the forest down the river

PHOTO POST

We don’t often think of the Great Lakes as a river, but the lakes are part of the vast watershed of the St. Lawrence River and all that water gradually moves eastward through the lakes and out to the Atlantic.

Just a long day’s drive downriver in this huge ecosystem, the changes in the landscape are spectacular to behold. In mid-September we travelled from the north coast of Lake Ontario coast to the north coast of the St. Lawrence, a couple hundred kilometers east of Québec City. Here sweet water mixes with salt water, the river’s current combines with the rise and fall of tides, and the changing of the seasons happens quickly.

Following are glimpses of the beautiful colours, patterns and creatures of the boreal forest along this great river.

Speckled Focus (click images for larger views)

 

Blue Flutter

Syncopated Curve

The above photos were taken during a morning’s walk at Canopée Lit just north of Sacré-Coeur. The photo below shows the day’s last light on the Saguenay Fjord, viewed from the marina at L’Anse de Roche.

Saguenay Arc

The next several photos were taken on a quiet, foggy day at Baie-Sainte-Marguerite, only 15 km further north.

Overnight Sensation

 

Shield

 

Flip Side

 

Five | Four

 

See Grouse, Ruffed

Heading west on our way home the next day, we had time to stop at Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive where a ferry took us out to Isle-aux-Coudres for the afternoon.

Tide’s Turf

 

Night in Day

Questions as big as the atmosphere

A review of After Geoengineering

Also published at Resilience.org

After Geoengineering is published by Verso Books, Oct 1 2019.

What is the best-case scenario for solar geoengineering? For author Holly Jean Buck and the scientists she interviews, the best-case scenario is that we manage to keep global warming below catastrophic levels, and the idea of geoengineering quietly fades away.

But before that can happen, Buck explains, we will need heroic global efforts both to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions and to remove much of the excess carbon we have already loosed into the skies.

She devotes most of her new book After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration to proposed methods for drawing down carbon dioxide levels from the atmosphere. Only after showing the immense difficulties in the multi-generational task of carbon drawdown does she directly discuss techniques and implications of solar geoengineering (defined here as an intentional modification of the upper atmosphere, meant to block a small percentage of sunlight from reaching the earth, thereby counteracting part of global heating).

The book is well-researched, eminently readable, and just as thought-provoking on a second reading as on the first. Unfortunately there is little examination of the way future energy supply constraints will affect either carbon drawdown or solar engineering efforts. That significant qualification aside, After Geoengineering is a superb effort to grapple with some of the biggest questions for our collective future.

Overshoot

The fossil fuel frenzy in the world’s richest countries has already put us in greenhouse gas overshoot, so some degree of global heating will continue even if, miraculously, there were an instant political and economic revolution which ended all carbon dioxide emissions tomorrow. Can we limit the resulting global heating to 1.5°C? At this late date our chances aren’t good.

As Greta Thunberg explained in her crystal clear fashion to the United Nations Climate Action Summit:

“The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5C degrees, and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.

“Maybe 50% is acceptable to you. But those numbers don’t include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of justice and equity. They also rely on my and my children’s generation sucking hundreds of billions of tonnes of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.” 1

As Klaus Lackner, one of the many researchers interviewed by Buck, puts it, when you’ve been digging yourself into a hole, of course the first thing you need to do is stop digging – but then you still need to fill in the hole.2

How can we fill in the hole – in our case, get excess carbon back out of the atmosphere? There are two broad categories, biological processes and industrial processes, plus some technologies that cross the lines. Biological processes include regenerative agriculture and afforestation while industrial processes are represented most prominently by Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS).

Buck summarizes key differences this way:

“Cultivation is generative. Burial, however, is pollution disposal, is safety, is sequestering something away where it can’t hurt you anymore. One approach generates life; the other makes things inert.” (After Geoengineering (AG), page 122)

Delving into regenerative agriculture, she notes that “over the last 10,000 years, agriculture and land conversion has decreased soil carbon globally by 840 gigatons, and many cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original organic carbon” (AG, p 101).

Regenerative agriculture will gradually restore that carbon content in the soil and reduce carbon dioxide in the air – while also making the soil more fertile, reducing wind and water erosion, increasing the capacity of the soil to stay healthy when challenged by extreme rainfalls or drought, and making agriculture ecologically sustainable in contrast to industrial agriculture’s ongoing stripping the life from soil.

Regenerative agriculture cannot, however, counteract the huge volumes of excess carbon dioxide we are currently putting into the atmosphere. And even when we have cut emissions to zero, Buck writes, regenerative agriculture is limited in how much of the excess carbon it can draw down:

“soil carbon accrual rates decrease as stocks reach a new equilibrium. Sequestration follows a curve: the new practices sequester a lot of carbon at first, for the first two decades or so, but this diminishes over time toward a new plateau. Soil carbon sequestration is therefore a one-off method of carbon removal.” (AG, p 102)

There are other types of cultivation that can draw down carbon dioxide, and Buck interviews researchers in many of these fields. The planting of billions of trees has received the most press, and this could store a lot of carbon. But it also takes a lot of land, and it’s all too easy to imagine that more frequent and fiercer wildfires could destroy new forests just when they have started to accumulate major stores of carbon.

Biochar – the burying of charcoal in a way that stores carbon for millennia while also improving soil fertility – was practiced for centuries by indigenous civilizations in the Amazon. Its potential on a global scale is largely untapped but is the subject of promising research.

