Remember the gulf oil spill?

In 2010, I completed my second degree in Environmental Science and hopelessly looking for a full time job. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for the planet, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened. A hydrogeology professor put me in touch with a colleague that worked for a company hired by BP to perform a Natural Resources Damage Assessment. Next to no interview was necessary – they were basically looking for warm bodies.

I worked two and a half weeks on, and two and a half weeks off for 3 months. Each cycle began with my arrival to New Orleans. I would then rent a car and drive an hour west to the de facto command center. There were hundreds (maybe thousands?) of people everywhere representing dozens of different entities, a hive of activity buzzing 24/7. Once I received my gear and list of tasks, I headed out to the hotel, guest house, or bed and breakfast owned by an old racist [1] that was booked by the company’s logistics team. The following days would send me all over south central Louisiana, and Lake Pontchartrain looking for oil and taking various samples (water, oil, vegetation, beach sediment, etc.) at predetermined locations.

The days were long, usually 14-18 hours. The heat was unconscionable to a northerner such as myself. I ate greasy, unhealthy food, and decided to stop being vegetarian due to the lack of options, fatigue and a general “fuck it” attitude. And there was loneliness. I’m not a phone person in the best of circumstances, and this being my primary means of communication with my wife put a strain on the marriage.

All the while, I was obsessing over how long the job would last, how to find a full-time job back home, and what the hell I was going to do if I didn’t find one. In retrospect, it would’ve been a great situation if I were younger and single. But edging closer to 30, it was not something I was able to deal with psychologically and emotionally.

The boat captains and crew (usually charter fishermen) that I worked with were understandably not happy. While they were compensated by BP in the short term, there was considerable apprehension as to what the future would hold. What would the oil to do the resources they depend on? Would tourists, their source of income, still come? How long until they get to stop driving in circles in the service of remediation and monitoring of a tragedy they had no part in creating? It made my personal anxiety seem cheap by comparison.

On the other hand, I knew the Gulf was big, but seeing it first-hand was awe-inspiring. Flying around on fishing boats, seeing dolphins leaping and pelicans diving, one could easily forget the catastrophe that led to my being there in the first place. Once I got over being seasick, it was pretty cool.

During my time, I have to say I didn’t see very much oil. That was good for my psyche – witnessing oiled wildlife definitely would’ve haunted me for the rest of my life.

To my knowledge, the NRDA I participated in has not been released, either because it’s not ready or because it’s not intended to be released to the public. Probably the latter. However, the government released their NRDA a little under two years ago.

***

A few weeks back, my wife and I visited her parents in New Orleans. The final day of the trip we went on a tour of the marshes south of Houma, the general area of where my first stint was. It’s pretty crazy that the tour we went on is the only one in the area. Most tours are in the bayous north of the salt marshes. The primary tourist activity in and south of them is charter fishing. Perusing some of the rates, it’s no wonder that none of the boat captains are willing to explore mere sightseeing.

The tour was great, but served as a reminder of the negative effects of offshore drilling. The guide didn’t bring up the oil spill, and I didn’t press the issue – I thought it might be a touchy subject. But she had some choice words for the ample consequences of canal-making and maintenance by the oil industry. The chief concerns are flooding and saltwater intrusion. The wetlands have been crucial in limiting both, but “the local cuts and nicks, one acre at a time” are continuing to wreak devastation.

There are other effects as well, some that we could see. Any time one spends time in nature, they are usually blissfully unaware that things might not be great. There could be invasive species, endangered native species, or unseen pollution. To the untrained or uneducated eye, it’s hard to know.

In the salt marshes, as the tour guide helpfully pointed out, the deciduous vegetation lining some of the canals is not native to the area. The excavations, dumped onto the adjacent riparian areas, exposed the dredged muck which allowed long dormant but still viable seeds from upstream to germinate. Obviously I wouldn’t have known this if it weren’t pointed out to me, but the tepid autumn colors of the deciduous trees look very out of place in this region and serve as visual evidence that things aren’t right.

***

The relationship between the petroleum industry is, as it is everywhere oil can be found in the US, complicated. To distill the complications to their essence, it provides jobs but wrecks the environment (profound, I know). Those obtaining monetary rewards care only as much as it affects their bottom line (again, very profound).

