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Teeming Links – July 25, 2014

FireHead

What happens in a world where war has become perpetual, live-reported popcorn entertainment? Answer: we’re as far as we ever were from understanding anything about it. “Far from offering insights into the mysteries of history and politics, these spectacles give us a sense that we are further away than ever from understanding their causes, their implications, and their consequences. Combat makes for a disappointing program — we approach it with great expectations, prepared to encounter essential truths of human existence, but we leave empty-handed.”

Novelist William Boyd reflects on how mortality shapes human existence: “I am convinced that what makes our species unique among the fauna of this small planet circling its insignificant star is that we know we are trapped in time, caught briefly between these two eternities of darkness, the prenatal darkness and the posthumous one.”

Philosopher and journalist Steven Cave meditates on the reality, mystery, and meaning of death, from humans to flies: “Perhaps, as Tennyson believed, death’s relentless reaping should lead us to question the existence of some higher meaning — one above, beyond or external to us. But whoever thought there was such a thing anyway? Not the frogs and tadpoles. . . . Because life is so teeming with intentions and meanings, the death of each creature really is a catastrophe. But we must live with it anyway.”

Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project and co-author of Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, discusses his defeatist position on climate change and the liberation to be found in giving up hope.

Journalist Matt Stroud delves into the unbelievable life and death of Michael C. Ruppert: “After decades of struggle, the notorious doomsayer finally found fame and recognition. Then he shot himself.” (Also see my reflections, in a post published five years ago, on Ruppert’s startling ascent to mainstream fame via the movie Collapse.)

Historian and writer Rebecca Onion looks at how 1980s childhoods changed the way America thought about nuclear Armageddonwith an extended analysis of the role of the 1983 television movie The Day After, which utterly freaked out my 13-year-old self.

Jacob Silverman reflects on the dystopian plight of office drones in the digital tech age: “[They are] more gadgeted-out than ever, but still facing the same struggle for essential benefits, wages, and dignity that workers have for generations. . . . Such are the perverse rewards we reap when we permit tech culture to become our culture. The profits and power flow to the platform owners and their political sponsors. We get the surveillance, the data mining, the soaring inequality, and the canned pep talks from bosses who have been upsold on analytics software. Without Gchat, Twitter, and Facebook — the great release valves of workaday ennui — the roofs of metropolitan skyscrapers would surely be filled with pallid young faces, wondering about the quickest way down.”

Seriously? We’re now entertaining the possibility of robot caregivers? Sociologist and tech expert Zeynep Tufekci is right: this is how to fail the third machine age.

You’ve seen me mention my love of My Dinner with Andre many times here. That’s why I’m so pleased to call attention to this brand new interview from On Point with “The Inscrutable, Ubiquitous Wallace Shawn.” It’s highly recommendable both for the way it offends common radio sensibilities (the whole thing gets off to a rocky start as the interviewer adopts a somewhat glib approach that apparently annoys Mr. Shawn) and for the depth of Shawn’s carefully expressed thoughts on everything from the heady joys of being a writer and articulating things you never knew were in your soul, to the changing nature of conversation in an age when everybody is perpetually interrupted by phone calls and text messages. There is also, of course, some discussion of his portrayal of Vizzini in The Princess Bride. (Oh, and also see the recent pieces on Shawn, and also Andre Gregory, and their new collaboration, in The Wall Street Journal, Vulture, and Salon.)

When I was a kid, my mother actually walked out of the theater during the heart-ripping scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Well, guess what? George Lucas and Steven Spielberg hate that movie’s notorious grimness and violence, too. Grantland unearths the history of why Temple of Doom turned out that way.

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – March 28, 2014

FireHead

It turns out that right as I was putting together last week’s Teeming Brain doom-and-gloom update, a new “official prophecy of doom” had just been issued from a very prominent and mainstream source: “Global warming will cause widespread conflict, displace millions of people and devastate the global economy. Leaked draft report from UN panel seen by The Independent is most comprehensive investigation into impact of climate change ever undertaken — and it’s not good news.”

