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Great reads on ending hunger, losing permafrost and engineering coral

I’m not sure all environmental debate will distill into just two contending paradigms, let alone two embodying individuals. Still, it’s an impressive effort Charles C. Mann has made, setting Minnesota’s sainted Norman Borlaug opposite the less remembered William Vogt as “The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World.”

Mann is a writer of impact and there is considerable buzz in green-minded circles about this newest work. Just Tuesday morning my friend Tom brought it up over morning coffee, which recalled an earlier recommendation from another Tom (MinnPost’s news editor) regarding an adaptation from the book that Mann published recently in The Atlantic. It’s a terrific sample and leads my list of great long reads for the upcoming holiday weekend.

Vogt, born in 1902, laid out the basic ideas for the modern environmental movement. In particular, he founded what the Hampshire College population researcher Betsy Hartmann has called “apocalyptic environmentalism”—the belief that unless humankind drastically reduces consumption and limits population, it will ravage global ecosystems. In best-selling books and powerful speeches, Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. If we continue taking more than the Earth can give, he said, the unavoidable result will be devastation on a global scale. Cut back! Cut back! was his mantra.

Borlaug, born 12 years after Vogt, has become the emblem of “techno-optimism”—the view that science and technology, properly applied, will let us produce a way out of our predicament. He was the best-known figure in the research that in the 1960s created the Green Revolution, the combination of high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that increased grain harvests around the world, helping to avert tens of millions of deaths from hunger. To Borlaug, affluence was not the problem but the solution. Only by getting richer and more knowledgeable can humankind create the science that will resolve our environmental dilemmas. Innovate! Innovate! was his cry.

Neither giant still lives to walk the Earth, but their philosophies and followers remain in perpetual contention over how best to feed a world population now swelling toward 10 billion — the issue at the center of this piece. If you know Mann’s book “1491,” which shattered many a paradigm about the pre-Columbian Americas, you will correctly anticipate provocative thought and engaging prose.

What Borlaug’s methods of hybridization and cultivation did for wheat, Mann notes, what his followers did with new rice varieties:

These swept through Asia in the ’70s and ’80s, nearly tripling rice harvests. More than 80 percent of the rice grown in Asia today originated at irri [the International Rice Research Institute]. Even though the continent’s population has soared, Asian men, women, and children consume an average of 30 percent more calories than they did when irri was founded. Seoul and Shanghai, Jaipur and Jakarta; shining skyscrapers, pricey hotels, traffic-jammed streets ablaze with neon—all were built atop a foundation of laboratory-bred rice.

It is as if humankind were packed into a bus racing through an impenetrable fog. Somewhere ahead is a cliff: a calamitous reversal of humanity’s fortune. ...

Even though the global population in 2050 will be just 25 percent higher than it is now, typical projections claim that farmers will have to boost food output by 50 to 100 percent. The main reason is that increased affluence has always multiplied the demand for animal products such as cheese, dairy, fish, and especially meat—and growing feed for animals requires much more land, water, and energy than producing food simply by growing and eating plants. Exactly how much more meat tomorrow’s billions will want to consume is unpredictable, but if they are anywhere near as carnivorous as today’s Westerners, the task will be huge. And, Prophets warn, so will the planetary disasters that will come of trying to satisfy the world’s desire for burgers and bacon: ravaged landscapes, struggles over water, and land grabs that leave millions of farmers in poor countries with no means of survival.

* * *

Wheat’s manipulated history gets a cameo role in Cosmos magazine’s look at contemporary efforts to speed the evolution of coral, in hopes it can outrace the bleaching driven by global warming.

Writer Elizabeth Finkel takes us to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, where “everything is protected and thrillingly feral.” Here a team of scientific wizards is evaluating 18 or so survival tools — from cross-breeding to genetic editing, from special feeding to relocation of resilient species — that might reverse recent staggering losses, particularly in the nearby Great Barrier Reef.  Some are environmental modifications — larval seeding, shade cloths, underwater fans — that a bleaching expert likens to “gardening on the scale of Italy.”

The reef’s return to health is thought to be worth more than $50 billion a year to the Australian economy, Finkel writes, and only about one-tenth of that is from tourism.  So the government is in a hurry to move beyond the usual approaches of controlling shoreline development, agricultural runoff and invasive species.

