In a Fine Frenzy - the universal dance of delusion...and the paucity of hope
"To the philosopher, the physician, the meteorologist and the chemist, there is perhaps no subject more attractive than that of ozone." ~ C.B Fox, 1873
There is a man who lives on the other side of my village (it is said) who one day, setting out for errands, inadvertently ran over his child as he backed out of the driveway. Ever since I heard this tragic tale, I have thought I can imagine the moment that, thunderstruck with horror and frozen in disbelief, he gazed upon that little mangled body. I think I know the ferocious dread that overcame him when first he realized that the car of which he was so proudly enamored - that quintessential symbol of success, the pinnacle of modern technology and shiny avatar of individual freedom - was the very same mighty instrument of folly that had literally crushed the one thing most important to him - his progeny, his future.
I suffer his tumultuous and inconsolable grief because that is how I greet every new day since abruptly I came to understand that the splendid, intricate, exquisitely entwined tapestry of life is unraveling. This realization rushed into my consciousness like a dark sinister flood by an odd circumstance. In the summer of 2008 I suddenly noticed an irrefutable signal - that trees, the essential foundation of so much biodiversity, are dying prematurely. It was a hot, dry August, and everywhere the leaves were drooping, limp and lifeless. My curiosity piqued, the more I looked, the more I found indisputable, incontrovertible symptoms of irreversible decay. It was only the beginning recognition of an ominous trend. Now, the mute indicators of deterioration are common - swathes of bare branches protrude above the canopy.
Possessing just a rudimentary knowledge of the timescales involved in evolution was enough for me to realize the formidable outcome that must result as trees die off, when myriad crashes reverberate throughout the biosphere. Eventually, a total collapse of the ecosystem will be inevitable. Initially I speculated that the reason trees manifest terminal afflictions could only be attributed to the changing climate - surely the sole influence extensive enough to instigate such a colossal catastrophe. And yet, the climactic mechanisms - precipitation and temperature - did not consistently correlate with the empirical evidence I found, which was puzzling. It turns out, as incredible as it may seem, that the primary reason all species of trees - old and young, coniferous and deciduous - are in precipitous decline is their exposure to pollution.
Following Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the Clean Air Act, and Earth Day, like many others I had assumed that pollution was under control, at least in the US, where I live. But after becoming immersed in countless books, articles, government reports and conference catalogs, the overwhelming data persuaded me to reluctantly admit that the opposite is the case. I had no idea the extent to which an entire industry of corporate vultures and unscrupulous lobbyists had been systematically undermining regulations - in the courts, in elections, in universities. The barrage of emissions from our cars and trucks, our planes and ships, our factories and power plants, our petroleum-based fertilizers, our fracking wells and flares"all rise and mingle and travel around the globe in devastating concentrations. Unlike the visible, murky components of smog that have been, somewhat, regulated and reduced - sulfur dioxide and particulate matter - nitrous oxides continued to proliferate and have come to bathe the air, water and soil in a venomous chemical witch's brew.
Whenever fuel is combusted at high temperatures - such as, to run an engine - the abundant nitrogen in the air becomes oxidized, which is why little has been done to curtail it as a pollutant. The single remedy would be to stop burning fuel. Meanwhile, the reactive nitrogen traverses oceans and continents, as does methane, another ozone precursor that is increasing. As they go in and out of complex chemical interactions volatile organic compounds, catalyzed by UV radiation, the air has become saturated beyond a threshold that is tolerable to plants. Invisible but highly toxic, the persistent background level of ozone in the troposphere is inexorably rising, as more and more precursors are emitted - particularly from booming Asia.
Science has become ever more specialized, which is marvelous and elegant, but such compartmentalization tends to obscure and dilute a holistic picture of ecology. And so even though ozone is a product of reactive nitrogen, the eutrophication of the world's waters and the ruin of the soil and air are almost always considered as separate issues. In 2011, Alan Townsend of U Colorado termed the nitrogen cascade "the biggest environmental disaster nobody has ever heard of". The disruption of the cycle was also was named in the Stockholm Resilience Centre's famed "Nine Boundaries" study as one of the thresholds that we must not - but already have - breached. One fascinating paper that examined numerous nefarious processes - deemed "an onslaught of acid loading" - was written by Rice and Herman, titled "Acidification of Earth: An assessment across mechanisms and scales". Published in 2011, it should have instigated widespread alarm, but instead was promptly forgotten.
