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On Sunday I reported to my SolSeed colleagues and various relatives on the trip I took to Biosphere 2 last month, at the end of a two-week vacation that mostly involved visiting relatives in California and Las Vegas.

On Monday I found out I’ve been accepted into the Pachamama Alliance’s Game Changer Intensive program, which will supposedly require 3 hours per week for seven weeks starting at the end of March. Whether this will help me get over my aversion to seeking leadership roles in activism remains to be seen.

On Monday evening I attended a meeting of WAmend, the coalition that formed a couple years back (thanks largely to the efforts of the Get Money Out of Politics working group of Occupy Seattle) to pass a resolution in Washington State supporting a pro-campaign-finance-regulation and anti-corporate-personhood amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This year’s initiative campaign is just getting off the ground, but looks like it has a much better chance of success than last year’s, which failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. This time we’re better organized and will have much more time to collect the signatures, since we’re targeting the 2016 election.

On Tuesday evening I went to a talk at Seattle Town Hall by Denis Hayes, founder of Earth Day, talking about humanity’s (and especially Americans’) love affair with cows, and proposing we aim to cut national beef consumption to about half its current level. In response to my question about the opposing extreme claims of the Savory Institute and the Worldwatch Institute about livestock’s impact on the climate crisis, Hayes and his wife took the middle ground, supporting the UN’s numbers on their current impact (14-16% of emissions rather than Worldwatch’s 51%) and asserting that using livestock to draw down gigatons of carbon is “crazy,” although Savory’s grazing methods are hugely beneficial in other respects.

On Wednesday I left work early for an abbreviated Democracy School program from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (four hours instead of the usual 1-3 days). The presenter, Kai Huschke, described CELDF’s view of the legal “box” that supposedly prevents activists from ever succeeding in blocking destructive corporate projects, and laid out their plan for local community ordinances that “break out of the box,” state constitutional amendments to make those ordinances legal, and ultimately a partial rewrite of the U.S. Constitution to favor the rights of people, communities, and nature over those of corporations. (Unsurprisingly, a WAmend member was in attendance and passed around a sign-up sheet for volunteers.) Kai emphasized that the campaign would likely take decades, just like past efforts to expand people’s rights (particularly the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements), which he observed were always followed by a “spring back” toward centralization of power. But he also said we don’t have time for an “incrementalist” approach because “the climate is collapsing.” This seeming contradiction, plus the fact that I carpooled to and from the event with two fellow volunteers for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which has in fact worked within the system to block over 150 destructive corporate projects (coal-fired power plants) and schedule over 180 existing ones to be shut down, only reinforced my conviction that abolishing corporate rights can’t be a prerequisite for solving the global climate crisis.

On Thursday evening, during the SolSeed online work bee, I wrote an email to author Steven Wolfe (which I had been meaning to do for months) asking why his novel, set in 1992 and partly in Tucson, and supporting the concept of Gaia giving birth to new worlds, didn’t mention Biosphere 2 once. He responded the same evening, saying he supported Biosphere 2 and had even said so on his blog, but the idea of including it in his book just hadn’t occurred to him.

This morning I woke up at 5 after a crazy semi-lucid dream about living in a Mars colony that was “invaded” by giant aliens who gave us peanut butter and wanted us to make movies about them. The only reason I’m currently making time to write a blog entry is because I gave up on falling back asleep. I really need to do something about my worsening insomnia.

Tonight I’ll be making matters slightly worse by going to a birthday party for my author/activist friend Saab in Edmonds, from which I likely won’t get home until 11:30. Then tomorrow I’m attending a legislative town hall event at Redmond City Hall, where I’ll hopefully get the chance to ask my state reps a question about the bill currently in process that would have Puget Sound Energy and other Washington State utilities stop using coal-fired power from Montana and replace it with renewable energy.

My alarm goes off in a few minutes, so I don’t really have time to go into depth on “what it all means,” but the headline is clear: I’m diving back into activism even though I still think we’re probably all doomed.

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“In all of the five Congresses examined, the voting records of Senators were consistently aligned with the opinions of their wealthiest constituents. . . . In the 110th and 111th Congresses, when Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, the voting records of Senators reflected the opinions of middle-class constituents as well as upper-class constituents. . . . [but] it was Democrats — not Republicans — who were more responsive to upper-class opinion in the 111th Congress.”

- Eric W. Dolan, “‘Oligarchic tendencies’: Study finds only the wealthy get represented in the Senate,” The Raw Story August 19, 2013

“There is no grassroots organized progressive movement with power in the United States, and none is being built. Indeed, if anything threatens to emerge, the cry ‘Remember Nader!’ arises and the budding insurgency is marginalized or coopted, as in the case of the Occupy Wall Street events.”

- John Stauber, “The Progressive Movement is a PR Front for Rich Democrats,” Counterpunch March 15-17, 2013

The combined message of these quotes is that grassroots activism in America is pointless: you can either be coopted by the corporate-ruled two-party system, and thus effectively turned into an “astroturf” group whose volunteers are deluded if they still think they’re fighting for “the people,” or you can be marginalized and powerless. The obvious conclusion is that motivating government action, especially action drastic enough to address something as big as the global climate crisis, requires support from a majority, not of the voting public, but of the wealthiest 1%.

There are several possible objections to these findings and conclusions. One is simply that studies like the one Eric Dolan reports on, and this more recent one that covers all of Congress and extends back to 1981, are overly pessimistic about the modern two-party system. A study of California ballot measures asserts that state-level representatives there actually do represent their constituents, rich and poor. If true, this may merely be an argument for California being better at democracy than the rest of the country; maybe I should move back there. In any case, it seems exceedingly unlikely to me that these state-level results can be applied to national politics.

Another objection is that we shouldn’t assume that all “grassroots” groups that support Democrats are automatically pawns of the 1%, or that all groups that avoid two-party politics are automatically powerless. Have protest marches really had no impact on government decision-making any time in the past 30 years? And what about Move to Amend, the group that brought the John Stauber article to my attention? In doing so, are they asserting that their deep hostility to the political dominance of the wealthy renders them marginal and irrelevant?

Meanwhile, studies of the general trends in how Democratic politicians vote obscure the fact that some Democrats are more genuinely progressive than others. I’m not sure even John Stauber would be willing to claim that supporting Senator Elizabeth Warren is no different from supporting Wall Street. And the Progressive Change Campaign Committee confidently asserts that recent election results show the “Elizabeth Warren wing” of the Democratic Party is growing. Granted, the linked article points out that “The primaries in question were all for safe Democratic seats . . . But progressives believe notching such small victories is slowly, surely pushing the party to the left.”

The problem is that we simply don’t have time for such slow change. Move to Amend refuses to support the currently active anti-big-money Constitutional amendment on the grounds that it doesn’t address corporate personhood. But even that weak amendment stands no real chance of being approved by either house of the current Congress; odds are good that building enough support to pass any such amendment will take many more years. Meanwhile, the science is clear that for every month we wait before committing to deep cuts in greenhouse emissions, the ultimate cost of climate chaos in lives and dollars grows. If we’re serious about averting the worst impacts, we’ll simply have to find a way to make those cuts within the political system we currently have.

So what on Earth can we do to get the 1% on our side? Well, lots of things, actually. We can point them to a TV show about the climate crisis on premium cable, and a comprehensive climate-action plan “led by business for profit” (it even covers the “what about China?” objection). We can engage in shareholder activism after buying just $2000 of stock in a company. We can ally ourselves with the insurance companies and big investors who are already on board with climate action. Remember, big corporations are the only ones that can build enough solar panels and wind turbines fast enough to meet the demand we’re trying to create, and much of that demand is in the realm of utility-owned wind farms and Google/Apple/Microsoft data centers*. So even if you still think the government is ultimately going to get serious about forcing their hand, we’ve got nothing to lose by lobbying the corporations and their wealthy owners and investors ourselves.

Well, nothing except radical friends, I suppose. Just to be clear, I’m not abandoning the struggle to establish a true democracy where the vote matters more than the dollar, a major reduction in income inequality, and an economic order that doesn’t demand endless exponential growth. We won’t get the 1%’s support in those efforts; somehow we’ll just have to make non-coopted grassroots activism work for actual political change, not just for disaster relief – although the latter is certainly crucial in the global-warming era, and incidentally helps expand our support base.

But as Al Gore once said, “without a planet, we won’t really enjoy all those gold bars.” He was talking to the 1%, of course, but an equivalent message applies to campaigners for economic justice. If effective preventive measures to save countless millions of people from dying in climate-driven storms, floods, and famines require “working with the enemy” for the next decade or three, I’d say we need to hold our noses and do it.

*Obligatory disclaimer: Statements related to Microsoft in this blog are my own opinion and not that of my employer.

