Wednesday, August 28, 2019
Death Spiral for the Amazon?
The Amazon rainforest is truly a
wonder of the natural world. It is so big that it creates its own
weather, from winds that affect currents in both oceans to rainfall
which gathers and is dropped within its boundaries. It is the
world's largest source of fresh water and biodiversity. It is by far
the biggest land-based carbon sink. As increasing areas have been
cut in recent years, the rainfall has been disrupted. The deforested
areas do not produce as much moisture when the air moves over them.
At a certain point, this will lead to insufficient replacement of
lost trees, and those areas will transition to savanna rather than
Now the Amazon is burning, tens of thousands of fires, some of them
started by government operatives pouring gasoline from planes, have
raged unabated for a month. There have been significant fires due to
drought twice before this millennium, but this is far worse. Not only
are some of the fires deliberate, the government/farming interests
are murdering tribal leaders who are the beating heart of those
remnant first peoples who are the frontline in protecting the
rainforest. These courageous tribal people, shrunk to tiny bands, are
the conscience and very soul of global protection of this precious,
critical forest. A thousand miles away, in Sao Paolo at
mid-afternoon, the skies are dark, blackened by smoke.
The Economist recently ran a
cover article ("Deathwatch for the Amazon"), detailing
how close we are to losing this critical resource. It reviews the
research and the politics involved in the current resurgence in
deforestation, due to non-compliance with laws under Dilma Rouseff
and now, collusion between Bolsonaro's right-wing government and the
cattle industry. On top of Bolsonaro's blatant invitation to loggers
and refusal to enforce existing laws to protect the Amazon, these
fires are the worst threat yet to the biggest carbon sink on Earth
outside the oceans. the pace of Amazon deforestaion, which has almost
doubled since Bolsonaro's election, represents an existential threat
to life as we know it.
As soon as I read the Economist
article and absorbed the news about the fires, I remembered the
chapter in Mark Lynas' gripping "Six Degrees" detailing the
death of the Amazon. "Three Degrees" (chapters detail what
the world looks like with each degree C increase in average
temperature) is the point where the earth system goes into multiple
runaway feedback loops. It is the point of no return, insuring at
least the 6 degrees warming in the book's title. I did
not have the heart to read Lynas any further after that chapter.
Lynas summarized then-current
climate science to predict such a threshold by 2050, but, reading the Economist cover, I
immediately knew that the earth system was right on the brink of
catastrophic disequilibrium. Correct, we are nowhere near three
degrees C of warming. We are closing in on 1.5, with another one
degree already pumped into the carbon cycle, and protected a degree
by industrial atmospheric sulfites, which will rapidly disappear once
global heavy industry ceases. Once again, we are reaching a threshold
As Lynas details, a study in
2000 by the Hadley Centre reckoned that the limit beyond which the
Amazon could not recover was 40% deforestation. However, the
Economist article cites a 2018 study by M. Nobre and Thomas Lovejoy
of George Mason University which has revised that figure to 20-25%,
which would throw the whole vast region irrevocably towards savanna,
eventually worse. Their study takes into account climate change and
fire, as well as deforestation itself. The level of rainforest
destruction currently stands at 17%, perilously close to the
threshold. These fires, on top of the huge increase in
deforestation, put the final slide squarely within Bolsonaro's
tenure, a chilling thought.
I write at the close of the G-7
summit, at which Emmanuel Macron dramatically called for the rich
nations to stand up to Brazil (by toughening their trade stance with
Brazil under the Mercosur agreement). Bolsonaro criticized the
stance, saying it was yet another colonialist ploy, and refused the
$20 million offered to help fight the fires. But crucially, he also
seemed to bow to the pressure, calling in the Brazilian military to
take on the task.
Before this latest response, I
was feeling incredibly helpless, imagining an armada of water tankers
sweeping into the Amazon with a fighter jet escort, supported by
world powers. Today I learned that Brazil has agreed to accept the
G7 money, which is a tiny step towards achieving a complex "Climate
New World Order," which I will discuss in the next post on possible solutions to the current mess. The deforestation and subsequent
burning to clear new fields to pasture cows serves to feed North
American burger hunger. This is about opening rainforest to farming,
rather than something like California wildfires, which are much harder
to contain. The fires themselves have been overdramatized, it
appears. But the drama is necessary to awaken the world from its
torpor with respect to climate disruption and the crucial role
rainforests play in it. What should an awakened world do now?
