Sunday, October 5, 2014

This Changes Nothing — Naomi Klein's Climate Prescription

"A post-capitalist world would not be one of dense cities and jet travel, but it would have a chance of averting climate change if it could rediscover a balance with nature akin to that previous noncapitalist societies maintained for millennia primarily through gift economies and perennial agronomies."



We eagerly picked up a copy of Naomi Klein's latest book, This Changes Everything — Capitalism and Climate Change, the day it was released because we were mesmerized by the word "capitalism." Of course we were interested primarily in climate change, but we already have whole shelves of books devoted to that topic, going back more than 60 years. What we are looking for now are not retread problem statements, no matter how elegantly posed, but viable solutions to the urgent, existential dilemma. When someone mentions as a pivot point something as grand as capitalism, we are immediately drawn, because at last, we think, they are getting to the root of the matter.
"There is no way this can be done without fundamentally changing the American way of life, choking off economic development, and putting large segments of our economy out of business."
— Thomas J. Donahue, President of the US Chamber of Commerce, on ambitious carbon reductions, quoted in This Changes Everything.
Klein's book disappoints. She delves into capitalism only very superficially. She does not undertake the more arduous task that her title suggests — dissecting linkages between exponential-growth driven culture and macroclimate — and then illuminating a transition pathway to a better future, some style of money game antithetical to Monopoly.

Make no mistake — understanding capitalism is key to understanding and reversing climate change. Klein provides neither the understanding of how that has happened nor any practical and promising way to post-modernize the process, such as by a smartphone linked to MazaCoin (trading at $0.000078 as of Sept. 10).  For her, "capitalism" just seems to be synonymous with "corporatism" or "greed." We might have still purchased the book if either of those words had been substituted in the title, but we would have held fewer expectations.

She refers to the books she reads to her child and creates a similar narrative here: good guys (First Nations women leaders, Ken Saro-Wiwa's Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, Henry Red Cloud's Solar Warriors, the Rainforest Action Network, 350.org), whose activities are "mesmerizing," "heroic," "determined;" while bad guys (Richard Branson, frackers, Fred Krupp, carbon traders, UN negotiators, Nature Conservancy) are "entrenched," "sly," or "rich and powerful." There is even a cliffhanger finish — will our heroes transition to clean energy in time?

Jean Laherrere predicts a very rapid drop in energy after 2017
Missing are any grasp of civilization itself ascending the steps of the guillotine; the inextricable fossil energy embodied in industrial-scaled renewables; or the Ponzi tsunami in sovereign debt and its implication for globalized supply chains. The dumbing down process Al Gore described in The Assault on Reason seems to have struck the left with the same casual brutality as it lobotomized the right. 

What Naomi Klein dispenses best is harangue. Because she is a very gifted writer working with a large research budget, the book sits well on its shelf beside works of similarly gifted writers performing similar harangues. Her prescription is protest — "Blockadia" is the term she coins — and while that may indeed produce results sometimes, especially when resonating with cultural shifts reflected in contemporary music and prose, it may also be catastrophically naïve if the "ask" is too far a reach for mass acceptance, or if the advocates' own lifestyles betray a secret lust for role reversal.

Martin Luther King's grasp of the use and limits of protest provides a modern example of successful "swerve" (in contemporary climate tactician lingo). As described in his famous Letter from A Birmingham Jail, there are a number of essential preconditions for moral protest. Although King does not make the attribution, his checklist is drawn from the voluminous lifetime writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

First, purify yourself.

For Gandhi and King, self-purification means, besides purging racial prejudice from your own heart, harboring no anger, while at the same time being prepared to suffer the anger of your opponent. For King, this meant the ability to forgive but not forget; to bounce back again and again, still holding love in your heart. For Gandhi it meant a willingness to take sides with your oppressor — "If anyone attempts to insult or assault your opponent, defend your opponent (non-violently) with your life." (“Some Rules of Satyagraha” Young India (Navajivan) 23 February 1930 (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vol. 48, p. 340).

Second, negotiate.

King and Gandhi always sought civil remedies through normal channels, and when these failed for illegal and unconscionable reasons, they could then proceed to a final tet-a-tet. They informed authorities in advance of their intentions to resist. They offered themselves for arrest. No protest could proceed before every possible avenue for redress had been followed but inexplicably blocked by the intransigence of authority. This tedious process provided the clear moral high ground in each confrontation.

Klein writes,

"'You have been negotiating all my life.' So said Canadian college student Anjali Appadurai, as she stared down at the assembled government negotiators at the 2011 United Nations climate conference in Durban, South Africa. She was not exaggerating. The world's governments have been negotiating for more than two decades; they began negotiating the year that Anjali, then twenty-one years old, was born. And yet as she pointed out in her memorable speech on the convention floor, delivered on behalf of all assembled young people: 'In that time you've failed to meet pledges, you've missed targets, and you've broken promises.'"

Does this gain sufficient moral high ground to justify laying down one's life to tasers, tanks and microbeams directed from aerial platforms? Not yet.

The UN climate treaty process (UNFCCC), informed by the slowly consensed scientific authority of the IPCC, is not being thwarted so much by covert action in the West Wing and 10 Downing Street or the corporate headquarters of Koch Industries as by the sluggish response of elected or inherited governments to the slow-dawning reality of the scope of this particular problem. As successive governments over 30 years come to grasp its dimensions and what that implies for the fate of business as usual, there is a kind of institutional learning that takes place -- the kind of progress by baby steps that was foreseen by Eleanor Roosevelt when the United Nations was founded. It may seem glacially slow to people from the generations of Klein and Appadurai, raised in the Twitterverse, but slow is not "no." 



