Don’t Blame Love

In the final chapter of Love Works, the feminine personality of life, irritated by the disorder generated by the masculine personality of intellect, grabs him by the short hairs, prompting him to observe:

Choice is a bitch. Let’s hope the kids do better next time. Now, will you let go? (How does she make it hurt so much?)

It’s undeniable that the spread of life across the earth has been driven by primitive urges.

Life’s procreative greed causes ecosystems to become saturated, stunting evolutionary opportunity. The great extinction episodes of paleohistory terminated biological dead-ends, and were all followed by eras in which life took off in new directions.

Conversely, the ability to use tools requires a large brain and flexible digits, both of which limit the growth of organic armor (which traps heat) and organic weapons (which must be anchored to large bones). Thus creatures of intellect such as humans are biologically vulnerable, and so spread only when they can produce tools that overcome the weapons and armor of other animals.

Once those tools were available, however, fear and greed drove us to consume natural resources without restraint, bringing the globe today to the point of ecological collapse. Deflecting the force of these natural tendencies is the challenge we have laid at love’s door.

In the history of religion, that struggle began with the worship of the two polar opposites of procreation and death. With the rise of the hydrological civilizations, an intellectual class of priests began to envision gods with subtle ethical character. But it was really only about 3000 years ago (and only among the intellectual elite) that humanity dared to suppose the gods should be devoted to us, rather than the other way around.

Monotheism is the culmination of this process, and led eventually to the declaration that God is love. This is common to all of the great religions.

But is it to our advantage? Given that we have free will, why should we feel constrained to draw only upon love when we face challenges? When our treasurer embezzles the retirement fund, do we just shrug our shoulders? Or do we get a noose? And when the hanging is done, can’t we justify the act with the assertiong that we are loving our spouse, children and/or co-workers?

The retort to this logic is that if you had really cared about your treasurer and paid attention to her psychological well-being, you would have seen the trouble long before it manifested. But, damn, that seems like a lot of work, and didn’t we pay them to do the right thing? So we keep the noose handy, and that means that the old deities of death get in through the back door of our religions. They stay alive there, and as ecological collapse sweeps across the globe, they will appear once again to grow in power.

But, fundamentally, they are the disease. Sexual indulgence and fear of death are what drove us to exploit the natural world. That love did not have a magic wand to drive them away is not its fault. So we need to stop blaming monotheistic religions for our refusal to hew to the dictates of love. Rather, we need to double down, even as fear sweeps over us, and invest in the love that creates the strength to resist the urge to exploit the world around us.

Wish You Were There

Google has recently announced a “photo location” service that will tell you where a picture was taken. They have apparently noticed that every tourist takes the same photos, and so if they have one photo tagged with location, they can assign that location to all similar photos.

I’m curious, as a developer, regarding the nature of the algorithms they use. As a climate change alarmist, I’m also worried about the energy requirements for the analysis. It turns out that most cloud storage is used to store our selfies (whether still or video). Over a petabyte a day is added to YouTube, with the amount expected to grow by a factor of ten by 2020. A petabyte is a million billion bytes. By contrast, the library of Congress can be stored in 10 terabytes, or one percent of what is uploaded daily to YouTube.

Whatever Google is doing to analyze the photos, there’s just a huge amount of data to process, and I’m sure that it’s a huge drain on our electricity network. And this is just Google. Microsoft also touts the accumulation of images as a driver for growth of its cloud infrastructure. A typical data center consumes energy like a mid-size city. To reduce the energy costs, Microsoft is considering deployment of its compute nodes in the ocean, replacing air conditioning with passive cooling by sea water.

But Google’s photo location service suggests another alternative. Why store the photos at all? Rather than take a picture and use Google to remind you where you were, why not tell Google where you were and have it generate the picture?

When I was a kid, the biggest damper on my vacation fun was waiting for the ladies to arrange their hair and clothing when it came time to take a photo. Why impose that on them any longer? Enjoy the sites, relax, be yourself. Then go home, dress for the occasion, and send up a selfie to a service that will embed you in a professional scenery photo, adjusting shadows and colors for weather and lighting conditions at the time of your visit.

It might seem like cheating, but remember how much fun it was to stick your face in those cut-out scenes on the boardwalk when you were a kid? It’s really no different than that. And it may just save the world from the burdens of storing and processing the evidence of our narcissism.

Live Oaks Matter

When dealing with a problem as large and diffuse as anthropogenic climate change, many of us have a Rubicon to cross. As recently as five years ago, I had practicing engineers tell me that there was no way that our individual impacts could combine to affect a system as large as the Earth. The escalating frequency and power of destructive storms has changed the minds of many of those doubters.

