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The Bioneers motto is "Revolution from the Heart of Nature," and for the past 21 years, many of the plenary speakers at the annual Bioneers conference have presented projects they're working on that are truly revolutionary--big and successful enough to actually change the world for the better. This year, you don't have to take my word for it, because those presentations are available for free online! Here's a rundown of my favorites (click the names to play the videos):

  • Amory Lovins, famed coauthor of Natural Capitalism and chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, presented not so much a project as a prophecy, backed up by reams of data, saying that we can and probably will leave oil and coal behind within the next 40 years, in a process "led by business for profit" without any positive intervention from the U.S. Congress. (Ironically, if he's right, the Reinventing Fire study could probably be used to cut through the ideology of the numerous Congressional climate deniers, whose principal objection is that if the climate crisis were real, it would require massive new government programs to solve. In fact, we should do this just for the sake of avoiding negative intervention aimed at disproving the "myth of green jobs.") It would be easy to dismiss Lovins as a dreamer lost in a world of abstract math and physics, but Lester Brown recently pointed out that we're already on our way toward meeting Lovins's goal. That's right: after centuries of increase, we've been establishing a new downward trend in greenhouse emissions for the past four years.
  • The high-tech approach behind Reinventing Fire seems to contrast sharply with Bioneers's focus on preserving the "Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)" of the world's indigenous peoples, but second-time plenary speaker Rebecca Moore of Google Earth Outreach explains that it need not be so. In fact, smartphones and 3D mapping can actually help Amazonian tribes to preserve and defend their ancient ways of life, as well as their rainforest homes, by sharing them with the world. (See also Melissa Nelson's talk for some sweeping generalities about TEK.)
  • If you're not a fan of overly business-focused solutions, Bioneers has you covered. Roxanne Brown of the United Steelworkers was on hand to describe how the union movement, which used to revile Bioneers's core demographic as "un-American" for protesting the Vietnam War, has found some common ground with modern-day hippies--hence the BlueGreen Alliance, which encompasses eleven unions (including the massive SEIU) and four environmental groups. The intro to this talk features one of several brief discussions of the Occupy movement, another group that is trying to forge an understanding between its middle-class and working-class elements.

  • It's not just about halting our assault on the natural world; Bioneers is also about repairing the damage and helping life thrive again. Rather than recommending John Liu's actual Bioneers presentation on the topic, I'll direct you to his Earth Report episode, "Hope in a Changing Climate," which dramatically illustrates the amazing large-scale ecosystem restoration efforts underway in China, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. (For more on this concept and the theory behind it, see this blog entry and this SolSeed page.)

  • And finally we come to my favorite presentation, in which biomimicry expert Dayna Baumeister shows us what "Revolution from the Heart of Nature" really means, by retelling the story of the environmental crisis using the typical plot of a children's fantasy novel. Our "young" species plays the child protagonist (and also the bad guys), and the more well-established species are the "wise elders" who help us on our way. Stories like this are what give us the inspiration to change the world.

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Click to see more of my photosLast Saturday, during and after my trip to Westlake Park (which is really more of a public square, only shaped like a triangle :-) to participate in Occupy Seattle, I was so caught up in the excitement that I worried I was losing my objectivity.  As I’ve mentioned before, I do believe that progressives need a mass movement to get enough of us seriously involved in politics that our representatives are forced to listen.  But I’m also not a big fan of the political polarization in this country, which the Occupy movement is certainly going to worsen with its calls for “global revolution.”  A large fraction of the participants at Occupy Seattle are socialists, communists, or anarchists, and this is no doubt true in other cities as well.

On the other hand, it’s worth noting that the Occupiers* have some important things in common with their conservative opposite numbers:

"You know, the average American taxpayer knows that at the end of the day, they're gonna be on the hook for the trillions and trillions of dollars that we're using to bail out these companies, some of whom have been irresponsible, and they're expressing their frustration, which I think is quintessentially American."

- Sean Hannity in 2009, referring to the Tea Party, as quoted on The Daily Show on October 5, 2011

That quote neatly matches up with a chant from last Saturday’s afternoon protest march, “Banks got bailed out / We got sold out!”  But it shouldn’t mask the obvious and stark differences between the movements.  For example, while “Tax the rich!” is clearly a central demand of the Occupy movement, Tea Party types are countering with demands to tax the poor and lower-middle class instead.  That’s when they’re not proposing the alternative of simply denying the right to vote to anyone who doesn’t pay income tax, probably marking the first time in decades when any conservative has claimed that paying taxes is patriotic.

Speaking of voting, I was curious whether the New York Times was right in describing the Occupiers and other similar protestors as showing “wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process,” so while I was at the “park” and heading home on the bus, I asked several people whether they planned to vote this year.  I got one no, one maybe, and two or three yeses.  I’d agree that most Occupiers are at least “wary” of the political process in America, given the massive influence of corporate campaign contributions.  But by and large, I think the Occupiers are in favor of democracy if it can actually be made to work for the people.  The guy who told me he didn’t plan to vote was not against democracy itself, but said he preferred the more direct democratic model used for decision-making by the Occupy [City] groups themselves.

Click to see more of my photosI got a chance to observe parts of that open-mike-like process at the evening General Assembly, although there were no actual proposals brought up for a vote that night.  Overall, I was rather impressed at the generally high quality of the comments, and the way the crowd used hand gestures to give immediate feedback to people’s suggestions and help ensure brevity of comments.  This was particularly important not only because the crowd at the Assembly was quite large, with many people waiting to speak, but also because the sound system had been packed up for the night, so each speaker had to pause after every phrase so the crowd could serve as “the people’s mike,” repeating what he/she had just said in unison, which was also quite impressive.  (There was only one case where this method didn’t work, because the speaker’s voice was so quiet that not enough people were able to repeat her words to make them audible from several meters away.)

I do think their process could use some improvement.  The moderators claimed to be keeping track of raised hands and calling on people in the order they were added to the “stack” (technically “queue” would be a more appropriate term), and I was never called on to speak, though there was a smaller session without moderators after most of the crowd had dispersed, where I was able to get some words in edgewise.  I think it’s better to have a physical line of people waiting to speak, which they did have at the open-mike rally earlier in the day (where they also had an actual microphone).  The last thing an allegedly leaderless movement needs is people starting to mistrust even their own moderators when it takes too long for them to be called on.

