AuthorTopic: 🏭 The Future of the Planet Looks Like 'WALL-E'  (Read 470 times)

Offline RE

  • Administrator
  • Chief Cook & Bottlewasher
  • *****
  • Posts: 41642
    • View Profile
🏭 The Future of the Planet Looks Like 'WALL-E'
« on: November 25, 2018, 12:01:36 AM »

Nov 23, 2018

The Future of the Planet Looks Like 'WALL-E'

A scene still from the 2008 film "WALL-E." (Pixar)

The story has been lost in the miasma of Donald Trump’s scandal-ridden presidency, but its implications for the U.S. and much of the West cannot be overstated. In April, after ending imports of 24 kinds of scrap last year, Beijing announced that it would be extending its ban to dozens of other materials. And while environmentalists have hailed the move as a “big win for global green efforts,” a rash of countries are suddenly scrambling to dispose of their recyclables.

Dianna Cohen of the Plastics Pollution Coalition believes that a plastics crisis has arrived.

“We suddenly have to deal with our own waste, basically, now,” she tells Robert Scheer. “And then, also, the costs of recycling are increasing, and you have to think about how many trucks are needed to create it, how widely it’s dispersed, et cetera. And that’s a big expense. And then plastic production—internationally, but [also] internally in the United States—is really ramping up right now, and it’s going to continue to explode. So we have a very big problem on our hands. It reminds me of that movie ‘Wall-E,’ or ‘Idiocracy,’ where people live in a world that’s just full of waste, it’s just a wasteland, like a garbage dump.”

In the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Cohen explains how plastics and the burning of fossil fuels are interrelated, and why recycling alone can’t save us. “Recycling is a really cool idea—I put things in my recycling containers, where I live in Hollywood,” she says. “And I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from doing that, if there is some kind of infrastructure set up in your town where you live. But just because something could potentially be recycled—does it actually get recycled? I think that’s an important question to ask.”

Later in their discussion, she addresses some of our largest corporate polluters—all of them American and European companies—and just how thoroughly inadequate their sustainability efforts have proved. “I think in the time since we founded Plastic Pollution Coalition in 2009, there have been three different sustainability directors for Coca-Cola that I’ve met. These companies often, when I’ve spoken with their sustainability directors, say, ‘Oh, we’re working on a bunch of great stuff, it’s going to be fantastic.’ And I say, ‘I can’t wait to see.’ … [We really need to] hold these corporations responsible for all of the packaging that they use for their products.”

Ultimately, Cohen urges consumers and manufacturers alike to re-evaluate their use of plastics. If we refuse to evolve, to change the way we interact with these materials, she warns, we’re likely threatening the health of our children and future generations.

“If you look at the whole chain, it impacts us negatively—our health, human health, animal health, the planet, the entire chain,” she observes. “So really, I think while plastic is a useful and valuable material, when we use it and design things with it with intended obsolescence, to be used for a short amount of time, we are using a valuable material in an irresponsible way.”

Listen to Cohen’s interview with Scheer or read a transcript of their conversation below:

Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where I hasten to add the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Dianna Cohen, who is the leader, or cofounder, of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. And a really worthy operation, really important to saving the planet. But I have to start with a sort of sick joke: when I think about plastics I think about Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, right, and this uncle or somebody comes up to him as he’s graduated and gives him the key word for life: plastics. And you know, at that time, back in the sixties, I guess as late as the sixties, the whole assumption was that plastics would liberate us; they were great, they were cheap, you could be everywhere, you could make cars out of them, you could–you know, everything. And throw ‘em away, and life was going to be great. So plastics really were identified with the good life and modernization and so forth. And you are one of those people who have spoiled the party. And there are some headlines about that that you can give us; just, you can’t, I mean you can’t get a straw unless you ask for it, right? You’re the one that’s been doing all this, and you’ve been doing it for a long time. And again, I don’t want to make light of it, because you head a great group, and it saves fish and birds and you know, everybody else, and you’ll tell us that. And it’s a great menace to the world. So give us the headlines on this evolving story.

Dianna Cohen: Well, I mean, I think it’s important just to state that plastic pollution is a global crisis. And it’s not a crisis that–in a sense it’s in your face, in a sense it’s not. When we hear about something, like when we had the BP oil disaster, that was a physical thing that you could see oil spilling out. And plastic is a little more nefarious than that, because we are using it all over the world every day–

RS: Well, plastic is oil, right?

DC: Plastic is oil. It’s made from processing oil products–oil products, and then you add plasticizing chemicals to it. And what we’ve been learning over the last 30, 40 years is that these chemicals, which are added to the plastic, create polymer chains that don’t break down in the environment. And they also leach bits of those chemicals into our food and beverages that have been linked to human health issues for us, and impact the marine life, are ingested by sea life and wildlife. It comes back to us in so many ways. Plastic is the gift that keeps giving.

RS: And it’s worse than oil.

DC: I don’t know that it’s worse than oil, but it’s part of the petrochemical world that we live in.

RS: And so let’s cut to the serious part, really, the damage part. This is the major polluter of oceans, most of the waste, and–

DC: It is one of the major polluters of oceans; it is not the sole polluter of the ocean. But because of particular qualities that plastic has, it either floats or it sinks to the bottom, or it begins to get algae and things growing on it, which attract sea life and wildlife to it–they smell it, and they believe it’s edible, and so they eat it or they’re attracted to the colors of it. Pelagic seabirds, like Laysan albatross and other seabirds, also collect plastic bits and pieces thinking that it’s food or krill, or things that they normally would collect and feed to their babies. And then they bring it back to the nest and they regurgitate it, they feed it to the babies, and these babies die with their stomachs full of plastic. Or they live severely impacted, shortened lives because their stomachs are full of plastic. And it’s interesting, because when I first saw these photographic images that had been taken by Susan Middleton and Chris Jordan of dead adolescent Laysan albatross, from Midway Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean–when I first saw those photographs, you know, it hit me really hard. And not just cerebrally, it’s not a thought that you have; it really hits you, you know, in your heart, in your stomach; it hits you in your gut. And you look at that image, and you think: my God, are my daily choices, and the choices that corporations and companies around us use for packaging for our food and beverages, killing–unwittingly killing animals all over the world? And how am I, how am I playing a part in this? And so when I saw that, for me, those birds in particular, and those images which are very powerful, became a metaphor for what we’re doing to ourselves. We’re stuffing ourselves full of plastic, and the chemicals that leach from plastic, and we’re doing it to our children, and most people are still not yet aware that this is even happening.

