Tuesday, June 13, 2017


The Sun Dims, Three Billion Years Early

The eternal silence of these infinite, vast spaces frightens me.  Thus wrote Blaise Pascal, aged thirty, in Pensees (1669).  He was less impressed with human power than the infinite, which bounded it.  The great apes who have inherited the earth are a fulcrum without a niche in the natural world, capable of catapulting us beyond our planetary home into that frightening vast space.

The world has failed at the task of CO2 mitigation. It is a consequence of a conceptual split from the natural world which many would argue goes back to the neolithic, when we became settled farmers with stores of grain to guard and distribute.  Out of this came the fortified granary -the polis - the treasury, and a new, more complicated sense of us and them, beyond tribalism - though it persisted as well. Hamilton cites Jacob Burckhardt (198), who wrote that history is “the break with nature caused by the awakening of consciousness.” Or in biblical terms, the Fall.
It is “inconvenient” to curb greenhouse gases in our greedy pursuit of a status quo which now consumes all of the Earth's annual output by early August, as of last year. We ignore it, but every act has a moral component, and our failure to wean ourselves from fossil fuels is a moral one. Our split from nature, which began as conceptual, has become reinforced until it is also a moral stance, consciously chosen (baldly stated in several Renaissance-era texts and speeches).  Amazingly, the 2012 London Olympics dramatized this in the opening ceremony, where the figure of Caliban comes to the stage and speaks poetically of his love for his island, its beings, sounds, breezes, and textures, only to be rudely replaced by Industrial Man and his smog-belching factories.  The 2012 Olympics celebrated this.  We are conscious of our vaunted  exceptionalism, blessed in the book of Genesis when its author says that Y-hw-h loves us above all creation. 
But as the Bible also tells us, we are only creatures of clay, adamas, and as such, subject to the same natural laws as all other living things.  And now the petri dish on which we live, this poor Earth, is overcrammed with humans, and we are not only reluctant to check our numbers (be fruitful and multiply), but our covetous hunger for food, the built environment, and toys.  Believing in the infinite power of our intellects, fired by god-like imaginative powers, we now dream of mass-producing steaks without the cows, and our most fashionable philosophers speak of a human realm that has no need for the natural world. 

The distinction men have drawn between “natural history”- a series of events that occur on the scale of millions of years – and “human history”- a series of events that occur on the scale of years, decades and centuries – has collapsed (D. Charkabarty).  “With the Anthropocene, humans have become a geological force so that the two kinds of history have converged...”(Hamilton, 198). Anthropogenic climate change affects the atmosphere, the chemical composition of the oceans via acidification, the biosphere, via habitat loss and species extinction, the cryosphere, melting ice mass, and the lithosphere itself through vast mining projects and mountaintop removal (and the now-flooding New York subway system).  If you're not yet convinced that we are, in the words of Brian Swimme, a “planetary power,” consider this: geologists project that unchecked global warming will cancel the next Ice Age, perhaps three of them, altering the planet's climate for up to 500,000 years. 

Since we have known for decades now that fossil fuel burning causes atmospheric warming, anthropogenic climate change is now deliberate, even if the effect of our action may not be. (161)  Anthropogenic climate disruption is creating biospheric and social problems, but instead of accepting the challenge of changing behavior, “we live in societies predisposed to seek technological answers to social problems.” (174) And the technocrats have a huge backing among the economists, who see geoengineering as far cheaper than restraining our fossil fuel consumption. Newt Gingrich is typical of political figures on the right in his summation, “Geoengineering holds the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year.  Instead of penalizing ordinary Americans, we would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific invention...Bring on the American ingenuity. Stop the green pig.” (168)

As an example, Hamilton outlines in detail the efforts of governments and large fossil corporations to create carbon capture and storage (CCS), which was initially considered quite feasible. As with the Vietnam War, the effort was continued (and continues still) long after it was apparent it would not be workable.  In doing so, companies like Exxon hoped beyond hope to assuage their guilt for being complicit in creating the conditions for climate disruption. The result, Hamilton notes, was a “lost decade” in working for emissions reductions.  The dilemma now is that  pursuing climate engineering will similarly make emission reductions less likely to be pursued, and the lost decade will quickly turn into three. Hamilton sums up the issue succinctly: “But if climate engineering is inferior to cutting emissions (in the sense of being less effective and more risky) then merely by choosing to engineer the climate instead of cutting emissions we succumb to moral failure.” 162