In acknowledging the many uncertainties in under-researched areas, Buck does offer some slender threads of hope here. Scientists say that “rocks for crops” techniques – in which certain kinds of rock are ground up and spread on farmland – could absorb a lot of carbon while also providing other soil nutrients. In the lab, the carbon absorption is steady but geologically slow, but there is some evidence that in the real world, the combined effects of microbes and plant enzymes may speed up the weathering process by at least an order of magnitude. (AG, p 145-146)

The cultivation methods offer a win-win-win scenario for carbon drawdown – but we’re on pace to a greenhouse gas overshoot that will likely dwarf the drawdown capacity of these methods. Buck estimates that cultivation methods, at the extremes of their potential, could sequester perhaps 10 to 20 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide per year (and that figure would taper off once most agricultural soils had been restored to a healthy state). That is unlikely to be anywhere near enough:

“Imagine that emissions flatline in 2020; the world puts in a strong effort to hold them steady, but it doesn’t manage to start decreasing them until 2030. … But ten years steady at 50 Gt CO2 eq [carbon dioxide equivalent emissions include other gases such as methane] – and there goes another 500 Gt CO2 eq into the atmosphere. That one decade would cancel out the 500 Gt CO2 eq the soils and forests could sequester over the next 50 years (sequestered at an extreme amount of effort and coordination among people around the whole world).” (AG p 115)

With every year that we pump out fossil fuel emissions, then, we compound the intergenerational crime we have already committed against Greta Thunberg and her children’s generations. With every year of continued emissions, we increase the probability that biological, generative methods of carbon drawdown will be too slow. With every year of continued emissions, we increase the degree to which future generations will be compelled to engage in industrial carbon drawdown work, using technologies which do not enrich the soil, which produce no food, which will not directly aid the millions of species struggling for survival, and which will suck up huge amounts of energy.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) has earned a bad name for good reasons. To date most CCS projects – even those barely past the concept stage – have been promoted by fossil fuel interests. CCS projects offer them research subsidies for ways to continue their fossil fuel businesses, plus a public relations shine as proponents of “clean” energy.

A lignite mine in southwest Saskatchewan. This fossil fuel deposit is home to one of the few operating Carbon Capture and Sequestration projects. Carbon from a coal-fired generating station is captured and pumped into a depleting oil reservoir – for the purpose of prolonging petroleum production.

Buck argues that in spite of these factors, we need to think about CCS technologies separate from their current capitalist contexts. First of all, major use of CCS technologies alongside continued carbon emissions would not be remotely adequate – we will need to shut off carbon emissions AND draw down huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. And there is no obvious way to fit an ongoing, global program of CCS into the framework of our current corporatocracy.

The fossil fuel interests possess much of the technical infrastructure that could be used for CCS, but their business models rely on the sale of polluting products. So if CCS is to be done in a sustained fashion, it will need to be done in a publicly-funded way where the service, greenhouse gas drawdown, is for the benefit of the global public (indeed, the whole web of life, present and future); there will be no “product” to sell.

However CCS efforts are organized, they will need to be massive in order to cope with the amounts of carbon emissions that fossil fuel interests are still hell-bent on releasing. In the words of University of Southern California geologist Joshua West,

“The fossil fuels industry has an enormous footprint …. Effectively, if we want to offset that in an industrial way, we have to have an industry that is of equivalent proportion ….” (AG, p 147)

Imagine an industrial system that spans the globe, employing as many people and as much capital as the fossil fuel industries do today. But this industry will produce no energy, no wealth, no products – it will be busy simply managing the airborne refuse bequeathed by a predecessor economy whose dividends have long since been spent.

So while transitioning the entire global economy to strictly renewable energies, the next generations will also need enough energy to run an immense atmospheric garbage-disposal project.

After Geoengineering gives brief mentions but no sustained discussion of this energy crunch.

One of the intriguing features of the book is the incorporation of short fictional sketches of lives and lifestyles in coming decades. These sketches are well drawn, offering vivid glimpses of characters dealing with climate instability and working in new carbon drawdown industries. The vignettes certainly help in putting human faces and feelings into what otherwise might remain abstract theories.

Yet there is no suggestion that restricted energy supplies will be a limiting factor. The people in the sketches still travel in motorized vehicles, check their computers for communications, run artificial intelligence programs to guide their work, and watch TV in their high-rise apartments. In these sketches, people have maintained recognizably first-world lifestyles powered by zero-emission energy technologies, while managing a carbon drawdown program on the same scale as today’s fossil fuel industry.

If you lean strongly towards optimism you may hope for that outcome – but how can anyone feel realistically confident in that outcome?

The lack of a serious grappling with this energy challenge is, in my mind, the major shortcoming in After Geoengineering. And big questions about energy supply will hang in the air not only around carbon sequestration, but also around solar geoengineering if humanity comes to that.

Shaving the peak

Solar geoengineering –  the intentional pumping of substances into the upper atmosphere into order to block a percentage of incoming sunlight to cool the earth – has also earned a bad name among climate activists. It is, of course, a dangerous idea – just as extreme as the practice of pumping billions of tonnes of extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to overheat the earth.

But Buck makes a good case – a convincing case, in my opinion – that in order to justifiably rule out solar geoengineering, we and our descendants will have to do a very good job at both eliminating carbon emissions and drawing down our current excess of carbon dioxide, fast.

Suppose we achieve something which seems far beyond the capabilities of our current political and economic leadership. Suppose we get global carbon emissions on a steep downward track, and suppose that the coming generation manages to transition to 100% renewable while also starting a massive carbon drawdown industry. That would be fabulous – and it still may not be enough.

