Archive for May, 2008

States Act to Make Cars Cleaner

Friday, May 30th, 2008

     State governments around the country aren’t waiting for leadership from the Bush administration when it comes to limiting global warming emissions from motor vehicles.  Twelve states have taken matters into their own hands by adopting the “Clean Cars Program,” which sets limits on global warming pollution from cars, light trucks, and SUVs.  

     The Clean Cars Program has three components:

     1)  Global Warming Emission Standards, which limit emissions of pollutants that contribute to global warming.

     2)  The Low-Emission Vehicle program, which sets strong standards for emissions of smog-forming and toxic air pollutants.

     3)  The Zero-Emission Vehicle program, which promotes advanced-technology vehicles such as hybrids, fuel-cell vehicles and electric vehicles. 

     The Clean Cars program is an important step toward halting and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  America’s cars and trucks currently produce more than 360 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.  And these emissions are expected to rise another 50% by 2015!  So it makes sense for all 50 states to adopt the Clean Cars Program.

     While lessening global warming is the key benefit to the Clean Cars Program, it is far from the only one.  Clean Cars also mean a reduction in polluting emissions that are linked with increased risks for stroke, heart attacks, and cancer, and that worsen asthma and lung disease.  And as a result of reductions in these health-damaging emissions, we can expect a reduction in medical expenses.

     And the Clean Cars Program saves money!  Cars that incorporate advanced technology components have reduced operating costs, which saves money at the pump.  And with drivers spending less on gas, money that leaves the local economy stays in drivers’ pockets for other uses.

     The following states have adopted the Clean Cars Program:  California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.   Is your state on the list?  If not, contact your Governor’s Office and strongly recommend that your state act for a safe and healthy future by adopting the Clean Cars Program.  

The Forest Is Coming

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

     My husband Andy Schmookler wrote this piece six years ago.  It was published as an op-ed in the BALTIMORE SUN.  He wrote the piece from our home on a mountain ridge in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the home to which we are returning from Albuquerque. 

       I saw it as I sat on a flat area of my roof, looking out across our valley, and though I was alone, I gave out an audible, and involuntary, “WOW!”        Our place–on the far side of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley–sits just below the top of a ridge looking west across a trough of forested land leading up to the next ridge, which is high enough to be called Great North Mountain, though it runs mostly north and south.  The land on the mountain is National Forest, and some time in the 1980s, patches of those woods were harvested for lumber.     Although farming is almost wholly gone from ridge-land like ours (while it persists in those broader and more fertile valleys that made this area the breadbasket of the Confederacy), on our side of this forested trough you can find old evidence of homesteads and overgrown fields where folks tried to grow a living off these steep and vulnerable slopes.     Like the rest of the great eastern woodlands of America, these forests lost their virginity long ago to humans bearing axes.

     The imprint of humanity on these woods was also made less directly.  A century ago, magnificent American chestnuts were a majoar component of these forests.  But they were struck down by a virus inadvertently introduced to North America by people wanting to add the Chinese chestnut to their landscaping.  And then there’s the gypsy moth, an ancient species accidentally let loose in New England generations ago, still munching its way south and west through the hardwood forests of the American East.

     Perhaps it was the gypsy moths, which were plentiful and voracious here the first couple of years after we moved here, that helped obscure the reality I now saw–and maybe also the couple of years of drought we’ve suffered through since then.  Then also, this spring, starting cold, was slow in coming.  But when it warmed, the sudden new burst of green rose up strongly out of the earth and through the wood.  And as I sat on my roof, watching the trees coming into leaf, I discovered the secret they contained.

     “The forest is coming!”  That’s what I said to myself after that initial “Wow!”

     What was visible to me was that something powerful was emerging from the earth–emerging not just in this burgeoning spring, but over the ten years since we’ve moved here.  It was as if my mind were now able to play out a years-long time-elapsed film, and could discern in that mental reel what it is that the earth is up to.

     The earth here wants to create a great forest, and laid out before me was the evidence of how substantially the earth has progressed in this vital endeavor.  The previously bare patches on Great North Mountain, my time-elapsed memory movie now revealed, were being nibbled away by the spreading green of trees, as what recently were shrub-sized dots had swelled into identifieable trees rising skyward.  And the tops of the row of trees that grow a couple hundred feet downhill from us just below our clearing now stretch up a good six or eight feet above where they’d been last time I’d noticed.

