Monday, December 29, 2008

Strawberry Fields Forever, or The Promise of Organic Farming

(Published October 15, 2007 Crossroads Chronicle, Cashiers, NC)

I would probably be remiss if in a discussion of organic farming, I did not provide some perspective or context from the origins of farming.

Prior to the start of systematic agriculture, populations were hunter-gatherers. Gatherers could rely only on what edible plants that could be found, and hunting is, well, hit or miss. All available time was spent seeking food for survival. A better system was clearly needed.

In my little pet theory about how this transition came about, when a hunter would return to camp without success, Mama wasn’t happy. Then, as now, when Mama wasn’t happy, wasn’t nobody happy. Except back then, Mama had herself a wooden club. Necessity being the mother of invention, so to speak, it was in fact Man who around 9500 BC first sought to cultivate emmer and einkorn wheat, then later hulled barley, peas and lentils. I might lose some arguments, but at least on this point I’ll stick to my guns; you know, when your right, your right.

Agriculture was humanity’s first technology, and allowed for surplus food supply. Populations thus began to grow, and some individuals were able to focus on other advances.

In the past 50 or so years, agriculture has become intensive and industrial in scale. Extensive use of pesticides, fertilizer, herbicides, and oil- based mechanization has brought about significant advances in crop yield and efficiency. Use of antibiotics and growth hormones in livestock has resulted in similar economic gains.

These advances have fed a growing population, and starvation is no longer a common death as in the previous century. The positives have not been entirely without any unforeseen consequences or negatives, however.

In the case of pesticide, the extensive environmental impact caused by DDT
was first brought to public attention in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. 10 years after the books release in 1962, DDT was banned in the US. While subsequent replacements for DDT may be considered less persistent or toxic, it seems a pesticide which can kill insects which have been around hundreds of millions of years can probably harm humans. More than 80% of the most commonly-used pesticides today have been classified by National Academy of Sciences researchers as potentially carcinogenic -- and are routinely found in mothers' milk.

In addition, many pesticides are non-selective, and kill many helpful insects along with the pests. This collateral damage, along with habitat destruction, is impacting wild pollinators, whose presence is obviously important in the ecosystem.
In the past many different animals pollinated plants, including butterflies, bats, and more than 40,000 native species of bees. As humanity has increasingly disrupted native habitats, many species of pollinators have gone to that great bee hive in the sky. The honey bee has filled in for a time, pollinating a wide range of plant species, but now even the wild honey bee is at risk. Commercial bee keeper operations have been experiencing a problem which has been termed colony collapse disorder, resulting in loss of up to 85% of their bees. Causes of the loss include mites, viruses and possibly inadvertent exposure to pesticide.

Certified organic methods avoid synthetic pesticides altogether. Some organic farming certification standards do allow the use of natural methods of protection from pests such as those derived from plants. Organic advocates state that natural pesticides are a last resort, while growing healthier, disease-resistant plants, using cover crops and crop rotation, and encouraging beneficial insects and birds are the primary methods of pest control.

In the case of fertilizer, as far as possible, organic farmers rely on crop rotation, crop residues, animal manures and mechanical cultivation to maintain soil productivity and soil tilling to supply plant nutrients, and to control weeds, insects and other pests. Commercial farming typically relies on synthetic fertilizer, in which studies have shown result in nitrogen leaching 4.4-5.6 times higher than organic plots. Current farming practice tends to result in nitrates and phosphates running off into lakes, rivers, and groundwater. This leaching can cause algae blooms, eutrophication (nutrient pollution), and subsequent dead zones.

In the case of livestock husbandry, current practices routinely include the use of antibiotics and growth hormones to facilitate growth and production. As in the situation with widespread use of pesticides and herbicides, the long term results of such practices cannot be predicted. However, it is likely that extensive use of antibiotics in animals could lead to further antibiotic resistance in microbes - a growing concern. It is also likely that introducing growth hormones into the food we eat could have some deleterious effect.

In any case, organic farming practices are more sustainable than its industrial cousin. The former requires fewer synthetic (man-made, often oil based) inputs, and results in less environmental impact than the latter. Note the phrase ‘more sustainable,’ instead of actually sustainability. Very little of life in the modern developed world could be considered sustainable, from the perspective of either the continuing availability of natural resources after the next several generations or the continuing viability of this planet to support ecosystems sometime into the 22nd century.

