“Human history is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” (H. G. Wells)
“As a physician, I contend that nuclear technology threatens life on our planet with extinction. If present trends continue, the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink will soon be contaminated with enough radioactive pollutants to pose a potential health hazard far greater than any plague we have ever experienced.” (Helen Caldicott MD)
“What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is to stand around and wait for them to come true.” (F. Sherwood Roland, chemist)
“Be passionately aware that you could be completely wrong.” (Dian Marino, artist, activist, educator)
In most places around our world one need only to have a look outside the nearest window to catch on to the idea that something is up with our weather. The question of just what that something might or might not be has opened up into a virtual “facts-optional zone” of intense scientific, political and religious controversy. Within the tradition of marine biologist Rachel Carson’s, Silent Spring (1962) and, The Sea Around US (1951), Elizabeth Kolbert has entered the fray with, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History ( 2014), both cautionary-tale and overview of a harrowing biological challenge of man-made destruction. We live in a world of shifting paradigms and, as she points out, up until the end of the eighteenth century the very notion of extinction did not exist. What we now understand as the Sixth Extinction, now underway, was preceded by five other major extinctions during which the diversity of life on Earth was drastically reduced, all as a result of natural causes. The most recent Fifth Extinction, which occurred toward the end of the Cretaceous era, is best known for ending the age of dinosaurs and introducing a hegemony of mammals. Recent research suggests, that on an otherwise normal day some 65 million years ago, an extraterrestrial bolide exploded upon impact within an area near the Yucatán peninsula, (Walter Alvarez, T-Rex and the Crater of Doom, 1997).
For those of us who didn’t major in any of the Earth sciences, Kolbert offers a useful mnemonic for remembering the geological periods of the last half-billion years: “Camels Often Sit Down Carefully, Perhaps Their Joints Creak”: Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, which unfortunately runs out before the Paleocene, Neocene, and Quaternary.
While it is generally agreed that our relatively warm, interglacial Holocene era began around 12,000 years ago, at the conclusion of the last ice age; and continues to this day, some have suggested the term Anthropocene, given the world changes brought about by Homo Sapiens. While it is true that our Earth cyclically warms and cools, it is also true that there is 10 times more carbon being released than in any previous era, as well as 250 million tons of non-degradable plastics generated every year, compounded by a planet –wide population explosion. In speculating about the history of our species , along with some of our earlier hominid relatives, Kolbert wonders as to whether there might be a mysterious factor hidden somewhere within our complex DNA ; a “madness gene” which impels us toward destruction, of both ourselves, and our environment.
Nevertheless, Elizabeth Kolbert, also author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change (2006) is not without empathy and cannot be easily dismissed as any kind of depressingly apocalyptic, slightly unhinged Cassandra. Her most recent and amazingly informative book is based upon solid scientific research and reads like a travelogue of exploratory adventure, page-turning scientific thriller, and exquisite prose; laced throughout with humility, wisdom and wry humor. At one point she suggests that those averse to the term extinction might prefer a euphemism, such as “biotic attrition”. Among her many topics of inquiry and concern we find the politically and economically charged issues of deforestation, greenhouse gases and fossil-fuel emissions. Trees breathe in and store 20% carbon as they grow, but when they die, especially in larger numbers, as in massive slash and burn operations, drying up the rain forests, they release that carbon back into our atmosphere.
As nature philosopher David Abram invites us to consider, our air is the ultimate unseen; and the greenhouse gases that warm it are our most elusive ghosts. And, to that I would add the dark phantoms of the minimized and denied abundance of radioactive hot-particles; circling around in still (officially) undetected levels in our global jet-stream. Abram seeks to remind us that for most of human history, it was precisely this unseen quality that gave air its power and commanded our respect. “ Called Sila, the wind-mind of the world by the Inuit, Nilch’I, or Holy Wind by the Navajo; Ruach, or rushing spirit, by the ancient Hebrews; the atmosphere was the most mysterious and sacred dimension of life. But in our time, we rarely acknowledge the atmosphere as it swirls between two persons. Having forgotten the air, we have made it our sewer, the perfect dump site for the unwanted by-products of our industries…Even the most opaque, acrid smoke billowing out of those toxic pipes will dissipate and disperse, always and ultimately dissolving into the invisible. (apparently) Gone. Out of sight, out of mind”. (Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, 2011).
