On dangerous air & the damnation of cyanobacteria.

On dangerous air & the damnation of cyanobacteria.

During the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, I kept thinking of Margarita Engle’s poem “More Dangerous Air.” The title seemed particularly resonant, and its a beautiful poem about growing up in an atmosphere of fear.

Newsmen call it the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Teachers say it’s the end of the world.

Engle documents the way we might flail, attempting to protect ourselves & our loved ones. We know enough to be afraid; we don’t yet know enough to be safe.

Early in the pandemic, people left their groceries on the front steps for days before bringing the bags inside. A year in, we were still needlessly scrubbing surfaces with toxic chemicals.

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During the missile crisis, school children practiced fire drills, earthquake drills, tornado drills, air raid drills. (They didn’t yet need the contemporary era’s most awful: the active shooter drills.)

Hide under a desk.

Pretend that furniture is enough

to protect us against perilous flames.

Radiation. Contamination. Toxic breath.

The blasts are dangerous. But warfare with atomic weapons is different from other forms of violence. A bomb might kill you, suddenly; the poisoned air might kill you, slowly; the poisoned ground might maim generations yet unborn.

Each air-raid drill is sheer terror,

but some kids giggle.

They don’t believe that death

is real.

Radiation is invisible. Marie Curie didn’t know that it would kill her. Rosalind Franklin didn’t know that it would kill her.

We know, now. At least, some of us do.

Others – including a perilously large cadre of politicians – still think we ought to stockpile a behemoth nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear bomb: photograph by Kelly Michals on flickr.

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Viruses are invisible. And they act slowly. Breathe in an invisible virus; a week later, you might begin to cough; three weeks later, your cough might worsen; a month after that seemingly innocuous breath in which you sucked a microscopic package of genetic code into your lungs, you might be in the hospital, or worse.

Connecting an eventual death to that first dangerous breath is actually a tricky cognitive feat! The time lag confuses us. It’s much easier for human minds to draw conclusions about closely consecutive events – a vaccine followed within hours or days by fever or heart problems.

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Greenhouse gases are also invisible. If we drive past a power plant, we might see plumes rising from the towers, but we can’t see poison spilling from our cars, our refrigerators, our air conditioners, our meals. This is just good food on a plate! It doesn’t look like danger.

But we are changing the air, dramatically, in ways that might poison us all. Or – which is perhaps worse – in ways that might not affect us so much, but might make this planet inhospitable to our unborn grandchildren. Perhaps we will be fine. It’s humans born twenty years from now, or fifty years from now, who will suffer more.

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Each individual can take action. You, as an individual, could fly less, buy less, eat plants.

And yet.

You, as an individual, can only do so much.

When I hide under my frail school desk,

my heart grows as rough and brittle

as the slab of wood

that fails to protect me

from reality’s

gloom.

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We aren’t the first. Go outside and look around – the vibrant bursts of summer green are delightfully entrancing.

Our minds are plastic things – we make ourselves through the ways we live – but certain scripts were sculpted by our ancestry. Over hundreds of millions of years, the bearers of certain types of brains were more likely to be successful in life.

Creatures like us – who need air to breath, water to drink, shelter from sun and cold – often feel an innate love for the way summer light plays over a heady mix of blue and green.

We need all that green. The plants, the trees, the algae: for humans to survive the climate crisis we’ve been making, we’re depending on them. We need them to eat carbon dioxide from the air, and drink in hydrogen atoms from water, and toss back oxygen for us to breathe.

We’ve been poisoning the air, and they might save us.

Which is ironic, in a way. Because all that green – they wrought our planet’s first global devastation.

Saving us all this time would be like a form of penance.

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Early in our planet’s history, there was very little oxygen in the air. Which was a good thing for the organisms living then! Oxygen is a very dangerous molecule. When we fall apart with age, it’s largely because “oxidative damage” accumulates in our cells. When grocery stores market a new type of berry as a “superfood,” they often extol its abundance of “antioxidants,” small molecules that might protect us from the ravages of oxygen.

The first living organisms were anaerobic: they did not need, and could not tolerate, oxygen. They obtained energy from sulfur vents or various other chemicals.

But then a particular type of bacteria – cyanobacteria – evolved a way to eat air, pulling energy from sunlight. This was the precursor to modern photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria began to fill the air with (poisonous!) oxygen as waste.

