Sunday, February 10, 2019

Dancing with Ulysses

"While it is yet unknowable if humans have the capacity to actually reverse climate change, a small number of activists have already shifted the conversation."

Last night I was watching a performance by young schoolchildren in the central park of my rural village. They stood in a line and sang as a teacher coached them to remember the words. Most were singing, and some were loud and boisterous while others were muted and shy. One little boy drew my eye because he was just standing still. He had a deer-in-the-headlights look. He was looking out from this stage, arms flat at his sides, staring into a large crowd that included his family and all his neighbors and knowing he was expected to perform but he was just frozen.

Sometimes I feel like that kid. It doesn’t happen to me during public speaking anymore. It comes in quiet times, when I am alone with my thoughts.

I recall one such moment in particular, and the date — October 16, 2007 — because the Eureka revelation came as I was driving to the airport in Houston, Texas to pick up a friend who would be attending the ASPO Peak Oil conference with me. In some of my writings I have called it my Houston moment. I was not struck with a light from a flying saucer, although perhaps thousands of others around the world were at that moment undergoing a similar experience, but rather, in the quiet of that drive, it came to me that humans would soon be extinct, possibly as soon as this century. I felt no fright or dread. No personal sense of blame. Yet, I was convinced there was no escaping it. Perhaps it had been determined before I was born. It was now merely something that would happen. It could be delayed for a bit, but not prevented.

In this world of universal information, all of us, at some point in our lives, may get to have our Houston moment. One of my friends, who sat next to me the following day, committed suicide after his. He had not yet had his revelation when we were together that time in Houston, nor did we discuss mine, because he was not attuned to the climate problem then. His mind burned brightly and when he finally had his moment he unwound fast. He never got to the next phase, accepting and choosing to act with full knowledge. Another friend at that conference was Jan Lundberg, whose own moment had come before my own, and who was for me a model of unalterable activism in the face of impossible odds.
Dear darkening ground,
you’ve endured so patiently the walls we’ve built,
perhaps you’ll give the cities one more hour
and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor — let their work
grip them another five hours, or seven,
before you become forest again, and water, and widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name
from all things.
Just give me a little more time!
I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they’re worthy of you and real.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Dear Darkening Ground, Book of Hours, I 61

The deer-in-the-headlights experience is brief and what happens after that can be more meaningful if you are willing to let it play out. I observe that for those prone to depression (get more sunlight, friends!), the post-moment period lends itself to morose introspection that can be disabling, even fatal. But if, like Professor Guy McPherson, you are blessed with a sense of humor, you can compensate by making fun of the predicament, which is not a bad way to go through life. It is more fun, anyway. After the peak moment you should not enjoy life any less than you did before. Life as a planetary process continues. We shouldn’t take ourselves, the two-legged naked apes, too seriously.
Tennyson said, through the voice of his Ulysses:
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea
Ulysses is an incurable wanderer and seaman. He will drain his vital essence until he reaches the sediment at the bottom, regardless of whether his friends and family like it, or whether his path has become more difficult and dangerous. Bold adventure is his calling.

For ones to whom a life of political or social activism is their calling, you do not retreat to a cave merely because you have glimpsed some storm clouds. You advance “through scudding drifts;” you plunge ahead and work without the prospect of tangible reward or hope for success. The game is the reward.
Looking back on the memory of
The dance we shared beneath the stars above
For a moment all the world was right
How could I have known you’d ever say goodbye
And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d have to miss the dance
Holding you I held everything
For a moment wasn’t I the king
But if I’d only known how the king would fall
Hey who’s to say you know I might have changed it all
And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d of had to miss the dance
Yes my life is better left to chance
I could have missed the pain but I’d of had to miss the dance.
— Tony Arata, The Dance, performed by Garth Brooks

Those of us who have left behind our frozen moment and chosen the path of Ulysses have, over these last few years, changed the conversation in the corridors of power. Regenerative systems designer Daniel Wahl, in his interview for the ecovillage web summit this week, observed that in UN climate summits in Paris, Marrakech and Bonn prior to 2018, the main words being used to describe the way out were still “adaptation and mitigation.” In Katowice in 2018, UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez for the first time adopted the words of Project Drawdown, the International Biochar Initiative, the Commonwealth Secretariat and others, and began speaking of “reversing climate change.” With that shift of language, the studies of negative emissions technologies and natural climate geotherapies (agroforestry, permaculture, biochar, aquaculture, etc.) suddenly moved from offstage to stage center.

While it is yet unknowable if humans have the collective capacity to act quickly enough to actually reverse climate change, what can be said is that a small number of activists in the ecovillage, bioregional, and permaculture worlds have already changed the conversation.

If there will be salvation for our kind, it must pass through that reversing door. We have set a lantern there. Wahl quoted (without attribution to Herman Kahn or Al Gore) the aphorism, “We must do the impossible because the probable is unthinkable.”

This too we know: each and every one of us will have our deer-in-the-headlights moment when we realize we really did blow up the Holocene and it won’t be coming back and that could be all she wrote for homo sapiens. Then arrives, in the echo of that thunderclap, the realization that accumulating property, saving historical mementos, writing books, making films, or building companies or concepts to outlive yourself are all meaningless activities when placed into a context of Near Term Human Extinction. What matters is… What? What matters is what happens next to each and every one of us.

