Category Archives: Science

Napping in the belly of the king

This piece was first published August 27, 2015 at Beacon Reader.

“They’re goddamn invasive plants.”

Biologist Tim Shields had an odd look as he observed a mid-sized shrub in my yard in Joshua Tree, California on an evening late in March. “They’re not native. They’re from South America. They got here somehow and then they colonized the whole desert, taking over thousands of square miles and making an ecosystem that never existed before.”

And then he laughed. He was pointing at a creosote bush, Larrea tridentata, likely the most common woody plant in the California deserts. You won’t find creosote on any list of desert invasive plants. Most plant species move their ranges, and none of the plants currently considered native to the desert have been living here forever. Their ancestors dispersed their seeds here from somewhere else. Or their ancestors grew here, but were of a different species, and their descendants evolved in response to changing conditions. But generally, a species is considered native to the  North American deserts is if was here before the deserts were opened to global trade.

Call the cutoff date 1492; that’s close enough for government work. And the shrub Shields was regarding may have been in the desert almost that long. 300 or 400 years, easy.


Creosote clonal ring | Chris Clarke photo

It’s all about perspective. Shields was taking the long view, abandoning our usual human-scaled frame of reference for something a little slower. Or would that be faster? Rewind the record of life in the North American deserts back about 15,000 years, play it back again a couple hundred thousand times faster than it happened the first time, and Shields has a point. Though it’s thought there may have been creosotes growing in Central Mexico as early as 8 million years ago, the species probably didn’t show up in the present-day North American Deserts — the Chihuahuan, Sonoran, and Mojave — until  maybe 13,000 years ago or so.

Play that tape, and creosotes will seem to explode across the Chihuahuan Desert, perhaps with a few false starts as unstable Ice Age climates bring especially cold winters every 500 years or so. A reproductive fluke happened as the plants moved into the Sonoran Desert, perhaps an error in a single seed’s development: Sonoran Desert plants have two pairs of each chromosome compared to the Chihuahuan plants’ single pair. That doubling of chromosome pairs is known technically as tetraploidy, “tetra” referring to the four copies of each chromosome. Botanists who’ve looked into the creosote genome suspect that the tetraploid creosotes may have been better able to survive in the greater aridity of the Sonoran Desert. Moving from the Sonoran into the Mojave, it happened again: some creosote made a mistake in the chromosome copying and collating process. Creosotes in the Mojave have three pairs of chromosomes: they are hexaploid.

So tetraploid creosotes exploded across the Sonoran Desert, and then hexaploid creosotes rampaged across the Mojave, each covering broad swathes of new territory in a seeming eyeblink — at least on our sped-up, Shieldsian timescale. It’s not hard to imagine creosotes spreading rapidly, given the right conditions. The shrubs produce prodigious amounts of fruit, white fuzz-covered capsules with five seeds that are avidly gathered by ants, birds, and other wildlife. The fruit collects in drifts in washes and alongside the raised soil mounds beneath creosote clumps. They are so numerous that a local species of wasp known as “velvet ants” find it evolutionarily advantageous to camouflage themselves as little puffs of white fuzz the size of a creosote fruit. When the desert is awash in creosote seeds, predators specializing in velvet ants would probably prefer looking for needles in haystacks.

So, lots of seeds waiting for the right conditions to germinate. Those right conditions may not come as often as they did back in the Pleistocene. Creosote seeds germinate readily, but then succumb to desert heat unless the next three to five years are unusually cool and moist. That means that many of the creosotes in a typical desert valley full of creosote likely grew in pulses, decades when conditions were right for survival of germinated seeds.


In Johnson Valley | Chris Clarke photo

Four months later, sweating out a July day in a broad valley north of my home, I think about Shields’ assessment of creosote’s invasive potential. Toss a fluffy creosote fruit onto the desert soil, and ensure five years of cool wet summers, and you get a seedling with bright waxy green leaves. In a mere decade that seedling may have raced toward the sky, reaching a full foot in height. In just a century or so, its single trunk will grow a shoot from its base, perhaps two or three. They will grow into mature plants and shade out, crowd out their parent stem. It will die back, leaving a hole in the creosote donut. Those stems will grow their own clonal stems, which will grow their own in turn, ripples expanding outward from the seed thrown into the ocean of desert.

The ripple I’m napping in is 45 feet across, more or less. In the late 1970s biologist Frank Vasek and his colleagues at UC Riverside calculated that it had been growing here in the Johnson Valley area for a very long time.

I once heard a joke about a family visiting Chicago’s Field Museum and marveling at a fossilized hadrosaur. “That’s 80 million and 27 years old,” said a nearby custodian. “That seems unusually precise,” said the mom. “Well, they told me when I started working here that it was 80 million years old, and I’ve been here since 1988,” said the worker.

