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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 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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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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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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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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Or at least that's my impression based on this article about a new company looking to turn a profit by turning CO2 pollution into calcium carbonate, "an extremely useful compound used, among other things, in antacids, baby diapers, iron purification, as plastic filler, in concrete, and in makeup." This is actually even cooler than the plan to use algae to make biofuels out of smokestack emissions, which only reuses the carbon once before releasing it anyway; as far as I can tell, most of the above applications wouldn't result in much re-released CO2.
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As I've noted before, political liberals tend to choose government as the best provider of services like education, healthcare, and poverty reduction*, while conservatives tend to prefer corporations. Thus a major goal for conservatives is smaller government and privatization, while for liberals it's expansion of some government programs, perhaps replacing entire segments of the private sector such as health insurance. Many of us would also like to shrink some corporations that have grown too big for their markets, usually by splitting up monopolies.

Consider: both big corporations and big governments tend to be bureaucratic, corrupt, and resistant to change. Corporations, of course, have no stated mission of helping people who need help; they're just in it to make bucks, which means vital services often get prohibitively expensive when privatized. It also means it can be very hard to convince corporations to spend extra money on things like avoiding environmental damage. Also, corporations generally have no enshrined democratic principles whereby either the customers or the employees can influence the major decisions of a corrupt few at the top.** Unions can impose this kind of check, but they are not always present or effective enough to have any real impact.

Conversely, if we assume that more power generally equals more corruption, we have to note that the biggest governments are still considerably more powerful than the biggest corporations. Governments also have far less incentive to avoid wasteful spending, which is the conservatives' main complaint, since they don't believe we taxpayers have nearly enough say in how that money is spent. And indeed, the bigger the government, the less democratic democracy gets: us little guys have no real say in who gets to run for high office***, and if your constituents are far away, it's significantly easier to cave to the demands of corporate lobbyists and otherwise act against those constituents' interests.

As I've said before, I lean toward governments as the lesser evil because they're more easily improvable than corporations. A single (admittedly difficult) reform--public financing of elections--would go a long way toward giving us representatives who truly represent us, the people (as opposed to folks who can raise enough money to fund a campaign, often out of their own pockets or from monied interests who expect a return of the favor in the form of legislation). Even reducing the maximum campaign contribution amounts per year for individuals and organizations would help (though that runs into sticky free-speech issues). Granted, if employee ownership can somehow be implemented on a mass scale, it could produce a similar effect in the corporate world. But with no real mechanism to push big companies in that direction, I'm keeping my money on governments for now.


* We liberals may find it hard to imagine that greedy capitalists would ever get into the poverty-reduction business, since it will inevitably lead to pressure for higher wages. But if we move the focus from sweatshop laborers to poor people who want to start small businesses, microcredit loans turn out to be an amazingly effective market-based approach to fighting poverty.

** Customers can "vote with their checkbooks" for certain products or boycott some companies, but that's not true democracy, which I define as "one person one vote." Poor people often have no choice but to shop at Wal-Mart, whatever they may think of the company's labor practices.

*** There are exceptions, of course. Small-time candidate Shirley Golub is challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the Democratic primaries on a platform whose major plank is impeachment, and since Pelosi's main constituents are San Franciscans, it's just barely possible that it might work.
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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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The book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, starts off as one of those "everything you know is wrong" attacks on an existing prevalent ideology, in this case the one epitomized by the phrase "reduce, reuse, recycle." In the authors' eyes, under the environmental program of increasing "efficiency" so as to reduce our impact on nature, "human beings are regarded as 'bad,' [and] zero is a good goal" (apparently a veiled reference to the ideals of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement). And they deride modern recycling as "downcycling" because the material's quality is reduced, for instance by mixing together all the types of metal, polymer, and paint in a car's body, such that it contains more toxins and can only be recycled once or twice before becoming completely useless.

Of course, this critique is disheartening (recycling being the ritual so many of us have done for decades to appease the eco-gods) and ideologically disturbing (if humans should always be seen as "good," are the authors advocating unlimited population growth?). But it turns out that the book is primarily a description of a few simple steps to "doing it right," following nature's models to redesign our existing products and systems so they can have a positive impact on nature and thus be regarded as "more good" rather than "less bad":
  • Waste [from one process] equals food [for another]. This means that products should be designed, not just to be effective at what they do, but to be either completely biodegradable (a biological nutrient) or easily disassembled to recover the materials that went into them, high-quality "technical nutrients" that "are infinitely recyclable at the same level of quality." The corollary is that the simpler the design, the better--for example, we shouldn't have to use a bunch of ingredients whose sole purpose is to counter the negative effects of other ingredients, as is now commonplace in processed foods and other products.

