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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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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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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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Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court turned back the American Fascism Clock by several minutes at least, declaring that even the non-citizens detained at Guantanamo Bay have the right to challenge their detention within the ordinary U.S. judicial system. For now, the Executive Branch's insane plan to take away the critical right of Habeas Corpus even from United States citizens has clearly been derailed. But by a margin of only one vote.

This victory required only five brave souls to stand up and defend our Constitution. Sadly, in Congress the bar is set far higher. One week ago, the House of Representatives passed, 293 to 128, a bill to "reauthorize" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), while essentially allowing the President to continue to act outside its authority, and handing a Get Out of Jail Free card to the phone companies that have participated in his illegal domestic spying program. What's worse, Barack Obama plans to vote for this bill in the Senate, regardless of whether he and his colleagues succeed in amending it to remove the retroactive immunity clause. Which they almost certainly won't. My biggest nightmare right now is that the public will give a ringing endorsement of the progressive agenda in November, but Democrats in Congress will ignore them, remaining stuck in their old habit of aping the rough, tough, authoritarian, utterly unaccountable Republican brand of national security policy.

Meanwhile, as the American Midwest reels under the impact of severe flooding, which fits the expected pattern of global warming, guess what everyone wants to do about the lost corn crops? That's right, cut conservation programs and biofuels production targets! And here's the real irony: the latter move is actually sensible if we can replace corn-based ethanol with an alternative whose net carbon impact is a clear improvement on gasoline, such as Brazilian sugarcane--which free-trade advocate John McCain supports, but corn-state senator Barack Obama does not. (On the other hand, typical impact assessments may not fully account for sugarcane farming's direct and indirect impacts on deforestation rates.) Oh, and for those who might complain that this paragraph has nothing to do with the previous two, please remember that the climate crisis is a national security issue.

Bottom line: politics is pretty perverse and horrible these days. I'll probably try to post on relatively unpolitical topics for a while now.
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These days a lot of people are receiving a rude reminder that agriculture is the foundation of civilization--if it fails, we all fail. But if you feel like a heapin' helping of hope for the future, check out Natural Capitalism from your local library and read Chapter 10, "Food for Life" (or download it from the Natural Capitalism website). There's too much good stuff here to summarize in paragraph form, so I'll try an outline-type format instead:
  • Solar-drying fruits and grains:
    • Requires no electricity.
    • In a silo, evaporatively cools food "making any insects infesting it too sluggish to move and eat," eliminating the need for pesticides.
    • Solar-air-dried food needs no preservatives.
  • Greenhouses with superwindows:
    • Trap heat "so efficient[ly] that they burn no gas for heating," even in cold and cloudy climates.
    • Improve prospects for urban farming ("Some 15 percent of global food is already grown in cities.")
  • Reusing farm waste:
    • If cars could make 90 MPG (which doesn't require plug-in hybrids--see Chapter 2), "the straw burned in the fields of France or Denmark would run those countries' entire car fleets year-round."
    • Even back in the early 1980s, "cotton-gin trash in Texas" would have been enough "to fuel with alcohol every vehicle in Texas."
    • "Altogether, the diverse streams of farm and forestry wastes can probably provide enough sustainably grown liquid fuels to run an efficient U.S. transportation sector, without any further reliance on special fuel crops or fossil fuels."
    • These inputs could also include "manure-to-biogas conversion" to reduce methane emissions from livestock.
  • Maintaining naturally rich soil instead of using fertilizer:
    • Avoids industrial farming's tendency to destroy the "20 to 30 times as much biomass below the surface as [exists] above-ground" (because fertilizer puts "soil bacteria, fungi, and other biota out of work"), thus keeping the carbon locked up in these organisms instead of letting it escape during decomposition.
    • If fully converted to these "organic or low-input practices, . . . U.S. cropland alone . . . could thereby offset about 8-17 percent of U.S. carbon emissions" rather than contributing to those emissions.
    • Farmers could then make money selling carbon credits in countries with cap-and-trade policies.
    • There are "5 billion acres of degraded soil" which, if restored using low-input practices, "could absorb about as much carbon as all human activity emits. This would also improve soil, water and air quality, agricultural productivity, and human prosperity."
  • Imitating natural "rotational" grazing patterns:
    • Frees up crops for human consumption that would otherwise be fed to livestock, all but eliminating the "carnivore's dilemma."
    • Allows a farmer to use "more cattle, more intensely resident for shorter and less frequent periods" on any given patch of grass.
    • "The grazing cows yeild slightly less milk than confined animals but at far lower capital and operating cost, hence higher income per cow."
    • Allows "manure to return to the soil, closing the nutrient loop" and eliminating the current "gigantic [manure] disposal headache" as well as making the soil more erosion-resistant.
  • "Biointensive" crop farming "modeled on complex ecosystems":
    • "[I]nterplanting of mixed species [tends] to foil pests."
    • A healthy quasi-ecosystem "can provide for a vegetarian's entire diet, plus the compost crops needed to sustain the system indefinitely, on only 2,000 to 4,000 square feet," compared with 10,000 for "[s]tandard U.S. agricultural practice today."
    • Very non-labor-intensive, because "nature does most of the work," such that "an elegantly conceived sequence of plantings provides the weed control, composting, and other services automatically."
    • Can eventually be applied to large-scale farming, basically turning the American midwest back into a sort of quasi-prairie, friendly to grazing animals, "occasionally harvested by combines" but requiring "no chemicals, no cultivation, no irrigation" (particularly impressive given that "[a]griculture is [currently] responsible for about twice as much of total U.S. water withdrawals as all buildings, industry, and mining combined").
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This article about the possible new Little Ice Age, arguing based on sunspots rather than an ultimately human-caused Gulf Stream shutdown, sounds depressingly plausible (although he doesn't seem to mention these spots in his rundown of solar activity this year). Depressing in that croplands would have to move south instead of north, thus speeding the destruction of the world's rainforests; in that we might seriously consider deliberately releasing the methane under the Arctic permafrost to combat the cooling, with probably disastrous results; and yes, also in that we may be too slow to respond more rationally because we've gotten all geared up to fight global warming and numerous scientific and engineering careers have been built around that pursuit.

