Thursday, April 30, 2015

1829. Book Announcement: Big World Small Planet: Abundance within Planetary Boundaries

By Stockholm Resilience Centre, April 28, 2015

As a sequel to their 2012 book, "The Human Quest: Prospering Within Planetary Boundaries", Centre Director Johan Rockström and National Geographic fotographer and senior fellow Mattias Klum have launched "Big World Small Planet: Abundance within Planetary Boundaries".

The book, which was launched at the Swedish embassy in London in April 2015, describes a world full of possibilities even though "humanity has in just two generations overwhelmed Earth’s capacity to continue supporting our world in a stable way".

"We have gone from being a small world on a big planet to a big world on a small planet. Now Earth is responding with environmental shocks to the global economy. This is a great turning point. Our home is changing, and our future depends on what we do next," they write.

A new positive narrative
Talking about what to do next, the book argues that the world needs a new narrative about the links between human development and the environment. This is a story of new opportunities for humanity to thrive on the planet by using ingenuity, core values, and humanism to become wise stewards of nature and the entire planet.

"The dominant narrative until now has been about infinite material growth on a finite planet, assuming that Earth and nature have an endless capacity to take abuse without punching back. That narrative held up as long as we inhabited a relatively small world on a relatively big planet. But that is no longer the case," write Rockström and Klum.

Predicament, prosperity and possibilities
The book is divided into three parts. The first summarizes the urgent predicament of massive human impacts on the planet whereas the second part makes the case for a new way of thinking about prosperity, justice and happiness on a sustainable planet.

In the third part Rockström and Klum go into practical solutions to the biggest challenges facing humanity, such as feeding nine billion people and powering tomorrow’s economies in sustainable ways.

Combining stunning photography and recent insights from sustainability science they argue that the tools to do what’s required already exist. Using humanity’s intelligence, creativity, and technological know-how can reverse the negative trends.

It is possible to feed nine billion people without destroying our forests and deliver power to our economies without burning fossil fuels, they conclude.

The book’s positive tone is based on a firm belief that humanity has an incredible ability to overcome even the most daunting of challenges. 

Once people understand the risks of continuing along the current path, they will search for creative and profitable alternatives, write Rockström and Klum.

"That is how innovation works. The planetary boundaries will help. By defining thresholds and a maximum allowable use of resources, ecosystems, and the climate, we can trigger a new wave of sustainable technological inventions thanks to an abundance of ideas and solutions for human prosperity and planetary stability."

Brain and heart
Recognizing that human actions are now threatening to trigger tipping points that could knock the planet out of its stable state, Rockström and Klum urge for bold political action during 2015. This is the most important year in decades for crucial environmental decisions, they write. The UN will adopt new Sustainable Development Goals and world leaders will meet in Paris later in the year to hopefully forge a new globally binding climate deal.
The authors suggest a new development paradigm: "Abundance within planetary boundaries". 

It is not about growth without limits. Not limits to growth, but development within limits. This, however, requires a deep mind-shift and new ways to communicate scientific insights. Such a mind-shift for genuine change cannot, however, be reached through numbers alone, they argue. It has to come from both the heart and the brain.

"As a photographer and a scientist, respectively, Mattias and I travelled in different worlds. I always thought it was a scientist’s job to appeal to the rationality of others. But it was becoming painfully clear to me how naive it was to assume that, just because the facts were on the table, people would not make the right decisions," says Johan Rockström.

1828. Oil: Hydraulic Fracturing and the Unraveling of OPEC

By Clifford Krause, The New York Times, April 22, 2015
Saudi Arabia's Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi talks to reporters at the conclusion of November 27, 2014 meeting of OPEC.  Saudi Arabia prevailed to keep production quotas not to lose market share in face of cheaper U.S. oil.
HOUSTON — For the better part of the last century, crude oil prices have swung like a pendulum, pushing and pulling the fortunes of nations. More often than not, global supplies of the volatile commodity were controlled by the rulers of desert domains who would otherwise have been powerless had it not been for the oil that bubbled beneath their thrones.

