Sunday, January 11, 2015

Is Sustainable Development an Oxymoron?

We love Eleanor Roosevelt. And Eleanor Roosevelt loved the United Nations. While it does not necessarily follow that we too love the United Nations, we have always felt that the central idea of a United Nations was a good one, in fact it is really the only one that has any chance at all of ending war, colonialism, slave trade, arms trade, nuclear power and weapons, and destruction of the Earth's natural patrimony, be it oceans, atmosphere, biodiversity, sacred sites or indigenous wisdom.

Like it or don't, these days if you want to resolve conflict, either between groups humans or with the natural world, at the global scale, it is the only game in town.

"OK, everybody was aware of the horrors that nationalism had wrought in the immediate aftermath of World War II. So, instead of—one impulse was to create something called the United Nations. And then, the unfortunate side impulse was: Let’s not give it any power; that’s too dangerous."
— Art Spiegelman, Democracy Now, January 8, 2014

In his 2015 Forecast for the USA,  James Howard Kunstler emotes an R.Crumb-style, dystopian vision of modernity:

The pervasive racketeering that poisons American life from the money-in-politics farce, to the shameless, chiseling medical-pharma cabal, to the SNAP-card and disability rights empire of grift, to the college loan swindle, to the disgusting security state apparatus, to the corporate tyranny of local life and economies, to the delusional techno-narcissism of the media, to the despotic and puerile gender preoccupations of academia — all of it adds up to a society that cares as little for the present as it does for the future. And that’s aside from the pathetic digital device addiction of the generation coming up, and the sheer sordid behavior of the tattooed, drug-saturated, pornified masses of adults now forever foreclosed from a purposeful existence or a decent standard of living.

Even physically America is a sorry-ass spectacle: between our decrepitating cities, abandoned Main Streets, gruesome strip-mall highways, repellent and monotonous suburbs, dreary industrial ruins, profaned countryside, and desecrated coastline, there is little left to actually love about This land is Your Land. We’ve made so many collective bad choices about how we live that one can’t help feeling we are simply a wicked people who deserve to be punished.


Obama and his party can be faulted for fostering the myth that every young person needs a college degree — leading a whole generation into debt penury for no good purpose, while depriving society of a long list of vocational roles and livelihoods based on providing genuine service or value. We will be a nation of unemployed gender studies graduates instead of plumbers, electricians, organic farmers, arborists, carpenters, machinists, nurses and paramedics, small business owners, et cetera.

This enormous bundle of myths and misplaced expectations for yesterday’s tomorrow prevents the collective national imagination from summoning a revised American Dream based on repairing the massive destruction of recent decades.
Kunstler's phrase, "yesterday's tomorrow," aptly sums up much of what one feels at UN events. The themes Eleanor Roosevelt set in motion with her famous speeches on the future of the United Nations are still alive, but bear about as much resemblance to the state of the world in 2015 as rocket shoes, robo-maids or Disney Mars.

In ginning up support for nations to join the UN, Roosevelt said in Paris in 1948

Concern for the preservation and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms stands at the heart of the United Nations. Its Charter is distinguished by its preoccupation with the rights and welfare of individual men and women. The United Nations has made it clear that it intends to uphold human rights and to protect the dignity of the human personality. In the preamble to the Charter the keynote is set when it declares: "We the people of the United Nations determined...   to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and... to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom." This reflects the basic premise of the Charter that the peace and security of mankind are dependent on mutual respect for the rights and freedoms of all.

One of the purposes of the United Nations is declared in article 1 to be: "to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion."

This thought is repeated at several points and notably in articles 55 and 56 the Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the United Nations for the promotion of "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion."

We will leave aside the obvious disparity today between Obaman diplomatic positions and that of the UN charter, as evidenced by the recent Senate findings on torture, the on-going rendition and drone assassination program being run from some deep bunker in the White House, the banal daily torture programs at Gitmo, Bagram and other black sites, the malign neglect — by unilateral Security Council veto — for the human rights of Palestinians, the creation of a security state in the home city of the UN that resembles Germany c. 1933-1945, tracing its Machtergreifung (seizure of power) to the Diebold/Scalia fiasco of 2000.

Our focus instead is on the UN's increasingly out-of-touch agenda for "sustainable development" by mid-century. Because of the glacial pace of finding consensus among 180+ nations, very little gets done, and then only very slowly. Most nations change UN delegates every year or two and send newbies who are completely unacquainted with the names of the janitors, and sometimes outright opposed to the UN as an entity (UN Ambassador John Bolton in 2005, one of the authors of Cheney's Niger-Uranium-Italian-Memo). 
Sometimes they are there for the travel junkets and baby blue paraphernalia. Parking tickets owed New York City by Egypt: $1.9 million. More often, they are there as a return for some kind of political favor. Henry Kissinger was impressed with Shirley Temple Black at a cocktail party in 1967.

And yet, the UN gets handed every thankless task on the planet, man-made and otherwise. It sets up temporary refugee camps that end up growing like cancers for half a century, as in the case of the Palestinian diaspora camps. It loses hundreds of skilled paramedics to Ebola. It watches real peacemaking heroes like Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the third High Commissioner for Human Rights, get blown to bits. But it keeps slogging on, underfunded, unappreciated, and often reviled.

The Rio+20 outcome document, The Future We Want, set a mandate to establish an Open Working Group (OWG) to incorporate the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) into a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) for action by the General Assembly at its 68th session (UNGA68, Sep-Oct 2013). UNGA68 commanded that the SDGs should be the roadmap for the world's development agenda beyond 2015.

In its simplest form, the SDGs are reduced to 17 agenda items:

Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all
Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all
Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts *
Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
Each of these goals is dissected by committees, further articulated by civil partners, subjected to annual conferences and negotiations, and assigned a timetable. There are SDG policies on finance, technology, trade, capacity building and systemic issues. There are multistakeholder partnerships, data collection, monitoring and forums on accountability.

So, for instance, it is a target under Goal 16 that by 2030 there shall be legal identity for all, which means everyone should have a right to birth registration, whether they are born in a welfare hospital on Roosevelt Island, the Lindo Wing of the Imperial College, or under an acacia bush in the Subsahel.

Or, under Goal 14, by 2020, all international law shall prohibit certain forms of subsidies that contribute to fleet overcapacity, seine netting and overfishing the oceans. Or, under Goal 1, by 2030 no-one on the planet has to live on less than $1.25 per day and by then we shall have reduced at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty. Poverty still has to be defined, and there are committees working on that, but $1.25 per day is a good start.

These are worthy goals. While no one imagines that ending poverty in all its forms everywhere is even remotely possible (What about poverty of culture? Poverty of imagination? Poverty of spirit?), it seems entirely feasible that wealth could be distributed enough to assure none has to live below a standard of $1.25 per day, right?

Well, there are a few hitches in the UN process.

As discussed often on this site, the world's economic Ponzi hoax based on fractional reserve everything teters, as we read this, on the brink of collapse. Historically, whenever private debt (households plus businesses, not sovereigns) to GDP ratios run 1.5:1 or higher, and are enlarging debt annually at greater than 20% (doubling it every 3 to 4 years), according to macroeconomist Steve Keen, a crash quickly ensues. Today, nearly every country exceeds the first of those two conditions and all the major economies exceed the second. Per incuriam, financial collapse will arrive shortly. Wall Street prophets predict we'll see some real fireworks by the third or fourth quarter of 2015.
How do crashing economies respond to poverty? They make it worse. Same for the other 16 goals.

