An Ecologist’s Guide to Writing Obituaries

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a young ecologist in the Anthropocene—how my job will be different from ecologists who came before. Perhaps my generation will be defined by our capacity to handle death and dying.

In 2004, I submitted an application that was to be my first step toward being a fourth-generation funeral director. My college sophomore self presented an audacious vision for applying sustainability sciences in an effort to “green” the toxic practices employed by most Catholic-serving funeral homes, including my family’s in Newark, New Jersey. The application statement was inspiring but, admittedly, sloppily compiled. Understandably, the business-mentoring-for-liberal-arts scholars program declined my submission. Then, in that very same week, a very different door opened: Dr. Janet Mann, renowned biologist and dolphin behaviorist, emailed to offer me a semester-long undergraduate position in her lab. The familiar gave way to the exciting, exotic unfamiliar.

If you were an elephant …

That will be too much for most. Indeed, it’s a mistake to assume that in order to have a mind one has to have a mind that is like human minds. So let’s just say that, according to the evidence, it’s not obviously ridiculous to invite you, the human, to imagine yourself as an elephant. There’s some biological justification for what sounds like a whimsical, sentimental literary device. You and the elephant both have minds, wrought from the same stuff. And your minds engage with the world using the same devices. Your neurological hardware differs only in sensitivity: sodium and potassium surge in the same way through the same molecular gates when you and the elephant step on a nail; the same ancient hormones mediate pleasure, anger and stress. “If you prick us,” ask the elephants (using a chromatic orchestra of sounds, and well over 100 distinct body movements), “do we not bleed?” Indeed they do.

We can be cautiously Beatrix-Pottery with elephants. When the temporal glands near their eyes stream in circumstances that, for us, would be emotional, they’re crying. When a bereaved elephant mother carries her dead baby round on her tusks, or trails miserably behind the herd for weeks, her head hanging down, she’s grieving. When other elephants sit for hours around the body of a dead elephant, they’re mourning. When they cover an elephant corpse with soil or vegetation, or move elephant bones, they’re being reverential. When they cover a dead human, or build a protective wall of sticks around a wounded human, they’re showing an empathic acknowledgment of our shared destiny that we’d do well to learn. These, dear reductionists, are, as you would put it, the most parsimonious hypotheses.

An Orthodox Christian Response in Support of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous Water Protectors in Standing Rock, North Dakota, and their Principles

In as much as the assembly of Indigenous Nations in Standing Rock, North Dakota, in union with those that have gathered to support them, are calling for the protection of our valuable and God-bearing water and earth, and in as much as they do so as Protectors in prayer for the whole world, Orthodox Christians like me will stand in solidarity with their efforts and lend our prayers to their own.

“IT ALL TURNS ON AFFECTION”

The Pond by Jenny Hainsworth Auld

“I mean, not economics, but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth … This is the economy that the most public and influential economists never talk about, the economy that is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us. “Even so, land and people have suffered together, as invariably they must. Under the rule of industrial economics, the land, our country, has been pillaged for the enrichment, supposedly, of those humans who have claimed the right to own or exploit it without limit. Of the land-community much has been consumed, much has been wasted, almost nothing has flourished. But this has not been inevitable. We do not have to live as if we are alone.”

Noam Chomsky on The Costs of Violence – Part 2

Banksy Graffiti Art On West Bank Barrier

In brief, the Global War on Terror sledgehammer strategy has spread jihadi terror from a tiny corner of Afghanistan to much of the world, from Africa through the Levant and South Asia to Southeast Asia. It has also incited attacks in Europe and the United States. The invasion of Iraq made a substantial contribution to this process, much as intelligence agencies had predicted. Terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank estimate that the Iraq War “generated a stunning sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks, amounting to literally hundreds of additional terrorist attacks and thousands of civilian lives lost; even when terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan is excluded, fatal attacks in the rest of the world have increased by more than one-third.” Other exercises have been similarly productive.

