Responsible Ecotourism, the Death of the Ugly American

July 4, 2015

In the beginning, there was tourism. Thousands of Americans, Europeans and other inhabitants of Western nations would pay – sometimes dearly – to see the wonders of the Orient, the strange customs of tribal societies, the mystery that is India.

The “Ugly American” was not so much ugly as insensitive. Coming from a land that was only two centuries old in 1976, most travelers from the United States had grown up in an era when wildlife was a little livelier than today, and much wilder. Some of their parents had even witnessed the last great buffalo hunts.

By 2001, the United Nations World Tourism Organization noticed a change in demographics and attitude. Baby Boomers – 1946-1964 – were not only on the cusp of retirement, but held 70 to 80 percent of the nation’s wealth. They were also developing an environmental consciousness, a frame of mind gladly shared by Gen-Xers (1961-1981). This “conscientious consumerism” operated through a framework of spending discretionary income in ways that benefitted the earth and its non-human inhabitants.

The trend has only increased. Where once Americans (and other Westerners) had literally run roughshod over the Galapagos Islands, the new ethos sees 34 percent of the global population buying by brand (based on a corporation’s sustainability ratio).baobab trees, Madagascar

Buying a ticket on a tour ship, bus, or safari that donates part of its profits to preserving an ecology reflects this change in perception. Many travel companies now boast that a portion of their sales goes directly back into the environment and the endangered animals that are the focus of the tour. This new awareness also extends to lodging, dining and merchandising.

Even now, responsible ecotourism is far from perfect. Defined as “… including programs that minimize the adverse effects of traditional tourism on the natural environment, and enhance the cultural integrity of local people”, the industry will only attain perfection when no one sets foot on the endangered area in question. At least, that’s the way many conservation groups see it. In the interim, ensure your tourism benefits your destination by checking out travel and lodging businesses for their eco-IQ.

How does one identify an ecotourist opportunity? Postings on social media sites like Facebook offer advance notice about an upcoming tour to Africa, for example, to see some of the indigenous, nomadic tribes, or some of the magnificent animal species like elephants, lions, rhinos, and tigers. Sadly, both are endangered and rapidly disappearing, the former due to persistent, generational poverty, and the latter due to poaching.

One should not post on Facebook about an African safari that aims to hunt down and kill rare animals, as Kendall Jones, 19, did. Her ostensible reason was that she planned to host a television show about big game hunting. Jones calls her slaughter “conservation”. Clearly, she doesn’t know that – in any species – a minimum number of breeding pairs must survive in order to maintain sufficient genetic diversity to procreate.

A petition started by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, garnered 40,000 signatures the first week. Jones’s site has since been taken down. This is not only very good news, but also an explicit warning to others who fail to “get with” the zeitgeist.

That defining moral climate, spanning three or more generations, is nothing to sneeze at. One can argue against anthropogenic climate change, but to suggest nowadays that killing endangered animals is conservationism might provoke more than heckling.

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Lowe’s vs. the Bee Killer

April 16, 2015
The Dead Honeybee

The Dead Honeybee

Thumbs up to home improvement big box store Lowe’s (NYSE: LOW, $74.18) for its commitment to get rid of pesticides containing neonicotinoids, the ones that kill honeybees!

Thumbs at half-mast when we realize that this commitment is but a small part of their 2014 Annual Report, backed by a press release that says the phase-out will take 48 months, or a full four years!

This timetable (which I frankly can’t find in Robert A. Niblock’s CEO Message, silly me) also contains the dubious phraseology, “…as suitable alternatives (to neonicotinoids) become commercially available”.

As if this might be a clarion call to chemical manufacturers to clean up their act! In the United States, no less, ranked 33rd among developed nations for its abysmal environmental record with chemicals. Not to mention its status as one of the few developed nations to regulate pesticides, drugs and cosmetics so badly that the TSCA (Toxic Substances Control Act, 1976) allows manufacturers to market some products before they are even studied for their toxicity!

