Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Climate Porn

Two years ago we visited with the Black Rock Arts Foundation, pro-playa-tors of Burning Man, at their clandestine warehouse near San Francisco. The occasion was the first meeting of the season to plan the Man, whose intended theme in 2008 was to be The Green Man.

“If you want to be really green,” we opined, “you should be thinking LED man.” We imagined a 50-foot giant, illuminated by thousands of colorful, 1 uW cells. The principals were open to the discussion, recognizing that it had been proposed before and it opened up some possibilities. Wedging that crack and pushing a bit harder, we cast a vision of a CO2-free festival — an artistic statement about care for the atmosphere. The discussion then got a bit more heated, with several of the pyrotechnicians coming to the defense of propane flares as visual arts and raising the usual canards about how exothermic exhibits are only 3% of the festival footprint, free expression is the raison d’etre for the whole shebang, and people attending festivals are exhaling only a fraction of their normal CO2 anyway, being deprived of all the accustomed appliances and energy-loads of daily life in the Big City.

We were about to launch into a longer riff about reclaiming the high ground — that visual arts are a non-verbal symbolic communication and the message of Burning Man is only about climate consciousness in a perverse reverse dramatis personae sense — but we suddenly felt our knees chopped out from behind and the conversation toppled like a harvested barleystalk. A ninja communitarian had been lurking in our shadow and was apparently growing uncomfortable with the high profile her invited guest to this discussion had taken and worried that it might reflect badly on herself. Being trained in the martial arts of intentional community as a long-standing co-housing resident, she dispensed from her cloak a smokebomb that completely enveloped the discussion. Our credibility was shredded so completely by this deft move that further utterances would have been totally pointless.

“He has never been to Burning Man,” she said.

Oh, the shame. Even more so because we probably will never go to Burning Man, either. The Green Man went forward more green wash than green change. The one that followed, just now, was no different.

Don’t get us wrong, we appreciate Burning Man for what it gets right. It builds community. From nothing. No food vendors, no sanitation, no money, no social order. Just sand, wind and scorching sun, out in the desert, miles from the Las Vegas dystopia. Community, and nothing else. It works on the gifting economy, loaves and fishes. It is one of the purest expressions of personal creative freedom anywhere on the planet. And it belches flames.

In Ireland there is a companion event called Electric Picnic that settles into an emerald green meadow in a 600-acre equestrian center near Stradbally at roughly the same time as Burning Man. Pyrotechnics also plays a role, but mostly it is permanent stages, sculptures and natural features that are gradually added to the horsey travellers’ site and remain while 90% of the festival features go up and come down in a 30-day period each year, almost just almost ready in time for 40,000 picnickers to push through the 300-to-500 euro ticket stalls on Friday and party on through Sunday night. This is not Woodstock or Burning Man, with just peace, love and music. Nor is it Bonaroo, with cornfed and beer-battered Southern youth waving rebel flags and Jack Daniels and looking for a Nascar weekend with guitars. Electric Picnic is all night raves fueled by the contrary mix of high-carbohydrate liquid sedatives and guarana energy drinks, dozens of simultaneous high-quality music venues to get the heart-rate up, surf music and rude rap reggae, green traders and merchants, bingo, face-paint, passion pits, solar cells and windmills, poetry, sushi, wood-fired hot-tubs, fortune tellers, broom and spoon making, myths & magick, independent film, yurts, cob pizza and piggy on a spit, tutus, top hats & tails, wifi, bread and circuses.

The climate porn is the strange bit, including flaming hoops and Frisbees, swallowers and fire dancers. With so much attention to clean and green, slow food, bicycles and hemp hats, why all the gas flares? Is this Niger Delta envy?

It is an odd disconnect. And the irony is, it is all unnecessary. There is a niche just waiting for the right company or art troupe to come in and exploit: carbon-negative festivaleering.

