Starlight Tech Notes
approachingsignificance:

approachingsignificance:

8 Myths About Scientists
I stumbled across this in Thick Books and Thin Films by Adam Ruben. Pretty good.
Myth #1: Scientists frequently make “breakthroughs.”
Truth: Scientific discovery is agonizingly slow. The only time I’ve ever run naked through the streets yelling “Eureka!” is when I forgot to refill my prescription.
Myth #2: Scientists work in isolation.
Truth: Scientists are even prouder of setting up collaborations than they are of actual results. Most scientific talks end with a slide listing all collaborators like little badges of honor—and the less similar the collaborator’s field, the prouder the scientist. “Well, you know, I might have discovered a cure for tuberculosis,” a scientist will say, “but what I’m really excited about is this new collaboration with an Icelandic poet!”
Myth #3: Scientists possess useful skills.
Truth: Scientists possess useful laboratory skills. But you should never allow a physicist to wire your house.
Myth #4: Scientists follow the scientific method as it was taught in high school: Observation, Question, Research, Hypothesis, Experiment, Conclusion.
Truth: In reality, the way scientists work is more like: Fiddle Around, Find Something Weird, Retest It, It Doesn’t Happen a Second Time, Get Distracted Trying to Make It Happen Again, Go to Chipotle, Recall the Original Purpose of Your Research, Start Over, Apply for Funding for a Better Instrument, Publish Some Interim Fluff, Learn That Someone Has Scooped You, Take Your Lab in a New Direction, Apply for Funding for the New Direction, Collaborate With an Icelandic Poet, Eat Chipotle With an Icelandic Poet, Co-Write Scientifically Accurate Ode to Walrus, Get Interested in Something Unrelated, Apply for Funding for Something Unrelated, Notice That 20 Years Have Passed.
Myth #5: Experiments always yield data that teach or reveal something.
Truth: Let’s say you’re doing an experiment with five mice. These particular mice will turn either yellow or blue. So you walk into the lab expecting to see five yellow mice, which will point to one explanation, or five blue mice, which will point to the other. Instead you would see one yellow mouse, one green mouse, one striped mouse, one plaid mouse (dead), and one mouse that has somehow sewn himself a little blue jacket, though he doesn’t wear it all the time.
Myth #6: A personal tragedy can turn a scientist evil.
Truth: Very few scientists are legitimately evil, though the number rises if you ask graduate students to characterize their advisers. Besides, it’s hard to be truly evil when you don’t have any practical skills.
Myth #7: A scientist can be proficient in all branches of science.
Truth: Exactly what discipline did the professor from Gilligan’s Island specialize in? Chemistry? Mechanical engineering? Coconut-based transistor radio construction? Any time a problem needed solving or a device needed building, the professor knew exactly how to do it. That guy could make anything. Except a boat.
People who don’t understand science assume that scientists can master any subfield. That’s why we’re often asked for our opinions about scientific news items, and we can only reply, “Uh … sorry … I know I’m a molecular phylogeneticist, and this story was about molecular phylogenetics, but, well, I’m a different kind of molecular phylogeneticist.”
Myth #8: Scientists are not sexy beasts.
Truth: Scientists are indeed sexy beasts. Not only do our lab coats make us look dapper and charming, those same coats look even better strewn unceremoniously over a standing lamp while we make passionate love to you.
 

Another radar!

approachingsignificance:

approachingsignificance:

8 Myths About Scientists

I stumbled across this in Thick Books and Thin Films by Adam Ruben. Pretty good.

Myth #1: Scientists frequently make “breakthroughs.”

Truth: Scientific discovery is agonizingly slow. The only time I’ve ever run naked through the streets yelling “Eureka!” is when I forgot to refill my prescription.

Myth #2: Scientists work in isolation.

Truth: Scientists are even prouder of setting up collaborations than they are of actual results. Most scientific talks end with a slide listing all collaborators like little badges of honor—and the less similar the collaborator’s field, the prouder the scientist. “Well, you know, I might have discovered a cure for tuberculosis,” a scientist will say, “but what I’m really excited about is this new collaboration with an Icelandic poet!”

Myth #3: Scientists possess useful skills.

Truth: Scientists possess useful laboratory skills. But you should never allow a physicist to wire your house.