My thinking is that in an ideal world, we would have contingency plans for both scenarios, since we still need to wait a few years to see where this particular trend leads. During that time, there's no reason not to work on both continued research on electric cars (which we need anyway, considering Peak Oil), and cheap ways to heavily insulate existing structures in the event they're asked to cope with colder climes. As for agriculture, maybe now is the time to invest in large-scale indoor hydroponics, which would also be useful for space colonies in the event we want to pick another basket or two to put some of our eggs in sometime soon.

Via.

Update, 4/26/08: Mr. Chapman cites four climate agencies to support his hypothesis that 2007 marks a decisive turning point for global temperature--a drop of 0.7°C from January '07 to January '08. The British Hadley Centre, his first source, has a convincing argument for why the drop happened based on the fact that El Niño and La Niña weather patterns are both becoming more severe. The second agency listed, the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, also stands with the consensus: "The Southern Oscillation and the solar cycle have significant effects on year-to-year global temperature change. Because both of these natural effects were in their cool phases in 2007, the unusual warmth of 2007 [which tied with 1997 for second-hottest year on record] is all the more notable." (But try telling that to all the right-wingers who have been gleefully reposting Chapman's analysis all over the Web, apparently believing they'll enjoy watching America get crushed under advancing glaciers as long as it means Al Gore was wrong.)
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Okay, so the first one is obvious if you think about it. Some government subsidies distort the market by giving a blanket incentive for companies to do something that makes no economic or ecological sense:

"Because of special corporate income tax credits and deductions, oil companies pay an effective income tax rate of 11 percent, compared with an average of 18 percent for other companies. . . . On top of these tax preferences, the Department of Energy spends more than $100 million a year to develop and improve oil production techniques, while the Army Corps of Engineers pays for infrastructure improvements related to the shipping of oil. These and other subsidies help keep the price of oil artificially cheap.

