Encounters with the Archdruid

encounters with the archdruidEncounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee

For anyone engaged in the environmental movement David Brower does—or should—loom large. The first Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Brower turned it into a political powerhouse. He was responsible for stopping dams in the Grand Canyon, in establishing nine national parks and seashores, and passing the Wilderness Act. More than that, he fought for a vision that is still debated, a vision of wilderness, of places that are untouched (as much as possible) by human intervention. He wanted to protect nature for its own sake.

Brower is the Archdruid of the title in McAphee’s book, from a developer’s sarcastic comment that he calls all preservationists druids. The book follows Brower and others on three expeditions—a mountain hike, an island off the Georgia coast, and down the Colorado—with people with wildly differing views. One a geologist for a mining company who thinks the only way possible for humanity is to continue to use minerals, especially copper, in great quantities and mine wherever we can, another a developer who has been pioneering beauty and nature in development and wants to build on an almost entirely uninhabited barrier island, the last the person who would be closest to Brower’s archnemesis, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, who led almost every one of the dams that Brower opposed.

I don’t know exactly what I expected with this book, but it wasn’t this exactly. I suppose I expected more nature writing, and less of the debates I remember from school on conservation vs. preservation. Many of the debates did seem a bit rote, with people—Brower and his foils in each section—falling back on sound bites and the same arguments many have heard before. Often, surprisingly, the developers are given more free rein to talk in the book than Brower, with him seeming to be assured in his path and offering only that he resists their arguments, and their view of humanity and what we need.

That being said, I still found the book fascinating. McPhee lets the subjects, and the natural world, speak for themselves, and doesn’t vilify the developers on the other side, so to speak. And it’s a wonderful history of environmentalism in the country, one that I would strongly recommend to anyone engaged in these debates today. As the Brower argues preservation with those who say that a bit of development won’t hurt, that we can build houses but keep most of nature, build a small mine and be responsible with the tailings, flood only a small percentage of the Grand Canyon, it was hard not to think of how much more we’ve learned about ecosystems, how important it is to have large tracts undisturbed, how even a responsible developer will by necessity kick out parts of nature we don’t even know we need. 

I also found that I greatly appreciated Brower’s arguments for preservation: That it’s what we should do. That we need wild places. That we need beautiful places. That we don’t need to build a dam. That our short-term gains are destroying things that took millenia to come into being. This was a criticism of

sierra club ad

A Sierra Club ad from Browers Time. 

Brower during his time. He pioneered using emotional ads to rile up environmentalists to save the west, even going so far with some to see Sierra Club lose its tax exempt status. (And while they lost that status, and were accused of being unreasonable and unfair and pushing away moderates, they went from 2000 members to 77000- nearly 2 million today- and became the leading environmental organization. Consider that the next time you read an article about a lefty group being uncivil or worried about losing moderates.)


In a day and age where we assign a cost and a benefit analysis to everything, where everything is talked about in investment, where even a question about whether or not to raise the sea levels enough that entire countries may disappear is caught up in the short-term price, reading a full-throated defense of nature for nature, a steadfast belief in intrinsic value, and a rejection of our utilitarian way of thinking refreshing. We could use far more David Browers today.

“Polite conservationists leave no mark save the scars upon the Earth that could have been prevented had they stood their ground.”
— David Brower


The Sixth Extinction

the-sixth-extinctionThe Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert

Based on all that we’ve been able to determine, the universe likes things to be fairly stable. There’s the occasional dramatic explosion from a supernova or galactic collision, but the are exceedingly rare, with galaxies and stars and solar systems and comets drifting around for billions or years more or less unchanged. While on a much faster time scale, life on Earth is also predicated on stability and predictability. Each organism on Earth more or less knows that challenges they’ll face from day to day—how they need to eat, what will be trying to eat them, what the air they breathe is like, etc. Every now and then a random genetic mutation turns up a better way to do things, or an earthquake separates two sides of a pond, and we eventually get a new species out of it. Even more rarely, a struggling species can’t compete with the new one, or their smaller pond, and a species winks out of existence. But this is rare, and mostly, there is a balance. But every now and then, something happens. A wobble brings us further from the sun or the main continent drifts too far south and the temperature change wipes out much of nascent life. A new group of organisms changes the chemical composition of the air and makes it toxic. A miles-wide asteroid hits the planet. And in that moment, everything changes. Thousands of species, genera, and whole families disappear, and with them entire ecosystems that seemed they would be there forever.

There have been five such major extinctions in the past. Under normal circumstances, the background extinction rate is roughly one extinction per million species years. So, for every million species, around 1 would go extinct each year. Families go extinct even more rarely. But under a major extinction event, over a period of thousands of years we’ll lose 70% or more of species, and up to 30% of families. By many measures, we are in another major extinction event right now, one that we ourselves are causing.

