Sunday 15 January 2012

Peter F. Sale - Our Dying Planet: An Ecologist's View of the Crisis We Face

or (In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is King.)
Up, Down, Postscript. 
Our Dying Planet: An Ecologist's View of the Crisis We Face.Peter Sale.Peter Sale.Peter Sale.Peter Sale.Peter Sale.Five Stars!Peter Sale - Our Dying Planet: An Ecologist's View of the Crisis We Face from University of California Press. Watch his schedule for upcoming events. More links previously here & here.

Don't let the subtitle of this post fool you. The book is important - I said that already, right? And the man too. So, get it, read it, make your own evaluation and see where it may take you.

The modus operandi here is basically ad hominem with no correctitude (and no cranberry sauce either!). Best to state that up-front. There are reasons - defensible and indefensible; and implications - mostly structural (including that the reader figures into it as well as the author with just a slight concommitant blurring of the subject/object split); ... for another time.

There are a few key notions (of mine): 1) An english-lit lecturer, a good friend, now dead; last thing he told me (I thought he was crazy!) was that Homo sapiens has split in two: H. grǽdum, greedy human, and H. agapiens, loving human; and telling them apart at this early stage is tricky;    2) It's see CO2 emissions level off flat by 2015 or what follows is no more than a protracted dénouement - and a brutal one - make Gloucester's fate in Lear look like the teddy-bear's picnic!; and,    3) Any sensible person familiar with 'the science' around this issue has despaired already (but that doesn't mean they've quite given up).

So, how does Peter Sale fit into this ridiculous & arbitrary framework?

[I am having a hard time with this. I know the next step is to scan the relevant pages, tune them up carefully into HTML, figgure out where and how they will fit ... but the energy is just not coming. It will come, eventually, maybe.

Where did that awful subtitle come from? What a thing to say! "In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is King." WTF!? Are you nuts!? (Am I nuts?) There it is. No one sets out to end up here do they? I am thinking of the 13th fairy in Sleeping Beauty and of all the praeterite who have fallen through every crack in every system ever invented; I am thinking of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the bit where he fills the tires to 200psi as the gas-station attendant backs away - Hillarious! Mad!

I want to say to this guy Peter, "Ok man, let's go to the Gateway hearings and stage a hunger strike on the steps outside and hope for snow."

An hour goes by ... I find myself apologizing (to myself) for being unequal to the task ... and for trying to hide it under a rug of self-indulgent froth. OK then ... no scanning; I will just put page & location references in a few places and you can take me at my word on the rest or follow up as you wish (which I doubt anyway).] 
On the up side: I do love it when a Canadian refers to Canada as 'there' (page 250, top). If the sun shines out of his arse (which I do not even suggest) at least it's not because he's a Canadian (eh?).

On the down side: he is associated with the UN and presumably takes their coin and accepts their imprimatur, or at least operates under their banner side-by-each.

Do we have to wait until Rio+20 and COP18 in Qatar prove as complete flops & fiascoes as Durban & Cancún & Copenhagen & Bonn & & & & & & & ... before there is a collective shout of ¡YA BASTA! for the United Nations Cluster FCCC and all of its gorgeous acronyms and squandered budgets and self-congratulatory posing?

Yvo de Boer did it well and proper. He gave the UN his very all (which is exceedingly clever AND substantive AND indefatigable), wept in public (which I do not view lightly in such a man), and then moved on. If KPMG is truely a force for good remains to be seen - I would guess not, but if Yvo guesses differently then ... I'm listening.

Population numbers: People keep repeating something about a curve that goes to 9.2 billion in 2050, deriving apparently from some UN bean-counter. Can no one but me see that this is utter nonsense? The whole shitteree is going bust long before we reach 9 billion. There will never be 9 billion. Maybe there will be 3 or 4 (or five or six?) billion stacked up like cordwood somewhere, and probably not just in one place either - could be close to home wherever you are, could be closer to home than you would like.

He goes on a bit about how mentioning population is politically incorrect. There is even a hint that he had to be persuaded to put the population chapter in at all. Well, yes, it is easily prone to misinterpretation and so on, touchy - so spell it out explicitly then, clearly, 'Say it plain!' - but the time for correctitude is long passed. And having once brought population growth to its proper place in the scheme of things - think about it and get it right.