Classical economics conveniently overlooks the net energy equation, also known as EROIE, or energy return on invested energy. Economists like Paul Krugman or the Chicago school assume that energy goes on the supply side of the supply/demand balance. Any time there is a shortage of supply, demand will rise, drive up price, and more supplies will follow. One might only look at the current oil glut and the fracking boom and say "case in point." One would be sadly deluded.

As Lisa Zyga writes:

In neoclassical growth models, there are two main contributing factors to economic growth: labor and capital. However, these models are far from perfect, accounting for less than half of actual economic growth. The rest of the growth is accounted for by the Solow residual, which is thought to be attributed to the difficult-to-quantify factor of "technological progress."...

In a new study published in the New Journal of Physics, Professor Reiner Kümmel at the University of Würzburg and Dr. Dietmar Lindenberger at the University of Cologne argue that the missing ingredient represented by the Solow residual consists primarily of energy. They show that, for thermodynamic reasons, energy should be taken into account as a third production factor, on an equal footing with the traditional factors capital and labor....
Right now we are surfing a frothing energy wave. U.S. crude oil production over the last three years rose roughly 1 million b/d each year.  Analyst Tom Whipple says "That is by far the fastest rate of increase, as well as the largest absolute increase, in US crude oil production history. It might also be the largest three-year oil production increase in world oil production history." Shale oil was the reason — highest from the Eagle Ford in Texas, North Dakota’s Bakken, and five big formations in the Permian basin. But was it new gushers or cheap credit driving the boom?

Oil patch expert Arthur Berman said recently:

Continental Resources is the biggest player in the Bakken. Their free cash flow—cash from operating activities minus capital expenditures—was -$1.1 billion in the third- quarter of 2014. That means that they spent more than $1 billion more than they made. Their debt was 120% of equity. That means that if they sold everything they own, they couldn’t pay off all their debt. That was at $93 oil prices.

Despite amazing technological breakthroughs, or perhaps because of them, the cost of drilling and completing fracked wells is very high. That drives up oil company debt. Shale debt doubled over the last four years. Shell and other majors pulled out, citing vastly smaller returns than estimated.

NASA: fugitive methane emissions from wells and pipelines
Just imagine how low those returns could go if frackers were required to arrest fugitive methane emissions that give gas drilling a larger greenhouse gas footprint than coal. The invisible, odorless plume from just the New Mexico play has now grown to the size of Delaware and is monitored by NASA satellites. All told, oil and gas producers lose 8 million metric tons of methane a year, 9 percent of US emissions, enough to provide power to every household in Delaware — and Maryland and Virginia too.

The shale oil boom may plateau in the 2016-2017 time frame, then decline rapidly. The bust could even come in 2015 if a black swan event like dropping the Iranian nuclear sanctions plummets the Brent crude fix to $20/b.

Berman reminds us that Saudi Arabia met with Russia before the November OPEC meeting and proposed that if Russia — now swimming in new proven reserves — cut production, Saudi Arabia would also cut and get Kuwait and the Emirates to cut with it. According to Berman, "Russia said, 'No,' so Saudi Arabia said, 'Fine, maybe you will change your mind in six months.'"

Then a funny thing happened. Russia was slammed with a bunch of EU sanctions over its so-called "invasion" of Crimea (that was actually a naked grab by NATO for Ukraine and a popular vote by Crimeans to get the heck out of the way of whatever might be coming). Eastern Ukraine was pounded into rubble, a Dutch airliner shot down, a lot of bad stuff happened. Refugees fled into Russia. The ruble crashed. Now suddenly Russian LNG is selling for a fraction of its worth, at least the part that is not siphoned off by NATO/Ukraine on its way to Europe. Lo and behold, Russia now has a strong incentive to cut production. Who would have thought?

The fracking boom has never amounted to much more than smoke and mirrors, or as Kunstler said,

Despite the triumphal agitprop of the past few years, peak oil is for real. It just manifests more strangely than most people thought, namely, the simpleminded idea that it would only show up as ever-rising prices. No, I made point in The Long Emergency (2005) — and other commentators did too [Greer in The Long Descent, ourselves in the Post-Petroleum Guide – ed.] — that peak oil would manifest as volatility. And so since the actual moment of peak conventional crude around 2005, we’ve seen pretty wild oscillations in the price of oil. This is due to the harsh reality that the price people and enterprises can afford to pay for increasingly harder-to-get oil is less than the price that makes it possible to get it. This sets up a yo-yo-ing instability in economic performance that exacerbates even normal wave patterns in the business cycle (which are, in turn, aggravated by banks and governments’ interventions such as ZIRP to suppress those cycles). Below $70-a-barrel the producers go broke; above $70-a-barrel the customers go broke. So the price wobbles up and down as financial Ponzis like shale oil are introduced onto the scene in the hope that debt finagling and mineral rights leasing scams can substitute for physics and geological reality. One trouble with this is that each violent oscillation generates more economic and financial destruction. Activities like motoring, aviation, manufacturing, and retail are badly affected and the entire financial system is made more fragile by worsening increments. Most importantly, the cost structure of the oil industry itself gets battered to a degree that fewer companies can survive to produce the remaining oil.
Without economic propulsion from that magic elixir, the planet's 500-million-year savings account of fossil energy, how do we suppose any of those 17 SDG targets are going to be met? And if we are on the backside of the curve now, since 2005, that means we are also descending Maslow's pyramid of needs and wants. Our aspirations move from higher goals, such as reducing inequality within and among countries or promoting life-long learning opportunities, to goals like finding food, water and shelter for the three or more billion people fleeing rising coastlines and other climate chaos by mid-century.

Of course, there is also the issue of human population. The UN has recognized the importance of this, establishing the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. That conference received considerable media attention due to disputes regarding the assertion of reproductive rights. The Holy See and the Islamic bloc were staunch critics. Bill Clinton was chastised by evangelical conservatives for sending Al Gore, an evangelical, to represent the US.

Twenty years later, the population issue remains deadlocked at the UN, much like the climate issue. It is understandable. In the case of climate, to disengage from soiling our nest would mean having to abandon capitalism and that whole profit thing. That will always be a non-starter, despite all the evidence it is driving us towards near-term human extinction.

For us to reduce population would mean bucking the fecundity strategy that our species evolved even before it had a frontal cortex. Sex just feels good. It's in our lizard brain. You gonna stop that? Maybe with the Koran or the Bible? Seriously? How is that working out with drugs and alcohol? Sugar craving? Homosexuality? Pork?

The UN says:

Sustainable Development Goals are accompanied by targets and will be further elaborated through indicators focused on measurable outcomes. They are action oriented, global in nature and universally applicable. They take into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respect national policies and priorities. They build on the foundation laid by the MDGs [Millennial Development Goals], seek to complete the unfinished business of the MDGs, and respond to new challenges. These goals constitute an integrated, indivisible set of global priorities for sustainable development. Targets are defined as aspirational global targets, with each government setting its own national targets guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances. The goals and targets integrate economic, social and environmental aspects and recognize their interlinkages in achieving sustainable development in all its dimensions.
Sustainable development is unsustainable, if it means sustaining a system of piling up material wealth, ruthless exploitation of finite resources, extracted at great social and environmental cost, not recycling or distributing back but instead rewarding the acquisitive, and building high-embodied-energy monuments called cities, which reduce people to living on paychecks, drawing dwindling resources from the distant periphery towards the empirical center, and then multiplying that whole enterprise by some doubling function based upon the survival rate of sperm in the ampulla.

