This sharp, shocking book covers the anthropocene extinction. Kolbert neither flinches nor reprimands, which creates a very powerful read. I read her “Field Notes form a Catastrophe” years ago (and heard her talk out here somewhere – maybe at Town Hall?) and that book helped to convince me that climate change is happening faster than any of our models suggest. The sixth Extinction convinced me that extinctions are happening even faster than I thought, and helped me understand the varying nuances of the primary cause, which is, of course, us.
Kolbert gives us information she has been gathering in the field through a series of short and readable vignettes. These stories are then surrounded and peppered with additional information, creating good readability. I’m often a bit tired and stressed with all of the hats I wear, and it’s become rare for me to find non-fiction that keeps me flipping pages and reading “one more chapter.”
I highly recommend this book to my futurist and science fiction writing friends, as well a the animal lovers I know. Or really, any humans. :)
Somewhere around a dozen years ago, I was sitting in a bar in Eastern Washington. It could have been Lake Chelan or Yakima. I really don’t remember. But I do remember meeting two cowboys. Real cowboys (we still have them in the west). They weren’t talking about herds of cows over their beers. They were talking about fires. I still remember the older of the two describing a fire he’d worked the previous season where the ground had been torched so thoroughly and with so much heat that the the grass wouldn’t re-seed. They explained to me how they had to bring in bales of hay and scatter the hay across acres and acres of seared ground in order to restore the badly-needed grass. Without it, the burnt hills would have washed away during the winter.
I asked him why that fire was so bad.
Now, recall that this man is not a Seattle-area liberal. He’s wearing jeans worn smooth by saddle-leather on the inside of the thighs, he’s chewing tobacco, and if he doesn’t have a gun on him, he almost certainly has one in his truck. He says, “It’s climate change.”
At this point, I was just becoming interested in the topic, and I wanted to know how he came to that conclusion.
“Why, it’s pine beetles. Now that the winters are warmer, they’ve taken to infesting trees that they didn’t used to bother. The trees die, and a forest of dead trees makes a hot fire.”
How did he know it was about climate change? He’d spent every year working the same large farm. He knew change when he saw it, and he knew the difference between a bad year and change that settles in and stays.
I suppose part of why I remember that conversation so clearly is because my son is a wildland firefighter. A fire hot enough to sear the seed from the ground is frightening. It could sear people easily, and take houses and farms.
Multiple recent studies have backed up the cowboys’ story. A Seattle Times article from May of this year reported on the National Climate Assessment. The article said, “Warmer and drier conditions are already blamed for insect infestations and an increase in the number and ferocity of wildfires across the West since the 1970s. By 2080, the amount of forestland that burns every year in the Northwest is expected to quadruple, to 2 million acres.” Just last month, the Governor of California, Jerry Brown, suggested that the extreme wildfires that his state has experienced recently are caused by climate change. In 2013, Super-hot fires raced through Tasmania and New South Wales, Australia, fueled by the hottest and longest heat wave on record. Valparaiso, Chile, was almost completely razed by wind-whipped forest fire earlier this year.
Climate change is not the only cause of fire activity. Many ecosystems such as our own in the Pacific Northwest, and California chaparral, benefit from regular fires. The cycle of burn/renewal can be disrupted when we fight wildfire so effectively that fuel builds up. Conscious fire management is going to be very important as we work toward a sustainable world.
Fire has always been with us, and without it much of modern human life might not have been possible. Our close relationship with fire has not historically extended to wildfire, but in the more controlled and gardened world of our future we may have to become masters of wildfire, both to adopt healthy wildfire as our friend and to mange the incidence of fire so hot that the seeds are seared from the soil.
As always, here are some links:
The World Future Society took a short parable of mine as an article for The Futurist Magazine. It was an interesting process to create it – they asked for what I interpreted as a more serious article, but this is what wanted to come out and play. I usually have more control of the tone of my writing than this, but they must have liked it since it showed up in their magazine and on their website. It may morph into the beginning of the Backing into Eden book which I hope to get to right after I finish Edge of Dark (my next novel).
I often do book recommendations. Seemed like time for a bit of a travel recommendation. This one is especially for science fiction writers and fans. The World Future Society’s annual meeting this year is themed “What if?” – a core question for science fiction fans, and certainly the starting question for many science fiction books and stories.
I’ve been helping them some with organizing the a science fiction symposium within the convention, and the speakers are fabulous.
In addition to the symposium, many of us will also be speaking in the other tracks of the conference. I’ll be there talking about my Backing into Eden concept blog, with a particular focus on ethics and GM animals.
