Friday, April 29, 2016

2299. To Heal the World, We Need Chronic Love of Nature

By Brian Pfieffer, Aeon, April 27, 2016
Pterinopelma sazimai (Cobalt Blue Tarantula)
Ten years ago this spring, in the darkness before dawn, I switched on my headlamp, dialled in my compass, and set forth into a chilly Arkansas swamp. Dressed head to toe in camouflage and lugging an arsenal of camera gear, I wandered alone that day through lowlands of oak, cypress and sycamore, through muck and icy water, and through my own hopeful apparitions. After about 10 miles of this, in the golden hour before sunset, I found a dry rise in the land, propped myself against a fallen tree, and waited for a resurrection.

At the end of my tree, an orange-crowned warbler, drab as those leafless woods, foraged for insects. A white-tailed deer, a buck with an eight-point rack, sauntered by, sniffed the evening breeze but failed to pick up my scent. The evening’s first few mosquitoes found me. No matter. I would not give up this spot, my focal point until after sunset: a hole about four inches in diameter high on the trunk of a sycamore.

This had been my routine every day for the better part of two weeks. I walked miles through the swamp, searching the skies and the naked trees, and listening for a telltale double-knocking sound or a distinctive tin-horn ‘kent-kent’ call – the sounds of a ghost. Along the way, I found wrens and butterflies, beaver skulls and turtle shells. I found time away from work and the glowing screens, time for daydreams, and for hope. And at the end of each day, I parked myself at a hole like this one so that I might, at long last, witness some sort of human redemption. On this final evening in the swamp, like every other, I waited for an ivory-billed woodpecker to return from the dead.
Ivory-billed woodpecker study skins at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic
And on this day, like every other, the woodpecker never came.

After one of the most expensive and unsuccessful bird hunts ever, the ivory-billed woodpecker is almost certainly extinct and, when I was in Arkansas searching it, probably had been gone for decades. We logged and neglected this giant woodpecker into oblivion – not into the figurative oblivion of obscurity, but the literal oblivion of nothingness, a final flight from which there is no return.

It turns out that extinction is indeed forever. And in the time since a wing-flash of hope came from Arkansas, an apparition of this woodpecker in the swamp, we’ve learned so little about nature – and about human nature. With too many of us watching from the sidelines, extinction and ignorance march onward, including a kind of extinction in our own backyards.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. From Arkansas came news that caused birdwatchers everywhere to spit up their shade-grown coffee. Some of the most respected ornithologists and conservation organisations claimed to have discovered at least one ivory-billed woodpecker that had cheated extinction and was still living in those swamps. Their evidence was, in large part, a controversial, fuzzy 10-second video of a bird flying away. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO) and a battery of ornithologists announced their find in the journal Science in 2005.

When CLO organised search teams to get better evidence – including a decent photo – I helped assemble a crew of field-tested birders from here in Vermont. From late February into March 2006, as part of the official search party in Arkansas, we became actors in what amounted to a human drama – with the swamp as the stage and the woodpecker as a yearning and a plot.

The script would have it that the woodpecker was our shot at redemption, that maybe we didn’t screw up after all. Maybe we could feel the actual pain of extinction but then get a second chance to make things right. In this plot, in death and then in resurrection, the ivory-billed woodpecker would be a saviour to expose our fraught and fickle relationship with wildlife and wild places. A bird so compelling that it had been called the ‘Lord God Bird’ would be just that.

The plot thickened. After taking a hard look at all the evidence, ornithologists concluded that Cornell and its colleagues got it wrong, that the video showed not an ivory-billed woodpecker but a more common (and similar) pileated woodpecker. The skeptics published a rebuttal in Science.

I joined the search party in Arkansas as a heretic. I agreed that the original sighting was no good – or at least not good enough to make the claim that a bird long thought to be extinct was still flying among us. Yet I went nonetheless into the swamp, in part out of selfishness. At the very least, I’d spend late winter in the wild menagerie of a southern swamp. And that particular year, the Arkansas River valley and environs were dry enough so that rather than sitting in a canoe all day, I could walk in woods that would normally be flooded. Walking is good for the mind. And as I walked, day after day, mile after mile, my doubt about the woodpecker gave way to hope.

