Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Review: Good Muslim, Bad Muslim

Mahmood Mamdani: Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, America, the Cold War and the roots of terror (Pantheon Books, NY, 2004), 260 pages, extensive chapter notes, index, lacks bibliography (references are given in chapter notes which hampers research).


               Prof Mamdani's book is a chilling indictment of the foreign policy of Imperial America with some reference to the negative impact of that policy on American democracy at home. His major thesis is that during the waning years of the Cold War, American democracy became perverted, internally colonized by imperialistic institutions and mindsets. Successive administrations, Democratic or Neoconservative Republican, have actively suppressed nationalist and autonomist movements in the Third World.

              Whatever their motives, the U.S. has, particularly in recent decades, attempted to subvert the rule of International law and arrogantly assumed the mantle of world policeman (or de facto sovereign).

"The U.S. has renounced treaties controlling nuclear weapons and their proliferation, voted against the protocol enabling enforcement of the Biological Weapons Convention, rejected the treaty banning land mines, endeavored to prevent its creation and since to cripple the International Criminal Court, and frustrated the Convention on the Child and the prohibition against using children in war. The U.S. has opposed virtually every other international effort to control and limit war, protect the environment, reduce  poverty and protect health." Ramsey Clark (quoted on page 208 see note 1)

             A disturbing parallel presents itself here. On the international scene, the U.S. acts like the trigger-happy American cops who shoot young black men on flimsy (or no) pretenses. Both at home and abroad, the US cop acts as cop, prosecutor, judge, jury and legislator, effectively acting above, or outside, the law. It is not an exaggeration to classify the U.S. today as a rogue state.

"Its reluctance to be held accountable internationally does not distinguish the Bush administration from other great powers, historically. What does distinguish it is the reckless determination to dispense with any project that would integrate others - whether rivals, dissidents, junior partners, or dependents - in a rule-based international order. Anatol Lieven, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, reminds us that the plan for "unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority" has been "consistently advocated and worked on by the group of intellectuals close to Dick Cheney and Richard Perle since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s." Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, considered the in-house dove in the Bush administration, shares this basic goal with the rest of the security establishment. As early as 1992, when he was chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell declared that the United States requires sufficient power "to deter any challenger of ever dreaming of challenging us on the world stage."..What distinguishes Powell from the hawks in the administration is not this basic goal but their commitment to preemptive war, now official American doctrine. Americans need to be aware of the logic of preemptive war. It is not accidental that most genocides have been carried out in times of war. The population is told: if you do not kill, you will be killed. You kill because you fear they may do to you what you are about to do to them. Preemptive war is the logic for genocide." (page 210)

         Ironically, this agenda of unipolar world domination is undertaken under the cover of "exporting democracy" to benighted third world countries. Thus President GW Bush justified overthrowing the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by claiming that he was "democratizing" the country which would, through chain reaction, provoke democratic "regime change" throughout the region.

        "They are being civilized"! So claimed 19th century British and French imperialists to justify their colonial adventures. Earlier, coercive conversion to Christianity (to save the souls of benighted savages from eternal damnation) was used to justify and rationalize the conquest of the New World. Christopher Columbus (late 15th century) saw colonial expansion (and the slave trade) as a means of acquiring the capital necessary to convert the world to Roman Catholicism. The scam of "helping" the people one is shafting is ancient.. (note 2)

              Another theme treated by Prof Mamdani deserves mention: the common form of political obscurantism he labels "Culture Talk". Its most virulent expression is found in President Donald Trump's "Islam hates us" speech. (I could not find the original, more vigorous, speech so this interview will have to do.)  

             In Culture Talk, peoples' history (recent colonial political history in particular) is ignored. Cultures become - as philosophers would say - "Essences", the deep nature of collectivities (overriding our common human nature). The state of a culture at any given time explains all there is to know about a people, race or religion. In Trump's categorization of Islam's hatefulness, its (purported) hatred of the West, America and Christianity defines Islam. Islam is this hatred. 