That pendulum is on the move again, sending the price of oil cascading to less than $45 this winter from more than $100 a barrel last June, and it may fall further in the months ahead. On the surface, this latest oil boom gone bust may feel like history repeating itself, but there is a vital difference this time: The center of the oil world has spun from the sands of Saudi Arabia to the shale oil fields of Texas and North Dakota, a giant new oil patch some wildcatters have begun to call “Cowboyistan.”

Put another way, the United States is overtaking the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries as the vital global swing producer that determines prices. That remarkable change has been building since 2008, as American shale fields accounted for roughly half of the world’s oil production growth while American petroleum output nearly doubled. And shale production methods have proven highly adaptable to market conditions.

Not coincidentally, nearly all the advantages of the price swing are moving in Washington’s direction. Most American consumers and industries have benefited from a sharp drop in gasoline prices and other energy costs. And abroad, the economies of oil-producing adversaries like Russia and Venezuela are reeling.

Rene G. Ortiz, a former Ecuadorean oil minister who also once served as OPEC’s secretary general, noted that as recently as late 2008 and 2009, the last time oil prices slumped, OPEC cut oil production by four million barrels a day to support prices, and the move stabilized the market in a relatively short time.

“Why doesn’t Saudi Arabia think that couldn’t work again today?” Mr. Ortiz asked. “Because of the soaring U.S. production. Today’s OPEC is thinking about market fundamentals rather than manipulating the market because it doesn’t have the same power it once had.”

Last Nov. 27 was a turning point for OPEC at its meeting in Vienna. It was a turbulent session, though behind closed doors, where the firebrand oil ministers of Venezuela and Iran faced off with the dour Saudis and their Persian Gulf allies. The Venezuelans and Iranians, backed by Algeria, Nigeria and a few other countries that need every cent they can get from their oil exports, argued that OPEC should slash production to strengthen prices exactly as the cartel did when the crude price tumbled during the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, and again after the tech bubble popped in the early 2000s, and finally as it did again just six years ago.

But the Saudis and their Gulf allies said no. They argued that if they cut production, they would merely lose market share to the surging American producers who were increasing daily production by a million barrels year in and year out with no end in sight. The decision effectively forfeited the cartel’s traditional role as the global oil swing producer — the one and only supplier with the volume of production to raise and lower prices by managing the cartel’s output.

The decision came as a shock to the oil market. From the moment OPEC decided to keep its production constant at 30 million barrels a day, a fairly gradual price retreat that began in July morphed into a nose dive as commodity traders dumped their oil positions. Many independent American producers saw the move as a direct attack on them, but it was really a throwing in the towel to the new reality of growing American oil output.

The demise of OPEC as the price manipulator is what virtually every American president since Richard Nixon had in mind when they promised to find a way to make the United States energy independent, not chained to Middle East or OPEC oil, after the oil embargoes of the 1960s and 1970s.

Hydraulic fracturing, the blasting of oil and gas out of shale rock with water and chemicals, is the single most important factor of change in global markets in more than a decade, with an environmental outcry commensurate to its magnitude.

As soon as railroads connected North Dakota’s Bakken shale field to East Coast refineries the last couple of years, imports from the Middle East and Africa dried up, forcing various OPEC producers to redirect their product to China and other Asian markets. There, they battled it out for market share by slashing prices. That is just one example of how shale drilling not only transformed the United States from dependent consumer to a robust producer, but is also transforming the price dynamics of the global market.

Shale fields differ in several ways from conventional fields. Shale is not hard to find, but drilling is expensive because wells decline precipitously — by 60 to 70 percent in their first year. That means companies are obliged to drill well after well to keep production and revenue up.

That is not always good for individual producers, especially small ones, when prices fall. But those characteristics give shale producers collectively more power to influence the market because it condenses the amount of time companies have to respond to the inevitable cycles of boom and bust. Oil producers operating in the United States have the ability to rapidly accelerate or tap the brakes — much as Saudi Arabia and its OPEC partners have turned on and off their spare capacity in the past — depending on market conditions.

