Thursday, December 27, 2012

Done with Math

"The stark choice is between vasectomies and funerals. The sooner we get on with it, the better."

We complain about the slow progress of the climate talks, but what about the even slower progress on efforts to curb semen emissions?

Consider this: each day the population of humans on the planet expands by more than 200,000. That is one good-sized city, complete with water, food, energy, transportation, communication and sanitation infrastructure. To feed that city may require, if storage and process losses are kept to a minimum, 1 million kilocalories every day — something like a 20-acre stockyard of cattle, a Tyson’s poultry farm the size of a superdome, and a large fleet of Japanese fishing vessels seine-netting dolphins as they scour the dwindling ocean stores for tuna.

And the next day, you have to find somewhere to put another, while still feeding the first.

There are not as many people alive now as have ever lived, but it is close. That is one of the features of an exponential curve; the squares keep doubling. Earth's human population today equals the sum of every population doubling of the past 200,000 years.

Imagine UN negotiators agreeing to an excise fee on babies — or a “birth tax,” if you will. Suppose a prospective parent couple could purchase, for a small, but appreciating, price an indulgence that permitted them to have an extra child over and above the allotted number.

The rules of the exchange might require that privilege be gained at the expense of a fertile would-be-mother somewhere in a poorer, more desperate part of the world, who was willing to sell her quota right for the contract price, less broker fees. The transaction might be recorded on a Chicago Birth Exchange, let us say. It might be further insured, for verification purposes, by surgical removal of the donor’s remaining fertile eggs. Thus the blessed couple would gain another child by picking some “low hanging fruit;” taking some population pressure off poorer countries and shouldering it in a wealthy country, better able to provide.

If we can agree that the “terrestrial parking space” on Earth – the land available for inhabitation — has already been exceeded (a fair assumption given unsustainable depletion rates for most natural resources), we’ll need to set annual birth rations below equilibrium to force a gradual population contraction.

Lets say we want to de-grow global population by 200,000 per day. It would take 70 years just to get back to where we were mid-20th century. Gauging available resources — most importantly a decline in the availability of the high-quality energy that we apply to satisfying food and water demands — we may not have 70 years. We may need to double down and de-grow by, say, 400,000 per day.

We needn’t run all the numbers here, and it would be problematic, but we can just stipulate that a global quota could be set at “X children per fertile female-lifetime,” and that would form the basis for the daily price in contracts negotiated on the Chicago Birth Exchange.

We are a long way from that kind of treaty.

And then, just imagine how it might fare in the US Senate, to say nothing of the Indian Parliament. The alternative, of course, is simply to let nature enforce her own quota, which she usually does by withholding food. Given our other failed negotiation— the Framework Convention on Climate Change — that outcome is in the pipeline. If Peak Oil, GMOs, or the collapsing global economy don’t kill our industrial style of agriculture, killer storms and droughts will.

NYC Homeless Children (before Hurricane Sandy)
Working on the angle of changing agriculture from inefficient, energy-intensive, soil-destroying practices to alternative, organic and permacultural methods that use energy-saving human labor and build nutrient density in both soil and crops, we can only get so far. Studies suggest that going organic could boost global food supply a few percent, at best. Permaculturists and eco-agriculturists could redesign many large-field grain mines to rotate through food forests. They could replace concentrated cattle-feeding operations with free-range animals living sustainably within the confines of those rotations. This can support large populations, but not growing ones, and probably not 7 billion; maybe not even half that.

Sustainable agriculture will not involve genetic engineering. That way of hustling funds from governments, donors and shareholders to fund giant labs packed with biotech grad students is a blown meme – stick a fork in it. No genetically modified organism has ever demonstrated superiority to the natural organism it replaced, or solved any problem for which it was designed without creating more serious ones as a side effect. Period. It is a shuck.

So also is classical economics, that tells us demand creates supply, just wait for it. So is the claim that somehow technology can be substituted for cheap energy. Or that markets are neutral arbiters that will always separate grain from chaff. Stick a fork in all that nonsense.

No, the stark choice is between vasectomies and funerals. The sooner we get on with it, the better.

Wouldn’t it be great if the kids taking to the street in Zuchotti Park, Plaza del Sol, or Doha all had their tubes sewn shut or eggs scraped? What if they wore that fact as a proud badge of personal freedom and planetary citizenship? What would that take? Celebrities? Suppose Chris Hedges, Julia Roberts, Julian Assange, Evo Morales, Naomi Klein, Shakira and Brad Pitt marched out of sterilization clinics sporting little blue ribbons.

Blue for that jewel of a planet that supports us, within limits.

This essay was originally published in Culture Change, December 27, 2012 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Lucia Day 2012

"The North American continent, and much of South America, were cultivated ecologies, kept in near perfect balance for centuries by the subsistence economics and cultural norms of the American indigenous peoples. "

On December 12, 2012, Gaia Trust awarded the Gaia Award 2012, with a prize of 50,000 Danish kroner, to two global peace and sustainability projects, Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) and Gaia Education and their five early organizers. Quoting from the announcement, "Declan Kennedy, Max Lindegger and Albert Bates traveled five continents and created GEN networks in all parts of the world from 1995-2008. They share the prize with the present head of GEN, Kosha Joubert, who just set up an African network, and May East who for 7 years now has been at the head of Gaia Education and facilitated a network in South America. Together they have been important midwifes in giving birth to a new global culture."

Hildur Jackson, at the award ceremony yesterday in Denmark, said, "They get the award on the darkest afternoon, the 12th of Dec 2012, Lucia day. That day the sun starts its return in the northern Hemisphere culminating on the 21st of Dec, the shortest day. The shortest morning is then one week later. We want to acknowledge this major turning of our sun and celebrate the birth of a new culture." What follows are my prepared remarks for that ceremony.

Remarks of Albert Bates
On the occasion of receipt of the Gaia 2012 Award

Thank you for this recognition. I just wish it were more money!

Something Hildur Jackson said in announcing the awards I want to take a moment to speak about. She said,

“Let us think of this as the beginning of a new era—the Gaian Age with the Gaian Calendar, when a new global sustainable culture will be born, a new beginning for humankind. It will be the beginning of a new consciousness, a consciousness of Oneness where we are at one with nature, each other and the cosmos.”

In 19 days I will be 66 years old. I have been hearing talk about the essential oneness of everything since I was a child, going to church every Sunday.

In the early days of the Farm, working out in the hot sun hoeing weeds, we used to say at The Farm, “Work and Body are One; Body and Mind are One; Mind and Buddha are one.”

So I had that in my background and it was an intellectual construct that I accepted. I even had a meditation on occasion where I felt like my mind merged with the universal and it was all One. So you could say that for me it was also a revealed precept.

For the past quarter of my life I have been grappling with the climate issue and I’ve worried about how humans can possibly shift away from tropisms that are deeply embedded in our evolutionary biology, such as our insensitivity to long-term consequences of foolish or vain activities. That search led me deep into the Amazon jungle, to archeological excavations of civilizations going back 8000 years. And in that place I had a new insight about the butterfly effect, because I learned how these ancient peoples, in building their cities, may have added so much carbon to the atmosphere that they created the Maunder Maximum, a period of warming that brought the Moors into Southern Europe.

