Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Evoneers

"Each of us has an inner diversity of interests and talents but none of us can succeed as solitary individuals."

"I'm kind of anti-utopian myself, although I am in favor of the human project continuing."  
- James Howard Kunstler

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at.”
 - Oscar Wilde

This past week the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) celebrated its 20th anniversary with a week-long conference in the Findhorn community in northernmost Scotland. Because of scheduling conflicts we were not able to attend but were grateful a small portion of the conference was live-streamed (and archived). Between sessions of our Permaculture Design Course here in Tennessee we were able to wade into that stream and recommend others do as well.

As incoming GEN president Daniel Greenberg said, ecovillages are not about living together, they are about “the impulse ... this longing for inter-beingness. How can we be intimate with all life, with each other?”

Ecovillages are not a new phenomenon, they are just made more relevant by the times. Efforts to turn fictional visions of utopia (literally "no place") into real, grounded eutopias ("good places") go back to at least Ubaid (4000 BCE)

When a whole new continent was first discovered by an off-course Italian navigator using maps purloined from the Chinese, Europeans did not do as the Chinese did a few centuries earlier and set up a few coastal settlements only to abandon them, but rather, they acquired native peoples' lands through trickery, slavery, pestilence and genocide and then invited religious fanatics of every stripe to come across the ocean and try out the wildest schemes.

See, e.g., Bethehem, PA; New Harmony, IN; Oneida, NY; Amana, IA, or Nauvoo, IL.  In permaculture we call it “wild design.” You take a blank page and fill it. No rules, anything goes. From that process you get mostly duds and a few real gems.

The oldest ecovillage affiliated with GEN is in Iceland, home of the world's oldest continuous parliament. Sólheimar ("home of the sun") will be one of the venues visited in the PDC we are teaching next month with Robyn Francis. It was started in 1930 by a young Sesselja Sigmondsdottir as a sort of Steiner School for developmentally challenged children. The farmland she acquired was graced with a hot spring and so she built greenhouses and began producing winter vegetables. Today Iceland is Europe's larger exporter of bananas.

The word "ecovillage," as far as we know, was coined by architect George Ramsey, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright who became a prototypical "New Urbanist" in the 1960s after observing the waste and ruin wrought by automobile culture. By the 1970s Ramsey was writing prescriptions for a reboot of the built environment to bring humans back into the natural world, hopefully before petrocollapse or climate change cans that whole unsustainable civilizational thingy, in the most painful way imaginable.

In an interview with John Shuttlesworth, editor of The Mother Earth News, in 1974, Ramsey said:
“As we rush toward the limits of our natural resources, our system — which is based on the increasing consumption of such resources — faces a serious threat of breakdown. Every aspect of life in the United States must be reevaluated in terms of the energy it consumes.”
His prescription:
  • Roads and parking should be eliminated wherever possible
  • If a building—even a one- or two-story, solar-heated structure—is placed so that its usage requires long-distance travel in privately owned vehicles by the public, it would not receive a construction permit
  • Building heights, in general, should be limited to three- and four-story walk-ups, thus eliminating elevators and simultaneously permitting the sun to reach street level.
  • Light industries and businesses should be encouraged to move into existing bedroom communities.
  • New villages and towns must be prohibited from agricultural land
  • Streets should be reserved for bikes only
  • Every possible non-polluting source of energy must be tested and—whenever possible—used in preference to fossil fuels, nuclear power, and other polluting sources.

Declan Kennedy, Ross and Hildur Jackson,
and Robert Gilman at the GEN Summit, 2015
In 1977 in Germany, during the political resistance against disposal of nuclear waste in the town of Gorleben, anti-nuclear activists attempted to build a small, ecologically based village. On the 23rd of May, 1980, a micronation, the "Free Republic of Wendland" was founded. They called their hut village an ökodorf (literally ecovillage). In the largest police action seen in Germany since the lead-up to the Second World War, the camp was forceably removed, but the concept lived on, and small ökodorf experiments continued in both eastern and western Germany. The magazine Ökodorf Informationen began publishing in 1985 and later evolved into Eurotopia. After reunification of Germany, the movement coalesced and became part of GEN.

In 1991, Robert and Diane Gilman, founders of In Context magazine, wrote an overview, Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities, for the Gaia Trust in Denmark. They came up with a definition that still works pretty well. An ecovillage is:
“…a fully-featured human settlement, with independent sources of initiative, in which human activities are integrated into the natural environment in a way that is sustainable into the indefinite future.”

Kosha Joubert and Robin Alfred
At the summit this week, outgoing GEN President Kosha Anja Joubert modestly estimated the number of actual practicing and aspiring ecovillages worldwide at 10,000 with more than one million residents. We say modest because if you merely examine one country, Sri Lanka, you would learn about the Sarvodaya Shramadana Societies  self-help initiative, begun by a follower of Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne,  in the 1950s that presently counts more than 4 million members in 15,000 villages. The founder's son, Vinya Ariyaratne, has sat on the GEN board and all of those 15,000 villages would consider themselves ecovillages, with an equal number aspiring to be.

In the closing session of the GEN summit, President Joubert and her partner, Robin Alfred, a business trainer and regular contributor to The Guardian whose clients include Microsoft, Nokia, Motorola, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Daimler, McDonalds, the UK Cabinet Office, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, Johnson & Johnson, the Bank of Abu Dhabi, and others, took a hard look at the problems GEN faces with dissemination of the ecovillage meme. They took that closing moment to unveil a new project.

