Debunk the delusion! Ecologize the economy!

In the wake of last week’s UN General Assembly, the world seems an unscrupulous chaos. The fight against ISIL continues to escalate as the international coalition officially adds Russia (and awkwardness via Syria à la Assad), Hong Kong protests Chinese authoritarianism, Ebola rampages on in west Africa, and—let’s not forget—last Tuesday, NYPD arrested a polar bear. If that’s not a perfect metaphor for the military-industrial complex I don’t know what is. A white man in a uniform, with a gun, putting nature in handcuffs. Volumes spoken.

Photo courtesy of Carbonated

Image courtesy of Carbonated

Meanwhile, the Sept. 5 ceasefire in Ukraine remains tenuous as shelling in Donestk has repeatedly threatened to end the shaky truce between Kiev and the rebels in the east. The official word seems to be that the ceasefire is holding. But have no illusions about it, the Ukrainian crisis is hardly defused. The ceasefire is technically between Kiev and Moscow, not Kiev and the separatists, so the ceasefire has “held” only insofar as explicitly Russian troops aren’t shooting at Ukrainians. Instead, the newly declared republics in Donetsk and Luhansk have consolidated military forces into the United Army of Novorossiya (New Russia) to keep fighting the regime in Kiev and their fighters’ behavior is becoming increasingly flamboyant and barbaric. Despite the official word, people are still dying in Ukraine.

Photo courtesy of ForeignPolicy.com

Novorossiya militant—-image courtesy of ForeignPolicy.com

Media coverage in the US might be dwindling because of ISIL, but under no circumstances should we consider the Ukrainian crisis resolved. NATO is still arming Kiev, the Poland-Lithuania-Ukraine alliance forces are deployed along the eastern European borders with Russia, NATO troops are stationed in the Baltics, and Russian military convoys in Ukraine, while partially withdrawing, are still very present.

Conveniently ignoring Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took the UN GA as another opportunity to call out (@ 10:00) the United States for hypocritically coercing nations and exploiting crises around the world for economic and geopolitical gain under the auspices of good triumphing over evil. Granted, we do do that. We’ve been using moral righteousness to veil economic and geopolitical interests since Theo Roosevelt attacked Cuba and strong-armed Colombia in Panama for sake of bringing civilization to the uncivilized. US foreign policy has been something of a contradiction since then—a strange blend of moral emancipatory agendas and capitalistic imperialism. Accept freedom or die.

Photo courtesy of Vosizneias.com

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov—-image courtesy of Vosizneias.com

Perpetuating the US-Russia dialectical rivalry, Obama fired back on 60-minutes reasserting a narrative of American exceptionalism and moral responsibility to intervene militaristically in crises all over the world (@ 9:34), wherever we happen to see ourselves needed. Indeed, we’ve been patrolling the world since Roosevelt exclaimed US prerogative to police the globe of “chronic wrongdoing” with his 1904 Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

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But this US-Russia dialectical rivalry isn’t just a vestige of the Cold War. Ours has been a set of competing narratives for more than a century. In the same year that Teddy declared the US the world police (1904), the Russo-Japanese War over control of Manchuria and Korea was raging. In turn, TR intervened to ensure that there was no decisive winner for sake of regional stability. So began the US-Russia geopolitical contest for supremacy. Only thirteen years later, in the midst of World War I, Russia had its Bolshevik Revolution and the millenarian contest between Capitalism and Communism erupted. The geopolitical rivalry became enshrined in ideological dogmatism of undeniably religious fervor.

Excerpt from the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine of 1904. Courtesy of Ourdocuments.gov

Excerpt from the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine of 1904. Courtesy of Ourdocuments.gov

Both nations came into their “industrial-owns” in the early 20th century, and since the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles, the bureaucratic norm among State and international elites has been to disguise and discuss economic and military-industrial interests with moral platitudes. The same kind we hear from leaders today like Putin’s “Plea for Caution”, and President Obama, RFM Lavrov, and Secretary Ban Ki-Moon at the UN. I’d like to think that the people behind these bureaucratic and political offices genuinely mean what they say. But for all their personal sincerity and resonant optimism, the world remains a socioecological mess.

