Category Archives: Environment & Ecology
Here in North Texas we’re currently experiencing the warmest start to a year on record. This comes on the heels of the warmest winter in Texas history. A few years ago we had the dramatic wildfire apocalypse — enabled by an epic drought — that engulfed huge portions of the state, and that had me nervously watching huge plumes of smoke billow up from behind the hillside in back of my house. The drought was ended by historic flooding. The same year as the floods, a positively crazy chain of severe spring thunderstorms tore right through the area where my family and I live, spawning a line of repeated tornadoes, one after the other, all afternoon and overnight. This is something that has always been more common back in the Missouri Ozarks where I’m from. Nor was the perception of something different down here merely a subjective one; 2015 ended up being a record year for tornadoes in Texas. Last year there was more severe flooding, including right where I live. Thus far, my entire time in Texas has been marked by one natural disaster after another. And to think, one reason my family and I moved down here in the first place was to leave behind the increasingly severe weather in Missouri, especially the brutal winters where crippling ice storms have become much more frequent during the past ten and fifteen years than they were during my entire previous life up there.
So in light of such things, this meditation in The New York Times Magazine on not just the future but the present reality of climate change really hits home.
The future we’ve been warned about is beginning to saturate the present. We tend to imagine climate change as a destroyer. But it also traffics in disruption, disarray: increasingly frequent and more powerful storms and droughts; heightened flooding; expanded ranges of pests turning forests into fuel for wildfires; stretches of inhospitable heat. So many facets of our existence — agriculture, transportation, cities and the architecture they spawned — were designed to suit specific environments. Now they are being slowly transplanted into different, more volatile ones, without ever actually moving. . . .
We seem able to normalize catastrophes as we absorb them, a phenomenon that points to what Peter Kahn, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, calls “environmental generational amnesia.” Each generation, Kahn argues, can recognize only the ecological changes its members witness during their lifetimes. . . .
Scenarios that might sound dystopian or satirical as broad-strokes future projections unassumingly materialize as reality. Last year, melting permafrost in Siberia released a strain of anthrax, which had been sealed in a frozen reindeer carcass, sickening 100 people and killing one child. In July 2015, during the hottest month ever recorded on earth (until the following year), and the hottest day ever recorded in England (until the following summer), the Guardian newspaper had to shut down its live-blogging of the heat wave when the servers overheated. And low-lying cities around the world are experiencing increased “clear-sky flooding,” in which streets or entire neighborhoods are washed out temporarily by high tides and storm surges. Parts of Washington now experience flooding 30 days a year, a figure that has roughly quadrupled since 1960. In Wilmington, N.C., the number is 90 days. But scientists and city planners have conjured a term of art that defuses that astonishing reality: “nuisance flooding,” they call it.
Kahn calls our environmental generational amnesia “one of the central psychological problems of our lifetime,” because it obscures the magnitude of so many concrete problems. You can wind up not looking away, exactly, but zoomed in too tightly to see things for what they are. Still, the tide is always rising in the background, swallowing something. And the longer you live, the more anxiously trapped you may feel between the losses already sustained and the ones you see coming. . . .
The future is always somebody else’s present — it will very likely feel as authentic, and only as horrific, as our moment does to us. But the present is also somebody else’s future: We are already standing on someone else’s ludicrous map. Except none of us are in on the joke, and I’m guessing that it won’t feel funny any time soon.
Riveting and unsettling: Here’s Robert Stolz, Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia, drawing on a recent interview with nuclear engineer and anti-nuclear activist Dr. Hiroake Koide to write in The Asia-Pacific Journal about the truly cosmic-horrific implications of radiation exposure in our present nuclear age, as related not just to events like Fukushima and Chernobyl but to the entire unfolding of this new era that began with the extensive nuclear tests that were conducted in the middle decades of the twentieth century. And he writes in ways that recall the dark musings of, say, Eugene Thacker on the literal unthinkability of the forces we have now unleashed, complete with references to the deep tradition of cosmic and supernatural horror fiction, including a direct quote from Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race.
Because of the very nature of radiation, namely its spatial and temporal scales, in many ways we lack a language adequate to a world lorded over by radiation. The literary genre called Cosmic Horror of Algernon Blackwood or H. P. Lovecraft has long attempted to grasp the frightening realities of unleashing a force that operates on such a-human scales and temporalities as plutonium-239 (half-life over 24,000 years) or uranium-235 (half-life over 700 million years). The Horror writer and arch-pessimist Thomas Ligotti perhaps comes closest to describing the implications of unleashing truly astronomical forces into human everyday life when he writes:
“Such is the motif of supernatural horror: Something terrible in its being comes forward and makes its claim as a shareholder in our reality, or what we think is our reality and ours alone. It may be an emissary from the grave, or an esoteric monstrosity. . . . It may be the offspring of a scientific experiment with unintended consequences. . . . Or it may be a world unto itself of pure morbidity, one suffused with a profound sense of doom without a name — Edgar Allan Poe’s world.”