With each new step, I hoped I was wrong about the video. I daydreamed of encountering a pair of ivory-bills in their swamp. (I even imagined finding them copulating.) The skills I had accumulated during nearly half a century as a boy explorer, in so many woods in search of wild things, would pay off. I would be the one birder who got the prized photo. I would prove the resurrection. Vanity infiltrated my fantasy. I envisioned myself at a news conference, heroic, beside a giant version of my woodpecker photograph. Everyone would ask: ‘What was it like to witness the Messiah?’

Or so went the script of my fantasy. Reason had me convinced the woodpecker was gone forever; hope (okay, and vanity) kept me walking in the swamp and looking up to the trees and toward the heavens.

The woodpecker never came, not for me, not for anyone. Cornell wrapped up its searching in Arkansas in 2008. It’s been quiet ever since. And in the decade or more since our flirtation with redemption we continue on a determined path of ambivalence or neglect for wildlife. We plod onward with a wonderful yet fickle relationship with animals – loving them and forever killing them off. And knowing so little of what we’re losing.

Now, seated before the glowing screen, we whip and zoom with white-throated swifts along the course of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, we migrate with wildebeests across the Serengeti, we swim among coral and dolphins at the Great Barrier Reef. Never have we been so figuratively close to wildlife – and yet so far. Our gadgets and electronic maps read our exact location and desires virtually anytime and anywhere. Never before have we been so located – and yet so lost.

Despite the distractions, yes, we do care. That is genuine. We care about big woodpeckers and giant pandas. We care about whales and baby seals. We cared about Cecil the lion – but for all the wrong reasons. Maybe the gratuitous killing of one lion in Zimbabwe did the world – and the lions – some good. That’s not yet clear to me. But is this what it takes? A dead lion with a name, a Minnesota dentist who pulled the trigger, and the rise of an internet lynch mob? Is this how we take action and measure our victories?

Take your pick from actual chronic or acute causes of extinction or extirpation: invasive plants, pesticides, climate change, our own population bomb. How hard we work to tell the world about those actual threats. But a guy shoots a lion, and we have a target for our online opprobrium – a target other than us. So instead of reasoned action to deal with genuine threats, the masses grab their torches and pitchforks (Twitter and Facebook) and storm ‘the cloud’ demanding blood as vengeance for Cecil. Maybe they get some. Maybe not. And then the masses go back to watching cat videos or a rat carrying pizza into the subway; we go back to warming the planet, drinking factory coffee, and spraying chemicals on our lawns.

Perhaps our indifference is born of ignorance, owing to a steady retreat from the wild. In our youth, in books, culture and experience, we used to be closer to whatever swims, slithers, crawls, walks, flies or just sits there on life’s long, green path. We were kids catching frogs in ponds and running wild with butterfly nets. We went outside instead of online. We got dirty in the swamps.

I don’t doubt a persistent human passion for wildlife. Nor do I doubt the distractions keeping us from nature. What we need instead is a more measured passion, a chronic passion, a broader caring for wildlife beyond the charismatic. Sure, we need the pandas and the whales as icons, for posters and fundraising, and for our hearts to beat faster. But so much more wild is out there vanishing or in trouble. We’re losing it from under our noses.

Consider the Poweshiek skipperling (Oarisma poweshiek). Most people don’t. It has few Facebook friends or people crying out to ‘Save the Skipperling’. Yet the skipperling is now one of the most rapidly declining animals in North America. In the decade since I visited the swamps of Arkansas, Poweshiek skipperlings appear to have blinked out from 96 per cent of their prairie sites in a range stretching from Manitoba to Michigan. This elegant animal, dying out on our own continent, might be more imperiled than pandas or lions. And you’ve probably never heard of it. The Poweshiek skipperling is a butterfly.
The Poweshiek skipperling butterfly. Photo by the author.
As best I can tell, I’ve never witnessed extinction. Never have I known a plant or animal, only to see it vanish forever from Earth. The Poweshiek skipperling could become my first. Few of us know this kind of loss. It does not compare with the death of a friend or a family member. That is absolute and visceral loss. Nor is the loss of the skipperling quite like the closing of our favourite coffee joint. That is tolerable loss. A park might become a shopping mall. We lost Jimi Hendrix but not his music. These are losses – but they are not extinction.

