Communion Of Dreams


It’s a test.

Today’s xkcd triggered a thought: that we can think of the challenges of climate change as being akin to a planetary gom jabbar. Do we have the ability to endure short-term pain and survive, or do we give in to our immediate short-term desires and suffer the consequences?

 

Jim Downey



Not the lathe, but the scythe, of heaven.*

Nice timing. Not only is this essay an appropriate “looking forward” article for New Year’s Day, but it is a perfect expression of one aspect of the argument at the heart of both Communion of Dreams and St. Cybi’s Well: what do we make of our world, and how do we define our place in it?

Seriously, this sums up one of the major characters of SCW (who was only alluded to in CoD), and illustrates both the danger and the dilemma that character represents:

“Wilderness can be saved permanently,” claims Ted Kaczynski, “only by eliminating the technoindustrial system.” I am beginning to think that the neo-environmentalists may leave a deliciously ironic legacy: proving the Unabomber right.

Another excerpt:

I’m not sure I know the answer. But I know there is no going back to anything. And I know that we are not headed, now, toward convivial tools. We are not headed toward human-scale development. This culture is about superstores, not little shops; synthetic biology, not intentional community; brushcutters, not scythes. This is a culture that develops new life forms first and asks questions later; a species that is in the process of, in the words of the poet Robinson Jeffers, “break[ing] its legs on its own cleverness.”

What does the near future look like? I’d put my bets on a strange and unworldly combination of ongoing collapse, which will continue to fragment both nature and culture, and a new wave of techno-green “solutions” being unveiled in a doomed attempt to prevent it. I don’t believe now that anything can break this cycle, barring some kind of reset: the kind that we have seen many times before in human history. Some kind of fall back down to a lower level of civilizational complexity. Something like the storm that is now visibly brewing all around us.

Yeah, there’s a reason why the essay is titled “Dark Ecology.”

And in truth, it is a darkness which sometimes seeps into my own soul. As I said yesterday: “Poor Darnell.”

 

Jim Downey

*Reference, of course. Via MeFi.



99.29%

I’ve written before (even recently) about the tree in the image at the top of this page. It’s locally known as the “Williamson Oak”, named after the family which owns the property where it grows. It is, simply, magnificent, and the oldest/largest such tree in the world.

And it is suffering from the drought which is having a devastating effect across the whole state and region:

The tree was starting to show signs of distress, Williamson said. “The leaves are beginning to curl up a little bit, and they have turned kind of brown. I think it has aborted a lot of the acorns. And the leaves turn upside down to keep from losing moisture.”

The ongoing drought didn’t get much worse in the past week, but things in Boone County and across the Midwest did not improve much either. According to the drought monitor report issued this morning, 99.29 percent of Missouri is in extreme drought or worse. The remainder of the state, a tiny sliver of the northwest, is only under a “severe” drought designation. More than one-third of the state, including most of Boone County, is designated as undergoing an “exceptional drought.”

Typically, the older a tree is, the deeper the roots it has. So older trees tend to fare better in severe droughts. And the Williamson Oak is in the Missouri River bottoms — the river’s natural flood plain, where ground water isn’t that far below the surface. In other words, this tree should have the best possible chance to survive this drought. Still, things are so bad that this was the image on our local paper’s front page last evening:

John Sam<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
Williamson<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
releases<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
850 gallons<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
of water at<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
the base<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
of the<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
350-yearold<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
champion<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
bur oak<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
at McBaine<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
Wednesday.<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
Six generations<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
of his<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
family have<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
owned the<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
land since<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
the 1830s.<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
Williamson<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
plans<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
to release<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
roughly<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
1,600 gallons<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
of water<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
around<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
the base<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
of the tree<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
each week<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
for the next<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
several<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
weeks.” /> <img src=
John Sam Williamson releases 850 gallons of water at the base of the 350-year old champion bur oak at McBaine Wednesday. Six generations of his family have owned the land since the 1830s. Williamson plans to release roughly 1,600 gallons of water around the base of the tree each week for the next several weeks.

