Watching the Hurricane’s Path

8 09 2017

I can really relate to this latest article by Richard Heinberg….  I still get people saying to me “you’ve been saying this for twenty years, and look, nothing’s happened…” Yet, every day, we are one day closer to the inevitable outcome, just like watching the hurricane coming from your favourite armchair…

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heinbergIt’s an eerie experience. You’ve just heard that another hurricane has formed in the Atlantic, and that it’s headed toward land. You search for NOAA’s National Hurricane Center website so you can see the forecast path for the storm. You’re horrified at the implications, and you bookmark the site. You check in every few hours to see forecast updates. You know in general terms what’s coming—devastation for the lives of thousands, maybe millions of people. Then a few days later you begin to see the sad, shocking photos and videos of destruction.

Thanks to modern science and technology—satellites and computers—we have days of warning before a hurricane hits. That’s extremely helpful: while people can’t move their houses and all their possessions, they can board up windows, stock up on food and water, and perhaps get out of town. Huge storms are far less deadly than they would be if we didn’t have modern weather forecasting.

Science and technology have also enabled us to forecast “storms” of another kind. Using computers and data about population, energy, pollution, natural resources, and economic trends, it’s possible to generate scenarios for the future of industrial civilization. The first group of researchers to do this  in 1972, found that the “base case,” or most likely scenario, showed essentially the collapse of society: in the early-to-middle decades of the 21st century, industrial production would peak and begin to decline sharply; so would food production and (with a lag of a few years) population. For decades scientists have been updating the software and plugging in new and better data, but ever-more-powerful computers keep spitting out the same base-case scenario.

One of the factors the 1972 researchers thought would be of increasing significance was climate change. Now, 45 years later, many thousands of scientists around the world are feeding their supercomputers data on carbon emissions, carbon cycles, carbon sinks, climate sensitivity, climate feedbacks, and more. They likewise see a “hurricane” on the way: we are altering the chemistry of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans so significantly, and so quickly, that dire consequences are almost certain, if not already here. Later this century we’ll see storms, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires like none on record. Agriculture will likely be impacted severely.

Ever since I read the 1972 report on Limits to Growth, I’ve had that same eerie feeling as when looking at the charts on the NOAA website. Only the feeling is deeper, more pervasive, and (of course) long-lasting. A storm is coming. We should batten down the hatches.

But, 45 years down the line, the storm is no longer far away. In fact, the photos and videos of destruction are starting to come in. No nations have bothered to make sensible efforts to minimize the storm’s impact by reducing fossil fuel consumption, stabilizing population at 1970s levels, or reconfiguring their economy so it doesn’t require continuous growth in resource and energy usage. Why didn’t we do those sensible things, even though we had plenty of warning?

Our failure to respond has a lot to do with the long time lag. We humans are much better at dealing with immediate threats than ones years ahead. In effect, we have an internal discount rate that we apply to possible disasters, depending on their temporal proximity.

Given a long-term threat, some of us are more likely to develop complicated rationales for doing nothing. After all, averting a really big disaster may require substantial inconvenience. Getting out of the way of a hurricane might mean packing up your most treasured belongings, driving a couple of hundred miles, and trying to find a motel that’s not already overbooked (that is, if you are among the fortunate with the resources to do so).  Minimizing the threat of global overshoot might mean changing our entire economic system—from how we grow food to how we get to work and what kind of work we do. Escaping the hurricane engages our survival instincts; we don’t have time to doubt the weatherman. But given a few decades to think about it, we might come up with lots of (ultimately wrongheaded but carefully reasoned nonetheless) reasons why our current economic system is really just fine, and why global overshoot really isn’t a threat.

Those of us who aren’t so good at coming up with such rationalizations are stuck with the eerie feeling that something very bad is about to happen—maybe in Florida this weekend, maybe everywhere before long. Here’s my recommendation, based on a few decades of watching all kinds of storm charts: please pay attention to the weatherman. Stop finding reasons why you really don’t have to change or prepare. Make your way to higher ground. And be sure to help your neighbors.

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Is eating no meat actually doing more harm than good?

18 05 2017

I spend more time on the internet arguing wih vegetarians/vegans than any other group of people……  I so wish they would get off their high horses and start supporting farmers who do the right thing…. and that goes for all you meat eaters out there who buy meat from supermarkets….  STOP IT!!

This opinion piece was originally published by Farmdrop on 4th May 2017.


