Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Climate Denier Index

"Implementation of Kyoto would shutdown 25% of US power plants and lead to a crisis of energy shortages and skyrocketing prices."
Bill Hammond, President of the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce.

Looking at the drought index for Texas this past week, we were struck by what sweet justice must be at work.

If one were to overlay the geographic index of climate change deniers in the USA over Texas's severe-to-exceptional drought map, the match would look something like this:

AH stands for an especially high concentrations of a-holes.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On the Merry-Go-Round

"They thought they could stop the merry-go-round if they captured all the horses. But of course the horses don’t make the carousel go around. The horses are just passengers like the rest of you.”

“By horses, you mean rulers, governments.”

“That’s right.”

“How do we stop the merry-go-round, then?”

Ishmael sorted through his tree clippings for a choice item as he thought about this. Then he said, “Suppose you’d never seen a merry-go-round and you came across one that was running out of control. You might hop on and try to stop it by pulling on the reins of the horses and yelling, ‘Whoa!’”

“I suppose I might, if I’d woken up kind of stupid that morning.”

“And when that didn’t work, what would you do?”

“I’d hop off and try to find the controls.”

“And if no controls were in sight?”

“Then I guess I’d try to figure out how the damn thing works.”


“Why? Because, if there is no on-off switch, you have to know how it works in order to make it stop.”

Ishmael nodded. “Now you understand why I’m trying to show you how the Taker merry-go-round works. There is no on-off switch, so if you want to make it stop, you’ll have to know how it works."

— Daniel Quinn, My Ishmael, 1997, Bantam ed. p. 176

With each passing month, the glow fades more from the Obama hope. Even as this entrancing speaker calls forth the voice of M. L. King to address the NAACP, we are hearing the U.S. President make jokes about Leave it to Uihgur, and we wonder, why doesn’t he hire those seven Guantanamo Uihgurs to work in the White House residence? What happened to audacity?

Far worse are the many foxes hired as henhouse guards in the past six months — too many to make anyone feel very comfortable about the economy, health care, the peak everything crisis, or climate change.

As Ellen Brown
pointed out recently, the federal loan California asked for to avoid entering its IOU-scrip debacle was one tenth of what the White House team headed by Goldman alumni gave to AIG, an insurance company, which promptly paid back Goldman for its wholly credit default swaps (soon to be illegal?) which, in turn, allowed Goldman to post the highest quarterly profits in its history, enough to put the 28000 Goldman employees on pace to take home more than $900,000 each this year, to say nothing of the windfall profits accruing to stock option holders inside the West Wing.

And then there is the obstruction of justice. “Mr. Attorney General, you can appoint a special prosecutor but you can’t investigate who ordered the
secret White House death squads to operate inside the borders of the United States, and you can’t investigate whose orders authorized CIA contractors to torture young Moslem boys and girls, even when they resulted in death, were videotaped, and made you nauseous. You may investigate the war crimes committed by the Central Command in the handling of prisoners and the thousands of Afghan bodies being excavated from the desert for re-disposal or burning to conceal their torturous deaths, and the previous thwarting of investigations, but any questions of pursuing war crimes prosecutions would need to be further reviewed.”

Harry Shearer imagined a recent mock conversation between the President, Hillary Clinton, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Defense Secretary Robert Gates over what to do with the Gitmo detainees who were acquitted but could not be released. Emanuel suggests they kill them.

RE: “You’ve electrified the exit doors, zap-zip-zoop-boom, done, finito, unplug the electricity, and ‘Oh, shoot, Achmed had a heart attack, that’s crappy timing.’”

BHO: “Starts to look suspicious after the third or fourth time, wouldn’t it?”

RE: “Different methodology, dangerous world, these folks have a lot of enemies, you know, the usual.”

RG: “Mr. President?”

BHO: “Yes, Mr. Secretary?”

RG: “Ahh, I think even though it is wartime, I don’t think, uh, the uniformed military would want to sign up for this particular assignment.”

RE: “Not a problem. CIA’s on board.”

BHO: “You’ve talked to Panetta about this?”

RE: “Not me personally, but they just need a few tweaks in the unsigned opinion from Justice. And a signature. And they are ready to rock and roll.”

HC: “Mr. President I seriously doubt Mr. Panetta wants to sign his agency up for a program with targeted assassinations at the doors of United States courthouses.”

RE: “With all due respect, I am not sure Mr. Panetta was a party to this discussion, anymore than I was.”

