Category: Climate Change
Wow, I knew if I lived long enough I would agree with Prince Charles on something, and it seems we agree that there is an implacable war against animals, a world war on a global scale, starkly evident in the high-tech poaching industry that is wiping out species such as rhinos and elephants before our eyes (see, for instance, my posts here and here). It seems we also agree that the human assault on other animals ought to be viewed as and treated as a war in which we defend animals from attack by any means necessary on this dying planet (see, for instance, my posts here and here).
Nice to be in agreement with you on these points, Prince Charles. Now how about putting the UK’s armed forces in the service of wildlife under attack?
The Guardian, May 21, 2013
Prince Charles has warned that criminal gangs are turning to animal poaching, an unprecedented slaughter of species that can only be stopped by waging war on the perpetrators, in the latest of a series of increasingly outspoken speeches about the environment.
Addressing a conference of conservationists at St James’s Palace in London, the Prince of Wales announced a meeting of heads of state to take place this autumn in London under government auspices to combat what he described as an emerging, militarised crisis.
“We face one of the most serious threats to wildlife ever, and we must treat it as a battle – because it is precisely that,” said Charles. “Organised bands of criminals are stealing and slaughtering elephants, rhinoceros and tigers, as well as large numbers of other species, in a way that has never been seen before. They are taking these animals, sometimes in unimaginably high numbers, using the weapons of war – assault rifles, silencers, night-vision equipment and helicopters.”
It is the second outspoken speech that Charles has made this month, at a time when he is taking on an increasing number of monarchical duties, after he told a group of forest scientists also at St James’s Palace that corporate lobbyists and climate change sceptics were turning the Earth into a “dying patient”. The Prince of Wales warned that iconic species – which could include rhinoceros, tigers, orangutans and others – could be extinct in the wild within a decade if efforts to protect them were not stepped up. “By urgent, I mean urgent,” he told the dignitaries, who included governmental and United Nations officials as well as NGOs and grassroots activists.
His son, the Duke of Cambridge, added to the plea: “My fear is that one of two things will stop the illegal trade: either we take action to stem the trade, or we will run out of the animals. There is no other outcome possible.”
Charles also stressed the need to deal with the demand for exotic species. In the past, much of the market for tiger parts, rhino horns and ivory was said to be driven by beliefs in traditional Chinese medicine, in which the rare animal parts were believed to have curative or aphrodisiac properties. But the prince dismissed such ideas, saying the trade was in fact about status symbols rather than belief systems. “The bulk of the intended use is no longer for products that can be classified as traditional medicines. Instead, many more people in rapidly growing economies are seeking exotic products that reflect their economic prosperity and status.”
The conference called for celebrities to publicise their outrage and opposition to the trade, and for young people in countries such as China to be educated to reject the demands of their parents for such status-fuelled goods.
(This piece was originally written for my good friend Adam, and earlier published on his blog, OccupyEssays)
“I’d like to share with you a revelation I’ve had, during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply, and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague.” Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)
This essay tells a story. It is more than a little story, it is one of the biggest stories of all — the story of how humans evolved from one of the weakest to the most dangerous animal on the planet, from hunted to hunter, from vulnerable prey to top predator. This is the amazing saga of how one species became the first and only global species and in a very short time built a vast empire that has colonized the planet for need and greed, has created a new geological epoch – the human-dominated Anthropocene Era — and is threatening to bring down the planetary house.
Like all empires, the human empire rose, had glorious triumphs, but ultimately was a decadent and unsustainable colossus; and thus it also dies, ebbs, declines, and falls like the rest. But much more is at stake in this drama than an imperialist state and its colonies, for here we are talking about the entire species of Homo sapiens and its impact on biodiversity and the ecological dynamics of the planet as a whole.
