Sunday, January 10, 2016

Antifragile Food Systems

"The alpha person at a gathering of "high status" persons is usually the waiter. "


  In the film, No Escape, Owen Wilson and Lake Bell's characters play a stereotypical USAnian couple, Jack and Annie Dwyer, cast abroad like fishes out of water. He is a corporate engineer in charge of putting a water plant into a fictional Southeast Asian country. She is the dutiful wife, bringing along to the temporary assignment two young children and their favorite kitchen appliances.



When civil war suddenly erupts before they have even gotten past jet-lag and they find themselves in an urban killing field, hunted by machete-wielding guerillas who are really angry about the way Jack's corporation has stolen and monetized their water rights, they must run for their lives, which they do for the next hour or more of screen time.



That's the plot, but the film is less about why the couple got into their predicament or why this small country has decided to murder all its foreign tourists than how Jack and Annie and their children absorb the changed circumstances, adapt to their precarious situation, and do what it takes to survive. Theater audiences are rooting for them, despite their complete lack of preparation.



In Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb distinguishes antifragile from words like robust or resilient by saying that when something is antifragile, it benefits when things go bad. Taleb is a recovering Wall Street quant trader. He understands hedges and shorts, and indeed, wrote the textbook on dynamic hedging in 1997. His subsequent books, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2001) and The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007) redefined at how traders look at risk and how people should think about risk in life choices.



If Jack and Annie had read either Fooled by Randomness or The Black Swan, they would not have been thrown into such profound stupor when the country they had landed in suddenly dissolved into anarchy and savage brutality. These things, or equally unpredictable things, are to be expected, even predicted.



Antifragile goes a step beyond and asks how one can be prepared to benefit from Black Swan events. Taleb gives the example of biological and economic systems. Efficiency and optimization are the final stages of succession — a mature ecology. They are also fragile. Inefficient redundancy is robust. Degeneracy is antifragile. The early sere following some disturbance is filled with fast-growing, thick-stemmed "weeds" that require few soil nutrients or supporting microbial diversity. If there is not much sun, too much wind or rain, poorly suited pioneers will fall aside and those better selected will dominate.



Fragile systems hate mistakes. Antifragile systems love them. Postmodern thinking, almost completely divorced from nature, is built on a scaffold of prior delusions. Medieval Europe, grounded in a theological storyline that is unwavering (like hard-core Evangelical Christianity or Sunni Islam) is more robust. But the pre-European Mediterranean seafaring cultures — pantheistic, surrounded by random dangers and ubiquitous risk (pirates, police states, conscription, volcanoes) and utterly free enterprise, was antifragile. People in that time exchanged rites and gods the way we do ethnic foods. Like Silicon Valley, ideas and gods failed fast, failed often, but occasionally winners emerged.



Taleb casts this into mathematical metaphors: the fewer the gods the greater the dogma and higher the risk of conflict and loss. For atheists n=0; Sunni purists n=1; monophysites n=1-2; Greek Orthodoxy n=3-12; pagans, wiccans and most native peoples n=infinite. Whose religion is more fragile and likely to occasion bad things happening?



Jack and Annie Dwyer are in the fragile, corporate employment class. They are pampered. They did well in school. They don't need to know a word of the language of the country they have been sent to. They complain if there is no a/c in the room or the limo doesn't arrive on time. They are intellectual tourists. Their antifragile counterpart is a slacker — fläneur is the word Taleb uses — the creative loafer with a large library or an X-box. Taleb says the alpha person at a gathering of "high status" persons is usually the waiter.



Engineering and corporate middle management are fragile professions. Financially robust professions in the run-up to ponzicollapse would be dentists, dermatologists, or minimum wage niche workers. Antifragile jobs in the overtopping and onset of decline are payday check cashing tellers, taxi drivers and nomadic fishermen. The Roma, living parasitically at the urban edges of European cities, are antifragile, but have vulnerability to travel restrictions. When Sweden closed its border crossings and started doing screening of incoming migrants, Denmark had to follow or risk being swamped with migrants denied entry to Sweden. Holland, Germany and France did the same. This is not a good thing for gypsies, but they are resilient enough to make do with one country at a time and antifragile enough to exploit weaknesses in border security and even turn that into new opportunities and enterprises.



What is an antifragile food system? This becomes especially important as we enter an era of rapid climate change and civil disintegration. A decade ago in "From Foraging to Farming, Explaining the Neolithic Revolution" (J Econ. Surveys 19:4:561-586, 2005), Jacob Weisdorf at the University of Copenhagen reviewed the main theories about the prehistoric shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. The transition, also known as the Neolithic Revolution, was necessary precursor for capitalism, industrialization and the monotheistic religion of economic growth. Hunting and foraging societies were egalitarian and communal. Farming and herding societies are vested, competitive and hierarchical.



The Neolithic Revolution augured slavery, which began as agricultural serfdom and abides today as the "jobs" system. Taleb opines that in the days of Suetonius, 60 percent of prominent educators (grammarians) were slaves. Today the ratio is 97.1 percent and growing.



Charles Darwin in The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868) said:


The savage inhabitants of each land, having found out by many and hard trials what plants where useful ... would after a time take the first step in cultivation by planting them near their usual abodes.... The next step in cultivation, and this would require but little forethought, would be to sow the seeds of useful plants.



Did it really take several million years for our upright hominid ancestors to get the idea they could domesticate plants and animals, or had they known that much longer and invariably decided it was a bad idea?



One hypothesis is that the extinction of large herding animals by Paleolithic hunters led to farming. This is discounted by the fact that the loss of the former did not coincide with the gain of the latter, either geographically or chronologically. Another theory is that we were forced into farming by population pressure, but that is countered by the fact that the first domestications took place in resource-abundant societies. Moreover, dietary stress would have marked the skeletons of foragers and studies have failed to show any nutritional stress immediately prior to plant domestication.



