Saturday, September 30, 2023


Regenesis Is Possible

George Monbiot’s latest book, Regenesis, shares a revolutionary outlook. We can “feed the world without devouring the planet.” In an era of accelerating climate change and continuing habitat disruption, Monbiot, a vegan, surveys the landscape for a better way to produce food for 8-10 billion humans, while preserving land in which many threatened species might thrive. 

The book begins with a brilliant chapter on Soil, the least studied dimension of our remarkable planet.  Monbiot patiently researches and interviews experts on the remarkable holistically nested relationships of soil denizens.  There are whole phyla down there, not just classes of critters, including springtails, bristle tails, symphylids, crustaceans mites, spiders, centipedes and millipedes, earthworms, nematodes and mollusks.  And of course the much-celebrated and crucial symbiosis of fungi and plants. 

 After this stunning tour of what lies beneath our feet – and supports us nutritionally – he goes on to demonstrate, through sordid examples and research data, how modern industrial agriculture is systematically destroying the miracle of soil chemistry.   Not only are we losing topsoil, sending it along with chemical fertilizers into our waterways and ultimately, the ocean, but we are also destroying soil structure by ploughing and misusing soil amendments, chemical and otherwise. 

 Monbiot proceeds to grimly demonstrate the horrors of Big Ag, especially the dairy and livestock industries, with far more examples than I could stomach. Crucially, he points out that the vast majority of land given over to agriculture world-wide is used to produce feed for animals. But then he gives us a couple of refreshing chapters narrating in careful detail the work of farm geniuses who model the best practices of vegetable, fruit, and grain production in his native England. 

Tolly, tough and weathered, hands that have worked the soil for decades, late sixties, long blonde hair and a gold earring works an ancient estate, productive since lower paleolithic times, recognized in these latter days by its mansion, Toad Hall. The soil is about forty percent rock, chock full of ancient implements and shards, not what agronomists would call arable. But by patient observation and a labor intensive crop rotation, the plot produces at the threshold of high yields. As a gardener, I was in delight and amazement at Tolly’s genius in integrating multiple systems (including weeds!) to create good yields of high-quality vegetables without importing animal products from what he calls “ghost acres” (off-site sources of soil amendments).

 Another chapter follows Tim, a consummate English wheat farmer, producing organic wheat for the artisanal baking market with reasonable yields. Because he doesn’t plow, he avoided terrible erosion from unseasonal floods a couple of seasons back that you could see in the farms all around him, as well in as in his own research strip with grain grown by conventional methods.  

 With the kind of careful design and loving attention that Tolly brings to his plot, along with labor paid for by the green philanthropist who now owns Toad Hall, fruits and vegetables can be grown with enough yield to make it worthwhile (leaving aside the issue of sustainable lifestyle in a cash ecomomy).  But Tim with his heirlooom wheat and organic growers in general have a hard time producing fruit and vegetables efficiently enough to feed great numbers of hungry folk.  Monbiot takes issue with those who say food should  be more expensive, holding the admirable – and ultimately necessary – goal of feeding the masses nutritious food at a cost they can afford. His critique of organic fruit and vegetables and pasture-raised meat is perhaps the most controversial portion of Monbiot’s book. But his powerful summary of the barbarism of our traditional foodways, seen through the eyes of an interstellar visitor (pp203-04), is hard to contramend.

 I once met Wes Jackson, witnessing him in familiar conversation onstage st Duke Divinity School  with Wendell Berry.  Monbiot marvels at how little has been done to support Jackson’s research at the tiny Land Institute in Salinas Kansas, crossing and backcrossing native prairie grasses to create perennial wheat.  Now there are similar projects in China to breed perennial rice.  Not only do perennial grains save carbon by obviating the need for annual ploughing, they also preserve soil structure and fertility with their hardy two and a half foot roots. 

