Wit's End

Monday, July 20, 2015

Dispatch from the Endocene, #7

Below is the transcript and links for the 7th Dispatch from the Endocene, which aired on Sunday, July 19.  The podcast can be heard at the Extinction Radio website.  My part begins at 1 hour 6 minutes into the broadcast.  Many thanks to the hardworking producers, and all the other contributers, especially for the marvelous poetry from Rex Eagle and Benjamin the Donkey...enjoy!

Welcome to the 7th Dispatch From the Endocene, and thanks for listening.  Links to all the information I will mention will be found at the Extinction Radio website.

There is never any lack of material when the topic is the staggering and accelerating loss of earth’s biodiversity.  Much of it is directly due to hunting animals for meat or dubious medical purposes, and logging or other forms of habitat destruction for mining or agriculture.  Less disruptive but perhaps more despicable, there is illegal collecting of protected species - for enthusiasts of plants like orchids, or tropical birds.

One particularly sad episode was the discovery of 3,800 endangered Philippine forest turtles, found tossed in a cement tank in a warehouse.  The turtles were in horrible dehydrated condition, the injured buried under piles of the dead.  Rescuers were able to nurse many of them back to health and release them, but the episode highlights the nefarious activity of poaching for the exotic pet trade as another reason that wildlife is endangered.

Another more elusive cause is no doubt anthropogenic in origin, but harder to trace directly to warming, to pollution, or disease.  That would be incidents like the unexplained dieoff of sea stars up and down the west coast of North America, a tragedy which is updated in a well-researched and worthy article that I highly recommend.  Another is the sudden and inexplicable desertion of their nests, by thousands of sea birds in Florida.  Indeed, a new study reveals that globally, sea bird populations are down by an incredible 70 percent since the 1950’s, which doesn’t bode well for marine species in general.

Yet another pressure on wildlife comes from competition with domesticated animals for habitat and food, which affects little vulnerable mammalian species such as the elusive, and adorably fuzzy Chinese Ili Pika.  For a comprehensive, updated list of links to worldwide dieoff events, you could do worse that visiting end-times-prophecy.org.  Even though they are religious fundamentalists they post exhaustive links to legitimate news stories.

Probably anyone who knows anything about climate change has spent an annoying week swatting at the avalanche of news reports, most of them stupidly distorting recent research regarding sunspots.  There is nothing in the research to indicate we are heading for a mini ice age, but you would never know it from the sloppy media coverage.  

Aside from that, the frenzy it stirred up reminds me once again that the environmental movement made a colossal mistake by allowing the debate over climate change to dominate research and activism.  Not that CO2 isn’t the most important initial forcing greenhouse gas, or that climate change isn’t an existential threat.  But the single-minded emphasis on that facet of overshoot has enabled deniers, both the idiot and the malicious types, to deflect any serious conversation about what underlies climate change.

In fact, as recounted by the UK Guardian environmental editor John Vidal following his recent heart bypass surgery, the concern with CO2 led to a turn towards diesel fuel in Europe, which has since led to far worse health impacts from higher concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and particulate pollution.  He wrote:  “So was my health and that of millions of others cynically traded off against the urgency to control climate emissions? Those working in the UK government in the 1990s recall how climate change trumped any objections from scientists, or from the few people who understood the health implications of a major switch to diesel.”

A similar question might be asked about ethanol and other biofuels, which also emit far more nitrous oxides, a precursor of ozone.  And yet another question might be asked, but almost never is - How much is air pollution sickening wild animals, insects like bees, and plants and trees?

For whatever complicated reasons, the issue of climate change seized the discourse decades ago, and ecology was left to the “softer” science of biology, a discipline looked down upon by physicists and atmospheric chemists.  It turned out to be quite fortuitous for corporations that climate change dangers in the future are easier for people to ignore and for politicians to quibble over, than even more pressing concerns such as not having clean water, running out of fish, and forests being poisoned by ozone.  

There are still lots of climate and social justice activists who claim overpopulation isn’t a problem, even accusing those who are concerned about it of being racist.

So with all this running through my mind it was a fun coinkydink that a friend emailed me an essay titled “Facts - The Coming Destruction of Civilization in the Very Near Future”.  The author is named Jason G. Brent, and his website is jgbrent.com, where you can find more of his writings and a link to his book, called “Humans - An Endangered Species”.

