IBI Watch 12/29/13

29 12 2013

We Need this Index //

We have many measurements and indexes that purport to tell us about various aspects of the economy – the consumer price index, the gross domestic product, the consumer confidence index, and so many others. We even have this seasonal nonsense, based on the familiar old Christmas song.

Seeing several stories bunched this week, I realized we are missing an index – one that could really educate us on the folly of how we run the economic ship. First there was this one, which really should be a startup of a support group, Sardines Anonymous. Then there is a great consumer credit data security scandal, courtesy of the retailer Target. And then we have this one – that steak looks amazingly appetizing, considering its building blocks. Yum.

The thread connecting these three stories may be clear, but here are a few more items. First, Marketplace did an investigative story on the making of a humble t shirt. Interesting, and gets into that inconvenient issue of dangerous work conditions for factory workers – but not like this. (Did you catch the passing reference to the empire built on the myth of “low, low prices?”) And looking to an even bigger picture, there is this grand initiative to put useless land to work supplying the engines of industry. And a related bonanza – the United States’ triumphant return to the elite club of oil exporters, thanks to the “miracle” of fracking.

The link should be clear by now – all these stories represent ways we pursue low costs without regard to consequences. So the index the world badly needs in my opinion is this – the TCCI. That is, the True Cost of Cheap Index. The purpose of this index would be educational – to help us understand that if something sounds too cheap for our own good, we probably need to dig into the reasons for that cheapness, and act accordingly.

My quixotic index idea won’t materialize anytime soon. Or ever. But there are ways to get at this information. A favorite of mine is the GoodGuide site – where you can find out the true impact of consumer products. Rate them on personal health, environmental safety, and societal concerns – and customize those to your values. Information about consumer products and large, planet-altering energy initiatives – fracking, tar sands oil, mountaintop-removal coal mining – is available in plain sight. And there are some nascent efforts to filter lies, character assassination and delusional raving out of public forums. But we are often too entertained, busy or economically challenged to seek it out truth, or glean it through the smoke of corporate propaganda.

That’s where wise regulation comes in. Regulation prevents hell such as this disaster that would ensue should certain ideologues commandeer all the reins of power. Corporate control over the media and the message promotes our obsession with low prices and pignorance (pretend-ignorance) of the true costs, often called externalities. Many of us know we need to do better – including NPR’s Linda Wertheimer. I enjoyed her essay about the current disastrously paralyzed Congress, but her solution – replace out incumbent bums with a new cast – falls far short of what is needed. The only way to get us on a planet-wise track, in my opinion, is to solve the root problem – the corporate pollution that poisons our policy, and twists it in the name of pursuing the quick buck. We will move solidly in that direction when corporations are no longer people, my friends.

Punching Back with Wisdom and Respect

Star Tribune commentator Bonnie Blodgett received a rare and well-deserved opportunity recently. That is, to respond in print to a corporate spin doctor who had cherry-picked and tried to undermine a well-researched column Blodgett had written on the often invisible and carefully managed power of corporate agriculture. Few can exceed her as an expert connector of seemingly disparate situations and trends. Kudos to the Star Tribune for doing the right thing. And kudos to Bonnie for hanging in there for the sake of the planet.

“Pope-ulist!”

The leader of my church of origin is really making waves. Pope Francis has angry greedmeisters like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News trembling on their gilded soapboxes. The new pope has the audacity to demand that we care about the poor, and pursue policies of fairness and generosity. How quaint. How “Marxist.”

I was very impressed with the ideas of Bill Moyers’ guest, Tom Cahill. The author of Heretics and Heroes (newly added to my reading list) says this whole debate can be boiled down to a single choice between two movements in the world – kindness and cruelty. Sadly, we too rarely make the better choice.

But we can’t finish this piece without a nod to Jon Stewart’s brilliant satire of both the right wing’s revulsion at the Pope’s insistence on fairness, and the mythical “World War C.” This will leave you laughing, guaranteed.

Beauty from a Distance

It was 45 years ago, and I was fascinated by the space program. I could not get enough TV coverage, first of the capsules orbiting the moon, and then just months later, sending modules down to its surface. My dad encouraged my enthusiasm by painstakingly explaining to me a lot of the technical challenges NASA overcame.

The mission we celebrate here is Apollo 8 – a mere orbiter compared to the later “small step for man” achievement. But it was Apollo 8’s team effort that gave us the iconic image that has become known as “Earthrise” – a touchstone for the environmental movement.

Author Andrew Chaikin has done us a great service with his 2007 book A Man on the Moon and his description of the “Earthrise” achievement. He is also the narrator of a fine NASA video on the mission.

Climate Change – Current and Coming Attractions

As 2013 closes, we are making sadly little progress on building consensus. Denialist obfuscation notwithstanding, the situation grows more urgent by the day. Amazing how a mere 90 million tons of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by little old us every single day of every single year can cause problems, I know, but bear with me for several perspectives.

First, here is a well-constructed, comprehensive look at right now. Note the emphasis on solutions, if we only were to wake up. Next, a Climate Progress piece on specific 2013 climate events, none of them too sanguine. And finally, a concise, idea-packed NPR interview with Andrew Steer of the World Resources Institute. Though Steve Inskeep picks an inopportune time to be a “tough, skeptical journalist,” (see if you don’t agree), Steer communicates a lot on what needs to happen to build consensus and how that might happen – concerted, committed, collective pressure from consumers and shareholders. A celebrated highlight – the growth of low carbon cities. Viva the shoe and the bicycle!

2013: the Jaded (but Justified) Rear Mirror

Goshen NY blogger Tom Degan has done it again. If you have never read his Rant, you are missing wise and wise-guy blogging at its best. I love his jaundiced and spot-on year in review. The Worst of the Rant, indeed.

Innovations for New Years and Beyond

To provoke some forward thinking, I submit for your consideration CNN’s collection of 10 innovative ideas. Ranging from the practical but daunting (#1) to the “why the hell not?!” (#3) to the downright scary (#6), these will get you thinking about the future. Which is something we really need to do a lot more of. Along with acting more wisely, of course.

“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” – Wendell Berry

Happy New Year to all IBI Watch Readers!  Thanks for your continued support, sharing and working to build sustainability!

Contributed links to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 12/22/13

22 12 2013

The True Universal Language  //

A friend mentioned Esperanto the other day. Now that is something I had not thought of for a long time – the well-intentioned but largely futile effort to create an artificial but logical, easily learned tongue that aspired to be everyone’s second language.  Esperanto has not caught on widely, and that is a shame. But no matter. Another language is universally recognized, and it really gets results. . . or could anyway. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

First – what to make of the mass release of political prisoners in Russia this week? President Vladimir Putin (aka Vlad the En-Jailer) summarily liberated a virtual crowd of captives – ex-oligarch and rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the protesting punk group Pussy Riot, and the Greenpeace 30 protesters. So what’s going on? Is Putin finally morphing into the “good man” into whose soul our insightful ex-president George W peered? The easy answer is that Russia wants a cleaner image for the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics. But it is really the universal language at work. Positive image, more happy, well-heeled visitors, more money filling the Olympic coffers. Isn’t it nice when that universal language – cash – can deliver desired results? Think about it – all the various reasons Russia held this diverse crowd melted away when lucre loomed. Russia has another Olympic controversy to tame – its stern and hostile approach to gays – but that is another story for another time.

Second – North Dakota is experiencing an orgy of oil revenue. New, unconventional drilling techniques including horizontal exploration and of course fracking have unleashed a gusher of huge proportions. Investments are leading to piles of fast cash. In other words, money in but lots more money out. But the benefits bring challenges, some of them detailed in that MSN piece, some not. For instance, we have to ask if we have learned a damned thing from previous boom and bust cycles, especially when it comes to the environment. Just read this NY Times piece by Clifford Krauss, on efforts to manage the inevitable byproduct of all this oil exploitation – “waste” natural gas. Perusing those statistics about how much good could come from using that byproduct to heat homes and businesses provides the answer – not a damned thing. The rush for the quick money means grab the oil, fast, and do not be deliberate about capturing the gas byproduct. Let it burn aimlessly, producing harmful greenhouse gas emissions – just the cost of progress I guess.

Yes, I know it is a bit of a stretch to talk about money as a universal language. But I ask this – if money has the power to make Strongman Putin go all soft on his most prominent political prisoners, what power could it have, with sensible laws and regulations, to build the common good and save our sorry collective keister? What if it were not free to simply vent or flare “byproduct” gas?  What if every bit of carbon produced in oil and coal exploitation were assessed a fee, and the revenue used to create sustainability?  Would we be wantonly adding to the burden that we put on the already taxed atmosphere every day (90 million tons of carbon dioxide daily, but who is counting?) if producers were paying that fee for all the carbon? Of course not. We would be building the needed infrastructure in a hurry, in order to keep the oil and the oil cash flowing until renewables completely took over. Now that would be using money to produce results that benefit all.

There is a way to get those big benefits from the universal language of cash – make carbon pay its way. That’s just what Citizens Climate Lobby dedicates itself to. Read more about the carbon fee and dividend. And it is not just the carbon fee. How about saving waste heat? We need these ideas and so many more, before it is too late.

