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Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina Welcomes a Resort Naturalist to...

PR Web - Sat, 07/19/2014 - 00:27

The Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina has hired local Naturalist Vince McGrath and has begun offering its resort guests morning wildlife walking and kayaking expeditions to explore the eco-zones of...

(PRWeb July 18, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/PSBR-Naturalist/prweb12030911.htm

Categories: Environment

Washington state just lopped up to $2,500 off the cost of solar panels. Here’s how.

Grist.org - Sat, 07/19/2014 - 00:13

All new technology, no matter how innovative, arrives in a world of pre-existing laws and regulations. But not all technology catches the same breaks. A company like Lyft or Uber can do its thing right out there in the open for a surprisingly long time, despite being — essentially — appified versions of such already-illegal innovations as dollar vans and jitneys.

By comparison, solar energy, despite having made leaps and bounds both technologically and finance-wise, can’t show up at the block party without bringing down a lawsuit, a law, or some kind of extra fee.

Yet those impediments, intentional and unintentional, are beginning to remove themselves. A decision this week by the Building Code Council in Washington state is a prime example.

Until now, the process of legally installing solar panels on a building in Washington has been what it is in most of the U.S.: while there are state and national building codes, each county enforces them differently. What this meant was that the process of putting in solar ranged from the very simple (a solar panel installation was seen as the equivalent of putting on an extra layer of shingles)  to the complicated and prolonged (any installation, no matter how much of a no-brainer, required a full set of plans, signed by a licensed structural engineer, which added between $800-$2,500 to the final bill.) Solar installers were spending a lot of time learning about how permits were handled from county to county, and avoiding some areas altogether because the  process was so daunting.

Then this April, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order to deal with carbon emissions — and that order paved the way for the standardization and simplification of solar permitting. It was a surprisingly agreeable process, says Mia Devine, a project manager at Northwest Solar Communities, a coalition that helped with the rule changes. “The mandate of the governor’s office really made people pay attention. It actually passed unanimously.”

This whole “actually making it easy to put in solar” thing is still fairly rare, but the idea of having simpler rules seems like a popular one. In the coming months, expect to see more of these attempts to make rules around solar easier to navigate. It won’t be the wild west of the Silicon Valley startup world, but it’s shaping up to be a lot more open than it is today.


Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Environment

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is about to sweat through some climate education

Grist.org - Fri, 07/18/2014 - 22:38

During the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, when Rick Scott was asked if he believed in climate change, his response was, “I have not been convinced.” Since then, he has evolved from denier to evader, and his current position stands at, “I am not a scientist.”

Luckily for Scott, Florida is full of scientists, and they are happy to pitch in and explain the big words. Ten of them, led by Professor Jeff Chanton, an oceanographer with Florida State University, delivered a letter to the governor’s office this week. “We are scientists,” they wrote. “And we would like the opportunity to explain what is at stake for our state.”

Turns out the evidence for climate change is so clear and straightforward anyone, even a Republican governor, can understand it. “It’s not rocket science,” Chanton told Mary Ellen Klas at the Tampa Bay Times, “I can explain it. Give me half an hour.”

Scott initially offered to send someone from his administration to meet with the scientists. (Admittedly, he was busy that week fighting Harry Potter, but it still didn’t look good.) Then, when he heard his Democratic rival in the next gubernatorial election, Charlie Crist, was going to meet with the scientists, Scott cancelled a gig he’d scheduled with his Midnight Oil cover band, and agreed to talk.

Jeff Spros at ThinkProgress offers a hint of what the conversation might sound like:

The recently released National Climate Assessment warned that Southeast Florida is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, and that “just inches of sea level rise will impair the capacity of stormwater drainage systems to empty into the ocean.” A tide gauge in Key West that’s been measuring sea levels since 1913 has detected an eight-inch rise as of 2013, and the World Resources Institute projects another rise of anywhere between nine inches and two feet by 2060. By 2030, the risk of storm surges at the four foot mark is anticipated to double, and the more dire scenarios project a sea level rise of as much as six feet by the end of the century.

