A Voice for Earth

Environmental and social justice and my personal experiences in the area.


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Avengers Series Part I: Dire Reality

“The end is near. When I’m done, half of humanity will still exist, perfectly balanced, as all things should be…”

Thanos, Avengers: Infinity War

It’s a sad state of affairs when an action movie makes you question everything , as though you’re having some kind of existential crisis, but is it? Quite often the fictional, whether it’s a novel, a television show, or a movie, can have a bearing on real-world issues. I, myself, find that what we imagine on the page or the screen can trigger you to think far more than the cold, hard facts of a matter we encounter in the news media or in scientific studies. Not that facts should ever be disregarded, there’s enough of that going around in the fake news era already. Still, it is possible to allow for the questioning of reality based on a fantasy.

Reality

So let’s dissect the reality we have created for ourselves. We live on an amazing planet, the only one we know of in the universe to support life of any kind, much less a diverse and intricate biosphere. Life on Earth is no doubt resilient, having come through five major mass extinctions, and multiple smaller events interspersed between, throughout it’s long history. Each time, life has recovered and rebounded. A smattering of survivors becomes ecosystems brimming with almost countless species. But that’s the thing, life’s story is that of survivors, those generalist, often unremarkable species that pull through where specialists and fantastical beasts are the first to fall.

You see the meek really do inherit the Earth, not the mighty (sorry, Thor). That is why the dinosaurs were wiped out by the KT asteroid, but birds, insects, small reptiles, and to our sake, mammals, pulled through. This is why the megafauna of the Ice Age could not withstand a combination of rapid environmental change and human hunting pressures, yet smaller animals with more adaptability, made it.

All these crests and troughs of the living world have been happening for hundreds of millions of years, long before we came on the scene. The problem now is that we may be an agent of change that brings that crest crashing down into a sixth major extinction event. A phrase I often hear is that we are the asteroid this time, but I think that underestimates the degree of threat we pose. For we are potentially not just a big rock from space that makes a big bang, snuffing out three quarters of all species, no, we could be a second Great Dying.

This is what the end Permian-Triassic extinction is sometimes known as. It is the calamity that ushered in the age of the dinosaurs, but quite nearly put an end to complex life on Earth. 90% of living species went extinct with the oceans suffering the most. It is believed the massive volcanism of the Siberian Traps was largely responsible, though there’s also evidence of a significant asteroid impact at this time. Perhaps one is connected to the other. Either way, the flood basalt released gargantuan quantities of ash, sulphur, and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, leading to alternating volcanic winters and extreme warming periods before climate change triggered the release of unstable methane hydrates from the ocean floor. This methane supercharged warming, leading to the oceans suffocating from oxygen loss and the land being engulfed in unending heat and drought.

Millions of years passed before there was any true recovery, and it completely repainted the picture of life on Earth. So how do we humans compare to the force that nearly obliterated the living world? Disturbingly comparable to be honest.

You see, we are the Siberian Traps. We are akin to a globally distributed mega-eruption that is spewing mostly just greenhouse gases because we took issue with particulates and sulphur due to more obvious environmental crises like smog and acid rain. So that means unless we have a nuclear World War 3 (which doesn’t seem too far out of realm of possibility lately), no global winters, just straight-up warming, which may become an exponential problem if we liberate even a small fraction of the modern methane hydrates on our ocean floors.

Here I’ve laid out the consequences of just one of the pressures we apply to our buckling biosphere. Climate change is probably the most serious and far reaching, but it is hardly the only way in which we jeopordise the livability of our planet.

Right now, we are pulling fish out of the oceans so fast that we face virtually fish-less oceans by 2048. Our fishing methods are also decimating other species because of how unselective they are, pulling up juvenile fish, turtles, dolphins, sharks, and other sea life that end up being cast back into the water dead or dying.

The oceans are both acidifying and losing oxygen due to our emissions of carbon dioxide and massive amounts of agricultural pollutants that flow from our rivers. The acidification, caused by carbon dioxide dissolving in seawater to form carbonic acid, is another threat to sea-life as it prevents molluscs and small plankton from forming shells. This could undermine the whole ocean food chain. As for the deoxygenation, fertilisers and manure from our agricultural activities promote the growth of algal blooms, which consume oxygen as they decay. This can render entire areas as aquatic deserts where little life can live.  There is a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is the size of the state of New Jersey and a growing one in the Gulf of Oman.

