A Martian Odyssey: The thrilling conclusion!

A couple weeks back, I posted my installment of our winter fundraiser‘s story chain. I owe an apology, both to my colleagues here, and to my readers, who have no doubt been eagerly awaiting the rest of the story. William Brinkman brought us the conclusion to our epic tale on December 13th, and I neglected to share it at the time!

If you haven’t seen it yet, then your long, cold wait is over – head over to the Bolingbrook Babbler for the finale, and may it carry you through to the New Year!

Who are the war criminals Trump decided to pardon?

I’m working on some other stuff, but in the mean time, since it’s relevant, here’s some info on the Blackwater mercenaries Trump decided to pardon, and on the efforts by right-wing media to whitewash their crimes. This is another example of how Trump is not – in any way – meaningfully separate from the mainstream conservative movement of the United States. He is louder and less subtle, but none of the things he has done are really outside of the GOP norm. His absence will not make conservatives suddenly start caring about human life.


Unsurprising bad news: Plants are getting worse at absorbing carbon dioxide

Of the many arguments against treating climate change like the serious problem it is, one of the most foolish has been the attempt to claim that it’s actually a good thing that CO2 levels are rising. On some occasions, this argument is made by people who say it’s a good thing to have the temperature rise. Back in the late 1890s, Svante Arrhenius apparently felt this way, but that’s perhaps understandable given that he expected the warming to take a couple thousand years, and Sweden can be fairly cold. More often, what we get is the grade-school-science argument that “CO2 is plant food”:

In case it needs to be said, this has never been a valid argument. It’s on par with saying that because plants like water, it would be better for all of them if the entire planet was flooded, or because they like sunlight, it would be better for them if they sky was never, ever cloudy. Still, photosynthesis remains our best method for pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere, and wild plants and algae are responsible for a large majority of the photosynthesis going on around the world.

Unfortunately, it has always been more likely than not that a warmer planet would actually reduce the degree to which plants pull carbon out of the air. The problem is that the pores through which plants take in and emit gases are the same ones through which they lose water. Lower rainfall and higher temperatures mean that plants must reduce their rate of photosynthesis, or they will dry out and die. Different plants have adaptations to deal with this, but with global weather patterns changing, and average temperatures rising, many of them are increasingly out of their comfort zones.

While some plants have been taking up more carbon as it has become more abundant, other factors have been pushing the other direction, and uptake as a proportion of atmospheric concentration is declining:

“In this study, by analyzing the best available long-term data from remote sensing and state-of-the-art land-surface models, we have found that since 1982, the global average CFE [CO2 fertilization effect] has decreased steadily from 21 percent to 12 percent per 100 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere,” said Ben Poulter, study co-author and scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “In other words, terrestrial ecosystems are becoming less reliable as a temporary climate change mitigator.”

What’s Causing It?

Without this feedback between photosynthesis and elevated atmospheric CO2, Poulter said we would have seen climate change occurring at a much more rapid rate. But scientists have been concerned about how long the CO2 Fertilization Effect could be sustained before other limitations on plant growth kick in.

For instance, while an abundance of CO2 won’t limit growth, a lack of water, nutrients, or sunlight – the other necessary components of photosynthesis — will. To determine why the CFE has been decreasing, the study team took the availability of these other elements into account.

“According to our data, what appears to be happening is that there’s both a moisture limitation as well as a nutrient limitation coming into play,” Poulter said. “In the tropics, there’s often just not enough nitrogen or phosphorus, to sustain photosynthesis, and in the high-latitude temperate and boreal regions, soil moisture is now more limiting than air temperature because of recent warming.”

In effect, climate change is weakening plants’ ability to mitigate further climate change over large areas of the planet.

In a lot of ways, this changes nothing. For those who’ve been paying attention, it has long been clear that saving ourselves and the species on which we rely will require immediate, drastic action from humanity. What this study does provide is confirmation of what we strongly suspected, and underscores the urgency of the situation. Earth’s natural rapid CO2 sinks – terrestrial plants, diffusion into the ocean, and algal photosynthesis – all have limits, both on how fast they can absorb carbon, and on how much they can absorb. They have been providing us with a “cushioning” effect for generations. They’ve been absorbing a lot of the carbon we’ve been digging up and burning. We know this because as the quoted article mentions, the CFE is a known phenomenon, and because the rising acidity of the world’s oceans has been caused by the absorption of a vast amount of CO2 as the relative atmospheric concentration has risen.

Our global climate is a massive system, and it takes a huge amount of energy to “move” it. For over a century now, the organic and inorganic parts of that system have been absorbing staggering amounts of CO2 and heat as we have extracted and burned hundreds of billions of tons of carbon that was buried over hundreds of millions of years. It is no exaggeration to say that what we face right now is the biggest problem in human history. Without the benefit of hindsight, it’s impossible to say if we’ve ever faced a greater risk of extinction, but the literal scale of the problem, and the sheer mass of matter we need to move are unlike anything our species or its immediate ancestors have ever dealt with. The only consolation is that we are also at a point where our technical ability to tackle such problems is at its peak. As I have said, and as I will keep saying, we have everything we need to deal with this problem. What we lack is the organization and structure required to do so.