Myth #4: Scientists follow the scientific method as it was taught in high school: Observation, Question, Research, Hypothesis, Experiment, Conclusion.

Truth: In reality, the way scientists work is more like: Fiddle Around, Find Something Weird, Retest It, It Doesn’t Happen a Second Time, Get Distracted Trying to Make It Happen Again, Go to Chipotle, Recall the Original Purpose of Your Research, Start Over, Apply for Funding for a Better Instrument, Publish Some Interim Fluff, Learn That Someone Has Scooped You, Take Your Lab in a New Direction, Apply for Funding for the New Direction, Collaborate With an Icelandic Poet, Eat Chipotle With an Icelandic Poet, Co-Write Scientifically Accurate Ode to Walrus, Get Interested in Something Unrelated, Apply for Funding for Something Unrelated, Notice That 20 Years Have Passed.

Myth #5: Experiments always yield data that teach or reveal something.

Truth: Let’s say you’re doing an experiment with five mice. These particular mice will turn either yellow or blue. So you walk into the lab expecting to see five yellow mice, which will point to one explanation, or five blue mice, which will point to the other. Instead you would see one yellow mouse, one green mouse, one striped mouse, one plaid mouse (dead), and one mouse that has somehow sewn himself a little blue jacket, though he doesn’t wear it all the time.

Myth #6: A personal tragedy can turn a scientist evil.

Truth: Very few scientists are legitimately evil, though the number rises if you ask graduate students to characterize their advisers. Besides, it’s hard to be truly evil when you don’t have any practical skills.

Myth #7: A scientist can be proficient in all branches of science.

Truth: Exactly what discipline did the professor from Gilligan’s Island specialize in? Chemistry? Mechanical engineering? Coconut-based transistor radio construction? Any time a problem needed solving or a device needed building, the professor knew exactly how to do it. That guy could make anything. Except a boat.

People who don’t understand science assume that scientists can master any subfield. That’s why we’re often asked for our opinions about scientific news items, and we can only reply, “Uh … sorry … I know I’m a molecular phylogeneticist, and this story was about molecular phylogenetics, but, well, I’m a different kind of molecular phylogeneticist.”

Myth #8: Scientists are not sexy beasts.

Truth: Scientists are indeed sexy beasts. Not only do our lab coats make us look dapper and charming, those same coats look even better strewn unceremoniously over a standing lamp while we make passionate love to you.

 

Another radar!

Great New Poem!

Great New Poem!

mohandasgandhi:

saveplanetearth:

“These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring. They are caused by climate change.” ––James Hansen, NASA Climate Scientist

This quote is from Hansen’s must-read op-ed piece in the Washington Post: “Climate change is here — and worse than we thought”:

When I testified before the Senate in the hot summer of 1988, I warned of the kind of future that climate change would bring to us and our planet. I painted a grim picture of the consequences of steadily increasing temperatures, driven by mankind’s use of fossil fuels.
But I have a confession to make: I was too optimistic.