As many others have extensively documented, carbon based fossil fuels release carbon dioxide into our planetary atmosphere which eventually dissolves in the ocean water as carbonic acid. This, in turn, has resulted in increasing acidification of the life-sustaining waters which cover some 70% of Earth’s surface. For my mind, at least, it does not seem to be all of that much of a cognitive stretch, to comprehend that such an increasing and ongoing altering of our water planet’s atmosphere and oceanic chemistry might affect all life on Earth; including ourselves. Modern civilization is, after all, a product of vast industrial projects and our collective fate is now inextricably linked with both fossil-fuels and nuclear energy.
In one of her chapters addressing changes taking place in the ocean chemistry, Kolbert elucidates the relationship between increasing acidification and the destruction of a wide variety of marine calcifers; which include starfish, sea urchins, mollusks, barnacles and many species of coral. In order to build their shells, exoskeletons or calcitic plates, these creatures must be able to join calcium ions together with carbonate ions to form calcium carbonate. At a certain point, acidified ocean water becomes corrosive and solid calcium begins to dissolve. And, it is a fact documented through many other sources, that these and many other marine creatures are rapidly disappearing.
While I don’t dispute the reality of ocean acidification, I found it quite remarkable that Kolbert makes no mention of the Fukushima Daiichi, triple meltdown nuclear disaster as being another significant factor in altering the biochemistry of our oceans.
Given the established fact that the Japanese have been dumping, at the very least, over 400 tons of deadly radioactive isotopes into the Pacific every day since March 2011, and other more credible sources claim much higher volumes have been summarily dumped; these hot particles are bound to add to an increase in both the temperature and toxicity of our seas. One of the many radioactive toxins being released into the Pacific, in ever increasing levels, is strontium 90; known to be a bone seeking isotope. Upon contact, strontium 90 substitutes itself for calcium and thus adversely affects any life form with bone or shell. (Steve Garton, ”Fukushima: As Radiation Levels Increase Off of the West Coast, Can Ocean Life be Un-effected ?”, http://stevegartonhubpages.com, March 2, 2014).
I find it unlikely that someone as tuned in and well-connected as Elizabeth Kolbert was unaware of these ongoing nuclear events resulting in massive atmospheric and oceanic contamination beginning in March 2011; given that her book was published in 2014. And still, not even one word of recognition or speculation as to the impact of the world’s most serious, unresolved, ongoing, industrial accident, to our planetary ecosphere upon which all life depends.
Also curious is that Kolbert devotes only a few sentences of mention to the ozone hole – as if there was just only one, over Antarctica, caused by emissions of toxic man-made chlorofluorocarbon ozone-depleting compounds. In contrast, Japanese environmental reporter Yoichi Shimatsu has offered a more expanded explanation of this ozone-hole phenomenon, occurring over both our North and South Poles. As he makes clear, prior to 2011 there was no ozone-hole over the Arctic; and then suddenly, a new and second hole in Earth’s protective ozone layer tore open; the first of its kind and largest ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere. Subsequent reports of an 80% loss of ozone in our upper atmosphere, with the potential to expose everyone and everything on our planetary surface to harmful ultraviolet B rays from the Sun, should be a cause for world-wide concern.
Ultraviolet B rays have been linked with skin cancers, cataracts, as well as damage to our human immune system. The intensity of these rays also can and does produce adverse effects in marine life and vegetation’ likely to reverberate throughout our global food chain. Damage to tiny phytoplankton which populate our oceans could also have world-wide consequences, since they also play a crucial role in the food chain, as well as regulating atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide.
