Tag Archives: Ray Grigg

The Fracking Mess


Since international agreements have been unable to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions — 20 years of negotiations and effort have resulted in emissions going up rather than down — those concerned about global warming had hoped that the anticipated decline in petroleum supplies would force a solution. If the availability of accessible oil and natural gas were to dwindle, nations everywhere would be compelled to find energy sources that were less carbon intensive. But fracking has put an end to that hope.

The relatively new technique of “hydraulic fracturing”, a process of drilling horizontally in shale beds and then breaking the rock by injecting a concoction of water, sand and toxic chemicals under extreme pressure, is releasing huge quantities of oil and natural gas. In addition to polluting a subterranean frontier, the global result is a total reconfiguration of the energy equation.

The economic effects are the most obvious. Natural gas is flooding the energy markets in North America and Europe, and is likely to do so elsewhere. Fracking is releasing massive amounts of natural gas in the US, reducing the price below production costs and undermining the market value of Canadian exports of gas. The economic result for BC and Alberta is a collapse of royalties to governments. And low natural gas prices may threaten the economic viability of gas lines and LNG plants planned for BC’s West Coast.

The same economic dynamic is occurring with oil. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the success of fracking could make an oil-starved America into the world’s largest producer by 2020, and a net exporter by 2030. This reduced dependence on foreign oil questions the Canadian government’s wisdom of relying on the export of petroleum resources as the country’s principal economic plan. It also casts doubt on the viability of the energy-intensive methods used to extract oil from the tar sands.

These new supplies of domestic oil in the US and other countries are likely to change global geopolitics. Saudi Arabia, for example, may lose its privileged position in the global energy equation, and thereby lose the Western support that has been key to its political security. China and India might make moves to replace the West as the strategic friend of existing oil producers. Meanwhile, generous oil supplies will reduce its market price, thereby encouraging world economic activity and further eroding the only effective incentive that has reduced oil consumption, cut carbon dioxide emissions and slowed global climate change.

So the fracking that has become the solution to shortages of gas and oil now presents a host of problems that will ultimately be far more serious than the challenge of slowly weaning our modern civilization from petroleum. “The climate goal of limiting warming to 2°C is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes,” notes the IEA.

The reality is that we are running out of manoeuvring room. “Four-fifths of all carbon emissions that are supposed to be allowed by 2035 to keep warming below two degrees Celsius are already locked into power plants, factories and buildings,” writes Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe and Mail (Nov. 21/12). “If strong action is not taken by 2017, all the emissions necessary to keep warming below that level will be locked in,” he adds. Global consumption of oil, thanks to fracking, is expected to rise a third by 2035, driving “the long-term average global temperature increase to 3.6 degrees Celsius” (Ibid.).

We are already feeling the impact of global temperature increases of 0.8°C. An increase of over four-times this amount would have environmental consequences that we can scarcely imagine. George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian Weekly (Oct 26/12) provides a hint. “A paper this year by the world’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, shows that the frequency of extremely hot events…has risen by a factor of about 50 in comparison with the decades before 1980. Forty years ago, extreme summer heat typically affected between 0.1% and 0.2% of the globe. Today it scorches some 10%.”

Ocean levels are already rising, causing coastal US cities such as Norfolk, Virginia, to flood regularly from heavy rainfall and small storm surges. Although the disasters that recently befell New Orleans and New York cannot be attributed specifically to global climate change, weather modelling suggests that such events will likely become so commonplace that smashed and flooded coastal cities will appear in lists rather than individually. Severe droughts and storms would become almost too routine to be news. All but the most extreme of the extreme weather events would just be dismissed with generalizations such as “just another bad day on Earth”.

Climatology tells us that during the last 10,000 years we have been living in one of the most benign, stable and accommodating periods in all of human history. Our global civilization is founded upon this predictable comfort. Our cities crowd shorelines because these locations have been safe and convenient. Our food production is based on mild and rhythmical weather. Our renewable resources depend upon a regular climate for regeneration. We alter this normalcy at our peril.

The carbon dioxide we are adding to the atmosphere is now occurring at a rate six times faster than the most rapid natural emissions of any geological epoch of which we know — we are doing in 500 years what nature once did in 3,000 years. This single, traumatic past event caused one of the planet’s most disastrous biological extinctions. Put simply, a future created by excessive carbon dioxide emissions is not going to be comfortable or promising.

Our ingenuity is not an asset if it is used to solve the wrong problems. Indeed, if the biggest threat now confronting us is caused by burning petroleum as our principal energy source, then the more we do to find and use this fuel, the worse our problem becomes. In a future review of our history, we will likely conclude that fracking created a bigger mess than it solved.

Environmentalists protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to Texas in front of the White House

The Surrender of an Ecowarrior


When does heroism become folly? When does struggle become futile? When does surrender become liberation? When is enough, enough? Then what? These are just some of the questions that come streaming into focus from a poignant personal essay by Lynn Lau, a 37 year-old environmentalist who, after 21 years of conscientious effort, has finally decided to abandon her quest to “Save the Planet”. Her story is worth relating and pondering.

Lau’s essay recounts when, as a girl of 16, she stopped eating meat as her “personal contribution to reducing global carbon emissions” (Globe and Mail, “An Ecowarrior Retires”,

Nov. 6/12). Then her quest for a better environment escalated to writing letters, waving banners at protests, running for political office and donating money. She tried raising chickens, growing her own vegetables, cultivating worms in her compost, and adhering strictly to the principles of the 100-mile diet. She sampled communal living to reduce her ecological footprint.

When she married and had a baby, she used flannel diapers so they could be washed and recycled. And she even attempted to become a teacher, assuming her influence on schoolchildren would eventually elevate society’s environmental consciousness. Her conscientious efforts covered nearly half of the 50 years since Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring first sounded global ecological alarms.