Thursday, June 27, 2019
How Long Do We Have? (Part Two)
answer to the
highly depends upon feeding the masses. "There are no seasons
anymore. Agriculture is a gamble." A woman farmer in Uganda is
speaking to Mary Robinson (former Irish president, eloquent
spokesperson for climate justice) in 2009. Peter Sawtell quotes her in a post at Ecojustice Notes on
the summer solstice, which is predictable, as the seasons, and
agriculture, are not anymore.
seems to say otherwise. "As
long as Earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer
and winter, day and night, shall not cease" (Gen 8:22). James
Imhof, Republican Senator from Oklahoma, frequently quotes this verse
to prove that climate change is a liberal hoax; God has promised not
to allow it.
a Christian theologian, Sawtell wrote Imhof an open letter pointing out
that what the Genesis writer was pointing to was the dependable
journey of the Earth around the sun on its axis. But
humans can still sin, and since our technological prowess, multiplied
by our numbers, has allowed us to be giants in the Earth, we have
taken sin to new levels.
We are, as Brian Swimme says, a "planetary power,"capable of
sin, with our initially "innocent" use of fossil fuels now
The bottom line for all life to
flourish on the Earth is respiration, food and water, and a
temperature range in which the organism can function. Agricultural
output for a species now numbering well over 7 billion is one
important subset of this process. So the unpredictability for
farmers in the ongoing collapse of seasons is a key to the question
of survival. Farmers are adaptable, but there is only so much they
can do in response to the accelerating disruption of growing
conditions. To paraphrase the hymn, they have the whole world in
For the Beauty of the Earth....
But what of the other aspects of
climate disruption? Losing the seasons is a loss of stability, and
of the aesthetic delight we have been blessed with for much of our
history (the exceptions being ice ages rather than rapid warming,
which we have never before encountered species-wide). Every time I
hear birdsong I say a prayer of thanksgiving. It is no longer
something to take for granted. The same is true for cool breezes,
refreshing water for recreational bathing, and the wildlife I see in
my yard. And as I wrote here a couple of years back, it is true
of looking up and seeing blue sky, since rapid warming will soon
probably result in deployment of sulfur aerosols at the poles to
dampen incoming solar radiation, causing the skies to turn gray. For
as long as we seed the polar stratosphere, it will be the atmospheric
equivalent of a continuing eruption of large volcanoes, and there
will be serious side effects, chiefly the loss of the monsoon winds
upon which South Asian farmers depend. No blue sky, no monsoon, even
as the Himalayan glaciers, mothers of the major South Asian rivers,
are on course to completely dry up before mid-century.
So, Peter Wadhams' testimony
aside, we will last awhile, but only through the continued
application of human ingenuity, which got us into deep trouble in the
first place. In the end, only restraint of our appetite for comfort
and the easy path, driven by corporate greed and nationalism, will
save us and the rest of the biosphere from ourselves. We have missed
the window for climate mitigation, and now must achieve the miracle
of transformation of global civilization to one of cooperation, even
as nativism and reactionary denial of our crisis have become the
rule. Adaptation, which is so often framed as a technological feat by
individual nations and city-states, is ultimately a social problem.
And that social problem is the key evolutionary issue for our species
in the face of its greatest challenge ever. Sadly, the odds favoring
abrupt climate change dwarf those for rapid evolutionary change.
The human experiment hangs in
the balance. As you go forward with your life, restrain your
consumption of fossils, pray for resilience, and recognize the
possibility, however slim, of human and divine miracles. Above all,
have compassion for everyone you encounter.
Labels: ecological sin, Genesis 8:22, Himalayan glacier melt, James Inhof, Mary Robinson, Peter Wadhams, sulfur aerosols
Wednesday, June 26, 2019
How Long Do We Have?