Here we might bear in mind that, within this last decade, the prestigious World Meteorological Society assured us that the Arctic would never experience an ozone hole since it lacked a “polar vortex” and sufficiently frigid temperatures necessary to produce such a breach. And now we learn, that this sudden Arctic ozone-hole anomaly was produced by a stratospheric, icy-cold wind pattern known as a…polar vortex; a cyclone that spins over both poles in counter-clockwise rotation. This is important information for those who still believe that climate change is only about heat waves. Here in the Northern Hemisphere we were to hear a lot more about this newly discovered polar vortex during the remarkable severity of this past winter. While a not unusually cold winter of 2010/2011 generated dense stratospheric clouds over the Arctic region, this anomalous hole suddenly and unexpectedly appeared in March/April of 2011… just after the highly radioactive explosions and triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Complex. While correlation is not necessarily causality; the facts are that Fukushima’s three damaged reactors and burning fuel rods released tons of iodine, which is a highly reactive ozone attacking agent. This ongoing disaster also released xeon gas. Radioactive xeon quickly transformed into xenon-fluoride compounds , wafting northeasterly across the Arctic Circle, and then looping back down over Greenland, Scandinavia and Russia. These radiological events, Mr. Shimatsu maintains, account for both the oblong shape and direction of this recently occurring and expanding ozone-hole (Mainichi, Japan, October 3, 2011).
Since conditions leading to this unusually rapid ozone depletion are ongoing, it stands to reason that further depletion will only continue. Moreover, it has just been recently disclosed that we have a newly discovered hole opening within our Troposphere. Nine miles up and several thousand square miles long, the inner most part and protective layer of our atmosphere now also has a hole which allows chemicals to escape into and circulate around and within the upper and outer levels of our biosphere. This new breach within our troposphere is expected to contribute to the ongoing depletion of ozone layers over both our northern and southern polar regions and to exert an as yet unknown, influence upon planetary weather events (Holly Richmond, http://grist.org, April 8, 2014).
If any of this information is valid, (along with glacier and permafrost melts giving rise to methane release, rising sea levels, devastating floodwaters, monster storms, wildfires, as well as prolonged drought and desertification), we need to acknowledge and prepare for a new reality of ongoing, irreversible climate change; and conscientiously prepare for what is becoming a very different world. Historians know that climate change de-stabilizes societies. In human terms alone, we are witness to industrial globalization and the resulting spread of invasive species, widespread pollution and nuclear contamination; a clean water shortage, ongoing agricultural failures, job loss, famine, poverty, epidemics, population migration and displacement. All of these acute and chronic calamities often foster conditions conducive to economic collapse, social unrest, terrorism, religious fanaticism, genocide and war.
While the complex reality of environmental changes may seem self-evident to the awake and aware, whether the terminology is global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, environmental degradation, ecocide, omnicide or climate change, there are also a vocal legion of deniers who are having none of it. Those of us who express any degree of concern around any of these topics are often dismissed and labeled as paranoid tree-hugging doomers, crazy collapsitarians, subversive agents of the Anti-Christ, dangerous dissidents, eco-fascist alarmists and more of the same. Given that there is a great deal of money to be made in fossil fuel industries, as well as mining precious metals, gemstones and minerals, those that stand to profit vigorously oppose any effort to regulate or interfere in any way whatsoever with their agenda. Vast amounts of money have been spent for bought and paid for politicians to righteously push denial policies, which is not difficult in our present corporatocracy wherein these same entities also own major shares of nuclear power plants and mainstream media outlets. Given that ours is a media driven culture, this gives the robber barons a wealth of opportunity to censor, and even suppress unfavorable coverage as well as launch disinformation campaigns intending to discredit any and all environmental movements.
Given the close collaboration between governments and trans-national energy and mining cabals, environmental activism has become increasingly dangerous . When efforts of marginalization or intimidation fail to silence voices of protest, people are imprisoned, “disappear” or savagely murdered in ways intended to provide a deterrent to other resisters. It is a fact, that awhile global environmental awareness is increasing there has also been a surge in the number of environmental activist killed. (George Black, “Environmental Activists Are Being Killed in Record Numbers”,utne.com, January/February 2013).
