Friday, March 29, 2019

Flowering Quince and Climate Change

This big flowering quince bush is in Hampstead, on the way to Hampstead Heath. Here's the whole thing:

We have one in our garden that Dave planted several years ago, but it's nowhere near this big. (Which is a good thing, because it's right next to the camellia and I'm not sure there's room for both of them -- not the best planning on our part.) Anyway, ours gets a few flowers every year, but nothing like this.

So that's the happy news for the day. Now for the serious stuff...

I'm about 3/4 of the way through "The Uninhabitable Earth," David Wallace-Wells' tome about climate change and global collapse, and I'm having some interesting reactions to the book. Primarily, despite his barrage of frightening statistics, I'm having trouble really absorbing it on an emotional and psychological level. I don't doubt that global warming is occurring, and I don't doubt that things could get as bad as Wallace-Wells says they will. But I think I'm suffering from some typical human psychological adaptations that he names in the book -- primarily "anchoring," which means I read all his scary information but then look outside and everything seems fine, the garden is in bloom, the sky is blue, and I re-anchor in the non-threatening present moment. Or I think, well, all this terrible stuff could happen, but we also don't really know -- beyond the indisputable fact that we're causing harm, a lot of climate science is conjecture -- so couldn't the extremes just as easily not happen? Again, I'm not a denialist, at least not like certain Republicans. I realize the planet is warming, as we've seen with our intensifying floods and hurricanes and whatnot. But I'm not sure I'm living the reality as deeply as I should be.

And then what do we do with the information? Fortunately I already vote a climate-conscious ballot, which seems to be Wallace-Wells' main recommendation. He disparages other individual solutions like recycling, going vegan and campaigning against plastic as red herrings, distractions from the real issue. "The climate calculus is such that individual lifestyle choices do not add up to much, unless they are scaled by politics," he writes.

He's also weirdly focused on the fate of humanity to the exclusion of other creatures -- despite the sad picture of the dead bee on the book's cover. "None of (the book) concerns the tragic fate of the planet's animals, which has been written about so elegantly and poetically by others that, like our sea-level myopia, it threatens to occlude our picture of what global warming means for us, the human animal," he writes. I confess, I tend to respond more to the plight of the animals than humans. We brought all this on ourselves with our greed and rampant reproduction. The animals are blameless.

The book is full of shocking statistics. Did you know, for example, that Bitcoin, which involves energy-intensive currency management systems that I only barely understand, now produces as much carbon dioxide each year as a million transatlantic flights? (Step one: Let's get rid of Bitcoin!) Or that humanity is burning 80 percent more coal now than we were in the year 2000?

So much of the environmental degradation Wallace-Wells discusses has occurred only in the last two decades. It makes me wonder how different the world would be if Al Gore had won the presidency in 2000. Had that knife-edge vote tipped the other way, we would be in an entirely different place -- in many respects.

Anyway, it is a thought-provoking book, and I have no doubt that humanity is headed for an indefinite and possibly endless period of climate-related struggle, with displaced refugees and competition for resources and conflict and war. (I continue to boil this down to the fact that there are too freaking many people.) The vast majority of the fallout from climate change will occur beyond my own life span, but we're seeing it already and even the next few decades should be interesting. Buckle up!


  1. That book is part of my TBR pile. Thanks for the synopsis. Your nieces will inherit a far more messed up planet than we ever imagined possible. I feel for the kids coming up now and I agree about the overpopulation issue and our over reliance on fossil fuels. We consume too much.

  2. "Too many freaking people" - that's right. When I was born the population of this planet was 2,677,230,358. Now it is 7,714,576,923. That is very nearly treble the number it was 65 years ago. They all need food. They all need water. They all need space and the ability to survive. As you imply, that rampant rise has been incredibly impactful -and the growth isn't slowing any time soon. I weep for the Earth, for the forests, the oceans, the animals and the future. We are on a kamikaze trajectory.

  3. That Japonica bush is a total knockout.
    As for the book, there's not much on the positive side, as far as this man's opinion goes, is there?
    In spite of his trivialising of petty actions like the recycling etc I will persevere with the trivia and consider my vote carefully. But the very idea of a united world political front to tackle climate change makes me snort with derision. As if...
    Unless something extraordinary happens I see an unhappy ending for this planet and its inhabitants.
    On that gloomy note I'll end this comment.

