The Natural Patriot rides again

New package! Same great taste!

Dear Friends, Faithful Readers, Passers-By, and Google search-bots,

I’m back.

In the saddle again, so to speak, after a few months of what I shall refer to as a sabbatical. I would like to say that a series of life-changing events has brought us to this juncture, and that now I’m ready to tell you the dramatic made-for-TV story.

But that would be a lie hyperbole.

Not that I’m above hyperbole, as regular readers will appreciate. But the prospect of the Natural Patriot’s slow slide into oblivion has been weighing on me for some time now. As have the remonstrations of my 13-year-old son, who reminds me on a near daily basis how far I’ve fallen behind his blog, which has been going strong for just shy of two years now (in fact the birthday of Sox.Rox is this Thursday, 3 Feb — may I suggest you give the boy a thrill and leave a birthday greeting there). What it boils down to is, as Clint Eastwood famously said, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. And what I had to do was my day job. That and family obligations, the need for occasional sleep. The usual stuff. Not to imply that I’m eschewing those things to go back to the NP. Perish the thought.

Then there was the technology thing. My previous “theme” (the layout of the site) was so ancien regime that it became too cumbersome to work with as the breakneck pace of the information superhighway careened on, eroding any incentive to post. That has now changed as you can see (New package! Same great taste!). In the course of that switcheroo, I’ve lost much of the e-bling that had accreted in the sidebars of the old blog. But most of that was basically a distraction anyway. It’s a new day in America. At least here at the NP. I do want to get the cool morphing flag thingamajig back up online. All in good time. Life, virtual and otherwise, is a work in progress.

It’s perhaps also worth mentioning in this context that I am not a digital native, having grown up in a galaxy far far away where kids were left to play outside without their parents getting arrested, everyone had the same three TV channels, one’s house was basically a sanctuary from 24-7 information onslaught, and so on. People wrote letters for godsake. How Jane Austen is that?

I mention this by way of what might be considered a confession: blogging doesn’t come naturally to me.  I’m really more of an old-fashioned essayist. And that takes time, at least for me.  If the truth be told, I prefer to read books made out of paper and talk with humans.  I prefer walking around in nature to hunching over and squinting at high-resolution images of it on a screen.

Nevertheless, here I am. Hunched over, squinting at a screen, and promising to continue doing so. I’m not saying every day. Everything in moderation.

So you may consider this a shot across the bow. The Natural Patriot is alive and well. My intention, which is of course constantly evolving, is to continue with the eclectic mix of essays on nature-related topics, political diatribes, pedantic advice, commentary on recent scientific advances, and miscellaneous pontification. And of course, Friday poetry.

So welcome back and thank you for your loyalty. Please note that you can  subscribe to the NP through one of the nifty buttons in the sidebar on the right.

Full speed ahead!

Posted in Blogospheria | 9 Comments

Ashes to ashes

All things considered, I really can’t complain. I’m stuck in a hotel room thousands of miles from home, no way to get back to the family and normal life, with no end in sight. Looking at my last little package of Starbuck’s Via instant coffee. And my last pair of clean underwear.

On the other hand, I’m not festering on a cot among thousands of despairing unbathed travelers in some cavernous central European airport with nothing but stale pretzels for sustenance. I’m in a comfortable room at the Sheraton hotel in the spectacular city of Stockholm. With internet connection, and a group of compatriots in the same boat. And plenty of bars nearby. So things could be decidedly worse.

Which is nice, because I could be here for quite a long time. And the time on my hands offers a chance for reflection — this is one of those rather sobering reminders of just how fragile the architecture of our global society really is. One largish volcanic eruption (an “act of God” in the parlance of insurance companies) and the circulatory system of global society grinds to a screeching halt. A thought that comes to mind frequently these days as one consider the likely consequences of various natural and less natural incidents that might throw, as they say, a spanner into the works of our well-oiled machine. Another well-aimed terrorist strike. Some precocious teenage hacker in Kazakhstan penetrating the firewall of some uber-server and crippling the internet. Et cetera.

