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Saturday, October 31, 2009

How habitable is the Earth?

Pay attention at the back: this is a trick question

by Charlie Stross
October 29, 2009

We H. Sapiens Sapiens appear to be an infestation on this planet. After the slow-burning evolution of hominins in Africa, our ancestral populations erupted out into Eurasia in a geological eye-blink, spread into the Americas by way of the Bering land bridge (sea levels being somewhat lower during the ice ages) and finally reaching even the remotest islands of oceania around twelve thousand years ago. Today we're ubiquitous. Even our pre-industrial ancestral cultures, from those resembling the inuit to the antecedents of the tuareg, occupied a slew of geographical environments that put cockroaches to shame.

So you'd think that, to a first approximation, the Earth is inhabitable by human beings. And this tends to colour our approach the prospects of finding extrasolar planets that might be hospitable to human life (if we could ever get there from here).

Actually, I think this is not quite the case. In fact, to a first approximation, from the perspective of prospective interstellar colonists, the Earth is uninhabitable. That we could imagine otherwise bespeaks a profound cognitive bias on our part (and a degree of relativism: because when all's said and done, the Earth is a lot less hostile than, say, the surface of Venus or the cloud base of Jupiter).

Why is the Earth uninhabitable?

Let's play a thought-experiment ...

I want you to imagine that, instead of being a perplexed mostly-hairless primate reading a blog, you're the guiding intelligence of an interstellar robot probe. You've been entrusted with the vital mission of determining whether a target planet is inhabitable by members of your creator species, who bear an eerie resemblance to H. Sapiens Sapiens.

To gauge the suitability of the target world you've been given an incubator that can generate decorticated human clones — breathing meat-machines with nobody home up top. When you get to the destination you're going to transfer them to the surface and see how long they survive. If it can make it through 24 hours (or one diurnal period), congratulations! — you've found a potential colony world; one so hospitable that a naked and clueless human doesn't die on their first day out.

Your first destination planet is the cloud-whorled third planet out from an undistinguished G2 star, orbited by an airless, tidally-locked moon with roughly 1.3% of the planet's own mass. (Sound familiar? It should be.) You start sending down meat-machines to probe the surface at random. What conclusions do you draw about the inhabitability of Earth?

Let's start with Earth in its current configuration.

78% of the surface area is seawater. Drop a naked meat puppet there and it's going to go glug glug glub ... tritely, this is Not A Good Start.

Of the remaining 22%, about one third is either mountain ranges, deserts, or ice caps. It's reasonable to say that, in the absence of protective equipment, the meat probes are going to die of exposure in less than one diurnal period — possibly in as little as an hour if they're unlucky enough to land in the middle of the Antarctic winter.

We're down to about 15% of the planetary surface — 15% that isn't lethal without life support equipment such as boats, tents, and clothing. Our meat probes can breathe the air without their lungs freezing or dessicating. They aren't going to drown rapidly. And they aren't going to roll off a cliff. They might get a tad sunburned or hypothermic depending on the weather, and they might be eaten by a mountain lion or bitten by a rattlesnake, but they stand a reasonable chance of making it through 24 hours on the surface without dying.

Triumph! We have confirmed that a small part of this planet is inhabitable. Except ... I cheated. I pulled a fast one on you. Because I picked Earth in its current configuration — as it is today.

As a species, H. Sapiens has only been around for somewhere in the range 70,000-200,000 years. We are fine-tuned for survival on the Earth of this time frame. However, the Earth is a lot more than 200 kiloyears (Ky) old; the surface formed roughly 4.6 Gy ago (gigayears — 1Gy = 1,000,000,000 years). And we can expect the Earth to persist for about another 3-5 Gy, until the sun leaves the main sequence of the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram and becomes a red giant, presumably swallowing the Earth (or at any rate rendering it too crispy for comfort). So if we're being honest (and not cherry-picking our candidate stellar colony mission targets) we've got a 8-10Gy span to probe.

Back up far enough in the Earth's time-line (before about T minus 4.6 Gy) and we run into the formation of the solar system — and the proto-Earth, before its postulated oblique impact with Theia, a proto-planet roughly the size of Mars — debris from which collision condensed into our moon, Luna. Earth definitely wasn't a candidate for human inhabitation in those days — a largely airless blob of molten rock, under continuous heavy bombardment by planetary embryos and small planetesimals thrown out of the asteroid belt by Jupiter, as the two large gas giants (Jupiter and Saturn) churned the protoplanetary disk.

Indeed, just about anywhere in the inner solar system at any time prior to the end of the Late Heavy Bombardment (which ended at T minus 3.8 Gy) is a poor candidate for a space colony — it was the LHB that resurfaced and cratered the moon, and presumably did a similar number on the Earth's then-fragile surface. On the other hand, this period left us geological evidence in the shape of minerals dated to the Hadean aeon. We know relatively little about the Hadean, although there's some recent evidence to support active plate tectonics and a surface temperature compatible with liquid water.

But don't get the idea that late Hadean Earth was a fun place to be.

For one thing: that great big moon of ours didn't condense from a debris cloud at its current orbital distance. Tidal dragging is widening the lunar orbit by about 3.8 metres per century; it's now orbits roughly twice as far out as it did when it formed. Which in turn means that the young Earth spun on its axis far faster than it does today, and the tides the newborn molten-faced moon raised during the Hadean aeon would have been something to behold (preferably from a very high altitude). In fact, early Earth was a very alien world indeed.

To hit on wikipedia (because I'm feeling too lazy to type):
Recent evidence suggests the oceans may have begun forming by 4.2 Ga.[22] At the start of the Archaean eon, the Earth was already covered with oceans. The new atmosphere probably contained ammonia, methane, water vapor, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen, as well as smaller amounts of other gases. Any free oxygen would have been bound by hydrogen or minerals on the surface. Volcanic activity was intense and, without an ozone layer to hinder its entry, ultraviolet radiation flooded the surface.We don't know when life got started on Earth. However, we do know that the early history of life relied on anaerobic processes for a surprisingly long time. It wasn't until roughly 580 My ago (at the end of the Proterozoic era) that free oxygen came to dominate our planet's atmospheric chemistry.

