Mitigating the harm of climate change, using changes in the climate

One thing that is fast becoming a central theme of my work is the notion that, in addition to decentralizing political power, and creating a more democratic economy than capitalism can provide, we also need view ourselves as a part of the “natural world”. That means moving away from the historical trend of using technology to separate ourselves from the rest of the biosphere, and instead more fully integrating human civilization with the ecosystems that surround us.

This includes a lot of the standard stuff from the solarpunk genre: urban agriculture and urban wildlife, waste management that minimizes or eliminates pollution, and an end to wasteful things like planned obsolescence. It also goes beyond that, to molding ourselves to better suit our ecosystems, and to reduce the amount of labor and energy required to survive in a sometimes hostile landscape.

As the climate warms, the trend in much of the world seems to be towards stable or increasing annual rainfall, but with all of that rain coming in a smaller number of more intense storms. The practical effect of that is a worsening cycle of drought, flooding, and erosion, as the majority of the year is too dry for most plant life, and the sudden, intense rainfall floods the landscape causing landslides, and washing away both plant life and topsoil.

This, in turn, is likely to worsen the next year’s drought, while doing little to provide actual relief, as the water all rushes out to sea, or evaporates quickly following the downpour. The result is a cycle that’s likely to affect a huge portion of currently inhabited land, starting with the areas already suffering from this, like California:

As climate change intensifies the severity and frequency of these extreme events, amplifying refill rates could help the state reach a more balanced groundwater budget. One practice, called water banking or managed aquifer recharge, involves augmenting surface infrastructure, such as reservoirs or pipelines, with underground infrastructure, such as aquifers and wells, to increase the transfer of floodwater for storage in groundwater basins.

A newer strategy for managing surface water, compared to more traditional methods like reservoirs and dams, water banking poses multiple benefits including flood risk reduction and improved ecosystem services. While groundwater basins offer a vast network for water safekeeping, pinpointing areas prime for replenishment, gauging infrastructure needed and the amount of water available remains key, especially in a warming and uncertain climate.

“Integrating managed aquifer recharge with floodwaters into already complex water management infrastructure offers many benefits, but requires careful consideration of uncertainties and constraints. Our growing understanding of climate change makes this an opportune time to examine the potential for these benefits,” said senior author David Freyberg, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford.

The researchers designed a framework to estimate future floodwater availability across the state. Developing a hybrid computer model using hydrologic and climate simulations and statistical tools, the team calculated water available for recharge under different climate change scenarios through 2090. They also identified areas where infrastructure investments should be prioritized to tap floodwater potential and increase recharge.

As things currently stand, flood waters tend to be dangerous. They sweep up badly stored chemicals, human and animal waste, and sediments carrying pollution from past eras, resulting in a mix of poisons and bacteria that can do a lot of harm. Building infrastructure to catch that water, clean it, and direct it into aquifers would be a huge investment, but one that I think would be well worth it, and have benefits lasting far into the future.

Similar to things like food forests and managed prairies, water conservation and banking practices can help us build up not only our own resilience, but also the resilience of surrounding ecosystems.

Image shows the flooded terraces of a Balinese rice farm, creating a sort of managed ecosystem of grasses, trees, and ponds climbing up mountainsides

“For most crops, irrigation simply provides water for the plant’s roots. But in a Balinese rice terrace, water is used to construct a complex, pulsed artificial ecosystem. Water temples manipulate the states of the system, at ascending levels in regional hierarchies.”

The industrial revolution, colonialism, and capitalism all worked to devastate the biosphere of this planet in ways we’re still working to fully understand. We must turn from being consumers of the world, to being stewards of it. In the past, rhetoric like this might have been used to push the idea that we should just “leave nature alone”, but I want to be clear that that’s not what I’m suggesting.

The ecological collapse we’ve created means that we have a responsibility to use our technology and understanding to help our ecosystems survive, for our own benefit. That’s likely to mean increased intervention in what remains of wild spaces, at least in some ways. I think it’s obvious we should work to end the conditions that drive practices like deforestation and over-fishing; but it may also mean things like using banked or desalinated water to irrigate drought-stricken “wilderness”, if we can find ways to do so.

This is a complex issue, and must be approached as such. The measures taken to help one region could prove devastating in another, and it’s almost certain that such efforts will only work if undertaken in a cooperative manner across the arbitrary borders that divide the world into “nations”. As I’ve said before, a better world is possible, but I believe it will require the creation and maintenance of global solidarity. We cannot continue to indulge exploitation and bigotry, if we want to survive.


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You should watch this video on mutual aid

I’ve already added this to my direct action post, but the more people see it, the better off the world will be. If pressed to describe my political movement leftward, I would say that the values with which I was raised haven’t changed a whole lot, but my understanding of the world has changed deepened a great deal. I think I’ve mentioned before that I was opposed to American imperialism and to capitalism before I realized I was. I’ve participated in activism around monstrosities like The School of the Americas/WHINSEC, the sanctions against Iraq and later invasion, the embargo against Cuba, climate change, and more. For all of that, I would say I’m relatively new to being “A Leftist”. I’ve learned enough to know that I have a huge amount left to learn. One of the most important things I’ve been learning is that there are a myriad of people looking to share what they’ve learned.

One theme I’ve encountered – a sort of a joke, I guess – is that the anarchist strategy for revolution is “do mutual aid and then we win”. Obviously, this kind of analysis is going to be too simplistic for any political theory that’s been around for a while, but at the surface level, it’s easy to see why people dismiss anarchism in this way. Part of the problem often seems to be a lack of understanding about what mutual aid actually is, what makes it different from the various things often described as “charity”, and where it fits into a desire for rapid, revolutionary change.

This video from Saint Andrewism covers all of that and more. Watch it, check out the rest of the channel, and support him on patreon if you can.

The danger of fascism has not gone away. Not even close.