The younger generation are positively redefining the way we see ourselves in relation to food and the environment.

I grew up in the late 1960s and so I consider myself a bit of a hippy. That decade marked a fundamental mind-set shift in the way people saw themselves in relation to the world. At the time, it was difficult to pinpoint where these ideas came from; many of them simply seemed to come through intuition.

I mention this because, for the first time since the late 1960s, I feel like another shift in consciousness is occurring among the younger generation, particularly amongst so called ‘millennials’.

There is a new field of scientific study called epigenetics which shows that all living organisms constantly interact with their external environment and that these influences can prompt changes in gene expression which can be passed down through the generations. Plants, for example, have epigenetic responses to the environment they grow in, as a result of which a plant may have a subtle difference in its genotype from its parents. Even more interestingly, certain epigenetic traits can stay dormant for several generations, only to find full expression at a later time.

So I suspect that the changing shift in consciousness towards food production and sustainability may actually be partly epigenetic. Perhaps the radical energy of the 1960s is now finding expression among millennials, albeit in a slightly different way.

For these reasons, as an organic farmer of almost 45 years, I have never been more optimistic about the future of farming. However, I am growing increasingly concerned about the large number of people turning to diets that may not necessarily be either healthy or sustainable.

If we are to move to a genuinely sustainable food system, then I think we all need to become much better informed about the sustainability or otherwise of different food systems. Only then we will be better placed to challenge the huge amounts of misinformation on so-called sustainable diets which are encouraging people to avoid all meats and animal products, despite the reality that in many (if not most climates and regions) it is difficult to farm in a truly sustainable way without livestock.

What is the problem with food and farming?

It has become a cliché but it’s true: supermarket food is not cheap and comes at a heavy price. The industrial application of nitrogen fertiliser has contaminated our water systems and atmosphere with dangerous nitrates; the subsidised production of fructose corn syrup has driven an increase in obesity and diabetes; and the excessive use of antibiotics in animals has caused a resistance to these drugs amongst humans.

The real problem is that none of the costs of all this damage is charged to the people who use it and, on the other hand, the positive effects of sustainable farming are not supported.

The current policy framework supports a dishonest economic food pricing system, as a result of which, the best business case is for farmers to grow using industrial methods and for retailers to buy the commodity products from industrial farms, process the hell out of them, package them so the consumer knows nothing about their backstory and then make a profit by turning that around.

So we need new incentives and disincentives, which ensure that the polluter pays and those who farm in a truly sustainable way are better rewarded for the benefits they deliver.

But what are the most sustainable farming methods?

There is no doubt that agriculture and farming is one of the most significant contributor towards climate change. Cutting back on the biggest pollutant (man-made fossil fuels) is very important but to actually reverse climate change – take CO2 out of the atmosphere – then we need to change the way we farm, particularly in relation to the way we look after the soil.

This is because organic matter in the soil is a store of carbon, thereby mitigating harmful emissions in the atmosphere. Britain’s soils store around 10 billion tonnes of carbon, which is more than total annual global emissions of carbon dioxide. Moreover, high levels of organic matter are also the basis for soil fertility, releasing nutrients for healthy plant growth and ultimately food. In other words, the amount of organic matter present in the soil is essential, both for combating climate change and ultimately improving our health.

The problem is that industrial farming methods have depleted organic matter in the soils. In the East of England, around 84% of the land’s carbon rich soil has been lost and continues to disappear at a rate of 1 to 2cm per year. That represents an enormous amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Sustainable food systems are therefore about much more than simply avoiding nasty chemicals and antibiotics, they are about building organic matter in the soil through crop rotation and mixed farming practices.

It is possible for farmers to reduce the emissions from agriculture by re-introducing rotations in the way they use their land – introducing a grass and clover phase that builds soil organic matter, which is then grazed by ruminant animals on rotation, who fertilise the soil further, and results in an ability to grow healthy crops.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change, it is estimated that 89% of all agricultural emissions can be mitigated by improving carbon levels in the soil.

How can you have the most healthy and sustainable diet?

Everyone, at least in principle, wants to eat a healthy and sustainable diet, but we are all very confused about how to do it. If you asked 10 people what the most sustainable and healthy way to eat was then you would probably get 10 different answers. A few might say vegetarian or vegan (the numbers eating a vegan diet has increased by 360% in the last decade) but I think that a large scale switch towards vegetarianism may not necessarily be compatible with sustainability.

