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Posts Tagged ‘climate change

“Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.”*…

 

12_population

 

Vaclav Smil is a distinguished professor emeritus in the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Over more than 40 years, his books on the environment, population, food and energy have steadily grown in influence. He is now seen as one of the world’s foremost thinkers on development history and a master of statistical analysis. Bill Gates says he waits for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie. The latest is Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities.

You are the nerd’s nerd. There is perhaps no other academic who paints pictures with numbers like you. You dug up the astonishing statistic that China has poured more cement every three years since 2003 than the US managed in the entire 20th century. You calculated that in 2000, the dry mass of all the humans in the world was 125m metric tonnes compared with just 10m tonnes for all wild vertebrates. And now you explore patterns of growth, from the healthy development of forests and brains to the unhealthy increase in obesity and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Before we get into those deeper issues, can I ask if you see yourself as a nerd?
Not at all. I’m just an old-fashioned scientist describing the world and the lay of the land as it is. That’s all there is to it. It’s not good enough just to say life is better or the trains are faster. You have to bring in the numbers. This book is an exercise in buttressing what I have to say with numbers so people see these are the facts and they are difficult to dispute.

Growth is a huge book – almost 200,000 words that synthesise many of your other studies, ranging across the world and exploring far into the past and future. Do you see this as your magnum opus?
I have deliberately set out to write the megabook on growth. In a way, it’s unwieldy and unreasonable. People can take any number of books out of it – economists can read about the growth of GDP and population; biologists can read about the growth of organisms and human bodies. But I wanted to put it all together under one roof so people could see how these things are inevitably connected and how it all shares one crystal clarity: that growth must come to an end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that…

The always-illuminating Jonathan Watts interviews the always-provocative Vaclav Smil: “Vaclav Smil: ‘Growth must end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that’.”

Pair with “Minimal Maintenance,” the essay version of a talk by Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research.  As Patrick Tanguay suggests: it is a “really excellent read which ties together maintenance, degrowth, libraries, museums, environmental justice, and architecture…[it] frames degrowth not as blanket anti-growth but as a critique of growth as an end in itself.”

See also Astra Taylor’s “Bad ancestors: does the climate crisis violate the rights of those yet to be born?” and. for a look at the challenges ahead, The Economist‘s “The past, present and future of climate change.”

* Miles Davis

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As we ponder progress, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying premiered on Broadway.  A musical comedy by Frank Loesser, with book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, it was based on Shepherd Mead’s 1952 book of the same name.  It follows young, ambitious J. Pierrepont Finch, who, with the help of the self-help manual How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, rises from window washer to chairman of the board of the World Wide Wicket Company.

The play, which starred Robert Morse and Rudy Vallée, ran for 1,417 performances; it won seven Tony Awards, the New York Drama Critics Circle award, and the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

220px-How_to_Succeed_in_Business_Without_Really_Trying_1961_Original_Cast_Recording source

 

 

“And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming”*…

 

lost city

Remnants of the ancient city of Cahokia, in what’s now southern Illinois

 

Not far from my grandmother’s house is a ghost city. At Angel Mounds on the Ohio river about eight miles southeast of Evansville, there are a few visible earthworks and a reconstructed wattle-and-daub barrier. There is almost nothing left of the people who build these mounds; in a final insulting erasure, the site is now named after the white settler family who most recently farmed the land.

There are traces of other dead villages along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, mounds scattered from present-day Indiana to Arkansas and Alabama. In southern Illinois, a few miles from the Missouri border, hidden among empty corn and soy fields, is the center of that dead civilization’s gravity: the lost city of Cahokia.

Cahokia was larger than London, centrally planned, the Manhattan of its day. Most people there would have come from somewhere else. There were defensive foundations, playing fields, and a magnificent temple. There would have been sacred ceremonies and salacious gossip. It must have been a very exciting place to live.

And then, relatively abruptly, it ceased to exist. We know of the city only because of the physical traces left behind. Few stories of Cahokia have survived; it disappeared from oral tradition, as if whatever happened to it is best forgotten. The archaeological record shows traces of the desperation and bloodshed that almost always accompany great upheavals: skeletons with bound hands, pits full of strangled young women.