There may well be more plastic in the oceans than fish by the middle of the century. Plastic will break down into smaller fragments in the rough and especially warmer waters, but these release chemicals that end up in the food chain, finding their way back to us. If there were ever a perfect example that there’s no such thing as throwing things away, this is it. This plastic also ensnares sea life, or larger animals like whales eat the plastic debris, clogging their digestive tracts, from which they die slowly.

We are destroying our usable soils, and farming as we know it might have to end in 60 years. This is caused by a mix of poor farming practices and environmental stressors such as climate change and deforestation.

The Amazon Rainforest, the so-called lungs of the Earth could collapse completely into a degraded savannah if just an additional 3% of its area is lost to either climate change or deforestation. Taken together with the decline of other forests and phytoplankton in the oceans, this could lead to deoxygenation of the atmosphere itself, which is thought to be something that occurred during the Great Dying.

And the big elephant in the room, animal agriculture, something that is more discussed lately and accepted as an environmental threat but previously, most people couldn’t abide the thought that what we put on our plates has an environmental footprint. Of course it does and of all the things we eat, animal products have the broadest reach, impacting climate change, ocean dead zones, species extinction, habitat loss, and water pollution. They also require vast quantities of our available land and fresh water.

Related image

Our Planetary Boundaries: Already, we are coming up against hard, natural limits to what our Earth’s systems can sustain, and others are creeping up. Image Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre

This is just an overview of some of the broader environmental challenges we face with countless others that may only have local or regional impacts but collectively, are contributing to broader pollution and environmental degradation. We face a number of tipping points that we dare not cross. Perhaps it’s too late, and we already have, in which case there’s even a greater necessity for drastic action.

Yet the reality where heroes save the day and avenge the Earth is not the one we live in. At least, there isn’t enough people taking an active role in speaking out about these growing calamities, or taking direct action to draw more attention. Those that do are often silenced by an uncaring system, or even a deliberately malign one intent on maintaining the status quo for the sake of economics.

Ultimately, our world has limits, limits to what we can reasonably extract from it in a given amount of time and expect those resources to be renewed. There are limits to how much we can pollute and waste without engendering deleterious effects. There are limits to how much space we can occupy and still expect local ecosystems and the greater biosphere to remain stable.

Yet our culture and our economic model doesn’t believe in limits. Neither our mindset nor our capitalist system is built to even consider them. Our system demands continuous growth, which requires more inputs so the system can generate more wealth from making endless products from the natural capital we extract from the Earth. This is expected to go on and on and on without end, a mad belief that we can somehow derive infinity from a finite world.

Ultimately, the bubble we keep blowing hot air and hopium into will burst. Whether it will be struck down by multiple environmental tipping points being hit at once or one after the other hardly matters. If we continue on as we do, the day will come when life as we know it will be impossible.

We face a dystopian future to make the Hunger Games, Mad Max, or Blade Runner look like some kind of idyll to look forward to.

The climate will destabilise.

The oceans will broil and suffocate and die.

The forests will burn away to ash.

The majority of Earth’s species will go extinct.

People will be displaced by rising seas and expanding deserts.

People will starve.

People will go to war for what’s left.

Then? Who knows? Human extinction is not off the cards.

We’d all like to pretend that this isn’t happening, that this is not the reality we live in, and just go about our normal lives, blissfully unaware of exactly what’s going on even though in the back of our minds, we sense all is not well, and things can’t just keep going as they are.

We all hope someone else will save us, but there is no one else. There’s no soldiers, warriors, demi-gods, or any being or external force that is going to come down and undo all our wrongs for us. There are no superheroes waiting in the wings, ready to fight the corruption and greed and apathy that has gotten us to where we are now. We have to be those people, by speaking out, by demanding change from our leaders, and making change in our own lives. Avoiding the above demands we rapidly change our ways from the top down and the bottom up.

Thanos, despite being the villain, understood that the universe has physical laws and limits that cannot be overcome, that thinking everyone can have everything and that ultimate satisfaction for all is somehow reachable, is a joke. His answer to the problem of overpopulations is, of course, despicable, and definitely isn’t the solution. Logic would say less people means less demands on the Earth and therefore, less environmental destruction. However when you consider that the Earth can only realistically sustain a little under two billion people at the consumption levels of an average US citizen, you begin to see the problem. It would take four to five Earths to sustain the current world population at those levels.

However, I don’t think this population is optimal or that we should take drastic measures to reach it like draconian reproduction laws, mass sterilisation, or anything akin to Thanos’s egalitarian genocide. It’s indeed possible that the Earth could sustain our current numbers and more. It’s less about overall numbers and more about how much we’re willing to change as individuals and as a global civilization. It’s about whether we can fathom living differently and having different individual and societal values, or are we doomed to follow our current path to its inevitable end.

