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Quick summary if you're in a hurry: Americans may be able to reverse the destruction of our civil liberties and ensure that the U.S. military can't lock us up and throw away the key, but unfortunately it involves getting Congress to act on our behalf, after they just did the reverse.  I think it's worth a try.  Please call your Senators and ask them to co-sponsor the Due Process Guarantee Act of 2011.
 
It's possible that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) isn't actually about to destroy the foundations of American freedom.  According to several sources including Time Magazine, the version of the NDAA now on its way to President Obama's desk "includes a Senate-passed compromise that says nothing in the legislation may be 'construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.'"  And while most blogs and online news sources* say otherwise, Mother Jones, usually a reliable source for progressive pessimism, claims that that language is enough to ensure that "if a future president does try to assert the authority to detain an American citizen without charge or trial, it won't be based on the authority in this bill."  A blogger on Daily Kos agrees, which makes two unlikely messengers telling us not to panic about the NDAA in particular.
 
But maybe this battle was already lost anyway.  The same Time article cited above also includes a quote from Senator Carl Levin claiming that "a June 2004 Supreme Court decision, in a case called Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, said U.S. citizens can be detained indefinitely."  (Levin is a Democrat, in case you were wondering.)  The same claim has been made about the 2006 Military Commissions Act (MCA), the bill that motivated me to invent the American Fascism Clock.  And Obama himself claims that the critical Section 1031 of the NDAA merely "attempts to expressly codify the detention authority that exists under the Authorization for Use of Military Force" (AUMF), which was passed on September 18, 2001.  (This argument has been used before to justify indefinite military detention of an actual U.S. citizen.)  If he's right, then the terrorists had already won their supposed "war on American freedom" only a week after it began.
 
And now is the time to reverse that victory, while we have at least some significant amount of media attention.  Senator Dianne Feinstein, who introduced the amendment mentioned above trying to limit the NDAA's impact on Americans, decided it was a good idea to make sure that the "existing law or authorities relating to the detention" of said Americans was clearly in keeping with the Bill of Rights (rather than being muddled by the AUMF, the Hamdi case, and/or the MCA), which is why she introduced the Due Process Guarantee Act of 2011 yesterday.  It contains one loophole: if our military arrests Americans vacationing in some other country, this bill won't ensure they get a trial or Habeas rights.  But it's still worth fighting very hard indeed to get the bill passed ASAP.  Please call your Senators!
 
Unlike the climate crisis, we actually have a lot of room to turn this one around.  As Time Magazine points out in the cover story defining "The Protester" as their 2011 Person of the Year: "In North America and most of Europe, there are no dictators, and dissidents don't get tortured. . .  The protesters in the Middle East and North Africa are literally dying to get political systems that roughly resemble the ones that seem intolerably undemocratic to protesters in Madrid, Athens, London and New York City."  However pessimistic I may be about the current state of affairs in America, it's crystal clear that things could be a whole lot worse.
 
* Okay, that last link is to an opinion piece, but I included it because of the important point it makes: the NDAA includes a "ban on spending any money for civilian trials for any accused terrorist," meaning that even if the government wants to grant you due process after making some terrorism-related accusation against you, it effectively can't.
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The Bioneers motto is "Revolution from the Heart of Nature," and for the past 21 years, many of the plenary speakers at the annual Bioneers conference have presented projects they're working on that are truly revolutionary--big and successful enough to actually change the world for the better. This year, you don't have to take my word for it, because those presentations are available for free online! Here's a rundown of my favorites (click the names to play the videos):

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

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

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

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Click to see more of my photosLast Saturday, during and after my trip to Westlake Park (which is really more of a public square, only shaped like a triangle :-) to participate in Occupy Seattle, I was so caught up in the excitement that I worried I was losing my objectivity.  As I’ve mentioned before, I do believe that progressives need a mass movement to get enough of us seriously involved in politics that our representatives are forced to listen.  But I’m also not a big fan of the political polarization in this country, which the Occupy movement is certainly going to worsen with its calls for “global revolution.”  A large fraction of the participants at Occupy Seattle are socialists, communists, or anarchists, and this is no doubt true in other cities as well.

