Time To Restore Confidence In Evidence-Based Science – Avi Loeb

[This is an Abstract* of an article in Salon.com dated 13 February 2021: Editor’s note]

Immunology and alien-hunting require the same scientific methods. Scientists aren’t articulating this very well.

From astronomy to immunology, it’s time to restore confidence in evidence-based science.

The widespread availability of an FDA-approved vaccine for COVID-19 will not ensure its consumption by the public. This is reflective of a broad cultural problem — there is a deep undercurrent of mistrust, especially of elites, running through American society today — but it also echoes a cultural problem in the world of science, specifically. Americans of all stripes have come to regard scientists as part of the elite, in part because they have sequestered themselves in an ivory tower, saturated with ambition for academic honors and consumed with sterile intellectual gymnastics. Much of current scientific culture focuses on nuances whose sole purpose is to garner their researchers higher academic status by impressing colleagues, rather than serving the public’s interest or carrying any practical relevance for our daily life. This state of affairs is particularly apparent in my field: the world of physics.  For instance, in theoretical physics, a phalanx of untestable notions—about the multiversehypothesized extra dimensions, the idea that we live in a simulation, and the argument that there is no need for experimental evidence to justify the string theory strategy in unifying quantum mechanics and gravity—occupy centerstage. At the same time, there is a taboo on an open discussion of certain common-sense questions, such as whether there are other intelligent civilizations in outer space and whether our civilization is the smartest kid on the galactic block. ….When the first interstellar object, ‘Oumuamua, was glimpsed passing through our solar system in October of 2017, scientists quickly agreed that it was weird on half-a-dozen counts: it had a flattened shape with extreme proportions never seen before among comets or asteroids, an unusual initial velocity, and a shiny appearance; it lacked a cometary tail, but nevertheless it exhibited  a push away from the Sun not explainable by gravity. However, despite these anomalies, the mainstream scientific community immediately declared business as usual and decreed the object to have been an unusual asteroid or comet—albeit one that was unlike any asteroid or comet seen before. The response brought to mind a kid who has encountered many cats at home and, upon visiting the zoo and seeing an elephant, simply assumes it to be an unusual cat. Such naivete is charming in a child; it is less tolerable in a scientist. We ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard, I felt — so several months after ‘Oumuamua was first sighted, I suggested that its weirdness may imply that it was a product of an alien technology, possibly a thin sail pushed by sunlight. (Our own civilization has dreamed of such a perfect spacefaring technology for decades, and I had recently helped to design a prototype of one for the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative, an effort—supported by earthbound innovators and dreamers such as Yuri Milner—to reach our closest neighboring star within our lifetimes.) ………………. I first articulated this hypothesis in a commentary that I published in Scientific American; I subsequently quantified it in a scientific paper with my postdoc, Shmuel Bialy. Although far from the most speculative thing I have ever published — indeed, in comparison to some of my research on dark matter, the paper was rather tame — it generated quite a fuss. It was accepted for publication within a few days of its submission to The Astrophysical Journal Letters. It became the only paper I know of to have been quoted verbatim on both CNN and Fox News, and to have inspired a new brand of wine (“Cuvée ‘Oumuamua” by Bonny Doon). And judging by my inbox, it has stirred a great deal of interest in people far beyond the rarefied halls of academia. But my idea also generated an impulsive pushback within the scientific mainstream. Some scientists expressed a strong opinion on Twitter based on prejudice without studying the evidence. It would have been better if they had followed the advice of basketball coaches: “keep your eyes on the ball and not the audience”.  After all, by siding with the mainstream during Galileo Galillei‘s days, we would have given justification to placing him in house arrest rather than looking through his telescope. This would clearly be in contradiction to our current support of evidence-based science. Reality does not go away if you ignore it. …………….. Yet my colleagues at the forefront of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence seem to have forgotten this fundamental scientific principle. In contrast to its cool reception in the scientific community, SETI hits a nerve in the general public. There lies a paradox: the public pays taxes that support science and is more eager to know the answer to the question: “are we alone?” than: “are WIMPs the dark matter?”, not to speak about supporting speculative notions of “extra dimensions” or the “multiverse”, which have no reality check to their credit. Ironically, indeed, the reason that physicists enjoy freedom is that their blue-sky mainstream used had practical impact. The stable funding of physics stemmed from Vannevar Bush’s vision of “The Endless Frontier” after the demonstrated relevance of the Manhattan Project to society. Why would the mainstream scientific community shy away from the public’s interests and focus on esoteric questions that have little relevance to the layperson? Are scientists supposed to hide behind the opaque technical walls of a self-sustained bubble and ignore the public that funds their research? Previous generations of physicists understood that when evidence is incomplete, we have to live with scientific uncertainty and consider multiple interpretations of the available data. I fear that physicists today, like their oft-disparaged counterparts in the SETI community, have forgotten this important principle. Nowhere in science is this failure clearer, in my opinion, than in the scientific community’s response to the half-dozen anomalies displayed by the first interstellar object that we have discovered. A scientist must go where the evidence is—but too often, our scientists do not. I do have hope for the future, however. My optimism stems from raising my young daughters, who have no inhibitions in exploring the truth; this is why they learned so much over the short term of their childhood. Perhaps scientists should behave more like kids. Mistakes are an inevitable part of our learning experience as students of mother nature, humbled by the fact that its splendor often exceeds our imagination. ……………………………………. Science is a never-ending work in progress. We show integrity by entertaining multiple possible interpretations of evidence to the public. The new generation of innovators should not be held hostage by the mistakes of the past. After standing in line at the bank, I never hear the cashier saying that I am not allowed to cash my check because the customer ahead of me had an overdraft. We should examine each case based on its own merit. Scientists could regain the public’s trust by being straightforward about the inevitable roller-coaster of trial and error associated with innovation — whether it be the search for a vaccine for COVID-19 or the search for technological signatures of other civilizations.  Rather than pretending to know the outcome in advance, we should admit what we do not know and study all possible interpretations, so that the public will believe our robust conclusions when new evidence brings clarity. ……………………………….. [Note by editor: If this abstract has whetted your appetite to read the whole article (about twice the length of this abstract) do go to this issue of salon.com]
AVI LOEB

Avi Loeb is the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011-2020), founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative and director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He also chairs the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies and the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He is the author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth”.


