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Introducing new guest blogger: Heteromeles

Regular readers of this blog's comments will be familiar with Frank Landis, although not under that name—he comments here under the alias Heteromeles. Frank is a part-time environmentalist, a part-time consultant, a house-husband and a writer; he's one of the people who earned a PhD, in his case in botany (he's a plant community ecologist and mycorrhizast by training, with a background in environmental science), failed to land a job in academia, and got downsized out of the business world by the Great Recession. He's guest-blogging here tomorrow about his next book, Hot Earth Dreams, a look at how the Earth's biosphere is likely to change in the wake of anthropogenic climate change ...



We'd normally say "Welcome Frank" at this point, except that sounds more than a little redundant in this case.


A "mycorrhizast" is prsumably something to do with the symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants.

I need advice about mulching. I'm the volunteer "building and grounds chair" at my Unitarian church, and when I put a bunch of mulch around the trees (so nobody has to weed) I was told that professional gardeners advise against making a mulch volcano, though I see it done all the time, and clearly by professional gardeners. Supposedly, it shortens the tree's lifespan by making it more susceptible to fungus. So I put a little gravel in to separate the tree trunk from the mulch, yet still shade out weeds, but I'm told that's wrong because it lets cold in to the tree roots. Of course what I'm trying to avoid is pure parasitism, not symbiosis, but still, you see trees out in the woods with organic matter in contact with the trunk. Nature does it that way. Of course, you also see trees out in the woods that are dead and being eaten by big hair funguses. Don't see what the tree gets out of it. Just tell me I can do a mulch volcano.


Welcome! We've disagreed on tons of stuff in the past, but it was always interesting discussion.


Yay! Heteromeles got an upgrade!


He's guest-blogging here tomorrow about his next book, Hot Earth Dreams, a look at how the Earth's biosphere is likely to change in the wake of anthropogenic climate change ...

Here's something very related to read, while you wait:


Do you have any reading suggestions for quickly getting up to speed on this stuff?

To the point that I can at least ask interesting questions anyway.


"how the Earth's biosphere is likely to change in the wake of anthropogenic climate change" - should the key word there by "likely", not "possibly"? Coz there's a huge difference between the two, for any particular warming trajectory. What matters is the risk of particular changes, where risk = impact x probability and it's not clear that the risk of high impacts with low probabilities is more or less of an issue than the risk of moderate impacts with medium probablities. So I'd suggest that both sets of risks need to be considered.

(Yes, this is the whole Nordhaus vs. Weitzman argument, that a damage function based on a long-tailed probability distribution function heads to infinity purely because of unsurvivable events that are very unlikely to happen. Just like with all physics, once you start throwing infinities around, bad things happen to the analysis.)

This is all complicated because the cost of such changes depends not just upon the absolute value of those changes, but the rate and distribution, with bonus points for biological systems being horribly non-linear and valued by humans in a heap of complex ways. And the cherry on top is that the research into this is of variable quality when looking at the biophysical changes, worse when looking at the ecological impacts of biophysical changes, and frankly inadequate when looking at the knock-on effects of those impacts upon human societies and economies and ultimately politics.

So good luck with that. I await tomorrow with interest.


Welcome, Frank!

I had the pleasure of being a beta reader for Hot Earth Dreams. I will save the bulk of my book-related comments and praise until that thread is open. Let me join the chorus anticipating that discussion.

A warning for Jez, or anyone else who thinks that the world can successfully transition off fossil fuels (like myself): the book is based on a what-if scenario where humans badly fail at that chore and burn all the fossils they can extract. If the outcomes sound a lot more dire than IPCC scenarios, it's because Hot Earth Dreams considers extreme emissions scenarios and looks much deeper in time than the year 2100.


Good luck!

(Have I seen you on alucublog, or am confusing you with a different honey?)


Thanks Charlie. I'm still posting as Heteromeles until tomorrow, and probably after my guest host turn.

In any case, if you want to read the first five chapters in a pdf, they're at This will answer some questions.


Yay! Darling Wife manages an organic fertilizer (AKA "soil food") distribution company and is big on supplemental mycorrhizae, while our Best Friend is half of a nursery that specializes in climate-appropriate landscape plants. So even beyond my native bio-neepery, my folks have a professional interest in what Mr. Heteromeles ("Christmas Berry" - my friend propagates that) may have to say.


"Frank is a part-time environmentalist, a part-time consultant, a house-husband and a writer; he's one of the people who earned a PhD, in his case in botany (he's a plant community ecologist and mycorrhizast by training, with a background in environmental science), failed to land a job in academia, and got downsized out of the business world by the Great Recession."

Wow, I so feel you. That bio could practically be about me, including the bit about getting downsized out of academia, except that my degree isn't in botany. Congratulations on your book!