To everyone now alive, the extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker is an abstraction. None of us (except those who claim to have seen it) have witnessed the Lord God Bird and its flight into oblivion. So, yes, the loss of that woodpecker hurts – but not like losing something we know, something we’ve seen, something we love. I’ve met the Poweshiek skipperling in the prairie. If this species goes extinct, I will mourn it more than the extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Once the skipperling heads to oblivion, I will have only the memory of spending the afternoon of 13 July 2003, in a prairie fen in Michigan, on my knees and on my belly with this tiny orange butterfly.

Even so, the Poweshiek skipperling is hardly charismatic megafauna. It flies not with the flash of a fritillary or the fame of a Monarch. Spend a day in the skipperling’s prairie and you are more likely to watch wildflowers sway in the breeze or sense the curvature of Earth in an open space. Without the skipperling, the prairie will still be the prairie. But it won’t be the same prairie. At least not to me. Without the Poweshiek skipperling, the prairie will be eroded and incomplete.

Unlike the extinction of the famous, the skipperling represents the extinction of the modest. Like the desaparecidos of Latin America, these species vanish with only limited public awareness and few advocates working on their behalf. Included among the modest are countless, nameless other species going extinct before we even know they exist.

And yet now, here in the Anthropocene, during the era of the new human distraction, comes a third kind of extinction: our fading awareness of the near and the common. I see it far too often, particularly among birdwatchers (who tend to be myopic in their pursuit of animals) and others who should know better. Too many of us know not when the spotted salamanders migrate by night for their once-a-year-orgy; we ignore the first aroma of balsam poplar in May; we leave this earth having never tasted the sweet wintergreen joy of creeping snowberries. These common events are threatened with a passive, chronic extinction – an alienation from nature that the writer and lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle in The Thunder Tree (1993) calls the ‘extinction of experience’:

The extinction of experience is not just about losing the personal benefits of the natural high. It also implies a cycle of disaffection that can have disastrous consequences. As cities and metastasising suburbs forsake their natural diversity, and their citizens grow more removed from personal contact with nature, awareness and appreciation retreat. This breeds apathy toward environmental concerns and, inevitably, further degradation of the common habitat.

So it goes, on and on, the extinction of experience sucking the life from the land, the intimacy from our connections. This is how the passing of otherwise common species from our immediate vicinities can be as significant as the total loss of rarities. People who care conserve; people who don’t know don’t care. What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?

What is the extinction of the Poweshiek skipperling to a child who rarely goes outside to play? As it turns out, lots of butterflies resemble the Poweshiek skipperling. Anyone can walk out the door and never be far from another species of skipperling or from members of a huge group of similar butterflies called grass skippers. Find them in your local meadow or scrubby field in July, glowing in the grass like little orange flames. My most recent skipper encounter came along the Rio Grande in Texas in January, where I photographed a Southern skipperling (Copaeodes minima), one of the smallest butterflies on the continent.

Knowing the Southern skipperling – and the high skipper diversity around the world – might make it easier to shrug off the extinction of the Poweshiek skipperling from the prairie. What’s another skipper when they all look alike? We hear a lot of this from people who don’t care much for wildlife. But what about the rest of us? Might we be culpable to a similar form of this thinking? What about those of us who have never seen or understood our local skippers or other animals in our own backyards?

We can discover more. The great unknown at our feet is a remedy for the extinction of experience. Those actual encounters with the wild outside, no matter how near or how common, help us relate to the wild far away, no matter how remote or rare. When we know our local skipperling, when we see it dart and flutter in the summer fields, when it dances like a marionette above the wildflowers, when it alights with dignity to take nectar from a purple coneflower, we’ve kindled another flame for nature. When we know our local skipper, we might care more about the skippers on the distant prairie or other faraway places. The frogs in our pond can help us know and care for the frogs of the tropics. And extinction should be fungible. The impending loss of a prairie butterfly might help us recognise and better care for our butterflies close to home. The extinction of frogs in the tropics might cause us to care more about the frogs in our local pond.

Then extinction will become less of an abstraction and more universal. And extinction will hurt. We’ll feel it in our blood and in our bones. Even when we only read about it. It’ll hurt like when the bees are gone and crops fail, or when a shopping mall obliterates our favourite wetland. Extinction anywhere will create a longing in us, like the yearning for whatever we love. When we know more about the wild in front of us we will care more about the wild we’re losing.

