Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Great Pause Week 26: Beer Cascades

"The Scots forest smallholding system is inherently democratic. It encourages innovation and prevents exploitation and waste."

Last week we looked at the Scottish distillery & pub chain BrewDog and its pledge to remove twice as much carbon from the air as it emits every year. It is buying carbon offsets until it can ramp up its reforestation strategy and it has purchased, with crowdsourced punk equity, 2,050 acres just north of Loch Lomond, where it will restore 1400 acres of native woodlands in the highlands and 650 acres of peatland in the lowlands. One of the premiums for punks who contribute will be access to the BrewDog Forest nature camp for hiking, partying, and retreats.

BrewDog’s reforestation design goals, besides carbon sequestration, are biodiversity, natural flood attenuation and rural economic development. I cannot begin to express how important these other goals are. If you’re narrowly focused on hauling down CO2, you could, through dumb design, plant acres of non-native monocultures. That is not a forest. That is an impoverishment.

Not long ago I watched Outlaw King, a 2018 fictional recreation of how Robert the Bruce III, ancestor of Prince Charles, liberated Scotland from England in the early 14th Century after the martyrdom of William Wallace, as depicted by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. The filmmakers laid in many long sweeping shots of grassy highlands. I had to ask Mr. Google if it was true that Scotland was barren of trees in that time. “T’was,” He said.

The felling of trees didn’t wait for the clearances of the clans to make room for English sheep. They began in Roman times. The Caledonian Forest dates to the last glaciation ending about 7000 BC. It reached its maximum extent about 2000 years later when the climate warmed wetter and windier. For millennia, wildlife and humans flourished in a mosaic of trees, heath, grassland, scrub and bog until the dawn of herding and agriculture. There stands a yew in Glen Lyon estimated at 3000–5000 years, before hieroglyph was first set to papyrus in Egypt. 

Yet, by the time the legions of Rome defeated the Caledonians in AD 82, at least half the forests were gone, felled to build homes and barns and heat them in the long dark winter months. The Romans did their best to harvest and export the other half.

By the time of the Industrial Revolution there was still enough forest left in Scotland for charcoal to cold-filter whiskey and feed the blast furnaces of Birmingham. Then, in the 1919 to 1927 period, with a world reeling from the twin disasters of trench warfare and the Spanish Flu, two British lords, Simon Fraser and John Stirling-Maxwell, launched a plan of land-settlement allied to forestry that could still serve as an ecovillage/eco-regions blueprint today.

Fraser and Maxwell created smallholdings of approximately ten acres, let for £15 a year. With men and women to care for the small trees and companion livestock and crops, the holdings were a great success and filled a genuine need in the rural countryside when Scotland entered the Great Depression. 

“In practice, of course, these smallholdings attracted the cream of our men whom we were glad to employ on full time….”

Later government studies saw the program more as harm prevention than a profitable enterprise, reporting that it “was never a directly economic proposition, but in the pre-war days when motor traffic was lacking and it was much more important than today to have a solid caucus of skilled woodsmen living in the forests, the indirect benefits were inestimable.” (Ryle, Forest Service, 1969

The Scots forest smallholding system is inherently democratic. It encourages innovation and prevents exploitation and waste. From 1934 and onwards the government recruited woodsmen, including the Women’s Timber Corps, groups of conscientious objectors, and workers from Belize to replenish lost highland forest and improve timber stands.

Unfortunately, these battalions of the underemployed ignored the 31 species of deciduous trees and shrubs native to Scotland, including ten willows, four whitebeams and three birch and cherry and a hundred other species so prized by the smallholders (and by pine marten, twinflower, crested tit, Scottish crossbill, black grouse, capercaillie and red squirrel). Instead, they covered almost half of the all forest land in the country with Sitka spruce and another 20% with Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, larches, and Norway spruce. The government foresters seemed to be preparing for another Ice Age.

This has left a gaping hole in the cultural fabric for the BrewDog punks to fill. 

Most scenarios that achieve the Paris targets of limiting catastrophic heating to 1.5°–2.0°C rely on large-scale carbon dioxide removal (CDR) to drive net emissions negative after mid-century. Scenarios that overshoot emissions in the first half of the century must return Earth to the Paris temperature target or some barely habitable climate still within reach, by going strongly negative in the second half. This strategy is sort of like underdog Muhammed Ali doing Rope-A-Dope for 8 rounds in the Rumble in the Jungle or Silky Sullivan falling 41 lengths behind the field only to run the last quarter mile in 22 seconds. For this Hollywood-style come-from-behind finish, conversion to renewables and near-term experiments in CDR need to start now and prepare to ramp up rapidly, much the same way Big Pharma is prepping its vaccines. Once the best CDR methods are proven, they’ll need to operate for a century or so and become ubiquitous — an investment involving financial flows of billions to trillions of dollars per year.

And that’s the world’s plan. You can argue that it is a bad plan. You can say that CDR is fairy dust. You can point out that nobody in their right mind would take such a risk on the habitability of the whole planet, but that’s our designated plan. It wasn’t crafted, drafted, negotiated, and voted. It is the default result when you can’t negotiate and vote something meaningful because wealthy interests are spending billions to make sure you can’t. That, and the neurological discount factor Homo Sapiens evolved even before the last glaciation.

Variation among the different CDR methods’ constraints of scale, cost, or profit structures suggests governments and financial institutions will likely produce some rough ordering of these methods over the next decade or two. After studying this subject for many years, my best guess is that the low hanging fruit will shake out to be the natural varieties of negative emissions technologies (NETs) such as tree planting and conversion of photosynthetic wastes (from aquaculture, forestry and agriculture) to biochar and all its value-chains of products. The leading study on that in 2017 concluded we could pull 11.3 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean annually by 2030, at a marginal profit, and double that if we paid carbon credits and subsidized the drawdown at $100/ton. If the switch to renewables will bring man-made emissions down from 40 billion tons per year to half or a quarter of that by 2030, NETs could be actually pushing us back into a comfortable Holocene climate by mid-century, although admittedly there are still a lot of unknowns. 

For the BrewDog punk foresters this will be an opportunity to tap more potentials from their ecological restoration of the highlands, lowlands and other locations. A single tree can sequester 100 tons during its lifetime. If it falls and rots on the forest floor, all that goes back to the atmosphere. If it burns in wildfire, a large part will go back to the atmosphere. If it is harvested before it dies or is changed into biochar when it does, that 100 tons becomes a credit in the climate bank. By step harvesting — overplanting and then thinning at regular intervals — the greater sequestration intensity of juvenile trees can multiply the 100-ton average drawdown rate by orders of magnitude, and all that photosynthetic wealth can be turned to valuable, durable products.