  4. (I continue to boil this down to the fact that there are too freaking many people.)
    Thanks from me too.
    You nailed it I think. I've been saying that for a long time. I'm happy others see that too.

  5. Whatever happened to ZPG? That was a fairly big issue back in the seventies as I recall. I suppose that people like me came along and over-populated.
    One more damn thing for me to feel guilty about.
    If I read that book I'd probably have to kill myself for the benefit of the planet. I think he's on to something though with our efforts to recycle and so forth. I see us righteously refusing plastic straws to go into our drinks that are in plastic (or foam!) cups and wonder what in hell we think we're accomplishing. I suppose something. I don't like straws anyway. I reuse plastic bags as long as I can. I refuse them in stores. "Would you like your meat put in plastic?" "No thanks."
    And then I go visit a friend in a hospital and see all of the plastic used per day per patient and I feel ridiculous for my puny efforts.
    I like to think that there's a parallel universe where Al Gore did win. And that that planet Earth is doing well. That's real helpful too, isn't it?

  6. civilizations have risen and fallen many times during the history of humanity usually from putting too much strain on resources and changing climate and greed and now it is declining again. it appears humans have learned nothing. humans are doomed. but I will still recycle, refuse, reuse, I will continue to not use poisons on my property. not because I expect to have any sort of real impact on the problem as a whole but because I love the planet.

  7. Staving off despair is one of the most important things that individual actions (such as recycling) does!
    People who point out that it doesn't help are being too mechanistic.

    Killing oneself, for instance, might (doubtful) be good for the planet, but the devastation it would cause to other people would not be.

    I think "Keeping Hope Alive" is also the good thing behind the cognitive bias you mention (and that all humans share) that "things will stay the same"--
    it helps us keep on keeping on.
    Since we're here, we may as well make the best of it, and help one another!

  8. I guess on the one had I'm relieved that any slip-up on my part (using single-use plastic!) isn't then end of the world, but on the other hand it's so depressing to imagine the harm that we are corporately doing to the planet. I'm glad we do still have flowers to lift our spirits.

  9. I have often wondered what our planet might be like if Al Gore had not had the presidency ripped from him by the Supreme Court in 2000. We are on a trajectory that has only one pretty horrific outcome. It's not a surprise though. The first Earth Day rallies were held almost a half century ago. There are too many people. When I was young I told my mother, "I am not having children because I can't promise them a future." I stuck to it and have been glad ever since. I weep for our earth.

  10. I had a feeling from the interview I saw with the author that the book would solidify the feeling of doom. He talked a little bit about how those small things like recycling and using solar power in our homes made us feel like we are being responsible but, the only way to stop what is going on is to make big political changes and major sacrifices. And, he made it sound like even if we did, it might be too late. I remember the reporter doing the interview made the statement that the statistics alone were frightening.
    That flowering bush is amazing. Beautiful flowers and wow, it's huge!

  11. It's a depressing book and I don't doubt that he's correct. There's a new fungus that's going to kill most of the frogs and salamanders. The insects are dying. It's all pretty wretched. It's a good time to be old.

  12. P.S. Steve, since you said it was OK if I fact-checked, I did--because I suspect that Earth CAN support 7 billion people, IF WE USE OUR RESOURCES WISELY ( a big "if", I know!).

    And yes, some scientist say Earth can support 9 or 10 billion people--
    IF we make changes in how we use our resources:

    "If everyone agreed to become vegetarian, leaving little or nothing for livestock, the present 1.4 billion hectares of arable land (3.5 billion acres) would support about 10 billion people," Edmund O. Wilson wrote.

    Given that that's unlikely, we can still learn and teach practices to help the people who are little babies now thrive in a future that does not have all the consumer goods we have now.
    Making music, for instance, is free and requires no fuel at all, . . .except breath!

    (Doesn't Dave teach music to children?
    That's probably one of the best, most helpful things an adult could do for the future!!!)

  13. I find it amazing to say but I agree totally with YP.

  14. I think he's right. Most of us are climate change deniers to some degree. I wonder when it's really going to hit us that we messed up?

