Friday, August 24, 2012

Why Do We Tolerate Gun Insanity?

Gunman shot dead by police after he kills former co-worker

How many times must we cluck our tongues and turn our eyes away from gun violence before we decide as a society to stop making and selling handguns and implement sensible restrictions on all gun ownership?

When do we stand up to the NRA and the firearms industry lobbyists and say "No more!"

It's time to grow up and put away childish things.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Let's Plan for The Real Transition


Recently I had an exchange with Erik Curren in the Comments section of an article he had written about global warming. Erik is the owner of the Transition Voice web site that serves as a platform for the Transition movement.

Curren’s post was a rambling maundering about “climate deniers,” who, according to Curren, are inordinately successful in “spreading doubt” about climate change, or more accurately anthropogenic global warming.

This brings to mind Ed Abbey’s observation: “Fantastic doctrines (like Christianity or Islam or Marxism) require unanimity of belief. One dissenter casts doubt on the creed of millions. Thus the fear and the hate; thus the torture chamber, the iron stake, the gallows, the labor camp, the psychiatric ward.”

The debate over climate change is polarized on the extremes of “deniers” versus “alarmists.” Oddly, “deniers” are frequently associated with right-wing, fossil-fuel energy corporations, and “alarmists” most frequently associated with “environmentalists” and environmentalism, particularly large Green organizations. One suspects that there is something other than environmentalists vs. corporate developers behind the schism. Perhaps we should “Follow the money” to learn the source of this vociferous debate.

The polarization of the debate obscures understanding of climate science and blocks the effectiveness of environmental activism. More importantly, it draws attention away from the more serious problems caused by human pollution, biodiversity loss and species extinctions, all of which are caused by human growth and development of critical natural habitat.

If we are to plan ahead for natural limitations on human growth that we face in the future, we have to move away from these fruitless arguments to areas where we can come to agreement. Fossil fuel use must be curtailed, even before it becomes too scarce to extract, if for no other reason than fossil fuels are polluting by their very nature, regardless of their carbon content, and their use fosters increasing consumption. Human economic growth and its increasing consumption must stop at some point, because we live in a finite planet that cannot withstand continued and accelerating resource depletion.

Why distract ourselves with possible future climate variation, when these looming problems face us right now and right here in our own homes? 

Rather than political and economic strategies aimed solely at “global warming,” such as cap and trade economic “fixes,” we should come to grips with the very real and immediate challenges of finite fossil fuel availability and finite resources for which there are no renewable alternatives.

Finally, and most importantly, human population growth and increasing resource consumption has exceeded the limits of our planet’s ability to support us. We flat out overshot our natural limits, and we’re living on borrowed time, and squandered resources.

The real transition looming on the horizon is not a simple exchange of nonrenewable for renewable energy technologies. The Earth can no longer support its human population, regardless of its energy technology choices.

The transition that will inevitably arrive is the change from a continuously growing human population to a steady state population considerably smaller than our present 7 billion individuals. The founding concept of modern economics based on production for profit has failed and we must discard it in favor of a steady-state economy based on production for use.



What we need now, rather than an unending debate on the future of global climate variation, is to develop a realistic, rational theory for a steady-state society that lives within natural cycles of resource availability, that does not consume resources faster than they are naturally renewed, and that does not produce waste faster than it is natural dispersed, such that all other species’ viability is not threatened.

We can’t embark on the transition to this new society until we have envisioned the desired outcome. 

Until we know the destination, we cannot plan the route.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Abrupt, Irreversible Tipping Points - Anthropomorphizing Climate Change



Search anywhere on the Internet for stories about Climate Change or Global Warming and you'll find the terms "abrupt," irreversible" and "tipping points." The last phrase is particularly egregious, now attributed to every manner of natural phenomena, as if all natural processes teeter on the brink of disaster.

This turns out not to be the case.

The problem is not so much intellectual dishonesty, scientific ineptitude nor self-serving agendas, though they are all at play as well. The reason the headlines abound in such mind-boggling maloprops is science and policy writers are desperately trying to translate highly technical climate science research into terms that non-scientists can absorb and embrace. 