Many people become confused because naturally occurring ozone, high above in the stratosphere, protects Earth's surface from too much UV radiation. But at ground level, anthropogenic ozone is extremely detrimental. Medical research links it to huge spikes in mortality during extreme heat waves when levels tend to peak, which is why health alerts advise the elderly and children to stay indoors, and athletes to avoid exercise. Chronic exposure to oxidative stress is linked to cancer, heart disease, autism and other neurological deficits, asthma, and diabetes. Equally well-known but rarely publicized is the fact that ozone is even more poisonous to vegetation. We are frequently encouraged to plant trees so they will clean the air - but few stop to consider what happens to the trees as they perform this service for us.
When trees and other plants absorb ozone as they photosynthesize, their leaves, needles, roots, and ability grow are directly harmed. A far more significant ramification is that they become more susceptible both to abiotic stressors - such as cold, drought, wind, and heat - and to the biotic attacks that are currently world-wide epidemics. One scientist from FACE - a controlled fumigation experimental facility - who described this unexpected and pernicious result, referred to those parasitic incursions as the "sharks that smell blood in the water".
Sporadically but increasingly, reports surface about looming shortages of favored commodities that can be traced to ozone - coffee and bananas, wheat, all types of citrus fruit, cocoa, cassava, maple syrup, ash wood for baseball bats, and oak stakes for whiskey barrels. In a losing battle, nurserymen, landscapers and farmers seek to counter some of the repercussions, knowingly or out of ignorance, by applying fertilizers, lime, and pesticides. The Department of Agriculture funds programs to genetically engineer ozone "tolerant" crops, with no success.
Climate change cannot account for the leaves of tropical ornamentals watered in pots that are typically blighted by the end of the growing season, as are aquatic plants, and even those in greenhouses. Most of the intense warming from climate change has been confined to the higher latitudes but still, trees well within their range of heat tolerance exhibit identical symptoms.
A plethora of research indicating pollution as a cause of tree death goes back decades, to the well-documented demise of Ponderosa pines, besieged by opportunistic bark beetles, in the hills around Los Angeles. In fact, astute observers have been recording this phenomenon for centuries:
"In 1661, the English diarist, John Evelyn, published his famous treatise, Fumifugium: Or the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated, in which he described the contemporary air pollution problems..."
"Fumifugium contains graphic descriptions of effects on vegetation, such as ...Our Anemonies and many other choycest Flowers, will by no Industry be made to blow in London or the Precincts of it, unless they be raised on a Hot-bed and governed with extraordinary Artifice to accelerate their springing; imparting a bitter and ungrateful Tast to those few wretched Fruits, which never arriving to their desired maturity, seem, like the Apples of Sodome, to fall even to dust, when they are but touched"It would now puzzle the most skilful gardener to keep fruit trees alive in these places: the complaint at this time would be, not that the trees were without fruit, but that they would not bear even leaves."
~ "Air Pollution and Plant Life" edited by J.N.B. Bell of the University of London.
An excellent reference is An Appalachian Tragedy, a collaborative effort by several authors and one fantastic photographer. It was published in 1998 and since then, the problem they chronicled from Georgia to Maine has achieved global dimensions and reached into areas generally considered pristine, and too remote to be touched. A 2009 meta-analysis by Wittig, et.al., predicted that if ozone increases continue unchecked, the critically important CO2 sink of forests world-wide will be "diminished or lost". In recognition of the seriousness of the problem, the usually tepid EPA attempted to enact air quality standards to protect the environment, stricter than those for human health, but political considerations left those efforts in a state of paralysis.
