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

Justin Hall-Tipping on grid-free solar energy and nanotechnology

A colleague of mine from Bard CEP posted this TED Talk by Justin Hall-Tipping in reply to my post on Donald Sagoway’s liquid metal battery. Hall-Tipping presents on carbon nanotechnology and grid-free solar energy — a truly invigorating watch. It’s ingenuity and creativity of this kind that keeps my romanticizing primitivism in check. Cheers!

JM Kincaid

New progress

The “classical” idea of progress is that human beings should pursue the continuous linear improvement of the human condition through advances in science, technology, and social organization. Progress, as such, is an arbitrary normative teleological judgment – we judge that the purpose of human life is to progress and that its pursuit amounts to a moral imperative.  The social and political prioritization of this pursuit, I have argued in the problems of society – part two, has culminated in “the paradox of progress,” which manifests today as our ecological crisis. The paradox is made in the fact that, through ecological disruption, human progress undermines its enabling conditions.  One could also think of this as a negative feedback cycle.

Negative feedback cycles are generally desirable in complex systems because they are self-regulating. James Lovelock and Andrew Watson’s Daisyworld provides a beautiful example of negative feedback and its homeostatic propensity. In terms of human progress, however, negative feedback ultimately means a regression in our standard of living, which, I assume, most people do not find desirable. But because the paradox of progress is beginning to become obvious in the forms of global climate change, ocean acidification, extreme weather events, hypoxic zones of oceanic proportions, unprecedented biodiversity loss, and global sea-level rise, all of which constitute serious degradations to the natural conditions upon which our economies, our standards of living, and the very habitability of the planet depend, we must quell any absolute aversion to changes in what we believe “progress” to mean.

In response to the ecological crisis of the paradox of progress, the classical version of the idea of progress is undergoing an evolution of sorts. As we approach the cusp of the paradox, norms about progress are adapting. The new take on progress is but a slight change from the classical version. “New progress” is the idea that humans should pursue the sustainable improvement of the human condition through advances in science, technology, and social organization.

The difference is between the pursuit of continuous linear improvement and sustainable improvement. The latter is a far less rapacious pursuit, and because the idea of sustainability is fundamentally concerned with enabling the continued fulfillment of our objective biological needs, a non-arbitrary purpose, new progress, while still normative and teleological, is not an arbitrary judgment, unlike classical progress.

Today we witness the development of a new idea of progress. Since the United Nation’s issuance of the Brundtland Report in 1987, human institutions the world-over have begun to adopt ideals of new over classical progress. Social norms about progress are starting to become intertwined with norms about sustainability; sustainability is, after all, a very natural evolution when faced with the prospect of regress or, in the most radical scenarios, collapse. The capacity of the sustainability movement to overcome the paradox of progress remains to be fully proven, yet an undeniable sense of optimism blooms from projects like those of the United Nations Environmental Programme, 350.org, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, and the Clinton Foundation.

Integral to the success of the sustainability movement will be a shift in global paradigm from anthropocentricism to ecocentricism, for the human-centered worldview is at the heart of our ecological crisis. We can no longer take for granted the capacity of Earth systems to abate our overwhelming pollution as if that were their purpose, nor can we continue believing human beings to be the most important and most significant aspect of the natural world. We must cultivate a sense of love, humility, and connectedness with the Earth and Sun, for they are, in many ways, life itself, and it is in both our rational self-interest and the collective ecological interest that we appreciate and protect the life-enabling natural conditions that together we enjoy and depend upon.

To do this, each of us must learn to be content, to find happiness in the very fact of our existence – a sentiment I’ve seen expressed by Lao-tze, Chuang-tze, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Shunryu Suzuki. We should try to satisfy our deepest existential longings through simplicity, companionship, love, music, sex, creation, and reflecting on the utter connectivity of everything from microbes to the universe and the constantly astounding reality that we happen to be the kind of animals that can consciously ponder our own existence. Of course, there is some room for material luxury in this picture, and there is an undeniably compelling case to be made for the nobility of human power and accomplishment. Even if I thought it were possible, I would not encourage doing away with the pursuit of progress altogether. To temper action with wisdom and proceed with the ecosphere in mind is good enough.

JM Kincaid