In my opinion, many people have been led astray by bad science. The tools used by scientific researchers in the past, and whose published papers have prompted changes in people’s diets, were not based on sound science. It was said that red meat and animal fats should be avoided, both because they are unhealthy and because ruminant animals (cows and sheep) are largely responsible for harmful methane emissions.

But it turns out that neither of those positions are necessarily true.

The study that prompted Governments in Britain and the United States to recommend people to reduce their intake of fats was not based on solid evidence. It is this study that encouraged the food industry to replace fats with added sugars, and we are only now understanding the damage these do to our health.

And the studies that recommended a reduction in red meat consumption on grounds of reducing its environmental impact only look at certain factors in isolation rather than the whole food system. Land-use is often considered as bad in all instances, even though raising livestock is sometimes the only productive land use option available. In roughly two thirds of the UK’s agricultural land area is grass and the only way we can turn that into a good soil that stores carbon and grows healthy crops is to have ruminant animals grazing on a rotation system to fertilise the ground.

These flawed assumptions have had significant consequences for the way people eat. Beef production has halved since the 1980s and the consumption of lamb, arguably the most sustainable grass-fed meat for the land, has plummeted. While new evidence is now showing that animals fats are good for our health and cattle grazed in the right way can actually reduce carbon emissions by creating fertile soils.

Where do we go from here?

My message is simple: a healthy diet should work backwards from the most sustainable way to farm, and that ideally means eating the foods produced by mixed farms using crop rotations which include a fertility building phase, usually of grass and clover grazed by cows and sheep, but also pastured pigs and poultry.

Industrial farming has been an extractive industry. We have dined out on the natural capital of the soil that previous generations have laid down for us. We need to fix that because the environment in which a plant or animal is produced goes a long way to determine its nutrient value when consumed by humans.





IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD — HOW DO YOU FEEL?

12 06 2016

Terry Root often goes to sleep at night wondering how she’ll be able to get up the next morning and do it all over again. Then the sun comes up and she forces herself out of bed. She might go for a run to release the pent-up anxiety. Sometimes she cries. Or she’ll commiserate with colleagues, sharing in and validating each other’s angst. What keeps Terry up at night aren’t the usual ailments; it’s not a tyrant boss or broken heart.

The diagnosis: global warming.

A senior fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, Root has spent the past two decades unraveling the thread between climate change and the eventual mass extinctions of countless species of plants, animals — and, yes, humans. “That’s a tough, tough thing to cope with,” Root says in a weary, jagged voice. There’s more. When the gray-haired bird watcher shares her End of Days findings, she’s often met with personal attacks; naysayers hurl their disagreement and disdain, complete with name-calling and threats from politicians. But the absolute worst part of her job? We’re not listening. “It’s harder than hell to carry that,” says Root.

 

Armageddon aside for a moment, that an acclaimed scientist will say h-e-l-l to a reporter and use words like cope is a sign of changing times. Not only are we living on a warming planet but a progressively emotive one. It started with parents coddling their kids (no more advice to “just suck it up”), then it was emojis (punctuation isn’t enough) and now it’s climatologists tweeting “we’re f’d” and field researchers speaking up about climate depression — or even pretraumatic stress disorder.

There is a paradigm shift taking place in the field of science with the recognition that even the most stoic minds of the world need a way to process their doomsday findings. All of this is fueling a debate that’s raged since before Galileo and until recently landed on one central question: What place does human emotion have in scientific reasoning? But in 2015, there’s another layer that’s been schlepped into the controversial heap: What do you do when your job is to document the end of the world?

But what if the entire goddamned profession gets wiped out in a hurricane? Then what? There’s a growing sense of urgency as worsening environmental catastrophes play out before us. In the midst of what many in the science community — by “many,” we mean upward of 95 percent — are calling a planetary crisis, more researchers are finding that they can’t simply present their data in a vacuum, then go home at the end of the day and crack open a beer. “Scientists are going from these totally objective outsiders into being much more subjective and a part of the community,” says Faith Kearns, an outreach coordinator for the California Institute for Water Resources, which tries to solve drought-related challenges.

