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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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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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Reform vs. revolution.  Alliance with like-minded politicians vs. independence from all politics.  Kingian/Gandhian principles of nonviolent resistance vs. "diversity of tactics."  All these dialectics and more are currently drawing fault lines across the active membership of Occupy Seattle, and probably the broader national and global movement as well.

An excellent example of how these ideas play out in practice was provided by the debate at the January 11th General Assembly (GA) over whether to endorse the two events planned by the Get Money Out of Politics workgroup (GMOP) to commemorate the anniversary of Citizens United.  Almost no one disagreed that the events as a whole were a good idea; the sticking point was the fact that U.S. Representative Jim McDermott would be speaking for a few minutes in the middle of the January 21st event.  By narrowing their focus to this single speech and its implied endorsement of an elected official, the debaters were actually broadening the discussion to encompass the fundamental principles and strategies of the Occupy movement as a whole.

Here is a rough list of paired arguments for and against, although it misrepresents the free-flowing debate by implying that it was organized around well-defined series of points and counterpoints:

Argument against: The General Assembly has passed a resolution stating that we're a movement where everyone is a leader equally, and therefore politicians will not be allowed to speak at Occupy Seattle-endorsed events.

Argument for: If we want the general public to support us and come to our events, we should invite the kinds of speakers who draw crowds.  McDermott supporters are part of the 99% too, and we need them as allies.

Argument for: McDermott himself is on our side.  He supports our goal of overturning Citizens United and establishing publicly funded elections, as well as having opposed the war in Iraq, supported women's rights, etc.

Argument against: McDermott has voted for military spending, free trade agreements, etc, and his staff has mistreated people who came to his office.

Argument against: The media will see this as Occupy Seattle endorsing a Democrat and moving toward becoming "the Democrats' Tea Party," when we really need to maintain independence from the two big political parties because they're both corrupted by money in politics.

Argument for: We can get McDermott to talk only as a citizen with experience in Constitutional law, rather than as a politician.  Also, Occupy is too strong to have to worry about being co-opted by the Democrats.

Argument for: Ultimately, if we want to have any major impact in this country, we're going to have to get involved in electoral politics at some point.

Argument against: On the contrary, the goal of the Occupy movement is not to change government policy, but to delegitimize the entire U.S. government and trigger a mass upheaval to create a truly better world.

As the debate wore on, people who supported endorsement tended to stay in their seats, which were arranged in a circle.  Opponents stood up and gradually gravitated toward a raised area off to the side, as far away from Karrsen, the GMOP member who had brought the resolution forward, as possible.  Yet everyone remained respectful of the process, and although a few people were clearly getting tired of the hours-long discussion by the end, we ended up finishing the whole "stack" of people wanting to speak before the final vote.

Karrsen ultimately decided the debate was too divisive, and accepted an amendment stating that the General Assembly would only endorse the event if McDermott agreed to participate in a march of torch-carrying protesters demanding the resignation of the current Seattle Chief of Police.  But this was not enough to mollify the radicals (partly because it was stated in a confusing way), so the vote count was ultimately declared to be a tie, 30-30, and the proposal didn't pass.

I later heard that the GA had endorsed the Friday event by itself, although it didn't matter much since that event was cancelled due to snow (but about 20 people showed up anyway).  Then on Saturday, in the midst of a series of speeches, musical performances, and street-theater-style skits on the stage at Westlake Park, GMOP member Craig Salins gave a glowing introduction for Jim McDermott, whose first words on taking the microphone were "Mic check!"  Clearly, he hadn't been informed that this wasn't officially an Occupy Seattle event.  You can watch most of his talk here.  One of the radicals from the GA, who showed up at Westlake after the end of the event, was extremely disappointed that no one had stood up and challenged McDermott on his politicking, particularly his brief comment about re-electing Obama.

The debate goes on.  Somehow, the regular meeting of the GMOP workgroup the day before yesterday was refocused into a planning session for a discussion about reform vs. revolution and nonviolence vs. "diversity of tactics" (this was partly because Kazu Haga, a well-known teacher of nonviolent tactics from Oakland, happened to be in the building).  Meanwhile, the media continue to assume that because the Occupy movement is so fractious, it must be doomed to fade away.  But this is a movement that was founded on the principles of both diversity and unity--perhaps the most fundamental dialectic of all.

That said, rant about why advocating violence is stupid )
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“Encouraging those who burden society to participate in elections isn't about helping the poor. It's about helping the poor to help themselves to others' money.”

