Sunday, May 5, 2019

Can some nut unseat King Corn?

"Acornucopia is sprouting under a tree near you."


I am partial to the peculiar and wholesome sweetness of a nut, and I think that it is profitable sport every autumn in gathering them — Henry David Thoreau Wild Fruits
We have all heard the Bill of Particulars against agriculture. Pesticides, fertilizers, and animal manure and contaminating our precious water supply, just when we are really starting to need it. Chemical fertilizers are also nitrifying soils (destroying soil biology), eutrophying rivers (suffocating the fish) and depleting essential but non-renewable resources, such as potassium.
All agricultural land used to be something else. It used to be a forest or a prairie grassland or a steppe or a wetland. In some cases, the change of land use happened centuries ago and a new ecosystem has been established around it. But in every case, there is a net loss of biodiversity.

In the USA, over 53 million acres of prairie grasslands are being converted to farmland each year. Brazil lost rainforest the size of Spain to food production between the 1960s and 2005. It cleared more than 1 million hectares of forest in 2018 and the announced policies of President Jair Bolsonaro could make that far worse in 2019.
Changing climates won’t just bring super storms, flooding, unseasonal cold, and drought, but new pests and plant diseases moving into areas where they have never been seen before.
After tripling between 1980 and 1990, global wheat yields stagnated, surpassed by even greater gains in the global temperature records. A 2°C rise (the Paris goal) will cut maize yields by 18%. The 4 degrees now predicted for this century will cut maize yield in half. Same for sorghum, wheat, soy — virtually all cereal staples.
In his latest peon to collective ineptitude, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, Bill McKibben observes that climate change could affect food delivery systems even before it affects supply. 
...[T]he transportation system that distributes it runs through just 14 major chokepoints and all those are vulnerable to, you guessed it, massive disruption from climate change. 

McKibben gives the example of the Mississippi, which barges one third of the world’s maize and soy to market. It has already been shut down to commercial traffic by extreme heat, causing river levels to plummet, or by flooding in its enormous catchment that make it too dangerous. 
Rising CO2 levels, by speeding plant growth, reduce the nutrition in our staple grain crops, meanin
g that even when there is enough supply, our food may not provide enough food value to sustain us.
All that was why it was so refreshing to discover the Acornucopia booth at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, North Carolina this past Saturday. I was just walking down the aisle in one of the 
exhibitor halls when I noticed some guy, whose name turned out to be Justin Holt, sitting there cracking nuts and sorting meat from shell. Next to him were paper-bagged assortments of flours and bottles of colorful oils — red and white acorn, black walnut, bitternut hickory, chestnut, and avocado.

Since launching its first season of production at the Nuttery at Smith Mill Works in West Asheville in 2017, Acornucopia has processed thousands of pounds of native black walnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts and acorns into flour, oil, nut milk and nut meats. The project relies on community members throughout the region to collect fresh nuts and deliver them in trade for money or processed nuts. Their traveling nut carnival, Circus Quercus, recruits and trains their independent workforce.
These hardworking entrepreneurs, who all have day jobs, are pushing out the boundaries of what we think of as food and, at the same time, redesigning the future of agriculture. We tend to think of agroforestry only in the tropics, where for centuries trees have provided the fruit, nut and vegetable crops we are most familiar with. Protein, on the other hand, is a challenge, in the tropics no less than temperate climates, and native peoples tended to rely on harvesting fish and game that had converted fruits and nuts into the more complex amino acids our bodies crave. 
The fact that there are over 500 species of oak around the world is a great comfort. What is disturbing is that 85 of those species are endangered. Oaks are generalists meaning they are adaptive and survivors. When we start losing generalists to progress it might be time to scrutinize the definition of progress.Acornucopia

COMMUNITY HARVEST: Donna Kelly, left, drops off a load of black walnuts with Acornucopia Project volunteer Greg Mosser at the organizations facility in West Asheville. Community members can bring wild, edible nuts they harvest from their property to the Nuttery to be processed into oil, flour and other products. Photo by Justin Holt, Acornucopia, from Mountain Express. 
Sure, the native peoples of Turtle Island made acorn flour by boiling out the tannins and continuously rinsing, but it was maize, venison and wild turkeys that built their civilization. At his wood-fired restaurant, Tabula Rasa, chef Aaron Grigsby has been using nixtamalization, traditionally used to turn indigestible corn into first-stage masa, to also treat protein-rich but bitter wild nuts. Using a highly alkaline solution of wood ash he makes the nuts tender and digestible without a time-consuming tannin leach. 
Another Asheville chef, Mark Rosenstein, uses native walnuts in everything from pesto and salad garnish to braised pork belly and granola. Lately he’s combining black walnut with citrus to make infused liqueurs. Jessie Dean, owner of Asheville Tea Co., uses Acornucopia hickory nuts to make hickory milk chai and golden hickory milk. The flavor, Dean says, is a bit lighter than that of a chai made with dairy milk, “hinted with maple, vanilla, fall forest and pecan flavors.”