We will take a few of your minutes to describe that project here with the caveat that it is as yet a work in progress. As we read the material out loud to our permaculture class, we could see some eyes glaze over. Of course, we lack the passionate delivery of Kosha and Robin, but you can judge for yourself.

The problem, as Kosha outlined it, is a common one. You become aware enough of the challenges facing us as a society, or civilization, or species, to want something to change, to stop the oncoming trainwreck. So you attend a week-long Transition Training seminar, or take a 2-week Permaculture Design Course, or a month-long Ecovillage Design Education course and you become inspired and fired-up and you leave those events just full of energy and ideas and ready to change the trajectory of our planet's future. But if we check back 6 months later, what we see, most times, is frustration, despair, resignation. You are back in your prior life. Why? Because the existing order that you inhabit, the way things work, is designed to frustrate you. There is economic blackmail (called "making a living"); cultural bribery (your data plan, your friends who want to take you out for a night on the town, the consumer society); and a dearth of guides, stepping stones or halfway houses to smooth your transition.

What are you going to do, start an ecovillage? You and what Rockefeller family member?

Enter the Evoneers. We could instantly see this as a perfect marriage between Robin's business consulting background and Kosha's nurturing of a movement in its infancy, daintily bound up with a Findhornesque gift bow. Evoneers is 9-step therapy for post-traumatic permaculture course adjustment.

Running under the umbrella of SIRCle (Social Innovation for Resilient Communities) and drawing upon GEN's growing Solutions Library, Evoneers is an advanced 2-day training in how to get beyond frustration (Step 5: Facing the Dark Night), find the others, cull the chaff from your life and get something serious going. When you get done, you are supposed to leap out of bed in the morning with a bounce in your step and a song on your lips.

The first step, Answering the Call / Igniting the Fire, is about getting past thinking about possibilities and starting to plan actualities. It is recognizing that each of us has an inner diversity of interests and talents but that none of us can succeed as solitary individuals. We need homo gestalt – a like-minded group. Step One is building an authentic, open and supportive team.

We could carry on to describe the whole methodology, but we will leave that to our readers to get from direct sources now online such as this video:

Efforts to turn fictional visions of utopia into real 3D paradise need not fail. We come from a well-watered garden planet and it is long past time we remembered our roots. As Thoreau said,
"In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them."

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Navigating the Blockchain: Drones, Droids and BitCoins

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

-- Isaac Asimov, Runaround (1942)Barack Obama may be remembered for many things -- becoming the first Hawaiian President of the United States, withdrawing allied forces from epic military disaster in the Muslim World, dismantling market moral hazard, and reopening Cuba to the mob -- but his most lasting legacy may be still to come.

There is a revolution quietly taking shape in Air Force joystick cubicles near Las Vegas, in the Horn of Africa, the Tribal Territories of Pakistan, the DMZ of Korea, and in secret sites in Tel Aviv and Kiev. Autonomous Robot drones are evolving capability to select and execute targets of opportunity. 

The word robot comes from the Czech word robota meaning forced labor, and is generally attributed to a 1924 play by Karel Capek. The idea that men will build machines that may all too easily destroy their creators runs back through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Greek mythology. We have a deeply engrained wariness of anything that might knock us out of our place as top-predator in the food chain. And yet, we ignore these death machines we are building, seeing nothing more threatening than a good movie script. 

The median response from Artificial Intelligence programmers when asked when AI-droids will have better processing power than humans is 2030. Put another way, the coming generations of flying robots that kill their human prey from 10,000 feet up will be smarter than people in about 15 years, barring total collapse of petroleum civilization, or maybe even because of it.

Removing Asimov's three laws from the kernel of killer robot CPUs is a death wish. Actually, Asimov wrote four laws. The fourth or zeroth law that outranked the others:

0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.


 In the midst of the 2008 financial meltdown, the open source protocol for a public asset ledger called the blockchain was put forward. The core of this invention was the idea of decentralized consensus on a large scale, an app version of Occupy, if you will.

From the blockchain emerged BitCoin. BitCoin was modeled on the gold standard for valuing transportable wealth – there was a finite supply but it could be "mined" to enlarge what was available for transactions by users. New gold went to miners who solved mathematical problems. The Cyberpunk community extolled its virtues:

"Psychopathic tendencies as the side effect of extreme individuality can be brought into balance within a new social contract, enforced by Satoshi’s perfect market with its equilibrium of supply and demand. Characteristics that are often considered negative in society such as risk taking, calculated selfish acts and profit motives can now be channeled to serve a larger shared vision of a more free society.

"Instead of arms races and financial wars, with bitcoin the competition for solving a mathematical problem helps to achieve a global level security infrastructure. This new flow of currency has the potential to end financial apartheid and begin serving the unbanked and underbanked that have been excluded from the current financial system. It can free those who are restrained by rent-seekers and subjugated to financial colonization. Out of the torrents emerging through the massive hashing power, the torus of a new heart grows and with every beat expands our collective goodwill to flow throughout the entire network."

-- Nozomi Hayase, Taming the Beast  

Anytime someone comes on to us like a Snake Oil salesman, we check to make sure we still have our wallet, even if that wallet is now an app on our wristwatch.

Actually, this exuberance is immediately suspect in the case of bitcoin because "free" coins will gravitate towards whomever has the most computing power, leaving a 99 percent of lesser power users to purchase from the 1 percent who get theirs for "free." This is not a paradigm shift, it merely shifts the elite class (temporarily) from banksters to any hackers with supercomputer access and an ability to pay the electric bill.