If we were all inside a spacecraft instead of on a planet, how sustainable would it be with a malfunctioning climate system and scarce food supply? But, you are probably thinking that this is a ridiculous analogy, without any similarity to form a proper kind of comparison whatsoever. However, in my defense, it is likely that I was dropped on my head as a kid, although my parents continue to deny that. (But they do get a deer-in-the-headlights look in their eyes when I bring it up, and that is rather suspicious.)

In recent years, the word sustainability has been used in reference to how long human ecological systems can be expected to be usefully productive. It has been noted that in the past, there have been complex human societies that have died out as a result of their own growth and associated impacts on ecological support systems. The implication is that modern industrial society, which continues to grow in scale and complexity, seemingly without much regard to either diminishing resources or the resulting ecological consequences of our actions, might also collapse.

The Beatles (the Fab Four, not the pest) evoked ideas and images of a better world in many aspects; however idealism does not always effectively make the transition from a construct in the mind to a concrete reality. Hope is not a method, as the Army is fond of saying; to attain the possibility of strawberry fields forever, we are going to have to make it happen.


Of a President, a Veep and “The King”

(Published January 30, 2008 Crossroads Chronicle, Cashiers, NC)

The other day I had something of an epiphany. As I was watching the Disney Pixar film “Cars” for about the ninth time, and seeing North Carolina’s own Richard “The King” Petty, personified as the 1970 Pontiac Superbird, and the host of other cars including Dale Earnhardt Jr., drafting on a super speedway for the “Piston Cup” championship, it occurred to me that there might be something analogous between this energy saving technique and our present need to prepare for the looming energy crisis.

“Cars” is actually a phenomenal movie, and should be seen by any kids aged from two to one hundred and two. Featuring the voice talent of the likes of Mario Andretti, Paul Newman, Darrell Waltrip and Bob Costas to name a few, it contains all the drama, trauma and love interest of any world class classic.

Drafting, or slipstreaming, is best known perhaps in auto racing, but is employed in other sports such as cycling and speed skating as well. In the animal kingdom, geese and some other birds fly in a V formation, the wing tips of the leading bird providing upward vortices, and thus lift, for the tailing bird. No dummies of the deep, lobsters also use cooperative drafting, migrating in single file over hundreds of miles in a “lobster train.” Although they are not as fast as Mario’s Ferrari, they are red once they are cooked.

Back in ’01, Vice President Cheney made comments regarding US energy policy that drew much review. (Sorry, a little slow on the uptake.) Mr. Cheney commented that conservation may be a personal virtue, but not the basis for a sound energy policy.

Conservation has probably not been a virtue since the days of Thoreau and the 10 foot by 12 foot cabin in the woods at Walden Pond. Today, it is exactly the opposite. Only a lunatic would reside in such a domicile.

Conservation, however, is the most cost effective method to utilize and stretch resources. Even a 10 MPG AWD SUV can be driven on planned out errands, with ride sharing to double or quadruple people-mpg (the number of people times mpg). At some point in the future, in order to maintain some degree of equality and economic parity, scarcity will require that rationing distribute the dwindling resource, similar to the case of WWII. At that point, drafting behind tractor trailers will be de rigueur, though not in the fashion sense, but more in the protocol sense.

In the case of NASCAR, teams track their efficiency and a number of other parameters. They average around 5 mpg, about what a fully loaded tractor trailer gets on the Eisenhower Interstate. But they are moving around 180 – 200 mph. And they only have so much fuel capacity per regulations. So drafting provides the best fuel economy at a given speed.

This planet also only has so much fuel capacity. Oil reserves are now in depletion mode. Spurred on by high oil prices, more rigs are drilling around the world than anytime in the last 20 years, however production has remained flat since 2005. New fields, much heralded in the news media, are but a drop in the oil drum.

Back in our time machine again, in 1992, President George Bush Sr. stated that the American way of life was non negotiable at the Earth Summit. Our current President and VP have echoed the same statement.

We should probably respect our elders. Mr. Bush Sr. was absolutely positively right, in a way he probably did not imagine.

The first oil crisis, in 1973, and the second one, in 1979, emanated from political tensions and resulted in temporarily reduced world oil supply and increased oil prices.

