Sunday, December 16, 2018

Decapitalism by Yellow Vest

"And so this is the anger of the mass of people, saying we’re not going to be put off, we’re not going to play parliamentary games, we’re not even going to work with the regular parties."

A funny thing happened on the way to the UN climate conference in Katowice, Poland. They started rioting in Paris. At first the two events seemed unrelated. The Yellow Vest protests (Mouvement des Gilets Jaunes) were started by a petition and a Facebook event posting calling to protest a new fuel tax in Paris because, the protesters claimed, it was really just paying for tax cuts for the 1%. The protests snowballed into riots when President Emmanuel Macron said the goal of the administration’s economic reform program is to increase France’s competitiveness in the global economy, and that the fuel tax is intended to discourage fossil-fuel use. He later agreed to roll back the tax, but it was too late. The vests were out of the trunks.

Katowice is host, in the heart of Polish coal country, to the UN’s annual effort to fly 20,000 people to some city to make it look like something is being done about climate change. Eighty percent of the heat and power for the Polish conference was supplied by coal.

As the Yellow Vest riots grew larger and pulled in more of the French and Belgian population, delegates in Katowice started wondering if maybe events happening in the two places were connected. What if this is what it looks like when a government tries to curb greenhouse emissions by raising the price of fossil fuels?

15-year-old savant and minor star of this year’s COP Greta Thunberg explained in a press conference that raising fuel prices is a dumb move, if fighting climate change is what French President Macron was doing it for, because it hurts those on the bottom rungs of the ladder more, and people with money would be able to buy what they needed at any price. 

Gilets Jaunes is organized in a leaderless, horizontal, Occupy fashion. Informal leaders can emerge but only in the moment. The movement is not associated with a specific political party or trade union and is spread almost entirely by social media. Three weeks ago, President Macron did not give the protest much credence and dispatched riot police who were no match for 300,000 citizens in yellow vests. Protesters have now gone beyond the retraction of fuel taxes and demanded the reintroduction of the solidarity tax on wealth, a raise in the minimum wage, and the resignation of Macron. At this writing it looks like he could actually be forced to resign. Other world leaders are watching closely.
In a televised address Monday, Macron said he bore partial responsibility for what he said was an insufficient response to souring public sentiment.
“At first it was anger against tax and the prime minister responded by cancelling and removing all rises planned for the start of the new year. But this anger is deeper. I feel it is fair in many ways,” he said. “I may have given you the impression that I didn’t care, that I had other priorities. I know I may have upset some of you with my words.”
“Macron’s sweeteners are coming at a cost,” Berenberg Economists Kallum Pickering and Florian Hense said in a research note Tuesday. France’s debt-to-GDP will likely rise beyond 100 percent as a result of the concessions. EU rules limit spending deficits of member countries to 2% of GDP in any single year.
“They add up to 10 billion euros or slightly more, equivalent to 0.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). On top of the already announced 4 billion to cancel the fuel tax hike, this could push the 2019 deficit from 2.8 percent to 3.4 percent of GDP unless offset by savings, which will be difficult to find.” 
At a press conference called by COP24 President Micha Kurtkya on December 10, Laurent Fabius, the president of the COP21 three years earlier in Paris (the one that delivered the landmark Paris Agreement), added fuel to the speculation that Parisians are rioting in response to “drastic measures” to keep to 2-degrees global warming rather than the 5 degrees now anticipated this century, as Macron had said.

