Monday, March 15, 2010

Ecosystem Modeling

We're in Day Three of the permaculture course in Belize and today our assignment was ecological systems. This lesson also seems relevant to The Great Change so lets recap.

One favored source from which to purloin instructional material is the Centre for Alternate Technology’s MSc program in Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies in London and Machynlleth, Wales. CAT has developed a series of modules that should, in the society to come, replace a very high percentage of the courseware now being peddled in most tertiary schools. We are particularly fond of Damien Randle’s lecture on world resources, which comes towards the end of the first AEES module.

An ecosystem is no more nor less than the sum of individual responses of diverse cooperating or competing organisms to stimuli from events in their environment. Diversity is a sign that there is a high number of stimuli and that the system has become dynamic in response. A great many small parts, making separate and nimble adjustments, solve problems better than a few large parts responding ponderously.

Randle, referencing Limits to Growth, Vital Signs and State of the World studies, describes four possible scenarios for coming to grips with carrying capacity. The first is no discontinuity — the resource or resources are able to expand and grow, so use can grow; population and carrying capacity expand together. An example of this might be late 19th century transportation that was becoming constrained by horse manure and coal smoke in cities and barge canal, sail or rail capacities across greater distances. Gasoline and diesel fuels rendered those old limits obsolete (for the time being).

The second is a sigmoid response. There is a good signal that the resource is constant (seasonal daily sunlight, for instance) and a responsive organizational or systemic structure aware of that limit and diligently proactive. The population demand or economic growth self-limits as it approaches the ceiling. An example in gardening would be the size of one’s yard. One can still squeeze additional yield by layering in understory and going vertical with trellises and “living walls,” but the prospect of spilling over into a neighbor’s yard imposes an unmistakable psychological boundary.

The third type is an oscillating overshoot, where the signals are delayed, time-lapsed or masked but the systemic erosion caused by temporary overshoot is not permanently damaging. As the signals vascillate between positive and negative, there is uncertainty, and shifting response — on again, off again. The organizational structures are not nimble enough to quickly recognize the pattern and anticipate the volatility, but respond well enough to allow the resource to recover without suffering permanent damage. An insecure and disruptive economic oscillation, rather than a steady-state, is sustained.

The fourth type is more serious. The signals are not recognized. Perhaps they are too obscure or too rapid for the sophistication of the dependent organization. No adjustments are made as carrying capacity is reached and exceeded until it is too late to avert lasting damage to the resource. There is a permanent erosion in the resource’s capacity to support production even after the system recognizes its condition of overshoot and adjusts demand downward. This is what has happened to many fisheries, forests and agricultural landscapes. It appears inevitable now for a great many non-renewable resources, whether they be oil, coal, uranium, or many of the rarer elements that go into hybrid cars, wind generators and photovoltaic cells.

After reading John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent, we added a fifth type to the CAT scenarios — catabolic collapse. Once more, the signals are not recognized because the reality of the problem challenges the core beliefs of the dependent organization, such as a classical economics that admits of no limit in supply as long as there is demand. Greer postulates that overshoot may not follow a straight linear decline but rather may vacillate between plunges and temporary states of repose, using up “banked” resources that are retasked and recycled. The descent curve resembles a stair-step, arguably the experience of the global economy since peak production of liquid fossil fuels and their substitutes was reached in the 2006 to 2008 period.

