How to Face the Ecocide: Climate chaos, mass extinction, the collapse of civilization: So what if we’re doomed?

By Brian Calvert
     Image credit: Elena Dorfman
     Reprinted with the permission of High Country News

In the winter of 2013, I drove up California’s Central Valley to Stockton, to interview Cambodian parents who’d lost children in one of the nation’s many mass school shootings. A local man named Patrick Purdy had parked his station wagon behind an elementary school, set it on fire with a Molotov cocktail, and, as curious children ran toward him, shot them with an assault rifle. Purdy killed five children and wounded nearly 30. All of the dead were Cambodian or Vietnamese. The parents had survived war, genocide and refugee camps, only to have their children murdered in America.

The shooting took place in 1989, 24 years before I visited, but one mother wept so hard during her interview, it seemed no time had passed for her. I had spent much of my early career as a foreign correspondent, speaking to men, women and children in places torn up by war or political violence. And though I’d left the last of these assignments, in Afghanistan, more than a year earlier, the stark irony of the Stockton shooting brought back a familiar, low-register pain. I wrapped up the interviews and headed back to Orange County, south of Los Angeles, dragging the day behind me like a chain. I had a small apartment near the coast, and in the mornings I would run along the Bolsa Chica wetlands, where a pumpjack groaned in its lonesome, eternal way and a pair of kestrels hunted the brush from a cluster of palm trees. Some mornings, a pair of Blackhawk helicopters would fly by, thundering over the surf. We’re still at war, they’d whisper. Do not doubt it.

In this state of mind, a few days after the Stockton trip, I came across the work of Paul Kingsnorth, a British writer who called himself a “recovering environmentalist.” He was one of the founders of The Dark Mountain Project, a movement of philosophers, writers and artists that had emerged from the 2008 economic crisis, and he believed the planet was experiencing an “ecocide that nobody seems able to prevent.” Ecocide — the total destruction of our home — seemed inevitable to them, and to me, given the things I’d seen and any number of ongoing catastrophes: mass extinction, climate chaos, flooded coasts, mega-drought; oceans turning to acid, permafrost to muck. We humans are a disastrous species, as bad for the Earth as a meteor strike, and the realization of this had established in me a new kind of sadness, a mixture of guilt and mourning for a loss yet to come. Kingsnorth was one of the few people who seemed to voice a similar pain, and I began following his writing. I eventually moved to Colorado, and, not long after, saw that Kingsnorth was hosting a retreat in the Spanish Pyrenees, for “grief in the age of ecocide.” I immediately signed up. Now that my pain had been named, I wanted to understand what to do with it.

THE RETREAT WAS CALLED “SHADOWS IN THE WILD.” The idea behind it was to learn meditation methods, eat healthy food, hike — and discuss the ecocide. A short week of this would conclude with a 24-hour solo in the “wilderness.” There were about a dozen participants, mostly from Europe: journalists, professors, musicians, programmers, civil servants. On the first day, we hiked to an old stone farmhouse in the Alta Garrotxa, a folding, forested range of steep canyons and limestone crags in the eastern Pyrenees. We pitched our tents among the pine trees surrounding the house, then gathered in the main room to join Kingsnorth and our guides for dinner. A fire roared in the hearth, and we sat around two heavy wooden tables, drinking the last wine we’d see for the week.

Kingsnorth, then 44, was tall, with shaggy brown hair, ruddy cheeks and a soft-spoken manner, polished no doubt by the numerous gatherings he’d hosted since the inception of the Dark Mountain Project. Over the next few days, he told us, we would engage in a kind of therapy designed for people who believe the end of civilization is upon us. “Simply by paying attention to the darker things in the world — it gives people permission to have a conversation with people that they’ve been having a hard time having,” he said. “Dark Mountain is a rolling conversation about how to live in the age that we’re living in without falling into the abyss.”

His outlook had not always been so grim. He grew up wandering England’s mountains and moors with his father, “a compulsive long-distance walker.” This led him toward environmental activism, as did a formative trip, at the age of 21, to Borneo’s rainforest, with its moonlit rivers, fruit bats, hornbills and hooting gibbons. Back home, he saw his society as “atomized” and inward-looking, a place of streetlights and asphalt and advertisements, “screaming for my attention, trying to sell me something, tell me who to be, what to desire and to need.” He set out to save “nature from people,” first fighting road development in England, then organizing protests against globalization. Over time, though, he became disillusioned. Environmentalism had left the wild behind in favor of “sustainability,” he thought, “an entirely human-centered piece of politicking, disguised as concern for ‘the planet.’ ”

“Something inside me broke somehow,” he said. “I thought, ‘This isn’t working. We’re totally fucked. The machine will go on until it’s killed everything or collapses or both. But the wild world, justice — I still believe in that. What can I do with that?’ ”

And so he had gone looking for another way of being. He started writing and publishing fiction, poetry and essays. Along the way, he came across the work of a forgotten 20th century poet named Robinson Jeffers, and there found an intellectual mooring. Jeffers thought humans unable to understand themselves as a part of nature, and therefore doomed to destroy it. He wrote from the Northern Coast of California, putting landscape and animals above humans and their delusions, through two world wars and the onslaught of the modern industrial age. His writing had a grim resolve to it that matched Kingsnorth’s, a sense of tragedy best captured in the poem from which Dark Mountain draws its name, “Rearmament.” Jeffers wrote the poem in 1935, the year Hitler became führer and a windstorm swept 12 million pounds of dirt from the Great Plains into Chicago. Jeffers describes humanity as a slow-moving glacier “bound to plow down a forest,” headed for a future only fools believe they can change: “The beauty of modern / Man is not in the persons but in the / Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, / the dance of the / Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.”

Kingsnorth felt a kinship with Jeffers, he said, “standing like a hawk on these wild cliffs, watching a process he clearly thinks is doomed, and just watches it, even though it causes him grief.” Relying in part on Jeffers’ work, Kingsnorth built an idea he called “dark ecology.” In the Orion essay where he coined the term, he offered five answers to the ecological crisis, most of them suggestions for reconnecting to the wilder world: preserving nonhuman life; rooting oneself in the work of land or place; insisting that nature has intrinsic value; and “building refuges” where non-human life can flourish. “Withdraw,” Kingsnorth advised, “so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you. Withdraw because refusing to help the machine advance — refusing to tighten the ratchet further — is a deeply moral position.”

Withdraw? I could almost hear the groans from activists around the world — protesters, lobbyists, lawyers, half of California, every editor at Grist. Indeed, writing for Grist in 2012, Wen Stephenson warned against Kingsnorth’s “defeatist” approach, saying that without serious action to address climate change, “the consequences will be a whole lot more ‘unthinkable’ than darning socks and growing carrots,” especially for “those non-rich, non-Western folks Kingsnorth cares about.” He had a fair point, but not a helpful one. Without concerted action, the world was probably headed for a new Dark Age, one of heat and hurricanes and sun-blasted barbarism. I simply wasn’t convinced humans could prevent it. Spain, then, was a way to examine that belief, to figure out what to do with it.

Later that night, I walked out of the farmhouse and into the darkness, following the beam of my headlamp along a stone wall and down a dirt path to my tent. The air had a spring bite, and my breath came in puffs that drifted through the trees. I paused to watch the stars. Some of what Kingsnorth said made sense, but I found it hard to reconcile the idea of withdrawing with simultaneously seeking justice. His message articulated a kind of common despair, or resignation, as though the human race were a cancer patient given six months to live. But that kind of thinking can only assuage grief, not turn it into something useful.

Perhaps there were more answers in Jeffers’ work, beyond Dark Mountain doom and catharsis. After all, the poet profoundly influenced environmental thought throughout the 20th century. Ansel Adams was a friend, whose famous black-and-white landscapes bear Jeffers’ metaphysical fingerprints. John Steinbeck would pore over his poems alongside his friends, Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, and Ed Ricketts, a marine ecologist. David Brower, the former head of the Sierra Club, called Jeffers’ relationship to the California Coast, “one of the most uncanny and complete relationships between a man and his natural background known in literature.” Edward Abbey has conversations with Jeffers throughout Desert Solitaire, though he never mentions his name. In a poem called “Hurt Hawks,” Jeffers describes a wounded redtail that he must put down. “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” he writes. Abbey’s version: “I’d rather kill a man than a snake.”

These men were drawn to Jeffers’ work in part because of his philosophy of “inhumanism” — a deliberate attack on the human exceptionalism that Kingsnorth so derides. At its center is a perspective of deep time and humanity’s insignificance in the cosmos. And yet Jeffers also saw humans as an integral part of an interconnected whole: “There is not an atom in all the universes / But feels every other atom; gravitation, electromagnetism, light, heat, and the other / Flamings, the nerves in the night’s black flesh, flow them together; the stars, the winds and the people: one energy, One existence, one music, one organism, one life, one God: star-fire and rock-strength, the sea’s cold flow / And man’s dark soul.”

