Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Great Pause Week 59: Joys of Soy

"Demand for soy in the EU uses 6 million square miles. 5.2 million of that is in South America."


Fifty-eight weeks ago
I crossed the border from Belize and decided to make my stand in a small Mexican village with dirt streets and thatched roofs. I had been coming here to write for more than ten years and I knew that it would likely be well-insulated from the rest of the world as the pandemic raged. That was true for many months because this town, and many neighboring towns, wisely ignored the denialism of Mexican state and federal health authorities and closed themselves to routine comings and goings. Unfortunately, like many places, willpower faltered, they reopened too soon, many of my neighbors became sick and died, and that continues today. Lacking vaccines, México, like India and Brazil, is an incubator and exporter of Covid variants to the rest of the world. One factor I did not anticipate when I made my decision to remain here was the speed with which effective vaccines would be developed, meaning that the pandemic will be years shorter in the affluent North, where the world’s supplies of vaccine are restarting normality, than in the South, where the pandemic has no end in sight.

A little while ago, I got a hankering for something that is standard fare in my ecovillage in Tennessee but can’t be found even in gourmet vegan restaurants here — boiled soybeans. It is not surprising really, because unless you have been exposed to the rich, buttery flavor of properly cooked beans, you probably accept the myth that they are cattle-feed or something that can only be processed into secondary products like milk, tofu, miso, natto, or tempeh. But all through the 1970s, soybeans were the basis of our diet at The Farm community, not only because they were so versatile, but because they were so cheap. The world price of soybeans at this writing is $14.33 per bushel. In 1972 they were around $5. Adjusting for inflation, that would be $32 today. Today’s soybeans are less than half the price they were in the 70s. The reasons for that are that we grow so many more today than we did in 1972, it is mostly automated —air-conditioned giant combines steered by GPS across flattened fields — and we subsidize the production cost with Saudi oil and fracked gas.

At the Sixth International Permaculture Convergence in Perth, Bill Mollison and I got into a spat in our stage presentations over the question of soy. He called them baby killers. He disliked soy only slightly less than he disliked “land lice,” as he liked to call goats. I showed slides of healthy babies in Guatemala where our project decimated infant mortality by introducing non-GMO soy, grown organically in the Japanese smallholder way. Soybeans have all eight essential amino acids in good balance. Lysine is the limiting amino, and you can get that from maize, which Guatemalans eat a lot of. Corn tortillas and boiled soybean frijoles make a complete protein, but in our camp in Solola we also made patés for babies, tofu, tempeh, soymilk, and, of course, ice cream. The image at the top of this piece is painted from a photo of Suzi Jenkins Viavant dispensing soy ice cream to schoolchildren in San Andreas Itzapa.

What my dear friend Bill was on about was something quite real; two things, actually. Because soybeans contain protease inhibitors that interfere with digestion activity, they have an antinutritional effect unless these inhibitors are deactivated. Whatever food you consume with them can be indigestible and give you a nasty stomach ache and gas. The inhibitors found in raw soy react primarily on trypsin, and chymotrypsin and plasmin to a lesser extent. Wild animals usually learn that any plant that contains a trypsin inhibitor is a food to avoid. Before feeding soy to cattle, it is ground into meal and heat-treated to remove the inhibitors.

Other foods containing protease inhibitors are lima beans (6 different inhibitors); winged beans; mung beans; raw egg white; and bovine pancreas and lung.

In a kitchen setting, boiling soybeans for 14 minutes deactivates about 80% of the inhibitors. Boiled 30 minutes, about 90%. At higher temperatures, e.g. in pressure cookers, shorter deactivation times are needed to reach 100%. When making soymilk, tofu and tempeh, good pre-cooking is part of the process. Any soybeans cooked well or fermented will be completely digestible. 

To bring out the flavor in soybeans intended for burritos, lasagna, stroganoff, or burgers, they should be cooked until they are dark brown and soft enough to mash between your tongue and the back of your teeth. Straight from the boiling pot, they should melt in your mouth and have a buttery taste, smell, and feel. My experience with a pressure cooker tells me that proper cooking can take 90 to 120 minutes for rehydrated dry beans, and I always do the tongue-mash test.

The second point Bill made, and I agree with, is that the way soybeans are grown by industrial agriculture today is an abomination, leading to loss of family farms, biodiversity, topsoil and a habitable climate. The total area of soy now covers billions of acres — the total combined area of France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. The fastest growth in recent years has been in South America, where production grew by 123 per cent between 1996 and 2004. 

Soy produces more protein per hectare than any other major crop. It is also one of the most profitable agricultural products. Around 270 million tonnes were produced in 2012, of which 93 per cent came from just six countries: Brazil, United States, Argentina, China, India and Paraguay. Soy production is also expanding rapidly in Bolivia and Uruguay. The main importers are the EU and China, while the US has the greatest soy consumption per capita. 