RS: Well, let’s spell that out. How does that work?

DC: Well, so, the chemicals that are used to make plastic–you take a carbon source when you make plastic; 98% of plastics are made from petroleum, but you can also use plant-based carbon sources to make plastic, like sugar cane or corn or potato or hemp or bulrush, different fibrous carbon sources. And–

RS: Are they marketed as good plastic, or–?

DC: Um, they’re marketed as bioplastics. So, yeah, there are people who would consider that better; that’s an incremental thing. You know, if you’re trying to move away from and divest from being dependent on fossil fuels and petroleum, then yes, incrementally, perhaps, some of these are better. But the problem really comes to the chemicals that are added, that are the plasticizing chemicals, that give those carbon sources–that give them the qualities that we identify as plastic; make it supple, malleable, transparent, translucent, rigid, et cetera. And those groups of chemicals are called bisphenols. So you might have heard, oh, this is made with bisphenol A, or this is OK because it’s BPA-free. And it may be made with BPB or BPC or BPS or BPZ–another bisphenol. And then phthalates–phthalates are added to a lot of things, from what I understand, to make the plastic mushy–kind of soft and rubbery, like a rubber ducky or something like that, that’s not actually made from rubber from a rubber tree, but made from heavily phthalated plastic. So these two groups of chemicals have now been studied for some time, and BPA has probably been studied the most so far. And BPA leaches micro amounts into the food and beverage that are packaged in containers or bottles or packaging that are made with these materials. And bisphenol A, in studies, has been linked to lower sexual function, sterility and infertility. GQ just did a piece called “Sperm Count Zero,” about new research that’s come out about the impact to human sperm. It’s also been linked to obesity and diabetes, as well as breast cancer, prostate cancer, and brain cancer. And then babies exposed to these chemicals in utero, BPA, it’s been linked to shortened anogenital distance, smaller penis size, feminization of boys–so boys getting breasts, early menses in girls–girls getting their period much younger than they normally would, among other things.

RS: OK, so plastic is bad stuff, we don’t have to debate that, right.

DC: Well, I mean, I think plastic is an incredibly useful material, but when we use it to package all of our food and beverage and beauty products in it, we’re probably not using it in the wisest way for our health.

RS: So, OK, people get the message. And you’ve had some victories lately, right? Give me the headlines on the victories here in California, the governor signed legislation?

DC: Yeah, well, I mean, so we’ve had victories. So when you say we’ve had victories–I mean, I’m a cofounder of and I’m the CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition; we’re a global coalition, but we work with other coalitions as well. And we work with a global movement as well, a hashtag global movement called #BreakFreeFromPlastic, the Clean Seas Coalition, and other coalitions. So really, united together, we have had some great wins internationally and nationally and state-wise. And in California just in the last month or so, we had some legislation that passed the assembly, and then Governor Jerry Brown signed into law two bills that are related to reducing microfibers and microplastics, and a bill which has to do with reducing plastic food packaging. And then, I think one of the most interesting ones that we all worked hard to help get the word out about, is a bill that would make straws only available upon request. So this is not taking straws away from anybody; this is straws only upon request. Which immediately does two things: one, it creates less waste; and prior to that, it saves eateries and restaurants and cafes and bars money. Because they don’t need to order as many, because they’re not giving out as many; they’re not automatically putting them in your drink. And I think California was really the natural place to have a piece of legislation like that, that was brought by Ian Calderon. I think California is a natural place to do that, because for many years now, we’ve had water upon request, because we live in a drought-riddled state. And so in the same way, you know, you can have straws upon request. What that also allows businesses to do is make the switch to paper straws, which actually will break down in the environment, or can go in a compost and break down, unlike plastic straws. And unlike bioplastic, or compostable straws, which only will be composted if they go into a system that can heat them up and break them down.

RS: So let me just get this straight. We can go a long way to helping this if we use a paper straw, which, ah–

DC: Well, I mean, if you like straws, you can do what I do, which is I carry reusable straws with me.

RS: But I really want to get the scope of this. And you said there are a few other headlines that–I don’t know, for me, this became vivid in your movie that you helped get out there, where I saw a straw in the eye of a green sea turtle.

DC: It was in its nostril.

RS: Nostril, right, sorry. That did it. That image has stuck with me, and I really, I don’t think I’ve used a plastic straw since. I’ve obviously encountered plastic before. But I really want to get some of the numbers. And it seems to me the big issue here, and a big concern around the world, is people say to us, hey, you Americans started all this. You’re the great wasters, you’re the great–you know, you gave us all this junk, you told us it was a great revolution, it represented freedom. And now you suddenly decided that all of us have got to cut back. And I want to take the example of China, because that has been in the news a little bit. I mean, OK, people describe China as a great polluter–well, China’s got a great population, right? And are we now saying to China, to India, we had our ride with waste and with plastic and other things that pollute the environment, and now we’re going to try to cut back, but you guys have really got to cut back. And I want to ask you about a specific item of news, that for a while there–and I’ve learned it from you–we were shipping our recyclable plastic back to China, on empty cargo ships that were bringing us all our iPhones and everything else. And now, China doesn’t want those recyclable–

DC: They’re producing enough of their own.

RS: They’re producing enough of their own. And so, the price paid for this is being cut in half, I gather, something like that. And therefore, the recyclers are not as interested in grabbing plastic to recycle, is that the case?