Yeah, this drought is bad. The worst I’ve ever seen.

Jim Downey



47 hours.

In about 47 hours I’ll be on the shuttle to the airport.

* * * * * * *

There was a news item I saw the other day which indicates that this year’s extreme temperature records are starting to convince more Americans that global climate change is real.

Every summer it seems like a different kind of out-of-control weather pattern decides to strike. In the past month alone, we’ve experienced deadly Colorado wildfires, early-season heat waves and a wind-whipping hurricane, convincing formerly dubious Americans that climate change is actually real, according to the Associated Press.

“Many people around the world are beginning to appreciate that climate change is under way, that it’s having consequences that are playing out in real time and, in the United States at least, we are seeing more and more examples of extreme weather and extreme climate-related events,” Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told the AP.

* * * * * * *

A month ago:

Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co., said he was “dead wrong” when he dismissed media reports over trading in the bank’s chief investment office two months ago as “a complete tempest in a teapot.”

“When I made that statement I was dead wrong,” Dimon said in his Senate Banking Committee hearing on Wednesday, pointing the finger at the former chief investment office head Ina Drew, who Dimon said assured him that “this was an isolated small issue and that it wasn’t a big problem.”

* * *

Dimon abruptly disclosed last month that JPMorgan has suffered at least $2 billion of trading losses in a few weeks. The estimate of the trading losses has since increased to $3 billion and maybe more, although Dimon reiterated in Washington that he expects the bank’s second quarter to be solidly profitable and suggested the losses are under control.

Today:

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Investors are gearing up for a week full of earnings reports and domestic news, but Europe will once again be hard for U.S. investors to ignore.

Dozens of companies are set to kick off earnings season this week. All eyes will turn to JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) on Friday, as the company will post its trading losses tied to its bad hedge from its London unit.

Some estimate that the loss could be as high as $9 billion, though the bank’s chief executive officer, Jamie Dimon, said back in May that the loss then stood at $2 billion.

* * * * * * *

My garden is about fifty paces behind our house, in a lovely large & open area. There are large trees closer to the house, but nothing back further, so it gets plenty of sun. Decades before we moved in my (to-be) father-in-law maintained a large truck garden there. He had a good eye for the spot.

Every three days for the last few weeks I make multiple trips out to the garden, swapping the feed on the soaker hoses.  Each hose is laid out to water two clusters of plants. And I run each one for about 20 minutes. This whole process takes two hours.

Today, as I walked out to the garden, for the first time I noticed the crunch of dry grass underfoot. I had been watching as the lawn slowly turned increasingly brown, but this was the first time I noticed the actual sound of the grass breaking underfoot.

91% of Missouri is now under what is officially described as either “extreme” or “severe” drought conditions.

* * * * * * *

You’ve been screwed:

The biggest scandal in the world right now has nothing to do with sex or celebrities. It’s about an interest rate called LIBOR, or the London Interbank Offered Rate.

* * *

LIBOR, as it turns out, is the rate at which banks lend to each other. And more importantly, it has become the global benchmark for lending.

Banks look at it every day to figure out what they should charge you for not just home loans, but car loans, commercial loans, credit cards. LIBOR ends up almost everywhere.

Gillian Tett, an editor with the Financial Times, says that $350 trillion worth of contracts have been made that refer to LIBOR.

So literally hundreds of trillions of dollars around the world, all these deals, are based on this number. Now we find out this number might be a lie. At least one bank was tampering with that number for their own profit.

This past week Barclay’s Bank was fined $455 million, and two senior executives (the chairman and the CEO) resigned as investigation into the scandal started to turn up evidence of the scope of the market-rigging.  But many people familiar with the industry say that this is just the tip of the iceberg — that there will likely be a number of other multi-national banks proven to have participated.

