Posts Tagged ‘global warming’

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet” by Barry A. Vann

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

“The notion that humans are somehow killing the planet is absurd, although we can kill ourselves and some other fellow occupants.  As apex predators, we have the capacity to manipulate earth’s resources in ways that no other life-form can.  While on the one hand playing with fire may cause the player to get burned, he nevertheless must burn energy to survive.  Exploiting resources is a part of life.  It is how we use them that must be done with care because the earth is not fragile; we are.  From looking at environmental history, one fact rises equally from the volcanic ashes of great eruptions and the slippery slope of advancing glaciers: climate and weather are products of a complex energy system that neither sees nor knows us.  They have no consciousness or need for sacrifice on our part.  They cannot be bought off by repentance.  Moreover, climate is capricious and because it is that way, we face a future that is likely to change.  Perhaps the greatest challenge in facing the real prospect of climate change, which will happen with or without our assistance, is to shed ourselves of overly romantic and even geopious notions of perceiving weather and climate as anything more than mindless forces of nature.”  — Barry A. Vann in “Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet”.

I often pick up a book based on whatever particular hole in my knowledge I want to plug with information that week.  I found this book (like I have many others) on my wonderful local library’s “New Non Fiction” shelf.

I was intrigued by the idea of getting an overview of just how we humans have met our environments over the generations.  But the first chapter read like a graduate thesis: dry and distant, and I wondered if I would just take this book back and find another, more readable one.  But I stuck with it for another chapter (ready to drop it an any time), and then another and then I found myself reading the parts where the author really hit his stride as, it turns out, a superlative storyteller.

If you’re like me, you’ll sort of endure the pages of arcane nomenclature the field (of geography) employs for the different human viewpoints on the forces of nature, which essentially boil down to the ways we have viewed natural disasters as actions of an angry god (or, more recently, of an angry and aggrieved planet).  Some of this early stuff is indeed dry, but it is still good stuff.  But then the author takes several long side-trips into vivid descriptions of several of the most dramatic convulsions that nature has visited upon us humans, and it is in these stories that the writing becomes beautiful, irresistible, sublime.  This writer may be an artist in scientist’s clothing.

Taken as a whole, I did get a deeply satisfying overview of the actual “why” of where humans have chosen to build their camps, villages and cities, and settled humanity’s experience of natural disasters:  In short, we like to live in places where bad things can — and do — happen (on low-lying shorelines of rivers and oceans, on beautiful islands created by volcanoes, on vast, fertile farmlands in “Tornado Alley”, etc.).  The author sees all of this through his perspective as a geographer, which means he sees worse on the horizon (as our populations in these areas continue to increase).  These are good truths to have in mind.

There is frequent reference to climate change and global warming in “Forces of Nature”, but not in the way you might expect.  The author is looking at the larger picture of just when (not if) our next ice age may come, and he seems to think that a bit of global warming now might just help forestall this much larger disaster coming down the tracks.  I’m not sure how to think of that idea.  (I guess I’ll need to find yet another book to lessen my ignorance on that particular proposition).

This is a very worthwhile book that will definitely expand your perspective on humans and their interactions with their environment.  Even if you skip the “dry” chapters, I’d hate for you to miss the description of the greatest earthquake known to strike the (populated) United State which hit, if you can believe it, the Mississippi valley in the early 1800’s.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans” by Mark Lynas.

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

This book will blow your mind.  And not necessarily in a “good” way.  At least if you’re like me: a hard-core rationalist who favors science over belief, but a skeptic when it comes to sniffing out belief-dependent realism, who nevertheless has more than a few “green” sympathies.  (If you’re a hard-core conservative your head may simply explode — though there is much in here to appeal to the thoughtful conservative).

But here it is at last: a book that takes as its starting point the global reality as laid out by the most current science: we are happily living our way into oblivion as we tinker with the biological and climatological balances that have sustained our existence for millennia.  But that’s not the hard part (unless you’re that “hard-core conservative” mentioned above).  The hard part is accepting how wrong many of us “greens” have got things over the last years, exhibiting our own version of a willingness to ignore science and fact.

In short, our future survival may depend much more on a spreading affluence throughout the developing world that will lead to increased urbanization and an increased use of nuclear power and genetically modified crops.  Gulp.  Of course, that’s not all that this book lays out.  But the gist of it is something I have long suspected: we are far too many now to “go back” to any notion of simpler times, living off the land, burning beeswax candles and weaving our own wool from our own sheep on our own little farm (at least not in large numbers).

There are so many of us, in fact, that any wider attempt to “return to the land” would push our environment into disaster from a destructive consumption of our little remaining bio-diverse habitats.  It turns out that humans are much, much more efficiently housed and employed in cities, and that the more that developing nations develop, the less pressure there is on land use and the environment in general (just one of the realities that goes against some “green” thinking).

The main point the author makes is that we are already tinkering with our climate and environment in profound ways, so the “whether or not to do it” question is moot.  What confronts us now is whether we should begin to see ourselves as “global” engineers, and begin to act consciously and with purpose in a way that utilizes the best science we have to keep the planet in balance so that we can continue as a species…the “God” species.

