The Enemy of Old has taken the land, so I must garden in the sky

When I was a young warthog, I attended Waldorf Schools. One of the things required of me was the artistic decoration of the various essays I wrote. We were required to illuminate our work, in imitation of European monks copying religious texts. The exact details of these decorations were generally left up to the students. Sometimes it was faint drawings behind the text, sometimes it was color gradients around the edges, and sometimes it was doodles in the margins relevant to the nature of the essay.

What I didn’t do, really was spend much time studying the phenomenon of marginalia. For those of you who have, it’s likely that you’ve noticed a lot of snails. So. Many. Snails.

The image is a drawing from the margins of some medieval text. It depicts a knight in chain mail with a helmet and a shield, wielding a club. The knight is fighting a giant snail - slightly larger than himself. They are both a grassy lawn, with some sort of bush in the background, and a red-leafed tree nearby. It's possible that rather than the snail being huge, the knight is tiny. I can't tell.

Yea, slimy things did crawl on grass, and poke their eyes at me

There are snails fighting knights, snails minding their own business, even the occasional Divine Hoversnail with attendant worshipper:

The image shows a leafy branch extending sideways from the bottom of a large, decorative letter - possibly a T? Kneeling on the branch is a knight in full chain mail, with a tower shield behind him, and his sword stuck in the branch in front of him. His hands are held together in prayer. A snail, about the size of his torso, is hovering in front of him.

All Hail the Hoversnail

There are various theories as to why snails fill the borders of these texts, but having lived in Scotland for almost a year now, I have come to believe in one theory in particular.

Even to this day, the inhabitants of monasteries generally keep gardens. Over the centuries these have provided food and medicines for monks, as well as  occasional means for generating a little income to help meet the expenses of the monastery. This meant that the monks creating these marginalia likely spent a great deal of time maintaining gardens, and as any gardener knows, it’s an activity that will regularly bring you into contact with snails.

What I did not realize – what had not really sunk in – was just how many snails there are here.

There are a lot of snails here.

Like – a ridiculous amount of snails.

I let Raksha out three times a day usually, and we generally just go into the courtyard seen in the various pictures of her I’ve posted. Once the sun goes down, the snails come out.

The image shows a garden snail on grass. There's a daisy in the bottom left corner of the picture, closed up for the night. The snail has a brindled brown and tan shell, and dark pebbly skin. Its eyestalks are extended, actively searching around. It seems interested in the world around it.

An active, interested snail, scanning the world for more plants to eat or knights to fight.

 

Snail on gravel. This snail has a brindled brown and tan pattern on its shell, with the tip of the cone on its right side (left side of the picture) white. I can't tell if it had some sort of residue on it, or the shell is just white. Its eyestalks are extended, looking for something tastier than gravel.

This snail is in the barren desert section of the courtyard, crossing the harsh gravel desert to reach the bounty that is the lawn. Over the years, as the knights died out, the snail population boomed, no longer held back by their natural predators.

 

A snail on the brick walkway, moving along a line of moss between bricks. Its shell has the same pretty brown and tan pattern, and its pebbly dark gray skin has a white dotted line down the back of its neck starting between its eyes. The eye stalks are less extended than the others, but still looking around.

This snail is following a line of moss between the bricks of the walkway. With the downfall of the knights, the monks were left without protection from their ancient foes, leading to a long-running direct war between the Monastic Orders and the snails.

 

This image shows the lawn at the edge of the courtyard's gravel section. The grass is spotted with closed daisies and buttercups. There are 6 snails in an area of about one or two square meters

Here are 6 snails in a small patch of the lawn. Not stepping on them has been a challenge. No longer able to rely on the knights for protection, the monks had to take up the fight, leaving them with little time to illuminate manuscripts, which is why we no longer see many such works.

 

The image shows a turquoise window box attached to a sturdy railing over a parking area. The brown soil has several dwarf broad bean plants with white and black flowers.

Flowering dwarf broad beans in our window box The snail wars are secret, so it’s hard to know how they’re going. That said, I’ve seen many more snails than monks around here, so it’s safe to say the snails control this region.

 

The image shows three cans and a plastic container inside a turquoise window box. The containers contain soil and some chard and kale plants. The parking area below is visible in the background

We’re a little short on soil, so the greens are still in the containers we used for the seedlings. With the ground under the snails’ control, we’ve had to elevate our gardening. The window boxes are booked over a sturdy railing, and further secured with parachute cord. It might be overkill, but we don’t have to worry about them falling.

 

Image shows give cans with kale growing in them. The cans are in another turquoise window box, attached to the railing with hooks and parachute cord.

Our kale crop, still a bit stunted by lack of soil. We’ll be able to buy more soon, but in the meantime, they’re doing OK. The snails either don’t know, or are satisfied with controlling the ground.


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. It will also help save my crops from the Molluscoid Menace. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

Capitalism, global warming, and the fear of change

Years ago, when I was first learning about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I heard about strict limitations imposed on foreigners visiting that country. It wasn’t just about limiting what they said and did, but also what items they could bring in, cell phones in particular. The purpose of this was to control how the citizens of North Korea viewed the world and their role in it. A foundational dogma of the Kim dynasty was that North Korea was the most advanced nation in the world, and that while life wasn’t perfect there, it was better than anywhere else.

I’m sure not all North Koreans believe that, but the point was to have enough to send a clear message – change could lead to disaster. You think you have it bad now? Rock the boat and it’ll get worse for you. Some of that threat was from the government itself, of course, but at the same time there’s the idea that this leaky, dangerous boat with its brutal captain are all you’ve ever known, and the choice presented is not between that boat and a better one, but between that boat and no boat at all.

And when someone complains to much, the captain makes a big show of throwing that person overboard to remind everyone else that things can always get worse.

