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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 United States Declaration of Independence from the British monarchy

The Occupy Wall Street Declaration of independence from what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt referred to as the “economic royalists”

A speech calling for a return to American greatness (from Aaron Sorkin’s new TV show The Newsroom, for which my cousin Daniel is on the production crew)

Each of these links contains some very dubious statements.  The last item in the list of grievances against the king of England refers to “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions,” an all too typical attempt to reframe Native Americans’ natural tendency to defend themselves and their land against invaders.  Several of the grievances in the Occupy declaration, particularly “They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press,” are disingenuous because they’re actually directed against governments supposedly acting in the interests of corporations.  Roosevelt makes the odd claim that the U.S. Constitution stands “against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike,” even though it was the founding document of a nation to be ruled by its people, and its words were originally interpreted to support rule by white male landowners only.  And in eulogizing America’s former greatness, the main character of The Newsroom makes the unlikely claims that “we never beat our chest” and “we didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for;” excessive national pride and partisanship may have become more serious problems in recent years, but they’ve always been part of American life.  But hey, nobody’s perfect.

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According to the Center for American Progress (CAP, not to be confused with the U.S. Climate Action Partnership), the COP16 international climate negotiations that just concluded have achieved essentially the best result we could reasonably have hoped for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet another CAP article points to some reasons for hope:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Previous episode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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"If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."
        - Dr. James Hansen, NASA

"While agreeing unabated emissions pose serious risks, some prominent scientists and economists focusing on climate policy said the 350 target was so unrealistic the campaign risked not being taken seriously — or could convey the wrong message. 'Three-fifty is so impossible to achieve that to make it the goal risks the reaction that if we are already over the cliff, then let's just enjoy the ride until it's over,' said John Reilly, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."
        - Andrew C. Revkin and Nick Perry, "Worldwide Demonstrations Advocate '350' Carbon Limit," The Seattle Times October 25, 2009

"Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done."
        - Paul Hawken, commencement address at the University of Portland, May 3, 2009

The Global Day of Climate Action, almost certainly the biggest single political event in history, happened three weeks ago yesterday, and I haven't posted about it until now. Why? Because I didn't know what to think after attending an event, listed on the website but actually part of an unrelated Seattle Town Hall lecture series, in which Professor David Battisti of the University of Washington provided the climate science endorsement of that John Reilly quote above. His graph of climate futures, taken from the IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, defines stabilizing CO2 levels at just over 500 ppm by the year 2100 as a "utopian" scenario in which environmentalists achieve everything they can reasonably hope for.

In a way, I realized after calming down for a week or so, this didn't say anything I hadn't already been aware of. Politics is about compromise, global politics doubly so, and so it stands to reason that however urgent the need for drastic action, chances are it simply won't happen unless the threat is imminent. And since the climate has actually cooled a bit since 2005 (a blip in the overall warming trend, of course), the idea that the climate crisis is already in progress and spiraling toward global catastrophe is currently not believable enough to spur strong action at the global climate negotiations in Copenhagen next month.

In a personal communication, Professor Battisti admitted that the 350 movement has a use, to serve as a high enough upper bound to possibly achieve a semi-decent commitment to action after the inevitable compromises are made. But now it looks like even that may be a pipe dream. Despite the pressure of those 5200 events occurring in 181 countries on October 24th,

". . . depressingly, all predictions point to a big, fat non-event. The pundits, and even the lead negotiators, tell us that we can’t expect that 'FAB' (fair, ambitious and binding) treaty we’ve all been working for to extend the work of the Kyoto agreement. There are just too many disagreements and unresolved issues, they say, between 'developed' and 'developing' countries over issues ranging from targets for reducing global warming pollution to investments in clean energy technology and the adaptation funds needed to transition away from a quickly warming world.

"And so, we squabble as the world burns."
        - 1Sky Campaign Director Gillian Caldwell, "What's a grrrl to do when everyone predicts disaster?" on the Care2 Global Warming Blog

In search of an answer to the question posed in that article title (or a more gender-neutral version thereof), I wrote a sort of fable to try and convince myself that an inspiring future could exist in which civilization heroically survives and prospers in a hot, damaged world. Please read it and tell me what you think.

