Tag Archives: climate change

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence.

On the perils of drawing permanent lines on a fluid canvas, or demarcating landscapes on a dynamic planet

My new contribution to the series “The Moral Is” (see my previous essays in the archives) on Valley Public Radio was broadcast during Valley Edition earlier today. The full transcript as well as audio of me reading it is available in the archives. Here I share a somewhat longer version of my essay where I ponder the predicament our species finds itself in, having gone extremely territorial in its conquest of the planet’s resources.

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence.

A hummingbird defends its territory with a barbed wire fence?

Territoriality is the bane of human existence. We human beings are an aggressively territorial lot, willing to defend what territory we claim to be ours against all comers using whatever means we can devise. By no means the only species to be strongly territorial, we surely are the most extreme in our territoriality.

Many animal species like to mark out and defend territories to ensure access to crucial resources such as food, water, shelter, nesting sites, and mates. Many will defend their territories aggressively, even risking injury or death to stave off challengers. You can see this every day all around us: in the sweet song of birds in our gardens, which are usually males proclaiming dominion over the garden, and in the way our dogs mark their territories at every fence- and lamp-post we happen to walk them by. Even plants show subtle territoriality, engaging in covert chemical warfare underground to prevent other plants from growing under their canopies and sucking away “their” supply of water and nutrients.

Yet hardly any other species takes territoriality as far as we have done. Most species reserve their hostilities towards members of their own species and maybe a few other direct competitors. Even when they physically or chemically mark the boundaries of their territories, these demarcations are hardly permanent. Scent marking, scratches in tree barks, vocal proclamations: these are what reinforce the shadow lines by which most animals carve out the world’s resources for their exclusive use. And, of course, these boundary lines are just as ephemeral as the lives of the individuals (and sometimes families) marking them.

Each individual may develop a strong sense of place, even an emotional attachment to some piece of land, or coral reef, or tree, or rock, but only rarely do they pass this on to their progeny, who often tend to disperse away into new areas to seek their own fortunes, set up their own new territories. Boundaries may be defended fiercely, but they remain fluid and diffuse and are ever changing, especially as the geographic ranges of species wax and wane and change on our dynamically changing planet.

Human beings have taken territoriality to whole new levels. We have not only sought to make our territories permanent, building fences and walls to keep intruders out, but even enshrined territoriality into elaborate systems of laws regulating ownership and inheritance. Unlike in any other species, we exhibit territoriality across a whole hierarchy of social levels: from individual and family homes to clan and tribal domains to kingdoms and empires to modern nation states and coalitions among them.

We have demarcated the Earth’s entire surface in cartesian lines scaling up and down these territorial hierarchies. We even carve out and defend boundaries in the ocean and the air and the very skies. Uniquely, we also seek to control every element that occurs within our domains, extending our territoriality against every other species on the planet. Whether it is ants or cockroaches in our kitchens, geckos in our living rooms, squirrels and monkeys in our gardens, or invasive species we label as aliens within our national boundaries, our pan-territoriality puts us at constant war against a whole host of species merely trying to eke out a living in the interstices of our rigidly demarcated landscapes.

Political World Map as Pangea 200 300 million years ago  Imgur

Unfortunately, our extreme territoriality flies in the face of a dynamic planet on whose surface hardly anything has ever stayed put in one place for ever, not even the very continents over which we continue to wage epic and devastating wars for resources. A key to evolutionary success on such a dynamic planet is a species’ ability to adapt to the changing landscape, and a fluidity of movement to match the ever changing zones of suitable climate and geology. Yet we have painted ourselves into cartesian prisons, investing so much in defending pieces of land and volumes of water that may not remain the same for long. Rising sea levels threaten cities that we thought we were building for eternity. Sandstorms herald the march of the deserts as climate zones shift, and glaciers and polar ice sheets melt, drastically changing the shape of the lands, with no little help from our own industry. And every other species tries to pick up and move along with these changes, extending its range towards the poles—or to the brink of extinction as suitable habitats disappear permanently. Yet we continue to cling to our cities and homes, unable to move, like deer frozen in the headlights of climate change. We are setting ourselves up for inevitable disaster, like a child building elaborate sand castles below the high-tide line on a beach, or an obsessive compulsive painter desperately trying to draw permanent lines on a liquid canvas.

Much of human history can be told as a series of tales about individuals and groups of people fighting each other over pieces of this demarcated landscape. History is also generally written by the victors and the survivors. To be able to write our own future history, we must first figure out, collectively, how to survive past our own ecologically disastrous fossil-fuel-burning industrial age. If we are to ride the tides of climate change and other unpredictable events our planet throws at us, we must find ways to ease our attachment to rigid territories, soften our boundaries, and allow other creatures, and ourselves, more room to share the resources of this pale blue dot.