Louisiana, as opposed to other locales, has a different relationship with the oil industry [2]. Offshore drilling in California, for example, has been met with widespread protest over the last century. Other areas of the country with shorelines that can be used for amenities (or picturesque enough for private ownership by the obscenely wealthy) are less likely to view offshore drilling as desirable. But in Louisiana, this hasn’t been the case for several reasons:

  • Louisiana’s southern coast contains the most extensive coastal marshlands in the US. Most Louisianans live miles from the coast, and much of it is only accessible by boat. Many have never even seen it.
  • Louisiana has historically been an area of the country where extractive industries reign supreme. In the middle part of the last century when offshore drilling was ramping up, locals were more likely to see it as just another type of industry they were already familiar with – after all, nature is a gift from God to do with as we please.
  • The ubiquity of the oil industry has ensured that just about every family contains one or more members that are employed directly or tangentially. It is a vital component of their local economy.

What brought on the spill, simplistically speaking, was pure hubris. Safety measures were ignored. Federal oversight was lax. The lack of recent catastrophes encouraged personnel to rest on their laurels, exacerbated by the fact that doing so saves money in the short term. Astoundingly, the means of dealing with the spill when it occurred were virtually the same as those used decades ago:

  • Capturing oil via containment booms. They are every bit as pathetic as they look. I recall seeing many a ship drive around aimlessly with their boom up and wondering how the hell they would be of any use.

https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2010/0611/Containment-boom-effort-comes-up-short-in-BP-oil-spill

BP had the foolish belief that nothing bad will ever happen, and they’re certainly not the only oil company who has this point of view. It is endemic to extractive, environmentally destructive entities. Problems can be dealt with when they happen. Hopefully the state of remediation is better now than it was then – especially with Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge edging closer to being opened for drilling.

***

Obviously the oil spill was bad in the short term. But 7-8 years on, how are things? The most recent comprehensive paper I could find was from last year. From it’s abstract:

Research demonstrates that oiling caused a wide range of biological effects, although worst-case impact scenarios did not materialize. Biomarkers in individual organisms were more informative about oiling stress than population and community indices. Salt marshes and seabird populations were hard hit, but were also quite resilient to oiling effects. Monitoring demonstrated little contamination of seafood. Certain impacts are still understudied, such as effects on seagrass communities. Concerns of long-term impacts remain for large fish species, deep-sea corals, sea turtles and cetaceans. These species and their habitats should continue to receive attention (monitoring and research) for years to come.

So the best that can be said is the worst case scenario was avoided. Hooray! That’s good PR for BP – they should use it in their marketing. And so we march on, racing inexorably towards exhausting a nonrenewable resource that, while making lives easier and more convenient for some, is wrecking our planet in so many different ways. On a lighter note, consider seeing the salt marshes of Louisiana. You won’t be disappointed.


[1] The casual, open racism was quite a shock compared to the thinly-veiled Midwestern variety I’m used to.

[2] The following information in the section comes from Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America by William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling. It came out within a year of the spill and the title is extremely misleading. The “future of energy” takes up around 10 pages, with the bulk of the book providing the historical and sociological contexts that led to and even predicted a spill like this to occur. It was a worthwhile read, though it contained numerous grammatical errors – pretty obvious is the fact they were in a rush to publish. Nevertheless, I would’ve thought MIT Press wouldn’t be so lax in their editing.

This seems like a big deal

The folks at Big Science are again putting humanity on blast. Twenty-five years ago, they issued a dire warning, one that hasn’t resulted in sustained, meaningful results:

Twenty-five years ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists and more than 1700 independent scientists, including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences, penned the 1992 “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” (see supplemental file S1). These concerned professionals called on humankind to curtail environmental destruction and cautioned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of their call, we look back at their warning and evaluate the human response by exploring available time-series data. Since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse.

Is it too much to ask our beloved leaders to respond to this in a meaningful way? Let’s say the media actually does this. In this dream scenario, they could really hold their feet to the fire – be tenacious, refuse to accept non-answers, point out conflicts of interest, refute illogic, etc. It seems pretty important:

To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual. This prescription was well articulated by the world’s leading scientists 25 years ago, but in most respects, we have not heeded their warning. Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home.

None of this should be news to readers of this site. But the paper appears to be exceptionally noteworthy:

We have been overwhelmed with the support for our article and thank the more than 15,000 signatories from all ends of the Earth (see supplemental file S2 for list of signatories). As far as we know, this is the most scientists to ever co-sign and formally support a published journal article.

Worth pondering is what to do when legal means of halting our death march continue to fail. Sure there are small victories here and there – for example, the article notes the decline in the manufacturing of ozone depleting substances. But the overall narrative of impending doom hasn’t changed. Collectively, we’re not listening. Or, put another way, those who are okay with destroying the biosphere, and those who profit off it directly and indirectly, haven’t listened. There doesn’t seem to be many good reasons to think they’ll start now.

