13 10 2012

I heard quite an earful from some of my readers and listeners about last month’s post “Meddling in the Affairs of Dragons.”

“Give us something positive,” my friends told me, and they were kind enough to point out to me that various Green Party policy wonks in the United States and Canada have written detailed, well-documented “energy descent plans,” showing how the “(over) developed world”  (that’s us) can step back from the brink of planetary suicide on which we are, in fact, currently teetering.  The Green Party of Canada ends the “Averting Climate Catastrophe” section of their platform with the following quote from Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

“We are risking the ability of the human race to survive.”

The IPCC, as you may be aware, has consistently underestimated the rate of climate change–that is, reality has almost always moved faster than their projections.  So, if they think we are “risking the ability of the human race to survive,” we must, indeed, be in peril.

The best way to extricate ourselves from this peril could be summed up in a chestnut from crime movies–we’re at the point where the police tell a cornered suspect, “Drop your gun and step away from the car.”  Yep, it’s our military spending and our car culture that have us in deep doo doo. What follows is largely borrowed from the Green Party of  New York’s platform , with input from “Vision Green,” a highly detailed energy descent plan put together by the Green Party of Canada–thanks, fellow Greens, for doing so much of my homework for me! Read the rest of this entry »


10 04 2010

And, while we’re on the subject of apologies….

Like many people, I spread the IPCC’s claim that the Himalayan ice sheet, which is the third largest on the planet, and the source for every major river in Southeast Asia, was likely to melt by 2035.  Well, the good news is, they now admit they were wrong about that–it will actually happen in 2036.

Just kidding!

Seriously, though, the official estimate for the demise of that ice pack is now three hundred years, which, geologically speaking, is hardly any different from twenty-five years, and in any case, the IPCC’s estimates have consistently turned out to be optimistic, compared to what is actually happening.  For instance, fossil fuel use, and consequent carbon release, has risen much faster than even their worst-case scenario predictions.

A slower dwindling of the Himalayan ice pack means that the billions of people who depend on the rivers of Southeast Asia for their water–from the Indus in Pakistan to the Yellow River of China–will be gradually parched rather than suddenly hung out to dry.  If the affected countries plan carefully, this could allow time for voluntary population reduction, social programs to obviate the perceived need for large families, transition to less water-intensive agriculture, reforestation, and other water conservation and ecosystem stabilization practices.

None of that will be easy, and even a coercive state like China has not been able to actually reduce its population, in spite of a fairly strict one-child-per-family law.  The alternative, whether reached in twenty five years or three centuries, is horrific–billions of people displaced by famine, failing surface and ground water supplies, and rising seas.  There will be population reduction and eventual return to some kind of equilibrium, but it will not be pretty.

In fact, it’s not pretty already.

In India, the “Green Revolution” replaced lower-yielding, open-pollinated dryland crops with hybrid crops that, given irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer, produced higher yields.  While costs of these fossil-fuel based inputs were originally low, they have since risen faster than the price of the crops that demand their application.  In addition, since they are  planting hybrid seeds, farmers can no longer save seed from one year to the next, and are confronted with rising seed prices.  This has had several serious, unintended consequences.  Indian farmers, caught in a noose of rising debt, are committing suicide in record numbers, and record numbers of families are being forced off land they have inhabited for centuries, seeking the dubious shelter of India’s already swollen and out-of-control cities.  Meanwhile, the increased demand for irrigation water is drawing down India’s water table, causing wells and springs to go dry, sending more people out of the countryside and into the cities.  Last but hardly least, the dryland crop seedlines–and the knowledge of how to grow and use them–are in danger of being lost in the rush to grow green revolution rice.

The monsoon, which provides another big chunk of India’s water supply, failed last year.  This is not unheard of, and not necessarily connected to climate change, but it should serve to remind us that we have set things in motion that we can neither predict nor control, despite our conceit about our own cleverness as a species.  Can you say hubris, boys and girls?

And, speaking of hubris, let’s look at China, where the rush to industrialize has resulted in incredible, pervasive levels of pollution.  Even boiled water is not safe to drink in many locations, because it is apt to contain chemicals that cannot be removed by boiling.  Worse yet, China’s much-vaunted railway line into Tibet is likely to help China exploit Tibet’s vast, untapped mineral resources–which, given China’s abysmal environmental track record,  will result in toxic mine waste polluting the water supply of most of southeast Asia–while it lasts.

I wish I had something vast and uplifting to offer you at this point, but I don’t.  The reality of our situation is grim and sobering, especially for poor people in the second and third world, who are going to be bearing the brunt of the problems we in the first world have created with our exorbitant, exploitive lifestyle.  We have the luxury of time and energy to form garden co-ops and relearn low-tech grain farming and animal husbandry, blacksmithing and woodworking, and to adapt high-tech electronics to consciously conceived and executed sustainable lifestyles. Most of us have plenty of clean water available. We are not Indian or Chinese peasants or urban slum dwellers, facing poisoned water or none at all, lack of land and other resources from which to feed ourselves, or even a secure home.  It’s a blessing that we have blessings to count, and probably the best way to insure our own continued good fortune is to seek ways to share those blessings with whoever we can reach out to.   That’s not much, but it’s what there is.

(on the subject of corrections, I have been crediting “The Road to Hell” to Leonard Cohen, because somebody gave it to me on a CD that was otherewise all LC songs, and they sound somewhat alike…finally figured it out!)

music:  Chris Rea, “The Road to Hell”


9 12 2007

Wow, so much going on in the world, so little time to talk about it.

Our “Truth in Strange Places” award this month goes to the CIA for joining the reality-based community and going public with its assesment that Iran has not had a nuclear weapons program for several years. Mr. Bush has denied that he knew this until recently, but his denials have the ring of a man attempting to convince his wife that he has no idea how those lipstick stains got on his collar, or a petulant three-year old declaring that there is too a monster under his bed. We may never know all the arm-twisting that went into this turn of events, but apparently we have US CENTCOM commander Admiral William Fallon to thank for preventing this particular apocalypse. Fallon made it clear during his Senate confirmation hearings that there would be no attack on Iran on his watch, and he appears to have kept his promise. Making this “no risk” risk assesment public has made the neocons’ war drum beat sound pretty hollow, although there is still some chance that Cheney and Bush may find other excuses to whomp the Iranian tar baby a good one.

Meanwhile, the US economy is being managed in such a way that it’s slowly spiralling downwards, rather than vanishing in a puff of smoke. There was a lot of anxiety at the end of November when the Dow approached the 12,500 mark, which is the point when computer-generated selloffs would have kicked in and precipitated a crash, but Abu Dhabai bought a chunk of Citicorp for 7.5 billion and the market’s been happy ever since. The Cheney-Bush administration came up with a window-dressing scheme that sounds good but will only help a small minority of those who are burdened with sub-prime loans. You can bet the troubled banks that made or bought the loans will get better treatment. All the while, the credit freeze set in motion by the collapse of the subprime pyramid scheme continues to spread. New construction and big business deals are grinding to a halt.

Nobody wants the dollar to die, because they’ve all got so many of them; but at the same time, they’re getting to the point where they don’t want any more of them. China had to put the brakes on its banks by telling them not to lend any more money. Sooner or later the hot air that’s keeping the dollar afloat is going to cool. The smart money is leaving the country, folks.

And the smart lungs are going to want to leave the planet in a few decades, if oil- and coal-burning executives and their allies in the US, Chinese, and Indian governments have their way. The Chinese shrug and say it’s our fault they’re building over 50 new coal-fired plants every year, and in the US there’s pie-in-the-sky talk of carbon capture. From Kansas to Shanghai, the CO2 emitting crowd is doing everything they can to keep doing things the way they always have. And if they do, says the IPCC, planetary CO2 levels will go off the charts, and the oceans will absorb so much carbon dioxide that they will become seriously acidic, killing off the plankton, diatoms, and seaweed that contribute about 70% of the planet’s oxygen. That would, duh, make it hard to breathe. Now, that’s the panel’s worst-case scenario, but the plain truth is that the IPCC’s report has been chided as too conservative by many scientists, because much of the data that has come in since the International Comission started writing its report indicates that the meltdown is speeding up. We can continue to live as we have, as long as we don’t mind starving, drowning, or possibly just plain smothering our great-grandchildren. Or, we can make radical changes in the way we live and give them a fighting chance. In this season, when so many people venerate a new-born baby, it’s something to think about.

music: Jackson Browne, Before the Deluge

The Dharma Bums The Writing On the Wall

Terry Allen, Xmas on the Isthmus


8 03 2007

There was an unexpected development in Texas this month. TXU, that state’s largest utility, had been gearing up for a battle with environmentalists over its plan to build fifteen new, dirty, coal-fired power plants in Texas. It wasn’t just hardcore hippie environmentalists fighting this— the Mayor of Fort Worth and a coalition of other Texas mayors had raised over six hundred thousand dollars to try and stop these plants. Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Bush protege, to judge by his behavior, (“We’re not going to let these bureaucrats jerk us around,” he said, as he attempted to jerk everyone else around.) had moved to”fast-track” the approval process—the courts ruled that he couldn’t. The University of Texas did a study and announced that the plants would, no surprise, negatively impact air quality over most of Texas, dropping it below federal standards in places as far apart as Beaumont, Houston, and Fort Worth. The plants would spew an estimated 78 million tons of carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually, twice what California’s clean car initiative is expected to save. The Environmental Defense Fund had taken up the struggle, but didn’t expect to succeed in stopping the plants.

It was starting to look like a Mexican standoff in Texas, when a couple of strangers stepped into the bar and changed everything: Two large private equity firms–Kohlberg Kravis and Reilly and Texas Pacific–made TXU a buyout offer it just about couldn’t refuse. It seems that, due to investor concerns over the environmental battle shaping up, the company’s stock price was slipping, (which is a grievous sin in the religion of economics) and the private investors’ offer would reimburse TXU’s stockholders for their losses. Halleljuah, brothers and sisters, we have been saved!

KKR and TP offered an olive branch to the environmentalists, as well: they would drop eight of the eleven proposed coal plants, pledge to reduce emissions at all of TXU’s plants to 1990 levels, begin an energy-conservation program, erect wind turbines, and put its support behind carbon-emissions caps, which, if not quite a carbon tax, are at least on the way there. The Environmental Defense Fund has hailed this as a victory and dropped its opposition in the case, but the three plants that may still be built are the three dirtiest, according to Texas Public Citizen. Across the country, utilities are trying to build a hundred and fifty new coal plants before the emissions standards get raised. That would inject about another eight billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually…can you say, “worst-case scenario,” boys and girls? The fight will go on.

I had to wonder why, in a sunny, windy place like Texas, they were building coal-fired power plants in the first place. I learned that there is local coal in Texas—lignite, which is the youngest, most polluting grade of coal. Local coal—how green! Not! Well, digging it up and burning it now means that people millions of years in the future, when it might have become bitumous or anthracite coal, will never be tempted. We’re saving future generations from sin by burning lignite, yes, sir. Of course, they’ll have to deal with the carbon dioxide, but hey, that’s a small price to pay, isn’t it, kids?

What this story reveals to me is, on one hand, the depth of the environmental movement—with William H. Reilly, daddy Bush’s man at the EPA, coming across as one of the good guys in this story. We have Goldman-Sachs, renowned for its dizzying levels of employee compensation, helping broker the environmental deal and saying they will not fund projects that “significantly convert or degrade a critical natural habitat.” On the other hand, it shows the limited vision that still rules. Centralized power grids and centralized governments go hand in hand. Even with the best of intentions, they respond poorly to local needs, and they are not subject to local control.

At a less broad, philosophical level, we can look at TXU’s new owners’ pledge to reduce power prices by ten percent. Texas Public Citizen has pointed out that TXU’s rates are about 30% higher than those charged by co-ops and municipal utilities. BUT one of the things that makes people conserve is higher prices. That has contributed to California’s status as one of the most energy-efficient states in the country. Texas, by the way, is one of the least energy-efficient states in the country. If Texans used energy like Californians, they wouldn’t be building power plants, they’d be closing them down.

Here we are up against one of the drawbacks of our worship of economic growth—the notion that it is better for utilities to sell more and more electricity and make more and more money doing it, as if there were an infinite supply of energy and no environmental consequences for using it. California attempted to counter this with a technique called “decoupling,” in which utilities were closely regulated by the state and allowed to make a reasonable return on their investment regardless of how much electricity they sold. This was swept away by the deregulation mania of the nineties, when voodoo economics put a spell on America that resulted, for California, in the energy trainwreck that removed Gray Davis and put Arnold Schwarzenegger in charge of the state—and about the first thing Ahnuld did was effect a low -dollar settlement of the Enron lawsuit…but, I digress….

The perceived danger from global warming is great enough that some people with enough money to matter are taking it seriously, and for the foreseeable future, very unspectacular events like buying power companies and changing their policies are the ways in which we will inch back towards a planet in balance.

But what about the unforseeable future? We have a tendency to assume that things will continue to be as they have always been. Well, those money people are doing their best to get ahead of the curve on that one, too. I have recently read a document entitled, “ Impacts of Climate Change–A System Vulnerability Approach to Consider the Potential Impacts to 2050 of a Mid-Upper Greenhouse Gas Emissions Scenario.” It’s put out by the Global Business Network subdivision of The Monitor Group. GBN “specializes in helping organizations adapt and compete more effectively and more responsibly in the face of mounting uncertainty—whether it’s uncertainty about their future, the future of their industry, or the future of the world at large…. GBN’s consulting and training services focus on strategy, decision-making, innovation, visioning and alignment, and organizational and leadership development.”

The Monitor Group “ offers a portfolio of strategic consulting services to clients who seek to grow top-line revenue, shareholder value, and individual and organizational capabilities. The firm works with the world’s foremost business experts and thought leaders to help major multinational companies, governments and philanthropic institutions develop specialized capabilities in areas including competitive strategy, marketing and pricing strategy, innovation, national and regional economic competitiveness, non-profit management, technology/e-business, organizational design and development, and scenario planning.” Their best-known client is Muhamar Qaddafi, ruler of Libya, who has engaged them to modernize his country Chinese-style—economic liberalization without any letup in political repression. So Monitor Group and Global Business Network are not “good guys”–they’re typical, opportunistic neoliberals, the kind that are running (and ruining) the planet these days, so it’s important to know what they are thinking, especially on the issue of what kind of future we are all going to have together.

The white paper starts with a quote from futurist Thomas Homer-Dixon, who says, “I’m a believer in non-linear systems theory. I don’t think that a lot of these things will manifest themselves in an incremental way. I would expect, instead, that we might see some pretty sharp system shocks…. I think that the kind of crisis we might see would be a result of systems that are kind of stressed to the max already, where policymakers are trying to keep ten balls in the air simultaneously and keep all the various constituencies satisfied as best they can. And then there’s some exogenous shock on an already highly stressed system that produces a kind of overload situation.” Key phrase: “we might see some pretty sharp system shocks.”

So how does the business community propose to deal with “sharp system shocks” and still stay in business? First of all, what do they think might happen? GBN assumes the IPCC‘s “A2” scenario, which postulates “continuously increasing population. Economic development is primarily regionally oriented and per capita economic growth and technological change more fragmented and slower than other (scenarios).” Basically, a continuation of current trends. The A2 scenario posits the most extreme rises in CO2, temperature, and sea level.

This could lead, speculates the report, to such things as “Increasing temperatures and rainfall result in the reemergence of malaria in the southern U.S. Local environmentalists mount a massive PR campaign to prevent the spraying of pesticides such as DDT, leaving the government with the dilemma of how to stop the disease from spreading.” To which I would add, that a combination of rising sea level, increased likelihood of tropical disease and the reluctance of insurers to guarantee the safety of homes and businesses in hurricane-prone areas could lead to the depopulation of the southern US. And then there’s the little item of insect resistance to pesticides…

Another scenario: “A paralyzing dust storm sweeps through Cairo, exacerbating an already precarious supply of water and food. The government’s inability to respond sparks riots in the streets and creates an opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood to step in as the de facto provider to the people, rallying them around the incompetencies of the state.” My comment: the business community would prefer a secular state to the Muslim Brotherhood/Hezbollah—but can they prevail over wind, sand, and declining rainfall?

Closer to home, the report posits: “A major earthquake in California combined with flooding along the eastern seaboard pushes a major reinsurer to the brink of bankruptcy. As a major financial crisis takes shape, the U.S. Treasury and a coalition of financial institutions devise a bailout plan.” My comment: because if millions of people can’t somehow be compensated for their losses, the US middle class will have taken a fatal hit. Any massive insurance bailout will also be hindered by the fact that most of our government’s credit has been used up paying for the war for oil in Iraq.

This one was interesting: “Climate change creates an influx of “participation science,” where amateurs become the leading purveyors of information related to the human impact of climate change. ClimatePulse.com, a user-generated online site that styles itself a “wikipedia of ecosystems,” becomes the “authority” on climate impacts, providing a heady mix of scientific half-truths and doomsday reporting on the local impacts of climate change. As it morphs into an organizational platform for transnational environmental activists, the site becomes one of the most frequently visited pages in the developed world.” So, they’re worried about us amateurs taking over, eh? Well, it’s a fine mess the professionals have got us into, isn’t it? Why the bleep should we trust the neoliberals any longer?

So…what does this business white paper say its wealthy clients should DO about the cascading crises that it forecasts? Learn to anticipate ’em and ride ’em out, basically—no “preventive” strategies are presented. And that’s the nut right there, folks—GBN and the Monitor Group, the cream of the economic brains at Harvard, seem to me to be agreeing here that things are spinning out of control and the best we can do is try and take a whole-systems approach to anticipating the breakdown of global—and local– order that will inevitably occur.

To quote further: “In its analysis of climate change impacts, this paper makes the assumption that the global political economy will continue to operate under more or less the same conditions as it does today—in other words, with a continued emphasis on expanding global GDP as the No. 1 economic priority, heavy reliance on fossil fuels, no radical redistribution of global wealth or power, and no major political breakthrough on how to curb global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. “ So—IF we can change any of these “givens”–and the more we can change, the better–there is a chance of ameliorating the bleak range of scenarios envisioned by the Harvard boys.

If we can’t change any of the current vectors of our culture, then this old gloom-and-doom voice in the wilderness isn’t a crazy pessimist—I’ve intuited what the smart money boys just made a lot of smart money figuring out.

music: Eliza Gilkyson, “Requiem”

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