And centuries later, when they vanished from diseases brought to the New World by the Conquistadors, the amount of carbon drawn out of the atmosphere to create the Amazon Rainforest was so enormous that it may have triggered the Little Ice Age, and given Sweden the means to invade Denmark over frozen ice.

And I was reminded of something I already knew but now came to see as far more profound. That the North American continent, and much of South America, were cultivated ecologies, kept in near perfect balance for centuries by the subsistence economics and cultural norms of the American indigenous peoples.

The forest where I live was once hunted by Cherokee, Creek, Euchee and Osage. They never killed all the deer, only the old ones. If they found three ginseng plants, they would only harvest one. They kept the balance. And the Earth provided them a living. They received an abundance borne of respect.

That was a steady state economy that prevailed over at least half the planet for 50,000 years or more. Each year some fields were burned for the benefit of deer and bison. Each year forests were managed for stand improvement, species diversity and ecological services. The same for the bays, estuaries, lakes and mountains. Millions of people practiced sustainability, ecological restoration, and fundamental ecology, not as some abstract or unique way, but as normal. They were just normal.

Those millions of people achieved a profound balance with the biology of the planet, with Gaia. They created harmonious connection, and it gave them time to pursue deeper self-knowledge, spiritual powers, and a culture of dance, music and poetic discourse. They had no grocery stores but they did not starve. They had no refrigeration, internet or telephones, but they had happy lives, for thousands of years.

It was not always great. Bad stuff happened. But, by and large, they came into balance with Gaia. And Gaia responded, and gave them the Holocene Epoch, a period of profound climate tranquility and productivity. As long as they kept the balance, they could have that.

When Europeans came to the Americas and began to disturb the balance, they were warned by the indigenous elders of terrible consequences, but they ignored these warnings. These warnings have been being given for 500 years and are still being ignored. Offered a choice between heaven and hell, we have chosen hell.

Mother Nature is looking out for our interests, despite all the abuse we give her. Gaia wants to heal the planet. Gaia does that. And Nature will heal us, too, if we let her. She won’t do it if we continue the abusive relationship. We may think we are winning a battle, but Nature is winning. Nature will always win. All we really need to do is to surrender.

Thank you for this moment of sharing, and for all our relations. I love you all.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Through the Doha Gateway

"'There were some winners here — the coal industry won here, the oil industry won here, the fossil fuel industry won here. This wasn’t an environmental or science-driven discussion, this was a trade fair.' — Alden Meyer"

Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, Chairman of Qatar's Administrative Control and Transparency Authority and President of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP 18/CMP 8) was visibly ebullient. The Doha Gateway delivered a next step, on time and on budget. See here for a summary of the final text.

It was the first time in several years we can recall the business of the COP being concluded before a Saturday overnight emergency session. With time on their hands, the UN convened a post-conference discussion to raise ambitions, and plan relief concerts for victims of catastrophic weather damage.

Whether US negotiators took the strategy gambit offered them here last week (see The Doha Nuance) or were just swept along with the tide no longer matters. The world’s first international carbon emissions treaty — the Kyoto Protocol — rather than being allowed to expire, as most expected, has been extended and expanded into Kyoto-2. Whether to participate in the carbon-limit regime now becomes an internal debate in the capitals of developing and developed worlds alike, including the US Senate, should the President elect. President Bill Clinton, it must be remembered, never forwarded Kyoto-1 for an up or down vote.

Negotiators have often displayed more ambition than their nations. The US negotiating team in Doha, on the other hand, seemed through the past two weeks to have considerably less ambition than either the public at home or the White House. Called out by Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo and Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman,  they retreated into mute silence and simply declined questions. Whether they had a role in Kyoto-2’s adoption (even if by igniting reaction to their consistent opposition) remains shrouded in mystery. Their negotiating position seemed to be, “We like what was done last year in Durban (nothing); we’re sticking with that.”

Kumi Naidoo
Kyoto-2 seemed at the threshold of approval in Copenhagen in December, 2009, we may recall, but newly-minted President Obama dropped in at the last moment to substitute a voluntary pledge program, snatching defeat from the jaws of a potential international victory. Hillary Clinton sealed the deal with a dollar diplomacy pledge of $100 billion per year, which bought off enough opponents of the pledge system to backburner Kyoto until now.

This year, delegates were still looking under sofa cushions for that $100 billion, promised but never delivered, and Kyoto-1 was about to expire, for real, so they ditched the Clinton pledge telethon and put an admission price at the door to a 2-degree warmer world.

The pledge system remains legally in place under the Copenhagen Accord and subsequent COPs, so as a practical matter, Kyoto signatories are being given until 2014 to review their pledges. Those not participating are being detained after school. They have to attend workshops in 2013 to discuss ambition, and tell UN shrinks why they don’t have any. Everyone is anxious to see what lead US negotiator Todd Stern will say. Did the dog eat his homework? Really?

While Kyoto was extended in law, it remains a paper tiger until finance and specific targets are put in place. These negotiations will take until 2015, with implementation thereafter. Germany, China and the UK stood with poor countries and submerging island states and made commitments for Green technology transfer, so development and adaptation can move forward, without fossil fuels or nuclear energy. No excuses there. Korea was given administration of the Green Climate Fund, and Denmark became the first to put real cash into that fund, over the dead body of Canada.

There is nothing in the Doha deal that will keep emissions from going down instead of up. There is nothing to assure that $100 million, never mind $100 billion, will be found for the Climate Fund. There was no solution found for the Hot Air problem, wherein countries who were given low emissions reduction targets at Kyoto in 1997 (Russia and Eastern Europe) but whose emissions imploded as a consequence of economic collapse, were allowed to bank the difference and sell their credits to heavy polluters.

A number of countries in the Doha talks pledged to not buy hot air from Russia, Belarus or Ukraine, and to consider Kyoto-1’s credits now expired. Others were conspicuously silent on the issue.

Extending Kyoto was only a baby step; the reduction target in total is only about 15% of annual global emissions of greenhouse gases. WWF’s Samantha Smith said, “The EU is committed to 20% and they are well on track to do that – they could do that with their eyes closed.” Many countries have more ambitious goals than are likely to emerge from Kyoto-2, even with tweaking, and the real question becomes whether even those more ambitious goals will be enough. The science is not encouraging.

UCS’s Alden Meyer said, “There were some winners here — the coal industry won here, the oil industry won here, the fossil fuel industry won here. This wasn’t an environmental or science-driven discussion, this was a trade fair. This is not the future we need to leave to our children. We know that we need to leave four-fifths of the oil, gas and coal on the planet where it is — underground — that’s the only safe carbon reserve there is.”

