Saturday, December 4, 2010

Can Cancún Can-Do?

Last year in Copenhagen we were among a very few UN outsiders daily blogging from inside the climate summit and we went to great lengths to be relatively punctual and reliable in our reporting. This year, in contrast, there are scads of bloggers — an entire “bloggers loft” at the Cancun Messe site devoted to video bloggers (vloggers).

Just to read the feeds from all the tweeters here you would need multiple heads. So we are off the hook this year. Whew! Why spend time wading through security and trying to parse all the acronyms when you can be in a turquoise sea looking up at seagulls?

Yesterday we attended the Pew Center/Government of Mexico forum on Communicating Climate Change and got to knock elbows at the chow line with climate celebrities. FCCC organizer Simon Anholt gave the equivalent of a TED talk to close the morning session and IPCC nobelist Rajendra Pachauri gave the luncheon keynote. Ozone hole discoverer Mario Molino, No-Impact-Man Colin Beavan, and Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa were among the afternoon line-up. While Anholt really got people’s juices flowing, Espinosa’s rousing stand-up slayed. 

You don’t need to take a survey, as the Pew Center and Yale did, to know there is an enormous and growing gap in the public appreciation of climate change. Awareness of the climate is actually higher in China and India than it is in the United States and Mexico, but awareness does not mean understanding. While more than 40% of people in the US think climate change is serious (down from more than 50% five years ago), 97% of the 600 million Chinese who know about climate change feel it is no threat. Similar numbers can be found in India. This takes Fox News and the Koch brothers off the hook. The US is feeling less dumb already.

As Simon Anholt said, climate change, put as simply as possible, is the impact of having 7 billion people living at the highest level of resource consumption the world has ever seen. In many ways, that is a mark of the success of the United Nations, and of the international aid and development work of many agencies and individuals over the past 50 years. And not surprisingly, many of the stakeholders one finds roaming the halls at a UN event have the expectation that “sustainable development” mandate can and should continue. Most, if not all, would even go so far as to say it must continue. And so we drift, by Millennial Development Goals and Clean Development Mechanisms, towards unparalleled catastrophe. 

Another point made by Anholt is that governments care a lot about their reputations. Sweden has a great reputation and finds it easy to get credit, enter markets, attract tourists and so forth. Mexico, by contrast, has a serious image problem about safety. Its drug cartels, some trained and equipped in the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia, are now more powerful than its government, and certainly more wealthy and with better long-term prospects. Such insecurity makes it much harder for Mexico to attract investors, credit and tourists, although it is the drug money that likely built the luxury resorts we are shuttling between. These resorts have more than one kind of laundry to do.

Anholt, a Planetary Emergency Technician who parachutes in to hot spots to advocate rescue remedies where others have failed (his business card bears only his name), said that countries know that they need a good image to have success, and so they waste millions of tax dollars on gawd-awful propaganda, not noticing that in the information age it has gotten harder to buy a good reputation. Sweden’s message is that you may have to actually do something good, like give to the poor, or save the environment. Many companies are starting to get this. Countries will eventually have to. Mr. Calderon’s Mayan Riviera windmill is a poignant case of trying to appear greener than you actually are, but at least it actually works. The first time we saw it we thought it was being turned by motors, entirely for show.

So that’s the formula. If a country wants to do business it must be admired. In order to be admired it must do good. This is a conundrum for many governments, not the least the USA, whose reputation took a huge hit from the Bush-Cheney torture-and-mayhem brand. It briefly revived with the Shepard Ferry “Hope” poster but that has now tarnished with the Obama torture-mayhem-and-cover-up re-brand, the Obama Security State (OSS) that imprisons whistleblowers, and the recent right wing election coup. A Pew survey found that of 22 US Senate challengers in the last election, 20 did not trust climate scientists. Given this display of Tweetle-dee and Tweetle-dumber on the world stage, USA’s credit and confidence reservoirs are drying up, globally, and the Cancun talks are a very clear indication of that. A US citizen attending these meetings feels much like a Japanese citizen attending a screening of The Cove. An icebreaker at parties is to find a shared interest in Michael Moore.

The problem is not confined to a few bad countries, however. We live in an era of borderless problems. As Simon Anholt told the forum, one thing our problems share is that they are all symptoms of a lack of any sane global governance. We haven’t attained the next stage of our evolution: species self-awareness. We are still fragmented and competing nation-states and soul-less corporations. The UN is in 0.9 beta. But, and we keep saying this whenever we get stuck in a long queue for a shuttle bus, as bug-prone as it is, its the only game in town.

After Copenhagen public opinion towards the UN, and government in general, entered a new crisis of confidence. The Wikileaks phenomenon is just another symptom of that. Wilkileaks’ popularity (not to mention its revelations) demonstrates that our governments are incompetent at best, corrupt and greedy at worst, and people now get that. That new branding is being seared into our common psyche. What Karl Rove couldn’t accomplish, Hillary Clinton is driving home.

As we begin the chaotic Anthopocene Epoch, the public is beginning to understand that no one is in charge and we are all aboard a burning ocean liner. Are there evacuation plans? A fire brigade? Any plan at all? Do we have a string quartet to play “Nearer My God to Thee?”
Rajendra Pachauri told the audience that the only superpower today is public opinion. We can take that a step farther and say people’s perceptions are based on patterns of development that begin while they are still in the womb, are strongly embedded by cultural experiences, and continue along driven by that inertia even in the face of strong evidence that the accepted norms of their parents no longer obtain. We are creatures of habit. The big picture – that there are 7 billion of us consuming resources at unsustainable rates, and that both the number of us and our rate of consumption are increasing, not diminishing — is an intractable dilemma simply because opinion about it is fixed and non-negotiable.
Jennifer Scott, Global Head of Strategy and Planning, Ogilvy & Mather, outlined a survey of more than 500 participants at COP-16. The study found that 56% believe that there has already been irreversible damage to the planet, and another 27% believe that such damage is coming within 10 years. Nearly 90 percent believe that the time to act is right now, but only 33% think the talks are headed towards resolution (29% developed world respondents, 38% developing). A full 83% believe response will only come once countries experience the consequences in the full 3D surround sound of real time. Appearances to peers matters — 64% believe the unwillingness to risk economic or political damage at home is the greatest barrier to reaching an agreement. Only 20%  think public apathy is due to skepticism in the science, although 58% say the public has only very limited understanding of the issues. Scientists are trusted by 66%, journalists by only 24% (and probably those respondents were the journalists). Still, 76% rank mainstream media as the best vehicle for conveying the message, and human interest stories as the most effective way (65%).