The top coin miners have a Red Queen problem. In the Queen’s race in Alice in Wonderland, everyone runs faster and faster and no-one gets ahead. In coin mining, more and more computing power is required to solve the mathematical problems. The software underpinning the network reacts to successful miners by elevating difficulty, so hackers add even more computing power, and so on. 

As this cycle speeds, it takes more datacenter CPU heat, and more cooling electricity, to mine a bitcoin. The computational power of the bitcoin mining network surpassed the world's top 500 supercomputers in 2013. On average, for every megawatt of electricity spent mining bitcoins, 0.65 tons (1300lbs) of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. Dave Carlson, founder of Megabigpower, a mining datacentre in Washington state, figures he spends 240 kWh and releases 312 lbs of CO2 for each coin he mines. Worldwide, bitcoin mining generates about 25 tons CO2 per hour, or 219,000 tons per year. This is not virtual CO2. This is real CO2.

Can the blockchain prevent HSBC’s illegal money laundering for Mexican drug cartels? No. It makes it easier. Nigeria is already becoming a blockchain haven for Citibank, with ambitions to colonize all of payments space. If it seems oddly ironic to speak of Nigeria as a colonial power, just remember how quick its entrepreneurs were to colonize and monetize spam.

Does Citibank have any compunction about employing the fastest available processing power to (a) game bitcoin mining; (b) replace devalued bitcoins with its own CitiCoin; and (c) unleash predatory trading algorithms from the blockchain that operate at warp speed or even employ quantum mechanics to execute trades before they are even imagined by the trading partners? 

The Cyberpunk response is that blockchain transparency will flush the bandit algorithms. But one man's bandit is another's freedom fighter, layering, spoofing, and generating wash trades. The sheriff (SEC, FIRA, FBI, or a State or US Attorney) is outgunned and doesn't usually want to do anything that might jeopardize his/her pension, or the party in power. 

In his White House War Room, The Commander-in-Chief is assured that if we don't do this first, our rivals will. And so we drift, towards unparalleled catastrophe.

Above, circling the heavens, are autonomous killer drones that keep getting smarter by the year. In a world where all things connected to the Internet are hackable, so too are they.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Gift of Clear Mind: Laudato Si'

"Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational."

Does the Pope also Duckwalk?
If we are honest and admit climate change threatens the survival of our species, right now and not next decade or next century, and don't just turn away or accept the numbing banality that comes with avoidance of the subject, we would have to, to not be hypocritical, actually choose to do something about what we know we know.

But do what, exactly? Our institutions are not working. Any real change has to come from our personal footprint, changing our choices. Change is our only way of being truthful with ourselves, and not neurotic or schizophrenic.

What is needed, says Margaret Klein Salamon, founder of Climate Change Mobilization, are achievable goals, a set of actions that anyone can take and appreciate that they are actually changing the situation for the better. Merely changing light bulbs or buying a Prius won't cut it. It has to involve not green consumerism but de-consumerism. We have to give up those fabulous perks that came with the Age of Oil; to discard zombie fashion. We have to stop having so many babies, eating so much meat, and cutting down so many trees. We have to go back to understanding our relationship with the land and our sources of sustenance, and showing greater care for the whole of the natural world that underpins our existence.

Salaman says:

When people become agents for truth and vital change, they are elevated, enlarged, and lit up. The truth, and their role in advancing it, affects how they view themselves, what occupies their mind, and how they conduct their affairs. The power of truth allows them to transcend their limitations and what they once thought possible for themselves.
We cannot begin to say how refreshing it is to see Pope Francis face the urgency of the situation and awaken us to our need to be alive, and to swim upstream. To borrow a line from Jim Hightower, “Even a dead fish can swim downstream.” In his new encyclical, Laudato Si', Francis writes:

The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

[I]f we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.

The pope comes out against technological advances that will save us from our modern sins or magically improve productivity by replacing human work. He eschews market-based mechanisms to solve environmental problems, condemning, like the popes before him, the profit motive at its root.

The New York Times columnist David Brooks, defender of both profits and the fossil economy, responds:

Within marriage, lust can lead to childbearing. Within a regulated market, greed can lead to entrepreneurship and economic innovation. Within a constitution, the desire for fame can lead to political greatness…. [G]as and oil resources extracted through fracking have already added more than $430 billion to annual gross domestic product and supported more than 2.7 million jobs that pay, on average, twice the median U.S. salary.

We won't quibble with either Brooks or the pope because they are speaking past each other. Brooks is right that lust and greed are powerful motivators, and part of our serpent brain. Francis is right that to live at peace with each other and the planet we have to set aside those childish things, open our hearts and begin to see the world as adults. Brooks is clinging to the past while Francis is salvaging the future.

Jeb Bush, shortly after announcing his candidacy for US President, told a reporter about the pope's statement, "I don't get my economic advice from my priest." His pollsters are telling him he is on the wrong side of the climate issue but his strategists tell him he doesn't want to see the Koch brothers' billions go to a rival. Perhaps he thinks he will pivot later in the race, before he has to debate Bernie. 

What is new is that it is not even about pandering to voters anymore. Even half of Republicans now want this issue dealt with. Well, good luck, because the zombie lies aren't about the voters. They're for the donors, who make their living killing the planet. The question is not why today's politicians suck more than ever, it is who they are sucking more than ever.