If you’ve been following the news coverage of the Occupy movement, you’re probably wondering just how divergent the opinions expressed in the General Assembly were, and whether there was any core set of demands that everyone could agree on.  Almost everyone at the Assembly certainly recognized the need for “points of unity,” which would likely include raising taxes on the top 1%, revoking corporate personhood, getting money out of political campaigns, and breaking up the Federal Reserve (which was singled out for criticism more than any other big bank).  One of the self-organized work groups that form Occupy Seattle’s “executive branch” is working to collect and organize people’s ideas for a unified list of demands.

Click to see more of my photosOn more local issues, there was a surprising level of agreement that the amount of drug use in the “park” was excessive and reflected poorly on the movement, as well as repeated calls for proactive inclusion of minority groups, and strong support for green practices like recycling and reusable cups.  Opinions on next steps, the nominal main topic of the General Assembly, were more varied, ranging from “making it legal to occupy the park indefinitely” to “occupying neighborhoods and workplaces,” which strikes me as more likely to work in the long run (that was the comment I made after the moderators left).  Opinions on the cops, who had been harassing the occupiers in various ways, ranged from “they’re our neighbors, families, and friends, and we’d welcome their support if they decided to switch sides” to the anarchist position of “we shouldn’t have a police force at all.”

So yeah, I still haven’t decided what I think of all this.  Maybe the Occupy movement is way too radical and divisive, and yet it may also have finally found a way to reverse America’s gradual drift toward corporate rule.  In any case, I still want to visit Westlake Park for another General Assembly, so I can witness the voting process of a direct democracy in action.  One thing I’m pretty sure of: it would be awesome if my neighborhood had meetings like that.

* For want of a better term, and no, “the 99%” is not a better term.  Like it or not, there is a large fraction of Americans who support policies that favor the rich and megacorporations.  (That said, I don’t regret joining the semi-related Other 98% Campaign.)

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“Encouraging those who burden society to participate in elections isn't about helping the poor. It's about helping the poor to help themselves to others' money.”

- "Registering the Poor to Vote is Un-American" by Matthew Vadum of American Thinker magazine, cited among other quotes by anti-voting-rights advocates in "Conservatives Say It Out Loud: They Hate Democracy" by Dave Johnson of the Campaign for America's Future blog

“'Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,' said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship. 'We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.'

“Economics have been one driving force, with growing income inequality, high unemployment and recession-driven cuts in social spending breeding widespread malaise. . . .

“But even in India and Israel, where growth remains robust, protesters say they so distrust their country’s political class and its pandering to established interest groups that they feel only an assault on the system itself can bring about real change.”

- "As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe" by Nicholas Kulish of the New York Times
So it seems democracy is under attack from both ends of the political spectrum.  If voting were an occupation, conservatives would be trying to fire the liberals (while pointing at the poor to slightly mask their intent), and liberals would be saying, "You can't fire us--we quit!"  This doesn't bode well for liberal political parties.
As you can imagine, I have more sympathy for the liberal protesters (protestors?), who at least seem to have their logic mostly straight.  (By contrast, there are plenty of poor people who contribute to society, and if it were only jobless poor people voting for the politicians who created programs like welfare and food stamps, those politicians could never have been elected.)  But as with any movement that opposes the status quo, you have to ask whether these protests are aimed at any specific alternative vision.  Kulish has an idea of what it might be, but it sounds more like wishful thinking than responsible journalism:
“The critical mass of wiki and mapping tools, video and social networking sites, the communal news wire of Twitter and the ease of donations afforded by sites like PayPal makes coalitions of like-minded individuals instantly viable.

“'You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing,' said Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. 'They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.'”
Uh huh.  I'll believe that when you show me a self-organized wiki group capable of running a factory or a public transit system.  I acknowledge that times are changing fast, but I think I'll stick with democracy for now.
Anyway, about a week after I discovered those articles, I was in Orlando for an astonishing event called the 100 Year Starship Symposium, where other paradoxes could be found in abundance.  Convened by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the event nevertheless hosted plenty of radically pacifist speakers who expressed the hope that the long-term, international project of building a starship would divert resources and passions away from warfare.  Even Matt Bille, a speaker from the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH for short), went so far as to hold up the Rainforest Action Network as a good example of the type of multi-stakeholder organization that should take on the project.  (That last link is to a Booz&Co article Mr. Bille referred me to, which kind of looks like it could have been written by Nicholas Kulish.)
And then there was a speaker from Oregon named J. N. Nielsen, who actually agrees with the claims of romantic and primitivist philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Derrick Jensen about the evils of our industrial civilization--then turns around and uses those claims as support for the theory that said civilization has a moral imperative to expand throughout the solar system and beyond.  The gist of the argument is that as long as our economy is butting up against the limits of one planet's resource base, we will be doomed to produce atrocities and eventually self-destruct (unless we get hit by a killer asteroid first).  A spacefaring civilization wouldn't be utopia, but would at least keep us from running into those limiting factors (and could also deflect killer asteroids).  Nielsen even claims such a society could be nomadic, somewhat in the manner of primitive hunter-gatherer tribes.
This argument strikes me as highly problematic, and not just because it brings cartoon images of "space cavemen" irresistibly to mind.  I'm no primitivist myself, but I know how folks like Jensen and Edward Abbey would react to the notion of carrying the "cancerous" industrial growth paradigm to its logical extreme.  They would doubtless envision something like what Stephen Baxter (who was also at the Symposium) describes in his short story "On the Orion Line": Humanity inhabits an ever-expanding sphere of star systems.  Every time a system's resources are used up, we simply send colonists outward to the next one, driven by the implacable force of the growth paradigm, overrunning any alien biospheres and civilizations that stand in our way.  The outermost colonies are frantically stripping their systems of resources to provide, not just for their own needs, but for those of all the other colonies and Earth as well--worlds that are ravaged and depleted and can no longer support themselves.
On the other hand, I guess it could be worse.  If the people of the outermost colonies shared Matthew Vadum's philosophy, as one suspects they would, they wouldn't willingly send any resources back to "those unproductive freeloaders" in the other systems without some form of compulsion from a higher authority.  So even if humanity becomes an interstellar cancer, maybe at least we can still maintain a democracy.
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I wasn't sure exactly how to tackle the next entry in this series, since my next planned topic, Al Gore's June 22nd article in Rolling Stone called "Climate of Denial," doesn't seem even slightly conservative.  Like Van Jones, Gore embraces the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy theory, the idea that we are being lied to in a concerted attack on, in this case, any and all government policy options to address the climate crisis.  Gore and his Alliance for Climate Protection (ACP) have been relentless in pushing for top-down, government-based solutions, beginning with an effective international treaty and continuing with a federal crash program to put a price on carbon and use the money to transition the entire American energy production system to renewables within a single decade.
But then I looked again.  The article actually starts off by pointing out that the climate deniers are really mounting an attack on Science and Reason themselves, which strikes me as a deeply non-conservative thing to do.  After all, conservatives are usually all about preserving and growing our technology-based economy, and the technologies that drive that economy wouldn't exist without science and reason.  To conserve and preserve the institution of science is to conserve and preserve civilization itself.
The reason I looked again was because I had just watched Al Gore being interviewed in New York as part of the ACP's 24 Hours of Reality campaign, which is still going on as I type, and he had just handed me a couple of bullet points on a silver platter.  He reframed his national policy recommendations, saying only that government needs to stop spending trillions on subsidies for fossil fuels, which in his opinion include the cost of wars in the Persian Gulf.  He also claimed that worldwide, energy companies are already building as much new renewable energy capacity as fossil-fuel-based capacity.  (Good!  Now we just have two more milestones to work toward: stop the growth in fossil-based energy entirely, then reduce fossil-fuel use to near zero.)  No one would typically accuse electric utilities of being anything but conservative, particularly in the U.S.--and yet if you narrow your focus to the U.S., as Gore pointed out, you see that wind power has been the fastest-growing type for several years now.
And during one of the slideshow presentations that comprise the bulk of the 24 Hours of Reality event (whose contents include many of the same points that appear in Gore's "Climate of Denial" article), I learned that the Vatican, center of perhaps the world's most conservative organization, now has a huge roof covered in solar panels.  The Catholic Church waited until 1992 to admit that Earth orbits the Sun, but they've apparently decided it's worth the effort to support renewable energy--and thanks to their tiny population, that single roof already gives them more renewable power per capita than any other nation on Earth.
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Predictably enough, when fiscal terrorists threatened to destroy the global economy, Democrats surrendered.  Obama could have used a Constitutional override and unilaterally raised the debt ceiling, if he were principled enough about not negotiating with terrorists, but that would have meant admitting that our democratic system had gone so badly wrong as to allow people who are effectively terrorists into Congress, which of course is counter to the Democratic Party line.  Of course, the terrorists wouldn't characterize the trillion-dollar cuts they got as a real surrender, because they want so much more--but they needn't worry, because they can do it again any time they please.


