Sunday, December 11, 2011

Durban: Disaster # 17

Durban:  Disaster # 17

George M. Woodwell and Richard A. Houghton[1]

          There are many ways to destroy nations and spread human misery in this world, already crowded and struggling with seven billion human occupants. One of the most effective is by simply moving the climate out from under all of them, in all latitudes and corners of a wide, wide world. Recognizing that possibility in the latter decades of the 20th century scientists managed to persuade governments to meet under auspices of the UN in Rio in 1992 and to sign, and ultimately universally to ratify, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC).  All the governments agreed to collaborate in “stabilizing” the atmospheric burden of heat-trapping gases at levels that would protect human interests and nature. As treaties go in the international realm, it was a highly successful initiative.

          Seventeen Conferences of the Parties to the FCCC have utterly failed in meeting the clear goal set forth in the treaty despite mighty efforts and various schemes designed to protect specific national interests. The most recent discussions in Durban have focused on accommodating with financial aid crises of nations that see themselves especially vulnerable to, for instance, the flooding and storms now clearly a problem.  Negotiators and others have assumed, first, that the world can tolerate a two-degree C rise in the average temperature and, second, that stability can be achieved at that level.  Neither assumption has any basis in science or in fact. The assumption is a dream advanced, not from science or any sure knowledge, but from wishful thinking from political and economic interests. Stabilizing at two degrees is almost certainly impossible. The world has already warmed by nearly one degree. Feedbacks are already conspicuously engaged and contributing to the acceleration of warming that may quickly proceed beyond human control.

          The potential for political, economic, and environmental chaos and misery is almost unimaginable.  The time scale is not a century. It is now, as we experience spreading continental droughts that devastate agriculture, violent storms that destroy dwellings including cities, and floods such as those in Pakistan over the past two years and those of the eastern US of 2011and elsewhere. And heat alone kills, as it has done annually with greater and greater frequency over the last decade.

          What is clear is that there is no plan and no action possible at the moment as long as economic and political issues float to the top of all agendas. Venality rules much of the corporate world.  Politicians are cowed…or purchased.

          The FCCC was a direct product of scientific research and insights followed by public initiatives. It is time for a new set of insights and initiatives quite beyond what has become the agenda of governments. “Adaptation”, now popular, is absurd as a conclusion and totally unacceptable as a solution. There is no possibility of “muddling through”. There is only disintegration and chaos, the seeds of which we see germinating now. The objective set forth in 1992 was sound and is achievable now, substantially immediately.

          The net annual accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is currently about 4 billion tons of carbon, the residual of a total release from burning fossil fuels and from deforestation globally of about 10 billion tons. Reducing emissions globally by 4 billion tons would, for the moment, achieve the stabilization needed as the first step. It is necessary and important and possible. Deforestation, a change in land use from forest to non-forest,  produces about 1 billion of the 4 we seek.  Preserving all primary forests remaining globally would be a great blessing in any context and should be done if only to preserve water supplies.

          Restoring natural forests to  2-4 million square kilometers would store an additional billion tons of carbon annually on land.

          The remainder, 2-3 billion tons of carbon must come from a reduction in the global use of fossil fuels, now 8-8.5 billion tons of carbon annually.  It is not a trivial change, but it is not at all impossible immediately simply on the basis of conservation and improved efficiency. A 25-30% reduction in use of oil and coal and gas is possible almost immediately, given the will and the means.  The industrial nations are already shifting electrical loads from fossil fuels to renewable sources rapidly, largely on the basis of costs.

           This immediate effort must be followed by further reductions in emissions but immediate success will bring insights and energy and time for the future steps.

          It is time for the scientific community again to rise to the challenge and enable governments and other public agencies to rise above the present morass of subsidiary problems and demands and purposes by showing how to bring the core purpose of the 1992 treaty into effect and the consequences and extraordinary costs of failure to do so. 

          John M. Broder, writing in the December 11 New York Times (p11), quotes  the  redoubtable Mary D. Nichols of the California Air Resources Board as asserting, correctly, that effective action must come now from the bottom up.



December 11, 2011




[1] Woodwell is Director Emeritus and Houghton is Senior Scientist, The Woods Hole Research Center, Woods Hole, MA.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Life Under a Turbine (Wind)

            Much has been said recently in my town about the miseries of living a thousand feet or more south-southwest of a large municipal wind turbine which is accused of producing through intolerable sounds, pulsating pressures and subtle unmeasured factors, a variety of serious illnesses among its neighbors. The complaints are numerous enough and the complainants persistent enough that there can be no denial that there is a problem for some, despite the distance between them and the turbine. The solution, according to these critics, is to shut down the turbines (the second has not yet been operated) or move them somewhere far away.  The cost to the town of either would be significant, perhaps as much as ten to twenty million dollars, assuming a place that is sufficiently remote is available somewhere within the town. (It is not.) For the moment they are both shut down. 

            I , too, live near a large turbine and have, with several colleagues experience over three years with all the vagaries of such a machine.  To be sure, the Woods Hole Research Center’s 100 kw turbine is substantially smaller than the 1.6  megawatt machine of the Town of Falmouth, but it is still a large turbine, much closer to dwellings than the Town’s. The  municipal turbine was quite reasonably placed on town-owned land  at what was thought then to be a comfortable distance from any residence.