It is possible to negotiate with OPEC, the cause of the first episode. The political slash economic organization, at least Saudi Arabia, is tight with recent and particularly current US administrations.

It may even be possible to negotiate with those that govern Iran, the cause of the second episode.

However, it is impossible to negotiate with geology. It does not concern itself with the triumphs and tribulations of the human condition.

We are discovering new fields, yes. From 2000 to 2006, about 20 Gb (Billion barrels) of recoverable reserves in giant fields (over 500 million barrels) were discovered. This amounts to about 8 months of world oil consumption at the current rate of about 30 Gb per year. From 1960 to 1969, the peak years of discovery, over 400 Gb of recoverable reserves were located. This difference should put things in perspective.

So a new field, if it is less than say 500 million barrels, is not news worthy. This would last less than a week at the current global burn rate of around 80 million barrels a day, and provide false hope and misinformation as to the current peccadillo the planet is in.

To use another example, the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, the subject of much controversy, contains at least 4.3 Gb, according to the US Geological Survey. If we ever do drill there, it will amount to only 6 months of US oil consumption at the current rate. We might want to leave some for future generations, if only to use as a raw material to make life critical products, such as pharmaceuticals, fertilizers and plastics, to name a few.

All this stuff about Richard Petty and NASCAR and fuel has got me all revved up. I am feeling an irresistible compulsion to drive out and get some STP gas treatment. And I drive a diesel.

The 2008 International Conference on Climate Change? WTF?

(Published March 5, 2008 Crossroads Chronicle, Cashiers, NC)

By the time of this publication, hopefully it will all be over. Sponsored by the euphemistically named Heartland Institute, the stated intent of this first supposedly annual conference is “to call attention to widespread dissent in the scientific community to the alleged “consensus” that the modern warming is primarily man-made and is a crisis,” to borrow directly from their website.

Scheduled from March 2 – 4 in Manhattan, the conference sounds like something the United Nations would put on. Don’t be mislead. The Heartland Institute is another “Astroturf” organization, which attempts to mimic the kind of spontaneous grassroots movement in which the populace gets behind an organization, such as Greenpeace. However, the Heartland Institute is merely a front for a number of corporate interests, with Exxon Mobil and Phillip Morris among its largest contributors. The organization does not currently reveal its sponsors.

The Institute is already threatening to descend upon the hapless city of London in 2009. Forewarned is forearmed.

Corporate America, bless its little heart, has figured out that to muddy the waters of an issue can be to corporate advantage. Witness the decades long effort by the tobacco companies to minimize the perceived negative health impact from smoking. The orchestrated campaign of lies continued up until the 1990s, insuring continued fat profit margins at the expense of public health. In fact, representatives from major tobacco companies lied directly to Congress regarding their knowledge of the ill effects of tobacco use, and got away with it. At the corporate level, crime absolutely does pay.

In 2000, the coal industry could well see the benefits of sugar coating serious problems, and started the Americans for Balanced Energy Choices campaign, another Astroturf organization that obviously claims to represent Americans. As a result of these efforts, and under the Bush administration, coal fired power plants have experienced a grand resurgence. If coal is clean, then so is crack cocaine.

It is apparent that these public relations and misinformation campaigns are an effective method for corporate special interests to advance their goals. Dozens and dozens of legitimate sounding non-profit front organizations have cropped up like so many dragon’s teeth, much to the chagrin of some people who happen to like something called the truth. With names like the American Enterprise Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, to name two really big and influential ones, they espouse sound science and claim to be non-biased, which are two big fat lies right before they even get started good.

The following is an example of the sound science and sound logic promulgated by the Heartland Institute:

"Some environmentalists call for a "save-the-day" strategy to 'stop global warming,' saying it is better to be safe than sorry. Such a position seems logical until we stop to think: Immediate action wouldn't make us any safer, but it would surely make us poorer. And being poorer would make us less safe."

One cannot argue with such bullet- proof logic as that. It must have been spoken by one of their so called “scientists,” the word being used very loosely in this sense.

Someone from the Blue Ridge School or Summit Charter School could probably help here, but it seems like the process of science involves something along the lines of making a hypotheses, testing it, and drawing conclusions. I don’t seem to remember anything about getting paid money by Exxon Mobil or a tobacco or coal company and then making stuff up, but I may already be starting to slip.