I will go to the trouble of scanning one paragraph (page 80 bottom-81 top):
     Much of this continuous rain of energy does not reach the earth's surface because it is reflected into space or absorbed by the atmosphere. In addition, particular sites on Earth are variously experiencing night or day, cloud cover or clear skies, and variable inclinations toward the sun. As a consequence, the average rate of receipt of solar energy at a specific site on the earth's surface is about 0.250 kilowatts per square meter continuously throughout the year, or about 32,000 terawatts for the entire earth. To put these numbers into perspective, of the 174,000 terawatts of energy arriving from the sun, only 18.3 percent (32,000 terawatts) gets through the atmosphere and reaches the earth's surface. Of this 18.3 percent, all photosynthesis uses just 0.06 percent (100 terawatts). The rest (18.2 percent) moves water around the hydrologic cycle, generates winds and therefore weather, and dissipates as heat. At present, humans are consuming about 13 terawatts of energy at any particular moment; if all this came directly from sunlight, we would be using just 0.007 percent of what reaches the earth's surface. I'll repeat my point: there is way more than enough energy arriving on the surface of the earth every day to provide for all our current energy needs, so the amount of energy we use is not the problem.
It pales a bit taken out of context, but as I read it the first time I was suddenly 'in the presence' of a skilled teacher making a point clearly - pellucidly! Maybe you had to be there ... maybe you will see what I mean ... I hope so.

My copy now has many such passages marked; just as well perhaps that it is not in the library yet.

There is a lot of guff about how scientists cannot communicate this or that. Well, this guy can certainly communicate when he wants to. Sure, you do have to actually read it, pay attention, want to hear, and so on.

Chapter 5 - The Problem of Shifting Baselines, is the very best I have seen on exactly why humankind are dithering while Rome burns.

On the other hand, he tells us the book is pitched for the 'general reader'. All good, and at least he does not mean the 'general audience' that knuckleheads like Billy-We-Won McKibben go on about.

But words like 'pelagic', 'benthic'; phrases like 'a simple model of a distributed set of open local populations' are moving beyond the 'general reader' I know. Even the young lovelies with recent degrees from UofT seem able to read only what is on the syllabus, and then only in groups and to the extent necessary and so on. Two of my children with university degrees cannot spell - and don't want to and don't care - a complicated mess.

And it is a complicated nexus of issues in the public realm as well: from declining standards of education & literacy in 'the West' to the arrogant war on libraries now going on in Toronto The Good.

Maybe it is best to cut your losses and say what you mean as well as you are able to say it (which is about what Peter Sale does in this book in my estimation). Still, it wouldn't hurt to tell the competent general readers out there that they may have to stretch a bit and to be patient and read on if they can't.

That said, it is not Kant; it is not Simon wazizname (?) ... Critchley. It is not incomprehensible even when it is difficult.

Oh, and yes, there are other parts I have scrawled question marks beside, marked 'vague' - OK, he's not Winston Churchill (though I wish he was).

Does he protest too much? Or too little? And is it telling?

When he expresses an opinion on an issue on his own turf (it seems to me) he says he is "out on a very thin limb here" (page 162, top-ish) - but when he lays out several chapters of energy analysis and policy which is certainly not in his bailiwick, there is no caveat whatsoever. (?)

I don't mean that it is not a good idea to deal with the energy issues - obviously it is. Given the recent IEA report and so on. If you are going to avoid the moral and aesthetic quagmires (for one reason and another) then using the economics of energy is an adult thing to do.

As for the 'telling', you may plumb that as you will.

On the business of CO2 emission deadlines he seems to know very well what's what but then seems to soft-pedal it. 'Soon' and 'very soon' and 'right away or else' figure in there, but I didn't see a clearly stated target.

FLATTEN THE CO2 CURVE BY 2015 OR WE'RE COOKED!    That's what I'd like to see from someone 'with authority' but what comes instead is mostly equivocation.