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This article seems to be on some kind of blog-based chain mail, but I heard about it from [ profile] bdunbar, who agrees with me on very little else about Obama's policies.

"WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is asking the Supreme Court to overrule a 23 year-old decision that stopped police from initiating questions unless a defendant's lawyer is present, the latest stance that has disappointed civil rights and civil liberties groups.

"While President Barack Obama has reversed many policies of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, the defendants' rights case is another stark example of the White House seeking to limit rather than expand rights.

"Since taking office, Obama has drawn criticism for backing the continued imprisonment of enemy combatants in Afghanistan without trial, invoking the 'state secrets' privilege to avoid releasing information in lawsuits and limiting the rights of prisoners to test genetic evidence used to convict them."

What's worse, I had only previously heard about the second of the three items in that last paragraph (shouldn't there have been email alerts from someone about this stuff?). All of which makes this Jon Stewart clip somewhat less funny than when I saw it for the first time a week or so ago. But I still don't seriously believe he's going to establish "re-education camps" for our kids.
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“In a rare public ruling, a secret federal appeals court has said telecommunications companies must cooperate with the government to intercept international phone calls and e-mail of American citizens suspected of being spies or terrorists. . . . the ruling is still the first by an appeals court that says the Fourth Amendment’s requirement for warrants does not apply . . . The court ruled that eavesdropping on Americans believed to be agents of a foreign power ‘possesses characteristics that qualify it for such an exception.’ . . . ‘It provides a very good result; it reaffirms the president’s right to conduct warrantless searches,’ said David Rivkin, a Washington lawyer who has served in Republican administrations.”

-James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, “Court Affirms Wiretapping Without Warrants,” NY Times, Jan. 15, 2009

I seriously cannot believe Mr. Rivkin said that with a straight face.  I can just imagining him breaking out into an evil laugh.  “Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!  We can claim you’re a foreign agent and search all your stuff, and you can’t stop us!”  (Yeah, the article mentions that “Several legal experts cautioned that the ruling had limited application,” but still…)

Meanwhile, on the economic front:

“Some conservatives have argued that the law creating the [$700-billion bailout] program, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which Congress passed hastily in October, violates constitutional principles that limit the amount of power that lawmakers can delegate to the executive branch. . . . Now the FreedomWorks Foundation, which was founded in 1984 and declares itself to be ‘leading the fight for lower taxes, less government and more freedom,’ says it plans to file a lawsuit against the program. . . . The bailout’s sheer size, the memorandum states, takes it beyond the realm of other Congressional delegations of authority that have been found constitutional.”

-John Schwartz, “Some Ask if Bailout Is Unconstitutional,” NY Times, Jan. 15, 2009

Hmm, so I guess the conservative argument is that Congress granting the Executive Branch the authority to violate the Fourth Amendment is too small a “delegation of power” to be unconstitutional.  Not that anyone was supposed to have had that power in the first place.

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“What does it mean to 'Bring Life' to each of us, to all of us, and to the entire galaxy?”

- Theme question for SolSeed's first organized event

“Rational hyper-intelligent critters would realize that even hyper-intelligent critters can make mistakes and having backups is a good idea. In this case having a terrestrial planet people can live on [without high technology] in the event of a really massive systems crash is a good idea ...”

- [ profile] bdunbar , in a comment thread here

“Taking and not giving back, demanding that 'productivity' and 'earnings' keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity--most of the World, animal, vegetable and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it's only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life.”

- Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, pp. 480-481

Many sources agree that more solar energy falls on Earth's surface in an hour than humanity currently uses in a year. But according to Nikolai Kardashev, eventually we could reach a point where we use it all, along with every erg of available nuclear, chemical, and geothermal energy this planet can produce.