Did President Obama really just try to defend the U.S. war in Iraq while delivering a speech criticizing Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine? Why, yes. Yes, he did. (Quoth Bill Clinton at the 2012 Democratic Convention: “It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.”)

What used to be paranoid is now considered the essence of responsible parenting. Ours is an age of obsessive parental overprotectiveness.

FALSE: Mental illness is caused by a “chemical imbalance” in the brain. FALSE: The DSM, the psychiatric profession’s diagnostic Bible, is scientifically valid and reliable. The whole field of psychiatry is imploding before our eyes. (Also see this.)

And even as mainstream psychiatry is self-destructing, the orthodox gospel of healthy eating continues to crumble — a development now being tracked by mainstream journalism. Almost everything we’ve been told for the past four decades is wrong. In point of fact, fatty foods like butter and cheese are better for you than trans-fat margarines. There’s basically no link between fats and heart disease .

Meanwhile, researchers are giving psychedelics to cancer patients to help alleviate their despair — and it’s working:

They almost uniformly experienced a dramatic reduction in existential anxiety and depression, and an increased acceptance of the cancer, and the changes lasted a year or more and in some cases were permanent. . . . [Stephen] Ross [director of the Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse at Bellevue Hospital in New York] is part of a new generation of researchers who have re-discovered what scientists knew more than half a century ago: that psychedelics can be good medicine. . . . Scientists still don’t completely understand why psychedelics seem to offer a shortcut to spiritual enlightenment, allowing people to experience life-changing insights that they are often unable to achieve after decades of therapy. But researchers are hopeful that will change, and that the success of these new studies will signal a renaissance in research into these powerful mind-altering drugs.

Don’t look now, but the future is a social media-fied video game:

In five years’ time, all news articles will consist of a single coloured icon you click repeatedly to make info-nuggets fly out, accompanied by musical notes, like a cross between Flappy Bird and Newsnight. . . . Meanwhile, video games and social media will combine to create a world in which you unlock exciting advantages in real life by accruing followers and influence. Every major city will house a glamorous gentrified enclave to which only successful social brand identities (or “people” as they used to be known) with more than 300,000 followers will be permitted entry, and a load of cardboard boxes and dog shit on the outside for everybody else.

Deflating the digital humanists:

[To portray their work] as part of a Copernican turn in the humanities overstates the extent to which it is anything more than a very useful tool for quantifying cultural and intellectual trends. It’s a new way of gathering information about culture, rather than a new way of thinking about it or of understanding it — things for which we continue to rely on the analog humanities.

Science and “progress” can’t tell us how to live. They can’t address the deep meaning of life, the universe, and everything. So where to turn? How about philosophy, which is unendingly relevant:

We are deluged with information; we know how to track down facts in seconds; the scientific method produces new discoveries every day. But what does all that mean for us? . . . The grand forward push of human knowledge requires each of us to begin by trying to think independently, to recognize that knowledge is more than information, to see that we are moral beings who must closely interrogate both ourselves and the world we inhabit — to live, as Socrates recommended, an examined life.

Take this, all of you scoffers at Fortean phenomena (and/or at Sharknado): “When Animals Fall from the Sky: The Surprising Science of Animal Rain

Finally, here’s a neat look at the evolution of popular American cinema in 3 minutes, underlaid by Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”:

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Teeming Links – August 20, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Did somebody say “apocalypse”? Oh, yeah: that was me, here, all the time. And it was also, as it turns out, everybody, everywhere these days. To preface the current roundup of recommended and necessary reading, here’s a rich reflection on this very fact, and on the deeper meanings of the very idea of apocalypse — linked, as we always do here at The Teeming Brain, to the idea of dystopia — from no less a cultural organ than The Chronicle of Higher Education:

We’re living through a dystopia boom; secular apocalypses have, in the words of The New York Times, “pretty much owned” best-seller lists and taken on a dominant role in pop culture. These are fictions of infinite extrapolation, stories in which today’s source of anxiety becomes tomorrow’s source of collapse.