So that's IPCC Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 then? Twelve billion people burning ten times as much coal by 2100, with coal use only dropping after that coz there isn't much left. It's hard to credibly suggest worse.

"A scenario of comparatively high greenhouse gas emissions"

My point still stands: if we have economic policies that can summarised as "screw the future, let's burn ALL the coal" and we end up on a emissions pathway that looks like RCP8.5, then we still face uncertainty about the impacts. That pathways could lead to the most likely warming and the most likely impacts and in this scenario, they are horrible. And then there are the unlikely, worst-case warming and impacts, which are start getting into apocalypse territory. Because of that inherent uncertainty, it is valid and necessary to consider both scenarios.

Well, at least for policy discussions, that is. For drama, you can just say "fuck it, shits on fire", but than again for drama, you can also say "fuck it, there's dragons".


As an allotment-holder & enthusiastic fungus-eater, I'm certainly interested. Like, why, when we actually have a warm summer & damp(ish) August & definitely a damp September etc, is the fungus-count (fruiting bodies that is) so low in the UK this year? I was looking forward to lots more Boletus badius than I actually got & the Lycoperdon perlatum were not too prolific , either.

Also, I Know the fungal hyphae/mychorrizia must be there, because I've seen fruiting bodies in the past, but has anyone the faintest idea as to why they are so erratic/temperamental about showing themselves? [ Yes, I know, anyone who can reproduce "Ceps" to order in cultivation, will make a fortune ... ]


It's basically RCP 8.5 for emissions but looking well past the year 2100, which is where IPCC usually stops. There are large lagged effects that manifest later.


This is probably a stupid question, but do you have any relation to Geoffrey Landis?


The story in my family is that "Landis" is a Germanic name that means "landowner," so when previously landless peasants got to Ellis Island in the 19th Century, many of them adopted it as an aspirational surname that subsequently became true. I've looked up the etymology of the name, and it's more complex than that, but you get the idea.

So far as I know, I'm not related to Geoffrey Landis, John Landis, Floyd Landis, Max Landis, or Joshua Landis. Sad but true.


@Jez Weston --

My take is that we don't actually care. All that stuff about rising sea levels and population displacement and lethal heat in the summer is completely irrelevant for planning purposes.

The only thing that matters is whether or not we break agriculture.

Can inconsistent weather break agriculture? Absolutely. We've got a plethora of historical examples, some short-lived ("year without a summer"), some persistent (North Africa used to be the breadbasket of the Roman Empire).

If we break agriculture the total human population gets reduced to under 1 billion. (Probably quite some distance under 1 billion; the carrying capacity of post-agricultural land is initially sharply reduced compared to its pre-anthropocene state.) The result isn't the kind of capable industrial society that has access to enough energy to worry about moving cities uphill as the sea comes up.

So when you're complaining about the lack of accurate predictions, I think you're making an inappropriate optimization. Any economic cost that does not result in breaking agriculture is preferable to breaking agriculture. Since we literally cannot make especially accurate predictions about how much warming breaks agriculture, it would be appropriate to consider our present circumstances a state of emergency.

(I'm pretty sure getting off fossil carbon is massive economic net win, but that's not the point of this argument.)


It's ultimately a matter of how often crops fail, what kinds of crops fail, etc. Failure-prone agriculture is nothing new - IIRC the ancient Romans' mediterranean agriculture had a high chance of crop failure, so they'd diversify and plant different kinds of crops.

If that's what it takes, we'll get there eventually, painstakingly - no doubt after billions more in subsidies are piled on the monoculture maize farmers here in the US, and still lead to failure.


In the bad old days of the 1930's over 66% of food in Britain was imported. Even now, with idiot subsidies to the wrong things, we are at 50% of our own food. During WWII (IIRC) getting caught stealing food from people's allotments got you in very deep shit.

This: Might be interesting


If whose agriculture breaks? Canada and Northern Siberia are about to become the breadbaskets of the world.


I can't imagine why you would think so.

Rather than go on about carbon cycles, soil development, Siberian permafrost, Canadian permafrost, muskeg, and the unsuitability of boreal soils for agriculture, reduced insolation with latitude, and the problems of inconsistent weather, I'm going to borrow an engineering analogy.

You can have resilience or you can have performance. (Compare marine diesel engine size and F1 car engine size for the same power output.) Right now, agriculture is optimized for performance. Optimizing it for resilience is going to cut output. Optimizing it for resilience in the absence of fossil carbon inputs is going to cut output more.

There isn't a whole lot of spare agricultural capacity considered on a global scale; certainly not enough that giving up a factor of four in productivity should be considered trivial.


Compare the peak torque of those same engines. The F1 engine will never move the ship whatever you try.


One thing the standard projections tend to hide is that the total area of the whole of Canada and the whole of Siberia together is only about 2/3 that of Africa. And a reasonable amount of southern Canada already is a breadbasket.


