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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 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 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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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 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’s mission, to reduce the CO2 content of the atmosphere back to 350 parts per million, as the fundamentally conservative goal of maintaining a planet somewhat resembling the one we were born on.  Climate scientist David Battisti of the University of Washington was in the audience at the kickoff event, and McKibben thanked him for his contributions, but in fact Dr. Battisti considers the 350 ppm goal to be hopelessly extreme.  Then again, that’s mainly due to political feasibility concerns; 350 may not be a goal we can achieve, but it’s a goal that almost anyone who believes in mainstream climate science would want.

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

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

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

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

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

- Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson

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

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The Bioneers motto is "Revolution from the Heart of Nature," and for the past 21 years, many of the plenary speakers at the annual Bioneers conference have presented projects they're working on that are truly revolutionary--big and successful enough to actually change the world for the better. This year, you don't have to take my word for it, because those presentations are available for free online! Here's a rundown of my favorites (click the names to play the videos):

  • Amory Lovins, famed coauthor of Natural Capitalism and chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, presented not so much a project as a prophecy, backed up by reams of data, saying that we can and probably will leave oil and coal behind within the next 40 years, in a process "led by business for profit" without any positive intervention from the U.S. Congress. (Ironically, if he's right, the Reinventing Fire study could probably be used to cut through the ideology of the numerous Congressional climate deniers, whose principal objection is that if the climate crisis were real, it would require massive new government programs to solve. In fact, we should do this just for the sake of avoiding negative intervention aimed at disproving the "myth of green jobs.") It would be easy to dismiss Lovins as a dreamer lost in a world of abstract math and physics, but Lester Brown recently pointed out that we're already on our way toward meeting Lovins's goal. That's right: after centuries of increase, we've been establishing a new downward trend in greenhouse emissions for the past four years.
  • The high-tech approach behind Reinventing Fire seems to contrast sharply with Bioneers's focus on preserving the "Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)" of the world's indigenous peoples, but second-time plenary speaker Rebecca Moore of Google Earth Outreach explains that it need not be so. In fact, smartphones and 3D mapping can actually help Amazonian tribes to preserve and defend their ancient ways of life, as well as their rainforest homes, by sharing them with the world. (See also Melissa Nelson's talk for some sweeping generalities about TEK.)
  • If you're not a fan of overly business-focused solutions, Bioneers has you covered. Roxanne Brown of the United Steelworkers was on hand to describe how the union movement, which used to revile Bioneers's core demographic as "un-American" for protesting the Vietnam War, has found some common ground with modern-day hippies--hence the BlueGreen Alliance, which encompasses eleven unions (including the massive SEIU) and four environmental groups. The intro to this talk features one of several brief discussions of the Occupy movement, another group that is trying to forge an understanding between its middle-class and working-class elements.

  • It's not just about halting our assault on the natural world; Bioneers is also about repairing the damage and helping life thrive again. Rather than recommending John Liu's actual Bioneers presentation on the topic, I'll direct you to his Earth Report episode, "Hope in a Changing Climate," which dramatically illustrates the amazing large-scale ecosystem restoration efforts underway in China, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. (For more on this concept and the theory behind it, see this blog entry and this SolSeed page.)

  • And finally we come to my favorite presentation, in which biomimicry expert Dayna Baumeister shows us what "Revolution from the Heart of Nature" really means, by retelling the story of the environmental crisis using the typical plot of a children's fantasy novel. Our "young" species plays the child protagonist (and also the bad guys), and the more well-established species are the "wise elders" who help us on our way. Stories like this are what give us the inspiration to change the world.

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We interrupt our continuing series on how much liberals and conservatives have in common (sort of), to bring you the latest in stuff you probably already know about how absurdly polarized liberals and conservatives are right now.

It seems like everyone is agreed that if we fail to raise the debt ceiling, America will effectively default on its debts and plunge the world economy into chaos.  So why are Democratic leaders so willing to listen when right-wing Republicans claim that any debt ceiling deal must include trillion-dollar cuts to hugely popular government programs?  It's simple: We're actually frightened that those Republicans might be crazy enough to tip the world economy over a cliff just to make an ideological point.

Otherwise, Democrats would be perfectly comfortable with making a few modest cuts, none of them in programs like Social Security and Medicare, and handing the deal to Republicans with a "take it or leave it" shrug, reminding them that the consequences of their refusal are frankly unthinkable.  We would sit back and relax as they yelled at us for refusing to negotiate further, right up until the day before the deadline, at which point they would of course sign the deal anyway.  Any electoral consequences would be minor, since regardless of how you spin it, the whole thing would really just be maintenance of the status quo.

