The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


1 Comment

Who Picks Up the Tab?

Some time ago, my mother and I were talking about whether to get behind a certain environmental organization, and she said “they seem to be heavily committed to carbons fees and I don’t know very much about that.”

I decided I needed a refresher on the concept, too, so here are the results of my inquiries.

Carbon fees are one version of a whole family of ideas called carbon pricing, which is itself part of a much larger effort to make the environment economically visible.

It’s important to understand here that “the economy” as described by traditional economics, is really just a model for how energy, material goods, and value move through society. It isn’t the only possible model, and it isn’t even a very good model because it leaves a lot of important things out.

Remember Ralph Nader? I saw him speak once and he had a great line; “privatizing the profits and publicizing the costs.” He wasn’t talking about climate change specifically but about pollution in general—how when a company creates pollution in the course of doing business, we consider that the money the raise belongs to them but the pollution—and its associated costs–doesn’t. This little economic slight-of-hand happens because our economic model ignores the existence of that which cannot be bought and sold. Natural resources that have not yet been extracted, natural processes, “the environment” generally, is thus invisible to economics, even though these are the ultimate source of all wealth. And, in the eyes of many, the priceless is simply valueless.

Hence the push to put a price on the priceless.

Carbon pricing aims to create a situation where everyone, from consumers to corporations to nations, will actively pursue climate sanity because it is the economically sensible thing to do. There are two main versions.

Carbon fees, or carbon taxes, put a price on carbon emissions. The idea is that since we have to pay money in order to emit, we’ll figure out how not to emit so we can save money. There are different types of carbon fee systems that vary in terms of who pays the fee, where the money goes, and how the price changes over time.

One version, carbon-fee-and-dividend, assesses the fee at the point where the fossil fuel enters the economy—at the mine, well, or port—and then distributes the fee to the public. Under this system, energy companies that use fossil fuel will pass the cost of the fees on to consumers, but since consumers will be receiving dividend payments, the increased costs won’t matter. Functionally, the cost of fossil fuel use will remain the same. But since alternative energy providers will not be paying the fee, their services will be effectively cheaper, giving them an advantage in the market place.

There are a couple of obvious potential pitfalls.

I do not know whether the system includes greenhouse gas emitters other than energy companies—cement is a huge source of greenhouse gas, as is refrigeration, agriculture, and, to a lesser extent, other industries. Agriculture particularly would be very difficult to assess fees for. Also, the system does not directly mandate emissions reductions, so it’s hard to say how far the economic nudge would really go.

But carbon-fee-and-dividend is simple to implement, can use the established tax system instead of requiring a new infrastructure, and has been used to good effect in Sweden already.

Cap-and-trade, or ETS, is the other main carbon pricing tool. Here, there is a legally enforceable cap on how much participants can emit—structured as a limited number of permits per participant. Those who need more than that number can buy them from those who use less than that number of permits.

Versions of cap-and-trade vary in how the permits are given out, who is participating, what the cap is, and how the cap changes over time. The system has the advantage of providing extra funding to those who reduce their emissions, and cap-and-trade has been used to good effect, both to fight climate change and to fight acid rain. The system can be difficult to set up and monitor, though.

Both types of carbon pricing can even be used together.

But if carbon pricing is such a good idea, why isn’t it being used on a national or international scale to fight climate change?

I got online and searched for “why is a carbon tax bad” and “why is cap-and-trade bad.” And, wouldn’t you know it, most of the hits on the first page were from energy companies or the Heartland Institute, which is funded largely by energy companies. The bulk of the remainder were from newspapers apparently reporting on the controversy. One pro-climate article explained that carbon pricing alone wouldn’t solve the problem, but the author did not object to carbon pricing being one of the options tried. Another pro-climate article ended up being a formal refutation of criticism of carbon feeds—in order words, actually pro-carbon pricing.

No major, credible environmental organization seems to have come out against carbon pricing—and some have come out very much for it. If you have vague, negative associations with carbon pricing, chances seem good that you have been exposed to propaganda paid for by the fossil fuel industry.