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Failure to solve the climate crisis probably means plunging civilization into a new dark age -- but humanity has survived dark ages before. According to Bill McKibben, the Holocene era of stable climate is already over -- but before the dawn of civilization, humanity lived through several drastic changes in climate. There's no reason why anyone would want to return to either of those conditions, but what if the alternative is even worse? It's very difficult to tell whether that might be the case, because the alternative is plunging deep into the unknown.

What I'm talking about here is the accelerating rate of technological progress, which gives us our only real hope of averting global climate catastrophe. The problem, as I've mentioned, is that we're trying to slow and stabilize other accelerating processes, which is such a mammoth task that it essentially requires setting up new exponential-growth curves (such as the rate of renewable-energy installation) that might well carry their own ill-considered risks. To paraphrase the NRA, “the only thing that can stop a bad exponential curve is a good exponential curve” -- but is there really any such thing?

Paul Krafel certainly believes there is. His movie The Upward Spiral is actually named for the concept of a good exponential curve, one that creates ever-growing amounts of life and possibility. But Paul's upward spirals are very distributed and grassroots, starting by sharing small local solutions with as many people as possible and hoping they will eventually add up. Apart from tree-planting movements, though, the bulk of the progress we've made toward climate solutions so far has come thanks to megacorporations like GE and Vestas, which can act much faster to deploy solutions at a global scale, and can be motivated by equally centralized policy shifts like the renewable energy production tax credit. In an era of increasing and fully justified alarm about the limited time remaining to avert a collapse, the latter approach seems likely to continue to dominate our response. (Even the accelerating trend toward solar rooftops, which challenges the business model of centralized electric utilities, is driven by the relatively few companies that actually manufacture the solar panels. If those companies hadn't succeeded (with the help of a few big government research institutes) in making photovoltaics so cheap, they would still be a tiny niche market.)

And it's not only the unknown consequences of these panicked high-speed deployments of green technology that worries me. Even on an alternate Earth where the Industrial Revolution was based on non-polluting technology from the start, we would still face another terrifying unknown: what happens when technological progress accelerates to the point where mere human brains can no longer keep up?

It used to be typical to refer to this problem as “future shock,” based on the famous book by Alvin Toffler. These days it's gotten attached to the Technological Singularity concept, and hence to the various sci-fi scenarios where superhuman AIs take over the world. But I'd like to point out that we needn't postulate the development of strong AI to make accelerating progress scary. Consider this quote from the webcomic The Spiders by Patrick Farley:

“Unfortunately the biotechnology which created this virus is only getting more user-friendly. In 10 years it'll be possible for a small community of assholes with fast modems and a shared grudge to wipe out the entire human race.

“And this won't be a problem for the next 10 years, but the next ten thousand. Grok this fact, and then we can discuss ethics, Lieutenant.”

Considering the growing power of various potentially destructive technologies, and the depths of fanatical extremism that humans are capable of, and the difficulty of policing a world of billions to ensure that world-destroying plots are never brought to fruition, you have to wonder whether it would actually be less harmful in the long run to let civilization crash.

Then again, you also have to wonder whether it’s reasonable to base present-day policy decisions on a theoretical future in which some technology that can wipe out the human race could be secretly developed and deployed by a tiny terrorist group. “Comic-book politics” is the term that comes to mind here. That’s why I ultimately decided not to classify this entry as part of my “personal psychology of despair” series. Am I anxious about the dangers of overly rapid change? Yes. Does that alone constitute a reason for despair? No. If it did, I don’t think I could get up in the morning and go to work in the software industry, which changes faster than anything in human history.

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“When I looked into my oldest boy’s little yellow eyes for the first time, I knew I had to try to give him the best life I could.”

“Then you would be willing to restart the Plan? Only by seizing equality—”

“OK, when normal people say that, they don’t mean holding the gods hostage with an unstoppable killing machine via some improbable evil scheme. They mean, like, setting up a college fund or something.”

- The Order of the Stick: Start of Darkness by Rich Burlew, p. 87

As I see it, there are three general ways you can try to live a meaningful life. The first is to “think local,” finding meaning in your day-to-day interactions with friends and relations that bring more joy to their lives. But many people feel a need to contribute something meaningful to society at large, which can be achieved in two ways: individual ambition (e.g. trying to invent a new clean energy technology) or joining a collective (e.g. a large charity helping alleviate hunger in poor and drought-stricken countries).

The collectivist answer is naturally hard for most Americans to accept. From our individualist perspective, “I’m doing my tiny part in a vast organization, and therefore the organization’s accomplishments give meaning to my life” seems like a pathetic excuse for lack of ambition. But then again, believing that you personally can change the world in any meaningful way smacks of childish megalomania to most people, little different from the millions of children confidently planning to become famous basketball players or rock stars.

Why are both of these options so easy to ridicule? Partly it’s because they’re really extreme ends of a spectrum; in between lies the perfectly reasonable ambition of gaining substantial influence within the company or government agency that employs you. But partly it’s the simple fact that set against the scale of the planet or humanity as a whole, a single person is small to the point of insignificance. To quote Douglas Adams, when faced with the size of the world, “Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings in fact do.” Hence the “think local” solution.

But that solution doesn’t work for me, for a number of reasons. One is that I’m an introvert, so it’s difficult for me to find meaning in my relationships with others; I get much more sense of meaning from abstract philosophical musings like this blog post. Another is that, like many people, I want to feel special and important.

But the biggest problem with “think local” is that I believe it’s an abdication of responsibility. Given the magnitude of the climate crisis, and the magnitude of socioeconomic*, institutional, and infrastructural transformation required to save even vestiges of the climate stability on which civilization is based, I find it totally unreasonable for anyone who understands the problem to refrain from doing everything we can to help solve it. In other words, as my friend Lion would put it, “each of us has to take responsibility for the whole world.”

And yet here I am, continuing to spend 40 hours a week building apps with only a very indirect connection to climate solutions, and only a few hours a month actually working with the Sierra Club Coal Free PSE campaign to solve one tiny piece of the climate problem. Is this simply inertia, motivated by the lack of immediate climate impacts in the place where I live, and a lack of conviction that I have a responsibility to the world or even to my own long-term future? Or is there something else standing between my current life and the life I feel obligated to lead?

“Obligated to lead.” That phrase is a clue, since aiming for the greatest possible impact I can have inevitably means seeking leadership roles. I’ve never wanted to be a leader, partly because such ambitions are at odds with my natural modesty, but mostly because I'm afraid of taking responsibility for enabling other people's success and then letting them down. It's one thing to fail at a task assigned to me by someone else, but quite another to fail at choosing tasks to assign to others that both fit their skills and help advance some strategy for achieving a group's goals.

So there we have it: on one side is my ambition to make a difference in the world, and the sense of shame that comes from failing to contribute what I can toward “saving the world.” On the other side is inertia and a desire to avoid the challenges of changing my life, plus my modesty and fear of letting people down, and that side is currently winning.

And when I think about how many millions of other informed citizens must be blocked from taking substantive action by similar emotional barriers**, I’m struck by the sheer immensity of the gulf between what we’re actually doing to solve this vast crisis and “the best we can do” (which still might not be enough). How to close that gap, I haven’t the slightest idea.


* Oddly, this link is to a group with the acronym ISEC, which they share with another group I’ve worked with, most of whose members are libertarians who wholeheartedly support the dominant growth-at-all-cost economic model.

** Lion participates in a group that claims to have unique insights into how emotions work, but I’m currently avoiding them due to an emotionally traumatic experience I had at one of their meetings, which is a topic for a different post.

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Yes, believe it or not, I haven't actually forgotten about this blog or this series of posts.

In tenth grade I took a one-semester Science Fiction Literature/Composition class, from which I only remember one piece of knowledge: toward the end of a traditional fantasy quest narrative, there is always a point called the Abyss, where it appears that the villain is about to win and the hero is helpless to prevent it. This is immediately followed by some kind of unexpected reversal that allows the hero to save the day.

The standard activist narrative on the climate crisis works the same way. "Greenhouse emissions are increasing faster than ever, and we only have a few years before it will be impossible to restore the climate to a healthy state -- but if we all get together and demand drastic action from world leaders, we can still save the world!" And I've bought into this narrative for years, dismissing or forgetting about the numerous challenges to its plausibility, because the alternative was to admit that within my lifetime, civilization will almost certainly slide into a new dark age.

Paul Gilding's first thesis in The Great Disruption is that the crash is inevitable because we won't develop the will to prevent it until it's too late. But this points the way to a deeper truth: even if we had the will, we probably can't prevent the crash, no matter how hard we try. (Contrary to the title of this post, I'm not going to spend time here trying to figure out what Gilding said that forced me to acknowledge that truth.)