In our present of 2016 the sense of doom does have a name: Hoshanō sekai — Radiation’s World. Radiation’s World announces that the earth — or at least large parts of it — is no longer exclusively ours. We have rendered huge spaces of the planet off-limits for time periods beyond any scale of recorded history. Parallel to but different than the rapacious depletion of the natural world from forests to cod stocks to fossil fuels that took millennia to build up but are consumed in decades, as we mine deeper temporalities in pursuit of open-ended consumption we have also unleashed anti-human temporalities incompatible with continued production or consumption. It is these spaces that are now ruled by radiation and are no longer part of human society. Like the old Horror trope, we have unleashed forces that we cannot contain. But unlike Horror, there is no discrete monster to kill at the end. Pessimism is surely called for.
— Robert Stolz, “Nuclear Disasters: A Much Greater Event Has Already Taken Place,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 14, Issue 16, No. 3 (March 5, 2o16)
It looks like we can forget about “collapse fatigue,” the term — which I just now made up (or maybe not) — for the eventual exhaustion of the doom-and-collapse meme that has been raging its way through our collective public discourse and private psyches for the past decade-plus. I say this based on three recent items that have come to my attention spontaneously, as in, I didn’t go looking for them, but instead found them shoved into my awareness.
ONE: Just a couple of weeks after James Howard Kunstler asked “Are You Crazy to Continue Believing in Collapse?” — and answered, in sum, “No” — we now see that
TWO: a new collapse warning of rather epic proportions and pedigree has begun making its way through the online doom-o-sphere, starting with a piece in The Guardian:
A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution. Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse – often lasting centuries – have been quite common.”
. . . By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.
These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”
. . . Modelling a range of different scenarios, Motesharri and his colleagues conclude that under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today . . . we find that collapse is difficult to avoid.”
The study highlights, in a manner reminiscent of dystopian science fiction, the specific way this division into Elites and Masses not only might play out but has played out in the histories of real societies and civilizations: Read the rest of this entry
Not that anybody should be surprised by this, but it turns out that what we commonly regard as “healthy foods” may be nothing of the sort, not because the specific foods in question (fruits and vegetables) are wrongly characterized in and of themselves, but because farming techniques — the ones we’ve honed and developed over thousands of years of agricultural history, not just during the industrial age — have stripped many of the vital nutrients clean out of the actual produce that we buy from grocery stores:
We like the idea that food can be the answer to our ills, that if we eat nutritious foods we won’t need medicine or supplements. We have valued this notion for a long, long time. The Greek physician Hippocrates proclaimed nearly 2,500 years ago: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Today, medical experts concur. If we heap our plates with fresh fruits and vegetables, they tell us, we will come closer to optimum health.
This health directive needs to be revised. If we want to get maximum health benefits from fruits and vegetables, we must choose the right varieties. Studies published within the past 15 years show that much of our produce is relatively low in phytonutrients, which are the compounds with the potential to reduce the risk of four of our modern scourges: cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. The loss of these beneficial nutrients did not begin 50 or 100 years ago, as many assume. Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers.
These insights have been made possible by new technology that has allowed researchers to compare the phytonutrient content of wild plants with the produce in our supermarkets. The results are startling.
. . . The United States Department of Agriculture exerts far more effort developing disease-resistant fruits and vegetables than creating new varieties to enhance the disease resistance of consumers. In fact, I’ve interviewed U.S.D.A. plant breeders who have spent a decade or more developing a new variety of pear or carrot without once measuring its nutritional content.
We can’t increase the health benefits of our produce if we don’t know which nutrients it contains. Ultimately, we need more than an admonition to eat a greater quantity of fruits and vegetables: we need more fruits and vegetables that have the nutrients we require for optimum health.
