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Fierce love: Julia Butterfly Hill

Saturday, July 19th, 2008

“I was born dead,” remarks Julia Butterfly Hill, almost in passing.

“Literally?” I ask.

Yes — she in fact needed to be resuscitated upon birth. Perhaps that’s one key to understanding how she, at age 23, was able to find the clarity and courage to occupy a California Redwood named Luna for over two years.

It was that experience that raised her consciousness regarding her consumption habits. After all, as she says, the people bringing her supplies risked arrest and potential harm; she had to be mindful of every detail.

Now, Julia is a free ranging activist, tackling social justice and environmental issues, and traveling the world giving workshops and holding conversations.

I’m sitting with Julia in Indianapolis at a small gathering of environmental activists. The people around this table struggle daily with the conundrum of fighting for the environment in a world where it seems too few people care. And even if enough people did care and big change happened fast, isn’t it too late anyway?

Julia doesn’t obsess over these sorts of questions and so she’s a drink of cool clear water to an apocalyptic zealot like me.

“Doesn’t it just drive you crazy how people behave?” someone asks.

Julia laughs. It’s one of the first things you notice about this 34-year-old woman. Her laugh.

She responds that she doesn’t worry so much about the “unconscious people, it’s the supposedly conscious people who are full of contradictions” — like environmentalist gatherings that don’t have recyclables.

But don’t get started on the subject of recycling.

Recycling, she says, is just a way to “make us feel better” about consuming in the first place.

“We’re addicted to comfort,” she says. Few are willing to challenge their personal status quo – whether it’s to put themselves in danger of arrest or harm, or to cut back on their lifestyle, or to skip taking a vacation this year.

She doesn’t admonish the comfort-addicted among us, though. Instead, she laughs again, her brown hair falling into her eyes. My eyes move to her t-shirt, with words Mother Earth.

Not everybody “can be on the front lines,” she says. Not everyone can put their bodies on the line.

The key to activism?

Loving action = fierce love.

Julia doesn’t operate out of anger or fear, but out of love. She says she began her sit in Luna out of “grief for what was happening to the Redwoods.” But that grief morphed into love. Love for the earth. Love for humanity.

That love for humanity makes her a shifting target for both those in opposition to her as well as environmental groups who wish she was as angry as they.

She’s able to parry that opposition by transcending traditional dichotomies.

“But how do we get people to care about our issues?” someone asks.

Julia ponders a moment, then answers: “By finding out what they care about.”

The “good stories” are out there, she maintains. Stories where people get together and make their neighborhood a better place — for example, the City Repair Project that started in Portland, Oregon, and has spread across the country.

Late in the gathering she wonders aloud if the carbon imprint of flying to Indianapolis and driving to this event was worth it. “I might have done more good by staying away,” she says.

We don’t agree, of course, having drunk the cool clear water of Julia’s clarity. And heard her laugh, over and over.

But I get the point. The more conscious you are about your consumption habits, the more you start to question every single decision.

“I’m in service not because the world’s in peril,” she says in closing. “I’m in service because it’s what I want to do.” — Jim

Julia’s blog can be found at: http://juliabutterflyhill.wordpress.com/

On becoming an apocalyptic zealot.

Thursday, June 5th, 2008

I’m no fun at parties anymore.

I’m like that guy whose only conversational gambit is to talk about the Spassky-Fisher match of 1973. Or the geek who has discovered SecondLife or WorldOfWarcraft. Or the airhead, who only wants to talk about celebrities, and other virtual worlds.

Or more to the point, that guy who has recently converted, and sees everything through the lens of the revealed.

In my case, that lens is cascading, endless bad news about species collapse, environmental collapse, peak oil and gas and phosphorus, toxic breaches and endocrine disruptions, and climate warming leading to ocean acidification. It’s the human-made horrors of the last century.

Because of what Jim and I are doing here, we are required, by our self-stated commitment, to be The ApocoDocs. We have to filter the news about the five apocalyptic scenarios, as well as finding stories of Recovery.