One of the earliest challenges to the activist narrative that I've successfully avoided thinking about was a set of three graphs in the book Affluenza: the All-Consuming Epidemic, which was one of the readings for my Intro to Environmental Analysis class in college. In reverse order, the graphs are "The Carbon Dioxide Spike" (p. 161), "The Consumption Spike" (p. 154), and "The Extinction Spike" (p. 92). Each of these graphs shows a classic hockey-stick exponential growth curve, demonstrating clearly that these trends are accelerating beyond all hope of control. Similar graphs could be drawn for topsoil loss, falling water tables, pollution of surface water, deforestation, and ocean acidification, among others. This means that our food and water supplies can't be maintained at current levels much longer, and even the rate of global oxygen production by plants and algae is under threat.

One common reaction to all this rapid change is to say, "Look how powerful we've become! Humans can now change natural systems on a global scale! Surely we can use that power to bring those systems back to healthy norms and stabilize them there!"

But that's crazy. Imagine that half a second ago, you accidentally cut open a major vein on your arm with a knife that you made. Does the power of that knife to release massive quantities of your blood mean that, even with no real first-aid training, you'll be able to stop the bleeding and sew up the wound within the next half-second? That's how absurd it is to claim that our current technological capabilities are up to the task of saving us from the destruction we've wrought in the few decades before it overwhelms and destroys our current civilization.

If it were only greenhouse emissions that we had to worry about, we might stand a chance. Something like Gilding's "One-Degree War Plan," described in chapter 10 of The Great Disruption, might suffice to bring carbon-dioxide levels back down below 350 parts per million by century's end. And to be fair, part of that plan involves sequestering carbon in soil and biomass, which would also help rebuild topsoil and forest cover. But given the enormous complexity of Earth's systems, there's not really much chance that we could figure out how to calibrate our actions carefully enough to get close to the climate we want and then stabilize there, and there's a very high likelihood that the massive spike in construction of energy infrastructure and so-called "reversible geoengineering actions" will cause other problems to worsen even faster.

Now, I just attended my fourth Bioneers conference last weekend, and I know what the Bioneers answer would be: "Gaia has the solutions to everything. All we have to do is mimic what natural ecosystems would do to solve these problems."

But there are two fatal problems with this answer. One is that Gaia works slowly; for instance, it certainly took a whole lot more than one century for life to recover from the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs.

The other problem is that Gaia doesn't actually care about keeping the climate as stable as our current civilization needs it to be (and the same likely applies to the other factors I listed). If you look at a graph of temperature over hundreds of thousands of years, you see that the current interglacial period, the Holocene, in which temperature fluctuations stayed within a narrow range for ten thousand years, is highly unusual. The last several interglacials have been far less stable, and then of course there are the Ice Ages, which last much longer, and which Gaia has clearly done nothing to prevent. From Gaia's perspective, the "healthy norm" for climate is anything that doesn't totally freeze the oceans or turn all the land to desert.

So, as founder Bill McKibben pointed out in his book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (a stark challenge to the activist narrative espoused by itself), we have a clear task ahead of us: learn to be resilient to changes in Earth's systems vastly larger than any we've seen in the history of civilization. Science and technology have produced many tools that could be useful in this regard, but to keep those tools, we'll have to start by overhauling our whole manufacturing infrastructure to cope with these massive disruptions, while doing what we can to slow down all those accelerating trends to give ourselves more time. And we'll need to store our knowledge in a durable form that even crazed combatants in some future war won't be able to destroy, so that any tools we lose can be rebuilt again later.

Eventually we might assemble a set of resilient strategies powerful enough to maintain something like our present quality of life despite the endless string of crises. Perhaps then we could think about launching a second Space Age, but that won't be possible until long after I die. Thus, for the first time in my life, I've been forced to admit that we won't even make any real progress toward the future I dream of within my lifetime, and my only consolation is that I might be able to help make that world more likely to happen in some distant future.

In short, our present moment, dark as it may seem, is not the Abyss in our quest story. It's actually more like the moment just after the introduction, when the protagonists are forced from their comfortable homes and into a long, hard journey through great perils. But in our case, the perils are real and we have no narrative structures to defend us from a tragic ending.

Good luck then, to all of us. We're going to need it.

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…in the geopolitical, economic, and climate chaos involved I expect we’ll tragically lose a few billion people.

- The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding, p. 53

Up until March 20th of this year, I hadn’t ever lost a grandparent. When I heard the news of Grandpa Mike’s death, I was in my quiet apartment a thousand miles away and in the middle of eating dinner, so the immediate emotional impact was somewhat blunted. I did fly to Los Angeles for his memorial service a few days later, but I didn’t cry, or express much emotion of any kind, until much later.

I started reading The Great Disruption on April 21st, and ran into the quote above while eating dinner that evening. It hit me like a ton of bricks, despite Gilding’s lack of supporting evidence for that specific assertion. Two nights after reading those words, while lying in bed, I cried for those billions of hypothetical deaths that haven’t happened yet. So perhaps believing in Gilding’s version of inevitable catastrophe was my way of accessing the grief for Grandpa Mike that I had been trying and failing to feel.

Something in human nature seems fascinated by the end of all things. Is it simply an extension of the smaller death each of us faces? Or perhaps a streak of egotism is involved, for out of countless human generations, it would surely mark ours as unique to be the last.

- “Whose Millennium?” by David Brin, pp. 188-189 in his collection of stories and essays called Otherness

It’s not as if my preemptive grief for a still-thriving civilization is terribly unusual. As I mentioned in my recent entry about movies, belief in impending doom seems to be part of the spirit of the times – an amplification of a perennial human tendency, triggered partly by the recent turn of the millennium, and further reinforced by the dire warnings of climate scientists and the Club of Rome. Most activists resist this tendency, of course, noting that belief in the imminent end of the world leads to a lack of concern for long-term social, economic, and environmental problems. But maybe it will turn out that my career as an activist died with my grandfather, and just hasn’t stopped twitching yet.

“If you go to an audition and don’t really try, if you’re not really prepared, if you didn’t work as hard as you could have and you don’t win, you have an excuse. . . . Nothing is harder than saying, ‘I gave it my all and it wasn’t good enough.’”

- Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin prodigy, as quoted in Mindset by Carol S. Dweck (previously quoted in this blog entry)

All else being equal, helping to save the world appears to be a rather poor fit for my innate pessimism, modesty, and the low energy that comes with my limited-exercise lifestyle. If it weren’t so important to do my part, I’d much rather focus on more entertaining pursuits, like amateur music composition or sci-fi fan art. So maybe the intersection of my existing personality mismatch, my grandfather’s death, and Gilding’s book has pushed me over the edge into assuming that I no longer have a duty to lead the stressful and unrewarding life of an activist. All I have to do, as demonstrated in my first post about Gilding’s book, is wholeheartedly embrace the first half of his thesis while flatly rejecting the second half. This seemingly self-contradictory position feels like a possible betrayal of my deeply held belief in honesty, which may account for my continuing attendance at activist meetings and events.

This line of thought is interesting because it suggests a number of countervailing actions I could take: exercising more, working on my self-confidence (which my manager at work wants me to do anyway), and looking for opportunities to apply my artistic skills and sci-fi ideas toward some activist cause, like my friend Saab does. But the most important question here is still whether I can honestly be certain enough of the inevitable doom I see as implied by Gilding’s arguments to justify what would otherwise be a nearly unforgivable dereliction of duty. So in my next entry, I’ll delve deeper into the question of just how persuasive Paul Gilding really is.


P.S. My first and possibly only experience with The Work That Reconnects was almost completely unhelpful. Naturally enough, if you get a bunch of people in a room to express their shared feelings of despair to each other, it tends to validate and reinforce that despair. How this is supposed to lead to a feeling of empowerment, particularly in the sense of our capacity to work on behalf of a world we believe to be inevitably doomed, is something I still don’t understand.

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I’d like to go back to my sadness at the state we are in and to the personal psychology of despair. It is very sad that we are going to wipe out 50 percent of global biodiversity that took billions of years to evolve. It is very sad that the changes that will now unfold in the global ecosystem means that billions of people will face painful, widespread, and long-lasting personal suffering. . . .

However, it is what it is. Grieving is an appropriate response, but sustained despair is not.

- The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding, p. 113

Okay, so unsurprisingly it’s been more than two weeks since I promised to post this, and here I am posting what will probably be only the first 20-25% of what I want to say on the subject. All I can say is it turns out to be more complicated than I expected, and I’ve been doing my best to be thorough in working through my self-analysis.