Our moral failure is huge, and we would atone for it by playing God on a scale beyond the many precursors to the ultimate move of managing the global climate. My question is, when have we ever looked at a new technology and refused it?  I have already reviewed at this site a book which emphatically answers “never”: Too Smart for Our Own Good.  But there have been hesitations along the way to our status as the “God Species.”  Hindus claim that they discovered rocket science during the Vedic era, but that the brahmin priests decided it would create too much mischief. More recently, the NYRB reviewed a collection of letters between the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg and his wife, in which the scientist describes how he and his colleagues passively resisted Hitler's pressure to develop the atomic bomb after discovering nuclear fission in 1939.  Heisenberg was a brave and thoughtful man. 

So German physicists, like their “Aryan” forebears in Vedic India, did refuse to pursue a technology.  Fatefully, our scientists did not. Robert Oppenheimer, observing the first nuclear test from a bunker in Nevada, compared the mushroom cloud  to Krishna revealing himself as an infinite series of beings in the Bhagavad Gita. But the genie was out of the bottle; Oppenheimer's flash of insight was after the fact.  Indeed, several of the men who created the bomb were unsure the earth's atmosphere would survive the shock. The Manhattan Project was a technical success. We built the bomb to save Europe – and we used it. 

On the micro scale, science is busily sequencing multiple genomes, redesigning DNA in cells by selecting for traits and swapping out genes. Though some called for public debate, there has been essentially none.  In Siberia, scientists are busily re-engineering the modern elephant to have some of the traits of the extinct woolly mammoth, so that the spruce forests invading the tundra might be turned back by a pachyderm herd jealous of its own food source – grasslands. This would restore the albedo effect of the vast northern tundra to help mediate the loss of sea ice.  Other scientists are keen to create designer genes to meet would-be parents' desire for perfect offspring. As Hamilton puts it, “Life is reduced to a manipulable genetic code” (179).

I have long been disturbed by genetic engineering and dismayed over the lack of public debate.  Where is the landmark court case turning back the hubris of great apes playing God by reshuffling the gene pool on a cross-species basis? Where are the preachers citing the magnificent text of Job in the face of our smug hubris (Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?)? And now, after splitting the atom and altering the blueprints of life itself, we are on the brink of managing the entire earth climate. We would re-engineer the global climate to save the “Earth”  from global warming – but on our terms, for us, our civilization.  

With atmospheric CO2 concentrations headed for 550 ppm and beyond (the upper limit of “safe” climate perturbations is 350-450 ppm), it seems only a matter of time before we have sufficient  motivation to start the application of sulfate aerosols in the upper atmosphere.  The big question is, who will have jurisdiction over this effort?  Will it be an extension of Cold War military gaming? How will the interests of poor vs. rich nations be adjudicated? Will it be overseen by the UN Climate Convention? What could the rest of the world do if a large rogue nation that is not a signatory to the convention decided to go it alone to create a solar filter? 

At the very least, there should be widespread debate on the need and feasibility of these plans, including a thorough discussion of the considerable risks (which are on a scale comparable to the risks of a nuclear exchange).  But if we have these discussions too soon, then one probable result would be that all efforts at mitigation would cease.  The Promethean and Soterian forces remain in opposition, with the Soterians arguing for using this technology only as a last resort in the face of climate emergency. Soterians (I am one) would continue to push hard for emissions reductions, for if we reach the 85-100% reductions needed from current levels (403 ppm), we could ground the planes indefinitely. The question is, how do we determine when we are in a state of climate emergency, given that the process leading to such a state is one of multiple tripping of tipping points, each of which leads to others. Once the process begins – and some scientists argue it already has – it is essentially unstoppable. 

Prometheans, who hold the power now, would argue to create the filter as soon as possible, to save money and avoid unnecessary (human) suffering.  With this shift, their goal of having the entire earth system under human control would be met, and geoengineering would be a permanent alteration of the heavens.

Any public debate should include scientists, ethicists, public intellectuals. And it shouldn't just be about saving the two-leggeds.  It will require as well folks who can speak for the voiceless: poets, artists, musicians and spiritual folk. Perhaps, after such a debate, we will still take the best available option, but at least we will do so with our eyes wide open to the enormous risks.  And we will have set the stage for  memorializing the earth we leave behind, the whole magnificent biosphere.
Once we engineer the climate, second-guessing the Sun, the first god for much of Earth history, we will have completed the process of circumventing wilderness, the Great Commons that once surrounded our human dwelling-places. The End of Nature, which Bill McKibben published in 1989, will be essentially complete, usurped by a full-blown, but not fully matured, Anthropocene. Ultimately, morality and beauty join as our bedrock values, and both will be displaced by a “functional” Earth engineered by our Promethean overlords.

