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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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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 350.org 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 350.org’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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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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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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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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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 350.org 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 [livejournal.com 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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The Copenhagen climate talks are over, but their outcome remains uncertain. The nonbinding agreement that was accepted by most (but not all) of the nations represented contains a target for limiting warming (two degrees C) but lacks any discussion of greenhouse gas parts-per-million targets, much less emissions rates. Nevertheless, if all goes well and the chorus of voices in favor of strong action continues to swell, this vaguely-worded document could still be the next-to-last step on the road to a global commitment in line with the science. Certainly the poor nations who will immediately benefit from a large new source of clean-tech and adaptation funding will not be complaining much about it, but we might end up complaining that not enough of the money is making it through their governments' greedy or merely incompetent hands and into the projects they truly need. Some people have given up in disgust, claiming that we'll have to find methods of changing the basis of our energy economy other than through international negotiations.

Then there are those who say there's no point in spending any government money to speed this shift, because the massive cost of adapting to climate catastrophe might never have to be spent, even if we do nothing. This comic illustrates one common counterargument: the benefits of the shift could well outweigh the monetary cost, regardless of whether global warming is real. And meanwhile, Media Matters has a compilation of explanations for why, despite Climate-Gate, the existence of man-made global warming is still a near certainty. Its key weakness, though, is that no one other than climate scientists is qualified to confirm or deny that climate data was fudged or climate skeptics' research papers improperly rejected. And once the seeds of mistrust have been planted, those who prefer not to believe in the crisis have a ready answer to any and all such statements: “These scientists have proven they can't be trusted. Why should we believe anything they say?”

Belief systems throughout history have mostly hinged on faith in ideas or supernatural entities rather than trust in individuals. Science has been so successful, at least in part, because it claims none of the above is necessary, because “the surest path to truth is by looking at the natural world itself, which anyone can do.” In principle, anyway; in practice, of course, most scientific facts were determined through experiments that the average Joe lacks the skills and equipment to reproduce. Nevertheless, with the advent of “citizen science,” the ideal of democratizing the pursuit of knowledge seems within reach.

But what if it's all a sham? What if even the most basic bedrock principles of science, that any result should be open to challenge and all explanations for the data deserve a fair hearing, are never really practiced within the scientific “priesthood,” because it's much more politically convenient to hew to the dominant theory? This is what the climate skeptics are really asking, and it would be foolish to ignore them--not just because they might have a point, but also because technological civilization itself rests on scientific foundations. A widespread loss of faith in science could be catastrophic in its own right. Thus it is a matter of the utmost importance to both explain clearly and persuasively why the scientific community deserves our trust, and to keep working to ensure that, despite the occasional failing, it generally lives up to that trust.
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"If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."
        - Dr. James Hansen, NASA

"While agreeing unabated emissions pose serious risks, some prominent scientists and economists focusing on climate policy said the 350 target was so unrealistic the campaign risked not being taken seriously — or could convey the wrong message. 'Three-fifty is so impossible to achieve that to make it the goal risks the reaction that if we are already over the cliff, then let's just enjoy the ride until it's over,' said John Reilly, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."
        - Andrew C. Revkin and Nick Perry, "Worldwide Demonstrations Advocate '350' Carbon Limit," The Seattle Times October 25, 2009

"Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done."
        - Paul Hawken, commencement address at the University of Portland, May 3, 2009

The 350.org Global Day of Climate Action, almost certainly the biggest single political event in history, happened three weeks ago yesterday, and I haven't posted about it until now. Why? Because I didn't know what to think after attending an event, listed on the 350.org website but actually part of an unrelated Seattle Town Hall lecture series, in which Professor David Battisti of the University of Washington provided the climate science endorsement of that John Reilly quote above. His graph of climate futures, taken from the IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, defines stabilizing CO2 levels at just over 500 ppm by the year 2100 as a "utopian" scenario in which environmentalists achieve everything they can reasonably hope for.

In a way, I realized after calming down for a week or so, this didn't say anything I hadn't already been aware of. Politics is about compromise, global politics doubly so, and so it stands to reason that however urgent the need for drastic action, chances are it simply won't happen unless the threat is imminent. And since the climate has actually cooled a bit since 2005 (a blip in the overall warming trend, of course), the idea that the climate crisis is already in progress and spiraling toward global catastrophe is currently not believable enough to spur strong action at the global climate negotiations in Copenhagen next month.

