather and darkening distant cities; Antarctica melting away its glaciers; flooding in Maharashtra, Flagstaff and the Zhengzhou subway; ancient rivers running dry — these disasters come at us like a drone swarm, drawing our attention and compelling us to confront demons we have known about but decided to ignore. The closer to us the flames or the waves, the more difficult it is to claim ignorance. The excuses ring so hollow we can no longer bring ourselves to say them aloud.

“It’s not so much that #ClimateChange itself is proceeding faster than expected — the warming is right in line with model predictions from decades ago. Rather, it’s the fact that some of the impacts are greater than scientists predicted.” 

 — Michael E. Mann


We have known, indisputably since the Club of Rome report in 1972, that civilization was approaching limits to growth and would need to develop a contracting economic paradigm to preserve any gains for the future. Not having done so, many of those gains, and far more, are now being surrendered in very unpleasant ways. Our children are bankrupted before they are born.


There are many, perhaps still a majority, who believe that we will pass through this crisis and resume our trajectory towards the stars, our unique human capacity giving us the tools and technologies we will need to prevail, as we always have.

This is hubris. Geoff Lawton once said, ““We have expressions that say, in our language, ‘We are out of order.’ And we are. We are out of order. The orders of scale of size relevant within our design patterning.…” 

We do not lack for ideas, technology or skills to reverse climate change. All those tools have been in our kit for centuries, gathering rust. But we are now well into the time of consequences, as the “natural” disasters in the news merely remind us.

Many, and I include myself, believe that at this late date, the reckoning will be harsh and unforgiving. Humans will depopulate significantly, possibly even to extinction. If we are to survive as a breed, it will be only by radically altering our pattern of habitation of the natural world. We need to return to the ways of now extinct Homo habilis, the able man, and terminate our brief, foolhardy foray into Homo sapiens sapiens, the clever clever man.

There are many examples of indigenous peoples who practiced a steady-state economy over millennia that served all equally well, humans and non-humans alike. Those are successful models we can learn, recover, refashion, but it seems unlikely any large number of us would embark upon them. They are too alien to our popular culture, too heavy a lift.

The energy patterns expressed in the wild are finely tuned towards efficiency. There is no profligacy, because even the faintest amount of wasted effort can doom an individual, species or ecosystem. Contrast “clever” humans tossing energy around like it is infinitely expendable. Shoot some billionaires into space. Make million-dollar stainless-steel vacuum cleaners to serve as artificial trees and suck carbon dioxide from the sky — we can power them by solar cells made in clean rooms from aluminum, copper, silver and gallium, or from 100-meter-high, exotic-alloy, wind generators rotating magnetic cores of neodymium. Clever, but not wise. Powerful but fragile.

Ecovillages, bioregionalism, forest peoples, lake edge peoples, nomads; governance devolved to watersheds; coordinated regenerative practices — these are antifragile memes. Plant trees and mangroves and let them grow. Grow fruit, nuts, alley crops, perennial root crops, bamboo shoots. Coppice and pollard for building materials, furniture, and small fuels. Make biochar and even draw electricity and wood gas from that drawdown process for your lights, refrigeration, air conditioning — modest devices that can be repaired by a blacksmith or tinsmith.

Take baby steps to get there by improving your own efficiency (use less energy, land, and other inputs and make less waste); transition to carbon drawdown alternatives for your most common activities; in every way shrink your own footprint; become responsible. Grow up.

More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon: 9780375703713 | PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books
In this genre-bending novel-among the first to have launched sci-fi into the arena of literature-one of the great…www.penguinrandomhouse.com

In his 1952–53 science fiction novel, More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon imagined human evolution progressing in the 20th century to what he called Homo gestalt, created from several individuals with unusual mental abilities. It may be that within five years ubiquitous satellite internet with infinitesimal latency will enable homo gestalt with AI/AR/VR prosthetic devices to extend its fields of perception and computational power.

Alternatively, by biological succession, we can let our innate empathic qualities group us into telepathic clusters of parallel processors. The protagonists in More Than Human struggled to find who they are/were and whether they are meant to help humanity or destroy it. That should not be a question, but it has become one now.

The current pandemic may eventually turn out to be a culling of the herd — it is still too early to say and the popular meme of returning to the growth patterns of the past still holds sway — but as our bouts with 2021 weather events should make clear, there are more and greater calamities in the wings. The single biggest change we can make as humans is to stop acting like small warring tribes and go back to being family. We won’t survive by being clever. We need to be able.

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Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Great Pause Week 71: Historical and Hysterical Experiences

"From 1331 to 1353, gypsies, Jews, foreign travelers, and lepers were hunted down and killed because they were blamed for the pandemic."


Finger-pointing is nothing new in times of plague, but putting the blame for the Pandemic of 2020–2025 on President Turnip, the Wuhan Lab, or Facebook has modernized the practice.

In the 2007 film The Reaping, Hilary Swank’s character explains the 10 plagues of Egypt this way:

In 1400 BC, a group of nervous Egyptians saw the Nile turn red. But what they thought was blood was actually an algal bloom that killed the fish, which prior to that had been living off the eggs of frogs. Those uneaten eggs turned into record numbers of baby frogs, which subsequently fled to the land and died. Their little rotting frog bodies attracted lice and flies. The lice carried the bluetongue virus, which killed 70 percent of Egypt’s livestock. The flies carried glanders, a bacterial infection, which in humans causes boils. Soon afterward, the Nile River Valley was hit with a three-day sandstorm, otherwise known as the “plague of darkness.” During a sandstorm, intense heat can combine with an approaching cold front to create not only hail but also electrical storms, which would have looked to the ancient Egyptians like “fire from the sky.” The subsequent wind would have blown the Ethiopian locust population off course and right into downtown Cairo. Hail is wet; locusts leave droppings. Spread both on grain and you have got mycotoxins. Dinnertime in ancient Egypt meant the firstborn child got the biggest portion, which in this case meant he ate the most toxins, so he died. Ten plagues. Ten scientific explanations.

Before we knew about red tides and electrical storms (both of which may have been influenced by ash from a volcanic event in Greece in 1400 BCE that spread both fire in the sky and ash clouds to Egypt), the generally accepted explanation for the ten plagues was that Pharaoh refused to set the Israelites free, so God decided to punish him. God ordered Aaron to touch the River Nile with his staff, and the waters were turned to blood; Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven, and there was a thick darkness over the land of Egypt until Pharaoh finally relented and let the Israelites go, and the plagues ended.

Because viruses naturally occur in the human body, and come and go from our contact with other humans, animals, insects, and nature generally, it should not be surprising that occasionally we get one that chooses to be nasty. Going back to the beginnings of agriculture, there is evidence that 5,000 years ago, an epidemic struck a small village in northeast China now called Hamin Mangha. That village was not inhabited again for many centuries. The bodies of the dead were stuffed inside a house and the house burned down.
 
Not all epidemics come from viruses. Typhus, an infection caused by a Salmonella bacteria, has been with us since at least 430 BCE when it killed a quarter of the Athenian troops fighting Sparta in the Peloponnesian War and then returned home to kill a quarter of the population of Athens in four years.

Fortunately for the victorious Spartans, the sheer virulence of the bacteria prevented its wider spread. It killed off its Athenian hosts at a rate faster than they could spread it, and so it stayed in that one place and eventually died out.

