When digital nature replaces nature

Diane Ackerman writes: Last summer, I watched as a small screen in a department store window ran a video of surfing in California. That simple display mesmerized high-heeled, pin-striped, well-coiffed passersby who couldn’t take their eyes off the undulating ocean and curling waves that dwarfed the human riders. Just as our ancient ancestors drew animals on cave walls and carved animals from wood and bone, we decorate our homes with animal prints and motifs, give our children stuffed animals to clutch, cartoon animals to watch, animal stories to read. Our lives trumpet, stomp, and purr with animal tales, such as The Bat Poet, The Velveteen Rabbit, Aesop’s Fables, The Wind in the Willows, The Runaway Bunny, and Charlotte’s Web. I first read these wondrous books as a grown-up, when both the adult and the kid in me were completely spellbound. We call each other by “pet” names, wear animal-print clothes. We ogle plants and animals up close on screens of one sort or another. We may not worship or hunt the animals we see, but we still regard them as necessary physical and spiritual companions. It seems the more we exile ourselves from nature, the more we crave its miracle waters. Yet technological nature can’t completely satisfy that ancient yearning.

What if, through novelty and convenience, digital nature replaces biological nature? Gradually, we may grow used to shallower and shallower experiences of nature. Studies show that we’ll suffer. Richard Louv writes of widespread “nature deficit disorder” among children who mainly play indoors — an oddity quite new in the history of humankind. He documents an upswell in attention disorders, obesity, depression, and lack of creativity. A San Diego fourth-grader once told him: “I like to play indoors because that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” Adults suffer equally. It’s telling that hospital patients with a view of trees heal faster than those gazing at city buildings and parking lots. In studies conducted by Peter H. Kahn and his colleagues at the University of Washington, office workers in windowless cubicles were given flat-screen views of nature. They reaped the benefits of greater health, happiness, and efficiency than those without virtual windows. But they weren’t as happy, healthy, or creative as people given real windows with real views of nature.

As a species, we’ve somehow survived large and small ice ages, genetic bottlenecks, plagues, world wars, and all manner of natural disasters, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll survive our own ingenuity. At first glance, it seems like we may be living in sensory overload. The new technology, for all its boons, also bedevils us with speed demons, alluring distractors, menacing highjinks, cyber-bullies, thought-nabbers, calm-frayers, and a spiky wad of miscellaneous news. Some days it feels like we’re drowning in a twittering bog of information. But, at exactly the same time, we’re living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail. Like seeing icebergs without the cold, without squinting in the Antarctic glare, without the bracing breaths of dry air, without hearing the chorus of lapping waves and shrieking gulls. We lose the salty smell of the cold sea, the burning touch of ice. If, reading this, you can taste those sensory details in your mind, is that because you’ve experienced them in some form before, as actual experience? If younger people never experience them, can they respond to words on the page in the same way?

The farther we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by all our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature’s precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature. [Continue reading...]

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William deBuys: Love affair in the back country

Without visiting it, the eighteenth-century French natural scientist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, propounded the theory that the New World was an inferior creation, its species but degenerate versions of European ones. “There is no North American animal comparable to the elephant: no giraffes, lions, or hippopotami,” he wrote. “All animals are smaller… Everything shrinks under a ‘niggardly sky and unprolific land.’” Thomas Jefferson, then-ambassador to Paris, was so incensed that he dispatched a revolutionary war hero and 20 soldiers to New Hampshire to bag a large moose and had it shipped to Buffon. So when Charles Wilson Peale uncovered the giant bones of an antediluvian creature he called a “mammoth” (a mastodon, as it turned out), it was a patriotic moment. No traces of such a giant animal had previously been found on Earth.  Americans clearly had bigger and better to offer than anything a European naturalist could point to. And for all anyone knew, somewhere out in the territories, in that great wilderness still to be explored, such beasts perhaps still roamed.

In the same spirit, while America had no great buildings or cathedrals, the country had something so much more magnificent than the most awesome of Europe’s places of worship. It had nature’s architecture, its “cathedrals,” in a wilderness unmatched in its wonders.

That was one remarkable American tradition. I represented another. Sometime in the spring or early summer of 1962, I decided to light out for the wilderness. Keep in mind that I was a kid for whom the wilderness was New York City’s Central Park and the wilds were the suburbs.  So it was an adventurous, if not daft, thing to do. My best friend and I took our bikes, boarded a train, and headed for Bear Mountain a couple of hours away. So many years later, I have no clue how the idea lodged in our heads or why, for the first serious biking trip of our lives, we chose a place quite openly labeled a “mountain.” Did we have no concept of “uphill,” having grown up in a remarkably flat coastal city? All I remember is that it wasn’t long before we found ourselves wrung out at the side of the road, wondering how we would ever get anywhere near our prospective campground. As so often happens, however, we were saved by the kindness of strangers. Someone took pity on us, stopped his truck or van, tossed our bikes into the back, and drove us to our destination.