     In the flush of the spring, I could see–I could feel–the forest growing toward us, rising around us.  What a beautiful and mighty living thing I saw, reclaiming the domain.

     “This is what happens,” I said to myself, “when we get out of the way.” 

Microbes: the New Scientific Frontier!

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

     I was blown away when I read in Harvard magazine (“The Undiscovered Planet” by Jonathan Shaw, November-December 2007) about the amazing research going on in microbiology!   

     It turns out that life on earth is vastly more diverse than anyone had ever imagined.  And most of that diversity is at the microbial level.  Scientists have come to believe there are billions  of species of microbes, ‘exceeding the number of ‘large’ organisms by several orders of magnitude,’ writes Shaw. 

     Microbes are so diverse, it turns out, that a human being is genetically more similar to a potato than certain microbes are to other microbes!  (A potato???)

     This stunning new research calls for reorganizing the traditional classification system of life on earth.  Until recently divided into animal, plant, fungus, and one-celled organism ‘kingdoms,’ the system is being redrawn to reflect scientists’ new knowledge.  The redrawn map has life on earth divided into three ‘kingdoms,’ two of which are made up entirely of microbes.  We–and all the other plants, animals, and fungi on earth–are but a small part of the third kingdom.  That third kingdom is characterized by organisms whose cells contain a nucleus.

     So, other than being incredibly numerous and diverse, what is so special about microbes?  They have shaped our world, according to Roberto Kolter, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School.  They have played a defining role in the planet’s development.  Kolter explains that microbes mediate all the important element cycles on Earth.  Microbes form clouds, break down rocks, deposit minerals, fertilize plants, condition soils, and clean up toxic waste.  

     And microbes make human life possible, despite the bad rap bacteria get in the form of anti-bacterial soaps, sponges, toilet paper, towels and cutting boards.   Microbes help us digest food and produce vitamins, and potect us against infection.  An estimated 100 trillion microbial cells live in and on a human being!  This is compared to the estimated 10 trillion human cells in one person.  Our lives would be impossible without the assistance of a great many microbes!

       Research in the burgeoning field of microbiology is in its infancy.  According to paleontologist Andrew Knoll, the field will not reach its maturity in his research lifetime or in the research lifetimes of his students.  He looks to “whole new horizons in simply understanding the diversity of life as it actually  exists–not what we thought existed because we could see it.”

     Clearly, life on our planet is far more complex and diverse than we thought!  And perhaps humans’ place in the whole wondrous panoply is different from what we thought.  If you would like to read Jonathan Shaw’s entire article, just click on the link below.

Birds’ Nests–Small Miracles

Monday, May 26th, 2008

     Many years ago I had the wonderful experience of teaching second graders in an Audubon after-school program in Washington, D.C.  Our most memorable activity, for me, was our attempt to create bird’s nests.  Was it ever hard!  The human hand, though incredibly dextrous, turned out to be no match for a bird’s beak and feet!  The nests we made looked pathetic, compared to the intricate structures birds routinely make. 

     I was reminded of this experience when I read an excellent article in appreciation of birds’ nests.  I include here excerpts from that article, “Small Miracles” by Kenn Kaufman (AUDUBON, March-April 2008) along with links to some awesome photos that were published in the magazine.–April Moore

“Impatient for winter to be over, we had put on our boots to go seeking signs of spring but had instead found a sign of the previous summer.  We must have walked past this thicket a score of times last summer without ever noticing birds around it, but here is a bird’s nest among the branches, at eye level, in plain sight now that winter has stripped away the last of the leaves.

“It would be easy enough to pass it by.  If we pause to look closely, though, it becomes more intriguing.  We may never know what kind of bird built the nest, because there are several species here that might construct this type: an open-cup shape lashed into a three-way fork in an upright twig.  But it inspires a sense of wonder beyond mere questions about identification.  Somehow a small bird knew how to gather the myriad material for this structure.  Somehow this bird arranged scores of small pieces of twig and grass and weed and bark, weaving them together with such precision that the nest is still sturdy and secure after being exposed to the winter’s rain and wind.  Considered in the proper light, this little bundle of dried vegetation is really a small miracle. . . . . .

“Birds do not live in their nests the way humans live in their houses.  A few species, such as some wrens, will use them as shelters to sleep in at night, but they are the exceptions.  For the majority, the nest is just a cradle.  Built to hold the eggs and the helpless young, it is abandoned once the young birds are old enough to leave.  In most cases it is never used again. . . .