Sure, we make fun of all the news items, and make silly quizzes — that’s the gimmick, to get readers to pay attention by being entertained — and it’s kind of a hoot to be snarky about stuff that scares the shit out of me.

To construct that “fun,” Jim and I spend an aggregate hour or so each day, selecting the news stories we want to showcase — because there’s far more out there than we could include. And to be true ApocoDocs, we also have to know the background, understand the context, and be able to make informed predictions and judgments.

Today I read, for “fun,” a few chapters from the gorgeous, astonishing publication called Sustaining Life, from Oxford Univ. Press, which includes gems like:

The herbacide atrazine, widely used in the United States (~75 million pounds are applied each year) but banned in seven European Union countries, has been shown to change the sex of Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens) and to slow their gonadal development at levels of only 0.1 parts per billion, a concentration that is found in rainwater essentially everywhere in the United States.

This fragile, collapsing, feedback-looping, it’s-so-much-worse-than-we-thought world is the world as it is. I am looking at the world through the lens of the revealed.

I saw the Obama/Clinton rivalry only through this lens: who might have a chance in hell of enlisting the world in the struggle to save itself?

I see the “threat of terrorism” through this lens as a paltry, puny, gnat of a problem, in comparison with overfishing, ocean acidification, and environmental toxification.

I see the recession we’re in as only another goddamn barrier to recovery, since there’s less money to spend on what matters: halting the spread of mercury and other heavy metals far and wide, through coal mining and burning.

I see the continuing rise of gas prices only through this lens (even as it bites me in the wallet), because the only way we will reduce our CO2 emissions is if it’s too costly not to — and if economic depression means we get energy efficient, then it’s a step in the right direction.

I see every plastic bag, every disposable lighter, every discarded bit of diaphonous wrap through this lens: in the carcasses of albatross chicks, having had it disgorged into their gullets by their parents as “food.”

I see every container ship through this lens: the ballast water they bring and dump inevitably contains alien species, some of which become invasive, and kill off the native species — an endless, continuous stream of ecosystem damage from place to place.

I like to think that this newfound zealotry helps me understand the perspective of other zealots: Islamic fundamentalists, anti-abortion militants, rooters for Armageddon, neoconservatives, fascists, Earth Liberation Frontists, Ayn Randians, Scientologists, and all the other glazed-eyed true believers. When it all makes sense through the new lens, we then frame the rest of the world through those glasses.

And like any zealot, I’m of course convinced that my zealotry is more right than anyone else’s, because I have the facts of science on my side. I can say “my fifty years of rational, empirical, evidence-based thinking has led me to conclude….”

I can say “take a look at this, and this, and this, and this…”

But it doesn’t make me any more fun at parties.

O wretched lens, through which I must now see.

The true challenges for the next president

Friday, May 30th, 2008

Whether the next president is Obama or (cringe) McCain, quite apart from rebuilding the charred ethical wasteland of the Administrative branch of government, coping with the ruins of the housing market and its effects on the economy, and dealing with the aortic congestion caused by ever-increasing energy prices, he will be facing complex, system-wide, slow-motion apocalypses that will span his presidency.

Among them, collapsing ecosystems:


  • So what’s Plan Bee?
    [London Guardian, Sun, May 25, 2008]

  • Over 50 percent of oceanic shark species threatened with extinction
    [Aquatic Conservation, via EurekAlert, Fri, May 23, 2008]

  • Biodiversity Loss Puts People At Risk: World Wildlife Fund
    [World Wildlife Fund via ScienceDaily, Wed, May 21, 2008]

  • Climate ‘accelerating bird loss’
    [BBC, Tue, May 20, 2008]

  • UN Experts To Say 2010 Biodiversity Target Elusive
    [Planet Ark via Reuters, Mon, May 19, 2008]

  • ‘Frightening’ future must be avoided to retain the integrity of planet we share
    [The Scotsman, Sat, May 17, 2008]

  • Window Of Opportunity For Restoring Oaks Small, New Study Finds
    [USDA Forest Survey, via ScienceDaily, Fri, May 16, 2008] More information is available on the Species Collapse scenario
  • And, declining resources worldwide:


  • Get used to high food costs, water shortages
    [Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Wed, May 28, 2008]

  • Oil crisis triggers fevered scramble for the world’s seabed
    [London Daily Telegraph, Tue, May 27, 2008]

  • Midwest’s message: Hands off our lakes
    [Chicago Tribune, Tue, May 27, 2008]

  • Poor soil lowers world’s production of food
    [Ventura County Star, Sun, May 25, 2008]

  • Drought turning futures to dust
    [Houston Chronicle, Sun, May 25, 2008]

  • Shell ’selling suicide’ by preferring tar sands to wind
    [Guardian (UK), Thu, May 22, 2008]

  • Famine Looms as Wars Rend Horn of Africa
    [New York Times, Sat, May 17, 2008]
  • More information is available on the Resource Depletion scenario

    And, Climate Chaos:


  • Large Methane Release Could Cause Abrupt Climate Change As Happened 635 Million Years Ago
    [University of California - Riverside via ScienceDaily, Fri, May 30, 2008]

  • White House issues climate report 4 years late
    [Associated Press, Thu, May 29, 2008]

  • Scientists warn of rising Pacific Coast acidity
    [The New York Times via Associated Press, Wed, May 28, 2008]

  • G8 meet sidesteps midterm gas cuts
    [The Japan Times, Mon, May 26, 2008]

  • Billions wasted on UN climate programme
    [London Guardian, Mon, May 26, 2008]

  • Tufts global warming study eyes cost of doing nothing
    [Houston Chronicle, Sun, May 25, 2008] More information is available on the Climate Chaos scenario
  • AND he will be dealing with the tremendous economic upheaval of these and other apocalyptic (yet realistic) scenarios of grinding, slow-motion, systemic collapses over the next decade.

    These realities need to be addressed by the candidates in the coming months — because these are the issues that will make a real difference to our children and grandchildren.

    There are also signs of hope, here and there:


  • Green Firms Rewarded By Financial Markets
    [Strategic Management Journal, Thu, May 29, 2008]
  • New study finds most North Pacific humpback whale populations rebounding [NOAA, via EurekAlert, Fri, May 23, 2008]

  • Oregano oil works as well as synthetic insecticides to tackle common beetle pest
    [Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, Fri, May 23, 2008]

  • Simple, Low-cost Carbon Filter Removes 90 Percent Of Carbon Dioxide From Smokestack Gases
    [American Chemical Society via ScienceDaily, Wed, May 21, 2008]

  • US Changes Course, Bans Drilling In Arctic Wetland
    [Planet Ark via Reuters, Mon, May 19, 2008]

  • Recovery plan kills species’ foe, thins fire-prone forests
    [Redding News, Sat, May 17, 2008]

  • Prince Charles urges forest logging halt
    [The Post (Pakistan), Fri, May 16, 2008]More information is available on this Recovery scenario
  • We need to see thoughtful, reasoned, rational acknowledgement of the sacrifices required by these last few party generations, if we are to have any hope of ending the next decade with a world remotely recognizable as related to how we live today.

    When GMO ≠ GMO

    Sunday, May 11th, 2008

    Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can raise my hackles. But only sometimes. Other times, I’m delighted by the creativity, ingenuity, and smarts of the technology and its scientists.

    What scares me most, I’ve discovered while working on a related project, is idle blurring of the various issues involved with “Genetic Modification.” When we speak as if it’s all the same, and worse, when our leaders polarize the issue, then society is the worse for it. We need to acknowledge that it’s not necessarily the process, but rather the implementation that is at issue.

    On the one hand, you can have stupid GMO, as we have seen with Monsanto’s proprietary “roundup ready” crop seeds — corn, soybeans, and a few other crops they’ve developed, which can withstand Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup™.

    They raise my hackles because they’re stupidly produced, stupidly implemented, and with a business model that is stupid for the planet, if clever for Monsanto.

    a) Monsanto requires, and vigorously enforces, the provision that farmers sign away their right to replant seed grown on their own farms. Instead, they’re required to buy new seed from Monsanto, every season.

    b) The early GMO seed — the Monsanto stuff in particular — was produced in a frighteningly primitive way: essentially blasting desired DNA (and a whole lot of other DNA) into another set of DNA, and seeing what happened. If the resulting plant showed promise, and didn’t fail to thrive (that is, no mutation was causing obvious troubles), then it would be propogated.