The opposition (surprising, or not?) comes from lib dems and environmental/health groups, which say that the proposed TSCA revisions will make things worse, not better. Like they could get worse?

An interesting side note to the U.S.’s updating the TSCA? It announced on March 17 (2015) that it will begin getting rid of the chemical weapons stockpile in Pueblo, Colorado. This dubious rectitude is sort of like any possible response to, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”

So where does our imaginary thumb end up? Well, mostly up. At least Lowe’s has gone on record as opposed to neonicotinoids. It has also pledged to offer more “organic” substitutes and work with growers to eliminate the use of this dangerous pesticide (i.e., insecticide), notably from plants that attract bees. This is sort of like shutting down liquor stores and drug dealers near a treatment center; it works, but it has impacts.

Thumbs at a 45-degree angle (visualize a half-open door) for Lowe’s attempts to educate employees and customers on the dangers of this pesticide. Raise said thumb as far as 90 degrees – an open door – for its continued sponsorship of bee-friendly gardens through Keep America Beautiful. Woot!

 

The Real Cause of Childhood Diabetes

April 14, 2015
Fat Children

Fat Children

In the United States, the rise in childhood/adolescent cases of obesity and diabetes is shocking.

The US Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, calls it “epidemic”. From 1978 to 2004, the incidence of childhood diabetes rose from 14.8 percent to 23.9 percent in one sample population alone.

This increase, greatest among Native American/Alaskan Native youth, Asian Americans (Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, etc.), Hispanics, and African Americans, rose 3.3 percent in two years – from 2010 to 2012. Among Hispanic populations, hardest hit are Puerto Ricans (14.8 percent), with Mexican Americans coming in a close second at 13.9 percent.

The statistics are appalling. The terrifying part? Deaths from diabetes are very likely under-reported. Death certificates with diabetes as the cause were issued in 10 to 15 percent of cases, but a whopping 35 to 40 percent showed the disease as an underlying cause of death. That is, a child may have died from pneumonia, but it was diabetes that destroyed his or her immune system and allowed the pneumonia to take hold.

We have been warned about this. In a 1999 paper, researchers baldly stated that an epidemic of type 2 diabetes was about to emerge, especially among (then called) “minority groups”. They were speaking of primarily of Hispanics, but also focused on Native Americans, all of whom share what is called a “thrifty” gene.

This gene, found among populations who were historically hunter-gatherers, subject to feast-or-famine eating cycles, loses its ability to regulate blood sugar in a primarily “feast” environment.

Experts cite fast food, refined sugar, and white flour as a few of the probable causes, and they are no doubt right, as far as it goes. But there may be more to the story. In the case of type 1 diabetes, researchers now say that stress – death in the family, divorce, separation, illness, or extreme poverty – is three times more likely to raise the risk of diabetes than any other effect alone.

This 300-percent increased risk decreased when researchers factored in birth size, heredity (of type 2 diabetes), parental education, economic status, and obesity, but remained statistically significant.

What can we as parents (and citizens) do? We can vote for a return to what some disparagingly call “the nanny state”, particularly where safety-net programs for children and young people are concerned.

Free school lunches? Why not, if General Electric earned $10.3 billion but ended up paying no taxes in 2011? Free health care for the children of parents making less than $25,000 a year ($35,000 for a joint income)? Again, why not, except for Obamacare, which was admittedly written by the insurance companies and withheld from public scrutiny until it was passed!

Next time you go to vote, think about income disparity, another rising epidemic in America. Remember the saying, “A man who has nothing has nothing to lose”, and stop asking yourself why violent crime is on the rise among the nation’s poor.

The Real Racial Divide

April 13, 2015
National Urban League, March 12, 2009

National Urban League, March 12, 2009

Michael F. Potter, in his seminal work, noted studies showing that the racial stereotypes and myths about African Americans and other residents of white-imposed ghettos were the result of historical and cultural ignorance.

This ‘residential segregation’, in turn, fostered a belief that such minorities were (and are) less intelligent, lazier, and generally more inferior (than whites).