There is no scientific consensus to this story; there are, rather, a thousand narratives of the origins of Homo sapiens and the proper taxonomical tables and nomenclature. The prevailing cacophony of dispute arises partly for the empirical reasons (the science is uncertain and always changing), and also for political reasons (scientists, researchers, and historians have vested interests in challenging competing narratives and validating their own discoveries and narratives). Uncertainties aside, grasping the outlines of the human past are critical for understanding what kind of animal we are, illuminating the causes of current social and ecological crises, and creating viable future societies — if indeed such a project is still possible in a significant sense.
Out of Africa and Out of Control
Our earliest ancestors evolved from an independent branch of the primate tree some 5-7 million years ago. Pressured by climate changes, they moved out of the Eastern and Southern forests of Africa and into the savannas where for various reasons they stood up on two legs and evolved into bipedal animals. These Australopithecines were 3 feet tall, hairy, ape-men — like apes in their relatively small brain size, and like humans in walking upright. After 2-3 million years, various australopithecine types evolved into diverse variations of the Homo genus, including species such as Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo sapiens, and Homo sapiens sapiens (behaviorally modern, language-speaking humans). Along this dynamic, variegated evolutionary path, hominid brains grew increasingly large; their technologies and cultures became ever more sophisticated; and their populations continuously expanded in size and geographical reach as their ecological impact became more and more severe.
There is no consensus on key questions, such as: What is the proper taxonomical language to characterize humans in relation to other primates? What alleged Homo types were true species rather than sub-species? What Homo species co-existed, and when? Did they evolve as one species in a linear fashion, as the “Out of Africa” thesis argues, or did various Homo types co-evolve and leave Africa at different times and in many migrations, as the “Multiregional” theory claims?
Whatever the diversity of human types and subsequent migration patterns, about 100,000 years ago (there is no consensus on this date either) Homo sapiens left the African continent to explore a vast, unknown world in which continents were conjoined by ice sheets. They migrated to Europe, Asia, Australia, Siberia, Indonesia, and into the Americas, establishing their empire throughout the globe. All the time multiplying, diversifying, and scattering across the continents, humans wasted no time in colonizing the world from north to south and from east to west.
Just one among tens of millions of existing animal species – many already dispatched to oblivion, thousands currently poised on the end, and thousands yet on the brink of extinction and some yet to be discovered – Homo sapiens has risen from humble mammalian and primate origins to become the most dominant, violent, predatory, and destructive animal on the planet. Nearly everywhere it journeyed and lived, Homo sapiens wrought social and ecological devastation, extinction crises, and chronic warfare. Continue reading
Blocking Oil Drilling a Capital Crime, Genocide the Penalty!
Through a bit of evolutionary serendipity, polar bears are cute. They are big and fuzzy and have thick, dopey heads. This is helpful to the polar bears, because it’s given the animals a powerful tool in their fight for existence. “Do you want polar bears to go away?”
To which oil companies say, “Only if they’re in the way.” Last week, a federal court in Alaska overturned a Fish and Wildlife Service habitat designation for polar bears after the fossil fuel industry sued, complaining that the habitat interfered with oil exploration. From the Wall Street Journal:
A U.S. court in Alaska has overturned a federal rule aimed at protecting polar bear habitat in the Arctic, handing a victory to the oil and natural-gas industry.
The rule, established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is “valid in many respects,” but the agency didn’t follow all the legally required steps before adopting the regulation, U.S. District Court Judge Ralph R. Beistline wrote in the decision, which was dated Thursday and published Friday. …
The government designated barrier islands, offshore sea-ice and “denning” areas, where female polar bears are known to make dens where they give birth to their young during winter months, as critical habitat. At the time of the designation, in November 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service said the areas were “essential for the conservation of the bear.”
It’s fossil fuel industries that have put the polar bear in its current plight. Rampant greenhouse gas emission and the warming that has ensued has caused Arctic ice levels to plummet. With less ice, it becomes harder and harder for bears to conserve energy and to find food. As we noted in 2007:
As sea ice thins, and becomes more fractured and labile, it is likely to move more in response to winds and currents so that polar bears will need to walk or swim more and thus use greater amounts of energy to maintain contact with the remaining preferred habitats.