As Manab Chakraborty said, "Development is expanding to satisfy unlimited wants. Sustainability is happiness within limited means." Infinite material development is incompatible with sustainability.

Sustainable development is sustainable if what is developed is not more, but better: better quality of life, better food from better soils, better climate, better and abundant water, better diversity of fellow lifeforms, and so forth. This better is the enemy of more. The way to sustainability, which is illusory at best, as a species, is through systemic degrowth, not reflexive growth.

In 2006, when we proposed "the Great Change," as the best way to describe the next few decades, as opposed to "the Great Turning," "the Long Descent," or "the Long Emergency," we were trying to be optimistic. It may be foolish, but that is our bent. The Great Change is about a slow-building but then sudden shift, less having to do with physical constraints and ways of coping, as about changing our minds after grasping something we had long overlooked.

Our global outlook will change, suddenly and collectively. We will all, suddenly, understand the story differently than our parents and grandparents did. Many of us may not live to see that happen, but we might. What that moment implies is not some supernatural singularity issuing in an Age of Aquarius (can I hear a Hosanna?), but a serious reckoning of what we still have within our power. Hopefully it will be accompanied with the knowledge of what must be done to heal a broken ecological balance and save ourselves. Dispensing that information is the function of this website. This is the hope that drives it.

What we can work towards is, as Kunstler said, "the collective national imagination … summoning a revised American Dream [and its global counterpart] based on repairing the massive destruction." That is what we call The Great Change.

When the UN was resurrected from the rubble of total, genocidal war punctuated by a small foretaste of nuclear holocaust, the idea was that men should live by rules. Rules should be serious, reality based, and legally enforced.

When the moment of recognition comes that many old, fossilized rules from the Age of Empires serve us poorly and much of what the UN has been grinding through for 68 years is the only serious game in town, we can take those 17 goals and turn them into rules. Break the rules, pay the consequences. Abide within the rules, and life can be very, very good.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Climate Mash

"Much of our obsession about knowing in advance what is coming has to do with fear."

  Our favorite subjects for this blog are climate change, energy and civilization collapse. We spend equal amounts of time describing the remedies for these evils — permaculture, ecovillage, biochar, and carbon farming, for instance, because we hold out a sliver of hope humanity still might be able to redirect our otherwise dismal prospects.

Malcolm X said "tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” Much of our obsession about knowing in advance what is coming has to do with fear. We feel insecure about the future. We sense a chill wind blowing, a storm approaching. It is visceral. It is in the zeitgeist. No one has to speak of it, we all … just … know. Can we find a safe place? Can we lay in some supplies? What about our loved ones? What about our previous life, possessions, skills, interests?

But to prepare we first need to know. What are we talking about? Can we know, even in rough outlines? And if we get that right, can we do anything now that would change the outcome to something more to our liking?

That is why we study climate, and write about it, and try to understand. It is a really angry beast at the gates. A hundred thousand years ago it gave us an extraordinary gift, and by delicately, respectfully, reverently abiding within a dance of life and death with that gift, we won an extraordinary, unprecedented run of the perfect global climate for mammalian life, capped by 12000 years of exceptionally good days. And what did we do? We blew it off for an infatuation with muscle cars and motorcycles.

Here then is what we learned about the future in 2014.

Our special thanks for the many who contributed to this report:

BBC News
Bill McKibben
Biochar Bob Cirino
Biochar Solutions
Biodiversity for a Livable Climate   
Blue Sky Biochar
Carbon Roots International
Eoin Campbell / GoPro Camera
Fox News
General Anthony Zinni
General Chuck Wald
General Gordon Sullivan
General Ron Keyes
General Wesley Clark
Global National
Global Observatory
Guy McPherson
Hugh McLaughlin
Jason A YouTube Channel
Jeffrey Wallin
Johannes Lehmann
Josiah Hunt
Kelpie Wilson
Michael Wittman
Mycorrhizal Applications, Inc.
Natalia Shakova
Paul Beckwith
Peter Sinclair
Peter Wadhaus
Rear Admiral David Titley
Right Livelihood Foundation
Rosie Boycott
Stuart Scott, UPFSI
The Biochar Company
Tom Goreau, Global Coral Reef Alliance
Tom Newmark, The Carbon Underground
Tufts University
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
US Biochar Initiative
Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Farewell 2014

There is this funny little Facebook app that summarizes one's year in a handful of selected photos. At first we ignored it, but then we liked some of the albums we were sent by friends, so we made one ourselves. The limitations of the medium quickly became apparent.

How can we summarize the past 12 months of one human life in 12-16 photos? And what about the two new books we published, the dozens of essays, the seeming quixotic but intensely rewarding research, the mentoring of bright new talents, or the lovely blossoming of friendships, new and old?

James Gleick said, “Every new medium transforms the nature of human thought." If that is true, our evolution is now being hijacked by Facebook and Twitter, a form of cultural lobotomy — the truncation of elegant, poetic, ineffable life passages into 140 characters.

We thought it might be nice to close the year with an album of a different kind. Instead of measuring our outputs, we decided to have a look at the new inputs we tapped. We began a review of some of our favorite books, films and performances of 2014. Then, as we started to list them, it quickly became unmanageable. For instance, there were at least 85 books that we can remember getting through at least in part during this past year. The number of films and TV series has to be at least that long. We can recall binge watching entire seasons of some clever series in a couple days, downloading them from the web. At least we didn't go to many conferences, but the total number of inspired speakers we heard, or later watched via web links, is larger than both of the other categories.

To keep this to a manageable length – precisely the kind of truncation we just complained of - what we have assembled is just our tops in class for each of those three categories. We live in a rural ecovillage and do not have ready access to the art theatres, galleries, dance studios, off-broadway, or many other cultural crosscurrents enjoyed by our city cousins, or these lists might have been much better. We like to think our enjoyment of the daily display put on by the natural world more than makes up for any cultural privations.

Best Book: 

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

While we have seen some of this before in the pages of The New Yorker and love her previous Field Notes from a Catastrophe, the 336-page Sixth Extinction was hard to set down. Kolbert is one of the best science writers alive today, and her final insights were disturbing even for confirmed doomers such as ourselves.

Also ran:

Just Kids
by Patti Smith.

A touching memoir we read on our annual dugout canoe journey upriver in Belize. Still amazed at the depth of detail, and in awe of Patti Smith's journaling skills in her raw youth.

Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
This book came out in 2010 and it has generated a lot of controversy. Everyone should read it to better understand how cultural biases have been perverting our better natures.

Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health by William Davis
This is not memorable wordsmithing and it is even more controversial than Sex at Dawn, but it changed our life by changing what we eat. See too: David Perlmutter, Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar--Your Brain's Silent Killers

The Man Who Quit Money by William Sundeen
The central character is not as admirable as the title might suggest, but this non-fiction chronicle is top notch. Some day we may all find ourselves in similar situations, sans volition.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick. "In the long run, history is the story of information becoming aware of itself.” “We have met the Devil of Information Overload and his impish underlings, the computer virus, the busy signal, the dead link, and the PowerPoint presentation.” “When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive.”

Books best avoided:

Arcadia by Lauren Groff
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein

Top Conference Presentation:

Global Oil Market Forecasting: Main Approaches & Key Drivers by Steven Kopits, Managing Director, Douglas-Westwood at Columbia SIPA: CGEP, Center on Global Energy Policy, February 2014. In the showdown between earth and economy, Mother Nature bats last.