- "Registering the Poor to Vote is Un-American" by Matthew Vadum of American Thinker magazine, cited among other quotes by anti-voting-rights advocates in "Conservatives Say It Out Loud: They Hate Democracy" by Dave Johnson of the Campaign for America's Future blog

“'Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,' said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship. 'We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.'

“Economics have been one driving force, with growing income inequality, high unemployment and recession-driven cuts in social spending breeding widespread malaise. . . .

“But even in India and Israel, where growth remains robust, protesters say they so distrust their country’s political class and its pandering to established interest groups that they feel only an assault on the system itself can bring about real change.”

- "As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe" by Nicholas Kulish of the New York Times
So it seems democracy is under attack from both ends of the political spectrum.  If voting were an occupation, conservatives would be trying to fire the liberals (while pointing at the poor to slightly mask their intent), and liberals would be saying, "You can't fire us--we quit!"  This doesn't bode well for liberal political parties.
 
As you can imagine, I have more sympathy for the liberal protesters (protestors?), who at least seem to have their logic mostly straight.  (By contrast, there are plenty of poor people who contribute to society, and if it were only jobless poor people voting for the politicians who created programs like welfare and food stamps, those politicians could never have been elected.)  But as with any movement that opposes the status quo, you have to ask whether these protests are aimed at any specific alternative vision.  Kulish has an idea of what it might be, but it sounds more like wishful thinking than responsible journalism:
“The critical mass of wiki and mapping tools, video and social networking sites, the communal news wire of Twitter and the ease of donations afforded by sites like PayPal makes coalitions of like-minded individuals instantly viable.

“'You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing,' said Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. 'They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.'”
Uh huh.  I'll believe that when you show me a self-organized wiki group capable of running a factory or a public transit system.  I acknowledge that times are changing fast, but I think I'll stick with democracy for now.
 
Anyway, about a week after I discovered those articles, I was in Orlando for an astonishing event called the 100 Year Starship Symposium, where other paradoxes could be found in abundance.  Convened by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the event nevertheless hosted plenty of radically pacifist speakers who expressed the hope that the long-term, international project of building a starship would divert resources and passions away from warfare.  Even Matt Bille, a speaker from the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH for short), went so far as to hold up the Rainforest Action Network as a good example of the type of multi-stakeholder organization that should take on the project.  (That last link is to a Booz&Co article Mr. Bille referred me to, which kind of looks like it could have been written by Nicholas Kulish.)
 
And then there was a speaker from Oregon named J. N. Nielsen, who actually agrees with the claims of romantic and primitivist philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Derrick Jensen about the evils of our industrial civilization--then turns around and uses those claims as support for the theory that said civilization has a moral imperative to expand throughout the solar system and beyond.  The gist of the argument is that as long as our economy is butting up against the limits of one planet's resource base, we will be doomed to produce atrocities and eventually self-destruct (unless we get hit by a killer asteroid first).  A spacefaring civilization wouldn't be utopia, but would at least keep us from running into those limiting factors (and could also deflect killer asteroids).  Nielsen even claims such a society could be nomadic, somewhat in the manner of primitive hunter-gatherer tribes.
 
This argument strikes me as highly problematic, and not just because it brings cartoon images of "space cavemen" irresistibly to mind.  I'm no primitivist myself, but I know how folks like Jensen and Edward Abbey would react to the notion of carrying the "cancerous" industrial growth paradigm to its logical extreme.  They would doubtless envision something like what Stephen Baxter (who was also at the Symposium) describes in his short story "On the Orion Line": Humanity inhabits an ever-expanding sphere of star systems.  Every time a system's resources are used up, we simply send colonists outward to the next one, driven by the implacable force of the growth paradigm, overrunning any alien biospheres and civilizations that stand in our way.  The outermost colonies are frantically stripping their systems of resources to provide, not just for their own needs, but for those of all the other colonies and Earth as well--worlds that are ravaged and depleted and can no longer support themselves.
 
On the other hand, I guess it could be worse.  If the people of the outermost colonies shared Matthew Vadum's philosophy, as one suspects they would, they wouldn't willingly send any resources back to "those unproductive freeloaders" in the other systems without some form of compulsion from a higher authority.  So even if humanity becomes an interstellar cancer, maybe at least we can still maintain a democracy.
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Predictably enough, when fiscal terrorists threatened to destroy the global economy, Democrats surrendered.  Obama could have used a Constitutional override and unilaterally raised the debt ceiling, if he were principled enough about not negotiating with terrorists, but that would have meant admitting that our democratic system had gone so badly wrong as to allow people who are effectively terrorists into Congress, which of course is counter to the Democratic Party line.  Of course, the terrorists wouldn't characterize the trillion-dollar cuts they got as a real surrender, because they want so much more--but they needn't worry, because they can do it again any time they please.