We were finally in the cathedral of the woods. That night, we pitched our little tent, made a fire, managed to be scared by a bobcat whose glowing eyes we caught in the beam of our flashlight, and finally retired to sleep on ground crisscrossed by roots, only to be attacked by some giant, truly fearsome bug. (Think Mothra!) Yes, it’s true: in that cathedral I was praying for deliverance as the sun came up.

And don’t even get me started on the beach in California, years later, where I woke up sopping wet from the ocean dew, or the thousands of hopping bugs that advanced on my sleeping bag on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, or that night in a ditch at the side of some road in a scruffy backland when no one would pick up two young hitchhikers. As you’ll see today, TomDispatch regular William deBuys is quite a different kind of American. In fact, at this very moment, he’s on a raft joyously heading down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

And here’s the thing: as someone who wouldn’t be caught dead sleeping one more night in the wild, I genuinely celebrate deBuys and his ilk, who have had such a hand in ensuring that the great natural cathedrals of our American world will be there (we hope) for generations yet to come. His celebration of American nature, based on his own youthful experience lighting out for the territories, ranks among the special pleasures of what I’ve published at TomDispatch. Tom Engelhardt

The Wilderness Act turns 50
Celebrating the great laws of 1964
By William deBuys

Let us now praise famous laws and the year that begat them: 1964.

The first thing to know about 1964 was that, although it occurred in the 1960s, it wasn’t part of “the Sixties.” The bellbottoms, flower power, LSD, and craziness came later, beginning about 1967 and extending into the early 1970s. Trust me: I was there, and I don’t remember much; so by the dictum variously attributed to Grace Slick, Dennis Hopper, and others (that if you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t part of them), I must really have been there.

[Read more...]

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Obama creates world’s largest ocean reserve in the Pacific — more than twice the size of California

tidepools-pacific-remote-islands

Vox reports: On Thursday, President Obama created the world’s largest ocean reserve.

The new reserve, an enlargement of the existing Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, nearly quadruples the total amount of US ocean territory that’s protected from commercial fishing, oil drilling, and other activities.

Previously, the monument — a cluster of reserves surrounding seven uninhabited islands south and west of Hawaii — covered about 86,888 square miles. The new monument will cover nearly 490,000 square miles in total, with the gains coming from extending the borders to 200 miles off the coasts of Wake Island, Jarvis Island, and Johnston Atoll. This is as far as the US government is permitted to protect, according to international law.

Despite the huge gains, though, the new monument is considerably smaller than the one Obama originally proposed in July, which would have been 782,000 square miles, and extended the protected zone around four other islands as well. Opposition from the commercial tuna fishing industry during the public comment period led to the shrinkage.

At the moment, there’s no drilling and not that much fishing in the newly protected area — so the reserve won’t be hugely impactful at the start. Still, it’s a big step forward in proactively protecting marine habitats on a massive scale. [Continue reading...]

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Green modernism would destroy wilderness

Brandon Keim writes: Several years ago, I asked a biologist friend what she thought of a recently fashionable notion in environmentalist circles: that pristine nature was an illusion, and our beloved wilderness an outdated construct that didn’t actually exist. She’d just finished her shift at the local boardwalk, a volunteer-tended path through a lovely little peat bog that formed after the last ice age, near what is today eastern Maine’s largest commercial shopping area.

After a moment’s reflection, she said this was probably true, in an academic sense, but she didn’t pay it much mind. The fact remained that places such as the bog, affected by human activity, were special, and ought to be protected; other places were affected far less, but they were special and needed protection, too.

It was a simple, practical answer, from someone who’d devoted much of her life to tending the natural world. I find myself recalling it now that the ideals of conservation are under attack by the movement’s own self-appointed vanguard: the green modernists (aka the New Conservationists, post-environmentalists or eco-pragmatists), a group of influential thinkers who argue that we should embrace our planetary lordship and re-conceive Earth as a giant garden.

Get over your attachment to wilderness, they say. There’s no such thing, and thinking otherwise is downright counterproductive. As for wildness, some might exist in the margins of our gardens – designed and managed to serve human wants – but it’s not especially important. And if you appreciate wild animals and plants for their own sake? Well, get over that, too. Those sentiments are as outdated as a daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau’s beard, dead as a dodo in an Anthropocene age characterised by humanity’s literally awesome domination of Earth.