. . . All of this literature is the product of what the philosopher John Gray has described as “a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility.” Call it dystopian narcissism: the conviction that our anxieties are uniquely awful; that the crises of our age will be the ones that finally do civilization in; that we are privileged to witness the beginning of the end.

Of course, today’s dystopian writers didn’t invent the ills they decry: Our wounds are real. But there is also a neurotic way of picking at a wound, of catastrophizing, of visualizing the day the wounded limb turns gangrenous and falls off. It’s this hunger for crisis, the need to assign our problems world-transforming import, that separates dystopian narcissism from constructive polemic.

. . . To a surprising extent, our secular stories of dystopia and collapse rehearse the old story of apocalypse. We own a slate of anxieties that would have been unimaginable to older generations with fears of their own; but much of our literature of collapse suggests that the future will fear exactly what we fear, only in exaggerated form. In this way, our anxieties are exalted. Yesterday’s fears were foolish — but today’s are existential. And today’s threats are revealed to be not some problems, but the problems. Dystopias can satisfy the typological urge to invest our own slice of history with ultimate meaning: We look back from an imagined future to discover that we are correct in our fears, that our problems are special because they will be the ones to destroy us.

. . . A more radical brand of fiction about the future would still treat our problems with gravity, but it would also be a Copernican kind of fiction; it would not put our lives, our age, or our problems at the center of history. It would start, in other words, from the frightening and less-familiar thought that history has no direction and no center.

— Rob Goodman, “The Comforts of the Apocalypse,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 19, 2013

N.B.: The last third of the essay offers an absorbing reading of the dystopian writings of George Orwell and Olaf Stapledon as examples of this “more radical brand of fiction about the future.”

* * *

Adieu: On the downward slope of empire (William Deresiewicz for The American Scholar)
“[E]mpires fall as surely as they rise, and mostly for the reasons that we’re seeing now: they overextend themselves; their systems grow sclerotic; their elites become complacent and corrupt. There’s almost something metaphysical at work. The national sap dries up; the historical clock runs out. . . . In America’s case, the end is likely to involve a lot more bang than whimper. . . . Civil wars and revolutions are not uncommon scenarios for waning powers, and violence is as much a part of our national DNA as is expansion.”

Zibaldone-The-Notebooks-of-LeopardiReview: Giacomo Leopardi’s ‘Zibaldone’ (The Financial Times)
“[T]he pursuit of truth dispels our life-enhancing illusions and destroys every higher ‘value’ that makes life worth living. The will-to-truth ends up casting humankind into a universe with no overseeing God, no ultimate purpose, and no concern whatsoever for the unspeakable suffering to which it condemns its inhabitants, ‘not only individuals, but species, genera, realms, spheres, systems, worlds’, as Leopardi puts it in one of his entries.”

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (Strike! Magazine)
David Graeber, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, examines the world of useless paper-pushing that keeps finance capitalism afloat. “If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job.”

In Praise of Laziness (The Economist)
“What is clear is that office workers are on a treadmill of pointless activity. Managers allow meetings to drag on for hours. Workers generate e-mails because it requires little effort and no thought. An entire management industry exists to spin the treadmill ever faster.

Warning Sign on the Colorado River (ScienceInsider, from Science magazine)
“Red alert. Dropping water levels behind the Glen Canyon Dam will force operators to cut downstream flows for the first time in dam’s 47-year history. Researchers say climate change could make such moves more common in the future.”

Photographing the Part of Buddhism That Can’t Be Seen (“Lens” blog at The New York Times)
Simply stunning. “While sacred rites are visually lush and obvious, spiritual experience is interior and hidden — and it is difficult to photograph something that is not visible. [Photojournalist David] Butow used a variety of strategies — and camera formats — to try to capture the heart of Buddhism.”