--  Bill Maher

Paradigms change. Jason Hickel, Martin Kirk, and Joe Brewer, co-authors of a London School of Economics comparison between the encyclical and the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), wrote in The Guardian:

He calls out the transnational corporations that profit by polluting poor countries. He criticizes the foreign debt system that has become a tool by which rich countries control poor countries. And he warns that the financial sector, grown too powerful, has eroded the sovereignty of nation states and “tends to prevail over the political.”

This is an important move, because without naming the forces that cause human suffering and environmental destruction, it is impossible to address them.

As Professor Ian Gough put it, "This revolutionary encyclical challenges both current ethics and economics."

Francis continues:

The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation.

Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.

It is the false notion that “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed” (quoting the Pontifical Council For Justice And Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, at page 462).

Here Francis begins to sound more like the Dalai Lama. The Tibetian Book of Secret Doctrines says, "Cherish no notion of separated individuality." Subject and Object are one. Man and Nature are one. Form and Formlessness are one. Mind and Buddha are one. The encyclical says:

It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.

Speaking directly to his "cheerfully reckless" critics, Francis says:

It has become countercultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same. Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all” (quoting Omano Guardini, Das Ende der Neuzeit, (The End of the Modern World, at 56).

Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal.

The study by Hickel, Kirk and Brewer contrasted Francis’s vision with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals:

The SDGs are right to embrace a wide range of issues. Unlike their predecessors, the millennium development goals, they recognize that the problems we face are multidimensional. But they have confused thoroughness with holism, lists with patterns. It’s a mistake born of outdated thinking.

The pope, by contrast, has struck at the systemic nature of the issue. “It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is connected,” he says. “To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.”

This is what makes the encyclical far more than a document about climate change. It is a profound critique of the deep logic of our political economy. This is a vastly more sophisticated paradigm than the one that underpins the SDGs and a large part of why the encyclical feels cohesive, fresh and relevant, where the SDGs feel inconsistent, clunky and 20 years out of date.

Francis is not above legitimate criticism, less for what he puts into the encyclical than for what he leaves out. Physicist Lawrence Krauss, writing for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, says:

First off, he dismisses the need to address reproductive rights for women, and also the concomitant problem of population growth in poor countries as part of any proposed solution to world environmental problems. If one is seriously worried about the environment on a global scale, then one needs to worry about population growth. A population of 10 billion by 2050 will likely be unsustainable at a level that provides all humans with adequate food and access to medicine, water, and security.  Moreover, the environmental problems induced by overpopulation are also disproportionately born by those in poor countries, where access to birth control and abortion is often limited. As I have argued elsewhere recently in this regard, ultimately empowering women to manage their own reproductive future gives them the surest road out of poverty.

Perhaps even more glaring is the double standard within which Francis, with Franciscan modesty, lives in a grand gilded palace, overseeing a legion of wealthy Cardinals, while calling for even the poorest among us to reduce consumption. To be sure, the encyclical was directed to believers within the church, including collegially off-key voices within the Vatican. Cardinal George Pell, its head of finance, currently immersed in a scandal involving paedophile priests in Australia, is a prominent climate change denier and plenty of other senior Catholics are dredging up lame, discredited arguments against His Holiness's views. To them, Francis says:

Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfillment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.

In 1978, Vaclev Havel, who led the non-violent Velvet Revolution and later became president of post-Soviet Czechoslovakia, wrote:

(The power of truth) does not reside in the strength of definable political or social groups, but chiefly in a potential, which is hidden throughout the whole of society, including the official power structures of that society. Therefore this power does not rely on soldiers of its own, but on soldiers of the enemy as it were—that is to say, on everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment (in theory, at least) by the force of truth (or who, out of an instinctive desire to protect their position, may at least adapt to that force). It is a bacteriological weapon, so to speak, utilized when conditions are ripe by a single civilian to disarm an entire division…. This, too, is why the regime prosecutes, almost as a reflex action, preventatively, even modest attempts to live in truth.

Salaman wrote, "Climate truth has the potential to be more powerful than any country’s independence; more powerful that overthrowing authoritarian states; and more powerful than civil rights or any group’s struggle for safety, recognition and equality. Climate truth contains such superordinate power because all of those causes depend on a safe climate."

Will the Papal Encyclical make any real difference in the battle against climate change? One need only recall what happened in 1979, when John Paul II traveled to Poland and preached thirty-two sermons in nine days. Timothy Garton Ash put it this way, "Without the pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of communism." Bogdan Szajkowski said it was, "A psychological earthquake, an opportunity for mass political catharsis..."  The Poles who turned out by the millions looked around and saw they were not alone.  

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Of Squirrels and Bicycles

We were biking on a backcountry lane this week when we surprised a squirrel about to cross the highway.

Observing the interaction between squirrel and machine, we noted that the maladaptive squirrel did not take a straight line to escape the sudden appearance of the bicycle, a perceived predator, because to do so would conflict with its genetically hard-wired fight-or-flight survival response.

Countless generations of dead squirrels had, by process of elimination, coded a certain wisdom into our squirrel's sudden reaction, which was to zig away from the bike, then zag back into the path of peril, then zig away again.

For millennia this randomized algorithm of zigs and zags thwarted the astute calculus of hawks, owls, eagles, foxes, cougars, coyotes and other cagey hunters of squirrel who put themselves on a perfect intercept trajectory, only to find the quarry gone when they arrived. Who can parse a random algorithm? It defeats both speed and angle of attack, putting the contest into one of nimbleness, stamina and availability of cover.