When news broke of the efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, there were a lot of people trying to work out what Putin’s interests might be in meddling in the American government. First, to be clear, America is a near-global empire, perhaps the first of its kind. Its military reach covers the whole planet through a massive air force, and a huge network of military bases. All of that power has gone not towards controlling territory, but rather towards ensuring the global economy is a capitalist one, as much as possible. That means that there’s a very real way in which the control and activities of the American government are a legitimate concern for everyone on the planet.

Setting that aside, one of the proposed motivations for Putin’s activities was very similar to that narrative I had heard about North Korea. Putin’s interest wasn’t in controlling America, though he’d doubtless be fine with expanding his power, but rather in convincing the Russian people that while his rule might not be everything they wanted, it was the best they could expect. No other system that might look better from the outside is stable enough to last. Having the United States operate in a way that directly benefited Putin would be nice, but more valuable than that was the chaos and decline in standard of living that would come from a Republican administration under Trump. Under that analysis, it didn’t matter whether Trump was fully controllable, or even that he always worked for the benefit of the Russian government. What mattered was that he continue to be divisive, chaotic, and corrosive to the United States and its allies, to provide evidence that the notion that America’s claimed democracy was so unstable that it wasn’t worth trying for.

Hearing this discussion about Putin, and linking it to what I had been told about North Korea, made me think more about the United States, and the narratives fed to us as citizens of that country. Various flavors of nationalism are ubiquitous. Slogans like “America #1” can be found everywhere, as can the claim that it’s the “greatest country in the world”, to the degree that it causes a bit of a scandal if anyone suggests that that’s not the case. When we talked about improving our healthcare system, we were told that what we had was already the best possible healthcare system, and given justifications for the downsides, and outright lies about what other countries had.

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Reminder: Ending fossil fuel use will cause a short-term increase in temperature as the air clears.

This came up in the comments on my post about the Arctic heat wave, and I think it merits further discussion.

Even ignoring the multiple feedback loops that are likely to see the planet’s warming continue long into the future, if we do everything right in terms of addressing climate change there will be severe warming in our lifetimes. This is not a new concern. Aerosol pollution played a role in the cooling period of the 1970s that climate deniers love to talk about, and after the environmental movement of that era succeeded in reducing air pollution, there was an increase in temperature that followed.

This is one of the reasons I consistently advocate for climate action that includes taking dramatic steps to prepare for a much warmer and more unpredictable world. If we had taken serious action to reduce energy consumption, develop renewable energy, and expand and improve nuclear energy in the 1970s and 1980s, we would have different options available to us today, but we missed that window. Returning to the “pre-industrial norm”, within our lifetimes, no longer seems to be an option. As I discussed in my geoengineering post, we have to learn how to responsibly use the collective power we’ve developed as a species if we want a livable world for future generations.

StevoR linked to this 2005 episode of BBC’s Horizon on global dimming and the overall effects of aerosol pollution on the climate:

The effect was first spotted by Gerry Stanhill, an English scientist working in Israel. Comparing Israeli sunlight records from the 1950s with current ones, Stanhill was astonished to find a large fall in solar radiation. “There was a staggering 22% drop in the sunlight, and that really amazed me,” he says.

Intrigued, he searched out records from all around the world, and found the same story almost everywhere he looked, with sunlight falling by 10% over the USA, nearly 30% in parts of the former Soviet Union, and even by 16% in parts of the British Isles. Although the effect varied greatly from place to place, overall the decline amounted to 1-2% globally per decade between the 1950s and the 1990s.

Gerry called the phenomenon global dimming, but his research, published in 2001, met with a sceptical response from other scientists. It was only recently, when his conclusions were confirmed by Australian scientists using a completely different method to estimate solar radiation, that climate scientists at last woke up to the reality of global dimming.

Dimming appears to be caused by air pollution. Burning coal, oil and wood, whether in cars, power stations or cooking fires, produces not only invisible carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas responsible for global warming) but also tiny airborne particles of soot, ash, sulphur compounds and other pollutants.

This visible air pollution reflects sunlight back into space, preventing it reaching the surface. But the pollution also changes the optical properties of clouds. Because the particles seed the formation of water droplets, polluted clouds contain a larger number of droplets than unpolluted clouds. Recent research shows that this makes them more reflective than they would otherwise be, again reflecting the Sun’s rays back into space.

Reducing CO2 emissions means reducing the production of these other forms of pollution. The global shutdown triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic showed us how dramatically a decrease in fossil fuel use can clear the air of visible pollution, and this will doubtless provide climate scientists with a wealth of data on what we can expect from the kind of rapid, permanent drop in fossil fuel use. Research published in 2019 indicated that climate scientists have been under-estimating the cooling effect of aerosol pollution:

To what extent do aerosols cool down our environment? To date, all estimates were unreliable because it was impossible to separate the effects of rising winds which create the clouds, from the effects of aerosols which determine their composition. Until now.

Rosenfeld and his colleague Yannian Zhu from the Meteorological Institute of Shaanxi Province in China developed a new method that uses satellite images to separately calculate the effect of vertical winds and aerosol cloud droplet numbers. They applied this methodology to low-lying cloud cover above the world’s oceans between the Equator and 40S. With this new method, Rosenfeld and his colleagues were able to more accurately calculate aerosols’ cooling effects on the Earth’s energy budget. And, they discovered that aerosols’ cooling effect is nearly twice higher than previously thought.

However, if this is true then how come the earth is getting warmer, not cooler? For all of the global attention on climate warming, aerosol pollution rates from vehicles, agriculture and power plants is still very high. For Rosenfeld, this discrepancy might point to an ever deeper and more troubling reality. “If the aerosols indeed cause a greater cooling effect than previously estimated, then the warming effect of the greenhouse gases has also been larger than we thought, enabling greenhouse gas emissions to overcome the cooling effect of aerosols and points to a greater amount of global warming than we previously thought,” he shared.

The fact that our planet is getting warmer even though aerosols are cooling it down at higher rates than previously thought brings us to a Catch-22 situation: Global efforts to improve air quality by developing cleaner fuels and burning less coal could end up harming our planet by reducing the number of aerosols in the atmosphere, and by doing so, diminishing aerosols’ cooling ability to offset global warming.