Another theory is that the rise of agriculture came from ‘competitive feasting;’ the idea that culinary diversity conferred social status and therefore resulted in competition to create delicacies. Let's call this gourmetgenesis. Unfortunately for foodie anthropologists, it appears that early domestication unambiguously consisted of a small number of important staples rather than appetizers, pastries and confections.



Those who study the evolution of consciousness suggest that the shift may have occurred, with or without sacred plant intervention, about 10 millennia ago when the brain had a hundredth monkey moment and, like Kubrick's apes before the shiny monolith, transformed bone shillelaghs into plows and space stations.



More recent work suggests that climate shifts not only contributed to the Paleolithic large mammal extinctions and may have caused psychedelic mushrooms, vines and cacti to extend their ranges and abundancies, but also permitted more reliable predictions about weather, which allowed crops to be grown more consistently.



Some ancient Greeks thought that this process was cyclical, and that eventually good weather would lapse and we would return to hunting and foraging. Medieval Christianity embedded the meme that the process is linear, an inexorable progression of human civilization from brutality to refinement.



Weisdorf notes:


Farming [is] still assumed to have been clearly preferable to foraging. But, in the 1960s, this perception was to be turned upside down. Evidence started to appear which suggested that early agriculture had cost farmers more trouble than it saved. Studies of present-day primitive societies indicated that farming was in fact backbreaking, time consuming, and labor intensive.



In the 1960s, "a picture began to emerge that showed that foraging communities were able to remain in equilibrium at carrying capacity when undisturbed." Where the ratio of population to productive land area is favorable, foraging generally provides greater return on labor invested than tilling and herding. Once the ratio becomes unfavorable, tilling and herding are not only more effective, but necessary. To any foraging society, therefore, two disciplines are required. They must regenerate land resource and restrain population growth. Soil fertility sí, human fertility no.



In Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems in a Changing Climate (New Society 2015), Laura Lengnick gives her take on the progression from foraging to pastoralism to agriculture:


Foraging and the early farming systems that followed it propose very different solutions to the same basic question facing all animals: How best to allocate the available time and resources to acquire food? All things being equal, animals (including humans) tend to solve this effort-allocation problem by maximizing the capture of calories, protein and other desired foods in a way that yields the most return with the greatest certainty in the least time for the least effort. Moderate, reliable returns are usually preferred over fluctuating high returns. It turns out that, for a long time, foraging was a good solution to the effort-allocation problem facing early humans. But climate change changed everything.


Lengnick, Resilience Design Criteria for Agroecosystems
Lengnick describes the strategies employed by native peoples of North America. They foraged and hunted, sustainably used irrigation, amended with fish scraps and animal manures as fertilizers, rotated grain and legume crops and selected and improved their seeds. She looks at the Mohawk, Cherokee, Mandan and Hohokam as representative of the North American Northeast, Southeast, Northern Great Plains and Southwest. She then turns to the practices brought by European colonists, before and after the arrival of petroleum, modern machines and chemicals. Regional specialization continues today, based more on industrial infrastructure than soils or suitability, but climate has thrown in a monkey wrench, much the way it did 8-12,000 years ago.

From the summer of 2013 through late winter 2014, Lengnick interviewed 25 award-winning sustainable producers from across the United States. All had been farming in the same location for at least 20 years, many for 30 and some for 40 years or more. Many expressed concerns about the path the food system has taken over the last 50 years and their frustrations with scientific, economic and regulatory policy. Listening to their stories is like sitting around a campfire with two dozen Joel Salatins.


At the Happy Cow Creamery, artisanal dairyman Tom Trantham told Lengnick,


Really, we see some drought and hot temperatures every year. This year (2013) is the first year that we haven’t really had a drought. This year it has been really wet. We had the rain, but we also didn’t have the sun, so we had two big problems. I’m 72 years old, and I’ve never seen as much rain in a year in my life, anywhere. It really affected my crops. Our hay was 9 percent protein. It would normally have been 18 or 20. Like I say, never in my life have I endured that much rain.



Lengnick, Resilience Design Criteria for Agroecosystems
Lengnick's distillation of their advice is sage. Produce food as part of an ecosystem. Adapt by going back to letting nature do what nature does best. Lengnick calls this "adaptive management," but what she is speaking of is what the UN has been calling "eco-agriculture, and it contains a suite of tools and practices that not only provide greater food security but can, scaled quickly enough, undo the worst of the Fossil Age's climate karma.



For Lengnick,


Functional diversity and response diversity describe the capacity of the agroecosystem to maintain healthy function of the four farming system processes (energy, water, mineral, community dynamics) and other ecosystem services. Functional diversity describes the number of different species or assemblages of species that participate in agroecosystem processes to produce ecosystem services. Response diversity describes the diversity of responses to changing conditions among the group of species or species assemblages that contribute to the same ecosystem function. Agroecosystems designed with high functional and response diversity have the capacity to produce ecosystem services over a wide range of environmental conditions.



Like Taleb, Lengnick identifies the fragility of monocultural, industrial farming practices:



Appropriately connected agroecosystems will build relationships that enhance functional and response diversity. Many weak (i.e., not critical to function) connections are favored over a few strong (i.e., critical to function) connections. Agroecosystems that rely on a few strong connections for critical resources reduce their resilience to events that disrupt those connections; in contrast, many weak connections enhance response capacity.



