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Sunday, December 20, 2009

THE SCIENCE OF UNDERSTANDING CONSEQUENCES

LIVING WITHIN OUR PHYSICAL MEANS

I was reading Frank Herbert’s semi-autobiography THE MAKER OF DUNE today, and I ran across a quote today that really rings true - even if it was written back in 1962: "Ecology is the science of understanding consequences".

That’s pretty profound, isn’t it?

Ecology, of course, is big news and big business these days. Everybody is concerned with greenhouse gases and carbon footprints, with a shrinking agricultural imperative and less and less food to feed more and more people, global warming which is going on even as I write this, with the fundies and the conservatives telling everybody loudly that there is no such thing, we’re all delusional and it doesn’t matter anyhow, because the technology isn’t in synch with the needs of emerging cultures, and so on and so forth. What I wonder about, sometimes, is pretty simple: Does this generation of Americans have the "right stuff" to meet the epic challenges of sustaining life on a rapidly warming planet?

Sure, the mainstream media are full of talk about carbon credits, hybrid cars, and smart urbanism - but even so, our environmental footprints are actually growing larger, not smaller. I mean, look at the way that we live now, for a horrid example. The typical new U.S. home, for instance, is 40 percent larger than that of 25 years ago, even though the average household has fewer people. In that same period, dinosaur-like SUVs (now 50 percent of all private vehicles) have taken over the freeways, while the amount of retail space per capita (an indirect but reliable measure of consumption) has quadrupled. So, are we ever going to wise up, grow up and start really trying to solve our problems instead of just talking about them?

Too many of us talk green but lead supersized lifestyles, giving fodder to the conservative cynics who write columns about Al Gore's electricity bills (which, since most of the electricity that the Gore family uses is 100% renewable energy, when it’s not manufactured right there on his property by windmills and solar panels, pretty much renders that particular argument moot). Our culture appears hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels, shopping sprees, suburban sprawl, and beef-centered diets. WILL Americans ever voluntarily give up their SUVs, McMansions, McDonald's, and lawns? I wondered about that, so I did some research, and the answers absolutely astounded me.

Here’s what I found out (Thanks to TruthOut.org, in an article written by Mike Davis entitled HOME-FRONT ECOLOGY, first published in the Sierra Club Magazine July/August 2007 Issue): “The surprisingly hopeful answer lies in living memory. In the 1940s, Americans simultaneously battled fascism overseas and waste at home. My parents, their neighbors, and millions of others left cars at home to ride bikes to work, tore up their front yards to plant cabbage, recycled toothpaste tubes and cooking grease, volunteered at daycare centers and USOs, shared their houses and dinners with strangers, and conscientiously attempted to reduce unnecessary consumption and waste. The World War II home front was the most important and broadly participatory green experiment in U.S. history. Lessing Rosenwald, the chief of the Bureau of Industrial Conservation, called on Americans "to change from an economy of waste - and this country has been notorious for waste - to an economy of conservation." A majority of civilians, some reluctantly but many others enthusiastically, answered the call.

The most famous symbol of this wartime conservation ethos was the victory garden. Originally promoted by the Wilson administration to combat the food shortages of World War I, household and communal kitchen gardens had been revived by the early New Deal as a subsistence strategy for the unemployed. After Pearl Harbor, a groundswell of popular enthusiasm swept aside the skepticism of some Department of Agriculture officials and made the victory garden the centerpiece of the national "Food Fights for Freedom" campaign. Although suburban and rural gardens were larger and usually more productive, some of the most dedicated gardeners were inner-city children. With the participation of the Boy Scouts, trade unions, and settlement houses, thousands of ugly, trash-strewn vacant lots in major industrial cities were turned into neighborhood gardens that gave tenement kids the pride of being self-sufficient urban farmers. In Chicago, 400,000 schoolchildren enlisted in the "Clean Up for Victory" campaign, which salvaged als scrap for industry as well as cleared lots for gardens.

Victory gardening transcended the need to supplement the wartime food supply and grew into a spontaneous vision of urban greenness (even if that concept didn't yet exist) and self-reliance. In Los Angeles, flowers ("a builder of citizen morale") were included in the "Clean-Paint-Plant" program to transform the city's vacant spaces, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden taught the principles of "garden culture" to local schoolteachers and thousands of their enthusiastic students.”

Ok, so why aren’t we doing all of this now? Acutally, we are, thanks to the economic climate, and the appalling loss of jobs here in this country At least, some of it is being done. The “Cash for Clunkers” program is a wonderful example of ecological concerns in action.