Destroy the machines that kill the forests, that disfigure the earth

Trump signed the long-awaited order dismantling Obama’s rather prodigious attempts at combating climate change. It’s bad:

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump will sign an executive order that will demolish his predecessor’s attempts to slow the pace of climate change. It is an omnibus directive that strikes across the federal government, reversing major rules that aim to restrict greenhouse-gas emissions while simultaneously instructing departments to ignore or downplay the risks of climate change in their decision-making.

As details of the order leaked to the public, nearly every environmental or climate-centric group castigated it as a costly step backward. Andrew Steer, the president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, said that the administration was “taking a sledgehammer to U.S. climate action.”

There is a lot going on in the order: Months of rumored environmental action have been distilled into this document. Its policy goals can be separated into two categories. First, some policies require rule-making processes that Trump can only set in motion and point toward certain goals. The second group of policies are just executive directives reserved to the president. Trump can issue them by himself, just as Obama did, and they will enter force immediately.

This will surely be fought by many groups and organizations that have been fighting for years. But what will they do when legal means fail? I’m pretty sure I know the answer – they’ll continue utilizing the same means, but perhaps tweaked a bit here and there. The decades-long losing battle will go on. Others see the writing on the wall, have judged that economic interests and the state will forever be against the wild, and have dispensed with lawful methods:

With the Dakota Access Pipeline nearly ready to start operation, the company that runs it says the 1,172-mile long oil pipe has been vandalized in several places.

In a court-ordered status report filed Monday, attorneys for Dakota Access write there have been “recent coordinated physical attacks … that pose threats to life, physical safety, and the environment.”

Aw, Dakota Access cares so much about life, safety and the environment! Obviously that’s what it’s about, rather than the costs to repair and general annoyance. (I should note that “physical attacks” performed after the pipeline starts running would indeed be irresponsible, shitty and harmful to the extent that it could cause a spill)

The blog title is taken from the lyrics of a song that’s over 20 years old. Sadly, it’s just as relevant now as it was then, if not more so. Legal means can take years to yield the most modest of results, and Obama’s efforts were only mildly encouraging (to me anyways) and seemingly swept away with the stroke of a pen. Regardless, species are going extinct; forests are being cut down; land is being transformed to accommodate urban sprawl; mountains are despoiled; streams are polluted; and climate change is no closer to being mitigated (not going to provide a link for that and the others are a bit superfluous). At what point is it too late?

Though perhaps not a universal salve, or one that can ever really work on a large scale, direct action is one tool that can be used to

halt the insanity of the yellow death machines advance.

Maybe we’ll see a bit more of it.

Melissa McCarthy’s terrible Kia ad

Obviously greenwashing isn’t new. I first recall hearing about it over a decade ago, and it is, depressingly, still going strong. Also not new is humor aimed at the idea of tree-huggers saving the environment. In general, I’m not opposed to this. Of course, subjectively, some do it better than others. But combining humor with selling a product directly implicated in environmental destruction [1], not to mention climate change, is pretty reprehensible.

This can be seen in the new Kia/Melissa McCarthy commercial, which I will neither link to nor embed. For those blissfully unaware, Melissa McCarthy finds herself in some pretty hilarious situations in her role as eco-warrior. And it’s a hit! I’m sure Kia’s shareholders are stoked, as is the natural world which can now breathe a sigh of relief. In general, car commercials are some of the most cloying examples of environmentally harmful companies attempting to manipulate one’s emotions with maudlin drivel (“Love. Its what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.” Puke.).

Let’s see what the CEO of Kia has to say:

People will go to great lengths to support the causes they are passionate about, and the Niro is a “smarter kind of crossover” for those looking to go green without making sacrifices…The Niro is like nothing consumers have seen before, and with an audience of over 100 million people tuning in, Melissa McCarthy is the perfect partner to tell the world about Kia’s uniquely alluring yet practical new crossover.

The last thing I’d want to do in my personal efforts to save the world is make any kind of sacrifice. Like, if doing anything beneficial for the planet involves sacrifices I say fuck that. I know when I’m driving a car I need that extra UMPH to make me feel like a STRONG MAN. And not only just a STRONG MAN, but one who CARES about things.

McCarthy, from the same article above, had this to say:

For years, I’ve been trying to find the perfect project that combined the real threat of me breaking every bone in my body, with my desire to help save the environment. Thanks Kia!!!  XOXO Love, Melissa.

For the first time in a long time, I think we’re on the right track. I’m just glad that doing my part to save the planet is as easy as running over to my Kia dealer and buying a brand new $23K car. The fact that I can laugh about a funny lady slamming into the side of a boat and being chased by a rhino is icing on the cake.