Just look at the Outcomes Report from last week’s UN GA and the Millennium Development Goals Report from 2013. Despite the lofty rhetoric—for all the “just” war and subsequent bureaucracy—the vast majority of what we’ve done over the past 70 years (since the UN’s founding) has accomplished little more than to serve existing neoliberal economic interests. Success in trade liberalization, economic growth, and industrial development has meant some degree of poverty alleviation in developing nations—a worthy goal to be sure—but what progress there has been toward poverty alleviation has come at unprecedented social and ecological cost. Deforestation, climate change, mass extinction and biodiversity loss now define the Anthropocene and income and gender inequities the world over resemble a writ-large global classism reminiscent of Gilded Age America. The richest of the rich have never been richer, and the poorest of the poor have never stood to lose so much for so little in return. This is as true within advanced industrial societies as well as without

Graph courtesy of the World Bank

World Income Gap—-graph courtesy of the World Bank

Image courtesy of FinancialSocialWork

American Distribution of Wealth—-figure courtesy of FinancialSocialWork

While “sustainable development” is in international vogue, nothing about it has proven sustainable in any meaningful holistic sense. The very idea of sustainability has been hijacked by neoliberal elites in powerful States, international regimes and multinational corporations and, despite espousing social equity and ecological resilience goals, has come to emphasize capitalist economic interests above all else while socioecological priorities fall to the wayside. The “green neoliberalism” of the UN, WTO, World Bank, IMF and the like is anything but green.

The joke—the really incredulous thing about all this—is the idea that what we’re doing can be made sustainable without radical, fundamental change; that we can globalize capitalism, universalize hyper-consumer culture, grow economies and populations perpetually and do it all sustainably just by consuming certain types of products made by “eco-friendly” multinational corporations. Duped by hollow “free market environmentalist” advertisement and promotion, consumers in advanced industrial societies have come to conflate the socioecological spirit of sustainability with the economic capacity of existing multinational industries to produce, and we to consume, certain material goods in perpetuity.

But sustainability is not just the perpetual production and consumption of goods, trade liberalization, economic growth, and poverty alleviation—though looking at WTO, World Bank, IMF, UN, etc. sustainable development policy and outcomes as compared to their rhetoric, its easy to understand how so many of ecological conscience could succumb to the rhetoric and unknowingly become complicit in the conflation of sustainability with green neoliberalism and the international economic model of endless growth. It’s time to pull back the wool! Sustainability is actually a much deeper, more robust, holistic combination of socioecological values and principles.

The essence of sustainability means the rational and reasonable ecological orientation of society—that we consume reasonably and justifiably within the planet’s resource extraction biocapacity; the embrace of cooperative socioecological complementarity over market-based competition; the rekindling of social fairness principles like usufruct and the irreducible minimum that underwrote precapitalist cultures; the decentralization of policymaking authority such that decisions are made by the people they affect rather than by bureaucrats living far away; radical direct municipal democracy and the inversion of conventional top-down governance; citizen majority-ownership of local industrial means of extraction, production, and consumption; and the non-domination of women, men, and nonhumans by traditional concentrations of wealthy, white, male elites.

The bottom line is this: unsustainability is a crisis of inequitable overconsumption. Global material resource consumption has increased eight-fold in the past century, we’ve long surpassed the Earth’s biocapacity, and our international trajectory remains fixed on a model of infinite economic growth. We must consume less if we wish to live sustainably. But radical, fundamental change doesn’t mean a reversion to Stone Age living or Earth-goddess worshipping Neolithic eco-mysticism. Far from it. We need not sacrifice living well in order to live sustainably.

Krausmann, Fridolin, et al. "Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century." Ecological Economics 68.10 (2009): 2696-2705.

Krausmann, Fridolin, et al. “Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century.” Ecological Economics 68.10 (2009): 2696-2705.

Capitalism as we know it is not a necessary precondition for industry, technology, and modern standards of living. Precapitalist societies in the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Central America and the Ancient Roman Empire enjoyed wondrous technology and scientific innovation. But innovation was produced through cooperative complementarity rather than the more recent social Darwinist Western mantra of “healthy competition” mangled and abducted from evolutionary biological theory. The creativity and fecundity of nature as produced by evolutionary competition is a descriptive observation of biological phenomena—not a prescript for social organization. Nevertheless, endless competitive growth, rather than cooperative complementarity, has, in turn, led the global community down a path of unsustainable material resource consumption wholly without precedent in historical precapitalist civilizations of comparable science, technology, and quality of life. Granted, these precapitalist societies had their own domestic problems from which we gain the wisdom of hindsight. The point is that capitalism is not the only way to ensure existential resource security, ameliorate the hardships of animal life, and live enriched by science and technology. We need not consume so rapaciously to live well.

Individually, much of what we consume does little toward improving our wellbeing, so we’d likely live better by living with less. Indeed, individual consumption is frequently coerced by advertising and manufactured needs, and, in cases of addictive, gluttonous, and akratic consumption, leads to vicious and futile recursions of consumption and discontent. Consuming less means liberation—emancipation—from the invisible chains cast by the invisible hand; the cold mechanical market reduction of biodiversity and ecology to mere resource stocks and human life to a nihilistic cycle of labor and consumption. We would live better for living with less. We would live better for being free of capitalism’s vicious futility.