At a minimum, all of the pyrotechnica being done with propane and lighter fluid could have been accomplished with pyrolysis gases and wood vinegar, leaving bounteous biochar to re-green the site when the mud dries. Or in the case of Burning Man, to green the desert.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sacred Shrines and Skinny Chickens

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes" — Marcel Proust

In the world of climate policy, the argument has been shifting. It used to be between a few global warming Cassandras and hoards of global warming deniers, and that arguing got, well, pretty heated. The deniers long ago lost their argument to the hard science of the matter, so the debate has boiled down to the preventionists versus the mitigators.

Measurements of Surface Temperature and Sun’s Energy

The sunlight reaching the Earth has followed an 11-year solar cycle of small ups and downs, but there has been no increase. Over the past 30 years, global temperature has risen markedly, but still is only little more than 1 degree above normal. Each added degree will produce dramatically more effects.

Preventionists are looking for either very painful emission reductions, like zero, yesterday, or else some technical fix — nuclear fusion, or orbiting mirrors, say — a silver bullet that would let us go on spending more of Earth’s capital than one generation has any right to.

Mitigators have given up any hope that we can arrest or reverse climate change now, but have some hope we can either slow it down or, if not, be able to get out of its way.

Susan Solomon, one of the United States’ top climate scientists, pointed out at a recent conference that the driest parts of the USA can expect to get still drier as the Earth warms. We already have about 15% less rain in the Southeast than normal (this year aside), and we know that the last time it was this dry, about 15 to 18% below normal, we had the Dust Bowl. Solomon thinks we could reach more than 20% drier than average in the very near future. The Southeast now gets 29% less spring rain most years than it did in 1970.

Number of Days per year with Peak Temperature over 90°F

By the end of the century, Middle Tennessee will have more than 120 days of temperatures above 90, up from 15 twenty years ago, and 30-60 now. Texas will have more than 100 days above 100°F.

Observed and Projected Temperature Rise

By the end of the century, mid-continental temperatures will rise between 2.5 and 13 degrees, on average, depending to a large extent on what happens in Copenhagen at the climate negotiations.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that was adopted many years ago said that the member nations should make every effort to “avoid serious or irreversible damage.” Solomon says we recently passed that point. Because of the long time that greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere, even if we halted all emissions immediately, the planet will continue to warm for at least another 600 years.

In the past 20 years, most of Tennessee has moved at least one agricultural zone to the southward, and some parts have moved as many as 3 zones. That means we can plant earlier and harvest later, which I suppose is a good thing. It also means that we are now ideal habitat for armadillos, fire ants and scorpions, all of which are pushing our possums up into Ohio.

Of course it is much worse for the trees, which can’t just uproot and move north. In earlier years we have seen blights claim white oaks and dogwoods. This year we are losing more hickories from the weather fluctuations that make droughts, extreme rainfalls, late frosts and early thaws more frequent.

Mitigation is not about rushing to relocate our families to Nova Scotia or Terra del Fuego, as the famous ecologist, James Lovelock, has been suggesting. For now at least, mitigation is painting roofs white to reflect sunlight back into space, saving greywater, and building drought-resistant shelterbelts to cool the microclimate around our homes.

Albert Bates and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the North American Biochar Conference.

Some of us are not ready to give up on prevention quite yet. I recently attended the North American Biochar Conference to learn more about the possibility for lowering temperature by reversing the carbon flow from the soil to the atmosphere.

One gram of charcoal (a piece about the size of a pencil eraser), it turns out, has a surface area of 500 to 1000 square centimeters (imagine a cube about the size of a piece of letterhead paper on each of its six sides) because of all its micropores.

Biochar is charcoal derived, without flaring, from sustainable sources (typically products that would otherwise be burned or allowed to decay to GHG without any control). Because of the micropores, it acts like a coral reef in the soil. If it is turned in a nutrient pile (any compost will do) before being tilled into the ground, it becomes immediately colonized by soil microbes, much in the same way coral reefs are populated by all manner of marine life. The microbial products attract fungi, which benefit the roots of plants, carrying nutrients from the “reef” to where they will do the most good.