In permaculture, we speak of harmony and stress and some see those as opposites, but in a more tantric Buddhist interpretation they can be viewed as a symbiotic pair. Stress is the bending of a system away from its natural pattern, making it fragile. Harmony is the restoration of balance and connections, inherently antifragile. Natural succession is a cycle of disturbance, experimentation, and equilibrium. There is no steady state, there is only the constancy of change.



In another month we leave for Belize to teach the 11th annual Permaculture Design Course at Maya Mountain Research Farm (seats still available here). Personally, it will be our 50th time instructing the standard 72-hour Design Course. We often say, when we teach in such places, it is not the people that are the instructors there, it is the land. In this case it is land that has been refined, articulated, complexed and restored to if not the Paleolithic model, then to a Neolithic transitional stage, where both domestic and wild systems co-exist in a riot of cascading productivity.



If the Dwyer family had taken this workshop, or read Lengnick's book, they would not have been caught by surprise when their world of modern illusions suddenly dissolved. They would probably never have gotten into that situation to begin with.








Sunday, January 3, 2016

Dystopias and Eutopias

"Cities like Miami, New Orleans, Tokyo and Venice will squander billons to forestall the inevitable and for a while may even seem to succeed, only to lose it all in one spin of the wheel — a single bad day with some monster storm."

The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting! 

—Theodore Roethke, The Child on Top of the Greenhouse

Watching the development of the Arctic superstorm on earth.nullschool.net, our eyes drifted to the Eastern Mediterranean, curious about the lake effect of that large body of water on Palestine and the Middle East. We had seen a photo earlier in the week from Instagram of a trolley making its way through snow in Istanbul, and we knew Eastern Mediterranean weather was likely cold. 

We latched onto two curious patterns. The first was that cold air mass descending out of the Russian steppes, crossing the Black Sea, passing through the Dardanelles and entering the Mediterranean, where the hot air mass in Africa wheeled it around to lash the shores of Gaza. It was no surprise to see our heroic permaculture pioneer there in Ramalla, Murad AlKhufash, bundled up against the cold. 


The other pattern we saw was farther west, beyond the boot of Italy, where two air masses converge and bend up into the continent. The first comes in off the North Atlantic, collides with that hot high in North Africa and swings up into Provence. The second is a westward flow of cool Mediterranean air moving down from the Italian Alps, out through the San Remo Bay and then along the gold coast, past Nice, Cannes, Monaco, before suddenly sweeping north, drawn like a magnet to that same compass heading in the Golfe de Lyon. 

We watched, rapt, this vacuum in Southern France, endlessly drawing warm air up into Southwest Europe. It is a weather pattern as old as human history. This is where the oldest known hominid settlement, a stick and sealskin family lodge around a central firepit, is found at Terra Amata, 400000 BCE. "Tautavel man" (possibly Homo heidelbergensis) built refuge there, moving along an annual coastal hunting route during the Mindel glaciation. The cave paintings at Lascaux date to the middle of that Ice Age, when this part of Europe was relatively warm and food was plentiful, although stone tools discovered at Lézignan-la-Cèbe in 2009 date humans in France to at least 1.57 million years ago.

What we are looking at now, with this modern satellite imagery, is the climate signature of very old refugia — the places to which our kind, the two-leggeds, repaired when climate changed abruptly. 


As the weather warmed again, there was an expansion of peoples from southwest Asia into Europe from the Aegean and Eastern Steppes, about 8500 years ago, marked by the introduction of Indo-European speech. Vascons bear the remnant genome — related to none other in the world and retaining a fragment of Neanderthal DNA — and pre-Indo-European linguistic roots. These peoples were likely forced from the lowlands and pushed upland by Middle Eastern migrants from 6500 to 4000 BC, moving eventually into the Pyrenees, where they live today in the Basque region of Spain and Andorra.


As an aside, when we were researching the history of the conquistadors for The Biochar Solution, we came across the fascinating tale of Lope de Aguirre (1510-1561), nicknamed El Loco ('the Madman')  who was psychotically depicted by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's B-film, Aguirre: the Wrath of God, in 1972 (where our friend, the bioregional poet and singer, Christopher Wells, performed as an extra). Aquirre, a Vascon, was said to be nearly 7 feet tall and was uncomfortable in leather boots, which compells us to muse about the possibility of his Neanderthal bloodline. When Aguirre was sentenced to public flogging for his cruelty towards the indigenous peoples he conquered and enslaved, he endured his whipping but then pursued the judge who sentenced him. Over three years he ran 6,000 km (3700 miles) through the mountains and jungles on foot, unshod, on the trail of the judge, who slept in armor to protect himself. He caught and killed the judge but was pardoned in exchange for his Indian-fighting services, until once more atrocities and his open rebellion against the Spanish crown made him a hunted rogue agent, gone off the reservation, and he so was recaptured and terminated with extreme prejudice. 

The people living in the highlands of what is today Bolivia might of thought they had a pretty good life for themselves in a place of great natural beauty until that guy showed up.

Five hundred years before Aguirre, the Southern French and Italian coast was the tribal homeland for the Ligurians, whose language carries as many Celtic words as Indo-European, and who were conquered in the Punic Wars by Rome. The ancient Roman port of Ventimiglia, on San Remo Bay, lies close to one of Europe's most treasured ecovillages, at Torri Superiori, which perches just back up that river valley, at the transition point where paved roads give way to mountain trails, and a days' walk will take you through many vacant, or nearly vacant, fieldstone towns and cobbled hamlet ruins in the foothills.