Jack Gerard, chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, noted that the United States, which produces roughly the same amount of oil as Saudi Arabia and is poised to surpass the kingdom, is positioned to become the new OPEC but without the overt manipulation.

“The only difference is our position as swing producer will be managed by the free market,” he said, noting that a few all-powerful sheikhs are being replaced by hundreds of executives serving competing companies deciding when, where and how to drill in the new shale fields.

“With the technological advantages we have, we have the ability to adjust to the market,” Mr. Gerard added.

The Saudis, in comparison, are in an increasingly weaker position. Last year, their exports declined not only to the United States, but to Asia as well. Still, as one of the lowest-price producers with an expanding refinery capacity, it remains an important player on the world stage.

With Saudi Arabia leading, OPEC still controls roughly 30 percent of world oil production, but that is down from more than 40 percent in the 1970s. A reversal of that trend is not likely. (United States production now represents roughly 10 percent of global production.)

Jason Bordoff, a former energy adviser to President Obama and now the director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, noted that Saudi Arabia’s 2.5 million barrels of spare production capacity (over and above its roughly 10 million barrels a day of production) would continue to give it major influence on world markets, especially when prices are rocketing up as demand outstrips supply. It can still pump more to ease prices when it wants. But now with a global glut and prices cratering, he said, the United States was in the driver’s seat.

“The nature of U.S. shale production, which turns on and off so quickly and has the potential to provide a floor for the world oil price, can have pretty fundamental historic implications for how we think of the role of OPEC and Saudi Arabia versus the role of the U.S.,” Mr. Bordoff said.

Since the drop in crude prices began last year, the American oil industry has responded with remarkable speed, dropping more than half its oil rigs, from just over 1,600 late last year to fewer than 800 by April.

The transformation has not been without its share of pain. Oil companies have announced layoffs of more than 100,000 workers since November. But as large companies take advantage of bargain basement prices to gobble up the assets of weaker companies,  he industry is likely to be better capitalized to expand production in the future.

The oil price has edged up in April but a full rebound could take years. In the short term, the West Texas Intermediate oil price benchmark may fall again as American storage facilities reach their space limit this spring. But the decelerating rate of American production growth is bolstering the hopes of commodity traders that the glut will dissipate faster than some extended price collapses of the past.

“The shale industry is now revealing itself as a nimble and price-responsive producer at a time when OPEC member-states have refused to squelch their own production, thereby rejecting their customary market-balancing role,” according to a recent study by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The Energy Department has predicted that current United States oil production of 9.4 million barrels a day will decline by 210,000 barrels a day in the third quarter. Energy experts expect further declines into 2016 (accompanied by reduced production in some conventional foreign oil fields), and many executives are predicting that prices will stabilize at $70 to $80 a barrel over the next few years, a sweet spot where consumers get a break but companies can still profit because technology is making drilling cheaper.
The nation’s new ability to influence supplies and prices could only have been a dream in the Nixon and Carter days. Ample United States supplies in recent years protected the American economy while the Middle East and North Africa have been in turmoil, and it enabled Washington to spearhead sanctions on Iran without causing a price increase.

But just as the end of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War did not usher in an era of peace and harmony, the new American energy security has not brought with it perfect stability. Analysts who suggested that energy independence would end the need for United States intervention in the Middle East did not see the coming of Islamist terrorism nor the spreading turmoil that has moved from Syria to Iraq and potentially beyond.

Foreign foes like Venezuela and Russia have been weakened by the falling price of oil, which dominate their economies. Iran may be willing to negotiate a deal to curtail its nuclear program to escape sanctions. But there is no sign that the Kremlin is less aggressive or dangerous. Falling oil prices should help the global economy, but deflation could be a risk in some nations.

Environmentalists argue that the worst thing about low prices for oil and other hydrocarbons is that they encourage more consumption. Lower gasoline prices have pushed up sales of sport utility vehicles and other large cars. Lower oil and natural gas prices are directly tied to the expanded production made possible by hydraulic fracturing, which is still considered risky by many environmentalists because of the escape of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere during exploration, production and transport, along with potential seepage of toxic fluids into water supplies.