DC: Well, I mean, look. Recycling is a really cool idea, and I don’t–I put things in my recycling containers, where I live in Hollywood. And I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from doing that, if there is some kind of infrastructure set up in your town where you live. But just because something could potentially be recycled–does it actually get recycled? I think that’s an important question to ask.

RS: So we want abstinence.

DC: Well, it’s not good for your health, so if you reduce or–if you refuse it in the beginning, then you reduce the amount that you’re using, and you have less that you need to try to recycle or reuse.

RS: And that’s the idea behind a metal straw, for instance, you can–

DC: A metal straw, a glass straw. I mean, there are also wonderful companies doing bamboo straws, growing straw out of rye wheat and hay. There’s a straw company called LOLIWARE that is making straws out of seaweed, and they’re nontoxic and they are, you know, 100% compostable, break down, because it’s part of nature.

RS: OK, so give me the numbers. What percentage of this stuff ends up killing the planet and killing animals?

DC: Well, so, just this last week, Plastic Pollution Coalition released a new projection by chemical engineer Jan Dell, and in that she was looking at what’s going on with recycling rates, and has predicted that recycling rates for plastic in the United States will be only 4.4% by the end of 2018. And that they potentially could sink as low as 2.9% in 2019. And that the four main reasons for this drop is that plastic waste generation is increasing exponentially in the United States; that exports counted as recycling; when China banned foreign waste, we suddenly have to deal with our own waste, basically, now. And then also, the costs of recycling are increasing, and you have to think about how many trucks are needed to create it, how widely it’s dispersed, et cetera. And that’s a big expense. And then plastic production–internationally, but internally in the United States–is really ramping up right now, and it’s going to continue to explode. So we have a very big problem on our hands. It reminds me of that movie Wall-E, or Idiocracy, where people live in a world that’s just full of waste, it’s just a wasteland, like a garbage dump.

RS: Well, we’re going to try to get some optimism in this, but first the break. [omission for station break] We’re back with Dianna Cohen, the cofounder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. And you know, I have a kind of schizzy feeling about this, because I keep making light of it. After all, it is plastic; plastic was designed to be light and beautiful and efficient and everything else–

DC: It is!

RS: –and everything else. But I watched this documentary [Living in the Future’s Past], which I’m promoting here–Jeff Bridges, as you pointed out, that your group had a lot to do with–

DC: Well, and also the STRAWS documentary.

RS: I suddenly realized, this is not kidding around. This is really serious stuff. And now I’ve even been sobered up to the point where recycling doesn’t cut it. And I know you don’t want to be pushed quite that far, but you know, as a reformed alcoholic here, I believe in abstinence. And if something’s a poison for you, as I feel alcohol is for me–I’m not proselytizing for anybody else–then I have to abstain, which I’ve done most of my adult life, OK. And I feel the same way about plastic. You know, I’m hooked on plastic; it’s been there, as I say, it’s been this wonderful, shiny, supple, easy, cheaper thing that has informed my entire life. And yet, recycling it doesn’t really cut it; nobody wants our junk, the price drops, the money’s not in it. And abstinence, finding alternatives to plastic, is really your message here. Because we’re kidding ourselves, in a way, with the recycling. And the alternative, really, is to understand that this shiny object is the death of us.

DC: Well, I don’t want to talk about death. It’s inevitable. But–but, let’s talk about another cool thing that just came out in the last week: an announcement from all of this data from a new brand audit that was created by #BreakFreeFromPlastic. And what did they find? Three main companies were identified in 239 cleanups and brand audits, which were actually created across 42 different countries on six different continents, and what did they find? They found that Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Co, and Nestle are the worst corporate polluters.

RS: So, ah, let me understand what this means, though. What is the quick fix for these three companies? Let’s say a lot of pressure is brought on them, and so forth; what do they do? Do they go back to glass and recycle? What do they do?

DC: Ah, well–

RS: Tin cans? I don’t know.

DC: I mean, if they wanted a person like me to buy any of their products, I only would buy their products if they were packaged in glass. But you know, it’s interesting, because when I look at photographs of the supermarket here in California in the seventies, all of the beverages were in glass. And there was really a switchover that was made in the eighties.

RS: OK, let’s say in the interest of equal free time, we have a representative here from Pepsi-Co. And what they said was they were Pepsi, being free, you know, the Pepsi generation. They were selling a lifestyle. So were Coca-Cola, also; a little stuffier, Coca-Cola. And that lifestyle was really expanded dramatically by the use of plastic. Plastic and soft drinks, that’s really a critical connection. So you’ve got one of those enlightened capitalists at Pepsi-Co right now in front of you.

DC: Well, I mean, all of these companies have sustainability directors. I think in the time since we founded Plastic Pollution Coalition in 2009, there have been three different sustainability directors for Coca-Cola that I’ve met. These companies often, when I’ve spoken with their sustainability directors, say–oh, we’re working on a bunch of great stuff, it’s going to be fantastic. And I say, I can’t wait to see–I had a dream the other night that you just connected the cap on your plastic bottle, you know, and then took 100% of them back. So we really need to see extended producer responsibility that holds these corporations responsible for all of the packaging that they use for their products.

RS: OK. Well, let me cut to the chase here, because I learned something just in the course of this podcast, that recycling is not the answer. And I had hints of it before, but I deluded myself that if I–you know, when I leave here, I’ll probably go get a soft drink somewhere. And I would grab that plastic bottle, and then I would console myself that I’m doing it at a place that has a recycling bin, you know, bins, and I would throw it in there–OK! I did my good deed for the day. But you’re basically telling me that’s not cutting it.

