Sunday, May 27, 2018

Crow Fritters

"Try to imagine half the numbers of commercial passenger flights in 2025 as today, or half the numbers of gas-powered engines. Half the numbers of WalMart SuperStores bringing full cargo ships from Shenzhen to Houston."

It is always painful to admit you were wrong, especially about something that has taken on a lot of significance in your life and you have been repeating for decades. I have that sense of contrition now as I look back on the past week and the realization that came from it.

Can one get an epiphany from YouTube? I guess so.

From Tuesday to Thursday my astral body was 3000 miles away, in the auditorium of Chalmers University in Gotebörg, while my wetware remained motionless, jacked into my laptop; tractor-beamed to an ISP tower at my rural county seat, 40 miles away. The astral body wanted to occasionally cruise the hall to one of the four other seminar rooms where important papers were being delivered but the webcast confined it to the plenary hall. The lump of flesh mostly wanted bathroom breaks and sandwiches.

What had me so enthralled was the First International Conference on Negative CO2 Emissions with 11 keynote speakers, 150 powerpoint presentations, 231 abstracts and 30 poster presentations.

The plenary hall called RunAn (Run an’ what? Hide?) had been transformed into an Emergency Planetary Care ward and the patient was dying. More than 250 of the world’s leading scientists — flying or ferrying in from 30 countries — leaned forward in their seats in upper gallery of the operating theater and exchanged banter with the surgeons reading the beeping monitors and pacing around the gurney. There was even a machine that goes ping!

Some of these surgeons were the very same ones that had created the need for the emergency measures now being mustered. They had labored for decades on committees of the IPCC, trying to get across to politicians too busy with the minutiae of realpolitik the seriousness of setting hard decarbonization targets, first at Kyoto, then Copenhagen, then Paris, and had failed repeatedly. All that was left to do now was either (a) bend over and kiss your posterior goodbye; or (b) bend the curve.

The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report quantified budgets for the 1.5ºC and 2ºC Paris targets at about 200 and 800 billion tons (gigaton or Gt )of CO2. With unchanged present emissions at about 40 Gt CO2/year, the 1.5 target will be passed in 3 to 5 years and 2 degrees within 20 years.We must bend the curve away from adding carbon to the atmosphere each year — currently a concave curve pointing up — to subtracting carbon — a convex curve peaking out and trending down. To have a realistic chance of averting disaster, we need to reach an 11 percent decline rate per annum from 2036 (preventing catastrophic climate change above 2 degrees) or better, a 20 percent decline slope from 2037 (limiting ourselves to dangerous climate change at around 1.5 degrees).

This type of curve will not be easily achieved. An 11 percent decline slope is the inverse of doubling your fossil economy every 7 years — so, halving every 7 years. Try to imagine half the numbers of commercial passenger flights in 2025 as today, or half the numbers of gas-powered engines. Half the numbers of WalMart SuperStores bringing full cargo ships from Shenzhen to Houston. Then halve that by 2032 and again by 2039. You get the picture. Phasing out the worst fossil fuels in favor of the less evil heritage fuels (sunlight, wind, firewood), will not bring carbon back into the safety zone fast enough.

The IPCC got weak knees just thinking about that so its Working Group 3 bent the curve back up a bit. The revised recommendation offered last December at COP-23 in Bonn gave more attractive narratives to policymakers — really just modest tweaks to business as usual.

The IPCC emission scenarios that meet the global two-degree target require overshooting the carbon budget at first and then removing the excess carbon with large “negative emissions,” capable of withdrawing on the order of 400‑800 GtCO2, or half-again more than humans emit.

So it came to be that delegates to UN climate conference have signed up for “negative emissions technologies” that will be sprinkled around the planet like fairy dust to reclaim over the long term the fossil emissions we are allowing ourselves in the short term (and indeed, that we, the taxpayers, are still subsidizing delivery of to the tune of 5 to 6 trillion dollars per year).

But there I go again. Calling NET “fairy dust” is what I have been doing since Copenhagen, even while extolling the virtues of biochar and carbon farming as The Great Sequestrators.

There was plenty of praise from the surgical gallery for biochar and carbon farming, for sure, but what knocked me back with a Spell of Contrition were presentations by experts on Direct Air Capture (DAC), Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and Enhanced Weathering.

For years I have been calling BECCS snake oil because I imagined it just a rebranding of “clean coal” — an impossible plan to switch the world from fossil energy to biomass and continue business as usual. Carbon capture is not a heavy lift, scrubbers have been doing that for decades and the new technologies are vastly better at it. The bugaboo has always been storage because, placed in geological tombs like old coal-mines or fracked wells, carbon gas has a nasty habit of getting out — about 10 percent leakage per decade. Dumped into the ocean, which has been the main plan since the idea first appeared, it would become carbonic acid and worsen the acidification problem — now the worst it has been in a million years — destroying whatever remaining corals and crustaceans are not already dead from heat stroke.

The same kind of problem besets DAC, which scrubs the atmosphere of carbon the way a tree does, only with electric fans, stainless steel and aluminum instead of sunlight, cellulose and phloem. Also, unlike BECCS, DAC doesn’t produce its own power. To get the solvent to give up its CO2, you need copious heat. To capture a million tons of CO2 per year (one 40,000th of present net annual emissions) 300 to 500 MW are required — equal to a very large coal steam plant or several hundred wind turbines.