As Richard Heinberg recently observed, the catabolic model was explained in the seminal Peak Oil article in Scientific American that petroleum geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère wrote in 1998. Heinberg recapitulates that prediction:
Sometime around the year 2010, they theorized, stagnant or falling oil supplies would lead to soaring and more volatile petroleum prices, which would precipitate a global economic crash. This rapid economic contraction would in turn lead to sharply curtailed energy demand, so oil prices would then fall; but as soon as the economy regained strength, demand for oil would recover, prices would again soar, and the economy would relapse. This cycle would continue, with each recovery phase being shorter and weaker, and each crash deeper and harder, until the economy was in ruins. Meanwhile, volatile oil prices would frustrate investments in energy alternatives: one year, oil would be so expensive that almost any other energy source would look cheap by comparison; the next year, the price of oil would have fallen so far that energy users would be flocking back to it, with investments in other energy sources looking foolish. Investment capital would be in short supply in any case because the banks would be insolvent due to the crash, and governments would be broke due to declining tax revenues. Meanwhile, international competition for dwindling oil supplies might lead to wars between petroleum importing nations, between importers and exporters, and between rival factions within exporting nations.

Looking at ecosystems, we can say that they respond to stress by shifting quickly and altering their biological makeup. Most changes in the natural world occur as sudden bumps rather  than gradual evolutions: earthquakes raising the Andes; oceans claiming coastlines in the wake of hurricanes; wildfires shifting forest to plain. An ecosystem is the result of the sum of individual responses to catastrophe, or any stimuli that forces a change upon the status quo. Biological diversity, indicative of a high level of stimuli, provides insurance for the system. Global extinction of an entire species is very rare (or was before the Anthrocene), but local extinction and replacements are common. Ecosystems clean house, recruit, re-diversify and recharge.

The antidote for the solastalgia that comes of recognizing the now undeniable human overshoot and collapse trajectory is very simple. Permaculture. Earth care. We can cultivate our human ecosystems the same way forests, coral reefs and mountains restore an optimal balance of habitats and food webs in response strong external stimuli. We can reskill and retask our children, grow diversity around ourselves like a cocoon, line up redundant sources of support for each and every need, and learn to swim within, not against, the prevailing current.

It is good to bear in mind that Gaia will be doing this, too, with or without us. 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Designing for Catastrophe

We are back in the Mayan Mountain watershed in Southern Belize in what the locals call “the forgotten district.” It is so ignored by the goverment in Belize City that a few years ago a local politician was successfully re-elected after going to the UN and asking if his district could be taken away from Belize and given to Guatemala. In political terms, that would be like the governor of Texas appealing to the UN to give his state back to Mexico. The campaign button could be “Forget the Alamo.”

We are a dory-pole up river at the Maya Mountain Reseach Center teaching a permaculture design course. Half the class is a collection of nationals from other countries and the remainder are Belizians, mostly local Mopan Mayan villagers. Hector Reyes did an interesting session today on “Designing for Catastrophe,” and a part of that bears repeating here.

The U.S. Geological Survey puts last month’s Haitian quake at  7 on the Richter scale. The scale is logrithmic, meaning that each whole number represents ten times the size of the next lower number on the scale. Chile’s disaster was 8.8, 501 times larger than Haiti’s. 

The difference in casualties was very different, however. Haiti's government estimates some 220,000 people died. Chile's death toll is put in the hundreds.

Here is the diagram we drew on the chalkboard:

Many recent natural disasters reflect an essential component of our modern world, namely our addiction to growth. With global population in fecundity overdrive, even normal cycles of earth movement are producing casualties in exponential excess.

In the permaculture class we called this a design failure. Many Haitians grabbed cement pillars only to watch them crumble in their hands. Chileans, whose earthquakes have been the basis for architectural design since the mid-19th century, have cities and villages built to ride out quakes by rolling and flexing (which, granted, provides no protection from middle-of-the-night tsunamis). Haitians, like those in population centers on the New Madrid fault running through the US heartland, have no similar preparations.

Design for catastrophe is something oddly missing from the Obama domestic program, as it is from the domestic policies of most nations. Few yet acknowledge peak oil, climate chaos, or the collapse of our globalized consumer civilization as threats, and so only the most cursory of preparations are being made.

