Saturday, April 29, 2017


In January, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the same constitutionally guaranteed free-speech rights as actual human beings. That infamous Citizens United ruling unleashed torrents of money that have distorted the electoral process and has given corporations and wealthy individuals even more control over U.S. politics. It certainly was influential in giving us President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress.

In March, 2017, New Zealand took a very different step. Its parliament passed the Te Awa Tupua or Whanganui River Claims Settlement bill, which granted the Whanganui River legal personhood--the first time in the history of the world that this has been done. Chris Finlayson, the government official who helped negotiate the new law, announced that the river now has " . . . all the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person."

In effect, the river now owns itself. It has innate rights and intrinsic value, and, through the people who have traditionally lived along it and relied on it for their livelihood, the Whanganui Iwi Maori, it can defend those rights in court.

The Whanganui River on the North Island of New Zealand
It runs for 180 miles from Mount Tongariro to the Tasman Sea
Credit: James Shook/Wikimedia

Within a week, a high court in northern India granted similar legal personhood to two rivers, the Ganga and the Yumana.

The Ganga River flowing through the Himalayas
Credit: Asdelhi95/Creative Commons
Just as we could not foresee all of he implications and ramifications of the Citizens United decision, we don't know what impacts granting human status and rights to rivers or other parts of nature will have. However, we can hope that this is just the start of a worldwide movement, and that not only rivers, but wetlands, forests, mountains, seashores, lakes, seas, the ocean, the atmosphere, or perhaps even Earth herself will gain personhood and legal rights.

This may be the first sign of a much-needed radical change in our relationship with nature. Now (6/3/17) a third country--Colombia--has granted similar rights to a river, in this case the Atrato River, which has long been a toxic dump for illegal mining wastes.

2/28/19:  The city of Toledo Ohio has just passed legislation giving long-suffering Lake Erie personhood rights, and allowing individuals, organizations or the city to sue or take other legal actions on its behalf. You can read about it here.

And a lawsuit has been filed in Federal District Court in Colorado to recognize the Colorado River and its ecosystem as a person.

Maybe Mother Nature will soon be more than a figure of speech, but instead an actual being with legal standing and guaranteed rights. I don't think that many corporations will like that--especially those that rely on wealth extracted from nature or benefit from dumping waste products back into nature--but at least Earth will be able to fight back on a level playing field.


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Thursday, April 27, 2017


Wind power is is soaring worldwide, and the U.S. is no exception. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) just published its annual report, with great news for anyone who loves clean, renewable energy, and the jobs it produces.

Green Mountain Wind Farm near Fluvanna, Texas
Credit: Leaflet/Wikimedia Commons

A few of the milestones reached in 2016:

--15,000 new jobs, bringing the total U.S. wind-power employment to 102,000. Compare that to the 50,500 employed in coal mining at the end of 2016, down from 70,000 in 2003 to get a sense of which way the wind is blowing. And, points out Tom Kiernan, the CEO of  AWEA, since 99% of wind farms are located in rural areas, they are providing jobs and land-leasing income where they are most needed.

--Even though hydropower has been a key part of the U.S. energy system since the early 1900s, windpower edged it out in 2016, and now accounts for 5.5% of the electric power generated in the U.S.

--That's enough to power 24 million homes.

--Wind power is especially important across the midwest--both in terms of energy production and jobs. Wind accounts for between one-fifth and one-third of power production in 7 great-plains states. You can get a sense of this below:


--The wind power industry is also boosting much-needed manufacturing jobs, especially in the rust belt. More than 25,000 men and women are working in 500 U.S. factories manufacturing parts for the giant wind turbines that are harvesting wind energy more and more efficiently.

--Even without subsidies, in many areas of the United States and the rest of the world, wind power is now the cheapest way to generate electricity.

This news is another great example of how moving to a sustainable energy system as fast as possible is a win-win solution for people and the planet.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017


Most archaeologists believe that the first Americans arrived no more than 14,500 years ago, as the waning ice age opened up overland and coastal routes from Eurasia into North and South America.

It's true that over the years,  researchers have excavated multiple sites from Pennsylvania to Brazil that have pointed to an earlier human presence in the New World, perhaps 20,000 to 50,000 years ago.  But all of those finds have drawn intense criticism by mainstream archaeologists, and have been effectively sidelined.