 

Too Late Already?

A growing chorus of scientists add up all the evidence and have a single grave conclusion – the human race is toast. This excellent AlterNet story by Dahr Jamail tells the story in articulate detail.  They may be right, but we really have not begun to fight. It is always a good time to cut through the pignorance (pretend ignorance) and get to purposeful work. And fortunately, many are trying – and there is progress to report.

Want proof that people can “get it” about clean transportation? Here – winter cycling is growing in, of all places, the coldest major metro area in the whole US – my adopted home region. And it regularly dips below zero here, folks. Want solar? We’ve got solar. In the hot desert? No, Iowa. Then there is the big picture – 2013 energy breakthroughs that are other than newfangled ways to get at more and more of the destructive old coal and oil. And what of powering the entire world with solar? How much land would that require? Less than you might think.

Remember Nelson Mandela’s words – “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

 

Incarceration Nation

I saw this Foreign Policy article, really a thought experiment, in my local newspaper this week. It imagines the outsized percentage of the US population, and the obscene portion of its minority population, as a distinct nation. The online version, of course, has the benefit of many links. This really got me thinking. And then Bill Moyers came along with his interview of lawyer/activist Michelle Alexander on the same topic. Here are facts and figures from the show, and here is the entire interview. Considering the cost, considering the unfairness, considering the wasted lives, you have to ask – Why?

 

Antibacterials Banned; Next up Phantom Plastic

One of the stupidest, but most enticing consumer ideas in modern America has to be the notion that we can make everything so damned squeaky clean that we never pick up any nasty bugs. That’s the idea behind antibacterial soap and its most ubiquitous ingredient, triclosan. That “miracle” substance, linked to health problems and more indirectly to mutant pathogens, will at long last face a sunset, barring lobbying by corporatists and other anti-science stooges. The only question is – what took so long?

So there is the good news. Now look at another issue. We can only hope we wise up faster on this one – minuscule plastic waste from personal care products that is fouling the Great Lakes. If it is all about the humans, then by all means we need do nothing. If we give a damn, then we need to read and act on the story’s punchline – “stop putting it out there.” Should be an easy choice. Learn more. Be sure to scroll down to the imbedded video. And then visit 5Gyres, an excellent site – new to me – dedicated to banning plastic pollution. You might even find a petition or three there, or something more useful – a chance to contribute.

 

Ambassador for Fairness

Billie Jean King is going to Russia with the American delegation to the Olympics. Her tennis glory is long past, but if you wonder about her message, see the note above in the comments about Putin’s Russia. I enjoyed this Scott Simon essay, and I think you will. Recently, I was so impressed with the tennis great’s intelligence, insights and magnanimity to her critics. Those were on display when she was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

 

Altering Earth’s Life Support System – Guest Post by Rolly Montpellier

This week’s guest post offers a concise summary of the state of climate change as reported by IPCC scientists, and discusses an important concept – the world carbon budget. Be sure to check out the excellent imbedded video from the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. Toronto’s Rolly Montpellier blogs at the Boomer Warrior site. That site sometimes features my work as well.

 

Threatened Polar Bears – Two Views

It is no secret that the polar bear’s natural world is melting, and the cause is nothing like natural. Here is a story on one result – interspecies mating with grizzlies, to the detriment of both. And here is an iconic, award-winning picture from National Geographic.

 

Climate Change All Over this Land

A friend shared with me this very rich site with abundant maps, links and graphs. From those crazy doomsaying radicals at the US Geological Service.

 

The Year in Extreme Weather Pictures

2013 has been quite a year. Just wait until next.

 

2000-Plus Years of Christmas

If you stay away from the “war” hogwash, you can learn some really interesting things.

 

Holy Sheep

Somehow I can’t resist featuring these guys every holiday season. Don’t know if it is the lights, the tongue-in-cheek delivery or the fact that one of my two dogs is a clever, obsessed, deranged, rescued border collie.

 

A World Worth Imagining and Building

And in pictures. Thank you, John Lennon, and thank you, Pablo Stanley!

 

Happy Christmas, and likewise for all other holidays you may celebrate!

 

“The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.” – Gaylord Nelson

 

Contributed links or content to this posting – Bobbie Chong, Allyson Harper, Rolly Montpellier, Tammie Stadt, David Vessel

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 12/8/13

8 12 2013

Inequality and Apathy //

Income Inequality in America continues to grow, but how many of us are really paying attention? George W Bush scaled new heights of cluelessness with his apparently earnest celebration of an audience member who had three jobs. But that problem has not disappeared. Far from it. Try this Weekend Edition Saturday story about a certain class of people who are hiring valets for their one-year-old(!) progeny while hordes of that three-job class struggle for the scraps of income that tinkle down from on high. And of course former Labor Secretary Robert Reich campaigns on this crucial issue – his latest work being a highly-regarded documentary that I just have to see. Here’s the trailer, and a brand-new and worthy review from Canada.com.

What really got me thinking again about income inequality and economic justice this week was an opinion piece that I read in the Star Tribune. On its surface, Virginia Postrel’s Bloomberg News article is not even about income inequality.  Rather, it’s really more of an extended homage to the fun most of us – even the three-job crowd – are experiencing as a result of the entertainment technology revolution. That revolution has indeed bestowed a remarkable basket of benefits. Postrel’s argument – that the happiness bonus earned from lives enriched by wider entertainment options is not included in measures of well-being has some merit. But let’s look a little deeper. If her premise is correct – that all the entertainment whiz bang overrides the economic troubles that low-wage workers suffer – then the US, the home of the go-go economy and still the richest country in the world should be the happiest, or one of the very few happiest in the world. Sorry, not so. And when you look at measures of human health, there is an even more shocking lag.

Of course I benefit mightily from the entertainment tech revolution. While I am not a big gamer, the pleasures of playing word games online with friends around the world, carrying radio podcasts around with me on a device smaller than a matchbox, schlepping a whole universe of data on a smart phone smaller than a deck of cards, all of this is not lost on me. But entertainment tech is today’s opium. How else to understand how we have let the kind of gulf that Reich decries happen? How can we not pay attention to a system that allows all of this?

A significant part of the answer is exactly what Postrel celebrates – most of us, even the three-job crowd, even the middle class who are getting mugged in the name of austerity, are well entertained, i.e. anaesthetized against seeing what is really happening. And what is really happening is corporate control of our government system. Since Citizens’ United, that power has grown. (If you need a ghastly laugh at corporate rule, count on Jon Stewart!) Until we figure out a way to stop it, we will stay on the same dangerous path – recreating the Gilded Age, even a modern feudal system, where a tiny elite holds more and more power and wealth while all others shrivel. But hey, at least we are entertained!

There must be a better way. I like this Bernie Sanders petition and the wealth of information included in the bargain. Please join me in signing.

The Dangers of Abruptness

No, this is not about rude, curt communication but something much more consequential. Because our unrelenting and accelerating production of greenhouse gases has pushed the world’s climate into completely uncharted (in human time) territory, scientists tell us we must expect the unexpected. Here is the latest on what they are teasing out, and what we should do to comprehend and cope. (Be sure to catch the exit line from the NPR story, about how a certain party wants to handle the costs of crucial research.)

And of course it is not just risk of future change. It is already here – in the form of sea level rise that is already loaded in the system, a variety of costs that we are already paying, and persistent heat waves that are already scorching food crops. Though heat waves and climate change in general seem an odd topic to some in the north right now as we shiver, we really have to consider the big picture. Got 14 seconds for an animation? And of course the picture might be even bigger and darker, as proponents of the theory of near-term extinction are quick to point out. While noting that those pessimists have much evidence for their views, I say we should keep it from becoming the most awful of self-fulfilling prophesies.

So what are we doing? Some are pushing clean energy, others conservation – both parts of the mix. But in the long run we get nowhere without slaying that corporate power dragon. Here’s a start. Here’s another.

Look Beyond that Frozen Nose

This NPR piece is a refreshing big-picture antidote to the inevitable pignorant chorus about how the current American Arctic cold wave casts doubt on climate science. These things really are at stake, and the trends are sad.

Raw Deals for Women

Here are two stories that don’t seem directly related, until you think just a bit. First, a brief video expose of the beauty game, and an articulate video plea by scientist Emily Graslie, with a simple request – respect for her knowledge and research. Made me want to check out her science blog. I love her enthusiasm. Look out, Bill Nye!

Two Nearby States, a World Apart

This story is for residents of Wisconsin and Minnesota, but it has messages for all Americans really. I am certainly glad for which side of the divide I live on, though I have not an ounce of Scandinavian blood running in these veins. And as MPR rightly points out, but for the grace of 8000 votes, there went us in 2010. Oy, was that close! This also got me thinking big picture, and right back to a story I heard recently about the foundations of American liberalism and conservatism. I found this Tom Paine/Edmund Burke comparison fascinating, and I bet you will as well. I think I will have to read Yuval Levin’s book, The Great Debate. And keep voting.