— Jo Robinson, “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food,” The New York Times, May 25, 2013
Meanwhile, the manufactured food industry has spent decades honing its skill at manipulating our perceptions of food and eating, the better to convince us to keep buying and eating more, more, more. This has evolved, or rather devolved, right down to a finely nuanced propaganda campaign conducted largely by means of a whole new language of food that’s used inside the industry itself:
The massive popularity of these so-called junk foods (a phrase that was added to the language menu in 1973) is a testament to the food industry’s talent for creating feel-good food. Our diets may be richer for it, but so too is the English language, which now boasts many tasty new words and phrases cooked up by food industry scientists and technologists. (I’m indebted to New York Times reporter Michael Moss, particularly for his fascinating new book Salt Sugar Fat, for many of these terms.)
Food companies don’t want their customers to be obese, of course, but what they are dedicated to is increasing stomach share, or the market share within a food category . . . . [P]rocessed-food companies increasingly turn to their legions of scientists to produce foods that we can’t resist. These food geeks tweak their products by varying the levels of the three so-called pillar ingredients — salt, sugar, and fat.
Why not just crank these ingredients up to 11 if we crave them so much? It turns out that although we generally do like more of them, when you go past a certain amount, we like the result less. That optimum amount of salt, sugar, or fat is called the bliss point. Scientists also adjust these ingredients as well as factors such as crunchiness to produce a mouthfeel — that is, the way the food feels inside a person’s mouth — that causes consumers to crave more. Technologists can also induce a flavor burst by altering the size and shape of the salt crystals themselves so that they basically assault the taste buds into submission.
The holy grail of junk-food science is vanishing caloric density, where the food melts in your mouth so quickly that the brain is fooled into thinking it’s hardly consuming any calories at all, so it just keeps snacking . . . . [T]he real goals are either passive overeating, which is the excessive eating of foods that are high in fat because the human body is slow to recognize the caloric content of rich foods, or auto-eating: that is, eating without thinking or without even being hungry.
— Paul McFedries, “The Jargon of Junk Food,” IEEE Spectrum, May 31, 2013
In 1972, Theodore Roszak wrote a brief reflection on the fairly apocalyptic state of mainstream food culture in America and technological society at large. It was later included in one of the most wrenching and inspiring gut punches of a book you could ever read, Less Is More: An Anthology of Ancient & Modern Voices Raised in Praise of Simplicity, assembled and edited by Goldian VandenBroeck and bearing an introduction by none other than E. F. Schumacher. I invite or dare you to read it and contemplate how far we have failed to come — despite the various counter-trends that have arisen in America since 1972 (farmer’s markets, the organic food movement, foodies and foodism, etc.) — since Roszak first offered this disturbing thought experiment as a diagnosis and indictment of how industrial-technocratic civilization has mistreated other peoples and the natural world while developing a wholesale case of neurotic self-delusion about its own moral character:
Those who anguish over a starving mankind on the easy assumption that there just is not enough land and resources to feed the hungry might do well to pay a special kind of visit to their local supermarket. Not to shop, but to observe and to meditate on what they see before them and have always taken for granted. How much of the world’s land and labor was wasted producing the tobacco, the coffee, the tea, the refined cane sugars, the polished rice, the ice creams, the candies, the cookies, the soft drinks, the thousand and one non-nutritional luxuries one finds there? The grains that become liquor, the fruits and vegetables that lost all their food value going into cans and jars full of syrups and condiments, the potatoes and corn that became various kinds of chips, crackles, crunchies, and yum-yums, the cereals that became breakfast novelties less nourishing (as a matter of scientific fact) than the boxes they are packed in, the wheat that became white breads and pastry flours . . . . How many forests perished to package these non-foods? How many resources went into transporting and processing them? (And the less nutrition, the more processing.) How much skilled energy went into advertising and merchandising them? There they stand in our markets, row upon row, aisle upon aisle of nutritional zero, gaily boxed and packed, and costing those fancy prices we then gripe about as the high cost of living.
It is out of such routine extravagances that the technocracy weaves its spell over our allegiance . . . and then assures us we are the hope of the world.
For a visual commentary, see the last half of this two-minute excerpt from Koyaanisqatsi:
I first watched the film Koyaanisqatsi as an undergraduate student at Mizzou, in the company of other students, in the context of a student Philosophy Club meeting. And the film flat-out blew my mind and rocked my world. I have no idea if any of the others present at that viewing were as deeply affected as I was, but today, just over two decades later, the film, and also its almost literally divine Philip Glass musical score, remains a touchstone philosophical-cinematic text that continues to act with a transformative tug upon my psyche.