 

As a result, American democracy is effectively over.  You have four choices in the next election: You can vote for the terrorists, you can vote for the people who surrendered to the terrorists (like my Representative, Jay Inslee), you can vote for the people holding up the sane minority and help slow down our government's slide into oblivion a bit, or you can vote for someone who wants to roll back the most damaging cuts but who is unelectable due to Citizens United etc.  None of these choices will change the fact that every time the debt ceiling needs to be raised, or an important spending bill needs to get through Congress to keep the government running at all, another large chunk of services that millions of Americans depend on will be extorted away.  (And yes, they might cut some military spending at the same time, but that's a pretty thin silver lining.)

 

Of course, by the Principle of Mediocrity, all of the above is probably a gross exaggeration.  Since most Americans and even most Tea Partiers want to keep Medicare and Social Security intact, the terrorists may well be destroying their electoral base, who could replace them with less extreme candidates in the Republican primaries and thus shift the political center a little bit to the left.  But on the Democratic side, it's hard to muster any enthusiasm for voting at all, after watching our party so completely fail to uphold its principles.  When we elected Obama, we thought it was a huge step forward for progressives, but now he talks like a Tea Partier himself, demanding that the government shrink itself to solve the supposedly all-consuming "debt crisis," regardless of the cost to the little people who paid for half of his election campaign.

 

So the conservatives have managed to convert me, in a sense.  I now see the government as a sick, twisted monstrosity, and can't see any way to seriously believe that it will get better (though admittedly my imagination might improve after a hypothetical good night's sleep).  The difference, of course, is that I don't want the government to become so small that I can safely ignore it.   I see it as "sick" with a particularly ugly and self-destructive autoimmune disorder, and I want it to stop the seemingly inexorable process of destroying anything and everything good that it has ever done for the people it supposedly serves.

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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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So I've heard that blogging is dying out, replaced by forms of communication that don't require long attention spans, like tweets and Facebook status updates.  Well, that may be true of this blog too, but it's not quite dead yet.

 

Since it's been so long since I last posted, I'm going to try to cram several topics in here under a single rubric, starting from the most recent and working my way back.  To conserve my motivation, I'll only cover one or two per post.

 

The first one is the simplest: Lots of liberals are "conservatives" in the sense of wanting to conserve wild lands, a position more typically referred to as "conservationism."  Last night I saw The Last Mountain, a new film about mountaintop-removal coal mining that makes this point starkly.  Rural West Virginia is largely populated by poor conservatives who work for the coal mining companies.  These people generally can't afford to consider the mining-related health problems they and their children face (including silicosis from coal dust in the air, and brain tumors from water-supply contamination) as more important than their jobs, to say nothing of the cost to the ecosystem.  Part of the reason they can't afford it is psychological: it would mean dishonoring the memory of all their coal-miner ancestors, who worked in what they believed to be an honorable trade, accepting the personal risks for the sake of progress in electrifying America.  So now it's up to the few local progressives, and some activist groups coming in from elsewhere, to resist the destruction of Appalachia and call for moving people into green jobs like erecting and maintaining wind turbines.

 

Moving back a few weeks, we come to the Rebuild the Dream rally that I watched on June 23rd via live streaming video.  Billed as the launch event for a Tea-Party-scale mass movement, the event featured Van Jones, founder of Green for All and brief holder of a minor post in the Obama administration, until a conservative smear campaign forced him out.  At the rally, Jones admitted that one of their attacks was accurate: in his youth, he "was further left than Pluto."  And of course he's still a charismatic representative of progressive causes; the rally was sponsored by MoveOn.org Civic Action, along with dozens of other progressive groups listed at the bottom of the Rebuild the Dream homepage.

 

But Jones also waxed nostalgic for a time when, learning from the harsh experience of the Great Depression, America demanded that big banks behave more conservatively when considering risky investments.  He also insisted that the Rebuild the Dream movement would be centered on patriotic pride for "the richest country in history," even while using that language to counter conservative claims that the U.S. government is "broke" and needs to make drastic cutbacks.  "Peace and prosperity, not war and austerity" was Jones's rallying cry (well, one of them anyway).