Indeed, the façade of total objectivity has deteriorated in recent years alongside intensifying environmental cataclysms. In 2012, Camille Parmesan, who shared a Nobel Prize with Al Gore in 2007 for her climate work, publicly announced her professional depression and frustration with the current political stalemate. Shortly after The Atlantic named Parmesan one of its 27 “Brave Thinkers,” alongside Steve Jobs and Barack Obama, for her efforts to save species, she temporarily left her university job in Texas for a reprieve across the pond. Then last summer, climatologist Jason Box’s tweet — “If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d” — went viral, provoking a media frenzy. The public relentlessly chastised him for a) making a definitive statement instead of dealing in the usual probabilities and b) expressing emotion.

And now there’s the website Is This How You Feel?, which publishes handwritten letters from climate scientists expressing their frustrations, fears and hopes. One professor writes, “It’s probably the first time I have ever been asked to say what I feel rather than what I think.” Another scrawls, “I feel exasperation and despair. … I feel vulnerable that by writing this letter I will expose myself to trolling and vitriol.” Joe Duggan, the mohawked Aussie with a nose ring and master’s degree in the growing field of science communications who manages the site, says he’s been shocked at how many responses he’s gotten in the mail: “There is a movement of scientists looking for new ways to connect; they’re emoting in ways they never have before,” he says.

 

Elizabeth Allison turns off the lights. She instructs her students to stack one vertebra on top of the next until their spines are straight and long. Then to focus on the rhythm of their breath. In. And out. In. And out. Acknowledge any feelings or sensations that arise, then let them go. After 15 minutes she slowly guides them back into the present. Feet and hands begin to stir. Eyelids slowly make their way to full attention.

OK, that’s it. See you all next week — and don’t forget your homework assignment is due. After all, this is graduate-level course PAR 6079.

So much for that centuries-old hidden curriculum. From professors like Allison taking students through a guided meditation after a discussion on retreating rainforests to scientists signing up for workshops on compassion and communication to support groups for climatologists, human emotion has wedged itself into every step of the scientific method. Marilyn Cornelius, a Stanford-trained researcher, has found the best way to explore creative solutions for the planet’s woes is to meld behavioral science, biomimicry, meditation and design thinking. Now she works as a consultant, taking energy experts on wilderness retreats and teaching lab coats to connect with themselves and nature. “I made a decision to work on behavior change,” Cornelius says, “because it’s a positive way to work on the climate problem.”

This isn’t just about managing the feelings of scientists, though. Kearns, from the California Institute for Water Resources, acknowledges how painful it can be to watch academics try to relate to everyday folks and has made it her mission to make these interactions less cringe-inducing. The soft-spoken brunette first began thinking about this impasse after some years back she hosted a community workshop on emerging “stay or go” science that weighs whether home owners can — and should — protect their property from increasingly frequent and ferocious wildfires. Her audience was a small northern California community that had recently faced that very dilemma. Fear, anger and helplessness pulsed through the room. “I started to feel their anxiety,” Kearns says. “Our research has an effect on people’s lives. My scientific training hadn’t prepared me to cope with the emotions that come with that.”

But there is still the camp that believes feelings erode credibility and breed bias. It’s the naturalistic fallacy, and it’s the difference between the is and the ought. The philosophy is that facts can’t substantiate value judgments. Science is perhaps the last frontier of neutrality, especially in today’s polarized society. As Philip Handler, former president of the National Academy of Sciences, once said, scientists “best serve public policy by living within the ethics of science, not those of politics.”

 

The seismic sentimental shift among scientists parallels an outpouring of feeling — and narcissism — across American society. Once-detached psychotherapists are hugging their clients, journalists have come to love the personal essay (in fact, it seems like everyone has a story to tell these days), even man-eating corporations are experimenting with emotional leadership. Or think of the impassioned protests around Black Lives Matter, the outrage at sexual abuse and the pleas against social inequality. “There’s been more space in the public realm for bringing up and dealing with emotional stuff, and that has cracked the shell of otherwise very removed scientists,” says Allison, a professor at the California Institute for Integral Studies. Then again, maybe climatologists are more cunning than we give them credit for, and they’re simply taking a page out of their opponents’ playbook.

Indeed, emotions are a powerful tool for those who know how to use them. Which is why those leading the climate-change charge aren’t looking to labs anymore. Instead, eager students are following Cornelius’s path, pursuing studies in contemplative environmentalism or transformational ecology, which looks to shrinks, money and Facebook to protect the planet. With the future of everything at stake, what has traditionally separated science from sentiment is a lot less defined — and perhaps even irrelevant.