But no.  The so-called Tea Party Patriots in Congress have us over a barrel because they're actually so incredibly un-patriotic that they're willing to hold a gun to our nation's credit-worthiness, and give the strong impression that they're perfectly willing to shoot to kill.  And so the deal we're likely to get will be almost as bad in some respects as a global default: huge holes ripped in the social safety nets that millions of Americans, including many of the Tea Party Movement rank and file, rely on for their health and well-being, in a time that has enough economic hardships already.

Of course, the endless growth of the national debt is a problem, similar in some respects to the endless growth in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which the more extreme environmentalists would like to tackle with similarly harsh measures.  But sudden, rapid, drastic changes in systems this large is likely to have horribly violent effects.  Consider the stopping distance of a freight train, and then consider what happens when that train hits a truck sitting on the tracks and is forced to stop all at once.  (This metaphor is brought to you courtesy of the movie Super 8, which I highly recommend if you need some entertainment to distract you from the depressing political scene.)
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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'm writing this from a new apartment, but in the same apartment complex where I was before. The landlords required that I move out of my old unit so maintenance could rip out the living-room ceiling, which is filled with asbestos and has been covered with mold for most of the last six weeks. I'm now wondering whether I should have decided to end my lease, pay the early termination fee, and move somewhere else entirely. Maybe there wasn't enough time. Maybe the costs would have outweighed the risks of continuing to live in these poorly-built structures. Then again, maybe not.

It all started about two months ago, when I noticed a small damp spot in my bedroom ceiling.The gory details... )

From that point (March 6th), it took the landlords three and a half weeks to make a final decision to move me out. But when they finally did so, they wanted to move with some haste--an emergency transfer, they called it.More gory details )

My new unit is much larger than the old one and has its own washer-dryer unit, but it's on the first floor instead of the third, which means I get footsteps overhead but am not immune from roof leaks, as I learned shortly before I moved.Even more gory details ) I'm left wondering if this or a similar disaster will happen to me in the nine months before my lease term is up.  (UPDATE: It did. One fine evening, the bathtub in the unit above me started leaking onto the floor of my bathroom, and I had to hold back the water with a dam made of towels while waiting for the guy with the water extraction machine to show up.  He told me that he has to use it about twice a week in this apartment complex.)  (UPDATE 2: I have now moved to a new complex with no asbestos in the ceilings and no record of recent water leak incidents. It's substantially more expensive and the road outside my window is noisy, but I don't care.)

So what's the metaphor here? Well, the opposite of a global-warming skeptic is someone so obsessed with the climate crisis that he/she focuses on fixes that are too specific to just that crisis (e.g. the Richard Branson prize for figuring out how to pull a billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere per year). Such a person ignores the fact that an unsustainable civilization such as ours will inevitably continue to produce such existential crises. We need to "move out" of this way of life and into one based wholly on technologies and behaviors that don't undermine our own resource base, destroy ecosystem services, etc. The landlady may give us a few more decades to make that move, but we had better not get too sidetracked by short-term fixes that might let us cling to business as usual for a little while longer. As shown on the diagram on the sixth slide of Paul Ray's presentation for the State of the World Forum, relying on such fixes to save us will probably just lead to a slow death for civilization.
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"I normally don't pat myself on the back, but today global warming is an issue that has the concern of 30 percent of the American people, and years ago it was over 50 percent. That's because somebody spoke up day in and day out and said, 'This is a hoax. This is BS.' That somebody was me."
       -Rush Limbaugh, May 11, 2009 (quoted by Environmental Defense Action Fund)

If you're like me, your first thought on reading the above quote was "Oh crap! What if that's right? What if the success of An Inconvenient Truth and all the ubiquitous 'go green' sentiment of the past few years was all a mirage, and we've really been losing ground all this time, thanks to Rush's evil plan to prevent us from saving the world?"

On reflection, I realized there are two things wrong with that statement. The first is that we know global warming deniers can't do stats. The above statement, without even a definition of what "years ago" means, is even less meaningful that claims like "2008 was about as hot as 2001 and cooler than 2005, so the entire multi-decade warming trend must be reversing itself." Two or three data points simply don't make any kind of valid statistical case. If only the average American (or humans in general) were better at this kind of thinking...

The second problem is that in all likelihood, Rush doesn't have an "evil plan," he's just genuinely deluded into believing the story his own cherry-picked numbers tell. From the other side of the hurdle it can be easy to forget this, but in the face of impending global catastrophe, denial is extremely hard to resist -- especially when getting over it would mean accepting that the only plan to save the world is a strategic initiative for the Democratic Party. )

Which brings me to the real topic of this post. Conservatives claim that a greenhouse-reduction policy would harm the economy. This is their answer to a lot of policies they don't like. Why? Because as it happens, conservatives are in love with progress.

