Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Beyond the Agrarian Age

"The new landscape of our time is us."
Edward Burtynsky

We are fully immersed in the age of making stuff fueled by a huge easily accessed caloric surplus. At this point in the neolithic age there is more than enough fuel to keep us warm and more than enough food to keep us fed. The result is a type of leisure time. Although it is not leisure time in the strict since, it is however time spent producing stuff other than fuel or food. In fact a very small proportion of the population is required to produce fuel and food. Fuel and food are produced on a massive scale so that the rest of us can participate in the ritualistic activity of trading and producing meaningless stuff.

But this is our nature, the niche we have filled along the homo sapiens evolutionary path. Some argue that the evolutionary phase of humans can be likened to a forests primary production phase when rapid growth is occurring and laying the groundwork for a mature forest where energy is conserved. I would argue that we have been in a mature climax phase for a while as we continue to increase our biomass, storing the surrounding nutrients in all the stuff we are making, much as a mature rainforest does.

The clip below from the movie Manufactured Landscapes by Edward Burtynsky captures my thoughts above perfectly. The film is a must watch for those interested in a non egocentric view of the human condition.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Anthropocene and the Fossil Fuel Epoch

"Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”  
 -ts eliot-
Scientists can trace the formation of the universe, galaxies and solar systems. They track the origin of life on earth and its evolution into homo sapiens. This process happened over billions of years with one basic principal. The total amount of material and energy in the process remains the same. Earth functions as an evolving subset of this material operating primarily as a closed system. There is the occasional significant meteor that adds some material to the mix or significantly alters the planets physical processes but these events are rare. For the most part what happens on earth is a function of what is on earth. Over geologic time the matter and energy on the planet have combined in a way that has formed life. These geologic processes over large time scales continually shape and reshape the biological and physical environment. The evidence of this is present in the layered patterns of sediment and rocks and the fossils of organisms. Throughout all those layers the layer currently being created by the activities of humans is unique because of the rate at which the physical processes of the planet are changing. This geologic period is becoming known as the Anthropocene.

The following discussion captures the planetary processes and our current relationship with those processes very well.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Its Never Just One Thing

"To be enlightened is to be aware, always, of total reality in its immanent otherness.... to resort whenever expedient to systematic reasoning"   Aldous Huxley

I recently heard of an incredible resource called EOPS, the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. While perusing this webpage I came upon Environmental Protection Agency report discussing the lack of evidence for anthropogenic causes of low oxygen in Hood Canal (Draft-EPA-and-Ecology-Report-on-Dissolved-Oxygen-Impacts-in-Hood-Canal-09-14-12). Hood Canal is a long fjord framing the Western extent of Puget Sound. Being familiar with the region and the issues of water quality in Hood Canal I was skeptical of the reports findings. See, its never just one thing. Because of its geomorphology Hood Canal is a very fragile ecosystem.
The waterway of Hood Canal is particularly susceptible to physical and chemical changes in its environment. The bathymetry and shape of the waterway makes the exchange of water from in and outgoing tides reduced. Hood Canal has a shallow lip of 160 feet near the mouth creating a long, deep and narrow bowl resulting in the slowest water circulation of all the Puget Sound sub-basins. This slow rate of incoming and outgoing tidal exchange causes the southern end of the canal to become especially susceptible to low dissolved oxygen (DO) As a result DO in the waters of Hood Canal have become a problem. It has been assumed that increased nutrient loads to the waterway from the population growth in the region was the cause of recent problematic low DO levels that have lead to fish kills in Hood Canal. However the EPA report suggests that evidence pointing at nutrient loading from population pressures is inconclusive and may have little to do with the low DO events. However, by focusing on a single source as the cause the EPA appears to be missing a fundamental aspect of all environmental science investigations. In my research lately I  have been steadfast in my attempts to incorporate a holistic approach to deciphering the question at hand. See its never just one thing. Because of the fragility of Hood Canal as a result of its slow tidal exchange rate, any additional inputs that change the water chemistry is going to have an amplified impact. That impact alone may not be enough to tip the table, but when combined with additional low DO sources the system can quickly become overwhelmed by the cumulative impact.

Hood Canal

In this case one likely source of additional low DO is the hypoxic waters off the Washington State coast. Lower levels of oxygen in the waters off the Pacific Northwest coast are becoming problematic and could be another sign of fundamental changes linked to global climate change. In some spots off Washington state and Oregon, the almost complete absence of oxygen has caused mortality of bottom dwelling species where low oxygen levels are most extreme. In addition large blooms of noxious bacteria which are resistant to hypoxic environments are taking their place. Areas of hypoxia, or low oxygen, exist naturally in the deep ocean. These areas however appear to be spreading, becoming more surface oriented. Such is the case in the Pacific Northwest, where low oxygen levels are encroaching on the continental shelf right off the coastline.   The Pacific waters off Washington and Oregon are particularly susceptible to low oxygen events as a result of ocean circulation patterns. Natural low oxygen zones perched in the deeper waters off the Northwest's continental shelf are created during the summer, as northerly winds move surface water away from the shore. As a result oxygen-poor water migrates to the surface in a process called upwelling. These nutrient rich waters bring nutrients to phytoplankton forming one of the greatest ocean food chains in the world. The phytoplankton production is further enhanced by the warmer ocean temperatures. When the plankton sink and start to decay  the decaying mechanism uses oxygen, which depletes the oxygen levels further. Southerly winds reverse the process in what's known as down-welling. Changes in the wind and ocean circulation since 2002 have disrupted the delicate balance between upwelling and down-welling on the Pacific Northwest Coast.
Because these coastal waters have been near the surface and closer to shore greater amounts of this oxygen poor water is making its way into Puget Sound and Hood Canal. Warmer water temperatures in Hood Canal are also producing more phytoplankton which undergo the same oxygen depleting life cycle that occurs in the ocean. See its never just one thing. Anthropogenic nutrient loading from increased population growth which the EPA suggests may not be a player plus the influx of oxygen poor ocean water from the Washington coast combined with the increase of phytoplankton production from warmer water temperatures have a cummulative impact that tips the scale in Hood Canals already delicately balanced water chemistry. So, can we say there is no evidence linking human activity to hypoxic water and fish kills in Hood Canal?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pay Attention

"My sense of immortality is when the people I teach the various things begin to teach it themselves. Then I am assured I won't become an empty memory. My breath will continue to breathe into the future generations."
-Bruce (subiyay) Miller-

Traditional Twana Story

There was one little girl who never paid attention to anything that was being said by the elders. She was always talking when she was supposed to be listening. When the other children tried to be attentive to the teachings she would poke them or cause disruptions in some other way. She did this so much that everyone called her “assH3‘qap” (as sha kop); which means stupid or foolish. They called her by this name so much that everyone began to accept it as her real name. 