On the other hand, it’s worth noting that the Occupiers* have some important things in common with their conservative opposite numbers:

"You know, the average American taxpayer knows that at the end of the day, they're gonna be on the hook for the trillions and trillions of dollars that we're using to bail out these companies, some of whom have been irresponsible, and they're expressing their frustration, which I think is quintessentially American."

- Sean Hannity in 2009, referring to the Tea Party, as quoted on The Daily Show on October 5, 2011

That quote neatly matches up with a chant from last Saturday’s afternoon protest march, “Banks got bailed out / We got sold out!”  But it shouldn’t mask the obvious and stark differences between the movements.  For example, while “Tax the rich!” is clearly a central demand of the Occupy movement, Tea Party types are countering with demands to tax the poor and lower-middle class instead.  That’s when they’re not proposing the alternative of simply denying the right to vote to anyone who doesn’t pay income tax, probably marking the first time in decades when any conservative has claimed that paying taxes is patriotic.

Speaking of voting, I was curious whether the New York Times was right in describing the Occupiers and other similar protestors as showing “wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process,” so while I was at the “park” and heading home on the bus, I asked several people whether they planned to vote this year.  I got one no, one maybe, and two or three yeses.  I’d agree that most Occupiers are at least “wary” of the political process in America, given the massive influence of corporate campaign contributions.  But by and large, I think the Occupiers are in favor of democracy if it can actually be made to work for the people.  The guy who told me he didn’t plan to vote was not against democracy itself, but said he preferred the more direct democratic model used for decision-making by the Occupy [City] groups themselves.

Click to see more of my photosI got a chance to observe parts of that open-mike-like process at the evening General Assembly, although there were no actual proposals brought up for a vote that night.  Overall, I was rather impressed at the generally high quality of the comments, and the way the crowd used hand gestures to give immediate feedback to people’s suggestions and help ensure brevity of comments.  This was particularly important not only because the crowd at the Assembly was quite large, with many people waiting to speak, but also because the sound system had been packed up for the night, so each speaker had to pause after every phrase so the crowd could serve as “the people’s mike,” repeating what he/she had just said in unison, which was also quite impressive.  (There was only one case where this method didn’t work, because the speaker’s voice was so quiet that not enough people were able to repeat her words to make them audible from several meters away.)

I do think their process could use some improvement.  The moderators claimed to be keeping track of raised hands and calling on people in the order they were added to the “stack” (technically “queue” would be a more appropriate term), and I was never called on to speak, though there was a smaller session without moderators after most of the crowd had dispersed, where I was able to get some words in edgewise.  I think it’s better to have a physical line of people waiting to speak, which they did have at the open-mike rally earlier in the day (where they also had an actual microphone).  The last thing an allegedly leaderless movement needs is people starting to mistrust even their own moderators when it takes too long for them to be called on.

If you’ve been following the news coverage of the Occupy movement, you’re probably wondering just how divergent the opinions expressed in the General Assembly were, and whether there was any core set of demands that everyone could agree on.  Almost everyone at the Assembly certainly recognized the need for “points of unity,” which would likely include raising taxes on the top 1%, revoking corporate personhood, getting money out of political campaigns, and breaking up the Federal Reserve (which was singled out for criticism more than any other big bank).  One of the self-organized work groups that form Occupy Seattle’s “executive branch” is working to collect and organize people’s ideas for a unified list of demands.

Click to see more of my photosOn more local issues, there was a surprising level of agreement that the amount of drug use in the “park” was excessive and reflected poorly on the movement, as well as repeated calls for proactive inclusion of minority groups, and strong support for green practices like recycling and reusable cups.  Opinions on next steps, the nominal main topic of the General Assembly, were more varied, ranging from “making it legal to occupy the park indefinitely” to “occupying neighborhoods and workplaces,” which strikes me as more likely to work in the long run (that was the comment I made after the moderators left).  Opinions on the cops, who had been harassing the occupiers in various ways, ranged from “they’re our neighbors, families, and friends, and we’d welcome their support if they decided to switch sides” to the anarchist position of “we shouldn’t have a police force at all.”