            While I think it fair to say that my experience reflects that of colleagues, I report only my own.  I live very comfortably under the wind turbine, often quite literally under it, for we have held major public gatherings on the grass in front of our main building,  without even a hint of difficulty with sound from the turbine directly overhead. Even in a high wind when the turbine is turning at its maximum speed (held deliberately at about 60 rpm ) and making the most power,  the dominant sounds are the wind in the trees and the traffic on the highway, two hundred feet or more beyond the turbine below our building. On the SEA Campus 500 feet away the sound of the turbine can be distinguished from other sounds but it never dominates or intrudes. The general attitude there, amply reported to me from diverse sources, some very enthusiastic,  is to take encouragement from the churning turbine, recognizing that each watt it produces displaces a watt from the coal-fired plant on Brayton Point  near  Fall River  that showers  us all with mercury and soot brought on the south-westerly winds directly from the plant.  The mercury is measurable in soils by intricare techniques, but the soot appears as a black film to be scrubbed off the white decks and cabin of my boat weekly and power-washed off twice annually. It comes perpetually in the rain. If it were not for the boat I would have hard time proving its presence unless I were hanging out wash regularly and watching it gray over time. Meanwhile, that soot accumulates in our lungs with every breath.  The rustle of wind in the trees has always been reassuring and refreshing; now there is a reason to look at the turbine and take courage that the air is that much cleaner and….with more such innovations, will be cleaner yet. Except that…..

To be sure, the shadow of the blades produces a potentially troublesome flicker when the sun is just right. No one enjoys the flicker and my office and our two buildings are the major recipients. The flicker is greater, of  course when the sun is low in  the morning and throughout the winter. But in any particular place the flicker, however distracting, is short-lived, for the sun moves rapidly. I find that we either ignore the flicker or shut it out with window shades. It is no longer a problem for anyone in our buildings that I am aware of. And in a short time, the sun has moved. A neighbor with a glass wall in their house finds the flicker troublesome, quite understandably. The turbine has been programmed to shut down for the times the problem exists throughout the year.  Trees growing nearby will ameliorate even that problem in time.

            The sound is enough that when the  turbine is not operating, I notice and wonder and look for a reason. But there is no time when the sound interferes with any function or exceeds the sound of Woods Hole Road  about 200 feet to  the eastward or the wind in the trees. People often gather for lunch on the porch of the main building, substantially under the blades of the turbine, and have no trouble with normal conversation. No one has reported to me any sub-sonic or otherwise subtle effects on health or disposition over the many months of operation, although I know that some far more distant neighbors object, quite possibly to its presence as opposed to its operation. And to be sure, our well insulated institutional buildings exclude substantially all outside sounds, the noise of heavy trucks and the howling winds of storms. Houses, too, can exclude sounds.

            Looking up at the turning blades as the sun settles into the horizon shows them gleaming as the rest of the landscape shrinks into darkness.  All enjoy those moments  and most find the turbine an object of beauty and welcome it into the neighborhood as clear evidence that we are headed into a renewable world  that is cleaner and much healthier and agree that the turbines are objects of beauty,  to be admired and celebrated, not scorned. 

            November 15, 2011
            Woods Hole, Massachusetts

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ozone, Oil and The Drift of Governmental Purpose

Two decisions by the Obama administration have left me and many others profoundly disturbed. The most recent advice to the EPA to delay further limits on ozone, long in process and widely anticipated, is a clear abandonment of governmental leadership in restoring the integrity of the human environment. Worse, the support the administration appears to be giving the Canadian Tar Sands oil development is a clear sign that no progress in deflecting the climatic disruption can be expected any time soon. What’s to be done?

 Ozone is trouble.  On earth ozone is toxic to just about everything.  It is a serious cause of respiratory problems and a contributing cause of various other ills. Experience is extensive and data define human morbidity and mortality from  exposures common from industrial sources.  But virtually all life is vulnerable and ozone exposures are to be avoided categorically. 

Ozone occurs in the high atmosphere, well outside the normal limits of life, and there absorbs incident radiation from the sun that would otherwise be a problem on earth.  So it has been for a very long time and life is dependent on that circumstance.

Industrial activities have changed the chemistry of the atmosphere and the more or less stable layer of ozone in the high atmosphere is being destroyed largely but not exclusively by fluorocarbons used mainly as refrigerants. In the lower atmosphere where we and all the rest of life occur, ozone is being generated in toxic quantities by burning fossil fuels at high temperatures.   Both processes are serious matters but the generation of new sources on earth is exposing all life to a serious toxin with especially threatening direct effects on people. Serious efforts have been made over years to avoid the problem. But that simple objective turns out to be more complicated by far than it should be. 

Governments, that is, all legitimate governments beyond the ABOTIP  (A Bunch O Thugs In Power)  stage, are established to define and defend the public interest. The public interest is commonly defined, first, as civil rights: rules establishing fairness in dealing with one another and in managing common property for the advantage of all. Those interests are variously defined, of course, but they have been set out explicitly enough recently in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. The statement constitutes a broad vision as to the core purpose of government. It seems a reasonable extension of those expectations and responsibilities of governments to say that rules are established to protect each from all and all from each. I am not allowed to poison my neighbor’s well nor is he allowed to poison mine. And if he has a business, the business is not allowed to poison mine or anyone else’s.  Such rights are commonly established not only in legislation, but also in case law, as legal rights systematically defined by court trials.