Only time will tell.

 

Image Source: Marvel Movies Fandom

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Our Finite War

“In time, you’ll know what it’s like to lose, to feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail all the same.”

Thanos, Avengers: Infinity War

 

The clock, we’re at war with it

Every week, every day, every hour

Ticking off our lists, rushing place to place, clawing back the minutes

And what for but to do more of the same, more “living”

 

Thinking, we’re bereft of it

Because we wage this war for worthless minutes

Minutes spent going around in circles

Never changing, never learning, never doing a damn thing different

 

We live in our personal microcosms

Consumed by our own battles and conflicts

Ignorant that as a whole, people are losing the wider struggle

Collectively, we are failing, falling, flat-lining

 

It’s this individualist obsession

Society’s great lie that it’s everyone for themselves

In a time when we need to come together like never before

That’s why our pointless war dooms us

 

We can’t see the forest for the trees

The car for the emissions, the cow for the beef

We fail to make the connections

And because of that, we fail to draw a line

 

We are riding a tsunami, racing towards an unyielding shore

The crash will come inevitably, painfully

Yet that future is a choice, one that stems for a desire for more

More stuff, more wealth, more nothings

 

Our war is waged against all that matters

For the sake of things that only matter because we decide they do

Economics, numbers in a computer, pieces of metal and paper

For this, we raze our Earth

 

We are sawing away at the branches of life supporting us

Cutting away at the airways, poisoning the arteries

All for more because we have no sense of enough

No boundaries for our greed

 

To me, this greed is about one thing, winning

Winning wars of trade, of politics, of blood

Nations and corporations one upping each other without real reason

An aimless zombie legion flying the capitalist colours

 

I quote Thanos because collectively, we’ve become the villain

We are our own antagonist, and we will be our own undoing

Because for all our winning, we’ve yet to feel what it’s like to lose

Our global regime knows only further, faster, not falter, failure

 

Then for those among us so painfully aware of our peril

Those who look unblinking at the destruction, the corruption, the suffering

Those who know that solutions are known and possible

But between us and them stand the few obstinate and the many indifferent

 

Between us and a brighter, fairer future for all are titans of obsolete industries

And those who turn a blind eye to cruelty, neglect, and killing

There are the politicians whose self-interest outstrips their values

And there are those who litter and waste carelessly, unthinking

 

And these are the decisions we’ve made, the path we’ve chosen

And destiny will arrive, no matter how we bemoan it, no matter where we run

Our fate is set because where we need to swing the wheel to avoid the cliff

We gently swerve in the hopes we’ll miss

 

Time, it’s against us, inexorably moving forward, indifferent

Reality, we deny it, preferring our safe, cozy bubble while it persists

Mind, the presence of we lack, trapped in the present, in screens and apps

Space, finite on our Earth, and yet we burn it up like so much dirt

Soul, we bury them, down, down ,down, where we can’t feel for our fellow beings

Power, the only coin in the game, but what happens when our ailing world…

…Upends the board on which we play?

 

Image: Infinity War Trailer


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Another Warning Sails on By

In three years time, avoiding a temperature rise of two degrees Celsius will be impracticable, unless we reach peak carbon emissions by then. That is the finding of the Carbon Tracker in London, the Climate Action Tracker consortium, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut in a joint report.

What it boils down to is that we have a carbon budget. Depending on the varying ways this budget is calculated and subtracting past emissions, our remaining carbon credit falls somewhere in the range of 150-1050 gigatonnes of total emissions. This is the maximum we can emit if we are to have any serious hope of achieving the Paris Agreement’s aspirational goal of keeping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius, or even below 2 degrees.

At the current rate of emissions of 41 gigatonnes annually, that would mean that at the lower end of that scale that we would cross the threshold in four years, so let’s hope somewhere in the middle or upper end of the range is closer to reality. Otherwise, we’ll have to deploy large-scale carbon capture technology and drop carbon emissions to zero right now, which would likely crash the economy, god forbid, when we’re on course to crash all of civilization.

So they’re presuming a 600-800 gigatonne carbon credit. Peaking emissions now would give us 25 years to get them down to zero, which, let’s face it, isn’t happening and won’t in the near-term, but we must do it by 2020 to have a reasonable chance to accomplish decarbonisation of the economy in time. If we do it by then, we should achieve zero emissions before 2040 with a 600 gigatonne credit. However, with an 800 gigatonne credit, we can push this out to 2050 but with a greater risk of crossing the two-degree threshold. Waiting till 2025 to peak emissions or even keeping them level until then will put that goal out of reach for all intents and purposes.