Time passed all too suddenly for assH3’qap, for she knew it…it was time for her to go into the wilderness on her spirit quest. Early one morning her grandmother woke her up and told her, “It is time for you to go into the wilderness and find sk3’lalitut, your spirit power. Do not come home until you find it…and bring a gift to benefit those who are yet to come. With that, assH3’qap was hastily escorted to the foot of the mountain. She was quickly left alone by her grandmother. 

Now, for the first time in her life she was truly alone, no one to pester, no instructions to ignore, no one to call her “assH3’qap”. Still at first she did not worry, it was early in the day, she was warm and nothing looked scary. Not yet that is…assH3’qap began to wander about, here and there. Night was fast approaching. The temperature fell. In the increasing darkness of nightfall she could hear sounds, strange sounds. There was no one to huddle up to for warmth. There was nothing to eat. There was no one to talk to. She was all alone in the wilderness. Alone…and she didn’t know what she was supposed to do. She had never listened…she knew it all already or there were other things to do or she didn’t have the time. Now the time of endless excuses was finished. Indeed she was assH3’qap. If only she had listened, she would know what to do. 

It was dark. It was cold. assH3’qap was lonely. There were scary unseen things making noises in the darkness. Finally, exhausted from fear of the unknown terrors that lurked in the darkness, she fell into a cold restless sleep. Morning came. It was much better now. It wasn’t scary anymore. But she was hungry, thirsty and scratched up from wandering naked through the dense brush in the dark. For three more nights she went through the same ordeal. Each day she was more hungry, more exhausted and more lonely. On the fourth night she found a hollow in the ground at the base of a huge cedar tree. It offered some degree of protection from the night wind. She wept through the night…pausing now and then to say, “Why was I so assH3’qap?” “Why didn’t I pay attention?” 

Very early, on the morning of the fifth day, just before dawn, she heard a tiny voice asking, “Why are you crying little girl?” She stopped her sobbing and looked around. She could see no one. Then she heard it again. “Why are you crying little girl?” It was coming from above her. She strained to see up in the limbs of the big cedar tree and saw a little bird. It was the one who was talking to her. She replied, “I’m crying because I’m so “assH3’qap”. I knew that I would be sent out here to find “something” but I never listened. Now, I don’t know what I’m supposed to look for. The little girl admonished assH3’qap, “Pay attention! Pay attention!” The little girl watched as the little bird made a nest. She watched what it was using and how it was putting it together. She took some flexible grasses and after a number of attempts she had made a crude little container somewhat like the little birds nest. She realized that she could put things in this crude little container and carry them in it. “I’ll call it a basket”, she exclaimed joyfully. People will be able to carry more things than with just their hands. It will be my gift for the people of the future. 

assH3’qap wandered around the mountain side, putting berries, and other items in her new basket. Night fell. She tried to sleep but she was cold and she ached where she was scratched up. She cried through the night. In the early morning, just before dawn, she heard a voice asking,”Why are you crying little girl?” She told her story, and how she was gifted with the skill of basket making. And said, “I know that I should be thankful for what I have received, but my skin is sore from being scratched. I’m assH3’qap and don’t know how to protect it.” The voice said, “Pay attention!” The little girl looked up, and it was the cedar tree talking to her. She could see where some bark had come loose. The wind had worked it back and forth until it was flexible. “Use my skin”, said the great cedar as the bark dropped down to the little girl. She took the softened bark and with plant fibers she wove it into a dress. The dress protected her bare skin from the harshness of the environment. The girl was happy now because she had two gifts, a basket and a garment. She continued her journey around the mountain. 

It was colder now than before. Night fell again. This time it was very cold. There was no one to huddle next to for warmth. Aching with cold she once again wept through the night. Just before dawn she heard a voice asking, “Why are you crying little girl?” She said, “I know I should be thankful because I have received two gifts already, but I’m so cold I ache.” “Pay attention!” the voice said. “Take this mountain goat wool that has tangled in my branches,” said the bush. The little girl took it. She held it against herself and felt how warm it became where it covered her. She put the wool in her basket and walked on. She came to a stream and sat down to rest. 

The girl took the warm goat from her basket and wondered aloud to herself, “I wish I knew how to fix wool so that it would stay together and I could make it into a garment without it falling apart, but I’m so assH3’qap.” A voice said, “Pay attention!” It was the flowing stream that was speaking to her. She looked into the stream and saw how the flowing stream had twisted some fibers into string. She did this with the wool and it stayed together; she wove it into a blanket. She wrapped it around herself, it was warm and she felt good. Now I have three gifts she exclaimed to herself. She took some cedar bark and twisted it too; with this she made a trump-line to secure her basket to her so that she didn’t have to carry it with her hands. Now I have four gifts she sighed to herself. 

The girl looked at the stream again. There were fish in the stream. She realized how hungry her people were at times. She exclaimed to herself, “If I wasn’t so assH3’qap, I could find a way for my people to catch those fish”. A tiny voice said, “Pay attention!” It was a spider who was talking. The little girl watched as it wove a web in the crotch of a branch. She took a limb and bent it in a circle. Then she twisted more fiber into string and constructed a web on this hoop. “My people will use this to dip fish out of the water”, she said. assH3’qap decided that it was time to return back to her people now. Wearing her new cedar dress, wrapped in her warm wool blanket, basket strapped to her for head and carrying a dip net, she made her way down the mountain towards the home of her people. 