In that spirit, I think of this creosote ring, which Vasek dubbed King Clone in 1980, as 11,735 years old. Give or take.

I’m here with my hiking buddy Monica, who is a biologist, and my dog Heart, an olfactory forensics researcher. We got here with a set of somewhat vague directions, which I improved upon using technology approximately 1/2340 as old as the creosote clonal ring: I fired up my smartphone’s mapping app and we walked until the blue dot was next to the biggest ring of creosote on the map.

Now that we’re here, Heart wastes no time providing the oldest known creosote with a bit of nitrogen, then she wisely retreats into the thin sliver of shade cast by Monica, who has found a place to sit near the edge of the ring.


Heart and Monica | Chris Clarke photo

I intend more contemplation than socializing, so I move twenty feet away to the approximate center of the clonal ring. I lie on my back. I look at the pale, sunburnt sky. I imagine a slow tide of invasive creosote wreaking dilatory havoc across the landscape in a mere geologic eyeblink.

When you start paying attention to very long-lived plants, 11,700 years becomes less impressive. King Clone probably isn’t even the oldest creosote clonal ring: it’s just the one we know about. So much of the desert remains unexplored, unexamined. In the last decade botanists decided a shrub oak about an hour’s drive from here is likely around 13,000 years old. A four-hour drive in the opposite direction, there’s a clonal forest of cottonwood trees thought to have germinated from a single seed 80,000 years ago.

Ancientness lurks everywhere you look in the desert. Vasek estimated the lateral growth rate of creosote clonal rings at about .7 millimeters per year. It’s not at all hard to find creosote clonal rings five feet across. Five feet divided by .7 millimeters is about 2,177 years and seven weeks. Give or take.

I’m something like 11,645 years younger than King Clone, and yet at the rate years seem to be speeding up as they pass me I expect these days that I will catch up in no time. My age is growing steadily and well, mulched thickly with calendar pages. I have shirts not yet threadbare that are older than some of the people I work with. There are urgent tasks I have been reminding myself to finish for 15 years, unfinished conversations fresh in my mind with loved ones long dead.

This past year took about 20 minutes to elapse. It has brought remarkable changes in that short time. A year ago I was resigned to settling for consistent but somewhat manageable unhappiness. I am now happy. A year ago I dreaded the future mildly: I now look forward to it. From hopeless disappointment to occasionally elated optimism is a remarkable change, even more so given the year’s racing past. I have been a bit breathless. Time and change have come at a staggering clip, and despite those changes’ positivity I have wanted a bit of slow.

Slow is here, in abundance. It is layered over with fast, of course: the frisking dog, the flies’ inexorable wingbeats, the plunge of the sun toward the mountains to the west. My shadow grows in length, and yet it is far more permanent to me than I can ever be to King Clone. I am a passing shade to King Clone, a flicker on the far margins of his sleeping consciousness, and if I had had children their great grandchildren might well have come here in their ninth decades of life to find King Clone essentially unchanged, not remembering the afternoon when I was a fly alighting briefly on his shoulder.

My shadow in King Clone | Chris Clarke photo

My shadow in King Clone | Chris Clarke photo


The giant ancient forest you cannot see

Imagine we found a country the size of France covered in ancient forest, where trees a century old were mere saplings just getting started, where the oldest sprouted when near-mythical monsters roamed the landscape.

Imagine visiting this country, standing in a particular spot and watching. Perhaps you’ve left the house on an errand. Perhaps you just went out to get some air. And you walk a half a block from the place you’re staying, caught up in one important thought or another, and you suddenly realize that within 60 feet of you are three trees more than a thousand years old. You turn your head and there are two more.

You start to see the open, park-like forest with new eyes, really seeing the unimaginable ancientness of it. Everywhere you look: trees 700, 1,000, 3,000 years old. You rack your brain for half-remembered scraps of human history. Charlemagne was emperor when that tree sprouted, and that one a dozen paces east was probably sending out leaves when the Magna Carta was written. Every now and then you see a tree that could have sheltered Nefertiti, had she the airfare.

And imagine that as you really see the trees for the first time, you remember hearing about a hundred different plans to cut them down. It’s not that their timber is valuable, or that people need centuries-old firewood.

It’s just that people have deemed this incredibly ancient forest worthless, and they’ve decided the land it occupies could be better used for other things. And so they plan to bulldoze it, stack the trees in debris piles to rot, and build their more important parking lots and garbage dumps.

This country, this forest: they exist. I live there. The trees rarely exceed ten feet in height. They are well known to science: Mojave yucca, diamond and buckhorn cholla, Mormon tea, but mostly, and almost everywhere you look below 5,000 feet in the Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan deserts, creosote.