While it is possible BrewDog could be paid upwards of $100/ton for CO2 removal on a carbon exchange like Nori or Puro, more likely the aforementioned scheme of smallholder forested lots would generate far more income for rural Scotland by reviving lost crafts. Woodsmiths could build homes of timber and straw; fence and furnish them with coppiced poles and roundwood; heat and generate home power with firewood and pellets (using smokeless stoves like the Biolite, that produce both electricity and biochar); harvest fruit and nuts and process them; extract leaf proteins and medicinals; graze animals in the under-stories; and make biochar, bio-oils, and wood vinegar for fertilizers, mold-proof paints and plasters, insulation board, biocrete, polymers, electronic conductors and fuel cells, carbon fiber for 3D printers and structural wraps, water and whiskey filters, rubberizing compounds, lubricants, cattle-, aquaculture-, and poultry-probiotics, carbon black, graphene, and kitty litter. Brand all those new products BrewDog BioPunk. Build not only woodland homes, but homebrew Cool Labs.

This kind of distributed economic ramp compares favorably to BECCS (Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Removal), DACCS (Direct Air Carbon Capture and Removal — artificial trees), enhanced weathering (spreading rock dust), and other contrived, exotic CDRs which have yet to be proven at scale, cost $40-$1000/ton and likely will have significant impacts on water use, biodiversity, and other ecosystem health indicators. 

The three most discussed means to accelerate CDR — (1) profitable products incorporating the removed carbon, (2) emissions-pricing policies like offset credit exchanges, and (3) government contracting at a scale that dwarfs the Manhattan or Apollo projects — all assume a stable world economy. In other words, they are prone to disruption in an era ravaged by the four horsemen of the Trumpocalypse:

  • Killer virus(es) on the loose;
  • Economic collapse;
  • Racial conflict and rioting; and
  • Extreme weather.

Only a fourth possibility, CDR organized like the Scots’ forest smallholding system, with local cooperative structures meeting basic needs, is truly anti-fragile. The story could as easily be kelp forests in the tropics, rebuilding fish populations and coral reefs while softening hurricanes. Or it could be grasslands in Mongolia, holding back the desert while marketing salad bar yak. 

Or the story could be beer brewers in Scotland, bringing back the trees of Caledonia while they sip their punk ale.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All
Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My winter book, Dark Side of the Ocean, is shipping out now. My next book, Plagued, should be out in a few months. Please help if you can.



Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Great Pause Week 25: Carbon Negative Beer

"Watt recognized, like few others in business, that carbon neutral is not good enough. We have to go beyond zero not decades hence but now. Today."

Almost all ancient civilizations had a God of Beer. Recently another ascended from out of nowhere, or rather, from the world of beer, but I am canonizing him less for being a Beer Olympian than for getting into the Legion of Drawdown Superheroes.

Into our epic saga of how human life on Earth came to be rescued in its final desperate hours comes punk brewmaster James Watt. In 2007 he launched, with Marvin Dickie, a string of pubs called BrewDog, that grew to 102 bars across the globe and craft beer brands today consumed in more than 60 countries. In 2010, they claimed the world record for the strongest beer ever made with a 110-proof IPA called “The End of History,” with a nod to Francis Fukuyama.

That beer sold for 700 pound sterling per bottle, making it also the most expensive beer in history. A government panel tasked with encouraging responsible alcohol consumption criticized another, less potent (18.2%) of BrewDog’s beers named for the firebombing of Tokyo. Watt’s thumb-to-the-nose response was to create a low alcohol beer and market it as “Nanny State.” A warning on the label of BrewDog’s Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32%) states: “This is an extremely strong beer, it should be enjoyed in small servings and with an air of aristocratic nonchalance. In exactly the same manner that you would enjoy a fine whisky, a Frank Zappa album, or a visit from a friendly yet anxious ghost.”

Tactical Nuclear Penguin began life as a 10% imperial stout in June 2008. The beer was aged for eight months in an Isle of Arran whisky cask and eight months in an Islay cask making it the company’s first double cask aged beer. After an intense 16 months, the final stages saw the beer stored at -20 degrees in an ice cream factory for three weeks. As the beer got colder, BrewDog Chief Engineer Steven Sutherland decanted the beer periodically, leaving only ice in the container, creating more intensity of flavors and a stronger concentration of alcohol for the next phase of freezing. The process was repeated until it reached 32%.

 — Mike Hanlon, New Atlas

Like its beer ghosts, BrewDog’s team spirits soared, along with its stock value

Until Covid struck.

On March 18, 2020 Watt emailed his shareholders:

I am writing to tell you that things over the next few months are going to be very, very difficult for us.
Covid-19 has already had a colossal impact on our business and we have lost almost 70% of our revenue overnight.
The reality is our business, and the vast majority of businesses, now face a fight to be able to survive and make it through this crisis.
We have two main priorities at the moment. Number one: survive. Number two: preserve as many of the 2,000 jobs we have created at BrewDog as possible.

Watt signs his emails, “Emperor Penguin.”

Twenty of BrewDog’s recently opened bars closed permanently, sending their penguins off the floes. A drive-through service was offered in some locations where alcohol sales were still permitted. Part of the distillery began making a hand sanitizer, which the company gave out for free. But there was no escaping how catastrophic the pandemic was becoming for them. 

Before he put on a hops apron for the first time, Watt had been a licensed sea captain with an honors degree in law and economics. He also self-styled himself a loudmouth punk, an anti-business businessman. His 2016 paperback, Business for Punks, did not excise profanities but still managed to land Penguin as a publisher and hit high up the Amazon business charts. 

One piece of his book’s advice may explain how Watt later earned my recommendation for climate solutions sainthood: “In marketing, lead with the crusade, not the product.” Before the crisis, Watt had gone to Professor Mike Berners-Lee, researcher and author of How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, at the Institute for Social Futures of Lancaster University. Berners-Lee’s team, Small World Consulting, penned BrewDog’s Sustainability plan, titled Make Earth Great Again

BrewDog’s breakthrough brand was Punk IPA introduced at a moment when craft beers were exploding. Recognizing before most that the key to craft was keeping it local, BrewDog kept its pubs edgy and intimate and spread them out, stocking them with limited edition local beers.

