Thursday, October 29, 2015


When even the Thames froze

Here’s one to think about for global warming doubters.  The atmosphere of the planet we call “Earth” (at the moment, in English) has changed quite a bit even in historic times.  The 17th century in Europe in particular seems to have had some extreme low temperatures that destroyed crops, caused famine and drove emigration to America.  The “little winter” is thought to be the result of volcano action that filled the air with dust enough to shut out sunshine.  

In the Americas about the same time was a human-caused change that no one in the Eurocentric world has studied much from an atmosphere-content angle.   This article reminds us.   The author is Dave Nichols, who edits the H-Amindian scholar’s network and has a blog at called “Stranger Things Have Happened.”  He is a history professor who specializes in early America, including the indigenous people.

Dave Nichols

“. . .The 1610 CO2 sink resulted from the “rewilding” of large parts of Mexico, Brazil, Peru, and the Antilles, as carbon-fixing forests replaced 160 million acres of fields and towns. Behind this regrowth lay grim second-order causes: the deaths of tens of millions of Native Americans, the former cultivators and inhabitants of the newly-reforested zones, from enslavement and epidemic disease. Peru suffered a catastrophic smallpox outbreak as early as the 1520s, Mexico lost 80-90% of its indigenous population (of at least twenty million) during the first eight decades of Spanish dominion, nearly all of the Taino peoples succumbed to disease, hunger, and overwork, and at least one epidemic scythed through the populous chiefdoms of southeastern North America in the sixteenth century.

“It is hard to convey the magnitude of these losses, which killed so many millions of people, destroyed at least two major regional empires, and paved the way for European conquest of the Americas. Mass deaths became depressingly common in the past century, and on a “longue-duree” time scale most empires are, almost as soon as they arise. Geology, however, gives us even longer time scale with which to appreciate the significance of European colonization and American depopulation. The latter left as its grim monument an atmospheric marker as distinctive, durable, and global as the iridium layer that betokened the death of the dinosaurs.

“Extinction did not prove absolute and final for the dinosaurs, of course; their much-evolved descendants remain with us, small, feathery, and prone to singing and soaring. Nor did European contact exterminate Native Americans, however much some Europeans might have wanted it. Sixteenth-century Indians' descendants might speak new languages, wear different clothing, and practice some trades unknown in pre-1500 America (like astronaut or lawyer) but they are still markedly and proudly indigenous. Individuals may die, but peoples are much harder to destroy.”

by DElevit on DeviantArt

These are “memento mori” events.  [Memento mori is the medieval Latin theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.  -- Wiki]  I wish someone would drop one of them down the front of Trump’s trousers.  

Survival of individuals and populations is what drives everything that living things do -- even when they are opposed to each other.  What supports survival is preserved by the survivor group by definition, but they are not necessarily individuals. Dave Nichols reminds us that the other element is transformation.  Both individuals and groups who can transform are more likely to survive.  The necessary transformation may be in a dimension so small as an evolved molecular change to fight a blood disease or may be as deliberate as vaccination.  We know there is always a remnant that mocks progress and, as we have seen in California, their children die.  There is always a cutting edge that rushes ahead to unproven medical interventions and they die as well.  And there is always a larger force, like the climate change that allows tropical insect vectors to move north, carrying malaria.  Sometimes that’s a big surprise.

I was interested in another bit of history, this time about sources of power and how each forces or bequeaths change.  (From mailing list of quotes, but I didn’t get the date.)  The original industries of England were powered by watermills, which is why they feature so largely in their novels -- they brought both wealth and tragedy as industrialization is prone to do.  Then the huge underground coal deposits were discovered and developed by deep mining, so the population and the factories moved there and towns were totally different because the men were underground and died young.  But the country as a whole became a major power, a dominator, and the cities grew.  The class system went into overdrive, which triggered labor unity.

In the US at the moment both coal and oil have been challenged by natural gas, which is much cheaper and easily piped.  And the “Green” forces are getting a toe-hold with wind turbines and solar energy, which is developing “off the grid” in scattered locations. The population has concentrated in cities so that power must be transported to them and is also now powered by the internet which must be transported on lines, supported by electrical sources.  Wealth and political control has moved to the transporters, I suppose you might say the “power vectors” which are supra- or sub- to organizations, usually corporations and uncontrollably international.  Those who move the oil and grain control the world.  At least the human population, and mostly in the cities.  

How is it that the population of small Montana towns are depleted, challenging the adaptability and possibly the survival of the place?  But a town like Shelby, which has made itself a hub of distribution (including people if you include the major private prison), is a “crossroads”?  Is it also outside governmental and even state of Montana control?  The troubles at the medical center suggest that.  Somehow too many regulators and enforcers (Homeland Security; Border Patrol; Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; FBI; CIA, Highway Patrol; Immigration and Customs; and the persistent usefulness of the “Medicine Line”) cancel each other out as well as pushing aside local law enforcement.   Minor local criminals thrive on drug traffic and deal-making; major criminals -- like international corporate resource manipulators -- also do well.

If the Anthropocene that began with carbon-based greenhouse effects ends by drowning the idyllic sunny islands where the moguls and movie stars build retreats and by heating the Middle East sand kingdoms past human existence, it seems like a well-deserved self-snuffing. If somehow the entire planet ends the Anthropocene, a thin layer of UV-disintegrated plastic covering both continents and seas, there will be no one here to be surprised or have regrets.

The best we can do is start transforming now in all the ways we can figure out.  Some groups are doomed.  (We can spare 1% as soon as we get a grip on them -- you know who I mean.)  It is not the weak, the infected, the crippled, the old, and the newborn who are threatening the group -- in spite of political fear-mongering -- but the greed and politics of the group are certainly killing individuals with weak defenses.

Remember the plagues: pestis in Europe, smallpox in America.  Memento mori.  The continents will re-wild without us.

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