Wit's End

Friday, January 29, 2016

Histories Etched

The title of this post is taken from the winning poem of 2013's contest at Poetry for the End of the World.

Letters From the Ice Age

     ~ Ian Ferrier
Cities buried           streets forgotten
warehouses ransacked and abandoned for the south.
We love         we breathe
light footprints of our passing through the snow.
What would we say?   And how say it?
Who would we talk to?   And how could they answer?
Buildings break beneath the ice
the bridges fall and there are less of us each year.
Like arctic animals we burrow through the wreckage
of the city underground.
And high above   where once the escalators climbed into the light
the tunnels terminate in breathing walls of ice.
Here in the dark
within the stone walls of the ancient hospital
below the copper roofs
and buried by the glaciers on all sides
Here in blood and wailing
anchored in breathing and inflexible resolve
we have sent this letter to the next world.
Archangel of the frozen colony
whose sign is fire   whose feet are locked in ice
We leave you more than this             than blowing snow
or permafrost a football field below.
This is the breath of the last words spoken
bubbling up
the frozen evidence of love
like nitrogen in glass
our histories etched into the worlds
we will not live to know.
There are also worlds we lost long ago, so long ago we can not even remember.  Yet another nail has been pounded in the coffin of those who deny human agency in megafauna extinction, back in the halcyon (not!) days of purportedly sustainable tribal spiritual aboriginal hunting and gathering.  A new study  documents 200 sites across Australia where ancient peoples harvested and roasted the eggs of Genyornis, a 500-lb bird that was nearly 7 feet tall...driving it to oblivion some 50,000 years ago.  It has been particularly difficult to make the physical (as opposed to the obvious circumstantial) link between human predation and megafauna in Australia, because little remains to be recovered in the archeological record to document causation - unlike other continents and islands, where fossils are readily found with weapons at kill sites.  Now, the scientists find this evidence is absolute proof (as if any more were needed) that humans alone were responsible for the extinction of dozens upon dozens of animals as we migrated around the world:
Genyornis depicted in Prehistoric Art
Genyornis roamed the Australian outback with an astonishing menagerie of other now-extinct megafauna that included a 1,000-pound kangaroo, a 2-ton wombat, a 25-foot-long-lizard, a 300-pound marsupial lion and a Volkswagen-sized tortoise. More than 85 percent of Australia’s mammals, birds and reptiles weighing over 100 pounds went extinct shortly after the arrival of the first humans."
New evidence tightens the noose on humans as the decisive factor in the extinction of the last of the megafauna in Australia and North America.
Following is an expanded transcript from this week's 22nd Dispatch From the Endocene, which can be heard at the archives for Extinction Radio:
Thanks Gene, and welcome listeners, to the 22nd Dispatch From the Endocene.  As always, links for further reading to all topics mentioned can be found on my blog, Wit's End, which will be illustrated with incomparable art created by Maria Sibylla Merian.  [If you click on them, they will enlarge with marvelous detail.]  She was born in Germany in 1647 to an artistic legacy, and grew up with a passion for collecting caterpillars.  From an early age she displayed a flair for botanical subjects, flowers as well as frogs, lizards, snakes, spiders and beetles - painting with watercolors, as women were prohibited from using oils.  At the age of 52, she sold much of her collection to raise funds to leave her home in Amsterdam, where she had immigrated to escape the legal reach of her estranged husband, when she took the bold step to voyage to Surinam in search of exotic insects and plants.  Hers was likely the first privately funded expedition to the New World for purely scientific purposes.
The publication of handpainted engravings in her major work, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, from this remarkable journey marked a unique and pioneering depiction of the metamorphosis of moths and butterflies together with their host plants.  Each etching was matched with scrupulous documentation.  Although Lineaus, the father of modern zoological classification cited her hundreds of time, her accurate renderings were later ridiculed by British naturalists in the 18th century as amateurish.  Yet, her work was instrumental in refuting the contemporary belief that insects arose spontaneously, and ushered in the field of entomology. Placing insects in their native habitat was an example of an understanding of ecology before the term existed, and the interactions of species as she composed them together illuminated natural selection, competition, and survival of the fittest long before Darwin's journey on the Beagle enabled him to articulate and refine those concepts.
Such images that celebrate the complexity, ferocity and diversity of life are all by way of introduction to a monumental book I have been reading, that chronicles the opposite in devastating detail - called Deforesting the Earth:  From Prehistory to Global Crisis.  It is an enormous scholarly work, published by Michael Williams in 2002.   It's way beyond the scope of one broadcast to include even a fraction of the deforestation he catalogues, so I'm going to concentrate on the earliest evidence he has amassed, because it pertains to the pivotal role of our species in affecting the entire cycle of life and climate on Earth.
The prehistoric human activity exhaustively documented in the book emphasizes two revelations that become critical as more people awaken to the ongoing and accelerating obliteration of Earth's biodiversity, when they often wonder how our species, which I call Homo Eradicatus, can be simultaneously so conscious, and so stupid.
One is, that we were never any more considerate of the environment, in some fanciful romantic past era of peaceful hunter-gathering tribes.  This is borne out by the recent gruesome discovery of a brutal stone age massacre widely regarded as the first irrefutable evidence of warfare between non-sedentary tribes 10,000 years ago - and by the way there is a fascinating radio interview with one of the researchers, where she describes herself as almost overwhelmed by the savagery, the elaborate weaponry, and the ruthlessness of the attack, which she attributes to competition over resources.  Also interesting is the number of fossilized bones of animals - everything from giraffe to rhinos and zebras - left after being butchered on the shores of Lake Turkana, which was lush, fertile and verdant at that time.  Since then it has become a parched barren landscape, a progression of desertification repeated at sites around the world.
The other striking conclusion from the book is that, contrary to popular impression, humanity never made a sudden fatal turn to agriculture - that we could have chosen to avoid had we only been wiser or less greedy.  There never was a magic moment when our species could have taken a different path away from increasing complexity and civilization.  Rather, it was a long, slow, incremental and inevitable process embedded initially in the simplest acts of hunting and gathering.  It began with selectively collecting beneficial plants, encouraging their habitat, and eliminating less favorable forests - first with fire - to facilitate access to preferred prey animals, then to horticulture and animal husbandry, and eventually to factory farms.