At the start of the first millennium, the Antonine Plague was brought to the Italian peninsula by Roman soldiers returning from the Near East. It killed a quarter of those infected, up to five million in all. A second outbreak a century later killed 5,000 people per day in Rome. The plague, later confirmed as smallpox, laid the groundwork for the unraveling of the Empire. Rome’s fighting force was cut in half, offensive military campaigns were postponed, and Germanic tribes edged closer to Rome. 

Biden blaming Zuckerberg for Covid is like Roosevelt placing the blame for Pearl Harbor on shortwave radio.

From 541 to 750 CE, the world was struck by a global pandemic — the bubonic plague. Before it was done, the plague would cut Europe’s population in half. Scientists have concluded that the bacteria Yersinia pestis originated in China over 2,600 years ago, but at that time it caused only mild stomach discomfort. It reached Egypt in a much more virulent form in 541 CE, traveled around the Mediterranean with sailors and merchants, and arrived at Constantinople the following spring, killing 10,000 people a day, eventually decimating 40 percent of the city’s inhabitants. That outbreak of the plague went on to eliminate one-quarter to one-half of the human population throughout the known world. Then it disappeared.

Eight centuries later, it suddenly reappeared. This time it was called the Black Death. The total number of deaths from CE 1331 to 1353 is estimated at 75 million, up to half the people in many urban areas. Gypsies, Jews, foreign travelers, and lepers were hunted down and killed. In actuality, the bacteria were spread by fleas that lived on rats.

The plague returned to England every two to five years until 1480. European outbreaks continued off and on until the eighteenth century, more than 100 in all. The Great Plague of London of 1665–66 was the last major outbreak in England, killing approximately 100,000 people and 20 percent of Londoners. But it was not done with the rest of the world.

William Shakespeare lived his entire life in the shadow of bubonic plague. Between 1606 and 1610, when his writing powers were at their peak, the London playhouses he needed to make a living were closed more than they were open — for social distancing.

Shakespeare’s plays contain exclamations like “a plague on both your houses!” There is even a description of quarantine in London:

And finding him, the searchers of the town, 
Suspecting that we both were in a house 
Where the infectious pestilence did reign, 
Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth.

Shakespeare despaired that there would ever be a medical solution to the plague and so focused his plots on sneaky, morally corrupt, incompetent leaders and the good people who responded to troubling times by behaving with nobility, sacrifice, and courage.

The plague moved to China in 1855 and then spread to India, where 10 million people died. It reached San Francisco in 1900. There are still isolated cases of plague in Africa, China, and the western United States, carried by fleas that occasionally transmit it to animals and people. Human-to-human transmission is extremely rare, but people can contract the plague when disposing of dead animals like squirrels or mice.

In 1900, health officials in San Francisco strung a rope around Chinatown in an attempt to contain an outbreak of bubonic plague. Only non-Chinese people (and rats and fleas) were allowed to enter or leave. That was the state of the art in public health at that time, but it did not work, and in many ways it made things worse.

In late 1916, a virus appeared that was new, and humans had no resistance to it. It first struck soldiers with symptoms similar to food poisoning or the flu, but it was not food poisoning. It was a virus that would come to be called the Spanish flu, but only after US soldiers passed it to British soldiers in France, who passed it to Germans, and so on. It wasn’t named for where it began, which may have been Kansas, but got its name because Spain was the first country that allowed newspapers to tell their readers about it.

We know now that SARS-CoV2 did not originate in the Wuhan wild meat markets

…residual archived samples from 7389 routine blood donations collected by the American Red Cross from 13 December 2019 to 17 January 2020 from donors resident in 9 states (California, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin) were tested at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for anti–SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. … Donations with reactivity occurred in all 9 states.

Blood-bank surveys discovered presence of anti–SARS-CoV-2–reactive antibodies widespread in the US weeks before it emerged in China, and there is repeated evidence that another strain was circulating in Brazil, Spain, Eastern France and Northern Italy even earlier in 2019. Italy’s first documented case was a 4-year old who developed a cough on November 21, 2019. Covid is not “the Chinese flu,” or “Kung flu,” any more than the 1918 A/H1N1 virus was the “Spanish flu.”

Spreading from the battlefields of World War I, the “Spanish flu” mutated, became far more lethal, and eventually infected 500 million people, including people living on remote Pacific islands and in the Arctic. It caused the deaths of 50–100 million people (CFR of 10–20 percent).

The 1918 flu killed more people than World War I, but it provided valuable lessons in how to control a pandemic until a vaccine can be discovered and used. In the 1916–1918 pandemic, some cities tried to reduce the transmission of the virus by limiting contact between people. They closed schools, churches, bars, and large social events. Governments that did this early were successful at reducing case numbers and mortality overall, but the disease rebounded once controls were lifted. Lesson learned. Or not.

After that, the World Health Organization, the National Centers for Disease Control in the United States, and other organizations in many countries set up programs to intercept and get ahead of epidemics before they could progress. They realized that diseases did not observe borders, so the key was to develop fast response teams that could go anywhere. A sleeping sickness epidemic in Africa (trypanosomiasis), transmitted by the bite of an infected tsetse fly, was arrested by mobile teams from around the world descending on Africa and systematically screening millions of people at risk, developing new drugs, starting public-health programs, and improving diagnostics. They did it again with the eradication of smallpox in 1977, rinderpest in 2011, and the Ebola outbreak of 2014–2016. The flu of 1918 helped a whole new area of science get started.

How We Measure Progress

We are getting better in our response to outbreaks of disease by improving in these areas:

  • Detection: We are finding outbreaks faster.
  • Verification: At the earliest stages, we can coordinate scientists across the globe to identify the vectors, assess the risks, and recommend immediate responses.
  • Connection: We have built trust-based research and response networks across disciplines and geographic borders. These networks have developed protocols for the open sharing of information.
  • Measurement: We can track outbreaks, responses, progress of our research, and ways to do better. We can collate information in data centers and apply artificial intelligence to detect trends.

If the Covid Pandemic was a quiz for whether we will reverse climate change, then we failed. We had brilliant virology from the start, including from the Wuhan Lab, but also the scientists at Pfizer and Moderna. We had pretty good epidemiology, but botched responses from authorities in charge, and abysmal testing, which was what the epidemiologists most needed.

There were better public health results in nations with more coherent national dialog; faith in science; experience in masking; trust in national authority; leadership. Where all those were lacking the result was horrific. In the United States, more deaths occurred than from the 1918 flu, more than from the American Civil War, and they are still climbing. USAnians seem to think this will be over soon and they can go back to “normal.” They think that about climate change too.

There are no borders in nature. Viruses have been carried with us to the moon and back. One can hop a plane in China today and be in Paris or New York tomorrow. In a globalized world, the only effective response must be a global response. The delta, gamma, and lambda variants arose among populations desperate for vaccination while in the US and Canada, millions of doses were expiring and having to be discarded.

A country can wall itself off as Iceland and New Zealand did, but as long as the contagion is still active anywhere, you cannot lower your border defenses. And eventually, some new variant, more virulent, more transmissible, able to defeat vaccines, will emerge. It is only a matter of numbers — mutation rates; the exponential function; unlimited human specimens to experiment with. It won’t be coming from Facebook. It will be coming from myths, finger-pointing, me-first, and Jingoism.