World=Saved.


 

[1]

Historian Mark Foster has estimated that “fully one-third of the total environmental damage caused by automobiles occurred before they were sold and driven.” He cited a study that estimated that fabricating one car produced 29 tons of waste and 1,207 million cubic yards of polluted air. Extracting iron ore, bauxite, petroleum, copper, lead, and a variety of other raw materials to process steel, aluminum, plastics, glass, rubber, and other products necessary to construct automobiles consumes limited resources, uses great amounts of energy, and has serious environmental repercussions. In recent years, for example, the automotive industry in several developed countries was a major purchaser of iron and steel (30 percent), lead for batteries (46 percent), aluminum (23 percent), and platinum for exhaust fume control (41 percent). Approximately 75 percent of the cost of the industry’s power comes from electricity, but the auto industry also consumes natural gas (15 percent of energy expenditures), and coal and coke (over 8 percent), as well as steam, oil, and propane.

Our crumbling infrastructure

As a culture, we are fantastic at living in the moment. In the event we plan for the future at all, it is typically with ourselves and immediate family in mind. I do this too – I try to focus on things I have a tenuous degree of control over. The big questions of impending doom related to climate change and infrastructure failures are delegated to professionals – the government, private companies – and activists. It doesn’t seem to be working very well.

You’ve probably heard of the Oroville Dam clusterfuck. It’s pretty bad, and there’s more to come:

According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials (ASDSO), the U.S. had 173 dam failures and 587 incidents between January 1st, 2005 and June 2013. (“Incidents” are defined as “episodes that, without intervention, would likely have resulted in dam failure.”) A majority of those failures were attributed to extreme weather.

Lori Spragens, executive director of the ASDSO, told Gizmodo that it’s possible there are more incidents that have gone unnoticed or unreported. There’s no across the board rule about reporting incidents, she said. “It just depends on the state. Some states only regulate high-hazard dams, some regulate all three levels of hazard,” low, significant, and high, according to the ASDSO.

A 2013 report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States’ overall infrastructure a letter grade of “D+,” meaning poor. The score was even lower for the 84,000 U.S. dams, which received a “D.” (It’s also worth noting that the average age of the failed dams was 62 years old, just 10 years older than the national average.)

Out of all those dams, the most immediately worrisome are the 2,000 that have been categorized as “deficient high-hazard” dams. High-hazard dams are anticipated to cause loss of human life if they fail. Many of these were initially built as low-hazard dams, but as populations grew and development proceeded, people have increasingly found themselves in the danger zone.

You might be thinking, “holy shit, this sounds like it would be really expensive fix.” If so, you’re right!

As politicians campaign on rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, we’ve mostly been engaged in half-measures that require little sacrifice. As one of his final acts as president, Obama authorized the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, which allocated $12 billion dollars to a range of projects related to the nation’s water supply. But only a portion of the money is intended to improve the federal government’s high-hazard dams. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates it would take over $57 billion to rehabilitate all of the nation’s dams.

It’s yet to be seen what our new president will do—the infrastructure plan he floated before the election would rely on tax incentives for private companies—but the clock is ticking.

You might be thinking “hmm, maybe it’d be better to use the wall money for something like this.” That’s an idea I only grudgingly think about, largely from the perceptive that the wall idea is asinine and the money could be put to better use. I don’t like dams. However, I guess I’m more agnostic to fixing pre-existing dams, the failure of which would endanger lives. But maybe we should just take them down. In a very recent article in Science FindingsGordon Grant, professor at the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, concluded that there is

sound empirical basis for dam removal as a rational, workable strategy to improve fluvial connectivity, reduce environmental hazards associated with aging infrastructure, and promote recolonization by fish and other aquatic organisms in previously blocked reaches.

Sounds good to me. But one drawback of the study is that it acknowledges there is limited data on large dam removal:

Unfortunately, we don’t have enough examples of big dam removals to get a good sense of the full range of possible responses.

Moreover, there is no discussion of impacted human communities downstream. As a rabid, human-hating environmentalist, it’s admittedly not the most important thing to me. But it would be essential for dam removal proponents to address this in ways that people care about (i.e. how humans are affected).

My views aside, we’ll probably neglect the issues at hand until juuuuust before it’s too late. Then, we’ll throw money and technology at the problems in order to, again, kick the can further down the road.

 

Pipelines

To my shame, I’ve never had much more than a tenuous grasp on what presidents can or can’t do. Which is why I was confused about the executive orders signed by Trump regarding the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines. Can he just make these projects happen with the stroke of a pen? Thankfully, at this point, the answer is no.

