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 rainforest.

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 frighteningly early.

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)


The answer to the question 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.

Genesis 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.

As 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 we 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 ecological sin, with our initially "innocent" use of fossil fuels now turned monstrous.

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 their hands.

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.


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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 temperature.

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 vortex altogether.


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Friday, May 31, 2019

 

Twin Oaks


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.

A 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.

Leaving the tour, heading back into the bright sunshine, I look closely again at the second tree, noticing that a spring flows from its base as well. It is clear and sparkles in the sunlight as it runs towards our river.

I 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.

The 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.

Mourn 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.

Reading Overstory 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 Highlands of NC, bounded on many sides by National Forest. The legendary chestnut-oak forest has now been replaced by a predominately oak-hickory forest.

I 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, but there 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 about the necessity of cutting back a row of hickories which blocked incoming sunlight for the solar house, destroying the 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 here. I have hiked in Colorado, the Sierras, the Himalayas, and the mountains of Southern France, but I always prefer the forested peaks or our Black Mountains to those more dramatic mountainscapes.

My son Jesse is a ranger at Yosemite, having lived there almost twenty years. Several years ago, I attended a mini-workshop at its Muir Cabin by 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 entire 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 willy-nilly.

Two 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 energy became palpable. 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 tree-life? I swallowed, and realized that I needed to be very intentional about this. Two weeks later, a logger cut the tree, which was leaning towards my storage shed.

So yes, as a right-wing Christian Confederate re-enactor in 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 clearly other. And 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 walk up the ridge beyond my house, where a very old oak stands that suffered a huge fissure, perhaps lightning, when it was very young, but then grew back together over five feet 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.

I 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.

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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 rest.

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. 
https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/magazine/its-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-and-he-feels-fine.html

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 the whole.

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 harm.

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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