“a permanent loss of normal”: CA climate today

A couple of years ago I worked hard on a story about a hugely important study from Daniel Swain et al on the all-too-likely re-occurence of the Great California Flood. For personal reasons nothing came of my story, but eventually the news did break in a big (Los Angeles Times) and accessible (Science Friday) sort of way, and that’s great.

But from my perspective, the underlying lesson of Swain’s important study (which is actually bolstered by a great deal of other research on how our climate in California is becoming more extreme, both in terms of heat and drought and in terms of rain and snow) is that the “normal” world we have become accustomed to over the decades of our lives…is going away. May be gone already.

This crucial and not-understood fact came out in a compelling conversation between David Wallace-Wells on his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth, and David Roberts, the excellent climate and energy analyst from Vox.

Here’s the back and forth:

Wallace-Wells:      This [our climate] is not a new normal. We’re entering into a long time period where nothing will ever be the same, everything will always be changing. 

Roberts:                 A permanent loss of normal. I think that’s the way to put it. 

And here’s the podcast (with Roberts sitting in for Ezra Klein). My highest rec:


And here’s the chart version from Swain’s study, written up here on his blog:

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Precipitous insect decline: collapse of nature?

This week a Dutch cartoonist with beauty dramatized a horrifying new study warning of “the collapse of nature.”

Yes, that statement seems extreme, but the art contextualizes it as form of suicide. Or even worse, as a form of ecocide-suicide.

First our species exterminates the insects, and then their decline unravels nature.

The study, freely available from the Biological Conservation journal, warns that this decline “may lead to the extinction of 40% of the world’s insect species over the next few decades.”

The very first genus threatened with extinction, according to the study? “Butterflies.”

This brings to mind the monarch butterfly, perhaps the best-known of all butterflies, the insect with the most astonishing migration in all the world. No matter how many times you’ve heard the story, it’s astonishing. The monarch travels annually from Mexico all the way to the far north. It’s a journey that can at its extremes encompass four or even five generations.

But the news from California is not good. The western population of this spectacular, iconic, and evolutionarily brilliant creature is in freefall. It’s fallen, according to the Xerces Society. from an estimated 1.2 million twenty years ago to approximately 30,000 this year. That’s down about 86%.

For a magazine I’m attempting to localize this story, and I must say I’m getting pushback. A fifth-generation farmer I talked to said he hasn’t seen it in his work. A veteran science writer reports on a methodological complaint about the analysis.This analysis reached its estimate by looking at papers reporting on insect declines, but did not do an overall cross-section study on a location.

For The Atlantic, Ed Yong reports:

For those reasons, it’s hard to take the widely quoted numbers from Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys’s review as gospel. They say that 41 percent of insect species are declining and that global numbers are falling by 2.5 percent a year, but “they’re trying to quantify things that we really can’t quantify at this point,” says Michelle Trautwein from the California Academy of Sciences. “I understand the desire to put numbers to these things to facilitate the conversation, but I would say all of those are built on mountains of unknown facts.”

Still, “our approach shouldn’t be to downplay these findings to console ourselves,” Trautwein adds. “I don’t see real danger in overstating the possible severity of insect decline, but there is real danger in underestimating how bad things really are. These studies aren’t perfect, but we’d be wise to heed this warning now instead of waiting for cleaner studies.”

Hmmm. From a rudimentary windshield survey of driving in California friends and I would say that the sheer number of insects is vastly reduced.

Should we not be alarmed because the perfect study has yet to be published? Maybe I need to find someone in California who is attempting to look at this question.



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Sisyphus and climate activism: the surprising truth

In December, the scientist who — probably more than any other individual — brought ocean acidification to the attention of the world, Ken Caldeira, gave a named lecture to the huge science conference known as the AGU (officially, the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union). He spoke on the legacy of Carl Sagan, and as transcribed today on his blog, pointed out that during his life Sagan did look at the central question posed by climate change: how long can we expect to enjoy the benefits of this lovely planet? Are we doomed to fatally foul our planetary nest?

Despite his influence and his learning, Caldeira speaks in an unpretentious, calm, and informal manner. He wondered out loud:

How hard is it to destroy modern civilization? — This shows up in the global change discussion a lot. There’s a lot of people who think that global warming is an existential threat to modern civilization. And other people think we’re going to just muddle through. And it’s going to be a cost on society. It will be an existential for some people who lose their livelihood or lose their lives, but as a civilization it’s a challenge but not an existential threat. I tend to be on that side of things.

