Carl Sagan Warns Congress about Climate Change (1985)

Without climate change, we couldn’t inhabit the Earth as we do today. The greenhouse effect, by which gases in a planet’s atmosphere increase the heat of that planet’s surface, “makes life on Earth possible.” So says Carl Sagan in the video above. He adds that without it, the temperature would be about 30 degrees centigrade cooler: “That’s well below the freezing point of water everywhere on the planet. The oceans would be solid.” A little of the climate change induced by the greenhouse effect, then, is a good thing, but “here we are pouring enormous quantities of CO2 and these other gases into the atmosphere every year, with hardly any concern about its long-term and global consequences.”

It’s fair to say that the level of concern has increased since Sagan spoke these words in 1985, when “climate change” wasn’t yet a household term. But even then, his audience was Congress, and his fifteen-minute address, preserved by C-SPAN, remains a succinct and persuasive case for more research into the phenomenon as well as strategies and action to mitigate it.

What audience would expect less from Sagan, who just five years earlier had hosted the hit PBS television series Cosmos, based on his book of the same name. Its broadcast made contagious his enthusiasm for scientific inquiry in general and the nature of the planets in particular. Who could forget, for example, his introduction to the “thoroughly nasty place” that is Venus, research into whose atmosphere Sagan had conducted in the early 1960s?

Venus is “the nearest planet — a planet of about the same mass, radius, density, as the Earth,” Sagan tells Congress, but it has a “surface temperature about 470 degrees centigrade, 900 Fahrenheit.” The reason? “A massive greenhouse effect in which carbon dioxide plays the major role.” As for our planet, estimates then held that, without changes in the rates of fossil fuel-burning and “infrared-absorbing” gases released into the atmosphere, there will be “a several-centigrade-degree temperature increase” on average “by the middle to the end of the next century.” Given the potential effects of such a rise, “if we don’t do the right thing now, there are very serious problems that our children and grandchildren will have to face.” It’s impossible to know how many listeners these words convinced at the time, though they certainly seem to have stuck with a young senator in the room by the name of Al Gore.

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Carl Sagan Predicts the Decline of America: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “Without Noticing, Back into Superstition & Darkness” (1995)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Fascinating 3D Animation Shows the Depths of the Ocean

Deep sea exploration and the science of oceanography began 150 years ago when British survey ship HMS Challenger set off from Portsmouth with 181 miles of rope. The Royal Society tasked the expedition, among other things, with “investigat[ing] the physical conditions of the deep sea… in regard to depth, temperature circulation, specific gravity and penetration of light.” It was the first such voyage of its kind.

To accomplish its objectives, Challenger swapped all but two of its guns for specialized equipment, including — as assistant ship’s steward Joseph Matkin described in a letter home — “thousands of small air tight bottles and little boxes about the size of Valentine boxes packed in Iron Tanks for keeping specimens in, insects, butterflies, mosses, plants, etc… a photographic room on the main deck, also a dissecting room for carving up Bears, Whales, etc.”

Findings from the four-year voyage totaled almost thirty-thousand pages when published in a report. But the Challenger’s most famous legacy may be its discovery of the Mariana Trench. The ship recorded a sounding of 4,475 fathoms (26,850 ft.) in a southern part of the trench subsequently called Challenger Deep, and now known as the deepest part of the ocean and the “lowest point on Earth.” The most recent soundings using advanced sonar have measured its depth at somewhere between 35,768 to 36,037 feet, or almost 7 miles (11 kilometers).

Challenger Deep is so deep that if Everest were submerged into its depths, the mountain’s peak would still be roughly a mile and a half underwater. In 1960, a manned crew of two descended into the trench. Dozens of remote operated vehicles (ROVs) have explored its depths since, but it wouldn’t be until 2012 that another human made the 2.5 hour descent, when Avatar and The Abyss director James Cameron financed his own expedition. Then in 2019, explorer Victor Vescoso made the journey, setting the Guinness world record for deepest manned submarine dive when he reached the Eastern Pool, a depression within Challenger Deep. Just last year, he bested the record with his mission specialist John Rost, exploring the Eastern Pool for over four hours.

Last year’s descent brings the total number of people to visit Challenger Deep to five. How can the rest of us wrap our heads around a point so deep beneath us it can swallow up Mount Everest? The beautifully detailed, 3D animation at the top of the post does a great job of conveying the relative depths of oceans, seas, and major lakes, showing undersea tunnels and shipwrecks along the way, with manmade objects like the Eiffel Tower (which marks, within a few meters, the deepest scuba dive) and Burj Khalifa placed at intervals for scale.