The “scientists” from these so called think tanks may be under the influence of big corporate dollars, or they may just be really, really out there. Like Star Wars out there.
What was it that Obi-Wan Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) said to Luke before entering the cantina?…Oh yes,….”You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” Sir Guinness could have almost been talking about this recent conference as well.

Still, it must have a spectacle to behold, the cast of characters similar to that as seen on Tatooine. I wonder if the hammer head guy made it to this conference? That guy was awesome!

Global Warming - Its What’s for Dinner!

(Published May 7, 2008 Crossroads Chronicle, Cashiers, NC)

The other day, I was thinking; because, you know, that’s just something I do. Nothing short-circuited, but it did make some smoke bellow from my ears.

The subject of all this effort, believe it or not, was cows. Not the cute, talking ones affiliated with Chick-fil-a, mind you, but more regarding their 1.3 billion non-talking, non-standing grain fed brethren.

The issue goes to the environmental impact of mankind’s agricultural activities, but also the sustainability of those same activities in a modern system of agribusiness, which is entirely dependant on oil to make food.

In a culture which is accustomed to a stream of incessant entertainment and infotainment, but lacking a solid understanding of physics and science which a high school graduate would possess, it is regrettably not an issue high on the radar screen.

In other words, the environment is not as interesting as say, Brittney Spears.

As we are all stakeholders in about the only decent planet around, maintaining the biosphere should be interesting, or at least important.

Globally, cattle emit an estimated 100 million tons of methane annually, the result of anaerobic digestion of grass and grain in their 7 tummies. Methane is the second major green house gas resulting from human activities, behind carbon dioxide.

Granted, there are other sources of methane, such as rice cultivation, coal mines, land fills, and other ruminants, such as sheep, goats and buffalo.

In the case of mines and landfills, the methane can be captured and used as an energy source, while preventing the gas from reaching the atmosphere to act as a warming agent. An example of this strategy is the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Sylva.

Dr. James Hansen, the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has suggested that a methane reduction strategy could effectively slow global warming in the short term in his paper “Global Warming in the 21st Century: An Alternative Scenario.”

Methane has a 10 to 12 years life cycle in the atmosphere, compared to the 120 years cycle for carbon dioxide. Thus, reductions in methane emission have a relatively quick reduction on warming.

Currently, on a global scale, food prices have risen dramatically over the last several weeks, an indication of the amount of fossil fuel energy used to produce food. On average, about 10 calories of fuel energy are expended to create 1 calorie of food energy. As a result, an increase in energy prices is magnified in the price of food to consumers.

In the case of beef production, the ratio is closer to 60 to 1. Let’s examine the steps. Natural gas is used to create fertilizer. Oil is used to create pesticides. John Deere powered mechanization is used to plant, maintain, and harvest grain. Tractor trailers haul the grain to the cattle. Tractor trailers haul the cattle to processing, which incidentally is a rather cruel process for the Moo-moos. Finally, they haul beef to supermarkets and burger joints. Viola! Dinner is served!

In the coming few decades, as oil prices continue to climb and supplies start to drop off, one strategy may be to produce our own locally grown food to minimize the dependence on the dwindling resource. In fact, the issue extends into the realm of food security, two words which have not been typically used together to describe the situation in the US.

Well, all this ruminating has left me a bit peckish. Probably mosey over to The Library for a Filet Mignon and a martini. You know, hand mashed potatoes and olives are considered veggies. Then I’ll probably download some Brittney Spears.

Of Cats, Climate Change and the Human Condition: understanding the lens through which we view the world.

(Published June 18, 2008 Crossroads Chronicle, Cashiers, NC)

Nowadays, it seems you can’t swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting some bad information regarding this fine planet we live on, or the state of mankind’s dependence on fossil fuels. It is in the media, and it’s in public discourse.

As an exemplary case, in the recent March 10th issue of Forbes, the editor-in-chief, Steve Forbes, writes two interesting articles under his “Fact and Comment” column. The first article is entitled “Brrr,” showing a picture of an igloo and the caption “Florida in 2100?”

The article discusses how it is the natural rhythms and cycles of the planet to which any measured warming can be attributed. In fact, he posits that we should be worried about the ice age in which we would be headed based on historical cycles. If not for anthropogenic (man made) warming gases, the mercury probably would be headed down.

