Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Before The Flood”

It should perhaps be called “During The Flood” because anthropogenic change is already starting to flood parts of our planet. And giving anyone the sense that climate disaster is out there in the future somewhere instead of right here, right now is probably a bad idea. But credit to Leo for fighting the good fight and pushing on climate issues with persistence and sincerity.

I haven’t seen this new doc yet, but the full version popped up on YouTube, courtesy of National Geographic. So here it is:

A View Of Earth

It’s always said that seeing earth from space gives humans a unique perspective that encourages a sense of earth as an integrated and fragile ecosystem. In other words, it helps us see the WHOLE earth.

This narrated video from the international space station achieves exactly that:

Humans tend to see everything from a human-first perspective. We tend to analyze events according to how it impacts humanity. We tend to act in our own interest.

But what if we started to see things from an Earth-first perspective? If we made personal, political, economic, and cultural decisions based on how they impact the Earth and ALL its species, not just the one we happen to belong to? If we acknowledged that we are just one part of a complex ecosystem, and that our cleverness does not necessarily give us the right to compromise the rights and futures of other parts of that ecosystem? If we had the wisdom to recognize that exploiting earth and its inhabitants instead of nurturing them is a way of undermining our own future.

What would happen? Well, everything would change.

Watch the video, see how humanity is visible almost everywhere, and think about that.

Morality and Science

Since I touched on the topic of morality and climate change today, I wanted to share this powerful and articulate argument about morality and science. It comes from the always insightful Carl Safina, and I hope he won’t begrudge me the license to publish his entire essay–posted on his excellent blog–here (hey, if you’ve written something that can’t, or shouldn’t, be cut, then you have really accomplished something!).

Safina makes a critically important argument: that science is about the search for objective truth, and that humanity must always seek and acknowledge truth–no matter what the moral or political implications–because failure to do so can only bring darkness and crisis.

Take it away, Carl:

Science is essentially the systematic pursuit of what is real in nature.

Science is a method of inquiry. It asks, what is here?; then it seeks to answer questions of why and how.

Science aims to be objective. Two scientists who hold opposite hypotheses, give money to opposing political parties, and are of different faiths will—if they do their science honestly—get the same result.

This is what makes science the most powerful tool for truth-seeking ever devised by people. Science is in my opinion the finest achievement of the human mind.

Science is acknowledged as extremely important in much of the world. But it is also strenuously resisted, mistrusted, and ignored. It is not compatible with oppression and dishonesty, because it requires freedom of thought.

Only in a world where truth is feared can it be “inconvenient.”

A world that better valued and embraced science would be, by definition, more open to the truth, more realistic, more flexible and adaptable. A society more open to truth and more flexible could also be more humane, more compassionate, more pleasant—and more likely to survive.

Science can be flawed by human bias. It can be misused. But by its very design it resists those things; to the extent that science entails bias and is misused, it is bad science. Good science entails an abundance of curiosity, a lack of bias, a desire to better understand reality, and a commitment to embrace the truth. That makes science the most honest—and therefore the most moral—discipline ever devised by the human mind.

I am impressed over and over again with the fact that science must be the starting point for understanding what is really going on, for detecting changes in the world, and for identifying the likely consequences of human action or inaction. Science is a compass; it does not define the destination but it can guide us in getting there.

A populace acquainted with science, with its standards of openness, evidence, and repeatability, would be far less susceptible to the claims of politicians, salesmen, and extremists of various kinds. Science helps people cut through the nonsense. Science is a wise counselor. In short, science is a very good thing for the world.

Because the world is accelerating and problems proliferating, science is crucially important now. We need more science in our world and in our lives. So we need more of what science does, and we need it better understood and better valued.

A Voice In The Wilderness

A new campaign is making the moral argument for combatting climate change:

“We believe it’s time to talk about our moral obligation to prevent the human suffering ­created by climate change, to safeguard the poor and most vulnerable communities from harm they did not create, and to protect the natural environment that is the source of all life,” said campaign coordinator Bob Doppelt, executive director of the Resource Innovation Group, a nonprofit association affiliated with Willam­ette University.