Besides stimulating the health of the soil, the char and its fungal conduits also provide a reservoir for soil moisture, soaking up water from oversaturated areas and giving it back to dry areas. All this, and changing the residence time of carbon in the soil from a few years to hundreds, or even thousands, and we have a chance to stop the warming.

And that has the potential to do more, quickly and safely, than all the LED light bulbs and hybrid cars we can possibly replace, or buying a lakeside cottage in Alaska.

Some years ago, scientists working at the International Charcoal Cooperative Association in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan, were called to rescue the black pines of the Izumo Taisha Shrine that were dying of acid rain. By filling a shallow trench between trees with fertilized biochar, they were able to fully recover the trees within a few years.

Pines at the Izumo Taisha Shrine before, during and after application of biochar.

Many of these same scientists also experimented with methane reduction from animal husbandry. After initial success in adding charcoal to cattle feed, and eliminating ruminant off-gassing from both ends, they began working with poultry. They starved chickens until they were hungry enough to begin pecking and eating biochar, after which the subjects routinely consumed the black chips without further stress, with the result that the chickens thrived, the coop smelled sweeter, the poop was even more fertile than before, and methane output was greatly reduced. The results, as reported to the First Asia Pacific Biochar Conference held on the Gold Coast, Australia in May, 2009, were fifteen ears per stalk of corn and 250% yield increases for a variety of field crops after using biochar made from pyrolyzed chicken litter.

On August 1st, in Dunlap, Tennessee, Mantria Industries has opened a Carbon Fields project, designed to make enough biochar to offset the carbon footprint of a 3000-home eco-community the company is building in the scenic Sequatchie Valley. Initially operating on woody wastes from landfills and sawmills, hundreds of hectares are being sown with fast growing bamboo, switchgrass and elephant grass. After being pelletized and pyrolyzed, the biochar produced will fertilize field and forest. The recaptured heat and gases of production will generate two megawatts of green energy, more than enough to power the eco-community in a carbon-negative way.

Mantria is only rolling up its first sleeve, however. In Hohenwald (Swiss-German: “High Forest”) Tennessee, it is building an 8- or 16- or 32-megawatt facility to pyrolyze the woody wastes the town is currently trucking 150 miles away to a landfill to bury (and decay into greenhouse gases). By intercepting this tax-dollar drainage, Mantria will capture a cash flow of tipping fees, electricity sales, and revenues earned placing its new, EternagreenTM brand biochar into garden centers from Schenectady to Shenzhen. If Copenhagen and Congress approve cap-and-trade, the carbon credits Mantria generates could be another income stream.

Troy Wragg in front of biomass canisters awaiting pyrolysis; Mantria Carbon-Fields

The first question I had for Mantria CEO Troy Wragg was, “But is this sustainable?” He was unhesitant, enthusiastic, and emphatic. “Absolutely,” he said. There are currently 250,000 tons of wastes per year being trucked out of Lewis County alone. If you look at the surrounding counties, that number multiplies. Is it 8-, 16- or 32-megawatts? The Hohenwald recycling center is scalable

Even at the smallest scale, 8-megawatts is 8 times more than Hohenwald (pop. 3000) needs to meet current residential and commercial electric demand. The Tennessee Valley Authority is paying Mantria for the surplus kilowatts, which it intends to sell through its Green-Power Switch program. If Mantria were so inclined, it could even give away the power to local residents — with all the other revenue streams, it is too cheap to meter.

And Mantria is not alone. Biochar Systems can deliver a ready-to-run pyrolysis plant on a 1.8 ton skid that can take 500 kg per hour from any landfill, sawmill, or poultry farm, and, with a clean, GHG-free airflow, deliver biogas, power, and biochar fertilizer back to you. More competitors are popping up around the world. A system is available to make green energy of this type at almost any scale.

