Revisiting the Aunt in the Attic

"As the nations of the world meet in Sharm el-Sheikh to tackle the climate conundrum, the root causes are, for the most part, off the table."

In June 2016 I wrote an essay called “The Aunt in the Attic.” It told about US policies to marginalize and ruin Venezuela a la Cuba 1957 and about the rapid slide of Mexican oil production as it attempted to fill in for the Caracas Crash. Recounting the history of the 50-year “Mexican Miracle,” I said:

This miracle came thanks to the heroic stand of Lázaro Cárdenas Del Rio against Franklin Del Roosevelt in the 1930s, defying the effort of the Seven Sisters to glom México’s oil by blocking the transfer of refinery technology. After Mexican scientists successfully developed their own process, Cárdenas sent FDR a vial of clear, home-brewed gasoline. Goaded by Winston Churchill, Walter Teague and other oil obsessives almost to the point of invasion, FDR was dissuaded by his Joint Chiefs, who were riveted by Germany’s remilitarization and what it foretold. He turned his gaze away and left Cárdenas alone.

In December of 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, México was one of the first countries to pledge support and aid and severed all diplomatic ties with the Axis powers. Grateful, FDR placed large contracts for Mexican oil and sent technicians to quickly build up Mexican mining operations for much-needed metals like mercury, zinc, copper, and more. After FDR visited the Mexican President in Monterrey, transfers of US weapons and training began and the Mexican Air Force, Fuerza Aerea Mexicana (FAM), fledged the Aztec Eagles, who aided in the conquest of the Philippines, Formosa, Okinawa and Kyushu, flying P-47s (‘Peh-Cuas’) with bright Mexican tricolor markings on the tail and U.S. star-and-bar insignia on the fuselage and wings.

México was warned of impending petrocollapse more than 10 years ago by the top brass at PEMEX. It might have made efforts to dampen Catholic fecundity and curb consumer growth, ration fossil reserves and build out its renewable portfolio. Instead, a succession of administrations — Salinas, Fox, Calderon, Peña-Nieto, [and now Lopez-Obrador]— poured billions into new drilling technology and offshore exploration. What came out of the ground was too little, too late, but until 2014, when it finally began liquidating PEMEX and cutting its losses, México never stopped hoping to hit another jackpot. 

In one of his least popular books, written in 2014 but later made into a TV series through Amazon Studios, science fiction writer William Gibson imagined a 2035 event called The Jackpot, in which someone hacks the North American electric grid, which causes a two-year global power outage with cascading economic consequences, after which some really nasty viruses cause a massive pandemic, followed by a series of droughts, famines, political chaos, and anarchy. Eighty percent of the global human population dies off. 

“Why do they call it The Jackpot?" the time-traveling protagonist asks.

“Gallows humor,” her guide replies.

Climate change and the Ukraine invasion are bringing us something very similar right now. Perhaps we imagine, as Gibson did, that intelligent nanobots will save us from the collapse of biodiversity. Unfortunately, we don’t live in fiction. Reality is an absolute despot.

There is a somewhat heated debate going on about global population changes. In recent decades, for a variety of reasons, a number of countries have reached the numeric threshold beyond which their population starts to slowly decline. The threshold's arrival is marked by the decline in fertility of childbearing-age women to an arithmetic outcome below replacement. It is a subtle shift that may not show social effects for a number of years—a generation perhaps—but the economic impact becomes increasingly profound. Abandoning the extended-family-in-village model, modern societies structure taxes to replace the social support net—to pay the costs of care for the elderly, displaced and infirm. Nations depend on a steady influx of young workers to earn enough and be taxed. The problem, then, is about the economic systems that require a youthful workforce of adequate size to power and support technically advanced cultures. It is not about socially adjusting to smaller families.

I would propose that the better solution is re-establishing the family and village scale as the foundation of our economic systems. Moreover, instead of politicizing immigration and stigmatizing asylum seekers, these courageous, heroic voyagers—and there will be plenty in coming years—should be welcomed for ably and energetically filling the gap in the workforce left by reduced fertility.

I was born in 1947 when there were 310 parts per million by volume (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. At this writing, we are closer to 420 ppm. That's an increase of more than 100 ppm, or 30%, in my lifetime, so far. These concentrations are gaining momentum. As a comparison, CO2 only increased 22 ppm during the 75 years before I was born.

Most of that CO2 came from today’s wealthy nations as they broke into the billion-year vault of photosynthesized carbon and made off with industrial civilization. As scientists chart planetary boundaries and warn us how many have been exceeded, they are also telling us that Ehrlich’s formula, I = PAT, is correct. The impact of humans on planetary systems (I) is equal to population (P) times affluence (A) times technology (T).

