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On Sunday I reported to my SolSeed colleagues and various relatives on the trip I took to Biosphere 2 last month, at the end of a two-week vacation that mostly involved visiting relatives in California and Las Vegas.

On Monday I found out I’ve been accepted into the Pachamama Alliance’s Game Changer Intensive program, which will supposedly require 3 hours per week for seven weeks starting at the end of March. Whether this will help me get over my aversion to seeking leadership roles in activism remains to be seen.

On Monday evening I attended a meeting of WAmend, the coalition that formed a couple years back (thanks largely to the efforts of the Get Money Out of Politics working group of Occupy Seattle) to pass a resolution in Washington State supporting a pro-campaign-finance-regulation and anti-corporate-personhood amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This year’s initiative campaign is just getting off the ground, but looks like it has a much better chance of success than last year’s, which failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. This time we’re better organized and will have much more time to collect the signatures, since we’re targeting the 2016 election.

On Tuesday evening I went to a talk at Seattle Town Hall by Denis Hayes, founder of Earth Day, talking about humanity’s (and especially Americans’) love affair with cows, and proposing we aim to cut national beef consumption to about half its current level. In response to my question about the opposing extreme claims of the Savory Institute and the Worldwatch Institute about livestock’s impact on the climate crisis, Hayes and his wife took the middle ground, supporting the UN’s numbers on their current impact (14-16% of emissions rather than Worldwatch’s 51%) and asserting that using livestock to draw down gigatons of carbon is “crazy,” although Savory’s grazing methods are hugely beneficial in other respects.

On Wednesday I left work early for an abbreviated Democracy School program from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (four hours instead of the usual 1-3 days). The presenter, Kai Huschke, described CELDF’s view of the legal “box” that supposedly prevents activists from ever succeeding in blocking destructive corporate projects, and laid out their plan for local community ordinances that “break out of the box,” state constitutional amendments to make those ordinances legal, and ultimately a partial rewrite of the U.S. Constitution to favor the rights of people, communities, and nature over those of corporations. (Unsurprisingly, a WAmend member was in attendance and passed around a sign-up sheet for volunteers.) Kai emphasized that the campaign would likely take decades, just like past efforts to expand people’s rights (particularly the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements), which he observed were always followed by a “spring back” toward centralization of power. But he also said we don’t have time for an “incrementalist” approach because “the climate is collapsing.” This seeming contradiction, plus the fact that I carpooled to and from the event with two fellow volunteers for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, which has in fact worked within the system to block over 150 destructive corporate projects (coal-fired power plants) and schedule over 180 existing ones to be shut down, only reinforced my conviction that abolishing corporate rights can’t be a prerequisite for solving the global climate crisis.

On Thursday evening, during the SolSeed online work bee, I wrote an email to author Steven Wolfe (which I had been meaning to do for months) asking why his novel, set in 1992 and partly in Tucson, and supporting the concept of Gaia giving birth to new worlds, didn’t mention Biosphere 2 once. He responded the same evening, saying he supported Biosphere 2 and had even said so on his blog, but the idea of including it in his book just hadn’t occurred to him.

This morning I woke up at 5 after a crazy semi-lucid dream about living in a Mars colony that was “invaded” by giant aliens who gave us peanut butter and wanted us to make movies about them. The only reason I’m currently making time to write a blog entry is because I gave up on falling back asleep. I really need to do something about my worsening insomnia.

Tonight I’ll be making matters slightly worse by going to a birthday party for my author/activist friend Saab in Edmonds, from which I likely won’t get home until 11:30. Then tomorrow I’m attending a legislative town hall event at Redmond City Hall, where I’ll hopefully get the chance to ask my state reps a question about the bill currently in process that would have Puget Sound Energy and other Washington State utilities stop using coal-fired power from Montana and replace it with renewable energy.

My alarm goes off in a few minutes, so I don’t really have time to go into depth on “what it all means,” but the headline is clear: I’m diving back into activism even though I still think we’re probably all doomed.

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“In all of the five Congresses examined, the voting records of Senators were consistently aligned with the opinions of their wealthiest constituents. . . . In the 110th and 111th Congresses, when Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, the voting records of Senators reflected the opinions of middle-class constituents as well as upper-class constituents. . . . [but] it was Democrats — not Republicans — who were more responsive to upper-class opinion in the 111th Congress.”

- Eric W. Dolan, “‘Oligarchic tendencies’: Study finds only the wealthy get represented in the Senate,” The Raw Story August 19, 2013

“There is no grassroots organized progressive movement with power in the United States, and none is being built. Indeed, if anything threatens to emerge, the cry ‘Remember Nader!’ arises and the budding insurgency is marginalized or coopted, as in the case of the Occupy Wall Street events.”

- John Stauber, “The Progressive Movement is a PR Front for Rich Democrats,” Counterpunch March 15-17, 2013

The combined message of these quotes is that grassroots activism in America is pointless: you can either be coopted by the corporate-ruled two-party system, and thus effectively turned into an “astroturf” group whose volunteers are deluded if they still think they’re fighting for “the people,” or you can be marginalized and powerless. The obvious conclusion is that motivating government action, especially action drastic enough to address something as big as the global climate crisis, requires support from a majority, not of the voting public, but of the wealthiest 1%.