For myself, I never doubted the science, but it was an abstraction until I observed the changes in the Oak Trees when I returned to Livermore in 2004 after being away for ten years. Persistent drought had reduced the level of the Del Valle reservoir by almost thirty feet. When I finally found the opportunity to hike the hills rising from its western shore, I was astonished and dismayed by the battered look of the oak trees. Flaking bark and fallen branches littered the trail, and the sturdy equanimity of forest was replaced by a beaten weariness. When flying into Oakland over the reservoir in the early evening, the rust-colored crowns were evidence that the ecosystem was facing the loss of its keystone species.

These observations were magnified when I visited the IONS retreat center in Petaluma. I had seen isolated instances of sudden oak death along the freeway, but the trees along the ridge around the retreat center were decimated by the scourge. The branches and leaves were coated with a choking fungus. Recent rains had brought new buds that twisted as they suffocated. I reached out to offer a compassionate touch, until a voice warned me that the contact would coat me in spores that would travel with me.

The death of the oak forests was not so visible in Southern California. The coastal ranges come right down to the shore north of Santa Barbara, which seemed to act as a barrier to the spread of the fungus. And the trees in the Thousand Oaks area often line waterways sustained by treatment facility discharges. Even so, my thrice-weekly runs along the Chesebro trails confronted me with evidence of trees in distress.

Other factors also brought me pain: all throughout the West, the native scrub is being wiped out by the European grasses that now sprout up in the aftermath of wildfires. Even on old growth hillsides, shrinking brush has left exposed ground that is overrun by verdant lawn after rains. Where water gathers on fields, the invaders are thick stands of mustard plant. The weeds last only long enough to choke out the native sprouts, then die off, leaving soil at the mercy of the wind. In many places, the chalky lime of the range peeks through under the burnt stems of the sage.

When I took up Bikram yoga to combat my chronic back pain, my contact with these realities lessened. Even moderate exercise causes me to perspire profusely, leaving me in a dehydrated condition that forces me to break posture early in class. So I have given up hiking to refine my posture and prana flow. The disconnection came to the fore when one of the other students remarked that it was nice to see the hills greening again. I had to hold my tongue – I had observed over the winter that the lime green of European grasses was spreading on the burnt ground.

But I had been hooked. As I walked back to my car this morning, I felt the call of the green world. It seemed to say, “Yes, it’s not the way it was. But it is new life. Come and see us!” So when I arrived home, I put on my hiking boots and headed up the trail.

WP_20160220_13_36_30_Rich_LITo be confronted with a large Valley Oak that had shed its lowest limb in a recent storm. The wound, so evocative of a screaming face, shocked me into recollection of the frightening dark forest of the Witch of the East in the Wizard of Oz. The sight was leavened somewhat by the sunflowers propped up against the trunk. I stopped to place my hands against the deep bark, and willed the matriarch to live, but she was weary. It was time to let go. So I offered the hope that a new sprout would rise under her guidance to provide new expression.WP_20160220_13_38_33_Rich_LI

I wish I could say that it was an isolated experience, but not a hundred yards up the trail I encountered another casualty. This friend had lost its crown, probably more than a year ago. The lower limbs were thick with brushy twigs, made bare by the winter weather. This determined manifestation of the will to survive was contradicted by the evidence in the bark of a tree that stretched its lowest branch across Chesebro from the far side. The pattern of bark discoloration suggested that it, too, would be diminished in the near future.

While the Valley Oaks seemed doomed, the Coastal Live Oak, less grand in their ambitions, seem still to thrive. They lose their limbs, but even hollowed out, they channel water through the cambrium, reaching up and out to paint the sky with green.

But as I strode away from the arroyo to cut my way home along the road, the future was painted in bright green. After the last wildfire roared up Chesebro Canyon in 2004, the forest service attempted to demark and maintain native species restoration plots. Often no more than ten feet on a side, the chicken wire was often lost in a sea of mustard plant, and while steadfastly maintained, the drought yet murdered the native plants that had evolved to survive the dry months of our Mediterranean climate. The future was obvious on the slope above the trail head: stunted oak saplings, ringed by white plastic tubes to protect them from the deer, evoked a military graveyard against the backdrop of the European grass that coated the slope in a hyperactive green.WP_20160220_14_11_23_Rich_LI

Russian to the Brink

While Nikita Khrushchev once pounded a negotiating table with his shoe, promising that “[the USSR] will bury you,” Vladimir Putin seems committed to a course of “let’s all drown together.” Whether it be oil or violence or rising oceans, the real risks facing his people are clouded in his mind by the demands of keeping a nation of eight time zones under his thumb.