“We have been a Marmite* brand pretty much from day one,” Watt said, in a long LinkedIn post responding to critics of his perceived arrogance. 

*Marmite is a distinctively UK, black, salty spread made from spent beer grains, invented by Justus von Liebig in 1902 (its called Vegemite in Australia). 

“People often criticize us, sometimes for good reason too. All companies make mistakes, we have made many on our 13 year journey and we are always happy to hold our hands up when we get something wrong, and we have done so on many occasions.”

At the end of August, BrewDog announced that it had become the world’s first carbon-negative international beer brand. This time, it had got something right. Really right.

BrewDog dug itself out of the hole the pandemic had dug for it the same way it had built its brand in Northern Scotland. It went to the people with its crowdfunding initiative, Equity for Punks. It raised £73m (US$ 97.6 million) over six rounds to “scale up without selling out.”

  • The brewery and UK bars are now wind-powered. 
  • BrewDog turns its spent grain into green gas to power the brewery. 
  • It is building an onsite anaerobic digester to turn wastewater into clean water and produce CO2 to carbonate beers. 
  • It is electrifying its vehicle fleet.
  • In building local brewing sites across the UK, EU, US and Australia, it has significantly reduced the miles its beer travels to reach the consumer. 
  • It purchased 2,050 acres just north of Loch Lomond, where it will plant one million broadleaf trees to restore 1400 acres of native woodlands in the highlands and restore 650 acres of peatland in the lowlands. The reforestation design goals, besides carbon sequestration, are biodiversity, natural flood attenuation and rural economic development. We’ll talk more about this next week.

Last month Watt told the trade journal Beverage Daily (put on your best Scots’ brogue): 

“The scientific consensus is clear: we are sleepwalking off the edge of a cliff. Unless the world confronts the urgent carbon problem, science tells us that the results will be catastrophic. There has been too much bullshit for too long. Governments have proved completely inept in the face of this crisis. The change our world and society needs has to come from progressive business and we want to play our role and nail our colors to the mast. Huge change is needed right now, and we want to be a catalyst for that change in our industry and beyond.” 

Other initiatives outlined in the report include: 

  • Repurposing cans: “Due to print-ready processes, minimum run sizes, errors in production and errors in forecasting, almost one billion perfectly good drinks cans never get used every year. We have one million old-branded cans ourselves which we have re-labelled and launched on our e-commerce platform. And we will continue to repurpose any wasted can into a PUNK IPA beer.” 
  • Mega Beer that replaces 20% of barley with surplus fresh bread. 
  • Bad Beer Vodka using beer that would otherwise be wasted (such as beer that does not meet quality standards or is too old) to develop a zero waste vodka. 
  • Overworks Sour Beers that use fruit that is cosmetically defective or near the end of its shelf life. 
  • Alcohol-free BrewPup dog biscuits made from spent spelt, along with recycled-plastic Punk IPA bottle toys. And if your dog has a thirst, BrewDog makes Subwoofer IPA, an alcohol-free, hop-free, non-carbonated doggy beer with added B Vitamins and Probiotics.

Watt recognized, as few others in the spirits industry, or any other business, that carbon neutral is not good enough. We have to go beyond zero not decades hence but now. Today.

BrewDog has pledged to remove twice as much carbon from the air as it emits every year. Work on the forest is expected to start early in 2021 but in the meantime the company will be working on a series of projects for offsets. 

If this were mainstream media, our tale could wrap up here — a story of inspired creativity and turnaround in the face of global challenges. But I am not your usual storyteller. I am a determined sequestrator with high, nigh impossible, goals. Next week I will take this story up a notch by looking at what BrewDog might have done, and may still do, to multiply their carbon cascades.

Your Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My winter book, Dark Side of the Ocean, is shipping out now. My next book, Plagued, should be out in a few months. Please help if you can.


Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Great Pause Week 24: Can we have a hammer and dance for the climate emergency?


"If your carbon audit is 5% above where it needs to be, the dance stops and the hammer falls."

Back in Week One (Sunday, March 29, 2020), I embarked upon this Covid journal by reviewing an essay called “The Hammer and the Dance” posted March 19 by Tomas Pueyo. His post had received more than 9 million views and been translated into 29 languages by the time I mentioned it ten days later.

The thesis of the Hammer and the Dance is straightforward, if still only slowly seeping into USAnian consciousness. New Zealand, with proactive epidemic suppression, gave the world a model for flattening the curve. The USA, with very tardy and only grudging mitigation, provided an inverse model — the spike. The “hammer,” in Pueyo’s terminology, was New Zealand’s way: lockdown, quarantining anyone entering the country for two weeks, widespread random testing, contact tracing new cases, and severe rules — with penalties if ignored — for venturing out into the commons. The “dance” was the reward New Zealand and other countries could expect if the hammer worked. Once the lockdown could be lifted, testing and contact tracing would intensify even more, but people could return to work and school if masked and observing distancing rules. Should the positive test ratio climb — above, say, 5% — the hammer would have to come down again until the new outbreak was fully traced and suppressed.

By following a hammer and dance regimen, geographic regions or even entire countries could return to an economic life approaching normal, in fits and spurts, or localities, until a vaccine arrived. Loss of life would be minimized, and actually, the economies of these adherents would suffer far less damage or loss of freedoms than where the regimen was ignored, or even ridiculed.

The hammer and dance model is as valid today as it was in March, Sending children back to school or people into to non-essential jobs, bars, or sports with inadequate virus testing and contact tracing, in some cases even without masks, is proving how very silly it is to try to dance without first learning the steps. The hammer will eventually come down, and the longer the reckless wait, the higher it rises and the harder the shock when it lands. Until a vaccine comes along, the hammer and the dance method is the only possible way to avert dire consequences, many of them life-long or life-ending, and not have to suffer seemingly endless social separation. 

This got me wondering whether the climate emergency could be redressed in much the same way. What if we used the hammer and dance to get out of the 21st century alive? If your carbon audit is 5% above where it needs to be, the dance stops and the hammer falls.

Imagine the dance being pretty much what has been happening. Civilization whirls on in its merry way and the tragedy of the commons deepens every year. Each year the droughts, superstorms and wildfires get worse. Each year more species go extinct. Coastlines recede. Glaciers and ice shelves melt. Viral and vector-borne pandemics become more deadly and more frequent. And all the while, governments dither at now-Zoomified climate summits, making self-congratulatory pledges to do too little too late. That is not a good dance to be having. We need new and better steps.