But emotions are less predictable than facts and figures. Root remembers giving a talk once at the University of Utah. Afterward a few students came up to ask questions; one young man had tears in his eyes. “Is it really this bad?” he pleaded. Root told him it’s worse. He went on to become an activist and was sent to prison for one of his illegal protests. Root has always felt responsible.

“I’d always thought that facts and the truth would win out; then I realized that wasn’t the case,” Root says.





More videos on ice melt and how doubt about the science is spread

16 02 2015

There is a movie coming out soon called Merchants of Doubt, after the book by the same name, that describes how a 25 year campaign of disinformation, largely by the fossil fuel industry, has successfully distorted the message and left much of the public in deep denial.  The methods used to cast doubt on climate change are the same methods used to cast doubt on cigarettes causing cancer.

The science is settled. There is no longer any debate. Climate change is real, and humans are causing it. They just want you to think there is still doubt.

 





Chris Hedges at The Earth at Risk Conference 2014

3 12 2014

Published on Nov 24, 2014

Interview with Chris Hedges at The Earth at Risk 2014 Conference and the moral imperative of resistance thru non-violent direct action and mass movements of sustained civil disobedience…





Successful launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite

3 07 2014

Below is the NASA press release from a a successful launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite. The scientific community has been waiting for this for a long time since the first version OCO-1 blew up on launch. This should provide a much better understanding of how carbon is cycling into and out of the atmosphere. For emissions, this is a non-trivial problem since this is like trying to spot who is pouring the most water into the oceans by way of comparison. The atmosphere is well mixed so CO2 isn’t very different anywhere and spotting new emissions (or uptake) is not easy.

Mark Cochrane

July 2, 2014 NASA Launches New Carbon-Sensing Mission to Monitor Earth’s Breathing

OCO2launchA United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket launches with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2)satellite onboard from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. on Wednesday, July 2, 2014.

NASA successfully launched its first spacecraft dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide at 2:56 a.m. PDT (5:56 a.m. EDT) Wednesday. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) raced skyward from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.

Approximately 56 minutes after the launch, the observatory separated from the rocket’s second stage into an initial 429-mile (690-kilometer) orbit. The spacecraft then performed a series of activation procedures, established communications with ground controllers and unfurled its twin sets of solar arrays. Initial telemetry shows the spacecraft is in excellent condition. OCO-2 soon will begin a minimum two-year mission to locate Earth’s sources of and storage places for atmospheric carbon dioxide, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas responsible for warming our world and a critical component of the planet’s carbon cycle.

“Climate change is the challenge of our generation,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “With OCO-2 and our existing fleet of satellites, NASA is uniquely qualified to take on the challenge of documenting and understanding these changes, predicting the ramifications, and sharing information about these changes for the benefit of society.” OCO-2 will take NASA’s studies of carbon dioxide and the global carbon cycle to new heights. The mission will produce the most detailed picture to date of natural sources of carbon dioxide, as well as their “sinks” — places on Earth’s surface where carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere.

The observatory will study how these sources and sinks are distributed around the globe and how they change over time. “This challenging mission is both timely and important,” said Michael Freilich, director of the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “OCO-2 will produce exquisitely precise measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations near Earth’s surface, laying the foundation for informed policy decisions on how to adapt to and reduce future climate change.”

Carbon dioxide sinks are at the heart of a longstanding scientific puzzle that has made it difficult for scientists to accurately predict how carbon dioxide levels will change in the future and how those changing concentrations will affect Earth’s climate. “Scientists currently don’t know exactly where and how Earth’s oceans and plants have absorbed more than half the carbon dioxide that human activities have emitted into our atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial era,” said David Crisp, OCO-2 science team leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “Because of this we cannot predict precisely how these processes will operate in the future as climate changes.

For society to better manage carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, we need to be able to measure the natural source and sink processes.” Precise measurements of the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide are needed because background levels vary by less than two percent on regional to continental scales. Typical changes can be as small as one-third of one percent. OCO-2 measurements are designed to measure these small changes clearly.

OCO2During the next 10 days, the spacecraft will go through a checkout process and then begin three weeks of maneuvres that will place it in its final 438-mile (705-kilometre), near-polar operational orbit at the head of the international Afternoon Constellation, or “A-Train,” of Earth-observing satellites. The A-Train, the first multi-satellite, formation flying “super observatory” to record the health of Earth’s atmosphere and surface environment, collects an unprecedented quantity of nearly simultaneous climate and weather measurements.