Qatari Youth confronting Climate Change
The major NGO players — UCS, Greenpeace, WWF, CAN, tcktcktck, — met to discuss merger and how best to apply their separate strengths into a combined force. Kumi Naidoo said afterwards, “We didn’t get a FAB deal (Fair, Ambitious and legally Binding) in Copenhagen, we got a FLAB deal — full of loopholes and bullshit. And we have the same bull coming out of here in Doha and I think the main message we have to take from Doha is this: yes, we support the multilateral process; yes, we want it to work; but if the people in the world, and especially the young people of the world think that they can invest their futures on a multi-lateral process which is held back by the weak national political will which negotiators bring from their capitals to these negotiations, then they are making a bad tactical error. … We will have to think about the proportionality of our investment, in terms of how much we put here (into the UN process) … and building a robust, broad-based movement. … To young people in particular, I would say, don’t accept that you are leaders of tomorrow, assert that you are leaders of today.”

What is required, in our humble opinion, is a change of narrative. Viewing economic development and climate change prevention as opposites is not a realistic assessment, much less a viable strategy. The economic story demands reframing. Hurricane Sandy’s damage just to New Jersey was greater than the funding sought in Doha for the Green Climate Fund. In our Post Petroleum Survival Guide (2006) we attempted to reframe peak oil and climate change as a joyous switch to better standards of living. This change is what has been postponed with each missed opportunity, and with each postponement the transition becomes more painful and beset with greater risks.

What does Obama and the US Senate have to fear from Kyoto-2, after all? The hot air credits bestowed on former Soviet countries by Kyoto-1 could easily accrue to the US under Kyoto-2. As its own economy collapses, it could wind up selling hot air to India or Brazil.

So now it’s on to COP-19 in Warsaw, in December 2013, and lets win there. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Doha Disappointment

"Mr. President, you have to decide whether negotiators you sent here to Doha advocate for your position. The U.S. position here in Doha betrays people who lost their lives during hurricane Sandy. "

An open letter to Barack Obama on U.S. obstruction to climate treaty

Dear Mr. President,

My Name is Kumi Naidoo, I am the Executive Director of Greenpeace International, I also serve as President of the Global Campaign for Climate Action and serve as Global Ambassador of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty. But, today I write to you as an African, as a person from the developing world and as a parent.

The world needs your leadership now — and for the first time you have immense popular support, with a majority of Americans believing that climate change is a real threat.

In 2009, you received the Nobel Prize for Peace in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate summit. There was a strong expectation that you would lead multilateral efforts to combat global warming. Everyone hoped that you would not make the same mistakes as your predecessor, George W. Bush, who ignored the CIA’s and Pentagon’s warning that climate change is the biggest threat to geopolitical stability, security and peace.

In your victory speech after being re-elected to a second term, you inspired hope once again to people around the world who care about global climate disruption and want to ensure a habitable planet for future generations. You said: “We want our children to live in an America that is not burdened by debt, that is not weakened by inequality, that is not threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” This hope rose when in a press conference on November 14th 2012 you called for “a conversation across the country…” to see “how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support and helps move this agenda forward… and… be an international leader” on climate change.

A stark contrast exists between what you have said and what your negotiators in Doha are doing. Your negotiators on climate change continue to undermine hope that the U.S. will be an ambitious global citizen on climate. With all due respect, Mr. President, your negotiators’ view does not resonate either with the majority of the people in the world, nor with a growing number of voices of informed public opinion within the U.S. itself.

Although the Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, and Deputy Special Envoy Jonathan Pershing, say the United States has a “strong and solid” position, they have consistently delivered the opposite. They have continued to block negotiations on developing common rules for accounting for pollution reduction efforts, which are necessary to understanding if global efforts are sufficient. 

Although they have said U.S. climate finance for developing countries will be maintained, they will not commit to increasing it through 2020 despite it being nowhere near the ‘fair share’ of $100 billion that you agreed in Copenhagen. Obviously, the Congress is in a fiscal crisis, but your negotiators have stalled discussions about how to raise climate finance through innovative sources like a very small levy on shipping or global financial transactions. As the Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon said yesterday, developed countries with large historical emissions have a clear responsibility to come up with funding to help poor countries adapt to climate impacts.

Mr. President, a lack of leadership by the U.S. in the climate treaty talks in Doha puts the survival of millions of people on the African continent and the globe at risk. In the past five years, the growth in coal use has caused over two-thirds of the increase in global CO2 emissions, pushing greenhouse gas emissions to a record high. In recent weeks, the World Bank, the CIA and the UNEP have each warned about the consequences of unchecked climate change. Statements by your negotiators that the U.S. is making ‘enormous efforts’ is contradicted by their lack of leadership in calling for enforceable reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

The U.S. position here in Doha betrays people who lost their lives during hurricane Sandy. It betrays people who are facing the effects of intense drought in the U.S. It betrays the aspirations of a growing number of young Americans, some of whom I have met here in Doha, who want the U.S. to recover from eight years of President Bush’s climate denialism that delayed progress in climate negotiations. I feel a responsibility to inform you that this lack of leadership has profoundly disappointed many of the same people who were so energized by your promise of hope and your pledges to rejoin the international community.

Here in Doha, we continue to hear disturbing or unfounded claims by your negotiators. One example is the claim that the U.S. 2020 target of cutting global warming pollution by 17 percent compared to 2005 is based on science, when the world leading climate scientists calls for much higher targets for industrialized countries and a new United Nations Environmental Programme study shows a widening gap between existing commitments and what is required to prevent the worst catastrophic impacts of climate change. Your envoys here overstate U.S. commitments to finance global climate initiatives while the U.S. Export-Import Bank alone is spending five times more on fossil fuel subsidies that will only hasten catastrophic climate change.

Frankly, the tone of your Special Envoy and Deputy Special Envoy also has undermined U.S. credibility. In recent weeks, the World Bank and the CIA have each warned about the consequences of unchecked climate change. In this context, your negotiators claiming that the U.S. is making ‘enormous efforts’ rather than accepting the need for enforceable pollution reductions backed by a consensus of the world’s scientists threatens to sabotage these climate negotiations. Every day with no change of course from your negotiating team, the problem is getting worse.

This year has already seen devastating storms, droughts and floods causing significant loss of life and damage to important infrastructure, including not only in your country, but also in China, India, Africa and Europe. This was yet another warning signal and a test of whether governments will protect their people. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, and the drought, wildfires and other extreme weather events that have afflicted the American people over the last year, it is time to bring climate politics in line with scientific reality, both nationally and internationally.

Climate change is no longer some distant future threat. At the end of a year that has seen the impacts of climate change devastate homes and families in your country and around the world, it is the perfect time to refute the discredited claims of politicians underwritten by polluters who profit from inaction.

Mr. President, we need you to deliver bold leadership relative to what is actually necessary to reduce the threat of global warming to the U.S. and the world. This must include backing a revolution in energy policy based on clean renewables and energy efficiency in the U.S. and worldwide. It also means ending fossil fuel subsidies and the export of publicly owned coal, rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, drilling for oil in Arctic waters and making the prevention of climate catastrophes a centrepiece of U.S. foreign policy.

