Climate Change and Road Congestion

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This is a post about cause and effect, or rather, the lack of cause and effect.

Climate change and road congestion are related, not in a causal relationship, as one might unthinkingly conclude, but as emergent phenomena in complex, chaotic systems far from equilibrium.

If you made it through that paragraph unscathed, I’ll explain further. If not, see my post on Chaos HERE.

Climate prognostication and traffic planning exist in a world of linear relationships, the “If you push something hard enough, it will fall over” world. Every effect has direct discernible cause(s), such that planners can always count on a predictable outcome from any given action. For instance, climate change is caused by human produced CO2 in the atmosphere; traffic congestion is caused by insufficient capacity in highways. Thus, the stories go, if we decrease human produced CO2, climate change will stop or at least decrease; if we add lanes to the highways, traffic congestion will decrease. It seems intuitive.

While this approach has served humans well for generations, in our modern world of 7 billions and counting, with our global societies and ubiquitous technological innovations, linear cause and effect is overcome by the complexity and chaos of our social and technological relationships.

Climate is an emergent phenomenon of chaotic nonlinear relationships among numerous variables and feedbacks, a spaghetti tangle of natural cycles on the Earth, in the solar system and beyond, including human industrial activity and land use changes.

We know that climate changed long before human activity had any other than very local effects. Assuming that modern observed climate variation is “caused” by human production of CO2 is not only factually wrong, it diverts attention from the reality of natural climate variation, misapplies enormous human resources and economies, and ignores the inescapable necessity that humans accommodate to natural cycles rather than attempting to control them.

We know from observation that traffic congestion is often the result of accidents or tailbacks at off and on ramps. Sometimes we run into a clot of cars on the freeway that has no discernable cause and that clears up for no discernable reason, leaving no car parts on the verge to reveal its dynamics. We also know that widening the highway may temporarily relieve existing traffic congestion, but in a relatively short period of time congestion returns in the newly created lanes and ramps.

These seemingly disparate observations are the result of increasing numbers of cars interacting within the complex system of individual driving habits and distractions, on and off ramps and local road conditions, resulting in non-linear responses to small changes in driving conditions. Increasing highway capacity only increases the complexity of these interactions and does not address the root causes of traffic congestion.

If humans fail to learn that we cannot control climate by reducing CO2 production, and that widening the highway will not reduce traffic congestion, then we fail to explore social changes that accommodate to natural climate variation, and reduce dependence on automobiles and truly reduce traffic congestion.

It’s time for a new approach to human growth and development, technology and society. It’s time to apply our growing understanding of chaos and complex, non-linear systems to everyday problems of moving about on a planet with highly variable and unpredictable climates.

 

Happy Birthday, Ed!

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Today is the 89th anniversary of the natal day of Edward Paul Abbey, author, curmudgeon, social critic, lover of women and other wild living things.

He bared his soul in Black Sun, Fire on the Mountain, Desert Solitaire, and Fool’s Progress, set many of us on the path to defense of natural habitat and wilderness, confrontations with overbearing authorities, monkey wrenching, tree-spiking, survey stake pulling and other forms of socially and environmentally responsible activities.

If Ed were alive now, he’d be glad he died while there was still something left of the wild.

Soar high, Ed!

“There are some good things to be said about walking. Not many, but some. Walking takes longer, for example, than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. I have a friend who’s always in a hurry; he never gets anywhere. Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details. The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated. … To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me.”
Edward Abbey

The “Control” of Nature and Other Myths

John McPhee wrote a book called The Control of Nature, published in 1989, about human attempts to control Nature, the Mississippi River, Iceland volcanoes and the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles. It’s a good read about human folly in the face of a variable Nature and the impossibility of controlling it.

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Photo by Jean Brocklebank

It seems that some folks in Santa Cruz, California haven’t read their McPhee, or if they did, they’ve forgotten the lessons the author so well explained.