So yeah, I still haven’t decided what I think of all this.  Maybe the Occupy movement is way too radical and divisive, and yet it may also have finally found a way to reverse America’s gradual drift toward corporate rule.  In any case, I still want to visit Westlake Park for another General Assembly, so I can witness the voting process of a direct democracy in action.  One thing I’m pretty sure of: it would be awesome if my neighborhood had meetings like that.

* For want of a better term, and no, “the 99%” is not a better term.  Like it or not, there is a large fraction of Americans who support policies that favor the rich and megacorporations.  (That said, I don’t regret joining the semi-related Other 98% Campaign.)


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I wasn't sure exactly how to tackle the next entry in this series, since my next planned topic, Al Gore's June 22nd article in Rolling Stone called "Climate of Denial," doesn't seem even slightly conservative.  Like Van Jones, Gore embraces the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy theory, the idea that we are being lied to in a concerted attack on, in this case, any and all government policy options to address the climate crisis.  Gore and his Alliance for Climate Protection (ACP) have been relentless in pushing for top-down, government-based solutions, beginning with an effective international treaty and continuing with a federal crash program to put a price on carbon and use the money to transition the entire American energy production system to renewables within a single decade.
 
But then I looked again.  The article actually starts off by pointing out that the climate deniers are really mounting an attack on Science and Reason themselves, which strikes me as a deeply non-conservative thing to do.  After all, conservatives are usually all about preserving and growing our technology-based economy, and the technologies that drive that economy wouldn't exist without science and reason.  To conserve and preserve the institution of science is to conserve and preserve civilization itself.
 
The reason I looked again was because I had just watched Al Gore being interviewed in New York as part of the ACP's 24 Hours of Reality campaign, which is still going on as I type, and he had just handed me a couple of bullet points on a silver platter.  He reframed his national policy recommendations, saying only that government needs to stop spending trillions on subsidies for fossil fuels, which in his opinion include the cost of wars in the Persian Gulf.  He also claimed that worldwide, energy companies are already building as much new renewable energy capacity as fossil-fuel-based capacity.  (Good!  Now we just have two more milestones to work toward: stop the growth in fossil-based energy entirely, then reduce fossil-fuel use to near zero.)  No one would typically accuse electric utilities of being anything but conservative, particularly in the U.S.--and yet if you narrow your focus to the U.S., as Gore pointed out, you see that wind power has been the fastest-growing type for several years now.
 
And during one of the slideshow presentations that comprise the bulk of the 24 Hours of Reality event (whose contents include many of the same points that appear in Gore's "Climate of Denial" article), I learned that the Vatican, center of perhaps the world's most conservative organization, now has a huge roof covered in solar panels.  The Catholic Church waited until 1992 to admit that Earth orbits the Sun, but they've apparently decided it's worth the effort to support renewable energy--and thanks to their tiny population, that single roof already gives them more renewable power per capita than any other nation on Earth.
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I haven't posted in a couple of months partly due to lack of motivation, but also because I've been quite busy, particularly with my apartment move, which will hopefully result in no water leak incidents for quite a while. Anyway, onward...

Martin Luther King said that “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” There is some truth to that when it comes to the gradually increasing rights of women and minorities, but for at least the past forty years, our democratic system of government has been bending away from justice, in the sense that our elected representatives increasingly represent the interests of wealthy campaign donors rather than those who actually voted them into office. The Citizens United decision, and the recent actions of 18 Wisconsin legislators aimed at destroying the labor movement's power in blatant disregard of their constituents' wishes, are just the latest steps in this long-term trend. We may be able to turn this trend around, but first we must slow it to a halt, and in the time it takes to accomplish that, it seems likely that we will drift into a state of total corporatocracy in which no policy that threatens Big Business's profits can be contemplated, at least at the national level.