According to Rosenfeld, another hypothesis to explain why Earth is getting warmer even though aerosols have been cooling it down at an even a greater rate is a possible warming effect of aerosols when they lodge in deep clouds, meaning those 10 kilometers or more above the Earth. Israel’s Space Agency and France’s National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) have teamed up to develop new satellites that will be able to investigate this deep cloud phenomenon, with Professor Rosenfeld as its principal investigator.

Either way, the conclusion is the same. Our current global climate predictions do not correctly take into account the significant effects of aerosols on clouds on Earth’s overall energy balance. Further, Rosenfeld’s recalculations mean fellow scientists will have to rethink their global warming predictions — which currently predict a 1.5 to 4.5-degree Celsius temperature increase by the end of the 21st century — to provide us a more accurate diagnosis — and prognosis — of the Earth’s climate.

An erratum published a couple months later indicated that the degree of mis-calculation may not be as severe as Rosenfeld et al. initially stated, but their overall conclusion remains intact. The overall message remains the same as it has been – the problem of global warming has not been addressed in a manner that allows us to avoid serious consequences this century. That means an unprecedented refugee crisis, crop failures, heat waves, wildfires, and increasingly severe coastal flooding. These are all crises we are capable of dealing with. We have the technology and the understanding to help refugees, relocate or re-design coastal cities, and mage huge changes to global food production.

What we don’t have, currently, is a political and economic system that allows us to respond to the demands of our time. We cannot afford to have global production, distribution, and human movement to be dictated by and for the benefit of a tiny fraction of humanity. The drive for endless growth, and endless capital accumulation, even if we did have a more progressive system of taxation and wealth re-distribution, creates artificial scarcity, and prevents the development of a society that can be sustained in the long term.

This is not just an emergency created by our use of energy, it’s also rooted in the capitalist system that currently governs nearly all human activity on this planet. We need radical democracy in politics and in economies if we’re to have any hope of addressing our environmental crisis, and of saving humanity. We need it soon.


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

Repost: Geoengineering is dangerous, irresponsible, and unavoidable

This was originally posted in February of 2016, before I came to Freethoughtblogs. I’m reposting it here because I think it’s worth having around, and because it’s relevant to a post I’m currently working on relating to global dimming

Over the last couple decades, the world’s business and political leaders have gradually come to understand that climate change is something that cannot be ignored. Every year, the immediacy and severity of the problem have become clearer. Sea level rise, seasonal changes, and even evolutionary changes in response to the rise in planetary temperature have all made it clear that the entire planet is changing around us, and that ignoring it could have devastating results.

Living, as we do, in a society that values money so highly, some of the responses have been predictable. In particular, businesspeople like Bill Gates have been pushing the idea of geoengineering as a solution. Geoengineering, in this context, is a catch-all phrase for deliberately tinkering with Earth’s climate and the mechanisms that affect it. The problem with this is that the term is so broad it’s almost useless. It can apply to things like planting more trees, and it can also apply to colossal structures in space to reduce incoming sunlight.The image is a diagram showing a cut-out of a section of Earth's surface, with visual representations and text describing different geoengineering methods. The methods described are: Reflective aerosols, cloud seeding, and space mirrors (all under the heading Solar Radiation Management); forestation, CO2 capture from air plus storage, CO2 capture from fossil fuels plus storage, and ocean iron fertilization (all under the heading

One of the most commonly discussed geoengineering solutions is iron fertilization of the ocean. The basic idea is simple – iron is a limiting nutrient in the ocean, so putting iron particles in the ocean will stimulate the growth of photosynthetic plankton, which will pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. The idea is that when the plankton die, a sizable amount of their mass will sink to the bottom of the ocean taking that carbon with it.

It’s not really clear how well this works in practice. Some studies have indicated that it would work, while others indicate that it might not have much effect, and some people have raised concerns that it might actually result in eutrophication and dead zones.

Newly published research now indicates that because iron is not the only low-availability nutrient in the ocean, the algal bloom from iron fertilization in one part of the ocean might pull other nutrients, like nitrates and phosphates, out of the water, starving plankton farther downstream along the oceanic currents.

It’s tempting to simply wave away geoengineering as a bad idea that we should bury and be done with. There are countless ways that it could go horribly wrong, especially when enacted by billionaires like Gates and his ilk, who have little to no understanding of the ecosystems with which they want to tamper. With the possible exception of planting more trees and creating more wild spaces (which would, without question, work), pretty much every proposal for geoengineering has the potential to have devastating side effects that could make life on Earth much more difficult.

There’s one compelling reason not to throw it away altogether. The reality is that we are already engaged in geoengineering, and there is no question that the path we’re currently on will end badly. Like it or not, humanity has become a force of nature. The size of our population and the scale of our technology mean that we exert a global influence of the chemical makeup of our planet’s oceans, atmosphere, land masses. Currently, we are engaged in the kind of geoengineering that Svante Arrhenius calculated was possible over a century ago – raising the planet’s temperature by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.

For the sake of our own long-term survival, not to mention the rest of life on Earth, we need to come to terms with the fact that our species exerts a global influence, and we need to take deliberate control of that influence. We are already geoengineers, we’re just not taking responsibility for it. It’s past time to do more than simply work on reducing our fossil fuel use – we need to think about how we manage the surface of the planet we live on, and how we can manage it for the benefit of all life on Earth – ourselves included.

Because right now, we still seem to be pretending that we can just stop having a planetary impact, and with our population headed for 10 billion in just a couple decades, that is the one option that is no longer available to us.


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

Oceanic temperatures are rising and oxygen is in decline. What does that mean for sea life?

As the name of my blog implies, I have some interest in the amount of dissolved oxygen in the ocean. It’s not a subject about which I have any particular expertise, it’s just something that can have a dramatic effect on aquatic ecosystems, and which relates to one of the possible long-term “nightmare scenarios” for global warming.