           A (superficially) more sophisticated variant of Culture Talk discerns two Muslim types: Good Muslims and Bad Muslims. Good Muslims are those who have, in effect, westernized. They have accepted Enlightenment values such as the criticism of Traditional Authority and Scripture. They embrace the Rights of Wo/man. Bad Muslims are essentially backwards, premodern. They have not experienced the equivalent of the Protestant Reformation (otherwise they would think like us and be Good Muslims).

           The result of Culture Talk is a radical simplification and dumbing down of the world of political discourse. Critical examination of the West's interactions with Muslims (and other non-Western societies) is suspended. This is especially dangerous since U.S. foreign policy is in desperate need of critical (re-)examination..

          The authoritarian streak in Trump and his entourage is interesting in this context. Among the defining traits of the Authoritarian Personality discovered by social psychologists:

- Manichean dichotomization of the world into warring Forces of Good and Evil (with all Good being on our side),

- "stereotypy": all individuals belonging to excluded and scapegoated groups are assimilated to a common "type" or "essence". Individual differences are ignored.

- demonization of the Enemy (those belonging to excluded or scapegoated groups). They can do no good. Even (apparently) generous acts are subterfuges to win influence for nefarious ends.

              Culture Talk would appear ready made for authoritarian (populist) discourse and demagogy.

               The major part of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim traces the evolution of U.S. foreign policy in the late Cold War, post-Soviet era. The author argues that the Cold War provided a simplifying framework fo U.S. (and Soviet) foreign policy makers: thwart the enemy's attempts to achieve global hegemony. During the late Cold War the internal contradictions of Soviet domestic economic and political policy increasingly weakened one pole of the stable bipolar political universe which emerged after World War II. The post-war  anti-colonial struggles in the third world colonies only muddied the waters further. In the late Cold War era, U.S. policy makers found third world nationalist movements particularly problematical: they did not fit on the bipolar Communist versus Free World map. These movements were wild cards and potential disruptors. Successive administrations, both Democratic and Republican, attempted to undermine these popular movements. One can speculate on the role that multinational corporations, often centered in the U.S. while exploiting third world resources (minerals, oil) and cash crops (rubber, coffee, palm oil..) played in the development of U.S. foreign policy. Such speculation, though, is not essential to the argument Prof Mamdani develops and can be left our of an initial description and appraisal of those policies. The goal of U.S. foreign policy became the establishment of compliant "puppet states", open to globalized U.S. and multinational "Free Market" trade. Also important was the minimization of regulatory legislation, social safety nets and social service networks in third world client states in order to reduce the costs to multinational corporations. A stable, predictable world controlled by American military might and profitable for (U.S.) multinationals.

           One of the author's surprising claims (for non-cynical readers anyway):

" Rather than a residue of a premodern culture in modern politics, terrorism is best understood as a modern construction. Even when it harnesses one or another aspect of tradition and culture, the result is a modern ensemble at the service of a modern project." (emphasis added)


          The paranoid Reagan administration (Republican, 1980 - 1988), in particular, interpreted the Post WW II anti-colonial struggles as deliberate Soviet attempts to undermine U.S. / Western values and world hegemony. Applying the old rationalization of the "end justifies the means", the U.S. began supporting reactionary forces employing terrorism to suppress popular anti-colonial, nationalist movements. This was a major moral failure for a nation which was forged in the fire of an anti-colonial revolution (the American Revolution, 1765 - 1783).  American anti-liberation policy reinforced imperialist / racist tendencies in American thinking and thus degraded American democracy at home and abroad.

          Over time, the anti-nationalist, anti-liberation, anti-liberal forces supported by the U.S. became increasingly vicious and degenerate. Programs to fund these forces became increasingly covert, "off the books", creating - in effect - an imperialistic, anti-democratic "shadow government" within the U.S. federal government. 