In 1834, Henry Brougham, Lord Chancellor Lord Brougham and Vaux, discovered the sleepy fishing village of Cannes and built a winter villa there with immense lawns of turf imported from Britain by sail. Lord Brougham, epitomizing Britain's ruling class, is remembered for his stern attack on the radical idea of providing public education:

I should regard anything of the kind as utterly destructive of the end it has in view. Suppose the people of England were taught to bear it, and to be forced to educate their children by means of penalties, education would be made absolutely hateful in their eyes, and would speedily cease to be endured. They who have argued in favour of such a scheme from the example of a military government like that of Prussia have betrayed, in my opinion, great ignorance of the nature of Englishmen.
— Report of the Parliamentary Committee on the State of Education (1834).

Trailing in Brougham's turfboat wake, wealthy Victorian scoundrels landscaped themselves along the gold coast and over the present Italian border to Bordighera, San Remo and other Ligurian villages (until 1860, Nice and Menton were in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia), building exotic terraced gardens and palatial estates befitting the rewards of extractive colonial empire. It was in a family villa near Ventimiglia that Lord Balfour hosted the San Remo conference to design the partition of Palestine, haughtily issuing "Israel's Magna Carta," and precipitating the Jerusalem Nebi-Musa riots of 1920-21.

It was not just the warmth and healthy winter climate that attracted the British gentry. The cost of living was lower there than in London, Belfast or Edinburgh, and if one had served her Majesty in one of her distant colonial outposts and remembered fondly being waited on by servants — and the cool tropical drinks out on the veranda — one could hire poor 
French peasants for a pittance. These were the years following Napoleon's ruin, when empirical overreach sank French fortunes in a foolhardy Russian winter campaign and then got mopped up and tossed into history's dustbin by Wellington and the Prussians.

To some British ex-pats, the Riviera was simply an escape from Victorian morals, a place for singles and gays to freak freely — as Somerset Maugham put it, "a sunny place for shady people."

 


Last week we listened to a Kunstlercast podcast in which James Howard Kunstler chatted with Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns.org.  The two mused at how estate prices had fallen in the rust belt and how easy it would be for aspiring youth and young families of like-minded kith and kin to move in, build collaborative, regenerative local economies while incurring zero debt, and even be supported in that reclamation process by the greater city, state and county taxsheds interested in recovering misallocated and stranded assets amid cascading petrocollapse.

Personally, we think climate change should be a major consideration. As we listened to scientist emeritus James Hansen in his Paris talks last month, we heard the urgency of his concern for sea level rise and took that to heart. But no one can say with certainty how fast an individual section of coastline will give itself up to the waves and that provides some comfort to coastal dwellers. Cities like Miami, New Orleans, Tokyo and Venice will squander billons to forestall the inevitable and for a while may even seem to succeed, only to lose it all in one spin of the wheel — a single bad day with some monster storm.

In Climate in Crisis (1990) we speculated that the hot interiors of continents were not going to be pleasant places in the coming years. With some exceptions, most will become dreadfully hot and water starved, subject to tornadoes, wildfires and even dust bowl conditions. The Pacific Northwest will be more wet, as will the American Southeast, but that also means much greater humidity and unless you can power air conditioning with renewable energy, not very happy places in warm times of the year. Mosquitoes and biting flies will love the change, and will proliferate too in thawing regions closer to the poles.   Much of the Amazon Basin (another lockbox of untapped viruses) is expected to desertify at 3 degrees above now, and that will alter rainfall patterns for a very large part of the world. Being on the Equator, their climate may begin to resemble the lower quadrant of Saudi Arabia in a few decades.

When we taught our most recent permaculture course in Iceland we thought that would be a lovely place for young people to settle and build ecovillages. Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, fits a similar mold. We used to think that might be a great place to relocate our family and maybe take up fishing. After watching earth.nullschool.net and the gigantic storm now churning through the Arctic, we have second thoughts.
 
One thinks of higher elevations as refuges, and indeed, some very spectacular real estate can be found in the Rockies, Alps and Snowy Mountains. Insofar as the rain-shadow effect of cross-mountain winds continues, these may provide some areas of refuge, albeit gradually shrinking. So may certain islands, if they rise up from the sea to secure elevations and can shelter from superstorms.
 
As refugees continue to pour north into Europe we are reminded what it may look like in these more comfortable microclimates like Southern France in the not distant future. Human numbers are already staggering, our fecundity rates show no sign of abating, and we add 220,000 to the number of us at procreating age, every day.

 

In the end, it matters not where we are. It matters who we are, and what we do with our knowledge and skills in the time we are given.

Through sunny fields
And valleys deep
Through noisy streets
And river's sweep

Although I may race
With the wind
I keep that quiet place
Within

My heart; a chamber
Safe and warm
To give you shelter
From the storm

— Gabriela Duricova
 














Sunday, December 20, 2015

Soon it Begins, but First, We Celebrate!

"We are at threshold of a monumental, civilization-bending paradigm shift."

From 1980 to 1989, we collected and analyzed more than 3,000 published studies on climate change. Having received formal training in liberal arts, political science, and law, we were poorly prepared but nonetheless taught ourselves the arcane language of climate science and how to separate the wheat from the chaff in complicated studies and reports.

At the end of that decade, we wrote a book that sifted all this assembled scientific literature and synthesized it into a statement that any reasonably bright 15-year-old could read and understand. That book, Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do, still stands up pretty well after 25 years. Many of the unknowns that existed then are known today. Many uncertainties with interpretations suspected but not confirmed have been resolved. Still, new knowledge has brought new questions and, in time, we will discover still more answers. Science never sleeps.

One of the more controversial chapters in that 1990 book was called "Runaway" It described a possible scenario in which positive feedbacks cascaded so quickly that Earth's usual recovery mechanisms would not have time to adjust. In an exceptionally bad run of luck, we could lose the friendly atmosphere that sustains higher life forms and instead be shrouded in thick clouds of carbon dioxide and methane, something akin to the atmosphere of Venus. Today there are a growing number of scientists who think that is where we are headed - that Earth will no longer be able to support large mammals such as ourselves, and we could experience our own mass extinction by as early as 2030.