Injury occurs in plants before visible symptoms can be detected on leaves, which only makes it more worrisome that virtually every leaf is marred by the end of the growing season...and on evergreen trees and shrubs, year-round. Particular signs that appear can be yellowing (chlorosis), necrosis (dead tissue) and marginal leaf burn. Older leaves, lower on a stem or on the inner parts of branches, are generally the worse off for longer exposure. Speckling, from injured stomates which are like pores, is common, as is bronzing or other abnormal discolorations. The protective waxy coating is actually eaten away by the oxidation, meaning the direct damage is more readily exacerbated by the "sharks". Rarely discussed but very familiar to agronomists is that ozone also impacts annual staple crops, reducing yield and nutritive quality by tens of billions of dollars yearly. This is a photo of ozone-injured beans from the Cornell Vegetable Program:
The sight of sickly trees has become so ubiquitous that people have forgotten how unusual it was in the past. In just a few years it seems most of us have become inured to formerly unheard-of accidents and even fatalities from trees falling on cars, houses, and people. Such incidents are becoming staples on the local nightly news, and yet few see the broader implications. Municipalities and utilities and parks are frantic to avoid liability for dangerous calamities to joggers and pedestrians and campers, but can't keep up with the necessary pruning and removal. New York City has quietly dispersed millions of dollars to settle personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits in recent years. Trees routinely fall and hardly anyone remarks upon the rotted interiors that are revealed when they do.
Signs of tree decline apparent in a cursory inventory include broken or bare branches, thin crowns, holes, splitting, peeling bark, bulging cankers (like cancerous tumors), epicormic branching (small twiggy growths poking out of the lower trunk due to hormonal signaling that the crown is stressed), lack of vibrant fall color and/or early leaf drop. It's not unusual to see almost comical overproduction of cones, seeds, nuts and flowers, which is another hormonally triggered attempt to reproduce ahead of death. All over the US, asthmatics and people with allergies complain about the high count of pollen, which buries cars and patio furniture in unprecedented layers. Sometimes, desiccated leaves will hang on through the winter, because the tree is too exhausted to drop them in a process called abscission, that actually requires energy to complete.
The website ozoneinjury.org has an extensive library of photographs, and includes a telling fumigation experiment, the results of which are pictured below. On the left are sweet potatoes grown in a chamber with clean, filtered air; the center, in ambient, polluted air; and on the right, in elevated pollution as is expected to increase in the future. Given the dramatic reduction in growth, is it any wonder that trees topple over in winds that they were formerly able to withstand?
"The most curious result obtained appears to me to be that relating to the effect of a highly ozonized atmosphere upon the roots of plants." ~ M. Carey Lea, 1864.
It breaks my heart to contemplate all the animals and birds that cannot possibly survive the fragmenting, let alone the loss, of forests. Among the many crucial services trees provide are evapotranspiration, their shade and habitat, their scented flowers maturing into nuts and fruit, their immense and tranquil beauty. Should it be surprising that we are witnessing the loss of species that rely on forests, from bats to butterflies to moose...or that wildfires and landslides are increasingly frequent and larger? We have radically transformed the earth, rendering it depauperate.
I can appreciate why those who have tried before me have given up trying to educate the public, or garner any support from established entities. Even armed with a tremendous archive of peer reviewed literature, the disinterest, ridicule and often outright hostility I have encountered has been astonishing. The futility of trying to bring this issue to the attention of the very people who should be most engaged - conservationists, foresters, and climate modelers - has stimulated some far-reaching, and decidedly unpleasant, lessons about the obtusity of human nature.
In the UK, where great oaks and beeches are integral to the landscape, arborists indulge in a xenophobic obsession with invasive pathogens, even though long before Darwin sailed off on the Beagle to collect specimens, enthusiastic gardeners had been avidly importing exotic species from around the world to augment their grand estates and arboretums. Sweet chestnut and walnut were imported by the Romans and yet it is only now that the attacks from "invasive species" have exploded, leading to hastily convened meetings and declarations of emergencies. It is far more comforting to assume that alien invaders are to blame, rather than our own lifestyle and numbers. Who wishes to confess that we are all so fundamentally at fault? And who is willing to reduce their consumption?
Repeatedly, I have been confronted with the inability of most people to squarely face what pollution is doing to trees, even though the preponderance of correlation is at least as convincing as that other ridiculous debate, whether smoking causes cancer. It's small wonder - no amount of remorse can ever erase the shattering knowledge that instantaneously follows - the unwelcome epiphany that we are bound to self destruct.
Almost no one, including professional climate activists and scientists who best know the risks, is willing to make the drastic sacrifices required to even slow the velocity of our hurtling towards disaster. When I ponder this soul-crushing prospect I can almost understand (though not quite forgive) their unwillingness to honestly grapple with this existential threat. It is the sort of shocking revelation that leads swiftly to a profoundly discomfiting contemplation of the vast meaninglessness of existence and the careless indifference of the universe. Fate is not merely arbitrary and capricious - there is nothing to ameliorate the even more bitter conclusion that we have wrought our own destruction, and betrayed the legacy of a future for our children. The fatuous absurdity of it all opens the mawing chasm of a horrible truth we all suspect but assiduously reject with all manner of ideologies and religious beliefs - humans are a plague species.