The reasons for the sixth extinction, which Elizabeth Kolbert outlines in painstaking, highly readable, and incredibly despairing detail, are many. Part of it is how easily we transport new fungus and bacteria from one place to the next. The fungus killing off bats through white-nose syndrome was most likely imported to the US from Europe. It’s wiped out up to 90% of the bat colonies in some areas and is threatening more than one previously common species with extinction.  Part of it is what we do on purpose—there is debate, but it seems likely we at the least contributed to the megafauna extinction thousands of years ago. Part of the extinction is habitat destruction. And some is the massive amount of carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere. Climate change is a threat—and the likely cause of at least two previous major extinctions, when the climate changed more slowly than it is today—as is simply the increase in carbon and ocean acidification. It seems likely that at the rate the carbon is increasing in the ocean, coral simply won’t be able to form, well, coral. Even if the temperature doesn’t go up at all from where it is now.

This book wonderfully lays out a history of taxonomy, of the study of extinctions and evolution, changing views and knowledge of mass extinctions, and what we are seeing today. Each day we see evidence of the sixth extinction all around us, in animals and plants we no longer see out our window or find when fishing or hunting, and in the endless headlines of threats to different plants and animals. And yet seeing it all laid out so clearly is harrowing. Kolbert ends with a call to action, the last chapter is titled “The Thing with Feathers.” She clearly has to write this; this book is meant to be more than a witness and a eulogy to the world around us. And yet, even as an activist, it is increasingly difficult not to see how much climate change and species loss has already happened, and how much is still baked into the cake, so to see. It is frightening for me to contemplate what the future looks like for my children. And so difficult not to go through my days crying when I realize it is highlight likely that the coral reefs will be gone within my life time.

And yet I would still say to read this book. Kolbert has done a service to the world in writing it and creating a document that even a lay person can understand. Read the book and take action. Let us limit the destruction as much as we can. The sticker on my laptop says, “We need everyone everywhere doing everything all the time as quickly as possible.” Take it to heart; it’s the only way to save a recognizable world for our children.

Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree Planting Tribe

EDCoverEating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree Planting Tribe, Charlotte Gill

I’m not going to argue Canada is perfect–even if Justin Trudeau is dreamy and wears Star Wars socks and greets refugees. They are still dredging up tar sands, and they’re still not close to meeting their Paris agreement limits. But Canada is a country that has long made money off of their natural resources and, if not strict preservationists, they certainly understand old-school conservation and wise-use of resources. They take sustainable use seriously. This is, after all, a country that boarded a Spanish boat because of illegal fishing. And this means that they want their logging to last a long time as well. Any logging on public land needs to be reforested. And 94% of the logging takes place on public land.

Eating Dirt is a memoir from Charlotte Gill, one of the thousands of Canadians fanning across the country each year to carry out this reforestation. It’s dirty, backbreaking piece work, with people getting paid by the tree, and expected to plant at least 1000 trees each day. Which isn’t impossible. According to Gill, the record holder is 15,700 red pine seedlings in one day. It’s work that’s done often by college students, but also has a contingent of regular migrant workers that come back year after year. Gill is one of these, planting for 20 years.

Gill is an evocative writer. It’s easy to become immersed in the world and feel oneself there, to feel the chill in the air in the mornings, smell the dirt and the damp, feel the tiredness in ones bones. And she does a good job of capturing the camaraderie, painting a sketch of the types of people who come and go, sharing the danger and the fun of the work. And she mixes this with stories of how the tree planting laws came to be, of her small part in reforesting, and a clear view that planting thousands of pine trees does not a healthy, old-growth ecosystem make. These snippets were interesting, but Gill was at her best writing memories rather than information.

Tree planting is also repetitive work, and towards the end of the book I thought that I’d gotten the gist of it. I imagine that’s also how many planters feel at the end of the summer, so perhaps it was what she was going for stylistically, but I did think the book could have either been shorter, or she could have worked on the intermittent thoughts on forests and history a bit more. But that’s a mild complaint. Overall, it was an interesting book on a topic and world I knew nothing about. This is an entire life that many of us aren’t connected to in anyway, and one can’t help but be interested.

A Win for Coffee Curmudgeons

As a long-time hater of K-cups and their associated machines, I feel quite vindicated after reading this:

In 2013, Green Mountain produced 8.3 billion K-Cups, enough to wrap around the equator 10.5 times. If Green Mountain aims to have “a Keurig System on every counter,” as the company states in its latest annual report, that’s a hell of a lot of little cups.

Plus, according to the article, with the single-serving k-cups, you’re probably paying over $50 a pound for coffee, which even most coffee snobs, such as yours truly, would ever do.

I’ve been a long-time hater of these machines.  For one thing, I have a knee-jerk hatred of single-serving things and our trend to take things that should be communal (coffee), and makes them individual.  For another, even as an individual, I usually want more than one small-ish cup of coffee at a time.  And lastly, as to that small-ish bit, k-cups prepackage the amount of coffee, so if you hit the “large” button or the “small” one there are the same amount of grounds; you’re just getting weaker coffee one way.  Bah.  A ridiculous device, and I don’t understand why people like them–it doesn’t take that long to clean out your coffee pot, people!

Well.  I’m glad to have some facts and Actual Reasons to use instead of just my crotchetiness* when we talk about potentially getting a Keurig in the office.

(via Grist)