If the distinction between natural history and human history fully collapses, then the sublime, that which gives humans awe and humility in the face of the unknowable and unimaginable will similarly move one step away, into the vast reaches of space over which we still have no control. But the sublime will haunt our move to control the planet.  The ”silence of vast space(s)” which Pascal feared will remain our destiny, postponed perhaps for a bit.  But the Earth, our home, will be eclipsed.  Oh terrible, sad, smudged fate!

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Thursday, June 01, 2017


Exposing the Geo-clique

Nobody knows what the system-wide effects of these techniques will be, because we really don't understand how the complex earth system works. All the scientists can do is model the known variables and see what the computers predict. Over the years, they have gotten better, but the models are still somewhat crude. So the scientists involved have met in secret for decades, knowing that the public would be skeptical or hostile to their plans.

The silence was broken in 2006 by Paul Crutzen, the same man who suggested the name anthropocene for the new geologic era earth scientists now agree has begun. Crutzen is skeptical of climate engineering, but he realized a backroom juggernaut was forming, and thought public scrutiny was overdue. The danger is that, once people believe that climate engineering can solve climate change, then our old fossil madness might be embraced with even greater fervor.

Hamilton's account of the history of the formation of the global geo-clique is fascinating – and chilling. Almost every climate scientist in the West worked at Lawrence Livermore Lab, including Edward Teller, inventor of the hydrogen bomb, and a hugely confident proponent of climate engineering. From Lawrence Livermore, the hot spot shifted to DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), which was in charge of the failed Star Wars project which besotted Ronald Reagan. Today, a “Bipartisan” Policy Center is the key organization for sorting out the various schemes, keeping climate engineering squarely inside the Beltway.

The momentum for all this built while we were not paying attention. With all the uncertainties, and the enormous hubris of taking on god-like powers, solar radiation management is almost certain to be deployed, either early on as a preventative measure (within twenty years), or as a last-ditch effort to save civilization (whenever climate disequilibrium hits an emergency level). For this reason, the way what looks sadly inevitable is regulated, and by whom, becomes of huge importance. Since it has been part of war games for quite awhile now, the danger is for unilateral action, or that allied blocks of nations will deploy SRM without consulting the rest of the world. The best outcome would be to have a world body like the UN oversee the research and deployment of this tool.

But the problems are enormous, since there will be winners and losers no matter how the application of sulfate aerosols is tweaked. All the modeling thusfar indicates that the Indian monsoon would be severely affected by lessening solar radiation striking the oceans. And China is so big, that any alterations we initiate in the climate will help some areas and hurt others, exacerbating regional and ethnic tensions there. Climate engineering's problems are immense, and deserve careful public scrutiny, which no rebranding as “climate remediation” can skirt. I will turn in my next post to the ethical dilemmas it poses.

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Wednesday, May 31, 2017


Brave New World: Geo-engineering

The world has failed at the task of CO2 mitigation. Principally driven by a massively funded campaign of disinformation in the US, along with the capitulation of the Republican Party to Big Fossil, the will to reduce carbon emissions has been battered down. The science, so clearly laid out by Al Gore in his 2006 film, convincing a large number of viewers, is now lost in the liberal-conservative divide, and we are nowhere near the necessary rate of reduction in greenhouse gases required to keep climate change within the boundaries of a habitable planet. With the assumption of the elected tyrant Trump, this politicized tragedy now has the US on the brink of withdrawing from the hard-fought Paris Accord. In fact, today's news reports that he has decided to withdraw. From reluctantly rising to the level of co-leader with China of the mitigation pathway outlined in Paris, the US is now in the role of a rogue state.

But the US is very good at technology, especially the kind of tech that bends the earth to do our will. We led the way in developing the atomic bomb, and during the Cold War, competed with the Soviets not only for nuclear superiority, but control of the weather as a weapon to be used against our enemies. The long tradition of modeling ways to tinker with climatic forces is now on the threshold of physical experiments with the atmosphere and the oceans, and a “geoclique” has formed to make sure that global civilization will not perish at the hands of the Climate Beast. We missed our chance to save Earth, under her rules, and now we will make her follow ours.