*Abstract noun ab·​stract | \ ˈab-ˌstrakt  , in sense 2 also ab-ˈstrakt  \Definition of abstract (Entry 2 of 3)1: summary of points (as of a writing) usually presented in skeletal form; alsosomething that summarizes or concentrates the essentials of a larger thing or several things

The Gift Of ‘Seeing Ourselves As Others See Us*’ by Judy McDowell

Once upon a time, on the planet Earth, some school children arrived from the planet Pop. They were on a trip to Earth to see what it was like, and to see what good and bad points its inhabitants had. They had been asked to investigate and make notes of things they thought were being done that were good, and those which they thought were bad. Good ideas could be used on Pop, and things that proved to be bad they could learn to avoid.

“Children!” called one of the teachers. “Now don’t forget, the species in charge here on Earth are quite like us. Their species name is ‘human’. They have two legs like us, but don’t forget they only have two arms, so don’t scream the first time you see one because you think a pair of arms have fallen off.”

The children laughed.

“Only a few people on Pop understand their language, so don’t worry that you won’t. Best to keep hidden and avoid trying to communicate with them. They have faces like ours, and apparently, they smile as we do. So, if you come across any and they look alarmed, just smile, then scarper. OK?”

“Miss,” called one of the children. “Will they eat us? “

“Do they eat each other?” asked another child.

“I heard they did!” announced a third.

“Children! No!” the teacher broke in. “They don’t eat each other, so I’m sure they won’t want to eat you. Just smile, and they may think you’re one of them!”

“But they eat some of the species on the planet, don’t they, Miss? “Yes, they do. They are a primitive bunch. They don’t seem to recognise that some species are alive, just like they are, and have feelings, and have the right to live too,” the teacher explained.

“Eurgh!” laughed several children at once. After a bit more reassurance, the children split into two groups and went off to investigate this different world, with a teacher in charge of each team. It wasn’t long before one team spotted a couple of humans in the distance, so they ducked down behind a hedge. “What’s that creature with the humans, Miss?” asked one child. “That’s a dog,” she informed them. “Humans like to live with dogs, although not all of them do. They are pets. The humans here have pets like we do.” Another child asked, “Do they eat their pets?” “No. Although sometimes they keep animals at their homes and eat them, but mostly the animals they eat are kept on farms.” “Do the animals eat their other food, you know, the stuff they grow?” “Some of it,” explained the teacher. “They grow certain crops for the edible animals to eat in the wintertime, when there is not so much natural food about for them, and in other places they grow food plants for themselves.”

One of the children giggled. “That’s a bit daft, isn’t it? They use part of a farm to keep the animals, and another part to grow the animals’ food. So they don’t have so much room left to grow their own food. Or do they have huge farms here and don’t have to worry about how much space they use up?” “No,” said the teacher. “Their land is quite precious. It’s a bit in short supply. Like on Pop they need to grow plants as part of their eco-system. And of course, it’s nice to have plenty of open space. But they still have to build places to live, and they have roads, a bit like we do.”

“They’re silly, these humans!”, a thoughtful child spoke up. “If they didn’t eat animals, which is yucky anyway, they would have more land for their own food, or their homes, or roads, or just for nature!”

The teacher brought a writing pad out of her bag and tapped out the child’s name. “Very good”, she said. “We can make that our first point of something the people of Earth do that is bad, or silly. They would not be so short of land if they didn’t eat animals.”

“Miss, is it like on Pop where the animals and the humans breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide?” “Just like on Plop,” said the teacher with a smile. “That’s why we are able to breathe here.”

Another child asked, “Do their plants make oxygen like ours do? “Yes.”

“And use up carbon dioxide?” “Yes. So, animals and plants need each other to survive, just like on Pop.”

“They’re even more daft, then,” said one of the children. “They let their animals use up oxygen and let off carbon dioxide, and then they just eat them. They’d be better just growing plants to eat, because while they are growing, they’re also making oxygen and get rid of the carbon dioxide!”

“Very true,” agreed the teacher, writing it down. “That’s another point we can add, another bad (or silly) thing!”

Meanwhile the other team and their teacher had gone in a different direction. “What’s that over there?” asked one of the children. “That? Oh, I think that’s a power station,” replied the teacher. “What’s a power station?” the same child asked. “Well, they use electricity mostly as energy for all their machines, and lighting and so on. You know about electricity?” “Yes.” “Of course.”

“They use it like we do, but we mostly use hydrogen. They make electricity from coal and gas and oil,” said the teacher. “Why is it so smoky and stinky?” the children asked. “They are making the electricity from burning the coal and gas and oil.” “That’s bonkers!” exclaimed the children. “Why don’t they just make it from the sun or the wind or the waves?” “They are only just learning how to do that,” replied the teacher. “How strange.” “That’s something we can put on our list, isn’t it? A bad thing. They use energy from some things, to make energy to use elsewhere!” The teacher said, making a note. “And it pollutes the air, doesn’t it? It’s stinky. I would cough if I was nearer it,” a child observed, and others agreed.

In the distance the children spotted a lorry. One of them asked, “Has that lorry just come from the stinky place. Did it get charged up with the electricity they’re making there?” “No,” said the teacher. “They have charging places, a bit like ours. But it probably isn’t even run by electricity. It’s probably fuelled by diesel or petrol, which is made from oil. You’d be able to smell it if we were a bit closer.” “It’s a good job there aren’t many about!” exclaimed one of the children.“Ah! Now children, I think both groups better go and visit a motorway!”

