Tuesday, April 17, 2018

2886. Shipping Industry to Cut Emissions by Half of the 2008 Level by 2050

By Chris Mooney, The Washington Post, April 13, 2018

Member nations of the United Nations body charged with regulating shipping on the high seas adopted a first-ever strategy Friday to blunt the sector’s large contribution to climate change — bringing another major constituency on board in the international quest to cap the planet’s warming well below an increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
The strategy embraced by a committee of the International Maritime Organization would lower emissions from container ships, oil tankers, bulk carriers and other vessels by at least 50 percent by the year 2050 vs. where they stood in 2008. The group also said that emissions from shipping should reach a peak, and begin to decline, as soon as possible.
“IMO remains committed to reducing GHG emissions from international shipping and, as a matter of urgency, aims to phase them out as soon as possible in this century,” the group said.
But the United States “reserve[d]” its position on the strategy, with Coast Guard official Jeffrey Lantz, who headed the delegation to the London deliberations, saying that the country views “the establishment of an absolute reduction target as premature.”
The United States also objected to how responsibilities would be divided between developed and developing countries, and expressed “serious concern about how this document was developed and finalized.”
Shipping in recent years has been responsible for about 800 million tons annually of carbon dioxide emissions, according to Dan Rutherford, the marine and aviation program director of the International Council on Clean Transportation, who was in attendance for the deliberations in London this week. That means shipping’s emissions are 2.3 percent of the global total.
“If you counted it as a country, it would be the sixth-largest source of CO2 emissions,” said Rutherford, noting that 800 million tons of annual emissions is comparable to emissions from Germany.
And ships, by burning heavy fuel oil, create not only carbon dioxide emissions but also significant emissions of black carbon, or soot. Black carbon is a short-lived but powerful climate-change driver.
Moreover, if nothing is done to halt emissions growth in the industry, emissions are projected to continue to grow, and shipping would burn up a significant share of the remaining global carbon emissions allowable under the Paris climate agreement — releasing as much as 101 billion tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions between now and 2075, according to an analysis by Rutherford’s organization.

(International Council on Clean Transportation)
“The world’s shipping industry has now, for the first time, defined its commitment to tackle climate change, bringing it closer in-line with the Paris Agreement,” Tristan Smith, an expert on shipping and energy at the University College London energy institute, said in a statement.
Shipping and aviation are two major greenhouse-gas-producing sectors that have sat rather uncomfortably in the context of the global push to cut emissions under the Paris climate agreement.
Both sectors are very difficult to decarbonize, since they rely on energy-dense fuels to allow ships or planes to travel great distances without stopping.
Meanwhile, since the sectors have major international components, they are not the responsibility of any single country to regulate as part of a domestic climate-change strategy. Instead, addressing their role in climate change has fallen to United Nations bodies such as the IMO and the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Yet despite the ambition of the current strategy for shipping, Rutherford’s group’s analysis shows that it may not be strong enough. The group says that to be consistent with the Paris agreement, shipping should emit no more than 17 billion tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions from 2015 onward but that the current agreement implies emissions between 28 billion and 43 billion tons. (No action at all, meanwhile, could have meant 101 billion tons.)
Groups that were pushing for something stronger included small island nations, which have the most to lose if warming exceeds 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, since sea-level rise for these countries could be devastating.
The Baltic and International Maritime Council, the world’s biggest shipping consortium, celebrated the agreement.
“IMO has done something no one has done before: set an absolute target for emission reductions for an entire industry. It is a landmark achievement in the effort to reduce emissions, and something that every other industry should look to for inspiration,” Lars Robert Pedersen, the group’s deputy secretary general, said in a statement.
For shipping to decarbonize, current fuel oils would have to be replaced by biofuels or, perhaps  ultimately, hydrogen or batteries. But such innovations so far are being tested only in smaller ships, rather than the largest vessels, Rutherford said.
“The largest container ships use a tremendous amount of energy. They’re going to be harder to electrify or put hydrogen in,” he said.
A large emphasis will also certainly be placed on more energy-efficient designs to maximize the work performed by current fuels.
The current document is referred to as an “initial strategy.” But from here, IMO is expected to move ahead with regulations for global shipping that will gradually require these carbon-saving changes to the industry. Those could include mandatory energy-efficiency requirements, speed limits or other measures.