The true culprit may in fact have been (and still may be) malnutrition. Consider the diet of slaves in the Deep South pre-1870, where the luxury of meat was most likely once a week at best and consisted of the leftover parts of the pig – ham hocks, fried pork rinds, etc.

The same ‘dumbing down’ is still going on today, but now it occurs among the poor of every color. The food is GMO-based, which is more affordable than organic produce or field-raised meat, but its results can be seen in an increasingly sick and insensible portion of humanity: those at the bottom, who now as always eat at the bottom of the USDA food pyramid, when they eat at all.

My 30-pound Lupo!

September 21, 2014
My 30-pound Lupo!

My 30-pound Lupo!

 

 

posted by Himmelfahrtskommando via Imgur

Ethanol Doesn’t “Feel Good” When You’re Starving

April 20, 2014

In 2008, the year when corn ethanol joined the ranks of alternative fuels in a big way, agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland Corporation (ADM – $44.86) was the largest ethanol producer in the U.S., with seven plants in five states making over a billion gallons of ethanol.

ADM – which bills itself as a partner to farmers – ranks 10th on the list of the top-100 corporate polluters, has incurred over $208 million in violations as a government contractor, and is number 17 on the top-20 list of Republican Party donors.

In 2002, an environmental organization charged ADM with surreptitiously exporting genetically-modified (GMO) corn into Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), causing the contamination of previously pure strains of Mexican maize. Others say ADM is a corporate freeloader, benefiting from U.S. government subsidies made on the backs of third-world economies; a 1995 study by the Cato Institute supports these accusations. Federal subsidies for sugar, ethanol and grain exports account for 43 percent of ADM’s annual profit and cost American consumers $10 for every dollar ADM makes from sweeteners, and $30 for every dollar ADM gets from ethanol.

Ethanol, a biofuel made typically from corn, has a slightly positive energy balance. It takes 750,000 BTUs of fossil fuel to make one million BTUs of ethanol; it takes 1.2 million BTUs of fossil fuel to make the same amount of gasoline.

Ethanol also has a positive greenhouse-gas emissions balance of about 20 percent, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). This is equivalent to taking about a million cars off U.S. roads. Unfortunately, three of ADM’s largest plants are coal-fired, and produce about 16 percent of U.S. ethanol, which leaves only a 4-percent emissions gain overall. Factor in the likelihood that all future plants will be coal-fired (due to the cost of natural gas and the availability of coal), and ethanol’s green status turns red. Add the fact that 70 percent of ethanol plants are located in economically depressed areas – preying on those too poor to move away – and ethanol becomes a sustainability issue as well.

In November of 2007, ADM reported an unanticipated quarterly profit, citing earnings from its other divisions, which offset losses from ethanol production. Declining ethanol profits are the result of higher corn prices and lower prices at the pump, yet ADM continues to expand ethanol production. Why? Because the government subsidies mentioned previously – the only real incentive behind ethanol – make different reporting modalities both possible and profitable.

Ethanol is also responsible for rising food costs. Last year, The Economist noted that U.S. food prices had jumped 75% in two years, spiking the food-price index – created in 1845 – to an all-time high. At the same time, the International Grains Council noted a 60-million-ton shortfall in grain supplies, half of which resulted from increased ethanol production (the other half attributed to increased consumption in China and India). Corn, as tortillas, is a dietary mainstay among Mexico’s poor, accounting for 50 percent of their diet, 70 percent of calcium intake, and 40 percent of their protein requirement. Yet in 2007, the price of a tortilla in Mexico more than doubled, putting parts of the population at risk for malnutrition.

The Renewable Fuels Association (or R.F.A., the trade association of the U.S. fuel-ethanol industry) – of which ADM is a part – denies this charge, stating that ethanol is not the cause of food price inflation, but the evidence says otherwise.

Ethanol has been described as a “feel good” policy, allowing those of us in industrialized nations to continue driving our SUVs and still call ourselves environmentally responsible. It won’t feel nearly as good when food becomes unaffordable, as it already has in third-world countries like Mexico.