"Water is also often heavily subsidized, especially for agriculture . . . Because the government does not charge the full price of the water it provides, farmers have not always had sufficient incentive to conserve or to install more efficient irrigation systems. And manufacturers have not had enough of a financial incentive to develop water-saving devices. . . . Especially in arid parts of the country like California and the Southwest, it is silly to have a subsidized price system that encourages inefficient use of such an important resource as water. . . . there is much to be gained by eliminating subsidies and setting the price of water accurately.

"Germany has addressed a more subtle form of subsidy. In the United States manufacturers generally do not have to pay for the disposal of what they sell. Instead, . . . the costs of garbage pickup and disposal are covered by tax dollars or fees. A landmark 1991 German law makes producers responsible for the packaging they generate. They must either reuse it or pay for recycling it."

So what about taxes, specifically a tax on pollution? Well, the key phrase here is "internalizing externalities":

"From an economist's standpoint, a well-crafted tax is an easy and fair way to increase the price of a polluting activity so that it includes those external social costs that would otherwise be ignored. Economists also like the fact that even as taxes provide financial reasons to take better care of the environment, they ultimately leave the final decision on what to buy and do up to consumers acting through the free market. MIT economics professor Paul Krugman* has observed that 'virtually every card-carrying economist' believes pollution taxes are a good idea. . . .

"To reduce the fears associated with environmental taxes, most proponents these days talk in terms of 'tax shifting'--the idea that government should reduce other levies, such as the income tax, at the same time that it raises taxes on polluting activities. . . . Of course, any tax shifting would need to be done carefully, and strategies would need to be instituted to compensate low-income Americans who do not pay income taxes but who would have to pay the new environmental taxes."

Both sets of quotes are from The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists by Michael Brower, Ph.D. and Warren Leon, Ph.D., Chapter 7: What You Can Ask Government to Do


*I have to note here some possible bias: according to the linked article, while greatly respected as an economist, "Krugman is known to be pronouncedly liberal in his political views."
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"Everywhere, the cost of food is rising sharply. Whether the world is in for a long period of continued increases has become one of the most urgent issues in economics.

"Many factors are contributing to the rise, but the biggest is runaway demand. In recent years, the world’s developing countries have been growing about 7 percent a year, an unusually rapid rate by historical standards.

"The high growth rate means hundreds of millions of people are, for the first time, getting access to the basics of life, including a better diet. That jump in demand is helping to drive up the prices of agricultural commodities.

"Farmers the world over are producing flat-out. American agricultural exports are expected to increase 23 percent this year to $101 billion, a record. [And yet] The world’s grain stockpiles have fallen to the lowest levels in decades.

"'Everyone wants to eat like an American on this globe,' said Daniel W. Basse of the AgResource Company, a Chicago consultancy. 'But if they do, we’re going to need another two or three globes to grow it all.'

"In contrast to a run-up in the 1990s, investors this time are betting — as they buy and sell contracts for future delivery of food commodities — that scarcity and high prices will last for years. . . .

"The biggest blemish on this winter of joy is that farmers' own costs are rising rapidly. Expenses for the diesel fuel used to run tractors and combines and for the fertilizer essential to modern agriculture have soared. . . .

"[Wheat] prices have more than tripled, partly because of a drought in Australia and bad harvests elsewhere and also because of unslaked global demand for crackers, bread and noodles."

    - "A Global Need for Grain that Farms Can't Fill," The New York Times, March 9, 2008

One of the interesting things about this issue is the mental conflict it induces in progressives.  On the one hand, we can't exactly say that gains in quality of life in the poorer countries are a bad thing in general, but on the other hand, it does push the overpopulation crisis closer to disastrous collision with the limits of world production capacity.

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Another way to use biotech to save the environment: this time, they're using carbon monoxide as a feedstock for bacterial ethanol production. Cheaper and less land-intensive than corn, and turns an industrial pollutant into a resource? Pretty awesome, if you ask me. The only question in my mind is whether ethanol-powered cars will produce more or less carbon monoxide than the standard gasoline-powered ones.

