Paul R. Ehrlich: A pandemic, planetary reckoning, and a path forward

The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing environmental destruction and the deterioration of social and cultural systems into sharp focus. But we can learn from this.

COVID-19 Mobile Testing Center in New Rochelle, NY. (Credit: The National Guard)

In addition to great concern over the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m also disappointed.

For more than half a century, scientists have been expressing concern over the deterioration of what I like to call the “epidemiological environment.” That environment consists of the constellation of circumstances that influence patterns of disease and factors related to health.

It includes such things as population sizes and densities, diets, speed and type of transportation systems, toxics, climate disruption, frequency of human-animal contacts, availability of medical isolation facilities, stockpiles of medicines, vaccines, and medical equipment.

The epidemiological environment also includes cultural norms: levels of education, equity in societies, competence of leadership. Few aspects of the human predicament do not impinge on our epidemiological environment.

My own interest in one part of that environment, transmissible diseases, started as a grad student working on the evolution of DDT resistance in fruit flies. The results of that research had obvious implications for the evolution of antibiotic resistance, a key element in the epidemiological environment.

It clearly influenced my wife Anne and my scenarios in our 1968 book, The Population Bomb and a section on the epidemiological environment in The Population Explosion, the 1990 sequel book. We were responding not just to our own fears, but the fears of colleagues much more knowledgeable in areas like virology and epidemiology.

Of course, the utter failure of global society to deal appropriately with high probability threats to civilization warned of by the scientific community is hardly limited to pandemics.

Climate disruption is the best recognized of contemporary health threats, but the decay of biodiversity, and “updating” the American nuclear triad as part of the Russian-United States’ “mutually assured imbecility” are among the most critical.

Those, at least, are not obvious to the average citizen or decision-maker, but what about others such as increased flows of plastics and toxics (especially synthetic hormone mimicking compounds) into the global environment?

Everyone knows about volumes of plastics in waste streams and oceans and has personal experience with the thermal paper receipts coated with bisphenol-A (BPA), yet little to no remedies have been undertaken.

Indeed, why are there so few effective responses to the epidemics and the maladies of industrial civilization?

Bolster basic medical care

Credit: New York National Guard

It is convenient for progressives to blame the COVID-19 disaster in the United States on the spectacular incompetence and corruption of the current Republican national leadership. Yes, it has turned away from science, and worked hard to speed the demise of civilization.

One of the Republicans’ many steps in that direction was to destroy the global health security and biodefense directorate that the Obama Administration created to help prepare for emergent diseases. Americans are now likely paying with their lives for Trump’s move there.

But the basic problem dates much further back and is bipartisan. After all both parties have been supportive and remain supportive of the growth mania that has been the basic driver of environmental destruction.

Rather than dwell on the past, however, let’s look at what the U.S. should be doing about the epidemiological environment starting right now. The U.S. has long stood alone in failing to supply all its citizens with health care, an error COVID-19 has highlighted. Changing that, however it is done, should be top priority.

Besides the obvious ethics and justice reasons, people without basic medical care exacerbate public health problems, especially pandemics, in ways that threaten even senators and presidents.

A comprehensive national health program should also remove incentives for infected people to go to work sick and for keeping businesses and other entities that provide essential services functioning.

Plans and equipment should be put in place to greatly increase the capacity of the medical system to deal with large surges of victims of epidemics.

Programs are needed to keep both the plans and essential supplies up to date. A provision for quickly establishing unified leadership in disasters is essential.

Climate change and biodiversity

U.S. security in a globalized world demands leadership in dealing with all aspects of the world’s epidemiological environment.

In addition to rejoining the Paris agreement, America should demand greatly increased ambition in replacing fossil fuels in energy systems so it will have a better chance of ameliorating the building climatic catastrophe and reduce the likely huge refugee flows that will transform the entire global epidemiological environment.

The U.S. should aid China to reduce that nation’s huge pig-duck-pond-wildlife market, which is a lethal virus manufacturing machine. Putting pigs and ducks together with ponds is bad in itself, but adding wildlife markets to the mix makes it worse – and it’s an important factor in the global epidemiological environment.

America and China could lead a civilization-wide program to halt the destruction of biodiversity – another factor which negatively impacts that environment.

What I’m basically saying is that the U.S. should fix the epidemiological environment by taking the obvious steps to solve the human predicament – to avoid the collapse of civilization now entrained.

Teaching planetary literacy

(Credit: JR P)

This seems wildly optimistic in a world that has not even recognized its problems of overpopulation and overconsumption or the impacts on health and well-being of socio-cultural regression: rising xenophobia, racism, religious prejudice, sexism, and, especially, economic inequity.

What explains this?

There are the causes usually noted, such as the power of money, not just in politics but in global culture as a whole. But a major element is widespread ignorance, partly due to broken educational systems – allowing, for example, mobs of innumerate economists, politicians, and decision-makers in general to believe in perpetual growth in population and consumption.

The widespread inability of “educated” people to think is frequently underlined by statements on how “we don’t have a population problem, just a problem of too much consumption.”

Can’t they grasp the not-so-difficult idea that a billion people are likely to consume more than a hundred? Case in point on the ignorant “educated”: Donald Trump got a B.S. in economics from the Wharton School of my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.

To overwhelm this vast ignorance demands resuscitation of our higher education system. Universities and colleges remain stalled in a 19th century Aristotelian state. They have given up any goal except turning out people who will be financially successful in a deteriorating culture — oiling parts of the engine with never a thought for where the train is heading.

And that “education” clearly doesn’t even give its products a grasp of such concepts as exponential growth, as the response of Trump and many others to the COVID-19 epidemic have shown.

Educational systems have given up any pretense of supplying leadership to society or informing people about what is coming down the track. Faculty members discuss “sustainability” in major universities that will not even divest from fossil fuel stocks.

Can the absence of a draft alone explain the difference between the ferment in universities during the Vietnam War and the quiet today with the situation a million times worse?

Once again, population size and growth are major factors in this human dilemma – maybe Homo sapiens shouldn’t have tried to organize itself into groups exceeding the Dunbar number, which anthropologist Robin Dunbar showed was about 150 people, the size of hunter-gatherer groups. He also showed that’s roughly the size of groups in which human beings are comfortable today.

Rethinking resources

Where could all the money come from to make the changes to preserve civilization? That’s one of the challenges for the economists who today are operating in a perpetual-growth fairyland.

Much depends on the course of events and whether the debt pyramid collapses. One obvious step, however, is repurposing the military. When Anne and I were working with them on nuclear winter issues, we were greatly impressed by the intelligence and ethics of some of the field-grade officers with whom we were involved.

The military is already way ahead of the present civilian government in addressing existential threats like climate disruption. Various military units have already been deployed to deal with emergencies ranging from pandemics to hurricanes, and there is no reason why they cannot be used to help in tasks ranging from building medical isolation facilities to small-scale affordable housing for the homeless.

Allocation of resources is part of the epidemiological environment. The gigantic amounts of money wasted on such nearly useless toys as nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, main battle tanks, and air superiority jet fighters could be redirected toward rebuilding infrastructure such as sewage systems, modernized electric grids and water-handling networks, and on and on.

The same can be said for the other funds and activities used for decades to support (often clandestinely) U.S. state terrorism that has cumulatively killed millions since the second World War.

Is all this impractical, pie-in-the-sky, never-happen stuff? Sure.

But nothing is more impractical than civilization trying to continue business as usual as it circles the drain.

