Provocations #7 – Momentary Monarchs

About the Image (above): A female monarch butterfly (from Wikimedia Commons).

In the waning days of last summer (2017)  I saw a monarch butterfly.  It was the first I had seen in a great many years where I live near the Rocky Mountains.  In Provocations #7, I ask are monarchs with us for just a relative moment longer?  Are they headed the way of the great northern white rhinoceroses?

I seem to recall seeing many more of these remarkable beings twenty years ago when our children were young.  Back then, our daughter even found a monarch chrysalis, and she “raised it” in a jar.  When the butterfly emerged, she made sure the wings could fully unfold and harden, and then she released it.  A profound and moving experience for her, for the whole family actually, and an instructive connection to the cycle of life as well.

Today, I have had so few sitings!  Virtually none.  So I did a little digging.  Scientific studies show a clear and disturbing decline in monarch butterfly numbers (see figure).  An 80% decline in the last decade alone.  Experts have concluded that there may only be a couple more decades left for these beautiful animals, before they become extinct. 

 

monarch-graph_800

The decline observed “in the eastern migratory monarch butterfly population as surveyed by the World Wildlife Fund-Mexico.”   The black dots represent an adjustment to reflect a reanalysis of the data (from
https://www.umesc.usgs.gov/management/dss/monarch.html)

 

The reasons for this decline point to humankind as the culprit.  At the top of the list are modern agricultural practices, which have witnessed the widespread adoption of herbicides that are used with genetically modified corn and soybeans in the United States.  These destroy the principle summer habitat of the monarchs. Habitat loss (deforestation) in the wintering grounds in Mexico is another likely cause.  One can only imagine how many end as roadkill, adorning the grills of myriad vehicles in the U.S.  While verging into speculation, one might reasonably ask what climate change has in store for these animals.

So many challenges for such a delicate and exquisite creature.  The world will be a much smaller and sadder place without monarchs in it.

What can you do?

There are things you can do to help.  As always, the most effective tool you have is your pocket book and the personal choices you make.  Drive less.  Consume less. Demand labeling for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and do not buy foods or goods that contain GMOs.  You can also grow some milkweed in your yard or garden (find seeds for your region here). 

Parting Words

I once again go back to Wendell Berry, the fount of so much wisdom.  The closing words in his March 2015 essay Farmland Without Farmers in The Atlantic were:

“We have an ancient and long-enduring cultural imperative of neighborly love and work. This becomes ever more important as hardly imaginable suffering is imposed upon all creatures by industrial tools and industrial weapons. If we are to continue, in our only world, with any hope of thriving in it, we will have to expect neighborly behavior of sciences, of industries, and of governments, just as we expect it of our citizens in their neighborhoods.”

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Eventorum – Extinction

Image credit: Photo by Ami Vitale, National Geographic Creative

The tide of the 6th great mass extinction on Earth continues to roll, will we ever learn? After Last Male’s Death, Is the Northern White Rhino Doomed? [Published on National Geographic, March 20, 2018].  Meanwhile, Trump Administration Quietly Decides — Again — To Allow Elephant Trophy Imports [Published on NPR, March 6, 2018]

Eventorum explained.

Provocations #6 – Too Busy to Think

About the Image (above):  Interior, Grand Central Station, New York, New York (January 21, 2007) by Carol Highsmith.  Image from the Library of Congress

I had another topic in mind for Provocations #6, but I’m going to take a different tack instead.  Frankly, I’ve been too busy to give much thought to the original subject, which called to mind a passage from the writer, Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968).  Merton was an American Trappist monk; a theologian, a mystic, a student of comparative religion, a poet, and a social activist.  In his book (I love this title), Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton writes:

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

His words are obviously directed towards activists for positive social or environmental change.  But they apply more broadly.

TMertonStudy

Thomas Merton

Give Yourself a Break

This is a personal cost of our hectic, even frantic lifestyles.  Others include detrimental affects on our health and on our relationships.

There are larger more insidious costs as well.  Our busyness, overwork, and the stress induced by them, prevent us from questioning the status quo; from holding our leaders accountable; from making healthy choices for the planet and for us; from reflecting on the impacts of our lifestyle choices; from working on positive change.

So give yourself a break.  Take some time for friends and loved ones.  Spend some time out in nature, she’s the greatest muse we have.  Give your brain a little space to function.  And we might find ourselves well on the way to making the world a little better and happier place.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations #5 – Compounding Problems

Provocations #5 calls attention to the situation in which multiple issues or complications begin to add up and compound one another.  This is the third of what I have called the ‘trinity of the unwise.’