The fact of the matter is any effective form of climate action, including, quite definitely, carbon pricing (either form) is going to require that fossil fuel companies eventually find a different line of work or go out of business.

They don’t want to do that.

But the important thing to understand is that carbon pricing does not create a cost that doesn’t otherwise exist. Instead, these schemes make existing costs visible to the economy so we can think clearly about who should bear the costs and how. The other important thing to think about is that maintaining the economic status quo is not an option. Climate change itself will eventually dramatically alter our way of life if we don’t alter ourselves first. The wealthy will likely continue to be able to insulate themselves from those changes for a long time, while the poor and disenfranchised have begun bearing the costs of climate destabilization already.

In other words, somebody is going to pay either way.

 


Leave a comment

Reactions

The following is a somewhat edited article I originally wrote for a class assignment–it was immediately after the lecture I describe in the post, The Good Fight. The assignment was to simply write about how we felt in and after the discussion. The “you,” therefor, is my professor, Tom Wessels. Note that ellipses (series of dots) do not signify deleted material, as in formal writing, but rather extended pauses, as in informal writing.

 

How did I feel in and after the class discussion? This was not the first time I’ve watched you chart out the context of the current crisis in terms of entropy, so it did not pack the emotional punch of surprise. The first time, in Community Ecology class, I was quite literally nauseated…I had been familiar with most of the information you presented, but was lacking a few pieces and the overall structure that so starkly and rigorously defined our position as that of members and murderers of a dying planet. And I put it that way well aware that this condition of dying will not likely result in actual, overall death…I’m aware that the biosphere has survived five mass extinctions before, and will survive this one. I just don’t want to be culpable for it. And it saddens me to be here for it, although when I talk about it with most people I emphasize our position of opportunity and power; I used to do an interpretive talk, ostensibly about sand dynamics on barrier islands, where I took the opportunity to tell people that we are the most powerful generations (deliberate plural) that have ever lived…I want people to see this positively so they don’t shut down, remain apathetic in guilt and fear. But to you, since you have invited candor, I can admit to being scared and pessimistic myself.

I don’t think we’ll collectively turn this around voluntarily. The critical issue, as I understand it, is perceived limitation. People adjust themselves not to what is but to what seems to be. Fossil fuel gives us the illusion of a bigger, less vulnerable planet than the one we have. I think the thing that will make us change will not be a culturally driven realization, though I am trying to foster one, but rather the onset of more obvious limits. Wars, famines, plagues…and I’m going to live through it, I think. Maybe I’ll be able to help some way. Maybe that’s why I’m here. In which case, ok, I’m here, I sign up, I agree. If I can help, fine, I’m ok with being here now, whatever trouble that turns out to entail. But it makes me sad and angry.

This is not new. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time, trying to formulate my ideas, make myself into a being of some use…I’ve been going in circles. I’m not a very practical person, I’m not very good at getting things done, thirty-two years old and I can hardly support myself, let alone get myself into a position where anyone will listen to me. What have I done? Of course, at my age [President] John Adams was asking himself a very similar question, working through radical new ideas about democracy and independence and wondering if history would pass him by…I tend alternately towards despondency and something bordering on self-inflation. I’m afraid this is way-too personal an essay, but you asked. What is new this year particularly is that starkness…and a better way of organizing these ideas. And of course going to graduate school has everything to do with my attempt to DO SOMETHING.

Today in class I got all kinds of neat ideas. Like I think that our species’ timeline is not only one of gradual growth recently succeeded by rapid growth, but also it is a story of the progressive increase of the scale on which carrying capacity is calculated. The scrub jays are part of a very local ecology; when their population peaks and crashes, it does so locally. Their scale of feedback is local. When they change their local environment, their local environment changes them back, and so a kind of rough balance is maintained. We were that way once, but very quickly our ancestors built trade networks that lifted our relevant scale to the regional. So a community could exceed its local carrying capacity and not notice, not stop drawing resources, until it triggered a regional crash, as you said the Maya did…and as you said, the regional collapse is deeper and lasts longer than local scale collapses are. Then we became continental, global…. The Industrial Revolution extended this trend dramatically by artificially and temporarily extending our scale to something larger than the actual planet by accessing the stored solar energy of the past (not quite a new idea there) thus preventing us from collectively “hearing” the feedback of the actual planet—at least for a while. Then the crash larger than a whole planet.

