Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Eco-Civ 101

"We are the people who are eating the first crabs."



I have never been terribly fond of cities, but if you had to live in a Chinese megacity, you could do worse than Chengdu. It is the capital of Sichuan Province so you know the food is going to be good. It has been sobriqueted at one time or another as “The God-favored Land,” “Hibiscus City,” “Brocade City,” “Civilized City,” “Garden City,” “World Gastronomic Capital,” and “Model City for Environmental Protection,” whose biggest sightseer draws are the wild herds of pandas. It is also home to 16 million permanent residents, has 20 districts (former cities and towns it swallowed up somewhere along the millennia), is said by Forbes to be the fastest growing city on Earth, and is expected to remain on that blistering pace for at least the next decade. Apart from the pandas, those are not pluses.

Chengdu shared bikes are activated by the WeChat phone app.
The site and name have remained unchanged since at least the time Chengdu became the capital for the 9th Kaiming King of the Shu 2300 years ago. As recently as 2100 years ago it had its first school, called Shishi (“thank you”) built by Governor Wen Weng. According to legend, around the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220), Zhang Daoling, later known as Celestial Master Zhang Tianshi, cultivated and preached the way of the Tao on Mt. Qingcheng, now revered as the birthplace of Taoism.
I am here at the invitation of Mr. Wang Li, Deputy Director of the UNESCO Rural Development Center, to speak of ecovillages in the context of environmental education to the 9th annual meeting of the Dujiangyan International Forum. The theme of this year’s forum is “Harmonizing Urban-rural Education Development in the Context of Education 2030.” I honestly expected most of the speeches to be real snoozers (not a heavy lift after 20+ hours of air travel), given titles like “Let Education Be Implanted with the Green Heart and Share the Beautiful Earth,” but I was in for a real surprise. The first talk, by the deputy director of an academic committee of some Chinese university, had me hanging on every word.
To be fair, Wen Tiejun had every right to be outspoken. As a teenager at the time of the Cultural Revolution he was yanked from school and sent out to a gruesome life of menial labor on a remote collective farm, along with his parents, who were being punished for being intellectuals. Later in life he won a favored party position and as a policy developer gained a mastery of Maoist language and framing. This was how his 30-minute opening keynote at the forum could be so devastating.
Bear in mind that this is an event far into the interior of China, co-sponsored by a UN Agency and the Chinese government. I almost could not believe what I was hearing. I had to start scribbling notes. 

Wen Tiejun
One of the themes of this forum is equalizing the educational opportunities of rural and urban regions. Many of the presenters prepared talks on bringing rural students into the digital age, or using cyber enhancements to improve pedagogy. Wen called that moving from a colonial knowledge system to a neocolonial exploitive system. It is the old paradigm of “development-ism,” he said: “colonization, overproduction, overconsumption, capitalization of the economy.” Developed countries were going all over the world and paying vast sums in “foreign aid” to “propagate the crisis.” It was the same mentality that brought about World War II, he said. First you build massive arsenals so you can build massive industrial infrastructure, then you have to use it, destroy it, and build newer and bigger replacements. 
“We need a decolonial policy,” he demanded, taking indirect aim at Li Xaoping’s Belt and Road initiative. He told the assembly that if you want rural revitalization you need to put the culture back into agriculture. You need ecological agriculture, farmer rights, and a bottom-up love for environmental sustainability. 
The former author of Maoist slogans ticked off the list of recent Chinese government slogans:
· Integrate Urban and Rural (2002)
· Scientific Development (2004)
· A Harmony Society (2004)
· Multifunction Agriculture (2006)
· Eco-Civilization (2007)
· Inclusive Growth (2009)
If you want to put meaning into meaningless slogans, he said, think about an eco-civilization that means local resource sovereignty, multidiversity solidarity, and sustainable ecological safety. What China was doing instead, he complained, was adopting an Anglo-American model of very destructive neocolonialism. It destroys the fabric of culture, soils and health. “Modernization is a trap.” 
Giving an example, he said the East Asian Land Reform initiative went from ideals of Confucius (good governance arises from good-hearted people) and community stability to the largest percentage of the population becoming petty bourgeois and omni-destructive consumerists. What was cast as land reform ended up destabilizing Asia—most dramatically India—separating rich and poor, pushing a third of the population into landless, jobless poverty, threatening two thirds of the states with growing insurrections, and making 90 percent of those who counted themselves employed no more than slaves of an unstable grey economy, all the while accelerating pollution, land degradation and climate change. 
Wen shows strawbale houses being built by volunteers as an example of what rural China needs more of.
I was looking around the room and trying to see if anyone else was as dumbstruck as I was, but they applauded Wen’s candor. This is not your daddy’s China anymore.
In March 2018 China amended its constitution to include the advancement to Eco-civilization as a duty of government at all levels.
UNESCO Office Director of the International Training Center for Rural Education Zhao Yuchi, seated next to me, leaned over and said, “We are the people who are eating the first crabs.”
______________________
I am traveling the back roads now and posts may be intermittent. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. Please help if you can.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Angels in Carbon Paradise


"Being co-evolutionary, Gaia tried to keep pace with our evolution but lately has given that up and gone its own way."

