Recently perused articles

  • First up, an analysis from Yale Environment 360 on the permanent damage from “megafires” caused by “megadroughts” in the American Southwest, due to a changing climate that’s causing extreme weather patterns.
  • Even as we’re seeing more evidence of the effects of anthropogenic climate change, global climate change hardly registers as a threat for Americans, as only 40% view it as a serious problem. The rest of the world doesn’t fare much better, according to Pew Research, with only Latin America being a region where climate change is the top issue.
  • President Obama proposed new climate change policy last Tuesday. How do water issues factor in? This National Geographic column analyzes his speech for answers.
  • Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have been shrouded in smoke recently, as slash-and-burn agriculture pollution from Indonesia has found its way to its neighbors, much like Japan’s been experiencing China’s less savory airborne exports, leading to record levels of smog. Palm oil production and timber harvesting industries are the main culprits in this case. Indonesia — in particular its rapid deforestation — presents some interesting environmental issues, so I’ll be writing a full-length post on it soon. Apparently, according to this BBC Q&A,

“300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour” across the globe to make way for palm oil plantations.

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On Backcountry Cabins and Defining ‘Nature’

I’m an avid backpacker. I particularly enjoy the meditative aspects of solo treks, particularly into the mountains, where the challenging geography provides more opportunities for solitude and exciting adventures, and the onslaught of adrenaline and riddance of distractions nurtures an ascetic self-awareness. Most every time I venture out onto the trail, or cross-country, I’m able to construct another piece of my relationship with myself and the world around me. My most recent expedition involved a one-night stay at the backcountry Hidden Lake fire lookout in Washington’s North Cascades, built in 1931 by the U.S. Forest Service and now a backcountry destination and first-come-first-served residence thanks to the Friends of the Hidden Lake Lookout. Needless to stay, the views were stunning from atop the 6,900′ peak, and well worth the steep snowfield climb where I learned to love my ice axe (especially when glissading down the slopes).

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The lookout. (Click to enlarge any picture.)

Much as I enjoy a primitive campsite, with the reminders of civilization contained within my backpack and tent, there is some comfort in backcountry cabins, beyond the obvious shelter amenities. Long have I fixated upon homes in isolated, scenic locales, such as those featured on one of my favorite websites, Cabin Porn. They provide the best of both worlds — the human and nonhuman seemingly fused together. Up at the lookout, I came to reflect on this further: the presence of something as simple as a 10′ x 10′ box seems to quell some degree of the even entirely welcome trepidation that comes with being separated from the familiar (other humans, technology, creature comforts, etc.). Not that I would’ve minded pitching my tent on a small rock slab, but how could a small piece of civilization bring such comfort? The backcountry cabin, yurt, or other domicile allows retention of a slice of civilized comfort, even if someone is miles away from other reminders of society. Such a combination of rustic repose and rugged peaks, with the sharp contrast of several hours of highway driving fresh in my mind, prompted me to contemplate the nature of our concept of “nature”…

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Bed at the Hidden Lake lookout.

A most scenic eating area.

A most scenic eating area.

Wilderness is not where we feel the most whole. Instead, it provides a ground for our figure, illuminating the contrasts between us and our geography, or us and what the obsessors of civilization would call nothingness. And in the wilderness, we may feel a nothingness amplified, not because there is a dearth of content ostensibly outside the realm of society, but because we become aware of a nothingness within us. As we escape the trappings of our fellow man — and machine — returning to some sort of primeval form, albeit equipped with nylon pants and waterproof maps, and a lonely primeval being at that, suddenly made aware of not only the world without us (more or less) but us without the world in which we spend our time most, and frames our consciousness: the highway, office hallways, and couches we call home and the people who make them both bearable and dreaded.

