Tag: Elizabeth Kolbert

Climate Change and Humanity: Postscript.

A personal viewpoint after reading Tom’s essay Is Climate Change a Crime Against Humanity?

Last Thursday, July 3rd, I republished a post, what Tom calls a Tomgram, from TomDispatch comparing the USA’s attitude to the very small risk of a country exploding a weapon of mass destruction, WMD, over American soil to the 95% risk of the USA being harmed from the effects of climate change.  Here’s an extract from the central part of Tom’s essay:

So here’s a question I’d like any of you living in or visiting Wyoming to ask the former vice president, should you run into him in a state that’s notoriously thin on population: How would he feel about acting preventively, if instead of a 1% chance that some country with weapons of mass destruction might use them against us, there was at least a 95% — and likely as not a 100% — chance of them being set off on our soil? Let’s be conservative, since the question is being posed to a well-known neoconservative. Ask him whether he would be in favor of pursuing the 95% doctrine the way he was the 1% version.

After all, thanks to a grim report in 2013 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we know that there is now a 95% -100% likelihood that “human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming [of the planet] since the mid-20th century.” We know as well that the warming of the planet — thanks to the fossil fuel system we live by and the greenhouse gases it deposits in the atmosphere — is already doing real damage to our world and specifically to the United States, as a recent scientific report released by the White House made clear. We also know, with grimly reasonable certainty, what kinds of damage those 95% -100% odds are likely to translate into in the decades, and even centuries, to come if nothing changes radically: a temperature rise by century’s end that could exceed 10 degrees Fahrenheit, cascading species extinctions, staggeringly severe droughts across larger parts of the planet (as in the present long-term drought in the American West and Southwest), far more severe rainfall across other areas, more intense storms causing far greater damage, devastating heat waves on a scale no one in human history has ever experienced, masses of refugees, rising global food prices, and among other catastrophes on the human agenda, rising sea levels that will drown coastal areas of the planet.

Tom’s essays had many great links to background research papers and other supporting material.  The penultimate link was embedded (my italics) in this sentence: “In the case of a major exchange of such weapons, we would be talking about “the sixth extinction” of planetary history.”  That linked to the Amazon page describing the book, released earlier this year, of the same name written by Elizabeth Kolbert, as follows:

A major book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In The Sixth Extinction, two-time winner of the National Magazine Award and New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert draws on the work of scores of researchers in half a dozen disciplines, accompanying many of them into the field: geologists who study deep ocean cores, botanists who follow the tree line as it climbs up the Andes, marine biologists who dive off the Great Barrier Reef. She introduces us to a dozen species, some already gone, others facing extinction, including the Panamian golden frog, staghorn coral, the great auk, and the Sumatran rhino. Through these stories, Kolbert provides a moving account of the disappearances occurring all around us and traces the evolution of extinction as concept, from its first articulation by Georges Cuvier in revolutionary Paris up through the present day. The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind’s most lasting legacy; as Kolbert observes, it compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.

Here’s an interview of Elizabeth Kolbert taken from the Democracy Now programme. It’s a tad under 20 minutes so easy to put aside a little of your time to watch it.


Published on Feb 11, 2014
February 2014 on Democracy Now!

In the history of the planet, there have been five known mass extinction events. The last came 65 million years ago, when an asteroid about half the size of Manhattan collided with the Earth, wiping out the dinosaurs and bringing the Cretaceous period to an end. Scientists say we are now experiencing the sixth extinction, with up to 50 percent of all living species in danger of disappearing by the end of the century. But unlike previous extinctions, the direct cause this time is us — human-driven climate change. In “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” journalist Elizabeth Kolbert visits four continents to document the massive “die-offs” that came millions of years ago and those now unfolding before our eyes. Kolbert explores how human activity — fossil fuel consumption, ocean acidification, pollution, deforestation, forced migration — threatens life forms of all kinds. “It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion,” Kolbert writes. “The losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific and in the North Atlantic, in the Arctic and the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys.”

Elizabeth Kolbert, is well known for her reporting on global warming as a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, which led her to investigate climate species extinction. Her new book is The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. In 2006, she wrote Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.

Make no mistake, that short video interview doesn’t pull any punches.  Just as Kolbert’s book.  It is very tempting to want to hide, to close one’s ears and eyes and pretend it’s all a bad dream and, soon, we will awaken to a bright, new dawn.

(Now for something really lovely! It’s 1:40pm on Sunday, 6th)

I took a quick break to think about my next sentence.  I was looking for some words that would encourage us all to do something!  Because as John Hurlburt recently wrote: “Failure to act condemns us to death as a species of fools.

In that short break I saw that someone else had signed up to follow Learning from Dogs.  That person describes herself as Elsie Bowen-Dodoo.  Her blog is called BowenDiaries. On her About page, Elsie writes:

Elsie Bowen-Dodoo. Living life with a purpose. Persevering to inspire all races.

