Insectageddon: farming is more catastrophic than climate breakdown

Insectageddon: farming is more catastrophic than climate breakdown
The shocking collapse of insect populations hints at a global ecological meltdown
By George Monbiot
Oct 20 2017

Which of these would you name as the world’s most pressing environmental issue? Climate breakdown, air pollution, water loss, plastic waste or urban expansion? My answer is none of the above. Almost incredibly, I believe that climate breakdown takes third place, behind two issues that receive only a fraction of the attention.

This is not to downgrade the danger presented by global heating – on the contrary, it presents an existential threat. It is simply that I have come to realise that two other issues have such huge and immediate impacts that they push even this great predicament into third place.

One is industrial fishing, which, all over the blue planet, is now causing systemic ecological collapse. The other is the erasure of non-human life from the land by farming.

And perhaps not only non-human life. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, at current rates of soil loss, driven largely by poor farming practice, we have just 60 years of harvests left. And this is before the Global Land Outlook report, published in September, found that productivity is already declining on 20% of the world’s cropland.

The impact on wildlife of changes in farming practice (and the expansion of the farmed area) is so rapid and severe that it is hard to get your head round the scale of what is happening. A study published this week in the journal Plos One reveals that flying insects surveyed on nature reserves in Germany have declined by 76% in 27 years. The most likely cause of this Insectageddon is that the land surrounding those reserves has become hostile to them: the volume of pesticides and the destruction of habitat have turned farmland into a wildlife desert.

It is remarkable that we need to rely on a study in Germany to see what is likely to have been happening worldwide: long-term surveys of this kind simply do not exist elsewhere. This failure reflects distorted priorities in the funding of science. There is no end of grants for research on how to kill insects, but hardly any money for discovering what the impacts of this killing might be. Instead, the work has been left – as in the German case – to recordings by amateur naturalists.

But anyone of my generation (ie in the second bloom of youth) can see and feel the change. We remember the “moth snowstorm” that filled the headlight beams of our parents’ cars on summer nights (memorialised in Michael McCarthy’s lovely book of that name). Every year I collected dozens of species of caterpillars and watched them grow and pupate and hatch. This year I tried to find some caterpillars for my children to raise. I spent the whole summer looking and, aside from the cabbage whites on our broccoli plants, found nothing in the wild but one garden tiger larva. Yes, one caterpillar in one year. I could scarcely believe what I was seeing – or rather, not seeing.

Insects, of course, are critical to the survival of the rest of the living world. Knowing what we now know, there is nothing surprising about the calamitous decline of insect-eating birds. Those flying insects – not just bees and hoverflies but species of many different families – are the pollinators without which a vast tract of the plant kingdom, both wild and cultivated, cannot survive. The wonders of the living planet are vanishing before our eyes.



Democracy Can Plant the Seeds of Its Own Destruction

Democracy Can Plant the Seeds of Its Own Destruction
By Thomas B. Edsall
Oct 19 2017

Will President Trump’s assault on the norms underpinning constitutional democracy permanently alter American political life?

On a daily basis, Trump tests the willingness of the public to accept a president who lies as a matter of routine. So far, Trump has persuaded a large swath of America to swallow what he feeds them.

Asked whether the media makes up stories about Trump, nearly half the population of the United States, 46 percent, now says yes, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted Oct. 12-16. This compares to 37 percent who say that the media does not fabricate material about the president. While Republicans and Democrats diverge in the directions you would expect, a plurality of independents, 44 percent, says that the media produces false stories; 31 percent say the media is accurate.

Trump has flourished at a time when trust in basic institutions — organized religion, banks, medical services, Congress, the media, government, you name it — has eroded. His presidency is a product of this erosion, but it is also proving to be an accelerant of the process.

Eight days after Trump was elected, Clare Malone, a senior political writer for the website FiveThirtyEight, put it this way:

Trump did not so much conjure a dark view of America’s direction as tap into reserves that have lain deep and been sporadically voiced.

Or, as Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk write in the July 2016 issue of the Journal of Democracy:

Even as democracy has come to be the only form of government widely viewed as legitimate, it has lost the trust of many citizens who no longer believe that democracy can deliver on their most pressing needs and preferences.

The danger, they argue, cannot be underestimated:

As democracies deconsolidate, the prospect of democratic breakdown becomes increasingly likely — even in parts of the world that have long been spared such instability.