By the time I went to Arkansas a decade ago, we had offered too little, too late to the ivory-billed woodpecker. When I was searching for it, this woodpecker had probably been extinct since before I was born. I knew it on that final night while watching my tree cavity in the swamp, waiting for a ghost to fly into its hole and roost there for the night. Even so, even as I waited in vain, as I knew extinction when I saw it, and even during my final retreat in the dark from the swamp that night, I clung to an irrational hope that the woodpecker still flew in these woods, and that before I left Arkansas I might still manage to see it, to somehow witness the resurrection.

Hope is a powerful thing. But the ivory-billed woodpecker was our false prophet. Reacting to a sighting that was most likely a false alarm, conservationists and the federal government had protected acres of bottomland swamp where the woodpecker supposedly still flew.

Almost every day in the swamp I noticed wintering flocks of rusty blackbirds marauding through the trees, fattening up on the fruits of a southern hackberry (Celtis laevigata). Basic black with an inelegant voice, this blackbird is hardly a celebrity. It nests in places we rarely visit – bogs, swamps, and other wetlands across Canada and just barely into the northeastern US. And it’s in trouble.

For the past half century, the rusty blackbird has suffered one of the most dramatic population declines ever noted among North American songbirds. As bald eagles and peregrine falcons recovered, rusty blackbird numbers were plunging by an estimated 90 per cent. Causes might include mercury toxicity, warming and drying of wetland breeding sites, and the loss of these wintering sites among the swamplands of the southeastern US. It’s likely that rusties face a year-round ‘perfect storm’ of threats. Only recently have we noticed the decline. The rusty’s remote breeding sites, its lack of glamour, and its status as ‘just another blackbird’ relegated it to an obscure path toward oblivion – an extinction of the modest.

In Arkansas, we saved a swamp for a woodpecker that in all likelihood wasn’t there. But in the process we saved swampland for rusty blackbirds. So maybe the ivory-billed woodpecker delivered some redemption after all.

Hope is indeed a powerful thing. It kept me walking and searching in Arkansas. And now, 10 years later, back home in New England, as winter retreats, the season’s first northbound rusty blackbirds are arriving. Skippers close to my home will take their first flights in May.

Meanwhile, in the US Midwest, biologists are preparing a new rescue plan for the Poweshiek skipperling. This summer they will harvest eggs from wild females in Michigan, rear the hatched caterpillars through winter in the safety of a zoo in Minnesota, and then return them to the wild in spring 2017 – just before they pupate to fly free as adult skipperlings. It might be the butterfly’s last hope. And I’ll be back there in Michigan waiting for them.

Bryan Pfeiffer is a field biologist, writer, and lecturer at the University of Vermont. He is currently working on two books: one, a collection of essays about flight, and the other provisionally titled Pantala: What a Dragonfly Tells Us About Sex, Evolution and the Human Condition.

2298. Caring for Stray Animals in Cuba

By Irina Echarry, Havana Times, April 29, 2016
Blackie: before and after

In Cuba, animals are at a disadvantage. No law protects them and there aren’t many humans involved in the struggle to get one passed. There are many of us who think one is needed, but not enough.

A few days ago, on the television program Pasaje a los Desconocido, I saw a documentary about an animal rights foundation in Spain. Thanks to the testimonies of several people, we found out this foundation takes in, cleans, vaccinates and cures animals of any illness they may have, to put them up for adoption later.

For years, I have been fantasizing about having a space where I can do exactly what I saw in the documentary. I would also add a greenhouse to it. But reality is against me. I live on a fifth floor and share my apartment with others. I don’t have any prospects of earning the money I need to trade the apartment or buy one on the ground floor, nor do I have any friends who meet the two basic conditions needed for this: a place and a dream similar to mine. It’s probably a coincidence that all of us nut-jobs working to alleviate animal suffering are doing it out of the kindness of our hearts, with very few resources or places where we can care of these animals. Thus, even though seeing them get better is its own reward, the terrible feeling of having to leave some on the street stays with you.

The documentary presents us with a well-equipped and spacious local with a fair number of workers caring for animals. In Cuba, a poor country, the locale needn’t be as sophisticated. With good intentions, we’re already half the way there – I know this from experience. However, when the media touch on the issue, they emphasize the abandonment of animals and neglect to mention that anyone can help these animals, that one needn’t be rich or belong to an important organization.