Harvard Students at September Climate March in New York
In the tortoise-like process of the UNFCCC, the next major deadline is COP-21 in Paris, December 2015. The recent high level meeting in New York and this December's COP-20 in Lima are intended to set the stage for a treaty. That legally binding treaty should be seen as a Rubicon for the UN process. If it arrests emissions by firm and timely process, "alea iacta est" – the die is cast.  If the river is not crossed, or it does not go far enough fast enough, or the UN farms the crisis out to mercenary corporations, mass civil disobedience is fully justified.

Klein writes:

"By posing climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet I am not saying anything we don't already know. The battle is already underway but right now capitalism is winning hands down. It wins every time the need for economic growth is used for the excuse for putting off climate action yet again, or for breaking emission reduction commitments already made.…

"Right now the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious efforts to respond to climate change…. For any of this to change, a worldview will need to arise to the fore that sees nature, other nations and our own neighbors not as adversaries, but rather as partners in a grand project of mutual reinvention.

"That is a big ask, but it gets bigger. Because of our endless delays, we also have to pull off this massive transformation without delay. The International Energy Agency warns that if we do not get our emissions under control by a rather terrifying 2017, our fossil fuel economy will 'lock in' extremely dangerous warming."

Giving your negotiating partner (in this case the UNFCCC) a deadline is something both King and Gandhi did. If the partner asked for an extension of time for reasonable cause that would be granted. Again and again. The process of negotiation is not complete until the last legal stone has been turned and the final responses are bereft of moral reason.

The third step in preparing successful protest is surrender. For King, this involved bearing Christian witness, as in the case of sending waves of children to face billy clubs, firehoses and attack dogs in order to fill Birmingham's jails to overcapacity.

For Gandhi, surrender meant to "never retaliate to assaults or punishment; but do not submit, out of fear of punishment or assault, to an order given in anger."

As a prisoner, Gandhi observed the same rules of self-discipline as in the outside world. He obeyed prison regulations except those contrary to his own self-respect. He fasted only when his own self-dignity demanded it. Once begun, he expected no respite from a fast. Each was a fast to the death.

Parenthetically, these same rules have been scrupulously followed by the victims of daily ritual of torture ordered by President Barack H. Obama in the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. These striking prisoners, whose numbers are estimated at between 45 and 160 but whose actual numbers are unknown owing to the gag order issued by the Department of Defense and the refusal to allow in UN human rights inspectors, are innocent men. They were innocent when they were abducted from their homes and farm fields in 2002. They were even found innocent in 2009 by the Military Review Panels ordered by federal courts in 2006. And these were kangaroo courts designed to find them guilty. Their court review came partly in response to the 26-day hunger strike in 2005 that ended only when Navy medics joined in a sympathy strike and refused to provide medical assistance to the daily torture feedings. Only then did prison authorities agree to bring the camp into compliance with the Geneva Conventions, something we all still await.


Today's tortured Guantanamo strikers are waterboarded three times per day at the orders of President Obama. It is not as though he gets up in the morning and before he sees Malia and Sasha off to school he says to a military attaché, "Oh, go ahead and torture another 100 or so prisoners at Gitmo, and throw in some women and children prisoners at the black sites in Afghanistan too, just to let them know we mean business." Rather, as a Commander who could simply order their judicially-ordained release with a few words, he remains mute, kisses his daughters' foreheads, and then prepares daily remarks to, say, praise his outgoing Attorney General for his record on civil rights, or condemn some oil-rich Middle Eastern dictator as cruel and anti-democratic.

From whence does moral authority derive?

Every day since early February 2013, each of Obama's victims is given the option of ending their fast and avoiding being waterboarded yet again — more than 1700 times for some, so far — and each day they choose dignity over the orders of their oppressors. They choose to go under the hose rather than sacrifice their regard for what it means to be a human being.



If the Gitmo hunger strike experience tells us anything, it is that protest does not always succeed. Sometimes it only worsens the conditions being protested. As Malcolm Gladwell describes in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, the Birmingham civil disobedience campaign was going badly for King until a wire photo of a firehosed teen being attacked by a police dog made front page news. Suddenly, nationwide, public wrath was aroused.

The fourth rule for any protest is to have a goal. For Gandhi, it was Indian independence from British rule. For King, it was ending segregation. Both men, of course, wanted much more. These simple goals, while grand enough to be assumed unachievable by most observers at the outset of the protests, were nonetheless below the mark. Among his goals, King wanted to end the War in Vietnam, and wars generally. Gandhi wanted to end religious and ethnic intolerance. They got what they could, and that was quite enough for the time.

Naomi Klein also has large ambitions. Her vision of the future is bright — "the climate movement does not have the option of saying 'no' without also saying 'yes'" to the many forms of solar development. Already solar power in many of its emerging systems is cheaper and quicker for industrial use than fossil and nuclear options, but that finesses the larger point. Is the goal to save industrial civilization? Is the goal to save the religion of consumerism, of growth economics, and thus, capitalism?

The title of the book seems to suggest that capitalism is the problem. Her analysis, however, lacks the thoughtful deliberation of critics like Noam Chomsky, Steve Keen, Chris Hedges or David Korowicz. Capitalism to Klein is a foil; a target for her sharp political invective. To fight this evil scourge she urges us to storm the parapets, take the streets, stand up to the tanks. Capitalism is just her shorthand for evil greedy bastards.

She writes:

"This book is about those radical changes on the social side, as well as on the political, economic and cultural sides. What concerns me is less the mechanics of the transition — the shift from sole rider cars to mass transit, from sprawling exurbs to dense, walkable cities — than the powerful and ideological roadblocks that have so far prevented any of these long understood solutions from taking hold on anything close to the scale required."

That statement deserves some unpacking. Klein is not very concerned about transition modalities other than street protest. She gives short shrift to Transition Towns, Holistic Management or permaculture and makes no mention of ecovillages, complimentary currencies, gift economies or bioregionalism. She sees the connection between capitalism's profit imperative and the disequilibrium of exponential growth (long a standard of permaculture training) but has scant grasp of the carbon cycle civilizational embed since the dawn of agriculture, energy return on invested energy (EROIE), or the abbreviated future-discount factor as a function of human neurobiology. 