It is not literally true that climate variation is “abrupt.” Abrupt is a judgment term coined by hasty humans to describe rapid change, to which we Homo sapiens are evolutionarily disposed to notice. “Abrupt” adds a note of immediacy and panic to what otherwise is an unnoticeable phenomenon, the gradual change of climate over centuries.

“Irreversible” adds to the urgency of the coming “abrupt” climate change, implying that once the climate “abruptly” changes in one direction, it will never, ever, cross my heart and hope to die, change back. This, of course, is absurd! Natural processes are never unidirectional, if they even, indeed, ever have a direction. “Irreversible,” “abrupt” climate change connotes something negative, something bad, something that we must avoid at any cost. Odd, this, in that we never think of changes in plate tectonics, vulcanism, gravity, cosmic rays, or the precession of the solar system as having direction, speed or irreversibility. 

These concepts applied to climate change are chosen and utilized purposefully and for specific agendas, seeking very cynically to produce a desired mental state in the minds of the public and policy making institutions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) seeks to heighten alarm over climate variation in support of its parent organization, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), whose purpose is “To provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.” In other words, Sustainable Development. The purpose of the IPCC is to provide UNEP with policy recommendations to support UNEP’s goal of transferring large sums of money from developed to less developed countries to support Sustainable Development projects, aka economic growth. 

The scientific community lives in a world dominated by the struggle for funding for their parent agencies, be they academic, governmental or non-governmental organizations. When devising and submitting a research proposal, one must identify funding sources for that research, and submit grant applications amenable to those fundings sources’ ideals and purposes. Research funding sources in climate science are dominated by agencies supportive of the IPCC and its goals and therefore most interested in funding research projects supportive of the concept of “abrupt,” “irreversible” “tipping points” in natural climate variability.

The political community lives in a world dominated by corporate funding for political campaigns, so that it is now impossible to separate the views of any political officer or candidate from the source of his or her funding. Catastrophic climate change has become the litmus test of political candidacy. No candidate who questions the scientific orthodoxy of anthropogenic global warming has any chance of being elected to government office, because the money is solidly backing the global warming horse race.

Those who feather their own nests with global warming hyperbole use the tactics of fear, just as in the war on terror, the war on drugs and the war on ecoterrorism. These complex concepts are made simplistic through caricature and emotionalism, ascribing human emotions to physical phenomenon. Thus we hear of “angry” storms, “fierce tornadoes,” and other inappropriate emotions ascribed to weather.

Climate change is always described as negative, open-ended and unidirectional. Any change, either warmer or colder, wetter or drier, stormier or calmer, is considered detrimental to life, regardless of any historical data to the contrary.

This use of propaganda to achieve a political and/or economic end has a long history in human affairs. One would think we would have learned by now that those who wield the stick of fear are not to be trusted.

But then, one would have to think. 

Monday, August 06, 2012

What'll it be? "Man the Lifeboats!" or The Briny Deep?

“Mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly”—Woody Allen.

What’s it going to be, eh?

Passenger Pigeon
It’s obvious that the combined impact of increasing human consumption of (ineptly named) natural resources, multiplied by increasing human population growth results in unacceptable losses in critical natural habitat, biodiversity, living topsoil, quantity and quality of potable water, and increases in species extinction. Ecosystems wounded by human development and destruction are more susceptible to climate variation, putting more stress on species shifting with habitats.


The human reaction is to ask, loudly, while wringing our hands: “What can we do to stop this? What is the solution to overpopulation, resource depletion and (*GASP*) Global Warming?

The answer is: there is no solution. 

There is no solution to natural processes. Natural processes are not a problem that can be solved. There is no solution to a species whose population has overshot its resource base. There is no solution to global climate variation. There is only accommodation to the reality of life on this planet.

