Gloom

The U.N. just issued a report saying that it’s unlikely that world leaders will meet emissions targets, meaning that it’s unlikely that we will be able to keep global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celcius.

In other words, we’re fucked. Because with Putin on a rampage, and United States political leadership tearing at each other like mad dogs, and China going down a rabbit hole of total control and authoritarianism, we’re seeing a total lack of leadership from three countries that actually could do something about climate change.

Putin’s strategy for ending the climate crisis appears to be starting a nuclear holocaust. America’s climate strategy appears to be declaring this a Christian nation (um, I guess God is going to bail us out?). China’s strategy appears to be ignoring it and hoping it goes away.

Actually, those leaders are all incredibly rich. They’re probably all assuming that they are rich enough to be able to insulate themselves from the worst effects of climate change.

For an adequate description of our world leaders, we need the words of a great poet. Like these words from the immortal Benny Hill (which I changed just a little tiny bit):

“Now if you’re feeling miserable, if you’re feeling blue,
Here’s a little ditty that’ll help to pull you through,
Climate change will disappear, the grey skies turn to blue:
Just stick your finger in your ear and go ting-a-ling-a-loo.

“Greta Thunberg said ‘Get your fingers out,’ and that cut us to the quick,
We took our fingers out, but it didn’t do the trick.
Now we follow our world leaders with all our might and main:
Be like Putin, Trump, and good ol’ Xi — and stick ’em back again!

“Yes, stick your finger in your ear and go ting-a-ling-a-loo,
Climate change ain’t real, just go ting-a-ling-a-loo,
Remember what George W. said in 2002:
Stick your finger in your ear and go ting…a…ling…a…loo!”

More on electric cars

Rabbi Yonatan Neril, founder of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and co-author of the Eco-Bible, adds another reason why electric cars won’t solve the ecological crisis:

“The ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis. It’s not just about nature and bees and the birds and the trees and the toads. It’s also about human beings and how we live as spiritual beings in a physical reality. And so, you know, with all due respect to Elon Musk and everyone buying a Tesla, we’re not going to curb climate change with Teslas alone — when the operating system of billions of people is consumer-driven.”

As Rabbi Neril points out, we’re not going to stop climate change by buying something new. In fact, buying an electric car is really just part of consumerism, the ideological myth that buying something new can solve our problems. Consumerism is the problem, not the solution. Rabbi Neril continues:

“The only force in the world that changes this operating system of consumerism is religion and spirituality. The root issues we’re talking about are greed, short-term thinking, egoism, seeking pleasure in the physical. The spiritual solutions to those are humility, long-term thinking, caring for other people and creatures. The only institutions in the world that can deliver that are religious institutions.”

Electric cars are not the solution to the world’s problems

Science fiction author and Scottish nationalist Charles Stross opines:

“I’m going to suggest that American automobile culture is fundamentally toxic and aggressively hegemonizing and evangelical towards other cultures, and needs to be heavily regulated and rolled back.”

Not to belabor the point, but while electric cars may help us address climate change, they still emit toxic substances (tires spewing microplastics into the environment, for example), and they also enable habitat destruction. Even when it comes to climate change, their carbon footprint is not zero.

(Why mention that Stross is a Scottish nationalist? Because that means he apparently hasn’t bought into the American mythos.)

Heat and humidity

The National Weather Service calls this “oppressive” heat and humidity. When I got up at 6:00 a.m., the temperature inside the house was 81 degrees Fahrenheit, and it was maybe two degrees cooler outside.

I went for a walk while it was still relatively cool. A light breeze was coming in off the water, just strong enough to blow the deer flies away. Down on the town beach, you could see maybe a few hundred yards out into Buzzard’s Bay — it wasn’t exactly fog, the air was just murky with moisture. There was no horizon: the gray water shaded into the gray murk which got slightly brighter as it shaded into the gray sky.

Double Crested Cormorants rest on rocks in Buzzard’s Bay

I walked slowly, stopping to look at the periwinkles slowly making their way along the sand, and at green seaweed (Ulva intestinalis?) waving in the water. Though I walked slowly, within a quarter of an hour I was drenched in sweat.