That last point was driven home by “No Impact Man” Colin Beaven, who put up two images, side-by-side, one of climbing stairs with a child on his shoulders and the other of a MEGO chart. “Which of these images is more likely to draw your attention?” he asked.

Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Project on Climate Change at Yale University, said that 66% of people surveyed in 150 countries trust scientists and experts, but less than half  trust global organizations like the UN (42%), or public figures and activists (41%). “Just between China and India we are talking about 2 billion people who know nothing about climate change,” he said, and added that this is very unfortunate because these are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.

The sad thing, and Pachauri and many others alluded to this, is that our species’ suicidal, geocidal meander toward “sustainable development” is not even going where people think it is going. The objective is happiness, and every study shows that happiness is increased by factors having nothing to do with shopping in WalMart or the Gap; turning dolphins and salmon into catfood, or bling. Consumption doesn’t work.
The Onion ran a fake story yesterday with the headline “Report: Unemployment High Because People Keep Blowing Their Job Interviews.”  The irony is that may be true. People want jobs that maintain their status quo. They want governments that will give them whatever they consider their patrimony or natural right to consume. Those are impossible career goals, but public opinion, the world’s only superpower, has yet to come to grips with it. Demands for the impossible are clashing with what is possible, as in the case of a family whose breadwinners are out of work, the house has been foreclosed, social welfare provides for neither the children’s food nor the grandparents’ medical needs and they so they just decide to pack up and go to Disney World.
And the irony is that it is all so unnecessary because the low-energy, low-carbon, low-impact path is so much more fun, healthier, and more fulfilling than the dead-end wage slavery it could be replacing before it is all too late. After all, many good studies in various countries already show profitable means to achieve 40% aggregate reductions from 1990 levels for 2020. Some UN observers, like Zero Carbon Britain, Climate Action Network and European Climate Foundation, have shown how we can transition to a zero carbon economy for developed countries by 2050. Dubious technologies like clean coal and nuclear can be pursued by countries inviting their own financial ruin, but most would likely prefer to adopt clean renewables targets like China’s.
Speaking in Spanish, Patricia Espinoza said that while it is the usual thing to talk about climate solutions that involve energy production or transportation, and numeric limits, that few people yet see the whole picture. When we talk about climate change we are really talking about changing everything. She listed some of the things that people need to think about, like the size of their house and car, where their food comes from, how many children they have, and what it would be like if not just the business they were in was closed, but that entire industrial sector was phased out. Big problems require big thinking, she told the conference, and we are still thinking much too small.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cimientos de Cancún

The Cancún Climate Summit - Opening Day Coverage  

Cancún, México, November 30. Uniformly, expectations are being downplayed for any concrete action to be achieved here, which makes one only wonder, so why are 15,000 people converging on Cancún to work on a treaty to prevent catastrophic climate change?

Michael Jacobs, one of UKPM Gordon Brown's climate change advisers, told a London newspaper “Let's get the bad news out of the way first – there isn't going to be a legally binding global climate treaty for at least three years.” That seems the consensus view here.

Which made it all the more interesting that on one wall of Cancún Messe are these charts of delegates’ and observers’ carbon footprints for all of the Climate COPs since the Earth Charter was translated into the big three frameworks for action (the convention on climate change, the convention on biodiversity and the convention on desertification) — 17 years ago.

If people are trying to save the planet from the runaway carbon cycle, is having meetings in places that maximize our carbon footprint the best way to do that?
Cancún is particularly poignant as COP sites go, because it is such a perfect encapsulation of the mental disconnect between the scale of the challenge and what will be actually required. We can either impose that requirement on ourselves by legally-binding treaty or it will be imposed on us involuntarily by Newtonian physics. Nature bats last.

A mere forty years ago this area had been a 
string of small fishing villages working the seemingly inexaustible reef ecosystems for a daily catch, and beyond the beach, dense rainforest and tiny, remote Mayan settlements all the way to Mérida, the colonial capital of New Spain.

México decided to invest its one-time bonanza of petrodollars — now in rapid decline, not to say freefall — in tourism. In that 40 years it went from exporting food to the world to becoming a net importer of its most important staples — rice, beans and corn. Instead of selling huaraches and jalapeños, it sold turquoise beaches, Jose Cuervo tequila, and Corona. México cut a 50-mile swath of mangroves to erect luxury resort hotels and tethered itself to multi-thousand-mile jet flights from London, Paris and Atlanta. Now that peak oil has arrived, it is a good day to die.
  Climate change will heal the sore that Cancún has scratched, because all of this will soon enough be under the Caribbean Sea. It was there recently before, between just the last two ice ages, when a 1-degree C increase covered a large part of this flat, low-lying Yucatán Peninsula with ocean. This will happen again, in the lifetime of many of the delegates here. Perhaps that is why they are partying like its 1999.

The center of the conference is in the Hotel Moon Palace, with 2,457 rooms fetching some $750 per night. Each room comes with a double-occupancy Jacuzzi and a sea view, liquor dispenser with top shelf brands of whisky, rum, tequila and vodka, and LCD TV with Fox News locked in. There are three Jack Nicklaus golf courses and spas and a half-dozen upscale restaurants with dinner buffets starting at $50 if you didn’t book the all-inclusive. You can swim to two of the restaurants (and three beach bars) by either the ocean or the 220-meter chlorine river that winds through the connecting patios by the beach. With their rooms comp’d by their governments, delegates can unwind with a hot stone and aloe massage by the pool, balneotherapy in one of 6 private suites, or facials and body scrubs in 20 spa rooms.