Nora, the director of Aniplan, was a guest on the show that aired the documentary. There, she explained the importance of the Animal Protection Law in Cuba. The program, which has a wide audience, could have been used to recruit people and offer hope. However, it proved the exact opposite because of the statements made by a veterinarian from the dog pound. After defending the work of the institution and speaking of stray animals like a plague to be eradicated, she addressed the public to tell them one should not feed stray dogs or cats, for animal care also involves vaccination, hygiene and a home.

It’s true that a home for these animals would be magnificent, that vaccination and medical attention are necessary, but we all know that disease flourishes in an immuno-depressed organism. Daily practice has taught me that food works almost like a magic potion. At home, we have cured or at least held back the deterioration of several dogs.
One day, we opened our door and saw a little white and black dog full of sores, giving off a bad smell, frightened and a bit hysterical. Because of her whimpering, my mother named her Sarita Montiel. We healed its sores and began to feed it. The change was drastic. She is now healthy and, even though she now has people to care for her, she spends most of her time on the steps, like another neighbor.

Blackie had guarded the market his entire life. There, he would bark and fight to retain his position as the alpha male. He grew old, other dogs began to win the fights and its body gradually yielded to malaise. Its skin became covered with pustules and worms began to thrive on its back. We decided to help it, even though people kept saying “that dog was as good as dead.” Bearing that cross and Blackie’s refusal to move, we began taking off the scabs, spread ointment and vinegar on its skin and feed him. It was an ordeal finding him every day, as the dog would hide so no one would bother him. The best part was that other people (the same ones who had left him for dead) became involved on seeing the progress, helping us find him and feed him. A few months ago, he died of a heart attack, but we managed to give him more than a year of life and improve his mood.

Dulcita with a friend
Dulcita had shown up at the apartment building all sad, scrawny with fledgling sores on its skin and legs. She wasn’t in serious condition, but she got worse in the course of days. When the pain started, we took her in to help her. Thanks to the affection and food we gave her, Dulcita became beautiful and vital and decided to stay. She goes down to the street, pees, socializes with other dogs and then comes back up to be let in again.
These are but a few, concrete examples aimed to demonstrate it is not such a difficult process. We have helped a number of animals without much space or money. We have even found owners for them. I know other people who do the same. It isn’t good for the struggle to raise awareness in society with respect to animal suffering that an evening program should present us with an expert who calls a humane practice a “mistake.” What isn’t right is letting living creatures grow ill and die around us and doing nothing about it.

Seeing their recovering and feeling their affection is thrilling. The documentary brings to mind a quote by Anatole France that I’ve always liked: “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

Thursday, April 28, 2016

2297. Ecological Impacts of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Meltdown 5 years Later

By Greenpeace-Japan, April 3, 2016

For free PDF copy click here
The report is based on a large body of independent scientific research in impacted areas in the Fukushima region, as well as investigations by Greenpeace radiation specialists over the past five years. It exposes deeply flawed assumptions by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Abe government in terms of both decontamination and ecosystem risks. It further draws on research on the environmental impact of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe as an indication of the potential future for contaminated areas in Japan.

The environmental impacts of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster will last decades to centuries, due to man-made, long-lived radioactive elements are absorbed into the living tissues of plants and animals and being recycled through food webs, and carried downstream to the Pacific Ocean by typhoons, snowmelt, and flooding.

Greenpeace has conducted 25 radiological investigations in Fukushima since March 2011. In 2015, it focused on the contamination of forested mountains in Iitate district, northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Both Greenpeace and independent research have shown the movement of radioactivity from contaminated mountain watersheds, which can then enter coastal ecosystems. The Abukuma, one of Japan’s largest rivers which flows largely through Fukushima prefecture, is projected to discharge 111 TBq of 137Cs and 44 TBq of 134Cs, in the 100 years after the accident.

2296. Trampling Science to Boost Nuclear Power

By Jim Naurkeckas, FAIR, April 21, 2016 

When the Washington Post and New York Times are making the same corporate-friendly point, it’s safe to assume that some PR agency somewhere is earning its substantial fees.