Ahh maybe it is ... the delicate issue of appearance: beautiful/handsome people, fit, fed, fortunate (and smart of course), nurtured by bourgeois assumptions and conventional success - it's an internal landscape with a lot of inertia (and in Canada too, where temperature often augments viscosity).

(I will not go into the Probus connection though it bears on this. Surely you can figgure that one out.)

So, no, I am not expecting to be shoulder-to-shoulder with our Peter on an environmental front-line near you anytime soon (but yes, possibly later on, who knows?). I would like to be. I would be honoured to be. In the way that I went to Washington last summer thinking, "If that sumbitch James Hansen can go there with prostate cancer then I c'n damwell go with bad feet!"
He has not ascended into the front rank in my 'pantheon of saints' (you don't get there in one step): Noam Chomsky, Gwynne Dyer, James Hansen, Hannah Arendt, Northrop Frye, Naomi Oreskes, Charles Taylor, others ... but he's headed in that direction, along with David Schindler, Graham Saul, even Naomi Klein (and again, others). That's something - there are so few adults in the room that the addition of one more, even tentatively, is ... gladdening, heart warming. 
I am (now) confused about the relationship between species & the ecosystem they live within. I thought certain species were key and that when they were removed (by extinction say) the system would suffer greatly and risk collapse. I am not an ecologist so my notions are bound up in metaphors like 'the keystone of the arch' the 'web of life' and the 'fabric of the network'. An arch collapses when the keystone goes. A small tear in fabric can make a large rip. An unravelling hole in a sweater or a sock gets inevitably bigger. And having been both a Newfie cod-choker and a maker of tensegrities I thought I knew something about twine & nets & wholistic systems - there was a time I could knit the 'wit' for a lobster trap.

But what Peter is saying (in Chapter 7 p224-5) is that it is more like a gradual dilution as species within an ecosystem disappear - with no dramatic moment of collapse for the ecosystem itself.

Time for a re-think. Good. 
The Exciters.Manfred Mann.I think we need a musical interlude so here's Do Wah Diddy: The original 1963 version by The Exciters (black women singing about a man), and the 1964 cover, Manfred Mann (white guys singing about a woman). A Make-or-Break engine does have a piece of gear called an 'exciter'.

Certain weak arguments are used to effectively dismiss the Woodstock & Technopolis scenarios, and there is a lack of detail, depth, in New Atlantis. Does this reveal anything important? A desire to get it out the door and be done with it? Is that it? Or possibly a disrespecting bias against hippies & nerds? Wanting their 15 minutes of show-off on the stage and getting it; but no more, neither a jot alone nor a jot joined (coupled?) with a tittle.

I don't know.

Sometimes I think people feel they must put something positive forward, some hope to shore up against despair, some feasible or plausible program - but it may be false to the extent that they step up to it before they have fully drained the cup. I have seen Elizabeth May do this a few times in speeches; try to end on a hopeful note and fail dismally because she may not really feel it herself. There is a lot of fear of despair - an assumption that it inevitably leads to paralysis. (Someone who doesn't do this is Lester Brown.) And the attempt to formulate something without the necessary & proper antecedents doesn't quite come off.

I'm just guessing.

But this ain't Sunday School Toto. I think we all need to tell it like it is, unvarnished, messy, vulnerable - incomplete, fragmentary, even just plain wrong. Bob says, "The naked truth is still taboo wherever it may be seen." I guess it's time to take a step or two past our Bob then eh?

Creeping secularism and the ubiquitous pussy-foot do-si-do parlay around anything teleological; spiritual spelunking by debutante dilettanti (with 'Titles' in someone's 'Catalogue', with 'Literary Agents').

Christopher Hitchens & Richard Dawkins ... Bertrand Russell, on the one side, and C.S. Lewis & Chris Hedges and others on the other; shouting back and forth. Who cares? (Everyone of course! It is as fundamental to wonder about God as it is to wonder about where you will shit - but perhaps these are personal matters.)

There was a cartoon I wish I still had, Backbench I think: two men on a battlefield are shouting at one another; "RUDE!" shouts one, "CAD!" shouts the other, all bold caps; and in the final frame two soldiers are talking; one says "Any casualties today?" and the other replies, "Just a couple'a sore throats."