“Having prices that reflect the environmental damage are better than low prices that don’t reflect that damage,” said Sonia Aggarwal, director of strategy at Energy Innovation, an environmental consulting firm in San Francisco. But, she added, “the advancement of technologies and the efficiency standards that the Obama administration has put in place for cars and trucks should make the lower oil prices less damaging than they would have been 10 years ago.”

President Obama has applauded the drop in gasoline prices, but he still straddles the interests of environmentalists with those of the oil companies when it comes to hot-button issues like offshore drilling and expanding exports of United States oil and natural gas. Nevertheless, he can be expected to use lower energy prices and the abundant domestic oil supplies as a reason for finally rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline intended to bring Canadian oil sands production to American refineries.

There is a strong chance, energy experts say, that this could be the beginning of decades of United States dominance in the oil markets, and that dominance will be accompanied by relatively inexpensive energy. The shale fields around the country are plentiful, and there is much more to be drilled. Lower prices have already driven down drilling and other service company costs by more than 15 percent.

But more important, the drilling and fracking technology that has made the shale revolution possible is rapidly improving, bringing production costs even lower and raising the yield of each well. For instance, more powerful computers are improving multidimensional geological modeling for well planning. And production output is improving through experimentation in the mixing and use of proppants like sand and ceramics to keep fractures in shale open to release more oil.

A recent Citi Research report noted that even when the rig count for natural gas collapsed in 2008 and 2009, production increased anyway, because companies cut costs while bolstering their yields.

Even if oil doesn’t exactly follow gas, United States oil production may still increase in coming years even as prices stay well below the $100 a barrel level of recent years. That could marginalize OPEC, and potentially make the United States a major oil exporter for the first time in more than half a century if Washington finally overturns some decades-old regulatory hurdles. Those memories of long car lines at the pump in the 1970s are becoming fainter. They may soon be forgotten.

“The Saudis are facing very challenging conditions as they face the future of the global oil market in part because shale does work at far lower prices than many people thought,” Mr. Bordoff said, “and U.S. shale production is going to keep growing as prices rebound.”

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

1827. Pope Francis Steps Up Campaign on Climate Change, to Conservatives’ Alarm

By Coral Davenport and Laurie Goldstein, The New York Times, April 27, 2015
Pope Francis
WASHINGTON — Since his first homily in 2013, Pope Francis has preached about the need to protect the earth and all of creation as part of a broad message on the environment. It has caused little controversy so far.

But now, as Francis prepares to deliver what is likely to be a highly influential encyclical this summer on environmental degradation and the effects of human-caused climate change on the poor, he is alarming some conservatives in the United States who are loath to see the Catholic Church reposition itself as a mighty voice in a cause they do not believe in.

As part of the effort for the encyclical, top Vatican officials will hold a summit meeting Tuesday to build momentum for a campaign by Francis to urge world leaders to enact a sweeping United Nations climate change accord in Paris in December. The accord would for the first time commit every nation to enact tough new laws to cut the emissions that cause global warming.

The Vatican summit meeting will focus on the links between poverty, economic development and climate change, with speeches and panel discussions by climate scientists and religious leaders, and economists like Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia. The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who is leading efforts to forge the Paris accord, will deliver the opening address.

Vatican officials, who have spent more than a year helping Francis prepare his message, have convened several meetings already on the topic. Last month, they met with the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy.

In the United States, the encyclical will be accompanied by a 12-week campaign, now being prepared with the participation of some Catholic bishops, to raise the issue of climate change and environmental stewardship in sermons, homilies, news media interviews and letters to newspaper editors, said Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant in Washington.

But the effort is already angering a number of American conservatives, among them members of the Heartland Institute, a libertarian group partly funded by the Charles G. Koch Foundation, run by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, who oppose climate policy.

“The Holy Father is being misled by ‘experts’ at the United Nations who have proven unworthy of his trust,” Joseph Bast, the president of the Heartland Institute, said in a statement. “Though Pope Francis’ heart is surely in the right place, he would do his flock and the world a disservice by putting his moral authority behind the United Nations’ unscientific agenda on the climate.”

The institute plans to hold a news conference and panel event in Rome on Tuesday in protest of the Vatican summit meeting.

But climate policy advocates see a scheduled address by the pope to Congress in September as a potent moment — about 30 percent of members of Congress are Catholics, more than belong to any other religion, according to a study published this year by the Pew Research Center.

Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, invited the pope to speak to Congress, but some Catholics say that Mr. Boehner should prepare for some uncomfortable moments. Mr. Boehner, who is Catholic, has often criticized the Obama administration for what he calls its “job killing” environmental agenda.

“I think Boehner was out of his mind to invite the pope to speak to Congress,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst at the National Catholic Reporter. “Can you imagine what the Republicans will do when he says, ‘You’ve got to do something about global warming’? ”

In addition, a number of Catholics — including Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and Rick Santorum — are gearing up to compete for the Republican presidential nomination, and most of them question the science of human-caused climate change.

Several conservative Catholic intellectuals who expect the pope’s message to bolster the vast majority of scientists who hold that climate change is induced by human activity, including Robert P. George, a Princeton law professor, have published articles reminding Catholics that papal pronouncements on science are not necessarily sound or binding.

Maureen Mullarkey, a painter and writer, said in the conservative journal First Things that “Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda.”

Timothy E. Wirth, vice chairman of the United Nations Foundation, said: “We’ve never seen a pope do anything like this. No single individual has as much global sway as he does. What he is doing will resonate in the government of any country that has a leading Catholic constituency.”

Francis, however, is not the first pope to push an environmental message. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, called the “green pope” by some, wrote about the environment and the impact of climate change in documents that have been collected in a book, “The Environment.” But Catholic and climate policy experts acknowledge that those works had little substantive impact on global warming policy.

Francis’ policy moves on climate change, particularly his use of the encyclical, go far beyond what has come before. Catholics point to other papal encyclicals that have had public policy impacts: Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on labor and workers’ rights is believed to have spurred the workers’ rights movement and led to the creation of labor unions.

“I think this moves the needle,” said Charles J. Reid Jr., a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. “Benedict was an ivory-tower academic. He wrote books and hoped they would persuade by reason. But Pope Francis knows how to sell his ideas. He is engaged in the marketplace.”

Francis, who chose the name of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment, has had far more influence on the church and public. Born in Argentina, Francis draws cheering crowds from around the world and millions of followers to his social media accounts. He has been embraced for his humility, antipoverty agenda, progressive statements on social issues and efforts to reform the Vatican bureaucracy.

This month he said in a Twitter post: “We need to care for the earth so that it may continue, as God willed, to be a source of life for the entire human family.”

The pope’s influence on the Paris climate accord may be strongest in Latin America. In past years, Latin American countries have resisted efforts to enact climate policy, arguing that developing economies should not have to cut emissions while developed economies continue to pollute.

But over the past year, some Latin American governments have signaled a willingness to step forward on climate policy, and this year Mexico became one of the first nations to submit a plan ahead of the Paris talks.

“This pope is more than just a church leader — he is a political leader, particularly in Latin America,” said Romina Picolotti, president of the Center for Human Rights and Environment in Argentina. “Youth in Latin America are really following him closely.”

Monday, April 27, 2015

1826. Poetry: Inheritance

By Jaime K. Reaser, April 26, 2015

The Inheritance
I open the door to the world every morning,
anticipating, wondering
who will be the first to greet me
as I step onto the earth with eyes still soft
from dreaming.
Will it be pine, or pine warbler?
Who will be beside me
when I kneel at the pond,
walk through the wood,
cross the meadow?
Will I notice them?
Will they notice me?
Never are my days lived alone.
Never are my breaths less than
an exchange of breaths with some
other soul.
Everything wants to be known.
So, for awhile each day, I tend to this
mutual desire for belonging,
Saying, “Hello pretty girl,” to the doe.
stroking the pussy willows.
meditating beside a frog.
This is how I apprentice to love, 
and learn to speak those forgotten words
that acknowledge every living thing 
as a simple miracle.
When the day comes that my body
no longer needs to walk out the door
in order to know this fine world,
I pray that some young person is
stepping across their threshold,
taking a deep breath in the morning air,
and realizing,
this is my inheritance.

© 2013-2015/Jamie K. Reaser; In honor of Earth Day

Published in Wild Life: New and Selected Poems (

1825. Poetry: Love After Love: Derek Walcott’s Poetic Ode to Being at Home in OurselvesDerek Walcott

By Maria Povova,, April 21, 2015
Derek Walcott
The great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written beautifully about why learning to love others begins with learning to love ourselves — a sentiment that the reactive modern cynic might dismiss as the vacant fodder of self-help books, but one which more considered reflection reveals to be deeply truthful and deeply uncomfortable. What, after all, does loving oneself even mean — particularly if we’re aspiring to be unselfish and generous, and to outgrow the illusory ego-shell we call a self?

That’s what Caribbean poet and playwright Derek Walcott (b. January 23, 1930) — a writer of such extraordinary poetic prowess that his 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature appears a wholly inadequate measure of his mastery and mesmerism — addresses with a luminous sidewise gleam in a poem titled “Love After Love,” found in his Collected Poems: 1948–1984 (public library).

On an archival On Being episode titled “Opening to Our Lives,” mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn reads Walcott’s masterpiece — undoubtedly one of the greatest, most soul-stretching poems ever written. Please enjoy:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

This reading is part of On Being’s altogether wonderful Poetry Radio Project. Complement it with other poetry-lovers’ readings of favorite poems: Amanda Palmer reads Wislawa Szymborska, David Whyte reads Mary Oliver, Joanna Macy reads Rainer Maria Rilke, and my reading of Mark Strand

Sunday, April 26, 2015

1824. Human Evolution and Color Green

By Natalie Angier, The New York Times, April 20, 2015

By all evidence, Nero’s favorite color was green. The Roman emperor dressed in green, collected emeralds, cheered at the chariot races for the “green stable” team, and was particularly fond of eating green leeks.

Goethe praised green as the “soothing” marriage of the chromatic opposites yellow and blue. George Washington called green “grateful to the eye,” and painted his Mount Vernon dining room a brilliant verdigris. And let’s not forget that everybody’s favorite elephant, Babar, wore a dapper suit in a “becoming shade of green.”

Scientists, too, appreciate green’s many charms and for manifold reasons, starting with one best grasped through a walk in a newly spring-sanctioned park. Chlorophyll, the pigment that makes plants green, lies at the heart of photosynthesis, the fundamental electrochemical enterprise that continues to dazzle the scientists who study it, and who say it should dazzle us, too.

After all, not only does photosynthesis spin sunlight and water into the sugars we eat, it spawns as a happy waste product the oxygen we breathe. “All food comes from photosynthesis,” said Petra Fromme, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Arizona State University. “There would be no higher life on Earth without it.”

Green, she added, “is the color of life.”

In surprising new research on the evolution of different forms of photosynthesis, scientists have found that the prized oxygen-making variety may be much older than anybody suspected, and that the greening and aerating of Earth could well have begun soon after the earliest living cells appeared.

Reporting recently in Molecular Biology and Evolution, Tanai Cardona of Imperial College London and his colleagues compared genetic sequences from some 200 species of cyanobacteria — microbes that are able to photosynthesize — along with representative plants and algae. The researchers focused on a key gene called D1, which allows a photosynthetic assembly line to strip electrons from water and put them to use.

Other researchers are seeking to better understand why plants are green in the first place — specifically, why chlorophyll rejects much of the sunlight that falls on a leaf’s surface rather than absorbing and using it all, a presumably more efficient approach to energy harvesting that would make a plant look black.