Granted, she pays token lip service to Holistic Management and soil carbon, but calls biochar “problematic at scale” and lumps much of regrarianism with geoengineering. She seriously needs to attend the Biodiversity for a Livable Climate conference in Massachusetts next month. 

Consider her failure to grasp the exponential function as applied to human population. After describing her own difficulties in trying to bear a child, she says simply, "Anyone who wants to have a child should be able to." Really? What about a second, or a fifth? Is this a right that humans had before we emerged from the Paleolithic or is it dependent on some modern scheme of ordered liberty, not to mention bioscience? 

Is it not a right that must first, perforce, be grounded in resource availability, on the penalty of starvation for the whole? Would she confer that right on every reindeer on St. Matthew Island, or are we just talking about womens' reproductive rights here?

Self purification requires we examine our own needs and determine which of them is actually required and which is merely more comfortable. Faced with the discomfort of say, 140-degree summer months, and the discomfort of limiting family size to one-half child, as we described in our Post-Petroleum Survival Guide, which is preferable? For how long?

Klein's "mechanics of the transition" are mere Disney models of New Urbanism — dense, walkable cities presumed able to accommodate 12 billion or more people with ample power from renewable energy to carry packs of contented residents up and down 100 floors in air-conditioned elevators with happy, seasonal background music. Exactly how are those cities to be built and maintained after we dispense with profit motive, not to mention the fossil fuels to turn iron into steel and limestone into concrete?

Self-purification as a pre-protest ritual might reveal to Klein that the powerful and ideological roadblocks she attributes to a Goldman Sachs boardroom are affixed firmly within her own worldview. They are entrenched in the premises of cornucopian solar power advocates as deeply as in the Carlyle Group. If she is to exorcise the Kochs and Saudi princes from control of Earth's climate, she will have to first exorcise mechanistic utopian fantasies from her own thinking. Her admiration for indigenous peoples is good, but she needs to be reminded that their sustainability as peoples comes from their diverse cultures' awareness of natural limits and willingness to forego lifestyle choices that did not adhere to those limits.
A post-capitalist world would not be one of dense cities and jet travel, but it would have a chance of averting climate change if it could rediscover a balance with nature akin to that previous noncapitalist societies maintained for millennia primarily through gift economies and perennial agronomies.

In her new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert's epiphany, which comes to her in closing chapters, is that the only way we will ever stop the advent of the Anthropocene is to eliminate the anthros, ie: near term human extinction ("NTE"). She delivers this message with an appropriate sense of grief, but after 300 pages of hard evidence it is difficult to rebut her conclusion. We can really only fall back on unreasoning hope, no matter how fantastical, because the indictment is irrefutable.

Kolbert says that the reason we have the climate threat is not because of human follies and foibles but precisely because of our genius. Our undoing is borne of our strongest attributes — all those parts of ourselves we regard as venerable. It is our human ingenuity, creative spark, versatile skills, and power to project the future from past experience that is killing every other lifeform on the planet, and finally, with the unregistered loss of some tiny, unnoticed but critical link in the web of life that supports us, ourselves as well. As long as we, tool-making homo, remain, Earth's fate is sealed and the climate will continue in the general direction of Venus. Once we are gone, recovery may yet be possible for other life forms. Archaelogists may come to know us only as that mysterious, millimeter-thin layer of radioactive plastic in Earth's outer crust.

If this message is disturbing, there may be comfort to be found by turning back to a part of This Changes Everything. In lionizing First Nations, Naomi Klein reminds us that before the Colombian Encounter there were on Turtle Island a race of people who, by and large, had learned to live in harmony with the natural world, not as dominators but as members. Not to be too simplistic, there were also indigenous nations that over-exploited, behaved with cruelty and avarice, and caused extinctions of megafauna. Klein's heroes are the former, the stewards of nature's bounty, who built verdant soils and abundant forests and lived in peace. If there is any hope for us all, it lies there, in that model. Pray we can rediscover it in time.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Climate Change Takes Broadway

" It’s doubtful that there will be a treaty,” said one senior Obama administration official" .




In November 1987, when Senators Al Gore and Tim Wirth held their first hearings on climate change, almost no-one but the scientific witnesses came. The senators adjourned the meeting until the following summer and reconvened in the midst of a sweltering heatwave that was frying the Great Plains and stopping barge traffic on the Mississippi. The second time, the witnesses testified to popping flashbulbs and headlines screamed, "The Heat is On!" and "Global Warming Has Begun!"

Flash forward a quarter century to 2014. The United Nations has been struggling to ink some kind of treaty to limit carbon emissions since launching the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon knows he has a hard deadline coming up in Paris in 2015 but the recent preparatory meetings in Copenhagen, Durban, Doha, and Warsaw have not been going well and COP20 next December in Lima promises more of the same deadlock.

The general public and climate science seem to be solidly together in finding the situation extremely urgent. Ban sees he has a possible opening to shift political will now, in the summer of 2014, after watching an unbroken string of hottest months on record.

An unprecedented number of world leaders attended the Tuesday Summit, including 100 heads of government. They are outnumbered 8-to-1 by well-heeled, UN-credentialed delegates from business and finance, making the atmosphere much like that of, say, the halls of Congress. Instead of Big Pharma and Big Agribusiness there are King Coal, Frackers and the men from Halliburton. What happens next is a mix of the tired public relations theater from the past 19 conferences — grand pledges to do something at some increasingly distant date while doubling down on the toxicity of Earth's atmosphere in the immediate future — without the slightest hint of any awareness of a present hazard.

Let us be clear. This is really, really the eleventh hour. It may even be the thirteenth, which is to say our train already left the station and we were not aboard. The train might have left the station before 1980.