“Now on the events that are taking place in France we have seen the comments of some people saying ‘Well you know there is a difficulty in France and it means that all that stuff about carbon pricing and more generally about fighting climate change is a figment of the imagination and is not necessary.’ No, I do not share at all this viewpoint.
“French events do not mean that the necessity of ecological and just transition must be abandoned. Not at all. I was a few minutes ago in a meeting about just transition with Nicolas Stern, a certain number of friends and specialists and we discussed just transition, and I reminded them that in the preamble of the Paris Agreement we have put a paragraph about just transition…. 
“At that time it was more in line with the shift in employment because obviously you come from a fossil fuel economy to a low carbon economy and new green growth, this new paradigm has a series of consequences on employment and you have both to prepare new jobs and to [compensate for] jobs which are destroyed. And unions in particular have insisted to us on this idea, which is a very fundamental idea, and it happens in all the countries and it happens in Poland too.
“But there is another element in the just transition, which is that the means you choose to fight against climate change must not bring unfairness, and unjust situations. It doesn’t mean that the transition is not necessary. It is necessary….
“Look what has been done in Denmark, Sweden and the UK. They have taken decisions about carbon pricing and it was worthwhile and it is going in the right direction. Obviously in France there are special characteristics due to the high level of taxes, due to this and that.”
The “this and that” was dissected by Democracy at Work professor Richard Wolff who, in a December 7 vlog chat, supplied a more nuanced take on the Yellow Vest movement. Wolff said it could be traced back to the stock market/real estate crisis of 2008, and the billion-dollar gifts government made to companies like Wells Fargo, Citibank and General Motors, most of it going into the pockets of senior management, who spent public tax money buying more mansions and yachts.
“The capitalist system hasn’t learned in its entire 300 year history how to prevent this kind of instability, how to prevent these crashes. Downturns of capitalism happen every 4 to 7 years. The only difference is that some of them are short and shallow and some of them are long and deep. But everything has been tried to prevent them and everything has failed, and that’s a condemnation of this system’s intrinsic instability.
“You know in my classes I reach across the podium when I teach this and I look at my students and I say to them, ‘If you lived with a roommate as unstable as capitalism, you would have moved out long ago….
“The governments who had spent a fortune to bailing out these companies announced to the mass of people in their society, we now have to have austerity. … Whoa! The richest people got the bailout and all the rest of us got austerity. And I think the mass of people in the world they understand they’ve been taken for a real big ride. They suffered a system that whacked them with a crash, then they watched the people who brought the crash get the big bailouts from the government and then they were told the same government that just delivered bailouts to the rich now have to deliver austerity to you. It is too much. They have been kicked one time too many.
“And I think what you are seeing is, first, people began to vote for socialists because the socialists said, we’ll fight against it. The socialists got elected, they didn’t do crap. They didn’t fight the austerity they administered it. You saw this in Greece with Syriza, you saw this in France with Hollande, so then they went the other way. So you on the left didn’t deliver, we are going to vote for the right. And they did that with Trump. And they did that with Brexit and Macron and the Italian government a few months ago. But guess what? The right wing is no better able to deal with this problem than the left wing….
“And so this is the anger of the mass of people, saying we’re not going to be put off, we’re not going to play parliamentary games, we’re not even going to work with the regular parties. We’re going to go into the street and we’re going to tell the people who run this society, ‘You either change or nothing is going to happen here — there is not going to be any truck in the road, there is not going to be any gas in your tank, it’s over Jackson,’ because in the end the people have the power. They always did, but they weren’t ready to make the fight. And as has happened now several times: the country that leads the way is the French…. The polling indicates that between 70 and 80 percent of the French people support these street actions.”
Seventy or more percent of the population of France may have favored cutting off the heads of the aristocracy at the end of the 18th Century, too, but that didn’t really solve the cyclical problem Wolff is referring to, and nor will it solve the climate problem.

The flaw in the capitalist ointment is its sine-qua-non need for growth. Most economists haven’t seemed to think through what a degrowth future will look like, as the reversal of climate change requires. As I wrote 15 years ago in The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook, some things can continue to grow exponentially, such as quality of life, music, literature, surfing and healthy food. Anything that eats up non-renewable resources, puts carbon into the atmosphere, or sets up class divisions, financial depressions and war is dead. If the only way to capitalize an enterprise is to insist on some higher than invested rate of return that has to come from money conjured into existence, that system is going to kill us all and needs to be put out to pasture. 
When the Paris Agreement speaks of just transition, let us hope a degrowth decapitalism is what those words will come to mean, even if the framers didn’t intend for it to mean that at the time. The real change, as Greta Thunberg told the first plenary session, comes from the bottom.
Some people say that I should be in school instead. Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can ”solve the climate crisis”. But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions.
And why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?
Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground.

So we can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed.
So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again.
We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge. And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.

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Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Sound of a Second Shoe Dropping

"To avoid the worst of the predicted outcomes, global carbon emissions must be cut by half by 2030, to zero by 2050."

Montage by author of images from Bartek Sadowski, Bloomberg
Polish coal mining supplies 80% of the power to the UN climate summit. 