    That is, they were aiming at a target — getting RoundUpReady™ seed — and then using a shotgun to fire at the target. And by golly, one of the pellets hit a bulls-eye!

    But we haven’t done thorough studies of where the other pellets went — and what damage they might have done outside the target. Instead, Monsanto is making astounding profits testing the system “in the field.” Which leads me to:

    c) Humankind is allowing Monsanto (and other GM crop producers) to use the world as a petrie dish. This is fundamentally stupid: few if any human-health, genetic-drift, ecosystem-health, or other tests have been done on these crops, yet we’re planting millions of acres of Monsanto seed, resulting in plenty of spillover (GM canola has been found growing as a weed in Japan, which nationally prohibits GMO importation).

    It may be mere coincidence that bee colonies are suffering colony collapse disorder, but we don’t know — because the pollen of RoundUpReady soybeans was never tested on pollen-collectors. We haven’t tested to see what degree of digestive problems might be the result of an allergy to, say, GM corn-produced corn syrup. We haven’t tested whether the worms in the soil get have their reproductive systems screwed up because they end up eating the Roundup-killed weeds in those cornfields, or the decaying roots of the previous year’s corn.

    a) is insulting, b) is primitive, and c) is idiotic. That’s three strikes.

    But that doesn’t mean I’m fully anti-GMO. There are some amazing projects out there, which are smart, and are also controlled. That is, they are systems that use genetically modified bacteria to turn cellulose — the chaff, the corn husks, the sawdust — into ethanol, thereby taking straw and turning it into gold.

    Elsewhere scientists are modifying bacteria to fix nitrogen while producing sugars to make burnable gas, grown in transparent vats, using sunlight to grow.

    What’s different is that these are a closed systems. These smart GMO projects and others are being tested, and refined, within a laboratory. They’re tested, they’re checked, they’re limited even if scaled up.

    Among the many reasons these distinctions matters is that knee-jerk anti-GMO reactions are as easy to dismiss as knee-jerk creationist reactions: who but a zealot would refuse to acknowledge that bacterial infections have evolved to defeat a sequence of antibiotics? The scientists working in the exciting GM field can easily dismiss societal concerns — justifiable concerns — by painting them with the brush of zealotry.

    We, and our political and scientific leaders, need to take a multivalent view of GMOs — it’s not binary, not just “bad” or “good.” It’s not the “genetically modifed” part that is so wrong (and many a biologist will tell you “we’ve been doing genetic modification via hybrids for thousands of years”) — it’s the stupid implementation of promoting uncontrolled organisms that might have profound effects on our food, our health, and our biome.

    We should ensure that all GM work is done smartly, not stupidly. And we need to be sure that profit is not used as an excuse for irresponsibility.

    Green books for Earth Day week, 2008

    Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

    I’ve fallen in love with the story of Easter Island. You know, the story of this remote piece of land in the Pacific Ocean whose inhabitants willfully deforested their entire island. From a peak population of 7000, the population had deteriorated by the late 1800s — to the point where the island was taken over by Chile and turned into a giant sheep ranch.

    What were they using their trees for? Turns out, the timber was the only means of transporting the massive stone platforms, along with the statues of male heads and torsos, across the island to their sacred sites. Different clans on the island were competing for the biggest, most elaborate statues, and you can bet these works of stone, once sculpted, required ever more timber to roll to their destination.

    I love this story because this society destroyed itself trying to out-icon each other. They cut down all their trees for cultural frivolities. Sure, it felt important to them, but imagine the “d’oh!” coming from the dude who cut down the last tree. Especially as these stone heads didn’t provide any real – flesh and bone – sustenance.

    A fitting metaphor, especially here in the land of the Couch Potatoes.

    Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” was my first encounter with the Easter Island story (okay there was maybe something in high school, but I had forgotten)… A perfect companion for “Collapse” is Clive Ponting’s “A New Green History of the World” (Penguin; 2007). First published in 1991, Ponting has painstakingly gone over everything – only the Easter Island chapter is pretty much the same.

    This book is an ApocoDoc’s dream come true as it looks at the civilizations who have allowed themselves to be destroyed by their senseless environmental practices. Just the chapter entitled “The Rape of the World” is enough to make one weep.

    From extinction to invasive species to deforestation to desertification to overpopulation to pollution to pandemic disease, Ponting’s book is a chilling accounting of what horror humans can wreak.

    C.S. Goldsmith’s “Uninhabitable” (Goldstar Publications; 2007) doesn’t sugarcoat the problem, either, though there is friction between his Apocalyptic-looking book cover image – a red, dying sun hovering above a blighted cityscape – juxtaposed with his subtitle “A case for caution.” To me, one look at the cover, and I say the hell with caution, let’s party while we still have a few months left.

    The rest of the book is much the same: Chilling, terrifying facts are followed by a sentence such as “We simply don’t have a lot more time to waste.”

    Goldsmith’s big point here is the vast deposits of methane that will likely be unleashed by global warming, and these deposits are tantamount to every fart ever farted by every animal that ever existed multiplied by 1000 times. That’s my equation by the way, and I don’t claim it’s by any means scientific.

    Punctuation problems and snarled syntax mars this read, but you gotta love Goldsmith’s mettle. Here’s a guy who graduated from Harvard with a business degree, was a CEO for 32 years and then decided he had to do SOMETHING about this planet’s peril. So he wrote a book.

    I, along with Michael, created this web site. This is, I suppose the Age of DIY.

    Speaking of, one of the leaders of the DIY movement, Ed Begley, Jr., has a new book, “Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life” (Potter; $18; www.LivingLikeEd.com) . You can distract yourself from the doom/gloom and certain destruction of Ponting’s and Goldsmith’s books by DOING something, whether it’s changing a light bulb or buying an electric car.

    That’s right. Ed makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something good, which of course you are, when you decide to take your own canvas bags to the store (from $5) to installing your own solar panels (from $30,000). That’s right, Ed’s got all this money-coded, so you can figure out what you can afford vs. what you might be able to try later when you’ve saved a bunch of money being green in simpler ways.

    It’s got the feel of a book created by a man who’s been trying out the green life for 30 years. There are lots of homey looking photos of Ed doing this and that green thing in his house – and far too photos of his wife Rachel Carson-Begley who adds her own tips throughout the book.

    “Living Like Ed,” unlike the other two books mentioned here, is published on recycled paper, so that’s another plus in its column. At this point, Ed only takes on the projects he likes. Somebody out there want to pitch him a TLC or HGTV cable show, “This Green House”? Somebody’s gonna make a lot of green off that idea.

    Either that, or he can make “Easter Island,” the movie, complete with an all-star cast. Unless Mel Gibson would rather make it. Apocalypto-a-go-go.

    Happy Earth Day Week,

    Jim

    Apocology Post: Responding to Transgression

    Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

    Here’s the problem: we have developed, over the last fifty years, a belief that we can transgress with impunity.

    We can transgress countries (viz. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and countless minor incursions in between). We can transgress economies (viz. the World Bank, the IMF, the overdevelopment industry [see Confessions of an Economic Hit Man], and countless economic incursions). We can transgress privacy (viz. the credit system, “homeland security,” and grocery-store cards that give us a discount so they can track our every purchase).

    We can transgress science (viz. the well-financed “oh gosh there’s doubt” about climate impacts of massive output of CO2, when there was little real doubt among real scientists). We can transgress representative government (viz. the bush administration’s executive hegemony, over the last six years).

    But worst of all is that for fifty years and more — one could argue that it’s built into our DNA — we have believed that we could transgress Nature with impunity.

    What I’ve been seeing, over the last few months of attending to the Apoc scenarios, to distill it for this site, has truly terrified me. We have imagined that we were kings of the world. We have imagined that we could do no wrong, that any business was good business, that the world would take whatever we could mete out.