Pandemics unfold as social dramas. People ignore clues that something is awry until they are surrounded by illness and death shakes them from complacency. That launches the second act: a demand for explanations, whether superstitious (“this is a bioweapon made in China” or “the gypsies are responsible”) or scientific (“it is a new kind of virus for which we have no cure”). People then either accept or reject these explanations and choose to either cooperate or rebel, and that can make the third act as dramatic and disruptive as the disease itself — a crisis of individual and national character.

Pandemics put pressure on the societies they strike and can widen cracks in social structures that had been ignored. They reveal what really matters and the things that have true value. Would you rather be able to shop in a mall or have your grandparents alive? Blame is a destructive force that can ruin much more than the disease can. From Jews in medieval Europe to meat mongers in Chinese markets, someone is always blamed. Government authority, people with power and privilege, and minorities and immigrants are all common targets of blame. Today it is Fox News, Robert Kennedy Jr., and Mark Zuckerberg. 

But as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

This week’s post was extracted from Albert Bates’ Plagued: Surviving a Modern Pandemic (2020), available in all good bookstores and on your favorite portable devices.

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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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Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Great Pause Week 70: Painting Cats by the Numbers

"The Edinburgh study found pet food was responsible for more climate pollution than 147 nations."

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is a meme made popular by Carl Sagan, paraphrasing Laplace’s “the weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.

Last week I stirred some emotions in readers with my noir homage to our felinious friends. This week I will revisit the numbers in greater detail. Many people, especially cat lovers, may find this boring. Climate wonks should love it.

I start from the first principle Alan Savory uses in Holistic Management — to assume you are wrong. This exercise is not to prove or disprove what I wrote — let’s assume I was wrong. I want to find out where I went off the rails. Let’s locate the errors. I will lay out my calculations and if I can’t find any mistake perhaps some readers smarter than me will.

Here is the part of the post that seemed to rub some fur the wrong way:

In the US, dogs and cats consume about a third of the animal-derived food produced. They produce about 30 percent, by mass, of the feces of USAnians (5.6 million tons vs. 19 million tons), and, through their diet, constitute about 25 to 30 percent of the environmental impacts from farm animal production in terms of the use of land, water, fossil fuel, phosphate, and toxic agro-chemicals. Dog and cat foods are responsible for release of from 80 million tons to 5.8 billion tons of CO2 and CO2-equivalent methane and nitrous oxide, depending on which studies you read. At the lower end of the estimates, dogs and cats produce more greenhouse gases than any one of 174 countries. At the high end, pets are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions each year than energy-related emissions from the manufacturing of fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, refrigerants, and oil and gas extraction, combined. Twice as much as commercial air travel. Twice as much as cement. More than all freight trucking. Twice as much as freight maritime transport and cruise ships. More than Russia, Africa, or South America. More than any of 197 countries. More than Mar-A-Lago.
If just a quarter of all animal protein used in the food of American pets was human-grade, it would provide the caloric intake requirements for 5 million USAnians or 50 million Syrians or Venezuelans. Dog diets are estimated to be composed of 33 percent animal protein. Cats need 99 percent.

One naturally would ask, how it is possible that US dogs and cats, with the caloric intake of 50 million Syrians, could be producing — extrapolated to global pets — more greenhouse gases than Russia, Africa, or South America? It is a fair question. My cited range of estimates for carbon paw prints was 80 MtCO2/y (Okin 2017) to 5800 MtCO2/y (Rao 2021). Those numbers are from all animal agriculture, apportioned to the pets’ one third share (33% +/- 9% according to Okin, et al. working under an NIH grant). Rao says that 17.3 to 17.6 GtCO2e is coming from animal agriculture. One third of that — the amount fed to pets — would be 5.8 GtCO2e. Russia, Africa, and South America all contribute less than 5.8 GtCO2e/y to global greenhouse emissions — therefore less than global dogs and cats if you use the highest number in the range. 206 countries produce less than 5.8 GtCO2e/y. If you use a mid-range, peer reviewed study for carbon paw prints (Alexander 2020) the number is 56–151 MtCO2e/y, placing pets at 36th to 56th among nations.

But mixing studies that ask different questions can be hazardous, and Rao’s study is still an outlier, begging confirmation from more studies of this type. 

The mid-range, peer-reviewed group based at the University of Edinburgh and headed by Peter Alexander reported:

Global pet ownership, especially of cats and dogs, is rising with income growth, and so too are the environmental impacts associated with their food. The global extent of these impacts has not been quantified, and existing national assessments are potentially biased due to the way in which they account for the relative impacts of constituent animal by-products (ABPs). ABPs typically have lower value than other animal products (i.e. meat, milk and eggs), but are nevertheless associated with non-negligible environmental impacts. Here we present the first global environmental impact assessment of pet food. The approach is novel in applying an economic value allocation approach to the impact of ABPs and other animal products to represent better the environmental burden. We find annual global dry pet food production is associated with 56–151 MtCO2 equivalent emissions (1.1%−2.9% of global agricultural emissions), 41–58 Mha agricultural land-use (0.8–1.2% of global agricultural land use) and 5–11 cubic km freshwater use (0.2–0.4% of water extraction of agriculture). These impacts are equivalent to an environmental footprint of around twice the UK land area, and would make greenhouse gas emission from pet food around the 60th highest emitting country, or equivalent to total emissions from countries such as Mozambique or the Philippines. These results indicate that rising pet food demand should be included in the broader global debate about food system sustainability. (Alexander 2020)

The Edinburgh study found pet food (not pets) was responsible for more climate pollution than 147 nations, or slightly fewer than the 174 nations I estimated last week. They ranked pet food as the 60th highest emitting country. I ranked total pet impact as the 14th, but that is because pet food is not the only climate impact of pets. Pet food, according to the Edinburgh group, emits 1.1–2.9 percent of agricultural emissions rather than the 1/3 claimed by Okin. But one really should factor in land-use, 41–58 Mha (158–224,000 sq mi, an area ranging in size from Paraguay to Kenya), the loss of soil carbon from deforestation, and the “opportunity cost” of reforestation, as Rao did, because that is the part most akin to fossil fuels in altering atmospheric chemistry in a lasting way.

Ref: Alexander et al 2020; World in Data

Soils in croplands store on average 110 tons of carbon per hectare, and in pastures store 160 tons. Forest soils can store ten times that much. For every one percent of soil carbon lost, a hectare gives up 400 to 585 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. If the 41 to 58 Mha devoted to animal farming gives up 1 percent carbon from its soil, it sends 16,400 (1 x 400 x 41m) MtCO2e (16.4 Gt) to the atmosphere. If, over decades to centuries, it gives up 7 percent, which is common, 237,500 (7 x 585 x 58m) MtCO2e (238 Gt) goes to the atmosphere. These soil carbon losses slowly accrue after the initial damage is done, for instance, from burning rainforests in Brazil to raise beef, or putting palm oil plantations into Borneo, orangutans be damned. 

Pet food is also associated with 5–11 cu. km freshwater use, but converting that to CO2 equivalent is more difficult to estimate so I will set that aside.

Rao reviewed the history of livestock emissions studies, beginning with Alan Calverd publishing that livestock breathing alone in 2005 produced 8.8 GtCO2e or 21% of total agricultural climate impact, and ending with a 2013 flawed but revealing UN FAO study funded by the International Meat Secretariat and the International Dairy Federation giving lifecycle emissions from the livestock sector of 7.1 GtCO2e/y or 14.5% of global agriculture. Goodland and Anhang published a WorldWatch report in 2009 calculating lifecycle emissions of the “livestock” sector to be 32.6 GtCO2e; 21.1 Gt in actual emissions and 11.5 from avoided carbon sequestration.