Of course, there are natural cycles. We are marooned here on this dumb rock. It is spinning and orbiting a medium sized star, in an elliptical orbit. At the same time, the solar system is flying through space at ninety thousand miles per hour. There is going to be some variation. The universe is not some big Rolex watch.

But to attribute recent warming to natural causes, when close to seven billion people are changing the composition of the atmosphere by adding back carbon dioxide which was deposited hundreds of millions of years ago - is not consistent with modern non-financially-biased science. As a side note, we should all be very thankful there is at least some CO2 in the air – the average temperature would be a rather frigid 0 degrees Fahrenheit were it not so, so powerful is carbon dioxide.

According to Drew Shindell, at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the radiation change in the solar cycle, an increase of two to three tenths of one percent over the 20th century, does not have the ability to cause the large global temperature increases experienced. Shindell concludes that greenhouse gases are indeed playing the dominant role. As a society, who do we listen to - captains of industry, or our scientists?

The other article, entitled “Hurting Us for Nothing,” illuminates how passing a cap and trade system to regulate and limit carbon dioxide emissions will damage the economy. The bill was put down in the Senate recently. At some point, we will need to decide which is more important – the Bentley, or the biosphere? It’s a hard one. We cannot have both, and if we make the wrong choice, we won’t have either. An economy depends extracting resources on a planet which can support (human) life.

Regarding resources, has anyone noticed the price of gas these days? What’s with that?
Any rig worth more than its weight as scrap is pumping around the clock. Responding to the “price signal” of high oil prices, the market has more rigs running than any time in the last twenty years. Yet production remains flat. Despite the urban myth that oil reserves are 100 or 200 years, the world may now be peaking in terms of oil flow per day.

All of this was predicted and predictable. A Shell oil company geologist, M. King Hubbert predicted in 1956 that the US would peak between 1965 and 1970. At the time, his prediction was not taken seriously. He was a respected geologist, but as this was a time of increasing production and record oil discovery, the observation drew little attention.

As 1970 came, naysayers said – “See, we are at record levels of production - Hubbert was wrong.” By around ’73 though, it was apparent rate of oil production had already peaked. By definition, the peak is the time of maximum oil production, which for the US was around 11 million barrels per day. And the peak can only be seen in hindsight. We are now down to about half that - and dropping.

More ominously, he predicted that the world would peak in 1995. The geopolitical oil crises of ’73 and ’79 dropped production and hence delayed the peak.

It is now widely believed, even privately among some oil executives, that production cannot be sustained past 2012 - 2015. The largest fields, such as Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, are mature, past peak and dropping. New fields being brought online are much smaller, and will not equal the giants in terms of quantity or oil flow.

Hubbert will wind up being off by a couple decades, but no off by centuries as some would have you think.

There is still at least 1 trillion barrels left, not including non-conventional sources, which correlates to 30 years worth at the current burn rate. But since demand is increasing and supply is close to dropping, it portends of further increasing oil prices and market disruption.

It is hard to understate the degree to which the market and mankind is dependant on oil. Most people here now are alive because the resource allowed exponential population growth. Population growth previous to oil, as seen on a chart, is almost flat. By comparison, growth now is almost straight up. Between the forces of exponential population growth, and depleted resources, something is going to have to give.

While it has been widely assumed that this problem, this poison apple, can simply be bequeathed to the next generation, it is now plain and clear that this will play out over the next few decades.

If we can recognize a problem, we can respond. At this point, continuing denial in light of the current evidence is plain foolish. Even market analysts are stating that the market is sending a “signal,” that it is time to find alternatives to oil.

However, we are overlooking one simple fact. The Earth is a closed system. There is only so much in the way of resources. And the by-product of those resources, i.e. green house gases, stay in the air due to something called gravity. (Also, the earth’s magnetic field keeps the atmosphere from being eroded away by the solar wind.)

Now comes the bad news part. There is no adequate alternative to oil, because of that pesky closed system - thing.

Alternatives do exist. But all of the alternatives together, i.e. tar sands (recently changed to oil sands), electric cars, etc. do not add up to a fraction of the resource that oil was. It is beyond the scope of this article to de-mystify this widespread myth. Nevertheless, some alternatives will have a role to play.