The children and their teachers returned to the planet Pop and regaled the other children with their findings that Earth was both stinky and irrational – and they were right!


*From the last verse of Robert Burns’ poem ‘To A Louse‘:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us 
To see oursels as ithers see us! 
It wad frae mony a blunder free us, 
An' foolish notion: 
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us, 
An' ev'n devotion!

Climate: Likely Failure Of COP26 Is An International Disgrace – Ian Franks

grass, roots and soil on white background

Climate change may be the most serious disaster to threaten our global environment and rightly concerns everyone capable of looking beyond today and tomorrow.

However, this is not helped by the likely failureof the impending United Nations conference on the subject, being held in Glasgow at the end of October.

COP 26, as it is known, is the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP, get it?) being held from October 31 to November 12.

The aim of COP26 is, supposedly, to bring together various parties to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Not that all is going to plan:

“…the UN, the UK hosts and other major figures involved in the talks have privately admitted that the original aim of the Cop26 summit will be missed, as the pledges on greenhouse gas emissions cuts from major economies will fall short of the halving of global emissions this decade needed to limit global heating to 1.5C.”

The Guardian, September 27 2021

That’s not just disappointing, it is an international disgrace

Of course, as important as the issue of climate change is, and with it the whole matter of global warming, there are many more immediate concerns for, if I dare to say it, the majority of British people.

The harsh reality of Brexit is probably the key issue with even some who backed ‘leave’ saying words to the effect of ‘this is not the Brexit I voted for’.

Covid-19 continues to decimate the country, albeit at a slower pace but the threat of Delta and other variants loom large and cannot be ignored.

Immigration still rates highly in the British mindset, but now it is more likely to be coloured by Afghanis fleeing the Taliban rather than EU free movement.

And these are just three issues likely to be thought more important than climate change.

Of course, like the crazy holocaust deniers, there are those who don’t believe there is a problem or, at least, not one that is man-made.

Strangely, the well-known and once-popular botanist and TV personality Dr David Bellamy expounded this view. Indeed, in 2008, he described climate change is “poppycock”. Dr Bellamy died in December 2019.

Despite such weird distractions, the vast wight of evidence and scientific opinion is that climate change is far from poppycock. It is real, it is here, and desperately needs a joined-upped global response – and needs it NOW.

And that brings us back to COP 26.

It is being held in Glasgow, so the UK must be leading the way, right? No, far from it.

Britain is chairing this particular summit, led by PM Johnson who said, in 2015, “global leaders were driven by a primitive fear that the present ambient warm weather is somehow caused by humanity; and that fear – as far as I understand the science – is equally without foundation”.

Since then, though, Boris has told lie after lie, including those used to drag us into leaving the EU, becoming prime minister and into, but as yet not out of, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, as we prepare for the Glasgow summit, he says: “The fact is the UK is leading the world and you should be proud of it.”

Now that is poppycock, to put it politely.

We Lib Dems held our autumn conference online in September and I felt privileged to witness a passionate debate on this very subject.

I won’t get into the nitty gritty of every last detail which will, I am sure, be done by others. But I will say that I thought the debate was excellent and those who took part spoke with obvious expertise, enthusiasm, and authority.

Conference agreed that the party should call on the government, as chair of COP26, to carry out a raft of activities designed to make the world safer by taking real action to combat climate change.

Being just days away from the great gathering, what are we likely to see? Doubtless there will be some agreement that won’t mean a lot but will be hyped up as a major announcement of the great success of COP26 with Boris Johnson being portrayed to the British people as an environmental superhero. A green-clad caped crusader comes to mind. Perish the thought.

My concern, though, is that after the Paris Agreement, and now 26 global conferences, we have fine pledges to reduce carbon emissions and lower our use of fossil fuels, and so on, but Britain and many other countries are not on target to meet then.

The real worry is that people don’t know enough to worry or even be bothered. For too long green politics has had a ‘new age’ image of protesters facing developers or pipeline builders. Today, environmental issues have moved into the mainstream of British politics but are still seen by many people as new age and environmental protagonists as ‘green nuts’.

Ian Franks

Ian Franks

Why Should We Care About The Environment? by Jamie Woodhouse

From the Sentience page on You Tube of Graham Bessellieu by kind permission of Graham

Nearly everyone cares about the environment, even if most people still don’t care enough. As well as asking “do we care?” it’s also important to ask ourselves why we care about the environment. Our answers might determine its future and ours.

One way of thinking this through is to consider our scope of moral consideration – our moral “circle”. What sorts of things should we care about morally? Which types of things and beings matter? One menu we can choose from spans the “centrisms”: anthropocentrism; sentiocentrism; biocentrism and ecocentrism.

An anthropocentric worldview focuses on humans as the beings that matter. An anthropocentrist would care about the environment because us humans need it to survive and to thrive. We value the light, water, food, shelter, energy and resources the environment provides for us, our children and future generations. We also enjoy the aesthetic experiences of being in an environment we’ve evolved to find pleasant. There are supernatural versions of anthropocentrism that focus on humans mattering morally because they have souls, are made in the image of deities or because we have been given dominion over other beings and the earth. There are also naturalistic versions, such as Humanism, which calls for universal compassion for all humans by appealing to solidarity and commonality within our species. However, under scrutiny, this anthropocentric view seems too limited. First, a short-sighted version of anthropocentrism is often blamed for the damage we have done to the environment – ravaging it for our immediate needs with scant thought for the future. Second, we already go beyond anthropocentrism by granting moral consideration to some non-human animals (often our companions and charismatic wild animals) largely because we know they can suffer and flourish and because we see that as morally important. Surely not only human suffering matters.

sentiocentric worldview addresses that challenge head on and suggests that all sentient beings should matter morally. Sentience is the capacity to have experiences – particularly to suffer (experience bad things) or to flourish (experience good things). The naturalistic (non-supernatural) version of sentiocentrism is sometimes called Sentientism, which I summarise as “evidence, reason and compassion for all sentient beings.” In this worldview, the environment matters because of its importance to all sentient beings – both those living now and those that will live in the future. Those beings include us human animals but also our companion animals, farmed animals and those that live in the wild. It might, one day, even include artificial or even alien sentient beings should we create or encounter them. Many people agree with this worldview in principle (of course animal suffering matters!), but balk at its practical implications for the farming, fishing and exploitation of sentient animals us human animals have come to see as normal.

