Our Troubled Earth in a Vast and Beautiful Cosmos

These photos are spectacular. They help remind us of our place in the greater cosmos. From back-garden enthusiasts to professional photographers – the Royal Observatory in Greenwich received hundreds of entries for its 2010 Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. The winning images include solar eclipses, close-up views of the moon, and vast distant galaxies in deep space. Here’s a slide show of some of them –  an audio guided tour with one of the ten judges – Dr Marek Kukula, the Royal Observatory’s Public Astronomer.


Terminal Illness of the Global Energy System and Prospects for Recovery

The slow-motion collapse of the fossil-fuel based global industrial civilization is the unspoken elephant in the room of  main-stream media discussion of politics and economics. To even try to confront the awesome reality that a 200 year period of economic growth and the associated population explosion is heading for a cliff-edge unprecedented in human history takes clear-headed equanimity. The group of researchers and writers associated with the Post-Carbon Institute in Santa Rosa, California (www.postcarbon.org) are valiantly outlining ways to move beyond denial to realism. Here are two recent essays from this group:

David Fridley – Energy: Nine Challenges of Alternative Energy

Unlike conventional fossil fuels, where nature provided energy over millions of years to convert biomass into energy-dense solids, liquids, and gases–requiring only extraction and transportation technology for us to mobilize them–alternative energy depends heavily on specially engineered equipment and infrastructure for capture or conversion, essentially making it a high-tech manufacturing process. However, the full supply chain for alternative energy, from raw material to manufacturing, is still very dependent on fossil-fuel energy for mining, transport, and materials production. Alternative energy faces the challenge of how to supplant a fossil-fuel-based supply chain with one driven by alternative energy forms themselves in order to break their reliance on a fossil-fuel foundation.

William Ryerson – Population: The Multiplier of Everything Else

When it comes to controversial issues, population is in a class by itself. Advocates and activists working to reduce global population growth and size are attacked by the Left for supposedly ignoring human-rights issues, glossing over Western overconsumption, or even seeking to reduce the number of people of color. They are attacked by the Right for supposedly favoring widespread abortion, promoting promiscuity via sex education, or wanting to harm economic growth. Others think the problem has been solved, or believe that the real problem is that we have a shortage of people (the so-called “birth dearth”). Still others think the population problem will solve itself, or that technological innovations will make our numbers irrelevant. One thing is certain: The planet and its resources are finite, and it cannot support an infinite population of humans or any other species. A second thing is also certain: The issue of population is too important to avoid just because it is controversial.

The Empire that Pretends Not to Be One

Most Americans have been brought up with the fiction that America is a land of ever-expanding freedom and democracy, which it exports to a grateful world. Empires, with their cycles of growth and collapse, were a thing of the past – the most recent example being the British Empire, which basically imploded during and shortly after World War II. I myself, having been brought up in the 1940s and 50s in England, also shared this common delusion – and the defeat of Hitler’s Germany led a certain plausibility to this story of America as the gallant defender of liberty. The “reluctant empire” myth is of course not shared by the public in most countries of the world, where the population has experienced America’s imperial shadow up close. In recent years the number of academic and political writers questioning and critiquing this posture has increased dramatically – and here are a couple of  outstanding examples. Tom Engelhardt’s website is a great source on this topic, and for the following descriptions. (www.americanempireproject.com)

Chalmers Johnson – Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope.

In his prophetic book Blowback, published before 9/11, Chalmers Johnson warned that our secret operations in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe would exact a price at home. Now, in a brilliant series of essays written over the last three years, Johnson measures that price and the resulting dangers America faces. Our reliance on Pentagon economics, a global empire of bases, and war without end is, he declares, nothing short of “a suicide option.” There is, he proposes, only one way out: President Obama must begin to dismantle the empire before the Pentagon dismantles the American Dream. If we do not learn from the fates of past empires, he suggests, our decline and fall are foreordained.

Andrew Bacevich: The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism

An immediate New York Times bestseller, The Limits of Power offers an unparalleled examination of the profound triple crisis facing America: an economy in disarray that can no longer be fixed by relying on expansion abroad; a government transformed by an imperial presidency into a democracy in name only; and an engagement in endless wars that has severely undermined the body politic. Writing with knowledge born of experience, conservative historian and former military officer Andrew J. Bacevich argues that if the nation is to solve its predicament, it will need the revival of a distinctly American approach: the neglected tradition of realism. In contrast to the multiple illusions that have governed American policy since 1945, he calls for respect for power and its limits; aversion to claims of exceptionalism; skepticism of easy solutions, especially those involving force; and a conviction that Americans must live within their means.