And the result? Lau’s answer is a blunt assessment of the impact of her own efforts, together with the collective work of the army of environmental warriors who have been her companions on this quest to “Save the Planet”. Her conclusion is “abject failure”. Ecological deterioration continues largely unabated. The trajectory “over the cliff of our planet’s carrying capacity” has accelerated during the five decades of defining, measuring, documenting, predicting and talking, talking, talking.

Lau concedes that all this effort has “raised awareness” but admits to the “embarrassing” revelation that “solving the world’s environmental problem is going to involve something much more powerful than a magnanimous sentiment toward Mother Nature, no matter how widely felt.” In her opinion, “reverent feelings” and “useful tidbits about flora and fauna” are not going to meet the challenge.

Besides, she admits, “to be an environmentalist you need to be a misanthrope at heart”. You need to be “individualistic” and “distrustful of authority”, qualities that do not win the support of the general public. She hints that environmentalists have an impractical idealism that matches neither the profound complexity of the problem to be solved nor the fundamental change in attitude that an entire modern culture must undergo.

The other reason environmentalists are not going to be successful, she concludes, is that, “We live in a society that solves massive problems through the co-ordinated efforts of specialists.” Their expertise with satellites measures the general health of the biosphere while their detailed scientific study evaluates its specific health. Their vast digital networks are our communication systems. Politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats, economists and others of many disciplines design, implement and operate the civic machinery that is the essential structure of societies. The business of humanity functions because of specialists. If “raised awareness” is not a part of this process, as she suggests, does this then mean that all the effort of environmentalists has been a waste of time and energy?

In the larger scheme of things, vision always precedes knowledge, just as information always precedes action. The “raised awareness” provided by all the effort of environmentalists is preparation for the work of the specialists. The “abject failure” described by Lau is merely the usual delay that occurs between understanding and behaviour.

This delay presents two questions. The first concerns the height to which “raised awareness” must rise before reaching a critical mass that is powerful enough to translate into action by the specialists. The second concerns people. Specialists are activated by political processes, when the collective will of the community directs the specialists to mobilize and correct an identified problem. We have not yet reached this critical mass of collective will. Confusion and ambivalence have not yet been replaced by conviction and resolution. We are still in at intermediate stage where environmentalists continue to raise awareness but their concerns have not yet translated into significant corrective action.

It’s helpful here to think of history rather than individuals. Lau’s sense of time moves faster than the slow march of civilizations. Her sense of frustration and futility is explainable and justified from her personal perspective. But the large change that she wants will require a paradigm shift, a wholesale adjustment in the way we collectively see ourselves and relate to the world. Not surprisingly, the momentum of humanity’s habitual behaviour doesn’t match her expectations. And she may be forgetting precedence. History suggests that humanity rarely acts with foresight.

Yet, despite Lau’s judgment of “abject failure”, she still offers hints of optimism. “I don’t know what specialists can save us from ourselves,” she confesses, “but I hope they’re out there, mixing intelligence and ingenuity with money, getting something accomplished on a really big scale.”

After 21 years of heroic effort she’s probably tired, disillusioned by the distance between where we are and where we need to be. Besides, she realizes she can’t get off the “sinking ship we’re on”. So, as she says, “I’m going to quit bailing for now and take a seat on the deck to enjoy the scenery.” She deserves the rest. And while she’s enjoying the scenery, increasing numbers of others will be bailing and raising awareness.


The Ecology of Money


The long history of money and finance offers unique and important insights that are unavailable in any narrow slice of time. Consider, for example, the ideas provided by Professor Michael Hudson in Surviving Progress, a video documentary inspired by Ronald Wright’s impressive book and Massey Lecture series, A Short History of Progress. As an economist and financial specialist with an academic’s scholarly perspective and practical experience as an advisor to international banking, Professor Hudson has some insights worth considering.

One of his key insights can be stated quite simply. “Every society for the last 4,000 years,” he says, “has found that its debt grows more rapidly than people can pay.” This burden of ever-increasing debt is ultimately owed to a financial oligarchy, about 10 percent of a society that inevitably rises in economic stature and power to control most wealth. This suggests two important questions. Why should this process occur so consistently? And what are the consequences?

The first question is probably answered by Darwinian economics. Some people with more financial skills than others — or with more initial assets, opportunity or power — will eventually become more affluent than those with lesser capabilities. By manipulating the economic structure to their advantage and by gaining political influence, they hold increasing amounts of debt and gather increasing amounts of wealth.

The second question — about consequences — is vividly answered by David Korten, an economist, author, and former professor at the Harvard Business School. “It’s a game that ultimately self-destructs,” he says in another video documentary, The Big Fix. “As a few people control more and more of the real resources and the means of production, it creates enormous instability, it creates extreme inequality that destabilizes the whole society and moves in the direction of increasing violence. The endgame is total financial, economic, social, environmental and political collapse.”

Previous civilizations were aware of these effects, according to Professor Hudson. They averted such “collapse” by periodically cancelling all debt, resetting the economic game to zero and beginning afresh. This was a common practice in the old civilizations of Sumer, Babylonia and Egypt, likely because they discovered that debt cancellation was preferable to the chaotic alternative. The term in the old Jewish tradition for ritually forgiving of all debt every 50 years is the origin of the English word “jubilee”.