The current pandemic disaster may end up damping down consumerism and improving the environment – there are reports of the lethal smog usually blanketing some Chinese cities clearing during pandemic lockdowns.

Maybe there’s some chance that people are learning lessons.

We can always hope. SOURCE

Oilsands projects on ‘life support’ as COVID-19 crisis looms

Oilsands mining

The federal government announced a major economic aid package Wednesday, as the country “teeters on the brink of recession,” according to an economic forecast released Tuesday by the Conference Board of Canada.

In the meantime a number of oilsands projects that have already secured a greenlight could be in limbo as oil companies face plunging prices, based on a list of approved projects that are not currently operating provided to National Observer by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER).

The list contains more than 45 projects, including projects that have been “approved but not constructed”; projects that have been “approved, constructed, then postponed or delayed”; projects that have been “approved, constructed, began operating, then suspended”; and projects that have not been constructed “but are planning to operate in the future,” according to the AER.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced $82 billion in economic aid Wednesday to help lessen the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Thursday morning, there were more than 735 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada and 34 probable cases. The Canada-U.S. border has now been closed to all non-essential travel in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

The government’s economic response to the crisis includes $27 billion in direct support to individuals and businesses and $55 billion in tax deferrals. Targeted measures to support the oil and gas industry and other particularly affected sectors are on their way but have yet to be announced.

“We’re going to actively work with organizations in the oil and gas sector, in the airline sector in order to come up with approaches that enable them to bridge through the challenging time, that’s critical,” Morneau said.

“We’re not far enough along in those discussions to identify specific measures that we will take, but we do recognize the urgency of those discussions and are proceeding with that in mind.”

“In the current price environment that has emerged in the last week, it’s not foreseeable any of these [oilsand projects] are going to go forward at this point in time,” crude oil market analyst Kevin Birn

For Alberta’s oil and gas industry, the situation is nothing short of a crisis, one that’s left the fate of multiple project uncertain.

Among those that have been approved, but not yet constructed are Suncor’s Meadow Creek projects.

Just last month – two weeks before the Alberta government gave its Meadow Creek West project the final nod – Suncor announced it was shelving both its Meadow Creek West and Meadow Creek East projects until at least 2023.

That was before the U.S. Energy Information Administration downgraded its 2020 oil price forecast for the benchmark West Texas Intermediate to an average $38 U.S. per barrel, down from an earlier forecast of $55 per barrel this year. The WTI was above the $25.00 U.S. a barrel mark mid-day Thursday, while the price for Western Canadian Select was slightly above the $11.00 mark during the same time period.

In light of a major decline in demand brought on by the pandemic and the oil price crash triggered by the price war, Kevin Birn, a crude oil market analyst with IHS Markit, said he thinks “it’s very unlikely that… projects (will) advance at this point.”

Over the last several days oil companies in Alberta have announced major cuts to their capital budgets for 2020, prompting expectations of layoffs.

“This is going to have a very negative effect for working women and men in the energy services sector,” said Premier Jason Kenney, whose province had the highest unemployment rate of any province outside of Atlantic Canada as of February.

After years of economic stagnation, the province is “facing a triple whammy right now,” he said, and Ottawa “needs to have our back.”

While Kenney has called for major investments and relief from certain planned environmental measures to help keep Alberta’s mainstay industry afloat, others say economic stimulus measures could offer an opportunity to address two emergencies at once – the pressing economic crisis and the relatively longer-term threat of catastrophic climate change.

“For Canada’s oil and gas sector to have greater longevity, it needs to be cleaner, it needs to have lower carbon intensity,” said Dan Woynillowicz, the deputy director of Clean Energy Canada.

New projects already faced challenging conditions

Oilsands producers have been struggling under the weight of depressed prices and limited pipeline access for a number of years now.

That reality was brought into sharp focus earlier this year when Teck Resources pulled the regulatory application for its massive Frontier oilsands mine.

But even before Teck’s surprise decision, analysts were questioning the economic feasibility of such a major undertaking in the oilsands, as well as the fate of numerous other projects, approved already.

Final investment decisions have yet to be made for a number of the approved projects on the list provided to National Observer by the AER, including MEG Energy’s Surmont Project, a proposed multi-phase, in-situ project that could produce up to 120,000 barrels per day.

Though the company secured regulatory approval for the project in 2019, MEG Energy shifted the Surmont Project out of its current development plan, a move “consistent with its strategic focus on continued application of all free cash flow to debt reduction,” according to corporate documents.

In March 2019, just a few months after Imperial Oil announced it was moving forward with its $2.6 billion Aspen project, the company announced it was slowing the pace of development due to the Alberta Government’s curtailment policy.

“We cannot invest billions of dollars on behalf of our shareholders given the uncertainty in the current business environment. That said, our goal is to ensure the work we do this year will enable us to effectively and efficiently resume planned activity levels when the time is right,” Rich Kruger, the then-CEO of Imperial Oil, said in a statement.

Suncor, meanwhile, has deferred an investment decision on its Meadow Creek in-situ projects until 2023 in favour of lower-cost opportunities to improve production at its Firebag site, CEO Mark Little said during the company’s 2019 fourth-quarter investor call in early February.

“As you would expect in line with our capital discipline principles, we’re carefully evaluating future projects,” Little said. “We take into account the current environment of volatile commodity prices, market access challenges and government intervention into crude markets, while at the same time we’re making progress on new technology development, which has the potential to significantly reduce capital and operating costs, greenhouse gas emissions and water use.”

In 2015, due to low oil prices, Cenovus deferred new spending on construction for the first phase of its Narrows Lake project, which received approval for three phases in 2012, according to corporate financial documents. The project, which was initially designed to have capacity to produce 130,000 barrels per day, is now being reconceived as a lower-cost “tieback” project. Meaning, the company is looking at using its existing infrastructure at its Christina Lake site to produce the Narrows Lake resource.

While expected production would be in the 65,000 barrels per day range, the approach could cut costs by more than 30 per cent compared with the previous plan, according to an October 2019 presentation to investors. At the time, Cenovus said it could be ready to make a final investment decision in the second half of 2020, depending on market access.

Capital investments in the oil patch have declined since 2014, but just a few months ago, there was some expectation that the investment picture in the oilsands would improve this year as new pipelines came online.

“Of course, that’s all changed now,” said Pedro Antunes, the chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada in an interview with National Observer.

In the wake of the price crash, oilsands companies have made dramatic cuts to capital budgets for the year ahead.

On Wednesday, Canadian Natural Resources Limited announced a $1 billion-reduction to its 2020 capital spending budget, though the company noted in a release today that it “is well positioned through the current global COVID-19 challenges.”

Cenovus announced it was cutting its capital spending plans by 32 per cent and “deferring final investment decision on major growth projects.”

MEG Energy announced a 20 per cent reduction to its 2020 capital budget, and ARC Resources cut its 2020 capital budget from $500 million to at-most $300 million.

Husky Energy, meanwhile, scrapped $1 billion from its capital investment plans this year. “Investment in resource plays and conventional heavy oil projects in Western Canada has been halted, with a focus on optimizing existing production and lowering costs,” the company said in a release last week.

A pandemic and a price war

The novel coronavirus outbreak and related slowdown of China’s economy had a dramatic effect on the demand for oil. As manufacturing and transportation stalled, supply quickly outpaced demand, said Birn.

