Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Message from the Virgin

"Talking against religion is unchaining a tyger" – Poor Richard

There are many reasons why the Mexican people took the Virgin of Guadalupe to their hearts — the sainted mother of the Lord appearing as a Mestizo woman, someone of very low social rank in the 17th century; appearing miraculously to Juan Diego, a poor campesino and someone with no special standing in the church; clad in vestments bearing symbols indigenous and sacred to Mexico; the efforts by some church elders to squelch the special veneration of Guadalupe and to withhold sainthood from Juan Diego. All of these pieces nourished Mexican pride and the dignity of indigenous and mixed-blooded peoples. The Virgin was theirs, and in their corner against all the unfairness and cruelty of the world.

What lessons are there in this story for those of us now trying to reverse the climate change/peak oil/ population/extinction juggernaut? We tiny few, we band of brothers, possessed of the realization that real end times are upon us … unless …

Unless we can somehow accomplish in the space of a short few years what has never been accomplished in all of human history — the voluntary turning away from the pursuit of wealth and power by the broad masses of human population; people who, never having had either wealth or power in their entire lives who have grown up yearning for it; or people who, having had it their entire lives, take it for granted as a birthright, and could never imagine living without it — then all is lost. And what good are wealth and power if there are no humans around to enjoy them?

As more people have the realization of just how dire our situation has become, there are many heroic, absurd, futile, and counterproductive responses being bandied about. National Geographic’s cable-TV channel runs a special called Six Degrees that provides an adequate prelude to mass panic. David Suzuki has begun telling audiences, "What I would challenge you to do is to put a lot of effort into trying to see whether there's a legal way of throwing our so-called leaders into jail because what they're doing is a criminal act."

I’d suggest that we simply invert the pecking order.

The Guadalupe story I spoke of last week is about memes. How they begin. How they grow. How they become central to peoples’ lives. The Guadalupe meme is so strong that Guadalupeños walk the breadth of Mexico, some on their knees, in devotion. They endure cold, heat, hunger, thirst and pain to demonstrate their faith. They bathe in sacrifice, and emerge in bliss.

In December I learned that the various non-governmental organizations that work the corridors of the United Nations in consultative status were putting together a task group to draft a road map from Bali to Copenhagen, although I suspect for that particular route a sea chart would be more useful.

The United Nations Framework for Climate Change Conference in Bali was, as all international conferences dealing with climate change have been, a bit of a disappointment, but nonetheless some progress was made.

The United States made a bald-face attempt to hijack the process, but in the end was hooted and jeered by the other countries. But the big shift came from developing countries, known collectively as “the G-77 plus China.”

Led by China, South Africa, and Brazil, the G-78 stood up to the G-8 bullies and punched them in the nose.

The confrontation came on the unplanned 13th day of the conference. At issue was wording on adaptation, technology transfer, and financing. G-78 countries offered text changes that would bring them into the consensus — in essence, it would accomplish what the Bush Administration had long said was the reason it did not support Kyoto, because developing countries, including China, would not pledge reductions the way developed countries were expected to. The developing world said, “Okay, count us in. We will cap if we can trade.”

When the head of the US negotiating team, Paula Dobriansky, took the floor, she said the US couldn't support the change. Without consensus, the Bali conference would end with nothing accomplished. The US was, on instructions from Washington, refusing to take “yes” for an answer.

Developing countries were already fuming that, due to US insistence, the road map was confining scientific recommendations on necessary emission cuts by industrial countries to a footnote. The Europeans were fuming that Bali would not set any hard targets, leaving EU, with its advanced restrictions already in place and more coming, hanging in the breeze.

Then there was the comment made by a senior member of the US delegation, none less than the head of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, who told reporters that “the US will lead” on global climate change, “but leadership requires that others fall in line and follow.”

So when Paula Dobriansky attempted to end the talks on a sour note, she was met with a chorus of boos. One after another, as the conference continued past its scheduled close, nations rose to speak. Each of them in turn supported the G-78 change and roundly criticized the US position as entirely obfuscatory — “most unwelcome and without any basis,” in the words of the South African delegate.

Kevin Conrad, head of Papua-New Guinea's delegation, rose and delivered the coup de grace. “We seek your leadership,” he said. “But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way.”

And then, much to everyone’s surprise, they did. The US reversed its position and went with the consensus. What that said, in essence, was that all countries of the world will now agree to binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — caps. With caps in place, targets can be set, a trading regime to harvest the low-hanging fruit (rainforest preservation, a ban on gas flaring, and CO2 capture retrofits for instance) put in place and regulated, and a GHG reduction trading bourse established. The only questions remaining are what should the targets be and how quickly can they be put into effect.