The newest Big Bad Wolf for the environmental movement: the Farm Bill. Apparently, the good old days of paying farmers to produce less are gone. Now they're being hounded to make as much corn, soy, and wheat as possible for cheap, so we can dump the surplus on foreign markets as well as indirectly subsidizing the processed-food industry.

And another positive item: The first Earthlike world outside the solar system? It's orbiting a tiny star and is at least 1.5 times the size of Earth, but it has great potential. At only 20.5 light-years distant, it also wouldn't be a bad target for our first attempt at interstellar travel.
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There are global-warming skeptics. Some of them are scientists. Some of them accept that some warming is happening, but argue that it's a temporary variation unrelated to greenhouse-gas emissions, similar to the Medieval Warm Period.

Whether any of the skeptics are actually credible, I don't know. But I find myself in the awkward position of hoping that they're wrong, and for pretty much the reason you'd expect: if it's conclusively demonstrated that global warming is nonexistent or that it won't get much worse before it cycles back, then all of those who have campaigned so hard to raise awareness about a supposedly impending catastrophe will be laughed out of their jobs. More broadly, the credibility of environmentalists worldwide will be almost completely destroyed. As a result, the political will to act on issues other than climate change is also likely to vanish.

To understand the severity of this problem, consider what the nonexistence of global warming would and wouldn't mean:

It would mean...It wouldn't mean...
...that there's no pressing need to slow or halt carbon-dioxide emissions....that we can just stop worrying about the fact that the oil is running out, or ignore the health effects of coal-based power.
...that sea levels probably won't rise significantly this century....that there will always be enough land even as the scale of the human presence continues to expand.
...that the rate of severe droughts and resulting crop failures won't rise much further....that our current strategy of growing vast monoculture fields and destroying topsoil is a good idea.
...that the incidence of tropical diseases won't increase much more as a result of climate change....that the problems of AIDS, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and illnesses caused by industrial chemicals in our environment will just go away.
...that the Amazon will not just dry up and blow away, and coral reef bleaching should slow down soon....that biodiversity loss due to deliberate habitat destruction will stop anytime soon, unless we do something about it.

So what can environmentalists do about all this? If the skeptics win, we will need to distance ourselves from climate scientists and rally around a new, more concrete cause, most likely the simple question of how to avoid using up our natural resources. On the other hand, if global warming is real but won't be indisputably obvious for another few decades, then we simply have to stay the course and knock down the skeptics one by one.

Clearly, it would be good to know for certain one way or the other, but science isn't like that. I'll post more when I've done my homework and come to a conclusion about which outcome seems more likely.
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The above quote is from some seemingly-stupid advertisement I saw in a magazine. It seems to imply that we should demolish the last wildernesses to make way for food production operations, and may in fact imply just that. But I can use the same quote to mean something quite different.

Consider: overpopulation is one of the root causes of environmental problems. There's little doubt that if the human population were, say, one billion instead of six, we would be consuming fewer resources per unit time and taking up less space, and consequently causing fewer species extinctions, less global warming, etc. So what I propose is to kill two birds with one stone (actual killing of birds not included), by diverting the human reproductive drive and channeling it into a drive to help other species succeed, thus indirectly ensuring that our species will also survive.

And I would argue that farmers have been doing this for millennia already. (One interesting corollary: perhaps we like eating farm animals not only because hunting used to be an important part of our survival strategy, but also because it's easier to care for a farm animal as if it were your child than to do the same for a field of plants.) We just need to expand the scope of these transferred feelings of protectiveness and nurturing to include the creatures living in the wild lands and waters around the farms. To begin with, this would lead farmers to consider more carefully the consequences of expanding their farms at the expense of wild areas, and would hopefully result in more eco-friendly techniques such as growing multiple crops in the same field, integration of farms and forests, etc.

Eventually we could perhaps learn enough about the psychology of this phenomenon (assuming it actually exists, of course) to expand it to the wider population. There are many solutions to environmental problems, and a major problem with implementing most of them is that people simply don't care enough. Threatening them with future crises if they fail to act is all well and good, but we need a carrot as well as a stick (actual beating people with sticks not included, we hope). We want to reproduce because our genes say it will help our bloodline and our species to survive, but today what we really need to do to ensure survival is quite different. Let's find a way to get people to realize that.