Many years passed safely, though. There was abundant iron then, on land and in the seas – iron drew down oxygen to rust.

Approximately two billion years passed without incident. All that iron buffered our planet’s atmosphere! It must have seemed as though the cyanobacteria could excrete a nearly infinite amount!

But then they reached a tipping point. The iron had all become iron oxides. The concentration of oxygen in the air rose dramatically. This hyper-reactive poison killed almost everything alive.

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Perhaps cyanobacteria were punished for what they’d done. By filling the world with oxygen, they enabled the evolution of organisms with higher metabolisms. Creatures who lived faster, shorter lives, turbocharged by all that dangerous air. And these creatures – our forebears – nearly grazed their enablers out of existence.

Cyanobacteria were once masters of the universe. Then they were food.

And they were imprisoned within the cells of plants. Look up at a tree – each green leaf is a holding cell, brimming with cyanobacteria who are no longer free to live on their own. Grasses, ferns, flowers – every photosynthetic cell home to perhaps dozens of chloroplasts, the descendants of those who caused our planet’s first mass extinction.

A few outlaws linger in the ocean. Some cyanobactera still pumping oxygen into the air, the lethal poison that’s gulped so greedily by human lungs. Their lethal poison now enables our growth, our flourishing, our reckless abasement of the world.

And we are poisoning the air in turn, albeit in a very different way. In our quest to use many years’ stored sunlight each year, we dig up & burn the subterranean remnants of long-dead plants. The prison cells in which cyanobacteria once lived and died, entombed for millions of years within the earth, now the fuel for our own self-imposed damnation. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is slowly rising. Our atmosphere is buffered; for a while, our world will seem unchanged. Until, suddenly, it doesn’t.

Some species, surely, will survive. Will thrive in the hotter, swingier, stormier world we’re making.

It likely won’t be us.

On social norms.

On social norms.

I assume that you, personally, have never clear-cut and burned a patch of the Amazon rain forest.  Neither have I.  The number of people who have done the actual cutting is vanishingly small compared to the world’s population.

I also assume that you enjoy living in a world where the Amazon rain forest exists — certainly more than you’d enjoy living in a world where it had all been slashed and burned.  If we lose the Amazon rain forest, climate change might spiral out of control, flooding coastal cities worldwide and causing desertification in much of the interior United States.  If we lose the Amazon rain forest, huge numbers of species will go extinct, including a wide variety of medicinal plants that we’ve only begun to investigate.

And the rain forest is beautiful.  Future generations would feel an ache of want – likely compounded with a mix of jealousy and anger – if they saw photographs of the Amazon rain forest after it were gone.

When I was in elementary school, my third grade class sponsored a patch of the Amazon rain forest.  In retrospect, I’m not sure what this entailed.  We raised money and sent it off in an envelope.  I don’t remember whether we ever saw photographs of “our” forest, whether the arrangement was supposedly akin to a rental or purchase of those trees. 

I have no idea who received our sponsorship money, but the general idea that money should be sent from the U.S. to Brazil is actually correct.  Many of the world’s problems would be easier to address if we used a global wealth tax to fund a guaranteed basic income for everyone.  At the very least, if there are natural resources that benefit all of humanity, then countries that are currently wealthy because they ravaged their environments should pay to encourage other nations not to accrue wealth through extractive industries.

Some people in Brazil would be wealthier if the Amazon rain forest were destroyed.  Everyone in the world would suffer as a result.  If we – everyone outside Brazil – would prefer that the rain forest not be destroyed, we should compensate Brazilians for the foregone short-term economic benefits.

Unless you are fantastically wealthy, you personally will be unable to enact this policy on your own.  If I decided to split my family’s entire annual income among the people of Brazil, each would get 2% of a penny … and my family would be left with nothing.

A guaranteed basic income is the right policy, but it’s not something that I can accomplish as an individual.

In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses how each one of us can help preserve the Amazon rain forest today.  We as a people should strive for political solutions to the world’s problems, but we as individuals shouldn’t make choices that exacerbate those very problems.  It would seem hypocritical to lobby for fines against littering if we continued to blithely toss candy bar wrappers onto the ground.

Foer describes how painful it feels to recognize this hypocrisy in himself.  This sensation grows more intense as he watches his children grow in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous.