BHO: “Okay, so, just to review, the best we’ve got right now, to solve this problem, is to kill any one of these folks lucky enough to get acquitted.”

RE: “Yes, sir. And who knows? Even if they started to catch on it might even be an incentive for them to plead guilty.”

— Harry Shearer, KCRW’s le Show, July 12, 2009

This might be funny if it weren’t so close to the truth. It is how the carousel works.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Malaise Speech

"We've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose. "
— Jimmy Carter, 1979

July 15 will mark the 30th anniversary of Jimmy Carter's "Malaise Speech." A new book by Kevin Mattson tells the story of how that speech came to be delivered, and what happened afterwards, and there is a lot of commentary bouncing around now, but we thought it might be nice to republish the speech in its entirely, because it really speaks for itself. It told us what we needed to hear, when we needed to hear it. It also laid the track of a political third rail that still has politicians standing on the platform, afraid to venture anywhere near.

Ronald Reagan's media maestros Michael Deaver and Lin Nofzinger quickly conjured fictional alternatives — voodoo economics and the pretense there was no energy crisis — and wove a spell of doublethink images of Marlboro Men astride mustangs and Morning in America. In stark contrast, here is Carter's visionary speech in its entirety:

Good evening.

This is a special night for me. Exactly 3 years ago, on July 15, 1976, I accepted the nomination of my party to run for President of the United States. I promised you a President who is not isolated from the people, who feels your pain, and who shares your dreams and who draws his strength and his wisdom from you.

During the past 3 years I've spoken to you on many occasions about national concerns, the energy crisis, reorganizing the Government, our Nation's economy, and issues of war and especially peace. But over those years the subjects of the speeches, the talks, and the press conferences have become increasingly narrow, focused more and more on what the isolated world of Washington thinks is important. Gradually, you've heard more and more about what the Government thinks or what the Government should be doing and less and less about our Nation's hopes, our dreams, and our vision of the future.

Ten days ago I had planned to speak to you again about a very important subject -- energy. For the fifth time I would have described the urgency of the problem and laid out a series of legislative recommendations to the Congress. But as I was preparing to speak, I began to ask myself the same question that I now know has been troubling many of you. Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?

It's clear that the true problems of our Nation are much deeper -- deeper than gasoline lines of energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession. And I realize more than ever that as President I need your help. So, I decided to reach out and listen to the voices of America.

I invited to Camp David people from almost every segment of our society business and labor, teachers and preachers, Governors, mayors, and private citizens. And then I left Camp David to listen to other Americans, men and women like you. It has been an extraordinary 10 days, and I want to share with you what I've heard. First of all, I got a lot of personal advice. Let me quote a few of the typical comments that I wrote down.

This from a southern Governor: "Mr. President, you are not leading this Nation -- you're just managing the Government."

"You don't see the people enough any more."

"Some of your Cabinet members don't seem loyal. There is not enough discipline among your disciples."

"Don't talk to us about politics or the mechanics of government, but about an understanding of our common good."

"Mr. President, we're in trouble. Talk to us about blood and sweat and tears."

"If you lead, Mr. President, we will follow."

Many people talked about themselves and about the condition of our Nation. This from a young woman in Pennsylvania: "I feel so far from government. I feel like ordinary people are excluded from political power."

And this from a young Chicano: "Some of us have suffered from recession all our lives."

"Some people have wasted energy, but others haven't had anything to waste."

And this from a religious leader: "No material shortage can touch the important things like God's love for us or our love for one another."

And I like this one particularly from a black woman who happens to be the mayor of a small Mississippi town: "The big-shots are not the only ones who are important. Remember, you can't sell anything on Wall Street unless someone digs it up somewhere else first."

This kind of summarized a lot of other statements: "Mr. President, we are confronted with a moral and a spiritual crisis."

Several of our discussions were on energy, and I have a notebook full of comments and advice. I'll read just a few.

"We can't go on consuming 40 percent more energy than we produce. When we import oil we are also importing inflation plus unemployment."

"We've got to use what we have. The Middle East has only 5 percent of the world's energy, but the United States has 24 percent."

And this is one of the most vivid statements: "Our neck is stretched over the fence and OPEC has a knife."

"There will be other cartels and other shortages. American wisdom and courage right now can set a path to follow in the future."

This was a good one: "Be bold, Mr. President. We may make mistakes, but we are ready to experiment."

And this one from a labor leader got to the heart of it: "The real issue is freedom. We must deal with the energy problem on a war footing."

