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Columbus Day 2016

We all have basic needs. Clean air, clean water, clean food, clothing, shelter, safety, security, good health and a healthy social environment. We all have wants. Social environments become toxic when we permit the wants of some to interfere with the needs of others.

524 years ago, a group of people from Europe crossed the Atlantic ocean in search of things they wanted. Their basic needs were adequately met at home, but they wanted more.

When the European group arrived, led by Christopher Columbus, they discovered other people living on the lands they explored. That contact was fatal for many, because it led to an exchange of microbes. This exchange affected both groups, but the effects were devastating for the indigenous peoples. They lacked immunity to some of the diseases that spread, and in many communities it killed most of the people living there. This effect, for the most part, was accidental and unplanned.

This massive loss of life made it easy for the Europeans to move in and take whatever they wanted. The indigenous people fought back, as was their right. They had a right to their resources, their way of life, their system of meeting needs.

The European desire to fulfill their wants was fine. There’s nothing wrong with wants. It was only when they began deliberately destroying what remained of the indigenous people – their warriors, their homes, their independence, their means of living – that the wants of the European visitors became toxic.

And despite knowing it was wrong, they rationalized it for centuries. They still do. Not only the Europeans, but all of us. We exploit others to meet our wants and we rationalize it. It’s not exclusive to Europeans, or the West.

All living things have needs, and all those who wish to survive do what they must to meet those needs. Work, steal, fight, cooperate, trade and exploit – they’re all strategies seen throughout the animal kingdom. We’re part of it.

One of the things that makes humans unique is that we’re aware of the difference between needs and wants. We recognize that when we say “My right to swing my fist ends at your nose.”

Our right to use force ends where other people begin. We do it anyway, of course – we always have. That doesn’t make it right.

524 years ago, one group of people used force to satisfy their wants. In the process, they largely destroyed what remained after disease ran its course. They not only rationalized it, they celebrated it. They still do. It’s called Columbus Day.

In the past few decades, the awareness that it was wrong has spread. The indigenous peoples always knew it was wrong. Their descendants know it was wrong. Peoples in other lands recognized it was wrong.

The descendants of the Europeans are very late to this understanding, but they’re coming around. There is – justified – bitterness at how long it’s taken for this to happen. But it is happening, and that’s progress.

But not in Standing Rock, North Dakota.

We have one group of people with power and wants, and another with existential needs, including clean water. The indigenous peoples are fighting to protect their resources, and the group with wants and power has deployed it in the form of attack dogs, pepper spray and lawyers.

So here we are again. We can rationalize this and seize what belongs to others, or we can respect the needs of people living in Standing Rock. The power is there, as it was before. The ability to rationalize it is always present. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.

If we really wish to celebrate something this day, let us celebrate a new approach. Let us leave the people of Standing Rock in peace and meet our energy needs elsewhere. Let’s harvest the sun and the wind. Let’s stop pouring poison into the atmosphere we all share. Let’s meet our needs and wants in ways that respect the needs of others.

Let’s acknowledge that we are all in this together. Let’s exercise enough discipline over our endless desires to live with self-respect. Let’s cultivate the ability to live without making excuses for bad behavior.

Achieving that – learning from our mistakes – would make Columbus Day worth celebrating.

Written by Influential Prose

October 10, 2016 at 8:06 am

A River Runs Through It



What you see here is over 300 million years of geological history at Goosenecks State Park in Utah. You’ve seen similar vistas before, such as looking into the Grand Canyon, and there’s a reason for that.

At the bottom of these chasms is the San Juan river, and at a glance you might imagine the river slowly carving its way down through rock over eons. It didn’t happen that way. What actually happened is much more interesting.

You’ve seen photos of rivers that meander back and forth in a form called oxbow tails, such as this one in the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska:


These develop in areas that have low gradients, i.e., the upriver areas are very slightly higher than downriver, just enough for the water to slowly flow downward. The San Juan developed in that way, over 300 million years ago.

But rivers like these don’t cut into rock. They actually tend to collect and carry sediments, then drop them at turns, which is why it ends up winding back and forth.

The continental crust underlying the San Juan river broke off from the supercontinent Pangea and wandered around the globe. It’s still moving west, at about the speed fingernails grow; if you’re living in North America, you’re along for the ride right now.

