Sunday, June 26, 2016

Tales We Tell Our Children

"It is difficult to imagine how anyone who encounters these stories as a youth could grow up to have anything other than profound respect for the latent power of the natural world."

On the comments page for a popular environmental radio show a listener asked for suggestions for books or stories on nature themes to read or to give to children —  the kind that maybe influenced you when you were little.

Three titles immediately came to mind, and now seem more relevant than ever. One was set in the steaming tropics — Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson (in Brazil, in 1938). The other two are set in the far north — To Build A Fire by Jack London (in the Klondike, in 1910) and Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy (in northern Russia, in 1895). Why they appealed to us as a child and seem even more relevant now is because each are about battles with extreme, elemental forces of climate and about the hubris implicit in human attempts to dominate and control. In the end, each is humbling, which is a good lesson for any child.

Leiningen Versus the Ants is the story of a German colonial planter, a relative newcomer to the tropics, having only 3 years experience there, who is warned in the opening scene by a District Commissioner that the army ants are approaching and he needs to evacuate. The aristocratic planter scoffs, vows to stay and protect his work, and therein lies the tale. A Hollywood version staring Charlton Heston, The Naked Jungle, came out in 1954.

In the original, it is just the young, brash, commanding planter, whom Stephenson symbolically has given neither a first name nor an age, marshaling his troops of underpaid, overworked and easily sacrificed peons to fight the diabolical flanking and pincer movements of the besieging ants. In the end, he sacrifices himself for his tiny piece of paradise and the lives of his laborers, but defeats this elemental force by calling upon greater elemental forces.

Douglas Fowley
In the Hollywood version (there was also a radio drama in 1948), it's 1901 and a 19-year-old Christopher Leiningen comes to South America to convert thousands of acres of Rio Negro terra preta to a chocolate factory. Now 34, with no knowledge of women, he recruits a mail-order bride from New Orleans. Eleanor Parker’s character is beautiful, independent, and arrives ready to be his stalwart helpmate; however, no one has told him she's a widow. He rejects her as unclean. During the next week, as she awaits the boat to take her back to the US, they are warned by a medicine man (Douglas Fowley) that legions of ants will strike in a few days' time. She joins the fight to save the plantation; their courage and his near loss of all he's worked for cements their Naked Jungle marriage.

Joanna: Do you think this moat will stop them?
Leiningen: Ants are strictly land creatures. They can't swim. Right, Incacha?
Incacha: Monkeys not swim also. They cross rivers even so.
Leiningen: The intelligence of monkeys is more than ants, less than man.
Incacha: Is so.
[laughing]
Incacha: When ants come, monkeys run.

Jack London’s tale is based on the real-life experiences of the author during the Klondike Gold Rush. A man — no need give him a name as he is the story’s only character — is braving extremely cold temperatures as he travels across the Yukon to join his companions. Instead of a medicine man to warn him of the elemental threat, he brings along a wolf-dog. This is a good thing because London’s typical characterization of indigenous peoples and their cultures was about as ignorant and incurious as most Anglo Klondikers, but his appreciation of animal intellect was much keener.

At minus 75F (−59 °C), the dog can sense that something is awfully wrong. The dog’s frightened behavior is supposed to show the man that he has underestimated his danger and get him to turn back, but no. Like Leiningen, he is stubborn, oblivious to the powers he has challenged. Likewise, the powers are entirely insensitive to him. The animal just wants badly to bug out. The man does not comprehend that because he is in the position of Leiningen to his peons — the dog is merely a slave. For the dog’s part, he feels no need to communicate, only to stick close and obtain the warmth of a fire.
The dog made no effort to indicate its fears to the man. It was not concerned with the well-being of the man. It was for its own sake that it looked toward the fire.

One of London’s great writing talents was his ability to describe natural landscapes. In To Build A Fire his descriptive passages tell us that the seeming peace, emptiness and tranquility of the snowy landscape masks a power far greater than any mere humans. When the man abruptly falls through an ice spring and and wets his legs to his waist, the author spares 24 words to alert readers to the bigger picture: “The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that tip, received the full force of the blow.”
Well, here he was; he had had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself. Those old men were rather womanish, he thought. All a man must do was to keep his head, and he was all right. Any man who was a man could travel alone.

He does not survive.

The third title we recommended to young readers today was Master and Man and after reviewing it with the eyes of an elder now, we almost wish we could read it in the original Russian, Хозяин и работник. While translations reveal Tolstoy’s power as a storycrafter, they cannot show us his ability to apply words to paper the way an artist touches paint to canvas.

In the story, wealthy young Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov takes along one of his serfs, Nikita, for a short journey to visit the owner of a forest he is eager to purchase. He is obsessed with getting the best price, has calculated the ROI for cutting it down, would like to increase that, and is oblivious to the weather. Driving a one-horse sleigh over snowy roads, he finds himself in the middle of a blizzard, the likes of which is seldom seen.

As master and servant leave the village of Kresty ("The Crosses") Tolstoy “sets about dismantling the barrier between this world and the next:”
"As soon as they passed the last [building], they noticed at once that the wind was much stronger than they had thought. The road could hardly be seen...The fields were all in a whirl, and the limit where sky and earth met could not be seen."
Nikita would rather be close to a cozy fire somewhere but is accustomed to taking orders, despite the fact that Vasili prides himself in cheating him of his wages. The master orders they press on because, although the blizzard is blinding, they have only 4 miles to travel and competition waits for no-one. They repeatedly get lost, travel in circles, are given second and third chances to abort and take lodgings, but the master is too stubborn.

The mind of the master is preoccupied with "the sole aim, meaning, joy, and pride of his life – of how much money he had made and might still make” while the minds of the serf and the horse hear instead the “whistling of the wind, the fluttering and snapping of the kerchief in the shafts, and the lashing of the falling snow against the bast of the sleigh."

