All posts by keener

Can We Avoid the Tipping Point?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene” by Will Steffen and others is the most direct, present-oriented, and scientific article on climate change we have read in this class so far. Steffen et al. describe multiple potential pathways in which the Earth can go thanks to climate change. 

One such pathway, which Steffen and others call “The Hothouse Earth pathway,” is that the human-created biogeophysical feedback loops will continue to cause a mass extinction of countless species (including humanity, most likely at some point), requiring human stewardship and integration with the Earth if we are ever to hope for these dramatic changes to cease. According to the article, even if the current initiatives to halt the release of GHG emissions are agreed upon and implemented, Earth’s feedback loops aren’t going to listen, and will most likely continue to cycle as if nothing happened. These feedback loops will soon reach a tipping point (assuming they haven’t already), and they are unpredictable, most likely resulting in some form(s) of societal collapse and drastic attempts at adaptation, which just may end in failure. 

Another potential pathway, one which seems less likely than the former at this point, is named the “Stabilized Earth pathway”. This pathway assumes humans have taken initiative to immediately cease GHG emissions, integrate carbon capture and solar radiation technology, and much more. Also, this pathway, as Steffen et al. suggest, can be achieved partially by using carbon sinks and moisture feedbacks in the Earth’s forests. Ultimately, this pathway requires complete systemic change, and even if this happens, humans and plenty of other species will have to adapt to a much warmer climate.

This article, to my surprise, doesn’t give me much hope. If anything, it confirms everything we’ve been thinking this whole time, and it provides more insight not just in the fact that we may very well die, but how we’ll die as well. As this article shows, and as many of us have known for a long time, immediate and systemic change, especially in countries which contribute most to CO2 emissions. I just wish I knew how to bring this about.

A New Way to Present Climate Change

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In “The Tamarisk Hunter,” Paolo Bacigalupi tells the story of Lolo, a “water tick” (someone who chops down tamarisk trees in order to retrieve water) living in a drought-ridden, future California. The drought is the result of the failure of today’s humans to act on climate change. There is a class of people in the region who are prohibited from drinking water (and so must steal it), while another class has access to all the water they need via a system of pipes, which are inaccessible to the lower class. This is why water ticks like Lolo hunt tamarisks; they need to in order to survive, even if doing so may endanger their lives.

This story somewhat resembles those of Cormac McCarthy, an author who is known for his apocalyptic westerns such as Blood Meridian and The Road (the latter of which may be based specifically on climate change as well). Bacigalupi’s story is one which may look like our visions of the future of our own lives, but it instead mirrors the lives of countless individuals experiencing water shortages today, who not only    but who are deprived of water by people with opposing interests. This is happening presently in Bangladesh, Honduras, and Flint, Michigan, to name some examples. 

This story successfully takes a pressing issue and turns it into a digestible, fascinating piece of fiction. Sadly, people tend to empathize more with fictional characters than with real people who are facing the same struggles. But in many ways, it is beneficial for writers to put a new spin on a relevant topic if the standard ways are falling short or if they seem too redundant. In the same way that satire can help many people view a contemporary issue in a new way, so too can fiction. 

Sounds That Matter

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Though it may be hard to notice, the world is quickly getting louder, and the soundscape is turning into something it has never been before. R. Murray Schafer observes this in his book The Soundscape and implies a connection with this change in the earth’s sounds to the Anthropocene, and human activity in general. The dawn choruses of birds and the many sounds of forests are falling, while the sounds of machines and human influence are getting louder (I suppose this is somewhat contestable; Toyota Priuses are pretty quiet, for example). Schafer argues that this noisiness is detracting from are ability to truly appreciate the sounds which the world provides us with. Because the definition of music has shifted in recent decades to pretty much mean “a collection of sounds,” Schafer implores us to treat the sounds from the earth as music, because ignoring these sounds, as we have become accustomed to doing, can only make things worse. 

But these sounds nature provides us, which Schafer wants us to listen to, are gradually getting quieter. This is happening for a few notable reasons. For one thing, humanity’s implementation of machines and other such technology block out other sounds, and causing new, metallic sounds. Also, since humans are the primary cause of that is being called the “sixth extinction,” the sounds which we once enjoyed have literally disappeared, due to our elimination of entire species. Perhaps this is a reason in itself why Schafer wants us to listen for the sounds; we can try to preserve what’s still here.