Poetry for Turbulent Times: by Robinson Jeffers

The Answer

Then what is the answer? – Not to be deluded by dreams.

To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,

and their tyrants come, many times before.

When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor  or choose

the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.

To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted and

not wish for evil; and not be duped

By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will

not be fulfilled.

To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear the

whole remains beautiful. A severed hand

Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars

and his history…for contemplation or in fact…

Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the

greatest beauty is

Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine

beauty of the universe. Love that, not man

Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,

or drown in despair when his days darken.

From the front lines of psychedelic research: Ketamine as an anti-depressant

Science, 20 August 2010: Vol. 329. no. 5994, pp. 959 – 964

A team of researchers from Yale University report that ketamine, a drug normally used as an anasthetic, could be reformulated as an anti-depressant that takes effect in hours rather than the usual weeks and months of most available medications. The study was done with rats.

The team found that the drug not only improved the rats’ depression-like behaviors, it also restored connections between neurons or brain cells that had been damaged by chronic stress. They called this effect  “synaptogenesis.”

“Our results demonstrate that these effects of ketamine are opposite to the synaptic deficits that result from exposure to stress and could contribute to the fast antidepressant actions of ketamine.”

About ten years ago, scientists at Connecticut Mental Health Center found that in lower doses, ketamine, normally used as a general anasthetic for children, appeared to relieve patients with depression. Since then, other studies have shown that over two thirds of patients who don’t respond to all other types of anti-depressants improved hours after receiving ketamine.

The research teams testing ketamine in human subjects are giving it by intravenous injection – which is of course a drawback for ongoing use by depressed patients. They don’t seem to be aware of the fact that ketamine can also be taken by intramuscular injection – which should be no more difficult to handle than subcutaneous insulin injections by diabetics. Ketamine is an anesthetic that is useful in situations where you don’t want respiratory depression. Although it has found use in emergency medicine (it was used extensively in battlefield situations during the Korean War), it is now used mainly in children and veterinary medicine. Although it can’t be absorbed orally, it is available by prescription, for the treatment of chronic pain,  in the form of lozenges that are absorbed through the mucous membranes.

In the psychedelic drug sub-culture, where it is valued for its hallucinatory effects at lower, sub-anesthetic dosages, ketamine (referred to as “K” or “Special K”) is injected i.m. or snorted nasally ( it is not absorbed orally).

In my book MindSpace and TimeStream, I located ketamine (unlike other psychedelics) in the lower right quadrant of the two-dimensional mapping of psychoactive stimulants and depressants – lowered energy-level (due to the anaesthetic effect), but pleasurable on the hedonic continuum. “Ketamine.. an anaesthetic that at lower dosage ranges induces abstract visual hallucinations while one is drifting in a dream-like haze, pleasurably dissociated from bodily aches and pains.”  The dissociative anaesthetic effect of ketamine is the opposite of the sensation-enhancing effect of the classical psychedelics, although there is similarity in the abstract kaleidoscopic, eyes-closed visuals.

From the front lines of Climate Change: Greenland Ice Sheet Melting


The entire ice mass covering Greenland will disappear from the world map if temperatures rise by as little as 2C, with severe consequences for the rest of the world, a panel of scientists told Congress in August. An enormous chunk of ice, roughly 97 square miles in size, has broken off the Petermann Glacier along the northwest coast of Greenland. According to Richard Alley, a geosciences professor at Pennsylvania State University “Sometime in the next decade we may pass a tipping point …a rise in the range of 2C to 7C would mean the obliteration of Greenland’s ice sheet. The fall-out would be felt thousands of miles away from the Arctic, unleashing a global sea level rise of 23ft (7 metres), Alley warned. Greenland is losing ice mass at an increasing rate, dumping more icebergs into the ocean because of warming temperatures, he said. The briefing also noted that the last six months had set new temperature records. Robert Bindschadler, a research scientist at the University of Maryland, told the briefing: “We believe it is possible to reach a tipping point in a few decades in which we would lose the ice sheet in a century.” The ice loss from the Petermann Glacier was the largest such event in nearly 50 years.