So what happens when a techno-philospher, a volcano surfer, and a CIO walk into a bar…come to the World Future Society Science Fiction Symposium and you might just find out.
The conference is in Orlando in July, and registration is open. There’s even a discount if you sign up by the end of April. Join me for some of the best conversations of the year.
I live in Washington State, and all the news for the last two weeks has been the unthinkable Oso mudslide. Slides are not unusual here, although I have never heard of one with this much destructive force. It got me reflecting about the relationship between earth and water.
The desert near my parent’s home in Mesa, Arizona can do well with very little water while parched farmland turns into a spiderweb of empty cracks with the same amount of rainfall.
As the climate changes, soil changes. When the balance transforms dramatically, we can get flood or drought, and the soil – described by the World Wildlife foundation as, “the fragile skin of the Earth,” can change consistency or place and richness. It can become incapable of sustaining the same life that it was once in balance with.
Soil is complex. It’s made of eroded rocks, silt, sand, dead plants, living organisms, water and air. Soil composition varies from place to place, but always the basic elements are in a dance and the points of balance matter.
This series is about gardening the Earth, and if there is anything gardeners know, it’s to tend to the soil.
The US Department of Natural Resources suggests that we change our way of thinking, and begin to treat soil as an organism, that we imagine it as something that can experience health and disease, as something that can be nurtured. Something living. This is directly in line with the concept of humans as caretakers of the environment. So let’s explore some ways to do that:
Soil is critical. So is learning more about the world we walk on. Doing research for this blog series and general research on fracking, I’ve learned that there are living organisms far below the surface, some as far as two miles below the surface. We know almost nothing about these organisms, but to me they seem to be yet more proof of the tenacity of life. Perhaps they are the type of life that we will find on Mars some day, or even living on the moon. Perhaps they perform functions we need in order to have the right balance in the soil on the slopes above our houses.
Climate change management is about the air that we breathe, but it’s also about water and land, about the soil on which we walk and on which we depend for food. It’s about the earth we live on, and the land that we don’t want to have thundering down onto our heads and turning our houses to splinters.
Every year, we science fiction fans are given the opportunity to vote on a host city for a future World Science Fiction convention. This year, the vote will be between Kansas City and Shanghai. I’m certain that I’ll be voting for Kansas City. I’d LOVE to see the Great Wall, but I’ve seen pictures of the air in China lately, and my instincts suggest I may not want to take the health risks associated with a visit. I’ve read that some of China’s elite are leaving for health reasons. China is also beginning to have a hard time convincing people from western countries to work there. Other places have even worse air. A recent Guardian article wonders if Kathmandu is actually “unlivable” because of poor air quality. India is only ranked slightly ahead of Kathmandu at 174th out of 178, based on the Yale Environmental Performance Index. There are plenty of other pain points in air quality:
There’s more, but that’s enough bad news to convince almost anyone that as much as we need to pay attention to water, we also need to focus on air.
The elephant in the room is the collection of pollution that is damaging the atmosphere and leading to climate change. Carbon is the most talked about part of this elephant. Programs to reduce carbon in the atmosphere are being developed and implemented in many places, but the amount of carbon is still rising dangerously.
The problem is complex, but nonetheless there are three primary sources of air pollution. These are fossil fuel use (from coal plants to gasoline cars), deforestation, and the release of methane. If we focus on those three items, we can make a significant difference.
We can directly affect the amount of carbon released by personal transportation. “Alternative transportation” includes walking, bicycles, electric cars, subways, trains, shared cars, bus rapid transit, and more. Most have a carbon cost, but they are all better choices than gas-powered cars with single occupancy drivers.
For the coal plants, we need regulation with teeth, and to capture that carbon at the source. There is technology for that now, and we should be using it. MIT keeps a page with a list carbon capture projects worldwide, and it appears that there is a lot more planning than implementation happening at the moment. Mostly, we need to move away from coal, but to do that while maintaining a healthy economy we may need to spend a few decades in ‘capture and sequester’ phase.
Deforestation has a lot of causes. One simple way to look at it is deforestation is a result of the inability to express and move value around. The value to the world of a plot of healthy rainforest is far greater than corporation or individual farmers get from the land after they burn the forest off. But we don’t have any way to recognize that. Even though some programs are trying to do just that, in general the hungry farmer can’t use conservation to feed his or her family. This is changeable.