Maybe you’re right. Maybe everyone will wake up. But I fear it won’t happen until the limits become more than an intellectual thing for most people, until we have no option. I wish I could say “I’m not with them.” I hate feeling powerful enough to be culpable but not powerful enough to change.

One more note. I mentioned not being a very practical person. I think that’s changing. I heard your question “what can you do?” in very concrete, practical terms. I can shrink my foot-print, I can be an example, I can start up a website, I can run my Yahoo group, I can go to graduate school, I can start emailing around to get somebody to figure out how to turn those lights off in the class-room. I’m doing all those things (except I haven’t addressed the lights yet). When I figure out more to do I’ll do it. I hear your question as a request for a plan, a concrete proposal I can enact today. Most of the other students addressed the questions in conditional, abstract terms, in generalities. I don’t know what to make of this….

I am glad you’re teaching this class, that someone is. Before class, a few of us were talking briefly about imaginary friends, and I was thinking of how children often let go of imaginary friends and stuffed animals because they find no one else believes. It is hard to go on treating something as important that people around us do not. And it is hard, too, given that there is a certain strategic quality to any discussion of this subject—always, there is the need to consider whether saying the wrong thing might frighten away “light green” allies. How much can I say, how serious can I be, before my audience reaches overload and shuts down or lashes back? But who do I talk to when I’m overloaded, when I despair or I don’t know what to do, when I want to run gibbering off into the night?

Tom, this paper has turned out a good deal more personal than I would normally address to someone I do not know outside of a professional context. I have never chatted casually with you, much less told you anything about myself. But you asked, and I find myself unwilling to do less than answer the question. I hope you do not mind.


Leave a comment

Climate Change and Food: Red Meat

I have talked about climate and food before in terms of how climate change influences the food supply, but what about the other way around? How does our eating influence the climate? As many readers are probably aware, a significant amount of our collective carbon footprint (about one quarter) comes from our food system and meat-based foods have a larger footprint than plant-based foods. But how much difference between foods is there? What is the best way to cut carbon emissions out of one’s personal diet? Does it matter whether the meat is local or free-range?

I didn’t know either. So I’ve done some reading.

The numbers don’t look good for meat

The short answers are that the difference is huge, the best way to cut emissions is to eat less meat, and free-range and local do matter but, as far as the climate goes, not very much. There are some complications and nuances, of course.

I found an article that includes a graphic showing the carbon footprints of various food types (chicken, beef, eggs, lentils, etc.) expressed in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per kilogram of food. “Carbon dioxide equivalent” means all greenhouse gasses taken together and expressed in terms of their impact on climate. So these figures include methane. Logically, the numbers would be exactly the same with any other measure of weight–the point is there is a ratio between amount of food and amount of emissions.

The simplest thing is to read the article, which you should do anyway because it’s fascinating. Here is the link. But I’ll summarize the most striking parts–for simplicity, I’ll give a single numbers for this; instead of writing “5kg of CO2e per kg of food,” I’ll just write “five.”

Lamb is the most carbon-intensive meat by far, at 39.2. Less than five of that is transportation and processing, which presumably means that if you raised your own lamb in your back yard, killed it yourself, and then had a carbon-neutral barbecue, it’s number would still be around 36. The next-closest competitor is beef, at 27, and then the other animal-based foods on the list cluster between 13.5 and 4.8. In contrast, the various plant-based foods on the list all cluster between just under three and just under one. The importance of transportation and processing varies, but only in potatoes is it the majority of the total figure.

I can think of several possible complications (besides grass-fed vs. grain-fed, which I’ll get to later).