I crawled into my sleeping bag, as an owl hooted somewhere in the woods. There was a clear connection between Jeffers and the environmental movement — a bright shining line of well-meaning white guys that stretches from Abbey to Muir to Thoreau and on back to the Romantics. Their influence runs now through slick REI ads and “cabin porn” websites, and I must admit the fantasy tempts me: drop off the grid, chop wood in warm flannel, ease back each night by the fire with a couple of tuckered dogs, a book and a shimmering tumbler of whiskey. But even if it were realistic, could that actually be a morally defensible position? What about everyone else?

SUBLIME: The L.A. River 3, 2015.
Elena Dorfman
  • About this photograph

    “Some friends from the Westside see the (L.A. River) as a glorified sewer,” photographer Elena Dorfman told the L.A. Times. “For me, it’s a conundrum, a sanctuary and place of great sadness. A mystical and beautiful place that kept calling me back.”

    This photograph is from her series, “Sublime: The L.A. River.” Images are composed of dozens — even hundreds — of Dorfman’s own photographs, taken along the 51-mile-long concrete-channeled river over the course of two years, and layered with historic images.

    “The river is presented as metaphor,” Dorfman writes, “highlighting the ebb and flow between civilization and savagery, the cycle of social and cultural development, and the descent into ruin and back again.”

THE NEXT DAY, WE HEADED OUT FOR A HIKE and an exercise in storytelling. The hills behind the farmhouse were steep, like everything in the Alta Garrotxa, which was wilder than I’d expected. We marched single-file up the trail, through holm oak and beech, past vines and brambles and patches of earth churned by wild pigs. I stepped over a salamander, bright yellow and black, as an Australian named John, a professional gambler, hiked ahead of me. John, a lanky, buzz-cut 40-something, had come to see most people around him as wasteful and oblivious. He’d look out from his place in the city and see offices empty, lights on, row after row, and despair. “I’m a person who has lost almost all hope,” he told us. Now, though, John took the lead, his long legs carrying him at a brisk pace. I felt lighter, too, in this strange column of dark-mountaineers. At the end of an arduous section of trail, we stopped to catch our breath. John was smiling now, sweating. “I think we’re doing something right,” he said. “I think so,” I replied.

At a clearing, we separated into smaller groups. Our guide, a bright-smiling German named Korbi, told us to hike into the woods alone, find objects that spoke to us, and assemble them in a way that would answer the question: “What brought you here?” I followed a game trail through a thicket of holly, where an ancient dead pine stood. It was massive and gray and twisted, and reminded me of trees I climbed as a boy. After a sheepish look around, I heaved myself up, settled into its branches, and thought about home.

I grew up in Pinedale, Wyoming, a ranch town divided by Pine Creek, the outlet of Fremont Lake, named for an “explorer” and carved by glaciers. My family’s trailer wasn’t far from the creek, which was flanked on each side by woods — pine, aspen and willow. As children, my sister and I spent most of our time there. Carrie and I were born 13 months apart, “Irish twins” and best friends, and when the creek ran high from snowmelt, we would strip to our underwear and float it through town. The water and woods were our summer home, which we shared with duck and moose, marten and osprey, fox and deer.

One afternoon, I went to the creek alone, exploring the bottomlands until I found a rise of sagebrush and potentilla I’d never noticed. As I started to cross, a killdeer appeared, shrieking and feigning a broken wing. She kept up her dance until I backed away. I chose another angle to walk, noting again when she began to feign injury. We had this conversation until I triangulated where her nest must be. I scanned the ground, inch by inch, until I found it, three speckled eggs in a tight grass bowl. It was a moment of communion: the mountains, ground by glaciers, flowed into the lake, whose water built my bones, and these eggs and the chicks within — all of us connected, the peaks, the lake, the creek, the birds, the boy. A feeling of great responsibility came over me. Their secret uncovered, the fate of the eggs was up to me. I rose and left them safely hidden. This is one of my last good memories of childhood.

Pinedale sits in the basin of the Upper Green River Basin, once rich in beaver and mink. In the late 1800s, it was a gathering place for trappers and bands of Shoshone, who would come out of their mountain hideaways each summer to revel and trade. For many years, Pinedale celebrated this “Rendezvous” with an annual pageant, billing it as “a must-see” reenactment of “the most romantic era of Wyoming history.” It included a fur trader wagon train; a pipe ceremony; a sun priest and pony dancers; the purchase of a Shoshone woman named Sweetgrass; and a horse race for blankets. Rendezvous weekend meant a lot of tourists, and a lot of drinking at the three bars in town, which all drew their names from our more cattled history: the Corral, the Cowboy and Stockman’s.

In the pageant, Carrie and I played Shoshone children, our hair spray-painted black, our skin colored a burnt umber. No one could do anything about our eyes, however, so those stayed bright blue behind the paint. Our job was to play around the teepees, where our mother and other women, similarly costumed, scraped hides in the sun. My mother’s new husband, Dave, played a mountain man. Dave was a short-tempered veteran of the Vietnam War, a chest-poker unamused by stepchildren. He took his trapper role seriously, grew his beard and hair out, wore beaded buckskin and a fur hat, carried a muzzleloader, a hatchet and a jug of whiskey. He rode through town wild-eyed on a dun horse, awesome and frightening, a man stuck in a myth. At the end of one of those drunken Rendezvous nights, Dave came home late to the trailer, stumbled down the hall — and turned into the room where Carrie slept.

I COME FROM A CULTURE OF TAKERS. No white male, certainly not from the American West, can claim otherwise. The takers flowed out of the Bronze Age, from riders of the Carpathian steppes of Eastern Europe, who put together the unbeatable combination of horse and wheel, who buried their warriors with their steeds, their chariots and their javelins. The takers spread as far as India, Europe and Scandinavia, to Vikings and the “Northmen” of what is now France. In 1066, these Normans invaded England and usurped the Anglo-Saxons, raiders named for their swords, who had ousted the Celts.

One sleepless night, I found online an old reference to my family name, from 1203 — a knight of the Norman Conquest. The first Calvert to settle in America sailed from England with two ships full of Catholics to found the state of Maryland, in 1634. He planted a cross and claimed the land in the name of his father, Lord Baltimore. When their descendent, my great-great-grandfather, came to Wyoming as a scout for the Army and the Union Pacific Railroad, he was the sharpened tip of that culture of conquest, the same culture that colonized and subjugated places I found myself in, decades later, as a journalist.

These takers are Marlow’s “conquerors” in Heart of Darkness: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” Indigenous people of South America call them “termites.” In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates calls them Dreamers: “Once, the Dreamers’ parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion, a plunder with no known precedent.”

Carrie’s abuse lasted years, until she left home, at the age of 14. Our family fell apart, a splintering that took decades to mend. Determined to become a different kind of man, I ran as far away as I could — to Cambodia and wars and sorrow that echoed my own. Carrie eventually made peace with things, but I held onto a deep sense of shame and anger.

What brought you here? This culture, these takers. My life’s history is tied to their system of plunder and its superstructure: a culture of greed and power; locomotives, interstates and Manifest Destiny; pavement and parking lots; extirpation and extinction; genocide, slavery, racism; combustion, warheads, oligarchs. The takers’ mentality runs through the environmental debate, too, and now we face the prospect of their bright-green vision, a dying world where humans have mastered, godlike, the technologies of dominion: massive solar arrays, geo-engineered shade, gleaming hydroponic cities and sweeping fields of mono-cultured soy — the output of a cultural algorithm that has been running thousands of years, a system of consumption and motion that will do anything to keep its wheels turning.

I descended the pine tree, saddened. But then I noticed the fresh green needles of the younger pines, which seemed to be the progeny of the giant. I picked up a dead branch, stripped a living one, bound them together with a sprig of holly, and returned to the group. I’m here, I told them, because I want to find a way to bring all that I’ve seen to bear on the ecological crisis. I just don’t know how.

ON THE THIRD MORNING of the retreat, we gathered on a grassy terrace below the farmhouse for a lesson in qigong. Qigong is a practice of movement and meditation that comes through Taoism and includes ideas of balance for well-being, between opposites, as symbolized by yin and yang, or between five elements: fire, earth, metal, water, wood. I had seen many practitioners of qigong over the years, in Beijing’s parks or along the Phnom Penh riverfront, as I stumbled home from a night of drinking. I had never tried it, the idea of power meridians and chakras being too much for me. Here in the mountains, though, barefoot on the dewy grass, sweeping my arms from side to side, I felt the pain of the previous day dissipate, replaced with calm.

There was something in the way the week was going, with its emphasis on quiet and connection, that I found helpful. But I was still having a hard time squaring my thoughts with Kingsnorth’s message and the Dark Mountain rationale. It wasn’t that I thought they were wrong; it just seemed like they were missing something, especially in Jeffers. A few weeks earlier, I’d called a Jeffers scholar at Minot State in North Dakota, ShaunAnne Tangney, who also studies the American West and apocalyptic literature. “I don’t see a good ‘but’ in the Dark Mountain Project, quite frankly,” she told me. “Jeffers played with the rise and fall of cultures, but there’s always something else that comes after for him. Humanity will fall, but nature is still here. From beginning to end, earliest to last, Jeffers has one constant, and that’s beauty.”