Back to wikipedia:
The most widely accepted chronology of the Great Oxygenation Event suggests that oxygen began to be produced by photosynthesis by organisms (prokaryotic, then eukaryotic) that emitted oxygen as a waste product. These organisms lived long before the GOE, perhaps as early as 3,500 million years ago. The oxygen they produced would have almost instantly been removed from the atmosphere by the weathering of reduced minerals, most notably iron. This 'mass rusting' led to the deposition of banded iron formations. Oxygen only began to persist in the atmosphere in small quantities shortly (~50 million years) before the start of the GOE.

Without a draw-down, oxygen can accumulate very rapidly: at today's rates of photosynthesis (which are admittedly much greater than those in the plant-free Precambrian), modern atmospheric O2 levels could be produced in around 2,000 years.There are elaborate and fascinating competing theories to explain why it took so long for oxygenation to take off: even the Moon gets blamed (the huge 50 metre tides that churned the anoxic early oceans and would have sucked premature photoautotrophs to their doom deep below: oxygenation had to wait for the moon to migrate out far enough for the tides to die down, permitting photosynthetic organisms to thrive near the surface). The point to take away from this is that, between T minus 4.6 Gy and T minus 0.56 Gy, the Earth's atmosphere was largely free of oxygen.

Meat probe says: "aaargh, choke".

Even after the oxygen catastrophe, our space probe isn't going to find a terribly hospitable planet. The sun's luminosity is increasing by around 6% every billion years. The Proterozoic earth was a cold place by our standards; there were ice ages in which glaciation closed in on the equator. And there was continental drift. Continental drift leaves faint traces: we know that 250 My ago, our current continents were united in a single land mass (called Pangaea). There's some evidence that between 800 My and 550 My another single supercontinent (Pannotia or Vendia), and of another mass 1000-850 My ago (Rodina). And there seems to be a correlation between the occurence of "snowball Earth" events (those equator-reaching ice caps) and the unitary supercontinents.

Back to wikipedia:
Most paleoclimatologists think the cold episodes had something to do with the formation of the supercontinent Rodinia. Because Rodinia was centered around the equator, rates of chemical weathering increased and carbon dioxide (CO2) was taken from the atmosphere. Because CO2 is an important greenhouse gas climates cooled globally.Supercontinents too close to the equator: snowball earth. (Meat probe turns blue and shivers.)

So here's the upshot: of the 4.6 Gy of Earth's known history, there's only been enough oxygen in the atmosphere for us to survive for about 0.5 Gy. For roughly 90% of the Earth's history we couldn't even breathe the air. And about 10-25% of the time, there have been ice ages so savagely fierce that the glaciers reached the tropics: odds are good that any meat probe landing on solid ground during these periods would rapidly die of exposure. So historically, Earth has only been inhabitable about 8% of the time — assuming you are lucky enough to find some solid ground. Once you factor in the random surface distribution, we're down to about 2% survivability.

Now let's look at the future of the solar system.

We know the sun is steadily brightening by about 6% per Gy. It's postulated that within a couple of Gy, solar output is going to have some unpleasant effects. Ultraviolet radiation can split the covalent bonds that hold water molecules together, high in the atmosphere: and hydrogen ions (or, more likely, hydrogen molecules) can be blasted right out of the ionosphere by the same mechanism. The slow, steady loss of Earth's water is a one-way process, but exacerbated by warming (more water vapour in the upper atmosphere means more hydrogen is lost). As hydrogen loss proceeds, we end up with a carbon-dioxide dominated atmosphere and a runaway greenhouse effect like that of Venus.

There are other mechanisms that might render the Earth uninhabitable by our kind of life. Over geological time, the partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere has risen. With more solar energy inputs, it may be that oxygen levels continue to soar. Above about 28%, even waterlogged biomass will burn handily: and there are indications that atmospheric oxygen (currently down around 16%) has been well over 20% in the past. If oceanic photoautotrophs pump out too much of the stuff, the continents may well be burned back to bedrock by the resulting lightning-triggered fires.

All of this leaves aside the prospects for either an anthropogenic catastrophe, or the evolution (or creation) of new types of chemoautotrophs that have a drastic effect on the Earth's atmospheric chemistry. Or something else. Phase of the moon, perhaps. (What happens when the moon's tidal drag diminishes further, reducing long-term deep-ocean mixing? Anyone got a clue?)

The upshot is, we may well be most of the way through the Earth's inhabitable epoch. In which case, of the 4 Gy remaining, we may have 0.3 — 1 Gy to go with an oxygen-dominated atmosphere and water close to its triple point — the minimum necessary critera for human survival on a planetary surface.

So, back to the gedanken experiment. Currently, a random meat probe dropped on the Earth's surface has something like a 15% chance of finding it survivable. But a random sampling over the historical epoch would return a survivability probability of around 1%. And over the future epoch, it's likely similar, unless we're erring massively on the side of pessimism about the prospects for our atmospheric composition remaining stable.

Ergo: to a space probe searching for somewhere that our kind of life can thrive, a truly random sampling of the Earth's surface (distributed over both time and area) would probably result in the conclusion that the planet is uninhabitable.

See also: Fermi Paradox

Of course, a random sampling of Mars or Pluto would give an even lower probability of finding the planet to be inhabitable. But that's not the point. The point is this: we are finely tuned survival machines that have evolved to survive in a niche on one particular planet in one particular epoch. Even our own planet is unimaginably hostile to our kind of life for most of its history. And while survival outside that niche is possible with the assistance of a horrendously complex toolkit we call "civilization", we've yet to try it somewhere where we can't count on the basics (free oxygen and triple point water).


Thursday, October 22, 2009

15 Things Every American Can Do Right Now

Michael Moore's Action Plan

You've Seen the Movie -- Now It's Time to ACT!

by Michael Moore
Common Dreams
Oct. 22, 2009


It's the #1 question I'm constantly asked after people see my movie: "OK -- so NOW what can I DO?!"

You want something to do? Well, you've come to the right place! 'Cause I got 15 things you and I can do right now to fight back and try to fix this very broken system.