"If one advantage of proxy war was that its conduct could be hidden from public scrutiny, the disadvantage was that it was not easy to finance from public funds. This explains why covert wars have often tended to go hand in hand with illicit trade, usually in drugs. There has been a long-established link between the drug trade - whether licit or illicit - and the financing of colonial wars. In the early nineteenth century, the British empire set up an official monopoly for the cultivation of opium seed in its Indian colony and exported the harvest to China. When the Chinese emperor objected, the British claimed he was in violation of freedom of trade. To defend the freedom to trade opium, the empire sent gunboats up the Yangtze River and fought the ignoble Opium War. Similarly, in neighboring Indochina, the French used officially sanctioned opium revenues to pay the cost of their colonial occupation.
       In a monumental historical study of the link between the drug trade and counterinsurgency, The Politics of Heroin, University of Wisconsin scholar Alfred McCoy has traced the global expansion of drug-production centers - in Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Colombia, and Afghanistan - to the political cover provided by CIA-sponsored covert wars. At the heart of the global drug trade after the Second World War has been trade in opium, the raw material base for the industrial manufacture of high-grade heroin. When the CIA began its alliance with drug lords, the global opium trade was "at its lowest ebb in nearly two centuries." The war disrupted international shipping, and tight security had blocked heroin smuggling into the United States. The CIA entered into two sets of alliances it consider key to waging the Cold War, both of which boosted the drug trade far beyond prewar levels. The first was with the Mafia in Italy and France, the second was with anti-Communist Chinese forces along the Burma-China border. From 1948 to 1950, the CIA allied "with the Corsican underworld in its struggle against the French Communist Party for control over the strategic Mediterranean port of Marseille." The Corsicans triumphed and "used their control over the Marseille waterfront to dominate the export of heroin to the U.S. Market" for "the next quarter century." At the same time, "the CIA ran a series of covert operations along the China border that were instrumental in the creation of the Golden Triangle heroin complex." Beginning in 1950, these operations were aimed at creating an anti-Communist Chinese force to mount an invasion of mainland China. The invasion never happened, but the anti-Communist Chinese (KMT) "succeeded in monopolizing and expanding the Shan states' opium trade." The CIA retained these forces along the Burma-China border, hoping they would function as an advance warning system against an anticipated Chinese invasion of Southeast Asia. Instead, this anti-Communist army "transformed Burma's Shan states into the world's largest opium producer" over the next decade." (page 66-67, emphasis added. See note 3)

             Religion has been press ganged into serving the anti-national liberation movement as well. The instrumentalization of religion to serve this parallel government is well documented in Jeff Sharlet's excellent investigation, The Family.

 Soviet helicopter brought down by Afghan rebels. Stinger missles provided by the U.S. were often used.

            As  they say, politics makes strange bedfellows. In the later Cold War period, 1975 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, U.S. foreign policy planners decided not merely to "contain the Communist menace" but to "roll back Communism". Although the roll back doctrine has come to be associated with the neoconservative Republican Reagan administration (1981 - 1989), it actually began a bit earlier under the Democratic Carter administration which began funding the Afghan mujahideen - those who wage jihad ("struggle" or, at the limit, "Holy War"). The objective was to weaken the pro-Soviet government in Kabul and force the Soviets into an expensive, possibly humiliating, foreign war against irregular (guerilla) forces, further weakening Soviet world power and influence: "roll back" in other words. The Soviets took the bait. The Soviet-Afghan war lasted from 1979 to 1989, cost the lives of about 15,000 Soviets, 55,000 wounded and a massive loss of helicopters (brought down by hand-held U.S. provided Stinger missles). This humilating costly conflict has been described as the Soviet Union's Viet Nam and is listed as a contributing factor in the weakening and final break up of the Soviet Union.

                          Afghan mujahideen fighters

                          Mujahideen with portable stinger missle

             However, actions - especially political ones - produce unintended consequences: blow-back. Once the mujahideen were in power in Kabul, they could not hold onto it. Factionalized, they ended up fighting among themselves. One of their number, an Osama bin Laden, ended up turning to bite the hand that fed. Bin Laden, be it not forgotten, was the mastermind of the September 11, 201 attack on the Twin Towers, New York City which left 3,000 Americans dead. In a sense, the U.S. was reaping what it had sown. It decided to fight the dirty war, so now the dirty war was coming home..