 — World Wildlife Federation

The sad part is that 94% of this major world food crop goes into livestock feed or industrial uses and, counting vegetable oil and soy sauce, only 6% is consumed by people directly. When you feed it to cows, 98% of the nutritional value — the part that could be feeding people — is simply wasted. It is spent fattening a 350 pound-calf into a 1250-pound steer. Some of that can be recovered in the form of leather jackets or fertilizer, but a lot of it simply gets farted away as a greenhouse gas 87 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Demand for soy in the EU uses 6 million square miles, 5.2 million of that in South America.

Nine out of 10 land-based species of animals and plants live in forests — the vast majority of them in the tropical forests of South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Close to 1.6 billion people, including 60 million indigenous people, depend on forests for food, shelter, fuel and livelihoods. Forests provide vital ecosystem services, such as regulating water cycles, preventing soil erosion and helping to keep our climate stable: growing forests absorb and store carbon, but when they’re cleared, large amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere. Half of the world’s tropical forests have been destroyed over the last century, and natural forests are continuing to decline in many parts of the world. 

— World Wildlife Federation

 

Before Monsanto and Cargill, John Deere and Whole Foods, there was a habit of growing soybeans for 2000 years in China, Japan and Korea. In China today around 40 million farmers grow soy, with the average farm size being around 0.2–0.3 ha (half to three-quarters of an acre). By turning stover into biochar and returning manures (“night soil”) to the fields, soil fertility was maintained for 40 centuries. Thanks to the Asian Biochar Centre in Nanjing, farms across China are once more regenerating topsoil, retaining water, and re-learning these techniques. They are producing much higher yields today than they did just 5 years ago. Rotational smallholder cropping, with leguminous crops like soy restoring nitrogen, is the way of the future. 

Using the power of soy in a regenerative, harmonious way, there is no food supply constraint holding human population from expanding ten-fold in this century. Other means will be needed to stop that.

In our next installment we’ll explore those means.

References:

Hwang, D. L., D. E. Foard, and C. H. Wei. “A soybean trypsin inhibitor. Crystallization and x-ray crystallographic study.” Journal of Biological Chemistry 252, no. 3 (1977): 1099–1101.

Liu, KeShun, Soybeans: Chemistry, Technology, and Utilization. Springer 2012.

Viavant, S.J., My First Experience in Guatemala as a Volunteer
https://munecaz.wordpress.com/my-first-experience-in-guatemala-as-a-volunteer-january-25-2014/

World Wildlife Federation. 2014. The Growth of Soy: Impacts and Solutions. WWF International, Gland, Switzerland


 

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

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

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

#RestorationGeneration

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

 — Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.


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

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

 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Great Pause Week 58: A Gift of Time

"A year at a time is how we are taking life now. It is preparing us for our future."


Covid caught many, probably most, people in the world unprepared. Not unprepared in the sense of public health care systems, although there was that. 

Not unprepared in the sense of social fairness, equity, or access, although deep flaws became obvious in those places too. Deeply ruptured social fabrics were laid bare in the US, UK, Italy, Spain, France, Mexico, India, South Africa, Brazil. The pandemic was an ironic, not to say ghastly, un-leveler. It was not the rain, which falls equally on the just and the unjust.

We also got to learn there is a different kind of unprepared. For those confined, or perhaps enduring repeated waves of confinements, the pandemic provided a rare, end-of-days kind of opportunity to pause and reflect. Not everyone was ready for that.

In these pages I have often observed how our times resemble the waning days of ancient empires, be they Mesopotamian, Mayan, or Mongol. The pattern suggests comparisons between the promiscuity, gender-bending, and homoerotica in late Greek and Roman empires; the similarities between stadium-filling, brain-hemorrhaging contact sport in late Mayan, Roman and USAnian empires; the theater-state comparisons between Wak Kimi Janaab’ Pakal III, Caligula, and a Reality-TV-star made POTUS, or the political polling popularity of The Rock. These are cultural themes that repeat through the great peak-and-decline fin de siècles. 

So too are race and religion riots, or police and military brutality. So too are charismatic theocratic revivals. So too are autocratic dictators and back-to-the-land movements. 

And also, pandemics.

Lockdowns brought about by pandemics are golden moments. Faced with our own mortality, we can take time to reflect upon the arc of our individual lives, what time may or may not remain, and what we should be doing with this precious, fleeting gift we’ve been given.

If you haven’t already done this, do it now.

More often, lockdowns fix people into places that are ill-designed or prepared for the use they now get to be put. No matter how humble or tiny, apartments became school rooms, stockpiled kitchens, gyms, and remote office cubicles. They began to smell of pajama sweat, overanxious pets, and composting table scraps. They became jails. 