That thought stuck to me like a bur, all the way to Spain. If I was initially intrigued by the darkness in Jeffers’ poetry, I was coming around to his ideas on beauty. Helpful now, following my pine-tree reveries, was the realization that Jeffers’ art was a product of grief.

Jeffers had watched both his newborn daughter and his father die in 1914, the same year the Great War began. Not long after, he and his wife, Una, moved from Los Angeles to Northern California. In 1919, the couple bought land near Carmel, a place of pine and fog north of the roaring coast of Big Sur. They lived first in a drafty cabin, where they cut and burned eucalyptus and oak, redwood and pine, and which they filled with books on flowers, shells, birds and stars. The Jeffers liked their promontory, where cormorants and pelicans kept them company, along with the hawks that would become a central symbol in Jeffers’ work — marsh- and sparrow-, redtail, Cooper’s.

Despite the idyllic setting and the birth of twin boys in 1916, Jeffers remained in a state of despair. His poetry, he thought, was unoriginal, “doomed to go on imitating dead men,” even as a new movement of writers seemed to be “divorcing poetry from reason and ideas.” At the birth of the Modern Age, Jeffers was contemplating suicide.

The couple, meanwhile, had plans for a house made of granite and hired a stonemason to build it. A despairing Jeffers offered to help. Day by day, he hauled stones from the oceanfront and mixed mortar, slowly learning to fit each piece together. He found solace in the stones, in the waves and tides, in the work. At night, he walked to watch the stars. His younger brother, Hamilton, was an astronomer at the nearby Lick Observatory, and Jeffers liked to think about the earth and sea amid the swells of deep time, a universe of moons and planets, galaxies and novas.

By the time the house was done, along with a tower Jeffers built himself, he had transformed into an original artist and thinker. With the California Coast as a backdrop, Jeffers wrote poems that were compared to the works of Walt Whitman and Homer. One critic called his verse “as primitively American as the flintlock and the Maypole.”

By 1932, he was celebrated on the cover of Time, for elegant achievements in verse-craft and honest thought. He was popular for a time, but as his sons reached fighting age, Jeffers spoke out against World War II. His darker views of humanity earned him few fans, given the tide of American jingoism and the threat of Nazi Germany. The publisher of his 1948 collection, The Double Axe, included an objection to its “unpatriotic” content. His work lost favor with academic critics and faded from public view. He was left out of university anthologies. Jeffers died in 1962, aged 75, and somewhat forgotten — though not by everyone.

Jeffers’ works had an impact on Doug Tompkins, the billionaire conservationist and founder of North Face. In the early 1990s, Tompkins left the commercial world behind to live in Chile, at the Southern tip of the world, using his wealth to establish massive conservation programs. Tompkins died in a kayaking accident in December 2015, paddling a section of General Carrera Lake, high in the Andes. At the time of his death, he and his wife, Kris, had managed to preserve 2.2 million acres of land — a sanctuary across coastal fjords and endangered forests, supporting rare deer and wild pigs, pumas and jaguars, anteaters and macaws. His death was a huge loss not only to friends and family but to the wild places of the world. Tompkins had been a reader of Jeffers and was long been inspired by beauty, Jerry Mander, his friend and fellow co-founder of the Foundation for Deep Ecology, told me. “He would talk about beauty all the time.” Tompkins considered beauty itself a natural resource in need of legal protection, and beauty had been a primary force in his life beginning from his teenage years. “A lot of people talk about beauty, but he would talk about it as a cause itself,” Mander said. “That was his primary guiding force, to tell you the truth.”

I’d been thinking a lot about that conversation, and the idea of beauty in general, in Spain. Tompkins, who also knew Kingsnorth, was the epitome of Jeffers’ ethos. But was his work meaningful? And if so, was that only because of its scale? Or was dedication to that kind of beauty merely glorified withdrawal? Where does the establishment of a nature preserve in Patagonia fit with the murder of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, or the drowning of Syrian refugees in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, or the collateral damage of U.S. drone strikes?

At night in Kabul, awakened by nightmares, I’d stand on the roof and smoke, Scorpio shimmering over the dusty city. I’d try to put myself somewhere else in the world in relation to the stars, the mountains of Wyoming maybe. I could never do it. I was always overwhelmed, disoriented. When I’d had enough, I moved to California. I would surf in the mornings, watching the waves come in, undulating, gunmetal-gray, dolphins slipping beneath me like shades. I felt at peace there — and useless. I thought I should try environmental writing and a healthier way of living, but what I found was a new kind of grief. I’d run out of places to go. In taking a step back in Spain, however, I was starting to see a way through. Kingsnorth embraced Jeffers’ inhumanism, and Tompkins his ideas on beauty. But the immensity of the ecocide demands more. Our grief comes from the takers and their modern machine, which is one of violence and injury. If our sanity is to survive the ecocide, we must address these two pains in tandem: grief for the loss of things to come and the injustices that surround us.

We can do this through beauty and justice, which are closer together than they first appear.

Consider the portrait series by photographer Nick Bowers, “Scared Scientists.” In it, Bowers takes portraits of researchers as they are interviewed about their greatest fears. The result is a collection of images that captures the low-grade trauma many of us are experiencing. The greatest fear for Shauna Murray, a biological scientist at the University of Technology Sydney, for example, is “reaching four degrees (Celsius) of warming.” “At the moment, we’ve at least 10,000 different papers, completed over 20 years, each using different data sets, and they are all coming to the same climate change conclusions,” she says. “We’ve a weight of evidence that the average person is simply not aware of — and this frightens me. I’d like to think that we’re not going to reach the projected four degrees of warming this century; because I can’t even imagine what that would look like. Eighty years is not that long, and unless we act soon, my seven-year-old daughter will probably have to live through that.” Her portrait looks like something out of war photography: hair mussed, eyes wide in shock, mouth grimacing — a new class of soldier, one traumatized by computer models and visions of a frontline future unknown to most of us.

Bowers’ work bears witness to injury, not only to the scientists but to future generations. The series is a work of art that bends beauty toward justice, addressing grief with both. Likewise, when Coates establishes a relationship between injustice and exploitation of both people and nature, he is arguing for justice. However, he is also arguing for integrity, which is close to Jeffers’ ideal of beauty: “However ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand / Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history … for contemplation or in fact … / Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is / Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe.”

Perhaps, then, the way through the ecocide is through the pursuit of integrity, a duty toward rebalancing the whole, toward fairness, in both senses of the word. Elaine Scarry, a professor of aesthetics at Harvard University, describes this relationship in her book-length essay, On Beauty and Being Just. The word fair comes to us through Old English, fæger, which meant both pleasing to the sight and morally good. This is because beautiful things serve a specific purpose. They “give rise to the notion of distribution,” Scarry says, “to a lifesaving reciprocity, to fairness not just in the sense of loveliness of aspect but in the sense of ‘a symmetry of everyone’s relationship to one another.’ ” Beautiful things “act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space … letting the ground rotate beneath us several inches, so that when we land, we find we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before.”

The pursuit of beauty can create a form of justice, a healing of injury. When I allow my backyard to grow unchecked, when the un-mown lawn becomes a tangle of blade and seed, the garden a mess of roses, grapes and hollyhocks, I have created a refuge and put something to right, returning wild to the world that has been taken away elsewhere by violence, trespass or dominion. The benefactors are the sparrows and buntings, hummingbirds and butterflies, the praying mantises, hornets and bees, the black widow in the shed, the garter snake in the flowerbed. Conversely, the creation of beauty can come from advocates of justice. A human rights lawyer, a sanctuary church, protesters for women’s rights or science or both, demonstrations against police violence — these heal injury also, rebalance the whole, adding beauty to the world.

I am a decade shy of the age at which my mother died, less than a year after my grandfather’s suicide. One day my ashes will be scattered in the eroding mountains, and our civilization, like that of Ozymandias, crumble, and the Earth be swallowed by our dying red star. This is no cause for despair; it is a reminder to be meaningful, to be makers instead of takers, to be of service to something — beauty, justice, loved ones, strangers, lilacs, worms. This is what Jeffers, the poet laureate of the ecocide, has to teach us. He points the way, but we must go further, and we must do so while keeping a sense of perspective. In Spain I carried with me a handwritten note from James Karman, a Jeffers scholar and author who helped me greatly in my reporting. On it are the final lines of a poem called “Credo” and a favorite Jeffers’ insight: “The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heartbreaking beauty / Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.”