My reaction is: Well, or course, and thanks for putting it so succinctly.” And: “Wasn’t it time to start talking about this about, um, 30 years ago.”

Anyhow, remember the sentiment, because it is the right one. But also remember that it comes way too late.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t address climate change. We should, because limiting it matters. But we are also in an era where we, and the biosphere, will be forced to try and adapt to enormous environmental change. And there is no knowing how that story will play out.

Divining The Future: Apocalypse, Retreat, Or Revolution

It’s hard to know how to respond to the overwhelming sense that the priorities and inertia of human culture are trashing the planet. But I just came across a thought-provoking review of a fascinating book. Revolutions That Made The Earth, which helps frame the choices.

First off, the book is about how life on earth has previously adapted to dramatic change, and it argues something critical: that the forces humanity has set in motion, particularly with regard to climate, are going to cause major transformations to earth no matter what we do now. In other words, an Apocalyptic change is coming. Here is how the book explains it:

Even the normally cheerful and creative Jim Lovelock argues that we are already doomed, and nothing we can do now will stop the Earth system being carried by its own internal dynamics into a different and inhospitable state for us. If so, all we can do is try to adapt. We disagree—in our view the game is not yet up. As far as we can see no one has yet made a convincing scientific case that we are close to a global tipping point for ‘runaway’ climate change.


Yet even without truly ‘runaway’ change, the combination of unmitigated fossil fuel burning and positive feedbacks from within the Earth system could still produce an apocalyptic climate for humanity. We could raise global temperature by up to 6 °C this century, with more to come next century. On the way there, many parts of the Earth system could pas their own thresholds and undergo profound changes in state. These are what Tim [Lenton] and colleagues have called ‘tipping elements’in the climate system.

They warrant a book by themselves, so we will just touch on them briefly here. The tipping elements include the great ice sheets covering Greenland and West Antarctica that are already losing mass and adding to sea level rise. In the tropics, there are already changes in atmospheric circulation, and in the pattern of El Niño events. The Amazon rainforest suffered severe drought in 2005 and might in the future face a climate drying-triggered dieback, destroying biodiversity and adding carbon to the atmosphere. Over India, an atmospheric brown cloud of pollution is already disrupting the summer monsoon, threatening food security. The monsoon in West Africa could be seriously disrupted as the neighboring ocean warms up. The boreal forests that cloak the northern high latitudes are threatened by warming, forest fires and insect infestation. The list goes on. The key point is that the Earth’s climate, being a complex feedback system, is unlikely to respond in an entirely smooth and proportional way to significant changes in energy balance caused by human activities.

Okay, let that sink in for a bit.

Then, as mathematical physicist John Baez on his Azimuth blog notes, they suggest two responses to this Apocalyptic scenario, which Baez quotes:


A popular answer to apocalyptic visions of the future is retreat, into a lower energy, lower material consumption, and ultimately lower population world. In this future world the objective is to minimize human effects on the Earth system and allow Gaia to reassert herself, with more room for natural ecosystems and minimal intervention in global cycles. The noble aim is long-term sustainability for for people as well as the planet.

There are some good and useful things we can take from such visions of the future, especially in helping to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, achieve greater energy efficiency, promote recycling and redefine what we mean by quality of life. However, we think that visions of retreat are hopelessly at odds with current trends, and with the very nature of what drives revolutionary changes of the Earth. They lack pragmatism and ultimately they lack ambition. Moreover, a retreat sufficient to forestall the problems outlined above might be just as bad as the problems it sought to avoid.


Our alternative vision of the future is of revolution, into a high energy, high recycling world that can support billions of people as part of a thriving and sustainable biosphere. The key to reaching this vision of the future is to learn from past revolutions: future civilizations must be fueled from sustainable energy sources, and they must undertake a greatly enhanced recycling of resources.