But the majority of global material resource consumption is institutional and systemic: large central States, international bureaucratic regimes, and multinational corporations dictate the terms of material resource exploitation, production, and consumption according to the prerogatives of ownership. We mere serfs own little and so decide even less. If we want to live sustainably, in turn, we need a radical and fundamental change in the basic structures of society: institutional and systemic inequitable overconsumption our targets of revolution.

The 20th century model of neoliberal elite-dominated nuclear-industrial nation-states and international regimes in collusion with multinational corporations that together auto-validate their ownership and exploitation of the planet like an echo-chamber or citation-circle has proven socially inequitable, ecologically destructive, unsustainable, and culturally undesirable. But the current generation in power is too set in its ways to be the revolution.

remaking society_cover

It is up to us—we the Millennials—to remake society. Socioecological revolution is our responsibility, because amidst hypocritical, played-out antagonistic rhetoric from the world’s two biggest nuclear powers—all while sociopolitical and ecological crises hang in the balance—the war machine in Ukraine and the Levant rolls on and neoliberal elites continue their reign at the expense and exploitation of you and me and women and people of color and all of the nonhuman ecology of the world around us, now reduced to resources to be consumed by capital society and war.

If this seems hyperbolic, just looks who’s been making an killing off death and crisis since November 2013 (when Orange Revolution tension re-percolated onto Kiev’s streets after former President Yanakovich rejected a trade deal to further liberalize Ukraine’s economy) and before, now intensified by the international coalition mobilizing to fight ISIL in Iraq and Syria. While ten companies in particular are getting rich from war, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Northrop Grumann & Airbus Group NV have all seen nearly geometric increases in stock value since last November, and exponential increases since November of 2012. These are all warplane, warship, artillery, missile, armored vehicle, arms, and electronics manufacturers. And all of these are astoundingly resource intensive products and processes, and they’re largely driven and powered by fossil fuels.

Lockheed 2013 stock trendsGeneral Dynamics 2013 stock trends

Where there’s war, there’s oil. Whether we’re fighting for it or not, it’s always a major player. Oil production and exports in the US have skyrocketed since 2006 with the fracking revolution, and global consumption is at an all time high and rising. Much of that increase in global oil consumption is demand-driven by developing countries. Much of the status quo is comprised of consistent demands in advanced industrial nations. But in all cases, it’s driven by institutional and systemic neoliberal constructs never far removed from the demand of war. This inequitable unsustainable overconsumption is a systemic and institutional issue—the problem of our era—the Millennial issue.

Graph courtesy of the US Energy Information Administration.

United States Total Oil Production—-graph courtesy of the US Energy Information Administration.

We must take responsibility. Soon we’ll depose prior materialistic generations and take the seats of power for ourselves and remake society from within, but in the meantime we must work from without and use the tools, however shabby they may be, at our disposal. For now, that means exercising—despite causal impotence objections—extreme justificatory discretion when participating in the market. It also means that we must VOTE. Be knowledgeable of and involved in politics. Be politically active. Take action. Vote. This November and in every election moving forward, vote. Granted, our choice in America between Democrats and Republicans is stifling and unrepresentative. With the exception of a few polarizing social issues, the two US parties are almost identical. Both perpetuate the same model of hyper-centralized nationalism, global capitalism spread by imperial neoliberals and war hawks, clandestine cahoots with multinational corporations, and the disenfranchisement of any and all who don’t contribute financially to campaign mudslinging chests.

Indeed, the two party system, lack of congressional term limits, and campaign finance regulation are among the biggest systemic institutional challenges facing our generation. But problems of that sort seem solvable only from within the halls of Congress, kept largely unreachable by the vast majority of the public because of extravagant campaign spending expectations hidden behind the revolving door of Iron Triangles.

To that effect, we need new parties. We need an end to career politicians, and we need to strictly limit corporate aggregate and per-candidate campaign contributions and expenditures. But first we need to vote. And then we need to ensure that we carry our proud post-materialist values forward into our nation’s future governance. This is not a call for mere reform nor anarchy, but for revolution. A fundamental change to the basic constructs of society. It’s ultimately up to us. Answer the call.

Let’s get it together humans.

Debunk the delusion! Ecologize the economy!

Love your country, question your government.

Love your country, question your government.

Creatures of habit

It’s been a while! Seven months. But spontaneous hiatus can be good. Gives time to explore the wilderness, refocus on what’s important. Here are some shots!

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Monarch Mtn

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Great Sand Dunes

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GSD

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GSD

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Flatirons Vista

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Huron Peak–14,009 ft.