So, most of us are Haitians, waiting for the next Big One, rather than Chileans, making plans to weather the inevitable shake-up that we can be certain is coming.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Various Bubblings

— Icelander Eiríkur Bergmann, to The Irish Times

Two bubblings have been pounding at our attention this week. The first is the bubbling of anger and resentment, primarily from masses of people being disenfranchised from their acquired entitlements. They resent having spent lifetimes, whether those be long and arduous or still fresh and relatively easy, under the expectation that all this stuff around them was more or less permanent and just the way things are.

They resent it when they get a bill for their utilities that doubled from what it was last year (or last month). They resent being washed over in the real estate tsunami and being told their underwater house is now worth less than their mortgage. They resent health insurance premiums rising faster than the cost of medical treatment. They resent being sold a glowing promise on hybrid cars that have to have batteries changed out at a third the cost of the new car, or whose acceleration won’t stop even when you turn off the key and stand on the brake. They don’t like losing their job, or getting out of college and discovering no one is hiring, or trying to get a loan to start a business and being turned down. They are angry. They want to blame someone.

So they poke sticks at government. They poke sticks at bankers. They poke at the media. They poke at scientists, liberals, right wingers, Al Gore, Halliburton, the Federal Reserve, Congress, election finance, the drug lobby, Israel, the hippies, Jimmy Carter, or talk radio.

They point at schoolteachers. Anyone they can blame for feeding them a pack of lies — material wealth will make you happy; hard work will make you materially wealthy; everyone can find a job if they look; any child can become a president or an astronaut; save more than you spend and you will become rich; and our system is the best on earth.

This past week thousands of Greeks stoned their parliament after being handed a 25% sales tax, stripped of pensions and vacation time and taking a drop in wages in the public sector. The trade unions called for public works stoppages, strikes and daily marches

Across the United States the clash is over the school system, with nearly every State raising tuitions, canceling scholarships, freezing hiring and cutting programs. Net result: students with no place to left to go and plenty of time to protest. In Mexico they have begun charging children to attend public school, even down to the kindergarten level. As in the US, parents will find they now have the children staying home (like their parents) and eventually that will dumb down the population so that they understand even less about who is to blame, and so waste even more time pointing fingers and protesting (although it is at least arguable that they were getting dumbed down faster in school or at work).

In Iceland citizens are protesting having to pay back the investors in the UK and Europe who sank billions into Icelandic Ponzi bank schemes. This makes good sense. Caveat emptor, investors! It is such a good idea that Congressman Barney Frank was heard to effuse that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should deliver similar haircuts to their bondholders.  Nobody seems to have mentioned to the Congressman that the bondholders in the main are the Chinese government, which holds about 1 trillion in US sovereign debt, followed by Japan at 750 billion.

Japan would not have much it could say if given a haircut by the US home mortgage market, but China would probably have quite a bit to say, and one thing would be to say nothing, just stay away from the next T-bill market, and the next, and the next.

More interesting, really, is who stands third in line at that barber shop — the oil exporting countries. If you insist on giving them a haircut, they can just sell their oil elsewhere, to China and Japan, for instance. What does one imagine would happen to schoolteachers, salaries, vacation time, pensions and sales taxes then? Can you throw a brick through the window of Kuwait?

Our second ominous bubbling is occurring in the Arctic, and it was something we predicted in our 1990 book, Climate in Crisis, although we have to say we did not expect to see it this soon.

Last summer we reported observing the bubbles coming up in methane “chimneys” off the coast of northern Norway. Now we are noting chimneys off Alaska on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

The bubbles are from the frozen clathrates on the ocean floor. They were formed by the decomposition of organic matter in those sediments over millennia, and perhaps from abiogenic sources bubbling from farther down, but until now the oceans have been cold enough to keep the methane trapped in submarine permafrost. Davy Jones’ hold is an Ice Locker.

The permafrost chimney effect only works in shallow seas. Elsewhere the bubbles dissolve before they reach the surface. We’ve been observing ocean acidity rising at least 10 times faster than was previously thought, and the negative effects that is having on shellfish species, coral reefs and the entire marine food chain. We’ve been warned by the Secretariat of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity that the ocean acidity could increase 150 percent just by mid-century.

