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.

Obama_60 min

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.

Does distance matter?

There is some contention in ethics over the moral relevance of distance—I touched on this to an extent in the ethics of rising sea level (II). In essence, the question “does distance matter?” amounts to asking whether we have greater responsibility to those who are nearer to us than to those who are far away—if we have any such responsibility to those far away at all. In context of catastrophic sea level rise, one might ask: am I obliged to my neighbor who will be affected by rising sea level more so than to someone living in, say, Bangladesh who will likewise be affected?

Some would say, yes—we have some such responsibility to help our neighbors deal with sea level rise, and no such responsibility to help someone in a similar predicament in Bangladesh. Others would contend that we have equal responsibility to both. A third option might be that we have responsibilities to both, but more to one than the other—i.e. we do indeed have responsibilities to sea level rise related climate refugees from Bangladesh, but we have more responsibility to our neighbors. Another might say we have responsibilities to neither, but should assist only if it serves our own interests. The list could go on, but that’s not the point here. The point is to show that it’s not necessarily clear how distance plays into responsibility. It’s not so clear if distance matters.

So let’s construct a thought experiment to clarify things.

Suppose you live in the US and you’re running late for some sort of important engagement—a dinner, perhaps—that requires you wear a shirt. But you had been at the beach (you had accidentally fallen asleep in the Sun) and are utterly shirtless. You have no option except to purchase a shirt, and fast—somewhere on your way to the important dinner you’re running late for. Along your way you come across exactly one place that sells shirts—the only shirt store, in fact. You enter the store and find, to your dismay, that your shirt options here are rather limited. There are exactly two options, no more no less, of exactly the same quality, kind, price, etc. But you notice a key difference, all other things being equal. One was made in an Indonesian sweatshop and the other in a Mexican maquiladora, both of the same deplorable conditions. Your moral sense starts to ache. Whichever you choose, you realize, is an implicit endorsement of the reprehensible labor practices that produced it. You don’t approve of or want to endorse either, but you seem to have no choice about it—suppose you must choose. So you wonder—does distance matter?

If distance matters, then as a person living in the US you have more responsibility to not endorse the closer repugnance. If distance matters, you should buy the Indonesian-made shirt, swallowing the sad endorsement of the unethical practice that’s farther away. But this seems wrong.

If distance doesn’t matter, on the other hand, then you have equal responsibility not to endorse either, and you have come to an impossible choice. The only ethical option, as you see it, is to purchase neither, remain shirtless, and forgo your engagement at whatever sacrifice that entails—because distance doesn’t matter. Neither is morally acceptable.

The thought experiment may seem odd—I’m open to other formulations or suggestions—but perhaps it helps clarify intuition. I think, at least in this case, intuition tells us that endorsing either disturbing labor practice is unethical—that distance doesn’t matter—and that we have equal responsibility to treat people on the other side of the Earth with the same moral considerability as we do those nearby. Of course, an obvious objection stems from the premise “ought implies can.” Distance doesn’t matter only if we are just as capable of treating those nearby and those far away as moral patients. If we literally can’t help those far away—e.g. a drowning person on the other side of the planet—then we aren’t morally responsible for doing so. Ought implies can. We can only be obliged to do that which is possible for us. But insofar as we can help distant people, we should.

The implications of this intuition for how we ought to address global problems like climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, sea level rise, world hunger and dehydration, sociopolitical oppression, ocean acidification, rampant poverty and disease, slavery and human trafficking, etc., are vast. If distance doesn’t matter then we all share a global responsibility to solve these problems, or, in cases that involve global commons, to engage and address them in and on equitable and proportional grounds of complicity and capacity.

Depending on the context of the moral question, distance may or may not matter, more or less. Regarding global climate change, perhaps distance doesn’t matter. But regarding exposure to the risks and harms of natural gas development, where proximity is an obvious important factor, perhaps distance does. To say that distance always does or always doesn’t matter is an over-simplification, so it’s important we rehash this question in various contexts. The more often we ask the question, the more often we may find it appropriate or obligatory to expand our spheres of moral consideration. And such expansion, it seems to me, is of supreme importance if we are to live well in our global community.