This was interesting, but not very motivating to me, well versed in climate issues, but weary of their overwhelming heaviness. But in answer to a question, speaking of Carl Sagan, Caldiera quoted a thought from the French existentialist Camus (writing in “The Myth of Sisyphus”) that put this struggle in a more helpful context. He pointed out that to Camus, Sisyphus embodied the absurdity of human life on earth, but also the commitment of humans to the struggle. In the essay Camus focused on that moment after Sisyphus has rolled and pushed and sweated the stone to the summit, only to watch as it again tumbles down the mountain.

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me [Camus writes]…. I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step towards the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock. […]

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. The universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Caldeira rephrases this message for our time this way:

…we are heavily culturally influenced. Camus, who Sagan was reading, had written about imagining Sisyphus as happy pushing that stone up the hill. And that you wonder about the people who built the Nortre Dame cathedral as a multi-generational project that was aspirational towards some idea of permanence. Are these are sort of serfs working on this thing and just because they need to get money for food or did this gave people meaning to people to lug these stones and build Notre Dame. We can get collective me out of a project that would be positive for all of humanity and that in a way this sort of economics and even evolutionary theory emphasizing self-interest and narrow personal gain ….

I think a lot of us are motivated by approval of our peers, by wanting a feeling of meaning in our lives and so on. And not everything we do is narrowly self-interested. And maybe if in our culture we tried to emphasize more doing things for the public good that maybe more people would start doing things for the public good.

In its think-y way, this example inspires. Of course the struggle seems overwhelming, exhausting, and futile, But seen in a social context, the struggle is what gives our lives meaning. This painting from Sandro Chia, in the Museum of Modern Art, expresses this idea memorably I think:

It’s Sisyphus’s work and he’s accepted it: in Camus’s words, describing his heroism: “His rock is his thing.”

We all have our own rocks. Perhaps today climate stabilizing is our culture’s rock.

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“Radical Distraction” by Saul Bellow

From Saul Bellow, in an essay from 1975, published in Critical Inquiry:

“We are in a state of radical distraction,” he writes in “A World Too Much with Us,” an essay for the journal Critical Inquiry, in 1975, the same year Humboldt’s Gift appears. “I don’t see how we can be blind to the political character of our so-called ‘consumer’ societies. Each of us stands in the middle of things, exposed to the great public noise…All minds are preoccupied with terror, crime, the instability of cities, the future of nations, crumbling empires, foundering currencies, the poisoning of nature…To recite the list is itself unsettling.” (T.S. Eliot could no longer read the daily paper, Bellow writes. “It was too exciting.”)

Via a review by Tom Jokinen, of a biography of Bellow by Zachary Leader.

Pic from the NYTimes review, showing Bellow on the subway in that same year of 1975.

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Performative Cruelty in the Presidency

The best essay on our very stable genius from last year, it is clear to me now, came from The Atlantic and Adam Serwer: The Cruelty is the Point.

Let me quote the “nut graph” as they say in journalism, the simplest possible outline of the argument to be made in the piece.

The cruelty of the Trump administration’s policies, and the ritual rhetorical flaying of his targets before his supporters, are intimately connected. As Lili Loofbourow wrote of the Kavanaugh incident in Slate, adolescent male cruelty toward women is a bonding mechanism, a vehicle for intimacy through contempt. The white men in the lynching photos are smiling not merely because of what they have done, but because they have done it together.

We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era.

By way of contrast to this depiction, the neo-conservative right in the person of Michael Gerson today calls Trump a fraud. 

Seems a bit late doesn’t it? But nevermind, we appreciate the negativity from a Republican on Trump.

Far more insightfully and powerfully, it seems to me, Slate’s science editor today hears the “cruel laughter” in Trump’s tweet about the worst cold freeze to hit the Midwest in a generation.

The sad thing about this tweet isn’t even the deliberate misrepresentation of facts. That’s par for the course from the only world leader who doesn’t accept the science on climate change. It’s the tone of it that grates—the taunt inherent to “please come back fast, we need you!” In the midst of constant chaos and tragedy and stupidity, it is easy to forget that one of the greatest costs of the Trump presidency is the opportunity cost—the loss of these four years in which we could have been taking action on one of the most serious threats facing humanity and instead walked backward. This tweet is frustrating not only because it’s wrong—it’s frustrating because it is cruel. People are already dying from global warming. The longer we wait, the worse it will get. But to the president, it’s just a punchline.