The United Nations Framework for Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 will answer those questions.

And so, here I was in January, joining in writing a scoping draft of a white paper — A Framework for Action — to be co-authored by the various non-governmental organizations involved in this process, and to be delivered to the UN Secretary General in 2008, describing what NGOs hoped for Copenhagen, and offering some friendly advice on how best to save the planet in the coming century.

NGOs were free to put forward topics and coalesce interest around them. The topic that immediately grabbed my attention was “Tipping Points.” I emailed Bill Gellermann, the group leader for that chapter, and identified myself as a UN representative for the Global Ecovillage Network, which has held consultative status for about 9 years now. Bill was happy to have me on the team and I joined a distinguished group of co-authors who are working to craft the chapter on Tipping Points.

There are two observations I will make now about tipping points. The first is that we are talking about two kinds of tipping points, or elements. The first kind are those described very elegantly by a panel of the world’s finest climate scientists edited by Professor William Clark of Harvard and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of February 12, 2008 (PNAS 105:6;1786-1793). The report defines the term ‘‘tipping element’’ as “subsystems of the Earth system that are at least subcontinental in scale and can be switched — under certain circumstances — into a qualitatively different state by small perturbations. The “tipping point” is the corresponding critical point — in forcing and a feature of the system — at which the future state of the system is qualitatively altered.

The illustration the NAS panel employed is a ball in a trough. “The potential wells represent stable attractors, and the ball, the state of the system. Under gradual anthropogenic forcing (progressing from dark to light blue potential), the right potential well becomes shallower and finally vanishes (threshold), causing the ball to abruptly roll to the left. The curvature of the well is inversely proportional to the system’s response time to small perturbations.”

The panel also employed ‘‘degenerate fingerprinting’’ to extract from the system’s noisy, multivariate time series and forecast the vanishing of local curvature, the best example being the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation under a 4-fold linear increase of atmospheric CO2 over 50,000 years. Eventually, the circulation collapses without early warning.

The second kind of tipping point is the type described by Joanna Whitty in her seminal piece in Mother Jones as “The Thirteenth Tipping Point.”

The 13th tipping point is us, homo sapiens sapiens in the late Anthropocene.

After winding her way through a harrowing description of 12 of the kinds of elements described in the NAS report, Whitty comes to a very cathartic and inspired close. Looking at the hunting behavior of dolphins, vampire bats and cockroaches, Whitty concludes that humans need to learn to cooperate in unprecedented ways, at risk of our own species’ extinction. Says Whitty, “The difference between people and corals is that if we build our world poorly, we can rebuild it well. We know what to do. We know how to do it. We know the timeline. We are our own antidote.”

In a book collecting interviews with 25 distinguished persons, Toward a New World View: Conversations at the Leading Edge, Russell E. DeCarlo teases out a theme that our “world view has been greatly influenced by two — historically at odds — streams of influence; science and religion.... Through the lens of science, the universe is a meaningless accident... The physical world (which represents the entirety of created reality) exists independently and objectively unaffected by the presence of an observer.... The other stream of influence shaping the Western world view — the Judeo-Christian religious tradition — offers a different explanation of things.... Man exists separate and apart. Separate from the universe and separate from the natural and spiritual worlds; indeed separate from the rest of humanity."

How do we tip us back into place? When he was launched into orbit, beheld the full light of the stars, and saw his home planet as a tiny orb in the vastness of space, Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell was struck with a revelation. “I suddenly realized it's all one, that this magnificent universe is a harmonious, directed, purposeful whole. That we humans, both as individuals and as a species are an integral part of the ongoing process of its creation.”

Regrettably, we can’t send all of us into orbit to have this experience. So the question rebounds. How do we tip us back into place?

In his book, The Tipping Point: How Small Things Make a Difference, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that social movements behave much the same way as epidemics do. Gladwell points to three elements that cause epidemics to spread, and says that these same elements are fundamental to any large scale social change. They are:

The Law of the Few, that tells us that some people spread disease, and also ideas and fashions, better than others;

The Stickiness Factor, or how potent the viral agent is. Without stickiness, a social movement might only influence a fraction of a generation. With stickiness, it becomes universal. Steps to reverse climate change need to continue evolving for centuries and draw in new generations; and

The Power of Context, or how the environment serves to either reinforce the change or to thwart its spread.

The Law of the Few tells us, as Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” It also tells us that commitment is not enough. The committed have to act, and have to share their commitment with others. Stickiness is where some popular movements work, and keep working, while others fade quickly into obscurity, or even create a backlash. The greater context of our climate dilemma suggests that if a favorable human tipping point is to occur, it will need to be able to cross cultures, genders, age groups, and races. It will need to be sticky across all those differences.