You have to decide whether negotiators you sent here to Doha advocate for your position. If the world is to trust the U.S, it needs to see the bold leadership that ensures that global temperatures do not exceed levels that science has warned will wreak disaster for our planet. This essential goal is only possible with leadership from the U.S. today.

From one father to another, let me close by appealing to you, that what is at stake here is our very children and their children’s future. As someone who was so inspired by your election in 2008 as U.S. President, please allow me to evoke three phrases you used in that campaign in conclusion: “A planet in peril,” “The fierce urgency of now” and “Yes We Can.” I believe strongly, that your message in 2008 was absolutely right and I believe if we recognize the fierce urgency of now, we can address the challenge of a planet in peril and ensure that the spirit of optimism imbued by the words “Yes we can” should now reign supreme.


Kumi Naidoo
Executive Director
Greenpeace International


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Doha Nuance

"Given the volumes of methane leaked in fracking, a carbon tax at the well-head could cancel the pixie dust “North American energy independence” boom/bust debacle overnight. But that is not enough to stave off 4-degrees. "

In an era when public discourse is pushed through the bottleneck of paid advertising minutes and distilled to 15 and 30 second soundbytes or bumpersticker slogans, we’ve lost nuance. When warned by Judge Julius Hoffman to “stick to the facts” during the trial of the Chicago-Seven, Norman Mailer protested, “Facts are nothing without their nuance, sir.”

We guess that, all considered, we are better off with a US President that understands nuance than one that doesn’t. This one we have for the next 4 years has a good science advisory team, and that can’t hurt the understanding of nuance, either. It is perhaps because of nuance that we are a bit more hopeful of progress in Doha than we should be, having reached this giddy condition before, at COPs in Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban, before watching it dissolve in negotiating perfidy.

In 2009 President Obama stepped into the Copenhagen COP at the last moment and substituted a voluntary pledge system for what had been shaping up to be a binding treaty. Global emissions rose 2.6% last year and are now 58% higher than 1990 levels. Pledges are not enough to keep the world on a path to a 2°C limit of climate change. Obama saw an opening in Copenhagen, but did not appreciate the nuance. Pledges are not legal commitments.

Airline Exhaust

Airport Do-The-Math Greeters in Doha
Another example was the COP-18 first week’s flap over air transport rules. On November 27 President Obama signed into law the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act of 2011. The new law authorizes — but does not require — the Secretary of Transportation to prohibit airlines from participating in the European Union's anti-pollution regime. Seen through Republican legislators’ eyes the bill was a triumph of climate denialism — allowing the US to opt out of European progressive democracy.
Europe’s Aviation Directive holds airlines accountable for emissions associated with commercial flights that land at or take off from EU airports. By forcing airlines to become more fuel efficient, the program removes the equivalent of atmospheric carbon added annually by all the cars in Europe. Since US airlines land at EU airports, they would have to comply, were they not prohibited by the new US law.

If the Secretary of Transportation were to implement the prohibition outlined in the bill, it would require unlawful (under EU laws) behavior on the part of U.S. airlines and would risk igniting a trade war with the European Union as US flights get banned from EU air space, and vice versa in reprisal.

Fortunately, the EU blinked. It “stopped the clock” on implementation of the system, to allow time for negotiation. In a statement after the signing, the White House said:

The Administration remains focused on making progress in reducing aviation emissions through the appropriate multilateral forum – the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) — and we welcome the recent progress there in establishing a new High Level Group charged with accelerating negotiations on a basket of measures that all countries can adopt at the next ICAO Assembly meeting in September 2013 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from aviation.
Major beltway environmental groups, EDF, WWF, Earthjustice, and NRDC included, praised the White House move as a positive step, saying “Now the spotlight is on ICAO, and on whether the U.S. will step forward with the real leadership needed to drive agreement on an ICAO program to cut aviation’s carbon pollution.”

In contrast, many grassroots organizations did not grasp, or didn’t care about, the nuance. They sported placards in Doha demanding that the EU start the clock again and that Obama direct his Transportation Secretary to ignore the new US law. If the Obama Administration wastes its year of negotiations within the ICAO or dampens ICAO authority, then the nuance is a distinction without a difference. But if the year of negotiation produces airline carbon reductions that can also apply to US airports, and those in other non-EU nations, then the nuance is important, and no one needs to be tugging at the President’s elbow just yet.

Trick or Treaty

COP18 protest: Note the Artificial Trees
Another example is the question of to whom the burden of counting carbon belongs. Many of the placards held up outside Doha venues call for “climate justice” or “pay your historic debt” and countries like India and Bolivia have latched onto these slogans to go slow on their own commitments. The United States flatly rejects the notion of climate debt, and points to the fact that most emissions come from the developing world, with China being number one in gross carbon pollution and Qatar being the top emitter on a per capita basis. The impasse over climate justice is made out to be a big deal. The nuance is more subtle.

In the United States, electric power plants emit about 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, or roughly 40 percent of the nation's total emissions and a quarter of the world’s. The Obama EPA has taken important first steps by setting standards that will cut carbon from automobiles and trucks nearly in half by 2025 and by proposing standards to limit carbon pollution from new power plants. But Obama’s EPA has yet to tackle the hundreds of existing fossil-fueled power plants in the United States, and it is opening up vast new industries in fracking and tar sands.

Civil society, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), has a plan to reduce power plant pollution, and it requires no new laws. It is already authorized under the Clean Air Act of 1970, so would not involve confrontation with climate denier committees of Congress to implement. The plan would cut CO2 pollution from America's power plants by 26% by 2020 and 34% by 2025. The price tag: about $4 billion. But the benefits — in saved lives, reduced illnesses, and climate change avoided — would be $26 to 60 billion, 6 to 15 times greater than the costs. Consider Hurricane Sandy.

Naturally, if the US were to go ahead and implement the NRDC plan, it would like to get some kind of credit for the reduction. Maybe even a historical credit.

On the other side of the planet, China is being told it is the number one polluter, but most of that pollution comes from mining and importing fossil fuels to power conversion of petrochemicals to components for iPhones, Fisher Price toddler computers, and Barbies for Wal•Mart. So who should pay for China’s pollution controls?

In our view, the most promising approach is to tax carbon at the mine and well. Raising the price there propagates conservation incentives downstream, at every conversion point. Given the volumes of methane leaked in fracking, it could cancel the pixie dust “North American energy independence” boom/bust debacle overnight. But that is not enough.

There needs to be a financial incentive for countries like India, South Africa and Brazil to adopt pollution controls similar to the NRDC plan for the US. And that is where the minutia of negotiating a second Kyoto period comes into play. Kyoto is the only part of the COP negotiations that actually involves hard deadlines and enforcement of international law against violators. Kyoto-2 is a realistic goal for Doha to accomplish.

Anticipating a renewed Kyoto regime, Korea is spending 2 percent of its GDP on the low-carbon economy. China has embedded energy efficiency and renewables targets in its latest five-year plan and is testing carbon markets in seven of its provinces. The UK has set a 2050 target of 80% reduction in its carbon footprint. The US is silent.