In a personal communication, Professor Battisti admitted that the 350 movement has a use, to serve as a high enough upper bound to possibly achieve a semi-decent commitment to action after the inevitable compromises are made. But now it looks like even that may be a pipe dream. Despite the pressure of those 5200 events occurring in 181 countries on October 24th,

". . . depressingly, all predictions point to a big, fat non-event. The pundits, and even the lead negotiators, tell us that we can’t expect that 'FAB' (fair, ambitious and binding) treaty we’ve all been working for to extend the work of the Kyoto agreement. There are just too many disagreements and unresolved issues, they say, between 'developed' and 'developing' countries over issues ranging from targets for reducing global warming pollution to investments in clean energy technology and the adaptation funds needed to transition away from a quickly warming world.

"And so, we squabble as the world burns."
        - 1Sky Campaign Director Gillian Caldwell, "What's a grrrl to do when everyone predicts disaster?" on the Care2 Global Warming Blog

In search of an answer to the question posed in that article title (or a more gender-neutral version thereof), I wrote a sort of fable to try and convince myself that an inspiring future could exist in which civilization heroically survives and prospers in a hot, damaged world. Please read it and tell me what you think.

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The wind turbine is the most recognizable symbol of the renewable energy revolution.  A solar array in silhouette is just a rectangle, and almost nobody would recognize a geothermal or tidal power plant, and hydroelectric dams are a little too morally questionable, so wind turbines are the image of choice.  At least two artists have come up with the bright idea of linking them to a famous patriotic photo from World War II:

This leads me to wonder whether environmentalists are now focusing on wind power at the expense of other important power sources, and if so, whether it’s just because the symbol works so well.  I remember reading in a couple places recently that wind power creates a lot more jobs per kilowatt than coal, but I don’t think there was any mention of how solar energy compared.

More broadly, of course, there’s the question of whether renewables can possibly be scaled up fast enough to meet scientifically mandated greenhouse emission reduction targets, the latest version of which is 80% by 2020 (rather than 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, which would be much easier).  Or would nuclear or even natural-gas-fired power plants be a better choice for scaling up in the short term to meet the world’s demand for electric power?

Lester Brown answers both questions in his book Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization:

“At the heart of Plan B is a crash program to develop 3,000 gigawatts (3 million megawatts) of wind generating capacity by 2020, enough to satisfy 40 percent of world electricity needs [assuming zero expansion of demand from today’s levels thanks to efficiency measures].  This will require a near doubling of capacity every two years, up from a doubling every three years over the last decade. . . .

“Wind turbines can be mass-produced on assembly lines, much as B-24 bombers were in World War II at Ford’s massive Willow Run assembly plant in Michigan.  Indeed, the idled capacity in the U.S. automobile industry is sufficient to produce all the wind turbines the world needs to reach the Plan B global goal.  Not only do the idle plants exist, but there are skilled workers in these communities eager to return to work. . . .

“The appeal of wind energy can be seen in its growth relative to other energy sources.  In 2008, for example, wind accounted for 36 percent of new generating capacity in the European Union compared with 29 percent for natural gas, 18 percent for [solar] photovoltaics, 10 percent for oil, and only 3 percent for coal.  In the United States, new wind generating capacity has exceeded coal by a wide margin each year since 2005.  Worldwide, no new nuclear-generating capacity came online in 2008, while new wind generating capacity totaled 27,000 megawatts.  The structure of the world energy economy is not just changing, it is changing fast.

Objections )

The main takeaway here is that renewable energy in sufficient quantity to meet world demand is already on its way; we just need to get there somewhat faster.  And wind power, far from being a figurehead of little real import, is already on track to become the biggest slice of the new energy pie.

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"I normally don't pat myself on the back, but today global warming is an issue that has the concern of 30 percent of the American people, and years ago it was over 50 percent. That's because somebody spoke up day in and day out and said, 'This is a hoax. This is BS.' That somebody was me."
       -Rush Limbaugh, May 11, 2009 (quoted by Environmental Defense Action Fund)

If you're like me, your first thought on reading the above quote was "Oh crap! What if that's right? What if the success of An Inconvenient Truth and all the ubiquitous 'go green' sentiment of the past few years was all a mirage, and we've really been losing ground all this time, thanks to Rush's evil plan to prevent us from saving the world?"