Remembering the sensation that Alan Watts called The Wisdom of Insecurity, or that Arnold Mindell describes in Sitting in the Fire, — living fully in the moment, not knowing, but being content with unknowing — is a better skill to develop than trying to know everything or to be constantly battling boredom while surfing channels on your phone. This complex, living, dynamic system of which we are part and which we co-created with our actions or inactions, is too complex to be predicted and controlled anyway. Indeed the very act of attempting control, such as with AI, changes it enough to make it unpredictable again.

By accepting our own mortality, and the termination of our line, rather than becoming catatonic or despairing, we can continue to function in a positive, healing way. We may even change how the story ends. If enough of us abandon aspirations for self-aggrandizement and join with neighbors to plant trees and grow food, we could, dear friends, reverse climate change. My point is that it may take each of us coming to terms with annihilation for that to happen, and the sooner those moments come, the better for us all.

That little boy on the stage with the deer-in-the-highlights look will get over it. The next time he will be singing as full-throated as anyone, and maybe the little girl next to him will be the one who is frozen. It goes around.

The frozen moment has an inevitability for each of us but is a transient phase. In what comes next resides all hope.

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Sunday, February 3, 2019

Sargon and the Sea Peoples

"For hundreds of years, stories of marauding Sea Peoples were told to frighten children."

  Back in 2250 BCE, Sargon of Akkad found the grain farming good in the broad, flat alluvial valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Being an accomplished bully and not fond of toiling in the heat of the sun himself, he assembled a gang of thugs and enslaved weaker people to work for him. They built vast irrigation systems, knocked down forests and opened up much of the fertile Mesopotamian Plain to oxen and wooden plows. With good soil, good seed and adequate rain, his tribe prospered and applied their surplus to erect a number of market cities that were considered quite grand for the period.

You can’t just knock down forests and dig long irrigation ditches and expect Nature to let you off scot-free, however. The plowing opened the soil to the sun and killed the rich microbial life built by those erstwhile forests. Irrigation made the fields salted and addicted. Major lakes silted. Without the trees and their fungal network, the weather changed. It stopped raining.

After a mere 130 years of prosperity, the Akkadian empire collapsed abruptly in the 22d Century BCE. There was general abandonment of agriculture, dramatic influxes of refugees, and widespread famine. The same calamity befell much of the rest of the region. Poorer tribes flocked to wealthy Akkad seeking help.

Faced with the rising tide of hungry people, Sargon’s successor thought a good solution would be a 112-mile-long wall, roughly the distance by patrol car between Brownsville TX and Rio Grande City, which Akkadians dubbed the “Repeller of the Amorites.” They may even have claimed they were going to get the Amorites to build it, but those clay tablets haven’t been located yet.

Fast forward a few decades and we find Akkadian cities in ruins, the plains desertifying, and smaller sedentary populations farther north around the shores of Lake Van trying to eke out a frugal living eating grasshoppers and frogs. It was a rough come-down from former glory.

Of course, the Akkadians were not entirely to blame. Their changing climate was also influenced by 1 to 2 degree cooler sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic that changed rainfall in the higher elevations. In their haste to develop, they had not left themselves any safety margin.

A few thousand years later another serious drought struck that part of the world — much of it within what is now Syria and Palestine — and by this time the population was much larger than back in Sargon’s day. The first wave of these “Sea Peoples” washed over Egypt in the second year of Ramesses II, 1276 BCE, but rather than build tent cities to house them, the Pharaoh simply trapped and slaughtered some 6000 people arriving in boats with all their goods, and then sent his chariots to drive stragglers back into the sea. A bit of a blowhard, Ramesses claimed a great victory and had the story inscribed in stone and read on ceremonial days.

Ramesses II
The Syrian drought continued, however, and Ramesses son, Merenptah, writes how, in the fifth year of his reign (1209 BCE), Libyans allied with the Sea Peoples to invade Egypt and were repulsed with 6000 casualties. Six thousand seems to be a popular number when you are killing Sea Peoples.

Then Merenptah’s son, Ramesses III, in c. 1200 BCE was informed they were coming again. The populations fleeing drought-stricken Syria had already destroyed the Hittite state and Ramesses III wrote, “they were coming forward toward Egypt.” Ramesses also makes the first recorded mention of the Israelites as one of those groups trying to illegally migrate into Egypt.

“If they would just report to processing centers they could apply for asylum,” Ramesses III might have said. But secretly he set ambushes all along the border and made especially effective use of his archers, positioning them along the shoreline to rain down arrows on approaching ships. Once the ships’ passengers were dead or drowning the vessels were set on fire with flaming arrows so that not even children could escape. Then Ramesses III turned his archers toward any survivors who made it to land. Egyptian records again detail a glorious victory in which many of the Sea Peoples were slain and others taken captive or pressed into the Egyptian army and navy or sold as slaves. For hundreds of years, stories of marauding Sea Peoples were told to frighten children.

Ramesses’s border defenses were so expensive they drained the Royal Treasury. This led to the first labor strike in recorded history. The unpaid workers and government contractors shut down the government, demanding to be paid.