 But perennial grains will not be possible to grow in all places and conditions.  After a thoroughly dismantling critique of the ecology and economics of  the meat and dairy industries and surveying the best possible production of vegetable fat and protein, he comes to the conclusion that we are still using far too much arable land to feed humanity, to the detriment of our fellow creatures and the web that sustains the whole.

 Monbiot’s answer is already brewing in laboratory vats across Europe.  He returns to the soil bacterium from his initial chapter to investigate the production of protein and fat from cultured bacteria.  These products go far beyond elaborately produced Beyond Meat products, and can be brewed for different tastes and textures.  Skeptically, he samples a pancake made from bacteria flour, and finds it equal to the traditional pancake, which requires a huge panoply of grain, dairy, and poultry resources to fashion.  

So yes, Regenesis is possible, as Monbiot skillfully illustrates.  But is it likely?  That depends on the collective (political) will, which has not yet reached critical mass.  According to the climate clock, we have less than 6 years until we are over the climate cliff.  The intellectual and scientific case was made quite awhile back.  Now Monbiot points to a breakthrough in foodways patterns laid down in the neolithic, a true agricultural revolution.  It is no longer a matter of intellect, but of Schopenhauer’s sleeping giant, the Will, to get up and carry the Intellect over the slough of our lazy, dumb denial 

Nobody I have talked to about this book is excited about his solution to our food problem.  Organic farmers and pasture-raised beef hands are as attached to their own supposed improvements over BAU as are the poets who have blessed the images of the pastoralist and farmer for thousands of years, deeply etching our cultural memories (in a radical chapter laying the blame for our predicament at the poet's feet). 

Monbiot's bacterial protein fix is a potential civilizational lifeline, but only to a point.  Large parts of the Earth will soon be uninhabitable, and the oceans will not recover for thousands of years.  The New Yorker article that features a photo of a Swedish architect as a spaceman feeding on mealworms who digest plastic is not as far-fetched as it may seem. I'd rather make bacterial pancakes, while watching the chickens patrol the fields for grubs and the (elk) calves drink their mother's milk. 


Friday, March 31, 2023


Climate Grief is Not Seasonal Work

 For everything, there is a season – Ecclesiastes. 

In the climate movement, the ongoing debate continues to bring passionate responses.  Having absorbed the lessons of climate science, are we on the side of hope or despair?  My own engagement led from cautious hope in the early 2000’s to leading workshops on Collapsing Consciously in 2015, when I embraced the term “climate doomer.” Leading those workshops led me into deep despair and after a healing process I have described here, I disengaged from both teaching and civil disobedience.  It has been a long road since then, but my work now is to open the door to grief-work, both personally and in a small support group of those who want to do the same.  

Grief and despair are not the same thing. Despair saps both hope and energy, and does nobody any good.  Grief, on the other hand, is healing work, and the more specific it is, the more effective. The thing about grief over climate disruption and the ongoing Sixth Extinction is, that the grieving is ongoing.  The grief is bottomless, so when one grief episode ends, another calls out for attention.  Grieving is not seasonal. We are not constituted for perennial grieving, so we give it a rest and go into denial, or go to a mass action to feel good for a day or so. Given this Earth moment, how do we discern the seasons for grief, for righteous anger, and for joy in what remains? We probably all will do this differently, and as social creatures, we need folks to join us in our emotions.  And as intelligent and sensitive beings, we need to make room for others experiencing the different emotional modalities at different times. 

Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest (2007) presents the idea that the emergence of over two million NGO’s of various sorts in the first few years of the millennium represented the awakening of the immune system of the biosphere and humanity. The NGO’s were a systemic response, fighting for the life of the system.  This is an important idea, but it does not necessarily lead to a restoration of biospheric and societal health.  It is more like the healthy response of a dying person who decides to stay positive and seize all the joy she can in the precious time remaining.  So yes, we must not yield to despair, but, even when things look impossibly bleak, carry on anyway.  But the grief work will always be there, and finally, as in Kubler-Ross’s stages, we each need to reach acceptance.  If the additional climate disruption headed our way is sudden and catastrophic, then we may miss out on this important act of completion.