            The reasons for bin Laden's turning are not important in this article, only the fact that, in choosing to use terrorism to roll back Communist and thwart nationalist movements in the third world, the U.S. had let loose a Frankenstein's monster on itself. After the September 11 attack on American territory, bin Laden went to ground in Afghanistan, sheltered by a mujahideen faction called the Taliban which provided a reason for President GW Bush to invade that country. Thus the wheel of Karma ("causality") turned full circle. Dirty covert war by proxy against Communists and third world liberation movements employing terror against civilian targets led directly to the New Normal we are living, post 9-11: terrorist attacks (often homegrown) in Paris, Nice, New York, Orlando, Ottawa, Manchester..

            As the Good Book puts it:

For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap - Galatians, 6:7

1- Ramsey Clark:

2- Evolutionary psychologists claim that human nature has a hypocritical streak for a reason: we are lousy liars. If, however, we manage to convince ourselves that our BS is true, we will make a much more convincing case before a potential audience. It pays, then, not to scrutinize our motives or rationale too closely! I recall a grandmother who called the CBC talk show, Cross Country Check Up, to say that her grandson had joined the army to "bring education to girls in Afghanistan", an argument used by the government to justify Canadian participation in the war. Yet, before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, few Canadians could find Afghanistan on the globe or could state whether girls had access to education there or not. Making people feel good about doing lousy things (wars, slavery, oppression of women, tax holidays for the rich..) is extremely useful to ruling elites since most people prefer to see themselves virtuous and meritorious amongst their peers. 
3-  Note that it is these very same neoconservative inspired governments who pushed a punitive "war against drugs" at home and abroad. The questions that need to be addressed here are:

- Who payed for the drugs? R: the American taxpayer through covert proxy wars. 

- Who payed for the war on drugs? R: the American taxpayer. 

- Who benefited from the war on drugs? R: the privatized prison and police system - subsidized by the taxpayers - installed by "Free Market" neoconservative ideologues. Also the bloody thugs in third world countries receiving funding to carry out America's proxy wars.

- Who suffers the most from the drug traffic supported by covert wars? R: American drug addicts, particularly from marginalized groups like blacks who received heavier sentences.  

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Book Review: Michael Benton: When Life Nearly Died

 Michael Benton: When Life Nearly Died (Thames and Hudson, 3rd edition, revised, 2015), 313 pages, glossary, index, chapter notes, bibliography, numerous illustrations.

abbreviations used in this article:

CO2: carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas causing global warming
GHG: greenhouse gas
GW: global warming
mya: millions of years ago

 The Late Permian Mass Extinction event, 250 mya, was the greatest. It was caused by massive volcanic release of greenhouse gases (GHG), overheating the earth and driving most animal and plant species on land and sea to extinction. The current human induced extinction rate is believed to largely exceed that of the Late Permian extinction.

           When Life Nearly Died or everything you wanted to know about mass extinctions were afraid to ask. One of the most pleasantly readable, complete and up to date texts accessible to the general reader. Reads like a historical novel. Definitely recommended. 

           This text covers the modern history of evolutionary theory with special emphasis on the spectacular advances in our understanding of mass extinction mechanisms, their impacts, duration and timing which have occurred over the last fifty years.

                          Estemmenosuchus-mirabilis: the only known omnivore with antlers. Body of a hippo, antlers of a moose, muzzle of a sabre tooth tiger - a veritable chimeric monster! An early - Permian age - member of the synapsid clad (genetic group) which gave rise to mammals.

            Traditionally, the appearance and evolution of life on earth were framed within a biblical understanding of the origin of the world. During the Industrial Revolution mining activity increased, bringing to light many fossils which were studied and classified by by students of the emerging earth sciences: geology, paleontology, ecology, climatology and evolutionary biology. European scientists soon realized that the Earth had to much older than the chronology presented in the Old Testament. The fossils were records of life in earlier aeons of Earth's existence. But how old is the Earth?