"This dramatic increase is 100 times faster than any change in acidity experienced in the marine environment over the last 20 million years, giving little time for evolutionary adaptation within biological systems," the UN committee said.

One explanation of the acidity is how much CO2 is being rained out as industrial emissions fill up the atmosphere. Ocean acidity is now higher than it has been in 65 million years.

A more ominous explanation is that the acidity is caused in part by the methane being produced from deep clathrates.

A fifth of world coral reefs are dead and the rest may be lost in 20–40 years because of rising water temperatures and ocean acidification. Last year the world ocean surface temperature was the warmest on record for any June–August season since 1880. If we burn all the fossil fuels — the gases released by fracturing, the oil shales and tar sands, all the deepest deposits, many gigatons of carbon — where do we get to? There’s some chance of getting above Cretaceous levels, where the seas could reach 38 degrees Celsius, or 100 degrees Fahrenheit — hotter than the human body. Today sea surface temperature is 16.4 degrees C, or 61.5 degrees F. We have quite a way to go to get to the Cretaceous, but the speed at which we are moving is breathtaking.

Of course, as we have noted here before, warmer oceans, methane from permafrost and clathrate bubblings are all tipping points that accelerate climate change and are multiplicative — 2 or 3 orders of magnitude times anthropogenic emissions, once their threshold is crossed. Earth, meet Venus. The toxic gas fireballs rolling across Kansas, destroying and poisoning everything in their path, are described in Peter Ward's book, Under a Green Sky. As Wallace Broecker says, "The climate is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks."

Somehow the four principal drivers of our civilizational collapse in progress — overpopulation, resource depletion, climate change, and military adventurism — while they are getting the notice of some scholars and military think tanks have yet to come to the notice of schoolteachers.

Maybe they should be fired.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Barry and the Dinosaurs

One day little Barry was out walking in the woods and he came across a yellow baby dinosaur. The dinosaur had a gold chain around its neck with the name “Nuke.”

Barry took the baby dinosaur home but his mother objected to bringing it into the house. “That’s dirty,” she said. “Keep it away.”

“But mom,” Barry said, “nuclear energy remains our largest source of fuel that produces no carbon emissions.”

“Who fed you that line of b.s., boy? You think you can make a pile of uranium after you have dug some big pit mine in South Dakota and not have carbon emissions? You think you can truck that heavy stuff all over the country and not have carbon emissions? Don’t you know about all the coal they burn in Kentucky and Tennessee just to make that stuff so they can burn it in ‘clean’ reactors?

“But mom,” Barry said, “it’s just a cute little dinosaur.

“Cute little dinosaur gonna get you more just like it. Has it been fixed? You want one of them in Iran? Pakistan? Venezuela? You’re not gonna like cleaning up after all those, especially if they bite.”

So Barry took the dinosaur back to the woods. And there he came across a black baby dinosaur. The dinosaur had a chain around its neck with the name “Clean Coal.”

Barry took the baby dinosaur home but his mother objected to bringing it into the house. “That’s dirty,” she said. “Keep it away.”

“But mom,” Barry said,  “it has been said the United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal.

“You gotta be dumb as a post to believe that, boy. Been said a lot of nonsense. We’re already running out of coal in this country, just ask any miner. You seen those places in West Virginia where there used to be mountains?”

“But mom, this little guy is putting the country on track to lead the world in technology that we can export — including to China, which is building coal-powered plants at a rate of one per month now.”

“You think China is stupid enough to buy that? Why don’t you sell them the Sears Tower while you’re at it?”

“Momma, we have to get off our foreign oil addiction. Otherwise we’ll have more disappearing jobs, instability and terror bred in the Middle East, rising oceans, and all the rest.”

