Multi-state Cabbage truck pile-up

I’ll admit this is one collision of green I had not [truly] considered, but Is the human race too dumb to survive?

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) questioned Duffy on the factors that contribute to sea-level rise, pointing out that land subsidence plays a role, as well as human activity. Brooks then said that erosion plays a significant role in sea-level rise, which is not an idea embraced by mainstream climate researchers. He said the California coastline and the White Cliffs of Dover tumble into the sea every year, and that contributes to sea-level rise. He also said that silt washing into the ocean from the world’s major rivers, including the Mississippi, the Amazon and the Nile, is contributing to sea-level rise. “Every time you have that soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise, because now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up,” Brooks said.

Most everyone who has reckoned with the possibilities seems to understand that, whatever the fate of humans, the planet will eventually survive. So when we talk about the destruction of the planet, we’re thinking of our own, rather than that of the 3rd Rock itself. I’ve been grappling with this in a different but very related context recently – that is, how to best communicate with the public (industry, citizens, local governments) about the solutions to the challenges wrought by climate change, when the posture of state leaders more resembles that of Congressman Brooks. The stock response is: Stop talking about that! Despite the best efforts of Rembrandt, Descartes, Heisenberg, Jessie Owens and Emily Dickinson, maybe we’re just too dumb. Perhaps we can set a date at some point in the [near] future when we can begin talking about sea level rise, erratic weather, internal displacement, clean water, energy… but maybe that’s just negotiating with stupid. In which case, stupid has already prevailed and Groundhog Day is a truck that drives around town all day, picking up the same cabbages that fell from it earlier this morning.

Approaching your commute

It’s one thing to say, “It’s not a bad drive, all considering,” or to actually mean it when you boast, “It’s usually less than an hour each way,” such have we arranged our difficulties that status, relative isolation, and even our means of transport characterize self-worth as much as taste or wit. And this is self-perception, generated through the lens of the times in which we live. Over a barrel, sacrifice of one’s happiness can go all but unnoticed such that alternatives can never be considered, much less under the motivation of broader, planetary considerations. It’s just not possible for many to think about doing something different because of carbon emissions or global warming. For better or worse, it has to be personal:

The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. Nor is it merely the common herd and the unthinking crowd that bemoan what is, as men deem it, an universal ill; the same feeling has called forth complaint also from men who were famous. It was this that made the greatest of physicians exclaim that “life is short, art is long;” it was this that led Aristotle, while expostulating with Nature, to enter an indictment most unbecoming to a wise man—that, in point of age, she has shown such favour to animals that they drag out five or ten lifetimes, but that a much shorter limit is fixed for man, though he is born for so many and such great achievements. It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it. Just as great and princely wealth is scattered in a moment when it comes into the hands of a bad owner, while wealth however limited, if it is entrusted to a good guardian, increases by use, so our life is amply long for him who orders it properly.

Emphasis added to words from Seneca, from a wonderful book he wrote in A.D. 49 after being recalled from exile on Corsica. It’s full of useful reminders, if not insights, on the very personal level of you. I’m not telling you to slow down or live closer to work. We should believe that we’re not going to change our behavior on the basis of anything external, but also that doing so for ourselves can bring a multiplicity of benefits.

No Escape

Imagine there’s a video game, where the player must decide which tools to use to dig themselves out a hole without acknowledging that holes exist OR that the player is trapped in one and hence needs the tools. The point of the game (beyond your apparent need to never face 30 contiguous seconds of not looking at your phone) is to let players experience what it feels like to be a member of the House Science Committee:

Despite this reputation, the environment and energy subcommittees called four honest-to-God climate scientists to testify about one of the most controversial solutions to climate change: geoengineering. These technofixes, which could reflect sun back into space or draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, all with the intent to cool the planet, were front and center. Committee members were actually eager to hear about it and where the federal government could spend to help prop up research.

There was just one tiny problem: None of the Republicans could bring themselves to acknowledge that carbon dioxide is the root cause of climate change. Nor could they bring up that reducing carbon emissions is a way more proven and cost-effective avenue to address climate change. It was at once comical and damn terrifying.

Level three is when comical and damn terrifying meld into one confused emotion. Welcome to level three.

The outer edges fuel the storm

Though tropical cyclones can also gain strength over land, we have seen and experienced elections decided at the outer bounds of rationality, not to mention national borders. And the same goes for scandals. When the two are one and the same, we reach a distinct crossing over into all manner of non-metaphorical winds, downed trees, powerlessness, looting even.
Still it’s important to realize that the fundamental strength of the storm comes from good old warm water in open ocean, just as the current, inspired presidenting comes from heartland voters and good christians everywhere. Sure, climate change and the Russians probably had something to do with the current disasters. But really they were only helping fuel the storm.

Impervious surfaces

Include our brains. This report about Houston from last year outlines how unchecked development remains a priority in the famously un-zoned city, creating short-term economic gains for some while increasing flood risks for everyone:

The area’s history is punctuated by such major back-to-back storms, but many residents say they are becoming more frequent and severe, and scientists agree.