As an industrialized nation whose ports are locked in ice for six months each year, Russia has a mania for warm weather. That was expressed in the ’50s in currying favor with its neighbor Iran, and in the ’80s with the invasion of Afghanistan. As global warming gained steam, the failure to secure a warm-water port made Russian nominally the only nation standing to benefit from climate change.

That wasn’t enough for Putin, whose seizure of Crimea was a thinly-disguised grab for an outlet to the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, a good piece of Ukraine stood between Russia and its new acquisition. Western opposition to the dismemberment of the Ukraine has frustrated Putin’s ambition and exposed the weakness of his military. The flurry of airspace violations by Russian fighter jets has died down as the maintenance bill mounted.

Instead, Putin has shifted to support of Bashar Assad in Syria. This is an escalation of the asymmetrical warfare epitomized by suicide bombers, except in this case the walking dead are the refugees fleeing conflict. The cost of managing the millions fleeing the region is mounting, and borne almost exclusively by the European countries who have responded to Russian adventurism with diversification of their fossil fuel supply.

Again, this geopolitical aim is shrouded in a lofty rationale: Russian claims to be fighting Daesch, the Islamist caliphate that is looting the abandoned regions of eastern Syria and western Iraq. In reality Russian military might is strongly aligned with Assad in his battle with the rebellion again his criminal regime.

In the meantime, Russia continues to pump oil into the Chinese and other markets. Its primary competitor in supply is Saudi Arabia, whose cheap production costs and small population allowed flexibility to decrease production during an oil glut to stabilize global output. Unfortunately, Sunni Saudi Arabia is locked in a regional struggle for dominance with the Shiite regime of Iran, nominally a supporter of the Allawi regime in Syria. This has led it into military adventurism in Yemen, at the cost of $17 billion a month, and is now prompting the Suadi’s to consider intervention with ground troops against Daesch in eastern Syria. An obviously a side-effect is to secure the existence of a Sunni bastion in a region about to be dominated by Shiite states. But it also creates a drain on the Saudi treasury that forces it to sell oil, driving down the price even further.

Saudi Arabia is not the only threat to Russian control of Syria. The rebels being bombed by Russian jets are not going to go away should the regime reestablish control of their strongholds. They will melt into the population, and continue to operate as insurgents. And of course, there’s all those returning refugees to provide for. Just as in Ukraine, Putin is setting himself up to be trapped for the long term in the Middle Eastern quagmire.

Finally, we have the paradox of the melting Russian tundra, composed in no small part of methane crystals that are evaporating. How much of Russia’s oil and gas infrastructure will be swallowed in sinkholes is anybody’s guess. At the very least, we can expect roads and rail lines to be disrupted. Worse, some estimates are that the continental shelf along the Arctic Ocean will soon burp up enough methane to drive global temperatures up by 2 C in the next ten years. That will moderate as the methane burns off, but the effect will be to increase desertification of Russian agricultural land. While warming Siberia is huge, it is dominated by tundra and boreal forest, possessing only a thin layer of soil. It’s not going to be a breadbasket anytime in the next thousand years.

Russia has always been a marginal state, held together by the repressive fist of the tsars. As the last of that line, Putin is playing a game of personal power on the global stage driven by the need to prove his strength to the Russian people. While it’s anybody’s guess as to how soon the Russian state will collapse under the weight of his ambitions, all we can hope is that there’s something left for the Russian people to rebuild with.

A Matter of Character

In his final State of the Union address, Barack Obama eschewed partisan politics and stretched for the heights of statesmanship. Frustrated in his most heart-felt passions by the institutions that foment mistrust of government, his program of political renewal is built around appeals to cherished notions of our national character. While composed of practical steps – among them redistricting and campaign finance reform, voting rights, and extension of public education by two years – its illustrations were drawn not from  isolated instances of specific lives transformed by those benefits, but from abstract descriptions of relationships transformed when we act from hope and trust.

Obama supported the authority of his prescription by outlining the results of seven years of quietly doing what was possible while his opponents trumpeted doom. This includes enhanced international cooperation to isolate and weaken the agents of violence, improved terms of trade to protect workers and the environment, enhancement of personal security with health care reform, and revitalization of America’s manufacturing and energy sectors.

His restrained rhetoric is set against a collection of voices that trumpet conflict. This is not limited to the field of Republican presidential nominees – the growing strength of the Sanders campaign is fueled by harsh rhetoric targeting the financial elite. I believe that the popularity of those voices reflects the sense that for the average American, security is precarious. This is supported by polling that reveals that as regards their condition, 49% of Americans have become more angry over the last year.