Like Leiningen, Vasili Andreevich is finally pushed by the prospect of being inevitably overpowered by General Winter to sacrifice himself for his serf, bringing home Tolstoy’s oft-repeated theme that the only true happiness in life is found by living for others. The second theme is that the elemental force of nature invariably prevails in the end and how that plays out is seldom pleasant.

We were just a child when we first read these stories and we read with the wide eyes of a child. Looking back now, it is difficult to imagine how anyone who encounters these stories at that age could grow up to have anything other than profound respect for the latent power of the natural world. Although separated by decades and distances, each of them tells the story of a strong, solitary individual who regards others, and the whole of nature, as subservient to their will, but who, after tasting reality in a most profound way, become transformed, even heroic, at last gasp.

These stories have been assigned reading for children for more than a century, in the case of the two winter tales, and more than 80 years in the case of their summery companion. They seem to have been literarily backwatered by technophilic hubris that set in around mid-20th century. But that is how each of these tales begins: technophilic hubris. And then there is a come-to-Gaia moment for each protagonist — Leiningen, The Man, Vasili Andreevich — and received wisdom. For the latter two, it comes too late. Charlton Heston, ant-bitten to the bone, got the girl. A Hollywood ending.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Battle of the Holocene

"The end results are definite and dire, that much is known."

7,827 PEOPLE DIED TODAY.  Men, women, children, and all religions alike.  It was avoidable, it was unnecessary, and the same thing will happen again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and every single day that we chose to do nothing about Anthropogenic Climate Change

I'll explain.  Let's just pretend that we have 35 years to do something about climate change, after which it is too late.  Let's also pretend that if we do nothing before that 35 year mark, that 100 million people will die (famine, disease, extreme weather...).  That means that we have 12,775 days (365 * 35) left to save 100 million people from an unnecessary death.  100,000,000 people / 12,775 days = 7,827 people / day. 

This is just a way to make the intangible feel tangible.  There is no precise and scientifically agreed upon deadline, a deadline before which we can still chose to either do “something” or “nothing”, after which it is too late.  There are a series of milestones that will be crossed, and most of them only visible in hindsight.  There are infinite “somethings” that can be done, and no indisputable delineation between what is the “right” something or the “wrong” something.  It is a game of nuance.  A game where words such as “assuming”, “might”, and “if” are used a lot.  But the end results are definite and dire, that much is known.  So to avoid getting lost in the endless mire of debating numbers, I gave it a number.

What really eats at me personally, is how almost without mention we are indiscriminately committing hundreds of millions, if not billions to death and suffering, and they are us, and our children, and it is all completely unnecessary, and the mainstream media and government don't seem to pay it but the occasional meaningless lip service compared to the immediacy and scope of the problem. 

What if they had names?  Maybe if we were to arbitrarily chose 100 million people and their unborn children, and every ten minutes another 54 would be listed.  Undoubtedly a morbid and interesting ploy, but unlikely to change the course of history.  It would be pretty interesting to send that list out to various groups though; news organizations, political organizations.  I would love to see that email sent directly to the desks of top fossil fuel executives and the investors who support their companies.

What can be done?  Something.  Do something.  Say something.  The silence is deafening.  Every day that nothing is done, the problem grows. 

I’ll say something; Go fly a kite Rupert Murdoch, I’ll take the truth and spread it.  Screw you Exxon, I’ll take your carbon and put it back in the Earth.  I am a warrior in a battle to save the Holocene, the best darn climate humanity has ever known.

But somehow, for some reason, this sort of conversation is socially taboo.  We don’t talk about it much, lest we be labeled a Debbie downer, or get stuck in endless debates of “if’s” and “maybe’s”.  Or perhaps we need new ways to talk about it?  I guess in time… but it couldn’t be sooner, because while I have sat here at my desk frustrated, angry, writing, another 326 people died.


This has been a guest post by biocharista Josiah Hunt. We invite others to send us their blogable thoughts for possible publication on The Great Change. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Hot Brain Cool Brain

"Voting these days is like choosing between the hot faucet and the cold faucet, but only the hot faucet works."
 
  Lion and wolf cubs, when they learn to stalk prey, learn fairly quickly that they must delay the urge for immediate gratification if they are to be successful. They have to cultivate patience.

Babies who are taken to their mother's breast whenever they cry do not learn this as early. Those allowed milk only after they stop crying, and maybe even then not right away, learn patience.

Last month Walter Mischel gave a Long Now talk that eventually found its way to our earbuds as we bicycled through Amish country in Southern Tennessee.

It is wheat harvest time here and Amish men are out scything the sheaves, tying bundles, and forming them into shocks to field dry in the sun. When the wheat has cured, the shocks will be collected by horse wagon and carried back to the barn for threshing. The Amish abide in the Long Now.

Walter Mischel’s psychology experiment at Stanford in the 1960s took students from the Bing Nursery School, put them in a room one-by-one, gave them a choice of a cookie, mint, pretzel, or marshmallow and the following deal: they could eat the treat right away, or wait 15 minutes until the experimenter returned. If they waited, they would get an extra treat. 

Michel and his team then went behind the one-way glass and filmed for 15 minutes.
Footage of these experiments, which were conducted over several years, is poignant, as the kids struggle to delay gratification for just a little bit longer. Some cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can’t see the tray. Others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal. One child, a boy with neatly parted hair, looks carefully around the room to make sure that nobody can see him. Then he picks up an Oreo, delicately twists it apart, and licks off the white cream filling before returning the cookie to the tray, a satisfied look on his face.
-- Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker 

The genius of the experiment was not in discovering what percentage of children delayed gratification and how that might correlate to sex, age, race, ethnicity or income, but in following the children with a longitudinal study for the rest of their lives.
As they matured and became adults, the kids who had shown the ability to wait got better grades, were healthier, enjoyed greater professional success, and proved better at staying in relationships—even decades after they took the test. They were, in short, better at life.
-- Drake Bennett, Bloomburg 

Mischel showed that a child’s ability to delay eating the first treat predicted higher SAT scores (by 210 points) and a lower body mass index (BMI). They got paid more, lived longer, and had fewer divorces. 