Among the many takeaways from the conference however, was that science never sleeps. BECCS and DAC are making major improvements. Our friend Hans-Peter Schmidt of the Ithaka Institute was there to talk about PyCCS; a tweak to BECCS where the carbon would be stored as pyrolysates, either biochar in the soil or replacements for plastics composites and aggregates in cement and asphalt. Construction aggregates alone were 53 gigatonnes in 2017, up from 37 in 2010. That’s enough to build a sidewalk around the equator 5000 times. Replacing any amount over 70% of that sand and gravel with biochar (say, from municipal biosolids or landfill carbon) would more than offset current anthropogenic emissions and take us into drawdown territory. Every additional square foot of pavement or building poured at that point would be drawing legacy emissions out of the atmosphere. You could take a century’s worth out every decade if you could just bring yourself to stop adding more.

At the current stage of commercial development, many DAC operators, such as those in Sweden, plan to sell the harvested CO2 instead of storing it. It could go into carbonated beverages, for instance. To my jaundiced eye, this is catch-and-release to the atmosphere, rather than drawdown. Until the storage problem has a commercially viable, antifragile way of sequestering carbon, DAC cannot be considered a solution.

The solution to the power hunger and high price of DAC, keynoter Jennifer Wilcox told us, was to stop trying to get CO2 to 95% purity. Just take a moment to consider how much energy it takes to concentrate CO2 from 400 parts per million (the air) to 950,000 parts per million. She pointed to the idea of Klaus Lackner at Arizona State University’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions to take CO2 at low concentrations and feed algae, thereby producing biomass (energy feedstocks and superfoods) and hydrogen (for portable fuels).

The final keynote, by Phil Renforth at the Carbonate Systems Engineering Group at Cardiff University, looked at the ways rocks take carbon out of the atmosphere by weathering. For a third the cost of a ton of biochar he showed how we could not only build better soil fertility and improve success rates for reforestation, but avoid acidifying the oceans. In fact, we could be reversing ocean acidification by creating soluble bicarbonate biological fertilizers.

Sure, there were a number of talks that were really just desperate attempts to return a poorly designed, rapacious consumer economy to its perceived former glory, future generations be damned. I’d list Columbia professor James Hansen’s opening keynote in that category, and watched with sorrow and pity as he made his too-familiar impassioned plea to give nukes a chance.

Hansen sounded like an old lefty reciting the mantra, “The Workers, United, Will Never Be Defeated!” I will happily admit I may have been wrong about DAC but I am not wrong about nukes.

So there it is. I went from being skeptical about geoengineering technologies like BECCS and DAC to seeing how they might actually work to restore health to coral reefs and forests beset by rapid climate change. Moreover, they could perform those miracles in ways that take account of humanity’s need to switch from overpopulated consumerist economies to something more attuned to Gaian rhythms and flows. And they could bring those in at scale, at low cost, or even negative cost, meaning government programs to force them onto the market would be irrelevant and unnecessary. Sounds too good to be true. 

Yet there are college kids signing up for courses, nerdy tinkers in dimly-lit garages, and lab-rat inventors cashing in their savings bonds to pursue these dreams. The one thing we have going for us, we naked apes, is we are clever little buggers.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Russians Aren't Coming

"What exactly is our strategy for the Malthusian predicament?"

In his autobiography, Hollywood director, Norman Jewison describes meeting John Wayne at a party.
“Have you met Norman Jewison? The film director?” I looked down the long flight of stairs, shirtless and clutching my pants. John Wayne stared back, swaying slightly and holding a large glass of whiskey. Before I could say anything, David said, “Norman has just directed The Russians Are Coming. He and Dixie are our guests for the weekend.”
Wayne continued to stare at me, his face expressionless. I managed to murmur, “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Wayne.”
“What are ya?” he suddenly shouted. “One of those goddamn pinkos?”
Speechless, I smiled weakly and scampered into the bedroom to finish changing. I could hear him bellowing about commies taking over Hollywood. When I slunk downstairs to join the party, I realized I was the only guy with a beard. This was foreign territory, politically speaking. Every time I saw the six-foot-four Mr. Wayne headed my way, I managed to hide. Remember True Grit? That’s what he looked like that night, and I’d heard that the drunker he got, the meaner he was.
He scared the hell out of me.
This week marks the third week I’m patiently waiting for my passport to return from the Russian Embassy, stamped with a fresh entry visa. No doubt the recent kerfuffle over false flags, spying and gassings have slowed such things down. I plan to go in July so hopefully there is enough time to get my papers in order.

Some of the questions on the form were impossible for me to answer, like “give the dates of every previous visit.” My memories of travel there extend more than a quarter century back, when I went to St. Petersburg as part of a citizen diplomacy program organized by Diane Gilman at the Context Institute. I have watched in the intervening years as the country went through its dramatic changes from communism to gangster-ism to consumerist multiculturalism. “Cosmopolitan” is a word that aptly describes a country spanning 11 time zones.

Why would Adolf Hitler make such a bonehead strategic blunder as to attack the Soviet Union? In Chapter four of Mein Kampf he explained:
The annual increase of population in Germany amounts to almost 900,000 souls. The difficulties of providing for this army of new citizens must grow from year to year and must finally lead to a catastrophe, unless ways and means are found which will forestall the danger of misery and hunger.
Hitler considered birth control, but says it would never work, and besides,
vengeance will follow sooner or later. A stronger race will oust that which has grown weak….
Then he considered the Wizards’ argument — that science will find the means to supply exponential growth —  but rejected it on Malthusian grounds.
It would, therefore, be a mistaken view that every increase in the productive powers of the soil will supply the requisite conditions for an increase in the population.
Hitler said that boosting farm output while increasing exports of industrial goods to buy food were temporary solutions at best. He called that strategy “pacifist nonsense.”

