Surviving the Ecological Apocolypse

While this might not be a popular position to take, I believe we’re already well into the first phase of an ecological apocalypse that has been inevitable since human beings learned to talk and use fire. With the unprecedented ability to pass on knowledge more efficiently than any other species, and coordinate our activities, humans became the most deadly predators on the planet. Fire provide greater security than people had ever known before. It was also an incredibly powerful tool. It helped us prepare food that was less likely to sicken us, frighten off predators, and scare prey off cliffs. Fire allowed us to extend the hours in which we were active and allowed us to migrate into colder climates. Along with learning to work rocks into tools, using fire was the beginning of technology.

The power of fire was that it gave us access to energy stored away in fuels like wood, coal, oil, peat, and others. Other animals were restricted to using the energy they could harness through eating. Fire was a huge advantage and became the basis for a technological infrastructure that is now almost entirely dependent on such fuel sources – primarily oil, coal, and natural gas.

Coal, oil, and natural gas are all fossil fuels. They contain energy that was produced by fusion reactions in the sun and traveled to Earth as sunlight. Plants converted the sunlight into carbon compounds that were used to make more plants. Animals got energy by eating plants and other animals that ate plants. A small proportion of the plants and animals that died were buried in sediments, where pressure, heat and LOTS of time converted their organic material into the energy dense fuels we use. It took hundreds of millions of years for nature to store up all that energy. By current estimates, we’ve use up around fifty percent of those stores. It took us a little over a hundred years.

During the last hundred or so years, we’ve burned so much fossil fuel that we’ve raised the proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere from 200 ppm (pre-industrial) to over 400 ppm. We’ve doubled it. Thing is, CO2 is a green-house gas (Look up Green House effect if you don’t understand what a green-house gas is.), it helps trap the energy from the Sun. That’s a good thing, mostly, because it helps keep the Earth warm enough for water to be liquid and for life to flourish. 200 ppm was perfectly adequate for the job. Now we have, in essence, pulled up another blanket over us and we’re wondering why it’s getting toasty.

When you add extra energy to a system, things happen. Put a pot full of water on the stove and turn up the heat. You’ll notice that not much happens at first. Then you’ll notice some ripples on the surface as currents form in the water. Those currents are nature’s way of redistributing the heat. As you watch, the water will move faster and faster. Eventually it boils.

Think of the pot as a very primitive model of the Earth’s atmosphere. When extra heat is added, the air becomes more turbulent. It causes both a shift in the timing of our traditional seasons, and aberrations from what we’ve come to expect. The hot days are hotter and the cold days colder. But overall, almost every year is hotter than the year before.

Why is Climate Change such a big deal?

Well, before we started mucking things up, there was a very delicate balance between how much energy we got from the Sun and how much escaped back into space in one form or another. EVERY LIVING THING has been adapted by evolution to that balance. Now that things are messed up, whole species are vanishing faster than at any point in history we know about. Humanity has caused an extinction event worse ever before. Amphibians are dying out, the bees that fertilize our crops are in peril, fisheries all over the world are in crisis. If this were a human patient, doctors would be calling a code and suggesting the family gather.

So, what do we do?

First, there is NO MAGIC BULLET. There is no wonderful technological solution that will save the day. In order to pull the gigatons of CO2 we’ve put into the atmosphere back out again, we’d have to use even more energy than we got from burning them in the first place. Remember, plants, which are astonishingly efficient at converting CO2 into more plant, took hundreds of millions of years to put all that CO2 in the ground. The only safe energy to use for such a job is energy we take out of the environment: solar, wind, wave, tidal, etc.

We must stop using fossil fuels. Period.

But how do we stop using fossil fuels in a world where everyone wants to live the way they imagine Americans live? If everyone in the world were to live a typical American middle-class lifestyle, we’d need four times the energy we use now. In countries like China, where they want to turn into a first-world country overnight, the temptation to use shortcuts, like Coal and Oil, is irresistible. The same can probably be said about India and a dozen other countries.

The Real Problem

For a long time, I despaired that there was no way to really deal with this problem. That’s partially true, no matter what we do now, we’re still going to pay a price for ignoring this problem so long. There will be changes that are going to kill lots of people in lots of terrible ways. I don’t have children of my own and at one point I was of the opinion that the best thing we could do was to stop having children altogether, because the future looked so black.