(Author’s note: This article appeared in January of 2008 in the now-defunct ethical investing magazine The Panelist)

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Nuclear Power Plant

March 21, 2014

On April 9, 2008, 450 of the 500 employees at the Point Beach nuclear power plant – owned by FPL Energy of Florida and located in Two Rivers, Michigan – were evacuated because a store clerk misinterpreted a sound bite.

It started like this: a 23-year-old man walked into a local convenience store on the morning of April 8 to ask directions to the nuclear plant. It was his first day on the job and the day had already started badly. He was lost, running late, and trying to make a good first impression. In his nervousness, he probably started to babble. I know I do when I’m stressed.

He got his directions and added, “I hope I won’t blow up the place. They don’t allow me to push any buttons, anyway.”

A clerk overheard him and went into panic mode. The clerk is a 10-year veteran of the Kwik Trip, and likely knows everyone in the area by face, if not by name. A stranger’s face coupled with trigger words like “blow up” pushed her into that state of acute paranoia which has overtaken many Americans since 9/11. She called the Two Rivers police.

The Two Rivers police called in the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI. Surveillance tapes from the convenience store led to the stranger’s car, a Milwaukee rental, parked in the employee lot at the nuclear power plant. The car was searched, but nothing was found that would indicate terrorism.

The clerk’s statement was considered a “credible threat”, according to plant spokesperson Sara Cassidy. An “Unusual Event” was declared at 8:16 a.m., and the plant evacuated. The “Unusual Event” status is the least critical of four radiological emergency classifications established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to deal with, and inform the public about, problems occurring at a nuclear power plant. The next category, in terms of criticality, is an “Alert,” followed by a “Site Area Emergency,” and finally, a “General Emergency,” which is when things get really hairy.

Non-essential plant employees were removed to the Point Beach Energy Center nearby while the three agencies unraveled the plot. The new employee, a former resident of Hull, Mass., was interviewed by the FBI and clarified the misrepresented statement. The event status was lifted at 12:26 p.m.

At this time, no charges are being pursued against any of the players in this bizarre drama, according to the Two Rivers police, who agree with plant representatives that the clerk acted in a responsible manner. According to Cassidy, the new contract employee did not have a site badge and had no access to the plant’s secure area in any case.

“This has never happened before,” said Lauretta Krcma-Olson, energy center supervisor, speaking to the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, a local newspaper.

I say, “Welcome to 21st Century America.” We are as vulnerable as our weakest link, and the size and diversity of this country leads to weak links in every area, every demographic, and every vital facility.

We can’t protect everything, or everyone, everywhere. This is why it is essential to end our warmongering overseas. We are no safer now than we were on September 10, 2001, and it behooves us to remember that the 12-year-old boy carrying a gun in Iraq or Afghanistan is a future terrorist, physically armed by our military/industrial complex (the U.S. is the world’s leading arms exporter), and emotionally armed by the murder of his family at the hands of strangers he considers infidels.

This was a non-event. The next one, aimed at the heartland of America and bearing nuclear or biological signatures, may be real. I don’t side with the Neocons, who see America as the sole arbiter of political and social justice worldwide; our own record isn’t good enough to support that pretension.

On the other hand, being a pacifist is not the same as being passive. We have a right to defend our borders. We do not have a right to extend them – or our philosophy and way of life – wherever we deem suitable, at the expense of civilian populations. We can not call ourselves a Christian nation when our hands are red with the blood of innocents.
(This post originally appeared in The Panelist at: http://thepanelist.com/Opinions/Opinions/_20080414926/

Ancient Bacteria, Global Warming and Future Pandemics

March 4, 2014

Last week, scientists reported discovering living and fully viable bacteria in the ice of a Greenland glacier.

The bacteria, called Chryseobacterium Greenlandensis, is one of about 10 new species found in melting polar ice and glaciers, and has survived more than 120,000 years in extreme cold and pressure in an oxygen-reduced atmosphere with limited food supply.