Acknowledging that it was too late and too expensive to acquire colonies outside Europe, he concluded that the only solution to the imbalance between people and land would be to acquire new territory inside Europe (and, along the way, exterminate as many other races as could be easily arranged).

We can look back on this now and heap scorn on the insanity and ruthlessness of Lebensraum but it was no more insane and ruthless than Europe’s genocidal march to the sea across North America or Israel’s march to the sea through Gaza.

Jewison’s book also tells the story of his Moscow premier screening of The Russians Are Coming:
The theater was bigger than Radio City Music Hall in New York. To sit in that enormous theater, jammed with over two thousand Russians, and watch their reaction to my movie was an amazing experience.
As the film ran, a Russian interpreter gave a simultaneous translation over the sound system. I had been told that if a Russian audience didn’t like something, they would make a “chuh-chuh-chuh” sound, so throughout the screening, I prayed I wouldn’t hear it. They laughed at the jokes in Russian that the Americans didn’t get, and everything was fine until Theo Bikel, the Russian sub captain, threatens to blow up the town. You could feel the tension in the theater, then the “chuh-chuhing” began. I thought, “Oh God, they think they’re going to be made to look like the villains again.” But when the stand-off is broken by the little boy falling from the church belfry and the Russians help save him, the audience began a rhythmic clapping and many burst into tears. Directors Sergei Bondarchuk and Grigory Chukhrai were on their feet clapping and crying.
I was sitting next to Vladimir Posner, the Brooklyn-born editor of Soviet Life. “Why are they crying?” I asked.
“Because they didn’t make it first,” he replied.
I realized then that the film, although made primarily for an American audience, expressed the hopes and fears felt by people in both countries at that period in the Cold War. What the Russians of course couldn’t believe, and were blown away by, was the fact that I had been allowed to make the film at all.
My dad was the John Wayne of my family. He built a career bashing reds, even during the years our countries were allied fighting Hitler. When I foresook everything he stood for to join a Tennessee hippy commune (I am there still), he could barely purse his lips to spit. He came to visit, all the way from California, but refused to get out of the rental car. He never understood that it was neither him nor capitalism I was rejecting. It was the whole Orwellian mind control bit.

I get that we tribe from genetic imperative. We adopted that social animal chunk of our DNA millions of years ago as a defensive strategy against predators, the same as zebras banding together to cross a river full of crocodiles. We have to deal with extreme football rivalries, religious intolerance, political dynasties and Ford owners as a consequence.

But, please. Why can’t I watch RT without my ISP slowing down the feed? Why can’t I link to a Caitlin Johnstone or George Galloway story without Facebook trolls ridiculing me as a Russian pawn? How is it that so many otherwise intelligent journals like the Washington Post or The New York Times un-inquisitively parrot Cold War rhetoric coming from K-street think tanks and party apparatchiks?

Does National Security Advisor Bolton imagine that we will have an atomic showdown with Russia that will settle the matter once and for all? And if Bolton and the other neo-cons think climate change is a hoax, does that mean they think nuclear winter is, too?

A better question would be, what exactly is our strategy for the Malthusian predicament? Is it the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Famine? The Border Wall? Glyphosate? Colonies on Mars? What exactly is the agenda here?

In the end those whose systems of economics and governance are best equipped to confront the biophysical limits of the real world will be those best prepared to make it through the death-defying rollercoaster ride now just cresting for launch. The track is out ahead and I frankly don't see anyone seriously planning to repair it.

Tick tock.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Why is your teenage sibling trying to kill you?

"We were searching for the tendrils of common language from which we could enlarge the discussion and possibly illuminate the dark areas of their thinking, and ours."

In the process of spring cleaning I happened across a cardboard binder with a yellowing, handwritten sticky label reading “An Older View Regarding Inalienable Rights.” Inside was a xerox copy of a 69-page document dated January 9, 1979 from an administrative proceeding before the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC-SECY-78–560) in the matter of the petition of Jeannine Honicker for emergency and remedial action.

Specifically, my client, Mrs. Honicker, the mother of a leukemia survivor, had petitioned to close the federal nuclear fuel cycle on constitutional grounds after learning that leukemia had been administratively deemed a necessary concomitant of the program, along with cancer, birth defects and numerous diseases that resulted in shortened lives for many citizens living downwind or downstream of licensed facilities. Include yourself there. In the course of the proceedings the NRC had stipulated to a number — 1.7 million — for fatalities from routine, “permitted” operation over the next 25 years.

There was no legal authority under the Atomic Energy Act for the agency to make that decision, so we had filed a proceeding to suspend all the licenses that had been issued illegally. Fortunately there was no requirement to post a bond against potential damages to the licensees from the shutdown, because what we were doing is called administrative rulemaking. Nonetheless, the industry took us seriously enough to send a limo full of lawyers to the front gate of The Farm to receive instantaneous service every time we made another filing. I was a billion-dollar liability.

Put aside the arguments of the petitioner, later backed by the courtroom testimony of our experts, that the number used by NRC was at least 10 times too low, that it did not account for accidents such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima, that it did not look out beyond 25 years, or that it did not account for the unknowns (at that time technetium and the isotopes of carbon were unaccounted for). The lowball number they gave sufficed for our purposes. In Mrs. Honicker’s view, one would have sufficed.