Ah years in which looking far away I saw ages long past
When still trees bloomed free in a wide country
And thus now all begins to wither
With the breath of cold-hearted wizards
To know things they break them
And their stern lordship they establish
Through fear of death
~ J.R.R. Tolkien
This haunting spectre runs contrary to all we wish to believe and everything we are taught about ourselves...the fond supposition that we are innately compassionate and kind. In response to the worsening dire news, many who are aware of the perils entertain the comforting notion that if only we had all continued to live as hunter gatherers, we would be sustainable. Some even preach the woo-woo that we can return to an idyllic, more spiritual existence in harmony with the forces of nature, as they speculate indigenous people lived before. Blaming today's culture as uniquely culpable requires willfully ignoring the path of destructive expansion we embarked upon well over 50,000 years ago, when first we swarmed out of Africa in conquest across the continents, butchering dozens of species of megafauna until we had eaten them all. A dispassionate assessment reveals that barbaric behavior has continued unimpeded other than for temporary, localized setbacks. As advised in the indispensable work of Reg Morrison, author of The Spirit in the Gene - "Humans display only animal behavior. Watch the action without the sound track and this truth becomes obvious." The only people who refuse to understand that are those who possess the extraordinary ability to read George Monbiot's memorable summary of the most recent research - Destroyer of Worlds - and miraculously dismiss it as "euro-centric scientism".
Humans share with all other species the tendency to produce more offspring than needed to carry on our population. In nature, such unbalanced proliferation is kept in check, but humans, being nimble, adaptable top predators, have cleverly overcome obstacles in every nook and cranny of the earth. Now that our growth is exponential, we also are on the verge of having our population checked by nature.
Climate change has come to dominate ecology - it certainly receives far more funding and media discourse than the crisis of biodiversity loss, which has been relegated into a tree-hugging ghetto - or peak oil, the third rail everyone is terrified to touch. The emphasis on climate change almost to the exclusion of all else enables the illusory fiction that so-called "clean, green, renewable," energy will spare us from the consequences of our excesses, foster endless growth, and allow this fabulous energy-stoked party to continue unabated. None of the alternatives can conceivably deliver the concentrated power of fossil fuels, which are irreplaceably dense, to a world of seven billion most of whom crave more, not less, energy. Furthermore, any solution that provides additional energy will augment, not supplant, the existing use of dirty fuels, as a passing familiarity with Jevon's Paradox, Hardin's concept of Tragedy of the Commons, and the foibles of human nature make clear.
But the pretense persists, neglecting the genuinely inconvenient truth, which is that climate change is but one symptom of overshoot. Even if someone waved a magic wand and made climate change disappear, we would still be on a trajectory towards self-annihilation. It seems every paper ends with the caveat, "...more research is needed" when none is required - we know what we need to do. We don't want to do it.
Nature is impervious to our desires and posturing and is reacting in ways that we can no longer rein in or control. The paleoclimate is a better predictor than models that do not account for amplifying feedbacks, which is why events are outpacing expectations by unimaginable margins. Sea level rise will inundate coastal cities and fertile floodplains, and most people will become refugees with no place to go from extreme floods, droughts and the lack of clean water and food. In addition to the loss of a carbon sink, dying trees will cause other amplifying feedbacks such as wildfires adding to more ozone, black particulates darkening ice sheets increasing the melt, and increased soil respiration.
Through the myths of Prometheus, Pandora, Icarus, Cassandra, and Medea, the Greeks warned long ago that hubris, our voluminous appetites, our uninhibited greed, the negligent wielding of fire and technology and most of all, our delusional, optimistic hope would be our undoing. It doesn't take anything more than common sense to intuit that you can't have infinite growth on a finite planet - and yet that simple truism is not only anathema, but entirely foreign. It appears that evolutionary selection has favored the ability to function despite cognitive dissonance. Even highly educated atheists are functionally incapable of imagining a universe without humans. Whether any few individuals manage to survive the bottleneck is essentially moot; the violent journey from happy Holocene to the next epoch will be epic dread.