About the Image:  “Haida Spawning Salmon” by Haida artist Clarence Mills.  In First Nations tradition the Salmon is, not surprisingly, a symbol of instinct, persistence, and determination.  Image found on Pintrist, prints available here.

When you have more than one problem affecting something, they begin to interact in unexpected ways and can often amplify the severity of the situation, leading to bigger and more complex problems than might otherwise be anticipated. It pretty much boils down to the old adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.”  On the surface it’s a simple concept, but the devil’s in the details.

Feedback

What we are really talking about here is a process called feedback.  For the technically inclined, insights into feedback processes come from systems and complexity theories.  Of concern here is a phenomenon known as positive feedback.  With positive feedback, when system starts to run out of control, processes internal to the system interact causing the system to go further astray.  In every day experience, think about a microphone that picks up a noise emitted by a speaker system it is connected to, which amplifies and rebroadcasts the sound, which the microphone then picks up again, and so on, until everyone in the room is covering their ears from all of the squealing and screeching.  Another example that is harder to experience directly, but is real none-the-less, comes from climate change: human activities emit greenhouse gasses which cause the atmosphere to warm, which in turn melts the permafrost in the Arctic, which releases more greenhouse gasses, further warming the atmosphere.

For the curious wondering about negative feedback, a familiar example of this is the thermostat in your home: you set the temperature, and when the air becomes too cool the heat comes on, stopping at some set point until the house cools to some lower set point, and the then heat goes on again.  Negative feedback loops are ubiquitous in engineering.  Another? The cruise control system in your car.  I recognize that the terminology can be somewhat confusing in that often times, negative feedback processes can be beneficial, whereas positive feedbacks are not.

Getting back to the environmental problems created by positive feedbacks, the list of examples is literally endless: the Fukushima disaster; the Deepwater Horizon disaster; invasive species; industrial agriculture; inequalities in income. To name just a handful (recall Provocations #4, A Question of Scale).  Let’s take a deeper look at one other example…

Extinction

In a scientific paper published in March 2011 in the prestigious journal Nature, Anthony D. Barnosky and a number of his colleagues asked, “Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?1  Towards the end of this important paper, they write

“Hypotheses to explain the general phenomenon of mass extinctions have emphasized synergies between unusual events [my emphasis]. Common features of the [previous “Big Five” extinction events] suggest that key synergies may involve unusual climate dynamics, atmospheric composition and abnormally high-intensity ecological stressors that negatively affect many different lineages.”

Sound familiar?  In this more formal scientific context, compounding problems become “synergies between unusual events.”

So pick your favorite animal, Salmon, Polar Bears, Whales, Sea Turtles… yes I know that I have a bias towards sea animals.  And yes, I know that it is not grammatically correct to capitalize the names of animals (they are not proper nouns).  I chose intentionally to dignify their existence in this way.  I digress. The story is the same for all of them.  Many species are under direct threat due to over-harvesting or exploitation by humans.  They are also under duress due to habitat loss caused by humans. Furthermore, many experience disrupted patterns in reproduction, feeding, hibernation and migration caused by climate change, specifically human-induced global warming.  Humans compete with natural ecosystems for resources (e.g. draining wetlands). Lastly, many animals health is compromised by toxic pollutants dumped by humans into their habitat; pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, plastics, and so on.

Any one of these (over-harvesting; habitat loss; global warming; direct competition; toxic ecosystems) is enough to put an entire species at risk.  But taken together, it is a hammer blow.  The very conditions that science tells us leads to mass extinctions.  And many new threats are emerging, genetically modified organisms and intentional monocultures to name two.  I am sure there are others.

State Shifts

In a subsequent study called “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere.”2 published in Nature, June 2012, Anthony D. Barnosky and colleagues note the plausibility of “planetary-scale tipping points”, which lead to surprises.  These surprises are sudden shifts in the state of our planet’s biosphere (“the worldwide sum of all ecosystems”). This may be one of the most important scientific papers of the current era.  Humans are a part of the biosphere too, so the fate of the biosphere is our fate too.  We have litterally and figuratively baked uncertainty into our future.

Final Thoughts

So Provocations #5 – Compounding Problems, concludes the trinity of the unwise… for now.  The systems thinking needed to understand these compounding problems, these “synergies between unusual events”, is fascinating science.  But it also means that humanity is in trouble unless we wake up.