Through all of the sounds, says Schafer, we are able to study and analyze the moods and events of various time periods, with political upheaval causing musicians to create emotional and angry music (not unlike what we see today), while times of peace produce calmer music. I assume there are ways to refute this claim, but I have noticed a significant change in tone and subject matter in music from the last few years. But listening to the sounds of our planet (that we produce and that exist whether or not we’re here) can give us insight into things bigger than ourselves, which we can use to hopefully create change in our behaviors and our ideas.

A Slippery Slope

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters, at least from what we’ve seen from a few selected chapters, illustrates the multifaceted issue surrounding the viability and ethics of geo-engineering as a way to reverse impacts from climate change. He displays a broad assortment of proposed geo-engineering technology ideas, showing the potential benefits and consequences of each of them. For instance, he describes carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation manipulation/management as the primary methods, and then goes on to list a few other lesser known proposals, such as the deforestation of Siberia and Canada in order to increase the albedo from the ground below. 

One of the core arguments in favor of implementing geo-engineering technology is that the amount of effort we would have to put in to persuade people in power to significantly reduce carbon emissions seems close to impossible, and therefore geo-engineering is a quick and economically efficient way to mitigate the issue. The primary argument against this is that geo-engineering does absolutely nothing to solve climate change (assuming there is such a thing as “solving” such a problem) because the fossil fuel industries are completely excused of responsibility for their actions, making it so they continue production like any other day. In some ways, this actually helps the industries, because the extraction techniques used to create energy out of fossil fuels is being utilized directly for geo-engineering technology, which has been demonstrated through the movement to begin usage of so-called “clean coal”. 

Another key argument is that many of the proposed geo-engineering technologies don’t even do anything about carbon emissions, but instead focus on re-engineering other parts of the earth, such as reflecting sunlight away from the earth in order to reduce heat radiation.

Geo-engineering, in my opinion, is quite possibly the worst available solution for mitigating climate change. It plays no part in addressing the reasons we got to this point in the first place, and is in fact a continuation of our anthropogenic impact. Also, many scientists who advocate for geo-engineering technology don’t seem to prioritize the safety of the people who would likely be affected by it, primarily in underdeveloped countries. Not only is it merely a band-aid for a systemic issue, but it could have dire impacts which are possibly worse than some effects of climate change itself. I’m not really sure what the best way forward is; there are a lot of ideas out in the open which seem equally viable and risky, and maybe even impractical. But I do know that geo-engineering technology is not the solution.

History Repeats Itself Once Again

Image from Wikimedia Commons

“Sustainability,” from the series Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, uncovers the issue of how the United Nations, and more specifically the United States, is handling the ideas of sustainable living during the Anthropocene in order to mitigate climate change as well as general harm we have done to the environment. 

While climate change mitigation specifically is a relatively recent issue for a major western organization like the United Nations to handle, the methods of which they are managing the issue is one which is as old as western civilization itself. These methods come from an imperialist and particularly western mindset, which is to say that the nations and individuals at the helm of an organization like the United Nations eschew as much responsibility as possible for their actions by using other countries (particularly ones in which the majority of citizens are not white) as some sort of scapegoat for environmental disaster, as we’ve seen in all of the previous readings from this class. 

The major powers within the United Nations have taken it upon themselves to spread a gospel of sustainability to nations in Latin America, much in the same way that major western groups and powers have dubiously spread democracy or Christianity throughout history. These Latin American countries don’t play even close to as big a role in the escalation of carbon emissions as a country like the United States does, but their citizens are being told to practice a sustainable lifestyle on our behalf. This is strange and bad for heaps of reasons. The United States has no intent on imposing these same ideals onto its own citizens, and it’s likely that they never will. I don’t even know what the United States is trying to get out of this, besides maybe just the joy of exerting power and force over people who don’t matter, in their eyes. Most of the people involved in high politics within the US and the UN hardly care or believe in climate change to begin with, so what’s their motive, if not doing it “just because”? Maybe the answer is right in front of me and I can’t see it. But I can’t say I’m surprised that any of this is happening.

A Late Night Climate Ramble

Allen Thompson’s texts are the first in this course curriculum to ask the question: Now that we’ve reached the tipping point of climate cataclysm, what should we do? In his paper,  “A World They Don’t Deserve: Moral Failure and Deep Adaptation,” Thompson asks this question through the lens of a moral imperative, and attributes much of the current state of our climate to a moral failure on the part of present and somewhat earlier generations of humans, who have wronged future generations of humans. 

