Posts Tagged ‘climate change’

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!

SERMON: “Nature is out to Get You!” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

It’s true.  Nature is out to get you.

It’s easy to forget this, living as many of us do in our modern world of indoor plumbing (with clean, treated water) and safe cars (coated in polymers and pigments and lubricated with oils and grease) and comfortable clothes (some even treated to protect us from UV rays, or to shed the rain, in addition to keeping us warm).  We have the luxury of viewing nature as quaint, pure and benevolent.  It’s not.  It never has been.

Reading “The World Without Us” (reviewed earlier on this blog) had the unexpected effect of giving me an appreciation for the many man-made materials that have been developed to hold off the power of nature to break everything down into its component elements.  Granted, it is these very man-made compounds that are now polluting our oceans and water supplies.  Still, one has to admire the ingenuity of our species and recognize the reality that life and comfort must be continually wrested from the natural world.

And this, of course, is our dilemma.  We have become successful at holding back corrosion and decay and heat and cold and the dark to a point where we have altered the nature we only meant to keep in check.  Well, that may not be accurate.  I expect that most people in generations before ours did not see nature as anything other than a malevolent, capricious force.  In our time, we have gone to the other extreme and glorified this mindless constellation of natural phenomenon to a point that many of our more conservative brethren feel as if we humans are being devalued to the point of being seen as a mere nuisance to the great earth mother.

The reality is, well, the reality of it all: we are a species on this planet doing what we do both for our survival and our prosperity, dealing with a growing awareness that we cannot afford to completely tame our environment lest we choke off the very source of our sustenance.  It’s an interesting dilemma faced — to some degree — by just about every living thing there is: the parasite that ends up killing its host, the locust that consumes everything in its path, the humans that fish the seas empty.

As smart as we are, I wonder whether we really have it in our power to forestall the inevitable depletion of our resources.  Our technology seems to be on an evolutionary path all it’s own (though we humans can seem to be as much passenger as driver of that train).  Of course — as The World Without Us so cleverly shows — our technological progress  can only continue as long as we continue.  But for now — even with all of our talk of becoming “green” — the forces of cold and heat and weather that drove us to create electric cooling and gas heating and internal combustion engined bulldozers continues unabated.

Life exists in the gaps between the forces of nature.

A complication to our proper perception of the many “natural” forces at work in our world is the fact that they act on different scales of time.  In my part of the world (the Chihuahuan Desert of Southern New Mexico), we don’t see houses rot from mold and dampness, or weather rapidly from constant rain.  But we do see paint faded to dust in a few seasons by the unrelenting sunshine.  And though we can see the immediate results of corrosion in a skillet left too long in the sink or the dashboard cracked by sun damage, we don’t notice the erosion of the mountains by wind and rain and freeze and thaw, or the tumbling action of the oceans or rivers that quickly smooth the rough edges off of stones.  Even slower is the movement of the earth’s crust which — though we can now measure it precisely — moves far too slow for us to perceive it (except when we experience the earth-quaking effects of that movement).

Much of the mystery of how nature works has been dispelled by science, and some of the power of those natural forces can be temporally thwarted by paint and steel and concrete and sunscreen.  But nature persists — mindless and random but not causeless — wearing away, fading, smoothing, melting, building and tearing down.  We are soft living things finding ways to stay alive and intact in an inert world of abrasives and searching rays of ultraviolet light that are the source of both our life and our undoing.

Appreciating the raw, relentless power of nature makes the wonder of our own existence even more remarkable.  Life, it turns out, is a thing that exists in the space between the power of nature to destroy and to create.  But even that statement misses the mark, for nature has no intelligence with which to actively create or destroy, it is simply what it is.  And life is the thing that sprang up in the spaces between the abrasive sands and weathering waves, between the planet’s bubbling molten core and the dead cold of space.  It is the fruit of the first organisms that took chemical reactions that one step further to self-replication — that were able to use sunlight for energy and minerals for food.  Life found a niche in a world of inert geology and atmosphere and exploded into abundance.  Beaten back by nature again and again, it came back improved.

Nature, of course, will win in the end.  It always does.  And I don’t mean the nature of the wild things that surround us (the other living organisms such as the virus and the cockroach).  No, all life will eventually be consumed again back into the elements that made it as the universe collapses back upon itself and reforms all over again.  It’s not just the cycle of life we are a part of, but the larger cycle of the elements and energy.

But if it’s of any comfort to you: Nature is not only out to get you but — in a way — itself as well.  So don’t take it personally.

t.n.s.r. bob

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!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850″ by Brian Fagan

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

Reading this book by Brian Fagan was another exercise in replacing my general familiarity with an historical event with a more in-depth exploration.  In this case the “Little Ice Age” that I’d run across in any number of other historical works.

This is a neat little book that tells its story well.  I enjoy history books that are comprehensive in their approach, linking familiar periods of human “progress” with the natural forces that have had a very dramatic effect on that progress.  In this case it’s the climate of the planet, and the wild roller-coaster like course that took a swelling human population for quite a ride in the five centuries between 1300 and 1850.

As the planet experienced a long warming trend after the last ice age, new lands opened up for cultivation and settlement.  Crops became more plentiful, and populations rapidly increased.  But sudden changes in weather patterns very quickly put millions of human lives at risk from starvation, challenging the governments and distribution networks of the time to effectively feed their citizens.

The implications for our own time are obvious, but this is not a book about the current “debate” over global climate change.  Though reference is made to our current climate situation in the opening and closing pages, this is really a book about what happens to us humans when climates change and crops fail.  It is a testament to our vital connection between weather, land and agriculture that nothing can sever.  No matter how “modern” we are, we remain dependent on the rain, sun and soil for our very lives.

I appreciate the tone of this book, in that it clearly states the complexity of the global phenomena it attempts to describe.  Based on the best available resources (which are not insignificant) it describes the natural history of this global “mini” ice age and it’s impact on (primarily) Northern Europe (stretching to the Viking settlements further west as well).    It begins at the end of the long warming period (that allowed successful Viking settlement in Greenland) and ends with the potato blight (that led to the starvation of millions and the migration of millions more).  In between we discover the first moment in history where the land-clearing activities of humans began to affect climate.

This book offers a unique perspective on the way that we humans live off the land in an age of huge, interdependent populations, and the ways in which the weather can change the tune we all dance to in a very short time.  Worth a 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