Problem is, most of the other approaches that are being tried are brute-force approaches, and that’s not the best way to do something about the ecology. Y’see, gangers, it doesn’t matter when this particular approach is made, or when or by whom: IT DOESN’T WORK. It doesn’t work in our approach to living our lives without considering ecology. It doesn’t work because the ecology isn’t just one single problem, it’s a group of interconnected ones that start out with the culture that you live in, and go forward, backwards, sideways, up and down in 360 degrees of difference, and never the same way twice. You can’t clean up the earth without first cleaning up the industries that are poisoning that earth, you can’t clean up the water without cleaning up the aquifers, which means cleaning up the industries which are poisoning the earth where the aquifers are, you can’t clean up the air . . . etc, etc, etc.

In other words, it’s a whole-system problem, and it’s a cultural whole-system one. It includes, but is not limited to population processes, including reproductive behavior, mortality, bioenergetics and migrations, biomagnification, interspecific interactions such as predation, competition, parasitism and mutualism, plant and animal community structures and their function and resilience, and biogeochemical cycling. Because of its vast scope, ecological science is often closely related to other disciplines. So, this means that molecular ecology addresses ecological questions using tools from genetics, paleoecology uses tools from archeology, and theoretical ecologists use often highly complex mathematical models to explore how ecosystems and their elements function.

Confusing, ain’t it?

Aside from pure scientific inquiry, ecology is also a highly applied science. About 90% of natural resource management, like forestry, fisheries, wildlife management and habitat conservation to name just a few, is directly related to ecological sciences and many problems in agriculture, urban development and public health are informed by ecological considerations. The ecology in Yellowstone, for example, has balanced out with one small change: the re-introduction of wolves into the park. That’s it. That’s all.

So, why is this important to us?

Balance. One word. One concept. Balance. That’s something that all primitive people practiced, and it’s something that we have completely forgotten in our selfish rush to consume everything in our paths, with no thought of the consequences.

Balance. This is the theory that ecological systems are usually in a stable equilibrium ( homeostasis ), which is to say that a small change in some particular parameter (the size of a particular population, for example) will be corrected by some negative feedback that will bring the parameter back to its original "point of balance" with the rest of the system. It may apply where populations depend on each other, for example in predator/prey systems, or relationships between herbivores and their food source. It is also applied to the relationship between the Earth's ecosystem, the composition of the atmosphere, and the world's climate. This is what is not happening right now, and it’s almost too late to correct the process without a Malthusian catastrophe. Read up on Dr. Malthus some day; he’s an interesting and a fascinating man, and you ignore him at your peril.

Balance. It’s what we need, because right now, we are not understanding the consequences of our actions. We’re starting to, and that’s good. We’ve got to do better.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Into the Light - The Thorn Bush Interview with Willi Paul from PlanetShifter.com

TB: Thanks for visiting with us at The Thorn Bu$h! What’s going on at PlanetShifter.com?


WP: PlanetShifter.com just evolved again; a change in scope and scale. The site continues to be powered by a customized Drupal data base engine but is now Willi Paul’s blog and contract for services site. Guest bloggers are welcome and make up a much reduced “community set” now. Fair to say that my original goal to bring together artists, writers, musicians and innovators via MySpace, Facebook and other invite/transfer sites was too ambitious. While it is precisely these people who need access to sustainability knowledge, they are too busy in their creative corners to participate in the complexity that I created and launched on Earth Day 2009.


TB: What made you decide to blog on the environment?


WP: I get this question a lot in interviews! I always allude to my Boy Scout Eagle badge experience and my summer teaching ecology at Scout Camp in Rhinelander, WI at age 15. My B.S. is in Ecology, my Masters in Urban / Community Planning. But my interest have always been the human / natural interface and how we are dealing with impact on the planet and what our children will inherit when we pass.


My focus in 2009 has evolved into an arts and sustainability intersection. One of my major efforts this fall was to synthesize my works in mythology and the green movement: “The PlanetShifter.com Survival Guide to 2010: Curriculum Plans, Thought Leader Interviews and Big Green Ideas,” based on the Event Circle Interviews.


To me, it is critical to push beyond the current fight to “save the planet” from corrupt bankers, Wall Street trash and myopic oil companies like Chevron. We have to vision a victory for the planet and create the new global DNA to make this happen.


TB: “PlanetShifter.com” is an attention-grabbing name. How did you come up with it?