As more countries take steps to slow the spread of the virus, demand could decline even further. This week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal government was restricting inbound international flights to just four Canadian airports and closing the borders for non-essential travel.

In its February Oil Market Report, the International Energy Agency said global demand for oil is expected to decline in the first quarter of 2020 in what would be “the first quarterly contraction in more than 10 years.”

Prices were already expected to slide throughout the year as demand fell further and stockpiles grew, said Birn. Then, the situation took a turn for the worse.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) proposed a cut in production to help address the growing gulf between supply and demand, but got no buy-in from Russia. In response, Saudi Arabia cut its prices and announced plans to ramp up production in an effort to increase its market share.

The price of oil crashed. Stock values plummeted.

“Now, typically in these situations there would be an anticipated demand response, (with) low prices, people would consume more or stockpile more in anticipation of future higher prices,” said Birn.

“But in this situation the likelihood is demand is not going to respond at all, if anything it could fall further, exacerbating the difference between supply and demand and pushing prices lower,” he said.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic isn’t subsiding, he said.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better most likely and so in addition to the oil market situation, extremely low-price environment, reductions in (capital expenditures), we have a broader economic issue developing.

“The impacts of this are not going to be just felt in 2020, for the oil market they’re going to reverberate into future years for certain,” he said.

Economic stimulus

Of course, it’s not just the oil industry in trouble at the moment. The situation for Canada’s entire economy “is very serious,” said Antunes.

And certain segments, “are going to be very, very hard hit,” he said.

“The tourism sector, the service sector in general is going to be really, I think, decimated in the coming quarter.”

On Wednesday, the federal government announced it would provide temporary income support for Canadians who are quarantined or caring for children and who don’t have paid sick leave, including up to $900 bi-weekly for 15 weeks for workers who are quarantined and don’t qualify for Employment Insurance sickness benefits. For those who do qualify for EI sickness benefits, the one-week waiting period has been waived. Additional income support will be provided for workers who are facing unemployment but are unable to collect insurance, low-income families, and families with children.

For businesses, the federal government is proposing to offer small employers a temporary wage subsidy of up to $25,000 per employer over three months. This comes on top of Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s announcement on March 13 that the government is establishing a Business Credit Availability Program to provide more than $10 billion in loans to support businesses. The Bank of Canada has also lowered its overnight rate target to 0.75 per cent.

CIBC economists said in a note Wednesday that the “announcement from Canada’s Prime Minister and Finance Minister today are the latest steps taken that should cushion the blow, but which cannot prevent, a Coronavirus recession that is now underway.”

“A recession is still inevitable, with a deep dive coming in Q2 due to near-mandated cuts in household spending here and in our export markets, an oil industry shock, and potential supply disruptions from domestic and foreign producers.”

A further contraction is also expected in the third quarter, the note said.

“But the measures announced today support the likelihood of a V-shaped bounce back once the disease issues have crested.”

In a report released Tuesday, the Conference Board of Canada forecasted Canada’s economy will contract by 2.7 per cent in the second quarter of 2020.

“With the economy already on precarious footing, the added shocks of the recent rail blockade protests, the arrival of COVID-19, and a collapse in oil prices have brought the country to the brink of recession,” the board’s economic forecast says.

The conference board said it expects a return to growth by the third quarter but noted “there are huge downside risks to our outlook due to the unpredictability of the Coronavirus pandemic.”

“Overall, we expect growth of just 0.3 per cent in 2020,” the report said.

Alberta’s economy is expected to take the hardest hit among the provinces, according to RBC’s March 2020 provincial outlook, which is forecasting a 2.5 per cent decline in the province’s GDP for 2020. “For Alberta, this shelves any prospect that the economy will finally recover the output lost during the 2015-2016 downturn,” the report reads.

Alberta Premier Kenney said his government is working on its own economic recovery package that could include more than $3 billion in economic stimulus. Given the instability of markets, the number of people in self-isolation, and the suspension of some industries as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the province is planning to focus on liquidity for households and businesses in the short-term, with a second-phase focused on fiscal stimulus measures such as investments in infrastructure, Kenney said.

From the federal government, Kenney asked for targeted support for the province’s oil industry, alongside enhanced access to employment insurance, including for self-employed workers, and payroll tax relief for employers. In advance of federal announcements this week, the premier had said he wants the federal government to ensure companies have access to capital, to direct funding to stimulate emissions reducing technology and job-creation focused wellsite remediation.

Last week, Kenney said the industry also needs relief from environmental measures such as the forthcoming clean fuel standard and methane regulations, which, he said, could add significant costs to “an industry that is in many respects on life support.”

Addressing two crises at once

Conference Board of Canada chief economist Antunes said measures to help lessen the burden of holding on to employees, such as relief from payroll taxes, improving access to capital, and infrastructure investments may be the more prudent approach.

“For Canada, we do have to have a social licence, we do have to set out our environmental targets and make sure that we’re on track to achieving those. I’m not convinced that we will achieve them, but it’d be hard to delay or postpone some of those measures,” he said.

As it stands, Canada is already on track to exceed its 2030 emissions target. Current projections show the country needs to cut another 77 million tonnes over the next 10 years in order to hit its target. That’s roughly equivalent to the greenhouse gases emitted by 16.6 million cars over the course of a year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

For Woynillowicz, the deputy director of Clean Energy Canada, the focus should be on finding ways to stimulate the economy today that fit with Canada’s commitments to reduce emissions and transition the economy.

The federal government can create jobs by ramping up efforts to build public charging stations for electric vehicles or by funding energy efficiency retrofits for homes and commercial buildings, he suggested.

As for the oil and gas industry, Woynillowicz said he supports Kenney’s call for investments to clean-up orphaned well sites, an initiative that would both create jobs and address a massive public liability. On Wednesday, Morneau said the federal government will make a “significant investment in orphan well remediation to help both companies and workers in the province.”

Woynillowicz said governments could also target stimulus dollars to methane-reducing initiatives. Such programs could create jobs and “help the competitiveness of the sector in terms of its climate performance,” he said.

As for the clean fuel standard, it may seem like a burden to some sectors of Alberta’s economy, but Woynillowicz said there’s an opportunity for farmers and the forestry sector in biofuels.

“There are two sides to that coin and I think it’s unfair to just narrowly look at the cost to some and ignore the opportunities and the benefits for others,” he said.

There’s also an opportunity for the federal government to direct stimulus dollars to smaller companies looking at ways to harness Alberta’s hydrocarbons as a source of hydrogen or carbon, he said.

“There is innovation happening within the sector, in terms of trying to evolve beyond just pumping oil and gas for the purpose of burning it,” he said.

“So, target the support to those sorts of things which are supportive of the industry both in the immediate term, but also are setting the industry up to remain competitive for longer than it otherwise would be if we were to just flow money into doing more of what we’ve been doing in the past.”

As for Alberta’s oil companies, after reviewing the list of approved projects the Alberta Energy Regulator provided to National Observer, IHS Markit’s Kevin Birn said he doesn’t expect the proposed projects to move forward in this current environment.

“In the current price environment that has emerged in the last week, it’s not foreseeable any of these things are going to go forward at this point in time,” he said, during an interview earlier this month.

“Eventually as the prices come up you could see some of them come back in,” he said. “But in these environments the number one priority for companies is to preserve cash because they don’t know how deep the price collapse could be.” SOURCE

The Other Emergency Is Crashing Oil Prices

Tell Justin Trudeau to Invest in People, Not Big Oil

With Temperatures Rising, Can Animals Survive the Heat Stress?