In April, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that their best science shows that to limit global warming to 2°C would require reductions of greenhouse gas emissions of 40 to 70 percent by 2050.  Ban pledged the UN’s own operations would be ‘climate neutral’ by 2020.
The Obama Administration pointed with pride to its commitment to source 20% of federal government energy consumption (not including military) from renewables by 2020. It made unchallenged claims to having reduced methane emissions 11% despite accelerating US dependence on natural gas wells and pipelines that are known to emit enormous amounts of methane, almost entirely unmonitored.

Meanwhile, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere hit a high in 2013 that has not been seen on this planet since 18 million years before hominids appeared. And it continues to increase, day in, day out. It is even increasing the rate of increase.

Scientists are now observing the beginnings of a shift to where oceans and vegetation no longer absorb excess carbon from the atmosphere and instead become pumps.

Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research calculates that industrialized nations need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by over 10 percent per year starting now.  Of course, this is “incompatible with economic growth,” as Anderson acknowledges. The only hope of maintaining economic growth while cutting emissions at such a pace is to rapidly decouple GDP from CO2, something few at the UN are talking about, except for a few island nations who pledge to be 100% renewable energy-based by the end of this decade.

But as Richard Heinberg says, "Ultimately, climate change is not the only reason perpetual economic growth is incompatible with a finite planet. The world faces a suite of ecological problems related to water, soil, and biodiversity, all stemming from past growth, and all seemingly requiring reduction in human consumption levels for their solution."

Yet, despite all these signs and portents, and even though the European Union, much of Africa, and island countries are pushing for a binding treaty with deep emissions cuts, the Big Polluters (BP) have formed a solid block. The US, China, India, Canada and Australia speak with one voice. They are not just saying "No," but "Hell no!"

“It’s doubtful that there will be a treaty,” said one senior Obama administration official not authorized to speak for the record.

Ban, knowing where his bread was buttered, reiterated, "We must work together to mobilize money and move markets. Let us invest in climate solutions available to us today. Economists have shown this comes at minimal extra cost while the benefits to our people and our planet are monumental. We need all public finance institutions to step up to the challenge. And we need to bring private finance from the sidelines."


Just to put a friendly face on this, the BP group adopted the strategy proposed by Hillary Clinton at Copenhagen in 2009: privatize the problem to corporations and put up voluntary pledges to pay them to do something about this problem. That is the Clinton way. If you wondered why 800 business and financial lobbyists would attend UN meetings, this is why. In Cancun she offered $100 million annually by 2020 "from public and private sources" for a "Green Climate Fund." In New York the pledges were:




 


Some of the backroom debates were whether this fund could be used for developing coal and fracked gas. Canada and the US were in favor. Europeans were aghast. UK's David Cameron said, “We are investing in all forms of lower carbon energy including shale gas and nuclear, with the first new nuclear plant coming on stream for a generation.” Sweden pledged to divest $100 million from its public pension fund by the end of 2015 and invest in carbon polluters (including shale gas and nuclear) no more.

 “It’s a tug-of-war right now,” said Ronny Jumeau from the island nation of Seychelles and spokesman for a group of 43 small island nations. “We refuse to accept that someone says it cannot be legally binding and everybody has to live with it because they’re so powerful.” Island nations struggle with impacts to their freshwater supplies, fisheries, and agriculture as super storms and sea-level rise threatens to put many of them underwater.

“The voluntary stuff will never be enough,” Jumeau says. “We are still headed to destruction.”

There were a few positive outcomes from the meeting in New York.

The New York Declaration on Forests received 130 signatories, including the governments of the US, UK, Germany, Indonesia and the Congo, as well as companies, civil society and indigenous peoples. It will cut the rate of deforestation in half by 2020 and end it by 2030. It will reforest more than 350 million hectares, an area greater than the size of India. The declaration was backed by commitments from food companies, including palm oil giants, to deforestation-free sourcing policies. Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts joined 19 other major food companies to make zero-deforestation pledges.

In Britain, Greenpeace activists staged their own great train robbery, flagging down and taking over a coal train en route to one of England's dirtiest power stations, run by French energy giant EDF. The activists used industry-standard emergency signals to siderail the 400-metre-long, 1500-tonne coal train. Dozens of fully-trained Greenpeace activists climbed onto the open coal wagons and started packing coal into sacks labeled “return to sender," addressed to Vladimir Putin. The UK paid £1 billion to Russian coal oligarchs last year.


On Sunday 350,000 people showed up to march in Manhattan, the largest protest yet on climate change. While there were no actual demands, it was a momentum builder in that it drew together many very diverse constituencies and some that had never come out before. Obviously no amount of protest is likely to change the direction climate negotiations are taking or suddenly shift the political landscape, but it is having an effect at the margin. New York was the first climate summit in which divestment of stranded assets in the fossil industries was pledged by a UN member country (Sweden).






What would an actual arrest of our extinction trajectory look like? In that fictitious world, the one in which imaginary homo sapiens survive the earliest horrors of the Anthropocene, develop a steady state economy, degrow their numbers and reverse catastrophic warming, everyone gardens. Forests overtake deserts. That is the key to unlocking the solution to the human-caused climate dilemma; a key we discovered in our research following Climate in Crisis in 1990 and leading up to the publication of The Biochar Solution in 2010. With a shift to carbon-sequestering, regrarian agriculture, the balance between soil, atmosphere and ocean is restored. The ocean ecosystem revives, with Blue Whales breeching majestically in what had previously been gyres of microplastic residues. The carbon content of soils goes from less than one percent back to 5, 10, and then 15 percent. Varieties of win-win gift economies based on perennial harvests once again outnumber extractive, flow-through, winners-and-losers militarist/capitalist economies.