Messing with the genetics or natural reproduction of coral of course brings pushback, Finkel observes, then notes:

We have been assisting the evolution of species ever since we began domesticating crops and animals some 10,000 years ago. Today’s wheat varieties, for example, bear little resemblance to their weedy ancestors. Coral, however, is not wheat. It is the keystone species of a wild ecosystem, and the ethos for conserving wilderness — forests, savannahs, seagrass meadows or reefs — has always been to preserve, not change.

On the other hand, long-held notions that the Great Barrier Reef was “too big to fail” have been pretty much trashed by bleaching events of 2016 and 2017. Thus the 18-month crash program at the marine institute and its remarkable indoor replica of the saltwater world beyond:

Away from the crocodiles, sharks and snakes, scientists can safely carry out their experiments in what may be the world’s most sophisticated simulation of the sea — the $40 million SeaSim aquarium, which has a state-of-the-art control room with the same design specs as those in a nuclear reactor. Scientists can observe remarkable things by programming the slow-ramping rhythms of the sea, the waxing and waning of daylight and temperature, and the CO2 levels that climb gradually at night as plants cease photosynthesis and their consumption of the gas.

The computers can also precisely simulate the deposition of fine sediments, a feat that revealed for the first time how corals shed their mucus coating like a glove to rid their surface of sediment. Before scientists unleash any evolutionarily fast-tracked coral on the reef, its impact will be simulated at SeaSim first.

SeaSim may be safer than the waters of Cape Ferguson, but things get pretty feral here at spawning season. Once a year, generally on a November night after the full moon, corals spawn. On the reef it happens en masse, the waters turning cloudy with trillions of eggs and sperm.

Before November, scientists from around the world pluck corals from the reef and bring them into SeaSim. But not every coral species joins in on cue; they may be out of sync by hours or weeks. So breeders will stay up all night watching and waiting for the first signs that the coral are about to eject their tiny bundles of sperm and eggs. They collect the bundles, strain the sperm from the eggs and wait for the next species to spawn. It’s a harrowing wait: they have only a couple of hours before their captured sperm and eggs die.

* * *

In Russia, buildings are sagging and crumbling. In Greenland, a wildfire broke out last year. And in Alaska, entire villages may be relocated because the land upon which they’re built is no long trustworthy. All across the North, the very ground is changing, and the buildings and roads built upon the thawing permafrost are shifting and cracking.

Thus begins Melody Schreiber’s highly readable, deeply human look for CityLab at how thawing permafrost is playing havoc with infrastructure — especially housing — across Arctic communities that are overwhelmingly poor, populated by indigenous peoples and largely forgotten by the world beyond.

Places like Iqalquit, a community of 7,500 that is both the capital and only city of size in the Canadian territory of Nunavut (total population 38,000, 90 percent indigenous). Rentals here are at New York City rates — $2,000 a month for an efficiency, $3,500 for two bedrooms; a warehouse manager she meets has been waitlisted five years for a vacancy and lives in a homeless shelter.

Government and company subsidies keep the rents high; softening ground keeps the supply of new housing low. You won’t find a better explanation of permafrost mechanics than here:

The main problem has to do with soil moisture. When water freezes, it expands, so the ground rises; conversely, when it thaws and the soil contracts, the ground sinks. Permafrost in many places across the Arctic is now locked in a pattern of thawing and refreezing each new season, when once it remained steady. The ground rises and sinks with each change in the weather.

Across the Arctic, roads and buildings buckle along with the ground. Russia is home to some of the largest cities in the Arctic, which are undergoing profound changes because of permafrost thaw. In the coal-mining town of Vorkuta, about 40 percent of buildings have become deformed from changes in the ground. In Norilsk, the largest city built on permafrost, about 60 percent of buildings have been damaged by permafrost thaw, and 10 percent of the houses in the city have been abandoned. Most of the changes happen gradually, but they can render buildings dangerous once they begin; a few years ago in Norilsk, a cement slab broke a doctor’s legs when a building shifted and crumbled.