There are several possible objections to these findings and conclusions. One is simply that studies like the one Eric Dolan reports on, and this more recent one that covers all of Congress and extends back to 1981, are overly pessimistic about the modern two-party system. A study of California ballot measures asserts that state-level representatives there actually do represent their constituents, rich and poor. If true, this may merely be an argument for California being better at democracy than the rest of the country; maybe I should move back there. In any case, it seems exceedingly unlikely to me that these state-level results can be applied to national politics.

Another objection is that we shouldn’t assume that all “grassroots” groups that support Democrats are automatically pawns of the 1%, or that all groups that avoid two-party politics are automatically powerless. Have protest marches really had no impact on government decision-making any time in the past 30 years? And what about Move to Amend, the group that brought the John Stauber article to my attention? In doing so, are they asserting that their deep hostility to the political dominance of the wealthy renders them marginal and irrelevant?

Meanwhile, studies of the general trends in how Democratic politicians vote obscure the fact that some Democrats are more genuinely progressive than others. I’m not sure even John Stauber would be willing to claim that supporting Senator Elizabeth Warren is no different from supporting Wall Street. And the Progressive Change Campaign Committee confidently asserts that recent election results show the “Elizabeth Warren wing” of the Democratic Party is growing. Granted, the linked article points out that “The primaries in question were all for safe Democratic seats . . . But progressives believe notching such small victories is slowly, surely pushing the party to the left.”

The problem is that we simply don’t have time for such slow change. Move to Amend refuses to support the currently active anti-big-money Constitutional amendment on the grounds that it doesn’t address corporate personhood. But even that weak amendment stands no real chance of being approved by either house of the current Congress; odds are good that building enough support to pass any such amendment will take many more years. Meanwhile, the science is clear that for every month we wait before committing to deep cuts in greenhouse emissions, the ultimate cost of climate chaos in lives and dollars grows. If we’re serious about averting the worst impacts, we’ll simply have to find a way to make those cuts within the political system we currently have.

So what on Earth can we do to get the 1% on our side? Well, lots of things, actually. We can point them to a TV show about the climate crisis on premium cable, and a comprehensive climate-action plan “led by business for profit” (it even covers the “what about China?” objection). We can engage in shareholder activism after buying just $2000 of stock in a company. We can ally ourselves with the insurance companies and big investors who are already on board with climate action. Remember, big corporations are the only ones that can build enough solar panels and wind turbines fast enough to meet the demand we’re trying to create, and much of that demand is in the realm of utility-owned wind farms and Google/Apple/Microsoft data centers*. So even if you still think the government is ultimately going to get serious about forcing their hand, we’ve got nothing to lose by lobbying the corporations and their wealthy owners and investors ourselves.

Well, nothing except radical friends, I suppose. Just to be clear, I’m not abandoning the struggle to establish a true democracy where the vote matters more than the dollar, a major reduction in income inequality, and an economic order that doesn’t demand endless exponential growth. We won’t get the 1%’s support in those efforts; somehow we’ll just have to make non-coopted grassroots activism work for actual political change, not just for disaster relief – although the latter is certainly crucial in the global-warming era, and incidentally helps expand our support base.

But as Al Gore once said, “without a planet, we won’t really enjoy all those gold bars.” He was talking to the 1%, of course, but an equivalent message applies to campaigners for economic justice. If effective preventive measures to save countless millions of people from dying in climate-driven storms, floods, and famines require “working with the enemy” for the next decade or three, I’d say we need to hold our noses and do it.

*Obligatory disclaimer: Statements related to Microsoft in this blog are my own opinion and not that of my employer.

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Failure to solve the climate crisis probably means plunging civilization into a new dark age -- but humanity has survived dark ages before. According to Bill McKibben, the Holocene era of stable climate is already over -- but before the dawn of civilization, humanity lived through several drastic changes in climate. There's no reason why anyone would want to return to either of those conditions, but what if the alternative is even worse? It's very difficult to tell whether that might be the case, because the alternative is plunging deep into the unknown.

What I'm talking about here is the accelerating rate of technological progress, which gives us our only real hope of averting global climate catastrophe. The problem, as I've mentioned, is that we're trying to slow and stabilize other accelerating processes, which is such a mammoth task that it essentially requires setting up new exponential-growth curves (such as the rate of renewable-energy installation) that might well carry their own ill-considered risks. To paraphrase the NRA, “the only thing that can stop a bad exponential curve is a good exponential curve” -- but is there really any such thing?

Paul Krafel certainly believes there is. His movie The Upward Spiral is actually named for the concept of a good exponential curve, one that creates ever-growing amounts of life and possibility. But Paul's upward spirals are very distributed and grassroots, starting by sharing small local solutions with as many people as possible and hoping they will eventually add up. Apart from tree-planting movements, though, the bulk of the progress we've made toward climate solutions so far has come thanks to megacorporations like GE and Vestas, which can act much faster to deploy solutions at a global scale, and can be motivated by equally centralized policy shifts like the renewable energy production tax credit. In an era of increasing and fully justified alarm about the limited time remaining to avert a collapse, the latter approach seems likely to continue to dominate our response. (Even the accelerating trend toward solar rooftops, which challenges the business model of centralized electric utilities, is driven by the relatively few companies that actually manufacture the solar panels. If those companies hadn't succeeded (with the help of a few big government research institutes) in making photovoltaics so cheap, they would still be a tiny niche market.)

