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Canaries: 0, Coal Mine: 3
when ecological metaphors becomes reality
Couldn’t help but notice a few particularly bracing bits of climate news these past few weeks. Not because, in and of themselves, they were so unique or remarkable. More because of what they represent.
Forcing us to ask, “if that’s true, then what else might be?”
So three canaries in the proverbial coal mine–our supposed early warning lights that are flashing red, or outright dead (depending on which analogy you’re following to its conclusion).
Thing One: The Svalbard SeedBank. You know the one. That super inspiring repository of heirloom seeds that folks have been gathering for decades, to resow the world in case we ever go through a real cataclysm?
The one whose Norwegian founders had the foresight to squirrel away in a vault in the side of a mountain at the northernmost settlement in the world, so it could serve as an apocalypse bunker/deep freeze. That way they could make absolutely, positively sure that nothing happens to it in the meantime?
Welp. It’s flooding.
Due to insane and unpredictable levels of snowmelt happening at a rate 6X faster than the rest of the world. And those melting ice fields are doing two other nasty things: avalanching into town, making the little arctic village increasingly sketchy to live in, and releasing methane buried under the permafrost that is 400% worse greenhouse gas than regular old C02.
That’s the kind of thing that scientists talk about as a “negative feedback loop” where the bad thing happening (ice melt releasing methane) creates more of the bad thing to happen (further warming and melting).
This is the equivalent of Noah’s Ark getting burned to ash while still in dry dock.
Thing Two: Gumby Cactus and Hot Sauce. Things are getting so hot in the Sonoran Desert of the American Southwest that the famous “Gumby Cactus” AKA the Saguaro are falling over dead. These things live for centuries and were born and raised for this shit, and even they’re giving up the ghost!
So are the hot peppers that make up your favorite hipster hot sauce, SriRacha. The farming wisdom used to be that planting peppers was your best drought hack. The hotter and drier the season got, the hotter your peppers grew. Only now, it’s been too hot and too dry even for them. SriRacha bottle have been going on eBay for $85!
Thing Three: Tropical Jungle Greenery. In a recent botanical survey of Central American rainforest, right down on the equator, biologists found that 17 of 60 plus surveyed species were no longer able to turn sunlight into food. It has become too hot for photosynthesis (over 116F). In the jungle. On the equator. Right now.
We broke photosynthesis!
So from the North Pole to the equator, from the driest deserts to the lushest rainforest, things are starting to break that we never, ever imagined were fragile in the first place.
If our very symbols of perseverance and adaptability, from seed vaults, to desert succulents to jungle vines are faltering, we’re going to have to rethink our benchmarks.
Most of the time, reality is too complex and chaotic for us to pay attention to the full data set. So we abstract. We generalize. We use heuristic “rules of thumb” and reach for handy metaphors to make it all manageable.
Now, our metaphors, those canaries we placed so carefully in their cages to let us know when trouble was brewing, are keeling over.
It might be time to carefully start packing up our things, and head for higher ground.
(and maybe shutter that coal mine for good)
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(p.s. I took a fairly light and breezy path through those three examples. Get up, have a nice cup of tea, read them again, click on the links, and really let the implications sink in. We’re in new terrain here, and the signs are too obvious to ignore.)