I get the survival instinct. The point is to stay alive and responsive, where the point is the survival of the group.  You grieve your losses along the way, but when extinction stares you in the face, you say a prayer of acceptance.  And that acceptance is grounded in faith in the evolutionary intelligence of the whole Earth and cosmological system, which is guided by a deep, purposive interiority.  In the overall scheme of evolution, we have a purpose, which is to keep the whole thing going at as elegant a level as we can.  The problem is that we don’t direct it, and don’t have sufficient respect for the intelligence of the whole.  It is in response to that intelligence that we now help many species survive the wave that we ourselves have unleashed.  (The ironies are multiple and overlapping.) So, to that extent, we are long-termists.  And we would be even better at this process if we were a rational species, but we keep proving that we are not. The current global wave of populism despises the elites who follow the scientists and the technocrats, which is understandable, due to their haughtiness, unexamined privilege, and disregard for the common man.  But it is tragic, nonetheless.

Hope is a universal emotion. But its varieties and contexts are complicating. I have written here about it several times, ranging from biblical hope, which most accurately describes my own, to “honest hope” (Diane Dumanoski, whose idea is described in the same post). 

I studied a semester in mid-life with archetypal psychologist James Hillman, who always argued that hope was a dishonest emotion that blocked facing reality.  More recently, two writers I greatly respect, Dahr Jamail and Stephen Jenkinson, have argued against hope for similar reasons. They add the crucial point that, if one remains hopeful that somehow we will escape climate catastrophe, we will not grieve Earth’s immense, virtually unending losses sufficiently or completely. 

Grief is indeed a deep well, but can one survive without hope?  Most people would argue no, and I only know a few very tough, resilient folks who seem to consistently live that practice. I still look for hope, not for short-term survival of homo sapiens, but one grounded in trust for the miracle of evolution, in which the divine is embedded: biblical hope in the age of science.

Monday, February 27, 2023


Time for a Dignified Retreat in the Face of Climate Disruption

For many years now, this blog has swung between deep pessimism about climate disruption and study of possible techno-fixes.  The most time-consuming of those periods of study was 2006-07, when I took off six months to study nuclear power.  My conclusion was that, despite the manifold dangers, it was worth the risk, given the certain doom of fossil fuel addiction.  This was not a popular position at the annual Quaker Earthcare Witness meeting, and some folks were looking daggers at me when I refused consensus with their public statement about its dangers, which my study showed me included errors and lies.  Fifteen years later, world reliance on nuclear power has lessened, and we have produced as much CO2 since 2000 as we did from the outset of the Industrial Revolution, 1790-2000.

But I have always returned to my dark roots, and that has happened again.  Led by the indefatigable Michael Dowd, I have encountered the work of Dahr Jamail, whose book, The End of Ice,  is the latest in a series of books that have profoundly influenced me with respect to climate disruption.  Each time I read accounts of the latest science, I face anew the starkness of our future as a species, and of whole pieces of the biosphere.  In the case of Jamail, meticulous journalism is combined with personal history and a willingness to record his feelings about our dilemma– and crucially, those of the scientific experts he interviews.  Jamail models for me personal practices (he might agree with the broad term “spiritual”) of going to the woods when he reaches overwhelm, and going through grief, fear, and anger, rather than walling them out. For these reasons, I find his truth-telling unparalleled in my extensive study of climate science during the last twenty-odd years. 

In addition to Ice, there are two fine Jamail interviews, one with Dowd, another with Carolyn Baker and Andrew Harvey.  Other extremely helpful interviews in Dowd’s “Post-Doom” series are those with Jem Bendell (“Deep Adaptation”) and the droll and thoughtful Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us.