The FAO number became the standard reference used by IPCC and often quoted, but it is like feeling the elephant’s trunk and thinking that must be what an elephant is, very snake-like. Rao compared it to relying on Philip Morris for the cancer healing benefits of smoking.

Rao’s paper breaks apart many historical assumptions that have been proven wrong and proposed a number for “true lifecycle emissions of animal agriculture” — 55.6 GtCO2e. Rao’s study concludes that the annual methane emissions from animal agriculture alone cause more incremental global warming than the annual CO2 emissions from all fossil fuel sources combined. Based on his numbers, pets rank first on the chart of national emissions of CO2. Alexander et al’s numbers would rank them 36th, nonetheless still ahead of 170 countries.

Contrasting those two estimates we have another middle-of-the-range consensus estimate in the August 2019 IPCC Special Report on Climate Change, Desertification, Land Degradation, Sustainable Land Management, Food Security, and Greenhouse gas fluxes in Terrestrial Ecosystems, which reported:

Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) activities accounted for around 13% of CO2, 44% of methane (CH4), and 82% of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from human activities globally during 2007–2016, representing 23% (12.0 +/- 3.0 GtCO2e/y) of total net anthropogenic emissions of GHGs (medium confidence). The natural response of land to human-induced environmental change caused a net sink of around 11.2 GtCO2/y during 2007–2016 (equivalent to 29% of total CO2 emissions) (medium confidence); the persistence of the sink is uncertain due to climate change (high confidence). If emissions associated with pre- and post-production activities in the global food system are included, the emissions are estimated to be 21–37% of total net anthropogenic GHG emissions (medium confidence).

If we discard Rao and adopt IPCC as the gold standard, then the pet CO2 paw print, at 33 percent of 12 GtCO2/y, would be 4 GtCO2/y which elevates pets to third place position on the list of carbon emitting countries, between India and the United States. But that won’t hold, because IPCC included forestry and other land use practices that have nothing to do with pets, or the one third of animal agriculture attributed to them. If the CO2 footprint is only 2.9%, as the Edinburgh group said, that’s 348 MtCO2/y, 16th place among nations, between Turkey and South Africa.

In a recent Clubhouse interview with Rao, Dan Miller, Managing Director of The Roda Group, a venture capital group focused on clean technology, asked the scientist whether it was really fair to compare animal emissions to fossil fuels because whatever carbon a cow breathes in or eats is just part of the labile carbon cycle and will go around no matter what. I confess that is an issue I had not previously given much thought to.

Rao replied that while that’s true, he had not counted carbon emitted from the cow but was more concerned with the carbon released from the soils in land converted to agriculture and the energy used in animal management and processing.

However, in his article, Rao went on to make another important point:

In the Plant Based Economy scenario, we assume that all animal products have been replaced with plant-based equivalents and that Animal Agriculture has been eliminated, but we continue to burn fossil fuels as necessary. From Fig. 4.2, we see that we can now supply all the plant-based food and product requirements from the cropland output alone, freeing up the grazing land for reforestation and carbon sequestration. This grazing land will begin sequestering 34.5 Gt CO2 per year, reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere. In addition, a good chunk of the fossil fuel burning would disappear as we reduce our need for transporting vast amounts of food to animals, killing them in industrial settings, refrigerating their carcasses, treating diseased people, etc. About 40% of the methane in the atmosphere would disappear in 10–12 years, reducing the radiative forcing by 0.4 W/m2. The Black Carbon component of 0.6 W/m2 would reduce as we stop burning forests to create grazing land for animals. Therefore, we can expect the net radiative forcing to decrease to 1.3–1.7 W/m2 from the current 2.29 W/m2 within 10–12 years. 

Rao’s Figure 4.2 is IPCC AR4 WG3 Figure 11.9

 Rather than just consider avoided emissions, Rao asked his readers to consider avoided drawdown. 

Further, he warns that blindly eliminating fossil fuel usage without first switching to a plant diet will accelerate the warming of the planet. This short-term aerosol masking hazard is an open controversy, with scientists such as Joeri Rogelj and Michael Mann on one side and Guy McPherson and the IPCC on the other. James Hansen lamented recently that we do not have satellites tasked to study the issue, so we are literally flying blind.

Rao says transition to a global plant-based economy has the potential to sequester over 2000 gigatons (2 TtCO2e) by recarbonizing soils and regenerating vegetation, returning atmospheric greenhouse gas levels to the “safe zone” of under 350 parts per million or even a pre-industrial 230 ppm this century. This is a point I have often argued, albeit with a plant-based biochar economy.

To summarize this number crunch, the deeper I go, the worse it looks. I am left to ask, as Keiser et al did in Ecological Economics, “Can we feed the animals in 2030?” or, paraphrasing Vale, is it time to eat the cat? And if not now, then when?

 

 

 

________________________

References

Alexander, P., Berri, A., Moran, D., Reay, D. and Rounsevell, M.D., 2020. The global environmental paw print of pet food. Global Environmental Change 65: 102153.

Forbush, Edward H. 1916. “The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wildlife: Means of Utilizing and Controlling It”, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, State Board of Agriculture, Economic Biology Bulletin 42

Keyzer MA, Merbis MD, Pavel IFPW, van Wesenbeeck CFA 2005. Diet shifts towards meat and the effects on cereal use: can we feed the animals in 2030? Ecological Economics 55(2):187–202. doi: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2004.12.002

Kumcu, Aylin; Woolverton, Andrea E. 2014 “Feeding Fido: Changing Consumer Food Preferences Bring Pets to the Table”. Journal of Food Products Marketing 21(2): 213–230. 

Loss, Scott R.; Will, Tom; Marra, Peter P. 2013. “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States”. Nature Communications 4: 1396. doi:10.1038/ncomms2380. 

Morelle, Rebecca (29 January 2013). “Cats killing billions of animals in the US”. BBC News. 

Okin, Gregory S. (2017–08–02). “Environmental impacts of food consumption by dogs and cats”. PLOS ONE. 12 (8): e0181301. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0181301.

Pimentel D, Pimentel M. 2003. Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78(3):660S–3S.

Rao, S. 2021. Animal Agriculture is the Leading Cause of Climate Change A Position Paper in Watve, A., Journal of Ecological Society, 32, p.155–167

Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, 2018. “Tackling Feral Cats and Their Impacts — Frequently asked questions.”

Vale, B. and Vale, R.J.D., 2009. Time to eat the dog?: the real guide to sustainable living. Thames & Hudson.

Supporting databases: http://www.census.gov/popclock/; https://www.akc.org/reg/dogreg_stats.cfm; http://www.petcarerx.com/article/dog-breed-weight-chart/267; http://www.statista.com/statistics/188670/top-dry-dog-food-brands-in-the-united-states/; http://www.statista.com/statistics/197947/symphonyiri-tracked-dollar-sales-of-dog-food-in-the-us/; http://www.statista.com/statistics/254171/market-share-of-the-leading-dry-cat-food-brands-in-the-us/; https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-availability-per-capita-data-system/; http://www.census.gov/popest/data/state/totals/2015/; http://faostat.fao.org/; https://www.worlddata.info/greenhouse-gas-by-country.php; https://github.com/owid/co2-data

_________________

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.