These kinds of doomsday scenarios are not certainties, and may even be improbable, but they are not impossible, given what we are observing in the natural world today and from what we understand of geophysics. We are in an accelerating pace of change, and unless we can radically shift both the pace and direction, it will not end well.

In 1965, an advisory committee warned Lyndon B. Johnson that the greenhouse effect was a matter of "real concern." With estimated recoverable fossil fuel reserves sufficient to triple atmospheric carbon dioxide, the panel wrote, "Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment." Emissions by the year 2000 could be sufficient to cause "measurable and perhaps marked" climate change, the panel concluded.

Since then, every U.S. President has been warned by the best scientists in the world that the problem is serious and getting rapidly worse. Previous to Barack Obama, no U.S. president except Jimmy Carter had done anything to even slow the problem, and Carter demonstrated what Obama already knows - that it is a political liability even to try.

Someone who foresaw this dilemma early and found himself in a position to do something about it was Maurice Strong, the first Director of the United Nations Environmental Program. He, more than any single individual, was responsible for establishing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the Convention on Biological Diversity to bring together science and diplomacy.

It was a strange life's trajectory that took him there. A child of the Canadian prairies who suffered through the Great Depression, he went on to become a self-made oil millionaire and then a key player in energy and utility businesses. He became the first chairman of Petro-Canada and later chairman of Ontario Hydro. Then Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson appointed him to start the Canadian International Development Agency and he began a lifelong interest in the problems of the poor.

In 1971, Strong commissioned a report on the state of the planet, Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, co-authored by Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos. The report summarized the findings of 152 leading experts from 58 countries. It spurred the first UN Conference on Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972. Strong's report was the world's first "state of the environment" warning.

Maurice was Secretary-General of that 1972 Stockholm summit and later the Rio Sustainable Development Summit  in 1992,  It was his view that better knowledge would lead to wise and timely action by all the nations of the world working in concert. He was Founding Executive Director of the UN Environment Program and not a believer in summits as an end in themselves. Rather than setting up his UNEP shop in Paris or New York, he established a global headquarters on what was then a coffee farm at the outskirts of Nairobi. In 1999 he took on the task of trying to restore the viability of the University for Peace, headquartered in Costa Rica

Maurice Strong died at the age of 86 in November 27, 2015 in Ottawa, just as delegates were arriving to Paris for the UN climate meeting. Had his health and longevity permitted, he would have been there too.

Despite the poorly informed quality of the climate discussion in the United States, science has already reached a consensus. It took thousands of scientists many decades to reach it, something, by the way, that has never occurred before. Exxon, the Koch brothers, Saudi Arabia, and others have almost unlimited money to spend buying political favors and sowing doubt. Through spending billions of dollars each year — many, many times the amounts that are usually spent on political campaigns — these oil and coal interests have produced a generation of politicians with wacko views of science. It is no accident that in the United States, until recently the world's leading carbon polluter, the key Congressional committees charged with addressing climate change have been disbanded, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is under attack for regulating carbon, and President Obama has been formally informed, by legislative resolution, that any UN climate agreement forwarded to the Senate will be Dead On Arrival.

Against this backdrop we have the Paris Agreement, which changes everything. How did it come into being? What does it mean for the economies of industrial nations? What are its chances of Senate ratification, or funding of its programs? What will be its effects on the stock market, on jobs, and on future elections?

After spending the last 6 years reporting on the run-up to the Paris conference, actually being there for this historic moment was much more exciting than we anticipated. Right up until the last it could have gone either way. We could have seen another Copenhagen. Instead, we saw a genuine breakthrough. Indeed, we are at threshold of a monumental, civilization-bending paradigm shift.

In heralding the adoption of the agreement, President Barack Obama said:

[T]his agreement sends a powerful signal that the world is firmly committed to a low-carbon future. And that has the potential to unleash investment and innovation in clean energy at a scale we have never seen before. The targets we've set are bold. And by empowering businesses, scientists, engineers, workers, and the private sector - investors - to work together, this agreement represents the best chance we've had to save the one planet that we've got.

So I believe this moment can be a turning point for the world. We've shown that the world has both the will and the ability to take on this challenge. It won't be easy. Progress won't always come quick. We cannot be complacent. While our generation will see some of the benefits of building a clean energy economy - jobs created and money saved - we may not live to see the full realization of our achievement. But that's okay. What matters is that today we can be more confident that this planet is going to be in better shape for the next generation. And that's what I care about. I imagine taking my grandkids, if I'm lucky enough to have some, to the park someday, and holding their hands, and hearing their laughter, and watching a quiet sunset, all the while knowing that our work today prevented an alternate future that could have been grim; that our work, here and now, gave future generations cleaner air, and cleaner water, and a more sustainable planet. And what could be more important than that?

Today, thanks to strong, principled, American leadership, that's the world that we'll leave to our children - a world that is safer and more secure, more prosperous, and more free. And that is our most important mission in our short time here on this Earth.

While we may not have a crystal ball, we have now been following and reporting this issue for 35 years. Over the past 7 days we have compiled a new book, which is now available on Kindle and for the remainder of the year can be downloaded for $1.99. The Kindle app is available for free for almost any smart phone or digital device.

This book is our diary of the past year, as we watched the quickening pace of negotiations that led, ultimately, to the adoption of the final text in Paris. Regular readers will recognize many of the chapters because they were posted here beginning this past February, but there are many new chapters added to lend the story its power and immediacy.