Distantly related to bacteria found in marine mud, as well as the roots of some plants and fish, this new genus of Chryseobacterium demonstrates the persistence of life even under adverse conditions, and scientists are studying it to understand how cells survive by altering their biochemistry and physiology over generations.

The scientists are delighted with their find. I’m concerned. These emerging bacteria have not evolved alongside the current inhabitants of earth, including man. Consequently, none of earth’s species have developed any immunity to them. As polar ice and glaciers continue to melt, more and more bacteria will emerge. Some may be inimical to life as we know it, and all have shown themselves capable of surviving under conditions none of earth’s current inhabitants could tolerate.

To me, this sounds like a recipe for disaster, and I think I can safely anticipate the emergence, and spread, of a strain of bacteria that exhibits the potential to wipe out a species (say, fish) and then spreads transgenically to man. Interestingly enough, this article has been tagged elsewhere under Andromeda strain and whatcouldpossiblygowrong, indicating I’m not the only one anticipating doomsday scenarios from these new arrivals to the environment – arrivals which have spent the last 120 millenia (or as much as eight million years) evolving in a direction we can only call alien.

Currently, varieties of Chryseobacterium – a gram negative bacteria – have been implicated in such diseases or conditons as hepatitis and acute sepsis, infective endocarditis, septic arthritis, and chronic sclerosing osteomyelitis, this last treated with a third generation antibiotic, ciprofloxacin (a fluoroquinolone, or broad-spectrum antibiotic). Gram negative bacteria like cholera have caused epidemics in the past, and Chryseobacteria are the primary disease agents in nosocomial infections in hospitals and nursing homes, as well as among children with cystic fibrosis and people with chronic lung conditions like asthma, emphysema and COPD. They also cause meningitis (in newborns) and sepsis in burn victims.

Known Chryseobacterium strains are, for the most part, unfriendly to man. How much less friendly will they be having evolved separately from man? Add to that the increasing resistance of bacteria in general to third-generation antibiotics like the cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones and carbapenems, and this convergence – of bacteria evolved to survive everything, and increasing antibiotic resistance in “native” strains of bacteria – creates the potential for cross-genus contamination leading to epidemic (or even pandemic) diseases. We already know that GM micro-organisms are capable of cross-breeding in nature, and scientists have demonstrated that bacteria can join together and exchange DNA (a process known as conjugation), which changes the genotype of the bacteria.

As the earth warms – either due to man’s activities or some natural (possibly external) cycle – more bacteria will emerge from ice or thawing permafrost. In soils previously locked by permafrost, soil bacteria will increase their activity, releasing the trapped carbon into the atmosphere, leading to more warming and the release of even more bacteria, both native species and alien ones.

The “blowback” of this predicted runaway global warming may be more than rising oceans, erratic and dangerous weather patterns, and a rise in the lethality of existing diseases. It may lead to the emergence of entirely new diseases for which we have no weapons, and the sudden or gradual extinction of the single species held culpable in global warming. An end which, some would call, “Karmic retribution.”

This is doubly disconcerting as a similar threat was reported just this week in The Verge.

For those who would rather ignore these dire warnings, I would also like to remind the reading public that, quite recently, more degrees of MRSA (Methicillin resistant staphlococcus aureus) are being found than ever before, at exactly the same time that supplies of useful antibiotics are running low.

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

(This blog originally ran in The Panelist in 2008)

Warming Arctic Dooming Earth?

December 10, 2013

Just as frogs are an environmental harbinger of worse to come, the Arctic now appears to be giving humanity a foretaste of the extent to which climate change may alter the globe.

In past few years, Arctic warming has become unprecedented. In the summer of 2007, Artic ocean ice-melt reached a record. This year, somewhat cooler summer temperatures allowed newly-formed ice to survive longer, so that ice loss did not exceed 2007, but air temperatures over the Arctic this fall have reached records.

Climatologists suspect these record air temperatures, 41 degrees (Fahrenheit) above normal, are the result of previous sea ice losses, and climate experts from U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are now painting a bleak scenario for future climate change in the region.