A study just published in the journal Anthropocene proposes that the astounding penetration of plastics into all aspects of the world should mark the beginning of the geologically measurable impact of humans, but after reading about the extent of deliberate deforestation beginning over 10,000 years ago, and the vaster consequences to other forms of life, I find ever more reason to think the geologists should dispense with the Holocene altogether and replace it with Endocene, beginning with the extinction of the megafauna and concurrent deforestation.

So great was the deforestation in the Americas that scientists theorize when the Europeans brought diseases that decimated indigenous populations, the continents reforested so rapidly that somewhere between 2 and 17 billion tons of CO2 were rapidly sequestered from the air, leading to the sudden cooling in Europe known as the Little Ice Age between 1500 and 1750.  This may or may not be the primary cause, but what is true and indisputable is that pre-Columbian indigenous people had caused massive deforestation, biodiversity alteration, and species extinction.
The first chapter of the book Deforestation expounds on the development of forests as they emerged and spread at the end of the ice age.  The meticulous research is amazing.  Scientists reconstruct the shift of species from studies of pollen, and track the extensive travel of seeds by river and wind, as well as animal dispersal.  The changing flora reminds us that there has always been extensive transport even before explorers like Maria Merion collected thousands of samples and sailed them over the oceans.  The book details what it calls the “dynamism of vegetation taxa in the continent as it adjusted to the retreating ice and changing temperatures”.  This marks a sharp contrast to the wholesale, universal decline of forests that began with acid rain in the last century and is currently worsening with the deposition of airborne pollutants.
I'm going to read now selections from the book.  This is from the section in the first chapter, subtitled,