But perhaps it’s not quite that bleak, because having fewer children, rather than no children, might be the answer. Because the real problem is too many people. Human beings have overrun the planet. Our ancestors initially evolved to live in a moderately-sized ecological niche in Africa. But because we lost our hair, started using tools, and discovered fire, we now live on every continent on the planet. We’ve crowded out the local flora and fauna with our roads, cities, and agriculture. We are running short of food in many places. Aquifers are running dry. Human trash washes up on every beach in the world.

You can analyze any of our serious problems and I believe you’ll come back to the same root cause – too many people. We need to reduce our numbers to some value where everyone has a decent quality of life and there’s room for all the other wonders of nature.

There are a lot of advantages to reducing our population. Fewer people require less energy, less food, produce less waste. As the population drops, so will the demand for energy and thus the need to use fossil fuels. If we had one quarter our current population, everyone on the planet could live a middle-class lifestyle — at least in theory. (That is assuming we manage to distribute the freed up resources equitably.) Fewer people would mean a lot less pressure on the ocean ecosystems so the fish we so love to consume could recover.

I’m not suggesting we kill anyone. People already come with an expiration date. We all die. The problem is on the input side. We are having too many babies. Currently, the population goes up by about 1.07% per year. What we need is to have a negative growth rate. Someone smarter than me will have to figure out what that should be, but let’s assume -2% as a goal. Within a few decades, we would see a substantial decline in population and, if we proceeded wisely, there would be a bigger share of the pie for everyone.

Of course, this is where things get politically sticky, because as soon as you mention family planning, the religious fundamentalists start calling you a baby killer. So let’s be clear. I’m not proposing mandated abortions. There are lots of ways to reduce the birthrate that are completely voluntary. I don’t think we’re at the point where we need draconian laws mandating one child per family. I’m also not convinced they’d work.

As it turns out, there is a really great way to reduce the birthrate and it’s also the right thing to do regardless: educating girls and women.

The birth-rate in developed nations just about matches the death-rate. In some countries, it is already slightly negative. That’s because women in those countries have choices. They can be doctors, engineers, scientists, lawyers, politicians, professional wrestlers — whatever they wish. But in too many countries, women and girls are denied education. They are taught that their only purpose is to have babies and serve their men. While some women may be content with that role, I believe many would welcome the opportunity to give more to their community by being educated and pursuing professions that are currently restricted to men.

Climate Change needs to be attacked on many fronts. I believe reducing the population is the most important, because it is the only strategy that addresses most of our most important problems.

I won’t pretend this will be easy. Most our economic planning seems to take for granted that the number of consumers will grow. Restricting population growth will affect most industries, but some will be hit much harder than others. But here, again, education is the answer. We need to ensure that our children are as well-prepared as possible for the future, and we need to provide a path to new opportunities for those displaced by our economic decisions.

No plan to deal with Climate Change will work unless we pull together. The U.S. is already 30 years late in addressing this issue seriously, because we’ve allowed wealthy energy magnates to amass political power and we’ve equated money with free-speech. The first presidential candidate who might have dealt realistically with Climate Change, Al Gore, was not allowed to assume office, despite winning the election.

We should be treating education like we do Defense and we should be screaming about attempts to disenfranchise any group of voters. We need everyone involved in making decisions and we need to sharpen our brains as they are our best defense against the unexpected.

What if we do nothing?

There seems to be a prevailing idea that it’s already too late and we can’t do anything about what’s coming. That’s silly, of course. Humanity can accomplish incredible things when we work together.

But what if we don’t? How bad will it be?

Well, if we do nothing, the amount of carbon we contribute to the atmosphere will continue to rise past the already 29 billion tons we are already contributing every year. (About 40% is absorbed by the ocean, plants, and other carbon sinks.) The additional CO2 will make the rain more acidic. That will make all the seas and lakes more acidic and life that is sensitive to the pH balance will die out, like the corals are all over the world. The acid rain will erode our bridges, buildings and roadways. It will erode limestone deposits that underlay many communities, causing sinkholes.