The first civilization to not periodically forgive debt, according to Professor Hudson, was the Romans. Their egalitarian culture ended with oligarchs in control of vast quantities of land and wealth. The narrow and self-interested ownership of debt by a small number of avaricious individuals mitigated against forgiveness. Wealth concentrated more power with the wealthy, further entrenching the notion that “a debt is a debt” and must be paid. And so it was. But the forcible collection of this debt turned towns, cities and countries into economic “deserts”, according to Professor Hudson. Temples were stripped of gold, business and farming structures were bankrupted, communities could not maintain their infrastructure, civil servants could not be paid, taxes were debilitating, slavery flourished, soils were depleted, resources were pillaged, and wars were initiated to collect debt. The result was an enactment of David Korten’s endgame scenario of total collapse. Western Europe needed nearly 1,000 years for the fertility of the soil to rebuild, for civil order to return, and for the institutions of social stability to re-establish.

Professor Hudson fears that we might be returning to this precarious Roman condition today — with the added worry that the impact will no longer be local or regional but global. The banks and financial institutions are international — with interests that interconnect with transnational corporations. They loan money and issue debt to needy countries, and insist on repayment. This, of course, is their business. But it is too often a cunning, unforgiving and brutal system that maximizes profits with ruthless enthusiasm. Since the effects are usually foreign, the financial institutions bear little political cost for the social mayhem they create.

Professor Hudson speaks from experience. As a one-time financial advisor to global financial institutions, he recounts how poor countries were enticed to borrow for the promises of modernization. Loans and interest rates were then tailored to fit the maximum possible repayment capacity of their earnings. When economic growth failed to occur in the unfair marketplace into which they were lured, they were loaned more money. As debt exceeded their ability to pay and default was inevitable, then natural resources became the collateral that debt-holders could collect in lieu of cash. As one example, Professor Hudson notes that Brazil’s wholesale destruction of the Amazon, beginning in 1982, can be linked directly to the economic effects of the Wall Street and London financial sector. The strategy is to use credit to acquire the public domain of countries — their forests, water, oil and minerals. “Asset stripping” is the technical financial term that describes this process, he says.

As an academic and scholar with the real-world financial experience that has nurtured his cynical edge, Professor Hudson reminds us we need to think of two definitions of progress. The first is the one most people use. This is the progression of production and living standards that provide more food and comfort for a society. The second is the definition used by the financial sector. This is the conversion of economic growth into wealth for themselves, a process of “financial extraction” that takes place by means of credit.

The destructive effect of the “financial extraction” that took place in Rome, plunged Europe into centuries of the so-called Dark Ages, a pitfall that was adroitly avoided in previous civilizations by the periodical forgiveness of debt. People like Professor Hudson and David Korten worry that we are repeating the mistakes of Rome, a disconcerting and dangerous process most discernible to those with the perspective of history.

Can the microchip save us - or is technology part of the problem?

‘Apocaholics’: A New Word for New Times


For people who like words, “apocaholics” is a new and ingenious one. It instantly conveys the impression that those with a dystopian view of the future have a neurotic compulsion that is unhealthy and unfounded. The word is instantly dismissive and pejorative, suggesting an irrational fear, a baseless apprehension, an addictive dependence on pessimism that needs therapy, like those who are debilitated by alcohol. It’s a word that garners immediate attention.

Apocaholics made its debut in the popular media in a conversation Brian Bethune of Maclean’s magazine (Oct. 22/12) had with Brian David Johnson, the chief futurist for Intel Corporation, one of the world’s largest makers of computer chips. Johnson, of course, is optimistic about Intel’s prospects and is promoting the use and value of “putting chips into all sorts of different devices…to enrich people’s lives.” Bethune replies by noting the pessimistic mood that is so common these days. “…You do not like our current dystopian attitude toward the future. You want to change the narrative.” Johnson’s reply warrants its full paragraph.

“I do. I do,” he says. “There’s been some research recently that human beings seem to be ‘apocaholics’ — always seeing something right around the corner that’s going to kill us all. I understand it. As human beings, we’re hard-wired for a world where, if you heard a twig break behind you, you jump and you have a physical fear reaction. That was okay when that snap was a sabre-toothed tiger, but we don’t live in that world any more. Now that reaction blocks us from coming up with the really great ideas, so I’m on a crusade against fear, because being afraid of the future means we’re giving up our power. You can’t let the future happen to you, you can’t sit back and be passive — you need to be an active participant. We all, as human beings, personally build the future, whether it be our own, our family’s, the world’s. We have to own that fact and we need to do something about it.”

Johnson presents a convincing argument for the power of trust, optimism and volition, for the merit of taking control of our destiny and believing in our ingenuity. Indeed, considering our accomplishments to date, the prospects for tomorrow should be bright and promising. So, why the gloom? Perhaps the best reply to Johnson’s argument comes from Surviving Progress, a recently released documentary distributed by Canada’s National Film Board.

As a sequel to anthropologist Ronald Wright’s brilliant book and Massey Lecture series, A Short History of Progress, Surviving Progress reminds us that the very brain that is managing our computers, nuclear bombs, fossil fuels, global finances, and the full suite of our modern technological complexity, is the same brain that responded reflexively to Johnson’s example of the breaking twig. Our brains are virtually unchanged in 50,000 years. The ingenuity that is determining our future is the same electro-chemical hardware that met the sabre-toothed tiger. This mismatch between our inner capabilities and our outer challenges does not exactly warrant confidence in the outcome. Indeed, a dash of fear and caution might be precisely what we need. If the same visceral intensity that attacked the sabre-toothed tiger with clubs and spears now operates intercontinental ballistic missiles, the mechanism of international economics, the ethics of transnational corporations and the processing magic of computers, then this is legitimate cause for apprehension.

Surviving Progress also makes the poignant point that progress is not synonymous with improvement. The ingenuity that could kill a mammoth was probably useful. The ingenuity that could kill two mammoths might have been better. But the ingenuity that stampeded whole herds of mammoths over cliffs was an excess that may have caused the extinction of a valuable food source. Arrows might have been an improvement over clubs but thousands of nuclear warheads poised to obliterate most life on Earth hardly seems like the progress that induces confidence in our ingenuity.