As wages stagnate and costs rise, inevitably every choice faced by a working family is fraught with consequence. Any single error can set us on the hard road to poverty. In that state, our natural desire is to make our choosing less difficult – in much popular political rhetoric, to remove the impediments imposed by the state. Unfortunately, this logic appeals to the interests of those that siphon financial energy from the system. One of the Koch brothers, after the federal investigation of climate science racketeering by Mobil-Exxon, appeared in public to state that in many ways he is a liberal – he believes that businesses are most successful when the individual worker is free to make his own choices. As “success” to Mr. Koch translates to “higher profits,” what history has shown is that a family man will accept lower wages when facing competition from a younger, unburdened candidate. “Freedom” as understood by Koch translates to a lack of security that eventually pits every man against his neighbor for the benefit of owners.

In his book The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment, Geoffrey Kabaservice argued that the American century was birthed on the battlefields of WWII. For the first time, the American elite went to war, and came back appreciating the strength of the brotherhood that leads men to sacrifice their lives in service. It was this brotherhood that motivated the Veterans’ Acts that opened college and home ownership to the lower classes. And it was the clawing back of those gifts by that generation’s children that steadily weakened the lower classes as we entered the 21st century.

The fragility of the post-war Golden Age must lead us to ask: is Obama right? Is our national character one of quiet service, or a narcissistic struggle for privilege that slowly grinds down the weak?

Against the cynicism of the realist, Obama marshaled the words of the man that prophesied his presidency. In his last public address, Martin Luther King, Jr. promised his audience that they as a people would see the Promised Land. Obama borrowed not from that speech but from King’s Nobel Peace Prize address, in which the prophet heralded the ultimate victory of “unarmed truth and unconditional love.”

That may sound like another flimsy basis for policy prescriptions, but it actually leads to an analysis that shows the inevitability of our exit from this era of untrammeled selfishness. Throughout history, when economic activity expands into a new scale (from the city to the state, from state to nation, from nation to globe), those managing the expansion are able to erode the rights of those that created the technologies and products that allow the expansion. They do that by transferring knowledge to impoverished labor markets (or by importing cheaper labor). By selling goods back into the originating society, owners are able to reap enormous profits.

What ultimately happens, however, is that as wages equalize, poor workers motivated by the hope that they, too, would achieve the rights of their richer cousins gain the courage to organize to secure those rights. Having played out the cheap trick of producing in cheaper labor markets, the elite is brought under ever increasing pressure to actually increase the value of labor through organizational strategy. They then confront the truth that a competent and creative worker is the best source of operational improvements, and that personal security is essential to avoid fear that distracts her attention.

This has been played out again and again through history, in each of the transitions listed above. We now face the last transition to the global stage, and growing economic instability in  China suggests that the cheap trick has just about played itself out.

So if the morality of Obama’s appeal doesn’t resonate in the pragmatic mind, I believe that it yet reflects the wisdom of historical experience. His prescriptions are the investments that we need to make now to ensure that when the burden of poverty is leveled, we as a nation are prepared to lead the charge into a future of common accomplishment safeguarded by international compacts of economic and environmental justice.

While the elite may create panic with rumors of “one world government” and “black helicopters,” the past proves that the lower classes will eventually recognize their common experience, and organize to ensure that the government that creates the rules by which power is allocated will do so in a way that ensures that power servers that greater good, rather than the whims of the elite. All the lower classes need do is to marshal the courage to believe in the commonality of their experience (which is the root of all truth) and recognize that when they invest in each others’ power (loving unconditionally), they strengthen themselves.

Economic Nation Building

The engineers at NASA have been warning for at least a decade that the constellation of junk orbiting the Earth is reaching critical levels. Beyond a certain point, the junk multiplies through collision with working satellites. I first became aware of this as a just-deserts illustration: a nation had launched a satellite with a loose wrench on board. When the satellite failed, they launched its replacement into the same orbit. Shortly after activation, the wrench, still in orbit, sheared through the boom that tethered the solar panel to the antenna.

NASA tracks space junk large enough to cause such incidents, and satellites commonly maneuver to stay out of their path. The job was made far harder when China, without notice to the international community, decided to demonstrate its ability to threaten global communications by blowing a satellite out of orbit. This was not done in a clever way, which would have been to destroy the satellite from higher orbit, pushing the fragments into the atmosphere. Instead, the Chinese destroyed the satellite from below, creating fully one third of our orbital space junk in a single incident.

This is only one example of a large number of similarly irrational incidents. When I stopped to chat with a Chinese co-worker one day, he was pulling his hair in exasperation. The pig farmers upstream from Shanghai had overbred, and many could not sell their stock. Rather than negotiating with their neighbors, they simply pushed the pigs into the river. Thousands of pig carcasses were floating through Shanghai to the ocean. The Three Gorges Dam, once seen as a manifestation of the efficiency of authoritarian rule, is a large open septic pit, filled with junk that is damaging the dam wall. More recently, we have the idiotic bulldozing of coral reefs in the South China Sea to create a landing strip to support Chinese claims to resource rights. The Obama Administration has chosen to thumb their nose, sailing naval vessels within the artificially created “territorial waters.”

