Life Support

“We knew that something was amiss in the first couple days,” said Brad Lister. “We were driving into the forest and at the same time both Andres and I said: ‘Where are all the birds?’ There was nothing.”

His return to the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico after 35 years was to reveal an appalling discovery. The insect population that once provided plentiful food for birds throughout the mountainous national park had collapsed. On the ground, 98% had gone. Up in the leafy canopy, 80% had vanished. The most likely culprit by far is global warming.

“It was just astonishing,” Lister said. “Before, both the sticky ground plates and canopy plates would be covered with insects. You’d be there for hours picking them off the plates at night. But now the plates would come down after 12 hours in the tropical forest with a couple of lonely insects trapped or none at all.”

“It was a true collapse of the insect populations in that rainforest,” he said. “We began to realise this is terrible – a very, very disturbing result.”

“It was not insects that drew Lister to the Luquillo rainforest for the first time in the mid-1970s. “I was interested in competition among the anoles lizards,” he said. “They’re the most diverse group of vertebrates in the world and even by that time had become a paradigm for ecology and evolutionary studies.”

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“The forest immediately captivated Lister, a lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic University in the US. “It was and still is the most beautiful forest I have ever been in. It’s almost enchanted. There’s the lush verdant forest and cascading waterfalls, and along the roadsides there are carpets of multicoloured flowers. It’s a phantasmagoric landscape.”

“It was important to measure insect numbers, as these are the lizards’ main food, but at the time he thought nothing more of it. Returning to the national park decades later, however, the difference was startling.

“One of the things I noticed in the forest was a lack of butterflies,” he said. “They used to be all along the roadside, especially after the rain stopped, hundreds upon hundreds of them. But we couldn’t see one butterfly.”

“Since Lister’s first visits to Luquillo, other scientists had predicted that tropical insects, having evolved in a very stable climate, would be much more sensitive to climate warming. “If you go a little bit past the thermal optimum for tropical insects, their fitness just plummets,” he said.

“As the data came in, the predictions were confirmed in startling fashion. “The number of hot spells, temperatures above 29C, have increased tremendously,” he said. “It went from zero in the 1970s up to something like 44% of the days.” Factors important elsewhere in the world, such as destruction of habitat and pesticide use, could not explain the plummeting insect populations in Luquillo, which has long been a protected area.”

Text: Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems’, The Guardian.

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Pollution Season

“When Deepikah Bhardwaj was a child in New Delhi, she would look forward to the arrival of the Indian winter. The mornings would become chilly and crisp, while evenings were pleasantly cool. But in recent years, that sense of anticipation turned to dread.

“With falling temperatures came a thick smog, leaving her short of breath and afraid to go outside. After her son was born in 2016, she decided it was time to act. These days, when she thinks of Delhi, her main emotion is relief at having escaped.

“I feel bad that I cannot go back to my home city, ever,” said Bhardwaj, 33, sitting in her light-filled apartment in the state of Goa on India’s western coast, more than 1,000 miles from Delhi. “It’s a feeling of permanent loss, like a friend who didn’t say goodbye.”

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“Bhardwaj is part of a small but growing contingent of what might be called pollution refugees: people who have decided that the only way to cope with Delhi’s staggering pollution is to run from it. Some, like Bhardwaj, have left the Indian capital for Goa, while others have decamped for Bangalore, Mumbai or even Canada.

“The phenomenon appears limited to an elite few — a trickle in comparison to the influx of people who arrive in Delhi every day in search of economic opportunity. But the departures pose a pointed rebuke to the city’s expanding ambitions: How great is a city if its air causes some of the people who live there to flee?

“According to the World Health Organization, Delhi has the most polluted air of any major metropolis in the world. The causes are multiple — vehicle exhaust, construction dust, industrial emissions, crop burning in nearby states — and exacerbated by geographic factors.

“The “pollution season” in greater Delhi, home to 29 million people, begins in October and persists for months. November and December bring the worst readings of the year: Last week, the level of the particulate matter considered most harmful to human health spiked for several hours to more than 40 times the level recommended by the WHO before receding. Such particles can lodge deep within the lungs and have been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, respiratory infections and even cancer.”

Text: Joanna Slater, India’s pollution refugees: People are fleeing Delhi because of the toxic air, Washington Post.

Image: Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge the Sun in a Fog, 1903. “Faced with a polluted industrial landscape […] artists abandoned realism and sought out beauty in the modern urban environment. Inspired by contemporary art theory and poetry, their works are rich in environmental, political and metaphysical overtones” – Turner, Whistler, Monet – Aesthetics, Pollution and the City, 2005.