In his fierce lecture titled Ocean Apocalypse, the world's foremost expert and ocean advocate from Scripps Institute, Jeremy Jackson, lamented that if only people could view the coral reefs hidden under the sea as easily as they can see trees, they would be so appalled at the deterioration they would be motivated to save them. Yet, he himself doesn't see that actually, the trees are deteriorating - in plain view - and hardly anyone notices the pattern, or cares. The stunning loss of life in the sea led to the elucidation of the concept known as shifting baselines, whereby people are oblivious to incremental changes - even though in larger scales of time they are dramatic. It is a part of the reason why so few people see the monumental change in the health of trees. The late Farley Mowat's searing documentary and book, "Sea of Slaughter", examines the notorious history of interference in the Atlantic. It stands as a parable of murder and mayhem, representative of all the other places we have contaminated and robbed and ransacked - as does the inimitable classic, Moby Dick. A great book that captures the popular imagination about the parallel shabby spectacle of the dying trees has yet to be written...and probably never will be.
As there is almost certainly nothing to be done to halt this trajectory, since it is patently not hardwired in our nature to plan ahead or exercise restraint, does it really matter if all the trees die from pollution - when ten million species of flora and fauna are at risk from our reckless marauding? What, precisely, is a possible goal? What should we be aiming to achieve?
The thing to remember is, trees are intrinsically resilient, able to thrive through far more adverse conditions than climate change has yet to throw their way. There was a worse drought in California 500 years ago, but the old-growth sequoias and redwoods survived. Millions of saplings planted in the Midwest at the height of the Dust Bowl as "shelterbelts" grew without ever being watered. Trees have to be tougher than most other life forms - they cannot pick up and move in times of adversity. Some are meant to live for thousands of years, and most, for hundreds. Their tenacity is remarkable, and can be observed in mountainous terrain where they cling to sheer rock cliffs, and in cities where they stubbornly erupt from sidewalk cracks. The excuses foisted upon a gullible public for why they are dying now - storms, road salt, too wet or too dry, compaction, invasive insects, crowding - are hazards trees would normally laugh at, if they could laugh. Or if we could hear. Tree roots think nothing of enveloping granite boulders, and gusty winds are play for them.
One of the most important things we could do to slow the rush towards extinction from climate change is to give the forests a chance to recover. To do that, we would have to first see that they are dying; next, understand why; and then, be willing to give up nearly every luxury we are infatuated with. We would have to accept - actually, demand - draconian government intervention in individual freedom, including the rationing of fuel, food, water, and children.
That, of course, is highly unlikely. Most of us will dance through life as best we can, in a fine frenzy of denial, until the involuntary visitation from the Four Horsemen occurs. As this scenario unfolds, each of us will have to reconcile our dreams and expectations with the ugly and inescapable reality of collapse. For me, a love for my fellow creatures, and the indelible timeless truths enshrined within the laws of science, are all that remain in a world gone mad as Ophelia.
The painting at the top of this essay, Hope, was the subject of a lecture where it was described as a "study in contradictions". That academic talk was attended by the pastor Jeremiah Wright, who in turn used the painting as the focal point for a sermon in 1990, which was attended by a young Illinois State Senator, Barack Obama. Aspiring to the presidency, he took the title of the sermon as inspiration for a book and the campaign slogan that turned out to be so hollow, "The Audacity of Hope".
In his sermon, Wright concluded that "...hope is what saves us." I would submit that Hope, while once a useful trait, is what has condemned us, because we literally cannot see the cliff as we dance off it. Instead of celebrating the failed audacity of hope, it might be prudent to contemplate, in the time we have left, the paucity of hope - because the most we can realistically hope for, trapped by forgone conclusions, is to vanquish fear...and find the grace of acceptance.
"I, too, felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe." ~ Albert Camus, l'Etranger
For photographs, supportive documentation, and a free download of my book, Pillage, Plunder & Pollute, LLC, and update Whispers of the Ghosting Trees, please visit my blog, Wit's End at www.witsendnj.blogspot.com
I write mostly about trees dying from air pollution; and more broadly, ecosystem collapse from human overpopulation, habitat destruction, ocean acidification, and climate change.
The views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this website or its editors.