Here they are:


1. Declare a moratorium on all home evictions. Not one more family should be thrown out of their home. The banks must adjust their monthly mortgage payments to be in line with what people's homes are now truly worth -- and what they can afford. Also, it must be stated by law: If you lose your job, you cannot be tossed out of your home.

2. Congress must join the civilized world and expand Medicare For All Americans. A single, nonprofit source must run a universal health care system that covers everyone. Medical bills are now the #1 cause of bankruptcies and evictions in this country. Medicare For All will end this misery. The bill to make this happen is called H.R. 3200. You must call AND write your members of Congress and demand its passage, no compromises allowed.

3. Demand publicly-funded elections and a prohibition on elected officials leaving office and becoming lobbyists. Yes, those very members of Congress who solicit and receive millions of dollars from wealthy interests must vote to remove ALL money from our electoral and legislative process. Tell your members of Congress they must support campaign finance bill H.R.1826.

4. Each of the 50 states must create a state-owned public bank like they have in North Dakota. Then congress MUST reinstate all the strict pre-Reagan regulations on all commercial banks, investment firms, insurance companies -- and all the other industries that have been savaged by deregulation: Airlines, the food industry, pharmaceutical companies -- you name it. If a company's primary motive to exist is to make a profit, then it needs a set of stringent rules to live by -- and the first rule is "Do no harm." The second rule: The question must always be asked -- "Is this for the common good?" (Click here for some info about the state-owned Bank of North Dakota.)

5. Save this fragile planet and declare that all the energy resources above and beneath the ground are owned collectively by all of us. Just like they do it in Sarah Palin's socialist Alaska. We only have a few decades of oil left. The public must be the owners and landlords of the natural resources and energy that exists within our borders or we will descend further into corporate anarchy. And when it comes to burning fossil fuels to transport ourselves, we must cease using the internal combustion engine and instruct our auto/transportation companies to rehire our skilled workforce and build mass transit (clean buses, light rail, subways, bullet trains, etc.) and new cars that don't contribute to climate change. (For more on this, here's a proposal I wrote in December.) Demand that General Motors' de facto chairman, Barack Obama, issue a JFK man-on-the-moon-style challenge to turn our country into a nation of trains and buses and subways. For Pete's sake, people, we were the ones who invented (or perfected) these damn things in the first place!!


1. Each of us must get into the daily habit of taking 5 minutes to make four brief calls: One to the President (202-456-1414), one to your Congressperson (202-224-3121) and one to each of your two Senators (202-224-3121). To find out who represents you, click here. Take just one minute on each of these calls to let them know how you expect them to vote on a particular issue. Let them know you will have no hesitation voting for a primary opponent -- or even a candidate from another party -- if they don't do our bidding. Trust me, they will listen. If you have another five minutes, click here to send them each an email. And if you really want to drop an anvil on them, send them a snail mail letter!

2. Take over your local Democratic Party. Remember how much fun you had with all those friends and neighbors working together to get Barack Obama elected? YOU DID THE IMPOSSIBLE. It's time to re-up! Get everyone back together and go to the monthly meeting of your town or county Democratic Party -- and become the majority that runs it! There will not be many in attendance and they will either be happy or in shock that you and the Obama Revolution have entered the room looking like you mean business. President Obama's agenda will never happen without mass grass roots action -- and he won't feel encouraged to do the right thing if no one has his back, whether it's to stand with him, or push him in the right direction. When you all become the local Democratic Party, send me a photo of the group and I'll post it on my website.

3. Recruit someone to run for office who can win in your local elections next year -- or, better yet, consider running for office yourself! You don't have to settle for the incumbent who always expects to win. You can be our next representative! Don't believe it can happen? Check out these examples of regular citizens who got elected: State Senator Deb Simpson, California State Assemblyman Isadore Hall, Tempe, Arizona City Councilman Corey Woods, Wisconsin State Assemblyman Chris Danou, and Washington State Representative Larry Seaquist. The list goes on and on -- and you should be on it!

4. Show up. Picket the local branch of a big bank that took the bailout money. Hold vigils and marches. Consider civil disobedience. Those town hall meetings are open to you, too (and there's more of us than there are of them!). Make some noise, have some fun, get on the local news. Place "Capitalism Did This" signs on empty foreclosed homes, closed down businesses, crumbling schools and infrastructure. (You can download them from my website.)

5. Start your own media. You. Just you (or you and a couple friends). The mainstream media is owned by corporate America and, with few exceptions, it will never tell the whole truth -- so you have to do it! Start a blog! Start a website of real local news (here's an example: The Michigan Messenger). Tweet your friends and use Facebook to let them know what they need to do politically. The daily papers are dying. If you don't fill that void, who will?


1. Take your money out of your bank if it took bailout money and place it in a locally-owned bank or, preferably, a credit union.

2. Get rid of all your credit cards but one -- the kind where you have to pay up at the end of the month or you lose your card.

3. Do not invest in the stock market. If you have any extra cash, put it away in a savings account or, if you can, pay down on your mortgage so you can own your home as soon as possible. You can also buy very safe government savings bonds or T-bills. Or just buy your mother some flowers.

4. Unionize your workplace so that you and your coworkers have a say in how your business is run. Here's how to do it (more info here). Nothing is more American than democracy, and democracy shouldn't be checked at the door when you enter your workplace. Another way to Americanize your workplace is to turn your business into a worker-owned cooperative. You are not a wage slave. You are a free person, and you giving up eight hours of your life every day to someone else is to be properly compensated and respected.

5. Take care of yourself and your family. Sorry to go all Oprah on you, but she's right: Find a place of peace in your life and make the choice to be around people who are not full of negativity and cynicism. Look for those who nurture and love. Turn off the TV and the Blackberry and go for a 30-minute walk every day. Eat fruits and vegetables and cut down on anything that has sugar, high fructose corn syrup, white flour or too much sodium (salt) in it (and, as Michael Pollan says, "Eat (real) food, not too much, mostly plants"). Get seven hours of sleep each night and take the time to read a book a month. I know this sounds like I've turned into your grandma, but, dammit, take a good hard look at Granny -- she's fit, she's rested and she knows the names of both of her U.S. Senators without having to Google them. We might do well to listen to her. If we don't put our own "oxygen mask" on first (as they say on the airplane), we will be of no use to the rest of the nation in enacting any of this action plan!