A metaphor

Oct. 29th, 2005 10:46 am
openspace4life: (Default)
Humanity is crammed onto the Titanic, which is barrelling toward an iceberg. The iceberg is still far enough away that only a few sharp-eyed people can see it in the dark. Some of those people are banging on the control-room door, yelling at the captain to change course. So far, he's turned the wheel a few degrees to port, but we don't know if he did that because of the iceberg or because he was planning to anyway. It's not enough, of course, though he may not realize that. Maybe he thinks a glancing blow to the iceberg would be no problem, given all the engineering that went into making the ship "unsinkable."

Even if he does turn the wheel hard over, the massive inertia of the Titanic is such that it may not be able to change course fast enough. So some other sharp-eyed people are making the rounds of all the passengers and crew, trying to get them all to move to the port side of the ship and heel it over some to help it turn faster. Many of the people they talk to complain that this could capsize the ship and kill us all anyway. They may be right, but it's definitely the lesser of the two dangers--even though there aren't enough lifeboats, by a factor of millions.

What does the iceberg represent? Well, here's the list of possibilities I've come up with so far:
  1. Depletion of clean water supplies.


  2. Massive crop failures due to global warming, topsoil depletion, a defect in a genetically-engineered crop species, or an unexpected side effect of the extinction of a wild species.


  3. Deadly global pandemics resulting from global warming and populations displaced by rising sea levels.


  4. Collapse of electricity grids due to accelerating rises in oil prices. This would make it very difficult to produce fertilizer, or to provide fuel for most vehicles, including farm equipment.


  5. The catastrophic failure of a misguided attempt at solving global environmental problems using a quick, cheap technical fix, such as J. Craig Venter's plan to make genetically-engineered carbon-dioxide-eating microbes.


  6. Total economic collapse and/or global thermonuclear war resulting from any of the above.

First post

Mar. 21st, 2004 06:20 pm
openspace4life: (Default)

The fight to save the environment must take precedence over battles against terror and tyranny as well as poverty and inequity. Here’s why:

Millions, if not billions of people currently face the serious threat of death from starvation, disease, or war. At the moment, starvation is largely a problem of the poor nations, whose populations increase regardless, and does not threaten the entire human species. Also, as yet even the most virulent diseases can be contained using quarantine, unless they are used in large-scale warfare.

Terrorists have yet to obtain anywhere near enough weapons-grade viruses to pose such a threat. They also have yet to obtain even one nuclear device; it takes at least dozens, possibly hundreds of mushroom clouds to produce nuclear winter and/or deadly global fallout levels.

So, barring improbable celestial events, there are only two main threats to the existence of the human race: global war between nations, and biosphere collapse. This site deals with the latter.

Because the species we use as food are dependent on so many other species, biosphere collapse will make starvation a truly universal problem; if it significantly affects algae populations as well as forests, it will eventually threaten even our air supply. An elite may manage to keep power stations running and use them to produce oxygen and nutrients chemically, but at present there is little hope for the vast majority of humankind if biosphere collapse occurs.

There are a variety of views on the current situation and the necessary counteractions:

1. The root problem is overproduction, i.e. overuse of natural resources. The expansion of production under capitalism must be slowed to a halt. For example, see the film Advertising and the End of the World by Sut Jhally.

2. The fantastic power of technology got us into this mess; it can get us out, if we apply it in the right ways before it's too late. For example, see Rachel Carson's famous book, Silent Spring, and the end of Arthur Clarke and Stephen Baxter's novel, The Light of Other Days.

3. We may not be able to undo the damage we've done, but a large-scale artificial replacement for the biosphere is possible, one that could support at least a sizeable fraction of the current human population. For example, see Stanley Schmidt's novel, Lifeboat Earth.

4. Biosphere collapse is already underway, and the only way to prevent a mass extinction is to dismantle civilization and return to the Stone Age. For example, see www.eces.org.

















(originally posted May 24, 2003)

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