Wednesday, August 2, 2017


Tiger Lilies at Tamarack Creek

     Last year, as I was driving to Tamarack Creek, I was appalled by the number of dead pine trees in the Shaver Lake area. Weakened by drought and finished off by the bark beetle, dead trees towered around the lake like a skeleton army too stubborn to collapse into the humus. When I reached the Tamarack Creek area, which, at over 7,000 feet, is over 1,500 feet higher in elevation than Shaver Lake, I found very few affected trees, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I thought that the trees at the creek might survive the beetle bloom, at least a few more years. 
     This year, I returned to Tamarack Creek, and I experienced one of the saddest sights my poor eyes have ever witnessed. Half of the trees were dead or dying. I wandered through the meadows, taking pictures of what might be some of the last tiger lilies and columbine and larkspur and shooting stars: With all the dead trees, a conflagration could reduce even the healthy trees to blackened stumps. If an unusually hot blaze ravaged the forest, most of the flowers in the meadows would no longer thrive because they would no longer have the shade they needed. The high Sierra habitat, after supporting the same species for ages, could soon be changed, changed utterly. 

     According to Maddie Oatman, “A healthy tree can usually beat back invading beetles by deploying chemical defenses and flooding them out with sticky resin. But just as dehydration makes humans weaker, heat and drought impede a tree’s ability to fight back—less water means less resin.” According to scientists, this eruption of bark beetles is about ten times the size of past insect outbreaks—perhaps the largest beetle bloom ever recorded. A mere doubling of bark beetles would be catastrophic, but ten times the number of voracious beetles, spreading like wildfire through the forest, seems more like a sign of the end times, an Armageddon of our own making. 
     Millions of trees are dying across the continent due to climate change, 102 million in California so far, with over 36 million dead since last May alone. Current climate projections suggest we are headed toward a future in which beetle blooms do not subside and continue to spread through new habitats. The warming trend is devastating marine life as well: Globally over 70 percent of the coral reefs have been exposed to high temperatures that cause bleaching. Already, 50 percent of the coral in the world’s oceans, which over half a billion people rely on for survival, have died in recent few years due to a nearly one-and-a-half degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature. According to scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975 and thermometers continue to rise. As the trees and coral die, we are witnessing the fragility of the world’s ecosystems: An increase of only 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit is causing devastation on a scale never before witnessed. 

     If, as 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists have concluded, humans are causing the problem, then the White House’s current policies on global warming reflect the lunacy of a Republican Party in the grips of corporate elites. When Trump dove into the swamp to gather his corporate gang of millionaires and billionaires, one name bubbled to the top: Rex Tillerson. According to Naomi Klein in No is Not Enough (p. 67), “Exxon did its own cutting-edge empirical climate research, taking CO2 samples off of its oil tankers and building state of the art climate models that predicted the coming changes.” Exxon’s senior scientists concluded that humanity was influencing the global climate through the burning of fossil fuels. James Black, one senior scientist, even claimed that humanity had a window of five to ten years before “hard decisions about changes in energy strategies might become critical.” As Klein points out, “That was in 1978.” 
     President Trump named Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, as his secretary of state. Tillerson had joined Exxon USA long after the facts about climate change had become known to the company. And, even though aware of the facts, ExxonMobil spent over $30 million on a PR campaign that spread doubt in the press about the credibility of climate science. Now, the White House is full of climate change deniers: Besides gutting the EPAs budget, relaxing enforcement of illegal pollution, and rolling back pollution standards, the White House has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement and has removed the climate change page from the EPAs website. 