My friend Clinton Callahan plays around with game theory. In his latest communication he says whether we think about it much or not, we all play the game of picking a favorite illusionary paradise. 
We use them a lot in our everyday lives. You can make an illusionary paradise by finding a few bits of evidence to support an attractive upperworld story, middleworld story, or underworld story that you want to dive into. An upperworld illusionary paradise might be that you are serving something greater than yourself, or that you are protected by angels, or that peace on Earth is possible.
The same illusion compels jihadi suicide bombers and Navy SEALs. Honestly, we probably all fall prey to it at one time or another — our tribal altruism predisposes to an optimistic world view. Callahan continues: 
“A middleworld illusionary paradise might be that you have a successful and secure career, a wonderful working relationship, or a perfectly healthy body. An underworld illusionary paradise that your Gremlin might want to dive into is that you are the best, that you can win the fight going on in your head with an enemy, and that your plans for revenge will succeed!”
If we don’t see ourselves in these, chances are you at least see someone you know. We all have choices at any moment to choose the paradise we are in or pop out of that one and into a new one. Maybe we have hybrid scenarios that take pieces from each of the genres.
You can see illusionary paradises around you each day in all three worlds. You can create an illusionary underworld paradises and call it an argument, or perhaps a reason to criticize yourself to feel the familiar mixed emotion of shame. It all depends on what the parts in you are hungry for.
Callahan’s point, and I have to say I resonate, is not to take any of this too seriously. You could say we are in “uncertain times” but that is really too generous. Most likely we are now in end times, or what Al Gore likes to call “a nature walk through the Book of Revelations.”

Callahan and I differ in that he thinks developing your gaming skills is going to help building a new culture, creating new paradigms that make the existing paradigms irrelevant, while I think the notion that we are at the dawning of an Age of Aquarius is why these paradises are all illusions. We are, if not the last human generation, among the last.

If that seems too cynical, I am happy to say I could be wrong. We might get our act together and turn it around, who knows? And on that slim glimmer of a possibility hangs the reason I went to Wilmington for a week to attend the international conference of the US Biochar Initiative.

And by the same slim hope I will be teaching and touring in China these next few weeks and may miss posting here during that time, depending on access.

Given the fact that biochar is probably the only serious, non-illusory solution to catastrophic climate change, the biochar conference was sparsely attended. It was also pretty wonky, which helps explain why fewer than one hundred people were filling a space designed for tens of thousands.

I could go on to predict that this will soon change, but that is my illusory paradise speaking.
About 40 percent of those attending #Biochar2018 were scholars, another 40 percent were industry suits, and the rest, like me, just wandered in out of curiosity.

I was there for a few reasons, actually. Kathleen Draper and I have a book, Carbon Cascades, coming out from Chelsea Green this winter that duty calls us to promote, although these were probably people who will buy it anyway. I am at the moment researching biodegradable plastics, and those came up in a number of presentations. And, the number of new applications for biochar and the sheer speed at which it is capable of reversing climate change (taking atmospheric CO2 concentrations from 410 parts per million today back to a more survivable pre-industrial 260 parts per million within this century) are always exciting to discover and fool myself into thinking we might actually use.

The conference, despite being more regional in nature (another regional conference in Southeast Asia/Oceania happened just last week), drew people from Sweden, Germany, Australia, China and places other far flung contrails away. My plastics curiosity was well rewarded by Joseph James of AgriTech, who showed microscopy of recycled polymer resins bonding with the carbon matrix of biochar.

My illusory paradise was engaged by Björn Embren’s amazing keynote on the Stockholm Biochar Project. The way Embren told it, his city government had become concerned at how its urban forest was suffering from the effects of climate change, pollution, and over-paving of the roots of trees that lined the streets. After some investigation, they began trials with biochar and were astonished by the results. New cherry trees set in alongside permeable sidewalks, for instance, grew such dense canopies that you could not see through them after just a few months, something that had never occurred before. 


100-year-old city tree in Stockholm without biochar (courtesy Björn Embren)

Stockholm began expanding its biochar program, using it to fill storm drainage systems, then road under-pavement, and then making their own chars from municipal wastes, solving several problems at the same time. The biochar cleaned their waste, cleaned their water, cleaned their air, permanently and verifiably sequestered carbon massively, and cooled the city (Stockholm, like many other European cities, set new heat records in 2018).

If like me you are solutions oriented, here were many promising answers to some of our most pressing problems, and many of the more interesting conversations at the meeting happened in the corridors between presentations. Many people are wondering, like I am, out loud, for 50 years or more, whether homo sapiens is really up to all its self-imposed challenges. They become much more obvious and impossible to ignore each year, but actually have been with us a very long time. We spent hundreds of thousands of years after developing language and writing using symbols to help us connect to the natural world. We married our symbology to our symbiology. For a very long time we were extractive only to the degree that the whole could easily rebalance and recover from our impact.

All that changed around 8000 years ago, as keynote speaker David Montgomery told the assembly. We went from being more nomadic, with few possessions, an incomprehension for material wealth, the impracticality of schlepping around too many nursing babies, and the absence of cities and armies, to becoming predominantly sedentary, agrarian, capitalistic, militaristic, authoritarian urbanists. At first by baby steps, and then by giant leaps, we separated from the natural world. Being co-evolutionary, Gaia tried to keep pace with our evolution but lately has given that up and gone its own way. That way is to remove us.