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Huron

Even though the blog and I were on a breakthe sun god has been steadfast. The same sun, everyday, overhead everyone. Unifying us throughout history, across continents and species. But the reason we exist is not our reason for being. The sun does not unify us in meaning or purpose. Meaning and purpose are left for us to work out for ourselves. The world is not a mystic unity. Nor is “humanity.” We are an innumerable diversity; a spectacular tangle of world views and social orders that stretch back 7000 years to the origins of civilization in Sumerian Mesopotamia.

Human history is a cyclical narrative of social growth and decline, ecological feedback, and political upheaval. Modernity is hardly different from ancient Sumer or medieval Europe in that narrative—except in scale, intensity, and speed. We haven’t changed that much. Society has been ravaged with conflict, inequity and ecological degradation since Sumerians started farming around 5000 BC and population took off–eventually acquiescing Malthusian feedbacks.

ancient sumer

Ancient Mesopotamia–courtesy of the Ancient History Encyclopedia

Even then socioecological and political stability was hard to come by in the fertile crescent. Sumerian societies were extremely hierarchical and resource wars between city-states were constant. Eventually the Sumerians fell to the Akkadian Empire, the Akkadians then to the Assyrians, and so began the cycle of regime and revolution. Same story through Bronze Age and Hellenistic Greece; the rise and fall of the Roman Empire; the European Dark Ages and rise of the Islam in the Arabian peninsula, North Africa, and South and Eastern Mediterranean; the Renaissance and Enlightenment; the Industrial Revolution; globalization, and now the centralized military-industrial complex of worldwide neoliberalism. Seven millennia later, civilization is still stuck in the same cycles of social turmoil and ecological feedback as Sumer. The cycle of regime and revolution rolls on like a pumpjack. Social inequity and ecological degradation abound.

Except now we do it global.

Income, gender and racial inequity; climate change; ocean acidification and warmingmass extinctions and biodiversity loss; slavery and human trafficking; agroindustrial monocropping & exploitation of developing countries; NPK fertilizer run-off, eutrophication, and the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico; the privatization of water; unprecedented deforestation; sea level rise; the Great Pacific Garbage Patchthe ozone hole over the Southern Hemisphere; the systematic placement of dangerous manufacturing plants in the developing world; CAFO non-point source animal-waste pollution; extended extreme drought in the southwestern US; distributive and participatory environmental injustices related to energy development in the US, Ecuador, Papau New Guinea, China, and elsewhere; indigenous displacement and inequities; and international geopolitical military conflict in Ukraine and the Levant, now merging via Russia a la Syria.

Courtesy of: http://www.chevroninecuador.com/

Ecuadorian Amazon after ChevronTexaco development—courtesy of Chevron In Ecuador

Global capitalism and the centralization of power and wealth in international neoliberal regimes, large States, and multi-national corporations are remarkable. We enjoy technology and material resource wealth in industrialized countries unlike anything the world’s ever seen–but at cost of exacerbating historic social inequities, military conflict, and ecological degradation the enormity of which can’t be overemphasized. This is the so-referred “socioecological crisis.”

Unsustainable and inequitable material resource consumption is central to the socioecological crisis.

Global material resource consumption has increased eight-fold in the past century, skyrocketing after World War II. We surpassed the Earth’s biocapacity (the amount of material resources we can sustainably consume) in the mid-70s, and now, consuming more than 60 billion tons/year, it would take more than 1.6 Earths to sustain our habit. It’s no surprise that large central powers clash over control of the world’s resources.

Biocapacity surpassed_graphic

Material resource consumption exceeds world biocapacity around 1976–courtesy of The Footprint Network

But we are a great diversity. People aren’t uniformly responsible for unsustainable overconsumption. And really, while we are each responsible for what we consume, inequitable unsustainable overconsumption is a systemic problem–it’s the doing of large central States, multinational corporations, and international regimes all with neoliberal economic motivations. Global capitalism has created material resource inequity unlike any in history.

Consuming more than ever in advanced industrial societies, billions around the world in subsistence economies still struggle to meet their existential needs.

A great few consume too much. Or rather, too many consume too much while too many consume too little. The ecological crisis is fundamentally a social crisis—a crisis of consumption. Really, overconsumption. But not straightforwardly so. It’s an inequitable overconsumption. A stark minority of wealthy people consume far more than is reasonable—than is fair—while far too many are left in want. Most ecological problems are symptomatic of inequitable social organization, irresponsible central governments, multi-national corporate resource privatization, the systemic oppression of coerced overconsumption in advanced industrial societies, and the procedural disenfranchisement of the poorest in the world often most vulnerable to ecological decline—we must, in turn, equitize in order to ecologize society.