So how do we live through such a period of history without allowing irreparable damage to our society and the biosphere? One answer lies in the fact that “Big Business” is far from a single monolithic entity that always speaks with one voice to demand changes in policy. Different industries want different things from government, and just as different political parties in a democracy can act as checks on each other's more extreme ambitions, so it may prove to be with industry groups. Learning to play these groups off against each other may become a key skill for advocacy groups operating in a corporate-ruled nation. And since more than two such groups can easily be identified, the resulting dynamics may come to somewhat resemble those of multiparty European democracies, so we could consider labeling this potential system of governance “parliamentary corporatocracy.”

As a simple example of how this might work, consider the conflict between transportation and telecommunications technologies. Oil companies, airlines, and the tourism industry would prefer policies that promote long-distance travel (and all the air pollution that goes with it), while companies like Microsoft, Cisco, and Skype would prefer that more people use their videoconferencing and related technologies to avoid much of this travel. The latter group may not have enough power on its own to stand against the likes of ExxonMobil, but they could make an alliance with the actual internet service providers and their parent telecom/media conglomerates, such as the recently established Comcast-NBC-Universal, who naturally want people to pay for the high-data-rate plans that HD video calls will require. (Or do they? These networks are already overstressed with the current level of video-streaming traffic, and all those mergers tend to make it less likely that major innovations will arise to solve that problem. But I'm doing my best to be a little optimistic here, so I'm ignoring that issue.)

Overall, while their legally mandated focus on short-term profits means that most large corporations will have a net negative impact on the commons, it's a mistake to demonize “Big Business” as a whole, even when fighting to limit its influence in politics. Partly this is just because almost all Americans depend on corporations for basic necessities like food, but partly it's because there are substantial and growing numbers of fairly good corporate citizens out there. Take this report from Ethical Markets Media, claiming that “Private Investments In Green Sectors Top $2 Trillion” over the four years since 2007. (“This over $2 trillion total does not include nuclear, ‘clean’ coal or CCS, nor biofuels from food or agricultural sources, which we consider unsustainable.”)

None of this is intended to suggest that we can or should try to adapt to such a system to the point where we won't need to go back to government of, by, and for the people. After all, the more aggressively a company focuses on profit at the expense of all else, the more wealthy and powerful it tends to become, which is why ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart, and the banks responsible for the current recession are among the biggest political powers in America today. We may have to work with some of them for a while, but not to the extent that it renders us unable to simultaneously work against the massive political power they wield. This power will be eroded naturally by declines in the oil supply, but we need to move that erosion along as quickly as possible while doing our best to ensure that the power vacuum is filled by the people (that is, by politicians who actually care what their constituents want), and not by another set of rapacious corporate overlords.

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

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

Some excerpts, with useful links:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So maybe there's a bright side to Republicans gaining control of Congress, and probably keeping us in Afghanistan far longer than us liberal "surrender monkeys" would like.  Maybe in the process, they'll give the military enough funds for solar panels and biofuels (some of them based on repurposed opium poppies :-) to make a real difference in the speed of clean-energy adoption in America.
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“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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Yeah, so there's this giant oil spill, which is destroying Louisiana's coastline and might move on to destroy Florida's as well.  It's like a hurricane, but less windy and way more toxic.  Inexplicably, while the shrimp industry is reeling under the impact of all this toxic petroleum, the 75th annual Louisiana Shrimp & Petroleum Festival is still slated for this September.  So while that's good for an extremely bleak laugh, we could all really use some actual good news.  And I'm not going to count the fact that Obama is trying to use the spill to wrangle votes for the climate bill, because thinking about that just reminds me of how little political capital Obama has left.