From today’s New York Times:

Some travelers took drastic measures to return home. John Cleese, the British comic actor who was part of the Monty Python troupe, found himself stranded in Oslo. He hired a Mercedes taxi to drive more than 900 miles from Oslo to Brussels, where he hoped to get a train to London, said one of his agents, Dean Whitbread. Three drivers took turns at the wheel and the fare came to about $5,000, he said.

Alas, that option is not available to me. Even if I had $5000. I’m starting to think about fishing trawlers headed west . . .

Posted in Sustainability | 8 Comments

Hail to the Chief

By God he’s got his mojo back. This health care debate has been a long and very bitter road. The level of nonsense, venom, and underhandedness arrayed against it has been truly unprecedented. And this young President has, understandably, stumbled a few times. But watching this video of his impassioned address to the Democratic caucus today was the most inspiring thing I’ve seen since the presidential campaign. It was a slam dunk.

It ain’t over yet, there is still the vote, there is still a brief window of time for the inevitable counterattack. But the visible face of the opposition increasingly is looking not only fringe but downright insane. It’s now clear that there is strong momentum behind reform. Because this is a complicated issue and a complicated bill, it might be a good time to take a step back and consider, one last time, the quality of the arguments:

. . . for the health care bill,

. . . and against.

Which is the America you want? Hmm. I’ve made up my mind.

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment

The dormant land

The crops are sleeping.


The creek is frozen.


The trees are sleeping.


The creatures are sleeping.


Everything is waiting.


Waiting patiently.


Posted in Biophilia, Poetry, Timberneck Biodiversity Restoration Project | 7 Comments

Look upon me! I am one of the world’s leading 30 intellectuals, scholars, and scientists!


Ok, now that I’ve got your attention . . .

It’s often struck me that, just as I am about to wander off and let the blog wither away to die a natural and dignified death, fading into obscurity like the motley materials in the compost I’ve periodically discussed here, something perverse happens to prevent me from doing so. Someone I admire mentions that they read the Natural Patriot and did not fall asleep, for example. Well, it will be clear to the alert reader that I’ve been something of a slacker in this medium for an alarmingly long time now. It was starting to look grim. But I am here to tell you that reports of the Natural Patriot’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Which brings me, at last, to what you’ve been waiting for in amused incredulity: the explanation for the title of my post today.

Why, you would be entirely justified in asking, would I say something so transparently absurd about myself?

The answer will be found in an email that I received out of the blue yesterday from none other than Jeremy Rifkin, (well, OK, technically, it was from a secretary at his institution . . .), economist, bestselling author, architect of a “Third Industrial Revolution”, advisor to various heads of state, and (according to his website) “the most widely read columnist in the world today”. Naturally I was skeptical of the invitation at first, but it appeared to be from a legitimate return address, did not have the pathetic spelling and grammatical faux pas characteristic of internet hoaxes, etc. etc. The name was familiar so I googled him and discovered, among other things, that he was called by Time magazine in 1989 “the most hated man in science“, mainly for his aggressive — and, some would say, unscrupulous — tactics in opposing genetically engineered organisms in the environment (See, for example this essay about anti-science activism). Ah yes, that Jeremy Rifkin. This obviously gave me some pause. I reproduce the message below in its entirety:

Dear Mr. Duffy,

I would like to invite you to take part in a global conversation regarding the new insights into human beings’ empathic nature and the import these new understandings might have on rethinking civilization in the biosphere age.

We are asking 30 of the world’s leading intellectuals, scholars, and scientists from a range of academic fields and professional disciplines, who have been active in various aspects of the unfolding conversation around homo empathicus, to contribute an essay of between 1000 to 2000 words. These pieces will be posted on the Huffington Post website throughout the first two weeks of February.

The Huffington Post is the second largest online news media website in the world after The New York Times and accounts for nearly one percent of total online traffic. I have been asked by Arianna Huffington to coordinate the discussion. Arianna will announce this first great global conversation on rethinking human nature in the 21st century on the homepage and will invite people around the world to join in on the discussion with their own comments, with the goal of moving a deep global dialogue that can help us prepare for the future.