In 1964, City fathers decided to build a small craft harbor in Woods Lagoon, a natural estuary fed by Arana Creek flowing down from the mountains in the north, on the borderline between the City of Santa Cruz and the unincorporated Santa Cruz County. The harbor was initially dredged with monies provided by the Army Corps of Engineers, and expanded in 1973 to its current 800 slip capacity, soon filled with fishing boats and pleasure craft.

Either the Corps of Engineers (Beaver Corps) didn’t know what they were doing, or they forgot to mention to equally eager City Fathers that the lagoons along this stretch of coastal California are maintained in their lagooness by the eastward longshore drift of sand from rivers and streams emptying out into Monterey Bay, rivers such as the San Lorenzo just west of what once was Woods Lagoon.

The scene above illustrates what happens when humans attempt to interrupt the natural process of longshore drift with piles of rocks “protecting” an artificial channel where a lagoon used to collect sediment from upstream and upshore.

The beach seen on both sides of the channel results primarily from sand washing in from the San Lorenzo River, deposited in the channel at the south end of the harbor creating a sand bar that closes off the harbor during stormy winter months.

The Santa Cruz Port District, the quasi-governmental entity that manages the Santa Cruz Harbor, spends about a million dollars a year dredging the harbor channel from the north end where Arana Creek flows into the harbor to the south end. It does this every year, almost continuously, and it must keep this up forever. As we can clearly see in the picture above, even a momentary lapse in dredging would result in the mouth of harbor being closed to boat traffic entirely. To that end, the Port District is purchasing a brand new five million dollar dredge to replace the 30 year old machinery now in operation.

This epic effort to artificially maintain a harbor for pleasure craft and a few fishing boats in a waterway that wants to be a lagoon again is not the result of incompetence or malfeasance on the part of Port District personnel. This is merely one more example of human aspirations and desires blown out of scale beyond the capability of the local environment to support.

The harbor was conceived of and designed by developers looking to make money for themselves and the City of Santa Cruz (mostly for themselves) with no thought of the consequences to the local environment that ultimately would pay the price of this massive restructuring and attempt to control Nature. No studies were attempted to understand the natural systems and processes of the tidal lagoon they tried to destroy. No one studied longshore drift to find out where all that sand on the beaches came from, and what would happen if an impediment was built out to sea to interrupt that flow.

The developers and City politicians assumed, as always, that humans could change the Earth any way that suited them and that they could ultimately control those natural processes that they so drastically modified.

Now the bill has arrived, and its a whopper. In order to attempt to control Woods Lagoon and keep it from returning to its former self, they must find a way keep the dredge operation going indefinitely into the future, an operation dependent on thousands of gallons of diesel fuel to keep the dredge running and removing sand from the harbor mouth. Can’t do it on solar and wind energy. This takes Big Energy to build the massive dredge barge to begin with, and to horse it around the harbor, suck up the accumulating sediment and pump it back out to the ocean downshore.

This is just one example of human society reaching the limits of its ability to grow and to modify the natural world in its own image. Clean water, clean air and energy that doesn’t pollute either of them are in increasingly short supply. Santa Cruz has discovered there’s not enough potable water available for continued economic and population growth. The Port District is discovering they can’t charge enough slip fees to pay for the increasing cost of keeping the harbor open for slip renters to operate their boats year round. The City and the County are discovering that the faster they grow the behinder their budget gets.

As with all things living, there is an optimum limit in size and complexity for human societies, a limit that has been surpassed. The more humans try to control the natural world for our benefit, the more energy and resources we must expend to simply maintain what we already have built.

We cannot control the natural world, we can only learn to cooperate with it.

 

Wind Power “Rescues” New York Nuke

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In a recent article in Bloomberg Business, Naureen Malik described how wind power helped make up for lost electricity production in New York state when a nuclear power plant was partially shut down.

 

A nuclear reactor that supplies Manhattan unexpectedly went offline Monday night, though you wouldn’t know it to look at power prices.

