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Carbon Democracy

“Humankind has consumed about two trillion barrels of oil since the rise of the modern petroleum industry in the 1860s. It is worth repeating that burning the first trillion took about 130 years, but we went through the second trillion in only twenty-two years. […] The world’s fossil fuels were formed out of 500 million years of buried sunshine. Whether we spend most of this ‘capital bequeathed to mankind by other living beings’ within a span of three hundred years or four hundred, from the perspective of geological history, or even merely of human history, the era of the Anthropocene is brief and extraordinary. […] The geological language captures not so much the brevity of time in which the energy from fossil fuels has enabled agency on a new scale, but the extraordinary length of time, looking forward, over which the effects of this brief agency will be felt. The modes of common life that have arisen largely within the last hundred years, and whose intensity has accelerated only since 1945, are shaping the planet for the next one thousand years, and perhaps the next 50,000.”

Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, 2013. This is one of a number of Verso’s thought-provoking and paradigm-challenging approaches to the politics of climate change.

Raptor Us

As I turned the corner onto 41st Street across from the park, preparing for the hike up the moraine, I noticed a big bird take off from the slope above the park’s retaining wall. It was a Red-tailed Hawk, of course, and it landed in a London plane tree anchored in the sidewalk. Crossing the street to stand beside the tree’s bole was but a moment’s work for me. The hawk paid no heed to my efforts, nor to three other bipeds passing below. Instead, it swallowed some food in just a few bites. No feathers flew, so perhaps it was a small mammal. The bird was about 15 feet away from me. That’s some FID — flight initiation distance to the ornithologists, a mark of habituation to humans. In fact, the bird hopped down to a lower branch that was even closer to me. It was one of my closest encounters ever with these big raptors, an almost daily sight here in Brooklyn. I’ve been reading Urban Raptors: Ecology and Conservation of Birds of Prey in Cities (edited by Boal & Dykstra). Neither Red-tailed Hawks nor American Kestrels, the most common nesting raptors in NYC, rate their own chapter, but there are lessons to be extrapolated. Adaptability, dietary catholicism, ability to withstand human presence (now, that’s an achievement).

Like for instances:
Last weekend, a young Bald Eagle sailed over the block and down towards the avenue. It was below eye-level for us here on the 4th floor atop the Harbor Hill Moraine. What a thrill! Yesterday, an adult was high overhead Green-Wood. That’s three sightings of at least two different eagles this month within a mile of home.Here’s a shot for ID purposes only, taken through a moon roof. This is a Merlin atop this regular American Kestrel perch one avenue (long) block from home.This antenna, five blocks away, is a more infrequent American Kestrel perch, but only because I don’t pass it all that frequently.A pair of Peregrines. They’ve been seen up here almost every day for months now. This morning: one was there when I first looked at 7:09am;  both there at 7:18am. Only crappy weather keeps them elsewhere. Another Peregrine, in the Bronx this time.And another Red-tailed Hawk, also in the Bronx.

Stay tuned for more raptors in the New Year. I already have the whole month planned for “Raptor Wednesdays.”

To Bee Or Not To Bee

When Europeans brought their domesticated honeybees to the New World, they joined the 4000 other species of bees all ready here. That’s a lot of different kinds of bees, but the invasive honeybees, the cattle of insects, the serfs of industry, get virtually all the attention. This is a shame. Honeybees are problematic, to say the least. (I was once a big advocate, but I’ve revised my thinking, not that I don’t think they’re fascinating.)

“The honeybees from a single domestic hive consume pollen and nectar that might otherwise provision 100,000 nest cells for diggers, masons, leaf cutters, and other native bees,” writes Thor Hanson in Buzz. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, the link above goes to the article he cites on this. The most significant effects of industrial honeybee colonies are in wild areas, not agricultural ones. It certainly makes you think about the explosion of bee-keeping, as here in New York City.

Green-Wood Cemetery, for instance, has hives in the Dell Water, which they want to revert to a more nature-friendly section. They have another batch of hives near the pollinator dream-world of their new native plant hillside. Are they undermining their own best efforts?

Hanson’s concise but comprehensive new book raises such questions. It should broaden everybody’s bee horizons. Like other insects, bees are disappearing in our lifetime. (Because, it might be argued, of our lifetimes). As noted here and many other places, this disappearance is two-fold: species are winking out, and the numbers within surviving species are shrinking. The causes are all anthropogenic and interconnected: toxins, imported pathogens, habitat destruction, climate change, industrial monocropping to feed the locust-expansion of human beings. One study found residue from 118 different pesticides in hives from around the country; these included poisons long since banned, like DDT, which persist in the environment. The synergistic interactions of all these chemical weapons are a whole other front in the war against life.
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The author suggests you read the end notes. Duh! Here you’ll find much else that just couldn’t fit into the narrative. (Boy, do I know that feeling!) Like, for instance, the number of specimens Darwin sent home (8,000) and the number Wallace, who earned his living doing this, did (125,000; 83,200 of which were beetles).