Remember to Save the Bees

Here in December’s frozen northland, it is a bit difficult to think about pollinators at the moment. But think and act we must, because time is growing short. As you no doubt know from reading this blog and other sources of science, a variety of factors, led by a class of “miracle” pesticides, have been decimating populations of bees and other pollinators worldwide. Here are some updates. First, the European Union – those namby-pamby risk-averse wimps, have dared to ban these miracles of modern science for a few years and see what happens. That’s not exactly news, but this new update sheds more light an article by Robert Krulwich (whose RadioLab show you really have to check out). And if that dot-connecting piece inspires you to do something, you could always struggle against the empire.

Celebrating the Voice of Freedom

The airways are rightly full of tributes right now to a giant of the 20th century. Here is an entire library of material for you to sample, courtesy of PRI’s The World. While Nelson Mandela is lionized as a champion of freedom and justice, to me the most amazing and enduring example he set was forgiveness. A lesson we all need to learn.

“A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of.”
– Nelson Mandela

Contributed links or content to this posting –Allyson Harper, Mike Nevala, Lucinda Plaisance

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 10/27/13

27 10 2013

A Climate Change Balance Sheet //

There was a time, not long ago, when climate change activists like me expected the rising cost of oil and coal to speed moves toward conservation and alternatives. This was the thesis of the Peak Oil movement – that it would become increasingly difficult to access and exploit remaining fossil fuels, thus making it ever harder to keep burning them for energy and transportation. That was BF (before fracking). (Though I disagree with his assessment of overall risks of exploiting extreme fuels, David Blackmon rightly justly skewers the notion of peak oil in this Forbes commentary.) Also, costs have risen, but all that has done is to make “extreme” fossil fuels economically viable. The result – for now – is business as usual, more or less, with continued overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions. And then there are the climate paybacks.

Since peak oil will not save our bacon, motivation for the essential move toward sustainable energy will have to be financial, a massive cost/benefit analysis. Right now, who is suffering the costs or our addiction to fossil fuel burning? Certainly, indigenous people in the Arctic and on islands threatened by sea rise. But increasingly, “climate justice” of sorts is moving in. The anniversary of Hurricane Sandy is a reminder that storms strengthened by sea rise threaten American cities as well, with New York, Miami and New Orleans the prime targets for now. Also, the Amazon – sometimes called the planet’s lungs – being cut down for cheap wood and endangered by climate change, faces even more serious, costly risk than previously understood. And then there is the ocean, already on course for massive change caused by acidification and warming from our greenhouse emissions. Not to mention burgeoning wildfires, which travel around the world with the warm season.

So the question is – when does all this cost become enough to be widely recognized as more costly than moving to a sustainable energy/climate future?  This won’t be easy, because those reaping the benefits – oil and coal companies and their obedient congressional acolytes – still hold sway. Why else would misinformation continue to thrive on Fox News? And the true costs of dependence on fossil fuels are hidden, imbedded in the system. And for a measure of that control, see this AlterNet expose on the Koch Brothers. You can see more of the same on the horizon. Can you guess which country is trying to slow the process of moving to a new, stronger, greenhouse gas agreement? Of course you could.

If we have any hope of passing on a livable planet to future generations, this can’t continue. Here is a call for “solutions journalism.” And to me, hope lies in part with corporate interests recognizing the folly of wrecking the place, long-term, in the interest of profits. Here is a piece on investors’ doubt in the financial future of Big Hydrocarbons. And insurance companies are beginning to get the message that climate change threatens their business model, big-time. And Bill McKibben is a force to be reckoned with. His 350.org has spearheaded a campaign to help investors large and small divest from Big Oil and Big Coal.

But the best idea out there for hastening the process of internalizing is to build the momentum for a carbon fee and dividend system. This is not the discredited cap and trade idea, but a rational way to nudge the market system toward sustainability by rewarding responsible behavior. One worthy organization working steadily and specifically on that goal is the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. And it would be a far better, more sustainable world if we just followed the punchy slogan at the heart of this Guardian piece.

 

An Unplanned War on Drugs

No one really wants to fight this war, and in fact we don’t like even to admit the war is proceeding. But fight we do, and any one of us could find ourselves in the crosshairs of the resurgent enemy. That may sound like unhinged, extreme fear mongering. But it is an accurate assessment of our increasingly shaky relationship with a whole class of drugs – antibiotics. Accurate because uncontrollable infections affect two million Americans per year, killing 23,000, and solutions elude us.

There is much to learn from a recent Frontline documentary – Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria. The suffering of the people highlighted in the video makes it hard to watch. But I highly recommend it, first because it explains a story we don’t hear nearly enough about, and because it points to societal trends that we must manage if we are to save masses of people from fates like those of the documentary’s unfortunate subjects.

A dark twin of the old adage “use it or lose it” applies here. The video makes clear that when it comes to antibiotics, we “use them and lose them.” That’s because, thanks to evolution, which takes place at warp speed in the microbial world, bacteria are constantly morphing into new forms that challenge our defenses, i.e. the miracle cures of antibiotics. Therefore, the more encounters we arrange, wittingly or not, between the bugs and the drugs, the more we help the bugs get “smarter,” more potent, and maybe invincible. So that is the battle we have conducted since Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928. And in fact Fleming warned against complacency in using these drugs in his 1945 Nobel Prize speech.

Two recent developments justify Fleming’s concerns. You will learn about them in the video – gram-negative bacteria, which have special, impenetrable defenses against antibiotics, and a special instance of that resistance – klebsiella pneumoniae, called KPC in the Frontline segment.

So, knowing this is unfolding, you would think we would be mounting an effort akin to the moon race to protect the population. You would think wrong. First, research on this shadowy problem is number 70(!) on the priority list cited by a Federal source in the video. Second, if you think government-supported scientific research somehow thrives in this era of partisan showdowns, government loathing and government shutdowns, you are living in another realm. Third, an interesting market- driven phenomenon, also explained by Frontline, plays out here – private research by drug companies is hard for them to justify. Why? Remember – use it and lose it. That is, antibiotics, used properly, are developed, demonstrated to be effective, and then shelved for those instances where they are really needed. That is far removed from “take two pills per day for the next five decades.” That is, maintenance drugs pay long-term profits, but antibiotics just don’t pay back the private developers for their investment. A fine example of where the common good just does not fare well in an unregulated, profit-driven system.

But there is one more piece of this story that the excellent Frontline segment just does not touch. That is this – for all the problems we encourage with misuse of antibiotics in human health care, they pale in comparison to the risks we create with our livestock practices. Here is why – eighty percent of all antibiotics used in the US are used on farms. This would be bad enough if they were used to combat rampant illness. But the main purpose of all this mass feeding of miracle drugs to meat animals is twofold – first, to prevent illness in cheek-by-jowl feedlot confinement, and second, to fatten up Big Piggy or Bossy for market faster. That’s right, we are risking health Armageddon in the name of a cheaper Big Mac. You can learn more about that particular ignorance-based initiative in an excellent interview of David Hoffman (whose work is featured in the Frontline story) done by NPR’s Terry Gross. (And for an in-depth look at the bigger picture of factory farming’s impacts, check this commentary on a new John Hopkins University report.) The entire Fresh Air interview is excellent, but if you want to cut to the chase for a summary of all the issues – medical, feedlot and antibiotic cleansers –  go to 34:00 on that audio segment.

Hoffman promises a follow-up specifically on the feedlot problems, but does not go so much into solutions. Seems to me that common-good solutions are these:

  • Recommitment to government-sponsored research into bacterial resistance
  • Regulation against overuse and misuse of antibiotics in agriculture and consumer products
  • Creative ideas for overcoming the perverse market forces that discourage drug companies from researching and developing new antibiotics

These will not be easy in our corporate-ruled, gerrymandered system, but I see no other way forward.

 

Wealth Gap in Video

The ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, and especially the extremely wealthy and everyone else, is no accident. And it’s not because most of us are just not working hard enough, otherwise we would all be millionaires or even billionaires. It’s the logical result of policy decisions over decades, coupled with market forces. What is tremendously interesting – and – if you are not careful, depressing, is people’s poor understanding of this issue. This six-minute video is an eye-popper. And arguably the most tireless and optimistic teacher on this issue – former Labor Secretary Robert Reich – has a new movie on this crucial issue that I just can’t wait to see.

 

Martians Invade!

Seventy-five years ago on 10/30, the great film director Orson Welles pulled off one of the greatest media hoaxes ever. His War of the Worlds radio broadcast – which was identified at the start as fiction – induced untold panic and mayhem. The prank spun out of control thanks to a variety of coincidences. And the most amazing thing? The phenomenon repeated itself years later, and not just once. Years after the event, Welles said he and his co-conspirators sought to encourage media consumers not to believe everything they hear or see. And yet . . . a case can be made that sensational fear mongering that is the heart of much TV news got its start on that night in the fall of 1938. I strongly encourage you to take in the excellent RadioLab feature on the broadcast and its long legacy.

 

Young Warriors for Social and Environmental Justice

Too many in my generation – the graying Baby Boomers – stereotype our followers, i.e. Generation X and especially the Millennials, as self-absorbed, disengaged texters who never lift their gaze from their IPhones. Here is a gallery of activists who defy that stereotype and offer hope for a sustainable, just future.