Watching the biosphere as it breathes…

…watching the biosphere as it gasps for breath. As we fill the atmosphere with more carbon dioxide than all the photosynthetic organisms on earth—who alone know how to make the molecules of life out of dead COand sunlight—can handle. Carbon that was fixed by their ancestors and ours long ago, then dead and buried deep underground until we figured out how to pull it out of the bowels of the earth, and burn it to build this industrial civilization of ours. Civilization which is pouring all that ancient fossilized carbon back into the atmosphere in quantities that are too much for all those green plants and planktons to handle. So that the CO2 keeps rising in the air, trapping heat, warming the planet, melting glaciers and polar ice, causing the sea to rise more angrily into our coastal cities, churning up storms ever more vigorous and destructive… like the earth lashing out at us for making its biosphere, its baby, slowly suffocate.

Watch the biosphere breathe, because, for the first time, you actually can. See the rise and fall of carbon dioxide in an annual rhythm that is quite soothing to watch. NASA’s JPL has just released a fascinating, mesmerizing video (download it in HD) showing us the global biosphere breathing:


Watching the last part of that video, with the seasonal pulsing of the green and yellow alternately suffusing the surface of the earth, reminds me of the many hours I spent at night watching my daughters sleep when they were babies. The gentle rise and fall of their little chests, the soothing soft sound of breath in, breath out. There is nothing quite as calming as watching a baby breathe as she sleeps. Or watching the entire biosphere breathe as it lives, throughout the year.

But this video is far from calming if you remember the first half. That graph of the annual pulse of CO2, climbing up in the winter, down in the summer, up in the winter, down in the summer, but lately arcing upwards overall, with a rising amount of CO2 in the air. Remember that graph? It is telling us we are adding too much CO2 for the biosphere to handle. A few years ago, we were still hoping to keep CO2 below 350ppm (parts per million). We urged our governments to do something, anything, to keep levels below 350ppm because that, our best science told us, is probably the safety limit for keeping the earth, the biosphere, in a state we know and love. Within a range of 275ppm to 350ppm, a domain which allowed our species to flourish, spread all the way across the biosphere. We tore up much of that living, breathing biosphere in the process, but it still kept on breathing in its seasonal rhythm. And we started adding more and more CO2 into the air, ripping it out of the earth and the biosphere, and pumping it out into the atmosphere, until it hit that upper limit of 350ppm. Go above that in a sustained manner, and we enter a new domain, where all bets are off, for the biosphere, and for our civilization. 350ppm is the safety word. But this past summer, we passed 400ppm for the first time in our recorded history. All bets are indeed off for us, it seems, because we are still not prepared to roll it back to below 350ppm. Governments continue to fiddle, for the 18th time, in Doha this week, amid growing confidence that they will, again, do nothing toward bringing us back into the climatic safe zone.

So watch the earth’s biosphere breathe like a baby, but know that it is also gasping as CO2 levels keep rising. It is up to us to bring those levels down. But first we will have to start by disturbing the blissful, willful sleep of our governments and institutions and corporations… and all our people…

… get them all to watch the biosphere as it breathes.

Is it too late for us to do anything about climate change?

Bill McKibben answers the question, describing some dire scenarios if we don’t get off fossil fuels soon. And no government is currently planning to do that. One might argue that its never too late to try and at least slow the warming down, maybe, but we’re already in a new domain. So brace yourselves… it will get bumpier on planet Earth. 

[brightcove vid=1978531660001&exp3=1140772469001&surl=http://c.brightcove.com/services&pubid=16991917&pk=AQ~~,AAAAAAEDRq0~,qRcfDOX2mNtWW87VePrJiaFRXUo43tGn&w=480&h=270]

When the weather itself is going rogue, why not the weathergirl too?

Earlier this week, I wrote and recorded my next commentary for Valley Public Radio’s “The Moral Is” series – this time about global warming / climate change, and the moral costs of denialism. Of course, I couldn’t help but keep up a “serious academic” professorial tone to the whole thing – sadly. What can I say? Its a professional constraint/hazard of being a staid old professor. Now I wish I had really done something more along these lines:

via Weathergirl goes rogue – YouTube

How would you like to sleep with the fishes?


How would you like to sleep here, asks the Maldives Rangali Islands resort

Would You Sleep Here?“, asks the caption beneath this astonishing photo I just came across on Facebook (via Linda Franzen Zelnio), adding,

“This suite at the Maldives Rangali Islands resort promises an unforgettable night below the Indian ocean, complete with champagne breakfast and aquatic entertainment!”