And the last that I'll read: "When we enter the moral equivalent of war, Mr. President, don't issue us BB guns."

These 10 days confirmed my belief in the decency and the strength and the wisdom of the American people, but it also bore out some of my longstanding concerns about our Nation's underlying problems.

I know, of course, being President, that government actions and legislation can be very important. That's why I've worked hard to put my campaign promises into law -- and I have to admit, with just mixed success. But after listening to the American people I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can't fix what's wrong with America. So, I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.

I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

The confidence that we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July. It is the idea which founded our Nation and has guided our development as a people. Confidence in the future has supported everything else -- public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We've always believed in something called progress. We've always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.

Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next 5 years will be worse than the past 5 years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.

As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.

These changes did not happen overnight. They've come upon us gradually over the last generation, years that were filled with shocks and tragedy.

We were sure that ours was a nation of the ballot, not the bullet, until the murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the Presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Water gate.

We remember when the phrase "sound as a dollar" was an expression of absolute dependability, until 10 years of inflation began to shrink our dollar and our savings. We believed that our Nation's re sources were limitless until 1973, when we had to face a growing dependence on foreign oil.

These wounds are still very deep. They have never been healed.

Looking for a way out of this crisis, our people have turned to the Federal Government and found it isolated from the mainstream of our Nation's life. Washington, D.C., has become an island. The gap between our citizens and our Government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.

What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.

Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don't like, and neither do I. What can we do?

First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this Nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.

One of the visitors to Camp David last week put it this way: "We've got to stop crying and start sweating, stop talking and start walking, stop cursing and start praying. The strength we need will not come from the White House, but from every house in America."

We know the strength of America. We are strong. We can regain our unity. We can regain our confidence. We are the heirs of generations who survived threats much more powerful and awesome than those that challenge us now. Our fathers and mothers were strong men and women who shaped a new society during the Great Depression, who fought world wars, and who carved out a new charter of peace for the world.

We ourselves and the same Americans who just 10 years ago put a man on the Moon. We are the generation that dedicated our society to the pursuit of human rights and equality. And we are the generation that will win the war on the energy problem and in that process rebuild the unity and confidence of America.

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.

Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this Nation, and it can also be the standard around which we rally. On the battlefield of energy we can win for our Nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny.

In little more than two decades we've gone from a position of energy independence to one in which almost half the oil we use comes from foreign countries, at prices that are going through the roof. Our excessive dependence on OPEC has already taken a tremendous tool on our economy and our people. This is the direct cause of the long lines which have made millions of you spend aggravating hours waiting for gasoline. It's a cause of the increased inflation and unemployment that we now face. This intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our Nation.

The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our Nation. These are facts and we simply must face them.

What I have to say to you now about energy is simple and vitally important.

Point one: I am tonight setting a clear goal for the energy policy of the United States. Beginning this moment, this Nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 -- never. From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation. The generation-long growth in our dependence on foreign oil will be stopped dead in its tracks right now and then reversed as we move through the 1980's, for I am tonight setting the further goal of cutting our dependence on foreign oil by one-half by the end of the next decade -- a saving of over 4 1/2 million barrels of imported oil per day.

Point two: To ensure that we meet these targets, I will use my Presidential authority to set import quotas. I'm announcing tonight that for 1979 and 1980, I will forbid the entry into this country of one drop of foreign oil more than these goals allow. These quotas will ensure a reduction in imports even below the ambitious levels we set at the recent Tokyo summit.

Point three: To give us energy security, I am asking for the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our Nation's history to develop America's own alternative sources of fuel -- from coal, from oil shale, from plant products for gasohol, from unconventional gas, from the Sun.

I propose the creation of an energy security corporation to lead this effort to replace 2 1/2 million barrels of imported oil per day by 1990. The corporation will issue up to $5 billion in energy bonds, and I especially want them to be in small denominations so that average Americans can invest directly in America's energy security.

Just as a similar synthetic rubber corporation helped us win World War II, so will we mobilize American determination and ability to win the energy war. Moreover, I will soon submit legislation to Congress calling for the creation of this Nation's first solar bank, which will help us achieve the crucial goal of 20 percent of our energy coming from solar power by the year 2000.

These efforts will cost money, a lot of money, and that is why Congress must enact the windfall profits tax without delay. It will be money well spent. Unlike the billions of dollars that we ship to foreign countries to pay for foreign oil, these funds will be paid by Americans to Americans. These funds will go to fight, not to increase, inflation and unemployment.