“As the forest changed, so humans colonized the newly vegetated land with remarkable rapidity, doing all those things that humans do: foraging, firing, hunting, selecting species and rejecting others, turning the soil, fertilizing it, trampling it, and mixing it. In the course of this manipulation of the biota some tree taxa moved, flourished, or were eliminated, just as surely as if they had been affected by changing climate. So, even as the forests were changing in the climatic see-saw of the millennia of the early Holocene era — slowly assuming their modern, historical distribution and form — the people who witnessed and survived that Ice Age were in the active process of changing their composition and density.  From the boreal forests of the cold north of Canada and Siberia, to the hot, humid rain and monsoon forests and savannas of the tropics, via the intermediate mixed deciduous, pine, and mediterranean forests and prairie, steppe, and pampas of the temperate middle belt, hunters and foragers were changing the distribution, density, and composition of biomes just as surely as was the climate. It was a coevolution.
“Thus, during the last 6,000 years, if not longer, many of the changes in vegetation reflect adjustments to human disturbances, brought about by the increasing density and spread of population, the use of fire, technological advances, the cultivation of exotic plant species, and the introduction of grazing animals. In Europe, forest clearing, cultivation, the cutting of tree sprouts and limbs for fodder, and the localization and intensification of grazing all had their effects on opening up the forest canopy and thus creating opportunities for invasion by early succession forest taxa, such as fir, birch, spruce, and particularly the mediterranean pine.  The deliberate clearing of the forest accompanied by cultivation of cereals by Neolithic and post-Neolithic peoples led to forest fragmentation, the introduction and inadvertent spread of disturbed-ground weeds and ruderals, like plantain. Some trees such as the walnut, the olive, and the pistachio became naturalized well beyond their native ranges as cultivation and grazing eliminated native plant competitors, and they were even deliberately spread and planted for their food value…
“Similarly, in North America humans played an important part in shaping the vegetational development, quite contrary to some ecological accounts that see change as a purely post-Columbian event. Bottomland forests in the central Mississippi, lower Illinois, and Tennessee river valleys were cleared extensively as cultivation expanded along floodplains and lower terraces. The cultivation of squash began as early as 7000 BP, to be followed by other exotics such as the sunflower and bottle gourd , and later still by exotic cultigens such as maize and beans , and useful fruit- and nut-bearing trees were protected and hence propagated. The story of weeds and ruderal invasions paralleled that of Europe. Other changes, far greater than are generally acknowledged, occurred in the forests at the oak—savanna transition, the forest generally being eliminated by fire to be replaced by more valuable grasses.
“Less is known about the tropical world, but all the indications are that the impact was no less. The changes affected the forest in all continents, and are explored in greater detail in the following two chapters. 

“In sum, then, in addition to the natural, climatically induced changes, the human impact was early, widespread, and significant, and the forests of the world changed accordingly.  Across the globe the first halting steps toward deforestation were under way.  In the space of 10,000 years (a mere 500 generations) humans were going to have an effect on global vegetation only slightly less dramatic and widespread than that of the Ice Age in the 100,000 years before.
Chapter 2

Fire and Foragers [begins with three quotes]

Wherever primitive man has had the opportunity to turn fire loose on a land, he seems to have done so, from time immemorial; it is only civilized societies that have undertaken to stop fires. 
—CARL SAUER, The Agency of Man on Earth” (1956)

By the time of European arrival, North America was a manipulated continent. Indians had long since altered the landscape by burning or clearing woodland for farming and fuel. Despite European images of an untouched Eden, this nature was cultural not virgin, anthropogenic not primeval.
—SHEPARD KRECH, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999) 

There are no virgin forests today, nor were there in 1492.
—WILLIAM M. DENEVAN, The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492  (1992)

Williams writes:

“EVEN BEFORE the climate, vegetation, and landscape had achieved their modern character, humans were at odds with nature, changing it, manipulating it, and attempting to tame it. Vast areas of forest and grassland were burned, vegetation was altered irretrievably, soils were changed, and fauna were eliminated. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to think that any forests, from the tundra margins to the tropics, were ever pristine and untouched; all were being changed in form and composition.

“However, the long-held view has been that prehistoric peoples were a nonfactor in environmental change and degradation. Their numbers and densities were too low to bring about significant change; their technology was insufficient to cause alteration; and their livelihood (particularly that of non-Western primitive peoples) was in perfect harmony with nature: we must understand, in their minds, all aspects of life are harmonized into a whole, Janaki Ammal asserted of early India. Not all agreed: Carl Sauer was more realistic, and had no doubt that widespread fire was endemic and integral to early human life, and that with domestication “the natural land became deformed, as to biota, surface, and soil, into unstable cultural landscapes.
“Whatever the true character of the natural mechanisms of succession, climax, and vegetational change, the role of humans in bringing about change in the “deep past should not be in doubt. Each shift in the complexity and sophistication of technique and culture merely made the human impact more certain and more pronounced. And even the mildest and slowest change could be cumulative, leading to dramatic long-term effects. At the very simplest level, hunter-foragers manipulated vegetation by fire in order to round up and slaughter game, causing irreversible change to forest extent and composition. The hunter-foragers gave way to agricultural and/or complex irrigation societies that deliberately manipulated the soil and water supply, thereby radically altering and replacing one vegetation cover by another. In turn these gave way to urban /industrial societies that sent out shock waves of innovation, modernization, and change into their surrounding hinterlands in the form of fuel demands, crop productivity, and land use change.
“In many ways the distinction used in this and the next chapter between foraging and farming as a means of altering the forest is a difficult one to sustain. In many societies there was, and is, a seamless continuity between the two, with the validity of the distinction decreasing the nearer it comes to the present. In reality, both used fire, the foragers, almost certainly more than the farmers. Nevertheless, it is a convenient distinction which underlines a particular emphasis in the subsequent account.