If we consider what a hammer should be, it would have to enforce the goals scientists say we need to reach annually and keep going decade after decade. The Paris Agreement calls for avoiding 2 degrees C warming (1.5 C already being the rear-view mirror and having precipitated the chaos we see around us). To hold at 2 degrees, climatologists say in unequivocal terms with unprecedented consensus, we will need to enter upon a greenhouse gas emissions diet, decarbonizing the atmosphere and ocean at the rate of approximately 9% per year, getting to carbon neutrality globally by 2050 at the latest. Many nations have already pledged to reach that goal by 2040–45, a few (Bhutan, Uruguay, Norway) by 2030 or sooner.

We are off to a good start in 2020, which, fortuitously, is when the Paris Agreement was scheduled to start making progress. We will likely drop emissions by 8-percent this year. However, before we pat ourselves on the back, we might want to look at how we accomplished that amazing feat. We contracted GDP as much as 25% in many places. We closed factories, steel mills and aluminum smelters. We stopped a lot of mining. We curtailed fishing, flying, cruise ships, automobile sales, freeway driving, rail travel, and oil drilling. Tens of millions were thrown out of work and tens of trillions were lost by economies. Yet, even that was not enough. Because we will still be short one needed percentage point, we’ll have to drop emissions 10% in 2021 and then resume at the required 9% weight-loss diet in 2022 and each year thereafter. Where will next year’s 10% drop come from?

One possibility is a second viral pandemic, on top of Covid, and still no vaccine for most people. Another possibility is for the nations of the world to hammer away at that low-hanging fruit: mechanized chemical agriculture; concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO); deforestation from periurban sprawl and palm oil; whale hunting; fugitive methane from fracking and pipelines. We could also ramp up our NETs — Negative Emissions Technologies — like biochar, remineralization, holistic grazing, marine permaculture, and tree-planting. As Kathleen Draper and I describe in Burn, those NETs in aggregate have the potential to produce a 110% annual reduction.

To line ourselves up on the 9-percent glide path required to hit the Paris runway and land where we’ll need to be by mid-century, we have the available tools, be they wind farms or biofertilizers, but we need to reforge our plowshares into effective political hammers. The way we’ll do that is through the INDCs — the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.

Recapping the UNFCCC process for newbies, back at COP-19 Copenhagen in 2009, the UN’s plan for mandatory targets backed by both economic incentives and an international sanctions regime was thrown out of the window in favor of a voluntary pledge system. My book, The Paris Agreement (December 2015) describes how that happened in exasperating detail. The pledge system has since matured into INDCs. This year COP26 Glasgow was to have been when those pledges were audited. Unfortunately, the COP has been delayed to November 2021 because of Covid.

In November 2019, the Fundación Ecológica Universal (FEU), a global environmental NGO based in Buenos Aires, published an assessment of national climate pledges. Of the 184 INDCs filed, FEU judged 20% to be “sufficient”; 6% “partially sufficient”; 4% “partially insufficient”; and 70% “insufficient.”

An adequate hammer would be making all pledges sufficient and fulfillment mandatory on penalty of trade sanctions or other deterrents. A good dance could be the dangled rewards of favored trade status, Green Climate Fund development grants, or other goodies that flow to those meeting and exceeding their 9-percent INDC goals.

So, for instance, the small Central American country of Belize (pop. 380,000) has set an ambitious goal of achieving the 1.5 degree limit on global warming, which as I said earlier, is impossible because we are beyond that now and in many regions are already well past 2 degrees of warming. Belize developed its INDC in 2016 with a 2033 neutrality target based upon drawdown forestry projects and emission reduction calculations performed by Climate Analytics under guidance from the Global Climate Change Alliance Caribbean support project. Horizon 2030 is Belize’s national development framework for 2010–2030. To reduce its already relatively low carbon footprint, Belize plans to speed conversion to renewable energy and double its energy efficiency. It will also develop a transport master plan to address its largest source of greenhouse pollution. To get into drawdown territory, Belize has made Natural Climate Solutions a national priority — halting deforestation, restoring degraded forests and substantially increasing afforestation. It will also implement an Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan (ICZMP) to reverse the loss of wetlands and mangrove forests and rebuild coral reefs.

Because it has a large, sparsely populated land area, Belize can devote itself to its plan of soil, river, reef, and forest regeneration for a long time — easily half a century. Hurricanes will set its work back at times, leveling entire forested regions in a single storm, but these events are also opportunities. The windfall can be converted to biochar and bio-oils. Debris can be transformed into long-lasting biofertilizers, biocomposites, biocretes and bio-bitumens. Coastal flooding may bring opportunities for mangrove restoration. Belize’s hammer — outpacing its emissions by reductions and sequestrations — will let it get to the dance.

On the other side of the equation, a climate-scofflaw like the United States might have a bouncer blocking its entrance to the dance. If it cannot achieve and sustain a 9 percent decline slope, it might find its commercial air carriers and cargo ships subject to international boycott, its financial services sector under embargo, or its foreign tourism curtailed until it closes the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, restores the great chestnut and elm forests of its mid-continent, and keylines the deserts of its Southwest.

So, what do you think? Can we have a hammer and dance for the climate emergency? Punish those who would destroy the Earth; reward those willing to join with others to help save it?

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My winter book, Dark Side of the Ocean, is shipping out now. My next book, Plagued, should be out in a few months. Please help if you can.




Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Great Pause Week 23: Toppling Towers

"The pandemic is just the sound of one shoe dropping."

At 8 am on the morning of August 10, a storm passed out of the Dakotas and crossed the Missouri River near Sioux City. By the time it exited Iowa 6 hours later, almost every structure it had passed over, including homes, schools, and businesses, had been damaged. Passing on into the Southern Great Lakes Region in darkness, it wreaked havoc for another 8 hours. 

Over a hundred cars parked near a factory had their windows blown out. In Iowa and northern Illinois, winds touched hurricane strength at 130 mph (209 km/h; 58.1 m/s). Sustained winds in excess of 60 mph (97 km/h; 27 m/s) were endured for half an hour in many places, and 17 tornadoes spun off along the route. Hospital emergency rooms were overwhelmed, cell service was spotty, and thousands of electrical poles and miles of electrical wiring were knocked down, blacking out millions of homes and making many roads impassible. Flooding closed the East-West Interstate. Half or more of the tree canopy between Cedar Rapids and Marion simply fell to the ground or was blown away.