Meanwhile, businesses have grown very large over time and become corporations that hire many people and accumulate much wealth and influence. Profits of the businesses are greater if the costs of doing business can be ignored.  The costs often, perhaps regularly, include wastes that are difficult, or even expensive, to make innocuous and can most conveniently be discharged into the environment nearby and ignored.  My well is poisoned after all and when I object, the business denies responsibilities and asserts that even if true, the jobs and money brought into the community are more important. Government, pressed to support the “economy,” agrees.  Governmental purpose has suddenly shifted from civil rights to economic interests. Morbidity and mortality of citizens is now secondary to corporate financial security.   

Just as we realize that fossil-fueled corporate industrialization has inverted the global distribution of ozone to human disadvantage we also discover that the flows of money have corrupted governmental purpose and potential. Suddenly, for whatever reason there is pressure on governments to produce jobs at any cost. Neo-conservatives argue that environmental regulations that protect people from ozone are expensive and force industries to close down or reduce activities as profits decline. In the interest of protecting profits and, presumably, jobs, environmental regulations should be voided.  The President of the United States has recently agreed, at least with respect to ozone. He and the neo-conservative right are saying that public suffering from poison, enhanced morbidity and mortality, are acceptable in the off-hand chance that corporations will gain profits and hire more people and improve the economy.  In the longer run, he asserts, the objective has to be to clean up the air and protect the public welfare. But for the moment, economic interests are more important. Such demanding moments never pass.

So, too, strangely enough, with the climatic disruption. The heavy reliance on fossil fuels is poisoning the world,  changing climates globally and generating toxins such as ozone. Here the economic costs as well as the human costs are conspicuous. One of the many long-recognized effects of the climatic disruption includes an increased frequency of large, severe storms.  Katrina, fed with energy from a super-heated Gulf, cost us New Orleans, a city whose economic and human costs continue to accumulate and whose salvation is at best doubtful. Irene left a trail of destruction along the East Coast from Florida through the Carolinas, New Jersey and New York into Canada. The damage tallies in billions of dollars. A third tropical storm, Lee, is right now flooding southern Louisiana and Mississippi once again. Flood damage in Vermont from Irene remains today at unprecedented levels and costs that will probably never be tallied or recovered.  In such cases the largest costs are diffuse and accrue to the public at large. The causes, however, are industrial activities whose profits are well focused and are supported by the cheap fossil fuels that are in fact poisoning all of the earth.  Again, governmental purpose has drifted and the public welfare has been redefined as corporate economic welfare. So we have, apparently, imminent presidential approval of a pipeline connecting the Athabasca Tar Sands of  Alberta to our Gulf Coast refineries. That oil is the dirtiest and most expensive in the world in that its mining destroys large areas of the northern forest, dumps that carbon into the atmosphere, and requires a large further direct expenditure of energy in extracting the oil and refining it. Such a decision by the US president would commit the nation to support of production and use of the dirtiest oil on the planet for the foreseeable future and be a clear statement that the US has no plan for mitigating the already raging climatic disruption!

There is nothing right about these decisions. Nominally, they support the public welfare by encouraging economic development. Actually, they both degrade the resource base, corrupt the air, water, land, and health of all. They poison my well, and the wells of all others, now and for the everlasting future. They produce systematic, incremental impoverishment, universal biotic impoverishment, corruption of the human birthright so clearly affirmed in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and they scorn the very purpose of government.

            What’s wrong here? What is wrong is a fundamental intellectual and political failure, a failure to recognize that civilization requires not only a functional government and a working economic system, but also a functionally intact environmental system.  It is that last that is the mystery, not sufficiently defined in our culture and not put forth by our intellectual and political leaders as a compelling model of what must be if we are to continue to occupy the earth in peace and comfort for the century to come. The insight and the shift in emphasis may come now, if it comes at all, from the scientific community expressed in powerful, demanding terms that reach far beyond economics and greed as motivating factors and call on all to acknowledge and respect the core requirements of life as a moral responsibility in protecting the human birthright. This new vision will deal with how to preserve life on earth, not as a casual objective after all profits have been assured, but as the first objective, everywhere.

 So far in science and conservation we have only begun the job, just scratched the surface, and our government is still actively poisoning my well and everyone else’s.

                                                                        Woods Hole
                                                                        September 4, 2011

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Changing Context of Science and Conservation

The context within which we scientists think about our research, our role in the national and global future, and the continuity or our own institutions, is coupled closely to national politics. That the context has changed grossly over the past two years and especially sharply recently is not news, but now even the purpose of government in the US is questioned. At a gathering yesterday of scientists in Woods Hole there was alarm, unprecedented in my own five decades of experience in research, at the accumulating cuts in budgets for education at all levels and the drastic cuts in federal support for research, especially on issues of environment and public health yet to come. There should be alarm, acute alarm, and much thought about what to do now. I found the editorial below a useful analysis in thinking about this strangely hostile milieu in which we must now operate. We have a new, urgent public role, in defining and defending the purpose and role of government, the critical issues of environmental integrity, the public interest and welfare, human rights including human birthrights, and what is required to preserve a civilization. It is time to start. GMW

* * *

The Dysfunction at the Very Heart of American Politics

By Michael A Cohen, Guardian UK

07 August 11

As the system grinds into catastrophic gridlock, disillusioned voters feel it has less and less to do with their lives.