A comment on one of my Facebook posts helped me to realize it is possible that some readers, especially those born after the 1970s, aren’t familiar with the Club of Rome. The Club was the brainchild of Fiat industrialist and ex-WWII resistance fighter Aurelio Peccei, who was captured and tortured by the Nazis but survived. 
Aurelio Peccei
Because of his language skills, Peccei was asked to give a keynote speech in Spanish at an international meeting in 1965, which led to a series of invitations ending in the creation of the Club of Rome. His speech, about the seriousness of problems facing mankind and the necessity to act globally, deeply moved those who heard it or read it later. Peccei was asked to form the Club of Rome in order to develop a better pathway for humanity, applying advanced data analysis and regenerative design principles.

Tapping into the newfound ability to forecast world trends using early computers (primitive by today’s standards), the Club commissioned ecologist Donella Meadows, her engineer husband Dennis, and team of 15 others to undertake a first model, using software developed at MIT by Jay Forrester called World3. They presented their findings at international gatherings in Moscow and Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1971 and in 1972 the Club produced a report called Limits to Growth that shocked the science, economics and public policy communities of that time. 
Limits projected that by about the second decade in the 21st century, human population would have exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity and would be “burning the furniture” to find energy, food and nonrenewable natural resources, while the exponentially growing volume of pollutants such as greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals would be heating the planet, fouling human habitat, decimating ocean life, felling ancient forests and forcing mass migrations.
Limits' "Standard Run" over red chart from Climate in Crisis (1990)
Two of the Limits scenarios forecast “overshoot and collapse” by the mid- to latter-part of the 21st century, while a third (the path not taken) resulted in a “stabilized world.” The leading economists of the day and all the media pundits scoffed, waved their hands wildly, and the Club, along with all the scientists who worked on the project became synonymous with tin-foil-hat eco-wingnuts. The current presidents of the United States and Brazil would no doubt be quick to tell you those Club of Rome studies have been discredited, if they even know about them.
Ugo Bardi recalls: “[By]the 1990s LTG had become everyone’s laughing stock… In short, Chicken Little with a computer.” 
In 1997, the Italian economist Giorgio Nebbia, observed that the negative reaction to Limits came from at least four sources: those who saw the book as a threat to their business or industry; economists who saw it as an encroachment on their profession; the Catholic church, which bridled at the suggestion that overpopulation was one of mankind’s major problems; and finally, the political left, which saw it as a scam by the elites designed to trick workers into believing that Marx and Engels were wrong.
But because the Club was then and continues to be right about the existential threats we are choosing to ignore, I sat up and took notice when I saw a new report this week entitled The Club of Rome Emergency Management Plan, issued in the first week of the annual UN climate summit, #COP24Katowice.

At the top of the first page, Potsdam climate scientist Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber writes, “Climate change is now reaching an end-game scenario, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.”
After that it doesn’t get any lighter. 
To avoid the worst of the predicted outcomes, global carbon emissions must be cut by half by 2030, to zero by 2050. This is an unprecedented task, requiring a reduction rate of at least 7% annually; no country has to date achieved more than 1.5%. The only possible response is emergency action that will transform human social, economic and financial systems.
As I have written here before, a 7% decline slope (which holds us below 2 degrees, to get to 1.5 degrees we would need to decline by 11%) translates into halving emissions every 10 years. So half by 2030, a quarter by 2040, and an eighth by 2050. Even that will not be enough to hold to the target. Steep emissions reductions need to be accompanied by rapid deployment of negative emissions technologies, which is the subject of a new book by Kathleen Draper and myself, out from Chelsea Green Publishers in February.