A growing number of studies show that warming temperatures are increasing mortality in creatures ranging from birds in the Mojave Desert, to mammals in Australia, to bumblebees in North America. Researchers warn that heat stress could become a major factor in future extinctions.

Populations of the American kestrel (above) and other birds are declining in the Mojave Desert as temperatures rise. SHUTTERSTOCK

n the early 20th century, pioneering naturalist Joseph Grinnell and his team studied the flora and fauna of California, conducting meticulous surveys across large swaths of the state, including the Mojave Desert. They collected 100,000 specimens and took 74,000 pages of field notes, creating an invaluable baseline against which to measure long-term change.

Several years ago, a research team from the Grinnell Resurvey Project at the University of California, Berkeley set out to find how desert birds had fared over the last century. The changes were profound. In a study published last fall, the team found that on average temperatures in the desert had increased 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, making one of the world’s hottest places even hotter.

They also found that nearly a third of the 135 bird species present a century ago are far less common today and not nearly as widespread. The “heat stress associated with climate change” is the culprit, the study concluded, because desert birds need more water to keep cool, but it is not available.

“We often think that climate change may cause a mass mortality event in the future, but this study tells us that the change in climate that has already occurred is too hot and in certain areas, animals can’t tolerate the warming and drying that has already occurred,” said Eric Riddell, a physiological ecologist and the lead author.

The effects of heat stress on organisms trying to survive outside the temperature envelope they evolved in is becoming evident.

The impacts of a hotter world are no longer off in the future — they have already arrived. As the planet grows warmer, the effects of heat stress on organisms trying to survive outside the temperature envelope they evolved in is becoming increasingly evident. From insects to coral reefs to biodiversity across entire ecosystems, researchers are chronicling the serious impacts of heat stress as temperatures break records. And several leading scientists believe we are underestimating the impacts, even as the heat ramps up.

The period from 2015 to 2019 was the warmest five-year period on record, according to a new report from the World Meteorological Association, and the just-finished decade was the hottest since record-keeping began. Last summer across Europe numerous high temperature records were broken, and the “frequency, intensity, and duration of heat waves are all expected to increase,” according to a recent paper. Marine heat waves are occurring four or five times more frequently than in the 1980s, according to another recent study.

Australia has been ground zero for recent extreme heat waves. Heat waves have occurred for centuries across the dry continent, but of the 39 known ones, 35 have taken place since 1994. This past summer was the second-hottest on record and the country is projected to warm faster than the global average, rising 4 degrees Celsius (7 degrees F) by 2100. Australia set a new record high in 2019 of 107.4 degrees F, which was an average of highs across the country. The individual record-high temperature was 121 degrees F in 2019 in Port Augusta.

One of the best-studied heat events in Australia took place in 2011 and shows how devastating the effects of extreme heat can be, on both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The exceptional temperatures, a 2018 paper concluded, caused “rapid, diverse, and broad scale” changes and “triggered abrupt, synchronous … ecological disruptions, including mortality, demographic shifts, and altered species distributions.” The paper said that tree die-off and coral bleaching occurred simultaneously in response to the heat wave and “were accompanied by terrestrial plant mortality, seagrass and kelp loss, population crash of an endangered terrestrial bird species [Carnaby’s black cockatoo], plummeting breeding success in marine penguins, and outbreaks of terrestrial wood-boring insects.”

This cascade of events led the team of researchers to conclude that “the extent of ecological vulnerability to projected increases in heat waves is underestimated.”

Other recent events show the disparate impacts of extreme heat. In November 2018, the temperature in northern Australia soared to 107 degrees and stayed there for days. Endangered spectacled flying foxes — 2-pound animals with 5-foot wing spans — were overwhelmed. They tried to cool off by fanning themselves with their wings and panting, but that fell far short. In the end, some 23,000 of the endangered animals fell out of trees and died. The heat also killed fish, wild horses, and camels.

In 2014, an Australian heat wave killed more than 45,000 bats of various species. In some places fire trucks were deployed to spray and cool off dying bats.

Last month, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted that this year would bring the third major coral bleaching event to the Great Barrier Reef in five years because of heat waves. Coral bleaching occurs when high sea temperatures cause the living corals to expel the symbiotic algae on which the corals depend.

Experts say extreme temperatures are the catalyst for a growing number of local extinctions.

Research on impacts to the natural world from increasing temperatures is still in its early stages. But David Breshears — a University of Arizona professor of ecology and an expert in forests and climate change, is deeply worried. “First you get drought, on top of that the average temperature is going up, and on top of that a heatwave occurs,” said Breshears, who co-authored the 2018 heat wave paper. “Do extremes matter? You better believe they do, and it’s scary and getting scarier.”

Extreme temperatures — as opposed to warmer average temperatures — are the catalyst for a growing number of local extinctions, experts say. A recent study looked at 538 plant and animal species at 581 sites around the world that had been previously surveyed. The goal was to understand what aspect of climate change was the most serious threat to biodiversity. Researchers found that 44 percent of the species at the sites had gone locally extinct, and that the culprit was an increase in the temperature of the hottest days of the year.

John J. Wiens, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Arizona and a co-author of that study, said this research creates a model that allows scientists to estimate at what temperatures species around the world will not be able to take the heat anymore. “We can estimate the global extinction for each species,” he said. He estimated that if there is moderate global warming, 16 percent of all species would be lost; if there’s more severe warming, 30 percent could be lost. “The big picture is that one in three species could go extinct over the next 50 years,” Wiens said.

Part of what dictates whether species will survive is their physiology and habits. Birds pant to cool off, exhaling air and water. The hotter they get, the more water they need to expel. The mourning dove, for example, requires 10 to 30 percent more water to keep cool than it did a century ago, according to the Grinnell Resurvey Project.

Insect or animal-eating birds, which get their water from their prey, are even worse off. The Mojave Desert study found that if water needs increase by 30 percent, larger birds need to catch 60 to 70 bugs more per day to satisfy their water needs, which has an energetic cost. That’s why avian carnivores in the desert — including the kestrel, prairie falcon and turkey vulture — have declined along with insectivores such as gnatcatchers and mountain chickadees. All told, the increasing need for water has led to a 43 percent decline in species richness, the Grinnell Resurvey Project concluded.

Birds suffer more than other animals. “They have high exposure to climate change,” said Riddell. “They are diurnal and exposed to the hottest part of the day. Small mammals live underground and are generally nocturnal.” Insects are small and can take advantage of smaller habitat niches.

“If current trends continue, we’ll see more declines in the desert birds,” Riddell said. “Even desert specialists are struggling to live in this environment that they are supposedly well adapted for.”

Some insects in some places have taken a heat hit as well. A recent study found that the number of areas that native bumblebees occupy has plummeted 46 percent in North America and 17 percent in Europe compared to surveys taken from 1901 to 1974. Those bee-less areas were also places with a high degree of climate variation, especially higher temperatures. “Climate change is related to the growing extinction risk that animals are facing around the world,” lead author Peter Soroye said, because of “hotter and more frequent extremes in temperatures.”

“As you crank up the heat, the time it takes to kill trees is less and less,” says one researcher.

At the same time, an increase in temperatures is also expected to boost some insect populations — including those that eat crops. A 2018 study predicted that could have a serious detrimental impact on world food supplies. “Warmer temperatures increase insect metabolic rates exponentially,” said Chris Deutsch, a professor of oceanography at the University of Washington, who led the team. “Second, with the exception of the tropics, warmer temperatures will increase the reproductive rates of insects. You have more insects and they’re eating more.”