  • Give equal weight to profitability, benefits to nature, and benefits to society. This might seem too hard for corporate head honchos to swallow, but the authors show examples where this kind of thinking can make a company more competitive than before, for instance by giving factory workers a daylit environment with indoor greenery, which boosts productivity as well as making the workers happier and eliminating some electric lights.

  • In sum, make sure there is every reason to want more of the product, not less. The authors observe that "The growth of nature (and of children) is usually perceived as beautiful and healthy." They see no reason why economic growth couldn't be viewed the same way, if the products produced are "eco-effective" and actually contribute to the natural and social systems around them.
The authors use ants as an example, because they can be found all over the world and "their biomass exceeds ours," but "They are a good example of a population whose density and productivity are not a problem for the rest of the world, because everything they make and use returns to the cradle-to-cradle cycles of nature." If we can emulate the ants most of the time, and recycle materials that can't be returned instead of trying to bury them, then from an ecological perspective maybe human civilization can be considered "100 percent good." (The social part might be considerably more difficult...)

I was seriously thinking about giving up less than halfway through this book. If I were editing it, I would use the advice of the article "The Death of Environmentalism" and try to make it "an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it," rather than a harsh critique followed later by the positive vision. I would have placed more emphasis on the admission that current environmentalist ideas aren't useless, for example that eco-efficiency (i.e. reducing materials and energy use) "is a valuable tool in optimizing the broader eco-effective approach."

When I bought this book, Amazon brightly suggested I get another on that I read parts of a while back: Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins. I'm a short ways in, and I think it will turn out to be a more readable version of the same idea: these authors make it clear from the get-go that they believe the next industrial revolution is already in progress.
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"Pollution is not, as we are so often told, a product of moral turpitude. It is an inevitable consequence of life at work. The second law of thermodynamics clearly states that the low entropy and intricate, dynamic organization of a living system can only function through the excretion of low-grade products and low-grade energy to the environment. Criticism is only justified if we fail to find neat and satisfactory solutions which eliminate the problem while turning it to advantage. To grass, beetles, and even farmers, the cow's dung is not pollution but a valued gift. In a sensible world, industrial waste would not be banned but put to good use. The negative, unconstructive response of prohibition by law seems as idiotic as legislating against the emission of dung from cows."

- James Lovelock, Gaia: A new look at life on Earth, which I have finally gotten around to purchasing and reading.
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Democracy For America Redlands has a campaign to build local support for this initiative to build grassroots support for carbon caps from the city level. This is the text of a flyer I created to hand out to potential allies in the Redlands area:

What is the USMCPA?

The Agreement is a local-scale program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and work toward the goals of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, while improving the quality of life in urban areas. It was created by the mayor of Seattle, Greg Nickels, and has already been adopted by well over 400 cities and towns throughout the country, including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and even our neighbors in San Bernardino and Riverside.

The agreement includes measures to prevent urban sprawl and reduce commuting times, increase fuel efficiency, invest in alternative energy and green building practices, and promote green spaces and tree-planting, among others. Even if the federal government won’t sign Kyoto and get moving to address the threat of global warming, with the USMCPA we can change our nation’s policies from the grassroots up!

Why act locally?

The evidence for a human-caused greenhouse effect is now far too substantial to allow us to continue with business as usual.* But the giant oil companies, automakers, and electric utilities cling to their established business plans, using tiny “climate-friendly” pilot projects to greenwash their public images while fighting tooth and nail to prevent any real change. Ironically, they need a push from governments to make them remember the capitalist ideals of risk-taking, innovation, and progress.

There are promising signs that the U.S. government may finally be ready to take some action along these lines, but Congress has rejected many initiatives aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions over the past fifteen years, and it’s easy to see why. Megacorporations make huge campaign contributions that sway lawmakers’ decisions, and the government is terrified of doing anything that might hurt the economy in the short run, despite the likely advantages of the alternative-energy boom that a carbon-cap policy would promote.