Exaggerated sensibility around other people's possible faith is one of the the canaries in my ideological coal mine - and there are traces of it in this book. If someone's faith holds water, if it washes, then they will not likely be offended by anything much anyone else could say; or even do in some cases.

But ... not everyone has Blake's perspicacity around such things - see A Poison Tree aka Christian Forbearance.

From a similar promontory in this flat swamp of a landscape comes an appreciation of Peter's several jabs at urban virtual consciousness. The city muggles do not know how to drive in the snow. They do not know anything much at all on a physical level: how to sharpen a chain saw; how to get a pig into the back of a pickup; how to save yourself and your beloved from freezing when you are caught out in the open in an early spring rain on the Newfoundland barrens ...

And from another nearby (these are promontories of less than a metre in height y'unnerstan') comes recognition of grandchildren, their uses and abuses.

I like James Hansen. A lot. Mensch. Still, reading his book Storms of my Grandchildren I began to sense some soft ground (having learned about soft ground from my father as we trod the floating margins of boggy lakes digging up pitcher plants to take back to our garden in Toronto for my mother who wanted to see them there - ridiculous! they never grew though we tried again and again) and made an item in the circular file that I named 'Grand-daughterism' at the time. I have a grandson now too so I have revised it to 'Grandchildrenism'.

Like my mother before me I mean something physical when I say 'love' - a naïve stance but there it is - and for me, loving my children and theirs has never included using them in a moral argument (or any other way). Not something that falls out of an ideology; a fact, an infolding.

You can figgure the rest of this out for yourself if you are inclined.

Did I mention the evident care and attention that went into this book? The (more than several) years spent writing it? The almost total lack of typos? The use of actual black ink? (Okok, thank goodness the type is black because it is a bit small, and the footnote font is all but illegible to me - I have to really strain to read the footnotes - so thanks for the black.)

Did I praise the overall shape of the argument?

I said it is an important book. That means it is helpful to me personally as I try to find my way; in advancing a notion, or a self-confidence, or an understanding - of where to go from here or of how to go from here across a terrain so ruined     ...    
[Well, I find I can't finish this sentence ... (?)] 
Conclusion #1 (I will make like John Fowles with The French Lieutenant's Woman and put three endings):

So ... what is Peter up to with this book? I can only guess and you may be able to guess much better than I - fill yer boots! Can I make a general statement? Not really; but if I were to try it might go something like this (being what has become slightly less murky since Peter's book arrived in the mail from my sister a month or so ago; what has come ever so slightly into better focus):
My friend's evaluation of my work (in 1969) was "Things that love night love not such nigh(t)s as these," one character half-removed from this (which I still take as a compliment); and of myself his evaluation was 'febrile' (a word I did not know the meaning of at the time). I know it surprised him to learn, quite near the end, just how much these two points mean to me - that I treasure them.

I have attended so many events here in Toronto in the last three+ years and watched how the nutbars and reprobates are professionally stick-handled to the sidelines. And it always makes me think of this: "... brushing from whom the stiffened puke i put him all into my arms and staggered banged with terror through a million billion trillion stars." Which does indeed bring us round again by a commodious vicus of recirculation (here) to the Good Samaritan and Environs.
What a surprise! :-)What a surprise eh? (Hardly.)     ...     Here, you could start here for example, or even here; or here with Auden's "We must love one another or die."

Without the least interference by any transcendent being wise or otherwise, without magic or miracle, with no divine principle in play and with no exalted Gaia or other goddess overseeing the action - it could all change, as they say, in a twinkling.

A-and that, gentle reader, is something about the human heart that everyone knows (without the fear of contradiction).

Get this book and read it. It is helpful.

[The guy at the back with the 'round jeer for a hat' would be me, ignore him.]

Be well. 
Conclusion #2 (& #3?):

At about the time in 2005 when I was starting this blog (from an office on one of the top floors of the KBR Tower in Houston, with a clear view - in at least several dimensions - of the by-then-empty Enron buildings downtown), Peter Sale was already writing Our Dying Planet: An Ecologist's View of the Crisis We Face.