In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester added more nuance to the original work.  In "Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability," Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri and Richard N. Aslin tested children who had little reason to trust that the scientists would return in 15 minutes versus a control group of children who were more likely to have trust. Children raised in homeless shelters or alleys, for instance, have much less faith in the reliability of their environments, or adult authorities, than children who are raised in stable family settings surrounded by environmental constancy.

What do children plucked from bus station bathrooms do when told that if they delay gratification they will get a bigger reward? They eat the treat right away. While the study is too recent to track those kids for a lifetime, the long term effects of mistrustful childhood do not require a leap of imagination.

Kidd et al report:
The results of our study indicate that young children’s performance on sustained delay-of-gratification tasks can be strongly influenced by rational decision-making processes. If self-control capacity differences were the primary causal mechanism implicated in children’s wait-times, then information about the reliability of the environment should not have affected them. If deficiencies in self-control caused children to eat treats early, then one would expect such deficiencies to be present in the reliable condition as well as in the unreliable condition. The effect we observed is consistent with converging evidence that young children are sensitive to uncertainty about future rewards.
***
To be clear, our data do not demonstrate that self-control is irrelevant in explaining the variance in children’s wait-times on the original marshmallow task studies. They do, however, strongly indicate that it is premature to conclude that most of the observed variance—and the longitudinal correlation between wait-times and later life outcomes—is due to differences in individuals’ self-control capacities. Rather, an unreliable worldview, in addition to self-control, may be causally related to later life outcomes, as already suggested by an existing body of evidence.

There is also an existing body of evidence that tells us that humans are predisposed to disbelieve scientific facts, or even their own experiences, if they conflict with strongly held beliefs. This is likely the phenomenon most responsible for our failure not merely to make the cultural changes required of us to avert climate Armageddon and Near Term Human Extinction – even simple lifestyle changes like eating lower on the food chain, cutting discretionary travel, living in a smaller house and having no more than one child – but our failure to even acknowledge, as individuals or collectively, that we have a problem. We have chosen instead, to use the words of Dr. Kidd, an unreliable worldview.

As John Michael Greer says, human beings are like yeast. They respond to increased access to food and energy with increased reproduction. In other words, marshmallows make us horny.

Our cockeyed worldview has a concatenation of causes. We are products of the religious views of our parents. We inhabit a globalized culture that infantilizes us while it trains us to become dedicated followers of fashion.  We like hearing the sound of our "own" voice in our heads. Add all that up and it amounts to simmering distrust. We are not at all prepared to delay gratification. The average child in Kidd's study waited only 6 minutes.

In his Long Now talk and in his book, The Marshmallow Test,  Walter Mischel spoke of our internal dialog in terms of a conflict between the "hot brain" that wants to operate on impulse and take what is right in front of it, and "cool brain," that is willing to wait, willing to trust, and then to reap the greater rewards.

Those who find themselves more often on the winning side – whether in athletics, business, politics or relationships – are those who have cool brains. They play the long game.

All too often they use the inabilities of opponents to see that long game to pad their advantage. That is how they get ahead.

Climate change and the existential threat it holds cannot even be perceived without a long view. It needs a cool brain, not a hot one. But there is a self-reinforcing feedback being played out here that does not work in favor of our species. Climate change weirds the normal course of things. It makes the environment for everyone unreliable. It seeds distrust. It makes brains hot.

The question then becomes, how can we develop cool brains? Mischel suggests several techniques of ideation that can help build self-control. What is clear, however, is that the best self-control starts early in life and is built upon a foundation of trust. The environment a child experiences will affect how much trust they can invest in adults, their culture -- its rules and social responsibilities -- and their future. Take away stability and trust from children and the effects of that loss ripple out to very large consequences for everyone.

"By changing cognitive skills and motivation, we can use the cool system to regulate the hot system," Mischel says. "Is it all pre-wired? My answer is an emphatic no."
Attention control strategies and cognitive transformations/reappraisals can 'cool' the immediate temptations and 'heat' the delayed consequences is what's important.
***
The point I am trying to make is that if we are going to talk seriously about taking long term consequences like climate change into account, we've got to make the consequences hot. We have to really make them hot. And that's not easy to do.

One of the reasons that it is not easy to do is because that limbic system, that hot system that activates automatically when you have high stress, is there for good reason.

We have often wondered whether continuing to write scary tomes about our future is an effective strategy. Mischel says it is and we need more of it. But we also need to cool our brains once they have grasped hot consequences.

His advice is to narrow the economic class divide, teach self-control in schools, assume everyone is capable of improving their skills, and stop creating new victims of biological and social biographies.
Mischel’s main worry is that, even if his lesson plan proves to be effective, it might still be overwhelmed by variables the scientists can’t control, such as the home environment. He knows that it’s not enough just to teach kids mental tricks—the real challenge is turning those tricks into habits, and that requires years of diligent practice. “This is where your parents are important,” Mischel says. “Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?” According to Mischel, even the most mundane routines of childhood—such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning—are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires. But Mischel isn’t satisfied with such an informal approach. “We should give marshmallows to every kindergartner,” he says. “We should say, ‘You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how.’ “
-- Jonah Lehrer

From the presidential campaign now playing out in the United States and similar dramas in Brazil, Philippines and elsewhere, we can surmise that a cool brain standard is not in the immediate offing. It is easy to see the distinctions between the many hot brain / instant gratification candidates and constituencies, whose policies would widen the class divide, rekindle the Cold War and heat the planet, and the rare cool brain / calm and steadfast candidates and constituencies, who want to end divisive rhetoric, level the playing field, and pursue a path to real progress in peace, justice and transformative change.