             Over time, a pattern of "gaps" in the fossil record emerged. Gaps in fossil chronologies appeared everywhere - they are the rule, in effect. The "fossil record" - the chronology of biological evolution as recorded in successive rock strata - is a series of fragmentary chronologies of biogeological history broken by changes in topology of the earth's surface and seafloors. Regions of upthrusting mountains will expose seabeds to the atmosphere and to erosion by rain, river flows and windborne sand particles. Overtime, the former seabed will erode exposing increasingly older sediments (and the fossils they contain). 

                        sedimentary fossil formation: click on image to enlarge

              A big part of the work of geologists and paleontologists is to match segments of rock strata from different parts of the globe to create a Universal Earth History. Some types of fossils are extremely useful in constructing this History. A critter which lived for several tens of millions of years and was widespread provides a sort of "key" or "index" allowing us to say that a layer of sediment in Russia corresponds to a layer in South Africa: the fossils were deposited at roughly the same time. This allows paleontologists to align fossil chronologies from different parts of the world.

              During the 20th century, particularly the second half, great progress was made in dating fossils and rock strata using both radioactive and non-radioactive isotopes (see note 1). Volcanic ash layers with specific isotopic signatures, allow geologists to posit the synchronous nature of two, geologically separated strata or fossils beds. In some cases radio-isotopic measures allow researchers to assign an absolute age to a rock stratum: the volcanic ash signature in this stratum shows that it was deposited X number of years before the present. Four digit accuracy is attainable. This is a vast improvement from the time of Charles Darwin, the mid-19th century, when the most that could be said was that one layer of fossils was older or younger than another (relative geological age). 

               However, some gaps in the fossil record remain recalcitrant to analysis. Is the fossil record really broken in places? Did one group of animals, one type of ecosystem, one climate regime suddenly replace another? Or is the break merely apparent, the result of missing data? 

 The Permo-triassac boundary (mass extinction). Click on image to enlarge. The Lower layers (Permian age) are rich in fossils of dicynodonts (herbivores related, distantly, to mammals). These disappear and are replaced by lystrosaur species (another herbivore type distantly related to mammals) above the extinction boundary. Note that the boundary zone itself - when the Great Extinction occurred - is virtually devoid of signs of life.
                Charles Darwin, the recognized founder of the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, held to that the evolution was continuous but the fossil record, for geological reasons, contained gaps - missing data. This position came to be known as Uniformitarianism. Uniformitarianism, as a school of thought, held that the laws and processes of nature do not change over time. Natural processes occur slowly without "quantum jumps" or discontinuities. Christian creationists of Darwin's time, on the other hand, assimilated evidence of mass extinctions - holes or gaps in the fossil record - to the biblical story of the Great Deluge. God chose from time to time to destroy most / all life on Earth and then create whole new planetary ecosystems from scratch. Their school of thought came to be called Catastrophism. Some even suggested that dinosaurs were left behind because they were too big to fit in Noah's ark and drowned in the Great Deluge sent by God as punishment for mankind's sinfulness.

              History, of course, often takes strange detours. Darwin proved to be wrong about the continuity and gradualness of natural change. As the fossil record becomes more complete and chronology more accurate, some gaps just won't go away. Instead, they are reinforced and confirmed by accumulating evidence. The contemporary acceptance of the non-uniformity of natural processes over times is called, naturally, Neocatastrophism.

              There's a lot of irony in this story. Poor Darwin got the fossil record wrong but for the right reasons (in denying God's heavy handed intervention in Natural History). The creationists got the (non-uniform) fossil record right but for the wrong reasons. You could write a comedy about this..

               In reality, it is a testimony to the robustness of the Darwinian theory of Natural Selection that it survived several such revolutions in the scientific understanding of the World Process and has emerged, not merely unscathed in its essentials, but reinforced and validated in its applicability. Evolution by Natural Selection has all the hallmarks of a Good Scientific Hypothesis. It was won its spurs in the 150 years since the publication of The Origin of Species.