The Club of Rome, never one to care what the deniers might say, goes on:
As a result of inaction, climate change now represents an existential risk to humanity. That is, a risk posing permanent, massively negative consequences which can never be undone.
Decades of exponential growth in both population and consumption are now colliding with the limits of the Earth’s biosphere: the climate system is destabilizing; about half of the world’s tropical forests have already been cleared; in the last 150 years, half of its topsoil has been depleted; nearly 90% of fish stocks are either fully or overfished; and the sixth mass extinction event is well underway.
This situation is exacerbated by a global leadership that has abrogated its moral responsibility to provide security for the world’s people and the planet, even as the risks of irreversible climate change escalate.
The inability of our existing economic and financial systems to provide real quality of life and to ensure decent standards of living across the globe has also created social breaking points. The current neoclassical economic model was designed for an ‘empty’ world with a global population of around 2 billion people, when the bounty of natural resources seemed endless.
To stay well below the 2°C warming limit mentioned in the Paris Agreement, global emissions would have to peak no later than 2020.
Then a second shoe dropped mid-week in a report from the Global Carbon Project that The New York Times described under the headline, “Greenhouse Gas Emissions Accelerate Like a ‘Speeding Freight Train’ in 2018.”
That report, building on a peer-review study published December 5th in Earth System Science Data, said that a three-year plateau in global greenhouse gas emissions did not end in the start of the gradual glide slope Paris calls for and instead bent back up, pretty steeply. All the major polluters except the EU are polluting more in 2018 than ever before, India as much as 8% more than in 2017, and the raw survey data does not yet include so-called “fugitive emissions” (methane leaks) from fracking, flaring and gas pipelines which are only very poorly monitored, if at all.
With the price of natural gas in the Permian Basin falling to negative 25 cents last month, oil companies have been flaring it from tall smokestacks (the better to reach the upper atmosphere and have a warming effect quickly) rather than pay refineries to take it. Flaring as a price-control practice had largely ended 30 years ago in the United States, but has now been revived by the Republican administration, which of course does not believe in global warming.

Nadja Popovich/The NY Times from Global Carbon Project data.
With India determined to give all its citizens (coal-fired) electricity and China set to become the world’s largest car-maker and road-builder, prospects for a near-term decline in emissions are not great.
Last month the White House published findings by 13 federal agencies predicting that global warming could knock hundreds of billions of dollars off the size of the American economy by century’s end. In actual fact, climate events within the United States occurring at a 1°C temperature increase knocked $306 billion off the economy in 2017, double their 2016 cost, and the predicted expense for 2018 is even higher.
We are paying for this ineptitude, if not through the rising costs of insurance, then through higher taxes, or the ashes of houses, or combing through the wreckage after storm surges. 
The Club of Rome provides a laundry list of steps to be taken, and by now it is pretty familiar. One step they have been urging since 1972 does not usually make it into climate reports. They say we need to throw the bums out and elect people who can start to right this foundering ship. 
Humanity currently faces systemic collapse on many fronts, such as threats to the philosophical underpinnings of modern society’s democratic institutions and practices that include declining respect for human rights, the rule of law and the proper use of science, and very much needs more enlightened leadership.
It would seem unlikely that such enlightened leadership will be coming from the United States any time soon. We can only hope the leaders gathered this week in Katowice can step up their own game plan.

At a press conference on Saturday, the COP President said that now it is obvious that the difference between 1.5 degree and 2 degrees warmer will be utterly catastrophic, making it imperative that COP24 take the needed steps to hold to 1.5. For a review of where we are at the end of Week One, here is a press conference by Climate Action Network International:


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Sunday, December 2, 2018

Wildfires and Wildcats: California's Oil Ban

"California will be the first State to enact a leave-it-in-the-ground supply side strategy."

International Supply Side Bans (Erickson 2018)
At COP-23 in Bonn last December I had a front-row view to a shouting match between Governor Jerry Brown and Journalist Amy Goodman, who later aired the confrontation on Democracy Now!. Goodman started by saying she thought indigenous rights activists had a point in disrupting an address by Brown by chanting “keep it in the ground.” She mischaracterized something Brown said and led with that because it seemed to show that Brown was racist. He looked at her like she was nuts. Was she serious? Their discussion became heated as Brown tried to defend himself by asking deeper questions than Goodman was equipped to handle. Most viewers of Democracy Now! saw Goodman’s version, that Brown was prevaricating by refusing to walk back racist comments. Having watched in real time, I sided with Brown.