Century-long droughts can be found at many points in the historical record. California experienced a 240-year-long drought that started in 850 CE and, 50 years after the conclusion of that one, another that stretched at least 180 years. Mexico experienced an abrupt climate shift between 800 to 1000 CE that brought dry conditions to the central Yucatan for 200 years, curtailing the era of monumental Mayan architecture. Lowland population densities plunged from 200 persons/km2 at the peak of the Late Classic period to less than half that by 900 CE. City complexes of more than 50,000 people, like Tikal, were abandoned to the rats and weeds.

Houston and Miami take heed.

Challenged by unprecedented environmental stresses, cultures can shift to lower subsistence levels by reducing social complexity, abandoning urban centers, and reorganizing systems of supply and production, as the Maya, Akkadians, Romans, Tiwanaku, Mochica, Athenians and many others have done, but more often — and even in those cases — they failed to recognize what was happening until it was too late to escape unscathed. They waved their arms, followed militant leaders, found convenient scapegoats, increased debt, took to the streets in protest, overtaxed their most vital resources, and kept trying to grow their way out as if growth was the only solution they could imagine.

It never works. Sometimes civilizations go the way of the Easter Islanders. Other times they are conquered and destroyed by an even more desperate and militant neighbor they foolishly made into an enemy.

George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but he was peddling his Harvard theory of cyclic history and really could have done a better job of thinking that through. His actual theory was that both those who do not learn history and those who do learn history are doomed to repeat it.

Samuel Clemens added greater depth to Santayana’s theory, fifty years earlier, when he said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Last year, speaking at Wells College, I concluded by saying, “As a global culture, we can create social norms that would permit us to sustain healthy economies and ecologies into the turbulent climate future we cannot now avoid. There are neither technological nor resource barriers to prevent that outcome.” There are, however, biological limits, including the psychology of sunk investments.

Sad to say, even if the 45th President of the United States had not cheated and bullied his way through his education and actually studied history, it would not have made any difference. We are just in that part of the cycle now where stupidity trumps the obvious. The queues of refugees may not be quite the same as the Sea Peoples, but they rhyme.

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Sunday, January 27, 2019

Burning Down the Wall

"Put a CARBONATOR-500 in a village in Honduras and you reverse the migrant caravans."

Recently Kathleen Draper, my co-author of Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth, due out from Chelsea Green February 7, and I calculated how many CARBONATOR-500 biochar kilns we could buy for $5.7 billion. We reckoned it was around 11,400, at retail book.

The CARBONATOR-500 comes on like a Panzer VIII Maus (“Mouse”) super-heavy tank. It replaces the ROI (Ragnar Original Innovation) company’s prior dreadnaught, the ENVIROSAVER-350 (diagrammed below), which weighed in at 34.5 tons. The CARBONATOR-500 is 41.5 tons and driven by a Caterpillar engine roughly the size of the Daimler-Benz DB 603 inverted V12 that Ferdinand Porsche used to power the 207-ton Maus.

Getting under the hood, the more important displacement is how much carbon is coming from the atmosphere every hour, thanks to the contributions of trees. Lumbering up and down stumpy hills and almost effortlessly moving through mudslides and over pick-up-sticks debris fields after wildfires, it forages for deadwood — the kindling of future fires — to stuff its pyrolytic maw. It digests at more than 1000 degrees C and craves more. As its biochar output is continuously quenched with water injection nozzles and sieved, three horizontal augers discharge from its bum into receiving trucks for transport to a microbialization station or merely disperse the rejuvenating elixer to the burnt soils to be invested with the forests’ own indigenous microorganisms. The two rear combustion chamber access doors and quick interchangeable grates permit easy clean out of non-combustibles and oversize char.

Each of these behemoths is a Mobile Cool Lab. If, using daily averages and allowing down time for maintenance, each produced 10 tons of fresh biochar per day — in a year a single CARBONATOR would have sequestered more than 10,000 tons of CO2 (conservatively assuming the biochar is 80% carbon and calculating that CO2 is 3.67 times the weight of C). For the price of Mr. Trump’s wall, 10,000 of these machines could remove 100 megatons of CO2 from the atmosphere each and every year.

Let me be clear. The way this works is that the kind of carbon trees are removing is called labile carbon, the type used by photosynthesis to grow plants and feed or shelter us. Pyrolysis transforms labile carbon to a different molecular form — recalcitrant carbon. Its bonds are too strong to be easily broken by microbes or light, so by being made into biochar it exits the photosynthetic carbon cycle and becomes structure for soils and other useful things. Today we call this biochar, but 1000 years ago it was better known as the active ingredient of dark earth (terra preta). Every ounce of carbon that gets transformed from plant to mineral form gets off the carbon wheel of birth and death for a thousand years or more (much more in the case of 250 million-year-old biochar left by paleolithic wildfires) and becomes needed structure to regulate air, water, and biology in the soil. By making 10 tons of biochar, a pyrolysis kiln is keeping that much from re-entering the atmosphere (and oceans, because the two are in rough equilibrium). We need to restrain some 650 gigatons of carbon to get back to the comfortable Holocene. One hundred megatons per year would start us down that road.
Of course, the C-5 is a big beast, and need not be confined to forests. It is equally comfortable sauntering out to rice and wheat fields (on roads so as not to compact soils with its weight) or standing by large grain processing mills to consume the chaff and crop residues it finds there. It is content to lie in the tall grass next to a sawmill or furniture factory chomping sawdust and mill ends all day. Put it by a papermill or landfill and it is in heaven.