And it's not only the unknown consequences of these panicked high-speed deployments of green technology that worries me. Even on an alternate Earth where the Industrial Revolution was based on non-polluting technology from the start, we would still face another terrifying unknown: what happens when technological progress accelerates to the point where mere human brains can no longer keep up?

It used to be typical to refer to this problem as “future shock,” based on the famous book by Alvin Toffler. These days it's gotten attached to the Technological Singularity concept, and hence to the various sci-fi scenarios where superhuman AIs take over the world. But I'd like to point out that we needn't postulate the development of strong AI to make accelerating progress scary. Consider this quote from the webcomic The Spiders by Patrick Farley:

“Unfortunately the biotechnology which created this virus is only getting more user-friendly. In 10 years it'll be possible for a small community of assholes with fast modems and a shared grudge to wipe out the entire human race.

“And this won't be a problem for the next 10 years, but the next ten thousand. Grok this fact, and then we can discuss ethics, Lieutenant.”

Considering the growing power of various potentially destructive technologies, and the depths of fanatical extremism that humans are capable of, and the difficulty of policing a world of billions to ensure that world-destroying plots are never brought to fruition, you have to wonder whether it would actually be less harmful in the long run to let civilization crash.

Then again, you also have to wonder whether it’s reasonable to base present-day policy decisions on a theoretical future in which some technology that can wipe out the human race could be secretly developed and deployed by a tiny terrorist group. “Comic-book politics” is the term that comes to mind here. That’s why I ultimately decided not to classify this entry as part of my “personal psychology of despair” series. Am I anxious about the dangers of overly rapid change? Yes. Does that alone constitute a reason for despair? No. If it did, I don’t think I could get up in the morning and go to work in the software industry, which changes faster than anything in human history.

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“When I looked into my oldest boy’s little yellow eyes for the first time, I knew I had to try to give him the best life I could.”

“Then you would be willing to restart the Plan? Only by seizing equality—”

“OK, when normal people say that, they don’t mean holding the gods hostage with an unstoppable killing machine via some improbable evil scheme. They mean, like, setting up a college fund or something.”

- The Order of the Stick: Start of Darkness by Rich Burlew, p. 87

As I see it, there are three general ways you can try to live a meaningful life. The first is to “think local,” finding meaning in your day-to-day interactions with friends and relations that bring more joy to their lives. But many people feel a need to contribute something meaningful to society at large, which can be achieved in two ways: individual ambition (e.g. trying to invent a new clean energy technology) or joining a collective (e.g. a large charity helping alleviate hunger in poor and drought-stricken countries).

The collectivist answer is naturally hard for most Americans to accept. From our individualist perspective, “I’m doing my tiny part in a vast organization, and therefore the organization’s accomplishments give meaning to my life” seems like a pathetic excuse for lack of ambition. But then again, believing that you personally can change the world in any meaningful way smacks of childish megalomania to most people, little different from the millions of children confidently planning to become famous basketball players or rock stars.

Why are both of these options so easy to ridicule? Partly it’s because they’re really extreme ends of a spectrum; in between lies the perfectly reasonable ambition of gaining substantial influence within the company or government agency that employs you. But partly it’s the simple fact that set against the scale of the planet or humanity as a whole, a single person is small to the point of insignificance. To quote Douglas Adams, when faced with the size of the world, “Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings in fact do.” Hence the “think local” solution.

But that solution doesn’t work for me, for a number of reasons. One is that I’m an introvert, so it’s difficult for me to find meaning in my relationships with others; I get much more sense of meaning from abstract philosophical musings like this blog post. Another is that, like many people, I want to feel special and important.

But the biggest problem with “think local” is that I believe it’s an abdication of responsibility. Given the magnitude of the climate crisis, and the magnitude of socioeconomic*, institutional, and infrastructural transformation required to save even vestiges of the climate stability on which civilization is based, I find it totally unreasonable for anyone who understands the problem to refrain from doing everything we can to help solve it. In other words, as my friend Lion would put it, “each of us has to take responsibility for the whole world.”

And yet here I am, continuing to spend 40 hours a week building apps with only a very indirect connection to climate solutions, and only a few hours a month actually working with the Sierra Club Coal Free PSE campaign to solve one tiny piece of the climate problem. Is this simply inertia, motivated by the lack of immediate climate impacts in the place where I live, and a lack of conviction that I have a responsibility to the world or even to my own long-term future? Or is there something else standing between my current life and the life I feel obligated to lead?

“Obligated to lead.” That phrase is a clue, since aiming for the greatest possible impact I can have inevitably means seeking leadership roles. I’ve never wanted to be a leader, partly because such ambitions are at odds with my natural modesty, but mostly because I'm afraid of taking responsibility for enabling other people's success and then letting them down. It's one thing to fail at a task assigned to me by someone else, but quite another to fail at choosing tasks to assign to others that both fit their skills and help advance some strategy for achieving a group's goals.

