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.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Expecting the Unexpected

"As we settle in now for another four years with President Obama and, probably, very little action on climate change, peak everything, or crucial preparations of an oblivious human population for a very different future than most expect, we can only wonder whether the hurricane that struck New York and the East Coast this past week, after slamming through Haiti, will be a (late) wake up call for the President and Congress or just another milepost whizzing by. "

The fisherman throwing his discards to the gulls under a red orange sky at sunset with flamingoes still wading just off shore in brilliant turquoise waters in the background makes this place seem like a Jimmy Buffet license plate.

We are back in Mexico, revisiting old haunts. A few years ago we asked Richard Heinberg what he thought about jetting around the world to speak at various events, and he said he thought now was a good time to be doing that; as world explorers and messengers we should travel as much as we could; the day will soon enough come when air travel will be too expensive or even unavailable at any price.

In solemn atonements (our planting ceremony runs something like, “Grow, ya bugger!”) we plant trees  and bamboo groves for our travel indulgences, and make biochar from the coppicings. Last year we were in eight countries; next year we already have speaking engagements in ten. We might have taken the advice a bit too seriously.

In the fall of 2005, we were at this same location in Southern Mexico, clutching the book contract to write The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook for New Society Publishers, its ink still wet. After searching about, we spent part of our advance to take lodgings in a sweet little grass shack on a beach off the Straits of Cuba. Our perfect book-writing retreat was in a rustic, dirt-road town with one internet café and almost no-one who spoke English.

That October we had gone back to Tennessee to tie up some business before hunkering down in Mexico for the winter, sheaves of research in hand. Then the unexpected.

On October 19, Caribbean breezes kicked up to Tropical Storm strength along the Southern coast of Mexico. Tropical Depression number 24 had formed four days before, 85 miles SW of Jamaica, and had organized with unprecedented speed. On Monday it tied a record of 1933 by becoming the 21st named storm of the Atlantic season. The name it was given was “Wilma.” By Wednesday it had become the 12th hurricane of the year and had set another record: at 5 pm that day its pressure was recorded at 892 millibars. It had become the strongest hurricane in history. If there were Category 5 hurricanes, Wilma might have been a Cat 5.

The flight back to Mexico had been cancelled. The airlines were sending their aircraft only one way – outbound, jam-packed with evacuating tourists. Wilma made landfall at noon on Friday, crossing Cozumel and moving into the Yucatan Peninsula. The impact weakened it to a Category 3, but it also stalled its forward motion, so the giant storm just lingered, pounding Cancun and the Riviera Maya through Saturday. The National Hurricane Center said it was “meandering,” then “drifting northward,” then “erratically drifting.” Hurricane force winds persisted over land for 24 hours, then 48. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, Wilma drifted Northeastward into the Gulf of Mexico, passing directly over my palm-leaf shack, with sustained winds of 115 mph.

On Monday Wilma slammed Palm Beach, Florida as a Cat 3 storm with winds at 125 mph, but it was moving so fast – 50 mph – that it crossed Florida in just 2 hours and headed North into the Atlantic. On Tuesday it dissipated, 200 miles Southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Mexico is extraordinary when it comes to disaster preparedness, but Wilma left six dead — one of them a body washed ashore from Cuba — and devastation in our small town was total. The entire village went under 3 feet of churning water for a day or more. Eighteen-foot breakers had pounded shore-front properties to rubble. But, thanks to military-enforced evacuation of the entire coast, people were mostly unharmed and were soon able to return.

As soon as the airport reopened, we flew down to see what had become of our advance book royalty. It was not a pretty sight.

What was pretty, though, were the ways that people came together to assist one another in the clean-up and rebuilding. It would be another month or more before power and water would return, and the internet café was now a sandy pile of soggy CPUs and broken plastic terminals, but with a deadline to meet, we began writing our Survival Guide with a folding solar array, a motorcycle battery, and a set of cables that could charge the iBook during the day. We got hot water from a solar shower bag and baked some quesadillas with a solar oven.