Last week, I ventured into the
chilling territory of the Artic News blog. I don't do this
regularly, because invariably the news is terrifying. For years, I
have feared a potential rapid extinction event from a huge upwelling
of methane from the shallow shelves of the Arctic (East Siberian)
Sea. The man who posts this material is the affable Peter Wadhams, expert on all things Arctic. This time, he makes the case for a potential mass
extinction event in 2026, trumping Guy McPherson, who has predicted
mass extinction in the northern hemisphere by 2033. The next morning
I woke with the thought, "My cat will still be alive then."
As I went through my annual
fact-checking ritual, I found once again the reasons I was able to
sleep again last time, with peers arguing for a much more gradual
process of climate disruption, and the surprising response from Gaia:
methane-eating bacteria populations seem to increase every time
methane bubbles do.
One of the articles that popped
up from an online search really caught my eye. A contributor to Skeptical Science, a site that debunks climate
prediction errors (Wadhams has been cited twice before) made the
point that, despite the fact that Wadhams was an "alarmist"
whose claims needed to be tempered, he was nevertheless a "respected
scientist," and that climate deniers were far more egregious in
the damage they did. So, the writer argued, the site needed to work
much more vigorously at countering their falsifications than
scientists like Wadhams.
I still live far from where most
of the climate disruption occurs, and it is hard to remember on a
mild summer day in the southern mountains that we are encountering
tipping points that make a mockery of humanity's slow awakening and
politicians' gradualist approaches (I include the Green New Deal). Wadhams and folks like him remind us that the stakes are huge,
and that time is of the essence.
One of Wadhams' claims is that
the jet stream, driven by the polar vortex, will likely collapse
within five years (a factor in his 2026 warning), bringing a wave of
heat from the Equator to the North Pole. This would exacerbate the
already rapid warming of the Arctic, now averaging more than 3C,
versus 1C for the planet, and all the processes driven by that
warming. (Last spring, there were spikes in spring temperature in
Siberia 35C above average, with the average daily temps up to 20C
higher than average for the Arctic overall.) One of the biggest
concerns is the effect upon the mid-northern latitudes, humanity's
breadbasket. Instead of the gradual shift northward of the grain
belt predicted by the IPCC, such an event would effectively end grain
production overnight, due to the huge, sudden increase in
My searches to corroborate this
position, however, have found nothing to support Wadhams' assertion.
Climate modeling once predicted a tightening of the polar vortex,
moving closer to the north pole. Then scientists started using a
"gray radiation scheme," which omits the effects of water
vapor and clouds, which reflect incoming radiation. This model
predicted that the jet stream would shift towards the Equator, which
is what we have observed in recent years, the telltale wobble that
has led to extreme weather events, of both hot and cold. Last
spring, Arctic temperatures were far warmer than in Europe, which has
unusual cold temps and snowfall.
But the most recent research corroborates a shift of the jet stream northward (wobble
continuing, because it continues to weaken), by employing a "simple
four-factor long wave radiation scheme" that re-incorporates the
effect of water vapor on the system. (Question: why in the world
would scientists ever leave out such a huge factor???)
What I gather from a 48-hour
review of a dizzying amount of information is that climate science is
exceedingly complex, and that predictions like those from Wadhams are perilous. As for the effect to date on grain-growing, the
net effect up to 2016 has been to increase corn yields in the
American Midwest (as predicted in early studies of climate change),
due to more rainfall. This spring, however, catastrophic flooding
has prevented farmers from planting. Jet stream wobbles mean that
the uncertainties associated with farming are amplified, but it is
not leading clearly - at least not yet - to a breakdown of the polar
Labels: arctic methane emergency group, grain yields, gray radiation scheme, Green New Deal, Guy McPherson, human extinction, jet stream, Peter Wadhams, plar vortex, Skeptical Science
Friday, May 31, 2019
I am sitting by the South Toe
River with my friend Robin Dreyer, both in beach chairs. Before us
are two gigantic trees. They are so tall that you can't see the
tops. I can't see any leaves, but their bark is oak. These trees are
superimposed upon the river backdrop. I notice that the one on the
right, which is much larger, has a huge fissure about two-thirds up,
looking like a monumental lightning strike. At its base, a black
slurry oozes out, running towards the Toe.