My projections about increasing global temperature have been proved true. But I failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise would drive an increase in extreme weather.
In a new analysis of the past six decades of global temperatures, which will be published Monday, my colleagues and I have revealed a stunning increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers, with deeply troubling ramifications for not only our future but also for our present.
This is not a climate model or a prediction but actual observations of weather events and temperatures that have happened. Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.
The deadly European heat wave of 2003, the fiery Russian heat wave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year can each be attributed to climate change. And once the data are gathered in a few weeks’ time, it’s likely that the same will be true for the extremely hot summer the United States is suffering through right now.
These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring. They are caused by climate change. The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills.
Twenty-four years ago, I introduced the concept of “climate dice” to help distinguish the long-term trend of climate change from the natural variability of day-to-day weather. Some summers are hot, some cool. Some winters brutal, some mild. That’s natural variability.
But as the climate warms, natural variability is altered, too. In a normal climate without global warming, two sides of the die would represent cooler-than-normal weather, two sides would be normal weather, and two sides would be warmer-than-normal weather. Rolling the die again and again, or season after season, you would get an equal variation of weather over time.
But loading the die with a warming climate changes the odds. You end up with only one side cooler than normal, one side average, and four sides warmer than normal. Even with climate change, you will occasionally see cooler-than-normal summers or a typically cold winter. Don’t let that fool you.
Our new peer-reviewed study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, makes clear that while average global temperature has been steadily rising due to a warming climate (up about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century), the extremes are actually becoming much more frequent and more intense worldwide.
When we plotted the world’s changing temperatures on a bell curve, the extremes of unusually cool and, even more, the extremes of unusually hot are being altered so they are becoming both more common and more severe.
The change is so dramatic that one face of the die must now represent extreme weather to illustrate the greater frequency of extremely hot weather events.
Such events used to be exceedingly rare. Extremely hot temperatures covered about 0.1 percent to 0.2 percent of the globe in the base period of our study, from 1951 to 1980. In the last three decades, while the average temperature has slowly risen, the extremes have soared and now cover about 10 percent of the globe.
This is the world we have changed, and now we have to live in it — the world that caused the 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed more than 50,000 people and the 2011 drought in Texas that caused more than $5 billion in damage. Such events, our data show, will become even more frequent and more severe.
There is still time to act and avoid a worsening climate, but we are wasting precious time. We can solve the challenge of climate change with a gradually rising fee on carbon collected from fossil-fuel companies, with 100 percent of the money rebated to all legal residents on a per capita basis. This would stimulate innovations and create a robust clean-energy economy with millions of new jobs. It is a simple, honest and effective solution.
The future is now. And it is hot.


You can read Hansen’s study “Perception of climate change” from the National Academy of Sciences by clicking here. Hansen and his co-authors argue that seasonal-mean temperature anomalies have shifted dramatically to a higher, that is, a hotter, norm caused by anthropogenic (man-made) global warming. Furthermore, related to what we’re seeing today, warmer seasons start sooner, end later, and are hotter than “normal.” This increases the frequency of weather-related natural disasters and their intensity, meaning, we’ll have a lot more natural disasters like tornadoes, droughts, hurricanes, etc., and they’ll be more powerful. The authors add:

It is not uncommon for meteorologists to reject global warmingas a cause of these extreme events, offering instead a meteorologicalexplanation. For example, it is said that the Moscow heatwave was caused by an extreme atmospheric “blocking” situation,or the Texas heat wave was caused by La Niña ocean temperaturepatterns. Certainly the locations of extreme anomalies in anygiven case depend on specific weather patterns. However, blockingpatterns and La Niñas have always been common, yet thelarge areas of extreme warming have come into existence onlywith large global warming. Today’s extreme anomalies occur as a result of simultaneous contributions of specific weather patternsand global warming.

mohandasgandhi:

saveplanetearth:

“These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring. They are caused by climate change.” ––James Hansen, NASA Climate Scientist

This quote is from Hansen’s must-read op-ed piece in the Washington Post: Climate change is here — and worse than we thought:

When I testified before the Senate in the hot summer of 1988, I warned of the kind of future that climate change would bring to us and our planet. I painted a grim picture of the consequences of steadily increasing temperatures, driven by mankind’s use of fossil fuels.

But I have a confession to make: I was too optimistic.

My projections about increasing global temperature have been proved true. But I failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise would drive an increase in extreme weather.

In a new analysis of the past six decades of global temperatures, which will be published Monday, my colleagues and I have revealed a stunning increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers, with deeply troubling ramifications for not only our future but also for our present.

This is not a climate model or a prediction but actual observations of weather events and temperatures that have happened. Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.

The deadly European heat wave of 2003, the fiery Russian heat wave of 2010 and catastrophic droughts in Texas and Oklahoma last year can each be attributed to climate change. And once the data are gathered in a few weeks’ time, it’s likely that the same will be true for the extremely hot summer the United States is suffering through right now.

These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring. They are caused by climate change. The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills.

Twenty-four years ago, I introduced the concept of “climate dice” to help distinguish the long-term trend of climate change from the natural variability of day-to-day weather. Some summers are hot, some cool. Some winters brutal, some mild. That’s natural variability.

But as the climate warms, natural variability is altered, too. In a normal climate without global warming, two sides of the die would represent cooler-than-normal weather, two sides would be normal weather, and two sides would be warmer-than-normal weather. Rolling the die again and again, or season after season, you would get an equal variation of weather over time.