By the time the animation — created by MetaBallStudios’ Alvaro Gracia Montoya– submerges us fully (with booming, echoing musical accompaniment) in the Mariana Trench, we may feel that we have had a little taste of the awe that lies at the deepest ocean depths.

Related Content: 

A Radical Map Puts the Oceans–Not Land–at the Center of Planet Earth (1942)

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Climate Change Gets Strikingly Visualized by a Scottish Art Installation

Filmmaker James Cameron Going 36,000 Feet Under the Sea

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Footage of the Last Known Tasmanian Tiger Restored in Color (1933)

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that nearly two dozen wildlife species would be removed from the endangered species list, as CNN reported, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, “the Bachman’s warbler, two species of freshwater fishes, eight species of Southeastern freshwater mussels and 11 species from Hawaii and the Pacific Islands.” This is not good news. The animals have been delisted because they’ve been added to a list of extinct creatures, one that grows longer each year.

Most of us have seen few, if any, of these animals and cannot grasp the scope of their loss. What does it mean to say there are no more Bachman’s warblers left on Earth? Species wiped out by climate change, overfarming, overfishing, or the encroachment of humans and invasive species can feel far away from us, their loss a distant tragedy; or extinction can seem inevitable, like that of the Dodo or Sicilian wolf, creatures that seem too fantastic for the world we now inhabit. So too, the dog-like marsupial Tasmanian tiger — or thylacine — an animal that lived as recently as 1936 when the last representative of its species, named Benjamin, died in captivity in Australia.

The thylacine looks like an evolutionary oddity, too weird to survive. But this judgment is a misapplication of Darwinism as egregious as the idea that only the “fittest,” i.e. those who can take good beating, survive. The day Benjamin died, September 7, has been commemorated in Australia as National Threatened Species Day, which raises awareness about the hundreds of plant and animal species close to extinction. The day also celebrates the hundreds of species found nowhere else in the world, animals that could come to seem to us in the near future as strange and exotic as the thylacine — a fascinating example of convergent evolution: a marsupial canid that evolved completely independently of wolves, dogs, and other canine species with which it had no contact whatsoever until the British arrived.

Found only on the island of Tasmania by the time of European settlement, thylacine populations were destroyed by disease, dogs, and, primarily, human hunters. Before the final member of the species died, they were kept in zoos and captured on silent film by naturalists like David Fleay, who shot the black-and-white footage just above of Benjamin at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania. In the video at the top, we can see the same footage in vivid color — and full digital restoration — thanks to Samuel François-Steininger and his Paris-based company Composite Films.

Sent an HDR (High Dynamic Range) scan of the film by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA), François-Steininger had to make a lot of interpretive choices. Next to “original skins preserved in museums,” the NFSA notes, his team “had to rely on sketches and paintings because of the lack of original color pictures or footage that could be used for research.” While there are 9 short film clips of the animals from the London and Hobart zoos, these are all, of course, in black and white. “Written descriptions of the thylacine’s coat gave them a general idea of the tints and shades present in the fur, information they supplemented with scientific drawings and recent 3D color renderings of the animal.” The results are incredibly natural-looking and startlingly immediate.

Are the thylacine, Bachman’s warbler, and other extinct species victims of the Anthropocene? Will our children’s children children watch films of polar bears and koalas and wonder how our planet could have contained such wonders? Geological epochs deal with “mile-thick packages of rock stacked up over tens of millions of years,” Peter Brannen writes at The Atlantic, and thus it overstates the case to call the last four centuries of climate change and mass extinction an “Anthropocene.” The word names “a thought experiment” rather than a span of deep time in Earth’s history. But from the perspective of critically endangered species — maybe to include, eventually, humans themselves — the transformations of the present seem squarely focused on our reckless behavior and its effects on habitats we never see.

We are far less important to geological time than we think, Brannen argues, but it does, indeed, seem up to us at the moment whether there is a future on Earth filled with plant, animal, and yes, human, life:

We haven’t earned an Anthropocene epoch yet. If someday in the distant future we have, it will be an astounding testament to a species that, after a colicky, globe-threatening infancy, learned that it was not separate from Earth history, but a contiguous part of the systems that have kept this miraculous marble world habitable for billions of years.

Related Content: 

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Mushroom Time-Lapses Are Filmed: A Glimpse Into the Pioneering Time-Lapse Cinematography Behind the Netflix Documentary Fantastic Fungi

Mushrooms are having a moment, thanks in part to pioneering time-lapse cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg’s documentary Fantastic Fungi.