If mingling with lower classes is not for you, the Moon Palace has 50 Presidential Suites where everything can be brought to you by skilled professionals.

Last Saturday, Mexican President Felipe Calderon dedicated the State’s first commercial-scale wind turbine, announcing that it will provide “part” of the hotel’s electricity and save carbon for the conference. Given that each double Jacuzzi generates 35 times more carbon dioxide than an ordinary bath and 80 times more than a five-minute shower, we’re guessing that the wind will only make a very small contribution even to México’s public relations.

The Climate Action Network voted Canada its first Cancún Fossil of the Day Award for a year of climate inaction, but the New Face of Moet Champagne, Canadian Scarlett Johansson, has gotten into the Jacuzzi with Tcktcktck and Oxfam. The actress has signed an open letter as an Oxfam Global Ambassador “to call on international negotiators to protect the world's poor from climate catastrophe.” Leonardo DiCaprio, another respected climate change celebrity, has received praise from environmental groups for flying on commercial airlines rather than by private jet. In fairness, earlier this week he donated $1 million to the World Wildlife Fund to protect wild tigers around the world. They don’t fly by private jet either.
Margarita C. de Salinas

So it should come as no surprise that at the official reception dinner, where all the music was provided by military bands, the food was catered
by Margarita Carrillo de Salinas, owner and executive chef of Don Emiliano in Cabo San Lucas, Casa México in Mexico City and La Colina in Tokyo. Chef Margarita is the leader of the Slow Food movement in Baja and recently accepted a UN award on behalf of México for its “World Heritage” cuisine. It was lovely to see La Maestra getting down with the Mariachis and dancing until after midnight with delegates and NGOs.

In all of this, there is an abiding sense of dancing on a grave. The trouble is, it is our grave. All of ours. There is no joy in that, not really. There is only a profound disconnect.

Global Ecovillage Network delegates Hector Reyes and Maria Ros

Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) terminology translated by Climate Action Network (CAN):

Forest management: Logging.
Sustainable forest management: Mostly logging.
All of the music at the President's reception were Military Bands.
Harvesting: Logging.
Temporarily destocked: Logged (usually logged natural forest).
Age class structure: Age of forest.
Wrong age class structure: Old trees = needs logging.
Conversion: Logging a natural, carbon and biodiversity-rich forest and replacing it with a low carbon, low biodiversity forest with no penalty (see also temporarily destocked, empty forest, displaced local and indigenous people and Australia).
Unique national circumstances: Need to log (often thought just to apply to New Zealand but can apply to any country wanting to log).
Forward looking baseline: A means of hiding logging emissions (see also Canada and others).
Bar with a band to zero: A means of hiding logging emissions (see also Russia).
Incentive: Not penalizing logging emissions and/or allowing them to be hidden, as in ‘give us an incentive (logging loophole) and we will take on a more ambitious  target’
Voluntary: If you might have a high emission from logging then you can opt not to tell anyone.  Notable as being the only term that means roughly the same in English.  (See also ‘not electing for forest management’ and Austria.)
Cap: Term used by the G77 and China but not understood by Annex I.
Harvested wood products: The logging industry’s little joke.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Cancun Transnarrative

"The hopeful transnarrative of 'la Cumbre de las Naciones Unidas sobre Cambio Climático' in Cancún is one of metamorphosis."

Tomorrow the United Nations begins its 16th Conference of the Parties (COP-16) to the Earth Charter in Rio in 1992 and the 6th Meeting of the Parties (CMP-6) to the Kyoto Protocol. It is also the 33rd session of the subsidiary bodies for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and for Implementation (SBI), the 15th session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments (AWG-KP), the 13th session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Cooperative Actions (AWG-LCA) and the World Business Summit, a conference that convenes annually during the UN climate talks to either accelerate economic solutions to climate change or pretend that that is what they are doing when they are actually committing geocide.

On 10/10/10 Egyptians joined with this prayer.

Last year, as faithful readers of this blog may recall, the USA, which has yet to ratify any climate treaties and should not be here in any capacity other than observer, came with a lame, lowball proposal of a strictly voluntary, symbolic pledge system, quickly derailing a meeting that was actually close to signing into international law several important agreements.

This year, many are more wary. Some say the US needs to be kept out of the tent while more serious negotiators complete their work. An important new study from the United Nations Environmental Programme, The Emissions Gap Report: Are the Copenhagen Accord pledges sufficient to limit global warming to 2°C or 1.5°C?, concludes that the US pledge system will not reverse climate change, even if it were universally adopted. UN Undersecretary-General Achim Steiner said in his introduction to the report, “If no clear rules are set in the negotiations, emissions could be around 53 Gt of CO2  equivalent in 2020 — not that different from business as usual — so the rules set in the negotiations clearly matter.  … emissions need to be around 44 Gt of CO2 equivalent by 2020 to have a likely chance of pegging temperature [increase] to 2°C or less.” 

People like to be assured that someone is minding the store, even if they aren’t. So when these high-level delegations get together for the 16th time, or the 33rd time, or whatever, there is some sense of order in the world, even if it seems to keep getting hotter. On the eve of this year’s summit, stock markets surged in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the USA. The Hang Seng broke 25000, the Mexican IPC broke 35000, and even the Dow broke above its support levels. This shows a renewed confidence in the future, even if it also shows more than a small amount of ignorance of the actual situation in the world. More sober assessments came this month from a report from the University of California Santa Barbara, “Peak Energy, Climate Change, and the Collapse of Global Civilization: The Current Peak Oil Crisis” and a more enticeingly captioned study by
Feasta: The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability called Fleeing Vesuvius.

Brad Johnson, reporting for Climate Progress,  says that, psychologically, we humans like a happy ending for our stories. As the behavioral researcher Melvyn Lerner first described in 1965, people need to believe in “a just world” — i.e., “good things happen to good people.” A recent study that placed these predispositions into the climate context concluded that those who have a low belief in a just world respond well to a message of dire scientific threat. Those who have a high belief in a just world respond to a hopeless conclusion with skepticism and a hopeful conclusion with acceptance. 