A number of cities and communities have already recognized the problem and started to respond. One of the most prominent aspects of these plans involves local food production. The 3500 mile Caesar salad, as noted by author James Howard Kunstler, will be a thing of the past, referring to the oil resources required to make and transport all the components that go into it.

Local and regional meetings to plan and adapt in these changing times will be important. The recent planning done in the Mountain Landscapes Initiative meetings seemed to reflect an auto-centric mindset, focusing on issues such as traffic congestion, walking paths and such. A decade or two from now, everyone will not be incessantly driving around all the time. However, in one regard, the main charrette at WCU in Cullowhee was revealing, in that they blocked out a time for farmland preservation and local food systems.

Where is the plan for local food production for Cashiers? For a community to survive in an energy-scarce era, it will need to be as productive and independent as it can be, and inter-dependant as it has to be - to remain viable. Produce from the fertile fields and flat lands around the Tuckasegee and Cullowhee area will not really be local in a post-oil economy, as incomprehensible as it may seem. Such is the divide between general public awareness and actual severity of the problem.

It’s somewhat baffling how this could be so. It may have something to do with inertia; the mass of humanity moving along, with so many distractions along the way. It may have something to do with keeping the apple cart rolling along for just a little while longer, at least until the wheels come off.

It has been said the myriad difficulties facing humanity are not so much a problem, but a function of the human condition.

Upton Sinclair, who wrote The Jungle in 1906 and Oil! in 1926, upon which the movie There Will Be Blood was based, may have said it best. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Incidentally, in case the humane society or PETA is reading this, no cats were harmed during the writing of this article. Hell hath no fury…

A Tale of Two Toads

(Published July 30, 2008 Crossroads Chronicle, Cashiers, NC)

On the July 4th weekend, we saved a toad. Please allow me to explain.

Like so many critters, it had gotten caught by a human made structure. It had hopped into the window well of our basement condo, and it couldn’t get out. In a way, it had fallen; and it couldn’t get up. We all get that way sometimes.

Now, the author is no herpetologist, but the toad looked to be an American Toad. I believe it to be of the genus kisseous americanus. At this point, the reader is probably thinking… “Gross. Who cares about some stupid toad? Besides, it could have been a Fowlers’ toad.

To the first point, toads are important because of the vast quantities of insects they consume. By eating insects that destroy crops, American toads can save farmers, horticulturists and consumers substantial amounts of money. Also, they are part of nature. Besides, the American toad may be distinguished from the closely related Fowler’s toad by the presence of enlarged warts on the lower section of each leg (tibia).

Reluctantly, I picked up the toad.

It was dry to the touch, and had probably been down there some time. It could just barely move its eyes.

We put it in a bowl of water, and it sunk down underwater for some time. I reported to my wife at one point that our patient would probably not make it.

But toads are hardy. The next time we checked, the toad was standing up in the bowl, on watch like some noble creature.

I found a beetle and a cave cricket, and set them next to our toad. When I returned, the bugs were gone, and our toad was enroute towards the woods.

You can probably imagine how I felt. You know; you give someone shoes, and they just walk away. Sometimes, I wonder if some princess isn’t holding him, going, “Maybe, this is the one?

We know, not all stories can have a fairy tale ending. For the Golden Toad (Bufo periglenes), the story is different.

The golden toad was only discovered and named in 1966. It lived in Costa Rica, in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve.

True to its name, the males are a brilliant gold, lighting up the forest floor beneath the canopy above. The females are a mottled black, yellow and scarlet.

For much of the year, its a secretive creature, spending its time underground in burrows among the root masses of the woodland. As dry season gives way to the wet in April and May, it appears above ground en masse, for just a few days or weeks.

The last mating season of the golden toad was chronicled in detail by amphibian expert Marty Crump, a researcher working with the Golden Toad Laboratory for Conservation.

In April of 1987, Crump noted that with the dry weather, the pools containing the eggs had dried completely. The toads tried to breed again in May. Of the 43,500 eggs in the ten pools she studied, only 29 tadpoles survived longer than a week, for the pools again dried quickly.

The following year at Monteverde, Crump found only a single male after a long search. On May 15, of 1989, a solitary male was again sighted. He was almost certainly the same one seen the previous year, sitting only ten feet from the previous sighting. He was, as far as we know, the last of his species, as the golden toad has not been seen since.