As discussed before, the additional CO2 will continue to speed the changes in the climate. Temperatures will continue to rise, feeding energy into storms, causing shifts in high level atmospheric currents, and bringing more extreme weather all over the planet. Climate Change will not be gentle, it will be the raging of Nature against a grievous and unforgivable insult.

Sea levels will rise as water warms and expands and as glaciers all over the world melt. Just the ice melting on Greenland and Antarctica will be enough to raise the seas 30 feet or more. The next century will see coastal cities in a constant battle against rising waters and storm surge.

It will be chaotic. Weather and Climate are chaotic processes. Sometimes a very small change in a variable can produce an enormous effect. We will have terrible years and we’ll have years where it appears everything seems to be going back to normal. But, as time goes on, we’ll have more of the bad and less of the good.

Scientists are, by nature, conservative when it comes to making claims. (Well, most of them. There are exceptions.) While fame and funding to to scientists who make new discoveries, there is ridicule and ignominy for those who speak too soon and are proven wrong. Climate science has become politicized, so I suspect at least some climate scientists are being very careful, and perhaps too conservative, in their predictions. For instance, when sea level was first discussed, scientists were only talking about the sea level rise we would see based on the expansion of seawater as it got warmer. They didn’t have a good model for predicting rise from glaciers melting, so they left it out.

What has been happening with the Syrian refugees shows us just how hard it is to deal with millions of people fleeing for their lives. Imagine what it will be like when the 90% of the Earth’s population that lives in areas threatened by rising seas has to locate. It will make the Middle East look like Disney World.

What Can You Do?

Talk about population and its relationship to Climate Change with your representatives. Talk to your friends. Help get this to be part of the conversation we have about the problem.

Links:

http://oto2.wustl.edu/bbears/trajcom/popco2.htm

https://www.skepticalscience.com/human-co2-smaller-than-natural-emissions.htm

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How Dare You Endorse Trump!

For those of you who are cynically endorsing Donald Trump because you believe doing so will benefit you, somehow — What the hell are you thinking?

Donald Trump campaigns, if you can call it that, by blustering about how he, and he alone, has all the answers. Of course, he can’t actually tell us what those answers are, for fear they’ll be stolen by the other candidates. Yeah, right.

Trump encourages violence at his rallies, at one point claiming that the problem with the country is we’re too afraid of hurting each other. What? He says we need more violence. He encourages people to punch anyone who they think might be about to throw a tomato. He’s even offering to pay legal fees for one of his supporters who punched a protester.

The fact is, Trump doesn’t care about America. He cares only about himself and will do and say anything, if it will give him one more second in the spotlight. If someone gets hurt — resulting in more news coverage — well that’s terrific.

Trump is fun to watch, but if you are upset about dishonest politicians, how can you support a reality TV star who is so insecure that he has to reassure everyone in America that his penis is of adequate size? Someone who constantly rewrites his own history? Someone who cowers behind his Secret Service detail? Who can’t face a debate moderator who asks tough questions?

The fact is, there is no predicting exactly what Trump will do if he gets into office. He has offered us no concrete plan for the future other than a fantasy of Mexico paying to build a wall, changing libel laws so he can sue anyone who criticizes him, and a rather vapid promise to “Make America Great Again.”

This election, like all elections, is important. The stakes are higher than ever, since for eight years, Congress has done it’s best to keep Obama from doing anything to fix the mess Bush left us or to deal realistically with the looming crisis of climate change. Can we really afford to have a president who is more concerned with enhancing his image than in dealing with the problems that we face?

The world is a complicated place. Simple buffoonery bluster and bull shit isn’t going to make us great, it’s likely to lead to exactly the same kind of problems we had in 2008, or worse.

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Fixing the World

There is a single causal thread that runs through all the serious problems we face today: there are too many people.

We have outstripped the ability of our planet to support us.

We need to stop having so many babies. Surprisingly, perhaps, the single most effective contraceptive is education. Simply educating girls and women will reduce the overall birth rate, especially in places where such education has been denied.

We don’t have all that far too go. Current estimates put our growth rate at about 1.13%. If we can reduce that rate to -1 or -2% per year, we’ll see significant declines in just a couple decades. Each fewer world citizen means that much less energy expenditure, that much less likelihood of famine, a little less fossil fuel burned.