Our roof, surprisingly enough, was entirely intact, its palm thatch rising and falling in respiration with its tormenter. It is still in fine shape now, 7 years later. Where the rushing seas, in their retreat to the Caribbean, undercut our little home’s foundations and caused the walls to crack and collapse, we excavated down and poured fresh cement. The government came with trucks and gave away free construction materials. All over the Yucatan there were piles of sand, bags of cement, steel rod, and concrete block piled neatly in front of every damaged home. 

At night, with no power for televisions or computers, the village would assemble in the central plaza with guitars, fiddles, and flutes. A generator would light the park. We would dance and sing and laugh and tell jokes.

Within a year, we could hardly tell that any storm had come through, so complete were the repairs.

We wrote this chapter in our book in those months:

“Preparing for peak oil can be relatively easy, since the preparation is 75 percent mental, 15 percent physical, and 10 percent fiscal. Don’t be flabbergasted at what to do. Quit asking should I buy solar? Should I buy an axe? Should I buy a gun? The answers are no, no, and no …. This feeling of a need to buy stuff is in fact the very reason why we have this predicament. We over-consume. The preparation problem is not addressed by buying more stuff; it’s addressed by mentally and physically getting used to the idea of getting by on less stuff.” — Chris Lisle

Sometimes it is comforting to recall that life before Colonel Drake discovered that well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, was not without creature comforts. Blacksmiths under spreading chestnut trees worked on steam-electric “horseless carriages.” Trains and horse-drawn wagons brought fresh food from distant farms. The most daring folks even tottered around on the penny-farthing bicycle. Many of the jobs people had then were not so different from jobs today. Some would be greatly enhanced by the tools we have developed in the past century.

In many other ways, the world is a very different place. The first big change is global warming. Our burgeoning population has added significant amounts of greenhouse gases to the air, and we know from the fossil record that every time atmospheric carbon has risen, so have global temperatures. We have now nearly doubled CO2 concentrations that existed at the start of the industrial era, and reliable science suggests it will take thousands, possibly millions, of years for natural processes to bring us back to pre-industrial equilibrium. In the near term — the next century or two — the world is going to get warmer. Much warmer.

The areas first noticeably affected by this warming will likely be in the mid-continental regions, where drier soil conditions will prevail, droughts will occur more frequently, and desertification will be a serious threat. Next will be coastal areas, where sea-level rise, increased rainfall, and storm activity will submerge entire islands and permanently alter the shape of continents. These changes will be most profound at the higher latitudes, but no part of the Earth will be spared completely.


Global warming is not the only ticking time bomb. For 50 years, the nuclear industry has routinely been receiving permits to dump radioactive wastes into the air and water even though British, French, Dutch, Russian, and other governments are well aware of the lethal consequences to future generations. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects 1.7 million cancer and genetic deaths in the world population from current US-based plants alone.

At least the nuclear industry has watchdog agencies, even if their historic role has been more like that of lapdogs. The level of regulation in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries is far more lackadaisical. Thousands of chemical and pharmaceutical dumpsites are leaching toxic compounds into the environment without anyone seeming to notice. Rivers, oceans, and atmosphere have been treated as a vast open sewer, and the damage to human and ecosystem health is only beginning.


So this is where we find ourselves. We have spent the past hundred or so years at a huge party thrown by petroleum. Our host has spared no expense and has lavished wonderful gifts upon us, and we are surely grateful. Some of the gifts we have used wisely and some we have wasted. The party has been going on for so long that most people, although tired, have the sense that it’s a permanent thing — that we can go home and go to bed and come back again tomorrow and it will still be here.


It’s nearly over now. The band is packing up. Tomorrow we have the big cleanup.

As we settle in now for another four years with President Obama and, probably, very little action on climate change, peak everything, or crucial preparations of an oblivious human population for a very different future than most expect, we can only wonder whether the hurricane that struck New York and the East Coast this past week, after slamming through Haiti, will be a (late) wake up call for the President and Congress or just another milepost whizzing by. Only time will tell. 




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