Friday, July 29, 2016

Future climate emerging: hold onto your hats..

Saguenay, Québec, 27 july, 2016: massive hail storm with local flooding causes considerable damage to autos, windows, building exteriors, crops, gardens and outdoor furniture. One constructor fears that older buildings may have sustained structural damage "which will show up this winter with heavy snow burdens on roofs". The storm has been discribed as a "historic event". In some places golf-ball, tennis ball or baseball sized hail fell to a depth of four inches. 

      Better get used to it folks. This is probably what the weather of the future is going to look like. If you remember your physics, you will recognize that heat is a form of energy. So global warming (GW) will pump more energy into the atmosphere. This produces a whole bunch of interesting "tipping point" phenomena (see note 1). For example, an increased risks of bouts of extreme weather involving precipitation (cloudbursts, hail, high wind velocity summer storms..)

          Swiss RE is a "re-insurer", a mega-insurance company which insures smaller insurance companies against excessive losses (such as a series of natural calamities which could break the bank of an insurance company). "Re-insurance" provides coverage for these situations. The following chart shows total insured costs due to different types of disaster over the last four decades.

            To enlarge image, click on it. Weather related catastrophes are becoming more expensive (red columns). The trend line (grey) for total insured losses is definitely rising over the last 40 years. (Human related disaster costs - grey columns - are also rising.) Seismic disasters (purple columns), on the other hand, show no trend: they simply come in "swarms" or clusters of variable intensity at, more or less, irregular intervals.

              Living in a globally warmed world may be expensive. Undoubtedly, in the seven "wasted decades" following World War II, money was "saved" by refusing to convert to a global renewable energy economy when we had the chance. The "officers" of multinational corporations, their stockholders and the multinationals' "servitor classes" (professionals, administrators, technicians, middle managers) have benefited. (Working class stiffs in industrialized societies and third world peasants have not done so well, though..) But, if I am right, the money thus "saved" will be dwarfed by the increased costs of dealing with extreme weather, unfavorable shifts in regional climates and rampant sea level rise. These costs will be reflected in increased food and insurance expenditures, economic disruption (local, regional and even global, given the globalized nature of mass markets) and socio-political turmoil as climate immigrants push their way into neighboring countries.. In this sense, the Fort Mcmurray fire is a wake up call, a sign of things to be seen more widely in the coming decades.

"The Alberta wildfires torched the Canadian economy in May, driving the country into its worst one-month performance since the darkest days of the Great Recession seven years ago."

           While the Canadian (and world) economy continues to stagnate following the financial crisis of autumn 2008, the fires in Alberta worsened things a bit. Canadian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declined more than predicted with the Fort Mcmurray fire indicted on several counts. There were direct local economic impacts: destroyed infrastructure, disruption of business activity, lost work hours, uninsured property losses.. In addition, oil sands production dropped by 22%, contributing to large losses in the natural resources (extractive industry) sector. These fire caused losses add to - and amplify - sustained losses due to recent economic downturns in some large economies: China, Brazil.. 

              Canadian anufacturing was hit too since reduced oil sands production meant that manufacturers had to outsource suppliers of petrochemicals, usually at higher prices. (Don't forget, petroleum is not just burned as a fuel. It is also used as feedstock - raw material - in many industries: plastics, pigments, pharmaceuticals, construction materials..)

             One might say that our world suffers from an Elemental Imbalance: too much water in one place (or at the wrong time), too much fire in another.

             Rising global temperatures are causing northern lands to burn up. For several years, we are witnessing "unprecedented" peat and tundra fires and heat waves in unexpected places like Siberia. A Canadian example is the recent monster fire in the Fort McMurray region of Alberta province. 

           For a general overview of how global warming is affecting our global climate and weather, I can't do better than recommend the work of robbertscribbler:


1- tipping point: the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place (from

examples: The "crisis" (or turning point) in an illness; the patient either recovers or dies. The "kindling point" or point of conflagration. If you warm a mixture of gasoline vapor and air, the kindling point is the temperature at which the mixture explosively ignites. Powerful positive feedbacks are implied. Gasoline molecules are combining (burning) with oxygen, releasing heat stored in the chemical bonds of gasoline. At the kindling point the process "runs away": the heat liberated in a small volume of air is sufficient to trigger nearby gasoline molecules to combine with oxygen, liberating more heat, which trigger still more gasoline molecules to burn.. The result: an explosion. Explosions are simply highly dramatic tipping points.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Bastille Day massacre: what more is needed?

           Yet, once again, the world is shocked by terrorist atrocity. An alarm is sounding in the night, why does no one answer?

            For the third time in eighteen months, France has fallen victim to a terrorist massacre. Security forces are overworked and reserves have been called up for relief. Are the jihadists winning?

           Nice, France, July 14, 2016, Bastille Day (the national holiday):  a French citizen of Tunisian ancestry with a history of mental illness and familial violence drove a heavy truck into a  crowd returning from a fireworks display. 84 people were killed outright and others maimed (not to mention the psychological scars). Such attacks are evidently becoming more common recently. But why? Where do we break the pattern? What are the causes? How do we address them?

          Perhaps most disquieting: if, indeed, terrorists seek to provoke overreaction, they may be winning.

           The US Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, calls for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration to the States till the American "government figures out what the hell is going on". But this was back in December, 2015, before the recent spate of terrorist attacks (and some copy cat massacres carried out by the mentally imbalanced).
            The contemporary phenomenon of jihadist terrorism is, on the surface, bizarre. Young people, especially young men, strap themselves to bombs, blow themselves up, taking as many victims with them as they can.