As the world’s largest and most aggressive military power, I think it’s fair say that the rise of fascism in the United States is a matter of great concern for our entire species. I do not think that an overtly fascist U.S. would succeed in its goals over the long term. Fascism is an ideology that, dependent on fiction and scapegoating, will always carry the seeds of its own destruction. That said, beyond the entirely reasonable fear for the groups targeted by white supremacist fascism, there’s also the concern that the anti-environmentalist tendencies of the right would continue interfere with the global response to climate change badly enough and for long enough that we would be unable to cope with the approaching climate chaos.

I think for a lot of Americans, the Trump presidency was a wake-up call. That’s good, as far as it goes, but for whatever subset of the population didn’t realize how urgently change was needed before 2016, there’s a very real danger that Biden’s victory and the Democratic Party taking control of Congress will “hit the snooze button”. The conditions that gave rise to the Trump presidency have not gone away, and for all the talk about how different Biden and the Democrats are, they are not at all likely to do what’s needed to keep the U.S. from sliding further into overt, white supremacist fascism. The leaders of that party are wealthy, comfortable, and more concerned with maintaining their personal positions of power than they are with the future of the country or the species.

They may favor change, but only if that change doesn’t threaten their wealth and power. That means that the economic hardships, escalating nationalist and white supremacist propaganda, and the growing feeling of doom brought on by ecological and climate collapse will continue to push much of the white population of the United States towards fascism. The problem is that the economic system that governs most of the world is fundamentally incompatible with the ideals of democracy that are supposed to be at the core of a free and just society. Capitalism is designed to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of those whose primary interest and ability is the hoarding of money. The results of this have always been the same – those at the top use their resources to solidify their lofty positions in society by funneling an ever-increasing amount away from everyone else. Under capitalism, society simultaneously becomes more authoritarian, while becoming more difficult for the growing pool of those at “the bottom”.

So-called “social democracies” mitigate this process through progressive tax structures and generous social safety nets, but from what I can tell that only slows the process, and shifts the burdens of it onto those colonies and “former” colonies that have been ruthlessly exploited for their resources throughout the history of capitalism. As those at the top continue to demand more, they erode social safety nets of all forms, to both take more of society’s wealth, and to increase the number of people desperate enough to agree to bad pay and conditions, in order to survive in a world with no other options.

The left and the extremist right both claim to offer solutions to these problems. On the left, we want to change the nature of the system that brought us to this point. We want power and wealth to be distributed more evenly, not just because we want everyone to have their needs met, but also because allowing a small ruling class to run everything, while exempting themselves from the problems created by their rule, threatens to destroy us all.

The right’s solution is to turn those with the least power into scapegoats. Minorities and foreigners are blamed for our problems, and punished with increased poverty. When that inevitably fails to solve anything, the number of groups being blamed, and the severity of the punishment is increased. This cycle gets repeated, until ethnic cleansing is the only “solution” left (since taking power away from those in charge is obviously off the table). A “correction” like the New Deal may be able set this process back a bit, but it’s not capable of actually stopping it.

And while this is underway at any stage, we will remain unable to deal with problems that, as with climate change, are driven by the endless need for accumulating wealth that makes up the foundation of any version of capitalism.

Biden and the Democratic party cannot save us, and they never could. What they can do, at least in theory, is slow the process down for a short while, to allow for the kinds of work that will empower us to save ourselves.

Whether it’s peasants with torches and pitchforks, unions going on strike, or mass political unrest of other kinds, collective power and collective action has always been the solution to the lethal greed and irresponsibility of the aristocracy. As it stands, those living in the heart of the American Empire lack the organization to force revolutionary change – violent or otherwise.

We need to use what time and resources we have to change that.

It’s hard to know how this effort will end up going. The willingness of the powerful to use violence to keep their power may be one of the most reliable trends in human history, and it has been a central feature of the United States of America from the beginning. I believe our best chance at both avoiding violence and at surviving it if avoidance becomes impossible is through encouraging people to look out for each other, and to begin relying on each other as communities, rather than on governments or corporations. We need to start rebuilding society from the ground up, within the crumbling structure of the systems that currently govern the world, so that we can use all these marvels of technology for the benefit of life as a whole. 

If we don’t, then momentum will carry us to an era of horrors that will make the 20th century look peaceful by comparison. We cannot afford to waste the next four years. We cannot afford to relax. Biden’s victory might have bought us time, but only if we work on organizing to change course now.

 

 


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

It’s not over till it’s over: Antarctic ice edition

As the planet’s warming becomes harder to ignore, despair is going to be a growing challenge in the propaganda war. The dire warning of ecological collapse, deadlier weather, rising seas, and famine are all valid; humanity faces the greatest danger in history, and the exact timing of how that will play out is unknown.

It is terrifying, depressing, and will likely become more so.

At the same time the future, while not a total mystery, is an unknown. We do not know all the effects a given course of action may have. A lot of attention is rightly given to amplifying feedback loops (processes that both speed the warming and also maintain or increase themselves), but there are also suppressing feedbacks that can slow or reverse the warming.

For example, it’s possible that a well-designed effort to “green” an area of desert could take on a momentum of it’s own, and simultaneously pull CO2 out of the air, while improving the conditions for further plant growth. Turning the considerable power power of our technology to projects like that could prove very effective at improving life around the globe, but it’s very hard to know the results before we try.

Another example is ice. The melting of the Arctic Ocean has both accelerated global warming through albedo loss (dimming), and made weather in the northern hemisphere more chaotic and dangerous. There have been proposals to slow or reverse that trend by increasing the reflectivity of existing ice, or by adding artificial icebergs to replace the ice that has melted. Obviously there’s a lot of debate about safety and effectiveness.