Also rans:

Biodiversity for a Livable Climate in Massachusetts. Watch the whole thing. If we have to pick one standout, it would be Larry Kopald, Co-Founder and President of The Carbon Underground, speaking on the tipping points of viral memes (embed below).

Savory Institute's Annual International Conference in London. Watch the available videos while they are still outside the Savory paywall. Best of breed: Elaine Ingham, Darren Doherty.

Age of Limits Dennis Meadows doesn't accept many invitations to speak these days, but he came out for the Age of Limits conference in Pennsylvania and, as usual, he dazzled. Earlier video link here:

Best avoided: COP-20 Lima, and anything with the word "Sustainable" in the title.

Films and TV:

Our favorite: Shameless on Showtime
This is cinema verité at its pinnacle: dirty, dark, contemporary, biting. Collapse has already arrived. Most USAnians don't get to see it unless they look under the rug. This series gets it, with delicious humor.

Also rans:

America's Darling (PBS)
Boom Bust (RT)
Boss (Starz)
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Homeland (Showtime)
House of Cards (Netflix)
Keiser Report (RT)
Lilyhammer (Netflix)
Lucy (EuropaCorp)
Mad Men (AMC)
Masters of Sex (Showtime)
Nixon's The One (YouTube)
Silicon Valley (HBO)
The Geoff Lawton Permaculture Design Course series (Vimeo)
The Good Wife (CBS)
The Honourable Woman (Sundance)
The Newsroom (HBO)
The Trews (YouTube)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount)
Transcendence (Warner Brothers)   
True Detective (HBO)


Madam Secretary  - A drama about the personal and professional life of a Hillary Clinton character as she tries to balance her work and family life. Flogging for Drone Wars, the CIA and Gitmo. Téa Leoni, have you no shame? (CBS)

True Blood – The bayou vampire classic, now too formulaic in its old age, would have been merciful to end a couple seasons earlier. (Showtime)

Walking Dead (AMC, same problem).

24 (Fox) "Every week, Jack Bauer saves civilization by torturing someone, and it works." - Senator Angus King, of Maine.

Finally, as we are often called upon to write cover blurbs, here is the best of that lot from 2014, actually a book review, penned by Sam Anderson, critic at large for The New York Times Magazine:
Imperial is like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker with the attitude of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, if Robert Caro had been raised in an abandoned grain silo by a band of feral raccoons, and if Mike Davis were the communications director of a heavily armed libertarian survivalist cult, and if the two of them had somehow managed to stitch John McPhee’s cortex onto the brain of a Gila monster, which they then sent to the Mexican border to conduct ten years of immersive research, and also if they wrote the entire manuscript on dried banana leaves with a toucan beak dipped in hobo blood, and then the book was line-edited during a 36-hour peyote séance by the ghosts of John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis, with 200 pages of endnotes faxed over by Henry David Thoreau’s great-great-great-great grandson from a concrete bunker under a toxic pond behind a maquiladora, and if at the last minute Herman Melville threw up all over the manuscript, rendering it illegible, so it had to be re-created from memory by a community-theater actor doing his best impression of Jack Kerouac. With photographs by Dorothea Lange. (Viking has my full blessing to use that as a blurb.)”  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Biochar Christmas

"It may have been our ancient taste for charcoal that coded a segment of our taste receptors to favor foods cooked over glowing embers."

As more and more research is devoted to biochar we confirm again and again that it is both miraculous as a climate-change arresting store of organic carbon and as a nutrient densifier in organic and biodynamic gardening. Climate-wise, it has the potential to take us back to something more hospitable than what is now in store for us. It also has the potential to multiply our stores of nutrient dense foods. And lately we've learned something else — the power of biochar as a nonalcoholic digestif.

The use of charcoal in cooking extends back into prehistory — beyond the horizon of our earliest known civilizations — but paleoclimatology tells us that when organized societies scaled up their charcoal production — making lime for the monumental architecture of the Aztec Triple Alliance, for instance — they all too often wreaked havoc on both forest and sky to such an extent that it led to their own precipitous decline and outmigration.

Frances D. Burton, in Fire: The Spark That Ignited Human Evolution, dates hominid use of fire to 1.6 to 2 million years before present, and charcoal cooking to the beginning of that period.

We don't know when the discovery of the gastric benefits of charcoal first arrived, but it may have come from the observation of the habits of animals, such as Red colobus monkeys in Africa, who improve their diet by seeking out char from the forest floor after wildfires, enabling them to relieve the indigestion caused by toxins in some leafy greens.

Other monkeys experience bouts of diarrhea brought on by parasites and viruses. The bonnet macaques of Southern India have taken to eating dirt from termite mounds. Why eat dirt from termite mounds? The dirt contains kaolin minerals, the same ingredient found in over the counter anti-diarrheics such as Kaopectate. Rhesus macaques also partake in geophagy, the eating of dirt, for the same reasons. Clay also contains kaolin, and the rhesus macaques take extra care to only ingest clay-rich soils.
Nature: Clever Monkeys (PBS 2011)

Mother monkeys teach their young to do this, as indeed our own ancestors may have taught their young, even before we had speech and flint tools.

Of course not all charcoal is biochar and not all biochar is the same. Bone black is the carbonaceous residue obtained from the dry distillation of bones. It contains 80 percent calcium and magnesium phosphates and other inorganic material; the slow-pyrolysis resistant minerals originally present in the animal bone tissue. Charred animal manure will be high in nitrogen and potassium. Activated charcoal — created by steam treatment of charcoal to enhance the absorptive capacity of the micropores — is what most ambulances, ERs and rural clinics use to treat poisonings.

It may have been our ancient taste for charcoal that coded a segment of our taste receptors to favor foods cooked over glowing embers. Consider the popularity of the Hawaiian luau, Indian tandoor, Brazilian rodizio, Colombian lomo al trapo, Argentinian parallada, Japanese yakitori, and Indonesian satay. In Thailand and Korea, they use a small tabletop charcoal hibachi for thinly sliced meat and vegetables. While you cook, the meat and juices drip down into the second chamber, making the meat low in fat and giving you a rich broth to use as a soup or a savory sauce. Both meat and broth contain traces of biochar.

Banquet scene: Ur 2600 BCE

We have previously written in this space about the applications of biochar in animal husbandry, from improving the fermentation of silage and sweetening the smell of a barn to reducing the need for antibiotics by naturally aiding the ability of cattle to cleanse their intestinal tracts of pathogens. It should come as no surprise that biochar improves human digestion in exactly the same way, by partnering with our own, unique, beneficial, essential gastrointestinal microbiome to stimulate phage immunogenicity, fight off infection antigens and reverse toxin-loading. Improving the gastrointestinal flora diversity doesn't just help us fight disease; it aids immunomodulatory activity of phages such as phagocytosis and the respiratory burst of phagocytic cells, the production of cytokines, and the generation of antibodies on standby.

This Christmas and Chanukah we would like to offer a few recipes as a gift to those wee beasties in our gut lining that have been silently (and sometimes not so silently) helping us all year long.

Our holiday dinner will not follow any of the traditions we ourselves grew up with on snowy mornings in Wilton, Connecticut. There will be no stuffed turkey, cranberry jelly, buiscuits or mashed potatoes with giblet gravy, although for those who can source free-range, antibiotic-free turkeys from a local farmer and have that desire, please go ahead.

