Posts Tagged ‘climate crisis’

Bin Laden, Quinctilius Varus, and Deathstroke

Tuesday, June 9th, 2009

A number of years ago, I was watching a documentary on the History Channel about the Roman Empire, and the reign of Caesar Augustus in particular.  The segment that caught my eye related to one of the great military disasters ever suffered by the Empire — -the complete annihilation of three legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus at the Battle of Kalkriese Hill in the Teutoburg Forest of Germany.  The defeat not only marked the end of Roman domination of the Rhine, but it was one of the only times that an army of “barbarians” was able to deal a fatal blow to the mightiest empire ever to rule the world.  But what caught my eye and held my attention was not the savagery of the battle nor its implications for Roman rule across the Rhine.  It was the date of the disaster — -September 11.


I thought immediately upon hearing that date of the coincidence that it bore to our own September 11, a modern disaster of equal magnitude.  And I wondered whether Osama Bin Laden, sitting in his tent in Afghanistan, had chosen that specific date to send a message to the world that his army, like that of Arminius (the German prince who defeated Varus), was also capable of stopping an Empire.   Was Bin Laden that subtle?  Is he well-versed in his history?  More critically, if indeed he intended to attach his attack to a notable date in order to make a point, then what other dates lurk in the calendar that we should be paying attention to?  This last thought has seen me draw in a deep breath each 3rd of July and hold it until the wee hours of the 5th when I am free to exhale in relief that another critical date, July 4, has passed.


I have often thought that I should send the CIA a short letter calling this issue to their attention.  I have not done so out of fear that my memo would likely languish on some desk next to a letter from Phoenix or Michigan calling the department’s attention to the fact that some Arabs were taking flying lessons at local flight schools.  So instead, I have chosen to write this blog, confident that my use of Bin Laden’s name coupled with the word, “nuclear” (see below), will surely guarantee that this article will be spotted by one of our giant spying computers and bells will go off somewhere at a desk in Langley, Virginia where it will be read by someone whose specific job it is to look into these kinds of matters.


Again, the question I pose is that if Bin Laden chose September 11 as the date for his attack on the WTC to make an historical point, then what other dates are out there that we should perhaps be paying attention to?  I can suggest a few:


June 25th:  This was the date in 1876 when General George Armstrong Custer led his 7th Cavalry into a disastrous defeat in the Valley of the Little Big Horn in Montana.  Like the crushing of Varus in 9 A.D., the complete annihilation of Custer’s troops was accomplished by a down-trodden foe who no one expected to deal such a blow to such a powerful Empire.


August 15:  In 1281, the powerful Mongol Empire under Kublai Khan determined to mount an invasion of Japan after his first attempt had failed in 1274.  He gathered 4,400 ships and 140,000 men to attack the Japanese at Hakata Bay on the Island of Kyushu.  In the early hours of August 15th, a massive typhoon roared ashore, and all but a few hundred of the khan’s ships were sent to the bottom.  The Japanese samurai promptly slaughtered every Mongol warrior who had been able to survive the hurricane and crawl ashore.  The Khan never again attempted to invade the Japanese islands, believing that the Japanese were protected by a powerful supernatural force.  For their part, the Japanese agreed, calling the two typhoons (the one in 1281 and an earlier one in 1274 that had turned away Khan’s 1st invasion attempt) “kamikaze” or “divine wind”, a term they would reverently employ some 700 years later.  Bin Laden may well embrace this date for its emphasis on divine intervention against an overwhelmingly powerful Empire.


July 4th:  This is the one that scares me.  Bin Laden likes to fashion himself as the

reincarnation of Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, or, as we know him today, Saladin.  It was on the 4th of July, 1187 that the army of Saladin destroyed the armies of Guy of Lusignan and Raymond III of Tripoli at the Battle of Hattin, effectively ending the Crusades and assuring the return of Jerusalem to the world of Islam.  What other date could so satisfy an ego-maniac like Bin Laden, hungry for the adulation of the entire Islamic world?  And the double entendre would be unmistakable:  our day of independence would henceforth become theirs.  And on what other day (beside Christmas, perhaps) could so many of our first alert responders be counted upon to be seated in front of barbeques from one end of this county to the other? 


There are, of course, two other dates which should give us pause:  August 6th and 9th.  If Bin Laden gets his hands on an atomic weapon, then either of these dates becomes significant.


I hope that this exercise has made you feel a bit uncomfortable.  As the 2000th anniversary of Varus’ defeat at Kalkriese draws near, I hope that all I have said here gives you pause, and makes you think of the dangers lurking in the calendar.  But it is actually my hope that you might stop and consider another form of disaster — -one for which there will never be a date certain that we can point to and say that was the day it all happened.  It is the grave potential for planetary annihilation that lurks in the billions of tons of carbon that we, as a species, are pouring into the finite atmosphere of this globe we share with the rest of creation.  It is a disaster that even makes a nuclear Bin Laden look like a child with a box of matches. 