  15. I know that things are going downhill fast, but I prefer to keep trying to do my bit and also to focus on the ways the science community is working to find ways to mitigate the damage; the most recent encouraging article I read has been the turning of carbon dioxide into fuel. But along with that will have to be the political will to push a low-carbon-output economy. And I don't know if that will happen in time.

    Which brings me to a quote that has helped me keep my balance (and pardon me if I've used it here before):
    "In the best of times, our days are numbered anyway. So it would be a crime against nature for any generation to take the world crisis so solemnly that it put off enjoying those things for which we were designed in the first place: the opportunity to do good work, to enjoy friends, to fall in love, to hit a ball, and to bounce a baby." - Alistair Cooke

    We accomplish nothing by wringing our hands. We can't fix the problem by completely subjugating our lives, so we should try to live our lives while we're working on it.

  16. E: Sadly, it's true that upcoming generations will have a lot to deal with. Then again, we inherited a damaged world and didn't even fully realize it!

    YP: Considering the numbers is truly frightening, isn't it?

    Alphie: I don't think he's telling us to STOP recycling or anything like that. I think he's just saying it's not going to solve the problem. I think taking our own small steps does serve a purpose, both helping us feel involved and managing smaller problems that arise in the shadow of the big ones. (The Pacific Ocean garbage patch IS a problem, even if it's not connected to climate change.)

    Tom: It really is THE central issue, isn't it? Some people say it's simplistic to think that way, but the fact is, we could be burning coal and pitching plastic in the oceans and it wouldn't matter as much if there were only 2 billion of us. If we were managing the environment AND our population we'd be so much better off.

    Ms Moon: DO NOT FEEL GUILTY! We need SOME babies! We do get too easily distracted by our minor crusades, though. As for Al Gore, although that would have made a difference and I think he could have been a leader for the entire planet on this issue, Wallace-Wells' book points out that China holds nearly all the cards when it comes to controlling emissions. Anything Gore did in the USA would have been overshadowed by inactivity on China's part, unless he and others could have convinced China to work with the rest of the world.

    Ellen: Yes, I will still do those things too. Wallace-Wells talks about that cyclical view of history!

    Fresca: I think that's very true. If our actions help stave off despair, that's enough reason to persist in them. (And I think they do help in SOME ways, if not with the big picture.) To your point about 10 billion people -- the world COULD sustain that many, but SHOULD it? I suspect that calculation assumes that all the resources are here for our use. It leaves nothing for wilderness, for animals, for open space. I would much rather live in a world with many fewer people and wilderness for all our incredible elephants and rhinos and sloths and orangutans.

    Bug: Flowers count for a lot! And as I've said, I think doing our part to limit damage in small ways is still worthwhile.

    Robin: It's interesting that you had such foresight even then! It's hard to believe the first Earth Day was that long ago. Changing our society is like turning around an aircraft carrier -- it's a very slow process!

    Sharon: More sacrifice will definitely be required on our part. I wonder if we'll see, for example, more brownouts as electricity is rationed more carefully.

    Allison: It's depressing but I think it's also important to be aware. That's the only way we can ever change, if it's even possible. (And I'm not sure it is, at least not without cataclysm. Humans are stubborn that way.)

    Catalyst: Ha! It IS shocking to agree with YP, isn't it? :)

    Red: It's such an immense problem that it's really hard, if not impossible, to take it in.

    Jenny-O: Yes, I do remember that Alistair Cooke quote! People have been saying for ages that the End is Nigh. So we're hardly the first to feel that way. And yet humanity just keeps plugging away! I think your approach is sensible. We just keep doing our part and voting the right way.

  17. STEVE: No, no, sorry if it sounded like I was advocating for 10 billion!
    Ha, no!

    I was trying to say, overpopulation is not the only (or even necessarily the main) issue in climate change:
    the population of the United States is some 325 million people,
    but our carbon dioxide emissions is No. 2 in the worl
    (after China, with 1.2 billion people).

    So, our problem with carbon would not be solved merely by reducing the population, even by drastic amounts. A "mere" 300 million people who keep going like we're going can do lots of harm.

    Your suspicion about Edward O. Wilson's calculations is the opposite of how he works. Wilson is a famous, eminent, environmental scientist and a cool guy, all about saving Earth.
    In his book called Half Earth, for instance,
    that "proposes an achievable plan to save our imperiled biosphere:
    devote half the surface of the Earth to nature."