Dropping the royal "we" for a moment, I know that I carry my own biases into this reporting, borne of more than three decades watching politicians and diplomats fiddle while Earth burned. I come not from the world of journalism or academic science, but from a world of permaculture, solar power experiments, and ecovillages; a world that is unknown to most people. My expertise lies in appropriate technology, biophysical economics, and ecological restoration. Because of this, I offer a different point of view than what our readers can easily find in other books in this subject. I write with an opinionated style that some may find difficult to accept, even offensive, but I speak with a passion borne of conviction. I hope this book helps deepen your understanding of a complex issue. It is an issue that will affect you very profoundly in coming years whether you choose to believe it or not.

Merry Christmas to one and all, and to each a festive holiday season. And when the New Year comes, our real work can begin. That is soon enough. Light a candle, raise a toast, and may we have peace on Earth, all good will to all our relations.  

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Here Comes The Sun



"The COP agreed that the era of fossil energy is over. That is no longer in question. It will end by 2050, if not sooner. The question is how, and the Paris Agreement leaves that to fairy dust."


  At 7:27 pm Paris time (ECT), the President of the COP, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, gavelled the Paris Agreement home. The crowd stood, applauded and whooped. The text is here: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09.pdf

Success, it seemed to us, came because of the unions. They were not dockworkers or ironmongers. They were unions of countries with brands that read like corporate logos: AOSIS, ALBA, G77 Plus, High Ambition, the Like-Minded in favor of Kyoto Annexes, stealth-OPEC. No single effort could broker a deal unless it got the big unions on board. In the end ALBA and stealth-OPEC were too small to matter. The Like-Minded splintered in favor of the Ambitious. AOSIS and G77, the Climate Vulnerable Forum, and High Ambition ruled.

In their 2 minute closer, Philippines noted it was the first time that the concept of Climate Justice appears in a legally binding document. In time, they hinted, the United States and other overdeveloped countries will be made to pay reparations to those who will lose all or substantial parts of their counties, including all that high-priced real estate in Rio, Capetown, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Consumerist Empires built on fossil energy may have an unusually large credit card statement coming at the end of the billing cycle.

Pluses and minuses in the new agreement: the 1.5C target is in, thanks to the efforts of UNFCCC head Christina Figueres to give a voice to civil society in these corridors. Five-year 'stocktakes' (Websters Dictionary please take note) — reassessment of progress and commitments — are in. Full phase-out of fossil energy by 2050 is not, but that door is not entirely closed and may be reopened at Marrakech next year.
"Each Party’s successive nationally determined contribution will represent a progression beyond the Party’s then current nationally determined contribution and reflect its highest possible ambition, reflecting its common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances."
What the text mandates, which is actually significant, is to "achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty."

Decarbonization by 2050 is no longer just a t-shirt. Now it's international law.

Bill McKibben said:
“Every government seems now to recognize that the fossil fuel era must end and soon. But the power of the fossil fuel industry is reflected in the text, which drags out the transition so far that endless climate damage will be done. Since pace is the crucial question now, activists must redouble our efforts to weaken that industry. This didn’t save the planet but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.”

350.org Executive director, May Boeve said:
“This marks the end of the era of fossil fuels. There is no way to meet the targets laid out in this agreement without keeping coal, oil and gas in the ground. The text should send a clear signal to fossil fuel investors: divest now.

The final text still has some serious gaps. We’re very concerned about the exclusion of the rights of indigenous peoples, the lack of finance for loss and damage, and that while the text recognizes the importance of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees C, the current commitments from countries still add up to well over 3 degrees of warming. These are red lines we cannot cross. After Paris, we’ll be redoubling our efforts to deliver the real solutions that science and justice demand.”
The thinktank E3G said,  “The transition to a low carbon economy is now unstoppable, ensuring the end of the fossil fuel age.”

Carbon Tracker said: “Fossil fuel companies will need to accept that they are an ex-growth stocks and must urgently re-assess their business plans accordingly.”

The Guardian called it "a victory for climate science and ultimate defeat for fossil fuels."

One piece of statescraft managed by Obama and Kerry was to neatly skirt what killed Kyoto: the 60 Neanderthals in the US Senate put there by the coal kings Koch Brothers. The New York Times spotted the play and reported:
Some elements of the accord would be voluntary, while others would be legally binding. That hybrid structure was specifically intended to ensure the support of the United States: An accord that would have required legally binding targets for emissions reductions would be legally interpreted as a new treaty, and would be required to go before the Senate for ratification.

Such a proposal would be dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate, where many lawmakers question the established science of climate change, and where even more hope to thwart President Obama’s climate change agenda.

***

The accord uses the language of an existing treaty, the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to put forth legally binding language requiring countries to verify their emissions, and to periodically put forth new, tougher domestic plans over time.

In just updating regulations enacted under an already ratified treaty, the Paris Agreement bypasses the need for new Senate ratification.

Inside Le Bourget, after the obligatory high fives and selfies, delegates crafted sound bytes for the press and kept the lights on and microphones active past midnight. Outside, 10,000 activists took to the streets to pull a "red line," representing 1.5 degrees, to the Arc de Triomphe.

French President Francois Hollande, who has a gift for hyperbole, said "History is made by those who commit, not those who calculate. Today you committed. You did not calculate." Although not in the way he meant it, this is ironically a first-rate assessment of the Agreement.

There is a quality of awareness among all the delegates to the Paris climate talks that, after 20 years of these discussions, is passing strange. We would not call it a deer-in-the-headlights look, because it is not even quite there yet. Those jockeying for the best outcome for their own economies and constituencies are still quite oblivious to the science of what is transpiring and the seriousness of the threat. They have their noses down in the trough and do not hear the butcher at the barn door.