For the Dakota pipeline he’s merely requesting the Army Corps of Engineers to hurry the fuck up and approve it. From The Atlantic

[T]he executive orders seemed to be written in a typical way. Instead of commanding agencies to ignore congressionally passed law, the orders request that they expedite or reconsider previous judgments. “Executive orders are legal orders—they’re law—but they can’t contravene legislative enactments. So an executive order can’t say, ‘Ignore the (National Environmental Policy Act) and give me a pipeline,’” [Sarah Krakoff, a professor of tribal and resources law at the University of Colorado Boulder] told me.

“If the federal law gives decision-making authority to a particular official, that official has to make the decision,” said John Leshy, a professor of real property law and a former general counsel to the U.S. Department of the Interior. “But there’s some murkiness about what the president can do. The decision maker can say no, and then the president can fire them and replace them with someone who would. But that takes time.”

Krakoff added that it would attract judicial suspicion if the Army Corps of Engineers suddenly decided that it didn’t have to make an environmental-impact statement for the Dakota Access pipeline after saying that it did just weeks ago.

“It would be hard for them to turn around on a dime and say, ‘We got this piece of paper from the president and now we don’t think that’s necessary,’” she said. “If the agency were to take a different route, legally, now, I would strongly suspect that that would be subject to litigation.”

There is less in the way of getting the Keystone XL pipeline off the ground. Ominously, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (isn’t he supposed to be a totally cool and awesome liberal heartthrob???) is welcoming the opportunity for TransCanada to re-submit its application:

Canadian diplomats had spent years attempting to convince Obama to let Keystone proceed. Trump’s decision was applauded by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

“I’ve been on the record for many years supporting it because it means economic growth and good jobs for Albertans,” Trudeau said at a Liberal cabinet retreat in Calgary.

To sum up where we are now in regards to the pipelines, (again, from The Atlantic article):

Experts seemed to think the Keystone XL pipeline would be easier to restart, at least from a legal perspective. The obstacles to that pipeline originated in the federal government and not an ongoing legal challenge. But in a way, that highlights the paradox of the two pipelines: While it may be easier to restart Keystone XL legally, none of that project is built, and there’s no guarantee that it ever will be. The Dakota Access pipeline, meanwhile, sits idle at 80-percent completion. It is closer to being done. It also has, legally, much further to go.

Our primary hope appears to be sweet, sweet labyrinthine bureaucracy, as well as the fact that not all executive orders yield their desired results. The Atlantic article notes this and concludes with an outline of Obama’s inability to follow through on his 2009 executive order to close Guantanamo. It would be obscene and demoralizing if Trump’s authoritarian bullying succeeds in attaining environmentally destructive goals, while Obama’s eloquence and diplomacy failed to achieve his comparatively noble mission to close an ongoing human rights disaster.

Putting a tunnel through a tree is stupid

https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/01/09/us/pioneer-cabin-tree-sequoia.html

Pioneer Cabin tree, a tree that was tunneled through in the name of tourism, recently fell. I found out on social media, and people really seemed to be bummed out about it. I had never heard of it, and didn’t even know tunneled trees were a thing. My first thought, when looking at a picture, was one of revulsion. My second thought was people are the fucking worst.

But is it really so bad, ethically-speaking? In Practical Ethics, Peter Singer argues that we don’t owe any special consideration to the interests of plants because they lack the capacity for sentience/consciousness, however one defines these terms. A human or nonhuman animal with adequate mental capacities has preferences, but the desire for tolerable conditions and the ability to do something about it is not thought to be present in plants:

Once we stop to reflect on the fact that plants are not conscious and cannot engage in any intentional behavior…it is clear that all this language is metaphorical; one might just as well say that a river is pursuing its own good and striving to reach the sea. [1]

Thus, the Pioneer Cabin tree was incapable of having an opinion as to whether or not its mutilation was good and, in terms of ethical consideration is little different than a stalactite.

That just strikes me as intuitively wrong. However, I’m mindful that one’s intuition, without good evidence to support it, is meaningless. Ideally I believe humans should give consideration to the interests of all life, and not just the section that comprises the animal kingdom [2]. Every living organism – sentient or nonsentient, conscious or nonconscious – is an entity comprised of molecules that resist entropy. An entity that continually incorporates, changes and discharges molecules, all in an ultimately futile attempt to rage against the dying of the light. A stalactite has no such internal chemistry that resists the inevitable, with no mechanisms to alter its surrounding physical conditions and maintain homeostasis. It’s that struggle that is sufficient for me to grant that all living entities have an interest in existing, whether an organism is sentient or nonsentient, conscious or nonconscious.