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Recently perused articles

  • In light of the new NSA surveillance programs being unveiled (though not at all a surprise), The Atlantic has an analysis of threats to America’s livelihood — such as health issues and car accidents — which (also) not surprisingly pale in comparison to deaths from terrorism, which in no way has limited the post-9/11 culture of fear. Wouldn’t it make more sense to give up liberties to save the most lives possible, if we’re to give up liberties? Like, say, imposing taxes on sugary drinks that we’ll all have to shoulder the collective economic burden for once obesity and diabetes develops in those who chose to partake in unhealthy treats? No, that’d be too fascist and draconian. Better to just wiretap the entire fucking country.
  • Here’s an article from The Nation on Nietzsche’s apparent “children,” conservatives like Friedrich Hayek whose Austrian school of economics ideals shape the predominant  capitalist ideal today. Oh and here’s a dissent in Dissent that’s critical of the link between Nietzsche and neoliberal economics.
  • The New Yorker commemorates the 200th birthday of few people’s favorite (proto-)existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard:

Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher of subjectivity, would have been two hundred years old on May 5th, and, looking back, we can see that ironic, angst-ridden modern literature begins with him. Strindberg, Ibsen, Nietzsche, Kafka, Borges, Camus, Sartre, and Wittgenstein are among his heirs—and without him, where would Woody Allen be?

  • Apparently, neuroscientists led by Henry Markram are trying to build an exact replica of the human brain. The EU is betting $1.3 billion that he can. Here’s a chart from Wired on the computational power that’ll be required to do so:

    Source: Wired Magazine

  • Rounding up the bunch, another Atlantic piece on China’s economic growth. Is it sustainable? Do we even have to ask this question? When it it we ended the debate on whether “development” (in the building dams, buying cars, getting a new phone every 6 months way) is a good thing? Was there ever a debate? Who’s to say? (No; maybe; too early; not really; whomever).

Reflections on Food Systems From an Agricultural Island

I’m working full-time on organic farms on Lopez Island in Washington State this summer, which is why I haven’t had much time to post. It’s a small but friendly community here, about 2,000 people on 30 sq mi of land. It’s also a microcosm for organic farming. I work at one farm that has sheep, pigs, and vegetable growing three days a week, and a strawberry and fruit farm one day a week, which I prefer since I get to eat strawberries while working, which is fantastic. If you’ve never had fresh, non-grocery store strawberries and have farms nearby, I implore you to go pick some. It’s a whole ‘nother world.

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My island home from June through August.

Spending eight hours a day in fields and with animals has definitely given me perspective on agricultural issues in our society. Even as a child starves to death every 10 seconds, modern, post-Industrial people (myself included to some extent) are by and large very disconnected from where their food comes from, and even in many instances ignorant of what it’s composed of. What the hell is Taco Bell beef anyway? (Hint: mostly not beef). Or chicken nuggets — how much further can you get from an animal’s true form than a ball of ground meat-like product deep fried and incrusted in chemically-assured deliciousness? To top it all off, these are the products many children, who have no choice in what they eat, are introduced to as examples of food. Hey, and I haven’t even gotten to my rant about non-meat food products.

Anyway, my point is, like the developed world’s disconnect from the outdoors, i.e. land without roads and big boxes with TVs in them, our desensitization and ignorance about what our food is and where it comes from has drastic consequences. In the case of the lack of immersion in wilderness, we (as a society) are less attuned to the reasons we should care about the non-anthropogenic, non-mechanically developed world, and don’t even have a conceptualization of such an ideal drawn from real world experience. The form of “nature” isn’t informed by phenomenal experience, and thus remains an abstract ideal, often even reserved for those fortunate to be educated about it, although often still lacking the essential experience. In the same way, our notions of the essence of our food are similarly poorly informed. Unless you are of have been at some time an avid food researcher or farmer, this is probably true for you. It’s time for all of us to get our hands dirty in addition to trying to stay as informed as possible. We can live without iPhones and cars, but certainly not nourishment, so it’s difficult for me to conceive how the most valuable companies in the world and the apparent nexus of modern American life hold more attention and scrutiny (although not enough in the latter respect) than the cornerstone of our survival of a civilization, and a species.

Even more deplorable than the modern man’s detachment from his food and geography is the fact that 1.4 billion people have too much food to eat (i.e. are overweight) while almost 3 billion are hungry and malnourished. The rapidly developing countries like China in addition to the industrialized societies like the U.S. threaten the food security of the people lacking enough food altogether. It’s easy to forget that even though we may have plenty to eat, a third of our fellow humans don’t have nearly enough, and our seemingly boundless consumption impacts them greatly.

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