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.

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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.

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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

Third year of triple-digit growth in US solar PV market

In the second quarter of 2012 the US installed 742 Megawatts of utility-scale solar PV, reports GTM Research. This growth is largely attributable to the new Agua Caliente, Mesquite, and Silver State solar plants, all of which were backed by federal loan guarantees. I would like to think this means we can put the Solyndra issue to rest. Loan guarantee programs help free up capital for important projects to which private investors suffering from Keynesian mass psychosis are reluctant to commit. Sure, they can be risky at times, like all investments, but developing renewable energy technology stands as perhaps the most salient hurdle to perpetuating our high standard of living, making our energy intensive lifestyles sustainable, and maintaining a healthy environment for our contemporaries, future generations, and non-humans. For we who champion progress as sustainable improvements in science, technology, and social organization, this is surely welcome news.

JM Kincaid