Last night, I read Jamail's devastating chapter on the imminent loss to seal-level rise of the Everglades, along with virtually all of South Florida.  In his interviews with engineers, city planners, and scientists in the greater Miami area, he encounters some deeply responsible public officials whose response to the frightening sea-level data is to create a timeline and budgeted priorities in abandoning property prudently and responsibly.  This includes a seaside nuclear reactor site at which the NRC has approved adding another reactor! As I read these encounters, I realized that they were outlining a third position to my own polar travels. That is a position of orderly and dignified retreat, modeled especially by the mayor of South Miami, Phillip Stoddard, who is also professor of biology at Florida International University.  Continuing denial, or unqualified optimism, will only lead to the kinds of chaotic responses that have characterized most of our "adaptive" responses to date.

This is an unglamorous position, and very hard work, especially in an era of continuing Republican denial and the generally inconsistent response to climate and other ongoing large dilemmas that populist politics has mired us in. But it is an admirable response, both practically and morally, which one can contrast with both doomer “quitting” and activist eleventh-hour behavior when midnight is baked into the pudding. (The key data here is that every 100-ppm CO2 increase in the atmosphere produces 100 feet of sea-level rise. At 410 ppm, 130 feet of sea-level rise is insured, no matter what happens with future emissions Ice, 130-31. I'll leave it to my readers to check the elevations of the world's major coastal cities.)  This is responsible behavior in terms of humanity, but also in the interest of the beings involved in the holy mystery of ongoing evolution.  The overarching vision is described in E. O. Wilson’s sublimely optimistic Half-Earth  (now whittled down to "30-30"), highlighted by such efforts as planting trees poleward to insure the best possibility of their surviving the current Sixth Extinction. 

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Friday, January 27, 2023


Stop Gulping Kool-Aid!

Ok, I admit I’ve been sipping Kool-Aid, the hopium of these bright young Brits who rationalize this slippery world, its calibrated risks, but most of all, trade on my love of my fellow humans and their magnificent potential.  Though Ord places climate change fourth on his list of risks, it is the one that is most apparent for anyone with eyes open.  Reading that it is fourth in his list of existential risks did not make me focus more on the other three for very long, since I know a lot less about them.  But it did have the effect of getting me to relax more about the huge climate shifts that are accelerating.  This was a mistake, a failure of moral imagination.  Huge shifts are already underway. To be honest, we are in Earth Overshoot, and that alone is enough to render our continued existence a vanishing hope.  

 Like Ord, I love humanity, though shudder at the power of our mistakes, which we still keep making, with planetary consequences. We are as gods. And Ord struck a chord when he spoke of the impossibility of voluntarily resetting at a more primitive level, for in the Anthropocene humans are needed to shepherd Creation that we have so disrupted, and that is now colonized as our planetary realm of control.  This is true for our species in terms of economics, agroforestry, and all levels of growth, with the dream of “sustainability,” mainly to be found in gene manipulation and the possibilities of geoengineering. But it is also true of the role of scientists and conservationists in preserving plant and animal species, which gives support to our continued role as ecosystem manager (Eugene Odum). 

What is our responsibility to the future? Our village of Celo, NC is sponsoring its annual Cabin Fever University, and spurred by reading Ord, McCaskill and other Oxford philosophers, I am hosting a discussion of this topic next month.

Human, Earthly, and Post-Human Futures: What is our responsibility to the future?  Whose future?  We will explore the notion of long-termism presented in works like To Be a Good Ancestor, The Precipice, and Effective Altruism founder Will MacCaskill’s What We Owe the Future?  One of the key questions raised in these works is: does the Earth, or the universe for that matter, have value without homo sapiens or some other self-reflective species embedded within it?  Thomas Berry formulated a similar question in The Universe Story ( with Brian Swimme, 1992), affirming that the Universe knows itself through our participative deep listening, postulating this was a fundamental and necessary quality of the universe.

When we are facing possible near-term extinction, our responsibility to the future is hugely relevant. What’s odd about this is that I’ve circled back to my roots (Sunderlal Bahuguna, Thomas Berry, ecotheology) by taking what feels like a detour through a group of neo-Utilitarians. I am certain that Jeremy Bentham never imagined that his simple guide for right and wrong would turn out to be a recipe for human colonization of the universe.  Such is the power of instrumental, technological science unleashed by the return to Robber Baron capitalism, combined with Bentham’s shallow operative morality. 