As a result, American democracy is effectively over.  You have four choices in the next election: You can vote for the terrorists, you can vote for the people who surrendered to the terrorists (like my Representative, Jay Inslee), you can vote for the people holding up the sane minority and help slow down our government's slide into oblivion a bit, or you can vote for someone who wants to roll back the most damaging cuts but who is unelectable due to Citizens United etc.  None of these choices will change the fact that every time the debt ceiling needs to be raised, or an important spending bill needs to get through Congress to keep the government running at all, another large chunk of services that millions of Americans depend on will be extorted away.  (And yes, they might cut some military spending at the same time, but that's a pretty thin silver lining.)


Of course, by the Principle of Mediocrity, all of the above is probably a gross exaggeration.  Since most Americans and even most Tea Partiers want to keep Medicare and Social Security intact, the terrorists may well be destroying their electoral base, who could replace them with less extreme candidates in the Republican primaries and thus shift the political center a little bit to the left.  But on the Democratic side, it's hard to muster any enthusiasm for voting at all, after watching our party so completely fail to uphold its principles.  When we elected Obama, we thought it was a huge step forward for progressives, but now he talks like a Tea Partier himself, demanding that the government shrink itself to solve the supposedly all-consuming "debt crisis," regardless of the cost to the little people who paid for half of his election campaign.


So the conservatives have managed to convert me, in a sense.  I now see the government as a sick, twisted monstrosity, and can't see any way to seriously believe that it will get better (though admittedly my imagination might improve after a hypothetical good night's sleep).  The difference, of course, is that I don't want the government to become so small that I can safely ignore it.   I see it as "sick" with a particularly ugly and self-destructive autoimmune disorder, and I want it to stop the seemingly inexorable process of destroying anything and everything good that it has ever done for the people it supposedly serves.

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We interrupt our continuing series on how much liberals and conservatives have in common (sort of), to bring you the latest in stuff you probably already know about how absurdly polarized liberals and conservatives are right now.

It seems like everyone is agreed that if we fail to raise the debt ceiling, America will effectively default on its debts and plunge the world economy into chaos.  So why are Democratic leaders so willing to listen when right-wing Republicans claim that any debt ceiling deal must include trillion-dollar cuts to hugely popular government programs?  It's simple: We're actually frightened that those Republicans might be crazy enough to tip the world economy over a cliff just to make an ideological point.

Otherwise, Democrats would be perfectly comfortable with making a few modest cuts, none of them in programs like Social Security and Medicare, and handing the deal to Republicans with a "take it or leave it" shrug, reminding them that the consequences of their refusal are frankly unthinkable.  We would sit back and relax as they yelled at us for refusing to negotiate further, right up until the day before the deadline, at which point they would of course sign the deal anyway.  Any electoral consequences would be minor, since regardless of how you spin it, the whole thing would really just be maintenance of the status quo.

But no.  The so-called Tea Party Patriots in Congress have us over a barrel because they're actually so incredibly un-patriotic that they're willing to hold a gun to our nation's credit-worthiness, and give the strong impression that they're perfectly willing to shoot to kill.  And so the deal we're likely to get will be almost as bad in some respects as a global default: huge holes ripped in the social safety nets that millions of Americans, including many of the Tea Party Movement rank and file, rely on for their health and well-being, in a time that has enough economic hardships already.

Of course, the endless growth of the national debt is a problem, similar in some respects to the endless growth in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which the more extreme environmentalists would like to tackle with similarly harsh measures.  But sudden, rapid, drastic changes in systems this large is likely to have horribly violent effects.  Consider the stopping distance of a freight train, and then consider what happens when that train hits a truck sitting on the tracks and is forced to stop all at once.  (This metaphor is brought to you courtesy of the movie Super 8, which I highly recommend if you need some entertainment to distract you from the depressing political scene.)
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So I've heard that blogging is dying out, replaced by forms of communication that don't require long attention spans, like tweets and Facebook status updates.  Well, that may be true of this blog too, but it's not quite dead yet.