In preparation for this global debate, this week The Huffington Post made available on its website the Table of Contents, Introduction, and Chapter One of my new book, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis along with my featured blog. While writing the book I found your work very enlightening. Needless to say, I would be honored if you have a chance to peruse the Introduction and Chapter One online as well as my blog. If you would like a copy of the Empathic Civilization, I would be pleased to send one to you.

I hope you will accept the invitation to become part of what we hope will be a spirited global conversation about our empathic future. If this interests you, please let me know if you would like to contribute an essay by Wednesday, January 20th.

-Jeremy Rifkin

Well, yes, since you ask, this does interest me. Let me start by reassuring faithful readers that I’m not so narcissistic as to believe that I’m one of the world’s 30 leading intellectuals, scholars, and/or scientists. But neither am I immune to flattery. And the Huffington Post is the real deal. Plus, my first thought was “what a great title for a blog post this will be!” So I said, “OK, I’ll bite.” I may very well be stepping into a snake pit. But you can’t make a mark if you don’t engage. It will at least provide an opportunity to dig out the old manifestos about the need for a new concept of patriotism from my files of various rejected newspaper op-ed pieces and post them where someone might actually see them.

Anyway, just a shot across the bow for now. Stay tuned for the essay — and the zombie-like resurrection of the Natural Patriot . . .

Posted in Politics, Science, Sustainability | 11 Comments

Moving toward the light

[The solstice has turned and we are once again, as the poet would say, moving toward the light. A new year and a new decade, with all the hope and apprehension — the yin and the yang — inherent therein. For thousands of years people have seen the year come and go, the light dwindle and return, and faced the new year with the same mixture of hope and apprehension that we do. So this first morning of 2010 it seems fitting to turn to the ancient wisdom of the Tao Te Ching, in the 39th chapter of Stephen Mitchell’s masterful (if somewhat free-form) translation.]

In harmony with the Tao,
the sky is clear and spacious,
the earth is solid and full,
all creatures flourish together,
content with the way they are,
endlessly repeating themselves,
endlessly renewed.

When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles,
creatures become extinct.

The master views the parts with compassion,
because he understands the whole.
His constant practice is humility.
He doesn’t glitter like a jewel
but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
as rugged and common as a stone.

[For good measure, here is another, perhaps more literal, translation of the same chapter by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English:]

These things from ancient times arise from one:
The sky is whole and clear.
The earth is whole and firm.
The spirit is whole and strong.
The valley is whole and full.
The ten thousand things are whole and alive.
Kings and lords are whole and the country is upright.
All these are in virtue of wholeness.

The clarity of the sky prevents it falling.
The firmness of the earth prevents it splitting.
The strength of the spirit prevents it being used up.
The fullness of the valley prevents it running dry.
The growth of the ten thousand things prevents them dying out.
The leadership of kings and lords prevents the downfall
of the country.

Therefore the humble is the root of the noble.
The low is the foundation of the high.
Princes and lords consider themselves
“orphaned,” “widowed,” and “worthless.”
Do they not depend on being humble?

Too much success is not an advantage.
Do not tinkle like jade
Or clatter like stone chimes.

Posted in Books and media, Poetry | Tagged | 1 Comment

Autumn falling

coneflower.jpgJust now I felt the need, as I sometimes do, to just step outside and stand quietly for a while. Letting my breathing and heart rate ease into a quieter rhythm, allowing the soft breeze to wash away the cloud of small things clamoring for attention, gradually becoming aware of the slower turnings of the world around me.

It’s still dark in the early October morning, on the cusp of daybreak, and my first sensation is the smell of damp earth, always welcome and nourishing after a period of dry weather. Crickets drone all around, seemingly hidden somewhere distant and just within earshot. A few birds beginning to rouse. Overhead, thick clouds churn slowly in the first gray light, my neighbor’s great towering pecan tree silhouetted against them. A crow calls, the melancholy soul of autumn in these parts.

the_plan.jpgIn front of me, only beginning to emerge in the dim light, is the new bed we planted a couple of weeks ago, the latest step in the gradual reclamation of the suburban yard and its transformation back to something resembling American Nature. The little perennials, looking forlorn in a sea of mulch, are fading as they go to sleep for the winter. But they’ve set in well and I’m happy knowing that we can look forward to the tiny first sprouts of a prairie of sorts beginning to come to life in March or April.