  • What if the animal is a by-product of another industry? For example, if a flock of sheep are managed for milk and wool as well as meat, so that only excess ram lambs are slaughtered, then the carbon footprint of the flock is the same as it would be if those excess animals were not eaten (letting them live as pets would actually increase the carbon footprint of the operation, aside from the other ethical questions involved). In such a case, the same kilogram of CO2e has to share meat, milk, and fiber,and the whole operation is much more efficient than it might seem, right?
  • Do the figures for animals include emissions from transporting animal feed?
  • Why is the footprint of cheese six times that of yogurt given that most of them are processed milk?
  • The study focused on food in Britain; are these numbers different in other countries, such as the United States?
  • What is the footprint of highly processed foods, such as candy or fast food?
  • Since different kinds of food have different nutritional profiles, how would this comparison work if the unit of comparison were nutritional value, rather than weight? Nutrition is complex, so it might be impossible to do that kind of study, but the issue could still be important.

I do not have answers to those questions.

In any case, clearly generally similar diets, such as two different versions of mostly-plant-based omnivory, might have extremely different carbon footprints. The study that released these numbers found that while the difference between eating a lot of meat and eating a little is huge, the different between eating a little meat and none is small.

What is so bad about meat?

The clear take-home message here is that giving up beef and lamb (except possibly where these are byproducts of dairy production?), and cutting way back on other animal-based foods, is one of the most powerful steps a person can take to address climate change (aside from voting!). So, why are meats so bad for the environment? We have to be very clear, here; this is not about animal rights, which is an important but separate issue.

I have not seen this issue addressed directly, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics, not to mention public tastes in food, is almost certainly relevant.

The Second Law states, in essence, that every time energy moves or changes form, some of it is lost. This is why, for example, a ten pound house cat needs to eat more than ten pounds of meat in its life. This is also why ecosystems always have more plant-eaters than carnivores and more plants than plant-eaters. Most of what an animal eats does not become meat–what happens to it? Some of it becomes bone or other tissues we don’t want to eat. Some of it is never digested and simply passed as feces–which decomposes into carbon dioxide or methane–or as flatulence, which is also methane. But most of that missing food is exhaled as carbon dioxide.

One way to think about this is that all carbon that is taken up by plants is ultimately either interred in long-term storage as fossil fuels, or released again to the atmosphere when the plant rots or burns or is metabolized and exhaled. Eating food is the exact chemical equivalent of burning fuel. So, when a human eats a pound of plant matter, “burning” that “fuel” results in carbon emissions. But when we eat a pound of meat, that meat represents all the plants that animal ate to grow that meat–and all of that plant-fuel is “burned,” whether in the meat-animal’s body or in the human’s. More plant-fuel burned means more emissions released.

Cattle and sheep are both ruminants, meaning they don’t actually eat food directly. The food they swallow is eaten by bacteria in their guts, which in turn create food for the cattle. So you get another layer of energy transformation and thus another layer of energy dissipation–the bovine gets less energy out of the food and has to eat more, so more plants are “burned” as “fuel” for somebody. And the waste product of these bacteria is methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas.

So, meat has a larger carbon footprint than vegetables and ruminants (cattle and sheep) have a larger carbon footprint than other animals (pigs, chickens, turkeys, etc.).

Does grass-fed matter?

Most animals raised for the industrial food supply spend at least part of their lives–and sometimes all of them–in some version of a small cage being fed some kind of grain-based, heavily processed diet. There are all sorts of reasons why this is a terrible, horrible thing and why if you are going to eat meat, you should really choose only free-range animals (please note that “free-range” is a legally slippery term and that finding meat that lives up to the intent of the phrase takes some research). Is the climate another such reason?

The answer to that one depends who you ask.

An animal’s personal freedom has no particular bearing on carbon emissions. What makes the difference is whether it is grazing or browsing, as opposed to being fed corn (as would happen in a cage or cage-like feedlot). Logically, feed carries a larger carbon footprint because it must be transported and processed, whereas pasture is eaten where it grows. In fact, one of the best ways to keep open land from being converted into housing developments is to put cows on top of it. All of that argues for grass-fed meat having either a smaller carbon footprint, or possibly a slightly negative footprint, if pasture sequesters more carbon than cattle release.