THE FINAL DAY OF THE RETREAT promised to be dismal. It had rained all night and through the dawn, sagging the tents and soaking the fields. This was our finale, the “wilderness solo,” and it was shaping up to be a sufferfest. In some sunnier moment, I and two other men had decided to range far from the farmhouse to a nearby crag. We slogged down old roads and footpaths, through muddy valleys and drizzling woods, as raindrops pounded our parka hoods. Climbing through brambles and mist, we broke at last from a stand of mountain pine at tree line. Just then the sun came out. Still silent, as instructed, we grinned and laughed and hugged.

My companions found their way to solo sites nearby. I scrambled a bit higher, to a flat section near the crag’s peak, where I found a soft, grassy spot between two boulders. I rigged my tarp, fluffed my bag and removed my wet shoes and socks. I sat back against a rock and stretched my toes and let the sun dry my face. I watched a crow for a while, and two hawks wheeling above a derelict stone keep. I took deep breaths, turned a smooth stone in my hand. From the valley came clamorous birdsong, from the mountains a chilly wind and wisps of fog. I took a swig of water, then closed my eyes and leaned my head back, feeling for the first time in a long time an emotion that might have been joy.

Which is probably why I didn’t notice the storm blow in — not until the first flash-bang of lightning and thunder. I jumped up to see dark clouds sweeping down valley, a thick, determined thunderstorm. From below the cliff rose the panicked bleating of wild goats. I considered going down. But this was the last day, and I wanted to make it count.

Fuck it, I thought at last. I’m doing qigong. I found a flat, smooth spot and stood there with my bare feet apart. I took a soft breath, sweeping my arms over my head and down. Rain lashed the mountaintop and spattered my face and lighting flashed in purple, splintered arcs. Sometimes it sparked sideways, sometimes straight down, flash after flash, followed by thunder. To the east, the moon rose over the wine-dark sea, breaking through the clouds as a giant bolt of lighting flashed below it. I laughed out loud. No one would believe this; no one would care. This moment was mine alone. I stood transfixed in the darkness, watching the storm and grinning like a lunatic, a tiny living part of a beautiful, heartbreaking world.


Brian Calvert is the editor-in-chief of High Country News.

This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) on July 24, 2017.

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.

Image: “SUBLIME: The L.A. River 3, 2015” by Elena Dorfman

Poems from Robinson Jeffers, The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt, Volume 2, 1928-1938. © 1938, renewed 1966 by Garth and Donnan Jeffers. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Stanford University Press, www.sup.org.

Why I’m bringing centuries-old ‘ghost ponds’ back to life

By Emily Alderton
File 20170713 12477 t9q3tx
Emily Alderton, Author provided

Over the past century half of the world’s ponds and wetlands have been destroyed, with many being filled in and turned into agricultural land. However, all is not lost, and it is possible to “resurrect” these buried habitats from the seeds and eggs stored within their historic sediments. A new conservation approach pioneered by the UCL Pond Restoration Research Group can restore aquatic habitats lost to the landscape for centuries.

Ponds can be extremely biodiverse. They support more aquatic species than any other freshwater habitat and provide important food sources for farmland birds and bats.

At the start of the 20th century there were an estimated 800,000 ponds in England and Wales – now, it is thought that fewer than a quarter of these remain. Similar levels of pond loss have occurred across farmland in Europe and North America, associated with increasing intensification of agriculture. Pond and hedgerow loss are often linked as hedges are uprooted and used to fill in ponds, before ploughing over the entire area.

A ghost pond in north Norfolk prior to resurrection.
Emily Alderton, Author provided

Many lost ponds leave behind a “ghostly” mark in the landscape – visible as damp depressions, areas of poor crop cover, or changes in soil colour. Colleagues and I have recently discovered that these buried “ghost ponds” are not completely lost, but can be resurrected from historic seeds lying dormant underneath intensively cultivated agricultural fields.

These ghosts are an abundant yet overlooked conservation resource. Resurrecting them would of course mean more ponds, which in turn links up aquatic landscapes as plants and animals jump from pond to pond and species are able to thrive in larger populations. But the main advantage of a ghost pond, compared to a new pond, is the historic seed bank buried below the surface. This provides a source of local native species, speeding up the process of colonisation, and potentially restoring lost populations or even locally extinct species to the resurrected pond.

We already knew that aquatic seeds were able to survive dormant for centuries within existing lakes and wetlands. Scientists recently tested 13 lakes in Russia, for instance, and found stoneworts (a keystone species in aquatic habitats), could grow from 300 year-old spores collected from lake sediments.

However, our recent paper, published in the journal Biological Conservation, is the first to demonstrate this astonishing survival ability within habitats which had been assumed lost to agriculture. In our study, we resurrected three ghost ponds in north Norfolk, eastern England. These ponds were similar in type, location and surrounding land use to the 8,000-plus ghost ponds buried across Norfolk and many more across the UK. While buried, ghost ponds are subject to the typical stresses of intensive agriculture (soil compaction, fertiliser and herbicide use), making the long-term survival of their aquatic seed banks particularly astonishing.

Our three study ponds had been buried for around 45, 50 and 150 years. Each was re-excavated down to the pond’s historic level, which was easily distinguished from the overlying topsoil by its dark colour, silty texture, and even its distinctive “pond smell”. This layer of sediment was left mostly undisturbed to provide the source of historic seeds and eggs within each pond.

The ‘resurrection’ of a ghost pond; a) First, a trench is dug to locate the historic pond b) aquatic and wetland plant seeds found in the historic sediment then rapidly colonise the pond c) one year after ‘resurrection’ Emily Alderton, Author provided

All three ghost ponds were colonised within six months by native plant species. In total, 12 species of aquatic plant colonised the ghost ponds and eight of these species proved to have originated from the seeds that had lain dormant below the ground. To check these plants really had grown from the ghostly remains of the previous pond, and hadn’t been carried in by the wind or seed-eating birds, we kept some of the historic sediment in sealed aquariums. There, even under controlled conditions, the same species still grew out of this centuries-old sediment.

Species recolonising from the historic seed bank included stoneworts, which are important for maintaining water quality but are increasingly threatened in farmland, and floating leaved pondweeds, which provide key habitat for dragonflies and damselflies. We also found crustaceans including Daphnia (water fleas), and copepods (tiny invertebrates which swim in a jumpy motion using their antennae), were able to hatch from eggs buried in the ghost pond sediment samples.

a & b) Stoneworts and broad leaved pondweed growing from 50-year old sediment c) A germinating rush seed, sieved from 150-year old sediment. Emily Alderton, Author provided

Although only common species were resurrected from the sediments of our three ghost ponds, these included seeds of all different sizes and types – from a variety of aquatic plant species. This suggests that a wide range of plants, including potentially rare or even locally extinct species, could potentially survive within the buried sediments of ghost ponds. The boost to recolonisation speed and diversity from the historic seed and egg bank may also reduce the risk of invasive species becoming established.

The ConversationGhost ponds represent abundant yet overlooked biological time capsules. Their restoration could facilitate the rapid return of wetland habitats and aquatic plants into the agricultural landscape. This process could play a significant role in reversing some of the habitat and biodiversity losses caused by the global disappearance of agricultural wetlands – and I urge conservationists to make use of this valuable yet hitherto little considered resource.


Emily_Alderton

Emily Alderton, PhD student in Aquatic Ecology, University College London (UCL)

“I have recently completed my PhD on ‘ghost ponds’ in the Environmental Change Research Centre (ECRC), University College London. My research focuses on the historic propagule banks buried within former ponds (in-filled for agricultural land consolidation), and the role they might play in the resurrection of these lost habitats. I previously completed my MSc in Aquatic Science at UCL, and my thesis was on the diet of Eurasian otters at a UK upland lake.”


This article was originally published on The Conversation under a Creative Commons License. Read the original article.

Op-Ed | Mike Pasner: Poison in the Water?

By Mike Pasner

poisoned_waterPENN VALLEY, Calif. June 26, 2017 – NID is registered with Nevada County agricultural department for use of 23 chemicals. That is 216.18 pounds and 4,665.01 gallons of materials in 2016. Since there are 62 delivery points, I am worried that the concentration at these delivery points is toxic to livestock, fish and wild animals.

There’s no way a mountain lion should be drinking aquatic algaecides once a month. No one wants to eat beef that drank aquatic algaecides once a month.

Cutrine and Nautique are the aquatic herbicides applied above my farm. Many of these algaecides are high in elemental copper. This mix can be hazardous to humans, domestic and wild animals and fish. I used to see fish and newts in our ditch, yet I haven’t for many years.

Roundup Custom is sprayed on the banks, berms, and water. This substance is labeled a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization and now by the EPA.

Nine of NID’s domestic water treatment plants are supplied by these conveyances.

None of these toxins makes it into my organic farm’s irrigation system! I’ve farmed in Penn Valley for 31 years. This treatment to kill algae occurs once a month for the six month irrigation season, April 15th – October 15th. For the first 28 years Nevada Irrigation District (NID) ditch tenders turned off my ditch box without fail on poison day. The last 3 years the liability to shut it off has been shifted wholly onto me.