WP: I coined this back in 2008 when I created an ugly site with images from Oakland. Much of the best work in my portfolio comes in lightning bolts, the ideas just “show up!” From this humble spark, and my goal to post something valuable per day, the site now gets an average of 8000 hits and 1020 views a day. The Event Circle series has over 100 in-depth interviews with thought leaders and continues into 2010 with a focus on youth.


As a budding brand, PlanetShifter.com is poised to support new media and sustainable products in 2010.


TB: What’s your background? What makes you uniquely qualified to do what you’re doing?


WP: In addition to my response to the second question, my journey into the arts and sustainability auger stems from my classical viola training and early art work as a child. I published six + poetry books in my early twenties and continue to tap and report this source today. I also believe that my bipolar condition plays a role in my 24/7 creative drive, meditation and implementations.


TB: Who else in the environmental/ecological movement is doing what you’re doing?


WP: In terms of my work in connecting mythology, alchemy, arts and sustainability, I can only point to a few percolating efforts including the Alchemy Guild, maybe the Joseph Campbell Foundation and few rock musicians like Steve Kilbey and a wondrous new friend and British Columbia painter named Simon Haiduk.


TB: What are you hoping to accomplish?


WP: That’s a loaded question, Wilma! At this point, I am having an impact through my posts and interviews but there are products to construct and market in 2010. I have this ongoing struggle in my head and heart about “earth vs. people.” So much of my angst stems from a human race that is out of control and likely headed to extinction. This is a bad thing? Can I stop this?


My aim is to challenge and re-ignite the excellence offered up by Campbell and some other mythologists and alchemists into a new set of sustainable practices and principles to make the humans worthy again of the Earth’s ageless spirit and harmonies.


TB: Knowing that environmental education needs to be taught practically from the cradle up, what sort of educational impact do you hope to have on the elementary, junior and senior high school children that might be interested in learning more about sustainable living and lifestyles?


WP: First, these are the folks that I want to use my search tool at PlanetShifter.com. This knowledge base is for the children.


Second, I have a second project ready to go called PlanetShifterKids.com that is a project-based, open architecture for all kids to share their new green stories and environmental justice solutions in their localities.


Last, my day-to-day example needs to be in the best Light in a most challenging time.


TB: Who are your corporate supporters, if any?


WP: I currently re-post on the following green community sites: (1) GreenWala.com, (2) Cooltribe.com, (3) Dezuma.com, (4) Greenopolis.com , (5) transitionus.ning.com, (6) enviro-space.com (and over 35 LinkedIn.com groups).


I am seeking advertisers.


TB: Are there any other people involved with the day-to-day running of the site other than yourself? Specifically, is this a labor of love?


WP: I have folks who add posts occasionally and tons of intelligence and daily love from my partner Malou Carreon. Then, it’s just me and the “Yogi Four:”


Paramhansa Yogananda

Abe Lincoln

Matthew

The Goddess.


TB: You’ve said, in an earlier interview, that your spiritual life informs your work as an environmentalist. Please explain this, and also please tell me how your vision quest has changed/grown/expanded since Planet Shifter got started.


WP: As college kid, I turned to the Quakers for relief from the soft-core nonsense from the same old Christian Sundays. My green life is very much anti-materialism and supports my love of sacrifice for a healthier planet. To me environmentalism is just another ingredient in a life with purpose, embracing what the Quakers call The Light.


My vision quest is to light this source in everyone. Ending war would be nice, too.


TB: Why is it important to have a spiritual component in the sustainable living movement?


WP: The best place to get testimony in this realm is to visit Trathan Heckman at Daily Acts, a superb new ecology sustainable teachings and values from Petaluma, CA.


TB: You have fiction on PlanetShifter.com. Tell us about it!


WP: Right!


“Geo’s Vision Machine” is a novella about the power of rock music and alchemy through a techno-mythic pulse.


“LAO from GreenLoc, CA - A Story for Our Youth,” asks readers to travel to a time beyond the crash of 2012 into a location of resources and high tech espionage.


My current work in progress, “Darwin 23.05.889:: The Sequence One”, is about a magic island off of Vancouver, a sky wizard and a seer in a satellite.


Willi Paul - Art and Sustainability Consultant

PlanetShifter.com Business Services
415-407-4688 | willipaul1 at gmail.com
Current Portfolio | Linkedin Profile | Digital Archive

Droughts & Global Warming – What’s The Connection?

Water levels are down to virtually unprecedented levels all over the world, threatening agriculture and creating tinderbox conditions. Potable water is scare and getting more scarce. Hot seasons are getting hotter every year, and dry seasons are not only getting drier, they are also lasting longer and doing more damage than every before.