The researchers showed their subjects two public service announcements from 2007 that make a strong emotional appeal, one with a train accelerating toward a child and the other with children “ticking.”  Subjects responded differently, depending on the tag line and their personal need for justice.

Johnson concludes, “In short, the researchers found that the approach taken by leading climate messengers such as Al Gore (An Inconvenient Truth), Van Jones (The Green Collar Economy), and Bill McKibben ( of combining scientific urgency with solution-oriented hopefulness should be successful.”

The hopeful transnarrative can be found in UN Peace Ambassador Wangari Maathai’s post to The Guardian on November 26.

“It is true that no delegate leaves a conference with a perfect document, but last year in Copenhagen we caught a glimpse of the potential we have if we tackle this global crisis together. For the first time, 115 countries recognized the scientific case for restricting the rise in global temperatures to 2°C. For the first time ever, all the major emitters of the world accepted their moral responsibility to reduce their emissions and committed to build trust and transparency. And for the first time ever, we set out our interconnectedness, with developed countries offering to help the poorest countries to protect their people from climate change and to find a path to low-carbon sustainable development.”

There is a distinction to be found, however, between solution-oriented hopefulness and pie-in-the-sky narratives that continue us all down a path to ruin. Regrettably, many in the South still cling to a “developed” versus “developing” dichotomy that is both out of step with new financial arrangements (wherein the BASIC group of Brazil, South Africa, China and India have supplanted the flailing empires of Europe, Japan and North America) and the notion that somehow every increasingly populous country can not only stave off starvation when fossil fuels are gone but somehow grow just as caustic to the environment as USAnians. We can sample this right here in México with a simple excursion to a Cancún shopping mall.

Another false narrative, and one that regularly makes the rounds in Washington, is that market-based solutions – the green business model — can solve the problem of climate change. Market-based mechanisms are highly unlikely to reduce emissions, especially in the emerging economies. Market incentives can stimulate rapid adoption of better practices, but they are meaningless and unworkable in the absence of a firm and enforceable emissions cap.

The symbol México has chosen for the conference is the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). It is an interesting choice, because the Monarch is cold-sensitive and the population west of the Rockies migrates to Southern California each winter while the population east of the Rockies migrates to Michoacán, México. It takes several generations of butterflies to complete the annual migration, following the progress of  milkweed emergence northward, and for each generation a metamorphosis is required.

The butterflies mate and lay eggs, and caterpillars emerge from and consume the egg cases, feed on milkweed, and make cardenolides, a type of cardiac glycoside that makes them too bitter for birds to want. After 2 weeks of gorging on greenery, the caterpillar spins a silk pad on a leaf and hangs from this pad by its last pair of prolegs. It hangs upside down in the shape of a 'J', and then molts, leaving itself encased in a leaf-like green exoskeleton. Hormonal changes occur that are so unusual that the caterpillar’s immune system attacks the new cells, trying to defend itself. Eventually the old form loses and is turned into an enzyme soup, leading to the development of a transparent butterfly chrysalis that, a day before emergence, darkens to a butterfly’s body with orange and black wings.

The hopeful transnarrative of “la Cumbre de las Naciones Unidas sobre Cambio Climático” in Cancún is one of metamorphosis. From a messy process of reconciling the interests of collapsing empires (struggling to exact tribute from wayward colonies by military and economic brutality) with the pre-doomed aspirations of the oppressed for consumerist empires of their own, to some rational scheme for going forward for another year, and maybe planting a few trees along the way.

Who knows? Maybe a butterfly will emerge.

From The Earth Charter

Earth, Our Home

Humanity is part of a vast evolving universe. Earth, our home, is alive with a unique community of life. The forces of nature make existence a demanding and uncertain adventure, but Earth has provided the conditions essential to life's evolution. The resilience of the community of life and the well-being of humanity depend upon preserving a healthy biosphere with all its ecological systems, a rich variety of plants and animals, fertile soils, pure waters, and clean air. The global environment with its finite resources is a common concern of all peoples. The protection of Earth's vitality, diversity, and beauty is a sacred trust.

The choice is ours: form a global partnership to care for Earth and one another or risk the destruction of ourselves and the diversity of life. Fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions, and ways of living. We must realize that when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more.


In order to build a sustainable global community, the nations of the world must renew their commitment to the United Nations, fulfill their obligations under existing international agreements, and support the implementation of Earth Charter principles with an international legally binding instrument on environment and development.

Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life.


Sunday, November 21, 2010


In a recent post to Resource Insights, energy analyst Kurt Cobb wrote:
Every culture lives by its narratives. And, these narratives come to us not just in the form of novels, plays, movies and television shows. They also come in the form of news stories, ideology, religious doctrine, theories that are social, political and scientific, and myriad other works which fall under the category of nonfiction. Over time these narratives become outmoded, and new ones emerge, or at least, the old ones are reworked in light of new circumstances.

Cobb would doubtless be the first to tell us that narratives sometimes outlive their host reality. In recent posts we have been calling these zombie myths, but maybe someone will come up with a better term.

Many zombie myths have outlived any helpfulness and are now consuming their host societies. You can see this in the way we remove mountains to find coal, send children to die in conflicts that do nothing to promote security, provide reliable energy, or protect family values anywhere. Instead, we bankrupt our monetary systems, medical systems, educational systems and political integrity in pursuit of utterly unobtainable nonsense. Zombie myths are staggeringly stupid and ruthlessly destructive.

A good example of the destructiveness of our myths was provided by Rita Rubin last week in USA Today. The paper reported that 15000 Medicare patients die each month from slipshod care experienced in US hospitals. Given the modern journalism standard epitomized by USA Today, it would be helpful to bracket that number with a large error band to the higher side. The real death toll could be an order of magnitude larger. Last year a federal study estimated that in October 2008, 314,000 Medicare hospital patients were harmed by the care they received, just in that one month. Preventable causes of death included bed sores, infections, and internal bleeding from blood-thinning drugs, among other abuses.