I'm sure there are many other ideas you can come up with on how we can build this movement.

Get creative. Think outside the politics-as-usual box. BE SUBVERSIVE! Think of that local action no one else has tried. Behave as if your life depended on it. Be bold! Try doing something with reckless abandon. It may just liberate you and your community and your nation.

And when you act, send me your stories, your photos and your video -- and be sure to post your ideas in the comments beneath this letter on my site so they can be shared with millions.

C'mon people -- we can do this! I expect nothing less of all of you, my true and trusted fellow travelers!

Michael Moore


Sunday, October 18, 2009

1,000 CCTV cameras to solve just one crime, London Police admit

The study revealed serious concerns about the effectiveness of surveillance cameras as a crime fighting tool.

By Christopher Hope
Telegraph UK
Aug 25, 2009

Fewer than one crime is solved by every 1,000 closed circuit television cameras, the Metropolitan Police, Britain's biggest police force, has admitted.

Each case helped by the use of CCTV effectively costs £20,000 to detect, Met figures showed.

Critics of Britain’s so-called 'surveillance society' said it raised serious concerns over how police forces used CCTV cameras to fight crime.

Britain is one of the most monitored countries in the world, with an estimated four million cameras nationwide.

An internal report released by the Metropolitan Police under Freedom of Information laws disclosed that more than one million of these are in London alone.

However, it cast doubt on the use of the cameras as a crime fighting tool.

It said:

“For every 1,000 cameras in London, less than one crime is solved per year.” The report, written by Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville, who runs the Metropolitan Police’s Visual Images Identifications and Detections Office, found that the public “have a high expectation of CCTV and are frequently told they are captured on camera 300 times per day”.

Public confidence was dented when the police often stated there was no CCTV working when a crime has been committed, it said.

It also said that increasingly members of the public were complaining that officers had not bothered to view available CCTV images when trying to track down criminals.

It disclosed a “significant rise in the level of complaints from the public, where it is perceived that police have not viewed CCTV. This is now approaching 100 per year.”

The report found that untrained officers were often downloading and viewing CCTV images in their hunt for evidence. The cameras were effective in crime-fighting if the images and information from them was used properly.

Detective Superintendent Michael McNally, who commissioned the report, admitted there were “some concerns” about how CCTV was being used.

The report also revealed concerns at Scotland Yard that the Conservatives could cut back on numbers of cameras or the way that they are used if the party wins the next general election, likely to be next May.

Under a section headlined “Strategic Issues”, the report said: “Potential change of Government - the Conservatives are not CCTV friendly - we need to start showing that we are targeting serious crime.”

Earlier this year separate research commissioned by the Home Office suggested that the cameras had done virtually nothing to cut crime, but were most effective in preventing vehicle crimes in car parks.

A report by a House of Lords committee also said that £500million was spent on new cameras in the 10 years to 2006, money which could have been spent on street lighting or neighbourhood crime prevention initiatives.

A large proportion of the cash has been In London, where an estimated £200 million so far has been spent on the cameras. This suggests that each crime has cost £20,000 to detect.

Britain has 1 per cent of the world’s population but around 20 per cent of its CCTV cameras - which works out as the equivalent of one for every 14 people.

David Davis MP, the former shadow Home Secretary, said the latest report “should provoke a major and long overdue rethink on where the Home Office crime prevention budget is being spent”.

He added:

“CCTV leads to massive expense and minimum effectiveness. It creates a huge intrusion on privacy, yet provides little or no improvement in security. “The Metropolitan Police has been extraordinarily slow to act to deal with the ineffectiveness of CCTV, something true both in London and across the country. “A combination of over dependence on CCTV and ineffective use of the cameras means that this money could have been much better spent on more police officers."

Chris Grayling, the shadow Home Secretary, said:

"It's just not possible to fight crime with technology alone, CCTV can help in some situations but there is nothing to beat getting more police back from behind their desks and on to the streets."

Anita Coles, policy officer for campaigning group Liberty, said:

“Being the world’s camera hub comes at a price; not just to our privacy but also to our pockets. “CCTV has cost millions and yet as it’s not properly regulated there is little evidence of targeted and effective use. In these hard times our money would be better spent on proven methods of crime prevention such as better street lighting and more police on the beat.”

Eamonn Butler, the director of think tank the Adam Smith Institute, said:

“It is obvious that the boom in CCTV cameras is not making us the slightest bit safer. There is no evidence that it saves us from gun or knife crime, or for that matter that it stops terrorists – many terrorists are only too glad to advertise their evil deeds. “Nor are cameras much good in getting convictions. Evidence from them is only allowed in court if the images are securely stored and handled, so that there is no possibility that they have been tampered with.”

The National Police Improvement Agency is currently undertaking a review into the effectiveness of CCTV.

A Metropolitan Police spokesman said the CCTV detection rate was based on "an estimate only and based on a small sample".

She added: "They do not reflect the complete picture of cases resolved in London in which CCTV evidence is an important factor."

The Home Office defended the use of CCTV, with a spokesman saying cameras could "help communities feel safer".

For Coment on camera & crime


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Corporate Punishment

So how exactly do you punish a corporation?

By Milt Policzer
Courthouse News Service
Oct. 12, 2009

Yet the truth may still emerge. A really optimistic federal judge.

Corporations want to be treated like people so they can spend as much as they want on propaganda and file lawsuits. But do they want to be punished like people for doing something wrong?

Of course not.

This isn't exactly fair, but how do you make things fair?

You may remember a federal judge in New York issued an order last month (Securities and Exchange Commission v. Bank of America) noting that a $33 million settlement with the bank didn't exactly punish the bank. In fact, it really punished the company's shareholders who, allegedly, were the very people damaged in the first place by a glaring omission in a proxy statement.

You damage shareholder value and then you make shareholders pay for it. It's kind of like making a bank pay a bank robber to compensate for the robbery.

U. S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff noted another thing about the Bank of America settlement - the Securities and Exchange Commission seemed to be in on the joke:

"The proposed consent judgment in this case suggests a rather cynical relationship between the parties: the S.E.C. gets to claim that it is exposing wrongdoing on the part of the Bank of America in a high-profile merger; the Bank's management gets to claim that they have been coerced into an onerous settlement by overzealous regulators. And all this is done at the expense, not only of the shareholders, but also of the truth."