Hickory Chai

Recipe adapted by Cathy Cleary from instructions provided by Jessie Dean and Bill Whipple.
Combine 1 cup cracked hickory nuts (shells and all) with 3 cups of water in a saucepan and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. The nut pulp will float to the top. Allow mixture to cool. Skim off the nut meats and reserve for another use. Strain milk through cheese cloth or a fine mesh strainer and put back into the saucepan or into jars for later use. The milk will be light and brothlike. 
Asheville Tea Co.s Hickory Milk Chai:
2 cups hickory milk  
2 tablespoons mixed sweet spices (such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and clove)  
2 tablespoons strong black tea leaves (such as assam)
Bring hickory milk to a simmer. Add spice mixture and simmer for three to four minutes. Remove from heat and add black tea leaves. Steep for three to four minutes. Strain and serve. Garnish with a cinnamon stick, a dusting of nutmeg or star anise, if desired.
“Chai does not have to include the above spices; you could create your own unique infusion using fennel, coriander and local ginger from one of our great tailgate markets. You could also sweeten this tea to taste, ideally with local honey or maple syrup. I did not add sweetener or additional milk to this tea and found it to be very satisfying: creamy mouthfeel, inherently sweet, slightly brothy and full of flavor notes like almond, vanilla, maple, pecan, honey and a nice, spicy finish and low astringency. But a spoonful of honey or syrup would also go down nicely.” Jessie Dean, Asheville Tea Co.
Liat Batshira, owner of Micro Miso, used chestnuts to make a special batch of miso, a paste traditionally made with fermented soybeans aged for 2 years. “I was surprised and amazed that a year after I’d made it, the flavor profile had transformed into a sweet maple syrup flavor,” she says. “The last batch of chestnut miso I made, I used very different ratios of ingredients and time, and while I think it tastes good, the chestnut flavor is subtle.”
When we speak of food forests in permaculture, we always talk about how much more resilient they are to predations by marauding armies or resilient in the face of creeping climate destruction. We need to also begin to see them as a strategy to reverse climate change, not just a fast exit from destructive grain farming, but growing more forests as carbon sponges. We should be adding forest to the planet at the rate of an area the size of 5 Spains every year. If we could do that, and also switch off fossil fuels, we would extract enough legacy carbon to get the atmosphere back in balance with natural cycles in about half a century. We could resume the Holocene.
As I told the audience at Mother Earth, we can’t just go from “Oh, we don’t know climate change is real” to “Heck, it is too late, we’re screwed.” There has to be a middle ground.
Bill Whipple, co-founder of Acornucopia with Holt, says:
With a national deficit of over 20 trillion dollars, the American dollar is backed only by debt. So my financial advice to you is unload your dollars as soon as you can because who knows when someone, some day, may come collecting…. 
Let us shift from a culture that is half nuts to one that has gone completely Nuts! Let’s work together with nature by starting to harness the regenerative resources of our native nut trees in our back yards, commons and woods. After proving the economic viability and social relevance of native nuts, public demand will incentivize landowners to augment their agricultural fields with low maintenance native species orchards and enhance the productivity of their grasslands. This will create biodiversity, sequester water, remineralize soils and subsequently our food. 
And, each tree will pull one ton of carbon out of the air during its lifetime.
Acornucopia also provides a community milling service for black walnuts where the project will dehull, wash, cure, crack and sift walnuts for a miller’s cut of 40% of dehulled, in-shell weight. Foragers receive 60% weight in cracked, sifted, large, unsorted walnut meat and shell.
Whipple says the economic model of Acornucopia aspires to reflect the trees that support it — generous, regenerative, and self replicating:
“The largest taxi company in the world doesn’t own one vehicle, nor does the largest hotel chain own a single hotel. What if the world’s largest global agricultural conglomerate was a worker-owned, non-heirarchecal cooperative, and didn’t need to own a single acre of land or even a plant? Why nut?”
Before Europeans, Oak/ Hickory forests were the predominant forests of the Midwest. The Acornucopia horizon includes oak orchards as far as the eye can see in every direction. Someday, when we come back to our senses, the Midwest will be referred to as “America’s Acorn Belt”

Justin Holt’s Acornucopia Brownies

4 tablespoons butter, melted  
1/4 cup hickory nut oil or other vegetable oil  
1/2 cup cocoa powder  
3 eggs, beaten  
1 teaspoon vanilla  
1/2 teaspoon salt  
1/2 cup acorn flour  
Handful chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Mix butter, oil, cocoa, eggs, vanilla and salt. Add acorn flour. Place mixture in greased 8-inch by 8-inch pan. Sprinkle chocolate chips on top. Bake for 40 minutes. Allow to cool for one hour before cutting.
__





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Sunday, April 28, 2019

Cheddar and the Leafcutters

"What can you do when geophysics outpaces evolution?"