                          Gorgonops -"monster face". Teeth specialized for different functions - a mammalian trait - as well as details of skull structure show that gorgonops were (very) distant cousins! Most gorgonopsid species died out during the Great Permian extinction and aftermath. The remainder died out during the following early mesozoic era (Age of Dinosaurs).

                According to contemporary understanding, there have been five massive extinction events. Of these, the Late Permian, 250 mya, was the worse, killing off about ninety percent of life on land and sea. In addition there have been, according to experts and criteria, some 10 to 20 minor extinction events, often regional rather than global in extent. The Permian extinction is now generally believed to be due to massive Global Warming (GW) caused by rapid release of GHG of volcanic origin. The recent rapid decline in world wild life has led some scientists to argue that we are living through the sixth mass extinction of life on earth.

               Mass extinctions are dramatic and biologically important events but rare, occurring once in tens of millions of years. In reality, probably more than 95% of species go extinct during normal, non-extinction periods. This is the so-called "background extinction rate". Conservationists are worried about the health of Earth's ecosystems because today's extinction rates are several times expected background rates.

              While rare, mass extinctions are important because they are dramatic accelerators of evolution due to increased environmental stresses and altered relationships between surviving - and newly immigrated - members of ecosystem communities. Organisms that were once barred entry to a region - because of competition with a better adapted local resident - may be free to enter once the competitor is eliminated. The newly arrived organisms will be under strong environmental selective pressures as they adapt to their new habitation. They will also provide strong selective pressure on resident organisms via competition for resources and habitats. New symbiotic alliances between species will be forged: another source of selective pressures as partners fine tune their mutual adaptations. Ecological niches left empty by extinction will be filled by immigrants or mutated resident organisms. New ecological niches may be created from altered interspecies interactions (because of eliminated links in the food web) or from interactions with immigrant species. Increased selective pressures during the recovery phase will trigger mutator genes into activity, increasing mutation rates generally. The recovery phase is thus a hothouse of biological innovation. Ironically, while Darwin combated the Catastrophists of his day, contemporary Neocatastrophism actually tends to reinforce and confirm Darwin's hypotheses concerning Natural Selection.

            It is important to recognize the disruptive / innovative nature  of mass extinction events. They do not select for the "fittest" according to the Rule Book. Mass extinctions tear up and rewrite the Rule Book. Mass extinctions cause evolution to veer off along strange, unpredictable trajectories. For example, most people, if asked, would say that mammals are more recent than dinosaurs. In a sense, this is correct. Small, chipmunk-like or rat-like mammals appeared during into the Age of Dinosaurs (Mesozoic Era) when dinosaurs already ruled. 

                Agilocodon, a chipmunk-like critter that lived 174 to 163 mya.
            However, these early true mammals are the highly mutated descendants of the weird, dominant synapsid "monsters" of the Permian. The Permian extinction, in effect, put an end to the "first age of mammals" allowing the ancestors of the dinosaurs - and the dinos themselves - to get the upper hand for a hundred million years or so. It is only when the dinos themselves were eliminated by the Late Cretaceous extinction, 65 mya, that the mammalian tribe was given a second chance as dominant terrestrial vertebrates. Mass extinctions tear up and rewrite the evolutionary Rule Book..