2885. Trillions Upon Trillions of Viruses Fall From the Sky Each Day

By Jim Robbins, The New York Times, April 13, 2018


High in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain, an international team of researchers set out four buckets to gather a shower of viruses falling from the sky.

Scientists have surmised there is a stream of viruses circling the planet, above the planet’s weather systems but below the level of airline travel. Very little is known about this realm, and that’s why the number of deposited viruses stunned the team in Spain. Each day, they calculated, some 800 million viruses cascade onto every square meter of the planet.
Most of the globe-trotting viruses are swept into the air by sea spray, and lesser numbers arrive in dust storms.

“Unimpeded by friction with the surface of the Earth, you can travel great distances, and so intercontinental travel is quite easy” for viruses, said Curtis Suttle, a marine virologist at the University of British Columbia. “It wouldn’t be unusual to find things swept up in Africa being deposited in North America.”

The study by Dr. Suttle and his colleagues, published earlier this year in the International Society of Microbial Ecology Journal, was the first to count the number of viruses falling onto the planet. The research, though, is not designed to study influenza or other illnesses, but to get a better sense of the “virosphere,” the world of viruses on the planet.

Generally, it’s assumed these viruses originate on the planet and are swept upward, but some researchers theorize that viruses actually may originate in the atmosphere. (There is a small group of researchers who believe viruses may even have come here from outer space, an idea known as panspermia.)

Whatever the case, viruses are the most abundant entities on the planet by far. While Dr. Suttle’s team found hundreds of millions of viruses in a square meter, they counted tens of millions of bacteria in the same space.

Mostly thought of as infectious agents, viruses are much more than that. It’s hard to overstate the central role that viruses play in the world: They’re essential to everything from our immune system to our gut microbiome, to the ecosystems on land and sea, to climate regulation and the evolution of all species. Viruses contain a vastly diverse array of unknown genes — and spread them to other species.

Last year, three experts called for a new initiative to better understand viral ecology, especially as the planet changes. “Viruses modulate the function and evolution of all living things,” wrote Matthew B. Sullivan of Ohio State, Joshua Weitz of Georgia Tech, and Steven W. Wilhelm of the University of Tennessee. “But to what extent remains a mystery.”

Do viruses even fit the definition of something alive? While they are top predators of the microbial world, they lack the ability to reproduce and so must take over the cell of a host — called an infection — and use its machinery to replicate. The virus injects its own DNA into the host; sometimes those new genes are useful to the host and become part of its genome.

Researchers recently identified an ancient virus that inserted its DNA into the genomes of four-limbed animals that were human ancestors. That snippet of genetic code, called ARC, is part of the nervous system of modern humans and plays a role in human consciousness — nerve communication, memory formation and higher-order thinking. Between 40 percent and 80 percent of the human genome may be linked to ancient viral invasions.

Viruses and their prey are also big players in the world’s ecosystems. Much research now is aimed at factoring their processes into our understanding of how the planet works.
“If you could weigh all the living material in the oceans, 95 percent of it is stuff is you can’t see, and they are responsible for supplying half the oxygen on the planet,” Dr. Suttle said.
In laboratory experiments, he has filtered viruses out of seawater but left their prey, bacteria. When that happens, plankton in the water stop growing. That’s because when preying viruses infect and take out one species of microbe — they are very specific predators — they liberate nutrients in them, such as nitrogen, that feed other species of bacteria. In the same way, an elk killed by a wolf becomes food for ravens, coyotes and other species. As plankton grow, they take in carbon dioxide and create oxygen.

One study estimated that viruses in the ocean cause a trillion trillion infections every second, destroying some 20 percent of all bacterial cells in the sea daily.

Viruses help keep ecosystems in balance by changing the composition of microbial communities. As toxic algae bloom spread in the ocean, for example, they are brought to heel by a virus that attacks the algae and causes it to explode and die, ending the outbreak in as little as a day.

While some viruses and other organisms have evolved together and have achieved a kind of balance, an invasive virus can cause rapid, widespread changes and even lead to extinction.

West Nile virus has changed the composition of bird communities in much of the United States, killing crows and favoring ravens, some researchers say. Multiple extinctions of birds in Hawaii are predicted as the mosquito-borne avipoxvirus spreads into mountain forests where it was once too cold for mosquitoes to live.

When species disappear, the changes can ripple through an ecosystem. A textbook example is a viral disease called rinderpest.