BROWN: “We have the toughest rules on oil. I don’t think we should shut down oil in California and then take it from Venezuela or take it from somewhere else where the rules are even worse. We have to stop the cars. We have to get them electric. We have to get public transportation. We need better land use. We have to solve the problem and I understand because we deal with protest all the time. But California, we are cutting our oil consumption, we are cutting our greenhouse gases, that is what we have to do. Not just a slogan or a march-around or talk-talk. I am talking about reality. And California has the strongest oil-reduction rules in America. We are the leader. So if someone says, ‘get rid of oil,’ oh, you mean ‘get rid of our cars?’ If you got rid of cars you’d have a revolution and there would be shooting in the streets.”
GOODMAN: “They were calling for a ban on fracking like New York and Maryland….”
BROWN: “They were calling for a ban on all oil production.”
GOODMAN: “But also fracking. What is your position on that?”
BROWN: “I don’t think it makes sense to import oil by train. I think its very dangerous. And people who say, ‘Hey, don’t take oil out of your ground, bring it by train or by boat,’ that is far more dangerous. The answer is stop using oil in buses and cars and trucks. You need a renewable vehicle grid. That is the answer and I think to say anything else is not intellectually honest and is not helpful.”
GOODMAN: “Are you considering a ban on fracking?”
BROWN: “We are considering a ban on oil over the next 25 years.”

The November 26, 2018 issue of Nature Climate Change reveals just how far Brown is prepared to go, and when he, or his successors, may get there. Hint: It won’t take 25 years. With the political winds at its back blowing stronger than a fire-nado, California has charted a course to arrest its oil production in just 11 years.

Limiting fossil fuel production as the next big step in climate policy” by Peter Erickson, Michael Lazarus & Georgia Piggot takes California as a case study to show how the state’s Climate 2030 Action Plan goes beyond an electric transportation grid (and lest we forget, the devastating recent Camp Fire may have been sparked by overloaded transmission lines) to the first State to enact a leave-it-in-the-ground supply side strategy. 

Brown was right when he told Goodman that California’s economy depended on oil. For most of the past century, Californians have used more total gasoline, diesel and jet fuel each year than any other US state — a distinction only recently eclipsed by Texas, in 2014. California was also the first- or second-largest US crude oil producer from 1940 to 1980, and now ranks fifth behind Permian Basin, Marcellus or Bakken states using short-lived enhanced recovery techniques. The state issues about 2,500 new oil well permits each year, slaking its thirst for 600 to 700 million barrels per year, with a resulting 300 to 350 annual megatons of CO2 emissions, steady for the past 25 years.

Available options to implement supply side reductions (Erickson 2018)

The challenge is not available supply, but social acceptance, as the NCC study reports:
Pushback from incumbents accompanies any significant social or economic transition, and is to be expected whether policymakers limit supply or enact more comprehensive demand-side policies. For example, California oil producers have put up strong resistance to both supply- and demand-side action, in both cases using many of the same arguments that pit a safe climate against jobs and economy.
Many of the same critiques, however, could apply to demand-side policy: the effectiveness of any individual demand-side policy may also be small compared to a country’s national emissions, and those policies can also be diminished by leakage, or subject to backlash.
If California could simply stop issuing new oil well permits, seemingly a straightforward and administratively feasible move that requires no action by the legislature, it would reduce 2030 oil production by about 70% and have a climate effect equal to all the other actions California is currently taking to reduce emissions, combined. It would also raise the world price, and that could have knock-on reduction effects that ripple outward.

Two months ago, when the Secretary of Interior informed California of its decision to open up national forests, parks and monuments to oil and gas exploration, Governor Brown wrote back: “open[ing] up new areas of the state to oil and gas production … is contrary to the course California has set to combat climate change and to meet its share of the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.”

While the indigenous peoples’ climate activists who shut down Brown’s talk in Bonn were wrong to have done so, they may ultimately have prevailed in their argument. California has listened and is doing the right thing, as quickly as humanly possible.

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Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Arithmetic of Plastic

"Isn’t it time we asked why we design a material to last forever and then put that into objects intended to be discarded after a single use?"

