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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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I wasn't sure exactly how to tackle the next entry in this series, since my next planned topic, Al Gore's June 22nd article in Rolling Stone called "Climate of Denial," doesn't seem even slightly conservative.  Like Van Jones, Gore embraces the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy theory, the idea that we are being lied to in a concerted attack on, in this case, any and all government policy options to address the climate crisis.  Gore and his Alliance for Climate Protection (ACP) have been relentless in pushing for top-down, government-based solutions, beginning with an effective international treaty and continuing with a federal crash program to put a price on carbon and use the money to transition the entire American energy production system to renewables within a single decade.
 
But then I looked again.  The article actually starts off by pointing out that the climate deniers are really mounting an attack on Science and Reason themselves, which strikes me as a deeply non-conservative thing to do.  After all, conservatives are usually all about preserving and growing our technology-based economy, and the technologies that drive that economy wouldn't exist without science and reason.  To conserve and preserve the institution of science is to conserve and preserve civilization itself.
 
The reason I looked again was because I had just watched Al Gore being interviewed in New York as part of the ACP's 24 Hours of Reality campaign, which is still going on as I type, and he had just handed me a couple of bullet points on a silver platter.  He reframed his national policy recommendations, saying only that government needs to stop spending trillions on subsidies for fossil fuels, which in his opinion include the cost of wars in the Persian Gulf.  He also claimed that worldwide, energy companies are already building as much new renewable energy capacity as fossil-fuel-based capacity.  (Good!  Now we just have two more milestones to work toward: stop the growth in fossil-based energy entirely, then reduce fossil-fuel use to near zero.)  No one would typically accuse electric utilities of being anything but conservative, particularly in the U.S.--and yet if you narrow your focus to the U.S., as Gore pointed out, you see that wind power has been the fastest-growing type for several years now.
 
And during one of the slideshow presentations that comprise the bulk of the 24 Hours of Reality event (whose contents include many of the same points that appear in Gore's "Climate of Denial" article), I learned that the Vatican, center of perhaps the world's most conservative organization, now has a huge roof covered in solar panels.  The Catholic Church waited until 1992 to admit that Earth orbits the Sun, but they've apparently decided it's worth the effort to support renewable energy--and thanks to their tiny population, that single roof already gives them more renewable power per capita than any other nation on Earth.
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From a Climate Solutions action email I got today: "The Home Star bill (HR 5019) will come up for a vote in the House of Representatives tomorrow.  This bill will create incentives to accelerate home energy efficiency across the nation."  And here's a news article about it.  Now, I know HR stands for "House Resolution" rather than "Homestar Runner," but it's still pretty hilarious...if you still remember a Flash-animated comedy website that was popular 10 years ago.  (I still check them for updates now and then, even though the last one was over 6 months ago.)

On a similar note, the new small-scale wind turbine model from Honeywell is called the "WT 6500 Star Gate."  It looks a bit like a stargate too.  Confusingly, several other names are associated with it, including EarthTronics and WindTronics.  Who knows, maybe WaterTronics and FireTronics are next...
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"Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public."
        - Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company internal memo

"Gate? What gate?"
        - The Monster in the Darkness, in the webcomic Order of the Stick by Rich Burlew

There's no use at this point trying to ignore "Climate-Gate" or claim it's somehow meaningless. The timing, so close to the opening of the Copenhagen climate negotiations, is highly suspicious, but if the emails were faked, the University of East Anglia would surely have said so. It seems likely enough that the hacker who "liberated" them waited until a politically propitious moment to release them to the world, but that doesn't change the importance of what they say.

On the other hand, it's foolish to claim, as countless conservatives are now doing, that the emails prove anything in particular about the future of climate change. What they do is increase the uncertainty. Scientists at one of several important climate research centers, frustrated by complex and inconclusive data sets and angry about the continued threats to their efforts to convince themselves their research was of epic global importance, made some very bad decisions that make them look like Michael Crichton villains. This does not prove that all the data on which the IPCC based its most recent statements about the likelihood that humans are warming the Earth is automatically discredited. It certainly doesn't mean we can use the recent tree-ring data, which for whatever reason flatly contradicts measurements from actual thermometers (and glaciers), to argue that the world has actually been cooling during the 20th century.

After all, science itself is not actually in the business of proving anything. A scientific "fact" is only accepted as long as no evidence comes along to falsify it, and no part of the scientific edifice is immune from that possibility. The basic theory of evolution, for example, is considered to be "fact" because we've seen enough evidence, in both the fossil record and short-life-cycle species living today, that supports it. The theory of anthropogenic global warming has been moving in the direction of fact for decades, had nearly reached it with the most recent IPCC report and its 90% certainty level, and has now taken a step in the opposite direction; how large a step is presently hard to say.