Okay, in actual fact you can be a so-called Kardashev Type I civilization just by using a total of around two hundred quadrillion watts, however obtained. But let's take it literally for a moment. It's a pretty insane idea, really... )

As if Type I weren't crazy enough, Kardashev Types II and III involve harnessing all the energy of a star and a galaxy, respectively. The premise I don't buy here is that increasingly advanced civilizations must always use ever-growing amounts of energy.  It's infantile, really--why assume that there is no such thing as “enough?”

Now, I'm all for getting out there and building some colonies and big solar arrays in space, on Mars, and on extrasolar planets. Even a Ringworld or a Dyson sphere could be pretty cool if we figured out how to do it right. But I think that in all these adventures, we're really going to want to take samples of our biosphere along for the ride. It's what created us, after all--and for the time being, we really can't live without it.
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"The man explained to Max that . . . both he and the man who had saved Max from the kidnappers belonged to an ancient and secret society of men known as the League of the Golden Key. Such men roamed the world acting, always anonymously, to procure the freedom of others, whether physical or metaphysical, emotional or economic. In this work they were tirelessly checked by the agents of the Iron Chain, whose goals were opposite and sinister. It was operatives of the Iron Chain who had kidnapped Max years before.

- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, p. 133
I would like to suggest that the operative word in this fanciful quote, from the backstory of an imaginary comic book series called "The Escapist," is "from." If your opponent wishes to keep people in chains, whether literal or metaphorical, then your goal is to free people from those chains, i.e. from negative impositions by other people or society more generally--anything from debt slavery to overly high taxes on investment income. The corresonding freedom to is much more ill-defined, but clearly centered on the affected individual's abilities, with little direct reference to any positive interaction with society at large.

About four and a half years ago, I posted this screed about the limitations of an ideology whose only tenet is that "freedom is good." I didn't offer much of an alternative, other than an inchoate plea for people to make choices with greater consideration for the survival-of-the-species problem. Here's a better idea, which has a nice yin-yang symmetry to it: rather than viewing society as necessarily opposed to individual freedom, why not accept that humans are social creatures who gain from the formation of friendships, teams, and communities? The best single word I could think of to express this concept is "mutualism," a term from ecology that simply means an arrangement where both or all parties benefit. If you prefer, "mutuality" could also work to describe the general principle. Rather than working against each other, freedom and mutualism can reinforce one another, as each member of a group contributes most when he/she is free to choose how to contribute.

Of course this is all very well for small groups, perhaps up to a few hundred. Large-group mutualism is a basically unsolved problem, as I discussed in my previous entry as well as this post from last year.

My current best stab at a solution in the realm of politics would be something along the general outlines of a soviet democracy, that is, a hierarchical series of councils with each level's representatives chosen from the ones below it. Obviously, I would put in extensive checks to ensure that the power of the highest councils remains limited. I also think it might be better to choose representatives to the next higher council by simply rotating through the lower council's members--send a different pair every few years, not going back to the first pair until everyone else has served (two is better than one because one can serve as a check on the other). That way the council doesn't just select whoever is best at persuading them that he/she will do a good job when given broader authority, since as Douglas Adams observed, "those who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it." This probably holds even if you replace the word "rule" with "govern" or even "coordinate."

In fact, if there are councils down to neighborhood level, the whole idea of voting could be removed altogether in favor of a simple aptitude test on the basic workings of government--if you pass, you get to be on the council. Would this still count as democracy? Certainly, in the sense of "a philosophy that insists on the right and the capacity of a people, acting either directly or through representatives, to control their institutions for their own purposes" (from the first entry on Except in my system, we would be working together in the open to achieve this, rather than casting anonymous ballots in a basically statistical exercise that we hope will manage to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.
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Okay, so the first one is obvious if you think about it. Some government subsidies distort the market by giving a blanket incentive for companies to do something that makes no economic or ecological sense:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*I have to note here some possible bias: according to the linked article, while greatly respected as an economist, "Krugman is known to be pronouncedly liberal in his political views."
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"He had that sense, or inward prophecy -- which a yong man had better never have been born, than not to have, and a mature man had better die at once, than utterly to relinquish -- that we are not doomed to creep on forever in the old, bad way, but that, this very now, there are the harbingers abroad of a golden era, to be accomplished in his own lifetime. It seemed to Holgrave -- as doubtless it has seemed to the hopeful of every century, since the epoch of Adam's grandchildren -- that in this age, more than ever before, the moss-grown and rotten Past is to be torn down, and lifeless institutions to be thrust out of the way, and their dead corpses buried, and everything to begin anew.