The Italian army brought a few cattle into North Africa, and in 1887 the virus took off across the continent, killing a broad range of cloven-hoofed animals from Eritrea to South Africa — in some cases wiping out 95 percent of the herds.
“It infected antelope, it infected wildebeest and other large grazers across the whole ecosystem,” said Peter Daszak, the president of Ecohealth Alliance, which is working on a global project to catalog viruses likely to pass from animals to humans.

“The impact was not just on the animals. But because they are primary grazers and they died off in huge numbers, vegetation was impacted, and it allowed trees to grow where they would have been grazed away,” he said.

“The large acacia trees on the plains of Africa are all the same age and were seedlings when rinderpest first came in and the wildlife died,” Dr. Daszak said. In other places, far less grazing created a hospitable habitat for the tsetse fly, which carries the parasites that cause sleeping sickness.

“These kinds of ecological changes can last for centuries or even millennia,” Dr. Daszak said.

Combined with drought, large numbers of people died from starvation as rinderpest spread. An explorer in 1891 estimated two-thirds of the Masai people, who depended on cattle, were killed.

“Almost instantaneously, rinderpest swept away the wealth of tropical Africa,” wrote John Reader in his book “Africa: A Biography of a Continent.”

With intensive vaccinations, rinderpest was completely wiped out, not only in Africa but globally in 2011.

The beneficial effects of viruses are much less known, especially among plants. “There are huge questions in wild systems about what viruses are doing there,” said Marilyn Roossinck, who studies viral ecology in plants at Pennsylvania State University. “We have never found deleterious effects from a virus in the wild.”

A grass found in the high-temperature soils of Yellowstone’s geothermal areas, for example, needs a fungus to grow in the extreme environment. In turn, the fungus needs a virus.
Tiny spots of virus on the plant that yields quinoa is also important for the plant’s survival. “Little spots of virus confer drought tolerance but don’t cause disease,” she said. “It changes the whole plant physiology.”

“Viruses aren’t our enemies,” Dr. Suttle said. “Certain nasty viruses can make you sick, but it’s important to recognize that viruses and other microbes out there are absolutely integral for the ecosystem.”

Monday, April 16, 2018

2884. Prominent Lawyer in Fight for Gay Rights Immolates Himself to Protest Inaction in Fighting Climate Change

By NYC-Democratic Socialists of America Climate Justice Working Group, April 16, 2018
The lawyer David S. Buckel in New Jersey Supreme Court during a 2006 case about same-sex marriage. Mr. Buckel died on Saturday after setting himself on fire in a Brooklyn park, the police said. Photo: Jose F. Moreno/Associated Press.

On Saturday morning David Buckel woke up, walked to Prospect Park and lit himself on fire leaving behind a note that said, “I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide.”
On December 17th, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the despotic Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. When pressed for comment, his mother said, "Mohammed did what he did for the sake of his dignity." At the time, Bouazizi could not have imagined his act would serve as the spark for the Arab Spring and people’s revolution that emerged over the following months.
David set himself on fire Saturday using fossil fuels to reflect what we are doing to the planet. This was a terrible tragedy and horrific death that we don’t want to be in vain.
As David said, “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
David was a tireless advocate and a true community composting giant. After a storied career as a gay rights attorney, he shifted his activism towards environmental work. It was at the Red Hook Community Farm where he helped build a stronger and more resilient local community. Despite his lifelong commitment to justice, David became overwhelmed by the general malaise and apathy to the climate crisis. David wrote: “Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death.” Just as Bouazizi did, David committed this act for the sake of his dignity.
We cannot let David’s final act go unnoticed. He wrote “Many who drive their own lives to help others often realize that they do not change what causes the need for their help,” David wrote, adding that donating to organizations was not enough. David’s call for mass action must serve as the wakeup call he desired. He gave his life to try to ignite a people’s movement against extraction and fossil fuels. We must now heed David’s call. We must come together to put people and planet over profit. We can no longer live under the yoke of fossil fuel companies. We must honor David and fight together in solidarity for an ecologically just world.