            The perpetrators profess fanatical faith in radical fundamentalist versions of Islam, believing they will go to an eternal reward in Paradise for their bloody self destruction and mass murder. At the beginning of the "scientific", "technically advanced" and "rationalist" 21st century such acts appear mad or absurd to many.

            Who, then, are these "madmen"? (Are they, in fact, really mad?) Studies of psycho-social profiles reveal that only a minority actually have severe mental health problems. (Psychologically, they are often of a "narcissistic" and "paranoid"character - but then so are many people who are classified as sane..)

            Many of the jihadists sympathizers (Canada, USA, Norway, UK..) are native born citizens of the countries they attack. Some of these are of Middle Eastern or African ancestry and appear to have been converted to radical Muslim and jihadist views from sympathy for Muslims suffering from the West's unending wars in the Middle East (note 1). Many of the Western jihadists (and sympathizers), however, are not of Middle-Eastern or African origin. These "native sons and daughters" were radicalized through Internet jihadist groups, once again, on the basis of perceived injustices toward Muslim populations on the part of Western countries. In many cases (France), jihadists of Middle-Eastern / African origin (whether native born or immigrants) suffer from racial / ethnic" religious discrimination, bigotry and poverty (multigenerational poverty in some cases). Yet, interestingly, there seems to be no - or few - "typical" jihadists (even in Western countries). For example, some sympathizers are, contrary to expectations, well educated and of upper middle class origin.

             Consider: the Fort Hood (Texas) massacre of 13 persons by Nidal Hasan, a US army major and professional psychiatrist in 2009.

          To some degree, there are national variations in the types of people drawn into jihadist violence. Jihadist sympathizers in France often come from criminalized youth gangs. This is much less the case in North America, where the sympathizers are more often of the "idealist" variety. Of course, such variation in psycho-social profiles between countries makes it difficult to pin down and define who, exactly, is susceptible to jihadist radicalization.

             The case of France is particularly troubling. Arabo-african residents, immigrants and naturalized citizens - often their children and grandchildren - are herded into suburbs, often dilapidated and crime-ridden, where there is little chance for employment. Obviously, many will turn to the drug trade and petty crime. Integration of these groups appears to be much less successful than in North America. For example, recent polling data suggest that Canadian Muslims are "increasingly patriotic" and "well integrated" into Canadian society. However, even here, there is evidence of increasing polarization among the young. Younger Muslims are more likely to see themselves under scrutiny by the rest of society and to practice an Islamic lifestyle (mosque attendance..)

           As an informal anecdotal observation on the status of Muslim integration in France, I have begun to meet young French immigrants (non-Muslim) who are testing the waters here in Québec "for a few years" before deciding to set down roots. These are people just starting families. They were driven out of France by what they see as a rising tide of racism and extreme Right wing politics. They don't want their kids raised in such a social climate. Québec appears attractive: francophone, democratic, socially mobile, peaceful (note 2).

            OK, ethno-racial relations are bad and apparently getting worse. So what can be done?

How to get yourself labelled racist (without even trying)

            Inscrutable problems may have no solution. Or the solution may be obscure: we may have been searching for an answer in the wrong place. In this case we have to change our perspective: we have to re-contextualize / re-frame the problem and start asking new questions. Then we might find some new answers..

             One thing strikes me when I look at the evolution of societies since the end of World War II: we had an opportunity to launch Sustainable Development in the third world and we blew it. No one country or political system is indicted here: all seem roughly equally culpable: communist, capitalist, socialist, East, West, old industrialized countries like Britain or newly industrialized ones like Japan..

            At any rate, we have to begin asking questions like: who really has benefited from "development" programs since the end of WW II? 

            At the end of WW II the communist and capitalist powers entered into the "Cold War" for world domination. In a sense, the decolonizing third world countries were pawns in this struggle. The Korean War was fought on Korean, not American or Soviet, soil. This allowed the super-powers to avoid mass destruction (perhaps mutual destruction) as a result of modern warfare conducted on their own territories. Third world countries also provide the "developed" world with raw materials like minerals and cash crop commodities like palm oil (regardless of negative ecological, social and economic impacts on the host society). In short, the superpowers of the Cold War era were interested in world domination within the context of "business-as-usual" economics and technology (a system that I call "plundernomics": the imperialistic exploitation - plunder - of the earth, its biosphere, peoples and cultures).

             Yet, there were "prophets" who saw the looming ecological disaster ahead. Aldous Huxley, 46 years before the publication of the Club of Rome Report: The limits to growth (1972), wrote a science fiction novel, Brave New World, describing a future world in which humanity (or post-humanity) lived in ecological balance with nature. Hundreds of years in the future a globalized, centrally controlled technocracy ruled through rational management. Population was rigorously controlled. Non-renewable resources were scrupulously recycled. Nothing was wasted. Famine and endemic disease were eliminated (most people died of boredom..) An ecological utopia! - except that no one was "free" (the question of freedom was never even posed..)

              In retrospect, Huxley's novel demonstrates - by default - an alternative approach to our current demographic / ecological crisis: small scale ("modular"), decentralized, locally governed, locally initiated economic development. Today, Transition Initiatives is a global movement which attempt to embody these values in the transition to carbon free, green technology. 