That humanity has vast power is true. Human purposes divert roughly one-fourth of all terrestrial photosynthetic activity and half its available fresh water. We’re altering ocean currents and atmospheric patterns, and moving as much rock as the process of erosion. The sheer biomass of humanity and our domesticated animals dwarfs that of other land mammals; our plastic permeates the oceans. We’re driving other creatures extinct at rates last seen 65 million years ago, when an asteroid struck Earth and ended the age of dinosaurs.

By midcentury, there could be 10 billion humans, all demanding and deserving a quality of life presently experienced by only a few. It will be an extraordinary, planet-defining challenge. Meeting it will require, as green modernists correctly observe, new ideas and tools. It also demands a deep, abiding respect for non‑human life, no less negligible than the respect we extend to one another. Power is not the same thing as supremacy.

If humanity is to be more than a biological asteroid, nature-lovers should not ‘jettison their idealised notions of nature, parks and wilderness’ and quit ‘pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake’, as urged in a seminal essay co‑authored by Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organisation. Nor can we replace these ideals with what the science writer Emma Marris imagines as ‘a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us’.

Well-intentioned as these visions might be, they’re inadequate for the Anthropocene. We need to embrace more wilderness, not less. And though framing humanity’s role as global gardening sounds harmless, even pleasant, the idea contains a seed of industrial society’s fundamental flaw: an ethical vision in which only human interests matter. It’s a blueprint not for a garden, but for a landscaped graveyard. [Continue reading...]

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Is ‘progress’ good for humanity?

Jeremy Caradonna writes: The stock narrative of the Industrial Revolution is one of moral and economic progress. Indeed, economic progress is cast as moral progress.

The story tends to go something like this: Inventors, economists, and statesmen in Western Europe dreamed up a new industrialized world. Fueled by the optimism and scientific know-how of the Enlightenment, a series of heroic men — James Watt, Adam Smith, William Huskisson, and so on — fought back against the stultifying effects of regulated economies, irrational laws and customs, and a traditional guild structure that quashed innovation. By the mid-19th century, they had managed to implement a laissez-faire (“free”) economy that ran on new machines and was centered around modern factories and an urban working class. It was a long and difficult process, but this revolution eventually brought Europeans to a new plateau of civilization. In the end, Europeans lived in a new world based on wage labor, easy mobility, and the consumption of sparkling products.

Europe had rescued itself from the pre-industrial misery that had hampered humankind since the dawn of time. Cheap and abundant fossil fuel powered the trains and other steam engines that drove humankind into this brave new future. Later, around the time that Europeans decided that colonial slavery wasn’t such a good idea, they exported this revolution to other parts of the world, so that everyone could participate in freedom and industrialized modernity. They did this, in part, by “opening up markets” in primitive agrarian societies. The net result has been increased human happiness, wealth, and productivity — the attainment of our true potential as a species.

Sadly, this saccharine story still sweetens our societal self-image. Indeed, it is deeply ingrained in the collective identity of the industrialized world. The narrative has gotten more complex but remains à la base a triumphalist story. Consider, for instance, the closing lines of Joel Mokyr’s 2009 The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700–1850: “Material life in Britain and in the industrialized world that followed it is far better today than could have been imagined by the most wild-eyed optimistic 18th-century philosophe — and whereas this outcome may have been an unforeseen consequence, most economists, at least, would regard it as an undivided blessing.”

The idea that the Industrial Revolution has made us not only more technologically advanced and materially furnished but also better for it is a powerful narrative and one that’s hard to shake. It makes it difficult to dissent from the idea that new technologies, economic growth, and a consumer society are absolutely necessary. To criticize industrial modernity is somehow to criticize the moral advancement of humankind, since a central theme in this narrative is the idea that industrialization revolutionized our humanity, too. Those who criticize industrial society are often met with defensive snarkiness: “So you’d like us to go back to living in caves, would ya?” or “you can’t stop progress!”

Narratives are inevitably moralistic; they are never created spontaneously from “the facts” but are rather stories imposed upon a range of phenomena that always include implicit ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong. The proponents of the Industrial Revolution inherited from the philosophers of the Enlightenment the narrative of human (read: European) progress over time but placed technological advancement and economic liberalization at the center of their conception of progress. This narrative remains today an ingrained operating principle that propels us in a seemingly unstoppable way toward more growth and more technology, because the assumption is that these things are ultimately beneficial for humanity.