It was the beginning of a new day. The children were playing at that place where the people lived. They saw a strange thing approaching the place where they stayed. They ran to where the adult people were gathered. “There is something very strange approaching us” they exclaimed breathlessly. The people went to see. And true enough a strange thing was approaching. It wasn’t naked like they were. It was covered with wondrous things. As it got closer they saw that it was the girl “assH3’qap”. They all rushed to see her. As they reached out to feel and touch the wonderful mysterious things that assH3’qap was wearing and carrying, they asked, “What is the most important gift that you have brought for the people?” 

assH3’qap replied: 

“It is the basket that will allow us to carry many things”. Then she said, “No…it is the strap that the basket hangs from. It frees our hands for other purposes”. Then she said, “No…it is the clothing that the cedar tree gave me. It will protect our skin from the elements”. Then she said, “No…it is the goat wool that the bush gave me to make a blanket. A blanket will protect the people from the cold”. Then she said, “No…it is the net that the spider showed me how to make, so the people can catch fish”. 

The people looked at the wonderful new gifts that the stupid little girl had brought for the people of the future. After a while assH3’qap said, “No…No…the most important gift that I brought for the people is to “Pay attention!”. Yes the gift of paying attention. You see…from the beginning of time all these things were here. The birds were making their basket nests. The cedar tree was offering its bark for clothing when it fell from the tree in soft shredded pieces. The mountain goats have always brushed off their shedding wool onto the bushes, where the birds gathered it to put a warm lining in their nest. The stream had always twisted fibers with its current. The spider has always wove its web right were we all could see. All these gifts have always been here, only no one paid attention. They have been overlooked since the beginning of time, until “I paid attention”. 

The people gave assH3’qap a new name. They called her sQulalchi (She who is a skilled weaver). Since that time her gift has remained the most important one to mankind, “Pay attention!” 

© Bruce subiyay Miller  
Bruce (subiyay) Miller was an artist, teacher, historian, storyteller and spiritual leader from the Skokomish Indian Reservation, near Shelton, Washington. He played a key role in conserving and sustaining the Twana language and culture of the Skokomish people. Growing up he absorbed language and culture from family members, and he dedicated his life to the preservation and teaching of Twana stories, ceremonies, healing practices, dance, and arts.  He  also revived and maintained the knowledge of traditional uses of plants for healing, ceremony, and food. Bruce was a skilled basket weaver and carver, speaks and teacher of  the Twana language, and he led the revival of a number of traditional Twana spiritual and ceremonial practices including the winter longhouse ceremonies and the first elk ceremony. Often described as the Skokomish Tribe's Renaissance man, Bruce worked as a playwright, actor, teacher and counselor around the world, but his most important role was  that of a teacher of the Twana tradition and culture. The National Endowment for the Arts honored his life’s work in 2004 with a National Heritage Fellowship and the First People’s Fund awarded him the 2005 Community Spirit Awar

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Planting Complacency

Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so
Only what what nobody denies is so
-Walt Whitman-

Today is different, instead of flowing south in the car river that is I-5 I flow north where I am attending a conference called Envisioning a Healthy Puget Sound. As I make my way North I am struck by how much the trees have grown. These big towering conifers swallow up houses and businesses along the freeway margins. I don’t make the trip North that often so my senses are not numbed by the everyday observance of gradual change. I have watched these trees get substantially larger, as I have lived in the region for almost 27 years. A couple things come to mind as I marvel at the growth, first that the trees are still here at all. Development has run rampant throughout the lower Puget Sound region. Since 1980 2.6 million people have been added to the states population, sixty percent of which reside in a three county area that includes Seattle and the counties immediately to the North and South. Clearly zoning laws are protecting some trees. I also consider the ecosystem benefit of that tree growth, decreasing particulate pollutants, noise absorption, cooling effects and of course I ponder the role of trees as greenhouse gas sinks. As I am flowing with the school of cars I hear an add on the radio by Subaru describing how they will plant a tree for every car they sell. Planting trees is a good thing right? Of course, but like many actions that are considered to play a significant role in helping slow down climate change, I wonder if planting trees will result in an overall net decrease in greenhouse gases. I endeavor to find out what the increase in the CO² consumption ability of these larger trees I observe is in relation to my CO² contribution. I calculated that my carbon contribution was about 11 tons of CO² a year. A mature conifer sequesters about 50 pounds of CO² per year. Therefore to offset my annual contribution it would take nearly 500 mature conifers. Thank you Subaru for your Johnny Appleseed efforts, we will take the trees, but please don't pretend its making up for the greenhouse gas contribution of your product. Indeed, lining the freeways with conifer forests won’t offset the contribution of atmospheric CO² from driving. Ultimately the irony of using trees as a carbon storage mechanism is that in the end its only temporary because when the trees die the CO² is returned to the atmosphere. So, unless there is no net tree biomass lost, meaning an equal sized tree instantly replaces the one that dies, eventually most of the CO² stored by the tree is returned to the atmosphere. In the Pacific Northwest and across the globe we are losing more mature trees than we are gaining.

The ultimate CO² storage mechanism is the ocean, and Puget Sound in simple terms is ocean water that flows in and out of a big deep ditch left behind by the receding glaciers of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. The ocean has been a resilient CO² storage mechanism over the years and many wondered if its carbon storage capacity would ever be exceeded. However, the ocean has begun to acidify as the pH has been rising from the ever increasing amounts of CO² it is absorbing. As a result the waters in Puget Sound are acidifying as fast as those along the Washington state coast, were oysters have not successfully reproduced since 2005. The acidity is destroying the fragile calcium shells of newly born oysters. It is impacting phytoplankton biomass as well. Phytoplankton, not trees supply the majority of oxygen on the planet. The loss of phytoplankton in acidic ocean waters has to be the most serious impact we are facing from climate change. Planting trees, riding bikes, composting food scraps, buying locally grown food ect..... all important measures to be taken that improve the quality of our anthropocentric surroundings. None of these actions are going to keep the plankton from dying in the ocean. It is almost as though we want to be distracted. Complacently encouraged by our small actions that ultimately are impeding the sounding of the alarm, the protest, the up-welling of popular consensus that needs to be broadcast throughout all the media around the world; that some day we will be short of breath!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fall Equinox 2012: Above the Clouds in the Smokey Climate