Medicare is the government health program for people 65 and older. If you were to ask a US Congressman if Medicare might be improved, such as by using a tax-financed health approach of the type used in most other “rich” countries, the likely response would be that “America has the best health care system in the world.” 

That is a zombie myth. Expecting that a Congressman would change something that might affect the bottom line of a health insurance corporation in any direction other than to make it more profits would be another zombie myth. Congressional representatives are elected by, and controlled by, health insurance corporations and Big Pharma. They can ignore the hundreds of thousands of bodies stacking up outside their offices because they are in the thrall of zombie myths. When you look at them like they are crazy, they wonder if you are crazy.

Something we have recently come to recognize is that between the zombie myth and a new normal there may lie a realm of transitional or transformative narratives, an amphibian meme that lives partly in the past and partly in the present. While we may resent being forced to live within a construct that no longer serves, we may find some temporary shelter under a transnarrative.

Michael Ruppert’s Collapse Net, Nicole Foss’s Automatic Earth, and Matt Savinar’s Life After The Oil Crash throw reality in your face. After a while, you get the drift. We have many of these sites listed in the column just to the right, under Usual Haunts and Fellow Ne'er-do-wells.

The transnarrative is a more subtle beast, and two examples are Cobb’s novel, Prelude, and James Howard Kunstler’s excellent World Made By Hand series. With these works, a Cassandra author who dwells in present reality and can easily see what is about to transpire imparts his wisdom by way of allegory — a light tale with heavier meaning. Our own transnarratives, The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook and The Biochar Solution, are crude by comparison, forcing people to shift gears too quickly, maybe losing a few teeth in the process.

In the USA, where the fog of corrupted information lies thick on the ground, a drugged and distracted public still wants its gasoline, home heating oil, jet fuel, 3000-mile potato chips, and cheap. If you try to tell it that all that comes at the cost of civilian deaths in Af-Pak, torture chambers at black sites, dead pelicans in Louisiana, invasive searches at airports, mountaintop removal and gas fracking in Appalachia, or Earth’s climate going to Hades in a Hummer, they cover their ears and chant “nananananaIcanthearyounananana.”

In these circumstances, a transnarrative can be just the thing. Hence, films like The Day After Tomorrow, Wall-E and Book of Eli. Even our fascination with zombies and vampires provides a hint of Zeitgeist — that we dwell in the calm before a storm, and that what is coming will be far more unpleasant, not to say brutal, for a good long while.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Slouching towards Cancun

In the run-up to the Seventh Biennial Workshop on Advances in Energy Studies in Barcelona, 19-21 October, the organizers put out this statement as context:
Many people seem to believe that it is possible to have a rapid transition to a "low carbon economy," based on a totally different pattern of production of energy carriers (using different primary energy sources) and a totally different pattern of consumption of energy carriers, while still guaranteeing the same set of end uses. 
The underlying presumption is that this is achievable by just signing a few international agreements (e.g. 80% reduction of CO2 emissions in 40 years). Very few people seem to realize that changing the metabolic pattern of a complex dissipative system is very difficult, if not impossible. In metabolic systems, the very pattern of dissipation (the use of a given set of energy carriers to serve a given set of operating purposes) coincides with the very identity of the system (its components, characteristics and ways of doing things). This implies that we must expect all kinds of problems if we try to change the characteristics of the production and consumption of energy in modern societies: problems generated by the inertia of complex systems, which tend to resist structural change.
In recent weeks we have been in discussions with other members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs, or “civil sector major groups” in UN parlance) as part of the run-up to the Cancun climate conference that starts just 2 weeks from now. Because of the huge outpouring of non-profit energy, money and effort at Copenhagen last year, and the subsequent meltdown of the Copenhagen round, the approach to this year’s COP (Conference of Parties to the Framework Climate Convention) has been like a drunk waking up with a really bad hangover. A hot shower and several carafes of coffee later, many are really wondering if we want to go back into the bar again tonight.

There is fresh meat in Cancun, including some inexperienced groups still enamored of the vision of a low carbon future that might be achieved just by signing a few international agreements, eating fewer animals, driving hybrid cars and changing light bulbs.

To the veterans, who are less like drunks and more like near-suicidal PTSD sufferers, a dramatic reduction of energy consumption in a complex society seems quite unlikely, absent some catastrophic event, which in their darker moments some have even begun to hope for. Even Peak Oil is moving too slowly, with shale gas and biofuels propping up near-term supplies. We need a supervolcano.

In Copenhagen, the NGOs had displays and presentation rooms right at the Bella Center, the Ground Zero of the UN meeting. That ended the snowy December day Obama arrived, when, suddenly, NGOs were rationed passes, and then thrown out into the cold, quite literally. This year the host country is starting at the point of last year’s exclusion, dividing the delegate deliberations at the Moon Palace Hotel from the Civil Sector Sideshow at the Cancun Messe, 5 miles away. KlimaForum10, an off-site alternative congress continuing from this past April’s World Peoples' Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia, is even farther away, across impassible swamps and pedestrian-inadvisable highways.

The differences between these venues are like the differences between their names. In the Palacio, you have to pass through many layers of security, take off your shoes, empty your water bottle, and show credentials to be scanned every time you cross sectors. Everyone wears suits and ties (although last week the host committee recommended guayaberas or equivalent barongs or dashikis) and if you get too close to a security detail for a Head of State or Oil Minister you can be arrested or machine-gunned by bodyguards. We venture into this lions' den because we want to hear and report what is said, and because there are presentations to the delegates behind these closed doors that do not occur anywhere else.

The KlimaForum, is intended to be more like the Summer of Love, where anything goes. Twenty meeting tents and 2500 campsites are being readied. The poster looks like an ayahuasca rush.

People wear polar bear costumes and no shoes and you can smell incense burning. There is guerrilla theater. Many stands are set up to hand out literature and chatchkas like key rings and water bottles. It is a free speech zone and people create opportunities to share, give powerpoints, or have debates. Klimaforum09 cost more than 125 million dollars, provided mostly by the Danish government. Klimaforum10 asked the Mexican government and the Cancún municipal government to provide the same. Mexico gave space but no money. European funds were frozen to pressure the Mexican government, but at this late date, that hope is pretty forlorn.