Voting these days is like choosing between the hot faucet and the cold faucet, but only the hot faucet works.

Watching the Amish gather in the sheaves we see a culture that invests in trust. Children grow up relying on adults to be steadfast, seasons to come and go, and the good earth to provide. They learn self-denial and delayed gratification early. It becomes a joyful practice because it underpins a greater love of community, and the return of community love for each member.

Humans are capable of these things. We are capable of designing entire societies that function this way. Whether we choose to act rationally, with self-control, and not on impulse, is simply a matter of choice.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Aunt in the Attic

"By the time the price slump hit exports Caracas was already into grades of Orinoco Heavy that resembled tarry pipe opium."

Many eyes are now on Venezuela, which the Organization of American States is trying desperately to keep from becoming a failed state, but just up the coast lies another Bolivarian Republic leaning like a domino.

Mexico’s wells are running dry.

You would almost not know if you took your news from television or the mainstream media. It is like a closely guarded secret — the aunt in the attic.

While international prices Mexico gets for its crude fell 18% in 2015 and another 10% this year, the average VW bug owner in Morales is paying 11% more (vs. 17% in the US) every time they pump a liter. The government is slowly releasing price controls at its retail PEMEX stations, trying to hold fluctuations at +/- 3%, but warning of completely unregulated prices coming in 2018. It hopes to sell off its retail chain by then.
 

This is not neoliberalism driving that kind of change, although Mexico has more than its share. It is a desperation to stem its own domestic appetite for oil. Mexico is becoming an oil importer.

Not long ago Mexico was the US’s single largest supplier of crude. The giant field at Cantarell was second only to Ghawar in Saudi Arabia. Today Ghawer still produces 4.5 million barrels per day (mmbd) of 350-million-year-old sunlight — down from 5 million mmbd a few years ago — while the giant Cantarell, which once produced 2.1 mmbd, has been on nitrogen drip since 2000 and is approaching closure. PEMEX, Mexico’s recently-privatized national oil company, will spend $US 6 billion this year in a Quixotic attempt to maintain production levels at around 325,000 bpd.


In April Mexico’s oil export revenues fell 30.8%.  That month the national trade balance showed a deficit of $6.65 billion dollars. Mexico’s trade exchange with the US is roughly neutral in non-oil areas — $30.4 billion exported against $32.5 imported in April, for instance. What allowed the Mexican economy to grow was the extra $300 billion per year coming in from oil sales, creating a 2:1 favorable balance of trade.

In 2015 Mexico’s oil export revenues fell 45 percent. Petroleum now makes up about 5% of total exports, compared with about one-third in 1990. It was not just the decline of the world price, although that certainly hurt. 


Mexico is running dry.


One need only gaze a little farther south to see how that progression will play out.  Venezuela’s problems are often blamed on politics, Hugo Chavez’s populist redistributions,  generous foreign aid, CIA covert efforts to destabilize, and class warfare, but truth be told, Venezuela was an oil addict and its habit outgrew its abilities to find the next fix. By the time the price slump hit, Caracas was already into grades of Orinoco Heavy that resembled tarry pipe opium.

Last year Venezuela’s oil revenues, really its only source of trade, fell 40%. At the same time, climate change struck its agriculture and hydroelectric sectors with a megadrought. Nonetheless, its creditors demanded timely payment on loans — $7 billion per year — or risk default and IMF sanctions a la Argentina or Greece. Much of that debt was racked up by the state-owned oil company, PDVSA (aka Citgo), which had a drill-baby-drill philosophy through the Chavez years. 


On April 22, Venezuela’s leaders announced mandatory electric fasting — 4 hours per day — formalizing the blackouts that people had already been experiencing. Electricity Minister Luis Motta said the rolling blackouts would last for 40 days or until water levels stabilize at the Guri Dam. 


In April, federal employees were reduced to a 4-day work week. In May, it was cut to two. The health care system has collapsed, the crime rate is one of the world’s worst and the slide of the Bolivar is uncontrolled. By some estimates, inflation could reach nearly 500 percent this year and 1,600 percent in 2017.

The amount of time ordinary Venezuelans spend to purchase life’s daily necessities has frustrated and angered them, and this builds a slow burn of civil unrest with calls for impeachment or revolution. Looking for popular support, President Maduro has gone after business leaders, arresting the managers of a pharmaceutical and other companies on charges of artificially creating shortages.

On May 15 The New York Times’ Nicholas Casey reported:

The day had begun with the usual hazards: chronic shortages of antibiotics, intravenous solutions, even food. Then a blackout swept over the city, shutting down the respirators in the maternity ward.

Doctors kept ailing infants alive by pumping air into their lungs by hand for hours. By nightfall, four more newborns had died.


***

The figures are devastating. The rate of death among babies under a month old increased more than a hundredfold in public hospitals.


***

Here in the Caribbean port town of Barcelona, two premature infants died recently on the way to the main public clinic because the ambulance had no oxygen tanks. The hospital has no fully functioning X-ray or kidney dialysis machines because they broke long ago. And because there are no open beds, some patients lie on the floor in pools of their blood.


***

“I doubt that anywhere in the world, except in Cuba, there exists a better health system than this one,” Mr. Maduro said.

Late last fall, the aging pumps that supplied water to the University of the Andes Hospital exploded. They were not repaired for months.

So without water, gloves, soap or antibiotics, a group of surgeons prepared to remove an appendix that was about to burst, even though the operating room was still covered in another patient’s blood.


***

In a supply room, cockroaches fled as the door swung open.

Dr. Diaz logged a patient’s medical data on the back of a bank statement someone had thrown in the trash.