The fascinating thing about the essay is that Mr. Brent makes a persuasive case that civilization is going to collapse, and the human population is going to plunge precipitously if not disappear entirely, without ever once even mentioning climate change.  He comes to this conclusion simply by exploring various scenarios to answer the question he poses, which is:  “How long will it take humankind to completely consume all of the Earth’s resources and destroy itself?”

The way in which he examines this seldom-asked question probably derives from his background as an engineer, with degrees in business, and law.  Mr. Brent looks at the compound growth of population and the economy and has discovered it will inevitably end in a disaster for humanity.  It’s a sort of “do the math” for population similar to McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, Do The Math, for CO2 ppm in the atmosphere.  He compares various UN population projections and relates them to two major, finite resources, essential to contemporary life.  Oil, and fresh water, are both already severely constrained and about to become dramatically more so.  This scarcity will have an increasingly devastating impact on human society, and he predicts civility will break down in horrendous ways should the human population continue its trend of compound growth.

Ultimately Mr. Brent brings us to a point even more rarely considered, which is, when are we going to discuss coercive birth control?  Is it better to hope that voluntary birth control will be sufficient, or leave reduction to be effected by resource wars, at least some of which will almost certainly deploy weapons of mass destruction, rendering swathes of the Earth irradiated?

He lays out the only available options as three:

a) War, starvation, disease and other horrors.
b) Voluntary population control.
c) Coercive population control

To those who recoil at the thought of coercive, I was surprised to see that he quotes my Facebook friend Paul Chefurka (thus proving what a tiny minority the doomer world represents!):

“Is there bread and milk on the store shelves?  If so, everything is fine, so abortion and infanticide can be regarded as sins.  Cut the food supply by 50% and watch the morality change”.

My thought has always been that only coercive birth control will be effective, but it’s not worth pursuing because it will never be acceptable.  Mr. Brent makes the case that even so, it must be put on the table, because the alternatives a and b are, respectively, unthinkable and highly unlikely to succeed.

An interesting contrast to his position can be found in James Hansen’s 2014 Opinion paper, in which he promotes widespread proliferation of nuclear power plants.  According to his analysis, the other so-called clean energy sources - wind, solar, geothermal and so forth - will be wholly insufficient to power modern society - and enable the people of developing nations to rise out of poverty which translates into greater consumption of energy and manufactured products.  He went so far as to call the faith that green technology will save civilization a myth, and scornfully posted a clip from a post-Three Mile Island anti-nuclear protest with Ralph Nader and people promoting not only solar and wind, but also, wood-burning stoves and coal.  He seems frustrated that the general public and the politicians pandering to their anti-science tendencies fail to accurately assess relative risks, noting that fossil fuel emissions kill far more people than nuclear ever dreamed of.  In fact, a new study just emerged claiming that air pollution kills nearly 9,500 per year in London alone.

And yet Hansen seems to have no cognizance that overpopulation is the root of our imminent reckoning with limits to growth.  Perhaps he hangs his well-known hat on the notion that greater prosperity from nuclear power will lower the growth rate without any deliberate effort required, which is…another myth.

There is a video on youtube that zooms in and out of a massively detailed NASA photograph of the Andromeda Galaxy.  It’s truly beautiful and terrible that highly advanced technology has enabled us to see such a wondrous sight that we would never be able to view with the naked eye, although we might imagine it. The universe is so vast, that watching it I had to feel convinced that there must be many, many other planets where life has begun, and places where intelligent, sentient, sophisticated species have evolved - and then, as more and more planets and stars emerged from infinity I could only think that the solution to Fermi’s Paradox must be that sad, and paradoxically comforting notion, that by the time a species achieves the technology to travel or communicate through space, they will have run out of resources, and out of time.

As we humans on earth are, for all but the shouting, out of our brief time here.  If you want to keep up with all the bad news that Fox won’t tell you, check out the website Global Risk Report - which presents an excellent aggregate of the latest and most interesting articles, research, and blog posts about energy, the economy, and the environment.

That’s all for this week, thanks to the producers of this show and especially to Mike Ferrigan, our founder, whom I will greatly miss.


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