So here's an almost-too-good-to-be-true article about "The Restoration Economy," which apparently has been growing like crazy for years without anyone noticing.  Projects like forest, stream, and coastline restoration, brownfield cleanup, and community revitalization projects apparently create "74 percent more jobs [per dollar invested] than ANY other economic activity . . . and more than five and a half times as much as investments in dirty energy sources like oil, coal, and nuclear."

Even better, embedded in that article is a link to a 20-minute TED talk by a guy named Willie Smits who has managed, in collaboration with a scientific team and the local people, to rapidly restore a rainforest in Borneo on land that has been almost totally barren for decades.  Now, rainforests are known for absorbing almost all available nutrients into the biomass, such that if you cut one down, the soil doesn't have nearly enough nutrients left to regrow the forest.  The typical solution for agriculture is to not just cut the forest but burn it, and then use the ashes as fertilizer.  But Smits's team figured out how to fertilize the soil on a limited budget while reducing the incidence of fires in the region they worked in.  They did this with a belt of fire-resistant sugar palms, which also produce sugar for ethanol-based biofuels without having to be cut down--which is ironic, since the main cause of rainforest destruction in today's Indonesia and Malaysia is for oil palm plantations that also produce biofuels.  (Smits was also a keynote speaker at the ESRI User Conference last year; I'm pleased to see this because my first job was at ESRI.)
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This shouldn't need saying, but the application is both simple and profound: if you can use one or more of the pressing issues listed below to connect with someone who doesn't believe in global warming, their denial will cease to matter.  Every one of these problems is a threat to our way of life, and many of them are already responsible for thousands of premature deaths every year.  And every one of them would be solved by transitioning to a sustainable civilization powered by renewable energy.
  • Peak oil and the resulting inexorable rise in gas prices
  • Indirect funding of terrorist groups via oil payments to nations that harbor them
  • Air and water pollution from fossil fuel burning and other unsustainable industrial processes
  • Degradation of soil due to unsustainable farming practices, particularly loss of topsoil
  • Oceanic dead zones due to fertilizer runoff
  • Ocean acidification due to carbon dioxide absorption
  • Overtaxed and increasingly failure-prone garbage and sewage handling systems
  • Species extinctions and resulting loss of ecosystem services, due to most of the issues above plus habitat destruction and overhunting/fishing
I originally wrote up this list after finding out that we had one or two global-warming skeptics at the climate-crisis-focused mini-State of the World Forum in Washington D.C. last week.  As described here, the original full-scale event was "indefinitely postponed" because the organizers believed the general political climate in D.C. was swinging too rapidly back toward denial and inaction.  So the roughly forty people who showed up anyway talked mostly about leadership in other countries such as Brazil and China, subnational-level approaches, and nonpolitical topics like the rise of a subculture, the Cultural Creatives, that shares the values needed to build a wiser world.  I'll probably talk about other aspects of the forum in my next few posts.
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16 days ago, Rep. Donna Edwards (D. Maryland) introduced a bill to pass an amendment to the Constitution denying free speech rights to corporations, countering the recent Supreme Court ruling that essentlially removed all limits to corporate election spending.  It definitely has one cosponsor, Rep. John Conyers (D. Michigan), Chair of the Judiciary Committee.  Seemingly based only on an unsupported claim at FreeSpeechForPeople.orgthe left-wing blogosphere is claiming there are ten other cosponsors; I can't find any independent evidence for this.  Still, I really appreciate the fact that someone in Congress is taking seriously the idea that treating megacorporations just like people is wrong.

By the way, an earlier bill by Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), proposing a similar constitutional amendment, has no listed cosponsors and may have been outclassed by the less extreme Edwards amendment.  Edwards says the government should be able to regulate corporate spending, but explicitly avoids restricting freedom of the press (even for corporations?).  Boswell says all corporate political spending should stop, period.