The Big Book of Eagles

But let’s start… small: the Pygmy Eagle weights about the same as a pigeon. Whaa-ut? Hieraaetus weiskei is found on New Guinea and some of the surrounding islands. Evolutionary pressures on islands can sometimes result in rather small animals. Interestingly, this species is said to be one of the closest living relatives of the largest eagle ever, the extinct Haast’s Eagle of New Zealand (Harpagornis moorei). The Haast’s was a “33-pound (15kg) giant that preyed on moas” and that died out circa 1400 when the Maori killed off the last of the moas. (Islands can also cause gigantism.) The Pygmy Eagle used to be lumped with Australia’s Little Eagle (Hieraaetus morphnoides), but DNA and other evidence suggests it is its own species. Notwithstanding these small examples, eagles are some of the largest and rarest of birds. The largest recorded wingspan of an existing eagle species belongs to a female Wedge-tailed Eagle: 9’4″. The heaviest, a 20-pound Harpy Eagle. Harpy Eagles are tropical forest birds, so like Accipiters they have relatively short and stocky wings for maneuverability amid trees; while massive birds, they only rank about 6th in terms of wingspan. There is much more such information in this illustrated natural history by Mike Unwin and David Tipling. They cover most of the eagle species found in the world.

Sure, this is a coffee-table book, so the pictures are impressive. But thankfully it’s also one informed by taxonomy, ecology, evolution, and conservation, all the good things. Pictured is an adult Bald Eagle, one of two species of eagle found in the US. This one passed high overhead of me last Saturday in Green-Wood Cemetery here in Brooklyn, approximately the third time I’ve seen one there. Interestingly, it looks like a photographer who was also in Green-Wood that day pictured a lower flying younger bird, easily distinguished because it takes four to five years for the Balds to get their white heads and tails.

From last year, young eagles on Staten Island.

A Philosophical Botany

In Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany Matthew Hall’s argument doesn’t strike me as provocative, but for others grounded in anthropocentrism, zoocentrism, Cartesian dualities, and very out-of-date biological understanding, it may.

“Plants and humans share a basic, ontological reality as perceptive, aware, autonomous, self-governed, and intelligent beings,” he writes.

As fellow eukaryotes, plants and animals (and fungi) all share nucleated cells as our foundational organizational structure. Even more fundamentally: there would not be life on earth as we know it without plants expelling oxygen as waste. They are the primary converters of solar energy into life, without which we would not exist. Eating plants, or eating the things that eat plants, we are completely dependent on plants. Yet we certainly do not give plants the respect and care we should. Quite the opposite, in fact. The thingness of plants makes them easy to dismiss, uproot, poison, pave-over, manipulate, and above all, disregard.

Hall discusses the roots of the lordly disregard of plants in Western thought (the Judeo-Christian-Aristotlian nexus); alternatives in other worldly traditions (Hindu, Jain, Buddhist); and older approaches (animist, pagan, Indigenous). Then, detailing recent discoveries of kinds of sentience and mentality in plants, he’s off to the races. A blurb on the back makes the inevitable allusion to Peter Singer’s groundbreaking Animal Liberation. So what about plant liberation?

Hall counsels a restorative approach. A combination of restorative justice and ecological restoration? Profound food for thought.
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This blog is not predominantly a plant blog. I just don’t know enough to handle the plants. So may I suggest In Defense of Plants as an excellent corrective?

On Heredity

Carl Zimmer’s She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity is an essential read in our present moment. Genetic essentialism and ignorance; fundamentalism and fascism; the revival of eugenic racist thought and strategy by the Republicans; all these combine in the vital necessity of a history and understanding of biological and cultural heredity today.

The perversions of the title are grim indeed. You must know that American anti-immigration, eugenics, “scientific racism,” bogus histories of “feeblemindedness,” and forced sterilization programs, aroused by the robber barons and given impetus by philanthropists and museums like the American Museum of Natural History, were the direct precursors of the Nazi exterminations. The Nazis were frank in their admiration and emulation of these American notions.

Meanwhile, genetic essentialism, the notion that genes are destiny, crowds the minds of the ignorant. Did you know that at least one sperm bank lets you pick the astrological sign of the donor?

Unsurprisingly, too, racists still fall back on bogus genetic determinism for their beliefs. The white supremacist fantasists extolling a kind of white Euro-putinesque nonsense are clueless about the actual history of the waves of migration into what we now call Europe. (Isn’t it sick irony, too, that people of Irish, southern European, and eastern European ancestry, barely considered white a century ago, now Trump-et themselves the saviors of a nonexistent white race?)

“If you go back far enough in the history of a human population, you reach a point in time when all the individuals who have any descendants among living people are ancestors of all living people.”