There are remedies, all them expensive: Pilings sunk deep into the ground. Screwjacks that can raise a building when the permafrost sinks, lower it when the ground comes back up. Oh, and aggressive removal of snow cover — in the Arctic! — because its blanketing effect slows refreezing.

* * *

But there are downsides to reducing Arctic snow cover, and one of them is at the core of an impressively large, if not entirely persuasive, effort to restore a portion of Eastern Siberia to the grassland taiga/tundra conditions of the last Ice Age. Complete with woolly mammoths!

I speak here of Pleistocene Park, as rendered for The Atlantic by Ross Andersen, the magazine’s senior editor for science and technology, with a blend of vigorous reporting, professional detachment and incompletely suspended disbelief. It is one great, weird read.

The 22-year-old park project is the fond dream of a father-son pair of Russians named Sergey and Nikita Zimov. It is also the oddest of the so-called geoengineering strategies you are likely to encounter, at least among those to which any significant effort has been expended.

Its underlying logic goes like this: The best way to reduce the rate of global warming is to reflect more incoming solar energy back toward the source. One large-scale way to do that is to level heat-absorbing wooded landscapes in the far north and return them to shallow grass cover, covered in winter with snow.

And one great way to clear forests and maintain grasslands is to reintroduce extinct large herbivores, such as the tree-toppling mammoth, or their surviving functional equivalents, like the camel. Which, not incidentally, would tend to increase admissions revenue from park visitors.

Um, you ask, can mammoths really be brought back, as the Zimovs suggest, by injecting DNA from an ancient carcass into the egg cells of living elephants?  Stay tuned on that.

In the meantime go out for a little motor tour with Andersen and host in a part of the world where, fairness requires it be noted,  people “still stumble on frozen mammoth remains with flesh and fur intact.”

Nikita Zimov’s nickname for the vehicle seemed odd at first. It didn’t look like a baby mammoth. It looked like a small tank, with armored wheels and a pit bull’s center of gravity. Only after he smashed us into the first tree did the connection become clear.

We were driving through a remote forest in Eastern Siberia, just north of the Arctic Circle, when it happened. The summer thaw was in full swing. The undergrowth glowed green, and the air hung heavy with mosquitoes. We had just splashed through a series of deep ponds when, without a word of warning, Nikita veered off the trail and into the trees, ramming us into the trunk of a young 20-foot larch. The wheels spun for a moment, and then surged us forward. A dry crack rang out from under the fender as the larch snapped cleanly at its base and toppled over, falling in the quiet, dignified way that trees do.

I had never seen Nikita happier. Even seated behind the wheel, he loomed tall and broad-shouldered, his brown hair cut short like a soldier’s. He fixed his large ice-blue eyes on the fallen tree and grinned. I remember thinking that in another age, Nikita might have led a hunter-gatherer band in some wildland of the far north. He squeezed the accelerator, slamming us into another larch, until it too snapped and toppled over, felled by our elephantine force. We rampaged 20 yards with this same violent rhythm—churning wheels, cracking timber, silent fall—before stopping to survey the flattened strip of larches in our wake.

“In general, I like trees,” Nikita said. “But here, they are against our theory.”

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Comments (1)

A great read indeed

Follow the link to The Atlantic, and you'll find a link to the audio version on SoundCloud. This gives you the option of listening if you don't have time to read the article.

I've thought about the conundrum posed by Mann but have never seen it so well set forth as in his description of "wizards" vs. "prophets". As I tend to read and wait a while to make up my mind, I've wondered for a long time about how both camps are essentially right and why they cannot see past their cognitive walls to work out practical solutions.

To add context, I recommend reading Nassim Taleb, who writes about randomness and probability in The Black Swan" and "Fooled by Randomness", among others. The reason is that regardless of what wizards and prophets in this debate may predict, it is all too easy to be blind to events that emerge seemingly out of nowhere to completely change everything.

The fact is that humankind is building a world of ever more complex and entangled dependencies, and it will be hell to pay when one vital link in the chain breaks and brings the system down. Of course we could try to design parallel systems, but that would cost more and we may not anticipate the nature of the failures correctly anyway. Meanwhile, both camps continue to be "right" In the sense that we are engineering our way out of hunger on the one hand, but ruining the planet on the other - with no consensus in sight.