But loading the die with a warming climate changes the odds. You end up with only one side cooler than normal, one side average, and four sides warmer than normal. Even with climate change, you will occasionally see cooler-than-normal summers or a typically cold winter. Don’t let that fool you.

Our new peer-reviewed study, published by the National Academy of Sciences, makes clear that while average global temperature has been steadily rising due to a warming climate (up about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century), the extremes are actually becoming much more frequent and more intense worldwide.

When we plotted the world’s changing temperatures on a bell curve, the extremes of unusually cool and, even more, the extremes of unusually hot are being altered so they are becoming both more common and more severe.

The change is so dramatic that one face of the die must now represent extreme weather to illustrate the greater frequency of extremely hot weather events.

Such events used to be exceedingly rare. Extremely hot temperatures covered about 0.1 percent to 0.2 percent of the globe in the base period of our study, from 1951 to 1980. In the last three decades, while the average temperature has slowly risen, the extremes have soared and now cover about 10 percent of the globe.

This is the world we have changed, and now we have to live in it — the world that caused the 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed more than 50,000 people and the 2011 drought in Texas that caused more than $5 billion in damage. Such events, our data show, will become even more frequent and more severe.

There is still time to act and avoid a worsening climate, but we are wasting precious time. We can solve the challenge of climate change with a gradually rising fee on carbon collected from fossil-fuel companies, with 100 percent of the money rebated to all legal residents on a per capita basis. This would stimulate innovations and create a robust clean-energy economy with millions of new jobs. It is a simple, honest and effective solution.

The future is now. And it is hot.

You can read Hansen’s study “Perception of climate change” from the National Academy of Sciences by clicking here. Hansen and his co-authors argue that seasonal-mean temperature anomalies have shifted dramatically to a higher, that is, a hotter, norm caused by anthropogenic (man-made) global warming. Furthermore, related to what we’re seeing today, warmer seasons start sooner, end later, and are hotter than “normal.” This increases the frequency of weather-related natural disasters and their intensity, meaning, we’ll have a lot more natural disasters like tornadoes, droughts, hurricanes, etc., and they’ll be more powerful. The authors add:

It is not uncommon for meteorologists to reject global warming
as a cause of these extreme events, offering instead a meteorological
explanation. For example, it is said that the Moscow heat
wave was caused by an extreme atmospheric “blocking” situation,
or the Texas heat wave was caused by La Niña ocean temperature
patterns. Certainly the locations of extreme anomalies in any
given case depend on specific weather patterns. However, blocking
patterns and La Niñas have always been common, yet the
large areas of extreme warming have come into existence only
with large global warming. Today’s extreme anomalies occur as a result of simultaneous contributions of specific weather patterns
and global warming.

crookedindifference:

current
crookedindifference:

Welcome To The Third Copernican Revolution

In a succession of remarkable observations, thanks to a new powerful 100-inch telescope atop Mount Wilson and to impeccable methodology and diligence, the American Edwin Hubble and his assistant Thomas Humason determined that the Milky Way was one among “hundreds of thousands” of other galaxies, which Hubble called “island universes.” Today, we know that galaxies are numbered in the hundreds of billions. Still, from one to hundreds of thousands was quite a jump.
A new cosmic vision was inevitable: just as Copernicus had removed the Earth from the center of the cosmos in 1543, Hubble had removed the Milky Way from the center of the Universe in 1924. We can call this the Second Copernican Revolution. There was no longer a center to the Universe; as Earth had lost its central role with Copernicus, the Milky Way had lost its centrality with Hubble.
For the past two decades or so, theorists have been exploring the possibility that our Universe is part of a “multiverse,” which would be eternal and infinite in spatial extension. If that’s the case, our creation event becomes less interesting, one among possibly infinitely many others. Once again, a unique aspect of the cosmos is pushed aside and made part of a much larger whole, thus losing its centrality.
As Earth became just another planet in the First Copernican revolution and the Milky Way just another galaxy in the Second, our Universe would become just another universe among countless others, each with its properties, private histories, and creation events. This would, among all of its remarkable consequences, be essentially a Third Copernican revolution, now removing the centrality of our Universe in favor of an eternally-existing multiverse.

crookedindifference:

Welcome To The Third Copernican Revolution

In a succession of remarkable observations, thanks to a new powerful 100-inch telescope atop Mount Wilson and to impeccable methodology and diligence, the American Edwin Hubble and his assistant Thomas Humason determined that the Milky Way was one among “hundreds of thousands” of other galaxies, which Hubble called “island universes.” Today, we know that galaxies are numbered in the hundreds of billions. Still, from one to hundreds of thousands was quite a jump.