Warmer temperatures are already causing major damage to the world’s forests. As temperatures warm, trees become less resilient and die-offs become more frequent — as much as five times more so. “If the climate warms a little more, things don’t get a little different, they get very different,” said Henry Adams, a plant biologist at Oklahoma State University and co-author of a recent paper on the topic. “You get an acceleration in the rate of mortality. As you crank up the heat, the time it takes to kill trees is less and less.”

Warmer temperatures, in other words, make droughts more deadly.

And there is concern that warmer temperatures will also keep burned forests from re-growing and that those ecosystems will instead transform into grasslands or shrub ecosystems.

Part of the reason is that, in the American West, fires are becoming bigger and hotter and more frequent, which kills the mother trees needed to drop seeds and regenerate the forest. Extreme heat then reduces seedling survival. “The hotter, drier climate is making it more difficult for trees to regenerate on sites to which a lot of these conifers were suited,” said Craig Allen, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in New Mexico. “Parts of the landscape are becoming less available” to regrowth.

This trend is especially important because forests are a significant carbon sink. For 30 years, nearly 100 institutions studied 565 tropical forests in Africa and the Amazon to understand their role in taking up and sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide, which helps mitigate climate warming.

What they found, in a paper published this month in the journal Nature, is that the uptake of CO2 in these forests peaked in the 1990s. By 2010, their ability to take up carbon had dropped by a third.

The cause was the growing number of dead trees in these forests, which were killed by higher temperatures, according to Wannes Hubau, who worked on the project as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Leeds and who now works with the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium.

“Our modeling of these factors shows a long-term future decline in the African [carbon] sink,” said Hubau, “and that the Amazonian sink will continue to rapidly weaken, which we predict to become a carbon source in the mid-2030s.” SOURCE

Need to Get Around in a Pandemic? Ride a Bike.

As COVID-19 shuts down buses and trains in cities, we remember that bicycles are the ultimate contingency plan

On March 8, as America began to contemplate the looming specter of the coronavirus in earnest, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted:

Mayor Bill de Blasio

Stagger work schedules so people can arrive later or leave earlier to beat the busiest times of rush hour.

Mayor Bill de Blasio

Plan to have some extra travel time in your commute. If the train that pulls up is too packed, move to a different car or wait to take the next one.

Bike or walk to work if you can.

This is by no means the first time people in major cities have turned to the bicycle in a crisis. When Hurricane Sandy knocked out the subway in 2012 and caused gas rationing, people rode bicycles. When the blackout of 2003 plunged New York City and huge swaths of the northeast into darkness, halting trains and causing mass gridlock, commuters scrambled for rental bikes. The bicycle has been a clutch player during transit strikes in New YorkPhiladelphiaLondon, and Paris. And on a personal note, during the chaos, confusion, and horror of 9/11, the bicycle got me where I needed to go. When the shit hits the fan, the bicycle is a powerful contingency plan.

But like a fire extinguisher or a first aid kit or anything else that can be useful in an emergency, lots of people take bicycles for granted, consigning them to some out-of-the-way spot in their homes and forgetting about them—if they even have them at all. When things are running smoothly there’s also the common misconception that the bicycle is not a practical mode of transportation: we’re told over and over again by the anti-bike-lane set that they’re no good in bad weather, or they’re only for the young and fit, or that they’re useless for carrying stuff which is why we all need to drive SUVs. Sure, all of this is demonstrably untrue—winter weather doesn’t stop people in Copenhagen, age doesn’t stop the Dutch, and you can easily carry your groceries with a cargo bike—but instead, pundits and blowhards reflexively dismiss the idea of riding a bike for anything other than recreation or fitness, and continue to characterize dedicated bicycle infrastructure as an indulgence and not a necessity.

Then there’s the most ironic criticism of bike lanes and other safety-oriented road designs: that they hinder emergency response. This is a myth that has been debunked time and time again. It’s personal cars that are the real liability in this regard; in New York City, the sight and sound of emergency vehicles stuck in motor vehicle traffic is so commonplace that people simply tune it out—there are so many videos of it happening that it’s practically its own film genre. I’ve never seen a fire engine stopped by a bicyclist, but I have seen one stuck behind a Fresh Direct truck.

In a crisis we see how backward this sort of reasoning is, because the fact is that, short of walking, there’s no more dependable mode of transportation than the bicycle. Sure, if it rains while you’re on your bike you’ll get wet, and pedaling through a blizzard might be a tall order, but you don’t know smugness until you’ve cycled past a gas line or schlepped a bunch of supplies to hurricane victims by cargo bike. It’s situations like these that expose the vulnerability of public transportation to disruption, and the sheer bovine unwieldiness of cars. And that’s not even addressing how indispensable a bicycle will be for the zombie apocalypse.

None of this is to say the bicycle is ever going to supplant public transit in a major city on a day-to-day basis, nor is it to imply that, should some calamity befall me, I’d prefer to be picked up in a Dutch cargo bike than an ambulance. However, the bicycle is a vital component in the fabric of any robust transportation system under any circumstances, and when another component of that system is strained or fails, the bicycle greatly enhances that system’s resiliency. Alas, now it seems other countries are going in the other direction: Madrid is suspending its bike share system, and Spain and Italy are banning leisure cycling in response to concerns about the virus (though as of now they’re still permitting cycling for essential transportation).

Amid this virus-related cycling boom, advocates in New York have been calling on the city to make additional provisions for people on bikes. Meanwhile, the city has limited bars and restaurants to take-out and delivery only. This will place even more pressure on New York City’s food delivery people who, as advocate Do Jun Lee points out, have already been suffering under de Blasio’s war on e-bikes and will now be sustaining many of New York City’s small businesses. In recognition of this, the mayor has ordered the NYPD to suspend e-bike enforcement.

As this pandemic compels us to consider the shortcomings of our healthcare system, the fragility of the economy, and our need for affordable healthcare, we should also give the bicycle its due. Even when you neglect it, it’s always there for you—all it ever needs is a little air in the tires. SOURCE

Forest loss drives viruses as well as climate change, indigenous leaders warn

From left: Levi Sucre Romero, Dinamam Tuxá and Mina Setra (Photos by Joel Redman)

From left: Levi Sucre Romero, coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests; Dinamam Tuxá, coordinator and legal adviser to the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil; and Mina Setra, deputy secretary-general of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago in Indonesia (Photos by Joel Redman)

NEW YORK — The same forest destruction that accelerates climate change can also encourage the emergence of diseases such as the coronavirus, indigenous peoples’ leaders said March 13 as they criticized Cargill and other multinational companies for replacing forests with soy, palm and cattle plantations.

“The coronavirus is now telling the world what we have been saying for thousands of years — that if we do not help protect biodiversity and nature, then we will face this and worse future threats,” said Levi Sucre Romero, a Bribri indigenous person from Costa Rica who is the coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests.

The loss of habitat has brought wild animals into closer contact with humans and domesticated animals, research has found, enabling diseases such as the coronavirus to jump the animal-human barrier and spread through human-to-human contact.

“It is likely that an animal [is responsible for a virus that] has infected tens of thousands of people worldwide with coronavirus and placed a strain on the global economy,” said Mina Setra, a Dayak Pompakng indigenous person from Indonesia who is the deputy secretary-general of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago, which represents 17 million indigenous peoples across Indonesia.