 

On the whole, I approve of what Jones, MoveOn, et al are trying to do, particularly the scale of their ambition.  It's going to take a mass movement to break through the wall of ultra-amplified right-wing rhetoric that prevents moderate voters in America from seeing where their true interests lie.  But I have two quibbles.  For one thing, moderates may not much care for Jones's argument about middle-class incomes, which have only risen a bit since 1980 (while those of the rich skyrocketed), but haven't actually fallen.  The problem isn't that we aren't getting richer fast enough; it's that the cost of things like healthcare is rising too fast, making us effectively poorer even with the same inflation-adjusted income.  Jones didn't make that point clearly enough.


Also, I believe that patriotism alone is not enough; just as conservatives claim to seek the betterment of poor nations through globalization and free trade, progressives also want policies that benefit more than just America.  Just because we're talking about rebuilding the American dream doesn't mean we can blithely condemn outsourcing, as Jones and most other progressives do, without asking what happens to foreign workers when outsourcing is scaled back.

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Liberal commentators are celebrating several major legislative successes the Democrats achieved during the lame duck session that just ended.  But I can't help feeling that they're missing the point.  I tend to think that by failing to pass the Fair Elections Now Act or even the DISCLOSE Act in those last few weeks, Congress has signed the death warrant of our democracy.  Those bills were our last chance to blunt the power of the "Citizens United" decision, which has given corporations such vast influence over our electoral process that we will never again be able to unite as citizens to elect a Congress or a President willing to challenge that influence (or so I imagine).

From now on, the vast majority of elections will be won by people like Rep. Darrell Issa, who honestly believe that doing corporations' bidding is the essence of principled policymaking.  Regulations that protect workers, consumers, children, and other living things will be ruthlessly eliminated, labor unions will be outlawed, vast monopolies will go unchallenged until their power far outstrips that of the federal government, and the combined corporate and government voices pushing global-warming denial will drown out all reason, even as Alaska continues to melt and increasingly terrible droughts, floods, and wildfires sweep the landscape.  Finally, somewhere around the year 2050, the corporatocracy will collapse along with the rest of civilization, leaving a few survivors to eke out a torturous existence in a world ravaged by war and climate catastrophe.

I'm well aware that the above predictions stem mainly from mindless despair rather than reasoned analysis, and I invite you to poke as many holes in them as you can.  Here are the ones I've tried so far:
  • There is probably a point of diminishing returns when you pour more and more money into political campaigns.  Is there any amount of attack ads or phone banking that could save the Republicans if they're in charge when the next big economic crisis hits?  Maybe not.  After all, a political movement that sees government as largely parasitic is probably not very well positioned to stamp out the age-old political battle cry, "Throw the bums out!"
  • Likewise, conservatives want to limit government power largely because they see politicians as inevitably corrupt.  Thus, maybe some Republicans can be shamed into supporting the Other 98% Campaign's Fight Washington Corruption Pledge.  (This one isn't very convincing.)
  • Even if America does become an outright corporatocracy, the rise of Chinese and European power means that we can't necessarily doom the world all by ourselves.
  • Not all major corporations are conservative.  Many pay more than lip service to the idea of the Triple Bottom LineWorking Assets, Patagonia, REI, Organic Valley, Whole Foods, and Gaiam are probably all good examples.  Students at top liberal-arts schools these days are notoriously, well, liberal; many of them will go on to become CEOs long before they grow old and cynical, this being the Internet era.  If this represents enough of an upward trend, maybe corporate rule won't be so bad after all.  (Then again, it takes an awful lot of Patagonias to outweigh an Exxon-Mobil.)
  • We have advertising clout on our side, too, as the Hopenhagen and 4 Years Go campaigns attest.
  • Lots of sustainable technologies are already in the pipeline, and many of them are not going to be abandoned just because a conservative government lets certain tax credits and other incentives expire.
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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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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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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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“If you go to an audition and don’t really try, if you’re not really prepared, if you didn’t work as hard as you could have and you don’t win, you have an excuse. . . . Nothing is harder than saying, ‘I gave it my all and it wasn’t good enough.’”

         - Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin prodigy, as quoted in Mindset by Carol S. Dweck

“I could blame the Chamber of Commerce and the fossil-fuel lobby for spending bags of money to subvert this bill. But the truth is, the public, confused and stressed by the last two years, never got mobilized to press for this legislation. We will regret it.

“We’ve basically decided to keep pumping greenhouse gases into Mother Nature’s operating system and take our chances that the results will be benign — even though a vast majority of scientists warn that this will not be so. Fasten your seat belts.”