Advocates of sustainability are not opposed to industrialization per se, and don’t seek a return to the Stone Age. But what they do oppose is the dubious narrative of progress caricatured above. Along with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they acknowledge the objective advancement of technology, but they don’t necessarily think that it has made us more virtuous, and they don’t assume that the key values of the Industrial Revolution are beyond reproach: social inequality for the sake of private wealth; economic growth at the expense of everything, including the integrity of the environment; and the assumption that mechanized newness is always a positive thing. Above all, sustainability-minded thinkers question whether the Industrial Revolution has jeopardized humankind’s ability to live happily and sustainably upon the Earth. Have the fossil-fueled good times put future generations at risk of returning to the same misery that industrialists were in such a rush to leave behind? [Continue reading...]

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The thermodynamic theory of ecology

Quanta Magazine: The Western Ghats in India rise like a wall between the Arabian Sea and the heart of the subcontinent to the east. The 1,000-mile-long chain of coastal mountains is dense with lush rainforest and grasslands, and each year, clouds bearing monsoon rains blow in from the southwest and break against the mountains’ flanks, unloading water that helps make them hospitable to numerous spectacular and endangered species. The Western Ghats are one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. They were also the first testing ground of an unusual new theory in ecology that applies insights from physics to the study of the environment.

John Harte, a professor of ecology at the University of California, Berkeley, has a wry, wizened face and green eyes that light up when he describes his latest work. He has developed what he calls the maximum entropy (MaxEnt) theory of ecology, which may offer a solution to a long-standing problem in ecology: how to calculate the total number of species in an ecosystem, as well as other important numbers, based on extremely limited information — which is all that ecologists, no matter how many years they spend in the field, ever have. Five years ago, the Ghats convinced him that what he thought was possible from back-of-the-envelope calculations could work in the real world. He and his colleagues will soon publish the results of a study that estimates the number of insect and tree species living in a tropical forest in Panama. The paper will also suggest how MaxEnt could give species estimates in the Amazon, a swath of more than 2 million square miles of land that is notoriously difficult to survey.
John Harte thinks it is possible to predict the behavior of ecosystems using just a few key attributes. His method ignores nature’s small-grained complexities, which makes many ecologists skeptical of the project.

If the MaxEnt theory of ecology can give good estimates in a wide variety of scenarios, it could help answer the many questions that revolve around how species are spread across the landscape, such as how many would be lost if a forest were cleared, how to design wildlife preserves that keep species intact, or how many rarely seen species might be hiding in a given area. Perhaps more importantly, the theory hints at a unified way of thinking about ecology — as a system that can be described with just a few variables, with all the complexity of life built on top. [Continue reading...]

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How to save Earth from a cataclysmic extinction event

Tony Hiss talks to E.O. Wilson, the great evolutionary biologist, about how to save life on Earth: Throughout the 544 million or so years since hard-shelled animals first appeared, there has been a slow increase in the number of plants and animals on the planet, despite five mass extinction events. The high point of biodiversity likely coincided with the moment modern humans left Africa and spread out across the globe 60,000 years ago. As people arrived, other species faltered and vanished, slowly at first and now with such acceleration that Wilson talks of a coming “biological holocaust,” the sixth mass extinction event, the only one caused not by some cataclysm but by a single species—us.

Wilson recently calculated that the only way humanity could stave off a mass extinction crisis, as devastating as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, would be to set aside half the planet as permanently protected areas for the ten million other species. “Half Earth,” in other words, as I began calling it—half for us, half for them. A version of this idea has been in circulation among conservationists for some time.

“It’s been in my mind for years,” Wilson told me, “that people haven’t been thinking big enough—even conservationists. Half Earth is the goal, but it’s how we get there, and whether we can come up with a system of wild landscapes we can hang onto. I see a chain of uninterrupted corridors forming, with twists and turns, some of them opening up to become wide enough to accommodate national biodiversity parks, a new kind of park that won’t let species vanish.”

I had also begun to think about such wildland chains as “Long Landscapes,” and Wilson said he liked the idea that they could meet climate change head on: Those that run north-south, like the initiative in the West known as Yellowstone-to-Yukon, can let life move north as things warm up, and those that run east-west may have the benefit of letting life move east, away from the west, which in the future may not see as much rain. “Why, when this thing gets really going,” Wilson said, “you’ll be so surrounded, so enveloped by connected corridors that you’ll almost never not be in a national park, or at any rate in a landscape that leads to a national park.”

Is this Half Earth vision even possible, I wondered, and what might it look like? [Continue reading...]