That certainlydoesn’t mean it’s never wrong to take a life, be it animal, plant, fungi, or bacteria. Generally speaking, it’s acceptable to eat plants and animals, regardless of their desires to continue existing. I also have no problem with, in a vacuum, purposefully or mistakenly killing plants and animals for agricultural purposes [3] or if they pose a health threat to oneself. Taking antibiotics to kill harmful bacteria is fine. A deer tick in my navel drinking my blood for 3 days that I inexplicably and foolishly didn’t notice? Fuck you, I’ll kill you. [4] Basically, one should have a good reason for killing or harming another living being.

Humans, ever willing to take on the mantle of God, frequently make decisions that mean life or death to countless organisms. This is from the smallest of scales – killing a spider in your bedroom – to the level of whole ecosystems. It would be nice if such alterations were divorced from anthropocentric desires that do not deal with our health or survival. Obviously, if the tree was left alone and people were unable to drive or walk through it, our health or survival would have been unaffected. So hollowing out a tree for tourism purposes is bad, as the National Park Service admits.

Even if it wasn’t the reason the tree fell, I don’t see how hollowing out a tree can be seen to, at best, have no detrimental effects to the tree itself. Perhaps, though, the experience people had with this tree caused a shift in general viewpoint in terms of the necessity of conservation. If so, I would argue that this is based on a grotesque display of human domination, and wonder how one could quantify any positive real-world consequences (as opposed to mere changes in one’s perspective).

All of this leads to the question of human assigned value: there is no intrinsic difference between a thousand year sequoia, and a ten day old garlic mustard plant. We assign value to the sequoia due to the sense of majesty we feel when we’re in its presence; knowledge of the significant role it plays in its ecological relationships; or, if you suck, the amount of money you can make off its wood. Garlic mustard, on the other hand, is non-native to North America, makes our lawns look like shit, and outcompetes native vegetation. These are human assigned values that are extrinsic to individual organisms – we love well manicured landscapes devoid of unsightly weeds and prefer more visually appealing native flora.

And yet, I feel no sense of grief as I pull individual garlic mustard plants out my yard. This means I’m a dick for doing so, because intrinsically a garlic mustard plant is no better or worse than any other plant in the vicinity. I make a value judgment, and my reasoning does not take into consideration the plant continuing to have the ability to do plant things (regardless of whether or not it can be said to have preferences). Basically, I’m a hypocrite if I prefer a yard that myself and other humans arbitrarily regard as “nice,” because that’s a pretty shitty reason to end a life. Oh well. But fuck putting tunnels in trees.


[1] Practical Ethics, p. 249. The Oxford Dictionary website defines intentional as “Done on purpose.” Left unstated is whether or not doing something on purpose requires a conscious component, though it’s probably implied. David Chamovitz, author of What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, states that while he doesn’t grant plants the ability to think, they “exhibit elements of anoetic consciousness [“the rudimentary state of affective, homeostatic, and sensory-perceptual mental experiences”].” This, coupled with the pretty amazing things plants can do is, to me, enough to differentiate them from a river flowing to its mouth.

[2] Not viruses, which aren’t technically alive. Viruses can fuck right off

[3] Outside of this vacuum, factory farming is cruel and abhorrent.

[4] The thought of getting Lyme Disease again is terrifying.

 

Make humanity great again

I’ve long been uncomfortable with the high level of arrogance inherent in Western Civilization. Through the ages, humans have been inexorably downgraded in terms of cosmic importance, but it’s done little to stem our collective hubris. Every religion that’s ever existed provides no empirical reasons to believe in any of their metaphysical tenets, many of which place humans above the rest of Creation. Divorced from a providential sense of importance we are only special from a global perspective due to our canny abilities to take massive quantities of raw materials and turn them into massive amounts of manufactured eventual garbage, as well as the creation of technology that is capable of destroying tremendous amounts of human and nonhuman life.

This is admittedly a bleak and pessimistic overview. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that some of the “manufactured eventual garbage” has enabled us to, among other things, transport our bodies at fast speeds to faraway places; systematically investigate and understand the cosmos at the largest and smallest scales; share, store and transmit vast amounts of information; diagnose and treat diseases; and travel beyond our planetary confines. Not to mention other fun and awesome things like literature, music, the arts, and skateboards. More seriously, some of us have developed empathy and compassion for unrelated humans, and perhaps more notably nonhuman animals, which I think is one of our more admirable traits. [1] Unfortunately, empathy and compassion are often reactions to monstrosities perpetrated by other humans. On the whole, any and all positive characteristics need to be considered in light of our 8-12,000 year onslaught against each other and the rest of the biosphere.