But what kind of father prioritizes feeling good over doing good?

Foer knows that he could choose to help.  Each day, he could act in a way that makes his children’s world safer.

He often doesn’t.

There is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that parades as acceptance.  Those of us who know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the anger.  We should be terrified of ourselves.  We are the ones we have to defy.  I am the person endangering my children.

As you read this, the Amazon rain forest is being destroyed.  Why?  To clear space for cows to graze.

Photo by Joelle Hernandez on Flickr, whose caption from this 2007 photograph reads, “On a few occasions Brazilians told me that ‘People thousands of miles away are contributing to our deforestation.'”

Even if the meat or cheese you eat was not imported from Brazil, by choosing to eat it, you are reinforcing the social norm that is causing the Amazon rain forest to be destroyed. 

Eating meat is pleasurable.  A good cheese pizza can be divine.  Humans evolved as omnivores, and the tastes of meat and cheese are particularly delicious.  Choosing not to eat these foods would be a sacrifice.

Foer has tried to be a vegetarian for decades.  He has previously written about the animal welfare arguments against eating meat; now he’s written about the environmental arguments.  He knows that eating meat is immoral – the cow suffered to produce it, and Foer’s own children will suffer a worse climate as a consequence.

But this knowledge isn’t enough.  He still surreptitiously buys cheeseburgers.

So why hasn’t vegetarianism become any easier after thirty years?  Why has it become harder?  I crave meat more now than I have at any point since I became a vegetarian.

Foer wishes that there were a social norm to eat only foods made from plants. 

Eating meat is pleasurable.  Eating cheese is pleasurable. 

Injecting heroin is pleasurable too.  Driving a car while drunk is pleasurable.  Heck, even cruising down the road while everybody else pulls aside for the ambulance behind you would be pleasurable.

In our culture, there’s a social norm to pull aside for ambulances.  Even though it would be more pleasurable to keep driving, most people don’t.

Meats and cheeses are responsible for somewhere between 20% and 50% of all climate-change-causing emissions. 

(There’s a wide range in that estimate because, although it’s incontestable that it takes more land to produce meats and cheeses than it does to make equivalent foods from plants, it’s debatable what would be done with all that extra land if people changed their diets.  If the extra space would be used to restore forests, then animal agriculture is responsible for 50% of climate change.  If the extra space would be kept as grass – setting aside the curious question of why – then animal agriculture causes only 20% of climate change.  Only 20%.  By way of comparison, all the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes together cause less than 15% of climate change.  You can look at the appendix to We Are the Weather for an explanation of these numbers, or even glance at Donald Trump’s EPA website for some pie charts with identical information.)

The current administration has gutted the EPA, and compelled their staff scientists to restate their findings in the weakest ways possible … and these are the numbers still posted on their website.

If every gasoline-powered car was replaced with a hybrid vehicle – instantly, world-wide – greenhouse gas emissions would be about 96% of what they are currently.  If that was the only change we made, our planet would be toast.

If we all followed a social norm to eat food made from plants, greenhouse gas emissions could be 50% of what they are currently.  With no other changes, humanity would survive.  Our planet would remain habitable for our children, and our grandchildren.

Pleasure matters.  I’m an atheist, and I’m well aware that the eventual heat death of the universe means humanity will go extinct eventually.  I don’t believe you can make a viable philosophical argument for existence based on helpfulness or social connections alone – your life needs to be pleasurable, too.

Your life can be pleasurable without meat or cheese.  I support responsible hedonism.  Good food is a joy, but you can eat well while making only choices that protect our planet.  Most people think that sex is great fun, but we have a social norm that you should enjoy your sexuality only with other consenting adults.  Groping a beautiful stranger might be more fun than eating cheese – in our culture, a social norm restrains us. 

Well, most of us.

Foer wishes that we, as a people, could choose better.  He’s been struggling to eat food made from plants.  But he doesn’t struggle to restrain himself from murder, or theft, or groping his students.  In those instances, our social norms make it easy to do the right thing.

And you can still be a hedonist while eating plants!  If you’re ever in Chicago, you should stop by my dear friend Auntie Ferret’s vegan deep-dish pizza restaurant, or use Happy Cow to find a decadent plant-based restaurant near you.

Deep dish pizza, mac and cheese, nachos and more — all vegan at Kitchen 17.

