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Pacific ocean sea in planet earth, view from outer space

Today (June 8th) is celebrated as World Ocean Day. I am pleased about the existence of this new holiday because the oceans are ridiculously underrepresented in people’s estimation and concern. From outer space, it is readily apparent that we live on a water world where 70% of the surface is covered by liquid (and that number is growing by the day as we run more motors and melt more ice). Yet in the human world, you can go for weeks of listening to constant stupid human blather without ever hearing about the oceans at all (and I live in New York, which is ON the ocean–imagine what it is like in landlocked hell cities like Timbuktu, Dallas, or Ashgabat). At any rate, what is of real concern here is not the oceans themselves (which will keep on covering the planet so long as it has an atmosphere) but the vast intricate realm of life within the oceans. And make no mistake, the whole ocean ecosystem–the cradle of life from which all living things came, and upon which we are all still dependent–is in the deepest trouble possible. Overfishing, climate change, pollution, and other rampant abuse of the oceans are unchecked even in rich world countries. But most of the ocean is not even in a country. Enormous fish factories and trawlers can just show up and destroy the irreplaceable ecology at will with virtually no oversight or rules. Undoubtedly you have heard of the world ocean’s troubles before, but, unfortunately, whatever you have heard does not begin to compile the true devastation. The oceans are undergoing a mass extinction event caused by us humans. Even if we considerably mitigate the scale of the damage we are causing, we are about to lose more than we can imagine…forever.

But it doesn’t have to be this way! Just as the oceans are more damaged than we immediately appreciate, they are more robust as well. A handful of sensible reforms which would not even greatly change the life or lifestyle of most people could ensure the health of the blue part of the planet. Alas, there is not yet any political pathway to sensible regulations, rules, and refuge areas yet (at least at a worldwide scale). Like other intractable political or environmental problems, we can change that, but it will require knowledge, attention, and organization.

I recognize that I am writing in generalizations, however a true accounting of the troubles that the ocean ecosystems face would be beyond any single person to write and would be so painful as to be unreadable. Instead, we will celebrate an extended World Ocean Day for the next fortnight, during which time we will talk about all sorts of different aspects of the ocean world (the good, the bad, the sublime, and the weird) in digestible micro essays and artworks (instead of a single impassioned blurb of dense and depressing facts and statistics). The ocean isn’t one of several different painted backdrops to add passing interest to a light opera. It is the main home of Earth life. Every day should always be world ocean day. Even if we are unable to make people see that fact, at least for the next few weeks we will try.

It is Earth Day again. Each year it seems like more humans wake up to the fact that we too are animals living in an enclosed worldwide ecosystem which is quickly deteriorating. A report by the World Wildlife Fund released this past September carefully laid out evidence showing that the world’s population of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals (other than humans and our livestock) have dwindled by 68% percent since the 1970s–and the seventies were not exactly a pre-industrial golden age! That number stays with me. If seventy percent of your friends and family were dead, you would start to wonder whether you were next. Well, seventy percent of our friends and family ARE dead (in the grand scheme of things, all of those vertebrates are pretty close relatives). Additionally the global pandemic has reminded us that maybe we really could be next. What are we going to do about it?

At this point in policy discourse various representatives of the ruling class remind us that balancing the needs of the environment with the needs of business could result in more austere lives, or, if taken far enough, could even cause job losses! In the United States, your food, shelter, and health care are all obtained through a job (unless you are inordinately wealthy). In other words, politicians threaten their constituents with death for being worried about the environment in any way that would inconvenience the oligarchs.

I am overstating this (very slightly) for effect, but if you watch the national discourse, you will see that economic threats made on behalf of the powers-that-be are a very real feature of our broken environmental discourse. The WWF paper which I just cited makes the point in a more productive way stating that a “key problem is the mismatch between the artificial ‘economic grammar’ which drives public and private policy and ‘nature’s syntax’ which determines how the real world operates.”

I wish I could more emphatically highlight that line. It drives me crazy that artificial (which is to say manmade) economic concerns are people’s main concerns and that issues of vastly greater importance are blithely dismissed as unrealistic or ingenuous. We are coming to a point where nature is pushing back harder and harder against our market-oriented global society. Many people pretend that nature simply must capitulate to our way of doing things and it is easy to look at pictures of lions being shot or old-growth trees chopped down and conclude that, yeah society’s dictates are supreme.