When fighting a war to suppress authoritarian rule, we are confronted daily with death and destruction, and tend to bemoan the difficulty of nation building. The situation in China is a disaster in slow motion, but the fundamental problem is the same: where in Iraq the political preconditions for multi-party rule had not been established before Saddam’s ouster, in China the preconditions for a managed economy had not been established.

Foremost among these is a clear separation of economic, military and political spheres of influence. When Russian liberalized its economy, Western advisers recommended a distribution of state assets to the public. While the common share holder was generally defrauded of their ownership, the strategy did create a class of corporate ownership that can resist totalitarian excess. As Putin has fought to reassert totalitarian control, many of them have relocated to England, where Gazprom reportedly has headquarters in London.

No such separation exists in China. This means, for example, that when China realized that it could not divest itself of its US Treasury debt, and in fact had to continue to finance it to avoid watering down of its existing holdings, it choose to extend its global reach by repurposing consumer electronics technology received from the West for military applications.

Given our deep dependency on China for manufacturing of our electronics, it’s not clear how we are going to wriggle out of this situation. Industrial automation is one possibility – I am aware that Philips has resumed manufacturing of electric razors at a lights-out facility in the Netherlands. The maker movement pushed forward by hobbyists in America may spawn a flood of such innovations over the next generation.

More immediately, we have the Pacific Trade Pact, which allows companies to sue governments for unfair trade practices. I am hoping that this includes fair labor, industrial hygiene and environmental preservation as criteria. This removes the problem of jurisdiction faced by federal negotiators attempting to negotiate trade disputes involving multinational corporations. But the likely outcome will be to force China to reduce its cultural bias against foreign investment, with the result that labor and environmental justice will lose its focus.

And then there is the standard proposition of economic nation building: concentration of wealth drives competition for creative minds, which creates a population that lobbies for universal rights. The alternative, of course, is the creation of a privileged class that looks only to its own interests, as illustrated in The Hunger Games, or as actually existed in the European nobility that successfully suppressed capitalism through the use of royal monopolies until the monarchy in England was distracted by a long struggle over succession.

In Russia, the West is in some sense fortunate that Putin has chosen to cement his power through military aggression. We have prior experience in resisting that practice, primarily through the application of economic pressure. But China has carefully insulated itself from that pressure, while simultaneously reaping the profits from manufacturing operations relocated by cost-cutting multinationals that cannot be regulated by any single national government. Worse, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United hearing the ruled that corporate political spending is “free speech” came suspiciously close on the tail of revelations that China was funneling money into the American political process through our Chamber of Commerce. China’s trade surplus is being used to control our political decision making.

What worries me most about this situation is that the problem of nation building through military intervention is a subject of open dialog in our policy institutes. No such focus appears to exist for the theory, practice and dangers of economic nation building.

Hitler created a German boom by renouncing reparations during the Great Depression, and rode the authority granted by the German people into World War II. The rest of Europe did not recognize the threat he represented, and ultimately had no leverage over his conduct. China is creating growth by exploitation of the environment and workers, and has proceeded to military breast-beating. Do our leaders in government and industry recognize the potential threat, and what are they doing to ensure that we can reign in the Chinese ruling class?

Inflorescence

I’ve begun reading Lewellyn’s Spiritual Ecology, a collection of essays by those representing the unheard voices that suffer from human exploitation of nature. The authors’ shared diagnosis is that we are rushing towards the limits of the Earth’s restorative capacities, with the prescription that we must regain the spiritual bond with nature that we once had as tribal peoples.

I have provided some reaction to this perspective in my review of The Lost Language of Plants. I believe that the history of tribal peoples is far more complex than the celebrants recall. This myopia tends to cause them to forget that Western civilizations, propagators of the twin “evils” of scientific reductionism and monotheism, also arose from tribal cultures. Whatever defects they possess arose from seeds sown in humanity’s past – which is also part of nature.

To my understanding, the important factors are testosterone and feedback. Testosterone is the hormone that stimulates aggression. It is most powerful in males, but also influences females. Aggression facilitates change, and when that change is rewarded with success, our bodies are designed to amplify the biochemical signals that generate the success. What this means is that aggressive people tend to produce more and more testosterone until something checks their behavior.