Also, today is the "JP Morgan Chase Social Media Day of Action to End Mountain Top Removal Coal Mining," sponsored by Rainforest Action Network.  I may not be quite ready to close my Chase CD account in the middle of its term, but I do applaud any effort being made to end this horribly destructive practice.  Even if carbon sequestration were possible in the short term, there would still be a strong argument to ban coal-fired power plants unless we can clean up the extraction process as well.
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This will hopefully be the first in a fairly long series of posts on what a future of “heroic survival” on a hot and hostile world might look like, in the event that our best efforts are not enough to stave off severe and permanent global warming. I'll start with a list of possible coping strategies, in roughly descending order of cost, to the most sensational predicted effect: the drowning of the world's coastlines and some entire low-lying island nations.

1. Denial. Yes, if you're lucky, it will turn out that the current long-term trends are meaningless and the ice caps will stop melting within a few years. But if you're wrong, the cost of doing nothing is quite simply the loss of the land where 2.75 billion people will live by 2025. The economic impact of such a calamity is scarcely imaginable, even presuming there is actually a global economy still standing afterward to reckon the damage.
 

2. Prevention. Obviously the best overall solution, considering all the other issues that preventing catastrophic climate change would solve. But while the long-term impact to the economy may turn out to be strongly beneficial, no one can argue that we won't have to spend vast sums in the process of replacing most of the world's energy production systems (though the cost of the large-scale reforestation that will also play a key role in this solution is minuscule, at least by comparison).

3. Geo-engineering. The proposal sounds absurd, but I've now heard a couple versions of the idea of pumping the excess water from the oceans inland to form new saltwater seas (one was in Kim Stanley Robinson's novel Sixty Days and Counting, but I'm pretty sure the other was intended seriously). Quite apart from the possible side effects of such vast modifications to Earth's surface, I can't imagine where they imagine we'd get the energy to pump that much water. Back-of-the-envelope calculations say we'd have to move between three and four hundred trillion tons of water to counteract a one-meter sea-level rise, and if either Greenland or the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses, the projected rise is six meters.

4. Planned migration. As previously noted, a huge and growing fraction of the human population lives in coastal cities and towns. If we're lucky and the seas rise gradually rather than in sudden jumps, these settlements could move inland like amoebas, building new structures on their landward side to replace those abandoned to the inexorable tide. But with their construction industries swamped by the equally inexorable flood of migration from rural to urban areas, how will cities find enough excess construction capacity to execute such a plan? It won't be cheap, and neither will the cost of replacing the produce of the absorbed farmland. (Green roofs are awesome, but they can only do so much.)

5. Holding back the tide. This is another concept from Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy, where he describes a fictional island ringed by a huge earthen wall, inside which the land is all below sea level. But Lois McMaster Bujold describes a more globally typical case in her far-future novel Brothers in Arms, part of which takes place inside a huge barrier across the mouth of the river Thames.  Most coastal cities and towns are like London in that, if you simply built a wall along the coastline, water from one or more rivers would build up against it until it overflowed.  Bujold's solution is a system of giant pumps that bring incoming river water up to the new sea level.  A more practical, if ironic, solution might be to deliberately overexploit your water resource, piping as much of it away to farms and other cities as possible, so that the nearby rivers simply never reach the sea.

6. Raising the land. If we can build artificial islands and peninsulas, why not truck in even more immense quantities of dirt and rock to raise the street levels of low-lying coastal cities by several meters? (In the case of places like Tuvalu, where there is no higher ground to dig into, the dirt would have to be shipped in.) Earth-moving costs might be reduced somewhat if the lower above-ground stories of taller buildings are turned into basements rather than simply crammed full of dirt. Some of the many one- and two-story buildings could perhaps be raised to the new ground level rather than merely buried, while others might be reinforced and provided with light pipes to make underground living moderately bearable.

