(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘environment

“Be not the one who debunks but the one who assembles, not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naive believers but the one who offers arenas in which to gather”*…

From Stephen Muecke, an appreciation of the late, lamented Bruno Latour (see here, here, and here)– an exploration of his ideas and of their sources…

A humble virus, the Dead Sea, oil pipelines, Wonder Woman, a voodoo doll, Escherichia coli, the concept of freedom, monsoons, ‘extinct’ languages, and tectonic plates. All are real. All are active. And, in their own way, these and myriad other nonhuman entities are actors, enrolled in the production of our world. We’re still in the opening paragraph, but this is where Bruno Latour might have stopped us to make a slight correction: the production of worlds.

For Latour, who was one of most influential and provocative thinkers of the past century, the world is always multiple. Above all else, his thought is pluralist – this is his legacy. He died on 9 October 2022, leaving behind a pluralism that accommodates non-Western worlds but also, remarkably, the worlds of nonhumans, which are not just things or forces, but ‘actors’ with the potential to change their worlds. However, this pluralism is not an ‘anything goes’ relativism. In an age when worlds are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate, its stakes are life and death.

Latour’s approach is radical because it shows just how active nonhumans have been in human affairs. His work calls for new political strategies that can acknowledge humans aren’t the only ones enrolled in the production of truth. In his view, forms of ‘nature’ – including nonhumans such as mountains, voodoo dolls, policy documents or door stoppers – are woven together in political networks. To use his phrase, they form a ‘political ecology’. If this is ‘ecology’, it is a particularly French kind. Among Latour’s many actors we find none of the piety of the North American wilderness tradition associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who sought spiritual transcendence in pristine nature. The ecology Latour was developing is practical, earthbound and problem-oriented. So where did he get his ideas?…

Bruno Latour showed us how to think with the things of the world, respecting their right to exist and act on their own terms: “The generous philosopher,” from @MonsieurMouche in @aeonmag.

* Bruno Latour

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As we cultivate curiosity, we might send traditionally-cultivated birthday greetings to Vandana Shiva; she was born on this date in 1952. A scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, ecofeminist and anti-globalisation author, she is often referred to as the “Gandhi of grain” for her activism associated with the anti-GMO movement.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 5, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Most things are never meant”*…

A coastal engineer collects a concentrated sample of algae and bacteria on Lake Erie in Toledo, Ohio

Protein-packed diets add excess nitrogen to the environment through urine, rivaling pollution from agricultural fertilizers…

In the U.S., people eat more protein than they need to. And though it might not be bad for human health, this excess does pose a problem for the country’s waterways. The nation’s wastewater is laden with the leftovers from protein digestion: nitrogen compounds that can feed toxic algal blooms and pollute the air and drinking water. This source of nitrogen pollution even rivals that from fertilizers washed off of fields growing food crops, new research suggests.

When we overconsume protein—whether it comes from lentils, supplements or steak—our body breaks the excess down into urea, a nitrogen-containing compound that exits the body via urine and ultimately ends up in sewage… the majority of nitrogen pollution present in wastewater—some 67 to 100 percent—is a by-product of what people consume…

Once it enters the environment, the nitrogen in urea can trigger a spectrum of ecological impacts known as the “nitrogen cascade.” Under certain chemical conditions, and in the presence of particular microbes, urea can break down to form gases of oxidized nitrogen. These gases reach the atmosphere, where nitrous oxide (N2O) can contribute to warming via the greenhouse effect and nitrogen oxides (NOx) can cause acid rain. Other times, algae and cyanobacteria, photosynthetic bacteria also called blue-green algae, feed on urea directly. The nitrogen helps them grow much faster than they would normally, clogging vital water supplies with blooms that can produce toxins that are harmful to humans, other animals and plants. And when the algae eventually die, the problem is not over. Microorganisms that feast on dead algae use up oxygen in the water, leading to “dead zones,” where many aquatic species simply cannot survive, in rivers, lakes and oceans. Blooms from Puget Sound to Tampa, Fla., have caused large fish die-offs…

If it’s not one thing, it’s another: “Eating Too Much Protein Makes Pee a Problem Pollutant in the U.S.,” from Sasha Warren (@space_for_sasha) in @sciam.