The late University of Colorado mathematics professor Albert Bartlett is said to have given his classic lecture on the exponential function more than 1000 times. I show the YouTube video of that lecture at the start of my permaculture courses and I suspect many other instructors do the same, so the eyeball count continues to grow each year since Bartlett passed. In that one hour lecture, the professor says:
Legend has it that the game of chess was invented by a mathematician who worked for a king. The king was very pleased. He said, “I want to reward you.” The mathematician said “My needs are modest. Please take my new chess board and on the first square, place one grain of wheat. On the next square, double the one to make two. On the next square, double the two to make four. Just keep doubling till you’ve doubled for every square, that will be an adequate payment.” We can guess the king thought, “This foolish man. I was ready to give him a real reward; all he asked for was just a few grains of wheat.”
But let’s see what is involved in this. We know there are eight grains on the fourth square. I can get this number, eight, by multiplying three twos together. It’s 2x2x2, it’s one 2 less than the number of the square. Now that continues in each case. So on the last square, I’d find the number of grains by multiplying 63 twos together.
Now let’s look at the way the totals build up. When we add one grain on the first square, the total on the board is one. We add two grains, that makes a total of three. We put on four grains, now the total is seven. Seven is a grain less than eight, it’s a grain less than three twos multiplied together. Fifteen is a grain less than four twos multiplied together. That continues in each case, so when we’re done, the total number of grains will be one grain less than the number I get multiplying 64 twos together. My question is, how much wheat is that?
You know, would that be a nice pile here in the room? Would it fill the building? Would it cover the county to a depth of two meters? How much wheat are we talking about?
The answer is, it’s roughly 400 times the 1990 worldwide harvest of wheat. That could be more wheat than humans have harvested in the entire history of the earth. You say, “How did you get such a big number?” and the answer is, it was simple. We just started with one grain, but we let the number grow steadily till it had doubled a mere 63 times.
The greatest failing for the human race, Bartlett was fond of telling his students, is its failure to understand the exponential function.
Now there’s something else that’s very important: the growth in any doubling time is greater than the total of all the preceding growth. For example, when I put eight grains on the 4th square, the eight is larger than the total of seven that were already there. I put 32 grains on the 6th square. The 32 is larger than the total of 31 that were already there. Every time the growing quantity doubles, it takes more than all you’d used in all the proceeding growth.
Each doubling produces twice the amount previously produced

At another point in the lecture, Bartlett gives the example of bacteria filling a bottle. The doubling rate is every minute, so Bartlett poses this challenge to his students:
If you were an average bacterium in that bottle, at what time would you first realize you were running of space? Well, let’s just look at the last minutes in the bottle. At 12:00 noon, it’s full; one minute before, it’s half full; 2 minutes before, it’s a quarter full; then an 1/8th; then a 1/16th. Let me ask you, at 5 minutes before 12:00, when the bottle is only 3% full and is 97% open space just yearning for development, how many of you would realize there’s a problem?
Which brings us to plastics, which are now in their fourth doubling since 1968. By any fourth doubling the curve’s trajectory is still at the bottom of the J and only beginning to bend upward. By 2030 the slope up will be much more obvious, just as it is for climate change, or feral rabbits.

If we had one Pacific Garbage Gyre twice the size of Texas in 2015, by 2035 we will have one the size of four Texases, and eight Texases by 2055. If the present Pacific Garbage Gyre kills 100,000 marine birds yearly, by mid-century it will be killing 8 times that many.

If each human baby born now has detectable microplastics in its blood, in 20 years its child will have twice that much, then double that, then twice that again as we go through this century.

Isn’t it time we asked why we design a material to last forever and then put that into objects intended to be discarded after a single use?

I almost ended this post right there. Many activists would have; posed the question and provided no answer. That may be the right way. It might even be the best way. But it is not the cowboy way. So we are traveling on.

An honest assessment of why we, the clever bipeds, make such gargantuan faux pas in cultural design is because we seldom reason together. Mostly we reason separately, or in small groups. We run in packs. So, when we consign decisions of this type to the pack having the skills or inclination, more often than not they are in that specific business for their own profit — in this case chemical companies — and so will decide the course that most favors them. You can’t say sustainability doesn’t factor, but it is economic sustainability over the course of one or more business cycles that gets consideration. Environmental and social costs only matter if they threaten profits.

The chemists working in corporate-financed labs are only doing what they are told — design something:
  • Cheap (without reference to social, environmental, disposal or clean-up costs);
  • Durable (even indestructible by natural decay processes);
  • Lightweight (even buoyant) and compact.
These design parameters apply equally to bio-based plastics, now growing at 40% per year (doubling time of 14 months for Bartlett fans), thanks to green consumer demand. Of course, bio-plastics are still plastics; still cheap, durable and lightweight, and just as much of an environmental problem. They just don’t consume as much fossil fuel to produce. Priced at a premium over their fossil cousins, they assuage guilt while building bottom line. They are like papal indulgences.