My personal ancestry has a major limb extending back to Southeastern England so I read with some interest recent discoveries in mitochondrial DNA research, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, showing an expansion of people out of Anatolia from 6000 BC that extended to the British Isles. 

These migrants from the Middle East were accomplished grain farmers and likely regarded trees as something of a nuisance, which is a pity because it was their slashing of the forests in the Middle East to grow grain, along with irrigation and the plow, may eventually have brought the climate change and desertification to Anatolia that then forced them to migrate in search of fresh soil and rain.

I have taken to calling these people leafcutters, because they remind me of the ants I’ve seen in tropical rainforests. Like leafcutter ants, Anatolians built large underground city complexes, not so much to create favorable conditions for gardening fungi, as the ants do, as to thwart attacks by bandit gangs or foreign invaders traveling the Silk Road — another unintended consequence of broadscale grain farming.

Cheddar Man was so-named because his remains were unearthed 115 years ago in Gough’s Cave, located in Somerset’s Cheddar Gorge. He lived about 10,000 years ago, and provided the oldest, almost complete skeleton of Homo sapiens to be found in Britain. Cheddar Man stood about 5 foot 5, had blue eyes, dark to black skin and dark, curly hair. His people arrived in Britain in the aftermath of a 5000-year glaciation that made most of Northern Europe uninhabitable.

As hardy as they were, the Cheddar people were no match for the sheer numbers of Anatolian Leafcutters who arrived in waves from Iberia and the Mediterranean in approximately 4000 BC, landing along the coasts of England and Wales in small skin and stave boats. 

Tests of DNA from teeth show the two groups didn’t mix much. One co-author of such a study, Tom Booth, said: “We don’t find any detectable evidence at all for the local British western hunter-gatherer ancestry in the Neolithic farmers after they [the Leafcutters] arrive. That doesn’t mean they don’t mix at all, it just means that maybe their [Cheddar-type] population sizes were too small to have left any kind of genetic legacy.”

It seems likely my English ancestry has a bit of the Cheddar in its bones. Before my grandfather (10 times removed) Clement Bates and his six children, including my grandfather (9 times removed) Joseph, sailed for Plymouth in 1634, each generation of my family had been born and died in the small village of Lydd, on the swampy coast of SE England, just up the beach from where the Normans landed in 1066. Thanks to the Chunnel, you can now bicycle from Lydd to Calais in three and a half hours. My family had neither bikes nor tunnels then, so for more than 435 years (from the birth in 1200 of my oldest known direct ancestor, James Bate, 20 generations removed), the Bates all spent their lives just foraging around those coastal marshlands. It is at least plausible they fished and hunted there for millennia, fought in the Battle of Hastings, and, thousands of years earlier, greeted the Anatolian boat people in much the same manner as they later welcomed the French.

I find this story interesting for another reason, because climate change may compel us toward two distinct strategies in the future. One is massive underground city complexes, a la Anatolia, where we learn to get our protein from fungi and adapt to the extreme swings in weather happening up on the surface. The other strategy is to exchange grain farming — a losing proposition in the Anthropocene — for agroforestry and aquaculture, adopting the sustainable habitation pattern of Cheddar Man, and dutifully going about the daily business of repairing the atmosphere over the millennial timescales that enterprise may require. 

Of course, they won’t be doing that in Lydd. Unless you enjoy cold water scuba, the time to see that part of England is before a 1 meter sea level rise.


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Sunday, April 21, 2019

Pushing on to Venus

"We need to stop our warming ways or there will be Hell to pay."
I sometimes look back at my 1990 book, Climate in Crisis, to take grim consolation in parts I got right or amuse myself about where I went wrong. I was spectacularly wrong in suggesting that there might be a “peace dividend” from ending the Cold War that would more than pay for the infrastructural changes to reduce fossil emissions and bring on a renewables revolution. We did have a renewables revolution, but so far it has only added to the problem — higher population, more consumption, and no withdrawal from our fossil fuel addiction. The lofty but unmet goals set at Rio in ’92 and Kyoto in ’97 are now well in our rear-view mirror.
One of my conclusions has vacillated between correct and incorrect depending on what study you just read. In “Chapter Three: Runaway,” I described a so-called Venus scenario in which positive feedbacks such as blue water at the poles, deforestation at the equator and melting permafrost pitch Earth into an irredeemable heating trajectory, boiling off the oceans, building a dense cloud cover, and creating 500-degree surface temperatures, much like Venus.