In this case, the subject is the need for nuclear power—and, for the Posteditorial board (4/18/16), for fracking as well. Standing in the way of this in the Post’s version is favorite target Bernie Sanders, while the Times business columnist Eduardo Porter (4/19/16)  blames the “scientific phobias and taboos” of “progressive environmentalists.”

“While campaigning in New York, Mr. Sanders has played up his opposition to nuclear power,” the Post editorialists wrote, citing his contention that the Indian River nuclear plant, 25 miles from Manhattan, is a “catastrophe waiting to happen.” Sanders’ “criticism came as little surprise,” the Post declared; “he had already promised to phase out nuclear power nationwide by steadily retiring existing reactors.”
“If we are serious about global warming, we will ignore Mr. Sanders’ sloganeering,” the paper urged. “Nuclear accounts for about a fifth of the country’s electricity, and it is practically emissions-free.”

In reality, nuclear power is not emissions-free; the process of mining and enriching uranium fuel, along with constructing nuclear plants, operating backup generators during reactor downtime, disposal of nuclear waste and eventual decommissioning of plants all contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. According to an analysis published by the journal Nature (9/24/08), nuclear power does produce 14 times less in greenhouse gas emissions than coal, and seven times less than natural gas—but twice as much as solar cells and seven times as much as onshore wind farms. For halting climate change, in other words, there are more serious options than nuclear.

The Post went on:

Shutting down that much clean electricity generation would put the country into a deep emissions hole. Mr. Sanders argues that he will invest heavily in renewables. Yet every dollar spent to replace one carbon-free source with another is a dollar that could have been spent replacing dangerous and dirty coal plants. Under Mr. Sanders’ vision, either the country would fail to maximize emissions cuts, or it would waste huge amounts of money unnecessarily replacing nuclear plants.

Sanders actually favors “a moratorium on nuclear power plant license renewals in the United States”—in other words, as the Post had earlier described it more accurately, “phas[ing] out nuclear power nationwide by steadily retiring existing reactors.” So it’s not a question of using money to replace a nuclear plant that could have gone to replacing a coal plant; the nuclear plants need to be replaced with something when they reach the end of their useful lives.

And if you put that money into renewables rather than into a new nuclear plant, you can reduce emissions more quickly. The investment bank Lazard analyzes the “levelized cost of energy”—the cost of building and operating an electrical plant per unit of electricity produced. In its latest report (11/15), the bank found that nuclear’s LCOE ranged from $97 to $136 per megawatt-hour, while wind costs between $32 and $77; utility-scale photovoltaic solar was priced between $50 to $70. Note that these costs for nuclear do not include the decommissioning of obsolete plants, which can add $1 billion–$4 billion to the lifetime cost, nor the cost of accidents like the Fukushima meltdown, which is expected to cost Japan some $300 billion (Renewable Energy World4/28/16).

The Post concluded that the best bet would be to put a tax on carbon, then “let the market find the fastest and most efficient road to slowing the warming of the planet.” The irony is that if you had a truly market-driven energy system, there’d be no need for a moratorium on nuclear licenses; if you didn’t have the Price-Anderson Act capping industry liability for nuclear accidents—requiring it to pay less than 2 cents on the dollar of the projected costs—it’s unlikely that another plant would ever be built.

Meanwhile, at the New York Times, Eduardo Porter was defending nuclear power—“the only technology with an established track record of generating electricity at scale while emitting virtually no greenhouse gases,” as we’ve debunked above—against an even scarier foe than Bernie Sanders: “the left” as a whole and its “scientific and technological taboos.”

Brought in as an expert witness to make this case is the internet entrepreneur who once complained that “anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades”:

“The left is turning anti-science,” Marc Andreessen, the creator of Netscapewho as a venture capitalist has become one of the most prominent thinkers of Silicon Valley, told me not long ago. He was reflecting broadly about science and technology. His concerns ranged from liberals’ fear of genetically modified organisms to their mistrust of technology’s displacement of workers in some industries. “San Francisco is an interesting case,” he noted. “The left has become reactionary.”

So far, the major achievement of GMO technology has been to boost 15-fold the use of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide—which Monsanto’s seeds are engineered to be resistant to. Since the active ingredient in Roundup has been declared by the World Health Organization’s cancer researchers to be a probable human carcinogen, fear is not necessarily an unscientific reaction.