     As I gazed at the stands of dead trees, I shuddered in anger at the utter lack of social responsibility displayed by Exxon and Tillerson and Trump and the Republican Party. It’s not just a lack of responsibility: Their heartlessness reveals an institutionalized sociopathic mindset that places the whole world at risk for the short-term profits of a few corporations. Besides sacrificing forests and coral reefs, they are, quite simply, endangering humanity and the world’s ecosystems to protect and bolster the corporate bottom-line. 
     The beetle bloom and the die-off of coral have come as a surprise to most people. Just as it is impossible to determine the scale of devastation or exactly how ecosystems will be affected by global warming, no one can predict how countries will be affected politically, socially, and economically. But one thing is sure: There will be upheaval. Even the Pentagon has issued a report revealing how climate change is a threat to national security. The question is how governments, including our own, will handle the disruption of society, and, according to Klein, if past is prologue, the US will take advantage of whatever shocks occur to undermine civil liberties even more than it did with the passage of the Patriot Act after 9/11. 
     Democracy is always a few steps away from fascism because of the influence of money in politics. Whether or not Mussolini himself said it, fascism should actually be called corporatism because it is the merging of state and corporate power. We have only barely avoided the melding of corporations and the state up to now because of the system of checks and balances within our three branches of government, but now one party—the party of the corporate elite—controls all three branches. Klein claims that the Trump’s election victory was really a corporate coup, which explains the Republican Party’s moral spinelessness in kowtowing to a dangerous, lying megalomaniac: All of Trump’s buffoonery, which the mainstream media rehashes ad nauseam, is simply a distraction as the Republican Party, on behalf of the corporations that control it, edges the country closer to fascism—and the world closer to disaster. Perhaps, as Klein predicts, the corporate monarchs and their political lackeys are only waiting for another shock like 9/11, large enough to establish a state of emergency, undermine civil liberties and impose harsh authoritarian measures. The US could quickly become a totalitarian state like Russia, with corrupt oligarchs in charge of the government and people too afraid to speak out. Global warming alone could cause one or more of the shocks they are waiting for: The Pentagon and Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil and our current Secretary of State, know only too well that that those shocks are coming. 

     But it is not over yet. Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, believes that we currently have the technology to quickly and affordably move to clean, renewable energy systems to replace fossil fuels. On Bill Nye Saves the World, Episode 1, available on Netflix, Dr. Jacobson claims that by using energy from sun, wind, and water, we can eliminate 80 percent of global warming emissions by 2030 to avoid an increase in the world’s temperature by 1.5 Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). And by 2050 the world could be running completely—100 percent—on clean, renewable energy sources. Since we are already experiencing massive disruptions of ecosystems with an increase of only 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, we obviously need to act immediately because even if we start now, we could still see twice as much of an increase to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the government currently lacks the political will to accomplish this goal because the Republican Party controls all three branches of government. 
     Naomi Klein in her new book, No is Not Enough (pp 246-247), claims that we can afford to save ourselves while making 100 percent renewable energy a reality by: 

  • Ending fossil fuel subsidies (worth about $775 billion dollars worldwide). 
  • Getting a fairer share of the financial sector’s massive earnings by imposing a transaction tax (which could raise $650 billion globally). 
  • Increasing royalties on fossil fuel production. 
  • Raising income taxes on corporations and the world’s wealthiest people. (A one percent tax on billionaires could raise $45 billion alone.) 
  • Imposing a progressive carbon tax (which would raise $450 billion annually). 
  • Making a 25 percent cut to military spending of the top ten military spenders worldwide (which would free up $325 billion). 
  • Shutting down tax havens (which could potentially be the greatest source of revenue of all). 

     I know how hard it is to change—for even educated, progressive people—because I have been the victim of denial as well as a denier for most of my life. If circumstances don’t appear out of the ordinary, if people don’t see massive die-offs of trees or coral or fear for their lives, then most people, myself included, tend to avoid dealing with the problem. For instance, I know a scientist who recognizes the seriousness of climate change and is working to find a solution. He came over to my house by chance while I was eating one evening. I mentioned that I have an extremely limited diet, and he sneered, “Oh, yeah, you have a ‘condition.’ Isn’t that a chicken pot pie you’re eating?” I showed him that I was eating brown rice, chicken, and spinach mixed together. Even though gluten triggers atrial fibrillation and serious digestive issues in my body, my scientist friend had great difficulty believing that anything was wrong with me. The vast majority of people I have known over the years have acted the same way: full of disbelief, not sympathy or understanding. 

     But I also know how difficult it has been for me to accept reality and make beneficial changes: I confess that several times I could only internalize the need to change after I was practically on my death bed. I believe the world has reached a similar point of do or die: Any more denial or inaction is totally irresponsible and could lead to unimaginable catastrophes, now, in the near future, and for future generations. 
     After witnessing a massive die-off of trees in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I’m not sure that I can ever go back to Tamarack Creek. I know one thing for sure: I cannot just limit my efforts to the spiritual level. There is a desperate need to affect beneficial change on many levels, environmental, political, social, and economic if we want to keep the fabric of the world’s social systems and ecosystems from unravelling. Most of these problems, I believe, are spiritual problems stemming from fear and greed, from willful ignorance, and from lack of sympathy and understanding, but as citizens of the planet, we need to do what we can now: We need to act decisively when the times call for action. If nothing else, vote for candidates in 2018 and 2020 who sincerely desire to address global warming. If we wait much longer, we will be edging to the brink of disaster. 

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