Now streaming on Netflix, the film has given rise to a bumper crop of funghi fantatics, who sprang up like, well, mushrooms, to join the existing ranks of citizen scientistsculinary fansweekend foragersamateur growers, and spiritual seekers.

Schwartzberg, who earlier visualized pollination from the flower’s point of view in the Meryl Streep-narrated Wings of Life, is a true believer in the power of mushrooms, citing funghi’s role in soil creation and health, and their potential for remedying a number of pressing global problems, as well as a host of human ailments.

Fantastic Funghi focuses on seven pillars of benefits brought to the table by the fungal kingdom and its Internet-like underground network of mycelium:

  1. Biodiversity

A number of projects are exploring the ways in which the mycelium world can pull us back from the bring of  desertization, water shortage, food shortage, bee colony collapsetoxic contaminants, nuclear disasters, oil spills, plastic pollution, and global warming.

  1. Innovation

Mushroom-related industries are eager to press funghi into service as environmentally sustainable faux leatherbuilding materials, packaging, and meat alternatives.

  1. Food

From fine dining to foraging off-the-grid, mushrooms are prized for their culinary and nutritional benefits.

  1. Physical Health and Wellness

Will the humble mushroom prove mighty enough to do an end run around powerful drug companies as a source of integrative medicine to help combat diabetes, liver disease, inflammation, insomnia and cognitive decline?

  1. Mental Health

Researchers at Johns HopkinsUCLA, and NYU are running clinical trials on the benefits of psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms as a tool for treating addiction, depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal ideation.

  1. Spirituality

Of course, there’s also a rich tradition of religions and individual seekers deploying mind altering psychoactive mushrooms as a form of sacrament or a tool for plumbing the mysteries of life.

  1. The Arts

Director Schwartzberg understandably views mushrooms as muse, a fitting subject for photography, music, film, poetry, art and other creative endeavors.


With regard to this final pillar, many viewers may be surprised to learn how much of the 15 years Schwartzberg dedicated to capturing the exquisite cycle of fungal regeneration and decomposition took place indoors.

As he explains in the Wired video above, his precision equipment excels at capturing development that’s invisible to the human eye, but is no match for such natural world disruptions as insects and wind.

Instead, he and his team built controlled growing environments, where highly sensitive time lapse cameras, dollies, timed grow lights, and more cinematic lighting instruments could be left in place.

Set dressings of moss and logs, coupled with a very short depth of field helped to bring the Great Outdoors onscreen, with occasional chromakeyed panoramas of the natural world filling in the gaps.

Even in such lab-like conditions, certain elements were necessarily left to chance. Mushrooms grow notoriously quickly, and even with constant monitoring and calculations, there was plenty of potential for one of his stars to miss their mark, shooting out of frame.

Just one of the ways that mushrooms and humans operate on radically different timelines. The director bowed to the shrooms, returning to square one on the frequent occasions when a sequence got away from him.

Providing viewers an immersive experience of the underground mycelium network required high powered microscopes, a solid cement floor, and a bit of movie magic to finesse. What you see in the final cut is the work of CGI animators, who used Schwartzberg’s footage as their blueprint.

Netflix subscribers can stream Fantastic Fungi for free.

From October 15 – 17, filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg is hosting a free, virtual Fantastic Fungi Global Summit. Register here.

You can also browse his collection of community mushroom recipes and submit your own, download Fantastic Fungi’s Stoned Ape poster, or have a ramble through a trove of related videos and articles in the Mush Room.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Brood X Cicadas are her mushrooms. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Venice’s New $7 Billion Flood Defense System in Action

There are capitals unlikely to be much afflicted by rising sea levels — Indianapolis, say, or La Paz — but Venice looks set for a much more dire fate. Still, there is hope for the Floating City, a hope held out by large-scale engineering projects like the one profiled in the Tomorrow’s Build video above. Called MOSE (an acronym standing for MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), the system consists of “78 gates, each 20 meters wide, that rise up out of the water when flooding is imminent.” This sounds like just the ticket for a city that, “built in the middle of a lagoon,” has “been susceptible to a natural phenomenon known as acqua alta, or ‘high water,’ since its founding in the fifth century.”

MOSE is now “finally up and running, eighteen years after construction began” — and a decade after its original completion deadline. This was too late, unfortunately, to spare Venice from the 2019 flood that ranked as its worst in 50 years, leaving 80 percent of the city underwater.

