Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Diabolics 101

Troy Coulterman
[Project Unspell is proceeding apace. Meanwhile, here is a guest post by Claire about her firsthand experience teaching people to read in write using the “diabolical” English orthography. Teachers like her, who have the knowledge and the skill to achieve superior results, are few and far between. The average results are abysmal: it takes upwards of eight years of formal instruction for native English speakers to achieve adequate literacy, and as many as ten for non-natives. Many of them never make it. Meanwhile, it takes a year or so to achieve the same results given almost any reasonably designed orthography. The opportunity cost to society of English spelling is absolutely staggering. But help is on the way: Unspell is specifically designed to be learnable “by osmosis.”]

Twelve years ago I was shocked to find I had no idea how to teach anyone to read and write. For most people this would be no reason to panic. But it was for me because I was in my final year of teacher training. Incredibly, I’d spent nearly four years in the education faculty of an Australian university and no one had mentioned the mechanics of the English writing system, where it originated and how to teach it. This omission seemed even more bizarre when I later discovered that English is one of the hardest languages to learn to read and write.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Announcing: MassTrails 2.0

Javier Pérez
MassTrails.com, the world's most complete database of maps of wild places in Massachusetts to which the public has access is now even more complete. It has also been redesigned, and the search engine overhauled. Now is not the time to venture out into the woods (unless you happen to like frostbite), but as the weather warms I hope that those of you who read this blog and who live in Massachusetts (about a thousand people) try it out. There is a good chance you'll find an interesting place to go and spend time outdoors that you otherwise wouldn't know existed. Also, please spread the word among your friends and family. Thank you. Many thanks to Will Kilburn for compiling the database, Colin Owens for the design, and me (yes, me) for writing the code.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Peace-Violence Axis

Maria Rubinke
Albert's plot of thinkers has elicited some strong reactions. The vertical “Ecotopia”/“Collapse” axis seems somewhat less controversial: it seems that some people are more optimistic, some less optimistic, but that this is a personal preference that others can easily accept. But the horizontal axis, especially in his initial version, where it went from “peaceful transformation” on the left to “violent revolution” on the right, didn't sit well with many people. The new version, which goes from “transformation” to “resistance” may be more politically correct, but I feel that something is lost in eschewing the concept of violence, which I feel is omnipresent and inescapable.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

David Holmgren's Crash on Demand

Gary Larson
There has been a lot of reaction in recent days to David Holmgren's recent reassessment of his Future Scenarios paper of 2007. In that paper, Holmgren describes four alternative scenarios, calling them Brown Tech, Green Tech, Earth Steward and Lifeboats. In his reassessment, he notes that Peak Oil has so far failed to trigger any sort of decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, while the projected effects of rapid climate change have gone from bad to borderline lethal for human survival. Noting that previous strategies for stopping this slide to environmental destruction, such as international negotiations, mainstream climate activism, the Transition Towns movement and all the rest have had a negligible effect, he proposed a new approach:

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

In Praise of Nomads

Leah Giberson
For the past couple of months we have been living with a tent pitched over our boat. It is what most people who live on boats in northern climates choose to do. When the weather starts turning cold, people erect frames, usually consisting of a ridge pole that runs the length of the boat, sloping fore and aft, supported by a few poles and a network of straps run out to the stanchions. Each boat requires a slightly different arrangement. Once the frame is ready, the shrink-wrap goes on, barn-raising style. The plastic is, trimmed, tucked under straps that run around the hull and welded to itself to make a single whole. Once the plastic is on securely, it is shrunk, creating a translucent dome over the entire boat. The welding and the shrinking are done using with a large propane-fired heat gun in one hand and a welding glove on the other. The effect is to cut heating bills more than in half, because during the day, even an overcast day, the greenhouse effect makes the temperature on deck quite comfortable, allowing people to turn off the heating, open hatches and air out the boat. Even on a frosty day it is usually warm enough to sit in the cockpit in shorts and a t-shirt. The dome also allows winter clothing, supplies and many other things to be stored on deck rather than in the cabin, freeing up scarce space down below. When the spring comes, the plastic is cut up and recycled, and the frame is dismantled.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Exodus to Yellowknife

Once in a while I get a book in the mail that I haven't purchased. This is often a pleasant surprise, since I rip through books the way most people go through salted peanuts, and having more reading matter laying around rarely hurts. I do eventually read most of them. The exceptions so far have been a few self-published books sent to me by batshit-crazy authors who have zero chance of getting published. And when the book is a recent release sent to me by a publisher, I incur a debt of gratitude which I discharge by writing a review. And although the publisher is looking to pick up a ringing endorsement from me, I feel free-ish to actually express what I think.

Such is the case with my book du jour, sent to me by my contact at New Society Publishers: Gilles Slade's American Exodus, published just three months ago, cheerfully subtitled Climate Change and the Coming Fight for Survival. To get the unpleasantly honest part out of the way, let me just say that it is an uneven work—written well, edited badly. The same good points are made repeatedly in eerily similar ways throughout the book. Each chapter reads like a conversation with Slade, focusing on some specific topic, but meandering to encompass the rest along the way. A good editor would have taken a scalpel to this manuscript, eliminating the repetitions.

That said, the book is quite interesting. It is the result of an attempt by Slade to answer a simple question: Where should his son live should he wish to survive? You see, after absorbing a large volume of information on the expected results of climate change, Slade came to the conclusion that his options for survival will be *cough* circumscribed. But he does arrive at answer. Slade looks at rising ocean levels, at fossil aquifer depletion, at the disappearance of glaciers and of rivers fed by glacial melt, at the probability of various extreme weather events, and, taking it all in, makes a recommendation: his son should resettle in Yellowknife, capital of Canada's Northwest Territories. The 2011 Canadian census puts its population at 19,234. With the addition of Slade's son, that would make it 19,235. Where the rest of our children should move to should they wish to survive is left as an exercise for the reader. I have worked that out for myself, by the way, but I will save that bit of good news for last.

