Greenland Ice Sheet in Pictures

The latest issue of Nature reports on the rapid melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet. There is a photo series put together by the Guardian here. There are some really striking images, like this one:

Greenland ice sheet melting stages

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Canada, science, democracy

Two days ago, Inside Climate News reported on what is being dubbed the “war on science” of the current Canadian government. A video also came out that day on the same topic from a coalition uniting to Save the Experimental Lakes Area, a unique area set aside for whole-lake ecosystem experimentation. The video includes commentary from one of Canada’s most respected ecologists, David Schindler:

In this context, it was very interesting to hear from Rachel Forbes that the West Coast Environmental Law Center has just launched a set of videos in support of a project entitled, Living Democracy from the Ground Up. Here is the three part series of videos, plus a trailer, that they put together.

Urban Uprising! Re-imagining the City – conference in New York

This looks really interesting!

Progressive Geographies

Further details here – via Experimental Geographies.

In the wake of the 2008 explosion of the current economic crisis, more and more people are actively fighting to restore what they’ve lost. Not since the ‘60s have so many people across the globe taken to the streets to demand a more just and democratic society, access to housing, health care, education, food, jobs, a clean and safe environment and lives free from police violence. Most of these uprisings are rooted in the urban landscape. Many of their demands imply a major transformation in the way our cities work. During this amazing moment of crisis and mobilization, it’s important that we ask ourselves: What kind of city do we want to see?

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Unis’tot’en day of action – today

Yesterday the Vancouver Sun reported that changes to Canadian environmental laws could mean that the TransCanada Pipeline, which crosses over 300 creeks, tributaries and rivers, may not be subject to an environmental assessment on its traverse from inland B.C. to the coast.

These sorts of decisions are prompting increased civic action from a range of folks concerned about such fly-by-night oversight by regulators. And in particular because they add another dimension to ongoing problems for the many First Nations that claim territory in British Columbia. Today is the day that the Unis’tot’en Camp has called for a day of action in its ongoing blockade of what is dubbed the “Carbon Corridor” that would transport oil and gas to Kitimat, B.C. through multiple pipelines currently being proposed.

I cannot help but be reminded of the tremendous work that Alanis Obomsawin did in “Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance” which in my view is one of the best documentaries of the ongoing struggle of First Nations in Canada and, if you are unfamiliar with the ethos, helps put more recent controversies in a broader context. The film is freely available to stream online here (since I cannot seem to get the video to embed in the message).

How the ocean got its genome

MIT’s Stefan Helmreich gave a very interesting talk here last Monday titled “How the ocean got its genome.”

It was a blend of his work in Alien Ocean: Anthropological voyages in microbial seas and the new directions his research is taking. If you haven’t come across Alien Ocean yet, it is an excellent book. Here is the blurb from the publisher (UC Press):

Alien Ocean immerses readers in worlds being newly explored by marine biologists, worlds usually out of sight and reach: the deep sea, the microscopic realm, and oceans beyond national boundaries. Working alongside scientists at sea and in labs in Monterey Bay, Hawai’i, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Sargasso Sea and at undersea volcanoes in the eastern Pacific, Stefan Helmreich charts how revolutions in genomics, bioinformatics, and remote sensing have pressed marine biologists to see the sea as animated by its smallest inhabitants: marine microbes. Thriving in astonishingly extreme conditions, such microbes have become key figures in scientific and public debates about the origin of life, climate change, biotechnology, and even the possibility of life on other worlds.”

The one aspect of Helmreich’s new work that I found particularly fascinating was the trouble that ocean microbes present for definitions of species. In particular, the evolutionary ‘tree of life’ idea (where parents pass on their traits to progeny) gets very confused in the lateral transfer of genes amongst microbes. And this presents a big problem for identifying species as different “branches” that link to a common “trunk” in the tree of life.

It seemed to me that this lateral transfer essentially shifts the philosophy of biology from an inductive enterprise to an abductive one. This is not a really new argument, since the very idea that inferential bases for species classifications are abductive has already been proposed. But what is interesting is that when we give up on the inductive project of mapping individuals to general classes, that it is not just our ordering schema that gets confused. In the case of the oceans, for instance, where the great depths are frequently imagined to hold the earliest life forms (not always the case) what we get is a new set of problems over life itself.