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Scientists may have cracked the giant Siberian crater mystery — and the news isn’t good

The Washington Post reports: There’s now a substantiated theory about what created the crater. And the news isn’t so good.

It may be methane gas, released by the thawing of frozen ground. According to a recent Nature article, “air near the bottom of the crater contained unusually high concentrations of methane — up to 9.6% — in tests conducted at the site on 16 July, says Andrei Plekhanov, an archaeologist at the Scientific Centre of Arctic Studies in Salekhard, Russia. Plekhanov, who led an expedition to the crater, says that air normally contains just 0.000179% methane.”

The scientist said the methane release may be related to Yamal’s unusually hot summers in 2012 and 2013, which were warmer by an average of 5 degrees Celsius. “As temperatures rose, the researchers suggest, permafrost thawed and collapsed, releasing methane that had been trapped in the icy ground,” the report stated.

A crater located in the permafrost about 18 miles from a huge gas field north of the regional capital of Salekhard, roughly 2,000 kilometers northeast of Moscow, on June 16, 2014. AFP/Getty Images

Plekhanov explained to Nature that the conclusion is preliminary. He would like to study how much methane is contained in the air trapped inside the crater’s walls. Such a task, however, could be difficult. “Its rims are slowly melting and falling into the crater,” the researcher told the science publication. “You can hear the ground falling, you can hear the water running; it’s rather spooky.”

“Gas pressure increased until it was high enough to push away the overlaying layers in a powerful injection, forming the crater,” explained geochemist Hans-Wolfgang Hubberten of Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, adding that he’s never seen anything like the crater.

Some scientists contend the thawing of such terrain, rife with centuries of carbon, would release incredible amounts of methane gas and affect global temperatures. “Pound for pound, the comparative impact of [methane gas] on climate change is over 20 times greater than [carbon dioxide] over a 100-year period,” reported the Environmental Protection Agency.

As the Associated Press put it in 2010, the melting of Siberia’s permafrost is “a climate time bomb waiting to explode if released into the atmosphere.” [Continue reading...]

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Chip Ward: Leave it to beaver(s)

If you want to be unnerved, just pay a visit to the U.S. Drought Monitor and check out its map of the American West with almost all of California stained the deep, distressing shades of red that indicate either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought.  In other words, it could hardly be worse.  California is now in its third year of drought, with no end in sight; state agricultural losses are estimated at $2.2 billion for 2014 alone; most of its reservoirs are less than half full; the Colorado River basin, which supplies water to “about 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland in seven states,” including California, is compromised; and California’s first six months of 2014 have been the “hottest ever… nearly five degrees warmer than the twentieth century average.” The drought’s arms extend north through Oregon (“severe”) into Washington, where it’s already been the fire season from hell — and it’s just beginning.  They also reach east through Nevada as far as Utah and straight across the Southwest in various shades of yellow, orange, and deep red.

TomDispatch’s western contingent, environmentalists Chip Ward and William deBuys, have had the stresses of climate change, rising heat, drought, wildfires, desertification, and someday the possible abandonment of parts of the Southwest on their minds (and so on the minds of TD readers) for years now.  These days, the chickens are coming home to roost — but not, it seems, the beavers.  Ward, a Utah environmentalist and the former assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System, has long focused not just on how our American world is being ravaged, but on how to protect and restore it.  In today’s post, he offers a reminder that sometimes such restoration can come in small packages and that even the most modest of natural geo-engineering can disturb vested interests. Tom Engelhardt

The original geo-engineers
Or how to save the iconic West from the cow
By Chip Ward

The great novelist Wallace Stegner sorted the conflicting impulses in his beloved American West into two camps. There were the “boomers” who saw the frontier as an opportunity to get rich quick and move on: the conquistadors, the gold miners, the buffalo hunters, the land scalpers, and the dam-building good ol’ boys. They are still with us, trying to drill and frack their way to Easy Street across our public lands. Then there were those Stegner called the “nesters” or “stickers” who came to stay and struggled to understand the land and its needs. Their quest was to become native.

That division between boomers and nesters is, of course, too simple.  All of us have the urge to consume and move on, as well as the urge to nest, so our choices are rarely clear or final. Today, that old struggle in the American West is intensifying as heat-parched, beetle-gnawed forests ignite in annual epic firestorms, reservoirs dry up, and Rocky Mountain snow is ever more stained with blowing desert dust. 

The modern version of nesters are the conservationists who try to partner with the ecosystems where they live. Wounded landscapes, for example, can often be restored by unleashing nature’s own self-healing powers. The new nesters understand that you cannot steer and control an ecosystem but you might be able to dance with one.  Sage Sorensen dances with beavers.