Point four: I'm asking Congress to mandate, to require as a matter of law, that our Nation's utility companies cut their massive use of oil by 50 percent within the next decade and switch to other fuels, especially coal, our most abundant energy source.

Point five: To make absolutely certain that nothing stands in the way of achieving these goals, I will urge Congress to create an energy mobilization board which, like the War Production Board in World War II, will have the responsibility and authority to cut through the redtape, the delays, and the endless roadblocks to completing key energy projects.

We will protect our environment. But when this Nation critically needs a refinery or a pipeline, we will build it.

Point six: I'm proposing a bold conservation program to involve every State, county, and city and every average American in our energy battle. This effort will permit you to build conservation into your homes and your lives at a cost you can afford.

I ask Congress to give me authority for mandatory conservation and for standby gasoline rationing. To further conserve energy, I'm proposing tonight an extra $10 billion over the next decade to strengthen our public transportation systems. And I'm asking you for your good and for your Nation's security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel. Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense -- I tell you it is an act of patriotism.

Our Nation must be fair to the poorest among us, so we will increase aid to needy Americans to cope with rising energy prices. We often think of conservation only in terms of sacrifice. In fact, it is the most painless and immediate way of rebuilding our Nation's strength. Every gallon of oil each one of us saves is a new form of production. It gives us more freedom, more confidence, that much more control over our own lives.

So, the solution of our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country. It can rekindle our sense of unity, our confidence in the future, and give our Nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose.

You know we can do it. We have the natural resources. We have more oil in our shale alone than several Saudi Arabias. We have more coal than any nation on Earth. We have the world's highest level of technology. We have the most skilled work force, with innovative genius, and I firmly believe that we have the national will to win this war.

I do not promise you that this struggle for freedom will be easy. I do not promise a quick way out of our Nation's problems, when the truth is that the only way out is an all-out effort. What I do promise you is that I will lead our fight, and I will enforce fairness in our struggle, and I will ensure honesty. And above all, I will act.

We can manage the short-term shortages more effectively and we will, but there are no short-term solutions to our long-range problems. There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice.

Twelve hours from now I will speak again in Kansas City, to expand and to explain further our energy program. Just as the search for solutions to our energy shortages has now led us to a new awareness of our Nation's deeper problems, so our willingness to work for those solutions in energy can strengthen us to attack those deeper problems.

I will continue to travel this country, to hear the people of America. You can help me to develop a national agenda for the 1980's. I will listen and I will act. We will act together. These were the promises I made 3 years ago, and I intend to keep them.

Little by little we can and we must rebuild our confidence. We can spend until we empty our treasuries, and we may summon all the wonders of science. But we can succeed only if we tap our greatest resources -- America's people, America's values, and America's confidence.

I have seen the strength of America in the inexhaustible resources of our people. In the days to come, let us renew that strength in the struggle for an energy-secure nation.

In closing, let me say this: I will do my best, but I will not do it alone. Let your voice be heard. Whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country. With God's help and for the sake of our Nation, it is time for us to join hands in America. Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith we cannot fail.

Thank you and good night.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Transition Backlash

"Life in the twentieth century is like a parachute jump: you have to get it right the first time."
— Margaret Mead

We were at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall in Washington last weekend, sitting on a panel talking about energy, climate, the economy and the future. Included were panelists from both sides of the Atlantic and we had the opportunity to speak about Transition Towns, bioregionalism, permaculture, and many other solution-oriented efforts.

One of our talks there is now posted by Culture Change, complete with irreverent illustrations for the unwary. A podcast interview from the Smithsonian Institution with Richard Heinberg and ourselves is also available for download from the C-realm, number 160: Flashing Lights on the Console.

After the meeting, Adam Thorogood, who had done the event organizing for the Centre for Alternative Technology, was approached by a woman from the audience who was very unhappy with much of what was said. Not that we were wrong about our proposed solutions — she was very much on board with us about that — but rather that our hope for the prospect of people actually making the needed changes in the time provided was, in her opinion, overly optimistic.

For several minutes, she regaled Adam with her sorry experiences as a community organizer, and how so many people — a clear majority of USAnians — were tuning out on climate change and other issues and substituting fabricated science, religion, sports, reality TV, or other more pleasurable pursuits. As a culture, we were going back to the 50’s.