Trump is the most prominent of the right-wing populist politicians continuing to gain strength both here and in Europe (despite some electoral setbacks), but because the viewpoint he represents is now so widespread, he is in one sense personally irrelevant — a symptom rather than a cause.

As Sasha Polakow-Suransky, the author of “Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy,” warns in The New York Review of Books:

Liberal democracies are better equipped than authoritarian states to grapple with the inevitable conflicts that arise in diverse societies, including the threat of terrorist violence. But they also contain the seeds of their own destruction: if they fail to deal with these challenges and allow xenophobic populists to hijack the public debate, then the votes of frustrated and disaffected citizens will increasingly go to the anti-immigrant right, societies will become less open, nativist parties will grow more powerful, and racist rhetoric that promotes a narrow and exclusionary sense of national identity will be legitimized.

The threat to democracy posed by the current outbreak of populist nationalism has become a matter of concern for both scholars and ordinary citizens. The central topic at a conference at Yale earlier this month was “How Do Democracies Fall Apart,” and the subject will be taken up again in November at a Stanford conference called “Global Populisms: A Threat to Democracy?”

I contacted several of the participants at the Yale gathering and was struck by their anxiety over the future prospects of democratic governance.

One of the most insightful was Adam Przeworski, a political scientist at N.Y.U., who has written, but not yet published, his own analysis of current events under the title “What’s Happening.”

First and foremost, Przeworski stresses,

there is nothing “undemocratic” about the electoral victory of Donald Trump or the rise of anti-establishment parties in Europe.


Network Neutrality and Beyond: The Long Road Ahead

Network Neutrality and Beyond: The Long Road Ahead
By Michael Copps
Oct 18 2017

Remarks of Former-FCC Commissioner Michael Copps
Public Interest Advocacy Centre
Ottawa, Canada
October 18, 2017

Thank you for your kind welcome, and thank you to both the Public Interest Advocacy Centre for its invitation to be here this evening and to the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Law, Technology and Society for providing this very fine venue. It is great to be back in Ottawa, and a special honor to be delivering the inaugural Howard Pawley Memorial Lecture. I hope my remarks will be worthy of this distinguished gentleman and his life of public service. 

Several years ago, while still a member of the Federal Communications Commission, I came to Ottawa under considerably different circumstances. I was here to encourage an open internet and my strong belief that network neutrality was the sine qua non of an open internet. I was here to encourage a more robust approach to the issue in your country. History takes strange and not always wondrous turns, however, and here I am back in Ottawa as Canada moves smartly ahead while the current majority at our FCC is on the brink of wiping out all the net neutrality progress its predecessor FCC made just a couple of years ago. Maybe the past isn’t always prologue and the arc of history can move downward as well as upward.

For full disclosure, I will give you my conclusion first and then tell you how I got to it. My conclusion is that the future of successful self-government hangs importantly on this issue. If we cannot get net neutrality right, we can forget about the transformative democratic potential of the net. Network neutrality is the necessary, but not the sufficient, foundation of an open internet. And anything less than a truly open internet would be a tragic denial of the awesome potential of digital technology to transform our lives.

OK—back to the beginning. When I was appointed to the FCC in 2001, I thought I had landed the coolest job in Washington. I would be working to bring the wonders of modern communications to every corner of the land, working with mind-expanding technology innovators and meeting with edge-of-the-envelope entrepreneurs, as well as Americans around the country and from all walks of life, about what was needed to get us where we needed to go. After a week or so on the job, I learned that wasn’t going to be the bulk of my job. Immediately legions of media and telecom CEOs, lawyers, and lobbyists descended upon my office trying to convince me of the “wonders” of more and more industry consolidation. They talked about economies of scale and efficiencies of production that would, they claimed, wipe away the chaos of competition and the confusion of diversified ownership. They were talking to a Commission majority only too anxious to do their bidding—a Commission far too beholden to the special interests and one wedded to a discredited ideology of unconstrained free markets and the beauties of self-regulating monopolies and/or oligopolies. So as soon as the FCC approved the merger proposed by those first CEOs who walked through my doorway, along came the next company’s top brass, arguing that because we had approved the first merger, we had to approve this new merger too, just to keep things “fair.” 