When it comes to the basic facts of climate change, there are a few things that are really quite straightforward, despite the overall complexity of the issue. The properties of CO2, as described by Foote in 1856 mean that an increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere will cause an increase in global temperature. The only question is how much. Arrhenius answered that question in 1896 with a general calculation of how much affect a given change in CO2 would have on Earth’s overall temperature. So we know that increasing CO2 levels increases the planet’s temperature, and we know roughly how much we’ll get from a given increase. There’s uncertainty there, in part because of the complexity of Earth’s climate system. Amplifying feedback loops can increase greenhouse gas levels, and suppressing feedback loops might decrease them. But overall, if the atmospheric CO2 level goes up, the temperature must also rise.

Likewise, if the temperature rises, water will be able to hold less dissolved oxygen. This is also something we’ve known for a long time, although I’ve had more trouble tracking down the earliest research on it. The earliest references I’ve found were poorly cited, but in the 1940s. If anybody has more detail on that, I’ll welcome the addition!

So it’s no surprise that temperatures are rising, and it’s no surprise that we’re starting to see dissolved oxygen decline as a result, and models have given us a possible time frame from the progression of that trend. The question I want to start exploring is: What effect will the gradual decrease in dissolved oxygen have on sea life?

We can start with dead zones. A dead zone is an area in a body of water in which the dissolved oxygen levels have gotten too low to support most multicellular life. There are a number of these, increasingly well publicized, around the world’s coasts. Most are caused by human activity. Not all of them exist year-round, but the effects of annual oxygen depletion outlast the depletion itself. These are typically caused by eutrophication (an increase in limiting nutrients) as a result of farm runoff flowing into the sea. The one that forms around the Mississippi delta every spring for this reason is probably the most famous one in the U.S. The influx of fertilizer causes an algae bloom, which can cause a brief increase in oxygen during the day, but then at night, respiring algae suck the air out of the room, so to speak. If they are able, fish will leave the area. If they can’t, either because of the size of it, or because they can’t tell which way to go, they will die. Less mobile animals tend to simply die.

It’s important to note that these dead zones are not caused by an increase in temperature, and the oxygen levels rise after the nutrient influx stops, and the algal bloom goes away. The decrease in oxygen due to rising temperatures may start showing in seasonal patterns, but it won’t be as dramatic. The network of currents throughout the planet’s oceanic system move water around too much to allow for a global state of anoxia at any point in the near future. As I wrote at the beginning of my blogging career, there are ways in which a majority of the ocean could end up as a dead zone. That scenario is one of the possible major factors in the biggest mass extinction in the geological record. Rising temperatures would contribute to that happening, of course, but they couldn’t cause it by themselves without first causing a dramatic change in global oceanic currents would be needed to stop mixing between layers of the ocean.

The image shows a map of Earth with

From Livescience article linked to the image: Low-oxygen zones are spreading around the globe. Red dots mark coastal locations where oxygen has plummeted to 2 milligrams per liter or less, and blue areas mark zones with the same low-oxygen levels in the open ocean. (Image credit: GO2NE working group. Data from World Ocean Atlas 2013 and provided by R. J. Diaz)

So what are we likely to see in our lifetimes?  The speed of warming has been increasing over the years, and that will continue until some time after we start treating climate change like the global emergency it is. Barring major changes in how fertilizers are used in agriculture, dead zones at river deltas will continue to be a thing, and are likely to get worse with higher temperatures.  The hypoxic zone in the equatorial Atlantic has given us a look at the first effects of decreasing oxygen:

An expanding zone of low oxygen, known as a hypoxic zone, in the Atlantic Ocean is encroaching upon these species’ preferred oxygen-abundant habitat, forcing them into shallower waters where they are more likely to be caught.

During the study, published recently in the journal Fisheries Oceanography, scientists tagged 79 sailfish and blue marlin with satellite tracking devices in the western North Atlantic, off south Florida and the Caribbean; and eastern tropical Atlantic, off the coast of West Africa. The pop off archival satellite tags monitored horizontal and vertical movement patterns. Researchers confirmed that billfish prefer oxygen rich waters closer to the surface and will actively avoid waters low in oxygen.

While these hypoxic zones occur naturally in many areas of the world’s tropical and equatorial oceans, scientists are concerned because these zones are expanding and occurring closer to the sea surface, and are expected to continue to grow as sea temperatures rise.

“The hypoxic zone off West Africa, which covers virtually all the equatorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean, is roughly the size of the continental United States, and it’s growing,” said Dr. Eric D. Prince, NOAA’s Fisheries Service research fishery biologist. “With the current cycle of climate change and accelerated global warming, we expect the size of this zone to increase, further reducing the available habitat for these fish.”

Less available habitat can lead to more fish being caught since the fish are concentrated near the surface. Higher catch rates from these areas may give the false appearance of more abundant fish stocks. The shrinking availability of habitat and resulting increases to catch rates are important factors for scientists to consider when doing population assessments.

This is probably going to be the primary effect we see in our lifetimes. Just as fish are shifting ranges and patterns due to temperature preferences, they’ll also move in response to changing oxygen levels, and to the activities of other fish. Combined with the ever-present threat of overfishing, this could lead to a number of fishery collapses in the near future, affecting the global food supply at the same time as our agricultural systems are struggling to adapt to changes in weather patterns and water availability.

Another interesting result of this is that the migration of fish away from hypoxic areas could actually accelerate the loss of oxygen and change the rate of ocean surface warming by decreasing the amount of water mixing due to sea life moving up and down the water column:

What’s more, their study found that the marine biosphere—the chain of sea life anchored by phytoplankton—invests around one percent (1 terawatt) of its chemical power fortune in mechanical energy, which is manifested in the swimming motions of hungry ocean swimmers ranging from whales and fish to shrimp and krill. Those swimming motions mix the water much as cream is stirred into coffee by swiping a spoon through it.

And the sum of all that phytoplankton-fueled stirring may equal climate control.