She went into graphic detail of confrontations she had had, the anger, the ridicule, the outright denials, and the escapism that predominated US culture; how good friends of hers would go out and buy the biggest gas-guzzler on the car lot, as if by sheer force of will they would reverse climate change and peak oil that way; how people used the real estate bubble bursting to upsize their houses on cheap new federally guaranteed loans, heedless of the energy and maintenance required to support them; how teenagers, suffering doom fatigue, would get up and walk out of any presentation that showed a gloomy future; how people in her church would immediately disengage with her if she brought up any of these unpleasant subjects.

Climate change is the new impolitic. You can’t discuss it with family over dinner and certainly not with your crotchety aunt and uncle.

At the Mother Earth Confronting the Challenge of Climate Change Symposium put on by the National Museum of the American Indian, Inupiat elder Patricia Cochran showed slides of an 8000-year-old village in Alaska giving up 100 meters to the sea every year, its largest buildings being dashed by 50-foot breakers and high winds.

We have to confess we sometimes wonder whether we are not navigating the perfect storm by sailing though it. We have the weather reports, we know what lies ahead, and we can even radio other boats, but we are still sailing forward, straight into the storm.

Margaret Mead famously said "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." We just have to wonder if they can do it when everyone gangs up to defend the status quo.

On the other hand, what route is there, except straight into the maw of it?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


"Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat"

— Othello. Act v. Sc. 2.

Here in the bottom of Tennessee, where the next county south is in Alabama, we have been watching the summers grow steadily hotter. When we arrived here, a band of ragtag hippies in 1971, the climate wasn’t as bad as rumors would have it. We were up on the rim of the Nashville Basin, and the reason the place is called Summertown is because it was where top-hatted and corseted city folk would come in the summers to cool off. There was once a resort hotel down by the rail track, and particularly when the Swamp Fever was bad in the lowlands, the little highland town could expect to see a goodly number of wealthy tourists, people who would buy homemade corn ‘shine, quilts and wood furniture.

The climate we had in 1971 is now up near Lexington, Kentucky. The local summer heat of ‘09 was what folks down in Nashoba County, Mississippi, had regularly in 1971.

At my house we swore off air conditioning in 1993 when we went to solar electric, choosing window fans and living roofs to keep us cool, especially at night. We have some picture windows that are replaced with large screens every year in May only to go back every October. We have some vents to the cellar, with a fan, to draw up the chill of the earth.

It’s still cool enough to work, or bike, or run around in the mornings, and when there is a breeze, usually before or after a rain, but days like we’re having this week are rough. Now it’s over 95°F every day, and humidity is well above 90 percent. There is no breeze, so you just learn to live with a layer of sweat. Clothing is minimal. Even taking a cold shower only lasts a couple of minutes, then you are all soaked in hot sweat again. At night it is still above 80°F at midnight, dropping only to the mid-70s by morning. By 8 am it is back above 80 in the sun. The sheets are stained with sweat and have to be washed more often.

We have taken to rising at sun-up, breaking for food at 8 am, working until noon, then taking off in the heat of the day, going for a swim, or just hanging out in the shade somewhere, trying not to work up a sweat. Even simple chores like weeding the garden or cleaning the house begin to bring on flushed foreheads and heavier breathing as the body’s air conditioning struggles to hold to 98.6. Our Amish neighbors are tougher than we are, but they vanish from the fields most afternoons now. It is too hot for the horses.

Reading the new federal report on “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States” we are particularly struck by the descriptions of what the temperature change will likely be by the time our grandchildren, just recently beginning to walk and talk, are middle aged. The report says:
The number of very hot days is projected to rise at a greater rate than the average temperature. Average temperatures in the [Southeast] region are projected to rise by about 4.5°F by the 2080s, while a higher emissions scenario yields about 9°F of average warming (with about a 10.5°F increase in summer, and a much higher heat index).
It is not easy to grasp those numbers, because we assume that global averages and daily or hourly temperature changes are equivalent, and they aren’t. Since 1970 our average temperature in this region has risen 2 degrees, which is roughly the same change for the Southeast as occurred between now and the last time glaciers extended below the Great Lakes. So, just to begin with, 2 degrees is huge. It is the difference between southern Mississippi and Nashville, Tennessee. Trying to grasp what “about 4.5°F by the 2080s” will mean, never mind 9°F… fuggeddaboudit.