Since it's been so long since I last posted, I'm going to try to cram several topics in here under a single rubric, starting from the most recent and working my way back.  To conserve my motivation, I'll only cover one or two per post.


The first one is the simplest: Lots of liberals are "conservatives" in the sense of wanting to conserve wild lands, a position more typically referred to as "conservationism."  Last night I saw The Last Mountain, a new film about mountaintop-removal coal mining that makes this point starkly.  Rural West Virginia is largely populated by poor conservatives who work for the coal mining companies.  These people generally can't afford to consider the mining-related health problems they and their children face (including silicosis from coal dust in the air, and brain tumors from water-supply contamination) as more important than their jobs, to say nothing of the cost to the ecosystem.  Part of the reason they can't afford it is psychological: it would mean dishonoring the memory of all their coal-miner ancestors, who worked in what they believed to be an honorable trade, accepting the personal risks for the sake of progress in electrifying America.  So now it's up to the few local progressives, and some activist groups coming in from elsewhere, to resist the destruction of Appalachia and call for moving people into green jobs like erecting and maintaining wind turbines.


Moving back a few weeks, we come to the Rebuild the Dream rally that I watched on June 23rd via live streaming video.  Billed as the launch event for a Tea-Party-scale mass movement, the event featured Van Jones, founder of Green for All and brief holder of a minor post in the Obama administration, until a conservative smear campaign forced him out.  At the rally, Jones admitted that one of their attacks was accurate: in his youth, he "was further left than Pluto."  And of course he's still a charismatic representative of progressive causes; the rally was sponsored by Civic Action, along with dozens of other progressive groups listed at the bottom of the Rebuild the Dream homepage.


But Jones also waxed nostalgic for a time when, learning from the harsh experience of the Great Depression, America demanded that big banks behave more conservatively when considering risky investments.  He also insisted that the Rebuild the Dream movement would be centered on patriotic pride for "the richest country in history," even while using that language to counter conservative claims that the U.S. government is "broke" and needs to make drastic cutbacks.  "Peace and prosperity, not war and austerity" was Jones's rallying cry (well, one of them anyway).


On the whole, I approve of what Jones, MoveOn, et al are trying to do, particularly the scale of their ambition.  It's going to take a mass movement to break through the wall of ultra-amplified right-wing rhetoric that prevents moderate voters in America from seeing where their true interests lie.  But I have two quibbles.  For one thing, moderates may not much care for Jones's argument about middle-class incomes, which have only risen a bit since 1980 (while those of the rich skyrocketed), but haven't actually fallen.  The problem isn't that we aren't getting richer fast enough; it's that the cost of things like healthcare is rising too fast, making us effectively poorer even with the same inflation-adjusted income.  Jones didn't make that point clearly enough.

Also, I believe that patriotism alone is not enough; just as conservatives claim to seek the betterment of poor nations through globalization and free trade, progressives also want policies that benefit more than just America.  Just because we're talking about rebuilding the American dream doesn't mean we can blithely condemn outsourcing, as Jones and most other progressives do, without asking what happens to foreign workers when outsourcing is scaled back.

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I haven't posted in a couple of months partly due to lack of motivation, but also because I've been quite busy, particularly with my apartment move, which will hopefully result in no water leak incidents for quite a while. Anyway, onward...

Martin Luther King said that “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” There is some truth to that when it comes to the gradually increasing rights of women and minorities, but for at least the past forty years, our democratic system of government has been bending away from justice, in the sense that our elected representatives increasingly represent the interests of wealthy campaign donors rather than those who actually voted them into office. The Citizens United decision, and the recent actions of 18 Wisconsin legislators aimed at destroying the labor movement's power in blatant disregard of their constituents' wishes, are just the latest steps in this long-term trend. We may be able to turn this trend around, but first we must slow it to a halt, and in the time it takes to accomplish that, it seems likely that we will drift into a state of total corporatocracy in which no policy that threatens Big Business's profits can be contemplated, at least at the national level.

So how do we live through such a period of history without allowing irreparable damage to our society and the biosphere? One answer lies in the fact that “Big Business” is far from a single monolithic entity that always speaks with one voice to demand changes in policy. Different industries want different things from government, and just as different political parties in a democracy can act as checks on each other's more extreme ambitions, so it may prove to be with industry groups. Learning to play these groups off against each other may become a key skill for advocacy groups operating in a corporate-ruled nation. And since more than two such groups can easily be identified, the resulting dynamics may come to somewhat resemble those of multiparty European democracies, so we could consider labeling this potential system of governance “parliamentary corporatocracy.”

As a simple example of how this might work, consider the conflict between transportation and telecommunications technologies. Oil companies, airlines, and the tourism industry would prefer policies that promote long-distance travel (and all the air pollution that goes with it), while companies like Microsoft, Cisco, and Skype would prefer that more people use their videoconferencing and related technologies to avoid much of this travel. The latter group may not have enough power on its own to stand against the likes of ExxonMobil, but they could make an alliance with the actual internet service providers and their parent telecom/media conglomerates, such as the recently established Comcast-NBC-Universal, who naturally want people to pay for the high-data-rate plans that HD video calls will require. (Or do they? These networks are already overstressed with the current level of video-streaming traffic, and all those mergers tend to make it less likely that major innovations will arise to solve that problem. But I'm doing my best to be a little optimistic here, so I'm ignoring that issue.)

Overall, while their legally mandated focus on short-term profits means that most large corporations will have a net negative impact on the commons, it's a mistake to demonize “Big Business” as a whole, even when fighting to limit its influence in politics. Partly this is just because almost all Americans depend on corporations for basic necessities like food, but partly it's because there are substantial and growing numbers of fairly good corporate citizens out there. Take this report from Ethical Markets Media, claiming that “Private Investments In Green Sectors Top $2 Trillion” over the four years since 2007. (“This over $2 trillion total does not include nuclear, ‘clean’ coal or CCS, nor biofuels from food or agricultural sources, which we consider unsustainable.”)

None of this is intended to suggest that we can or should try to adapt to such a system to the point where we won't need to go back to government of, by, and for the people. After all, the more aggressively a company focuses on profit at the expense of all else, the more wealthy and powerful it tends to become, which is why ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart, and the banks responsible for the current recession are among the biggest political powers in America today. We may have to work with some of them for a while, but not to the extent that it renders us unable to simultaneously work against the massive political power they wield. This power will be eroded naturally by declines in the oil supply, but we need to move that erosion along as quickly as possible while doing our best to ensure that the power vacuum is filled by the people (that is, by politicians who actually care what their constituents want), and not by another set of rapacious corporate overlords.