A mere baby of less than a century

The oldest known creosote bush, about 40 miles from my house as the raven flies, is estimated to be 11,700 years old. It’s a ring of seemingly independent shrubs. A single creosote seed germinated, its stem grew and widened for perhaps a century, then a side shoot emerged from the ground next to the original stem. It grew. Side shoots emerged. After another century or five, the oldest stems began to die, leaving a widening hole in the clump of stems.

That 11,700-year-old creosote, which for a tiny fraction of its life has been known as King Clone, expanded outward across the Mojave landscape at an average rate of three quarters of a millimeter per year. It’s not the only creosote that has done so. When I take my dog out for her walk in the morning, I pass within stone-throwing distance of two or three dozen smaller rings, some of them ten or twelve feet across at the soil. Some have open soil in their centers. Others have not yet cleared the dead stems from their hearts.

Do the math, and use a much more conservative millimeter per year to defend against charges of hyperbole, and that’s 300 years of age for every foot in width of those rings. Creosote stands in excess of 500 years old are as common as dirt where I live. (That’s literally true: just about the only humus you’ll find in this part of the desert gathers at the base of these creosote clumps.) A ten-foot clump of creosote may have germinated about the time David threw his stone at Goliath, a 12-foot clump before people in Japan started growing rice.

I have been thinking these days about a particular large-scale plan to convert much of the California desert to renewable energy generation plants. This plan has been a decade in the making. It is controversial, but it is getting less so as the years pass. There are provisions in this plan to set aside wide swaths of the California desert for conservation, in arrangements as permanent as anything can be when it’s the U.S. government doing the arranging. There are provisions to protect certain threatened species, and to preserve habitats that are rare or ecologically important or which possess the ineffable characteristics of wilderness.

And so many environmental organizations have been persuaded to support the plan, which trades those protected areas for freedom to convert a large number of square miles of desert deemed to have no wilderness characteristics, lesser ecological significance, fewer endangered animals, fewer rare plants.

Creosote is the most common woody plant in the Mojave. No one fears its extinction. In this renewable energy plan, creosote is mentioned primarily to identify the kind of habitat it dominates. It is not a special status species; it is barely a regular status species. It is ubiquitous and environmentalists peer through its branches hoping to see something interesting on the other side.

I have seen creosote rings 1,500 years old on the footprints of proposed desert solar facilities, at the verges of dirt roads in off-road vehicle sacrifice areas. I have seen them bedecked with discarded plastic bags in vacant lots next to chain drugstores.

They make up the only ancient forest I’ve ever heard of that no one can see, though they look square at it.

I see it lately, and it tears my heart. And once seen, it cannot be unseen.

Orthodoxy in the Climate Movement: Franzen and His Deniers

Fair warning: tl;dr.

Fair warning: tl;dr.


Novelist Jonathan Franzen walked up to a hornet’s nest and hit it with a baseball bat in his recent New Yorker essay “Carbon Capture,” which you should read. Go ahead. I’ll wait. It’s a longish piece, but that’s fine. I’ll go make a sandwich.


When I read it approximately fifteen minutes after it came online, but not before I had a dozen emails asking me if I’d read it, my reaction was a little nuanced.

I wished he’d avoided the doom argument — not because he isn’t correct, but because people would attack it and miss what I thought was his main argument.

I wished he hadn’t taken on the National Audubon Society’s study on climate change and birds, but mostly because there are bigger, juicier, slamdunkier, lowhangyfruitier targets he could have chosen, and more on those in a bit.

Lastly, I winced hard when I saw Franzen didn’t disclose in lauding the American Bird Conservancy that he is on the fundraising board of the American Bird Conservancy. That’s a basic bit of journalistic ethics there, and Franzen blew it by not so disclosing.

But those winces aside, the overwhelming sense of my reaction as I read the essay was this:


Finally, someone prominent is saying this.

Franzen’s main contention is that the overwhelming focus of most of the mainstream environmental movement on climate change has come at a steep cost: a shifting of that focus  away from biological diversity issues.

Those of you who have been reading my work for a while won’t be surprised at my being pleased at this idea’s hitting the pages of the New Yorker. For a while, the climate change movement has seemed from my perch here in the desert southwest to have abandoned any concern for biological diversity. Those who bring up concerns that renewable energy development might actually harm wildlife or their habitat have been scoffed at, accused of being climate change deniers or (to cite an example from 2011 that my Network colleague Madhu still ribs me about on occasion) useful idiots.

And some, myself included, have been working to promote the idea that we can address both the perils of climate change and the rights of non-human species to continue existing even if they’re in our way. So I forwarded the piece around myself, gratefully.

I saw three basic kinds of reaction to Franzen’s piece in the days that followed.

Grassroots wildlife protection activists and their supporters sometimes expressed regret about the essay’s weak points, but on the whole said “yep.”

Scientists working on biodiversity issues, whether independent, university-employed, or agency staff, often expressed those reservations a bit more forcefully than us lay folk, but also basically said “yes.”