The Messe is a halfway house, where you need credentials to get in, but they are easier to get. It is for the Major Groups like Greenpeace, Oxfam and Yale 350. In the Palacio there will be 20,000 to 30,000 diplomats and 10,000 press. In the Messe there will be 10,000-40,000 environmental activists and no press.

Recently George Monbiot, writing for The Guardian, despaired for the Cancun talks:
How should we respond to the reality we have tried not to see: that in 18 years of promise and bluster nothing has happened? Environmentalists tend to blame themselves for these failures. Perhaps we should have made people feel better about their lives. Or worse. Perhaps we should have done more to foster hope. Or despair. Perhaps we were too fixated on grand visions. Or techno-fixes. Perhaps we got too close to business. Or not close enough. The truth is that there is not and never was a strategy certain of success, as the powers ranged against us have always been stronger than we are.
Greens are a puny force by comparison to industrial lobby groups, the cowardice of governments and the natural human tendency to deny what we don't want to see. To compensate for our weakness, we indulged a fantasy of benign paternalistic power - acting, though the political mechanisms were inscrutable, in the wider interests of humankind. We allowed ourselves to believe that, with a little prompting and protest, somewhere, in a distant institutional sphere, compromised but decent people would take care of us. They won't. They weren't ever going to do so. So what do we do now?
I don't know. These failures have exposed not only familiar political problems, but deep-rooted human weakness. All I know is that we must stop dreaming about an institutional response that will never materialize and start facing a political reality we've sought to avoid.
For the past 300 years the massive production and consumption of potent, once-in-history, energy sources spawned gigantic infrastructures that locked in our contemporary pattern of meeting daily human needs from Earth’s bounty in ways that are both wasteful and out of balance. The flush of superhuman energy supplanted the old narrative for individual and family relationships to the natural world with a modern, generic one that saw nature as a machine that could be revved up to produce infinitely more.

The new world view also enshrined the political/military power structure, as witnessed by recent elections in the USA. Political and military power seeks only to continue itself, by any expediency, no matter how short-sighted. Student protests over tuition increases and most labor union agendas fall into this same expediency. Sooner or later, they are all as deer, frozen in the headlight of an approaching freight train. Nothing in their cultural conditioning or centuries of military history has prepared them for this moment. Nature is no machine, and she is angry when revved up.

Cheap oil and coal, along with an anomalously mild and stable climate for 10,000 years, have tricked our economic systems by conflating the consumption and production of goods and services with availability of credit and technological prowess. Shortfalls are met not by rationing and reseeding but by increasing indebtedness or thinking outside the box. We strive to re-inflate national economies by buying, with money that we do not have, goods and services that we do not need, using financial instruments that are complete fictions, in order to sate our addiction to growth. We forget that “economics” and “ecology” share the same root. In Greek, it means “home.”

Cornucopians, including many of the Indian NGOs attending COP-16, see population growth as positive since it enlarges the work supply and the potential for creative innovation. How food for 7 billion people in the world can continue to be supplied at today’s negative Energy Return on Investment of 0.1 (10 calories in for each calorie out) is an inconvenient question.

Neo-Malthusians, including many of the major NGOs today, see population growth as putting unsustainable pressure on resources and the environment, but can’t seem to find a way to discuss this rationally with their Indian, African or Catholic counterparts.

Lough’s 1999 Chart of ERoI
Equally unrealistic are the 10 points emerging from Cochabamba in April that seem utterly detached from best available science and from pragmatic politics. To be detached from pragmatic politics (meaning it can never be accomplished) is not necessarily a bad thing, because politics needs to be pushed and to have something to aim for, so that the compromise leans farther.

But the lack of scientific coordination is troubling. It will not be possible to limit global temperature increase to 1 degree. We are already past that. It may still be possible to limit it to one degree per decade for the remainder of this century, although that will be global average and already we are seeing 2 to 4 degree increases at the high latitudes.

It will also not be possible to reduce emissions by more than 50% for 2017, as some Southern NGOs are calling for. It is possible to reduce emissions from transportation and energy by 50%, but it is far slower and more difficult to reduce emissions from buildings and agriculture. In Copenhagen we were very close to a consensus 50’ by ‘50 deal, and that still seems achievable, albeit probably not in Cancun.

We need to get rid of the rhetoric that employs terms such as "developing countries." In the world to come, the only developing countries will be those that follow the example of Bhutan, and develop qualitative measurement of happiness. In that sense the North is the most undeveloped. The notion that somehow all countries can achieve a higher standard of living by industrialization is a busted paradigm and we need to distance ourselves from it. India and Senegal will never be Sweden. Nor should they want to be.

From Allen, et al., "Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions: Towards the trillionth tonne" Nature 458:1163-66; in World Bank Development Report 2010.

Lastly, we need to get beyond the concept of zero emissions. We need to go below zero. Below zero by, say, 2060 could be a KlimaForum goal. Practical approaches like Zero Carbon Britain 2030, if implemented sooner, rather than later, could blaze the trail and shorten the 2060 timetable. Wouldn’t it be great if the ZCB-30 goal could be universally cloned by all States-Parties to the convention at Cancun?

As in Copenhagen, we are attending as part of the Global Ecovillage Network, which has consultative status through the Economic and Social Committee of the United Nations. We’ll probably devote a small amount of time each day to visiting the Palacio (where the lines are very long at security checkpoints) and the rest of the time be at the Messe or KlimaForum. The meetings we most want to attend, such as the formal discussions on solutions like tree-planting, biochar or carbon farming, versus ill-conceived non-solutions like geoengineering, nuclear power or clean coal, will be at the Palacio.

Expecting to accomplish something really promising is probably asking too much at this point, but we can still attend as witnesses. Who knows? We might witness something really historic.

Or not.

Previously published Nov 12, 2010 by Culture Change and Energy Bulletin.