Flipping through the 69 pages of the “Comments of the Petitioner’s staff on the NRC staff response to her petition for emergency and remedial action,” we came to what was really the core disagreement. The NRC staff’s position — the position they urged upon the five Commissioners who would ultimately decide and whom the US Supreme Court would later, on four occasions, decline to second-guess — was that:
“Even if low-level radiation can induce cancer and genetic effects, future discoveries in the prevention and cure of cancer and genetically related diseases and genetic engineering may negate many of these effects.”
As we read it now, 39 years later, the words strike a familiar chord. That’s what we are being told about climate change, or to paraphrase:
“Even if climate change can induce catastrophic warming of 4 degrees or greater this century, ending mammalian life on Earth, future discoveries in renewable energy and negative emissions technologies may negate many of these effects.”
The view we espoused in our response document was fundamentally at odds with that view. I wrote:
“The NRC Staff suggests that genetic engineering may be the answer to the radiation problem we created. It is irresponsible for this generation to require future generations to submit to genetic engineering in order to have normal children. This kind of tinkering with life is symptomatic of the attitude with which the NRC has approached the entire question of large-scale biological experimentation on the people. The nuclear fuel cycle is already compulsory, random, genetic engineering. But there must be a right not to be genetically engineered, certainly as a matter of freedom of religion, and also as one of the rights reserved to the people by the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution.
“Loss of life is certainly avoidable. One need only refrain from conduct that increases the loss of life by one’s own hands….”
“In equivocating risks, making them seem inconsequential, the NRC Staff is attempting to make present schemes of planned civilian deaths seem consistent with congressional intent and the Supreme Court’s holdings that risks are to be allowed when there is reasonable assurance of public safety. But the standard established by Congress for taking risks as a society included establishing a Nuclear Regulatory Commission to protect and preserve public health.”
“These are rational, reasonable and timely objections. They are questions that should have been addressed before the present nuclear fuel cycle was embarked upon. Is any human life insignificant or terminable by government license for ever-greater electric power production?”
We knew back then, even as we see now, we were talking past each other. This exchange of formal comments that would form the basis for review by no fewer than 23 federal judges over the next several years represented the collision of separate worlds. In his latest masterpiece, The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles C. Mann expresses that dilemma better than most:
“Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species, the other regards stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.
“The conflict between these visions is not between good and evil, but between different ideas of the good life; between ethical orders that give priority to personal liberty and those that give priority to what might be called connection.”
“These arguments have their roots in long-ago fights. Voltaire and Rousseau disputing whether natural law truly is a guide for humankind. Jefferson and Hamilton jousting over the ideal character of citizens. Robert Malthus scoffing at the claims of William Godwin and Nicolas de Condorcet that science could overcome limits set by the physical world. T.H. Huxley, the famed defender of Darwin, and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford, contending whether biological laws truly apply to creatures with souls. John Muir, champion of pristine wilderness, squaring off against Gifford Pinchot, evangelist for managing forests with teams of experts. The ecologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon betting whether ingenuity can outwit scarcity. To the philosopher-critic Lewis Mumford, all of these battles were part of a centuries-long struggle between two types of technology, “one authoritarian, the other democratic, the first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable.” And all of them were about, at least in part, the relationship of our species to Nature — which is to say, they were debates about the nature of our species.”
We knew in 1979 that, in our dialogue with NRC staff, we were speaking past each other. We had tactical awareness of this impasse and to whatever extent possible we tried to bridge the gulf. We challenged the wizards on their science, not their religion. We used catch phrases and framing that might better resonate with their worldview, not ours. We spoke of personal liberty rather than connection to the natural world. We spoke of the bedrock rights of free men in voluntary association being carelessly discarded without adequate scientific study of likely consequences, such as erosion of liberty. We were searching for the tendrils of common language from which we could enlarge the discussion and possibly illuminate the dark areas of their thinking, and ours.

Later in Wizard, Mann inserts nearly whole cloth his award-winning 2012 essay for Orion, The State of the Species. With it he profiles the late gaian theorist Lynn Margulis, who took a jaundiced view towards both techno-cornucopians and enviro-Luddites. Mann writes:
In 2000, the chemist Paul Crutzen gave a name to our time: the “Anthropocene,” the era in which Homo sapiens became a force operating on a planetary scale. That year, half of the world’s accessible fresh water was consumed by human beings.
Lynn Margulis, it seems safe to say, would have scoffed at these assessments of human domination over the natural world, which, in every case I know of, do not take into account the enormous impact of the microworld. But she would not have disputed the central idea: Homo sapiens has become a successful species, and is growing accordingly.
If we follow Gause’s pattern, growth will continue at a delirious speed until we hit the second inflection point. At that time we will have exhausted the resources of the global petri dish, or effectively made the atmosphere toxic with our carbon-dioxide waste, or both. After that, human life will be, briefly, a Hobbesian nightmare, the living overwhelmed by the dead. When the king falls, so do his minions; it is possible that our fall might also take down most mammals and many plants. Possibly sooner, quite likely later, in this scenario, the earth will again be a choir of bacteria, fungi, and insects, as it has been through most of its history.
It would be foolish to expect anything else, Margulis thought. More than that, it would be unnatural.
Since those long ago days when I was a young attorney crusading for justice on behalf of Mrs. Honicker, much has changed but much has not and likely never will. There are those that like to cast the difference between human tribes in terms of liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, peace-lover or warmonger, Stewart Brands or Derrick Jensens. These battles rage, sometimes even violently.