“Don’t you remember what you said last week , you know, about one million hybrid cars, two million wind-powered homes, and all that?”

“But mom,” Barry said, “let’s be practical.”

“You be practical and take that thing back to wherever you found it.”

So Barry took the dinosaur back to the woods, and sat down on a stump and felt miserable. Until he looked up to the top of the trees, which formed a cathedral ceiling with shards of light piercing their crowns. “Isn’t that magnificent?” Barry thought. 

“I’ve got it, Momma,” Barry said when he got home. “I have seen the solution.”

“What is that, son?”

“We’ll cut down all the trees!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

How’s that Hopey, Changey Stuff Doin’?

We have been outside the USA for the past month, wandering in the wilderness, as it were, and pondering the way forward.

Back home in Tennessee, Sarah Palin is saying “This was all part of that ‘hope and change and transparency,’ and now a year later I got to ask the supporters of all that, how’s that hopey, changey stuff workin’ out for ya?”

It was a valid question.

Ms. Palin had no better policies to offer, no grand vision. She could only evoke the mythic Ronald Reagan — not the real one who saddled the US with the most massive deficit in its history, torpedoed a rare opportunity to purge the world of atomic arms, trashed the ingenious energy policy and Mideast peace bequeathed by his predecessor, armed and trained Al Qaida, and subverted the Constitutional limits on Presidential war powers while enriching a small coterie of George H.W. Bush’s wealthy friends, particularly in Saudi Arabia.
Irony is, Reagan was small potatoes compared to George W. Bush, and Bush was tame compared to his immediate successor. What Palin seem to imply was that if she were President, you could just dispense with the goodie-goodie Obama charade, because she would be Reagan on steroids.

Where does that leave American voters? Wandering in the wilderness. Won’t you join us?

We are not tea partiers or right wing wackos. Obama is not a naïf, Mirandizing terrorists, closing Guantanamo, and socializing the medical system. Neither are we green apologists or starry-eyed leftists. Obama is not hamstrung by his opponents, still climbing a learning curve, gauging electoral sentiments, or bridge-the-divide moderate to a fault. He may be captive to his advisors, many of them seeded there by Dick Cheney, but he is still his own man. It is that man that troubles us. We seem to have elected King George, again.
He has protected those who trampled both the Constitution and the nation’s honor, to the point of destroying the rules of international law to effectuate that perfidy. He has expanded illegal wars of aggression. He has lent his full support to the genocide in Palestine, sending the Army Corps of Engineers to erect a Great Wall between Gaza and Egypt. His army has dithered and withheld aid while our own Palestinians, the Haitians, died in their own sad version of the SuperDome or Gaza, receiving black-Kevlar’ed jack-booted paratroopers where water and first aid was the most desparate need.

He has shrouded his true foreign and domestic policies in secrecy. While renouncing torture, he has continued it under a different name. He has resumed illegal rendition. He has re-inserted Blackwater as a covert arm of his policies. He has ordered the anthrax and 9-11 attacks and cover-ups,  the Camp No murders, Eric Prince and worse, to go uninvestigated and hidden. He has authorized the assassinations, without trial, of U.S. citizens found on foreign soil. He has imprisoned and tortured thousands of innocents abroad, including children, without charges, rights of counsel, or due process of any kind, and continues to imprison and torture more each day. He has used the full weight of his Justice Department to oppose judicial scrutiny, even in private suits where the US is not a party. 
Fresh war crimes are commited daily, at his express direction. He has expanded illegal drone attacks on neutral countries, killing numberless civilians (“bug-splat” in military parlance) despite the clear evidence of multiplying resentment and blowback towards our national security. In secret he has built new and huge military bases and future internment centers in countries such as Colombia and Pakistan — more than 800 in Afghanistan alone. In an era of diminishing oil supply he has ordered completion of fleets of oil-dependent supercarriers and the jets to bedeck them, and this despite the fact that the US now has more aircraft carriers than all other nations of the world combined, each nearly twice as large as the largest of any other country’s.
While Michelle Obama plants an organic garden in her backyard and packs PBA-laced water bottles into her children’s lunchboxes to wean them off soda pop and onto something far more deadly, her husband has put forward no plan to replace fertilizer dependency with healthy soil programs, ban terminator seeds, or wean the nation from its oil-dependent food vulnerability. With a three-day supply of groceries in most cities and world crude reserve estimates in free-fall, the US is being set up for famine. Let them eat aircraft carriers.