Against automobiles and other fast-moving machines, the program is utterly maladaptive. Having escaped the danger zone, the squirrel rushes back into the path of oncoming death. In a significant percentage of encounters they find themselves occupying the same position in time and space as the rotating tire of a car. Remnants of squirrel smeared on pavement, a boon to turkey buzzards and other scavengers, attest to a failed algorithm that should have been retired half a century ago. Similarly maladaptive to the automobile age are the defense strategies of opossums and armadillos.

But on the other hand, a mere half-century of paving progress is just a bat of evolutionary time's eyelash for a squirrel. The 100-year auto age may be a passing fad, and in not so many years (already Peak Oil+10 at this writing) the fox and hawk may assert prior rights to the average country squirrel.

We have been speaking recently of the energy calculus of renewables and whether they can be brought on line fast enough to avert catastrophic climate change and save our civilization. We hold the humble opinion that while renewables must indeed replace our self-destructive addiction to oil, gas and coal, there is no possible way that such a switch could save our profligate and bloated civilization. Just do the math.

Nonetheless, switching back to sunlight is our only option, climate change or no, and assigning reality-based costs to fossil fuels, or merely removing their obscene trillion-dollar subsidies, should be done immediately.

But we need to realize that while we can move some sectors of the energy economy to renewables, not all of them will follow, and not most of the really big ones that a globally industrialized economy requires. We can easily electrify cars but not steel mills, cement factories, container ships or airplanes. We can replace agrochemical farming with bioenergy-to-carbon-storage (BECS), but we cannot as easily dry the grains, transport, process and package them unless we are prepared to relocalize farming to a scale last seen before World War II, when the world's population was a third of the present.

Our maladaptive civilization model is not in the position of the bicycle or the automobile here, it is the squirrel. We race to and fro in a desperate attempt to escape our fate, but odds are roughly even in any given encounter that our fragile economy will wind up under the tire, and splayed across the pavement. The tire missed it in 2008. That may or may not happen again next time, and dumb luck will have a hand in the outcome.

We are happy to report that in our case, we did not waiver in our bicycle's trajectory. The squirrel escaped unharmed.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Fighting Extinction

"This is a true challenge. If the story is told as one of avarice, private gain and exceptionalism, the human race will go extinct."

 At the G7 last week, the leading industrial nations agreed to cut greenhouse gases by phasing out the use of fossil fuels by the end of the century. While that seem to many, ourselves included, as whistling past the graveyard, the mainstream press and many climate organizations are hailing the diplomatic triumph of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in bringing fossil foot-draggers Australia, Japan and Canada to a "Jesus, the climate!" moment.

On the final day of G7 talks in their Bavarian castle, and before rushing off to the secretive Bilderberg Group meeting, Merkel said the leaders had committed themselves to the need to “decarbonize the global economy in the course of this century.” They also agreed on a global target for limiting the rise in average global temperatures to a maximum of 2°C over pre-industrial levels, oblivious of the contradiction in those two positions.

Two weeks ago, at the St. Petersberg Climate Dialogue, Chancellor Merkel called upon the overdeveloped countries to draft a roadmap of how to meet the $100 billion bribe Hillary Clinton offered underdeveloping countries to acquiesce to President Obama's stalling strategy in Copenhagen in 2009. For five years now, Obama has declined to present such a plan, and not having one has undermined trust in both the UN process and the United States. At home, Obama’s popularity ratings are now below those of George W. Bush in his final year. The President’s legacy is likely to be that his name becomes synonymous with loss of trust. Merkel’s is likely to be associated with loss of ambition.

In fact, let us apply Merkel as the denomination for degrees of warming expected to result from heel dragging for the next 85 years. Thus, a rise of one-degree this coming century would be 1 Merkel. Six degrees would be 6 Merkels, and so on.

Scientific consensus recently concluded that even if CO2 and other greenhouse gases were stabilized in a time short of 85 years, surface air temperatures and sea levels will continue rising for at least another century and probably several. This means that even if we moved from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy by 2030 or 2050, further impacts on people and ecosystems will continue unabated. Hurricanes will continue to strengthen.
Heat transfer between Atlantic and Pacific across the Arctic may reveal a new tipping point. Both the Jet Stream and the Atlantic Conveyor will break weirdness records.

This might cause one to despair utterly, and then to psychologically block the consequences and perhaps even party like its 1999. Some speculate that is already what is going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and 10 Downing Street. This assumes they are already in the acceptance mode of grieving for near term human extinction. In our view, that assumption is flawed and anybody’s despair for our race is pre-mature. Killian O'Brien, from the Permaculture and Resilience Initiative in Detroit, writes:

[A] last resort mindset [is] inappropriate when return to a stable Anthropocene, largely de-mechanized and far simpler than OECD nations currently enjoy, is still at least theoretically possible. Given it is feasible to return to sub-300 ppm by 2100, if not far sooner, and even to the mid-to-low 200's, which would bring on cooling, giving up (or 'going into hospice,' as Guy McPherson puts it), is an unethical, even immoral, suggestion, is it not?
Step one: zero GHG. Full stop. Step two: go beyond zero

John Holdren, who as White House Science Advisor has the Drone King’s ear, should be whispering words to the effect that a global fossil fuel extraction levy, applied at the ridiculously low price of $2/ton of CO2e, could easily generate $50 billion a year. That levy would need to increase substantially year on year as we phase out fossil fuels but it would shift the cost of fossil fuels from the victims to the industry and feedback favorably to accelerate the phase-out.