[I love this section, because it expounds on one of my pet convictions, that learning to use the elemental force of fire is the major accomplishment that set humans outside of nature, which I wrote about in I Blame Prometheus]
“Fire was, in the words of Omer Stewart, “the first great force employed by man, and it was crucial in the story of deforestation. Along with stone tools and language, fire was the first nonhuman force incorporated into human society, and one of the key features that distinguished humankind from the rest of the primates as they evolved from the beginning of the Pleistocene. With fire humans accomplished the first great ecological transformation of the earth, to be followed much later by two others of the same order of magnitude: the development of agriculture and animal husbandry 10,000 years ago, and the rise of large-scale industrial production a little less than 200 years ago. Humans assimilated fire into their biological heritage, thereby gaining access to the world's biota, and the biota, in turn, acquired a new regimen of fire transformed by human society. Fire, suggests Stephen Pyne, was the first of “humanity's Faustian bargains....

“To the early hominids, fire was complex, subtle, and dynamic; it was also destructive, irreversible, purposeless, and self-generating. But they also were to learn that the many negative qualities of this destructive force could be turned to positive and productive uses.
“First and foremost, if humans could mimic nature's own fire drives caused by wind-storm and lightning, the world was made more habitable and usable. Land was cleared and plant and animal resources were increased.  Even the most primitive of aboriginal peoples seemed to grasp intuitively the idea that deliberate burning improved vegetation by promoting and maintaining the growth of favored plants such as grasses, forbs, tubers, wild fruits, wild rice, hazelnuts, sunflowers, cama, bracken, cassava, and blueberries. The yields of all these plants increased, which encouraged greater numbers and densities of animals. Burning also helped to control the distribution of animals, making hunting more predictable and thus more efficient because less time and energy were expended on stalking individual animals into areas of dense forest.  From a wide variety of evidence Paul Mellars suggests that controlled burning could not only alter species variety, but increase the yields of browse and herbaceous forage in deciduous forests by between 300 and 700 percent, with a corresponding increase of animal populations of up to 400 percent. Additionally, fire opened up the tangle of woodland and jungle by removing the dense understory of brush and small trees, so that visibility was improved, travel facilitated, and surprise attack from animals and other humans minimized. Simply put, widely spaced trees and clear meadows offered greater mobility, and more productive and safer hunting.
“The reduction of vegetational cover for rousing and driving game is one of the most frequently cited reasons for deliberate burning throughout the historical aboriginal world, and it seems reasonable to suppose that the further back one extends into the past, the more frequently it would have been used. Anything to facilitate the hunt was desirable. Early hominids had only sharpened and fire-hardened wooden spears for hunting; not until later, when the more versatile and long-range bow and arrow were perfected, could the task have become more efficient and safer. 
“Not only were large mammals “flushed out by fire, so too were nutritious insects, lizards, and rodents from trunks, holes, caves, and burrows, and even honey could be safely collected from combs. Night fishing by torch was very productive. The opposite was also true of fire: it had a purgative effect, ridding the ground of poisonous snakes, scorpions, and spiders and a host of ticks and bugs, while many peoples in the Americas learned to live in perpetual smoke to ward off flies and mosquitos.
“One also can speculate as to whether more accessible herds allowed a selective culling of animals, which might ultimately have affected the age, sex, and species components of herds. Such deliberate manipulation might have been the first step in the herding- husbanding-domestication of animal populations and would have contributed to the emergence of concepts of ownership and territoriality. 
“Further, there are few foods that do not benefit from the application of heat. Therefore, the second great benefit of fire was in cooking and boiling, which leached out toxins, softened tough fibers, and reduced bacteria and fungi, extending the range of foods available and leading, presumably, to better health. In addition, it does not take too much imagination to realize that cooking became the model for ceramics and metallurgy.
“Finally, fire became embedded in human cognition and sociocultural behavior. It is, says Pyne, “a maddening amalgam of human and ecological history.”  Fire could be used for protection as well as aggression; it accompanied ceremonies and entered belief systems as a purifier and atoner through sacrifice and ordeal; it has entered into concepts of creation and damnation in many religions. Certainly it made life more comfortable and sociable, and contributed to civilization. Fire was a source of heat and light, giving protection against cold and darkness and warning off predators, thus facilitating territorial expansion and population increase. Because of the comfort and security it offered it became a focus for group and community life, and enhanced communication and solidarity. Fire may have encouraged such practices as meat eating, food sharing, the division of labor, and new forms of sexual behavior, thereby helping to weld early groups into coherent units. It is most likely responsible for the formation of the characteristics of the family unit in society, the hearth being a potent image of (and in) family life and sedentariness, and the focal point for gathering, discussion, and dissemination of group wisdom.
“Johann Goudsblom suggests that learning to control and domesticate fire inevitably involved foresight, cooperation, the renunciation of "primary impulses," and the exercise of discipline in the tasks of gathering fuel, keeping it dry, and feeding the fire with it. Thus, he goes so far as to suggest that the care of fire was a cultural mutation that required a civilizing process. Moreover, the taming of the wild force of fire must be the first example of the tending, guarding, and exploitation of a natural force. Once fire was incorporated into human life, it was a natural progression to think of extending care and control over other nonhuman resources by selecting plants and animals, and guarding and protecting them against competing species and parasites. If that is so, then the use and control of fire may have initiated the second great ecological transformation of the earth —plant and animal domestication — giving it a significance way beyond the mere burning of vegetation for hunting. It was an integral part of civilizing and civilization.
“Be that as it may, all the practical benefits enumerated led to repeated and regular use of fire in most societies in the world, creating high concentrations of plants and animals that could provide humans with useful products, primarily food. The human monopoly of fire separated homo sapiens from all other beings, and made them the dominant species on the earth and its ecological manipulators. The implications for deforestation were enormous...
[The book offers a number of examples of the dramatic change wrought by prehistoric hunter-gatherers, who availed themselves of nature's bounty with impunity - they are presented from around the world, including North and South America, and Europe, here is but one:]