On the other hand, cattle, at least, have to live longer to get to slaughter weight if they stay on pasture. More time living means more time farting, which could mean a larger carbon footprint. And while cattle are healthier eating grass, they get more energy from eating grain (which must be why they gain weight faster that way). So a day eating grass presumably means more farts than a day eating grain, too.

Which argument is actually true seems unclear at this time and might depend on the details of the cattle operation in question. And I have not found anything on how free-range living might influence the carbon footprint of other food animal species.

Wait–haven’t there always been cattle?

This question was posed by one of my Facebook friends and it’s a good question. How could cattle be a factor in increased climate change given that cattle themselves are hardly new?

This was my answer:

xkcd land mammals

From XKCD, https://xkcd.com/1338/, used in accordance with the cartoonist’s policy

 

This graphic shows that almost half of the land mammal compliment of the planet, by weight, is cattle. The vast majority is either humans or animals that humans eat. The reason it makes sense to do this comparison by weight rather than by head is that weight is a good proxy for how much animals eat and, thus, how much plant “fuel” they burn and how much CO2e is released. Consider that the energy in a pound of mouse meat is probably similar to the energy in a pound of hamburger–about the same number of calories. There are some potential complications here, but two thousand pounds of mice probably eat very roughly the same amount as two thousand pounds of cow. So, the fact that our planet has a huge number of tons of cattle right now means that a huge amount of plant-fuel is being “burned” by cattle these days.

Now, I am fairly confident that while there have been cattle for millennia, there have not been THIS MANY cattle until very recently.

I also suspect that this massive pile of mooing would not be possible without fossil fuel–and it certainly wouldn’t be economical. Feed could not be cheaply moved in to feed lots and beef (grass-fed or grain-finished) could not be distributed widely enough to meet enough consumers to justify the size of the herd. If this is the case, then excessive cattle farts are simply another symptom of fossil fuel use.

But, even if the huge herd of cattle is new, surely something else was eating all those plants before, and releasing a corresponding amount of waste and flatulence? Like, all the wild animals we’ve squeezed out of existence lately? Maybe and maybe not. Perhaps a lot of those plants used to just not get eaten and to enter into long-term storage on their way to becoming fossil fuel. Or maybe the wildlife released more carbon dioxide and less methane and so had a lower carbon footprint. There are possibilities. Or maybe the farts of cattle are actually irrelevant to climate change and the real carbon footprint of food is only the fossil fuel use and the ecological degradation associated with it?

That one I do not know.


1 Comment

Gone with the….

Wind has been in the news lately.

Cyclone Winston  became a named storm on February 10th and then spent 12 days blowing around the South Pacific–literally, the storm track curved back on itself and made a big loop, something I personally hadn’t known was possible. It crossed over Fiji as a Category 5 storm, killed 21 people, and literally leveled whole communities–a kind of destruction more typical of powerful tornadoes. At one point, the storm packed sustained winds of at least 186 mph. That’s the most powerful storm ever measured in the southern hemisphere.

Then, on February 23rd and 24th, a swarm of tornadoes swept through the United States, killing at least three and injuring many more. The storms (though not the tornadoes) actually passed over my area, giving us high, gusting winds and thunder. In February.

Of course, some kind of extreme weather probably occurs somewhere on the planet every day. It’s a big planet, after all. But these are both extreme extremes–Cyclone Winston was one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever measured. And the tornado outbreak was in February. And they both relate to climate change–although, so do all other weather events, extreme or otherwise, since the climate changes on the just and unjust alike. Still, it’s interesting to look at the actual connections.

First, Winston. As I’ve written before, tropical cyclones with sustained winds of 75 mph or more are called different things in different ocean basins and different basins also have different storm seasons, and different storm behavior. In the North Atlantic, these storms are called Hurricanes. Winston was called a cyclone because it existed in the South Pacific where it is now late summer. So if it seems like we’ve heard about the “world’s most powerful storm” rather often recently, that’s in part due to the fact that we’ve had multiple basins turning up extraordinary storms, not multiple records being set and broken in just a few months. Still, we do seem to be seeing a lot of big storms lately.