That would do away with both Scott’s own beach-side mansion and the city of Miami. Meanwhile, 75 percent of South Florida’s residents — around 4.12 million people — live along the coast, and 2.4 million of them live within four feet of the tide line.

Scott’s decision to meet with the scientists is probably a shrewd move, as most Floridians believe climate change is not just real, but anthropogenic in origin — and not just most Floridians, but the most Floridian Floridians. Frankly, the Governor of Florida turning away climatologists is kind of like the mayor of Tokyo being too busy to talk to the Godzilla experts. Here’s hoping they can get the message through his thick and horrifying skull.


Filed under: Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Environment

Punk strife and farm life pair remarkably well

Grist.org - Fri, 07/18/2014 - 21:42

Here is something you’ve almost definitely never thought about: Rural punks! Punks in the country!

How does that even work, exactly? Does a shredded Black Flag T-shirt go with a Dodge pickup? Can one maintain a deep-seated rage against pigs (the police) while feeding pigs (the farm animal)? Is piercing your eyebrow with a safety pin in the middle of a cow field more or less transgressive than doing it in the bathroom of whichever shitty warehouse show is happening on a Thursday?

Thanks to Modern Farmer, we can now ponder these questions throughout the day and for the rest of time. Tyler LeBlanc interviewed the founder of the Grind, a zine for rural punks founded by a woman whose honest-to-God, government name is Gretchen Bonegardener.

You can read the whole interview here, but we’ve cherry-picked the best excerpt:

MF: What does the Grind offer a country punk?

GB: Mostly service stuff, a good chunk are of our articles are how to’s. For example, in the newest issue, we look at things like how to hunt prairie chickens and how to sharpen a chainsaw.

MF: You’re obviously not a fan of city life, so, what’s your favorite part of living in the country?

GB: I like the lack of people telling me what I can and cannot do. I can go sit on my front porch and shoot off my gun, and blast music as loud as I can and nobody cares. I mean I don’t do that all the time, but I can, and that’s nice.

All of a sudden, the rural punk life makes complete sense. We’ll just leave you with this, a soundtrack to your reflections:


Filed under: Food, Living
Categories: Environment

Maersk Successfully Demonstrates BELCO Marine Scrubber Technology

PR Web - Fri, 07/18/2014 - 21:27

The Unit is Designed to Clean SOx and Particulates from Exhaust Gas Emissions

(PRWeb July 18, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/dupont-sustainable-solns/belco-maersk-marine/prweb12020140.htm

Categories: Environment

2014 Hoka Hey Motorcycle Challenge Again Being Tracked Live

PR Web - Fri, 07/18/2014 - 21:27

Challengers to Cover 7,600 Miles in Long Distance Endurance Ride

(PRWeb July 18, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/07/prweb12030174.htm

Categories: Environment

It’s going to take more than swimming lessons to undo the effects of racism

Grist.org - Fri, 07/18/2014 - 21:05

If you haven’t caught the documentary Free Swim, about the paradox of an island in the Bahamas where the natives don’t know how to swim (you can catch it free on online), it’s worth a look — especially if you’ve followed our own Grist-ian summer coverage of the often painful stories behind American swimming and beaches (found here, here, here, aaand here). That pain comes, in part, from a history of racism that has excluded black people from public swimming areas and taken their land to build beach resorts.

Free Swim strokes through similar themes. Here’s the trailer:

The film focuses on the Deep Creek village on the southern end of Eleuthera, a thin sliver of an island in the Bahamas — 110 miles long, but only about a mile wide. We know poverty besets the region because of the shanty shelters, abandoned farms, and the rusts and ghosts of industrial buildings throughout the landscape.

The children don’t seem “poor” — they dance in the streets, twist braids on the porch, and make music from discarded empty bottles — but they dream of going to big cities like New York and Los Angeles. They think they won’t make it because they are scared of the water they’d need to cross to get there.

One villager estimates that about half of the people on the island can’t swim, though a survey taken years before the film figures more like 90 percent.

The filmmaker, Jennifer Galvin, came to the Bahamas straight from the university to explore the relationship between water and public health in the Caribbean. She holds a doctorate and master’s degree in public health from Harvard and Yale respectively, and did her undergraduate work in the field at Brown. She came to this part of the Bahamas when she heard there were two American teens providing swimming lessons to the village children. Part of what kept her there, from 2006 to 2008, was the relationships she built with the islanders, and also her curiosity about how people who live so close to water became afraid of it.

