Tag Archives: climate change

“The Ice at the End of the World – An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and our Perilous Future” by Jon Gertner, Part One

The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland's Buried Past and Our Perilous Future

300 pages plus notes, sources, bibliography and index. Some photos and maps.

Part One (Explorations) of this excellent and highly readable book covers the years 1888 to 1931, when wanderlust and scientific curiosity led a handful of explorers to climb up onto the Greenland ice sheet. It was a land so little known that people fantasized about finding an ice free tropical oasis in the middle. Greenland had a small indigenous population that had been there fewer than 1000 years, and was visited by the occasional trader seeking furs and tusks. The first “explorer” was Fridtjof Nansen. Looking at his photo, you see either an intense intellect or a totally fanatic lunatic. Both those attributes were necessary in an explorer of the far arctic.

The indigenous Greenlanders lived around the edges of the island, successfully exploiting natural resources including those of the ocean. Others (outsiders) went there at their peril, learned from the indigenous residents only slowly, and often died, even if they stayed off the mighty ice sheet.

Part 1 of this book ends with the Wegener expedition of 1931. The intention was to establish a research base on the ice, in a central location. The project was dogged by misfortune and ended in the deaths of two scientists. Amazingly, data collected was used to estimate how much worldwide sea levels would rise if the Greenland ice sheet should melt entirely. The answer turned out to be remarkably close to what contemporary scientists now conclude – around 24 feet.

After 1931, the Great Depression and World War II shut down scientific exploration almost entirely, except for strategic military concerns.

Part 1 is the easy part. Part 2, entitled “Investigations”, covers the years 1949 to 2018. I expect this to be frightening. Much as I love science, I think it’s going to be difficult for me to read.

“Empty Planet – The Shock of Global Population Decline” by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson

Published 2019 by Crown Publishing, 240 pages plus footnotes and index.

This book (found at my public library) took me entirely by surprise, and caused me to look on climate change (and certain other social problems) differently, and with somewhat more optimism.

The authors discuss a future drop in human population, NOT (as has often been predicted) due to climate related calamity, but due to changes in human reproductive behavior. These changes comprise the “demographic transition”, defined in Chapter One, entitled “A Brief History of Population”. For eons, the human race simply struggled to survive. Following the retreat of the last Ice Age, agriculture allowed population to increase through a series of stages, beginning with high birth rate coupled with high death rate, moving through periods of imbalance and ending (in “developed” societies) with low birth rate, long life and low death rate. Bricker and Ibbitson believe the entire global population will arrive at the latter pattern within the next two or three generations. Hence, human population with stabilize relatively soon, and then continue to fall slowly.

Having grown up reading The Population Bomb and The Limits to Growth, I was startled by this book and read it very carefully. I’ve asked the opinion of friends and even my favorite demographer (a relative), and I eagerly await their responses.

Actually, I heard the warning call of this change a few years ago. In 2015, China reversed its “one child policy”. I was VERY surprised, and failed to recognize the significance of the change. Come to think of it, 25 years ago I heard a Russian woman described as a “hero mother” because she had TWO children. I didn’t understand what was behind this.

What do demographers measure, in addition to absolute population? Birth rate is crucial. How many babies does each woman have? “Replacement” is pegged at 2.1, to allow for the fact that not all children survive to become parents. At this point, it all starts to feel personal. I had two babies. So did my parents. But their parents had a total of 10 surviving children! What changed? American families left the farm. (The post World War II baby boom, in case you are wondering, was an aberration.)

Bricker and Ibbitson attribute falling birth rates to the education and subsequent increased employment of women, and to urbanization. They consider these changes unlikely to be reversed.

I think Empty Planet went to press just before the flareup of immigration as a “hot button” topic in the US. It would help if people on both sides of the issue would settle down and read this book! Immigrants and refugees are not identical. Most people, most of the time, prefer to live where they were born.

What do Bricker and Ibbitson project for the future? Both are Canadian, and their other collaborative publication (The Big Shift, 2013) deals with Canadian politics and culture. They expect the future big winners (nations able to maintain their populations and to innovate) to be Canada, the African states and (maybe) the United States. “WHAT?!” you squawk. Better read the book!

At some point, an entirely new concept is introduced – the post national state. I’m still trying to get a grip on it.

“Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

This book came to me highly recommended by people whose judgment I regard with some skepticism. Why? Because I wonder if they take either science or nature seriously. There are lots of “wow” moments in science and in nature, but if you go that far (“wow, it’s so amazing!”) and then stop… what have you accomplished?

Maybe my scientific training has made me a snob. But I think nature is worthy of serious study, and I value science. I’m the kind of geek who is really happy that someone declared 2019 the “International Year of the Periodic Table”. I LOVE the periodic table! And I’ve studied it carefully. For six years, the time it took to earn two degrees in Chemistry. Sometimes there’s just no shortcut.

So I’m skeptical about quickie workshops in which people groove on nature for an hour at a time.

