Posts Tagged ‘environment’

Smaller than Larger than Life

Visiting John Muir’s house is a bit of a shock to National Park travelers. Nearly every western park you visit has mention of John Muir: how he explored it, how he mapped it, how he lobbied for its entry into the National Park or Forest Service. Over and over again, you’ll see his weather-worn visage, like this:


Clearly this was a larger-than-life figure, a man who walked the earth, one of the few who saw wonders and marvels in their natural state, long before the paved roads leading to well-marked vistas. He was clearly a man of the backwoods, in an era when that really meant something.

Then you go to his home in Martinez, California, and you see this.


Um, what?

Well, turns out that John Muir was (surprise surprise) a human being.

John Muir basically grew old. At 42, after some convincing by his friends, he found he could no longer tromp through the wilderness as he once had. John Muir, like most men, wanted a family. He married Louisa Strentzel, settled down, and fathered two daughters. John Muir then wanted to provide for that family. He proved to be a successful orchardist and businessman, apparently earning enough in five years to provide for his family for the rest of his lifetime (even in the 1880s, that was a remarkable feat). Finally, John Muir needed a place to write and to organize. From his headquarters, he lobbied for the creation of the National Park Service; organized the founding of the Sierra Club; fought the establishment of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir; and published multiple magazine articles and books.

Far too often, folks look at historical figures as being larger than life: omnipotent and perfect individuals, single-minded, focused, driven to their one and only goal. But reality is actually quite different than all of that. John Muir put all his environmental travels on hold and became … a husband, a father, a farmer and businessman. And, apparently, a thumping good one. He lived in a very nice house, in fairly decent comfort, and enjoyed his life. He was not, as his grizzled visage would suggest, purely a “man of the woods”. He was a real human being, appropriate for his time.

Every great person in history, regardless of the pedestals we put them on, was really just a person.

John Muir and Cancel Culture

I recently read Nature Writings, a collection of John Muir’s essays. Muir waxes rhapsodic about everything, from the length of pine needles to the detritus comprising glacial moraines. This is a man who loved the natural world, spending significant amounts of time in the wild lands, sketching flowers and mountaintops and creek beds. His devotion became conservationist zealotry, and his efforts resulted in protecting thousands of square miles from scarring development.

And, apparently, he was also friends with some unsavory characters, including at least one avowed eugenicist. He also said some lousy things about native tribes, slaves, and freedmen. The organization he helped found, the Sierra Club, had a decidedly upper-class, whites-only mentality. The group has enough of a tarnished past, the current directors released a statement at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Conservative commentators across the country gleefully declared “John Muir is canceled!“, triumphant in the fact that the “the radical left” has as much ugliness in their past as they themselves do. Of course, this tarnishes yet another “noble tradition” of this country.

I’m not going to argue whether or not Muir was a solid racist. Frankly, I don’t think I’m qualified. I do think he disliked a lot of people, preferring to walk the woods and the mountains instead of towns and cities. Individuals such as Muir do that because they don’t like people in general. Still, the evidence against him is pretty strong, and the condemnation justified. None of that lessens his contributions to the country, to conservation, to the creation of the National Parks. It just means that he was a flawed man, that he shouldn’t be put up on a pedestal as any paragon of virtue, and that his unsavory opinions should be discussed alongside the magnitude of his accomplishments. Those who carry on his work today should strive to do better. Much better.

Fortunately, things are changing. Today’s environmentalists acknowledge that minority populations are at greater risk from environmental catastrophe, and are trying to help. They are also acknowledging that minority populations care deeply about the environment, breaking a long-held stereotype. And as was shown with the XL Pipeline controversy of the past few years, it’s now commonly known that Native reservations have it pretty bad, with some companies taking advantage of extreme poverty to build toxic waste dumps as “job creators”. It’s a shame these groups weren’t brought into the environmental and conservation movements from the very beginning, perhaps it would have gone a long way towards not only inclusion, but also improved living conditions and better health outcomes for those populations. But at least there is movement in the right direction.