On reflection, I realized there are two things wrong with that statement. The first is that we know global warming deniers can't do stats. The above statement, without even a definition of what "years ago" means, is even less meaningful that claims like "2008 was about as hot as 2001 and cooler than 2005, so the entire multi-decade warming trend must be reversing itself." Two or three data points simply don't make any kind of valid statistical case. If only the average American (or humans in general) were better at this kind of thinking...

The second problem is that in all likelihood, Rush doesn't have an "evil plan," he's just genuinely deluded into believing the story his own cherry-picked numbers tell. From the other side of the hurdle it can be easy to forget this, but in the face of impending global catastrophe, denial is extremely hard to resist -- especially when getting over it would mean accepting that the only plan to save the world is a strategic initiative for the Democratic Party. )

Which brings me to the real topic of this post. Conservatives claim that a greenhouse-reduction policy would harm the economy. This is their answer to a lot of policies they don't like. Why? Because as it happens, conservatives are in love with progress.

That line was mostly just to get your attention. The definition of progress here is narrowed to economic progress, defined as unlimited growth in numbers like the Dow Jones and especially the Gross Domestic Product. And our entire economic system does indeed seem to be built on this concept. Everyone knows economic shrinkage is bad, but even a leveling off or "stagnation" can hurt living standards, so we have a Red Queen paradox: we have to keep running up those numbers as fast as we can just to stay in the same place.

Now, you might think that with the standard conservative lines about innovation in business that's somehow "stifled by government," they would count technological progress as a good thing too. This isn't as true as you'd think. Just ask Citizens for Coal... )

"I'm not the guy who sings the hymns, no bleeding hearts to mend,
But I like the part where Icarus hijacks the Little Red Hen."
       -Lyrics to "Last Plane Out" by Toy Matinee

There are two main progressive objections to the doctrine of economic progress to the exclusion of all other goals: we claim it's detrimental to both social progress and progress toward a sustainable civilization. Of course by 'social' I mean 'socialIST'...not )

Meanwhile, the dogma of limitless growth in the physical economy, of "conserving the way things are" by consuming progressively more of the planet's resources, looks to progressives like a good way to guarantee our doom as a civilization. Although recycling has begun to replace needless extraction of natural resources, this would probably never have happened without government mandates. And as population growth and urban sprawl continue apace, along with the clearing of vast tracts of land to use for things like tar sands mining, we have to wonder if a system based on untrammeled economic growth is like Icarus, flying higher and higher without regard to the approaching danger of burning to death.
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Well, now I know where the derogatory term "sophomoric" comes from.  My sophomore effort at organizing a political event was a stupidly pointless failure.  I tried to get people to stop by a U.S. Senator's local district office for just long enough to drop off a photo and ask a staffer to make sure the climate bill gets strengthened and passed.  None of the four to seven people who said they would or might make it showed up--and not only that, no staffers showed up to that office either!  Apparently it sits empty most of the time, and I could have determined this beforehand but it didn't even cross my mind to check.

On a related note, 1Sky, the organization I was nominally organizing this nonevent for, recently sent out an email with the subject line "Grassroots vs. Astroturf."  This led me to ponder exactly what the distinction is.  The email is about the clear-cut case of mail fraud in which a subcontractor for the coal companies sent letters to Congress claiming to be from Creciendos Juntos and the N.A.A.C.P.--no question which side of the line that falls on.  But what about the increasingly furious conservative protesters at healthcare town halls--are we sure they count as "fake grassroots" (rather than real but sometimes criminally violent grassroots), just because they often chant slogans like "What's wrong with profit?"  (Obvious rejoinder: so there's nothing wrong with pocketing your health insurance premiums only to deny your medical claims in any way possible, if it's in the name of profit?)