[Read more...]

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Naomi Oreskes: A ‘green’ bridge to hell

Call it the energy or global warming news of recent weeks.  No, I’m not referring to the fact this was globally the hottest June on record ever (as May had been before it), or that NASA launched the first space vehicle “dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide.” Nor do I mean the new report released by a “bipartisan group,” including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and three former secretaries of the treasury, suggesting that, by 2100, $238 billion to $507 billion worth of American property will be “below sea level”; nor that Virginia’s coastline is already being eaten away by rising seas and storm-surge destruction in such a striking manner that state Democrats and Republicans are leaving global warming denialists in the lurch and forming a climate change task force to figure out what in the world to do.

No, I was referring to the news that the Obama administration has just reopened the eastern seaboard to offshore oil and gas exploration. To the extent that this has been covered, the articles have generally focused on the economic positives — for jobs and national wealth — of finding new deposits of oil and gas in those waters, and the unhappiness of the environmental community over the effect of the sonic booms used in underwater seismic exploration on whales and other sea creatures. Not emphasized has been the way, from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, not to speak of the shale-gas fracking fields of this country, the Obama administration has had an all-of-the-above policy on fossil fuels.  Our “global warming” president has consistently championed reforms (of a modest sort) to combat climate change.  These, however, fit uncomfortably with his administration’s anything-goes menu of oil and gas exploration and exploitation that is distinctly in the drill-baby-drill mode. Unlike that drill-baby-drill proponent Sarah Palin, however, the president knows what he’s doing and what the long-term effects of such policies are likely to be.

Part of the way he and his officials seem to have squared the circle is by championing their moves to throttle coal use and bring natural gas, touted as the “clean” fossil fuel, to market in a big way.  As it happens, historian of science Naomi Oreskes, an expert on the subject, has news for the president and his advisors: when looked at in a clear-eyed way, natural gas isn’t going to turn out to be the fossil-fuel equivalent of a wonder drug that will cure the latest climate disease.  Quite the opposite: its exploitation will actually increase the global use of fossil fuels and pump more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, while possibly suppressing the development of actual renewable alternatives.  In a magisterial piece today, she explores every aspect of the crucial question of why natural gas is anything but a panacea for our climate change problems.

This couldn’t be more important.  Science historians Oreskes and Erik Conway have already written a classic book, Merchants of Doubt, on how Big Energy and a tiny group of scientists associated with it sold us a false bill of goods on the nature and impact of its products (as the tobacco industry and essentially the same set of scientists had before it).  Together, they have now produced a little gem of a book on climate change: The Collapse of Western Civilization: a View From the Future.  Written, so the claim goes, in 2393 by a “senior scholar of the Second People’s Republic of China,” it traces the events that led to the Great Collapse of 2090.  You haven’t heard of that grim event yet?  Well, you will as soon as you pick up Oreskes’s and Conway’s “thought-provoking” and gripping work of “science-based fiction” on what our future may have in store for us — if we don’t act to change our world. Tom Engelhardt

Wishful thinking about natural gas
Why fossil fuels can’t solve the problems created by fossil fuels
By Naomi Oreskes

Albert Einstein is rumored to have said that one cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that led to it. Yet this is precisely what we are now trying to do with climate change policy.  The Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, many environmental groups, and the oil and gas industry all tell us that the way to solve the problem created by fossil fuels is with more fossils fuels.  We can do this, they claim, by using more natural gas, which is touted as a “clean” fuel — even a “greenfuel.

Like most misleading arguments, this one starts from a kernel of truth.

[Read more...]

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Is the world making you sick?

Jill Neimark writes: In 1962, physicist and historian Thomas Kuhn proposed that science makes progress not just through the gradual accumulation and analysis of knowledge, but also through periodic revolutions in perspective. Anomalies and incongruities that may have been initially ignored drive a field into crisis, he argued, and eventually force a new scientific framework. Copernicus, Darwin, Newton, Galileo, Pasteur—all have spearheaded what Kuhn has called a “paradigm shift.”

Thomas Kuhn is Claudia Miller’s hero. An immunologist and environmental health expert at the University of Texas School of Medicine in San Antonio, and a visiting senior scientist at Harvard University, Miller lives by Kuhn’s maxim that “the scientist who embraces a new paradigm is like the man wearing inverting lenses…[he] has undergone a revolutionary transformation of vision.”