Earthmasters – Australian public ethicist Clive Hamilton's latest book – lays out this emergent Brave New World of geo-engineering. In his last book, Requiem for a Species, he powerfully analyzed all the forms of denialism that brought us to the brink. Here he picks up these threads to show how the "Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering" (his subtitle) is being woven from the very same cloth. The supreme irony is that conservatives in the US and elsewhere are strongly in favor of climate engineering, without ever admitting the human-driven climate change which forces us to consider such a dangerous experiment. They side with the techno-elites who are confident that humans can and will completely colonize and control the Earth, so that “nature” is a zoo or farm within the over-arching domain of the human. And global capitalism, riding on the back of Big Oil will continue its hegemony. We will be as gods, for better or worse. Hamilton calls this faction the Prometheans, after the titan who stole fire and brought it to humanity.

Those of us, including many scientists, who oppose the hubris of climate engineering, prefrering to safeguard and keep God's Ark, Hamilton calls Soterians, after the Greek goddess of safety, salvation, and preservation from harm. Soterians are folks like Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and EO Wilson, who would have us do everything possible to reduce emissions, preserve habitat, and encroach on the ecospheric commons as little as possible – admittedly a huge task for our overdeveloped, overpopulated world.

But before we go further into the political and social ramifications of the huge divide at this crucial moment in Earth history, I will quickly review the range of climate engineering techniques under development. Geo-engineering methods can be best divided into two strategies. The first entails the removal of excess CO2 by extracting the gas from the atmosphere, depositing it somewhere safer. This strategy would manipulate the great carbon cycle, which continually exchanges carbon between the atmosphere, oceans, and the biosphere. The second technique is solar radiation management, which would cool the planet by reflecting a greater proportion of incoming radiation from the Sun back into space. The two chapters in which Hamilton lays out these two distinctly different strategies are very well researched and clearly written. I will only review the highlights.

CO2 removal is probably the only widely known climate engineering strategy. It has been under development since the 1990's in the form of carbon capture and storage, or CCS. It has been held out as a necessary technology of great promise, permitting the continued consumption of “clean coal” as a fuel for the world's growing demand for electricity. Unfortunately, the process of burying the extracted carbon deep in suitable geological formations has proved much more difficult than thought, and far more expensive. Both the EU and the US terminated their pilot CCS projects after a few years. The only successful experiment has been in Finland, in a perfectly sited formation, but at great expense. Essentially, CCS from power plants is dead.

Other strategies have emerged for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, including ocean fertilization with iron particles, liming the oceans, mass planting of trees, fast-growing algae, and biochar. Small experiments on iron fertilization, aimed at increasing the rate at which CO2 is carried to the ocean floor, have been tried, and were hugely disappointing. The ocean system is much more complex than the experimenters realized. Liming would require a huge infrastructure and be energy-intensive. Tree planting and growing algae take too long. Biochar is similar, plus scientists are not convinced it will stay intact for as long as enthusiasts proclaim. All of these would need to take place on a massive scale at huge expense.

Turning to solar radiation management (SRM), climate engineers see more promise. Brightening the low-lying stratocumulus clouds that cover a third of the ocean would increase the albedo effect that the Earth is losing at the North Pole due to melting ice. Tiny aerosol particles could be injected into the clouds, which would increase their reflectivity. Many types of particles could be used, including the silver iodide used in cloud seeding, but sea salt works just fine, so a fleet of special vessels could roam the oceans continuously recycling seawater 30 meters into the air, whence the air currents would do the rest of the job.

However, a cheaper method, more susceptible to fine tuning, would be to distribute sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere from airplanes, especially at the poles. Air currents would do the rest, and the effect would last much longer than sea spray. The global average temperature is already 1 degree C less than it would be without the sulfate pollution from industrial processes. If we cleaned it all up, then the temperature would immediately rise that amount, effectively bringing us to a 2 degree C rise, the very brink of runaway climate change. There are many dangers to this proposal, not least being how easy it would be to do. Another is that it would delay the repair of the ozone holes at the poles, which are closing due to the first successful international treaty on emissions in the Montreal Protocol, eliminating fluorocarbons from refrigeration. Sulfate aerosols at the poles is the climate engineering plan of choice for scientists working on the problem.