Of course none of this is possible if no agreement can be reached to leave fossil fuels in the ground, or adhere to the strictures of world conferences on population (1954, 1965, 1974, 1984, 1994), or for that matter, to adopt Odums' "prosperous way down" as a roadmap.

You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I am not the only one.
— John Lennon

When all other roads lead to, at the least, near term human extinction, and at the worst, extinction of all life on Earth, our flight of wild eyed utopian fantasy is not unrealistic. It is the only sane choice.

Fortunately India just launched a rocket to Mars that did not go through the sterilization protocols used by NASA. If the wild-eyed scenario fails, perhaps a tiny bit of our genetic progress will be saved there.



Sunday, September 14, 2014

Flash! Tiny Fern Saves Planet from Catastrophic Warming

"The magic of this tiny little water plant, like that of present day permaculture plans for food forests and re-treeing the Sahara, lies in its capability to suck enough a carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere to cool the planet while supplying us both food and breathing space."

As world leaders prepare to gather at the United Nations in New York to mount a defense to Climate Change — as though in a science fiction story where we, the Earth, are preparing to fight off an alien invasion — we are going to hop into our Wavelength Acceleration Bidirectional Asynchronous Controller and set the dial back 49 million years, to the middle of the Eocene Epoch, in search of a secret weapon we heard might just stop the climate juggernaut in its tracks.

Stepping out of the WABAC Machine and looking around we survey a very different planet.

In the early Eocene our familiar continents were scrambled from their present positions. The Arctic sea was inland, almost entirely cut off from the one great ocean, communicating by a long river through present-day Turkey. This meant that ocean mixing — and deep water currents such as the Gulf Stream — did not occur then as it does now.

As the WABAC has deposited us at the present-day North Pole, we rub on our sunblock and venture out through palm trees to the edge of a deep lake covered with a dense green mat of waterfern with lovely, shimmering, purplish-rose tints in the full sun. Below the roots of this fern, trailing downward from its lower surfaces, we detect a stratified water column, going very deep.

With atmospheric carbon above 3500 ppm, the Eocene is about as hot as one could expect Earth to go before it just gives up and becomes a second Venus. High temperatures and winds bring high evaporation, and high carbon deposition increases the density and acidity of the ocean such that a freshwater layer forms on the surface above the much denser saltwater.

River water entering this freshwater layer is rich in minerals, such as phosphorus, which spawn the growth of azolla — today we call it mosquito fern, Azolla filiculoides, Azolla japonica or Azolla mexicana.

In optimum conditions, the foliage becomes so dense it can prevent mosquito larva from developing and hatching, hence the common name. You can find it garden centers because it has become a popular addition to water gardens and ponds. Besides its lovely hue, it forms such a solid mat that it discourages algae growth, feeds fish, scavenges nitrates and helps keep waters clear.

The Eocene was a very warm period — crocodiles at the poles, wherever those were at the time — because concentrations of greenhouse gases were very high. In these favorable conditions, with ample warmth and abundant fertilizer, the azolla bloom doubled its biomass every two to three days. Had that exponential growth curve persisted long enough, the azolla would have theoretically outweighed the weight of Earth (an impossibility) in a matter of decades.

But, following the fate of all exponential growth curves, the azolla was arrested by resource limits — mainly phosphorus — and its own negative feedback.

As they sank to the stagnant sea floor, the dead azolla leaves and roots were incorporated into the sediment; the resulting drawdown of carbon dioxide helped transform our world from the "greenhouse Earth" Eocene to the "icehouse Earth" it has been ever since.

Like it or not, with all the baggage industrial civilization carries, we could get there again. Our emergent Anthropocene unpleasantness is entirely avoidable. We just have to step up photosynthesis. Compared to expensive, unreliable, harebrained schemes to put mirrors into space to block the sun or salt the atmosphere with sulfur, re-greening Garden Earth is safe, clean and too cheap to meter. It also gives us food and oxygen.

The magic of this tiny little water plant, like that of present day permaculture plans for food forests and re-treeing the Sahara, lies in its capability to suck enough carbon and nitrogen out of the atmosphere to cool the planet while supplying us both food and breathing space. It can allow us to return our home to the more hospitable Holocene conditions in which mammals developed a larger cerebral cortex and then monumental civilizations.

Do-overs on this scale are rare good fortune. Let us hope, in the unlikely event world leaders at the UN next week opt to go this route, that they and we will learn from our past mistakes and not repeat them the next time around. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Azolla has been deemed a "super-plant" because it can draw down as much as a metric ton of Nitrogen per acre per year (0.25 kg/m²/yr) and 6 tons of Carbon (1.5 kg/m²/yr). Its main limit to growth is the availability of Phosphorus. Each individual plant is 1-2 cm across, green tinged pink, orange or red at the edges, branching freely, and breaking into smaller sections as it grows. It is not tolerant of cold temperatures, and in temperate regions it dies back in winter, surviving by means of submerged buds.

Blooms alone are not enough to have any significant atmospheric chemistry impact; to reverse CO2 and NOx imbalances, the excesses must be sequestered. In the case of the present, this means turning biomass that would, left to its own devices, become atmospheric pollutants such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides into water vapor, recalcitrant carbon and fixed nitrogen. We can accomplish that through the magic of biochar.

In the Eocene Azolla Event, the strategy was different. Dead azolla plants had to be buried and the remains made inaccessible to decomposing organisms. The anoxic bottom of the Arctic basin, a result of the stratified water column, permitted just this: the azolla sat in the mud, unrotted, until it was buried by sediment and incorporated into the fossil record. Today that layer is about 8 meters thick, or about one meter for every hundred-thousand years.

As we write this, oil drilling rigs from Russia, Canada and Exxon are plying the Arctic Ocean dragging tethered Geiger meters. Because radioactive isotopes of potassium were absorbed when the azolla plants were alive and are now a component in their clay content, and because their high cation exchange capacity causes them to absorb uranium and thorium, the fossil azolla layer can be detected in the form of a gamma radiation spike.