The consolidation bazaar went on, usually over my objections and, to be fair, under the leadership of both parties, with a few exceptions, those exceptions being a bit more frequent under Democratic than Republican Administrations. But not frequent enough!

With the Trump Administration‘s arrival and the appointment of a new FCC Chairman fervently in love with free market ideology and closely aligned throughout his career with big telecom and media interests, the prospect is for more—many more—mergers and acquisitions. Instead of putting the public interest first, a duty imposed on the Commission by Congress in the controlling Communications Act of 1996, where the term “public interest” is mentioned more than 110 times, special interests are in the saddle, riding roughshod over the common good. So today we see a proposed Sinclair-Tribune broadcast deal on the cusp of being approved. It is a merger that will give Sinclair access to over 72 percent of U.S. households, end-running the current statutory limit of 39 percent. The Commission is already changing its rules in order to permit the proposal to pass, and apparently it is willing to ignore the Congressionally-mandated cap. Chairman Ajit Pai is busily seeking a way around this limitation. We can go into it in more detail later if you like, but Sinclair has a long history of stretching, bending, and evading FCC rules as it goes about building its empire. 

This merger is just plain awful for the public interest—or, as the Canadian coinage would have it, the “national identity”—not only because it would raise prices on consumers, but because it would significantly erode whatever is left of our democratic discourse. Sinclair comes replete with an ideology and without a reputation for balanced news and information. It actually writes editorial comments in its suburban Baltimore headquarters and then demands that its stations around the country read them on air. Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune would hammer another nail into the coffin of independent journalism in communities around the country. In its place we would have Sinclair’s Trumpist take on current affairs. So much for accountability journalism.


‘Shrinking, shrinking, shrinking’: Puerto Rico faces a demographic disaster

‘Shrinking, shrinking, shrinking’: Puerto Rico faces a demographic disaster
By Peter Whoriskey
Oct 18 2017

Long before the winds of Hurricane Maria reached Puerto Rico, another disaster had been wrenching and scattering the lives of island residents.

During the decade before Maria, economic decline and depopulation, a slower-moving catastrophe, had been taking a staggering toll: The number of residents had plunged by 11 percent, the economy had shrunk by 15 percent, and the government had become unable to pay its bills.

It already ranked among the worst cycles of economic decline and depopulation in postwar American history, and projections indicated that the island’s slide could continue for years.

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Then came Maria.

Now, even as officials in Washington and Puerto Rico undertake the recovery, residents are expected to leave en masse, fueling more economic decline and potentially accelerating a vicious cycle.

“We are watching a real live demographic and population collapse on a monumental scale,” according to Lyman Stone, an independent migration researcher and economist at the Agriculture Department. The hurricane hit “might just be the kick in the pants Puerto Rico needs to really fall off this demographic cliff into total epochal-level demographic disaster.”

Whatever happens with Puerto Rico, moreover, will have far-reaching effects, because while the disaster is felt most keenly on the island, the accelerated exodus is already being felt on the mainland.

Cities popular with Puerto Ricans, such as Orlando, Hartford, Conn., and Springfield Mass., are bracing for more students, many of whom come from families living below the poverty level.

Politicians, meanwhile, are weighing the potentially significant electoral consequences of a wave of migrants expected to lean Democratic — especially in Florida. The swing state already boasts half a million Puerto Rican-born residents, and more are expected in Maria’s aftermath.

Indeed, at a news conference last week, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló warned that without significant help, “millions” could leave for the U.S. mainland.

“You’re not going to get hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans moving to the States — you’re going to get millions,” Rosselló said. “You’re going to get millions, creating a devastating demographic shift for us here in Puerto Rico.”

Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Raúl Maldonado has warned, meanwhile, that without more aid, the government could suffer a shutdown by the end of the month.

Prolonged bouts of economic decline and depopulation have afflicted parts of the United States before. During seven years in the 1950s, the number of people living in West Virginia dropped by 8 percent. New York lost 4 percent of its population in the 1970s. And during one stretch in the 1950s, Arkansas shed a whopping 11 percent of its people.

But in depth, the cycle of economic decline and depopulation on the island of 3.4 million people may prove the most punishing.

“Even before Maria, you had what looked like a death spiral going on,” said Gregory Makoff, a bond researcher who worked on the Treasury Department’s Puerto Rico team and now is a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation. “Now it’s no longer theoretical. In a week’s time, they’ve lost another huge chunk of the population.”