As Buck points out, just as it has proven difficult to predict just how fast the earth system responds to a sustained increased in carbon dioxide levels, nobody really knows how quickly the earth system would respond to a carbon drawdown process. The upshot: even in an era where carbon dioxide levels are gradually dropping, it will be some time before long-term warming trends reverse. And during that interim a lot of disastrous things could happen.

Take the example of coral reefs. Reef ecosystems are already dying due to ocean acidification, and more frequent oceanic heat waves threaten to stress reefs beyond survival. Buck writes,

“Reefs protect coasts from storms; without them, waves reaching some Pacific islands would be twice as tall. Over 500 million people depend on reef ecosystems for food and livelihoods. Therefore, keeping these ecosystems functioning is a climate justice issue.” (AG, p 216)

In a scenario about as close to best-case as we could realistically expect, the global community might achieve dropping atmospheric carbon levels, but still need to buy time for reefs until temperatures in the air and in the ocean have dropped back to a safe level. This is the plausible scenario studied by people looking into a small-scale type of geoengineering – seeding the air above reefs with a salt-water mist that could, on a regional scale only, reflect back sunlight and offer interim protection to essential and vulnerable ecosystems.

One could say that this wouldn’t really be geoengineering, since it wouldn’t affect the whole globe – and certainly any program to affect the whole globe would involve many more dangerous uncertainties.

Yet due to our current and flagrantly negligent practice of global-heating-geoengineering, it is not hard to imagine a scenario this century where an intentional program of global-cooling-geoengineering may come to be a reasonable choice.

Buck takes us through the reasoning with the following diagram:

From After Geoengineering, page 219

If we rapidly cut carbon emissions to zero, and we also begin a vast program of carbon removal, there will still be a significant time lag before atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have dropped to a safe level and global temperatures have come back down. And in that interim, dangerous tipping points could be crossed.

To look at just one: the Antarctic ice sheets are anchored in place by ice shelves extending into the ocean. When warming ocean water has melted these ice shelves, a serious tipping point is reached. In the words of Harvard atmospheric scientist Peter Irvine,

“Because of the way the glaciers meet the ocean, when they start to retreat, they have kind of a runaway retreat. Again, very slow, like a couple of centuries. Five centuries. But once it starts, it’s not a temperature-driven thing; it’s a dynamic-driven thing … Once the ice shelf is sheared off or melted away, it’s not there to hold the ice sheet back and there’s this kind of dynamic response.” (AG, p 236)

The melting of these glaciers, of course, would flood the homes of billions of people, along with a huge proportion of the world’s agricultural land and industrial infrastructure.

So given the current course of history, it’s not at all far-fetched that the best option available in 50 years might be a temporary but concerted program of solar geoengineering. If this could “shave the peak” off a temperature overshoot, and thereby stop the Antarctic ice from crossing a tipping point, would that be a crazy idea? Or would it be a crazy idea not to do solar geoengineering?

These questions will not go away in our lifetimes. But if our generation and the next can end the fossil fuel frenzy, then just possibly the prospect of geoengineering can eventually be forgotten forever.


1 Greta Thunberg, “If world leaders choose to fail us, my generation will never forgive them”, address to United Nations, New York, September 23, 2019, as printed in The Guardian.
2 In the webinar “Towards a 20 GT Negative CO2 Emissions Industry”, sponsored by Security and Sustainability Forum, Sept 19, 2019.

growing up

PHOTO POST

Not long ago they were fledglings. Now they’re on their own.

And with no helicoptering parents issuing shrill warnings whenever a suspicious character approaches, some of the adolescent birds in the neighbourhood can now be seen right out in the open.

The juvenile Black-Crowned High Heron, above and below, is both more handsome and less cautious than its rather stodgy parents.

Awaiting the Night (click photos for larger views)

A juvenile Northern Flicker, on the other hand, lacks a distinctive red crest and looks awfully scruffy after a rub-down on a fence rail – but it already possesses the gilt-edged feathers that make it a flashy flyer.

Gilded Scruff

As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, not every creature with a scraggly bit of fluff on its head is in the flower of youth. The White Admiral butterfly, below, is by definition in the final stage of its life, with egg, larva and pupa now in its past.

Black-and-White in the Pink

Likewise an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail shines brightly among the flowers but its fragile wings already show signs of wear and tear.

Stripe & Curve

Around the edge of Bowmanville Marsh there seem to be more frogs this year than in the previous few years – a hopeful note given frogs’ reputation as “marsh canaries” who are very vulnerable to pollutants.

Green Sparkle

While there were few sightings of Snapping Turtles this summer, Painted Turtles have often been seen sunning themselves on logs in late afternoon.

Island Paradise

Fish-eating birds must celebrate the many creatures swimming about in the marsh. A few Cormorants have recently joined the Great Blue Herons, Black-Crowned Night Herons and Green Herons.

In the Eye of a Cormorant

The adult Green Heron is one of the stealthiest of the marsh-dwellers, and this year I’ve only caught one fleeting glimpse of this bird.

The youngster is a different story, and has posed on an open perch while I drifted by in a kayak three different times.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Heron (II)

One bright morning the Green Heron and three Otters were all working the same corner of the marsh. I can’t be sure I understood their whole conversation but I think it went like this:

Standing Tall

Ringleader of the Otters: “We’ve been wondering, how will you ever fly? As far as we can see you’re just a two-eyed neck on stilts.”

Soon-to-be-Green Heron: “Yeah well, if you had a spear like mine you wouldn’t have to swim so hard just to catch a fish. I gotta admit, though, you’re pretty cute for a gang of overgrown weasels.”