We’re back to another root I’m seeing. Cattle. Cattle-ranching drives a lot of the deforestation. Eating beef, of course, drives cattle-ranching. The vast water-cost of feeding cows came up in last week’s blog about water, and cattle come up again in this blog under the topic of methane. I didn’t set out to write about becoming vegetarian, but it’s beginning to look important. More on that topic in a future whole chapter.
Deforestation fills the atmosphere with black carbon, or soot. In addition to deforestation, soot is released from diesel engines, from fires (including household fireplaces and cooking fires), and from some industrial processes. Soot absorbs solar radiation, and interacts in complex ways with forces for both warming and cooling. Scientific sentiment is beginning to suggest that reduction in soot worldwide may slow global warming significantly.
In the United States, we are reducing black carbon emissions through more controls on diesel fuels and other methods. Since soot is not as persistent in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, reductions in the release of soot can have a fairly quick payoff.
Methane is another abundant greenhouse gas. There are a number of natural reasons for this, but there are also anthropogenic causes. Coal and coal plants and even natural gas production, transportation, and use release methane. And for a nearly comical source of even more methane? Cows. One more reason we should seriously consider shifting our sources of protein.
Air pollution comes from a lot of sources, and the intricacies of our atmosphere are not completely understood yet. I suspect that before we made the air dirty enough to see after the industrial revolution, humanity simply took it from granted that air was free and clean. We need to both act now on the things we do understand (it can be done; California’s air is far cleaner than it used to be) and to do a lot more basic research.
We breathe each other’s air. The wind mixes our air together and blows it across political boundaries. Chinese air affects the United States, and our air affects China. Even more than water, the same air flows across all of us, and it is up to all of us to work together to clean it up and keep it clean. Think of it as housekeeping 101.
As always, here are a few links to follow if you are interested in diving any deeper:
It seemed like I should give people a bit of an update about Google Glass, and what the experience of being a Glass Explorer has been like for me.
First, I’ve met a number of really great people through Glass. I spent the first month basically wandering alone and not seeing anyone else wearing Glass at all. Then I hooked up with Seattle Glass Explorers Artists and Developers Incubator, which meets every Friday afternoon. Because I have a day job, I can’t be there every Friday, but I’ve been there a few times, and met the core people from the incubator at a few other functions. They are really very smart and kind people. At any rate, I have some new friends and some new things to learn. These are both things I find energizing.
Second, I’ve learned that people’s reactions to Glass vary along a bell curve. The most common reaction, and the middle of the curve, is mild curiosity. For most people, Glass is just not that big a deal. They’re curious, will ask a few questions, and then the conversation moves on.
The curiosity side fades to fascination. Some people are really interested in Glass. Glass Explorers, futurists, and science fiction writers, entrepreneurs, young people in technology, and a few random others who find Glass interesting. These people want to try it on, to understand it, and in some cases are actively interested in using Glass for good. Think applications that make the world a better place or simply make things easier. After all, hands-free computing is awesome. Good for inspectors, dog trainers, health care workers, house cleaners…the list goes on.
On the other hand, the disinterest side of the bell curve fades to fear, which I find is almost always based on misunderstanding. There are people who are convinced that Glass is always on and always recording, and always being watched by some evil human being at Google. None of the above are true. In most cases, I’ve found people are willing to learn and to often change their attitude about Glass when they understand it better. Generally, this group of people does not come from the tech community, but a few times I’ve been surprised by conspiracy-theory level worries from people who really aught to know better, like DBA’s and other people with college degrees.
Best thing about Glass today? It’s lovely to be able to do some basic computing without needing my hands for much of it (Glass is not entirely hands free). Next best? The potential is amazing.
There is a certain awkwardness to Glass in many situations. Sometimes I don’t use it for days. I usually like wearing it, and I wish I had more time to learn more about it and try out more applications. Some of this awkwardness comes from the fact that Glass is still an expensive limited edition, some comes from the very idea of wearing a camera on your face (or anything electronic on your face), and some is that the user interface is still rough around the edges in spite of really good apps like the turn by turn directions.
The current conversation about Glass is really waiting for a clear sign from Google about next steps. For example, most development is small stuff since VC funding is hard to go after for a product with no release date, no cost, and no clearly communicated direction. In the meantime, I’m still out here exploring Glass and enjoying the process.
…picture credit Chad Emerson
I am always watching for excellent science fiction. I also have a particular interest in science fiction written by women, probably because that’s what I do. This year, I noticed that Anne Leckie had a Nebula nomination for her debut novel, Ancillary Justice.
Perhaps because it is a brand-new set of worlds, it was a pleasant but slow entrance. By about half-way through I found myself glued to my kindle, my first cup of morning coffee growing cold in my hand as I flipped pages quickly.
