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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Why do rail tank cars carrying crude oil keep blowing up?

Mother Jones reports: Early on the morning of July 6, 2013, a runaway freight train derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, setting off a series of massive explosions and inundating the town in flaming oil. The inferno destroyed the downtown area; 47 people died.

The 72-car train had been carrying nearly 2 million gallons of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields. While the recent surge in domestic oil production has raised concerns about fracking, less attention has been paid to the billions of gallons of petroleum crisscrossing the country in "virtual pipelines" running through neighbor­hoods and alongside waterways. Most of this oil is being shipped in what’s been called "the Ford Pinto of rail cars"—a tank car whose safety flaws have been known for more than two decades. [Continue reading...]

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NASA says West Antarctic glacier collapse is now unstoppable

The New York Times reports: A large section of the mighty West Antarctica ice sheet has begun falling apart and its continued melting now appears to be unstoppable, two groups of scientists reported on Monday. If the findings hold up, they suggest that the melting could destabilize neighboring parts of the ice sheet and a rise in sea level of 10 feet or more may be unavoidable in coming centuries.

Global warming caused by the human-driven release of greenhouse gases has helped to destabilize the ice sheet, though other factors may also be involved, the scientists said.

The rise of the sea is likely to continue to be relatively slow for the rest of the 21st century, the scientists added, but in the more distant future it may accelerate markedly, potentially throwing society into crisis.

“This is really happening,” Thomas P. Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research, said in an interview. “There’s nothing to stop it now. But you are still limited by the physics of how fast the ice can flow.”

Two scientific papers released on Monday by the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters came to similar conclusions by different means. Both groups of scientists found that West Antarctic glaciers had retreated far enough to set off an inherent instability in the ice sheet, one that experts have feared for decades. [Continue reading...]

Mashable reports on the impact on some U.S. cities.

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The mounting casualties in the war of the Anthropocene

Justin E.H. Smith writes: There is a great die-off under way, one that may justly be compared to the disappearance of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, or the sudden downfall of so many great mammals at the beginning of the Holocene. But how far can such a comparison really take us in assessing the present moment?

The hard data tell us that what is happening to animals right now is part of the same broad historical process that has swept up humans: We are all being homogenized, subjected to uniform standards, domesticated. A curiosity that might help to drive this home: At present, the total biomass of mammals raised for food vastly exceeds the biomass of all mammalian wildlife on the planet (it also exceeds that of the human species itself). This was certainly not the case 10,000 or so years ago, at the dawn of the age of pastoralism.

It is hard to know where exactly, or even inexactly, to place the boundary between prehistory and history. Indeed, some authors argue that the very idea of prehistory is a sort of artificial buffer zone set up to protect properly human society from the vast expanse of mere nature that preceded us. But if we must set up a boundary, I suggest the moment when human beings began to dominate and control other large mammals for their own, human ends.

We tend to think about history as human history. Yet a suitably wide-focused perspective reveals that nothing in the course of human affairs makes complete sense without some account of animal actors. History has, in fact, been a question of human-animal interaction all along. Cherchez la vache is how the anthropologist E.E. Evans-­Pritchard argued that the social life of the cattle-herding Nuer of southern Sudan might best be summed up — “look for the cow” — but one could probably, without much stretching, extend that principle to human society in general. The cattle that now outweigh us are a mirror of our political and economic crisis, just as cattle were once a mirror of the sociocosmic harmony that characterized Nuer life. [Continue reading...]

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Oceanic acidification is dissolving marine life

Mongabay.com: It could be the plot of a horror movie: humans wake up one day to discover that chemical changes in the atmosphere are dissolving away parts of their bodies. But for small marine life known as sea butterflies, or pteropods, this is what’s happening off the West Cost of the U.S. Increased carbon in the ocean is melting away shells of sea butterflies, which are tiny marine snails that underpin much of the ocean’s food chain, including prey for pink salmon, mackerel, and herring.

“We did not expect to see pteropods being affected to this extent in our coastal region for several decades,” said William Peterson, Ph.D., an oceanographer at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center who co-authored the findings in a paper for the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Sampling sea butterflies in the species Limacina helicina off California, Washington, and Oregon in the summer of 2011, researchers found that over 50 percent of onshore sea butterflies suffered from “severe dissolution damage,” according to the paper. Offshore, 24 percent of individuals showed such damage.

The shells of sea butterflies are dissolving due to increased acidification in the oceans caused by society’s CO2 emissions. [Continue reading...]

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