Asp – or ash? Climate historians link Cleopatra’s demise to volcanic eruption

Asp – or ash? Climate historians link Cleopatra’s demise to volcanic eruption
Study of ice-core records and Ancient Egyptian documents suggests environmental forces helped seal the last Ptolemaic ruler’s fate in 30BC
By Hannah Devlin, Science correspondent
Oct 17 2017

The fall of Cleopatra’s Egypt to Augustus, the first Roman emperor, is usually told as a melodramatic power struggle between elites on the world stage.

Cleopatra famously forged a doomed political alliance with the Roman general Mark Antony, who was also her lover. But when their combined forces were defeated at the battle of Actium, the pair killed themselves and Egypt became a province of the newly formed Roman empire.

However, a new analysis suggests the seeds of Cleopatra’s defeat may have been sown a decade earlier by environmental forces beyond her control. It links a massive volcanic eruption – which probably happened somewhere in the Tropics, although the team is not sure – with severe disruption to the seasonal flooding of the Nile, and devastating consequences for Egyptian agriculture.

The study, based on evidence from ice-core records of eruption dates, the Islamic Nilometer (an ancient history of Nile water levels) and Ancient Egyptian documentation of social unrest, suggests that a giant volcanic eruption in 44BC may have suppressed rainfall, leading to famines, plague and social unrest. Ultimately, the authors argue, this may have weakened Cleopatra’s hold on power a decade before her defeat in 30BC, changing the course of world history.

Francis Ludlow, a climate historian at Trinity College Dublin, and co-author of the study, said: “We’ve shown evidence that the failure of these floodwaters are connected to things like revolt and sales of land, and these are triggering social stresses.”

Previously historians have focused on the downward spiral of the 300-year Ptolemaic dynasty, of which Cleopatra was the final ruler, driven by infighting, decadence and incest, with siblings routinely married for political reasons.

“They are portrayed as these horrible, drunken, womanising despots, literally drunken idiots who can’t run the country,” said Joe Manning, a historian at Yale University and also a co-author. “The Romans took a really grim view of these guys. Probably unfairly.

“We have a more complex story,” Manning added. “We’re saying that the environment and Nile behaviour was important for understanding the economy.”

Egyptian agriculture was critically dependent on the annual flood of the Nile, due the almost total absence of rainfall inland. “If the flood doesn’t rise high enough, you just don’t grow anything,” said Ludlow. “It can be catastrophic.”

Ptolemaic rulers developed extensive grain stores to buffer against annual variation in flooding, but extreme water shortage remained a vulnerability.

The new paper links shows that the biggest volcanic eruption in 2,500 years, marked by a spike in the sulphate content in ice-core records, occurred somewhere in the world in 44BC. Separately, the team found a strong correlation between more recent volcanic eruptions and severe dips in Nile flooding, as shown in data from the Islamic Nilometer, the longest-known annually recorded hydrological record, which started in 622 AD.

Giant eruptions inject vast quantities of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, which form aerosols that block sunlight. This reduces the amount of water evaporating from oceans and lowers rainfall.


Liberal men think they know feminism. They really don’t

Liberal men think they know feminism. They really don’t
It’s one thing to perform respect out in public. It’s another to fully understand women are humans with their own valid needs and desires
By Jessa Crispin
Oct 19 2017

Now that our culture has finally decided to take violence against (some) women (somewhat) seriously, conversations that have long happened in hushed tones are taking place in the open. In recent weeks, men throughout so-called enlightened, liberal industries have been brought down by allegations of harassment and sexual assault. 

The only thing that’s surprising is how many of the men who have long abused their power have gotten away with it in part by hiding it behind a sheen of progressive politics and claims of feminism.

Harvey Weinstein champions female directors, so how bad can he truly be? Mitchell Sunderland works at a feminist publication, so there’s no way he facilitates the harassment of women online. Matt Taibbi writes celebrated pieces about the misogyny and corruption of politicians, so we ignore his boasting about sexually harassing of women who worked for him. 

Writers at leftist publications who have written about women’s issues and self-identify as feminist now stand accused of assault and rape. In public, they call themselves our allies, and in private, they reveal their true selves.