Source: Wind Rescues New York Power After Nuclear Plant Shutdown – Bloomberg Business

The article implies that clean wind energy generation substituted for dirty fossil fuel and nuclear energy production, and, as an extra added attraction, turned out to be cheaper. This conclusion is tempered a bit by the admission toward the end of the article that natural gas power plants were also brought on line to take up the slack.

Promises of a solar and wind energy future with energy consumption just like today cast a deceptive glow on the horizon, as renewable energy sources require fossil fuel subsidies, since they are produced (mined, transported, forged, manufactured, assembled, transported, installed, maintained, dismantled and recycled) using fossil fuels. We can’t produce renewable energy technology using only renewable energy sources. We can’t pull ourselves up by our own renewable bootstraps.

Nevertheless, energy companies are erecting thousands of acres of wind farms on ridge tops around the world, papering desert floors with solar panel arrays, and constructing huge centralized solar mirror arrays in attempts to concentrate solar and wind energy so it can be distributed and sold in the existing electricity grid. This is being touted as the solution to Global Warming, claiming that this will produce fewer CO2 emissions than oil, coal, and natural gas.

While it remains to be seen if solar and wind can replace all fossil fuels, it is abundantly clear that wind and solar technologies also bring with them their own unique environmental consequences.

Wind turbines are hell on birds and bats, especially raptors that have floated serenely for centuries in the same windy places now sought out by wind turbine installers, and for the same reason: abundant, reliable  energy from the wind.

Wind turbines are shockingly noisy, as my wife and I discovered while hiking in the hills above Livermore, California, home to an extensive array of large wind turbines. We began hearing the sound before we topped a ridge, with nothing in sight to explain the noise and vibration. As we walked over the top , we saw the turbine blades spinning above the ridge and realized the sound we had been hearing from over a quarter mile away on the other side of the ridge was from a wind farm. In addition, the previously undeveloped ridge slopes had been carved and graded with a series of roads for the installation and continuing maintenance of the turbines.

Solar panels don’t have turbine blades, but they do require vast swaths of previously undeveloped land for their installation, access roads and chain link fencing to keep out all the critters that were displaced in the solar installation.

Solar mirror arrays concentrate the energy of sunlight into a tight fiery beam that hits a target and heats a liquid medium that is used to generate electricity. Any hapless flying creatures that enter the invisible beam are burned to a crisp instantly.

The benign image of renewable green energy resources depicted behind a herd of deer or antelope is belied by the reality of their destructive impacts on the natural habitat they occupy.

The truth is, there’s no free lunch, there’s not even a relatively inexpensive snack. Producing and consuming energy, even renewable energy, results in destruction of natural habitats, toxic waste production, the death, disruption and displacement of wildlife, and challenges to the health and safety of humans.

In a world of finite resources, any unlimited growth and development causes more problems than benefits for all of life on the planet.

 

On-Beach Off-Leash Dogs

 

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Santa Cruz is dog heaven!

We have over 260,000 human beings in Santa Cruz County, and more than 50,000 dogs, by estimate of the County Animal Shelter. And that’s on a weekday in the wintertime. On weekends and during the summer months, a goodly portion of the 5 million+ people in the San Francisco Bay area come to Santa Cruz to frolic in the waves and enjoy the cool breezes… with their dogs. Imagine how much dog poop 50,000++ dogs leave behind every day.

For those of you unblessed with familiarity of Santa Cruz County, we’re south of San Francisco, on the edge of the Pacific Plate, on the north side of Monterey Bay. Classic California: surfers, Woodies, beach babes, warm beaches, cold water, wildlife at every quarter, mountains on the horizon, the edge of the world on the opposite viewscape. Paradise.

However… the silver lining on the clouds of this human and dog heaven are tarnished by a three-year long controversy over dogs running off-leash on County beaches.

There is a small group of Santa Cruz County dog owners who feel it is their entitled right to allow their dogs to run off-leash on any beach they choose, usually the one closest to where they live. This, despite a decades-long leash law that prohibits dogs from being off-leash when “away from their premises,” which means anywhere in the County, including County beaches. When visitors come over the hill to join the throng, they see dogs running on the beaches, and they think it is OK to allow their canid charges to join them.