They call it performative cruelty.

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Don’t Push Me Because I’m Close to the Edge: 2019

A generation ago Grandmaster Flash had a huge hit with The Message, with a chorus that went like this:

Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under

That was 1982, twenty-seven years ago, but it’s still true. According to a national survey last year conducted by the reputable Harris Poll, nearly four-fifths of wage earners in the self-declared “greatest country on earth” live paycheck to paycheck, with no real savings. As Ted Rall notes, barely keeping his sense of humor. He draws:

Most stories reporting on this finding focus on the personal responsibility of wage-earners not to blow their desperately hard-earned money. USA Today wondered: Are Americans Responsible with Their Paychecks? as if it’s the fault of the underpaid and barely insured that they’re one or two steps from the street.

This blog focuses mostly on climate and culture, but really it’s understandable that people don’t think much about either — who has time for a future crisis, living one or two weeks from a personal crisis?

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A wild perspective on the government shutdown


My name is Randy, and I’m the raccoon resident of the dumpster enclosure at Yellowstone National Park’s Bridge Bay Campground. The park rangers refer to me as a “nuisance raccoon.” I’ve lost my fear of humans and ability to forage for natural food like fruits and nuts, the stuff that non-nuisance raccoons eat. Imagine trying to eat raw acorns after tasting the flavor-explosion of Jacked Ranch-Dipped Hot Wing Doritos — inconceivable.

As a trash-eating raccoon, the government shutdown has been the best three weeks of my life, and I urge the President to think long and hard about the effects of the shutdown on me, Randy Raccoon the Dumpster Terror of Yellowstone, and not worry about the rest of the American people.

Bridge Bay is Yellowstone’s largest campground with hundreds of campsites, so on the shutdown’s first day the filth of humanity started to pile up outsidethe animal-proof trash containers. It was a cornucopia of Carrot Cake Clif Bars, the constituent ingredients for s’mores, and a fully-loaded diaper, all marinating in stale PBR. After a couple ranger-free days, the pristine park turned into a Golden Corral buffet of trash for scavenging vermin like me. On day 7, I found half a Chicken Chalupa and a human shit pile (coincidence?) steps away from majestic Old Faithful!

I would have thought the government would close the parks if the rangers couldn’t be there, since they obviously are the only thing preventing total chaos. Tourists are dumb. They risk death trying to take selfies with 2,000 pound buffalo, which are basically sentient battering rams. But I’m just a raccoon who’s eaten a used condom and a wrapped Snickers bar, what do I know?

From a friend of a daughter, writing for The Belladonna. From personal experience, I must say raccoons are some gnarly beasts, and not to be messed with. Here’s the rest of the piece.

Read More →

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Eating the Thomas Fire (sort of)

A little over a year ago the Thomas Fire, powered by the strongest Santa Ana winds in memory, roared through Upper Ojai on its way to surrounding all of Ojai, rampaging into Santa Barbara county, killing two people, destroying 1,000 structures, and burning over 200,000 acres of land. The fire visited our property on the first night, got into a three-trunked oak overlooking the street, and wouldn’t die in that tree until a crew from (believe it or don’t) the Governor’s special Office of Emergency Services came by and put it out personally.

Here’s what that looked like. You can’t see the fire burning in the tree, but you can see the smoke and steam.

A year later, against odds laid by a couple of local expert tree trimmers, that tree still stands, badly burned, splitting, hazardous to stand under, but undauntedly alive. And directly in the burn this week grew a massive mushroom, of the “lions mane” variety. Amazing and amazingly wild creature.

For folks living in wetter environments, wild mushrooms may not be so surprising. But for SoCal: Holy Cow! I only know about this variety from a mushroom forager named Omar Uribe, whom I interviewed working last year on a story about mushroom growing and foraging and products generally.

Omar told me that lions mane is unusual among mushrooms because not only is it mild and almost sweet, but unlike many other succulent and edible varieties it has no toxic look-alikes. In other words: it’s safe to eat! After he reassured me by identifying it from a picture, I went ahead and cooked a moderate harvested portion into a leek and mushroom shepherd’s pie, according to an excellent and mild NYTimes recipe. Mmmmwah! Served it to a number of friends and relations to much appreciation. Thank you, universe, for a wildness we can taste, that wildness that will not go away.