young Germanic engineer conducts a tour of the
bigger tree. I
watch as he shows the two
bottom floors of an
immense, towering inner space, freshly painted in pastel yellow. The
ceiling, several hundred feet above us, is a windowed cupola in the
style of Stanford University. The
young man opens a door from the spacious lobby to a hospital check-in
area. On the two floors, about 10-12 rooms have been finished, all
inhabited by retired nuns,
some ancient. He
explains that the authorities had planned to outfit the entire
interior with all the accoutrements of a little planned city, but
they ran out of money and resources. This was what was left.
the tour, heading back into the bright sunshine, I look
at the second tree,
that a spring flows from its base as well. It is clear and sparkles
sunlight as it runs towards our river.
won't go into a detailed interpretation. Much of it is
self-explanatory. I do want to note two things. One is why Robin
Dreyer is in the dream; the key is his name. Noting the black slurry
coming from the poisoned Tree of Life, I associate immediately John
McCutcheon's rendering of Jean Ritchie's "BlackWaters,"
a lament for Appalachian coal country. And
then the thought comes, we
are robbin' the Earth dry, drier than it's ever been.
second is that there are two trees. We are killing the first one; it
is beyond hope (both
secular industry and Constantine's Church which has buttressed it).
But the second one, representing for me the continued evolution on
Earth over the one to two billion years remaining until the sun's red
giant status extinguishes terrestrial life, is healthy, the spring
waters at its base pristine.
the passing of the first
oak. Weep loudly. But
take joy in what is to come
from the second Tree of Life,
whether our human eyes observe it or not. Mammalian emotions are
widespread in the age of mammals which is crumbling around us.
But besides an overcharged frontal cortex attached to both those
emotions and a reptilian brain at its
stem, we have imagination.
Let's use and celebrate it 'til the end,
watching the sunlight dance on those pure springwaters.
Thursday, May 30, 2019
My Life with Trees
When I was twelve years old I invented a religion centered around
trees. Its central testament was that trees were the highest form of
life on Earth, represented in the spirit realm by beings I called girabs. Trees' energy I measured in units called koonces. The chief rite in my religion was to stop and pray, mumbling gibberish, honoring any dead trees I came upon. This tree-religion had two adherents, myself and my first cousin Joe. Our practice lasted about a year.
recalls this period for me, which was the culmination of a childhood
in which I revered nature, regularly retreating to places outside as
my private inner space. I continued to spend time alone in the
forest through adolescence at a boys boarding school
south of Birmingham, Alabama,
staying on campus during weekends when my friends went back to town
to party. The
school's campus was laid out by the sons of the great landscapist
Frederick Law Olmstead, and the property included 300 acres of wild
forestland, where I ran cross country. As an adult, I moved to a
1200 acre landtrust in the
of NC, bounded on many sides by National Forest. The
legendary chestnut-oak forest has now been replaced by a
predominately oak-hickory forest.
built my house in the middle
of the woods. With
my new chainsaw, I hesitated as I began to cut a swathe for the road,
was no other housing available, so I forged ahead, framing the house
with the oak and poplar I had cut. I wrote a couple of posts ago
the necessity of cutting back a row of hickories which
blocked incoming sunlight for the solar house, destroying
nest of southern red flying squirrels. Most of us in the
landtrust live in or adjacent to the forest, so cutting trees is a
regular necessity. Overall, though, we preserve our trees, which are
nearing or have arrived at a second climax 45 years after we moved
I have hiked in Colorado, the Sierras, the
Himalayas, and the mountains of Southern France, but I always prefer
our Black Mountains to
more dramatic mountainscapes.
son Jesse is a ranger at Yosemite, having lived there
almost twenty years. Several years ago, I attended a mini-workshop
David Abram, eco-phenomenologist, writer, and magician. Abram
conducted an exercise in which, after experiencing a natural
object-being with as
many senses as we could manage, we consciously reversed the
subject-object relation, the trees becoming
the subjects. This
was transformative, and I now realize that it recovered for me an
childhood in which I imagined trees as (usually) friendly subjects.