Despite everything happening in the world right now, life goes on, and I’m still required to spend money in order to live. My work is supported by a group of wonderful people over at patreon.com/oceanoxia, and I would be immeasurably grateful if you would consider joining their ranks. How much you give, and for how long are entirely under your control, and every little bit helps a great deal, as my household is very short on money right now. Thank you for reading, and take care of yourselves.

Death for profit: Herd immunity and capitalist realism

When I’m discussing or reading about the political systems of countries other than the U.S., I start with the assumption that even where there are similarities, the context, dynamics, and groups involved aren’t going to be analogous to the situation of my home country. While I think American Exceptionalism is arrogant nonsense, there are ways in which every country is exceptional, because every country has its own unique circumstances. That said, we’re all the same species, and we tend to respond similarly in similar circumstances.

I don’t recall when exactly I started paying attention to British politics, but while it was clear that the label “liberal” meant something different outside of the U.S., it was also clear that the UK Conservative Party was pretty similar to the American Republican Party. During healthcare debates, some Americans who wanted universal healthcare pointed out that far from being an extremist position, even the conservatives in the UK supported the NHS. Since then, it’s become pretty clear to me that to whatever degree that’s true, it’s similar to the Republicans’ claims to value democracy. It’s a position they hold when they think it’s necessary to gain and keep power, and one that they abandon as soon as it no longer seems to be serving that purpose.

I think the frequent parallels drawn between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are useful, both in terms of ideology, and in terms of the position occupied by those leaders in the minds of the modern parties. I also think that the lessons of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine are essential to understanding not only the British and American conservative movements, but also a great deal of how capitalism operates on a global scale. If you haven’t read it yet, you should do so.

Since moving to Scotland, the similarities have been even more noticeable, and that came into grim focus with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. People sounded the alarm in both countries, saying that far from taking steps to deal with the outbreak, they were actively downplaying it, and planning to do nothing at all. Those people were attacked for daring to claim that conservatives could be so callous, but eventually it became indisputable that the ruling parties of both the U.S. and the U.K. planned to let the disease tear through their countries with little or no action from the government to help the populations.

This lethal disregard for both human life and scientific realities should not surprise anyone, but it absolutely should enrage everyone. This tallies with the version of capitalist dogma described in The Shock Doctrine, and that’s constantly used to undermine any policies that might improve – or save – countless lives. This is the same dogma behind the decades-long campaign of denial and misinformation around climate science, as well as tobacco smoke, lead, and many other issues.

This is not the first time that pro-capitalist politicians and policies have caused mass death through a deliberate disregard of facts that threaten the wealth and power of the wealthy and powerful.

As long as these people keep their power, it will not be the last time. They have demonstrated repeatedly that they will not change how they do things, and that they have no remorse for the horrors they bring about. I’m not just talking about the politicians currently holding governmental positions, I’m talking about the whole “ruling class” of global capitalism. As the planet continues to get hotter, there is no limit to how many people our current rulers will allow to die, or directly kill to keep their hoards and their power.

To them, there seems to be no difference between the end of their reign, and the end of the world, and so they’re happy to cause the latter to prevent the former. A human society not ruled by them is a human society that’s not worth keeping alive.

Unless we take their power away.

Despite everything happening in the world right now, life goes on, and I’m still required to spend money in order to live. My work is supported by a group of wonderful people over at patreon.com/oceanoxia, and I would be immeasurably grateful if you would consider joining their ranks. How much you give, and for how long are entirely under your control, and every little bit helps a great deal, as my household is very short on money right now. Thank you for reading, and take care of yourselves.

Biden’s victory may have bought us some time, but we’d better make use of it.

We seem to have gotten some breathing room, but that wasn’t a foregone conclusion, and the people who were on board and helping in the effort to establish fascism in the United States are still around, and still hold power in the GOP, and in the American government. Hell, until January, they still control the U.S. government.

This can happen again. Given how American politics work, it probably will happen again, and if we don’t work hard, it’s likely to eventually succeed. The factors that led to Trump’s election have gone nowhere. It’s entirely likely that without the disastrous response to the pandemic, Trump would have won a second term.

Voting is not enough to maintain a democracy. People need to organize. People need to make a habit of working together with the people who live around them. Humanity’s greatest strength is our ability to communicate and work together. I think we’ve largely forgotten how to use that “muscle”, and we need to re-learn it, practice it, and help others to do the same.

Without a deliberate effort to build and exert collective power, those who already have concentrated power will continue to run the world for their own personal gain, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that that path leads to death and misery. 