That line was mostly just to get your attention. The definition of progress here is narrowed to economic progress, defined as unlimited growth in numbers like the Dow Jones and especially the Gross Domestic Product. And our entire economic system does indeed seem to be built on this concept. Everyone knows economic shrinkage is bad, but even a leveling off or "stagnation" can hurt living standards, so we have a Red Queen paradox: we have to keep running up those numbers as fast as we can just to stay in the same place.

Now, you might think that with the standard conservative lines about innovation in business that's somehow "stifled by government," they would count technological progress as a good thing too. This isn't as true as you'd think. Just ask Citizens for Coal... )

"I'm not the guy who sings the hymns, no bleeding hearts to mend,
But I like the part where Icarus hijacks the Little Red Hen."
       -Lyrics to "Last Plane Out" by Toy Matinee

There are two main progressive objections to the doctrine of economic progress to the exclusion of all other goals: we claim it's detrimental to both social progress and progress toward a sustainable civilization. Of course by 'social' I mean 'socialIST'...not )

Meanwhile, the dogma of limitless growth in the physical economy, of "conserving the way things are" by consuming progressively more of the planet's resources, looks to progressives like a good way to guarantee our doom as a civilization. Although recycling has begun to replace needless extraction of natural resources, this would probably never have happened without government mandates. And as population growth and urban sprawl continue apace, along with the clearing of vast tracts of land to use for things like tar sands mining, we have to wonder if a system based on untrammeled economic growth is like Icarus, flying higher and higher without regard to the approaching danger of burning to death.
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"From the venerated saints and cathedrals of the Middle Ages to the pop stars and cineplexes of today, [Joe McHugh] explains why images and sound are increasingly supplanting the authority of the printed word, and by so doing, radically altering the cultural, economic, and political landscape of the United States and the rest of the world."
        - Description of a talk I saw at the Seattle Bioneers conference last year called "Slaying the Gorgon: Storytelling and Media in the Electronic Age"

Mr. McHugh is hardly the first person to compare modern media such as TV and movies to a religion; it is now a commonplace in some circles that they serve as the new "opiate of the masses."  But even those who use such dismissive rhetoric can't deny the power of moving images to shape public discourse, rather than merely suppressing it.  This is increasingly true in the Internet era, when passive consumers of media can quickly and easily become producers, with tools that allow them to create and distribute fairly professional-looking video content with very little effort.

The newly released free download Windows Live Movie Maker is such a tool, one I'm proud to have helped to build.  With just a few clicks, considerably more quickly than was possible with our predecessor Windows Movie Maker, our users can turn a selection of their digital photos and videos (along with a probably-copyrighted soundtrack of their choice) into a coherent and compelling story and show it to the world on YouTube or Facebook.

If media is a "religion," it has never been one with a single coherent "scripture"--the stories have always varied widely depending on which "media saint" (Joe McHugh's term for a celebrity actor or talk-show host) is telling them.  Now, though, the diversity of these stories is exploding along with the number of contributors, who no longer need any more wealth and power to become "saints" than is necessary to purchase a computer and Internet service.  Admittedly, we aren't seeing a super-radical reshaping of the media landscape--those with the most money and power still have access to far more eyes than any but the most successful viral YouTube video--but it's a step in what I see as a very positive direction.  (These statements are my personal opinion and not that of my employer.)

P.S. The good news: world electricity usage is projected to decrease this year for the first time since recordkeeping began in 1945, providing a ray of hope that an energy-efficiency revolution could cement this new trend and put us on track to solving the climate crisis.  The bad news: the U.S. just greenlit the Clipper Pipeline to provide ourselves with vast amounts of oil from Canada's tar sands, among the most ecologically destructive fuels per unit usage ever produced.
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Note to Philip Pullman fans: Quibble all you like about the strange rearranging of the plot in the new Golden Compass movie, or the unnecessary renaming of the polar-bear king from Iofur to Ragnar--but please don't complain so much about the lack of overt religious references. Rest assured: in this movie, religion is still the bad guy. It's a thinly-veiled allegory instead of a direct statement, yes, but if that counts as "taking the heart out of it, losing the point of it, castrating it" (as claimed by the National Secular Society), then the makers of the most recent Chronicles of Narnia incarnation must have done the same to their source material by failing to say outright that Aslan is actually a parallel-universe Jesus.