Robin Kimmerer has more than “paid her dues” scientifically, with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in botany and a PhD in plant ecology. She works outside the conventional scientific framework by teaching college courses in subjects like Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Creative Writing. She is a member of the Potawatami Nation, an Algonquian-speaking Eastern Woodlands indigenous tribe. She has studied her Algonquian heritage as carefully as she studied botany. Her passion is the integration of the two, scientific and traditional knowledge. Braiding Sweetgrass is a collection of essays about this endeavor.

This is a BIG book, generous in concept and broad in subject areas. I reacted differently to different subjects.

I LOVED the chapter entitled “Learning the Grammar of Animacy”! Kimmerer undertook to learn the Potawatomi language at a time when only NINE fluent speakers of the language were still alive.

“Our language, millennia in the making…The words that praised creation, told the old stories, lulled my ancestors to sleep, rests today in the tongues of nine very mortal men and women.”

So she has tried to learn it. Not a single word came to her through her family. She found the language difficult because, instead of dividing nouns into masculine, feminine and neuter (he, she, it), nouns are categorized as animate (person) or inanimate (thing). Personhood is attributed to many more objects than in English – almost everything “natural”, including water, fire, stone. “Inanimate” refers mostly to created objects – coat, car.

Additionally (and unlike English), Potawatami is a verb dominated language. Kimmerer found it wildly difficult.

“The simple phrases I’m learning are perfect for my dog. Sit! Eat!…But since she scarcely responds to these commands in English, I’m reluctant to train her to be bilingual. An admiring student once asked me if I spoke my native language. I was tempted to say, ‘Oh yes, Yes, we speak Potawatomi at home’ – me, the dog, and the Post-it notes.”

Anyone interested in languages should read this chapter!

A problem I have with Kimmerer’s approach to the natural world is that it seems to me that she attributes consciousness and intent to creatures and even ecosystems much more frequently than I do. I “love” nature, but I’m not so sure nature “loves” me back. Sometimes I don’t see relationship where Kimmerer does. I don’t think that parasites and hosts “intend” to do something for each other.

Another chapter I especially enjoyed was “The Three Sisters”, about agriculture based on growing corn, beans and squash together. Now I understand about the squash – it is a source of vitamins.

The last parts of the book discuss solutions to the current environmental dilemmas, including climate change. The emphasis is on restoration ecology. Kimmerer is less specific when she discusses the social aspects of our situation, but I am grateful that she shares her vision of hope.

“New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson

You have to admire an author who stands an academic/cultural trope on its head. We’ve all heard of The Tragedy of the Commons, right? Heavy. Very heavy. Robinson brings us…the COMEDY of the Commons! I love it. Among other fancies, he produces a new Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn duo, Stefan and Roberto, a pair of “water rats” who live by luck and their wits in a stolen Zodiac in the drowned city of Lower Manhattan.

This book reminds me of The Martian by Andy Weir. In The Martian, one man fights a planet for survival. In New York 2140 Robinson creates a crowd of lovable eccentrics and follows their struggles on the hard-to-recognize landscape of New York after sea level rise.

Robinson treats himself to a “chorus”, the presence of a non-participant (identified as “citizen” or “the city smartass”) who comments on the setting (the New York bight) and sometimes addresses the reader, as in the following rant:

“Because life is robust,

Because life is bigger than equations, stronger than money, stronger than guns and poison and bad zoning policy, stronger than capitalism,

Because Mother Nature bats last, and Mother Ocean is strong, and we live inside our mothers forever, and Life is tenacious and you can never kill it, you can never buy it,

So Life is going to dive down into your dark pools, Life is going to explode the enclosures and bring back the commons,

O you dark pools of money and law and quanitudinal(sic) stupidity, you over simple algorithms of greed, you desperate simpletons hoping for a story you can understand,

Hoping for safety, hoping for cessation of uncertainty, hoping for ownership of volatility, O you poor fearful jerks,

Life! Life! Life! Life is going to kick your ass!”

Robinson is channeling Walt Whitman here. (Whether I believe this or not is a question for another day.)

The basic scenario of New York 2140 is that sea level rise, happening in two “pulses” rather than slowly, has transpired and a great deal of land has been abandoned. But New York City is just too valuable, so it evolves into three zones – dry land in northern Manhattan, an “intertidal” zone and a marginally occupied, heavily damaged Lower Manhattan. The book takes place in the intertidal zone, which is starting to “gentrify”.

Robinson quotes a number of sources throughout the book, mostly at chapter headings. Robert Moses, for example, who ruthlessly imposed his vision on the New York infrastructure. Additionally, H L Mencken, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, and assorted scientists and commentators. Some are worth checking out.

Robinson makes a “character” out of an existing building, the Met Life Tower on Madison Avenue. It is portrayed as having “personality”. In 2140, it is occupied by a housing cooperative. New York is very crowded, so successful professionals pay dearly for even a tiny bit of space, like a bunk in a dormitory.

Characters in New York 2140 make occasional reference to Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the 21st Century has been attracting attention recently. Piketty is a French academic who has studied the history of the distribution of wealth. Both Piketty and K S Robinson are asking how capitalism can be structured to benefit the citizens of a democratic nation. Believe it or not, there’s a copy of Piketty’s book in my livingroom. I plan to read at least some of it. Stay tuned!