DC: Well, I’m not–like I said, I’m not dissuading people from putting things into the recycling, but I’m talking about the real–what is the reality of recycling? So recycling is a really nice idea, but it’s somewhat of a myth. Because if you live in a town or a place that has no infrastructure to take back the materials and downcycle them or do something with them, a lot of places in the world, many countries, say that they’re turning it from waste into energy, but those are different forms of burning and incineration, or pyrolysis, and much of that creates particulate pollution, which is toxic in the air for all of us. So, is that really the solution? No, I think the solution is source reduction. So if you work for one of these big companies, and you’re listening to this show right now, you need to turn around and think about how you’re going to shift the whole system within your company. It has to happen.

RS: All right, but I want to push this, because I think it’s an important point. First of all, the problem with recycling is a lot of people are not going to do it, OK. And so therefore, it doesn’t get–

DC: Well, not that a lot of people aren’t going to do it; people can do it, but if there’s no structure in place to support it, it doesn’t matter.

RS: But I’ve actually run into a few people who are in this industry of recycling. And the question there is, who wants this stuff? There’s a limit to landfill for different kinds of recycling. And you came up with an interesting point before, that China doesn’t want our recyclable plastic, right?

DC: Right.

RS: They’ve got a superabundance of recyclable plastic of their own, right?

DC: Mm-hmm.

RS: This myth of recycling–yes, in the short run it’s a good thing to do; yes, it’s better than not doing anything else. But we’ve invested very heavily in recycling as the answer. The answer.

DC: We haven’t invested heavily in it; corporate–

RS: Emotionally.

DC: No. Corporations, that is their messaging, that is their ad, that’s their marketing, is that this is recycled. That is the messaging, that’s their go-to. And it’s false. Our first campaign, from the moment that we created Plastic Pollution Coalition, was to ask people to refuse single-use plastic. Whenever possible, refuse it. Don’t buy your food packaged in it, because it’s not good for your health. It’s not good for the planet, it’s not good for your health, it’s not good for animals, it’s not good for the ocean, waterways, lakes, the environment in general.

RS: I want to be clear, because you know, I’ve tried to make this accessible, and maybe I’ve made it a little lighter than it should be. But we’re talking about the major, or one of the major, environmental problems in terms of the planet, right?

DC: Yes.

RS: So let’s now get true religion, here.


RS: What are we talking about, if we don’t act on this in a better way than we’ve been doing up to now? We’re not winning this battle.

DC: If we don’t continue to evolve in the way that we act upon it, and actually change and shift the system and the way that we interact with this material, it will continue to ill-impact our health, the health of our children, and future generations who are not born yet. And we will be living in a giant garbage dump.

RS: OK. Now, to play devil’s advocate here, finally, I saw something where there’s a cleanup campaign involving booms on the ocean, and–

DC: Mm-hmm. It’s called The Ocean Cleanup.

RS: Yeah. And–

DC: They’re part of our coalition.

RS: OK. And it made me feel suddenly good about everything.

DC: Why?

RS: I don’t know, maybe I’m a sucker for good news, but it looked like you’re able to put–what are they, describe the whole process of–

DC: They’re giant booms of plastic that have been carried out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and they–

RS: Which is where?

DC: That is somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, spread out over approximately 2,000 square miles, but it shifts depending on whether we’re having an El Niño or La Niña year; somewhere between Hawaii and California, that is where the Northeastern Pacific Gyre is located. And they have pulled them out there, and they are going to be passively cleaning up, I believe, the top three feet or something of the ocean. But the plastic that’s in the ocean is spread out over that 2,000-square-mile area; it’s in the water column, and the entire water strata, and it’s on the ocean floor. It will not be cleaning those parts up.

RS: So it’s a good thing to do, but again, it just really tells you how big the problem is.

DC: It may contribute to some of gathering a little bit of it. But I mean, in my personal opinion, that’s really, that’s the end of the whole chain. I think we need to look back and think, plastic appears to be an inexpensive material; but what is the true impact in our dependence on plastic? From war and extraction, through manufacturing and production, through delivery packaging, et cetera–and then instantly a waste issue, waste management, incineration, particulate pollution. If you look at the whole chain, it impacts us negatively–our health, human health, animal health, the planet, the entire chain. So really, I think while plastic is a useful and valuable material, when we use it and design things with it with intended obsolescence, to be used for a short amount of time, we are using a valuable material in an irresponsible way.

RS: And the “we,” this is something we, we–we Americans have led the world appetite in the use of plastic. We pioneered–

DC: I think we’ve definitely contributed to it; it appears that though there seem to be points where there’s a lot of plastic pollution being generated in Asia and Southeast Asia, when you look at the brand audit data, which is coming out of cleanups in Manila and different places in Southeast Asia, what you find is that the top corporate polluters are European and American corporations.

RS: Right. And my point is, this is what the multinational economy is about. It was like, you know, selling sugar water to the natives; that’s what Pepsi and Coca-Cola claimed they were doing. They had a clean water supply, we put it in a bottle, we sell it–oh, we can put it in a plastic bottle, it makes it easier to ship, and so forth. And environment be damned, in the long run. But I just want to be very clear about this. It’s a serious problem, and if we think in terms of where we get our consciousness from, that scene in The Graduate with Dustin Hoffman, he should have, when that uncle or whatever came up and said “plastic,” he should have–in the manner of the Berkeley sixties, right, that he was supposed to be evoking and so forth–he should have said, go to hell with your plastic, you’re destroying life on the planet.

DC: But I don’t think that people knew that at the time that that film was made.

RS: Exactly, exactly, so–

DC: Yeah, that’s what makes that scene even more deeply ironic now.

RS: Right, right. The revolution was betrayed, the revolution was supposed to be facilitated by plastic, and plastic ends up, right, poking out–what did you say, not the eye but the–

DC: The nostril. Got stuck in the nostril.

RS: –the nostril of turtles–

DC: Well, and that turtle really became a poster child in a wonderful way. You know, and there are tremendous other successes that are going on right now, like big corporations, big companies, have made a commitment and announced that they’re going to stop serving plastic straws. And that includes Starbucks, IKEA, Marriott, Walt Disney World, and some cruise line ships as well, which is pretty exciting, I think. And–well, and plastic straws are also just the tip of the iceberg. It’s an entryway into understanding.