Biocentrism goes even further and suggests we should grant moral consideration to all living things, so including animals, fungi and plants. Ecocentrism takes yet another step and demands moral consideration for living and non-living parts of the environment, often including abstract concepts like ecosystems, habitats, species and even Gaia – the idea that our entire planet is a type of self-regulating system, even an organism. While these worldviews might seem the most closely aligned with environmental concern, they too have problems. First, they risk prioritising things that we’re pretty sure can’t suffer (rivers, plants, ecosystems, populations, species) over beings we’re confident can suffer (like wild or farmed animals). Second, many of those who claim an ecocentric view still exclude many obviously sentient beings, both farmed and wild, from their moral consideration. That undermines their claimed moral expansiveness and exposes their environmental concern as a narrowly human one – a thin veneer over the anthropocentrism we discussed above. Third, if we genuinely cared about entire planetary systems in their own right, why would we care in particular about Earth and not any one of the other planets? The answer, of course, is that Earth is where all the sentient beings we are aware of live. Maybe many ecocentrists are really anthropocentrists or sentiocentrists deep down. Maybe ecosystems only really matter if they support human beings or other beings that can suffer.

We might wonder if it matters why we care about the environment – as long as we do care. After all, there is much common ground between these different perspectives. A healthy environment can be good for ecosystems, plants, humans and all other sentient beings. However, it’s important that our morality focuses very clearly on what should really matter – neither drawing our scope of moral consideration too narrowly or too wide. For me and millions of other Sentientists what matters morally is the suffering and flourishing, the life and death of every sentient being. Taking a Sentientist worldview seriously has radical implications for how we human animals live our lives, for example in transitioning to end all sentient animal farming, fishing and exploitation. Deciding to do just that would have powerful benefits for our environment, for us human sentients and for all the sentient non-human animals we share this planet with. That universal compassion for every suffering being, allied with a naturalistic, scientific approach, is what should drive our environmentalism.

Let’s care about the environment for the right reasons and act to restore it using evidence, reason and compassion.


Find out more about Sentientism here: YouTube  Podcast Sentientism.info FAQ Community (all welcome!)

Jamie works to develop the Sentientism worldview, raise awareness of the idea and build global communities and movements around it. Sentientism is “evidence, reason and compassion for all sentient beings”. Jamie is a consultant, a coach and works on a range of non-profit projects related to the Sentientism worldview.

www.jamiewoodhouse.com
https://sentientism.info/, https://twitter.com/sentientism, https://www.facebook.com/groups/sentientism/

A Flight Of Fancy? by Richard South

A number of years ago I looked out of the window and thought I was ‘seeing things’. There, hovering by a hanging basket, was what appeared to be the minutest hummingbird. More than surprising, as hummingbirds don’t occur in the wild in Europe, let alone in England. I didn’t get a long or close look before it disappeared at high-speed and I decided it had to have been a butterfly. It was flying and feeding via its long, uncoiled tongue in bright sunshine. Wrong again! It was a hummingbird hawk-moth (of which I had never heard).

Writing this, I could be taken as an impostor. A former Richard South (1846–1932) was a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society who wrote about butterflies and moths and it was from one of his books (which were being reprinted as late as 1980) that I learnt more about what I had seen. My namesake described it as a day-flyer, which ‘delights’ in sunshine, although it could be seen on the wing quite late in the evening and had even been seen hovering and probing flowers in pouring rain. It likes a wide range of blossoms, including jasmine and verbena.

He described migration from more southerly parts of Europe as the most likely source of the moth in Britain. That is now accepted, although it is suspected that it may also be resident in this country. It is widespread in India, China, Korea and Japan as well as parts of the U.S. It can be seen flying from May to September but sightings may rarely occur throughout the year. Locations and timings of sightings seem to have changed over the years, associated perhaps with climate change.

It was first described in 1758 by Carl Linnaeus and its scientific name is Macroglossum stellatarum (Long-tongued, with starry markings on the abdomen) . The adult is said to live for about seven months and can achieve speeds up to 12 mph – making it one of the world’s fastest insects. Its wingspan is slightly under two inches. The brown forewings and orange hindwings are seen as a hazy blur in flight. The forewings are described as having dark stripes – but I have yet to see these as I have only ever seen the moth in flight and the rapidity of wingbeat is phenomenal. The wings produce a hum which is audible to some – I have yet to hear it. This July I had my best and most prolonged opportunity of observing the hawk-moth – lasting some 18 minutes. During this time,it flew continuously, never alighting – hence I still have not seen the stripes on the forewings.

Image by Igor Batenev via Shutterstock

Trying to photograph them is a little like trying to get a sharp picture of an aircraft propeller. I have found watching the hawk-moth almost mesmerising. Its body appears totally motionless in the air, surrounded by its halo of blurred wings, with its ‘tongue’, which is longer than its body, uncoiled and placed precisely in even the smallest of flowers. When it moves off to another flower, it can do so in any direction and it leaves me marvelling at its precise flight control.

A flight of fancy? No, this is real, a joy to behold and has rightly been described as a masterpiece of Mother Nature.

Richard South, (thumbnail courtesy of Andover Advertiser) has lived in north-west Hampshire for many years, where he is known for his interest in amateur dramatics, astronomy, the Church, cycling and the well-being of the natural world, including his fellow human beings.