           Transition Initiatives' principles: 

             Such small scale, decentralized, participatory development would actually foster the things we in the West say we care about: democracy, empowerment of the little people (recall "the American Dream"), the flourishing of small scale enterprise and entrepreneurial skill. Oddly, though, neither the Soviets ("communists") nor the USA ("capitalists") embraced such small scale, participatory, ecologically friendly development. The reason for the Western powers, at least, to eschew such development are pretty obvious after a little study and reflection. Such development doesn't fit well with multinational corporation style: centralized, mass market oriented, driven by profit ( and / or market share control) and not by local "common goods" (consisting of numerous, often conflicting, interests). In the obsessive and monomaniacal drive for profit (or market share control) if local ecologies and civil rights have to be trampled and hard done by, So Be It! God's name is, after all, The Almighty Buck. Thus Western powers, like their Communist counterparts, promoted heavy industry (above all, extractive industries like mining and cash crop agrobusiness). Local dictators were supported - if not installed - by both sides to assure their control over essential resource flows (the "developed" countries had already, to a large degree, depleted their own non-renewable resource bases so now they had to prey on the "undeveloped" countries). The net result over the seven decades since the end of WW II have been disastrous, of course. Rather than pursue ecologically sound development, both West and East programmed the (pseudo-)"development" of the third world along the same abortive pathway they themselves had followed. And now we are suffering, Karmic payback for our evil acts - the jihadists, for example..

              My argument is simple, though it will get me labelled as anti-immigrant, racist and reactiony. So Be It - FTW!

              Millions of years of primate and hominid evolution have programmed people to love the cultures, peoples and climates they were born into. (True, there are those who are born with a wander lust, people who naturally aren't comfortable in one place, but these are a statistical minority and don't affect my thesis.) Normally, people - though they may enjoy a bit of travel now and then - want to remain close to what they grew up with as children. They emigrate only if they are forced to, because of famine, war or poverty.

              I contend that we are facing refugee crises today - and the culture shocks they produce - because we have collectively botched the development of the third world in the seven decades following WW II. People are now struggling to leave overcrowded, ecologically devastated, chronically underveloped societies which cant provide the Good Life they were promised by Western peddlers of "development" and "progress". We simply have not delivered on the promises of the Enlightment and its dogma of "Infinite Perfectability". On this point, the Communist world was even less successful than the capitalist West. They could not even meet the needs and expectations of their own (internal) populations. That is why they are no longer among the living..

              Increasingly, of course, as climate continues to degrade due to anthropogenic climate change and global warming, all the above crises - overpopulation, chronic underdevelopment, thwarted dreams.. - will be amplified in their local impacts. And since we live in an interconnected - globalized - world, these local negative impacts of failed development will rebound on to the geopolitical scene. As the recent tragedy of Bastille Day, 2016, amply attests..    


1- To muddy the waters even more: "radical Muslim" and "jihadist" are not synonyms - despite the ravings of rabble-rousing populists like Donald Trump. A person may adhere to a faith in a "radical", "extreme" or "assiduous" fashion without advocating the suppression of other faiths and their adherents."Christian fundamentalism", for example, does not equate with anti-semitism.

2- Québec is, generally, a tolerant society but it is not paradise. A couple of years ago the "social democrat" Parti Québécois attempt to bolster its failing popularity by appealing to populist (ethno-racist) sentiments. A "charter of Quebec values" was proposed - but never enacted - which would, among other measures, prohibit the "ostentatious exhibition of religious symbols" in public institutions like schools, hospitals, government offices.. The target was Muslim women wearing the hijab. Fortunately, an election intervened, the Parti Québécois was thrown out and we have not heard of the infamous charter of values since. Good riddance! 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Fort McMurray fire - most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history

abbreviations used

CO2 - carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas causing global warming
GW - global warming
GHG - greenhouse gas

          At 3.58 billion dollars the "beast" was the most expensive natural disaster in our history.

         The good news is that it is finally under control by firefighters.

         The bad news is that such extreme weather and climate (related) events will become more common in the future due to global warming caused by the release of excessive greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide and methane) by human economic activities: fossil fuel combustion and agriculture in particular. The term "excessive" is important in the above sentence. Nature constantly releases greenhouse gases (GHG). They cycle naturally through the planetary ecosystem. CO2, in particular, is essential for life: it is absorbed by geen plantes during photosynthesis to store solar energy in high energy molecules like sugars, starches, oils and fats. This energy is necessary for metabolic processes of all living organisms (even carnivores who capture the stored solar energy when they eat herbivores who ate plants). When food calories are burned (metabolism), the energy stored in energy rich molecules is released for metabolic work and CO2 is released back to the atmosphere, completing the cycle. The problem is rather with "excess GHG", chronic imbalances of GHG, occasionned by human activities: farming, transport, heating, manufacturing.. 

          And things aren't getting better, rather worse.. 

          Among other things, we should expect higher insurance rates in the future to cover the costs of more frequent extreme weather events. In some floodplains, rates will have to be jacked up significantly to cover rising risks of flood. In others, new building will simply be prohibited.

           Global warming (GW) causes seawater to expand (thermal expansion) flooding low lying coastal zones. This problem is made worse by glacial melt: the Greenland icesheet meltdown, for example. 

           And both of these problems, thermal expansion of seawater and glacial melt, aggravate storm surge flooding of low lying coastal zones.


              Rising sea levels will, in coming decades, produce climate refugees fleeing insland. Rehousing these folk will cost money (and energy) - and where to put them in an already overpopulated, crowded world running out of cheap energy? Not so obvious..

              On a (classical) Elemental analysis level, on could say our world is suffering from a general excess of Fire with local imbalances of Water (either too much or not enough). 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Book Review: toward a Buddhist ecology?

Thom Van Dooren: Flight Ways, life and loss at the edge of extinction: Columbia University Press, 2014; 164 pages, bibliography, index, copious chapter notes, photos.