Regarding near-term extinction, The Guardian published a recent article featuring the latest climate science to forecast a range of temperatures for tipping points.  We are at the lower threshold of four now: West Antarctic ice sheet, Greenland ice sheet, northern permafrost belt abrupt thaw, and tropical coral reef mass die-off.   

The Greenland ice sheet collapse is the highest probablility of already being in collapse state, at the present 1.2 degrees of warming. My denial, which refuses to completely go away, makes me look to the mid-range, hoping beyond hope that surely we aren’t there already.  But we know that in almost every instance thusfar, climate scientists have underestimated the speed of change, starting with the consensus that held from the late nineties until the Paris Accord that the magic number was 2 degrees C.  Now even 1.5 looks too optimistic for several tipping points.  And they interlock, producing a cascade effect. 

And that methane burp?  Scientists do not have a clear understanding of how and when this might happen, but some of them (Peter Wadhams) think it could happen at any time, with immediate catastrophic consequences.

It shouldn’t require a Sam Bankman-Fried crypto meltdown to see through the shallow morality of the neo-Utilitarians.  Their problem is an inability to see that humans are not the apex of evolutionary history, which is continuous, and thoroughly buying into the concomitant myth of infinite (human) progress. In the next series of posts, I will look at our responsibility within the context of evolutionary history at the end of the Anthropocene, the shortest geological period in Earth history. This will be from the perspective of my personal wrestling with Overshoot and looming climate catastrophe, aided by a tiny group of friends. I invite us all to embrace the metanoia of letting go of denial and techno-fixes and accepting the necessity of collapse - and into the Mystery beyond.



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Wednesday, November 30, 2022


The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity


The Precipice is Toby Ord’s apt word for the current precarious human condition.  Most of the book details existential risk for our species - meaning extinction.  He clearly shows that natural risks – anything from asteroids and comets to supervolcanic eruptions and stellar explosions, are not very high, based both on Earth history and projecting the rate of risk across the aeons ahead. 

Far more worrying are anthropogenic risks, including nuclear weapons, climate change, and overall environmental damage. In a chapter on future anthropogenic risks, he adds artificially induced pandemics and “unaligned artificial intelligence.”  He agrees with Future of Humanity Director Nick Bostrom in ranking these existential risks, with AI the highest (at 10%, which is a worrisome figure), followed by nuclear weapons, pandemics, and climate change fourth. The fifteen-year history of this blog has focused on climate change within the context of the global ecocrisis, including habitat loss, exhausting resources, and what has been called the Sixth Extinction (Ord thinks this is premature).  It’s only fair that I present a larger picture, based on the risk probabilities of these eminent Oxford institutions.

I learned of Toby Ord’s work reading the fine New Yorker piece on William MacAskill,  the reluctant prophet of effective altruism .  As a small-scale philanthropist, donating most of my federally mandated Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) to non -profits, Will’s central argument to donate to organizations that would have the most effective longterm influence for humanity (and the Earth) made sense.  And the fact that he was a reluctant leader made his pitch even more attractive. 

The in-depth interview, following Will around for a week and later dropping in for various EA events, highlighted the key moment when Toby Ord attended a meeting in Durham (NC) and was sold on the idea.  Ord is a moral philosopher at Oxford, and co-founded the charitable arm of the EA organization with MacAskill.  The organization shares a building at Oxford with the Future of Humanity Institute, which also shares many of EA’s concerns (Ord works for both), and clearly informs Ord’s book. The Precipice:Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, is the culmination of his work on global poverty and his pledge to donate 10% of his income to help improve the world, underpinned by his training and teaching in ethics.