* * * * * * *

Climate change? Climate change.

Global Annual Mean Surface Air Temperature Change

Fig A2

Line plot of global mean land-ocean temperature index, 1880 to present, with the base period 1951-1980. The dotted black line is the annual mean and the solid red line is the five-year mean. The green bars show uncertainty estimates. [This is an update of Fig. 1A in Hansen et al. (2006).]

Figure also available as PDF, or Postscript. Also available are tabular data.

(I don’t put up with climate change denial here. Take it to your own blog.)

* * * * * * *

Perspective:

Leaders shape the frame of argument.  They delineate the forms of dissent and opposition.  They define, both by what they say and by what they fail to rule out, whether we have a small “r” republican approach to government, or rule by the manipulators of the manipulated mob.  When they stay silent they are the cowards of the headline, passive bystanders as their followers betray the basic principles of (small “d”) democratic politics.

Greece is a good place from which to think about this.  You don’t have to go back to Agamemnon or to Plato; living memory—the civil war, the colonels, very recent memory indeed offer regular reminders of the fragility of government by consent of the governed.  Words matter here, and have for millennia.

So it is in this place, with that history in mind, that I am reminded once again that the habit of dismissing crap like that spewed by Nicholson and Davis as wingnuts being wingnuts is not acceptable.  The speakers themselves may not count for much, but for a nominally civil society to allow such speech to pass without massive retaliation, actual leadership from those who would lead from that side…well, that’s how individuals get hurt, and democracies die.  It’s happened before, not many miles from where I sit as I write this.

* * * * * * *

In about 47 hours I’ll be on the shuttle to the airport.

Of course, I don’t have everything done which needs to be done. And I really shouldn’t have taken the time to put together such a long and wide-ranging post.

But I wanted to take a moment and thank those who bought books yesterday. It may have been prompted by yesterday’s blog entry, it may not — I have no way of knowing. But thank you. It wasn’t a big day for sales, but it was a nice bump up from the single sale the day before.

I won’t be traveling to Greece, but to Rome. And it won’t surprise me if I find a new perspective or two while I’m there. I’m hoping that the change will allow me to integrate some of the many things I have been thinking about concerning the next book.

Things like spontaneous combustion. It seems that the world is ripe for it.

Again.

Jim Downey

 

 

 

 

 



Shudder. Shudder and weep for the human race.
November 2, 2009, 11:11 am
Filed under: Climate Change, Failure, Global Warming, MetaFilter, Science

Oh, give me a break:

How green is your pet?

SHOULD owning a great dane make you as much of an eco-outcast as an SUV driver? Yes it should, say Robert and Brenda Vale, two architects who specialise in sustainable living at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. In their new book, Time to Eat the Dog: The real guide to sustainable living, they compare the ecological footprints of a menagerie of popular pets with those of various other lifestyle choices – and the critters do not fare well.

* * *

To measure the ecological paw, claw and fin-prints of the family pet, the Vales analysed the ingredients of common brands of pet food. They calculated, for example, that a medium-sized dog would consume 90 grams of meat and 156 grams of cereals daily in its recommended 300-gram portion of dried dog food. At its pre-dried weight, that equates to 450 grams of fresh meat and 260 grams of cereal. That means that over the course of a year, Fido wolfs down about 164 kilograms of meat and 95 kilograms of cereals.

It takes 43.3 square metres of land to generate 1 kilogram of chicken per year – far more for beef and lamb – and 13.4 square metres to generate a kilogram of cereals. So that gives him a footprint of 0.84 hectares. For a big dog such as a German shepherd, the figure is 1.1 hectares.

Meanwhile, an SUV – the Vales used a 4.6-litre Toyota Land Cruiser in their comparison – driven a modest 10,000 kilometres a year, uses 55.1 gigajoules, which includes the energy required both to fuel and to build it. One hectare of land can produce approximately 135 gigajoules of energy per year, so the Land Cruiser’s eco-footprint is about 0.41 hectares – less than half that of a medium-sized dog.

