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    The Age of Plenty and Plastic Planet

           Here are two fantastic cover stories from the New Scientist magazine.   (You’ll have to right click to view the article page images in full.)  The first article, The Age of Plenty, talks about how the rare earth minerals that are currently being extracted and mined for use in modern technologies came as a surprise to me, as I figured the following and have removed  this from a piece I’m writing but will probably never finish:

           Humanity is caught in a resource-dilemma.  There is a finite supply of particular elements that we depend upon for survival and these resources, such as fresh water or helium, will need to be used wisely if humanity is to flourish and progress into the next millennia.  Moreover, the exhaustion of these resources, such as clearing forests for timber, extracting and burning fossil fuels for energy, and depleting the seas for sustenance, is disturbing the balance of nature and if maintained will likely destabilize the crucial natural cycles (hydrological, atmospheric, carbon) that should be kept stable if we are to stand a chance of moving forward into the future as a united species.  In extreme portrayals of the human future, people have established colonies on a terraformed Mars and live in giant space station habitats, but these scenarios are unlikely to unfold if we if squander and burn the precious minerals that are required to engineer such technologically-advanced civilizations.  In any case, escaping to futuristic space settlements is a fatalistic outlook, for we already live on perfectly habitable and miraculous planet that has the potential to last for a very long time if we take better care of it and each other.

           However abundant the supply of rare earth minerals, humans are still destroying the Earth and each other, so our species probably won’t be around too much longer to enjoy the fruits of all this wonderful technology.  In Plastic Planet, Christina Reed examines the severity of the problem of plastic dumped into the oceans.  This is a solid and succinct article that everyone should read to be informed of the quantity of plastic in the oceans as well as to be more considerate about their plastic consumption and disposal.  (My friend’s dad washes and reuses his plastic bags after they’ve dried off.)  Some of the most incredible factoids Reed included in her article are:

    - 260,000 tons of plastic (70% of all sea waste) is currently floating in the sea.

    - L.A rivers dump around 30 tons of plastic into the Pacific Ocean every day (compared to the Danube, which dumps out around 4.2 tons a day).

    - Plastic production has increased from 1.5 tons a year in the 1950s to 299 tons in 2013, thus only  0.1% of the plastic produce globally makes its way into the sea, but if you read the article you’ll learn that there is some confusion about this.

    - A lot of plastic may be locked up in sea ice and in deep sea sediment.

    - In 2012, only 9% of the world’s 32 million tons of the disposable plastic produced was recycled.


    Dan Barber: How I Fell in Love with a Fish

    What follows is an engaging and terrific TED talk by Dan Barber, who offers a sustainale and ecologically-sound proposition on how to feed people and be good stewards to Mother Earth at the same time.

    Here are a few excerpts:

    OK. A farm that doesn't feed its fish, a farm that measures its success by the success of its predators. And then I realized when he says, "A farm that has no impurities," he made a big understatement, because the water that flows through that farm comes in from the Guadalquivir River. It's a river that carries with it all the things that rivers tend to carry these days: chemical contaminants, pesticide runoff. And when it works its way through the system and leaves, the water is cleaner than when it entered. The system is so healthy, it purifies the water. So, not just a farm that doesn't feed its animals, not just a farm that measures its success by the health of its predators, but a farm that's literally a water purification plant -- and not just for those fish, but for you and me as well. Because when that water leaves, it dumps out into the Atlantic. A drop in the ocean, I know, but I'll take it, and so should you, because this love story, however romantic, is also instructive. You might say it's a recipe for the future of good food, whether we're talking about bass or beef cattle.

    Can I be honest? I don't love that question. No, not because we already produce enough calories to more than feed the world. One billion people will go hungry today. One billion -- that's more than ever before -- because of gross inequalities in distribution, not tonnage. Now, I don't love this question because it's determined the logic of our food system for the last 50 years.

    Feed grain to herbivores, pesticides to monocultures, chemicals to soil, chicken to fish, and all along agribusiness has simply asked, "If we're feeding more people more cheaply, how terrible could that be?" That's been the motivation, it's been the justification: it's been the business plan of American agriculture. We should call it what it is: a business in liquidation, a business that's quickly eroding ecological capital that makes that very production possible. That's not a business, and it isn't agriculture.

    Our breadbasket is threatened today, not because of diminishing supply, but because of diminishing resources. Not by the latest combine and tractor invention, but by fertile land; not by pumps, but by fresh water; not by chainsaws, but by forests; and not by fishing boats and nets, but by fish in the sea.

    Want to feed the world? Let's start by asking: How are we going to feed ourselves? Or better: How can we create conditions that enable every community to feed itself? (Applause) To do that, don't look at the agribusiness model for the future. It's really old, and it's tired. It's high on capital, chemistry and machines, and it's never produced anything really good to eat. Instead, let's look to the ecological model. That's the one that relies on two billion years of on-the-job experience.