For three weekends a climb to the summit of Mt. Adams has eluded me.A wildfire sparked by a wave of lightening storms that swept across Eastern Washington on the weekend of September the 8th caused the closure of the South Spur trail to the Mt. Adams summit. I waited checking the inciweb, pining on every update wishing for a quick burn out that would allow for the climb. The fire only grew. A combination of abundant fuel from beattle infested dead wood and very dry conditions kept the fire growing. In fact the fire is still burning and has grown to over 20,000 acres. Unable to make the Mt. Adams summit I shifted my plans and climbed up Mt. Sahale in the North Cascade Natioanal park. Based on the weather forecast I expected to encounter low lying clouds that would be hovering below the staging area at the toe of Sahale glacier. What I did not expect was the thick smokey air that smelled sooty like an early morning campfire still smoldering from the night before. Just over the eastern ridge of the Cascade Pass area where I was climbing was yet another fire that had been sparked on the same weekend as the Mt. Adams fire. The Wenatchee fire complex was too far away to be a threat, but the smoke was enveloping the upper regions of the North and Central Cascade Mountains.
Smokey skies above rolling clouds below my Fall Equinox campsite.

2012 has been a record year for Wildfires in the US. The total area burned, some of which is still burning, is three times the next largest scorched area within the last ten years. The above-normal fire weather potential of the West occurred as a result of the hot, dry conditions that have persisted. Combined with lightening storms and dried out higher-elevation fuels, wildfires have been sparking up en mass. The increase in the number of wildfires and scorched area is not just an isolated event of 2012. Since 1972 the frequency of wildfires has increased at least four-fold, and the total size of burn areas has increased at least six-fold in the western United States.

Washington wildfires from space.
When we consider climate change as the root of the increase in wildfires it is important to separate localized and seasonal variations in weather and long term climactic trends. However some seasonal weather events are so extreme the link of these extremes to climate change cannot be ignored. Such is the case with the Spring and Summer of 2012. Nevada experienced its warmest August on record this year (1895-2012) while Colorado and Wyoming experienced their warmest summers since 1895.  From June-August 2012, nearly 10,000 daily high temperature records were broken. July 2012 was the hottest month in U.S. history. The unusually hot summer helped January-August be the warmest such period in U.S. history. 2012 will set a record for the warmest year in U.S. history (since record-keeping began in 1895). 

As extreme as the heat wave of Summer 2012 was, it pales in comparison to the record breaking temperatures experienced this Spring. The duration, areal size, and intensity of the high temperature events in  March, 2012 are epic, and the event ranks as one of North America's most extraordinary weather events in recorded history. Of these extraordinary weather event the mos extreme were low temperatures beating previous high temperature records for the same date. Never before was there a case where the low temperature for the date beat the previous record high. This happened on several occasions during  March, 2012. Marquette's low of 52 beat the previous high of 49. Mt. Washington NH's low of 44 eclipsed the previous high of 43. The low tied the high in several cities in MN and IL. Many of these hot March days also broke the record high temperature for the corresponding date in April. Another unimaginable temperature phenomena of March 2012 was the range at which some of the temperatures were broken. In at least three locations in the country the previous high was broken by over 30 degrees.

Now as fall cools things down we all forget about the hot 2012 and move on with our daily routine. The extreme heat of the Spring and Summer has fallen out of the news cycle and politicians are not considering taking actions that may help slow down or prohibit future extreme climactic anomolies. The Farmers Almanac used to tell us what to expect and how to plan for the weather of the upcoming season. How do we plan for more weather like Spring and Summer of 2012?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Environmentalism's Language: Sowing the Seeds of Us and Them

"The most wonderful inspirations die with their subject if he has no hand to paint them to the senses.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson -

At work today my colleagues and I were discussing a recent policy to ban stocking trout by state fisheries in  National Parks alpine lakes. Perplexed by the reasoning of this "Lake Greening" as the Parks called it, one of my co-workers expressed his views on the topic in an exacerbated tone. "Must of been a bunch of tree huggers huh? Isn't a National Park green enough for them?" I was struck by this comment. Of course I have heard it before, the distaste in the mouths of those using adjectives that describe actions meant to protect our environment; but here was a coworker who has spent the last 25 years of his life fighting to protect salmon habitat. The fact that he was using these words to express his disagreement with a National Park policy made me think about the fundamental framework environmental protection is operating within. It was at this point that I realized that the adjectives and language currently being used to describe positive environmental action not only were turning people off but tuning them out.

The ban on stocking trout in alpine lakes by the National Parks did provide some "green" benefits by protecting native amphibians, but it turns out one of the main reasons for the ban was the cost of trail maintenance from the extra use by fishers. Protecting our environment has the highest rate of return of any investment that can be made. Actions that enhance the bio-diversity and environmental complexity of our surroundings yield a positive rate of return, socially and monetarily. Yet a large proportion of  Americans don't care or are mislead to believe the opposite is true. So when trendy language is used that describes beneficial environmental action, regardless of the positive social or economic benefits, the implementation of the action is met with resistance. A significant segment of the population exists that cannot digest the potential benefits of environmentally positive actions because they are blinded by the perceptions that are fused to the language used.

The time has come to re-frame environmentalism and the language used to describe it. Environmental protection and enhancement have two fundamental benefits, societal and economic. All environmental actions should only be described within a social and economic context. For example there is no such thing as sustainability. There is only a decrease in the rate of loss. Call your action "sustainable" and you have used a trigger word that turns people away. Describe your action as a "savings" and people will listen. One of the worst adjectives for positive environmental action is "alternative". Most people want to remain in common. The very nature of the word "alternative" alienates the action from most people. Wind energy production that in some areas of the country provides a much greater social and economic benefit than carbon based energy production should not be described as an "alternative" energy source. In these regions wind energy production should be described as the primary energy production choice; not green, not environmentally friendly, not alternative, not zero emissions, not by its carbon footprint, not ecologically sound, not clean, not sustainable but as profitable.

Historically environmental protection has been implemented in response to crisis management. During these times of crisis a wave of populism surrounds environmental causes and policies are born. We are currently riding a wave of populist environmentalism. Unfortanetly  this time it is being co-opted by major corporate interests that are branding these modern terms associated with environmental actions. The consumerist model is instituting a lexicon of faux environmentalism bluring the lines between beneficial environmental actions and advertisement. I used to believe that trendiness was the solution to social acceptance of environmental action. However now I realize that trends don't last. The environmental trediness of the seventies brought about sound environmental policy however today the deluge of our modern environmental adjectives are #'s for corporate interests that further the polarization of Americans. Americans who after all have a unified interest in profiting from maintaining a decent place to live.

