Tag Archives: Environment

The End of Nature

English: Bill McKibben speaks at Rochester Ins...
English: Bill McKibben speaks at Rochester Institute of Technology about global warming, consumerism, the economy, and his organizations, 350.org and Step It Up. McKibben’s book, Deep Economy, was the common reading for all incoming freshman for the fall 2008 quarter at RIT. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Bill McKibben, Random House, @ 1989, 195 pages.

This book has been sitting on the shelf for a long time. I don’t remember when I bought it. It was published in 1989, which means much of the information is out-of-date, but it’s still an interesting read. McKibben’s central theme is that man’s activities have gone so far now [1989] that we are seeing a permanent end of nature—nature being defined as a force independent of man.

“An  idea, a relationship, can go extinct, just like an animal or a plant. The idea in this case is ‘nature,’ the separate and wild province, the word apart from man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died. In the past, we spoiled and polluted parts of that nature, inflicted environmental ‘damage.’ But that was like stabbing a man with a toothpick; though it hurt, annoyed, degraded, it did not touch vital organs, block the path of the lymph or blood. We never thought we had wrecked nature. Deep down, we never really thought we could: it was too big and too old; its forces—the wind, the rain, the sun—were too strong, too elemental.”

This book contained several new ideas for me. One was that an explosion in the numbers of termites could occur from rising global temperatures. The logic goes like this. As temperatures rise, trees will be caught out of their climate zones and die. Termites will then move in and feast. Termites emit methane, like cows. So, global warming will be further fueled by methane from termites.

Also, methane ices are also expected to melt, releasing more methane.

And another reason not to engage in nuclear war: it would damage 30 to 70% of the ozone layer. (The ozone layer is what keeps us from being fried like toast.) And here, I was just worried about radiation poisoning.

McKibben also delivers the not so cheerful message that it is already too late:

“…scientists agree that we have already pumped enough gas into the air so that a significant rise in temperature and a subsequent shift in weather are inevitable.”

This 1989 book is dated. I found myself wishing I had a revised edition. One thing that did strike me as being very interesting primarily because I have a corn sensitivity and “corn” is one of those words that makes me stop and take notice was the following:

“Last fall, when American farmers finally harvested what corn crop there was and took it to the grain elevators, United States Department of Agriculture officials began to find a new trouble: corn samples from at least seven states—including Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, which grow close to have the nation’s crop—where found to be contaminated with aflatoxin, a fungus commonly found in topsoil. When overheated corn kernels crack, the mold rushes in. Aflatoxin is a potent carcinogen, known to cause liver cancer, and corn for human consumption can’t contain more than twenty parts per billion, while immature hogs are limited to a hundred parts per billion and mature cattle to three hundred.”

My dog had liver cancer. Dog food, like human food, is processed and has lots of corn in it. The animals we eat are fed high quantities of corn. I have to wonder if there is any connection, and also have to wonder if my dog was a canary in the coal mine, of sorts.

This book really picked up around the end when McKibben discusses genetic engineering. I have not kept up with the news items of this science even though I find them fascinating. And judging by what had already been accomplished by 1989, I am sure that my knowledge of what’s going on now is woefully out of date.

This is one of those areas where people are apt to say: This is complicated, you need to leave all this to the scientists. And to that I reply, since it has moral implications that can affect my family and me, I’m unwilling to do that. I believe that I have just as much right to think about and discuss these developments as I have a right to discuss rain and snow—and I’m not meteorologist. I am interested in the big picture. The picture of which I am a part. And it’s a gruesome picture indeed.

My tolerance for gruesomeness is kind of low, so I won’t get into vivid detail. Don’t get me wrong. McKibben doesn’t write anything that makes me want to close the book and walk away. This fairly long quote does a good job of explaining his point:

There is a tendency at every important but difficult crossroad to pretend that it’s not really there. We like to imagine that we’ve already crossed a bridge or not yet come to it. Some people tend not to worry much about genetic engineering, for instance, because they think it’s an extension of traditional practices, such as selective breeding. But nature put definite limits on such activity: Mendel could cross two peas, but he couldn’t cross a pea with a pine, much less with pig, much less with a person. We could pen up chickens in atrocious batteries, but they still had heads. There were restraints, in other words—limits. And our understanding of what those limits were helped define nature in our minds. Such notions will quickly become quaint. The idea that nature—that anything—could be defined will soon be outdated. Because anything can be changed. A rabbit may be a rabbit for the moment, but tomorrow ‘rabbit’ will have no meaning. ‘Rabbit’ will be a few lines of code, no more important that a set of plans for a 1940 Ford…”

An this makes be think of the 2045 project:

“‘Eventually,’ says Stableford, ‘there may well be a complete breakdown in the distinction between living and nonliving—the boundaries between the two will be blurred and filled in by systems which involve both the machinery of life and the machinery of metal, plastic, and glass.'”