Confronted by the NextGen market challenge to go ever greener, producers have come up with replacements for heavy metal-based additives and coatings, halogenated flame-retardants, carcinogenic styrenic petrochemicals, endocrine-disrupting phthalate plasticizing additives, and ozone-layer-depleting foaming agents. They have not found a substitute for the chlorine in PVC, even with corn- or cane-derived bio-PVC. There is just something about vinyl that’s … better.

Recycling is largely an illusion when it comes to plastic. Plastics are recovered at lower rates from US municipal solid waste than all other major material types, and for good reason. Even when uncontaminated, separating by type and form is as hard for recycling facilities as it is for consumers. Moreover, there are technical limits on the amount of recycled resin that can be used in a given product, most resins can only be reused once, the cost of recycled plastic may be higher than virgin plastic, and the range of products containing recycled content is limited.

Global Plastic Production 1950 to 2016 (in million metric tons)

Where we wind up is with a challenge both to NextGen corporatists and NextGen chemists. Stop digging us into a deeper hole. To place the burden entirely on consumers, as most activists do, is unfair. In the next few years we need new products designed to degrade under natural conditions. At a minimum, all plastics should break down into harmless components in saltwater. Products that need to function in marine environments must be replaced with whatever was used before plastics.

That is a problem for our Anthropocene culture, whether you believe in market forces or social democracy as your favored regulatory authority. We need that change, and we need it quickly.

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Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Cool Alternative to Climate Apocalypse

"How much better that our bad habits fall away like the cocoon left behind as a butterfly emerges."

After the biochar tour of Cuba’s experimental agriculture stations with researchers Hans Peter Schmidt and Ruy Anaya de la Rosa, described in this space last week, I hopped over to Dominican Republic to visit my friends Santiago Obarrio and Carolina Chicero.

When I first came here a few years ago, there were no paved roads and in some cases not even anything resembling a road. The slopes our host Tomás drove his four-wheel-drive truck over were no more than rocky landslides that slid away as we traversed.

