Happy May Day celebrations and Happy 200th Birthday to Karl Marx! My favorite 5 posts this week are about building climate resilient social infrastructure, a meditation on deep time, a thermodynamic critique of the circular economy, an essay on environmentally induced epigenetic trauma, and a report on this year’s Ecological Civilization conference. Hope you enjoy!
1. This article about the importance of building community resilience for climate adaptation tempers the mainstream emphasis on economic and technical solutions to climate change:
“…the variable that best explained the pattern of mortality during the Chicago heat wave was what people in my discipline call social infrastructure. Places with active commercial corridors, a variety of public spaces, local institutions, decent sidewalks, and community organizations fared well in the disaster. More socially barren places did not. Turns out neighborhood conditions that isolate people from each other on a good day can, on a really bad day, become lethal.
This is important, because climate change virtually guarantees that, in the next century, major cities all over the world will endure longer, more frequent, and more intense heat waves—along with frankenstorms, hurricanes, blizzards, and rising seas. And it’s inevitable that cities will take steps to fortify themselves against this future. The first instinct of urban leaders is often to harden their cities through engineering and infrastructure, much of which is indeed pretty vital. But research keeps reinforcing [that]… it’s the strength of a neighborhood that determines who lives and who dies in a disaster.”
2. This contemplative poem features beautiful web-based art and storytelling, immersing you in the story of the universe as told from a pin oak tree:
“The pin oak tree in Deering Oaks Park in Portland, Maine, began as an acorn—as oak trees do. To the New Englander’s eye, acorns are ordinary and unremarkable: widely scattered orbs in pleasant brown caps, autumn fare for the twitching squirrel. But nested in the acorn is an encoded DNA for the synthesis of sunlight; the vision of a tree; the manifestation of an ecosystem; life itself.”
3. The circular economy is a good technical solution for sustaining the metabolism of energy and economic flows, but its Achilles heel may be its disregard for the science of thermodynamics at greater scales:
“The Second Law dictates that energy can be used, but in the process the ‘quality’… of that energy is degraded; and once degraded, that ‘quality’ cannot be recovered without using even more energy than was expended when the energy was first used… Let’s assume that, at best, we can recover 60% of the content of the bottle over each 6 week cycle… By the end of one year (8 or 9 cycles) we’d only have 1% of our plastic left. The obvious response is, ‘well, let’s recycle more.’ The problem is that achieving a higher recovery rate actually requires expending more energy, reducing the energy saved – and as you get nearer to 100% the amount required is likely to exceed the energy involved in producing new plastic from raw materials…
In the absence of a proposal that meets both the global energy and resource limitations on the human system, including the limits on renewable energy production, the current portrayal of the ‘circular economy’ is not a viable option… we have to avoid re-manufacture or recovery in the first place. The difficulty is that no one wants to advocate this – combining multiple reuse, high recycling AND longer service life – as it means the effective elimination of consumerism, fashion, ‘innovation,’ and many of the other totemic traits of the modern consumer materialist economy.”
“…a great flood here, a famine or massacre there, could alter not just our psyches and behaviours but the deep biology of our cells. For those caught in history’s churn, the result can be psychiatric symptoms and chronic disease caused by stress. Because these cellular changes are said to be made not at the level of the genetic code, but ‘above’ the genome – through the molecules that control gene expression – they are called ‘epigenetic’… ‘environmentally induced epigenetic transgenerational inheritance has now been observed in plants, insects, fish, birds, rodents, pigs and humans’. In rodents, such changes can last at least 10 generations and, in plants, hundreds…
Aside from treatments to cure the already-afflicted, understanding the phenomenon means preventing epigenetic damage before it occurs – protecting our young people from poverty, toxic stress, pollution, abuse and garden-variety neglect. It means social policies and cultures that boost resilience while lowering risk. Brains must be protected by government regulations and business environments that promote adequate healthcare, affordable education, strong families, flexible working hours and ample vacations… The goal for most of us should be looking forward, to shepherd what comes next. When do conditions become so extreme, so polluted, so stressful or dangerous that we risk damaging the epigenomes of the unborn? When does an event or situation rise to the level of epigenetic emergency?”
The event was preceded by the publication of a new anthology on the relevance of process philosophy for Ecological Civilization. Wm. Andrew Schwartz and John Cobb edited a dozen chapters from friends like Catherine Keller, Philip Clayton, Jay McDaniel, and Luke Higgins.