In order to rescue ourselves from climate catastrophe, we need to radically alter how humans live on Earth. We have to go from spending carbon to banking it. We have to put back the trees, wetlands, and corals. We have to regrow the soil and turn back the desert. We have to save whales, wombats, and wolves. We have to reverse the flow of greenhouse gases and send them in exactly the opposite direction: down, not up. We have to flip the carbon cycle and run it backward. For such a revolutionary transformation we’ll need civilization 2.0. BURN releases February 7.
But here is the real magic. It reverses migrant caravans. Put a CARBONATOR-500 in a village in Honduras and now you have a Cool Lab. Let us imagine some of the quickest, cheapest add-ons:
  • Electricity for the village from residual process heat
  • Refrigeration for home and market
  • Central distribution air conditioning
  • Process heat for drying lumber, maize, beans, coffee, cacao, ginger, and turmeric
  • Jobs for tree-planters and nurserymen
  • Jobs in compost, fermentation, micro-organism breeding and biofertilizer production
  • Jobs producing leaf protein in pre-pyrolysis presses for crops like moringa and nopale
  • Jobs in formulating superfoods, feeds and nutriceuticals from biochar and leaf protein
  • Jobs making biochar biopolymers, biocretes and biocomposites
  • Microenterprise hubs for carbon fiber, Binchotan, musical instruments or whatever other innovative imaginings an unlimited supply of clean, safe, carbon-negative bioenergy could support
  • Climate-resilient, pesticide- and fertilizer-free farms
  • Filtered water and clean streams
  • Rejuvenated soils
Here is a mind map for such a biorefinery using only a single crop — bamboo. Then imagine it for 100 other indigenous plants and scores of problematic waste streams.

How many refugees might one Cool Lab employ? 100? 1000? 10000? Now, tell me again, how many refugees were in that Honduras caravan that POTUS is poised to declare a national emergency over?

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Sunday, January 20, 2019

What can you do to prepare when you can’t?

"A split vortex sending waves of cold into North America, Europe and Russia is what a warmer ocean does."

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
“And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.” —
Revelation 16:10
Suppose for a moment that you lived in, say, Syria in 2001, and through some special gift of clairvoyance, you knew what lay ahead in the coming decades. 

Most of those around you seem utterly clueless. Your country has been ruled by Hafez al-Assad, who declared himself President following a bloodless coup d’etat in 1971. Over most of your life, Assad had led what was called the Corrective Movement. Assad’s program was economic socialism, strengthening the private sector’s role in the economy, drawing a sharp line between church and state, and encouraging multiculturalism. While
 Hafez al-Assad
Assad was minority Alawite, he had reached out to bring ethnic Sunnis into senior positions in his government, the military, and the Ba’ath party. He attended Sunni Mosque to show his ecumenical spirit. By 2000, the gradual progress of Syrian economic and social development was plain to see. And now, after the old man’s death in November, his son Bashar al-Assad is popularly elected President. Bashar’s wife Asma is Sunni Muslim, born and educated in Great Britain. This is a progressive, up-and-coming country. 

You would have to be extraordinarily gifted to see what your world will look like 20 years later. Perhaps you are. You may, for instance, grasp the significance the attack of 911 holds for your nation because within the Sunni branch of Islam, Saudi Arabia is strenuously ultraconservative Wahhabi. They are so fanatical they might even imagine being able to attack the Great Satan and get away with it.
Asma and Bashar
Or you might know that having a foreign policy calling for the dissolution of Israel and the return of Palestine might be bad for your own relations with the Great Satan. It will not escape your notice when the Ba’ath party is banned in neighboring Iraq in 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Alawites, such as the Assad family, are a separate ethnoreligious group from Sunni Muslim. In Syria, they are mostly a coastal population, about 11% at the inception of the Corrective Movement and about 17% today. The Qur’an is only one of their holy books and texts, and their interpretation has very little in common with the Sunni interpretation and goes much farther back. Genetic studies trace the Alawites to the Arameans, Canaanites, Hittites, and Mardaites. They were massacred by the Crusaders but later became allies when they realized the Crusaders were not a rival Islamic faction and shared many Alawite beliefs and practices. Alawites drink wine in communion (Ali’s transubstantiated essence) and allow alcohol socially, in moderation. They believe in a divine triad, comprising three aspects of the one God. To Alawites, these aspects, or emanations, appear cyclically in human form throughout history. Alawites also believe in reincarnation.

These beliefs and practices, along with separation of church and state, made the Assad regime one of the most Western-oriented in the Middle East but raised animosity among other branches of Islam. Bashar’s succession of power from his father and push towards free market trade brought about more income inequality, high youth unemployment, and also coincided with the most intense drought ever recorded in the Middle East, the driest 15-year period of the last 900 years, and resulted in widespread crop failure, an increase in food prices and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers. An influx of some 1.5 million refugees from the Iraq War and occupied territories in Israel didn’t help, either.