It is a talent of our species to have this range of checks and balances — instincts of protection to rein in our penchant for reckless adventure; a cautious optimism to counteract the remorse of our eventual demise, individually and collectively. We need all sides heard, that we become whole.

These days I think of it more as though our species has been going through adolescence. We are a very young mammal, evolutionarily speaking — 200,000 years since walking upright out of Africa, 100,000 years of vocalizing our thoughts (perhaps after communing with mushrooms), 70,000 years since the Toba near-extinction event forced our retreat to caves and clothing — our species is but a blink of the eye for older fellows like snapping turtles, sharks and dragonflies.

Like all teenagers we chafe at boundaries, push the limits, make unreasonable demands and fail to connect the dots between our conduct and its consequences. That part of our brain that sees into the future is still only crudely formed — unshaped clay-dough.

To my way of thinking the Wizards are our wild younger siblings. The Prophets, and I rank myself among them, are at least aware enough to grok how much we don’t know. Will we survive our feckless teenage siblings’ wreckage? It’s still too soon to say.

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Sunday, May 6, 2018

Straw Wars

Straws are a gateway drug, because they are so easy and ubiquitous. That is also what makes them a gateway solution, or “sipping point.”

500,000,000. Five with eight zeroes. That is how many plastic straws go into drink cups. Not every year, that’s every day. And that’s just in the USA. 

I can almost remember my delight as a child when a friend showed me how to take of the end of the paper wrapper and blow the wrapper at some unsuspecting target across the room. That was half the fun of straws when you were a kid. The other half was making noises and bubbles in the bottom of the cup.

The plastic story is relatively recent. The oldest straw still intact and in a museum was discovered in a Sumerian tomb dated 3,000 B.C.E. —  a gold tube inlaid with the precious blue stone lapis lazuli. It wasn’t until the late 19th century era of extravagant world expositions that people started making paper straws — wrapped in wax to keep them from dissolving in gin or bourbon. After World War II we started to see plastic. I am old enough to remember the Flav-R-Straw, a bendy straw with hundreds of tiny flavor pellets in the bellows that could turn plain milk chocolate or strawberry.

Flav-R-Straws were withdrawn in 1961 after Nestlé Quik, Bosco and Hershey’s countered with products they could back with full-spectrum market dominance. Tiny Flav-R-Straws were crushed.
Early paper straws had a narrow bore similar to the grass stems used for millennia. It was common to use two of them, to reduce the effort needed to take each sip. Modern plastic straws are made with a larger bore so only one is needed for ease of drinking, but when they hand you your 64-oz Biggie through the drive-up window, chances are it's got two, purely out of habit. 

And it's single use plastic.

You can complain and they will take back the straws, but when you aren’t looking those are going straight into the trash, which goes straight into a dumpster (in a plastic bag), which goes maybe to separation and maybe not, and then to either landfill or to some watercourse that leads to the ocean and thence the gullet of seabirds or the digestive organs of fish, turtles, dolphins or whales. Robot subs have found that plastic in the stomachs of creatures in the Mariana Trench, 36,000 feet down. 

Between 88 and 95% of the plastic polluting the world’s oceans pours in from just ten rivers, eight are in Asia and the remaining two in Africa. These rivers account for about five trillion pounds of plastic garbage that is floating in the seas. It kills an estimated 200 million marine mammals annually.

The Ganges River in India is responsible for about 1.2 billion pounds, while the Yangtze has been estimated in previous research to dump some 727 million pounds of plastic into the oceans each year.

A combination of the Xi, Dong and Zhujiang Rivers (233 million lbs per year) in China as well as four Indonesian rivers: the Brantas (85 million lbs annually), Solo (71 million pounds per year), Serayu (37 million lbs per year) and Progo (28 million lbs per year), are all large contributors.

Panelists Naja Nielson @OrbTweet, Dianna Cohen @PlasticPollutes, Jackie Nunez @NoPlasticStraws and Jon Bowermaster @NatGeoMag at #CollisionConf

We had the good fortune this week to meet Jackie Nunez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw. She called straws a gateway drug, because they were so easy and ubiquitous. That is also what makes them a gateway solution, or “sipping point,” as Nunez tells it.

She made an invitation to all bars and restaurants to be part of her movement to eliminate plastic pollution from the source. By simply stating on menus “Straws available upon request,” bars and restaurants can be part of the solution. 

Jackie said, “I had my Last Plastic Straw moment in 2011 after receiving a glass of water with a plastic straw at a local beach side bar in Santa Cruz, California. I didn’t ask for a straw. I had just arrived into town after traveling the Caribbean. While there, everywhere I went I saw plastic pollution. On the beaches, in the water, on land. Plastic pollution was everywhere, there was no getting away from it. There is no ‘away.’”

After unloading on her waiter, she decided to be more strategic and that is when she started The Last Plastic Straw. “Basically what we are asking you to do is DO LESS…less consumption, less waste, less straws, it’s a win, win!” she says. 
Check our Resources pages for plastic straw alternatives, inspirational reading and videos that will provide insight and solutions that you can incorporate into your life right now.
Join us, by spreading the word every time you ask for “no straw” whereever straws are served, and by requesting that restaurants & bars only serve straws upon request. Start living like you love the ocean, yourself, and the planet. You will help save the planet from single use plastic pollution one straw at a time. Little things do matter. Go to our facebook page and tell us about your “Last Plastic Straw Moment”…hopefully it’s today!
Thanks to Jackie, from London to Miami, restaurants, bars and cities are banning plastic straws voluntarily. When you return yours to your server, you should politely instruct them to:
  • Provide a straw only when requested by a customer
  • Provide either compostable or reusable straws
  • Or get rid of straws completely
On April 19, 2018, ahead of Earth Day, a proposal to phase out single-use plastics was announced during the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government. This will include plastic drinking straws, which cannot be recycled and contribute to ocean deterioration, damaging ecosystems and wildlife. It is estimated that as of 2018, about 23 million straws are used and discarded daily in the UK. And the alternatives are literally grass roots.