I had stored a whole wellspring of ensouled forest beings. Since
this time, I have led the exercise in my own workshops, and continued
to practice it periodically, mostly
examples. One I wrote about in this blog many years ago, when I cut
a tree along my road and it spurted tannic tree-blood
. The other was a few years back when I was seriously planning to
cut a tall oak in my solar insolation shed. I had contemplated this
act for many months, but once I made the decision to go ahead, the
Standing on my deck
seventy-five feet away,
I felt a strong energy field from that tree, and it wouldn't go away.
As I looked at the tree, it dawned on me that it was giving a
distinct message: I
am here, tall, beautiful and healthy. Do you really want to end this
swallowed, and realized that I needed to be very intentional about
this. Two weeks later, a
the tree, which was leaning towards my storage shed.
yes, as a right-wing Christian Confederate
the local paper said of me a couple of years back, I am a
tree-hugger, even a worshipper of trees (I explained in response that
I was a panentheist, though I didn't use the term). Embracing a tree
is a remarkable experience. I experience presence, though it is
listening for communication means really slowing down - way down, as
Powers insists in his book. The
last time I did this was on a recent
up the ridge beyond my house, where
very old oak stands
suffered a huge fissure,
lightning, when it was very young, but then grew back together over
above the initial wound separation. I felt immense, quiet energy,
and realized I would need far more time than I had that day to fully
receive the communication
that the ancient oak was emitting.
want to end with a dream I had a year or so ago.
It is placed locally, but I experience it as a Big Dream whose
purport reaches beyond my life and little world. Read
on in the next post.
Labels: Big Dream, David Abram, Frederick Law Olmstead, Overstory, panentheist, Tree of Life, tree religion
Thursday, April 25, 2019
The Overstory Remains, Not Necessarily the Arborists Beneath
I started writing about human
extinction in 2007. At that time, people thought I was extreme, a
doomer. Not any more.
Last Sunday night a group of us
held a discussion of Richard Powers' The Overstory, an amazing
novel about the primacy of trees for the biosphere. The ways in
which trees are interconnected, even across species, and work for the
good of the entire tree community (and beyond), implicitly suggests a
model for an awakened humanity. It was a good group, with a
lot of knowledge of science as well as literary arts in the room.
I have long gardened with the
friend who hosted the evening, and at least once a year he has asked
me what I thought about our chances of warding off climate change.
Five years ago, I still thought we had a glimmer. Jeff always
listened carefully, but I felt his essential optimism buoyed a hope
that we would at least muddle through.
The group who gathered Sunday
night were not doomers. There are a handful of us around these
parts, but I was the only one present with a history of that mask.
When Jeff read aloud the remarkable page right before the book's end
(475) which outlines the history of life as one 24-hour day on Earth,
ending with our species bringing on a huge crash of the tree of life
at midnight, we paused to consider our prospects. Of the eight
people in the room, not one faced down the group, saying "No,
this can't possibly be. We can outlast climate change." Society
has moved in the last five years to a much more widespread
acceptance of the huge possibility of extinction staring back at us
from the hurricane winds of the immediate future.
We did consider the likelihood
of the plotline of one of the characters. Neelay, a computer genius a
generation ahead of the pack, designs an online game in which the
players win by designing a sustainable world. By the time he gets to
version 7, artificial intelligence works on its own to create a
sustainable virtual world with stunningly realistic imagery. Having
heard dire warnings about AI effectively supplanting us as earth
masters, it seemed next to impossible. Could something like this
happen? Do we have time? ."It depends upon the programmers,"
Tal said. But in the Overstory, the smartest programmers are
only interested in amassing wealth through the game. Neelay is an
outlier, but what if he can leverage salvaging civilization through
the competitive instinct?
What I find interesting in this
scenario is that it using gaming to make the leap to a life-affirming
consciousness at the next holonic level, that of the group, society,
the mass. This is the opposite of what demagogues do so effectively.
Individual breakthroughs are evident throughout history, thus the
stories of enlightened individuals and god-men. But it seems we need
to be tricked into doing the same as society. And the model for the
kind of benign intelligence needed to preserve the web is the
collective behavior of trees.