"..learning to mourn extinction may.. be essential to our and many other species' long term survival"

"Sadly, extinction is not a topic that generates a great deal of popular interest at the present moment. I suspect, however, that in the future to come - if humanity is here at all - extinction will be among the handful of themes that is understood to be central, perhaps even definitional, of our time."
"Again and again, we need to ask: What does this loss mean inside its specific multispecies communities? How are "we" called into responsibility here and now, and how will we take up that call?" 

                           whooping crane, North America: elegance in motion

           This is what I call an "angry making" book, the kind that fills me with despair and rage at the human race and its  self-centered stupidity. Prof Van Dooren's theme is extinction of wildlife, what can be done to prevent extinction, and what we are, in fact, doing. The text focuses on the "stories" of humanity's interaction with several avian species: Pacific Island Albatrosses, Australian penguins, Hawaiian crows, Indian vultures, American whooping cranes.

           This book is not an easy read on several levels. The first, and most obvious hurdle, is the academic language (the author is an environmental philosopher and anthropologist at the University of New South Wales, Australia). The lingo is challenging to those unversed in the humanities, especially contemporary philosophy, ethics and anthropology,.. The second hurdle compounds the former:  the "environmental humanities" demand a serious "reframing" of humanity's relation to nature. Such reframings / recontextualizations are never easy! Traditionally, they are associated with major life-crises such as religious conversion: consider the current vogue of jihadist radicalization of Western youth. These people are generally tortured souls. People do not undertake such "conversions" without good reason. They only do so when they understand that the "roadmaps of reality"  of their society no longer correspond to reality, lead nowhere..

           Of course, one can choose not to confront our challenges. We may not have much power, personally, to change things but at least we have the power of this choice. Up to a point, at least, evasion is possible. Some people enjoy spewing hate at imaginary - or real but "demonized" - enemies. Think of the hate-spew of the more fanatical GW deniers, conspiracy theorists or Donald Trump's followers. Or the super-"patriot" who killed pro-European Union British Labour MP Jo Cox: 

           I have never been able to embrace the authoritarian mindset, with its black / white dichotomies of "good versus evil", "us versus them", "Absolute Truth versus Absolute Falsehood". My emotional reaction to the fact that the world is going to hell finds no such convenient outlet. At times this has left me quietly frustrated, angry or despairing. Books like prof van Dooren's Flight Ways depressed me so, in the past, I avoided reading them..

The joys of Doomerism

         Recently, given the inability of the world's "leaders" and publics to come to grip with the various demographic, ecological, developmental and moral issues (like the distribution of wealth) we collectively face, I have come to the conclusion that any action we take now will be "too little, too late". The world won't end, of course: humans are mammals and mammals seem to be tough critters. Ancient stem-mammals predate the dinosaurs, surviving two major and several minor mass extinction events. 

          It is even arguable that humans are in so much trouble ecologically and demographically today because of our unprecedented success in the "Darwinian struggle for survival". In this view, we are suffering "an adolescent crisis" because we have not learned to harness the incredible power of our mammalian brains..

        Whether one is an optimist or a pessimist - whether humanity is suffering adolesence or the death agony of an abortive species - there is going to be hell to pay for our stupid mucking around with the planet's "life support systems". So, in this limited sense, I am a doomer - of the "squishy soft" variety because I hope for collapse followed by rebirth / regeneration (footnote 1). 

        Accepting the reality of impending mass human die-off has, oddly, left me less angry and more compassionate. I realize that humans are only doing what 3.5 billion years of Darwinian evolution have programmed our genes and nervous systems to do. Add to this the ecocidal  cultural programming inherited from some 8,000 years of Patriarchy with its ethos of imperial expansion and "plundernomics" (the economics of plunder, pillage and exploitation). 


Towards a Buddhist ecology

          Prof van Dooren is asking no less than a total revision of our worldview: Who / what are we? What is our "place" in Nature? What "functions" do we serve (if any)? What is the value of life (human and other) and how do we prioritize the values of different kinds of life? (And who gives us this "right" to prioritize the lives of others in the first place?)..

         These ain't easy questions! A useful distinction was made by the "Buddhist economist" E E Shumacher (Small is Beautiful, 1973 /1999): questions which have definite, unambiguous answers are "closed questions". Logical or mathematical proofs are good examples of closed questions (and their equally closed answers). If a master mason can build a wall in 2 days and an apprentice in 4 days, how long does it take a master and 2 apprentices to build a wall?

Answer: 1 / (1/2 + 1/4 + 1/4) = 1 day. If you know the trick, you got the answer! (And the answer is always good, 500 years ago or 500 years in the future..) However, the Divinity, one suspects, is perverse because, while relatively easy to solve, such closed questions are generally trivial in nature. Solving algebra problems may be useful (or fun) but the really tough questions, those that tend to keep us awake at night, are generally "open" questions. These questions have to be asked - and answered - anew by each generation and by each individual. Is life worth living? What is the Good Life? What mission is God calling me for? Why am I on this earth? 

         Since Flight Ways deals with open questions, it is decidedly not an easy read. (I speak from my own experience, with no formal training in philosophy beyond Phil 101 and 102.) Despite the difficulty, the book's "message" is worth the effort. I put "message" in quotes to indicate that the author's goal is not so much to convey a body of knowledge than to create within the reader a new way of seeing the world. Decidely a difficult task!