As I’ve written before also, it is hard to tell for sure if tropical cyclones have been getting worse because we only have a few decades of quality data–and the way meteorologists study these storms vary from one ocean basin to another, too, which means that much of the data we do have cannot be pooled. We know that climate change should be making tropical cyclones stronger, more frequent, or possibly both, because the new climate involves warmer water and more humid air, both of which are what makes tropical cyclones happen–we just can’t actually see the changes yet because of the data problem.

But Winston was actually the result of multiple atmospheric cycles working together. Tom Yulsman write a clear and interesting article explaining these cycles. You can find his article here. To summarize, both global warming and El Niño were involved in the unusually warm water that fed the storm while an even shorter cycle, the Madden-Julian Oscillation, that changes over just weeks, made the atmosphere more stormy at just the right time. Day-to-day weather changes then steered the storm through its bizarre circular track and right over Fiji.

So the simple answer is that yes, while we don’t have the data to confirm it, we can be pretty sure that these record-breaking storms have some degree of extra edge due to climate change–and at the same time, other patterns also influence the situation.

Meanwhile, Cyclone Winston exemplifies another pattern–no matter how strong or weak a storm is, it’s going to be worse for impoverished people. Wealthy people can afford to rebuild and wealthy countries can afford to provide extensive aid. Many of those in Fiji can access neither wealth nor extensive aid–they are literally asking for help from the world. And because Fiji is very small and very far away from many of my readers’ countries, it’s all too easy to forget about them.  Please help if you can and spread the word.

As to tornadoes, again we have a serious problem with a lack of quality data. It’s hard to tell whether there are more tornadoes than there used to be when until recently there was no way to tell a tornado had happened unless somebody was there to see it. But recently some researchers have teased out a changing pattern. Apparently, the number of days per year that have tornadoes on average are stead or dropping, but the number of tornadoes per outbreak is going up. That is in keeping with the warmer, more humid air, which should make storms more powerful, and a simultaneous decrease in wind shear, also a result of global warming, which makes tornadoes less likely. So, fewer days when tornadoes can form, but on those few days, the storms are worse.

But February?

Tornado swarms in February are rare but hardly unheard of. But what some writers are saying–that the atmosphere is behaving “as though it were May“–is very striking. It’s an acknowledgement that this past week’s storm is part of a pattern that we usually don’t see and it is directly related to warmth. Specifically, the Gulf of Mexico grew unusually warm and did indeed create a kind of weather more typical of a warmer month. Given that the world is warming, these storms are a bad sign of things to come.


Leave a comment

Your Tuesday Update: My Day Job

Hi, all.

As some of you know, this blog is not currently funded, meaning that I have to do something else to earn a living. Specifically, I’m a free-lance writer. Many of my jobs are just that–jobs. I enjoy writing for a living, but that does not mean that everything I write appeals to my personal interests. Fortunately, there are exceptions. Among these are some of the articles I sometimes write for Teletrac, a fleet-management software company. They assign me transportation-related topics. Since the transportation industry is responsible for a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, many of my articles for Teletrac relate to emissions reductions.

Recently they asked me to write about a Federal program I had somehow not heard about before, the American Businesses Act on Climate Pledge. It is a voluntary pledge American businesses can take to reduce their emissions by specific amounts or to otherwise do something about climate change. Really, it is a domestic parallel of the Paris climate deal, which also depends on voluntary pledges.

Apparently, some pretty major companies have signed up to take the pledge. Please check out my article on the subject and see what I do for my day-job.


Leave a comment

On the Paris Climate Talks: A Literary Interlude

First, my apologies for not posting yesterday; I sometimes have anxious or depressed episodes and they make it difficult to focus enough to work. This has not been a good week. Of course, if one is going to be anxious, this would be the week, given that the world’s leaders are discussing whether to avert the end of the world and at the same time the presumptive Republican front-runner for the US Presidential election is doing a really good imitation of Hitler. I don’t know whether the fact that I’m not crazy to feel like this makes me feel better or worse….

Anyway, we’re kind of waiting to see what comes out of Paris, although there is a petition to sign (please!) asking certain recalcitrant national leaders to quit dragging their feet on what really looks like a viable deal.