Nor will we follow our usual tradition at The Farm of a hickory smoked seitan roast, recorded in our mother's now-classic Cooking with Gluten and Seitan (1993).

After co-teaching permaculture courses with Nicole Foss and at her recommendation absorbing Wheat Belly and Grain Brain, and then sorting through the scientific controversy those books stirred, still swirling around neurochemistry frontiers in peer-reviewed literature, we are going to take a pass on the seitan roast, thank you very much.

Instead, we shall prepare this year a traditional feast from the Holy Land, augmented with biochar as a flavor enhancer and digestif. Today is 29th of Kislev, 5775 on the Jewish calendar. Perhaps there was a bit of biochar in the candlelit Chanukah supper 5775 years ago.

There are about 200,000 Christians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza who mark these holy days by the Western Catholic calendar on Dec. 4. In Bethlehem, families often cook more than a kilo of wheat for the occasion, well exceeding what a single household can eat. From the wheat berries they make a burbara porridge to share with both Christian and Muslim neighbors. A family burbara pot may last a full week.

We propose to prepare a wheat-free burbara, using a mix of organic yellow cornmeal, stone-cut oatmeal, hempseed meal and flaxseed meal, and, of course, biochar.

Departing just a little from the Holy Land, we plan our burbara to be accompanied by a Cuban piccadillo, in honor of the Christmas deal struck between Obama and Castro, at the urging of Pope Francis, to normalize relations. We will begin with a small appetizer of soup, then the piccadillo and burbara, with buttered brussel sprouts on the side, as our entrée. That is likely the most filling part of the meal, so what follows will be lighter, in the tradition of a hot, desert climate: side plates of fatayer, celery, carrots, pear tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, broccoli florets, sliced yellow squash, shiitake pickles and baba ghannouj, with scintillating conversation among family, neighbors and friends. Dessert will be stuffed dates — the perfect company for tea or coffee.

And while we sip our demitasse, we might just let it slip that we are doing a wonderful crowdsource funding campaign for our favorite project at The Farm this year, #The Hippies Were Right.

Preparing biochar for food:

When making food-grade biochar, we generally select for our substrate a woody-stemmed plant such as bamboo, vetiver, miscanthus, rice hulls, cacao pods, or coconut shells. We would probably not want to use poultry or other animal manures, soldier fly larvae, offal or bones, less because of any latent toxicity than because of the thought of what you are eating when it arrives at the table.

We fine-grind the char, using a coffee grinder at the last stage, reducing it to a fine, feathery powder. This will form the basis for each use in the recipes that follow.

Last year we took a wonderful fermentation intensive with Sandor Katz and later invited him to co-teach a workshop at The Farm called "Fermaculture" — Fermentation and Permaculture. Sandor introduced us to Michael Pollan's excellent book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and that in turn introduced us to the fine art of mirepoix, sofrito, battuto, and other humble beginnings.

Sofrito is a Spanish mixture of onion, garlic, and tomatoes gently sautéed in a slick of olive oil. It is called soffritto in Italy, where parsley leaves and fennel, or sometimes finely diced cured meats like pancetta or prosciutto scraps can find their way into the mix. The Polish włoszczyzna — translation: "Italian stuff"—  is soffritto.

Mirepoix (onion, carrot, celery) in France, suppengrün (carrot, celeriac, leek) in Germany, and most Cajun bayou cooking (onion, celery, green bell pepper), along with almost every cuisine in the world start with a common simple, balanced, vegetable base in a slow simmering stew.

"Homely in the best sense," Pollan writes, "pot dishes are about marrying lots of prosaic little things rather than elevating one big thing. In fact, it is the precise combination of these chopped-up plants that usually gives a pot dish its characteristic flavor and cultural identity." Cuban sofrito tends to taste more like the creole, while Ecuadorians begin a meal with sofritos of freshly toasted cumin, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and sweet cubanelle peppers. In Puerto Rico its known as recaíto, where culantro leaves are minced down to confetti size and joined by ajices dulces.

The secret is the slow breakdown of the long protein chains of the vegies into amino acids that activate your flavonoid sensors and confer umami. These will enliven the taste of almost anything.

Biochar Mushroom Sofrito 

Serves 4 to 6

3 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 medium sweet potato, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 leeks, white parts only, split in half lengthwise, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1 c cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 small bunch kale, thick stems removed, leaves roughly torn
1 tsp soy sauce
pink mineral salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp nutritional yeast
1 tsp biochar
1 to 2 Tbsp fresh juice from 1 lemon
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley leaves
Extra-virgin olive oil

Break dried mushrooms into half-inch pieces. Add mushrooms, broth, leeks, carrot, celery, sweet potato, chickpeas, kale, and soy sauce to a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes until vegetables begin to come apart. Stir in nutritional yeast and allow to simmer 2 minutes longer.

Season to taste with salt and pepper, stir in lemon juice, dash of olive oil and parsley, garnish with sprinkle of biochar and serve.

Cuban Piccadillo
Serves 4 to 6

Many people who have yet to visit Cuba assume that the birthplace of the Habanero pepper will be a center of hot cuisine. While Havana sports many trendy restaurants and night clubs, spicy foods are not something most Cubans prefer. Salt, pepper, garlic and onion are about as hot as it usually gets.

1 large waxy potato peeled and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/2 lb fresh shiitake or local wild mushrooms stemmed and cut into 1-inch sections
(For authentic Cuban substitute 1 lb pulled pork)
1 small red bell pepper, cored and seeded, finely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 c diced canned tomatoes
4 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped (about 4 teaspoons)
1 medium yellow or white onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1/2 c pimento stuffed olives plus 2 tablespoons brine
1/3 c raisins
1/2 c dry white wine
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp dried oregano
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 Tbsp capers
1 tsp biochar
Pink mineral salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 c steamed white rice

Grill bell pepper and remove charred skins before chopping. Heat oil in large iron skillet until shimmering. Add onion, mushrooms and bell pepper and sauté, stirring occasionally, 5 to 7 minutes. Add tomato paste, garlic, cumin, oregano, 1 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp pepper, and bay leaves and cook until fragrant and tomato paste darkens in color, about 2 minutes. Add wine and reduce, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, raisins, olives, capers, brine, and potatoes. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until potatoes are tender, about 12 minutes.

Remove cover and season to taste with salt and pepper and garnish with biochar. Remove and discard bay leaves. Serve with half the steamed rice garnished with biochar. Reserve the other half of the rice for the Fatayer.

Wheat Free Burbara 

Serves 20

5 cup cornmeal
3 c. oatmeal
2 c. hempseed meal
2 c. flaxseed meal
10 cinnamon sticks
¼ c. chickpea flour
¼ c. ground coconut
¼ c. candied anise and fennel seeds
1/2 c. cane syrup 
5 tsp pink mineral salt
10 tsp ground nutmeg
1 oz. Vanilla Extract
1 Tbsp food-grade biochar


Candied anise and fennel seed:
¼ c. fennel and anise seeds
1/4 c. cane syrup
½ c. water
Toast the anise and fennel seeds in a small skillet over high heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. In a small saucepan cook the sugar and water over moderate heat until browned. Remove from the heat and stir in the seeds, then strain, reserving the syrup reduction. Spread seeds to dry with their candy coating.