I write to inspire people hoping that they reading my articles and stuff will be touched to do something positive in their lives.

We really can all make this world a better place to live in.

Talent should not be wasted.

This is the picture on Elsie’s home page.

Positive inspiration!
Positive inspiration!

So here’s my take on where we, as in all mankind, are at.

  • We have to turn our backs on growth, greed and materialism.
  • Each of us must place caring for our planet our highest priority in life.
  • Each of us must be alive to making a positive difference.
  • Being true to what we know is right will set us free.
  • This will also create ripples of positive energy that will set others free.
  • That is the only sustainable way to go.

Let me close by returning to dogs.  After all this blog is called Learning from Dogs! By recognising, of course, that these are challenging times. As we are incessantly reminded by the drumbeat of the doom-and-gloom news industry every hour, frequently every half-hour, throughout the day. A symphony of negative energy.

Yet right next to us is a world of positive energy. The world of dogs. A canine world full of love and trust, playfulness and relaxation. A way of living that is both clear and straightforward; albeit far from being simple. As anyone will know who has seen the way dogs interact with each other and with us humans.

In other words, dogs offer endless examples of positive behaviours. The wonderful power of compassion for self, and others, and of loving joy. The way to live that we humans crave for. A life full of hope and positive energy that keeps the power of negativity at bay.

That is the only way forward!

Oliver, Cleo and Hazel playing together.
Oliver, Cleo and Hazel joyfully playing together.

Sometimes one just has to wonder ….

…. about the most peculiar species of all: man!

A number of essays and items from a variety of sources have passed my screen in recent times that ….. well, you complete the sentence! Let me illustrate; in no particular order.

I have long been a follower of the writings of George Monbiot.  Those who haven’t come across Mr. Monbiot before can avail themselves of his background and dip into his articles, many of which underscore my proposition that we really are a peculiar race.  For example, just three days ago George Monbiot published an article under the title of The Benefits Claimants the Government Loves.  It highlights one mad aspect of UK Policy.

Corrupt, irrational, destructive, counter-productive: this scarcely begins to describe our farming policy.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 4th March 2014

Just as mad cow disease exposed us to horrors – feeding cattle on the carcasses of infected cattle – previously hidden in plain sight, so the recent floods have lifted the lid on the equally irrational treatment of the land. Just as BSE exposed dangerous levels of collusion between government and industry, so the floods have begun to expose similar cases of complicity and corruption. But we’ve heard so far just a fraction of the story.

You really do need to read the article in full to get your arms around the terrible state of affairs of the UK benefits scandal.  But try this:

As a result of these multiple failures by the government, even Farmers’ Weekly warns that “British soils are reaching crisis point” (16). Last week a farmer sent me photos of his neighbours’ fields, where “the soil is so eroded it is like a rockery. I have the adjoining field … my soil is now at least 20 cm deeper than his.” In the catchment of the River Tamar in Devon, one study suggests, soil is being lost at the rate of five tonnes per hectare per year (17).

I could go on. I could describe the complete absence of enforceable regulations on the phosphates farmers spread on their fields, which cause eutrophication (blooms of algae which end up suffocating much of the freshwater ecosystem) when they run into the rivers. I could discuss the poorly-regulated use of metaldehyde, a pesticide that is impossible to remove from drinking water (18). I could expand on the way in which governments all over Europe have – while imposing a temporary ban for flowering crops – permitted the use of neonicotinoid insecticides for all other purposes, without any idea of what their impact might be on animals in the soil and the rivers into which they wash. The research so far suggests it is devastating, but they were licensed before any such investigation was conducted (19).

There is just one set of rules which are effective and widely deployed: those which enforce the destruction of the natural world. Buried in the cross-compliance regulations is a measure called GAEC 12 (20). This insists that, to receive their money, farmers must prevent “unwanted vegetation” from growing on their land. (The rest of us call it wildlife habitat). Even if their land is producing nothing, they must cut, graze or spray it with herbicides to get their money. Unlike soil erosion, compaction and pollution, breaches of this rule are easy to detect and enforce: if the inspectors see trees returning to the land, the subsidy can be cut off altogether.

Perhaps a clue to the extreme unfairness of who is in receipt of UK benefits can be explained by the fact expressed by George Monbiot above, “The biggest 174 landowners in England take £120m between them.

With that in mind, let’s move on.  Move on to a recent essay from Patrice Ayme: WAR MAKES HISTORY! To say it makes disturbing reading is, trust me, an understatement.  But in the context of the UK’s rich landowners, as George Monbiot explained above, try this closing extract from Patrice’s essay:

We are a deeply equalitarian species. Out of equality rises our superior cultural performance. Plutocracy, the rule of the Dark Side, denies giving, love, and the equality which make us possible. Thus plutocracy is a denial of our species. Only an anger great enough to destroy it, will save us, and the biosphere. And there is hope: greed is neither as natural, nor as strong as anger.

