Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Movable Feast

"We go to these fairs to demonstrate biochar-making stoves that also produce electricity, to talk about eCOOLvillages and carbon farming, and to learn from others at the cutting edge of societal evolution."

In the dark of the moon, in flying snow,
in the dead of winter, war spreading
families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside sowing clover.
— Wendell Berry, February 2, 1972 

This past weekend we had a difficult choice to make between some very important events. We were invited to participate at the consultative level at the final meeting of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and at the opening meeting of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HPFSD) that coincided with the convening of the 68th UN General Assembly in New York. We were also invited to speak and give biochar workshops at a Mother Earth News Fair in rural Pennsylvania. We chose the latter.

Mother Earth News Fair is tucked in up the valley at a Pennsylvania ski resort
As we posted in greater detail from Rio de Janeiro last year, the 20-year run of the CSD was ended and replaced with the HPFSD as one of the Rio Earth Summit outcomes. To some, this was seen as a promotion. Sustainable development moved from the desks of underpaid staffers laboring in a dimly-lit back rooms in Geneva and Nairobi to being openly discussed by 198 world leaders in the glare of TV lights in the grand hall of the UN General Assembly in New York. To others, ourselves included, the shift was viewed as a demotion, because it meant long-range sustainable development (almost an oxymoron) would now be relegated to lip-service while the command-level sessions discussed more pressing matters of the moment, such as tensions in the Middle East or the Snowden disclosures.

How small people move heavy objects
Our preliminary impression has been borne out these past few days, although the New York UN session has not been without its moments. One such moment was when US President Barack Obama, entering the GA Hall just prior to his scheduled address at the 68th GA convocation, was forced to listen to the preceding speaker, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, call him out as a war criminal and scoff-law. Addressing the Snowden file, Rousseff looked directly at Obama and said:

Recent revelations concerning the activities of a global network of electronic espionage have caused indignation and repudiation in public opinion around the world. In Brazil, the situation was even more serious, as it emerged that we were targeted by this intrusion. … Brazilian diplomatic missions, among them the Permanent Mission to the United Nations and the Office of the President of the Republic itself, had their communications intercepted. Tampering in such a manner in the affairs of other countries is a breach of International Law and is an affront to the principles that must guide the relations among them, especially among friendly nations.

After demanding a public apology, the President of Brazil then took it a step farther and proposed a new international legal standard for the internet:
Time is ripe to create the conditions to prevent cyberspace from being used as a weapon of war, through espionage, sabotage, and attacks against systems and infrastructure of other countries. … We need to create multilateral mechanisms for the worldwide network that are capable of ensuring principles such as:

1 - Freedom of expression, privacy of the individual and respect for human rights.
2 - Open, multilateral and democratic governance, carried out with transparency by stimulating collective creativity and the participation of society, Governments and the private sector.
3 - Universality that ensures the social and human development and the construction of inclusive and non-discriminatory societies.
4 - Cultural diversity, without the imposition of beliefs, customs and values.
5 - Neutrality of the network, guided only by technical and ethical criteria, rendering it inadmissible to restrict it for political, commercial, religious or any other purposes.

Building a masonry stove, the easy way!
Of course, practical suggestions like Net Neutrality are far removed from the political agenda in Washington, which is driven by the interests of corporate donors to political campaigns, the Koch/Murdoch Tea Party arsonists, and the Security Industrial Complex, including, yes, the major internet providers.

Turning to Obama’s war crimes, Rousseff said:

We must stop the death of innocent civilians, of children, women and the elderly. We must cease the use of arms … There is no military outcome. The only solution is through negotiation, dialogue and understanding.

Whatever the case, we repudiate unilateral interventions contrary to International Law, without Security Council authorization, which … only worsen the political instability of the [Middle East] region and increase human suffering. … The time has come to heed to the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians for an independent and sovereign state.

The history of the twentieth century shows that forsaking multilateralism is a prelude to wars and the consequent human misery and devastation. It also shows that the promotion of multilateralism brings benefits on ethical, political and institutional levels. I renew, thus, an appeal in favor of a wide and vigorous convergence of political wills to sustain and reinvigorate the multilateral system, which has in the United Nations its main pillar.
Earthineer's alternative to Lead-Acid batteries

After the cheers subsided, Obama took to the podium and delivered a familiar litany of excuses as to why the United States rejected multilateralism in favor of American exceptionalism, including the right to undeclared acts of aggression such as drone attacks on wedding parties and the razing of Gaza (not mentioning those by name). With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Obama avoided repeating his previous position — now recanted — that Israel withdraw to pre-1967 borders with some land swaps. Laying political groundwork for Hillary Clinton to succeed him in 2016, he parroted the AIPAC party line, “the United States will never compromise our commitment to Israel’s security, nor our support for its existence as a Jewish state.” Translation: there will be no end to brutal Palestinian apartheid and imprisonment for at least the next seven years.

