Nature

10 minutes from dinosaurs

Fascinating breakdown of exactly how the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs hit, and how scientists figured that out. Notably, if the asteroid hit 150 miles away, it wouldn’t have caused gypsum to vaporize in the atmosphere, and most animal life worldwide (including dinosaurs) would have survived.

If the meteorite had arrived ten minutes earlier, or ten minutes later, it would still no doubt have inflicted devastation, but the dinosaurs would still be here and you wouldn’t.

Humanity and hegemony

I’ve always been shocked by humanity’s outsized impact on the earth. After all, we’re recent arrivals on the scene and there are far fewer of us than most animals and insects. We shouldn’t have affected big things like ecosystems yet, right?

Yet a new study found that humans have destroyed 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants since civilization began. And today, 70% of all birds are farmed poultry, and 60% of mammals are livestock. As the article says, we are “simultaneously insignificant and utterly dominant in the grand scheme of life on Earth”.

One of the study’s authors wrote:

When I do a puzzle with my daughters, there is usually an elephant next to a giraffe next to a rhino. But if I was trying to give them a more realistic sense of the world, it would be a cow next to a cow next to a cow and then a chicken. – Professor Ron Milo

Another way to look at it:

Doing more with less

The fundamental challenge of our generation is to design lifestyles that everyone wants and the earth can support forever. Buckminster Fuller put it well:

The possibility of a good life for any man depends upon the possibility of realizing it for all men. I must be able to convert the resources of the earth, doing more with less, until I reach a point where we can do so much as to be able to service all men in respect to all their needs.

Notes from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

A few years back I was talking with a friend about how much more frequent and easier air travel had gotten even since I was a kid. I mentioned that our kids would probably travel constantly and never settle down, and he responded “or maybe we’ll run out of resources and they won’t be able to travel at all.”

That was the first time I really considered that our way of life might not continue growing forever, and may end or transform completely. Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is a short, poetic exploration of how we might come to terms with our mortality as a civilization, and if we must die out, learn how to die well. It’s a dark book, but offers an unexpected olive branch in the form of the humanities as a way to avoid the worst of what might come.

The Big Idea

Humanity’s survival through the collapse of carbon-fueled capitalism and into the new world of the Anthropocene will hinge on our ability to let our old way of life die while protecting, sustaining, and reworking our collective stores of cultural technology. (23)

Scranton highlights that the foundations of our civilization are the stories we tell ourselves. If we tell stories about endless technological progress and individual fulfillment, we are likely to fall into chaos once our resources run out. But if we tell stories about what’s best–and most basic–about human culture, we build knowledge and a support system for harder times.

Rather than technology, this emphasizes the humanities as the most important area to develop in ourselves and our children. Scranton argues that reading, writing, singing and drawing new stories about “the good life” is the best way to protect against the dangers of climate change, resource depletion, and societal collapse.

The first step, though, is to personally and as a society realize our mortality and shift to a mindset of collective responsibility.

5 favorite quotes

  • Politics, whether for bees or for humans, is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems. This is where the ideas of the vote, the town hall meeting, and the public debate get their power: humans come together to resonate on one frequency or another. (55-56)
  • Accepting this emptiness, letting go of my self, was only the first step in coming to understand my responsibility to and participation in a larger collective self, a kind of human existence transcending any particular place or time, going back to our first moments in Africa 200,000 years ago, and living on in the dim, fraught future of the Anthropocene.(93-94)
  • “All the wisdom and reasoning in this world boils down finally to this point: to teach us not to be afraid to die.” – Michel de Montaigne (91)
  • The only inherent trait of the human ape that differentiates us from other animals is our knack for collective symbolic manipulation. (94)
  • The study of the humanities is nothing less than the patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life…The fate of the humanities, as we confront the end of modern civilization, is the fate of humanity itself. (99; 110)

Next steps

I’ve long wanted to write simple children’s books about the future, and illustrating possible good lifestyles in a challenging environment seems like a good way to do that. Will make that a priority this year.

Update – Just found out I posted this on the day Ursula Le Guin died. Sad news. A quote of hers that applies quite nicely here:

“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.”

How Fungi Saved the World

For all that we humans worry about saving the world, it was mushrooms that rescued an Earth that had drowned in wood for 40 million years, and even gave us the coal to jumpstart modern civilization:

Here is the crux of our problem: lignin made the lycopod trees a little too successful. Because their leaves were lofted above many herbivores and their trunks were made inedible by lignin, lycopods were virtually impervious to harm. They grew and died in vast quantities, and their trunks piled up in swamps, eventually becoming submerged and locking huge quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for good in the form of coal. Without any decomposition to recycle this carbon, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels crashed, leading to global cooling and making it much harder for plants to grow. Atmospheric oxygen concentration, in turn, soared to an estimated 35%, much higher than the 20% of modern times.

Experience as interpretation

Our own nature, in fact, is defined by the tiny fraction of possible interpretations [of the world] we can make, and the astronomical number we can’t.-
Hans Moravec

Mount Umunhum opening at last

In 2004 I headed up Mount Umunhum for the first time, hoping to conquer my last Peninsula summit. Unfortunately I was thwarted by the private land which blocked the road, tantalizingly close to the summit.

Thirteen years later, and thanks to lots of hard work by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (donate here =) and the voters of Measure AA last year, Mount Umunhum is finally set to open to the public for the first time on September 17.

The Grand Opening ceremony is fully booked, but starting September 18 the summit (and the road there) will be open to the public. Exciting!

In other news, the famous red barn familiar to riders of Highway 84 West will soon become part of the new La Honda Creek Open Space Preserve, with 6 miles of hiking trails. Great news.

Ways to stop climate change, ranked

A fascinating list of ways to reduce global warming, ranked by effectiveness and cost, with some surprising findings.

Refrigerant management–basically what happens when you discard an air conditioner–is the top opportunity, above anything energy-related. After that comes onshore wind farms, then two food-related items: reducing waste and eating more plants.

Pragmatic and encouraging! The authors have edited a book around all of the opportunities, Drawdown.

The state of the world

In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.

Everything is interesting

From the author who wrote an entire book about a journey up an escalator, some thoughts about what’s interesting:

Everything is interesting. Potentially. Sometimes it may not seem so. You may think a certain thing is completely without interest. You may think, or I may think, eh, dull, boring, heck with it, let’s move on. But there is someone on this planet who can find something interesting in that particular thing. And it’s often good to try. You have to poke at a thing, sometimes, and find out where it squeaks.

“Everything is interesting” is a phrase that comes to mind often watching my new baby gaze at the world. He’s especially enraptured by leaves on trees, fluttering by the millions in the breeze, and the enormous, luminous sky behind them. Which are pretty neat, if you think about it.