Feature image by Neil Palmer / CIFOR on Flickr.

On the sounds of aberrant ecosystems

On the sounds of aberrant ecosystems

When I was ten years old, I read about a new card game, Magic, in the local newspaper. The article described the basic conceit of the game – you are a wizard who must conquer territory to power your spells – and a few of the cards – the article mentioned Giant Growth, which it said “is just a big rat.”

squeeI was enthralled. It took about a year of searching before I found a place to buy cards, but eventually the local hobby shop would siphon away all my babysitting money.

My favorite card was Squee – a goblin who keeps returning from the dead. Squee was pretty powerful when combined with Survival of the Fittest, which lets you trade your weak creatures for more powerful monsters, and Goblin Bombardment, which lets you fling creatures at your enemies. But I loved Squee disproportionately to his power. This little monster, swimming in his robes, is blessed with infinite renewal … just like humanity’s original misconception of nature.

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Before the industrial revolution, no single generation could change the world enough to prove this notion wrong. Humans cut down trees, but there are so many trees and more grow all the time. Humans wash their clothes or defecate in the river, but new clean water flows. Humans hunt game and catch fish, but – as long as you make a god-placating sacrifice every now and then – there will always be more animals to eat.

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Jared Diamond remarks upon our inability to notice slow changes in Collapse, his (tragically relevant) account of the factors that cause civilizations to die:

collapseI suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students’ question, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?” We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site. Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago. Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

It probably took several generations before trees were expunged from Easter Island. As Homo sapiens migrated into Europe, the Americas, and Australia, most large animals were driven to extinction, including all other species of humans. The Homo sapiens involved probably had no idea what they were doing. Each generation would see some decline in the abundance of an animal, but nothing to worry about. The last few deaths would occur among a people who had no idea what was lost.

Moby_Dick_p510_illustrationIn Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator considers whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.

The narrator promptly dismisses this fear. Yes, buffalo were driven to extinction in America, but only because a single man could slaughter thousands. At that time, the concerted efforts of many were needed to kill each whale.

Even so, the whales seemed to be disappearing. But the narrator – so obsessed with the hunt that he hardly notices when he’s deluding himself – rejects the evidence:

10838762315_69b85f2e8a_zAnd equally fallacious seems the conceit, that because the so-called whale-bone whales no longer haunt many grounds in former years abounding with them, hence that species also is declining. For they are only being driven from promontory to cape; and if one coast is no longer enlivened with their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.

Sperm whale populations plummeted. Gestation lasts over a year; mothers care for their young for a decade; males sexually mature at eighteen and aren’t fully grown until their fifties. They could not reproduce as quickly as we could kill them.

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Most whales are extremely social, and communicate in ways that humans don’t yet understand. Their songs show signs of local culture, as do their hunting strategies. Those centuries of “harvest” may have caused several dialects or languages to be lost.

Sperm whale populations have since recovered. But several other species of whale are endangered. Our discarded plastics waft through the sea. The waters are becoming sufficiently acidic to kill off coral reefs.

The ocean is not nearly so infinite as we humans once thought it to be.

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Recently, technological progress has become so fast that the world changes noticeably within single generations. For tens of thousands of years, each human’s life resembled that of the parents. Even after some humans developed an agrarian lifestyle and began curating the evolution of favored plants and animals, the world changed slowly. Over many generations, Zea mays went from a useless scruffy grass to buxom-kernaled ears of corn. But, over the course of any single farmer’s life, the corn gnawed during senescence could probably be mistaken for the corn of youth.

Whereas my grandmother’s cellphone / camera / computer combo looks radically different from any of the bulky, ineffectual devices available when she was young. And my parents’ generation – whose lives spanned the development of modern agricultural practices – has seen a precipitous fall in all non-human animal life. In The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy describes this decline:

The_Moth_Snowstorm_for_web_df271fb2-a6f7-4703-9f9a-23ea2dbb7f70_1024x1024It had been the most powerful of all the manifestations of abundance, this blizzard of insects in the headlights of cars, this curious side effect of technology, this revelatory view of the natural world which was only made possible with the invention of the motor vehicle. It was extraordinary; yet even more extraordinary was the fact that it had ceased to exist. Its disappearance spoke unchallengeably of a completely unregarded but catastrophic crash in Britain of the invertebrate life which is at the basis of so much else. South Korea may have destroyed Saemangeum, and China may have destroyed its dolphin, but my own country has wrecked a destruction which is just as egregious; in my lifetime, in a process that began in the year I was born, in this great and merciless thinning, it has obliterated half its living things, even though the national consciousness does not register it yet. That has been my fate as a baby boomer: not just to belong to the most privileged generation which ever walked the earth, but, as we can at last see now, to have my life parallel the destruction of the wondrous abundance of nature that still persisted in my childhood, the abundance which sang like nothing else of the force and energy of life and could be witnessed in so many ways, but most strikingly of all in the astonishing summer night display in the headlight beams, which is no more.