***

Doctors tried everything they could to keep the babies breathing, pumping air by hand until the employees were so exhausted they could barely see straight, she said. How many babies died because of the blackout was impossible to say, given all of the other deficiencies at the hospital.

In January Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto began to dance with the shadows his future throws. The government announced $8.3 billion in budget cuts, much of it falling most heavily on PEMEX, now generally regarded as a wasted investment of the past decade. He also  canceled the Chinese bullet train project that threatened to expose corruption tied to his family’s personal wealth.

As its oil company struggles, Mexico has made commitments to tackle climate change. In 2012, the Mexican Congress unanimously voted for a General Law on Climate Change, which went into effect later that year — making Mexico the first developing country to pass a comprehensive climate change law. Some of the aims of the law are to set mandatory greenhouse gas emissions requirements, reduce fossil fuel subsidies and increase renewable electricity generation to 35 percent by 2024. Owning a national oil company does not seem to square with that law.

— Gina-Marie Cheeseman, Mashable


PEMEX had been Mexico’s cash cow for half a century, financing a meteoric rise in standards of living. This miracle came thanks to the heroic stand of Lázaro Cárdenas Del Rio against Franklin Del Roosevelt in the 1930s, defying the effort of the Seven Sisters  to glom Mexico’s oil by blocking the transfer of refinery technology. After Mexican scientists successfully developed their own process, Cárdenas sent FDR a vial of clear, home-brewed gasoline. Goaded by Winston Churchill, Walter Teague and other oil obsessives almost to the point of invasion, FDR was dissuaded by his Joint Chiefs, who were riveted by Germany’s remilitarization and what it foretold. He turned his gaze away and left Cárdenas alone.


In December of 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Mexico was one of the first countries to pledge support and aid, and severed all diplomatic ties with the Axis powers. Grateful, FDR placed large contracts for Mexican oil and sent technicians to quickly build up Mexican mining operations for much-needed metals like mercury, zinc, copper and more. After FDR visited the Mexican President in Monterrey, transfers of US weapons and training began and the Mexican Air Force, Fuerza Aerea Mexicana (FAM), fledged the Aztec Eagles, who aided in the conquest of the Philippines, Formosa, Okinawa and Kyushu, flying P-47s (‘Peh-Cuas’) with bright Mexican tricolor markings on the tail and U.S. star-and-bar insignia on the fuselage and wings.

Mexico was warned of impending petrocollapse more than 10 years ago by the top brass at PEMEX. It might have made efforts to dampen Catholic fecundity and curb consumer growth, ration fossil reserves and build out its renewable portfolio. Instead, a succession of administrations — Salinas, Fox, Calderon, Peña-Nieto — poured billions into new drilling technology and offshore exploration. What came out of the ground was too little, too late, but until 2014, when it finally began liquidating PEMEX and cutting its losses, Mexico never stopped hoping to hit another jackpot. 


As a hedge, Mexico poured its final decade of oil profits into boosting tourism — one only need look at Cancún, Puerto Vallerta or Cabo San Lucas — and until now that seemed to work. The country’s azure seas and sandy beaches realigned international air routes. Hotels, restaurants and adventure tours boomed.

A trifle short-sighted, we would say.

Cancún was devastated by Hurricane Wilma but rebounded on the strength of tourism. Can it do that again? And again?

Tourism, even ecotourism, can boost the economy of a remote region, but only as long as jet travel is cheap and flights are available. Tourism is profoundly fragile, compared to say, agriculture. Mexico’s tourism was hampered by air travel security measures put in place after 911, a drumbeat of largely-unsubstantiated scares about endemic bird flus, Zika, Dengue and West Nile, uncontrolled kidnappings and random street violence, often at the hands of police and federal army, and other threats to unwary teens on Spring Break. 


All of these pale in comparison to peak oil or financial crash. Global tourism’s circulatory system is on an IV drip that requires regular infusions of First World discretionary spending power and discount airfares. Right now, airlines are basking in the glow of low petroleum prices. It can’t last, and neither can the happy-go-lucky Mexican tourist economy. Mexico doesn’t just import petroleum and vacationers now. It imports rice, beans, corn and tomatoes.

Venezuela’s failed state is instructive. What will a Mexican failed state with a long border and deep cultural ties mean for the United States? President Trump may not have to wait long to find out.

One hopeful note is a new initiative Mr. Peña Nieto is taking to ramp up a small but pricey agricultural sector that could keep the Mexican economy afloat, even in hard times.

The United Nations special session on drugs was heavy on empty talk, but several positive things came out of it. One was that there is no appetite to make countries abide by the United Nations treaties that prohibit the legalization of marijuana. Another is that a range of voices across the world are calling for a new approach to drug policy. The growth of a legalized, binational marijuana market would be a step toward turning those calls into reality.

— Ioan Grillo, "Legalized Pot, Free Trade," NY Times Opinion Page


What Peña Nieto has proposed for Mexico for now is to allow cannabis consumption but leave growing and selling of it to the illegal market, effectively continuing the profitable  Drug Wars, criminal syndicate finance of local politics, and police-gadget pork supplied by the DEA and Pentagon. If Mexico were to take the next step up the attic stair and legalize production and sale, its world-famous strains could rival anything being grown in Colorado and Oregon. It could have a trade balance to rely on.  






Sunday, May 29, 2016

Let Nature be Nature


"Can the extravagance of growth fanatics continue? Clearly not. Will President @realdonaldtrump keep the lemmings racing towards the cliff? Definitely so."

!Kung peoples managed their energy well - C.A.S. Hall
  After posting a pretty dour outlook last week we were amazed to watch it attract more page views more quickly than any of our previous 22 posts this year. No accounting for taste, we suppose.

At the risk of alienating our new audience right off the bat, we are posting something more upbeat this week.