He has subverted the rule of international law by rejecting the UN consensus process, abandoning the Kyoto Accords and wrecking the Copenhagen summit on climate change, our last best chance to have a binding international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He has instigated a program of economic growth where economic contraction is demanded. He has installed corrupt bankers to manage the nation’s currency and evaporating reserves, and they have looted the public treasury to lavish gifts upon the guiltiest among themselves. Although greater taxes are required to restore stability, he has called for tax cuts and freezes on spending for schools, hospitals, State government services, and care for the disabled, elderly, and hungry.

In sheltering the criminal conduct of his own and his predecessors while lending aid and comfort to oppressors of human rights abroad, he has ceded the moral high ground, just as the British Raj ceded it when they clubbed and shot peaceful protestors in India. Without a moral cause, our troops and veterans are dying not from enemy bullets, but of their own internal torment and self-inflicted wounds.

Napolean said, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.” This is something Sarah Palin and the Republican Party would do well to take to heart.

For those of us that hold no brief for either insanity, we need neither posture nor protest. We can perform our own land redistributions, sponsor local production for local needs, and grow voluntary simplicity from seed to harvest. We can be democratic and re-instill nonviolent, cooperative society, community by community.

Barack, we thought we knew ye. Then we hoped you were playing the long game, one we could ne’r ken. We were badly wrong. You are just plain and simple evil.

We know that now. And we will stand up to be rid of you, and all you stand for.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

For whom were you weeping?

For the past nine days as people were pulled alive or dead from the rubble following the devastating earthquake in Haiti and its aftermath, we have been unwilling to speak. It seemed the most respectful thing to do was to abandon the usual themes of this journal and simply be silent. 

We have ridden a roller coaster of emotions. We cried when watching the interview with the young nursing student who had to drink the blood of those who were dying nearby under rubble so she could stay alive despite her crushed skull. We were angry when we saw our government, in whom we had invested such hope only one year ago, repeat the same scenes we had witnessed in New Orleans, landing combat troops in the place of doctors, in fact, keeping planes with doctors and nurses circling over the airport, or diverted to the Dominican Republic 3 days distant by land, so that the United States could land 2000 troops to point their guns at poor black people who only want water.

“We have had five patients in Martissant health center die for lack of the medical supplies that this plane was carrying,” said Loris de Filippi, emergency coordinator for the MSF’s Choscal Hospital in Cite Soleil. “I have never seen anything like this.”

We had. It was a Superdome deja vú moment.

We were disgusted when we saw the stupid comments of newsers, pundits and bloggers that the real danger was rioting, the Devil, or convicts loose in the street, even though 80 percent of those imprisoned by the puppet government were never charged of a crime, many having been champions of democracy sent to rot in indefinite detention after the most-recent US organized coup d’etat in 2004. Why has Haiti rioted in the past? That’s why. This is a proud country, one in which survivors who are extracted from the rubble after a week with broken bones poking through their skin, or crushed skulls, sing joyfully as their stretchers are carried away.

Positive action is the best therapy for our emotions, much better than casting blame, and we have been supporting Jan Lundberg’s call to fast and donate the money saved from buying food, the music benefit being put on by The Farm and others for organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières, and the efforts of small and nimble aid groups like Plenty to slide through bottlenecks and get the aid where it is most needed.