"As to the main point -- may we never live to doubt it! -- as to the better centuries that are coming, the artist was surely right. His error lay, in supposing that this age, more than any past or future one, is destined to see the tattered garments of Antiquity exchanged for a new suit, instead of gradually renewing themselves by patchwork; in applying his own little life-span as the measure of an interminable achievement; and, more than all, in fancying that it mattered anything to the great end in view, whether he himself should contend for or against it. Yet it was well for him to think so. This enthusiasm, infusing itself through the calmness of his character . . . would serve to keep his youth pure, and make his aspirations high."

- The House of the Seven Gables (first published in 1851), pp. 158-9

Ah, you say, but our era really will be different. For one thing, we have six kinds of political and ecological catastrophe coming up, which, based on the J-curve principle*, will hopefully motivate us to make major improvements to our society. Plus, sooner or later we'll have superhuman AIs running loose on the Internet, and then who knows what will happen?

Oddly enough, Hawthorne sort of predicted that too:

"'Then there is electricity -- the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence!' exclaimed Clifford. 'Is that a humbug, too? Is it a fact -- or have I dreamt it -- that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence!"

- The House of the Seven Gables p. 230

* In its general form: "Sometimes, things have to get worse before they get better."
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Speaking of famous Churchill quotes (though according to the linked page, Churchill claimed to have gotten this one from somewhere else): if you feel like a heaping helping of disillusionment, check out this post by [ profile] bdunbar, summarizing what is probably the true story of Love Canal, despite the fact that Reason Magazine is the major source cited.*  The gist is that the company that produced the toxic waste was forced to sell the land by the threat of eminent domain, despite their objections that it was clearly unsuitable for building a school on.

The worst thing about this story is that the local government's "desperate" need for any available land was driven by the will of the people, specifically their desire to immigrate to Niagara Falls and/or have lots of babies.  Democracy sometimes leads to really stupidly short-sighted government actions, no doubt about it.  (Incidentally, Churchill thought short-sightedness is something we just have to live with.  I couldn't disagree more--some aspects of the future are definitely predictable enough to act on.)

To my mind, however, the best solution to keep this sort of thing from happening again is a policy of transparency/open government (see page 4 of the linked document), so when our elected officials are trying to do something ridiculous like build a school and a neighborhood on top of a toxic waste dump, it has to tell us that that's what it's doing.  That way we can stop it before it starts, rather than discovering what happened twenty-five years later, when the horrible consequences finally come into the open.

(Of course, limits placed on any conceivable transparency program in the name of national security mean that it won't help us prevent other outrages, such as government spying on Americans without a warrant.  For that, we'll still have to wait for a leak [pun only slightly intended] to the press, and then hope it's possible to embarrass our representatives into stopping it, or replace them with others who will.)

The other good solution to the specific problem of toxic waste, of course, is to make it food for another industrial process.

* The author of the Reason article admits that "Hooker Chemicals may very well have botched others of its many chemical dumps," and that "The customary practices [at the time] were to pile up such wastes in unlined surface impoundments, insecure lagoons, or pits, usually on the premises of the chemical factory, or else to burn the wastes or dump them into rivers or lakes."  But that's not what Hooker did at Love Canal.  (Okay, that sentence just sounds wrong...)

P.S. Things I did not know (earlier) this morning: Pi day (3/14) is also Albert Einstein's birthday.  I wonder if he was born at 1:59...
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"Everywhere, the cost of food is rising sharply. Whether the world is in for a long period of continued increases has become one of the most urgent issues in economics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Here are some intriguing closing remarks from President Phil Chase, a character whom I first quoted in this post, from the end of Kim Stanley Robinson's epic trilogy of near-future environmental catastrophe: Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting. (These books are far better than their hokey titles suggest.)