So what caused the Great Extinction then? The continents of the time, through plate tectonic drift, had coalesced into a single megacontinent, Pangaea ("all Earth"). This was a disaster, a perfect storm waiting to happen. The worst part was the blockage of tectonic plate movement around the perimeter of Pangaea. The mounting pressure in the Earth's crust and mantle eventually provoked a massive outpouring of magma (lava originating from deep within the Earth) in what is now Siberia. Vulcanism was so intense that it was not confined to individual volcanic cones. Large fissures opened and poured forth molten rock and huge quantities of GHG such as CO2 and methane. GHG warmed the earth, expanding the Great Central Desert of Pangaea. Species died off faster than the background extinction rate marking an extinction event in progress. In the sea, for a variety of reasons, large regions stratified, reducing circulation of oxygen and nutrient minerals. These anoxic (low or no oxygen) strata  became dead zones, devoid of life and sometimes laden with poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas. During sudden massive turnovers of stratified oceanic layers, hydrogen sulfide gas was released to the atmosphere, poisoning life along seacoasts. Sometimes the extinction zones could reach hundreds of miles inland as hydrogen sulfide was carried inland on prevailing coastal winds.

And then things got really bad. Life is persistent and resilient, it adapts to and opportunistically exploits changing environments. As Late Permian climates deteriorated new species emerged to replace those eliminated. Some paleontologists even speak of a short-lived mid-extinction recovery phase. But then the Earth's climate systems were driven through a climatic tipping point by particularly strong Late Permian Siberian eruptions. Massive GHG induced global warming delivered the knockout punch. The warming polar regions and their contiguous coastal waters thawed. This had two effects:

1- thawed permafrost containing buried organic matter provided food for microbes and fungi which broke down the organic matter, releasing industrial quantities of GHG: CO2 and methane.

2- methane ice (methane clathrate) - ice containing imprisoned methane - in polar soils and offshore seafloor melted, releasing industrial quantities of methane, a potent GHG.

             This, second pulse of GHG release was the sucker punch that nearly killed off life. About 90% of non-microbial species on land and sea went extinct. Evolution's trajectory was permanently modified by the shake up the Late Permian extinction.

"During the Carboniferous and Permian, the diapsids had been a minor element of most faunas, only a small lizard-like creature here and there, never large, and rarely more than 2 or 3% of the total number of animals. In the Early Triassic [period following the Permian extinction], some diapsids, in particular the group called the archosaurs ("ruling reptile") took over the carnivore niches. They preyed on the re-evolving synapsid [mammal ancestor] plant-eaters. During the first 20 million years of the Triassic, the basal archosaurs diversified slowly, and eventually included huge predators, some of them up to 5 meters long. The first dinosaurs appeared about this time, and diversified in the Late Triassic, rather small, bipedal forms at first, they soon reached huge size. Mammals were around during the entire age of dinosaurs, small descendents of the formerly dominant synapsids, but the dinosaurs ruled the Earth for the next 165 million years, until their extinction 66 million years ago. Then, and after a long wait in the wings, the synapsid descendants, the mammals, finally moved back to dominate the Earth, a position they had last had in the Late Permian. The synapsid - diapsid - synapsid cycle [of dominance] had gone full cycle." Page 24

Ok, GHG can be dangerous but what is the relevance for today?  The recent explosion of knowledge about the mechanisms of mass extinction is important for understanding the gravity and possible outcome of the current ecological / demographic crises the World is living through. At present, human agricultural and industrial activity has reached a level where it is perturbing the rhythm of the natural recycling of biologically active elements. This situation inadvertently replicates the chemical imbalances of previous mass extinction events, the Great Permian Mass Extinction in particular.

              A little reflection will show why such perturbations are important. The fact that an element like oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, carbon, phosphorous, iron is biologically active means two things:

1- abnormal amounts (too little, too much) are liable to interfere with the healthy - normal - functioning of biological systems (organisms, ecosystems). Like powerful machinery or chemicals, what is useful becomes dangerous when misused. Nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorous are extremely active biologically and when present in the wrong amounts or in the wrong form are among the most toxic elements known.  