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Liberal commentators are celebrating several major legislative successes the Democrats achieved during the lame duck session that just ended.  But I can't help feeling that they're missing the point.  I tend to think that by failing to pass the Fair Elections Now Act or even the DISCLOSE Act in those last few weeks, Congress has signed the death warrant of our democracy.  Those bills were our last chance to blunt the power of the "Citizens United" decision, which has given corporations such vast influence over our electoral process that we will never again be able to unite as citizens to elect a Congress or a President willing to challenge that influence (or so I imagine).

From now on, the vast majority of elections will be won by people like Rep. Darrell Issa, who honestly believe that doing corporations' bidding is the essence of principled policymaking.  Regulations that protect workers, consumers, children, and other living things will be ruthlessly eliminated, labor unions will be outlawed, vast monopolies will go unchallenged until their power far outstrips that of the federal government, and the combined corporate and government voices pushing global-warming denial will drown out all reason, even as Alaska continues to melt and increasingly terrible droughts, floods, and wildfires sweep the landscape.  Finally, somewhere around the year 2050, the corporatocracy will collapse along with the rest of civilization, leaving a few survivors to eke out a torturous existence in a world ravaged by war and climate catastrophe.

I'm well aware that the above predictions stem mainly from mindless despair rather than reasoned analysis, and I invite you to poke as many holes in them as you can.  Here are the ones I've tried so far:
  • There is probably a point of diminishing returns when you pour more and more money into political campaigns.  Is there any amount of attack ads or phone banking that could save the Republicans if they're in charge when the next big economic crisis hits?  Maybe not.  After all, a political movement that sees government as largely parasitic is probably not very well positioned to stamp out the age-old political battle cry, "Throw the bums out!"
  • Likewise, conservatives want to limit government power largely because they see politicians as inevitably corrupt.  Thus, maybe some Republicans can be shamed into supporting the Other 98% Campaign's Fight Washington Corruption Pledge.  (This one isn't very convincing.)
  • Even if America does become an outright corporatocracy, the rise of Chinese and European power means that we can't necessarily doom the world all by ourselves.
  • Not all major corporations are conservative.  Many pay more than lip service to the idea of the Triple Bottom LineWorking Assets, Patagonia, REI, Organic Valley, Whole Foods, and Gaiam are probably all good examples.  Students at top liberal-arts schools these days are notoriously, well, liberal; many of them will go on to become CEOs long before they grow old and cynical, this being the Internet era.  If this represents enough of an upward trend, maybe corporate rule won't be so bad after all.  (Then again, it takes an awful lot of Patagonias to outweigh an Exxon-Mobil.)
  • We have advertising clout on our side, too, as the Hopenhagen and 4 Years Go campaigns attest.
  • Lots of sustainable technologies are already in the pipeline, and many of them are not going to be abandoned just because a conservative government lets certain tax credits and other incentives expire.
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According to the Center for American Progress (CAP, not to be confused with the U.S. Climate Action Partnership), the COP16 international climate negotiations that just concluded have achieved essentially the best result we could reasonably have hoped for:

“This year, with the exception of a lone holdout [the Bolivian amassador] who was overruled by the Mexican chair of the meeting at the last minute, all 194 parties agreed to turn the core elements of the Copenhagen Accord, expressed in a scant six page outline last year, to 33 pages of densely packed text which the negotiators will now be bound to use in working for a final agreement.  It will also set substantive global goals and requirements on [global-warming] adaptation and mitigation for the present.

“This outcome gets us halfway between the original idea of the Copenhagen Accord as originally articulated by the Danes:  A two step process starting with a political agreement in 2009 to be followed by a legal agreement based on the same principles at a later date.  While the Cancun Agreements are not the full second step they are a solid half step forward, a kind of Copenhagen 1.5.”

- Andrew Light, “The Cancun Compromise,” December 11, 2010

Okay, sounds pretty good, but what I’m wondering is, won’t any international agreement become fairly meaningless (a la Kyoto) after the Republicans follow through on their plans to destroy any and all U.S. policy that would work toward said agreement’s goals?  After all, as CAP itself points out:

“Seventy-six percent of the Republicans in the U.S. Senate next year and 52 percent of Republicans in the House of Representatives publicly question the science of global warming. All four candidates set to take over the House Committee on Energy and Commerce -- Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), and Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL) -- have disparaged climate scientists and climate policy.”

- Faiz Shakir et al, “Climate Zombie Caucus,” November 22, 2010

Yet another CAP article points to some reasons for hope:

The World Resources Institute notes that through ambitious use of the available tools at hand the United States can reduce emissions by 14 percent below 2005 levels by 2020—well on the way to meeting President Barack Obama’s commitment in Copenhagen to a 17 percent reduction. These tools include EPA regulations and state-by-state regional climate agreements.

“WRI calculated that this 14 percent reduction could be achieved through aggressive state policies and improved federal executive agency enforcement, even without major new federal legislation on reducing vehicle miles traveled, federal land management policies, or new federal investments in areas such as energy efficiency and renewable energy infrastructure. And particularly without a federal climate treaty.

“Estimates by Environment America are even more bullish on the potential impact of proactive state-level policy measures. If even modest federal actions were taken, in addition to robust regional and administrative efforts, much deeper emissions reductions would be well within reach even in the absence of climate legislation.”

- Bracken Hendricks, “Bottom Up in Cancun,” December 10, 2010

Still, I have to wonder how long we have before the “tools” described above are smashed by the “climate zombies” in Congress and elsewhere, especially considering the results of this year’s midterms, and the even worse beating progressives will probably take in the 2012 elections, thanks to Citizens United.  According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics,

“Identifiably conservative organizations are spending more than $2 on advertisements and other communications for every $1 liberal organizations do. . . .

“A key factor in these realities: Major industries and special interest areas that had just months ago primarily bankrolled Democrats have suddenly flocked to the GOP – a phenomenon that the Center finds has only increased in speed as Election Day draws closer. . . .

“An [especially] extreme example of a shift away from Democrats comes from the energy sector, which in January 2009 fueled Democrats with 56 percent of its federal-level political contributions. By September [2010], preliminary numbers indicate Republicans benefitted from 74 percent of the sector’s cash.”