So there we have it: on one side is my ambition to make a difference in the world, and the sense of shame that comes from failing to contribute what I can toward “saving the world.” On the other side is inertia and a desire to avoid the challenges of changing my life, plus my modesty and fear of letting people down, and that side is currently winning.

And when I think about how many millions of other informed citizens must be blocked from taking substantive action by similar emotional barriers**, I’m struck by the sheer immensity of the gulf between what we’re actually doing to solve this vast crisis and “the best we can do” (which still might not be enough). How to close that gap, I haven’t the slightest idea.

 

* Oddly, this link is to a group with the acronym ISEC, which they share with another group I’ve worked with, most of whose members are libertarians who wholeheartedly support the dominant growth-at-all-cost economic model.

** Lion participates in a group that claims to have unique insights into how emotions work, but I’m currently avoiding them due to an emotionally traumatic experience I had at one of their meetings, which is a topic for a different post.

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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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I’d like to go back to my sadness at the state we are in and to the personal psychology of despair. It is very sad that we are going to wipe out 50 percent of global biodiversity that took billions of years to evolve. It is very sad that the changes that will now unfold in the global ecosystem means that billions of people will face painful, widespread, and long-lasting personal suffering. . . .

However, it is what it is. Grieving is an appropriate response, but sustained despair is not.

- The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding, p. 113

Okay, so unsurprisingly it’s been more than two weeks since I promised to post this, and here I am posting what will probably be only the first 20-25% of what I want to say on the subject. All I can say is it turns out to be more complicated than I expected, and I’ve been doing my best to be thorough in working through my self-analysis.

The first question to tackle here is whether the premise is sound. Have I actually given in to despair? To look at my actions over the last few weeks, which include planning for and participating in a Beyond Coal rally and tabling at the Mother Earth News Fair, plus continuing to sign online petitions on various important issues, you’d assume the answer is no. But there are numerous explanations for why I would keep going despite a lack of hope. Here are a few of them:

  • Sheer inertia/habit.
  • Not wanting to break my promises to fellow activists.
  • Knowledge that if I drop my activist habits due to despair, it’s a short step to dropping my habit of going to work in the morning.
  • Knowledge that my current understanding of where the world is headed could be flawed. (As Paul Krafel says, “Don’t let your current understanding keep you from doing this work.”)
  • Love for the world (or for my own life) that forces me to keep trying even though it appears totally obvious that we will fail to prevent the coming collapse. (This is the basis for anarcho-primitivist Derrick Jensen’s writing and activism.)

The next question is, if I have given in to despair within the past month or two, why has it taken this long? After all, I’ve been fully aware of the terrifying global threats we face for a decade and more, and as Al Gore points out, the most common response to such an immense challenge is to “leap straight from denial to despair,” much as an unarmed man being attacked by a tiger would generally flee and hide rather than trying to fight. In other words, scale paralysis prevents most people from becoming activists in the first place. But then again, youthful idealism can overcome that roadblock quite easily – as Joss Whedon pointed out in a recent graduation speech, every college student thinks s/he can change the world.

Still, it’s been seven years since I graduated, and in that time I’ve encountered plenty of strong arguments for the assertion that the problems we face really are too big to solve, not only for political reasons but due to the biology and physics of the Earth system itself, or “geophysiology” as James Lovelock calls it. Lovelock, who developed the Gaia hypothesis, believes that a hotter global climate regime that will last for millions of years is now developing, and no matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to return Earth’s climate to the way it was before the industrial era. Of course Lovelock is a controversial figure, but I’ve also heard Professor David Battisti’s description of the overall climate science community’s belief in a best-case scenario that looks like a nightmare to climate activists. And even Bill McKibben, the world’s leading climate activist, agrees that at this point we’re only fighting to “stabilize the planet at its current level of disruption.” That’s not the same as hopelessness, obviously, but it certainly puts a stark upper limit on how bright my future can be.

But up until last month, I just didn’t buy into that message. When I thought about it at all, I guess my assumption was that the climate is too unpredictable, some magical carbon-capture tech might be developed, or just “where there’s life there’s hope.” In short, my continuing habit of environmental activism was enabled by denial of the full severity of the problem.

In the next installment, which I already have mostly finished, I’ll explore my first major theory about why Paul Gilding’s book was able to cut through this partial denial and flip it to a state of “zombie activism,” in which I keep on doing what I’ve been doing without any real belief that it will help anything in the long run. Meanwhile, the day after tomorrow I’m participating in a workshop called “The Work That Reconnects” that’s designed specifically to help environmentalists face the depths of their despair and work through it to somehow regain their “empowerment.” However that turns out, I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about it later in this series.

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Paul Gilding is an avowed optimist, and that optimism was on full display in the first piece of his that I encountered, “Victory at hand for the climate movement?” That was five weeks ago, and I liked the article enough to post it to my Facebook wall. Four weeks ago, at an Earth Day event, I was handed a flyer advertising two meetings to discuss the ideas in Gilding’s book, The Great Disruption, and I decided almost immediately to read the book and go to the meetings. I had no idea what was about to happen to my mind.