If the ultimate objective of the UN Convention is to repair the climate, not just to seem to be doing something, it would require actually reversing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and taking down concentrations to pre-industrial levels. Step one: zero GHG. Full stop. Step two: go beyond zero, to net-sequestration techniques like biochar, living roofs, bioenergy-to-carbon-storage, and regrarian farming. 

courtesy of Andy Singer
The IPCC has focused on setting a goal of 2°C for absolute increase, understanding that we are already at 0.8 - 1.1°C (call it one Merkel) and on our current trajectory we could see 4 Merkels by mid-century globally, and up to 10 Merkels in local regions, such as Mombassa, Mumbai, Damascus and Beijing. At 2 Merkels, half the world's coral reefs will disappear, small island states and populous coastlines will be submerged, Brazil’s soils will go from sink to source, and many indigenous societies will go extinct.

Even to have a 2 Merkel limit begs the question of whether are we aiming to achieve that with a probability of 90%, 66%, or something less, and what might each of those require? A 25-50% probability might require achieving net sequestration in something like 10 years (by 2025). Do non-scientists really appreciate what that means? Even to limit warming below 3°C a radical transformation of capitalism will be necessary. 

The Bonn draft text, taking its G7 cue, supports phasing out fossil fuel emissions and transitioning (equitably) to 100% renewable energy by ... 2100? 2050? -- that will be the central Paris negotiating point if the G7 and Bilderberg conferences didn’t already decide it. Given what we know about the net energy of renewables and Jevon's paradox from the Swedish study mentioned here last week, it is hard to imagine even a 2050 target representing anything less than 3 Merkels.

courtesy of Andy Singer
Progressive nations like Switzerland plan to reduce emissions by 50% from 1990 levels by 2030, with 30% to be achieved domestically, and the rest through offsets (paying other countries to reduce). This is 10% more ambitious than the EU as a whole, but as the Climate Action Network asks, "If the whole world needs to decarbonize by mid-century, what makes Switzerland think there will be enough offsets available?"

Some, like India and Japan, believe that fossil fuels can be used for some time to come and we will still achieve a 2°C target. India is expanding its coal-fired electric grid by leaps and bounds. Japan is massively subsidizing a coal build-out to help underdeveloping countries further underdevelop and covertly plans to frack SE Asia, on the way derailing antifracking laws, which is a lot of what TPP,  TTPP and TiSA are about. Either these countries have a steep learning curve to even comprehend the science, or less charitably, they are merely partying hard towards the Apocalypse.

Japan’s P.M. predicts that by fifteen years from now, 20-22% of his country’s electricity will be sourced from nuclear power, despite Fukushima. Coal will provide 26% more energy than renewables in 2030 Japan and extending the operation of old nuclear power plants to 60 years and/or building new nuclear plants is slated to the fill any gaps. Good luck with all that. We are getting our protest bandana out of mothballs.

To accord with both ethics and science, OECD countries should cut emissions by 106-128% immediately, the IPCC reports.  If that seems extreme, it really is not such a heavy lift, policy-and-popularity-wise. The current $5.3 trillion fossil fuel industry subsidy for 2015 -- $10 million per minute -- is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments.

Or compare the cost of Exxon blackmail to the cost of the Iraq War, at about 1 trillion per year (and a civilian death toll of an estimated 176,000 to 189,000)  -- about $1.9 million per minute (although arguably the Iraq War was another fossil fuel subsidy). Subsidizing fossil fuels is like running 5 Iraq wars simultaneously, for the next 85 years!

But remember the Gilens and Page study, described here last week.  Whether the public supports or distains a particular policy has no effect on its likelihood of becoming law. The same is true of international law.

Algeria: "Thank you Mr. President and fellow representatives. I am very glad to talk to you about my country's opinions on unsustainability. It seems as if we are running out of water. And all of our schemes to try to combat energy and renewable resources and climate change – we just need more money. We need more cash. We can use it to come up with new solutions. If only we had more money and investment we could solve all of these problems. If only there was more money we could combat the food issues, the people starving all over the world; hungry, hungry people everywhere."

- Extraenvironmentalist Episode #86, Slow Money Part C (May 26, 2015).

Imagine a group of people in a disaster shelter. If they go outside they will not likely survive, but to stay within means learning to get along, despite their differences. Two of the people are very wealthy, and they inherited that wealth by their parents enslaving or otherwise mistreating the parents of several of the other people in the shelter, engendering feelings that linger as simmering anger.

But, those two people are learned and skilled at the process of organizing groups to work towards a common goal, and they get everyone to agree to join and discuss what needs to be done. Certain things are obvious priorities: food, water, sewage management, personal security, and First Aid for the injured. Other things, like working through the emotions of those old hatreds, are less immediate but still need to be addressed for the process to move along.

Many in the group feel that although they have not achieved the wealth of the two wealthiest, they are on the path to achieving it, or were before the disaster struck, and when the disaster is over, they still intend to pursue that goal.

What happens? Every issue that the group takes up – from the smallest to the largest  seems to arouse animosity more than a spirit of cooperation. The two wealthiest, and many of the would-be wealthy, feel sorry for those who have nothing, but they are not willing to share the food and water they have brought with them. They are happy to provide first aid assistance, but reticent to have hands-on involvement in pollution management, infrastructure maintenance and health care, other than by designing systems on paper, and they would like to be paid for that.

The poorest, many of whom are used to maintaining good hygiene despite difficult circumstances, are unwilling to perform work for the wealthy that the wealthy are unwilling to perform for themselves. They would prefer to suffer from bad sanitation than from indignity.