It turns out that John Muir was not just a human being, but a flawed human being. It’s up to us to be better human beings. The mistake is not trying to improve on what was done prior. We can be better people than Muir was, while still trying to uphold the better side of his ideals.

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Bubbles Through the Ice

The other day I attended a screening of “Chasing Ice“, a documentary covering National Geographic photographer James Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey project, chronicling the decline of the earth’s glaciers. This is a stunning film with some fantastic imagery (still, time-lapse, and video). It also makes you feel like you’re waiting bedside at a hospice, except in this case the terminally ill patient is the Earth itself, or at least the Earth as we know her.

Balog’s photography proves two indisputable facts: First, the earth is indeed warming; and second, this is causing change with unprecedented rapidity. His photography, as well as the research performed on archival photographs over the past century, proves that glaciers, thousands of years old and seemingly unchanging, are now disappearing at incredible rates. The glaciers he monitored receded more in the past 10 years than in the prior 100; and other studies show extensive swaths of glaciers are now gone entirely. There is no denying one’s eyes, physical observations on the ground, and the wealth of data by NASA and others proving temperatures across the planet are increasing. This is all very depressing, and by focusing on ice the film zooms right in on the crux of the problem and why this is such a catastrophe. It’s all about the water.

Water is the most fascinating substance in existence. It’s an amazing thing! At temperatures below 32F it’s a solid, still somewhat fluid but hard enough to crush in your skull. It expands when frozen, an action that can fracture mountains. And when enough of it piles up, it molds & scours the very surface of the earth. A few scant degrees later, it is a liquid, flowing wherever gravity takes it. In that state, it is capable of sustaining life, eroding valleys, washing away soil, and moving with enough force to wipe out everything along a coastline. Then it can evaporate, heading into the air as a vapor, depriving farmlands of its life-sustaining properties, where it affects air temperatures and wind currents until it again condenses and forms a gentle rain or a raging hurricane capable of wiping out a city.

But here’s the point people tend to miss: in all of recorded human history, water has been a relative constant. The quantity of water stored as glacial ice has only slowly reduced since the last Ice Age, the weather patterns have been generally the same (with occasional, yet still disastrous outliers), and the coastlines relatively stable, enabling the formation of great civilizations. We’ve evolved in the circumstances we exist in today, with a certain quantity of water in oceans, in the ice, and as fresh water. We’re used to our farmlands existing where they are, with predictable levels of rain, growing the crops they are capable of growing. We’re used to a certain type and quantity of life brewing in our oceans, lakes, rivers & streams, life capable of existing in certain levels of acidity, salinity, and oxygenation.  Yet this “stable state” of water is now changing drastically. That’s what scares me most: our very lifeblood, the very thing we all depend on to survive, is undergoing a state of change we are not used to seeing. How will we adjust?

There are a lot of uncertainties here. Will added freshwater in the oceans cause weather-impacting shifts in ocean currents? Will it upset the life balance of the oceans, harming the greater food chain? Will there be more rain? Less? More heavy storms? Less? Even the absence of storms can be problematic (midwest farms, for instance, rely on heavy snowpack in the Rockies for irrigation). Even with this uncertainty, it can be easily deduced that it can’t be good. We’ve grown & lived with a certain level and placement of water (and, therefore, weather) predictability for 10,000 years, shaking all that up is going to be disastrous! Sure, life can survive on a wetter world or a drier, hotter world, but can WE survive it? We are a pretty fragile species, and our societies are even more fragile.

:Sniff Sniff: Smells Like Oil

So the Earth is warming, of that there can be no doubt. But are we responsible? Is it due to a greenhouse effect caused by the massive release of CO2 brought on by 150 yrs of fossil fuel use? Or something else entirely?