I do so fear the approach of a true Deathstroke.  No doubt, there will be a day in the future when we finally do realize the magnitude of the approaching disaster.  And, like Quinctilius Varus and his men, we may frantically attempt to erect barricades on the slopes of our own Kalkriese Hill only to find, as they did,  that it is all too late.



The Real Immigration Problem

Saturday, November 8th, 2008

I’ve been building a house in Mexico for the past 15 years — -my amateur stab at being an architect. I was there last week and woke up to find a very large grasshopper staring at me from the end of my pillow. It was green from head to toe (or whatever you call those things at the end of those creepy legs) and was about the size of a tootsie roll. In a decade and a half, I had never seen one in the house. That was Monday.

By the end of the week, I had seen plenty of them. First two, then ten, then twenty. It wasn’t that I was being overrun by a biblical horde of locusts, but it was unnerving in its own way. I asked around and found that others were surprised at the sudden alien invasion.

The whole thing got me thinking again about the impact of global warming on the insect world. Are there going to be a bunch more bugs in our future? Is our new, warmer world going to unleash some dreadful population explosion among the 8-leggers, an explosion that has been held in check by good old cold weather?

When I wrote Deathstroke, I introduced insects into the story line to address this serious issue. In Deathstroke, swarms of insects are capable of devastating whole regions of forested terrain. Even a cursory investigation into the issue demonstrates that the coming impact of insect infestation will not be limited to the pages of a novel.

In February of this year, The Independent, a respected British news journal, published the findings of an extensive study performed by Pennsylvania State University on the impact of global warming on insect populations.

The study focused on the evidence of insect damage to vegetation during the last great era of global climate change, the PETM (the palaeocene-eocene thermal maximum) which took place about 55 million years ago. During that period, as in our present crisis, CO2 levels spiked (they more than tripled in the PETM). The result was a dramatic increase in global temperatures (5 degrees Centigrade). What is significant, is what that did to the world’s insect populations. By examining the insect damage to vegetation found in the fossil record, the Penn State team discovered that insects devoured between 2 to 4 times the amount of vegetation that they had before the temperature spike.

The researchers cite two reasons for this extraordinary increase in damage: 1) the sheer number of insects exploded, and 2) the amount of foliage needed for them to survive increased dramatically.

The second basis provides some sobering consideration. The problem is that when CO2 levels increase, it becomes easier for plants to carry out photosynthesis. Though they produce more foliage, the leaves they produce contain less protein. As a consequence, the insects feeding on them have to eat substantially more plant material in order to survive. The result is defoliation on a massive scale brought about by more insects having to consume more food. Beyond the issue of increasing swarms of insects which is the focus of this notation, perhaps we ourselves should consider the implications of a diminishing protein component in our own food supply.

Beyond the issue of more bugs eating more plants, there is an additional finding that should be raising alarms in the temperate zones: insect migration. Ellen Currano, head of the Penn State team put it succinctly: “We think that the warming allowed insect species from the tropics…to migrate north”.

The implications for mankind are obvious: our population is exploding placing heavy demands upon our agriculture to support it. But increasing levels of CO2 are going to reduce the protein in our food supply. Just about the time we come to grips with that nightmare, there are going to be trillions of hungry new visitors to our plush growing fields. To be certain, no 700 mile fence line is going to stop that onslaught of alien immigrants.

Perhaps it is appropriate to leave this section with a phrase from the remake of the movie, The Fly:

“Be afraid…be very afraid!”


Saturday, November 8th, 2008

The first time I visited Buchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, I came in by boat. There’s a little path that leads up from the bay, and, for whatever reason, boaters get in free. But what struck me more than the cost of admission, was a certain tree at the top of the path — -a giant Sequoia. The plaque at the base of the tree identified its planting as some time in the 1960’s. I remember looking up in astonishment — -it was huge! I was in college when they planted it as a sapling, but it was already bigger than any Douglas Fir or Western Hemlock I had ever seen (outside of the giants in the Olympic Rain Forest where they are 300 years old or more). Clearly, a giant redwood from northern California does very well on the Washington/B.C. coastal zone.

Many times since then I have wondered just how tall that tree would grow to be if everyone left it alone until it died of old age. Sequoias can live for thousands of years. It was years later, after I became conscious of my carbon footprint, that I started to wonder just how many Sequoias could recapture all the carbon I had burned over my lifetime if they were left alone for the next two millennium. Would one do it? Or two? Or ten?