If humans were a rational species, we might decide it is in our own best interest, and just by the way, in the interest of all other species, to control our population growth and reduce consumption, stop gobbling up all the non-vertical land in sight, stop polluting the air, land and water, and stop sucking all the nutrients from the living topsoil and flushing it into the ocean. We might decide to live like a good neighbor to the community of life that makes it possible for us to live on this poor abused and battered planet.

But, alas, we’re not a rational species. 




We’ve cut ourselves off from contact with the non-human world and put it in a zoo so we can continue our profligate ways, and still come and visit the cute little plants and animals now and then, for our amusement… and not have to think about them overly much when we’re busy… consuming.

We’ve developed a dominant culture based on consumption to excess, to make even more profits for already rich people, and we sit up nights and complain about it. We’ve developed religions that forbid us from controlling our population to levels sustainable (the real sustainable) within existing, highly variable resource availability. We’ve developed a system of food production dependent on stable and unchanging weather patterns. And, worst of all, we’ve developed political systems controlled by those who profit from all the above.

Rather than taking seriously the prospect of a sinking ship with too few lifeboats to save all the passengers, we continue to politely listen to the orchestra sawing away at a funeral dirge on the poop deck, as we munch on canap├ęs and sip a fine vintage champagne.

It’s too late to build more lifeboats. It’s too late to restrict the passenger list. It’s too late to stock up on caviar and champagne. The ship has already hit the ice and the forward compartments are rapidly filling with icy water.

Gravity and hydrodynamics are taking over the cruise and the ship of human civilization is on its way to its ultimate briny grave.

Don’t be alarmed. It’s only a temporary detour. There are, after all, some lifeboats, and some will survive. There are still crackers and cheese and an inferior domestic wine waiting beyond yon horizon. Certainly enough for the few who have had the forethought to don warm clothing and life vests before coming on deck.

The ship will go down, as it must, as ordained by the sacred laws of Nature. And, Life Will Go On after the Grand Adjustment, as it has for hundreds of millions of years.

There’s still time to tighten our life vests, pass out the survival rations, swing out the davits and climb aboard the rafts. It just might be an adventure, a lesson in species survival to newcomers on the evolutionary scene. Who knows, we might learn something valuable that will last us for a millennium or two.

Mother Nature is hard and she’s fair. 


Saturday, August 04, 2012

Reducing the Titanic Passenger List


Population growth and per capita resource consumption are the twin swords of human impact on the natural world.

At 7 billion and counting, Homo sapiens has drastically overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth, even in areas where per capita resource consumption is low. There is no place on Earth that has not felt the destructive impact of human activity. Where humans live in poverty, the land is stripped bare for fuel and food. Where humans live in profligate excess, the map of destruction extends world-wide, feeding never-ending demands for more and more of more and more.

Ironically, population is the one factor that humans can most easily control. If there is one common thread that anthropologists have discovered in human societies throughout the world, it is that family size and reproduction rates are a function of local economy, social position of women and availability of food. When social conditions create a stable environment for families, increased social status and autonomy for women and access to sufficient food and energy, birth rates decline, since large families are not seen as necessary for survival.

However, even in developed countries, social conditions can increase birth rates, despite better conditions for women, where economic incentives exist for large families, where religions discourage effective birth control and family planning, and where social values favor families over non-breeders. Developed countries also have the highest rates of resource consumption, providing double edges for the twin swords of human destruction.



To further enhance population growth, the medical intervention industry has fostered the attitude that all humans born must live to maturity, regardless of congenital medical conditions complicating their lives and the society in which they live. 




Those who in the recent past would have died in infancy, childhood or early adulthood now live to become reproducing adults, thus passing on their genetic diseases to future generations, and increasing population by lowering death rates.

The result is that we have allowed human population to outstrip resource supplies necessary for all life on the planet, and we have further magnified the problem with a corporate capitalist economy that produces material goods for profit at a rate far greater than that required for human use. We have created human societies that consume resources hundreds of times faster than they are naturally replenished, and we produce wastes hundreds of times faster than natural processes can assimilate them. 



It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out that this is a formula for environmental disaster, coming soon to an ecosystem near each and every one of us.


Coming Next: Consuming ourselves to death.



Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Titanic is sinking and there are no lifeboats.




On April 15, 1912, RMS Titanic, the largest ocean liner ever built, struck an iceberg and sank in frigid Atlantic waters, killing 68% of the passengers and crew aboard. The shock of this failure of technology put a lasting pall on an era of untrammeled human industrial growth and development. 




Today, we face a similar nick point in human history. This time the ship is the Earth and its inevitable sinking puts the lives of billions of its passengers and crew at risk. Our Earth ship has hit the iceberg of ultimate limits to human growth and consumption of the Earth’s finite resources.


The impact of Homo sapiens on this planet is a function of two main variables, Population growth and consumption of natural resources. Human impact on the Earth is a function of the per capita rate of resource consumption multiplied by the total human population. At present, both numbers are increasing geometrically.


Population Growth
Human population, at this moment, is 7,086,000,000 and increasing at the rate of 78,840,000 per year, slightly more than an average of 1% per year. Some countries have a population growth rate more than twice the global average.


Consumption of Natural Resources
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, human beings devour an estimated 45 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year, an average of 6.5 tons per person per year. Highly industrialized countries such as the United States, Japan and more recently, China, consume resources at up to 40 tons per capita. Increases in consumption also produce rapid increases in pollution in the form of waste products introduced into the biosphere, many of which are new to the evolution of life on this planet.


Habitat Loss
The rapid increase in human population and consumption results in an expanding rate of natural habitat loss, as more and more habitat is converted to human infrastructure for cities, transportation and agriculture. Modern corporate agriculture results in topsoil loss at the rate of up to forty times faster than topsoil formation. What little soil is left is depauperate of natural soil organisms and minerals necessary for healthy plant growth and for the health of herbivores and their prey species.


Species Extinctions
As a result of the above, the rate of species extinctions has increased from 100 to 1,000 times the normal background extinction rate. E.O. Wilson estimates that, at present rates, within 100 years as much as half of all species on Earth will have gone extinct.


Biodiversity loss
The combination of habitat loss and species extinction is drastically reducing overall biodiversity on the Earth. In some ecosystems biodiversity is reduced to such an extent as to threaten ecosystem collapse. The complex web of life is much more than the sum of its component species. Disruption of a single species can have cascading affects on all other species.


Climate Change
Whether or not caused by human action, climate variation is natural, real and happening all the time. Human actions introduce new variables into the complex patterns of climate change, adding new feedback systems with both positive and negatives influences. In a world wounded by pollution, habitat loss, species extinctions and biodiversity loss, climate change adds more stresses to already overburdened ecosystems.


Peak Oil
Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, fossil fuels are finite resources that are rapidly approaching the end of their economic utility in human societies, known as Peak Oil. Reduction in fossil fuel use will ultimately reduce emissions and resource depletion fueled by fossil energy sources. However, human civilization is based on fossil fuel energy sources, which cannot be entirely replaced by renewable energy sources. As Peak Oil becomes more evident, human economic system will be faced with extreme changes in conduct and outcome.


What can be done to "solve" these approaching crises?
There is only one set of actions that can have any meaningful and timely influence on the inevitable collapse posed by the natural challenges outlined above. 1) Significantly reduce human population, and 2) significantly reduce per capita consumption.


It's a simple zero sum game. The total impact of human growth and development is a function of total human population multiplied by per capita consumption. The only way to reduce that impact to less than what it is today (to compensate for ecosystem effects already in the "pipeline" that will continue after we stop producing them) is to reduce population and consumption to the point where humans consume less resources than are replenished naturally and produce less waste than can be dispersed and recycled naturally.


Reduction of human growth (economic as well as physical) will reduce the driving force creating so much environmental destruction. Reduction in human consumption will relieve the pressure on all aspects of the biosphere, including the human world.


We must come to the realization that the ship of human civilization is sinking and decide the only recourse is to build life rafts and abandon ship. Otherwise more that 68% of the passengers and crew will be lost.




In a following post, I will analyze the ways we profligate humans may go about achieving the goals of decreasing population and consumption... or not.