“The Polynesians reached Madagascar between about AD 100 and 500, Easter Island about AD 400, Hawaii about AD 800, and New Zealand between AD 900 and 950.  In the 117 km2 of Easter Island, clearing for agriculture, firewood, and large timbers for moving the moai, or massive stone face statues, together with frequent fire, resulted in [a] deforestation which must surely be one of the most extreme examples of its kind anywhere in the world, leaving scarcely a single tree.  Dramatic as it was, however, this deforestation came nowhere near the destruction by fire of almost half of the forest" in New Zealand by the Maoris. The Maoris brought no plants with them and came as hunter-gatherers. The moa, a large, ostrichlike, flightless bird standing up to 16 ft high, was their principal source of protein, without equal in any of the Pacific Islands. Moas also provided material for clothing and for most implements, so much so that they were known as kuranui, the great treasure or primary source. In the absence of any large predators moas were present in vast numbers, tending to congregate on the forest edges and clearings. The Maori soon learned the value of fire in pushing back the forest edge and in driving the moas to places where they could be slaughtered more easily.
“Once started, the fires were fanned by the desiccating nor'westers that then, as now, sweep from the mountain across the foothills and the rain-shadow plains on the eastern side of the South Island during the hot, dry summers. The mixed broadleaf-conifer forests  were completely destroyed. It could not withstand fire, did not regenerate, and was replaced by bracken, fern, tussock, and scrub. The denudation initiated the first great cycle of humanly induced soil erosion that buried old forests near present-day Christchurch under 12 ft of detritus. About a hundred years later the interior beech forests went the same way. By 1250 there were barely any moa left to hunt, and by the time of European colonization they were extinct. Thus, by the mid-thirteenth century a mere 8,000—12,000 people in South Island had destroyed "not less than 8 million acres of ... forest," and driven the moa to the verge of extinction. By the time of the fairly precise European vegetation surveys of circa 1800, the forest, particularly in the North Island, had been reduced even further; subsequent clearing for extensive agriculture and sheep grazing completed the task of denudation begun 1,500 years earlier by the Maoris.

“With such evidence, one can well believe Captain James Cook's comment during the 1770s that throughout his voyages between the Pacific Islands we saw either smoke by day and fires by night, in all parts of it. However, because of the prevailing myth of the harmony of preindustrial peoples with nature there has been a “marked reluctance to accept” what he saw and its consequences.