“The good news is, it passed the first major test,” successfully protecting the city in October of last year “from a 1.3-meter high tide, and it’s performed multiple times since. But this doesn’t mean that flooding’s been stopped entirely. In December, it was unable to prevent an unexpectedly high tide from sweeping in and drenching the city once again.” Technically, that incident wasn’t MOSE’s fault: “Weather forecasters underestimated how high the water would get, so authorities kind of didn’t think to switch it on.”

This speaks to the difficulty of not just designing and installing a complex mechanical defense mechanism, but also of getting it to work in concert with the other systems already performing functions of their own (and at various levels of reliability). At a cost of over €6 billion (or $7 billion), MOSE has become “far more expensive than first predicted,” and thus faces that much higher a burden of self-justification, especially given the cloud of “corruption, environmental opposition, and questions about its long-term effectiveness” hanging over it. Seen in action, MOSE remains an unquestionably impressive work of engineering, but its associated headaches have surely converted some to the position on Venice once advanced by no less a scholar and lover of that storied city than Jan Morris: “Let her sink.”

via Kottke

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The Venice Time Machine: 1,000 Years of Venice’s History Gets Digitally Preserved with Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

Watch City Out of Time, a Short Tribute to Venice, Narrated by William Shatner in 1959

Venice in a Day: From Daybreak to Sunset in Timelapse

Venice is Way Under Water…

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Radical Gardeners Took Back New York City

New Yorkers’ relationship to New York City community gardens is largely informed by how long we’ve lived here.

Do you remember the 60s, when a fiscal crisis and white flight resulted in thousands of vacant lots and abandoned buildings in low income neighborhoods?

Activists like Hattie Carthan and Liz Christy sprung from such soil, creating youth programs, hauling away debris, and putting constant pressure on elected officials to transform those urban wastelands into green oases.

Verdant sites like the Bowery Houston Community Farm and Garden (now known as the Liz Christy Garden) improved air quality, lowered temperatures, and offered a pleasant gathering place for neighbors of all ages.

In the ‘80s, the city boasted 1000 community gardens, mostly in neighborhoods considered blighted. School aged children learned how to plant, tend, and harvest vegetables. Immigrant members introduced seeds new to American-born gardeners, to help combat both homesickness and food insecurity. On site arts programs flourished. There were al fresco birthday parties, concerts, movie screenings, holiday celebrations, permaculture classes, community meetings…. Gardens became focal points for community engagement. Participants were understandably proud, and invested in what they’d built.

As Yonnette Fleming, founder of the community-led market at the Hattie Carthan Community Garden and Farmer’s Market, says in the above episode of Vox’s Missing Chapter: “Community gardens grow communities, for the people, to be run by the people, for the benefit of the people.”

In the mid-90s, newly elected Mayor Rudy Giuliani sided with developers over citizens. More than half of the city’s gardens were bulldozed to make way for luxury residences.

Traditionally low-rise neighborhoods like the East Village and Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuyvesant would become increasingly fashionable during the early days of the new millennium. New arrivals with little interest in neighborhood history might assume that the sidewalks had always been lined with cute cafes and hipster bars, not to mention trees. (In reality, Carthan was 64 when she began her successful campaign to line Bed-Stuy with trees, and landmark a venerable Magnolia that was at risk of being torn down.)

Perhaps hoping to command younger viewers’ attention, Vox’s Missing Chapter opens not with the rich history of New York City’s community gardens, but rather the many recipes for seed bombs on TikTok. The glass half full perspective on our 500-strong surviving gardens can ring a bit empty to those who lost the fight to preserve a number of East Harlem gardens just a few short years ago.

Don’t forget your roots! Christy’s typewritten, hand illustrated Green Guerillas recipe for seed bombs is below. (If you want to try it at home, please use seeds native to your area.)

Related Content: 

A New Interactive Map Shows All Four Million Buildings That Existed in New York City from 1939 to 1941

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New York City: A Social History (A Free Online Course from N.Y.U.) 

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Art of Creating a Bonsai: One Year Condensed Condensed Into 22 Mesmerizing Minutes

To be a good writer, one must be a good reader. This is made true by the need to absorb and assess the work of other writers, but even more so by the need to evaluate one’s own. Writing is re-writing, to coin a phrase, and effective re-writing can only follow astute re-reading. This condition applies to other arts and crafts as well: take bonsai, the regarding of which constitutes a skill in and of itself. To craft an aesthetically pleasing miniature tree, one must first be able to see an aesthetically pleasing miniature tree — or perhaps to feel one. “Bonsai trees (and inspiring art in general) give me a ‘feeling’ that is hard to describe,” as practitioner Bucky Barnes puts it in the video above. “I’m not getting it from this tree yet, so I know I need to continue tweaking.”