“. . . .for variety of placement and material, and for sheer complexity of design, nothing can compare with birds’ nests.  Especially among smaller birds, nests are often remarkable for the inventive use of local materials to provide support, shelter, and camouflage.  The nests are tiny marvels of disposable architecture.

“The skill to create them comes almost entirely from instinct (althought there is evidence that young adult birds, making their first nests, do improve with practice).  Studies have shown that at least some birds, hand-raised in captivity, can build a nest typical of their own species without ever having seen one.  The instinct to do this must be flexible, because the locations and materials available for nests in the wild vary, but it must be based on a considerable amount of precision as well.

“Even a small bird’s relatively simple nest may be composed of several kinds of material used for different purposes.  For example, a white-crowned sparrow’s may have coarse twigs at the base, finer twigs and weeds intertwined with rootlets and bark strips to form the open cup, dry leaves in the outer edge, and fine grasses and other soft materials molded into an inner lining.  And that’s just a simple number.  A more complex nest, such as the long hanging pouch of an American oriole, may involve actual weaving or sophisticated knots tied in long plant fibers, and it may take days of intense effort to build.

“Most birds are opportunistic when it comes to building materials, and will readily incorporate manmade items into their nests if they fit basic requiremens of size and texture.  Paper, string, nails, pieces of wire, and bits of fabric regularly show up in the handiwork of suburban birds.  In some areas house finches have become a minor nuisance by dismantling nylon window screens to use the strands for their nests.

“In many cases, though, the materials chosen must have specific properties.  Studies of nesting European starlings have found that the birds were selecting certain plants, such as wild carrot and yarrow, containing chemicals that would inhibit the growth of mites and other parasites.  In eastern North America the great crested flycatcher often adds a piece of shed snakeskin, and the power of suggestion imparted may help deter predators or other intruders.  Chipping sparrows often use animal hair (gathered in farmyards, or even plucked from startled pets) for their nest lining.  Feathers are also ideal for soft, insulating lining material.  Big birds like quail or ducks use their own down feathers for this purpose, but swallows and other small birds prefer feathers dropped by larger birrds.  A truly extreme example of material gathering is practiced by certain tropical swifts, fast-flying small birds that will actually strike much larger birds in midair to knock feathers loose.

“As a very general rule, females are the skilled builders.  For many species they do all the construction, including some (such as hummingbirds) for which males abdicate any responsibility for helping with the nest or young.  In other cases, the male provides the basic foundation and the female adds the detailed lining.  A male marsh wren may build 20 or more ’dummy nests’ around his territory;  the female chooses one, adds lining, and uses it as the actual site for the eggs.  The male’s building spree is not wasted effort:  the presence of all those decoys may provide some protection for the real one, as predators tire of raiding nests that turn out to be empty.

“Some of the most impressive nests are also among the smallest.  A hummingbird nest is a wondrous creation of tiny plant fibers, mosses, and spiderwebs, so small that a 50-cent piece would completely cover it.  It is as soft as felt but strong, with the spiderwebs making it pliable enough to stretch and expand as the rambunctious young hummers grow and exercise in it.  Many hummingbirds will camouflage the outside with bits of lichen.  At a distance such an object looks, for all the world, like a natural bump or knob on the branch, thereby deceiving potential predators in the mother bird’s absence.

“At the opposite extreme are eagles.  A pair of bald eagles may use the same nest for years, adding material to it annually until it becomes huge (an extreme example can reach a depth of 20 feet and a weight exceeding two tons).  Such a nest is merely a ramshackle heap of sticks, hardly an admirable piece of avian architecture, but it does have its admirers:  house sparrows and other small birds sometimes tuck their own nests into the lower crevices, and great horned owls may commandeer the entire nest, perhaps even driving the eagles from their aerie.

“The finest nests are crafted by smaller birds, however, and the majority re never reused, not even by their original builders.  It seems all the more remakrable that birds should create these intricate structures for such ephermeral use.”



Spend 10 Minutes to Stop Global Warming

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

     Finally!  The U.S. Congress is beginning to deal seriously with global warming!  In a few weeks, the Senate will vote on legislation to cap carbon emissions by big polluters and to institute a schedule for reducing emissions.  The Climate Security Act (S. 2191), if passed, will set us on the course to effectively address climate change.