Nearly three years ago, on a night of great history, a slender
47-year-old black man who had just been elected to the nation's
highest political office offered the American people an optimistic
vision for the country's future. Quoting Abraham Lincoln, Barack
Obama spoke of national unity: "We are not enemies, but friends.
Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."

That night, Obama offered the American people a clear sense of his
overriding priority as president - it wasn't just to fix the ailing
US economy, provide healthcare for all or end the war in Iraq. But
rather, after eight years of political turmoil and disunity, through
the force of his personality and political temperament, Obama would,
as Lincoln said, "bind up the nation's wounds."

Things have not quite worked out as Obama planned. Even with poll
results suggesting that Americans prize compromise and are tired of
overt partisanship, the level of division and acrimony in Washington
has grown exponentially since Obama took office. The recent debt
limit debate is the apogee of Washington's dysfunction: and
indicative of a political system that is seemingly incapable of
dealing with national challenges. Indeed, whatever one may think of
Standard & Poor's recent downgrade of US debt, the ratings agency
view that "the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of
American policy-making and political institutions have weakened"
seems almost self-evident.

How has America been reduced to one party holding a gun to the US
economy and the other trading away its political principles to stop
the trigger from being pulled? The problem is that the US today has
one party intent on utilising government resources as a force for
social good and another that rejects any significant role for the
public sector. Compounding this collision of ideologies is a populace
so indifferent to the workings of their own government that they are
unable to choose which model they prefer.

This clash over the proper role for government in the US is one that
has defined our national politics for more than a century. But in the
last several years this conflict has become an existential one, with
Republicans basically abdicating their responsibility to govern. When
in power they made little effort to deal with the nation's many
challenges. In opposition, and particularly in the two and a half
years since Obama took office, they have used the tool of the Senate
filibuster and various other procedural impediments to try to stop
nearly all Democratic initiatives in their tracks. Whatever
legislation passed in the past few years is almost solely a product
of Democratic cohesion (an attribute that is generally in short
supply) - and a brief window in which Democrats enjoyed a
filibuster-proof majority in the US Senate.

From this perspective, threatening economic cataclysm in order to
further reduce the size of government, by refusing to raise the debt
limit, now seems like an inevitable step in Washington's scorched
earth politics. That it forced Democrats to agree to trillions in
painful spending cuts without any commensurate revenue hikes shows
how successful this strategy of policy extortion can be.

So why do Democrats put up with it? They have little choice. The
American political system discourages radicalism and relies on
compromise. Yet the violation of even the most customary rules of
governance has made such deal-making now nearly impossible. It was
once considered a given that, with the rarest of exceptions, a
president would be able to appoint his own charges to key
policy-making positions; and the debt ceiling was considered an
occasionally politicised but generally pro forma exercise. No longer.
In a system designed around collegiality, Democrats have few tools in
their arsenal to combat the GOP's political obstinacy.

As a result, America is increasingly moving toward a parliamentary
system in which politicians, rather than voting along regional lines
or in pursuit of parochial interests, cast their ballot solely based
on whether there is a D or R next to their name. Such a system might
work well in the UK, but in the US, with its institutional focus on
checks and balances and the many tools available for stopping
legislation, a parliamentary-style system is a recipe for inaction.

What compounds the Democrats' challenge is that they are the party of
activist government. When in opposition, they find it hard to use the
Republicans' jamming techniques; when in power they feel the almost
quaint need to act responsibly. Any scent of scandal or illegitimate
behaviour that undermines the electorate's confidence in government
in turn undermines the Democrat's brand.

Case in point on the debt: liberals far and wide urged Obama to
consider invoking the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, which
suggests that the country's public debt must continue to be paid. As
the left argued, this would have resolved the crisis. In a worst-case
scenario, Republicans might impeach the president in the House of
Representatives, but, as the argument went, wouldn't this be a good
way to rally the country around Obama? But such tactical
recommendations miss a crucial element; if low-information voters
(the vast majority of Americans) look to Washington and see the
nation's political leaders arguing about impeachment and
constitutional crises that have little connection to their own lives
it exacerbates their lack of confidence in government. For many
conservatives it would only confirm their irrational belief that
President Obama is a power-hungry tyrant.

Thus for Democrats, gridlock is their most pernicious enemy; a point
Republicans understand all too well. The more they stop government
from operating effectively the more it emphasises their key political
narrative that there is no reason to have any confidence in public
institutions. Tom Schaller, a political scientist at the University
of Maryland, said to me that Republicans understand that if you have
a vat of sewage and you pour in a glass of wine you still have a vat
of sewage. But if you pour a glass of sewage into a vat of wine,
guess what, you now have a vat of sewage. In short, a little
political poison can go a long way. So while liberal complaints that
President Obama is far too solicitous of Republicans and far too
wedded to his post-partisan agenda (all probably true), a reversion
to bare-knuckled politics is not necessarily going to make things any
easier or better for progressives.