So here we are, pretty much being told it’s crunch time for climate action, but there doesn’t seem to be any corresponding increase in urgency. Things are being left to mosey along at a woefully insufficient pace. Let “market forces” drive change they said, the economy will fix the problem they said.

Yes, the capitalistic, growth at all costs, money-hooked machine is going to resolve a crisis that ultimately requires that it rejects itself. Corporations do not want to do anything that’s going to affect profitability. Competitiveness is what is inclining many companies to favour renewables and electric transport, as they know where things are going long-term, but they won’t jump the gun from their perspective if it risks them losing money.

Ideally, governments would regulate corporations and national bodies, forcing them by means of legislation to change how they operate. However, governments are nearly more scared of regulations these days than the corporations themselves. They don’t want to be seen as impeding businesses that bring jobs and wealth into their respective countries by whatever trickle-down argument they want to use.

We can pretty much be assured that in most countries that this will continue. A few like the Scandinavian nations are committed to more appropriate targets for complete decarbonisation, but even their plans would fall short if the actual carbon budget is less than the 600 gigatonnes we’ve allowed ourselves.

I imagine at this point that even 2 degrees is the aspirational goal, and 1.5 is already out of reach without actions so drastic that it would make the US mobilisation for WW2 pale by comparison. On our current course, we could be threatened with up to 3 degrees Celsius of warming at least. There are some estimates that say that we’ve grossly underestimated climate sensitivity and warming of up to 7 degrees Celsius is possible by 2100.

It’s hard to fathom what that much warming could do but assuming even the lower value of 3 degrees, we can be assured of massive upheaval, perhaps civilization-toppling effects. We could see the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, raising sea levels tens of feet. We could see desertification in the equatorial regions, the complete annihilation of the rainforests, and the loss of major breadbaskets. We could assume that all this along with major natural disasters would lead to mass migration and inevitable conflict over reduced space and resources.

Even if we “only” warm the world by that much, we can’t be positive that it would end there because of all the feedbacks in the Earth’s systems.

So, again, here we are, poised to unleash disaster on a scale no human has witnessed since the rise of civilization, if ever. We could potentially set back our development centuries, if not right back to the Stone Age. Hell, if the higher climate sensitivities to GHGs are correct, we could be galloping towards our own extinction like so many lemmings charging towards a cliff edge.

I really hope that we can avoid that world. I hope that what momentum there seems to be from Paris and the drive for renewables and zero emissions transport really will continue on the up and up. I hope that our leaders can start to see beyond short-term economic gain and begin assuring a safe future for our children and all the generations to come. I hope, I hope, I hope!

It really does feel like instead of putting it out, we’re playing with the fire that is catching. I feel as though we’re all living on a prayer with this carbon credit shot in the dark. We’re hoping the credit is higher, and we are depending on probabilities of achieving that below two degrees goal. However, the reality is that we could see a sudden upshot in warming any year now. 2016 proved that, having crushed the two previous warmest years, 2014 and 2015. If that happens, we’ll be forced into drastic action one way or another, and it still might not be enough.

I still believe we can do better, that we still have a chance to do so, to leave the world better than the generations before us have and how we have it now. However, the margins are tightening and time is slipping away from us. Just because we don’t know exactly how tightly we are bound doesn’t mean we should assume the most optimistic scenario, that we still have plenty of time. We should assume the worst and act accordingly. It seems to me to be the only responsible thing to do.

Image Source: List of Polluted Earth Wallpapers (allwidewallpapers.com)

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions.


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Giving a Fuck Sometimes Sucks

(Image Source: Journey of a Thousand Miles)

So I haven’t blogged in months, pretty much because I’ve been hating on the world. Well, maybe not hating but getting apathetic, a state I don’t want to be in but bombarded by so much negativity on a daily basis, it’s hard not to succumb to it occasionally. I regret that this has taken me away from blogging, my Facebook page and group, even my vegan Instagram account, not that I’ve been totally absent, but I have dialed my exposure back for my own sanity.

What specifically has been bothering me lately? Pretty much everything to some degree. I suppose the overriding issue for me is always going to be climate change because there are so many feedbacks and so many other issues that it affects, it pretty much has an impact everywhere and on everything. Ever since the Paris climate accord last year, my level of optimism has dropped off. Solving the issue has seemed further away when it should have drawn closer after the ‘historic’ agreement. Why do you ask am I so pessimistic all of a sudden? Why am I being a downer even?