So, even though we clever wizards of the material world may be able to find small solutions to the problems that vex us, we will still need to deal with that bigger one: the separation.

We will need to devolve back to living in harmony with Earth, assuming she will still allow us back at this point. Being an optimist most of the time, I attend events like this assuming we will do that, and when we do, we will also get around to fixing some of the broken bits we have left trailing behind.

Maybe that requires illusionary paradise, but there are worse ways to go through life.

 


Carbon Cascades, my newest book, is now in production. Donors at the Power Up! tier on my Patreon page receive an autographed copy off the first press run. All donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how I make this happen. Please help if you can. I will be teaching in China for most of September 2018 and may not be able to monitor and approve comments or publish during that period. Regular readers please bear with me — I will be back.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Slow Thinking

"Plastics and climate change have a lot in common with a broken Maytag."

 The sudden emergence of plastic in the 20th Century caught evolutionary biology by surprise. The same might be said of the atomic bomb, but there the threat was more visceral.Human brains aren’t wired to respond easily to large, slow-moving threats.

According to a 2014 article in The Guardian:
“Our brain is essentially a get-out-of-the-way machine,” Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard best known for his research into happiness, told audiences at Harvard Thinks Big 2010. “That’s why we can duck a baseball in milliseconds.”
While we have come to dominate the planet because of such traits, he said, threats that develop over decades rather than seconds circumvent the brain’s alarm system. “Many environmentalists say climate change is happening too fast. No, it’s happening too slowly. It’s not happening nearly quickly enough to get our attention.”
Humans are saddled with other shortcomings, too. “Loss aversion” means we’re more afraid of losing what we want in the short-term than surmounting obstacles in the distance. Our built-in “optimism bias” irrationally projects sunny days ahead in spite of evidence to the contrary. To compound all that, we tend to seek out information not for the sake of gaining knowledge for its own sake, but to support our already-established viewpoints.
I discussed two types of cognitive bias — confirmation and normalcy — in my November 24, 2011 post:
In the case of the former, we sentient bipeds with tripartite brains actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms our views of the world — views we mostly formed as children as we “aped” our parents and teachers or our inspiring leaders and celebrities. Our fondness towards normalcy lets us box out things that make us feel uncomfortable and allows us to focus on ways to blend into the crowd. If the crowd thinks peak oil, climate change, JFK’s assassination or the inside job at the World Trade Center are just weird conspiracy theories by crazies at the fringe of our society, we ape the crowd. That’s just Sapiens’ Social Software.
Considering that human minds are capable of great feats of irrationality, is there really much hope we will respond quickly enough to the emerging, but slow moving, threats of plastics, environmental radioactivity, petrocollapse or climate change?
“Paranoia? Of course not. It’s alternative scholarship. What’s wrong with teaching alternative theories in our schools? What are liberals so afraid of? … Why this dictatorial approach to learning anyway? What gives teachers the right to say what things are? Who’s to say that flat-earthers are wrong? Or that the Church was wrong to silence Galileo, with his absurd theory (actually written by his proctologist) that the earth moves around the sun. Citing ‘evidence’ is so snobbish and élitist. I think we all know what lawyers can do with evidence.”
— Eric Idle, Who Wrote Shakespeare

We are accustomed to most threats to our well-being being reversible or avoidable. We are accustomed to them emerging with ample warning, so we have time to consider and need only act once a problem becomes big enough or close enough to be really, really, scary.

Our linear cognition evolved before we came down from the trees, when you could plot a course three branches ahead, like Tarzan, but if you projected your mental map  to a fourth branch there was a good chance you might miss the nearest one while you were so deep in thought.

Bobby Fisher could see more chess moves ahead than Boris Spassky. We need more of his genes amongst us. But Spassky had three children and some number of grandchildren and Fisher died childless..

Nonlinearity and quantum phenomena puzzle us. How is it that prey can sense they are being observed even when there is no sight, sound or smell to reveal their predator? Our pattern recognition only extends to “as before so thereafter,” or even “after this, therefore because of this” (ie: “stocks were down today on growing discomfort from trade sanctions”). We can’t ken that when something jingles over here, something unrelated jangles over there. Surely a just God would assign cause! Have we angered Him?

So it is that when ice in the Arctic describes a superlinear melt curve, or record-breaking wildfires level whole neighborhoods in California, we are so dumbfounded we are more than willing to accept that “Its just the weather, stupid.”

We prefer to take complex phenomena and break them into categories so we can assign pidgeonholes. Fuzzy continua get broken into inches and pounds.