Calibration with the high-resolution geomagnetic reversal record with Azolla's gamma radiation signature allows the duration of the event to be estimated at 800,000 years. That time frame coincides precisely with a steep decline in carbon dioxide levels, which fell from 3500 ppm in the early Eocene to 650 ppm after this event.

Thanks the azolla bloom, the Arctic cooled from an average sea-surface temperature of 13 °C to today's −9 °C. For perhaps the first time in its history, the planet had ice caps at both poles. This was not good for the Azolla bloom and so it could not continue its weight contest with the planet.

Gathering some of this magic fern from the Eocene Arctic, transporting to present and diseembarking from the WABAC once more at the Ecovillage Training Center, we are seeding azolla into our constructed wetlands, where it will devour the phosphorus made available from the showers and sinks in the Prancing Poet Ecohostel and commence sucking CO2 and N from the atmosphere, making us even more greenhouse-gas negative than we already are. Since it won't tolerate Tennessee winters we will need to bring some into our other kind of greenhouse before the first hard freeze and then reseed our outdoor ponds again next Spring. Is it edible? Can we feed it to animals? What kind of biochar does it make? How does it function in compost? Stay tuned for further developments. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Stranded Ethics




Robert Jay Lifton, author of Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, wrote an op-ed for The Sunday New York Times called The Climate Swerve, pointing out the sudden shift in awareness towards the existential threat we face from our careless destruction of the atmospheric commons.

In his earlier work on Hiroshima, Lifton observed that such a shift occurred some years after the bombing, when the full extent of its horrors became more widely known. Before then, it was, while unfortunate, morally okay under the rules of war to blow up or incinerate civilian populations, as the allies had been doing beginning with the firebombing of Dresden and then all over Japan. The Bomb's victims' shadows, etched in pavement, and the torments of the hibakusha  did what Picasso's Guernica and Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five had failed to do. It transformed mass civilian incinerations into something that was morally reprehensible, auguring the Cold War.

Of course, just because it is now universally considered morally reprehensible does not stop rogue states from mass-slaughtering civilians with radioactive weapons in places like Falujah, Fukushima, Gaza or Doniesk but nonetheless the public is now outraged when it learns of these crimes, and it wasn't as much before. Governments are forced to go to lengths to keep these atrocities secret and to obscure the truth when it is hinted at. Lifton wrote:
"With both nuclear and climate threats, the swerve in awareness has had a crucial ethical component. People came to feel it was deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to engage in nuclear war, and we are coming to an awareness that it is deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to destroy our habitat and create a legacy of suffering for our children and grandchildren."

There is something more important in Lifton's essay than the "swerve" that the author is trying so hard to sell as a meme. Almost as a throwaway he uses a phrase that has a much deeper resonance. He calls the ways people regard moral crimes before the swerve "stranded ethics."

Stranded ethics: ethics that governed our collective decisions but have now lost their relevance.

Yes. We need to leave behind the stranded ethics of the 20th century the same way we need to leave in the ground the stranded capital assets of the fossil fuel companies and countries.

Our stranded ethics were based on growth at all costs — the prime directive of capitalism — and damn the environment, damn social justice and fair share, damn the future consequences. What counts, according to obsolete dicta from an industrial age, are share values, net worth, market share, competitiveness, national pride, ethnic pride, war footing and profits über alles.

In the stranded ethics of the past, it is more important to have routine unemployment to support all-volunteer armies than to pay a minimum wage adequate to support a family; it is more important to return value to shareholders than to protect the air and waters surrounding a manufacturing facility; and it is more important to give corporations civil rights than to regulate influence on the regulatory process, such as by making huge donations to sway an election.

Lifton says, "We may well speak of those shareholder-dominated principles as … better left buried but at present … all too active above ground." 
"It is a bit like the old Jack Benny joke, in which an armed robber offers a choice, 'Your money or your life!' And Benny responds, 'I'm thinking it over.'"

To truly inhabit the 21st century we will all share a common epiphany: that we have reached the Age of Limits and the Era of Consequences. We are at or soon approaching that inflection point. Here, now. From that shift it will follow as inexorably as night follows day that the ethics of the past are not just passé, but counterproductive. Anyone clinging to them will be regarded as a fool, a fossil and a social pariah.

So for instance, if you encounter someone who still thinks nuclear power is a good idea, they are still clinging to stranded ethics. If you encounter someone at a wedding telling the bride and groom it would be good to have more than two children, they have stranded ethics. You can be a little more compassionate towards them, especially if they are elderly, because you can appreciate what they are going through, having to change their whole approach to the world and still live with the horrible decisions they made earlier in their lives.

Someone who thinks it is okay to have that third kid, to donate money to a biotech wing at a university, to not compost their kitchen scraps, or to throw away lots of plastic like they didn't know where it is going — has stranded ethics. Eventually peer pressure will catch up with them.

Fishermen who use purse seine nets have stranded ethics. Japanese "whale researchers" have stranded ethics. Rhino horn cocktail consumers have stranded ethics. Very soon regulations and public opprobrium will catch up to them.

Homeowners who lease their back yards to frackers have stranded ethics. Poisoned wells and defaulted rent checks will catch up to them. People who work at car dealerships that only sell urban land cruisers have stranded ethics. The public will simply have stopped buying those behemoths.

Keeping 73 prisoners who have been exonerated of any crime imprisoned for years without trial or right of counsel after being found innocent by judicial review, for years, and then subjecting them to daily torture by shoving oversized and unsanitary plastic tubes down their noses when they protest, even on the day you admit, "We tortured some folks," thinking you were referring to a dozen years earlier and some other administration, not to the hundreds of people you tortured repeatedly that very same day for speaking up in protest, is stranded ethics.