    Ocean Acidification 

              In this episode of the KPFA radio program, Against the Grain, Meg Chadsey of Washington Sea Grant explains the effects of ocean acidification on the marine environment.  At the beginning of the interview, Chadsey explains the basics: 

    MC:   Since the Industrial Revolution, which was about a hundred and fifty years ago, roughly, we have been burning fossil fuels.  And the amount of carbon that’s released when you convert coal and gas and oil into carbon dioxide is really significant, and that probably accounts for about ninety percent of our annual carbon dioxide emissions as fossil fuel combustion.  Another ten percent comes from deforestation.  So when we’re cutting down forests to increase the agricultural area, for example, and we’re burning those forests, that also releases carbon dioxide that has been stored long-term as wood, as biomass, into the atmosphere as CO2.  So those are the two major sources of carbon dioxide: fossil fuels and deforestation.

          Chadsey says that every year about 10 billion metric tons of CO2 is emitted and disperse throughout the biosphere a result of human activity.  Seventy-five percent goes into the atmosphere, and roughly twenty-five percent enters the ocean.  The fast rate at which carbon dioxide is entering the seas prevents the currents for diluting it thoroughly, so acidification is occurring largely near the surface of the world’s oceans.  She goes onto to talk about the direct effect that increased acidification breaks down skeletal and shells structure of calcium carbonate-based marine organisms (she gives the example of a piece of chalk dissolving in lemon juice).    C.S Soong, host of Against the Grain, lists some of the marine creatures that have calcium carbonate skeletons and shells that are being affected by increased acidification of the oceans:  oysters, crabs, mussels, scallops, clams, lobsters, shrimp, abalone, sea stars, corals, barnacles, sand dollars, sea cucumbers.  Chadsey responds that if these marine animals, which serve as a large base for much of the food web, then we are all in deep shit.

    Image from:

    Here are some other interesting excerpts of the show:

    (31 min.) CS:  …Should we be concerned then – just following up on your last answer – that some marine species will go extinct because of acidification?  Are there any predictions in that regard – how many species might go extinct, how quickly?

    MC:  I think we should absolutely be concerned about extinction. I’m not going to be able to give you hard numbers for predictions, but I would say people are very concerned, and one of the reasons they’re concerned is because there are precedents in Earth’s deep geologic history for mass extinctions related to acidification of the ocean.  What we’re experiencing now is not the first time that the Earth’s oceans have become much more acidic.  Right now our oceans are acidifying at a relatively rapid pace compared to past geological events, so the problem actually might be more severe for us than it was in the past.  But we can look at the past geologic record and see what happened when similar acidification events occurred, and unfortunately things did not go well.  During one of the earlier acidification events, up to eighty-percent of calcifying foraminifera – which are a type of small organism, a shell forming plankton species – up to eight percent of all foraminiferous species went extinct.  Also the types of corals that we associate with coral reefs – hard-bodied corals that build colonies and form these massive reefs – those also went extinct at a tremendous rate, and they actually had to recover.  The corals that we know today have had millions of years to re-evolve and build back up to previous levels, but they were almost wiped-out.  And I should say that the rate of acidification, the rate at which oceans are becoming more acidic now is probably about a hundred times faster than the rate at which oceans acidified during these previous extinction events in deep Earth history.  So, if anything we’re probably looking at a worse scenario.

    Image from:

    (46 min) CS: …I read somewhere that the acidic, CO2 rich water that surfaces off the U.S west coast – California, Oregon, Washington – that’s actually a result of CO2 that’s entered the ocean decades ago, so in other words: even if emissions halted immediately, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, west coast sea chemistry would worsen for several decades before plateauing, which brings to my mind the question: is it too late?  Is there so much CO2 already in the oceans that we can really cut-in to the acidification process in a meaningful way?

    MC:  I’m glad you raised that point C.S.  You’re exactly right – that we’re short of locked-in to a future of increasing acidity for the next several decades, even if we were to halt emissions today, which of course would be practically impossible to do.   And the reason that’s occurring is because of the way water masses move around in the Pacific Ocean.  The water that’s currently welling up on our coastline now is a layer of deeper seawater that basically was last at the surface thirty to fifty years ago when it was way up in the north pole, and then it sinks and travels and comes up on our coast.  So the amount of CO2 in the water that’s welling up on the Pacific coast now reflects the atmospheric concentration from thirty to fifty years ago, which is of course less than what it is today.  But it also carries a natural burden of CO2 that’s generated by living organisms.  The whole time that water’s transiting the in ocean, there are animals that consume oxygen and exhale CO2, even underwater – they’re just like us, they pull the oxygen out of the water and they exhale CO2.  So they’re adding CO2 during that time, and that’s part of the CO2 that’s causing a problem on our coastline right now. 