This correction was sent to us by Miguel Valencia:

Regarding Klimaforum10, I want to inform you that:

1.- Klimaforum09 cost one million and three hundred thousand euros, 1,300,000.00 euros, mostly paid  by Danish Govt to DGY-Byen company from Copenhagen. The Danish Board (Danish grassroots that organized Klimaforum09) provided about 40% of this. They had to face great opposition from Big Greens.

2.- After many months of negotiations, Mexican govt accepted to follow the example of the Danish Govt. and decided to support al least four political spaces outside UNFCCC, including the smallest: Klimaforum10: this spaces are now: Villa del Cambio Climatico (devoted to Big enterprise); Dialogo Climático-ESMEX ( Big greens and mainstream enviros); La Vía Campesina Space( that dislikes some Big greens and some big mexican social-enviros networks); Klimaforum10 ( grassroots social -local-enviros) So we have received money this week in order to pay the field, tents, baths and other things: 25 % of our budget.

3.- Klimaforum10 logistics has been mostly operated by Nomads United, a group steered by Kareen Kohn, related to the Mexican Ecovillage and Ecoregional groups. Graphics and space logistics are mostly his idea. We have not been able to visit Cancun, as we have no money, so now we have a lot of  work to do as something like 100 self organized activities have been registered in our space and we don't have enough secretariat capacity. So we are overwhelmed 

4.- I will try to organize a seminar on de-growth, a forum on the future of electric services with Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas and if possible another forum on Cities and Climate Disaster. I'm looking for appropriate speakers for all these activities.

Un abrazo

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Teaching Your Children to Prognosticate

— Voltaire 

We live in a world of orthodox myth; the stories we tell ourselves about the world become the world to us. Even when some of our myths are exploded, they turn out to be so embedded by our cultural memes and temes that it can take a long time — generations — to dispel them, and sometimes they don’t ever dispel, they just go dormant for a while, and then return, zombie myths, to ensnare us all over again.

Zombie myths recycle with special vigor in election years, because patriotism is the stock and trade of scoundrels. Patriotism is the deadest myth out there and the patriotic myths of the USA are among the most obnoxious.

For a number of years, while writing this blog we have avoided using the term “American” to describe the people, places and things of the States of the United States. Instead, we use “USAnian” as the more apt term, shorn of the hubris that somehow the people, places and things of Venezuela, Brazil, the Kuna or the Huichols are not American.

Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities." Indoctrinated from nursery school to graduate school, reinforced by weekly pronouncements from the pulpit and daily television bobbleheads, the gene that helps us accept bulls**t seems dominant in the modern human genome. While one can perhaps point to more dire examples — North Korea, Somalia or Zimbabwe, for instance — the USA’s homegrown mythology seems especially pernicious. It deprives USAnian children of pattern recognition.

In his current stump speech, the international war criminal Barack Obama tells audiences that while veterans were spit on and dishonored when they returned from Vietnam, his administration has extended to those returning from the Middle East nothing but honor. The premise is, of course, false. Historians well know that the myth about protesters spitting on Vietnam veterans was cooked up in the kitchens of the Nixon White House to shame the US public into sustaining genocidal bombing long after that war had become not just a fraudulent cause but a lost fraudulent cause.

Dishonoring Vietnam veterans never actually happened, except when they spoke up about what they had seen, and then they were pursued and hounded by government, much like Obama is doing today to Bradley Manning. Manning is the alleged Wikileaker, and he is being prosecuted for adhering to the Nuremburg principles and refusing to participate in the cover up of war crimes. In actuality, in the Sixties and Seventies antiwar protesters welcomed returning vets to the barricades and handed them microphones so they could describe the atrocities they had witnessed, just like Manning. Why Obama keeps trying to bolster ancient Republican propaganda is anyone’s guess. Yet, it serves to thicken the clouds of deception that obscure our children’s vision.

The releases by Wikileaks that provide fine-grained detail of Allied atrocities in the Middle East explain why the returning Iraq vets, who receive far better benefits and honors than their predecessors, commit suicide in such unprecedented numbers. Their war, like Vietnam, is indisputably an illegal war of aggression under the Nuremburg Principles, and no-one is there fighting “to bring democracy,” “to make sure 9-11 can never be repeated,” or to thwart Muslim evildoers, be they Al Qaida or Taliban. Those are all the convenient myths of the type Voltaire warned us of. Today’s cannon fodder are mere corrupted innocents, and there but for fortune go you or we.

How a nation that directs fascist decapitations of democratic societies whenever it suits a perceived strategic needs imagines it can as easily install a democratic system from the top down, while our lordly Ambassadors don’t even speak the language, is a mystery. Before their multi-trillion-dollar Iraqi Freedom project, Republicans were fond of saying “We don’t do nation building.” Now they fault the torture czar Obama for doing exactly that, using more trillions of tax dollars. The myth is not that nation building can be done or can’t be done. The myth is that we are in the Persian Gulf for any reason other than to secure a continued supply of petroleum. Our children don’t know that. They don’t know petroleum is in finite supply.

To believe that 9-11 originated in a cave in Afghanistan at this point you would have to also believe in the tooth fairy, or Santa Claus. What kind of pattern recognition do you have when you believe in the tooth fairy?

Including the 343 firefighters and 60 police  casualties, 2,752 victims died in the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9-11. In contrast, between 2,000 and 5,000 civilians died and 20,000 homes were destroyed when the US invaded Panama in Operation Just Cause, discriminantly leveling entire city blocks to capture a rogue secret agent who was taking away the drug trade from the CIA and turning it to his own uses. In CIA parlance, the collateral damage is termed “bug-splat.”

Is there an Islamic Cultural Center in that part of Panama City today? Sure is. El Centro Cultural Islámico de Colón, on Central Avenue. Panama has 10 mosques. Maybe a better question is whether there are Christian Culture Centers close to the destroyed neighborhoods, since Panama was attacked by Christians — Just ‘Cause. Is this being taught in our schools? Would the average college freshman know what Operation Just Cause was?