The key to decoding The Golden Compass movie's Magisterium/Authority is the use of the word "heresy," which as everyone knows is most commonly used in a religious context. Given this clue, it becomes easy to recognize the cathedral-style architecture of the Magisterium HQ and the cross that's clearly visible in the Magisterium sigil. The more clever members of the audience will see straight through the awkwardly-phrased line about how "some of our ancestors disobeyed the Authority, thus bringing the evil Dust into the world." And anyone who wants clinching proof need only spend a moment on the Internet to find out what the word "Magisterium" actually means. With that last bit of information in hand, the fact that the script takes pains to avoid saying the word "church" starts to look just plain silly. about environmental themes in the movie? Well, it does include plenty of free publicity for polar bears, but "Iorek is drowning" doesn't really work as an anti-global-warming slogan. I mean, the guy lives in a parallel universe where, if anything, the problem seems to be too much cold. But how about the idea of daemons, which in my opinion is the coolest thing about the whole story? Doesn't watching all those little critters scampering and flitting around the human characters make you want to live in a green-built community that attracts wildlife rather than repels it? ...Okay, maybe not, but I had to try.
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Last night, I was happy to discover that my typical shower has dropped to about ten minutes in length. This is an example of efficiency at its best: a short shower conserves water and the natural gas that heats it, and it leaves me more time to do other things. The only loss is the luxury of taking it slow, which is a lost cause for most Americans these days anyway--particularly those with as many different interests as I have.

But efficiency can be a problem. As a geometry lover, I've always enjoyed finding the shortest path to take from Point A to Point B, taking as many diagonals as possible so I can reach my destination half a minute earlier than I otherwise would. But recently, I've learned to avoid biking northwest on one diagonal street here in Redlands, because another major road merges in from the east and there is no stop sign.

This points up a general principle with wide application: the shortest path to a goal is often the most dangerous one. On a global scale, economic efficiency means promoting the rapid development of innovative new technologies and minimizing the time spent on testing for harmful side effects or considering the potential for weaponization. Of course, we can cynically observe that for any technology, "if we don't build it, someone else will." On the other hand, we can also work to form global compacts of governments, corporations, and universities to help guide humanity's technological development with an eye toward a simple truism: efficiency must take a back seat to survival.
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The flight of a bird is a tenuous, fragile-seeming thing. It relies on the complex interplay of eddies and vortices working out just so, to keep the bird oriented right and balance out both gravity and drag forces. And yet flying is, in fact, an incredibly robust survival strategy. To choose just one obvious example: where other creatures run and hide, birds can always be seen flitting brazenly from tree to rooftop to power-line no matter how many humans are around.

Similarly, human nature may not permit us to build any civilization that maintains freedom, justice, and equality on truly strong, stable foundations. Instead, we may have to learn to fly, in the sense of balancing unstable forces until it becomes second nature, and the potential catastrophes surrounding us in almost every direction simply hold no terror for us anymore.

It would help a lot if we knew, as DNA does, that we had more than one chance at this: if a single bird falls, the species and Class Aves as a whole will go on. And despite globalization, the same may be true of individual human societies, but I'll feel a lot better once we establish some serious space colonies.
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Link to part 1

Here's another metaphor: Humanity is an inexperienced pilot who has just banked too hard to the right, and the plane is on the verge of going into a tailspin. We obviously have to push the stick hard to the left, but since we have no training in how to handle this situation, any move we make will undoubtedly be either too much or not enough.
  • If we bank too hard, we might soon be spinning out in the other direction if we don't take immediate action to stabilize ourselves. As an example, let's say someone decides to release J. Craig Venter's carbon-dioxide-eating microbes into the atmosphere, and they get out of control. Then we'll have to think fast to find a way to prevent them from plunging us into an ice age and possibly outcompeting plants for the CO2 they need to survive.

  • If we don't bank hard enough, well, we'll be farther from the brink and we can keep working toward balance by degrees. This is the best-case scenario, even though the failure of any given drastic measure to solve the entire problem will be somewhat disheartening to many.

  • If we choose to "stay the course" and avoid taking corrective action until we're already spiraling toward the ground, then now is a good time to start figuring out how we're going to pull ourselves out of the tailspin...
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Link to version 1

Humanity is not just the passengers and crew of the Titanic.  We're also the primary forces--the iceberg and the cold ocean--that are bringing the ship down.

Yes, I've decided we're already sinking.  The iceberg was the Industrial Revolution itself, which has been tearing a wider and wider gash in the hull ever since, letting an ocean of dangerous chemicals pour into Nature and thence into our own bodies.  Unless we can throw together a lot more lifeboats, we're going down with the ship, which might also be named Gaia.

At this point, it looks like steering the boat away from the iceberg won't help much.  What needs doing is a crash effort to bail out the flooded areas and repair the leak.  That is, we need to clean up the existing mess we've made of our air, water, and soil and take drastic steps to ensure that we don't just mess it up again immediately.  Every "pollutant" that can be recycled into useful materials, should be.  Whatever's left should be buried as deep as possible or, preferably, launched into the Sun.

That's not to say I don't support the lifeboat idea too, but that's our emergency backup.  We should start building sealed-off, self-sufficient underground towns now so we can get the hang of it; the plus side is that future Mars colonists will need that skill too.  Are you listening, President Bush?

A metaphor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 2015

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