A new cosmic vision was inevitable: just as Copernicus had removed the Earth from the center of the cosmos in 1543, Hubble had removed the Milky Way from the center of the Universe in 1924. We can call this the Second Copernican Revolution. There was no longer a center to the Universe; as Earth had lost its central role with Copernicus, the Milky Way had lost its centrality with Hubble.

For the past two decades or so, theorists have been exploring the possibility that our Universe is part of a “multiverse,” which would be eternal and infinite in spatial extension. If that’s the case, our creation event becomes less interesting, one among possibly infinitely many others. Once again, a unique aspect of the cosmos is pushed aside and made part of a much larger whole, thus losing its centrality.

As Earth became just another planet in the First Copernican revolution and the Milky Way just another galaxy in the Second, our Universe would become just another universe among countless others, each with its properties, private histories, and creation events. This would, among all of its remarkable consequences, be essentially a Third Copernican revolution, now removing the centrality of our Universe in favor of an eternally-existing multiverse.

approachingsignificance:

I had to explain to my class today why learning skills for academic and professional writing is important. It was frustrating that I had to do this, but I hope I was able to make it clear that writing is a form of communication and will only help tem as they get further along in their academic career and their profession after they finish their education. Individuals with good writing skills inherently have an advantage over those that write poorly. 
I needed some inspiration myself, so here is a nice list courtesy of Utah State University.
  • Writing is the primary basis upon which your work, your learning, and your intellect will be judged—in college, in the workplace, and in the community.
  • Writing expresses who you are as a person.
  • Writing is portable and permanent. It makes your thinking visible.
  • Writing helps you move easily among facts, inferences, and opinions without getting confused—and without confusing your reader.
  • Writing promotes your ability to pose worthwhile questions.
  • Writing fosters your ability to explain a complex position to readers, and to yourself.
  • Writing helps others give you feedback.
  • Writing helps you refine your ideas when you give others feedback.
  • Writing requires that you anticipate your readers’ needs. Your ability to do so demonstrates your intellectual flexibility and maturity.
  • Writing ideas down preserves them so that you can reflect upon them later.
  • Writing out your ideas permits you to evaluate the adequacy of your argument.
  • Writing stimulates you to extend a line of thought beyond your first impressions or gut responses.
  • Writing helps you understand how truth is established in a given discipline.
  • Writing equips you with the communication and thinking skills you need to participate effectively in democracy.
  • Writing is an essential job skill.

Reblog and add to the list! What makes writing so important?

mohandasgandhi:

sagansense:

Bill Nye to CNN: “The two sides aren’t equal’ on climate change
Science educator Bill Nye on Monday told CNN that they weren’t doing the public any favors by giving climate change deniers equal airtime because ‘the two sides aren’t equal.”
“There are a couple of things that you can’t really dispute,” Nye explained to CNN’s Carol Costello. “Sixteen of the last 17 years have been the hottest years on record. That’s just how it is.”
“I appreciate that we want to show two sides of the stories — there’s a tradition in journalism that goes back quite a ways, I guess — but the two sides aren’t equal here. You have tens of thousands of scientists who are very concerned and you have a few people who are in business of equating or drawing attention to the idea that uncertainty is the same as doubt. When you have a plus or minus percentage, that’s not the same thing as not believing the whole thing at all.”
The Washington Post noted on Sunday that scientists had been warning for years that because of warming weather and severe droughts, Colorado’s “table was set” for monster wildfires like the ones currently sweeping through the state.
“It is because of the heat ultimately,” Nye told Costello. “Just two years ago, it was was wet in Colorado and there was a lot of growth in forests. And then you can say they should have responsibly cleared that growth — it’s a difficult thing. So then two years later when it’s especially dry and the forest flora gets especially dry and then there’s a lightening strike, the fire is that much more intense than it would have been.”
“But the people who are politicizing this issue, they seem to be winning because not much is being done on the issue of climate change,” Costello pointed out.
“If you’re a voter consider taking the environment into account as well as the economy,” Nye advised. “I think the two candidates running for president right now have different views about the validity, for example, of science and the importance of it and what you would do about climate change in the coming years.”
“We in the science education community chip away at this problem all the time. We have an enormous population of people in the United States that don’t believe in evolution, the fundamental idea in all of life science. It would be like saying, I don’t believe in earthquakes or something. The analogies are disturbing.”
Earlier this year, a Media Matters analysis determined that coverage of climate change had dropped by 80 percent on U.S. broadcast networks between 2008 and 2011.
Watch this video from CNN’s Newsroom, broadcast July 2, 2012.

Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!

mohandasgandhi:

sagansense:

Bill Nye to CNN: “The two sides aren’t equal’ on climate change

Science educator Bill Nye on Monday told CNN that they weren’t doing the public any favors by giving climate change deniers equal airtime because ‘the two sides aren’t equal.”

“There are a couple of things that you can’t really dispute,” Nye explained to CNN’s Carol Costello. “Sixteen of the last 17 years have been the hottest years on record. That’s just how it is.”

“I appreciate that we want to show two sides of the stories — there’s a tradition in journalism that goes back quite a ways, I guess — but the two sides aren’t equal here. You have tens of thousands of scientists who are very concerned and you have a few people who are in business of equating or drawing attention to the idea that uncertainty is the same as doubt. When you have a plus or minus percentage, that’s not the same thing as not believing the whole thing at all.”

The Washington Post noted on Sunday that scientists had been warning for years that because of warming weather and severe droughts, Colorado’s “table was set” for monster wildfires like the ones currently sweeping through the state.

“It is because of the heat ultimately,” Nye told Costello. “Just two years ago, it was was wet in Colorado and there was a lot of growth in forests. And then you can say they should have responsibly cleared that growth — it’s a difficult thing. So then two years later when it’s especially dry and the forest flora gets especially dry and then there’s a lightening strike, the fire is that much more intense than it would have been.”

“But the people who are politicizing this issue, they seem to be winning because not much is being done on the issue of climate change,” Costello pointed out.

“If you’re a voter consider taking the environment into account as well as the economy,” Nye advised. “I think the two candidates running for president right now have different views about the validity, for example, of science and the importance of it and what you would do about climate change in the coming years.”

“We in the science education community chip away at this problem all the time. We have an enormous population of people in the United States that don’t believe in evolution, the fundamental idea in all of life science. It would be like saying, I don’t believe in earthquakes or something. The analogies are disturbing.”

Earlier this year, a Media Matters analysis determined that coverage of climate change had dropped by 80 percent on U.S. broadcast networks between 2008 and 2011.

Watch this video from CNN’s Newsroom, broadcast July 2, 2012.

Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!

I was going to post something thoughtful and provoking here, and then remembered what a man once told me. “Debating religion with a religious person is like playing chess with a pigeon. No matter what happens, he’s just going to knock the pieces over, shit all over the board, and strut around like he won.”
A comment from Youtube user Nevune that won my heart today.  (via ronworkman)

mohandasgandhi:

It is, perhaps, the greatest failure of collective leadership since the first world war. The Earth’s living systems are collapsing, and the leaders of some of the most powerful nations – the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia – could not even be bothered to turn up and discuss it. Those who did attend the Earth summit in Rio last week solemnly agreed to keep stoking the destructive fires: sixteen times in their text they pledged to pursue “sustained growth”, the primary cause of the biosphere’s losses.

The efforts of governments are concentrated not on defending the living Earth from destruction, but on defending the machine that is destroying it. Whenever consumer capitalism becomes snarled up by its own contradictions, governments scramble to mend the machine, to ensure – though it consumes the conditions that sustain our lives – that it runs faster than ever before.

The thought that it might be the wrong machine, pursuing the wrong task, cannot even be voiced in mainstream politics. The machine greatly enriches the economic elite, while insulating the political elite from the mass movements it might otherwise confront. We have our bread; now we are wandering, in spellbound reverie, among the circuses.