    He does not propose we aim for 10 billion people either, he was just doing the math.
    (It's easy for nonscientists like me to misunderstand the complex issues, so I like to check before making assumptions...)

    From the mission statement of the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation:

    "Wilson warns, “The loss of a keystone species is like a drill accidentally striking a power line. It causes lights to go out all over.” The inadvertent degradation of the natural world can be slowed, or even halted, however, through biodiversity research that expands our understanding of our ‘little known planet’ and that innovates in helping us to learn how to best care for it."

    And now I will stop with the facts! :)
    Good conversation you have sparked.

  18. P.S. Sorry if I over-responded---
    I feel strongly partly because people say things like they think killing themselves will help the planet, or they feel guilty for having too many children--(or virtuous if they don't have any)---when it's not that simple.
    People are feeling bad for the wrong thing:
    It's not your kids, it's your car! (OK---and your kids' cars...)

  19. Fresca: I will have to read that book! But surely Wilson isn't saying we could have ten billion people on the planet AND devote half of its surface to wildlife? Isn't one exclusive of the other? Certainly our resource-heavy Western lifestyles are a huge part of the problem, but those "developing" countries where people are now having large families almost universally aspire to our Western standards of consumption (and who can blame them)? So it's all a ticking time bomb. I certainly don't think anyone should kill themselves to help the planet, although there are some activists who have taken that route. You heard about the guy who set himself on fire in Brooklyn a year or two ago, right?

  20. STEVE: Yes, yes, I hope I don't sound like I'm arguing against the dire problem of climate change:
    I totally agree with you that it's a ticking time bomb. . . and about to go off!

    As you know from my blog, (the question, I even have to worry about retirement?),
    I may even be more pessimistic about it than you.

    I'm just exploring different angles.
    Most interesting to me:
    How can we position ourselves --psychologically, as much as anything--to weather the coming storms?

    That's why I think creative responses are so useful:
    looking at other culture upheavals, we'll have to be emotionally and mentally flexible to adjust to a new way of living.
    I look to things such as singing as useful tools.
    I pretty much suck at this, but it would be great if we all got better at things like conflict resolution.
    Less resources = more conflict.

    I haven't read EOW's book, just associated articles, but population management is all about wise land management.
    After all, we're already nearly at 8 billion people, so 9 or 10 isn't far away:
    if we consolidate in cities, with green buildings, shared transport, and diets based on high-yield grains, that leaves a lot of land.
    I think he spells this all out in his writings--unlike me, he's a scientist who's thought this through. :)

    Of course given human nature, (cognitive biases toward short-term thinking, etc.), that's unlikely we will take such radical steps at this time.
    I mean, how many people who are deeply concerned about climate change have changed their way of living in a SERIOUS way (e.g., not just recycling, but giving up cars)?
    I think of a friend who is deeply concerned and has joined a group that sews cloth bags for people to use to instead of plastic.
    She drives her car to the group sew-ups...

    Anyway, no, Wilson's not suggesting we aim for more people, just saying that that's the upper limit of what Earth can support--and we're close to it.

    Yes, the man who immolated himself--but I think he did that to draw attention to the problem, like the monks immolating themsevles during the Vietnam War era, not to suggest we kill ourselves as a solution, right?

    The idea of killing yourself to help the planet was from Ms Moon's comment:
    "If I read that book I'd probably have to kill myself for the benefit of the planet."
    And there's another other commenter who felt bad for having children.
    I feel this sort of thinking is understandable, sadly,
    but not really helpful for facing the future.

    Thanks for talking!
    Here's hoping.... !

  21. P.S. Sorry if I'm ranting too much here.
    I want to acknowledge that my mother committed suicide, and when people mention it as a solution, even jokingly(?), I'm like--you have no idea--it causes MORE problems than it solves.

    I do want to say I LOVE and appreciate your beautiful photos---
    beauty and hope help us weather hard times!!!

  22. Holy crap! That's a stunning detail about Bitcoin! And one can only imagine how things might different if Gore had won. What do you think about the much talked about Green New Deal here in the US? It's gaining traction among young people, if my own are any indication.