Indeed, our reflexive response to the breaking twig may be the human failing that has prevented us from anticipating consequences and restraining the impulse to extremes. A succession of best first responses doesn’t necessarily lead to a desirable ending. Agriculture fed more people than hunting-gathering but this innovation, that occupied only 0.2 percent of human history, has left a legacy of local ecological disasters and a population of seven billion people responsible for global ecological problems. The automobile eliminated the tonnes of horse manure littering city streets but a billion cars now clog the world’s roads, filling the air with toxins and spurring the quest for ever-greater amounts of oil — another extreme of its own. And the essential goods we need for survival and comfort have morphed into an epidemic of consumerism that is polluting the planet while burdening our lives with excesses.

True, as Brian David Johnson says, we “can’t let the future happen” to us. We “can’t just sit back and be passive.” We have an obligation to “personally build the future…”.

How much future we can “personally build” is a mute point these days. A corporation such as Intel doesn’t consult with humanity about the life-enriching benefits of “putting chips into all sorts of different devices”. Monsanto doesn’t ask people about the need for genetically modified crops. Pharmaceuticals don’t solicit from citizens a priority of diseases to be cured. Television stations don’t design their programs to elevate the collective wisdom of society. Advertising invents wants and then indiscriminately elevates them to the status of needs. Petrochemical industries design exotic concoctions that subject living organisms to calculated risks. Global financial traders wreak economic havoc by playing loose with monetary prudence. This might be progress but it is not necessarily improvement. And, for most people, it isn’t choice.

As Brian David Johnson proposes, we each “must personally build the future”. Then, for emphasis, he adds, “We have to own that fact and we need to do something about it.” Apocaholics are simply people who are taking his advice, are assessing our present situation, and are reaching their own conclusions.

Protestors outside the Rio Climate Conference earlier this year. Photograph by: Aaron Favila, AP

The ethics of politically impossible


Most words are to be read and forgotten; others are to be read and remembered; and some few are to be read, remembered and considered carefully. The words of Michael Marshall fall into the last category. They appear in “Climate’s Dark Dawn”, an article in NewScientist (Dec. 31/11).

The poignancy of Marshall’s words derive from the scientific consensus that we can’t afford to warm the planet any more than 2°C without incurring climate change that could be catastrophically stressful to a global civilization already under pressure from other serious environmental threats. In response to this warning, our leaders at international gatherings have concurred with the scientific consensus, have adopt this temperature increase as their tolerable upper limit, and have pledged that regulations on allowable emissions will hold the global temperature increase below this critical mark.

But modelling of these pledges shows “that even if those cuts were implemented in full we would still see 3.5°C of warming by 2100,” writes Marshall. And this temperature increase could easily escalate to the 4.0°C that “could wipe out the Amazon rainforest and halt the Asian monsoons” (Ibid.).

So, here are Marshall’s words to be remembered and considered carefully. “The reality is that the 2°C target is technically and economically feasible,” he writes, “but politically impossible.” In other words, we have the technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to avoid the serious environmental consequences of raising the global temperature above 2°C. We even have an economy that can afford to do so. But our leaders lack the political will to rectify a problem that they both recognize and have the power to correct.

This failure of political will is disappointing, destructive and cancerous. It creates a metastasizing cynicism that infects optimism with pessimism. It transforms high hope into sinking despair. When forecasts are bleak but corrective resolve is weak, we abandon the best and resign ourselves to the worst. Everything we think and do is shadowed with frustration. Trust is replaced by suspicion. So we drift in confusion and conflict rather than moving together with focus and resolve. Indeed, if our leaders would publicly acknowledge that global warming and its haunting partner, climate change, were as serious as scientists describe, then we could unite in common cause and firm commitment. But without the political declaration, direction and leadership, we flounder.

This is why the future isn’t what it used to be. The mood of innocence and optimism that once pervaded our individual and collective lives is now sobered by the growing realization that we are confronting a major environmental crisis without leadership. We have reached the edge of yet another crucial limit without an initiation or coordination of remedial measures.

We now know that almost everything positive we want to do comes with negative consequences that weigh against the folly of proceeding with thoughtless habit. Old practices, once accepted and unquestioned, are presently complicated with unwanted results and complex ethical dilemmas. It is the role of our leaders to read this conundrum and steer us through a dangerous and difficult course. Instead, they are silent. Or even worse, they remain the proponents of the thoughtless habits that mire us in a deepening problem.

This is the root explanation for the rising chorus of public objections to mines, pipelines, oil tankers, tar sands, free trade agreements, international financial systems and a corporate world of manufactured venality and consumerism. All these practices are carrying us in the direction of environmental trouble rather than away from it. Negativity becomes the pervasive mood because the pervasive course is negative. We cannot be hopeful if we are moving in the direction of our undoing. When we are not actively pursuing solutions to difficult problems then the frustration accumulates as cynicism. If society’s energies are not directed in constructive behaviour, they are wasted in destructive diversions.

The role of political leaders is to inform and lead the public. If they are in denial about the global climate crisis, or if they are deliberately avoiding the scientific evidence, or if they are attempting to deceive, then their exercise is futile and defeating. This is the age of information. People know. They can recognize dishonesty because it appears as hypocrisy.

People also recognize honesty and bravery, the attributes of heroes, visionaries and leaders. “Politically impossible” is the acquiescing course of the opportunist who follows the path of old destructive habits even when a better route is known.

The present is connected to the future through the unfolding of circumstances. We know how those circumstances are unfolding. So, what will be history’s judgment of those who knew of the unfolding climate crisis but did not act to prevent it? When something could have been done, ethics require action. History has declared that “politically impossible” has never been an excuse for abject and wanton neglect.