2883. Gulf Stream Disruptions Can Set Off Deeper Ecological Crisis

By Damian Carrington, The Guardian, April 13, 2018
Serious disruption to the Gulf Stream ocean currents that are crucial in controlling global climate must be avoided “at all costs”, senior scientists have warned. The alert follows the revelation this week that the system is at its weakest ever recorded.
Past collapses of the giant network have seen some of the most extreme impacts in climate history, with western Europe particularly vulnerable to a descent into freezing winters. A significantly weakened system is also likely to cause more severe storms in Europe, faster sea level rise on the east coast of the US and increasing drought in the Sahel in Africa.
The new research worries scientists because of the huge impact global warming has already had on the currents and the unpredictability of a future “tipping point”.
The currents that bring warm Atlantic water northwards towards the pole, where they cool, sink and return southwards, is the most significant control on northern hemisphere climate outside the atmosphere. But the system, formally called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (Amoc), has weakened by 15% since 1950, thanks to melting Greenland ice and ocean warming making seawater less dense and more buoyant.
This represents a massive slowdown – equivalent to halting all the world’s rivers three times over, or stopping the greatest river, the Amazon, 15 times. Such weakening has not been seen in at least the last 1,600 years, which is as far back as researchers have analysed so far. Furthermore, the new analyses show the weakening is accelerating.




“From the study of past climate, we know changes in the Amoc have been some of the most abrupt and impactful events in the history of climate,” said Prof Stefan Rahmstorf, at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and one of the world’s leading oceanographers, who led some of the new research. During the last Ice Age, winter temperatures changed by up to 10C within three years in some places.
“We are dealing with a system that in some aspects is highly non-linear, so fiddling with it is very dangerous, because you may well trigger some surprises,” he said. “I wish I knew where this critical tipping point is, but that is unfortunately just what we don’t know. We should avoid disrupting the Amoc at all costs. It is one more reason why we should stop global warming as soon as possible.”
Oceanographer Peter Spooner, at University College London, shares the concern: “The extent of the changes we have discovered comes as a surprise to many, including myself, and points to significant changes in the future.”
A collapse in the Amoc would mean far less heat reaching western Europe and plunge the region into very severe winters, the kind of scenario depicted in an extreme fashion in the movie The Day After Tomorrow. A widespread collapse of deep-sea ecosystems has also been seen in the past.
But as the Amoc weakens, it might actually increase summer heatwaves. That is because it takes time for the cooling of the northern waters to also cause cooling over the adjacent lands. However, the cooler waters affect the atmosphere in a way that helps warm air to flood into Europe from the south, a situation already seen in 2015.


Other new research this week showed that Greenland’s massive ice cap is melting at the fastest rate for at least 450 years. This influx will continue to weaken the Amoc into the future until human-caused climate change is halted, but scientists do not not know how fast the weakening will be or when it reaches the point of collapse.
“Many people have tried to check that with computer models,” said Rahmstorf. “But they differ a lot because it depends on a very subtle balance of density – that is temperature and salinity distribution in the ocean. We are not able to model this with any confidence right now.”
“We are hoping to somehow make some headway, but I have been in this area for more than 20 years now and we still don’t understand why the models differ so much in the sensitivity of the Amoc,” he said.
However, Rahmstorf said the international climate deal agreed in 2015 offers some hope if its ambition is increased and achieved: “If we can keep the temperature rise to well below 2C as agreed in the Paris agreement, I think we run a small risk of crossing this collapse tipping point.”

Saturday, April 14, 2018

2882. “The Beating Heart of the Labor Movement”: Report on the 2018 Labor Notes Conference