Don’t travel for the holidays

This should not need to be said at this point. Hopefully none of my readers need to hear it, but it’s got to be said again. We are facing what may be the worst period in U.S. public health history.

Do not travel for the holidays⇐

Seriously. The US is now losing more people than were killed on 9/11 on a daily basis to COVID-19 alone. A substantial chunk of those numbers come from holiday travel on the week of Thanksgiving. The December holiday season has more holidays, lasts longer, and for some people is more important. If people don’t stay home, January could see us passing 4,000 dead from COVID-19 every day. Just assume that you have the disease, you’re lucky enough to be asymptomatic, and you might give it to the people you love the most. Assume THEY have it, and will give it to you.

Don’t drive drunk, don’t shoot guns off at random in cities, and don’t travel for the holidays. Don’t kill people.


Old, but gold: Hbomberguy on climate denial

Dealing with a week-long head cold right now, so writing is going slowly. That said, I think it’s worth posting an old(ish) video by Hbomberguy about the weirdness of climate science denial. The points he makes here are good, especially when you consider how many of the “arguments” made by climate deniers were concocted – and debunked – years, or even decades ago.

Rebecca Watson on why you can trust the new COVID-19 vaccines

For those who haven’t been paying attention, the vaccines for COVID-19 have been developed incredibly quickly. It normally takes at least a couple years to go through the process with the appropriate safeguards, and while some of that delay is simply because of the time it takes to process the paperwork – which has been accelerated in this case – a lot of folks are reasonably concerned about the safety and effectiveness of something developed in such a hurry, especially with Trump trying to take credit for it.

Thankfully, we don’t need to worry. In this video, Rebecca Watson breaks down what the situation is, and how these vaccines were able to be developed so quickly. Give it a watch, and share the video with any friends or family who are concerned.

A Martian Odyssey, part 3

This is the third installment of this month’s chain story, written as part of our legal fundraiser. You can find part one here, and part two here. I’ll link to part four when it’s available. If you enjoy the story, or Freethoughtblogs in general, please consider donating to our legal fund!

“I’m afraid this briefing will be, well, more brief than you’d like. Ditya possessed a wealth of knowledge about the Earthborn and their activities. I will fill you in as best I can, but…” Afia trailed off.

Key closed their eyes, allowing a moment for Afia’s grief.

“Afia, did Ditya not keep files? Surely she did not keep all her knowledge to herself!”

“I- She… She had files, I’m sure. Yes. But they are unavailable right now. Beyond the mission itself, I’m afraid you’ll have to rely on our historical knowledge of the Earthborn.”

Key frowned, staring ahead at the closed gates of the vehicle bay. They didn’t know Afia, but it seemed odd that the death of one person, however unique, could simply erase all recent knowledge of the Earthborn and their ways. What they knew from history was… grim. The massacre of the Spaceborn showed all too well the extend of Earth’s capacity for bloodshed, and their high gravity meant that they were capable of feats of physical prowess far beyond what even a hardy ranger like Key could achieve. The primary lesson from Key’s history classes was that the Earthborn were dangerous. Beyond that, all they knew was that any efforts to get close enough to see what was happening on the surface were met with destruction.

Key didn’t even know when the last such attempt was made.

“Have there been any recent attempts by the Spaceborn to contact the Earthborn?”

“What do you think? We have not forgotten what they did to us!”

Afia’s tone of confusion and dismay was gone, replaced by an edge of righteous hatred. Key nodded to themself. It had taken nearly a century for the Spaceborn to reconnect with each other in the wake of the devastating attack, and to this day, their stations were all designed to be difficult for Earth-based weaponry to reach, or even impossible for Earth-based sensors to detect.

The Earthborn had made it clear they wished to be left alone, and the Spaceborn had been all to happy to comply.

“So what can you tell me?”

“Ditya has been working to monitor Earth for many, many years now. We always knew they might someday attempt to reclaim the solar system for themselves, and it seemed only prudent to be prepared.”

“Of course.”

“Ditya’s obsession did not… sit well with everyone.”

“There are those even on Mars who feel that the less we think about the Earthborn the better.”

“Yes. Disagreements on this subject among the Spaceborn can be heated at times.”

Key shifted in their seat.

“So, the mission. It is urgent, yes?”

“Yes,” said Afia. “And I’m sure you’d like to get moving.”

“Jimin may need help.”

“Of course. My apologies, I’m still more than a little flipped around by Ditya’s… Passing.”

“Her memory will never fall.”

“Her memory will never fall. Yes. Thank you.” There was a moment of silence, then Afia continued.

“We know Jimin landed safely at the polar research station, but we do not know what they found when they arrived. We monitored the Earthborn probe and it seemed to have a gentle landing, for all the design is unfamiliar to us.”

“Their technology has changed over the centuries.”