The golden toad, along with 122 other amphibians since 1980, has vanished forever. They are today’s canary in the coalmine.

Numerous studies and papers have been written about this disturbing trend, and most come to the same conclusion. The amphibians are dying from a fungal infection, and the disease is likely spreading, or exacerbated by, global climate change.

“Disease is the bullet killing frogs, but climate change is pulling the trigger,” says Alan Pounds, an ecologist at the preserve in Costa Rica.

No bulldozer is responsible for killing these amphibians in their pristine habitat, but rather it is coal-fired power plants in North Carolina, and cars in China, that are responsible. And a bowl of water and a couple of bugs, will not change any of that, so intractable is the problem.

Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers, pp 114-122

Dr. James Hansen for President

(published by the Crossroads Chronicle, Cashiers, NC, October 29, 2008)

To anyone who is paying attention, we are in something of a sticky wicket.

That is, we are within a decade of oil production peaking over, for which we are unprepared. And we are witnessing ecosystems teetering on the brink of collapse, with the current extinction rate between 100 and 1,000 times the normal background rate. Climate change resulting from global warming is beginning to play a major role in these extinctions, not requiring a bulldozer or chainsaw to kill these animals in their pristine habitat.

We’ll get through current financial crisis, but these other two concerns have the capacity to collapse the global economy and kill the biosphere.

Inherent to both of these problems is one simple fact: the earth is a closed system. By burning a few hundred million years worth of hydrocarbons in a period of just a century or two, mankind is throwing the carbon cycle out of whack. What CO2 that is not absorbed by ocean or forest remains in the atmosphere. The oceans are becoming acidic, and carbon dioxide levels are 30% higher than anytime in the last million years.

Current CO2 levels, along with other greenhouse gases (GHGs), are melting the polar ice cap, Greenland and West Antarctica. As much of humanity lives within a few meters of sea level, there could be some economic, ecological and humanitarian consequences.

Recent warming trends are accelerating. Natural feedback cycles are reinforcing anthropogenic (man made) warming. And those feedback cycles, which were thought to be slow, such as the albedo flip of melting glaciers and sea ice, are happening at an alarming rate. Instead of reflecting 90% of solar irradiance, exposed deep sea reflects only 10% and absorbs 90%. This albedo flip is causing the poles to warm as much as five times the global average, which by the way is .8 degrees Celsius since the Industrial revolution.

Permafrost across Canada and Siberia is thawing, releasing CO2 and methane from decomposing organic matter. Roads, forests, train tracks and buildings are collapsing into sinkholes. Google it and see for yourself. Permafrost is thought to contain some 500 billion tons of carbon, which if allowed to thaw and decompose, is good for enough GHGs to cause tens of degrees warming.

So, current business as usual scenarios of capping off CO2 at 450 or 550 ppm, if implemented, are not going to be just dangerous. A warming of 3 to 6 degrees Celsius would be somewhere between calamitous and cataclysmic. Most species will not be able to adapt to a rate of warming which could exceed .4 degrees C per decade.

The United States, we must admit, has played a major role in GHG emissions. We emit about a quarter of emissions. We have set the example of a lifestyle most are trying to emulate.

Our rise as a superpower was largely shaped by our bounty of oil reserves. Up until the 50s or 60s, we were the Saudi Arabia of the world. Now, we know, the situation is reversed, with $700 Billion being sent annually to unstable regions.

There is now a narrow time window in which we can affect the changes required to save both this nation and this planet. For less than we are sending oversees, a recent Scientific American article illustrated, we could build the infrastructure for solar thermal power generation based in the southwest which would obviate our need for coal, and provide enough electricity to charge a nation of electric cars.

Oil is used as a feedstock to make over 300,000 products, including fertilizer and pharmaceuticals, so it might be wise to save some for those uses, as well as for future generations.

Both candidates have expressed a desire to cut dependence on foreign oil and expand renewable energy sources. Current efforts though, such as ethanol, are costing taxpayer dollars, exacerbating global warming, and causing children to starve.

Political expedience, and business as usual, are grinding the United States of America and the biosphere into oblivion. I say, let’s elect Jim Hansen of NASA, America’s top climate scientist. Its high time that logic, science, and compassion play some role in our decisions.

You never know, the planet we save could just be our own.