Much of Free Swim involves the villagers explaining why they can’t or don’t swim, and where they believe their aquaphobias emanate from. Myth and fantasy drench these explanations. Kids are frightened by lore of a big octopus they heard eats people, along with deadly sharks. Another urban legend tells of a “boiling hole” that will cook you to death if you’re caught in it.

The subplot shows how the two American girls gradually coax the children, and even some of their parents, out of these fears, teaching a bunch of them how to float and swim in the process. The movie is keen to capture the gleeful moments of kids splashing about, invigorated by their new aquatic skills. Their fresh, glistening disposition on water leads to other rewarding moments, like excelling in school, the cinematic tale suggests. That narrative and the doc’s title leads us to believe that the moral here is that swimming helps free the villagers from the oppression of poverty.

But as the question sampled by Wu-Tang Clan from Gladys Knight goes: Can it be that it was all so simple then?

There are other issues at play here in Eleuthera  – Greek for “freedom,” which partially inspired the title. Given that these islands were some of the original posts of the Atlantic slave trade, racism and economic exploitation have held black Bahamians back, and not just from ocean-dipping. Viewers are treated to some of that story, though there’s not much room for it in the 50-minute film.

Eleuthera once had a booming hotel resort market in the 1970s, which was the primary employer of the indigenous population. Part of why many on the island can’t swim is because there was no time to learn. After school, kids didn’t go to the beach or a YMCA for swimming lessons. They went to where their parents were: in the hotels working. This is where kids “learned to be a busboy to start off with,” explains a villager.

But that tourism economy shifted to Nassau, on another island in the Bahamas, taking the jobs with it. Eleuthera was once populated with farms for dairy and poultry, but they’re mostly closed now courtesy of U.S. imports of those goods. Then there’s that pesky beach privatization problem, which has crept into Eleuthera, creating even more distance between the indigenous folk and their surrounding environment.

Learning all of that, you get the sense that It’s going to take more than just swimming skills to defeat these socioeconomic leviathans.

“A white person in a post-colonial society enjoys certain advantages and access,” says Patricia Glinton-Meicholas, a Bahamian historian in the film. “Even though we’ve had majority rule for the past 35 years, there’s a lot of catching up to do when you’ve had a slave past.”

Glinton-Meicholas says the black islanders suffer from a “psychology of scarcity,” the result of when white people take control of the economy and natural resources of the natives, which is what happened throughout the Caribbean.

The American teens, Brenda and Sally, come to Eleuthera not to further exploit them. Teaching the island kids how to swim is their way of hopefully undoing some of the oppression. They form the nonprofit Swim to Empower based off of this. But the film doesn’t admit that such swimming empowerment might only be the latest conceit for black freedom.

You can’t avoid that the teens are white amidst a sea of black villagers. The tone at times feels unflatteringly like a Teach for America project, where people parachute in from worlds of white privilege to teach black youth skills to be more functional in the global market. You can’t help but feel traces of Waiting for Superman, the documentary critics have labeled a propaganda piece for the education reform movement. Is this Waiting for Aquaman?

Galvin is aware of the perceptions. She told me her intention was not to shoot a PR vehicle for Swim to Empower. And she gets that the racial dimensions of the instructors and students might not be the best contrast.

“This film was not meant to be a ‘white girl saves the world’ film,” Galvin told me. “I see this [messiah complex] all the time, especially in the Caribbean, especially in Haiti, where people perpetuate this benevolent oppressor action — thinking they are doing good when they are still kinda engaging oppression.”

The Swim to Empower organization was handed over to Bahamians to run, which is what it was created to do, she tells me. She also discovered in her research that Bahamian laws actually mandate “swimming literacy” as part of its national curriculum. It was just never enforced. She hopes to create a “Free Swim” sequel, or perhaps a mini-series, where she can devote more time to unpacking the issues around race and class.