Mind_and_Cosmos_by_Thomas_NagelThe Core of ‘Mind and Cosmos’ (Thomas Nagel for The New York Times)
“This is a brief statement of positions defended more fully in my book ‘Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False,’ which was published by Oxford University Press last year. Since then the book has attracted a good deal of critical attention, which is not surprising, given the entrenchment of the world view that it attacks. It seemed useful to offer a short summary of the central argument.”

History.exe: How can we preserve the software of today for historians of tomorrow? (Slate)
“If, hundreds of years from now, a literary scholar wanted to run Word 97, the first consumer version to implement the popular ‘track changes’ feature, how would she find it? What machine would accommodate this ancient artifact of textual technology?”

Putting a Dollar Sign On Everything Is Really Expensive: A Chat with Michael Sandel (Motherboard)
“I spoke to Sandel, who has been described as the ‘indispensable voice of reason’ by John Gray, about the increasing commodification of life, the loss of sacred institutions, and the dangers of utilitarianism and market reasoning.”

Great_Tales_of_Terror_and_the_SupernaturalThe Cheapening of the Comics (Flooby Nooby)
A passionate and powerful 1989 speech Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, who used his platform to decry the corruption of comic strips and cartooning by the robotic and despotic demand of the big syndicates to transform these art forms into purely profit-driven enterprises that operate entirely according to the dictates of profit and commodification.

These Great Tales of Terror Live Up to Their Promise (NPR)
Michael Dirda on the classic, genre-defining anthology Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural and its enduring personal impact on him, which involves the fact that it introduced him, like generations of other readers (including me), to Lovecraft.

Validating Ray Bradbury: Climate change and high temps linked to violent behavior

Remember Ray Bradbury’s famous fascination with the idea that hot weather spurs an increase in assaults and other violent behavior? This was the basic premise behind his widely reprinted 1954 short story “Touched with Fire,” in which two retired insurance salesmen try to prevent a murder. In a key passage, one of them shares his thoughts on the relationship between heat and violence:

More murders are committed at ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature. Over one hundred, it’s too hot to move. Under ninety, cool enough to survive. But right at ninety-two degrees lies the apex of irritability, everything is itches and hair and sweat and cooked pork. The brain becomes a rat rushing around a red-hot maze. The least thing, a word, a look, a sound, the drop of a hair and — irritable murder.  Irritable murder, there’s a pretty and terrifying phrase for you.

Notably, Bradbury adapted this story twice for television, once for Alfred Hitchcock Presents as the 1956 episode “Shopping for Death” and then more than thirty years later for his own Ray Bradbury Theater as the 1990 episode “Touched with Fire.” He also inserted the same idea about heat and violence into his screen treatment for the 1953 minor science fiction classic It Came from Outer Space, which was thoroughly reworked by screenwriter Harry Essex, who got the actual screenplay credit, but which ended up including much of a Bradburyan nature, including a detailed statement of the 92-degrees thesis, placed in the mouth of a small-town American sheriff confronting an alien invasion. (Note that you can hear an audio clip of this dialogue at the beginning of Siouxsie & the Banshees’ 1986 song “92 Degrees.”)

Now comes a new study, conducted by several U.S. scientists, that appears to offer preliminary “official” vindication for this idea that so fascinated Bradbury when he encountered it somewhere or other during the early decades of his long and fertile career:

Bring on the cool weather — climate change is predicted to cause extreme weather, more intense storms, more frequent floods and droughts, but could it also cause us to be more violent with one another? A new study from scientists in the US controversially draws a link between increased rates of domestic violence, assault and other violent crimes and a warming climate.

That conflict could be a major result of global warming has long been accepted. As climate change makes vulnerable parts of the world more susceptible to weather-related problems, people move from an afflicted region to neighbouring areas, bringing them into conflict with the existing populations. That pattern has been evident around the world, and experts have even posited that conflicts such as Darfur should be regarded as climate related. But the authors of the study, published in the peer review journal Science, have departed from such examples to look closely at patterns of violence in Brazil, China, Germany and the US.

