Who and What Divide Us?

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A Camp Fire evacuee plays with an abandoned dog, Chico, CA, Nov. 15

Daily updates on the deadliest fire in California history are almost too horrific to take in. The Camp Fire, named after its place of origin on Camp Creek Road, has destroyed the town of Paradise. This is a beautiful part of California, just a few miles east of Chico where Mary and I once lived.

The ever-changing toll stands at 71 people known dead, more than 1000 missing, and as many as 12,000 buildings destroyed. Fifty thousand people have been displaced. Breathing the air for a day in San Francisco, 150 miles away, is equivalent to smoking 11 cigarettes. (1).

At the same time, stories of generosity emerge as vividly as the deadly statistics. A former NFL linebacker, who lived through the Santa Rosa fire, paid for three large truckloads of bedding and similar goods to be sent to those in shelters. Individuals and businesses throughout north state are doing what they can to help. There are stories of people displaced by the fire spending their days sorting donated goods to benefit others. Here is another dramatic account from the LA Times on November 12: Continue reading

Notes from 2017 – Infrastructure

Infrastructure: in·fra·struc·ture – ˈinfrəˌstrək(t)SHər/ French noun
the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, and power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.

This phrase comes dramatically to mind with the spillway failure at the Oroville dam, 100 miles north of here, which resulted yesterday in the evacuation of almost 200,000 downstream residents.

I lived near the dam in the ’80’s, so I followed #OrovilleDam on social media. Most of the messages were touching offers of places to stay for evacuees, tweets about open gas stations, and so on. As you would expect in today’s climate, some tried to politicize the event. A few moron messages blamed the crisis on illegal immigrants and were not worth reading, but one message caught my attention.

The San Jose Mercury News reports that in 2005, environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, warned federal and state officials that the emergency spillway was “fragile,” needed to be reinforced. That sounded like negligence, but putting this news in perspective on a PBS Newshour report, is Jeffery Mount, senior fellow with the California Public Policy Institute.

According to Mount, the request was reviewed, but finally rejected in a cost vs. probabilities decision. The benefit of coating the hillside in concrete seemed too costly for an event that was not expected to happen, and in fact happened this year for the first time in the 50 year history of the dam.

The issue now will be for reservoir engineers to review what we know of climate studies, which suggest that future storms will be more frequent and more intense than in the past.

Which brings us to the issue of infrastructure…

The Oroville dam, the tallest in California, was built in 1968, in a decade that saw America build it’s interstate highway system, open dozens of affordable public colleges, build dams, and bridges throughout the country, and put a man on the moon.

One of the ways we did this was with a 70% tax rate on the wealthiest 1%.  Nowadays, 70% is the percentage of US bridges with serious structural flaws. Since 2001 we’ve cut taxes on the wealthy and waged constant unfunded wars.  This is what our national infrastructure looks like:

Broken concrete, which makes the main spillway unusable.

Broken concrete, which makes the main spillway unusable.

If we continue down this same road, the Oroville dam and evacuations will be our future.

The new president backed off his campaign promise for an infrastructure program after learning how much it would actually cost. So much that it would behoove his fans to ask him to pay his taxes again. And forget about the Mexican wall PR stunt.

A few people, modeling their communication style on the new president tweeted that the damn failure at least would “wash the liberals away.” Aside from the blatantly cruel sentiment when thousands of people could loose their homes when the rains return on Wednesday, these morons failed to realize that the counties affected were red – they voted for Trump.

Look at the broken dam – it’s not a party issue. Is there’s an aged dam or bridge or a risky overpass near you? Wouldn’t you like it addressed? Wouldn’t you for once like to see leaders of both parties consider what is truly good for “the American people?”

Might be time to let them know how you feel…


Ancient Roman greenhouse gasses

Before the industrial revolution, humans did not pollute the atmosphere, right?  That is what most scientists thought until a study of greenhouse gasses trapped in ice revealed that human activity has generated significant traces of methane dating back at least 2000 years.

In “Classical Gas,” an article in the Feb., 2013 issue of Smithsonian, Joseph Stromberg reports that a team of 15 scientists took samples from Greenland’s mile and a half thick sheet of ice, which dates back 115,000 years.  The researchers looked at the concentration of methane in microscopic air bubbles in the ice.  They expected to find that historical methane traces increased during warm-weather periods.  Instead they found that it varied with human activity, most notably, large-scale agriculture and metallurgy.  Methane began to spike around 100 B.C.  At this period, the Romans kept large numbers of methane-producing cows, sheep, and goats.

Orpheus surrounded by animals. Ancient Roman floor mosaic. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto. CC-by-SA

At the same time, the Han dynasty in China increased its rice production, which is associated with methane-producing bacteria.  Both empires burned large amounts of wood to produce metal for weapons.

Roman relief of blacksmith. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber. CC-by-SA-3.0

Results of the Greenland ice study showed that between 100 B.C. and 1600 A.D., world methane production rose by 31 million tons per year – which sounds like a lot until you realize that US methane production alone is 36 million tons per year, and that isn’t the only greenhouse gas. The discovery that humans have had a measurable impact on the atmosphere for 2000 years does not mean ancient cultures affected climate the way we do. It does mean researchers have to redefine baseline levels of methane – what we define as “natural.”

We tend to project a certain environmental wisdom onto older cultures, assuming they were better stewards of nature than we are in our mechanized world.  Yet I know of at least two other cultures, whose worldview included a reverence for nature, that got into trouble when populations grew too large for a given territory.  Ironically we may have a better chance, using the lens of science, of recognizing and correcting our impact on the environment than people who viewed aspects of nature as divine.

Some bloggers might be tempted to end this post with a fart joke, but that would be immature.

Photo by Alexander Herrmann, CC-by-NC-ND-2.0

Photo by Alexander Herrmann, CC-by-NC-ND-2.0