I learned a few lessons from the earlier phases of the experiment. This time, I used a flat-edged spade to cut the lawn sod into a grid and then overturned the chunks, pulling out what grass rhizomes I could. Then, to discourage the grass from coming back, covered the tumult with a layer of broken down cardboard boxes, pizza boxes, and old newspapers that have been accumulating in the shed for months before dumping a thick layer of mulch on top. That was a good vigorous day’s work.

new_bed.jpgThen, over the course of the next week, came the planting. Twenty-nine pots in all: 3 bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana), 5 purple milkweed (Asclepia sp.), 3 doll’s daisy (Boltonia asteroides), 5 star tickseed (Coreopsis pubescens), 5 purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), 3 aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius), 3 Virginia cup plant (Silphium connatum), and 3 false indigo (Baptisia australis). Plus I had to dig up and move the old butterflybush, not a native but spared because it’s so good at attracting butterflies.

It’s an exercise in patience, since this will look much like any other planted garden bed for a year or three and won’t really come into its own as a diverse wildish landscape for probably several years. Nevertheless, we can certainly expect flowers in the spring, and butterflies and birds. Probably also varmints, which hammered some of my earlier native plantings — will have to remain vigilant there. Lots of hard physical work digging, turning sod, wheelbarrowing mulch, and so on, but it’s surprising how good that feels after sitting for weeks behind a computer.

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Timberneck Biodiversity Restoration Project | Tagged | 1 Comment

The world with us

population-six-billion-11.jpgAlan Weisman recently published a book that got a lot of press attention for its novelty idea of considering The World Without Us — that is, what earth would look like if some unlikely event wiped out humans and left everything else more or less intact.

An interesting topic for cocktail party chat. But let’s consider the much more germane and pressing question: what will a world with us look like , meaning a world filled with the additional four or five or six billion descendants we as a global society are likely to produce in the coming decades before we bump up against the limits to global human population growth and the numbers stabilize?

As the old warning goes: this is not a test. This is not a parlor game question or an academic question. This is arguably the fundamental question at the root of all others. Consider the words of the father of capitalism himself, Adam Smith, from The Wealth of Nations in the fateful year 1776:

“The desire for food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach; but the desire for the conveniences and ornaments of building, dress, equipage and household furniture, seem to have no limit or certain boundary.”

The implications of those desires, and what might be done about them, are well laid out in a recent special theme issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London dedicated to “The impact of population growth on tomorrow’s world“. It is sobering and thought-provoking reading (and, importantly, for my readers who don’t happen to have access to a full-service university library, the issue is open access). The issue has everything from fossil fuel limits to the demographic transition, to refutations of revisionist claims that population growth is unimportant, to accounts of how policy has reduced population growth humanely in a variety of countries, to what we should be thinking about to fix the problem, on a global scale. The table of contents is shown below, with links to the articles, but here is the bottom line, and I quote:

This statement, prepared by the organizers, summarizes some conclusions of the meeting without committing every participant to support of every detail.

Rapid population growth in some regions, combined with increasing affluence and explosive growth in fossil fuel and natural resources consumption throughout the world, is seriously endangering a broad range of natural systems that support life. For the first time in history, much of the natural world is adversely affected by human activity. Global warming is just one among many threats to sustaining human life, wildlife and the natural environment.

The United Nations projects that the human population will increase from the current 6.8 billion to between 8 billion and 10.5 billion in 2050. Although more than half the world’s women now have an average of two children or fewer, the global population is still growing rapidly and this year there will be 78 million more births than deaths (a number slightly less than the population of Germany). Over 95 per cent of this growth is in low-income countries least able to provide for these numbers. Despite deaths from AIDS, much of the fastest population growth is in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2007, Western donor contributions to family planning were less than a quarter of the inflation-adjusted target set at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. Shrinking family planning budgets have been associated with stalled fertility decline in a number of countries, leading to serious adverse effects on the health of women and their families and the stability and progress of civil society. In Kenya, as a result of diminished focus on family planning, the projected population in 2050 has been increased from 54 million to 83 million. Some observers predict that an increase of this magnitude may lead to food scarcity and crumbling infrastructure and, potentially, to violent conflicts over scarce resources.