Consider the origin of the words “reformatory” and “penitentiary.” The Quakers had the quaint notion that time spent in prison, without the worries of providing one’s daily bread in a dog-eat-dog world, would afford malcontents an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of life and so reform their path in life. They would become penitents. 

Can gangstas be poets? Sure, why not? Do prisons catalyze that? Probably not.

For those of us who teach permaculture and live as we teach, or work in regenerative farming or forestry, or who have been demonstrating ecovillage living for many years — life in pandemic may have been challenging but on the whole has been more enjoyable, if not downright glorious. 

But today, in mid-April, the temperature outside my house is ten degrees hotter than normal, with a feels-like temperature of 102F (39C) well after sunset. I know this means it will be even hotter in 3 months. I also know that here on the Atlantic coast we are not having the worst of it. Inland at Merida today it was 103F (40C) before one adds the feels-like adjustment.

The latest chart published by Hansen, et al, shows that, even adjusting for El Niño and La Niña years, the increase of temperature year over year seems to be rising. I was struck by the change in slope c. 2016, so I added the most recent linear fit to Hansen and Sato’s chart (image). Hansen attributes the higher recent averages to a Super El Niño year but I’m looking at the years right after that. Even though we are now in a double dip La Niña, the upslope is steeper. We will need at least a decade to confirm a pattern, but it is ominous at the moment, and of course we keep adding long-lived CO2 and methane, more each year, and it will be decades before those gases distribute over the upper atmosphere and reach their full greenhouse insulation effect.


Sitting on one’s zafu in a world at quarantine, one should ask: where, when all this sickness is over, should I position myself for this altered future? We are coming to the end of the Holocene Empire. It was a long, monumental, 50,000-year global civilization, with many dynasties — Homo neanderthalensis, Homo sapiens sapiens, Homo collossus. Now we find our deepest flaws revealed to us all in a rush. It is the sloppy, erotic, end-game theater state of Janaab’ Pakal, last ruler of Palenque. What follows is barbarity and dissolution.

Students of history will also know that what follows the death of empires is not annihilation but a return to basics. Before the Holocene Empire, Homo made habitats for half a million years in adaptive ways, in inauspicious weather, in small, roving bands of one or two dozen individuals. We have evidence from the seasonal camp at Terra Amata, on the Mediterranean coast BCE 400,000, to tell us how they lived, knapping points and fishhooks. They were more often challenged by cold than by heat, but they managed to get through, a year at a time. 

“A year at a time” is how we are taking life now. It is preparing us for our future. Wayne Gretzky’s famous quote, “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been” has a corollary: “Watch where everyone is moving and go where they aren’t.” Maybe you would be better off painting water colors, moving to an ecovillage, or running the kitchen in an Ecosystem Restoration Camp than whatever it was you were doing before. Plant some trees, help with a whale census, bag the peaks. Now is the time. Skate to where the puck is going.

 ____________________

 

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

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

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

 



#RestorationGeneration

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


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

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


Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Great Pause Week 57: Mama at the Bat

"How do pandemics, climate variability, plastic, toxic pollution, and other threats affect fertility?"

 

Image after Saisha Bloom: beinG sLAVE


Some time back, I came across an odd fact that did not seem to reconcile with what had I thought about natural systems and planetary homeostasis. Girls all over the world, from the capital cities of Europe to the remote regions of Pakistan, were getting their periods younger. In Europe, menarche declined from age 17 in 1840 to about 13 in 1970. In North America it declined from about 15 in 1890 to 13 in 1920. The age of onset was shortening.

This extends the window of fertility, meaning women become able to bear more children during their lives. So why, if human overpopulation threatens all life on Earth, should that be “naturally” accelerating? 

One hypotheses is that since 1840, nutrition, average weight, and stress, have all changed markedly. Logically, an improved standard of living translates into begetting more children. Might it also be that we are genetically conditioned, by hundreds of thousands of years of extreme climate variability and other threats to our survival, to burst forth and flower when we luck into better conditions? We can observe, for instance, how the end of World War II brought a surge in baby-having, and how stresses from climate and culture are driving down fertility today. Nomadic refugees cannot easily accommodate childbearing and infant care. 

Another study suggests that vitamin D deficiency elevates risk of early menarche. Intuitively, this would correspond to a more outdoor lifestyle for children in 1840 compared to 1970. 

No datum directly shows that chemicals are responsible for the change. Data is accumulating, however, that environmental pollution may be affecting other factors. In 2017, Shanna Swan, an environmental and reproductive epidemiologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and her team of researchers completed a study that showed that over the past four decades, sperm levels among men in Western countries have dropped by more than 50 percent. They hypothesized that both lifestyle and chemical exposures may be the cause.

Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race

In the short span of a few decades, reduction in male fertility has overtaken the increase in female fertility and the extensions of average lifespan that were pushing population higher. Japan’s population has been in decline since 2006, creating problems as a greying population swamps pension and healthcare systems. It’s a similar story in South Korea, Italy, Spain, and across most of Eastern Europe. In only four industrialized countries are women, on average, having the two children required to sustain population size.

“It’s too early to be alarmist,” says Henri Leridon, who heads the Laboratory of Epidemiology, Demography, and Social Sciences at the University of Paris XI. On the lifestyle side of the equation, many factors converge to lower fertility:

  • Women in Western countries have been electing to have children later, which is bound to result in fewer children per family. 
  • The expansion of in vitro fertilization may have created a cohort of adults who have inherited their parents’ fertility problems.
  • The shift towards having more sexual partners post-adolescence has increased sexually transmitted diseases, including Chlamydia trachomatis, a major cause of female infertility which is rarely diagnosed and produces no obvious symptoms.
  • Up to ten percent of US women are thought to have infertility related to obesity, where eggs do not mature or there is a failure to ovulate.
  • Smoking, alcohol consumption and a range of other lifestyle factors can all reduce a couple’s ability to conceive, usually affecting women more severely than men. 

On the chemical exposures causality, researchers have reported:

  • A woman’s stock of eggs is defined by the number and maturity of her ovarian follicles when she herself was an embryo. Normal fetal follicular development depends on the mother’s diet and other lifestyle factors, including her exposure to chemicals.
  • Adult male sperm count and quality is determined largely by the development of sperm-nurturing Sertoli cells in the embryonic testes. This depends heavily on exposure to sex hormones in the womb, which again is influenced by the mother’s lifestyle and other environmental factors.

Where global fertility stands now is hard to say. For example, among 1,540 British couples aged 16–59, taking longer than one year to get pregnant fell from 21% in 1960–65 to just 10% in 1991–93. Fertility was rising. Yet, in a survey of thousands of USAnian couples, fertility declined between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s.

Swann thinks the US trend is the more likely to dominate in the future. Her team found that sperm counts have dropped almost 60% since 1973 and could reach zero by 2045. 

Zero. Let that sink in. That would mean no babies. No reproduction. No more humans. Forgive me for asking: why isn’t the UN calling an emergency meeting on this right now?

 — Erin Brockovich 

Swann writes, “The current state of reproductive affairs can’t continue much longer without threatening human survival. It’s a global existential crisis.” 

Writing for The Guardian on March 18, Erin Brockovich observed:

In the United States today, for example, you can’t eat the deer meat caught in in Oscoda, Michigan, as the health department there issued a “do not eat” advisory for deer caught near the former Air Force base because of staggeringly high PFOS levels .… 
***
The chemicals to blame for this crisis are found in everything from plastic containers and food wrapping, to waterproof clothes and fragrances in cleaning products, to soaps and shampoos, to electronics and carpeting. Some of them, called PFAS, are known as “forever chemicals”, because they don’t breakdown in the environment or the human body. They just accumulate and accumulate — doing more and more damage, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. Now, it seems, humanity is reaching a breaking point.
***
The European Union, for example, has restricted several phthalates in toys and sets limits on phthalates considered “reprotoxic” — meaning they harm the human reproductive capacities — in food production.

I suspect life on Earth would be considerably better, not just for humans but for all other creatures, if human population crashed to, say, one billion. What fertility alarmists seem to worry about is the economy.

But we have been here before.

References

Butler, D. The fertility riddle. Nature 432, 38–39 (2004). 03 November 2004

Flaws, Jodi A., Fady I. Sharara, Ellen K. Silbergeld, and Anne N. Hirshfield, “Environmental exposures and women’s reproductive health” in Women and Health, pp. 625–633. Academic Press, 2000

Pal, Lubna, and Hugh S. Taylor. “Role in Reproductive Biology and Reproductive Dysfunction in Women” in Vitamin D, pp. 783–795. Academic Press, 2018.

 ___________________


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

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

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

#RestorationGeneration

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

 — Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Great Pause Week 56: The Upside of Work


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

Ökodorf Freie Republik Wendland at May 1980 Gorleben Protestcamp

We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.

 — expression in the Soviet era

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was struck by the fragility of it all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He says “Build Back Better” is mainly 

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

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

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

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

_____________________

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

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

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

#RestorationGeneration

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Great Pause Week 55: The Secret Life of Weed

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


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

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

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

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

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

Why should a cannabis plant be any different?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Ibrahim AlHusseini, CEO, FullCycle Funds

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

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

 — Monica Gagliano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And puppies too?

References

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

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

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

 ________________________


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

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

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

#RestorationGeneration

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

— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.


Sunday, March 28, 2021

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

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

 

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

 — Thomas Welcome Roys, 1858

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 — Bradshaw and Erhlich, Ghastly Future 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But some moments are worth such risks.

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

#RestorationGeneration

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

Friends

Friends

Dis-complainer

The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.