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Friday, March 31, 2017


From Healthcare to Earthcare

Many voices from various parts of the political spectrum joined to defeat the ill-considered replacement of the Affordable Care Act in the House this past week. This unity of moderate Republicans with the Freedom Caucus and House Democrats was the result of a vigorous outpouring from constituents during the recent congressional recess. Once the contents of the bill were actually mooted, and people understood that it was not just “other folks” - including the forgotten poor – who would lose their healthcare, but a significant number of those in the middle class as well as the working poor,, then the bill was dead.

The President, impatient with congressional politics, decided to move on. Having already severely weakened the EPA earlier on, he followed this major defeat a few days later with a barrage of executive orders, combined with a draconian [proposed budget designed to cripple environmental protections of all sort. This “sledgehammer” has unified the environmental community for a terrific fight. Such a fight, however, will not be won by an outcry from Greens, but by forging a new national consensus, much as progressives feel that the Trumpcare bill's defeat opens the door for a single-payer system like the rest of the developed world.

Healthcare is important, but we desperately need to care for the health of the earth, what the faith community calls Earthcare. Only with a minimally healthy Earth system can we have not only personal and community health, but all the advantages, comforts, opportunities, and approachable challenges that together make up civilization. Organized society itself depends upon Earth health, as the increasing number of failed states due to climate change (especially water shortages, and, increasingly, regional famine) starkly illustrates.

Slowly, definitely not fast enough, our country has been approaching a consensus on this. As I pointed out here, both parties acknowledged climate change in their 2012 platforms. Despite the denialism that has been a hallmark of the GOP and the corporate disinformation campaign they have abetted,behind the political smokescreens and cartoons, folks are finally starting to get it . The last national poll on global warming found almost 60% of Republican voters accepting its fact. The united front of Republican denialism was starting to crumble before this election, and even after that cataclysm, the number of Republicans in the House climate caucus has grown (they actually lost one in the Senate, due to NH Senator Kelly Ayotte's defeat).

Yet now we have the ongoing Trump disaster. Only it's not just one terrible bill, but a whole host of things, much of it pivoting upon the choice of Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. This past week has seen a series of executive orders attempting to cancel much of Obama's environmental legacy – the Keystone Pipeline now has a green light, CAFE standards are being dropped, and the Clean Power Plan gutted. All this accompanied by a presidential 2018 budget proposal that eviscerates environmental protections and climate change regulations. A budget is a moral document, and this one lays it on the line: this President does not value the Earth or the well-being of its inhabitants, human or otherwise.

To take one prime example of the folly of all this, relaxing CAFE standards, which have been a bi-partisan effort through multiple administrations, will actually weaken the US auto industry. Dropping these carefully ratcheted increases in efficiency, combined with Trump's proposed cross-border tariffs, will signal global customers that the future is elsewhere. That future includes electronic vehicles, whose sales are booming worldwide. Rather than helping the auto industry reduce costs, it will collapse demand for its products, which will be retrograde. Not only does this proposal damage the atmosphere, it will undercut the very business it purports to help. This is not a matter for a real estate moghul, abetted by ideologically-charged pseudo-economists to recklessly wade into.

Similarly, Obama's Clean Power Plan works in favor of several regional economies and of some big states, including Red Texas. A trio of western governors, from Oregon, Washington, and California, have come out with a joint statement stoutly defending it, and committing their states to meeting those standards. I expect this will be true of the New England consortium of states, and Gov. Cuomo of New York came out with a joint statement this week with Jerry Brown affirming the plan as well. This aspect of Trump's defiance may help some states economically in the short run, but it will not revive coal, which has been left stranded by economic forces stronger than any faux-populist America-first language. And both of these attempted rollbacks must pass several bureaucratic hurdles before implementation. It will be a long fight.

As for the Paris Accord, the prevailing position within the administration is that we should nominally stay in the UN protocol network, but drop our commitment towards emissions reductions. This would give us political leverage, while cynically washing our hands of the moral commitment. Our leadership in this crucial global effort will be dead, and our biggest competitor, China, will assume that compromised mantle. It is clear that, under Trump's broad assault, the world's tiny sliver of a chance to keep warming below 2C is doomed.

Sadly, our efforts as a nation, and the concerted effort of the UNFCCC over decades, were already insufficient to halt climate disruption. Unless Trump's broad assault is reversed, the next chance for global cooperation on climate will be desperate geo-engineering projects. It is time to put this immoral, incompetent regime under total siege. The Earth's health depends upon it, as do our communities, civic order, and any remaining possibility for sustainable life for future generations.