Ice reflects sunlight, keeping temperatures lower. When it melts, the darker sea water absorbs more of the sun’s radiation and heats up. This cascade failure, less ice and more warming, is exponential. Every year winter sea ice is cut back, the formation of ice the following summer is reduced by a factor of two.

According to James Overland, an NOAA oceanographer, this domino effect from multiple causes is nowhere more apparent than in the Arctic. Ice loss in Greenland and Northern Canada is accelerating, and Arctic species from caribou to polar bears are declining.

“Because it’s a sensitive system,” Overland adds, commenting on the most recent Arctic Report Card. “It often reflects changes in relatively fast and dramatic ways.”

This Arctic Report Card, initiated in 2006 an updated yearly (in October) by NOAA’s Climate Program Office, establishes a baseline of 21st century Arctic conditions as a means of monitoring divergence from the norm. Parameters include Arctic atmosphere, sea ice, biology, ocean and land masses, including Greenland.

This year’s Report Card shows three of the six parameters (atmosphere, sea ice, and Greenland) coded red to indicate changes strongly associated with warming. The other three areas are code yellow, a mixed signal for Arctic climate change.

On a graph of increasing warmth, 2008’s cooling is scarcely more than a blip on a downward trend that began in 1979. This summer, the extent of Arctic ice was nine percent greater than in 2007, but a 30-year chart shows a 34-percent loss year over year.

A longer tally, from 1880 to the present, shows combined global land and ocean surface average temperature for September of 2008 tied with September 2001 as the ninth warmest.

Like Michael Mann’s global warming ‘hockey stick’ graph, the chart is much maligned but inevitably vindicated. It’s pretty hard to argue with pictures of polar bears clinging to ice floes in any case. Additional proof of warming, in everything from tree rings to ice cores, suggest the earth is warmer now than it has been at any time in the past millennium.

For example, the three warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998, and 19 0f the 20 warmest years have all taken place between 1980 and the present. Studies of ocean temperatures suggest even more warming is in the offing, since ocean currents translate to land temperatures via earth’s natural winds.

Climate change is happening faster than previously predicted, according to a new assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This Fourth Assessment Report (published in 2007) has as its tagline, “faster, stronger, sooner”, none of them words climatologists really wanted to hear, but the evidence is overwhelming.

One of these pieces of evidence – that the Arctic Ocean is losing sea ice 30 years ahead of former IPCC assessments made in 2002 – suggests that earth may have passed some elemental tipping point beyond which change is truly irreversible. A further prediction, that the Arctic Ocean may be open to summer travel as soon as 2013, is like the final nail in the coffin of catastrophic climate change.

NOAA geoscientist and report author Dr Tina Tin describes the accelerated warming as “positive feedback mechanisms”, and suggest that these mechanisms amplify climate change in much the same way that bi-directional antennas amplify Internet speeds.

Less ice leads to a warmer Arctic, leads to warmer temperatures and more melting, leading to rising oceans, northward migrations of entire ecologies, and forced migrations of people living near the Equator, whose former crops no longer grow due to warmer conditions and less rainfall, as well as more intense storms. This is cascade failure in action, and NOAA scientist James Hansen argues that the climate is nearing dangerous tipping points, wherein the elements of a “perfect storm”, or global cataclysm, are assembled.

This perfect storm isn’t restricted to the mechanisms of melting ocean ice, however. As formerly frozen land masses from northern Canada to Siberian Russia thaw, they release trapped carbon dioxide (and methane, another global warming gas), pushing warming along that much faster.

This positive feedback loop creating the conditions for Hansen’s perfect storm could have been ameliorated or even averted any time during the past few decades, but governments chose to focus on oil-driven hyper-prosperity instead. Now, global financial crises threaten to push back mandates for tailpipe emissions, power plant emissions, coal as an energy generator, and even slow or halt the push for alternative energies like wind, solar and geothermal, creating all the conditions necessary for Hansen’s global cataclysm.