A derecho is a widespread, long-lived, straight-line wind associated with a mesoscale convective system. A strong vertical wind shear, driven by surface heat convection pushes the winds into a distinctive bow echo (backward “C”) form of squall line. Its outflow boundary can be sustained for hours, even days, and extend from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico as it moves, like a Vogon Constructor Fleet, clearing an intergalactic bypass across the North American continent. 

The hotter the land surface, the more fuel, the greater extent and ferocity. As climate hyperwarms midcontinental regions in summer (and hypercools them in winter), we can expect more derechos. In recent years, they’ve also struck Bangladesh, Germany, Estonia, China, India, Russia, South Africa, Argentina, and the Amazon Basin of Brazil. 

Within this August derecho’s swath lay 66% of the corn and soybeans planted in 2020. Early estimates are that 3.57 million acres (14,400 km2) of corn and 2.5 million acres (10,100 km2) of soybeans were moderately-to-severely damaged, just weeks before harvest. Iowa’s production estimate for 2020 has been cut in half.

In some areas, people are still without power. So much unrefrigeratable milk has been dumped into rivers the government has begun fining shops and dairies for pollution discharges. Homes and businesses are experiencing typical late summer heat with no electric fans or air conditioners. In other words, they are getting a taste of the future — the soon-to-be normal. Iowa now averages fewer than 5 dangerous heat days a year. By 2050, the state is projected to get 40. In 2014, Climate Central reported:

By the end of the century, assuming the current emissions trends, Boston’s average summer high temperatures will be more than 10°F hotter than they are now, making it feel as balmy as North Miami Beach is today. Summers in Helena, Mont., will warm by nearly 12°F, making it feel like Riverside, Calif.
In fact, by the end of this century, summers in most of the 1,001 cities we analyzed will feel like summers now in Texas and Florida (in temperatures only, not humidity). And in Texas, most cities are going to feel like the hottest cities now in the Lone Star State, or will feel more like Phoenix and Gilbert in Arizona, among the hottest summer cities in the U.S. today.
In some cases, summers will warm so dramatically that their best comparison is to cities in the Middle East. Take Las Vegas, for example. Summer highs there are projected to average a scorching 111°F, which is what summer temperatures are like today in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. And at 114°F°, living in Phoenix will feel like summering in sweltering Kuwait City.

As I write this, thermometers in Kuwait City are showing 107°F (42°C) at 5 pm, down from 112°F at midday. On June 8 this year, Gulf News reported that Kuwait recorded the highest temperature on Earth at 145.4°F (63°C) under sunlight and 126°F (52°C) in the shade.

Thirty years ago Al Gore [elected President in 2000 by both popular vote and electoral college total, but denied office by GOP subversion of the process — factual historical note] whistle-stopped with his slide show comparing global warming to a frog in a pot of water slowly being brought to a boil. The story was based upon popular mythology but scientifically groundless. No frog would sit quietly in a pot of water and be boiled, unless it were already dead, or anesthetized. But wait, maybe that’s the unintended simile. USAnians are the frogs that have been anesthetized, by Twitter, Facebook, Fox News, MSNBC, the tabloid press, and public school systems starved of fundamental resources and staffing for decades.

The tale of the national response to our gathering climate apocalypse is a sordid one, filled with evil-doers and thwarted rescues. If elected president, Joe Biden will inherit a United States even more ruined and divided than when Barack Obama acceded to a financial crisis and eight foundering wars. Biden and his team will take the reins of a country in the throes of a crippling pandemic, in foreign policy retreat, and having lost its fatuous claim to moral authority. He will, to borrow the words of former Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, have to revive the United States’ sense of its purpose in the world. 

Climate change is just the kind of existential threat that could supply that national sense of mission. But alas, there is no hope for our slow-boiling frogs on the horizon. The Biden climate plan is decades late and many dollars short. It could have been written in 1979, when Jimmy Carter told Congress:

“Advances that can be made in understanding climate change, in predicting it — and perhaps in influencing it beneficially — will be of enormous help to us and the rest of the world.”

Carter proposed reducing energy consumption by more than 2 percent and gasoline consumption by 10 percent by 2000. Carter of course, was a democrat. He believed in the Rooseveltian values of conservation of natural and human resources, a fair shake for all, and engaged multilateralism. Those values fell by the way when Ronald Reagan became the new sheriff in town, in cowboy hat, mounted on a palomino. Like the present POTUS, Reagan coveted only the appearance, or IMDB screen credit, without assuming any real duties. 

At the 1990 World Climate Conference and the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, his Veep and successor, Bush 41, ostentatiously refused to sign any mandatory carbon dioxide emissions reduction agreement, making the United States the only industrialized country to formally go rogue.

The Clinton/Gore climate plan, would have been a good start, involving a carbon tax and dividend scheme, but it faltered as Republicans, some Democrats, and a mainstream media controlled by the fossil fuel industry combined to thwart it. They opposed the Kyoto protocol negotiated by Gore and mounted attacks on the Clean Air Act and a host of other environmental laws. In 1997, the Senate voted 95–0 in favor of the Byrd-Hagel Resolution that opposed support for voluntary climate pledges.

In his 2008 State of the Union message, Bush 43 told USAnians they should develop new “technologies that [could] generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions” and “emissions-free nuclear power.” That sounds so lame now, but it is the same “all of the above” climate strategy practiced for 8 years by the Obama/Biden Administration. 

At COP 24 in Katowice in 2018, governments adopted the rules for the Paris Agreement, the toolbox for its full implementation. Action happening around the world demonstrates that these tools are useful: 186 Parties have submitted their first nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement, more than 90 countries are preparing national adaptation plans, the clean development mechanism has facilitated more than 8,000 emission reduction projects, the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action is catalyzing a new era of ambition among non-Party stakeholders, and more than 17,000 actors have shared their projects on the NAZCA global climate action portal.

— Patricia Espinoza, UNFCCC Executive Secretary

Joe Biden’s climate policy 2020 is little changed from Obama/Biden 2008. Either might have made sense in 1970, but now? 

“We can export our clean-energy technology across the globe and create high-quality, middle-class jobs here at home. Getting to a 100% clean energy economy is not only an obligation, it’s an opportunity. “
 — The Biden Plan

If elected, Biden/Harris promise to complete their target setting process by 2025, a year after the 2024 election. One of those targets, they hint, will be to invest in more climate research.