There is so much in this book, it’s impossible to summarize. But in addition to the historical material, I was particularly taken with the discussion of CRISPR, which has both amazing and terrifying potential, and the following.

I’ve been using the term chimera for a while now to refer to both the human/microbiome mixture and the more basic mitochondria-cellular fusion, but there is actually another biological sense as well. First discovered in cows, later humans: fetal twins can share their mother’s and each other’s cells, resulting in all sorts of fascinating mixtures.

We used to think the placenta was an iron wall between mother and fetus, but “about half of mothers still carry fetal cells in their blood decades after carrying their children.” These can include Y chromosomes (females, remember, have XX chromosomes). Meanwhile, an estimated “42% of children end up with cells from their mothers.” Girls can end up with Y chromosomes because their mother had previously given birth to a boy. Writes Zimmer, “We use words like sister and aunt as if they describe rigid laws of biology. But despite our genetic essentialism, these laws are really only rules of thumb. Under the right conditions, they can be readily broken.”

Beware of rules and laws. They were made to be broken.

Leviathan?

“What is to be done?” asked Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky in the title of his 1863 novel about the situation of Russian. Chernyshevsky wrote, from prison, something of a “handbook of radicalism,” postulating a sort of utopian peasant/commune/industrial socialism. Perhaps, though, the most important thing about the book was the burning titular question, which fired debate and influenced, among many others, Kropotkin, Luxembourg, and Lenin. Tolstoy, too, although of a different tenor: his What is To Be Done? was published 1886. Lenin used the question as the title of his 1902 pamphlet arguing for a vanguard party to lead the workers and peasants towards communism, part of the split of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party into “majority” (Bolshevik) and “minority” (Menshevik) factions.

I think of this question, and its ultimate disaster of an answer in Bolshevik dictatorship, when it comes to climate breakdown. (George Monibot argues that “climate change” is entirely too mild for is going to — excuse me, I mean, what IS happening now.)

Because… What is to be done? “How will the world respond politically” to climate breakdown?

In Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright offer some…guidance? They argue that a globally sovereign “Climate Leviathan” is taking shape, via the existing international order/hierarchy of the capitalist economies of the global North (largely responsible for burning fossil capital in the first place), “to enable the world’s most powerful states to engage in planetary management.” Since we essentially already have this, and the “state of emergency” model that liberal democracies already frighteningly depend on, this definitely looks like the approach the world is taking. But can a green Keynesianism do the trick, allowing adaptation to rising waters, flood/draught pattern shifts, intolerable heat, agricultural transformations, mass migration, political conflict, resource fights, etc? Will liberal capitalism (liberal in the economic sense) get us out of the mess it has created? Or will it just save its elites, and maybe some of their lucky dog-walkers and maids along the way?

Our authors postulate three other responses:

Climate Mao: an authoritarian, anti-capitalist model which justifies state terror in the interest of the collective (the “red thread running from Robespierre to Lenin to Mao”). The current Chinese state-capitalist regime is definitely more Leviathan and Mao now, but Asia, with its billions of climate-breakdown victims to come, is the potential locus of this model, which would also use the emergency model (“we have to do this to save human lives”).

Climate Behemoth: this is the reactionary conservative, “populist,” anti-reason model in vogue now in Central Europe, India, Russia, the Philippines, Brazil, the US…. Here militant minority factions (in the US: older white religious conservatives) rally to demagogues fronting for plutocrats, especially resource-extractors. “Different forms of racial, national and gendered prejudice” organize voters for Trump, Modi, Obran, Putin, etc., but all call for the necessity of otherness, an enemy, as foundational to these new fascisms. You will not be surprised, I think, to discover that the MAGA-bomber was foreclosed not by any of his would-be targets, but by his idol Trump’s rapacious Secretary of the Treasury.

Climate X: the authors choice, X for the unknown, but non-authoritarian, non-capitalist built on equality, inclusion and dignity of all, and “solidarity in composing a world of many worlds.” They leave the details vague. (The point, it seems, is not to philosophize about the world but to change it.)

“Whether we know it or not, all our thinking is environmental, even when it rebels against nature.”

“If good climate data and models were all that were needed to address climate change, we would have seen a political response in the 1980s. Our challenge is closer to a crisis of imagination and ideology; people do not change their conception of the world just because they are presented with new data.”

“The planetary crisis is, among other things, a crisis of the imagination, a crisis of ideology, the result of an inability to conceive any alternative to walls, guns, and finance as tools to address the problems that loom on the horizon.”

Referencing Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene “[…] we do not need to learn to die, but to think, live, and rebel. Moreover, the problem is hardly ‘us’ in the abstract, as if the catastrophe were built into human nature. The problem is largely associated with a specific minority of ‘us’ and the way that minority’s ‘civilization’ have determined the fate of the entire planet. Rather than accept that ‘civilization’ is dead, we need to struggle to create one that is truly civilized.”


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