The authors suggest that even a small increase in average temperatures or unusual weather can spark violent behaviour. They found an increase in reports of domestic violence in India and Australia at times of drought; land invasions in Brazil linked to poor weather; and more controversially, a rise in the number of assaults and murders in the US and Tanzania.

. . . The underlying reasons could run from increased economic hardship as harvests fail or droughts bite, to the physiological effects of hot weather.

— Fiona Harvey, “Climate change linked to violent behavior,” The Guardian, August 2, 2013

To illustrate this study, here’s that episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents:

You can also watch the (alas, decidedly inferior) adaptation of the same story for Ray Bradbury Theater online.

Sounds of Apocalypse, Part One: Roar of Creation and Destruction

"Death on a Pale Horse" by Benjamin West [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Death on a Pale Horse” by Benjamin West [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

EDITOR’S NOTE: With this post we welcome a new contributing writer to the Teem. Dominik Irtenkauf is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction dealing with art, mythology, cultural philosophy, media theory, the occult, and avant-garde music. He also writes about the boundaries between art and science, and recently he has been combining his literary and documentary writing. He has published a number of books in German; for some of his writing in English, see the blog Bergmetal under the keyword “Stig Olsdal.” Dominik studied German philology, philosophy, and comparative literature in Münster. In 2007 he spent three months in Georgia on a Musa Fellowship for Literature from the country’s Ministry of Education and Science.

In this article — which is the first installment of a four-part piece — he combines all of these interests to present a reflection and meditation on an often overlooked aspect of cosmic creation and destruction.

* * *

In mythic tales, the world often comes into being by noise. For example, in Enuma Elish, the Babylonian Genesis, the younger gods, begat by Apsû and his wife Tiâmat, engage in an incessant racket, and Apsû complains:

Their way has become painful to me,
By day I cannot rest, by night I cannot sleep;
I will destroy them and put an end to their way,
That silence be established, and then let us sleep!

The resulting war among the gods results in the creation of the world order that we know today, as the younger gods defeat their parents and use the dismembered corpse of Tiâmat to create the cosmos and the blood of Apsû to create the human race.

Other “noisy” creation stories include the Ancient Vedic traditions, where the world comes into being by the boom and quake of a “Great Breath,” and the apocryphal “Eighth Book of Moses” (also known as the “Holy Book of Moses” or “Hidden Sacred Book of Moses”), written by a Hellenistic Egyptian Jew and teaching that there have been seven “laughs” of God that created the forces in the universe. Obviously, the idea of noise at the world’s origin is one with a long, and in fact an ancient, pedigree.

If we think about the matter long enough, it gives rise to an obvious question: if the world as we know it came into being because of noise, then will it end with noise as well? And when that end arrives, what exactly will be the sound that accompanies the collapse? Will it be music? Will it merely be some tacky, meaningless noise in the background? Will it be a dramatic, crashing wall of inconceivable resonance?

Let me quote from Stuart Sim’s Manifesto for Silence:

Noise, noise everywhere indeed, as the headline had it: above the earth, below the sea. No doubt one day science will be able to determine if there are any significant effects on wildlife from such pollution, but whether anything can be done about it by that stage is another question entirely. There are such things as “tipping points,” as we are beginning to realize very belatedly with the phenomenon of global warming: damage cannot always be repaired, nor processes reversed. (pp. 28-29)

So the question becomes not just whether the world will end in noise but whether noise itself might bring about the end of the world. Have we already crossed the point of no return? Could the accumulation of noise become one of the causes of the downfall of our civilization? Read the rest of this entry

Recommended Reading 41

This installment of Recommended Reading might almost be described as a special Apocalypse and Extinction edition, as evidenced by the first four items below. Today: A new book about the reality of mass extinction and the human race’s best strategies for survival. John Michael Greer on the entrenched historical tendency, especially among Americans, to posit and even long for all-encompassing apocalyptic disasters as a means of avoiding responsibility for the future. A consideration of why, in the face of the real-life threat of catastrophic climate change, we’re all likely to simply wring our hands and do nothing until it’s too late. Thoughts on the theological implications of our Orwellian society of total technological surveillance. Rupert Sheldrake on the parallels between bad religion and bad science. The sudden and widespread rise of belief in and about an afterlife, including among scientists. Read the rest of this entry

If climate scientists are terrified, how should the rest of us react?