After the film, the theater hosted a panel discussion with Dr. Laurence I. (“Larry”) Gould and Dr. Tad Pfeffer. Dr. Pfeffer works with the Extreme Ice Team, he’s very clear in his position that this global warming phenomenon is anthropogenic (human-caused). Dr. Gould is not necessarily a climate change denier, but he is skeptical and questions some of the popular conclusions on the causes of global warming. He makes some good points, but (like many anthropogenic climate deniers) he misses the biggest one: there is no other credible cause that can explain the Earth’s warming pattern.

Sure, there have been some questionable conclusions made by the human-cause crowd. Some of their models have been successfully challenged. There have been scandals regarding pre-drawn conclusions and data manipulation. Yet although these incidents have been isolated, the “alternative hypothesis” crowd does have cause to question. But, to date, nothing has been proposed that even comes close to explaining what is going on, including “the sun is doing it”. Here we have unprecedented, rapid warming happening now that hasn’t happened for at least 10,000 years. It would take something that hasn’t occurred in that length of time, it would take something that would be incredibly obvious and observable, not something subtle. If it’s not the sun (whose output we can, and do, easily measure), then what is it?

This is where “gullibility” comes in. The anti-warming, anti-human-cause crowd loudly proclaims how gullible us “environmentalist whackos” are for buying all this “global warming crap”, but then they toss out theories or outright denials that are just patently ridiculous! Isn’t buying theories like “there are more clouds trapping heat” or “there’s more soot in the air” or other illogical nonsense gullible in its own right? Whether or not all the details regarding fossil fuel use, increased CO2, and the resulting greenhouse effect are perfect and unchallengeable is besides the point: it is the only credible theorem out there. In the absence of other credible theories, it has to be, if not the right specific answer, then at least on the right track.

It even passes the “sniff test”, it’s a remarkably easy chain of logic to follow:

  • For three billion years, plants have absorbed CO2 through photosynthesis, releasing O2 and keeping the carbon.
  • For three billion years, some of this carbon was deposited at the bottom of swamps & shallow seas. This really accelerated during the Carboniferous Period, some 100-400 million years ago (when the bulk of our fossil fuel resources were initially deposited)
  • These carbon deposits were then concentrated and compressed through various geological processes. This resulted in  coal, oil and natural gas deposits.
  • Flash-forward to 300 years ago. Coal enters into widespread use. Flash forward another 150 years. Oil is discovered and enters widespread use. Now flash-forward to today. Can you even fathom how much oil & coal has been burned in these last couple of centuries? Even in the last 50 years? I don’t think any of us can.
  • So here’s the rub: it took nearly 3 billion years of plants removing carbon from the atmosphere to develop these vast stores of fossil fuels, and we’ve burnt how much in just 300 years?
  • What we are seeing is essentially an explosion — a very rapid release of stored energy — in the super-slow motion scale of geologic time.

Believing in anthropogenic global warming is not gullibility. Believing that our burning of fossil fuels would not have an adverse effect on our planet is the height of gullibility!

The Root of Gullibility

There’s only one root cause for gullibility, and (surprisingly) it’s not ignorance. Sure, ignorance is part of it, but gullibility, at its essence, is all about really, really wanting something to be true. You can think you can win the lottery or you can fall for a cash-for-gold scam not because you’re ignorant on how those things really work but because you really want to have a buttload of money. I know some highly educated people who fell for scams involving psychics and others who got ripped off by home remodeling contractors and others who bought obvious lemons and paid the price. The cause wasn’t ignorance, even though they should have known better. The cause was a strong desire to have that amazing car, or have that brand-new kitchen at 1/2 the price, or have full control over their future. If they didn’t really want it to the extreme of reason, they wouldn’t have fallen for it. And so it goes with the climate-change deniers.

These folks really, really want to keep their lifestyle exactly the way it is. They want to have the McMansion, they want to have the oversized Dodge Ram Penile-Compensation pickup truck, they want to go jetsetting around the world and eat their peaches in the middle of winter and keep their thermostats set at 78 degrees so they can sleep naked. They like those things, and they don’t want to change, either through force of legislation or (even worse) their own guilt. So instead of looking at the facts, making a reasonable conclusion, and adjusting their behavior accordingly, they deny deny deny and buy into bullshit like “we can burn as much fossil fuel as we want and it doesn’t matter”.