“By interpreting existing data in a different way, we have predicted theoretically that the amount of mixing caused by ocean swimmers is comparable to the deep ocean mixing caused by the wind blowing on the ocean surface and the effects of the tides,” Dewar said.

In fact, he explained, biosphere mixing appears to provide about one third the power required to bring the deep, cold waters of the world ocean to the surface, which in turn completes the ocean’s conveyor belt circulation critical to the global climate system.

Findings from the FSU-led study (“Does the marine biosphere mix the ocean?”) will appear in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Marine Research, adding the role of major power broker to phytoplankton’s already impressive credentials.

Scientists for some time have known that the highly sensitive plants act as reliable signals of environmental changes at or near the ocean surface through sudden declines or rapid growth—and they have suspected that phytoplankton affect as well as reflect climate change when large, sustained plant populations gulp carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during grand-scale photosynthesis.

But along with the new calculations that point to the marine biosphere’s bigger-than-expected role in ocean mixing and climate control, Dewar and his colleagues also suggest that human and environmental decimation of whale and big fish populations may have had a measurable impact on the total biomixing occurring in the world’s oceans.

The biggest danger the oceanic ecosystem faces from warming water probably isn’t going to be a decrease in dissolved oxygen, but rather damage to the plankton that forms the base for most of the oceans’ food webs. That may be compounded by big fish like tuna being concentrated away from hypoxic zones, but the decline in available food would be a problem even without changes to oxygen levels.

The plankton decline will also probably give us an increased number of headlines about declining oxygen production from the oceans, as the article I linked indicates. That said, the bigger danger from that, in my estimation, is not that we’ll run of of oxygen to breathe, but that we’ll lose the ecosystem service of CO2 uptake provided by phytoplankton.

The global terraforming experiment we’re currently running is a bit mind-boggling, really. When we get over-the-top headlines, they’re sensationalist in focus, not in scale – concerns about running out of oxygen this century, or the scenario that gave birth to the title of this blog aren’t reasonable in our lifetimes, and for that I’m grateful. The reality, however, is just as dramatic, and while it’s hard to predict exactly how things will play out, I think it’s safe to say that it will continue to feel like we’re caught in a cycle of escalating chaos.

Because we are.


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

The logistics of ending capitalism: Will the Revolution be funded?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been an exciting figure for a number of reasons, but I think the biggest one is her commitment to relying on small-dollar donors, and a “sneakers on the ground” approach to campaigning. On the one hand, it’s nice to feel that we have some legislators who don’t owe anything to the aristocrats, but I think it goes beyond that.

All those big-dollar donations don’t just mean that the politicians “owe” their donors, they also represent a huge amount of time spent begging for that money. That’s time not spent talking or listening to constituents. That’s time not spent studying the topics on which they’re passing laws. That’s time not spent writing legislation. That’s time not spent researching the people they’re going to be talking to in congressional hearings.

It’s been refreshing, over the last couple years, to see members of Congress like AOC, Katie Porter, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and others asking difficult, informed questions of agency heads, corporate executives, and other folks brought in under the guise of helping Congress inform themselves about the laws they’re crafting and passing.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those questions seem to be mostly coming from the more left-wing members of the Democratic Party, while those to the center and the right tend to make for less interesting viewing, less pressing questions, and more empty grandstanding. Part of that is about priorities, of course. Politicians further to the right on the political spectrum don’t have the same goals for the nature and effectiveness of the U.S. government.

Part of it, though, goes back to the time spent fundraising. AOC isn’t just naturally more knowledgeable about those subjects. She and her colleagues are so effective because they actually put in the time studying the subjects, and listening to experts, and crafting useful questions. Their approach to funding their political campaigns doesn’t just give them the rhetorical benefits of Left populism, it also buys them the time that’s needed to actually be effective at their jobs.

I think there are lessons there for people beyond the realm of politics. As I and my readers have mentioned before, the use of working-class power costs us more, and is more diffuse that the use of capitalist power. It takes more time, effort, and sacrifice to bring our power to bear and to keep it focused on the tasks at hand. That makes the “easy” solution of taking capitalist funding very, very tempting. On the surface, at least, money given by some large capitalist entity, be it an organization or an individual, can make things a lot easier. It can mean much-needed resources going towards good causes. It can also, however, have a corrupting effect beyond the conventional story of people getting greedy, and losing sight of the mission.

Massive funding from a small number of “well-meaning” wealthy sources can mean that, on the surface, there’s a sense that time and effort spent securing those big donations gets a better return for the cause, and that can, with the best of intentions, result in starving the aspects of our organizations that not only seek funding from “the people”, but that also put those organizations in constant contact with those people.

And in time, becoming reliant on the support of the capitalist/aristocratic class is more likely than not to turn into the kind of subservient patronage relationship we see all to often in Congress.

The issue of material resources is massively important for any revolution worth having, regardless of whether that revolution is violent or nonviolent. Unfortunately, where those resources come from seems to matter beyond vague notions of purity.

This video from Space Commune digs into these questions in a way that I think makes it required watching for anyone who believes that people should be able to govern themselves:


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

A new temperature record, why hot years matter more than cold ones, and threat multipliers.

By now, most of you have probably heard: a town in Siberia recently reported a temperature of 100.4°F/38°C.

A small Siberian town north of the Arctic Circle reached 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday, a figure that—if verified—would be the highest temperature reading in the region since record-keeping began in 1885.
“This scares me, I have to say,” environmentalist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben tweeted in response to news of the record-breaking reading in Verkhoyansk, where the average high temperature in June is 68°F.

Washington Post climate reporter Andrew Freedman noted Sunday that if the reading is confirmed, it “would be the northernmost 100-degree reading ever observed, and the highest temperature on record in the Arctic, a region that is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the globe.”