And so through eons, about 280 million years, the river placidly plodded along, providing dinosaurs and other animals with drinking and bathing water.

Then the mountain building began, in fits and starts, over millions of years. Today that process is called the Laramide and Sevier orogenies. A thin dense layer of underwater basalt rock that makes up the Pacific plate began diving under North America. The angle of the collision was very shallow, but still powerful enough to squeeze and deform the rocks that make up the continental crust.

That compression created the column of mountains that stretch from Canada down through the US and into Mexico. The average thickness of continental crust runs between 22-25 miles. Imagine, if you can, the epic scale at work here; much of the western basin, an area that was once the bottom of a shallow inland sea, being slowly pried upwards. You can duplicate the pattern on a smaller scale by pushing a piece of tablecloth.

The new mountains transformed the gradient of the surface water’s flow. Upriver was now significantly higher than downriver, which in turn generates faster water flow.

Normally when water runs fast, it flows relatively straight, creating long classic valleys. But this river was already formed. The new, faster flow was strong enough to carry sediments out and further downhill, but not strong enough to alter the shape of the river. So it carved down through the rock…in 20 million years.

So what you see here, in a sense, is a region that has been power washed by an incessant high-flow river running 24/7 for 20 million years, steadily working its way down through 300 million years of layers. This all happened in the last 15% of the river’s existence.

So it doesn’t take 300 million years to carve this deep channel. Twenty million years and fast water is enough to make it happen.

Written by Influential Prose

May 10, 2015 at 10:58 am

Dry Past, Wet Future

I live in the Washington, DC area, was walking past the Supreme Court earlier this week. Like several other DC buildings and museums, it borrows from Greek and Roman architectural traditions and sports a facade that resembles the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens.


The Parthenon was constructed in 447 BC and has been there for 2,462 years, with some changes. It has withstood nearly 25 centuries of weather, being attacked, bombed and burned. As it stands today, it’s both majestic and tragic.

The Supreme Court was completed in 1935, making it 80 years old at this writing. I wondered how it might be affected by climate change. It is 88 feet above sea level, or a bit less than 27 meters. A key concern, of course, is sea level rise.

This projection of sea level rise from The 100 Metre Line blog suggests water will be lapping at the stairs of the Court by 2320, three centuries from now. In the nearby fountain at the Library of Congress, the sculpture of the Roman god Neptune will rejoin the sea.

Supreme Court (left) and Library of Congress after 30 meters (98 feet) of sea level rise

After 60 meters (197 feet) of sea level rise

If sea levels continue rising, the entire Court building could be underwater by 2600, 585 years from now.

Washington, DC after 60 meters of sea level rise

Our understanding of climate change is incomplete, so these numbers aren’t perfect. But they are a realistic, educated estimate based on what we know now.

This is not yet foreordained. Perhaps we develop mad geoengineering skills, 3D print massive sea walls, or take other measures to mitigate the climate crisis.

But if we maintain our current course, if we fail to develop a global consensus and act, this becomes a likely scenario. And we must act before the changes become too great to roll back.

Incidentally, the Parthenon is 490 feet, or 149 meters above sea level. Even if all the world’s ice melts, it will remain comfortably above sea level.

The Greeks raised their great buildings to last. We are on track to drown ours.

With thanks to the 100 Metre Line and the DrownYourTown simulator.

Written by Influential Prose

January 21, 2015 at 6:51 am


Here’s a bit of good news.

If you check the labels of bottled water sold in the metro DC area, you’ll find a lot of it comes from Pennsylvania. This is a state with 6,391 active fracking wells for natural gas, as you can see here:

How close are these wells to the sources of bottled drinking water?

Judging by the amount of shelf space it gets in area stores, the Deer Park brand seems to be the most popular. They list the Pennsylvania sources of their water here:

They list New Tripoli, PA; Bangor, PA, Stroudsburg, PA; Hegins, PA, South Coventry, PA; Pine Grove, PA

A quick survey of these locales in Google Maps shows them to be in the eastern or southeastern parts of the state, pretty well away from the fracking activity. It also makes sense they would be toward the east since their largest markets are all on the east coast.

So it looks like Pennsylvania bottled water, at least the Deer Park brand, is safe from fracking contamination…for now.

Written by Influential Prose

August 21, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Posted in environment, science