Baez writes that he thinks that we could have a combination of Apocalypse and Revolution:

For now, I would just like to suggest that ‘apocalypse’ and ‘revolution’ are not really diametrically opposed alternatives. All three previous revolutions destroyed the world as it had been!

For example, when the Great Oxidation occurred, this was an ‘apocalypse’ for anaerobic life forms, who now struggle to survive in specialized niches here and there. It only seems like a triumphant ‘revolution’ in retrospect, to the new life forms that comfortably survive in the new world.

So, I think we’re headed for a combination of apocalypse and revolution: the death of many old things, and the birth of new ones. At best we have a bit of influence in nudging things in a direction we like. I don’t think ‘retreat’ is a real option: nostalgic though I am about many old things, time always pushes us relentlessly into new and strange worlds.

And I would say I agree. Except I want to add that this does not seem like a very appealing future to me. Both Baez and Revolutions That Made The Earth more or less dismiss Retreat as unrealistic (though Baez does indicate he would find it appealing). They could be right. They probably are right. But Retreat–with its emphasis on conservation, anti-consumerism, and balance with the natural world–has to be the central theme of the Revolution (though I wouldn’t call it Retreat, I would call it something more positive). In fact, it is the key to real revolution. And while technology, which seems to be at the core of the Revolution scenario, might give us a world in which we can survive, it doesn’t really promise a world in which we can LIVE.

It’s All About Consumption

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

So today is the day that population experts believe the seventh billion human will join us on earth. Here’s how we got here:

The first billion people accumulated over a leisurely interval, from the origins of humans hundreds of thousands of years ago to the early 1800s. Adding the second took another 120 or so years. Then, in the last 50 years, humanity more than doubled, surging from three billion in 1959 to four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987 and six billion in 1998. This rate of population increase has no historical precedent.

That’s a lot of people, and we’ll likely hit 10 billion be the end of this century. The important point about population, though, is not the raw number of people sharing the planet. It is what they consume from the planet. And that is where the scale of the challenge the human race faces, as the human population continues to expand its consumerist, material lifestyle, to every nook on earth, is eye-opening.

According to Scientific American “[t]he human enterprise now consumes nearly 60 billion metric tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and plant materials, such as crop plants and trees for timber or paper.” And while the cost of extracting, refining, and mainlining a metric ton of material has gone down, it doesn’t change the fact that we will continue to nibble away at our planet’s dwindling resources and, as long as we continue to consume on the scale we do now, we better start looking for a new planet.

So what is the consumption challenge? SA says:

Ultimately, the quantity of resources consumed by the nearly 7 billion of us on the planet will need to average out to six metric tons per year per person—a steep cut in the resources currently enjoyed by people in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.S. As it stands now, an average American uses 88 kilograms of stuff per day and, all told, our modern gadgets require at least 60 different elements, ranging from the toxic to the treasured, such as gold.

88 kilograms of stuff per day translates into 32.12 metric tons a year. That means the average American would have to cut consumption by more than a factor of 5. Now ask yourself whether our culture and our politics offers any prospect of reducing consumption on that scale. Okay, you can stop laughing.

The point here is that we need to 1) become aware of the degree that the scale of the challenge before us completely overwhelms our politics, our economic trajectory, and our definitions of wealth, and the steps we are currently taking, or plan to take; 2) that the only way to make that sort of paradigm shift is to revolutionize the culture and economy which drives that level of consumption; and 3) we will definitely need some technological silver bullets.

Its long past time to think big, and go big. We need to, um, reinvent humanity. So let’s get started.

Course, here’s the most classic take on stuff (note for the sensitive–George Carlin likes to swear):

Reinventing Humanity

I hope the world takes note of Carl Safina, and his new book, The View From Lazy Point (NYT review is here; Mother Jones review here). Safina is an original and deep thinker, and The View From Lazy Point is both an homage to the natural world and a clarion call–that is remarkably gentle yet utterly persuasive–for reimagining how humans live and interact with our humble planet.