“If only the world [had] worked to strengthen the rights of indigenous peoples — who have learned to live in nature with biodiversity and protect animal and plant species — we would see fewer epidemics such as the one that we are currently facing.”

Brazil in particular has experienced a growing assault on the rights of indigenous peoples, at some of the highest levels of government, according to Dinamam Tuxá, the coordinator and legal adviser to the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil. “Our people are being criminalized and murdered,” Tuxá said.

‘The coronavirus is now telling the world what we have been saying for thousands of years — that if we do not help protect biodiversity and nature, then we will face this and worse future threats.’ —Levi Sucre Romero

“One of the main companies that has been financing genocide and destruction of indigenous lands is Cargill,” Tuxá said. “What we are asking from the multinationals is that they not buy commodities that cause deforestation and conflict and that are produced on indigenous lands. We are also demanding that bilateral trade agreements … demand respect for indigenous rights and ensure there are no products linked to deforestation coming into their countries.”

Cargill did not respond immediately to a request from NCR for comment. MORE

Coronavirus forces Wet’suwet’en to explore online talks on rights and title agreement

In-person meetings on unprecedented title agreement postponed as communities prepare for COVID-19 pandemic and Coastal GasLink construction continues

A gathering of some Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs near Houston, B.C., on Jan. 4, 2020. Photo: Amber Bracken

An all-clans meeting to discuss Wet’suwet’en rights and title could be moved online as the COVID-19 crisis upends plans for in-person talks, according to a spokesperson for the Gidimt’en.

“We’re looking at possibly doing something online,” Jennifer Wickham told The Narwhal, saying discussions were also delayed by a death, unrelated to the novel coronavirus, in one of the communities. “I’m not sure what that’s going to look like but there’s definitely multiple things delaying the process.”

Wickham said an all-clans meeting has already been held, but a few clans wanted to meet again before moving forward with decision-making on a draft agreement reached last month between Wet’suwet’en hereditary leaders, the province and the federal government to expedite the nation’s rights and title process.

“I have no idea when we’re going to reschedule those meetings. Hopefully sometime this week, it could be next week, but it would probably not even be,” she told The Narwhal over the phone.

The Wet’suwet’en traditional territory comprises 22,000 square kilometres in central B.C. If ratified, the agreement could set a new precedent for the affirming of title rights for Indigenous nations in Canada.

In February, opposition to the 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink pipeline made national headlines with the arrests of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and their supporters. The pipeline, which crosses Wet’suwet’en territory, will feed LNG export facilities in Kitimat, including the LNG Canada project, one of the most expensive private investment projects in the province’s history.

The draft arrangement on rights and title does not address the $6.6 billion Coastal GasLink project, which Premier John Horgan has said will continue and which a number of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs still oppose.

Coastal GasLink continues to have workers on site, but said in a statement that non-essential workers are working from home and that the company is primarily employing B.C. workers.

“At this time there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases of any individuals working on the Coastal GasLink project,” reads a statement from the company, posted on March 16.

Wet’suwet’en supporters launched an online campaign this week to raise awareness around the ongoing construction of the pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory amid the pandemic.

tweet from Gidmit’en Checkpoint on Tuesday expressed concern over COVID-19 and industrial activity associated with Coastal GasLink, saying “we do not need any more stress on our local health systems and people.”

Coastal GasLink work camp 9A

A Coastal GasLink work camp near Houston in October, 2019. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

First Nations take health precautions

On Wednesday the province confirmed four cases of COVID-19 in the Northern Health region, which covers the entire northern half of the province, an area of 600,000 square kilometres.

Wet’suwet’en First Nation band council elected Chief Maureen Luggi told members via Facebook live on Tuesday that “extra precautionary steps” are in place to deal with the potential of cases in the community.

The Wet’suwet’en First Nation, one of six elected band councils of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, has closed its daycare and band office and is only maintaining essential services.

First Nations are taking safety measures but many also express concern over lack of resources compared to other communities.

The Wet’suwet’en Palling community has had a do-not-consume water advisory in effect since 2012.

An all-chiefs phone call to discuss COVID-19 is scheduled for Friday, according to a spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation.

The federal government announced funding for Indigenous peoples to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, but on Tuesday the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs called for more coordinated measures to be taken.

“With the COVID-19 health emergency comes the urgency of alleviating the burdens placed upon Indigenous and vulnerable communities who must confront systemic under-resourcing and barriers to healthcare on a daily basis,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip in an online statement.

The Narwhal did not receive a response from Crown-Indigenous Relations by publication time.

Delayed negotiations for title agreement

Details of the Wet’suwe’ten draft agreement have been kept out of the public eye but have been shared with the nation’s communities through a series of house and clan meetings.

On March 1, Scott Fraser, B.C.’s Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, and Carolyn Bennett, federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, said if the nation approved of the agreement, they planned to return to Wet’suwet’en territory for ratification.

In an email to The Narwhal, Sarah Plank, spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, said the ministry is “in extraordinary times with the COVID-19 pandemic” which has “affected planned events across the country.”

“The ratification process for the proposed path forward to implement Wet’suwet’en rights and title is no different, and we support the hereditary chiefs’ decision to pause that process to help protect the health and well-being of Wet’suwet’en community members. The Province’s commitment to the proposed arrangement remains unwavering, and we are at the ready to return to the territory to complete the process as soon as the time is right and it makes sense to do so,” Plank said.

In a joint statement, Fraser, Bennett and Hereditary Chief Woos said the arrangement “will breathe life into the Delgamuukw-Gisday’wa decision,” in which the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan peoples had never surrendered their land or had their title extinguished.

B.C.’s most prominent example of Indigenous rights and title is laid out in the Tsilhqot’in decision, which granted the nation rights to 1,700 square kilometres of traditional territory. The nation spent 25 years fighting that legal challenge through the courts. SOURCE


Maine Supreme Court upholds PUC approval of energy corridor

In its unanimous ruling, the court on Tuesday brushed aside NextEra’s complaint that the PUC made a number of errors.

PORTLAND, Maine — The state supreme court has rejected a challenge of utility regulators’ approval of a 145-mile (230-kilometer) power transmission corridor in western Maine that would serve as a conduit for hydropower from Canada.

NextEra Energy Resources appealed to the state supreme court after the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) granted its approval to the $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC).

In its unanimous ruling, the court on Tuesday brushed aside NextEra’s complaint that the PUC made a number of errors.

“The commission followed the proper procedure and there is sufficient evidence in the record to support the findings it made. In short, the commission reasonably interpreted and applied the relevant statutory mandates in arriving at its decision,” the court wrote Tuesday.

Thorn Dickinson, CEO and President of NECEC Transmission LLC, said in a statement to NEWS CENTER Maine that NextEra and the “other dirty fossil fuel energy providers will lose hundreds of millions of dollars in New England energy market share if the [NECEC] is built.”

Dickinson continued to say:

“The court overwhelmingly agreed with the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s (MPUC) finding of significant evidence that the NECEC provides benefits for Maine including energy price suppression, increased transmission reliability, and positive impacts on Maine’s gross domestic product of nearly $100 million during construction.  The Court also upheld the MPUC’s finding that the NECEC would not adversely impact Maine’s renewable energy generation goals and will result in incremental hydroelectric generation; will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the region; will not hinder Maine’s progress towards meeting its statutory renewable energy portfolio requirements and solar and wind energy goals.”

Maine voters could get the final say, however.