The North American Drought Atlas, a historical record of climate conditions pieced together from the rings of old trees, provides a hint of what might have happened. The tenth century CE, when the Cahokia civilization would have developed, marked a distinct shift in the regional climate from persistent drought to rainier conditions more suitable for agriculture, centralization, and civilization.

But the good times were not to last…

Some people say “the climate has changed before,” as though that should be reassuring. It’s not: “Lost Cities and Climate Change.”

See also:  “A Quarter of Humanity Faces Looming Water Crises” and “What kind of climate change coverage do you read in the news? It depends on whether you live in a rich country or a poor one.”

* “Thanks to the centrifugal pump, places like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas had thrown on the garments of fertility for a century, pretending to greenery and growth as they mined glacial water from ten-thousand-year-old aquifers. They’d played dress-up-in-green and pretended it could last forever. They’d pumped up the Ice Age and spread it across the land, and for a while they’d turned their dry lands lush. Cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans — vast green acreages, all because someone could get a pump going. Those places had dreamed of being different from what they were. They’d had aspirations. And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming.”
Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife (a powerful novel)

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As we face facts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1854 that Ticknor & Fields published transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s reflection on simple living in natural surroundings, Walden; or, Life in the Woods.

220px-Walden_Thoreau source

 

Written by LW

August 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Castles made of sand fall in the sea eventually”*…

 

dredging sand

Dredging sand from one of Greenland’s fjords

 

Readers may recall a post a couple of years ago on then-dawning shortage of sand (“To see a world on a grain of sand“).  The problem has only grown, and has led to a new kind of crime– sand rustling.

But there is a new source of sand emerging…

The world makes a lot of concrete, more than 10 billion tons a year, and is poised to make much more for a population that is forecast to grow by more than 25 percent by 2050. That makes sand, which is about 40 percent of concrete by weight, one of the most-used commodities in the world, and one that is becoming harder to come by in some regions.

But because of the erosive power of ice, there is a lot of sand in Greenland. And with climate change accelerating the melting of Greenland’s mile-thick ice sheet — a recent study found that melting has increased sixfold since the 1980s — there is going to be a lot more.

“It’s not rocket science,” Dr. [Mette] Bendixen said. “One part of the world has something that other parts of the world are lacking.”

Dr. Bendixen is planning a two-year study to answer basic questions about the idea, including its feasibility and the environmental effects of extracting and exporting large amounts of the material. The government of Greenland, a self-ruled territory of Denmark, is studying it as well…

All told, Greenland’s ice sheet delivers about 900 million tons of sediment to the waters surrounding the island each year, or about 10 percent of all the sediment delivered to oceans worldwide. The glacier at Sermilik Fjord, about 50 miles south of the capital, Nuuk, delivers about a quarter of Greenland’s total. That explains the vast delta of sand visible from the air as well as from a research boat as the tide begins to go out.

The delta, with muddy rivulets crisscrossing it, stretches to the glacier more than five miles away.

Dr. Bendixen has made some hypothetical calculations. If just 15 percent of the sediment pouring into this fjord every year could be extracted, that amount of sand — 33 million tons — is twice the annual demand of San Diego County in California, one of the most populous in the United States.

Sermilik Fjord is only one of a number of places in Greenland with large amounts of sand. And the sand will keep coming as the world keeps warming and the ice sheet keeps melting. “It’s like a tap pouring not only water, but sediment,” she said…

Even as climate change taketh away, it giveth: “Melting Greenland Is Awash in Sand.”

For more (and listenable) background on the ubiquity of sand in construction: 99% Invisible‘s “Built on Sand.”

[TotH to MKM]

* Jimi Hendrix

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As we have second thoughts about silver linings, we might recall that today is Fools Paradise Day- a kind of “day off” for the mind, celebrating happiness that is rooted in false beliefs or hopes.

The concept of a paradise of fools has a long history; Dante and Ariosto, for example, described such planes– places where fools or idiots were sent after death: intellectually incompetent to be held responsible for their deeds, they cannot be punished for them in hell, atone for them in purgatory, or be rewarded for them in heaven.