The first question to tackle here is whether the premise is sound. Have I actually given in to despair? To look at my actions over the last few weeks, which include planning for and participating in a Beyond Coal rally and tabling at the Mother Earth News Fair, plus continuing to sign online petitions on various important issues, you’d assume the answer is no. But there are numerous explanations for why I would keep going despite a lack of hope. Here are a few of them:

  • Sheer inertia/habit.
  • Not wanting to break my promises to fellow activists.
  • Knowledge that if I drop my activist habits due to despair, it’s a short step to dropping my habit of going to work in the morning.
  • Knowledge that my current understanding of where the world is headed could be flawed. (As Paul Krafel says, “Don’t let your current understanding keep you from doing this work.”)
  • Love for the world (or for my own life) that forces me to keep trying even though it appears totally obvious that we will fail to prevent the coming collapse. (This is the basis for anarcho-primitivist Derrick Jensen’s writing and activism.)

The next question is, if I have given in to despair within the past month or two, why has it taken this long? After all, I’ve been fully aware of the terrifying global threats we face for a decade and more, and as Al Gore points out, the most common response to such an immense challenge is to “leap straight from denial to despair,” much as an unarmed man being attacked by a tiger would generally flee and hide rather than trying to fight. In other words, scale paralysis prevents most people from becoming activists in the first place. But then again, youthful idealism can overcome that roadblock quite easily – as Joss Whedon pointed out in a recent graduation speech, every college student thinks s/he can change the world.

Still, it’s been seven years since I graduated, and in that time I’ve encountered plenty of strong arguments for the assertion that the problems we face really are too big to solve, not only for political reasons but due to the biology and physics of the Earth system itself, or “geophysiology” as James Lovelock calls it. Lovelock, who developed the Gaia hypothesis, believes that a hotter global climate regime that will last for millions of years is now developing, and no matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to return Earth’s climate to the way it was before the industrial era. Of course Lovelock is a controversial figure, but I’ve also heard Professor David Battisti’s description of the overall climate science community’s belief in a best-case scenario that looks like a nightmare to climate activists. And even Bill McKibben, the world’s leading climate activist, agrees that at this point we’re only fighting to “stabilize the planet at its current level of disruption.” That’s not the same as hopelessness, obviously, but it certainly puts a stark upper limit on how bright my future can be.

But up until last month, I just didn’t buy into that message. When I thought about it at all, I guess my assumption was that the climate is too unpredictable, some magical carbon-capture tech might be developed, or just “where there’s life there’s hope.” In short, my continuing habit of environmental activism was enabled by denial of the full severity of the problem.

In the next installment, which I already have mostly finished, I’ll explore my first major theory about why Paul Gilding’s book was able to cut through this partial denial and flip it to a state of “zombie activism,” in which I keep on doing what I’ve been doing without any real belief that it will help anything in the long run. Meanwhile, the day after tomorrow I’m participating in a workshop called “The Work That Reconnects” that’s designed specifically to help environmentalists face the depths of their despair and work through it to somehow regain their “empowerment.” However that turns out, I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about it later in this series.

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As my friend Lion pointed out to me recently, a lot of movies these days are pushing a very bleak view of the future, essentially advising audiences to prepare for inevitable doom. My mother’s reaction to this observation is that I should avoid that kind of movie, particularly in my present state, and she may be right. But Joe McHugh argues otherwise in his presentation, “Slaying the Gorgon,” which I attended at the Seattle Bioneers satellite conference in 2009. He says that when faced with realities too terrible to face directly, we should seek to understand them using the “mirrored shield of myth” (analogous to the strategy Perseus uses to kill Medusa, hence the name of the talk). So lately I’ve been looking at movies through that lens, and what follows are the results of my recent research into the modern mythology of the apocalypse. (Note: all four reviews have spoilers.)


The Croods )


Oblivion )


Iron Man 3 )


Star Trek Into Darkness )

Okay, so those last two didn't fit the theme very well, but luckily this year’s upcoming releases will provide plenty more fodder for this investigation. After Earth comes out next week, Man of Steel (which starts out with the destruction of the planet Krypton) is less than a month away, and Elysium (which is more of a dystopia, but still raises the question of how it got that way) comes out in early August. I might skip After Earth if the reviews are terrible (which seems likely given M. Night Shyamalan’s recent track record), and I’m very likely to skip Pacific Rim, the invasion-of-the-giant-lizards movie that comes out in July. But that still leaves plenty of apocalyptic sci-fi madness to experience and study, even though my mom says I shouldn’t.

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Paul Gilding is an avowed optimist, and that optimism was on full display in the first piece of his that I encountered, “Victory at hand for the climate movement?” That was five weeks ago, and I liked the article enough to post it to my Facebook wall. Four weeks ago, at an Earth Day event, I was handed a flyer advertising two meetings to discuss the ideas in Gilding’s book, The Great Disruption, and I decided almost immediately to read the book and go to the meetings. I had no idea what was about to happen to my mind.

In a nutshell, the thesis of The Great Disruption is that (1) humanity will not make the drastic changes needed to save ourselves until global catastrophe forces our hand, but (2) when it does, we will still somehow have enough time, resources, and inventiveness to save the climate and transition to a truly sustainable civilization. Gilding’s case for part 1 made perfect sense to me and has had a massive impact on my thinking, despite the fact that I’ve spent the past several years involved in activism aimed explicitly at motivating an earlier course correction, on the assumption that if we wait until our hand is forced, it will be too late to stop the slide into chaos and collapse.

Part 2 of Gilding’s thesis directly contradicts that assumption, and I simply can’t believe in it. Gilding incessantly cites World War II as an example of how we can turn things around at the last minute, completely ignoring the fact that America’s miraculous mobilization took place under conditions of almost total insulation from the catastrophes engulfing Europe and eastern Asia. By contrast, killer droughts, floods, wildfires, and superstorms are already starting to wreak havoc everywhere, America included, and it is that very havoc that Gilding expects to trigger our shift in consciousness. In any case, Gilding himself points out that the time lags in Earth’s systems mean that the climate and other ecological crises will continue to worsen long after we’ve stopped doing damage and started applying effort toward solutions commensurate with the global scale of the problems. So even if we start doing what’s necessary well before we’re crippled by the unfolding cataclysm, our decades-long efforts will almost certainly be swamped by the ever-growing chaos around us, ranging from mass migrations to pandemics to large-scale wars. Plus, to turn these trends around quickly enough when they’re already into the red zone will require using geoengineering, i.e. applying massive force on a planet-wide scale with techniques that are barely understood, whose side effects could easily prove even worse than the problems they’re intended to solve.

And all this doesn’t even touch the other part of the catastrophe that Gilding sees as inevitable: the end of economic growth. As long as the current economic system is in force, it will be necessary for governments to raise massive sums in order to cope with the scale of the climate problems, but Gilding says the global economy is already running up against the wall of planetary resource limits. He sees the 2008 financial crisis as partly caused by the preceding spikes in food prices, which indicate the arrival of a phenomenon far worse than Peak Oil: the edge of our agricultural capacity being reached, due to the combination of rising demand and loss of cropland to desertification. And while we have plenty of fossil fuels left with which to power the needed transitions (including scaling up green power production to replace those fuels), we’ll need to severely curtail our use of those fuels in order to prevent civilization-destroying climate impacts, placing an artificial limit on growth to add to the natural ones. And enforcing such harsh limits on energy use, particularly in the midst of the global chaos described above, will doubtless require an authoritarian crackdown on civil liberties on an almost Stalinist scale, a possibility that Gilding points out when discussing the rise of China.

So why have I suddenly embraced this vision of certain doom, despite having worked for years with the SolSeed Movement to paint a fundamentally hopeful and optimistic vision of the future and work toward making it real? I’ve been thinking a lot about that question, but those thoughts will have to wait for a future blog post. I don’t expect it to be more than a week or two away (trust me or not as you see fit), and in the interim I plan to publish a set of movie reviews that relate to Gilding’s predictions, which I’m already mostly finished writing. I also need to update my original review of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth, which offers more realistic-sounding solutions to the problem of inevitable climate catastrophe.

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At the 2010 State of the World Forum, Paul H. Ray described the state of the world as “getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster.”  As I’ve mentioned before, the annual Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California is mainly focused on the “better and better” aspect, showcasing projects that appear to be in the process of solving some of the world’s biggest problems.  But at the Whidbey Island Bioneers satellite conference three weeks ago, the keynote speaker, Meg Wheatley, offered a contrarian viewpoint.  She believes that activists have no real chance of making headway against the entrenched power structure whose policies are making things worse on a global scale, and that we should focus instead on building “islands of sanity” within our current local spheres of influence.