This colorized picture of Venus was taken Feb. 14, 1990, from a distance of almost 1.7 million miles, about 6 days after NASA’s Galileo made its closest approach to the planet. 

Over the intervening decades, various scientific studies have debunked that theory, arguing that Earth has a faster rotation than Venus, that its oceans are so large and deep that the heat acceleration required to boil them would be unobtainable, and that Earth’s climate has several states of repose, or equilibrium, where positive feedbacks are kept in check by negative responses. This is the oft-used “cup-and-ball” model, most recently applied in the 2018 PNAS paper by Steffen, Rockstrom, Richardson, Lenton, etc., Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. In 1986, Kasting and Ackerman looked at what happened when ancient Earth had a surface temperature of approximately 85° to 110°C and concluded that Earth could never become like Venus.

On the other hand, there are frequent refutations of the equilibrating theorems, pointing to system disruptions that occur at obscenely high GHG concentrations, such as 100 times present levels. Even the high-end estimate for methane burps cited by Shakova or Wadhams is only around 50 gigatons, whether exhaled in a single belch or spread out over a decade of 5 to 7 degree warmer arctic seas. 
Dr. Shakhova: We use an analogy where we compare the East Siberian Arctic Shelf to a bottle of champagne. So the gas produces within this bottle and it keeps accumulating as long as the cork serves as an impermeable lid. This lid is subsea permafrost. Before it was just permafrost [on land] but after it was submerged it became subsea permafrost and served to preserve an increasing amount of gas produced from its release to the ocean and atmosphere above. While this lid is impermeable, there is nothing to worry about. But when this lid loses its integrity, this is when we start worrying. This is where the methane is releasing and the amounts of methane currently releasing makes us think it will increase as a result of the disintegration of this permafrost body.
100 times present atmospheric CO2 would be 321,800 gigatons. That is well beyond the capacity of either fossil fuel reserves or stored methane in clathrates and permafrost, or a combination of both, to generate, so we are safe from the Venus scenario, right?

Not so fast. Kasting and Ackerman admit that in 1986 they lacked the computing power to model clouds so they simply left those out. A study this February by Tapio Schneider, Colleen M. Kaul, and Kyle G. Pressel in Nature Geoscience modeled the clouds.

With the advantages of supercomputers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and the computational prowess of ETH Zurich’s Euler cluster, the Schneider team was able to simulate stratocumulus cover response to greenhouse warming. At double present CO2 concentrations, about 3°C warming, there was little change. Most clouds are formed because air warmed by the Earth’s surface (or forced over mountains) cools as it rises, condensing water vapor to cloud droplets. Stratocumulus clouds typically blanket about a fifth of the low-latitude ocean and help radiate heat back to space, dropping cool air towards the surface.



Schneider’s group modeled for varying concentrations of greenhouse gas equivalent to 400 parts per million of CO2 (similar to today) on up to 1,600 parts per million. Up past 1,000 parts per million, there were no major surprises. While the world as a whole got around 4°C warmer and human population would likely have ebbed as agriculture crashed, the cloud deck would have still looked familiar to wandering souls gazing skyward in hopes of relief from the blazing sun.

But then, at about 1,200 parts per million, the clouds suddenly dissipated. And without that shade reflecting sunlight, the world warmed another 8°C. Whether the ball fell into the cup and some new equilibrium was established, or additional positive forcings took Earth to 18 or 20°C warmer and eventually boiled off the oceans, we can’t yet say.

If there is a point to be made, it is this. We need to stop our warming ways or there will be Hell to pay.

That 1200 ppm phase change threshold is 787 ppm above our present level of 413 (it was 354 the year Climate in Crisis was published). That 1200 number represents 6154 additional gigatons of carbon dioxide (GtCO2), or 162 years at present emissions, but our emissions are still in a curve of acceleration. As we leave behind the era of light sweet crude and frack for “unconventional” oil and natural gas, we generate far more methane emissions from those fracking operations (wellhead pressure drops fairly soon after a well is tapped, and at lower pressures leaking increases), tar sands, pipelines and LNG terminals and transports. The CO2 equivalents and the decay products of methane multiply atmospheric CO2 concentrations. We are still at the low back corner of the Hockey Stick.