RS: And it starts the discussion. And I’ve been having a discussion with Dianna Cohen, who is the cofounder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, which is doing great work in educating us. How do people learn more about this? What’s your website?

DC: Well, you can go to, or you can follow us on Facebook; we’re PlasticPollutionCoalition. On Instagram we’re @PlasticPollutes; and we’re also on Twitter, @PlasticPollutes.

RS: And you’re a worldwide coalition, with lots–

DC: We’re a global coalition, yeah. We’re over 750 different organizations and businesses around the world. We’re from 60 different countries. Small groups and large groups, all working to stop plastic pollution, and towards a world that is plastic-free.

RS: And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Isabel Carreon. Our engineers here at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. And we’ll see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.
Save As Many As You Can

Offline RE

  • Administrator
  • Chief Cook & Bottlewasher
  • *****
  • Posts: 41642
    • View Profile

Mass extinction could happen AGAIN as experts warn over repeat of ‘Great Dying’ that wiped out 96% of species

Scientists have shown that the Great Dying, which killed almost all of Earth's ocean creatures around 250 million years ago, was caused by global warming
By Harry Pettit, Senior Digital Technology and Science Reporter
6th December 2018, 7:00 pm
Updated: 6th December 2018, 5:27 pm

THE LARGEST extinction event in Earth's history was caused by global warming - and our planet may be in for another enormous wipeout, scientists warn.

Continued climate change could lead to a repeat of the Great Dying, which killed off 96% of life on Earth around 250 million years ago.
Fossil records reveal that the Great Dying, which wiped out almost all life on Earth around 250 million years ago, was caused by global warming
University of Washington

Fossil records reveal that the Great Dying, which wiped out almost all life on Earth around 250 million years ago, was caused by global warming

Long before the dawn of the dinosaurs, Earth was populated with plants and animals that were mostly obliterated after a series of massive volcanic eruptions in Siberia.

The mass extinction, triggered 252million years ago, essentially set life on our planet back to square one, and was followed by a period spanning millions of years in which life had to multiply and evolve once more.

Now researchers have shown that the Great Dying, which killed 96% of Earth's ocean creatures, was caused by global warming.

As volcanoes belched greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, Earth's oceans heated up, and its warming waters could no longer hold enough oxygen for life to survive.

Researchers studied fossil records in ancient slabs of limestone dating back hundreds of millions of years
University of Washington

Scientists at the University of Washington warned that man-made climate change could trigger a similar event within the next few hundred years.

"Under a business-as-usual emissions scenarios, by 2100 warming in the upper ocean will have approached 20 percent of warming in the late Permian, and by the year 2300 it will reach between 35 and 50 percent," said study author Justin Penn.

"This study highlights the potential for a mass extinction arising from a similar mechanism under anthropogenic climate change."

The Washington team ran computer models to simulate the effects of the Great Dying on Earth's ancient oceans.

They showed that sulphur and other greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere starved Earth's oceans of 80% of their oxygen.

What were Earth's five major extinction events?

Here's all you need to know...

    End Ordovician, 444 million years ago, 86% of species lost
    Late Devonian Extinction, 375 million years ago, 75% of species lost
    End Permian or the 'Great Dying', 251 million years ago, 96% of species lost
    End Triassic, 200 million years ago, 80% of species lost
    End Cretaceous, 66 million years ago, 76% of all species lost

This is because as the oceans heated up, creatures and plants used up more oxygen as their metabolism increased.

About half the oceans' seafloor, mostly at deeper depths, became completely oxygen-free and uninhabitable to almost all life on Earth.

The situation in the late Permian - increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that create warmer temperatures on Earth - is similar to today, researchers warned.

"This is the first time that we have made a mechanistic prediction about what caused the extinction that can be directly tested with the fossil record," Mr Penn said.

"It allows us to make predictions about the causes of extinction in the future."

What do you think we should do to stop global warming?
Save As Many As You Can

Offline RE

  • Administrator
  • Chief Cook & Bottlewasher
  • *****
  • Posts: 41642
    • View Profile
🏭 Subhankar Banerjee, The Vanishing: Biological Annihiliation
« Reply #2 on: December 15, 2018, 02:12:57 AM »

Tomgram: Subhankar Banerjee, The Vanishing
Posted by Subhankar Banerjee   at 7:35am, December 11, 2018.

    Baby Starfish, Olympic National Park. Photo by Subhankar Banerjee, 2015.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Just a reminder that signed, personalized copies of Ben Fountain’s new book, Beautiful Country Burn Again, are still available for a $100 contribution to this website ($125 if you live outside the U.S.) -- but not for long. Check out our donation page for the details because the offer will end this Friday.  Of the book, Andrew Bacevich has written: “As a stylist, Fountain combines the talents of Ambrose Bierce, Norman Mailer, and Hunter Thompson… A penetrating critique of a contemporary American politics thoroughly corrupted by money... Ben Fountain’s voice -- enraged, unsparing, unrelenting, acutely attuned to hypocrisy, and suffused with wit -- invests his testimony with an authority that commands respect.”  And a million thanks to all of you who already donated for a copy -- your support truly does make all the difference to us! Tom]

It’s not been a good era for migrants -- and no, I’m not talking about those “caravans” of desperate human beings from Central America heading for the U.S. (and the wrath of Donald J. Trump).  I’m thinking about birds -- shorebirds, in fact, which are surely the greatest migrants on the planet.  The Hudsonian godwit, for instance, flies more than 9,000 miles yearly to its Arctic breeding grounds.  Since 1974, however, populations of that bird have taken a 70% nose (or beak) dive, part of the great shorebird die-off of this era.  In fact, bird populations of many sorts are dropping across the planet.  These include mountain birds that have nowhere higher to go as global temperatures increase and the common farmland birds of France whose populations have fallen by a third, though some like the meadow pipit (at 68%) have experienced far more precipitous drops.  Then, there are the birds of the Mojave Desert in California and Nevada.  In those largely protected national park or preserve areas, according to a recent study, bird populations are down 42% in the last century, possibly thanks to climate change.  And none of this is out of the ordinary, since it’s now estimated that 40% of all bird species are in decline globally and one of every eight is threatened with extinction.