Antarctica had, until recently, gotten less attention. While albedo is a concern there, the bigger worry is how the degradation of sea ice will affect the terrestrial ice cap on top of the continent. Melt enough, or raise sea levels enough, and you could see a dramatic increase in ice flowing from land to sea, accelerating sea level rise. The good news is that, in the opinion of those people studying this, we haven’t reached that point yet, and with hard work, we could delay that process:

As Severinghaus says, if 12 feet of sea level rise happens over a few thousand years, it’s far easier to deal with than if it happens over a century or two. I personally think it’s too late, due to the aforementioned positive/amplifying feedback loops, to prevent at least a couple centuries of warming, but there are many things we can do to slow it. As scary as it may be to contemplate large parts of the planet becoming too hot for human habitation, the real threat to our global ecosystem is the speed of the warming. Life evolves, and will inevitably do so for as long as it exists. The slower the change, the more likely species will adapt, ecosystems and their services will remain, and our ability will grow to reshape our society into something that can last.

Because we are causing this crisis, we know that we have the capacity to affect its progress, and that means that, as long as we remain able to act collectively, we have real hope for a better world.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

This fire season looks bad for California.

If you or anyone you care about lives I’m California, now is a good time to prepare for a possible evacuation.

I would say this goes for anyone living in an area known to have seasonal fires. The exact contents of your “bug-out bag” and other evacuation prep may vary depending on your needs, but it’s a good idea to have something ready in case of short notice.

Not only will it make it easier for you to move it you need to, it means any time saved by preparing now will.be time you can use to help others, should the need arise.

The meaning of freedom in a finite life

One of the more common themes throughout history has been disagreement between society’s rulers, and those being ruled, about how society ought to be run. Fortunately, history has also shown that if enough people are able to work together towards a common vision of a better world, we can bring about needed change whether our current rulers want it or not. One difficulty we face is that in the midst of so much messaging designed to present the way things are as the only way things can be, it can be hard to actually find that vision through the clutter. I think many of us have a vague desire for a life similar to the one with which we’re already familiar, but “better”. In a lot of our daily lives, the desire for change is less about wanting something good to start, and more about wanting something bad to stop.

While most people can agree on what our basic needs are, I think it’s generally understood that the basics required for survival do not guarantee a fulfilling life, and that different people have different ideas of what a “fulfilling life” would mean. There are always going to be some limits; my right to do whatever I want doesn’t extend to causing problems for other people. When it comes down to it, though, the common thread in pretty much all the myriad visions of a good life seems to be the ability to control how we spend our time.

The problem of capitalism – in this context – is that “free time” is viewed as an extravagant luxury, rather than a human necessity. Only those who don’t need to work for a living are entitled to free time. For the rest of us, any time not spent earning money seems to be viewed as a vice more than anything else, and sufficient justification for poverty. If I’m not spending every minute of my time in pursuit of money, then any financial problems I have are my fault, and evidence that I am a burden on society, in some way.

The system cannot fail me, I can only fail the system.

Not only that, but the time I’ve spent trying to turn this blog into a source of income that will keep me fed and sheltered is now a liability. If – as is likely – I have to spend time hunting for wage labor again, I will have a “gap” in my C.V./resumé. If I want someone else to pay me to do work that they want done, and that I am competent to do, I will also have to justify the time I have spent not working for the financial gain of someone else.

Throughout 2020, as the United States struggled to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, this cultural hatred of free time was brought into sharp focus. At a time when hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved by keeping people at home, the the capitalists running our country seemed to be mostly horrified and offended at the notion that – for just a few months – a majority of the population might be allowed to simply exist, without having to do work apparently for the sake of doing work. There seems to be a deeply held belief that without the threat of misery and death through poverty, nobody would do any work at all.

I think it’s worth pointing out that for the ruling class, this does not seem to be about whether the resources needed to keep everybody housed, fed, and so on would exist if people were “paid to stay home”, but rather about the endless need for escalating profits. Never in my lifetime has the United States so openly told its own people that their lives are worth less than the desire of rich people to keep getting richer. The justification given, however, is not generally that multi-millionaires or billionaires might stop seeing their “net worth” rise, or might even see it decline a little. That’s not a line of argument that’s very persuasive to those of us whose concerns relate more to the basic necessities of survival.

Instead we are told that if people are allowed to control how they spend their own time, nobody will do the work that’s needed for humanity to survive, and we’ll all starve from laziness or something. We must be coerced into doing the work deemed necessary by those who have more money than us, and their right to decide that is justified by their legal control of that money, and the access to resources that it represents.

It should be clear to most people that this is nonsense. If meeting the material needs of humanity was the driving force behind capitalism’s relationship with labor and production, then we would have eradicated hunger and houselessness long ago. Certainly we would have eradicated them before anybody was able to measure their wealth in hundreds of millions of dollars, let alone billions. The scarcity suffered by so many of us is manufactured for the sake of controlling how people spend their time.

Poverty is the tool used by the capitalist class to force everyone else to work for their benefit, and as a result, most of humanity is denied the freedom – the free time – to pursue happiness.

Any society will require work to maintain, but no society in history has lacked people willing to do that work, provided the ability to do so in reasonable safety, and to have time and energy to spend on other things. The only time coercion is required, is when people are asked to do work that is neither necessary for survival, nor pleasant or interesting to do. If there is a job that needs doing, and there’s nobody willing to do it, then surely we can find ways to make that work more appealing. I’d love to divide my time between writing, growing food, and maintaining my home. I would happily also spend a day or two every week on pretty much any kind of work useful to society, in exchange for the ability to spend the rest of my time on those pursuits. I’d spend more time than that, depending on the work in question, and I know I’m not alone. How many of you have known someone who enjoyed a job that would make you miserable?