“I didn’t want to come at it as an academic film, or just a historical perspective on swimming and race,” said Galvin. “I wanted to make something more poetic and emotional, a launching pad for more conversations”

There is no narrator in Free Swim. It consists purely of the villagers and their voices, which is the best way to start the conversation.


Filed under: Living
Categories: Environment

Hospital food gets a locavore makeover

Grist.org - Fri, 07/18/2014 - 20:43

If you’re reading this from a hospital bed, you’ve probably got a lot feel crummy about. And sometimes it seems like hospitals are actually trying to add insult to injury by what they serve up.

Like this:

Mark HillaryEw. hirotomo tNope. SiobhanOK, that doesn’t even look real. And yet … it is. Yuck.

But there’s good news spreading through hospital corridors across America: The promise of a meal that’s actually palatable and good for you — and for the environment. AP reports that a “growing network of companies and organizations is delivering food directly from local farms to major institutions like Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in downtown Philadelphia, eliminating scores of middlemen from farm to fork.”

From AP:

Major institutions like Jefferson have long relied on whatever giant food service companies provide, often processed foods that are delivered efficiently and are easy to heat and serve. But with a steady supply of locally grown food from the Common Market food hub, Jefferson now serves vegetables like bok choy and asparagus, creamy yogurts from Amish country and omelets with locally sourced cage-free eggs and spinach.

The model is simple: Common Market, a nonprofit, picks up food from 75 regional farmers and small food companies and quickly turns it around in its Philadelphia warehouse. The food — everything from vegetables to turkey to tofu — is then sent to 220 city customers along with detailed information about where it was grown or produced. There are about 300 other similar food hubs around the country.

St. Luke’s University Hospital Network is taking that a step further by growing veggies on site at its new facility in Bethlehem Township, Penn. This year, the five-acre plot is expected to grow 44,000 pounds of organic food like tomatoes, squash, and peppers. St. Luke’s plans to eventually double the size of the farm. Eating produce is very beneficial for patients, St. Luke’s Community Health Medical Director Bonnie Coyle told Lehigh Valley Live. Who woulda thunk!

Health benefits aside, institutions like hospitals are perfectly poised to give the food movement the kick it needs by making local food available on a bigger scale. Because as fun as it is to casually browse local offerings on a Saturday afternoon, farmers markets can’t change the food system all on their own. I can’t say I hope to get sent to a hospital soon … but if I do, I’ll take a bok choy omelet over those weird brown-grey globs.


Filed under: Food
Categories: Environment

Living next to natural gas wells is no fun

Grist.org - Fri, 07/18/2014 - 19:31

Driving around the rural back roads of Garfield County, Colo., you don’t see many cars. But one type of vehicle keeps popping up, often the only one you’ll see for hours: the white pickup trucks favored by gas drilling companies. Here in the central western part of the state, the rolling fields of scrubby yellow-green vegetation are frequently punctuated by natural gas wells. Even after a well has stopped producing gas, big cylindrical tanks of waste water and natural gas condensate remain, sitting behind low fences by the roadside. Too often those tanks leak out their contents, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene and toluene.

Are these ones leaking?

People who live on or near properties with gas wells say they have experienced an array of health effects from exposure to high concentrations of these chemicals. The known immediate effects of exposure to high concentrations of benzene, according to the Centers for Disease Control, include headache and drowsiness. Long-term exposure can cause cancer, as well as fertility problems in women.

Karen Protz certainly thinks being surrounded by gas wells is at least partially responsible for her overwhelming health problems. In 2005, as the fracking boom brought gas wells closer to her log cabin on a winding mountain road, Protz began to feel sick. “I was walking five miles a day for three years to lose weight,” says Protz. “Then I started not feeling good: tired, lethargic. I’m Italian and I love to eat, and I couldn’t even look at pizza. I started having heart palpitations.”

Karen Protz

In the years since, her problems have multiplied and worsened. She gets frequent sinus infections, and has had several benign growths on her thyroid. More recently she has suffered from blood clots and a mild stroke for which her lab work can produce no explanation. Protz gets out of breath just from climbing a flight of stairs and is on oxygen at night, though she has never been a smoker. When she goes back to visit family in Delaware, or even just east to Denver, her symptoms subside. But they come back as soon as she returns home. She might move, but her husband works in the area and her grown children live here. Sitting in her living room, under the giant elk and deer heads over the fireplace, Protz tears up as she says, “I just wish I didn’t feel like I was 70 in a 53-year-old body.”