I’ve always remembered John Jay Audubon’s 1813 description of a vast flock of passenger pigeons flying unceasingly overhead for three days.  “The light of noon-day,” he wrote, “was obscured as by an eclipse.”  Such flocks were once estimated to have more than a billion birds.  A single Wisconsin nesting area was, in the nineteenth century, said to contain 136 million of them. Thanks to habitat destruction and overhunting -- pigeon pot pie was popular fare, being “the cheapest protein on land” at the time -- the last of those birds, “Martha,” died in a Cincinnati zoo in 1914.

Now, it seems many other species of birds, including snowy owls (which I’ve tried but never succeeded in seeing), are following in Martha’s wake or at least suffering severe declines. According to Audubon researchers, the bobwhite, for instance -- a bird I used to see every summer but no longer do -- has suffered a stunning 82% decline in this country.  All of this shocks me.  I was from my early teenage years a birdwatcher.  I have no idea now what first attracted me to birds.  All I can say is that watching them was a strange thing for a young teenager growing up in the middle of Manhattan to do, especially in an era when no boy in his right mind would fess up to such an activity (for fear of being drummed out of the corps of boys).  It was a secret I shared only with my best friend.  I can remember well going with him to New York’s Central Park during spring migration season, when birds passing overhead have remarkably few places to land in the big city, and being shown species I wouldn’t see again for decades by what were then the stereotypical Audubon types -- little old people in tennis sneakers (exactly what I now am).  It was a thrill at the time and remains so in memory (as every year my old friend and I still return to that park to do it all over again).

It couldn’t be sadder to imagine that someday, thanks to what TomDispatch regular, environmental activist, and wildlife photographer Subhankar Banerjee terms “biological annihilation,” so many of the birds I saw may no more be there for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren than the passenger pigeon was for me. Birds are, of course, only one small part of a staggering process of human-caused obliteration now underway across this planet, as Banerjee explains today.  It may be the saddest story of all at a moment when humanity just can’t seem to get a handle on its tendency to destroy. Tom

    Biological Annihilation
    A Planet in Loss Mode
    By Subhankar Banerjee

    If you’ve been paying attention to what’s happening to the nonhuman life forms with which we share this planet, you’ve likely heard the term “the Sixth Extinction.” If not, look it up.  After all, a superb environmental reporter, Elizabeth Kolbert, has already gotten a Pulitzer Prize for writing a book with that title.

    Whether the sixth mass species extinction of Earth’s history is already (or not quite yet) underway may still be debatable, but it’s clear enough that something’s going on, something that may prove even more devastating than a mass of species extinctions: the full-scale winnowing of vast populations of the planet’s invertebrates, vertebrates, and plants.  Think of it, to introduce an even broader term, as a wave of “biological annihilation” that includes possible species extinctions on a mass scale, but also massive species die-offs and various kinds of massacres.

    Someday, such a planetary winnowing may prove to be the most tragic of all the grim stories of human history now playing out on this planet, even if to date it’s gotten far less attention than the dangers of climate change.  In the end, it may prove more difficult to mitigate than global warming.  Decarbonizing the global economy, however hard, won’t be harder or more improbable than the kind of wholesale restructuring of modern life and institutions that would prevent species annihilation from continuing.   

    With that in mind, come along with me on a topsy-turvy journey through the animal and plant kingdoms to learn a bit more about the most consequential global challenge of our time.

    Insects Are Vanishing

    When most of us think of animals that should be saved from annihilation, near the top of any list are likely to be the stars of the animal world: tigers and polar bears, orcas and orangutans, elephants and rhinos, and other similarly charismatic creatures.

    Few express similar concern or are likely to be willing to offer financial support to “save” insects. The few that are in our visible space and cause us nuisance, we regularly swat, squash, crush, or take out en masse with Roundup.

    As it happens, though, of the nearly two million known species on this planet about 70% of them are insects. And many of them are as foundational to the food chain for land animals as plankton are for marine life. Harvard entomologist (and ant specialist) E.O. Wilson once observed that “if insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

    In fact, insects are vanishing.

    Almost exactly a year ago, the first long-term study of the decline of insect populations was reported, sparking concern (though only in professional circles) about a possible “ecological Armageddon.” Based on data collected by dozens of amateur entomologists in 63 nature reserves across Germany, a team of scientists concluded that the flying insect population had dropped by a staggering 76% over a 27-year period. At the same time, other studies began to highlight dramatic plunges across Europe in the populations of individual species of bugs, bees, and moths.

    What could be contributing to such a collapse? It certainly is human-caused, but the factors involved are many and hard to sort out, including habitat degradation and loss, the use of pesticides in farming, industrial agriculture, pollution, climate change, and even, insidiously enough, “light pollution that leads nocturnal insects astray and interrupts their mating.”

    This past October, yet more troubling news arrived.

    When American entomologist Bradford Lister first visited El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico in 1976, little did he know that a long-term study he was about to embark on would, 40 years later, reveal a “hyperalarming” new reality. In those decades, populations of arthropods, including insects and creepy crawlies like spiders and centipedes, had plunged by an almost unimaginable 98% in El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest within the U.S. National Forest System. Unsurprisingly, insectivores (populations of animals that feed on insects), including birds, lizards, and toads, had experienced similarly dramatic plunges, with some species vanishing entirely from that rainforest. And all of that happened before Hurricane Maria battered El Yunque in the fall of 2017.

