The well-oiled politics of North Dakota

Deborah Sontag writes: In late June, as black and gold balloons bobbed above black and gold tables with oil-rig centerpieces, the theme song from “Dallas” warmed up the crowd for the “One Million Barrels, One Million Thanks” celebration.

The mood was giddy. Halliburton served barbecued crawfish from Louisiana. A commemorative firearms dealer hawked a “one-million barrel” shotgun emblazoned with the slogan “Oil Can!” Mrs. North Dakota, in banner and crown, posed for pictures. The Texas Flying Legends performed an airshow backlit by a leaping flare of burning gas. And Gov. Jack Dalrymple was the featured guest.

Traveling through the “economically struggling” nation, Mr. Dalrymple told the crowd, he encountered many people who asked, “Jack, what the heck are you doing out there in North Dakota?” to create the fastest-growing economy, lowest unemployment rate and (according to one survey) happiest population.

“And I enjoy explaining to them, ‘Yes, the oil boom is a big, big help,’ ” he said.

Outsiders, he explained, simply need to be educated out of their fear of fracking: “There is a way to explain it that really relaxes people, that makes them understand this is not a dangerous thing that we’re doing out here, that it’s really very well managed and very safe and really the key to the future of not only North Dakota but really our entire nation.”

Tioga, population 3,000, welcomed North Dakota’s first well in 1951, more than a half-century before hydraulic fracturing liberated the “tight oil” trapped in the Bakken shale formation. So it was fitting that Tioga ring in the daily production milestone that had ushered the Bakken into the rarefied company of historic oil fields worldwide.

But Tioga also claims another record: what is considered the largest on-land oil spill in recent American history. And only Brenda Jorgenson, 61, who attended “to hear what does not get said,” mentioned that one, sotto voce.

The million-barrel bash was devoid of protesters save for Ms. Jorgenson, a tall, slender grandmother who has two wells at her driveway’s end and three jars in her refrigerator containing blackened water that she said came from her faucet during the fracking process. She did not, however, utter a contrary word.

“I’m not that brave (or stupid) to protest among that,” she said in an email afterward. “I’ve said it before: we’re outgunned, outnumbered and out-suited.” [Continue reading…]

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The Keystone XL’s Senate failure isn’t the end of the pipeline as an act of war

Vi Waln writes: My Lakota people have a phrase – Mni Wiconi – which means “water of life”. Water is also Pejuta – our primary medicine. It is an extremely sacred element without which we cannot live, yet many people take it for granted. They do not realize: when our drinking-water sources are gone or contaminated, humanity will perish.

Water is also present in every single Lakota ceremony at which I pray – it is essential to our ceremonial way of life. Like our ancestors who sacrificed their very lives for our survival, many of us pray for the descendants who will soon stand in our place, and one of our most important prayers is for our descendants to always have an abundance of clean drinking water.

But TransCanada’s Keystone XL oil pipeline (KXL), which the company has proposed building directly over the Ogallala Aquifer, is still an immediate threat to all of us who drink water from that underground reservoir.

The Ogallala Aquifer is a major water supply for eight states, from here in North Dakota down to Texas and all the way out to New Mexico. Without clean water, these eight states will become uninhabitable. Many people – Indian and non-Indian alike – are prepared to fight the pipeline’s construction to protect the water and land, no matter the result of Tuesday evening’s vote in the US Senate.

Many Lakota people in particular view the construction of this pipeline through our treaty territory as a true act of war. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: The most significant attempt yet to force US government approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline failed narrowly to clear the Senate on Tuesday night as a coalition of Republicans and moderate Democrats fell one vote short of the 60 votes needed for the legislation to pass.

Fourteen Democrats, led by Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu, joined all 45 Republicans in voting for the bill, which called for the controversial energy project to be given immediate go-ahead after years of delay due to environmental concerns.

A similar bill was passed in the House of Representatives on Friday.

But, as expected, the bipartisan coalition failed to win over sufficient wavering Democrats, such as Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and independent Maine senator Angus King, who joined the party’s leadership and opposed the bill for a total of 41 votes against.

Landrieu, who is fighting to hold on to her seat in a run-off election next month, had called for the bill in a last-ditch effort to shore up her support in Louisiana. She attempted to heal party rifts afterwards, telling reporters in the Senate: “there is no blame, there is only joy in the fight”.

Nevertheless the size of the Democratic rebellion may put additional pressure on the White House to approve construction of the pipeline in future if, as promised, Republicans make a fresh attempt to pass legislation when the new Senate is sworn in next January. [Continue reading…]

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Hydrogen cars about to go on sale. Their only emission: water

The New York Times reports: Remember the hydrogen car?