Do you enjoy building houses or furniture? What about inspecting or cleaning sewers? What about milking venomous snakes to make medicine, or studying spiders to further our understanding of biology? What about dissecting dead animals to discover what killed them? What about nursing sick people? Delivering mail? Repairing appliances? Teaching children? Farming? Teaching adults? What about composing music, or performing music composed by others? Cleaning boat hulls? Painting houses? Gathering evidence to help settle a dispute? Building roads? Dismantling broken electronics? Cleaning up pollution?

How many pages could I fill simply listing the kinds of work needed for a just and functional society with our level of technology? What jobs, of the tiny handful I’ve listed would you be willing to do because they needed doing, and you had the time and inclination, knowing that your needs were already met?

Which of them would you be willing to do in exchange for access to your favorite form of entertainment, your favorite drug, or your favorite foods?

Which of them would you do because it would allow someone you love to work on something that makes them happy?

I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone who wasn’t willing to do some form of work that would make another person miserable.

A society that actually values the freedom of each human to pursue happiness, rather than endlessly growing “profits” isn’t just one that would be more pleasant for humanity as a whole, it would also be far more sustainable at pretty much every level.

Plenty of us would prefer to have toys or tools that last a long time, rather than disposable ones that pollute the environment when they have to be replaced.

How many of us would prefer to make tools or toys that last a long time, rather than ones that we knew would stop working soon, not because it’s not possible to build a better one, but because it’s more profitable to make and sell more items of lower quality?

With all the incredible technologies available to us, do you really think that it’s not possible for food to be distributed around the world based on need? Do  you really think it wasn’t possible to maintain a resource stockpile for pandemics that we’ve always known would happen? Do you really think we just don’t have the resources for everyone to have clean drinking water? Do you really think we need to have people claiming ownership of homes they will never need for themselves, just so they can charge other people for access? Do you really think our society is made better by forcing artists to do work they hate just to survive, rather than making art?

Is it so hard to imagine a society where all of our collective knowledge and skill is used for the health, education, and free time of everyone, rather than for one or two people to own a dozen yachts they never use, or to have private airplanes?

Is it so hard to imagine a society in which nobody gets rich off of war?

I don’t think it is, but it does require that we have the time and energy to do so, and the ability to learn from the passions and expertise of our fellow humans.

We have a finite time as sapient creatures on this planet, and it seems to me that the quality of our lives is centered around how we spend that time, and how our use of that time affects our fellow sapient creatures, both in the present, and in the future.

I believe we can work together to dismantle a system meant to control our existence, and to build a society that values our lives and our ability to enjoy them as best suits us, and I think that free time as the only true “freedom to pursue happiness” should be the central priority around which we rally.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Social constructs as humanity’s greatest threat, and our greatest source of hope

When the “Fight for Fifteen” movement began in the United States in 2012, the argument for increasing the minimum wage was the same as it is now – the cost of living has risen faster than the minimum wage, and so the effective income of America’s poorest was going down, year by year. Now, in 2021, the fight is still for a minimum wage of $15 per hour, even as the cost of living has continued to skyrocket. The reality is that in 2012, $15 was still too low to actually meet the cost of living in many parts of the country, so with those costs even higher now, why are we still talking about a minimum wage increase that was inadequate nearly a decade ago?

Because the driving force in capitalism is the desire for endlessly growing profits, and the most straightforward way to generate those profits has always been finding ways to “cut labor costs” by underpaying the workers on whom the company depends. From slavery, to sharecropping, to scrip, to child labor, to unsafe conditions, to industrial pollution, the story of capitalism has been an unbroken chain of the capitalist class finding any means – legal or not – to shift the costs of their business onto those with less money and power. So the effort to increase the minimum wage, so that those at the bottom can afford to live while continuing to enrich those at the top, has faced constant opposition from the most powerful people in the country.

We’re stuck fighting for what was already a compromise favoring the rich a decade ago.

This problem is not unique to the question of wages, and it has translated to infuriating delays on the most pressing issues of our time.

It’s been 63 years since the first publicly televised warning about climate change. At the time, it wasn’t clear how  long the process would take, partly because of inadequate understanding of the issue itself, and partly because there was no way to tell exactly how humanity would respond to the impending crisis. By 1980 it was clear that, largely due to rapidly rising annual CO2 emissions, the timeline was a lot shorter than initially thought. The need for urgent action was clear.

Now, decades later, we’re still stuck in an endless loop of rebutting and debunking “arguments” that were refuted long ago. As with the fight over the minimum wage, this stagnation is not because of any legitimate objection to the science, or even the proposed solutions. It’s because the richest and most powerful people in the world don’t want to change the system that brought them their wealth and power. Just as capitalists have invested heavily in opposing minimum wage increases, unionization, universal healthcare, and many other things, they have also paid a number of people very well to repeat these obvious lies across all media, no matter how many times they are debunked.

As I often say, we have missed the window to avoid catastrophic levels of change. The degree of catastrophe is still under our control – we could simultaneously work to end our fossil fuel use, and to prepare our society for unavoidable changes before they become truly catastrophic. Just as buildings can be designed to better withstand earthquakes, so to can our society be re-structured to withstand higher temperatures, higher sea levels, and ongoing ecological collapse.

The problem is that people are going to respond to the conditions in which they find themselves with the tools that are available to them. Just as the foreign policy of colonial powers, especially the United States, has led to refugee crises around the world as people flee homes made uninhabitable by forces beyond their control, so too are people beginning to respond to the changes in climate as best they can.

Some of this is taking the form of more refugees, though the exact numbers are hard to separate from those fleeing warfare and manufactured poverty.

Some of it comes in the form of increasing the use of fossil fuels – as the primary energy source used in the world – for things like air conditioning:

To survive the summer heat, Qatar not only air-conditions its soccer stadiums, but also the outdoors — in markets, along sidewalks, even at outdoor malls so people can window shop with a cool breeze. “If you turn off air conditioners, it will be unbearable. You cannot function effectively,” says Yousef al-Horr, founder of the Gulf Organization for Research and Development.