Oh yeah!! Doesn’t sound half bad, does it? Imagine falling asleep counting the little fish (hope there aren’t any big sharks up there…) and waking up with the sun filtering in through the blue sea… one can dream! Wouldn’t you love to accept the invitation, and sleep there, for one unforgettable night?

Sadly, the invitation may no longer be open, because this was a special (limited time?) honeymoon suite offer to mark the fancy hotel’s (part of the Conrad Hilton group) 5th anniversary, although the space is actually a restaurant where you can presumably still go and enjoy some seafood. Unless, of course, the hotel was really thinking ahead and using this as a market test to prepare for the inevitable. Maybe they’re converting all of their suites into aquaria!

Because, you see, there is this small problem with any long-term business plan in the Maldives. The entire country may soon be underwater what with sea levels rising and our leaders continuing to fiddle. The country’s president became a poster boy in the fight to convince the world’s leaders to do something about climate change, because his entire nation faces a real existential threat. He even held a cabinet meeting under water (although not in the above hotel suite/restaurant which is probably beyond the price range for most Maldivians) to highlight their plight. Then he got ousted in a coup, but continues to fight the good fight.

But maybe he’s been fighting the wrong fight. Perhaps, instead of trying to put villages on stilts, or move the country’s entire population to Australia, they really should invite the tropical resort industry to invest in putting the whole country under an aquarium dome like the above honeymoon suite! Think about it!

Well, not entire islands, perhaps (don’t be absurd, I hear you say), but how about at least the houses of all the people now wondering where they might have a long-term future? Tourism is a big part of the local economy after all, so why not make the most of your soon-to-be-entirely-underwater real estate? Why not make lemonade when facing all this rising saltwater that the rest of the world refuses to do anything about? Turn the country into Atlantis, the tourist resort!

One unforgettable night? Pshaw! How about spending the rest of your lifetime sleeping with the fishes underwater?

Archaeologist Brian Fagan to visit Fresno State this week (and a repost)

I just learnt that archaeologist and writer Brian Fagan is visiting my campus this week – tomorrow (Mar 6) in fact – but I will miss his visit! I’ve been wanting to bring him to Fresno for some time now – and here I am stuck in Mumbai when he does actually arrive on campus! If you are on Fresno and reading this, please do go to his talk on the Fresno State campus tomorrow. Here’s more info on the event, which is open to the public:


Meanwhile, since I won’t be able to participate in the event, let me at least throw in my tuppence remotely, by sharing something I had written about him a few years ago. The following is a repost:

“This is a very serious issue, in fact…”

“… that’s why you’re on this show!”

That was perhaps the most ironic exchange between Brian Fagan (who said the first part) and Jon Stewart (who came back with the swift self-deprecating retort) tonight on The Daily Show where Fagan came on to talk about his new book “The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations“. The Daily Show’s promo blurb for today’s show had a link to Fagan’s blog, where he wrote this interesting post about the forecasts of prolonged droughts in some parts of the world being the silent elephants in the climate change discussion. And it was when he was discussing that very point when the above ironic exchange occurred during the interview (look for it @ 3:35 min in the video below the fold) – a double dose of irony if you will!

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Brian Fagan
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

Meanwhile, I was touched by another post discussing the Indian monsoon in a historical context, with the opening making me ache for my favorite season of the year back home:

“The peacocks danced at eventide”, wrote the sixth-century Indian writer Subdandhu of the onset of the monsoon. The monsoon is much more than a matter of meteorology in India and Pakistan. The very fabric of human existence unfolds around two seasons–the wet and the dry. The wet season brings warm, moist conditions and heavy rain, carried by the monsoon winds blowing inland from the ocean. The other half of the year, the arid season, enjoys cool, dry air from the north. The coming of the monsoon is a highlight of the year to those who suffered through the buildup after the pleasant winter months–weeks of torrid heat. Colonel Edward Tennant of the British East India Company wrote in 1886: “The sly, instead of its brilliant blue, assumes the sullen tint of lead. . . . The days become overcast and hot, banks of clouds rise over the ocean to the west. . . . At last the sudden lightning flash among the hills, and shoot through the clouds that overhang the sea, and with a crash of thunder the monsoon bursts over the hungry land.” My father was a civil servant in the British Raj in the Punjab during the 1920s. Even in his extreme old age, he could vividly recall the most epochal day of the year, when India became cold and grey, like distant England.