* Philip Larkin, “Going, Going” (in High Windows)

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As we deliberate on our diets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1888 that Theophilus Van Kannel received a patent for the revolving door, a design that came to characterize the entrances of (then-proliferating) skyscrapers and that earned him induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. But lest we think him “all work,” his other notable invention was the popular (at least in the early 20th century) amusement park ride “Witching Waves.”

Theophilus Van Kannel’s patent drawing for a revolving door, 1888 [source]
Theophilus Van Kannel [source]

“The Florida in my novels is not as seedy as the real Florida. It’s hard to stay ahead of the curve.”*…

Jeff VanderMeer is a master of teasing out the weird in the service of critiquing our relationship with nature; his novels– e.g., Annihilation, Hummingbird Salamander— are entertaining, illuminating cautionary tales. In a recent essay, he turned his attention to his native Florida…

About the size of Greece, Florida is the jewel in the crown of the amazingly biodiverse Atlantic Coastal Plain. The state has 1,300 miles of shoreline, 600 clear-water springs, 1,700 ravines and streams, and over 8,000 lakes. More than 3,000 native trees, shrubs, and flowering plants are native to Florida, many unique to our peninsula and also endangered due to development. Our 100 species of orchid (compared to Hawai’i’s three native orchids) and 150 fern species speak to the moist and subtropical climate across many parts of the state. Florida has more wetlands than any other conterminous state—11 million acres—including seepage wetlands, interior marshes, and interior swamp land. Prior to the 1800s, Florida had over 20 million acres of wetlands.

As Jen Lomberk of Matanzas Riverkeeper describes it, Florida’s aquifer is unique because it is “so inextricably connected both underground and to surface waters. Florida’s limestone geology means that pollutants can readily move through groundwater and from groundwater to surface water (and vice versa).” In a sense, the very water we drink in Florida lays bare the connections between the often-invisible systems that sustain life on Earth and reveals both the strength of these systems and their vulnerability.

[But Floridians aren’t stewarding these unique resources…]

Most of this harm has been inflicted in the service of unlimited and poorly planned growth, sparked by greed and short-term profit. This murder of the natural world has accelerated in the last decade to depths unheard of. The process has been deliberate, often systemic, and conducted from on-high to down-low, with special interests flooding the state with dark money, given to both state and local politicians in support of projects that bear no relationship to best management of natural resources. These projects typically reinforce income inequality and divert attention and money away from traditionally disadvantaged communities.

Consider this: several football fields-worth of forest and other valuable habitat is cleared per day in Florida, with 26 percent of our canopy cut down in the past twenty years.  According to one study, an average of 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation worldwide.

The ecocide happening here is comparable for our size to the destruction of the Amazon, but much less remarked upon. Few of the perpetrators understand how they hurt the quality of life for people living in Florida and hamstring any possibility of climate crisis resiliency. Prodevelopment flacks like to pull out the estimates of the millions who will continue to flock to Florida by 2030 or 2040 to justify rampant development. Even some Florida economists ignore the effects of the climate crisis in their projects for 2049, expecting continued economic growth. but these estimates are just a grim joke, and some of those regurgitating them know that. By 2050, the world likely will be grappling with the fallout from 1.5- to 2-degree temperature rise and it’s unlikely people will be flocking to a state quickly dissolving around all of its edges

An accelerating race to destroy Florida’s wilderness shows what we value and previews our collective future during the climate crisis: “The Annihilation of Florida: An Overlooked National Tragedy,” from @jeffvandermeer in @curaffairs. Eminently worth reading in full.

* “The Florida in my novels is not as seedy as the real Florida. It’s hard to stay ahead of the curve. Every time I write a scene that I think is the sickest thing I have ever dreamed up, it is surpassed by something that happens in real life.” – VanderMeer’s fellow Floridian Carl Hiaasen

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As we contemplate consequences, we might recall that it was on this date in 1626 that Peter Minuit, the new director of “New Netherland” for the Dutch West India Company, in what we now know as Manhattan, “purchased” the island from the the Canarsee tribe of Native Americans for a parcel of goods worth 60 guilders: roughly $24 dollars at the time, now roughly $1,000. 