A Little Time for Small Talk

That’s all I heard before the wizened Otter and pals got back to play.


Photo at top: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Heron (click here for full-size view)

If the insects go, we all go

An illustrated review of Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects

Also published at Resilience.org

Buzz, Sting, Bite is a breezy read with a sobering message: insects are so deeply woven into the web of life that the worldwide drop in insect populations threatens every other species. (Buzz, Sting, Bite is published by Simon & Schuster, July 2019)

Author Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson is a Norwegian ecologist who specializes in the interactions of the thousands of species that live in dead wood in Scandinavia. But here she writes for non-specialists, with the goal of inspiring more people with fascination, respect, awe and concern for insects.

So she’s happy to sprinkle the text with anthropomorphic metaphors, to showcase strange tales of insect sexual practices, and to regale us with ghoulish examples of insects who devour other insects in bizarre and inventive fashion. She explains why, in scientific terms, insects, spiders and centipedes belong to different phyla, while bugs are a specific order of insects – but she doesn’t let those formal distinctions get in the way of a good story.


Damselflies in Summer Meadow. Sverdrup-Thygeson writes: “Have you ever seen damselflies … perching or flying around in pairs? … The sole purpose of this tandem position is that it allows the male to keep watch over the female and make sure she doesn’t mate with any rivals until she has laid (what he hopes are) their jointly fertilized eggs on a suitable aquatic plant.” (page 34)


Though the book is illustrated only with a few eloquent black-and-white illustrations, Sverdrup-Thygeson’s story-telling is vivid. In just over two hundred pages the reader will absorb much fundamental biological understanding, along with compelling anecdotes about species from all over the world.

She concedes that a small number of insect species cause us harm, from annoying but temporarily itchy bites, to sudden crop failures, to epidemics of deadly diseases. Her focus, however, is on the other side of the ledger – the far more numerous species whose activities are indispensable to the biosphere that supports us.


Red Wasp on Hydrangea Paniculata. “Insects’ visits to flowers contribute to seed production in more than 80 percent of the world’s wild plants, and insect pollination improves fruit or seed quality in a large proportion of our global food crops …. A study of forty different crops across the planet showed that visits from wild insects increased crop yields in all systems.” (Buzz, Sting, Bite, page 85)

Green Metallic Sweat Bee on Echinacea.


At the end of the book she quotes Harvard professor E.O. Wilson: “The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change …. But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could live more than a few months.” And by the end of the book, Sverdrup-Thygeson has helped us to understand why Wilson was so right.

Insects evolved hundreds of millions of years earlier than larger species did, and as a result our ecosystem is built on a foundation of insect biodiversity. More than half of all bird species, for example, eat insects, as do most freshwater fish. For about 80 per cent of wild plants, as well as most of the plants that we eat, visits from a variety of insects are either essential or measurably beneficial.


Red Admiral Butterfly on Coriander. “Most insect species on the planet undergo complete metamorphosis. This includes the dominant insect groups, such as beetles, wasps, butterflies, flies, and mosquitoes. The ingenious part of it is that they can exploit two totally different diets and habitats as child and adult ….” (page 5)

Green-Eyed Dragon. “The dragonfly excels as a lethal hunter, succeeding in more than 95 percent of its attempts. … Their vision makes a significant contribution to their success …. Almost their entire head consists of eyes. In fact, each eye is made up of 30,000 small eyes, which can see both ultraviolet and polarized light as well as colors. And since the eyes are like balls, the dragonfly can see most of what is happening on all sides of its body.” (page 16-17)

Disappearing Damselflies. “Freshwater fish live largely off insects because some insects take infant swimming so seriously that they keep their young permanently submerged until they reach the age of reason: mosquitos, mayflies, and dragonflies, to name but a few.” (page 101)


And then there’s decomposition, AKA composting and recycling. All over the globe there are sophisticated teams of bugs, bacteria and fungi which transform rotting animal flesh, fruit, leaves, trees, and dung into nutrients that then feed other species.


Ants in Tree-House. “Once fungi and insects, mosses and lichens, and bacteria have moved in, there are more living cells in the dead tree than there were when it was alive. So ironically enough, dead trees are actually among the most living things you can find in the forest.” (page 113)


There are many reasons for a rapid decline in insect numbers in many countries, including habitat loss, widespread pesticide use, and climate change. Typically, the rare and most specialized species are the first to go, Sverdrup-Thygeson says. And though extinction is a frightening (and increasingly frequent) outcome, she warns that:

“It’s too late to worry when a species is on the brink of extinction. Species cease to function in the ecosystem long before the last individual dies out. That is why it is so vital not to focus exclusively on species extinction but to turn the spotlight on the decline in the number of individuals.” (Buzz, Sting, Bite, page 178)

Buzz, Bite, Sting is an easy read for a summer day – but the book is meant to spur important action and change:

“We have everything to gain by caring a bit more about insects. I believe in knowledge, positive talk, and enthusiasm. Be curious about bugs, take the time to look and learn. Teach children about all the strange and useful things insects do. Talk nicely about bugs. Make your garden a better place for flower visitors. Let’s get insects onto the agenda in land-use plans and official reports, agriculture regulations and state budgets. … My hope is that this book will open more people’s eyes to the weird and wonderful world of insects and the extraordinary lives they live alongside us on this planet we share.”