The biggest shock for me was hearing detailed history of AI, and recognizing the speed at which this development is cascading.  It feels very much like the development of nuclear bombs, in which the thrill of the chase is again outrunning prudence and safeguards (this is true as well of viral research).  I have been hearing for years from a colleague in the Forge Guild, a trans-traditional group of spiritually oriented folks, warning us about AI.  But his posts did not go into the kind of harrowing detail that Ord presents here.  The real concern is not AI per se, but the development of artificial general intelligence (AGI), where the robot has the full panoply of brainpower, including invention, choice, and motivation, at a level far more advanced than our species.  I will not detail the multiple scenarios where things could go wrong enough to lead to our extinction, but clearly there needs to be better monitoring of what’s going on before it’s too late.  And we are on the threshold of too late. 

Ord also outlines various dystopian scenarios. Foremost among these would be a global fascist government with extreme control tools. Three of the biggest democracies on the planet are edging towards fascism.  India under the BJP and its Hindutva ideology has already passed the boundary, though it is not clear to me that it is irrevocably fascist. A planetary disaster due to the loss of the Amazon rainforest carbon buffer has been averted (perhaps) by the election in Brazil, where the socialist Lula narrowly defeated Trump’s clone Bolsonaro. This was a huge concern heading into the mid-term election in the US, but the crisis has been defused for now by the partial Democratic victory.   

Ord’s position is one of a pragmatic humanist, a rationalist perspective relying heavily on the science of risk analysis.   But I find it odd that a book that is drenched in risk probabilities does not fully take  account of the scenario of risk synchronization.  He does speak of the “increasing risk of a cascading failure of ecosystem services” (118), but why doesn’t he do the calculations that he performs for individual risk categories?  

The ending chapter, on “Our Potential”, fully demonstrates Ord’s breathtaking optimism about our future.  In his scenario, if we can work through the current multifaceted crisis (the Precipice) to give ourselves some time for reflection (the “Long Reflection”) by slowing down the pace of research and economic growth, that potential is unlimited.  Here he echoes the book’s first sentence: If all goes well, human history is just beginning.  The promise of “heights of flourishing unimaginable today” is outlined in an extraordinary fable of colonizing the cosmos, adding “trillions of years to explore billions of worlds.” Not only trillions of years, but 80 trillion human beings (MacCaskill’s number), based upon the average span of mammalian species.  I gasped at these mind-boggling figures.  Ord is morphing from a philosopher doing risk analysis to science fiction.

Despite the catastrophes of two world wars, multiple instances of genocide, two global pandemics and the climate chaos of the present century, he doubles down on Condorcet’s Enlightenment-era optimism. For Ord, man is indeed the measure of all things, not only on Earth, but in the Universe itself. He makes it clear that humanity alone creates value, thus we should colonize the universe, giving it value.  He could be a spokesperson for Elon Musk.

Ord agrees with many anthropologists that we are a young species.  But his heady optimism assumes that we will go from adolescence to mature wisdom in a generation or two.  It would be the greatest evolutionary leap in Earth history.  When asked how long it would take our species to grow up, Pulitzer poet Gary Snyder laughed and said “10,000 years.”  Dark Mountain founder PaulKingsnorth and other dark ecologists would agree. That is, if we survive the Precipice.

But Ord presents a strong argument against those who would lead us back to traditional practices (Gandhi and his spinning wheel, Kingsnorth with his scythe for every occasion) and minimal tech solutions: “…forever preserving humanity as it is now may also squander our legacy, relinquishing the greater part of our potential.” The problem is that we have to be pretty much perfect in our choices going forward, so rapid is the pace of technological advance, and so severe the consequences if we make a key mistake in the several areas of risk Ord outlines so thoroughly. And our track record is not good. 