The gas companies note that no studies have demonstrated that their wells in the area are causing these problems. There’s a dearth of good data on how much VOCs people breathe in due to living near a well. “If people have health concerns we take that seriously, but we have seen no data that there is a direct cause or correlation between symptoms and our operations,” says Doug Hoch, a spokesman for Encana, one of the major gas production companies in the area. Protz and others who are sick counter that this is partly because the high concentrations of VOCs in the air are not being properly measured. Colorado has relatively stringent requirements for air quality reporting, but they rely on companies to do the reporting themselves. There is also the issue of access to the wells, which of course the gas companies do not grant to independent researchers. Nonetheless, a 2012 study by the University of Colorado-Denver School of Public Health found VOCs in Garfield County five times above the EPA’s Hazard Index level.

Toxic chemicals are not the only air pollutants created by gas and oil drilling. Greenhouse gases are also released, as are the gases that contribute to the formation of ozone, which causes breathing problems. A University of Colorado study from 2013 found that more than half of the ozone pollution in Colorado is caused by oil and gas drilling. Ozone levels in Colorado’s Front Range — the heavily populated spine where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains — have risen in recent years and consistently exceed the levels deemed safe by the federal government.

Even if it doesn’t make you sick, living next to gas wells can be unpleasant. Residents say drilling makes the wells release a “rotten egg” or “chemical” smell. The gas and the fracking fluid can infiltrate your water supply. None of the residents of Garfield County whom I interviewed drink their tap water. Their dogs won’t drink it due to the smell. Protz and her family have even gotten rashes from using the shower. Protz also says her house has experienced earth tremors because of the seismic testing done by gas companies. “My sister came to visit from Delaware in 2007,” Protz recalls, “And she said, ‘How the hell do you live here?’”

The process of building and tapping gas wells is loud, and the floodlights involved can make it feel like your window looks out on airport tarmac. These activities often go on in the middle of the night, making a good night’s sleep impossible. (Critics assert that the gas companies deliberately work at night to avoid detection for violations by state authorities, since the inspectors only come during business hours.)

All these annoyances may adversely affect property values. Mike Smith owns a small horse ranch and heating/air-conditioning business in Rifle, Colo. Across the two-lane road from him is a welcome sign over a neighbor’s driveway reading “My Heaven.” And just a few feet over from that, straight across the road from Smith’s front door, is a gas well owned by the Bill Barrett Corporation, an oil and gas exploration firm based in Denver. Barrett chose to put the wells right next to the road. Smith claims they did this as retribution for his refusal to agree to let them drill on his property. “They told me it was because I’m ‘uncooperative,’” he says. The smells from fracking are so nasty, Smith recalls, that a friend who was helping him put up a fence in his yard vomited. Smith estimates that his land and house have lost about a third of their value due to drilling. (Barrett did not return a request for comment.)

The view from Mike Smith’s house.

The truck traffic to build and service the wells is another sore point for locals. It interferes with the serenity for which they moved there. One encounters signs with phrases such as “Private Road: No Encana traffic.” And the truck traffic can be worse than merely annoying. A truck carrying fracking fluid flipped over right at the end of Protz’s driveway, spilling the chemicals. The cleanup lasted four months. “It was like something from a space movie, with the white suits,” says Protz.

Encana says it’s doing what it can to improve its processes. “We understand there are some folks that are not in favor of oil and gas development in the area,” says Hoch, “but we certainly work to minimize the impact.” The company has started piping water to wells to reduce truck traffic, he says.

Many of the problems neighbors complain about would violate state law, but they don’t get officially reported or verified by inspectors. If you call to report a foul odor, especially on a night or weekend, a state worker will come several days later to test the air quality and often find no problem. And even when violations are noted by the state, the penalties are too small and infrequently imposed, environmental activists say. “Fines are cheaper than doing it properly,” says Tara Meixsell, a local anti-drilling activist and author. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is responsible for enforcement, is underfunded and incapable of inspecting every well. In 2011, there were 516 known spills but only five assessed fines.