Reducing or birthrate won’t be easy, but I believe it’s possible. It won’t solve all our problems, but it might give us the time we need to come up with better approaches.

I don’t know how many people should live on our planet, but it’s pretty obvious that between us, or crops, and our food animals, we’re not leaving room for anything else and our ecology is starting to collapse. The ecological apocalypse isn’t something that’s coming, it’s here. Species are dying off at a rate not seen since that big meteor that killed the dinosaurs.

We have other problems, too. We need to work on eliminating corruption, finding better energy sources, and human rights in general, but we can get to work on population right now. We don’t have to turn it into another intractable problem. If we do, and cannot act, we will perish.

Why haven’t we been talking about this issue? Because of the anti-abortion lobby which rabidly attacks any attempt to discuss family planning. They seem to equate any discussion about birth control with abortion. So, I’m begging them, please stop. You can oppose abortion all you want, but don’t try to stop the important conversation the whole world needs to have about this issue. We have to reduce our population and that means we have to talk about birth control and teach it all over the world.

If you feel as I do, that this is something critical to the survival of humanity and the world we live in, please make some noise. Force our politicians to talk about this issue.

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Climate Change: Another Example of How Mainstream Media Gets It Wrong

Recently, a study of water levels along the Northeast coast of the United States revealed that there has been a dramatic rise of 3-5″ in 2009 to 2010. This sea level rise has already caused some localized flooding even without higher than normal tides or storms.

But that isn’t the big story. The big story is the reason why the water is rising in the Northeast. That’s because the Gulf Stream has slowed down by a remarkable 30%.

Why should you care about how fast the Gulf Stream, also called the Great Ocean Conveyor, is running? Because it affects weather throughout the entire planet.

The GOC moves warm water up into the polar regions warming the air around it along the way and gradually losing heat. Up in the arctic regions, the water becomes cool enough, and thus dense enough, to sink. Far below the surface, the GOC runs the other direction carrying cold water back toward the equator, where it will rise, pick up heat and wend its way back north again. The GOC is a heat engine, it helps distribute heat from one part of the globe to the other, as heat energy tries to find equilibrium.

When the GOC slows down, the heat has to find another way to move around. The next logical candidate is air, but since air isn’t nearly as good at carrying heat as water is, a lot more air has to move in order to distribute a given quantity of heat energy. That means heated masses of air moving around, which is what creates storms.

But why is the GOC slowing down in the first place? That’s another thing the media keeps leaving out.

The GOC is slowing down because the melting of the glaciers in Greenland and the rest of the world, is adding a huge quantity of fresh water to the sea. Fresh water isn’t as dense as sea water. That means it takes longer for the water in the arctic to sink, slowing the flow of the GOC.

See: http://www.grida.no/climate/vital/32.htm for more information on the Great Ocean Conveyor.

Why are the glaciers melting?

Because the overall temperature of the atmosphere is rising. While not all glaciers are melting – because they are heavily influenced by local conditions – most are. Not only are they melting, but they are melting really fast, far faster than anyone would have predicted 30 years ago. But most scientists agree that the primary cause for the melting is the increase in atmospheric temperatures.

Why are atmospheric temperatures increasing?

The temperatures are rising Because every year we add nearly ten billion metric tons of Carbon to the atmosphere, primarily in the form of Carbon Dioxide, or CO2. Carbon Dioxide is what we call a greenhouse gas. It is transparent to sunlight, but it soaks up infrared light, meaning it traps heat, just like a greenhouse does.

It seems like the world is so big and the atmosphere so vast that it would be impossible for us to affect it, but 10 billion tons of carbon every year adds up. Back before the Industrial Revolution, say about 1750, CO2 concentrations were about 280 parts per million, or ppm. Recently, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere passed 400 ppm.

Check out this page for more info: http://www.grida.no/climate/vital/32.htm

Now it may seem hard to believe that a change of 220 ppm can really be that big a deal, so lets look at it another way. It took about 300 million years to create the vast amounts of oil and coal that we have nearly used up in only the last 100 years.