A few months before, Queen Elizabeth II banned the plastic straws and other one-use plastic items from her palaces. Canada is now considering banning straws nationwide after 70% of voters polled endorsed a plastic straw ban. 

How hard would it be, after all, to go back to paper? Now, embed that paper with biochar and you are really talking my language.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Spring Cleaning

"If you’re buying weird tech gizmos, you need to know what you are trying to prove by that. "

As that time of year falls upon us like a piano thrown from a 5th floor window, we like to recall the advice of Bruce Sterling to the Viridian Design Movement (c. 1999).

Do not lug around an enormous tool chest or a full set of post-earthquake gear unless you are Stewart Brand. Furthermore, unless you are a professional emergency worker, you can abstain from post-apocalyptic “bug-out bags” and omnicompetent heaps of survivalist rations. Do not stock the fort with tiresome, life-consuming, freeze-dried everything, unless you can clearly sense the visible approach of some massive, non-theoretical civil disorder. The clearest way to know that one of these is coming is that the rich people have left your area. If that’s the case, then, sure, go befriend the police and prepare to knuckle down.

Now to confront the possessions you already have. This will require serious design work, and this will be painful. It is a good idea to get a friend or several friends to help you.

You will need to divide your current possessions into four major categories.
  1. Beautiful things.
  2. Emotionally important things.
  3. Tools, devices, and appliances that efficiently perform a useful function.
  4. Everything else.
“Everything else” will be by far the largest category. Anything you have not touched, or seen, or thought about in a year — this very likely belongs in “everything else.”

You should document these things. Take their pictures, their identifying makers’ marks, barcodes, whatever, so that you can get them off eBay or Amazon if, for some weird reason, you ever need them again. Store those digital pictures somewhere safe — along with all your other increasingly valuable, life-central digital data. Back them up both onsite and offsite.

Then remove them from your time and space. “Everything else” should not be in your immediate environment, sucking up your energy and reducing your opportunities. It should become a fond memory, or become reduced to data.

It may belong to you, but it does not belong with you. You weren’t born with it. You won’t be buried with it. It needs to be out of the space-time vicinity. You are not its archivist or quartermaster. Stop serving that unpaid role.

Beautiful things are important. If they’re truly beautiful, they should be so beautiful that you are showing them to people. They should be on display: you should be sharing their beauty with others. Your pride in these things should enhance your life, your sense of taste and perhaps your social standing.

They’re not really that beautiful? Then they’re not really beautiful. Take a picture of them, tag them, remove them elsewhere.

Emotionally important things. All of us have sentimental keepsakes that we can’t bear to part with. 

We also have many other objects which simply provoke a panicky sense of potential loss — they don’t help us to establish who we are, or to become the person we want to be. They subject us to emotional blackmail.

Is this keepsake so very important that you would want to share its story with your friends, your children, your grandchildren? Or are you just using this clutter as emotional insulation, so as to protect yourself from knowing yourself better?

Think about that. Take a picture. You might want to write the story down. Then — yes — away with it.
You are not “losing things” by these acts of material hygiene. You are gaining time, health, light and space. Also, the basic quality of your daily life will certainly soar. Because the benefits of good design will accrue to you where they matter — in the everyday.

Not in Oz or in some museum vitrine. In the every day. For sustainability, it is every day that matters. Not green Manhattan Projects, green moon shots, green New Years’ resolutions, or wild scifi speculations. Those are for dabblers and amateurs. The sustainable is about the every day.
Now for category three, tools and appliances. They’re not beautiful and you are not emotionally attached to them. So they should be held to keen technical standards.

Is your home a museum? Do you have curatorial skills? If not, then entropy is attacking everything in there. Stuff breaks, ages, rusts, wears out, decays. Entropy is an inherent property of time and space. Understand this fact. Expect this. The laws of physics are all right, they should not provoke anguished spasms of denial.

You will be told that you should “make do” with broken or semi-broken tools, devices and appliances. Unless you are in prison or genuinely crushed by poverty, do not do this. This advice is wicked.

This material culture of today is not sustainable. Most of the things you own are almost certainly made to 20th century standards, which are very bad. If we stick with the malignant possessions we already have, through some hairshirt notion of thrift, then we are going to be baling seawater. This will not do.

You should be planning, expecting, desiring to live among material surroundings created, manufactured, distributed, through radically different methods from today’s. It is your moral duty to aid this transformative process. This means you should encourage the best industrial design.

Get excellent tools and appliances. Not a hundred bad, cheap, easy ones. Get the genuinely good ones. Work at it. Pay some attention here, do not neglect the issue by imagining yourself to be serenely “non-materialistic.” There is nothing more “materialistic” than doing the same household job five times because your tools suck. Do not allow yourself to be trapped in time-sucking black holes of mechanical dysfunction. That is not civilized.