The other element of gullibility — besides desire (the cause) and ignorance — is irresponsibility. The guy who fell for the psychic wanted to avoid the responsibility for running his own life; the guy who fell for the bad contractor didn’t do his research; the guy who bought the lemon didn’t bother taking it to a mechanic. And so goes it with the climate deniers: they simply don’t want to take responsibility for their actions and how they impact others and the world. That’s the real gist here: they are just avoiding the fact that their actions have ramifications. Now I don’t want to cast moral aspersions on these people, because they may be great folks. But in this one area, they just don’t get the fact that we are all one people, living in one ecosystem, and we all impact each others’ existence.

Now I’m not one for advocating a lot of government regulation into our lives to handle climate change. We have far too much as it is, and government is far too prone to make regulations that actually make matters worse. But if we’d just take responsibility for our own lives and try to live in greener ways, we can solve this problem ourselves without bringing government into it. In order to do that, we’ve got to accept the basic truth that we just can’t keep on burning through the earth’s fossil fuel reserves, and instead try to live all our lives a little greener.


Additional Links:

Skeptical Science — my favorite climate blog

NOAA PMEL Carbon Program — CO2’s effect on the oceans

EPA’s Global Emissions — analysis of types & sources of greenhouse gases

Union of Concerned Scientists 10 Personal Solutions — things you can do

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San Francisco, You Lucky Bastard

I am sure San Franciscans know it, but they have it really good. Sure, they have one of the highest cost of living in the whole country, and a pesky little thing called the San Andreas Fault, but beyond that, it’s a really great city. Lots to do, lots of good restaurants, great natural sites within a couple hours’ drive, and a fairly rich history for a city only about 150 years old. I even like the weather: a fun combination of sunshine, chill winds, and surrealistic fog.

In my opinion, its greatest features is a series of greenspaces and historic sites strung together to form the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. These sites – including Alcatraz, old forts and battlements, beaches, historic homes, and wooded trails — weave in and out of the city, from the Pacific to the Bay, and up and down the ridgelines stretching north and south of the city. And the best part? All of it fully accessible to the public (and some even to their pets) for their enjoyment and recreation.

I’ve been to the city several times. On my last trip, I made it a point to visit as many of the sites as I could. I only had a couple days, but I hit a good selection. And besides the interest and convenience of these places, what really impressed me was how much use these sites got. The locals use these sites. They are walking the beaches, throwing Frisbees in the parks, walking their dogs on the paths, playing softball in the fields. These folks use their greenspaces, and this is a good thing.

Historically, it was hard to keep greenspaces, especially waterfront greenspaces such as those in San Francisco. During the maritime age, seafront property was wanted for docks, wharfs, flophouses and canneries. During the Industrial Revolution, land was taken over for production, power generation, or transportation. In the 80’s right on through to today, overbuilding for commercial development, high-end housing, or tourism is the big problem. But there was a really strong movement to preserve all this greenspace in San Francisco and the surrounding area, big enough to override the moneyed interests moving in the opposite direction. The preservation movement won out, and today, I doubt there is a single resident of the city who’d like it any other way.

Nowadays, driving around the country, I see plenty of abandoned factories and overbuilt developments. At one time, long before the excavators went in, those lots were greenspaces, filled with trees, streams, or grasslands. Once you tear them up, pave them over, or build on them, they’re gone. And yes, gone forever. How many buildings have ever been torn down and replaced by trees, streams, and grassland? Virtually none by comparison. Building is permanent and will not be undone, it’s just the fact of the matter. Zoning boards, planning boards, developers, and taxpayers need to understand this. Once you build, what you’ve built on is gone. Better be damned sure what you’re building is necessary and appropriate, and won’t simply be another foreclosed or abandoned property in 10 years.

Green is forever … until we tear it up. Spread the word. And go to San Francisco at least once. Spend a week, there’s plenty to see and do.

