3/31/2011 10:30:14 AM
This article is an adaptation of the introduction to J. Curt Stager’s
Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth
(Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press), published here courtesy of the author and publisher.
This excerpt appears in two parts. Part II is printed below. To Read Part I, in which Stager describes two scenarios—one moderate, one extreme—as possible results of our response to climate change, click here.
We still have time to choose between these scenarios. And although climatic instability, both in the near-term warming and subsequent cooling phases to come, is likely to cause great problems for many of our descendants, it's not going to end the human race altogether. Considering all that Homo sapiens has been through in the geologic past, it's clear that our species is too tough, diverse, and resourceful to be killed off completely by a climatic shift, especially as some parts of the Earth become more hospitable to humans in a warmer future, particularly in the far north. As coastal regions sink under the rising sea, regions just inland will become oceanfront property. Where one region becomes drier, another may become wetter. And as some familiar cultures fade away, others will be born. This is not meant to make light of the seriousness of the situation; rather, it's to make the opposite point. Our newly revealed influence on the deep future means that our decisions really do matter, because people are going to have to live through whatever version of the world we leave for them.
But taking a long view of the future for a huge and complicated planet isn't easy, and a confusing mosaic of positive and negative responses to human-driven warming is already under way. Polar bears, ringed seals, and beluga whales are beginning to suffer from the shrinkage of Arctic sea ice, but that change is also allowing brown bears, harbor seals, and orcas to move into new territories. An increasingly ice-free Arctic threatens traditional Inuit hunting cultures, but it's also opening sea routes for trade between Atlantic and Pacific nations and is likely to support new polar fisheries. And while melting ice pushes the oceans up and over our coastlines, it also unveils new farmland and mineral resources in Greenland, which may prosper as a result.
In light of this mix of pluses and minuses, how can we best decide what the climatic settings of future ecosystems and cultures should be like in 100,000 AD, not to mention 2100 AD?
Thanks to the great reach of our carbon legacy, we in this century are endowed with the power - some might say the honor - to affect future generations for what amounts to eternity, and our far-reaching effects on what were once purely mechanistic processes now raise new ethical questions. Any choices we make will bring benefits to some descendents and harm to others, and the complexity of this puzzle grows as we look farther forward in time. For example, losing the ice on the Arctic Ocean may seem like an awful disaster to us, but imagine how peoples of the deep future will feel as the inexorable cooling recovery threatens what will by then have become ancient, open-water ecosystems. Elders may then whisper, "I don't remember ice forming here when I was a kid. If this keeps up, the whole polar ocean may eventually freeze over. What should we do?"
Few rational people would seriously argue that choosing an extreme emissions scenario is preferable to a moderate one, or that either scenario is preferable to no carbon pollution at all. But even in a moderate case, enough fossil carbon will remain in the air 50,000 years from now to prevent the next ice age, which natural orbital cycles would otherwise have triggered then. In essence, this means that by unwittingly causing a near-term climate crisis, we have also saved future versions of Canada and northern Eurasia from obliteration under mile-thick sheets of grinding glacial ice. That's a welcome bit of good news over the super-long term, but it also means that choosing a moderate emissions scenario over an extreme one could amount to sentencing later generations to glacial devastation. Another ice age is due in 130,000 AD, and a moderate emissions pulse will have dissipated too much by then to stop it. Must we therefore sacrifice one set of generations for the sake of another, or can some better solution be found?
Saving the world with a minimum of collateral damage may be impossibly difficult, especially considering the limits of human altruism and today's political demagoguery and media hype. But the work of Archer and others like him give us a fresh view of the whole situation, not just our own relatively tiny blip of time and home turf. Hopefully, it will help to support a more productive global conversation about what lies before us and what we should do about it.