The best my co-author Kathleen Draper and I could come up with in BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth for negative emissions technologies’ (NET) potential was about 50 GtCO2e (gigatons carbon dioxide and equivalents) annual withdrawal (although an ocean response mechanism will halve that in net practical effect). Of course we don’t know the speed at which Earth systems will respond to rapid CO2 withdrawal because Earth systems have never done that before, but if we keep going — well beyond present fossil emissions of about 38 GtCO2e — and throw in melting permafrost, the blue ocean North Pole, destruction of the Amazonian and Indochinese rainforests, and other unhappy trends, the capacity to tree-plant our way out of this will be overwhelmed.

The irony is, we have other choices in lifestyle that can get us out of this jam, and they happen to be happier, healthier, and more personally satisfying ways to live. Climate in Crisis at least got that part right.


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Sunday, April 14, 2019

Coping with Katsaridaphobia

"Desert religions are all about scarcity, sea people invading, and Pharoah casting out the righteous, who go about looking for a savior."

Road to California (1936, Dorothea Lange)

There are more important issues to be  discussing than President Cobblepot’s latest tweet, but I feel the need  to examine his wall fetish in a little more depth because lately, we are seeing Democrats, including all the 2020 candidates, buying into at  least part of the Republican scare narrative.  That bothers me. As a voter, even if my elections are rigged, I like to at least think there  might be a difference between my choices. But in the last couple of  presidential elections, I voted for Jill Stein to become the first female-identified POTUS. If she or whatever Green candidate were now to  talk about our “immigration crisis,” I would blow a fuse.
According to the World Bank, by 2050 some 140 million people may be displaced by sea-level rise and extreme weather, driving escalations in crime, political unrest, and resource  conflict. Even if the most conservative predictions about our climate  future prove overstated, a 1.5-degree Celsius rise in temperature during  the next century will almost certainly provoke chaos, in what experts  call climate change’s “threat multiplier”: Displacement begets  desperation begets disorder. 
The New York Times, April 10, 2019

First, let’s be clear. Immigration is a problem. So  is emigration. Climate change will make both catastrophically worse.  Most reliable estimates of the carrying capacity of the planet by  mid-century fall in the range of 1 to 2 billion. By “reliable,” I mean  science-based and factoring in the effects of rapid climate change on  agriculture, water supplies, sea level rise, vector-borne disease, and biodiversity destruction. Some, like the Limits to Growth sequelae, even take microplastics into account through a morbid pollution equation.
Contrast that 1 billion with today’s 7.7 billion (April 2019) people, topping 8 billion by 2024, and projected, but by no  means certain, to hit 9 billion in 2042. Like any exponential curve,  this hockey stick began tilting upward after the Second World War and  continues to incline more steeply by the year, abbreviating its doubling  time with each generation. And yet, on the human evolutionary time  scale, Homo colossus is a relatively recent phenomenon.

As we have seen from many competent studies of the  rise and fall of great civilizations, human population adheres to a  strict functional relationship with its food supply. It is in one-to-one equilibrium. As supply rises, so does fecundity. Conversely, when  supply falls, for whatever reason, deaths outnumber births until a new  equilibrium is established. One need only look to the droughts of Northeastern Africa in recent years for a current example of how that plays out. As the droughts worsened, hunger grew, civil society  disintegrated, insurrections and civil wars erupted, and neighboring  states were suddenly coping with massive refugee flows, conflict  spillovers, and disease outbreaks. Fertility plummeted.
Since 1980, a period that includes all 20 of the warmest years in recorded history and 18 of the 20 most intense hurricane seasons in the satellite era,  losses in the United States from storms, wildfires, and droughts topped $1.6 trillion — nearly a third of which occurred in just  the last five years. And this exponential destruction is just the  beginning of what David Wallace-Wells, in his book “The Uninhabitable  Earth,” calls the Great Dying: a worldwide economic decline, sharply  deteriorated living conditions, disruption to basic government functions  and widespread hunger. Looking deeper still into the future, the  predictions are even more dire. 
The New York Times, April 10, 2019

Ripple effects from the African drought were felt  in distant capitals like London and Paris, where anti-immigrant factions  were happily empowered. While the US is buffered by oceans, the contagious meme had no problem crossing the Atlantic. If you tune to  beltway babble these days, a major chord is our “crisis” on the Southern Border. This plays well in the Bible belt because desert religions are  all about scarcity, sea people invading, and Pharoah casting out the  righteous, who go about looking for a savior. At first glance, statistics seem to bear out President Cobblepot, which is perhaps why so many Democratic legislators have been lured into borrowing billions of  dollars from future non-existent taxpayers to patch a nonexistent  problem, at least for the present.