The government tried to create a protected habitat, a place where bears could hunt and rest as best they could without additional interference. But unfortunately for the bears, the Fish and Wildlife Service put the reserve on land that was already inhabited: by oil. So the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the American Petroleum Institute sued, with the oil-obsessed state’s help.
The AOGA issued a pleased-as-punch statement [PDF] in response to the court ruling, including this quote from executive director Kara Moriarty.
AOGA members care as much about protecting Alaska’s environment and wildlife as anyone else, but we also recognize the need to responsibly develop our natural resources in order to keep the state’s number one economic driver healthy.
Emphasis added, to highlight the part of the quote that is bullshit.
Even worse was the statement from Alaska’s governor. Again from the Journal:
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said Friday that he “applauded” the court’s decision.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s attempt to classify massive sections of resource-rich North Slope lands as critical habitat is the latest in a long string of examples of the federal government encroaching on states’ rights,” Mr. Parnell said.
You can hear Parnell salivating as he says resource-rich. After all, he — along with every resident of Alaska — has a dog in the fight over drilling. Last year, every Alaskan received $878 thanks to the state’s Permanent Fund, which distributes profits from oil drilling to residents. More drilling equals more money for the state, meaning happier voters in Parnell’s eyes. More polar bears don’t do him much good at all.
Making the moral of the story this: Polar bears may be cute, but the faces on dollar bills are a lot cuter.
The facts of catastrophic climate change have become so alarming that growing numbers of scientists feel they can no longer hide behind inscrutable jargon, masks of neutrality, professional decorum, and robotic objectivity. When paragons of affectless detachment and Spock-speak begin dropping F-bombs at prestigious conferences, undertake civil disobedience, and call for mass resistance movements to overtake the forces of planetary destruction, there is a sea-change in the scientific world, appropriately so, something that far transcends “value-laden” research to become thunderous calls for action, anger, and uprising.
It seems the top experts know something pacifists and delusional vegans (who can only talk of the temporary reduction of meat consumption IN THE US while ignoring soaring global rates and remaining mute about the severity of climate change) don’t — the earth is fucked, time is running out, ivy league vegan outreach adds insult to injury, and it’s too late for education. The courage and integrity of the new generation of activist-scientists to speak truth to power and lay their careers on the line also puts 99.999% of academics to shame, narcissists and cowards who would rather lose species and ecosystems over a career advance any day.
The choice is mass rebellion or catastrophic collapse. Despite the false impression given by the final sentence of this article, while vocal, confrontational, and politicized climate scientists could emerge as key forces of change, the true catalysts will be mass resistance movements erupting globally. But of that, we have no guarantee and as of yet, little hope to avert impending disaster on an unimaginable scale.
Why Earth and Atmospheric Scientists Are Swearing Up a Storm and Getting Arrested.
NASA scientist and climatologist James Hansen takes part in a mock funeral parade during Climate Change Campaign Action Day in 2009 in Coventry, England
Many of us have wondered at some point in almost precisely these terms: “Is Earth Fucked?” But it’s not the sort of frank query you expect an expert in geomorphology to pose to his colleagues as the title of a formal presentation at one of the world’s largest scientific gatherings.
Nestled among offerings such as “Bedrock Hillslopes to Deltas: New Insights Into Landscape Mechanics” and “Chemical Indicators of Pathways in the Water Cycle,” the question leapt off the pages of the schedule for the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. Brad Werner, a geophysicist at the University of California, San Diego, is one of the more than 20,000 Earth and atmospheric scientists who descended on downtown San Francisco this week to share their research on everything from Antarctic ice-sheet behavior to hurricane path modeling to earthquake forecasting. But he’s the only one whose presentation required the use of censorious asterisks. When the chairman of Werner’s panel announced the talk’s title on Wednesday, a titter ran through the audience at the naughtiness of it all.
Why shout out the blunt question on everyone’s mind? Werner explained at the outset of the presentation that it was inspired by friends who are depressed about the future of the planet. “Not so much depressed about all the good science that’s being done all over the world—a lot of it being presented here—about what the future holds,” he clarified, “but by the seeming inability to respond appropriately to it.”