“On Sunday, the same location recorded a high temperature of 95.3 degrees (35.2 Celsius), showing the Saturday reading was not an anomaly,” the newspaper reported. “While some questions remain about the accuracy of the Verkhoyansk temperature measurement, data from a Saturday weather balloon launch at that location supports the 100-degree reading. Temperatures in the lower atmosphere, at about 5,000 feet, also were unusually warm at 70 degrees (21 Celsius), a sign of extreme heat at the surface.”

The World Meteorological Organization said Sunday that is “preliminarily accepting the observation as a new extreme” as it conducts a more thorough review of the Verkhoyansk reading.

With all the chaos and misery of the last four years, it’s hard not to feel as if we’ve entered into the “climate catastrophe” era I always feared. It has always been clear that the climate has been warming faster than most scientists have predicted (despite what the science deniers keep saying), and I’ve always known, in the back of my mind, that global warming and associated chaos would be the “setting” for the second half of my life. It was a gloomy enough prospect that I generally focused on the slim hope that it could be avoided, but I don’t think it’s a secret that I’ve been expecting we’d keep falling short of the various changes needed.

In light of this grim new record, I think it’s worth revisiting a post I wrote back in 2016 while I was applying to join Freethoughtblogs: 

Earth’s systems are already out of balance. The comparative equilibrium we saw during most of the last 10,000 years meant that the amount of ice we had was roughly the amount of ice we were likely to get and keep at our current temperature and greenhouse gas level. When we increased the average temperature, that balance was shifted, and ice started melting in response to the increased temperature of the climate.

The “lull” between 1998 and 2015, which was not much of a lull, still saw accelerating ice melt, permafrost thawing, and sea level rise, because we had already raised the temperature enough to make those inevitable, based on our understanding of physics. Even a year that was down to the 1990 or 1980 temperature level, on average, followed by a return to 2000s temperatures, would have fairly little effect. The melting would have slowed, without stopping, and then sped up again when the temperature returned to the decadal “norm”.

But a dramatically hotter year – like this El Niño year – is a different matter. It injects a bunch more heat into the system, which means faster ice melt, and so lower albedo for the coming year, and more permafrost melt, and so more greenhouse gasses for the coming year, and more water evaporation, and so more greenhouse gasses for the coming year.

A single, unusually cold year, does not do much when we’re still above the temperature at which the current ice sheets formed, but a single hot year can create a spike of warming factors, which will cause even more warming in the years to come.

If we had not been emitting fossil fuels, it’s possible that the dip in global temperatures in the late 1960s/early 1970s would have led to more global cooling, and even an ice age – we’re certainly due for one – but we had already started the slowly accelerating process of global warming. We already had warming momentum, even back then, so we had a temporary cool period, and then when we came out of the 1970s, the temperature skyrocketed.

We’ll have more warming “pauses” in the future. That is a virtual certainty, but unless we re-balance the planet’s temperature budget by reducing greenhouse gases, the planet will just keep warming until it reaches a new equilibrium. Because of feedbacks like the albedo and the melting permafrost, even if we stop emitting CO2 now, the planet will keep warming for thousands of years, and the new equilibrium will be far, far hotter than anything our species has ever encountered.

There are a number of ways we could respond to this, but our best bet is to stop contributing to the problem, prepare for the changes we know are coming, and develop a strategy for deliberately managing the planet’s greenhouse gas levels.

That said, there is one way in which I am an optimist on this. I still believe that, through science, technology, and massive social and economic change, we can weather the coming storm, and even thrive as a species, while helping the rest of the planet recover from the damage we’ve done. That said, I believe it’s safe to say that we can now no longer avoid a period of chaos and hardship unlike anything humanity has ever experienced. That’s one of the biggest reasons that it’s so important to address injustices like those created by white supremacy. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we don’t have time for this bigoted bullshit. The global fascist/white supremacist movement is acting massively amplify every other problem we face, kinda like climate change…


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

Juneteenth, the movement cycle, and the long struggle for liberation.

Revolutions of all sorts have a common problem. It’s one thing to build popular support for a change, it’s another to actually get the power to create that change, and to make it last. Many of the struggles that underlie the current uprising in the United States are ones that have been going on for multiple lifetimes, in one form or another, and while there have been successes, they’ve often been less than was hoped for or promised, and followed by failures and rollbacks. This wasn’t the post I planned on writing for Juneteenth, but there are lessons from the end of slavery that we would be wise to consider in the context of today’s struggles.

Slavery ended after centuries of uprisings, struggles, and activism. The efforts to address the injustices of slavery were halted almost immediately, and the laws and economy of the United States were arranged to force the Black population to stay as third-class citizens, or to use the prison system to enslave them again. These efforts were accompanied by a generations-long campaign of terrorism and pogroms waged by the white population against the black population, led by the KKK, and supported by many who never wore a white hood. Along with that came an intensification of the anti-black propaganda that had been used to justify slavery, and was now served to justify any and all injustices perpetrated against the Black population.

It is very, very hard to take any power from the powerful. For all people like to talk about how the wealth of today’s billionaires is somehow fictional because it’s mostly tied up in stocks, the difficulty of getting changes that put even a fractional amount more power in the hands of the people shows just how real their fortunes are. They really do wield Feudal levels of power and influence, on a global scale, and they are prepared, as they always have been, to use that to hold on to what they view as “theirs”, and to create a society in which each of the lower tiers of power take that same approach to whatever lesser degrees of power they can attain.

That dynamic is why so many have taken the path of bloody revolution. Any minor gains made are rolled back by the power that is left to the aristocracy, as they dream about how much more power they used to have. It’s not hard to feel that the only solution is to take away all of their power, and to take away their lives, either through death or through imprisonment. I don’t want that, I just don’t want them to have any more power than anyone else. I want democracy. I want a system in which accumulating personal wealth isn’t necessary to pursue a fulfilling life. I want a system in which accumulating personal power is either impossible, or close to it.