Arctic sea Ice shrinks to new low in satellite era - NASA image

Shrinking Arctic Sea Ice


Arctic sea ice reached a record low of 3.42 million square kilometres on September 16, 2012, surpassing by 18 percent the record set in 2007 of 4.17 million square kilometres. And this 2007 record surpassed the previous 2005 record by 22 percent. Dr. Walt Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, summarizes the events this way: “On top of that [2012 record], we’re smashing a record that smashed a record” (Globe and Mail, Sept. 20/12). To set this in perspective, the Arctic’s summer sea ice in the 1980s covered an area slightly smaller than the mainland United States; now it covers half that area.

Adding to Dr. Meier’s statement is a comment from his colleague, Dr. Mark Serreze. “Recently the loss of summer ice has accelerated and the six lowest September ice extents have all been in the past six years. I think that’s quite remarkable” (Ibid.). With the exception of one “strong storm”, all this melt has been due to the day-by-day effects of a warming planet. As Dr. Jason Box of Ohio State University notes, “Arctic sea ice is one of the most sensitive of nature’s thermometers”(Ibid.).

As the Arctic’s temperature goes up, the effects are felt directly in the Arctic landscape. The increasing warmth melts permafrost so roads sink, building foundations collapse , shoreline settlements slough into the sea, while trees and power poles tilt helter-skelter as their footings soften. Except for the release of methane, these are incidental micro effects of relatively little environmental significance.

Even the geo-political complications of newly opened international shipping routes through melted Arctic waters are of minor importance. Canada’s jurisdictional disputes with China, Russia and the United States about authority over these passages will simmer more actively as the ice retreats even further. Many of these marine routes are still uncharted so vessels risk grounding or sinking. Oil spills become a constant worry in the pristine Arctic waters. Drilling for petroleum and gas resources becomes a contentious subject that didn’t exist before the sea ice began melting.

The more serious effects, however, are macro. Sea ice reflects about 90 percent of the sun’s heat — the so-called albedo effect that helps to cool both the Arctic and the planet. Without sea ice, about 50 percent of this heat is absorbed by the dark water that replaces it, a process that accelerates the effects of global warming and explains why the Arctic is warming at about twice the rate of the rest of the planet. In a positive feedback loop, the increasing areas of open water absorb even more heat, that melts even more ice, that raises the temperature even higher, that causes even more ice to melt. And the implications are not just local but global.

A warmer Arctic means that the temperature differential between northern and southern latitudes is reduced. And this has direct effects on both climate and weather.

The ocean currents that distribute heat around the planet are driven by the simple physical principle that cold water is heavier than warm water. Tropical water flows northward on the surface, bringing heat to northern latitudes. It then cools, sinks and carries cool water southward along the ocean’s bottom to alleviate high temperatures in the tropics. Global weather patterns are partly determined by this movement of ocean water. As Arctic waters warm, they are less inclined to sink, the convection currents slow, and the planet’s weather changes.

Melting Arctic sea ice has another macro effect. Jet streams, the high elevation winds that mix air around the planet, are affected by Arctic temperatures. When the temperature differential between high and low latitudes is relatively large, the jet streams tend to be more active, drifting north and south more vigorously and shifting weather with them. With a lower temperature differential, the jet streams tend to be less active, thereby locking weather patterns in place for protracted periods. This may explain why droughts tend to be more persistent and wet periods tend to be longer. It may also explain why the summer of 2012 brought record rainfall to the East Coast of Canada and record dry spells to the West Coast. Wildfires, crop failures, dried rivers, and floods are more likely when weather patterns are locked in place by stalled jet streams.

A warmer Arctic from melted Arctic ice also means higher humidity in the higher latitudes. The dry air of the northern desert becomes wetter. When this air is pulled southward by winter storms, the result is more rain and snow for lower latitudes. This dynamic may account for some of the extreme rain and snowfall of recent winters.

Weather, of course, is extremely complicated. But the changes occurring around the planet are supported by current data and are consistent with the most advanced computer modelling at our disposal. And Arctic sea ice is a significant factor in this complex matter.Alter it and everything else changes. We, too, are affected because we have built our cities, farms, industries and global systems upon a presumption of predictable weather. Agricultural crops are totally dependent on climate normality. Harvest failures affect food prices and economic stability, even reverberating into political security — the so-called Arab Spring that rocked Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and now Syria was triggered by food shortages caused by weather anomalies.

As climatologists have noted, the greatest experiment being conducted on the planet these days is not our search for the elusive Higgs boson at the multi-billion dollar Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Rather, it is our experiment with global climate and weather, conducted by the massive amounts of carbon dioxide we are emitting from burning fossil fuels. Melting Arctic sea ice is just one disruptive consequences of this huge, uncontrolled experiment.

What can termites teach us about collective consciousness and humanity?

Collective Consciousness and Humanity


Termites and their collective consciousness raise some thought provoking questions about humanity. If termites can only express their true genetic identity in the amassed presence of their numbers — only then are they able to form complex social structures, build architecturally sophisticated mounds and endure eons of changing environmental conditions — what does this suggest of us? Is our character, with its complex impulses, motives and behaviour, shaped by the amassed numbers of us, just as with termites?

We, of course, are comparative biological youngsters without the long evolutionary experience of termites. But we do exhibit their essential characteristic of purposeful social behaviour when we gather together in small and large groups. Indeed, the larger these groups, the more complex our behaviour as tasks are invented, compounded and subdivided to fit escalating levels of intricacy. Hunters and gatherers evolve into priests and judges, patriarchs and elders into presidents and parliaments, caves and huts into palaces and skyscrapers, sandals and boots into cars and aeroplanes, berries and beads into money and banks, clubs and spears into rifles and bombs. As a species, we and our ancestors have outstripped the amazing accomplishments of the termite.