That’s probably an apt description of legions of scientists who have labored for years only to see their findings met with shrugs—or worse. Researchers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, for instance, published a paper in Nature Climate Change this week showing that carbon emissions have reached record levels, with a 2.6 percent projected rise in 2012. In another AGU presentation, Pieter Tans of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posed the question: “Will realistic fossil fuel burning scenarios prevent catastrophic climate change?” He did not seem optimistic. “We might end up burning 900 billion tons of carbon” from oil, gas, and coal, he announced. “We can have a managed path to lower emissions—or do it by misery.” A guy next to me in the audience gave a kind of hopeless snort. The head of NOAA and polar experts held a news conference at the conference entitled, “What’s going on in the Arctic?” This year broke all sorts of records: the lowest recorded sea-ice extent, the lowest recorded snow cover extent and duration, and the most extensive recorded melting event on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, among other milestones. “I’ve studied Greenland for 20 years now; I’ve devoted my career to it,” Jason Box of Ohio State University intoned somberly, “and 2012 was an astonishing year. This was the warmest summer in a period of record that’s continuous in 170 years.”
Werner’s title nodded at a question running like an anxious murmur just beneath the surface of this and other presentations at the AGU conference: What is the responsibility of scientists, many of them funded by taxpayer dollars through institutions like the National Science Foundation, to tell us just exactly how fucked we are? Should scientists be neutral arbiters who provide information but leave the fraught decision-making and cost-benefit analysis to economists and political actors? Or should they engage directly in the political process or even become advocates for policies implied by their scientific findings?
Scientists have been loath to answer such questions in unequivocal terms. Overstepping the perceived boundaries of prudence, objectivity, and statistical error bars can derail a promising career. But, in step with many of the planet’s critical systems, that may be quickly changing. Lately more and more scientists seem shaken enough by what their measurements and computer models are telling them (and not just about climate change but also about the global nitrogen cycle, extinction rates, fisheries depletion, etc.) to speak out and endorse specific actions. The most prominent example is NASA climatologist James Hansen, who was so freaked out by his own data that he began agitating several years ago for legislation to rein in carbon emissions. His combination of rigorous research and vigorous advocacy is becoming, if not quite mainstream, somewhat less exotic. A commentary in Nature last month implored scientists to risk tenure and get arrested, if necessary, to promote the political solutions their research tells them are required. Climate researchers Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows recently made an impassioned call on their colleagues to do a better job of communicating the urgency of their findings and to no longer cede the making of policy prescriptions entirely to economists and politicians.
Lonnie Thompson, one of the world’s foremost experts on glaciers and ancient climates, framed the dilemma in a speech he gave to a group of behavioral scientists in 2010:
Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.
That’s the sound of serious-minded scientists fretting out loud to the rest of us that the earth is indeed fucked, unless we get our shit together. More and more are willing to risk professional opprobrium to drive that message home.
Box is a prime example. A veteran Arctic researcher, Box was arrested alongside more than 1,000 others in 2011 outside the White House while protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico for export, thus facilitating the liberation of a vast quantity of climate-warming and ice-sheet-disintegrating carbon. “Taking that stand was arguably the most important thing I’ve done,” he told me, and that includes a highly regarded body of work on Greenland ice-sheet dynamics. “I’ve taken a number of perceived political risks. The groupthink was, ‘You’re wasting your time, you’re risking your career,’ ” he said. Such actions might one day keep him from membership in the National Academies of Science, he mused aloud, but he didn’t seem too concerned. As he sees it, he can pursue rigorous science and be an engaged, concerned citizen at the same time. “I have a 14-month-old daughter,” he explained simply.