As the Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg noted in the New York
Times, "voters feel ever more estranged from government" and "they
associate Democrats with government." More crises in Washington are
not going to help that process.

Why do voters put up with such a situation? Polling suggests that the
electorate wants their leaders to focus on jobs, rather than the
deficit; and work toward compromise, rather than gridlock. So why
then do they reward political parties, such as the Republicans, that
act decidedly against not only their preferences but also their interests?

The answer lies in the apathy of the American people toward their own
government. The ultimate check on Republican nihilism would be voter
revolt. But in the last congressional election, voters rewarded
unprecedented Republican obstructionism with control of the House of

What's worse, voter preferences are often contradictory. Polls
suggest that the electorate wants political leaders to cut spending,
but then also demand no cuts in any government programme that isn't
foreign aid. They want Congress to focus more on creating jobs, but
recoil at policies, such as the bailout of the US auto industry or
the stimulus package, that did just that. One problem is that
Americans have been so inundated with anti-government rhetoric over
the past 40 years they seem to have trouble identifying any link
between government engagement and a robust economy.

Worst of all, Americans may prefer Democratic policies, but they have
little confidence in government's ability to fulfil those promises
and then blame both parties for inaction. They are so mistrustful of
government and shockingly uninformed about its working that,
perversely, via the ballot boxes, they directly contribute to the
political stalemate they so regularly decry.

The result is a political system that is perhaps more incapacitated
than at any point in modern history. Across the US, states have to
cut social services and benefits because they are receiving no
support from the federal government. Infrastructure is crumbling,
millions of American students are trapped in under-performing
schools, the existential threat of climate change is off the
political radar screen and job growth is barely on the agenda. Even
the most recent agreement to cut the bloated federal deficit does
virtually nothing to deal with the greatest driver of national
indebtedness - healthcare spending. What all of this suggests is that
the episode played out over the past few weeks of one party
threatening to plunge the nation into economic catastrophe is not
some rare event - it's the new norm in American politics. And perhaps
the most glaring indication that Barack Obama's vision of new
post-partisan America will be a dream perhaps permanently deferred.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fusion Energy? We Have it Now in Abundance

July 11, 2011

Fusion Energy? We Have it Now in Abundance

George M. Woodwell

            An interesting essay in today’s NYT speculates on the possibility of  abundant energy from fusion in about twenty years. The author, Stewart C. Prager, a physicist at Princeton, is optimistic that we shall be able to boil water, make steam, and run generators to make electricity using the extreme heat of nuclear fusion continuously without the problems of  pollution we now contend with.

            The topic is fascinating.  A fusion reaction with temperatures approaching those of the sun, suspended in space on earth and used to boil water to feed a steam engine!

 It does seem to me to be an awkward way to boil water when I can use the sun directly now without going through all that fuss.  In fact I do it regularly these days without even wanting to. My hot water solar panels keep a reservoir of about 2500 gallons of hot water available for domestic hot water and for heating the house when heat is needed. These days in summer the panels produce more hot water than I need and I limit the temperature in the tank to a maximum of  160 degrees F. That means that I arrange for the system to shut down when the tank is  hot enough and no water is circulated  through the panels which heat up in the sun to far above the boiling point of water.  If, by mistake or because the hot water in the tank is used and the temperature drops and water is circulated through the hot panels, I make steam, which in modest quantities is not a problem in this system. But the capacity for making steam is real year around.  I do not take advantage of it beyond heating my house with the hot water at 100-160 degrees.  If I wanted steam I would set up different panels designed to take the higher pressures and temperatures, but it would be simple enough to boil water that way and make electricity using the fusion heat of the sun directly.

But then, I do know about solar panels which produce electricity using, not the heat of the sun, but a broad spectrum of the radiation from solar fusion to make electricity directly. And then there are wind turbines, also driven by solar energy and making enough electricity that our power company is reluctant to allow more to enter the grid. Why should we want to rebuild the sun on earth to boil water?

I assume that we want more energy at our finger tips, available all the time to drive our industrial economy.  But our industrial economy is already too big: it is used to expand the human influence, capture more natural resources to build more industrial resources.  The effect is a systematic impoverishment of the human habitat, the destruction of those essential resources required for life, air , water, land, climatic stability, and the global biotic resources essential for all life.  Do we need that energy? Not in my view of the world. Not at all.  In fact, it would, if abundantly available assure the human demise along with much of the rest of life on the planet. 

Far better to stick to our real potential at the moment: shifting our reliance immediately from the fossil fuels that are poisoning the earth to direct reliance on the fusion energy already available to us in abundance and celebrating and protecting all the life of the earth in a concerted effort to preserve the human potential so clearly at hazard at the moment.