Of course one size does not fit all and the environmental phraseology of the day does and will continue to resonate with a portion of the population. For some the altruistic nature of a beneficial environmental action is enough and therefore a "green" language works. For others any personal sacrifice must be justified economically. Recently my elementary school aged daughter and her younger brother had been leaving the water on while brushing their teeth. I explained to them both that we get our water from a local river and that by leaving the water on they were wasting water that was needed by the fish and other animals that use the river. My daughter responded immediately and no reminders to shut the faucet off while brushing were necessary, she wanted to help. My son however continued to run the water even after several reminders and another discussion about the impacts wasting water has on our environment. Finally one night as the water was gushing from the faucet at full blast I went and grabbed our water bill. I showed him the bill as he was brushing away and said "did you know the water that is going down the drain costs money?" He stopped brushing and looked up innocently and replied "No." Too which I asked, "did you know Mommy and Daddy have to pay for the water that is running down the drain not being used?" Again he replied "No." Then I asked him if he would like to help Mommy and Daddy pay for the water. At this he fell silent and I continued on to inform him that from now on every time he left the water running while he brushed his teeth he would have to give us a coin from his piggy bank. He has not left the faucet running since.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Go Dogma Go!

"...the reception of a new paradigm often necessitates a redefinition of the corresponding dogma." 
- Thomas S. Kuhn -

With my kids in tow we recently attended a reading of the story Go Dog Go at the local library. I have read the story hundreds of times over the course of my parenting days but during this particular reading was struck by the power of the few pages that have the dogs driving cars. The dogs are lined up far down the road, each one on their own, in a car, obeying a traffic signal and then zooming off. By far this part of the story got the most attention from the little people in the audience. They were excited by the prospect of pretending to drive. If a dog can do it surely I can.

Stories are important. I had not considered until now the impact this introduction of car driving dogs has on the little people growing up in our driving culture. Even dogs are doing it. According to the Federal Department of Transportation there are more than 200 million cars and light trucks on American roads. These vehicles use over 200 million gallons of gas a day. Nearly16 per cent of the worlds oil production goes into American cars. In terms of total C0² contribution cars represent a third of U.S. greenhouse gas production. Worldwide the proportion of contribution from U.S. vehicles is 5.4%. Carbon dioxide contribution from U.S. cars cannot be ignored.

Electric cars are beginning to become more available. Although the cost is out of reach for the average American family. Hybrids first came on the scene about 8 years ago. In general they have better fuel economy then non hybrids and switch to electricity at slow speeds and in stop and go traffic. A few total electric solutions have been released recently as well. These cars can be plugged into an outlet to recharge have a maximum speed of about sixty mile per hour and can travel a maximum distance of about 60 miles on average. I always wondered if everyone had an electric car and plugged it into a power source derived from burning coal if there would be a significant net decrease in the overall C0² contribution. Turns out this has been studied. An entirely electric vehicle would produce greenhouse gas emissions from its power source equivalent to a car that gets a little over 30 mpg. Over half the country has power that is coal derived.  It seems as though it is just a shift to another C0² producing mechanism for power. Now the cars are not burning oil they are burning coal as the power plants would have to ramp up energy production to support all the cars being plugged in. There is an incremental emission decrease from electric cars however when dealing with the hazardous waste the batteries produce when they are no longer viable, serious consideration must be given to the net benefit of the electric car.

In our attempt to understand the solutions to many climate change issues we lack clarity. It seems that electric cars are more of a distraction then a solution to reducing transportation related C0² contribution. The solution to transportation related contributions is to create communities where for the vast majority of people owning an automobile is not required in their day-to-day lives. Like many of the solutions the answers seem improbable, if not impossible. It is important however not to be paralyzed by the scale of the problem. In the words P. Eastman "Dogs, Dogs in cars, Dogs driving away fast in cars." Are we born to drive?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Loco for Locovores

"Man eats not for enjoyment but to live" - Gandhi

Farmers Market's are becoming very popular in urban areas across America. The Farmers Market in my Seattle neighborhood is a quaint market that takes up one block of old Ballard. Small local farmers and craftspeople are all lined up down the middle of the streets under pop up tents selling their organic vegetables, soap made from goats milk, meats and crafts. Kids, dogs and folks out for a stroll love hanging out at the market on Sunday, getting a snack and listening to the buskers playing music. These days the Market is bursting with produce as the harvest season is upon us. Perusing the lush produce I found myself ogling over a pile of bright yellow potatoes and beets purply royal when it occurred to me that this time of year freshly grown local vegetables are abundant, but soon they would be scarce. So if I wanted to reduce my carbon footprint by  reducing my purchase of imported vegetables my selection at the Market of green stuff grown in Washington in the winter would be very limited. Then I tried to imagine if I was in Kansas in the winter. What local greens are grown there? 

I recently read in our monthly Woodland Park Zoo newsletter that thirty percent of CO2 contribution in the US is related to food transportation.  Locavores contend that to ship a tomato from California to Kansas so the people of Kansas can have fresh tomatoes in the winter is a significant contribution to climate change. It would be nice if the economics and analysis were that simple, but it never is. It seems if I added up all the statistics that assess different activities that contribute to climate change I would come up with 2000%. I do not know where the Zoo newsletter came up with the thirty percent number for food related transportation CO2 contribution, they did not cite it. The Federal Department of Transportation puts all vehicle related CO2 contribution at 33% of the total U.S. CO2 production. I find it hard to imagine that food transportation accounts for 30% of CO2 production and commuting just 3%.