By Guy Miller, Redline, April 15, 2018
by Guy Miller
“The beating heart of the labor movement.” That’s how the moderator of the Friday evening April 6th plenary session of the 2018 Labor Notes (LN) Conference introduced six West Virginia school teachers. The teachers were fresh from a historic victory in their unauthorized – and unexpected – strike. The same could be said about the conference itself: it represented the beating heart of American labor. The record 3,200 activists who attended the three-day Chicago conference were living, fighting proof of that
History of Labor Notes
Labor Notes was founded in 1979, just as the attack on the American working class was about to shift into high gear. The three founders – Jane Slaughter, Kim Moody and Jim West – were members of the International Socialists(1), one of several American groups tracing their roots back to Trotskyist origins. Slaughter, Moody and West realized that just creating a “front group” for the IS would result in a dead-end for their project, so they sought from the beginning  to create an organization that would support and encourage rank-and-file activity in the trade union movement.
1979 was the year that Paul Volcker, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, set the Fed’s interest rate to a record high, bringing on what is often called the Volcker Recession. The double dip recession that ensued saw the loss of over a half a million manufacturing jobs, at the same time bringing the number of strikes to a screeching halt. This was under the presidency of (Democrat) Jimmy Carter; things only got worse under the following (Republican) Reagan administration. In 1981 Reagan broke the national Air Traffic Controllers’ strike and smashed their union as well. Meanwhile, the leadership of the AFL-CIO – equivalent of the CTU in New Zealand – essentially sat and twiddled their collective thumbs. The long, slow Thermidor of American labor had begun.
The height of organized labor in the U.S. had been reached in 1954 when 35% of the workforce belonged to a union. The absolute number of union members, however, continued to grow, reaching 21 million in 1979. However, by 2017 the percentage of unionized workers fell to an abysmal 11.3%, with only 6.7% density in the private sector.
As the dog-days turned into decades, Labor Notes persevered. It held its first national conference in 1981 attended by 576 unionists. What started out as a newsletter called Labor Notes soon became a monthly magazine. LN saw its mission as transforming the labor movement through rank and file involvement. Its priority has never been to elect people to top union offices as an end in itself.
Labor Notes‘ current president, Mark Brenner, describes its goal as “promoting union reform as a strategy for revitalizing the labor movement, one of our biggest contributions, both theoretically, but also practically, helping generations of reformers think strategically.”
To make the practical part of this vision concrete,  LNpublishes books and pamphlets  aimed at grassroots organizers. Such titles as, “No Contract, No Peace” and “Secrets of a Successful Organizer” give a flavor of its orientation.
In recent years LN has begun holding  “Troublemaker”(2) seminars across the country. Organizers and speakers are sent out to hold day-long workshops. These how-to gatherings work with local activists, giving them advice and support.
This year’s conference
A surprising teacher upsurge began in West Virginia and soon spread to Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona, all states ostensibly in Trumpland. Forty years of capitalist austerity have hit these states particularly hard. In all four of them teacher salaries are among the lowest in the country. Young teachers, especially, are caught in the pincers between low wages on the one hand and student debt and spiralling health insurance costs on the other. When West Virginia Governor Jim Justice offered an insulting 1% wage increase, the fuse was lit.
Teachers from all four states affected by strike fever were present at the conference. Of the six from West Virginia, only two had even heard of Labor Notes until recently. One of the six has been a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for several years.
The conference had over 200 sessions, with eleven of them devoted to teachers’ struggles. To give an idea of the breadth of the conference, I will name a cross section of session titles:  “Unions and the Veterans’ Fight Against V.A. (Veterans Administration; among other things it provides healthcare to veterans) Privatization”;  “Going on Offense to Defend Immigrant Members”; “Corbynism and the the Resurgence of the British Labour Movement”;  “Longshore Meeting”;  “Secrets of a Successful Organizer”; “The UAW at Volkswagen and Nissan: What Happened?”
To me one of the highlights of the conference is always the international participation. At the 2016 conference I had the chance to meet a fellow railroad worker from South Korea. He had been one of leaders of a major railroad strike there. I had my picture taken with him, and now it sits framed on top of my dresser.
This year there were over 200 international guests from 24 different countries.  The largest contingent was from Canada, followed by 29 Japanese sisters and brothers, and 17 from the United Kingdom. Congo and Liberia were also in the house. Perhaps most impressive of all was Imad Temiza, a member of the Palestinian Postal Service Workers Union.
My wife, Linda, a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees at Northeastern Illinois University co-convened a workshop for higher education workers. The overflow meeting had over 100 people from more than 30 campuses across the country, as well as Mexico and Canada. Not only did these university workers exchange experiences, an ongoing Facebook group emerged from the session. Such social media groups make sharing of information easy.
Politics
Although Labor Notes is not a political organization, in a sense politics is unavoidable at such a gathering. While many of our brothers and sisters still have – I think diminishing – delusions about the Democratic Party, the DP had no official presence this year. Two years ago Bernie Sanders supporters were very much in evidence.
The main hall outside the Grand Ballroom was filled with tables. Left groups were represented by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Solidarity, Socialist Alternative (SAlt), the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the IWW among others. I also noticed tables from Haymarket Publishing and the Illinois Labor History Society. The Single Payer was present. Folk singer Anne Feeney did a brisk business selling CDs at her table.
The hallway was festooned with banners and posters. It served as a marketplace of ideas and reflected the spirit of Labor Notes: Solidarity!
Footnotes
(1) The IS no longer exists. Many of its cadres are now members of Solidarity and the ISO.
(2) ‘Troublemakers’ has become the catch phrase of Labor Notes. A sling shot – the tool of that arch American troublemaker, Dennis the Menace – is the official logo of LN.
Redline has added photos to Guy’s report; the photos are all taken from the LN facebook page.