This heat humidity has been going on for weeks now, with only an occasional break. This is not the summer weather we had in New England twenty years ago. It feels more like summers in Philadelphia when I lived there in the 1980s. Or maybe even summers in the Deep South.

Scientists tell us that you can’t tell if climate change is happening based on one weather pattern of a few weeks. So OK, I’m willing to trust the scientists on this one. Nevertheless, this doesn’t feel like the New England weather I remember from the past. Maybe I’m just another old guy waxing nostalgic for lost youth. (Or maybe I’m just an old guy who can’t take the heat any more.) Then I read about the extreme heat in Europe this summer, and what I’m experiencing fits into a larger pattern. Climate change is happening.

Not only climate change

The BBC reports that toxic chemicals in the environment are just as big a threat as climate change:

“Chemical pollution has officially crossed “a planetary boundary”, threatening the Earth’s systems just as climate change and habitat loss are known to do. A recent study by scientists from Sweden, the UK, Canada, Denmark and Switzerland highlights the urgent need to turn off the tap at source. Many toxic chemicals, known as persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, don’t easily degrade. They can linger in the environment and inside us – mostly in our blood and fatty tissues – for many years.”

A couple of years ago, I heard a talk by Dr. Stuart Weiss, a field biologist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He identified five major threats to the life-supporting systems of planet Earth:

1. Global climate change
2. Land use change (including deforestation and habitat destruction)
3. Invasive organisms
4. Toxication (including solids, like plastics, as well as chemicals)
5. Overpopulation

I would add one more — nuclear war — for a total of six major threats to earth’s life-supporting systems.

Upper middle class Americans have focused on climate change as the major environmental threat. But even if we solve the climate change problem, any combination of the other five threats would also lead to a “great extinction.” This is why having everyone buy an electric car is not going to fix looming environmental disaster. My guess is that major systemic change is needed, probably involving replacing capitalism with an economic system that is not a-moral (or immoral).

The biggest environmental threat in California?

Here’s another environmental threat to keep you up at night:

“Nitrogen deposition and pollution is [a] more acute threat than climate change. … [But] few people are paying attention.” — Dr. Stuart Weiss, Chief Scientist of Creekside Science.

Weiss’s key paper on Bay Area nitrogen deposition, written while he was at Stanford, has a great title: Cars, Cows, and Checkerspot Butterflies: Nitrogen Deposition and Management of Nutrient-Poor Grasslands for a Threatened Species (Conservation Biology, v. 13 no. 6, Dec. 1999, pp. 1476–1486).

I’m listening to Weiss talk to the California Naturalist class I’m taking right now. Weiss makes some interesting points: Smog does an amazing amount of damage, not only to human lungs but also to non-human organisms. Non-native grasses are big contributors to the increase in pollen in recent times. Free-range cattle on California grasslands can keep non-native invasive grass species under control, providing habitat for endangered species as well as reducing allergens.

Update

The past couple of weeks have been a wild ride for me.

At work, this is always the busiest time of year because we’re getting ready for a new school year. This year is busier than usual because so many things have to be moved online. Fortunately, we were able to delay the start of Sunday school classes till after Labor Day, but even with that there’s a lot to be done.

The weather has been crazy. We had thunderstorms last week that lit wildfires all around us, and now just about the whole state of California is covered in a big smoke cloud. There are fires burning to our south — they’ve closed Highway 1 south of Half Moon Bay down to Santa Cruz because of the fires — and fires burning to our east, and fires burning to our north. There’s smoke everywhere. At its worst, the AQI peaked at over 400 in our area, then we had a couple of clear days, and now the AQI is up to about 150. Here’s a recent screenshot of fire.airnow.gov. Density of smoke plumes is indicated by the darkness of the gray overlays; the little squares and circles are AQI monitors, with green being healthy, yellow moderate, orange unhealthy, and purple hazardous; then the little flame icons show locations of fires, and the little glowing dots are potential fires from satellite imagery:

And now we have a Red Flag Warning — a warning for high danger of potential fires — because of a forecast of the possibility of more dry lightning over the next four days. Someone recently asked what a Red Flag Warning means. For me, it means: double-check your go-bag, then place it by the front door because you may only get 30 minutes warning to evacuate. Ah yes; the joys of living in a world dominated by global climate change.