Santa Cruz County beaches are not only popular recreational venues for human residents and visitors, but they are also sensitive habitat for resident and migratory shorebirds that have used these beaches for millennia as places to rest, feed and nest. The County General Plan and Local Coastal Program states that the County has the obligation to protect these sensitive habitats from disturbance from human activities, including allowing their dogs to run off leash on these beaches, even unto the point of banning all dogs from the beach, on leash or not.

Unhappy with County Animal Control officers for giving them tickets for violating the County leash law, the “off-leash advocates” have been whining complaining to County Animal Services officials about their stepped up enforcement activities, and the use of Animal Control officers to bring these dog-owning miscreants to justice.

The “off-leash advocate” dog owners are demanding that the County “compromise” on the the leash laws and allow off-leash dogs on “just one” stretch of beach, claiming that “those who don’t like dogs” can go somewhere else (unspecified) while they are allowing their dogs to run free on the beach, chasing shorebirds, tourists, families, surfers and other wildlife with abandon.

“Compromise” means each party in an agreement gives up something and each party benefits. In the case of off-leash advocates’ demands, only one party would gain (them) and everyone else, including the wildlife, would lose. This is privilege, not “compromise.”

It is not the duty of County government to compromise public health and safety in shared public spaces, to compromise the health and well-being of all animals, nor to compromise the biological integrity of sensitive habitats in County parks and beaches. It is not the duty of County government to grant special privileges to one user group at the expense of everyone else.

There are thirteen designated off-leash dog parks in Santa Cruz County. None of them are on the beach, because the County does not create off-leash dog parks in sensitive habitats, such as nesting grounds for shorebirds protected by federal law and international treaties.

If local “off-leash advocates” are serious about compromise, and not just concerned about their own desires to recreate on the beach, then they can give up their demands for off-leash beaches and take their furry charges to existing off-leash dog parks, where they can run free, socialize with other dogs and deposit their poop and pee in areas that do not degrade sensitive wildlife habitat.

It’s a win-win situation. Dogs get their fun and exercise, humans get to enjoy the beaches without getting knocked over or stepping in something smelly and unpleasant, and wildlife can enjoy their homes without dogs chasing them away from their dinner table.

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Making politics local

The environmental perspective, based on an understanding of ecology, anthropology and science in general, is the orphan child of the political process.
There is no candidate for national office, with any prospect of election, who acknowledges, let alone supports preservation and protection of the natural world, finite resources, steady state economy, conservation, human population reduction, energy demand reduction, topsoil depletion, species extinction, natural habitat loss, potable water depletion, GMO dispersal, organic agriculture, adaptation to natural climate variation.
In other words, there is no candidate for national office I could vote for. Political gamesmanship (hold the nose, vote for the lesser of many evils) merely continues the status quo. I have no stomach for “strategic voting.” I vote my principles and only support candidates who have demonstrated their understanding of our place as cooperating and contributing members of the natural world. If there be any.
It makes my task pretty easy, albeit frustrating. 
Why is there no national democracy in the United States? The corporate oligarchy that runs the United States government has fashioned the political system to respond to dollars, not votes. The candidates that are elected are prechosen by the system that eliminates all but a few with the proper obeisance to corporate power and control, who have paid their dues along the way, toed the corporate line, mouthed the corporate platitudes and emerged in the election process wearing the corporate seal of approval.
Not to blame it all on corporations, of course. The voting public has just as much responsibility for the outcome as the corporate sponsors of political candidates, corporate lobbyists and think (sic) tanks. If consumers didn’t buy the products that corporations produce, corporations wouldn’t market the products for consumers to buy. That includes political candidates as well as cheap plastic crap from China. If voters would stop voting for those whose loyalties lie elsewhere, they’d stop being elected.
That leaves local elections as the last vestige of democracy in this country. Let’s keep our politics close to home, where we can keep an eye on elected officials, hold their feets to the fire and make sure they do what they said they would do when asking for our vote and support. It’s a full time job, this keeping an eye on local politicos. Its fun, challenging, occasionally gratifying, always interesting, offering opportunities for pleasant walks to community meetings, confabs with friends and neighbors, occasional exercise for the bile and bladder. Long after the election season has passed, the process of community government continues apace.
Some day, after the End of the Age of Oil, local politics will be all that’s left. That Great National Asylum on the Potomac will be a passing memory, a faint rumor, something to tell stories about on blustery winter nights around the wood stove, fairy tales to teach the children about the evils that lurk beyond the horizon. Politics in Place, where we live our ideals and principles every day.
Sounds to me like something to work toward.
Michael