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Climate change hits ag in Ventura County

Proud to have published this story recently in a prominent Ventura County publication. With the help of Ben Hatchett of the Desert Research Institute, we showed I think that avocados, though now a substantial part of Ventura County agriculture, will in the not-too-distant future be a much more risky proposition…but that other crops, such as mangos, might possibly become much more practical. I included perspectives from growers, farmers, ranchers, scientists, advocates and government officials. A comprehensive look, dare I suggest:

Local growers and ag experts weigh in

Is climate change impacting agriculture in Ventura County?

“Yes, but …” say the farmers, ranchers, water agency representatives and scientists I talked to about climate change in Ventura County. Growers and ranchers proceeded to talk about the harrowing drought and the devastating Thomas Fire, though many of those interviewed pointed out that these could be examples of weather, not long-term climate changes. They also mentioned the extreme two-day July heat wave that damaged avocado groves throughout the county.

Yet after detailing the damages they suffered, farmers and ranchers without exception stressed to me that they remain committed to their work with the land, and expressed confidence about the future of agriculture in Ventura County. (more)

A couple of excerpts worth noting and possibly tweeting:

On Ranching:

“The [ranching] industry has been severely impacted by drought,” [agricultural adviser Matthew Shapero] says. “You can define ‘drought’ in different ways, but precipitation has been significantly below average for six of the past seven years, and even the last two years, which provided some drought relief statewide, have not really benefited Ventura County all that much.”

On Bringing State Water to the Ojai Valley and W. Ventura Area:

John Krist, CEO of the Farm Bureau in Ventura County, doubts that any plan will bring much state water to Ojai agriculture.

“I’m pretty pessimistic about the chances of additional state water making much of a difference in the relatively dire situation in the west county,” he says. He explains that although Casitas has for years paid for the right to an allocation of 5,000 acre-feet a year of water from the state, on average the state fulfills less than 60% of the allocation for water districts, meaning that the amount of water available to Casitas would probably be less than 3,000 acre-feet a year. That number could fall to zero in a statewide drought, as happened during the drought in 2014.

Lakes Casitas in 2018

And on the rising temperatures:

In the future, those high temperatures [in Ventura County] will become more common and more extreme, according to projections calculated for us by Benjamin Hatchett, PhD., a climate scientist at the widely respected Desert Research Institute, working on a grant for the Watersheds Coalition of Ventura County.

Consulting with an expert at the California Avocado Commission, Hatchett learned that temperatures higher than 95° stress and can damage or kill avocado trees. Historically, Hatchett says, farmers in the Ojai and the Fillmore areas could expect to see temperatures in excess of that mark about 30 and 15 days a year on average, respectively.

Estimates using downscaled global climate models predict [Ojai] could have up to a seven-fold increase in the number of these very hot days for the late 21st century. “To be fair,” says Hatchett, “these are very preliminary results from this ongoing Ventura County study and show a worst-case scenario, but the increase is certainly concerning.


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How Yoko turned on John’s imagination

A charming piece via the BBC, drawn from a new book, reveals how Yoko’s idealism turned on John’s imagination and — pretty directly it seems — inspired the creation of his most iconic song: Imagine. Specifically, Yoko’s book Grapefruit. Lennon said:

“There’s a lot of pieces in it saying like ‘imagine this’ or ‘imagine that’,” he said about Grapefruit. “Imagine could never have been written without her. And I know she helped on a lot of the lyrics but I wasn’t man enough to let her have credit for it. So that song was actually written by John and Yoko, but I was still selfish enough and unaware enough to take her contribution without acknowledging it. The song itself expresses what I’d learned through being with Yoko and my own feelings on it. It should really have said ‘Lennon/Ono’ on that song, because she contributed to a lot of that song.”

Neither of the two expected the global reaction:

Ono describes how they felt about Imagine at the time: “We both liked the song a lot but we honestly didn’t realise it would turn into the powerful song it has, all over the world… We just did it because we believed in the words and it just reflected how we were feeling.”

Usually on my birthday and Lennon’s death date, December 8, I post some sort of tribute to Lennon, one of the greatest artists (and thinkers, sez me) of my generation. But I always conclude with the same message: miss you John.

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