Now for a brief homily on tools and appliances of especial Viridian interest: the experimental ones. The world is full of complicated, time-sucking, partially-functional beta-rollout gizmos. Some are fun to mess with; fun in life is important. Others are whimsical; whimsy is okay. Eagerly collecting semifunctional gadgets because they are shiny-shiny, this activity is not the worst thing in the world. However, it can become a vice. If you are going to wrangle with unstable, poorly-defined, avant-garde tech objects, then you really need to wrangle them. Get good at doing it.

Good experiments are well-designed experiments. Real experiments need a theory. They need something to prove or disprove. Experiments need to be slotted into some larger context of research, and their results need to be communicated to other practitioners. That’s what makes them true “experiments” instead of private fetishes.

If you’re buying weird tech gizmos, you need to know what you are trying to prove by that. You also need to tell other people useful things about it. If you are truly experimenting, then you are doing something praiseworthy. You may be wasting some space and time, but you’ll be saving space and time for others less adventurous. Good.

If you’re becoming a techie magpie packrat who never leaves your couch — that’s not good. Forget the shiny gadget. You need to look in the shiny mirror.

So. This approach seems to be working for me. More or less. I’m not urging you to do any of this right away. Do not jump up from the screen right now and go reform your entire material circumstances. That resolve will not last. Because it’s not sustainable.


Sunday, April 22, 2018

Mycelial Mind

"One thing we can say about our fungal cousins. They are vastly better connected to the natural order of things than our species seems to be. "

Most of the languages of the West have no word for people who are thought pioneers. Some of these individuals are also scientists in some discipline and defined that way, but many are without portfolio — no certifications or sheepskins to confer authority for their out-of-school pronouncements.

We all know people like this. Derrick Jensen, Paul Stamets, Fritjof Capra, Joanna Macy, Terence McKenna, Noam Chomsky. Sometimes their ramblings are profound and sometimes just flights of fancy. Stamets’ flights of fancy back in the 1990s led many to think that mushrooms could neutralize radioactive waste, which is of course impossible. But Stamets, after McKenna, put forward some thoughts about mycelial intelligence or the evolutionary morphology of the human brain that have lasting value.

They theorized that a meeting of mind and mushroom a few hundred thousand years ago led to the Sapiens Sapiens line of homo. Recently a paper by Mark Mattson in Frontiers in Neuroscience  sheds more light on that subject by observing that most, if not all, unique features of the human brain are the result of superior pattern processing. The neural processing pattern Mattson describes is based in a mycelia-like human neural network.

Humans and fungi are not evolutionary strangers. We were once the same organism, hundreds of millions of years ago. At some point we parted company, with our line going for discrete, albeit tribal, individualization with internal respiratory and digestive organs and a partnership with bacterial intestinal flora, and the other line continuing to externalize all those functions while establishing deep symbiosis with nearly all other forms of life, mammals included. Fungi’s relationship with bacteria is less cordial than ours.

Some five to eight million years ago, the human brain began to enlarge. That corresponded with  an upright posture that gave us the capacities to see, hear and smell farther, move more rapidly and forage longer distances. Other mammals developed similar pattern processings to ours — hippocampus-based cognitive maps of food sources, potential predators and navigation landmarks; ability to distinguish individuals of the same species and their emotional state; and use of sounds and visual gestures to communicate.

Uniquely, our line of mammals evolved a larger cerebral cortex that permitted the “development of tools, processes and protocols for solving problems and saving time” — including all aspects of agriculture, transportation, science, commerce, defense/security, and music; spoken and written languages; rapid decision-making based upon intricate reasoning; mental time travel to compare future scenarios; and “magical thinking/fantasy, cognitive process that involve[] beliefs in entities and processes that defy accepted laws of causality including telepathy, spirits, and gods.” (Mattson)

Magical explanations were produced for phenomena that could not be understood. As science gradually came to provide better explanations, magical thinking gradually receded. This is not to say it disappeared. We can see magical thinking in the denial mechanism for human mortality (life after death); limits to growth (peak everything); climate change, crooked Hillary and Russian collusion in the 2016 US election. We all have that gene, and it is alive and well.

Mattson does not explore whether ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms was a precipitating factor in the evolutionary jump in our patterning capacity and the corresponding enlargement of our cerebral cortex. He merely observes that Homo sapiens is the only hominid to survive from an original pool of from 8 to 27 species and suggests that our competitive advantage was not physical prowess but superior pattern processing. That ability being described — derived from greater efficiencies of synapsed electrical streamlining leading to better neural networking — is a mycelial pattern. (Parenthetically it has been argued that it was our capacity for ruthless aggression, not more benign mutations, that killed off all competing lines — see Quest for Fire.)

The same efficiency improvements have been described for the redesign of the Tokyo commuter system, wherein researchers scattered oat flakes in a pattern identical to Tokyo’s rail stations and a slime mold, Physarum polycephalum, iteratively selected the optimal pathways between stations. The scientists added areas of bright light (which slime mold tends to avoid) to correspond to mountains or other geologic features that the trains would have to steer around. The mold reinforced routes that were working, eliminated redundant channels, and constantly adapted and adjusted for maximum efficiency — the same as our cerebral cortex does to accelerate and deepen our pattern processing.