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Friday, February 03, 2017


Into the Breach

Before the election, Mahan Siler wrote an op-ed for the Asheville Citizen-Times, inviting readers to join his passionate work for social and ecological justice. One person responded. I previously blogged about Mahan, who was the oldest member of the week-long March for Our Grandchildren in 2013, quoting his inspiring words at Lexington Park at the end of the march. Since  the election, dozens have joined Mahan and Steve Kagan, the founding pair of Elders Fierce for Justice, now deep into strategizing a series of actions joining elders and millenials. Some of these actions will involve civil disobedience. After taking my cues from 350.org for many years, I now plan to join this vibrant regional group as they move from planning into action.

I know of several women in both the Asheville area and from our local community in the South Toe Valley who went to the Women's March in DC. Most of them were marching for the first time, and they were thrilled and energized. Similarly, the surge of activism that I observe all around me contains more newbies than veterans.

Here in South Toe, many collaborative, overlapping groups have sprung up. I am a co-sponsor of Surviving Climate Change, one of the largest. We focus on making a strong, highly-networked community even more resilient. But as one person said at our first meeting, we still need to work on ways to mitigate the problem (which means getting rid of Trump and his anti-environmental agenda as quickly as possible). In this winter's semester of Cabin Fever University, many of the events have focused on community organizing (Dinner and Democracy; Forming a 350.org Chapter, Higher Ed and its Discontents, Progressive Educators Unite, Advocating for Children, etc.). We are noting the many points of overlap, and weaving our network more thickly.

But the most focused response to the Trump Coup has come from Yancey-Mitchell Indivisible, with groups in Burnsville, South Toe, and Spruce Pine. On the Indivisible site map, I note 8-10 Indivisible pods across Western NC. Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda LINK, is a sophisticated, highly organized plan for emulating the Tea Party strategy that emerged after the 2008 election out of revulsion to Barack Obama. Congressional staffers who understand how things work in Washington wrote it, with the whole strategy focused upon pressuring MOC's in every possible congressional district as relentlessly as possible, especially at publicized events like town halls and ribbon-cuttings. Though I have been a climate lobbyist for years, I learned quite a lot from reading through the site, and look forward to working with my progressive neighbors in implementing Indivisible's strategy in my rural conservative district.

Many of Trump's executive orders have questionable legality. Democratic attorneys general of several states have already lined up to file suits against his most unconstitutional act to date, banning visitation and immigration from a host of Muslim countries.

Our biggest legal avenue will be to push the limits of freedom of assembly, crossing the line into trespass and blockage of egress to provoke arrest and a day in court to publicize our cause. Many people I have talked to in this new year, rent by its disruptive politics, have said that they expect they will be going to jail before the year is out. I expect to be among them. Potential targets of these actions are manifold, increasing with every new round from DT's Gatling pen: federal lands on the giveaway list, DAPL and Keystone pipelines, the Marcellus terminus pipeline heading down the Atlantic Coast, not to mention immigrant detention centers, abortion clinics, banks who fund Big Fossil – name your cause. We need to quickly train a non-violent militia to be deployed in several places, ready to stand up to what could devolve into a police state.

As events are moving swiftly, panic beckons. But we each need to take the necessary time to discern our priorities, our role in what could become a confused patchwork of actions, rather than a coordinated campaign. These are indeed trying times, but perhaps we are made for these times.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2017


Shock and Awe

Like most of you, I am absolutely stunned by Donald Trump's shock and awe campaign. He wields the executive pen like a kid in a candy shop. Not only is he delivering on his abominable campaign promises, he's added nasty surprises like proposing to sell off public lands. Congress has already changed the rules to make it easier for him to do so. These lands are the foundation of the modest beginning for EO Wilson's audacious, noble proposal to set aside half the earth for wildlife to recover from the ravages of human-driven extinction. One quickly realizes that it's not only the efforts to combat climate change that his actions put at risk, but the protection of habitat against the assault on wildlife. And he includes the National Parks, our national treasures, in his inventory of real estate on the block. Park Rangers (my son Jesse is one at Yosemite) have courageously resisted his gag order, and the NPS chief has issued a magnificent rejoinder to our demagogue president.