But do we have a comparable sense of collective consciousness? The answer requires that our awareness reflect on its own awareness, an exercise of self-inquiry that is always difficult because it requires making oneself into an object — just as a mirror reflecting another mirror conveys only the image of mirrors. Our sense of collective consciousness may be such an integral part of our human character that we would be the last to discover it.

We do, however, get some hint of collective consciousness with the so-called “Hundredth Monkey” phenomenon. The process was first observed in 1952 when a single female on the Japanese island of Koshima began washing the gritty sand from the yams she wanted to eat. Others began to copy the practice. When about 100 of the monkeys on this one island were washing yams, other monkeys on other islands apparently began washing their yams, too. The spread of this behaviour has be attributed to a kind of collective consciousness that is comparable to that in termite behaviour.

But we humans may have our own direct expressions of collective consciousness. Art seems to be a universal communication device that bridges the difference between cultures. Primitive images have a creative power that seems transcended place and time by connecting to the aesthetics of modern civilizations. The common heartbeat of all humanity’s biological heritage expresses itself in drumming and rhythm, a universal medium of communication. Music from diverse cultures seems to link on a shared plane of understanding. Dance “talks” via the movements shared by all human experience. Colours, shapes and sounds often have universal meaning, as if they were all connected to a common symbolic language.

But a more ominous example of collective consciousness is the way history keeps repeating itself. Variations, of course, always exist from one civilization to another. But the pattern is disquietingly the same. Rising complexity is followed by unheeded warnings of vulnerability, then by collapse and radical reorganization. This pattern occurs so often that it suggests we are regularly victimized by a mass mentality that fails to recognize the fatal momentum propelling our behaviour. History fails to teach us because each civilization is so engrossed in its own collective consciousness that the lessons of the past fail to elicit a corrective response.

Unlike termites that seem to have no obvious means of reflecting on their collective consciousness, we do have language and mass media to build a common awareness. But this does not explain all human behaviour. Stock markets are notoriously irrational. Economic health moves in strangely rhythmical cycles as if all commercial activity were responding to some subliminal force that refuses to recognize the stabilizing effects of reason. New ideas grow slowly to a critical mass, after which they are impossible to suppress. Cultures and civilizations seem to move through periods of calm optimism and then anxious despair, as if these changing moods are uncontrollable and contagious.

So collective consciousness raises the more ominous question about who we collectively are as a species. Do we have a pooled intelligence that commits us to certain inevitable and unavoidable courses of behaviour, certain strategies that we repeat over and over again because it is in our nature to do so? Just like termites, this nature is our source of success and failure, salvation and undoing. If we were perceptive and attentive enough, we would notice the same patterns repeating themselves in different variations throughout history. Persian, Egyptian, Mayan, Khmer and Roman, even on remote Easter Islander, all rose and fell because the momentum of who they were carried them to their prescribed demise.

Could we be conscious enough of the warning signs to avoid a collapse of the global civilization we have built with our commerce, industry and technology? We have indications that this whole structure of human creation is under stress. The wall of limits looms. The general optimism of a few decades ago is shifting toward skepticism, with growing traces of pessimism. War is always present as a haunting and perennial human folly. And the environmental problems rushing toward us are large, ominous and inadequately addressed — amplified versions of the same ones that past civilizations repetitively neglected.

A review of history should cause us to wonder if we are programmed by our collective consciousness to continually repeat the same pattern of mistakes. Perhaps, however, the simple act of noting this repetition raises us above the level of the termite. Perhaps.


A Sense of the Sacred


A sense of the sacred can arrive unexpectedly. Perhaps it is created by a mirror-calm lake enclosed by rocky hills all bedecked with the orange and yellow of autumn colours, where the profound silence of wilderness is only filled by the lonely call of a loon. Or perhaps it’s a mountain top where the assembly of nearby peaks tower upward in a crescendo of gravity-defying exuberance, and the snow-lined ponds far below radiate the same azure blue as the cloudless sky.

But anything natural can trigger this sense of the sacred. It could be an open meadow softened by morning dew, as the slow rise of silver mist frees it from the cool shiver of night. Or it could be a single tree when its great height and girth boggles an imagination trying to comprehend how a little seed is capable of orchestrating such astounding complexity and intricacy. But it could also be a delicate blade of grass curving into a gentle arch, bedecked by a necklace of raindrops hanging from a spider’s web. Both the small and the big can create a sense of the sacred, that moment in time and place where the world flashes its beauty and all the countless pieces of it each declare they are in exactly the right place.

No one should then be surprised that some aboriginal cultures speak of “power places” where the wisdom of Earth’s intelligence seems to shout rather than whisper. Regardless of season or weather, these places were recognized as sacred — even when native cultures were usurped by Christian ones, these “power places” often became the locations of churches. The Shinto tradition of Japan venerates special stones and natural settings that seem to resonate with special communicative strength. And the Gaia Theory — heavily supported by scientific evidence — echoes the notion that all the natural components of Earth combine to form a collective intelligence that regulates and stabilizes the conditions that permit life to survive and flourish.

This idea may seem foreign to a materialistic Western culture that venerates the importance of the individual, discourages the diminution of self, and doubts the validity of the mystical experience. But the Gaia Theory has its living parallel in bees, ants and termites. Termites, for example, can function viably only as a collective consciousness. As individuals they are totally lost and useless. But a critical mass of them coalesces into a whole awareness able to function as a purposeful community that can build superbly designed mounds — complete with air conditioning — and sustain orderly and complex societies. The famous American biologist, E.O Wilson, referred to this phenomenon of collective consciousness as one of the science’s most important but unexplained mysteries.