    What had caused such devastation? After eliminating habitat degradation or loss -- after all, it was a protected national forest -- and pesticide use (which, in Puerto Rico, had fallen by more than 80% since 1969), Lister and his Mexican colleague Andres Garcia came to believe that climate change was the culprit, in part because the average maximum temperature in that rainforest has increased by four degrees Fahrenheit over those same four decades.

    Even though both scientific studies and anecdotal stories about what might be thought of as a kind of insectocide have, at this point, come only from Europe and North America, many entomologists are convinced that the collapse of insect populations is a worldwide phenomenon.

    As extreme weather events -- fires, floods, hurricanes -- begin to occur more frequently globally, “connecting the dots” across the planet has become a staple of climate-change communication to “help the public understand how individual events are part of a larger trend.”

    Now, such thinking has to be transferred to the world of the living so, as in the case of plummeting insect populations and the creatures that feed on them, biological annihilation sinks in. At the same time, what’s driving such death spirals in any given place -- from pesticides to climate change to habitat loss -- may differ, making biological annihilation an even more complex phenomenon than climate change.

    The Edge of the Sea

    The animal kingdom is composed of two groups: invertebrates, or animals without backbones, and vertebrates, which have them. Insects are invertebrates, as are starfish, anemones, corals, jellyfish, crabs, lobsters, and many more species. In fact, invertebrates make up 97% of the known animal kingdom.

    In 1955, environmentalist Rachel Carson’s book The Edge of the Sea was published, bringing attention for the first time to the extraordinary diversity and density of the invertebrate life that occupies the intertidal zone.  Even now, more than half a century later, you’ve probably never considered that environment -- which might be thought of as the edge of the sea (or actually the ocean) -- as a forest. And neither did I, not until I read nature writer Tim McNulty’s book Olympic National Park: A Natural History some years ago. As he pointed out: “The plant associations of the low tide zone are commonly arranged in multistoried communities, not unlike the layers of an old-growth forest.” And in that old-growth forest, the starfish (or sea star) rules as the top predator of the nearshore.

    In 2013, a starfish die-off -- from a “sea-star wasting disease” caused by a virus -- was first observed in Washington’s Olympic National Park, though it was hardly confined to that nature preserve. By the end of 2014, as Lynda Mapes reported in the Seattle Times, “more than 20 species of starfish from Alaska to Mexico” had been devastated. At the time, I was living on the Olympic Peninsula and so started writing about and, as a photographer, documenting that die-off (a painful experience after having read Carson’s exuberant account of that beautiful creature).

    The following summer, though, something magical happened. I suddenly saw baby starfish everywhere. Their abundance sparked hope among park employees I spoke with that, if they survived, most of the species would bounce back. Unfortunately, that did not happen. “While younger sea stars took longer to show symptoms, once they did, they died right away,” Mapes reported. That die-off was so widespread along the Pacific coast (in many sites, more than 99% of them) that scientists considered it “unprecedented in geographic scale.”

    The cause? Consider it the starfish version of a one-two punch: the climate-change-induced warming of the Pacific Ocean put stress on the animals while it made the virus that attacked them more virulent.  Think of it as a perfect storm for unleashing such a die-off.

    It will take years to figure out the true scope of the aftermath, since starfish occupy the top of the food chain at the edge of the ocean and their disappearance will undoubtedly have cascading impacts, not unlike the vanishing of the insects that form the base of the food chain on land.

    Concurrent with the disappearance of the starfish, another “unprecedented” die-off was happening at the edge of the same waters, along the Pacific coast of the U.S. and Canada.  It seemed to be “one of the largest mass die-offs of seabirds ever recorded,” Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic in 2015. And many more have been dying ever since, including Cassin’s auklets, thick-billed murres, common murres, fork-tailed petrels, short-tailed shearwaters, black-legged kittiwakes, and northern fulmars. That tragedy is still ongoing and its nature is caught in the title of a September article in Audubon magazine: “In Alaska, Starving Seabirds and Empty Colonies Signal a Broken Ecosystem.”

    To fully understand all of this, the dots will again have to be connected across places and species, as well as over time, but the great starfish die-off is an indication that biological annihilation is now an essential part of life at the edge of the sea.

    The Annihilation of Vertebrates

    The remaining 3% of the kingdom Animalia is made up of vertebrates. The 62,839 known vertebrate species include fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

    The term “biological annihilation” was introduced in 2017 in a seminal paper by scientists Geraldo Ceballos, Paul Ehrlich, and Rodolpho Dirzo, whose research focused on the population declines, as well as extinctions, of vertebrate species. “Our data,” they wrote then, “indicate that beyond global species extinctions Earth is experiencing a huge episode of population declines and extirpations.”

    If anything, the 148-page Living Planet Report published this October by the World Wildlife Fund International and the Zoological Society of London only intensified the sense of urgency in their paper. As a comprehensive survey of the health of our planet and the impact of human activity on other species, its key message was grim indeed: between 1970 and 2014, it found, monitored populations of vertebrates had declined in abundance by an average of 60% globally, with particularly pronounced losses in the tropics and in freshwater systems. South and Central America suffered a dramatic loss of 89% of such vertebrates, while freshwater populations of vertebrates declined by a lesser but still staggering 83% worldwide. The results were based on 16,704 populations of 4,005 vertebrate species, which meant that the study was not claiming a comprehensive census of all vertebrate populations.  It should instead be treated as a barometer of trends in monitored populations of them.

    What could be driving such an annihilatory wave to almost unimaginable levels? The report states that the main causes are “overexploitation of species, agriculture, and land conversion -- all driven by runaway human consumption.” It does, however, acknowledge that climate change, too, is a “growing threat.”

    When it comes to North America, the report shows that the decline is only 23%. Not so bad, right? Such a statistic could mislead the public into thinking that the U.S. and Canada are in little trouble and yet, in reality, insects and other animals, as well as plants, are dying across North America in surprisingly large numbers.