In an interview with Grist at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) noted that he has doubled the number of oil and gas inspectors in the state. That’s roughly true —  the number has risen from 15 in 2011 to 27 in 2013 — but considering that there are about 50,000 active oil and gas wells in Colorado, that’s not very impressive. “We’re trying to get a gauge at every wellhead and measure benzene,” he added. Hickenlooper also boasts that his administration earlier this year adopted some of the nation’s strictest rules governing VOC and methane emissions at drilling sites. (Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and methane leakage may wipe out the climate change benefits of natural gas over coal.) Environmentalists, though, argue that the new rules are not strong enough to achieve reductions in total pollution when 2,000 new wells are being drilled in Colorado every year.

In Colorado, as in many other Western states, there’s a “split estate” approach to land ownership, which means that mineral rights beneath the surface are often bought and sold separately from the surface of the land itself. So people who live on the land can be forced to endure the adverse effects of drilling by the owners of the ground underneath. The divided incentives have had a predictable effect on communities in Colorado, pitting neighbor against neighbor.

Hickenlooper argues that it wouldn’t be fair to the mineral rights owners to let the residents vote to ban fracking. “Owners of mineral rights have a right to their property,” he says. “Both sides have a legitimate right.”

And that’s why neither side will give up easily. With state initiatives to limit fracking likely to appear on Colorado ballots this fall, the battle will only get uglier.


Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
Categories: Environment

How Western civilization ended, circa 2014

Grist.org - Fri, 07/18/2014 - 19:19

This episode of Inquiring Mindsa podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion of questionable claims about “drinkable” sunscreen, and a new study finding that less than 1 percent of scientists are responsible for a huge bulk of the most influential research.

To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher and on Swell. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on FacebookInquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the “Best of 2013″ on iTunes – you can learn more here.

You don’t know it yet. There’s no way that you could. But 400 years from now, a historian will write that the time in which you’re now living is the “Penumbral Age” of human history – meaning, the period when a dark shadow began to fall over us all. You’re living at the start of a new dark age, a new counter-Enlightenment. Why? Because too many of us living today, in the years just after the turn of the millennium, deny the science of climate change.

Such is the premise of a thought-provoking new work of “science-based fiction” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, two historians of science (Oreskes at Harvard, Conway at Caltech) best known for their classic 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global WarmingIn a surprising move, they have now followed up that expose of the roots of modern science denialism with a work of “cli-fi,” or climate science fiction, entitled The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. [SPOILER ALERT: Much of the plot of this book will be revealed below!] In it, Oreskes and Conway write from the perspective of a historian, living in China (the country that fared the best in facing the ravages of climate change) in the year 2393. The historian seeks to analyze the biggest paradox imaginable: Why humans who saw the climate disaster coming, who were thoroughly and repeatedly warned, did nothing about it.

So why did two historians turn to sci-fi? On the latest installment of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Oreskes explained that after the extensive research that went into Merchants of Doubt, she and Conway “felt like we really understood the science, but we also felt that the scientific community had really not explained why any of this mattered. And we just kept coming back to this idea of, how do we really talk about why this matters, and not just for polar bears, and not just for people living in far flung places or far into the future, but what’s really at stake.”

The resulting book, The Collapse of Western Civilization, diverges in many respects from other cli-fi works, such as the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson (who clearly influenced Oreskes and Conway, and who blurbed their new book). Collapse is quite short, and hardly a study in character or plot. It has one narrator, and that narrator is a “scholar,” approaching the topic analytically. The force of the story, then, comes not so much from dramatic elements, but rather, from its simple conceit: How would a fair-minded thinker, living 400 years from now, evaluate us?

The answer couldn’t be more depressing: We got it all wrong. We sacrificed our birthright. We unleashed ravaging heat waves, destabilized ice sheets, shot chemicals into the skies in a failed attempt to fix our mess, then halted that intervention and made everything still worse. (All of these things unfold in the story.)