Crimes such as these have well-established mechanisms of justice, that, while painfully slow, have no statute of limitations and apply as equally to Heads of State as to their minions. Toadies who coddle such war criminals as "the least worst alternative" have stranded ethics.

The late Zenmaster, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, in Zen Mind Beginners Mind said it is important to understand that Zen is nothing special. Any roshi will say the same. There is no attainment. Just sit. Nothing special.

As the ethics of the 20th century become stranded, the ethics of permaculture will become invisible. Permaculture will become the new normal. It will simply be taken for granted.

Permaculture is nothing special. Acting ethically towards future generations is nothing special. Living today as if there really is going to be a tomorrow is not a fringe activity. Just do it. Already, everyone else is starting to, too.

A version of these remarks was extemporaneously delivered at the opening plenary of the 2014 North American Permaculture Convergence on August 31, 2014. The full plenary can be viewed at http://youtu.be/r1vImekf4XI

 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Dare to Disagree

"Understand, testifying to Congress is a bit like speaking to a senile aunt. They may hear you, but they just mutter something like "Whatever you say, dear," and go back to their soap opera"


Two years ago a TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan garnered 1,819,512 views, and well it should. Heffernan began her story by telling about a person whose acquaintance we shared, Dr. Alice Stewart (1906-2002)

Our first experience with Alice goes back to 1977, when she testified before a House Committee that was looking into the health effects of radiation from nuclear power plants. The Rogers Committee and had called Alice, her co-worker George Kneale and Dr. Thomas Mancuso to testify about their epidemiology study of the Hanford plutonium workers.

Also testifying that day were Drs. Rosalie Bertell and Irwin Bross, who conducted the Tri-state Leukemia Survey that linked in utero x-rays to childhood mortality and Dr. John W. Gofman, one of the co-discoverers of U-233, whose funding at Livermore National Laboratory was suspended when he revealed the world about the likely cancer and genetic consequences of the nation's rush to nuclear power.

All of these people would become friends of ours, some closer than others, but we took the opportunity while in Washington to bike down Constitution Avenue and attend the testimony Alice gave later that same day to the National Academy of Sciences.

Understand, testifying to Congress is a bit like speaking to a senile aunt. They may hear you, but they just mutter something like "Whatever you say, dear," and go back to their soap opera. Stewart, Kneale and Mancuso were received politely by the Congressmen, but apart from making a public record for the sake of history, nothing would come of it.

Down the road at the NAS it was a different story. The knives were out as soon as Alice had finished her opening statement. She was making waves not just in the world of electric power generation, but in the world of medicine and science. She was prepared to demonstrate, and to defend, strong findings that at even the most infinitesimally small doses, exposure to ionizing radiation carries an inexorable risk of mortality. There is no safe dose. She knew it. She could prove it.

The reason Alice Stewart was not afraid was because she had George Kneale.

George was completely ill-suited for the role he found himself thrust into that day; sitting beside Alice before both Congress and the NAS. A tall and heavy-set Brit resembling an unkempt Stephen Fry in a second hand suit, he gave us the impression, when we first spoke, of being marginally autistic, a savant perhaps, but a man who would not hold your eye and would much prefer he were somewhere far away.

Tom Mancuso, a full professor at the University of Pittsburgh at the time, was more like a pugnacious, union shop floor boss, someone who was not afraid to tussle for the rights of his workers if it came to it. Stewart, the medical doctor of the three, seemed weary, as if this experience had happened too many times before, and she knew it was all a colossal play for time — purchased at the cost of real children's lives, in very large numbers.

According to Stewart's telling at the Right Livelihood Awards ceremony in 1986, Kneale had two major contributions to biostatistics while he was still a young man advancing his degrees at Oxford. The first was to discover a way to isolate the confounding variable of death from pneumonia or other secondary infections by way of an impaired immune system (which is more than 300 times more likely to be fatal in children exposed to radiation) from death by leukemia within 5 years following radiation exposure.

Kneale's second achievement, some years later as he began studying radiation workers, was his proof that resistance to cancer from radiation is exceptionally high in men at 20 years of age, but by 50 years it may be no greater as it was shortly before birth.

Stewart first came to prominence as the first woman admitted to the UK Association of Physicians and the youngest ever admitted to the Royal Academy. During World War II she investigated the effects on workers of exposure to TNT in munitions factories, the effects of carbon tetrachloride, and the mysterious prevalence of tuberculosis among workers in the boot and shoe industry.

