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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, as 350.org founder Bill McKibben pointed out in his book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (a stark challenge to the activist narrative espoused by 350.org itself), we have a clear task ahead of us: learn to be resilient to changes in Earth's systems vastly larger than any we've seen in the history of civilization. Science and technology have produced many tools that could be useful in this regard, but to keep those tools, we'll have to start by overhauling our whole manufacturing infrastructure to cope with these massive disruptions, while doing what we can to slow down all those accelerating trends to give ourselves more time. And we'll need to store our knowledge in a durable form that even crazed combatants in some future war won't be able to destroy, so that any tools we lose can be rebuilt again later.

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

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

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

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

 

The Croods )

 

Oblivion )

 

Iron Man 3 )

 

Star Trek Into Darkness )

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

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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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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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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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I've blogged before about the so-called Issue Attention Cycle and its possible consequences for the current era of nearly universal interest in environmental issues.  I experience something similar when it comes to my interest level in writing and other creative pursuits.  A big part of it is mental stimulation; both the summer when I started my first job, and this past summer when I transitioned up here to Microsoft, have been very productive periods.  (There might also be a Seasonal Affective Disorder angle, which would be unfortunate considering how little sunlight I'll be getting here in Seattle.)

As an example of the current downswing, I got motivated enough to sign up for Seattle Bioneers, a two-year-old satellite to the nineteen-year-old annual Bioneers event held in San Rafael, CA last weekend.  I learned lots of awesome stuff there )

...and I thought it would motivate me to change my life somehow, or at least follow up to learn more about the several interesting organizations I discovered.  But so far it hasn't worked out that way.  Today and Monday, I was able to talk myself into eating vegetarian meals at the Microsoft cafeteria (after having met someone wearing a "Real Environmentalists Don't Eat Meat" T-shirt at the conference), but Tuesday I met a chicken wrap I just couldn't resist.  Also, I felt like I should have been pumped enough about the event to post about it on Monday, but obviously that didn't work out either.

But!  I now have a plan to force myself into being more motivated.  In the past, the first thing I've done when logging onto my home computer in the evening is read the comics.  No more!  Henceforth, I will both read my email and do something else constructive before allowing myself to slack off for the rest of the evening.  That may go against Cecile Andrews's concept of unrushed living and real appreciation for leisure (she says Americans have forgotten how to just do nothing)...or then again it may not.  But I think I'll at least feel more like I'm getting somewhere with my life.

March 2015

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