Here's one idea in that regard. If we leave most of our coal reserves in the ground rather than burning them when other energy sources are capable of doing the same work, then we not only avoid the most extreme consequences of near-term climate change; we also bequeath that fossil carbon in a naturally sequestered form to later generations who may want to use it as a defense against future ice ages. The required switch to alternative fuels is inevitable anyway, because we'll either do it soon by choice or be forced to do it later. Who knows what cultures and technologies may be like by then, but even neo-stone age peoples could mobilize heat-trapping greenhouse gases by setting exposed coal seams alight if they so desired. Leaving the decision to them not only relieves us of that responsibility; it would also reduce environmental damage in the near term and stretch the useful life of carbon reserves over millions of years, perhaps even long enough to regenerate some of them in geological formations.
If we want to "save the world" over a truly long time frame, then perhaps that's one more good reason to save the carbon. Save it for later, for higher purposes than simple furnace food and for the benefit of both near- and far-future generations. To me, that sounds like a win-win strategy that all of us should be able to support.
3/29/2011 1:36:07 PM
The first American responses to the triple calamity in Japan were deeply empathetic and then, as news of the Fukushima nuclear complex’s leaking radiation spread, a lot of people began to freak out about their own safety, and pretty soon you couldn’t find potassium iodide pills anywhere in San Francisco. You couldn’t even -- so a friend tells me -- find them in Brooklyn.
The catastrophes were in Japan and remain that country’s tragedy, so we need to keep our own anxieties in check. Or harness them to make constructive changes in preparation for our own future disasters (without losing our compassion for those killed, orphaned, widowed, displaced -- and contaminated -- in northeastern Japan). But last week saw a deluge of bad information and free-floating fear in this country.
Bogus maps of radiation clouds heading our way began circulating, along with a lot of junk science, and all kinds of overwrought fears. Crackpots and quacks in Internet postings, as well as a popular science writer in Newsweek magazine, predicted imminent earthquakes in California, with no grounds whatsoever, or with distorted scientific data. Too many of us combined a reasonable distrust of the authorities with a poor understanding of the science and the situation, starting with the fact that Japan is really, really far away from California, let alone Park Slope.
The great Sendai earthquake of March 10th should, however, teach us that the unexpected does happen, and there’s no time to prepare for it -- except beforehand. And what you do beforehand matters immensely. Japan was both impressively prepared and shockingly unprepared.
The country was indeed ready for a major earthquake, even a massive not once-in-a-century but once-in-a-millennium monster. Their earthquake drills and building codes are superb and -- as far as I can tell (reporting has been anything but clear on this) -- the temblor itself did remarkably little structural damage.
The country was far less prepared for a tsunami that would breach every protective sea wall and obliterate huge swaths of coastal habitat, even though sirens and evacuation plans went into effect almost instantly. It was even less prepared for the nuclear reactor disaster that quickly overshadowed everything else.
What Not to Bring
I live in earthquake country, so I’ve been told most of my life that I must have an earthquake kit. Almost anyone anywhere would benefit from having an emergency kit on hand: the usual flashlight, blanket, coins for pay phones (cell phones and cell-phone service die quick in disaster), small bills, potable water, and so forth. To really deal with an emergency, though, you not only need to pack, but to unpack.
Think of your mind as your most fundamental and important emergency kit. You have a great deal of what you’ll need to survive there already, but if you’re not careful, a lot of junk will end up piled on top of your excellent equipment. Lift up that big television of yours, for example, and gently lob it out the window. It will fill your head with hysteria, presuppositions, misinterpretations, stereotypes, exaggerations, and racial slurs that will leave you ill-prepared for what to expect when your world is turned upside down.
Be careful with newspapers, online media, and those emails your anxious friends forward to you. Watch out for experts who aren’t (or who have an unspoken agenda), for authorities who lie and withhold crucial information, for hysterics, and those who fill in the blanks of disasters past, present, and future with invented scenarios. Be clear that a lot of the worst-case scenarios are just that, not breaking news (though what happened in Japan was and continues to be pretty horrendous).
A disaster is a big foray into the unknown and into uncertainty. We hate those things. We like to know what’s going to happen. Even in our own quiet everyday lives, we like to fill in the blanks. The media feeds this urge during crises with a lot of speculation and a stream of stereotypes. After all, it’s their job to know, and yet a disaster means a million unexpected things are going on all at once amid severely disrupted communications networks, which often means that they don’t know either, that no one does.