Left Brain Or Right Brain: Reacting To The Climate Crisis by Verdura

Is your first reaction to another news story about the Climate Crisis to emulate the subject of Munch’s Scream? Science now tells us that there is no meaningful division between the left and right hemispheres of our brain, between analytical and creative/emotional. And yet the idea persists, at least as a metaphor. We all know some people whose immediate reaction to a problem is to draw up a decision matrix. And others who react by listening to music, looking at art, or just staring out of the window, waiting for an inspirational muse. The world of science already caters for those who learn and function primarily through logic and quadratic equation, building block by building block. But the Climate Crisis (as shorthand for the multilayered ecological problems that now face us) is of such gravity that we now need also to bring on board those who are primarily ‘right-brained’ in order for us to react in tandem to mitigate it. Another way of saying this is that Yang and Yin are both needed, a function of dualism. Hence the creation of Greeneralia. Are you suffering from Generational/General* Dread? And yes, it is a thing:
 Almost overnight, I’d turned into that annoying person who manages to bring up climate trauma in every discussion. And when I cried about the climate, it was real deep grief, like someone I loved had died. I also felt new levels of rage and scorn for people who didn’t seem to care about ecocide…. …there is nothing pathological about feeling eco-anxious; how psychiatric trauma sets in after fast moving climate disasters and slower moving ecological events; how social injustice – the kernel of climate change – affects emotional wellbeing; what individuals can do to cope when the dark scientific data in their head takes over; why the secret sauce for emotional resilience lies in community ties; and what kinds of system overhaul are needed to climate-proof the mental health system. Dr Britt Wray
Dr Wray writes not only about individual ecological angst but also about how we can harness that angst in the interest of community and our collective future. Watch her TED Talk on ‘How Climate Change Affects Your Mental Health’ For me, just looking at that expression of quiet determination on her face gives me some confidence that there may be a way out of our global pool of tears. Not just determination, but Kenneth Clark’s ‘Smile of Reason’?

Things You Can Do

-Follow the various links to find more about Dr Wray and her contribution to ‘wellbeing’ in the ecological sense. -Follow her on Twitter here and get a sense of her journey by scrolling back through her tweets -See whom she follows? I, for instance, discovered Daniel Rubin, who has the deceptively simple tag in a tweet:
Find Community & Reject Doomism: Tell Others To Do The Same

* Dr Wray is presumably intending us to read ‘Gen Dread’ as Generation Dread, (cf Generation X, Y etc). For Boomers like myself and others of previous generations, I hope she will not mind my including ourselves in this way as we of course share the dread. In fact, since the situation is unlikely to improve in our lifetimes, our situation is possibly worse – our hope lies in working for a future we shall not see.

Hot Off The Press, July 2021

The Climate Crisis Is a Call to Action. These 5 Steps Helped Me Figure Out How to Be of Use BY KATHARINE WILKINSON JULY 19, 2021 Dr. Katharine Wilkinson is an author, teacher, co-founder of The All We Can Save Project, and co-host of the podcast A Matter of Degrees. Her books on climate include All We Can SaveThe Drawdown Review, Drawdown, and Between God & Green.
Anyone who spends their days working to address the climate crisis, as I do, hears this question again and again: What can I do? On the one hand, the question brings me joy: so many people want to help, to be part of fixing the mess we’re in. On the other hand, I find myself feeling twitchy. That’s because I hear in the question a craving for simple answers to an enormously complex challenge—but even more so because I feel responsible for providing a good answer. Science tells us that wholesale transformation of society is urgent. I want all minds, hearts, and hands to be able to make their best contributions, and I understand the agony that not knowing how can brew.

I follow Dr Lertzman on twitter at @reneelertzman· Her pinned tweet, which introduces this TED talk, is “How do you feel about our planet situation? Do you feel a mix of complicated emotions? What does a pandemic do to our climate anxiety?”
Dr. Elizabeth Sawin @bethsawin· What might it look like to respond to our crises with a different worldview than the one that created them? A few months ago, thanks to an invitation from Oregon State Univ. I shared some of my answers to that questions. #multisolving In this talk, Elizabeth Sawin, co-founder and co-director of Climate Interactive, presents “Multisolving Our Way Forward: COVID-19, Health, Justice, and Climate
Another eco-heroine (and I am not deliberately limiting my choice to women, it is just that they are leaders in the field we are looking at this month. You know, all that yin) is Dr Katherine Hayhoe. Her bookSaving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World is due to be published on 21 September. Her website has a link to numerous video clips of her and she tweets as @KHayhoe. She has 185k followers on twitter, where she describes herself as ‘Climate scientist, Chief Scientist @nature_org, polisci professor, knitter, pastor’s wife, @joinsciencemoms. UN Champion of the Earth’

Revive Our World has launched a petition which you might like to sign:

Nature is in crisis.Join our campaign and demand legally binding targets to Revive our World.
“In 2020 the importance of having nature in our lives has never been clearer, but the crisis facing nature is huge. So huge that our wellbeing, our economic future, and our very survival depend on the choices we make now. If everyone works together, we have time to turn it around. And when we say everyone, we mean everyone. We need politicians with the power to make big changes to help us build the world we want to live in.” They are calling for: -Laws that protect wildlife and green space for people and nature. -An economic recovery that prioritises green jobs, infrastructure and sustainability. -Global agreements committed to solving the climate and nature crisis. -Farming practices and food production that’s also good for the environment.

Have you caught up with Green New Deal yet?