         Flight Ways is an interesting antidote to texts like Barnosky 1, Barnosky 2Reice and  Wilson in which nature is "reduced" to quantitative, economic terms, "parametrized" to fit into equations of ecosystem productivity in order to generate a monetary value. The "value" of a piece of land and its ecosystem can thus be compared to the value generated by a condo development. I have never found this type of calculation satisfying. How, for example, do you calculate the "cost" of a cancer death caused by pollution? By a simple actuarial calculation? The victim's life was, statistically speaking, shortened by X years, the annual salary of the deceased was N dollars, so their death has a value of X times N. OK, I get it, but what about the long term ripple effects of the death? What about the children who never got a chance to go to college because of the loss of the breadwinner of the family? What about the psychological impacts to the family, how do we quantify those in dollar terms? (Does it even make sense to attempt to try to quantify them..) I am not, be it noted, denying a certain utilitarian value of such analyses. For example, in comparing two projects (for, say, an organic farm) involving economic transactions which provide livelihoods for people. "All things being equal" we would choose the project offering the biggest positive (numeric) advantages: net biomass productivity and its commercial value, the number of jobs, the net economic activity created for the local region, ecological impacts.. (note 2)

           However, Flight Ways goes beyond the monetized value of nature to touch other - vital - dimensions of our involvement and contact with nature. In addition to monetary value and "ecosystem service" value, we are asked to consider the being (or, rather, the being-in-the-world, the lived experience of the world) of other life forms. 

           Such a vision or experience of life demands the cultivation of empathy (if not compassion). Hence my reference in the title to "Buddhist ecology". The degree to which such a view is alien to our "normal", contemporary worldview is easily seen in the difficult convoluted language needed to express what to us is not, or no longer, "natural". 

           The following "mission statement" for the series to which Flight Ways belongs, Critical Perspectives on Animals: Theory, Culture, Science, and Law indicates the syntaxic and semantic difficulties occasioned by the required "paradigm shift" in our thinking about our relation to nature.

"The emerging interdisciplinary field of animal studies seeks to shed light on the nature of animal experience and the moral status of animals. Recent work on animals has been characterized by an increasing recognition of the importance of crossing disciplinary boundaries and exploring the affinities as well as the differences among the approaches of fields such as philosophy, law, sociology, political theory, ethology and literary studies to questions pertaining to animals. This recognition has brought with it an openess to a rethinking of the very terms of critical inquiry and of traditional assumptions about human being and its relationship to the animal world. The books published in this series seek to contribute to contemporary reflections on the basic terms and methods of critical inquiry, to do so by focusing on fundamental questions arising out of the relationships and confrontations between humans and nonhuman animals, and ultimately to enrich our appreciation of the nature and ethical significance of nonhuman animals by providing a forum for the interdisciplinary exploration of questions and problems that have traditionally been confined within narrowly circumscribed disciplinary boundaries." 

            One of the things I really liked about Flight Ways is its debunking of "human exceptionalism" especially its silliest, kitschiest manifestations which modern philosophers seem too ready to accept. Prof van Dooren demolishes the ridiculous pretension that "animals like humans experience death but only humans know death". In reality, higher mammals and brainier birds like crows, show behaviors following death of companions which, when seen in humans, are labelled "grieving".

           Another admirable feature of Flight Ways is its recognition - and employment  - of "story" ("narration", "myth"). I can't do better than cite page 10 (emphasis added here and in citations that follow):

 ".. at the same time as they may offer an account of existing relationships, stories can also connect us to others in new ways. Stories are always more than simply descriptive: we live by stories (see footnote 3), and so they are inevitably powerful contributors to the shaping of our shared world. This is an understanding that works against any neat or straightforward division between the "real" and "narrated" world. Instead, I see storytelling as a dynamic act of "storying" the world, utterly inseparable from lived experience and a vital contributor to the emergence of "what is". Stories arise from the world, and they are at home in the world.. 'Worlds are not containers, they are patternings, risky co-makings, speculative fabulations'. Even a story that aims to be purely mimetic can never simply be a passive mirror held up to 'reality'. Stories are a part of the world, and so they participate in its becoming. As a result, telling stories has consequences: one of which is that we will inevitably be drawn into new connections, and with them new accountabilities and obligations.

        And so the bird stories that this book tells / does.. attempt to enact stories as interventions into existing patterns of living and dying in an effort to work toward better worlds." 

                          pacific island albatross and young

          This view of story is akin to the role of myth  in "primitive" religions: the story reveals / creates / participates in the shared "reality" of a human group. Such stories provide constant moral reference points, are sources of shared figures (of speech, symbols, rituals..) Such stories are both empowering and coercive. By contextualizing or framing the self in a larger Whole, "sacred" stories confer purpose, meaning and value on those who enact, literally "em-body", them in their daily lives. Negative narratives - those of dysfunctinal families or demented sects - can do enormous violence and harm, revealing the real power of story / narrative / myth (note 4).

            Without sentimentalization, Flight Ways opens a door to a different vision of nature, wildlife and humanity's relation to these. Rather than assessing the monetary value of species and the ecosytem "services" they provide "for" us, we are asked to consider the lives of other lifeforms as alternative "ways of living". Animals, like humans, are seen as having a subjective core, a "self" with its attendant existential (or phenomenological) "space". Non-human species, like human cultures, express their nature in "ways of life" which provide the necessities for species survival: nourishment, shelter, production and protection of progeny. Seen in this light, we see there is not so much, in essence, that separates us from the rest of the living world! Except, of course, that we humans have, collectively, greater ability to influence the physical environment and the ways of life of other species. In addition, we also possess the gift - or curse! - of being able to see the Big Picture and the role we play in it. (This may be what distingishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. We possess the ability to adopt a "meta-perspective" - "outside" of ourselves - from which we view our own actions and their consequences on others..)