I ended up really quite impressed. It is a smart novel, full of very convincing world building and a fresh culture that is quite believable. It’s also quite well-paced and hard-hitting, full of twists and surprises and with a fabulous viewpoint character.
I’m looking forward to reading more work by Anne in the future.
So far in this blog series, I’ve talked about the management of things that live in places that can be located on the globe. Species, like elephants and mud snails. Ecosystems, like rain forests or coral reefs. On a smaller level, microclimates.
These all matter very much. But there are even bigger challenges that have no specific home but affect every place. Air is one of them, and frankly most of climate change comes down to managing the air badly.
There is another critical element.
What do we need second only to air? What lives everywhere and takes multiple forms? What must be cleaned and acts as a cleaner? What is a habitat and is needed by all habitats? What carves the deepest canyons in the world? What does every living being, in every place on the globe need?
I live in the Pacific Northwest of America, a place rich with water. I’ve been on my bike almost every weekend so far this year, and mostly that means I’ve been rained on, almost rained on, or on one particularly cold ride, rained on, snowed on, and sleeted on.
When I think about the future, I often worry about water. Some future problems will be the same ones I’ve been experiencing on my bike: too much water. But primarily they will be problems of scarcity.
I’ll start with one specific example I found in my research. Generally, I think of rivers as something we use for irrigation. Last year, we irrigated the Rio Grande river. Instead of using the river, we fed it.
That is not the usual relationship between humans and rivers.
I’ll mention three freshwater problems as a reminder of the scale of the issues:
1. Glaciers are melting. This is causing the sea level to rise, and also reducing the amount of fresh water available in some places.
2. Climate change has been linked to drought, which has been widespread lately. This year, Californians have lived in fear that water shortages will leave farmland fallow and may even leave some communities without any water at all. None.
3. Aquifers are being quickly depleted, making water harder to reach via wells and also causing the ground to subside, saltwater to intrude, and water quality to decline.
There are far more problems related to water than this, but lets move on to solution. Water conservation does matter. The needle is moving the right direction: per capita water use is dropping in the United States. This is because of a combination of education, infrastructure upgrades (removing leaks from water systems), new technology (less wasteful toilets and shower heads etc.), and regulation. We need to do more, and I’m sure we can and will. But as bright a spot as conservation has turned out to be, it won’t help when a drought or the depletion of groundwater means there’s no water to conserve.
So we’re going to have to exert a bit more control on the water picture. Here are a few things we’ll be doing in the future:
· For coastal cities, there’s a reasonable obvious solution: desalination. It’s terribly expensive today. But we know how to address that. Investment in solar power has driven the cost down by roughly 60% in the last three years. Desalination technology hasn’t enjoyed as much investment, but that could change rapidly as California contemplates building new plants. As expensive as desalinization is, trucking water from other places could be far more expensive given the dense population.
· There are places in the world where water is available but contaminated. Some very interesting work has been happening to create ways to clean this water. From a LifeStraw to new hydro-packs, there are innovative tools coming online for families to carry and clean water more easily. These tools could also be used to carry water and clean water enough to grow healthy food.
· It takes far more water to grow and harvest a steak than a salad. A simple change in human diet to reduce animal protein by half would drastically reduce the amount of water needed to feed the world. While this is a simple conservation measure, it’s not yet occurring at scale. For example, a major crop in California is alfalfa, itself a thirsty grass. California’s alfalfa is largely sold to China, effectively exporting the product of scarce water offshore.
· Water rights laws are often old and inadequate or even damaging to current needs. A new framework for water rights may help us decide how to distribute and care for water in a fairer way. This is going to be a hard change to make with current holders of rights fighting to retain them. But the reality is that much of our water is oversubscribed already; existing rights can’t be filled anyway. The system can be fixed.
· Weather management: We may be looking to weather management to mitigate risks of severe storms brought on by climate change. Chances are we’ll also become even more serious rainmakers than we are now. Powerful big data analytics are helping us understand the problems inherent in climate change, and those same or similar models should also help us mitigate challenges. Expect more tools to seed clouds to make more rain, and maybe also ways to calm a hurricane.
The care and management of any kind of garden takes water management. In a future world where we’ve taking far more responsibility for land use, water management that looks at broad territories will be a foundational skill. We’ll have to be bold about it. If we don’t success at managing this fundamental resource, we will fail at many of the things we need to do. Rivers will dry up, cities and towns will wither away, and many of the ecosystems we are working to preserve will fail. And this is just the freshwater problem….