I dashed excitedly through New York 2140 in a few days, and I’ve written this without consulting reviews. After I do that, I may learn that, one way or another, I’ve entirely missed the point.

 

“A Conversation with David Sanger About Today’s Global Realities and America’s Next President”, a lecture by David E. Sanger

The college where I work has a partnership with The New York Times. Students (and others) receive The Times free of charge, and it is used in various ways, in various classes. I think this is great! And the paper generously sends us a distinguished guest speaker annually.

David Sanger is the chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times. His speech (title given above) was well worth my time. He also discussed the question of what kinds of issues can be addressed during the Presidential campaign. He thinks the campaign is NOT a good forum for analysis of international affairs, which are a major focus of his reporting.

That said, he gave his list of the three global challenges our next President will face. It turns out I have been worrying about the wrong problems! His big three:

  • Terrorism, or “the forces of disorder”
  • Cyber attacks
  • Dealing with a China (as a “rising power”) and the former Soviet Union (still capable of causing trouble)

Sanger had the luck (good or bad) to speak a few days after the Paris terrorist bombings of November 13.

He considers these problems challenging but manageable, pointing out that we survived the shocking instability of the Cold War and other very dangerous situations over the past decades.

Questions were taken in writing, and I handed in the following: How will climate change impact these global issues? He answered that its major impact will be in the arena of terrorism, because populations may be displaced and having masses of (desperate) people on the move is destabilizing. Some “climate refugees” (my term, not his) may be susceptible to recruitment by extremists.

I was/am completely uninformed about cyber attack. This I will continue to ignore. If my computer at work gets crotchety (it has happened three times in the past month), I will call Computer Services and leave it to the experts.

Sanger’s cautious optimism was a balm. I don’t have to build a fallout shelter immediately. Wait, that was the 50s! What is the equivalent in this year of 2015? I don’t have to give up air travel, stop using a computer or panic about “communists”. Whew! I will continue to nurse my personal concerns about climate change and racial justice.

“Renewable – One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope” by Eileen Flanagan

I’m surprised I’ve never met or even heard of Eileen Flanagan, because we move in circles that overlap. I said the same about Judy Wicks, author of Good Morning, Beautiful Business (see my blog entry of April 8, 2015). Flanagan is a decade or so younger than Wicks and I. Wicks and Flanagan both reside in Philadelphia.

Renewable begins with Flanagan’s recent act of chaining herself to the White House fence during a climate change protest. Then she circles back to recount how she came to that moment.

A major factor in her personal and spiritual growth was her Peace Corps service. She joined in 1984 and was sent to Botswana, a country known to me only through the writing of Alexander McCall Smith, who created the delightful No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, set in Botswana. Flanagan’s reflections on Botswana are enhanced by her analysis of the comparative impacts of colonialism on Africa and Ireland, her ancestral home.

Upon her return from the Peace Corps, Flanagan went to graduate school at Yale to earn a Master’s degree in African studies. Then she faced the complications of seeking simplicity while raising children in urban America. Familiar territory!

Interestingly, one of Flanagan’s companions in the White House protest described above was civil rights activist Julian Bond, who died this week.

“Ceremonial Time” by John Hanson Mitchell

I don’t often read two works by the same author back to back. After reading Living at the End of Time, I wondered why John Mitchell’s earlier book Ceremonial Time (1984) was described as a “cult classic”. It didn’t take me long to figure it out.

At its most obvious, Mitchell’s description of his Native American friends and their ritual dance was intriguing and, to me, unexpected. He develops a definition of “ceremonial time” as a condition when people or things from different eras can in some fashion coincide or overlap, and discusses his experiences of this.

In more prosaic historical terms, Mitchell describes the ecological and human conditions on his chosen square mile of Massachusetts from the end of the last Ice Age to the present. Although he resists much of the contemporary change he describes (highways, shopping malls, businesses and the loss of farmland), he gradually accepts them as a small glitch in a long pattern.

It’s when Mitchell discusses “the future” that I really accepted that this book is thirty years old. Much of “the future” he spoke of has arrived. And no doubt Mitchell has adapted to the internet, cell phones and social media.

Mitchell posits several fates for his beloved neighborhood of Scratch Flats – nuclear annihilation (odd that we don’t think about that much in 2014), the asphalt apocalypse (my term, not his), tribalism with a modern twist, and the return of the Ice Age. After all, geologic history suggests that this in an interglacial era. In 1984, he had not apprehended the threat of global warming.

Would he have considered global warming if he had written in 1994? In 2004? I don’t know. When did I “pick up” on it? I often claim foreknowledge based on having watched the movie “Our Mister Sun” in 1960. I studied atmospheric chemistry in the 1970s, but that was oriented towards protecting the ozone layer and understanding photochemical smog. The climate impact of carbon dioxide was not on our agenda.

When did I BELIEVE that global warming would hit hard in my lifetime? Some time between five and ten years ago. And I am, after a fashion, both a scientist and an environmentalist.

Mitchell is an environmentalist and a story teller. He has important things to say in either idiom.