Isn't it time that we acknowledged that this very well may not be natural? Global warming is real, it is caused by man-made CO2 emissions, and we need to do something about it. However, at this point, we don’t need action that makes us feel good. We need action that actually does good.

Scientific research indicates that these drought conditions are exactly what we should expect from human-caused global warming. Global warming is arguably the most significant environmental concern of this or any other decade. Some argue that greenhouse gas emissions (a consequence of human activity) are resulting in global warming and that this will lead to environmental catastrophes in the next century. Some believe that we are already experiencing catastrophic climate change, with any unusual weather patterns (be it record high or low temperatures, storms or snowfalls) being attributed to human-induced climate change. The Kyoto Protocol (to which the United States is NOT a signatory), drafted at the Kyoto conference in late 1997, sets various countries mandatory targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Rising temperatures will alter global weather patterns that have a direct effect on water supplies and agriculture. Deserts will expand, the frequency and severity of droughts and deadly heat waves will increase, and snow will disappear in most areas—except on the very highest mountain peaks. If you don’t believe this, take a good look at pictures of Mount Kilimanjaro. Where there used to be ice and snow, there is now cracked mud. Look at Glacier National Park, where the glaciers have shrunk from 50 to 30 in just the last 20 years. Chart the rainfall in California and the western states. Yes, those states are dry – and this year, they are drier than they’ve ever been. Water is starting to be a commodity to be traded; it’s no longer a resource that can be counted on.

Scary, isn’t it? And there’s even more:

Global concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, which are three of the most notable greenhouse gases, have increased significantly over the past 250 years as direct result of human activities. Concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases now far exceed any found during ice core research spanning the last 650,000 years. These increases are due primarily to the use of fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, and changes in land use, such as cutting down forests to make way for farming, housing and other development. Increases in methane and nitrous oxide are primarily due to agriculture.

OK, you’re saying, and this has exactly WHAT to do with drought? So the polar ice caps melt faster, and the seas move miles inland. So what? If the ice caps melt faster, that means that there’s actually more water available, not less, right? The answer to this is, not surprisingly, no. There will be more water available, but not for either agriculture or consumption.

Take what’s happening in California right now, as a prime example. New space observations reveal that since October 2003, the aquifers for California's primary agricultural region, the Central Valley, and its major mountain water source, the Sierra Nevada, have lost nearly enough water combined to fill Lake Mead, America's largest reservoir. The findings, based on satellite data, reflect California's extended drought and increased pumping of groundwater for human uses such as irrigation.

UC Irvine and NASA scientists detailed the state's groundwater changes and outlined research on other global aquifers conducted via twin satellites called the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment. GRACE monitors tiny month-to-month differences in Earth's gravity field primarily caused by the movement of water in the planet's land, ocean, ice and atmosphere. Its ability to "weigh" changes in water content provides new insights into how climate change is affecting Earth's water cycle. Combined, California's Sacramento and San Joaquin drainage basins have shed more than 30 cubic kilometers of water since late 2003. A cubic kilometer is about 264.2 billion gallons, enough to fill 400,000 Olympic-size pools. The bulk of the loss occurred in the state's agricultural Central Valley. The Central Valley depends on irrigation from both groundwater wells and diverted surface water.

Recent California legislation decreasing the allocation of surface water to the San Joaquin basin is likely to further increase the region's reliance on groundwater for irrigation. This suggests the decreasing groundwater storage trends seen by GRACE will continue for the foreseeable future. The California results come just months after Matt Rodell of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Isabella Velicogna of UCI, and Jay Famiglietti, UCI Earth system science professor and director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling found groundwater levels in northwest India declining by 17.7 cubic kilometers per year between October 2002 and August 2008, a loss attributed almost entirely to pumping and consumption of groundwater by humans.

Aquifers are being depleted much faster than they are being replenished in many places, wells are drying up, massive lawsuits are already erupting and the problems have barely begun. Aquifers that took thousands of years to fill are being drained in decades, placing both agricultural and urban uses in peril. Groundwater that supplies drinking water for half the world's population is now in jeopardy. In Idaho people drawing groundwater are being ordered to work with other holders of stream water rights as the streams begin to dwindle. Mississippi has filed a $1-billion lawsuit against the City of Memphis because of declining groundwater. You're seeing land subsiding from Houston to the Imperial Valley of California. This issue is real and getting worse.

So, why is this important? It’s real simple. The more ground water that we use up, the less that there is to evaporate. The less water that is evaporated, the less rain will fall in season. The less rain falling in season means that there will be enormous floods at the wrong times of year, and the more that there is flooding, the worse the climate becomes – drier and drier, and hotter and hotter. The hotter and drier the climate is, the more drought there is.