Economics-related )

On sustainability:
    "By permaculture I mean a culture that can be sustained permanently. Not unchanging, that's impossible, we have to stay dynamic, because conditions will change, and we will have to adapt to those new conditions, and continue to try to make things even better—so that I like to think the word permaculture implies also permutation. . . .
    "Taking care of the Earth and its miraculous biological splendor will then become the long-term work of our species. . . . People worry about living life without purpose or meaning, and rightfully so, but really there is no need for concern: inventing a sustainable culture is the meaning, right there always before us . . . [and] will never come to an end while people still exist. . . .
    "We have to become the stewards of the Earth. And we have to start doing this in ignorance of how to do it. We have to learn how to do it in the attempt itself."

This from a president who has supported dumping mass quantities of salt into the north Atlantic to restart the Gulf Stream, as well as pumping massive amounts of water from the rising seas inland to form new salt lakes.  The full impacts of actions on this scale are unknown, and some of Robinson's characters do worry about this, but they rationalize that things have already gotten so bad over the course of the trilogy that there's no time left to look before we leap.  Hence the title of this post, which recurs several times throughout the trilogy.

One might conclude that we have a ways to go yet before that attitude becomes unavoidable.  On the other hand, consider how far we've already leapt in the wrong direction:

    "Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently estimated the ocean has absorbed 118 billion metric tons of CO2 since the onset of the Industrial Revolution—about half of the total we’ve released into the atmosphere . . . [which] is good for our atmosphere but bad for our ocean, since it changes the pH. Studies indicate that the shells and skeletons possessed by everything from reef-building corals to mollusks to plankton begin to dissolve within 48 hours of exposure to the acidity expected in the ocean by 2050. . . .
    "Collectively, marine phytoplankton have influenced life on earth more than any other organism, since they are significant alleviators of greenhouse gases, major manufacturers of oxygen, and the primary producers of the marine food web. Yet because many phytoplankton produce minute aragonite shells, these pastures of the sea may not survive changing pH levels."

Major manufacturers of oxygen, eh?  That would be an understatement: "phytoplankton draw nearly as much CO2 out of the atmosphere and oceans through photosynthesis as do trees, grasses and all other land plants combined" (p. 57), converting it all to oxygen.  We're talking about a large fraction of the world's oxygen supply, slowly dissolving before our eyes.  In this light, crazy proposals like those described above, or like using iron dust to promote phytoplankton growth as described in the linked SciAm article, start to seem worthy of strong consideration.
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The following is a summary from Don't Think of an Elephant!, Lakoff's influential guide to framing the political debate, explaining how it has worked for conservatives and could work for liberals in the future.
  • Liberals are fundamentally about helping people who need help, and building communities where everyone helps each other to be successful.

  • Conservatives are about teaching your kids the values and discipline which will (supposedly) allow them to become self-reliant and never need anyone's help.

  • Both liberals and conservatives believe the government should act to maintain freedom, promote prosperity, and protect the people, though of course they differ on exactly what that should mean.
Conservatives would counter the liberal worldview by saying that it's almost always wrong to help people. If they didn't ask for help, you're imposing yourself on them, and if they did ask, they're probably just too lazy to help themselves and need to learn some discipline. In the rare case when someone can't help him/herself, he/she needs to pay back whoever helped him/her at a later date, thus providing a self-interest motivation for the helper.

Liberals would counter the conservative worldview by saying that everyone needs help sometimes, and it's quite possible to help someone without having him/her become dependent on that help. Also, a society based on an "everyone for him/herself" philosophy is not really a society at all (as Margaret Thatcher once observed), and is fundamentally weaker than one whose members are invested in the society through a sense of community, and act to maintain that community.

But Lakoff says we shouldn't try to counter each other's worldviews, or frames, since each one is present in everyone's mind to some degree. Every time we argue against the language the other side uses to activate their frame, we are activating it too. Instead, we find language that focuses on our frame and asserts its value.