And people who identify with the climate change mitigation movement completely, as they say, lost their shit.

In The Guardian, Robert Manne wrote:

Franzen’s claim about a conflict between conservation and climate activism is psychologically-driven, a product of his private prejudices, irritations and resentments.

Rebecca Leber, a staff writer for the New Republic, chose as her main criticism of Franzen’s essay his concern over the wildlife impacts of wind and solar, saying:

He makes the strange assumption that wind turbines are destructive, but doesn’t make any mention of the harm fossil fuel development already causes to the environment (ClimateProgress’ Joe Romm pointed out fossil fuels kill many more birds than wind or solar energy do). Franzen doesn’t sound much different than Republicans who mock solar and wind, like Mitt Romney did in 2012—even though renewables are becoming an economic force.  [Link added.]

Grist’s David Roberts was sophisticated enough to condescend to Franzen rather than ranting, saying:

A Climate Thing is not always wrong, though it frequently is. Just as often, it’s a kind of distortion, a lens that magnifies one aspect of the issue at the expense of all others. For some people it’s nuclear power. For some people it’s about models, how there was no warming when the models said there would be. For some people it’s Al Gore, or solar power, or consumerism, or population, or “I heard that we’re basically fucked no matter what,” which I’ve heard more times than I can count.

For Franzen it’s birds. His experience of climate change, in his social circles and intellectual orbit, is that it seems to be eclipsing bird-habitat conservation in the minds of environmentalists. And that bugs him.

So that’s his Climate Thing. And as with most people’s Climate Thing, it’s a little eccentric and a little myopic.

That accusation of myopia is a bit of irony I’ll come back to.

Roberts continues by invoking the big imaginary graph of deaths to birds leading climate activists seem to carry around in their heads:

Take one step back and you see that birds are far more threatened by the combination of fossil fuels and climate change than they are by any other threat, including cats and wind turbines combined. Times a thousand. 

I have written a couple times on the problems involved when you use “dead birds” as a metric of ecological harm from different things. Here’s one essay from January 2013, and here’s another from August 2014. The elevator version: a starling is not a condor. Or as I said in that second piece:

Say you’re a person passionately concerned about African wildlife, and in particular the plight of the white rhino, and you’re talking to a friend about the threat to that magnificent animal from illegal poaching. “It’s a shame,” replies your friend, “but you know, domestic cats kill far more mammals.” You’d likely look at your friend as if he’d lost his mind. Who would lump a house mouse into the same category as a rhino just because they both fit into the taxonomic order of “mammals”? … [and ] birds are far more diverse than mammals.

That’s not a controversial assertion, or it shouldn’t be. It’s an issue of scientific fact. And yet the “more birds” trope gets trotted out every. single. time. a renewable energy facility is scrutinized over its potential harm to birds and other wildlife.

Every. Single. Time. Despite its being scientifically illiterate.

One could reasonably decide that it’s used not so much as a way of advancing a scientific position on the issue of wildlife mortality at renewable energy facilities as a facile way of shutting down discussion of wildlife mortality at renewable energy facilities.

I certainly have decided that, because that has definitely been my own experience of the trope. In fact, after a couple days of climate change activists’ ranting about Franzen’s piece, I felt compelled to detail some of my experience since 2008 or so on Twitter. First, I tried sardonic and then, when the furor showed no signs of slowing down, I got more verbose. There’s a series of 15 tweets at that second link, detailing reactions I’ve gotten from climate activists and renewable energy advocates, including demands that I be fired and emailed threats.

The vast majority of people concerned about climate change I have met are quite concerned about the currently accelerating mass extinction. And Franzen’s detractors made much of that fact this week, with (for instance) David Roberts saying:

Ultimately, every green-minded person wants to save bird habitats and mitigate climate change. The big problem is that people who care about climate change and people who love birds are both vastly outnumbered by people who don’t give a shit about either. 

An interesting choice of phrase, that “wants to.” Wanting to do something costs nothing. Making that thing a priority, on the other hand?

Roberts just left the popular online environmental publication Grist this month after working there since 2004. Grist is an interesting environmental publication for our purposes here: it devotes a huge percentage of its editorial attention to climate change, and a scant amount to the issues of habitat protection or dwindling wildlife populations — unless the threat to that wildlife or its habitat happens to be climate change.

Here’s a screenshot of Grist’s navigation menu:

What Grist thinks we need to know about.

What Grist thinks we need to know about.

That’s a pretty human-centered list of options in the middle between “Climate & Energy” and “Science,” focusing on what humans eat, where humans live, how humans entertain themselves, how humans argue, how humans make money.