     But don’t uncork the champagne yet!  The manufacturing, transportation (read:  oil and coal), and utility industries, those most affected by the legislation,  are fighting it.  And they have plenty of money to spend on getting Senators’ attention!  But these industry opponents don’t have what the public has–votes!  Your Senators will very likely vote the way you want them to if they believe their re-election could depend on it!

     So take 10 minutes out of your day to make two phone calls, one to each of your U.S. Senators.  Here’s what to do:

1) Call the Congressional switchboard at:  202-224-3121.  Ask the operator to connect you to the office of Senator ________. 

2) Once you are connected, ask to speak with the aide who handles environmental legislation.  The receptionist may or may not connect you.  In any case, you can leave your message with the receptionist.  And don’t worry if you’re not especially eloquent.  This is a numbers game.  What counts is the volume of calls from constituents, not their speaking skills.

3) Say you are a constituent, that it is very important to you that the Senator vote for S. 2191, the Climate Security Act.  Feel free to add whatever you wish to say about the urgency of addressing global warming.  You might also ask how your Senator is planning to vote on the bill.  If your Senator has been a strong supporter of environmental legislation in the past, be sure to acknowledge this support and to express your hope that you can count on it for S. 2191.  Senators are bombarded by industry, so those who do vote for the public good need to be strengthened.  

4) Repeat steps 1-3 with your other Senator.

 5) Give yourself a pat on the back for taking an important action to stop global warming!

6) Forward this link to your friends, family, and co-workers, and ask them to make two calls as well!

**If you would like to learn more about the Climate Security Act, the link below is a good place to start.’s_Climate_Security_Act_of_2007

–April Moore 

Nature in Its Visual Glory

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

Just for the sheer joy of it, I am posting these wonderful nature photos. They are a delight!

chimp in tree image002.jpg      Photo Gallery:

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Hell on Earth

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

     While I envision largely as a source of inspiration and nourishment, I feel so strongly about global warming that I also want to use this site to sound the alarm.  As I seek to educate myself on the subject, it is becoming clear to me that global warming is truly a PLANETARY EMERGENCY, the likes of which we have never faced before.  Perhaps the scariest thing about global warming is that it is accelerating rapidly.  Many scientists believe that if we don’t act decisively–and soon, we face a horrifying future. 

     So, believing that we all need to educate ourselves so that we can effectively address global warming, I am reprinting here a review of the book SIX DEGREES:  OUR FUTURE ON A HOTTER PLANET by Mark Lynas.  The review, written by Hillary Rosner, was published in the March-April 2008 issue of AUDUBON.

Though the visible impacts of global warming are adding up, much of what we’ve set in motion still lies ahead. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts global average temperature increases of between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, depending on whether—and by how much—we can rein in greenhouse-gas emissions in the meantime. But what exactly does that mean? What happens if the planet warms one or two or five degrees? To most people, higher temperatures on their own do not seem like cause for concern. “To most of us,” writes Mark Lynas, a British journalist whose previous book was High Tide: News From a Warming World, “if Thursday is six degrees warmer than Wednesday, it doesn’t mean the end of the world, it means we can leave the overcoat at home.” But to Lynas, who read “tens of thousands” of scientific papers on climate change and distilled them into a readable 300-page book, six degrees is nothing less than apocalyptic.

Lynas has arranged his book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by degree of temperature increase, using this peer-reviewed research as a road map to a future earth. As Lynas writes, despite the occasional finding that makes headlines, the bulk of the projections about climate change “are buried in obscure specialist journals, destined to be read only by other climatologists.” Indeed, many papers are not even read by scientists in other disciplines unless they end up in a general research journal like Science or Nature. So Lynas holed up in Oxford’s Radcliffe Science Library and molded all the information into the mother of all synthesis reports. If you want to understand what’s in store if we don’t take drastic action, Lynas has the answers. But be warned: It’s not pretty.

If the planet warms by one degree Celsius, we’re in for prolonged drought, landslides from melting mountains, devastating coral bleaching, species extinctions, and the disappearance of several island nations. In other words, more of what we’re already witnessing. Turn the thermostat up another degree and, in just a few decades, “large areas of the Southern Ocean and part of the Pacific will become effectively toxic to organisms with calcium carbonate shells.” Unfortunately, the creatures on which the entire marine food chain rests—plankton—have just such shells. “Wiping out phytoplankton by acidifying the oceans,” Lynas writes, “is rather like spraying weed killer over most of the world’s land vegetation.” The result will be marine deserts, empty underwater wastelands where nothing can survive.