We had two scientific papers shoved under our door, and both of are serious sources of hope for a world undergoing climate shock. They represent the two sides of the solution ledger, adaptation and mitigation.

The first is an open research white paper, The Sower’s Way: Quantifying the Narrowing Net-Energy Pathways to a Global Energy Transition, by Sgouris Sgouridis and Denes Csala of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, United Arab Emirates, and Ugo Bardi from the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Florence, Italy.

Hubbard Linearization - Courtesy C.A.S. Hall
The second is a journal article, published under a creative commons license in Science Advances 2016, entitled Carbon sequestration potential of second-growth forest regeneration in the Latin American tropics by 60 co-authors at 45 institutions in almost as many countries. The lead author is Robin L. Chazdon, a professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut and a visiting professor at the International Institute for Sustainability in Rio de Janeiro.

In The Sower’s Way, Sqouridis’ group looks at the INDPs (national pledges) submitted at the Paris climate conference in December, sees that they are clearly inadequate to arrest runaway climate chaos and near term human extinction (NTHE)) and asks the pregnant question, suppose they weren’t?

Suppose the overarching goal set in Paris — to phase out fossil energy by 2050 or sooner — were actually committed to by all those who exchanged pens at the signing of the legally binding treaty last month at One UN Plaza?

The Energy Cliff - Courtesy C.A. Hall
“Is it possible to satisfy the dual constraint of reducing emissions fast enough while achieving the desired energy availability?” the authors ask.

“… [I]mplicit in the COP21 agreement is that these reductions should be obtained while offering sufficient available energy for humankind, especially for developing countries that are ascending the energy availability ladder.”

After completing the study, one of the authors, Ugo Bardi, conducted a poll on the Doomstead Diner   of how realistic most doomers thought the renewables revolution to be.
What is the possibility of a society not too different from ours (but 100% based on renewable energy sources, and on the possibility of obtaining it before it is too late to avoid the climate disaster. This said, what statement best describes your position?
  1. Courtesy C.A.S. Hall
    It is impossible for technical reasons. (Renewables have too low EROEIs, need too large amounts of natural resources, we'll run out of fossil fuels first, climate change will destroy us first, etc.)
  2. It is technically possible but so expensive to be unthinkable. 
  3. It is technically possible and not so expensive to be beyond our means. However, it is still expensive enough that most likely people will not want to pay the costs of the transition before it will be too late to achieve it, unless we move to a global emergency status.
  4. It is technically possible and inexpensive enough that it can be done smoothly, by means of targeted government intervention, such as a carbon tax.
  5. It is technically possible and technological progress will soon make it so inexpensive that normal market mechanisms will bring us there nearly effortlessly.

Our own response, after returning from Paris, was: "option 6 - it will be faster than anyone expects.” Our reasoning was that once the curves cross  — and solar is cheaper than oil — there will be a mad rush to dump oil stocks and buy solar, without any consideration of net energy. Simian neurobiology will then be buckled into the driver’s seat, chasing lost investments with fresh money until every last shekel is exhausted. In the end, there will be a lot of solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal energy to show for the effort but just not anything resembling the consumerist civilization most people now take for granted.

There will not be Space Cadet academies on Mars.

The Sqouridis paper concludes that “renewable energy installation rates should accelerate and increase at least by a factor of 50 and perhaps more than 90 over current” in order to meet the UN sustainable development goals. They conclude that growth rate is entirely possible and may already be in process. The key, they say, is “the sower's strategy”:
“… the long-established farming practice to save a fraction of the current year's harvest as seeds for the next. Fossil fuels produce no “seed” of their own but we can “sow” what these fuels provide: energy and minerals to create the capital needed for the transition. Yet, withdrawing the “seed” energy reduces net available energy for society. The challenge therefore is to balance energy availability and emissions in order to complete a renewable transition before fossil fuel depletion makes it impossible without inflicting crippling damages on the climate.”

Courtesy J.G. Lambert
Moreover, to be rated a success, the solar power transition has to meet three criteria:
  1. The impacts from energy use during the transition should not exceed the long-run ecosystem carrying and assimilation capacity;
  2. Per capita net available energy should remain above a level that satisfies societal needs at any point during transition and without disruptive discontinuities in its rate of change; and
  3. The rate of investment in building renewable energy harvesting and utilization capital stock should be sufficient to create a sustainable energy supply basis without exhausting the non-renewable safely recoverable resources.

The group concluded:

In every case, a successful SET (sustainable energy transition) consists of a sustained acceleration in the rate of investment in renewable energy of more than one order of magnitude within the next three decades following a trajectory dictated by the chosen fossil-fuel phase-out. A peak in installation rates, but not cumulative capacity, forms at the point where the rate of energy demand growth starts to slow down.

In other words, the group concluded that Option 6 was the most likely: it will be faster than anyone expects. At least 50 times faster than it is right now.

Courtesy C.A.S. Hall
Meanwhile the seminal bioeconomist Charles A. Hall reminded us:

There are three good studies — Mohr et al.'s 2012 (Ward, J., S.H. Mohr, B. Meyers and W. Nel. 2012. High estimates of supply constrained emissions scenarios for long-term climate risk assessment. Energy Policy 51: 598-604); Maggio and Cacciola (Maggio, G., and G. Cacciola. 2012 "When will oil, natural gas, and coal peak?" Fuel 98: 111-123); Laherrere's ASPO-France web page —  that agree that there is likely to be a peak in ALL fossil fuels in +/- 2025 and then a sharp decline. It seems extremely unlikely that renewables will fill that gap. On the other hand the near cessation of economic growth in OECD countries and the slowdown for China might smooth out and slow down our approach to the peak. 