The phrase first appeared in English in 1462 in the Paston Letters (“I wold not be in a folis paradyce”).  But it began its trek into the vernacular– and acquired it’s current meaning– in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (when the Nurse says to Romeo, “if ye should lead her into a fool’s paradise, as they say, it were a very gross kind of behavior”).

fools paradise source

 

Written by LW

July 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”*…

 

Chacaltaya_Ski_Resort_2

 

The Chacaltaya Ski Resort was once the only ski resort in Bolivia. The popular resort also had the honor of being both the highest ski resort in the world and home to the world’s highest restaurant. But when the mountain’s glacier melted, it was all but abandoned.

The ski resort was opened in the late-1930s, and soon middle- and upper-class residents of nearby La Paz were flocking to its slopes. For seven or eight months of the year, people came to ski and go sledding down the Chacaltaya Glacier, at least until the cold and extreme altitude made them return to lower ground.

At 17,519 feet above sea level, the Chacaltaya Ski Resort was higher than the North Base Camp of Mount Everest. For decades it held the record as the world’s highest ski resort, and the resort’s restaurant is still recognized by Guinness as the highest restaurant in the world.

But in the 1990s, scientists at the Mount Chacaltaya Laboratory began to make some stark predictions. By 2015, they warned, the Chacaltaya Glacier would be gone. As it turned out, they were being optimistic. By 2009, the 18,000-year-old glacier was completely gone…

The sad story in full– and more photos– at “Abandoned Chacaltaya Ski Resort.”

* lyrics by Sammy Cahn; music by Jule Styne– written in 1945, in Hollywood, California  as Cahn and Styne imagined cooler conditions during a heat wave

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As we try to beat the heat, we might recall that it was on this date in 1613 that the Globe Theater in London, built in 1599 by Shakespeare’s playing company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, was destroyed by fire.  The venue went up in flames during a performance of Henry VIII; a theatrical cannon, set off during the performance, misfired, igniting the wooden beams and thatching.  The theater was rebuilt the following year.

The Globe was the initial stage for most of Shakespeare’s plays, but for other playwrights as well.  Indeed, the first performance for which a firm record remains was Ben Jonson’s Every Man out of His Humour—with its first scene welcoming the “gracious and kind spectators”—at the end of 1599.

220px-Hollar_Globe

The second Globe, preliminary sketch (c. 1638) for Hollar’s 1647 Long View of London

source

 

Written by LW

June 29, 2019 at 1:01 am

“They swore by concrete. They built for eternity.”*…

 

concrete dam

The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China– the largest concrete structure in the world

 

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, the global building industry will have poured more than 19,000 bathtubs of concrete. By the time you are halfway through this article, the volume would fill the Albert Hall and spill out into Hyde Park. In a day it would be almost the size of China’s Three Gorges Dam. In a single year, there is enough to patio over every hill, dale, nook and cranny in England.

After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on Earth. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world with up to 2.8bn tonnes, surpassed only by China and the US.

The material is the foundation of modern development, putting roofs over the heads of billions, fortifying our defences against natural disaster and providing a structure for healthcare, education, transport, energy and industry.

Concrete is how we try to tame nature. Our slabs protect us from the elements. They keep the rain from our heads, the cold from our bones and the mud from our feet. But they also entomb vast tracts of fertile soil, constipate rivers, choke habitats and – acting as a rock-hard second skin – desensitise us from what is happening outside our urban fortresses.

Our blue and green world is becoming greyer by the second. By one calculation, we may have already passed the point where concrete outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet. Our built environment is, in these terms, outgrowing the natural one. Unlike the natural world, however, it does not actually grow. Instead, its chief quality is to harden and then degrade, extremely slowly.

All the plastic produced over the past 60 years amounts to 8bn tonnes. The cement industry pumps out more than that every two years. But though the problem is bigger than plastic, it is generally seen as less severe. Concrete is not derived from fossil fuels. It is not being found in the stomachs of whales and seagulls. Doctors aren’t discovering traces of it in our blood. Nor do we see it tangled in oak trees or contributing to subterranean fatbergs. We know where we are with concrete. Or to be more precise, we know where it is going: nowhere. Which is exactly why we have come to rely on it…

Solidity is a particularly attractive quality at a time of disorientating change. But – like any good thing in excess – it can create more problems than it solves…

Another entry for the “any solution can become the next problem” file: Jonathan Watts on the many ways that concrete’s benefits can mask enormous dangers to the planet, to human health – and to culture itself: “Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth.”