If we are doomed, as both James Lovelock (the Gaia Hypothesis) and Dr. Andrew Weaver (Canadian Nobel-winning lead author on the IPCC report) suggest, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Unfortunately, it is our children who will pay the piper.

Arctic Ice Melt and the Last Great War

December 10, 2013

In the wake of news that multi-year ice covering the Arctic Ocean is, for all practical purposes, gone, the U.S. Navy has launched an assessment aimed at strengthening the nation’s position in terms of Arctic oil reserves.

Vanishing Artic Ocean ice, reliably documented by David Barber, Canada’s Research Chair in Arctic System Science at the University of Manitoba, comes as a result of Barber’s 2009 expedition to the Beaufort Sea off the Canadian coast near the town of Tuktoyaktuk, where Barber and colleagues expected to find at least a lingering ice pack.

In fact, all that remains, according to Barber, is a remnant, wedged up against the recently established Canadian province of Nunavut, a part of Canada’s Arctic archipelago which consists of numerous, small islands to the north and east of the Canadian mainland and quite distant from proposed shipping routes.

Now, Arctic coastal nations like Denmark (via Greenland), Russia, Canada and the U.S., (and even China, via its Arctic Yellow River, Great Wall and Zhonshan stations) are scrambling to gain a toehold in the area, which is expected to contain the last, huge oil reserves on the planet; reserves which may exceed Ghawar in Saudi Arabia (170 billion barrels) by a factor of more than two.

Scientists have been warning us. The Arctic has been losing its ice since 1979, at an estimated rate of 9 percent per decade. In 2000, that loss accelerated. In 2007, scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that Arctic summers could be ice-free by the middle of summer as early as the middle of the century.

Now, in 2009, about 40 years shy of that goal, the environmental tipping point has already been reached, with unpredictable consequences for the planet and mankind. But this hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm of oil companies, or the nations in which they reside, because – at long last – the fabled Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, once blocked by 250-foot-thick ice sheets, is open.

What Barber found instead is 20-inch thick chunks of “rotten ice”; fresh ice layered over dark, porous older ice, through which his ship sailed at a steady 13 knots (about 15 miles per hour).

It’s a visual Barber described as “very dramatic”, saying it was something he hadn’t seen in all his three decades working in the high Arctic.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the 2009 ice cover was the third-lowest on record, after 2007 and 2008, which led experts to predict, as recently as August, that the Arctic would be completely ice free in summer by 2030 at the latest.

Barber differs, arguing that what he has witnessed is, from a practical standpoint, a seasonally ice-free Arctic right now. And the Germans would likely agree, having run two of their cargo ships from S. Korea along the northern Siberian coast this year, without benefit of icebreakers.

The melting is a result, first, of greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide, which raises temperatures and melts ice (including glaciers), and, subsequently, albedo, a situation in which the dark waters under melted ice attract and hold more warming from the sun, leading to more melting. As a result, the Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of earth, accelerating the albedo effect exponentially.

As ice melts, the world waits, ready to drill for the oil. The U.S. Navy is getting in on the act with a strategic plan to maximize U.S. presence (and oil rights) in the area. Called Arctic Roadmap, the plan outlines a three-phase operation to protect U.S. oil interests, protect transport lanes, and deal with territorial disputes.

The latter is perhaps the most important part, and the Navy plans to use game theory to evaluate the interactions between the “players” (Arctic nations) and the “playing field”, an ice-free Arctic. Part of the plan, the Navy admits, is getting more U.S. personnel up north – a move that may find Canada bracing its own borders via its own Arctic operational plan, called Operation Nanook.

As Barber noted, the Arctic is the “canary in the coal mine” for climate change, so nations should be watching carefully. That they are watching simply to extract the oil – with all the environmental degradation that presupposes, in what is one of the last, pristine wildernesses on the planet – seems tragic and shortsighted.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the world’s last Great War were fought over a fuel that we should be weaning ourselves from? And what will history say about oil’s last gasp – if there are historians left to write it?