    But you asked, because of things like that, is it…is everything lost, is there nothing we can do?  Absolutely I do not feel that way.  Things can get a lot worse than they are today, and I’ve been surprised to see that a large part of the CO2 emissions that we’re dealing with now, that are in our atmosphere, have happen in my lifetime.  You know when people talk about human activity contributing to carbon dioxide emissions they also start from the Industrial Revolution which was a hundred and fifty years ago.  But if you look at the graphs that show the rate of emissions, things have really picked-up since the early seventies, in the late sixties, and they’re picking-up at an ever increasing rate, so it actually is really important to keep trying to stall, to stop, and reverse what we’re doing now, because a year’s worth of emissions in the twenty-first century are a lot more than a year’s worth of emissions thirty to forty years ago.
    Alexis Rockman, Manifest Destiny


    HD 162826 , Laniakea, and Alan Watts, the Big Bang, and a Wiggly World

      Rebecca Boyle’s New Scientist article, Strangest Star (below; right click to expand), examines some of the little known peculiarities about the sun.  For instance, giant “droplets” of plasma the size of Ireland rise and fall back to the sun as rain; it is inexplicably hotter in the area surrounding the surface than on the surface itself; also, our  our sun may have a twin located currently in the Hercules constellation: “After their birth in the same cloud of dust and gas that formed our solar system, these solar siblings scattered hundreds of light years apart in the Milky Way.” (Click here for an idea of where our galactic supercluster, Laniakea, may possibly be  located and flowing in relation to the neighboring cosmic highway.)  She goes on to write, “Though they spread out in different directions, their positions still give away their birthplace… Even more tantalising, HD 162826 is already in a catalogue of stars that might harbour planets.”

    These notions remind me of A Wiggly World, part of the Alan Watts “Out of Your Mind” lecture series, in which Watts draws attention to the concept of all things in the universe being connected.  Here is what he says:

    I know there are astronomers that say there was a primordial explosion – enormous bang, millions of years ago, billions of years ago – which flung all the galaxies into to space.  Well, let’s take that just for the sake of argument and say that was the way it happened.  It’s like you took a bottle of ink and you threw it at a wall – smash – and all that ink spreads – zishhh – and in the middle, it’s dense, isn’t it?  And as it gets out on the edge, the little droplets are finer and finer and make more complicated patterns, see?  So in the same way there was a big bang at the beginning of things and it spread.  And you and I sitting here in this room, as complicated human beings, are way way out on the fringe of that bang.  We’re the complicated little patterns on the end of it.  Very interesting.

    But, so we define ourselves as being only that.  If you think you are only inside your skin you define yourself as one very complicated little curlicue way out on the edge of that explosion, way out in space, and way out in time.  Billions of years ago you were a big bang, but now you’re a complicated human being.  And then we cut ourselves out – crrhhh – like this, and don’t feel that we’re still the big bang.  But you are, it depends how you define yourself.  You are actually – if this is the way things started, if there was a big bang in the beginning – you’re not something that is result of the big bang on the end of the process, you are still the process.  You are the big bang, the original force of the universe coming on as whoever you are.  See when I meet you, I see not just what you define yourself as: Mr. so and so, Mrs. so and so, Misses so and so – I see everyone of you as the primordial energy of the universe coming on at me in the particular way.  I know I’m that too, but we’ve learned to define ourselves as separate from it. 

    And so what I would call of a kind of basic problem we’ve got to go through first is to understand that there are no such things – that is to say separate things, or separate events – that that is only a way of talking.  And if you can understand this then you’re gonna have no further problems…

    …So the world does come thinged, it doesn’t come evented.  You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean. The ocean waves and the universe peoples, and as the wave I wave at you and say “You-hoo,” the world is waving at me with you, and saying, “Hi, I’m here.”  But we are consciousness – the way we feel and sense our existence – being based on a myth that we are made, that we are parts, that we are things – our consciousness has been influenced so that each one of us does not feel that.  We feel we have been hypnotize, literally hypnotized, by  social convention into feeling and sensing that we exist only inside our skins, that we are not the original bang, but just something out on the end of it, and therefore we are scared stiff, cause, “my wave is gonna disappear, and that I’m going to die, and will be awful…”




            I was lost, but I understood the forest.  The blood that ran in me was not urban.  I almost said not human.  It had come from other times and a far place.

                                                                                                                                                         -Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower       

    Here are forty-one pictures of the myriad skulls currently on display at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.  Take a gander, you may find a long lost relative or two.