I remain skeptical of human over-confidence, as it often metastasizes into hubris.  So, in short, I don’t trust US to “manage” things on a planetary scale.  Yet the science (and hence the facts) are pretty much undeniable (except, of course, to those that are motivated to deny them).

I think we should all read this book.  Whether it holds the answers or not is not the issue.  It does, I think, point us in the direction of where the answers to our survival will be found, and that is a very important step indeed.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters” by Diane Coyle

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

This is a practical meditation on the nature of economies, what we’ve learned about them, and their current level of complexity.  It is also a manifesto of what could — or should — be the economy we are headed for: one where the current generation lives as if they are not the last ones in line at the store.

I’ve never studied economics.  I read a great deal of non-fiction science, which — in our culture and political climate — often has political or social implications.  But now and again I am hungry for a different dish, and it is at such times that I will reach for a book on a subject I feel particularly ignorant about.  That is how I picked this book off the “new arrivals” shelf at the local library.  It was a good choice.

Not only does the author give a thorough and balanced history of economics, the book is recent enough to include an overview of our most recent economic meltdown.  Giving voice to the different views on what represents economic growth, the author also surveys the differing philosophies on the values that guide that growth.  For make no mistake about it, every economic system (even the failed, greedy ones) are working under a shared set of values.

I found two themes in this book that made the largest impression on me:  the documenting of how (particularly American) corporate and social values have shifted in ways that have damaged our economy; and the proposition that there are three vital aspects to capitalism in a democratic society that cannot all be satisfied at once: efficiency, equality and liberty.

I think I disagree with the author’s conclusion that a certain level of economic growth is essential to human happiness.  I think that this places too much emphasis on finance alone, and not a sense of one’s life improving in other ways.  However I was very pleased to read repeated examples of nations (notably Australia) whose economists are trying to find better, more useful ways of measuring economic growth beyond the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  (It has seemed to me that we are all too much held in thrall to the stock market ticker to the exclusion of other measurements of how we are really doing as a nation).

But this is a great book for getting up to speed on just where we are — economically speaking — at this point in history, and what we need to attempt in order to catch up with the technological, economic and social changes that have left our economies struggling to thrive in a sustainable way.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

Bill McKibben calls “The World Without Us” “…one of the grandest thought experiments of our time…”.  Take the world as we know it — all of our technology, our structures, our fabrics and copper pipes and fired brick — and leave it all alone to the ravages of nature.  What would happen?  And how soon would it happen?

A lot of what we’ve built would crumble pretty damn soon, according to author Alan Weisman.  It turns out that just about everything about the infrastructure of our modern life is only kept spinning and standing through an astounding amount of effort that most of us (myself included) can comprehend only with the aid of a book like this one.  I had no idea the amount of electricity and pumping it takes to keep the New York subway system from flooding in a matter of hours.  I didn’t know that without workers to blow out the debris that can accumulate in the expansion joints of major bridges the power of heat expansion and contraction from subsequent cooling would shatter their massive pre-stressed, reinforced concrete spans in a very short time.

But not everything of us would vanish so quickly.  We have labored hard to bring to the surface of our planet vast quantities of heavy metals that will take a very, very long time to migrate back underground.  Our plastics and polymers will linger for millennia until bacteria finally evolve to eat them, or until they are driven underground by the forces of geology and melted into nothingness.  The animal kingdom, if they take notice at all, will breath a sigh of relief and rapidly re-occupy abandoned urban landscapes.

The most satisfying (and compelling) parts of this book are the descriptions of just how the things most familiar to us will come apart.  In this the author is clearly aided by talking to people who would know: the very engineers and scientists responsible for the creation and maintenance of these things.  But there isn’t enough of that to fill an entire book, so the author takes us on side trips into the ecological history of our human presence on the planet.  In this he takes a definite view which will be distasteful to those who think of the earth as our god-given garden to exploit.  (Weisman even gives a few pages to describing one group that endorses the voluntary self-extinction of our species — an intriguing but, I think, flawed exercise in self-loathing and mis-placed hyper-morality).

Aside from the terribly sobering reality of just how powerful an effect a single living species has had on their home turf, I was also struck with a certain admiration for both the power of nature to return every molecule back into the materials box and the human knack for engineering ways to stave off that eventuality and make our pipes not rust and our houses not fall down around us (at least while we’re still living in them).

This book is such a fine collection of facts and perspective, that I can’t help but recommend it.  It’s also a smooth read.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

SERMON: “What’s Missing?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Global climate change.  Obesity epidemic.  Financial crisis.

What do these three things have in common?  They are all things that are happening to us.  How are they different?  They are all things we may not have much control over, in the end.

"EARTHSICLE", street painting by Bob Diven.

I say that because in most discussions of issue like these, the one thing glaringly absent is a perspective from evolution.  An article last year in the Economist noted that most economists accept evolution, but they act as if it stops at our necks, meaning that they continue to base their predictions on a (mostly mythical) notion of the human being as “rational actor”, ignoring the inherent bent toward the irrational that is a natural part of our mammalian brain.