    We were wrong. We should have known better, but of course we didn’t want to know.

    It’s been fun, these last decades. I’ve just turned 50, and have had five decades of relative opulance and luxury. We didn’t have to worry about carbon footprints, or climate collapse. We didn’t have to think about what we were doing to the rainforests by eating a Big Mac. We didn’t have to wonder if there’d be wildflowers, much less most grocery produce, in five years, if the bees die off.

    We didn’t worry about the pthalates in plastic. About dead zones. About ocean acidification. About mercury in what fish are left. About untethered genetic modification for profit.

    All we had to worry about was nuclear war, which was just a rumble in the distance.

    We are now facing facts that make it clear that, to have a viable civilization in fifteen years, we have to make radical change, faster than any of us want.

    We are stuck with this. We, my generation and all above and below it, must recognize that a dramatic restructuring of priorities, and of our willingness to transgress, is required. That’s a lot of what the PostApocology site is about — trying to make it clear how far we’ve transgressed, in so many ways.

    If we don’t make dramatic change, then we will be restructured anyway, just less orderly, and with more violence.

    Because the shit will hit the fan. Our transgressions have caught up with us. We have to start shifting today, if we are to have any hope of having a good tomorrow.

    It’s all too much

    Sunday, February 10th, 2008

    I wept today. Really really wept. It was the Eighth Continent of trash (twice the size of Texas!), the Haitians eating dirt, the killer whales full of fire retardant, the dust clouds carrying SARS from the African deserts to my back yard, everything…on and on…it’s just all too much to fathom, all the pain and suffering people have caused.

    I need to take a break and get outside, remind myself that the earth is still here, still beautiful, and worth any amount of work it takes to make any small improvement.

    Jim

    PostApocHaiku launched

    Thursday, January 17th, 2008

    I’m truly gratified that we’ve seen our way through to posting PostApocHaiku in some of our news feed mouseovers. There were some technological issues to work through, but the bigger bugaboo for Mike and I was grappling w/ the realization that haiku is NOT one of the seven humor vectors.

    Given the discipline we must maintain, this was a pickle. How to introduce a brand new — even in this nascent stage of the site — kind of communication?

    Of course it goes w/out saying that we were attracted to the intrinsic rhythmic structure of the haiku — after all, the second line always contains SEVEN SYLLABLES! And we do like that magic number seve.

    But the clincher was this: Traditional haiku is a type of communication whose purpose is to capture (otherwise) ineffable moments of seasonal transitions. That first poo-too-weet of the bird of spring. The first glimpse of the crocus. You get the idea, you studied the form in grade school. So what better modality of communication about the chaos and miasma of change wrought by environmental devastation (in all 7 forms) than the haiku?

    We could if we’re not careful go haiku crazy!

    Our other concern was if you don’t cleverly mark the word w/ caps: “PostApocHaiku” and instead write all in lower caps “postapochaiku” it might make people want to respond with a: Gesundheit!

    And what is wrong, one’s spiritual proclivities notwithstanding, with a simple “God bless” in response to a sneeze…or some larger cataclysm.

    I am,

    James

    Alpha tester reviews are positive so far

    Saturday, January 12th, 2008

    “Had a lot of fun and it is way more educational than I had imagined it would be for the amount of effort I put in. SO… can I forward the link on? and… when are you going to submit this link to Colbert, Jon Stewart, and yes Bill O’Reilly?”

    and

    “Overall, this site has SO MUCH cool stuff going on in it. I responded best (of course) to the academic pretentions/spoof elements (loved the pronunciation guide, for example) …”

    On this last one, we’re not sure what she’s implying regarding “academic pretentions” or “spoof elements.” We hope this tester clarifies it for us in the future.

    Somehow or another…

    Friday, January 11th, 2008

    … the blog posts and comments from yesterday disappeared, and the site presentation reverted to a default.

    Was it a malicious action from one of our former colleagues? We can’t believe any of them would do that.

    Launch of the website

    Thursday, January 10th, 2008

    As of 3:21 January 10, the Institute for PostApocology site has been launched.