As part of the wider wave of the Arab Spring protests, discontent with Bashar Assad escalated to armed conflict in 2011. Many long-simmering scores vied to get settled. Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front), and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) smelled opportunity and perhaps a shot at a Caliphate. A loose alliance among opposition rebel groups, including the CIA-backed Free Syrian Army, White Helmets and Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, came together ostensibly to root out ISIL and that worried Turkey, who was not all that keen on arming the Kurds. Kurdish separatism extended well across the Turkish border.

Struck on three sides and losing ground, Ba’athist Syria and the Syrian Armed Forces, back peddling, sought help from Iran and Russia. Russia, after initial hesitance, decided Syria would be a good laboratory to try out some of its newest battlefield tech in terrain somewhat less challenging than Afghanistan. In short order, it managed to eradicate most of the opposition forces who did not have US cover and, by staying in contact with forward US command could avoid accidental overkill while surgically removing ISIL, which may or may not have been a US objective. By 2016, Syrian Armed Forces began to retake the country formerly held by jihadists.

But then President Trump made the mistake of sending ground troops and, following the downing of a Russian Su-25 warplane by a US-made SAM, Russia may have rescinded its promise to keep US soldiers and airmen safe. For the US, the war has now reverted to drones and airstrikes, while Russia continues to lend air support and training to the Syrian Armed Forces. According to the Washington Post on January 14, 2019:
Government forces backed by Russia and Iran are pummeling the few remaining rebel-held areas. Turkey has reinforced troops on its border to battle both Kurdish fighters and remaining jihadists, who are trying to defend the shrinking territory they hold.
Both Assad and the Syrian Kurds plan to resume negotiations over autonomy arrangements for Kurdish-majority areas, which displeases the US, who wants Assad out and an alliance with the Kurds, and NATO-ally Turkey, who wants the Kurds out and an alliance with Assad. Just to keep it interesting, since the conflict began Israel has frequently attacked targets there — “thousands” of them, according to IDF General Gadi Eisenkot. Were Saudi Arabia not busy in Yemen they would probably be there too. It is everyone’s free fire zone. US airstrikes alone increased 50% in 2018 and civilian casualties by 215%. Over the past 8 years, hundreds of thousands of Syrian noncombatants have been bombed, starved, or assassinated for their beliefs or ethnicity.

Meanwhile, the US elected an insane, kleptocratic gang to the White House and Senate, is exploding its national debt, and for the first time since WWI, has seen its life expectancy decline for the third year in a row. More USAnians will die in 2019 from opioids than died from the entire Vietnam war. This is what the terminal phase of empire looks like, and it would not be untoward for the US to defund its puppets and proxies and start pulling back from the 70 countries its 800 military bases occupy, while it still can. Alternatively, it could stand back and nuke the planet from space.

So you are a young Syrian in 2001. Do you see all this coming? Probably not. But suppose you did. What would you do?

The smart move could be to get out of Dodge. Take your whole family. Quick as you can, like the cleverest Jews and Gypsies in Germany in the 1930s, you should scrape up enough to leave. Don’t wait around longer than you have to.

Now consider what we all can see happening around us in 20 years. We don’t need much imagination, because the best scientists in the world have already told us what will happen with a fine degree of precision.

We are now at 1 degree Celsius above 1900. The Greenland ice sheet is shrinking. Antarctica is calving large sheets of ice into the Southern Ocean. It is not cooling the ocean as much as the ocean is heating from a futile attempt to keep the atmosphere in equilibrium. Sea level rise is accelerating, more from the thermal expansion of water than from added meltwater. On April 17, 2016 residents of Waller County Texas were walloped by 16.8 inches of rain before noon. That is what a warmer ocean does. Hurricane Harvey dropped 51 inches on the Houston region in 3 days in August 2017.
People walk down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas.

To see a headline like Polar Vortex Splits In Three (January 16, 2019) might have been shocking once but is now accepted. A split vortex sending waves of cold into North America, Europe and Russia is what a warmer ocean does.

According to the National Research Council, each degree C of global temperature increase can be expected to produce:
  • 5-10% changes in precipitation across many regions
  • 3-10% increases in the amount of rain falling during the heaviest precipitation events
  • 5-10% changes in streamflow across many river basins
  • 15% decreases in the annually averaged extent of sea ice across the Arctic Ocean, with 25% decreases in the yearly minimum extent in September
  • 5-15% reductions in the yields of crops as currently grown
  • 200-400% increases in the area burned by wildfire in parts of the western United States
But that is one degree. We are past that now. On current trendline, we will be somewhere between 3 and 5 degrees warmer by the end of the century. That assumes the trend holds, which is by no means certain because many countries are still building more coal electric plants, and the Saudis have a lot more oil.

At two degrees, the NRC says, millions of more people living on coasts will be flooded out. Corals reefs will be gone and toxic plankton blooms will spread, ending much of the commercial seafood industry. Nine out of 10 summer seasons will be as hot as the hottest summer between 1980 and 2000. Crop production will decline drastically. Water shortages will be endemic as stream flows are reduced by 20 to 30%. Nuclear plants will be unable to cool themselves from rivers or coastal water and will close.