“As has ours. It was to be expected.”

“Please continue.” Key closed their eyes again. Committing Afia’s words to memory.

“All attempts to contact the station have been futile, including Jimin’s attempt to make direct contact. I would prefer that the outcome of this expedition result in Earth resuming its isolation. That would be best for everyone. Others… Well, the desire for revenge is still present among the Spaceborn. If knowledge of this Earthborn excursion to Mars were to get out, it could cause trouble. We only came to you because of Jimin’s trust in you.”

“Understood. Is there anything else I need to know?”

“Only… Only be careful. I do not know what you will find there. Communication may be difficult until you reach the polar station. From there it may depend on what condition the equipment is in.”


“Fly- Drive safely.”

“Thank you.”

Key pressed a button on the console and the gates slid open, allowing the transport to glide out into the snow, its treads kicking up white billows around the vehicle. In summer, when the northern hemisphere thawed and the circumpolar bogs formed, transport was usually made by hovercraft, skimming over the soft ground and pools of water. Now, though, the terrain was frozen solid, and the expanding ice created a jagged landscape that would damage the skirts of a hovercraft. Getting out for repairs meant exposure to both bitter cold, and to wandering predators like the spiders, which would be drawn to the relative warmth of the vehicle and its occupant.

Key checked the console readout. The temperature was at -30 degrees Celsius, and it would probably drop further as the Martian night continued. As they drove, they kept an eye on the topographical display, that showed the terrain beyond the reach of the transport’s headlights. Even in the dead of winter, the polar bogs could be treacherous for a land-bound vehicle. Gaps in the ice were not uncommon, and Key knew from experience that there were pockets of thawed bog under thinner ice, where thermal activity from micro-organisms created oases of relative warmth.

As they drove, Key considered their situation. Ditya’s death was suspicious, and Afia seemed to be withholding some information. What could Key piece together?

Jimin was involved. Key’s spindly legs started bouncing with anxiety, and they began nudging the transport to move a little faster. Jimin was in danger. Jimin was- No. Think. Analyze. Jimin needed all of Key’s skills as a ranger, not Key’s worries. Jimin was involved. What had Jimin said about the Earthborn in the past? What had they said about the Spaceborn?

Jimin was joyful. Jubilant. Jimin was intense, even brash, but not aggressive. Not vengeful. They had discussed the Earthborn, from time to time, but Jimin seemed to lack even a trace of the anger that had sharpened Afia’s tone. When Jimin talked of the Earthborn, they pondered how they might have changed. They pondered what life might be like on a planet with such intense gravity. They wondered if the Earthborn might ever seek reconciliation.

Jimin, for all their forthright pride, was a diplomat to their core. Their mission had to have been a diplomatic one. Jimin was too friendly, and too curious to be on a mission with no chance of open dialogue.

Key’s legs stopped bouncing, and they slowed the transport a little. Jimin wasn’t a fighter. They would go into a dangerous situation, but not into combat. If Jimin went to the research station, knowing that there were likely to be Earthborn present, they must have had some reason to think it was safe to do so. Jimin’s involvement meant that someone – even if it was only Jimin – thought that this was going to be a peaceful encounter.

Key stopped the vehicle and closed their eyes.

A peaceful encounter between the Earthborn and a Spaceborn diplomat, at a Martian research station. This was an effort to re-open communication between the three species.

That was why it was secret.

That was why it was at a polar research station in the winter. The Marsborn were playing host to this meeting, and whatever faction was involved was working hard to keep it secret.

Key looked at their map. They had only covered a dozen kilometres, but there was a limit to how far or fast they could travel at night. And they would need rest at some point. They would stop at the edge of the boglands, and rest till dawn. They nudged the throttle and the vehicle trundled forward again. As they turned to go around a drift that had formed around a shrub, a dumpy isopod scuttled out of the headlights. Key smiled. For all the Marsborn had adapted to their cold little planet, it belonged to the arthropods. Key’s birth parent had been a molecular biologist, and had often complained about how unfair it was that so many bugs had developed their own versions of antifreeze to allow them to function in the frigid night. There was a puff of snow and two jointed limbs lashed out and grabbed the isopod. Key blinked rapidly, their heart fluttering. That mantid would just as happily eaten a Marsborn. They drove on, glad for the safety of the transport.

Jimin would have laughed at the mantid’s sudden movement. Jimin laughed at most things.

Key smiled, and drove on. The next ten kilometres were uneventful, and they slowed to a halt at the boundary between the scrublands and the borean tundra that surrounded the North pole. They swiveled their seat around to face small space in the back of the transport. Containers were fixed to the floor, and clearly labeled. Key purred happily as they selected a Spaceborn ration pack. Their friendship with Jimin had taught Key to appreciate the care that the Spaceborn put into their food. Martian food was well enough, but the Spaceborn seemed to feel that food should double as entertainment. Even rations for an expedition were rich in both nutrients and flavor, with a variety of spices and textures that never failed to delight. Jimin had joked that Key only liked hanging around them for the food. It certainly didn’t hurt.