Noam Chomsky on the masters of mankind (Part 1)

René Burri’s original photo from São Paulo in 1960. Credit René Burri/Magnum Photos

When we ask “Who rules the world?” we commonly adopt the standard convention that the actors in world affairs are states, primarily the great powers, and we consider their decisions and the relations among them. That is not wrong. But we would do well to keep in mind that this level of abstraction can also be highly misleading.

States of course have complex internal structures, and the choices and decisions of the political leadership are heavily influenced by internal concentrations of power, while the general population is often marginalized. That is true even for the more democratic societies, and obviously for others. We cannot gain a realistic understanding of who rules the world while ignoring the “masters of mankind,” as Adam Smith called them: in his day, the merchants and manufacturers of England; in ours, multinational conglomerates, huge financial institutions, retail empires, and the like. Still following Smith, it is also wise to attend to the “vile maxim” to which the “masters of mankind” are dedicated: “All for ourselves and nothing for other people” -- a doctrine known otherwise as bitter and incessant class war, often one-sided, much to the detriment of the people of the home country and the world.

In the contemporary global order, the institutions of the masters hold enormous power, not only in the international arena but also within their home states, on which they rely to protect their power and to provide economic support by a wide variety of means. When we consider the role of the masters of mankind, we turn to such state policy priorities of the moment as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the investor-rights agreements mislabeled “free-trade agreements” in propaganda and commentary. They are negotiated in secret, apart from the hundreds of corporate lawyers and lobbyists writing the crucial details. The intention is to have them adopted in good Stalinist style with “fast track” procedures designed to block discussion and allow only the choice of yes or no (hence yes). The designers regularly do quite well, not surprisingly. People are incidental, with the consequences one might anticipate.

AS OF May 2016: Climate Change in Pacific

Sea-level rise, erosion and coastal flooding are some of the greatest challenges facing humanity from climate change.

Recently at least five reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands have been lost completely to sea-level rise and coastal erosion, and a further six islands have been severely eroded.

These islands lost to the sea range in size from one to five hectares. They supported dense tropical vegetation that was at least 300 years old. Nuatambu Island, home to 25 families, has lost more than half of its habitable area, with 11 houses washed into the sea since 2011.

This is the first scientific evidence, published in Environmental Research Letters, that confirms the numerous anecdotal accounts from across the Pacific of the dramatic impacts of climate change on coastlines and people.

When I Dream of a Planet in Recovery…

When I Dream of a Planet in Recovery…

But in those humans and non-humans who survive, there is another feeling, emerging from below and beyond and around and through this sorrow. In the time after, those still alive begin to feel something almost none have felt before, something that everyone felt long, long ago. What those who come in the time after feel is a sense of realistic optimism, a sense that things will turn out all right, a sense that life, which so desperately wants to continue, will endure, will thrive.

The Beetles: Eighty-Nine Million Acres of Abrupt Climate Change

The Beetles: Eighty-Nine Million Acres of Abrupt Climate Change

During the peak of the attack, all across western North America there were so many pine beetles that they began attacking other species like fir and spruce. The total of 89 million acres of mortality, at a conservative 80 trees per acre, amounts to 7 billion red conifers. And all this is due to only 0.74 degrees Celsius of warming by 2014, on average across the globe. Young trees are sprouting up in the oldest kills because the young are very vigorous. But their ecosystem has changed. These forests are no longer located in the climate where they evolved. In our current and exponentially warming climate, young lodgepole in these impacted forests will inevitably succumb to beetles, disease or fire before they mature. What remains will be ecosystem chaos. We are undergoing the beginning of a grand reordering of ecological systems. This is more than simply a harbinger of things to come. An extinction bomb has gone off and it will not stop going off until we stabilize our climate.

Gravitational Waves Exist: The Inside Story of How Scientists Finally Found Them

How we discovered gravitational waves

Just over a billion years ago, many millions of galaxies from here, a pair of black holes collided. They had been circling each other for aeons, in a sort of mating dance, gathering pace with each orbit, hurtling closer and closer. By the time they were a few hundred miles apart, they were whipping around at nearly the speed of light, releasing great shudders of gravitational energy. Space and time became distorted, like water at a rolling boil. In the fraction of a second that it took for the black holes to finally merge, they radiated a hundred times more energy than all the stars in the universe combined. They formed a new black hole, sixty-two times as heavy as our sun and almost as wide across as the state of Maine. As it smoothed itself out, assuming the shape of a slightly flattened sphere, a few last quivers of energy escaped. Then space and time became silent again.