Murphy and Hall, 2011
With that opening salvo, we can see Hall’s studies and raise a few more:

Leggetta, L.M.W. and D.A. Ball. 2012. The implication for climate change and peak fossil fuel of the continuation of the current trend in wind and solar energy production, Energy Policy 41: 610-617. doi:10.1016/j.enpol.2011.11.022:

Courtesy J.G. Lambert
Climate change, and more recently, the risk of fossil fuel production being unable to keep pace with demand (peak fossil fuel) are both considered as risks to civilisation, or global risks. In an initial empirical analysis, this paper attempts to answer the following questions, which have often been posed but have not, to our knowledge, been answered empirically at global level. At which date, if unaddressed, will the risks become critical? Given that the substitution of fossil fuels by wind and solar energy is often proposed as a solution to these problems, what is its current aggregate growth rate and is there a plausible future growth rate which would substitute it for fossil fuels before the risks become critical? The study finds that the peak fossil fuel risk will start to be critical by 2020. If however the future growth rate of wind and solar energy production follows that already achieved for the world mobile phone system or the Chinese National Expressway Network the peak fossil fuel risk can be prevented completely. For global warming, the same growth rate provides significant mitigation by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels to zero by the early 2030s.

Mohr, S.H., J. Wang, G. Ellem, J. Ward, and D. Giurco. 2015. Projection of world fossil fuels by country. Fuel 141: 120-135. doi:10.1016/j.fuel.2014.10.030:

We model world fossil fuel production by country including unconventional sources. The Low and Best Guess (BG) scenarios suggest that world fossil fuel production may peak before 2025 and decline rapidly thereafter. The High scenario indicates that fossil fuels may have a strong growth till 2025 followed by a plateau lasting approximately 50 years before declining. All three scenarios suggest that world coal production may peak before 2025 due to peaking Chinese production.

Courtesy C.A.S. Hall
Thus, whether lured by the carrot of a sun-powered future or frightened by the sound of the dip stick scraping the bottom of the oil pan, a Great Change is coming. But what is the shape of the curve? In comments to our last week’s post, reader Don Stewart wrote:

Harquebus, as quoted [on Ugo Bardi’s blog]:

“Whenever somebody with a decent grasp of maths and physics looks into the idea of a fully renewables-powered civilised future for the human race with a reasonably open mind, they normally come to the conclusion that it simply isn’t feasible.”

Stewart continues:

Courtesy C.A.S. Hall
We are completely convinced that the above statement is true, but that does not mean that renewables cannot be of significant use to modern society. It is not that they can replace fossil fuels, but they could considerably extend their useful life span. That could be as much as a century. At the world’s present consumption rate the oil age will be ending in 13 years, and society will have to pay a very high price to get it there. We are now witnessing the bankruptcy of the Petro-States,  and much of the Western world’s petroleum industry. Over the next five years it will become very apparent as to what is happening. Geothermal, wind, tidal power, small hydroelectric, and in some cases solar can replace much of the electricity production of the world — electricity that is now being supplied from our rapidly depleting fossil fuels.

Courtesy C.A.S. Hall
Of course clean electricity is not a substitute for fossil energy; nor are biofuels; nor are both in combination. Professor Hall recommends Alice Freidemann's new book When Trucks Stop Running for a fuller discussion of that issue. Friedemann blurbs:

Our era of abundance, and the freight transport system in particular, is predicated on the affordability and high energy density of a single fuel, oil. This book explores alternatives to this finite resource including other liquid fuels, truck and locomotive batteries and utility-scale energy storage technology, and various forms of renewable electricity to support electrified transport. Transportation also must adapt to other challenges: Threats from climate change, financial busts, supply-chain failure, and transportation infrastructure decay.

Hall, Friedemann and Stewart all raise a common point: assuming renewable energy was rolled out with adequate speed and with all the boost the last hours of ancient sunlight and fossil energy era technology can supply, is it enough? The answer to that question lies in our civic willingness to face limits, both to the size of the human population and to how much it consumes. Can the extravagance of growth fanatics continue? Clearly not. Will President @realdonaldtrump keep the lemmings racing towards the cliff? Definitely so.


Chazon’s 60 scientists looked at something entirely different. They asked the question, what if we let nature be nature? Would she recover? Would she do so in time? The answer, which is really quite shocking given what we presented here last week, is yes. We have only to step aside.

Chazon, et al, noticed that although deforestation in the world’s tropical regions, owing to expansion of cattle farming, urban sprawl and fire, continues to reduce overall forest cover, second-growth forests (SFs) are expanding in many deforested areas of Latin America. SFs emerge spontaneously in post-cultivation fallows, on abandoned farms and pastures, in the understory of ecological restoration plantings, and following assisted natural regeneration on private or communal lands. Given that there has been good satellite telemetry for more than 4 decades, Chazon’s group asked,

“What is the total predicted carbon storage potential of naturally regenerating forests over four decades across biomes and countries?”

The answer was “a lot.”

Only about 28% of the millions of hectares studied was second growth forest, but looking carefully at that part, the researchers concluded that if second-growth forests were permitted to recover, unaided by tree planting or other interventions, 8.48 gigaton of carbon would be net sequestered over 40 years just in the aboveground biomass. Calculating below ground carbon they say would add another 25% (although we think that is too low). Their number corresponds to a total sequestration of 31.09 Gt CO2, equivalent to emissions from fossil fuel use and industrial processes in all of Latin America and the Caribbean from 1993 to 2014.

Just imagine what could be achieved with the addition of step-harvesting of forest products and biochar from woody wastes — or if we just left alone the other 90 percent of the planet that would naturally revert to second-growth forest if were allowed to. In either of those scenarios, so much carbon would be sucked out of the atmosphere that Earth’s atmosphere could quickly recover to pre-industrial greenhouse gas levels in a time far short of 40 years.

Suicide is not the only option, as the volunteer on the other end of the hot line will tell you.

There are still choices.