Ever since biochar started getting traction in the UN climate talks and the endorsement by climate activists James Lovelock, Jim Hansen, and Bill McKibben, opponents like Biofuelwatch and Vandana Shiva have been throwing up red flags about genetically modified forest monocultures being planted to fuel a vast biochar industry, displacing indigenous peoples and pumping up a carbon-trading Ponzi scheme to replace the recently exploded commoditized-mortgage-and-credit-default-swap bubble. This attack has now ramped up to the point where it has effectively derailed biochar’s inclusion in the UNFCCC language that is slated for ratification in Copenhagen this December.

Traveling from the Mantria ribbon-cutting in Tennessee to the North American Biochar Conference in Boulder this August, we arrived to discover that, much to our delight, biochar advocates had risen like the Rocky Mountains to receive the challenge and raise the vision. Each day of the conference, roundtables met to discuss criteria for sustainability, how to characterize biochar and what to require of manufacturers. It was quickly apparent that at least in Australia, and likely elsewhere as well, there are enough profits to be made in charing wastes from poultry and paper that just those two sources could support the installable output of the emerging char-industries for many years to come.

Potential earnings from biochar made from paper or poultry wastes (in Australian dollars).

Sustainable Obtainable Solutions founder and former USFS forester Gloria Floria introduced draft standards that would compel producers to commit to full Life Cycle Assessment for energy, water and carbon footprints. The draft mandates would also require the biochar industry to optimize plant, animal, benthic and microbial biodiversity, improve forest health and habitat, and assist open and transparent citizen involvement in the construction, operation and monitoring of facilities and farms. A policy committee will continue to work on these standards between now and the next International Biochar Initiative meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 2010.

In Boulder, David Yarrow, biochar pioneer, small farmer and permaculture trainer in New York and New England, unveiled a vision of a community-centered biochar lifestyle that obtains fertility, fuel and food in an ecologically responsible cycle between humans and the living natural world. The three economic drivers for biochar development are farm products (including fertilizer, fuels and power); climate services; and carbon-negative community. That third driver is the greening of the human habitat to deliver carbon-negative housing and workplaces — the whole built environment.

All of this is to say biochar is about putting the earth back into the black. To quote Geoffrey P. Glasby at the University of Göttingen, Germany, “How ironic that a civilization capable of tracing the origin of the universe from 10-43 seconds after its formation and putting a lander on Titan does not have the rigor and self-discipline to sustain itself for as long as the ancients managed to do.” It seems likely now that a combination of climate reality and peak everything may yet alter our destructive trajectory, hopefully in time. We are relearning some ancient wisdom about soil care, and, with appropriate humility, we are starting to power our homes from the back end of a chicken.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Searching for Livingstone

"Soon the Cacique sent orders that the Indians bring food, and with very great haste they brought in abundance what was necessary; meats, partridges, turkey hens and fish of many types. And later, the Captain thanked the Cacique and said to him that the gifts were not for himself, but went with God."
— Father Gaspar de Carvajal, companion of Conquistador Francisco de Orellana

This is a very personal essay, so I am dropping the “we” convention this time and speaking in the first person singular. In an earlier post at this site I described my “Houston moment;” when I came to a full realization that ours is among the last generations of humans, and like the Elves going into the West, all life on Earth will presently perish, possibly within two centuries, more probably over the course of a few millennia. I include in this gloomy prediction even deep sea microbes and fungi in caves.

Since that glimpse of the shadow backcast by our future, I have been grappling with the internal existential crisis, and whatever should I be doing with my life now. The challenges of peak everything, nuclear winter and financial collapse pale in comparison. This past weekend I celebrated my granddaughter’s third birthday and whenever I look into her deep black eyes, I feel a pang of sorrow, as if I were experiencing a foretaste of her sweltering hot future. Naturally I can’t share this feeling — what a party killer! — so I’m stuck with chit chat among the friends and relatives, nothing heavy.