Thompson gives two major assumptions regarding the state of the climate as we know it: 1.) The distant future of mankind is “deeply uncertain” and 2.) People alive today are morally obligated to do something to prevent climate disaster, or else we have morally failed (Thompson 2). I agree with both of these propositions, though I agree with the second one more than the first. Thompson says that future generations will live in a world which humans today are not able to comprehend nor empathize with. I agree with this too, but there seems to be an implication here which cannot be ignored, which is that the effects of climate change have not truly taken place yet, and that present day humans will not live to see its major effects. Though climate scientists have roughly come to a consensus that we have 12 years to act or else damage is irreversible (or even 18 months, depending on who you ask. Either way, there’s very little time) (source [1]). Climate change is directly and presently affecting people of color through environmental racism, where people are dislocated from their communities or they are the target of industrial companies who have relocated specifically to their towns. 

Thompson brings up three common proposals of climate change solutions which he says are “Normatively Weak.” They are doing nothing, survivalism, and geoengineering (Thompson 7). I agree that these three solutions are not something to pay much attention to, especially at this point. Geoengineering in particular is a solution which I find pretty atrocious, given that it does nothing whatsoever to solve the problems that created climate change in the first place (not to mention that it is potentially very dangerous). I’m also glad that Thompson brought up the realities of survivalism, and how the common perceptions of it (the stereotype of stockpiling soup and an arsenal) can only get people so far, and how the only way to really make sure the species survives is if humans learn sustainability in a community (Thompson 8).

But we have not reached this point yet; I believe we still have time—albeit a sliver of time—to effectively redirect climate change before worldwide catastrophe ensues. Researchers at Stanford led by Mark Z. Jacobson, environmental engineering professor, conducted a study and found that it is very possible to realistically convert 100% of the world’s energy to renewable and zero-emission technology by the year 2030 (source below [2]). Then again, despite this being possible, it is still crucial to ask whether or not we should do this, since the manufacturing of renewable energy technology doesn’t change what caused the problem in the first place: extraction. So this must also be kept in mind. I’m really not sure how to answer a question like this, because all in all, extraction is inherently harmful and should be stopped somehow, but we’ve been presented with a feasible way to quickly move to complete renewable energy. But then in Thompson argues that the way our neo-liberal system is set up, people aren’t going to want to make this change in enough time, and thus we’ll have to figure out how to cope otherwise. So it looks like I’ve come full circle, and I simultaneously agree and disagree with Thompson’s point, and I don’t have a clue what the answer is, once again. There’s a lot more that I could write about but I think I’m going to stop now.




A Willful Blindness

Slaves from Guinea digging for gold and silver in mines, for the Spanish in Hispaniola.
Image taken from America.- Part V.- Latin.; Originally published/produced in Frankfurt, 1595 (1617 ?). Wikimedia

Kathryn Yusoff, author of A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, offers a disconcerting perspective of the Anthropocene, stating that the now infamous geological era has warped into what we know it as today—a human, post-racial issue beginning with the Industrial Revolution and the steady increase of atmospheric CO2—from a much older origin with foundations in chattel slavery. Yusoff argues that this warping was intentional, done in order to erase the grim realities of the enslavement of people of color, and more specifically, to take the blame and responsibility away from the white perpetrators by making the proliferation of greenhouse gases, for instance, appear as an oversight in a period of overall progress (Yusoff 1-3).

Geology, suggests Yusoff, is the product of white people in power exploiting black and indigenous slaves by reducing them to materials and commodities to be extracted, equal to gold, coal, land, etc. Slaves were considered “matter”, “inhuman”, and commodities without agency or subjective will. This language of inhuman, extractable objects is so essential to geology, says Yusoff, that it is embedded in the grammar of geology itself. Therefore, according to Yusoff, slavery is inseparable from geology, which makes it also inseparable from any true discussion about the Anthropocene. Slave labor was a central element in the geological transformation of the world beginning in the 15th century, and this only ended once there were more efficient replacements, like oil, and eventually industrial factories (Yusoff 6). But geology’s horrendous beginnings still have substantial effects on today’s world, as evidenced by the environmental racism occurring with polluting industries relocating to poor cities with majority black populations, as well as in Native American reservations (Yusoff 13).

Yusoff makes the bold and likely controversial assertion that the reason we study geology at all is because humankind’s exploration into geology began from an extractivist mindset, which began specifically through slave labor (Yusoff 13). As powerful as this claim is for Yusoff’s argument, I have a hard time finding any outside evidence to verify this. Most things she has said in this book are consistent with my previous understandings of Anthropogenic history, but this aspect in particular is difficult for me to accept, until I find some information to support her theory.