Photographs taken by Bart Hawkins Kreps in Port Darlington, Ontario. Photo at top of post: Meadow Sunset Dragonfly (click here for full-size version)

 

the view from up here

PHOTO POST

A chorus of squeaks and squawks comes from on high as birds scout out good feeding territories, warn of possible predators, or call out “bring me another worm!”

 

Bright Shade (click images for larger views)

A Purple Finch is interested in tasty seeds – and likes to wait between snacks in the cool shade of lower branches.

On The Fence

A Chipmunk often watches from near the top of a wood fence until it seems safe to grab seeds on the ground.

Eastern Comma

Bright butterflies are now flashing around the yard as well. Above, the Eastern Comma Butterfly, and below, a Monarch on a favourite flower which has dibs on the grand title “Butterfly Weed”.

Butterfly Weed

For more than two weeks, Bergamot blooms have attracted the Hummingbirds.

Hummingbird & Bergamot

Hummingbird & Bergamot II

A strange creature landed in the garden recently and I tried to find its name. I learned that the Crane Fly, with its astonishingly long and delicate legs, often breaks at least one – which is probably why the insect below has only five legs. That apparently doesn’t matter a lot – once this fly graduates from maggot stage, I read, it is not known to eat anything and needs to survive just long enough to reproduce.

Crane Fly & Hydrangea Paniculata

Damselflies are typically active predators but on a calm cloudy evening they were busy pairing up, landing on a marsh surface where couples were reproduced in reflection.

Damselflies & Dusk, Bowmanville Marsh

The water was soon rippled with raindrops and a rainbow rose over the lake at sunset.

It’s Mostly Sky

Photo at top: Flicker & Birch (full-size version here)

green fusion

PHOTO POST

Is there an entomologist in the house? Alas, there is not – but this time of year, you only need to sit down beside a garden or in a meadow for a few minutes each day to spot a profusion of insects who are no less splendid even if you don’t know their names.

Purple Bronze One

There are dragonflies and damselflies, of course, plus wasps, bees, beetles and butterflies.

Points of Light II

 

Purple Bronze Two

 

Three’s a Crowd

And in the shallow water at the very edge of the marsh you may spot a school of newly hatched mud-cats, looking quite insect-like and hardly bigger than bumblebees.

Swamp Shadows

Blessed with abundant heat, abundant rain and abundant sunshine, this month’s flowers look wonderful through every stage of their blooms.

Pink Rain

 

Bluewater Star

 

First Light of Day

 

Tiger-Lilly Sunset

Photo at top: Green Fusion: Heart of Hollyhock (click here for full-size image)

 

The Fight for Right of Way

Confronting the legal web that enforces drivers’ privilege

Also published at Resilience.org

Why is car culture so dominant in North American life? Is it a matter of personal preference, or is it the result of extensive advertising?

Those are important factors – but University of Iowa law professor Gregory H. Shill says that auto dominance has also been cemented by a myriad of laws that favour drivers and discriminate against non-drivers.

In a new paper entitled “Should Law Subsidize Driving?” Shill writes:

“There exists a vast system of legal rules that offer indirect yet extravagant subsidies to driving, artificially lowering its price by offloading its costs onto non-drivers and society at large. Rules embedded across nearly every field of law privilege the motorist and, collectively, build a discriminatory legal structure with no name.” (Shill, “Should Law Subsidize Driving?”, 2019, page 3)

The paper discusses privileges for drivers in, among other areas, criminal law, civil liability, the method of setting speed limits and the lax enforcement of those limits, mandated dedication of public space to parking, zoning laws that favour low-density development, use of general tax revenues to cover nearly the entire costs of road construction and maintenance, and vehicle safety standards that ignore vulnerable road users.

This promotion of driving coincided with the financial interests of the largest industries – car-making and petroleum extraction – and Shill argues that it also worked to maintain racial segregation.

Far from a dry legal treatise, Shill’s paper is one of the best studies you will find of the social costs of car culture in the US. A great deal of his analysis applies in Canada as well.

Get off the road, idiot!

People in North America now take for granted that cars have the right of way on public roadways, while pedestrians and cyclists enter these streets at great personal risk. But when this grand theft by auto of public right of way was beginning, the reaction was widespread revolt.

“In cities, the contemporary reaction in the 1910s and 1920s was one of fear and outrage: whereas the street had previously been a relatively safe place for people to amble, with the tacit approval of local authorities it had in a very short period of time been transformed into a wildly dangerous place where motorists killed and maimed large numbers of people with impunity. Urban pedestrians, and especially children, suffered disproportionately. A class element predominated as well, as cars were a luxury at this time and many children killed in urban streets were poor.” (Shill, 2019, page 21)

Toronto Telegram, May 26, 1934. The lead says “KING OF THE KILLERS! Greatest menace to human life smirks at law – total penalty for thirty-one killings is merely four and one-half years in prison.”

Many people were deeply offended that well-to-do motorists not only killed pedestrians, but typically paid no or minimal legal penalties for doing so. As Shill documents, this pattern remains true today. And where regulatory remedies seemed to be called for, the response was generally to create greater legal tolerances for errant drivers.

He notes that there was a serious move to install automatic speed limiters in cars – in the 1920s – but the forces of “motordom” mobilized a campaign of public relations and legal changes. One result is that the term “jaywalking” was enshrined in law as an offense, and another is that speed limits were rapidly raised to favour heavy-footed drivers. (Though it was already clearly understood that speed kills.)