As for technology’s displacement of workers in San Francisco, that’s where one of Andreessen’s fellow tech entrepreneurs wrote an open letter complaining, “I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.” To be revolted by such attitudes is not “reactionary,” and you don’t need to be “anti-science” to be concerned that the soaring profits of the high-tech industry are pricing workers out of their homes.

But wrapping political and ethical choices in the mantle of “science” is what Porter’s column is all about—comparing to climate change denial the left’s failure to accept the “scientific consensus” on nuclear power, meaning that 65 percent of scientists favored building more nuclear plants in a Pew poll. The difference between an actual scientific consensus on the physical fact of global warming and a political preference expressed by two out of three scientists for a particular energy policy ought to be obvious; conflating the two is doing the opposite of what Porter claims to be advocating for, which is “somehow disassociating the scientific facts from deeply rooted preferences about the world we want to live in.”

The Times column offered some pre-emptive criticism of its own analysis: “Highlighting the left’s biases may seem like a pointless effort to apportion equal blame along ideological lines.” It’s not pointless at all, though: It’s a great way to sell pro-corporate policies under the guise of objective truth.

2295. Radioactive Wildlife Remind Us of Chernobyl

By Ron Borglio, The Atlantic, April 26, 2016
Radiation-caused mutations are widespread in wildlife

Radioactive, wild boar are invading towns in southern Germany. They travel in packs scavenging for food. They break through fences and roam the roads shutting down highway traffic. They take down a man in a wheelchair. Police scramble to restore order in urban centers. The boar are armed with a post-apocalyptic payload: Radioactive fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which marks its thirtieth anniversary today. By foraging on radioactive plants, the animals embody the return of a disaster many seek to repress.

After the collapse and meltdown of a reactor at Chernobyl, over a hundred thousand people were evacuated from a 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone around the nuclear power plant. Residents exposed to the ensuing radiation suffered from leukemia, thyroid cancer, and other maladies. Some 4,000 people could die from illnesses related to the accident.

In the three decades since, a range of animals have taken up residence in the Exclusion Zone. They thrive in this occasionally mutant, non-human world where radiation remains 10 to 100 times higher than is safe for human occupancy. Rare species not seen in the region for hundreds of years have returned, including the Przewalski’s horse, the European bison, the lynx, and the Eurasian brown bear. Without fear of being hunted, the animals roam the forest and the ruins of cities in what has become an eerily post-human wildlife sanctuary.

As for the radioactive boar several hundred miles away in Germany, they become irradiated by eating plants downwind from the meltdown that contain residual traces of radioactivity—including truffles, tubers, and mushrooms that absorb high degrees of radioactive waste from the soil. Apart from anniversaries like this one, Chernobyl has faded from memory. But for the radioactive elements the disaster expelled, life has just begun. The disaster lives on, but invisibly.

Perhaps we should pay more heed to our fictions. After World War II, Godzilla, a fictional monster empowered by nuclear radiation, reminded Japan and the rest of the world that radioactive material is a beast more forceful and longer-living then humans can imagine. Allegorically, Godzilla made the otherwise invisible nuclear threat visible.
Other films followed suit. In the 1955 nuclear monster movie Them, an early atomic-bomb test in New Mexico mutates common ants into human-killing beasts. In it, the wise character Dr. Harold Metford (ominously played by the Miracle on 34th Street Santa Edmund Gwenn) observes, “We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true: ‘And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation and the beast shall reign over the earth.’” Mystery and ominousness ruled the day. “If these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945,” Gunsmoke cowboy actor James Arness asks of Gween’s Metford at the film’s conclusion, “what about all the others that have been exploded since then?” To which Metford replies “Nobody knows. When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.”

These accidental actors of ecological remembrance are not tricked out in Japanese monster costumes. There is no puppetry nor scale models. In fact, the Exclusion Zone and sanctuary around Chernobyl is also known by an almost existential title, the Zone of Alienation. And who is alienated if not we humans? First from a time outside of human time (the half-life of radioactive elements) and then from physical bodies that do not conform to planned technological progress. Even though they are more modest than our fictions imagined, creatures like boars have become the real Godzillas, invading our cities with their irradiated tusks to remind us of the limits of human control.