 

Awkward

Jon Stewart has done it again. Watch him sum up the trajectory of America’s image with world leaders right now. It ain’t pretty, folks. Should you wax nostalgic for the good old days of the Bush II administration, watch for a cameo appearance of the would-be-masseur himself. Terrific job, see?

 

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” — George Orwell

 

Contributed links to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Mark Goldberg, Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 10/27/13

27 10 2013

An Unplanned War on Drugs //

No one really wants to fight this war, and in fact we don’t like even to admit the war is proceeding. But fight we do, and any one of us could find ourselves in the cross hairs of the resurgent enemy. That may sound like unhinged, extreme fear mongering. But it is an accurate assessment of our increasingly shaky relationship with a whole class of drugs – antibiotics. Accurate because uncontrollable infections affect two million Americans per year, killing 23,000, and solutions elude us.

There is much to learn from a recent Frontline documentary – Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria. The suffering of the people highlighted in the video makes it hard to watch. But I highly recommend it, first because it explains a story we don’t hear nearly enough about, and because it points to societal trends that we must manage if we are to save masses of people from fates like those of the documentaries’ unfortunate subjects.

A dark twin of the old adage “use it or lose it” applies here. The video makes clear that when it comes to antibiotics, we “use them and lose them.” That’s because, thanks to evolution, which takes place at warp speed in the microbial world, bacteria are constantly morphing into new forms that challenge our defenses, i.e. the miracle cures of antibiotics. Therefore, the more encounters we arrange, wittingly or not, between the bugs and the drugs, the more we help the bugs get “smarter,” more potent, and maybe invincible. So that is the battle we have conducted since Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928. And in fact Fleming warned against complacency in using these drugs in his 1945 Nobel Prize speech.

Two recent developments justify Fleming’s concerns. You will learn about them in the video – gram-negative bacteria, which have special, impenetrable defenses against antibiotics, and a special instance of that resistance – klebsiella pneumoniae, called KPC in the Frontline segment.

So, knowing this is unfolding, you would think we would be mounting an effort akin to the moon race to protect the population. You would think wrong. First, research on this shadowy problem is number 70(!) on the priority list cited by a Federal source in the video. Second, if you think government-supported scientific research somehow thrives in this era of partisan showdowns, government loathing and government shutdowns, you are living in another realm. Third, an interesting market- driven phenomenon, also explained by Frontline, plays out here – private research by drug companies is hard for them to justify. Why? Remember – use it and lose it. That is, antibiotics, used properly, are developed, demonstrated to be effective, and then shelved for those instances where they are really needed. That is far removed from “take two pills per day for the next five decades.” That is, maintenance drugs pay long-term profits, but antibiotics just don’t pay back the private developers for their investment. A fine example of where the common good just does not fare well in an unregulated, profit-driven system.

But there is one more piece of this story that the excellent Frontline segment just does not touch. That is this – for all the problems we encourage with misuse of antibiotics in human health care, they pale in comparison to the risks we create with our livestock practices. Here is why – eighty percent of all antibiotics used in the US are used on farms. This would be bad enough if they were used to combat rampant illness. But the main purpose of all this mass feeding of miracle drugs to meat animals is twofold – first, to prevent illness in cheek-by-jowl feedlot confinement, and second, to fatten up Big Piggy or Bossy for market faster. That’s right, we are risking health Armageddon in the name of a cheaper Big Mac. You can learn more about that particular ignorance-based initiative in an excellent interview of David Hoffman (whose work is featured in the Frontline story) done by NPR’s Terry Gross. (And for an in-depth look at the bigger picture of factory farming’s impacts, check this commentary on a new John Hopkins University report.) The entire Fresh Air interview is excellent, but if you want to cut to the chase for a summary of all the issues – medical, feedlot and antibiotic cleansers –  go to 34:00 on that audio segment.

Hoffman promises a follow-up specifically on the feedlot problems, but does not go so much into solutions. Seems to me that common-good solutions are these:

  • Re-commitment to government-sponsored research into bacterial resistance
  • Regulation against overuse and misuse of antibiotics in agriculture and consumer products
  • Creative ideas for overcoming the perverse market forces that discourage drug companies from researching and developing new antibiotics

These will not be easy in our corporate-ruled, gerrymandered system, but I see no other way forward.

 

A Climate Change Balance Sheet

There was a time, not long ago, when climate change activists like me expected the rising cost of oil and coal to speed moves toward conservation and alternatives. This was the thesis of the Peak Oil movement – that it would become increasingly difficult to access and exploit remaining fossil fuels. That was BF (before fracking). (Though I disagree with his assessment of overall risks of exploiting extreme fuels, David Blackmon rightly skewers the notion of peak oil in this Forbes commentary.) Also, costs have risen, but all that has done is to make “extreme” fossil fuels economically viable. The result – for now – is business as usual, more or less, with continued overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions. And then there are the climate paybacks.

Since peak oil will not save our bacon, motivation for the essential move toward sustainable energy will have to be financial, a massive cost/benefit analysis. Right now, who is suffering the costs or our addiction to fossil fuel burning? Certainly, indigenous people in the Arctic and on islands threatened by sea rise. But increasingly, “climate justice” of sorts is moving in. The anniversary of Hurricane Sandy is a reminder that storms strengthened by sea rise threaten American cities as well, with New York, Miami and New Orleans the prime targets for now. Also, the Amazon – sometimes called the planet’s lungs – being cut down for cheap wood and endangered by climate change, faces even more serious, costly risk than previously understood. And then there is the ocean, already on course for massive change caused by acidification and warming from our greenhouse emissions. Not to mention burgeoning wildfires, which travel around the world with the warm season.

So the question is – when does all this cost become enough to be widely recognized as more costly than moving to a sustainable energy/climate future?  This won’t be easy, because those reaping the benefits – oil and coal companies and their obedient congressional acolytes – still hold sway. Why else would misinformation continue to thrive on Fox News? And the true costs of dependence on fossil fuels are hidden, imbedded in the system. And for a measure of that control, see this AlterNet expose on the Koch Brothers. You can see more of the same on the horizon. Can you guess which country is trying to slow the process of moving to a new, stronger, greenhouse gas agreement? Of course you could.

If we have any hope of passing on a livable planet to future generations, this can’t continue. Here is a call for “solutions journalism.” And to me, hope lies in part with corporate interests recognizing the folly of wrecking the place, long-term, in the interest of profits. Here is a piece on investors’ doubt in the financial future of Big Hydrocarbons. And insurance companies are beginning to get the message that climate change threatens their business model, big-time. And Bill McKibben is a force to be reckoned with. His 350.org has spearheaded a campaign to help investors large and small divest from Big Oil and Big Coal.

But the best idea out there for hastening the process of internalizing is to build the momentum for a carbon fee and dividend system. This is not the discredited cap and trade idea, but a rational way to nudge the market system toward sustainability by rewarding responsible behavior. One worthy organization working steadily and specifically on that goal is the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. And it would be a far better, more sustainable world if we just followed the punchy slogan at the heart of this Guardian piece.

 

Wealth Gap in Video

The ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, and especially the extremely wealthy and everyone else, is no accident. And it’s not because most of us are just not working hard enough, otherwise we would all be millionaires or even billionaires. It’s the logical result of policy decisions over decades, coupled with market forces. What is tremendously interesting – and – if you are not careful, depressing, is people’s poor understanding of this issue. This six-minute video is an eye-popper. And arguably the most tireless and optimistic teacher on this issue – former Labor Secretary Robert Reich – has a new movie on this crucial issue that I just can’t wait to see.

 

Martians Invade!

Seventy-five years ago on 10/30, the great film director Orson Welles pulled off one of the greatest media hoaxes ever. His War of the Worlds radio broadcast – which was identified at the start as fiction – induced untold panic and mayhem. The prank spun out of control thanks to a variety of coincidences. And the most amazing thing? The phenomenon repeated itself years later, and not just once. Years after the event, Welles said he and his co-conspirators sought to encourage media consumers not to believe everything they hear or see. And yet . . . a case can be made that sensational fear mongering that is the heart of much TV news got its start on that night in the fall of 1938. I strongly encourage you to take in the excellent RadioLab feature on the broadcast and its long legacy.

 

Young Warriors for Social and Environmental Justice

Too many in my generation – the graying Baby Boomers – stereotype our followers, i.e. Generation X and especially the Millennials, as self-absorbed, disengaged texters who never lift their gaze from their IPhones. Here is a gallery of activists who defy that stereotype and offer hope for a sustainable, just future.

 

Awkward

Jon Stewart has done it again. Watch him sum up the trajectory of America’s image with world leaders right now. It ain’t pretty, folks. Should you wax nostalgic for the good old days of the Bush II administration, watch for a cameo appearance of the would-be-masseur himself. Terrific job, see?