A good deal of the enduring (obsessive) focus here at The Teeming Brain on the dystopian underside and apocalyptic overtones of life here in the postindustrial wonderland of the great American technopoly stems from two sources. One of these is the collective totality of a mini-library of books and films, both fiction and nonfiction, that have powerfully impacted me with their explorations of this heady convergence point of subversive and destabilizing spiritual, psychological, artistic, political, societal, economic, and technological reality. The other is Koyaanisqatsi, standing independently on its own rarefied plane of import. Not coincidentally, several of those books have been cited as direct inspirations by Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi‘s director and mastermind.
If you’re unfamiliar with the film, or if perhaps you’re not aware of the fact that you may already be familiar with parts of it — as with (to name just one prominent example) the wonderful use of two pieces of its music during the Dr. Manhattan origin sequence in the Watchmen film a few years ago — here’s Wikipedia’s synopsis, which is excellent:
Koyaanisqatsi, also known as Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, is a 1982 film directed by Godfrey Reggio with music composed by Philip Glass and cinematography by Ron Fricke. The film consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse footage of cities and many natural landscapes across the United States. The visual tone poem contains neither dialogue nor a vocalized narration: its tone is set by the juxtaposition of images and music. Reggio explains the lack of dialogue by stating “it’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.” In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi means “unbalanced life”. The film is the first in the Qatsi trilogy of films: it is followed by Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). The trilogy depicts different aspects of the relationship between humans, nature, and technology. Koyaanisqatsi is the best known of the trilogy and is considered a cult film.
You can also watch the trailer. I mean it seriously. Stop reading and watch this now:
On May 15 The Chronicle of Higher Education published a brief and fascinating essay that brought this all back to mind. In “‘Koyaanisqatsi’ in China,” Jonathan Levine, a freelance journalist and a lecturer in American studies and English at Bejing’s Tsinghua University, explains how a student approached him during his first semester there to ask “if we could watch a movie — something about ‘American culture.'” Levine points out that this request automatically raised an important and difficult question: “If you were given the opportunity of showing some of China’s future leaders one movie that encapsulated the American essence, what would it be?”
He ended up showing them Koyaanisqatsi — “probably not the first movie you would think of,” he quite rightly points out. (“Probably not even in the first 100,” he quite rightly adds.) But the choice was a savvy one. “With no spoken dialogue,” he writes, “Koyaanisqatsi is a difficult film but a universal one, free of the barriers of context and language that inevitably divide native and non-native English speakers. Accompanied by Philip Glass’s powerful, minimalist score, the scenes take viewers on a sensory roller coaster, rollicking through a slide show of human achievement and folly. The film is a tabula rasa, from which viewers can draw their own conclusions.”
Levine’s reflections on the experience for both him and his students indicate that it was an excellent choice for exploring the depths of the film and its meaning for both America and now China, which has been racing for decades to emulate America’s model of material success. He writes, “Though the film was shot entirely in the United States, by an American director, the similarities to modern China are so striking as to be inescapable. The Brutalist architecture of the condemned Pruitt-Igoe housing project, in St. Louis, could have been airlifted from the outskirts of Beijing. The throngs bustling to and fro — the inhabitants of one of China’s manifold concrete jungles. Income inequality, pollution, degradation of public infrastructure, check, check, and check.”
His closing paragraphs draw out the meaning of the film not only for his Chinese audience but for me personally, and in a shockingly direct way that echoes exactly what I have said to myself, minus the specific references to China, as I have lived with this film for the past 20 years:
Rather than being dated, the haunting imagery of Koyaanisqatsi has become more valuable with time. It now demonstrably encapsulates both the United States and China. As you may have already guessed, my aim in showing the movie was not a dry exploration of American culture, but to raise fundamental questions among China’s brightest minds about the direction of their own country. It is not a warning, but more a checkpoint. The Chinese word for America is “Meiguo,” which literally means “beautiful country.”
My goal with Koyaanisqatsi was not to smash this myth, but to remind those who watch the film that America’s road to development and prosperity was not without speed bumps. It was and is riddled with points of tensions, contradictions, and — in short — many things that are not so beautiful. I hope that the movie will not just provide a snapshot of the United States but will cause my students to question their own nation’s model of development. Should China’s highest aspiration be merely a Sinified simulacrum of all things Western? China has embraced the Western paradigm of development, but is there perhaps another way?
In the words of Mark, “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
To drive home the point, here’s what may be the film’s most haunting passage:
If you haven’t seen Koyaanisqatsi, please consider my heartfelt recommendation that you remedy that lack as soon as possible, because you’re missing out on a work of art that stands as a kind of cinematic Rosetta Stone for decoding and understanding the arc and tenor of the times we live in.