The Green New Deal is our map to a future worth fighting for.
This decade is a fork in the road for humanity. We’ve been following one path for decades, guided by rules written by people who do not have our interests at heart – CEOs, politicians, and the elite defending their own wealth and power. To survive, we have to forge a new path for our economy to protect and build the things people really care about: things like health, fairness and community.
You can read their latest updates here.
Do you know the Plant Life website? “Every Flower Counts [ran from] Saturday 10th to Sunday 18th July! Simply count the number of flowers in a square metre patch of lawn and we’ll tell you how much nectar they’re producing and how many bees they’ll feed with your own Personal Nectar Score. If you did the survey last May, you’ll probably find your lawn is now home to more flowers – especially clover and selfheal – and producing more nectar at this time of year. And you’re likely to spot more pollinators such as bees and butterflies too. When it comes to providing vital nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies and other insects, every flower counts. And your lawn can help provide that feast. The more wild flowers you have in your lawn the more nectar will be produced. If you took part in #NoMowMay, #LetItBloomJune or haven’t mown at all this year, you’re likely to have many more wild flowers and lots more nectar. From your results, we’ll calculate a National Nectar Index to show how lawns across Britain are helping to feed our pollinators. We’ll also reveal the top ten lawn flowers and show you how to increase the number of flowers in your lawn. Find out more about No Mow May and Every Flower Counts in this webinar by Dr Trevor Dines.
And, while on the subject of Plant Life, do you know Bug Life?

Help Buglife save the planet

‘If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world’s ecosystems would collapse.’ Sir David Attenborough

And he did it – Bravo Jude! 103887 signatures on the petition this morning and Jude will get his debate.

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/574678

Meet the schoolboy inspired by Extinction Rebellion who is walking 200 miles from Yorkshire to Westminster to lobby ministers about climate change

While most 11-year-olds will spend their summer holidays this year playing with friends and spending time with families, one schoolboy from West Yorkshire has very different plans. By Susie Beever , Yorkshire Post Sunday, 11th July 2021

Photograph courtesy of Yorkshire Post

Jude Walker is planning to walk from Hebden Bridge to Westminster to raise awareness of a petition calling for taxes on companies emitting greenhouse gases Aptly-named Jude Walker has mapped out a route to hike from the cobbles and canal towpaths of Hebden Bridge to the towering buildings of Westminster. Although only finishing his time at junior school this month, 11-year-old Jude has spent recent weeks undergoing ten-mile training walks and sending letters to dozens of MPs whose constituencies he plans to walk through on the ambitious challenge. Halifax Labour MP Holly Lynch is one of several MPs who replied to his letters, and has told him she would meet him at the start of his walk on Sunday, July 25. Jude Walker is planning to walk from Hebden Bridge to Westminster to raise awareness of a petition calling for taxes on companies emitting greenhouse gases Inspired by the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion, the youngster is carrying out the 200-mile journey, set to span over three weeks, in a bid to draw attention to a national campaign lobbying the Government to introduce harsher taxes on corporations who emit the most greenhouse gases. The so-called carbon tax would tax companies based on the amount of CO2 or other greenhouse gases emitted – with more charged for the more they emit. A petition for the tax has already garnered more than 33,000 signatures. “He just wants to see the petition reach 100,000 signatures so that it is discussed in Parliament.”

Courtesy of Yorkshire Post

Editor’s Note. This is an abbreviated version of the full article, which you can see here.

Microbes and solar power ‘could produce 10 times more food than plants’ , reported Damian Carrington in The Guardian on 21 June 2021.

All the components of the system exist, but Leger said they now need to be tested together and at scale, in particular the capturing of CO2 from the air and ensuring that used solar panels can be recycled. “For human food, there’s also a lot of regulation that needs to be overcome,” he said. Pete Iannetta, at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, said: ““It’s a really interesting concept – you are divorcing food production from land use, which would mean you could have all that land available for rewilding.” But he said food is not only composed of the main nutrients, like protein and carbohydrate: “There are an awful lot of secondary compounds that are important for your wellbeing.” Iannetta also questioned whether microbial foods would become mainstream: “For example, we have used algae for a long time as a potential food resource, but it’s still not widely accepted.”

How Green Was My Wagner? by Clare Colvin

That you can love the music while disliking the man is a maxim more often applied to Richard Wagner than to any other great composer.   His life was a restless journey of crisis, quarrels and betrayals as he forged ahead in a new musical direction, rejecting the grand Italianate arias of 19th century opera.  Wives, patrons, producers, and fellow musicians, were all subsumed to the irresistible force of his creative genius.   His stormy relations with  his most lavish patron, “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria were legendary.   Wagner was notorious for his anti-semitism, too.  He published pamphlets attacking established Jewish composers such as Giacomo Meyerbeer, who had generously helped with introductions when the struggling young newcomer  had attempted to break into the world of Paris opera.   It wasn’t Meyerbeer’s fault that Paris proved unreceptive, yet Wagner’s later triumphs never softened his ire over the early setback. Richard Wagner died in 1883 but his anti-semitism – though not overtly expressed in his music – found favour with Adolf Hitler, who claimed Wagner as the Third Reich’s favourite composer.   This was the most difficult piece of baggage to shed in the immediate postwar years.  The Wagner festival at Bayreuth, run largely by the Wagner family, appealed solely  to a niche audience.  Wagner’s music had to wait the better part of a century to win popular acclaim.  The lengthiest of his works – 18 hours of four full length operas collectively known as Der Ring des Nibelungen or The Ring Cycle finally achieved a dazzling breakthrough in 1976 when French film and theatre director Patrice Chéreau  transformed the gods of Nordic legend into bourgeois capitalist men and women of the late 19th century industrial era.   Wotan was seen as the guilty head of family, whose descent from law-maker to law-breaker led to global catastrophe.  Wagner’s epic, in Chéreau’s production, was eventually taken out of the claustrophobic opera box of Bayreuth and filmed for television worldwide, increasing audiences by hundreds of thousands. More recently, in the ever growing concern over climate change, another aspect of Wagner is revealed, that of Green prophet.   Who would have thought of Wagner as the David Attenborough of the 19th century?   Yet if ever there was a musical warning about climate crisis, it comes from the Ring Cycle like a strident alarm.  The floods and fire of Götterdämmerung are nothing less than a forecast of the future.