Agriculture and the Global Transition 2011

            I  was pleased recently to join a conference at  The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, on the future of agriculture.  The organizing principle was the potential of perennialism, especially in grains, for introducing the new departure that is so clearly necessary to protect the world from poisoning by current industrial agricultural practices. A key contribution to elaborating the problem was made by Nancy Rabelais and her husband, Gene Turner, both from Baton Rouge. Nancy has a really firm grip on the causes and effects of the anoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico produced by the excess nitrogen, largely as nitrate,  passed down the Mississippi from agriculture in the drainage basin.  The problem, despite a clear recognition of the cause, is increasing and now covers annually an area of the Gulf as large or larger than the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The effect on the Gulf, of course, is devastating. It is now compounded by the effects of  this last year’s dump of oil from the BP blowout. The effect is a crushing biotic impoverishment of the Gulf with no reprieve.  A cure will require a major change in agriculture throughout the entire Basin, assuming that time will cure even the crushing residual damage from the oil.  

            The problems of the Gulf are far from unique. They are shared by coastal marine systems around the world where rivers flush nitrogen from the land.  In other places coastal waters are enriched deliberately to culture shrimp and other crops. The biotic impoverishment is the same and virtually ubiquitous.

            The needs of seven billion people for food are also inexorable, and the demand  will increase  as the seven billion move toward nine billion over the next years. Agriculture is universally expected to expand to meet these new demands for food.. 

            Unfortunately, this expansion of population does not occur uniformly and does not necessarily offer the expanding market that the system admires and depends on. The expansion is greatest among the poor, those who are not in the market and whose hunger does not really affect price at all because they are not bidding.  They starve…or make their own food.  Industrial agriculture is not a boon to them for it gives them neither food nor a job to enable them to buy food.   So the core problem of feeding the hungry millions at the expense of massive problems with pollution is not resolved.

            Worse, in many regions soil productivity declines as annual cropping intensifies and spreads to larger areas as population growth continues.   The benefits of the Green Revolution are ephemeral or non-existent for many who may have land or access to land but who cannot reach or afford the seeds and fertilizer and care required to benefit from the culture of new high yielding strains. The entire system is failing.

            A systematic analysis of  cropping systems in agriculture has shown the overwhelming advantages of  perennialism over annualism in stabilizing land, nutrients, and yields. Applied to grain crops the shift to perennials would prove a huge benefit through almost every channel including reaching the poor with an annual yield on stable soils.  The rooting systems are larger by factors in some cases of  10-20 fold and reach depths far greater than those reached by annual crops. Greater depths of rooting reduce losses from short term drought,  increase nutrient pools, and depths of soil development, not to mention stability on slopes. Substantial progress has been made toward developing perennial grains through classical techniques in selection over many generations. A strain of wheat has been developed at The Land Institute that is perennial for a few years and seems to offer further potential. I t has been named Kernza and is being distributed to a small group of users experimentally.

 Now modern molecular genetics offers potential for moving genes around and building new strains.  The immediate proposal is for a greatly enhanced program of experimentation using groups of several scientific colleagues exploring different channels in different places around the world.  The groups would supplement university or other institutions’ programs and would of course require separate financing.

This development, if it can be realized, offers a major revolution in human affairs and in our use of the earth.  It challenges corporate power in controlling agriculture and passes real potential to individuals to feed themselves locally.  It has the potential for restoring the chemical and physical integrity of drainage basins and coastal waters as well as the oceans, avoiding the continuous transfers of toxins into the oceanic sump as is now the process. It is clearly a major forward step in restoring a functional global ecosystem.

On the other hand agriculture does not control the globe.  It is vulnerable to climatic disruption, chemical contamination of water, air, and land, from whatever source,  and to political and economic unrest.  The great issues of environment remain the disruption of climate and the chemical disruption of the earth, both chronic disruptions that contribute to the systematic biotic impoverishment of land and water to the eternal detriment of the entire human undertaking. No one is in a position to address this issue more powerfully than we are at the Woods Hole Research Center. Forests remain at the core of the issue, secondary in climate only to the oceans. And forests are our oyster.  More than that we ecologists have a realistic world view firmly based in evolution and a conviction that environmental integrity will determine both economic and political potential in the next decades. We have a serious mission uniquely our own, not shared with universities, at least in the normal course.

How we proceed is also pretty well defined by the tools now available, developed in some part by ourselves for the purpose.  Nothing could be a more powerful lesson than our program of monitoring the north flowing rivers of the northern hemisphere as they carry the effluents from Boreal Forest and tundra into the Arctic Ocean. The effluents tell all the world much about what is happening in the largest forested area in the world and in the adjacent largest tundra region with its giant carbon pool in permafrost and peat.  And on land around the world we can monitor changes in land use and tell for the normally naturally forest regions just how well each region is doing in managing its biotic resources and thereby contributing to the improvement, or destruction, of  the human habitat.  If we are serious about our mission in the world, we have a job, a very serious one that we can take on and execute with precision and talent  and imagination as few others in the world can do. We can add if we wish, toxic substances to our talents, and more rivers including the Amazon and the Congo, already our own.

These thoughts ran through my mind as this remarkable group from around the world assembled in an unlikely place on the western edge of the tall grass prairie to consider how to spring a revolution on a corporate agricultural system that is clearly  running the world down and screaming for repair while touting its prodigious challenge in expanding to feed the teaming millions it can never reach.

            Woods Hole   
            March   2011



Saturday, June 11, 2011

What's to Be Done?    