2881. Means of Production or Means of Destruction?

By Kamran Nayeri, April 14, 2018



As robotics increasingly is displacing workers, it may be easier to see what the workers actually used to do. This robotic lumberjack raises a question for the Marxists to ponder: Is this a means of production or a means of destruction.  May I suggest that it depends on what we think of those trees? Are they living beings facing a doomsday machine that is employed to make more wealth from nature quicker? Or they are "natural resources," "raw material," etc.

But if the robotic lumberjack is a means of destruction (it sure looks like it, doesn't it) what that makes the lumberjack with his/her less fully-automatic tools? A means of production or a means of destruction? Replacing human labor power with robotics in this stage of production as means of destruction is not the end of it, clearly, the robot made for this purpose was invented, manufactured, marketed, and is serviced by workers with various skills along the line. Then what does this knowledge of the purpose of the robotic lumberjack makes the workers in its full production and maintenance cycle? Are those workers part of means of production or means of destruction? 

May I suggest, that they too are engaged in the process of production of means of destruction which make them indirectly means of destruction as well.  But how many other economic activities fall into this category of means of destruction? You can think about entire industries that, largely if not entirely, employ means of destruction. Think about the arms industry of all kinds, from military to hunting. Think about pesticides, insecticides, herbicides industries, think about the meat industry from the beginning to the end.  

As Marx and Engels argued in their materialist conception of history, social relations of production as well human nature itself, are changed by the development of modes of production.  What they did not consider is whether and how means of destruction also shape human nature and "social relations of production." We know they do in the conflict we see between lumberjacks and "tree-huggers."  We see this in coalminers' support for the coal industry and Trump administration environmental deregulation even as the incidence of black lung disease is spearing among them again.  In brief, we need to revisit the materialist conception of history to allow for this kind of "means of production/destruction" and their effect on how societies have evolved and what lessons we can draw for the political strategy to deal with the social and planetary crisis.  


2880. Book Review: The Overstory

By Barbara Kingsolver, The New York Times, April 9, 2018

Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees — to name one example — with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.

And for all that, trees are things to us, good for tables, floors and ceiling beams: As much as we might admire them, we’re still happy to walk on their hearts. It may register as a shock, then, that trees have lives so much like our own. All the behaviors described above have been studied and documented by scientists who carefully avoid the word “behavior” and other anthropomorphic language, lest they be accused of having emotional attachments to their subjects.

The novelist suffers no such injunction, but most of them don’t know beans about botany. Richard Powers is the exception, and his monumental novel “The Overstory” accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size.

But: Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim. People will only read stories about people, as this author knows perfectly well. “The Overstory” is a delightfully choreographed, ultimately breathtaking hoodwink. The handful of readers who come to the book without benefit of reviews or jacket copy will believe it’s a collection of unrelated short stories. The opener is a gorgeous family saga with the texture of a Ken Burns documentary, and more plot. The Hoels are Norwegian immigrants whose vocations link them with our continent’s once-predominant tree, the American chestnut, as they all flourish and then are tragically cut back — both Hoels and chestnuts — to a lone scion. Pause for a moment to absorb this, then move on to the next immigrant story, in which Mimi Ma’s father invests too many hopes in a mulberry tree. Then, in the Vietnam War, Douglas Pavlicek is shot from a military plane and survives through a fortuitous intersection of his fate with that of a centuries-old fig tree. In another time, in Silicon Valley, an 11-year-old coding prodigy named Neelay Mehta has a much unluckier tangle with an ancient Spanish oak.

Trees are everywhere but incidental, it seems, until the seventh tale in the series, about an odd little girl who loves trees more than she loves most people and grows up to be a scientist. As Dr. Pat Westerford she spends years alone in forests doing her research, initially mocked by her peers but eventually celebrated for an astounding (and actually real) discovery: A forest’s trees are all communicating, all the time, via a nuanced chemical language transmitted from root to root. As this revelation dawns, the reader is jolted with electric glimpses of connections among characters in the previous stories. And then we remember we’re in the hands of Richard Powers, winner of a genius grant, a storyteller of such grand scope that Margaret Atwood was moved to ask: “If Powers were an American writer of the 19th century, which writer would he be? He’d probably be the Herman Melville of ‘Moby-Dick.’”

