Christian Stalberg, human habitat relocalization and biomimicry evangelist in the Sierra Nevada of California, USA. Professional backgrounds in: energy efficient buildings; disaster readiness; villagification; farming; appropriate technology; telecomputing; construction; cooperatives; intentional communities and ecovillages. “Because of climate chaos, we are all vulnerable to lifeline (e.g. food, water, energy) failures, and should be prepared.”
I have a special relationship with Bolivia having been there five times over the years, courtesy of the Partners of the Americas and Fulbright programs. The situation in Bolivia today is a complicated one and it has been instructive for me to witness the mis- and disinformation generated from recent events there in recent weeks following the national election. In today’s saturating infosphere, separating fact from fiction, and truths from untruths, is no small job. This is especially difficult given the manipulative and coercive power of weaponized information, combined with the increasing absence of critical thinking in our culture. One must remain vigilant and open minded, always seeking truth and facts so as to not find oneself inadvertently having adopted hard-line positions on either the Left or the Right. Typically, upon closer examination, you will find elements of the truth to be found on both sides and the truth, my dear, will set you free (from deception and ignorance).
Given the capitalist’s and imperialist’s dominance of mass media in the world today, I feel it is important to lift up powerful voices that are being silenced and ignored (and in this case, also demonized) by the powers that be. It is in this spirit that I want to share this recent interview with the (now deposed) president of Bolivia Evo Morales. Listen closely with an open mind, you might learn something.
Are trees sentient beings? Author Peter Wohlleben believes so. He ascribes feelings such as pain and empathy, as well as sensations to trees, including hearing, seeing, smelling, touching and tasting. He goes even further however and says that they also communicate, nurture their young, and will even feed other trees that are running short on nutrients, i.e. showing care. Does Mr. Wohlleben sound crazy? Actually, not so much, according to the latest scientific findings about trees. There’s no question of him being an authority on the subject. As a forester with responsibility for managing a forest in the Eiffel mountains in Germany, he speaks from over twenty years of knowledge and experience. Wohlleben combines his intimate experience with the forest and the trees in it which he is personally responsible for, with the latest scientific knowledge. The end result is something between a fantasy novel and a briefing on the latest scientific findings about trees.
It has been discovered that sick pine trees whose cambium had died due to an aggressive fungus were being nurtured by neighboring healthy trees via their roots. The cambium pumps sugar solutions from the tree’s needles down to its roots. Prior to this discovery, the widespread belief was that without a cambium, a tree simply could not survive. Well it turns out that it can, because of the care the sick tree receives from its neighbors.
Mr. Wohlleben cites trees have the ability to see. As it turns out, trees shed and grow leaves not only according to temperature. Beeches, for example, are known to not leaf out until it is light for at least thirteen hours a day. How do they know this? Buds containing folded baby leaves on a tree branch are covered by a scale. Well, the scale is actually transparent such that the light can penetrate. So the tree ‘sees’ the light (and counts the hours?) and knows when it is time to begin growing.
The book goes on to give further instruction on the sentience of trees. When trees are really thirsty, they scream. Humans cannot hear them because the sound is in the ultrasonic range. They are also capable of learning. Mimosa leaves closed up at first when drops of water fell on them. But after a while, they stopped doing that, because they learned there was no danger.
While the book was been on the best seller list for the longest time, as you might expect, it has become a source of ire for certain critics. Ascribing human-like behaviors to trees is classic anthropomorphism, and this is a sin according to the scientific method. After all, we all know that the non-human world runs on stimulus-response. There are no cognitive intelligences among the other than human world. Or are there? We are learning that there are multiple intelligences in people. Why can’t we grant the same possibility to the other than human world? One thing for sure, I found the book to be almost revelatory, supporting my existential framework that holds nature as miraculous.
“If you are reading this, you already know that the FBI has engaged in a pattern of political spying over the course of its 100 year history. And you know that the groups the FBI spies on tend to be civil rights, environmental, and peace activists. You know they treat the Muslim community as inherently suspect, without any factual basis. But most people, and certainly most lawmakers, just aren’t paying attention. So our report meticulously documents the problem, particularly over the past 10 years, and makes the case for serious reforms.”
As I marched through San Francisco with at least 8,000 (and possibly as many as 40,000) other marchers on September 20th, I found myself heartened. California is known for its non-judgmental, laid-back attitudes and there would have been more people if the metro area of this size had been elsewhere. The march made three stops along their route: 1) BlackRock; 2) Pacific Gas & Electric; and, 3) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). I was carrying a small sign that said ‘Stop Killing the Earth. There is No Planet B’ along with a butterfly kite on top of a bamboo pole. Stopping at the large glass lobby of BlackRock allowed me to push my sign and the butterfly against the window enabling the people inside the lobby gawking at the protesters to plainly see my messaging instrument. I wondered: did even one person inside the lobby that Friday afternoon experience any reflection about the connection between what BlackRock does to make money and killing the earth? I’ll likely never know.