Read the rest of Rebecca Solnit's essay at TomDispatch>>
Image by Official U.S. Navy Imagery, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/29/2011 12:34:16 PM
This article is an adaptation of the introduction to J. Curt Stager’s Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth(Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press), published here courtesy of the author and publisher.
This excerpt appears in two parts. Part I is printed below. Read Part II here.
In the past, seemingly intractable debates over environmental issues have sometimes been resolved with the aid of long-term historical perspectives. When acid rain dominated the environmental media during the 1980s, for example, sediment core records of recent, progressive acidification in lakes from the northeastern United States helped to break rhetorical logjams between activists who correctly insisted that industrial pollution was the cause and polluters who claimed that the lakes had always been naturally acidic. When global warming later gained wide public attention, ice cores and other such geo-historical records showed that greenhouse gases and climates are indeed closely linked, and that we're fast approaching conditions that are well beyond the normal range of variability.
Although it's a rather eclectic discipline that straddles the fields of geology and biology, my chosen profession of paleoecology is well known among scientists for its ability to harness truly long-term thinking in order to place current environmental issues into their most meaningful contexts, showing us where we've been, how we got here, and where we're likely to be headed next.
Today, scientists with such long-term perspectives are once again nudging us beyond currently entrenched arguments over human-driven climate change, but their gaze is aimed forward in time, as well as backward. A new generation of climate models and the visionaries who wield them are showing that our carbon legacy will last far longer than most of us yet realize, long enough to interfere with future ice ages. David Archer, an oceanographer and climate modeler at the University of Chicago, sometimes puts it thus; "global warming is essentially forever."
Until now, our collective view of future warming has typically ended at 2100 AD, as if it were the edge of a world beyond which we dare not sail. That's not surprising, considering that most of us consider "a long time" to be the hours remaining at the office, and even for most scientists the end of this century can seem like an eternity away. But if the world continues to exist beyond 2100 AD, then what happens after global warming?
For Archer and experts like him, 2100 AD is just the first step on a long journey that we and our planet are embarking upon together, whether we realize it or not. Sophisticated computer models with names such as CLIMBER, GENIE, and LOVECLIM show that a large fraction of our fossil fuel emissions will remain in the atmosphere for so long that it boggles the mind, not just a few centuries but many tens of thousands of years. In the most extreme scenarios, which are the ones that we're heading for at the moment, that persistence could reach half a million years or more.
Despite the arcane calculations that support these seemingly outlandish claims, the basic picture of what lies ahead is actually quite simple. It all boils down to one principle: "what goes up must come down."
Sooner or later, our carbon dioxide emissions will peak and then begin to decline, because sooner or later we'll either switch to alternative energy sources or simply run out of affordable fossil fuels. In response, greenhouse gas concentrations will also reach some limit and then begin to fall. This will trigger a sequential "climate whiplash" period, in which temperatures flip from warming into cooling mode, acidification from CO2 dissolution into the ocean wreaks maximum havoc on marine life before slackening off, and sea levels peak and fall.
Perhaps most amazingly of all, the intensity and duration of these changes will largely be determined by what we do during this century.
If we switch to non-fossil energy soon, then we'll have emitted roughly a trillion tons of heat-trapping carbon fumes since the Industrial Revolution. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations will likely peak by 2150-2200 AD and then begin to fall, to be followed by a relatively brief heat spike 2-3°C higher than today, and a later sea level maximum roughly 10 m higher than that of today due to melting in Greenland and western Antarctica. According to Archer, most of our fossil carbon emissions will dissolve into the oceans during the next few millennia, but the seas can only retain so much. Roughly one fifth of that carbon will remain stranded in the atmosphere until rock weathering eventually scrubs it away, but those processes work very slowly. Full recovery in this relatively moderate scenario takes as much as 100,000 years.