These things play out on the international scale just as they play out in a small group. Unless differences can be put aside, as they were not in Bonn but must be in Paris, there is little hope for the survival of our species, and many others.

If, on the other hand, these things can be put aside for this moment, and we can find common ground and a spirit of shared sacrifice, much is yet possible. This is a true challenge. If the story that is told is one of avarice, private gain and exceptionalism, the human race will go extinct. For this story to end happily it must be a story of our noblest attributes, elevating us above our history.

In his message to COP20 in Lima, Pope Francis said there is a “clear, definitive and ineluctable ethical imperative to act.” In 4 days, on June 18, Francis will issue a new encyclical, “Laudato Si,” on the future of our planet and people. It will speak of climate in the context of human moral development. It could not be more on point. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Road to Paris

"These talks are not just about streamlining a text; they are about realizing, at a deeper level, the scope of the problem and the required scale for any response."

   Newspaper reporting legend Ross Gelbspan once said, lifestyle change is essential, but lifestyle change won't get us out of this climate mess. We need change of the kind that only comes from governments, acting together.

In a larger sense, we need a change of the kind that defies the arc of social history extending back to at least the last Ice Age. Let's face it. Our civilizations are built on organized murder, slavery and rape of the natural world and of each other. We are a nasty bit of work, we naked apes.

Some of us work towards change at this very cellular level, exploring spiritual and social limitations, working on our group dynamics, getting under our skin with art, music and spoken word, encouraging the heathen masses to break free from our serpent nature and rise up.

There has always been a tension between "bottom up" grass roots organizing and "top-down" working for policy changes from the infrastructural brain centers. Most political activists do both, although some will not compromise, on principle, and so fail to even get inside the buildings where decisions are taken. Others, like the Green Party activists in Germany, Ireland and elsewhere, succeed in winning seats in government only to see their aspirations dashed in the reakpolitik of consensus governance.

A study by Professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page published last fall in Perspectives on Politics challenged the commonly held belief -- the story children in Western countries are routinely taught in school -- that the way democracies work is by electoral, pluralistic expressions of public opinion.

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres
signs the "Stop Climate Change" banner
presented by a 10-year old student from
the Bonn International School
Gilens and Page studied the progress of 1,779 policy issues through US legislative bodies and compared opinion polls to reach the conclusion that it really doesn't matter what a majority, or even a plurality, of voters want. Thirty percent of bills passed were strongly opposed by the public. Thirty percent of bills passed were strongly favored. Whether the public supports or distains a particular policy has virtually no effect on its likelihood of becoming law.
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.
-- Gilens and Page 

Welcome to Bonn

Climate change talks rekindled this week in Bonn where representatives from 195 countries are drafting the final negotiating text of the climate change agreement – now at 4232 lines and 89 pages. Whatever is arrived at will become the next-to-last version for the legally binding treaty that will be signed in Paris this December. Heads of State will be in Paris to pass around flutes of sparkling wine and hors-d'œuvre of sausage paté. Bonn is where the sausage is being stuffed before being hung to cure.

The 21st annual meeting of the parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change (COP21) carries high expectations. Delegates in Bonn are feeling the pressure of disappearing time to finalize the negotiating text and to ensure the new agreement will be legally binding, anchored by honest science, and acceptable to all parties. It is a tall order, but after all, it has been 20 years in the making, so they are not fresh to the process.

The expected draft will likely encourage a massive expansion of renewable energy, greatly improved energy efficiency, a shifting of subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables, a renewed focus on sustainable agricultural practices, and research initiatives to develop zero carbon and net-sequestering infrastructures for all aspects of industrial civilization.

To facilitate that historic switch, overdeveloped country financial support to underdeveloping countries will be essential. Conventional wisdom would have it that support should come in the forms of technology and capacity building, paid through finance mechanisms only vaguely defined, which is to say, voluntary, self-imposed targets that are neither economically painful nor especially quick.

At the prior prep meeting in Geneva, the draft treaty called for regular periodic meetings to set collective finance targets, with separate targets for mitigation and adaptation, based on ascertaining support requirements of the underdeveloping world.

It is key that the Paris treaty include phasing out fossil fuel emissions. To those working in the sausage factory that means phasing in 100% renewable energy, but the Bonn delegates seem a bit deluded in imagining that the old and new are roughly equivalent and we simply have to sweep out those smelly oily rags and uncrate that shiny new solary stuff.

Making pig iron—the main ingredient in steel—requires blast furnaces. Making cement requires 100-meter-long kilns that operate at 1500 degrees C. In principle it is possible to produce high heat for these purposes with electricity or giant solar collectors, but nobody does it that way now because it would be much more expensive than burning coal or natural gas. Crucially, current manufacturing processes for building solar panels and wind turbines also depend upon high-temperature industrial processes fueled by oil, coal, and natural gas. Again, alternative ways of producing this heat are feasible in principle—but the result would probably be significantly higher-cost solar and wind power. And there are no demonstration projects to show us just how easy or hard this would be.

Killing Nessie

Euen Mears observes in his May 22 post, The Loch Ness Monster of Energy Storage,  that the intermittency of many solar-based renewables places large requirements for storage on a system that has neither the present technology nor any reckoning of the cost. Mears dissected Scotland's plan to build a gigantic pumped storage hydro scheme, Strath Dearn, in the Monadhliath Mountains, just south of Inverness (population 72,000) on the upper reaches of the River Findhorn.