It seems likely that a second Kyoto period will be adopted, beginning in 2015. The debate, as UNFCCC chair Christiana Figueres said in her opening address to the high level delegates, is whether ambition for targets is enough to hold the world to a 2 degree temperature rise, or whether lowered ambitions brokered to get the final deal condemn us to a devastating (for civilization) 4 degrees or more. The nuance, for Obama, is that adopting Kyoto will require a 75% majority in the US Senate, but if he can’t achieve that, he could still go around it with NRDC-like plans for every sector of the economy, using existing regulatory authority given by Congress to President Nixon and recently upheld vis a vis the EPA and CO2 by the Roberts Supreme Court.
“The 4°C scenarios are devastating… The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen.” — November 2012 Report for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics.
“Lowered ambitions brokered to get the deal” did we say? This is President Obama’s forte. Is it possible to surprise us? Does he appreciate that nuance actually gives him power here? If so, then what we will see in Doha in the next few days is the US advocating for Kyoto-2, signed, sealed and delivered. It will be a historic reversal of Obama's position in Copenhagen, but who's counting? That kind of nuance is outside the ken of his opponents.

Follow the action on Twitter by searching these hashtags: #Doha, #COP18, #UNFCCC, #climatechange, #TooLate

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Doha Perplex, Part 2

"Those of us who have been attending these meetings for the past 20 or more years have felt very frustrated by the slow progress and the lack of an international treaty. Exemplary work by Wackernagle, Rees, Meadows, Daly, Costanza, Rockstrom and others points a direction forward, but it always comes around to some international agreement. What will it take to get that?"

In Buddhism there is the expression, “Before you till the square foot field first begin with the square inch.” In Chinese, a cun (寸) is a decimal inch, which was originally derived from the width of the thumb at the knuckle, Fang means (方) "square". Fang cun literally means a "square inch".  However, the expression "square inch" refers to the chakra that is situated in the "square inch" between the eyebrows.

So “Before you till the square foot field first begin with the square inch.”

But then you must also till the square foot. So at some point we have to get up off our zafus and work at a greater scale.

“What's the use of a fine house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?” Henry David Thoreau said.

We are now entering a geologic epoch when the question of tolerability of this planet is once again in play. The current chessboard is in Doha, Qatar, venue of the 18th Conference of Parties (COP18) of the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Our relief and development organization, “Plenty” and the Global Ecovillage Network, “GEN” both have achieved special consultative status at the United Nations. GEN was the first group to show End of Suburbia at the Dag Hammarskjöld auditorium at the UN Headquarters in New York during the annual meeting of the Committee on Sustainable Development and also for the Congress of NGOs. We have for many years been walking within UN circles, taking up issues of continued human “development” in the context of climate change and peak everything. For us development boils down to a shift from GDP to GHI and de-growth of everything that is wrecking the planet.

We offer ecovillages and transition towns as examples and permaculture as an efficient methodology. We have occasionally been well-funded, as at the Habitat-II conference in Istanbul in 1996, with videos, color brochures in 20 languages, and displays and workshops with distinguished persons. More often, as in Rio last summer or Doha now, we are there on a shoestring, with our team providing their own travel and sandwich money from their own pockets. We are a volunteer force.

In 1995 we had nine actual ecovillages we could list as examples. Today there are more than 20,000. Russia, Sri Lanka and Brazil have very active movements and Senegal alone wants to develop 18,000 more this decade. So we speak as a growing movement, one that works closely with bioregionalists, permaculturists, natural builders, biodynamic farmers, and transition towners. In a sense, we represent all of those movements in UN meetings because they are seldom represented there in any other capacity.

My Irish friend Declan Kennedy says if you are pointing a finger be careful, because there are three fingers pointing back at you. Ecovillages are able to point a finger, because we are actually doing what we believe in. We invite you to look back at us.

We are engaged in positive, hopeful, practical answers to complex problems. One of the more complex of these is, of course, climate change. GEN and these other groups we mentioned are starting to coalesce a strategy around demonstrating how human habitation and activity patterns could be re-engineered to provide for human needs and also to bring the carbon and other natural cycles back into the balance that existed at the start of the Holocene.

Let us take a moment to consider that balance. We have only recently begun to appreciate how profound it is. As IPCC Chairman R. K. Pachauri said in his plenary address yesterday, we can predict with near precise confidence that “without additional mitigation measures, a 1-in-20 year hottest day is likely to become a 1-in-2 year event….” The Chairman then went on:
[M]itigation opportunities with net negative cost have the potential to reduce emissions by about 6 gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year in 2030. Realizing these requires dealing with implementation barriers. Policies that provide a real or implicit price of carbon could create incentives for producers and consumers to significantly invest in low-GHG products, technologies and processes.

Will those responsible for decisions in the field of climate change at the global level listen to the voice of science and knowledge, which is now loud and clear? I am not sure our voice is louder today, but it is certainly clearer on the basis of new knowledge. I hope the world at large and this august audience would shape their actions on the basis of scientific evidence on all aspects of climate change and projections of the future, a future that we are all responsible for.

There are scientists like William F. Ruddiman and Charles Mann who have been exploring this for a number of years, but recent findings using genetic mitochondrial DNA mapping, satellite survey, carbon dating, and other techniques have begun to validate much of what had previously just been theorized. If we look at the Earth from the Moon, there are two man-made features we can see with the naked eye. The first is the Sahara Desert and the Second is the Amazon Rainforest.

They are on opposite sides of the planet, at about the same latitude, near the Equator, and this is important, too. They have poor soils because they have never been glaciated, and they have brutal drought cycles.

The Sahara Desert — and nearby Mesopotamia — is a fragile tropical landscape that was once the cradle of Western Civilization. Managed well, it weathered the periodic drought cycles and provided the rich savannahs where our ancestors learned to walk upright, fashion tools, and domesticate plants and animals.

Managed badly, as spoils of war by empires based on resource extraction and human slavery, it fell prey to its vicious cycles and reverted to desert. The judgment of a stern God, if you will. A similar pageant played out along the Silk Road from the Fertile Crescent into the North of China, and more recently in the Southern Iberian peninsula and in the Southern Plains of North America during the Dust Bowl.

As we described in our book, The Biochar Solution, and Charles Mann has now also described in his book, 1493, the Amazon followed quite a different pattern. Like the Sahara, it was endangered by over-exploitation and population pressures, which contributed to a global warming period we call the Medieval Maximum, which drove the Moors out of Africa and into Spain. But with the Columbian Encounter, which employed Moorish weapons technologies to conquer the native populations, and the spread of slavery and disease that followed, the Americas were so severely depopulated that forests and vegetation reclaimed agricultural landscapes to such a great degree that it dropped global temperatures and contributed substantively to the Little Ice Age, from the 16th to 19th centuries, when Sweden invaded Denmark and Napolean Bonaparte made his retreat from Moscow, losing 90% of his army to the cold.