I’ll return to that argument at the end of this post, but my main goal here is to repurpose Ms. Wheatley’s phrase in order to talk about ideological “islands of sanity,” each of whose inhabitants generally believe that only their island is sane and everyone on the other islands is crazy.  Most of them would also be surprised to learn just how vast the ocean is, and how many islands exist beyond the foggy borders of the Mainstream Archipelago (reachable only by navigators with a good political compass).  Most of those radical islands, of course, are very thinly populated, and many radicals find it difficult to even imagine banding together with other nearby islands to form a significant political force.

As an activist, I meet a lot of radicals, and one rhetorical strategy that some of them use to defend their “islands” is the claim that people in the mainstream are the “real radicals.”  For example, Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, gave what I can only refer to as a vociferously moderate speech as part of the Bioneers plenary session (live-streamed to Whidbey and other satellite locations from San Rafael).  He described the DPA as a big tent, embracing “people who love drugs and people who hate drugs,” and explained its mission to “reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition” – that is to say, both preventing severe addiction, overdoses, and the spread of disease via needle sharing, and winding down the trillion-dollar War on Drugs that puts hundreds of thousands in jail and targets minorities far more aggressively than whites.  The DPA’s website doesn’t seem to have any specific policy recommendations other than legalizing marijuana*, but still manages to make the currently accepted zero-tolerance drug policy in the U.S. look like the extreme one.

Leading climate activist Bill McKibben of is much more explicit about it.  In his Rolling Stone article and the nationwide Do the Math tour based on it, for which I attended the kickoff event in Seattle this past Wednesday, McKibben depicts oil and coal companies as a “rogue industry” whose radical agenda essentially involves wrecking the planet for profit.  By contrast, he defines’s mission, to reduce the CO2 content of the atmosphere back to 350 parts per million, as the fundamentally conservative goal of maintaining a planet somewhat resembling the one we were born on.  Climate scientist David Battisti of the University of Washington was in the audience at the kickoff event, and McKibben thanked him for his contributions, but in fact Dr. Battisti considers the 350 ppm goal to be hopelessly extreme.  Then again, that’s mainly due to political feasibility concerns; 350 may not be a goal we can achieve, but it’s a goal that almost anyone who believes in mainstream climate science would want.

Speaking of super-ambitious goals that sound attractive to lots of people (intended to make bigger islands and pull in more of the scattered radical population, along with some moderate progressives), one of the things I learned about at Bioneers was a four-hour Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream Symposium that I ended up attending last weekend. The new dream described in the Symposium is defined broadly as “an environmentally sustainable, socially just, and spiritually fulfilling human presence on this planet.” However, in the four-hour version at least, the contrast with the current “dream of the modern world” isn’t made very clear; for example, one animated video clip defined that dream as mindless consumerism and blind worship of futuristic technology, but the presenters and some later live-action clips endorsed technological solutions such as wind and solar power, and one clip even celebrated Walmart’s green initiatives!  Are they claiming that consumerism is still okay as long as you do it right?  And how can social justice advocates support Walmart when its business model depends on keeping workers in poverty?

Still, I can fairly easily imagine the argument for why the Mainstream Conservative and Libertarian islands, at least, are extreme compared to the Awakening the Dreamer vision: “People on those islands think that ‘sustainability’ is code for burdensome EPA regulations that should be abolished, because they assume the cost to business is greater than the impacts of pollution, species extinctions, and climate change; they think that ‘social justice’ really means taking taxpayers’ hard-earned money and handing it out to lazy poor people; and they see no contradiction in seeking ‘spiritual fulfillment’ while living a self-centered consumerist lifestyle.”  But that sentence is a caricature, drawn by someone with a deliberately underpowered radio that can just barely pick up the fuzzy transmissions of the conservative half of the archipelago from a great distance.  The closer, more moderate regions of those islands make little to no sound, while from the far side comes the endless ultra-amplified noise of the right-wing propaganda machine.  So our left-leaning observer just assumes that the latter represents all conservatives, and writes them all off as crazy, which is what s/he wanted to believe in the first place.

I’m even worse than that observer in some respects.  I almost never even listen to right-wing media directly; I only see the carefully chosen excerpts quoted in The Daily Show and in outraged emails from progressive advocacy groups.  But at least I’m not so sure of myself as to choose a single radical island and claim it’s the only one where people are sane.  Let’s add a third dimension to my metaphor: People on the ground have no self-doubt whatsoever, which is easy given that even nearby islands are hard to see through the ocean haze.  Meanwhile, people like me hover in balloons above the cloud layer, able to see many islands but unable to make out enough detail to choose between them.  In fact, we believe that uncertainty is the only rational response to the immense complexity of the world we live in, although we acknowledge that we have to at least pretend to some degree of certainty about some things in order to live at all.  A state of complete uncertainty is equivalent to suffocating in the vacuum of space.

I’ll close with a quote I used at Bioneers the day after Meg Wheatley’s keynote, along with that initial quote from Paul Ray, to explain why I don’t think we should be so sure that global problems will only get worse:

“. . . so much was happening at any one time that any description of the situation had some truth in it, from ‘desperate crisis, extinction event totally ignored’ to ‘minor problems robustly dealt with.’  It was therefore necessary to forge on in ignorance of the whole situation.”

- Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson

*In his Bioneers talk, Nadelmann expressed support for the marijuana legalization initiative that just passed in Washington State.  My dad, who has a law degree and works at a courthouse, is pretty sure the initiative will just result in federal drug enforcers arresting a bunch more people.  I’ll probably do a post about the election soon.

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"The real unforgivable acts are committed by calm men in beautiful green silk rooms, who deal death wholesale, by the shipload, without lust, without anger, or desire, or any redeeming emotion to excuse them but cold fear of some pretended future."

- Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

This blog entry is not for the faint of heart. I was seriously worried that I wouldn't have the heart to finish writing it, given how much there is to say and how most of it is intensely depressing. But If I don't put it on a (web)page, it will just stay stuck in my head. So:

From the perspective of a radical anti-war activist, every American citizen is drenched in the blood of the countless multitudes of innocent foreigners who have been tortured, mutilated, and/or slaughtered in the name of "keeping us safe." From the perspective of the U.S. military, including its Commander in Chief, those victims are just "collateral damage" and should be left out of our considerations entirely, because they are an inevitable consequence of necessary defense projects. This ideological stalemate has held for decades without either side giving an inch; in fact, the government's militancy has increased quite substantially since 9/11, and this trend shows no real sign of slowing down under President Obama.

Needless to say, my sympathies lie mainly with the anti-war activists, but it took the killing of two American citizens in Yemen with no due process to force me to start considering the real horrors of the current war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If it weren't for that precedent, which potentially puts anyone who opposes our government's military policies in the crosshairs, I probably never would have read all the way through the Atlantic articles "'Every Person Is Afraid of the Drones': The Strikes' Effect on Life in Pakistan" and "Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama," both by Conor Friedersdorf, who asks the basic question of how can anyone support, in good conscience, any leader who perpetrates and perpetuates this kind of madness.

For a while before I read those articles, I'd had a ready answer gleaned from a humor piece about the Occupy movement by Colin McEnroe: "Obama doesn't have my support. Just my vote." Part of my argument for that answer came from the above observation about the decades-long period of national-security dogmatism we currently live in, which prevents any American leader from changing course and therefore, in theory, makes the question of who wins the presidential election totally irrelevant to the Pakistani victims. Whether I vote or not won't change anything for them, so why not leave them out of my voting decision entirely?

The answer, according to Dennis Loo, a columnist even more radical than Mr. Friedersdorf, is that if we want to be moral, we should withdraw our support entirely from a system this evil, thus beginning the path to delegitimizing and dismantling it. Mr. Friedersdorf and Mr. Loo agree that a vote for either major presidential candidate is a statement of support for that candidate's actions, even those the other major party's candidate would agree with. The only way to save the values of our democracy that are being trampled by our increasing obsession with security, Mr. Loo argues, is not to participate in our democracy.

My first reaction to this claim is to cry "Sacrilege!" I've always believed that voting is a sacred duty, upholding the ideal of self-government. But when we're given so few choices, and such bad ones, it does begin to look like that form of faith is a little too naïve. So I would probably decide to skip over the presidential section on my ballot when it arrives in the mail next week -- if the wars were the only major issue in this election. On some of the other issues, particularly women's rights and of course the environment, I view Obama as by far the lesser evil.

Mr. Loo has anticipated this objection, and in fact his article's subtitle is "An Examination of Obama's Domestic Policies." Using extremely harsh rhetoric, he lists several cases where President Obama's actions have been at odds with progressive values on issues including abortion and the climate crisis, frequently connecting back to the issue of war crimes which is the main focus of his organization, World Can't Wait. For example, in the section "The Oppression of Women and Gay Rights," he focuses on Obama's censorship of photos showing rape and sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib. On climate, he quotes another radical columnist, Rob Urie, who claims that Obama is clearly planning to complete the Keystone XL pipeline next year; if so, well-known climate scientists James Hansen claims, it would be "game over for the climate."