In the appendix to their seminal paper in PNAS August 6, 17 scientists aligning the Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene included a table of progress humanity has been making since adopting the Paris Agreement on climate change. There are pluses and minuses, but the shortfalls are pretty glaring.
  • Biodiversity loss and biosphere degradation continues in most regions.
  • Emissions from livestock still increasing.
  • Although cement industry has made commitments to lower CO2 intensity, no signs of slower growth. 
  • Rising incomes in many regions are increasing per capita consumption.
  • Little progress globally to change consumer attitudes and business practices towards waste.
  • High fertility in some countries means that although rates are slowing, population growth will continue until at least mid-century.
  • Governing conventions are disconnected from trade agreements; aviation and shipping emissions are still exempt.
  • Renewable energy has augmented energy growth, not reduced carbon dependence. Fossil fuels continue to increase in both supply and demand and are projected to continue that gradual rise through mid-century.
Like our bridges and dams, Earth systems are showing serious repair deficits. It is as though you have a 1960s Maytag washer that worked just fine until a couple years ago but since then has developed an erratic wobble that is getting progressively worse. Now every time you do your laundry it rattles the windows upstairs and shakes the dishes in your kitchen cabinets. You’d like to repair or replace it, but you don’t have the spare cash to do that, so you just keep loading it up and hoping it doesn’t shake apart. One of these days, it will.

Plastics and climate change have a lot in common with a broken Maytag. None of the three would be insoluble problems if humans were Vulcans. You know, logical.

We are not. Rather, we still go on reptilian impulse — ignore distant threats but display hair-trigger awareness of immediate ones. Not making the rent this month is an immediate threat. Locking Earth into a million-year Hothouse is so distant as to be of little concern.

It’s the same with plastics. They crept up slowly on us. Before plastics, if you couldn’t afford a toilet seat, you sat or squatted on wooden boards. After plastics, everyone could afford a nice comfy seat. Before plastics, you washed cloth diapers. After plastics, you never had to touch those, never mind scrubbing them or dealing with where it went.

To do away with plastics now would force us to go back to expensive toilets and cloth diapers wouldn’t it? What would we use to charge our iPhones? Cotton-wrapped wire?

Actually, it really is much simpler to get rid of plastics than to have to deal with climate change. We can make biodegradable plastics or substitutes and they don’t cost any more the other kind. We don’t, because to demand replacement requires we see the long-term impact of that plastic persistence — its manufactured invulnerability — while to keep buying plastic requires little thought at all. Rationalization, by virtue of its ubiquity, is socially acceptable.

This part of our psyche is probably our biggest Achilles Heel as a species. We have others, like our need to achieve, acquire, produce and consume in order to gain self-respect and the respect of our tribe, or hubris, or our opposable thumbs. But our threat-discounting ability is the real killer.

Until we grew to be 7 billion, going on 8, the world was big enough that there was somewhere we could think of as away. Most of the world was ocean. Cities could barge their trash out to sea and just dump it. Now even the oceans are too small. They are finite, while homo colossus’ capacity to consume and pollute is exponential. Sooner or later, and later is now, those two rates have to meet.
What can you do? Do without. Reject plastic in your life.

It can start by simply refusing to be served a single use plastic straw. It can move to buying only wooden toys and home furnishings. Bag groceries in paper, if not reusable cloth. Encourage anyone who is inventing biodegradables by buying their products. If there is to be a future, this is where it begins.

And while we do that with plastics, we have to also do it with fossil fuels.

We should also encourage chess champions to marry.

______________________

This is another installment in what I expect to be a long, albeit perhaps intermittent, string of essays on plastic, with the goal of eventually producing a book. Donors at the Power Up! tier on my Patreon page receive an autographed copy off the first press run. All donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how I make this happen. Please help if you can.
 

Sunday, August 12, 2018

My Plastic Fantastic Love Affair

"Composers and decomposers co-evolved in an endless dance."




Her neon mouth with a bleeding talk smile
 Is nothing but electric sign
 You could say she has an individual style
 She’s a part of a colorful time

 Super-sealed lady, chrome-color clothes
 You wear ’cause you have no other
 But I suppose no one knows
 You’re my plastic fantastic lover

 Your rattlin’ cough never shuts off
 Is nothing but a used machine
 Your aluminum finish, slightly diminished
 Is the best I’ve ever seen

 Cosmetic baby, plug into me
 And never, ever find another
 And I realize no one’s wise
 To my plastic fantastic lover

 The electrical dust is starting to rust
 Her trapezoid thermometer taste
 All the red tape is mechanical rape
 Of the TV program waste

 Data control and I.B.M.
 Science is mankind’s brother
 But all I see is draining me
 On my plastic fantastic lover
— “Plastic Fantastic Lover” written by Marty Balin, Jefferson Airplane

I am addicted to plastic. How can I freak out about the sea mammals drowning in plastic nets and six-pack packaging, or the seagulls eating lighters and condoms off the beach, when I give no second thought to picking up a plastic comb in an airport shop, even if I decline the plastic bag? 
For most of history, combs were made of almost any material humans had at hand, including bone, tortoiseshell, ivory, rubber, iron, tin, gold, silver, lead, reeds, wood, glass, porcelain, papier-mâché. But in the late nineteenth century, that panoply of possibilities began to fall away with the arrival of a totally new kind of material — celluloid, the first man-made plastic. Combs were among the first and most popular objects made of celluloid. And having crossed that material Rubicon, comb makers never went back. Ever since, combs generally have been made of one kind of plastic or another.

The word plastic comes from the Greek verb plassein, which means “to mold or shape.” The flexibility derives from long, bouncey chains of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms arrayed in repeating patterns that behave like a snake’s skin. 