At two degrees we’ll also see a rise in deadly heat waves, like the one that hit Europe in 2003; crippling wildfires; faster-melting glaciers; disappearing coastlines, polar bears, and vital urban water supplies; and the obliteration of “a large swath of natural biodiversity.”

Suffice it to say that the horror story only worsens from there, with most of the planet becoming virtually unrecognizable, and leaving millions of humans—those of us who don’t starve to death or perish in the inevitable nuclear battles over the last remaining resources—to desperately roam the planet in search of food. The lucky ones among us could survive on tiny islands of productive land—“reserves” akin to those we create for endangered species today.

Lynas’s book can be a tough read, to put it mildly. But it’s also a gripping page-turner, a tale of ecological unraveling that would seem like apocalyptic allegory if not for the fact that it’s firmly grounded in the latest science.

The impacts themselves are terrifying, but what’s most disturbing is that once we pass the two-degree mark, the likelihood of sliding toward six degrees—or higher—increases. This is because of what Lynas calls “an unstoppable feedback of runaway global warming.” Unleash the methane locked up in the world’s oceans, for instance, and atmospheric greenhouse-gas levels will soar, sending temperatures even higher.

Scariest of all (and that’s saying something) is that in order to avoid global temperature increases of two degrees, we can’t let CO2 concentrations rise above 400 parts per million. Currently, they’re at 382 and rising by 2 parts every year, meaning we’re only nine years away from our day of reckoning. The European Union has set a target of 550. Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth are aiming for 450. But this won’t save us, Lynas says. By his count—a point echoed in a December declaration by 200 top international climate scientists—global emissions must peak by 2015, and by 2050 they must be 85 percent lower than today.

Is this possible? Lynas wants to believe it is, though he can’t quite convince himself (“I am the first to admit that this target looks hopelessly unattainable,” he says)—concluding that it’s feasible with some drastic yet not totally preposterous actions. These include: halving the distances we drive, doubling fuel economy, covering five million acres of the globe with solar panels, constructing two million wind turbines, halting deforestation, and instituting mandatory “carbon rationing”—an intriguing idea along the lines of World War II food rationing. “So should we despair about the prospects for reaching the two degrees target?” Lynas asks. “No, but nor should we base policy on wishful thinking.” A carbon-constrained society, he argues, might look completely different than the way we live today. But unless we make these significant changes, “life will very largely not go on at all.”

The prophesies and revelations in Six Degrees are so alarming that it’s easy to simply dismiss them as alarmism. The line between these two words prompted hundreds of posts on the climate science blog after geochemist Eric Steig praised the book for doing “an admirable job” of explaining the scientific literature and then raised an important question: If the sum total of all these studies is just as unnerving as Lynas makes it out to be, then are scientists being “too provocative” in explaining their findings, or “too cautious” in discussing the implications?

But while the climate scientists reflect on this, global emissions keep rising, and time continues to run out. Which is why you should buy this book for everyone you know.

The Sacred Depths of Nature

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

     I am reprinting here a passage from the book THE SACRED DEPTHS OF NATURE by Ursala Goodenough.  My husband Andy Schmookler published this passage on his site awhile back.  This passage feels especially appropriate for TheEarthConnection because it embodies what I believe is the appropriate response to nature–awe, not superiority. 

Remember, remember the circle of the sky
the stars and the brown eagle
the supernatural winds
breathing night and day
from the four directions.

Remember, remember the sacredness of things
running streams and dwellings
the young within the nest
a hearth for sacred fire
the holy flame of fire.
–a Pawnee prayer

     The outpouring of biological diversity calls us to marvel at its fecundity. . .[A]ll of us humans are but a tiny part of an enormous context.  We are one of perhaps 30 million species on the planet today, and countless millions that have gone before.  We occupy, temporarily, the very last moment of the animal radiation;  our species appeared only some 130,000 years ago and the cave painters 35,000 years ago.  And while we animals were radiating, so too were all the other lineages of the biosphere, generating a veritable sunburst of the biosphere.