While we’re waiting, I’m thinking about a novel by Ursula K. LeGuin, The Farthest Shore. Her writing is excellent, not just because it is extraordinary in terms of craft, but also because much of her fiction going back to the late 1960’s seem to imply an understanding of climate change. Her sci-fi books, set in the distant future, often have an overtly environmentalist message and refer to Earth having warmed significantly since our time. One, published in 1969, clearly describes the natural greenhouse effect (yes, there is one; what we’re causing is in addition to that) and repeatedly links environmental catastrophe specifically to industrial revolution. Her fantasy novels frequently address spiritual and magical themes that could be read as ecological principles. I don’t know if Ms. LeGuin actually knew about anthropogenic climate change in the late 1960’s, but it is possible; some scientists were beginning to investigate the matter, and of course the idea was first discussed in the nineteenth century.

In The Farthest Shore, a wizard casts a spell for immortality and accidentally–though, without caring about it much–unbalances the entire world, creating a  “hole through which life drains out,” as some of the characters describe it. Essentially, he makes a serious attempt to cast off the limits imposed by both biology and physics, which is exactly the same thing we’ve been using fossil fuels for. I do not know if Ms. LeGuin intended it this way, and I suspect she did not, but the book makes an interesting allegory for climate change, with personal immortality standing in for the more complex suit of powers we look for from technology–a story of the pursuit of a good thing causing ruin because it is taken to absolutes.

One character asks why a person shouldn’t want immortality. His companion, a very wise man, replies:

–Why should you not desire immortality? How should you not? Every soul desires it, and its health is the strength of its desire. But be careful; you are one who might achieve your desire.

–And then? [the other asks]

–And then this: a false king ruling, the arts of man forgotten, the singer tongueless, the eye blind. This! This blight and plague on the lands, this sore we seek to heal. There are two, two that make one, the world and the shadow, the light and the dark. The two poles of the Balance. Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other, and are forever reborn. And with them all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is life. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal? What is it but death–death without rebirth?

All of this is simply to put the quote I’m thinking of in context–the quote that gives me some meaning and comfort as I wait to hear back from Paris. As the protagonists sail towards their meeting with the wizard, which either will save the world or won’t, one of them sleeps while the other keeps watch and thinks about the future.

…..They will praise me more for that in afterdays than anything I did of magery….If there are afterdays. For first we two must stand upon the balance-point, the very fulcrum of the world. And if I fall, you fall, and all the rest…. For a while, for a while. No darkness lasts forever. And even there, there are stars….Oh, but I should like to see thee crowned in Havenor, and the sunlight shining on the Tower of the Sword and on the Ring we brought for thee from Atuan, from the dark tombs, Tenar and I, before ever thou wast born!”

He’s right; no darkness lasts forever, and even there, there are stars. The biosphere can recover from a major extinction–it takes ten million years, but it can do it, and has done it before. But there are things I should like to see, and so I hope for good news from Paris.


1 Comment

Your Friday Update

Hi, all,

Because I wrote a full post on Tuesday, I’m just doing an update today. Specifically, I’m updating you on the upcoming climate demonstrations on the 29th of this month.

The idea is to hold coordinated demonstrations all over the world in order to demonstrate political will ahead of the Paris talks next month. As such, it is critical–the Paris talks must must must must result in a meaningful, binding agreement. Literally, the future of our species is at stake. So we all have to go and show our elected leaders that this matters to us.

The problem is that the organizers don’t seem to be doing very much. There are, for example, three separate demonstrations planned for Washington DC and two out of the three have no contact information listed for the organizers. My concern is that we will get hundred or even thousands of demonstrations that each attract a few dozen participants and that none will draw any serious media attention at all. That could be catastrophic.

So, your mission (and mine) is to pick a demonstration to attend, talk as many people into attending with you as possible, and also contact your local and regional newsmedia and ask them to cover the event. Then check to see if they do–if they don’t, write or call in and complain.

Also, contact your elected representatives and make sure they know you are going and why.

That should help. To find an event near you, click HERE.