To pay for clean energy goals — C-neutral by mid-century — Biden/Harris will seek a budget line item of $1.7 trillion over the next ten years. For comparison, that amount is 10 percent of the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) passed in April or about 20 percent of the financial crisis bailout bill Obama passed in 2009. But remember, the CARES emergency spending, on top of record Trump deficit budgets, on top of tax cuts, will augur intense austerity and tax increases by the next POTUS, whomever she is. The US treasury is running on fumes now, if not smoke and mirrors.

The Covid-19 pandemic is just the sound of one shoe dropping. As I pointed out last week, the pandemic is forecast to drop global carbon emissions to around 47 billion tons (gigatons or Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2020, instead of the 51 billion GtCO2 released in 2019, even overlooking for this analysis our inability to factor fugitive fracking emissions and melting permafrost. But, sustaining that laudable rate of decline, the world could achieve precisely what scientists have called for and the Paris Agreement demands: 24 GtCO2 by 2030, 12 GtCO2 by 2040 and 6 GtCO2 by 2050, or approximately the Green New Deal target of 0 GtCO2 by 2050.

But, scientists and the Paris Agreement tell us, we cannot rest there. Because of our 50-year delay in getting anything done, we‘ll require negative emissions for the rest of the century. We’ll need to hit minus 6 GtCO2 by 2060, minus 12 GtCO2 by 2070, minus 24 GtCO2 by 2080, minus 48 GtCO2 by 2090, and minus 96 GtCO2 by 2100, even as methane clathrates, growing desertification, and any number of climate black swans combine. We have to get some 800 GtCO2 of legacy greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and ocean* to recover climate geostability.

* As CO2 is reduced in the atmosphere, CO2 dissolved in the ocean begins to outgas until a new kinetic balance with the atmosphere is restored. Because of this effect, the amount of carbon removed must equal total anthropogenic CO2 emissions that have been released before the time of removal, or roughly twice as much as the excess of atmospheric CO2 attempted to be removed.

 In these posts, and in 20-some books and publications now, I have described precisely how this sort of ecosystem recovery could succeed. The strategy is community-led, grass-roots upward, by all manner of experimental urban and rural ecovillages and transition towns. It involves microenterprise hubs feeding a circular economy based upon donut economics. It uses nature-based drawdown tools like biochar, remineralization, marine permaculture, and animal-integrated agroforestry in place of coal scrubbers, CCS, DACCS, BECCS, and nightmarish nuclear fantasies. Most importantly, its math pencils out. It delivers carbon withdrawal at necessary scale while retaining, and even growing, climate resilient food production, soil restoration, freshwater preservation, biodiversity, and by gainfully employing resettled refugees by the millions. It does not poison the genetic pool with radionuclides and GMOs. It cannot be turned into atomic bombs. It is inherently antifragile. It pays for itself. It does not depend on fairy dust or inventions still and forever half a century in the future. The plan is all open source, vetted in prototype, and has been steadily iterating in a virtuous cycle of design since I published Climate in Crisis (foreword by Al Gore) in 1990.

Biden/Harris need to up their game. They are still in the Bush League.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My winter book, Dark Side of the Ocean, is shipping out now. My next book, Plagued, should be out in a few months. Please help if you can.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Great Pause Week 22: Coronation Part III

"In the face of the prospect of imminent and indiscriminate death, communities have an irrepressible tendency to bond together in fear and shared repentance."

This is the third and final installment in a series. I began by looking at the latest findings about the CoV-2 virus and its effects on the human anatomy. Last week, I looked at the mental damage and how that is compounding an already negative trend in the global culture of the 21st century and how it adds synergies to Covid-19, making it even more devastating. 

When I began this series within a series I said we would first look at the scientific and factual evidence about the virus and its pandemic consequences and then try to tease out some implications for what may lie ahead.

The questions most often raised are how long before we get back to something resembling the old normal and what will have changed.

What’s the best thing that can happen with the coronavirus from a public health standpoint? Since we don’t yet know for how long blood antigens confer immunity, a drug that works to block viral uptake or a therapy that quickly neutralizes Covid would be great. Nobel Prize territory. If that can happen quickly, by the end of 2020, so much the better. 

What’s the worst that could happen with this pandemic? The coronavirus may be far more virulent and insidious than we are yet supposing. It can reignite everywhere from a small outbreak anywhere. It can damage many separate organs in different and lasting ways. The virus may take up residence in its victims and chronically produce Covid over and over again for a lifetime. Judging by the charts of exponential growth and the fact that most major hotspots are in gateway cities, I think this pandemic has only just begun and as the curve of infection turns up it will compound at ever-faster rates. Here in México both cases and deaths are rising consistently at more than 8% week over week, a doubling every 9 weeks. If that rate continues, half a million cases become a million in two months, two million in four months, and so on.

Daniel Griffin MD: 14:20 hair loss, telogen effluvium and anagen effluvium 16:15 covid rashes and pseudo chilblains 16:53 neurological impacts. Guillain-Barre, C-reactive protein (CRP). Drop foot (peroneal nerve) 18:28 cardiovascular issues 21:31 gastrointestinal manifestations 21:58 kidney 22:48 conjunctivitis and eye discharges

The newly observed symptom of long-term hair loss may create societies where everyone looks like Buddhist monks. But the brain-damaged younger patients whose numbers are now multiplying may require lifelong assistance, as do those with renal failure. What does a world with 100 million of those victims look like?

There are consequences to nearly all governments’ neglect of adequate preparation and then the disparate response ranging from malignant tardiness to crass indifference until, like in México, crematoria were overcome with a backlog of bodies to burn. The few bright spots — New Zealand, Vietnam, Iceland — are overshadowed by their neighbors’ unprotected kill zones and exposed millions. What might have been contained and even extinguished in the early months is now too endemic in the world population for anywhere with an open border to ever be Covid-free.

Recent stories in the science press have suggested that SARS-Cov-2 will eventually run its course the way SARS-CoV-1 has, although there are important differences in virulence between the two that suggest that course could be very long in running and the final tally most gruesome. There are rumors both favorable to and disparaging of vaccines. It is likely we will find ourselves in August a year from now in a very similar condition to where we are now: the hammer and the dance; reductions in death-to-case ratios owing to improved therapies; perhaps some relatively small number of people showing immunity via vaccination; but universal public masks, bans on large gatherings, travel restrictions, and mandatory distancing, ventilation and disinfectants in sparsely frequented public spaces like offices, schools and airports.

In other words, it won’t be over.

In my new book, Plagued: Surviving A Modern Pandemic now going to press August 24th, I offer a number of lessons we, collectively as a species, could be learning from this experience, but I have more recently been sobered and chastened by reading Virus in the Age of Madness by Bernard Henri Lévy, only just translated a few weeks ago by Yale Press.