    We are called to acknowledge our dependency on the web of life both for our subsistence and for countless aesthetic experiences:  spring birdsong, swelling tree buds, the dizzy smell of honeysuckle.  We are called to acknowledge that which we are not:  we cannot survive in a deep-sea vent, or fix nitrogen, or create a forest canopy, or soar 300 feet in the air and then catch a mouse in a spectacular nosedive.

     Most religious traditions ask us to bow and tremble in deference to the Divine, to walk humbly with thy God.  Religious naturalism asks that we locate such feelings of deference somewhere within the Earthly whole.

     Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, conveyed this concept to an assembly at the United Nations:

I do not see a delegation for the four-footed.  I see no seat for the eagles.  We forget and we consider ourselves superior, but we are after all a mere part of the Creation.  We must continue to understand where we are.  And we stand between the mountain and the ant, somewhere and there only, as part and parcel of the Creation.  It is our responsibility, since we have been given the minds to take care of these things.”




Civilization’s Last Chance

Friday, May 16th, 2008

     This piece by Bill McKibben, published last Sunday in the LOS ANGELES TIMES, is sobering.  While this site is mainly about nourishing ourselves on the earth’s beauty, we also need to educate ourselves about the challenge we face.  I think this piece is well worth reading.

Even for Americans — who are constitutionally convinced that there will always be a second act, and a third, and a do-over after that, and, if necessary, a little public repentance and forgiveness and a Brand New Start — even for us, the world looks a little terminal right now.

It’s not just the economy: We’ve gone through swoons before. It’s that gas at $4 a gallon means we’re running out, at least of the cheap stuff that built our sprawling society. It’s that when we try to turn corn into gas, it helps send the price of a loaf of bread shooting upward and helps ignite food riots on three continents. It’s that everything is so tied together. It’s that, all of a sudden, those grim Club of Rome types who, way back in the 1970s, went on and on about the “limits to growth” suddenly seem … how best to put it, right.

All of a sudden it isn’t morning in America, it’s dusk on planet Earth.

There’s a number — a new number — that makes this point most powerfully. It may now be the most important number on Earth: 350. As in parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A few weeks ago, NASA’s chief climatologist, James Hansen, submitted a paper to Science magazine with several coauthors. The abstract attached to it argued — and I have never read stronger language in a scientific paper — that “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.”

Hansen cites six irreversible tipping points — massive sea level rise and huge changes in rainfall patterns, among them — that we’ll pass if we don’t get back down to 350 soon; and the first of them, judging by last summer’s insane melt of Arctic ice, may already be behind us.

So it’s a tough diagnosis. It’s like the doctor telling you that your cholesterol is way too high and, if you don’t bring it down right away, you’re going to have a stroke. So you take the pill, you swear off the cheese, and, if you’re lucky, you get back into the safety zone before the coronary. It’s like watching the tachometer edge into the red zone and knowing that you need to take your foot off the gas before you hear that clunk up front.

In this case, though, it’s worse than that because we’re not taking the pill and we are stomping on the gas — hard. Instead of slowing down, we’re pouring on the coal, quite literally. Two weeks ago came the news that atmospheric carbon dioxide had jumped 2.4 parts per million last year — two decades ago, it was going up barely half that fast.

And suddenly the news arrives that the amount of methane, another potent greenhouse gas accumulating in the atmosphere, has unexpectedly begun to soar as well. It appears that we’ve managed to warm the far north enough to start melting huge patches of permafrost, and massive quantities of methane trapped beneath it have begun to bubble forth.

And don’t forget: China is building more power plants; India is pioneering the $2,500 car; and Americans are buying TVs the size of windshields, which suck juice ever faster.

Here’s the thing. Hansen didn’t just say that if we didn’t act, there was trouble coming. He didn’t just say that if we didn’t yet know what was best for us, we’d certainly be better off below 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

His phrase was: “if we wish to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed.” A planet with billions of people living near those oh-so-floodable coastlines. A planet with ever-more vulnerable forests. (A beetle, encouraged by warmer temperatures, has already managed to kill 10 times more trees than in any previous infestation across the northern reaches of Canada this year. This means far more carbon heading for the atmosphere and apparently dooms Canada’s efforts to comply with the Kyoto protocol, which was already in doubt because of its decision to start producing oil for the U.S. from Alberta’s tar sands.)