The consequences were toppled governments, mass migrations, and unimaginable human tragedy from starvation, dehydration, and disease. Finally came the “collapse” itself, not of Western civilization at first, but of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which in the late 21st century rapidly disintegrated, driving up sea levels some five meters. Much of Greenland soon followed.

“We were trying to sort of play on this two different senses of ‘collapse,’” explained Oreskes on Inquiring Minds. Summarizing the plot of the book, she elaborated as follows: “The West Antarctic Ice Sheet does collapse, causing massive rapid sea-level rise, which then puts into effect a kind of chain of events, which ultimately leads to the collapse of political and cultural institutions as well.”

This is a worst-case scenario, but it is far from crazy in light of our current trajectory. And we are on this trajectory because we’re ignoring the evidence all around us. “A shadow of ignorance and denial had fallen over people who considered themselves children of the Enlightenment,” writes Oreskes’ and Conway’s historian, explaining why our present era will later be called the “Period of the Penumbra.”

So why are we currently on course to be remembered for causing humanity’s greatest failure? The historian singles out two causes in particular, the first of which may be surprising.

First off, the historian argues that our scientists failed us, and in a very particular way: They failed us by being too conservative. Scientists today know full well that the “95 percent confidence limit” (the requirement to statistically establish that there is less than a 1-in-20 chance that a given scientific result is due to chance – or, a 19 in 20 chance that it is real – before it can be accepted) is merely a convention, not a law of the universe. Nonetheless, this convention, the historian suggests, led scientists to be far too cautious, far too easily disrupted by the doubt-mongering of denialists, and far too unwilling to shout from the rooftops what they all knew was happening.

“We have come to understand the 95 percent confidence limit as a social convention rooted in scientists’ desire to demonstrate their disciplinary severity,” writes the historian. “Western scientists built an intellectual culture based on the premise that it was worse to fool oneself into believing in something that did not exist than not to believe in something that did.” The historian even cites the currently live issue of the relationship between hurricanes and global warming: It is very likely that global warming is changing these storms in some way, but showing that in a way that satisfies all of the relevant experts has proven very difficult.

Why target scientists in particular in this book? Simply because a distant future historian would too, says Oreskes. “If you think about historians who write about the collapse of the Roman Empire, or the collapse of the Mayans or the Incans, it’s always about trying to understand all of the factors that contributed,” she says. “So we felt that we had to say something about scientists.”

Andy TankersleyNaomi Oreskes.

And then, there are the ideologues. They are, of course, vastly more culpable than the scientists. Here, The Collapse of Western Civilization picks up a theme from Merchants of Doubt: Free market ideologues, trained on the idea that the Soviet Union was the root of all evil, converted to an economic religion of their own dubbed “neoliberalism,” defined as “the idea that free market systems were the only economic systems that did not threaten individual liberty.” Unfortunately for this worldview, market failures do exist, and climate change is the granddaddy of them all. But too many neoliberal ideologues couldn’t accept that, so they doubled down on fantasy. (These are the climate change denying libertarians that we all know so well.)

In The Collapse of Western Civilization, neoliberals receive a comeuppance for this that is appropriate in its dramatic irony. The book ends by noting that China, a country not exactly wedded to freedom of thought or free markets, nevertheless survived climate calamity the best, thanks to its ability to exercise the centralized power of the state to force rapid climate adaptation. Eighty percent of Chinese thus survived the climate cataclysm. Other nations soon followed suit, also growing more autocratic.

Oreskes is not applauding this, of course; rather, she’s suggesting that it could be a very, very painful irony resulting from the behavior of neoliberals. “It could well be the case that the authoritarian nations are actually better situated to deal with climate disruption than the liberal democracies,” says Oreskes. “And we want to suggest that that’s a very worrisome thought.”

So can we still prevent ourselves from writing the story of The Collapse of Western Civilization – a story in which the historian narrator repeatedly points out missed opportunities, when something could have been done to prevent the disaster that followed? Oreskes thinks the answer is yes.

“It’s not too late. We do still have opportunities,” she says. “But if we continue the way we’ve been going, and we continue to miss these opportunities, there is going to become a point of no return.”

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.


Filed under: Climate & Energy
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