“More people die here than anywhere else from floods,” said Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher who specializes in natural hazards mitigation. “More property per capita is lost here. And the problem’s getting worse.”


Scientists, other experts and federal officials say Houston’s explosive growth is largely to blame. As millions have flocked to the metropolitan area in recent decades, local officials have largely snubbed stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater. That has led to an excess of floodwater during storms that chokes the city’s vast bayou network, drainage systems and two huge federally owned reservoirs, endangering many nearby homes — including Virginia Hammond’s.

We must learn to do better, but long-term thinking tends to challenge us more than anything.

Fiction and the carbon economy

The concept of imaginative fatigue in the Anthropocene presents a kind of heady platform for lighting into all kinds of literary corruption and gatekeeping issues that are holding the rising waters in place, out of view or at least off the page:

This makes itself evident in the paucity of fiction devoted to the carbon economy, something the Brooklyn-based Indian writer Amitav Ghosh addresses in his marvelous recent book, The Great Derangement, writing, “When the subject of climate change occurs . . . it is almost always in relation to nonfiction; novels and short stories are very rarely to be glimpsed within this horizon.” Ghosh, who has depicted the precarious ecology of the Sundarban mangrove forests of Bengal in his novel, The Hungry Tide, says that this absence has to be “counted as an aspect of the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” a failure so pervasive that he calls our era, “which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness . . . the time of the Great Derangement.”

I agree with the reviewer that any discussions about the ‘ravages of the carbon economy’ would necessarily include story lines on the failure of capitalism. And talk about a contrivance. Who would believe that? Perhaps at no point have we ever been so self-hemmed in – constrained by our own no-go areas. Does any writer today imagine Zola or Hugo, or Anatole France or, good grief Racine, adhering to such constraints? Is it only fear? Will the publishers and agents love us no longer? What then? Asking for a friend of the fate of the world.

Image: Author photo of the flooded Seine, June 2016.

Spite and the reckless assault on nothing

The stupidity of millions, millions of individually stupid decisions, has brought a spiteful revolution to its denouement. Or a screaming kid to its mall, whichever you prefer.
He was able to trot out on a sunny afternoon and announce a positively pointless jab to his own eye. Wisht it had been more pointed:

It is similar to the predominant response to liberal terror over the prospect of handing the most powerful office in the world to an impulsive congenital liar with authoritarian tendencies. Conservatives on the whole devoted less attention to pondering the risks Trump might pose to their own country and party than enjoying the liberal tears.

“Everybody who hates Trump wants him to stay in Paris,” argues conservative activist Grover Norquist. “Everybody who respects him, trusts him, voted for him, wishes for him to succeed, wants him to pull out.” Here is an argument that approaches, even if it does not fully reach, complete self-awareness: The Paris climate agreement is bad because it is supported by people who oppose Trump. Therefore, the opposing position is the correct one.

If the liberal global elites have established a policy architecture to minimize the threat of climate change, weakening that policy architecture is its own reward. There is not much more to it than that.

All of those who chose not to vote for her, voted for this.

The last and the next 20 years

Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation is perhaps the seminal text on awakening human consciousness about nonhuman animals. More of a philosophical tract, it presents an even-handed narrative of why animals’ interests should be considered that is neither ‘good’ not ‘bad’ per se. It’s big idea of ‘the greatest good’ is an effective route to ethical behavior, and it resonates with the challenge of how to get people to care about nature, which – if not cast as satire – is one of the most urgent ideas of the last and the next twenty years:

It is easy to see how bleak accounts of the state of the planet can overwhelm people and make them feel hopeless. What is the point of even trying if the world is going down the drain anyway?

To muster public and political support on a scale that matches our environmental challenges, research shows that negative messaging is not the most effective way forward. As a conservation scientist and social marketer, I believe that to make the environment a mainstream concern, conservation discussions should focus less on difficulties. Instead we should highlight the growing list of examples where conservation efforts have benefited species, ecosystems and people living alongside them.

The promise of positive messaging and marketing language to sway greater environmental sh*t-giving is cynical, but here we are. He’s not wrong, though the degree to which the vision of this kind of promotion will necessarily muster the language of commodity (great cause of said looming catastrophic scenarios) to save the Earth makes the pain in my neck throb. It could also make the messages that feel like Coca-Cola ads that much easier to dismiss from familiarity. Optimism in the face of destruction has its limits, and sometimes we need to look at things as they are and act accordingly. Like adults instead of media companies.
Still, Lost & Found is a good idea. We can do worse than trying to invigorate the public with the wonder of natural wonder, as long as they don’t begin to believe too strongly in its resilience. We can lead the water to horses, but can we make them care?

Broken Cameras, 5

I’m largely ambivalent about the Academy Awards, but I do like when a powerful documentary has an opportunity for wider exposure because of its nomination. 5 Broken Cameras is one of those films where you ask how did they make that? – and not in the goofy CGI way. I hope it wins.