Ed Begley Jr. brings his line of
anti-obesity beverages and
composting toilets
Only a week before, Russian President Vladimir Putin had taken to the Op-Ed page of The New York Times to warn Obama,
It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
Standing at the UN podium, Obama replied:
The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war — rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world — may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill. I believe such disengagement would be a mistake.  I believe America must remain engaged for our own security.  But I also believe the world is better for it.  Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional — in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all. I must be honest, though.  We're far more likely to invest our energy in those countries that want to work with us, that invest in their people instead of a corrupt few….

The President glad hands Jamie Dimon
While he could not resist the counterslam at Putin, Obama’s final point was nonetheless both revealing and prescient. Here is a man who is getting daily morning briefings, not just on the situations in China, Syria or Greece, but on the looming geopolitical implications of climate change and peak oil. Surely by now he knows we are in an end-game for growth-based economic systems and at the gateway to a climate hell-on-earth. While seemingly oblivious to the corrupt few (Larry Summers, Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon come to mind) he invested in (instead of targeting them with drones, or sending them to Guantanamo) who ran the United States into a ditch, he hinted at that emergent end-game in his closing lines, perhaps the only part of the speech that actually addressed the legacy of the UNCSD.
This leads me to a final point.  There will be times when the breakdown of societies is so great, the violence against civilians so substantial that the international community will be called upon to act.  This will require new thinking and some very tough choices.  While the United Nations was designed to prevent wars between states, increasingly we face the challenge of preventing slaughter within states.  And these challenges will grow more pronounced as we are confronted with states that are fragile or failing — places where horrendous violence can put innocent men, women and children at risk, with no hope of protection from their national institutions. … [T]here are going to be moments where the international community will need to acknowledge that the multilateral use of military force may be required to prevent the very worst from occurring.

While we share the notion that the way to world peace and prosperity within limited means lies in reallocating effort and resources towards projects that target long-term sustainability and human creative development (as opposed to infinite material development), we part company with the assertion that nefarious spycraft and dronewars against nebulous and allegiance-shifting enemies, foreign and domestic, or boots on the ground in distant economic riot zones, is any way to bring peace.

Which is why we went to the Mother Earth News Fair instead.

Joel Salatin demonstrates chicken-plucking
These fairs have been going on for a few years now and the next one is scheduled for Lawrence, Kansas in two weeks. Next year they will be held in Puyallup, Washington; Seven Springs, Pennsylvania; Lawrence, Kansas; and Asheville, North Carolina. They are weekend trade fairs for sustainability books, products and services and multifaceted seminars that share the best thinking on real on-the-ground sustainable solutions with and amongst some of our top experts in these fields.

We go to these fairs to demonstrate biochar-making stoves that also produce electricity, to talk about eCOOLvillages and carbon farming, and to learn from others at the cutting edge of societal evolution for the better. In a panel discussion on the closing day of the most recent fair, Bryan Welsh, publisher of Mother Earth News, described his “beautiful and abundant” vision of what we could be looking forward to. We don’t have a transcript of that, but we can lift a similar passage from his recent writings:

People who design modern zoos use a criterion they call “flight distance.” Most animals have a prescribed distance they would run, if frightened, before they turned to look back. If a zoo enclosure is built at least a little larger than the animal’s flight distance, the creature is calmer and healthier. If designers don’t allow for flight distance, the animals are neurotic, combative and less healthy. 
Besides beauty, wilderness also provides us with our own flight distance. As long as there are empty places on the planet, our minds can flee to those places of wild beauty when they have the need.
So in my vision, some quantity of every unique ecosystem across the globe will be preserved in its natural state. Perhaps we can reserve at least 20 percent of each continent’s landmass for wilderness, allocated to each biome, each ecosystem. In the United States, 20 percent of our grasslands, 20 percent of our forests, 20 percent of our swamps and at least 20 percent of our deserts will be permanently preserved as God created them, open to visitors but not vehicles. Whatever natural resources they contain will remain unexploited, by popular consent, forever — as a testament to our commitment to beauty, and to abundance.
I want my great-grandchildren to live in a world that is not only beautiful, but abundant.
This is a powerful vision, although we would have to note that in our rapidly changing, post-Holocene epoch, wilderness preservation will not be enough. We also need to think about wilderness restoration and resiliency. We are attending the 2013 North American Biochar Symposium next month, or instead we would be going to the Fifth International Conference of the Society for Ecological Restoration.  That meeting, in Madison, Wisconsin, will bring together an estimated 1,500 attendees for a 4-day program on climate change, biodiversity conservation, environmental policy and sustainable livelihoods.

This is our Movable Feast. At the sunset of the age of growth and the dawn of the age of recovery, we walk the hillside, sewing clover.

Left to Right: Deborah Neimann (Homegrown and Handmade, Raising Goats Naturally); Sara Reeves and Ingrid Witvoet (New Society); Lyle Estill (Biodiesel Power, Small Stories Big Changes); Diane Ott Whealy (Seed Savers Exchange); Bryan Welch (Beautiful and Abundant); Carol Peppe Hewitt (Financing our Foodshed).