In a nutshell, the thesis of The Great Disruption is that (1) humanity will not make the drastic changes needed to save ourselves until global catastrophe forces our hand, but (2) when it does, we will still somehow have enough time, resources, and inventiveness to save the climate and transition to a truly sustainable civilization. Gilding’s case for part 1 made perfect sense to me and has had a massive impact on my thinking, despite the fact that I’ve spent the past several years involved in activism aimed explicitly at motivating an earlier course correction, on the assumption that if we wait until our hand is forced, it will be too late to stop the slide into chaos and collapse.

Part 2 of Gilding’s thesis directly contradicts that assumption, and I simply can’t believe in it. Gilding incessantly cites World War II as an example of how we can turn things around at the last minute, completely ignoring the fact that America’s miraculous mobilization took place under conditions of almost total insulation from the catastrophes engulfing Europe and eastern Asia. By contrast, killer droughts, floods, wildfires, and superstorms are already starting to wreak havoc everywhere, America included, and it is that very havoc that Gilding expects to trigger our shift in consciousness. In any case, Gilding himself points out that the time lags in Earth’s systems mean that the climate and other ecological crises will continue to worsen long after we’ve stopped doing damage and started applying effort toward solutions commensurate with the global scale of the problems. So even if we start doing what’s necessary well before we’re crippled by the unfolding cataclysm, our decades-long efforts will almost certainly be swamped by the ever-growing chaos around us, ranging from mass migrations to pandemics to large-scale wars. Plus, to turn these trends around quickly enough when they’re already into the red zone will require using geoengineering, i.e. applying massive force on a planet-wide scale with techniques that are barely understood, whose side effects could easily prove even worse than the problems they’re intended to solve.

And all this doesn’t even touch the other part of the catastrophe that Gilding sees as inevitable: the end of economic growth. As long as the current economic system is in force, it will be necessary for governments to raise massive sums in order to cope with the scale of the climate problems, but Gilding says the global economy is already running up against the wall of planetary resource limits. He sees the 2008 financial crisis as partly caused by the preceding spikes in food prices, which indicate the arrival of a phenomenon far worse than Peak Oil: the edge of our agricultural capacity being reached, due to the combination of rising demand and loss of cropland to desertification. And while we have plenty of fossil fuels left with which to power the needed transitions (including scaling up green power production to replace those fuels), we’ll need to severely curtail our use of those fuels in order to prevent civilization-destroying climate impacts, placing an artificial limit on growth to add to the natural ones. And enforcing such harsh limits on energy use, particularly in the midst of the global chaos described above, will doubtless require an authoritarian crackdown on civil liberties on an almost Stalinist scale, a possibility that Gilding points out when discussing the rise of China.

So why have I suddenly embraced this vision of certain doom, despite having worked for years with the SolSeed Movement to paint a fundamentally hopeful and optimistic vision of the future and work toward making it real? I’ve been thinking a lot about that question, but those thoughts will have to wait for a future blog post. I don’t expect it to be more than a week or two away (trust me or not as you see fit), and in the interim I plan to publish a set of movie reviews that relate to Gilding’s predictions, which I’m already mostly finished writing. I also need to update my original review of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth, which offers more realistic-sounding solutions to the problem of inevitable climate catastrophe.

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At the 2010 State of the World Forum, Paul H. Ray described the state of the world as “getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster.”  As I’ve mentioned before, the annual Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California is mainly focused on the “better and better” aspect, showcasing projects that appear to be in the process of solving some of the world’s biggest problems.  But at the Whidbey Island Bioneers satellite conference three weeks ago, the keynote speaker, Meg Wheatley, offered a contrarian viewpoint.  She believes that activists have no real chance of making headway against the entrenched power structure whose policies are making things worse on a global scale, and that we should focus instead on building “islands of sanity” within our current local spheres of influence.

I’ll return to that argument at the end of this post, but my main goal here is to repurpose Ms. Wheatley’s phrase in order to talk about ideological “islands of sanity,” each of whose inhabitants generally believe that only their island is sane and everyone on the other islands is crazy.  Most of them would also be surprised to learn just how vast the ocean is, and how many islands exist beyond the foggy borders of the Mainstream Archipelago (reachable only by navigators with a good political compass).  Most of those radical islands, of course, are very thinly populated, and many radicals find it difficult to even imagine banding together with other nearby islands to form a significant political force.

As an activist, I meet a lot of radicals, and one rhetorical strategy that some of them use to defend their “islands” is the claim that people in the mainstream are the “real radicals.”  For example, Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, gave what I can only refer to as a vociferously moderate speech as part of the Bioneers plenary session (live-streamed to Whidbey and other satellite locations from San Rafael).  He described the DPA as a big tent, embracing “people who love drugs and people who hate drugs,” and explained its mission to “reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition” – that is to say, both preventing severe addiction, overdoses, and the spread of disease via needle sharing, and winding down the trillion-dollar War on Drugs that puts hundreds of thousands in jail and targets minorities far more aggressively than whites.  The DPA’s website doesn’t seem to have any specific policy recommendations other than legalizing marijuana*, but still manages to make the currently accepted zero-tolerance drug policy in the U.S. look like the extreme one.