[Pics are mine and thusly copyrighted.]



Golden Gate National Recreation Area

San Francisco Parks Trust

EPA’s Greenscaping page

21st Amendment Brewery

Google map for San Francisco


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A Spot of Preservation, Please

Devil’s Postpile is a tiny little National Park System spot, especially when compared to nearby juggernauts like Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Death Valley National Parks. It only covers about 800 acres, even Valley Forge NHS is bigger than that. It’s just there to save a singular geologic feature: a volcanic extrusion cooled in hexagonal basalt columns. Yeah, not too exciting, but hey, it’s not something you see every day. It’s just a tiny little spot of interest, preserved.

Postpile © 2009America In Context

Which sort of brings up a point. How big of a deal is it for someone to look at something and say “hey, that’s pretty neat, we should save that.” Well, apparently, it’s a pretty big deal. Postpile took a bit of effort to save. Long hidden in the high-altitude mazework of the eastern Sierra Nevada, people didn’t even know it existed until the late 1800s. Of course, it wasn’t too long until water interests showed up wanting to blow these extruded columns straight to hell to build their dams. As usual, the happy ending here was a group of concerned citizens & environmental groups raising awareness leading to the salvation of this unique pile of rocks.

San Joaquin River © 2009 America In ContextYeah, I know, here we go again. Those naïve environmental whackos, sacrificing the public good and economic growth for worthless blind cave fish or piles of grey rocks. Why should we preserve all these unimportant things when people can’t put food on the table or get a drop to drink? Fair questions, I suppose. Fair questions, that is, until you realize that so many times this destruction is either for naught, or is ill-placed, or the fruits of that destruction is itself wasted, or, even worse, it’s realized after the fact that all this destruction has doomed us all.

Looking specifically at the economic collapse we find ourselves in, which seemingly marks the end of our nation’s economic prosperity, I have to ask myself: was it really worth destroying portions of our nation’s environment for “economic expansion”, when our own greed-driven stupidity has halted that very economic expansion and set us all down the road to ruin? Our wealth has evaporated, our jobs have moved overseas, our education and health care systems have collapsed, and all we have to show for it is a scarred landscape. There are parts of Texas that are forever ruined thanks to sloppy oil drilling. There are parts of West Virginia forever despoiled thanks to mountaintop removal mining. Long Island Sound will likely never recover from the damage caused first by New England mill towns and later from over-fertilized suburban lawns.

Rainbow Falls © 2009 America In ContextI know there’s a delicate balance between environmental preservation and economic expansion. I know NIMBY-ism prevents good projects, like robust electrical grids, light rail, and hydroelectric & geothermal power (two truly renewable energy sources), from getting completed. And there have been some very helpful projects like Hoover Dam and the TVA that have been done and resulted in vast improvements in the quality of life for millions. But what bothers me is the environmental damage we have wrought for absolutely no reason other than building over-large, unsustainable houses no one can afford to live, and mega-mall shopping complexes where no one can afford to shop. We’ve ruined our landscape and have nothing to show for it but a nation in economic collapse.

I’m just suggesting that anytime zoning boards or developers or the Dept. of the Interior or Congress considers destroying a chunk of our natural world for some special project, they need to seriously consider “is it worth it over the long term,” or is it simply some get-rich-quick scheme for some special interest group that won’t provide a lick of true economic growth for the nation. I suspect that as long as these groups can be easily bought off or deluded, we’ll never make those intelligent decisions.

Fallen Columns © 2009 America In Context

At least we have places like Devil’s Postpile and other national, state, and municipal parklands. Well, for now that is, until some shyster convinces us that paving them over will lead to “economic prosperity”.

[Pics on this post are mine and copyrighted thusly. See my other Postpile pics here.]


Eagle © 2009 America In ContextLinks:

Devil’s Postpile National Monument

Environmental Valuation Blog

CIA World Factbook: Environment (yeah, I know it’s not directly related to the content of this blog post, but I stumbled across it and found it neat)

Google map to Devil’s Postpile

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