I’ve always found it a bit odd that Grist doesn’t have a “wildlife” or “nature” top heading, but if we look at the likely category that reports on endangered species and such would be filed under, Science, we find that Science is almost wholly given over to reports on climate change. Of 105 Science stories published on Grist since April 17, 2012 — a date I picked because I got tired of counting at that point — 47, or a full 45 percent, are about climate change. Ten of those concern climate change’s likely impact on wildlife or its habitat.  25 stories concern wildlife outside of a context of climate change, of which only seven — six percent of total Science stories — are reports on non-climate-related threats to wildlife or its habitat. The rest are “cool wildlife” stories.

Since January 1, 2010, if the site’s onboard search engine is at all accurate, Grist has run just 28 stories that even contain the phrase “Endangered Species Act,” one of which is David Roberts’ description of how everything changed for the U.S.’s premier wildlife and habitat protection law when environmentalism “gave way to … well, no one knows what to call it yet” in the face of climate activism. Another is Roberts’ interview with Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal, in which Madrigal says:

I also think — and this may be a more controversial suggestion — that it might be worth trading some of the landmark ’60s environmental legislation for stronger support for green technology. The way the Endangered Species Act works right now is sometimes counterproductive. It rests on this odd structure of one animal standing in for whole ecosystems, at a local level, preventing changes we might need to prevent global-scale environmental change.

(By way of self-serving contrast, since July 2011, KCET has run 167 pieces that include the phrase “Endangered Species Act,” and some of the best ones weren’t even written by yours truly.)

Grist has some mighty fine writers, Roberts included, and it’s not fair to assume that those writers necessarily share the editorial policy sentiments of the site’s management. But my pal Judith Lewis Mernit did, in the course of an informative debate with Michelle Nijhuis on the Franzen piece, unearth this exchange she had on Twitter about six square miles of the best habitat in the Mojave Desert being destroyed for a wildlife killing power plant that turns out not to work:

For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter conversations, that’s Roberts answering “Yes” to Judith’s question whether the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System was worth the cost in habitat loss adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve — one example of dozens in the southwest of climate mitigation undercutting wildlife protection, any of which Franzen would have done much better to focus on.

Mernit asked Roberts a clarifying question, and he answered:

Sure, we all want to protect bird habitat. But reading sites like Grist, or listening to climate pundits like Roberts, we may never learn that anything other than climate change and fossil fuels threatens that bird habitat — and if we start to find out that our efforts at climate change mitigation may actually cause further harm to that habitat or the birds in it, our concerns over that cost are dismissed with a monosyllabic answer.

Grist has a right to whatever editorial focus it desires. But it’s not just Grist. Take a look at this graph, which shows the frequency of the phrases “climate change” and “biodiversity” in all the books and periodicals indexed in Google’s database, charted by the year in which those works were published:

Sometime just before 2006, probably not coincidentally the year Al Gore’s movie came out, climate change overtook biological diversity as the main topic of discussion in the environmental field. And since then, biodiversity’s importance in the public mind has actually waned.

People will think about topics that are being discussed. People will tend to lose track of topics that are not being discussed.

And even considering those outside drivers of our political concerns, most of us who are (justifiably) concerned about climate change are still also mightily concerned about the mass extinction in progress, when we’re reminded that it’s taking place. But there’s a difference between people in general and those public or semipublic figures who have created an identity as Climate Activists, who too often respond to reminders of the importance of non-human species with impatient dismissals, Argumentam ad Petroleum, or subtly attempting to get the writer fired.

The climate change mitigation movement has become an orthodoxy, and environmentalists challenge it at the risk of ostracism or worse.

That orthodoxy even carries with it its own special flavor of the science denialism with which it (again, justifiably) charges climate change deniers. One of the most frustrating responses to Franzen’s article has been the idea that instead of a novelist, the essay should have been written by an environmental journalist or a scientist, who would have done a better, more accurate job.

With regard to the “a journalist should have written it” idea, I’ll turn to Judith Lewis Mernit for a response, which she posted in a Facebook comment thread:

The problem… is that Chris and I, and many, many other writers *have* written that story, over and over and over and over. I think when you look up the phrase “Bleating Into the Void” in the Urban Dictionary you might see all of our faces lined up, as talking GIFs. It took a nationally famous fiction writer galumphing around in the issue from his personal slant to make it a Real Thing. 

The scientists have written that story too, and there’s no better example than the one provided by a group of scientists that were solicited to provide feedback on early drafts of California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), an ungainly and complex document — 12,000 pages in its most recent draft — that would have planned renewable energy development within 22 million acres of the California Desert. That panel of Independent Science Advisors came up with a report in 2010 that offered a sober, not-at-all hotheaded, appraisal of the likely ecological effects of some of the developments then proposed for the California Desert.

The 2010 report’s Executive Summary includes this passage:

[S]iting and developing energy projects must be done carefully to avoid unnecessary damage to fragile desert ecosystems. Desert species and ecological communities are already severely stressed by human changes to the landscape, including urbanization, roads, transmission lines, invasive species, and disturbances by recreational, military, mining, and other activities. Additional stress from large-scale energy developments, in concert with a changing climate, portends further ecological degradation and the potential for species extinctions. 