We are destroying ecosystems and extirpating entire species and only recently beginning to grasp the true extent. [2] The only other biological comparison on par with our illustrious death march is Proterozoic oceanic cyanobacteria, which produced enough oxygen to wipe out much of earth’s anaerobic biota eons ago. The obvious difference is we are aware, though, I’m not sure that’s an entirely accurate way to phrase it. One can’t be certain to what extent the individual humans (not to mention humans in charge of other humans) participating in direct and indirect ecosystem disruptions are aware of the harm they are doing spatiotemporally. Did a Canadian fisherman trawling in the North Atlantic in the 1950’s necessarily know they were destroying the local cod population? Did a mining company CEO in the 1990’s know on some level the devastation that mountaintop removals cause, the cessation of which would hurt their company’s bottom line? Did they just not care?

Certainly there is a large difference between a working class fisherman in an industrialized nation and a CEO of a transnational mining company. The former does such work as part of their livelihood and likely noticed diminishing returns but still continued fishing, with the hope that the cod would return. The latter is, in my mind, more grotesque with regards to power and responsibility. They largely don’t give a shit, their transparently disingenuous corporate website environmental propaganda sections notwithstanding. The point is, in an age where information is widely available some of these individuals must know or have been made aware of the idea that their actions in some capacity have negative impacts. Those negative impacts aside, it’s patently obvious that extractive industries will eventually run out of things to extract in a discrete area, which necessitates the movement to a new area, be it fish or coal. On a finite planet with finite resources, eventually we’ll run out nonrenewable resources and are largely reliant on the ecological resilience of harvested wild animal and plant communities (not to mention the vagaries of agricultural systems and its associated environmental factors). [3]

Overall, those who derive the most profit off of organic life and abiotic phenomena care about the aforementioned in terms of how to best utilize it for their own narrow-minded ends. [4] We are a culture that richly rewards this type of behavior. If the Bramble cay melomys in Australasia goes extinct due to ecosystem mismanagement so fucking what? If there’s no monetary or utilitarian value for humanity, or something we don’t find to be cute or iconic, the vast majority of people won’t give it a passing thought in the unlikely event they are even made aware of it. This is summed up well by Paul Kingsnorth:

Today’s environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world. Most of us wouldn’t even know where to find it. We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens [Latin: ‘wise man’], though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.

“It is, in other words, an entirely human-centered piece of politicking, disguised as concern for ‘the planet.’ In a very short time — just over a decade — this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in between. The success of environmentalism has been total — at the price of its soul.”

Anthropogenic climate change has finally been accepted on a large-scale, resulting in paltry global attempts at mitigating its effects. However, despite this newfound acceptance we have yet to collectively take meaningful actions to lessen our consumptive lifestyles. Fossil fuel extractions continue apace with no end in sight. The prospect of the imminent accessibility of the Arctic’s seabed has wealthy, powerful humans falling all over themselves for the privilege of plundering, environmental concerns be damned. There doesn’t appear to be much standing between them and their greed.

I often wonder how such blatantly harmful actions can be curtailed. As long as there’s money to be made, nonexistent or hard to enforce laws, and a dearth of options for a percentage of the world’s population to survive in a global economy, it’s hard to see things improving [5]. This is not to entirely disparage incremental progress, but in terms of environmental destruction and ongoing human caused extinctions, it’s fair to ponder the futility of conventional environmentalist tactics in the face of continuing and irreversible damage. [6]

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t express a sense of admiration of those fighting the good fight against the ongoing assault against nature, even if their methods haven’t had a lot of success historically. However, the power disparities appear insurmountable. No one, for the most part, is getting rich off of doing the dirty work of fighting the dominant culture, and many are content to blog, retweet and argue online as part of their armchair activism (like me!). It’s easy and requires little time, little effort and little danger to oneself. I am certainly not exempt from this criticism. On the other hand, there is a mass of humanity that couldn’t care less – they can be seen in shopping malls, on TV, in sports arenas, and soon, at rallies for the U.S.’s president-elect.

*****

Many nature/environmental/conservation writers spend the bulk of their writing describing the enormous problems we face and shoehorn a few reasons for hope into the conclusion. It’s hard not to perceive this as blatant wishful thinking, often in the form of “if we do x, y and z, with those variables being improbable pipe dreams, then maybe things won’t be so fucked up.” [7] The only solution my dumb brain can comprehend is a totalitarian world government that violently controls the world’s resources and severely punishes any opposition in the name of sustainability. In other words, we need to be stopped at gunpoint. Such a government would be highly repressive, and regardless of ideology breed a class of elites dominating the rest of society. This would obviously be a nightmare scenario. But as utterly ineffective as the UN is at preventing atrocities and the manifold failures of US hegemony, it’s hard to see the New World Order prophesied by conspiracy theorists coming to pass anytime soon. Perhaps, though, localized authoritarian regimes will materialize, as the depletion of nonrenewable resources continues. Or, I could be very wrong about all of this. I’m wrong a lot.