Seven Problems a Recovery Won't Fix

The Big Grinning Kahunas that run the world don't agree on much these days, except one thing: the urgent, vital need for "recovery." On both sides of an increasingly fractious political divide, there's a common belief underlying the debates: what we really need is more stimulus, spending, cutting, slashing, or [insert big idea here], and the economy will "recover" — hey, presto!! — and pop roaring back into life.
Hence, like many, you're probably waiting for this so-called mysteriously reluctant non-recovering "recovery" — the one that always seems just around the corner, but when the corner's turned, has automagically disappeared yet again. (Want fries with that latest global "soft patch"?)
Recovery means "a return to a normal state of strength." So here's a question. Is recovery enough? Consider seven things that a mere "recovery" probably wouldn't fix:
Stagnation. Median income has stagnated for decades and mere "recovery" probably isn't enough to do much about it, because GDP isn't concerned with who gets what. And if we all go right back to doing exactly the same old stuff, for the same old reasons, earning the same rewards...well, that's how incomes stagnated to begin with.
Disemployment. The good news is we're still creating jobs. But the bad news isn't just that we're not creating enough of them to go around — but that we're mostly creating McJobs (sorry, McDonalds, I don't mean to offend you, but the truth is that you offend me). Mere recovery probably won't do much to derail this trend, because the rise of McJobs has deeper causes: offshoring, skills gaps, undereducation, regulatory deficits, our own bottomless appetite for McStuff.
Insecurity. Here's a number that ought to set off nine-bell alarms in your head: nearly half of Americans are financially fragile — as in they probably couldn't raise $2000 within 30 days to meet an unexpected expense. It's the ugliest and most visible symptom of Great Depression–era level inequality. That's not just grossly unfair in common sense terms, it's a recipe for a society coming apart at the seams. Yet, mere recovery probably isn't enough to do much about growing financial insecurity, not just because gross output isn't concerned with how the pie is divided, but, more deeply, because fragility is a consequence of hypercompetitive, globalized, winner-take-all labor markets: in other words, it's a feature, not a bug.
Toxicity. The industrial age economy's addicted to harm: in order to profit, it's more often than not got to trample on people, nature, or society. One recent relatively ambitious attempt to come up with an estimate — in my opinion, a very conservative one — puts the costs of global negative environmental externalities at 11% of the world's GDP (pdf). Mere recovery doesn't pay off a dollar of that deeper debt to nature — if anything, it legitimizes the idea that we should keep on keepin' on the toxic shell game of harm, if that's what's necessary to prop up "output" (just like the idea that we had to bail out Wall Street, after Wall Street blew up the global financial system).
Pointlessness. Here's a statistic that ought to set your hair on fire: somewhere between 50 and 75% of "employees" are "disengaged" (depending on whose numbers you want to buy): they don't care much, if at all, about the work they do. But can you blame them? Perhaps they don't care not just because the work they do feels pointless, but because, in human terms, it mostly is. Designing new bottles for deodorants or energy drinks or finding a new loophole in the law isn't exactly helping design, craft, build, or maintain the Sistine Chapel. Yet it's what roughly about 75% of us do every weary day of our drab working lives. Forget the numbers and just ask yourself: if you were to walk into any corporation, would you find faces brimming over with deep fulfillment and authentic delight--or stonily asking themselves, "If it wasn't for the accursed paycheck, would I really let imprison myself in this dungeon of the human soul?"
Dumbification. Educational attainment has slowed in recent years, while unemployment has spiked for the least educated. Couple that with a "news" media that, instead of informing, actually misinforms, a culture fixated on GTL instead of great accomplishment, education, work, and play obsessed with the incremental and formulaic instead of the transformative and the creative, work that places dismal obedience and glum execution over joy, passion, elevation, and imagination — and I'd suggest you get what Richard Florida and I have called dumbification: a sapping and draining of the human thirst for great, world-changing achievement.
Dehumanization. As I've noted, GDP has long decoupled from more meaningful measures of welfare, like the ISEW or the GPI, that begin to measure what matter to humans, not just sociopaths in $7000 suits. Our economy's been dehumanized, and mere recovery in the arid, sterile terms of GDP just isn't good enough to rehumanize it.
I could go on, but you probably get the picture I'm attempting to crudely sketch. What if what we need to seek isn't merely "more" prosperity, but meaningfully better prosperity?
The economy's just a tool. It's time to question not just it's "how." but it's "why." Why do we have an economy in the first place?
For the last several decades — and perhaps even the last several centuries — I'd say the answer is for the pursuit of opulence: more, bigger, faster, cheaper. But the endgame of the pursuit of opulence goes something like this: right here, right now, the economy's acting as a wealth transfer machine. The pursuit of opulence isn't just failing to make most of us better off in human terms — more troublingly, it's also failing to ignite the spark of enduring wealth creation today: it's transferring wealth from the poor to the rich, from young to old, from the powerless to the privileged, from tomorrow to today, from people and society to corporate "entities."
Hence, I'd gently suggest: recovery's not enough. If more, bigger, faster, cheaper, nastier got us where we are today, then more more, bigger, faster, cheaper, nastier probably isn't going to be the rocket fuel of a quantum leap into tomorrow.
It's time to stop looking for "recovery" (as in ways to resurrect this drooling zombie of an industrial economy) and start seeding transformation (as in building a 21st century economy, that turns most or all of the toxic dynamics above upside down). It's time to stop thinking about getting back to yesterday's prosperity — and time to start thinking about how to get past it.
To get there, instead of starting at the beginning, start at the end. Why do we have an economy in the first place? If yesterday's answer — for the pursuit of opulence — isn't good enough, then as I've discussed with you here, I believe tomorrow's might be: to ignite eudaimonia — a meaningfully well lived life. To ensure that people are living meaningfully better — that they're getting fitter, smarter, wiser, tougher, fairer, more empathic, creative, deliberative — in terms that matter most to them. If that sounds simple, it's anything but. It's going to require years of building eudaimonic institutions--everything from updated conceptions of "GDP," to reinvented "corporations," to novel kinds of "jobs," markets, schools, and perhaps even governments to build the rocketship that's going to take the quantum leap into the 21st century.
I can't build your own rocketship for you, nor can I take your quantum leap. You've got to do that for yourself. But to get started, we're probably going to have to stop staring at our shoes, and waiting desperately for yesterday — and start impatiently looking up to the stars instead.