- “Election 2010 to Shatter Spending Records as Republicans Benefit from Late Cash Surge,” October 27, 2010

Unless these people (mostly foreigners, I think) get into the game somehow, the disparity is going to be even worse in 2012.  And while the results of a single U.S. election don’t constitute a Mayan apocalypse by themselves, their ultimate impact on climate policy just might.

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The latest big round of international climate talks started yesterday in Cancun, and almost nobody seems to care much. Little overall progress is expected toward a final treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, and even the student activist movements are emphasizing a "toned-down strategy."

But then, out of the blue, I discovered this: Over 250 investors, responsible for the management of funds the size of U.S. GDP, call for determined policy action on climate change

Some excerpts, with useful links:

"'We cannot drag our feet on the issue of global climate change,' said Barbara Krumsiek, Chair of the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative and CEO of US-based investment firm Calvert Investments. 'Calvert is deeply concerned about the devastating impacts climate change - if left unaddressed - will have on the global economy. Based on the Stern Report, we know these impacts could reach global GDP cuts of an unimaginable 20% per year. . . .'

"While low-carbon global investment is increasing, especially in Asia, investors say substantially more private capital would be available for renewable energy, energy efficiency and other low-carbon technologies, if stronger policies were in place. Global clean energy investment is expected to eclipse $200 billion in 2010, up slightly from 2009 but substantially less than the roughly $500 billion that Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the World Economic Forum says is needed per year by 2020 to restrict warming to below 2 degrees. . . .

"'A basic lesson to be learned from past experience in renewable energy is that, almost without exception, private sector investment in climate solutions has been driven by consistent and sustained government policy. Experiences from countries such as Spain, Germany and China show how structured policies can bolster investor confidence and help drive renewable energy investments. These experiences also show how such policies can bring technologies down the cost curve and eventually strengthen their competitiveness,' said Ole Beier Sørensen, Chairman of the Institutional Investor Group on Climate Change and chief of Research and Strategy at the Danish pension fund ATP, with EUR56 billion in assets."

So yeah, pretty interesting. Draw your own conclusions. I have to go to bed.

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I have no idea why I didn't post this link before now. I first learned about the website on August 9th, and I filed the knowledge away just in case it became useful to me someday, but of course it could come in handy for some of my readers as well.

This webpage has simple rebuttals to 127 common arguments made by climate skeptics, and each one has a link to a more thorough response (or sometimes more than one, at various levels of detail) that cites relevant scientific results. It's really quite impressive, and might just be enough to snap an intellectually honest skeptic out of his/her perfectly natural denial about this immense and nearly unsolvable global crisis.

Now, I did write in a recent entry about how even climate deniers should be able to support a sustainability agenda for other reasons, but this analysis neglected two key points. For one thing, climate denial is often based partly in a political ideology that militates against any policy plan progressives support, especially when it includes government meddling in the economy. Also, none of the other crises listed in that entry have the psychological impact of global warming in terms of motivating urgent and drastic action (although some of them probably should).
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Previous episode

Old priest: “The Holy Emperor declared that he was the true savior come at last, and set the forbidden arts free.  But God will allow us to befoul the Earth no longer.  God has spoken... The old world shall be utterly destroyed, and the long years of purification shall begin.”

Nausicaä: “Is there no way to stop [this]?  Even if we ourselves are the greatest pollution...why must the plants and the birds and the insects suffer as well?  So many will die...”

Priest: “Destruction is inevitable.  Even the rash folly of the Holy Emperor is but a part of the whole.  All suffering is but a trial for the rebirth of the world.”

Nausicaä: “No!  Our god of the wind tells us to live!  I love life!  The light, the sky, the people, insects, I love them all!  I won't give up!  I won't!”

- Hayao Miyazaki, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (manga), vol. 4

Revolutions are usually very bloody.  In this rather fantastical story, Miyazaki posits that a revolution launched by nature could destroy humanity, while cleaning up the pollution we’ve generated in the process.  Mutant creatures are poised to overrun the last remnants of civilization, largely because those remnants are fighting each other using those creatures as weapons.   The main character is able to communicate with the creatures, and maybe she can convince them to stop (I don’t know, because I haven’t read volumes 5-7 yet), but she would also like to see some change in the way humans are acting.

Sadly, in the real world there isn’t anyone to argue with when a hurricane, flood, or wildfire is about to engulf you.  So ideally, the people would prevent our leaders from doing anything that would make nature “angry,” but it’s hard not to give up on that when so many people are convinced that the danger is a hoax.  Of course, we’re asserting that the reason they believe that is because fossil-fuel interests (especially Koch Industries) have launched “the most effective disinformation campaign in human history.”  So effectively we have two dueling conspiracy theories, and you get to decide which group you trust less: climate scientists or oil and coal companies.  Isn’t that great?

Personally, I prefer reading Japanese graphic novels to thinking about all this craziness.  Time to go reserve volume 5 of Nausicaä from the library.

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I went to the Bioneers satellite conference on Whidbey Island last weekend, and as usual, there were many amazing speakers working on massive projects that are actually changing the world for the better. It was inspiring and a bit overwhelming to take it all in--especially since I was also distracted by a philosophical dilemma, perhaps best epitomized by the speakers just before and just after dinner on Friday. Before dinner we watched Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm, over the satellite link from the main conference in San Rafael, as he described his organic yogurt company's impressive annual profits and 20% compound growth rate (along with the many good things the company does for farmers, cows, and the planet, of course). Then after dinner, our local keynote speaker David Korten took the stage, and explained how everything about our current financial system is evil and needs to be replaced with an almost completely opposite system, one that (among many other things) abandons economic growth and financial measures of value, in favor of stability and measures that describe quality of life. (Korten claims to be a follower of Adam Smith; it's possible that the last article on this page describes what he means.)

I might have called this the tension between third and fourth wave environmentalism, before I realized that the "fourth wave" ideal of a localized, human-scale economy that can cope with "energy descent" really dates back to the 1970s, when The Limits to Growth was published and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance founded. So I'll just call it the tension of "Transcend and Include" vs. "Remove and Replace" environmental economics, epitomized by Natural Capitalism and the Transition movement, respectively (though the Transition people frame it as coping with the current system's inevitable collapse, rather than deliberately tearing it down).