Leading climate activist Bill McKibben of 350.org is much more explicit about it.  In his Rolling Stone article and the nationwide Do the Math tour based on it, for which I attended the kickoff event in Seattle this past Wednesday, McKibben depicts oil and coal companies as a “rogue industry” whose radical agenda essentially involves wrecking the planet for profit.  By contrast, he defines 350.org’s mission, to reduce the CO2 content of the atmosphere back to 350 parts per million, as the fundamentally conservative goal of maintaining a planet somewhat resembling the one we were born on.  Climate scientist David Battisti of the University of Washington was in the audience at the kickoff event, and McKibben thanked him for his contributions, but in fact Dr. Battisti considers the 350 ppm goal to be hopelessly extreme.  Then again, that’s mainly due to political feasibility concerns; 350 may not be a goal we can achieve, but it’s a goal that almost anyone who believes in mainstream climate science would want.

Speaking of super-ambitious goals that sound attractive to lots of people (intended to make bigger islands and pull in more of the scattered radical population, along with some moderate progressives), one of the things I learned about at Bioneers was a four-hour Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream Symposium that I ended up attending last weekend. The new dream described in the Symposium is defined broadly as “an environmentally sustainable, socially just, and spiritually fulfilling human presence on this planet.” However, in the four-hour version at least, the contrast with the current “dream of the modern world” isn’t made very clear; for example, one animated video clip defined that dream as mindless consumerism and blind worship of futuristic technology, but the presenters and some later live-action clips endorsed technological solutions such as wind and solar power, and one clip even celebrated Walmart’s green initiatives!  Are they claiming that consumerism is still okay as long as you do it right?  And how can social justice advocates support Walmart when its business model depends on keeping workers in poverty?

Still, I can fairly easily imagine the argument for why the Mainstream Conservative and Libertarian islands, at least, are extreme compared to the Awakening the Dreamer vision: “People on those islands think that ‘sustainability’ is code for burdensome EPA regulations that should be abolished, because they assume the cost to business is greater than the impacts of pollution, species extinctions, and climate change; they think that ‘social justice’ really means taking taxpayers’ hard-earned money and handing it out to lazy poor people; and they see no contradiction in seeking ‘spiritual fulfillment’ while living a self-centered consumerist lifestyle.”  But that sentence is a caricature, drawn by someone with a deliberately underpowered radio that can just barely pick up the fuzzy transmissions of the conservative half of the archipelago from a great distance.  The closer, more moderate regions of those islands make little to no sound, while from the far side comes the endless ultra-amplified noise of the right-wing propaganda machine.  So our left-leaning observer just assumes that the latter represents all conservatives, and writes them all off as crazy, which is what s/he wanted to believe in the first place.

I’m even worse than that observer in some respects.  I almost never even listen to right-wing media directly; I only see the carefully chosen excerpts quoted in The Daily Show and in outraged emails from progressive advocacy groups.  But at least I’m not so sure of myself as to choose a single radical island and claim it’s the only one where people are sane.  Let’s add a third dimension to my metaphor: People on the ground have no self-doubt whatsoever, which is easy given that even nearby islands are hard to see through the ocean haze.  Meanwhile, people like me hover in balloons above the cloud layer, able to see many islands but unable to make out enough detail to choose between them.  In fact, we believe that uncertainty is the only rational response to the immense complexity of the world we live in, although we acknowledge that we have to at least pretend to some degree of certainty about some things in order to live at all.  A state of complete uncertainty is equivalent to suffocating in the vacuum of space.

I’ll close with a quote I used at Bioneers the day after Meg Wheatley’s keynote, along with that initial quote from Paul Ray, to explain why I don’t think we should be so sure that global problems will only get worse:

“. . . so much was happening at any one time that any description of the situation had some truth in it, from ‘desperate crisis, extinction event totally ignored’ to ‘minor problems robustly dealt with.’  It was therefore necessary to forge on in ignorance of the whole situation.”

- Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson

*In his Bioneers talk, Nadelmann expressed support for the marijuana legalization initiative that just passed in Washington State.  My dad, who has a law degree and works at a courthouse, is pretty sure the initiative will just result in federal drug enforcers arresting a bunch more people.  I’ll probably do a post about the election soon.

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"The real unforgivable acts are committed by calm men in beautiful green silk rooms, who deal death wholesale, by the shipload, without lust, without anger, or desire, or any redeeming emotion to excuse them but cold fear of some pretended future."

- Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

This blog entry is not for the faint of heart. I was seriously worried that I wouldn't have the heart to finish writing it, given how much there is to say and how most of it is intensely depressing. But If I don't put it on a (web)page, it will just stay stuck in my head. So:

From the perspective of a radical anti-war activist, every American citizen is drenched in the blood of the countless multitudes of innocent foreigners who have been tortured, mutilated, and/or slaughtered in the name of "keeping us safe." From the perspective of the U.S. military, including its Commander in Chief, those victims are just "collateral damage" and should be left out of our considerations entirely, because they are an inevitable consequence of necessary defense projects. This ideological stalemate has held for decades without either side giving an inch; in fact, the government's militancy has increased quite substantially since 9/11, and this trend shows no real sign of slowing down under President Obama.