With over 80 million unintended pregnancies each year, there is already a large unmet need for family planning. Surveys show that 200 million women wish to delay or stop the next pregnancy and over 100 million are not using any contraception because they lack access to it or face other barriers to its use. Even in the USA, one of the most affluent nations in the world, half of all pregnancies are unintended.

Meeting the unmet need for family planning has been highly successful in slowing rapid population growth. Ready access to contraception and safe abortion has decreased family size, even in illiterate communities living on less than a dollar a day. Increased access to family planning will make it easier for countries with rapidly growing populations to expand education. Education, in turn, particularly of women, makes an important contribution to fertility decline and a crucial contribution to development. However, rapidly growing countries cannot always expand education fast enough to keep pace with the growing number of children each year.

kids.jpgThe coming decade should be dedicated to the needs of the one billion young people aged 15–24 in the world, the majority living in low-income settings with limited educational and employment opportunities. Every young person should have full access to contraception and the knowledge of how to use it. The burden of ill health associated with unsafe abortion must be confronted, especially among young people who are often most vulnerable to unintended pregnancy.

The unmet need for contraception in low-income countries is calculated to increase from 525 million couples in 2000 to 742 million by 2015. It is essential that national leaders and international donors, especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, understand the imperative to invest in education and improved access to family planning.

All women should be protected from unintended childbirth. Making every birth a wanted birth is a goal that can be approached through improved access to family planning.

Reaching this goal is vital to creating a healthier and more equitable world.

Theme Issue: ‘The impact of population growth on tomorrow’s world’

Roger V. Short: Population growth in retrospect and prospect.

Malcolm Potts, Anne M. Pebley, and J. Joseph Speidel. Editorial.

Adair Turner. Population priorities: the challenge of continued rapid population growth.

John Bongaarts. Human population growth and the demographic transition.

Alex C. Ezeh, Blessing U. Mberu, and Jacques O. Emina. Stall in fertility decline in Eastern African countries: regional analysis of patterns, determinants and implications.

Adair Turner. Population ageing: what should we worry about?

Steven W. Sinding. Population, poverty and economic development.

Wolfgang Lutz. Sola schola et sanitate: human capital as the root cause and priority for international development?

J. Joseph Speidel, Deborah C. Weiss, Sally A. Ethelston, and Sarah M. Gilbert. Population policies, programmes and the environment.

Richard Nehring. Traversing the mountaintop: world fossil fuel production to 2050.

Bradley A. Thayer. Considering population and war: a critical and neglected aspect of conflict studies.

Ndola Prata. Making family planning accessible in resource-poor settings.

Martha Campbell and Kathleen Bedford. The theoretical and political framing of the population factor in development.

Malcolm Potts. Where next?

Posted in Biodiversity, Politics, Science, Sustainability | Tagged | Comments Off on The world with us

Networking the Natural Patriot

tjandjed.jpgOne of these days I really have to write another real post, instead of sending out hat tips to other sites (as important as that is), rehashing my own posts under different cover, and other sleight-of-hand.

But for the moment, I note that Wren has invited me to answer a few questions in association with kindly featuring the Natural Patriot at the Nature Blog Network, a cool site that aims to be the “nexus for the nature blog community, the portal through which readers and publishers alike can locate the very best nature blogs on the net.”

The interview is here. Thanks Wren!

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Blogospheria, Politics, Sustainability | Comments Off on Networking the Natural Patriot

Ultimate Limits on the reef

Thanks to Ava at the Reef Tank web site for republishing the Natural Patriot’s post on “Approaching the Ultimate Limits“. You can find it here. For those of you interested in marine biology generally, and tropical aquaria in particular, there is a lot of interesting stuff at the Reef Tank. Dive in!

Posted in Blogospheria, Sustainability | Comments Off on Ultimate Limits on the reef