Seemingly, all scientific papers call for more study, more understanding (Barnosky et. al. are no exception; nor are many papers I have written).  It is the nature of such things.  But the truth of the matter is that we know all we need to know to act.  Stop polluting. Stop consuming.  Preserve nature.  Farm sustainably.  Ensure that the basic needs of all are met. These messages are not new, we simply need to act on them.

I’d love to hear from others in the comments section about their favorite examples of compounding problems, or of human and scientific insights to help understand them.

Today’s Quote – to inspire action, which can be daunting in light of what we face:

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

− Confucius. (Confucius: The Analects)

References Cited:

1Barnosky, A. D. et al. Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature 471,  51–57 (2011).  doi:10.1038/nature09678

2Barnosky, A. D. et al. Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere. Nature 486,  52–58 (2012).  doi:10.1038/nature11018

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations #4 – A Matter of Scale

Provocations #4 is a wake-up call that should scare the bejesus out of you.  Here we take a look at questions of scale, the second of the ‘trinity of the unwise’.

In this context I am referring to the scale of the problems that we are facing.  The factual reality is that everything is amplified by the sheer scale of humanity and by how we chose to live.  There are two sides to this same coin: the explosive growth of the human population, and the increasing rate at which each person is consuming resources.  In the simplest terms, there are more people and each person is having a greater impact on the planet.

Let’s Start With the Numbers

As I write this, the world is very quickly approaching 7,500,000,000 people according to the US Census Bureau.  That is seven and one half BILLION people (7.5B)!

An overcrowded train leaves Dhaka's Airport rail station ahead of the Muslim festival Eid-al-Adha

An overcrowded train leaves Dhaka’s Airport rail station.

This is the scaling factor: take everything that you might do over the course of a day —flushing the toilet, commuting to and from work (consuming and emitting hydrocarbons), throwing away your old plastic toothbrush, whatever— and multiply it by 7.5B.  There is of course nuance and variability from person to person, and from region to region, but the general argument holds.  The point is, that the scale of humanity is staggering. It is so mind-bogglingly huge, that it is likely beyond our capacity to comprehend.

Exponential Growth

But … it gets worse. The population is growing exponentially, presently at a rate of 1.1% per year.  This looks like this:

World Popluation

Estimated global human population (billions) from 10,000 BCE to 2000 CE.  Source: Wikipedia.org

If the growth rate were to remain constant at 1.1%, the human population will double approximately every 63 years. Informed estimates put the global human population at about 9.8 billion by 2050 (e.g. the United Nations).  The population scale factor is growing, and our future generations will face much greater challenges than we do today.

Never before has the world seen a single species (Homo sapiens) become so absolutely dominant, so quickly.  The Earth, as an ecosystem, is in uncharted territory.  It is entirely novel, so much so in fact that scientists are now considering (and debating) that we may have entered a new epoch, the Antropocene.  But we know from systems and complexity theories that this does not bode well. These topics will almost certainly be the subjects of future blogs.

Impact

While the population is growing explosively, the impact on the planet that each person has is also growing.  It’s a scaling factor double whammy. Let’s take the example of a simple and seemingly (to some) harmless plastic bottle of water.  Twenty years ago, give or take, most of us were content to drink water from a public source, out of a cup or a drinking fountain. Today bottled water has become commonplace and is now globally ubiquitous. The simple arithmetic is scary.  PET-water-Bottle

You think, “Hey, it’s just one plastic water bottle, what impact can that have?” Now imagine that every person thinks the same thing: one bottle a day for one year: that’s suddenly 2,737,500,000,000, nearly 3 trillion water bottles per year.  We’re not there yet, but we’re heading in that direction.  Once estimate from 2014 had us using more than 100 million bottles per day.

Let’s think about those water bottles a little bit more (to say nothing of soda, juice, plastic-lined paper cups from the ‘green mermaid coffee company,’ etc.).  These bottles are filling our landfills, clogging our waterways, hell they’re even beginning to overwhelm the oceans.  Beyond the simple disposal of this bottle, the waste is equally staggering.  The oil for that bottle has to be extracted from deep underground, shipped, refined, shipped some more, turned into plastic, shipped again, turned into a bottle, shipped once more to a bottling plant, filled with liquid, shipped yet again, and so on.  It is endless!