Mr. Urie's theory may be undermined by the massive grassroots mobilization against Keystone XL, in which Dr. Hansen participated (see link above), and which has already had some impact on President Obama's decision-making. And Dr. Hansen's extreme statement, if taken in isolation, makes little sense given that Keystone XL would merely add one more pipe to an already existing network of tar-sands oil pipelines. The real argument behind that claim is that committing to buy more tar-sands oil means declaring ourselves "hopeless fossil-fuel addicts," but President Obama's other actions on climate don't match the hopeless-addict profile. They include the $90 billion for clean energy in his 2009 stimulus package, his recently-finalized major increase in fuel efficiency requirements for cars, and, less impressively, the still-in-process EPA carbon dioxide regulations that would apply to the few new coal-fired power plants still being built in America. Discouragingly, the EPA "has no plans to pursue regulations for existing power plants," but that doesn't mean it won't ever happen.

Republicans, on the other hand, have been attacking new and existing EPA regulations vociferously since they took control of the House of Representatives. It's no secret that they'd defund the whole agency if they had the chance, and Romney seems highly likely to give them that chance. I'm a volunteer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which has used Clean Air Act lawsuits (focused on pollutants other than carbon dioxide) as an important tool in scheduling over a hundred coal-fired power plants for early retirement, and they're doing it again with the huge plant in Colstrip, Montana that supplies over 30% of my electricity. If Romney is elected President, those lawsuits could have the law they're based on ripped right out from under them.

So here's my answer to Conor Friedersdorf's question: I may be able to support President Obama despite his war crimes, because he's currently our best hope for making progress as a nation toward solving a vastly more serious humanitarian crisis. By one well-researched estimate, the climate crisis already causes five million deaths per year, a number projected to grow to six million (a.k.a. "one Nazi Holocaust per year") by 2030. For comparison, the maximum estimate for all deaths from U.S. drone strikes is just over three thousand, and almost all known drone strikes occurred in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas region of Pakistan, whose population is 3 million, which I'd call a reasonable upper limit on the number of people being traumatized due to constantly circling drones.

Except that reasonable is, of course, the wrong word to describe any of these horrors. Among the three thousand reported dead are one hundred seventy-six children, and a national-security policy that murders children and calls it "collateral damage" is obviously morally untenable (regardless of whether the U.S. military makes good on commitments to massively reduce its fossil-fuel use). So the question is, do I vote to continue to legitimize that policy for the sake of preventing even greater harm, or will that make it impossible to live with myself?

(If it weren't for my pledge to ignore all political ads, my decision would already be made, thanks to a recent pro-coal ad approved by President Obama that cynically tries to out-Romney Romney, while asking viewers to forget about Obama's climate rhetoric and the significant progress toward phasing out fossil fuels that I noted above.)
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When I first heard about "Third Way" economics, consisting of communistically worker-owned companies competing in a capitalist marketplace, I was highly dubious: "What do you mean, 'everyone can be capitalists?' That's ridiculous!" But now I'm a big supporter of the concept.

When it comes to fossil fuels, there's a similar middle ground between the future described in the 2009 article "Bound to Burn" (which I first mentioned here), in which we burn all of Earth's fossil fuel reserves over the next century or two, and the future favored by environmentalists, in which we leave all the remaining coal, oil, and natural gas in the ground. Oddly, the conservative author of "Bound to Burn" was largely arguing from the demand side, roughly summarized as "the developing world is demanding cheap electricity and transportation fuel, and clean alternatives can't compete." Last month, in his Rolling Stone article "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," climate activist leader Bill McKibben made a similar argument from the supply side: "Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it's already economically aboveground – it's figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. . . . If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn't pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet."

So where's the middle ground? In the gap between the verbs "pump" and "burn." Everyone knows there are plenty of non-fuel-related uses for oil, particularly in making plastics, lubricants, and asphalt. Likewise, natural gas is used as raw material for a number of solid and liquid products, including plastics, fabric, paint, fertilizer, etc. Finding uses for coal that don't involve burning it is trickier, but perhaps American ingenuity would be up to the task if motivated by a high tax on releasing greenhouse gases. If we could find a combination of policies that leads to a substantial increase in demand for those non-fuel products to match the decrease in demand for fossil fuels to near zero, we could potentially solve the climate crisis without destroying the fossil-fuel companies or the economies of nations that rely on them.

Of course, the extraction processes for those "non-fuel fossil resources" would continue to do plenty of environmental damage, and environmentalists won’t be too happy about incentivizing more production of plastic, asphalt, and fertilizer (which tends to promote topsoil-destroying industrial agriculture).  But maybe that's the price we have to pay for a politically feasible means of nearly halting greenhouse emissions. Needless to say, this is not my favorite idea, but I think it should at least be on the table.  Speaking of agriculture, the current mega-drought and the trend it represents is a clear warning sign that we don't have much time left to find climate solutions that work.

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The United States Declaration of Independence from the British monarchy

The Occupy Wall Street Declaration of independence from what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt referred to as the “economic royalists”

A speech calling for a return to American greatness (from Aaron Sorkin’s new TV show The Newsroom, for which my cousin Daniel is on the production crew)

Each of these links contains some very dubious statements.  The last item in the list of grievances against the king of England refers to “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions,” an all too typical attempt to reframe Native Americans’ natural tendency to defend themselves and their land against invaders.  Several of the grievances in the Occupy declaration, particularly “They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press,” are disingenuous because they’re actually directed against governments supposedly acting in the interests of corporations.  Roosevelt makes the odd claim that the U.S. Constitution stands “against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike,” even though it was the founding document of a nation to be ruled by its people, and its words were originally interpreted to support rule by white male landowners only.  And in eulogizing America’s former greatness, the main character of The Newsroom makes the unlikely claims that “we never beat our chest” and “we didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for;” excessive national pride and partisanship may have become more serious problems in recent years, but they’ve always been part of American life.  But hey, nobody’s perfect.

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I haven’t written about the threat of global resource depletion in far too long.  Luckily, I just saw a movie that provides a great excuse to discuss the issue at length.

“It’s easy now to see kind of a giant social brain, or planetary brain, because it’s in, it’s in the physical form of the Internet, it, it looks so much like a nervous system, you almost can’t miss the analogy.”

- Robert Wright, author/journalist (this and all other quotes are taken from this transcript)

“My first job [at Chase Manhattan Bank] was to calculate how much debt could Third World countries pay. And the answer was, 'Well, how much do they earn?' . . . our objective was to take the entire earnings of a Third World country and say, ideally, that would be all paid as interest to us.”

- Michael Hudson, economist

The movie Surviving Progress is very much a child of its time. Chock-full of a dizzying array of ideas, it mirrors the headlong speed of the Internet era while focusing squarely on the subject of how little time we have before that reckless speed slams our civilization into a brick wall (or perhaps it's more of a ceiling). I learned about it at the last possible minute too, just before going to bed on the night before the film's last showing in Seattle. Also appropriately, the source of the information was the Facebook group for the Occupy Seattle Get Money Out of Politics workgroup, which advertised this movie because it explicitly blames Wall Street's powerful moneyed elites (as well as their IMF and World Bank henchmen) for the accelerating resource depletion that threatens to bring our civilization to the same fate that supposedly met the Romans, the Mayans, and others.

Okay, that's not entirely fair. The movie doesn't exactly blame anyone in particular. Its thesis, in five chilling words, is “Human nature is the problem.”

“The Ice Age hunter is still us, it's still in us. Those ancient hunters who thought that there would always be another herd of mammoth over the next hill shared the optimism of the stock trader, that there's always going to be another big killing on the stock market in the next week or two.”

- Ronald Wright, author of the book A Short History of Progress on which the film is based

Our brains, with their fifty-thousand-year-old “hardware,” don't allow us to act consistently in the interest of the long-term future. According to this movie, that's the reason why we have predatory financial oligarchs who drive the rest of the world into ever-growing debt to fuel supposedly endless economic growth. The idea is that these people can't help themselves; their brains simply aren't built to resist the allure of massive short-term gains. Like Julian Simon, they assume that human inventiveness can find some way to keep the game going despite the depletion of various resources. They rationalize away all the damage done by “austerity measures” in debtor nations by convincing themselves that the “development projects,” most of them aimed at extracting wealth in the form of natural resources and shipping it back to the wealthy nations, create enough benefit to the poor nations to outweigh the harm.

This thesis creates a bit of a disjunct between means and ends. How can we reconcile the need to deny and consciously transform our primitive natures with the project of living within our ecological means, as a member of the global community of species? It's as if, to live in harmony with nature, we must first pull ourselves further outside it.

“Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”

- Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist

Of course, one answer to the problem of the ultimate “debt ceiling” imposed by Earth's limited resources is to hurry up and start mining the rest of the solar system, a project that recently made headlines when a group of well-known investors endorsed it. I suspect this continuation of the harsh logic of exponential growth driven by short-term thinking is not exactly the destiny Hawking would support, but I can't say for sure, because none of the dialogue elaborates any further on his statement above – despite the fact that images of astronauts, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station are sprinkled liberally throughout the film's visuals.

If you're interested in the arguments for and against the “mine the sky to save the economy” plan, I highly recommend Stephen Baxter's short story “On the Orion Line,” which extrapolates that plan millennia into the future.  In any case, access to space is currently extremely expensive, and many resources (such as food) are much harder to produce in space than on Earth, so this means of escape from our current "progress trap" doesn't seem particularly feasible to me unless coupled with other strategies. So in addition to the moral questions posed by people like Baxter and Kathryn Denning, I think necessity will also compel us to reject the radical growth-at-all-cost agenda and find some other way forward.

“If we don't develop what you might call the moral perspective of God, then we'll screw up the engineering part of playing God, because the actual engineering solutions depend on seeing things from the point of view of other people, ensuring that their lives don't get too bad, because if they do it'll come back to haunt us.”

- Robert Wright

“Admittedly, we’ve used our brain[s] in ways that are detrimental to the environment and society, but brains are beginning to get together around the planet to find solutions to some of the harm that we’ve inflicted. And, you know, we humans are a problem-solving species, and we always do pretty well when our back is to the wall.”

- Jane Goodall, primatologist

One way to describe the other set of possible solutions is “enlightenment.” Several speakers in the movie observe that our progress in the fields of morality and wisdom lags far behind our progress in knowledge and technology, but they don't offer much in the way of suggestions for how to change this. Professor Vaclav Smil even comments on his own deliberate incoherence on the subject of solutions, saying that having lived under a Communist regime, he's fed up with overconfident, doctrinaire answers to the problems of society.

While it would be lovely to imagine a near future in which the “global social brain” of the Internet compels the world's wealthier citizens to radically lower their resource consumption, I'm not convinced that there is any way to make that happen. For one thing, the Internet, as the ultimate incarnation of accelerating change, scarcely seems likely to be the source of a solution that lets us flatten our trajectory. California has found other ways, successfully keeping their per-capita energy use from growing since the 70’s -- but then again it hasn't decreased either.

“We need to begin by saying we're at the end of a failed experiment and it's time to say goodbye to it. It's an economic experiment, it's a technological experiment. It's been going on for a couple of hundred years and it's not worked; it's brought us to this point of crisis. Then we can start to sanely and intelligently say: How can we live within the real limits that our planet gives us and create a safe operating space for humanity?”

- Jim Thomas, activist, ETC Group

So if I buy all the logic above and assume that we can't hit the brakes or duck out from under the resource ceiling fast enough (and that we can’t expect a deus ex machina like aliens arriving in the nick of time to save us from ourselves), I’ll have to join my new friend Hank in accepting the strong likelihood of a global crash. The only questions seem to be “How soon?” and “How violent?” On this spectrum, we have the Transition movement at one end, advocating preparations for gradual “energy descent,” and a strange group of radicals called “collapsitarians” on the other. I once read an article about collapsitarianism, which didn't give me any real sense of why anyone would be crazy enough to want to crash now, but thinking about the specter of that resource ceiling suggests a possible answer: if we enter a dark age sooner rather than later, there will be more resources left with which to stage a recovery from it. I find it very hard to imagine using that reasoning to justify all the near-term suffering involved in a hard crash – but maybe that’s just because I’m not good enough at thinking long-term.

For more of my thoughts about the various kinds of progress (just in case this blog entry wasn’t long enough for you), check out this page on the SolSeed wiki.

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Reform vs. revolution.  Alliance with like-minded politicians vs. independence from all politics.  Kingian/Gandhian principles of nonviolent resistance vs. "diversity of tactics."  All these dialectics and more are currently drawing fault lines across the active membership of Occupy Seattle, and probably the broader national and global movement as well.

An excellent example of how these ideas play out in practice was provided by the debate at the January 11th General Assembly (GA) over whether to endorse the two events planned by the Get Money Out of Politics workgroup (GMOP) to commemorate the anniversary of Citizens United.  Almost no one disagreed that the events as a whole were a good idea; the sticking point was the fact that U.S. Representative Jim McDermott would be speaking for a few minutes in the middle of the January 21st event.  By narrowing their focus to this single speech and its implied endorsement of an elected official, the debaters were actually broadening the discussion to encompass the fundamental principles and strategies of the Occupy movement as a whole.

Here is a rough list of paired arguments for and against, although it misrepresents the free-flowing debate by implying that it was organized around well-defined series of points and counterpoints:

Argument against: The General Assembly has passed a resolution stating that we're a movement where everyone is a leader equally, and therefore politicians will not be allowed to speak at Occupy Seattle-endorsed events.

Argument for: If we want the general public to support us and come to our events, we should invite the kinds of speakers who draw crowds.  McDermott supporters are part of the 99% too, and we need them as allies.

Argument for: McDermott himself is on our side.  He supports our goal of overturning Citizens United and establishing publicly funded elections, as well as having opposed the war in Iraq, supported women's rights, etc.

Argument against: McDermott has voted for military spending, free trade agreements, etc, and his staff has mistreated people who came to his office.

Argument against: The media will see this as Occupy Seattle endorsing a Democrat and moving toward becoming "the Democrats' Tea Party," when we really need to maintain independence from the two big political parties because they're both corrupted by money in politics.

Argument for: We can get McDermott to talk only as a citizen with experience in Constitutional law, rather than as a politician.  Also, Occupy is too strong to have to worry about being co-opted by the Democrats.

Argument for: Ultimately, if we want to have any major impact in this country, we're going to have to get involved in electoral politics at some point.

Argument against: On the contrary, the goal of the Occupy movement is not to change government policy, but to delegitimize the entire U.S. government and trigger a mass upheaval to create a truly better world.

As the debate wore on, people who supported endorsement tended to stay in their seats, which were arranged in a circle.  Opponents stood up and gradually gravitated toward a raised area off to the side, as far away from Karrsen, the GMOP member who had brought the resolution forward, as possible.  Yet everyone remained respectful of the process, and although a few people were clearly getting tired of the hours-long discussion by the end, we ended up finishing the whole "stack" of people wanting to speak before the final vote.

Karrsen ultimately decided the debate was too divisive, and accepted an amendment stating that the General Assembly would only endorse the event if McDermott agreed to participate in a march of torch-carrying protesters demanding the resignation of the current Seattle Chief of Police.  But this was not enough to mollify the radicals (partly because it was stated in a confusing way), so the vote count was ultimately declared to be a tie, 30-30, and the proposal didn't pass.

I later heard that the GA had endorsed the Friday event by itself, although it didn't matter much since that event was cancelled due to snow (but about 20 people showed up anyway).  Then on Saturday, in the midst of a series of speeches, musical performances, and street-theater-style skits on the stage at Westlake Park, GMOP member Craig Salins gave a glowing introduction for Jim McDermott, whose first words on taking the microphone were "Mic check!"  Clearly, he hadn't been informed that this wasn't officially an Occupy Seattle event.  You can watch most of his talk here.  One of the radicals from the GA, who showed up at Westlake after the end of the event, was extremely disappointed that no one had stood up and challenged McDermott on his politicking, particularly his brief comment about re-electing Obama.

The debate goes on.  Somehow, the regular meeting of the GMOP workgroup the day before yesterday was refocused into a planning session for a discussion about reform vs. revolution and nonviolence vs. "diversity of tactics" (this was partly because Kazu Haga, a well-known teacher of nonviolent tactics from Oakland, happened to be in the building).  Meanwhile, the media continue to assume that because the Occupy movement is so fractious, it must be doomed to fade away.  But this is a movement that was founded on the principles of both diversity and unity--perhaps the most fundamental dialectic of all.

That said, rant about why advocating violence is stupid )
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This past Wednesday, I went to a vigil and march commemorating the tenth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay Prison.  As part of the event, people told stories through a megaphone about several probably-innocent long-term detainees at both Guantanamo and Bagram Prison in Afghanistan—dark tales of senseless brutality and torture.  An Iraq veteran told the story of how his unit shot up a school full of children after getting hit by a roadside bomb.