If, instead, we burn through our coal reserves before utter depletion forces us to find alternative energy sources later on, then much more extreme consequences could follow. Details vary depending on the models used, but with CO2 concentrations approaching 1900-2000 ppm (five times that of today), temperatures could rise 6-9 °C over a broad peak stretching from 2500 AD to 3500 AD. Carbon dioxide concentrations and temperatures would not fall close to today's levels again for hundreds of thousands of years. All land-based ice would eventually melt, raising sea levels by as much as 70 meters until regenerating ice sheets begin to pull water back out of the oceans.
Are these just morbid fantasies of an apocalyptic future? Not at all. For me, at least, such revelations of our uniquely influential place in deep time are as transformative and energizing as my first look at photos of the Earth floating in deep space. We are important in the grand sweep of geologic history. And paleoecological evidence shows that these simulations of possible futures are firmly anchored in scientific fact rather than science fiction, because they've happened before. The Earth has warmed many times in the past, though not because of us, and geo-historical records reveal much about what life on a warmer Earth could be like.
Take the more moderate scenario outlined here, in which we rein our emissions in as quickly as possible. The expected outcome is much like what happened the last time world climates came up for air between the last two ice ages, 130,000 years ago. The so-called "Eemian interglacial" warm period was caused not by greenhouse gases but by natural orbital cycles that warmed Arctic summers enough to destroy the great northern ice sheets. Nonetheless, it lends strong support to the simulations of a best-case future.
Sediment layers, ice cores, cave stalagmites, and other paleo archives show that the Eemian interglacial was 2-3°C warmer than today and lasted for about 13,000 years. Greenland and Antarctica lost enough ice to hoist sea level by 6-9 meters, but much of their frozen coverings survived the long thaw. Hickories and black gums that now favor southeastern forests of the Blue Ridge thrived in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, while heat-loving hippos and elephants roamed northern Europe. The environmental changes were enormous but slow enough that few species died out as a result, and most animals and plants simply migrated along with their favored climatic conditions between various latitudes and altitudes.
The most extreme scenario would more closely resemble a natural super-greenhouse that engulfed the planet 55 million years ago following a catastrophic release of methane and CO2 from undersea deposits, possibly due to volcanism in the North Atlantic. Global temperatures shot up 11-12°C higher than today over several thousand years - the blink of an eye in geological terms, and on par with a future burn-it-all scenario. All land-based ice vanished, the Arctic Ocean became a warm, brackish pond rimmed by redwood forests, beech trees covered Antarctica, carbonic acid burned a discolored stripe into the sea floor that still shows up clearly in marine sediment cores, and sea surfaces climbed 70 meters above today's level. Recovery in that case took at least 170,000 years.
Perhaps surprisingly, even this "Paleoecene-Eocene Thermal Maximum" (PETM) hothouse did little harm to most land-dwelling life, though many marine organisms perished in the oceanic acid bath. In fact, early mammals thrived in the luxuriant greenery that spread from pole to pole, with newly evolved creatures invading new territories so rapidly that they often seem to have appeared in fossil records everywhere at once. But that's not necessarily very comforting news. The PETM predated our earliest hominid ancestors by more than 50 million years, a time at the dawn of mammalian evolution when carnivorous "wolf-sheep" ran about with hooves on the tips of their toes, and proto-whales had legs. Just because they felt at home during the PETM doesn't necessarily mean that today's wolves, sheep, and whales would handle a reprise very well, especially with billions of humans and a global cobweb of roads and cities and farms blocking their migration routes.
But all is not doom and gloom.
Read Part II here, where the author describes the pros and cons of a future world resulting from both the moderate scenario and the extreme scenario.
3/24/2011 12:59:17 PM
Generations of American school kids were exposed to cooking, checkbook balancing and the odd sewing project through home economics. In recent years, such programs have been among the first to go when budget shortfalls have struck public schools—to the point that “home ec” sounds anachronistic or even foreign to many young ears. As the programs disappear, so does a publicly funded avenue for teaching kids how to prepare food, let alone wholesome food.
