Category Archives: disasters

Earth Day & March for Science

I’m heading to the lovely Santa Cruz March for Scienceonlinesquare and Earth Day celebration, and wanted to share a song to celebrate that:

(You can also see the lyrics to IFLS hereHank Green has lots of other nerdy science songs, plus SciShow and Crash Course, and I guess I’m a fangirl.)

Happy Earth Day!

How do living systems ‘prepare, leverage and bounce back’ from times of crisis?

Rachel Hahs posted some amazing biomimetic analogies and questions for understanding how we respond to our current time of crisis and transformation through a contemplation of how nature expresses resilience after catastrophes like fire — such nutritious food for thought in this solstice season!

…[H]ow do the prairie grasses, giant sequoias and aspens of the world actually do it – what is the nitty gritty of the biology? And then what are the very specific and clear parallel and divergent metaphors we can draw from these examples? What is our fire, sunlight and ash? What parts of our community do we protect above all else? What are our necessary resources, signals for exchange, sacrificial parts, triggers for growth? What packets of information do we disseminate far and wide in the hopes that we can take advantage of this disruption and the disruptions to come, and how do we learn from our natural models on how methods for improving our chances?


Here are some preliminary responses I had to her article:Seedlings and old cone after fire, Yellowstone NP, USA; Wikimedia Commons

For the weedy, pioneer species strategy, I suspect that one of the most important things to think about as ‘seeds’ are small packets of information that are inexpensive and easy to broadcast (e.g. blogs and other social media). The trick is to produce seeds/memes that can easily reach and germinate in the disturbed ground, then grow and reproduce successfully from there. If the disturbed ground in question is the disrupted and uncomfortable mental spaces that many of us find ourselves in, we need to consider what structure is most likely to reach such a target. What resources are likely to be available when the seed reaches that ground, to nourish and support its growth and reproduction?

Espengruppe (Populus tremula) in der Nähe der Lahnquelle, Gemeinde Netphen, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Deutschland; Wikimedia Commons - selbst fotografiert von Nikanos CC BY-SA 2.5In terms of the prairie’s and aspen’s strategies, thinking deeply (pun mostly intended) about what safe, underground networks we already have in place is an important strategy.
We can be grounded (ooh, there’s another) in the community connections we already have; strengthening this existing network, sharing resources, signaling one another about dangers and opportunities we have detected, we do the same work as the rhizosphere in many thriving ecosystems to preserve the resilience and diversity of the community. The idea that this rhizosphere must be protected from the devastating changes at the surface might be an argument in favor of finding ‘underground’ ways to keep these communities strong (be they old-fashioned face-to-face meetings or A. One end of a trench used in excavating root systems. B. Distichlis spicata, showing the long rhizomes and shallow roots. J. Weaver (1919) The ecological relations of roots.conscientious privacy measures and enhanced encryption of key electronic communications for more extended communities). I also really appreciate Rachel’s question about ‘sacrificial parts’ – what can we safely give up to survive the time of crisis, without risking the roots? My inclination here is to think about the parts of our lives that we have normalized, but that on deeper consideration we could get by without (perhaps even do better without).

There is much deeper that this biomimicry work can go, seeking even more analogies based on the biology of resilient species and ecosystems. What ideas arise for you? What ways for responding to catastrophe can we learn by engaging nature as model, measure and mentor?

The Smoke of Centuries: Indonesia’s Fires

The fires in Indonesia  burn rainforest trees that have grown and fed and housed orangutans for decades or centuries, and peat that has stored carbon for centuries or millennia.  George Monbiot sums up the recent conflagrationary disaster in Indonesia that Southeast Asia has been breathing:

A great tract of Earth is on fire and threatened species are being driven out of their habitats. This is a crime against humanity and nature.

It is hard to convey the scale of this inferno, but here’s a comparison that might help: it is currently producing more carbon dioxide than the US economy. And in three weeks the fires have released more CO2 than the annual emissions of Germany.