That tree is a Japanese larch bonsai, Barnes’ year of work on which the video compresses into a mere 22 minutes. The work is more than a matter of water and sunlight: aspects that must be considered and aggressively modified, include the plant’s viewing and potting angle, the number and direction of its branches, and even the structure of roots spreading through the soil below.

Barnes breaks out a range of clippers, knives, pastes, brushes, and wires — part of a suite of tools that, at least for the masters back in bonsai’s homeland of Japan, can get expensive indeed. To us laymen, the tree that results from this year of work looks pretty respectable, but by bonsai standards its existence has only just begun. Over the coming decades — or even the coming centuries — it could take on other qualities altogether. When well maintained, bonsai only improve with age.

As demonstrated in the video just above, however, not every bonsai receives such maintenance. A product of the same Youtube channel, Bonsai Releaf, “Restoring a Neglected Chinese Juniper Bonsai” begins with a tree that, to many of its nearly four million viewers so far, probably doesn’t look too bad. Barnes sees things differently: beginning by sketching the tree, apparently a standard stage of his professional bonsai-viewing process, he sets about correcting a host of deficiencies like “lower branches competing for light,” excessive upward or downward growth (as well as something called “weak crotch growth”), and dead tissue not delineated from living. This laborious operation requires an even wider tool set, encompassing Dremels and even flames. But by the video’s end, anyone can see the difference in the tree itself — and more importantly, feel it.

Related Content:

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What Makes the Art of Bonsai So Expensive?: $1 Million for a Bonsai Tree, and $32,000 for Bonsai Scissors

Daisugi, the 600-Year-Old Japanese Technique of Growing Trees Out of Other Trees, Creating Perfectly Straight Lumber

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Art of Balancing Stones: How Artists Use Simple Materials to Make Impossible Sculptures in Nature

Not so long ago, a wave of long-form entreaties rolled through social media insisting that we stop building rock cairns. Like many who scrolled past them, I couldn’t quite imagine the offending structures they meant, let alone recall constructing one myself. The cairns in question turned out, mundanely, to be those little stacks of flat rocks seen in parks, alongside trails and streams. They’re as common in South Korea, where I live, as they seem to be in the United States. Both countries also share a great enthusiasm for Instagram, and it’s the apparent Instagrammability of these cairns that has increased their number (and consequent ecological and cultural harm) in recent years.

No matter how many likes they garner, these common cairns require little or no skill in the building. The same can hardly be said of rock balancing, an art that demands a great deal more discipline and patience than many an influencer can muster. The Wired video at the top of the post profiles one of the most famous living rock-balancers, a Canadian named Michael Grab.

“One of my core drives is to make the formation as impossible as possible,” he says, referring to the apparent defiance of gravity performed by all the rocks he finds and arranges into stacks, arcs, orbs, and other unlikely shapes. In fact, it is gravity alone that holds his artworks together — and repeatedly destroys them in the countless trials and errors before their completion.

Yes, Grab has an Instagram account: Gravity Glue, on which he showcases his precariously solid sculptures as well as their natural contexts. So does Jonna Jinton, a Swedish “artist, photographer and Youtuber” who also balances rocks. “It’s such a great way to also balance myself,” she says in the short video just above, “and to create something beautiful at the same time.” For her, the art has become a form of meditation: “As I try to find a tiny, tiny little balance point, my thoughts are completely silent, and that’s a very good feeling.” Jinton doesn’t say whether she personally ensures the destruction of her works, as Grab does. But doing so, as one should note before entering the rock-balancer lifestyle, may keep you on the better side of the ecological recommendations and indeed the law. But then the aforementioned anti-cairnism seemed to hit its zenith in early 2020, since which time, it’s fair to say, the world has had more pressing concerns.

Related Content:

The Philosophical Appreciation of Rocks in China & Japan: A Short Introduction to an Ancient Tradition

Discover the Japanese Museum Dedicated to Collecting Rocks That Look Like Human Faces

Watch a Masterpiece Emerge from a Solid Block of Stone

A Modern Drummer Plays a Rock Gong, a Percussion Instrument from Prehistoric Times

Watch an Archaeologist Play the “Lithophone,” a Prehistoric Instrument That Let Ancient Musicians Play Real Classic Rock

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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