The scheme proposes to pump seawater from a location on the Moray Firth just east of Inverness to an elevation of about 300 m above sea level from where the water will flow south along a canal to the base of dam at an elevation of about 350 m where it is pumped into a reservoir with maximum surface elevation of 650 m. At one level, this is a standard pumped hydro storage scheme employing the sea as the lower reservoir. The scheme would have two pumping and generating stations, one by the sea and the other at the base of the dam.

The dam would dwarf the Hoover Dam and is of comparable size to Three Gorges in China. Strath Dearn generating capacity of 132 to 264 GW dwarfs both Hoover and Three Gorges. That is because the reservoir may be emptied and filled regularly, it has a huge head of 650 m and flow is not restricted to the flow of a natural river that has been dammed.

Untoward side effects: Loch Ness will become salty from seawater migration. Tectonic stresses caused by loading and unloading the site with 4.4 billion tons of water on a regular basis make living below the dam a risky proposition. Moreover, Mears calculates that storage on the order 472 GWh would be required to span low-wind lulls, given present Northern Scottish power demand and zero population growth.

Scaling to a 100% wind-pumped-storage system would increase the planned, already gigantic offshore wind farm from 3 GW to 50 GW. The storage requirement then grows to 50/3*472GWh = 7867 GWh. At that size the proposed reservoir site is not large enough to guarantee uninterrupted supply. So do they power the pumps with coal? Nuclear? Fracked gas?

Which brings up the first of two problems with a UN plan to replace fossil with renewables. Fossil energy is all about converting caloric content of dead dinosaurs to boil water or otherwise make mechanical or electrical power. Renewables like solar thermal and biomass may work that way, but wind and photovoltaics do not. Fossil energy is the stored sunlight of 500 million years – a great big savings account of light striking some part of our planet for half of each day. Renewables are more like a checking account, we get to use them as they arrive, but savings are pretty much out of the picture.
"Nothing says bathroom break better than a 40-foot plastic Brontosaurus."
– Larry the Cable Guy

The second difference is EROIE, or energy return on invested energy. Fossil fuels are very energy dense. A cup of gasoline can take a 2-ton truck over a mountain. How many horses would have to be fed how much grain to accomplish the same task? How many hours of wind generators charging batteries? Sunlight is very distributed and most of it falls on the ocean. Sure, solar input is nearly 4 million exajoules per year, versus only 550 exajoules from all fossil fuel burned to date, but as Charles A.S. Hall, who invented the EROIE concept, says, it is naïve in his opinion, "that we can replace fossil fuels with biofuels (most of which have little or no net yield), efficiency, and solar power."

Even more damning, whatever optimistic scenario you might choose, you are likely to soon run into the biggie: Jevons paradox, in which the efficient use of a resource leads to greater consumption of it—not less. For example, Sweden is a country in which conservation is taken very seriously. A government commission brought together nutritionists and environmental scientists and came up with a nutritious and CO2-sparing diet. Eva Alfredsson (Green consumption energy use and carbon dioxide emission, 2002) compared Swedes who promised to follow this diet with those who did not. She interviewed both groups frequently and calculated the CO2 released by each group. She found that the environmentally conscious group did indeed generate less CO2 and spent less money on food. Looks like win–win, right? But when she looked at total household budgets, she found that the environmentally conscious group spent their saved money in fuel-intensive ways, such as more distant vacations. This effect canceled, and in some cases more than cancelled, their dietary CO2 savings. About the only environmental benefit was that the first group presumably felt better about their environmental footprint. Genuine energy savings requires a holistic analysis, not Panglossian hope.
-- Bioscience 65:6:624 (2015)

Bonn NGOs such as Climate Action Network have called for provisions in the treaty that guarantee sustainable energy for all. By all, do they mean 8 billion people? 12 billion? More? Where do they think that much energy will come from?
Of the countless new initiatives being announced, some are good, and some (let’s face it) are greenwashing.
 – Climate Action Network

Just take food supply, for instance. To bring the climate back in line will require restoring normal carbon and nitrogen flows, and to accomplish that we will need to do what Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson have been recommending – change from a mix of 80% annuals and 20% perennials to the reverse ratio. Tree crops have a lot in common with other forms of renewable energy, because their production is less dense – requiring more land per food calorie produced, although the ecological services produced by forests are incalculable.
Over 35% of the energy in agriculture is used making nitrogen fertilizers. If this must drop by 90%, as I believe it must, that means creating an agriculture dependent on the cycling of all nutrients, including human waste. It also means having a lot more farmers, at least 10 times as many as at present, perhaps more like 20 times, and all of us will need to live closer to the land that feeds us.

Compensating Loss

For the 2015 agreement to be successful, there needs to be stronger recognition that the effects of climate change will necessitate increased adaptation, away from the memes of "make it happen" industrial civilization and towards the memes of harmony with natural cycles and flows. In Bonn, as in Paris, that discussion is not being had. Instead delegates are trying anchor the Warsaw mechanism on loss and damage and ensure additional finance. "Loss and damage" places a burden on polluters to compensate those most injured by climate change, on the theory that such a policy will put a tangible price on pollution that can begin to value carbon and change the pass-through pollution paradigm for global business and finance.

We can foresee problems with the loss and damage approach. So, for instance, who will the US government more likely compensate for loss from climate change, almond farmers in California or drought refugees in Yemen? Apply that same logic for all nations.

These Bonn talks are critical, not just in shaping the Paris agreement, but also in achieving a common understanding on a range of important issues. These talks are not just about streamlining a text; they are about realizing, at a deeper level, the scope of the problem and the required scale for any response.

This is the first of two parts, to be continued next week. 




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