#GenerationRestoration

“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.

Want to help make a difference while you shop in the Amazon app, at no extra cost to you? Simply follow the instructions below to select “Global Village Institute” as your charity and activate AmazonSmile in the app. They’ll donate a portion of your eligible purchases to us.
How it works: 
1. Open the Amazon app on your phone 
2. Select the main menu (=) & tap on “AmazonSmile” within Programs & Features 
3. Select “Global Village Institute” as your charity 
4. Follow the on-screen instructions to activate AmazonSmile in the mobile app

Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Great Pause Week 69: One Dark Secret About the Climate Emergency You Won't Hear Anywhere Else

"You may not want to give up flying or have fewer children. But are you ready for this?"

 

Maybe you were shocked by the “heat dome” temperatures in Juneau, Stockholm and Moscow. It was 90°F (32.2°C) inside the Arctic Circle. One billion marine animals died. A mountain town in British Columbia got hotter than Las Vegas has ever been and set new heat records for all of Canada on three consecutive days. Then it burned down. 

Or maybe you are contemplating the massive droughts, wildfires and mortality in Australia, Brazil, and the American Southwest. Maybe you’re thinking about no longer buying beachfront property on Miami Beach. Whatever this is, it is not how the future once seemed. You have been shaken from complacency.

Many people are suddenly leaning in and looking for something they can personally do to tackle climate change. I was in a Clubhouse room last week and Gen-Z people were seriously asking, “Why isn’t there already an app for this?”

Well, I thought, they might try giving up red meat a few days every week. There are vegan cooking apps. Maybe they could join a car-share co-op or use Uber. Sell the clunker car and buy a newer phone. Maybe they can even afford solar cells for their roof. But, honestly, there is no easy way out of climate change and we better start getting used to that. I actually did download an app called Joro and filled out the profile only to discover that rather than help me reduce my carbon footprint, it was just a scam giving cookie cutter advice (none of which applied to me) designed to suck users into in-app or sponsored purchases while they gathered my juicy juicy data. Thanks, techies.

The hard choices will not be found in the app store. You may have to give up flying. Or have fewer children. But the last thing Gen-Zers would want to hear is that they’ll have to give up their pets.

In Week 47, I pointed out that to reach a carbon footprint of net zero, we will need to cut the US pet population by some 10 million dogs and 10 million cats every year for a decade and then by some 200,000 per year in the out years towards mid-century. We’ll have to get down to one dog and one cat for every 300 people, and then beyond that. I went on to describe why dogs are so difficult to part company with because of our interwoven social history and their special genetic endowments of trust, loyalty and love. But what about cats? Might cats be easier?

Felinious Friends

Anyone who has ever had a cat knows how aloof they are. They can show love for an owner, but is it real affection or merely seeking a benefit for themselves? Let’s take a deeper dive into their evolutionary biology.

Cats are a relatively recent fruit on the mammalian tree. All types of cat descend from a common ancestor 11 million years ago but pet varieties are considerably more recent. The earliest house cat we know comes from an archaeological dig in Cyprus that unearthed a skeleton in a 9500-year-old human cemetery. Cats were not in the island’s fossil record before then, so this one either swam or was in somebody’s carry-on. 

Hair color and pattern, size, tails, and ears are all that differentiate wildcat ancestors from modern tabby cats. There are only 40–50 genetically distinct breeds from eight geographic lineages, but all have been selected for their looks rather than for qualities as mousers, stew meat, or furry slippers. 

When I say cats have been bred for looks rather than function that does not mean to suggest they are without other redeeming talents. Many people will say that they keep a cat to control rodents or other pests and that public health is a very important function for cats, going back to Medieval times. All cats hunt small prey by instinct. But contrary to popular belief, there is no scientific evidence that cats are an effective means of rodent control and quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. You may get some very fat barn cats but you’ll still have a healthy population of barn rats.

Biodiversity

One needs to ask whether the cure is worse than the disease. In 2015, there were an estimated 77.8 million dogs and 85.6 million cats in the USA (although cats may fabricate on their census forms more than dogs do). Every house cat has a hunting territory of 1480 acres — 2.3 sq miles, 6 sq km or 20 city blocks. While they may live in packs of up to 20 females, they are solitary hunters for reasons of stealth. They fan out and sweep up all prey.

Domestic and feral cats cause billions of deaths to native animals each year — more than a billion endangered songbirds each year just in North America. In Australia, cats drove at least 20 native mammals to extinction, and continue to threaten at least 124 more. Their introduction has caused the extinction of at least 33 endemic species on island chains like Hawai’i, the Seychelles, the Marshall, and more. To save endangered Albatross chicks from sea level rise on Midway Atoll, biologists first had to clear 1500 feral cats from Guadalupe Island. Only then could they safely transplant the baby birds.

That’s the extinction threat to birds. To grasp the extinction threat to humans you need to look at cat food that pet owners buy. Cats are obligate carnivores — meaning, they depend upon the nutrients present in animal flesh. It is no surprise that cats relish freshly killed meat from rodents, rabbits, amphibians, birds, reptiles and fish, and will go out of their way to obtain it. They will reluctantly eat cooked food or dry food if it is palatable (but they can be finicky). Cats require nutrients (including arginine, taurine, arachidonic acid, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and niacin) coming mainly, and only easily, from meat sources.

If you are vegan and you have a cat, don’t imagine you will feed it scraps from your table. The natural diet of cats does not include any vegetable matter. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, although suggesting a supplemented vegetarian diet for dogs, recommends against vegetarian and vegan diets for cats.

Wild bird and lizard catch by domesticated and feral cats pales next to the environmental impacts of canned tuna. An estimated 2.48 million metric tonnes of fish are used by the cat food industry each year. While pet food is made predominantly using byproducts from human food production, there has recently been an increase in popularity for human-grade and byproduct-free pet food. Only the best for Max, Sassy, Oreo, and Princess, right?

More Meat

The USDA and EPA say that 50% of US agricultural greenhouse gas emissions comes from livestock. A more recent estimate is 87% of all greenhouse gases coming from agriculture and land use change. Each year the amount of that livestock being raised to feed cats gets higher. Livestock and fish protein has a much larger impact than vegetable protein. The consumer desire to feed their pets premium foods which advertise healthy and human-grade ingredients, coupled with more pet ownership, requires more meat. This means more land for raising livestock, more salmon farms being fed wild fish catch at 10:1 loss ratios, pound for pound, and more ocean, climate and biodiversity impacts. 

In the US, dogs and cats consume about a third of the animal-derived food produced. They produce about 30 percent, by mass, of the feces of USAnians (5.6 million tons vs. 19 million tons), and, through their diet, constitute about 25 to 30 percent of the environmental impacts from farm animal production in terms of the use of land, water, fossil fuel, phosphate, and toxic agro-chemicals. Dog and cat foods are responsible for release of between 80 million and 5.8 billion tons of CO2 and CO2-equivalent methane and nitrous oxide, depending on which study you read. 

At the lower end of the estimates, dogs and cats produce more greenhouse gases than 174 separate countries. At the high end of that estimate, pets would be responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions each year than energy-related emissions from the manufacturing of fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, refrigerants, and oil and gas extraction, combined. Twice as much as commercial air travel. Twice as much as cement. More than all the freight trucking. Twice as much as freight maritime transport and cruise ships. More than greenhouse gas emissions from Russia, Africa, or South America. More than any of 197 separate countries. More than Mar-A-Lago.