 

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” — George Orwell

 

Contributed links to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Mark Goldberg, Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 10/6/13

6 10 2013

Blame It on Mother //

 

Look for this formula in media articles on science, and you usually will not be disappointed. Here is how it goes:

  • Identify the environmental problem or threat
  • Offer a summary of evidence
  • List the apparent causes, including both natural and man-made
  • Detail efforts to mitigate or cope with the natural causes
  • Ignore the man-made causes because they are just “business as usual.”
  • Bypass or downplay the interaction between man-made and natural causes

I was reminded of this formula when I listened to a recent Minnesota Public Radio story on efforts to propagate “clean” bees. That’s right, 50 million years of evolution produced an amazing little social creature, on which an incredible, complex network of life depends, but we in our infinite human wisdom know the real problem – the bees are not sufficiently “hygienic.” In other words, it is their own damned natural fault that they are bringing those nasty, natural varroa mites back home and instigating hive hari-kari.

To be fair, that MPR story does mention the biggest of several elements in the room – modern agricultural chemicals, particularly neonicotinoid pesticides. But the complexity of Colony Collapse Disorder makes it easy for media to latch onto the threads of apparent “feel-good” efforts like stories like that one about breeding better-behaved bees, or of simply planting the right flowers as somehow solving this massive problem.

But what about looking at the big picture, i.e. how we humans with all our wizardry and of course our endlessly expanding population have changed things? I have found no better example of looking at the big picture of bee decline than this TED Talk by Marla Spivak. Give her 17 minutes, and I guarantee you will have a deeper understanding of this complex problem, and a clearer idea of what you can do to help. If you’d rather cut to the chase (though you would be missing much valuable learning), tune into that video at 12:30, when Spivak summarizes all the factors, natural and man-made. I also like her counsel – suggesting that we learn from insect societies, that the sum total of our individual actions creates the world we all have to live in. So we need to choose wisely.

So our alteration of the natural world often enhances natural forces that we don’t like. Another good example is the fungal infection that is devastating US bat colonies. White-nose syndrome is the ailment that, on first glance, appears to be just an unfortunate natural consequence. Tough luck, you poor batties. Deal with it. But as soon as you read into the research, you see the human alteration. Though it is not 100 percent certain, it appears that spelunkers may have introduced this non-native disease into North American caves. We are watching the results play out.

When you apply that thinking, that is, looking at how we change the natural world in the name of progress, thus enabling natural-appearing collateral damage, you are moving straight into the territory of two authors whose work I heartily recommend.

First there is David Quammen, one of the finest science journalists. Get a copy of The Song of the Dodo and you will learn to see through all the fluffy science articles you find that follow the formula. It starts with myths many of us were taught in school and that are often perpetuated in well-meaning media stories. For instance, mosquitoes are well along in the process of decimating native Hawaiian songbirds. A nasty natural pest? Yes, but there is one problem with blaming Mother Nature for that one. Mosquitoes are not native to Hawaii, having been unintentionally introduced by Captain Cook in 1778. And that extinction of the “stupid, flightless bird” that gave the book its name? Well, you will just have to read the book.

The main point of Quammen’s work is this – island biogeography tells us that islands are natural evolutionary dead-ends. That is, creatures migrate to islands, diverge from their larger population, and, often, if the island is not large and diverse enough, eventually go extinct. We are creating man-made islands everywhere, where creatures just cannot survive. If you watched the complete Spivak video, this will ring true in terms of the lack of natural, bee-nourishing plants on vast tracts of our factory-farmed landscape. Once you understand this, you will know better in future (if we don’t change our ways) when a tsunami wipes out the last remaining wild orangutans in Indonesia, or a harsh winter kills off the last monarch butterflies, or a hot summer finishes off Minnesota moose.

And second, there is Alan Waisman, whose new book asks a vital question – what is Earth’s total human carrying capacity? I can’t wait to read Countdown, which follows several years after The World Without Us. NPR Science Friday interviewed the author, who hopes to wake us up to the idea that maybe, just maybe, a human population of 11 billion is something we might want to rethink – before Mother Nature imposes her own solution. That one involves a lot of collateral damage.

Waisman’s solution is far wiser. Educate women, the world over, and empower them to make family planning choices. He cites two shining examples – Italy and – surprise! – Iran.

Far wiser as well would be this choice – see through this covert blaming of natural forces for environmental problems we humans have caused or enabled. Wiser to would be supporting organizations that are working to deal with the problems:

World Wildlife Fund

World Conservation Society

United Nations Population Fund

Even wiser would be working to fight the real problem – lack of leadership by the United States on these issues, caused in largest measure by corporate control of our politics and media. These organizations deserve support in that regard:

Get Money Out

Move to Amend

Represent Us

The Age of Fighting Back, Upon Us

If Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell is right, climate scientists are, at long last, mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. His recent commentary was dated just before release of the IPCC’s fifth Assessment Report, but was right on the money. Because money is what the lingering manufactured controversy is all about in the end. In a five-page broadside, Goodell calls out the biggest, deepest-pocketed denialists – the Koch brothers, Rex Tillerson, Craig Idso to name a few of the oiliest. He also names the world capital of anti-science, fossil-fueled denialism. Can you “name that country?!” Most important, he points out scientists and messengers who have found themselves in the crosshairs of denialist rage.

Atmospheric scientist Ben Santer reports death threats from ignoramuses and a home-delivered dead rat from a Hummer-driving “patriot.” And the attacks against “hockey-stick” proponent Michael Mann are already well known. But they are detailed in his recent book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. Here are several other books by climate scientists from my own reading that I can recommend– James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren and Stephen Schneider’s Science as a Contact Sport and, best of all, The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery.

This fight against anti-science is not going away, and we need scientists to step up their speaking out to counter the chorus of well-paid pignorance (pretend ignorance) that threatens to drown out their world-critical message.

Climate Change – Culture, Magic and an Offer

Yes, strange headline, I know. But here are the connections.

First – one little-explored impact of runaway climate change is the effect on indigenous culture. Effects on livelihoods that depend on sea ice are obvious, but who ever thinks about the extinction of languages, surely a cultural tragedy of our modern era? Well, Greg Downey for one.

Second – Bonnie Blodgett wrote a fantastic column in the 9/29 Star Tribune pointing out the errors in our magical thinking. This piece deserves wide reading, for its insight and also for the way the columnist weaves in the thoughts of several recent books. I particularly cheer her take on this one.

Third – The offer. The Blodgett column in particular reminded me of how reluctant most of us are to engage with the reality of environmental problems, particularly climate change. I am a certified presenter for the Climate Reality Project. Any Twin Cities reader of this blog is invited to request a presentation from this blogger. Church group, social group, community group large or small does not matter. It is enlightening, not all gloom and doom, and even entertaining. I might even throw in a related song or two for the right interested group. Think about it.

Wolves Return; What Happens?

The answer – a cascade of surprises, as reported by science journalist George Monbiot on NPR.

Science Shut Down

The current partial federal shutdown has many victims. Unfortunately, that club does not include members of Congress. But it does include scientific knowledge and progress, in a variety of ways. Considering the Tea Party’s role in promoting pignorance, hey, maybe they are winning after all?

“We would be a lot safer if the government would take its money out of science and put it into astrology and the reading of palms. Only in superstition is there hope. If you want to become a friend of civilization, then become an enemy of the truth and a fanatic for harmless balderdash.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Contributed links to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Mark Goldberg, Allyson Harper, Jeff Syme

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 9/15/13

15 09 2013

Arctic Refreeze + Slow Hurricane Season = Climate Change Bunk? //

It’s all the rage. The Arctic icepack will not set a new minimum record this year. It is already refreezing, fast. Those facts have climate science deniers energized. For instance, one of the most prominent of all the climate change denial sites has charts and graphs galore, telling this story that apparently proves climate change is not happening. This site has run pretty much the same story the last two years – see 2012 and 2011 entries. And it is not just pundits and bloggers – here is an established British news source with the same story.

True unbelievers in climate science take some kind of comfort, I guess, in news like the Arctic ice returning, plus this year’s near-record late start to the Atlantic hurricane season. Here is a balanced view of that hurricane situation, from Time magazine. Cherry-picked data serves as potent fuel for fantastical stories, as Rush Limbaugh regularly proves. And just as monthly Arctic ice stats serve some deniers, so have some other deniers seized on the late hurricane start as evidence that climate change activists are alarmists, to be ignored. Note – Taylor is a prime author for the oil-fueled Heartland Institute.

This is all familiar territory. It follows an established script. First, assert falsely that climate change as explained by scientists and science journalists is a perfectly linear process. Support that position with a few quotes, preferably speculative ones, by one or more of your demons – Al Gore or Bill McKibben, just to name two. Then, report your supportive data which undermines that inaccurate depiction of climate science. So you and the forces of do-nothingness win. Or do you?

These facts can’t be challenged. We pump 90 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every day. The current atmospheric carbon dioxide reading is 395 parts per million, compared to preindustrial levels of about 280. Both the daily and cumulative numbers continue to rise, with chaotic consequences that cannot be precisely predicted.

 

So what is happening now? In the hurricane realm, there are several possibilities. First, as Chris Mooney reports, climate change may actually reduce hurricanes. Of course, thanks to sea rise resulting from warmer oceans and melting ice sheets and glaciers, those hurricanes that do occur will have a head start. And with all the uncertainty, it is also possible that this season’s late start could itself be an anomaly.