At the other end of the denial spectrum, I have taken myself off that sweet kitesurfing beach I had planned to retire to, buckled up my Kevlar vest and first aid pouches and stepped out into the propwash. Never mind that I am Medicare-ready myself, if this Godzilla-thing devouring the planet has a weakness, I am going to find it. The peyote prayer rings in my ears: “I am going to follow God, I am going to follow God, I am not turning back.”

God’s plan, to my lights, is for Gaia not to die on this rock rotating around a medium-size yellow star, at least not until that star is ready to give it up. James Lovelock warns that we are already too late to rescue her. The signs and portents in every scientific publication are profoundly ominous.

Hell, Gaia’s fate may have been sealed before I was even born. But here is what I know: entropy is universal — things run down and bad stuff happens; but life organizes, expands, and draws unity to the whole. The human piece, as Buckminster Fuller said, is the problem-solver. I am just doing my part of that piece.

So it was that July found me flying into Manaus to attend the 61st Annual Meeting of the Brazilian Academy for the Advancement of Sciences, or more specifically, their two-day session on “Estado da Arte das Terras Pretas de Indio no Ambito Mundial” (State of the Art for Terra Preta and World Environment).

At the University where we met they have to keep a 20 mph speed limit so that cars and buses don’t run over monkeys. This might be within the city limits of Manaus, but Manaus has the Amazonian rainforest for its campus.

Day one was held a stuffy classroom with fluorescent lights and powerpoints in Portuguese. Despite my language handicap, I learned plenty from listening to the speakers. I was especially interested in the explorations of Lilian Rebellato, who came at the terra preta origins from an anthropological angle.

While compositions vary, terra pretas are not always laid down uniformly, but rather show layering contours that are independent of natural terrain. In terra preta from 10 cm to 180 cm deep, the maximum phosphorus content is found at 30 to 140 cm. Why is that, she wondered. There is a general theory that terra preta was a byproduct of village life, since it contains animal residues, house residues, humanure, bones, and pottery shards. One theory is that since the houses are thatched with reeds and reeds have rootballs of swamp muck when pulled, the stalks then get separated to make the building material, and the discarded swamp muck is the origin of terra preta. It does explain the phosphorus.

Rebellato discounted that theory by analyzing the various models of settlements, some of which would not have had access to wetland reeds. In the Amazon, terra preta examples extend from the Atlantic coast up to the Andean plateau, so there are many different building styles used.

Wenceslau Teixeira’s studies of terra preta characteristics lent support to the notion that there was a gradual learning curve in the Amazon. The deepest layers are the least rich, but by the time you reach 90 to 60 cm below the surface, there is a sharp increase in soil fertility. This correlates to a time horizon that puts the highest carbon content at around 2500 BP, gradually falling off until 1500 AD, when traditional agriculture was discontinued because of European contact and the population crash.

Precisely when the terra preta formula was discovered might be revealed from a dig at site called Santa Catarina. There archaeologists have found a dark horizon in the layer of oyster shell mounds. Could this have been the Ah-ha Moment?

Are we at this moment at our own dark horizon in the shell mounds? Or is it just Monsanto and Cargill from here on out?

We need a 25-ton per acre increase in soil organic matter to reverse climate warming. At the UN climate conference in Poznan last year, reknowned soil scientist Johannes Lehmann told the delegates that “biochar production from agriculture and forestry residues can potentially sequester one gigaton of carbon in the world's soils annually by 2040.”

A gigaton is a billion metric tons. Currently, powerplants worldwide emit 10 billion tons of CO2, so by Lehmann’s estimate (which I believe is overly conservative), we could knock 10% off electricity emissions globally just by charring residues (the parts other than those left in the field or forest to replenish active soil carbon) and burying the newly-minted inactive carbon as compost-amended biochar. Moreover, using the biochar energy co-products (about 25 kWh/ton in electrical generation from kiln gas and some amount of liquid “wood vinegar,” biogas for cooking, and so forth) to displace fossil fuels, we can approximately double the prospective carbon reduction, to about 20% of global electric emissions. The cost for installing a kilowatt of biochar producing reactors is just $1.33, compared with $4.77 for dirty coal, $3.86 for advanced coal gasification, $1870 for offshore wind and $1984 for nuclear energy, assuming the US is willing to dismantle its WMDs to fuel new nukes.