If just a quarter of all animal protein used in the food of American pets was human-grade, it would provide the caloric intake average for 5 million USAnians or 50 million Syrians or Venezuelans. Dog diets are estimated to be composed of 33 percent animal protein. Cats need 99 percent. We will explore all these calculations in finer detail in next week’s post.

The next time you think the perfect gift for your child would be a cuddly little kitten, consider all this. Which would you rather have: songbirds greeting you every morning, a climate your children can live with, or a warm ball of fur to snuggle next to in bed? (It’s a trick question. If you are willing to skin the cat you can have all three).

On January 25, 2019, Greta Thunberg gave a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. She warned global leaders that “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire — because it is.” People don’t like to hear this, but their pets are stoking that fire. If we want to get serious about this, we need to put them out.

References

“Tackling Feral Cats and Their Impacts — Frequently asked questions” (PDF). Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy. 

Loss, Scott R.; Will, Tom; Marra, Peter P. (2013). “The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States”. Nature Communications. 4: 1396. doi:10.1038/ncomms2380.

Morelle, Rebecca (29 January 2013). “Cats killing billions of animals in the US”. BBC News. 

Edward Howe Forbush, “The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser and Destroyer of Wildlife: Means of Utilizing and Controlling It”, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, State Board of Agriculture, Economic Biology Bulletin 42, 1916.

Okin, Gregory S. (2017–08–02). “Environmental impacts of food consumption by dogs and cats”. PLOS ONE. 12 (8): e0181301. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0181301. 

Kumcu, Aylin; Woolverton, Andrea E. (2014). “Feeding Fido: Changing Consumer Food Preferences Bring Pets to the Table”. Journal of Food Products Marketing. 21 (2): 213–230.

_________________________

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.

#GenerationRestoration

“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.

Want to help make a difference while you shop in the Amazon app, at no extra cost to you? Simply follow the instructions below to select “Global Village Institute” as your charity and activate AmazonSmile in the app. They’ll donate a portion of your eligible purchases to us.

How it works: 
1. Open the Amazon app on your phone 
2. Select the main menu (=) & tap on “AmazonSmile” within Programs & Features 
3. Select “Global Village Institute” as your charity 
4. Follow the on-screen instructions to activate AmazonSmile in the mobile app

Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Great Pause Week 68: A Martian and a Whale Walk into a Bar

"Digital atomization of the human family brought forward a primal longing for belonging that fed a toxic tribalism."


A million years from now, when the descendants of microbes that hitchhiked on a Chinese manned mission to Mars return to Earth and try to reconstruct what happened, maybe the distant descendant of a whale will tell them it was Facebook.ioph

Said the whale to the Chinese lab leak:

They were a magnificent race and arguably you might never have existed without them. The social adaptations that led to advanced sciences and space travel evolved from a context of small, land-dwelling, hunter-gatherer groups — epigenetically adapted herd animals running upright and solving problems as a group through vocalizations and gestures. Perhaps their frames of reference — and their neocortices — expanded by regular contact with especially communicative plants and fungi.

“Although never to the degree that our own species’ brain-to-bodymass and processing power has,” the whale hastily added. 

Failing a biological endowment or the soundwave propagation advantages of aquatic environments, they developed elaborate prosthetic media to communicate over greater distances with more dispersed networks using binary digital electromagnetic coding. They evolved from mechanical devices called telephones, to personal computers and AR headsets, to brain implants and genetically modified “superhumans.” 

Sadly, all that took them farther away from direct contact with the real world before their improved computational ability gave them the foresight to project the consequences of their technologies and the industrial civilization used to produce them. Hypnotized by the virtual worlds they were creating, they drifted farther and farther from meaningful contact with their fellow beings, both among their own species and with all their relations, my own ancestors included. 

The whale paused and looked off to the clouds. “We might have told them so much,” she said wistfully.

Adaptation to their new virtual world distanced them from the biogeophysical realities they derisively called “Default World.” They were ill-equipped to make rapid and effective collective behavioral responses to sudden, catastrophic climate change, food and water security, cascading zoonoses, and nuclear proliferation. 

Towards the end — past the point where manned missions to Mars were launched but thankfully before my family was extinguished — atomization of the human family from large, multigenerational units into nuclear pairs and then solitary units with sexual avatar companions — almost unnoticeably gravitating from single breadwinners to multi-earner, overworked families struggling to keep up with vampire loan demands and social pressures towards conspicuous consumption — brought forward a primal longing for belonging that fed a toxic tribalism.

It might have been averted if they had only paused to reflect on what they were doing, but the hand-held and head-worn screens triggered rapid eye movements reminiscent of the early hunter gatherer reflex. It grasped them firmly to a genetic breast. Both the structure of their digitized social networks and the patterns of information flow through them were directed by engineering decisions that maximized profitability for the handful of founders, called “unicorns,” who became spectacularly wealthy at the expense of everything else. 

These drivers were largely opaque to the driven, effectively unregulated, and sequestered from ecological feedback. The functional consequences only became clear in retrospect, by which time it was too late, and the human species went extinct, leaving behind a huge mess that even after a million years is still being suffered by those of us remaining

Of course, expanding the scale of a collectively behaving system — they knew it only as “social media” — by eight orders of magnitude in less than a decade was certain to come to a bad end. That scale of change is disallowed in the natural biological world for good reason. It is ecologically unstable. In the human social context, it created needless conflict and eroded familial cooperation. It altered entire populations’ abilities to make accurate decisions, reach clear consensus even on simple facts, or cooperate to govern themselves. Highly placed individuals — generally for reasons arbitrary to the competence required of their position — were given outsized influence. The popularity of leaders came not from socially beneficial attributes of character but as a result of ability to manipulate communications and emotional responses, taking advantage of “influence” algorithms — not possible historically or evolutionarily — to spread misinformation. 

Macroscopic features of communication breakthroughs should have encouraged stronger and enduring interconnectedness, transnational and transdisciplinary collaborations, dissemination of scientific ideas, citizen engagement in science and politics, and overcoming isolation. Instead, they brought echo chambers, polarization, difficulty coordinating responses to pandemics or natural emergencies, eroded trust in government, nefarious actors causing local economic political instability to serve their own ends, “information gerrymandering,” and manipulated elections. Hysteria driven by unreliable information became so normalized that broader social governance became ineffectual at best, counterproductive at worst.

There were those who correctly read these trends and attempted interventions, but they were outnumbered and overwhelmed by contrary, short-term-profit-oriented persons who kept building algorithms designed to recommend information and products in line with anti-survival outcomes. These created runaway feedback such that a subset of users enraged by emotionalized and moralized misinformation triggered the apocalypse that ended the race even before climate change had its chance to.

“Such a pity,” the Martian archaeologist said. 

“Maybe,” said the whale. “And maybe not.”

___________________

Note: The animal pictured in the image at the top of the article is actually not a whale but a whale shark, but then, after a million more years of evolution, who knows what a whale may look like?

___________________

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.

Want to help make a difference while you shop in the Amazon app, at no extra cost to you? Simply follow the instructions below to select “Global Village Institute” as your charity and activate AmazonSmile in the app. They’ll donate a portion of your eligible purchases to us.