Well, there you have it.

Using scientific theories, toy ecosystem modeling and paleontological evidence as a crystal ball, 18 scientists, including an SFU professor, predict the Earth’s ecosystems are careering towards an imminent, irreversible collapse.

In “Approaching a state-shift in Earth’s biosphere,” a paper just published in Nature, the authors examine the Earth’s accelerating loss of biodiversity, increasingly extreme climate fluctuations, its ecosystems’ growing connectedness and its radically changing total energy budget. They suggest these are all precursors to reaching a planetary state threshold or tipping point. Once that happens, which the authors predict could be this century, the planet’s ecosystems, as we know them, could quickly and irreversibly collapse.

“The last tipping point in Earth’s history occurred about 12,000 years ago when the planet went from being in the age of glaciers, which previously lasted 100,000 years, to being in its current interglacial state,” says Arne Mooers, SFU professor of biodiversity. “Once that tipping point was reached, the most extreme biological changes leading to our current state occurred within only 1,000 years. That’s like going from a baby to an adult state in less than a year. Importantly, the planet is changing even faster now.”

Mooers is one of the paper’s authors. He stresses, “The odds are very high that the next global state change will be extremely disruptive to our civilizations. Remember, we went from being hunter-gatherers to being moon-walkers during one of the most stable and benign periods in all of Earth’s history. “Once a threshold-induced planetary state-shift occurs, there’s no going back. So, if a system switches to a new state because you’ve added lots of energy, even if you take out the new energy, it won’t revert back to the old system. The planet doesn’t have any memory of the old state.”

— “Study predicts imminent irreversible planetary collapse,” SFU News Online (Simon Fraser University), June 8, 2012

The Nature study was of course reported elsewhere, with some exceptionally detailed information about it appearing in an article from Wired (“Is Humanity Pushing Earth Past a Tipping Point?“). But the SFU article wins the prize for most hair-raising title.

It also contains this admirably Armageddon-inflected and horror-filled final paragraph:

“In a nutshell, humans have not done anything really important to stave off the worst because the social structures for doing something just aren’t there,” says Mooers. “My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the earth’s history are more than pretty worried. In fact, some are terrified.”

In the dark light of such things, we might do well to recall that James Lovelock, the father or grandfather of climate science, who made waves a few years ago by issuing some starkly doom-laden statements about the civilization-ending effects of climate change that he expected to play out over the course of this century and last for a millennium, reversed his position earlier this year and said that he and other scientists had been caught up in an attitude of undue alarmism.

So, who to believe? Given the manifest increase in wild and terribly destructive (and deadly) weather around the world, as seen on an epic scale most recently in the United States with the monster that was Hurricane Sandy — whose problematic aftermath is still unfolding and will continue to do so for a very long time — one can’t help thinking that at this point, on a practical level, it’s prudent to bracket out the scientific side of the question, bet on the negative outcome, and batten down the hatches.

Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Recommended Reading 33

Recommendations this week, spanning a vastly broad variety of trends, issues, ideas, people, and subjects, include: the pressure on American policymakers to adapt to increasingly wild weather; Daniel Pinchbeck’s analysis of the wild weather and other aspects of our current ecological crisis as a collective planetary-spiritual experience of initiation into higher levels of consciousness; an assertion from Rupert Sheldrake that minds are not limited to brains; renowned philosopher Elliot Sober’s critique of renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel’s new book Mind and Cosmos; an analysis of the crisis facing the American publishing and literary world in an age of epic corporate mergers, along with a (self-admittedly futile) call for the enacting of government policies to protect culture; and a fascinating analysis of the “Gospel of O”: the idea of “emptying yourself for Oprah” that stalks proudly and prominently throughout the American media-cultural-psychological landscape. Also see the final entry below for a heads-up about a conversation that’s currently unfolding both here and elsewhere on the Internet about the meanings of horror, as spurred on by a recent Teeming Brain column. Read the rest of this entry

Scientists forecast a century of drought, warn of a catastrophic “new normal”

This appeared in The New York Times last Saturday. It’s written by three scientists: Christopher R. Schwalm, research assistant professor of earth sciences at Northern Arizona University; Christopher A. Williams, assistant professor of geography at Clark University, and Kevin Schaefer, research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

[I]t is increasingly clear that we already live in the era of human-induced climate change, with a growing frequency of weather and climate extremes like heat waves, droughts, floods and fires … [L]ong-term climate records from tree-ring chronologies show that [the 2000-4] drought was the most severe event of its kind in the western United States in the past 800 years. Though there have been many extreme droughts over the last 1,200 years, only three other events have been of similar magnitude, all during periods of “megadroughts” … Most frightening is that this extreme event could become the new normal … These climate-model projections suggest that what we consider today to be an episode of severe drought might even be classified as a period of abnormal wetness by the end of the century and that a coming megadrought — a prolonged, multidecade period of significantly below-average precipitation — is possible and likely in the American West.

The current drought plaguing the country is worryingly consistent with these expectations. Although we do not attribute any single event to global warming, the severity of both the turn-of-the-century drought and the current one is consistent with simulations accounting for warming from increased greenhouse gases. The Northern Hemisphere has just recorded its 327th consecutive month in which the temperature exceeded the 20th-century average. This year had the fourth-warmest winter on record, with record-shattering high temperatures in March. And 2012 has already seen huge wildfires in Colorado and other Western states. More than 3,200 heat records were broken in June alone … Many Western cities will have to fundamentally change how they acquire and use water. The sort of temporary emergency steps that we grudgingly adopt during periods of low rainfall — fewer showers, lawn-watering bans — will become permanent. Some regions will become impossible to farm because of lack of irrigation water. Thermoelectric energy production will compete for limited water resources. There is still time to prevent the worst; the risk of a multidecade megadrought in the American West can be reduced if we reduce fossil-fuel emissions. But there can be little doubt that what was once thought to be a future threat is suddenly, catastrophically upon us.

Full story: Hundred-Year Forecast: Drought,” The New York Times, August 11, 2012

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

U.S. corn growers “farming in hell” as drought, heat portend another global food price spike

Things are grim if you’re a U.S. corn farmer right now:

The worst U.S. drought since Ronald Reagan was president is withering the world’s largest corn crop, and the speed of the damage may spur the government to make a record cut in its July estimate for domestic inventories. Tumbling yields will combine with the greatest-ever global demand to leave U.S. stockpiles on Sept. 1, 2013, at 1.216 billion bushels (30.89 million metric tons), according to the average of 31 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. That’s 35 percent below the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s June 12 forecast, implying the biggest reduction since at least 1973…“The drought is much worse than last year and approaching the 1988 disaster,” said John Cory, the chief executive officer of Rochester, Indiana-based grain processor Prairie Mills Products LLC. “There are crops that won’t make it. The dairy and livestock industries are going to get hit very hard. People are just beginning to realize the depth of the problem.”

— Jeff Wilson, “U.S. Corn Growers Farming in Hell as Midwest Heat Spreads,” Business Week (Bloomberg News), July 9, 2012

And although despite the drought “U.S. production in 2012 is expected to rise 9.5 percent from last year to a record after farmers sowed the most acres since 1937,” the overall outlay of the situation also hinges on global economic circumstances, which in turn highlights the troublesome nature of globalization itself):

Read the rest of this entry