             The "Buddhist ecology" - the term is mine, not the author's - proposed by Flight Ways is founded on two bed rock principles: 

1- The "selves" or subjective existences of other life forms, in both their individual and collective aspects, have some intrinsic value. We may, ultimately, choose not to value these subjectivities as much as human (individual or collective) selves, but they still have some intrinsic value (one poorly captured by the notion of economic, monetary or "ecosystem service" value).

2- Existences -life-histories - interact at both the individual and collective levels and across species boundaries. My life is "intertwined" with that of green plants simply because, as an oxygen breather, I depend upon oxygen produced by photosynthesis to live. In practical terms, if humanity "destroys nature", our "intertwining" will assure own destruction.

              These two themes -the intrinsic value of life and its radical interconnectivity - are developed in several chapters which describe the interactions between humans and several avian aspecies: pacific island albatrosses, Australian little penguins, Indian vultures, Hawaiian crows and North American whooping cranes.

             Extinction extinguishes "ways of life" but because the histories of species are intertwined, numerous species are impacted by the extinction of a single species. A simple, but illuminating example: Indian vultures are dying because of veterinarian drugs (to which they are hypersensitive) in bovine carcasses they eat. As vultures have declined, wild dogs have replaced then as scavengers. Result: more people - especially poor people - attacked by feral dogs infected by rabies. Thus the destinies of people, cattle, vultures and dogs are inextricably intertwined in that vast Self-organizing System we call Nature..

             Most poignantly perhaps, Flight Ways discusses how in a time of crisis and extinction, even our attempts to save species involve disturbing moral trade offs and the infliction of suffering, even death. Captive breeding programs may, for example, result in individuals of the species we are trying to save being forced to lead diminished existences in captivity. We are "only" doing harm to serve a greater good, of course, but harm is still being done. This matters if we adopt the "Buddhist Ecological" perspective that all subjective existence - "selfhood" - has some inherent value and deserves respect. Prof van Dooren is not making a general argument against captive breeding programs. Rather he wants to assure that our narratives about "rescueing species from extinction" better serve their goals by increasing awareness of such conflicting entanglements. We will try to provide the captive breeders with "enhanced captivity" perhaps. Likewise, we must pay more attention to the negative psycho-behavioral imprinting in offspring released by such programs into the wild to bolster endangered populations. Negative imprinting, which can reduce reproductive success, is counterproductive to the goal of increasing the reproductive success of the endangered species. Thus, argues the author, science and environmental philosophy should not be seen as enemies but as necessary co-workers whose perspectives can enrich and guide the work and research of the other. 

Inventing new sacred stories. The required "Paradigm Shift" in human consciousness required to re-establish ecological equilibrium on earth promises to be difficult! It will take place only as a result of the catastrophic breakdown of the dominant "Free" Market Paradigm (Note 5). The difficulty is fundamental. It relates to what we consider to be "sacred". I use this term in a sense which englobes its traditional, religious sense but extends that usage to include the attitudes we hold toward the things we consider the most important, valuable, essential or vital in our lives. Many people, today, can be considered as "idolators" of the false god, Profit, The Almighty Buck. This cult incites "ostentatious rank-confirming consumption" to assert our superiority over those who possess less. The worship of Profit (or its derivatives) favors the bottom line of multinationals, stimulates over-comsumption, generates mountains of unsssimilable waste and the attendant environmental crises we now challenged by.

              The difficulty of changing our dominant civilizational narrative to a more life affirming one is made more difficult by the very nature of human nature itself. Contemporary Evolutionary Psychology argues that hypocrisy was a positive survival trait for our species. Basically, humans are not good liars: our eye movements, shift in speaking patterns, etc give us away. From an evolutionary point of view, success in Primate Politics means leaving more progeny. Now chimps - and presumably our early ancestors - have a "machiavellian" psychology so being a good liar means leaving more progeny, a condition which generates positive selection for the character trait of hypocrisy. The highest - most evolved - form of hypocrisy is self-deception: we believe our own BS because that makes us even better liars (since we have convinced ourselves the lies are true!).

            The practical result of this evolutionary history is neither edifying nor encouraging: collectively, we are very blind to the degree to which the narratives we construct to justify our place in the world are false. False - self-aggrandizing / self-justifying - narratives are generally seen when territory has been seized through violence.

              ".. acts of giving are often, perhaps always, premised on prior takings and enclosures, many of which are unacknowledged or deliberately rendered invisible. Thre are obvious connections here to the treatment of indigenous people and more recent immigrants and refugees, who are often similarly positioned as lacking any legitimate claim to places.. " (page 77) 

                 Thus "reserves" are "set aside" for the use of aboriginal populations: an imperialist land grab employing treachery, war, forced religious conversions, ethnocide and genocide is thus miraculously converted into a charitable act. We "reserve" for them a few bits of the land - the least valuable bits - we stole from them.

                           Little penguins, native to Australia, an endangered species

             If you think about it, our attitudes toward the territorial needs of non-human animals are pretty much the same. We set aside reserves. We preserve a piece of wetland and convert the rest to condo development or suburban sprawl. A more Buddist Ecological, which respected the life-narratives of other species, approach would favor high density urban development with high density public transport. Less wetland would need to be "sacrificed" to Profit.

             ".. paying attention to penguins is about listening for alternative and often 'unspoken' stories; it is about learning an appreciation for more-than-human practices of meaning and place-making.. 'narratives remain our chief moral compass in the world. Because we use them to motivate and explain our actions, the stories we tell change the way we acct in the world'. But living well with others can never be about just learning to tell new stories; it must also involve learning new kinds of attentiveness to the stories of others - even if they are unspoken or are told in other-than-human languages. In taking up this approach, I am explicitly rejecting the common notion that narrative is an essentially, and perhaps constitutively, human capacity... But experiencing beings like penguins 'represent' the world to themselves, too; they do not just take in sensory data as unfiltered and meaningless phenomena, but weave meaning out of experiences, so that they, like humans, 'inhabit an endlessly storied world'. These diverse multispecies perspectives play havoc with the simple notion that 'nature is silent', an un-storied landscape awaiting the human inscription of meaning.