It is hard to imagine a worse set of cabinet picks, and the Senate is not showing the backbone on either side of the aisle to stand up to him. He bullied and lied his way – and worse – to election, and now he's using the same tactics as President, relentlessly tweeting his “alternative facts.” More subtle tactics are being employed by the true masters of propaganda, the Russians, to convince the majority of it's citizens to acquiesce to a totally false narrative about the historical and current realities in their country, but Trump's moves in the same direction are chilling. We must resist, and never tire of it.

Trump's narcissistic lying means that nobody, friend or foe,can trust his word. This has potentially catastrophic consequences. By continuing to belittle NATO, he threatens the future of peace in Europe, with NATO members Latvia and Lithuania looking like easy pickings for an emboldened Vladimir Putin. If NATO does not resist their takeover, it is not only obsolete, but dead. Meanwhile, Trump and Rex Tillerson are rattling sabers over China's claims in the South China Sea, risking war between major nuclear powers. John F Kennedy, a seasoned politician with diplomatic skills, similarly risked nuclear war with the Soviet Union over their Cuban missiles. But Kennedy was reasserting the longstanding policy of control of our neighboring waters declared in the Monroe Doctrine. Can our leaders not see that China, as an established world power, has similar interests in their own backyard pond? It is important that the World Court in the Hague has ruled against their claim, but the Philippines, whose territorial waters have been violated, has absolved China. We cannot afford to police the world indefinitely. Are the South China atolls and fortified reefs in our “core interests,” as China claims for itself?

But can we count on President Trump even knowing what the Monroe Doctrine is? Perhaps, since he has delegated national security briefings to his vice-president, he can have Pence do the research for him on our own geopolitical history. After all, we shouldn't expect knowledge of political science or policy matters from a real estate mogul and reality tv host with the emotional intelligence of a six year-old (by his own admission ).

From my perspective as a climate journalist and activist, the ascension of an outright climate denialist, with cabinet choices of a half-dozen more, completes the campaign of disinformation mounted by the fossil fuel industry, aided and abetted by virtually the entire Republican Party. The rest of the world stands in absolute disbelief that the world's leading power, with a strong postwar history of helping the recovery of defeated nations and development of the Third World, has turned its back on the future of civilized order on this planet. The tragic irony is that this is occurring after a reluctant US finally was party to a successful climate accord in Paris in December 2015, the culmination of decades of agonizing diplomacy, attempting to reconcile the competing interests of 197 signatory countries.

Trump appears to be preparing the way for pulling out of the Paris Accord. Legal experts point out that doing so formally would require almost an entire presidential term. But prominent in the executive orders from his Gatling-pen are a wholesale attack on government scientists, with gag orders issued for all agencies. His leaked memo about dismantling the EPA may simply be rumination, but he has fulfilled virtually every promise, a feat even the best of politicians could not match. The US has the best tools for data collection and analysis in the world (NOAA, NASA, DOE, EPA), and these tools are being mothballed by executive order. As one government scientist put it with respect to climate data, “We are flying blind.”

So what can we do? The purpose of shock and awe is to make such a gargantuan show of force that the opposition is overwhelmed and collapses. That has not happened, and I don't think it will. The women's march was one of the largest marches ever, with simultaneous marches all over the country, in Canada and abroad. From the women I have talked to, they were so crammed that marching was not possible, everyone was smushed together, inching along, or marching in place. This means the usual guidelines for crowd estimates did not apply. The estimate of 500,000 seems low, lower than the 750,000 estimated in LA. Nevertheless, the overall estimate of 3 to 4 million marchers across the country definitely sends a message. But the Trump Resistance involves much more than a one-off day of marching, as I will explore in my next post. Courage!

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Friday, December 30, 2016



At this mornings meditation, a solitary warbler flew into my visual field. I was filled with gratitude, made more acute by the following emotion, regret that it was only one bird. I thought back to William Bartram's eighteenth-century description of great flocks of birds flying overhead in North Carolina, so thick that he could hardly see the blue sky behind them. Today, if you were a film director shooting that scene, you'd be hard pressed to corral that many song birds from the whole western part of the state.