OCO-2 science operations will begin about 45 days after launch. Scientists expect to begin archiving calibrated mission data in about six months and plan to release their first initial estimates of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in early 2015. The observatory will uniformly sample the atmosphere above Earth’s land and waters, collecting more than 100,000 precise individual measurements of carbon dioxide over Earth’s entire sunlit hemisphere every day. Scientists will use these data in computer models to generate maps of carbon dioxide emission and uptake at Earth’s surface on scales comparable in size to the state of Colorado. These regional-scale maps will provide new tools for locating and identifying carbon dioxide sources and sinks.

OCO-2 also will measure a phenomenon called solar-induced fluorescence, an indicator of plant growth and health. As plants photosynthesize and take up carbon dioxide, they fluoresce and give off a tiny amount of light that is invisible to the naked eye. Because more photosynthesis translates into more fluorescence, fluorescence data from OCO-2 will help shed new light on the uptake of carbon dioxide by plants.

OCO-2 is a NASA Earth System Science Pathfinder Program mission managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Orbital Sciences Corporation in Dulles, Virginia, built the spacecraft bus and provides mission operations under JPL’s leadership. The science instrument was built by JPL, based on the instrument design co-developed for the original OCO mission by Hamilton Sundstrand in Pomona, California. NASA’s Launch Services Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is responsible for launch management. Communications during all phases of the mission are provided by NASA’s Near Earth Network, with contingency support from the Space Network. Both are divisions of the Space Communications and Navigation program at NASA Headquarters. JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

For more information about OCO-2, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/oco2 OCO-2 is the second of five NASA Earth science missions scheduled to launch into space this year, the most new Earth-observing mission launches in one year in more than a decade. NASA monitors Earth’s vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing.

The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet. For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities in 2014, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/earthrightnow Follow OCO-2 on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/IamOCO2 -end- Steve Cole Headquarters, Washington 202-358-0918 stephen.e.cole@nasa.gov

Alan Buis Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 818-354-0474 alan.buis@jpl.nasa.gov





What I have learned, What we should be thankful for, What remains to be done, part 2

29 10 2013

This is the second instalment of a three part essay by Dr Geoffrey Chia whose other essay If we can’t save Society, we must save ourselves I posted here last year…..
PART 2: WHAT WE SHOULD BE THANKFUL FOR
Each individual who reads this will have different aspects of their life they treasure. You should write down your own personal list. I will not discuss the obvious topic of love (or “lurve”) which has been endlessly covered by countless novels, songs and poems much better than I ever could. Suffice to say that those who have found one or more soulmate confidantes in life and have a strong supportive social network can consider themselves extremely lucky. You are a wealthy person indeed. On the other hand, if your social network is tightly bound to a rigid delusional mindset which prevents reflection and adaptation, and if you are unable to escape their grip, you could be in trouble.

I cannot speculate on everyone’s individual circumstances but will focus on those things I believe the potential readers of this piece will probably have in common, aspects of our lives today for which we should all be thankful.
We have been the beneficiaries of a relatively long continuous period of peace and prosperity since World War II from our (Western Industrial) perspective. We should be thankful for this. However we do not comprise the majority of the world’s population, ours is a minority perspective. Most of our (Western Industrial) wealth has been obtained by plunder (from native indigenous people or from other countries), particularly oil.  We need to put our good “fortune” in perspective. Much of Africa has remained a basketcase, especially those locations with the oil we covet such as Nigeria and Angola. Libya has now transitioned from a Gaddafi dictatorship to a foreign corporate dictatorship and remains unstable. Let’s not even mention Iraq. The victims of Imperialistic legacies in Vietnam, Afghanistan and many former colonies such as Rwanda will beg to differ they have enjoyed much peace since 1945. Latin American politics and policy have been severely corrupted to their detriment by the US in order to serve US corporate interests (read John Perkins “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”).

Other countries have experienced internal strife. Stalin and Mao killed millions of their own people after WW II and life had been miserable for many in those countries till fairly recently. The Indian subcontinent has experienced civil war (Sri Lanka), cross border conflicts and has been rife with poverty and power struggles which are ongoing even now – with the Naxalites who are fighting against corporate exploitation – which could erupt into civil war.