The terrestrial herbicide used to kill weeds is sprayed on the banks, berms, and water. This treatment is done before and after irrigation season.

Nevada Irrigation District maintains 450 miles of raw water conveyance systems. 350 miles of this system is treated with aquatic and terrestrial herbicides.

I’m still in the process of assembling maps obtained by the public records act. It appears that approximately 50 miles of this 450 mile conveyance system are what NID calls “Randoms”. A Random is a natural creek.

Question: Is it legal to dump liquid herbicide into a natural creek?
Question: Are there enough weed blockages in a free flowing stream to mandate herbicides?

 

NID’s Mission Statement:

“The District will provide a dependable, quality water supply; continue to be good stewards of the watersheds, while conserving the available resources in our care.”

At a recent Maintenance and Resources meeting, I asked, “Wouldn’t a reduction in herbicide use be part of achieving this mission?” The answer was yes. In the 31 years I have farmed here I have not seen a reduction.

After attending these meetings for years I have come up with a workable fix. Resume cleaning the ditches with small excavators as needed. This was done annually for many years and only stopped 3 years ago. If the banks and berms need vegetation removal, goats are a good way to do it. I have presented this theory to NID management and employees for many years. The only response I have received is, “It isn’t financially viable.” I believe it is! When you eliminate, application equipment, human applicators, training, licensing, registrations, legal testing requirements, herbicides and liability, it becomes a viable option. The liability aspect of this plan has not been analyzed. This represents a huge tab never itemized by NID. The use of these highly toxic substances in water and on land has to have a large liability.

To wean NID off their herbicide use may take years. Like live streaming, it will only happen when a sufficient number of concerned rate and taxpayers make themselves heard.

Please lend support and stay in touch with this effort at safeditches@gmail.com.

The BOD meeting is Wednesday, June 28th, at 9:00 AM at NID’s main office. Live streaming video will finally be allowed on the agenda after a 4 month, very well publicized battle. Thank you Nevada Irrigation District, for hearing your constituency! Later, in this same BOD meeting, NID will adopt their new Vegetation Management Plan. Now is a good time to tell them your concerns.

People are 96% water. Shouldn’t we find alternatives to putting poison in water that is used by people, animals, and crops?

I am a local organic farmer, having lived here for 31 years. I’m not a chemist, a journalist, or a cartographer. When something is wrong, it’s wrong to not fix it!


Mike Pasner
Indian Springs Organic Farm

 

America Last: Will Trump Set a Record for the History Books?

By Tom Engelhardt
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com

In its own inside-out, upside-down way, it’s almost wondrous to behold. As befits our president’s wildest dreams, it may even prove to be a record for the ages, one for the history books. He was, after all, the candidate who sensed it first.  When those he was running against, like the rest of Washington’s politicians, were still insisting that the United States remained at the top of its game, not an — but the — “indispensable nation,” the only truly “exceptional” one on the face of the Earth, he said nothing of the sort.  He campaigned on America’s decline, on this country’s increasing lack of exceptionality, its potential dispensability.  He ran on the single word “again” — as in “make America great again” — because (the implication was) it just isn’t anymore.  And he swore that he and he alone was the best shot Americans, or at least non-immigrant white Americans, had at ever seeing the best of days again.

In that sense, he was our first declinist candidate for president and if that didn’t tell you something during the election season, it should have. No question about it, he hit a chord, rang a bell, because out in the heartland it was possible to sense a deepening reality that wasn’t evident in Washington.  The wealthiest country on the planet, the most militarily powerful in the history of… well, anybody, anywhere, anytime (or so we were repeatedly told)… couldn’t win a war, not even with the investment of trillions of taxpayer dollars, couldn’t do anything but spread chaos by force of arms.

Meanwhile, at home, despite all that wealth, despite billionaires galore, including the one running for president, despite the transnational corporate heaven inhabited by Google and Facebook and Apple and the rest of the crew, parts of this country and its infrastructure were starting to feel distinctly (to use a word from another universe) Third Worldish.  He sensed that, too.  He regularly said things like this: “We spent six trillion dollars in the Middle East, we got nothing… And we have an obsolete plane system. We have obsolete airports. We have obsolete trains. We have bad roads. Airports.”  And this: “Our airports are like from a third-world country.”  And on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, he couldn’t have been more on the mark.

In parts of the U.S., white working-class and middle-class Americans could sense that the future was no longer theirs, that their children would not have a shot at what they had had, that they themselves increasingly didn’t have a shot at what they had had.  The American Dream seemed to be gaining an almost nightmarish sheen, given that the real value of the average wage of a worker hadn’t increased since the 1970s; that the cost of a college education had gone through the roof and the educational debt burden for children with dreams of getting ahead was now staggering; that unions were cratering; that income inequality was at a historic high; and… well, you know the story, really you do.  In essence, for them the famed American Dream seemed ever more like someone else’s trademarked property.

Indispensable? Exceptional? This country? Not anymore. Not as they were experiencing it.

And because of that, Donald Trump won the lottery.  He answered the $64,000 question.  (If you’re not of a certain age, Google it, but believe me it’s a reference in our president’s memory book.)  He entered the Oval Office with almost 50% of the vote and a fervent base of support for his promised program of doing it all over again, 1950s-style.

It had been one hell of a pitch from the businessman billionaire.  He had promised a future of stratospheric terrificness, of greatness on an historic scale. He promised to keep the evil ones — the rapists, job thieves, and terrorists — away, to wall them out or toss them out or ban them from ever traveling here.  He also promised to set incredible records, as only a mega-businessman like him could conceivably do, the sort of all-American records this country hadn’t seen in a long, long time.

And early as it is in the Trump era, it seems as if, on one score at least, he could deliver something for the record books going back to the times when those recording the acts of rulers were still scratching them out in clay or wax. At this point, there’s at least a chance that Donald Trump might preside over the most precipitous decline of a truly dominant power in history, one only recently considered at the height of its glory.  It could prove to be a fall for the ages.  Admittedly, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, imploded in 1991, which was about the fastest way imaginable to leave the global stage.  Still, despite the “evil empire” talk of that era, the USSR was always the secondary, the weaker of the two superpowers.  It was never Rome, or Spain, or Great Britain.

When it comes to the United States, we’re talking about a country that not so long ago saw itself as the only great power left on planet Earth, “the lone superpower.”  It was the one still standing, triumphant, at the end of a history of great power rivalry that went back to a time when the wooden warships of various European states first broke out into a larger world and began to conquer it.  It stood by itself at, as its proponents liked to claim at the time, the end of history.

Applying Hard Power to a Failing World

As we watch, it seems almost possible to see President Trump, in real time, tweet by tweet, speech by speech, sword dance by sword dance, intervention by intervention, act by act, in the process of dismantling the system of global power — of “soft power,” in particular, and of alliances of every sort — by which the U.S. made its will felt, made itself a truly global hegemon.  Whether his “America first” policies are aimed at creating a future order of autocrats, or petro-states, or are nothing more than the expression of his libidinous urges and secret hatreds, he may already be succeeding in taking down that world order in record fashion.

Despite the mainstream pieties of the moment about the nature of the system Donald Trump appears to be dismantling in Europe and elsewhere, it was anything but either terribly “liberal” or particularly peaceable.  Wars, invasions, occupations, the undermining or overthrow of governments, brutal acts and conflicts of every sort succeeded one another in the years of American glory.  Past administrations in Washington had a notorious weakness for autocrats, just as Donald Trump does today.  They regularly had less than no respect for democracy if, from Iran to Guatemala to Chile, the will of the people seemed to stand in Washington’s way.  (It is, as Vladimir Putin has been only too happy to point out of late, an irony of our moment that the country that has undermined or overthrown or meddled in more electoral systems than any other is in a total snit over the possibility that one of its own elections was meddled with.)  To enforce their global system, Americans never shied away from torture, black sites, death squads, assassinations, and other grim practices.  In those years, the U.S. planted its military on close to 1,000 overseas military bases, garrisoning the planet as no other country ever had.

Nonetheless, the cancelling of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, threats against NAFTA, the undermining of NATO, the promise of protective tariffs on foreign goods (and the possible trade wars that might go with them) could go a long way toward dismantling the American global system of soft power and economic dominance as it has existed in these last decades.  If such acts and others like them prove effective in the months and years to come, they will leave only one kind of power in the American global quiver: hard military power, and its handmaiden, the kind of covert power Washington, through the CIA in particular, has long specialized in. If America’s alliances crack open and its soft power becomes too angry or edgy to pass for dominant power anymore, its massive machinery of destruction will still be left, including its vast nuclear arsenal.  While, in the Trump era, a drive to cut domestic spending of every sort is evident, more money is still slated to go to the military, already funded at levels not reached by combinations of other major powers.