Half a degree over 2? More severe winter freezes. More heat waves, more crop losses, more water shortages, more inundated coastal cities, more disease and conflict, millions more suffering. At 3 to 5 degrees, all else being equal, sea levels will rise about 4 to 7.5 meters (13-24 feet). Deglaciation of the West Antarctic ice sheet could raise the ocean 5 meters more. These changes will unfold slowly and even halting emissions after 2020 won’t prevent what is already in the pipeline. The climate will continue to warm for several more centuries until it reaches its new equilibrium temperature based upon the changed chemistry. That could be at 7 degrees, 9 degrees, 12 degrees, we really don’t know. We just know it is a lot hotter than mammals like homo can tolerate. Bees gone, butterflies gone, birds gone, whales and dolphins gone, and then we’re gone too.

So here you are now, young Syrian. You can see what lies ahead. Where do you go to hide? What do you do to prepare?

We are all Syrians now.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
— Dylan Thomas, 1947

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

I think I just stopped being a feminist

Clemson’s Justyn Ross makes a one-handed catch in front of Alabama’s Josh Jobe during the second half of the NCAA college football playoff championship. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Over the past two years I have been writing off and on about social cohesion, inspired in large measure by Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging and to a lesser extent by Charles C. Mann’s The Wizard and the Prophet.

I actually began writing about this subject many years ago, but back then it was more about cognitive science and why we as a species are so easily lured to deny peak oil, climate change, and ubiquitous ponzinomics.

When I wrote about synthetic fabrics in fashion a couple weeks ago, I fell back into a familiar analogy, probably stolen from Nate Hagens a decade or more back, of wildebeest crossing a river full of crocodiles. Not all the wildebeest make it, but most do. It is herd strategy, the same one we adopted as primates before we came down from the trees, if not earlier. 

The herd strategy is defensive and hard-wired. It pairs well with the MORT gene I described here after reading Anit Varki and Danny Brower’s paper in Nature in 2009, “Human uniqueness and the denial of death.”

Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind The history of science abounds with momentous theories that disrupted conventional wisdom and yet were eventually...

In Irmageddon, I wrote:
For reasons that have been well articulated now by cognitive scientists, human denial — a DNA-level defense mechanism — goes into overdrive when our survival is placed into jeopardy. Denial and existential climate threat are a stable pair.
In Rescuing Los Angeles, I wrote:
We continuously signal to others in our herd that we are with them. We are part. We are in this tribe. We seek tribe approval, acceptance, respect. We may do this the way birds do, with colorful plumage, or the way horses do, with speed and agility. A necktie or a pants suit are forms of that signaling. A sports car is another.
I have come to the conclusion that virtually all aspects of our existential predicament, if not all human problems, stem from these two unfortunate genes, tribe and denial. Separately, we might be able to cope with the consequences of either. Together, they are fatal to our kind, not to mention the collateral damage caused to the web of life as we ungracefully exit this brief experiment with human-level existence.

It is easily seen in political factions. Caitlin Johnstone observes:
Trump supporters are acting like he’s a swamp-draining, war-ending peacenik, his enemies are acting like he’s feeding a bunch of Kurds on conveyor belts into Turkish meat grinders to be made into sausages for Vladimir Putin’s breakfast, when in reality nothing has changed and may not change at all.
This battle of narratives, reinforced by normative and cognitive biases, is really no different than what happened in Buenos Aires in the run-up to the soccer game between arch-rivals Boca Junior and River Plate or can be seen in any US football stadium or Commonwealth rugby pitch on game day. It is not just the teams that are squaring off, it is the intensely loyal fans.

You can say team spirit is a good thing, and I gave an example when I wrote about my proto-ecovillage, The Farm, in The Ragweed Tribe. You can watch the Netflix series “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” based on the children's books by Daniel Handler, and have great sympathy and admiration for three orphan children who cling together through cascading miusfortune, but as my permaculture mentor Adam Turtle once said to me, “Family ain’t no account.” And he is right. Your family is just the luck of the draw. You could as easily be born to crackheads as Oxford scholars. What loyalty do you owe and what good or evil might that accomplish?

As much as I like to lionize the wisdom of indigenous peoples, I will be the first to acknowledge that a lot of cruel and horrid practices rippled through Native American societies for generations, entirely out of unchallenged and unchallengeable familial loyalty.

Last fall a friendly argument with a Cuban history professor in Havana grew heated when I asked what his thinking was on Che Guevara’s inability to resist the temptation to torture former torturers, including members of Batista’s Buró de Represión de Actividades Comunistas, that he held captive in the Forteleza La Cabaña. The professor vehemently denied Che would do such a thing, and gave me examples of extreme clemency, although I still find the testimony of survivors compelling. Tribal loyalty in Cuba runs very high and can cast even otherwise cautious scholars adrift on popular waves of myth and fable.
“Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine. This is what our soldiers must become … ” 

Cuban poet and later Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Armando Valladares, described what going to La Cabaña meant:
For me, it meant 8,000 days of hunger, of systematic beatings, of hard labor, of solitary confinement and solitude, 8,000 days of struggling to prove that I was a human being, 8,000 days of proving that my spirit could triumph over exhaustion and pain, 8,000 days of testing my religious convictions, my faith, of fighting the hate my atheist jailers were trying to instill in me with each bayonet thrust, fighting so that hate would not flourish in my heart, 8,000 days of struggling so that I would not become like them.