Needless to say, my sympathies lie mainly with the anti-war activists, but it took the killing of two American citizens in Yemen with no due process to force me to start considering the real horrors of the current war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If it weren't for that precedent, which potentially puts anyone who opposes our government's military policies in the crosshairs, I probably never would have read all the way through the Atlantic articles "'Every Person Is Afraid of the Drones': The Strikes' Effect on Life in Pakistan" and "Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama," both by Conor Friedersdorf, who asks the basic question of how can anyone support, in good conscience, any leader who perpetrates and perpetuates this kind of madness.

For a while before I read those articles, I'd had a ready answer gleaned from a humor piece about the Occupy movement by Colin McEnroe: "Obama doesn't have my support. Just my vote." Part of my argument for that answer came from the above observation about the decades-long period of national-security dogmatism we currently live in, which prevents any American leader from changing course and therefore, in theory, makes the question of who wins the presidential election totally irrelevant to the Pakistani victims. Whether I vote or not won't change anything for them, so why not leave them out of my voting decision entirely?

The answer, according to Dennis Loo, a columnist even more radical than Mr. Friedersdorf, is that if we want to be moral, we should withdraw our support entirely from a system this evil, thus beginning the path to delegitimizing and dismantling it. Mr. Friedersdorf and Mr. Loo agree that a vote for either major presidential candidate is a statement of support for that candidate's actions, even those the other major party's candidate would agree with. The only way to save the values of our democracy that are being trampled by our increasing obsession with security, Mr. Loo argues, is not to participate in our democracy.

My first reaction to this claim is to cry "Sacrilege!" I've always believed that voting is a sacred duty, upholding the ideal of self-government. But when we're given so few choices, and such bad ones, it does begin to look like that form of faith is a little too naïve. So I would probably decide to skip over the presidential section on my ballot when it arrives in the mail next week -- if the wars were the only major issue in this election. On some of the other issues, particularly women's rights and of course the environment, I view Obama as by far the lesser evil.

Mr. Loo has anticipated this objection, and in fact his article's subtitle is "An Examination of Obama's Domestic Policies." Using extremely harsh rhetoric, he lists several cases where President Obama's actions have been at odds with progressive values on issues including abortion and the climate crisis, frequently connecting back to the issue of war crimes which is the main focus of his organization, World Can't Wait. For example, in the section "The Oppression of Women and Gay Rights," he focuses on Obama's censorship of photos showing rape and sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib. On climate, he quotes another radical columnist, Rob Urie, who claims that Obama is clearly planning to complete the Keystone XL pipeline next year; if so, well-known climate scientists James Hansen claims, it would be "game over for the climate."

Mr. Urie's theory may be undermined by the massive grassroots mobilization against Keystone XL, in which Dr. Hansen participated (see link above), and which has already had some impact on President Obama's decision-making. And Dr. Hansen's extreme statement, if taken in isolation, makes little sense given that Keystone XL would merely add one more pipe to an already existing network of tar-sands oil pipelines. The real argument behind that claim is that committing to buy more tar-sands oil means declaring ourselves "hopeless fossil-fuel addicts," but President Obama's other actions on climate don't match the hopeless-addict profile. They include the $90 billion for clean energy in his 2009 stimulus package, his recently-finalized major increase in fuel efficiency requirements for cars, and, less impressively, the still-in-process EPA carbon dioxide regulations that would apply to the few new coal-fired power plants still being built in America. Discouragingly, the EPA "has no plans to pursue regulations for existing power plants," but that doesn't mean it won't ever happen.

Republicans, on the other hand, have been attacking new and existing EPA regulations vociferously since they took control of the House of Representatives. It's no secret that they'd defund the whole agency if they had the chance, and Romney seems highly likely to give them that chance. I'm a volunteer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which has used Clean Air Act lawsuits (focused on pollutants other than carbon dioxide) as an important tool in scheduling over a hundred coal-fired power plants for early retirement, and they're doing it again with the huge plant in Colstrip, Montana that supplies over 30% of my electricity. If Romney is elected President, those lawsuits could have the law they're based on ripped right out from under them.

So here's my answer to Conor Friedersdorf's question: I may be able to support President Obama despite his war crimes, because he's currently our best hope for making progress as a nation toward solving a vastly more serious humanitarian crisis. By one well-researched estimate, the climate crisis already causes five million deaths per year, a number projected to grow to six million (a.k.a. "one Nazi Holocaust per year") by 2030. For comparison, the maximum estimate for all deaths from U.S. drone strikes is just over three thousand, and almost all known drone strikes occurred in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas region of Pakistan, whose population is 3 million, which I'd call a reasonable upper limit on the number of people being traumatized due to constantly circling drones.

Except that reasonable is, of course, the wrong word to describe any of these horrors. Among the three thousand reported dead are one hundred seventy-six children, and a national-security policy that murders children and calls it "collateral damage" is obviously morally untenable (regardless of whether the U.S. military makes good on commitments to massively reduce its fossil-fuel use). So the question is, do I vote to continue to legitimize that policy for the sake of preventing even greater harm, or will that make it impossible to live with myself?