One thing we can surmise is that farming will be harder. The report says:
Because higher temperatures lead to more evaporation of moisture from soils and water loss from plants, the frequency, duration, and intensity of droughts are likely to continue to increase.
That really only shows half the picture. If summer rains and the groundwater or rivers dry up, it will be hard to sustain field crops. If it is consistently above 95°F, corn will not generate ears, or the kernels will wilt on them. Above 102°F, soybeans will not set bean pods, or the seed will shrivel and die. Even our shiitake logs will lose the mycelium that makes the mushrooms grow.
Some crops are particularly sensitive to high nighttime temperatures, which have been rising even faster than daytime temperatures. Nighttime temperatures are expected to continue to rise in the future. These changes in temperature are especially critical to the reproductive phase of growth because warm nights increase the respiration rate and reduce the amount of carbon that is captured during the day by photosynthesis to be retained in the fruit or grain.
Snap beans will fail if nighttime temperatures are consistently above 80°F.

Lower soil moisture and higher temperatures leading to intense wildfires or pest outbreaks (such as the southern pine beetle) in southeastern forests; intense droughts leading to the drying of lakes, ponds, and wetlands; and the local or global extinction of riparian and aquatic species.

We are already watching our hardwood forests fall of their own accord. Last year it was the oaks. This year it’s the hickories. Loblolly pine, a species that favors the sandy soils of Mississippi, was planted abundantly back in the late 1970s, when we worked as tree-planters and had lots of leftover stock, and also the forest service and ag-extension agents gave them away for free. Those are now thriving, happy to have the climate they most favor come their way. Loblolly will now move up into Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and New York, even as the sugar maples, spruce, beech, and wild plum go extinct.

What will it be like for our grandchildren, we wonder, when we have 120-135 days per year above 90°F and perhaps a third of those topping 100°F? By mid-century, extreme heat events that used to occur every 20 years on average will have become annual affairs, like the drought in Atlanta. It is by no means certain that there will be energy to run air conditioners by then, but perhaps there will if the radioactive sediments are dredged from behind TVA’s dams and the plants that make nuclear fuel and weapons — and consume so much of TVA’s power in the process — are closed.

Migration is an option. Our granddaughter has an aunt in Alaska who might take her in, not that Alaska will be exactly paradisical. Already droughts are becoming more common, forest fires spreading, lakes shrinking, and coastal storms increasing. Still, they may still be able to make a bean crop there by mid-century.

Right now it is approaching midnight on a Saturday night in June. The summer solstice is about an hour away, and after that our nights will start getting longer. The temperature is 89°F. Solar-powered fans keep the air moving but our MacBook is way too hot to rest wrists on. I’m feeling the need for another shower.

This post originally appeared in Energy Bulletin on June 21, 2009.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Doomer Porn

Global population, limits to growth, peak oil and climate change activists have been coming up with such similar contraction scenarios that they are beginning to echo each other.

At the same time, there is a tendency in each community to think of their cause as more serious or profound than that of the others. For instance, the global warming community is seen by peak oilers as blind to the effects of energy and economic collapse, most notably on greenhouse gas emission projections. Yes, they acknowledge, we will have to suffer some climate karma that is already in the pipeline, but it won’t be as bad, as shocking, or as soon, as peak everything and the tidal wave of collapse that follows.

As the stragglers who came to the Peak Oil Revival Camp meetings after having got religion with climate change, we confess to having never quite received that part of the Peak Oil gospel with an open mind.

And sadly, with each passing year, the evidence mounts that faith-based graspings were indeed misplaced. We really are doomed, and climate is a much bigger threat than energy and economic collapse.

If you lose your economic underpinnings, you could fall back on the economic development chart to where you were in 1930, or 1830, or even 1330, but you are still around as a species, assuming you don’t totally lose your cool and just nuke everything in sight on your way down.

In contrast, if you lose your climate underpinnings, it’s game over, man. You not only take down the higher vertebrates, homo included, but everything alive on this third rock from the sun, potentially even the microbes in deep caves and ocean depths. Earth, meet Venus.

Every so often, and it seems to be coming more often now, our really dire climate nightmare, the scary runaway scenario we depicted in Climate in Crisis in 1990, gets support from the latest scientific publications. This week there was another really big boost to our pride, if you can call it that.

First, let us back up a month to May 19, and the publication by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s study involving 400 supercomputer runs of the best climate change measurements currently available. Conclusion: the effects of climate change are twice as severe as estimated just six years ago and the median probability of surface warming by 2100 is now 5.2 degrees Celsius, compared to a finding of 2.4 degrees as recently as 2003. Moreover, the MIT group rated at 90% possibility a warming to 7.4 degrees by 2100 (and still accelerating). This, in spite of our feeble efforts at cap, trade, contraction and convergence.