A vast supply chain is needed and it too is driven by the consumption of raw materials and energy, and the production of waste.  It is fractal-like, in that the deeper you dig, the more similarities you see in consumption at every level of the process.  Do you see? The global impact of your humble bottle of water is almost infinite. I could go on and on, the ship to transport the oil is made of steal which had to be mined; so too for the oil rig…

In just a few decades there has been an explosion of personal disposable stuff.  Everyone didn’t need to have their own smartphone, tablet device and laptop, bluetooth speakers, printers, toys, and what not.  And all of these are designed with planned obsolescence and destined for the landfill after a very short period of use.  Virtually everything we consume is toxic. Each year we invent more things we didn’t and don’t need.  Now, multiply that by 7.5B.

To Recap

There are two dimensions that amplify mankind’s impact on the planet: exponential human population growth and a similar growth in our per capita consumption and waste. These scaling factors greatly exacerbate all of our problems.

Our civilization is based on an economic fallacy: the need for endless growth and insatiable consumption.  This is patently unsustainable, as the planet on which our lives depend is finite, it has limited resources. This is a form of insanity.  It cannot continue.  We can choose to confront this reality directly and immediately and act accordingly, or we can allow it to confront us.  Either way, this confrontation is inevitable.

Final Thoughts

In the next installment, Provocations #5 will look at Compounding Problems, the third and final of the Trinity of the Unwise.

The final word belongs to Prof. Albert Bartlett (1923 – 2013):

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations #3 – The Ratchet Effect

The Ratchet Effect

Image: A ratchet (pawl and gear) on a ballista (from: jere7my tho?rpe on flickr.com)

In Provocations #3, we will look at the first of the ‘trinity of the unwise’, the Ratchet Effect.  In case you have not read Provocations #2, the other two are ‘Questions of Scale’ and ‘Compounding Problems.’  These will be subjects of forthcoming Provocations.

According to wikipedia.org, “A ratchet is a mechanical device that allows continuous linear or rotary motion in only one direction while preventing motion in the opposite direction.”  I think this sums up my intended meaning here reasonably well.  Putting it a little less prosaically, each time we take from the Earth, there is less for the future.

Humanity is ruthlessly efficient and expeditious at seeking out and exploiting resources.  But at best we struggle to conserve, and utterly fail to place any limits on ourselves.  The general arc of our impact on the planet is one of decline and loss.  Our civilization is wired to consume, and consumption is a one-way street… it’s ratchet.

Another way of putting the ratchet effect is that the margins grow thin.  That is to say, with each societal iteration; with each new development; with each new mine or well; with each new technology; with each new industrial turning of the screw; with every human birth; the margins for error grow thinner. The margins for recovery grow slimmer.   The margins for human resurrection grow dimmer.

Here’s a very simplistic metaphor, the sharing of a candy bar. If you give half of your candy bar to a friend, then half of what is left to another friend, then half of the remaining quarter to yet another, and so on, very soon you find that there is no more candy left for anyone.  Likewise, if you sacrifice half of the existing land that has been preserved, for exploitation, then half again the next time; in a very few iterations you have no pristine, clean, wild places left.  And these places are the very well-springs of life.

The List is Long

There is currently a battle being fought at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness in northern Minnesota, where a Chilean mining company, Antofagasta PLC, is trying to build a giant complex of sulfide-ore copper-and-nickel mines.  Mining in this pristine region would scar the land for beyond generations and could result in acid damage to the land and waterways that can last for centuries.  See here for more information.

Another current case in point is that the current President of the United States seeks to open virtually all of our coastal waters to oil and gas drilling (as reported on January 4 2018 in Reuters and widely elsewhere).  These are just two current examples.  The list of these environmental ratchets is essentially endless; there are countless examples in the news each and every day.

There are also social ratchets.  This is a massive subject deserving of its own singular attention, but to make my point now, I will point out that the current Gini coefficient for the United States is estimated at a staggering 0.85 (see here).  You may well ask, what is a “Gini coefficient?”  It is a measure of the economic disparity, or inequality, of a society.  It was developed around 1912 by the Italian sociologist and statistician Corrado Gini. A country with total wealth equality would have a Gini coefficient of 0, whereas a country with all the wealth concentrated in one entity would be a 1.

Finite: “limited in size or extent”

(Definition complements of the Oxford Dictionary of English)

We have to recognize that the Earth and it’s resources are finite (save for the energy from the sun which is effectively infinite).  To deny this fundamental fact is to deny any form of rational thought, any perceived form of reality.  Proverbially, humanity is eating its own seed corn.  Once you despoil the land and water with nuclear waste or other toxic substances, it is useless beyond generations.  We are in the midst of a mass extinction that threatens humanity’s existence – by definition once an animal is extinct, it is gone forever. Once a mountain top has been removed, there is no longer a mountain.