Yes, it’s hypocrisy, but it’s something more than that. Male feminists have long been a joke for both the right and the left. The alt-right, filled with men who identify as alpha or beta, call them cucks, meaning they are so far down on the scale of hierarchical masculinity they fall below women.

On the left, there was such a widespread understanding that men who self-identify as feminists were doing it mostly to get laid that even Saturday Night Live has done a skit about it. They were performing as sensitive allies, but this was just to hide a darker truth: that men have not encountered feminism at all.

Sure, they took a class at their liberal arts college, they think it’s terrible what women have to go through with the catcalling and the unfair beauty standards, and they absolutely think it’s unfair some conservative Christian politician can deny a woman access to an abortion. They believe all the right things when it comes to women’s issues, but they still treat women as if they were objects there only for their sexual use.

What feminism should mean to men is not think this thing or vote this way. It’s not about using the right language to describe women, or learning a respectful behavior toward women on the street. It’s a project that needs to illuminate the dark, unconscious urges that power the violent behavior. 

The power imbalance between the genders is built in from birth, and our cultural values (strength and power over empathy and softness) are transmitted through everything from entertainment to the news to our political structure. 

It’s one thing to perform respect out in public. It’s another to fully understand, both consciously and unconsciously, that when you’re alone with a woman, she is a human with her own valid needs and desires. Alcohol and sexual desire has a way of bringing our unconscious beliefs out from under this veil of civility, showing us parts of ourselves even we didn’t know was there.


‘It’s able to create knowledge itself’: Google unveils AI that learns on its own

‘It’s able to create knowledge itself’: Google unveils AI that learns on its own
In a major breakthrough for artificial intelligence, AlphaGo Zero took just three days to master the ancient Chinese board game of Go … with no human help
By Ian Sample
Oct 18 2017

Google’s artificial intelligence group, DeepMind, has unveiled the latest incarnation of its Go-playing program, AlphaGo – an AI so powerful that it derived thousands of years of human knowledge of the game before inventing better moves of its own, all in the space of three days.

Named AlphaGo Zero, the AI program has been hailed as a major advance because it mastered the ancient Chinese board game from scratch, and with no human help beyond being told the rules. In games against the 2015 version, which famously beat Lee Sedol, the South Korean grandmaster, AlphaGo Zero won 100 to 0.

The feat marks a milestone on the road to general-purpose AIs that can do more than thrash humans at board games. Because AlphaGo Zero learns on its own from a blank slate, its talents can now be turned to a host of real-world problems. 

At DeepMind, which is based in London, AlphaGo Zero is working out how proteins fold, a massive scientific challenge that could give drug discovery a sorely needed shot in the arm.

“For us, AlphaGo wasn’t just about winning the game of Go,” said Demis Hassabis, CEO of DeepMind and a researcher on the team. “It was also a big step for us towards building these general-purpose algorithms.” Most AIs are described as “narrow” because they perform only a single task, such as translating languages or recognising faces, but general-purpose AIs could potentially outperform humans at many different tasks. In the next decade, Hassabis believes that AlphaGo’s descendants will work alongside humans as scientific and medical experts. 

Previous versions of AlphaGo learned their moves by training on thousands of games played by strong human amateurs and professionals. AlphaGo Zero had no such help. Instead, it learned purely by playing itself millions of times over. It began by placing stones on the Go board at random but swiftly improved as it discovered winning strategies.

At the heart of the program is a group of software “neurons” that are connected together to form an artificial neural network. For each turn of the game, the network looks at the positions of the pieces on the Go board and calculates which moves might be made next and probability of them leading to a win. After each game, it updates its neural network, making it stronger player for the next bout. Though far better than previous versions, AlphaGo Zero is a simpler program and mastered the game faster despite training on less data and running on a smaller computer. Given more time, it could have learned the rules for itself too, Silver said.

Writing in the journal Nature, the researchers describe how AlphaGo Zero started off terribly, progressed to the level of a naive amateur, and ultimately deployed highly strategic moves used by grandmasters, all in a matter of days. It discovered one common play, called a joseki, in the first 10 hours. Other moves, with names such as “small avalanche” and “knight’s move pincer” soon followed. After three days, the program had discovered brand new moves that human experts are now studying. Intriguingly, the program grasped some advanced moves long before it discovered simpler ones, such as a pattern called a ladder that human Go players tend to grasp early on.