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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.

    Waking from Hibernation: or, Bats ‘R’ Us

    Friday, March 7th, 2008

    I have been obsessing about the bat problem — the un-hibernating bats in New York and Vermont, flying out of the caves to a wintry landscape because they’re starving to death, littering the snow around their hiberniums.

    And I think I realized today the reason for the obsession:

    Bats ‘R’ us.

    We’ve been sleepwalking through the last fifty years — mentally hibernating while the evidence piles up around us of what we’re doing to our world — and we’re just now waking up. We’re opening our eyes, and realizing that something’s wrong. We’re sick, we’re poisoned, we’re hungry, and the fat stores are about used up.

    Normally, we’d just go out and get some more land, conquer another civilization, pump another aquafir, find some more solutions — it’s worked every other time for humankind, right?

    We had a great autumn, eating twice our body weight of the world. We flew around with abandon, delighted in the evening sky.

    But now, we’re realizing that a lot of what we ate was toxic. That our resistances are down, and all isn’t quite how it should be. And we’re waking up from our hibernation, realizing that we may have screwed it all up over the last fifty years.

    And there’s not much but snow, out there.

    Food riots, UN World Food Program, and Commodities Prices

    Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

    From Guardian (UK):
    “WFP officials say the extraordinary increases in the global price of basic foods were caused by a “perfect storm” of factors: a rise in demand for animal feed from increasingly prosperous populations in India and China, the use of more land and agricultural produce for biofuels, and climate change…. Food riots have broken out in Morocco, Yemen, Mexico, Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal and Uzbekistan. Pakistan has reintroduced rationing for the first time in two decades. Russia has frozen the price of milk, bread, eggs and cooking oil for six months. Thailand is also planning a freeze on food staples. After protests around Indonesia, Jakarta has increased public food subsidies. India has banned the export of rice except the high-quality basmati variety.”

    Let me encourage you to go read the Guardian piece. Had you heard about the food riots going on in poorer countries?

    Much of the blame has been put on the transfer of land and grains to the production of biofuel. But its impact has been outweighed by the sharp growth in demand from a new middle class in China and India for meat and other foods, which were previously viewed as luxuries.

    “The fundamental cause is high income growth,” said Joachim von Braun, the head of the International Food Policy Research Institute. “I estimate this is half the story. The biofuels is another 30%. Then there are weather-induced erratic changes which caused irritation in world food markets. These things have eaten into world levels of grain storage.

    “The lower the reserves, the more nervous the markets become, and the increased volatility is particularly detrimental to the poor who have small assets.”

    Did you know that 1/3 of US corn production is going to biofuels already? And that our grain reserves (wheat, corn, soy) are at their lowest level since the 1970s?

    The Guardian article has this astonishing content regarding food riots, food prices, and impacts:

    Global impact: Where inflation bites deepest

    1 United States The last time America’s grain silos were so empty was in the early seventies, when the Soviet Union bought much of the harvest. Washington is telling the World Food Programme it is facing a 40% increase in food commodity prices compared with last year, and higher fuel bills to transport it, so the US, the biggest single food aid contributor, will radically cut the amount it gives away.

    2 Morocco 34 people jailed this month for taking part in riots over food prices.

    3 Egypt The world’s largest importer of wheat has been hard hit by the global price rises, and most of the increase will be absorbed in increased subsidies. The government has also had to relax the rules on who is eligible for food aid, adding an extra 10.5 million people.

    4 Eritrea It could be one of the states hardest hit in Africa because of its reliance on imports. The price rises will hit urban populations not previously thought vulnerable to a lack of food.

    5 Zimbabwe With annual inflation of 100,000% and unemployment at 80%, price increases on staples can only worsen the severe food shortages.

    6 Yemen Prices of bread and other staples have nearly doubled in the past four months, sparking riots in which at least a dozen people were killed.

    7 Russia The government struck a deal with producers last year to freeze the price of milk, eggs, vegetable oil, bread and kefir (a fermented milk drink). The freeze was due to last until the end of January but was extended for another three months.

    8 Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has asked the WFP to feed an extra 2.5 million people, who are now in danger of malnutrition as a result of a harsh winter and the effect of high world prices in a country that is heavily dependent on imports.

    9 Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf announced this month that Pakistan would be going back to ration cards for the first time since the 1980s, after the sharp increase in the price of staples. These will help the poor (nearly half the population) buy subsidised flour, wheat, sugar, pulses and cooking fat from state-owned outlets.

    10 India The government will spend 250bn rupees on food security. India is the world’s second biggest wheat producer but bought 5.5m tonnes in 2006, and 1.8m tonnes last year, driving up world prices. It has banned the export of all forms of rice other than luxury basmati.

    11 China Unusually severe blizzards have dramatically cut agricultural production and sent prices for food staples soaring. The overall food inflation rate is 18.2%. The cost of pork has increased by more than half. The cost of food was rising fast even before the bad weather moved in, as an increasingly prosperous population began to demand as staples agricultural products previously seen as luxuries. The government has increased taxes and imposed quotas on food exports, while removing duties on food imports.

    12 Thailand The government is planning to freeze prices of rice, cooking oil and noodles.

    13 Malaysia and the Philippines Malaysia is planning strategic stockpiles of the country’s staples. Meanwhile the Philippines has made an unusual plea to Vietnam to guarantee its rice supplies. Imports were previously left to the global market.

    14 Indonesia Food price rises have triggered protests and the government has had to increase its food subsidies by over a third to contain public anger.

    There’s lots more to read — go read it. Why is it only non-US news sources that report on this stuff? Criminy — a 40% increase in food commodity prices over last year?

    Palm oil, commodities, and profit

    Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

    From The International News (Pakistan):
    “Malaysian palm oil futures jumped more than 2 per cent to a new peak for the sixth straight session on Thursday on tight global vegetable oil supplies and crude oil’s record over $101…. Palm oil has climbed nearly 21 per cent this year, driven by increased Chinese and European demand, a flood of funds into commodity markets and Jakarta’s plans to hike export taxes for palm oil.

    What?? How can we allow palm oil to be profitable?

    Palm oil is forecast to be the world’s most produced and internationally traded edible oil by 2012. Malaysia and Indonesia account for 83 percent of production and 89 percent of global exports. Oil palm is grown as an industrial plantation crop, often (especially in Indonesia) on newly cleared rainforest or peat-swamp forests rather than on already degraded land or disused agricultural land. Since the 1970s, the area planted with oil palm in Indonesia has grown over 30-fold to almost 12,000 square miles. In Malaysia, the area devoted to oil palm has increased 12-fold to 13,500 square miles.

    That’s right, and it’s even really bad for us.

    Palm oil is used around the world in such foods as margarine, shortening, baked goods, and candies. Biomedical research indicates that palm oil, which is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat, promotes heart disease. Though less harmful than partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, it is far more conducive to heart disease than such heart-protective liquid oils as olive, soy, and canola. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, World Health Organization, and other health authorities have urged reduced consumption of oils like palm oil.
    quotes from the Center for Science in the Public Interest

    So it kills us, it kills the rain forest, it’s threatening the orangutan…. it’s bad! So why the $%@#$ are we accepting it being profitable? Why are we allowing this to happen?