For the first time in all the years it has operated, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in charge of the Doomsday Clock has added an additional threat alongside nuclear weapons and climate change in their 2019 Doomsday Clock Statement, and that is the intentional corruption of the information ecosystem. Specifically they stated:
“Amid these unfortunate nuclear and climate developments, there was a rise during the last year in the intentional corruption of the information ecosystem on which modern civilization depends. In many forums, including particularly social media, nationalist leaders and their surrogates lied shamelessly, insisting that their lies were truth, and the truth “fake news.” These intentional attempts to distort reality exaggerate social divisions, undermine trust in science, and diminish confidence in elections and democratic institutions. Because these distortions attack the rational discourse required for solving the complex problems facing humanity, cyber-enabled information warfare aggravates other major global dangers—including those posed by nuclear weapons and climate change—as it undermines civilization generally.”
“…threats must be acknowledged before they can be effectively confronted. The current situation—in which intersecting nuclear, climate, and information warfare threats all go insufficiently recognized and addressed, when they are not simply ignored or denied—is unsustainable. The longer world leaders and citizens carelessly inhabit this new and abnormal reality, the more likely the world is to experience catastrophe of historic proportions.”
The internet is arguably the largest battlefield for information warfare to be fought. We’re all subject to a barrage of information munitions in the form of psychological operations. Psyops is defined as “Psychological operations are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.” Even government is not exempt from using psyops against its own citizens.
So what can be done? We must apply critical thinking as never before. More importantly we must recreate information ecosystems that are real, not virtual, in which to place trust. Yes this will require a major restructuring of civilization as we know it. Human’s cleverness are our undoing and much of the rest of life sadly. Sometimes putting the vehicle in reverse to back out of a bad situation is the best solution.
Trees, from the mighty redwoods to slender dogwoods, would be nothing without their microbial sidekicks. Millions of species of fungi and bacteria swap nutrients between soil and the roots of trees, forming a vast, interconnected web of organisms throughout the woods. Now, for the first time, scientists have mapped this “wood wide web” on a global scale, using a database of more than 28,000 tree species living in more than 70 countries.
“I haven’t seen anybody do anything like that before,” says Kathleen Treseder, an ecologist at the University of California, Irvine. “I wish I had thought of it.”
Before scientists could map the forest’s underground ecosystem, they needed to know something more basic: where trees live. Ecologist Thomas Crowther, now at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, gathered vast amounts of data on this starting in 2012, from government agencies and individual scientists who had identified trees and measured their sizes around the world. In 2015, he mapped trees’ global distribution and reported that Earth has about 3 trillion trees.
Inspired by that paper, Kabir Peay, a biologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, emailed Crowther and suggested doing the same for the web of underground organisms that connects forest trees. Each tree in Crowther’s database is closely associated with certain types of microbes. For example, oak and pine tree roots are surrounded by ectomycorrhizal (EM) fungi that can build vast underground networks in their search for nutrients. Maple and cedar trees, by contrast, prefer arbuscular mycorrhizae (AM), which burrow directly into trees’ root cells but form smaller soil webs. Still other trees, mainly in the legume family (related to crop plants such as soybeans and peanuts), associate with bacteria that turn nitrogen from the atmosphere into usable plant food, a process known as “fixing” nitrogen.
The researchers wrote a computer algorithm to search for correlations between the EM-, AM-, and nitrogen-fixer–associated trees in Crowther’s database and local environmental factors such as temperature, precipitation, soil chemistry, and topography. They then used the correlations found by the algorithm to fill in the global map and predict what kinds of fungi would live in places where they didn’t have data, which included much of Africa and Asia.
Local climate sets the stage for the wood wide web, the team reports today in Nature. In cool temperate and boreal forests, where wood and organic matter decay slowly, network-building EM fungi rule. About four in five trees in these regions associate with these fungi, the authors found, suggesting the webs found in local studies indeed permeate the soils of North America, Europe, and Asia.
By contrast, in the warmer tropics where wood and organic matter decay quickly, AM fungi dominate. These fungi form smaller webs and do less intertree swapping, meaning the tropical wood wide web is likely more localized. About 90% of all tree species associate with AM fungi; the vast majority are clustered in the hyperdiverse tropics. Nitrogen fixers were most abundant in hot, dry places such as the desert of the U.S. Southwest.
Charlie Koven, an Earth system scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, applauds what he says is the first global forest microbe map. But he wonders whether the authors missed some important factors that also shape the underground world. Hard-to-measure processes such as nutrient and gas loss from the soil could affect where different microbes live; if so, the study’s predictions could be less accurate, he says.
Despite such uncertainties, having the first hard numbers for which tree-associated microbes live where will be “very useful,” Treseder says. The findings could, for example, help researchers build better computer models to predict how much carbon forests will squirrel away and how much they will spew into the atmosphere as the climate warms, she says.
Crowther, however, is ready to make a prediction now. His results suggest that as the planet warms, about 10% of EM-associated trees could be replaced by AM-associated trees. Microbes in forests dominated by AM fungi churn through carbon-containing organic matter faster, so they could liberate lots of heat-trapping carbon dioxide quickly, potentially accelerating a climate change process that is already happening at a frightening pace.
That argument is “a little bit more tenuous” to Treseder. She says scientists are still puzzling out how different soil fungi interact with carbon. But, she adds, “I’m willing to be convinced.”