In the event, Native Americans in the area were unfamiliar with the European notions and definitions of ownership rights. As they understood it, water, air and land could not be traded. So scholars are convinced that both parties probably went home with totally different interpretations of the sales agreement. In any case, the Carnarsees were happy to take payment in any meaningful amount pertaining to land that was mostly controlled by their rivals, the Weckquaesgeeks.

220px-Verkoopakte_Manhattan

1626 letter from Pieter Schaghen (a colleague of Minuit) reporting the purchase of Manhattan for 60 guilders [source]

“…there may be no forgiveness for polyester. On this one matter, Satan and the Lord are in agreement”*…

Polyester has had a roller coaster ride as a clothing fabric, but now it’s sitting pretty. As Virginia Postrel explains, thanks to advances in materials science, it reinvented itself so successfully that many people don’t even realize they’re wearing polyester today…

Fifty years ago, polyester seemed like a wonder fabric. It freed women from their ironing boards, and they poured into the workforce, feeling liberated in their double-knit pantsuits. Polyester held bright colors better than old-fashioned materials, making it ideal for psychedelic prints, disco attire, and sports teams clashing on color television. It was inexpensive, and it didn’t wear out. People loved polyester.

Until they didn’t. A decade later, polyester was the faux pas fiber. It pilled and snagged. It didn’t breathe. It stank from sweat. And it represented bad taste. ‘It became associated with people of low socioeconomic status who didn’t have any style’, an advertising executive told the Wall Street Journal in 1982.

That year, prices fell by more than 10 percent, as polyester fiber consumption dropped to its lowest level since 1974. Profits plummeted. Plants closed. Industry polls showed a quarter of Americans wouldn’t touch the stuff – with resistance fiercest among the young, the affluent, and the fashion-conscious. For polyester makers, the miracle threatened to become a disaster…

Four decades later, polyester rules the textile world. It accounts for more than half of global fiber consumption, about twice that of second-place cotton. Output stands at nearly 58 million tons a year, more than 10 times what it was in the early ’80s. And nobody complains about polyester’s look and feel. If there’s a problem today, it’s that people like polyester too much. It’s everywhere, even at the bottom of the ocean…

On the past and future of a ubiquitous fiber: “How polyester bounced back,” from @vpostrel.

* “He paused, twisting his goatee, considering the law in Deuteronomy that forbade clothes with mixed fibers. A problematic bit of Scripture. A matter that required thought. ‘Only the devil wants man to have a wide range of lightweight and comfortable styles to choose from,’ he murmured at last, trying out a new proverb. ‘Although there may be no forgiveness for polyester. On this one matter, Satan and the Lord are in agreement’.” – Joe Hill, Horns

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As we contemplate clothing, we might send inventive birthday greetings to Ron Popeil; he was born on this date in 1935. An inventor and entrepreneur, he developed dozens of best-selling products and pioneered the direct-response infomercial form of sales.

At the age of 17, Popeil moved to Chicago and went to work for his father to learn the trade from him. Popeil’s father, Samuel J. Popeil, was an inventor as well, and some of Ron’s earlier famous creations were based on his father’s gadgets. He also discovered a flea market in Chicago called Maxwell Street that helped boost his career considerably. He also demonstrated his products at Woolworths’ in Chicago where he earned in excess of $1000 per week. After acting as his father’s distributor for a few years, Popeil eventually opened up his own company named “Ronco” in 1964.

When Popeil was working for his father, one of the products he undertook to sell was a vegetable chopper called “Chop-O-Matic”. Priced at $3.98, this was one of the bestselling products of his company and sold over 2 million units. The only problem was that salesmen could not carry enough vegetables with them to demonstrate the chopping process at each house. The solution was to record a video demonstrating the use of the gadget. This led him to think about advertising these videos as a commercial on television. Television commercials and Popeil were an instant match. Popeil’s natural selling skills could now reach crowds of millions and further sales began to pour in.