             In being attentive to the stories of penguins and others, we help to challenge the closure of human-centric narratives, narratives that along our coasts all too often cover over nonhuman needs and voices. In so doing, we also begin to undermine the obviousness of human understandings and meanings in these shared places, a project that is an essential first step toward ethical relationships.. 'Recognizing earth others as fellow agents and narrative subjects is crucial for all ethical, collaborative, communicative and mutualistic projects.'" (end of citation, pages 78-9) 

             This is a difficult book. Its "esoteric" language is definitely off-putting for the non-philosopher. (This was my first impression, at least. With time, I saw the necessity of the unusual language: a new experience of the world necessitates a new language.) We anthropomorphize our pets (too much) yet, for some (? cultural? evolutionary?) reason we cannot extend that empathy to the rest of the living world.

               If I were to attempt to extract a central narrative or story from Flight Ways, it would be, page 43:

"..perhaps we are called to account by nothing less than the entirety of life on this planet, for all the ways in which, during our own brief lives, we help to shelter or destroy the entangled diversity of forms through which life makes itself at home in our world." 

              There! The gauntlet has been cast: choose we life or choose we death? 

              Upon conclusion, I wondered, "is this a despairing book?" I presume, that for some, it is profoundly depressing (or infuriating) - perhaps unreadable. My impression is different. If people, in the depths of our suicidal, hypnotized destruction of our home planet, can rise to pen such words, then there IS hope for humanity. Not necessarily hope for the survival of technical civilization or even the human species itself, but hope in the sense that some inherent, innate, "natural" dignity remains in us. Thank you, Thom van Dooren! 
"Again and again, we need to ask: What does this loss mean inside its specific multispecies communities? How are "we" called into responsibility here and now, and how will we take up that call?" 


1- One interpretation of the fossil record of life is that of "progress": increasing complexity, capacity to process information, speed of evolutionary change, biodiversity and intelligence.. However, this general story of progress onward and upward is intercut with episodic collapse (mass extinctions), regression and stagnation. Interestingly, the periods of most rapid progress / evolution generally follow episodes of regression and collapse. Human history can likewise be seen as a series of rises and falls of successive civilizations with a general trend towards increased knowlege, complexity and ever greater human population size. Life expectancy is greater now than any time in history in many countries..

2- "Ecosytem services" include a stable atmospheric chemistry permitting and sustaining our metabolic processes: stabilization of levels of essential gases like oxygen - used to "burn" our food releasing vital energy - and carbon dioxide - used by plants to capture and store solar energy in food calories. Other ecosystem services:

- clean water,
- stable regional climates permitting the implantation of high-productivity agriculture, - natural beauty (and its proven therapeutic qualities)
- natural medicines,
- prototype molecules for industrial pharmacology (antibiotics, aspirin,..), 
- natural foods, fibers and construction materials. 

          Nature also provided the wild species from which our agricultural "cultivars" were bred.. 

3- "Living by stories": We all do it but for many (?most?) people - seeing the world through ideological / doctrinaire eyes - their own stories / narratives / myths become "invisible". Their particular stories are considered self-evident, revealed or Absolute Truths and hence can never be questioned. In the extreme, all other stories are treated as lies, delusion, heresy or sin. (Personal "Revealed Truths" - not shared by the social milieu - are often classified as insanity today.)

      In such conditions, we can only become aware of the true power of story / narrative / myth by encountering someone - equally dogmatic - whose "foundational stories" are radically different from our own: a modern agnostic / atheist confronting a religious fundamentalist, for example. In these cases we suddenly become aware how powerful stories are in framing, (in)forming and creating (subjective) "reality". The anti-abortion fundamentalist is driven by the Will of God, our Father in heaven, whose will must be obeyed under threat of eternal agony in hell. The pro-choice feminist is just as driven by Ideals of Liberty, Equality and Justice. These Ideals are Absolute Moral Imperatives in much the same way as God's Will is for the fundamentalist. The different stories lead to radically different attitudes, behaviors and life-projects. Such is the power of story / narrative / myth!

4- Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) brain scans show the functional, dynamic connectivity of the brain. FMRI shows how different parts of the brain are activated and work together when we solve math problems, listen to a favorite piece of music, think of a loved one,.. One of the interesting discovieries is how interesting stories "light up" (neurologically, cognitively) the whole brain. Stories / narratives interact with the brain powerfully and "holistically". This is, presumably, the neurological correlate of stories' holistic, contextualizing properties. Stories that grip our attention exploit and intensely activate the brain's distributed networks:

the neural representation of a concept (sensation, memory) links numerous brains regions and,

conversely, each brain region connects to numerous representations of concepts (sensations, memory). 

Thus even at the neurological level, stories / narratives / myths seem to  create a "whole world image" into which we insert ourselves (by identification with a character). Stories allow us to insert ourselves into the imagined world (perhaps in novel ways), thereby contextualizing ourselves within a larger Whole (which, for major myths like relgions provides meaning, signification, purpose, value). 

5- from


The Imperial State, Patriarchy and Plundernomics. To a large degree I follow the schema of social evolution proposed by French sociologist and philosopher of Self-Organization, Edgar Morin.