This does not solve our problem, yet, but it begins to shift us in the right direction. Human will have to teach their children to get by on lower carbon emission levels per capita, and we will have to seriously address world population, or this entire exercise will be futile. Woody wastes are finite, and if you exceed the carrying capacity of the forests, you wind up with the same situation as a fished-out fishery. What is needed to scrub the atmosphere is more trees, not fewer.

The U.S., with over 8,000 power plants out of the more than 50,000 worldwide, accounts for about 25 percent of the world carbon total, or 2.8 billion tons of annual CO2 emissions (China is second with 2.7 billion tons). Strangely enough, the biggest carbon burner in the U.S. is the Southern Company, which serves a geographic area with abundant solar energy year-round, and the dirtiest county in the US is Walker County, Alabama, in an area with abundant forestry residues (and closer to where I live than Nashville).

On Day Two of the conference, we took a boat up river to visit a farm where the terra preta is being used to produce fruit and vegetables for the Manaus market and at the same time the ancient soils are being studied intensively. I asked Christoph Steiner and Lilian Rebellato if the Rio Negro gets its deep black tint from terra preta. No, they said, it is from the teas, made in the river from leaves dropped in the rainforests and carried by the currents. Manaus is the “Meeting of the Waters,” where several muddy rivers converge with the black Rio Negro to form the Amazon River.

What interested me in Brazil was a chance to look at the terra preta soils close up, and to speak with some of the many scientists now studying them. I am trying to understand how and why the ancient Amazonian cultures began the practice of carbon farming, reconciled the near-term expense with the prospect of long-term gain, and kept it going for thousands of years, creating a vast carbon sink in the Americas that perfectly balanced the rise of Amerindian civilization without desertifing the environment through farming and grazing, as happened in all the other continents where humans practiced agriculture.

As Alan Yeomans calculates, just increasing the percentage of soil organic matter an extra 1.6% in the one and three quarter acre block representing each one of us, we save our planet. So how is it that we can effect the shift from carbon emitting to carbon farming, and do it fast enough to pull our fat from the fire? I am going to be exploring these pathways in the next several posts, and this month we are going to begin offering our carbon farming coursewares from here at the Ecovillage Training Center.

Confronted with the opportunity to go inward and slide down a vortex of despair, fretting over a wasted life, loss of historical context, and meaninglessness of every prior goal, I have chosen instead to go back into the jungle, like Stanley in search of Livingston, and pick up the faint trails that just perhaps, with long odds against, could lead to the hidden secret we need to rescue Gaia’s future.

My next stop on this trek will be the regional conference for the International Biochar Initiative in Boulder, Colorado.

Recipe for Blueberry Açai

One of the great pleasures of living in Manaus is going to an açai shoppe and having a sundae. Unlike in North America, where açai (pronounced as-eye-eee) is sold as a vitamin supplement or blended in minute quantities with other fruit juices to give an antioxidant component to beverages and confections, in Brazil açai is a part of the diet, and can be a whole meal. When I stayed with Leo Principe and Vanessa Marino, they served their children puddings of açai berry almost every day. At home or in the açai shoppes like Waku Sese, açai is served as a semi-soft cold paste, whipped into a pudding and served with tapioca seeds, granola and chilled fruit like banana and papaya.

When I returned to Tennessee, I tried to find açai to order on the web but it was exceedingly expensive — $100 for two gallons shipped frozen. Rather than try to grow an açai palm (it isn’t that warm yet in Tennessee), I substituted blueberries, which are now in season here. I blended the blueberries into a smooth pulp and placed the bowl into the freezer. I had no problem getting tapioca seeds, granola and chilled fruit locally, so now I have my daily açai, at least as long as the blueberries hold out.

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?




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