(If it weren't for my pledge to ignore all political ads, my decision would already be made, thanks to a recent pro-coal ad approved by President Obama that cynically tries to out-Romney Romney, while asking viewers to forget about Obama's climate rhetoric and the significant progress toward phasing out fossil fuels that I noted above.)
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When I first heard about "Third Way" economics, consisting of communistically worker-owned companies competing in a capitalist marketplace, I was highly dubious: "What do you mean, 'everyone can be capitalists?' That's ridiculous!" But now I'm a big supporter of the concept.

When it comes to fossil fuels, there's a similar middle ground between the future described in the 2009 article "Bound to Burn" (which I first mentioned here), in which we burn all of Earth's fossil fuel reserves over the next century or two, and the future favored by environmentalists, in which we leave all the remaining coal, oil, and natural gas in the ground. Oddly, the conservative author of "Bound to Burn" was largely arguing from the demand side, roughly summarized as "the developing world is demanding cheap electricity and transportation fuel, and clean alternatives can't compete." Last month, in his Rolling Stone article "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," climate activist leader Bill McKibben made a similar argument from the supply side: "Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it's already economically aboveground – it's figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. . . . If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn't pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet."

So where's the middle ground? In the gap between the verbs "pump" and "burn." Everyone knows there are plenty of non-fuel-related uses for oil, particularly in making plastics, lubricants, and asphalt. Likewise, natural gas is used as raw material for a number of solid and liquid products, including plastics, fabric, paint, fertilizer, etc. Finding uses for coal that don't involve burning it is trickier, but perhaps American ingenuity would be up to the task if motivated by a high tax on releasing greenhouse gases. If we could find a combination of policies that leads to a substantial increase in demand for those non-fuel products to match the decrease in demand for fossil fuels to near zero, we could potentially solve the climate crisis without destroying the fossil-fuel companies or the economies of nations that rely on them.

Of course, the extraction processes for those "non-fuel fossil resources" would continue to do plenty of environmental damage, and environmentalists won’t be too happy about incentivizing more production of plastic, asphalt, and fertilizer (which tends to promote topsoil-destroying industrial agriculture).  But maybe that's the price we have to pay for a politically feasible means of nearly halting greenhouse emissions. Needless to say, this is not my favorite idea, but I think it should at least be on the table.  Speaking of agriculture, the current mega-drought and the trend it represents is a clear warning sign that we don't have much time left to find climate solutions that work.

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As of today, the American Fascism Clock stands at one second from midnight.  Both houses of Congress have passed versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) allowing indefinite military detention of American citizens without charge or trial, in blatant violation of the Bill of Rights.  The bills are in conference committee now to create a single version that will be voted on again and then sent to President Obama.  (Technically it might not pass, but that seems vanishingly unlikely given events up to this point.)  Obama has threatened a veto, but not because of the provision involving American citizens.  According to OpenCongress's analysis of his statements on the bill, if the committee removed a related provision that only applies to non-citizens, he might well sign the result into law--particularly since, if a Defense authorization bill isn't passed "by the end of the year, almost all of the U.S. military’s activities around the world would be jeopardized" (quote is from the article linked above).
 
If this bill becomes law, America will no longer be anything resembling a free country.  The military will be able to patrol our streets and lock up anyone who opposes government policy, on the grounds that "we think they might be planning a terrorist attack."  It will take a while for this nightmare to fully materialize, and in that time we might be able to get the Supreme Court to strike down the unconstitutional provisions of this law.  But given the Supremes' recent record on restricting our rights (which I learned about from the usually apolitical Phi Beta Kappa Key Reporter), I'm not inclined to be hopeful.
 
Meanwhile, it's quite possible that the COP 17 climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa are about to fail, due in large part to the intransigence of the U.S. negotiating team.  This would probably mean that the goal of a meaningful international climate treaty before 2020 is a lost cause, which basically means game over for the climate, unless we can somehow rebuild the world's energy infrastructure quickly enough without the motivation such a binding agreement would provide.
 
Amid these apocalyptic portents, there was one bit of hopeful news this week: on Tuesday, the LA City Council unanimously declared its support for a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, restore legal limits on campaign financing, and declare once and for all that corporations are not people.  (Nine days earlier, Occupy Los Angeles had passed a resolution to the same effect, and their influence on the Council's decision is plain.)  But of course, if the NDAA becomes law, the last vestiges of American democracy may well disappear long before the actual amendment could pass.
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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 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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According to the Center for American Progress (CAP, not to be confused with the U.S. Climate Action Partnership), the COP16 international climate negotiations that just concluded have achieved essentially the best result we could reasonably have hoped for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet another CAP article points to some reasons for hope:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some excerpts, with useful links:

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.skepticalscience.com/oneliners.php

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So maybe there's a bright side to Republicans gaining control of Congress, and probably keeping us in Afghanistan far longer than us liberal "surrender monkeys" would like.  Maybe in the process, they'll give the military enough funds for solar panels and biofuels (some of them based on repurposed opium poppies :-) to make a real difference in the speed of clean-energy adoption in America.
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Overview of first, second, and third wave environmentalism in America )
The phenomenon I've decided to call fourth wave environmentalism didn't begin with Bill McKibben, but his new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet nicely sums up its goals and their justification. It's strange to discover that he was already working on this book during the run-up to the 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.

March 2015

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