Cities, on the other hand, experience less political pressure and thus have more freedom to innovate. Particularly here in the dry Southwest, they also see the dangerous effects of higher temperatures firsthand. And most importantly, while it’s easy for representatives in Washington, D.C. to brush off the demands of their constituents 3000 miles away, our city leaders can hardly ignore us if we walk up to them and tell them what we want!

Where can I learn more?

• Check out the main USMCPA website at http://www.ci.seattle.wa.us/mayor/climate.
• Contact me at livingworlds@adelphia.net if you have questions or want to help out.
• Sign up for our mailing list now, or look up the Redlands Democracy For America group at http://www.dfalink.com/group.php?id=558 to join up and help us build a movement!


* Conservatives keep saying that we need to be certain about the causes of global warming before we take economically risky steps. And they're right that we can't be certain, but only in the sense that science is never certain about anything. That's what makes it so powerful, in fact: scientists are willing to consider that any fact, no matter how seemingly obvious, could turn out to be wrong. This allows them to accumulate evidence for ideas that seem crazy--like the idea that the Earth spins and orbits the Sun, or that many diseases are caused by living creatures a millionth of a meter long, or that humanity has a major impact on something as large as the global atmostphere.
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I've ranted before about the worrisome trend of mergers producing larger, more powerful corporations with less and less in the way of real competition. Now, two huge private equity companies have decided that TXU, the utility company that's been in the news lately because of its plans for 11 new coal-fired power plants, would make a good investment. So good, in fact, that they're buying it out to the tune of 45 billion dollars, the largest leveraged buyout in history. A recent article in the New York Times called this move "a huge financial endorsement of the company’s energy strategy. . . . TXU has been the most aggressive in the power industry in pushing coal as the answer to growing electricity demands. Nationwide, power companies are planning to build about 150 coal plants over the next several years."

But that's not the whole story. In fact, according to another Times article (purchase required for viewing), "Within TXU, the controversial plan to build a raft of coal plants had become so damaging to its stock price that its board had been privately weighing a plan to scrap part of the project," and that was actually what made them more attractive to the private equity firms, "Kohlberg Kravis and Texas Pacific, which look for undervalued companies and try to turn them around." And the way they aimed to do it was by turning TXU's development plans around to the extent that green advocacy groups, Environmental Defense in particular, would actually endorse the buyout.

Is it just greenwashing? Maybe, in some sense. Still, it's hard not to be amazed at the magnitude of the change. Three of the coal plants were already under construction, but the other eight will be scrapped. And TXU is joining the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which is a coalition of big corporations (and a few environmental groups) that is actually calling for mandatory caps on carbon dioxide emissions. (The idea being that one uniform rule is easier to deal with than patchwork state and local regulations, and negotiating one now will be better than taking the bitter pill of a much stricter law that might be passed by an unsympathetic government after warming has gotten even worse.)
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First the less-exciting news: at a recent ESRI training course, I met a woman named Lucy Fish who is the unofficial manager of the World Database on Protected Areas project of the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre. As a result, I did some research on the WCMC and found the following statement in their strategic plan: "The Strategic Plan lays the foundation for the Centre‛s operations and growth in the coming years as we all seek to meet – and exceed – the targets set by the international community to reduce the rate of loss of the world‛s biodiversity by 2010 and to reverse the loss of environmental resources by 2015."

Does this outrageously ambitious goal mean anything, particularly considering that the WCMC's main financial support comes from the oil-extraction industry? Well, almost no one has ever accused the UN of not being idealistic enough, but still, the fact that any major conservation group is attempting to implement such an ambitious plan provides a dim suggestion that the human race as a whole may actually be changing course.

A much clearer sign of this can be found in the fact that Wal-Mart appears to be actually committing to a strategy of environmental friendliness (although, just as with the WCMC plan, we'll have to see how well this holds up in practice). What bothers progressives about this, of course, is that Wal-Mart will nevertheless continue to sell tons of cheap plastic crap produced by sweatshop labor. But what can you do--rock-bottom prices require rock-bottom labor costs, and this is not merely Wal-Mart's business plan but actually its survival strategy: the company would die instantly if it changed its practices.

Still, one can hope that if Wal-Mart lives up to its green promises, other major chains with better labor practices will also follow Wal-Mart's example on the environmental front. And that will be good.

March 2015

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