Snakeskin is a good example, because biology has been knitting these molecular daisy chains for hundreds of millions of years. The cellulose that makes up the cell walls in reptiles is a polymer. So are the DNA proteins that code the polymeric stems and flowers of daisies, and our muscles, skin and bones, and the long spiraling ladders that entwine the genetic destinies of daisies and bones, DNA. Take some of these protein chains, rearrange them slightly, and you get a dancing line of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, their choreography dictating specific productions of polymers. 
“Bring chlorine into that molecular conga line, and you can get polyvinyl chloride, otherwise known as vinyl; tag on fluorine, and you can wind up with that slick nonstick material Teflon.” — Susan Freinkel, author of PLASTIC: A Toxic Love Story
Take just a moment and lets walk back a step. The dancing line of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen were no more than air and water, rearranged. But now we throw in chlorine and fluorine and what happens? Permanence. That substance has withdrawn from the contract with nature whereby all things must return full cycle, each with its own sunset clause. 

The first artificial plastics — celluloid combs developed in 1869 by a young inventor in upstate New York — arrived at a moment of cultural transition. The turn of the 20th Century marked the birth of the consumer culture, the global switch from growing and preparing your own food and making your own clothing (unless you were aristocracy) to consuming mass market simulacra from factories. As historian Jeffrey Meikle pointed out in American Plastic:
 “By replacing materials that were hard to find or expensive to process, celluloid democratized a host of goods for an expanding consumption-oriented middle class.” 

Or as Susan Freinkle put it, plastics “offered a means for Americans to buy their way into new stations in life.”

They also offered a way for air and water to shirk their stations in life.

Unintended Consequences

Cellulose was a gateway drug. In 1907, Leo Baekeland combined cancerous formaldehyde with phenol derived from foul-smelling and nasty coal tar, and voila! His Bakelite was a tough, slick polymer that could be precisely molded and machined into nearly anything.
Families gathered around Bakelite radios (to listen to programs sponsored by the Bakelite Corporation), drove Bakelite-accessorized cars, kept in touch with Bakelite phones, washed clothes in machines with Bakelite blades, pressed out wrinkles with Bakelite-encased irons — and, of course, styled their hair with Bakelite combs. “From the time that a man brushes his teeth in the morning with a Bakelite-handled brush until the moment when he removes his last cigarette from a Bakelite holder, extinguishes it in a Bakelite ashtray and falls back upon a Bakelite bed, all that he touches, sees, uses will be made of this material of a thousand purposes,” Time magazine enthused in 1924 in an issue that sported Baekeland on the cover. — Susan Feinkel
Bakelite inspired companies like DuPont, Dow and Eastman to get into the race. Discoveries followed and mass production of plastic products commenced. But Bakelite introduced something new to nature that was largely unappreciated at the time. Once those molecules were linked into a daisy chain, they couldn’t be unlinked. Microbes don’t care to spend the energy required to break those tough bonds if they can find food elsewhere more easily. 

You can break a piece of Bakelite, but you can’t make it into something else. It does not degrade. It never goes away. This is why you’ll still find vintage Bakelite phones, frames, radios and combs that look nearly brand-new, and why today plastic debris is piling up on land and in the open ocean, in the entrails of dead whales on shorelines and in living crustaceans on the deepest seabed of the Marianas Trench. 

In nature nothing is permanent. Everything is food for someone else. Composers and decomposers co-evolved in an endless dance —a harmony and rhythm that defines life. There is birth and there is death. But we could not accept that.

In the last half-century, there have been many drastic changes to the surface of our planet, but one of the most astonishing is the ubiquity and abundance of plastic. Even if we go extinct, that plastic will persist. We have only slowly moved from thinking of this as an aesthetic problem — litter and flotsam — to grokking that the choking and entanglement of wildlife threatens us. Dead reefs and red tides are sending warnings: destroy the marine food chain and you’ll choke your own. 

I find this addiction particularly difficult to break. And yet, break it we all must. There are ways. I will explore these in future installments, so please come back.


This is the first installment in what I expect to be a long, albeit perhaps intermittent, string of essays, with the goal of eventually producing a book. Donors at the Power Up! tier on my Patreon page receive an autographed copy off the first press run. Reader donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how I make this happen. Please help if you can.
 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Readying the mind

"We are not going to reprogram a neocortex that took millions of years to program as if it were BASIC."


Putting on my tasseled cap as the professor for a moment, I have a student who comes to me often, but is not ready to hear what I have to say. He is combative, contentious, disrespectful. He stops his ears to my advice. He thinks he knows better, but he keeps coming back, peppering me with more questions.

What should I do?

The old saw is, there are no such things as bad questions, only bad answers. I am beginning to think that, while humorous, that is wrong. I have been giving good answers but my student is unready to hear them. I think the student needs to evolve a bit more clarity of his own to be able to catch my meaning.

I am trying to think what might be some good homework. The student needs a challenge, an ordeal; something to instill receptivity. Short of recommending a shamanic conversation with some medicinal plants, I looked to my bookshelf to find some recent literature that might broaden his perspective.

The books I was about to recommend were The Diamond Cutter by Michael Roach, The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann and Tribe by Sebastian Junger. Then I picked up The New York Times Magazine for August 1, 2018 and read the book-length article by Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change. '

His assignment starts there.