The situation in developed countries such as ours at present is that of low infant and low maternal mortality, low incidence of infectious diseases and the longest average healthy lifespans ever – more than 80 years in Japan and Australia. Compare that with the average lifespan of 28 years during the Roman empire (a statistic which included their high infant mortality). These advances were largely due to public health measures such as clean water, sanitation, vaccination and good nutrition. We have also seen marked reductions in cardiovascular mortality and remarkable advances in cancer therapy. All made possible by the discoveries of science.

Ordinary Australians enjoy a material quality of life far superior to even the kings and emperors of old, thanks to our fossil fuel powered slaves – technology once again derived from scientific discovery. For example, Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Caliph, loved sherbet desserts and commissioned regular deliveries of snow from Mount Olympus, carried by donkey and boat to his palace – which would have mostly melted by the time it reached him. Nowadays we think nothing of grabbing an icecream from our home freezer, purchased from among the dizzying
array of consumer items in the supermarket.

Ancient Kings were just as susceptible to death from pneumonia or appendicitis as their lowliest subjects. However ordinary people these days have access to lifesaving antibiotics and emergency surgery. And Suleiman could never have imagined flying in comfort at jet speed between cities. Then there are computers, smart phones and the Internet which when used wisely can be a tremendous boon, but are also creating a generation of timewasting fantasist thinkers who cannot tell the difference between cyberspace and reality. We need to reflect on these remarkable privileges and thank our simple dumb luck that we were born in these modern times in our particular location, into a tremendously fortunate situation never before enjoyed by previous generations.

Unfortunately it is the very science and technology delivering the benefits above, which have now led us to climate chaos, ecosystem destruction and our likely extinction. Are science and technology the culprits then? Was the only other alternative a repudiation of scientific advances and to remain with lives that were nasty, brutish and short? Is this a Faustian pact we have entered into, that we could briefly sample all these enticing luxuries, however the price to pay would be the collapse of global civilisation and human extinction?

As a matter of fact, science is neutral. Science is utterly indifferent, it just tells us how the Universe works. It is we who determine whether we use such knowledge for good or ill. Unfortunately most of the decision making in society as to how we apply our scientific knowledge has been hijacked by the rapacious psychopaths and fools:

foolishness + impulsive greed + clever science and technology = self inflicted extinction wisdom + judicious restraint + clever science and technology = paradise on earth

It goes back to the principles of medical decision making. The wise practitioner looks at the various treatment options and chooses the one with the greatest benefits and least disadvantages, taking into account the short, medium and long term consequences to the patient. “Free market” decisions in our freakonomy however just thoughtlessly grab the quickest short term profits to benefit a privileged few, leaving the toxic legacy of harm to those in the exploited areas and to future generations. Externalities which the bean counters simply ignore in their balance sheets. A greedy and dishonest system, established by the greedy and dishonest to serve the greedy and
dishonest. The material benefits described above are obvious to all of you. However living a gormless unquestioning life for 80 or 100 years before dropping dead is, I would argue, a completely meaningless existence, a waste of space. You would be just one blob of pointless protoplasm among many other billions whose existence (or not) simply did not matter one way or another. You may as well be a cow being fattened for the kill before being led to the slaughterhouse. The unexamined life not being worth living and all that. Dmitry Orlov calls the teeming mindless debt slaves of our GIMME establishment “office plankton”.

In my view perhaps the greatest gift we have, being born into this modern era, is the gift of true awareness, of genuine enlightenment regarding the situation we find ourselves in. What a gift it is to be truly oriented in person, time and place for the first time ever in the vastly ignorant history of humankind. To know we are a semi evolved species of ape, descended from earlier mammals and ultimately from microorganisms. To know that all other creatures utilise the same DNA instructional codes, demonstrating our common evolutionary origin. To know we live on a planet 4.5 billion years old in a universe 13 billion years old which exploded into existence from a
singularity. To know that this planet is one of eight in our solar system and our sun is one of billions in our galaxy which is one of billions in the known universe (Queue in Monty Python’s Galaxy song here https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=vIy76M-4txo#t=43 ).