Or what about the "army" of volunteers hired by the same group that sent the letters, to ask scripted questions at climate-related political events where actual politicians show up?  The folks behind Power Shift, seemingly misreading the New York Times article linked above, say they're not volunteers at all but are being paid to oppose strong climate legislation.  The article just says "It is impossible to know, [Public Citizen lobbyist Craig] Holman said, whether any of the citizen volunteers are compensated or what their connection is to corporate interests."  And Holman may not be much less willing to jump to conclusions than the Power Shift folks.

So the real question is whether any corporate-sponsored effort to get citizens to lobby Congress can be "the purest form of grassroots," as a rep for the coal and utility company alliance claimed to the NY Times.  Wikipedia says that grassroots organizing is supposed to be "natural and spontaneous" rather than "orchestrated by traditional power structures," which suggests that the answer is no.  But then again, under that kind of definition, is a massive national movement organized by a huge coalition of nonprofit environmental advocacy groups really spontaneous enough to qualify as grassroots?
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"He's bugging your room,
And reading your mail,
He's keeping a file
And running a tail
Santa Claus is tapping
Your phone."
- Anonymous

Okay, now that I've got that image in your head, imagine that instead we had eco- Santa Claus, giving out lumps of coal to folks who used too much coal-fired electricity over the past year--"Especially for that time on August 23rd, when you left the refrigerator door open when you went to work!" according to the accompanying card.

Now let's bring it full circle and imagine a world where the usual suspects--the FBI, CIA, NSA, etc.--are tapping, not your phone, but your electricity and water usage, to a terrifying degree of precision. Or imagine that your utility company is doing so, allegedly for the sake of giving you good advice on how to reduce your usage (because your state figured out how to make them happy about selling less), and then passing the info along to the government. Or that an enterprising criminal has hacked into your system to figure out exactly what time you take your morning shower, in order to plan a breakin of your house. Or that you're a desk jockey at some green-tech firm, and you don't get a raise next year because "you never turn your monitor off when leaving your office," and when you bemusedly ask how they knew, they say, "Well, Viridiscope, of course."

That's right, Viridiscope: the system that lets you track your own consumption so you can guilt yourself into conserving in realtime.  Easy to install, "non-intrusive" sensors (meaning they don't have to be physically inserted into the circuits and water pipes) estimate the flow to each faucet and appliance via vibrations and magnetic fields.  In theory, this detailed breakdown would never be seen by anyone but the owners of the building in question, as well as the renters in the case of an apartment block--but you'd always be wondering whether you can really believe that.

But as you'll see if you follow the link, Viridiscope is currently just a research project at UCLA, one of whose lead researchers gave a talk at Microsoft this morning. And frankly, it's probably less frightening than most of the other projects to be presented at the 11th international conference on Ubiquitous Computing.  Ubiquitous computing: the next inevitable advance in creepy yet oh-so-useful Information Age technology.  This time they didn't even come up with a nickname that hides the creepiness, like with "the cloud," a.k.a. the strange practice of copying your personal hard drive onto bits of several different server farms scattered across the globe (but still accessing it as a single seamless entity via the magic of the Internet).

My thinking is that the way things are going, eventually the concept of "privacy" will no longer be sustainable, and the only way to keep everyone honest will be to allow everyone to know everything about everyone else.  We'll be like seven billion fish in a very large fishbowl.  Though hopefully, thanks in part to technologies like Viridiscope, those of us currently living near the seashore won't literally be underwater by then.

In other amusing news: according to Dresden Codak, it turns out that panspermia is a cosmic pyramid scheme.  "Forward this to at least TWO of ur favorite planets..."

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As a scientifically-minded person, I do my best to really pay attention on the rare occasions when I accidentally run into an article espousing a point of view dramatically different from my own.  This often results in a desire to shift my beliefs to fit with those espoused by the author, merely because he/she is a skilled writer and seems to be reasoning soundly, though not necessarily from accurate starting assumptions.

The news from major environmental groups that this December is the end of the line for our climate, the last chance to make a breakthrough on the political front, makes it that much easier to want to flee into some other view of the world in which logic does not compel me to spend every waking hour working on the problem of motivating politicians.  I still don't have the stomach to seek out more scientific arguments for why the IPCC is wrong, so the path of denial is closed to me.  But despair, along with several of its cousins, is wide open.