“The deliberate burning and elimination of the forest was not the only manipulation of the resource. Wood was the most valuable and versatile raw material available in the past. Not only did it furnish shelter and heat, but also the material for a vast range of tools and weapons necessary for survival. Given its importance, it is ironic that wood has played little part in the traditional, outmoded, but convenient Three Ages system of European prehistory—Stone, Bronze, and Iron. There is barely a tool or weapon that did not have a wooden part, and the latter two ages would not have existed without the wood for smelting ore. The organic nature and perishability of wood, contrasted to the permanence of stone, metal, and pottery, have led to its neglect.
“Yet Mesolithic societies had acquired considerable knowledge and appreciation of the qualities of different timbers and their suitability for different functions—the elm and yew for bow staves, pine for arrow shafts, hazel for spear shafts, and tough root wood for ax hafts. Bark quality was also understood: the resistance of birch bark to water and its usefulness for hut floor insulation and net-float construction; the use of its pitch for caulking artifacts and preparing leather; and the use of willow bark to provide the thread for making the nets. Even tree fungus (Fomes fometarius) was stripped of its outer skin and used for tinder...
“This catalogue excludes the palisades and structures in forts, and the worked rods, brushwood hurdles, pegs, and planks that went to make up the prehistoric trackways and platforms that straddled the low-lying wetlands in the Somerset Levels and the Fens— literally millions of pieces. Perhaps even more impressive than the intricacy and magnitude of these trackways is the evidence of the conscious management of the surrounding woodlands by coppicing to stimulate the growth of long, straight poles from the trees' stools.
“All the evidence of clearing and wood use points to the fact that a greater continuity of technology occurred between the Mesolithic and Neolithic than is often supposed. The later Mesolithics were not, as Gordon Childe thought, the primitive fag end of the hunting and gathering Paleolithic age who became absorbed by the superior new Neolithic agriculturalists; rather, they were the sophisticated and innovative precursors who not only heralded the Neolithic agricultural age but hastened its establishment. Indeed, Mesolithic and Neolithic are "definitional nightmares" that are more likely to obscure than to clarify. As far as the clearing of the forest is concerned, these “ages mask a continuity of ceaseless change and modification that began over 6,000 years ago.
Another exposition of the profound way humans altered the environment is found in a short article called The Trees that Miss the Mammoths, which explains how the prehistoric hunting of megafauna to extinction drove trees that relied on them for seed dispersal to the edge, and sometimes over, the cliff of extinction.
A rigorous assessment of this sort of human behavior during the earliest times of our past tends to lead to a deterministic analysis of our inherent tendency to overshoot natural constraints - but it is only depressing to those who harbor the illusion that we are somehow special and superior to other species, whose imperative to grow is also only inhibited by outside limits.  If you accept that we are biological organisms propelled by instincts that took a few million years to evolve, it shouldn't be surprising to find that we have outstayed our welcome on a finite planet, unable to defy our collective innate programming.  It is worth thinking about the staggeringly long period of time it required for us to become us, and how essential fire, and cooking meat, was to our evolution.