A second report, by the Global Humanitarian Forum, found that 300,000 deaths per year are already attributable to climate change-related weather, food shortages, and disease. That could be called our baseline, or background count — of the 20th-century-long experience of less than a 1 degree C change.

All of these findings set the stage for the report released this past week by the Advisory Committee on Global Change Research, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (Cambridge University Press, 2009). The authoring team was headed by senior climate scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and included half a dozen government agencies and laboratories and senior researchers from a dozen universities. Just reading the introduction is refreshing, because it cuts through so much of the b.s. that passes for public debate these days.

The “Impacts” report takes the projections for the coming decades to about as fine a grain as can be had, given the behavior of interrelated and reciprocating climate systems undergoing rapid destabilization. Here are some findings that really gave us a 1990 déjà vu feel, all over:
  • Warming over this century is projected to be considerably greater than over the last century. The global average temperature since 1900 has risen by about 1.5ºF. By 2100, it is projected to rise another 2 to 11.5ºF. The U.S. average temperature has risen by a comparable amount and is very likely to rise more than the global average over this century, with some variation from place to place.
  • Climate-related changes have already been observed globally and in the United States. These include increases in air and water temperatures, reduced frost days, increased frequency and intensity of heavy downpours, a rise in sea level, and reduced snow cover, glaciers, permafrost, and sea ice. A longer ice-free period on lakes and rivers, lengthening of the growing season, and increased water vapor in the atmosphere have also been observed. Over the past 30 years, temperatures have risen faster in winter than in any other season, with average winter temperatures in the Midwest and northern Great Plains increasing more than 7ºF. Some of the changes have been faster than previous assessments had suggested.
  • Likely future changes for the United States and surrounding coastal waters include more intense hurricanes with related increases in wind, rain, and storm surges (but not necessarily an increase in the number of these storms that make landfall), as well as drier conditions in the Southwest and Caribbean. These changes will affect human health, water supply, agriculture, coastal areas, and many other aspects of society and the natural environment.
  • Impacts are expected to become increasingly severe for more people and places as the amount of warming increases. Rapid rates of warming would lead to particularly large impacts on natural ecosystems and the benefits they provide to humanity. Some of the impacts of climate change will be irreversible, such as species extinctions and coastal land lost to rising seas.
  • Unanticipated impacts of increasing carbon dioxide and climate change have already occurred and more are possible in the future. For example, it has recently been observed that the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is causing an increase in ocean acidity. This reduces the ability of corals and other sea life to build shells and skeletons out of calcium carbonate.
  • Additional impacts in the future might stem from unforeseen changes in the climate system, such as major alterations in oceans, ice, or storms; and unexpected consequences of ecological changes, such as massive dislocations of species or pest outbreaks.
  • - Unexpected social or economic changes, including major shifts in wealth, technology, or societal priorities would also affect our ability to respond to climate change. Both anticipated and unanticipated impacts become more challenging with increased warming.
  • In an increasingly interdependent world, U.S. vulnerability to climate change is linked to the fates of other nations. For example, conflicts or mass migrations of people resulting from food scarcity and other resource limits, health impacts, or environmental stresses in other parts of the world could threaten U.S. national security.
  • The European heat wave of 2003 [with >30,000 heat-fatalities] is an example of the type of extreme heat event that is likely to become much more common. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, by the 2040s more than half of European summers will be hotter than the summer of 2003, and by the end of this century, a summer as hot as that of 2003 will be considered unusually cool.
  • There are also concerns regarding the potential for abrupt release of methane from thawing of frozen soils, from the sea floor, and from wetlands.
  • Recent findings indicate that it is very likely that the strength of the North Atlantic circulation will decrease over the course of this century in response to increasing greenhouse gases. This is expected because warming increases the melting of glaciers and ice sheets and the resulting runoff of freshwater to the sea. This additional water is virtually salt-free, which makes it less dense than seawater. Increased precipitation also contributes fresh, less-dense water to the ocean. As a result, less surface water is dense enough to sink, thereby reducing the conveyor belt’s transport of heat. The best estimate is that the strength of this circulation will decrease 25 to 30 percent in this century, leading to a reduction in heat transfer to the North Atlantic. It is considered very unlikely that this circulation would collapse entirely during the next 100 years or so, though it cannot be ruled out.
  • While very unlikely, the potential consequences of such an abrupt event would be severe. Impacts would likely include sea-level rise around the North Atlantic of up to 2.5 feet (in addition to the rise expected from thermal expansion and melting glaciers and ice sheets), changes in atmospheric circulation conditions that influence hurricane activity, a southward shift of tropical rainfall belts with resulting agricultural impacts, and disruptions to marine ecosystems.
While it would be comforting to sit back and bask in the revealed glory of 20-year-old predictions come true, we are instead left with a deep and abiding sense of foreboding that colors everything we say and do now. Finding ourselves trapped in a burning building, we have to search out and consider any potential escape routes, and quickly. We can ignore the deniers, because they are only impediments to us now. Our survival, and that of the experiment of life on a blue water world, depends on our ability to keep clarity and resolve as all around us the flames and smoke are rising.