As for the alleged return of the Arctic to its long-term solid, frozen status, don’t count on it. Time will prove the denialists wrong. It is only a matter of how fast things happen. For instance, the decidedly conservative, consensus-driven Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change comes out with its latest forecast in two weeks. Leaked information points to more certainty than ever. And though some evidence points to a lull in the temperature rise, our emission-driven acidification of the oceans proceeds. The Seattle Times’ Craig Welch put together a comprehensive article on acidification that includes several imbedded videos. And as for those who persist in their denial of scientific facts and projections, thus paralyzing policy, they will be justly recognized. As this Truthout piece suggests, we might think of them as the Dr. Kevorkians of the planet. Call it pignorance-assisted suicide.

 

Extremes in Two Mismatched Pairs

So the relationship between hurricanes and manmade climate change is unclear and hotly debated, and the ongoing experiment in liquefying the Arctic is crucial in its effect on weather patterns, not so crucial in sea rise. That’s because the ice, old and new alike, is already floating on the sea.

For a clear view of our climate-changed future, look to extremes today that are part of well-predicted trends. First there are increasingly common weather extremes. The Yosemite Rim fire, just about contained, is one example of an enhanced fire season, driven by higher temperatures and persistent drought. The latest shocking example is the horrific flooding and mudslides around Boulder, Colorado. As of this writing, four are confirmed dead, with hundreds unaccounted for. This disaster is caused by a triple-whammy series of drought, wildfire and finally, the knockout punch of monsoon-like storms that come and stay, dumping months or years worth of rain on the same sun-baked spot. Here are two videos from the Boulder environs – from Salina and Boulder itself. (Scroll down for the Boulder video.) Subhankar Banerjee effectively makes the case for climate change in the Colorado floods. And with the mangled jet stream causing all sorts of mayhem in weather patterns, Boulder-like events could be soon coming to a creek, stream or river near you.

And then there is the melting that really matters – the head-for-the-hills variety. That would be ice that resides on land, until it melts that is and slides into the rising sea. Two extreme locations, two similar stories. First there is Greenland, whose ice is described here by MPR meteorologist Paul Huttner as a “stick of butter in a hot pan.” In other words, it does not move at all for awhile, but then really starts to slip along seaward. Be sure to watch the short video on Greenland’s Mega Canyon. But what about the granddaddy of all ice sheets, Antarctica? If you guessed “accelerated melting, you get the extra credit points. Read here about research at the Pine Island Glacier, being undermined by warming ocean water. Here is 9/15 update from NPR on the same research. Did you catch the possible sea rise there? Six feet? See for yourself how that matters in this terrific interactive map from Climate Central.

So all of this manmade chaos and disruption really matters. But does it matter enough to motivate meaningful changes in energy and greenhouse gas policy? Not yet. But these groups are working hard to wake us up and tip the balance toward adaptation and sustainability – 350.org, the Climate Reality Project and Citizens Climate Lobby.

 

The Magical Techno Fix

This longstanding idea is often a slam at doomsayers of old – Thomas Malthus – or of more recent vintage – Paul Ehrlich. The idea is this – the earth’s capacity for human occupation is pretty much unlimited, nigh infinite. Hogwash, most ecologists say. But those who really believe in our technical ingenuity (and don’t much give a damn about our fellow travelers on this orb, i.e. any life form that is not human) persist in their sacred faith in technological innovation. Seldom in recent times has this view been given a more articulate or narrowly myopic presentation than in this Erle C. Ellis article in the New York Times. The problems that Ellis ignores or summarily dismisses in this column are too numerous to mention, but he does make at least one true statement – “In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.” To which I would reply with words borrowed from Colin Powell: “If you break it, you own it.”

We have a lot of repairing to do, with or without technological wizardry. And to be fair, there is much more to Ellis’s ideas than this single article would indicate. See the linked video here.

As for the big picture, there is much to learn in National Geographic’s study of the world’s continued population growth. I also like the education and activism being done by Growthbusters, World Population Balance and the Population Connection. The more the merrier? No chance. The best strategy – educate the world’s women and support their family planning choices.

 

Plant It, and They Will Come?

We have invested much time and sweat in recent years replacing swaths of lawn with wild-looking native and rain gardens. Until this year, we attracted droves of large butterflies, including varieties of swallowtails and of course the lord of them all, monarchs. This year, we have seen exactly three swallowtails and not many more monarchs. In addition, our abundant milkweed shows no evidence of monarch eggs. An isolated, unfortunate incident? Not on your life.

This Minnesota Public Radio interview with the University of Minnesota’s Karen Oberhauser fingers two closely-related culprits – neo-nicotinoid pesticides, and modern factory agriculture’s penchant for decimating “unwanted” plants between the rows. That includes of course milkweed. She offers two remedies – plant more milkweed (maybe it will work for you) and be careful when buying garden plants from nurseries, who may have treated the plants with those magical modern poisons. But all of that means little when our government allows chemical companies such as Bayer and Monsanto to continue this campaign against the natural world. Congress has the power to stop this, if its members would for once think of the common good rather than their corporate sponsors.

 

A Hypocrisy Interview

I find that I have had the conversation described in this little article before. It serves to prove a long-held theory of mine. That is, that any ideology that purports to have all, or even most of, the answers to all the problems begins to look like a dogma, a religion. Magical thinking, that is. Unreal. Fantasy. Enjoy the script.

 

1227 Facts

There is a difference between trivia and curious, even meaningful facts. This is why I waste no time on trivia contests and collections, but love, for example Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and the Harpers Index. This is precisely why a new book hit my reading list. Two of the three authors of 1227 Quite Interesting Facts to Blow Your Socks Off appeared on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, interviewed by the great Scott Simon. Work is more dangerous than war, the most shoplifted book in the United States is the Bible, and there is an actual word for an affliction that awards the sufferer with feet the size of umbrellas. But the universe is not shaped like a bumbershoot. Try a vuvuzela. Enough said.

 

Shooting Each Other Some Love

Thanks to comic Sarah Silverman, we can fittingly celebrate two recent recall election victories by the fear-fueled National Rifle Association in Colorado. She has a modest proposal to make the country even “safer.”

 

Diplomacy Wins, for Now

Bill Moyers’ commentary highlights the power of public opinion in recent events concerning Syria. Collective common sense. What a concept.

 

“The great challenge of the twenty-first century is to raise people everywhere to a decent standard of living while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible.”
Edward O. Wilson

 

Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 9/8/13

8 09 2013

Climate Winners and Losers //

Several recent climate change postings recall a frequently heard pronouncement – “Climate change will have winners and losers.” Sounds reasonable enough.

Let’s try that one out. Low-lying islands will soon be underwater speed bumps. Hard to see anything but losers there. But wait – those poor unfortunate souls will soon have new potential homes as the poles thaw. Greenland will be open for business any decade now. Winners? See for yourself. At first glance, all the greenery makes that NBC News article look happy and inviting. But if you dig in, you see that John Roach did an admirable, honest job at painting the big picture. Note those temperature rises – five to 11 degrees F. And those are mid-range predictions. And he includes quotes from Danish biologist Jens-Christian Svenning, who helps us understand this will really not be a good example of “winners.” Not by a long shot.

How about the oceans? Surely, warmer oceans will allow marine life to flourish, leading to recovery of key fisheries. And a well-known climate change denial site tells just such a fish story about lobsters. (Chuckles all around at the cheap shot against vegetarians. Heh, heh.) Looks like we may have found ourselves a winner, folks. But slice a little deeper in the baloney and what do you get? Long-term damage to the lobster fishery, and bizarre behavior changes to boot.

But surely something must be capitalizing on the warming ocean environment. Distance swimmer Diana Nyad knows what it is, all too well. So the much-reviled jellyfish is a clear winner in manmade climate change. And that is just a part of the story. If you have 18 minutes for an excellent TED talk, coral reef ecologist Jeremy Jackson will educate you on the triple whammy (pollution, overfishing and climate change) we have visited on the world’s once-teeming oceans. How we wrecked the oceans, indeed. I like Jackson’s prescription for cleaning up the mess – but you will have to watch for yourself to find out what that is.

So on the seas, it’s pretty much losers all around, save for the jellyfish armada. But on land it is a different story. Sure, habitats are moving towards higher latitudes and altitudes, but creatures will just have to adapt. Tough luck. But agriculture will surely gain. More carbon, more plant food, more bountiful harvests, says the Heartland Institute. The propaganda-free, science-rich truth is much more interesting, and quite scary. This Guardian article gives the big picture. If you do nothing but scan the graphics, you will uncover a few true winners in this competition – the British Isles (sea rise aside) and West Africa (population overshoot aside) most notably. But if you look at the projected yield declines, and then remember that global population continues its inexorable rise, you can see a nightmare scenario developing. In other words, business as usual makes all of us abject losers, and there is much more at stake than a discarded lottery ticket.

It’s a pretty dismal search, this hunt for climate change winners. Here, though, is one undeniable group in the winners’ circle. I call them the Hail Mary Squad. These are the geniuses who will save us from ourselves by hacking the planet. I speak of course of geoengineering. This Wikipedia entry catalogs the ideas, which generally aim to reduce solar energy hitting the earth, or pull our waste carbon from the air. This madness is guaranteed to rise in prominence, and its proponents in audacity. And hey, for a while, they stand to make big money.