If it is still too hard to accept that humans have never been a benign force, and you feel afflicted with a bitter disappointment in our performance, it might help to look at several studies examined in a post at Desdemona Despair, which separately and from disparate vantages suggest that the habitability of earth has been in an inexorable decline for far, far longer than mere human mortals could hope to influence.  I highly recommend deep contemplation of each of the metrics exposed in the research.  And if that's not calming enough, consider the meaninglessness embedded in the notion that there is not only no end, but, according to a new theory, there is no beginning.
It is paradoxical that many of the very people who insist we exercise free will - and therefore should have or could still stop our stampede towards eventual ecocide - seem unaware that the primitive cultures they often point to as more connected to nature didn't subscribe to the notion of free will, or were even aware of it as a concept.  It is a western invention aligned with a capitalistic concept of individualism and the domination of nature.  Prior to the triumph of advanced technology, most people had no option but to accept that natural forces shape our fortunes. Logically, “free will must be limited by what is possible as determined by the environment, and no one freely chooses the circumstances and perimeters within which their decisions are constrained - including the ability to entertain the existence of free will in the first place. Neurologically, study after study has shown that the unconscious part of your brain makes decisions before the conscious brain is aware of the process, and the perception of free will is actually utilized to rationalize what was dictated by the unconscious.  Many people find this antagonistic, and I found it confusing for years, so alien it appeared to me - but I have finally come to understand it as rather obvious that we are subject to immutable laws beyond our influence and immune to wishful thinking.
Finally, an update on the trees dying from pollution.
Scientists have noticed that wildfire emissions in the American west directly contribute to ozone levels in far off places like the Northeast Corridor.  Recently they have been surprised to discover high levels of ozone in the Rocky Mountains, bark beetle central.   One article about a study of how ozone travels in the tropics to the western Pacific from burning biomass almost half a world away in Africa begins,  "Ozone, a common air pollutant and greenhouse gas, harms lungs and plants and has contributed almost as much as methane to global warming since the start of the Industrial Revolution," and "Whenever fires burn once-living organic material, such as wood or fossil fuels, they emit ozone into the atmosphere."  Additional research finds that biomass burning creates enough ozone to damage forests, as measured by a significant decrease in net primary productivity in the Amazon. 
Together with the unprecedented fires in California, places like Spain, and most recently the disaster of over 80 fires raging in the remote wilderness treasure of Tasmania, it looks like a menacing feedback loop has been established between ozone killing trees, forests burning, making more ozone. And so it's not unexpected for reports of dying trees continue to make anecdotal news, like valuable rosewood dying a “slow, mysterious death in Pakistan, or that the World Health Organization has proclaimed a global "health emergency because pollution kills over 3 million prematurely each year from heart disease, strokes, cancer, asthma, pneumonia and dementia.
Front cover for a 1913 booklet advertising Peps tablets for coughs and colds brought on by smog. A skull-faced Death appears in a swirling cloud of pollution over a city from which terrified inhabitants are fleeing
The long history of biomass burning as presented in the Deforestation book, together with the understanding of extreme pollution even as long ago as the early 20th century, lends credence to the speculation by George Mollison, Australian known as the father of permaculture, and Charles Little, author of The Dying of the Trees, that even the early fungal epidemics which felled most chestnut and elm trees can be traced to anthropogenic sources.
Coloured aquatint, ca. 1862, depicting a man covering his mouth with a handkerchief, walking through smoggy London
As long ago as 1880, the scourge of bad air is imagined in the title of a novel, The Doom of the Great City.  A wonderful review can be found at Bad Air:  Pollution, Sin and Science Fiction, which has evocative pictures from newspapers of the 19th century you can find on my blog.

“Important Meeting of Smoke Makers”, a cartoon featured in Punch (1853)

Cartoon featured in Punch, November 1870

‘”Old king Coal” and the Fog Demon’, a cartoon featured in Punch, November 1880, the year in which Hay’s novella was published
In the novel, it is speculated that a miasma of putrid air causes a mass dieoff, which brings to mind the latest from Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction.  She wrote an article for Yale360 with the tantalizing title, What's Causing Deadly Outbreaks of Fungal Diseases in World's Wildlife?.  After tracking down an email address, I wrote her the following:

Dear Ms. Kolbert:
Very few people realize that trees of all species are dying prematurely, all over the world.  Even fewer understand that because pollution is weakening them, they have lost immunity to insects, disease and fungus.  Ozone is invisible, so it is easily ignored, but it is highly toxic to vegetation, and the background level has reached a level (appx 40 ppb) that is intolerable, as precursors travel around the globe. If you look at almost all trees now, you will see their bark is covered with nitrogen-loving lichen (which is primarily a fungus), a sure harbinger of decline.  One study in Yale Forest found the majority of trees, only average age of 85, were rotting from fungus and producing methane in flammable concentrations.
Specifically I thought you might want to consider the 6th mass extinction as more precisely an analog for the Permian, not the PETM.  This is what I wrote about it on my blog last fall:

The Permian-Triassic extinction (265 mya), the worst of the past big five and the only one in which trees and insects died off significantly, is a closer analog to the current 6th extinction, which is usually compared to climate change in the PETM event (65 mya).  The earlier extinction also was precipitated by massive poisoning of plants, from erupting traps, leading to the same spread of fungus/algae (rampant lichen) that can be seen today. Now, humans are erupting prodigious amounts of toxic aerosols.

[I included links to research about the Permian extinction and role of fungus:

http://geology.gsapubs.org/content/39/9/883.abstract and http://geology.gsapubs.org/content/43/2/159.abstract ]

and continued:

Losing trees is a complete disaster for life on earth for a multitude of reasons, just as losing coral reefs is the death knell for the oceans.  Unfortunately, there is a tremendous amount of resistance to acknowledging the poor condition of plantlife, let alone curbing the emissions that are poisoning it.