As I see it, this primitive biological drive is the root cause of the ecological crisis we face. Once we learned to fashion tools, humanity freed itself from Darwinian evolution. There was nothing to check our behavior except perhaps the Earth itself. Aggressive people then turned every tool at our disposal to gather power to themselves. That included not only machinery and oil, but also rationalization of aggression through  selective and context-free application of the wisdom passed on through our intellectual and spiritual authorities. Jesus did say, for example, “No man can serve two masters. You cannot love both God and money.” And long before Marx, Adam Smith advocated for governments to secure workers’ rights against the destructive efficiencies of capitalism.

What was perhaps different in tribal cultures is that the feedback provided by nature was immediate. Do not work at harvest, and there is no food in January. In almost every society in which those constraints were removed aggression rose. This was true in African cultures, as well as in the Aztec and Mayan cultures of Central America.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist and Catholic Philosopher, published a synthesis of Christian and evolutionary ideas in 1955 titled The Phenomenon of Man. Teilhard observed that whenever a species arises with a new competitive advantage, it spreads as far as possible across the globe. In recent times, this is true not only of man – European songbirds brought with the settlers have largely displaced their smaller Native American cousins. But once the spread is complete, the parent species refines its occupation of the inherited territory through a process called inflorescence. This was visible to Darwin in the variety of the Galapagos finches, each of which had evolved from a common parent. Some had beaks adapted to crack nuts, others to fishing insects out of holes.

Teilhard observed that man was the first species to dominate the globe in its entirety. He predicted that in our inflorescence we would create a noosphere – an emanation of our thought that would allow us to manage not only the local environment entrusted to native tribes, but the planet as a whole.

It is in this process that I find hope – a hope echoed by Jeremy Rifkin in The Empathic Civilization. There is no going back. Rather than rejecting the insights of our dominant culture, we must amplify them. The subculture of testosterone will immolate itself on the altar of its own greed. The quiet, calm, thoughtful successors will marshal understanding to the service of sustainability, and bring healing and peace to the Earth.

Hope for Climate Healing

California governor Jerry Brown is in Paris this week at the climate change conference. Chris Hayes had him on All In on Wednesday night to talk about California’s efforts to combat climate change. In setting the stage, Chris pulled footage from his visit to the San Joaquin Valley earlier this year.

The statistics on both sides are daunting. As the world’s eighth largest economy, California’s dispersed population consumes huge amounts of gasoline. In seeking to reduce carbon emissions, the state has opted to install a large number of natural gas electricity plants, while also pursuing an aggressive push into renewables (wind, solar and geothermal). In general, its mild climate means that CO2 emissions are low, but it appears that major reductions are still decades away.

Brown trumpeted California’s efforts, citing the state as a global leader in climate change policy. But if this is the best that we can do, how can he hope that the talks in Paris will chart a path out of a century that is projected to end with a 10 F increase in global temperatures?

The major impact of that increase will be desertification. As in the Middle East, California is seeing the consequences of glacial retreat. At the edge of the glacial range, we still had large snow packs on the Sierras, and it was this store of water that allowed the $50 billion agricultural economy to operate through the dry summer months. As the climate warms, farmers have pumped our aquifers down by nearly fifty get. Drip irrigation systems are now being adopted to maintain production with reduced water resources, but if temperatures continue to rise, snow packs will continue to decrease. The survival of agriculture in California is tied to our depleted aquifers, which are not a renewable resource.

The consequences to the nation as a whole are daunting. The San Joaquin Valley produces 40% of America’s food.

When I rediscovered Cat Steven’s Moonshadow a few years ago, upon hearing Morning Has Broken for the first time in two decades, I found  myself filled with grief as the opening piano meditation unrolled. It climaxed with a vision as the man now called Yusuf sang these words:

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass.

In the vision, I stood on the edge of the Sierra foothills in the Central Valley. The desiccated land, scoured by wind and rain, gave no purchase to life. A pair of naked feet waited, and then began to pace across the ground. Behind them, water and life flowed.

As a student at UC Berkeley, I was compelled by the confusion I experienced in interpreting political discourse to establish my own definitions for moral dialog. When I got around to “hope”, I settled on “a connection to a future in which love is at work for you.” There is two parts to that – one is accepting love, and the other is honoring it. The first requires that we recognize our need, the second requires that we respect the needs of others.

In his conversation with Chris, Governor Brown offered this subtle piece of insight: “Modernity is individualism plus oil.” Individualism implicitly violates the first requirement for hope – it holds that we do not need others. That is sustained by oil, which allows us to consume two hundred times as much energy as we can produce with our bodies. With mechanization, we all live as though we have two hundred slaves.

But the conventions of individualism also allow us to ignore the needs of others, not least the needs of the voiceless flora and fauna that sustain ecological stability. Our fossil fuel consumption has destabilized the biosphere that some know as Gaia.