So, naturally, last week both the S.E.C. and Bank of America requested a jury trial. Clearly they don't want to see any more logical decisions from that judge.

But what could the outcome of this possibly be? The bank is still being sued like a person. Any damages come out of shareholder pockets. Even if the damages are used to compensate shareholder losses, shareholders would be paying themselves. They might as well just take their wallets out of one pocket and put them in another.

Actually, that could save a lot of time and judicial expense. You indict a corporation, haul its top officers into court, and have those officers stand up, withdraw wallets and replace them elsewhere. Case closed.

Oh sure, you could haul corporate officers into court and prosecute them individually for doing stuff like this, but is that going to help? They might have been paid well but they didn't get all the money shareholders lost - not even close. Shareholders are still out of luck.

So how do you punish the guilty and protect future innocents in the world of investing?
I have two words for you: corporate malpractice.

The concept of malpractice applies to most other professions, so why not the profession of running a public corporation?

You make too many billion-dollar errors running a company, you get your corporate-running license revoked. You're disbarred - or discorped.

And all corporate officers should be required to take continuing business education courses.
And we all get to make corporate executive jokes.

Hey, did you hear the one about the CEO, the priest, the showgirl, and the crocodile?

This should be fun.


Vanishing Arctic Ice Shows No Sign of Returning

By Yereth Rosen
Oct 2, 2009

Out in the Arctic Ocean, about 200 miles (322 km ) north of the nearest human settlement, the future of the world's climate is written in the patterns of ice patches on the water's surface.

Old, "multiyear" ice -- the glue that holds the polar ice cap together and forms the Arctic's defense against encroaching warming -- is slowly disintegrating, a process that is plain to see from the air.

Thick ice floes used to be kilometers (miles) wide just over a decade ago, said Jim Overland, a sea-ice expert with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who has been surveying the site since the 1990s.

Now the narrow floes -- with bright-white tops and a blue underwater glow -- are just meters (yards) wide, observed Overland as he studied the patterns from the window of a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 aircraft.

The dense, high-quality ice is not coming back, Overland said.

"That's a one-way street," he said "We have the same amount of multiyear ice this year as last year, even though we have a little more ice overall."

Overland said while there was broad awareness of the harmful effect of sea-ice loss on polar bears and other Arctic animals, its impact on weather elsewhere in the northern hemisphere and the rest of the world was potentially more critical.

A warmed Arctic Ocean emits heat into the atmosphere that drastically alters weather patterns, he said.

"That's the big question: Who cares about the Arctic? Well, it's going to change the whole heat engine of the planet," he said.

Scientists have voiced concern for years about the alarming decline in the size of the Arctic ice cap, which functions as a giant air conditioner for the planet's climate system as it reflects sunlight back into space.

As a greater portion of the ice melts, larger expanses of darker sea water are exposed, absorbing more sunlight and adding to the global warming effect attributed to rising levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere by human activity.


Arctic ice cover this year was 23 percent greater than the record-low levels of 2007, according to the latest data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, which has been keeping records for 30 years. But it was the third-lowest coverage on record, after 2007 and 2008.

The one-year ice that accounts for the increase over 2007 and 2008 -- pancake-flat pieces with finger-like surface ridges etched by movements of the water -- is no substitute for the thick multiyear ice, Overland said.

"It's thinner. It's more broken up. And it moves faster," he said. "And all of that contributes to melting earlier in the season."

For the Arctic, incremental temperature changes have multiplied effects.

An increase of just a few degrees -- or even fractions of degrees -- can mean the difference between freeze and thaw. Thaw leads to more thaw, as dark-colored sea surfaces absorb solar radiation that would bounce off white snow and ice.

The additional warming caused by the melt itself, along with the greater absorption of solar heat into the now-uncovered northern waters, amplifies the warming in the polar region.

That feedback phenomenon is why the Arctic is warming at about three times the global rate and its ecosystems are changing so much, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.

Total summer ice cover in the Arctic Ocean is only about half the level it was in 1950, according to the IPCC. This year's summer minimum was 20 percent below the 30-year average, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

In the Beaufort Sea, winter is already encroaching just days after the autumnal equinox.

Evidence is in the thin film of new ice appearing between existing multiyear and single-year chunks. But the seasonal build-up will be slower than in the past, Overland predicted.

There was "no indication of freezing whatsoever" in the open water next to the grouped ice, he said as the C-130 flew south to land at Barrow, Alaska. "In contrast to previous years, there's absolutely no freezing outside that cluster."


Temperature Changes in Arctic

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Nobel Prize for Promises?

by Howard Zinn
October 10, 2009
t r u t h o u t Op-Ed

I was dismayed when I heard Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize. A shock, really, to think that a president carrying on wars in two countries and launching military action in a third country (Pakistan), would be given a peace prize. But then I recalled that Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Kissinger had all received Nobel Peace Prizes. The Nobel Committee is famous for its superficial estimates and for its susceptibility to rhetoric and empty gestures, while ignoring blatant violations of world peace.

Yes, Wilson gets credit for the League of Nations - that ineffectual body which did nothing to prevent war. But he also bombarded the Mexican coast, sent troops to occupy Haiti and the Dominican Republic and brought the US into the slaughterhouse of Europe in the first World War - surely, among stupid and deadly wars, at the top of the list.

Sure, Theodore Roosevelt brokered a peace between Japan and Russia. But he was a lover of war, who participated in the US conquest of Cuba, pretending to liberate it from Spain while fastening US chains around that tiny island. And as president he presided over the bloody war to subjugate the Filipinos, even congratulating a US general who had just massacred 600 helpless villagers in the Phillipines. The Committee did not give the Nobel Prize to Mark Twain, who denounced Roosevelt and criticized the war, nor to William James, leader of the anti-imperialist league.

Oh yes, the Committee saw fit to give a peace prize to Henry Kissinger, because he signed the final agreement ending the war in Vietnam, of which he had been one of the architects. Kissinger, who obsequiously went along with Nixon's expansion of the war with the bombing of peasant villages in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Kissinger, who matches the definition of a war criminal very accurately, was given a peace prize!