They turned out all the transport’s lights and swiveled the chair around again, gazing up at the glittering sky as they ate. The vehicle was warm, and the seat designed to be comfortable even for a being unused to the gravity of a planet. Key drifted off shortly after finishing their meal.

They were roused by the sun shining brightly on the snowy landscape. Glancing out the windows, Key saw that snow had piled up in a drift against the western side of the transport. That meant that the space underneath it was now a sheltered, slightly heated cave. They started the transport’s engine and examined the console. After a moment they found the control for the external alarm, and activated it. The vehicle whooped and honked, and Key felt it rock slightly. Leaning over, they saw several large, black and red Rovers scuttling off toward nearby shrubs. Key took a deep breath and let it out. They were unlikely to try to eat an uninjured Marsborn, but their defensive spray could cause extensive chemical burns, and Key was unsure what it would do to a transport. They checked the diagnostics, but there was no sign of any problem. Either the beetles hadn’t sprayed, or the stuff couldn’t harm the ceramic that made up most of the transport’s outer casing.

Out on the tundra, Key had to increase the tint of the windshield to prevent the light from blinding them. The wind blew dry, powdery snow around constantly, and it seemed to catch and magnify the already bright sunlight. In the scrublands, Key would not have hesitated to travel on foot. As a seasoned ranger, they could move faster across the rough terrain than the transport, but when the Spaceborn delegation had said Key should use the vehicle, they hadn’t argued. For a journey like this, speed was less important than safety, and the supplies, warmth, and shelter of the transport made the journey far easier. The topographical readout told Key that there was a squat column of ice ahead. Some pool that had kept its water till the end of the summer had frozen solid, rising up above its banks as the ice expanded. Key drove around it, and realized that with the blowing snow, they could barely see the obstacle, even just a couple meters away. The lack of visibility was dangerous. Key blinked rapidly. How had the Spaceborn thought they could make this journey?

The first day was uneventful, but maddeningly slow. After ten hours of driving, the only notable change was the shift from blinding white billows to purplish ones as the sun set, to white again, illuminated by the transport’s headlights. Key had covered another 150 kilometres. It would probably take another two days at least to reach the research station. With luck, the rest of the trip would be uneventful. One advantage of the constantly billowing snow was that it was unlikely that any bandits tough enough to live out here would be able to see Key’s transport unless Key happened to drive right into the middle of them. Key looked at the rations. The vehicle’s climate control and the rich food of the Spaceborn meant that the prepared supplies were far more than Key would need for this journey. They had packed for the appetites of two Spaceborn, and with the transport doing all the work, Key needed about one third of the daily rations needed by the Spaceborn. If they did encounter any bandits, the transport would be a haul they’d tell their young about for years to come.

The next morning, there were no bugs sheltering under the transport, but a crust had formed over the windshield that Key chose to melt off, rather than getting out. The wind was still blowing, and it was still hard to see what was around. Key knew they were being spoiled, but it was too nice and warm in the transport to leave. It was the one nice thing about this whole affair.

That, and they might be able to save Jimin.

Around midday, Key’s hopes of an uneventful journey were dashed. The wind died just as the topographical readout showed what looked like a domed homestead dead ahead. As the snow settled, Key squinted out, adjusting the magnification on their goggles to see what lay in store.

The column of smoke was not normal.

Key had had no direct dealings with the residents of this homestead. They seemed to primarily desire to be left alone, and Key was never one butt in where they weren’t wanted. They didn’t think it was a bandit den, but such things were difficult to tell sometimes. The roof of the dome had been completely destroyed from above. This was not normal banditry. Someone had attacked this homestead from the air. Key groaned, and began suiting up to investigate. They had their flare gun already, loaded with flash-bangs to deter predators and bandits alike. In the back of the transport they also found a Spaceborn energy caster, which they slung over their shoulder. The weapon was heavy, designed for use in zero-G, but it provided a more lethal option, and might even help if the attackers returned.

Key drove right up to the edge of the dome and got out to investigate, flare gun in hand. The entrance was a rubble of broken and melted glass that gave off no heat. Whatever was smoking inside, the attack was at least a couple days ago. There was a faint smell of smoke and ozone, barely present in the cold air. Jaw clenched tightly, Key entered, eyes darting around for any sign of trouble. The attack had caved in two or three subterranean levels of the homestead, creating a hemispherical crater. Key could make out the ruins of planters, soil and crops spilled out as they broke and fell.

They hopped down onto a flat section of floor, gazing around at the ruin. Why would anyone do this?

“He- Hello? Is anyone alive?”

They heard something shift and raised their voice.

“Hello? Do you need help?”