Cobblerpot’s “crisis,” like the BREXIT meme  contagion, is manufactured; built on a cascade of faulty-logic US  immigration policies rather than by climate-related famines or  US-intervention-based death-squad-blowback in Central America.
Malcolm Gladwell laid it out far more clearly than I can here in his Revisionist History podcast. In an episode titled General Chapman’s Last Stand, Gladwell described a Princeton study, the Mexican Migration Project. There, behavioral  scientists looked at the pattern of movement across the US-Mexico border  over many decades and a curious, perhaps even counterintuitive, pattern  emerged.
The laxer the border restrictions, the less migration.
Prior to the 1970s,  the pattern had been “circular migration,” where migrants traveled to  the US to find work, usually seasonally, but then returned to Mexico for  Christmas through Easter because that is where their family and  ancestral roots are. Because of circular migration, the net immigration  into the US was low.
Anti-Mexican bias has  swelled Republican ranks in the past. In 1955, the Eisenhower-Nixon Administration's Operation Wetback  rounded up some 1.3  million Hispanics and deposited them in random small towns in Mexico. In Texas, 25 percent of all of the immigrants deported were crammed onto boats later compared to slave ships, while others died of sunstroke, disease and other causes while in custody. During the 1930s, the US deported over 1 million Mexican nationals, 60 percent of whom were US citizens of Mexican descent.  
It should come as no surprise that as soon as Cobblepot’s Homeland Security began choking off the commuter traffic at El Paso, San Ysidro and other ports of entry, and imprisoning and then losing the children of the immigrants, illegal  immigration suddenly jumped to crisis proportions. Once you get across  the border, do you think you will risk going home for Christmas? Heck, no. You will get an apartment and a car and keep your head down. You can send crypto home on your phone.
The solution to this crisis is simple. Tear down the wall. Open the border. Allow the same  kind of flow between the US and Mexico as exists between Ireland and  Northern Ireland.

To better prepare for the future, stop the bombing refugees and start planting forests. Yemen is a good place to start. For the price of one F-35 ($100 million and  $10,000 per hour to fly) you could employ the displaced, planting trees and seeing them through to forest.
Of course, Cobblepot  will not do that, any more than he would apply science to the US prison problem—millions behind bars for long sentences, many for conduct that  is now no longer criminal. That’s because the prison system is also  based on science-free myths and fables, baseless fears and tribal  rituals. 
A little sanity could go a long way. There are  greater and more urgent threats we need to consider than a fake Mexican  border crisis.




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Sunday, April 7, 2019

Professor Cobblepot’s Marvelous Purple Fog News Machine

"Time will tell whether Cobblepot’s short game is as good as Mueller’s long game."
"We often recognize an untruth when we hear one, coming from our own mouths or those of others, and most particularly coming from advertisers and political leaders. Many of these untruths are deliberate, understood as such by both speakers and listeners. They are put forth to manipulate, lull, or entice, to postpone action, to justify self-serving action, to gain or preserve power, or to deny an uncomfortable reality. Lies distort the information stream. A system cannot function, especially in time of peril, if its information stream is confused or distorted."
— Meadows, Meadows, and Randers, Beyond the Limits (1992)



Having been outside the United States for most of the Northern winter I am returning to The Farm with fresh eyes.

Passing through the layers of phoney’d up Fatherland “security” designed primarily to chill a passive population and gull them into thinking they are protected less by oceans, deserts, and vigilance against tyranny and more by cordons of stalwart men and women in black bulletproof vests, one crosses a threshold into a different world, something perhaps resembling Germany in the early 1930s or Cambodia in 1975. There is a sense of dark foreboding. This is what collapse looks like.

In the 1980s there was this famous SNL sketch where Ronald Reagan (Phil Hartman) is in the Oval Office talking to a Girl Scout and seeming like a doddering old man with early Alzheimer’s. As soon as his guest and the press leave, his aides rush in and he reveals himself to be a clever mastermind setting national policy in minute detail.

Watching the PBS NewsHour/Frontline special on the Mueller Report March 24 I had to wonder if I am not in the same situation with my opinion of Donald Trump.

Recently I have taken to calling the POTUS President Cobblepot because of an uncanny resemblance to Batman’s nemesis, Penguin, who manages to get himself popularly elected Mayor of Gotham and then uses the position to continue building his crime empire and eliminating rivals. Honestly, for the longest time, I have thought Trump was just the pathologically narcissistic buffoon he is often portrayed as being — a mentally-handicapped blowhard after the fashion of Saint Ronald.