* Gunter Grass

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As we muse on materials, we might recall that it was on this date in 1844 that Linus Yale patented the “safe door lock” (U.S. patent no. 3,630), the first modern “pin tumbler lock.”

yale-door-lock-patent-1844 source

 

Written by LW

June 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The danger is that in this move toward new horizons and far directions, that I may lose what I have now, and not find anything except loneliness”*…

 

Moving trucks line a streets as residents evacuate from an apartment complex which in danger of collapsing due to El Nino storm erosion in Pacifica

 

Mobility in the United States has fallen to record lows. In 1985, nearly 20 percent of Americans had changed their residence within the preceding 12 months, but by 2018, fewer than ten percent had. That’s the lowest level since 1948, when the Census Bureau first started tracking mobility.

The decline in Americans’ mobility has been staggering… Mobility rates have fallen for nearly every group, across age, gender, income, homeownership status, and marital status.

Declining mobility contributes to a host of economic and social issues: less economic dynamism, lower rates of innovation, and lower productivity. By locking people into place, it exacerbates inequality by limiting the economic opportunities for workers.

A wide range of explanations have been offered to account for these substantial declines in mobility. Many consider the culprit to be the economic crisis, which locked people into declining-value homes; others attribute it to the huge differential in the housing prices in expensive cities. Some economists contend that job opportunities have become similar across places, meaning people are less likely to move for work; others see rising student debt as a key factor that has kept young Americans in their parents’ basements.

Now, a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggests that other, more emotional and psychological factors may be at work…

Powerful psychological factors connect people to places, and often mean more to them than money: “Why Some Americans Won’t Move, Even for a Higher Salary.”

[This is an issue that is likely to become more acute as climate change forces millions of Americans to “retreat” to safer and/or more arable ground.]

* Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

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As we contemplate change, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that a German the St. Louis, a German transatlantic liner, was forced to sail back to Europe after more than 900 of its passengers (primarily German-Jewish refugees) were refused entry by Cuba; over 200 of these refugees would later die in the Holocaust.

The St. Louis departed Germany for Cuba on May 13. The majority of the 937 passengers were German Jews fleeing the increasing discrimination and violence against Jews under Hitler, and many planned to stay in Cuba only until they received U.S. visas. However, unbeknownst to most of the passengers, a week before the ship sailed, the Cuban government invalidated one of the types of travel documents held by the refugees.

When the ship arrived in Cuba on May 27, fewer than 30 passengers—those who had the proper papers—were allowed to disembark. Despite days of negotiations, the Cuban government could not be persuaded to allow the refugees to enter. Leaving Cuban waters on June 2, the ship sailed near the Florida coast. Passengers petitioned President Roosevelt for refuge but received no answer. The St. Louis was finally forced to return to Europe on June 6.

refugees source

 

Written by LW

June 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Not taking risks one doesn’t understand is often the best form of risk management”*…

 

climate and risk

 

Jerry Taylor is the CEO of the Niskanen Center.  A veteran of conservative and libertarian think tanks (including the infamous ALEC) who spent much of his career working to thwart climate change mitigation moves, he has had a change of heart…

I spent the better part of my professional life (1991-2014) working at a libertarian think tank—the Cato Institute—arguing against climate action. As Cato’s director of Natural Resource Studies (and later, as a senior fellow and eventually vice president), I maintained that, while climate change was real, the impacts would likely prove rather modest and that the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions would greatly exceed the benefits.

I changed my mind about that, however, because (among other things) I changed my mind about risk management.

If we think about climate risks in the same fashion we think about risks in other contexts, we should most certainly hedge—and hedge aggressively—by removing fossil fuels from the economy as quickly as possible.

Let me explain…

And so he does, at “What Changed My Mind About Climate Change?

* Raghuram G. Rajan

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As we struggle to be good ancestors, we might recall that it was on this date (as nearly as scholars can mark it), that the first long-distance electric power transmission line in the United States was completed: 14 miles between a generator at Willamette Falls and downtown Portland, Oregon.  While the distance seems trivial today, the feat was considered a major engineering accomplishment in its time.

transmission

An illustration of the Willamette power station and transmission line painted by one of its engineers

source

 

Written by LW

June 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

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