2- "tiny" but chronic imbalances in the rates of element recycling rates soon lead to critical imbalances. Critics of GW (hypocritically or stupidly) argue that the amount of imbalance in Earth's carbon cycle induced by human industrial activity and agriculture is tiny in comparison to the total amount of carbon cycling in Earth's ecosystems. By way of comparison, consider a "tiny" imbalance in the the birth / death ratio of human population leading to a 1% per annum increase in world population. One percent, so what? But this  "tiny" increase, year in and year out, leads to a doubling of world population in a mere 70 years, less than a century and just under three generations! The lesson to take away: small cumulative increases (or decreases) lead to surprising results in short order. Even at a much more leisurely growth rate of 1% per decade, human population would take 183 years to double, a mere five generations, a period of time that would only take us back to the invention and early expansion of rail travel and electrical telecommunication (telegraph), a period that we recognize as the beginning of the contemporary technical, industrial society, not so long ago..

           We now understand the role that such "tiny" chronic imbalances - produced by natural causes, not human activity - play in mass extinctions of the past. This knowledge places humanity at a cross-roads. Do we, collectively, make the choice to replace GHG producing technologies in industry, power production, transport and agriculture by renewable "green" energy technologies: solar, wind, tidal and wave power, passive solar building heating, hydrogen fuel cells, geothermal energy, energy efficiency and low energy consumption lifestyles? Or do we maintain the status quo fossil energy system till it either disrupts climate to the point that civilized society collapses or we run out of cheap fossil fuel? The choice is ours, today, especially the young people, to make. My generation, the Baby Boomers - those born between 1946 and 1963 - blew our chance at greatness. We, collectively, let ourselves be conned into a hyperconsumptive lifestyle designed (consciously or not) to maximize the profits of multinational corporations. Even those who did not aspire to become the high living "officers" of the multinationals or the financial sector which bankrolls them, applied ourselves to becoming members of the servitor classes (professionals, middle management, technical support). We learned to define our self-worth relative to those we could look down upon because they could not consume as much as we could. In the meantime, we learned to reject the Real Values of life: family, community, pride in work well done, the expression in our personal lives and work of our deepest held values. The millennials (born 1982 to 2000), though they know it not yet, though they feign ignorance or cower in cheap cynicism, will be forced to make the necessary changes my generation failed to make. Do the millennials still have the time and the resources to make the transition to a Green Economy? It's anyone's guess. There may still be enough time and readily extractable resources left but the transition will no longer be peaceful. We Boomers held back change too long.

Methane blow hole in Siberia caused by thawed permafrost. Permafrost locks up buried organic manner for millennia (or longer). When it thaws, the formerly frozen organics become food for bacteria and fungi. The result of their digestion are GHG like CO2 and methane. When gas pressure builds up it creates these huge blow holes in the Siberian tundra. For size comparison note the tiny human figures along the upper rim. The GHG released by thawing permafrost and seabed methane-ice deposits constitute a positive feedback, amplifying the original rise in temperature that released the GHG. This mechanism was the "second pulse" of GHG that constituted the "sucker punch" that killed off 90% of life on Earth during the Permian Mass Extinction.


1- Isotope: "any of two or more forms of a chemical element, having the same number of protons in the nucleus, or the same atomic number, but having different numbers of neutrons in the nucleus, or different atomic weights. There are 275 isotopes of the 81 stable elements, in addition to over 800 radioactive isotopes, and every element has known isotopic forms. Isotopes of a single element possess almost identical properties."


          Thus carbon 12 has 6 protons and 6 neutrons in its nucleus, carbon 13 has 6 p and 7 n. Both are non-radioactive (stable isotopes) with virtually identical chemical properties (only their rate of reaction in biological chemistry may vary slightly). Carbon 14 has 6 p and 8 n but is radioactive (non-stable isotope).  In 5,730 years, one half of the atoms in a sample of carbon 14 will have decayed to nitrogen 14 (with seven protons and seven neutrons in its nucleus). Thus the "half-life" of C 14 is 5,730 years. If one can determine the amount of C 14 which remains in an organic specimen (mummy wrapping from a Pharaoh's tomb, for example), one can determine the date of the specimen. A bone which has only one quarter of its original C 14 can be dated to 2 X 5,730 or approximately 11,500 years before the present. (One half of the C 14 remains after one half-life. The second half-life reduces the amount remaining by half - 1/2 X 1/2 = 1/4.)