All these realities have been determined definitively beyond any shadow of a doubt by the scientific method. To have gained such profound insights into the nature of Nature is an achievement to be celebrated. We also know this: our mind, our consciousness, our personalities, our cognitive processes, our very sense of self are emergent properties which arise from the complex firing of neurons. When that neuronal activity eventually ceases, we as an entity will cease to be. We know that when we die we will merely return to the same situation as before we were born (nothingness) which is true for all animals, and yes, we are animals. This realisation is not nihilistic at all because it means we no longer have to fear Death! To be liberated from the fear of Death is no small thing. We know that Hell is just an imaginary threat made up by cult leaders to keep their simple minded flock in line for not following their edicts. We have been freed from the shackles of scary superstition by scientific discoveries and must be exceedingly thankful for that. Unfortunately the saddest fact is that so many idiots in the modern world (particularly America) choose to remain in willful ignorance despite our indisputably validated scientific
understandings, to the detriment of us all.

The questions of what we are, where we are and how we came to be could only be wildly guessed at by the Ancients, who fabricated all sorts of fanciful legends: harmless and entertaining if  taken as metaphor, but dangerous and deadly if taken literally and co-opted by power mad clerics to be used as brain viruses to instigate holy wars or suicide bombings. One of the most corrosive lies is this: that a cosmic Jewish zombie, who was his own father, was born by parthenogenesis 2000 years ago and was subsequently tortured to death so that humans could be forgiven the sin of the first woman, who ate a magical apple at the behest of a talking snake. The Father of this zombie, so we are told, has instructed us to go forth and multiply and exercise dominion over everything and smite our enemies.

Politicians cannot be elected to office in America without publicly proclaiming their deep adherence to such blithering insanity. And in Australia we have the mad Abbott (a former wannabe Catholic priest) and his lunatic sidekick Bishop dismantling the science ministry and railroading us all into hell. Global warming is NOT crap Mr Abbott, it is your brain that is full of crap. Unfortunately scientific enlightenment is also a double edged sword. Those of us who have a reasonable understanding of the science of our situation now realise how dire it is, as we peer into the abyss of despair. On the other hand, this very angst itself forces us to appreciate how precious our remaining life may be, on this, the eve of our destruction.

Next to reflect on are the artistic accomplishments of humanity. We have all experienced the joys of uplifting music, entrancing dance, exhilarating art and inspiring literature. Whereas it is true the Universe is a meaningless place, indifferent to humanity, it is also true that humans create their own meaning. I hereby declare the achievements of the creative geniuses of humanity to be substantial, worthwhile and meaningful and we should be tremendously thankful for having had the opportunity to enjoy them. With such gratitude also comes the sad mourning of their passing, of the demise of all human achievement.

Should we, as humans, regard such scientific and artistic legacies as worthy of preservation? I now put this to you: if there was a mere 0.1% or 0.001% chance that just a few sapient humans, along with a concentrated archive of our best achievements, could survive and muddle through the next 500 years until the climate stabilised, should we not take that chance? Not to try at all, to assume we will fail, will become its own self fulfilling prophecy. Hence my view is that we should try, even if the outlook seems hopeless. More about that in part 3.

Here is a sideways take on why we should be thankful for our new perspective of probable NTHE. A basic Buddhist tenet is this: suffering is caused by unfulfilled desires. Hence the way to avoid suffering is to abandon all desires. If you want nothing, you won’t be unhappy if you get nothing. Simple in theory but difficult in practice. Put another way, disappointment arises from unfulfilled expectations. Our expectations in the past were those of limitless future wealth, lives of unimaginable luxury facilitated by whizbang technology and ultimately travel to the stars and
colonisation of other planets. Having since learned the evidence-based reality of our situation, our new expectation is that of near term human extinction. NTHE is the rock bottom of low expectations, humans cannot have expectations any worse than that. Accordingly no matter what the future holds, we will not be disappointed. We can be thankful for this new Buddhist perspective. Being born into this particular time at the twilight of human existence we have the unprecedented opportunity to witness the most collosal events which will ever take place in the sad story of our species. That alone in a perverse sort of way is a unique privilege some might be thankful for. The problem is, if you have a front row seat to this carnival of carnage, you yourself will be rapidly caught up in the mayhem and perish quickly and thus will not be able to discover the next exciting installment of the unfolding saga. Morbid curiosity may be one motive for some of us to linger on for as long as possible. What bizarre, unusual and unexpected event will happen next?

Certainly all the front and middle row and most likely all the back row seats will be consumed by the conflagration in the grand finale. If however you can retreat to the highest rear seat of the arena and wear a flameproof suit and somehow survive events while watching it all through a pair of longrange binoculars, it will be the most fascinating spectacle ever observed in the history of our species. We certainly live in interesting times.
Geoffrey Chia, October 2013