Can humans survive themselves?

After decades of environmental activism and organization, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that nothing can be done to prevent, or even mitigate massive environmental disruption, habitat destruction, species loss, air and water pollution and modification of natural climate variation.

This may seem obvious to some, and, I suppose, it is. It doesn’t make it stick in my craw any less.

Looking back, there have been victories: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act. These legislative actions helped slow the rate of destruction, at least for a while.

Stacked up against the totalitarian hegemony of the global growth at any cost economy, and the failure of democracy as a form of enlightened government, these gains are insufficient to forestall inevitable environmental degradation and resulting economic collapse.

This startling revelation walks hand-in-hand with another: humans are basically stupid and uncaring. I don’t mean ignorant; ignorance can be cured by the application of information. Stupid means unintelligent, even to the point of willful ignorance.

In the human world, Homo sapiens has removed itself from the natural process of evolution. In the natural world, intelligence, the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills, is a required attribute for evolutionary success. Since humans no longer respond to selection pressure, intelligence is not required for success as a human being.

While this is bad enough among the general population, unintelligence has become concentrated in one critical area of human society.

To paraphrase Mark Twain: Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a government bureaucrat. But I repeat myself.

Government bureaucracy has become the universal haven for all manner of unenlightened twits, worthless ninnies, mental feebs, recalcitrant do-nothings, corporate toadies, and status-quo apologists. They have perfected the Peter Principle and taken it to new heights of development.

Dealing with these obstructions to progress, in any sense of the word, is like trying to walk through a wall of marshmallows. Every effort to bring the light of day into the gloom of government offices is misdirected, mislaid, misfiled, obscured with coffee stains, glued into incomprehensibility with sticky-bun detritus, crumpled and basketballed into the round file of oblivion, benignly ignored or actively resisted.

As if that were insufficient, government bureaucrats (GBs) are unequaled in their ability to act as if they’re doing something while all the while effectively emulating the Rock of Gibraltar. They’ve all gone to Bureaucrateze language school and each have the Official Bureaucrats Thesaurus (1875) close at hand for ready reference. Missives between and among GBs are replete with inaction phrases, weasel words (apologies to the genus Mustela), obscuratanisms and obfuscations. They excel in Concentric Bird logic (that which goes round and round in ever decreasing circles until it disappears into its own fundament).

The worst part of this appalling situation is that nothing can be done to change it. GBs are in control of the world and its social institutions. City Councils, Borough Assemblies, state legislatures and even that Great National Asylum for the Criminally Helpless in Washington, DC are all held in close thrall to the ministrations of the Government Bureaucrat Conspiracy.

“Is that a conspiracy theory?” whines the wag in the back row.

Yes, it is. GBs do indeed get together in conference rooms and plan how to build and maintain their throttle-hold on the reins of public process. Here is a web site, which, true to form, is slow to load, poorly organized and archaically non-interactive: Top 25 Government Conferences.

Back to my thesis: There’s No Hope.

Any prospect for substantive change in the relationship between human societies and the natural world is dependent on an organized group of humans who don’t care, don’t know, and worse, know what they don’t want to know about the effects of their actions on the broader biosphere, on which, ironically, their own future depends.

Thus, in answer to the title of this screed, the Cosmic Joke arrives at its inevitable punchline:

Homo sapiens will go to its long deserved grave laughing its empty head off.