Miller has spent 30 years hammering out a theory to explain the contemporary surge in perplexing, multi-symptom illnesses — from autism to Gulf War Syndrome — which represent a Kuhnian shift in medicine. She calls her theory “TILT,” short for Toxicant Induced Loss of Tolerance.

TILT posits that a surprising range of today’s most common chronic conditions are linked to daily exposure to very low doses of synthetic chemicals that have been in mass production since World War II. These include organophosphate pesticides, flame-retardants, formaldehyde, benzene, and tens of thousands of other chemicals.

TILT, says Miller, is a two-step process. Genetically susceptible individuals get sick after a toxic exposure or series of exposures. Instead of recovering, their neurological and immune systems become “tilted.” Then, they lose tolerance to a wide range of chemicals commonly found at low doses in everyday life and develop ongoing illnesses. [Continue reading...]

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Earth’s magnetic field polarity could flip sooner than expected

Scientific American reports: Earth’s magnetic field, which protects the planet from huge blasts of deadly solar radiation, has been weakening over the past six months, according to data collected by a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite array called Swarm.

The biggest weak spots in the magnetic field — which extends 370,000 miles (600,000 kilometers) above the planet’s surface — have sprung up over the Western Hemisphere, while the field has strengthened over areas like the southern Indian Ocean, according to the magnetometers onboard the Swarm satellites — three separate satellites floating in tandem.

The scientists who conducted the study are still unsure why the magnetic field is weakening, but one likely reason is that Earth’s magnetic poles are getting ready to flip, said Rune Floberghagen, the ESA’s Swarm mission manager. In fact, the data suggest magnetic north is moving toward Siberia.

“Such a flip is not instantaneous, but would take many hundred if not a few thousand years,” Floberghagen told Live Science. “They have happened many times in the past.”

Scientists already know that magnetic north shifts. Once every few hundred thousand years the magnetic poles flip so that a compass would point south instead of north. While changes in magnetic field strength are part of this normal flipping cycle, data from Swarm have shown the field is starting to weaken faster than in the past. Previously, researchers estimated the field was weakening about 5 percent per century, but the new data revealed the field is actually weakening at 5 percent per decade, or 10 times faster than thought. As such, rather than the full flip occurring in about 2,000 years, as was predicted, the new data suggest it could happen sooner. [Continue reading...]

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New study shows how existing cropland could feed billions more

Phys.org: Feeding a growing human population without increasing stresses on Earth’s strained land and water resources may seem like an impossible challenge. But according to a new report by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, focusing efforts to improve food systems on a few specific regions, crops and actions could make it possible to both meet the basic needs of 3 billion more people and decrease agriculture’s environmental footprint.

The report, published today in Science, focuses on 17 key crops that produce 86 percent of the world’s crop calories and account for most irrigation and fertilizer consumption on a global scale. It proposes a set of key actions in three broad areas that that have the greatest potential for reducing the adverse environmental impacts of agriculture and boosting our ability meet global food needs. For each, it identifies specific “leverage points” where nongovernmental organizations, foundations, governments, businesses and citizens can target food-security efforts for the greatest impact. The biggest opportunities cluster in six countries—China, India, U.S., Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan—along with Europe.

“This paper represents an important next step beyond previous studies that have broadly outlined strategies for sustainably feeding people,” said lead author Paul West, co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Global Landscapes Initiative. “By pointing out specifically what we can do and where, it gives funders and policy makers the information they need to target their activities for the greatest good.” [Continue reading...]

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Monsanto’s herbicide linked to fatal kidney disease epidemic

Jeff Ritterman, M.D. writes: For years, scientists have been trying to unravel the mystery of a chronic kidney disease epidemic that has hit Central America, India and Sri Lanka. The disease occurs in poor peasant farmers who do hard physical work in hot climes. In each instance, the farmers have been exposed to herbicides and to heavy metals. The disease is known as CKDu, for Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown etiology. The “u” differentiates this illness from other chronic kidney diseases where the cause is known. Very few Western medical practitioners are even aware of CKDu, despite the terrible toll it has taken on poor farmers from El Salvador to South Asia.

Dr. Catharina Wesseling, the regional director for the Program on Work and Health (SALTRA) in Central America, which pioneered the initial studies of the region’s unsolved outbreak, put it this way, “Nephrologists and public health professionals from wealthy countries are mostly either unfamiliar with the problem or skeptical whether it even exists.”

Dr. Wesseling was being diplomatic. At a 2011 health summit in Mexico City, the United States beat back a proposal by Central American nations that would have listed CKDu as a top priority for the Americas.

David McQueen, a US delegate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who has since retired from the agency, explained the US position.