When I got home, I summarized
for Geeta the group's response about extinction. "So how will
you live now?" she asked.
I responded that I try to
appreciate the glories of Creation every day, treating my family and
circle of friends as compassionately as I can. In other words, live
every day as if it were our last.
Geeta thought this was the same
as giving up, which she is not ready to do, though she acknowledges
the gravity of climate disruption, habitat displacement and all the
next morning I recalled the debate between Paul Kingsnorth, founder
of the Dark Mountain Project (my touchstone) and Naomi Klein, the
brilliant socialist climate activist,
a few years ago. Klein was incensed that Kingsnorth accepted endgame
for the species, saying he was a traitor to the movement. The
unflagging ecojournalist George Monbiot said the same in a heated
public debate with Kingsnorth at the Uncivilization Festival in 2014.
The difference between fighting
and acceptance feels critical, but the passage in St. Paul where he
speaks of members of the faith community as different parts of the
Body of Christ comes to mind. Accepting our situation while
continuing to live as sustainably as possible is not the same as
going on a carbon spree because all is lost. The hands, feet and
heart can be on the front lines while the nurturers gather and cook,
and the observers hold everyone in the light, some seeding the
noosphere with thoughts on the state of the Ark, either home at the
hearth, or incubating in jail prior to the next action.
Body of Christ? Perhaps a
better metaphor is Gaia's body. Gaia's body is the intricately
interconnected biosphere that has co-evolved over Earth's lifetime.
The mystical body of Christ may work for some humans as we imagine
our own body. But as Overstory eloquently shows by the
example of the community of trees, Gaia's reality is a lot more
complex than that of a single big-brained primate. And, as Lovelock
pointed out, the key thing to understand about Gaia is that the
intelligence is in the whole. We don't direct it, any more than any
part of the body- not even the brain-mind- can act independently from
Gaia has multiple loci of
intelligence. If we use our intelligence for the good of the whole
Earth body, then the system continues with us as a part of it. But
our part in Gaia's story has been a destructive one, especially since
the industrial revolution and globalization. It may well be too late
for the human experiment to mend its intelligence in ways that would
insure our perseverance as one locus of the web.
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
Return of the Flying Squirrel
I built my house in 1979. During the first few years, I would often
hear a loud thump against the south dormer wall within which
we slept. Whap, thump, whap. It happened night after night.
Finally, I went outside just after hearing the sound, inspecting the
wall illuminated by moonlight. There clung a flying squirrel, eyeing
me with casual interest. Our house was the nearest tree in this
newly-configured section of Southern Appalachian forest.
Around 1982, I
realized that I had not cut enough trees to allow sufficient solar
gain for my passive solar house. I cut another section of them to the
south, mostly hickory. After this, no more whaps and thumps. The
flying squirrel had lost its habitat.
A few weeks ago, I
was sitting at the dinner table and saw, from the corner of my eye,
something that looked like a mid-sized rodent jump from the tube in
our chimney in which our hot water pipes run to the floor, and
scamper to the far end of the living room. Whatever it was, it was
clearly too big for a mousetrap, but smaller than a rat. I called
Geeta to find out where she had put the mouse poison.
About a week later,
the two of us were standing in the dining room and the critter
appeared at the opening of the chimney plumbing tube. We froze, but
when we took a step towards it, the squirrel sailed through the air,
and scampered again to the west wall of the house.
We have had several
encounters since. Given our tree habitat, I suspect it is the
southern flying squirrel
, and it likes peanut butter and honey,
which it finds in the little packets you pick up at motel
restaurants. It regularly knocks over the container of almond
butter, but has yet to find a way in. I have followed it to a tiny
whole in the west block wall more than once, but I have no idea how
it gets into the house. It has yet to venture inside the
have-a-heart trap baited with one of those peanut butter packets.
I'm not really sure how to get rid of it, but I definitely mean it no
So the cycle is
complete. After 35 years, the descendant of the original squirrel is
back, and it has made a home inside my
intrusive house. I'd call that poetic justice.
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