“It is the logical outcome of our defiant belief that we must forever dominate the world to our advantage as we have dominated it in the last hundred years.”

“The idea that the rest of creation might count for as much as we do is spectacularly foreign, even to most environmentalists.”

“Many of those who take the biocentric view are, of course, oddballs, the sort who would walk two thousand miles instead of flying.”

I’m not sure I see things quite the way that McKibben does. I am less likely to be so completely at odds with minor tweaks of our natural environment. But I too, would also hate to see an end of nature. Surrounded by mass plantings of monocultures and hiding from the cold in either my house or my car, I feel very disconnected from nature. Much more than I have in years. I am hesitant to say that nature does not exist any more in an unaltered form. I believe it still does in Idaho. But at least where I live, except for some raptors, coyotes, song birds, and deer, my view of nature seems largely diminished from where I grew up.

The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth

By Tim Flannery; Grove Press, New York; @ 2005; 360 pages.

Tim Flannery
Tim Flannery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the back page of this book: “Tim Flannery is an internationally acclaimed scientist, explorer, and conservationist.” He is a professor at Macquarie University in Australia. He has made numerous appearances on various news outlets. And he just might be my new hero. Well done Flannery. Well done.

I bought Flannery’s book back in 2007. It’s got a pretty cool cover photo, and the subject matter interests me. For some reason, I felt intimidated by this book when I first tried to read it in 2007.

This book re-emerged after Super Storm Sandy crashed into the East Coast.

I flipped to a section that interested me: Time’s Gateways. Finding it incredibly engaging and easy to read, I read another section. Then I flipped to the beginning and dug in.

Flannery fills this book with detail after interesting detail—adult humans require 30 lbs of air every day of their lives; elephants colonized every continent on earth except for Australia; our time address today is Cainozoic Era, Quaternary Period, Holocene Epoch.

I feel like I should read it again and again. But probably I will read it only once.

You can pretty well guess which side of the issue Flannery is on just by reading the title of his book. While he confirms that “skepticism is the lifeblood of science,” he follows that idea a few pages later with: “If, for example, we wait to see if an ailment is indeed fatal, we will do nothing until we are dead.”

Many if not most of the people I associate with these days, do not accept the possibility of a human-induced climate change. The earth is simply too big, and humans are simply too small.

Unlike my acquaintances, I am swayed by the massive amount of evidence: disappearing glaciers, melting polar ice caps, destroyed coral reefs, massive extinctions, stronger weather events, rising ocean temperatures, acidifying oceans, the Keeling curve. I also recognize that over the last 40 years, science has made enormous strides in its ability to analyze the world (computers). I don’t think scientists are always right or that they know everything, but Flannery makes some interesting points.

The author’s core message is that we currently have the knowledge and the tools to act wisely. Climate change is occurring rapidly and will soon become not just a big issue, but the only issue.

Scary words. Sensational language. This is usually the time I put the book down to see what’s in the fridge.

But I try to be better than that and read on to learn that some power plants burn through 550 tons of coal per hour. Wow. I mean…Wow. Really, that’s quite a lot. Did you catch that? Not per day. Per hour.

Other interesting tidbits. The Great Smog of 1952 in London killed 12,000 people.

Time’s gateways are occasions when one age, and often one climate gives way to the next. They are marked by faunal turnover; species suddenly appear or disappear.

I learned that the Earth formed 4,500 million years ago during the Hadean era. (That’s quite a long time ago.)

Around 100,000 years ago, humans were as rare as gorillas are today, at about 2,000 fertile adults.

For 90,000 years we were nothing but hunter gatherers. It hasn’t been until the most recent 10,000 years when the Earth’s climate has stabilized that we began to farm and build civilizations.

Our planet has experienced massive extinctions on five occasions.

The current climate change may bring an end to our current era, the Cainozoic. (Climate change can happen really fast; like in a hundred years; really really fast.)

I learned that the English used to think coal was a living organism that would grow if covered with manure.

Also, in 1986 “humans reached Earth’s carrying capacity, and ever since we have been running the environmental equivalent of a deficit budget, which is sustained by plundering our capital base.”

Beyond the failure of the Gulf Stream, now I can be afraid of the warming of the oceans and the sudden release of clathrates. Although, this should not happen for another hundred years.

Flannery puts it all together more logically than I have, but you get the picture. This guy has done a lot of research and is quite smart.

And, we’re all doomed.

I mean really; let’s face it.

But, it’s a great story.