Slade is a West Coast Canadian who loves California, and his focus is the northern half of Western Hemisphere. He does mention the heat wave in Europe that killed thousands, and another in the Moscow region, but these are tangential to his pursuit. When he says “we,” he means “we the North Americans.” His world view consists of two slices of whole grain bread—Canada and Mexico, with a fat, juicy slice of baloney sandwiched between them. According to his research the climate of the future does not bode well for the lower slice or the baloney.

Bottom to top, Mexico will turn into a scorched desert where no food crops can be grown. The prairie states of the US will likewise turn into an unproductive dustbowl raked flat by ever-larger tornados, and the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer will spell the end of agriculture even in places where climatic conditions permit. Agriculture in the Central Valley of California, where much of the country's produce is grown, is likewise going to shut down due to lack of water for irrigation. Meanwhile, rising ocean levels coupled with increasingly energetic North Atlantic hurricanes will destroy much of the East Coast, where half the population and much of the wealth is concentrated. Similar effects will be felt in Canada: the Maritimes will partially submerge, and the prairie provinces will wither in the summer heat and blow away. But Canada, being the country with the second largest amount of land (after Russia), with much of it far to the north, where temperatures will remain moderate, will, Slade thinks, remain survivable longer; hence his plug for Yellowknife.

Photo credit: Matt Conti
In case you believe that nothing particularly dramatic will happen within your or your children's lifetime, perhaps you should look around. I have: above is a picture of what a part of Boston waterfront looked like during the New Year nor’easter: Boston is becoming like Venice, where Piazza San Marco is routinely awash during winter storms. A few more feet of sea level rise, and seawater will circumvent Charles River Locks, at which point high tides will inundate Back Bay, making Downtown into an island once again. The problem is much the same up and down the coast. In 2012 we had pictures of cars smashing about in the storm surge in Lower Manhattan and the Jersey Coast transformed into a pile of debris by Hurricane Sandy. Manhattan, where a great deal of wealth and activity is concentrated, is connected to the mainland by tunnels; rising sea levels will put the tunnel entrances below the high tide line, putting a damper on the activities. Further down the coast, Charleston is perhaps just one major hurricane away from being wiped out.

Taking all of this in, Slade makes an important point that goes beyond just anticipating all of this destruction: he thinks that as each part of the North American continent ceases to be survivable, their populations will relocate to more survivable places—hence the term “exodus.” First, Mexicans will flee to the US, in a well-rehearsed pattern. Then California and the prairie and desert states of the US will lose the rest of their populations (they have been depopulating for some time already, and this trend will only accelerate). Finally, all of this displaced humanity will slosh across the border into Canada, completely overwhelming the relatively tiny Canadian population.

Slade avoids discussing the practicalities and the mechanics of these mass migrations—what sort of military action will accompany the opening of the US-Mexico border, for instance—but the outline is visible. Projections are that 2050 US will be a majority-Hispanic country. That majority is unlikely to favor maintaining the Great Wall of Mexico. As far as Canada's chances of controlling immigration, they are scant: most Canadians live along the indefensible US border, well within artillery range of it. Most of their trade is cross-border. Faced with a crisis of the magnitude Slade foresees, the idea of making a stand for Canada's sovereignty will no doubt come to be seen as silly.

Most life forms tend to be preoccupied with the continuation of their blood line, and I assume that you are no exception. You may or may not concur with Slade's dire prognosis, but if you don't then I assume that you have done your own research and, if it happened to be fact-based, inevitably came to similar conclusions, in which case your disagreements with Slade's analysis are likely to be minor. And in that case you would probably like to know where to resettle your children before entire countries set of on a death march to lands unknown.

I do have such a plan, and it is simple. My son has a certain piece of paper, which I have gone through some pains to secure for him, and which grants him the birthright to some 17 million square kilometers of prime real estate, much of it quite far to the north (compared to Canada's paltry 5.4 million square kilometers). That piece of paper is called a Russian passport.

Slade's analysis concentrates just on North America, but I think North America will be a basket case and find it more worthwhile to look at the planet as a whole, and sort countries into three columns: “destroyed,” “devastated” and “damaged.” A lot of countries definitely belong in the “destroyed” column: island nations like Palau or Kiribati that are in the process of becoming ocean shoal nations, as well as nations irrigated by rivers that are fed by rapidly disappearing glaciers, like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Pakistan, Bangladesh and quite a few others. They will experience a decade of floods as the glaciers rapidly melt, followed by permanent drought. Next are the “devastated” countries; these are perhaps survivable, but for a much smaller and much more miserable population. I suppose that Slade is right and that Canada will be “devastated” because of incursions by its “destroyed” neighbors to the south across its long and tactically indefensible southern border. Russia, I believe, will be “damaged:” yes, there will be huge environmental problems—peat bogs and boreal forests on fire, gigantic floods, loss of coastal cities (St. Petersburg won't be able to hide behind its dam forever)—but Russia will, by and large, remain survivable for a great many people. Nor is it likely to be invaded: every invasion attempt since Genghis Khan's has gone badly for the invader. There will be large numbers of people moving into Russia's vast empty spaces from abroad, but only to the extent permitted by the Federal Migration Service.

If you don't like this analysis, or if my plan doesn't appeal to you, then do your own analysis, and make your own plan. And if you don't know where to start, then maybe Slade's book will get you started.