I think the hope that most have is for Science to generate magical solutions to wean us off fossil fuels while allowing the maintenance or slight decrease of our hyper-consumptive lifestyles (and just maybe, in the spirit of egalitarianism, allowing for the developing world to attain the Western standard of living). It would also be nice to develop technology to better recycle discarded metals and minerals. These solutions should be clean, cheap, safe, renewable and widely available to all. If Science isn’t able to do that, and if humans aren’t willing to stop destroying the environment, it’s hard for me to be optimistic about what the future brings.

Only by overcoming the severe and near innumerable issues we face environmentally, not to mention our vast array social problems, would conceivably make humanity great in my eyes. That is the essence of this overlong essay: we aren’t great, and we never really were [8]. I’d also add that during or after we tackle the aforementioned problems, we should maximize the possibility we can predict and survive cataclysmic events relatively unscathed. [9] Designing the means for enduring a gamma ray blast, impact event, or supervolcano eruption would be pretty damn impressive. We’d finally earn the translation from the Latin of our species name that we so humbly bestowed on ourselves. It’s too bad that, if any of it ever comes to pass, I’ll probably be long dead and unable to let my fellow humans know my very important opinions on the matter.

Like the environmental writers referenced above, I too will attempt to end on a positive note. It’s an appropriate encapsulation of how I mentally confront the enormity of what we face. From Derrick Jensen, who is admittedly a douche:

I am a complex enough being that I can hold in my heart the understanding that we are really, really fucked, and at the same time that life is really, really good. I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and a thousand other feelings. We are really fucked. Life is still really good.” [10]


[1] It’s worth noting that we do not have a monopoly on empathetic and altruistic behavior. For example, humpback whales have been observed rescuing seals from killer whales, thought the degree of intentionality is uncertain. For more: Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce.

[2] Not that anyone is unaware of this sentiment, but the most illuminating book I’ve read on this from a historical perspective is A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations by Clive Ponting.

[3] The following article on our dwindling resources is behind a paywall at Scientific American but here is a link to that issue as a pdf, pg. 56-63: http://elibrary.bsu.az/jurnallar/Scientific%20American_201009.pdf.

[4] I’m referring more to large corporations, and not the global poor and working class, as the latter groups harm the environment in order to obtain the bare necessities of life. A stark account of how this struggle is manifested can be seen in a recent article in Roads and Kingdoms that describes contemporary fishing villages in South Asia.

[5] And note I wrote the bulk of this BEFORE Trump won the election.

[6] It feels shitty writing things like that. Just to pick one example, there are good, courageous people fighting against DAPL. I really hope they win, but I’m skeptical. Oil and gas companies rarely lose. And even under the Obama administration, the state is decidedly on their side, as it always has been. At best, the pipeline will be moved from Native lands, but it’s still, in all likelihood, getting built.

[7] A brief example from the excellent Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina:

So to embrace a sea ethic we need not idealize or distort the ocean’s creatures. Indeed, up to now our view of the sea’s living inhabitants can hardly be more distorted. Instead, we have the opportunity to see them fully for the first time, as wild animals in their habitats, confronted with needs and dangers, equipped by evolution with the capacity and drive to manage and adapt and survive.

“Such a perspective frees the mind and opens door: to a lifetime of boundless inquiry, to a wealth of enriching insights and reflections, to the chance to be more fully human, to manage and adapt and survive.”

This was after 400 or so pages of some pretty depressing shit. It’s a nice sentiment but frustratingly abstract, though concrete solutions and techniques were dotted throughout the text. That book was written in 1998. Here’s a quote Safina gave to National Geographic this past summer:

Over my lifetime I’ve seen big changes; far fewer fish and terribly deteriorated coral reefs worldwide. More mercury in seafood.”

I should point out that the article does highlight success stories, but the referenced quote speaks volumes, as does another recent article of his with the optimistic title of “As salmon dwindle, whales die.” His comments would obviously be far different if his research and activism resulted in evidence that things have gotten better in the two decades since the publication of the book.

[8] Unless one counts our pre-civilized hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose existence encompassed around 90-99% of our time as a species, and didn’t trash the planet.

[9] It’s possible we’ve already done it once

[10] Endgame, Volume 1:The Problem of Civilization