7. Welcoming the sea. Imagine a typical coastal city with street levels about a meter above the existing high tide-line. Now imagine that, as Greenland melts away, the lower two stories (roughly six meters) of every tall building are wrapped with thick new outer walls made of reinforced eco-friendly concrete, manufactured using a technique that mimics the growth of coral. As with the previous solution, you get two new basement levels for each building; meanwhile, the tops of the walls become the new sidewalks. Throw in some railings and a bunch of pedestrian bridges, populate the newly flooded streets with electric and paddle- and pedal-driven boats of every description, and voila: a new Venice, for a fraction the cost of rebuilding the whole place on higher ground. Short structures would again be a challenge; some could be raised on stilts or equipped with pontoons, but extensive programs to cram more residents into skyscrapers would probably be necessary. Meanwhile, a few rich eccentrics might water-harden their roofs and walls so they could live in inverted aquariums, perhaps with intentionally convoluted nooks and crannies in the outer walls to provide habitat for the many fish who will have been rendered homeless by the death of nearly every bit of real coral on the planet.
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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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"Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public."
        - Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company internal memo

"Gate? What gate?"
        - The Monster in the Darkness, in the webcomic Order of the Stick by Rich Burlew

There's no use at this point trying to ignore "Climate-Gate" or claim it's somehow meaningless. The timing, so close to the opening of the Copenhagen climate negotiations, is highly suspicious, but if the emails were faked, the University of East Anglia would surely have said so. It seems likely enough that the hacker who "liberated" them waited until a politically propitious moment to release them to the world, but that doesn't change the importance of what they say.

On the other hand, it's foolish to claim, as countless conservatives are now doing, that the emails prove anything in particular about the future of climate change. What they do is increase the uncertainty. Scientists at one of several important climate research centers, frustrated by complex and inconclusive data sets and angry about the continued threats to their efforts to convince themselves their research was of epic global importance, made some very bad decisions that make them look like Michael Crichton villains. This does not prove that all the data on which the IPCC based its most recent statements about the likelihood that humans are warming the Earth is automatically discredited. It certainly doesn't mean we can use the recent tree-ring data, which for whatever reason flatly contradicts measurements from actual thermometers (and glaciers), to argue that the world has actually been cooling during the 20th century.

After all, science itself is not actually in the business of proving anything. A scientific "fact" is only accepted as long as no evidence comes along to falsify it, and no part of the scientific edifice is immune from that possibility. The basic theory of evolution, for example, is considered to be "fact" because we've seen enough evidence, in both the fossil record and short-life-cycle species living today, that supports it. The theory of anthropogenic global warming has been moving in the direction of fact for decades, had nearly reached it with the most recent IPCC report and its 90% certainty level, and has now taken a step in the opposite direction; how large a step is presently hard to say.

But as politically unfortunate as this may seem for progressives, and as much as people with little understanding of the scientific method may try to distort the situation with simplistic sound bites, the trend toward sustainability is far from over. Clean renewable energy, in particular, still looks like a good move to people living in areas prone to asthma from smog or cancer from oil processing chemicals, as well as windy or sunny regions with depressed job markets. For the U.S. government, pollutants other than CO2 ought to provide ample reason to maintain the moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. And as for the international community, it has basically already given itself a one-year deadline extension, so the massive ramp-up in the climate movement's activities during 2009 may yet have time to take greater effect, as well as adjusting its rhetoric to the ever-shifting, always approximate scientific picture of reality.

It's hard to make major policy decisions, or take decisive action of any kind, in an uncertain world. But as long as the Age of Reason lasts, we will have to continually face that challenge and balance the probabilities as best we can.
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The wind turbine is the most recognizable symbol of the renewable energy revolution.  A solar array in silhouette is just a rectangle, and almost nobody would recognize a geothermal or tidal power plant, and hydroelectric dams are a little too morally questionable, so wind turbines are the image of choice.  At least two artists have come up with the bright idea of linking them to a famous patriotic photo from World War II:

This leads me to wonder whether environmentalists are now focusing on wind power at the expense of other important power sources, and if so, whether it’s just because the symbol works so well.  I remember reading in a couple places recently that wind power creates a lot more jobs per kilowatt than coal, but I don’t think there was any mention of how solar energy compared.