This should not be surprising. Nowhere in the fossil record is there anything quite like what is transforming the world of humans today. Our physical brains are virtually the same as they were 30,000 years ago, when we were standing upright in the savannah, alert to proximate, not distant, threats and quickly obtained, not slowly exploited, resources.

We make ourselves ignorant in at least three ways: not knowing the basic science of climate change, not knowing what to do about it once we 
become aware of the problem, and being barraged with wrong information about both of those and being unable to distinguish fact from fiction.

We might think that a lamb raised in New Zealand and eaten in London would create more greenhouse gases than one being locally grown, but in the way the world works today, the opposite is true. We might think that going vegan is more climate responsible than raising farmed animals, but because of how pastured animals stock soils with carbon, the opposite can be true. We might think, as climate scientist James Hansen does, that low prices for gas cause more fossil fuels to be burned, but the opposite is true, because low prices keep whole provinces of production from being tapped.

When disciplined and deliberate attempts 
by profit-driven vested interests in the production of 
greenhouse gases cast doubt on science and corrupt politics and the media, grasping these nuances becomes even more difficult.

We are a lucky species in that our optimism is more-or-less hard-wired. People tend to be overly optimistic 
about their chances of having a happy marriage or avoiding illness. Young people are easily lured to join the military, become combat photographers, or engage in extreme-risk sports because they are unrealistically optimistic they can avoid harm. 
Humans are also overly optimistic about environmental risks. Our confirmation bias helps us keep up this optimism even when confronted with scientific truths to the contrary.

The principal outcome is less about the how than about the whether. The COP agreed that the era of fossil energy is over. That is no longer in question. It will end by 2050, if not sooner. The question is how, and the Paris Agreement leaves that to fairy dust.

The Guardian reports:

Throughout the week, campaigners have said the deal had to send a clear signal to global industry that the era of fossil fuels was ending. Scientists have seen the moment as career defining.

Carbon Tracker said:
“New energy technologies have become hugely cost-competitive in recent years and the effect of the momentum created in Paris will only accelerate that trend. The need for financial markets to fund the clean energy transition creates opportunity for growth on a scale not seen since the industrial revolution.”
What will replace fossil energy? The basket of renewables described by Jeremy Leggett in Winning the Carbon War? There is a slight problem there, and one wonders how long it will take for that to catch up to the delegates. Perhaps by the first stocktake, but maybe longer.

The problem, as often described on this site and elaborated in our book, the Post-Petroleum Survival Guide (2006), is net energy, or return on energy investment (EROEI), first elaborated by systems ecologist Howard T. Odum. These days the leading scientists in that field are calling it "biophysical economics."

To put it as simply as possible, the source of almost all our energy is the sun. When the EROEI of a resource is less than or equal to one, that energy source becomes a net "energy sink", and can no longer be used as a source of energy, but depending on the system might be useful for energy storage (for example a battery, or the tidal storage in Scotland). A fuel or energy must have an EROEI ratio of at least 3:1 to be considered viable as a prominent fuel or energy source. This chart shows typical values for various technologies.



Right now most of what powers the world comes from the top half of that chart. The Paris agreement suggests that most of what we need by 2050 must be selected from portions of the bottom half of the chart — the so-called "clean" energies." Quoth the prophet, Wikipedia:
Thomas Homer-Dixon argues that a falling EROEI in the Later Roman Empire was one of the reasons for the collapse of the Western Empire in the fifth century CE. In "The Upside of Down" he suggests that EROEI analysis provides a basis for the analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations. Looking at the maximum extent of the Roman Empire, (60 million) and its technological base the agrarian base of Rome was about 1:12 per hectare for wheat and 1:27 for alfalfa (giving a 1:2.7 production for oxen). One can then use this to calculate the population of the Roman Empire required at its height, on the basis of about 2,500–3,000 calories per day per person. It comes out roughly equal to the area of food production at its height. But ecological damage (deforestation, soil fertility loss particularly in southern Spain, southern Italy, Sicily and especially north Africa) saw a collapse in the system beginning in the 2nd century, as EROEI began to fall. It bottomed in 1084 when Rome's population, which had peaked under Trajan at 1.5 million, was only 15,000. Evidence also fits the cycle of Mayan and Cambodian collapse too. Joseph Tainter suggests that diminishing returns of the EROEI is a chief cause of the collapse of complex societies, this has been suggested as caused by peak wood in early societies. Falling EROEI due to depletion of high quality fossil fuel resources also poses a difficult challenge for industrial economies.
When we hear pleas from underdeveloping countries for greater financial assistance to allow them to adapt — meaning building out renewable energy and migrating coastal cities inland — we have to ask ourselves if they really comprehend what they will need to adapt to, and whether any amount of money will ever be enough. The status quo ante – the way things worked before — is gone, and so is the modo omnia futura. One hundred billion dollars per year is not enough to save human beings as a species but asking for more won't help, either. What might help is committing to degrowth, depopulation, and scaling back our human footprint to something closer to what we had coming out of the last Ice Age, before we started building monumental cities, mining metal, and inventing writing. We don't need to abandon writing, but lets get real — those megacities may be unsalvageable on a solar budget.

Dr. Guy McPherson writes:
Astrophysicists have long believed Earth was near the center of the habitable zone for humans. Recent research published in the 10 March 2013 issue of Astrophysical Journal indicates Earth is on the inner edge of the habitable zone, and lies within 1% of inhabitability (1.5 million km, or 5 times the distance from Earth to Earth’s moon). A minor change in Earth’s atmosphere removes human habitat. Unfortunately, we’ve invoked major changes.

This discussion seems strangely absent, despite the pushback against Saudi Arabia and India after they succeeded in excluding the substantive recommendations of the Structured Expert Dialogue from the COP. They were not allowed to dump the provisions on transparency and uniform accounting, although it was not for lack of effort.