We have used our unprecedented freedoms – secured at such cost by our forebears – not to agitate for justice, for redistribution, for the defence of our common interests, but to pursue the dopamine hits triggered by the purchase of products we do not need. The world’s most inventive minds are deployed not to improve the lot of humankind but to devise ever more effective means of stimulation, to counteract the diminishing satisfactions of consumption. The mutual dependencies of consumer capitalism ensure that we all unwittingly conspire in the trashing of what may be the only living planet. The failure at Rio de Janeiro belongs to us all.

It marks, more or less, the end of the multilateral effort to protect the biosphere. The only successful global instrument – the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer – was agreed and implemented years before the first Earth Summit in 1992. It was one of the last fruits of a different political era, in which intervention in the market for the sake of the greater good was not considered anathema, even by the Thatcher and Reagan governments. Everything of value discussed since then has led to weak, unenforceable agreements, or to no agreements at all.

This is not to suggest that the global system and its increasingly pointless annual meetings will disappear, or even change. The governments which allowed the Earth Summit and all such meetings to fail evince no sense of responsibility for this outcome, and appear untroubled by the thought that if a system hasn’t worked for 20 years, there’s something wrong with the system. They walk away, aware that there are no political penalties; that the media is as absorbed with consumerist trivia as the rest of us; that, when future generations have to struggle with the mess they have left behind, their contribution will have been forgotten. (And then they lecture the rest of us on responsibility.)

Nor is it to suggest that multilateralism should be abandoned. Agreements on biodiversity, the oceans and the trade in endangered species may achieve some marginal mitigation of the full-spectrum assault on the biosphere that the consumption machine has unleashed. But that’s about it.

The action – if action there is – will mostly be elsewhere. Those governments which retain an interest in planet Earth will have to work alone, or in agreement with like-minded nations. There will be no means of restraining free riders, no means of persuading voters that their actions will be matched by those of other countries.

That we have missed the chance of preventing two degrees of global warming now seems obvious. That most of the other planetary boundaries will be crossed, equally so. So what do we do now?

Some people will respond by giving up, or at least withdrawing from political action. Why, they will ask, should we bother, if the inevitable destination is the loss of so much of what we hold dear: the forests, the brooks, the wetlands, the coral reefs, the sea ice, the glaciers, the birdsong and the night chorus, the soft and steady climate which has treated us kindly for so long? It seems to me that there are at least three reasons.

The first is to draw out the losses over as long a period as possible, in order to allow our children and grandchildren to experience something of the wonder and delight in the natural world and of the peaceful, unharried lives with which we have been blessed. Is that not a worthy aim, even if there were no other?

The second is to preserve what we can in the hope that conditions might change. I do not believe that the planet-eating machine, maintained by an army of mechanics, oiled by constant injections of public money, will collapse before the living systems on which it feeds. But I might be wrong. Would it not be a terrible waste to allow the tiger, the rhinoceros, the bluefin tuna, the queen’s executioner beetle and the scabious cuckoo bee, the hotlips fungus and the fountain anenome to disappear without a fight if this period of intense exploitation turns out to be a brief one?

The third is that, while we may have no influence over decisions made elsewhere, there is plenty that can be done within our own borders. Rewilding – the mass restoration of ecosystems – offers the best hope we have of creating refuges for the natural world, which is why I’ve decided to spend much of the next few years promoting it here and abroad.

Giving up on global agreements or, more accurately, on the prospect that they will substantially alter our relationship with the natural world, is almost a relief. It means walking away from decades of anger and frustration. It means turning away from a place in which we have no agency to one in which we have, at least, a chance of being heard. But it also invokes a great sadness, as it means giving up on so much else.

Was it too much to have asked of the world’s governments, which performed such miracles in developing stealth bombers and drone warfare, global markets and trillion-dollar bailouts, that they might spend a tenth of the energy and resources they devoted to these projects on defending our living planet? It seems, sadly, that it was.

H/T: Evelyn

You shall be my roots and
I will be your shade,
though the sun burns my leaves.

You shall quench my thirst and
I will feed you fruit,
though time takes my seed.

And when I’m lost and can tell nothing of this earth
you will give me hope.

And my voice you will always hear.
And my hand you will always have.

For I will shelter you.
And I will comfort you.
And even when we are nothing left,
not even in death,
I will remember you.

Mark Z. DanielewskiHouse of Leaves (via approachingsignificance)