But as politically unfortunate as this may seem for progressives, and as much as people with little understanding of the scientific method may try to distort the situation with simplistic sound bites, the trend toward sustainability is far from over. Clean renewable energy, in particular, still looks like a good move to people living in areas prone to asthma from smog or cancer from oil processing chemicals, as well as windy or sunny regions with depressed job markets. For the U.S. government, pollutants other than CO2 ought to provide ample reason to maintain the moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. And as for the international community, it has basically already given itself a one-year deadline extension, so the massive ramp-up in the climate movement's activities during 2009 may yet have time to take greater effect, as well as adjusting its rhetoric to the ever-shifting, always approximate scientific picture of reality.

It's hard to make major policy decisions, or take decisive action of any kind, in an uncertain world. But as long as the Age of Reason lasts, we will have to continually face that challenge and balance the probabilities as best we can.
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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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"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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To coal-state Senators and Representatives: Please consider the very real possibility that there is a fundamental conflict between the continuance of some of your constituents' way of life, and the survival of civilization as we know it. I understand that it's very difficult to accept; it probably makes you feel about how I would if I discovered that my employer was making weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, this reality must be faced: “clean coal” technology will not be commercially viable for decades at least, and according to the latest science, that's longer than we can afford to wait.

American industries have become obsolete and collapsed many times before, and the American economy has continued to prosper. The U.S. government has phased out leaded gasoline and ozone-destroying CFCs, and the economic impact was nowhere near as dire as industry predicted. We can phase out coal, and the risk of failing to do so far outweighs the risk of taking action now to solve the climate crisis and grow a new clean energy economy.

I'm not entirely sure I should send this out, because according to my Democracy For America Grassroots Campaign Training Guide, "LTEs are the most personal and local part of the paper. . . . [In an LTE,] Statements like 'two-thirds of the state's waterways' are less powerful than 'the creek in my back yard.'"  (LTE is the wonky acronym for Letter To the Editor.)

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When I first learned about the following, I wanted to post it but couldn't get up the motivation.  But I've got no excuse tonight: plenty of free time, and my new "Resolutionator" program is telling me it's time for my weekly post.  So here goes:

President Obama still won't restore the Fourth Amendment.  He filed a statement agreeing with Bush on the supposed need to prevent a court case on warrantless wiretapping from even going forward.  His attorney general, Eric Holder, issued a statement in support of the retroactive immunity granted last summer to telecom companies who assisted with Bush's illegal wiretapping programs.  Then-Senator Obama opposed that provision of the FISA extension bill, but voted for it anyway with the provision intact.  A vocal group of activists who supported Obama despite that lapse are trying to get him to change his mind, but aside from the liquefied-coal issue (and even this was phrased as a "clarification" of his position), we've seen no other indication that Obama is more willing to admit when he was wrong than any other politician.

To add injury to insult, tonight I learned that intelligence officials think that under Obama's new policies, we'll be sending even more terrorism suspects to various countries where they may be tortured, just to "get them off the streets."

In other horrible (but in this case at least slightly amusing) news: GM and Chrysler, two of the automakers who recently begged for and received tens of billions from the federal government, just don't seem to understand their end of the bargain.  They're continuing to fight new California laws that might incentivize the goal they claim to have embraced: building greener, more efficient vehicles--which, incidentally, might just bring them enough new customers to keep them afloat, especially when (not if) gas prices start soaring again.
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Within his first week as President, Barack Obama has made serious steps on what I see as the two most critical issues our nation faces: the challenge of turning the threat of climate catastrophe into a driver for a new green economy, and the thorny issue of reversing the frightening erosions of our democratic values made by the Bush Administration in the name of national security.

Here's Obama in his own words from yesterday on the green recovery strategy, including a commitment to keep raising fuel economy standards and an instruction to the EPA to hurry up and let California tighten its own emissions standards, "or else we'll sic the Governator on you."  But seriously, it's good rhetoric tied to an actual plan of action, so I'm happy.  However, I should warn you not to get too mesmerized* by the finely-crafted prose.

As an aid to that, you can watch Obama sign four of his first executive orders last Wednesday, banning "enhanced interrogation techniques" outside the scope of the Army Field Manual, shutting down the probably-still-unconstitutional military commissions currently in progress, and committing to close Guantanamo Bay within a year, which may be how long it will take to figure out what to do with all the detainees.  The new President looks rather small and uncertain sitting behind the giant Oval Office desk, with important military officials standing around him and camera shutters constantly clicking.  He really does say "uh" too much when not making a well-prepared speech.  But then, he'll probably get better at this with practice.


*Dave Barry's Year in Review is particularly brilliant this year, or maybe it just seems that way because if I weren't laughing hysterically I would have been sobbing.  Among the best lines: "The federal government is finally forced to take over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac after they are caught selling crack at a middle school. But that is not enough, as major financial institutions, having lost hundreds of billions of dollars thanks to years of engaging in practices ranging from questionable to moronic, begin failing, which gives the federal government an idea: Why not give these institutions MORE hundreds of billions of dollars, generously provided by taxpayers?"
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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.

March 2015

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