We don’t yet have the Mueller Report, but we know a little about it, and watching the replay of the Frontline special opened for me another possible narrative, one not taken by the documentary’s narrators, but suggestive of another TV drama, the Showtime series, Billions.

In Billions, two powerful and driven adversaries square off in a no-holds-barred cage match. Paul Giamatti’s character, Chuck Rhoades, is US Attorney for the Southern District (loosely based on Preet Bharara) and would-be future Governor of New York. Damian Lewis plays billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod, who stays ahead of rivals by cutting corners (loosely based on Steve Cohen of S.A.C. Capital Advisors). The series, begun in 2016, is a succession of traps and counter-traps, like two chess grandmasters dueling in a 48-game tournament.

That was the sense I had watching Frontline’s narrative — Mueller and Cobblepot, the duel of grandmasters. It is easy to think that the impulsive, unmanageable Trump vainly firing Comey and celebrating with Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov is a ‘tell’ that Cobblepot is colluding with the East Side gang. It is harder to visualize, but as good a Gotham or Billions plot, to see Cobblepot baiting the “Resistance” with Comey’s firing and then throwing more meat their way to make sure they are wedded to the Russiagate line. He makes it appear he is obstructing justice without actually obstructing anything. He has the press mesmerized. He controls every news cycle.

Another layer of the trap comes in POTUS’s statement, drafted on Air Force One, describing the Trump Tower meeting as “all about adoption,” making no mention of how his top aides and family had been lured to a meeting with a Russian lawyer for adoption agencies peeved with the Obama sanctions that are killing their businesses, on the (false) promise that the lawyer has dirt on Hillary Clinton. By leaving his family out and not immediately characterizing the meeting as opposition research — after all, the Clinton campaign spent $12 million (unreported to Federal Elections Commission as required by law) for Fusion GPS to commission the Steele Dossier — Trump habitually provided Russiagate addicts their next fix.

The result of these moves, whether by nefarious intention or sheer dumb luck, was that all the oxygen was sucked out of examination, criticism, and opposition to real-world problems being aggravated by the policies of the Trump Administration, to be spent instead running in circles like a chicken with its head cut off. Score a big win for Cobblepot.

I came back to the US from a world where heat waves, droughts, melting glaciers, wildfires, floods, bomb cyclones, and monsoonal superstorms are being taken seriously but now find myself in a perpetual loop of news cycle sausage-making. Of course, it is not much different over here than it is in London, where BREXIT is sucking just as much oxygen, or perhaps in North Korea, where the population only gets whatever news its government provides. Most people might also mention China and Cuba, but having spent time there recently, I know their censorship leaks like a sieve.

This American drama is a 4-year series, 8 if it gets renewed, and the duel between narratives is what keeps the audience. The tables turn for the President when Congress starts looking into his taxes and real estate dealings. These were not within the Special Counsel remit, as Cobblepot reminds his Deputy Attorney General. Nonetheless, the Special Council dutifully passes the findings down the line to the Second District AG’s office, where grand juries are convened. The three-generation Cobblepot empire is built upon clay foundations so the only real questions there are less about guilt and more about statutes of repose and presidential immunity while in office. Time will tell whether Cobblepot’s short game is as good as Mueller’s long game.

PBS NewsHour/Frontline exposed its own miserable reportage in the special. At 31 minutes in, the baritone voice of the narrator says with melodramatic gravity, “But there was a reason for the meeting that the president’s statement did not mention.”

Cut to video footage of Marine Helicopter One landing on the South Lawn and TV woman reporter’s voice, “Last night, The New York Times published details about a meeting during the campaign involving a Kremlin-linked lawyer…” overcut by the baritone again, “As the President returned to Washington, it didn’t take long for the truth to come out.”

Note here that The New York Times, a newspaper run by a many generation Russophobic family and a frequent foil for CIA newspeak, is cited as the authority for “the truth.” The Times alleged, without any real proof, that the lawyer for the adoption agencies was “Kremlin-linked.” Apart from having been issued a license by government to practice law, that lawyer has not been shown to have any Kremlin links. To the contrary, she was part of Hillary Clinton’s Fusion GPS black op, and debriefed Fusion’s principal, Glenn Simpson, immediately after the meeting. 