We’re a long, long way off from that. I believe it’s attainable, but it seems so far away that I doubt it will be achieved in my lifetime. That means that we’re in this for the long haul. Even if we make changes that are big enough and fast enough to head off the worst horrors of a warming planet, we will need to hold that ground, not just against the capitalists seeking to regain their hegemony, but also against an increasingly hostile planet. Climate change has been described as a “threat multiplier”, and I think that will prove true for the threat posed by the aristocrats and oligarchs of the world as much as any other.

The struggle against white supremacy is inextricably tied up in the struggle against global capitalism. The two are used to reinforce each other, as they have been for centuries. The working classes are powerful too, because there are more of us, and because we form the foundations of the power of the aristocracy. In a very simplistic equation, we have more power, but it’s harder to use. The wealth of the “elites” is a ranged weapon that can be used without real risk to its wielder. They pay others to take their risks. The power of the working class is in our hands, and while we can use it to achieve great things, the risks we take are our own. A punch can be effective, but it can easily injure the one who throws it. That’s what creates the imbalance – using our power comes at a greater cost, and greater risk, and that creates an imbalance.

Part of that power imbalance is the way the corporate media will largely ignore uprisings or protests until there’s violence involved, and then they’ll focus on the violence until someone decides it’s not “new” enough. It feels like coverage has already started to shift away from the efforts for real change, and politicians who are supposedly on “our side” have started declaring victory due to the promise of very minor reforms. The weight of society is set against change, and while sometimes it can feel as if we’ve gained momentum, we’re still engaged in an uphill struggle. For those of us who want to realize the dream of democracy and justice for all, I think it will always be an uphill struggle, as there will always be some trying to control others, at every scale of society. As the protests dwindle, and fade away, there will be a concerted effort by some to claim that they “won” and so there’s no need for more protests in the future, and by others that they “lost” and so all future protests are doomed to failure or unpopular. The general refrain is always that while past struggles for change might have been justified and good, present and future ones are almost always bad, unpopular, and the work of extremists.

Hopefully this will result in more sustainable change and activism than the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, and understanding what’s going on from a systemic perspective should help us make that happen. This video takes an analytical look at movements, the predictable patterns in how they progress, and how to use that knowledge to guide our efforts.

This pattern can be found not just in the short-term uprisings seen through things like Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter, but also in much longer time frames. Today we celebrate one of the greatest victories in the centuries-long fight for freedom, justice, and equality. Not the end of the the American Civil War, or the Emancipation Proclamation that helped win it, but the end of industrialized, birthright slavery in the United States. It was not a total victory, but it moved us closer to justice, and made possible the victories gained since, and those still to come.


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!

A writer’s perspective on primal instincts, human nature, and capitalism

At the end of eighth grade, my class took a trip to Nova Scotia, in Canada. I don’t remember exactly where we stayed, and I don’t even remember a whole lot of the trip. I remember bits and pieces of the cruise we took up there from Maine, of playing Manhunt (a sort of combination between hide and seek and tag) around the buildings we were staying in, a campfire near the shore, and a Mortal Kombat-style arcade game involving dinosaurs. There’s one memory that stands out more than the others, and it was the first time I told a ghost story and the experience really clicked with me. The story I told was The Red Lodge, by H.R. Wakefield. It had been published in a collection called “More Tales to Tremble By”, and it had stuck with me for a variety of reasons. Reading it later, as an adult, revealed it to be… less good than I remembered. I don’t know anything about Wakefield, but the narrator of the story comes across as both an author insert character, and as cartoonishly pretentious. My telling was not verbatim by any stretch, just as close to the original as I could construct by memory. I told the story to my classmates, including a few spooky moments with silhouettes and faces in windows, and during the silence after I finished, there was a noise, and two shadows appeared on the frosted glass window of the outer door. If memory serves, it was a couple chaperones coming to join the storytelling, but for a moment it was as if the specters from my story had manifested in reality. It was the moment when I discovered my love of storytelling.

For a long time, my storytelling and fiction writing focused on various horror stories. I had some friends who’d get together weekly in college for ghost stories, and I periodically have Halloween parties that center around sharing various spooky and supernatural stories. When I started trying to learn fiction writing as a craft, I started with horror. As I worked, I came to think of writing in terms of the emotions it could conjure in the reader, and to think about various techniques. Ideally, I want to guide my readers through a landscape that doesn’t just contain a narrative of events, but also a variety of emotional experiences. I can’t really say how skilled I am at my craft, but I think it’s safe to say that with practice and study, I’m better than I was a decade ago. That’s not much, but it’s progress I can see, and I feel good about that.

One of the things I’ve learned is that some emotions are much easier to conjure and manipulate than others.

Using only words on paper (or a screen, or braille), how do you generate a feeling of surprised elation? How do you make someone feel hope? It’s easy to write about someone feeling those things, but to actually reliably make a reader feel them seems more difficult, at least for me. Satisfaction, awe, comfort, the feeling of doing something for the first time – humanity is blessed with a nearly endless spectrum of ways to experience the world, and some of them are very difficult to replicate outside of simply living the events that create them.

In my experience, the easiest ones are things like fear and disgust. Our reactions to threats are pretty universal, and pretty near the surface because they generally come from a need for some immediate action. Get away from the scary thing. Wash off the gross thing. It could hurt us. It could make us sick. Pretty much everybody has had some version of those feelings, and they tend to generate strong memories.

That means they’re also very easy to use in politics. It’s why various forms of fear-mongering tend to work so well, and why there’s so much focus on what some like to call “base instincts” or “primal instincts”. Triggering emotional states that demand immediate action puts other instincts and needs on hold, and if you can maintain those feelings in a group of people, it’s far easier to get them to move in the direction that you claim will make those feelings go away. It’s a nasty tactic, because it always works, and because there are real problems in the world.

It’s particularly vicious when it’s used by the people who create those problems in the first place. In atheist discourse, it’s sometimes said that religion convinces you that you’re poisoned (when you’re not), then offers you the fake cure to the fake poison. There are a lot of ways in which modern politics are similar to that, except that very often the “poison” isn’t fictional. The economic hardship that people suffer is very real, but we live in a system that makes it difficult to tell what exactly is causing it. That means that the people who constantly push for policies that make life worse for most people can then turn around and blame that misery on a convenient scapegoat, while offering a “cure” that, more often than not, will only make things worse.