I am writing you as I am hopeful that, should you choose to investigate, you have a voice that is not easily dismissed.
I added a post script:
This is a quote from Issues in Ecology Magazine, 2011:

Biodiversity of plant communities is sensitive to N added by air pollution. Nitrogen-loving species are often favored and increase in prominence as ecosystem nitrogen availability increases.  Forests and woodlands in many regions of the world show large changes in epiphytic lichen communities in response to chronic atmospheric nitrogen deposition. These lichen community impacts occur at [low] nitrogen pollution thresholds ...it can also have adverse effects such as increased soil acidification, biodiversity impacts, predisposition to insect infestations, and effects on beneficial root fungi...

Gail Zawacki
A book published in 1985, titled Acid Deposition:  Environmental, Economic and Policy Issues was obviously pushed to the back of the shelf because it raised some uncomfortable and unanswerable issues, as described thus:

Concern about acid deposition, commonly referred to as acid rain, as a widespread pollution problem with severe ecological consequences has heightened public awareness. Many authorities fear that acid deposition may be the worst environmental crisis of our industrialized society because of both the global implications and possible widespread, irreversible damage to lakes, soils, and forested ecosystems. Neither state nor international boundaries are exempt from the transport and deposition of airborne pollutants resulting from local and distant emission sources. The dilemma and debate will continue as long as society requires fossil fuels for its energy needs without regard to emission constraints. This book started as a modest attempt to provide a status report on atmospheric transport, the chemical processes which produce acidifying agents, and resultant ecological and economic consequences. The materials in this book have been substantially revised from those presented at the conference in 1983. It became obvious that additional chapters were required when sudden and profound changes occurring in European forests were reported. It is felt that perhaps such damages could be an early warning to forested ecosystems in the northeastern United States and Canada as well as other places throughout the world.
Back in 2012 I posted an article in Scientific American which quoted the same scientist as Kolbert, with a similarly alarming title, Invasive Fungi Wreak Havoc on Species Worldwide.   At the time I wrote:  It needs to be considered in light of the research about Hissing Trees being consumed by fungi and releasing methane, linked to in an earlier post, which is said to be ubiquitous in forests around the globe.  Could this have anything to do with the study titled Acidification of Earth?
The Scientific American article observes, “In almost all organisms, fungi are opportunistic pathogens that attack compromised immune systems.”  This is essentially what Kolbert quotes the scientist as saying when she wrote: “As an individual body becomes weakened or sick from any sort of process it’s more likely to get an infectious disease,” Allender, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, observed. So the same thing is going to be happening in ecosystems. Fungi are really efficient and are the ones that are popping up.
In another outbreak, a forester discusses a beetle in California that is spreading a fungus, which is killing hundreds of different species:
If we can't control them, [he] saidthey are going to wipe out all our trees.
Such pests typically feast on a small group of plants. But this one doesn't seem to discriminate.
When [he] and his colleagues surveyed the 335 species at the Huntington and the Arboretum, in Arcadia, they found the beetle had attacked 207 of them and 54% of these victims were infected with fungus. Nearly two dozen of the trees were being used as reproductive hosts — places where the beetles can raise their brood. 

The consequences of a wide-ranging infestation could be enormous. Common city trees, such as American sweetgum and maple, would become public branch-dropping hazards. Native trees such as the California sycamore and the coast live oak have started to succumb, creating a fire risk in the form of dead, dry tinder. Avocados and other crops could face huge financial losses.

So far, Kolbert hasn't written back.  Maybe it's because, as the lead author of the study cited earlier, about ozone impacting the western Pacific stated, with apparent sangfroid, “...people in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia rely on slash and burn farming and igniting cooking fires as essential parts of daily life. Prohibiting those practices would be like telling Americans you aren’t allowed to drive cars.”
Perish the thought!
That's it for this Dispatch, thanks for listening.

Update:  Even the rich nations, today, cannot seem to refrain from destroying the most precious and irreplaceable old growth tracts that remain - see the story about logging currently proposed on Vancouver Island.

The sad thing is, humans actually have improved in some ways. If you realize how horrible the lives of primitive people were, instead of romanticizing them, it's simply a fact that the advent of advanced civilization, thanks to abundant cheap energy, finally outlawed slavery and infanticide, made revenge murder a crime, granted equal rights to women, and sets aside areas of wilderness for protection. Just too little, too late, and TOO many people for earth to support. The third speaker is especially amazing, but the entire video is instructive:

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