The Rhinemaidens in Act III, Scene 1
Photo credit: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

At San Francisco Opera, director Francesca Zambello and designer Michael Yeargan’s recent Zoom Ring Cycle Festival streamed the production that they had first created there on stage in 2018. In addition to the Zoom streaming, there have been a series of webinars where discussions ranged through present day concerns, from feminism to racism and climate crisis.  The operas, ostensibly set during and after the Gold Rush of the American West, were also named “the Green Ring.”  The directing/design team had worked on the productions for a period of ten years before the pandemic, and it seemed as if the drama that was enacted in the rehearsal room was being mirrored by real life events. “During those years it was as if the present day world was telling us what the Ring Cycle was about,” said Yeargan.  “We went through a whole process that was like being in a living newspaper.” Wotan’s spear is an illustration of Wagner’s profound feeling for nature.  Before the beginning of the first opera Das Rheingold the chief god has hacked down a branch from the world great ash tree and carved law-giving runes on the shaft that give him authority over men and gods. By the final opera Götterdämmerung – the Twilight of the Gods – the breaking of the branch is denounced as an act of vandalism by the shadowy Norns as they try to undo the tangled ropes of destiny.  The life-giving well has run dry, the ash tree is cut down by Valhalla’s heroes for firewood, and the  balance of nature sabotaged –  evoking thoughts of despoiled Brazilian rain forests in the present day mind. It’s a long way from the purity of Das Rheingold’s crystalline river and its gleaming gold before the drama is set in motion by the dwarf Alberich stealing the gold and crafting the fatal ring.  By the time the hero Siegfried arrives, the Rhinemaidens’ pristine robes are grimy as they gather discarded refuse and bottles into bin bags –  an obvious image perhaps but why not remind us that there is a  vast sea of plastic afloat in the Pacific Ocean?  In his role as spokesman for the “woke” generation Richard Wagner might have approved.

Photograph by Victoria Carew-Hunt

Clare Colvin is an acclaimed novelist and short-story writer, whose fiction focuses on themes of history, music and art. Her first novel A Fatal Season (Duckworth, 1996), a cautionary tale about the perils of role-playing, was set in the London theatre in the mid-1980s. Her second Masque of the Gonzagas (Arcadia, 1999) was set in 17th-century Mantua and Venice at the time of Claudio Monteverdi, the composer of early opera. It has been translated into five European languages and is now published as an ebook. Her third novel The Mirror Makers (Hutchinson/Arrow, 2003), for which she received an Arts Council writers’ award, was set in the court of King Louis XIV during the building of Versailles.  Colvin’s short stories have been published in anthologies, including Constable’s Winter’s Tales and Robson’s Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories, by Duckworth and Serpent’s Tail, as well as in literary magazines. She was runner-up in the V.S. Pritchett short-story awards in 2012 for her short story ‘Sehr Schon’ and in 2014 for ‘The Scattering’. She has taught creative writing, specialising in short stories and novels, at Goldsmiths and Birkbeck colleges. Clare Colvin also works as a journalist, opera critic and arts feature-writer.   She was opera critic for the Sunday Express from 2006 for 15 years, and now writes as a freelance on opera and the arts.

Photographs of San Francisco Opera ‘Green Ring’ provided by Teresa Concepcion (SFO Communications)

Burping Cows And Charcoal Biscuits by Ethan Hawes and Laura Sykes

Many years go by (I am now 72). I, like all of us, became concerned about the climate crisis, ozone layer etc. An important factor, apparently, is methane and other gases burped by cows. Last summer, I had a sudden ‘Eureka’ moment. I woke up at 2 a.m., convinced that I had come up with a solution to the problem of global warming. All we had to do is to make charcoal biscuits for cows in sufficient quantities, persuade cows in sufficient numbers to eat the biscuits, and lo and behold, harmony should be restored. I enlisted the help of a nephew as research assistant, and he found that several people had got there before me (Dash!, but I was also rather amazed to have been on the right track).

Coffee Room (now dining room) designed by Charles Barry at The Travellers Club
Photograph © The Travellers Club London, who gave kind permission for its reproduction to illustrate this article.

The ‘medicinal’ properties of charcoal are said to have been known as early as the third century, but a more recent learned article on the subject by Dr. Gerhard K. Heilig appeared in 1994 : “The greenhouse gas methane (CH4): Sources and sinks, the impact of population growth, possible interventions.
Methane (CH4) is one of the trace gases in the atmosphere that is considered to play a major role in what is called the “greenhouse effect.” There are six major sources of atmospheric methane: emission from anaerobic decomposition in (1) natural wetlands; (2) paddy rice fields; (3) emission from livestock production systems (including intrinsic fermentation and animal waste); (4) biomass burning (including forest fires, charcoal combustion, and firewood burning); (5) anaerobic decomposition of organic waste in landfills; and (6) fossil methane emission during the exploration and transport of fossil fuels. Obviously, human activities play a major role in increasing methane emissions from most of these sources. Especially the worldwide expansion of paddy rice cultivation, livestock production and fossil fuel exploration have increased the methane concentration in the atmosphere. Several data sets help estimate atmospheric methane concentration up to 160,000 years back. Major sources and sinks of present-day methane emission and their relative contribution to the global methane balance demonstrate great uncertainties in the identification and quantification of individual sources and sinks. Most recent methane projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for 2025 and 2100 are discussed and used to estimate the contribution of population growth to future methane emission. Finally the paper discusses options and restrictions of reducing anthropogenic methane emissions to the atmosphere. Heilig, G.K. The greenhouse gas methane (CH4): Sources and sinks, the impact of population growth, possible interventions. Popul Environ 16, 109–137 (1994). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02208779
The importance of tackling methane has become more apparent in the past decade and a half. After a plateau which began in 1999, concentrations of the gas in the atmosphere started rising again in 2007, a trend that continues to this day. At the moment, more than 300m tonnes are emitted every year as a consequence of human activity, and that rate is growing. As a result, methane concentrations are now more than two-and-a-half times what they were before the Industrial Revolution, and are rising faster than allowed for in all but the most pessimistic climate projections for the 21st century…… Besides leaky wells and pipelines, and gassy coal mines, methane is also emitted by belching cattle, rice paddies, forest fires, slash-and-burn agriculture, rubbish dumps, wastewater-treatment plants, cars and lorries, and natural ecosystems such as swamps, rivers and lakes….The lion’s share of agricultural methane, though, comes from ruminant livestock—cows and sheep, mainly. Such husbandry generates 79% of the sector’s contribution…This is now being investigated experimentally, to see if changing what the animals eat can damp down methanogenic activity. The Economist, 3 April 2021 This article appeared in the Science & technology section of the print edition under the headline “The other greenhouse gas” For more coverage of climate change, visit The Economist’s climate-change hub
  In the Antipodes, Mikki Cusack wrote for ‘Future Planet‘ on 7 February 2020:
The cowpats that these particular beetles are burying are not ordinary cowpats. On this farm near Manjimup in south-west Australia, they are rich in a substance called biochar – essentially charcoal produced through a slow-bake process – that has been added to the cattle’s feed. This black, coal-like substance is leading a quiet revolution in this pocket of rural Australia, in an effort to reduce the cows’ methane emissions and to sink more carbon into the soil.
Greta Thunberg takes us in ‘A Year to Change the World’ Episode 3 (28.0-34.0 min) to Denmark, where she visits a team who are experimenting on cattle feed in an effort to reduce methane emissions. We are not told what this secret additive might be, but the existing examples above would suggest that it might well contain carbon? It’s both a humbling and an exciting experience to have ‘dreamed’ this idea, when it turns out to be already in practice by professionals in the field. It was not like Kekulé’s dream about the structure of Benzene, since he was a scientist, but it does perhaps show that any one of us, the ‘general public’, might have a role to play in how we deal with the climate crisis. Maybe..?