Helicoptering water on to Indonesia's forest fires

 …Read more

It’s not just the trees that are burning. It is the land itself. Much of the forest sits on great domes of peat. When the fires penetrate the earth, they smoulder for weeks, sometimes months, releasing clouds of methane, carbon monoxide, ozone and exotic gases such as ammonium cyanide. The plumes extend for hundreds of miles, causing diplomatic conflicts with neighbouring countries.

 …Read more

Though Joko Widodo seems to want to stop the burning, his reach is limited. His government’s policies are contradictory: among them are new subsidies for palm oil production that make further burning almost inevitable. Some plantation companies, prompted by their customers, have promised to stop destroying the rainforest. Government officials have responded angrily, arguing that such restraint impedes the country’s development. That smoke blotting out the nation, which has already cost it some $30bn? That, apparently, is development.

Read more

Leuser Under Threat Again

And yet another sad but important recent article related to my upcoming talk, this time on the Leuser Ecosystem (where I studied orangutans at Suaq Balimbing and Ketambe research sites in 1999-2000) and the palm oil producer (PT. Aloer Timur) who is encroaching on its lowland forests.

A report produced by Greenomics Indonesia presents evidence from spatial monitoring and field observations that documents the clearing of High Carbon Stock (HCS) forests in a PT. Aloer Timur concession located inside the Leuser Ecosystem. RAN confirmed this destruction in June 2015. At the end of June, Greenomics released another report with photographic evidence showing PT. Aloer Timur had still been bulldozing HCS forests as of June 24, 2015.

From Rainforest Action Network

Latest article on the Palm Oil threat to the Leuser Ecosystem

A recent summary of the current challenges facing Leuser, where I went 16 years ago to study orangutans, then watched their home being desecrated by the relentless chainsaws.

“Right now, huge swaths of vital forest habitat in Indonesia are being cut, cleared and burnt to the ground to make way for industrial-scale palm oil inyourpalm480pxplantations. These illegal operations produce a cheap supply of palm oil to a voracious international market that is growing at an exponential rate. Demand for this vegetable oil has sky-rocketed in the past decade as palm oil companies have managed to keep consumers in the dark about the hideous crimes being committed against humanity, endangered creatures and the planet.

I hope I have managed to impart even a sliver of the exceptional uniqueness and immense beauty that is embodied by this special place. Only then can one begin to fully understand the weight of loss that is sustained with every single fallen tree. Yet the true measure of this problem extends far beyond the initial insult of deforestation and spreads like a virus into lives of hundreds of innocent people and animals alike. ” ~Heather Rally

Note especially Michelle Desilets’ comment: “May I suggest readers have a look at campaigns by groups such as the Rainforest Action Network and the Union of Concerned Scientists to urge manufacturers and retailers to source only deforestation-free, conflict-free Certified Sustainable Palm Oil.”   This problem is so big and so pervasive that a handful of us tree-huggers refusing Oreos is going to barely make a dent – the companies involved won’t budge without a large, organized push.  So by all means, reduce your complicity, but don’t forget to organize and collaborate for maximum effect.

Climate Scientist Jason Box: “Yeah, the shit that’s going down has been testing my ability to block it.”

I find it impressive that an article like this was posted in a mainstream magazine like Esquire. I especially like their web address that went with the article, which includes the phrase “ballad-of-the-sad-climatologists.” I guess it’s good to know we’re not alone with our worries. I find the perspectives expressed (in regards to not getting bogged down in anxiety and depression) heartening and important to cling to in these times of dire beauty, because the work is still worth doing.


KSR: The question is…

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite science fiction writers.  His works include some of the better collapsitarian novels, The Wild Shore, Pacific Edge and Forty Signs of Rain, plus the brilliant Red Mars.  He gives a thoughtful response to the question “Is it too late?”

So on to the much better question: How much of the biosphere can we save? Similarly, how much of civilization can we save (and what parts do we most want to save)?