Yet it is that perspective which is really jejune and unrealistic. Nature makes threats too. Unlike capitalists, it always enforces its demands and always delivers on its promises (or do you perhaps know somebody who doesn’t have to eat or breath or die?) One of the faults with the way I was taught history was that the environmental calculus was removed from the great story of humankind. When ecological considerations are added back, it suddenly jumps out that Rome was not destroyed by Sulla, the Gracchi brothers, Christianity, Goths, or tax collectors. It died from desertification and agricultural collapse. So did the civilizations of Mound builders, the Ming Dynasty, the Sumerians, the Mayans, the Moshe, and on and on and on. Look afresh at history and the true environmental underpinnings of all human endeavor start to stand out more than all of the emperors, kingpriests, doges, and sultans.

All of which is to say that, in the true spirit of Earth Day, I am going to try to add some of the ecological context back into history’s sweeping story in a series of future posts. Human-made catastrophe is one of history’s only real constants. Now that civilization really has gone global, that lesson is even more unpalatable (and terrifying) than ever. Yet if we wish for a future worth having for ourselves and our descendants and all of of our extended family with fins and fur and feathers we will have to learn from such lessons quickly and well and do oh-so-many things so much better.

Eridu, the first known city, circa present

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Saudi Arabia…the name is synonymous with corruption, sexism, waste, despotism, and vicious religious fundamentalism of the most cruel and benighted stamp.  Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers involved in the September 11th attacks were Saudi nationals. One could almost wonder why this kingdom is so closely allied with the United States of America.  Yet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman does not just dream of the glories of the past, he dreams of future glories as well.  One way or another, humankind’s age of fossil fuels will soon come to a crashing end. When that happens, Prince Salman, wants his subjects to have something other than petrochemical riches to fall back on.  For all of the Crown Prince’s faults (cough, murdering and dismembering progressive dissidents), planning for the future is what a worthwhile leader should be doing, and I am impressed by the grandeur of this monarch’s plans.

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Behold the City of Neom! A futuristic wonderland of architectural marvels, Neom will be designed based on a synthesis of ecological and technological design (rather in the mode of Singapore’s artificial supertrees). Staffed by incorruptible and tireless robot laborers and security forces, the city will be powered entirely with renewable energy.  The economy of the city will be based around research, technology, and creativity.  Neom will be under its own tax and labor laws and have an “autonomous judicial system” out from under the shadows of the current criminal justice system. Because the city will be constructed from scratch, there will be ample scope for visionary breakthroughs in transportation and infrastructure.  Some of the wilder ideas being bandied about include flying cars, cloud seeding, dinosaur robots and a giant artificial moon!

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Neom lies at the confluence of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel.  The physical location is also between the golden desert and the rich coral reefs of the Red Sea.  It is also a meeting place of Asia and Africa.  The empty desert could indeed be a fitting place to construct a of towering dreams and miracles which would make Sinbad reel in astonishment…and yet…

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…An especially cynical person, might suggest that Neom is a ludicrous confabulation dreamed up as cover for failed social policies, misallocated oil wealth, and a genocidal war of aggression in Yemen. Perhaps by carefully reading this post, you have intuited that I am dubious concerning the House of Saud–which supports the most reactionary and extremist Wahhabi clerics, who, in exchange, prop up this aging kleptocracy from their pulpits minbars.  Well I don’t love the ideals of Saudi Arabia insomuch as I understand them (although I have quite liked the individuals I have met from there), but I do like the concept of Neom.  Could it be built without relying on slave labor?  Could it be built at all?  The current financial plans involve a massive half-trillion dollar IPO of Saudi Aramco, and it seems unlikely that will happen soon based on the oil market (and the post-Kashoggi toxicity of the Saudi government to investors).

But true reform requires audacity and the ability to dream big.  Neom is a giant astonishing dream!  I would love to see it come to fruition (and pull Saudi Arabia out of its retrograde spiral). But that is going to require A LOT more than pipe dreams, stage lighting, and kleptocrats scratching each other’s fat backs.

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Success will require international cooperation, actual social reform, and the ability to learn from failures and change course.  It will require learning, studying, and innovating far beyond what is happening anywhere right now (much less in a place seemingly designed to prevent any actual scientific or social progress).  Building Neom will require Saudi Arabia to rethink some of the foundational choices made at the time of independence from the Ottoman Empire…and it will also require the United States to rethink some of our bad habits vis-a-vis the kingdom (and to give up some of the snotty bigotry which is all too evident even among the most enlightened blog writers).  But these things are possible with bravery, near-infinite hard work, and unflinching self scrutiny. Call me, Salman, I will give you my true support.  Don’t expect me to meet you in Istanbul though.

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