How it works: 
1. Open the Amazon app on your phone 
2. Select the main menu (=) & tap on “AmazonSmile” within Programs & Features 
3. Select “Global Village Institute” as your charity 
4. Follow the on-screen instructions to activate AmazonSmile in the mobile app

 

Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Great Pause Week 67: The Social Lives of Forests

"The places of greatest biodiversity are a result of, rather than in spite of, long human disturbance of the environment."


Over the past few weeks we have been taking a deeper dive into biophysics, looking at energy and climate returns on investments in renewables and drawdown tech, landscape restoration, and lifestyle change. Trillionization is well underway, as predicted at the time of the Paris Agreement, but I am not the only one to say most of that money will be scandalously wasted. 

During the pandemic, novelist MacKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezo’s ex, gave away $10.7 billion of her settlement to a suite of charities that reduce the wealth and power gaps of the type that companies like Amazon widen, only to discover she made more that twice that much in that same period, thereby widening her personal wealth and power gap. Her ex-husband is much more sensible about getting rid of his wealth — he throws it into outer space where there is no possibility of it ever coming back to make him richer.

We can try to draw lessons from history, but projecting those into an uncertain future never before experienced by hominids is risky, and as MacKenzie Scott learned, this is not your daddy’s money system anymore, either. That said, some things really are eternal, and biophysical economics is one.

When early Europeans first arrived to North America they thought they were in a wilderness. Seeing no roads, cities, or sports arenas (all of which existed farther inland or in other times), they considered the human inhabitants “savage,” uncivilized, and little more than animals that they could perhaps train to perform menial labor.

As we know now, the habitation pattern of the Americas in 1492 was as advanced as anything in Europe then, and although of different design than European municipalities, was perhaps more realistically futuristic than science fiction concepts of glass skyscrapers with flying cars or domed colonies on Mars. But, like the speech of a whale to a whaler, the patterns revealed were incomprehensible to the conquerors, and so dismissed.

Had these people and their ideas not been bludgeoned to bloody mist like so many whales, passenger pigeons and buffalo, we could have learned much from their arts, sciences, languages, and phenological observations.

Archaeobiological data are used to explore the agricultural basis of the Jama-Coaque II archaeological culture that inhabited the western coastal lowlands of Ecuador between approximately AD 400 and AD 1430. Analyses of archaeobotanical and archaeofaunal assemblages recovered from 14 archaeological sites throughout the valley implicate an extensive native agroforestry system. The quantitative and qualitative composition of assemblage diversity suggest the accumulation and deposition of restricted categories of plants and animals whose ecologies reveal the possibility of a landscape managed through a form of pre-Columbian agroforestry that combined domesticated annuals, perennial tree crops, and useful forest taxa.

— Stahl and Pearsall 2012

What Magellan, Raleigh, Drake, Cabeza de Vaca, Cartier, Coronado, DeSoto, Cabot, Hudson, Gilbert, Smith, Cook and Zheng He discovered in the Age of Discovery were not wildernesses (as they reported to their respective monarchs) but subtle, extremely productive, and advanced human ecologies. Through the cultivation of landscape, First Nations shaped their environments to be continuously abundant, enduring, and interconnected. They observed the natural productivity of a landscape, tweaked it slightly to make it more friendly, and lived within, rather than against it. 

Of course, there were cases where thoughtless or ill-conceived human activities reduced biodiversity. We have fossil and historical records of the extinctions of megafauna. Yet many native landscapes preserved today in remote areas or national parks, and appreciated for their high biodiversity, provide scientific evidence of human use and respectful management over millennia. To quote one archaeological study of the Amazon basin, the places of greatest biodiversity “are a result of, rather than in spite of, long human disturbance of the environment.” What the original inhabitants began with was often less productive and biologically diverse than what resulted but the final products of generations were exquisitely elegant.

The Lost Colony, design by William Ludwell Sheppard, engraving by William James Linton.

 

In Amazonia: the historical ecology of a domesticated landscape, Clark Erickson explained how the land use practice Europeans called “slash and burn” actually worked: 

Slash-and-burn agriculture is characterized by low labor inputs, limited productivity per land unit, and short period of cultivation followed by longer periods of fallow or rest. … In addition to basic food crops, useful fruit and palms are often transplanted to the clearing. As fields fall out of cultivation because of weeds and forest regrowth, the plots continue to produce useful products, long after “abandonment”. 

In 2007, while in Manaus to attend a conference on the terra preta soils, I paid a call at the university to meet Charles Clement. The professor was a man about my age, thin, with greying hair, who, just before our interview, had been busy taking pollen samples and radiocarbon dating them to better understand the ancient human influence on successional tropical forests.

I came to better appreciate his work when, after teaching a permaculture design course to a Kuna group in the Darien Peninsula of Colombia, I bouldered a steep river bed through dense forest for several miles before arriving at a mountain valley lush with fruit trees and many understory food and medicinal plants. It had not been humans that had planted this, or “nature” in a limited sense, but the monkeys who now tended and renewed their garden as they swung from tree to tree, harvesting calories and defecating seeds. 

Similarly, in many indigenous cultures, local farmers’ perception of cultivated and wild is not separated by a bright line. Erickson explains:

 

Anthropogenic forests are filled with fruit trees, an important component of agroforestry. Eighty native fruit trees were domesticated or semi-domesticated in Amazonia (Clement 2006). Fruit trees, originally requiring seed dispersing frugivores attracted to the juicy and starchy fruits, became increasingly dependent on humans through genetic domestication and landscape domestication for survival and reproduction. In addition, humans improved fruit tree availability, productivity, protein content, sweetness, and storability through genetic selection. Oligarchic forests, characterized by a single tree species, often a palm, provide mass quantities of protein and building materials, and food for the game animals. In the Bolivian Amazon, thousands of kilometers of the burití palm, the Amazonian tree of life, contributes protein and materials for buildings, basketry, weapons, and roofing. Forest islands of chocolate trees are agroforestry resource legacies of the past inhabitants of the region. 

Agroforestry and rotational milpa — patch clearance and regeneration — draws in and nourishes game animals that become another source of protein, fiber, and hides. Their decaying dung and processed bone and blood become fertilizer, transporting minerals from areas of abundance to areas of scarcity. For this reason, it is common for indigenous peoples to “plant for the deer;” to grow more food than necessary in order to attract and nourish game. They cultivate more than corn. They cultivate an ecology.

As a result, “garden hunting” is particularly efficient. Many game animals of Amazonia would have a difficult time surviving without a cultural and historical landscape of human gardens, fields, orchards, and agroforestry. The biodiversity of animals can also be enhanced by domestication of landscape. In coastal Ecuador, Stahl (2000, 2006) reconstructs biodiversity and the character of the anthropogenic environment through the remains of diverse animals in garbage middens of 4,000-year old settlements. The majority of identified animals thrive in a disturbed mosaic environment with light gaps, edges, old gardens and field clearings. 

A 2013 dig at the Classic Maya archaeological site Joya de Cerén in El Salvador focused on the analysis of plant remains near a sacbe (causeway) that were preserved under volcanic ash around AD 650. Finding agroforestry guilds, biochar fertilizers, and traditional maize, squash, agave and bean varieties was not surprising, but the researchers scratched their heads at the abundant “weeds.” It had been previously thought that the Cerén residents had well-maintained agricultural fields with few weeds or intrusive plants present among their annual crops. 