Rich’s tale begins in Spring, 1979, but let’s first go back another 3 years, to when I was recovering from a fall off a roof that had punctured a lung. Confined to The Farm’s infirmary, I was living in a stuffed recliner and forced to make the best of that old wooden building’s limited supply of reading materials. I latched onto a college mathematics textbook and taught myself computer programing, or more specifically, Dartmouth BASIC. From here this story could have swerved into my new career as a blackbox hacker who decided to go to Cupertino and meet Steve Wozniak, or to Australia to tutor a young Julian Assange. Instead, I next lifted a dog-eared issue of High Times from the Clinic’s magazine rack and was drawn to a story about giant mutant sponges in San Francisco Bay — a real life story of radioactive chaos attributable to the Navy’s decision to dump its submarine waste into the ocean.

That led to my taking the Tennessee Bar Exam and going four times before the US Supreme Court in my Quixotic attempt to shut down global nuclear power. That is where I was at age 32 in the Spring of 1979, when I first encountered MITRE, or the shadowy figures Rich calls The Jasons.

While Rich’s protagonists, Rafe Pomerance, Gordon MacDonald, and James Hansen were starting to stir the pot about climate change, I was tilting at radioactive windmills. No doubt I crossed paths with those guys in the marbled halls of the Capitol. Standing in a white tablecloth buffet queue at the Sheraton one time, I remarked to Ralph Nader, just behind me in the queue, that he should seriously think about whether “consumer rights” was a good frame. In that small world, I sat in on Hansen’s famous tutorial to a Joint Congressional Committee. I later used it to open the story line in my 1989 book, Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do.

I didn’t have this particular backstory before now and I am the first to acknowledge it is a finely told tale. Probably it is the best telling yet, and I say that after having recently gone back and re-read Bill McKibben’s classic, The End of Nature. But we all get better with practice.

Climate in Crisis holds up pretty well after 28 years. If I had it to do over, the only part that would change would be my obligatory what-to-do chapters at the end. Today, despite the fact you can read almost the same material in a current issue of Scientific American or The Atlantic, I am embarrassed by how lame my prescriptions were. Change your light bulbs to CF. Seriously? Buy an electric car (which really run on coal, if truth be told). Convert military spending. Well, okay, that one would still help.

Rich describes a three-day meeting assembled at a swank beach resort in Florida in 1980 that brought together some of DC’s top policy advisors.
“Do we have a problem?” asked Anthony Scoville, a congressional science consultant. “We do, but it is not the atmospheric problem. It is the political problem.” He doubted that any scientific report, no matter how ominous its predictions, would persuade politicians to act.
Pomerance glanced out at the beach, where the occasional tourist dawdled in the surf. Beyond the conference room, few Americans realized that the planet would soon cease to resemble itself.
What if the problem was that they were thinking of it as a problem? “What I am saying,” Scoville continued, “is that in a sense we are making a transition not only in energy but the economy as a whole.”
Peering back almost half a century it seems amazing how nuanced their understanding of the crisis we face was, but then that was the point Nathanial Rich was trying to make. We have known this for a very, very long time.

A few years ago I was attending the International Permaculture Convergence at a summer camp south of Havana and we were having a breakout meeting about climate change led by Starhawk. I said something about the goal being to educate people and was brought up short by a young woman from England. “Everyone already knows,” she said. “There is no point in trying to teach anyone anything.”

That remark stayed with me afterwards. It lingers today. There is an ostrich quality to the debate, if a debate it is.

In Charles Mann’s Wizard book, he closes with an appendix on climate change in which he tries to offer a balanced perspective, which is to say, drums up some pretty absurd reasons for human exceptionalism uber alles. It is a bit of a let down, coming right after a real masterpiece, and I suspect it will be a source of embarrassment for him in the future. What he is really saying is that our capacity for self-deception knows no bounds. If we read Ajit Varki and Danny Brower’s excellent look at the evolutionary biology, Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind, we can understand why. We are hard wired that way.
In Denial, biologists Varki and Brower (Brower died in 2007) propose a novel explanation for why humans surpassed all other species in mental prowess. The authors argue that as humans contemplated the intentions of those around them, they began reflecting more deeply on the meaning of life itself, and this examination led to the frightening awareness of their mortality. To assuage such fears, humans evolved the unique ability to deny reality. The authors reason that religion and philosophy represent some of our best efforts to do so.

Scientific American goes on to opine that, “Although a gift for self-deception may have saved our ancestors from despair, it might also be our downfall. But recognizing this tendency in ourselves may push us to stop ignoring unpleasant truths, such as global warming and poverty, and start addressing them.”

To which I would have to say, uhh… no. We are not going to reprogram a neocortex that took millions of years to program as if it were BASIC. We may have to recognize, as Lynn Margulis tells Charles Mann in Wizard, each species, our own included, comes with an expiration date.
We just don’t quite know when that expiration date falls, and from that mystery springs all our hope, fear, despair, and joy in living the best possible life we can. There is no permanence. No promises. If my student can grasp this, then maybe we will get a chance to exchange some deeper thoughts.
 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Addicts and Gangsters

"The rial is now at an all-time low, with an inflation rate of 147 percent. Addicts are dropping like flies."