    From My Doorstep to the World Across Time

    My own involvement with biological annihilation started at my doorstep. In March 2006, a couple of days after moving into a rented house in northern New Mexico, I found a dead male house finch, a small songbird, on the porch. It had smashed into one of the building’s large glass windows and died. At the same time, I began to note startling numbers of dead piñon, New Mexico’s state tree, everywhere in the area. Finding that dead bird and noting those dead trees sparked a desire in me to know what was happening in this new landscape of mine.

    When you think of an old-growth forest -- and here I don’t mean the underwater version of one but the real thing -- what comes to your mind? Certainly not the desert southwest, right? The trees here don’t even grow tall enough for that.  An 800-year-old piñon may reach a height of 24 feet, not the 240-feet of a giant Sitka spruce of similar age in the Pacific Northwest. In the last decade, however, scientists have begun to see the piñon-juniper woodlands here as exactly that.

    I first learned this from a book, Ancient Piñon-Juniper Woodlands: A Natural History of Mesa Verde Country. It turns out that this low-canopy, sparsely vegetated woodland ecosystem supports an incredible diversity of wildlife. In fact, as a state, New Mexico has among the greatest diversity of species in the country.  It’s second in diversity of native mammals, third in birds, and fourth in overall biodiversity. Take birds.  Trailing only California and Arizona, the state harbors 544 species, nearly half of the 1,114 species in the U.S. And consider this not praise for my adopted home, but a preface to a tragedy.

    Before I could even develop a full appreciation of the piñon-juniper woodland, I came to realize that most of the mature piñon in northern New Mexico had already died. Between 2001 and 2005, a tiny bark beetle known by the name of Ips confusus had killed more than 50 million of them, about 90% of the mature ones in northern New Mexico. This happened thanks to a combination of severe drought and rapid warming, which stressed the trees, while providing a superb environment for beetle populations to explode.

    Dead finch on my porch. Photo by Subhankar Banerjee, 2006.

    And this, it turned out, wasn’t in any way an isolated event. Multiple species of bark beetles were by then ravaging forests across the North American West. The black spruce, the white spruce, the ponderosa pine, the lodgepole pine, the whitebark pine, and the piñon were all dying.

    In fact, trees are dying all over the world. In 2010, scientists from a number of countries published a study in Forest Ecology and Management that highlights global climate-change-induced forest mortality with data recorded since 1970. In countries ranging from Argentina and Australia to Switzerland and Zimbabwe, Canada and China to South Korea and Sri Lanka, the damage to trees has been significant.

    In 2010, trying to absorb the larger ecological loss, I wrote: “Hundreds of millions of trees have recently died and many more hundreds of millions will soon be dying. Now think of all the other lives, including birds and animals, that depended on those trees. What happened to them and how do we talk about that which we can’t see and will never know?”

    In fact, in New Mexico, we are finally beginning to find out something about the size and nature of that larger loss.

    Earlier this year, Los Alamos National Laboratory ornithologist Jeanne Fair and her colleagues released the results of a 10-year bird study on the Pajarito Plateau of New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, where some of the worst piñon die-offs have occurred. The study shows that, between 2003 and 2013, the diversity of birds declined by 45% and bird populations, on average, decreased by a staggering 73%. Consider the irony of that on a plateau whose Spanish name, Pajarito, means “little bird.”

    The piñon die-off that led to the die-off of birds is an example of connecting the dots across species and over time in one place. It’s also an example of what writer Rob Nixon calls “slow violence.” That “slowness” (even if it’s speedy indeed on the grand calendar of biological time) and the need to grasp the annihilatory dangers in our world will mean staying engaged way beyond any normal set of news cycles.  It will involve what I think of as long environmentalism.

    Let’s return, then, to that dead finch on my porch. A study published in 2014 pointed out that as many as 988 million birds die each year in the U.S. by crashing into glass windows. Even worse, domestic and feral cats kill up to 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion small mammals annually in this country. In Australia and Canada, two other places where such feline slaughters of birds have been studied, the estimated numbers are 365 million and 200 million respectively -- another case of connecting the dots across places and species when it comes to the various forms of biological annihilation underway on this planet.

    Dead piñon where birds gather in autumn, northern New Mexico. Photo by Subhankar Banerjee, 2009.

    Those avian massacres, one the result of modern architecture and our desire to see the outside from the inside, the other stemming from our urge for non-human companionship, indicate that climate change is but one cause of a planet-wide trend toward biological annihilation.  And this is hardly a contemporary story.  It has a long history, including for instance the mass killing of Arctic whales in the seventeenth century, which generated so much wealth that it helped make the Netherlands into one of the richest nations of that time. In other words, Arctic whaling proved to be an enabler of the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, the era when Rembrandt and Vermeer made paintings still appreciated today.

    The large-scale massacre and near extinction of the American bison (or buffalo) in the nineteenth century, to offer a more modern example, paved the way for white settler colonial expansion into the American West, while destroying Native American food security and a way of life. As a U.S. Army colonel put it then, “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

    Today, such examples have not only multiplied drastically but are increasingly woven into human life and life on this planet in ways we still hardly notice.  These, in turn, are being exacerbated by climate change, the human-induced warming of the world. To mitigate the crisis, to save life itself, would require not merely the replacement of carbon-dirty fossil fuels with renewable forms of energy, but a genuine reevaluation of modern life and its institutions. In other words, to save the starfish, the piñon, the birds, and the insects, and us in the process, has become the most challenging and significant ethical obligation of our increasingly precarious time.

    Subhankar Banerjee, a TomDispatch regular, is an activist, artist, and public scholar. A professor of art and ecology, he holds the Lannan Chair at the University of New Mexico. He is currently writing a book on biological annihilation.

    Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.
Save As Many As You Can


Related Topics

  Subject / Started by Replies Last post
0 Replies
Last post June 03, 2013, 07:31:40 PM
by g
0 Replies
Last post April 25, 2018, 01:58:51 AM
by RE
0 Replies
Last post November 27, 2019, 05:18:12 AM
by RE