Apolo Ohno's Olympic Skates (Smithsonian Institution)
But this is remarkable, because it shows just how intimately human activity is entwined with climate. Had not the urbanization and clearing of the American landscape in the 8th to 14th centuries occurred, the Moors might never have invaded Spain. There might not have been Andalusion war horses and arquebuses available for the conquest of the Americas. Cortez might not have defeated Moctezuma and Pizarro could well have been thrown back into the sea by Atahualpa or Túpac Amaru. But then, had that all not happened, Hans Brinker would not have won his silver skates and speed skating would not be an Olympic sport. So Apolo Ohno owes his career to the intricate connection between human activity and global climate.

In our 1990 book, Climate in Crisis, we began by talking about the mathematician Edward Lorenz, whom we know as the originator of the “butterfly effect.” Lorenz calculated that mere rounding errors in his climate prediction models propagated themselves enough to make huge differences in weather patterns. He compared it to a butterfly flapping his wings and causing a hurricane.

That is what we are talking about now. We have the capacity to return our climate to Holocene conditions, favorable for human development, and we do this by planting trees and building soils. The UN has its own vernacular, and a lot of that relates to acronyms. REDD is what we sometimes call “offsets,” and if you are looking towards restructuring economic systems so that they incorporate previously ignored externalities, like the health of the planet, the hydrological cycle or biodiversity, then you have to begin with things like carbon trading, emissions-saving schemes, and putting a price on carbon pollution.

REDD started as a UN discussion in 1995 and after NGOs complained about how it was dominated by corporations and financial banksters, it was modified into REDD+ to protect forest communities and indigenous peoples and to ensure that benefits are distributed equitably among all stakeholders.

REDD is going to be included in any Doha climate agreement, but large questions remain about design, monitoring and evaluation of national programs and how it will be funded. Need we say that in these matters, the United States has not been a friend of the NGOs or the forest communities.

We expected that much when Bush appointed John Bolton as his UN Ambassador. As readers of this space might recall, we marked the performance of Obama in Copenhagen as the point we realized that Obama was a fraud and a climate criminal. In all of the UN meetings since, Obama and Hillary Clinton have allied themselves with the corporations and the oil and coal interests blocking progress at every step. Rio 2012 was no different in this regard.

The question for most of us in the NGO community then becomes, when is the rest of the UN going to show some spine and stand up to the US bullies?

Those of us who have been attending these meetings for the past 20 or more years have felt very frustrated by the slow progress and the lack of an international treaty. Exemplary work by Wackernagle, Rees, Meadows, Daly, Costanza, Rockstrom and others points a direction forward, but it always comes around to some international agreement. What will it take to get that? Scotland has become the most recent country to set a goal of being on 100% renewable energy by 2020, and this is great, but when you could imagine Scotland being completely reforested and feeding its population from food forests, and being not just carbon-neutral, but carbon-negative, that is what is really needed.

What stops most countries from going down this path is the fear of being out-competed in a global marketplace, of being relegated to some colonial backwater. Hillary Clinton is all in favor of green markets, whatever that means. It means deregulation, and voluntary efforts at the margins, actually. China’s energy plan involves burning coal for another 100 years. Obama has every intention of licensing the Keystone pipeline to pump tar sands sludge from Alberta. The math that Bill McKibben talks about does not factor into these geopolitical equations.

Only UN agreements – with firm timetables, penalties, and enforcement — can actually change those geopolitical equations. Efficient markets do not operate in a vacuum, or by an invisible hand. They require a formal, protected, enforced structure. They require a regulatory framework. That is where the role of the environmental and science communities and indigenous peoples, farmers and unions is paramount. We are the drivers of forward momentum at these international gatherings, we are still making demands, and we are still negotiating the way through impasses with clever ideas and new economic paradigms, presented artfully, with a flair for the dramatic. And hopefully, we can still turn it around.

Bonaparte, Russian Campaign
As we write this, as 180 countries meet for the 18th time to discuss climate action, the scene in Doha is set once more for slow progress. There is an ambition gap. With the current level of UN delegate ambition, new agreements are not likely to limit global warming to 2°C. The ambition of natural systems to adhere to natural laws of physics makes it likely we’ll reach a disastrous 6°C of global warming, possibly this century (some wild cards are still to be played). To limit warming to 2°C, itself no small disaster, the world must agree to make global emissions peak by 2015, and must reduce emissions extremely rapidly thereafter.

The new IPCC report, AR5 due out next year, has opened up a promising strategic initiative which is right up the alley of ecovillagers. It will devote a new chapter to “Human Settlements, Infrastructure and Spatial Planning”. Dr. Pachuari told the plenary yesterday:
This is important because while urban planning is referenced in AR4 there is no comprehensive survey on the role which urban planning can play in adaptation and mitigation. [The next report will provide] greater emphasis on social science aspects of mitigation measures. For the first time, WG III is going beyond the technical aspects and into the social science aspects … it is focusing more explicitly on mitigation options, costs, strategies and policy requirements, with a more integrated approach to adaptation and mitigation.

The first rule of holes is, when you find yourself in one, stop digging. Bioregionalists, permaculturists, natural builders, carbon farmers and transition towners then go to the second step, which is to build a ladder. We can show the world a happier way out. It’s just up this way. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Cuba: In it for the Long Haul

"A Cuban woman told us,  “You cannot understate how hard life was in the Special Period – people died; it left scars.” Cubans keep going, keep resisting, in part because surrender is not in their vocabulary, and in part because they have no other choice. They are a reluctant global model for powerdown economics."

We have recently returned from the annual Local Future conference in Michigan, where we gave a talk on our recent travel to Cuba.

Attending conferences on peak oil, resilience and sustainability and speaking about the decline and fall of the former Soviet Union and its client states, one must necessarily acknowledge trailblazers Dmitry Orlov, Faith Morgan and Megan Quinn Bachman. We are neither as brilliant nor as witty as they are, but we need to underscore a point.

We began our Michigan talk by relating the sordid history of the Admiral of the Ocean Seas, Cristobal Colon. Owing to both his navigation and administration skills the indigenous population of the Caribbean was decimated in 20 years, then decimated again. Cuba became a center of the African slave trade, a sugar and cotton monoculture that lost both its peoples and its soils. Colon so unwisely slaughtered the natives who fed his troops, that large numbers of his troops died of malnutrition. He himself died of intestinal parasites.

Cuba was the last Latin American country to achieve its independence. Its revolutionary hero, Jose Martí, is not only a familiar face on sculptures throughout the country; he is an immortalized presence in the hearts of the Cuban people. In one particular statue, directly across from the US Consulate, Martí strikes a pose of authority and warning, wagging his index finger at the Janques.

Cubans were fond of the US a century ago, because in 1898, an all-volunteer militia of 1000 Rough Riders came over from Tampa. A quarter of them died of malaria and yellow fever but after a brief campaign they threw the Spanish out of Cuba. Teddy Roosevelt’s famous cavalry charge up San Juan hill may have been motivated by imperialism borne on jingoistic sentiments following the false flag sinking of the Maine, but Cuba soon gained its independence.