Modern conservative politics, in the US and the UK, at least, amount to a vampire telling the villagers that their strange neck wounds and feelings of weakness are caused by a disease that makes them produce too much blood, and so the solution is bleeding, and the vampire will take the excess blood away as a service.

And maybe the exact nature of the problem changes. Maybe, in time, people notice that it doesn’t seem to be a disease, so they’ll find something else. We used to think it was a disease, but now it’s those new, different-looking people who’ve moved to town. Sure, the problem pre-dates them, but there were always travelers coming through before, and strangers living in the nearby forest, so maybe it’s THEM causing the problem. The solution is to give all the different-looking people to the vampire, and he’ll deal with it from there. And when, after all the strangers are gone, and anyone who looks different has been eliminated, or scared off, well, the problem’s still there. Maybe it’s a disease. Our ancestors thought it was a disease, and it sure seems like things were better in the past, so maybe we should rely on their traditional wisdom, and return to the old ways, and start that bleeding ritual.

And so it keeps working until the people realize that no matter the exact nature or explanation of the problem, the solution proposed by the local ruler always seems to result in a lot of blood being given to him, in one form or another, and maybe that is the problem.

Maybe we should try doing without that ruler.

And that’s when the spell can be broken.

I think we’re close to such a moment now. The pandemic has created a situation in which the “leaders” who have been offering cures like “do capitalism harder” or “give more money to rich people” are now pushing us towards the even more immediate and scary danger of a plague. It looks like their intentions aren’t so “pure” after all, and maybe those nasty weirdos who’ve been ranting about vampires for all these years have a point.

And as many of us stay home, and isolated, we’re discovering that we’ve got other primal needs that go beyond the immediate desires for food, shelter, safety, and sex. We need community. We need other people, not just to fight against immediate threats, but because community is part of what it means to be human.

There’s an old saying, with which everyone is no doubt familiar – money doesn’t buy happiness. These days it’s often used to tell poor people that they shouldn’t look to material wealth to solve their problems. After all, there are plenty of unhappy rich people, so we should all seek happiness through other means. Try to just enjoy your work more. Maybe find a hobby during all that free time you have. Get more sleep. Meditate. Practice a religion. Find happiness in some way that doesn’t mean rich people become less rich.

That saying is true. Money does not buy happiness. Having your material needs met does not buy happiness. What it buys is the freedom to pursue happiness. It buys us time to think about what actually does make us happy. It buys us time with other people, to use for things other than merely struggling to get by. It buys us time to ponder life, and practice skills, to enjoy music, and to play games.

It buys us time to tell stories, and to hear them told.

When we spend all of our time and energy simply on getting money, that’s time and energy we don’t have for pursuit of happiness. We live in a world of astounding abundance. We grow more food than the global human population is capable of eating. We have so much material wealth that we simply throw away things when they are less than perfect. And at the same time, people have to work endlessly just to make ends meet. It’s a contradiction. Something is wrong, and everyone can tell, so explanations are constantly created, and justifications offered. And as the whole population suffers, and seems to be constantly moving from one fear to the next, the aristocracy is reaching ever-loftier heights of prosperity and excess.

And the plague has shown us that as well. As hundreds of thousands have died, and millions more grow ever closer to destitution, a tiny handful of people have been adding incomprehensible amounts of wealth to their hoards, and their servants have been working hard to make those easy emotional plays. They want us to be afraid, and disgusted, and angry. They want us to believe that conflict, terror, greed, and rage are the essence of humanity, and that we can only make the bad feelings stop by making the “bad people” go away. Immigrants, people of a different color, “anarchists”, “antifa” – anyone who seems to be causing disruption, they must be the cause of all that misery you were feeling.

If we just get rid of them, things will get better.

Removing the socialists didn’t help? Well, they must have had allies. They sure did seem to like those union types, so we’d better get rid of unions.

Removing the unions didn’t help? Well, we’ve always said the immigrants were a problem, and there’s still a lot of them around.

Removing the immigrants didn’t help? Who’s next? Who’s really causing all our problems?

Yes, I’m talking about that poem.

Yes, we’re talking about fascism.

This is the natural progression as the hoarding of necessities creates artificial scarcity. It seems like there’s not enough to go around, even though there’s more now than there ever has been, so the problem must be that someone’s taking it all. It must be those mean people who’re always saying that they’re being mistreated. Everything seemed fine before the strange people at the bottom of the boat started complaining about leaks.

And so we’re distracted from those emotions that can lift us up, as a species. We’re distracted from what makes us human, and told that what really makes us human is our aggression, and our lust, and our greed, but since that’s not all YOU want out of life, because YOU are a good person, well, it must be those other people who aren’t like US. WE just want to live our lives, but THEY are constantly demanding more. THEY can’t get past their primal instincts. THEY will never be satisfied, so the solution is to remove them.

But it’s a lie. Its the new musician blasting loud notes in your ear and telling you it’s the essence of music. It’s the pulp horror writer telling you that the disgust and fear they can make you feel is the essence of storytelling.

Those are valid and important emotions. They are real instincts that are absolutely part of being human. They can be used to save lives, to educate, and to entertain. Just as some people enjoy pain in sex or in athletic pursuits, so to can we enjoy fear, disgust, anger, and greed.

But in constantly telling ourselves that those are the core of humanity, and that a society driven by those instincts will be better for everyone, we are denying most of what we are. The Tumblr post that inspired this essay puts it well:

https://nonlinear-nonsubjective.tumblr.com/post/618759256643174400/people-talk-all-the-time-about-primal-instincts

I believe that the pursuit of happiness should be a right afforded to all sentient beings, as much as possible, and throughout history it has always been those other, less “urgent” instincts that have brought us closer to that goal.


Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!