They sprang backwards as a rover poked its big, black head out of a hole and clicked its mandibles.

“Gwan! Get out of here!”

The large beetle scuttled obligingly away, disappearing into a hole in the wall of the crater. It looked like the remains of a utility tunnel, exposed by the devastation. Rovers meant carrion, so Key carefully approached the hole. Sure enough, there was someone inside, or at least most of someone. Key felt a pang of guilt as they realized that they recognized the clothes, but didn’t know the homesteader’s name. The guilt was replaced by a wave of nausea as they saw that the rover had been enjoying a hearty meal. They grabbed a nearby board and put it over the corpse’s torso and head, hiding the grisly spectacle. It helped a little.

Clutched in the corpse’s hand was an old radio receiver, with its cable broken. When the attack hit, the homestead had been trying to communicate with someone. Was that the cause of the attack? A response to it? Key shuddered, and glanced at the tunnel. The beetle was there, watching. Key dug their camera out of a pouch and began taking pictures, of the wreckage, the melted glass, the caved in floor, the corpse, and the radio remnants. They didn’t have the time or ability to fully investigate this tragedy, but they needed at least some evidence.

Key was reluctant to draw conclusions on so cursory an investigation, but they couldn’t shake the feeling that this monstrous deed was done to silence the victims. They took a deep, shaky breath, and hopped back up to ground level. They turned back to the waiting rover.

“It’s all yours, I guess. I hope you leave something for investigators, if we ever manage to send any.”

Back in the warmth of the transport, Key sat in silence, thinking. They were still sure that Jimin’s mission – and Ditya’s had been diplomatic in nature, but they were now certain that Ditya had been murdered, either by the same people responsible for this attack, or by associates of the attackers. Whatever was going on, at least some of those involved were willing to commit assassination.

Key looked over the wreckage again. Assassination, and acts of war.

As Key continued driving north, they kept glancing a the sky. Was there some sort of airship up there? Was it Spaceborn, or Martians? Confronted with the events of the day, Key could imagine some factions in either group being responsible. Could it be the Earthborn? Ditya had only mentioned a probe so that seemed unlikely, but…

The sun began to set, and the transports lights turned on automatically. Key turned them off, navigating with their own night vision, and the aid of the topographical readout, till they found a column of ice taller than their transport. They parked the vehicle against it, hoping that would make them harder to spot from the air.

Sleep was hard to come by that night. Key shifted restlessly in their seat, starting awake at the faintest of sounds. By dawn, they were unsure they had gotten more than a couple hours of sleep across the whole night. They ate a full meal for breakfast, along with a strong stimulant. Refreshed by the drug and the food, they carefully pulled away from the wall of ice, and resumed their meandering journey northward. They kept a nervous watch on the sky, making slower progress than the day before, but by midday it seemed that nothing was coming. As the sun began to sink back below the horizon, they saw a dark smudge ahead, and stopped. At full magnification, their goggles showed what appeared to be a crashed ship of some sort. It was difficult to discern the design from the wreckage, but with no indication of life, Key decided to investigate. They parked a short distance away, and approached, Spaceborn energy caster in hand. They moved cautiously, every muscle vibrating with nervous energy. By the design and insignia, it was a Spaceborn vessel of some sort, but Key had never seen its like. The rear portion, which seemed to hold the engine, had broken away from the rest, and seemed to be in the process of slowly sinking into a steaming pocket of bog that had been cracked open by the crash. From the way the air rippled around the machinery, Key guessed that it would keep that section from freezing over for some time to come. They carefully stalked around the thawed area to the vessel’s cabin, on the other side.

There was a hissing, clicking sound, and Key leapt backwards just as the two arms of a mantid darted out from the wreckage. The insect emerged, mouthparts working, and began stalking toward Key. With a grunt, they lifted the energy caster and fired. The air rippled, and a few cables on the wreck jerked and melted. The mantid darted at Key and struck again, its needled arm opening a gash in Key’s shoulder as they leapt to the side. They hit the ground and rolled as the mantid scuttled toward them. They kicked out, causing the mantid to pause for a moment, heaved the caster up again, and fired from a mere two meters away. The mantid’s thorax split open with a shrieking gush of steam, and it collapsed, legs thrashing.

Key lay in the snow, torso heaving as they watched the predator’s death throes. A stab of pain reminded them that while their first shot had missed, the mantid’s strike had not. Gingerly, they parted the torn fabric of their sleeve to see the damage. The cut was deep, but Key’s thick blood was already slowing. Mantid cuts didn’t carry any poison. The biggest danger was the loss in integrity of Key’s insulation. With a grimace, they stood, giving the still-thrashing insect a wide berth as they staggered to the ship. They peered inside cautiously, but there were no other unexpected occupants.