I asked Dr. Helmreich what he made of this logical shift given his work interviewing scientists and following these debates. His answer was very interesting: that explanations for species were increasingly being sought based on what works – a functional, perhaps even pragmatist view of things. Latour’s new book “Modes of Existence” starts out with a similar anecdote, where a scientist responds to a skeptic not by an appeal to what is or is not the case, but with an appeal to the institution of science.

This is that: Texas town adds sugar to municipal water

A great sketch, in which a Texas town adds sugar to drinking water to encourage people to drink enough, has been making the rounds from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s satirical program: This is That.

I’ve seen it now on Twitter, other blogs and even in my inbox. The shock, the horror of what is going on! It is really just dead pan humor from a fun radio show. It would probably make a good educational tool for somebody’s water class.

Canadian Senate hearings on Navigable Waters

I’ve been following the senate hearings on changes to Canada’s Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA). Under the proposed changes, which are part of a massive omnibus bill currently making its way through parliament, there will be a substantive rewriting of the law with significant changes both to the scope of water protection (only 62 rivers and 97 lakes out of ALL of Canada’s freshwater are covered in the new law) and in the type of protection afforded to water.

I was very pleased to learn that I could stream parts of the democratic process to my laptop earlier this week, and so now have the testimony of both November 20 and November 22, which can be viewed here and here. These two hearings of the Environment Committee have a total of five witnesses. On November 20, Tony Maas from the WWF and the Forum for Leadership on Water (FLOW Canada), Rachel Forbes from West Coast Environmental Law and David Labistour who is the CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-op (Canada’s largest outdoor retailer). On November 22 there was testimony from the Assembly of First Nations and from Mark Mattson of the Lake Ontario Waterkeepers.

If only to appreciate the degree to which calls for clarity and the technicalities of both the law and political processes affect decisions, the sessions are worth viewing. For instance, the questions to witnesses often ask for specific examples that will back up their testimony. And then the conversation turns to examining the examples provided, with the strange inference supplied that if that example doesn’t demonstrate, in toto, the superiority of the witnesses proposed amendment, then the new bill should be passed as is. Of course the Canadian senate isn’t known for its activism; and with this sort of public reasoning it is not hard to see how procedural rightness overshadows consideration of substantive goods.

As a result, this emphasis on specific instances really changes both the epistemic targets and the ontological grounds for public reasoning. That is, rather than reasoning about a broad and diverse set of instances (which science typically treats statistically) or about ecological systems as objects that have sets of relationships that do not reduce to specific, closed examples, the questioners treat the witnesses as though what is at stake is a specific reading of the new law. But clearly that is not the only thing at stake. So in the Canadian imagination where the Senate is the “sober second thought” to parliament, democracy has some further pangs to go through if it is to fit itself to reality rather than vice-versa.

Nevertheless, my hat is off to the witnesses themselves, who took the time and spent the energy to present compelling grounds for amendments to the new legislation on topics of science, the right of the public to information, ecology, First Nations rights, recreational economics and environmental assessment.

November newsletter from the Water Ethics Network

Lots of great links, videos, links to upcoming conferences and events, and readings in this month’s Water Ethics Network newsletter available here.

Latour’s: An Inquiry into Modes of Existence – first bits of English translation

The first English bits of Latour’s new work is out online if you follow the links at this site: An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: Introduction and Chapter 1.

VIDEOS: The future of water conference online

The full videos of “Cloudy with a chance of solutions: the future of water” conference held at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard are now available on youtube. There are some excellent talks; some frightening details; some inspiring ideas. The list of speakers and talk titles can be found here. For the most part each youtube segment has two, sometimes three speakers, so you may need to fast forward if you don’t have time to view them all. I’ve also embedded them in order (I hope) below.

I hate to do this, because the entire day was excellent, but if I had to pick just one or two that really stood out I would recommend the talk by Patricia Hunt on environmental contaminants and reproductive health and the talk by Charles Tyler on endocrine disruptors and other emerging contaminants.