Given the last 15 years of history, it’s not hard to imagine what’s likely to result from the further elevation of military power: disaster.  This is especially true because Donald Trump has appointed to key positions in his administration a crew of generals who spent the last decade and a half fighting America’s catastrophic wars across the Greater Middle East.  They are not only notoriously incapable of thinking outside the box about the application of military power, but faced with the crisis of failed wars and failing states, of spreading terror movements and a growing refugee crisis across that crucial region, they can evidently only imagine one solution to just about any problem: more of the same.  More troops, more mini-surges, more military trainers and advisers, more air strikes, more drone strikesmore.

After a decade and a half of such thinking we already know perfectly well where this ends — in further failure, more chaos and suffering, but above all in an inability of the U.S. to effectively apply its hard power anywhere in any way that doesn’t make matters worse.  Since, in addition, the Trump administration is filled with Iranophobes, including a president who has only recently fused himself to the Saudi royal family in an attempt to further isolate and undermine Iran, the possibility that a military-first version of American foreign policy will spread further is only growing.

Such “more” thinking is typical as well of much of the rest of the cast of characters now in key positions in the Trump administration. Take the CIA, for instance.  Under its new director, Mike Pompeo (distinctly a “more” kind of guy and an Iranophobe of the first order), two key positions have reportedly been filled: a new chief of counterterrorism and a new head of Iran operations (recently identified as Michael D’Andrea, an Agency hardliner with the nickname “the Dark Prince”).  Here’s how Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman of the New York Times recently described their similar approaches to their jobs (my emphasis added):

“Mr. D’Andrea’s new role is one of a number of moves inside the spy agency that signal a more muscular approach to covert operations under the leadership of Mike Pompeo, the conservative Republican and former congressman, the officials said. The agency also recently named a new chief of counterterrorism, who has begun pushing for greater latitude to strike militants.”

In other words, more!

Rest assured of one thing, whatever Donald Trump accomplishes in the way of dismantling America’s version of soft power, “his” generals and intelligence operatives will handle the hard-power part of the equation just as “ably.”

The First American Laster?

If a Trump presidency achieves a record for the ages when it comes to the precipitous decline of the American global system, little as The Donald ever cares to share credit for anything, he will undoubtedly have to share it for such an achievement.  It’s true that kings, emperors, and autocrats, the top dogs of any moment, prefer to take all the credit for the “records” set in their time.  When we look back, however, it’s likely that President Trump will be seen as having given a tottering system that necessary push.  It will undoubtedly be clear enough by then that the U.S., seemingly at the height of any power’s power in 1991 when the Soviet Union disappeared, began heading for the exits soon thereafter, still enwreathed in self-congratulation and triumphalism.

Had this not been so, Donald Trump would never have won the 2016 election.  It wasn’t he, after all, who gave the U.S. heartland an increasingly Third World feel.  It wasn’t he who spent those trillions of dollars so disastrously on invasions and occupations, dead-end wars, drone strikes and special ops raids, reconstruction and deconstruction in a never-ending war on terror that today looks more like a war for the spread of terror.  It wasn’t he who created the growing inequality gap in this country or produced all those billionaires amid a population that increasingly felt left in the lurch.  It wasn’t he who hiked college tuitions or increased the debt levels of the young or set roads and bridges to crumbling and created the conditions for Third World-style airports.

If both the American global and domestic systems hadn’t been rotting out before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, that “again” of his wouldn’t have worked.  Thought of another way, when the U.S. was truly at the height of its economic clout and power, American leaders felt no need to speak incessantly of how “indispensable” or “exceptional” the country was.  It seemed too self-evident to mention. Someday, some historian may use those very words in the mouths of American presidents and other politicians (and their claims, for instance, that the U.S. military was “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known”) as a set of increasingly defensive markers for measuring the decline of American power.

So here’s the question: When the Trump years (months?) come to an end, will the U.S. be not the planet’s most exceptional land, but a pariah nation?  Will that “again” still be the story of the year, the decade, the century? Will the last American Firster turn out to have been the first American Laster?  Will it truly be one for the record books?


 

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Tom Engelhardt

 

California’s rain may shed light on new questions about what causes earthquakes

Reprinted from The Conversation

California is particularly earthquake-prone, hosting the great San Andreas fault zone. wlscience/flickr, CC BY-SA

 

In recent weeks, California has experienced unusually heavy rainfall. California is also earthquake-prone, hosting the great San Andreas fault zone.

If there is an unusual surge of earthquakes in the near future – allowing time for the rain to percolate deep into faults – California may well become an interesting laboratory to study possible connections between weather and earthquakes. The effect is likely to be subtle and will require sophisticated computer modeling and statistical analysis.

Earthquakes are triggered by a tiny additional increment of stress added to a fault already loaded almost to breaking point. Many natural processes can provide this tiny increment of stress, including the movement of plate tectonics, a melting icecap, and even human activities.

For example, injecting water into boreholes – either for waste disposal or to drive residual oil out of depleted reservoirs – is particularly likely to trigger earthquakes.

This is because water pressure in the fault zone is important in controlling when a geological fault slips. Fault zones invariably contain groundwater, and if the pressure of this water increases, the fault may become “unclamped.” The two sides are then free to slip past each other, causing an earthquake.

Hydrological changes do not need to be sudden or large to change the water pressure in a fault zone. As aquifers are depleted for irrigation, the water table slowly drops, which may also trigger earthquakes. It is thus unsurprising that extreme rainfall events might also encourage earthquakes. A number of instances of this have been flagged by scientists. For example, swarms of earthquakes in 2002 followed intense rainfall around Mt. Hochstaufen in Germany and the Muotatal and Riemenstalden regions of Switzerland.

Any study of the relationship between weather and earthquakes is likely to take time, and the results to be controversial. In the meantime, now is a good time to check that your gas heater is earthquake-secure and your emergency drinking water is fresh. After all, a “big one” could come at any time.

Triggering earthquakes

People knew we could induce earthquakes before we knew what they were. As soon as people started to dig minerals out of the ground, rockfalls and tunnel collapses must have become recognized hazards.

Today, earthquakes caused by humans occur on a much greater scale. Events over the last century have shown mining is just one of many industrial activities that can induce earthquakes large enough to cause significant damage and death. Filling of water reservoirs behind dams, extraction of oil and gas, and geothermal energy production are just a few of the modern industrial activities shown to induce earthquakes.

As more and more types of industrial activity were recognized to be potentially seismogenic, the Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij BV, an oil and gas company based in the Netherlands, commissioned us to conduct a comprehensive global review of all human-induced earthquakes.

Our work assembled a rich picture from the hundreds of jigsaw pieces scattered throughout the national and international scientific literature of many nations. The sheer breadth of industrial activity we found to be potentially seismogenic came as a surprise to many scientists. As the scale of industry grows, the problem of induced earthquakes is increasing also.

In addition, we found that, because small earthquakes can trigger larger ones, industrial activity has the potential, on rare occasions, to induce extremely large, damaging events.

How humans induce earthquakes

As part of our review we assembled a database of cases that is, to our knowledge, the fullest drawn up to date. In January, we released this database publicly. We hope it will inform citizens about the subject and stimulate scientific research into how to manage this very new challenge to human ingenuity.

Our survey showed mining-related activity accounts for the largest number of cases in our database.

Initially, mining technology was primitive. Mines were small and relatively shallow. Collapse events would have been minor – though this might have been little comfort to anyone caught in one.

But modern mines exist on a totally different scale. Precious minerals are extracted from mines that may be over two miles deep or extend several miles offshore under the oceans. The total amount of rock removed by mining worldwide now amounts to several tens of billions of tons per year. That’s double what it was 15 years ago – and it’s set to double again over the next 15. Meanwhile, much of the coal that fuels the world’s industry has already been exhausted from shallow layers, and mines must become bigger and deeper to satisfy demand.

As mines expand, mining-related earthquakes become bigger and more frequent. Damage and fatalities, too, scale up. Hundreds of deaths have occurred in coal and mineral mines over the last few decades as a result of earthquakes up to magnitude 6.1 that have been induced.

Other activities that might induce earthquakes include the erection of heavy superstructures. The 700-megaton Taipei 101 building, raised in Taiwan in the 1990s, was blamed for the increasing frequency and size of nearby earthquakes.

Since the early 20th century, it has been clear that filling large water reservoirs can induce potentially dangerous earthquakes. This came into tragic focus in 1967 when, just five years after the 32-mile-long Koyna reservoir in west India was filled, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck, killing at least 180 people and damaging the dam.

Throughout the following decades, ongoing cyclic earthquake activity accompanied rises and falls in the annual reservoir-level cycle. An earthquake larger than magnitude 5 occurs there on average every four years. Our report found that, to date, some 170 reservoirs the world over have reportedly induced earthquake activity.

The production of oil and gas was implicated in several destructive earthquakes in the magnitude 6 range in California. This industry is becoming increasingly seismogenic as oil and gas fields become depleted. In such fields, in addition to mass removal by production, fluids are also injected to flush out the last of the hydrocarbons and to dispose of the large quantities of salt water that accompany production in expiring fields.