That is the only reason we keep reading through all this doomer porn, toss in our sleep, get grey hair, and curse the darkness.

And yet… the line we have adhered to for the past 29 years, although it has yet to come into general discussion, is that what is required is a change of culture, change of lifestyle, change of consciousness and change of direction. Growth is so 20th century now. We can forget that.

Just don’t forget that what we need to do to extricate ourselves is also going to make our lives vastly better, and still better for our children, although, for them, it will be quite a bit warmer for a while.

Monday, June 1, 2009

On the passing of a friend

This morning I tried to sleep until dawn but I couldn't. I tossed and turned and finally just got up. It was still dark but the sky was starting to gather light. I took my bicycle and rode out in the chilly dawn for about ten miles, and paused at the edge of a large field to watch the sun come up. At 5:25 am local time, Thomas Berry passed from this world. He left lives behind him here, and among them there is yet hope.

John Lane, Appalachian Voices: "When you were a child growing up in North Carolina, there were less than two billion humans on the planet. And as predicted, the world’s population rose to 6.5 billion in about twenty five years. This all happening in your lifetime. The South is the fastest growing region in the country. Can the South survive? Can we, as Southerners, survive this population boom?"

Thomas Berry: "I don’t guess I think we can. It would be very difficult to survive with that much population. It goes against all odds with regard to carrying capacity. And it’s here that religion has been at fault. Especially the Catholic religion--which has failed extensively in not paying attention to the decline of the natural world, and in this way it’s losing its own foundations, because the biblical world is thoroughly cosmological. Rituals are cosmological. They presuppose the universe. I was in a monastery for ten years. I didn’t even come home to Greensboro, where my family resided, during that time--between the ages of twenty to thirty. In the monastery, we’d celebrate dawn with prayers and meditations. And we’d celebrate the mid-day, and celebrate the early evening. At vespers, we’d celebrate the early evening, and then the late evening, which was wonderful! Then I’d get up at two-o’clock in the morning and I’d have these experiences with hymns that would be sung according to the time of day and seasons of the year. The whole of that monastic literature was woven into the cosmological cycle. The scriptures, the book-of-songs was thoroughly cosmological. In the normal Catholic world, a person cannot even study theology, or philosophy, or about the universe. This is a part of the comprehensive failure. To recover, we need new laws. We need new religions. New economics and new education. All four. None of the four can do it by itself."

Reverend Fr. Thomas Berry C.P., cultural historian and ecotheologian (although "geologian" or “Earth scholar” were his preferred descriptors) passed today. He was 94. I met him at an early Bioregional Congress, where he came, like me, to mingle and learn.

It is told that his sense of "the natural world in its numinous presence" came to him at the age of 11 when he discovered a new meadow on the outskirts of the town to which his family had just moved. "The field was covered with white lilies rising above the thick grass," he said. "A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something that seems to explain my thinking at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember."

It was not only the lilies, he said. "It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in the clear sky. … This early experience has remained with me ever since as the basic determinant of my sense of reality and values. Whatever fosters this meadow is good. What does harm to this meadow is not good." By extension, he said, "a good economic, or political, or educational system is one that would preserve that meadow and a good religion would reveal the deeper experience of that meadow and how it came into being."

In his remembrance in the National Catholic Reporter today, Rich Heffern characterized Thomas Berry's message:

"We have a wonderful idea of God because we have always lived on a planet that is chock-full, every nook and cranny, with marvels and mysteries, dark beauty, happy encounters and splendid landscapes. How could we picture God in our heads as an ever fresh and creative daybreak, as a compassionate father or nurturing mother, as a wonder-counselor if we had never experienced these qualities in the people, land and life around us? What kind of God would we pray to if we lived on the bleak surface of the moon? We are literally killing off our religious imagination when we destroy the natural world."




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