Ord makes gestures at various junctures of The Precipice indicating he respects the fact that we are part of an entire life web, but his anthropomorphic bias overwhelms these statements. And his thoroughgoing rationalist, pragmatic humanism ignores the immanence of the divine in the tiniest corner and widest reaches of the cosmos.  Though his Oxford institutions are doing invaluable work in risk analysis, reminding us that we are clearly at a precipice, a far more promising pathway is my mentor Sunderlal Bahuguna’s insistence on the union of advaita (non-dual, the “Buddhist” end of the vast Hindu theological terrain) and science as a pathway forward for imperiled humanity and our exquisite earthly home. See my post on his death.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021


The Ocean's Other Problem: Deoxygenation

This summer gave us a mounting series of climate change warnings: flooding in Germany, China, Tennessee, and the Northeastern US (from Hurricane Ida); wildfires in California/British Columbia, Southern Europe, and Siberia. Later this year came a devastating, record tornado, mostly centered in Kentucky, which tracked on land for more than 200 miles.  Overall, drought increased in drought-prone areas, especially the West, and rains increased in rainy areas.  All of this has been predicted by climate science for the past 20 years or more.  But what struck me the hardest, leaving an emptiness in the pit of my stomach, was the fish and bivalve die-off that started in early summer, continuing into September, which occurred on both coasts and in the Great Lakes.

The causes for the fish die-offs were multiple.  In the Pacific Northwest, the precipitating factor was a mammoth heat wave in June that left almost a thousand humans dead, and billions of fish and bivalves. Fish in coastal waters, especially bays and inlets, were most affected, as were bivalves living in tidal pools, especially those lacking northern exposure.  These same areas are those most affected by nutrient run-off, which is a global problem in highly populated river estuaries.  Unless we move very quickly and decisively to contain contamination of waterways by agricultural fertilizers, the problem of eutrophication, leading to dead zones such as the 500-mile one in the Gulf of Mexico at the Mississippi Delta, will only worsen.  Nothing but algae and jellyfish can live in these conditions. 

In Tampa, an unusually bad red tide caused greater than annual fish die-off.  Chinook salmon were killed in rivers in Washington and at the base of the Shasta Dam in California.  The problems came chiefly from increasingly lower flows due to drought, exacerbated by extreme heat.  In Washington, a lingering columnaris bacteria infestation of chinook was also worsened by the heat.

But underlying the heat waves and drought experience on land is a greater problem: ocean deoxygenation.  We have long heard about ocean acidification, which especially affects shell formation, requiring a very specific ph range that favors calcification. But research into deoxygenation has lagged until recent years. It is even more threatening to almost all forms of ocean life.  All animals require oxygen, which is primarily dependent upon photosynthesis.  We are taught from elementary school that this crucial process happens in trees and other land plants.  It is startling to learn that the majority of oxygen produced on Earth - 50-85% - comes from phytoplankton, photosynthesizing on or near the surface of the ocean.  Since 1950, Earth’s oceans have lost 2% of their oxygen, with another 3-4% projected loss by 2100.  In some tropical areas, as much as 40% of oxygen has been lost.  (Compare average heat gain to heat gains in the poles, though the observed loss of oxygenation is greater by a scale of 10). 

Like average figures for planetary warming of 1, 2, and 3 degrees Celsius, 2% may not sound like much.  But marine scientists have found that base-of-chain species like phytoplankton and zooplankton are very sensitive to very small changes in available oxygen.  For instance, they may need to go deeper to breathe, where they are unable to reproduce.  Lack of oxygen degrades sight in a wide array of species (including humans), so they are more vulnerable to predators.  Two key species of zooplankton have already gone extinct, as I reported five years ago. 