The US, with Roosevelt as President, threatened annexation and then decided it would be better to let Cuba dangle like Haiti, as an economic colony, without the messy business of governance. The US took a 99-year lease on the Naval coaling station at Guantanamo Bay, signed in 1903. Today you know of it as the location of ... yes, that’s right, the only McDonalds in Cuba. So, Cuba became Haiti’s poorer cousin. The disparity between the rich in Havana and the poor in the rural countryside was extreme.
  • 75% of rural dwellings were huts made from palm trees.
  • More than 50% had no toilets of any kind.
  • 85% had no inside running water.
  • 91% had no electricity.
  • There was only 1 doctor per 2,000 people in rural areas.
  • More than one-third of the rural population had intestinal parasites.
  • Only 4% of Cuban peasants ate meat regularly; only 1% ate fish, less than 2% eggs, 3% bread, 11% milk; none ate green vegetables.
  • The average annual income among peasants was $91 (1956), less than 1/3 of the national income per person.
  • 45% of the rural population was illiterate; 44% had never attended a school.
  • 25% of the labor force was chronically unemployed.
  • 1 million people were illiterate ( in a population of about 5.5 million).
  • 27% of urban children, not to speak of 61% of rural children, were not attending school.
  • Racial discrimination was widespread.
  • The public school system had deteriorated badly.
  • Corruption was endemic; anyone could be bought, from a Supreme Court judge to a cop.
  • Police brutality and torture were common.

Colonial rule continued up through the 1950s, with Eisenhower backing the military coup led by Batista. Then came the revolution, led by students – and charismatics like Fidel and Che. Batista’s mistake was to let the rebels out of jail. They went to Mexico, organized & trained, and returned in 1956, but 65 of the 82 were killed outright or captured and tortured to death. The remaining 17, including Fidel, Raoul and Che, built an army and won by popular uprising uprising in just 3 years at the loss of 5,000 souls.

The revolution caught Eisenhower’s CIA by surprise, but JFK and RFK determined to reverse it in Kennedy’s first term – with Operation Mongoose. Similar to other stupid moves around the planet — covert operations in places like Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Argentina, the Congo, Indonesia — Mongoose had no concept of blowback. As in Pakistan and Afghanistan today, the White House and State Department took no recognition of what the people of a place want for themselves. It simply did not enter into the political calculus.

Then came the Missile Crisis that nearly incinerated the United States – 99 ICBMs were already in Cuban field command, could hit NYC, Washington and Chicago, were launch ready, and had CIA Mongoose teams striking at them on the ground with small arms. The Joint Chiefs nagged Kennedy and McNamara to mount a full invasion and said they were prepared to jump off the landing craft within 48 hours. Both sides massed Naval and Air forces and went on highest alert, with Russia’s senior command taking to hardened underground bunkers outside Moscow.

The US intelligence breakdown was total – the Kennedys clueless as to both Russian and Cuban military capabilities. The Cubans were fully prepared to repel the jerry-rigged invasion – it would have been more like Dunkirk than Bay of Pigs. If US Generals had resorted to tactical nukes, it would have forced Cuba to destroy staging cities, like Miami, Tallahassie and New Orleans.

JFK said to McNamara: in an invasion how many Cubans would be against us? Mac didn’t know. The answer should have been obvious. All of them. 

Khrushchev’s long telex that Sunday turned the tide – it elaborated the nuclear end game scenario in graphic detail. Kennedy sat in his rocker staring at the wall, then took the deal Khruschev offered him to save face. Ted Sorenson was called in to craft a public narrative.

Robert Kennedy sat down with Russian Ambassador Anotoly Dobrynin and said, “Even though the President himself is very much against starting a war over Cuba, an irreversible chain of events could occur against his will. That is why the President is appealing directly to Chairman Khrushchev for his help in liquidating this conflict. If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power. The American army could get out of control.” In the end the US took missiles out of Turkey, Khrushchev increased aid to Cuba, and Cuba became most rapidly developing country in Latin America. Whether the US military went “out of control” and installed a different president is a matter of continuing speculation.

Fast forward 30 years and the USSR was imploding for many reasons. If you ask someone knowledgeable in Cuba (and we did) they’d say it was the loss of political support in Moscow. Gorbachev was back-to-the-wall after the Chernobyl mishandling. The same is now happening at Fukushima, with the Prime Minister dissolving the current Japanese government. It used to be “one nuclear weapon, one city.” Now it is “one nuclear reactor, one country.”

Why did the USSR collapse?
a. Peak Oil
b. Star Wars
c. Raisa Gorbachev’s Harrod’s Account
d. Chernobyl
e. Beastie Boys, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails
f. Afghanistan
g. All of the above

When the State farms closed, the food supply evaporated. The Army was stuck in mire in Afghanistan. The Ruble devalued. Consumer goods vanished, the underground economy ramped up, the mafia moved in, everyone had to pay for protection, and the oligarchs grabbed the best state assets, like oil companies, mining and manufacturing. As the country collapsed, the oligarchs met in Rotary Club luncheons and divided up the spoils. They got posh suites in London and New York while the masses starved.

Alcoholism skyrocketed, people froze to death, or let their grandparents die to get their food rations. Pop culture and higher education was demanding free flow of information, and liberalization was the slippery slope. As Dmitry Orlov says in Hold Your Applause, you can fake a Star Wars shield, but you can’t fake an American Express account.

We visited Russia in 1991-93, invited there to teach permaculture and ecovillage design. We did public events in St. Petersburg and other places, some short courses, and site visits to ecovillages. The first thing we noticed was the lack of traffic. There were few cars, even at rush hour. Cars were not in short supply, but there was no gas. People queued up not knowing if gas would arrive at their filling station that day or the next, or maybe on the third day. This was not a natural disaster, this was normal.

We stayed with a doctor, a heart surgeon, and she was paid 600 rubles/month — about $20 in 1991 and about 15 cents in 1993. Many people sold heirlooms, carpets, art, jewelry, to buy food. Because of socialist land tenure, they were able to keep their homes even when they stopped paying rent, unless the landlord was Mafia, and then they had to pay. Health care was also free.

But when the State farms closed, the food supply evaporated. People rented a little land outside the city and went there on weekends to grow food. These “dachas” were very common, usually close to public transport, and you could build hoophouses, rainwater catchment, and a lockable shed to store seed and tools. Many farms were within bike distance of city, others accessible by bus or rail.

The black market was out in the open. Kiosks had stuff. Stores did not. “Powdered milk, powdered eggs, baby powder ... what a country!” to steal a line from Yakov Smirnoff. Pepsi and Coke were some of the first in, trying to establish their brands. PepsiCo deployed a complimentary currency to avert inflation. As the exclusive exporter of Solichnaya, vodka went West, Pepsi went East.