I’m quite pleased to be back into the business of working on the blog series, and for returning readers thanks for returning after a three month hiatus. I had some fiction to commit, which will turn into the Edge of Dark, available from Pyr in 2015.
I’ll be delivering a talk about Backing into Eden at the World Future Society in Orlando in July, and with luck, I’ll also have an ebook version available near then.
As always, here are links to some of the articles I read for research in case you want to do your own exploration:
Someone interviewing me for a magazine asked me what current technology tomorrow’s children would find obsolete. I almost answered “The Internet.” Then I decided to think about that answer a little bit because it’s pretty scary. Then I decided it’s true.
Shortly, humans may find today’s wide open Internet as archaic as we now find phones that are wired to walls.
Here’s why. There are three huge pressures on the internet as we know it today – the one where I can write this essay, post it on my website, and you can find it and read it. Whoever you are.
The first strike is today’s news. We appear to be losing the network neutrality fight, or the idea that all content is treated equally when it comes to transport. You and I may be paying our internet carriers more to use the best search engines, watch sports games in real time, or download the New York Times every morning. That’s on top of what we might pay for the content itself. So we could pony up $4.99 for a video and then get an add-on fee of 19 cents to download it. Or worse, someone like me who is not famous may pay more money to make my content available to everyone. Oh, yeah, I do that now. At least if I want everyone on my friends list to see a post, I have to pay FaceBook. But I could end up also paying Cox or Time Warner a little extra. Or it could be if you want to read this post, you’ll have to wait through a one minute download time. Except you won’t, and I won’t, and only the premium content will be seen by much of anybody. This is a current fight full of active petitions. We should all be screaming and demanding a win. Note that while the loss of net neutrality will start by having a deleterious effect on consumers and creators of entertainment content, the next target may very well be the movement of business data. Want to store your iPhone backup in the Cloud? Here’s your transport fee.
Strike two is yesterday’s news, still recent enough it occasionally comes up for a sip of media air. The NSA is searching everybody with no warrant. In fact, the NSA has been so busy opening back doors to the Internet that the front door may be getting locked. I’ve heard rumors of corporations who are already building or planning to build private internal networks with no connection whatsoever to the Internet. They’re reportedly doing this in order to protect their intellectual property from other corporate and government thieves (can you say China) who are after it. But now they have to worry about their own government building back doors into servers and not telling anyone at all, especially the American corporations using the compromised hardware and/or software. I suspect that a lot of internal traffic is coming off of the open Internet and going into secondary networks between campuses. This adds business costs. A lot of them. In a related reaction to the NSA and the USA that runs it, we may be seeing Great Firewalls around friendly, democrative countries soon. At this point, I don’t think it matters what President Obama says to us or to our friends. Our trust has been breached. Private networks, face to face meetings, and other more secure tools are going to happen. Even though I’m a rabid transparency advocate, there’s no part of me that thinks that all private conversations and early-IP should be public, or that the transparency should be a one-way mirror from the NSA into my phone. So strike two – 1984 in 2014.
Which leads us to strike three; Crime. Crime isn’t new news at all, but cybercrime appears to be the fastest growing industry on the planet. No, I haven’t done that research. But I did determine that my belief that it’s growing fast is widely supported. Most other crime rates are steady or decreasing. This includes violent crimes, and property crimes. But cybercrime? Way up. I’m in far more danger of suffering from identity theft than I am of being robbed on the street. And so is almost everyone else. Likewise, the businesses we work for and the governments who protect us (and spy on us) are also under constant threat. It’s wearying. Someday, there may be more peril than promise from doing my shopping online. Given that I shopped at Target three times right before Christmas, I’m feeling a little like that today.
That’s a lot for the Internet to handle. And if we lose the open Internet, we will have lost something innocent and hopeful. We will have lost one of the more important tools for equality in the world. We will have lost a way for all people everywhere to have a voice that can heard by anyone. Oh, we’ll still have an Internet. But it might not feel very much like the one we have today. We may not be willing to use it for anything very interesting at all. We’ll still get Netflix and Game of Thrones and CNN, but we won’t have it all like we do today.
I am a writer, public speaker, and a futurist. I’m interested in how new technologies might change us and our world, particularly for the better.
I’m excited about my most recent book series, a duology called “Ruby’s Song” which includes the books The Creative Fire and The Diamond Deep, both published by Pyr. I’m also doing a non-fiction blog series, Backing into Eden, which comes out roughly twice a month and explores ways to care for the world, now and in the future.