If insects can do it, and the same is possible for the entire fabric of Earth, then we should be capable of experiencing it in special places during special moments of receptivity. We just need to open and receive what is bigger than the confines of self, larger than the limits of purposeful objectives, and greater than any sense of human time. One of these moments has to expand beyond the narrow confines of individual knowing to receive what is greater than thoughts can think. Bewilderment has to be trusted if wonder is to coalesce into the sacred. Certain places activate this process, so they are deemed sacred because no other designation fits their informative power.

The sacred is not religious. It is not doctrinal. It is not belief. Rather, it’s more like an inner emptiness that has been waiting for a special kind of filling. And, in response to a silent calling, the natural world rushes in to fill a void left by our disconnection from our origin.

The mystical experience of wholeness transforms everything into the sacred. All the disparate parts and pieces of distinctions meld into a unity that seems to exude contentment and completion. And the imagined tensions between conflicting differences balance into a stillness that lives and changes without disturbing a pervasive sense of immeasurable calm.

This is why those who experience a sense of the sacred can’t explain it — their epiphany can’t be rendered into separate components without destroying the sense of wholeness that pervades it. So those with a sense of the sacred seem to be motivated by a force outside the linear thought and logical reasoning that tries to connect individual pieces into conventional understanding. When separate parts keep dissolving into a wholeness that is bigger than explanations and even self, then the mystic has experienced the sacred. “To see a world in a grain of sand…,” wrote the 18th century English poet William Blake, “and eternity in an hour.”

Nature is most likely to elicit this sense of the sacred because it is the most consistent, authentic and ancient of all human experiences — we grew out of nature as a child grows out of its mother so the connective roots even precede our origin as a species. This is why the forests, lakes, rivers, stones and mountains of wilderness can elicit such powerful responses in some people. Their collective wholeness is a glimpse of the intelligence and wisdom that is our earliest beginning, our timeless history and our uncertain future.

The sacred that is experienced at one place on one occasion can dissolve obstructions and so allow it to happen anytime, anywhere. Differences disappear. The blade of grass becomes as large and miraculous as the mountain; the slow time of silence becomes as symphonic as the thunder of waves on beaches. The world sings and sighs its orchestral beauty just as it flashes and dances its exquisite shapes and forms. In moments of profound insight, we call it the sacred. But it’s really just the astounding beauty of ordinary nature that we have failed to notice.

Author Robert Bringhurst

Poetry, Questions and People


A writer and thinker of substance should leave more questions than answers. This is the case with Robert Bringhurst, the author of The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology (Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2008). Some of his questions are explicit and obvious, easily and quickly answered after moments of consideration. Others are implicit and subtle, reverberating silently and unanswered beneath the surface of the reader’s consciousness. But all these questions are relevant because each one is personal.

Even if these questions don’t have answers, they are still important in clarifying, growing and refining who we are. Do I understand these new ideas? Are they credible? How do they compare to what I already know? Do they make me feel comfortable or uncomfortable? How are they meaningful to me? How do they define me? How might they change me? These are some of the questions that arise from reading Bringhurst’s book.

Bringhurst is a linguist, typologist, poet, philosopher, historian and academic who thinks and writes in a crisp, insightful and precise style, a man who invariably leads readers into new and challenging but rewarding territory. This happens with particular poignancy in one chapter of The Tree of Meaning, “The Persistence of Poetry and the Destruction of the World”.

Bringhurst posits that a world war has been raging for two millennia. This war, which reached the New World with the arrival of the European colonialists, is between two kinds of people: “…those who think they belong to the world and those who think the world belongs to them.” The former are the polytheists, the poets, the native and pagan cultures that perceive the world as complex, organic, changing and mysterious. The latter are the politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists and theists, “all the devotees of the number one — one empire, one history, one market, or one God — and who nowadays insist on the preeminence of everyone for himself: the smallest number one of all.”

Everyone who encounters this idea should be asking questions — many questions about our personal values, our culture and our relationship with the natural world. Even more questions should arise from Bringhurst’s assessment of the essential problem confronting the world today. “The great danger is single-mindedness,” he writes, “reducing things to one perspective, one idea, one overriding rule.” Such a malaise is the systematic process of “reducing the world to human terms.”

This is our conquest of nature, the imposition of a single purpose in which the gods of complexity and mystery are displaced and replaced by the “homes and garages of human beings” — US housing starts fell from 2,000,000 in 2006 to 430,000 in 2012, the measure of a worrisome recession which fails to consider that all these homes mean occupied landscapes, levelled forests, consumed resources, and evicted species of resident plants and animals.

The etymology of “humanism”, Bringhurst points out in the chapter “The Vocation of Being”, seems to have come from “an archaic Indo-European word for earth. Latin humanus is related to English humus. A human is an earthling.” Bringhurst notes, “We are not the centre of the universe,” as we like to think, but are “earth-surface people” in the Navajo language. In Haida, we are also “surface people” and in their poetry become “ordinary surface birds”. If we were capable of diving beneath our surface understanding of nature by shedding our superficial capabilities and our self-centredness, we would “enter the world of myth,” writes Bringhurst, “and come back speaking poetry.”

Many may remember the question, “If a tree falls in the forest with no one there to hear it, does it make a sound or not?” Bringhurst’s answer is unequivocal. “The question is demented. If a tree falls in the forest, all the other trees are there to hear it. But if a man cuts down the forest and then cries that he has no food, no firewood, no shade, and that his mind can get no traction, who is going to hear him?”

“Poetry,” Bringhurst reminds us, “is the language of being: the breath, the voice, the song, the speech of being. It does not need us. We are the ones in need of it. If we haven’t learned to hear it, we will also never speak it.”