In our silence, meditating on the depths of horror, and what it may foretell of the kind of a world we are leaving to our grandchildren, we were taken back to a Joseph-Campbell-like lecture by Alan Watts on the mythology of Hinduism that we first heard in 1966 (now released on CD and podcast). Alan Watts:

When Narada came to Vishnu and said, “What is the secret of your Maya (illusion of separateness)?” Vishnu took him and threw him into a pool. And the moment he fell under the pool he was born as a princess in a very great family, and went through all the experiences of childhood and being a little girl, finally married to a prince from another kingdom and she went to live with him in his kingdom.

And they were in tremendous prosperity, and palaces and peacocks and all that sort of thing, then suddenly there was a war, and their kingdom was attacked and utterly destroyed, and the prince himself was killed in battle. And so he was cremated, and she, as a dutiful wife, was about to throw herself, weeping, on the funeral pyre and burn herself, an act of sadhi or self-sacrifice, when suddenly, Narada woke to find himself being pulled out of the pool by his hair.

And Vishnu said, “For whom were you weeping?”

Put slightly differently, by that ol’ Hindu scholar Garth Brooks,

“Yes my life is better left to chance;
I could have missed the pain but I'd have had to miss the dance”

This does not mean that we should ignore suffering, or cease in our efforts to alleviate it, only that we should recognize that suffering exists, is unavoidable, and this, too, will pass. How we behave, in this knowledge, matters. That is a lesson we all can learn from those victims, pulled from the rubble, singing.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Collapsing Consensus

"Responsible officials can discuss none of this in public lest investors lose their nerve and head for the exits. But a conversation that excludes such essential realities is delusional."
— Richard Heinberg, MuseLetter

Mark Twain famously wrote that "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." We started out our talk at the Church of Scientology in Nashville Tuesday night by noting that it was more difficult to talk about climate issues in the United States because the matrix was so thick here. That was also the point our first questioner returned to, so we knew we had struck a nerve.

Trying to describe what information flow is like outside the full-surround sound of American media (and here we include our Latin half, because, apart from some islands of free speech, it is all controlled by the same business interests) is like trying to describe to an indigenous tribe in Papua New Guinea what the internet is. They have no reference.

When we said that CNN in Europe gave a completely different side of the news than CNN in the US, we saw nods from those who had been to Europe recently. We saw skepticism on the faces of many others. But it’s true. CNN in Europe actually covers climate change as an ongoing story. They actually mention the conviction of 11 CIA agents in Italy for illegal rendition flights. They do features on peak oil, peak water, and peak coal. And CNN is not even the best at reporting these stories; there are many others who do a better job, like Al-Jazeera and The Guardian.

One has to wonder what happens when a story like the CIA convictions reaches the home bureau on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. Who has the kill switch? Well, actually, that switch is now in the Time Warner building on Columbus Circle in New York (something poetic there) because Ted Turner sold CNN to Time many years ago (donating the profits to the United Nations Foundation).

Getting back to the fog around climate, we have to conclude that probably 99 percent of USAnians simply don’t get it. They don’t get the existential threat. Polls suggest that over the past year, the public opinion meter in the US is actually moving in the opposite direction. At the Copenhagen Summit, we couldn’t say that everyone gets it, but a very high percentage did, more outside the Bella Center than inside. In Europe the portion of the population that gets it is less than a majority, but high enough to affect the calculus of anyone thinking of public office.

A conversation that excludes such essential realities is delusional, and without that conversation — which took place outside the Bella Center in the final days of Brokenhagen, not inside — there will not be the margin needed to build-out a renewable energy infrastructure at top speed, or provide a basic safety net for food, ocean-level coastal cities, or halting spreading deserts, all of which were needed like… yesterday.

As nonrenewable resources deplete, people in Tennessee, like most places, will involuntarily give up their energy-dense, import-dependent, over-consumptive standard of living for a modest way of life supported entirely by local resources and local arrangements. There could be an anarchic transition, but a local economy will be the end result in any event. Glocalization is the new word for it.