Cleaning splattered bugs off a windshield doesn’t sound like fun; drivers rarely have to do this anymore. But … we now have only a tenth as many insects as we did during the 1980s. Which means a tenth as much food for birds: their populations are falling too. Birds breed more slowly now, for lack of food, and many are killed off because our world sports unnaturally high population densities of predatory cats.

And that’s just the decline since 1989. Over the course of McCarthy’s life, insect populations may have fallen by 95% or more. And, because of the “landscape amnesia” described by Diamond above, it’s difficult for anyone born later to even realize what’s been lost. We assume that whatever world we’ve been born into is normal.

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Last night, Uncle Max woke me to go outside at 3 a.m. Afterward, I lay in bed listening to the birds singing.

Fewer birds sang at night when I was growing up. But they are adapting to our world. Our streetlights shine all the time, and our cities, during the day, are so loud that their songs cannot be heard. Humanity’s persistent racket is infiltrating even the most secluded corners of the world.

From Ula Chrobak’s article on noise pollution:

noiseSome plants need silence for seed dispersal—revving cars can scare away rodents that might otherwise do the job. Animals need silence to hear predators approaching or to communicate with their mates: A bird whose song would normally travel 100 meters would, with a 10-fold increase in noise, have its melody stifled to a 10-meter radius. “In so many landscapes, both people and other organisms are living in shrunken perceptual worlds,” says [ecologist] Clinton Francis.

In The Songs of Trees, David Haskell describes the way our forests should sound – the natural world has its own rhythms, its own music. In the following passage he listens in the Amazon:

songsoftreesA tinamou sings the forest’s vespers. Although this turkey-size relative of the emu is seldom seen, its melodies accent every dusk. The sound is the work of a silversmith, pure tones that the artist melts and crafts into ornament. The inflections and timbre of the Andean quena flute are surely inspired by the songs of these birds. In the understory the dark is comprehensive, but here in the ceibo crown, dusk lingers another thirty minutes, the orange gray western light of sunset reaching us unobstructed as we hear the tinamou’s song.

As the light drains, bromeliad frogs spasm chuckles and grunts from aerial ponds. They call for five or more minutes, then cut to silence. Any sound will set them off again: a stray frog call, a human voice, the bleat of a roosting bird trodden by a companion. Three species of owl join the frogs. Crested owls punch regular groans from below, keeping in touch with mates, neighbors, and the youngster that the pair have hidden in the low branches of an Inga tree. The spectacled owl’s repeated low, rubbery calls wobble around their crooked axis like a badly aligned tire. A distant tawny screech owl sings a high to-to-to-to, an endless, jabbing ellipsis. Insects pulse high drills, clear, sweeping chirps, saws, and tinkles. Monkeys and parrots whose sounds dominate the day have dozed away. The upper leaves of the ceibo chuff in the sharp gusts that accompany the sunset, then the wind eases and stillness comes to the tree.

But these forests, too, are threatened. The ancient trees are cut down and the music wanes. One after another, pockets of nature are forgetting how to speak. Again from Haskell:

In the center of town, Quichua men in suits work with and within the local government. The central, national government hurts and kills the ceibo mother tree, cutting her away piece by piece. Even conservation programs encourage people to cut away the trees. We lose our medicines and hunting. State-driven conservation erodes the indigenous community. Without intact territory, owned and managed by the indigenous community, the forest falls into incoherence, the community dies.

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The evidence of harm is all around us. Our world sounds wrong, tastes wrong, smells wrong. We’re scraping too few bugs off our windshields after long drives.

And, if we don’t act, our children won’t feel that they need to. A hot, loud planet will feel just as normal to them as the planet we inherited felt to us.