This poetry is the magic of life, the unanswered and unanswerable questions that are the mystery of being alive in the most incredible place in the universe. “And what does this poetry say?” Bringhurst asks. “It says that what-is is: that the real is real, and that it is alive. It speaks the grammar of being. It sings the polyphonic structure of meaning itself.”

Bringhurst quotes William Faulkner, the American novelist who, in his address upon receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949, noted that, “Mankind will not only survive, he will prevail.” Bringhurst respectfully begs to differ. “I think that his prediction is logically impossible. I think that if humanity survives, it can only be because it does not prevail, and that if we insist, like Ozymandias, on prevailing, we will surely not survive.”

So we return to Bringhurst’s statement about the world war that has been raging between two kinds of people for two millennia. Do we think we belong to the world or do we think the world belongs to us? Our answer to this question is becoming increasingly obvious and crucially important. Every time, without exception, that we have attempted to cast nature in our own image and turn it into the exclusive service of our needs, we have failed miserably — causing ruin to our surroundings and to ourselves. Or, to reiterate Bringhurst’s words, “reducing things to one perspective, one idea, one overriding rule” has invariably been a strategy for disaster.

Any questions?


The Weight of People


Behind the questions that people ask are assumptions that are often more revealing than the questions themselves. One of these revealing questions appeared in “Collected Wisdom”, a weekly newspaper column in which readers ask questions and various experts attempt to answer them (The Globe and Mail, Aug. 25/12). A certain reader named Adam “wonders how much mass the Earth has gained over the past 100 years through increased human population.” The question was answered by Dr. Scott M. Ramsay of the biology department at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.

“Assuming the average mass per person is 65 kilograms,” explains Dr. Ramsay, “the total mass of the human population [of seven billion] is about 455 million tonnes.” Since the population 100 years ago was 1.65 billion, their total mass of 107 million tonnes would have to be subtracted from the 455 million tonnes. “So the total mass of people on the planet has gone up about 348 million tonnes” since 1912. (A related but unasked question could be posed about the volume occupied by everyone on the planet. An unconfirmed statistic calculates that every human being in the world could be stacked like cordwood within the Grand Canyon — a troublesome species, when all gathered in one place, doesn’t actually occupy a lot of space.)

As for the direct answer to Adam’s question concerning the contribution of people to any increase in Earth’s mass over the last 100 years, Dr. Ramsay gently reminds him, “The answer to that is zero.”

He patiently explains that “the 348 million tonnes of new people came from an equivalent mass of food, water, oxygen and minerals that were already present on the planet.” The only relevant input from outside Earth has been sunlight. This solar radiation has been “captured by plants to convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrate for usable energy and other functions, which together with minerals (mostly nitrogen and phosphorus) combine to build proteins and other necessary components of life. Everything else was already here; it has just been relocated into the bodies of people.”

The revealing assumption underlying Adam’s question is the notion that we could have come from someplace other than Earth, that we are materialized here from another realm of existence. The assumption has a religious overtone, a suggestion that we expect ourselves to be different and more important than the ordinary dust and clay that lies beneath our feet. The assumption hints that we are not the same as all the other animals and plants with which we share a planet, and that humans are somehow exceptional, bestowed upon life’s living fabric as a special contribution.

Of course, Adam’s question could have been a simple mistake of scientific logic. It could have been a thoughtless and ill-considered impulse based on an innocent lapse of judgment. It could also have come from an assumption derived an ordinary ignorance. Except that such a faulty assumption resonates with so many other things we do on the planet that it seems to be more than just an innocuous slip. We often think of ourselves as different from the rest of life on Earth, as superior to nature’s ingenuity. And one powerful religious tradition does defines us as the divinely ordained custodians of Creation.

Underlying this elevated self-assessment of ourselves is the more basic attitude of detachment, the view that we are “in this world” but not “of this world”. This is an old argument first posed by early Christian theologians. Each person comes from Jehovah as an eternal soul, is implanted at conception in a temporal body, and lives there in confinement until released to Judgment at death. Arcane as this may seem from some modern perspectives, it is still alive in the subconscious of our culture, expressing itself as attempts to weigh the soul — how much weight does the body lose at the moment of dying — and as the essential theological justification for those opposing abortion and assisted suicide. Human life is controlled by a higher force than mere mortals and their imperfect laws. Adam’s mistake — that additional people on Earth actually increase its mass — is a logical extension of the assumptions rooted in this Christian perspective. It is also rooted in classical Greek philosophy, of which most Western thinking is a footnote.

The subterranean currents that move us to think and act in particular ways are actually much deeper and stronger than we usually realize. They reside in the complex, subliminal networks of our theology, philosophy, psychology and sociology. Nothing in human behaviour functions at face value. This is why the faulty assumption about more people increasing the mass of Earth is so revealing. The flawed assumption about the way we occupy Earth suggests that we are quite capable of assaulting our planet’s ecologies without noticing, acknowledging or even being capable of arresting our destructive behaviour.

The operative word is detachment. Too many of us think we are “in this world” but not “of this world”— it is also the failing of a wholly intellectual mind. We don’t consider that we are extensions of the world and, therefore, it is an extension of us. Instead, we think of the world as a place we visit but not as a place where we belong. Nature, like our physical bodies, is interpreted as inferior compared to the standards of perfection that exist in some theological and philosophical models. Consequently, what we do to the Earth has little moral significance if we are only passing through on our journey from one absolute to another. So we are not compelled to regard the destruction of our surroundings as a violation of something sacred. To think that we have an identity separate from Earth could be a fatal failing.

The historical undercurrents of theology, philosophy and their companion forces move so invisibly within us that they shape our deepest perceptions, our fundamental assumptions and finally our thoughtless behaviour. Sometimes, however, a patiently given scientific answer to a seemingly innocent question can move us to conscious awareness.