I decided to try something different.  In dark times, it seems to me, we need humor more than ever, to keep our spirits up as we fight on in a seemingly hopeless campaign to halt these atrocities.  So here’s the facetious little speech I gave through that megaphone, while we were standing in front of the building housing Obama’s Seattle campaign headquarters:

“I finally figured out why Congress decided that the military needs to be able to lock up a bunch of American citizens indefinitely without trial.  Consider: an insidious foreign company has created a video game in which the player directs a team of aerial suicide bombers to knock down a series of buildings, killing everyone inside.  It’s an obvious ploy to create a new generation of al Qaeda terrorists—and yet young middle-class Americans of all political stripes are falling for it in droves!  Can you say ‘brainwashing?’  That’s why the government needs the power to lock you up and throw away the key, even if you are completely innocent of any connection to terrorist activity, except for being addicted to Angry Birds.”

For some better (and even darker) humor on this subject, I highly recommend the usual suspects, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert.  “You can take away our lives, but only we can take away our freedoooooom!

P.S. Immediately after the march, I headed over to the Washington State Convention Center for a decision-making General Assembly of Occupy Seattle, where we had a discussion and vote on whether the two Get Money Out of Politics events happening this week would be officially endorsed by Occupy Seattle as a whole.  The fascinating story of how this proposal was discussed and ultimately rejected will be the subject of my next post.

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They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

- Benjamin Franklin

Central to civilized law is the notion that a person cannot be held without a charge and cannot be detained indefinitely without a trial. These principles date back to Greco-Roman times, were developed by English common law beginning in 1215 with the Magna Carta, and were universalized by the Enlightenment in the century before the American Constitution and Bill of Rights were fought for and adopted as the supreme law of the land.

For more than two centuries of constitutional development since then, the United States has been heralded as the light to the world precisely because of the liberties it enshrined in its Declaration of Independence and Constitution as inalienable. It now seems as if the events of 9/11 have been determined to be of such a threatening magnitude that our national leaders feel justified to abrogate in their entirety the very inalienable principles upon which our Republic was founded.

- Jim Garrison, "Obama's most fateful decision," The Huffington Post December 12, 2011

“The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it,” Mr. Obama said in a statement issued in Hawaii, where he is on vacation. “I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists.” . . .

The president, for example, said that he would never authorize the indefinite military detention of American citizens, because “doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation.”

- Mark Landler, "After Struggle on Detainees, Obama Signs Defense Bill," The New York Times December 31, 2011

What are the natural limits to freedom? )

Now, what if the U.S. government believes that an American citizen is planning a deadly terrorist attack? If the evidence of this was lawfully obtained and is reasonably solid, the police have every right to arrest him, charge him with a crime, and put him on trial. This allows the man to go free if the government made a mistake; his freedom will only be limited for a short period, unless he's found guilty of a plot to commit mass murder, using public evidence and arguments. But let's say the government doesn't think it can build its case before a jury, maybe because the evidence was obtained using an unconstitutional warrantless search, or because it involves classified information and revealing that information would somehow compromise national security. So it decides to classify the man as an "enemy combatant" and have the military lock him up indefinitely.

On the one hand, if the man is guilty, limiting his freedom seems better than letting him go free, allowing the attack to go forward, and eliminating the freedom of the people who end up dead as a result. But on the other hand, from the perspective of the public at large, it looks like the government may have made an unfounded accusation against an innocent man, and imprisoned him for life for no good reason. Maybe he was a prominent critic of the government whose criticism was becoming inconvenient, or maybe some government official just had had some private grievance against him.

So unless the government can stomach having a public trial, or find some other option that prevents the attack without violating anyone's civil liberties, we will be faced with an apparent failure of the central principles that make this a "free country." The fact is that indefinite detention without trial means we have no way to know whether the government is saving us from terrorism or turning into a fascist regime--or both. That's why we must fight hard to restore our basic rights--because otherwise, we'll never again be able to trust the people who are supposedly "defending our freedom."
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Quick summary if you're in a hurry: Americans may be able to reverse the destruction of our civil liberties and ensure that the U.S. military can't lock us up and throw away the key, but unfortunately it involves getting Congress to act on our behalf, after they just did the reverse.  I think it's worth a try.  Please call your Senators and ask them to co-sponsor the Due Process Guarantee Act of 2011.
It's possible that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) isn't actually about to destroy the foundations of American freedom.  According to several sources including Time Magazine, the version of the NDAA now on its way to President Obama's desk "includes a Senate-passed compromise that says nothing in the legislation may be 'construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.'"  And while most blogs and online news sources* say otherwise, Mother Jones, usually a reliable source for progressive pessimism, claims that that language is enough to ensure that "if a future president does try to assert the authority to detain an American citizen without charge or trial, it won't be based on the authority in this bill."  A blogger on Daily Kos agrees, which makes two unlikely messengers telling us not to panic about the NDAA in particular.
But maybe this battle was already lost anyway.  The same Time article cited above also includes a quote from Senator Carl Levin claiming that "a June 2004 Supreme Court decision, in a case called Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, said U.S. citizens can be detained indefinitely."  (Levin is a Democrat, in case you were wondering.)  The same claim has been made about the 2006 Military Commissions Act (MCA), the bill that motivated me to invent the American Fascism Clock.  And Obama himself claims that the critical Section 1031 of the NDAA merely "attempts to expressly codify the detention authority that exists under the Authorization for Use of Military Force" (AUMF), which was passed on September 18, 2001.  (This argument has been used before to justify indefinite military detention of an actual U.S. citizen.)  If he's right, then the terrorists had already won their supposed "war on American freedom" only a week after it began.
And now is the time to reverse that victory, while we have at least some significant amount of media attention.  Senator Dianne Feinstein, who introduced the amendment mentioned above trying to limit the NDAA's impact on Americans, decided it was a good idea to make sure that the "existing law or authorities relating to the detention" of said Americans was clearly in keeping with the Bill of Rights (rather than being muddled by the AUMF, the Hamdi case, and/or the MCA), which is why she introduced the Due Process Guarantee Act of 2011 yesterday.  It contains one loophole: if our military arrests Americans vacationing in some other country, this bill won't ensure they get a trial or Habeas rights.  But it's still worth fighting very hard indeed to get the bill passed ASAP.  Please call your Senators!
Unlike the climate crisis, we actually have a lot of room to turn this one around.  As Time Magazine points out in the cover story defining "The Protester" as their 2011 Person of the Year: "In North America and most of Europe, there are no dictators, and dissidents don't get tortured. . .  The protesters in the Middle East and North Africa are literally dying to get political systems that roughly resemble the ones that seem intolerably undemocratic to protesters in Madrid, Athens, London and New York City."  However pessimistic I may be about the current state of affairs in America, it's crystal clear that things could be a whole lot worse.
* Okay, that last link is to an opinion piece, but I included it because of the important point it makes: the NDAA includes a "ban on spending any money for civilian trials for any accused terrorist," meaning that even if the government wants to grant you due process after making some terrorism-related accusation against you, it effectively can't.
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As of today, the American Fascism Clock stands at one second from midnight.  Both houses of Congress have passed versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) allowing indefinite military detention of American citizens without charge or trial, in blatant violation of the Bill of Rights.  The bills are in conference committee now to create a single version that will be voted on again and then sent to President Obama.  (Technically it might not pass, but that seems vanishingly unlikely given events up to this point.)  Obama has threatened a veto, but not because of the provision involving American citizens.  According to OpenCongress's analysis of his statements on the bill, if the committee removed a related provision that only applies to non-citizens, he might well sign the result into law--particularly since, if a Defense authorization bill isn't passed "by the end of the year, almost all of the U.S. military’s activities around the world would be jeopardized" (quote is from the article linked above).
If this bill becomes law, America will no longer be anything resembling a free country.  The military will be able to patrol our streets and lock up anyone who opposes government policy, on the grounds that "we think they might be planning a terrorist attack."  It will take a while for this nightmare to fully materialize, and in that time we might be able to get the Supreme Court to strike down the unconstitutional provisions of this law.  But given the Supremes' recent record on restricting our rights (which I learned about from the usually apolitical Phi Beta Kappa Key Reporter), I'm not inclined to be hopeful.
Meanwhile, it's quite possible that the COP 17 climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa are about to fail, due in large part to the intransigence of the U.S. negotiating team.  This would probably mean that the goal of a meaningful international climate treaty before 2020 is a lost cause, which basically means game over for the climate, unless we can somehow rebuild the world's energy infrastructure quickly enough without the motivation such a binding agreement would provide.
Amid these apocalyptic portents, there was one bit of hopeful news this week: on Tuesday, the LA City Council unanimously declared its support for a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, restore legal limits on campaign financing, and declare once and for all that corporations are not people.  (Nine days earlier, Occupy Los Angeles had passed a resolution to the same effect, and their influence on the Council's decision is plain.)  But of course, if the NDAA becomes law, the last vestiges of American democracy may well disappear long before the actual amendment could pass.

March 2015

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