Modernization. Industrialization. Centralization. Globalization. Development. Consumption. This has been Western civilization’s mantra since the Enlightenment, our recipe for wellbeing, for the Good Life—the heralds of modernity: that we are destined to overcome the poverties of the human condition through cumulative advances in science, technology, and the liberalization of central government and the global market; that we will be more free and endlessly better off for our complicity in an socioeconomic model of limitless consumption. Through industrial development and the expansion of “free” trade (as governed by a handful of impenetrable central authorities), neoliberals promise the world a secular deliverance from scarcity and oppression. Free markets make for rich, free people. Or so the story goes.

Instead of spectacular emancipation, global capitalism has exacerbated historical oppressions. Race, gender, and income inequities persist worldwide and ecological degradation perennially associated with human habitation has rapidly intensified since the Industrial Revolution. Three centuries after the great social and political liberalization of the Enlightenment, international neoliberal elites have institutionalized a scaled-up version of medieval European feudalism. The Earth’s resources, the land, the Earth itself, have been parceled and purchased—now “owned”—by a handful of powerful States, international governing regimes, and multi-national corporations—exploitation and commoditization their agenda. For most of us—we serfs—we own little and decide even less. But still too many consume too much while too many consume too little.

Courtesy of UN MDG 2013 Report

Courtesy of UN MDG 2013 Report

Paradoxically, despite enabling unprecedented and unsustainable material resource consumption in advanced industrial societies, people of subsistence economies the world over still struggle to meet their non-contingent needs—all amidst accelerating ecological decline. And usually it’s women and the especially impoverished in subsistence economies who shoulder social inequities and ecological degradation.

But that’s not to say advanced industrial societies are internally equitable themselves. Racial, gender, and income inequities persist throughout “modern” countries as well. Too often women are disenfranchised by social and cultural norms laden with sexism. Too often the poor and racial minorities in the developed world bear the ecological risks and harms of industrial land-use without inclusion in the decision to industrialize, informed consent or fair compensation. Local decisions are made instead from far away by iron triangles of feudal lords: corporate executives, purchased career politicians, and a revolving door of pretentious technocrats in opaque bureaucracies—the inevitable dehumanizing machinations of hyper-centralized government and the privatization of the planet.

Perpetual growth, production, consumption, profit, and power are the agenda of the already powerful, not the vast majority of people. Most of us just want to live fulfilling, meaningful lives—to feel a sense of place, purpose, and existential validation—but have been deluded into mistaking material consumption for human wellbeing by those with an interest in selling it to us.

Consumption is not wellbeing. Existential consumption is obviously essential to basic wellbeing, but marginal returns on material consumption quickly diminish and eventually the consumptive cycle becomes futile and vicious. In many cases—especially in advanced industrial societies—we would live better for living with less. Or rather, we could consume less and still manage to be better off. Wellbeing is only a matter of consumption to a point. Once existential needs are met, living well really means resilient and enriching interpersonal and socioecological relationships: living in a community of social and ecological complementarity, free self-expression, fair distribution of resources and burdens, and equitable direct democratic involvement in political and economic decision-making.

But this diverges radically from everything we’ve been told by our neoclassical and neoliberal politico-economic overlords—they who would have we peasants remain complicit in an unsustainable global system of social organization that has left more than a billion people in destitution, disenfranchised all but the super-wealthy and well-positioned elite, and caused the worst ecological decline since the start of the Holocene.

It’s the same old story really. 7000 years after the birth of civilization we’re still spinning in the same circles as the Sumerians. Constant geopolitical conflict, cycles of regime instability, distributive and participatory social inequities, struggle with natural feedbacks to ecological exploitation—not much changes. Like Sisyphus we are bound to forever push our boulder up the mountain. We are creatures of habit.

But that’s not to say we should resign to nihilism. We must imagine Sisyphus happy and take responsibility for our boulder!

Predictable as the human cycle may be from 40,000 feet, we have local and interpersonal opportunities to find meaning and purpose in socioecological relationships on the ground—in connecting with the people and land around us. We might find that we live better and more sustainably for doing so.

And as long as we’re here, so too will be the sun. Ecosystems change, regimes rise and fall, but the sun is always overhead. Uniting us. Unifying us. Throughout history and across continents and species. We are a vast diversity of world views and societies, but the sun we have in common.

Sunset over the Continental Divide seen from Green Mtn

Sunset over the Continental Divide seen from Green Mtn

Wet and wild weather

Living in Boulder through this week’s historic flood was wild. And I mean that literally. Extreme weather is some of the only wilderness most urbanites are exposed to these days. There’s something exciting and adventure-inspiring about a good storm—the unknown, the uncontrollable. But only to a certain point—only within our comfort limit. Even outdoorsy folks generally don’t opt for true wilderness anymore—the occasional hunting, fishing, and multi-day backpacking trips spent surviving on sustenance food are soon followed by showers, couches, electricity, restaurants, beer, climate control, and all the other comforts of modern life we’ve come to take for granted.