In 2010, a radioactive rabbit was found on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, the largest nuclear site in the Western Hemisphere. Hanford is the site of the first nuclear reactor and the facility that fed plutonium to the Fat Man Bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The bunny seems innocuous enough until one realizes that it, being a rabbit, breeds others—and with them more potential carriers of the radioactive conditions of their habitat. If there is one radioactive rabbit then there are other animals out there too. How many? As Dr. Metford says, nobody knows.

The Hanford reactor was put out of service in 1988 but left behind millions of tons of solid waste and hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid waste from its decades of producing plutonium. The waste is buried underground in pits and holding ponds where it has been forgotten. As the Department of Energy explains: “Depending on when the waste was buried, records about what was buried and where it was buried can be either very good, or in some cases, very bad.” As inhuman time moves onward, liquid waste has soaked into the soil. The membranes designed to separate nature and culture have worn down, and radioactive rabbits are the result.  

Thirty years after Chernobyl, the boar and bunnies wandering in its wake have brought us an anniversary gift. The Chernobyl boar aren’t just visitors from the past, it turns out. Thanks to the longevity of radiation, they are also visitors from the future. To take their lesson seriously would require accepting the repressed detritus of human progress, and incorporating that aftermath into the idea of human progress rather than believing that it remains safely buried, cordoned off, and forgotten.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

2294. Cuba’s Ongoing 7th Party Congress

By Elio Delgado Legon, Havana Times, April 27, 2016
The 7th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba was held in Havana, April 16-19
The plenary session and commission meetings of the 7th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) was held in Havana from April 16 to 19, but the closing ceremony on the 19th did not put an end to the Congress. The work of the representatives will continue in the months to come.

Many in Cuba and abroad consider this a historical congress, first of all because it is the last to be presided by the historical leaders of the revolution and, second, because it has laid the foundations for the conceptualization of the economic model to follow and the development of the economy until 2030.

The two aims could not be met in the brief time the Congress lasted. They require the involvement of all Party members and the analysis and opinions of workers and the whole of society, through grassroots organizations.

The main report, read by First Secretary Raul Castro, diagnoses Cuba’s social reality and demonstrates the Party’s capacity to interpret the sentiments of the masses, tracing economic, scientific and social development aims for the country.

One of the paragraphs of the report explains that “we have planned to have both documents, the conceptualization and the bases for the National Development Plan, that is, be subjected to democratic debate following their analysis during the Congress, by members of the Party and the Young Communists League, representatives of grassroots organizations and broad sectors of society, so that these may be enriched and perfected.”

The participation of society in the preparation of the final drafts will have a positive impact on the close relationship that ought to exist between the Party and the masses.
The central report will have to be thoroughly reviewed by all Party members and by all workers and society in general, for it constitutes the guide for all future work to be undertaken by revolutionaries.

Counterrevolutionaries at home and abroad have vociferated that the report does not say what many expected it to. Were they expecting Cuba to adopt a multi-party system or for it to return to the neoliberal capitalism that was eradicated many years ago?
They should bear in mind that Cuban revolutionaries have never given up and, if, once in our history, because of a lack of unity and understanding, the Zanjon Pact was signed with the Spanish Crown to bring about peace without independence, the Baragua Protest saved the honor of Cubans. Those who support the Zanjon Pact today should not deceive themselves, as Cuban revolutionaries today, who know their history, will make Cuba an eternal Baragua.

Faced with the reality of the world today and the onslaught of Latin America’s right against progressive and left-wing parties (with guidance and aid from abroad), the Cuban revolution isn’t going to fall into the trap. Those who followed the siren songs of neoliberalism in Argentina are today regretting the country’s retreat to the times of Carlos Menem, when the country was neck-deep in neoliberal muck and was only able to pull itself out of this pit thanks to the progressive governments of Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernandez.

In other countries, such as Honduras, Paraguay and, more recently, Brazil, parliamentary coups or economic warfare (as exemplified by Venezuela) are being used to set up new forms of neoliberalism.

We will never again return to the days of politicking and the shame of seeing unscrupulous politicians descend like vultures on the spoils of the homeland, mired in chaos and misery. What the revolution has achieved to date, which is far from insignificant, will continue to consolidate itself and grow until we have reached a prosperous and sustainable form of socialism, as was reaffirmed at the recently-concluded 7th Congress, which shall go on for as long as is needed.