Take The Limits to Growth, which I previously mentioned here.  Turns out this 1972 report not only didn't make the inaccurate claims usually attributed to it, it also got a lot of things right.  If you look at the line graph at the link, and then pay more attention to the sentence "According to [Professors] Hall and Day, this forecast is 'largely accurate' to date" than the one that follows it, "We cannot know at this time how accurate future projections will prove to be," it's easy to want to crawl under a rock and wait for death.  Can you imagine living in a future where the death rate has tripled and there is only one fifth as much food per capita as today?

Alternately, you can worry about HFCs, a greenhouse gas no one has ever heard of that is "now responsible for 17 percent of man-made global warming but on track to contribute as much as carbon dioxide," according to some article in Newsweek.  If that's true, what are the odds that enough awareness can be raised to prevent HFCs from negating any success we have in cutting CO2 emissions?

Then there's the silver bullet approach: ) if you count out a massive shift in global consciousness, it remains all too easy to root for accelerating technological progress as if it were a racehorse running neck-and-neck with accelerating ecological collapse.  That's the cornucopian mantra: Someone will invent something that will fix it.  A new source of cheap, easily accessed, nonpolluting energy will be found, and everyone will live happily ever after.  Yeah.  Sure.

Derrick Jensen, the man opposed to hope, says he cares too much to stop fighting even though he's dead certain his mission can never succeed.  Maybe I should stop avoiding his writings like the plague and start trying to find out how he manages this.
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"I want you to assemble teams of engineers and Marines and have them board each of those ships.  We're gonna take everything we need . . ."

-Admiral Helena Cain of the Colonial Fleet, on encountering a fleet of civilian spaceships fleeing from the Twelve Colonies shortly after their destruction by the Cylons, in Battlestar Galactica: Razor

 
In the harsh universe of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica television show, maintaining humanity's few remaining military vessels could be worth almost any cost.  Without them, there would be nothing to stop the Cylons from completing the destruction of humanity.  Does this horrible scenario tell us anything about the real militaries of Earth?

Here's my theory.  In Freud's basic model of the mind, there are three stacked elements: the id, repressed seat of animal desires and instincts (the survival instinct, of course, being the most important); the ego, center of rational thought, holding the id in check most of the time; and the superego, the overlay of internalized pressure to live up to society's expectations for moral behavior.  But war turns this structure on its head.  In a military society, the soldier's ego is put in service of a sort of collective id: an entity that will do anything to protect itself and get the resources it needs to survive.  The superego, at least as ordinarily constituted in polite society, must be repressed, because it would never stand for the brutal actions deemed necessary to meet the needs of this "super-id."

For instance, modern industrialized nations, if considered as organisms, appear to be obligate petrovores--needing to consume fossil fuels in order to survive as politiconomic entities.  This appearance grows increasingly deceptive as new means of powering our industrial base and transporting people and goods become more scalable and competitive--but for the past century and a half, oil and coal have been the lifeblood of our civilization.  So if you believe that a) they must remain so for decades to come, and b) the war in Iraq was the only way to ensure the maintenance of our massive annual oil consumption, then that war becomes explicable as a form of self-preservation--one that has nothing to do with the specter of nuclear terrorism or global jihad, and everything to do with a nightmare vision of the nation's roads, its metaphorical blood vessels, permanently empty and still.
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“In a rare public ruling, a secret federal appeals court has said telecommunications companies must cooperate with the government to intercept international phone calls and e-mail of American citizens suspected of being spies or terrorists. . . . the ruling is still the first by an appeals court that says the Fourth Amendment’s requirement for warrants does not apply . . . The court ruled that eavesdropping on Americans believed to be agents of a foreign power ‘possesses characteristics that qualify it for such an exception.’ . . . ‘It provides a very good result; it reaffirms the president’s right to conduct warrantless searches,’ said David Rivkin, a Washington lawyer who has served in Republican administrations.”