Here’s another way to look at it: the lethal concentration of botulinum toxin in your body is estimated to be about 5 parts per trillion. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much of a bad thing to wreak havoc.

But, you say, Carbon Dioxide is plant food!

It’s true that plants use sunlight to convert CO2 into starches and sugars that are used for energy. So it’s natural to suppose that by adding CO2 to the atmosphere, we’re simply giving plants a free buffet.

But there’s a problem with that argument, too. First of all, the most efficient converters of CO2 to plant mass are trees, and we’ve been cutting down trees and an incredible rate. The entire Brazilian rainforest is in peril. So while we’ve been increasing the supply of CO2, we’ve been destroying the very organisms that would help sequester it.

Another problem is that plants don’t use up the CO2 permanently. When they are eaten, decay, or burn, they release the CO2 back into the atmosphere. The natural way to sequester CO2 is to turn it into Coal and Oil.

This is a real problem. It’s one that we’re likely to be affected by, one that is probably already affecting us. This winter has likely been exacerbated by climate change.

The good news is that since this is a human-made problem, there are things we can do to fix it. We just have to stop arguing about whether it’s happening or not, and get to work on solutions. That won’t be easy, because there are lots of people with vested interests in keeping things just the way they are, and most of them are old enough that they won’t have to deal with the mess they are creating.

So, do your part. Turn off the unused light. Turn down the thermostat. Drive less. Get a fuel efficient car. Use LED lights instead of incandescent. But above all, elect brave men and women who are willing to face our problems and deal with them.

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Writer’s Infusion and the Walpole Writers Group

This last Fall, a friend of mine, Sue Zall, talked me into joining a project she’s been putting together. It’s called Writer’s Infusion. She got the idea after joining the writers group I attend, Walpole Writers Group, or WWG.

Sue hadn’t been part of a writers group before and but she knew it would be a great help to her writing. She found us through a librarian who told her about our meetings at the local Barnes and Noble.

The WWG is unusual in its longevity. Most writers groups don’t last more than a year or so. Personality conflicts develop, or people decide they don’t have enough time. There are lots of reasons. I suspect it’s because a lot of writers groups seem to ask a great deal of their members. Many ask the members to read and comment on 50-100 pages of material a week.

At Walpole Writers Group, we keep it simple. We meet at the local Barnes and Noble every Tuesday evening and each of us brings something we’re working on. We limit the work to 4-7 pages, double-spaced, with one-inch margins. (So we’ll have space to write notes.) The writer is expected to bring enough copies for everyone. Then, we go around the table, letting each person read what they’ve brought.

While the reader is reading, the rest of us are marking up our copies, correcting grammar, fixing spelling, or making notes where we think something is unclear. Afterwards, we have a short discussion in which we tell the author what we think of the writing. (It’s important that the discussion stays focused on just the writing. Comments about other subjects are not allowed.)

For whatever reason, the WWG has been around for at least a dozen years. We’re not sure exactly how long it’s been, since we no longer have an original member in the group.

Sue decided she’d like to bring the benefits of our writing group to the Internet, so she built the web site, www.writersinfusion.com, and then recruited some of us from the WWG to be critiquers. (All the critiquers have been writing for ten years or more and most have been in the WWG that long.)

Here’s how it works: If you want to submit some writing, you go to the submission page on the site and fill out the form. If we select your work, and you’re local, we’ll invite you to come on the show. Before we tape, the critiquers will read the submission and make notes. (This makes the critiquing part go a lot faster.) If you, as a writer, comes to the show, we’ll allow you to read your work. If you’d prefer, we have someone read it for you. During the critique, you’ll have the opportunity to ask questions of the critiquers. We videotape the whole thing and post it on YouTube. Each episode is about 15 minutes long.

None of what we’re doing ever costs the writer a penny.

In the future, we hope to get some established writers to sit in, help critique, and maybe talk about how they edit their own work.

The Writer’s Infusion site launched shortly after the new year, and so far we haven’t made complete fools out of ourselves. This last Saturday, we shot several more episodes which will be posted soon.

So, if you’re a writer, or you know a writer, please pass on the word about Writer’s Infusion.

A lot of people help make Writer’s Infusion possible, including the Walpole Writers Group, the Walpole Public Library and Walpole Community Television.

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