“The idea was to keep the focus on the key big risk factors that we could control and the major causes of death: heart disease, cancer and diabetes. And we felt, the position we were taking, that CKD was included.”

The United States was wrong. The delegates from Central America were correct. CKDu is a new form of illness. This kidney ailment does not stem from diabetes, hypertension or other diet-related risk factors. Unlike the kidney disease found in diabetes or hypertension, the kidney tubules are a major site of injury in CKDu, suggesting a toxic etiology. [Continue reading...]

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Oceans likened to world’s biggest failed state

Scientific American: Overfishing and pollution have pushed life in the high seas to the brink of collapse, according to a new report from the Global Ocean Commission. “The oceans are a failed state,” David Miliband, co-chair of the commission, told Reuters. The commission has implored governments to set a five-year deadline to deal with threats to the health of the high seas, which are marine waters outside national coastal zones; these seas cover almost half the globe.

Fishermen catch around ten million tons of fish from the high seas every year, with a value of $16 billion dollars. It’s a vast ocean of resources only recently made accessible by advances in fishing technology. The report warns that a combination of technology and big fuel subsidies have enabled industrial fishing fleets to heavily exploit 87% of the fish species there. Eighteen countries hand out billions of dollars in subsidies; the United States bestows fleets with $137 million for a catch worth $368 million.

Pollution, largely from plastics, also endangers ocean health. The abundance of plastics in the marine environment has risen tenfold every decade in some locations, and poses a hazard to sea life when they eat it or get entangled in it. Habitat destruction, climate change, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss also pose a danger to ocean ecosystems. [Continue reading...]

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Systemic pesticides pose global threat to biodiversity, harming bees, butterflies, fish and birds

AFP reports: Neurotoxic pesticides blamed for the world’s bee collapse are also harming butterflies, worms, fish and birds, said a scientific review that called Tuesday for tighter regulation to curb their use.

Analysing two decades of reports on the topic, an international panel of 29 scientists found there was “clear evidence of harm” from use of two pesticide types, neonicotinoids and fipronil.

And the evidence was “sufficient to trigger regulatory action”.

“We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment,” said Jean-Marc Bonmatin of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, co-author of the report entitled the Worldwide Integrated Assessment.

Far from protecting food production, these nerve-targeting insecticides known as neonics were “imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.”

The four-year assessment was carried out by The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, which advises the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s watchdog on species loss.

Neonics are widely used insecticides whose effects can be instant and lethal, or chronic. Exposure can impair smell and memory in some species, curb procreation, reduce foraging, cause flight difficulties and increase disease susceptibility.

Used for insect pest management in farming, but also in pet flea control, they have been fingered in the recent decline in bees — crucial pollinators of human food crops — in Europe, the Americas and Asia.

The latest study says these pesticides, absorbed by plants, are also harming other insect pollinators, fish and birds as they leach into soil and water.

The most affected species were terrestrial invertebrates such as earthworms, which are crucial soil-enrichers, said a press statement.

Bees and butterflies were next, followed by aquatic invertebrates like freshwater snails and water fleas, then birds, and finally fish, amphibians and certain microbes. [Continue reading...]

Imidacloprid, primarily manufactured by Bayer CropScience, is not only the most widely used neonicotinoid pesticide but also the most widely used insecticide of any type in the world.

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It’s simple. If we can’t change our economic system, our number’s up

George Monbiot writes: Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.

Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.

To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created. Ignore if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues miraculously vanished, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity impossible.

Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth. [Continue reading...]

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Russia joins global dash for shale oil in policy volte-face

The Telegraph reports: Russia is launching a strategic drive to unlock its shale oil wealth as crude output stagnates and reserves run low in the West Siberian fields, aiming to replicate America’s technology leap in a near total reversal of policy.

The Kremlin has launched an “action plan” to master fracking methods and lure investors into the Bazhenov prospective, a shale basin the size of France to the east of the Urals. Officials are no longer dismissing shale’s promise as a mirage. “We are clearing away the administrative barriers to exploration. This is the urgent challenge we are now facing,” said Kirill Molodtsov, the deputy energy minister.

The US Energy Department estimates that Russia has 75bn barrels of recoverable shale oil resources, the world’s largest deposits. The Bazhenov field is 80 times bigger than the US Bakken field in North Dakota, which alone produces 1m barrels a day.

BP joined the scramble on Saturday by signing a deal to explore for shale in Volga Urals with Rosneft, even though Rosneft’s chairman Igor Sechin is on the US sanctions list. [Continue reading...]

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