On top of the world

Antarctica is stunning, to say the least. Though the aesthetics and importance of the Earth’s southern-most continent are easily and often overlooked. I think this is unfair. It’s certainly biased against Antarcticans. But this oversight isn’t necessarily because people think the glaciers, mountains, Archipelagos, lakes, snowy deserts, penguins, whales, and seals aren’t especially beautiful or important. Presumably people think, or at least would think, quite the opposite—charismatic mega-fauna, icy caverns and all.

Mt. Herschel, Antarctica—photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Mt. Herschel, Antarctica—photo courtesy of Wikipedia

However, my concern here is more spatial and cartographical. Or, rather, it stems from lingering frustrations related to the assumptions that underlie our spatial and cartographical representations of the Antarctic, and how those assumptions affect our understandings of what Antarctica is and its importance relative to the rest of the world. Indeed, the typical distorted, flattened, elongated pictures of Antarctica we get from North-Atlantic-centric mapsRobinson and Mercator projections alike—are, at best, disappointing and preclude thorough appreciation for the size, shape, place, value, importance, and beauty of the Antarctic continent.

Map courtesy of NOAA’s National Geographic Data Center

Map courtesy of NOAA’s National Geographic Data Center

I mean—really—who are we kidding? Antarctica does not look like that. Obviously, some degree of distortion is inevitable when portraying spherical shapes on a flat surface—but this is exactly my point. Antarctica is rarely seen for what it “actually” looks like, nor in continuity, because of our typical Euro-centric-map-influenced perception of the world. Granted, world maps look like world maps, not like the world. To that effect, globes are more accurate representations of the planet. But even then, Antarctica is usually at the bottom, mercilessly impaled and obscured by the trinket’s axis of rotation.

Photo courtesy of IrishTimes.com

Photo courtesy of IrishTimes.com

Among the last of the pristine, unindustrialized, non-instrumentalized regions of the planet, the vast, isolated, solitary nature of the Antarctic wilderness is an awe-inspiring holdout of human non-interference, distinctly absent of permanent human habitation, perched unsuspectingly on top of the world. Wait. On top? Indeed. The idea that north is “up” goes largely unquestioned because our spatial orientation and perspective of planetary positionality has been dictated and subsequently assumed by northern-centric portrayals of the Earth created by sea-faring European explorers, navigators, and cartographers that saw Europe as both on top of and at the center of the world. The result is a historical legacy of Euro-Atlantic-centric maps perpetuated still today.

But this presumed directionality and centricism is ultimately fiction. It would be just as correct to portray the South Pole as upward facing. For that matter, the same holds true of the East, West, and everything in between. After all, the Earth is just a sphere(-ish) object floating in space. There is no up or down in the void.

Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection Map—courtesy of transpacificproject.com

Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection Map—courtesy of transpacificproject.com

For better or for worse, we tend to associate size and relative spatial position—i.e. above and below—with importance. Now, relative spatial orientation—that is, where X  is located in comparison to Y—is certainly relevant, especially with regard to the Antarctic, to establishing our perceptions of importance. Often we assume that being “above” equates to being “better” and that being “below” equates to being “worse.” Poppycock. While socially prevalent, these associations are fallacious; they are more a pernicious matter of habit than of justified belief. Writing from Brisbane, Australia at the moment, the idea of being “down under” seems particularly salient, but in no way should being down under be presumed as or used as a pejorative term. Most would probably contend that Antarctica is “below” North America, and that it’s at the “bottom” of the Earth. But Antarctica is neither above nor below any other continent, Australia and North America alike. We just happen, by instrumental and anthropocentric convention, to portray it that way. In turn, we do Antarctica itself and its inhabitants a serious disservice and minimize the perceived importance of the southern-most continent.

With regard to size and perceptions of importance, we also tend to think that “bigger is better” and that we ought to prefer the large. Growing up in Texas, these were simply tenants of the Good Life. But, again, these are specious premises at best. Gargantuan, obnoxious, unwieldy automobiles in a congested urban landscapes, for example, are far from preferable. Imagine trying to park an H2 in Manhattan. To the same point, if the Sun were any larger than it is, life on Earth probably wouldn’t have developed as it has and all of our human shenanigans would have been physiochemically and energetically precluded. Bigger is not necessarily better.