But floods, hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes, tornados and the rest are quick to remind us of nature’s wild power. I’ve personally experienced Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Ike—and some indirect effects of Hurricane Katrina—in Houston, extended extreme drought in Austin, Hurricane Irene in New York, and now a 100-year flood in Boulder. For all our sentimentality about Mother Nature’s harmony and plenty, natural disasters tell another story—one of the Earth’s indifference to our troubles. It’s easy to romanticize wilderness—and for a lot of reasons we should—but we should also keep in mind the violence that comes the with it.

Despite some internal disagreement about the meaning and virtue of the idea of wilderness, it is usually a clarion call for environmentalists. But I think the wilderness—the same natural force that drove humans out of the state of nature—could play a slightly different role in the debate over climate change.

In the most general terms, climate change means increasingly extreme weather events. For the US and many other places, it will look like bursts of extreme precipitation followed by extended dry periods. In other words, the flood in Boulder fits the pattern. Of course, to what extent or degree this flood was caused by climate change exactly is tough to say, but it’s hard to reflect on an event like this past week and not implicate climate change in the grand scheme of things.

In essence, some calls for climate action could start to look something like “climate change must be stopped because it’s bringing the wilderness to our doors!” For rhetoric’s sake, it’s probably best not to confuse the term “wilderness” with more than one context or connotation. But it seems important to recognize that by intensifying such extreme weather through climate change, we’re literally bringing the power of the wild into our homes (mostly basements, in Boulder’s case). Supporting climate action because we believe the nonhuman world is inherently valuable is one thing (and apparently not very persuasive to many in politics), but property damage and loss of life from extreme weather might finally drive home the justification for national climate policy with anthropocentrics. A silver lining, at best, but noteworthy nonetheless.

Experiencing wilderness is enchanting, inspiring, and important for developing a sense of place and meaning in secular modernity. But let’s not necessarily invite the wild in for coffee. Radical, home-destroying, life-taking weather exists with or without anthropogenic climate change. It should be obvious that we should do whatever we can to stop exacerbating these natural disasters, even and especially if it means evolving beyond our unsustainable carbon-intensive lifestyles. Maybe something about Boulder—alongside these 10 facts about climate change—will be mentioned in this week’s Climate Change Hearing before the US House of Representatives.

Our new hydroverlords

The image below is one of four precipitation models published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that together forecast extreme global drought less than 50 years from now as a consequence of climate change. What follows illustrates predicted global precipitation levels in 2060-2069 assuming a moderate greenhouse gas emissions scenario as defined by the International Panel on Climate Change. Moderate.

Climate prediction map 2060-2069

Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2060-2069

Take a moment to let all the purple, red, and yellow sink in. These are Dust Bowl conditions and worse. Take another moment.

It is difficult to emphasize enough the gravity of this predicted drought. We should all keep the above image in mind when we consider the value of water. Water is fundamental to the existence of life as we know it. Not just human beings. All life on Earth. For obvious utilitarian and deontological reasons, by the land ethic and the difference principle, by the precautionary and proactionary principles, and by our natural moral sense, water is of the highest non-arbitrary value and it is our responsibility as constituents of the human world and of the Earth itself—if we even entertain such a distinction—to do everything in our power to prevent and prepare for this possibility.

Pause to consider what it would mean for governance, for geopolitics, for the world if we fail to curb climate change beyond this moderate GHG emissions path and simultaneously 1) fail to implement and enforce the universal human right to water as recognized by 122 countries of the UN in 2010, and/or 2) consent to the privatization of water resources by multi-national corporations. I, for one, would not welcome our new hydroverlords.

What’s worse, the map shown above is only the third of four models. The fourth model extends from 2090-2099. Brace yourself for the purple: Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2090-2099

Water resource management, conservation, and preservation will likely fall into their own compartmentalized regime complexes—as discussed by Keohane and Victor—fragmented from other initiatives focused on mitigating and adapting to the various impacts of climate change. According to Keohane and Victor, there’s reason to be optimistic about the capacities of this regime structure. But simply adapting to new conditions of water scarcity equates to treating the symptom rather than the disease. While adaptation is absolutely necessary, we must simultaneously confront climate change at its source: human greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) and the several positive feedback cycles that global warming entails.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations alone are currently around 397 parts per million (ppm), which essentially guarantees an increase in average global temperatures of ~4 degrees Fahrenheit (~2 degrees Celsius). What’s more, unless we reduce GHG emissions by ~80%, we can expect the increase in average global temperature to be even more dramatic.