         - Thomas L. Friedman, “We’re Gonna Be Sorry,” The New York Times July 24, 2010

When I first heard about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to shelve the climate commitments in the currently pending energy bill, probably until after the elections and the almost-certain loss of a number of Democrats from both houses of Congress, my first reaction was to assume the worst: “By the time America does anything meaningful about the climate crisis, it will be too late to matter.  Just because both Clinton and Dubya got a fair amount done with fewer members of their own party in Congress than we have now, doesn’t seem enough reason for hope when we’ve moved to the default assumption that anything we try in the Senate will get filibustered.  And regulation under the Clean Air Act, which has always been the backup plan, just seems ludicrous when I think about it now: sure, the EPA can save some endangered species and improve air quality in our cities, but how can they possibly play a major role in saving the world?  Plus, Congress has failed once to make it illegal for the EPA to act at all, but with more Republicans on board, they could easily succeed.  And don’t even talk to me about saving the world one state, or even one city, at a time.”

But I have to fight that attitude.  Despair is seductive.  Unless you’re crazy enough to work for a cause you believe to be already lost, despair means you can give up, relax, and enjoy this lovely habitable planet while we’ve got it.  Instead, I need to keep believing that there are many possible paths to success — political, economic/corporate, technological, social/cultural, etc — and then I need to do all I can to help promote them, despite the fact that success is far from guaranteed.  And I have to keep working on ideas for how we can survive and thrive even in the face of climate catastrophe.  Maybe, as Randall Munroe says in the title text to this comic, “All in all, the future will be okay! Except climate; we f***ed that one up.”  This will be particularly challenging since I learned that the source of half of our planet's oxygen appears to be quickly vanishing, but I have to try.

Patriotism

Jul. 5th, 2010 11:16 am
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This post by [livejournal.com profile] firelizard5 challenged me to think about to what extent the word "patriotic" applies to me.  My gut reaction to the word is to equate it with blind nationalism and childish "my country is better than yours, so there!" thinking, but of course that's not really fair.

So, I can say without qualification that I'm loyal to the basic ideals America strives for: liberty and justice for all, strength through diversity, individual rights that protect citizens from government overreach, giving all adults an equal say in how they're governed, and keeping everyone well-educated and informed so they can use that voice effectively.  And in some ways it's surprising how well we've upheld those ideals over the past 234 years.  We've certainly made major strides toward greater justice as a nation, gradually reducing people's freedom to infringe on other people's rights and freedoms while incrementally expanding various groups' historically limited voice in government, particularly on the basis of race and gender.

Obviously I think there are some things we could improve on, like reducing the influence of money in politics that tends to drown out the voices of those who can't afford their own D.C. lobbyists (hence my participation in the Other 98% campaign), and limiting corporations' freedom to knowingly and recklessly endanger the freedoms of millions of people for the sake of profit (as with the financial meltdown, slipshod safety protocols on deepwater oil rigs, impoverishing future generations through depletion of resources like topsoil and destruction of species, etc).  But what's great about America (and some other countries that were inspired by our example) is that we can work toward this kind of large-scale change without bloody revolutions such as the one that founded this country.  Huge and hidebound institutions like corporations and governments can try to thwart change agents indirectly, but they can't shut us down.
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From a Climate Solutions action email I got today: "The Home Star bill (HR 5019) will come up for a vote in the House of Representatives tomorrow.  This bill will create incentives to accelerate home energy efficiency across the nation."  And here's a news article about it.  Now, I know HR stands for "House Resolution" rather than "Homestar Runner," but it's still pretty hilarious...if you still remember a Flash-animated comedy website that was popular 10 years ago.  (I still check them for updates now and then, even though the last one was over 6 months ago.)

On a similar note, the new small-scale wind turbine model from Honeywell is called the "WT 6500 Star Gate."  It looks a bit like a stargate too.  Confusingly, several other names are associated with it, including EarthTronics and WindTronics.  Who knows, maybe WaterTronics and FireTronics are next...
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As a passionate environmentalist, science-fiction fan, and computer graphics aficionado who's also mildly obsessed with flying creatures of all kinds, I couldn't help but enjoy the movie Avatar.  Outside the theater I can reflect on its lame dialogue, stereotyped characters, and a plot that seems like a cross between Pocahontas, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, and Star Wars (with giant alien birds standing in for X-Wing fighters).  But these intellectual critiques barely impinged on my consciousness while immersed in the visually spectacular world James Cameron's team so painstakingly crafted, and the journey of the man who has to save it.  And the movie's record-breaking box-office success attests to the breadth of this emotional appeal, which clearly affects many people with much more typical interests than mine.