What we can do about this is stop denying that climate change is happening and quit saying that global warming isn’t all that important. What we can all do is work together to get the alternative energy industries and the green tech revolution up, running and prospering. The less CO2, methane and nitrous oxide we produce as a global society, the more that we can reduce our carbon footprints, the faster we can reverse the trends that are creating this serious and life-threatening problem. Yes, we can desalinize sea water, and we will – but that is, at best, a stop-gap measure, and it does not address the real problem, which is to STOP heating the earth to the point that we all die either of dehydration or a bullet, as the water wars start.

So, let’s get going on the green revolution – and let’s do something positive to stop the earth from drying out beneath our feet. Trust me, this is going to happen in OUR lifetimes, if we don’t do something about it RIGHT NOW.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Governor Dean speaks for me, too

Dear readers:

This is the text of the op-ed that Governor Howard Dean posted in the Washington Post today. He's been reviled and vilified for what he said about scrapping the health-care bill and starting over. This clarifies his thinking in the matter, and I believe that everybody should sit up and take notice of it. Governor Dean speaks for me TOO.

Stay tuned here, everybody, for the Willi Paul interview. He's the man that started Planet Shifter, and you won't be disappointed! http://www.planetshifter.com/

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Health-care bill needs major improvement to be worth passing By Governor Howard Dean, M.D. for the Washington Post - December 17, 2009 If I were a senator, I would not vote for the current health-care bill. Any measure that expands private insurers' monopoly over health care and transfers millions of taxpayer dollars to private corporations is not real health-care reform.
Real reform would insert competition into insurance markets, force insurers to cut unnecessary administrative expenses and spend health-care dollars caring for people. Real reform would significantly lower costs, improve the delivery of health care and give all Americans a meaningful choice of coverage. The current Senate bill accomplishes none of these.

Real health-care reform is supposed to eliminate discrimination based on preexisting conditions. But the legislation allows insurance companies to charge older Americans up to three times as much as younger Americans, pricing them out of coverage. The bill was supposed to give Americans choices about what kind of system they wanted to enroll in. Instead, it fines Americans if they do not sign up with an insurance company, which may take up to 30 percent of your premium dollars and spend it on CEO salaries -- in the range of $20 million a year -- and on return on equity for the company's shareholders. Few Americans will see any benefit until 2014, by which time premiums are likely to have doubled. In short, the winners in this bill are insurance companies; the American taxpayer is about to be fleeced with a bailout in a situation that dwarfs even what happened at AIG.

From the very beginning of this debate, progressives have argued that a public option or a Medicare buy-in would restore competition and hold the private health insurance industry accountable. Progressives understood that a public plan would give Americans real choices about what kind of system they wanted to be in and how they wanted to spend their money. Yet Washington has decided, once again, that the American people cannot be trusted to choose for themselves. Your money goes to insurers, whether or not you want it to.

To be clear, I'm not giving up on health-care reform. The legislation does have some good points, such as expanding Medicaid and permanently increasing the federal government's contribution to it. It invests critical dollars in public health, wellness and prevention programs; extends the life of the Medicare trust fund; and allows young Americans to stay on their parents' health-care plans until they turn 27. Small businesses struggling with rising health-care costs will receive a tax credit, and primary-care physicians will see increases in their Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates.

Improvements can still be made in the Senate, and I hope that Senate Democrats will work on this bill as it moves to conference. If lawmakers are interested in ensuring that government affordability credits are spent on health-care benefits rather than insurers' salaries, they need to require state-based exchanges, which act as prudent purchasers and select only the most efficient insurers. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) offered this amendment during the Finance Committee markup, and Democrats should include it in the final legislation. A stripped-down version of the current bill that included these provisions would be worth passing.

In Washington, when major bills near final passage, an inside-the-Beltway mentality takes hold. Any bill becomes a victory. Clear thinking is thrown out the window for political calculus. In the heat of battle, decisions are being made that set an irreversible course for how future health reform is done. The result is legislation that has been crafted to get votes, not to reform health care.

I have worked for health-care reform all my political life. In my home state of Vermont we have accomplished universal health care for children under 18 and real insurance reform -- which not only bans discrimination against preexisting conditions but also prevents insurers from charging outrageous sums for policies as a way of keeping out high-risk people.

I know health reform when I see it, and there isn't much left in the Senate bill. I reluctantly conclude that, as it stands, this bill would do more harm than good to the future of America.