These past few weeks we have been talking about how hard it is to end our addiction to the fossil growth economy that is killing us all. Over many years we’ve been getting updates about the global petroleum picture but have to respectfully opine that the terms of discussion used by post-petroleumers are identical to those used by industries and governments. If we are ever to change, we need to change that frame. 

Suppose we translated the discussion into something with a little more bite:

Weekly Update: Emerging Conflicts

For July 2018, here is no sign of a letup in addict demand, which is expected to increase by 1.5 million b/d this year. Despite the decision taken at the mafia dons’ recent summit to increase oil production by an undefined amount, pushers’ prices for crude products closed above $79 on Friday. 

There is suspicion street prices in New York and London may be rising on fears the temporary truce is just a prelude to war and that there will be shortages and higher prices in the coming months. In Basra, the lack of steady work, electricity, and potable water have been compounded by 120 degrees Fahrenheit heat and the reduced quantity and quality of water flowing from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and tributaries. Increased salinization shut down the country’s largest operational refinery.

It seems unlikely that the Russian and Arab mobs, the only ones with actual capacity to increase production, will be able to offset demand and supply disruptions elsewhere. Some observers are even talking about a return to $100 next year. 

Boss Trump said in a tweet on Saturday that the Saudis agreed to boost their production by 2 million b/d. This assertion came as news to the Saudis. Nonetheless they are moving to increase production to a record high 11 million b/d in July.

Historically, the Saudis have been reluctant to increase production to their maximum for fear there would be too little a supply buffer should there be more unplanned outages. Both sober and dead addicts make bad customers.

According to the money laundering operation at Goldman Sachs, an outage at Canada’s facility may lead to a 360,000 b/d shortage for July and shrink stockpiles at Cushing, Oklahoma, the biggest warehouse for the American cartel.

The American cartel, led by Boss Trump, has been cudgeling the mobs to reduce Tehran’s take to zero in an effort to force the Iranian kingpin, Boss Rouhani, to kowtow. The American cartel’s move to eliminate Tehran comes on news the Saudis invited Russia to become an observer member of their mob. Russia and the Saudis have increased ties in recent years and a coalition between them could control more than half the global product. This worries bankers and brokers both inside and outside the cartels.

Boss Rouhani replied to Boss Trump’s tweeted ultimatum —demanding it remove Iranian oil from the global market by November — as “impossible.” The tone of Boss Rouhani’s reply suggests the pressure Trump is putting on addicts may be having unintended consequences, and that an all-out supply war may come sooner than either had planned.

There is an object lesson in the way the American cartel took down rival Venezuela, which had the temerity to undersell retail petroleum products on the Trump mob’s home turf. Venezuelan oil revenue was $22 billion last year, compared with about $70 billion in 2011. Mexico could be facing a similar outcome if its newly elected boss, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is slow to fall in line. The new Mexican boss has said he will seek to end the country’s massive refined imports, nearly all from the US, during the first three years of his term. How he would replace that capacity remains a mystery, as Mexico's biggest rackets, onshore and offshore, are in terminal decline.

Last week India’s oil ministry told local refiners to get ready for a “drastic reduction or zero” of imports from Iran, a sign that India — Tehran’s second-largest customer — is bowing to pressure from Boss Trump.

Rouhani promised Iranians last Tuesday that the mob would be able to handle the losses from new US sanctions, but the rial is now at an all-time low, implying an inflation rate of 147 percent. Addicts are dropping like flies.

Rouhani has been touting $50bn worth of potential Russian investments. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei added that: “Rosneft and Gazprom have started talks with Iran’s oil ministry to sign contracts worth up to $10 billion.” Moscow is hard pressed for cash these days, and it seems unlikely that it would be investing large amounts of money in Iran unless the terms were very favorable.

Outside this conflict the Chinese gang appears prepared to wait things out and see who is left once the dust settles. When Boss Trump set out his list of US exports threatened with retaliatory tariffs, almost all petroleum products were covered. To avoid open war, Boss Xi Jinping decided not to impose additional tariffs on Trump’s plans to export increased volumes of liquefied natural gas from the US to China. China will become the world’s top natural gas importer by next year. 

Chinese demand for natural gas will rise by almost 60 percent between 2017 and 2023 to 376 billion cubic meters (bcm). This increase includes a rise in its LNG imports to 93 bcm by 2023 from 51 bcm in 2017. Global LNG imports will rise to 505 bcm by 2023 from 391 bcm in 2017, an increase of some 114 bcm.

So for now, China is biding its time, buying the product of its rivals, and keeping the peace. The tiger has decided to take a cat nap while the American and Iranian bosses duke it out and Czar Vladimir cozies up to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has announced plans to sell shares in the 2.5 trillion-dollar Saudi Aramco. Vlad knows that while Russia may be cash-strapped at the moment, higher prices caused by the Trump vendetta against the Rouhani mob should add $40.14 billion to Russian state revenues this year, enough to buy 1.6% of Aramco shares.

The voracious demand for fracking sand to prop open cracks in shale oil and gas wells have opened a new product line for the American cartel. In the last twelve months, 11 gangs that dig and supply fracking sand to Boss Trump have opened within sight of each other in West Texas, and another 10 or so are hustling to get started.