  • ======================================================
    This piece from the Harvard Business Review came to me via PE recently. It is a fairly trenchant statement of the malaise that seems increasingly to be gripping the world, quite apart from the interminable military ventures that have sucked in all our oxygen. I was struck in particular  by the inclusion of “toxicity” among his seven problems as “a debt to nature” that we continue to ignore and foolishly use the economic malaise as a reason for continuing to increase.   Of course, I immediately run this debt to the global level and make it responsible for the global impoverishment of  economies and ecology and for the rampant crumbling of  political stability.

            And it is. The ultimate effect is to change the environment out from under us, all of us and all that we do and depend on,  Yes, it is a little poison here and there, a little more carbon into the atmosphere, but the total now is of global consequence and the expense is enormous.   I rode the train yesterday between New York and Boston. For miles along the Connecticut shore where the track hugs the shore crews are busy building steel reinforced concrete walls designed to protect the tracks from erosion as the beaches migrate inland.  Magnificent double walls reaching three to five feet above the tracks.  But sea level is rising and will rise more, perhaps five feet in this century. Perhaps more. How long will the walls last?  Not long, for the larger storms will undermine the strongest wall and the higher seas will flood the marshes and overwhelm the tracks, already only feet from the water.  More futile expense. Adaptation, they say, to unavoidable changes.  Part of the soaring cost of intransigence on the part of politicians and industry to recognize these small debts and see that they can quickly become large debts that we shall have to continue to pay, again and again and again and again as we struggle to key the declining vestiges of this civilization alive with its careless, sloppy housekeeping.     GMW



Monday, May 30, 2011

.Ionizing Radiation and Reactors Again/ May 26,2011

A troubling report in the NYT this morning discusses the Fukushima reactor disaster, the exclusion zone, now 12 miles, and mentions the discomforts of the 300,000 people displaced.  Exposure limits for the public are being raised to levels ordinarily limited to radiation workers. Even the exposure limits for children have been raised and the public is understandably distressed. The article reports uncertainty as to the effects of low-level exposures on people and shows how again, “uncertainty” is used to justify the risks of exposures as is so common in all competition between human welfare and economic interests.

            There is no uncertainty.   Ionizing radiation causes ionizations. It breaks up molecules.  And if the energy is high enough, the damage occurs at low levels of exposure, too. So, as far as people are concerned, the rule is no exposure. The big human danger from low exposures has always been considered to be damage to chromosomes, mutations. With higher exposures mutations accumulate. In most studies of exposures of large populations higher doses usually cause a shortening of life, often through an increase in the frequency of cancer. But the shortening of life, while statistically low when view over the entire population, may in an individual mean a substantially shortened life span as cancer hits in mid-life. There is no reason to think that the effects are any less than linear at lower exposures .     

            The larger hazard is to the population as a whole. Mutations accumulate in the overall population and may not appear until subsequent generations. These mutations are a part of the  “genetic load” carried by any population and exposure to ionizing radiation is usually thought to add to that genetic burden.  Arnold Sparrow of Brookhaven National Laboratory spent a career sorting through the factors involved in susceptibility of plants to radiation damage. He showed that chromosome number and volume were key issues: plants with many small chromosomes were much more resistant than plants with  a small number of large chromosomes. That relationship is not surprising in that a plant with many small chromosomes may be polyploid and carry more than one copy of any gene so that one chromosome break is less serious than in a pine tree with 24 large chromosomes.  And pines are in fact very much more sensitive than polyploid mosses.

            Even more troubling than the vulnerability of the genetic material is the continued release of radiation  from the reactors.  The long-lived  isotopes such as Cesium are especially troubling  in that they accumulate in the soil and remain hazardous for decades. So the possibility of  returning to live safely in the fallout zone in one’s lifetime is remote. The meaning of a 12 –mile exclusion zone and 300,000 people displaced is very clear and very sad.  

 Meanwhile our own Nuclear Regulatory Commission is approving the relicensing of aging reactors for another twenty years and there is talk within the current administration of subsidizing the construction of more.