Today however, a team of paleontologists, geologists and archaeologists writing in the prestigious journal Nature, present evidence pushing the first human presence in the Americas back by close to a factor of ten, to between 120,000 and 140,000 years ago.

"This discovery is rewriting our understanding of when humans reached the New World," says  Judy Gradwohl, President and CEO of the San Diego Natural History Museum, whose team of paleontologists led by Richard Cerutti first studied the site, located along the route of a freeway in southwest San Diego, California.

"It's a very urban area now," says Thomas Deméré, also at the Natural History Museum, "but 130,000 years ago it was a meandering stream close to sea level, with camels, horses, ground sloths, capybara and deer--probably a very nice place to live."

130,000 year old mastodon bones
and possible stone tools, in situ
Credit: Holen et al./Nature

The core of the evidence consists of two clusters of fossilized teeth and bones of a single mastodon that, according to the researchers, show clear signs of having been smashed open by humans using stones as hammers and anvils. In addition to the shattered bones and teeth, the "smoking guns" are five hefty stones found among the bones--hammerstones that still bear impact marks from their use at the site, with flakes knocked off by the blows nearby. Tellingly, the mastodon's ribs, which would have been broken by geological forces, are still intact, while the extremely tough, marrow-containing long bones were cracked open.

Possible hammerstone wielded 130,000 years ago
Credit: Holen, et al./Nature

To verify that the marks they found on the stones and bones were caused by humans rather than by animals or geological processes, the team used similar stone hammers and anvils to smash open fresh elephant bones. "We found the same fracture patterns," said Steven Holen, a paleontologist at the San Diego Natural History Museum and the paper's lead author. "It reproduced what we saw at the Cerutti site." [Note: the researchers experimented on the bones of already-deceased elephants; no animals were harmed in their experiments.]

The research team used state-of-the-art uranium-thorium dating to determine that the bones were buried 131,000 plus-or-minus 9,400 years ago. This high-tech technique was what finally allowed them to definitively date the bones.

Since anatomically modern humans are not thought to have left Africa until around 100,000 years ago, just who these extremely early Americans might have been remains an open question. The authors speculate that they may have been a far-flung branch of Homo erectus, the mysterious Denisovians, or even Neanderthals. "The simple answer is that we don't know," says Richard Fullagar, at the University of Wollongong, in New South Wales, Australia.

Still, he adds, assemblies of stone hammers and anvils along with similarly smashed bones occur in archaeological sites in Africa dating back up to 1.5 million years, and in Europe to 350,000 years ago. Cracking open the long bones of large animals to extract marrow or make tools has been part of the repertoire of many human ancestors.

Although the research team carried out an extremely careful and detailed study of this site and its artifacts--a 24-year research odyssey that has been validated by the publication of their work in Nature--only time will tell if their conclusions will hold up in the face of the withering scrutiny they will no doubt encounter. In science, extraordinary new understandings require extraordinary proof, and setting back the date when the first humans reached the Americas by a staggering 115,000 years is certainly extraordinary.

The researchers know that their groundbreaking findings will be highly controversial, but believe that they have dotted every i and crossed every t. "It's taken a very long time to get to this stage," says Fullagar. But now, he says, "we have enormous confidence in the evidence we've put together. It's truly incontrovertible."

Incontrovertible or not, it's already eliciting great skepticism on the part of many archaeologists, for whom one isolated site with no actual human remains simply isn't sufficient to overturn the current 15,000-year-old first entry date. However, a study published just one day later in the equally prestigious journal Science, may offer the possibility of a definitive proof.

A team of geneticists, archaeologists and paleontologists at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany report being able to recover Pleistocene-era Neanderthal and Denisovian DNA, along with DNA from various animals, from the sediments of caves occupied or visited by ancient humans, even though no bones or other human remains were found. I won't go into more detail here, since this story has been heavily covered elsewhere. You can see what the New York Times had to say about it here.

If the same technique can be used on materials from the Cerutti site, it could pin down a revolutionary claim that otherwise is likely to remain at best controversial.

The Nature article by Steven Holen and colleagues can be found here.

You can view a YouTube video about this discovery at this URL.