In reading the Book of Revelation, in the golden bowls I see prophesied with exactitude the climate disasters that threaten our civilization. Obviously the feet in my dream are those of the savior. But in assessing the gap between individualism and the surrender to love, I find myself recalling the experience of Jesus upon his return to Nazareth. Mark summarized it as follows [NIV Mark 6:4-6]:

Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

How far will we fall before choosing to open our hearts to allow love to re-enter the world?

And you, Christians, the family he created: will you recognize him when he comes? Will you open your hearts and minds to him and – if not partaking of his burden – at least apprehend and so honor the strain and sorrow he bears as he heals with his flesh the great wound in the Tree of Life we have created in our monomaniacal pursuit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

Or will you sit back in your seats, thrilling to the amplified harmonies of your bards, consoled by the airy myths they unfold, and say with offense [NIV Mark 6:2]:

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him?

The Middle East as a Model for Climate Crisis

As the Ice Age ended, the Middle East was the cradle of Western civilization. The “four rivers” mentioned in the Bible met in the Persian Gulf. The Euphrates River Valley, cultivated with a sophisticated irrigation system, was a breadbasket for thousands of years. Unfortunately, the mountain waters coated the soil with clay long before iron and steel plows were invented. The climate warmed, and the introduction of sheep in the Central Asian steppes caused the grass to loose its purchase. The soil washed away in the rain. The carrying capacity of the land plummeted.

Today, much of the region is dessicated. Population levels are sustained by imports financed by oil revenues. Unfortunately, those revenues are not distributed uniformly. Both ethic and class prejudice allow a small minority to capture most of the wealth, while the less fortunate scrabble for bread and shelter.

What will happen when the oil is gone?

This is a significant factor in the rise of ISIS: the Sunni/Baath minority in Iraq lost control of oil revenues to the northern Kurds and southern Shias. While IS also uses extortion and sales of archaeological treasures to finance its operations, sale of oil from captured Iraqi and Syrian facilities is a mainstay.

The brutality of the regime is intense. As in failed African states, many of its fighters are locals without any other means of support.

Is there any means for external actors to control the downward spiral in such situations? Obviously the oil economy allowed the Sunni/Baath community to amass enormous wealth, and given the focus on capturing territory over sustaining a viable economy, an investment in guns and bullets reaps huge gains for the violent few. The material left by the US for use by Iraqi government forces was also a boon to IS. But is it reasonable to expect that we can keep weapons out of the region?

The harsh climate and conditions also make it difficult to secure borders. IS is now spreading eastwards into Afghanistan, the source of much of the world’s opium, a cash crop that has moved for decades into the Western world in spite of efforts to suppress it.

The response of much of the Syrian population has been to flee. Is it possible to supply them in the region, or must they relocate to more stable societies? The Palestinian refuge camps in the ’70s and ’80s were not successful. Do we have the wisdom and skills to do better now?

My concern is that if we do not set about applying ourselves to understanding how to manage this kind of chaos, we are going to be facing the same situation all over the world in the next eighty years. Although driven initially by natural glacial cycles, the Middle East and Central Asia are archetypes for the ecological collapse and social instability that comes with global warming.

A Species of Thinking

When I stepped to the counter with The Lost Language of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner, I broke in on a conversation between the proprietress and a customer hawking her capabilities as a spirit healer. Unaware that I was incubating a serious respiratory infection, I went looking for a juice bar hoping to restore the energy expended earlier in the day while dancing in Culver City. It was kind of a random walk up and down Santa Monica Boulevard, trying to orient myself to the addresses provided by Cortana, but as I waited to cross Fifth Street I was accosted by the customer, who broke in hopefully “I saw that book you bought, too.” Without turning my head, I observed “Yeah, I bought it because I realized that I am paying too much attention to people,” and stepped into the crosswalk as the signal changed.

The first chapter of the book was a balm to my soul. Buhner writes of being introduced to “wild water” by his grandfather, a man that maneuvered through brush as though guiding a lady across a crowded dance floor (my image, not Buhner’s). Like Buhner, I feared the consequences to my sons of the lack of access to wild places, and lugged 50-pound backpacks up and down the Sierras to be where I could share my affinity with them. In reading how trees will irrigate the soil by pulling water to the surface while their stoma are closed at night, I remembered walking by a reservoir surrounded by parched stands of oak, and trying to tell the trees closest to the water to lift some to their brothers further up the hill. In celebrating the mystical insights of tribal peoples, Buhner reveals the richness and suggestiveness of their taxonomic terminology, and exposes again and again how their myths reflect the biochemical dependencies between species. The book also dwells lovingly on the transformations that occur as life propagates into a receptive environment. This poetical celebration of the tenacity and interdependence of the lower orders of life is one thread of Buhner’s exposition.