Blogsmith Rob Mielcarski examined Mattson’s paper in greater detail and was quick to note a comparison with Brower and Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory. As previously described in this blog's review of their book, Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs and the Origin of the Human Mind, Brower and Varki argued that humans are hard wired to ignore unpleasant thoughts, such as their own mortality. Mielcarski observed:
  • After 8 million years of slowly improving brain power in many hominids species, there was a dramatic jump about 100,000 years ago in one of the species that enabled language and enhanced tools making, and that species used its unique skills to outcompete all the others.  That species also simultaneously began to believe in life after death which was later elaborated into religions, something no other species does. Using Mattson’s reasoning, brain power should have simultaneously improved for all hominids with no unusual discontinuity.
  • Mattson is mistaken about the adaptive value of religion. He thinks that the magical thinking associated with religion has some adaptive value. I think the evidence is clear that humans apply magical thinking to many aspects of their lives, including religion. The adaptive value of religions is not magical thinking, rather it is that religions serve to define, unite, govern, motivate, and entertain tribes, and (especially in times of scarcity) define outside tribes as enemies. In other words, religions improve survival via enhanced social cooperation.
  • Mattson acknowledges that magical thinking about human divinity is a unique and fascinating persistent behavior but does not offer an explanation. I think the explanation is clear. Given the human brain’s tendency for magical thinking we should expect religious beliefs to include every conceivable wacky story, as they do, and we should statistically expect a few of those wacky stories to involve life after death, but they don’t, instead every one of the thousands of human religions has a life after death story which suggests there must be a separate genetic reason for the universal belief in life after death.
  • Mattson thinks the primary cause of anxiety disorders and depression is defective SPP [superior pattern processing] resulting in a blurring of reality, self-doubt, and hopelessness. While no doubt true in some cases, Mattson does not consider that a defective ability to deny unpleasant realities can be the cause of mental illness. For example, fully accepting the science of human overshoot, climate change, and net energy decline coupled with an understanding that an individual cannot influence the outcome is a plenty strong reason for depression. In other words, magical thinking likely improves mental health.
Neither Mielcarski nor Mattson take the discussion where Stamets and McKenna did, and begin to wonder whether there was a sort of family reunion with mushrooms that occurred one or more times in our evolution, leading to superior pattern processing. It is an intriguing proposition that invites further research.

One thing we can say about our fungal cousins. They are vastly better connected to the natural order of things than our species seems to be. Whatever tutorial began 100,000 years ago probably needs to resume.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

How Many Trees Do We Need?

"A city like New York (18.6 million people) should require 55.8 million trees to provide its oxygen."

Is it possible that we could wreck the atmosphere enough that humans would suffocate for a lack of air to breathe? Probably not. Still, it’s not a chance worth taking.

Earth’s atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen and human activities add only very slightly to that, although now more than all the natural sources. 20.9 percent of what’s up there is the oxygen we need to breathe. Water is about 1 percent. The remainder — less than one percent — is all the other gases, including all the greenhouse gases.

Most people think we get our oxygen from trees, and this is true in part. Trees release oxygen when they make glucose from carbon dioxide and water — a net gain of one molecule of oxygen for every atom of carbon layered into a tree. Estimates vary on how many trees it takes to produce the oxygen required by one human, and one might expect that because the amount of oxygen produced by a tree depends on its species, age, health, and surroundings.

A human breathes about 9.5 metric tons of air in a year, but oxygen only makes up about 21 percent of that air and we only extract a little over a third of the oxygen from each breath. That works out to a total of about 740 kg of oxygen per year.

A 2-ton sycamore tree produces about 100 kg of oxygen per year. A 100-ft Northern Spruce, according to Northwest Territories Forest Management, 18" diameter at its base, produces 6,000 pounds of oxygen (2,727 kg).

According to Environment Canada, the average tree produces 260 pounds of oxygen per year (118 kg). If we accept that as a good estimate, we each need about 6 mature trees to support ourselves.
A city like New York (18.6 million people) should require 112 million trees to provide its oxygen. It has those — in the Taconics, Adirondacks, Poconos, and Berkshires — although it shares them with Newark, Philadelphia, Hartford, Albany and others, so maybe not enough for everyone. Cities like Mexico City (21 million), Mumbai (21 million), Sao Paolo (21 million), Shanghai (24 million), Delhi (25 million) and Tokyo (38 million) are straight out of luck.

Fortunately for all of us, ocean phytoplankton and coastal mangroves also make oxygen. Not so fortunately, both of those sources are being destroyed by climate change and reckless development.

Are we in trouble? Not any time soon.

Free oxygen did not exist in the atmosphere until about 2.4 billion years ago during the Great Oxygenation Event, when oceanic cyanobacteria learned to produce oxygen by photosynthesis, setting off the greatest mass extinction in history. Say goodbye to all the happy anaerobes. They either went underground or died.

Over the next 2.4 billion years, cyanobacteria made a lot of oxygen. That said, we are not entirely out of the woods, so to speak. Most organisms have evolved to live in an environment that has a very specific set of conditions. We have come to rely on air containing about 21 percent oxygen.

That concentration has varied over time, with the normal equilibrium up to about 600 million years ago being about 15% but then rising and peaking at about 30% around 280 million years ago and gradually declining since. It has never been less than 20% in human evolutionary history. How low it can go before humans feel a need for some breathing space is anyone’s guess. By destroying all the natural sources — forests, corals, mangroves — while also polluting the atmosphere, we are putting a lot at risk.

That blue halo that colors the Earth in space is less about the color of our oceans than the scattering of light from the wavelengths of the gases in our atmosphere. As we destroy that balance, particularly the relative proportion of oxygen, we may just lose that halo. We could lose a lot more.

Originally published at




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