An Obama speech such as Wednesday's State of the Union address can have a similar effect, the finely-crafted words allowing you to forget for awhile the ugly, messy realities of American politics, and imagine in its place a world where all our legislators could put aside their petty differences and work together in pursuit of goals anyone can agree on.  For instance, to hear Obama tell it, you'd think that anyone interested in fighting global warming, creating jobs, or restoring America's global economic dominance would support passage of a strong clean-energy bill (though one that will likely include nuclear power, "clean coal," and offshore oil drilling, as he mentioned in passing).  And who could possibly object to a health-care reform bill that will reduce costs for struggling families in a recession?

I imagine that during the speech, even some Republican Congresspeople were drawn in by the President's smooth rhetoric and briefly imagined reshaping their positions to match his vision.  But after stepping outside that chamber, it probably took them mere moments to shake their heads and reassure themselves that they didn't believe a word of it.  Just as the "hero" character in Avatar betrays his own species and its economic interests for the sake of some sexy aliens and their beautiful wilderness, they might have thought, so cooperating with the Obama agenda for the sake of bipartisanship and "progress" would mean betraying America.  Or at least betraying the GOP.


P.S. Amusing factoid: What does Avatar have in common with the movie Titanic, other than James Cameron and broken records for both production cost and box-office returns?  Sappy theme songs with almost the same opening lines:

Titanic: "Every night in my dreams, I see you, I feel you..."
Avatar: "Walking through a dream, I see you..."

My advice: Don't look up the rest of the lyrics if you value your brain cells.
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You'd think the Democrats in Congress were born yesterday, from the way they're reacting to losing a Massachusetts senate seat to a Republican.  No, it does not mean that this exceedingly blue state has suddenly swung to the right and wants the policies of the Bush years back.  The far more plausible explanation is that the election was swung largely by voters fed up with the lack of change toward progressive policies since Democrats gained control of both houses three years ago.

But these Democratic politicians feel that, with only 18 more votes in the Senate than the Republicans have (a greater margin than Republicans ever held during the Bush years, as Jon Stewart pointed out while having a nervous breakdown), we have to scale back health care reform even further, drop some major plans for improved regulation of the financial industry, and quite possibly give up on passing a climate bill anytime soon.  Presumably, part of the argument is that this November, the whole country is going to follow Massachusetts's lead and sweep Democrats out of power in Congress--unless they act like they're already back in the minority?  Granted, we'll probably lose some seats just because that's the statistical trend for midterm elections that come two years after the White House changes hands.  But that doesn't mean it makes sense to pretend that's already happened.

It makes no sense, that is, unless you're just looking for any excuse to behave more like Republicans anyway.  I'm probably overstating the case here, but it seems like maybe all politicians prefer to put the interests of their wealthy campaign contributors ahead of their constituents, so as to be assured of having enough cash on hand next time they need to buy lots of TV ads telling those constituents why an opposing candidate can't be allowed to win.  After all, even if you put your constituents first, you still need to buy those ads to tell them how you're standing up for their interests--only in that case you might not have nearly enough cash, especially when simultaneously trying to counter your opponent's smear campaign.  Overly cynical?  Yes, but maybe closer to the truth than the alternate, one-word explanation, "spinelessness."

All of which bodes ill for any attempt to counter the truly disastrous event of the past week, the Supreme Court ruling that removed all limits on corporate and union financing of elections.  Work toward the ideal of "getting money out of politics," long championed by progressives, has been set back massively by this decision.  Of course, Obama's seeming embrace of this goal is already questionable, given that he broke a promise to use public financing in his presidential campaign.  Still, he now says he wants to pass legislation to counter the effect of this ruling.  But with the current mindset of Democrats in Congress, are they really likely to do anything about it?
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Obama Elects to Come to Copenhagen's Conclusion, Not Beginning
...thus moving from "Hi, let me give you an inspiring 'good luck' speech and then head off to collect my Nobel Prize while you all get on with the hard part," to "Hi, I'm here to actually help close the deal on a general agreement that could lead to an actually respectable treaty when the language is finalized next year."

I would type more, but I have a video to finish for the upcoming Longest Night Festival, a SolSeed event to be held in east Portland starting 12 days from today. Aren't deadlines great?

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