For example (still a paraphrase): "Taxes are our investment in the future of America. Our parents' and grandparents' investments built the infrastructure our society depends on--our highways, communications systems, the Internet*--as well as the educational and scientific establishment that keeps us moving forward. We, who benefit from these investments, must invest in our future, and that of our children and grandchlidren. Rich American business leaders who build huge corporate empires based on the infrastructure and institutions built by our tax dollars, and then move their wealth to offshore tax havens, are traitors, pure and simple."

And: "The New Apollo Project, a proposed major government investment in alternative energy, isn't just a program to fight global warming. It will help protect America by gradually eliminating our dependence on unstable foreign supplies of oil, the money for which often contributes to terrorism. It will help people prosper by providing a vast number of new jobs. It will protect everyone's health, as well as wilderness and natural diversity, by reducing air and water pollution. It even helps other countries who are given access to this technology, because they too will be able to stop buying oil and make their own energy instead."

It's a good book. If you want to know how to help effectively promote the progressive agenda instead of just trading blows with Republicans on their home turf, read it.

* Which grew out of ARPANET, a project of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and still runs on the government-built-and-maintained phone and cable networks.
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The book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, starts off as one of those "everything you know is wrong" attacks on an existing prevalent ideology, in this case the one epitomized by the phrase "reduce, reuse, recycle." In the authors' eyes, under the environmental program of increasing "efficiency" so as to reduce our impact on nature, "human beings are regarded as 'bad,' [and] zero is a good goal" (apparently a veiled reference to the ideals of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement). And they deride modern recycling as "downcycling" because the material's quality is reduced, for instance by mixing together all the types of metal, polymer, and paint in a car's body, such that it contains more toxins and can only be recycled once or twice before becoming completely useless.

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

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

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

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

When I bought this book, Amazon brightly suggested I get another on that I read parts of a while back: Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins. I'm a short ways in, and I think it will turn out to be a more readable version of the same idea: these authors make it clear from the get-go that they believe the next industrial revolution is already in progress.
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"People who study the Larger Picture are bound to get depressed. Environmentalists are a gloomy bunch, not so different from the fundamentalists I grew up among. They were never so interested in the beauty of lilies or kindness to strangers as they were fascinated by visions of The Tribulation, Armageddon, the Last Judgment. The world was about to end -- they alone were privy to this information -- and the imminence of it excited them, as if they were in a darkened theater watching the opening titles of a movie in which all hell breaks loose."

-Garrison Keillor, in an essay I clipped out of the Funny Times a long time ago

Fairly obviously, this kind of attitude is unhelpful and to be avoided if possible. Yes, in its way, catastrophic climate change would be a great adventure. But as a character in Charles Stross's novel Accelerando points out, "an adventure is something horrible that happens to someone else." We need to do our absolute best to keep eco-Apocalypses in the realm of science fiction.


Aug. 9th, 2007 10:24 pm
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When a scientifically-minded person gets too certain about something, especially something that could justly be called an extraordinary claim, s/he should get a little nervous. I'm a little nervous because my beliefs on both climate change and the current state of our democracy have pretty much solidified: in both cases, we're in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. Here are the best quotes I have to back me up at present (they are rather lengthy, sorry), along with quotes that offer hope for solutions. Please poke holes in them if you can:

The Climate Crisis )

Sound-bite version: The climate crisis is real. We must start mass-producing solar arrays, wind farms, and biofuels made from algae that also captures smokestack emissions. Let's get moving!

The Democracy Crisis )

Sound-bite version: Lying us into war? Warrentless spying on Americans? Torture? Habeas Corpus eliminated? Let's make sure future presidents don't think they can get away with this. Impeach now!

Also, here's a rather over-the-top comic version. (Well, it's possible that we'll have a king by 2024, but he certainly won't call himself one in public.)
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"--there is no alternative to global cooperation. We have to admit and celebrate our interdependence, and work in solidarity with every living thing. All God's creatures are living on this planet in one big complex organism, and we've got to act like that now. . . . Recall what it looked like here even five years ago. You can't help but admit that huge changes have already come.