Margaret Mead

Sharon Astyk writes:
“[T]here is no possible way that we can make the necessary environmental cuts without sacrifice - 90% or more over 10 years is a big deal, and some of it will hurt - period. There are thousands of people who really don't want to hear that part - they think that if we just elect the right leader or we just do the right thing we can make everything easy and place all the burden magically on someone else. But we can't. 90% means 90% across the board. That doesn't mean that it can't be made better and easier, but it does mean that this will cost us.

“How do we make that idea palatable? Personally, I think denying the need for self-sacrifice is a huge mistake, and so is apologizing for it, or minimizing it. I think the absolute opposite strategy is called for -- we have to make it a challenge, an honor, a gift to do this. That is, of course, how we have gotten people to make sacrifices and endure hardship before -- whether giving their lives in wartime or climbing big mountains -- we've emphasized how exciting the challenge is, and how lucky they are to participate, how doing so makes them exceptional and heroic. The more we tell people that sacrifices won't be required, the more we make them nervous about the very idea. I think we should be telling people that they should feel privileged and honored to make this sacrifice.”

To succeed, a tipping point strategy must be:

1. Practical — it must work to reverse climate change and bring us back from the brink; i.e.: the global emissions rate will not be able to keep up with sequestration, instead of vice versa.
2. Simple — it has to be something that can be accomplished easily and be replicated; and
3. Desirable — it needs to confer immediate advantages to individuals over the status quo ante.

The tipping point that we need must supply a net greenhouse gas sequestration impact. In coming weeks I will provide many examples of actions being taken, largely by individuals with scant government or foundation support, to achieve this result.

To attract and stick, our tipping point will need to confer greater enjoyment of life or other advantages to individuals, and it must do so in an era of severe population pressure on multiple, essential, but steeply declining natural resources and an epochal transition in energy reliance.

in other words, to succeed, our human tipping element needs to be as attractive as Our Lady of Guadalupe is to Mexicans. It is not my intention to denigrate or belittle the miracle or the vision. Whether it happened or not, whether it was a clever P.R. move by the Catholic Church or a genuine revelation does not concern me. What matters is that it struck the right chord and it has spread and endured. It was practical, simple and desirable. It employed the power of the few, it was sticky, and it had context, all working for it.

Painting a picture of an idyllic future just ahead, beckoning, while in the same moment experiencing the real-world environment of human population explosion, cascading species extinctions, visible ecosystem demise, unprecedented resource depletion and scarcity, economic collapse and military adventurism is certainly challenging. And, yet, it could well be the only alternative that has a chance to succeed.

As Woody Allen said, “More than at any time in history, mankind faces the crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. I pray we have the wisdom to choose wisely.”

Despite how it may look at the outset, I don’t think despair and utter hopelessness are necessarily required, although they may have a role in the conversion.

Part of the challenge in crafting the Bali agreement was that some States-Parties felt that other States-Parties had reaped the benefits of industrialization at the expense of the global commons and therefore a debt was owed. There is a pernicious tendency to equate a higher standard of living with greater consumption of non-renewable natural resources, and so we witness the developing world now trying to match speeds with the developed world in spending down one-time natural capital.

As if they are owed that.

That fallacy is now laid bare, discredited by any glance at a world map of relative happiness.

On such a map, expressing how much people enjoy their lives, the “standard of well-being” in Colombia, Costa Rica, Guinea and Nicaragua are well above the USA, and tiny Denmark and Iceland — far ahead in their transition to renewables — are above much of Europe. Happiness is becoming a science.

The 20 happiest nations in the World are:

1 - Denmark
2 - Switzerland
3 - Austria
4 - Iceland
5 - The Bahamas
6 - Finland
7 - Sweden
8 - Bhutan
9 - Brunei
10 - Canada
11 - Ireland
12 - Luxembourg
13 - Costa Rica
14 - Malta
15 - The Netherlands
16 - Antigua and Barbuda
17 - Malaysia
18 - New Zealand
19 - Norway
20 - The Seychelles

Other notable results include:

23 - USA
35 - Germany
41 - UK
62 - France
82 - China
90 - Japan
125 - India
167 - Russia

Traveling through Cancun yesterday, I saw a sign on a little street vendor's booth. The man was selling lottery tickets. The sign read: “La Energia de Sueños.” The energy of dreams. We need dreams. We need the stories that go with those dreams. We need those stories to infect us, inspire us, pick us up when we tire, and push us to new and even better dreams.

That is how memes are propagated, and how they stick.

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