Various theories were advanced and discarded: the weeds were post-Conquest (ruled out by dating); they were were persistent perennials (they were not); they indicated change in soil fertility (not supported); lack of labor available to remove weeds with wooden and stone tools (no indication). Of the 16 different weedy species recovered (image), the majority are actually annual plants that would have been relatively easy to manage, if so desired. The study concluded:

Perhaps the paleoethnobotanical results from Cerén suggest a difference in the way weedy plants were conceptualized by the ancient Maya compared to modern views on the plants. According to Steggerda (1941), the main goal of agriculture in the Yucatan was to “use the land constantly and keep it covered, as far as possible, with useful plants instead of with useless weeds.” Alternatively, the species referred to as ‘weeds’ in this study may have been viewed quite differently by the ancient Maya than they are by people today. The plants were not necessarily seen as useless materials to the Cerén residents. The gathering of tolerated weedy species considered edible, or quelites, is a common supplement to Milpa agricultural systems.
***
The act of weeding an agricultural field is not an emphasized portion of the agricultural cycle in Kekchi villages in Belize (Wilk 1997). There, weeding is a casual side job when doing something else and is generally only a focus on when a particularly dangerous variety of weed is present, such as those with thorns or spines. The Kekchi Maya do not view weeds as a threat to crops once they have already begun growing and therefore their removal would be futile. 
***
Stepp and Moerman (2001) have shown that the Tzeltal Maya in Chiapas actually utilize a high frequency of weedy species for medicinal purposes. … All of the weedy species recovered from Cerén have known uses nutritionally, medicinally, or for other purposes. Farmers have a tendency to design a system of farming that yields the highest return per hour of work (Sanders 1973: 332) and collecting materials from the useful shrubs growing in the milpa may have been a way to increase the rate of return. Unfortunately, the contexts in which the Cerén samples were collected cannot verify that the Maya were aware of these uses for the weedy plants, but their strong presence suggests they held positive relationships with the villagers where they were certainly tolerated.

One creature’s weed is another’s manna. To lawn care addicts, milkweed is a noxious invasive. To migrating monarch butterflies, it may spell the difference between survival and extinction. Humans were an equal partner in the ecology of Cerén and the burití palm forests of Bolivia. Perhaps our role is to plant and harvest, or perhaps it is merely to observe and record. Either way, once humans are removed, the system is diminished. 

That is really the open secret of climate solutioneering. Despite desperate searches by X-Prize, Gates, the Bellona Foundation, and many others, the way out of this has been hiding in plain sight.

If we plant monoculture forests of pine or eucalyptus to pelletize and feed gigawatt-scale power stations, we will lose soils, microbes, all the forest creatures, and part of our own humanity. We can manufacture forests of aluminum trees in Iceland but the amount of CO2 they’d withdraw in a century might be less than is produced by a single volcanic eruption. Then, too, we’d want to ask how much CO2 went into producing metals, rare earths, and chemical catalysts for those devices. We can pave the plains with solar PV, elevated on poles to allow for shaded alley crops and grazing animals, but the tempests to come make that scheme vulnerable and once more, there would be questions of EROI and depleted non-renewables. 

“Where are the supersonic aircraft? Where are the millions of delivery drones? Where are the high speed trains, the soaring monorails, the hyperloops, and yes, the flying cars?” 

 — Mark Andreessen in April 2020, refuting the idea of a damaged post-pandemic global economy.

But once we begin to speak of mixed-age, mixed-species forest ecosystems with humans included, all that changes. Take away the herbicides and pesticides. Add chinampas, marine permaculture, rooftop and vertical gardens, and eradicate food waste — we can still feed the world.

Estimates of the decline of the native human population of the Americas over the first century and a half following the Columbian Encounter range from 80 to 99.2 percent — from 50 to 1000 million in 1492 (estimates vary) to approximately 8 million in 1650 (and still fewer in later centuries) — caused by outbreaks of Old World diseases, slavery, and violent ethnic cleansing. As unspeakable as was the infliction of atrocities of such magnitude on the human population, far greater was the all-out assault on biodiversity imposed by the switch to “modern, civilized, progressive” land use practices and agrochemistry. 

The self-inflicted biodiversity loss carries a punishment proportional to the crime.

Bill Gates’ nuclear yacht, Earth 300

As we look ahead and try to collectively fashion appropriate responses to a century of catastrophic consequence, we won’t find those aboard Bill Gates’ nuclear-powered yachts or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galaxy shuttles to lunar orbit resort vacations. But, with a little luck and the roadmap provided by our ancient ancestors, we might just create Howard Odum’s “prosperous way down.”

 

References

Ambrósio Moreira, P., Mariac, C., Zekraoui, L., Couderc, M., Rodrigues, D.P., Clement, C.R. and Vigouroux, Y., 2017. Human management and hybridization shape treegourd fruits in the Brazilian Amazon Basin. Evolutionary Applications 10(6), pp.577–589.

Bardi, Ugo, Sara Falsini, and Ilaria Perissi. “Toward a general theory of societal collapse: a biophysical examination of Tainter’s model of the diminishing returns of complexity.” BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality 4, no. 1 (2019): 3. 

Barton H., Denham T., Neumann K., Arroyo-Kalin M. 2012. Long-term perspectives on human occupation of tropical rainforests: An introductory overview, Quaternary International, Volume 249.

Belsky, J.M., 2017. The Social Lives of Forests: Past, Present, and Future of Woodland Resurgence, by Susanna B. Hecht, Kathleen D. Morrison, and Christine Padoch, eds. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Crutzen, P. J. and W. Steffen. 2003. How long have we been in the Anthropocene era? Clim. Change 61, 251–257.

Erickson, Clark L. 2008 “Amazonia: the historical ecology of a domesticated landscape” in The Handbook of South American Archaeology, pp. 157–183. Springer, New York.

Iriarte J., Elliott S., Maezumi S.Y., Alves D., Gonda R., Robinson M., Gregorio de Souza J., Watling J., Handley J., 2020 The origins of Amazonian landscapes: Plant cultivation, domestication and the spread of food production in tropical South America, Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 248.

Odum, Howard T., and Elisabeth C. Odum. “The prosperous way down.” Energy 31, no. 1 (2006): 21–32.

Sanders, W. 1973 The Cultural Ecology of the Lowland Maya: A Re-evaluation, in The Classic Maya Collapse, ed. T. P. Culbert, pp. 325–336. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. 

Slotten, V.M., 2015. Paleoethnobotanical remains and land use associated with the sacbe at the ancient Maya village of Joya de Cerén (Doctoral dissertation, University of Cincinnati).

Stahl, P.W. and Pearsall, D.M., 2012. Late pre-Columbian agroforestry in the tropical lowlands of western Ecuador. Quaternary International, 249, pp.43–52.

Steggerda, M. 1941 Maya Indians of Yucatan. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication 531. 

Stepp, J. R. and D. E. Moerman 2001 The importance of weeds in ethnopharmacology. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 75: 19–23. 

Tainter, Joseph, The Collapse of Complex Societies. London: Cambridge University Press (1988).

Wilk, R. R. 1997 Household Ecology: Economic Change and Domestic Life Among the Kekchi Maya in Belize. Northern Illinois University Press, Dekalb, Illinois.

 ___________________

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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