People should not be given a peace prize on the basis of promises they have made (as with Obama, an eloquent maker of promises) but on the basis of actual accomplishments towards ending war. Obama has continued deadly, inhuman military action in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Nobel Peace Committee should retire, and turn over its huge funds to some international peace organization which is not awed by stardom and rhetoric, and which has some understanding of history.

Howard Zinn is a historian, playwright and social activist, and has received the Thomas Merton Award, the Eugene V. Debs Award, the Upton Sinclair Award and the Lannan Literary Award. He is perhaps best known for "A People's History of the United States."


Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Coalfield Uprising

By Jeff Biggers
The Nation
September 30, 2009

This article appeared in the October 19, 2009 edition of The Nation.

When the Environmental Protection Agency declared this year on September 11 that all pending mountaintop removal mining permits in four Appalachian states stood in violation of the Clean Water Act and required further review, Lora Webb didn't have time to join in any celebrations.

As she and her husband, Steve, a coal miner, packed up their possessions and left his family's ancestral property outside Lindytown, West Virginia, Lora was more concerned about finding a place to sleep that night.

An important announcement suggests that environmental justice may be coming to the Appalachian coalfields. For the past few years, ever since a massive twenty-story dragline landed on a ridge near their home, the Webbs had endured twice-daily, bone-rattling explosions and the quasi-apocalyptic storms of coal dust and fly rock that blanketed their home and garden.

Lindytown's creeks and mountain hollows no longer exist, and a once-thriving community has been reduced to a ghost town. "It's unreal. It's like we're living in a war zone," Lora Webb told a local newspaper last fall.

By the spring of this year, the Webbs were one of the last holdouts in the area. Hoping to avoid displacement, they pleaded with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) and various federal agencies to enforce mining laws. Lora Webb even toted a jar of coal dust to Capitol Hill. In the end, though, they threw up their hands in bewilderment at the government's inaction and sold their beloved home to Massey Energy, the Richmond-based corporation that runs the nearby Twilight mountaintop removal site. Then they were issued a sixty-day order to evacuate.

The temporarily homeless Webbs are a stark example that mountaintop removal does more than "likely cause water quality impacts," as the EPA has determined. More than 3.5 million pounds of explosives rip daily across the ridges and historic mountain communities in West Virginia; a similar amount of explosives are employed in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee. Mountaintop removal operations have destroyed more than 500 mountains and 1.2 million acres of forest in our nation's oldest and most diverse range, and jammed more than 1,200 miles of streams with mining waste.

In cautious but no uncertain terms, the Obama administration has finally acknowledged these hazards, and has taken some important steps toward mitigating the damage. On June 11 the Council on Environmental Quality chief, Nancy Sutley, declared that the administration "has serious concerns about the impacts of mountaintop coal mining on our natural resources and on the health and welfare of the Appalachian communities."

Yet, while officials are framing the issue as a manageable environmental problem, mountaintop removal has also caused considerable human suffering and one of the largest displacements of US citizens since the nineteenth century, a fact the government has not adequately addressed.

The Webbs are just one family among an untold number of Americans over the past four decades who have been forced by the coal industry to relocate. And the death of 22-year-old Joshua McCormick--who succumbed to kidney cancer on September 23 in the Prenter Hollow area in West Virginia, one of the most notorious coal slurry-contaminated and Clean Water Act-violated places in the nation--was a reminder to area residents of the growing death toll in the coalfields.

While the EPA's September announcement clearly signaled a return of science and law to the Appalachian coalfields after a Bush-era hiatus, the festering criminal implications of environmental and human rights violations from mountaintop removal remain a test for the well-meaning but Beltway-bound environmentalists in the Obama administration. Will they muster the political wherewithal to break King Coal's stranglehold on the region's fate?

Coalfield residents are not waiting for the Obama administration to come to their rescue. In fact, in the past year a surging activist and citizen lobbyist campaign has emerged as a fierce counterforce to the Big Coal lobby. The leaders of this growing and increasingly powerful movement are not content with a new era of stricter regulations in the coalfields. Their aim is to abolish mountaintop removal once and for all.

According to Stephanie Pistello, national field coordinator of Appalachian Voices and legislative associate for the Alliance for Appalachia (a coalition of thirteen citizens' groups from five states, including the Sierra Club's Central Appalachian Environmental Justice Program), more than 200 coalfield residents have traveled to Washington this year to tell Congress and the Obama administration about the true costs of mountaintop removal.

In May a group of residents sent an urgent letter to the EPA and the Interior Department citing numerous examples of the WVDEP's lack of enforcement and negligence, and calling for federal action "to take primacy from a failed agency."

Over the past year, residents have launched more than a dozen civil disobedience actions throughout the region: in August a group of coalfield activists chained themselves to the doors of the WVDEP office, and two tree-sitters halted a week of blasting at a Massey Energy mountaintop removal site in the Coal River Valley.

If anything, the EPA's surprising move in September only strengthened the activists' resolve. Three days after the announcement, the Alliance for Appalachia returned to Washington with a group of residents to meet with the EPA, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department and members of Congress.

"While we appreciate the EPA making this step to bring back enforcement of the Clean Water Act," says Lorelei Scarbro, an organizer with Coal River Mountain Watch and a coal miner's widow whose garden and hillside orchards border a proposed mountaintop removal site in West Virginia, "we will continue to come to Washington, DC, until mountaintop removal's irreversible devastation to our communities and waterways is halted."

No one understands the limits of regulation better than Bo Webb (unrelated to Lora and Steve Webb), a coal miner's son and Vietnam veteran who lives under a mountaintop removal operation in Naoma, West Virginia, on land that has been in his family since 1830. "Nearly four decades of mountaintop removal regulatory history have taught me one thing," he says. "The devastation from mountaintop removal can never be regulated but must be abolished."

In an open letter to President Obama written this past spring, Webb spelled out the looming situation: "My family and I, like many American citizens in Appalachia, are living in a state of terror. Like sitting ducks waiting to be buried in an avalanche of mountain waste, or crushed by a falling boulder, we are trapped in a war zone within our own country."