Truth is, we would all be a lot better off if we can summon the political will to drastically cut greenhouse emissions. It starts with making carbon pay its way – before we lose everything that matters.

 

Celebrating Workers and Banksters

Amid all the picnicking and partying last Monday, we were supposed to celebrate the American worker. This is hard to do nowadays, especially for certain Republicans. Count Eric Cantor in that number (based on his 2012 Labor Day pronouncement), as recalled by Paul Krugman. It is also a five-year anniversary of the 2008 economic crisis. That was the reason for NPR’s interviewing former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Host Robert Siegel gamely held Paulson accountable, and though Paulson professed support for Dodd-Frank, he could not bring himself to speak positively of the best insurance against future financial bubbles, reinstating Glass-Steagall. Here is hoping it does not take another disaster to build momentum in this important remedy.  And should you want to review the sorry 2008 episode, it is hard to top An Inside Job.

 

The Entitled Ones

The pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm educated us well. Some of us, maybe too well. All animals are created equal, they told their post-revolutionary subjects, but some animals are more equal than others. That could describe the thinking of many wealthy and powerful personages. I think Joshua Holland is onto something here. The moral of the story – if you see a BMW approaching, get the hell out of the crosswalk.

 

Banishing Pignorance

Regular readers of this blog know “pignorance” is my term for “pretend ignorance.” For the powerful, especially the petro-powerful, this means blowing smoke all around the science of climate change, so that very profitable business as usual may proceed. For the rest of us, this means ignoring our senses, avoiding alternative media that tell the truth, and perhaps taking reassurance from pundits that pooh-pooh the concern of arm-wavers like myself.

I was thinking about how pignorance is built the other day as I listened to yet another in a series of what I think of as “changeling weather summaries.” And mind you, this was on a sensible public station, staffed by bright, aware people. First, following a couple of days where high temps were about five degrees or so above the long-term average (82 vs. 77), the radio voice talked about impending 90s being “more like summer.” So, is 82 not “like summer?” Since when? Then there was the guy who talked about 80s being “chillier” than what we have been used to (90s). Chillier? Yep, 80s sure make me reach for the woolies. And then there is the morning gal’s vacuous weather patter, virtually free of the word “hot,” even as temps break the 90 barrier, day after day. It’s now “warm,” folks.

Sure, this is small stuff, but it contributes to what I call “normalizing the abnormal.” And normalizing the abnormal is just one piece of a puzzle called climate inertia, in which we, like the frog in the heating pot of water on the stove, stays passive until it dies when the nice warm water reaches the boiling point.

Normalizing the abnormal is also one of many perspectives on the big, comfortable lie that we collectively tell ourselves in order to avoid recognizing and acting to avert the existential climate crisis we are relentlessly creating. In this AlterNet piece, Margaret Klein does a terrific job analyzing our games of pretending and ignoring, and issuing a clarion call for all of us to live in what she calls “climate truth.” That means fully recognizing, fully responding to, and fully solving this disaster we have energized. Our descendants have everything to gain; we have nothing to lose but our pignorance. I also can’t help but noting that “climate truth” sounds an awful lot like “Climate Reality,” an organization that I represent.

 

Syria’s Context and Climate Connection

As the battle rages over what action the US will take over Syria and its use of chemical weapons, a few things are clear. First, the shadow of the Bush Administration’s war-happy adventures in Iraq looms large. Second, the American public is weary of such adventures. Third, President Obama, to his credit, is sharing the decision-making power with Congress. All the rest is not so clear. That’s why Bill Moyers’ postings are so important. Here is a Syria reader supplied by Moyers, and here is a thought-provoking look at the Syrian civil war in terms of manmade climate change.

 

He’s Back

Just in time for fall gridlock season, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart makes an outrageously dramatic return.

 

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” – Rachel Carson

 

Contributed links to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 9/1/13

1 09 2013

Respect for Science //

Well-funded disinformation campaigns since the late 70s have helped weaken both understanding of and regard for scientists and their work. For the back story on this, check into Chris Mooney’s work. But for now, here is a look at some of the worst that scientists and science journalists are up against. One of the most prominent pignorant (pretend-ignorant) pundits, Glenn Beck, is here trying to outdo Bachmann in the crazy derby. But what a fun-loving guy, don’t you think?  And of course Glenn, replete with his wacky conspiracy mobiles, is far from the only purveyor of pignorance out there. This HuffPost piece rightly celebrates California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, dinosaur flatulence and all. Try out this quote from the brilliant legislator: “Just so you’ll know, global warming is a total fraud and it’s being designed because what you’ve got is you’ve got liberals who get elected at the local level want state government to do the work and let them make the decisions. Then, at the state level, they want the federal government to do it. And at the federal government, they want to create global government to control all of our lives.”

How can you top that? You can’t, but some think climate change denial and resultant policy paralysis are on the wane. That’s what Leo Hickman suggests in this Guardian piece. And though the agents of inertia have lots of money from the Koch brothers and their fellow wreckers, many are working to turn the tide. This video (also included in the Hickman piece) is very funny, and has an easy to sign petition attached. Be ready for the specter of Michele Bachmann’s eye bearing down on Florida, and the worst case scenario of hurricanes, James Inhofe, threatening the entire east coast. That is a storm naming system I would pay to see.

And a longtime figure on the science ramparts, Bill Nye the Science Guy, has a new, short video in which he explains – Nye-style – what motivates him to keep on fighting pignorance.

Here is an important update on a highly influential – and unjustly attacked – climate scientist. Michael Mann – he of the much-criticized (by powerful, self-interested denialists) hockey stick model of global warming – is gaining traction in his litigation against the well-paid goon squad that assailed him in the fabricated scandal known as “Climate Gate.”

And to close on this – following Bill Moyers on Facebook is a wise choice. The senior PBS journalist and host has suddenly stepped up his posts, to go along with his excellent Moyers and Company show. Here, he points out that the climate liars are up against a formidable, fact-based organization. The National Science Foundation? No, the US military.

 

A Legacy “Misunderestimated”

Let’s give credit where credit is due. I count myself among the most dedicated bashers of former President George W. Bush. Some have taken me to task for that. You know the tune – he has been out of power for x years, time for you liberals to move on, all that. Many have indeed moved on, for better or worse. But I think moving on would be committing an all-too-common sin. That would be forgetting the consequential actions of the past. For example, how many times have you heard someone complaining about the Iranian mullahs and their awful trouble-making government? But if you ask, they generally do not have a clue that the root cause of Iranian theocracy can be traced easily back to, not the Ayatollah Khomeini, but Great Britain and the US “taking out” democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh. But don’t just take my word for that.  And hey, considering events around Syria, it is worth noting that this momentous meddling is celebrating an anniversary.

That’s a long way of saying that leaders who leave the scene often have long-lasting effects, and should keep receiving credit or blame for their achievements and other sorts of actions. In the case of President Bush, we dare not forget his signature achievement – the war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, monstrously costly in lives, treasure and good will the world once had toward our country. On the treasure front, that is trillions, with a TR as in millions of millions. How could we possibly forget and move on from such a huge, consequential step? And for now, never mind that the whole thing was trumped up, ginned up and orchestrated with help of a compliant mainstream press corps. (And fairness requires me to nod to the true legacy of Bush the Younger.) Never mind because my premise here was to write about the Decider’s positive legacy. OK, here goes.

First, Bush was honest enough on at least one point – we are addicted to oil. Sure, he didn’t take that big next step and admit that oil was also the main driver behind the unstoppable urge to attack Iraq, but who is counting steps?

Second, how bad would a Republican president have to be to lead to a Democratic successor who wins by a big enough margin to overcome Rovian dirty tricks – and an African-American candidate to boot? Now that is positive, in my book anyway.

Third, and most important right now, is this. President Bush outrageously overreached in executive power, especially but not exclusively via the war in Iraq and its lead-in propaganda campaign about imaginary weapons of mass destruction. This so sickened Americans and allies alike that our current president had to halt his own march to militarism before ordering strikes against Syria. Just look at what happened in Britain the other day. After more than ten years of hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are so tired of war that there is virtually no enthusiasm even for the promised “limited strikes.”

President Obama may find that stepping on the brakes may be one of the smartest moves of his presidency. This is true because our interventions have almost always turned out badly in the long run – as Stephen Kinzer demonstrated in his book Overthrow (which I recommend strongly). It will be true many times over if late-breaking news on the appalling chemical-weapons deaths in Syria turns out to be true.

 

Endangered Miracles

When we get sick enough with upper respiratory infections or other maladies, we crave a quick return to health. And the handiest tool for a speedy recovery is often a prescribed antibiotic. And why not? These substances are not called “miracle drugs” for nothing. But we may be playing fast and loose with their power.

Anyone who has done any reading at all about modern factory farming knows that antibiotics are in copious use in those establishments. This is logical of course – animals on factory farms are kept in such close quarters that the risk of disease skyrockets. But did you know that factory farms are also pumping livestock full of these miracle drugs in order to prevent illness? Or that some antibiotics have another purpose entirely – to fatten up the beast faster for market? All this pill-popping and needle-pumping adds up, but the percent of all antibiotics that are used on factory-farmed animals compared to people can only be described as shocking – 80 percent.