Jamie Oliver, the English chef-turned-television-star, began his Food Revolution initiative to close that knowledge gap, and teach schoolchildren how to cook—and cafeteria workers how to prepare school lunches using minimally processed ingredients—as a means of fighting obesity. Receiving the TED prize at the speaker series’ flagship conference in Long Beach, California, last year, Oliver said he hoped to bring the initiative to underserved schools across the United States, but he lacked the means to move his message.
“Jamie was talking about Food Revolution being embodied by a kind of food truck,” says David Rockwell, the principal designer at Rockwell Group, who was in the audience for Oliver’s acceptance speech. “In a moment of euphoria from being at TED and being inspired by Jamie, I met him after the talk and told him I’d be happy to design it.”
Rockwell Group’s 18-wheel response to Oliver’s request debuted at TED earlier this month. The customized tractor trailer will travel to schools, parks and other gathering spots this year, where it will provide a platform for Oliver’s back-to-basics food-prep philosophy. School kids and other community members will learn to cook, or improve their cooking, by getting their hands dirty.
Read more about the design and functionality of the trucks and see more images at
Source: Change Observer
Image courtesy Rockwell Group. Designed by David Rockwell, the customized tractor-trailer will deliver Oliver's gospel of healthy eating throughout the U.S.
3/21/2011 2:59:04 PM
Many of us feel paralyzed in the aftermath of Japan’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami. As the number of dead or missing nears 22,000, the fate of the country’s nuclear reactors remains grave, and widespread images make the March 11 disaster agonizingly real, the magnitude of the event is positively crippling.
The folks at Good aim to shake us out of our stupor, pointing us toward simple ways to help Japan. Included in their list, updated regularly, are links to a variety of relief organizations, from respected mainstays like the Red Cross and Salvation Army to innovative groups such as Mercy Corps, ShelterBox, and Global Giving.
Good also provides a slideshow of posters, t-shirts, photographs, and more items that you can purchase to support Japan. For more philanthropic swag, check out Etsy, where you can buy handmade goods from artists and craftspeople who are donating a portion of their profits to Japan.
At a local level, Second Harvest Japan, the country’s national food bank, is working to get necessities like food, water, and medical supplies to those affected by the disaster. They request monetary donations from people outside of Japan, which help buy the basics or fund delivery to disaster areas. Second Harvest says, “For every 1,000 yen donated, we deliver 10,000 yen worth of food to the needy.”
A massive disaster requires massive response, and online giving makes it easy. But Good reminds us, “After the initial disaster relief, and the initial spike in donations, there will still be a lot of work to be done.”
Image by ka_tate, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/21/2011 10:55:50 AM
“The litany of horrors is gut-wrenching.” That’s how Kelley Beaucar Vlahos describes the countless deformities that have appeared in Iraqi babies since the first Gulf War in 1991 due to the environmental impact of war on that country. The list is horrific: two-headed babies, eyeless, brain tumors in children younger than two years old. “It is widely accepted among scientists, doctors, and aid workers that war is to blame,” Vlahos writes in the April 2011 issue of The American Conservative.
The presence of so much expended weaponry, waste and rubble, massive burn pits on U.S. bases, and oil fires has left a toxic legacy that is poisoning the air, the water, and the soil in Iraq. Add highly controversial armaments that the U.S. has only hinted at using in this war—such as depleted uranium—and you get a potentially radioactive landscape giving rise to doomed children and stillborn babies.
While the Department of Defense denies the claim that war efforts result in long-term illnesses, Vlahos makes the argument that “[i]n a sense, what is happening throughout Iraq today isthe 21st-century’s Agent Orange.” And like the ill effects of the herbicide dumped over Vietnam decades ago, Vlahos sees the American public neatly tucking away the ugly memories of another failed war, this time in the Middle East.
Anyone not ready to buy so easily into President Obama’s claim in his State of the Union address that “our commitment [in Iraq] has been kept” will be served well by reading Vlahos’ exploration into what we are leaving behind.
Source: The American Conservative
Panel image by familymwr, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/11/2011 2:42:49 PM
Videos from around the world of Japan’s historic earthquake and the resulting tsunami.
Source: ABCcu, Al Jazeera English, No Comment TV, ITN News, CBC
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