It’s time to get angry against dictator Putin. Angry now is better than very sorry tomorrow.

War makes history. Of this we must think, if we want to make history better.

Patrice Aymé

Frankly, my own knowledge of these ‘dark forces’, of the influence of money and power, is practically zero. But the more that one looks at the madness of so many aspects of mankind’s existence, the more one thinks the truth, as Patrice writes it, is the real truth.  Indeed, here’s how Patrice opens his essay:



The earlier unjustifiable, unprovoked fascism, greedy plutocracy, imperial overstretch, murderous paranoia and other aspects of the Dark Side get smashed, the better.

Such is the most basic lesson of the 1930s.

For the millions of us that live relatively comfortable lives, it’s easy to read this stuff, nod sagely, and wonder if the heating needs to be left on this coming night.  But, pardon the pun, wake-up calls as to the approaching nightmares (sorry!) are not hard to find.

Try this from an interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, as recently published on Grist:

In “The Sixth Extinction,” Elizabeth Kolbert reports from the frontlines of a dying world


University of Montana

The New Yorker writer and acclaimed author Elizabeth Kolbert has a penchant for depressing topics. Her 2006 book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, helped push climate change into the mainstream (with bonus points for not mincing words in the title).

Now that climate change is safely keeping most of us up at night, Kolbert turned her pen to another big bummer: the sixth extinction. We’re currently losing species at a rate of 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than unassisted nature wiping out the occasional newt. While humans weren’t responsible for the last five mass extinctions, our fingerprints are all over this one. Yep: We collectively have the force of an asteroid when it comes to erasing species (high five, guys!) and for the most part, our response has been classic Urkel.

That interview concludes:

Q. You also write about some efforts to save species. Could you share some of those?

A. I happened to go to the San Diego Zoo, where they have a very impressive conservation program. I was there to see something called the “frozen zoo.” It’s just a bunch of vats of liquid nitrogen with cell lines from, in many cases, highly endangered animals and, in one case, an animal that doesn’t exist anymore, a Hawaiian bird. The idea is pretty much what it sounds like: You have these cell lines, you’re going to keep them alive forever, and eventually people are going to figure out how to resurrect some of these species. Or maybe if you don’t want to go quite that sci-fi, we’ll take the cell lines, we’ll do a DNA analysis, we’ll try to figure out why this population is having trouble.

They took me to see this bird named Kinohi, one of the last Hawaiian crows. He’s “reluctant to part with his genetic material,” let’s put it that way. He had been taken from this breeding facility on Maui to San Diego, and he is ministered to by a PhD physiologist who is trying to, let’s say, pleasure this bird, so that he will give up some sperm, so she can artificially inseminate a bird back in Maui. When I visited he had not yet, you know, come through. She was literally preparing to try again — I don’t know if it has ever worked, I should call her.

That was really, to me, emblematic of this crazy situation we find ourselves in. We’re incredibly smart, we’ve figured out how to freeze cell lines and quite possibly bring back extinct animals — we’re willing to pleasure crows. And yet, the Hawaiian Islands are called the extinction capital of the planet — it’s an absolutely devastated ecosystem. Many, many birds are extinct already; those that aren’t are just clinging to existence. Those forces are not changing and, in fact, things are getting worse. There used to be no mosquitoes in Hawaii; there are now mosquitoes. They carry avian malaria, and as the climate warms, avian malaria is moving up the slopes so that even these refugees species that are high on the mountains are increasingly not there. A lot of birds are in terrible trouble there.

All of these things are happening at once and, once again, they’re all true. People are devoting a lot of time and energy and love to trying to preserve these species, and meanwhile the world is increasingly screwed up. So that is how I end the book: They can both be true; it’s not one or the other.

Did you notice the reference to yet another example of mankind’s madness? “That was really, to me, emblematic of this crazy situation we find ourselves in. We’re incredibly smart, we’ve figured out how to freeze cell lines and quite possibly bring back extinct animals — we’re willing to pleasure crows. And yet, the Hawaiian Islands are called the extinction capital of the planet — it’s an absolutely devastated ecosystem.

I believe inherently that the great majority of individuals are good people.  Take Kevin Richardson for instance. Not for him money and power.  Just a passion to save lions.  Oh, and hugging them!  Just watch, and be moved.

Don’t know how to close this? Maybe using a quotation from Ernest Hemingway:

The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.

So in these broken times, let all the good people come out strong – stronger than those who are corrupt, irrational, destructive and counter-productive!

It is the ultimate time for hope and faith in the power of goodness!