The reasons for loss of oceanic oxygen are twofold. First, warmer water simply holds less gas. Secondly, polar ice melt produces a layer of less dense, warmer water that forms a kind of lid over colder, more saline water at greater depths. We think of ocean currents as traveling horizontally at or near the surface, like the Gulf Stream.  But there is a crucial vertical pump that also operates, which brings nutrient-rich water from deeper waters to the surface, sending oxygenated waters down.  This vertical mixing has been slowed by glacial melt, and it is obviously getting worse.  One consequence is that marine species migrate towards higher O2 concentrations, which means more in the top ocean layer.  This makes them more susceptible to predators (including fishermen), and drives some of the colder-loving species to outright extinction.  See these two key articles:

We are already in the Sixth Extinction.  When I think of this sad dilemma, my thoughts turn to big cats, rhinos, elephants, and many species of birds. In recent years, we have learned of a frightening increase of insect die-offs, which are of course the greatest number of species at the multicellular level.  The oceans don’t have many insects.  In fact, they host only around 15% of all species.  But they also are habitat for 50-80% of all life on the planet (compare this range with the source of oxygen generation).  If slight changes in O2 content can cause extinctions at the base of the food chain, then marine life in general is threatened.  The ocean is where life began.  It is our mother and remains our container.  We may be King of the Mountain, but the mountain, like Turtle Island, is dwarfed by the sea around it. If phytoplankton numbers drop below a critical threshold, we are all doomed, like the fish around the bays this summer panting out their last breaths. If the oceans die, we die. 


Tuesday, November 30, 2021


Shall We Spend the Rest of Our Days Grieving Climate-Related Loss?

“So much of struggling is trying to send out hope, but having grief echo back.”  Hannah Sanghee Park, commenting on her poem, “The One Mockingbird Only Sings at Night.”

One response to the ongoing climate crisis, a disequilibrium verging on collapse, has been to grieve, both ritually and informally, what we are losing: individual species, ecosystems, as well as relationships in the age of Covid, and much else related to humanity’s historical moment.

Margaret Renkl’s NYT essay, “I Don’t Want to Spend the Rest of My Days Grieving,” published in late summer, refuses to travel that road. “Life is not at all a long process, and it would be wrong to spend my remaining days in ceaseless grief.”

Renkl goes on to enumerate all the wonders that still remain in her local world of Nashville, Tennessee, despite tears in Mother Earth’s fabric.  Renkl’s essay is evocative and elegiacal, but she misses the crucial realization that one may find hope on the other side of grief, if one attends fully to the grief, especially with the support of others.  I have frequently noted in these pages Joanna Macy’s groundbreaking work in this area.  So much of struggling is trying to send out hope, but having grief echo back. Denial of grief, so common among eco-activists, only leads to burnout.  Naming the grief as a confession in the presence of open listeners can lead to reconnecting with the Earth’s wider intelligence embedded in her planetary organism like so many micelia, so that we may serve the whole system, not just our grieving or hopeful selves.  So grieving is necessary.  We are losing a lot, and we will lose a lot more. 

However, many eco-activists rail against grieving over the planet’s condition, seeing it as giving up.  The question is, does acceptance of what we see all round us, and of the implications of the findings of climate science mean giving up, as Naomi Klein has frequently argued?  Grief is the natural response to full acceptance, but working through that grief, and the accompanying despair, can lead us through those emotions to the possibility of hope, including, for some, renewed initiative.

I know that I have not attended grieving as much as I did when I led workshops along the lines that Joanna has long demonstrated. It’s a matter of practice, and if it is unattended, we lose the benefits. So, as an intermittent griever, what is my hope?  Its ground is my deep faith in Creation, and the remarkable power of evolution.  That latter territory is laid out in the emergent cosmological paradigm shift describe in Rob Messick’s Regenerative Universe (to be released next spring), affirming the cosmology of ancient Vedantists, world after world (see my essay in Dark Mountain). Stay tuned for an announcment this spring about Messick's upcoming book, which is a major event.

My elder, a West Virginia Quaker, said to me recently, “How wonderful it will be to watch what unfolds on Earth after we are gone.”  Perhaps not wonderful, but definitely fascinating.  Do we feel none of this matters if we aren’t here to observe it?  Margaret (Renkl), life is a long process, not from the perspective of a single individual life, but from the perspective of evolution; not just the evolution of life on earth, but cosmic evolution.

As for grief, I’lll give Wendell Berry the last word: Be joyful even though you have considered all the facts.


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