“Like them” to Valladares meant the torturers who forced him to eat his own excrement because the Revolution did not approve of his poetry. To his tormenters the “they” were the counter-revolutionary intelligentsia that opposed communism on principle and would never see reason. Guevara, cleaving to the lineage of Cuban patron saints Martí, Bolivar, Humboldt and Hatuay, saw the enemy as anyone who would accept dictatorship by wealthy elites on the false promise they could aspire to become materially wealthy themselves. Both sides of this debate are profoundly wedded to ethical rectitude.

Nafeez Ahmed, pondering how humans managed to get themselves to such an existential precipice, writes:
If we take a moral or ethical value to be indicative of a particular mode or pattern of behaviour, we can conclude from our current civilisational predicament that the predominant value-system premised on self-maximisation through endless material accumulation is fundamentally flawed, out of sync with reality, and objectively counterproductive. Conversely, values we might associate with more collaborative and cooperative behaviours appearing to recognise living beings as interconnected, such as love, generosity and compassion (entailing behavioural patterns in which self-maximisation and concern for the whole are seen as complementary rather than conflictual), would appear to have an objective evolutionary function for the human species.
Sounds pretty communistic to me. If Ahmed were a Cuban under Batista he might be hunted down and shot. After La Revolución he might have become an Ambassador, or targeted by the CIA. Perhaps he is.

Ethical perches seem to me very fuzzy. If by feminism one means seeking to establish educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to those for men or opposing harassment, domestic violence, genital mutilation and rape, then I am still down with that. But if by feminism one means taking into account only black or white, middle class, Christian and college-educated perspectives, while wishing to impose a dualistic view of gender (personally, I lean towards 12 human sexes, about a third as many as our evolutionary relatives, the basidiomycetes and ascomycetes), then count me out.

I would have liked to see Alabama beat Clemson (I am a big fan of fellow Hawai’ian Tua Tagovialoa and his Maori-style facepaint), but I can stand up and cheer with the Clemson crowd when I see Justyn Ross make an amazing one-handed catch. 

While I love my children and other relatives and hope they will care for me if or when I have need, I do hereby renounce any special obligation beyond garden-variety human compassion. I just wish it was not left, by evil design and an anti-socialist tribal narrative, to poor families to care for their elderly and infirm. That wicked policy defaults to discriminate against any of us who may not, by luck of that original draw or later events, have supportive families, and where is the compassion there?

Color me neither capitalist nor socialist, revolutionary nor reactionary, spiritual nor heretical (present essay notwithstanding), Angloamerican nor Irish, hippy nor square. I think the royal houses of Europe had it right when then undertook to intermarry, quixotically attempting to avert the horrors of whatever last war they just experienced. I find the multilateralism of the United Nations laudable and those who seek to undermine it despicable. Color me the universal human, whose only outward, or inward, symbol of membership in any tribe is my belly button.

From where the sun now stands I will tribe no more forever.

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

Becoming Plastic

"We can just equip these new monkeys with some silicon AI and have done with the slow and random variety of evolution."

‘Sometimes weird things hit a tipping point. For a combination of reasons, including a viral video showing a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, companies waged war on straws this year. Marriott, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Burger King, and the city of Seattle, among others, all banned or are phasing out straws. It was a very small part of a larger conversation about “single-use plastics,” most notably plastic bags, which IKEA and Taiwan are banning as well.’ 

In 2018, researchers studying the life cycle of mosquitoes uncovered a weird factoid. Microplastics can be transferred ontogenically (between life stages with distinct morphologies and requiring distinct environments) from a feeding (larval, aquatic) life stage into a non-feeding (pupal, edge-dwelling) life stage and subsequently into the flying (adult, airborne) life stage. The researchers were concerned that “any organism that feeds on terrestrial life phases of freshwater insects could be impacted by [microplastic] found in aquatic ecosystems.”

The mosquitoes also transmit those microplastics to hosts when they feed, meaning that if you have been exposed to mosquitoes, they may have left microplastics in your blood and organs.
Of course, that is not the only source of microplastics in your body. It is nearly impossible to take a prescription, or even use an over-the-counter vitamin, without encountering time-release coatings on capsules, plastic lids on plastic pill bottles, and even a (synthetic) cellophane wrap for tamper-proofing. Scientists tested 21 table salts and found plastic in all of them, most commonly polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the material used to make plastic bottles. 100 percent of wild mussels sampled in supermarkets were found to contain microplastics. It is the same story for most seafood. 

National Institutes of Health scientist Antonia Calafat has done everything she can to raise the alarm. Her studies now show that microplastics in the blood of pregnant women cross the placental barrier and directly result in embryonic developmental disorders, gestational diabetes, decreased birth weight, allergic asthma and other respiratory problems in newborns. Worse, microplastics can be transmitted through mother’s milk, meaning that infants who may already be adversely impacted receive an even higher dose at a most critical period in their development.

A century of plastic design improvements now let us keep our foods fresher for longer periods, provide us timed-release pharmaceuticals and non-degrading biomedical implants, and can prevent electronics and other household items from starting or spreading fires. But for each of these benefits, there are counter-weighing human health risks related to exposure. We now know that some of the same chemicals used in plastics to provide beneficial qualities also act as endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs) that lead to problems in human and other populations.