Indeed, Schmacher’s “Small is Beautiful” profundity has been hailed as revolutionary by localists, anarchists, environmentalists, and environmental economists since being published in the 70s. But sadly, others have noted, the idea is slowly being forgotten in context of global industrialization and an ever-growing human population.

It also seems important to point out that while the United States measures in at 3.794 million square miles and Europe at 3.931 million square miles, the Antarctic continent spans a whopping 5.405 million square miles—a difference in size we probably wouldn’t expect given the misleading flat and stretched portrayal of Antarctica we’re used to. Perhaps Europeans are less guilty of associating size with importance, but Americans tend to especially value the big over the small—so maybe noting Antarctica’s comparative largeness could help motivate a shift in the equivocation of size, value, and importance. If size matters, Antarctica matters more than the US and Europe. The Peter’s Map—an area-accurate projection—speaks to this point.

Peter’s Map—Courtesy of petersmap.com

Peter’s Map—Courtesy of petersmap.com

Typical Euro-Atlantic-centric projections disproportionately represent the size of the northern hemisphere and portray the continents of the southern hemisphere as much smaller than the comparative reality. The Greenland Problem is a good poster-child for this disproportionality.

In Mercator projections, Greenland looks to be of similar size to Africa. But in reality, Africa is 11.67 million square miles whereas Greenland is only .8363 million square miles; the former is almost 14-times larger than the latter. Granted, the Mercator projection was created for navigation, not necessarily for proportional accuracy, but if maps are supposed to depict reality in shaping our worldviews, then we’ve been living in a Mercator fantasy.

Mercator projection; the Greenland Problem—courtesy of culturaldectective.com

Mercator projection; the Greenland Problem—courtesy of culturaldectective.com

Regarding the Greenland Problem, the Peter’s Map is certainly an improvement. But it comes with shape distortions of its own, so it’s far from ideal. Moreover, while the Peter’s Map is a more accurate proportional representation of size than the Mercator projection, it still does nothing with regard to the fair treatment of Antarctica. Peter’s Antarctica is still relegated to the bottom of the map, split along its radius, and flattened out.

Ultimately, no map will ever be perfect, nor will every map serve every purpose. Rather than trying to find “the best” map, we might prefer to be cartographic pluralistic relativists and insist that various projections be displayed together, side by side, in every case so that no single worldview is ostensibly portrayed as “better” than any other, and in turn, prevent the disproportionate assignment of value and importance that accompanies visual representation and evaluation of the Earth. Alongside the Mercator, Peter’s, Hobo-Dyer, “south-as-up,” and Robinson projections, so too belongs an Antarctic-centric perspective. If Antarctica is going to get a fair shake in politics, ethics, and the allocation of resources, then we ought also consider and incorporate a worldview where Antarctica is the center of attention. Besides, Antarctic-centricism makes for a beautiful map. And we all know what they say about a picture’s worth in words.

Antarctic-centric map--courtesy of username “Karilyn” of www.forums.xkcd.com

Antarctic-centric map–courtesy of username “Karilyn” of http://www.forums.xkcd.com

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

Texas is doing it right

If the modern idea of the Good Life is an energy intensive one, life in Texas is the best. Environmental protection and enforcement can be spotty at the state regulatory level, but there’s no denying that Texas is paradisical for developing energy. Oil and natural gas are obvious heavyweights. Texas is a national leader in wind energy development, and has its fair share of jobs in coal, employing just over 2,200 in 2006. Most exciting of all, Texas is 8th in the country for solar power.

Our relationship with the Sun is a special one. It is also an opportunity. Whether in fossil form, biomass, or direct from the source, the Sun enables but does not dictate the purposes we create that make life worth living. Clearly Texas understands this.

Eventually, solar will overtake fossils fuels as they become more expensive to extract–whether by regulation, scarcity, or inaccessibility–answering not only the energy enthusiast’s call, but also the environmentalist’s. While the precautionary and proactionary principles seem dogmatically opposed at a theoretical level, being proactionary about solar and precautionary about the environment go hand in hand. The same resonates about wind power. But the wind only blows because the sun heats the air.

To the sun god!

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