Here in the USA some of the politicians who have given up efforts to deny the reality of climate change are now seeking to convince us that global warming is actually good for us. In the words of a Deutsche Bank press release of 2007: “ The debate around climate change is shifting away from cost and risk toward the question of how to capitalize on exciting opportunities”. This tactic brings to mind Robert Mankoff’s New Yorker cartoon which shows a Wall Street banker warning shareholders: “ While the end of the world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit” .( George Black, onearth.org, April 16, 2014). Still others, firmly in the corporate camps, including hard baked flat-earthers, and anti-science bloviators , stubbornly maintain that climate change is a hoax. Their message resonates with right wing and fundamentalist Christians and other Creationists who object to any version of human or Earth history that differs from what is written in the English version of their Holy Bible.
Many of these folks are also Geo-centrists whose cause is extolled in cosmic narcissist Robert Sugenis new 90 minute documentary The Principle which holds that Galileo was wrong. Earth is the center of a sphere of stars and galaxies – and all the wonders of the Universe revolve around us every 24 hours. Not surprisingly, one exasperated reviewer dismissed this premise as “ Of all the wrongest wrongs that ever wronged wrongness, Geo-centrism is way up on the list”. (Phil Plait, “Bad Astronomy”, Slate.com ,April 8,2014) Still, we need to bear in mind that recent surveys have revealed that at least 25%, an entire quarter, of our American population truly really do believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth.
If you have had any exposure to the ongoing, often vitriolic debates between , astronomers, Earth and biological scientists and corporate funded, anti-science fundamentalists, it should seem clear enough that even the most skillful presentation of facts has little power to change many minds. Given the enormity of this challenge, environmental activist and executive film producers James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub and Arnold Schwarzenegger have come up with an innovative strategy that may open a way toward greater understanding. In an approach quite different from Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth (2005) , their Years of Living Dangerously has enlisted the aid of an ensemble of Hollywood luminaries such as Matt Damon, Harrison Ford, Jessica Alba and others to present the reality of climate change through stories, real stories, in real people’s lives who have been profoundly impacted in a wide variety of ways. During the nine episodes of this TV series, celebrity investigators travel together with scientists and A-list media correspondents to far flung reaches of the globe to bear witness to the human and deeply personal costs of climate change, presented with all of the excitement and suspense of a blockbuster movie.
Episode One of this series ,free on YouTube, focuses on drought. In the first of the human interest stories Don Cheadle drives out to small town, rural, Plainview, in the “God-fearin , science hatin heart of Texas” to visit with its disheartened townsfolk .He finds a close knit Evangelical community, struggling to exist since most locals are out of work after the local meat packing plant closed down. Ongoing heat and drought brought an end to cattle raising in their region ,directly resulting in a near total economic collapse. While some attributed the drought to natural causes ,most saw the calamity as “ Biblical” as others withdrew into apathy.
A shift appears in the fatalistic mood with the arrival of climate scientist and drought expert Dr. Katherine Hayhoe who is also a devout Christian together with her husband, an Evangelical preacher. Together they bring the message, seasoned with Biblical quotations declaring that God created the world and everything in it , including man , who was given the gift and the challenge of free will. According to these Christian messengers, climate change has resulted from some very bad choices and mankind can learn and practice some much wiser choices to honor the wisdom of their Creator. This Evangelical message landed and ordinary folks got interested in learning more, especially about what they could do to make better choices in relation to their environment. The shift came about by those who could speak both the language of science and the language of faith. Throughout history, it has often been clear enough, that real and lasting social change comes about through the directed energies of emotions rather than as result of clearly stated facts. MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who also appears in the series, chooses to emphasize the positive; “ I strongly believe that it is extremely important to convince people that the problem is, in fact, solvable…human ingenuity is an incredible thing”. (truth-out.org, April 14, 2014). Yes and, as Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine : The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, 2008) sets forth, climate change is a collective problem demanding collective action the likes of which humanity has never accomplished. (“The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External” www.commondreams.org, April 22,2014). Herein and for now, I find myself in alignment with the Evangelical message, that mankind has been given both the gift and the challenge of free will. And now, of course, time will reveal the ultimate outcome of this challenge.