A relatively new technology in oil and gas is shale-gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which by its very nature generates small earthquakes as the rock fractures. Occasionally, this can lead to a larger-magnitude earthquake if the injected fluids leak into a fault that is already stressed by geological processes.

The largest fracking-related earthquake that has so far been reported occurred in Canada, with a magnitude of 4.6. In Oklahoma, multiple processes are underway simultaneously, including oil and gas production, wastewater disposal and fracking. There, earthquakes as large as magnitude 5.7 have rattled skyscrapers that were erected long before such seismicity was expected. If such an earthquake is induced in Europe in the future, it could be felt in the capital cities of several nations.

Our research shows that production of geothermal steam and water has been associated with earthquakes up to magnitude 6.6 in the Cerro Prieto Field, Mexico. Geothermal energy is not renewable by natural processes on the timescale of a human lifetime, so water must be reinjected underground to ensure a continuous supply. This process appears to be even more seismogenic than production. There are numerous examples of earthquake swarms accompanying water injection into boreholes, such as at The Geysers, California.

Other materials pumped underground, including carbon dioxide and natural gas, also cause seismic activity. A recent project to store 25 percent of Spain’s natural gas requirements in an old, abandoned offshore oilfield resulted in the immediate onset of vigorous earthquake activity with events up to magnitude 4.3. The threat that this posed to public safety necessitated abandonment of this US$1.8 billion project.

What this means for the future

Nowadays, earthquakes induced by large industrial projects no longer meet with surprise or even denial. On the contrary, when an event occurs, the tendency may be to look for an industrial project to blame. In 2008, an earthquake in the magnitude 8 range struck Ngawa Prefecture, China, killing about 90,000 people, devastating over 100 towns, and collapsing houses, roads and bridges. Attention quickly turned to the nearby Zipingpu Dam, whose reservoir had been filled just a few months previously, although the link between the earthquake and the reservoir has yet to be proven.

The minimum amount of stress loading scientists think is needed to induce earthquakes is creeping steadily downward. The great Three Gorges Dam in China, which now impounds 10 cubic miles of water, has already been associated with earthquakes as large as magnitude 4.6 and is under careful surveillance.

Scientists are now presented with some exciting challenges. Earthquakes can produce a “butterfly effect”: Small changes can have a large impact. Thus, not only can a plethora of human activities load Earth’s crust with stress, but just tiny additions can become the last straw that breaks the camel’s back, precipitating great earthquakes that release the accumulated stress loaded onto geological faults by centuries of geological processes. Whether or when that stress would have been released naturally in an earthquake is a challenging question.

An earthquake in the magnitude 5 range releases as much energy as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. A earthquake in the magnitude 7 range releases as much energy as the largest nuclear weapon ever tested, the Tsar Bomba test conducted by the Soviet Union in 1961. The risk of inducing such earthquakes is extremely small, but the consequences if it were to happen are extremely large. This poses a health and safety issue that may be unique in industry for the maximum size of disaster that could, in theory, occur. However, rare and devastating earthquakes are a fact of life on our dynamic planet, regardless of whether or not there is human activity.

Our work suggests that the only evidence-based way to limit the size of potential earthquakes may be to limit the scale of the projects themselves. In practice, this would mean smaller mines and reservoirs, less minerals, oil and gas extracted from fields, shallower boreholes and smaller volumes injected. A balance must be struck between the growing need for energy and resources and the level of risk that is acceptable in every individual project.

The Massive Clearcutting Above Lake Oroville Can’t Help

By Don Pelton

After sending a few friends a link to a good SacBee article today about the stressed reservoirs in the Feather River watershed above Lake Oroville, one of my friends called my attention to the extensive clearcutting in lands surrounding some of Lake Oroville’s feeder streams up to the southeast of Lake Oroville, all visible in Google Earth (see snapshot below).

Here’s the very informative SacBee article:

Reservoirs feeding Lake Oroville are filled to brim as more rain rolls in

And here’s a snapshot I took a few minutes ago, using Google Earth, showing some of these same areas of the watershed to the east of Lake Oroville, including feeder streams into the Lake.

Clearcutting prevents sequestration of the rainwater and accelerates the runoff, carrying precious soil with it. All of which adds to the already considerable burden on Lake Oroville.

In this snapshot, the light-colored speckled patches upstream from Lake Oroville (clearcut areas) are conspicuous:

Massive_Clearcutting_Above_Lake_Oroville

 

Talk: “Implementing Youth-Led Citizen Science Through Plant Phenology”

Sierrs_Science_February_21__2017

Event Details

The Sierra Science Lecture Series at the Nevada County Campus welcomes Kelly Santos in a presentation titled, Implementing Youth-Led Citizen Science Through Plant Phenology. The presentation will be held on Tuesday evening, February 21, from 6:30 – 7:30 pm, in the Multipurpose Center, building, N-12. Come early and enjoy a meet-and-greet and refreshments at 6:00 pm.

Kelly will discuss phenology, the study of when things appear in nature and the influence of seasonal changes and climate change. She will present a citizen science plant phenology project led by the Sierra Streams Institute Education Program that they implemented in two local high schools. Students contributed as citizen-scientists to a national phenological dataset and analyzed and interpreted data to discern long term trends. Come learn about this amazing project, the available curriculum, and find out the many ways to become a citizen scientist!

About our presenter:

Kelly Santos works as an education program Co-Director for Sierra StreamsSierrs_Science_February_21__2017_Kelly_Santos Institute. Kelly was raised in Irvine, CA, and graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a B.S. in Marine Biology. She brings extensive laboratory, field, and teaching experience to Sierra Streams Institute. In the past, she has worked and volunteered with the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, UC Santa Cruz, Michigan State University, Tahoe Resource Conservation District, as well as Pretoma and Centro de Educación Creativa in Costa Rica. These various positions have taken her from the depths of the kelp forest to lakes in the high sierra and allowed her the opportunity to work among scientists, teachers, environmental managers, and students. In her free time she enjoys exploring the Sierra, cooking, and making photographs.


This presentation is free, and the public is welcome and encouraged to attend. The Nevada County Campus is located at 250 Sierra College Drive, Grass Valley, CA 95945. Parking is $3 on campus and permits can be purchased at the kiosk machine at the main entrance to the campus. For more information about this presentation and others in this series, contact the series coordinator, Jason Giuliani at: jgiuliani@sierracollege.edu.

Sponsored by: NCC Sierra Science Series, Sierra Streams Institute

State Was Warned in 2005 About Inadequacy of Emergency Spillway

Oroville_Dam_SpillwayFrom the OrovilleMR:

“More than a decade ago, federal and state officials and some of California’s largest water agencies rejected concerns that Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway — at risk of collapse Sunday night and prompting the evacuation of 130,000 people — could erode during heavy winter rains and cause a catastrophe.

“Three environmental groups — the Friends of the River, the Sierra Club and the South Yuba Citizens League — filed a motion with the federal government on Oct. 17, 2005, as part of Oroville Dam’s relicensing process, urging federal officials to require that the dam’s emergency spillway be armored with concrete, rather than remain as an earthen hillside.

“The groups filed the motion with FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. They said that the dam, built and owned by the state of California, and finished in 1968, did not meet modern safety standards because in the event of extreme rain and flooding, fast-rising water would overwhelm the main concrete spillway, then flow down the emergency spillway, and that could cause heavy erosion that would create flooding for communities downstream, but also could cause a failure, known as “loss of crest control.”

Read the full article here.

Climate Impacts: Melting Glaciers, Shifting Biomes and Dying Trees in US National Parks

By Patrick Gonzalez, National Park Service Trees are dying across Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks. Glaciers are melting in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Corals are bleaching in Virgin Islands National Park. Published field research conducted in U.S. national parks has detected these changes and shown that human climate change – carbon pollution… [Read more]

Gimme a Break! IRS Tax Loophole Can Reward Excessive Water Use in Drought-stricken West

By Abrahm Lustgarten (Reprinted with permission from ProPublica)

ProPublica’s reporting on the water crisis in the American West has highlighted any number of confounding contradictions worsening the problem: Farmers are encouraged to waste water so as to protect their legal rights to its dwindling supply in the years ahead; Las Vegas sought to impose restrictions on water use while placing no checks on its explosive population growth; the federal government has encouraged farmers to improve efficiency in watering crops, but continues to subsidize the growing of thirsty crops such as cotton in desert states like Arizona.

Today, we offer another installment in the contradictions amid a crisis.

In parts of the western U.S., wracked by historic drought, you can get a tax break for using an abundance of water.

That’s a typo, right? A joke?

Ah, no. But we understand your bafflement. The Colorado River has been trickling, its largest reservoirs less than half full. As recently as 2014 parts of Texas literally almost dried up. The National Academy of Sciences predicts the Southwest may be on the cusp of its worst dry spell in 1,000 years. Scientists are warning that the backup plan — groundwater aquifers from California to Nebraska — are all being sucked dry.