As we learned in the documentary film, The Power of Community, almost overnight Cuba, one of the most rapidly industrializing nations in Latin America, lost its Soviet and Eastern European markets, and 50% of its imported oil. Its GDP dropped by a third. There were massive blackouts throughout the country. There were times when Cubans only had a few hours a day of electricity for cooking, lighting, and appliances.

We returned to Cuba for a look around earlier this month. Things are better now, but the first thing we noticed on arriving was how dark this capital city was. There were few lights away from the tourist areas — even the Capitol Dome was not illuminated. None of the office buildings had lights on the upper floors.

Havana is odd in many ways. The old 50s cars, the hand-made trike taxis, the Spike Lee scenes of old Brooklyn neighborhoods — men and boys without shirts, boys running pizza, girls strutting their stuff. A loaded pizza costs $3, a slice is 30 cents.

Vintage 1950s cars go for $3000 to $7000 but need parts. Motorcycles with sidecars are common. Black market diesel is 30 cents/liter, about $1/gal — so all the taxis are diesel, and they jam in as many passengers as they can.

The absence of wares in the stores, the scant window displays, the street hawkers selling tin pots, brooms and hangers as they sing down one street and up the next speak of continuing poverty. In order to survive, Cuba went from large scale, oil-intensive, chemical-industrial production, to small scale, local, organic agriculture. Petroleum-based food transportation from countryside to cities was replaced with urban gardening, which continues to spread. Cuba has a Department of Urban Agriculture.

Out on the street one thing you won’t see is iPads or smart phones. No one has ear buds. We went to the Iberostar Hotel business center to use the internet — $8 for one hour. In most businesses there are old computers, few printers, almost no toner. A printer which would cost $50 in the US sells for $800 there. Our guest house used an old computer to track sales, but had neither printer nor internet. We paid 300 pesos ($13) for a double room and were the only guests.

While Russia has largely recovered and is now building new stuff, very little in Cuba is new stuff. Much is still lost in the 1950s, and gradually decaying. The government spent money to preserve Havana’s scenic old town, which is an old Spanish colonial city like Palma de Mallorca, the Coyocan district of Mexico City, or Valladolid in the Yucatan: cobblestone streets, ornate facades, wrought iron. Many people are travelling to Havana for medical care — lots of new private hospitals and clinics. Canadians are buying winter vacation properties. Homosexuals and sex workers have been decriminalized, which makes sense if you are trying to build an economy on tourism.

Raoul Castro
Raoul Castro was just re-elected as President with an overwhelming mandate. He has been gradually liberalizing — Gorbachev’s slippery slope. This year he removed travel restrictions. No exit visas are required. Foreign students can go to university in Cuba — about $5000 for 4 years. Other countries are setting up university extensions.

You can get lodging much cheaper than at big tourist hotels. People rent rooms in their homes. There are air conditioners on some old buildings but the locals call them “Russian tanks” because of the noise. They are inefficient, hard to repair, and too expensive for most people.

The clothing is not very different than in the North, and we saw this in Russia in the 90s also. People want to keep up with fashions, but name-brand tennis shoes cost more than a year’s wage, so fashion comes with a steep cost.

We bought a peanut butter bar for 3 cuban pesos -- about 15 cents. It was practically a full meal. In the local slang they call centavos kilos, so the peanut butter bar was 300 kilos. A local orange soda is 10 pesos, about 50 cents. The standard food, as in much of the Caribbean, is beans and rice. In Cuba they call these Christians and Moors. Sometimes you can get fried boiled yucca with it. A meal like that would be 5 pesos, about 25 cents.

A lot of places — restaurants and hotels in particular, work on commissions, meaning if someone brings customers, they get a commission from the business. In the case of a restaurant or bar it could be one third of the bill. This is how lots of taxi drivers make their money.

Mostly people walk. At night many streets are almost completely dark, but there is very little crime. One reason is that there are plenty of “eyes on the street.” The people are engaged in their communities. They have neighborhood pride.

With a long history of foreign domination and control, the Cuban people maintain firm resolve to create their own destiny. “Resistir” is a value and ideal in Cuban society.

Living under a 50-year U.S. blockade has been the ultimate test of the ability of the Cuban people to resist. This is why Fidel and Raoul were confirmed by the Cuban people in the most recent election by 97%. It was not because the opposition was repressed or the voters were compelled, as the US media would have it. People came out to vote their confidence in the Revolution.

Cubans have overcome the way the NAACP overcame in Selma. With pride and spirit that is heartwarming. They make the necessary sacrifices, working even harder, and employing their creative and ingenious talents.

But the fruit stands we saw were quite sparse. We saw peeled oranges being sold by the slice. Good coffee is 25 times more expensive than bad coffee, the kind they call “chichiro.” Chichiro will make you sick if you are not used to it, because it is green bean — ground but unroasted.

In the west we are learning to recycle. In Cuba they have been recycling everything for half a century, but not because it is a government policy. Recycling happens because no one can afford to waste anything. Plastic bags are saved to raise and lower deliveries from the street to the 4th floor of a building by rope, or to carry tools on a bicycle.

One other thing stands out in Cuba to even the most casual tourist. The arts are everywhere. While the consumer economy has been on indefinite pause, the quality of life is everywhere enhanced by music, dance, theater, and visual arts.

A Cuban woman told us,  “You cannot understate how hard life was in the Special Period – people died; it left scars.” Cubans keep going, keep resisting, in part because surrender is not in their vocabulary, and in part because they have no other choice. They are a reluctant global model for powerdown economics.

In March 2007, Dr. Francois Cellier of the Swiss Fed. Inst. of Technology in Zurich spoke at the Annual Meeting of the Alliance for Global Sustainability. Dr. Cellier examined the work by Rees and Wackernagle on Global Footprint Analysis, Meadows and co-workers on Limits to Growth, and efforts by Daly, Costanza and others to create alternative economic indicators, such as Gross National Happiness or the Human Development Index.

Plotting a chart with the planet’s carrying capacity on one axis and minimum standard of living for higher civilization on another, Cellier observed that only one country occupied a sweet spot that had both: Cuba. Cellier urged that every country needs to get below the horizonal and to the right of the vertical and into that same sweet spot.

But in another slide, Cellier warned that, given the choice, most Cubans would elect to have large, air conditioned houses and drive gas-guzzling SUVs. Human nature had not changed, only the range of available choices.

In this respect we have to acknowledge a degree of weariness ourselves. We have personally adhered to a posture of preparedness for collapse for more than 40 years and we are frankly both tired of it and mystified that no collapse has ensued. No doubt, our chosen lifestyle has had its ineffable benefits over consumerist lifestyles, and we would have chosen no differently, given a second chance with acquired knowledge. But swimming against the tide can be fatiguing, even discouraging.

Ché’s famous saying, “Hasta la victoria siempre,” Until Victory Always, or “Sí se puede.” “Yes, it can be done,” are acknowledgements of an essential Buddhist truth: suffering cannot be avoided. In chosing to pioneer a way forward into a very different future, we may as well choose a form of suffering that gives us pride and dignity.




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