Fill a 3-quart saucepan with water and salt and bring to a boil, slowly whisking in the four grain meals. Simmer at medium heat, stirring with wood spoon until mixture starts to thicken. Stir in vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon sticks and reserved syrup reduction. Lower heat and stir until porridge is thick and creamy. Remove cinnamon sticks and pour into bowls. Garnish with chickpea flour, ground coconut, and candied anise and fennel seeds, and biochar.

Biochar Middle Eastern Plates

Serves 4-6

Despite what your Uncle Harry tells you, Christmas is observed in most Middle Eastern countries. Saudi Arabia currently has a ban on any other religion besides Islam but Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria have lots of Christians. This plate is made of many of the delicacies you will find at Christmas dinner in the Holy Land. Most of the ingredients can be grown in four season greenhouses anywhere.

Biochar Ghannouj

Serves 4-6


1 large eggplant
1 clove garlic
1/4 - 1/2 c lemon juice (depending on taste)
3 Tbsp tahini
1 tsp salt
3 tsp olive oil

2 Tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp olive oil
1 tsp biochar


Preheat oven to 375 degrees and bake eggplant for 30 minutes, or until outside is crisp and inside is soft. Allow to cool for 20 minutes. Cut open and scoop out the flesh into colander and allow to drain for 10 minutes. Removing the excess liquid helps to eliminate a bitter flavor.

Place eggplant flesh in a medium bowl. Add remaining ingredients and mash together. You can also use a food processor instead of by hand and pulse for about 2 minutes. 

Place in serving bowl and top with biochar, lemon juice and olive oil. Add other garnishes, such as pine nuts and red pepper, according to taste and local availability.


Wheat-free Biochar Spinach Fatayer
Serves 4-6

Wheat-free Dough:
1 c steamed rice (reserved from Piccadillo)
1/2 tsp salt
3 Tbsp vegetable oil

Biochar Spinach Filling:

1/2 lb fresh spinach, finely chopped
1 small onion, chopped
3 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 c walnuts, chopped
1/8 tsp ground sumac berries

¼ c biochar

Preheat over to 425 degrees.

In a medium bowl, combine rice and salt. Add oil and mash. Once oil is absorbed, add 1/4 c warm water. Knead into an elastic dough and form into balls.

Wash spinach and soak in salted water while you chop onion and walnuts. Rinse spinach and dry thoroughly with paper towel. Combine and toss filling ingredients.

Place 2 teaspoons of filling in the center of each ball of dough. Cover filling with dough and form into triangular shape. Dip dough triangles in biochar. Bake for 10-15 minutes on greased baking sheet, until golden brown. 

Allow to cool 5 minutes before serving.

Other Offerings:

Steamed Brussels Sprouts

The classic method of steaming uses a steamer basket or insert. Bring about an inch of water to a boil in the bottom of a pot into which your steamer basket or insert fits. Put trimmed and cleaned brussels sprouts in the steamer basket, set over the boiling water, cover, and steam until tender to the bite, about 5 minutes.

Alternatively, bring a scant 1/2 inch salted water to boil in a large frying pan or saute pan. Add brussels sprouts, cover, and cook until sprouts are tender to the bite and water has evaporated, about 5 minutes (depending on how crisp you like your cooked sprouts).

Serve with melted butter for dipping, shaker of salt and grinder for pepper.

Biochar Shiitake Pickles

We started experimenting with this right after we had harvested the last of our summer eggplant and hard rains brought us a bounty of fall shiitake. We finished making the eggplant pickles as planned, following our mother's recipe from The Farm Vegetarian Cookbook, and then we made shiitake pickles the same way, but adding a sprinkling of biochar to the ferment.

2 lbs shiitake mushrooms and a few sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary and sage
1 qt cider or white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp pickling salt
1 Tbsp biochar
2 c extra-virgin olive oil
5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
3 jalapeño peppers
1 fresh chili habañero, deseeded and chopped finely
Sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary and sage

Wash and stem the mushrooms and slice them across the cap in strips. Place in a mixing bowl, layering in 2 Tbsp of pickling salt and 1 Tbsp of biochar and a few sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary and sage as you go. Compress under weight overnight. This will bring a salty brine to the surface that submerges the mushrooms.

The next day, prepare sterilized pickling jars and have them at the ready.

Drain off the brine. If you prefer reduced sodium in your diet, briefly rinse the mushrooms in a colander but try not to rinse away the herbs and biochar. Sauté the mushrooms in a wok of preheated olive oil, adding sliced garlic and chilies, about 5 minutes or until the mushrooms and garlic begin to brown. Remove the mushrooms, peppers and garlic and immerse in a bowl filled with vinegar. Place the hot mushrooms and pickling marinade into the sterilized jars, filling them to the very top. Cover completely with the marinade and put the lids on tightly. Put the jars aside until they're cool. Clean the jars, attach sticky labels and write the date and the contents on them. Store the jars somewhere cool and dark - it's best to leave them for about 2 weeks before opening so the vegetables really get to marinate well, but if you absolutely cannot wait, you can eat them sooner. They'll keep for about 3 months.

Dessert: Stuffed Dates with Biochar 

Serves 4-6

1/2 c butter or margarine such as Earth Balance
2 c powdered sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbsp rice or almond milk (or more, as needed)
15 pitted dates
15 toasted almonds or pecans
Powdered sugar for dusting
1 tsp biochar


Beat together the butter or margarine, vanilla extract, and 1 cup of the powdered sugar until they are well mixed. Slowly add remaining powdered sugar until all is mixed in. Continue to beat with mixer and add rice milk a little bit at a time until frosting is smooth and fluffy.

Stuff dates with one toasted almond or pecan per date. Roll in powdered sugar. Place on greased wax paper in the refrigerator until ready to serve. 

Serve stuffed dates with dusting of biochar and powdered sugar, and coffee or tea.

Happy Holidays! 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

COP 20: Getting to Sweden

"1.5°C is the new 2°C.  Zero by 2050, valved by scientific instrumentation, is now in the sausage hopper."

It is wholly appropriate that the 20th UN climate change conference (#COP20) met in the Peruvian army headquarters, known as "El Pentagonito," where former Presidente Alberto Fujimori liked to torture and interrogate his political prisoners. Peru is now the world’s fourth most dangerous country for environmental defenders — 57 activists have been assassinated, four in September alone. Assassination is another useful word to describe what is happening to the climate. But the climate conference has its own style of torture, much of it involving sleep deprivation and stress positions.

This COP had just one goal, which was to "finalize" an ambitious international agreement that will be watered down in Paris this time next year. "No Lima, No Paris" was the slogan going in, two weeks ago. Towards the end, after listening to days of hand-wringing speeches recalling the disaster at Copenhagen, the delegates found themselves at impasse.

Going into the final sessions, the draft Decision document tried to express that impasse in positive, if tortured, language.