But what if they're both right, on different timescales? I got this idea from eco-psychologist Kathy A. McMahon, who gave a poorly-attended presentation at Microsoft the Monday before Bioneers. She enumerated many ways you can jump to fundamentally unsound conclusions about climate and particularly peak oil, and "we'll have to go back to a mode of existence barely more advanced than the Middle Ages and stay there forever" was one of them. Yes, we will probably need to scale back energy use for awhile as oil gets more expensive, and devote a lot of our remaining resources to disaster response as the climate crisis worsens. But then, after a gap while clean energy technologies scale up at a realistic pace, we can get back to a level of affluence similar to today, and the human endeavor can continue. And if we can gain some societal wisdom and get rid of the worst aspects of modern capitalism during this two-part transition, so much the better.

Of course, a lot of bad things could happen during the "gap," like massive wars over dwindling resources, or so much coal-burning that we cook the planet beyond all hope. Even if not, we might find that abandoning globalization makes it very hard to bring green technologies to scale. Dr. McMahon also points out that "just because it sucks doesn't mean it can't happen." But for those of us with big dreams that don't fit into a world of nothing but small towns with no ambition but to survive, seeing any possible light at the end of that tunnel is enough to keep us going.
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When it comes to solving the climate crisis, it kind of looks like democracy has failed.  While Chinese leaders make major promises of greenhouse emission reductions, and back them up with huge spending on green technology, Democrats in the U.S. Congress are losing to people who believe global warming is caused by sunspots.  So if elected leaders won't step up to the plate, who else has enough power to get America moving in the right direction in a big way?  How about . . . the U.S. Navy?

That's right, the Secretary of the Navy recently said he "wants 50 percent of the power for the Navy and Marines to come from renewable energy sources by 2020," as quoted by a great article that was the headline for today's New York Times email edition.  This is largely because shipping fossil fuels to the front lines is getting so expensive in both money and lives.  Of course, "He and other experts also said that greater reliance on renewable energy improved national security, because fossil fuels often came from unstable regions and scarce supplies were a potential source of international conflict," which we could have told them forty years ago.

At any rate, it's a good thing they've finally noticed this, because everyone knows military spending eats up half of our government's budget.  According to experts cited in the article, that means "the military has the buying power to create products and markets. That, in turn, may make renewable energy more practical and affordable for everyday uses."

So maybe there's a bright side to Republicans gaining control of Congress, and probably keeping us in Afghanistan far longer than us liberal "surrender monkeys" would like.  Maybe in the process, they'll give the military enough funds for solar panels and biofuels (some of them based on repurposed opium poppies :-) to make a real difference in the speed of clean-energy adoption in America.
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Overview of first, second, and third wave environmentalism in America )
The phenomenon I've decided to call fourth wave environmentalism didn't begin with Bill McKibben, but his new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet nicely sums up its goals and their justification. It's strange to discover that he was already working on this book during the run-up to the International Day of Climate Action, for which he was the lead organizer. 350 Day's premise was based on Dr. James Hansen's assertion that "If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, . . . CO2 will need to be reduced . . . to at most 350 ppm." But McKibben's book assembles an impressive array of statistics to show that the planet Hansen is talking about no longer exists, that the ten-thousand-year-long climatic "sweet spot" we've inhabited is already gone and probably never coming back. On page 184, McKibben writes that getting down to 350 "is what we must do to stabilize the planet even at its current state of disruption"--that is, the world of smaller icecaps, acidified oceans, more and bigger droughts, floods, and wildfires, etc, etc.

The first three waves of environmentalism never came close to this kind of statement. They generally assumed not only that the world as we know it was still around, but that we should focus so squarely on preserving it that failure should be unthinkable. After all, to plan for how to survive and thrive after such a failure would seem to take away some of the urgency of our discourse. Most previous pictures of a world where environmentalism fails have been simplistic apocalypse scenarios where civilization collapses into chaos and almost everyone dies, painted solely for the purpose of emphasizing that "failure is not an option."

But that doesn't mean no one has been planning for at least a partial failure. The Transition movement is all about adapting to both global warming and the end of economic growth powered by cheap energy. Many of the Permaculture principles they're based on can also be seen in the new localism and voluntary simplicity movements, which include Slow Food, Slow Money, Slow Cities, etc. All of these groups and movements fall under my definition of fourth wave environmentalism.

The fourth wave is opposed to the third wave's economic mainstreaming, asserting that due to peak oil and the immense cost of coping with a newly chaotic world, economic growth will end soon regardless of how "green" the economy gets. On page 52 of Eaarth, McKibben tries to maintain some ties to third-wave idealism: "I support a green Manhattan Project, an ecological New Deal, a clean-tech Apollo mission. If I had money, I'd give it to Al Gore to invest in start-ups." But, he is forced to conclude, "it's not going to happen fast enough to ward off enormous change. I don't think the growth paradigm can rise to the occasion . . . We no longer possess the margin we'd require for another huge leap forward, certainly not enough to preserve the planet we used to live on."

Instead, the fourth wave proposes a new system of small, stable economies with some degree of local self-sufficiency, although "it will be a while before there's a village computer maker or a local locomotive manufacturer" in most places (p. 141), and big governments will still help in "spreading risk across a continent: New Orleans couldn't have repaired itself" after Hurricane Katrina, the kind of disaster that will soon be commonplace (p. 144). Communities will feed themselves with local organic farms that replace oil-based inputs with compost and manpower, while growing many different plants in every field for resilience to extreme weather. Power grids will be regional, not national, and most communities will have small local generators (wind, solar, hydro, biomass, etc) for resilience to grid power outages.

Of course, there are a chorus of standard objections to the idea of eliminating growth and reversing globalization. The resulting society would be "stagnant and hierarchical and no fun to live in," as [ profile] bdunbar summarized in a reply to this entry. McKibben's answer to this is simply to keep the Internet running. He argues that this would a) help maintain an open society that resists local tendencies to stratify, eliminate women's rights, etc, b) provide lots of virtual fun to offset the boredom of small-town life, and c) serve other useful purposes like helping people learn farming skills. (This suggests an interesting sci-fi scenario: what if both the Permaculture people and their arch-nemeses, the Singularitarians, turn out to be right? A superhuman AI emerging in the Internet on a world locked in permanent climate crisis would have an interesting time of it.)