Webb's hollow has become a base for numerous organizations, including Coal River Mountain Watch, direct-action groups like Mountain Justice and Climate Ground Zero, and national environmental groups like Rainforest Action Network (RAN). "I've seen oil spills in the Amazon, walked in clear-cuts so large they can be seen from outer space and have toured some of the nastiest toxic waste dumps imaginable," says RAN executive director Michael Brune, whose national organization plays a full-time role in the coalfields movement. "But when it comes to complete and hopeless environmental devastation, nothing compares to a mountaintop removal site."

On June 23 Webb helped to organize a high-profile rally and nonviolent sit-in in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia, where 94-year-old former Congressman Ken Hechler, NASA climatologist James Hansen, actress Daryl Hannah, Brune and thirty-one coalfield residents were arrested at a coal prep plant. "Mountaintop removal is a crime against local people, nature, our children and our planet," Hansen declared.

A day later, Webb was informed that the blasting above his home, temporarily halted after federal regulators cited it for violations, would resume. "I received a call that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, which determines the permits, gave the green light to renew the blasting closer to the coal seam, in an area that is even closer to our homes," he said.

This blatant circumvention of regulatory measures came as no surprise to Webb, who has seen the coal industry's influence penetrate not only the WVDEP but also the state judiciary. Earlier in June, the state Supreme Court upheld a decision to construct a second toxic coal silo near a school playground in Sundial, which sits down-slope of a 2.8 billion-gallon coal-slurry impoundment close to a mountaintop removal blasting site.

A week before the decision, the US Supreme Court issued a 5-to-4 ruling that a Big Coal-financed justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court had engaged in an unconstitutional conflict-of-interest vote.

Thanks in large part to the work of coalfield activists, such state-level failures have earned notice at the federal level. On June 11 the Obama administration released an interagency plan for "unprecedented steps to reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop coal mining."

"The steps we are taking today are a firm departure from the previous administration's approach to mountaintop coal mining, which failed to protect our communities, water and wildlife in Appalachia," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

While carefully crafted rhetoric from government officials made for good headlines, it reminded coalfield residents and environmentalists of the regulatory compromise that granted federal approval for mountaintop removal in the first place. Webb worried that the Obama administration had been lured into a familiar trap.

On August 3, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act with an air of concern. Admitting it was "a disappointing effort" and a "watered-down" bill, Carter recognized that the historic legislation contained loopholes, allowing mountaintop removal while cracking down on other mining abuses.

For many coalfield activists, no one was more responsible for those loopholes than West Virginia Democratic Representative Nick Rahall. On the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the bill, Rahall proudly recounted taking the House Natural Resources Committee chair, Morris Udall, to the Appalachian coalfields, where Rahall pushed the Arizona Congressman to insert language permitting mountaintop removal operations.

Rahall, who is now serving his seventeenth term in Congress, remains a fierce proponent of the practice. He still touts putting golf courses and shopping centers on flattened ranges for "higher uses," even though a 2002 EPA study pointed out that less than 3 percent of all mountaintop removal sites had been returned to any post-mining uses. In July he jumped out of a plane with the US Army Parachute Team at a "Friends of Coal" auto show in Beckley, West Virginia.

When the EPA announced its intention to bring greater scrutiny to mountaintop removal permits this past spring, Rahall made the rounds with top-level environmental officials and members of Obama's staff to fight against any reviews. The EPA clearly listened to his pitch. Reflecting on the sign-off on forty-two out of forty-eight surface-mining permits, many of which were for mountaintop removal, acting assistant administrator Michael Shapiro curiously fell back on misconstrued economic arguments.

Even though mountaintop removal operations account for less than 8 percent of US coal consumption and rely mainly on nonunion and mechanized labor in areas of entrenched poverty, in May Shapiro told Rahall in a letter, "I understand the importance of coal mining in Appalachia for jobs, the economy and meeting the nation's energy needs."

A month later, as Ken Ward reported in the Charleston Gazette, a breakthrough study by West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx found that "coal mining costs Appalachians five times more in early deaths as the industry provides to the region in jobs."

According to the study, "The coal industry generates a little more than $8 billion a year in economic benefits for the Appalachian region," but the researchers also estimated the cost of premature mining-related deaths across the Appalachian coalfields at a yearly average of $42 billion.

The Obama administration remained indecisive throughout the summer, publicly announcing its intentions to bolster regulatory oversight while quietly allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to continue issuing Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal. As Ward reported on August 11, the EPA privately approved eight valley fill waste piles proposed by CONSOL Energy.

"Copies of key permit documents were not yet being made public, despite a promise from the Obama White House of increased transparency in the permit review process," Ward wrote.

A day later, when a federal court struck down an earlier move by the Interior Department to reverse a Bush-era manipulation of the 1983 "stream buffer" rule--a rule designed to restrict the dumping of mine waste into streams--the Obama administration could only manage a weak commitment to "improve mining practices" within the context of the court's ruling. In essence, a kinder, gentler mountaintop removal would blast on.

Appearing on Diane Rehm's National Public Radio talk-show on September 3, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson openly agreed with a caller, Ohio Citizen Action organizer Kate Russell. Russell cited University of Maryland scientist Dr. Margaret Palmer's Senate hearing testimony that "the impacts of mountaintop removal with valley fills are immense and irreversible, and there are no scientifically credible plans for mitigating these impacts."

"Let me first start by acknowledging that Kate's right," Jackson responded. "Much of the science shows that when you have a lot of, when you start to see a preponderance of stream miles filled in, you start to see higher conductivity levels, which is indicative of higher suspended solids, which starts to affect the aquatic ecosystems sort of from the bottom up."

An internal memo in June by WVDEP biologist Doug Wood provided even more startling conclusions: "We now have clear evidence that in some streams that drain mountaintop coal quarry valley fills, the entire order Ephemeroptera (mayflies) has been extirpated, not just certain genera of this order," Wood wrote. "The loss of an order of insects from a stream is taxonomically equivalent to the loss of all primates (including humans) from a given area. The loss of two insect orders is taxonomically equivalent to killing all primates and all rodents through toxic chemicals."

One thing was certain: the reckoning on mountaintop removal had come due for the Obama administration.