An Eerie Dystopia

“To walk through certain parts of London today is to enter an eerie dystopia of late capitalism run amok. All over town, from Battersea to Stratford, vast welters of towers are in the throes of construction, invariably encircled by billboards depicting attractive white people at rest and play. But longtime Londoners know from experience that these towers are not really homes to be lived in but bricks-and-mortar commodities, investment opportunities that until recently were seen as safer than any government bond. If you ever find yourself walking through developments that have been recently finished and sold, you’ll discover street-level plazas devoid of people or even much evidence that many people are ever here…

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“In her 2017 book Big Capital, Anna Minton described this scramble for prime London real estate as the catalyst of a “domino effect,” whose effects ripple outwards across the capital and beyond.

“The super-prime market displaces established communities to new areas, driving up property and rental prices elsewhere,” she writes. “And as current policies are geared to attracting foreign investment and building luxurious apartments rather than affordable homes, there is nothing to act as a counterweight.”

“The sense of apartness precipitated by these developments is in large part architectural. London used to be a low-slung city, but many of these luxury towers are vertiginous and imposing, dwarfing the besieged remnants of what came before. But arguably more significant than this aesthetic discordance is the social upheaval it augurs. As more and more towers have gone up, so too have socio-demographic lines that once felt blurred become abrupt and partite, as the runaway cost of housing manoeuvres people into economic enclaves, and poverty is pushed outwards into peripheries and ghettoes of disadvantage. Traditional places of commonality, where shoulders rubbed, have been replaced by pockets of consumption. High-streets that once displayed a multifarious range of shopfronts and establishments have evolved to reflect more stratified times: the poorer areas with their betting shops and pawnsters, the wealthier ones lined with estate agents, restaurants, and prim cafes. Our civic spaces and landmarks have been commodified as cash-strapped councils look to make up budget shortfalls by monetizing their assets or repurposing public libraries into private gyms. Boundaries, both physical and social, have started to rise across the city…”

Text: Henry Wismayer, How London Became a Playground for the Rich, Medium.

Pic: London’s proposed Tulip Tower

Reading or Riding a Bicycle

“Like a brain, an ant colony operates without central control. Each is a set of interacting individuals, either neurons or ants, using simple chemical interactions that in the aggregate generate their behavior. People use their brains to remember. Can ant colonies do that? This question leads to another question: what is memory? For people, memory is the capacity to recall something that happened in the past. We also ask computers to reproduce past actions – the blending of the idea of the computer as brain and brain as computer has led us to take ‘memory’ to mean something like the information stored on a hard drive. We know that our memory relies on changes in how much a set of linked neurons stimulate each other; that it is reinforced somehow during sleep; and that recent and long-term memory involve different circuits of connected neurons. But there is much we still don’t know about how those neural events come together, whether there are stored representations that we use to talk about something that happened in the past, or how we can keep performing a previously learned task such as reading or riding a bicycle.

Spellbound

“Any living being can exhibit the simplest form of memory, a change due to past events. Look at a tree that has lost a branch. It remembers by how it grows around the wound, leaving traces in the pattern of the bark and the shape of the tree. You might be able to describe the last time you had the flu, or you might not. Either way, in some sense your body ‘remembers,’ because some of your cells now have different antibodies, molecular receptors, which fit that particular virus.

“Past events can alter the behavior of both individual ants and ant colonies. Individual carpenter ants offered a sugar treat remembered its location for a few minutes; they were likely to return to where the food had been. Another species, the Sahara Desert ant, meanders around the barren desert, searching for food. It appears that an ant of this species can remember how far it walked, or how many steps it took, since the last time it was at the nest.”

Text: Deborah M. Gordon,Ant Colonies Retain Memories That Outlast the Lifespans of Individuals”, Smithsonian Magazine

Pic: Spellbound, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1945

“Everywhere was beauty…”

“We were determined to hike as much of the park as possible despite the rising temperatures. In a flat, sandy area surrounded by tall trees, we began to unload our gear. Sweat poured down our faces and backs as we pitched our tent and rolled out our sleeping bags, which stuck to our skin in the heat. A hundred meters from camp, we found a water pump and used it to fill our glass bottles. By mid-afternoon, we had set out on a steep 1.5-mile trail to Beech Cliff, an edifice that looms over Echo Lake. The sun singed our skin, but ferns and birches and pines danced in a light breeze all around us. Everywhere was beauty.

“As we climbed, I listened for the birds. I knew from our guidebooks that many of Maine’s forest birds stop singing in late summer, but this was a peak migration period for shorebirds, and Acadia—a slip of land surrounded by ocean—falls directly in their path. The books brimmed with photos of gulls and loons filling the sky and dotting the shoreline. But on the trail, I heard nothing. I squinted toward Somes Sound in the distance, hoping to see the gulls as tiny white specks in the fjard, but saw only water.