Erosion was easy to see when we pulled the LANDSAT images for El Valle. There were long bare swaths across hillsides that wildfires burned away during the dry season. In rainy seasons these turned to mud, and the mud into rivers. Why such burns? Too many unpicked coconuts and dead palm fronds on the forest floor. The solution was simple: Santiago found a buyer so there could be immediate returns to anyone wishing some quick income for a little investment of labor in gathering coconuts.
By last winter my friends had broken ground for their hotel enterprise and Kathleen Draper and I included their story in our soon-to-be-released book from Chelsea Green, Burn:
Obarrio enlisted a few friends to join with him in a business partnership for the purpose of developing an ecological plan for the valley. They called the business Qi. Their business plan consisted of three elements — Cool Farms, Cool Lab, and Cool Design. His partner, Carolina Chicero, told us, “Watching how other developers are slowly destroying paradises with ‘eco-development,’ especially there in the Dominican Republic, we decided to take this example as far as we could envision. More than thirty experts came to design this ecoregion. The 3,000 hectares [7,400 acres] are a watershed sanctuary where six defined ecotones interact, creating astounding biodiversity of trees, birds, turtles, and soils.” It is little wonder the local residents can live on fishing and agriculture with little need for the outside world much of the year.
“We are currently working with the local community and building our own lodge, which will be sustained entirely by products coming from El Valle. We use the mineral water from the land, leave no wastes, and plant more food. We have already regenerated a spring and are harvesting freshwater fish and shrimp.”
The company brought in an ecovillage architect, Greg Ramsey, to design the master plan for the entire district. Ramsey convened valley residents, spoke with the farmers and fishing families, and together they worked up a code of covenants and restrictions. Much of the car traffic will be kept at the periphery. Within the district, marked by an entrance gate and transition point, transportation can be restricted to slow micro-vehicles, including motorized bicycles and tricycles, hoverboards, and electric carts that can operate within the pedestrian paths. Gradients are restricted and the speed limit is 15 miles per hour (24 km/h). Landscaping must comply with standards for organic land care and the native plant species list. Development will be held to a 90:10 offset density ratio, meaning that only 10 percent of the land area of the valley will be permitted to be developed. The remaining 90 percent will be kept wilderness or mixed age, mixed species ecoforestry.
Lacking deep-pocket investors, Obarrio’s company pulled itself up by its own bootstraps with its Cool Farms. Assisting local farmers to do what they knew best, Qi introduced organic, regenerative methods such as biochar-compost blends, compost tea inoculants, mineralization, and hybrid seed for fast-growing plant strains. Leading with this allowed Obarrio to get going at minimal expense but maximum impact. From the carbon fixation point of view, the drawdown is better than 10:1 over solar or wind power, and the energy return on energy invested is better, too. The internal rate of return is 90 percent, ten times the usual rate of return for solar power.
“We expect to cover our operating costs for the company in the Dominican Republic for the next eight to ten years with this operation alone,” Obarrio said. “Although there are many products we can produce after we fix carbon from the air, we have decided to focus on the most essential commodities and the ones that can virally grow inside huge markets. One hundred and fifty dollars invested in a Cool Farm erases the carbon footprint of an individual for ten years and can double your investment in four to six years.”
The first of QI’s commodities are biofuel feedstocks made from hybrid perennial grasses produced at net drawdown — Cool Fuels. For the clients who are purchasing these, Cool Farms are able to meet their needs for 33 percent less than what they had previously been spending on fossil fuel. Second-tier commodities, planned for 2020, will be nutrient-dense Cool Foods, both those that grow in the tropical valleys, and the proteins and medicinals extracted from leaves of biomass crops or seaweed before they are used to make electricity and biochar.
According to the World Economic Forum, if public-sector investment (governments and international agencies) was increased to $130 billion and more effectively targeted, it would eliminate the investment gap between the Paris climate goals and actual drawdown projects by mobilizing around $570 billion in private capital. Cool Farms illustrate how that could happen.
After their first season, which included being battered by Hurricane Irma, Obarrio’s Cool Farms, now 100 percent organic and massively making and applying biochar, were able to show a 33 percent increase in soil carbon. The company’s projection is an average drawdown rate of 10–20 tons of CO2 per hectare per year.
Once their lodge is complete, the couple plans to construct more cabins for guests and vacation home owners. Wild side ecotourism will help pay the way for cool development of the ecodistrict. Obarrio says, “Since our energy source is carbon negative (microhydro plus gasifier and generator), if a guest turns on the LED lights he will be cooling the planet. His trip will become carbon negative by adding biochar to soil with waste wood from the forests turning it into fertilizer for local producers. This is how we are teaching locals not to cut their trees but to value the forest as their source of high yields for their farms.”
The other element that can help pay the way is phase three — a village Cool Lab. Qi is taking its profits from the Cool Farms and other projects and, rather than selling raw farm commodities to outside buyers, will develop value-added cascade products.
Obarrio says he expects to pay the early investors around 24 percent profits per year on the first model. After that, the company says it can use El Valle as a showroom to help others construct Cool Labs at scales of anywhere from $1 million to $100 million. It may even help finance them by offering Cool Bonds.
Obarrio told us, “We are open source. We need this to go viral. The fight between economic growth and sustainability starts from a mistaken premise. Regenerative systems can fuel economic growth. The only difference in our development is that this time carbon must come from the atmosphere and go under the soil, cooling the planet rather than warming it. It is very simple, but also very revolutionary. It will change the lives of the poor, the rural people, those who have suffered from the old way. It will energize the protection of nature.”
It is now nearly two years since the visit and interviews that led to those passages and I am a guest in the newly finished El Valle Lodge. Tucked into the highlands at the inland edge of the floodplain, it survived last year’s Hurricane Irma tides that swept a meter over the tabletops in the beachside restaurants. The surge subsided just at the corner of the hotel’s property. From Carolina’s restaurant, as I watch trout jump in the freshwater stream and wild ducks come and go, I realize how elegantly chosen their site was.
Bob Cirino and Greg Ramsey in El Valle Lodge's restaurant

The Lodge, now just 3 cabins but soon to be 8, then 16 and more, recalls the eco-chic decor of Tulum, Ibiza or Bali: thatched roofs, tropical hardwood furnishings and trim, handcrafted details in local stone, shell and fabric, tasteful art, spacious rooms and airy en-suite bathrooms with high-end hardware and local herbal soaps, and high thread-count linens on the beds. You may be deep in nature (the sound of waves breaking on the beach lull you to sleep), but seldom out of your comfort zone.

Reversing climate change with solutions of this kind are a radical diversion from the usual conception that pits ecology against economy and insists on a hair-shirt approach to lifestyle change and de-growth. Those things will happen, but how much better that they fall away like the cocoon left behind as a butterfly emerges.
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