Monday, September 16, 2013

Post Peak Reflections

"At US$25 per barrel — the historic average — 90 million barrels would be US$2.25 billion every day on oil expenditure. At US$105 per barrel, that amounts to US$9.45 billion per day. This is a difference of US$7.2 billion every day, an extra cost to the global economy which is primarily a result of crude oil having peaked … or US$2.6 trillion every year. — Dr. Samuel Alexander, Univ of Melbourne, September 11, 2013"

We did not feel the Korowicz Crunch circa 2005 (named after Dublin economist David Korowicz), when conventional oil peaked, nor did we go over the Seneca Cliff  (after Lucius Anneaus Seneca who wrote around 50 CE, “It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.") We instead found new, unconventional sources to fill the gap — sources that were both more expensive and more damaging to the climate and the environment. The economic damage keeps the lid on growth in demand, albeit sustains a wicked production level that may kill us all in the end.

We, and our fellow prognosticators of the mid-2000ies, for the most part did not see this present state of affairs coming, and we all admit that. Colin Campbell predicted the mad scramble and undulating plateau phase pre-1995, but even he did not realize how much ready substitution the unconventionals held, and how close they were to being exploited, once the financial capital began pouring down those holes. Since most of that giddy capital flow is fictional debt (or real debt with fictional repayment, if you will), it is theoretically unlimited, as is the damage it can do.

Well, it’s not quite as unlimited as that. Korowicz warned:
 “Firstly, we have reached the limit in the credit backing of our financial, monetary and banking system. We are at the same time hitting profoundly destabilizing ecological limits. Preeminent at this time is that we are almost certainly at the peak of global oil and food production. Put another way, we are at the limits of the system of trust and solvency that underpins the trade upon which we depend. We are at the limits of the least substitutable energy source that, by the laws of physics, is necessary for economic maintenance and growth. We are at the limits of our most fundamental human sustenance. They are the three most critical structural pillars of the globalized economy. Like a three-legged stool, the whole system can become destabilized by the buckling of just one.”

Our own Post-Petroleum Survival Guide (2006) gave recipes for downsizing and weatherproofing your home, changing your job, storing water and growing food, but it completely left readers unprepared for the slowly stagflating situation we face now. As Dr. Alexander puts it:
When oil gets expensive, everything dependent on oil gets more expensive: transport, mechanised labour, industrial food production, plastics, etc. This pricing dynamic sucks discretionary expenditure and investment away from the rest of the economy, causing debt defaults, economic stagnation, recessions, or even longer-term depressions.
Rather than a crunch or a cliff, what we are seeing play out now is gradual erosion rather than steep decline. Economic decline is not pacing the decline curve of petroleum production, it is leading it. There are large islands of unreality — academics, economists, popular media, governments, city planners, industrialists — who are still constructing a post-recession vision of the future and putting all their finest resources there, but their projections bear no relationship to the stagnant, jobless, eroding zeitgeist. As James Howard Kunstler  puts it:
The stock market is a proxy for the economy and a handful of giant banks are proxies for the American public, and all they’ve really got going is a hideous high-frequency churn of trades in conjectural debentures that pretend to represent something hidden in the caboose of a choo-choo train of wished-for value — and hardly anyone in the nation, including those with multiple graduate degrees in abstruse crypto-sciences, can even pretend to understand it all.
We really should be learning to grow food and do all the things we spoke of in that 2006 book, but we are not being compelled by either the current economy or our mainstream cultural narrative to do that.
The IEA World Energy Outlook reports get more accurate every year – by 2030 it’ll be spot on. —Craig MacIntosh (2008)
What the current reality, and not the cultural narrative, is saying is, “keep spending,” and so we go deeper in debt, waste time and our youthful energy, and set ourselves up for a bigger fall, or perhaps just more of a long slide down into reduced opportunities. We observe the prices paid by courageous self-sacrificers — the pioneers who go off grid and focus on sustainable homesteading — you know, isolation, giving up creature comforts, having to struggle to learn and adapt to the change. Spending more to put up homegrown preserves than to buy cheap canned goods. The transition cost is daunting, and not entirely in economic terms. Pioneers need to give up a lot of comforts before the rest of us have to, and that is a real deterrent for others contemplating taking the leap. Denial and procrastination is so much easier.

Renewables pioneer and author Dan Chiras says that if you are spending tens of thousands of dollars to put solar electricity on your home or business what you are really doing is buying a quarter century of electricity and paying for it in advance. And you are secure in the knowledge that as long as the sun shines your electricity will keep being delivered every day. Your neighbors who pay by the month cannot say the same. You cannot say the same of the benefits supposed to come from your Social Security check, or of the money you have in a certificate of deposit, IRA or savings account. Viewed in this way, a solar system for your roof might even be worth borrowing money to install.

David Korowicz said, “Collapse now, avoid the rush.” Richard Heinberg put it another way, proposing that the sooner you begin living more independently, the easier it will be for you and your family as the future descent curve unfolds. Still, few are listening, and that makes being out in a front of the herd a lonely undertaking.

The map illustrates the global distribution of the climate stability/ecoregional intactness relationship. Regions with both high climate stability and vegetation intactness are dark grey; those with high climate stability but low levels of vegetation intactness are dark orange. Regions with low climate stability but high vegetation intactness are dark green, while those with both low climate stability and low levels of vegetation intactness are pale cream.





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