Trust me, it is actually quite unlike England, being grey, yes, but definitely not cold – but rather invitingly cool after a blazing hot summer! Oh how I miss the march of those grey clouds across the Bombay coastline…

Fagan goes on to describe the discovery of correlations between the Indian monsoon and El Nìno events in the Pacific…

Generations of meteorologists have tried to forecast monsoons, notable among them Sir Gilbert Walker, a brilliant statistician with a passion for flutes and atmospheric pressure, who is remembered for his discovery of the Southern Oscillation, the driving force behind El Nino and its opposite cousin, La Nina. There is now fairly general Agreement that monsoon failures sometimes, but not invariably, coincide with El Nino conditions in the Pacific, as was the case with the terrible famine and monsoon failure of 1875-6, which killed tens of thousands and ravaged at least a third of Bengal.

… before adding some strong words about the historical context of the famine and the culpability of the British empire:

While much of India starved, the British Raj was busy exporting grain to the world market. Meanwhile, the Viceroy, the eccentric and erratic Lord Lytton, who happened to be Queen Victoria’s favorite poet, was preoccupied with a gigantic durbar in Delhi, which included a week-long feast for 68,000 maharajahs and officials. An English journalist estimated that at least 100,000 rural farmers perished during the festivities, which were designed to be gaudy enough to impress the orientals”. Lytton’s shameful famine policy was one of laissez faire. The historian Mike Davis, whose book Late Victorian Holocausts should be required reading for every historian of the nineteenth century, estimates that at least 20-30 million tropical farmers perished during that century as a result of drought, famine, and famine-related diseases.

And as Fagan rounds off with an alarm bell about how future wars will be fought over water even as we waste our current resources on unnecessary wars while avoiding facing the real problems looming ahead, I’m reminded of the Indian journalist P. Sainath’s powerful book Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts.

Will the world’s leaders finally “Get It Done” after Anjali Appadurai’s mic-check at the UN Climate Change Conference?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ko3e6G_7GY4?wmode=transparent]

Powerful call to act from the young woman which ought to shame the world’s leaders into doing what they must, for her and future generations. But, we all know, don’t we? Most of the world’s so-called “leaders” (especially those from the US and other wealthy and high carbon footprint nations) have no shame! They will continue to bow down to immediate political expediency and pressure from their corporate overlords to keep selling those future generations down the river (and the rising seas) to protect short-term profits.

So it is up to us, to carry forward Anjali’s mic-check and take up her call to ask our “leaders” to “GET IT DONE”!! Or get it done ourselves – starting with throwing these bums and their corporations out of the positions of power they currently wield!

The oceans rise, even as they decline… so long, fish!


Two interesting, alarming reports this week about what’s happening (no small thanks to us) to the dominant habitat on this watery planet. First, that habitat is becoming even more dominant: a paper in PNAS meticulously reconstructs global sea-levels over the past two millenia to show that the oceans have been steadily rising, in concert with climatic changes, and that their rise has accelerated in recent years. This figure ought to worry you:


Meanwhile, though, that dominant habitat is also becoming emptier of inhabitants, as we continue to deplete marine wildlife in alarming ways.


So concludes an international panel of marine scientists convened by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO). Even though conservation biologists have a reputation for being alarmists, this statement from one of the panelists, should worry you:

“The findings are shocking,” said Alex Rogers, IPSO’s scientific director and professor of conservation biology at Oxford University.

“As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the oceans, the implications became far worse than we had individually realised.

“We’ve sat in one forum and spoken to each other about what we’re seeing, and we’ve ended up with a picture showing that almost right across the board we’re seeing changes that are happening faster than we’d thought, or in ways that we didn’t expect to see for hundreds of years.”

There’s more:

“The rate of change is vastly exceeding what we were expecting even a couple of years ago,” said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a coral specialist from the University of Queensland in Australia.

“So if you look at almost everything, whether it’s fisheries in temperate zones or coral reefs or Arctic sea ice, all of this is undergoing changes, but at a much faster rate than we had thought.”

But more worrying than this, the team noted, are the ways in which different issues act synergistically to increase threats to marine life.

Those “different issues” include, of course, overfishing, pollution – especially from nasty plastics – ocean acidification, and warming. All adding up to the next mass extinction, one we are living through, unprecedented in being caused largely by a single species – us. So what are we to do?

IPSO’s immediate recommendations include:

  • stopping exploitative fishing now, with special emphasis on the high seas where currently there is little effective regulation
  • mapping and then reducing the input of pollutants including plastics, agricultural fertilisers and human waste
  • making sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Sounds simple enough, right? Clean up our act and take responsibility? So, we may know the way to back away from this rising, empty tide. Do we have the will?


Kemp, A., Horton, B., Donnelly, J., Mann, M., Vermeer, M., & Rahmstorf, S. (2011). Climate related sea-level variations over the past two millennia Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015619108