More broadly, of course, there’s the question of whether renewables can possibly be scaled up fast enough to meet scientifically mandated greenhouse emission reduction targets, the latest version of which is 80% by 2020 (rather than 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, which would be much easier).  Or would nuclear or even natural-gas-fired power plants be a better choice for scaling up in the short term to meet the world’s demand for electric power?

Lester Brown answers both questions in his book Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization:

“At the heart of Plan B is a crash program to develop 3,000 gigawatts (3 million megawatts) of wind generating capacity by 2020, enough to satisfy 40 percent of world electricity needs [assuming zero expansion of demand from today’s levels thanks to efficiency measures].  This will require a near doubling of capacity every two years, up from a doubling every three years over the last decade. . . .

“Wind turbines can be mass-produced on assembly lines, much as B-24 bombers were in World War II at Ford’s massive Willow Run assembly plant in Michigan.  Indeed, the idled capacity in the U.S. automobile industry is sufficient to produce all the wind turbines the world needs to reach the Plan B global goal.  Not only do the idle plants exist, but there are skilled workers in these communities eager to return to work. . . .

“The appeal of wind energy can be seen in its growth relative to other energy sources.  In 2008, for example, wind accounted for 36 percent of new generating capacity in the European Union compared with 29 percent for natural gas, 18 percent for [solar] photovoltaics, 10 percent for oil, and only 3 percent for coal.  In the United States, new wind generating capacity has exceeded coal by a wide margin each year since 2005.  Worldwide, no new nuclear-generating capacity came online in 2008, while new wind generating capacity totaled 27,000 megawatts.  The structure of the world energy economy is not just changing, it is changing fast.

Objections )

The main takeaway here is that renewable energy in sufficient quantity to meet world demand is already on its way; we just need to get there somewhat faster.  And wind power, far from being a figurehead of little real import, is already on track to become the biggest slice of the new energy pie.

News items

Oct. 5th, 2009 10:02 pm
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  • The Senate finally has its own version of the climate bill, called the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act of 2009 (CEJAPA--not as catchy an acronym as ACES, but oh well). It appears to be similar to ACES but with stronger greenhouse reduction targets and no provision to strip the EPA of its power to help regulate old, dirty coal plants.  It's good that it's starting pretty strong, because there's little doubt it will get weaker in the withering heat of Republican hatred about to be turned its way (right after the final vote on the healthcare bill).

  • On the same day CEJAPA was announced (September 30), the EPA itself said it was ready to move beyond looking at auto emissions under the Clean Air Act and start targeting certain large coal plants with proposed regulations that might take effect as early as 2011.

  • According to a short quote in the latest issue of GOOD Magazine, none of this may matter much to the international climate debate, since any climate treaty would require not 60 but 66 votes to pass the Senate, which doesn't seem likely enough to care about.  "All eyes will be on China anyway."  (For the opposing viewpoint, we go to an article in the online version of GOOD, saying that the world hates us for saying we might not get a climate bill signed into law before Copenhagen.)

  • I just got a cat! Her name is Petra, she's only a year old but seems calm enough not to mind being alone most of the day, and without further ado, here are the obligatory photos:

     

    Hopefully she'll help me stay positive as the final climate turning point approaches.

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"From the venerated saints and cathedrals of the Middle Ages to the pop stars and cineplexes of today, [Joe McHugh] explains why images and sound are increasingly supplanting the authority of the printed word, and by so doing, radically altering the cultural, economic, and political landscape of the United States and the rest of the world."
        - Description of a talk I saw at the Seattle Bioneers conference last year called "Slaying the Gorgon: Storytelling and Media in the Electronic Age"

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

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

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


P.S. The good news: world electricity usage is projected to decrease this year for the first time since recordkeeping began in 1945, providing a ray of hope that an energy-efficiency revolution could cement this new trend and put us on track to solving the climate crisis.  The bad news: the U.S. just greenlit the Clipper Pipeline to provide ourselves with vast amounts of oil from Canada's tar sands, among the most ecologically destructive fuels per unit usage ever produced.

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