And so, as I’m reading “Fast Food Nation” (next week’s review) — despite the clear recognition that humans like fast and cheap food, and that other humans really really like to make a lot of money from natural human urges for fat, sugar and salt — there is no discussion of the evolutionary basis for the human behavior that is the basis for this matrix of need and greed that is not only compromising our individual health, but accelerating the demise of the dwindling working middle class in America.

Business people know human weakness.  They count on it for maximum profit.  So a cartoon aimed at children is colorful, loud, and changing all the time.  Never mind that a steady diet of such super-stimuli makes for a more poorly-developed human being, such a trained human-monkey will be a good consumer, and that is the profit-seeker’s true bottom line.

“The business of America is business” is a phrase I have heard.  And there is clearly a truth in there, especially as expressed through the current conservative wing of our culture.  For whatever their protestations of the decline of “family values” and “culture”, there is reserved a special, almost religious reverence for human financial success that seems to blind them to the incremental increase in long-term human misery that the exaggerated success of an individual can foster in the larger population.

I might have to become a socialist if this keeps up.  And it will.  For as long as we continue to ignore the lessons of evolution, the further down the road toward fostering our own extinction as a viable species we will go.

Part of the problem may be that we just don’t live all that long, and “history” will always win out, like the huge corporation that can afford to string along the individual plaintiff with endless legal wrangling supported by well-paid corporate attorneys.

I don’ t know what the “solution” is to any of this.  I’d like to believe that education would take us a long way.  And I’m afraid that the best tool at hand is the blunt one of centralized government which force the fast-food industry, for example, to sell food that is more nutrition than addictive chemical triggers, and settle for less obscene cash profits by providing their workers a decent wage and more satisfying working conditions.  That all seems very “socialist” to me.  But, really, can we honestly say that our current “system” is giving us the life we want, the society we want?

Un-restrained capitalism is un-restrained, short-term human self-interest on steroids.  It is the bully who sucks all the syrup from the bottom of your snow cone, and hands you back the flavorless cup of ice.

Humans are inherently self-interested.  This is why we have created civil institutions upon which we can call when we are threatened by other humans in our community (such as a robber or firebug).  But we humans also came to realize, at some point in our evolution, that there is a zone of cooperation created by groups of humans who are willing to put off the immediate gratification of their needs in order to assure (as much as it is possible) the longer-term satisfaction of those needs on a more predictable basis.  This is why we have currency with an agreed-upon value, so that some of us can pursue a trade that does not involve growing our daily bread, or hunting our daily wild boar.

But there are always those among us who see an opportunity too hard to resist, and work to bend the system to their advantage.  A certain amount of this we accept, in a tribal sense.  But when the abuse becomes onerous, we rebel.

But how can we rebel when we are no longer living in a tribal band, or a small community where we have the collective power to shun or shame or punish?

In our larger, national community, we have a federal government in place to fulfill that role.  But it seems we have reached a point where that government (though never perfect  and always subject to distortion) has become the target of the conservative members of our tribe.  Why?  Because it threatens to keep from us the regular flow of the things we have become addicted to: gas, fast food and god.  We want it to “get out of the way” so that we can smoke, eat and drink our way to an early grave, like lab rats who can drink all the sugar water they want.  And if other humans want to make millions and ruin the environment in order to keep us supplied, God bless their initiative!

We are a messy collection of personalities, we humans.  And the plain truth of the matter is that we act like we know how to manage our communities even though we’ve never had to manage communities on the scale of that which we now face.  We carry in our hearts a mythology of a more tribal, simpler time.  The TEA Party thinks we can all go back to living in an 1880’s prairie town with a Town Marshall, a school m’arm, and a white clapboard church at the end of Main Street.

Even that tribal urge is better understood (in fact, only properly understood) through the viewpoint of evolution, which recognizes just how much of our developmental past occurred before the invention of the cell phone.  Yet suddenly here we are, with bodies evolved over many millennia to grab all of the all-too-rare salt, sugar or fat we can lay our hands on, with brains selected for to notice the novel (the snake moving in the grass, the wolf jumping from the brush), ill-prepared for the unprecedented level of over-stimulation and industrially-refined diet of our daily modern lives (see my review of Super Stimuli on this blog).

Yet we lack the clear-eyed humility that an understanding of our evolutionary past can bestow, placing our hope, instead, on a religious-crack-high version of humility that places us, in fact, at the center of a universe run by a God very much like ourselves.  Good luck to us with that one.

Who can say what our chances are of shaping a “better” society out of the one we currently have.  History is mixed on this point, but as an indicator it points toward the negative outcomes.  It would, I think, be a shame if our species had come this far, through so much, only to eat, extract and pollute ourselves into extinction.  (We wouldn’t be the first to do so, only the most advanced).

Yet I live in hope sufficient to keep me talking about these things, and thinking about them.  And if enough of us do that, we might be able to change things.  And if we do that, at least we can face the meteorite that might take us out with a certain justifiable pride in our accomplishments as a species, instead of seeing it as a welcome end to just one more blight upon the planet.

t.n.s.r. bob