In men, environmental or occupational exposures to EDCs can lead to declined reproductive capacity or possibly increased risk of testicular or prostate cancer. In women, exposure may give an increased risk for endometriosis, reproductive and other endocrine-related cancers, or impaired oocyte competence, ovarian function or menstrual cycling. Effects of early life exposures may lead to altered sex differentiation, effects on neurological and reproductive development and increased risk of reproductive problems or cancer later in life. Testicular dysgenesis syndrome can afflict males in utero or in infancy, later showing up as disturbed gonadal development, including cryptorchidism, hypospadias and smaller reproductive organs, reduction in semen quality and infertility, and as an increased risk for testicular cancer.


The diesters of 1,2-benzenedicarboxylic acid (phthalic acid), commonly known as phthalates, are a group of man-made chemicals widely used in industrial applications. High-molecular-weight phthalates are used as plasticizers in flexible vinyl which, in turn, is used in consumer products like credit cards, window frames, flooring and wall coverings, food containers and medical implants. Low-molecular-weight phthalates are in personal-care products (perfumes, lotions, and cosmetics) and in solvents, lacquers, varnishes and coatings. They are also used to provide timed releases in some oral and subdermal pharmaceuticals.

As a result of all these consumer products, human exposure is widespread. Skin contact is enough. For those identifying as men, it might come from cologne or after-shave. For those identifying as women, it might be from skin lotion or lipstick. For infants and children, mouthing fingers after handling plastic toys or food packaging can lead to higher phthalate exposures. So does breast milk, infant formula, and cow’s milk, according to studies. Opting for coconut, almond, or rice milk won’t save your child if that cardboard carton has a plastic liner or cap.

In newborns, the amount of phthalates in umbilical cord blood directly correlates to a risk of premature birth. Among girls, phthalate concentration correlates with premature breast development and early-onset puberty. Other developmental effects: allergies, rhinitis, asthmatic reactions and direct toxicity. In one case-control study from Sweden, phthalate concentrations in indoor dust in 198 children ages 3–8 years showed a strong association with allergic asthma and eczema in a dose-dependent manner. Another study in Bulgarian children produced similar results, where increased plastic in house dust proportionally related to wheezing and rhinitis. A study of pre-term infants provided polyvinyl chloride (PVC) respiratory tubing showed higher rates of hyaline membrane disease, likely from the phthalate exposure.

Significant associations have also been reported between urinary phthalate concentrations and increased insulin resistance and waist circumference. These findings provide preliminary evidence of a potential contributing role for phthalates in insulin resistance, obesity and related clinical conditions.

Bisphenol A

BPA is in the epoxy resins used to line food cans, older plastic baby bottles, some dental sealants and fillings, adhesives, protective coatings, flame retardants, water storage tanks and supply pipes. It starts out as part of a polymer, but with normal heat over time, it degrades into its small-chain monomeric form. In that form, BPA can leach from its source into adjacent materials such as water (in the case of bottles, pipes or tanks) or food products (such as from the lining of a can). There is widespread BPA lingering in body fluids, bones and organs of people. It can be found in over 90% of the US population, where 96% of pregnant women test positive for BPA in their urine. It is now in US women’s follicular fluid, amniotic fluid, umbilical cord blood, and breast milk.

BPA’s hormone-changing properties were known as early as 1936, and evidence for other biological activity such as effects on thyroid function soon followed. In one epidemiological study, serum BPA levels were reported to be associated with recurrent miscarriage. Investigators also reported higher rates of polycystic ovary syndrome. Multiple studies have associated BPA exposure with weight gain and linked it to insulin resistance, heart disease, diabetes, neurological disorders, thyroid dysfunction, cancer, genital malformations and more. However, most studies to date have only addressed single chemicals or classes of chemicals, and there are limited data on the interactions between chemicals within a class or across classes. Chemicals may interact additively, multiplicatively or antagonistically in what is commonly referred to as the “cocktail effect.”

The health effects of ingested plastics are not just limited to phthalates and BPA. We know of ill effects from esters of aromatic mono-, di-, and tricarboxylic acids, aromatic diacids, and di-, tri-, or polyalcohols, and many other additives and composite materials. The exploration of these medical effects is still in its infancy, and few governments have shown any willingness to disturb the marketplace until it is more clear which does what to whom.

You can tell the checkout clerk at the grocery store you won’t need a plastic bag because you brought your own reusable cloth bag, but you may find it difficult to avoid having skin contact with the plastic handle on the shopping cart or basket, the laminate on the checkout counter, the credit card in your wallet, or the shock-resistant cover on your mobile phone. You will likely be unable to do anything to prevent yourself from inhaling the hairspray the clerk used that morning, absorbing some of the tap water you use to rinse and prepare your fresh vegetables, or eating the microplastic particles contained in the food that got there from the air, soil, water or chemicals the plants were in contact with as they grew.

Of course, there is a solution to all this, one that science fiction writers have mused about for most of a century now. We could just sit back and let it happen.

We are plasticizing, metamorphosing into something more enduring than flesh and bone. Wasn't that the whole point about plastics to begin with — durability? With climate change destroying our food supply, water contaminated with radionuclides, lead and estrogen, and temperatures soon to pass tolerable thresholds for higher mammalian life, we can just equip these new monkeys with some silicon AI and have done with the slow and random variety of evolution. We can take charge of all that, right?

This essay is adapted from my new book due out this year, Transforming Plastic: From Pollution to Evolution (Book Publishing Company, 2019). You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.




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