Ironclad suggestions

A new method for setting speed limits became standard across the country: the limit is set as the speed under which 85 per cent of drivers will drive on a given road in “free flowing traffic”. As Shill explains, this standard method promotes fast vehicle movement but is counterproductive to public safety:

“if the speed limit on a given residential street is 30 mph, but 85 percent of drivers travel on the road at or below 40 mph, the speed limit will be raised to 40 mph. If raising the speed limit prompts drivers to drive even faster, such that 85 percent now drive 45 mph, the speed limit will be raised again.” (Shill, 2019, page 14)

Finally, there are few places in the country where speed limits are actually enforced; rather, a wide allowance is expected and accepted by both drivers and law enforcement, such that drivers driving only five or 10 miles/hour above the speed limit are seldom ticketed.

Although technologies for automated detection and ticketing of speeders have been known for many years, this way of enforcing the law is often outlawed:

“So dissonant are social attitudes towards speed limits that some jurisdictions do not permit and in some cases expressly forbid automated enforcement of speed laws. They are ironclad suggestions.” (Shill, 2019, page 10)

Shill contrasts the systematic tolerance of speeding and other driving infractions with harsh treatment for transportation-related offenses by non-drivers.

“[T]he maximum penalty for a parking meter or HOV [High Occupancy Vehicle] lane violation is a ticket, while boarding a subway or light rail without paying can trigger not only a fine but arrest. … [D]elaying 50 bus passengers by temporarily parking in the bus lane is punishable by ticket, but boarding that same bus with an expired pass can trigger jail time.” (Shill, 2019, page 73-74)

The institution of sprawl

The widespread adoption of automobile ownership a century ago immediately created a new problem. Auto owners would not own a space in which to store their cars in all the places they might visit. As Shill notes, a free market system could have met this need through charging whatever the market would bear, in each location – but that would have imposed significant costs on motorists, thereby lessening the demand for cars.

In response, cities and states rapidly changed laws to provide free public space for the storage of cars – and in the process they redefined a common word:

“By the 1920s, city parking authorities ‘began cutting down street trees and widening streets to accommodate the volume of cars, thereby replacing the original meaning of parking as a place for trees and greenery with parking as a place for automobiles to stop.’” (Shill, 2019, page 23, quoting from Michele Richmond, The Etymology of Parking, 2015)

This free use of space, Shill notes, is not for just any use:

“street parking is reserved for cars. Try ‘parking’ a picnic table, tiny home, or above-ground pool there and you will soon discover that motor vehicles are generally the only type of private property that it is lawful to store for free on the public street. The car yields to nothing in its consumption of public subsidy.” (Shill, 2019, page 48)

Devoting a big share of residential street space to fully subsidized parking was not enough. Zoning rules across the country also mandated that new buildings – apartments, office complexes, retail developments – must also include generous amounts of parking space.

Shill discusses such zoning rules extensively, as part of a web of rules that systematically favour low-density development where regular car use is a necessary part of daily life – at great cost to public budgets, and even greater personal cost to those who can’t afford cars.

A human sacrifice every six minutes

As Shill explains, the capture of right of way by cars has always been bloody and it has always been discriminatory, since non-motorists on the roads (now termed “vulnerable road users”) are disproportionately poor and visible minorities. But of course motorists themselves also pay with their lives at a high rate.

Today in America the great majority of adults are drivers and car-owners, yet even among drivers there is a deadly class division. The American auto industry strongly favours large, heavy vehicles which sell for a much higher price and bring a much larger profit margin. The saturation advertising campaigns for these vehicles feature, on the one hand, their awesome power and their thrilling speed, and on the other hand, the extensive safety features that supposedly keep the cars’ occupants in a cocoon of security.

Ironically, though, the bigger and heavier the cars get, the deadlier are the roads – particularly for vulnerable road users, but also for drivers of smaller cars.

The auto industry originally secured a loophole for “light trucks” in order to escape fuel efficiency standards. The ubiquitous “Sport Utility Vehicle” falls into that category, and so do the hulking, four-wheel-drive, four-door pickup trucks you now see scattered through the parking lots of every suburban grocery store.

With their high front ends these vehicles kill pedestrians and cyclists at a particularly high rate. Whereas a pedestrian or cyclist struck by an old-fashioned sedan will typically be hit at the legs, and will be lifted up and onto the hood (“bonnet”) of the car, the same vulnerable road user will be hit right in the vital organ zone when struck by a “light truck”, and will likely be knocked down and run over. The result:

“Research shows that a pedestrian is 3.4 times as likely to be killed if struck by an SUV or other light truck than if hit by a passenger car.” (Shill, 2019, page 58)

But drivers of lower-priced cars also share the social costs:

“SUV-to-car crashes are also far graver. ‘In frontal crashes, SUVs tend to ride over shorter passenger vehicles, crushing the occupant of the passenger car.’ In head-on collisions with SUVs, drivers of passenger cars are between four and 10 times more likely to die than in collisions with other passenger cars.” (Shill, 2019, page 64-65, quoting from Tristin Hopper, “Big Cars Kill”, National Post, July 31, 2015)

There is no natural law that says car safety ratings should take into account only the safety of the car’s occupants while discounting the safety of other road users. In fact, in some countries the legal framework governing car design is quite different:

“The United Nations has issued a regulation designed to protect pedestrians, which had been adopted by 44 countries—many of them our peers in Europe—as of 2015. The United States has taken no action.” (Shill, 2019, page 63)

Here too, US law offloads the social cost of driving, in this case the social cost of driving high-frame vehicles, onto the general public.