Draft decision -/CP.20 Further advancing the Durban Platform, Recommendation of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action
…Noting with grave concern the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with having a likely chance of holding the increase in global average temperature below 2 °C or 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels … [the COP:]

1.    Confirms that the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action shall complete the work … as early as possible in order for the Conference of the Parties at its twenty-first session (November- December 2015) to adopt a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties;
2.    Decides that the protocol… shall address, inter alia, mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, capacity-building and transparency of action and support in a balanced manner;
3.    Urges developed country Parties to provide and mobilize support to developing country Parties for ambitious mitigation and adaptation actions, especially to Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change; and invites other Parties willing to do so to complement such support;


12.    Decides that all Parties shall, in the context of their intended nationally determined contributions and in order to facilitate clarity, transparency and understanding, provide information on the reference point (including, as appropriate, a base year), time frames and/or periods for implementation, scope and coverage, planning processes, assumptions and methodological approaches including those for estimating and accounting for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and, as appropriate, removals, and how the Party considers that its intended nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances, and how it contributes towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2;

16.    Encourages all Parties to the Kyoto Protocol to ratify and implement the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol;
17.    Decides to accelerate the implementation of decision 1/CP.19, paragraphs 3 and 4, by convening a forum to be held in conjunction with the forty-fourth sessions (May 2016) and the forty-sixth sessions (May 2017) of the subsidiary bodies and invites all Parties to participate in the forum in order to:
(a)    Be informed by the status of implementation of the institutional arrangements under the Convention;
(b)    Assess the need to mobilize financial resources, technological support and capacity-building support to enable developing country Parties to implement their nationally appropriate mitigation actions;
(c)    Review the progress made in the technical examination of good practice policies, technologies, financial arrangements and options to enhance pre-2020 ambition;
(d)    Facilitate the coherence of the work of the Convention bodies relevant to the implementation of pre-2020 climate action;
18.    Also decides to continue the technical examination of opportunities with high mitigation potential, including those with adaptation, health and sustainable development co-benefits, in the period 2015–2020, by requesting the secretariat to:
(a)    Organize a series of in-session technical expert meetings which:
(i)    Facilitate Parties in the identification of policy options, practices and technologies and in planning for their implementation in accordance with nationally defined development priorities;
(ii) Build on and utilize the related activities of, and further enhance collaboration and synergies among, the Technology Executive Committee, theClimate Technology Centre and Network, the Durban Forum on capacity-building, the Executive Board of the clean development mechanism and the operating entities of the Financial Mechanism;
(iii)    Build on previous technical expert meetings in order to hone and focus on actionable policy options;
(iv)    Provide meaningful and regular opportunities for the effective engagement of experts from Parties, relevant international organizations, civil society, indigenous peoples, women, youth, academic institutions, the private sector, and subnational authorities nominated by their respective countries;
(v)    Support the accelerated implementation of policy options and enhanced mitigation action, including through international cooperation;

Those were some excerpts from the draft presented for comments at the Saturday morning Plenary after a negotiating session the night before that went until 3.30am. At first it looked a lot like the recent debate in the US Congress over the government shutdown bill — it had enough foul play in it to alienate both rabid Teabaggers and spreadsheet Democrats but in the end it squeaked through, averting another billion-dollar-wasting government furlough. Senator Elizabeth Warren, noting that bankster toadies had written the section repealing essential parts of Dodd-Frank banking reform, observed that just that one corporation, Citibank, is now large enough to hold the whole country for ransom.

The debate over the UN draft coalesced around a similar divide in the political philosophies that have bedeviled the world for the past four or more centuries. At issue was whether to consider the world's entire population, and by extension the whole planet, as a single family.

On one pole are Jeffersonians. These are the people who apparently were given an adequate sense of security as children, with loving family environments and kindly potty training. Jeffersonians think it would be a good idea to try to raise everyone to a level of equal opportunity, even if that means small sacrifices by those of noble birth. In the US, these people voted for Obama, want immigration and medical system reform, and detest what is happening in Palestine. At the UN this is the Africa Group, the Island Nations and the G77, who keep pushing for common but differentiated action, technology development and transfer, capacity-building and transparency of actions under a legally-binding regime.

On the other pole are the Hamiltonians. These are the people who keep chanting about "family values" because when growing up they were brutalized and now they do the same for their children to teach them that the world is unfair and everyone has to look out for number one. Their DNA compels them towards herd behavior, but rather than seeing the whole world as their herd, they see only those who wear Harvard ties and clawed their way into the one percent. In their minds, they must vigilantly hold their hard-earned privileges against the tide of mud people that threaten to sully their guest room linens. In the US, these people voted for Romney, want to cut off immigration and cancel Obamacare, and support Israel, right or wrong. At the UN, Hamiltonians include the US, Israel, Australia, Belize, Canada, UK, Switzerland, and the Cayman Islands.

China went into the COP intending to join the Hamiltonians but in the end switched sides and joined the Jeffersonians, which created a bit of a stir.

The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage is a good example of the snares that pop up whenever Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians try to walk a path together, reaching out and holding hands, all Kumbaya, as it were. "Loss and Damage" is a UN buzzword that symbolizes, for the Jeffersonians, an opportunity to undo the historic climate debt incurred by the rich countries in the process of burning through several hundred million years of fossil sunlight in order to become richer than Croesus.

The Hamiltonians, apart from Scandinavia and Germany, do not even acknowledge climate debt. Such a concept! "Where was the intention?" a US negotiator asked Amy Goodman. It is the US position that dredging up history, harkening back to an era when everyone thought differently about resources and class systems, is futile and that we should just look forward. Given Obama's remarks this past week on the zero possibility of prosecutions for torture, that kind of advice coming from the US has a particularly hollow ring.

Yet, this small philosophical difference has become such a serious stumbling block that it threatens to derail otherwise remarkable progress. As Jamie Henn of told Democracy Now!:

"One of the most interesting things that’s happening in the text right now is discussions about this long-term goal of where this treaty is really headed. In the past, it’s just been put in, in terms of temperature targets or percentage reductions. Now, for the first time, delegates are really talking seriously about phasing out fossil fuels completely by 2050 and going to zero carbon emissions. That’s the type of target that begins to push this process into the realm of reality and begins to get more people potentially engaged to be seeing this process for what it is, which is really a showdown with the fossil fuel industry."

Henn pushed the shift out more through 350's blog:

This new frame of "ending fossil fuels" is important for a number of reasons:
1) It strengthens the carbon bubble argument: The "carbon bubble" refers to the idea that fossil fuel companies are dramatically overvalued because their financial worth is based on their ability to turn their coal, oil and gas reserves into profit, and 80% of those reserves will need to stay underground if the world aims to keep global warming below 2°C. The fossil fuel industry has argued that the carbon bubble isn't real because governments aren't serious about their commitment to 2°C. Seeing goals like "zero emissions" in the Lima text are clearly making the industry — and their investors — nervous. Just today, a well known Australian columnist wrote in the Business Spectator that many fossil fuel assets could end up stranded. As investors turn away from the fossil fuel industry, it not only opens up the space for political leaders to act, but starts to directly move the economy in the direction we need.
2) It builds the case for fossil fuel divestment: As the reality of the carbon bubble becomes more mainstream, it strengthens the financial case for fossil fuel divestment. Big investors like the Bank of England, for example, are suddenly analyzing their investments for their exposure to this carbon risk. By framing the global climate effort as a battle with the fossil fuel industry, the climate talks also help strengthen the political and moral case for divestment. Earlier this week, a group of Catholic bishops from around the world said that the world must get off fossil fuels by 2050 in order to protect the world's poor from climate change. It doesn't get more moral than that.
View from the front of the room
3) It highlights the importance of iconic fossil fuel fights: Fancy words are only as good as the real commitments that back them up, of course. As Bill McKibben wrote in the Guardian this morning, the real test of whether countries like the US and Australia are serious about their commitments is if they're willing to shelve big fossil fuel projects like Keystone XL and the Galilee Basin coal mine. When he visits the climate talks in Lima, Secretary Kerry will be coming under pressure to reject Keystone XL. If the goal is phasing out emissions, it makes no sense to invest in major new fossil projects.
4) It could turn the Paris climate talks into a movement moment: Many people and organizations in the climate movement are skeptical about the importance of the UN climate process. After all, the talks have been going on for decades and have little to show in terms of concrete progress. Lots of groups are still hung over from the blowout in Copenhagen, where much of the movement threw itself into the fight for a "fair, ambitious and binding" treaty only to walk away burned. While the chances of Paris being a transformative policy moment remain low, they could become a transformative political moment if the talks continue be framed as a battle against the fossil fuel industry. If people get the sense that the fate of the fossil fuel industry is being determined in the streets of Paris, they could turn out in force.
That piece, just mentioned, that Bill McKibben wrote for The Guardian said:
Australia’s far right government loves coal — it’s pretty much all they talk about. Its approval of the project can be taken for granted (though polling shows approval of the government itself is another issue, and that Aussies are turning restive at its fanaticism). But building out the ports and railways and giant pits will require huge sums of capital, and so it tests the resolve of the world’s financial system to come to terms with climate.