           Early proto-human and human communities - which cover the quasi-totality of human history! - were small agglomerations (or "packs") of several dozen to (maybe) a thousand indviduals. These were traditional hunter-gatherer (possibly scavenger) societies. They had relatively little social hierarchy (it still existed though!) Democratic decision making was, if not the absolute rule, at least a common norm for these early societies. Men and women, according to travellers, ancient and modern, were more equal in respect, dignity and influence among hunter-gatherers than in "civlilized" societies.

            Around 8,000 years ago (my estimate), a new form of society appeared. Agriculture (grain culture in the Middle East) brought with it sedentarization and the possibility of accumulating surpluses and "infrastructure": controlled territory, fortifications, livestock, and accumulated "surplus labor" in the form of hard currency like trade tobacco, wampum belts, conch shells and soft metals like lead, silver, gold. Military expansion by dominant, militarized clans and tribes permitted even greater accumulation. One grew by stealing from and / or enslaving the neighbors.

             Intensified warfare, of course, bred technological development. Copper weapons conquered weapons of wood and bone. Bronze weilding warriors conquered copper age armies. Then iron conquered bronze.. Centralized power meant steeper and more elaborate social hierarchies; slavery was invented. Trade networks flourished, large towns and cities appeared as well as increasingly specialized forms of labor (professions and artisan crafts). The invention of writing further accelerated the rise of technological mastery by facilitating the acquisition, elaboration and transmission of technical knowledge. 

             In modern times, the acceleration of warfare eventually led to the emergence of science. The great wars of the 20th century carried this process to its ultimate conclusion, producing mutually reinforcing symbiotic linkages between science and technology. Science suggested new weapons (atom bomb), the development of which led to new technologies (the computer, needed to solve the equations necessary to purify bomb grade uranium). Technology, in turn, exapands the reach of science: computers permit astronomers to detect exo-planets orbiting distant stars. This tight, mutually re-inforcing symbiosis between Science and Technology has produced an incredible explosion of knowledge in the last century: nuclear arms and energy, rockets, computers, jet aircraft, space flight, satellite communications, cybernetics, the computer.. 

           Edgar Morin, the philosopher of Self-Organization, refers to the dominant societies in this stage of civilization, now ending, as "Imperial States" or "historical societies" (possessing a written history). I use these terms interchangeably with "Patriarchy" (or "patriarchal cultures"). I have dubbed the dominant economic model of these societies "Plundernomics": economics based on plunder, military expansion and colonization, exploitation in all its forms (woman by man, slave by master, conquered by conquerer, nature by humanity..)

            The latest, most intense phase of plundernomics occurred during the past millennium of world domination by "Christian" Europe. I have found the following chronological schema a useful guide to thinking.

The Emergence, "Fulmination" and Fall of Europe Bourgeois (or "Late Christian") civilization  

Emergence: circa 1150 - 1500 CE. Early rise of modern European bourgeoisie (middle class). Growth of cities, towns and trade. Rising status, influence and power of the mercantile classes. 

Fulmination ("a violent explosion or a flash like lightning"): 1500 - 1850 CE. Discovery / plunder / colonization of the New World, Africa, Asia, etc by European "Imperial States". Absolute domination of the middle class: the American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century were, above all, bourgeois revolutions. The profit of multinational corporations has become our de facto god and the ironclad "laws of the free market" his will / his law. This phase ended with the "commercial circumnavigation" of the globe, circa 1850. Recall: "the sun never sets on the British Empire" (because it was globe-girdling). Post-1850, there were no new lands left to conquer / plunder / colonize, no new resources to squander for the short term profit of the bourgeois elite and their Frankenstinean creation, the multinational. Bourgeois civilization had reached its "Limits to Growth" - the end was now in sight!

Decadance and Fall1850 - 2200 (??) CE. With an obselete economic model - plundernomics, Bourgeois civilization must either 1- die or 2- mutate into something different than it is now. Either way, the poo is in the fan: a Time of Troubles when the old roadmaps of reality no longer work.

          The most recent avatar of plundernomics has given us the (hyper-)"consumer society". In this pathological, overstimulated economy, the reckless consumption of goods and services substitutes for

- addressing the real, urgent problems facing society and
- developing meaningful relations with self, others, society and the natural world.

           The ruse is actually quite clever when you start deconstructing it! Consumer "society" substitutes externally programmed "secondary drives" (pathological consumption of unnecessary stuff) for real significance embodying activities and relations (primary human drives or needs). This swindle creates a (theoretically) endless demand for industrial junk no one really needs (!!) What a scam! Can't beat that one (only religion at its worse can come close). Because, you see, since primary needs (self-expression through work, shared endeavor, love, a sense of meaning or purpose in life, capacity for wonder..) are not being met by consumerism, frustration remains in the core of the person. This frustration is then manipulated by commercial promotion to stimulate still more (over-)consumption of junk one does not need. It's the typical addictive cycle of the junkie or hypoglycemic sugar addict. The "fix" wears off fast and one needs another "boost" soon enough (which, of course, keeps the wheels of industry rolling and over-inflated bottom lines and CEO perks roiling..) 

              "Ostentatious rank-assigning consumption" feeds off the human need (like other mammals) to define a social status for oneself. Ostentation consumption substitutes for personal worth and merit in determining one's social rank. "I consume more than you therefore I am better than you!". Social rank assignment becomes a totally negative exercise. One is not honored for ones accomplishments but by the negative (demeaning, degrading) compasison with another, less fortunate or entitled, than oneself. The modern West has deviated very far indeed from the ideals expressed in the French and American Revolutions: freedom, equality, fraternity!