And click here for video of the team's elephant-bone-breaking experiment.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017


The costly lessons of America’s ‘Forgotten War’ are being ignored once again.

Two thirds of a century ago, American lack of understanding of complex Asian realities coupled with a large dose of military hubris embroiled the country in a Korean conflict which nearly escalated into a nuclear-enabled World War III.

Responding to a reckless North Korean attempt to reunify the artificially divided peninsula by force, President Truman, with United Nations backing, authorized Far Eastern Commander, General Douglas MacArthur, to defend the South and drive the attackers back across the 38th Parallel. MacArthur’s brilliant Inchon landing succeeded in beating back the intruders, liberating Seoul and re-establishing a pro-Western government in the South.

General Douglas MacArthur
Public Domain-author unknown

Encouraged by his victories, however, MacArthur pushed well beyond his orders and pressed the attack northward with the goal of destroying the Northern armies and defeating the Communist-dominated State. The effect of his actions, while aimed at reunifying the peninsula in America’s favor, also directly challenged the newly-established Red Chinese government by threatening military action up to and potentially beyond the Chinese border in Manchuria.

Ignoring Chinese warnings as well as overt directions from more cautious diplomatic and military leaders in Washington, MacArthur’s miscalculation triggered the surprising and overwhelming Communist Chinese response which led to an additional three years of costly and bloody land warfare in Asia leading the death of more than 36,000 U.S. soldiers—ending with the uneasy stalemate which has existed for nearly 65 years at the same 38th Parallel where the conflict began.

Bodies of U.S., U.K., and ROK soldiers 
before mass burial at Koto-ri,1950 
(Photo by Sgt. F. C. Kerr)

Currently, a newly energized American leader, without foreign policy experience and with a tendency to make provocative and aggressive statements ("if China won’t help, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A”) and also led by generals is currently convinced that the show of and possible use of overwhelming military force, rather than diplomacy, will succeed in defanging the rhetorically aggressive and now nuclear-armed North. In the process, it runs the risk of pushing the ever more paranoid leadership in Pyongyang toward a point of no return where the slightest miscalculation, a missile test gone astray, a nuclear test, a misreading of intentions, may trigger unintended and disastrous military results.

Once again U.S. leadership is relying on the tenuous belief that China, Russia or others will not intervene—even if the United States acts unilaterally to destroy the North’s capacity to employ weapons of mass destruction-- or that unanticipated events in a newly-destabilized region will not widen the conflict well beyond Korea.

While analysts have been comparing theevolving conflict to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a much more apt comparison should be that of Korea in 1950 and 1951, when an ambitious and arrogant General blundered into a world of trouble neither he nor the American people ever fully expected or understood.

Les Adler, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of History and Interdisciplinary Studies
Sonoma State University

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Saturday, April 15, 2017


Just a quick link to a great piece by engineering professor John Abraham entitled, "150 Years Ago, Scientists Understood the Climate Better than the EPA Head Does Today."

Here's the URL to click on.

It's worth reading the whole article, in which Abraham vividly reminds us that climate-change deniers such as Scott Pruitt, the current head of the EPA, are basically living in the 1800s, at least as far as their acceptance of the basic science of Earth's radiation balance, the greenhouse effect of atmospheric carbon dioxide and water vapor, and the impact of increased greenhouse gases on Earth's climate, all of which were well known before the turn of the century on New Year's Eve, 1899!

The basic science behind climate change was understood before this car hit the road
Credit: National Motor Museum

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Scientists still don't know what dark matter is, although there appears to be five times more of it than of normal, visible matter, and cosmologists believe that it has played a crucial role in the evolution of the universe.

Since it doesn't interact with light or other electromagnetic radiation, and barely if at all with normal matter except through gravity, it's not surprising that it's proven excruciatingly hard to detect. A long series of increasingly sensitive experiments have narrowed the range of possible targets, but so far have failed to find actual dark matter particles.

Now, researchers at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada, have confirmed one of the key predictions of how dark matter should act by imaging for the first time strands or bridges of dark matter linking neighboring galaxies.