Food related transportation is really an issue of comparative scale. Because industrial farms produce food in such large quantities the energetic cost and the climate change contribution of transporting those foods is diminished. Assuming people in Kansas have a demand for tomatoes in the winter that will be met one way or another. Driving a few bushels of local winter grown greenhouse tomatoes to a Kansas grocer is proportionally (tomatoes produced per pound of CO2 released) a greater contribution to climate change than driving ten semi trucks of tomatoes to Kansas grown en mass on an industrial California farm. Even though a lot more CO2 was produced by driving the semi’s we have to consider the efficiency of the actions. An analogy would be taking the bus to work as opposed to driving alone. The bus burns more fuel than your car but gets a lot more people to the same place. Food transportation certainly is a significant contributor to climate change however its overall impacts are overshadowed by other activities in the dirt to table food production economy. When transporting food to our table tops open air refrigerated food storage in the grocery store, driving to and from the grocery store, and refrigeration of food products at home far outweighs industrial food transportation CO2 contributions.

 The locavore movement is huge though. So much so that McDonalds recently began a billboard marketing campaign in Washington state showing a potato under which it says grown in Richland Washington and a box of French fries under which it reads gobbled in Seattle making the point that French fries in Seattle come from Richland potatoes. Never mind that Richland potatoes are not the only potatoes used in McDonalds French fries. McDonalds French fries are produced outside Washington using potatoes from all over the country, some of which come from Richland Washington. But you know a movement has taken hold when McDonalds embraces it as part of its marketing scheme.  Big agra business like any industry has negative impacts. Industrial farming though is an interesting conundrum. The land area used for major American farms is nearly the same as it was over one hundred years ago and feeds three times as many people. The US is one of the largest food exporters in the world. An optimistic view of industrial farming says we have conserved land that otherwise would have gone under plow and are feeding hungry people all over the world. However this would not be possible except for the fairy dust that is used to grow so much food. This fairy dust known as fertilizer is produced from petroleum.  Fertilizer, top soil loss and pesticide use are the unfortunate consequences of getting more and more food from the same amount of land. Among a long list of environmentally devastating impacts from growing food using petrol chemicals and fertilizers is the huge dead zone that extends into the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The locavore concept of growing and selling food using low impact methods by caring for the soil and reducing transportation is important at the local scale. It supports the local economy and reduces agriculture related environmental impacts in the areas where the food is grown. However shipping food is an imbedded aspect of the economic and social structure of our country. As long as there is a market for fresh tomatoes in Kansas that produces a profit for growers elsewhere Kansas will have fresh tomatoes. The underlying mechanism that governs all the issues surrounding climate change and the geomorphasis that is taking place is fossil fuel use. Fossil fuels use in relation to food production comes in the form of globally inflated caloric production. America produces more food than the land it is grown on should be able to generate. This food production bubble in turn supports a greater population than the land it is grown on should be able to support. In fact the entire fabric of the American economy and much of the world rests on the petrol produced food bubble. Sea levels may rise, species may go extinct or occupy new habitats, weather patterns may intensify all as a result of climate change, but if the world cannot shift from a petroleum based food production paradigm then when the oil runs out famine will be commonplace. Is the assumption of continuing yield growth sound?


Monday, September 10, 2012

This is not the Future

There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. "The Time Machine" H.G. Wells 

There are three legs to the stool that climate change sits on; time, fossil fuels and desire. Of these time is the most important. I have always been struck by how we measure time. Why sixty? Turns out the Greeks were the first to divide the day up into a twelve base counting system. It was the constant they needed to make consistent astronomical predictions. Now we use this reductionist concept as our basis for knowing. We break everything up into little myopic focused moments and are unable to assess our actions relative to the present, past and future simultaneously. This lack of a holistic sense of place in time is evident in the technology that produces and provides the energy we use.

Nearly ninety percent of our power in the US is generated by non renewable resources. Seventy percent of our power is produced using fossil fuels, the other twenty percent by nuclear power. The burning of fossil fuels for energy production in the US contributes six billion metric tons of C0² per year to the atmosphere. To make matters worse the power grid that delivers the energy produced is highly inefficient. Half the energy produced is lost during transmission to the user. Most of this is due to the poor conductivity of transmission cables, however because there is no storage capabilities, power that is produced beyond consumptive needs is purged out of the system. In order to avoid shortfalls electricity production always is greater than consumption. This is known as base-load production and waste is an inherent part of the process. Perception of time is prevalent in this problem. For example the technology that drives the power generation plants is the same steam engine technology that was first patented in 1705. The fundamental tool for fossil fueled power generation plants in America uses three hundred year old technology. This is not the future.

Ten percent of the countries power is generated using renewable technology seven percent from hydroeclectric power generated by damming rivers. This type of power generation comes with a whole other set of environmental impacts. Three percent of our electricity comes form alternative sources such as wind and solar. There is a huge push right now to increase energy production using the power of the wind and sun. However the transmission grid and storage issue are severe impediments. The primary limitation to wind and solar is that the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine so production is intermittent. Intermittent production is not compatible with a power grid that requires a constant input that outpaces consumption. Storage is the solution however battery technology is not capable of accommodating the power grids base-load needs.

Some technological solutions using batteries for base-load storage are happening. The town of Presidio Texas had frequent blackouts due to undersized transmission lines built in 1940. Extra energy was being purchased from Mexico, but hours long blackouts were still common. So in 2010, the power company built “BOB” (Big Ol' Battery). BOB weighs over 320 tons, cost $25 million to produce, and provides just 4 megawatts of base-load power to Presidio for about eight hours. A large city uses 25 megawatts of power in eight hours. In short storing solar and wind power to provide base-load storage for an ancient inefficient power grid is not plausible at this time.

A friend lives on one of the San Juan Islands on the very north edge of Puget Sound. The Island is a community from another time. There is no ferry service and everyone on the island has a gritty way about them that self sufficiency brings. A visit to the island usually involves a dinner gathering by a large number of islanders. Almost invariably the killing of a goat or other small farm animal is involved, and there are always piles of crab fresh from the Sound. The quite and comfort that surrounds me at the end of these dinners stays with me for days when I get back to Seattle. There is something about a brief existence in that space that feels right. Being off the grid my friend generates all his power via solar panels. He lives a normal life from a power usage standpoint, with a fridge, computer, stereo ect. What is abnormal about his house is the large battery room that holds over 1 ton of batteries for power storage. I remember getting the tour not long after he completed the power station for his new house and thinking how odd it was that the success of the advanced solar technology he used was beholden to the 1915 technology of acid batteries. This is not the future. When I brought it to his attention he just laughed and said “yep, still the cheapest most efficient way to go, even after all this time, its hard to believe the existing machinery is still the same huh”.