A decade ago, President George W. Bush espoused the environmental promise of cars running on hydrogen, the universe’s most abundant element. “The first car driven by a child born today,” he said in his 2003 State of the Union speech, “could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.”

That changed under Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was President Obama’s first Secretary of Energy. “We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will convert to a hydrogen-car economy?’” Dr. Chu said then. “The answer, we felt, was ‘no.’ ” The administration slashed funding for hydrogen fuel cell research.

Attention shifted to battery electric vehicles, particularly those made by the headline-grabbing Tesla Motors.

The hydrogen car, it appeared, had died. And many did not mourn its passing, particularly those who regarded the auto companies’ interest in hydrogen technology as a stunt to signal that they cared about the environment while selling millions of highly profitable gas guzzlers.

Except the companies, including General Motors, Honda, Toyota, Daimler and Hyundai, persisted.

After many years and billions of dollars of research and development, hydrogen cars are headed to the showrooms. [Continue reading…]

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Landmark 20-year study finds pesticides linked to depression in farmers

Modern Farmer reports: Earlier this fall, researchers from the National Institute of Health finished up a landmark 20-year study, a study that hasn’t received the amount of coverage it deserves. About 84,000 farmers and spouses of farmers were interviewed since the mid-1990s to investigate the connection between pesticides and depression, a connection that had been suggested through anecdotal evidence for far longer. We called up Dr. Freya Kamel, the lead researcher on the study, to find out what the team learned and what it all means. Spoiler: nothing good.

“There had been scattered reports in the literature that pesticides were associated with depression,” says Kamel. “We wanted to do a new study because we had more detailed data than most people have access to.” That excessive amount of data includes tens of thousands of farmers, with specific information about which pesticides they were using and whether they had sought treatment for a variety of health problems, from pesticide poisoning to depression. Farmers were surveyed multiple times throughout the 20-year period, which gives the researchers an insight into their health over time that no other study has.

Because the data is so excessive, the researchers have mined it three times so far, the most recent time in a study published just this fall. The first one was concerned with suicide, the second with depression amongst the spouses of farmers (Kamel says “pesticide applicators,” but most of the people applying pesticides are farmers), and the most recent with depression amongst the farmers themselves.

There’s a significant correlation between pesticide use and depression, that much is very clear, but not all pesticides. The two types that Kamel says reliably moved the needle on depression are organochlorine insecticides and fumigants, which increase the farmer’s risk of depression by a whopping 90% and 80%, respectively. The study lays out the seven specific pesticides, falling generally into one of those two categories, that demonstrated a categorically reliable correlation to increased risk of depression.

These types aren’t necessarily uncommon, either; one, called malathion, was used by 67% of the tens of thousands of farmers surveyed. Malathion is banned in Europe, for what that’s worth. [Continue reading…]

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Europe’s bird population has fallen by over 420 million in three decades

The Guardian reports: Bird populations across Europe have decreased by over 420 million in the past 30 years, according to a study that brings together the results of scientific surveys in 25 countries. While some rarer species have seen an increase in numbers due to concerted conservation efforts, more common species across Europe are facing a steep decline.

Some of the birds that have suffered the most alarming declines are the most well known species including the house sparrow which has fallen in number by 147m or 62%, the starling (53%) and skylark (46%).

The study looked at 144 species across Europe between 1980 and 2009. Dividing the species up into four groups, from extremely rare to most common, analysts found that a small number of common species declined by over 350 million –over 80% of the total population decline of birds in that time period overall. Rarer birds, in contrast, increased by over 21,000 in the same time period.

The results indicate that efforts at conserving rarer species seem to be having an impact but may be too narrow an approach, possibly at the expense of more common species. [Continue reading…]

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Amazon rainforest losing ability to regulate climate, scientist warns

The Guardian reports: The Amazon rainforest has degraded to the point where it is losing its ability to benignly regulate weather systems, according to a stark new warning from one of Brazil’s leading scientists.

In a new report, Antonio Nobre, researcher in the government’s space institute, Earth System Science Centre, says the logging and burning of the world’s greatest forest might be connected to worsening droughts – such as the one currently plaguing São Paulo – and is likely to lead eventually to more extreme weather events.

The study, which is a summary drawing from more than 200 existing papers on Amazonian climate and forest science, is intended as a wake-up call.

“I realised the problem is much more serious than we realised, even in academia and the reason is that science has become so fragmented. Atmospheric scientists don’t look at forests as much as they should and vice versa,” said Nobre, who wrote the report for a lay audience. “It’s not written in academic language. I don’t need to preach to the converted. Our community is already very alarmed at what is going on.”

A draft seen by the Guardian warns that the “vegetation-climate equilibrium is teetering on the brink of the abyss.” If it tips, the Amazon will start to become a much drier savanna, which calamitous consequences. [Continue reading…]

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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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