We are at risk of ratcheting ourselves into oblivion.  This strikes me as a good candidate for one definition of insanity.

A Bright Thought (with Some Big “IFs”)

I will leave you with a reason to act, to counter the great Ratchet.  IF we are willing to acknowledge that the Earth and her resources are finite, and begin to act accordingly, then Nature has proven herself resilient and she can recover, and then so too can we.  That is only IF we leave a substantive and meaningful something for her to recover from.

Next up in Provocations #4, is part two of the Trinity of the Unwise, Questions of Scale.

Closing Thoughts

I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.wendell-berry-L

— Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, 1971

Others have written this sentiment as “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations #2 – Whither Wisdom?

Whither Wisdom?

Image: The Bodhi Tree was a large and very old sacred fig tree in Bodh Gaya, India, under which legend holds that Siddhartha Gautama, aka “the Buddha”, attained enlightenment.

On January 4th, 2018, a Washington Post headline read “Trump moves to vastly expand offshore drilling off US coasts”. This is frightening on several levels. For me, the first would be the direct ecological impacts of this activity. More significant is the amount of sequestered carbon that would be released into the atmosphere if we extract it, adding to global warming and pollution. I could go on but this is enough to motivate the topic of this blog, which is that humans are quite clever but in the main, we are extraordinarily unwise.  This plays out in the aforementioned news article as, we can figure out how to extract oil from beneath the sea floor (an engineering feat to be marveled at), but as a society we lack the ability to understand that this is a fundamentally bad idea.  Wisdom tells us that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

Mental Models

Whether we recognize it or not, each one of us has a number mental models about how we think that the world works.  These are a set of semi-unique filters that color our social interactions with other people, how we see the physical world, our interpretations of economic policies, and so on. I have a number of my own.

For example, one of my fundamental tenets is that there is no reality, there is only our perceptions of reality.  Two people can attend the same event, and moments afterward express very different views about what actually transpired.  Another more recent precept for me, is the aforementioned notion that at a very fundamental level humans are clever but unwise. This idea has developed over the past few years or so in my mental model of humanity, as I try to grasp and understand the events and decisions I have been witnessing.

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines cleverness as, well, “the quality of being clever.”  Someone who is clever is “quick to understand, learn, and devise or apply ideas” and “showing skill and originality; ingenious”.  Whereas wisdom is defined by “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement; the quality of being wise.”  I have chosen the definitions that best indicate the sense in which I am using the words herein.

Intelligence

In some informal sense I see intelligence as the sum of cleverness and wisdom.  It would seem to me that all other living things —be they trees, honey bees, mountain lions, Orca, or pick your favorite— are intelligent in this sense.  They are clever in their existence, in working out their own survival; feeding themselves, finding shelter, reproducing, and so on.  But at the same time they are wise in that they live in harmony and balance within their respective ecosystems.  They only take what they need, and they innately and elegantly live out their lives fulfilling their respective roles.

Humanity on the other hand has forgotten its place.  We have chosen unwisely to ignore limits and any notion that we live in an interdependent and finite world.  We consume without limit, which means we also waste without limit. Consciosly changing large swaths of our home into cesspools.  We believe that we can defer confronting our problems because someday, miraculously, “technology will save us” (it will not – this will be the topic of a future blog post).

Frankly, the vast majority of our problems stem from either a lack of imagination, or a failure of imagination.  Meaning, in the former case that we cannot see beyond our immediate impulses, and in the latter case we see it but choose to ignore it out of fear and greed. I suspect that a failure of imagination is the more likely explanation.  But the end result is the same in either case: we currently have an inability to realize that there is more than one choice about how we live.  We fail to see that we could live life another way, and be happier and healthier, even if the transition would be difficult.  The transition to a better, more sustainable way of living is precisely how we should apply our remarkable traits of cleverness.

Closing Thoughts

Tea bag wisdom (from the little paper label)…

“The difference between between a flower and a weed, is a judgement.”

—Unknown

A sneak peek at what’s next: the next few blogs will explore how our lack of wisdom is hurting us; why the past is not a good guide to the future.  A look at what one might call the trinity of the unwise, namely:

  • The Ratchet Effect
  • Questions of Scale, and
  • Compounding Problems

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider, All Rights Reserved