There is much more in Shill’s almost book-length monograph and it is well worth a careful read. He summarizes the effect of an elaborate legal web of privilege with these words:

“The car’s needs are given priority over the right of society to health and welfare, affordable homes, and economic vitality. Car supremacy claims one human sacrifice every six minutes, bakes the planet, and enforces race and class inequality. It is not endemic because it is just, it is ‘just’ because it is endemic—and blessed by law.” (Shill, 2019, page 76)

He adds that “The task of repealing car-centric laws that justify and solidify bad outcomes is formidable. If it succeeds, it will take the labor of more than one generation.” I sincerely hope he is wrong about that timeframe.


Graphic at top of article is adapted from an anti-jaywalking poster produced by the Public Art Project of the Work Projects Administration (WPA). Students of history will recall that the WPA was a prominent job-creation agency of the New Deal. Let’s hope that the Green New Deal will not sponsor propaganda boosting continued auto dominance.

One human sacrifice every six minutes refers, of course, just to the casualties in the United States. Worldwide, about two people per minute die in traffic accidents.

sincerely, july

PHOTO POST

As June gave way to July there was a whole lotta catchin’ up goin’ on along the north shore of Lake Ontario. Finally, summer at its finest – the weather hot, but not too hot; gentle breezes, but no storms; lots of moisture, but a break from big rains every-other-day. And creatures of all sorts have hurried to get back on pace after the long, wet, chilly spring.

 

Occupy a niche

Selecting nest sites, laying eggs, a whole lot of sitting, and if all goes well, feeding a hungry brood – everywhere you look there are busy birds.

The Song Sparrow, above, can be seen and heard in the woods and around backyard feeders. The Yellow Warbler, for all its colour, is usually harder to spot and even more difficult to photograph, given its habit of flitting rapidly about in deciduous bushes and trees. So when a Yellow Warbler male settled on a bare branch over Bowmanville Creek it made for an unexpected photo opportunity.

Hiding in plain sight

Fortunately a pair of Yellow Warblers also made a nest in a nearby shrub and soon four hatchlings were sharing that tiny bowl.

Placing an order, 1

You could almost see them grow every hour. Only 48 hours elapsed between the photo above and the photo below – and in another 36 hours, the four youngsters each glided out of the nest to the ground, took their first steps, flapped their wings, and quickly flew to safety while both parents hovered nearby.

Placing an order, 2

In the marshes some birds have had to start over after their first nests and eggs were lost to record-high waters. So some goslings and cygnets are far more advanced then others.

Sunset paddle

Big stands of reeds have floated around, driven by the wind, and areas that would typically be mud flats are fully submerged. But this Spotted Sandpiper has found a small outpost in Westside Marsh.

Spotted Sandpiper

Insect populations certainly seemed to be lower through the cold spring but now it’s not hard to spot a new variety every day.

Blade Runner

With a profusion of flowers everywhere, pollinators can get busy – and the Vipers Bugloss flower attracts lots of different bees.

Bumblebeeblur

 

Honeybee’s turn

A few Yellow Salsify plants have bloomed in our lawn. I’ve been hoping they’d spread enough so that I could harvest a few of their tasty roots one of these years – but alas, the rabbits seem very fond of the flowers too. Only one has matured enough to produce a beautifully patterned seed head, below.

Semisalsifysunset

Fishing, it would appear, has been good for those who know where to go. In one evening on Westside Marsh recently, the resident Osprey pair was joined by a Green Heron, a Black-Crowned Night Heron, at least two Great Blue Herons, and a pair of Belted Kingfishers.

West marsh lookout

This Great Blue Heron waited up in a tree, then suddenly pirouetted and flapped away toward the sunset.

Time’s up

The Kingfishers darted back and forth across the marsh but stopped occasionally to rest on a perch beneath an Osprey platform.

Sharing a perch

Though Kingfishers almost always fly away, with their typical cackle, just before I can get into photo range, finally this female Kingfisher touched down at the edge of the marsh and waited while I drifted close enough to get a good angle and a good shot. It only took a few short years of trying, and every one of those hours in a kayak was time well spent.

Evening rays

 

Photo at top: Wetlands Broadcast System, in Westside Marsh (click here for full-size image)

 

the eyes have it

PHOTO POST

To see, or to be seen? That is the question.

The birds and plants in the woods and waters of Port Darlington show us some of the ways in which the invention of the eye has shaped life history.

Many birds (for example the Yellow Warbler, above, and the Scarlet Tanager, below) are famously flashy. It seems unlikely that the beautiful appearances of these birds would have evolved if they never saw each other, but only sensed their world through hearing, smell, taste and touch.

Scarlet Tanager (click images for larger view)

Yet the urge to be hidden is just as influential as the urge to be seen – leading to a fabulous array of camouflage schemes. Sometimes one bird manages both tricks.

The Cedar Waxwing has a striking crest, and seen from one side its red wing tips and yellow tail tip really jump out. Yet with its predominantly subdued earth tones it can blend into shadowy forests very well.

Cedar Waxwing

Many creatures can’t see but still leverage the power of vision for their own benefit. Look at some of our woodland flowers, whose stunningly vibrant colours call out to pollinators.

Wild Violet

 

Trout Lilies

In this regard one of our most common woodland flowers is a marvellous mystery. The Mayapple spreads mostly by runners. Its pollination strategies have a poor rate of success, partly because its flower produces no nectar. And its striking white flower grows underneath large leaves, facing downward.

 

Mayapple in June

The chilly spring has delayed the bloom of Mayapples into early June this year. To savour this beauty, stand in a patch of Mayapples, bend down until your nose touches your toes, then rotate your head 180° so you can look upward into the beautiful flower just about 30 centimeters above the ground. And while relaxing into this pose, remember to breathe, so you can drink in the rich aroma of this flower.