As the regulatory games stretch on, coalfield residents and their national allies have redoubled their efforts to hold the EPA and the Obama administration accountable for enforcing the Clean Water Act, and for bringing the thirty-eight-year terror of mountaintop removal mining to an end.

Activists like Chuck Nelson, a retired coal miner from Sylvester, West Virginia, and a volunteer with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, are planning an action in October to call attention to the Webbs' devastated homeland. "In six months, one will never know Lindytown was ever there, that a community once served as home to many families," Nelson says. "We plan to hold a vigil for Lindytown. I guess you could call it a funeral, for all the families that used to love this land and considered it as home."

Invoking the image of the legendary Mary "Mother" Jones and her campaign as an octogenarian on behalf of West Virginia coal miners and their children in the 1920s, 81-year-old military veteran Roland Micklem recently announced a twenty-five-mile march and nonviolent sit-in, to be led by senior citizens on October 8 at a Massey Energy mountaintop removal site in Kanawha County.

Along with encouraging investment in the region for green jobs and renewable energy sources, the Alliance for Appalachia plans to mount an even more aggressive citizens' lobby campaign to pass the Clean Water Protection Act, which would in effect end mountaintop removal by halting the creation of valley fills and polluted waterways from mine waste.

"In order to counter the Goliath-like, multimillion-dollar coal industry lobby, the Alliance for Appalachia has organized monthly citizen lobby weeks," says Stephanie Pistello. "As a result, the Clean Water Protection Act has a record 157 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House, and for the first time in history, we have legislation before the Senate, the Appalachia Restoration Act, which has eight co-sponsors."

"The EPA has the authority to veto the permits," Jackson reminded NPR listeners in September. "The permits themselves are issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers. So EPA plays sort of an oversight role there." By the end of November, after receiving the Army Corps revisions of the permits, Jackson and the EPA should let the coalfield residents--and the nation--know how far that oversight extends.

"It looks like EPA is prepared to do everything it can, within the existing regulatory framework, to protect the mountains and people of Appalachia," says Teri Blanton of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a citizens' organization in the state where more than half the designated permits are located. "This is great news, but it will take more than regulations to end the destruction. Mountaintop removal and valley fills should be banned."

Back in Washington, planning the next lobby week of coalfield residents and pinning their hopes on Congress to move forward on the Clean Water Protection Act, Pistello concludes: "The people of Appalachia are asking for mountaintop removal to be abolished, not regulated. We will continue to bring residents to DC as long as mountains are being bombed and water runs black."

Jeff Biggers is the author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, forthcoming from Nation Books.


Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Romans could teach us about soils and climate change

Tom Hodgkinson
The Ecologist
October 2, 2009

What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, they did at least try to warn us that intensive farming would render our soils and civilisation unviable...

I've been reading the old Roman husbandry writers like Columella and Cato. It’s fascinating to note that the Romans, in the later period, had very similar problems to us today, in that they fretted about the depletion of the soil and climate change. Columella, who was a native of Cadiz in Southern Spain, then a Roman colony, wrote his books, very roughly speaking, in the years 50-70 AD, nearly 2,000 years ago. His De Re Rustica (On Agriculture), opens with the following comments:

Again and again I hear leading men of our state condemning now the unfruitfulness of the soil, now the inclemency of the climate for some seasons past, as harmful to crops; and some I hear reconciling the aforesaid complaints, as if on well-founded reasoning, on the ground that, in their opinion, the soil was worn out and exhausted by overproduction of earlier days and can no longer furnish sustenance.

Columella argues that mother earth does not in actual fact become exhausted. It is really a problem of bad stewardship:

For the matter of husbandry, which all the best of our ancestors had treated with the best of care, we have delivered over to all the worst of our slaves, as if to a hangman for punishment.

Then as now, farms had become enormous factories, with up to 80,000 slaves producing food for the Empire. Elegant Romans had removed themselves from the soil and actually looked down on farming and farmers. This was not the case, says Columella, in the old days, when keeping a smallholding was a noble pursuit:

We think it beneath us to till our lands with our own hands... but it was a matter of pride with our forefathers to give their attention to farming, from which pursuit came Quinctius Cincinnatus [in 458 BC], summoned from the plough to the dictatorship to be the deliverer of a beleaguered consul and his army, and then, again laying down the power which he relinquished after victory more hastily than he had assumed it for command, to return to the same bullocks and his small ancestral inheritance of four iugera [one iugera was about three fifths of an acre].

Columella also mentions a Roman obesity problem, linked to lazy lifestyles, and criticises, rather like an outraged tabloid newspaper, an over-indulgence in 'drunkenness' and 'gaming':

The consequence is that ill health attends so slothful a manner of living; for the bodies of our young men are so flabby and enervated that death seems likely to make no change to them.

So Columella, rather like Cobbett in the 19th century, John Seymour in the 20th, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in our own, sees that the answer to our agricultural problems is to return dignity to the art of husbandry and encourage more people to till the land. We should be doing something useful he says, and we make the mistake of 'plying our hands [ie clapping] in the circuses and theatres rather than in the grainfields and vineyards'.

To this end he wrote twelve books of farming and gardening advice, including many suggestions on how to improve the soil and keep it fertile. He also gives directions on how to look after bees, poultry, pigs, cattle and sheep. Columella’s is a hopeful message because it returns power to the people, unlike the limp and ultimately profitless strategy of trying to persuade a capitalist government to change people’s ways by force and persuasion. What is astonishing really is how close Columella’s advice is to what you might find in a contemporary book about organic gardening or Permaculture. Climate change is clearly nothing new:

I have found many authorities now worthy of remembrance were convinced that with the long wasting of the ages, weather and climate undergo a change... that regions which formerly, because of the unremitting severity of winter, could not safeguard any shoot of the vine or the olive planted in them, now that the earlier coldness has abated and the weather is becoming more clement, produce oil harvests and the vintages of Bacchus in the greatest abudnance.

The Roman Empire was to last another four hundred years or so after Columella was writing. And we are still here today. We perhaps then do not need to worry overmuch, and it would seem that the answer to soil exhaustion and climate change is the same as it has ever been: simply to get back to the land.