Confronting climate change means one of two things (and maybe both, but probably not—the former would render the latter largely unnecessary and the latter would likely preclude the former). We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 1) an immediate significant reduction in energy consumption or 2) a techno-scientific revolution in renewable energy, energy storage, energy transmission, transportation, agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing, and architecture.

Coupling either approach with reforestation and afforestation projects would be a good idea too, especially considering the Brazilian government’s recent report that deforestation in the Amazon has actually gotten worse since May of 2012.

In all likelihood, the future holds an increase in energy consumption, not a decrease, so we must—at some level—prepare ourselves to rely on faith in Julian Simon’s infinite resource of the human mind to spark the large-scale techno-scientific advances that the climatic consequences of our industrial behavior demand. We must have faith in progress, despite the paradox therein. A daunting task, to be sure, but we have little choice as we have collectively agreed, both implicitly and explicitly, that the Good Life is an energy intensive one. The climate challenge is upon us. If we are to progress, we must progress toward sustainability—and hopefully to a future with more water than NCAR has predicted. Let’s get it together, humans.

jmk

The Solar Impulse! Flight without fossil fuels

Perusing NPR this morning I stumbled across a report about this solar tech gem. The Solar Impulse, an aircraft powered entirely by solar power (with storage tech sufficient to keep it airborne day and night), stands poised to change the very face of aviation: to enable us to travel the world “without fuel or pollution.” Now, needless to say, there is work to be done. The plane itself is still in R&D, as its engineers have yet to pressurize, oxygenate, or heat the cabin–and its top speed is still comparable to a sluggish car (40-50 mph). But the Impulse successfully completed its inaugural flight over Switzerland and plans to fly California to New York in 2015.

Its creators, with Faustian enthusiasm, aim to challenge the impossible; to overturn conventional wisdom about sustainable development and clean energy technology. To be certain, taking to the sky without the help of fossil fuels does exactly that (albiet, I’m sure fossil fuels were used somewhere along the process of engineering the Impulse). In the words of aviation pioneer and Impulse designer Bertrand Piccard, the plane carries not passengers, but a message: one of inspiration for the quality of future of humanity, and our relationship with the Earth and its resources.

I maintain that our relationship with the sun is a special one. Life–energy–the escalation of biological complexity despite the second law of thermodynamics–the sun makes it all possible. And here again we are reminded that with dedication and ingenuity, we need not revert to burning its multi-million year old fossil energy reserves to perpetuate our quality of life. After all, whether we’re talking about coal, oil, natural gas, biomass, or wind–these are all indirect manifestations of solar power: biomass through photosynthesis; coal, oil, and natural gas through the fossilization of biomass; wind through atmospheric temperature and pressure changes as the sun heats the air. Logically, to channel solar power directly to the human energy demand is more efficient and therefore more sustainable than waiting for its conversion into fossilized organic material (or even wind, though the turn around in the case of wind is tremendously shorter than FFs)–we simply need the proper technology to take our consumption to the original source. The Solar Impulse is a strong step in that direction.

Despite being optimistic, I still struggle with my own skepticism about technoscientific utopian progressivism and techno-cornucopianism–that with enough time and technology human beings can overcome the paradox of progress–because it’s not obvious to me that the rare Earth resources we need to continue the flow of technological innovation will be recoverable indefinitely, or that organized civil society will remain stable for long enough to foster such technological advancement. But such skepticism is more of nagging intuition, substantiated by the provocation of John Gray and participants in the Dark Mountain Project, than an empirical problem. Malthus, as we’ve seen, was not correct (at least not yet)–and while I am confident that eventually the Earth’s human carrying capacity will be upon us, we may be able to stay off a painful population negative feedback cycle through (relatively) cheap and emerging energy (shale gas, wind, solar, nuclear) and intentional (e.g. – birth control distribution, family-limit policies, etc. ) and indirect (e.g. – women’s education, resource scarcity affecting reproductive instincts, etc.) population management methods long enough to smoothly and comfortably reach the point of sustainability (sustainable consumption & sustainable population). Human beings, as Lovelock predicts, will find a way to muddle through.

As Gray makes clear, to believe in a human future of technoscientific progress is a matter of faith. Even more so, to believe in progress as sustainability is an even bolder exercise of optimism. Whether such faith is hopelessly naive will be revealed in due course. But in the meantime, advances in solar tech like the Solar Impulse give me reason to keep believing. Or at least to be excited about the future.

Cheers, jmk

Listen up utilitarians! Friedman’s “win-win-win-win-win”

Putting a tax-based price on carbon emissions would be, literally and figuratively, a bold and explicit valuation of life itself–both of biodiversity’s preservation and of its fundamental elemental building block. It’d be nice if we could get some significant explicit value ascribed to the natural world after all this time. Putting Pigou to work on the cornerstone of biology might be an attempt to quantify something invaluable–but the unfortunate reality is that without a number, neoliberal capitalism defaults its value to zero and we all suffer a tragedy of the commons. But, oh yea, Friedman’s article is about the budget. Just think of the REVENUE and incentive to innovate! Come on you instrumentalist utilitarians, push for the win-win-win-win-win. Waxman can’t do it alone.