This is a big deal. Mother Jones’ food and agriculture correspondent, Tom Philpott, explains why. And doesn’t this really stand to reason? By over-applying antibiotics to factory livestock, we are forcing the bugs to multiply and try their damnedest to outsmart our miracle drugs. The more cracks they get at the task, the more likely some mutation will allow for the bug to beat the drug. We are essentially hyper-speeding evolution (if you believe in that sort of thing). Naysayers demand solid proof. In other words, seeing a plague begun by resistant bacteria would be the only thing convincing them to back stepped-up regulation of factory farm antibiotic use. . This sounds familiar, no?

And the overuse problem is not unique to the US.  Cheap factory meat is very popular in China as well. That story from PRI’s The World clearly explains the issue.

Can’t we just say that cheap factory meat is way too costly? Cutting meat consumption is a good idea – the specter of antibiotic resistance is only one more reason to avoid the stuff and force the adoption of wiser practices.

 

The Powerful Few, or the Public Good

The late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said. “There is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women and there are families.”  The Iron Lady would probably take issue with Robert Reich’s articulation of the need for building and maintaining society. Note the timetable – the former Labor Secretary is pointing to the Thatcher/Reagan era as the precise time when the benefits of increased productivity starting sliding toward the wealthy and powerful, and working people were cut out. And Reich rightly notes that you hardly hear the phrase “the common good” at all anymore. And what of those benefits to the wealthy and powerful? They seem to come with less and less accountability, if you look at CEOs.

Bill Moyers sees a plutocratic end game in that system that coddles the powerful. So what keeps people from rising up and restoring democracy? Dennis Marker has a theory in his 2012 book. In 15 Steps to Corporate Feudalism, he argues that getting people to hate the government is a key strategy to persuade the masses to support policies that benefit the powerful few at the expense of the many. I think he is onto something big. There is a great interview of the author by Thom Hartman at that last link.

The essential question here is this – are we in this together, or are we completely isolated islands? The Star Tribune’s Bonnie Blodgett has a modest proposal to help us get back to shared responsibility and accountability. Before you dismiss her idea as unfeasible, just think of the payoff in policy and outcomes if everyone – the Bushes, the Clintons, the Obamas, and even the Limbaughs, Coulters and Hannitys – had an actual share in this nation’s overseas adventures, of the “regime change” sort and others. Very wise, and very timely.

 

Musical Notes (Including One on Sustainability)

Here are three musical stories that hit me this past week. First, a story that pained me. It is sad to know that the owner of one of the sweetest voices and most diverse catalogs in popular music will sing no more. Second, a veteran Twin Cities jazzman who deserves a far bigger audience. If you like old-time jazz, and have ever listened to A Prairie Home Companion, this MPR story will bring you a smile. Finally, this singer songwriter from Iowa was already known in folk circles for wonderfully wise and witty lyrics taking on, among other things, conservative religion. Now she has turned her attention to farming, with similar entertaining and thought-provoking results. Be sure to click and listen to the clever Herbicides..

 

“The long memory is the most radical idea in America” – Bruce “Utah” Phillips

 

Contributed links to this posting –Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 8/25/13

25 08 2013

Unseasonable and Unreasonable //

If you follow climate change news carefully, and I hope you do, you know that an important event looms. That would be the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  The report is due in September. Though denialists have branded this organization as a club of worry-wart, alarmist exaggerators, the truth is that it is a consensus-bound body, which adheres to conservative protocols.

So it is fair to say that IPCC projections tend toward the low end of the effects of our uncontrolled experiment in atmosphere transformation. That said, let’s see what is on tap, based on some early releases of findings (shared by Chris Mooney of Mother Jones). Nothing much to worry about, folks. Substantial melting of the Greenland ice sheet, sea rise of five to ten meters, runaway ocean acidification. So what? This blog post by the Guardian’s John Abraham suggests that contrarians will have no choice but join the consensus and stop fighting policy to deal with the threat.

One thing is clear. The changes predicted by IPCC based on current trends are not some far-off theoretical possibility. They are happening right now. There of course is accelerating Arctic melting – clear for all to see. And there is that persistent drought in the American Southwest, dramatically lowering the flow on the Colorado River and showing the newly famous “bathtub ring” at Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead. Thirteen years and counting; bound to end any day now, eh? And let’s not forget the western fire season, now in full swing and threatening state budgets (and even the water supply of San Francisco).  A less dramatic, though arguably more universal, phenomenon has overtaken weather patterns – “stuck weather.” Though this can mean weeks of beautiful weather, or a hellacious heat wave that just won’t quit, it all results from the same condition – a weak, meandering jet stream caused by a vastly warmer Arctic. We are currently switching gears right now in Minnesota from a warm, settled regime into a possible record heat wave (for this late summer season) – as Paul Douglas reports in his consistently excellent weather and climate blog.

So though climate change evidence becomes clearer every day, I remain skeptical about significant action in the near term, for two important reasons. The first is the fact that a well-funded, powerful, persistent campaign of pignorant (pretend-ignorant) anti-science has lulled a significant slice of the public into somnolence. Adam Frank – author of About Time – chronicles our pathetic decline into science denial in this fine column he wrote for the New York Times – summarized here and commented on by Tree Hugger’s Chris Tackett.  (See a glimmer of hope there in the planned reboot of the TV series Cosmos.) The second is the pathetic power structure that has taken hold in modern America. With the GOP in the (gerrymandered) majority in the House of Representatives right now, this is the pignorant posse that passes for leadership of the House Science(!) Committee. It is so bad that I mainly agree with these two assessments of the cause and results of our spending decades dealing with denialists’ posturing rather than accepting the science and moving ahead. The first is by Jeff Schweitzer and the second by Robert Parry. Neither pulls punches in calling out the real engineers of today’s alarmingly science-dumb state of affairs among the public. I especially identify with Frank’s description of his earlier mistake in judgment – that public awareness and understanding of scientific reality would only grow. Sorry.

Surely, this state of affairs can’t go on indefinitely. And in fact a recent media shift may point to some hope from an unlikely source – the much-maligned (in some circles) Al Jazeera. Sure, the burst of coverage on the newly realigned network far surpasses typical American coverage because of the dismally low standard.  But we need hope on waking up the public, and allies of all stripes are valuable. And of course this is a global problem, calling especially for leadership on the part of the wealthy industrialized nations. Here is a call for action on the part of the United Kingdom’s David Cameron. And despite continued intransigence on the part of the pignorant right in the United States, prominent activists see hope for action. In this interview, former Vice President Al Gore sees a tipping point in public opinion based largely on growing consensus on the connection between ever-wilder weather and our continued dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Gore holds onto his optimism despite interviewer Ezra Klein’s tough questioning.

This is no time for giving in to complacency and inevitability. Active groups such as the Climate Reality Project and 350.org are doing no such thing. And the single most helpful step – maybe even more helpful than killing the Keystone XL pipeline – would be enacting a carbon fee system. That’s the goal of the Citizens Climate Lobby, endorsed by former NASA scientist James Hansen.

One Observance that Really Matters . . .

There is a big buzz in Washington this weekend, with tens of thousands crowding the National Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. And that great, resounding speech was only one of the highlights of the civil rights movement, as this collection posted by Bill Moyers reminds us. But this is far from a mere celebration of important history. That is because these battles, sadly, must be fought over again. Here is a speech from John Lewis, calling out the Supreme Court on new efforts mainly (but not exclusively) in the South to suppress the poor and minority vote. Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder has put welcome attention on this crucial area. But remember – this won’t be easy.

And Two More that Really Should Matter

Not that most of us have heard of these, but Earth Overshoot Day shot past largely unnoticed the other day. That day marks the day when humanity exhausts the earth’s annual capacity to absorb our carbon-generating body blows. Fortunately, groups like Growthbusters and World Population Balance were keeping count. Those groups focus on the macro scale and the driving force behind environmental trouble – the unfettered and unrelenting growth in human population. The other recent occasion – World Orangutan Day – focuses on a micro scale – destruction of the habitat of one of our most amazing and beloved primate cousins. The saddest thing about this destruction is its driving force – clearing rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations so we in the comfortable developed world can buy cheaper soap (check the labels) and all manner of processed food products. Learn more and take action.

Boomer Warrior – An Ally

My Facebook friend Rolly Montpellier of Toronto has been developing his Boomer Warrior newsletter. He posts a variety of environmental sustainability pieces on his impressive site, featuring a range of writers, including, on occasion, this blogger.

Three Random Blows against the “Unsustainable Empire”

First – how much do bike commuters save the government? The piece comes from Australia, but is relevant everywhere. Second, who could ever imagine a victory such as this in a battle between microbrew and Big Oil? And finally – further news of the growth of renewable energy in “sunny” Germany.

“I am a person who is unhappy with things as they stand. We cannot accept the world as it is. Each day we should wake up foaming at the mouth because of the injustice of things.” ― Hugo Claus

Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN