CLIMATE CHANGE IS NOT THE ONLY “INCONVENIENT TRUTH”

11 10 2014

truthlies

(This is a slightly edited version of a blog post that first appeared in my candidate blog, “Holsinger for House.”  You can read the original here.)

Al Gore called his landmark presentation on climate change “An Inconvenient Truth.”  I think he chose the word “an” very purposefully,  He’s a smart guy, and he knows that climate change is not the only “inconvenient truth.”  There are many “inconvenient truths,”  subjects and realities that conventional American politics carefully avoids or glosses over.  Gore explored this in a subsequent book, “The Assault on Reason,” a volume that most Democrats seem to have chosen to ignore. I believe American politics would benefit from greater public awareness of and dialogue on these “inconvenient truths. ”  Here are some that come to my mind.  If you have any other ones you would like to nominate, feel free to comment!

GROWTH IS THE PROBLEM, NOT THE SOLUTION

Conventional politics is religiously dedicated to the proposition that fostering “economic growth” will solve all our problems, and that anything that halts or slows “economic growth” is a Bad Thing.  This theory has been most notoriously promulgated as “trickle-down economics,” AKA “Reaganomics,” but its practice is not confined to the GOP.  The fallacy of economic growth as a solution to our problems is that we live on a finite planet, with finite resources, and our dedication to “growth” is running up against the limits of those resources, whether we are talking about fossil fuels, phosphates, clean water, fish, other foodstuffs, arable land, oxygen, or anything else tangible.  If we use up all of these things, even over the next few hundred years, what will people (and  other animals) do to substitute for them in a thousand years? Ten thousand years?

The notion that “whatever increases the Gross National Product is good, “is gross.  Hurricane-caused damage increases the GNP.  Diseases that require expensive treatment increase the GNP; frequently, diseases are caused by other activities, such as environmental degradation, that increase the GNP.  Lots of things that increase the GNP make us less happy.  Happiness comes from a sane state of mind, not the possession of a mountain of toys.

“Economic growth” has tended to benefit those who are already wealthy more than those of us who are not.   That leads to another inconvenient truth, which is that

AMERICA IS AN OLIGARCHY

The wealthy and powerful, the people the Occupy! movement refers to as “The One Percent,” are the people who call the tune in this country. It doesn’t matter what is best for most people, whether it’s an open internet, a sane health care system, a decent neighbourhood, or a clean environment.  Our government will do what benefits the wealthy. Read the rest of this entry »





SUSTAINABILITY? GROWTH? OR GROWING SUSTAINABIILITY?

12 09 2010

I recently read the “Sustainable Tennessee Agenda,” issued by the Tennessee Environmental Council and Tennessee Conservation Voters.  You can find it online yourself at www.SustainableTN.org.  I had to double-check the date to make sure it wasn’t really written in 1980, at the close of the Carter administration, when the steps recommended in this report would have had a better chance of succeeding.

I know people who are involved with these groups, and I know their hearts are in the right place, but I would like to ask them a few questions, like:

“Are you candy coating the depth of what we face for mass consumption?”

“Are you soft pedaling what we need to do about it because you’re aware of how little political traction this will get in a legislature that’s barely willing to grudgingly admit that the world is not flat and wasn’t created in 4004 BC?”

“Do you really think our knuckle-dragging legislature would go for even these half-, or more realistically, quarter- and eighth measures, anyway?”

Sorry if I seem kinda unfriendly, guys.  It’s just that it’s time to stop fretting about replacing the Titanic’s incandescent bulbs with compact florescents and get our butts into some lifeboats.  Let me count the ways:

They start out on the right foot, giving us a good definition of “sustainability”:

The concept of sustainability can be defined simply as, “no waste”. Waste is a measure of economic efficiency, and a simple metric Tennesseans can utilize to measure how sustainable our lifestyles and communities have become. We can monitor waste generated, or lack
thereof, to track our progress toward sustainability as individuals, organizations and societies.  Sustainability can also be defined in more complex terms that include economic criteria, natural resources and equity of access.

Unfortunately, the very next paragraph steps off into liberal la-la land, with its invocation of the magic g-word:  “growth.”

A sustainable strategy for Tennessee will position our state to stimulate a growing Green Economy and Green Jobs sector. The Green Economy potentially represents an economic future like Tennessee has never seen before. It is a retooling of our failing infrastructure in a manner that promotes Tennessee heritage, our communities and our quality of Life. This strategy insures that labor-intensive Green Collar Jobs are created locally and training programs are initiated so segments of the population currently unemployed or underemployed can benefit from stable well-paying opportunities.

Initially, you might think a lot depends on interpretation: are they daydreaming about the never-never land of a “growing,” but somehow “sustainable” economy?  Or are they simply recognizing that our “green economy” is currently miniscule, and will need to grow to replace the functions of the “growth economy” as it rots like a dead cow in a hot field?  The report’s repeated invocation of “growth” gives me the distinct and disappointed impression that the writers of this report are clinging to the idea that “growth,” the cancerous destruction of the natural world, will still be happening in our future, somehow made “smart” and “green” by higher standards and new laws.

I doubt it.  The report talks of training “at-risk youth and young adults” to do energy conserving retrofits on existing buildings.  I got news, folks–there’s already plenty of well-trained construction workers with families and mortgages (or just the rented roof over their heads) who are “at risk” of becoming homeless if they don’t find work soon.  And the money for this project is coming from…..?  Sorry, we’ve got a war to fight, no money for domestic make-work programs.

But, if the housing and commercial real-estate boom, which has been the main driver of our economy ever since manufacturing jobs started going overseas, if that boom has busted, the only boom left is the coal and natural gas extraction industry, which aims to pulverize Tennessee’s countryside so we can keep the lights on in the cities.  Hey, nobody can afford to live in the middle of nowhere anymore, who cares what it looks like or if you can drink the water?  The report takes a strong stand against mountaintop removal and gas fracting–the idea of injecting fracting chemicals into Tennessee’s cave-riddled topography sounds like a recipe for nightmare to me, but since we’ve got a nightmare legislature (that’s probably only gong to get scarier), there’s no telling what they will approve for the sake of those generous campaign contributions.  I will stand with you on this issue, folks, even if I think you’re more than a little out of touch when you talk about “growth.”

Likewise, the section on solid waste recycling is…solid, calling for increased recycling and composting and an end to Tennessee’s bizarre practice of labeling landfilled construction materials as “recycled.”  Talk of composting leads to the subject of local agriculture, which the Sustainable Agenda, of course, strongly supports.

Calling for better public transportation, on the other hand, is one of those too-little-too-late platform planks.  Our entire infrastructure is built around the private automobile, and the result is that there are not a lot of “masses” needing transportation–points of origin, destinations, and times of travel are so fractured that it would be difficult to locate a mass-transit system that would actually be serviceable for most people.  And then there’s two other factors:  construction money, and the continued existence of jobs to which people need to commute.

The “education” section talks about the importance of creating a “no child left inside” program, and generally instituting conservation/pollution awareness/environmental programs in our schools.  They don’t mention the movement towards hands-on gardening as a school project, but I’m sure they would approve of it being in the mix.  Maybe they thought it was a little too radical to mention out front.  I don’t know.

So, I’ve been a real Mr. Smarty Pants about this report–what would I do different?

Let’s start with education and “green jobs.”  Through most of history, most people have spent most of their time producing food, or providing the technology needed to produce it.  We’ve had a couple of hundred year break from that, but the break is drawing to a close.  Farmers, herders, hunters, gatherers, blacksmiths, basket weavers, barn and granary builders, harness and buggy makers are the wave of the future…oops, no jet backpacks….sorry ’bout that!  We also need clothes, at least part of the year, and shoes come in handy.  Weavers and spinners and tailors and seamstresses and shoe makers will once again be important as well.  It won’t all be a throwback to the past.  There will be plenty of work recycling and repurposing the detritus of our current consumer culture.   And, let’s not forget millers and bakers, and the facilities they need to ply their trades.

But we do not live by bread alone.  We need to educate people not only in these practical skills, but in the expressive arts as well.  We are not “going back” to lives that are “brutish, nasty, and short.”  We are going forward with the cultural heritage of the entire history of the planet.  Gilgamesh and James Joyce, Beowulf and the Beatles.  Local manufacture of paper and ink, and local printers, will be important.  The internet will not be with us forever, I suspect.

I  believe it is not too late to create a future in which nobody needs to, as Thoreau said, “lead a life of quiet desperation, and go to their grave with the song still in them.”  We need musical instrument makers, and millions of people to play, really play, those instruments, millions of people who are not afraid to sing while they work and when their workday is done, in millions of neighborhoods, not for fame and profit, but just for fun.

We also need to educate people to celebrate our heritage and history, to understand our triumphs and mistakes and our place in the cosmos, not to mention fostering an understanding of how our own minds work, and we will need truly creative teachers to foster this kind of education.

I haven’t even mentioned “the healing arts”…but I’m running out of time.

The “green jobs” future I foresee may not be “well-paying opportunities” as we think of them today, for the simple reason that there will not be that much “money” around in the future, but it will, in the report’s words, be  “an economic future like Tennessee has never seen before….a retooling of our failing infrastructure in a manner that promotes Tennessee heritage, our communities and our quality of Life.”

We won’t be rich, but we might just be a whole lot happier than we are on the current treadmill.  Whatever it turns out to be, I’ll see you there!

Burning Times, “The Only Green World”





ARE THE DECK CHAIRS RECYCLABLE?

23 11 2008

So, on the appointed evening, the wife and I rolled down out of our hollow and across the bridge to Looby Library and Community Center for the Great Green Ribbon Meeting.  The lot was full of cars, and we felt cheered by the prospect of a big turnout, but when we entered the basketball court, which was laid out with chairs and tables in expectation of a turnout of a hundred or so, it was pretty much us and the visibly concerned committee members.  Whatever people were flocking to the Looby Center for last Thursday night, it wasn’t concern for the future of Nashville.  Cindy and I were the only people signed up to speak.

Just as the meeting was set to begin, a small flush of people entered the room, maybe thirty-five in all. Quite a few were old friends from the Bioregional Council or Bell’s Bend; but, here in the heart of Nashville’s ghetto, there were only two black faces.

The meeting began with “citizen input”–and three more people had signed up. I stood up first and talked about the importance of local food, how there are areas, some owned by metro and some owned privately, that could be turned into community gardens or local CSA’s, because whatever development was going to happen there, it probably isn’t going to happen for a good long time, and with people losing jobs, helping people get a start in small farming covers a lot of bases–food sustainability, local economy, putting people to work.  I brought up my estimation that it would take five thousand CSA’s to feed Nashville, and emphasized that the city needs to be more open to allowing individuals to raise small animals for food in their backyards, because man does not live by salad alone….I wish I’d thought of that line in time!  I said something about putting motion sensors on security lights and turning off streetlights in low-traffic, non-residential areas, like out where I live–Clarksville Pike, Ashland City Highway, and White’s Creek Pike are lit up all night long, when the traffic frequency approaches one vehicle per hour.  Firing up all those sodium vapor lights costs a pretty penny, and guess whose taxes pay for them?

I also talked about disaster preparedness, how nobody wants the worst, but we need to prepare for it anyway by having a hospital that can at least function minimally if the grid goes down, and by having a one-month fuel reserve for emergency vehicles and a city fleet of solar-powered electric cars, fire trucks, and ambulances.  The Green Ribbon crew took notes and looked interested.  I was amazed at how much I managed to pack into four minutes, even if I did forget to say anything about lawnmowers and mandatory mowing.

Cindy presented the idea of creating neighborhood councils that would come up with local solutions to local problems and ease the burden on metro courts and social services.  This was probably not what the panel was expecting to hear, but it takes more energy to maintain centralized infrastructure than it does to maintain decentralized infrastructure, whether you’re talking about water and electricity or codes and family court.

Next, a young lady got up and talked very earnestly about getting metro to quit using broad-spectrum pesticides to combat alleged mosquito outbreaks, especially since there has never been a problem with mosquito-borne illness in this area.  It was a neat feat of gymnastics to relate this to the topic of sustainability in Nashville, but she hooked it in to biodiversity, if memory serves.

Mack Pritchard was the next speaker.  He pointed out that Metro has a tendency to take parks and fill them with buildings–Looby Center, it seems, is in an area that was once called Buena Vista Park–and also emphasized the importance of finishing Nashville’s “Greenways” program so there is a network of walking/bicycling paths connecting all parts of the city.  He also mentioned “green streets” paving, which is a new, porous kind of pavement that allows rainwater to soak through into the ground instead of shunting it all off into storm sewers and overloading the system.

One of the two people of color in the room spoke next.  He was concerned about transportation.  “I ride the bus to work,” he said, “and have to transfer.  If the first bus I ride is a minute late, the second bus is gone and I have to wait a half hour for another one.  We need to do something about these kinds of things.”  Indeed, better public transportation was the first choice of more people than anything else in the committee’s poll, coming in at thirty percent, more than twice the runners up, increased recycling and “increased use of renewable energy,” and three times the next batch of answers, which included more local food, more open spaces, and green building incentives.

Next, it was the city’s turn to talk to us.  Jenna Smith, who runs the mayor’s office of sustainability, talked about how the city is instituting recyling in all its offices, encouraging its employees to ride the bus to work, insisting on LEED certification for all new metro buildings, getting ready to do a census of pollution sources, and, yes, Mack, finalizing plans to connect all the greenways.

Next, we broke up into small groups for brainstorming sessions, in which somebody from the Green Ribbon crew sat at each table and wrote down everybody’s suggestions, which were then taped to the wall.  We each were given three blue sticky circles, and asked to put them next to the three ideas we liked the best.  Well, I’m pretty shameless in some ways, so I voted for my own ideas, then found some sticky circles that had been abandoned and voted again.

Most of the ideas offered were, from my point of view, a little pathetic.  Just a little.  I mean, there’s nothing wrong with better bus service, outlawing plastic bags, having better parks, instituting “dark skies” lighting all over town (thanks, Manny Zeitlin!), encouraging recycling, outlawing unnecessary vehicle idling and the drivethrough windows that promote it.  It’s just that this is a form of bargaining:  “If I promise to be a good boy, can I please, please please pretty please keep my comfortable American Way of Life?”

I’m sorry, the answer is no.  It doesn’t matter if you make sure the deck chairs on the Titanic are made from recyclable materials that can be recycled once again when they are no longer functional deck chairs.  We have still hit an iceberg, water is still pouring in, and the ol’ Titanic is starting to list pretty badly and the hull is riding down in the water. To get off the metaphor, our credit is completely drawn out.  There’s nothing more to borrow against, and little likelihood of paying back what we owe already, as the black magic of compound interest pushes our national and individual debt further and further over our heads.  It isn’t just individual home buyers who are “under water,” folks, it’s the whole American three-ring circus.

The future is going to be nothing like the past we have always known, because we cannot afford to keep up the pretences that we have taken for granted all our lives.  I am doing my best to be materially, psychologically,  and spiritually prepared for this, and it still scares the hell out of me–but it’s also the great adventure I’ve always wanted.  Ready or not, here it comes.








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