The bulk of Werner’s talk, as it turned out, was not profane or prophetic but was a fairly technical discussion of a “preliminary agent-based numerical model” of “coupled human-environmental systems.” He described a computer model he is building of the complex two-way interaction between people and the environment, including how we respond to signals such as environmental degradation, using the same techniques he employs to simulate the dynamics of natural systems such as permafrost, glaciers, and coastal landscapes. These tools, he argued, can lead to better decision-making. Echoing Anderson and Bows, he claimed it as a legitimate part of a physical scientist’s domain. “It’s really a geophysics problem,” he said. “It’s not something that we can just leave to the social scientists or the humanities.”
Active resistance by concerned groups of citizens, analogous to the anti-slavery and civil rights movements of the past, is one of the features of the planetary system that plays an important role in his model. If you think that we should take a much longer view when making decisions about the health of the “coupled human-environmental system”—that is to say, if you’re interested in averting the scenario in which the Earth is fucked—then, Werner’s model implied, resistance is the best and probably only hope. Every other element—environmental regulation, even science—is too embedded in the dominant economic system.
I asked Werner what he sees as scientists’ role in contributing to this kind of resistance, the kind of direct action taken by researchers like Hansen and Box. Werner views his own advocacy as separate from his scientific work. “To some extent, [science is] a job, and a job I really like, and I have the good fortune and privilege to have,” he told me. “In my other life, I am an activist, but there’s a line. Both sides inform the other. And I think that that is healthy. But when I’m doing geophysics, I’m a geophysicist. When I’m doing activism, I’m an activist.”
Werner agreed that more and more scientists are now engaging in advocacy than in the past. “Even if you say, ‘OK, I’m not going to advocate anything. I am simply going to make sure that I am going to produce results which are useful and available to a broad range of people,’ that’s a decision that researchers have to make.” This is not just an academic question. Anderson and Bows’ work, for instance, suggests that economic growth in the short term is simply incompatible with the (nonbinding) commitments made by most U.N. member states to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). This, of course, is not a message that is making any headway with the leaders of those countries. “The elephant in the room sits undisturbed while collective acquiescence and cognitive dissonance trample all who dare to ask difficult questions,” Anderson and Bows write. Getting relevant information into the hands of those more likely to ask those questions is, Werner said, part of his responsibility as a scientist.
Box agrees and is launching a new initiative called the Dark Snow Project, which aims to conduct the first crowdsourced scientific expedition to the Arctic, measuring how soot from North American wildfires might be accelerating Greenland’s ice melt. He and his colleagues plan to make their results publically accessible via video and other online tools, and he sees the project eventually growing into an organization that does rapid-response field science in the public interest.
As for the big question—is Earth fucked?—Werner announced in his talk that he has done some preliminary runs of his model. At this point I could sense the audience lean forward collectively on their seats. First he simulated the global economy proceeding into the future without the drag of environmental management decisions. “What happens is not too surprising,” he told us evenly. “Basically the economy fast chews up the environmental resources, depletes those reservoirs, resulting in a significant amount of environmental damage.”
Then he factored in some environmental management, presumably of our standard, EPA cost-benefit-analysis-driven variety, and found that “it delays the environmental damage but it doesn’t prevent it.”
That’s not too surprising either. But it also implies we’re eventually, definitely fucked. Still, there’s a choose-your-own-adventure element to the story that has yet to play out. Resistance, Werner argued, is the wild card that can force dominant systems such as our current resource-chewing juggernaut onto a more sustainable path. Werner hasn’t completed that part of his model, so we’ll have to wait to find out what happens. But during the Q-and-A session, he conceded that “even though individual resistance movements might not be fast enough reacting to some of these problems, if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner.”
In other words, according to at least one expert, maybe the Earth is not quite fucked yet after all. But the ultimate outcome may depend on how much, and how many, scientists choose to wade into the fray.
The nature of evolution is speciation — to produce diversity of life, even in the harshest and most challenging conditions. Indeed, after the five previous major extinctions events on earth, nature responded not only by restabilizing ecological dynamics, but by proliferating even more life and enhancing biodiversity such as happened during the Cambrian Explosion.