"Now what do those changes mean? Nobody knows. Where will they lead? Nobody knows. This is what everyone has to remember; no one can tell what the future will bring. Anything can happen. Anything at all. We stand at the start of a steep ski run. Black diamond for sure. I see the black diamonds twinkling everywhere down there. Down the slope of the next decade we will ski. The moguls will be on us so fast we won't believe it. There'll be no time for lengthy studies initiated by political administrations that never actually do anything, that hope for business as usual for one more term, after which they will take off for their fortress mansions and leave the rest of us to pick up the pieces. That won't work, not even for them. You can get offshore, but you can't get off planet.

"It's all one world now. The United States still has its historical role to fulfill, as the country of countries, the mixture and amalgam of all humanity, trying things out and seeing how they work. The United States is child of the world, you might say, and the world watches with the usual parental fascination and horror, anxiety and pride.

"So we have to grow up. If we were to turn into just another imperial bully and idiot, the story of history would be ruined, its best hope dashed. We have to give up the bad, give back the good. Franklin Delano Roosevelt described what was needed from America very aptly, in a time just as dangerous as ours: he called for a course of 'bold and persistent experimentation.' That's what I plan to do also. No more empire, no more head in the sand pretending things are okay while a few rich guys wreck everything. It's time to join the effort to invent a global civilization that we can hand off to all the children and say, 'This will work, keep it going, make it better.' That's permaculture, as some people call it, and really now we have no choice; it's either permaculture or catastrophe. Let's choose the good fight, and work so that each generation can hand to the next one the livelihood we are given by this beautiful world.

"That's the plan, folks. I intend to convince the Democratic Party to continue its historic work of helping to improve the lot of every man, woman, child, animal and plant on this planet. That's the vision that has been behind all the party's successes so far, and moving away from those core values has been part of the problem and the failure of our time. Together we'll join humanity in making a world that is beautiful and just."

-Presidential candidacy announcement of Senator Phil Chase, from the novel Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson
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" 'Your dream is a good one,' said Ender. 'It's the dream of every living creature. The desire that is the very root of life itself: To grow until all the space you can see is part of you, under your control. It's the desire for greatness. There are two ways, though, to fulfill it. One way is to kill anything that is not yourself, to swallow it up or destroy it, until nothing is left to oppose you. But that way is evil. . . .'

" 'I see,' [the alien] said. 'The tribe is whatever we believe it is. . . . We [and other tribes] become one tribe because we say we're one tribe. . . .'

"Ender marveled at his mind, this small [alien]. How few humans were able to grasp this idea, or let it extend beyond the narrow confines of their tribe, their family, their nation. . . .

" 'You humans grow by making us part of you . . . Then we are one tribe, and our greatness is your greatness, and yours is ours.' "

- Orson Scott Card, Speaker for the Dead

". . . and sometimes in the afternoons, first listening to a proposal to genetically engineer kelp to produce bulbs filled with ready-to-burn carbohydrates, then talking for an hour with the UNEP officer in town to plan a tidal energy capture system . . . and then speeking to people in an engineering consortium of government/university/industry groups about cheap efficient photovoltaics, he would come out of it . . . dizzy at the touch of the technological sublime, feeling that a good array of plans existed already--that if they could enact this array, it would go a long way toward averting catastrophe. Perhaps they were already in the process of doing so. It was actually hard to tell; 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."

- Kim Stanley Robinson, Fifty Degrees Below (which depicts a much more believable version of the Day After Tomorrow abrupt-climate-change scenario)

These quotes show that growing and managing global consciousness is quite a Herculean task if we want to do it right. Humanity is so big that just comprehending what it means to be "all one tribe" takes a lot of effort, almost a shift to an alien mindset. Some science fiction authors use the phrase "growing up as a species" to describe this immensely difficult transition. But now, with catastrophic climate change looming mere decades in the future, as well as potentially massive risks to civilization due to habitat destruction, widespread genetic engineering of crops, and many other issues, we have run out of time. We have to grow up now, or face a population crash that will make nuclear terrorism look like a statistic about deaths caused by vending machines.

March 2015

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