Quick, in that quoted bit alone (and trust me, there’s more in the whole article), how many flaws in the argument can you recognize?

Our race is doomed. And here’s a hint, people who write things like this for the New Scientist – it’s not because of the doggies and kitties.

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi, where there’s actually a pretty good discussion of the article. Cross posted to UTI.)



Clever monkeys, part II.

OK, this was kicking around in the back of my head when I wrote the post the other day, because I have had a page from the June 6th Economist sitting on my bench for the last several weeks, waiting for me to get around to writing about it.

About what? Us clever monkeys. Well, more accurately, our genes, but for purposes of discussion here I will say the two are functionally the same over the time span I wish to address. (Which, when you think about it, is a rather profound notion. No, this is not my idea.)

The idea discussed in the article is this: that the development of modern human culture was dependent not on intelligence, but on something more basic – survival. Specifically, on population density:

In their model, Dr Thomas and his colleagues divided a simulated world into regions with different densities of human groups. Individuals in these groups had certain “skills”, each with an associated degree of complexity. Such skills could be passed on, more or less faithfully, thus yielding an average level of skills that could vary over time. The groups could also exchange skills.

The model suggested that once more than about 50 groups were in contact with one another, the complexity of skills that could be maintained did not increase as the number of groups increased. Rather, it was population density that turned out to be the key to cultural sophistication. The more people there were, the more exchange there was between groups and the richer the culture of each group became.

Dr Thomas therefore suggests that the reason there is so little sign of culture until 90,000 years ago is that there were not enough people to support it. It is at this point that a couple of places in Africa—one in the southernmost tip of the continent and one in eastern Congo—yield signs of jewellery, art and modern weapons. But then they go away again. That, Dr Thomas suggests, corresponds with a period when human numbers shrank. Climate data provides evidence this shrinkage did happen.

Now, this is a fairly old trope in Science Fiction: that some cataclysm can result in the complete collapse of society, to the extent that most if not all knowledge and technology is lost. Just look at The Time Machine to see how far back this idea goes – and it has been used countless times since. I play off this trope for Communion of Dreams in a couple of ways, of course, using it as both back story for the novel and for the eventual revelation at the end of the book.

It is interesting to see this intuitive idea borne out by some science (though it sounds to me like there’s still a fair amount of work to be done to establish that the theory is correct). And not just because it addresses some curious discontinuities in the archeological record. Rather, it says that intelligence has considerable staying power, at least in our species. Sure, it may not be a sufficient factor in supporting true civilization, but knowing that at least in our case it can last some 100,000 years gives one hope for it lasting for a while elsewhere, even if those civilizations do not.

Jim Downey



Mannahatta Project.
May 17, 2009, 9:56 am
Filed under: Climate Change, Science, tech

Just a brief post this morning to pass on this:

Mannahatta Project Recreates What New York City Looked Like 400 Years Ago

* * *

Included was a map from 1782, when the British occupied New York during the Revolutionary War. It is an incredibly detailed and accurate map, showing brooks, hills, marshes, forests and streets. Features were sketched with pen and ink, then hand-colored with blue, pink, brown and green watercolor.

It is an invaluable window into long-ago Manhattan, a Manhattan that already was ecologically altered by European immigrants, but nothing like the massive changes that would come with the 19th and 20th centuries.

What if, Sanderson immediately wondered, he was to use his landscape ecology skills and layer that map over a modern map of Manhattan? Could he get them to mesh? Would he be able to discern if today’s Times Square was once meadow or marsh, wet or wooded? What was Greenwich Village long ago? What, in fact, did Manhattan look like 400 years ago, when Henry Hudson sailed past Manhattan on a September day?

The result can be found here: The Mannahatta Project.

Jim Downey

(Hat tip to ML!)




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