Saturday, May 21, 2016

You Too Can Have a Bigger Graph


We confess to occasionally indulging in the optimistic whimsy that if we humans would only recover the common sense to let nature be nature, and maybe help her out by planting a few trees, the climate crisis would be over quite quickly. Then in a darker rebound, we despair that indeed we are really a very dumb species and probably will be doing creation a favor by going extinct, and moreover, let’s hope we do it soon enough so that fewer other species will be harmed in the process.

Do we need to be reminded by more Doomer Porn? The greatest impediment to Earth’s ecological recovery is not her ability to heal. Our planet still has that, even at this late date. The greatest impediment is human cultural and cognitive inertia.

In our naivete, we used to think that humans might stand a chance at culture change, but the more we learn about neurobiology, the more it seems we sapiens are locked into a primate brain that is determined to retain more reptilian instincts and reject anything sounding vaguely angelic.

Lately, credible scientific research tells us that a lack of information is not the problem. No amount of public opinion mustering will matter, so trying to educate is a lost cause.
What could change the equation? Don’t really know that yet. We are pinning hopes on raising on permaculture army, but who can say? Hang on for the ride. The best is yet to come.

Here are more than 40 visual images of what is transpiring in the real world, outside our cultural filters. Beyond this point, as Robert Scribbler said, "We're gonna need a bigger graph."
















“There is a possibility that this gradual global warming could lead to a relatively abrupt slowing of the ocean’s thermohaline conveyor, which could lead to harsher winter weather conditions, sharply reduced soil moisture, and more intense winds in certain regions that currently provide a significant fraction of the world’s food production. With inadequate preparation, the result could be a significant drop in the human carrying capacity of the Earth’s environment.”
Climate Institute 2003 Report







“Many of the most memorable and devastating storms in eastern North America and western Europe, popularly known as superstorms, have been winter cyclonic storms, though sometimes occurring in late fall or early spring, that generate near-hurricane force winds and often large amounts of snowfall. Continued warming of low latitude oceans in coming decades will provide more water vapor to strengthen such storms. If this tropical warming is combined with a cooler North Atlantic Ocean from AMOC slowdown and an increase in midlatitude eddy energy, we can anticipate more severe baroclinic storms.”
- Hansen et al. 2015, Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2C global warming could be dangerous.






“Doubling times of 10, 20 or 40 years yield multi-meter sea level rise in about 50, 100 or 200 years. Recent ice melt doubling times  are  near  the  lower  end  of  the  10–40-year  range,  but the record is too short to confirm the nature of the response.”
- Hansen et al. 2015, Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2C global warming could be dangerous.





“Many of the most memorable and devastating storms in eastern North America and western Europe, popularly known as superstorms, have been winter cyclonic storms, though sometimes occurring in late fall or early spring, that generate near-hurricane force winds and often large amounts of snowfall. Continued warming of low latitude oceans in coming decades will provide more water vapor to strengthen such storms. If this tropical warming is combined with a cooler North Atlantic Ocean from AMOC slowdown and an increase in midlatitude eddy energy, we can anticipate more severe baroclinic storms.”
- Hansen et al. 2015, Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2C global warming could be dangerous.





We show that long-term fluctuations of war frequency and population changes followed the cycles of temperature change. Further analyses show that cooling impeded agricultural production, which brought about a series of serious social problems, including price inflation, then successively war outbreak, famine, and population decline.
- Zhang, et al, 2007. Global climate change, war, and population decline in recent human history





Hand in hand with the skimpy ice cover, temperatures across the Arctic have been extraordinarily warm for midwinter. Just before New Year’s, a slug of mild air pushed temperatures above freezing to within 200 miles of the North Pole. That warm pulse quickly dissipated, but it was followed by a series of intense North Atlantic cyclones that sent very mild air poleward, in tandem with a strongly negative Arctic Oscillation during the first three weeks of the month.
- Jeff Masters, Wunderground

The normal climate of North America in 2095 under business as usual warming (i.e. no Paris agreement) according to a 2015 NASA study. The darkest areas have soil moisture comparable to the 1930s Dust Bowl:


In the 1993 blockbuster movie "Jurassic Park," a sleazy scientist played by Jeff Goldblum quips that "life finds a way." For real biologists, climate change is like a massive, unplanned experiment, one that may be too fast and strange for some species to survive it.
- Colorado Bob

Solomon et al., 2011. Warming World: Impacts by Degree, based on the National Research Council report, Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts over Decades to Millennia






 [I]f indeed Sivaram (Foreign Affairs) and Revkin (The New York Times) are joining all the nations of the world in acknowledging that 1.5°C is the preferred target for humanity, then we are in a “hair on fire” moment.
- Joe Romm, Climate Progress
 

Increased temperatures from global warming are decreasing rain and snowfall and are increasing evaporation in the Colorado River watershed. This is reducing runoff into the reservoirs. The team predicts the water storage in Lakes Mead and Powell has a 50 percent chance of becoming exhausted by 2021 if climate change reduces runoff as predicted and if water consumption continues at current levels. This scenario would have dire consequences for the American Southwest.
- American Museum of Natural History Science Updates





The world is just not prepared to handle large scale abrupt changes, most of us never learned to grow our own foods, we just go to the supermarket and pick whatever we want from the refrigerator. Unless we learn to accelerate our efforts to keep pace with the system change required to stop all the developments, we risk that parts of the world become uninhabitable, and turmoil which could even lead to nuclear war. 
The growth of our civilization reached a threshold, which will test our species capabilities, especially our intelligence in regards to how we manage future states of our environment. We can either try to stay in the realm of ecosystem boundaries (basically as far as possible back to a planet with around 280 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere), or we can keep acting situational and experimenting with the Earth’s climate.
The majority of us is still using the same old technologies, and thinking which caused the climate crisis in the first place.
- Chris Machens, ClimateState, based in Berlin.






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