Why does chlorophyll reflect back not only some of the green portions of the solar spectrum and so look green to our eyes, but also most of the abundant nonvisible wavelengths, in the ultraviolet and infrared? Some researchers are trying to modify chlorophyll and related photosynthetic players to expand their range of light absorption, manipulations that could be applied to building better photovoltaic cells or creating fast-growing plants to feed a fast-growing world. The challenge, researchers admit, is considerable.

“Evolution has selected all the properties of the system over billions of years to work pretty well,” said Robert Blankenship, a professor of biology and chemistry who studies photosynthesis at Washington University in St. Louis. “Once we try to fiddle with it, problems are bound to pop up.”

Dr. Blankenship pointed out that plants were not really averse to green solar radiation: They generate other pigment molecules that, unlike chlorophyll, effectively absorb as much as 90 percent of green light from the sun. But that 10 percent reflection rate, compared with virtually 0 percent giveback for incident blue and red visible light, spells all the difference to our eyes.

“We’re very sensitive in the green region,” Dr. Blankenship said, “so we see the little bit the plant doesn’t absorb.”

Neuroscientists who study color vision are also impressed by our green sensitivity. “Green is the part of the spectrum that is brightest to us,” Bevil Conway, an associate professor at Wellesley College, said. “Our visual machinery, our photoreceptors are optimized for the middle part of the spectrum, the greens and yellows.”

Of the three types of cone cells embedded in our retinas through which we detect and interpret color, Dr. Conway said, two of them register their peak sensitivity to green wavelengths of light — perhaps the legacy of a visual system that evolved in our sea-dwelling ancestors.

“A lot of light is leeched out in saltwater,” he said. “But green light manages to pass into it pretty well.” Even people who are missing one of the three types of cone photoreceptors and hence are red-green colorblind, he said, are often unusually sensitive to subtle gradations of green.

“They were often employed during various wars for distinguishing enemies in camouflage,” he said.

We’re sensitive to green, and many of us love green. On international surveys of favorite colors, green typically ranks second only to blue. We’re drawn to green as a sign of nature and bounty, and research has shown that the addition of only two trees and a patch of grass to a concrete-dominated housing project can improve health, mood and school performance.

At the same time, we often ignore green as a backdrop color, and painters use it when they want to make objects visually recede. Green has relatively little “stickiness”: it fades quickly from memory.

Reporting last month in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Christof Kuhbandner of the University of Regensburg in Germany and his colleagues found that when shown a series of drawings with objects like chairs, cars and clothing rendered in blue, red, green or yellow, people were least likely to remember the color of the green objects.

Green may not sticky, but turning green can be tricky. According to Geoffrey Hill, who studies bird coloration at Auburn University, researchers only recently determined that birds often make green feathers the way kindergartners make green paint: by mixing yellow and blue.

Yellow pigments are extracted from foods the birds eat or, in the case of parrots, synthesized internally from scratch. Those yellow tints are then added to growing feathers that are molecularly structured to capture blue light. The result: the powdery olive shoulders of a Tennessee warbler or the neon-lime belly of a budgerigar.

Intriguingly, as the historian Michel Pastoureau of the Sorbonne argues in his comprehensive and lavishly illustrated study, “Green: The History of a Color,” the combinatorial and often unstable nature of many preindustrial green dyes and paints, their derivation from the mixing of yellow and blue pigments, may explain some of green’s less verdant associations.

Green was changeable, capricious, as uncontrollable as fate, no more to be trusted than a green-skinned goblin or sprite. “From the 16th century on,” Mr. Pastoureau writes, “gaming tables were covered with green baize, the color symbolizing chance, the stakes, the ante, and the money to be won or lost.”

Later, chemists invented far more stable green dyes, including the dichromium trioxide ink that put the green in our bank notes beginning in the 1860s. The green ink can’t be destroyed by acid or base or other chemical agent, it’s resistant to fading, and it’s extremely difficult to counterfeit. It’s the perfect backdrop for a Founding Father’s face.