In my book, and in these blog posts, I took the position that viral pandemics have stricken human civilizations for more than 7000 years and inevitably expose cultural fault lines. They are a painful but necessary corrective. It is easy to see how much larger is the swath Covid has cut through populations of lower caste — racial and ethnic minorities; indigenous peoples; migrant refugees, prisoners, and our neglected elderly and handicapped. But to impute catharsis, Lévy scolds, is to overreach; that falls into the realm of hope and belief, not evidence or logic. 

In prior segments I looked at at least some of the worst the virus might have in store for us. But let’s ask the other side of that question. From a planetary health standpoint, what’s the best that can happen?

The best outcome is that it reduces human population and its pollution footprint back to where it last found relative harmony with the rhythms of the natural world. That is a very large demand, and not likely to be met by Covid. Ugo Bardi points out

At the end of the current cycle, the number of victims will probably be around 2 million, maybe more, but that’s hardly a way to exterminate humankind if you consider that every year in the world some 60 million people die and about 140 million are born.

Covid not only won’t exterminate enough humans to bring back a balance of natural regulatory systems, it won’t even slow human population growth very much. Climate change, on the other hand — the latent impact of our overshoot — could usher in human extinction within this century. The worst outcome of Covid, therefore, might be for it to conclude before our all-devouring industrial juggernaut wipes nature from the map once and for all.

But Lévy chastises me for imagining that. He writes:

Perhaps [the pandemic] was the victory of collapsologists who, always alert to the end of the world, see it heading towards us once again and giving us one last chance to repent and reset.
There are two schools of thought that have been particularly egregious; two, whose sanctimonious warnings to the effect that the coronavirus is speaking to humanity, have done the most damage.
On one end of the spectrum there are those who believe the human actions made the virus, arguing that when we disrupt natural habitats and meddle with ecosystems, viruses emerge, or that human overpopulation provokes viral exchanges from animals to humans, as David Quammen argued in The New York Times. 
And, there are those who would have us believe that Covid-19 is the direct result of human hubris, interconnectedness, and globalization, or that nature is sending us a message, in the words, alas, of Inger Andersson, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, or as filmmaker Michael Moore postulated, that the virus is a gentle warning from the planet before it takes revenge on humanity over climate change.
These ecologists, sovereignists, and anti-globalists wanted us to know that they knew all along, and saw it coming. Crying, “I told you so,” they have been all too happy to remind us that we had to pull back from globalization, manufacture at home, consume fruits only in season, and beware of international markets.
The most eminent of the servile contingent was French philosopher Bruno Latour, who had the gall to write that the virus was a tremendous opportunity, that it is an invisible hand, that with a great screech of the brakes will help ecologists advance their landing program, whatever that means. [See Latour, 2017: Where to land — How to orient yourself in politics ] “We are faced with an emergency challenge,” he said, “to combat the coronavirus spread by becoming like the virus, globalization cut-off switches, whose small, insignificant actions, laid end to end, will do like the virus does through small exhalations from mouth to mouth, namely, bring about the revolutionary suspension of the world economy.”
This is the old Marxist refrain of the final crisis of capitalism in her morning-after guise of collapsology, or one of the children’s diseases of socialism, updated as disasterism. I know this all too well, having been born and raised in it. It is disastrous indeed, and obscene.

In his most recent monthly Museletter, Richard Heinberg waded into the feud between Extinction Rebellion and Deep Adaptation. Both take as a given (as do I) that a near-term collapse of global financial arrangements is inevitable. The pandemic lockdown is likely to hasten that day of reckoning, as Nate Hagens predicted in March in his prescient Overview of the Systemic Implications of the Coronavirus. The latest numbers from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and others well situated to measure the damage forecast an economic downturn of unprecedented scale, but those same institutions nonetheless predict gradual recovery over some years to decades, eventually to pre-crisis GDP and renewed growth. That irrepressible optimism is what buoys stock exchanges. The World Trade Organization estimates that global trade is poised to fall by between 13 and 32 percent in 2020, the worst crisis since the early 1930s, but evoking the 1930s seems also to promise a New Deal just over the horizon.

And yet, in the real world, entire industries are now confronting the same realities as sports franchises. Many shuttered retail storefronts and eateries will never reopen. Business-school models that augured success pre-2020 no longer apply in a semi-constant-pandemic world. And yet, disruption alone does not assure collapse. It may, however, incentivize repentance and reform.

Lévy writes: 

There was another thing that I found increasingly difficult to bear as we settled into the crisis and that was the rapt remarks I heard both in conversations among friends and in print on the theme, “I saw a deer crossing the Champs–Elysées, a hummingbird was at my window, the sky has never been so blue, nor nature so pure, nor New York so beautiful as during the time of the coronavirus.”
I am as sensitive as the next guy to the sweetness of decarbonized air. I too notice myself experiencing moments of grace at the sight of my city slumbering under the sun, crystalline, abstract. And it goes without saying, but is just as well said, that I view the fight against climate change as one of the great emergencies of our time and consider climate change deniers, led by Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, to be dangerously disingenuous at best, and close to criminal. But, as always, there are good ways and bad ways of putting things. And there was, in this particular way of admiring nature, an embarrassing combination of pious sentiment, bad instincts, and for anyone with a modicum of historical sensibility, echos that were regrettable, to say the least. 
The litany begins with people’s suffering, the canters perching on the shoulders of the dead and the revived alike. Oozing goodness and contrition, they sing, reminding us that even before the pandemic they warned against the folly of a world that could not continue as it was, a world headed straight into a wall. They fob off on us, disguised as good medicine, old finger-pointing claptrap that they hope this time will stick. With restrained but cruel gloating, they hail the revenge of the real, or the natural, over the arrogance of man and his sins. The deviousness of these flagellants — trying their damnedest from their perch on the backs of the victims to scold the survivors and overwhelm them with remonstrances. The calls for a change no less than the streams of reproof and the invitations to rebirth echo the sermons France heard in 1940 asserting that the country had had too much fun; that it had reaped more than it had sown; that it had marched, said Andre Gide, blindfolded to defeat; and that it was time to turn everything around. But they also echo the words of the proponents of America First in the late 1930s. They too viewed the calamities befalling old Europe as the price to be paid for sins that had gone unpunished for too long.
In 2020 in any case both the French and the Americans found themselves in … a giant penitentiary … with Father Paneloux [in Camus’ La Peste] castigating his flock for their criminal indifference and intoning, “Calamity has come to you my brethren, and my brethren you deserved it.”
Nostra culpa. And finally, there was a foolish conceit: the idea that the virus is speaking to us; that it has a message to deliver; and that because nothing in this world happens without cause or intention, this particular virus, this coronavirus, this virus with spikes and a crown, this king of a virus, must be secretly invested, like a cunning ruse of Hegelian history, with a part of the spirit of the world, and thus with a mission to re-orchestrate the fanfare of all against the government, to function as an unsparing critic of failed globalization….
As if a virus could think, know, or intend anything, As if a virus was living.
From this dark providentialism, this punitive magical thinking, this viral catechism that turned our lockdown dwellings into so many purgatories and lazarettos, no one was exempt. And perhaps it is a general principle of pandemics, in the face of plague, of the implacable, in the face of the prospect of imminent and indiscriminate death, communities have an irrepressible tendency to bond together in fear and shared repentance and to offer up a promise to the virus god never to return to the old ways but rather to invent themselves anew.