And this one:

We also strongly advocate using “no regrets” strategies in the near term— such as siting developments in already disturbed areas — as more refined analyses become available to guide more difficult decisions.

And this one:

To the greatest degree possible, site all renewable energy developments on previously disturbed land (areas where grading, grubbing, agriculture, or other actions have substantially altered vegetation or broken the soil surface), and site all linear facilities within or alongside existing linear rights-of-way, paved roads, canals, or other existing linear disturbances, so long as this does not create complete barriers to wildlife movements or ecological flows. Habitat fragmentation and impediments to wildlife movements are among the greatest threats to desert communities and species, and maximizing habitat connectivity is essential to climate change adaptation. The combined effects of both new and existing linear features on wildlife movement should be mitigated with appropriate crossing structures or corridors to facilitate wildlife movement.


And this one:

To the greatest feasible extent, avoid and minimize any new disturbance of soil surfaces in the siting, design, construction, and maintenance of any and all project features. Arid ecosystems are strongly shaped by characteristics of soils and other geological surfaces that develop over millennia and that cannot be replicated by human actions. Ecological impacts of projects that disturb the soil surface should be presumed permanent, despite promises to decommission renewable energy projects at the end of their useful life and restore what came before.

How effective was the Independent Science Advisors’ 2010 report? To what degree has it been heeded? It’s worth noting that almost without exception, the large solar facilities that have broken ground on public lands in California are on sites that have been essentially wild, with largely intact desert soils and wildlife habitat, now lost. A few large solar projects on private lands in the Western Mojave and in the Imperial Valley have been sited on land that qualifies as “disturbed,” with a concomitant reduction in air quality downwind as those desert soils lift and blow away in the slightest breeze.

And the most recent draft of the DRECP places (energy) Development Focus Areas on important wildlife habitat and migration corridors, including the established Desert Tortoise Natural Area near California City.

The Independent Science Advisors report is just a very prominent example of scientific counsel going unheeded when renewable energy developers and climate activists see it as impeding their agenda. There are many others. In sum, the scientists have spoken, they have spoken in venues that should arguably be far more influential than a novelist’s essay in a literary magazine, and they have been — at best — thanked politely for their time and disregarded.

Federal land managers denied those scientists’ recommendations. Renewable energy companies want to deny independent scientists access to data on their projects actual effects on the environment. And now, by saying Franzen’s piece should have been written by a scientist when dozens of scientists have already weighed in, climate activists are in effect denying the scientists even exist.

Looks like no one side has a monopoly on science denialism.

Franzen may have made some mistakes in his piece, but his thesis — that a focus on climate change makes it harder to talk about preserving species and habitat — is essentially sound. If you don’t frame those threats to wildlife in terms of climate change or the fossil fuel use that causes it, climate activists simply do not want to hear it. They won’t write about it, they’ll criticize you for saying anything about it, and if journalists or scientists write about the conflict between climate activism and protecting wildlife, the climate activists will assiduously deny that that work even exists.

Which is why those climate pundits have reacted to Franzen’s piece with such outrage. His essay may have been a poorly aimed blast of buckshot, but a bunch of that shot nailed the Climate Orthodoxy in its ass.

Fool’s Gold


Iron pyrite is the most common sulfide mineral on Earth. Its chemical formula is FeS2. That formula gives the impression that the smallest possible bit of iron pyrite is two sulfur atoms bonded to an iron atom, like the two hydrogen atoms bonded to an oxygen in H2O. In truth, the two sulfur atoms are actually bonded quite tightly to one another, sharing a pair of electrons in a covalent bond, forming a sort of submolecule: a disulfide. The disulfide portion of an iron pyrite molecule has an oxidation number of -2: to oversimplify, the two sulfur atoms have two more negatively charged electrons between them than they do protons. The iron atom — in its divalent “ferrous” form, with two fewer electrons than protons — forms a somewhat weaker ionic bond with the two sulfurs.

It’s called “fool’s gold” because the color is said to have deceived unschooled prospectors, but gold is in fact sometimes found in fool’s gold. It’s found in extremely small quantities, a few atoms at a time embedded in the pyrite’s crystalline matrix, but if you know what you’re doing you can extract enough of value to make the whole thing worth your while.

Iron pyrite usually has a cubic crystal structure. For a while, anyway. Iron pyrite is unstable in nature. It’s biodegradable. In the presence of air and water, especially if certain sulfur-metabolizing bacteria are present, that ionic bond between the iron and the sulfide gets pried loose. The iron generally oxidizes, unless it’s taken up by something alive and put to other use. The sulfide portion generally oxidizes into sulfates. Oxygen tends to work to eliminate pyrite, when it can get to it. The mineral forms best where there is no oxygen, where toxic hydrogen sulfide comes into contact with chemically available iron. This happens sometimes in anoxic sediments, deep beneath the ocean or in dying lakebeds, and pyrite will insinuate itself into the structures of dead organisms as they fossilize.