I also have a hard time figuring out how this text is supposed to apply to the problem of the Anthropocene as know it. The primary reason being that it is difficult to settle on the best balance between two opposing progressive ideas: an appreciation of intellectualism (and, pardon the redundancy, a condemnation of anti-intellectualism), and a goal of making essential information as accessible to the general public as possible. I personally found this text, while fascinating and informative, somewhat beyond my reach and too esoteric for what the audience (presumably anyone who cares enough about Anthropogenic calamity) might be capable of comprehending. This is not necessarily a problem in other areas of interest, but when the clock is rapidly ticking to Climate Doom, it is vital that as many people understand these ideas as possible.

A Distant Examination of a Dialectic Regarding Religions’ Relationship to Environmental Catastrophe — or — I Have No Idea Who’s Correct, So Let’s Try to Find Out

Lynn White and Pope Francis, through their combined (unintentional) efforts, have managed to turn my brain into applesauce by arguing viewpoints which require that I have adequate biblical literacy, a comprehensive historical knowledge of the so-called West, and a mindset which allows me to actually come to a firm conclusion about anything. But I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

Lynn White, in his essay “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, argues that a person’s view of ecology is determined through how they view themselves in relation to nature.  He also argues that the primary underlying reason for the destruction of our environment is not only the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the advent of contemporary science, but also a view of humanity which White believes came from Christian theology: the belief that humans are separate from nature, and that they have supremacy over nature. At some point in history, humankind made a dramatic switch from having a symbiotic relationship with nature to exploiting nature. White says, “…to use the new and more efficient plow, peasants pooled their oxen to form large plow-teams, originally receiving (it would appear) plowed strips in proportion to their contribution. Thus, distribution of land was based no longer on the needs of a family but, rather, on the capacity of a power machine to till the earth,” (White 4). White thinks that this change directly links to the advent of Christianity in Europe (specifically the Protestant and Catholic denominations). He states, “Is it coincidence that modern technology, with its ruthlessness toward nature, has so largely been produced by descendants of these peasants of northern Europe?” (White 4). Ultimately, when Lynn White argues that “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them” (White 4), he is more or less correct. Holding the viewpoint that one is related genetically to a fish or a bacterium, for instance, is often going to result in a much more connected and mutual relationship to the environment, whereas the viewpoint that one is separated from and above nature is likely going to result in a more distanced relationship from our ecology. But is Western Christianity to blame, as Lynn White suggests? To say that Western Christianity is the one true answer would be a stretch, but as a general direction to point to, he makes a pretty convincing argument. People practicing pagan religions, as noted by White and based on what I’ve read in other Climate Change literature, historically have a much more mutual relationship with the environment, and view humans and nature as equally important (White 4). It would seem that it was not until the emergence of monotheistic religions that people began to have the influential belief that human beings exist outside of nature and control it. But I haven’t found any compelling alternative theories to contrast White’s argument. Oh, except for this one:

In “Laudato Si”, Pope Francis approaches a similar question with a far different answer. He states that Christianity itself is not the problem, but instead, people have been misinterpreting God’s well-meaning words over the course of history. The Bible’s innumerable translations have led to centuries of misinterpretation, where different religious denominations took pieces that they saw fit and either changed or discarded pieces that didn’t fit into their narrative. Pope Francis knows this, and points out where these misconceptions are located in the Bible, and how God never intended for humanity to view the world in such a dangerous way (Francis 49). But despite the examples Pope Francis provides, the interpretation that man is separate from nature persists throughout the world anyway, thanks to the poor usage of the word “dominion”. But through some further investigation, I found that the book of Genesis (King James Version) contains a passage which presents us with what appears to be another questionable word: “…and God said unto [humanity], Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it…” (Gen 1:28). Subdue is synonymous with conquer, defeat, and master. It’s no wonder that so many people have misinterpreted this concept. But if Pope Francis is sure that this was a misinterpretation at all, why were the words “dominion” and “subdued” chosen for the Bible in the first place? Was there a decision made in an early translation of the Bible where the overseer(s) weren’t satisfied with God merely granting them “stewardship” or something or other, and thanks to some already established cultural desire for superiority over nature, they made a covert switch? If so, when did that begin to take place? Who knows? 

Though studying the reasons and origins behind the exploitation of the earth’s resources is crucial for understanding how we got to this dangerous point as a civilization and how we can prevent something similar from happening down the line (if there is a ‘down the line’), at least we’re discussing articles by two people who agree that Climate Change is an anthropogenic issue. It is becoming clear to more and more humans—albeit quite slowly—that human impacts are in fact real, and are a problem.