-James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “Court Affirms Wiretapping Without Warrants,” NY Times, Jan. 15, 2009

I seriously cannot believe Mr. Rivkin said that with a straight face.  I can just imagining him breaking out into an evil laugh.  “Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!  We can claim you’re a foreign agent and search all your stuff, and you can’t stop us!”  (Yeah, the article mentions that “Several legal experts cautioned that the ruling had limited application,” but still…)

Meanwhile, on the economic front:

“Some conservatives have argued that the law creating the [$700-billion bailout] program, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which Congress passed hastily in October, violates constitutional principles that limit the amount of power that lawmakers can delegate to the executive branch. . . . Now the FreedomWorks Foundation, which was founded in 1984 and declares itself to be ‘leading the fight for lower taxes, less government and more freedom,’ says it plans to file a lawsuit against the program. . . . The bailout’s sheer size, the memorandum states, takes it beyond the realm of other Congressional delegations of authority that have been found constitutional.”

-John Schwartz, “Some Ask if Bailout Is Unconstitutional,” NY Times, Jan. 15, 2009

Hmm, so I guess the conservative argument is that Congress granting the Executive Branch the authority to violate the Fourth Amendment is too small a “delegation of power” to be unconstitutional.  Not that anyone was supposed to have had that power in the first place.

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"We know now what we could never have known before--that we now have the option for all humanity to make it successfully on this planet in this lifetime. Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment."

- R. Buckminster Fuller

With this quote, and his book also titled Utopia or Oblivion, Mr. Fuller may have marked himself as an early proponent of what I've decided to call abusive environmentalism.  Its chief characteristic is the belief that we're all doomed unless the world stops being stupid and rushes to get behind some specific plan that, when brought to scale, will somehow lead to a wonderfully harmonious new society.  Now, Bucky was widely acknowledged to be something of a genius, so he perhaps had more of a right to this kind of thinking than most.  I don't think I can say the same for two modern abusive environmentalists, Glen Barry of Ecological Internet and Michael Braungart, co-author of Cradle to Cradle.

Barry and Braungart both have a tendency to attack other environmentalists as well as the usual suspects (polluting industries, corrupt governments, etc).  Both of them have something against Al Gore--Dr. Barry lumps him in with other celebrity environmentalists who refuse to limit their own lifestyles, while Dr. Braungart just doesn't like the way he frames environmental problems.  This is odd, because Gore's current big initiative, Repower America, is almost abusive in its demand for a ten-year timeline for replacement of all fossil-fuel-based power generation, including over 100 gigawatts from massive solar-thermal arrays out in the desert somewhere.*  I'm only exempting it from this category on the grounds that it assumes we're on the right track, rather than telling us that even our current best efforts to build a sustainable civilization are horribly misguided.

I'm not going to go in depth about Glen Barry's call for "sufficient measures" to prevent climate catastrophe, though I will note that one of his favorite targets is the Forest Stewardship Council, which certifies supposedly sustainable sources of wood.  In a recent blog post, he gives a backhanded compliment to Oregon, the environmentally hyper-aware state where I grew up, saying that it finally got something right after "a long history of forest patronage and destroying terrestrial ecosystems for short term economic gain."  You can get an idea for his level of extremism by reading pretty much anything he's written.

As for Dr. Braungart, I find myself more compelled to try to get past his tendency to call everyone stupid, because his vision of a future where humans have "positive ecological footprints" is quite compelling.  But if he hopes to make any headway with his ideas, I think he needs to stop focusing so much attention on what his competitors in the field of ecological design are doing wrong.  Describing in a recent interview how recycled paper and soy-based ink are actually doing more harm than good, Braungart goes so far as to say that "sustainability [in general] will only slow down the collapse of the planet."  I mean, that doesn't make any sense--maybe we're doing it wrong now, but if we can achieve sustainability, then by definition we will have a civilization that is no longer destroying the basis of its own existence!

Braungart claims that incrementalism is impossible.  "When people now try to be a little less bad, they make it even worse, because they basically stabilize the wrong systems and make them perfectly wrong."  But the way I see it, the problems with supposed fixes to environmental problems are usually the result of moving too fast, not too slow.  Soy-based inks were the solution that could be brought to scale most quickly, while wiser choices will take longer to develop and bring to market.  In general, rushing to sign onto any major new project, even (or especially) one that purports to be "100% good" for people and the planet, will almost always result in failing to recognize major downsides until it's too late.  I guess what I'm trying to say here is that when it comes to tackling global crises, we can't afford to panic.

* To be fair, though, the biggest single chunk of the Repower America plan is a reduction of total national energy use by 28% below the DOE's projection for 2020.  Take that, Sharon Astyk!

March 2015

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