Neither of us quite accomplished what we set out to do I don't think; in any event they were probably very different things - though Peter has done better by orders-of-magnitude - that's plural, at least 100x then and more like 10,000x. Is it putting on airs to make such a comparison? I don't think so. I hope not.

The record of a 'fair witness' then? A message for our grandchildren that we did not (entirely) sell them out? Something like that?

Except ... comforting as it is to do your part it's not enough. It's not working. (!!!) I have known for a year and more that we will have to go to the wall.

And who the hell wants to do that? 
Conclusion #3:

There is a lot going on (99.44% on the interior and not necessarily floating) and I am overwhelmed; so write this all off as a more-or-less gentle and harmless old madman with too much time on his hands sinking into a dream of fair women (or trying to).

And anyway, it was begun on Friday the 13th and the Ides of January, during the first bit of snow in Toronto this winter - it's bound to be silly.

But here, try this on for silly: the two species of human, H. grǽdum & H. agapiens, as place-markers for those psychological states Northrop Frye mentions when discussing Pynchon in Double Vision:
"In interviews I am almost invariably asked at some point whether I feel optimistic or pessimistic about some contemporary situation. The answer is that these imbecile words are euphemisms for manic-depressive highs and lows, and that anyone who struggles for sanity avoids both."
A struggle I seem to be losing, what with the imbecile part so clearly on display an' all. Oh well.

I purchased another copy which I will send on to Peter Kent when it arrives. As I think about it I see that I maybe should have got one for Mardi Tindal too, given their memorable interaction in Durban - but I sent her a book once before and she never read it as far as I know ... so skip that.

They are wilful children these people - can't spell and refuse to learn - what can you do with them? How can you think if you don't want to learn? I don't know. 

As I finish fixing typos and excising or toning down the really really egregiously silly stuff, the last Durban candle has finally gone out. Almost two boxes of candles this year from the Dollar Store downstairs, lighting the way for my fingers on this keyboard through the shortening days and long dark nights. It was not quite a conscious decision y'unnerstan'; more of a symptom of lifestyle choices - in the end I just ... forgot to light the next one. Anyway, the days are getting longer.

I guess this can be reasonably included in that list of mine; so here's Alzheimer's
'Vantage #9: However (approximately) perfect are your offerings and obsessive-compulsive rituals, they will all be forgotten - easily, lightly, naturally - with no regret.

Wengechi Mutu by Marilyn Minter.Wengechi Mutu by Marilyn Minter.Wengechi Mutu by Marilyn Minter.Wengechi Mutu by Marilyn Minter.
[The news is all bad: Stephen Harper & his sycophant sleveens, including Alberta Premier Alison Redford, are frustrated that the Gateway hearings may actually be hear-ings and are stamping their feet in pique, throwing unseemly tantrums nevermind how cunningly they've stacked the deck; while the mainstream press publishes photographs of First Nations people with mournfully aggrieved expressions wearing funny hats, and of ageing (now affluent) hippie couples wearing Birkenstocks. Drilling regulations are quickly re-written to permit Chevron & Statoil full access to the Beaufort Sea. An eminent arithmetician has figgured out that 30% annual loss of honeybees cannot be sustained - not even if Bayer says it is OK - and someone else thinks this may not be good for food production prospects; while one in seven on this planet, our Terra, goes to bed hungry.

I am thinking of Milo Minderbinder offering his messmate 'shareholders' a tray of chocolate-covered Egyptian cotton balls - but it's crude oil & coal dust this time not chocolate, and ... the image morphs to something else as I am distracted by a gracious muse (uma querida bênção) carrying to me not a nightmare, no, but, something else ... and I go off to re-read Pynchon's 1960 story of Callisto & Aubade - Entropy.]
Fuck man! If we are gonna fix this we had better get our damn thumbs out!

Doonesbury, Friday January 13 2011.Doonesbury, Friday January 13 2011.Doonesbury did this one on Friday 13th. Caught my eye. ("I was made on a Friday and ya' can't fix me!")

Wrong again! :-)I thought 'Angry Birds' must be a reference to that Alfred Hitchcock movie ... 

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