Together, these gangs will mine and ship some 22 million tons, equal to almost a quarter of the total US supply. Within a couple of years those digs could climb to over 50 million tons.
A Hollywood Ending

While this frame is a little more satisfying, it depicts a world in which there will be no happy ending. These are not bootleggers quarreling over the rot-gut whiskey trade, after all. Elevating Chinese demand for LNG by 376 billion cubic meters means that trillions of cubic meters of unburnt methane will find its way into the atmosphere from fracked fissures, wells and pipelines and hundreds of billions will be burnt to send sequelae greenhouse gases into the sky. The victims in this gang warfare are the “innocent” bystanders — the addicted consumers and their descendants in time who will never achieve existence because their parents’ habits rendered their only habitat uninhabitable.

Too bad. Some of the neverborn might have turned this into a pretty good movie script.
 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

You Can't Stop A Wave But You Can Surf-3

"The struggle with any addict is to produce permanent change."


Part Three

Just when things seem most dire, and there is no possible escape, we catch another faint flicker of hope. In my two previous installments I laid out the predicament. By now anyone who has followed this blog for a while (and a tip of the hat to our loyal supporters) knows this mantra by heart:

There is a finite supply of fossil fuels, and even if we could discover more and refine them at a reasonable price, we can’t burn them because the atmosphere is so polluted that climate change will kill us.

The energy embodied in traditional fuels — sunlight, wind, tides, currents, plants, animals and humans — is several orders of magnitude more diffuse and difficult to harness than light sweet crude or bituminous coal. The energy density of fossil fuels has made possible the high-level civilization that allows me to type this into your phone.

Nuclear power, apart from the facts that it poisons future generations(ughhh!), or is a gateway drug to WMD (yark!), is also running out of fuel. Nukes all over the world would be shutting down already had not the FSU honored the Megatons to Megawatts Program (killed by Obama) and hammered warheads into zirconium-clad U-235 plowshares to sell on the nukefuels market. There are a few more years of that stuff still out there, especially if the US and Israel join in, but after that, lights out for our friendly atom.

The climate change long predicted (for at least 150 years by our reckoning) is now upon us with delayed vengeance, as are Malthus’ ill tidings. Overcharged fecundity is paired to outsized footprint inversely to what is required, which is no-one’s fault, just bad design. We are an Edsel that sees a Mustang in the mirror. We need eyewash more than anything else.

There are cures for myopic addictions, but the struggle with any addict is to produce permanent change. As we’ve chanted, if we expect to get out of this without going extinct there is only one biophysically verifiable path. We have to go over the Seneca Cliff of industrial collapse and follow an 11 to 20 percent decline grade in carbon emissions for the next 80 or more years, not just to zero, but well beyond. We have to raft through the cascades into Negative Emissions territory — the land called Drawdown — by 2030 if we can, but mid-century at the latest. Getting there somewhat later is not an option. The party will be over. We would be the final progeny of a 100,000-generation run for one magnificent mammal. Then we’ll be no different than the Dodo.

Recently Alex Smith at Radio Ecoshock rebroadcast one of my favorite Australian podcasts, Beyond Zero, and its interview with Oxford researcher Tina Fawcett, author of the book Suicidal Planet, concerning her concept of personal carbon rations.

Let me start by saying that I don’t like the framing of the word “rations.” It might sell well in a culture of stiff upper lips or shared social burdens, but would never get anyone elected in the USA. If you doubt that, go to Plains, Georgia and ask Jimmy Carter.

Fawcett agrees. She has switched to using “carbon allowances.” I still think that is too weak to get broad social buy-in. “Dividend,” after the style of the Alaska Permanent Fund, would be better, had it not already been devalued by deniers and put in the same dung bucket as carbon tax or cap and trade. My personal favorite would be “award” but perhaps readers have suggestions.

Fawcett explains:
“So you would have an annual amount of carbon credits, whatever they get called, in your account, and when you pay for your petrol or diesel at the petrol station or when you pay your electricity bill you’d have to have carbon credits deducted from your account, as well as the money. If you didn’t have a lot of carbon credits left, you know, if you’d already bought a lot of energy that year or had an overseas flight or two, you’d be able to buy additional carbon credits on the market from people who sell them who didn’t need all of them.
“Its not really a parallel currency but it’s a little like that, in that you have to think about both the money and whether you’ve got any carbon allowances left to spend that year. And if not, are you prepared to pay the price to get more?”
I can see some issues with this. For one thing, even if the award distribution is equal for every person in the world, your average Goldman Sachs bankster is not going to care what balance is in her account, because she knows she can just go to the open market and buy more credit before she fills up the tanks on her yacht. There might even be a megaton credit in her Christmas bonus. Meanwhile, granny eating catfood and cutting her prescriptions in half can’t just borrow her grandson’s iPhone and order more from Amazon because she might live in a rural area and just the energy expense of Amazon’s drone delivery, not to mention their server banks, would eat up half her purchase.

Still, what is appealing to me about this ration coupon — sorry! “award” — system is something not discussed by either Smith or Fawcett. They mention, by implication, the Bangladeshi rice farmer who can sell his ration and buy fertilizer. They neglect the savvy BitCoin miners — potentially millions of them between 18 and 30 — who might trade in their Antminers for Kon Tikis and go for the easier gold — putting carbon underground.

Now, that would be a real wave.


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