Pyrite is fungible, in other words. It is constantly being made and unmade. That process is faster if the pyrite has more surface area: the dust and powder of mine tailings, for instance, break down fast enough to release sulfuric acid into mountain streams. A piece of crystal, with less surface area, will decompose more slowly. The hunk of it on my desk here is only a little tarnished since I first held it. The photo above was taken 15 years ago, more or less: the rock looks pretty much the same tonight. A few of the facets of the smaller crystals in the photo are rougher now. Whether that is the result of chemical weathering or damage in the five household moves since I took the photo I can’t say.

I’ve had this rock for a long time. It’s one of my oldest possessions. I’ve owned a lot of rocks in my day. This is the one I’ve kept when I let all the others go. When I was 22 years old, hitchhiking across the country to what would be my new and apparently permanent home in California, this hunk of pyrite was in my $25 backpack.

My paternal grandfather gave it to me on my fourth birthday, a souvenir from some roadside stand in the Front Ranges somewhere. I had already established myself as a scientifically inclined kid at that point. He and my grandmother stood in my parents’ kitchen, a quick evening visit to deliver the pyrite and a handful other birthday present, and it turned out to be a memorable gift. Literally so. I can’t say I remember most of my other birthdays, but the night I turned four seems preternaturally clear.

I wonder what my grandfather would have thought had he known how long I’d hold on to this piece of iron pyrite. He never found out. The evening he gave me this rock he had three years and 16 days to live. Had he lived another decade, or three, I might not have been able to tell him. My affection for the rock has been constant, but it has not seemed remarkable. His death likely sealed my attachment to the thing, but it’s been less a “this item is very important to me” thing than a “huh, I’d better not lose track of this thing” thing.

It has followed me from house to house on nearly fifty moves. After coming west with me in 1982, it went back east again in 1984 and back yet again in ’87. It has never been stored away, though there may have been a month or two after one move or another when I’d forgotten to take it out of the box it moved in. It lives on my bookshelves.

Every once in a while, like tonight, I pick it up. It always feels heavier than its mass justifies. That may be less gravity than gravitas. Or perhaps it’s a vestige of muscle memory left over from when I first hefted it with a right arm just turned four, not knowing that it was the first of probably thousands of times I’d pick it up, turn it over absently. Here I am the age my grandfather was that night, and still clutching the birthday gift he gave his four-year-old grandson.

On Saturday it will be fifty years to the day I’ve owned this inconsequential bit of yellow rock.

Fool’s gold.

SciAm and Danielle N. Lee

If you follow the science blogging world and have been online this weekend, you will likely have heard of an interaction Danielle N. Lee, PhD. had with someone who asked her to work for him for free and got outrageously insulting when she politely turned him down. I mean, really insulting.

Basically, an editor (identified only as “Ofek”) asked Danielle to contribute to his site, “,” as a guest blogger. She quite reasonably asked what would be expected of her and how much she’d be paid. He said there’d be no pay and trotted out the old, incredibly stale chestnut about the gig being exposure.

Dr. Lee declined, and Ofek asked her if she was a whore. I kid you not. You can see, if you read DNLee’s summation of the interaction here, part of why I (among many others) like Danielle’s writing very much. She doesn’t hide her anger about having been insulted,  but she persists in speaking to Ofek as a human being, describing just why he is in grievous error, and addressing how he can avoid making the same sort of egregious mistake in the future.

Dr. Lee’s response was originally posted on her blog at Scientific American. As of this writing, you can’t see it there. That’s because on Friday night, her post was removed by SciAm’s management.

That removal happened without explanation, from what I understand, until early Saturday morning, at which point SciAm’s Senior VP Mariette DiChristina offered a cursory comment on Twitter:

Maryn McKenna has a typically cogent response to the issue, as well as a great list of links to others’ takes on the matter. Responses have ranged from accusations that SciAm is more interested in the health of its advertising arrangements than in its contributors (it has one such arrangement with to pointing out that the way people treat young women scientists of color is very much part of “discovering science.”

I want to say something about the relationship of writers and editors that’s relevant here.

I have spent a considerable amount of my professional life working as an editor. Sometimes I’ve been in a position to pay my writers. More often, I’ve had to ask writers to contribute their work without pay, or at least without direct pay. There are kinds of pay other than money. The feeling of contributing to an important campaign is one such. Getting the word out on an issue about which you feel passionately is another. I wouldn’t have been able to do half the work I’ve done without other writers who’ve consented to work with me without a paycheck.