Opponents of the project collected enough signatures to put the project on the November ballot so residents of the state could have the final say. SOURCE

Supreme Court to rule on how unionized workforces deal with human rights issues

The Supreme Court of Canada will hear an appeal on a Manitoba court case that could have implications for employers dealing with a human rights issue in a unionized workforce.

The resulting decision could settle whether labour arbitrators or human rights tribunals have jurisdiction over human rights issues in unionized workforces in certain provinces.

The case concerns a health-care worker for the Northern Regional Health Authority, who was terminated after she was found to be intoxicated at work. The NRHA and the employee’s union entered into a settlement that allowed her to return to work if she followed certain conditions, including abstinence from alcohol. However, she was found intoxicated on the job for a second time and was terminated again. The union didn’t file a grievance, but the employee filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission alleging discrimination on the basis of a disability.

Read: B.C. tribunal finds reduced benefits for older workers not age discrimination

The NRHA argued the complaint was within the purview of a labour arbitrator and, as such, the tribunal had no jurisdiction over the case. The tribunal’s chief adjudicator dismissed the objection on the grounds that the nature of the dispute was an alleged violation of the employee’s human rights and ultimately ruled the health authority had acted discriminatorily.

Upon judicial review of the decision, the judge ruled in the health authority’s favour, saying the nature of the dispute was whether there was just cause to terminate the employee, which would bring it under a labour arbitrator’s purview. However, the Manitoba Court of Appeal — ruling on an appeal from the provincial human rights tribunal — disagreed. The court said the reviewing judge had erred when overturning the adjudicator’s decision, as the dispute centred on accommodating a disability.

According to Sarah Iaconis, an associate at Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP, the impact of the Supreme Court decision will not be as significant in some provinces. In Ontario, for example, labour arbitrators and the human rights tribunal have concurrent jurisdiction over human rights issues.

“It’s going to ultimately come down to the legislation in each province,” she says. “Where the law is not as settled, such as provinces where human rights schemes are commission-based it could have an impact on whether disputes can be addressed in a human rights forum where the employee is unionized and the nature of the dispute arises directly from the employment relationship.”

However, adds Iaconis, anything the Supreme Court says may affect how these issues are litigated across the country.

Depending on how the court rules, provinces that don’t have settled concurrent jurisdiction could end up seeing labour arbitrators have exclusive jurisdiction if the nature of the dispute rises out of the collective agreement or the employment relationship, she speculated. “That would be something to keep an eye out for.”

Iaconis says the case itself is very fact specific. “While we are seeing that this could have an impact on how human rights issues are litigated in a unionized context, it is so important to remember that this case does come down to a lot of the specific facts. The impact of the [Supreme Court] decision might turn on the fact specifics of this case.” SOURCE

The Star Editorial: Coronavirus shows it’s time to mend the safety net

MPPs applaud as emergency legislation aimed at protecting workers who are forced to stay home due to the COVID-19 crisis is passed in the Ontario legislature on Thursday. Just two dozen MPPs from all parties were on hand to maintain social distancing.

Canadians live in a country where the national unemployment program provides zero support to most of the people who are out of work.

A country where the most populous province, Ontario, had to recall the legislature on Thursday to pass a labour law that says workers can’t be fired just for being sick or staying home to care for children at a time of crisis.

That’s how frayed our federal and provincial worker protections and safety net has become.

This, of course, is not news to the many who have long decried this situation, which leaves an increasing number of people precariously employed and on the verge of poverty.

But now, with the coronavirus pandemic creating a health and economic crisis the likes of which we could scarcely have imagined, governments — with the sudden support from all political parties — are finally paying attention.

And acting with incredible speed.

The Trudeau government started with a $1-billion aid package that included tweaks to Employment Insurance. Then came a $10-billion credit line to help businesses and, this week, a comprehensive $82-billion package.

It delivers EI benefits to those who do not normally qualify, such as the self-employed and part-timers; increases direct support to lower-income people with temporary boosts in the Canada Child Benefit and GST credit; and provides a host of tax deferrals for struggling individuals and businesses.

We’re promised that even more help will come as it’s needed.

Governments are suddenly alive to the fact that EI hasn’t kept up with changes in the economy, the nature of work and the dramatic increase in businesses using part-time, contract and self-employed workers, in large part to cut their costs by avoiding minimum labour standards designed decades ago.

That should never have happened. Governments should have ensured that social programs and labour protections adapted to changing times to serve workers — all workers, not just those lucky enough to have employers that offer good pay and benefits.

It’s a similarly sad story with provincial labour laws that have allowed minimum standards to fall to such depths that a great many Ontario workers have no job protections and so few benefits that they’re not entitled to a single paid sick day.

That includes some of the warehouse workers, delivery drivers, cashiers and cleaners we’re now relying on so heavily to keep supply chains going.



“Up from the earth the wisdom came, through the trees, down into the water, and Finnegas knew that if he could catch and eat the salmon then all that wisdom would be his.” 

It was the poet and bard Finnegas who finally caught the legendary salmon, after devoting years of his life to the hunt.

In the time of this great, strange plague, Paul Kingsnorth returns to the Celtic tale of Finnegas, the woodland hermit who devoted his life to catching and eating the salmon that contained the wisdom of the world.

God doesn’t need to come down upon a mountain, for the mountain itself is the revelation. We only have to look at it and we will know how we should live.

I  would like to tell you a few things about this virus and the lessons it should teach us, all the things we should be learning. I would like to add my voice to the crowd and be heard above it.

I would like to say: fish have returned to the Venetian canals now that humans have stopped polluting them.

I would like to say: the clouds of air pollution over Italy and China have dissipated since people were prevented from causing them with their cars, planes, factories.

I would like to say: up to 80,000 premature deaths which would have been caused this way have probably been prevented in China by the shutdown of the economy.

I would like to say: carbon monoxide levels in the air above New York have collapsed by 50 percent in a single week.

I would like to say: Nature recovers swiftly when we stop our plundering of Her bounty.

I would like to say: lift your gaze, humans.

I would like to say: we can learn from this, we can change.

I am squatting in the sun on this day of the spring equinox, it is a cold sun, I am down by the pond with my children, we are watching the tadpoles squirm free of their jelly under the leafing poplars. The world is turning.

Today is the day when shafts of dawn sunlight illuminate the passages of the old Neolithic tombs at Carrowkeel, at Loughcrew, at Newgrange. Today at Stonehenge, at Wayland’s Smithy, at West Kennet, all across these Atlantic islands—today is the day the light of Sky pierces the darkness of Earth. Today is the day that aérios meets chthón.

Neolithic : we think we know what this word means, but it is just another one of our categories. When we say Neolithic, we mean: forgotten people, unknown people, the first farmers. When we say Neolithic, we mean: who were they and what was their world and how was it so different from ours under this same sky?

Their world, the world of those people long supplanted, was a world of tombs; a world of great barrows raised on high downs, barrows that became the pregnant belly of Earth, barrows into which, each equinox, a shaft of sunlight would pierce, enter the womb of the Mother, seed new life each spring.

I am writing this on the day of the equinox in the time of the great, strange plague.

I would like to say, as if I could tell you: This was what they knew. That each spring, Sky must meet Earth, that there is no life without both Sky and Earth, without both chthón and aérios. That if you live without one or the other, you will build a world that is bent on its axis, and that world may seem whole but will be only half-made, and one day it will fall over and you will fall with it.

I would like to say: well, we had it coming.