That started me thinking. Why don’t we all start planting trees to recapture all the carbon we are burning over the course of our lives? In my part of the planet, we could plant Sequoias — -they grow fast and capture carbon at warp speed. The beauty of it all is that long after my ashes are feeding some other plant, my Sequoias would just keep plodding along, sucking in all the carbon I had spewed out over a lifetime, exhaling pure oxygen in its place. Who knows, perhaps in a thousand years or so someone might put a plaque on my tiny forest that says, “Richard Kelley’s carbon has been recovered”. Obviously, if I planted a thousand trees, it might only take a century or so to erase my debt.

That all started me thinking more: What if every child in school were to plant a Sequoia each year from kindergarten through high school…or an elm, or an oak, or whatever grows in their part of the country? And what if nobody were allowed to touch any of those trees…ever. Eventually, a mighty “Children’s Forest” would begin to grow across the land. Slowly, over time, we would begin to replace the vast forests that once grew before we showed up with our saws. Now obviously, someone is going to have to pay for the land — -I suggest that government might be a candidate here. But better than that, why not have the children themselves invest in their forest? I can see bake sales and Saturday car washes and bottle drives (do they still have bottle drives?). I mean, how much does it cost to buy enough land to plant a tree?

I might suggest that the kids consider buying land in the Amazon basin. There’s lots of it there that hasn’t got any trees right now, and I’m told the land is pretty cheap in those places.

I do foresee a problem. As the trees grow over time, saliva will eventually start dripping from the tip of chain saws. This will require legislation to protect the kids’ trees. In our state, that might prove easy — -plant Sequoias and pass legislation making it illegal to cut, transport, process, or sell or buy them in any manner. Sequoias don’t grow naturally in the Northwest, and a logging truck moving down I-5 with a load of redwoods would stick out like a sore thumb. Perhaps the same is true with a Banyun tree in Nebraska. So, by planting non-indigenous trees (yet trees that are guaranteed to thrive), the chain saw lust can be curbed if not eliminated. A healthy jail sentence and fine might add to the protection of the trees.

A children’s forest doesn’t necessarily have to be in some isolated stretch of land. I can foresee urban children’s forest with trees strategically planted to provide shade to buildings over time, reducing the need for air conditioning in the hot summer months (kill two birds with one stone, ya see). And urban forests are kind of hard to cut down and haul away without being seen.

So imagine little Sally standing at the base of a giant redwood, peering upward at the branches spreading out hundreds of feet above her. “My great, great grandpa planted that tree ,” she might say to Tommy, before the two turn to run after their classmates, their Sequoia seedlings grasped firmly in one hand and a planting trowel in the other.



Saturday, November 8th, 2008

A decade or so ago, my best friend, Rick, won Washington State’s Teacher of the Year. He was being recognized for his pioneering work in the field of computer science. He had constructed an elaborate computer learning center for his school district. What was unique about the center was that it wasn’t designed to teach children how to use computers — -it was created for the express purpose of teaching teachers how to teach the children to use computers. It may seem strange in today’s world, but when Rick embarked on his computer center, we were all trying to acquaint ourselves with that strange voodoo world called dos. Rick was one the first to recognize that teachers have to learn a subject before they can be expected to teach it to kids.

A similar reality exists today in the world of renewable energy. Our political candidates have just spent the past two years declaring that our country has to free itself from imported oil and that we need to convert the nation to operate on non-fossil sources of energy. The knowledge on just how this is going to be accomplished is apparently believed to exist out there somewhere, and that all that is needed is a for government to push a magic button and it will all start to happen (the push of the button is to accomplished with copious quantities of cash, of course).

The truth of the matter is that a global transition to a non-fossil reality is going to be an extraordinary undertaking. And it’s not going to be done overnight — -it’s going to take generations to accomplish. My question is this: is there really any concerted effort under way to teach renewable energy to the generations moving their way through our public school systems? More importantly, how many teachers are there out there that know the difference between a gallium arsenide solar cell and one made of amorphous silicon, and why the distinction is important. Do they know the difference between thermal and electric solarized energy, and what part of the spectrum produces each? Even more basic: can they quantify the energy savings of insulation based upon its R-value?

Are you starting to see the problem? If we are to have any hope of truly freeing ourselves from the toxic grip of fossil fuel, that means that we are going to have to educate ourselves on a massive scale. It means that we are going to have to teach our kids, and before that happens, we have to teach our teachers first.

And so my Suggestion Number 2 to the powers that be is this: Establish a meaningful nationwide program to teach teachers about renewable energy. This includes how to insulate homes, how to recognize energy-efficient appliances, how to install solar collectors (thermal everywhere, and electric where appropriate). Grade school teachers need to send their legions of children back into their homes looking for lights to turn out in a quest for gold stars on some flashy certificate. We need to teach our kids to think in terms of energy conservation using positive reinforcement to instill these and other values in them.

Let us recognize early on that the quest for a non-fossil world is nothing short of an arduous marathon. By the time it is accomplished, today’s kindergarteners will likely be drawing social security.