I would say if there is a lesson we can take from this pandemic, even as it grinds on, it is that a trillion dollars, three trillion, ten trillion, are not that big a get when the chips are down and you are confronted with far greater losses if you don’t spend for prevention. Even knowing that modern currency systems are fictions, as easily erased as written into existence, climate change has always been nickel and dimed by national legislatures since before the Kyoto Protocol. The mere billions pledged to the Green Climate Fund have amounted, so far, to only a jar full of paper IOUs. Some, like Bush’s and Obama’s, rather than be called in for payment, have been retrieved from the jar and burned.

This essay has already run overlong but bear with me a short while more. In his most recent GatesNote, Bill Gates runs some useful numbers: 

You may have seen projections that, because economic activity has slowed down so much, the world will emit fewer greenhouse gases this year than last year. Although these projections are certainly true, their importance for the fight against climate change has been overstated. 
Analysts disagree about how much emissions will go down this year, but the International Energy Agency puts the reduction around 8 percent. In real terms, that means we will release the equivalent of around 47 billion tons of carbon, instead of 51 billion.
That’s a meaningful reduction, and we would be in great shape if we could continue that rate of decrease every year. Unfortunately, we can’t.
Consider what it’s taking to achieve this 8 percent reduction. More than 600,000 people have died, and tens of millions are out of work. This April, car traffic was half what it was in April 2019. For months, air traffic virtually came to a halt.
To put it mildly, this is not a situation that anyone would want to continue. And yet we are still on track to emit 92 percent as much carbon as we did last year. What’s remarkable is not how much emissions will go down because of the pandemic, but how little.
In addition, these reductions are being achieved at, literally, the greatest possible cost. To see why, let’s look at what it costs to avert a single ton of greenhouse gases. This figure — the cost per ton of carbon averted — is a tool that economists use to compare the expense of different carbon-reduction strategies. For example, if you have a technology that costs $1 million, and using it lets you avert the release of 10,000 tons of gas, you’re paying $100 per ton of carbon averted. In reality, $100 per ton would still be pretty expensive. But many economists think this price reflects the true cost of greenhouse gases to society, and it also happens to be a memorable round number that makes a good benchmark for discussions. 
Now let’s treat the shutdown caused by COVID-19 as if it were a carbon-reduction strategy. Has closing off major parts of the economy avoided emissions at anything close to $100 per ton?
No. In the United States, according to data from the Rhodium Group, it comes to between $3,200 and $5,400 per ton. In the European Union, it’s roughly the same amount. In other words, the shutdown is reducing emissions at a cost between 32 and 54 times the $100 per ton that economists consider a reasonable price.
If you want to understand the kind of damage that climate change will inflict, look at COVID-19 and spread the pain out over a much longer period of time. The loss of life and economic misery caused by this pandemic are on par with what will happen regularly if we do not eliminate the world’s carbon emissions.

Gates then goes on to show how, within a few decades, climate change will be costing 5 times the number of lives each year as Covid is expected to take in 2020. It is likely costing some of those lives this week in summer heatwaves where there is no electricity to run air conditioners because it was knocked out by the most recent of the record-breaking Atlantic hurricanes, El Derecho, or monsoonal rains. His three pieces of advice:

  • Let science and innovation lead the way. 
  • Make sure solutions work for poor countries too. 
  • Start now. 

Pandemics have always been a part of living on Earth. They have been with us since we began. They can never be eliminated, but they can be tamed. There will be times when you have to stay home and miss sports, concerts, eating out, and other gatherings, but it’s not all bad. These can be special moments if you choose to benefit from them.

The climate crisis is infinitely worse than any pandemic, and yet most people continue to ignore it and assume there is nothing they could do that would make a difference. We ignore the warnings. But human extinction is a much larger threat than losing some percent of the population from a virus. What a pandemic shows is that small changes by individuals — wearing masks, keeping physical distances, avoiding closed-in spaces full of strangers — add up to a large collective effort that can arrest the disease. Likewise, small steps, such as using solar power, making biochar for your garden, and not burning things if there is another way to “dispose” of them, can make a big difference to the climate.

Lévy asks if Covid is a

…triumph of the masters of the world, who see in this great confinement the English translation of le grand renfermement [the “great confinement”] Michel Foucault spoke of in his early speculations on the power systems of the future in madness and civilization, a rehearsal of sorts for a new way to arrest, oppress and detain a mass of people.
Was it a reign of terror akin to the one born after 1789 with its explosion of fake news, conspiracies, frantic flights, and, soon enough, dark uprisings borne of hopelessness?
Or perhaps it was the opposite: a reassuring sign that the world had changed; that at last life has been made sacred; that from now on, when we come to a choice between life and economics, life will win out.

I think in that last line Lévy sets up a false dichotomy. Economics is the system for öikos — managing one’s home. We need a systemic approach that is life-affirming and provides our needs. We need a new system that works equally well in a time of plague and climate emergency. We used to speak of universal basic income as a theory, but Covid made it real. Debt jubilee is a theory, but it may soon be widely applied. All the parts are there, laid out before us, we only need the quiet determination to take our time and assemble them now, with care and thoughtfulness, and craft a better world.

Ryōkan said, 

Too lazy to be ambitious, I let the world take care of itself. Ten days’ worth of rice in my bag; a bundle of twigs by the fireplace. Why chatter about delusion and enlightenment? Listening to the night rain on my roof, I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.

This is the last of multiple parts.


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