To get back from the precipice, if that is even possible now, we need to pull back all three of those levers. Rather than boost incentives to fertility—encouraging larger families—as China is doing, all nations should accept and encourage natural population decline. Apart from the fraction of one percent of the population that seems immune to the emerging food and energy crisis, affluence, after a century of dramatic growth, is under threat in Europe and North America. Living better lives on fewer resources is a learnable skill that should be encouraged.

Like most statements the IPCC releases, the most important sentence ever written is just terrible—clunky and jargon-filled. What it says, in plainer English, is this: By 2030 the world needs to cut its carbon-dioxide pollution by 45%, and by midcentury reach “net-zero” emissions, meaning that any CO2 still emitted would have to be drawn down in some way.

It may lack in poetry, but peak-denier Daniel Yergin, author of The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations and vice chairman at corporate intelligence firm IHS Markit, acknowledged its influence. He pitted it against the formidable rival “all men are created equal.” 

“I think you could say that is one of the most important sentences of the last few centuries,” Yergin said. “It has provided an incredibly powerful traffic signal to tell you where things are going.”

Bloomberg Green, February 8, 2021

It seems unlikely that technology will diminish, and because of that, its multiplier effect may only exacerbate our dilemma. There is a way to tame technology, which is to filter only “appropriate” technologies—like reversed carbonization—into the growth pathways and to exclude the inappropriate and destructive varieties, like those that are radioactive or otherwise toxic to humans and other living things. The trendy meme for this is Ecological/Social/Governmental (ESG) monitoring and regulating. That regime was launched, built out, assailed by critics, and debunked as greenwash, but still persists and is reforming and re-inventing itself.

As the nations of the world meet in Sharm el-Sheikh to tackle the climate conundrum, the root causes are, for the most part, off the table. The UNFCCC would say that population is an entirely different framework within the UN system, with its own conferences and treaties. Affluence is viewed as non-negotiable and linking the Sustainable Development Goals (by UN parlance taken to mean affluence for all) to the Paris Agreement has been advocated by all the big climate think tanks, such as Stockholm Resilience Centre and Potsdam Institute, as well as the broad reach of civil society advocacy groups. Can people be persuaded to downsize personal affluence? Unlikely.

That leaves technology, which is the center of attention in Egypt but not in any sense of putting it on a diet. Rather it is discussed in the sense of inducing faster growth. Faster and more universal technology. Technology über alles.

It’s our crazy aunt in the attic, craving for The Jackpot.

Meanwhile, let’s end this war.
Towns, villages and cities in Ukraine are being bombed every day. Ecovillages and permaculture farms have organized something like an underground railroad to shelter families fleeing the cities, either on a long-term basis or temporarily, as people wait for the best moments to cross the border to a safer place, or to return to their homes if that becomes possible. There are still 70 sites in Ukraine and 300 around the region. They are calling their project “The Green Road.”

The Green Road is helping these places grow their own food, and raising money to acquire farm machinery and seed, and to erect greenhouses. The opportunity, however, is larger than that. The majority of the migrants are children. This will be the first experience in ecovillage living for most. They will directly experience its wonders, skills, and safety. They may never want to go back. Those that do will carry the seeds within them of the better world they glimpsed through the eyes of a child.

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The COVID-19 pandemic destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed climate change, a juggernaut threat to all life, humans included. We had a trial run at emergency problem-solving on a global scale with COVID—and we failed. 6.6 million people, and counting, have died. We ignored well-laid plans to isolate and contact trace early cases; overloaded our ICUs; parked morgue trucks on the streets; incinerated bodies until the smoke obscured our cities as much as the raging wildfires. We set back our children’s education and mental health. We virtualized the work week until few wanted to return to their open-plan cubicle offices. We invented and produced tests and vaccines faster than anyone thought possible but then we hoarded them for the wealthy and denied them to two-thirds of the world, who became the Petri-plates for new variants. SARS jumped from people to dogs and cats to field mice. The modern world took a masterclass in how abysmally, unbelievably, shockingly bad we could fail, despite our amazing science, vast wealth, and singular talent as a species.

Having failed so dramatically, so convincingly, with such breathtaking ineptitude, do we imagine we will now do better with climate? Having demonstrated such extreme disorientation in the face of a few simple strands of RNA, do we imagine we call upon some magic power that will change all that for planetary-ecosystem-destroying climate change?

As the world emerges into pandemic recovery (maybe), there is growing recognition that we must learn to do better. We must chart a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backward — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience. We must lead by good examples; carrots, not sticks; ecovillages, not carbon taxes. We must attract a broad swath of people to this work by ennobling it, rewarding it, and making it fun. That is our challenge now.

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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”

— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.

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