Because it just ain’t gonna cut it, that’s why!

Paris would have been absolutely fantastic had it been negotiated in the 80s, it would have been appropriate in the 90s, it would have fallen short in the 00s and for this decade, it’s a band aid on an open artery. I think we’re all sick to death of half-measures, if only governments and corporations were giving us even that. Instead we’re being given platitudes and green-washing and trade agreements that undercut what little we have already achieved. Fun times!

I’m completely over politics, as well, from the efforts made by establishment politics to suppress the rise of democratic socialist politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, to President Obama, a supposed progressive, pushing a regressive trade agreement like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to the recent insanity that was the Brexit and how all these things are negatively impacting effective climate and environmental policy even more.

It’s hard everyday to log into Facebook and see Florida’s coast swallowed by an algal bloom probably a result of warming waters and nutrient enrichment from animal agriculture and fertilizer runoff. It’s hard to see flood after flood after flood hit parts of Texas and the Midwest and have the political leaders there deny that there’s even a problem. It’s hard to watch the Great Barrier Reef slowly die. It’s hard to watch Rhinos and Elephants get slaughtered for a single body-part that only has extrinsic worth that some witch doctor gave them. It’s hard to watch species like the vaquita, the orca, the orangutan march towards extinction, to watch the seas get depleted of fish, to watch plastics pollute everything, to watch rainforests torn down for ranches and palm oil, it’s all just hard!

This all probably sounds very self-pitying and, of course, none of this is about me, this isn’t why I care, even though we all have something to loose if the shit really hits the fan. Also, I can say all this is hard to watch, but it is infinitely harder for the people who actually have experienced these disasters, who are physically present to watch the lands they call home change for the worse, to watch the creatures they know disappear, and to have homes and livelihoods lost. If watching all this on a screen diminishes my hope, how must these people feel? I can’t imagine.

I’m starting to come around again and feel motivated once more. Nothing in particular has spurred me on, maybe a combination of things. My wife has told me that if I don’t like what I see, change it. It’s a simple solution to my problem, but positive thinking and reading about the things that are going right really helps. I’m trying to post more about positive political and activist action that has changed the course like how Europe has seriously curtailed the extension of approval of glyphosate, in no small part because of public pressure. Recently, pipeline proposals by Enbridge in Canada have been shot down, thanks again to actions of people. Then there’s how San Francisco banned styrofoam, Morocco banned plastic bags, and Germany is mandating all cars be electric by 2030 with Norway considering an even more ambitious version of this policy for 2025.

I think it’s been good, as well, to get more involved with the online vegan community. It’s nice just to know that there are people out there who care as much about animals, people, and planet as much as yourself. It’s difficult when no one in your personal life is as involved as you, and I mean immediate friends and family, not online friends and passing acquaintances.That’s not to downplay those connections because they are the only thing really reassuring me that I’m not just some hippie loon and that I’m actually going crazy. Other people see what I see,  other people care and even though we are few and far between, that restores my hope.

That is what I plan to focus on in future now whenever I’m feeling low about the world, about the way things are going, and how meaningful my impact is. For that, I guess I can thank everyone I’ve interacted with online and all those writers out there putting out hope rather than doom-saying. I know I’ve written a piece with both. I am still being realistic in that I know there’s a lot that still needs to be done to remedy the Earth’s environmental and social problems, but giving into despair about the world did nothing for me or anyone else. If anything, it just made me more depressed and less interested in involving myself, making me no better than anyone who carries on day to day in apathy and ignorance of what’s going on in the world.

A quote by Jane Goodall stands out to me especially:

“In 200 years, people will look back on this particular period and say to themselves how did those people at that time just allow all those amazing creatures to vanish. But it would be very little use in me or anybody else exerting all this energy to save these wild places if people are not being educated into being better stewards than we’ve been. If we all lose hope, there is no hope. Without hope, people fall into apathy. There’s still a lot left that’s worth fighting for.”

It’s worth it to fight against apathy, hopelessness, depression about this world we live in and where it’s headed at the moment because if we don’t, how will we ever change the course for the future? These things sap you of the strength to do anything but bemoan the problems instead of being a part of the solution and no matter how small your part may be, as was said in the documentary Racing Extinction, “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness”.

That’s something I plan to take to heart from here on out as best I can, and I know there’ll be setbacks, both personal and in the wider world, but what’s important is that we all pick up and carry on, and maybe the solutions for the future we all wish for will come to pass.