His picture really is that big. These characters who have held us rapt for 150 pages turn out to be the shrubby understory, for which we couldn’t yet see the forest. Standing overhead with outstretched limbs are the real protagonists. Trees will bring these small lives together into large acts of war, love, loyalty and betrayal, in a violent struggle against a mortgaged timber company that is liquidating its assets, including one of the last virgin stands of California redwoods. The descriptions of this deeply animate place, including a thunderstorm as experienced from 300 feet up, stand with any prose I’ve ever read. I hesitate to tell more, and spoil the immense effort Powers invests in getting us into that primal forest to bear witness. It’s a delicate act, writing about tree defenders: In an era when art seems ready to embrace subjects as painful as racism and sexual harassment, it still shrinks from environmental brutality. We may agree that deforested continents and melting permafrost betray the gravest assaults we’ve ever committed against anything or anyone, but still tend to behave as if it’s impolite to bring this up.

In the kind of meta-conversation that makes a Powers novel feel so famously intelligent, the narrative is seasoned with canny observations on this exact problem. The tree scientist frets about public indifference to her work: “Forests panic people. Too much going on there. Humans need a sky.” Elsewhere, a patent attorney becomes profoundly disabled and seeks solace in novels, even while he muses on the limitations of the form. “To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one. … The world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the worldseem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people. … Though I am fake, they say, and nothing I do makes the least difference, still, I cross all distances to sit next to you in your mechanical bed, keep you company and change your mind.”

Given that Richard Powers has swept the literary-prize Olympics, he should be a household name, but isn’t quite. Critics have sometimes blamed a certain bleakness of outlook, or a deficit of warmth in his characters: As Atwood put it, the story going around is that he’s “not cozy enough at the core.” I suspect the complaint isn’t entirely Powers’s problem, but rather a symptom of the art/science divide and some potent cultural stereotypes. At the prospect of a science-y genius taking the podium, a lot of the audience expects to be frozen out, or bored.

“The Overstory” makes a strong case for expecting otherwise. The science in this novel ranges from fun fact to mind-blowing, brought to us by characters — some scientists, mostly not — who are sweet or funny or maddening in all the relatable ways. The major players number more than a dozen, all invested with touching humanity, and they arrive with such convincing, fully formed résumés, it’s hard to resist Googling a couple of them to see if they’re real people. (They aren’t.) This is a gigantic fable of genuine truths held together by a connective tissue of tender exchange between fictional friends, lovers, parents and children. A computer programmer brings his work home to spend hours inventing games with his son: “Now, Neelay-ji. What might this little creature do?” A cute Eastern European backpacker invites herself for a one-nighter in the vet Douglas’s remote cabin, and he warns that she shouldn’t be out there by herself, looking the way she does. “‘How I look?’ She blows a raspberry and whisks her palm. ‘Like an ill monkey who needs washing.’” Best of all are two aging misanthropes, Patricia and Dennis, who will wreck any unsentimental heart with their gentle discovery that just an hour a day together can make a marriage, providing the nutrient that’s been missing all along. Even when viewed from very high up, through the lens of a thing that’s been alive since before Jesus, all these little people with their short, busy lives and blinding passions are very dear indeed.

A tree’s-eye view on a planet can also be plenty unnerving, in life and in art. Powers doesn’t hesitate to give us wide-screen views of the machinery of his plot, so we can’t miss the roles his characters have been assigned as fulcrum and levers bent to a larger purpose. It’s a fair enough device in a novel meant to tell us that humans aren’t the only show on earth: that in fact we’re not much more than a sneeze to a bristlecone pine. In the end, “The Overstory” defies its own prediction about fiction’s limits, making the contest for the world feel every bit as important as the struggles between people. Even if you’ve never given a thought to the pulp and timber industries, by this book’s last page you will probably wish you weren’t reading it on the macerated, acid-bleached flesh of its protagonists. That’s what a story can do. 

Barbara Kingsolver’s 15 books of fiction and nonfiction include her most recent novel, “Flight Behavior,” and “Unsheltered,” forthcoming in October. Before her writing career, she worked as a biologist.