We’re the ones who kicked the warming off; now the planet is starting to take over the job. Melt all that Arctic ice, for instance, and suddenly the nice white shield that reflected 80% of incoming solar radiation back into space has turned to blue water that absorbs 80% of the sun’s heat. Such feedbacks are beyond history, though not in the sense that Francis Fukuyama had in mind.

And we have, at best, a few years to short-circuit them — to reverse course. Here’s the Indian scientist and economist Rajendra Pachauri, who accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year (and, by the way, got his job when the Bush administration, at the behest of Exxon Mobil, forced out his predecessor): “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

In the next two or three years, the nations of the world are supposed to be negotiating a successor treaty to the Kyoto accord (which, for the record, has never been approved by the United States — the only industrial nation that has failed to do so). When December 2009 rolls around, heads of state are supposed to converge on Copenhagen to sign a treaty — a treaty that would go into effect at the last plausible moment to heed the most basic and crucial of limits on atmospheric CO2.

If we did everything right, Hansen says, we could see carbon emissions start to fall fairly rapidly and the oceans begin to pull some of that CO2 out of the atmosphere. Before the century was out, we might even be on track back to 350. We might stop just short of some of those tipping points, like the Road Runner screeching to a halt at the very edge of the cliff.

More likely, though, we’re the coyote — because “doing everything right” means that political systems around the world would have to take enormous and painful steps right away. It means no more new coal-fired power plants anywhere, and plans to quickly close the ones already in operation. (Coal-fired power plants operating the way they’re supposed to are, in global warming terms, as dangerous as nuclear plants melting down.) It means making car factories turn out efficient hybrids next year, just the way U.S. automakers made them turn out tanks in six months at the start of World War II. It means making trains an absolute priority and planes a taboo.

It means making every decision wisely because we have so little time and so little money, at least relative to the task at hand. And hardest of all, it means the rich countries of the world sharing resources and technology freely with the poorest ones so that they can develop dignified lives without burning their cheap coal.

It’s possible. The United States launched a Marshall Plan once, and could do it again, this time in relation to carbon. But at a time when the president has, once more, urged drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it seems unlikely. At a time when the alluring phrase “gas tax holiday” — which would actually encourage more driving and more energy consumption — has danced into our vocabulary, it’s hard to see. And if it’s hard to imagine sacrifice here, imagine China, where people produce a quarter as much carbon apiece as Americans do.

Still, as long as it’s not impossible, we’ve got a duty to try to push those post-Kyoto negotiations in the direction of reality. In fact, it’s about the most obvious duty humans have ever faced.

After all, those talks are our last chance; you just can’t do this one lightbulb at a time.

We do have one thing going for us — the Web — which at least allows you to imagine something like a grass-roots global effort. If the Internet was built for anything, it was built for sharing this number, for making people understand that “350″ stands for a kind of safety, a kind of possibility, a kind of future.

Hansen’s words were well-chosen: “a planet similar to that on which civilization developed.” People will doubtless survive on a non-350 planet, but those who do will be so preoccupied, coping with the endless unintended consequences of an overheated planet, that civilization may not.

Civilization is what grows up in the margins of leisure and security provided by a workable relationship with the natural world. That margin won’t exist, at least not for long, as long as we remain on the wrong side of 350. That’s the limit we face.

Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and the author, most recently, of “The Bill McKibben Reader,” is the co-founder of Project 350, devoted to reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million.

I See Beauty Everywhere in Nature

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

     This very short piece by Veronica Ray, published in her 1992 book GREEN SPIRITUALITY, captures in a lovely way, I think, our inherent connection with nature.–April Moore

     I see beauty everywhere in nature.

     Beauty is inherent in nature.  Without any training or education in art or the principles of color and form, people always, everywhere, describe nature’s beauty.  Waterfalls, rainbows, sunsets, and skies full of stars inspire us to poetry.  Mountains, canyons, and giant redwood trees take our breath away.  A soft twilight snowfall fills us with peace.

     No one had to teach us that blazing sunsets were beautiful.  We didn’t have to study meteorology or geology to be fascinated by rainbows and canyons.  Our response to the beauty in nature is as natural as the beauty itself.  It strikes a chord deep within us.  It reminds us of how wonderful, how amazing, how beautiful the world truly is.  It reawakens our natural love for the earth and the universe. 

     There is a theory that nature makes human and animal babies cute to the adults of the species so that we’ll take care of them.  How much more magnificent would the earth have to be before we’d take better care of it?


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