But back to the creatures of the sky and water – one of the recent visitors to our shoreline was a Ruddy Turnstone, named for its colour and its habit of turning pebbles over to spot the insects on which it feeds.

Ruddy Turnstone

The Turnstone nests in the high arctic and didn’t stick around here long. But a summer resident bird uses similar colours in an entirely different pattern. And like the Turnstone, Woodpeckers use their eyes both for long-distance navigation and for close-up work in dining on tiny bugs.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

This Red-Bellied Woodpecker appears to have found a good home high above a flooded woodland along Bowmanville Creek.

Room with a View

Waterfowl have been foraging in the same woods, including this Blue-Winged Teal spotted just before sunset.

Twilight in Flooded Forest

A resident Beaver also swims back and forth through these woods, perhaps enjoying the fact that large branches can now be floated home rather than dragged through the bush.

Sunset Shift

Beavers are said to have poor eyesight, and if you’re quiet you can get very close before they spot you and dash back to the water or do their slap and dive. But they do their best work at night and underwater, and their eyes cope with these challenges very well.

To see, or to be seen? The Grackle is famous for its flashy iridescence but its appearance is striking in another way too. As it patrols the rich ground under a bird feeder, its eyes not only see but are seen. With those intimidatingly stark black-and-white eyes shouting “I see you!” the Grackle warns all rivals.

Eye On You

Just another in the myriad ways that vision has shaped life.

And without eyes, we would neither raise our eyebrows nor sit in wide-eyed wonder.

I Wonder …

Photo at top: Yellow Warbler in Thicket (click here for larger view)

 

plastic swamp

The billions of pieces of plastic floating in ocean gyres begin their watery journeys in ditches and creeks in almost every location inhabited by people. Many are tossed into tributaries in the centre of continents, far upstream from any ocean, including the small watershed where I live.
Also published at Resilience.org

The neighbouring coastal marshes where I spend many hours have much in common but there’s an important difference: they belong to separate “garbagesheds”.

There should be no need for such an ugly word, but as water moves through watersheds in our disposable civilization, that water gathers a lot of garbage and deposits it, at least temporarily, in catch points such as marshes.

Westside Marsh is part of the tiny (5.4 km2) Westside Creek watershed, which includes only a small amount of residential or commercial development – and thus this garbageshed1 collects relatively little garbage.

Bowmanville Marsh, by contrast, belongs to a watershed with thirty times as much area, including nearly all of the “developed” areas of the town of Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. Throughout this marsh, wherever water can sometimes flow and vegetation can filter that flow, there is garbage.

The plastic garbage may or may not be the worst of it, but since it tends to stay on the surface it is the most visible.

In the Bowmanville/Soper Creek garbageshed which drains through this marsh, the ditches and brooks carry plastic bottles toward Lake Ontario, and log jams on the creeks often catch hundreds of pieces. Flimsy and ubiquitous mass-market water bottles make up by far the biggest share.

Hydration (click image for larger view)

It only takes one good downpour to jostle some of the bottles out of this trap. Some pieces move quickly downstream and into Lake Ontario, while other pieces float a short distance into flooded woods or into the reeds where they stay for weeks, months or years.

Hydration with Straw

As a nature lover I usually go into the marsh to marvel at all the life and beauty that remains here, and that beauty is the usual focus of my photography. At the same time, it’s hard not to be aware, and often to be sickened and appalled, by the presence of plastic waste in every nook and cranny of the marsh.

Hydration with 150 Calories

There once was a time when people didn’t need to have a drink in their hand, their pack or their purse at all times, every day, everywhere they go. Obsessive fear of dehydration generally guided only those making long journeys across inhospitable drylands.

There once was a day when people could routinely spare the time to sit down and drink hot beverages from open cups which afforded them the aroma of fresh coffee.

But advertising factories relentlessly manufactured new needs, and materials wizards cooked up mountains of packaging that was cheap enough to throw away after one use.

Hydration with Sugar and Milk

 

Hydration with Less

 

Hydration with Intoxicant

Were it not for this seemingly never-ending stream of garbage, there would be no need for “adopt-a-roadway” clean-up campaigns by civically-minded citizens – and in the long run, we’d be much better off taxing single-use plastics out of existence rather than trying to pick them out of grasslands, forests, marshes, creeks, lakes and oceans.

But in the meantime, it is far easier to pick up trash bottles from easily accessible roadside ditches than it is to wade into creeks, pick through logjams, or push canoes through stands of reeds trying to grab plastic detritus piece by piece.

Every bit of trash picked up from a ditch is one less piece making its way downstream.

Hydration with Additives

But when high water lifts long-trapped bottles out of the marsh and into Lake Ontario, our plastic avatars move into a far wider garbageshed – perhaps, one day, joining a great garbage gyre in the ocean.2

Hydration at Sea


Photo at top of page: Hydration with Shine (larger view here)

 


1When this word popped into mind I suspected that others must have thought of it too. But my internet search turned up just one similar usage of “garbageshed”, by theologian and ethicist Malinda Elizabeth Berry.

2According to Wikipedia, the North Atlantic garbage patch “is estimated to be hundreds of kilometers across in size, with a density of over 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometer.” Researchers from The Ocean Cleanup project claimed that the Great Pacific garbage patch “covers 1.6 million square kilometers. … An estimated 80,000 metric tons of plastic inhabit the patch, totaling 1.8 trillion pieces.”