I was drawn to Safina’s work because I have long been troubled by the idea that humanity has been intelligent enough to achieve great technological triumphs, yet not wise enough to find harmony and balance in human affairs or our understanding of the finite nature of Earth. We are well past the need to try and arouse humanity from its material, consumptive ways with a deluge of depressing and enervating detail about environmental destruction. That’s been going on for decades, and people have either chosen to recognize reality, or blind themselves.

What’s needed now are pathfinders and prophets who can redefine what it means to be human, and what changes humanity should make to its behaviors, economies, and cultures. Safina is searching for those sorts of answers and that’s why he is worth reading and talking about. I have no doubt that a critical mass will eventually develop behind the need to reinvent humanity. The only question is what sort of planet we will be living on when it happens. I am pessimistic, even nihilistic, about the prospects for a reasonable transition to this new epoch. But all anyone who cares can do is put out a light and hope people are drawn to it. As Safina writes: “Just as we went from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists to civilized societies, now we must take the next great leap: from merely civilized to humanized.” Or wise. That would be nice.

The Prince Of Wales Seeks “Harmony”

Okay, he also seeks relevance. But in an age where we know the way we live is completely out of synch with the world we live in, you have to take answers (or suggestions) where you can find them. So while it would be easy to dismiss the plummy tones of this latest jeremiad from HRH, The Prince Of Wales, it’s more important to consider the fact that he is, well, right.

Here is the trailer for what he is on about.
Vodpod videos no longer available.


Charles, Prince of Wales outside the White Hou...
Image via Wikipedia

The full Harmony website is here, and thanks to NBC you can watch the whole Harmony program on Hulu. If it moves you, there is some cool social media to play with, and lots of action to take.

The scale of change required, of course, is far beyond what most people–even those who like what HRH has to say–are willing to contemplate. More on that later.

But it doesn’t hurt to be talking about it, especially in such an interesting voice.

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BP Oil Spill: Start Worrying About Whale Sharks

We can see the oil-coated pelicans, the tar-balled beaches, and the dead marine mammals that wash up. But its a lot harder to know what is going on beneath the surface. And Pete Thomas sounds a warning over what might be happening to one of the oceans’ gentlest and most beguiling beasts: the whale shark.

Here is what Pete says:

Now it’s feared that another of nature’s iconic marine creatures — the whale shark, which is the world’s largest fish — will soon be included on a checklist of spill victims long enough to fill afield guide.

Sylvia Earle, an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, agreed with the assessment that many of the more than 100 whale sharks she and other scientists encountered recently during an expedition 70 miles off Louisiana might be “on death row” because much of their historic feeding habitat is closer to shore, within the spill zone.

Whale sharks, long-distance travelers that can measure 40 feet, were once harvested globally. They’re classified as “vulnerable,” one step up from “endangered” on a red list published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Little is known about migration patterns of whale sharks that utilize the Gulf of Mexico. But some are believed to help support recreational diving industries off Belize and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

What is known is that these gentle giants are filter-feeders who spend much of their time skimming for plankton and small fishes at or near the surface. Unfortunately, this is where spilled oil tends to gather, so the future looks bleak for whale sharks unable to steer clear of now-tarnished areas, such as the Mississippi River Delta, in which they’ve feed for perhaps millions of years.

Dr. Eric Hoffmayer, a scientist with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, says at least five whale sharks have been spotted within 20 miles of the spill area. The number might be much greater were it not for boating and fishing restrictions that have limited the number of people who typically report such sightings.

I’m always amazed at how little we really know about some of the planet’s most impressive creatures, and critical ecosystems. Which only makes me wonder at the unintended damage we busy, busy humans do to them as we pursue our busy little lives.

When we will start pricing those externalities, those consequences, into oil, our economies, and the avalanche of consumer goods no one seems to be able contemplate doing without? When will we all step back and live lives that see the whole planet instead of just the things that affect our comfort and well-being? Probably never?

Here’s a video to make you think about that:

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