But, yes, the tax break exists — in parts of eight High Plains states.

Here’s how it works: Farmers — or anyone who uses water in a business — can ask the Internal Revenue Service for a tax write-off for what’s called a “depleted asset.” In certain places, water counts as an asset, just like oil, or minerals like copper. The more water gets used, the more cash credit farmers can claim against their income tax. And that’s just what almost 3,000 Texas landowners in just one water district appear to have done last year — a year in which nearly half of Texas was in a state of “severe” or “extreme” drought.”

Yikes. How much can they write off?

A bunch it seems, especially if you’re a big farm and own a lot of land. We talked to an accountant in Levelland, Texas. He had a client who wrote off $10,000. “Whenever you buy land, you’re getting the dirt … and of course you are getting the water,” said Sham Myatt, the accountant. And the idea is that that water is part of what you paid for in the land deal. If the aquifer was 50 feet deep at the time of the land sale, and it drops 10 feet in a dry year, then the farmer can deduct one-fifth of the value, and so on, until all the water is gone.

That’s not going to do much to conserve water, is it?

No. It’s not. In fact it’s an incentive to do the exact opposite. A farmer who tries to use less water because of the drought, say, by switching to really efficient irrigation techniques, could actually make less money. His water might last longer, but producing his crop would get a lot more expensive.

We called Nicholas Brozovic, an associate professor of agricultural economics and director of policy at the University of Nebraska’s Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute. He’d actually never heard of the water deduction; it’s that obscure. But he laid out some textbook economics: If you’re overusing your water, then you are depreciating it, he said. And if the government pays for that, they are subsidizing that depreciation. “The more you deplete your groundwater, the higher your tax exemption and that must create an incentive not to conserve,” he said.

Hasn’t the federal government spent billions subsidizing conservation and the protection of the West’s groundwater, in part by building dams and encouraging people to use the water in rivers instead? Why would they forfeit federal tax dollars to do the opposite?

We called the IRS, and they initially shared our doubts. Not because they cared much about groundwater (it’s a tax agency!) but because they said they were pretty sure no such deduction was legal. They pointed us to section 613 of the tax code, and it couldn’t be more explicit: For the purposes of deducting the depreciating value of minerals, the definition “does not include soil, sod, dirt, turf, water, or mosses.” Ok, who would ever have thought of deducting mosses or sod? But anyway. That left us really confused.

Right, there were, after all, those farmers in Texas who seemed to have benefited from what the IRS said was not possible.

We encouraged the IRS to check again. They did. And then they found the provision they thought didn’t exist — right there in the text for Revenue Rule 65–296. An IRS spokesperson laid out for us the specifics: “Taxpayers are entitled to a cost depletion deduction for the exhaustion of their capital investment in the ground water extracted and disposed of by them in their business of irrigation farming specifically from the Ogallala Formation.”

Seems like some follow-up questions were in order.

For sure. We asked for clarification. The IRS said it would try to explain. Most importantly, they wanted to say it wasn’t quite as crazy as it sounded. The deduction is only available for one small part of the country — an area that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado. And it should only apply if people are using water from a source that is running dry anyway.

But wait, what? You get a break when you use resources that are already in danger of vanishing?

Yes, that’s why it is what’s called a depleted asset. It’s of less and less value with every day. Your car is worth less the moment you drive it off the lot. Or, more similarly, oil companies track the falling value of their reserves the more they pump out from underground. In fact, energy companies have been taking oil depletion breaks for decades. Texas landowners would say their property is getting less valuable the less water there is to use on it.

Okay, okay, but water isn’t oil. It’s not a commodity. Access to it is a basic right. Yes? Please say that’s right.

Wrong. Ouch. I know, it hurts. But ProPublica last year wrote about all the ways water is coveted and controlled — and then often wasted — by just a few powerful groups. In most of the West, only some people and businesses have rights to it, depending on who showed up to claim it first. One big trend is that water is increasingly being bought and sold — including by hedge funds and big Wall Street investors, and the less water there is, the more the price is going up.

That’s a little scary. Let’s get back to depleted assets. So when did this tax break start?

About 50 years ago. A farmer in the Texas panhandle — along with his local water district — successfully sued the IRS, arguing that the roughly 200 million gallons he drew from his groundwater each year was no different than the depletion of the state’s other great natural resource, oil. He won, and the IRS was obliged to create rule 65–296 — the special allowance for tax credits that the IRS almost forgot about.

Again, it was supposed to be limited — just to a slice of Texas and eastern New Mexico. The court even went so far as to warn that the case shouldn’t become a precedent for groundwater tax claims elsewhere, saying the conditions in that area of the country were unique. But it didn’t take long for the rule to be expanded, albeit just a little bit. By the mid 1980’s any landowner overlying the sprawling Ogallala aquifer — a giant underground vault of precious but dwindling water — was eligible to file for the deductions, not just in North Texas and New Mexico.

That still doesn’t sound like much of a big deal … why does it matter?

Well, the Ogallala, which spans from central Texas north to Nebraska and South Dakota is the nation’s largest groundwater reserve and is one of the most important, and (famously) threatened water supplies in the country. Its heavy overuse and plummeting water levels rang alarms among policymakers more than half a century ago. So this is no insignificant place to be even indirectly encouraging overuse. Texas’ High Plains are one of the most intensely irrigated and productive farming regions in the country. Hundreds of thousands of acres of cotton and corn, among other staple commodities, are grown there using this Ogallala water.

So, do we know what’s happening to the Ogallala where all this farming is taking place?

We looked at recent water level changes in just one district — the one with thousands of tax credit claims — and found a disturbing trend. Underground water levels in the 16 counties of the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District have dropped nearly 10 feet over the last 10 years. Some parts of Castro County saw water levels drop more than five feet over the course of 2015 alone. The federal government estimates nearly 100 cubic miles of water have been withdrawn from the Ogallala in that part of Texas. That doesn’t automatically mean the tax credits are responsible — water levels are dropping in most places thanks to overuse and it would take a lot more research to link up the cause and effect. But it certainly isn’t a portrait of sustainability.

Aquifers are at risk across Arizona, California and other states as well, right? At least people can’t claim tax breaks there?

Not yet. But that could change, as water supplies worsen and word of the tax break circulates more widely. Almost no one we spoke with had heard of it — not water lawyers in Arizona or groundwater conservation scientists in California. Armed with the knowledge, there’s a pretty good chance farmers and businesses across the West could seek tax relief.

Because there is precedent?

Exactly.

What does the IRS say to that?

They say it’s very unlikely, mostly because they think the conditions in the Ogallala are rare, and that the agency’s policy is to reject water allowance claims anywhere outside of the places covered in the original lawsuit. But if more landowners, in more places, were to file suits challenging the IRS to allow them to deduct for their water, or if they were to petition the IRS directly, the agency says it would undertake a review to consider it on a case by case basis. Landowners would have to present extensive scientific evidence that showed their situation was more or less the same as in North Texas.

Is the IRS equipped to make such judgments?

Fair question. John Leshy, professor emeritus at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, and a former solicitor for the U.S. Department of Interior, isn’t persuaded. “The IRS has really created a can of worms for itself,” he said. “It doesn’t have any hydrological expertise.”

Hmmm. Not ideal. But what’s the bottom line? Are these tax breaks going to make any real difference in how quickly we use up the water supply?

It’s hard to tell, partly because no one appears to have examined that question. We asked the IRS for data on the number of claims and it hasn’t responded. Folks in Texas dismiss the suggestion that the tax benefits are incentivizing water use as ludicrous. Myatt, the accountant, points out that only about one-third of the deducted value translates to cash in hand, and says for many smaller farmers that amounts to just a few hundred dollars. Jason Coleman, manager of the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, says his members are as concerned about conserving their water for the future as anyone. “Its already a declining resource,” he said. “I just can’t imagine someone saying I’m going to depreciate our resource any more because of a tax claim.”

But the academic consensus is that incentives encourage use, even overuse. And if the effect of depletion allowances on oil production are any guide — Leshy says they have spurred overproduction and led to artificially cheap, subsidized fuel prices — any significant expansion of the groundwater tax credit to other states could have lasting impacts on the way groundwater is used across the country.

So is anyone trying to do anything about this?

Not really, which is why people like Brent Blackwelder, president emeritus of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which has long been involved in rooting out tax policy disincentives to conservation, are fuming. “It’s a pretty major outrage that we would so stupidly reward the over extraction and non-sustainable use of groundwater,” he told me. Blackwelder helped push to purge the tax code of perverse anti-conservation incentives like this one way back in the Reagan administration, with the 1986 Tax Reform Act. They were largely successful, weeding out several other odd loopholes. But the groundwater depletion allowance persisted. And since then, apparently, it’s been forgotten about by all but the farmers who rely on it.


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