There were, however, two Spaceborn, both dead, and one partially eaten. Key closed their eyes for a moment, before examining the corpses. They had had to deal with dead bodies before, but it still provoked a wave of nausea. Key muttered thanks to the stars for the low temperatures that kept the smell to a minimum. When they examined the intact corpse, it became pretty clear what had caused the crash. The Spaceborn vessel was designed to work in atmosphere, but it had come from space. From the crumpled look of the pilots’ bodies, Key guessed that they had come in, destroyed the homestead Key had found the day before, and then been killed, or at least debilitated by the pull of gravity as they tried to return to space. They had made the same mistake as Ditya and Afia, and they had paid for it with their lives.

Again, Key took pictures. It could not have been a coincidence that they had found this wreck so close to the research station. They shuffled back to the transport, and cleaned their wound, before taping it closed. They took a repair kit out of its case, and in the welcome heat of the transport, they patched the tear in their inner and outer layers. Training, and years of experience had taught Key that putting off a repair like this could mean frostbite or hypothermia, if circumstances led them into the cold. This was not a time to neglect their training.

Jimin might need their help.

Repairs done, they looked at the map. 120 kilometres to the research station, and the sun would set in just a couple hours. They were less worried about attack from the air, but it seemed like approaching in the cover of darkness might be wise. They ate another meal, and set off.

As the sun set, they kept their lights off, navigating mainly by map and topographical display. At 50 kilometres out, their lack of sleep caught up with them, and they took another stimulant to stay awake. It worked, but worsened their already mounting anxiety. They were so close to finding out what was going on, but there were so many unanswered questions. Was Jimin even alive? Was this the beginning of a war with the Earthborn? Was it a war with the Spaceborn? Was it a war between the Spaceborn?

At last, as the sky began to glow with pre-dawn light, they saw the silhouette of the research station in the distance. They parked the vehicle, checked their repairs, and stepped out into the freezing air. They climbed onto the roof of the transport and maxed out the magnification on their goggles, bringing the station into focus.

Part four coming soon! If you enjoy our writing and the work we do here at FreethoughtBlogs, please consider a donation to our legal fund!

Beyond emissions: Shifting the burden of running society

Solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors, magnets, batteries, waste reprocessing, mass transit systems, indoor food production, efficient buildings, relocating cities, flood-proofing cities, carbon capture and sequestration.

The discussion of taking action to mitigate and adapt to global warming often centers around the financial cost, but while the general public is increasingly willing to dismiss that as the non-objection it is, there is also a material cost to all of these actions that we would be foolish to ignore. Back in September, I discussed the rising environmental cost of extracting resources for photovoltaic power. For all sand may seem as cheap and plentiful as dirt, mining and processing it at the scale required to establish solar power as a major portion of our energy infrastructure is – like many modern human endeavors – changing the face of the planet.

This is not a problem that can be avoided, so it is one that must be considered, and planned for. If responding to climate change is part of a larger process of taking responsibility for how our species affects the planet on which we live – and I think it should be – then we cannot continue treating the side-effects of our industrial activity as we have done. For all the focus on the damage done by the fossil fuel industry, it is far from alone. In 2019, for example, Brazil suffered a major disaster when a dam failed, unleashing a flood of waste from an iron mine, and catastrophes like this are fairly common around the world.

In the comments on my recent post about vertical farming, there was some discussion of the problem of the materials that would be needed for the construction and maintenance of the massive, complex facilities that would be required to make such farming methods a meaningful portion of global food production.

In many ways, ending fossil fuel use and adapting to climate change means shifting the burden humanity places on the planet from greenhouse gases into a massive increase in the extraction and use of solid and liquid materials. Replacing even half of our farmland with facilities like the one I wrote about would require the creation of hundreds of thousands of buildings with associated machinery and power generation, where only a handful currently exist. It’s hard to predict how much of our current farmland will become unusable as the planet continues to warm. We currently produce more food than we need to end world hunger, but there’s a danger, in the midst of global ecological collapse, to simply taking more farmland from the wilderness if the land we’re currently using becomes unfarmable. Most deforestation happening today comes from clear-cutting for agriculture, and that process both releases a lot of CO2 from the cleared forest, and reduces the ability of that land to pull carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis.

So while world hunger could be solved now, by changing how we allocate our current resources, it’s not clear that that same possibility will exist indefinitely into the future. I believe that forms of indoor food production will be necessary, both to surviving climate change, and to mitigating the scale and speed of that change. For humanity to survive and thrive, we need to create and maintain a great deal of infrastructure to take on the various tasks that currently rely on either the burning of fossil fuels, or the presence of a stable, predictable climate. We must end the former, because our failure to do so already has destroyed the latter.

Solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors, magnets, batteries, waste reprocessing, mass transit systems, indoor food production, efficient buildings, relocating cities, flood-proofing cities, carbon capture and sequestration.