Friday, September 7, 2012

A Mountain of Change

This morning I woke to another crystal clear Seattle late Summer day. The Mountain was out as they say around here, standing boldly in front of my morning commute. Unabashed by the pinks and purples the sunrise painted upon the Mountains facades its confident stature dominated my thoughts. Mt. Rainier is a daunting awesome spectacle. The size of the mountain distorts our since of scale because it starts its accent very close to sea level. It is one of the only mountains in the world of its size that does this, and is why mountain climbers from everywhere use it to practice oxygen support free climbs. The blood cannot adapt to its oxygen gathering task fast enough when one makes such an extreme elevation change in such a short time.

We are not going to be able to adapt to the extremely rapid changes the Mountain is confronted with by climate change either. Historically Mt. Rainier is one of the snowiest places on Earth. The Paradise Ranger Station holds the record for the most accumulated snowfall in a single year, 93.5 feet in 1971. In an average winter approximately 630 inches of snow falls at the ranger station. Snow pack has been decreasing though and flowers are growing were they once could not. Pines are overtaking meadow bogs and some scientists predict a thirty percent loss in snow pack in the Cascade mountain range by 2020.

Because Mount Rainier is a protected area it offers a different look at how temperature and precipitation changes alter the surrounding environment. Nisqually glacier is a great example of this. Measurements of the glaciers outer edge began in the late 19th century. Since the parks formation in 1916 the glacier has receded over a mile up the mountain valley. I can remember driving over the Nisaually bridge in the park in the 1980’s and having a clear view of the glacier. Now it can barely be seen from the bridge. In fact glaciers are very sensitive to atmospheric temperature fluctuations and more than any other piece of data the global glacial recession indicates the climate is warming. In 2005 out of four hundred and forty glaciers being monitored ninety percent were retreating.

The day remained clear and just like the morning it was a crisp cool evening.  Watching the sun set on the Mountain I was reminded of the time I followed the path of a giant orange full moon as it rolled behind the Mountain. I was with a friend who remarked, referring to the giant orange circle before us, that "our culture just doesn't get the circle anymore." I chimed in wondering if western science will ever really explain the universe, because we are trapped in the linear notion of a beginning and an end, but  that the universe is circular. To which my friend replied, “Yea, the universe may be circular, but returning to a specific past is not possible.” Does our expectation of restoration to a specific past inhibit our ability to see the future?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Climate Change Seasons: Food Winter - Arab Spring -Societal Fall

At the onset of the Egypt uprising and the Arab Spring food price inflation in Egypt was over 20 percent. The increase was caused by the rising global price of wheat. The global price of wheat rose between 50 and 70 percent in 2010. As a result Egyptian budgets were drained. Egypt is among the world’s largest importers of wheat, and the global wheat market has been dynamic recently. The primary culprit for the rise in wheat costs that broke Egypt's bank leading up to the overthrow of the government came when Russia was hit by an unprecedented drought and heat wave that destroyed forty percent of its wheat harvest. Russia abruptly banned exports, and Egypt, which had just signed a big wheat import deal with Russia, was left having to find alternative sources. The Egyptian government tried to stabilize wheat prices through subsidies and rationing. But anxiety over food prices and bread shortages gained strength in the weeks and months before the protests. Some think the problem can be traced to climate change and its impacts on food security. The heat wave that destroyed Russia’s wheat harvest was no ordinary weather event that was on the outer margins of an expected summer temperature range, which in Russia is about four degrees Fahrenheit. The heat wave that hit Russia came in off the charts with an average temperature fourteen degrees Fahrenheit above the norm. The stresses climatic events like the one in Russia put on food supplies contributed to the unrest we see in the Middle East today and will result in more future social unrest around the globe. How can the nations of the world plan for a food shortage that is unpredictable and will be intermittent but will have cumulative societal impacts?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Fear and Loving in our Envirobrain

I have come to realize lately that nothing can be gained by silence. We cannot move further apart or closer together by not communicating. If we are silent the ebb and flow of the breath of a relationship is gone. Silence impacts the struggles we have as a society to solve our need to have an healthy ecosystem to live in. Ultimately our actions that degrade our environment are caused by our conflicted nature which keeps us silent. It stifles action and keeps the collective conscience from speaking from the heart.

At the root of true change, important change is pure intentions that govern our desires, desires that are born out of love.  Fear however gives birth to our conflicted nature. Fear causes us to access the prehistoric part of our brain triggering our fight or flight mechanisms. How we manage the prehistoric part of our brain function is primary in solving big social problems like climate change because how human beings relate to one another ultimately defines our world,  keeping it healthy and viable one generation to the next or threatening to destroy it. Relating to one another, in larger social groups, is the most complex thing human beings do, so in order to run a government that is not paralyzed we need to relate in emotionally and socially intelligent ways.

 The autonomic nervous system regulates automatic body functions like heart rate, respiratory rate, and digestion. This part of our brain is divided into two parts the sympathetic regulates action and the parasympathetic regulates calming. These action and calming elements are regulated by the brain in the unconscious social engagement system where our stress levels are kept in check. When the sympathetic and parasympathetic are out of balance we can feel stressed or lethargic. That is why feeling safe in relationships is important because this feeling of safety enables tolerance and functional communication. However when we perceive a threat or danger, a part of the brain called the amygdala prepares for fight or flight. We can experience this as an hostile and aggressive action towards the threat or we can become silent and paralyzed. Either reaction is not conducive to individual or societal relationships, nor are fight or flight reactions conducive to information sharing on a level needed to solve small problems much less huge ones. To build a library for generating fight or flight the amygdala also regulates our social judgment center and our emotional learning, assessing our experiences, pairing them up with an positive or negative emotional regulatory response. These paired experiences help us judge whether to accept or avoid similar experiences in the future. What makes the amygdala so effective is that it operates implicitly, outside conscious memory and it performs much faster than conscious memory. So our conscious intention may be to work towards ending a problem that ultimately could mean our demise but we become frozen by the more effective subconscious mechanism, the amygdala, governing our social response. Responses to life or death scenarios often result in paralysis. It could be that because we perceive climate change as an extreme threat to ours and future generation’s survival that we are unable to overcome the effective function of the collective amygdala .