“Where were the birds? The rodents? Even the bugs? As a child, I was terrified by loud noises. But here, with two hands on a boulder and my feet sinking into hot, dark peat, it was the profound silence that filled me with dread…

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“An hour into the hike, the trail grew more vertical and less distinct from the rest of the forest floor. Vines and thick roots crossed the path, making it difficult to find our footing. The air was dense with heat; I could feel it pulsing in rhythm with my heart.

“At the trail’s halfway point, we paused to catch our breaths and drink from our water bottles. The trees were still quiet—so quiet that we could hear human voices traveling up the cliff from the lake below. Then, suddenly, a bird call. A single gull appeared overhead, its belly a white flame against the blue sky. It circled above as if watching us, before disappearing from view. We waited for others to follow, but none came. Instead, more silence; more stillness. There would be no “snowstorm” of gulls that day…”

Text: Amy Brady, Encountering Beauty and the Effects of Climate Change in Acadia National Park, Catapult.

Pic: Max Ernst, page from “Oedipus (Oedipe), Volume IV,” from A Week of Kindness or the Seven Capital Elements (“Une Semaine de bonté ou les sept éléments capitaux,” 1933–34)

An Instrument of God

“The belief that Trump’s election was God’s divine will is shared by others. Franklin Graham, the prominent conservative evangelical, said last year that Trump’s victory was the result of divine intervention. “I could sense going across the country that God was going to do something this year. And I believe that at this election, God showed up,” he told the Washington Post.

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“Taylor has made other claims, which he calls “prophetic words”, including that Trump will serve two terms, the landmark supreme court ruling on abortion in the Roe v Wade case will be overturned, and that next month’s midterm elections will result in a “red tsunami”, strengthening Republican control of both houses of Congress.

“Barack Obama will be charged with treason and Trump will authorise the arrest of “thousands of corrupt officials, many of whom are part of a massive satanic paedophile ring”. Trump will also force the release of cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s that are currently being withheld by the pharmaceutical industry.

“About 1,200 cinemas across the US were screening The Trump Prophecy on Tuesday and Thursday this week. There may be repeat showings if there is demand. Given several rows of empty seats in the Regal River Ridge Stadium in Lynchburg, Virginia – a conservative evangelical heartland – that may prove unnecessary.

“But there were plenty in the audience that heaped praise on the movie and its lengthy coda of talking heads hailing America’s leadership in the world, strong economy, military prowess, defence of Israel and general godliness.

“God is definitely using Trump to restore America and bring revival to our land,” said cinemagoer Kathy Robinson. “He stands for the common man and protects our freedoms. And he’s a good man himself – not perfect, but none Hof us are.”

“Doug Barringer was impressed with the movie. He was sceptical of Trump “right up until election night. But what I’ve seen him doing since has led me to believe that maybe he is an instrument of God.”

Text: The chosen one? The new film that claims Trump’s election was an act of God, The Guardian.

Pic: Philip K. Dick, Radio Free Albemuth, Japanese edition.  Wikipedia:  “In this alternate history, the corrupt United States president Ferris F. Fremont (FFF for 666, ‘F’ being the 6th letter in the alphabet) becomes Chief Executive in the late 1960s following Lyndon Johnson’s administration. The character is best described as an amalgam of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, who abrogates civil liberties and human rights through positing a conspiracy theory centered on a (presumably) fictitious subversive organization known as “Aramchek”. In addition to this, he is associated with a right-wing populist movement called “Friends of the American People” (FAPers). The President’s paranoia and opportunism lead to the establishment of a real resistance movement that is organized through narrow-beam radio transmissions from a mysterious alien near-Earth satellite by a superintelligent, extraterrestrial, but less than omnipotent being (or network) named VALIS.”

Nothing Could Exist

“Life would be impossible on such a planet. It wouldn’t get enough heat and light, and if it rotated there would be total darkness half of every day. There wouldn’t be any native inhabitants. You couldn’t expect life—which is fundamentally dependent on light—to develop under such extreme conditions of light deprivation. Half of every axial rotation spent in Darkness! No, nothing could exist under conditions like that.”

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“With the slow fascination of fear, he lifted himself on one arm and turned his eyes toward the blood-curdling blackness of the window. Through it shone the stars! Not Earth’s feeble thirty-six hundred Stars visible to the eye; Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster. Thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a soul-searing splendour that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world.”

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Text: Issac Asimov, Nightfall

Pics: Reuben Wu.