A hybridized market-based carbon credit trading system with a tax-based “catch-all” (like the one developed by McKibbin and Wilcoxen discussed at greater length here) could also satisfy eco-egalitarians still left wanting and free marketeers looking for a new generation of economic value. A carbon price would be precautionary move toward humanity’s softer treatment of the Earth and a proactionary incentive for technoscientific innovation toward progress as sustainability.

The sequester is just obdurate silliness anyway.

Let’s get it together, humans.

Cheers! JMK

Solar panels for all, precautionary or proactionary?

I think Crane and Kennedy have a point here — relying on solar energy, specifically putting solar paneling on residential roofs, are a good way to reduce the risk of relying on an antiquated electrical grid system that’s highly vulnerable to storms and natural disasters (like Sandy). The traditional grid, knitted together by a bucolic web of wooden poles and copper wires, leaves society exposed should part of its fragile infrastructure fail.

So, switching to residential, distributive solar can be seen a precautionary move — it’s too risky to keep depending on a grid that falls apart if power lines go down with a tree limb. Independent, “off-grid” home power systems would strengthen each link of the social chain mail so that when nature throws us a curve ball we aren’t left in the dark for days or weeks on end. For the risk-averse, these are worthy concerns. Not to mention that solar energy doesn’t carry the bouquet of environmental and human health risks that accompany the extreme ways that we extract fossil fuels these days (horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, deep water drilling for oil, and mountaintop removal mining for coal).

Often we’ll hear opponents of renewables frame alternative energy as being too risky. The wind and sun are intermitted, the technology is inefficient, and the costs are uncompetitive — or so they say. But with better battery technology, dramatic improvements in solar cell efficiency, and expectations of lower home installation costs these arguments against renewables won’t hold water in public for much longer. Soon, in fact, this framing will probably reverse itself and renewables will be understood as safe, sensible, and reliable, while fossil fuels will be seen as dangerous, costly, and anachronistic.

But should we understand support for solar energy as precautionary or proactionary?

On one hand,  using residential and distributive solar power is a precautionary move away from the risks of depending on fossil fuels and the outmoded electrical grid. In this sense, the switch to solar is less about the goodness of solar energy in particular, but rather about the consequence of mitigating the risks of fossil fuel use. To put it another way, to precautionary supporters of solar, it’s likely that any alternative energy source would be satisfactory since the shift is more about getting away from the risks of fossil fuels than it is about shifting to a particular kind of renewable energy.

On the other hand, proactionary supporters of solar might emphasize the goodness of solar energy itself over and above its consequence of replacing fossil fuels alone. Solar energy is good not simply because we need to mitigate the risks of fossil fuel use, but because solar energy represents progress. Fossil fuels remind us of primitive industrialism, while solar power speaks to our progressive refinement toward symbiosis with each other and the environment. Indeed, for proactionaries to put such immense trust in new solar technology despite its relative nascence is somewhat risky, but switching to solar is a matter of moral obligation; it is our duty to ourselves, to future generations, and to the non-human to make the change.

So, should we be proactionary or precautionary about solar power? I’m not convinced we have to choose — I support solar technology for precautionary and proactionary purposes. I am deeply concerned with mitigating the risks of our continued reliance on fossil fuels because they are inherently finite, unsustainable, environmentally damaging to extract, and pose threats to human health during development and when burned. Simultaneously, I believe that our relationship with the Sun is a special one and that it makes sense on ethical, axiological, and existential levels that the source of life should also be the source of high quality living.

Today, our visions of the Good Life are intimately intertwined with energy. High quality living means energy intensive living (with the exception of a few rogue primitivists out there). So the progressive challenge is making such a lifestyle sustainable. Progress, in this sense, is sustainability. But solar energy is not all about progress in the long-term. It’s also about human and environmental safety in the short-term.

Usually we find ourselves in a conundrum when it comes to the precautionary v. proactionary distinction: either we accept some risk as the price of progress, or we sacrifice some progress in order to mitigate risk. The difficulty arises when people make divergent value judgments about the proper balance of risk and progress — and also when we assume that the two routes are mutually exclusive.

Solar energy technology, however, defeats the idea that we can only reduce risk at the cost of progress. Making the gradual switch to solar constitutes progress toward sustainability and reduces the risks of using fossil fuels. We can be proactionary and precautionary at the same timeNow that’s progress.

Cheers!

Kincaid