I believe this is going to require more than just an increase in resource extraction. All that will do is replace the problem of “peak oil” with similar peaks for a thousand other resources. We also need to get better at re-using materials, rather than throwing them away, and fortunately there’s work being done on that front as well:

Environmental pollution, health threats and scarcity of raw materials, water, food and energy are some of the greatest challenges our world is facing today. At the same time, landfills and open dumpsites are still the dominant global waste disposal options, despite the fact that the long-term environmental impact in the form of emissions of greenhouse gases and contaminated leachates is significant. However, much of the environmentally hazardous waste that has been dumped at landfills can be recycled as energy or reused as valuable raw materials in different industries according to Yahya Jani, doctor of environmental science and chemical engineering.

Landfill mining — the tool of the future

In his dissertation, landfill mining is suggested as a tool to achieve an enhanced circular economy model. Viewing the landfill waste as a potential resource instead of as a problem is a common thread in Yahya’s research.

“More than 50% of the deposited waste dumped at landfills and open dump sites can be recycled as energy or reused as raw materials. These materials can be used as secondary resources in different industries instead of being forgotten or viewed as garbage,” Jani explains.

His research also includes the extraction of metals from Småland’s art and crystal glass waste and different fine fractions.

Extracting 99 % of the metals

“I developed a method that enables the extraction of 99% of the metals from the glass waste that was dumped at Pukeberg’s glassworks and published the results. It is the first published article in the world that deals with recycling of metals from art and crystal glass,” says Jani.

In his research study at Glasriket, Jani also used chemical extraction to recycle materials from a mix of glass waste and soil fine fractions smaller than 2 mm. The technology involves mixing old glass waste with chemicals to reduce the melting point of the glass waste in order to extract the metals.

“The methods I’ve developed to extract metals from Småland’s glass waste can be used to extract metals from all types of glass, like, for instance, the glass in old TV sets and computers. Thus, this method can be further developed at an industrial facility for the recycling of both glass and metals of high purity. This can also contribute to a restoration of Småland’s glass industry by providing the industry with cheap raw materials. In addition, the extraction of materials from old landfills contributes to the decontamination of these sites and reduces the environmental impact and health threats” Jani concludes.

According to the European commission in 2017, 60% (that is to say, 1,800 million tons) of the annually produced waste from 500 million EU inhabitants end up in landfills. In his dissertation, Jani shows that the extraction of valuable materials from this waste could contribute to reducing the overuse of natural resources on Earth and reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and contaminated leachates, which are responsible for pollution of water resources. Decontamination of these places will contribute to a significantly reduced impact on both human health and the environment.

Recycling and reprocessing materials takes energy, and while much of the matter in landfills could be used as fuel for the process, we’ll either want to sequester that material, or capture the emissions from burning it to sequester that. We’re not just shifting our burden from fossil fuel use to solid infrastructure, we’re doing that by shifting where and how we use the electricity or heat that we do produce.

In the earlier example of agriculture, rather than expending energy on irrigation, harvesting machinery, food transportation, pesticides, and so on (though some pest control will always be necessary), we’d be expending energy on building construction and maintenance, and artificial lighting. It’s possible – maybe even likely – that we will have to expend more energy on food production going forward than we do today, once the full cost is accounted for. That’s worth it if the results are better for a stable, human-friendly climate, but it’s still something we’re going to have to deal with. As I’ve said before, our species is now a force of nature on the surface of this planet. No matter what we do, our global society is going to have a global impact. Taking responsibility for our actions, and discharging our duty to fellow humans in the present and in the future (not to mention the rest of the biosphere) means we’re going to have to keep track of the effects we’re having on our environment, and actively work to balance those, just as we work to keep our homes and neighborhoods clean and safe.

I’m honestly more worried about the political changes needed, than the logistics of reshaping our infrastructure. By guaranteeing a basic minimum standard of living around the world, we can dramatically reduce energy consumption, and I think our goal should be to get to a point where the point of work is maintenance, innovation, and personal fulfillment, rather than profit. One of the reasons things like the intermittency of solar and wind power don’t worry me, is that I’m interested in powering a different way of life than the one that got us to this point. Constant production is driven by the capitalist obsession with profit, more than by any necessities of building and maintaining a high standard of living.

We will need a lot of materials to make the changes needed, and we’ll need to work at maintaining those changes. We’ll need to build new stuff to support a growing population, if it continues to grow, but that does not need to happen at the scale we’re doing it now. I don’t think that we can get the change we need within a capitalist system, but I don’t see that as a bad thing.

Despite everything happening in the world right now, life goes on, and I’m still required to spend money in order to live. My work is supported by a group of wonderful people over at patreon.com/oceanoxia, and I would be immeasurably grateful if you would consider joining their ranks. How much you give, and for how long are entirely under your control, and every little bit helps a great deal, as my household is very short on money right now. Thank you for reading, and take care of yourselves.