The voice of New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo then comes on, over a front-page column headed “Trump Team Met Russian Offering Dirt on Clinton” (all caps). Apuzzo tells the story of Don Trump Jr being misled by the adoption agency lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and being lured into the Trump Tower meeting on promises that he would “receive some documents and information” that would incriminate Hillary Clinton and her ties to Russia. Apuzzo then goes on camera to say that in an email from a go-between, Don Jr. was told this was “part of the Russian government’s efforts to support now-President Trump.” The email document then appears on the screen, underlined in red, and the line about Russian government wishing to support Trump in the election (provided by a third party unaffiliated with the Russian government) is repeated by the narrator. Apuzzo then says breathlessly, “I remember saying, oh my God, it says it.” Then regular NewsHour commentator Michael Isakoff comes on camera to reinforce: “And what does Don Jr. write back in an email, “If its what you say, I love it.”

Onto this logical gap from The New York Times are then strung two years of daily rants by Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, and many others at CNN, MSNBC, Morning Joe and various left-centrist echo chambers, and their counter-rants at Fox News and beltway radio. Meanwhile, President Cobblepot goes merrily on his way disassembling the nuclear weapons treaties, the national parks, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, efficiency standards, climate policy and sane immigration strategies, all the while packing foreign lobbyists into every available suite in his luxury hotel domain, while everyone who might otherwise resist is tied up awaiting Mueller’s report so they can impeach him. By everyone agreeing to lease Professor Cobblepot’s marvelous purple fog news machine, Mueller’s report will carry into the 2020 election campaign and give the President a giant ratings boost and a serious shot at renewal of the series.

And what did Mueller discover? Surely he explored the what-if narrative that any intelligent reporter would have asked at the start (and Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, and a few others did): what if the adoption agency lawyer had no dirt on Hillary? What if there were no Kremlin ties? What if all that bunk was just used to get a meeting so the lawyer could ask about lifting sanctions and earn her retainer? What if Mueller’s indictment of actual Russian-military-sponsored GRU hackers (who cannot be tried and whose actual effect on the 2016 election was nil) was just outing an FBI counterintelligence dossier in order to keep the Special Counsel investigation from being defunded when both houses of Congress were Republican-controlled?
“[T]he Mueller Report failed to mention that the two Russians present in that August 2016 Trump Tower meeting, lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, were on the payroll of Hillary Clinton’s oppo research contractor Fusion GPS, and met with that company’s principal, Glenn Simpson, both before and after the meeting — just one example among many of the Mueller Team’s shifty tactics, but a move that speaks volumes about Mr. Mueller’s actual intent….”
— James Howard Kunstler

Rather than consider the rather obvious alternative explanations, the republished Frontline documentary dives down another rabbit hole, exploring whether Cobblepot’s protestations of innocence were an attempt to obstruct justice. Whenever Cobblepot tweeted “no collusion, no obstruction #witchhunt” at this point, he could have been absolutely right, but it didn’t matter, he was just stoking the furnace, as he had done from the outset.

The Frontline redux and the bobbleheads that followed on the PBS special carried on with various convoluted permutations of collusion and obstruction, more moves within the fog machine to control the board, but in the end, there really was no there there.

Make no mistake, we are in a real-world crisis, one that demands the same level of alarm and rapid response as when the Allies mobilized to fight Hitler. The competing narratives are less about MAGA versus Resistance or BREXIT and no-BREXIT as between real-world extinction of the human race and party-like-its-1999. For the majority of citizens in the United States, the care seems to be whether the reckoning can be postponed past their own personal expiration date, a strategy that has worked for pretty much everyone who has died since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, except for those who perished in the cascading climate catastrophes and their human conflicts and tragedies.

I was fascinated to see two different versions of reality collide when Sunrise Movement youths paid an unwelcome call on Senator Diane Feinstein. The Senator rebuffed their appeal for the Green New Deal by trying to school them in her reality — political compromise, baby steps, scaffolding, the power of seniority, million-vote pluralities. “It's not going to get turned around in 10 years,” she pronounced.

They weren’t buying that. Their reality is dying polar bears, sinking coastlines, famine, war, a significant reduction in their own life expectancies. “Senator, if this does not get turned around in 10 years you’re looking at the faces of the people who are going to be living with these consequences.”

When you have two competing narratives, each hermetically sealed and intractable, about all you can do is live by your own best lights, keep educating yourself, and do as best you can to help the children prepare. The light of hard physical reality may eventually be discovered by those of Feinstein's fogginess, stumbling along, but if you can already see the light, you should be moving to high ground, building a fire perimeter, growing food and storing water. And vote out the fossils.

“All of humanity is in peril if each one of us does not dare, now and henceforth, always to tell only the truth and all the truth, and to do so promptly—right now.” – R. Buckminster Fuller





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