Heffernan tells Alice's story this way:
[Alice] was unusual because she was really interested in a new science, the emerging field of epidemiology, the study of patterns in disease. But like every scientist, she appreciated that to make her mark, what she needed to do was find a hard problem and solve it. The hard problem that Alice chose was the rising incidence of childhood cancers. Most disease is correlated with poverty, but in the case of childhood cancers, the children who were dying seemed mostly to come from affluent families. So, what, she wanted to know, could explain this anomaly?
Now, Alice had trouble getting funding for her research. In the end, she got just 1,000 pounds from the Lady Tata Memorial prize. And that meant she knew she only had one shot at collecting her data. Now, she had no idea what to look for. This really was a needle in a haystack sort of search, so she asked everything she could think of. Had the children eaten boiled sweets? Had they consumed colored drinks? Did they eat fish and chips? Did they have indoor or outdoor plumbing? What time of life had they started school?
And when her carbon copied questionnaire started to come back, one thing and one thing only jumped out with the statistical clarity of a kind that most scientists can only dream of. By a rate of two to one, the children who had died had had mothers who had been X-rayed when pregnant. Now that finding flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom held that everything was safe up to a point, a threshold. It flew in the face of conventional wisdom, which was huge enthusiasm for the cool new technology of that age, which was the X-ray machine. And it flew in the face of doctors' idea of themselves, which was as people who helped patients, they didn't harm them.
Nevertheless, Alice Stewart rushed to publish her preliminary findings in The Lancet in 1956. People got very excited, there was talk of the Nobel Prize, and Alice really was in a big hurry to try to study all the cases of childhood cancer she could find before they disappeared. In fact, she need not have hurried. It was fully 25 years before the British and medical — British and American medical establishments abandoned the practice of X-raying pregnant women. The data was out there, it was open, it was freely available, but nobody wanted to know. A child a week was dying, but nothing changed. Openness alone can't drive change.
So for 25 years Alice Stewart had a very big fight on her hands. So, how did she know that she was right? Well, she had a fantastic model for thinking. She worked with a statistician named George Kneale, and George was pretty much everything that Alice wasn't. So, Alice was very outgoing and sociable, and George was a recluse. Alice was very warm, very empathetic with her patients. George frankly preferred numbers to people. But he said this fantastic thing about their working relationship. He said, "My job is to prove Dr. Stewart wrong." He actively sought disconfirmation. Different ways of looking at her models, at her statistics, different ways of crunching the data in order to disprove her. He saw his job as creating conflict around her theories. Because it was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong, that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.
It's a fantastic model of collaboration -- thinking partners who aren't echo chambers. I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators. Alice and George were very good at conflict. They saw it as thinking.
So what does that kind of constructive conflict require? Well, first of all, it requires that we find people who are very different from ourselves. That means we have to resist the neurobiological drive, which means that we really prefer people mostly like ourselves, and it means we have to seek out people with different backgrounds, different disciplines, different ways of thinking and different experience, and find ways to engage with them. That requires a lot of patience and a lot of energy.
And the more I've thought about this, the more I think, really, that that's a kind of love.
Because you simply won't commit that kind of energy and time if you don't really care. And it also means that we have to be prepared to change our minds. Alice's daughter told me that every time Alice went head-to-head with a fellow scientist, they made her think and think and think again. "My mother," she said, "My mother didn't enjoy a fight, but she was really good at them."
So it's one thing to do that in a one-to-one relationship. But it strikes me that the biggest problems we face, many of the biggest disasters that we've experienced, mostly haven't come from individuals, they've come from organizations, some of them bigger than countries, many of them capable of affecting hundreds, thousands, even millions of lives. So how do organizations think? Well, for the most part, they don't. And that isn't because they don't want to, it's really because they can't. And they can't because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict.
Because we are the kind of species we are living in the world we inhabit, ethical choices are absolutely incumbent upon us, every day. Our larger task, as sentient life-forms, is to steward that which is placed in our care, nourish it if it is well, restore it to health if it is ill, and then safely pass it along to responsible successors in the next generation.

We are, by virtue of our genetic heritage as herd animals, required to look out for our kin. As we allow our consciousness to expand, as it must, we extend the definition of kin out to all our relations; those with two legs, four legs, eight legs, wings, fins, shells, roots in the ground and taxa beyond number. All our relations. We need them, they need us. It is because they have worth that we have worth.

This is something Alice and George understood very well. They knew they would not be welcome in the lions' den. They knew their seminal works would be challenged on the size of their statistical sample, on the unorthadoxy of a superlinear dose response curve (lower doses are more deadly than higher because they mutate rather than kill cells) and, far worse, go unheeded while thousands perished from lax regulations of these insidious new poisons.

Alice knew John Gofman was right that nuclear power would kill millions of people from legally permitted emissions, even with no accidents (although accidents happen every day). She knew Rosalie Bertell was right about the cause of a childhood epidemic in x-ray-caused leukemias in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She knew all of that could have been prevented if people like those who sat across the table from her at the National Academy — those whose decisions set the standards — would have the courage to choose to act.

It is not as thought they just sat, though. Those who listened to her two public talks that day in 1977 and had authority to take action did. They cut her research funding. When she received the Right Livelihood Award in 1986 she used the small amount of money that came with that to restore funding to yet another of her studies that was being defunded, an investigation into the potential health damage caused to fetuses by ultrasound.

Before she died in 2002, Stewart told The Guardian:
"'Good people are seldom fully recognized during their lifetimes, and here, there are serious problems of corruption. One day it will be realized that my findings should have been acknowledged.'"

"'Plants get all their energy from the sun and so should we,' she would say. Then she would smile wistfully, for she knew how very long that learning curve might be."

Given this pattern of lopping the heads off anyone who tries to warn of danger, it is a wonder why anyone bothers to speak up the way Alice and George did. We know the territory all too well from working on chronically underfunded but incredibly significant projects, and having done so for most of our lives. Occasionally some allies take notice and help us down the path a bit further. Other times we just have to tough it out or hole up until we find the support to make it to next stages of our research.

This week we published a collection of our essays that appeared on this site from 2008 to 2014 and were selected by our readers as most popular. These are our biggest hits. They are now a free download for members of Kindle Unlimited, and $1.99 to everyone else. It is our hope that the collection will generate enough sales to get us to our next stop, which is the North American Permaculture Convergence in Minnesota over Labor Day weekend. We have been invited there to speak on the subject of the state of permaculture in 2014, but they don't provide expenses or honoraria.

Our feelings about permaculture is that it is a useful framework, a multiplier for energy efficiency, but all by itself does not pay the rent. It may be ethical but it is not always economic, and therein lies its greatest challenge — macroeconomic reform to account for neglected externalities like coral reefs, social justice and children with leukemia.

It's worth having that conversation. We are hoping enough others agree to make it possible. So far, enough people have bought our new book, Pour Evian on Your Radishes,
in the first 24 hours to push it to the ninth best seller of Kindle's collected essays category.  


The last image in the book is a photograph of a handmade protest sign. In a dusty rural village in Mexico we happened upon this, stapled to a picket fence. The wind was blowing, so we had to reach out and hold it to the fence while we took the photo. 





The sign says, "If you want justice, don't have fear. If you want peace, don't be of faint heart."
 

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