Ron had a long list of bestselling products with his company Ronco. One was a device called the “pocket fisherman” that is a small tackle box with hook, line, and sinker all in one. He called it “the best fishing invention since the fishing pole and only for $19.95”. Another invention was “Mr. Microphone” – a low powered FM modulator and radio transmitter that would broadcast using an FM radio. Another of his bestsellers was the “Showtime Rotisserie” oven for cooking chicken and BBQ. In his infomercials he used the line “Set it, and forget it!” to pitch the product to audiences. Other products include smokeless ashtray, drain buster, bottle cap opener, electric food dehydrator, egg scrambler, hair formula to cover up bald patches, Dial-O-Matic, and a pasta maker.

Famous Inventors

And Popeil was also hugely impactful in the ways that he sold his products, helping to develop and establishing a number of the norms and tropes of the infomercial, including the now-standard catchphrases “But wait, there’s more” and “Operators are standing by.”

Ron Popeil with his “Showtime Rotisserie”

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“The Roman era’s declension was a time in which bizarreness masqueraded as creativity”*…

Constantinople

The Roman Empire “shrank” from being ruled from several different cities in the fifth century, among them Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome itself, to just Constantinople. Daisy Dunn reviews Paul Stephenson‘s new history of that period, The New Rome— a comprehensive explanation of the Eastern Empire’s transformation into Byzantium.

Drawing on scientific data, Stephenson demonstrates that the challenges faced by the last Roman emperors weren’t simply martial, economic, and theological; they also faced natural disasters, the degradation of the human environment, and pathogens previously unknown to the empire’s densely populated, unsanitary cities. In the end, despite the Plague of Justinian, regular “barbarian” invasions, a war with Persia, and the rise of Islam, the empire endured as a political entity (albeit “post-Roman”). But Greco-Roman civilization, a world of interconnected cities that had shared a common material culture for a millennium, did not…

Attempts to answer the time-old question of why Rome fell have been characterised in recent years by a new awareness of the role that factors including pollution and climate change played. Anyone who has shrugged at the suggestion that the weather had anything to do with the demise of such a mighty empire will, I think, come away from this book persuaded that climate change and natural disasters provide an important part of the answer. Far from being moralistic and attempting to apply the examples of the past as a warning, Stephenson lays down the evidence unemotionally, and lets it speak for itself.

The causes of change were not purely driven by human behaviour, though smelting and, even more so, heavy warfare in the era of invading Huns and Vandals, had a significant environmental impact. Pollen records reveal a dramatic decline in the growing of cereals in Greece by about 600AD and, from the seventh century, pollination was happening predominantly through nature rather than agriculture.

The root cause of this was the destruction of arable land following invasions and the decline in human settlements. Add to this diminishing sunlight — measurements of “deposited radionuclides” indicate a significant reduction of light between the midfourth and late seventh centuries — and we are looking at a radically different landscape in this period from that of the High Empire…

A new history of Byzantium reveals the inner workings of a late antique empire: “Wonders and warnings from the ancient world,” from @DaisyfDunn in @TheCriticMag.

* Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

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As we ponder precedent, we might recall that Rome’s prior history had not been without its perturbations. Indeed, it was on this date in 37 CE, following the death of Tiberius, that the Roman Senate annulled Tiberius’ will and confirmed Caligula, his grandnephew, the third Roman emperor.  (Tiberius had willed that the reign should be shared by his nephew [and adopted son] Germanicus and Germanicus’ son, Caligula.)

While he has been remembered as the poster boy for profligacy, Caligula (“Little Boots”) is generally agreed to have been a temperate ruler through the first six months of his reign.  His excesses after that– cruelty, extravagance, sexual perversity– are “known” to us via sources increasingly called into question.

Still, historians agree that Caligula did work hard to increase the unconstrained personal power of the emperor at the expense of the countervailing Principate; and he oversaw the construction of notoriously luxurious dwellings for himself.  In 41 CE, members of the Roman Senate and of Caligula’s household attempted a coup to restore the Republic.  They enlisted the Praetorian Guard, who killed Caligula– the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated (Julius Caesar was assassinated, but was Dictator, not Emperor).  In the event, the Praetorians thwarted the Republican dream by appointing (and supporting) Caligula’s uncle Claudius the next Emperor.

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