The Saudis (not Iraqis) that took over the airplanes that crashed into the Trade Center and Pentagon on 9-11 were “terrorists,” our children are taught. Coalition soldiers who shoot disarmed prisoners at checkpoints in Iraq are “patriots.” (One of them is even standing for election to Congress next Tuesday after being court-martialed.) Both of those terms are mythic appellations. What is a “patriot” when lethal force is employed to defend lands stolen from indigenous peoples who have been displaced, impoverished and killed? What is a “terrorist” when one is fighting back against foreign aggressors?

We don’t even have a word for the faceless people in windowless buildings near Las Vegas, Nevada, who launch hellfire missiles at wedding parties or funeral processions from silent, unseen drones flying over Pakistan. They are myths in waiting. They do not exist in our children’s textbooks.

Turning to the election prattle, why are single payer medical systems “socialist?” What is so evil about “communism?” Weren’t Jesus Christ and the 12 apostles practicing communists? Didn’t J.C. chase the money lenders from the temple?

 But then, who was Jesus? Was not that whole New Testament narrative cobbled together from pre-existing stories that were centuries and millennia old by the time J.C. was supposed to have been born? Haven’t morphing storylines also given us the Virgin of Guadalupe? The Book of Mormon? UFOs?

Our bicameral brains seem to have a metaprogram that drives us to create an alternate narrative, a sub-text to the drama we see going on around us. For some of us, that takes the shape of demons and devils lurking in the shadows, waiting for a chance to destroy us. For others, it is an epic battle, one in which we are cast on the side of good, predisposed to undergo great sacrifice and deprivation of all manner of pleasures to ensure a favorable outcome. For still others, there are unseen, super-intelligent forces at work; aliens, quasi-military security apparati, and Bilderberg conspiracies.

Whatever your poison, there is an echo chamber where your illusions can be rendered perfectly sane. Maybe it is Glenn Beck, or maybe it is your 5th Grade Civics textbook. The Great War was due to the assassination of Serbia’s Archduke Ferdinand; Kennedy was killed by a bullet fired by Oswald, acting alone; the US elections of 2000 and 2004 and the Mexican election of 2006 had nothing to do with Diebold voting machines; obesity has nothing to do with Frankenfoods, high fructose corn syrup or bovine growth hormone; the Great Recession will soon be over; homosexuality is a promiscuous aberration; and nuclear power is clean, safe and too cheap to meter.

Orthodoxy is supposed to serve a social benefit. It is supposed to cleave us to the narrow track that provides sanity and avoids the pitfalls history has warned us of. Problem is, our cultural orthodoxy is now sending our children in the wrong direction. It is leading them off the cliff of moral disambiguity to the rocks of pummeled hubris. And because of deliberately impaired perception, they will never see it coming.

The scary part comes when some of them decide to break out of the realm of myth and stare at unvarnished reality. Frederic Nietzsche said, “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Silly Season

Octobers that come in a November election year are always the silly season, but this one is particularly daft, falling as it does at the cusp of civilizational collapse.

Virtually any candidate we can shake hands with is talking about the “speed of recovery” whether they view it as too slow, unfortunate, or the best that can be managed given the economic destruction just experienced.

A pitiful few are speaking of federal spending that might actually be a good idea — revived rail lines, green jobs in renewables and energy conservation, or bringing home the National Guard, for instance. Instead, the candidates are a chorus of raucous parrots repeating the party lines, all of which — Democratic, Republican, Green, Tea Bag — are from the la la land of a past century, when oil, coal, and uranium supplies seemed infinite and climate warming was a paltry half degree.

Of course, every rule has an exception.


Going back to the mainstream, or even the progressives, how anyone can be promising to increase the salaries of schoolteachers in the 113-degree heat of Los Angeles is almost beyond comprehension. Obviously they don’t connect the dots between a fossil fueled economy and the stains under their armpits. Robert Reich had it right when he blogged:

You want to know how to cut unemployment by half tomorrow? Get rid of the minimum wage and unemployment insurance, and make everyone who needs a job work for a dollar a day.

He was being facetious, but was more on the mark than he may have realized. In an era of declining resource availability, whether it is cheap petroleum or home mortgages, the only way to keep an economy stable is to match speeds with the rate of decline. This is not your normal business cycle. A huge number of dollars, created magically by fractional reserve banking during the heyday of deregulation, have now magically gone out of existence. As banks and governments write off bad loans and absorb the losses, the currencies backing those loans diminish. Trillions in imaginary wealth revolves back into thin air.

Where it went is less important then where it came from. It came from the pockets of home owners who had been using their overpriced houses as an ATM card, boutique mall stores that employed people to sell gee-gaws, or people who used to hire other people and now just need to buy groceries for their kids.

In this chart showing current markets and GDP and overlays of historic declines and leading economic indicators, the decline slope for 2010-2011 is 7 percent, or halving the economy every ten years. Halving the global economy every ten years is a realistic assumption based on population and available net energy trends. Buckle up. This slope could run through most of the next century. Unfortunately, it won’t change the direction of greenhouse gas pollution, or delay the consequences.

So, liberal notions of paying teachers more, or reopening colleges, pushing up the minimum wage, or subsidizing local fire departments with federal block grants, while noble, even common-sensical, are economic malfeasance. Politicians badly need to stop taking Chamber of Commerce checks and take a reality check. Everything has to contract to match the contraction of energy and natural resources.  We can do this in an orderly way or we can do it with civil strife and concatenating disasters like the summer floods in Nashville and Pakistan.

Here is a platform: get rid of the minimum wage and unemployment insurance, and make everyone who needs a job work for a dollar an hour (we are not as extreme as Reich). Forget subsidizing the bloated football programs of the State universities. Offer vo-tech for the great reskilling; training a new generation of oxen drivers and local flour millers. Teach vegetable gardening and canning in middle schools. Encourage students to leave school after the 8th grade and work at home to feed the family. Plant trees and build biochar kilns to process landfill woody wastes. Keyline fields to restore soil biology and draw carbon from the atmosphere.

Show us a politician with the guts to be talking that way and we will show you a profile in courage. That there are almost none shows just how cowardly and irrelevant our alternate Octobers have become. 




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