Then if that’s not enough, I’ve been sitting too long at the computer — because, of course, when you work at home you have to spend hours and hours sitting in front of your computer — and my foot muscles got all cramped up; so much so that it’s actually painful to walk. I didn’t even know that could happen to my feet.

Pandemic, wildfires, and job. It would be easy to get discouraged, but I look at it this way — at least I get to work indoors.

Wild weather

Before we went to bed Saturday night, we saw a couple of flashes of distant thunder. The National Weather Service had said that moist air from a tropical storm to the south was being driven up the Pacific coast by a big, hot high pressure system parked over the southwest, and they had predicted the possibility of thunder and lightning. Since this is the Bay Area, where we hardly ever get thunder and lightning, and what we do get is inconsequential, we thought that was the end of it.

We were awakened at half pst three by lightning flashes and loud thunder and wild wind and — could it be? — the sound of rain. It never rains in the Bay Area in August, but this sounded like real rain. Then the power went out. We got up, and went around closing windows. I stood out on the back steps for a moment, just so I could feel some raindrops.

The power was still out when we awoke on Sunday morning. That meant the huge cemetery gate that closes every evening wouldn’t open. I had to open it so I could drive to work. The hand crank was missing, meaning I was stuck inside until the cemetery staff showed up. And of course it started raining again while I was out there.

Since then, it’s been muggy — by Bay Area standards, muggy means relative humidity of about 60% — and partly cloudy — we hardly ever get real clouds in August, just high fog. It feels like the New England summer days I’m used to. It’s very pleasant. I just wish we’d get another thunderstorm, but I know that’s too much to ask.

UU youth climate activist

Lorraine forwarded an article from a local newspaper about the Silicon Valley Youth Climate Strike, which is organizing a march on Friday, September 20. Lorraine and I are co-directors of Ecojustice Camp, an annual week-long ecology camp run from the UU Church of Palo Alto, and Lorraine noticed that Peri Platenberg, one of the co-organizers of the march, is a junior counselor at Ecojustice Camp. Peri is also a member of the UU Fellowship of Sunnyvale. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the article:

“One of our main goals is to make sure that we combat environmental racism,” Plantenberg said. “It’s traditionally a very whitewashed movement. We make it a priority to take a look at who is around us and make sure that we are including different ethnicities and different types of people.”

Read the full article here.

A letter about learning and salvation

Dear Mark,

You ask us to write a “Letter to Mark,” in which we are to talk about what we learned during the week-long course at Ferry Beach. You also invite us to post this on some public forum — Facebook, a congregational newsletter, a blog, etc. — and so I am posting this to my blog before I even send it to you. But before I address the issues you ask about, I have to begin by talking about one or two big problems that overshadow liberal religion right now, in this moment in history; those problems will require some theology; and after doing some theology I will finally address the issues you ask about, what I learned at Ferry Beach and how what I learned is shaping my own praxis and my own spiritual journey.

A big problem that we religious liberals face right now is whether science has made religion outdated. Science and technology hold out great promise for improving human life, and indeed they have accomplished many things already: science and technology have cured many diseases, extended our life spans, made it possible to feed many more people so that fewer need to go hungry, and so on. Perhaps liberal religion is now outdated, for what could religion offer to compare with the accomplishments of science and technology? On the other hand, science and technology have also created some horrors: atomic bombs, chemicals that have caused damage to us and other organisms, and a massive miasma of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that threatens the long-term survival of large mammals (including human beings). Perhaps science and technology are not an unmitigated good; in which case, does religion have something to offer a world that is both enriched by scientific wonders and technological marvels, and endangered by scientific and technological horrors?

To put all this another way: science and technology investigate the world and make things, but they don’t judge what they learn or make. Richard Feynman, a physicist who worked at Los Alamos during the Second World War, made this clear when he talked about his excitement at helping design and build the first atomic bomb: “You see, what happened to me — what happened to the rest of us — is we started for a good reason, and then you’re working very hard to accomplish something and it’s a pleasure, it’s excitement. And you stop thinking [about the consequences of what you’re doing], you know; you just stop.” (1) If scientists have stopped thinking, then who is thinking, who’s calling the shots, who or what is determining what is right and what is wrong? Continue reading “A letter about learning and salvation”