Instead, we keep hearing reference to an outdated and unfortunate IPCC number — the bent straw everyone is grasping for — that to have a 50-50 chance of limiting warming to 2°C (itself untenably overheated), cumulative emissions to end of century and beyond must be limited to 1 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide in total, starting 5 years ago. In that past five years we burned through one tenth – 100 Gt. Most predict that with added growth (a big assumption) we’ll have burned through 75% of this "budget" by 2030 and we’ll bust the budget around 2036. If we cut back, we might have until 2060.

Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace said, "We have a 1.5C wall to climb but the ladder is not tall enough." But he acknowledged, “As a result of what we have secured here we will win… for us Paris was always a stop on an ongoing journey… I believe we are now in with a serious chance to succeed.”

Glen Peters, scientist at CICERO, said 1.5C effectively requires a fossil fuel phase-out by 2030. He later clarified that was without negative emissions or the immediate introduction of a global carbon price, which are some of the assumptions in 1.5C models. His personal view was chances of achieving 1.5C were “extremely slim.”

Will voluntary pledges, revisited every five years starting in 2023 be enough to cut emissions and hold to the budget? It is the wrong question. That budget does not exist. Closer scrutiny of embedded systemic feedbacks reveal we'd blown though any possible atmospheric buffer zone by the 1970s and have just been piling on carbon up there every since.

The Atlantic today reports:
Recent science has indicated that warming to two degrees, still the stated international red line, might be catastrophic, creating mega-hurricanes and possibly halting the temperate jet stream which waters American and European farmland.

From that perspective, 1.5 degrees is an encouraging, ambitious goal. But it’s also a promise that costs negotiators nothing while indicating great moral seriousness.

Because here’s the thing: The math still doesn’t work. 2015 is the hottest year on measure. Because of the delay between when carbon enters the atmosphere and when it traps heat, we are nearly locked into nearly 1.5 degrees of warming already. Many thought the world would abandon the two degree target at Paris due to its impracticality.


Once we apply honestly science-based Earth system sensitivity at equilibrium, excluding none of the feedbacks and forcings that we know of, we discover we passed the 2°C target in 1978. To hold at 2 degrees we would need to bring CO2 concentration down to 334 ppm, not increase it to 450 as the Paris Agreement contemplates. To hold at 1.5°C we would need to vacuum the atmosphere even lower, to a level last seen some time before mid-20th century.

Outside of elite scientists such as those we've mentioned this past week — Anderson, Schellnhuber, Rockstrom, Hansen, Wasdell, and Goreau — few in Le Bourget seem to grasp some simple arithmetic. And so we are treated to the spectacle of fossil producers like India, Russia, Saudi Arabia and many of the underdeveloping countries demanding more time to fill up the available atmospheric space, when in reality there is none and hasn't been for quite some time.

Some say the UN is hamstrung by multilateral consensus, but voting would be no better. After the COP meeting in Durban, the UNFCCC adopted a traditional South African negotiating format to speed up decision-making and bring opposing countries together. The Guardian's John Vidal explains:
Zulu and Xhosa communities use “indabas” to give everyone equal opportunity to voice their opinions in order to work toward consensus.

They were first used in UN climate talks in Durban in 2011 when, with the talks deadlocked and the summit just minutes from collapse, the South African presidency asked the main countries to form a standing circle in the middle of hundreds of delegates and to talk directly to each other.

Instead of repeating stated positions, diplomats were encouraged to talk personally and quietly about their “red lines” and to propose solutions to each other.

By including everyone and allowing often hostile countries to speak in earshot of observers, it achieved a remarkable breakthrough within 30 minutes.

In Paris the indaba format was used by France to narrow differences between countries behind closed doors. It is said to have rapidly slimmed down a ballooning text with hundreds of potential points of disagreements.

By Wednesday with agreement still far away, French prime minister Laurent Fabius further refined the indaba by splitting groups into two.

“It is a very effective way to streamline negotiations and bridge differences. It has the advantage of being participatory yet fair”, said one West African diplomat. “It should be used much more when no way through a problem can be found.”

What may need to happen next year in Marrakech is that the COP host an indaba with experts both in the climate sciences and in biophysical economics.

What may hold out the best hope lies buried 20 pages in, at Article 4:
In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.

Article 5:
1. Parties should take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases as referred to in Article 4, paragraph 1(d), of the Convention, including forests.

2. Parties are encouraged to take action to implement and support, including through results-based payments, the existing framework as set out in related guidance and decisions already agreed under the Convention for: policy approaches and positive incentives for activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries; and alternative policy approaches, such as joint mitigation and adaptation approaches for the integral and sustainable management of forests, while reaffirming the importance of incentivizing, as appropriate, non-carbon benefits associated with such approaches.

It is not yet clear whether integrated food and fuel sequenced permaculturally designed forests, composed of mixed aged, mixed species robust ecologies and maximum carbon sequestration though biomass-to-biochar energy and agriculture systems will be scaled fast enough, but these two articles could be the spark they need to spur investment.

As the clock ticked on towards end of day, the leader of the High Ambition group, Tony de Blum, introduced to the plenary an 18-year-old girl from Majuro who spoke of water gradually rising on three sides of her home.
"The coconut leaf I wear in my hair and hold up in my hand is from my home in the Marshall Islands. I wear them today in hope of keeping them for my children and my grandchildren -- a symbol, these simple strands of coconut leaves that I wear. … Keep these leaves and give them to your children, and tell them a story — of how you helped my islands and the whole world today. This agreement is for those of us whose identity, whose culture, whose ancestors, whose whole being, is bound to their lands. I have only spoken about myself and my islands but the same story will play out everywhere in the world."




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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
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