I'm not sure how I feel about all this myself. McKibben leaves no room for space travel in his new world, dismissing the idea that it will remain a national project in future America: "Theoretically we've committed to sending a man to Mars, but I know very few people who either believe we will or care" (p. 120). But what if he's wrong about how bad things will get? Most crucially, what if he's not pessimistic enough? Space colonization is worthwhile partly because it provides a means of persistence for both societies and ecosystems even if Earth plunges into a true apocalypse scenario. Even in the face of so many other demands on our perhaps-soon-to-be-shrinking economy, that plan for survival should not be lightly abandoned.
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“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

“I could blame the Chamber of Commerce and the fossil-fuel lobby for spending bags of money to subvert this bill. But the truth is, the public, confused and stressed by the last two years, never got mobilized to press for this legislation. We will regret it.

“We’ve basically decided to keep pumping greenhouse gases into Mother Nature’s operating system and take our chances that the results will be benign — even though a vast majority of scientists warn that this will not be so. Fasten your seat belts.”

         - Thomas L. Friedman, “We’re Gonna Be Sorry,” The New York Times July 24, 2010

When I first heard about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to shelve the climate commitments in the currently pending energy bill, probably until after the elections and the almost-certain loss of a number of Democrats from both houses of Congress, my first reaction was to assume the worst: “By the time America does anything meaningful about the climate crisis, it will be too late to matter.  Just because both Clinton and Dubya got a fair amount done with fewer members of their own party in Congress than we have now, doesn’t seem enough reason for hope when we’ve moved to the default assumption that anything we try in the Senate will get filibustered.  And regulation under the Clean Air Act, which has always been the backup plan, just seems ludicrous when I think about it now: sure, the EPA can save some endangered species and improve air quality in our cities, but how can they possibly play a major role in saving the world?  Plus, Congress has failed once to make it illegal for the EPA to act at all, but with more Republicans on board, they could easily succeed.  And don’t even talk to me about saving the world one state, or even one city, at a time.”

But I have to fight that attitude.  Despair is seductive.  Unless you’re crazy enough to work for a cause you believe to be already lost, despair means you can give up, relax, and enjoy this lovely habitable planet while we’ve got it.  Instead, I need to keep believing that there are many possible paths to success — political, economic/corporate, technological, social/cultural, etc — and then I need to do all I can to help promote them, despite the fact that success is far from guaranteed.  And I have to keep working on ideas for how we can survive and thrive even in the face of climate catastrophe.  Maybe, as Randall Munroe says in the title text to this comic, “All in all, the future will be okay! Except climate; we f***ed that one up.”  This will be particularly challenging since I learned that the source of half of our planet's oxygen appears to be quickly vanishing, but I have to try.


Jul. 5th, 2010 11:16 am
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This post by [ profile] firelizard5 challenged me to think about to what extent the word "patriotic" applies to me.  My gut reaction to the word is to equate it with blind nationalism and childish "my country is better than yours, so there!" thinking, but of course that's not really fair.

So, I can say without qualification that I'm loyal to the basic ideals America strives for: liberty and justice for all, strength through diversity, individual rights that protect citizens from government overreach, giving all adults an equal say in how they're governed, and keeping everyone well-educated and informed so they can use that voice effectively.  And in some ways it's surprising how well we've upheld those ideals over the past 234 years.  We've certainly made major strides toward greater justice as a nation, gradually reducing people's freedom to infringe on other people's rights and freedoms while incrementally expanding various groups' historically limited voice in government, particularly on the basis of race and gender.

Obviously I think there are some things we could improve on, like reducing the influence of money in politics that tends to drown out the voices of those who can't afford their own D.C. lobbyists (hence my participation in the Other 98% campaign), and limiting corporations' freedom to knowingly and recklessly endanger the freedoms of millions of people for the sake of profit (as with the financial meltdown, slipshod safety protocols on deepwater oil rigs, impoverishing future generations through depletion of resources like topsoil and destruction of species, etc).  But what's great about America (and some other countries that were inspired by our example) is that we can work toward this kind of large-scale change without bloody revolutions such as the one that founded this country.  Huge and hidebound institutions like corporations and governments can try to thwart change agents indirectly, but they can't shut us down.
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Yeah, so there's this giant oil spill, which is destroying Louisiana's coastline and might move on to destroy Florida's as well.  It's like a hurricane, but less windy and way more toxic.  Inexplicably, while the shrimp industry is reeling under the impact of all this toxic petroleum, the 75th annual Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival is still slated for this September.  So while that's good for an extremely bleak laugh, we could all really use some actual good news.  And I'm not going to count the fact that Obama is trying to use the spill to wrangle votes for the climate bill, because thinking about that just reminds me of how little political capital Obama has left.

So here's an almost-too-good-to-be-true article about "The Restoration Economy," which apparently has been growing like crazy for years without anyone noticing.  Projects like forest, stream, and coastline restoration, brownfield cleanup, and community revitalization projects apparently create "74 percent more jobs [per dollar invested] than ANY other economic activity . . . and more than five and a half times as much as investments in dirty energy sources like oil, coal, and nuclear."

Even better, embedded in that article is a link to a 20-minute TED talk by a guy named Willie Smits who has managed, in collaboration with a scientific team and the local people, to rapidly restore a rainforest in Borneo on land that has been almost totally barren for decades.  Now, rainforests are known for absorbing almost all available nutrients into the biomass, such that if you cut one down, the soil doesn't have nearly enough nutrients left to regrow the forest.  The typical solution for agriculture is to not just cut the forest but burn it, and then use the ashes as fertilizer.  But Smits's team figured out how to fertilize the soil on a limited budget while reducing the incidence of fires in the region they worked in.  They did this with a belt of fire-resistant sugar palms, which also produce sugar for ethanol-based biofuels without having to be cut down--which is ironic, since the main cause of rainforest destruction in today's Indonesia and Malaysia is for oil palm plantations that also produce biofuels.  (Smits was also a keynote speaker at the ESRI User Conference last year; I'm pleased to see this because my first job was at ESRI.)
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From a Climate Solutions action email I got today: "The Home Star bill (HR 5019) will come up for a vote in the House of Representatives tomorrow.  This bill will create incentives to accelerate home energy efficiency across the nation."  And here's a news article about it.  Now, I know HR stands for "House Resolution" rather than "Homestar Runner," but it's still pretty hilarious...if you still remember a Flash-animated comedy website that was popular 10 years ago.  (I still check them for updates now and then, even though the last one was over 6 months ago.)

On a similar note, the new small-scale wind turbine model from Honeywell is called the "WT 6500 Star Gate."  It looks a bit like a stargate too.  Confusingly, several other names are associated with it, including EarthTronics and WindTronics.  Who knows, maybe WaterTronics and FireTronics are next...

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