One can hope that as we become more civilized we will evolve towards limiting the role that the amygdala and fight or flight response has governing our ability to act in the face of fear. Clearly some people such as caregivers and some religious figures brains are more evolved than others. They have found ways to limit the amygdala governance. "Verily, he who sits and meditates under the tree bears the marks of omnipotence; he will doubtless become the Buddha!" The words from Herman Hess in the book Siddhartha convey the message that if you deprive yourself of bodily desire and meditate for long enough you can reach enlightenment. However Buhda’s teachings tell us that enlightenment is not gained by sitting under a tree, but by acting as a human. Buddhism is a beautiful philosophy, but above all, it is about action. An enlightened mind that allows us to act is free from the brains primitive functions. Some of which are over-expressed to avoid being eaten. The notion that an enlightened mind is "free" from the paralyzing impact of the amygdala  is summed up in the words of the famous funk group Parliament Funkadelic “free your mind and your ass will follow”. 

However it is not extreme spiritual endeavors that will move subconscious control of the mind towards an enlightened state of consciousness. Ultimately the method by which our more highly evolved predecessors may attain enlightenment is by acting compassionately in the face of circumstances that generate fear. Is it this fearless nature that is needed to tackle the pressing environmental issues of the day such as climate change?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Quandry of Corn and Climate Change

The people of the world are dependent on corn. Over the last century corn production and distribution has changed the way in which we live. Over 270 million metric tons of corn are produced annually in the U.S. alone. Corn may be the most important grain crop on the planet. Corn is used widely in the foods we eat. We feed corn to livestock and chickens. A short list of corn uses includes fuel, cooking oil, meal, sugar, starch and for growing penicillin. Much of the world is dependent on corn production to remain at current levels.

Recently a primary use of corn has been for ethanol production. Forty percent of corn grown in the U.S. is now used to make ethanol. The impacts in this shift of corn production to biofuel use has impacted the worlds economy and food supply.

However recent research has found that climate change will have a far greater impact on the corn supply then other uses such as ethonal. The result will cause a volatile global economy and shortages in the worlds food supply. Economists have warned that our growing dependence on corn will cause soaring prices for food if the nation suffers a drought in the Midwest. This year we are seeing such a drought, and world corn prices have jumped 55%.

Climate change models suggest that a moderate warming trend is likely to increase the number of days of severe heat in the Midwest growing season. Therefore we can expect corn yields to decrease and fuel and food prices to rise. In addition scientists have claimed that India and China, Asia's largest corn producers, will experience severe dry conditions due to climate change as well, prompting the need for the region to import corn.

What is the cost of our corn dependance? Do the benefits such as greenhouse gas reduction from the "green" fuel it produces outweigh the cost of corn production? Fertilizers produced from oil are used in vast quantities to grow corn. In addition the Mississippi River contributes significant amounts of water to irrigate these crops at a time when the flows of the river will be diminishing. Should our food supply and global economy be teetering on the success or failure of a single grain? Climate change could make this years Midwest drought the norm over the next couple decades. As climate change causes corn yields to decrease we need to ask ourselves how can we diversify our grain production and who should eat what little corn is produced; people or cars?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Primitive Mind Modern Problems

Its only been a couple thousand generations since humans left Africa, about 60,000 years. Agriculture, the pathway to industrialized society occurred only 10,000 years ago. From an evolutionary sense this time frame is very short. We spent the majority of our time as hominids and as primates living as hunter-gatherers. That behavior is embedded in our genetic code. Now in the blink of an eye humans are living in a profoundly different way. From an evolutionary standpoint we're still in the process of adapting genetically to an agrarian life. Essentially it can be considered an ecological niche shift. Changes in habitat function or utilization by organisms plays a role in genetic divergence and speciation. However these time periods in an organisms life; when it is in evolutionary transition, re-associating itself with the surrounding environment can be very challenging. Often times these tumultuous periods in the evolutionary ecology of organisms can result in extinction. The current shift from a hunter-gathering lifestyle to an agricultural way of life is a fragile period in the hominids evolution. Will we survive it?

Monday, August 20, 2012


The debate over environmental protection and whether degradation is taking place in developed nations or developing ones is a finger pointing game over who is being "green" or not. However energetic consumptive choices, the economic engines of national economies almost never fit into the more or less green spectrum. Environmental decisions made by countries are governed by the need to maintain economic growth and affect the environment negatively no matter what choice is made. How do we as Americans weigh China's decision to build massive hydro-electric projects instead of more coal burning or nuclear power plants? Is hydro-electric power "Green"? What is the cost/benefit of Brazil cutting down rainforest to grow more sugar cane in an effort to move away from a petroleum based economy? Each country has answers to these questions that first rely on meeting the needs within their borders. Although a bevy of International Environmental laws are in place they are practically unenforceable. In rare cases when the crisis is critical to our survival, global cooperation has played a role in solving environmental problems. Think CFC's and ozone hole. Borders however make the cumulative global impacts of less severe environmental degradation invisible to individual nations.These cumulative impacts are reaching scales which are or soon will become critical. Is it necessary to eliminate borders and have a unified globe one United Country to solve the big environmental problems of the future?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Welcome to EcoTalk

Welcome to EcoTalk. EcoTalk is a place where scientists gather to talk about important environmental topics from a wide variety of perspectives. I am Senior Editor of EcoTalk and have spent over twenty years working as an environmental scientist. Recently I began looking for a place in the eworld to escape the rigors of publishing ideas about environmental issues. What I found was a void in the online environmental community for sharing opinions and information about critical environmental issues. A place that creates a casual space for living room discussions to evolve was absent. Big picture topics that may not have immediate answers are important and need to be heard and explored. These topics never enter into press however because they do not pass peer review or have marketing potential.

At EcoTalk I endeavor to create an atmosphere where experts and the public can merge. By inviting scientists from a wide variety of fields to guest author topics and encouraging dialog between these authors and the reader EcoTalk will become a growing educational resource and Think Tank for environmental issues.

Please join the blog. Post suggestions for topics. Or write me at with material you would like to publish on the blog.

Looking forward to exploring and learning with all of you.