Dark matter filaments bridge the space between galaxies in this false colour map. The locations of bright galaxies are shown by the white regions and the presence of a dark matter filament bridging the galaxies is shown in red. Credit: S. Epps & M. Hudson / University of Waterloo

Astronomer Michael Hudson and graduate student Seth Epps detected the dark matter bridges through the gravitational lensing effect they had on the light coming from even-more-distant galaxies. The image above combines the observations of 23,000 galaxy pairs, which allowed the researchers to detect the dark matter filaments with a high degree of statistical certainty.

“For decades, researchers have been predicting the existence of dark-matter filaments between galaxies that act like a web-like superstructure connecting galaxies together,” said Hudson. “This image moves us beyond predictions to something we can see and measure.”

Their work proves the prediction that rather than isolated "island universes," galaxies and even larger galaxy clusters are like beads of condensation on an invisible cosmic web of dark matter.

Beads of water on a spider's web

You can find the original paper here.

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Sunday, April 09, 2017


While the U.S. government remains mired in climate-change denial, and hopes to boost employment by deregulating the moribund coal-mining industry, other countries are forging into the future by boosting their alternative-energy infrastructure.

One such success story is Scotland, part of the United Kingdom and home to 5.3 million people. In March, their rapidly growing wind farms generated more than 1.2 million megawatt-hours of electricity, enough to power all 2.4 million Scottish households with plenty of energy left over. At a current value of around 100 British Pounds ($123 dollars) per megawatt hour, that wind-produced, carbon-free power was worth about $150 million dollars.

Scottish windfarm
Credit: Rosser1954-English Wikipedia

It's well known that the alternative energy industry produces a lot of jobs, so it's not surprising that the wind power industry has put thousands of Scots to work, along with millions worldwide.

It's also striking how quickly a country can increase its capacity to generate alternative energy. The figures for March, 2017 in Scotland represent an 81% increase over March of 2016.

Lang Banks, the director of WWF in Scotland, summarizes:

“As well as helping to power our homes and businesses, wind power supports thousands of jobs and continues to play an important role in Scotland’s efforts to address global climate change by avoiding millions of tonnes of carbon emissions every year.”

So let me get this straight. An entire country can generate all the power it needs, at a competitive price, put a lot of people to work, maintain a very high standard of living and help protect all of us from climate disruption.  Sounds like a win-win solution to me.

At the same time, our current leader doesn't like the way wind turbines look, has put a climate-change denier, Scott Pruitt, in charge of the EPA, and another one, Rick Perry, in charge of the Department of Energy. While other countries are rapidly advancing towards what seems to be an inevitable and highly desirable clean-energy future, we seem to be retreating into a coal-and-oil fueled past.

Syncrude Aurora oil sands mine, Canada
Credit: Elias Schewel

What's wrong with this picture?

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Tuesday, April 04, 2017


I know that not many of us--and certainly not the President or our representatives in Congress--are thinking past the next vote or at most the next election.

Still, for those who care about the next few generations, here's a heads-up from a trio of earth scientists in the U.S. and the U.K., writing in the prestigious journal Nature Communications.

They warn that if we burn all available fossil fuel reserves within the next few hundred years, the combination of high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and more intense radiation from the sun will turn up the heat to levels not seen on Earth since the Triassic period, 220 million years ago, or perhaps ever.

In case you don't remember the details, the Triassic featured one giant continent called Pangea. The poles were ice-free. It was hot and steamy near the coasts, baking desert inland, and Earth was dominated by the reptilian ancestors of dinosaurs, birds, mammals, and, way in the distance future, us. An interesting place for a quick visit, but not where most of us would want to live.

Postosuchus, a Triassic archosaur
Credit: Dallas Krentzel, Museum of Texas Tech University

Steamy as it was with atmospheric CO2 around 2000 parts per million, it wasn't as hot as it will be by 2250 AD if we've boosted CO2 to that same level. The reason is that the sun is gradually getting hotter. The increase in solar radiation over the course of the past 220 million years means that the combined impact--a dense greenhouse atmosphere and a hotter sun--would push Earth--and anyone still around then--into an unprecedented and unpredictable climate zone.

"Such a scenario," the authors write, "risks subjecting the Earth to a climate forcing that has no apparent geological precedent, for at least the last 420 Myrs [million years]."

So, if the first line of our business-as-usual mantra continues to be "drill, baby, drill," the next line is even more likely to be "burn, baby, burn."

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