The diversity of life involves not only the proliferation of plant and animal species, but also of unique human cultures and languages. At all levels, we are currently losing the rich diversity of biological, cultural, and linguistic forms; in a profound sense, we can no longer speak of “evolution” but rather must understand that planet earth is undergoing a profound devolutionary process in the sense that diversity of all kinds is rapidly receding not advancing.
Thus, in the midst of the sixth extinction crisis in the history of this planet that is currently underway, we are also witness to the precipitous loss of cultural and linguistic diversity as well, as we leave the prior Holocene epoch and enter the new Anthropocene era. This new and emergent geological epoch is defined by the dominant role played by humans, not the natural world, in altering the planet, and clearly not in desirable ways. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the combined forces of the modernization, the Industrial Revolution, fossil-fuel addiction, a grow-or-die metastasizing system of global capitalism, the spread of agribusiness and rising world meat consumption, human overpopulation, mass culture, rampant consumerism, and other forces have brought about habitat loss, rainforest destruction, desertification, climate change, and species extinction.
In fact since the emergence of agricultural society 10-15,000 years ago, the now dominant mode of production began a war of extermination against hunting and gathering tribes that preserved traditional nomadic and non-hierarchical life ways, as opposed to the growth-oriented, hierarchical farming societies based on domesticating nature and animals, obsessive concerns with control, expansion, war, and conquest.
The war still being waged against indigenous peoples, first nations, and other non-modern/non-Western cultures certainly fully advanced with colonialism five centuries ago, but ultimately is a continuation of the exterminism agricultural society launched against all peoples who did not conform to the pathological imperatives of “civilization” and “progress.”
While from the standpoint of the earth and nonhuman animal species, the ideal would be for Homo rapiens as a whole to die off as rapidly as possible. But the alternative to what most humans find repugnant and nauseating, for those who believe we still have a right to inhabit this planet even if we prove we do not have the ability to harmonize our societies with animal communities and the natural world as a whole, is to do everything possible to resist global capitalism and its war against tribal and indigenous peoples everywhere.
For not only is it vital that indigenous peoples and ancient lifeways be preserved in their own right against the genocidal onslaught of global capitalism, and that we have more diverse languages, cultures, and lifeways than market societies and forces of cultural homogenization will tolerate. It is also crucial, if we want to preserve what biodiversity is left, that we protect and preserve premodern and non-traditional peoples.
One obvious reason — although this has often been overstated in romanticized ways — is that they retain a more reverential ethic toward the earth, they have a far deeper connectedness to life and land, they value tradition over novelty and create far more sustainable cultures, and that they are far more capable of caring for the earth and animals that predatory and rapacious capitalist societies.
Despite the fact that indigenous peoples (such as the Clovis Indians who first inhabited North America) have often throughout history overshot ecological limits and driven animals into extinction, they nonetheless are clearly more suited “custodians” of the earth than the IMF, World Bank, WTO, ExxonMobil, Shell, Monsanto, Cargill, Maxxam, Du Pont, Japanese whalers, NGOs, ignorant narcissistic Western consumers, and so on.
As the essay below makes clear, the areas now highest in biodiversity are the same areas inhabited by indigeous peoples (and this is partly so because plant and animal species are struggling to adjust to escape the ravages of climate change). Thus, the key to preserving what biodiversity remains amidst the rapidly unfolding sixth extinction crisis in the history of the planet is to preserve the remaining cultural and linguistic diversity — to support, help defend, and sustain the indigenous peoples inhabiting the areas with the most dense and diverse plant and animal species.
Thus, here we see yet another vivid example of the politics of total liberation, and how the multiple struggles to save humans, animals, and nature from the devastating effects of the capitalist-dominated Anthropocene era are ultimately one struggle ad must be formulated in theory and practice accordingly.
So there are two main options to save biodiversity: either through the collapse of “civilization” and the extinction of the human species, or through advancing the only politics suitable for the twenty-first century and era of global social and ecological crisis — a politics of total liberation that preserves biodiversity by preserving cultural and linguistic diversity. And this, unavoidably, demands a total war against global capitalism and the sundry institutions and forces of destruction bound up with advanced market societies and this nihilistic world system.