Even a more pastoral future, however, could be gone by the time our children have grandchildren. Imagine Nashville with an average summer temperature of 100, and daily highs of 140. Nashville with no trees, no rain, scant air conditioning, and the Cumberland River run dry.

In the meeting at the church, several people warned us that climate change was a plot to bring about world government, and the UN would be the vessel. This is the Lyndon LaRouche frame. We said that Nashville hardly needs to worry about world government, it will be lucky if its fire department still works in ten years. We are headed for civilizational collapse, and if the global economic system has reached its Peter Principle of complexity and is imploding to a lower level of incompetence, nothing so complicated as World Government stands a chance. As for the United Nations, the Church of Scientology probably has more money, more employees and better buildings. The UN infrastructure is smaller than the combined dealerships for Saturn, and look what happened to them.

Congressman Marsha Blackburn is on the House Select Committee on Climate Change. She says any plans to deal with climate change would “destroy millions of American jobs and damage our economic competitiveness for decades.” She called the Copenhagen outcome “unilateral action” “to pile more regulation on the backs of families and small businesses in the name of combating global warming.”

Senator Lamar Alexander said the “Climategate” scandal has been harmful to the scientific community and could complicate the already-difficult task of getting climate change legislation through Congress. “If you want to give scientists the approximate credibility of politicians, this is the way to do it,” he said. He has voted against every climate measure of any consequence.

Senator Jim Corker presents himself as not a climate denier, but merely raising concerns about climate legislation. He wants a “more informed conversation” about the cap and trade bill, so as to get “a better product.” In this way he doesn’t associate himself with the sunspot fringe, but he gets to vote against every climate bill anyway. Hmmm, sounds like Jim Cooper.

Congressman Cooper’s only piece of legislation on climate was a bill he introduced to honor Al Gore and the IPCC on receipt of the Nobel Prize. In fact, most of Cooper’s legislative acts begin with words like Commending, Encouraging, Honoring, Congratulating. As in Congratulating the University of Tennessee Head Coach Pat Summitt on her 1000th victory. Cooper does about 100 of these bills every session. He keeps his head down and takes the PAC money.

In Tennessee, the sunspot advocates have no need for Corker or Cooper as long as they have Zach Wamp. When he is not dialing around to help his friends at the C-street house get out of legal or marital financial troubles, or defending The Family, as the C-street Children of God group is known, Wamp is busy ramping up his gubernatorial campaign. As in “Goober-natorial.” Wamp doesn’t believe warming is man-made, or in peak oil (he thinks it is 150 years away). He is a “Drill Baby Drill” kind of guy, a candidate Sarah Palin might turn to as a running mate. Wamp is all a-gush over GMO cellulosic ethanol, fuel cells, “Next Generation Nuclear Power,” fusion, and electric cars. He doesn’t get it yet that “Next Generation Nuclear” is the sun. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, the former TVA director gets to waste more billions pursuing these dead-end futures. And he could be the next Governor of our state.

Texas Congressman Joe Barton said in Copenhagen, “We're not going to let jobs be destroyed in America for some esoteric environmental benefit 100 years from now.” He is the epitome of those who did not get the picture, who crashed the conference at the end, and who wrecked all the work that had gone before, including the UN process. Considering that the US currently spends five times more every year on the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Yemen/Iran/Iraq than it proposed for the whole world to spend on mitigation and adaptation by 2020, it would be easy to put Barton’s sentiment into the mouth of Barack Obama:
“We're not going to be distracted from the War on Terror for some esoteric environmental benefit 100 years from now.”
Put another way, and perhaps more realistically, is to say “We're not going to be distracted from the War on Terror in order to prevent the extinction of life on Earth.”

But then, to be able to say that, you actually have to get that right now there is an existential choice. One hundred years from now, there will be no choice. So far, we are not having that conversation. To get into it, you have to travel.




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