The model I use is optimization vs. bet hedging. Optimizing is conceptually equivalent to good old calculus and finding the maximum. If you're going to optimize crop yield, you try to match crop to field, maximize field size, fiddle with the inputs, and try to get the most crop you can for whatever your parameters are.

If you're bet hedging, you assume that some or most of your crops are going to fail, so you plant multiple crop species and cultivars, and often plant in multiple fields that are as far away from each other as you can manage to tend, which in some cases means 20 miles of walking every day. Yields of any one crop are much smaller, but the chance of them all failing is low to nil, depending on how well you hedge.

The logic is that, if you depend on a single, large field, every once in awhile your crop will fail. If you're in a money economy, you've got crop insurance, and you're not eating what you grow, this is sort of survivable, although it leads to some problems with rural impoverishment and crushing debt loads, which we're seeing now throughout rural America, and which drives some part of Republican politics.

If you're bet hedging, your yields are low, but your risk of losing it all is much, much lower. If you're subsistence farming, this is a much better solution, because you're unlikely to starve. Unfortunately, you're unlikely to get rich, either.

Now let's add in two levels of complexity: in industrial agriculture, it's not just optimizing the farm yields. There's a whole food industry that depends on getting the materials they need when they need it, and there are whole futures markets of agricultural orders that depend on things like hog bellies and #2 wheat being available for the meat packers and the bread mills. The factories that require these goods are also currently situated in places (like California's central valley) where their materials are close by.

As the climate changes, it's going to be harder to meet market orders, and crops are going to be grown further and further away from the factories that need them. For wheat, this is less of a problem, but if California ag runs out of water, a huge amount of canned, frozen, and otherwise processed fruits and vegetables will go away, because the factories are going to be too far from where the crops are growing to get them before they rot.

The thing to remember is that climate change is a centuries-long process even now. If Lockheed starts shipping fusion generators in 2016, the climate will still keep changing for something like 200 years. If we blow all our fossil fuels, it will keep heating up for 200 years or so after that, and keep changing for hundreds of thousands of years.

Under changing climate, farmers get stuck experimenting. For example, in Africa (per McKibben's Eaarth), some east African farmers who depend on the rains to ripen their crops are now planting all year. The rains are coming unpredictably, and most plantings fail. Occasionally, by luck, one crop ripens, and that's what they need. Before the rains became unpredictable, the farmers had half the year to seek off-job farms and earn money. Now their yields are down and they are tied to the land 12 months of the year, trying to get even those lower yields, because the conditions have become unpredictable.

Some farmers also give up. I haven't checked this, but reportedly Australia's sharply cutting back on its wheat production. The long drought in the 1990s caused them to over-use their groundwater, and they've decided that it's not feasible to be a wheat exporter in a desert climate. Saudi Arabia flirted with groundwater agriculture and has abandoned it after draining their aquifers in a decade (say goodbye to oases--there's a report out there titled "Camel's Don't Fly, Deserts Don't Bloom" that chronicles this). Similarly, the Syrian civil war was set in motion by Assad pushing his farmers to grow wheat and cotton even as their rivers ran dry. The farmers drained their aquifers, moved to the cities, drained those aquifers too, and that's when the war started. ISIL's stronghold is in the middle of the old farming area, which tells you how well they could feed themselves if they were a real caliphate and not a bandit organization.

I could go on, but adding billions of people to a shaky food system is a difficult problem to solve. And yes, I do talk about it in the book.


And my post is up. Yay! Time to be brutally Frank for awhile.


And, of course, almost all Allotment holders are "Bet Hedgers" There's always SOMETHING that will crop.


That link is interesting. Thanks Greg.


And almost always something that won't too, of course.

One year we planted a whole bunch of different brassicas. Every single variety got eaten to buggery and back. Another year we had a crop of beets so productive that they were levering themselves up into a heap, before the wildlife got to them and nibbled rings round them.

If you have a polytunnel, life can get seriously difficult when growth takes off.

Soil Association rules make life more interesting.


Re: 'Similarly, the Syrian civil war was set in motion by Assad pushing his farmers to grow wheat and cotton even as their rivers ran dry.'

Guess his staff didn't bother to check what was going on next door in Russia. The Aral Sea has almost disappeared because the Soviet govt decided to plant cotton. The cost to undo the harm (fisheries, health, etc.) is probably greater than the revenue generated by the cotton.


Gosh, that's very cool. I guess it's ave atque... um, ave.


Yes. This year, I've experimented with an interesting S American veg "Achocha" ( Cyclanthera sp ) Very productive ... but I've also planted one in my frost-free greenhouse - will it die with shortening day-length or not? If not, I might have a problem ..... The sweetcorn bombed completely, but the peas & beans went mad, as did the tomatoes this year. So it goes



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on November 11, 2015 10:55 AM.

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