Further Reading

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has a useful Overview of Greenhouse Gases, which sets the threat posed by methane in relation to other gases.

The Government of Western Australia has also produced an almost jargon-free summary of the use of feed additives in reducing methane emissions in cattle.

https://daily.jstor.org/can-cows-help-mitigate-climate-change-yes-they-can

A Field’s Eye View by Judy McDowell

Hi. I’m a field. Green and muddy. I’m quite down-trodden actually, because this year a herd of cows lives here. So, the lovely grass that covered me in early spring has become a bit flattened and in places blended into the mire. Sometimes my grass grows quite well, and I get left in peace. That’s when I’m being fallow. It’s peaceful then. It’s often peaceful in the winter, but I must admit I’m half asleep. I can’t function properly with the lack of sunlight, and it’s too cold for me. My grass can’t grow, and I don’t get many visitors. Some years I grow a vegetable crop. I quite like that. I get visited by quite a few birds and insects. I love those sorts of visitors. In fact, what I like best is the hedgerow around the edge of me. My edge hedge. I would love to have that all over me. All year round there are little animals and insects and other crawling, slithering and flying creature in that part of me. And I grow different things in it. Mostly new leaves come in the spring, some of my leaves change colour in the autumn, some stay all year round. I have flowers and berries and I feel so pretty, and useful. I’ve got some quite nice neighbours: all fields. They tell me that further over, part of another farm, some fields are all hedgerow-like; and some even grow trees, enough so they don’t look like fields at all. Apparently, when we grow lots of plants, we give off oxygen, and that’s good for all animals, even those humans who decide our fate. But if we’re just full of animals, they breathe in the oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. That’s good for our plants; but when there aren’t many plants it just goes to waste and floats up into the air and causes problems. I know this is embarrassing, but seeing as I’m being honest here, when we have loads of cows stomping all over us, they do a lot of farting too, and that’s stinky. It gives off methane, and that just gets stuck in the air with the unused carbon dioxide. Apparently, the farmer who owns the fields where they’ve covered them in hedgerow and trees and things, says as well as being nice, and socially so much better for us fields, it’s better for the weather to be like that. All this using carbon dioxide and giving out oxygen, as well as fewer cow farts, helps stop it raining ridiculously hard sometimes, then being too dry at other times. If more fields were allowed to do it, we could have less of that really hot sunshine that bakes a clay field like me, so that when it does rain, I can’t soak up the water, and it lies about on me and is ever so uncomfortable. Some of it flows off past other fields and gets on the road. I’ve heard people’s houses even get the water inside them. Well, seems like it serves them right for not growing better stuff in us fields! Don’t get me wrong, I like cows. Some of them are really sweet, and it’s kind of tickling and soothing when they eat my grass. But sometimes when the grass hasn’t managed to grow very long, it pulls a bit and feels uncomfortable. Then, of course, when I’m allowed to grow vegetables, it’s usually for the cows to eat during the winter, so I’m quite a cow-giver. Yes, I’m sure now. What I’d really like to be is a hedgerow field. Oh, maybe there could be a patch for pretty wildflowers to grow, even another patch for some vegetables. And some fruit trees. The field next to me said that the bigger the variety of plants, the more different types of creatures visit or live on us. I’d quite like some more rabbits to come and nibble on me. They are gentle and don’t squash me at all. Hedgehogs would be good too. They like my, well, hedge! And birds like berries and seeds and insects, so if I were covered in all sorts of stuff, lots of birds would come and nest in me and eat the things I grow. Oh, it would be so lovely. They sing so sweetly. But I suppose it’s not likely to happen. Apparently, the cows come here so that either the farmer can take the milk out of them for people to drink, or make into yoghurt or cheese and stuff, or they eat the cows themselves. Oh, yuk, fancy being a cow. You just live a bit then get eaten. Not just the grass on your surface, your whole self. Anyway, it’s because people keep wanting to eat cows that I have to be rotated: fallow, grow veg, get trampled on by a whole herd of cows. Sigh. I wish there was a way I could change people’s minds, so they didn’t want to eat cows. Judy McDowell, on Twitter as @jcm247. ” Into politics, environment, wildlife, psychology, early learning, coffee, archaeology, evolution, family + other pets, soaps, sarcasm”.
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