The second thread warns of the disaster that looms due to humanity’s disruption of the chemical balance of the natural world. This takes many forms: replacement of complex biomes with industrial monocultures such as wheat and corn; dispersal of long-lived cosmetics and pharmaceuticals that disrupt natural endocrine responses and breed superpests; replacement or suppression of wildlife that served to cycle nutrients through soil; and mass harvesting of plant life that releases natural chemicals to soil in amounts that overwhelm the bacteria and fungi that process them for reuse. Each of these factors contributes to the impending extinction of many plant species.

As a reader, both threads serve to illuminate the reality experienced by the plant kingdom, so I cannot complain about this book in the same way that I complained about A Global History of Christians. But, confronting the loss of so much that he holds dear, Buhner beats a straw man: scientific reductionism. In the rush of each discipline to grasp the mechanisms that determine that characteristics of its subject, science has ignored the systemic interactions that ensure the fertility and robustness of natural biomes. This includes our symbiotic relationships: the bacteria, fungi and nematodes that live within and on us in a balance that medicines disrupt, sometimes irrecoverably.

But I find that Buhner goes too far in asserting the wisdom of the natural world. His claims are disproven by the impact of invasive species. If nature always kept balance, how do:

  • cane toads run amok in Australia,
  • kudzu and Spanish moss infest the forests of the American South,
  • European songbirds wipe out the smaller songbirds of the New World, and
  • European grasses choke out the sagebrush of the West?

Such imbalances are only restored through extinction and restoration of diversity through exploitation of new opportunities in the devastated habitats. While human transportation serves to facilitate such traumas, in the modern era it is only the pace of disruption that is unnatural, not the phenomenon itself.

This extends, of course, to the most invasive species of all: homo sapiens sapiens. While Buhner decries scientific reductionism, yet its terminology and tools provide the insights that he uses to cast his poetic glamour over the reader. In describing the formation of humus (p. 165) he identifies “flavonoids, degraded lignin, terpenes, lignans, and tannins,” then continues:

Humus is mostly two substances, humic acid and a combination of polysaccharides or sugar molecules. No one knows how humic acid forms, but once formed it acts like a living substance and possesses a number of unique characteristics. It forms crystals, much like snowflakes in a sense, and, like snowflakes, no identical ones have ever been found.

While humus is a biochemical reservoir that facilitates growth, the virtue of plant medicine also reflects strategies used by plants to destroy competitors and parasites.

As Buhner documents, this natural biochemical productivity dwarfs human activity. The difference is that the products of natural biochemistry are introduced slowly enough that bacteria learn to process them. Sometimes that adaptation requires millions of years – lignin, for example, is the substance that trees use to form wood. When it first evolved, trees did not decompose after falling, but accumulated on the forest floor until burning. Oxygen content in the atmosphere soared to 30%, and the giant insects displaced other land animals. When bacteria finally learned to digest lignin, conditions reverted, triggering another jarring disruption to the global ecology.

How is the human incursion different in kind from these events? To Buhner, it seems to boil down to “once we knew better.” This is not to say that we understood. In contrast to the reductionist scientific epistemology of a mechanistic reality, Buhner celebrates the epistemology of “pre-industrial” cultures. Their medical practitioners universally ascribe their wisdom to (page 33):

“nonordinary” experiences, specifically: dreams, visions, direct communications from the plant, or sacred beings.

Was this good enough? Did Life make a mistake in creating humanity? Or do we exist because Life sought for solutions to problems that could be solved no other way?

Consider our agriculture: corn, wheat and rice are not naturally occurring varieties. Their utility as foodstuffs reflects the pressure of human selection, and is manifested in both the quantity and chemical stability of their output. As a result, humanity invests far less mental effort gathering food than it did, liberating a privileged class to the pursuit of understanding.

Buhner decries the regimentation of scientific disciplines which is accompanied by the growth of intellectual barriers that impede systems thinking. But is this not just as in the natural world? Buhner describes the intermingling of distinct species in the soil layer, each contributing to the survival of the others. Is that not the situation in the sciences?

As each natural species can be traced back to bacteria, yet is considered distinct from it, could we not celebrate the emergence of distinct disciplines from the common root of humanity? Perhaps, over the long run, what Life is interested in is a liberation from random evolutionary pressures punctuated by traumatic extinctions. In the short term, humanity was bound to make a mess before mastering our practice, and our pride and myopia is certainly exacerbating our difficulties. In the end, though, I believe that we will enter into a golden era of thoughtful evolution, empowered by the human capacity to evolve new species of thought.

Continued…