Zika and the New Climate Dystopia — Human Hothouse as Disease Multiplier

There are a plethora of diseases out there. Diseases we don’t know about. Diseases locked away in far-off, rarefied corners of the world. Diseases that operate in small niche jungle environments. Diseases that live in only cave systems or within a single species. Diseases that were locked away millions of years ago in the now-thawing ice. Diseases that, if given a vector — or a means to travel outside of their little rarefied organic or environmental niches — can wreak untold harm across wide spans of the globe.

Dark Ecology

Dark Ecology by Paul Kingsnorth

By Paul Kingsnorth

These are the things that make sense to me right now, when I think about what is coming and what I can do, still, with some joy and determination. If you don’t feel despair, in times like these, you are not fully alive. But there has to be something beyond despair too; or rather, something that accompanies it, like a companion on the road. This is my approach, right now. It is, I suppose, the development of a personal philosophy for a dark time; a dark ecology. None of it is going to save the world – but then there is no saving the world, and the ones who say there is are the ones you need to save it from.

An Altar in the Wilderness – Book Trailer

Kaleeg Hainsworth, drawing upon his experiences in the Canadian wilderness, grounds his book in the literary, philosophical, mystical and historical teachings of the spiritual masters of both East and West, outlining the human experience of the sacred in nature. He offers a vision of life in which a human being stands in the world of nature as at an altar built in the wilderness, a sacred offering in a holy place.

Towards Cultures of Aliveness: Politics and Poetics in a Postdualistic Age, an Anthropocene Manifesto

Enlightenment thinking is coming to an end. The "Anthropocene" claims to step beyond the dualism of man–nature opposition. Culture is everywhere. This might be an opportunity for sustainable action: saving nature becomes a cultural endeavour. However, the salute to anthropocene stewardship masks the silent enclosure of life within technoculture and bioeconomy. Civilization still operates as if reality is about organizing inert, dead matter in efficient ways.

Paying for Urban Infrastructure in Canada

Local governments in Canada are on the front lines of climate change impacts, but the cost of adapting infrastructure to flooding and other climate-driven challenges is a barrier to implementation. This report, developed by ACT through a project supported by Natural Resources Canada under the program of the Economics Working Group of Canada’s Adaptation Platform and the Cowichan Valley Regional District, identifies and analyzes the applications and suitability of funding sources available to Canadian local governments that can be used to pay for urban climate change adaptation, as well as innovative measures that may be implemented in the future under certain conditions.

Faith and Ecology in the Shadow of Climate Chage

Faith and Ecology in the Shadow of Climate Change

Author, speaker, ecologist, outdoorsman, and preacher, Kaleeg Hainsworth draws upon a lifetime of experience in the wilderness, and grounds this lecture in the literary, philosophical, mystical and historical teachings of both East and West, arguing for a human experience of the sacred in nature. In this climate change era, he offers a vision of life in which a human being stands in the world of nature as at an altar built in the wilderness, a sacred offering in a holy place. He also addresses issues of faith and the bible as they relate to what we know about the environment today.

The Future of Oil Supply

The Future of Oil - Mad Max

This study by Richard G. Miller and Steven R. Sorrell for the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (a scientific journal with 350 years of research behind it) is provided here for two reasons. First, the study is thorough and fascinating, a valuable resource for anyone in the industry or considering divestment. However, the second reason I have provided it here, is that it also represents a time capsule of sorts. The study was published in 2013, which is not long ago, but in climate and energy landscape in the world, it is a very long time ago indeed. In 2013, the question was still, 'when will we hit peak oil'. Now, the question is, 'How soon can we divest from oil before it is worth more in the ground?' Also, it will be interesting to return to this article in a few years hence to see just where it stands in relation to the petroleum industry (and age) at that time.