Yet outdoor air conditioning is part of a vicious cycle. Carbon emissions create global warming, which creates the desire for air conditioning, which creates the need for burning fuels that emit more carbon dioxide. In Qatar, total cooling capacity is expected to nearly double from 2016 to 2030, according to the International District Cooling & Heating Conference.

And it’s going to get hotter.

By the time average global warming hits 2 degrees Celsius, Qatar’s temperatures would soar, said Mohammed Ayoub, senior research director at the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute. In rapidly growing urban areas throughout the Middle East, some predict cities could become uninhabitable.

“We’re talking about 4 to 6 degrees Celsius increase in an area that already experiences high temperatures,” Ayoub said. “So, what we’re looking at more is a question of how does this impact the health and productivity of the population.”

The danger is acute in Qatar because of the Persian Gulf humidity. The human body cools off when its sweat evaporates. But when humidity is very high, evaporation slows or stops. “If it’s hot and humid and the relative humidity is close to 100 percent, you can die from the heat you produce yourself,” said Jos Lelieveld, an atmospheric chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany who is an expert on Middle East climate.

That became abundantly clear in late September, as Doha hosted the 2019 World Athletics Championships. It moved the start time for the women’s marathon to midnight Sept. 28. Water stations handed out sponges dipped in ice-cold water. First-aid responders outnumbered the contestants. But temperatures hovered around 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 28 of the 68 starters failed to finish, some taken off in wheelchairs.

Workers are particularly at risk. A German television report alleged hundreds of deaths among foreign workers in Qatar in recent years, prompting new limits on outdoor work. A July article in the journal Cardiology said that 200 of 571 fatal cardiac problems among Nepalese migrants working there were caused by “severe heat stress” and could have been avoided.

The U.S. Air Force calls very hot days “black flag days” and limits exposure of troops stationed at al-Udeid Air Base. Personnel conducting patrols or aircraft maintenance work for 20 minutes, then rest for 40 minutes and drink two bottles of water an hour. People doing heavy work in the fire department or aircraft repair may work for only 10 minutes at a time, followed by 50 minutes of rest, according to a spokesman for the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.

In early July, Qatar’s Civil Defense Command warned against doing outdoor work between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., putting gas cylinders in the sun, turning on water heaters, completely filling fuel tanks or car tires, or needlessly running the air conditioner. It urged people to drink plenty of fluids — and to beware of snakes and scorpions.

Because we’ve delayed for so long, we are in the process of making the problem much, much worse simply by trying to survive while preserving an unjust and unsustainable system.

For all of the the talk – entirely justified – about the dangers of natural amplifying feedback loops and runaway global warming, I think we’ve neglected this particular feedback, because we’re not used to thinking of ourselves as being part of nature. Animals  and plants across the entire surface of this planet are changing where and how they live in response to the warming, and Homo sapiens is no exception to that trend. We are responding, in many ways, as we always have – by managing our surroundings, and by protecting the social structures to which we are accustomed.

This way lies extinction.

There’s a lot of talk these days about social constructs,  and a lot of misunderstanding, both willful and not. Social constructs are effectively the rules that humans have created for ourselves to deal with the difficulties of being a social species. I would argue that they exist in all animal species that exhibit any sort of social behavior. Things like behavioral mating displays (as opposed to physical features like mating plumage in birds), territorial marking and disputes, and various power dynamics fall into this category.

Human social constructs seem to be a mix of things that might be considered the study of “evolutionary psychology” (if that field wasn’t overrun by psuedoscientific nonsense) and things – like the ideas of race created and enforced by European colonial powers – that were created and maintained quite deliberately. The current hierarchy of wealth and power in most of the world seems to be a mix of the two. Sticking with the European example, as the one with which I am most familiar, the current capitalist class system was created in part, to protect the positions of those who had been at the top of Feudal society. This is probably closest to the surface in the United Kingdom, but if you poke around, you’ll find that the ruling classes of so-called “Western Society” (another social construct with little basis in reality) have many members whose families were also powerful under Feudalism.

It’s easy to feel like all of these problems are unavoidably part of “human nature”, and so absent an external force, we’re simply unable to make the changes needed. Under this fatalistic line of thinking, we will either develop some technological miracle, like fusion power, that will solve everything without the need for systemic change, or we will destroy ourselves. I think this view is best encapsulated in the concept of “capitalist realism”. I also think, as I’ve said before, that this view of an unchanging “human nature” is part of the larger framework of indoctrination that has been developed to get people to accept the destructive and unjust nature of capitalism. It’s similar to the myth that the people living in the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia  prior to European colonization did little or nothing to manage their land or organize their societies.

Social constructs have been central to our most powerful tool as a species – our ability to make collective use of our distributed knowledge and skills. That, I would argue, is what truly lies at the heart of “human nature”, and what all the myriad of human societies throughout the history of our species have had in common. This is part of what gives me hope for the future. While it’s rare to see truly revolutionary change in any one human’s life, we have found countless ways of organizing ourselves, and changed them as need have dictated. Social constructs are a form of infrastructure, and just as with all other infrastructure, they serve us best when we constantly examine, maintain, update, and improve them.

I can’t promise that we’ll do what we need to in the time we have. What’s happening on this planet right now is unlike anything our species has ever faced. It is as much an unknown as space travel was at the beginning of the 20th century. We’re better at figuring out what’s likely to happen (thanks to social constructs like mathematics and the scientific method), but the best we can do is calculate likely futures based on what we understand today. What I will say is that I believe we have the physical and conceptual tools we need, as a species, to build a better world, even in the midst of the rapid warming and ecological collapse that has been forced upon us by our “rulers”, past and present.

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

― Ursula K. Le Guin


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Community science: A way to help

I recently touched on the concept of ecosystem services, and I wanted to expand on that a little today, and highlight an opportunity for people in Florida (and everywhere else) to help out.

To be very brief, ecosystem services are the ways in which the other forms of life that surround us help humanity simply by going about their lives. Bats eat insects that might otherwise spread disease or damage crops. Earthworms aerate the topsoil and move nutrients around. Whales literally stir the oceans by being huge and moving vertically in the water column. Insects pollinate crops. Plants produce oxygen, and so on.

Another key concept here is that of biodiversity. Biodiversity generally refers to the number of different species in a given area (species richness), as well as the health of those populations. At first glance, it may seem that a healthy ecosystem has each species in its niche, but in general if you remove one, others will adapt to take advantage of the gap.

Humans have been managing our surroundings in one way or another for many thousands of years, and as I’ve said before, we have no way to stop doing so. Our only choice is to try to do it in a way that will promote biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. Doing so would be impossible without a clear understanding of the current state of our ecosystems, how we are affecting them, and what results come from our efforts to change those effects.

Specialization has allowed humanity to achieve amazing things by using diverse skills in concert. The downside is that we rarely know a whole lot about specialties other than our own. This ignorance creates a gap that can be exploited by dishonest actors, or even honest folks who just get the wrong idea. That means that whenever there’s an article about a species going extinct, there’s always someone asking the reasonable question, “how do they know?”

The answer isn’t too hard to find, of course, but people often lack the time, energy, or interest to go looking. In brief, we know what’s happening in our ecosystems because thousands of people of all levels of expertise spend their lives catching and counting plants and animals, checking their bodies for industrial byproducts and other pollutants, and so on. It’s a painstaking, sometimes dangerous task, and also very rewarding.

In college I participated in a couple animal surveys, including one that was responsible for saving a species of Bahamian rock iguanas. Every year, conditions allowing, a team of biologists and students spends about a week trying to catch, identify, and measure every single member of the population. Often the breeding season is also monitored, using different methods. It’s hard work, but it’s how we know how the population is doing, what threats it faces, and so on.

I’ve been part of similar efforts monitoring freshwater turtle species, and grassland snake species, and I’ve worked with scientists doing the same for insects, bats, plants, and birds. In my childhood I spent many hours playing in the Middlesex Fells around Boston MA while my father counted native and invasive plants for his graduate degrees.

I also worked with groups who organized every day members of the community to help in those efforts.  Every year, millions of people of all ages help ecologists by reporting sightings of birds, flowers, insects, frog calls, and so on, as opportunity or hobbies dictate. Those reports can be part of an organized study, or they can be made directly to relevant government agencies. In the latter case, there will be someone like me who goes through the reports to determine their likely accuracy. One common example is that a “cobra sighting” in the American Midwest is almost certainly a terrified Hognose snake trying to look scary.

I’m writing this post because Tegan came across an opportunity for folks in Florida to help with such a project, and it’s something I keep forgetting to write about.

Since I wasn’t sure what was up with this dude, I did what I always do whenever I see something weird going on with a wild animal; I called my local Fish & Wildlife! This might sound like a crazy reaction to seeing a splotchy turtle but I actually learned something extremely important that I would love for my followers (especially those in Florida) to know about too. After calling F&W I spoke with the turtle specialist for quite some time, as it turns out there is an unknown pathogen killing softshell turtles in Florida, and biologists are desperate to find the cause. They need our help to do this! The biologist that I spoke with says they’re relying on civilian reports to find cases for further study, so it’s incredibly important to spread the word and make sure people know how to report any abnormal appearance or behavior in turtles that they see.

Fortunately my splotchy turtle (I call him Uncle Walter) doesn’t seem to be sick based on his presentation or behavior! The turtle experts examined his photos and at this point they agree he is probably just piebald, though they asked me to keep an eye on him and make sure his condition doesn’t change. I’m so happy that I am armed with knowledge I can use to monitor him and his friends in the face of this worrisome unknown illness.

To my friends here in Florida- if you see ANY wild turtle that looks sick, weak, distressed, or abnormal please contact Fish and Wildlife immediately using the information provided below! To my non-Fl friends, if you have any contacts that enjoy herping or just outdoor activity in the state please let them know about this as well. Our turtles are very dear to us and reporting possible illness is the best way we can help find what’s killing these animals.

These projects are everywhere. While I was working for the Wisconsin DNR I was able to see some data that’s exempted from things like the Freedom of Information Act, not because of anything related to national security, but because making the exact locations of endangered species easy to find leaves them open to harm from the illegal pet trade, animal parts trade, and people whose quest for riches is blocked by laws protecting those species.

These projects are everywhere.

If you are reading this, the odds are very good that if you do a search for “citizen science” or “community science”(a term I prefer), a local species you like, and your area, you’ll be able to find something. If that doesn’t work, you can contact local nature centres, natural history museums, or universities, or look for hobbyist clubs. If you go through all of that and can’t find anything, let me know and I’m willing to bet I can find something.

Responding to climate change, and to human destruction of the ecosystems we rely on requires a massive amount of information. Science at it’s best is a collective effort, and with the ubiquity of cameras and recording equipment, helping that effort has never been easier. If you can’t see, you may be able to help with frog or bird call surveys. If you can’t do any field work, there are always data that need to be processed, or you could count animals via video, and you can always help to publicise these projects. If you have the time, energy, and interest, go see what your options are!


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Forests for food: ecosystem management for a brighter future

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, much of the blame for the disaster that followed rightly went to neglected or inadequate infrastructure, and the structural racism that allowed known problems to linger until they brought devastation on the low-lying minority communities of that city. Most of that death and destruction could have been prevented, had those with the power to do so cared more about human life than about money.

The region’s “natural” infrastructure got a bit less focus. Salt marshes and mangrove swamps once lined far more of the Gulf Coast than they do today. Industrial and commercial activity have both steadily cut away at those ecosystems, carving channels for ships and poisoning the water with oil and gas wells. The result was that the natural breakwaters that used to protect low-lying populations like New Orleans are mostly gone, so when a storm surge rises, there’s no tangle of vegetation to slow its momentum and reduce its power to overwhelm the human structures farther inland.

In our careless destruction of the ecosystems around us, we are also robbing ourselves of the benefits we derive from so-called “ecosystem services“.

Other such services include things like the oxygen generated through photosynthesis, the food we take from wild populations, the pollination provided by bees and other insects, the parasites eaten by insectivores, the water cleaned by wetlands, and so on.

It’s pretty common for people to take these services for granted. They’ve always been there, and it can be easy to feel like they always will be.

These days, however, it’s increasingly obvious that not only are we losing them at an alarming rate, for some, like natural protections against storm surges, they’re effectively almost gone.

If we want humanity to survive, we are faced with either attempting to replace these services with human constructs, or with cultivating and protecting them, restoring at least some of what has been lost, and living in a manner that encourages those ecosystems to thrive.

This is no small task, as we’ve done a lot of damage and the rapid warming of our planet will do still more in the coming years. It may well end up costing us as much as the technological and societal changes -like ending fossil fuel use- that are already at the centre of environmental discourse.

Now that we are effectively a force of nature on the surface of this planet, our survival depends on planning for the deep future. I think this is one reason the concept of a food forest has appealed to me since I first encountered it.

Food forests are basically what they sound like. A planned and cultivated forest ecosystem filled with plants that produce food for human consumption. Nut, fruit, and sugar trees for the upper stories, berries and things like grape vines lower down, and various edible greens, roots, and mushrooms at ground level.

Done right, such an ecosystem requires little labour to maintain, and where conventional farming often depletes the soil, leaving the land less productive for future generations, a food forest can potentially feed people for centuries or more without the need for massive use of fertilizers or pesticides.

I want to be clear – this is a trade-off. I don’t know the exact numbers, but a system like this is going to produce a lower density of food per acre than a monoculture field. Machine-based harvesting wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t work as efficiently. This is not a form of agriculture designed to produce vast amounts of a single crop like wheat, corn, or soy.

I think the ideal arrangement would be a mix of unmanaged wilderness, conventional farmland, and various kinds of food forest. The concept also isn’t limited to a conventional “forest” – similar planned ecosystems are possible in a wide variety of conditions,  and may not always include things like larger trees. While food is a central part of such an ecosystem, it’s multi-purpose.  It provides habitat for wildlife, a communal place for recreation, a tool for public education, and the cultivation and maintenance of ecosystem services.

This is not a new concept. Not even close.

When I say a well-managed food forest can feed people for centuries, that’s because such forests have already done so. Perhaps the most famous example is an ancient forest in Morocco, but in reality this form of agriculture has been found in all sorts of places. European cultures, as part of their obsession with the imagined superiority of their “race”, dismissed the possibility that Native American cultures, for example, pursued their own forms of agriculture and land management, simply because they didn’t conform to how the colonists thought such activities “should” look.

What this really comes down to is this: our current global society operates largely on the assumption that humans are somehow separate from the rest of life on this planet – that because we are different in how we interact with our surroundings, we do not depend on the ecosystems we inhabit. I’ll delve more into ecosystem services and things like food forests in the future, but with the alarm about declining wild bee populations alone, I think it has become abundantly clear that that perceived separation was always as much of a lie as the white supremacist dismissal of these forms of ecosystem management.

As indicated by some of the sources I have linked, work has long been underway to both raise awareness of these practices and to expand existing food forest projects – both new, and very, very old. In ecology, diversity tends to mean strength and resilience. I think that’s a guideline we would do well to follow if we want humanity to have a future worth living in.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

COVID update: Why masks and distancing matter, and why we need to change how things are run

It’s surreal. I’ve been isolating with Tegan and the critters since March. It was pretty easy, because nobody was hiring, and neither of us was able to get wage labor until Tegan got a minimum wage gig in August almost by accident. The animals both love having us around all the time, and we humans still enjoy each other’s company. It’s not a big apartment, and given the infectiousness of this virus, and the long period of asymptomatic contagiousness, we figured that if one of us got it, both of us would. Apparently not. I got tested yesterday, and my result was negative.

Even so, the evidence at this point is pretty clear – even if a mask and distancing don’t prevent you from getting the disease, they will make it far more likely that you’ll have a light case. For those who aren’t clear on why, here’s a basic breakdown:

When the virus enters your system and begins to hijack cells for reproduction, it starts a timed contest. The “goal” of the virus is to infect every cell it can, to reproduce as much as it can, and to spread to as many other people as it can before your body either wipes it out, or dies. The “goal” of your immune system is to develop antibodies that can destroy the virus before it infects you badly enough that you die.

Let’s say you got the virus because some science-denying asshole coughed and sneezed directly in your face. You got a huge dose – your starting population of the virus is in the tens of thousands, and its starting position is in your mouth, nose, and eyes. Viruses grow exponentially in the body – one cell produces many particles of the virus, and because those are starting inside your body, the odds are that most of them will infect other cells and repeat the process. You go from a population of 20,000 to 20,000,000 very, very quickly, and from there to the hundreds of millions, and then billions. By the time your immune system has the ability to really respond, huge portions of your body are infected, and with COVID-19 that means not just your respiratory system, but your circulatory system, nervous system, and multiple organs. Billions of your cells each pumping out thousands upon thousands of new virus particles. This isn’t great for your health, because the virus population is using your resources to do all of this, and those resources are then unavailable for normal bodily functions.

The virus is not what kills you, though. The problem is that the immune system doesn’t kill the virus directly, it targets the virus’s means of reproduction – infected cells. So, your body develops the ability to detect and destroy infected cells, some time after your initial exposure, and then it sets about doing that. The question then is – how many of your cells are infected? If the number is too high, then your immune system will basically be doing the equivalent of amputating a limb that has gangrene to prevent the rot from spreading to the rest of your body. It’s probably better than dying, but it comes with its own dangers. Specifically, it’s amputating one cell at a time, and it’s doing it in your lungs, your heart, your blood vessels, your nerves, and so on. The extent of your viral infection determines the extent to which your body destroys itself to purge the infection.

It’s a bit like doing a controlled burn to eradicate an invasive species like honeysuckle (in the US) – if it’s just in a small area, that method might well work, but if – as is the case in much of the United States – there’s honeysuckle throughout the forest understory, then you’re likely to destroy not just the invasive species, but the rest of the forest as well.

Now let’s say you contract the virus from your significant other or room mate, but you’ve had windows open and kitchen and bathroom vents running, you wear masks most of the time, you stay in separate rooms, and you never interact directly (can you tell I’m bitter about my current situation?). Now, instead of 20,000, your starting virus population is 1. Or more likely 100. Now your body has a better chance of developing and carrying out its response before the virus has infected too many of your cells. Now, instead of hundreds of billions of cells that need to be destroyed, there are just billions, or a few hundred million (out of hundreds of trillions in your body). Your body can take that hit pretty easily. It’s not good, and it’s not fun, but neither is it lethal, and depending on what cells are infected, it might not even have lasting effects.

By taking all those precautions, you’ve gone from your body melting down your lungs and veins, and killing you to eradicate your viral population, to doing pretty minor damage that you may not even notice, in an asymptomatic case.

So, back to my situation if I do catch the disease from Tegan, does that mean I get to interact with her again? No. Not while she’s still sick. See – you don’t stop being vulnerable to infection once you’re infected. It’s not an on/off situation. Let’s say I tested positive, but I don’t have any symptoms. Good. All of my caution has paid off, and my viral load is in the hundreds of thousands. I might get a bit of a cough or a fever, and if I’m unlucky I could have lasting damage to some parts of my body, but I’m not going to be in danger for my life.

And then, since I’m “already infected”, I go to take care of my wife, who’s worse off than I am. And every time I go into the bedroom, my viral population gets a boost. It might even get virus particles that have evolved to be better at invading cells (like the new variants now spreading across the globe). Now I’m going from a manageable, or even asymptomatic viral load, to a dangerous one, and at the same time, I’m adding to Tegan’s viral load, and increasing the odds that her immune system will do serious damage. I might even introduce a new variant to her.

And so I sit in a chilly room with wind blowing through the open door, and a vent running in the kitchen. I don’t go to comfort her, even though we could both use a hug. If I need to give her something, I leave it in the hall, and go back into my part of the apartment. If someone delivers a package, I tell them to set it outside the door, and wait till they’re long gone before I open it to get what they left.

Infectious disease is a numbers game, and knowing that, we can adjust our behavior to cut off the viral supply lines.

As I was writing this, I noticed that a great deal of what I was saying also applies to how countries deal with a pandemic. Fortunately, we’re not just killing everyone who tests positive, but the more people test positive, the more there are to infect others, and the greater the total amount of viral particles there are in any given location. A park on a breezy day may seem safe – and it is safer than an enclosed space – but if everyone in that park is infected, they’re giving off a cloud of viral particles, like cigarette smoke, that is more or less likely to reach other people, depending on how many are producing that cloud.

The lack of response in the US and the UK (probably other countries too, but I haven’t paid as close attention to them) has done just that. It has increased the viral loads of those countries, and consequently increased the viral load of infected individuals. Even now, isolation and masking are still saving lives, and helping to control the pandemic and many other infectious diseases. This basic math is the same for every infectious disease. COVID-19 is worse than most because, like with the honeysuckle I mentioned earlier, it’s an invasive species. It has no “natural predators” in our bodies to slow it down, and it has no “natural habitat” in our bodies that it will focus on and stay in. It’s in new territory, in every human it encounters right now, and so it’s going where it can, to the greatest extent that it can, and it turns out that it can go just about everywhere inside us. Eventually, the global population will have some level of resting immunity to this kind of coronavirus. I think it’s unlikely that it will ever go away completely – it’s going to be more like the common cold or influenza – but it will get less lethal, because it will be harder for the new variants to grow out of control as they do now, because we’ll have at least some defenses against things that look similar.

I’ll end by saying – not for the last time – that a pandemic like this is why it’s so important to have societies that understand and accept science, and that value the lives and wellbeing of the general population over, say, profit for the ruling class. Say what you will about Vietnam, but the evidence is clear – quarantining infected villages, and ensuring that those under quarantine had all the food, shelter, and entertainment they needed was effective. The leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam may be wealthier than the general population, but that gap is (a) not as big as it is in capitalist countries, and (b) did not lead them to put their own wealth ahead of the lives of their population. Doing the right thing in a pandemic is not profitable for the ruling class. It’s an investment in the population at large. It costs money to inform people they’re under quarantine, and to provide them with meals, and to ensure that they’re able to quarantine without losing their homes, healthcare, or food.

This is not likely to be the last pandemic in my lifetime (assuming I die of old age). This will come up again, and if most of the world is run by and for capitalists, we’ll go through all of this again, even though we know how to stop it. The same is true for climate change. We know what we need to do to both slow the warming of the climate, and to adapt our societies to survive the warming we cannot avoid, but doing so will not be as profitable for the ruling class as the status quo. As long as the profit motive is the primary guiding principle of our society, we will fail to adequately address climate change, and we will fail in our responses to every pandemic that comes along.

Stay the course. Wear a mask. Keep your distance. Listen to the scientific and medical communities, and organize so that we can actually deal with the problems that face us.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my upcoming move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!