Any bank that backs this ludicrous plan is announcing, quite plainly, that it cares nothing about climate change. It’s also — probably worse for a bank — announcing that it’s stuck in the 19th century. Serious financial authorities (the governor of the Bank of England most recently) are warning that fossil fuel reserves risk becoming “stranded assets” as the world acts on climate change — investors in the tar sands, for instance, have already taken an enormous hit, and coal stocks have been tumbling for years. A British cabinet minister warned the other day that they were the “subprime assets of the future”, a sobering warning for everyone still recovering from the housing bust of 2008.
Die-in or sheer exhaustion?

The final negotiating session Saturday morning was lively, with Singapore contrasting the draft document to circumcision and warning that vetoing it would amount to amputation. New Zealand said the draft had "dead rats we all will have to swallow." The problem most countries had was not the rats they had to swallow but the ones that got away. Noticeably absent from the document were "differentiation" and "loss and damage."

Differentiation is a basic principle of the UNFCCC process, wherein everyone makes some sacrifice, but those with the most sacrifice more than those with the least. Loss and damage assumes that those who are most able should assist those who will suffer most, less because they bear greatest responsibility for causing the damage than because they are better able by virtue of less vulnerability or greater accumulations of world resources, industry and technology. It is logical but trips over those multicentury-old snares we mentioned.

In its floor intervention, Malaysia linked the legacies of colonialism to the deletion of differentiation and loss and damage from the draft text. "Many of you colonized us so we started at a very different point... This is why we have differentiation."

Brazil said that differentiation was not optional but already in the fabric of UNFCCC treaty law, and because of that whether it was actually mentioned in the document was irrelevant.

After the contentious overtime plenary on Saturday morning, the chair suspended the process to allow for one-on-one meetings with each block of stakeholders. This consumed the rest of the day but produced a "consensus document," that was printed and distributed at 5 minutes to midnight at a reconvened plenary. The plenary was then recessed again, for a little over an hour, to allow time for all delegates to read through the revisions and prepare 3-minute interventions.

In response to the dead rat issue raised earlier in the day, the new version was a bit more responsive to the various calls for further action. So, for instance, the preamble affirmed "its determination to strengthen adaptation action," welcomed "the progress made towards Loss and Damage," and inserted after the 2d paragraph:
3.    Underscores its commitment to reaching an ambitious agreement in 2015 that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances;
 — FCCC/CP/2014/L.14
Add caption
1:20 AM in the COP-20 Plenary

That can be considered a win for the developing world, especially India which has a very ambitious plan to "get to Sweden" with hundreds of additional coal plants, and only thereafter to begin cutting its own emissions. "We got what we wanted," a smiling Prakash Javadekar (India's Minister for Environment, Forest & Climate Change) gushed to Reuters' Alister Doyle.

At 1:20AM today, the COP President reconvened the plenary and having already sounded out the delegations asked if there were objections, and hearing none, declared the "Lima Call For Climate Action" ("Llamamiento de Lima para la Acción sobre el Clima") adopted, to standing ovation.

Unsaid and unexamined are some key assumptions by both the Jeffersonians and the Hamiltonians. For instance, both seem to assume that development by economic expansion (debt) and resource consumption is the natural course of human progress, that capitalistic, market-driven stimulus is the best way to accomplish that, and that given enough time and technology even the world's poorest nations will eventually "get to Sweden."

In this sense, the Hamiltonians, with whom we often disagree, seem to have a rare justification for their views, although they would never admit it. They can see as easily as we can that if population growth were extended another century, not only would developing countries like India and China never be able to cope with their ever-rising tide of human demands for more, and unleash unprecedented waves of migrants, but oceans would be drained of all edible fish, forests taken down to make burger meat and its paper wrap, and Mother Nature in her anger would likely extinguish the lot of us long before anyone makes it to Sweden.

Will developed nations have to consume less? Yes. Much less. That may come of its own accord given the Wild West Ponzinomics that rule markets now. All the financial empires that are being made to pay for change are in for a day of reckoning and a severe reversal of fortunes.

Will the developing nations also have to lower aspirations? Yes. How much lower? Well, if they think they are getting to the level of consumerist society they see in Sweden, they had better rethink. Still, with good birth control programs and permaculture design they could get to a steady state balance with the natural world that many in their rural areas are fortunate enough to recall, and that would put them ahead of Sweden in the hard century to come.

Closing takeaways from COP-20: the Chair's final remarks were perilously close to Robert Kennedy's last words, something to the effect of "Now its on to Paris and let's win there." That sent a chill up our spine and we were grateful Mr. Pulgar-Vidal did not exit through the kitchen.

In the Coda — the short comment period after the decision — Mexico made what we thought was one of the better interventions of the two-week ordeal, calling for a re-design of the global economic system, basing it on the reality of climate change and the necessity to disincentivize fossils and incentivize renewables. This was a faint ray of sunlight breaking over the horizon, and we can only hope it leads others to see that systemic change — rearranging economics at its core — is our only real hope.

What was accomplished was much less than a "win" but when you take away the emotional loading from the South and the NGOs, there was progress. 1.5°C is the new 2°C. A mitigation goal of Zero by 2050 (ie: bringing temperature down by ending fossil energy), monitored and adjusted by scientific instrumentation, is now in the sausage hopper with provisions to automatically move the date up if demanded by realities. The full summary and text of Lima is now up on the UN site.

The South's hard-won concessions from the North — adaptation and shared finance (ie.: throwing life preservers to hurricane victims), loss and damage, and development-dependent-delay (differentiation) are all predicated on having booming Western Ponzi economies for the next 30 years. That's like buying beachfront property. It doesn’t matter if it is on the beach in Sweden, it is still on the beach and the beach is vanishing.

When you hit a slots jackpot or have a blackjack run in Vegas they comp you with a room. Then the vultures swoop in, ply you with free drinks, and make sure none of that money leaves the casino. So it was that while innocently standing at the Pentagonito urinals, India was sold 10 nuclear power plants by Russia, just like the ones Russia is building for Bolivia, erstwhile champion of Pachamama and rights of Mother Earth. The cost of a single one of those is likely to be greater than the sum of all the Green Climate Fund pledges to date. India may feel like it will be investing its Green Climate money in carbon-neutral carbon-steel reactors, but it just had its pocket picked and Russia is laughing all the way to the bank.  




The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.