The Irish writer John Moriarty wrote a lot about chthón. His life’s search was for ways to re-embed us in what we have lost, to take us around and down again, to correct the Western Error. In his autobiography, Nostos, he writes:

Chthón is the old Greek word for the Earth in its secret, dark, depths, and if there was any one word that could be said to distinguish ancient Greeks from modern Europeans, that word chthón, that would be it. Greeks had the word, we haven’t. Greeks had the pieties and beliefs that go with the word, we haven’t. Greeks had the wisdom that goes with the word, we haven’t. Greeks had the sense of spiritual indwelling that goes with the word, we haven’t. In the hope that they might continue in the goodwill of its dark but potentially beneficent powers, Greeks poured libations of wine, of honey, or barley-water sweetened with mint down into this realm, we don’t.

I would like to say that we forgot all about chthón, we with our space stations and our stellar minds, our progress and our clean boots, our hand sanitizers and our aircon units, our concrete vaults and our embalming fluid; that for a short period we escaped into aérios, or thought we had, and now we are going to have to go underground again, and you can be sure we will be dragged there by the Hag against our will, and we will fight and fight as the sun comes down the shaft and we see again what is carved on the stones down there.

You can forget about chthón, but chthón won’t forget about you.

I would like to say that I know what to do about all this, or what to learn. I would like to teach it to you so that you may learn too. I would like to be a prophet in a time when prophets are so sorely needed.

Unfortunately, I am not qualified for this role. I don’t know anything at all, and I am learning, painfully, that this was my lesson all along.

I don’t know anything at all.

My society does not know anything at all.

All the things I was brought up to label as learning : my A-levels, my Oxford University degrees, all the books I have read and written, all the arguments I learned how to formulate, all the ideas I learned how to frame, the concepts I learned how to enunciate. All this head-work, all these modern European ways of seeing, understanding, controlling, managing, directing the world:


None of that was it.

One of the best-known myth cycles of Celtic Ireland is the life story of the great warrior Finn McCool. Finn, in his boyhood, was apprenticed to an old woodland hermit by the name of Finnegas. Finnegas had spent his life fishing for an elusive salmon which dwelt in a pool under a group of hazel trees. The hazel trees contained a great old magic, and when their nuts dropped into the pool and were eaten by the salmon, they imparted to it all the knowledge and wisdom of the world.

Up from the earth the wisdom came, through the trees, down into the water, and Finnegas knew that if he could catch and eat the salmon then all that wisdom would be his.

One day, to his great joy, Finnegas finally caught the salmon. He laid it upon the ground and instructed Finn, his apprentice, to cook it for him while he took a walk in the woods to collect himself, to prepare for his great moment.

Cook the salmon, he instructed Finn, but eat none of it.

Yes, master, said Finn.

When Finnegas returned and looked into Finn’s eyes, he saw immediately that everything had changed. He saw that the catastrophe had occurred.

Did you eat the salmon? he demanded. No, master, replied Finn. But …

Cooking the salmon, Finn had seen a blister appear in its flesh. Perhaps wanting the meal to be perfect for Finnegas after his years of labor, he had pressed the blister down with his thumb and in the process had scalded his hand with hot oil from the cooking fish. Instinctively, he had raised his thumb to his mouth to suck away the pain.

In Finn’s eyes now, Finnegas saw all the wisdom of the world, and he saw too that it was Finn, and not he, who was destined for greatness. Finnegas saw that his life’s dream, his life’s work, was not what he had thought it was. Everything he had learned, the moment he thought he had prepared for:


Eat, master, said Finn, offering the fish to Finnegas, for this was your work. But Finnegas refused. No, he said. No, the fish is yours, Finn, and some part of me always knew it would be so. Yours is the work, Finn. My work was to prepare for it. Eat the fish, and use well what you learn.

Maybe we thought we would one day eat that salmon, you and I. Maybe we thought that if we worked hard enough, learned enough, we could catch it and learn from it, we could save the world, change the world, teach the world some lessons.

I thought that once. I probably learned it at university. Now I think that I, we, our generations, those of us brought up within the machine, brought up to breathe with it, rely on it, those of us tamed and made by it, those of us who crushed the world without thinking—the wisdom to come is not ours.

We will never escape what we have made and what made us. We are not equipped.

We are not the people who will eat the salmon. We are not Finn.

But perhaps, if we’re lucky, we could be Finnegas.

Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we could lay some ground for what is to come.

Yours is the work. My work was to prepare for it.

You cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. You cannot use your arguments and your concepts to access the chthón. You cannot use your Oxford University degree to build a world which regards Oxford University degrees with the bafflement they deserve to be greeted with.

It is good to learn how little I know, and how little we matter.

Now I will say what I believe: that this civilization will not learn anything from this virus. All this civilization wants to do is to get back to normal. Normal is cheap flights and cheap lattes, normal is Chinese girls sewing our T-shirts under armed guard, normal is biblical bushfires and barrels of oil, normal is city breaks and international conferences and African children poisoning their bodies sorting the plastic we have dumped on their coastlines, normal is nitrite pollution and burning stumps and the death of the seas.

We made this normal, and we do not know how to unmake it, or—whisper it—we do not want to.

But Earth does, and it will.

It turns out that we were never in control at all.

Control is what civilizations do. Perhaps it is what they are. Perhaps it is their central story. If we can control the world, we can protect ourselves from the darkness it contains. We can protect ourselves from what lies under the ground, in the tombs. Who doesn’t want to be protected? But who, in the end, can ever be?

Later in his autobiography, Moriarty writes that he is attempting to walk into culture. Into a culture so sure of itself that it wouldn’t ever need to become a civilization.

Cultures like that have existed before. They will again. But not yet. And when they come, people like us will not make them. We can’t. It is not our work.

Who knows what happens next? Maybe the virus will come and carry me away, me with my weak chest, me with my winter coughs, deepened every year by the damp Atlantic land I am grounded in, and there will be nothing to be done about this. Then my atoms and light will go back where they came from, or forward to somewhere else, and this is the way of things, and when exactly did we forget that? When exactly did we decide that our tiny little temporary mass of atoms, named and suited and given a role, pumped up with words and stories, should have any right at all to persist in its small form when all else is change and motion?

Nothing matters at all, and this is why everything does.

Look: the sun pierces the tunnel; the belly of the Mother is seeded again as another year begins. Something will be born when the summer comes. You do not need to catalogue it, understand it. You do not need to learn anything at all from it.

You can just watch it come.

Cultures that last are cultures that do not build. Cultures that last are cultures that do not seek to know what cannot be known. Cultures that last are cultures that crawl into their chthón without asking questions. Cultures that know how to be, that look at the sun on the mountain, and say, yes, this is the revelation.

People last when they do not eat apples that were not meant for them, when they do not steal fire they do not understand. People last when they sit in the sun and do nothing at all.

Let us learn from this! we say. Let us take this crisis and use it to make us better! Better people, more organized people, wiser people. Sleeker people, more efficient people. Let us become sustainable! Let us learn to tell new stories, for the old ones are broken now!

We should be saying: stories were the problem. We should be saying: no more stories, not from us.

We should be saying: break the stories, break them all. Nothing of this should be sustained.

We should be saying: no more normal. Not now, not ever.

We should be saying: we could die any moment, and this has always been true. Look at the beauty!

We should be saying: see the sunlight crawl down the passage of the tomb.

We should be saying: something is about to be illuminated.

We should be saying: watch.