Their willingness to work with me anyway bestowed an immense responsibility on me as an editor. When I couldn’t write a check, I had to offer those writers something else in return.

Whether or not a writer gets paid, it is an editor’s job to make a writer look good. Polishing their words, straightening out unclear sentences, fact checking and  ground-truthing, keeping them from making embarrassing errors in public//print, and sending pieces back with requests to flesh out aspects the writer missed are all part of the job.

Many of those parts of an editor’s job have been scaled back as demands on editors’ time increase. Other tasks such as promoting those writers’ work have been increasingly foisted onto editorial from declining PR staffs.  But the soul of those tasks remains:

Editors are supposed to have their writers’ backs.

You advocate for the writers’ ideas by clarifying the way in which those ideas are expressed. You advocate for the writers by demanding they be treated with the respect they are due. I’m privileged to have an editor at KCET who definitely has my back, and I have worked with a number of other such.

And on the other side of the spectrum, just as there are writers who really ought to turn their talents to other areas, there are editors who work their whole lives without living up to the obligations they owe to their writers. They might dent prose to suit their own tin-eared rules, or ask writers for substantive revisions that they then rescind because they have no idea what the piece is about. They might introduce errors of fact through their own ignorance or sloth. They make their writers look bad.

Danielle N. Lee wrote a light-hearted, compelling piece about a day in the life of a woman scientist of color and the odious disrespect  that came her way as a result of her insisting on professional treatment. Scientific American chose to delete that post without notice, calling it “inappropriate,” but so far has said nothing about the behavior of the staff at its partner organization that prompted the post.

Without talented, engaging writers like Danielle, the editors at Scientific American would have to find other work, and SciAm’s partner organizations would not be able to ride those coattails.

Time to start backing up those who generate income for you, SciAm.

RIP, Bob Stebbins

Bob in his Kensington studio. Photo via UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Paleontology

Bob in his Kensington studio. Photo via UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Paleontology

A couple years ago when I was still working for the Desert Protective Council I called the Museum of Vertebrate Paleontology at U.C. Berkeley to see if I could interview its Emeritus Curator in Herpetology, Robert Cyril Stebbins, for the DPC’s newsletter. The person answering the phone was kind and let me down easy. She’d pass my request along, she said, but Bob had retired. Really retired. Moved up to Oregon, away from his Kensington home of… well, longer than I’d been alive, and wasn’t getting out much anymore. He was in his late 90s, and I understood.

Bob died yesterday at age 98. He leaves behind generations of admirers — hell, he outlived generations of admirers — and the California deserts may never know a more passionate, committed, competent defender.

I never met Bob, but when I lived in Berkeley I talked to him on the phone a few times. Mainly during a period in the wake of the Oakland Fire of 1991, when some guy with money and social cred started campaigning to clearcut massive firebreaks in the Berkeley-Oakland hills to protect what were even three or five housing booms ago million-dollar homes. I was editing the Ecology Center’s Terrain at the time, and Bob was quietly horrified at the proposal to replace moist coastal scrub with barriers of lawns and iceplant, and we talked.

He was a generous man, and a very talented one. He granted me permission back then to use any of his paintings of reptiles and amphibians in Terrain without checking first, and in perpetuity. “Perpetuity,” as regarded me and Terrain, ended up lasting until 1997, but in the spirit of that kind offer, here’s a camera phone image of his western fence lizard painting from his Western Reptiles and Amphibians, Second Edition:

Thanks for the permission, Bob, and I'll ask your estate for permission henceforward.

Thanks, Bob, and I’ll ask your estate for permission henceforward.

Back then I didn’t realize just how deeply his work would influence me. He was an old hand in the California desert before I was born. He blended his science with activism almost seamlessly. Aside from maybe geologist Howard Wilshire, no single person could claim more credit for ending the odious Barstow-to-Vegas hare and hounds off-road motorcycle race.

I’m tempted to describe his accomplishments and contributions in detail, but Matthew Bettelheim got there a while ago. Besides, I pretty much said what I had to say about Bob’s work last year at Pharyngula.

So I’ll just say that the California deserts have lost one of the best friends they ever had.

And, as I just said to a California desert scientist who belongs to the generation after mine, I guess we all move up one notch now.



FtBCON: Science, Skepticism, and Environmental Activism

Tonight I spoke with my Pharyngula co-blogger PZ Myers and my Network colleagues Madhu Katti and Jenn Campbell-Smith about the relationship between Science, Skepticism, and Environmental Action. Or at least that was the intended topic: We talked about a lot more than that. And Jenn had a bird on her head.

The panel discussion was part of FtBCONscience; Atheism With A Conscience — the online conference sponsored by Freethought Blogs still in progress with panels all day Sunday on a wide range of issues. Check it out!

Here’s the conversation between PZ, Madhu, Jenn and me.