Not only are we well into the Sixth Extinction, with rates 1000x greater than the rate when we emerged in Africa, but the numbers of wild animals are dropping precipitously. By 2020, scientists predict that we will have lost 2/3 of their total number. We are already past 60%. This data reinforces personal anecdotal experience: numbers of butterflies and moths have dramatically decreased in rural WNC since I was a boy. And I know that the decline in insect numbers radically affects bird populations. In The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy  speaks of the loss of the “moth snowstorms” many of us remember from the 50's, when our car headlights revealed thick clouds of them every evening. Have you noticed how many fewer bloodied insect carcasses there are on your car hood? Soon, even the Jains will be able to drive our monster fossil-devouring vehicles without collateral damage to the web of life, because the web will have ceased to exist, replaced by a motley grid with large, sagging holes.

EO Wilson, father of sociobiology, who has worked tirelessly for wildlife habitat preservation and teaching ecological values (he calls it biophilia), used to advocate saving pockets of high biodiversity here and there over the planet. After a talk he gave at nearby Warren Wilson College several years back, I asked him whether he had thought about what might happen to these small biodiversity jewels in the era of climate change. Would not some of these third world pockets move into urban areas as climatic zones shifted? He waved off my question, saying that introduced too many variables. “One problem at a time,” he said.

Wilson has now had time to think this one through, and his response is a bold proposal for saving half the earth for wildlife habitat, laid out in his forthcoming book, Half-Earth. These preserves would feature both north-south and east-west corridors to allow migration in response to climate shifts. His idea builds on the longstanding proposal for a “buffalo commons” in the upper Midwest, possibly extending southward into the vast interior of North America. With 15% of the world's land already set aside as natural parks and preserves guaranteed by governmental action, we have a start. I have not read the book yet, but in the reviews I have seen, the proposed areas for these protected lands are in North America, where the work has already begun by private conservationists (Ted Turner's Flying D in Greater Yellowstone and MC Davis's Nokuse in the Florida Panhandle), and Europe, where the European Green Zone has worked for a dozen years to promote setting aside a corridor along the old Iron Curtain, including 20 countries. The idea is stunning in its boldness, and a salutary antedote to the bad news about both species loss and rapidly dwindling wildlife populations, with the loss of 10% of remaining wilderness in the last two decades amplifying the pressure on habitat.

I must say that, as soon as I read about Wilson's proposal, I wanted to see the plan for Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and China. I expect it would not be hard at all in Australia, and am aware of progress in Central and South America that could form a sound foundation for such a plan. Is there the political will for such a project in heavily populated China and India? Indonesia, where palm plantations sprig up, despite legal restrictions? What will happen to the rural poor? Does Wilson and others who share his vision envision any human sharing of this set-aside space, or does he see it as the pure and pristine preserve of other species? Does the proposal integrate the pioneering conservation work that includes indigenous people in monitoring the territories, while also making a living? Their participation in planning the set-asides and monitoring a half-earth zone seems absolutely critical to having a chance for such plan to work. These are all important questions in the context of anthropocene realities, and I plan to return in this blog with an analysis of his discussion on these issues. I do find it troubling that one reviewer (Guardian, April 11 2016) faults Wilson for the lack of specifics on how to implement his plan.

I started this blog during the George W. Bush years, and it matured during the Obama administration. I was highly critical of him during his first term, but ended admiring him for his work against the grain towards stabilizing the climate during the second. Now the unthinkable has happened, and everything we work for as earthkeepers is at risk under the upcoming Boy-King's administration. Resistance is in order, but I also plan to engage the few Republican senators (Lindsey Graham SC, Lamar Alexander TN, and Susan Collins ME) who are on record accepting anthropogenic climate change. NC's own “moderate” Republican, Richard Burr, has made carefully moderated comments on climate in the past, and his office worked quietly with Democrat Kay Hagan while she was in office on renewable installations in the state. He will be hearing from me very soon, as will Lindsey Graham.

But even if we have four years of serious backsliding on carbon emissions in Washington, there is a campaign sponsored by Avaaz for counteracting the Trump attack: big states and big cities ramping up their shift away from fossils. California alone is the sixth biggest economy in the world, and continues to lead the way on renewable energy, vehicle emissions, and other initiatives to stabilize climate. Other countries – Japan, Canada (finally, under Justin Trudeau), several South and Central American nations, and the politically vulnerable European Union – will continue to do their part. But if China and India become shirkers along with the US, then we are in jeoparday of losing any possibility of turning the tide of warming, for some of the positive feedback loops have already begun, and time is almost out.

Pray for your Mother, and love and appreciate every gift you have from her while you can.  Today, I'm especially thankful for those incomparable songbirds.

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