Two Views of the Climate Emergency: David Wallace-Wells and Bill McKibben

Acknowledging the Climate Emergency opens one up to all sorts of intellectual struggles with a reality that confounds even great minds. The industrialized nations and most of their intellectuals seem either unwilling or unable to face the magnitude of the hard facts. They do not know how to take action to ameliorate the immediate and extreme existential threat to humanity inherent in growing climate chaos.

One peculiar but not entirely surprising result is the bickering over what goals to seek, not what we must do to achieve them. At least, the Green New Deal points in the right direction. Another is the problem of how consistently experts have underestimated the growing impacts of climate chaos and overestimated the impact that climate action may have.

Extreme Realities

Accusing those who promote “extreme” climate-action of fascist tendencies results from adhering to the illusion of a non-existent democratic political process that is really what Sheldon Wolin calls “Democracy, Inc.” — that is, “inverted totalitarianism” in democratic sheep’s clothing. Extreme emergencies usually call for extreme measures to counter catastrophe. However, the corporate state refuses to acknowledge the emergency, treating the global emergency as just another “issue.”

Neither our corporate-state nor the laws of physics are democratic, even though the solution to the climate crisis if we can actually pursue it, will most likely arise from DIRECT DEMOCRACY initiated by people in local/regional contexts. Necessary climate action derives not from traditional political pluralism but from understanding the physically DETERMINATE processes of the complex dynamic systems of ecology and climate.

climate chaos is globalDavid Wallace-Wells’ wakeup call, “Time to Panic,” in the New York Times, argues persuasively for immediate climate action. His new book, Uninhabitable Earth, piles on the latest evidence fully justifying existential fear and immediate action. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) was the first public warning of the impending climate crisis. In his new book, Falter, he urges greater collective resistance to the fossil-fueled corporate state. He argues for the adoption of renewable energy technologies and divestment from fossil-fuel related investments. He also points out the futility of individual action alone. Recycle all you want, but the problem is that so much recycling has become necessary.

Extreme Emergency requires Extreme Action

Useful and important in substantiating the emergency, neither McKibben nor Wallace-Wells addresses any clear vision of major climate action beyond civil resistance and technological replacements. I am sure they endorse the Green New Deal as a starting point, since it is a significant departure from existing national gradualism and denial, though a political longshot. Looking at the whole thing sociologically, the big barriers become clear.

Resistance may bend the neo-liberal corporate state somewhat, allowing some moderate “green” reforms, which in the U.S. will depend on who controls the Senate and presidency after 2020. However, time is our enemy now. Neither resistance alone nor eventual political victory can result in the kind of precise strategic action we need from national governments now. Also, no amount of technological replacement will suffice within the neo-liberal corporate global political economy, which is incapable of a massive reduction of carbon emissions. Achieving resilience is really a matter of how well we restrain the endless growth economy, which most ideas of mitigation and adaptation fall short of doing. See https://thehopefulrealist.c…

Optimism is a flat out illusion; so is pessimism. They both traffic in fatalism. The facts offer no basis for optimism while pessimism excludes the possibility of concerted action to reduce the existential threat that now confronts us ever more directly. However, my hope will die when I do.

Action is always possible until we can no longer move. Moreover, we cannot predict exactly how well extreme climate action can mitigate surging climate chaos until we take such action. But the evidence overwhelmingly confirms that extreme action now is necessary for the survival of a much smaller ecologically integrated human population after industrial civilization collapses.

As Ugo Bardi points out in relation to the early dismissal of the findings of Meadows, et al (1972) in The Limits to Growth, that it is folly to treat forecasts, regardless of the quality of data, as predictions — actually, they are WARNINGS. Because we know a lot about the diverse trends implicated with carbon emissions and global warming, we CAN forecast approximate outcomes depending on how those factors play out.

The Time is Now.

HOW AND TO WHAT EXTENT HUMANS TAKE ACTIONS to counter the destruction that WILL prevail IF we do little or nothing, will determine our survival. To what extent will we alter the parameters that determine whether, in the case of climate chaos, the planet heats to 1.5 degrees C., 2.0 degrees C., or more? That is the key question because we know with certainty that failure will lead to more ecological and climate tipping points beyond which societal collapse is inevitable and survival is threatened.

The underlying problem is not solved by trying to convert to renewable energy (though that does help) to power the continued extreme extractive-industrial-consumer global economy. The real problem is how to stop that economy in its tracks while rapidly transforming society to operate on a vastly lower level of energy consumption. At this point, that will not result from government or corporate policy change, nor civil resistance to their current failures.

As difficult as it seems, the only viable way to “shrink the technosphere,” as Dmitri Orlov puts it, is through direct local/regional RESTRUCTURING of communities to align their economic behavior with the requirements for restoring the ecosystems upon which they depend. That is possible only by a massive turning away from the globalized growth economy.

Joy of Dog III

At first, twice a day at the dog park was barely enough to burn off a good portion of Copper’s seemingly boundless puppy-energy. For a while, it was a bit of a chore, but fun to watch her run and play with the other dogs. We discovered a whole culture of human social organization at the dog park too, but that is another story, a reflection of other larger scale social relations and problems of the nation and the planet.

The social life of dogs is much more complex than one might imagine without experiencing their interaction at the dog park. It was especially good to find other puppies at the dog park who could match Copper’s energy. She learned the ropes and soon became quite popular among the other dogs at the park, mostly because of her enthusiasm and friendliness.

Dog Society

Copper could match any other dog’s energy and playfulness, and her disposition is so sweet that all the other dogs like her – except those two aggressive poodles, whose owner exhibited a total lack of responsibility for her dogs and simply refused to control them. That is also another story in itself. But Copper tolerated even a level of aggressiveness that would offend and repel most other dogs. It just occurred to me, those poodles remind me of Trump.

Puppy play pose_Copper and Django

Copper playing with Django

Generally, dogs socialize newcomers in the etiquette of play, which in some ways mimics the behavior patterns of the hunt. In their wrestling, they often pin one another down, engaging in mock battle, appearing to bite one another’s throat as if to kill. In that behavior, they acknowledge the mutual trust that is inherent in allowing another dog to wrap her/his big jaws around one’s throat. However, it is “mouthing,” not actual biting with what could be a lethal instrument. Mouthing is also a sign of affection expressed toward their human “masters.” For dogs, the primary instrument for engaging with the world is their mouth – their closest analog to our opposable thumb.

Socializing and Play

On a good day, up to twenty dogs of all varieties and sizes may appear at the 1-acre fenced area, covered with a blanket of wood chips. The etiquette (and lack thereof on the part of a few) regarding human responsibility for dogs and their waste, mirrors the culture of civility versus the culture of waste and indifference in the larger society.

I had owned several dogs over the years, but when I was a kid, nobody I knew had ever heard of such a thing as a dog park. I ran, walked, and played with my dogs in the yard, the neighborhood, and sometimes at the beach or a neighborhood park. The dog park is another world entirely. Copper took to it as she had taken to the water on the coast near Baja California del Sur when she was a small pup.

Personality

Now, Copper enthusiastically swims out to me through the surf at a deserted beach on the west coast of mainland Mexico; I swear she likes body surfing, just as I did as a kid in Southern California. In the calm waters at the beach at Rincon de Guayabitos, she loves to swim out among the moored boats, chasing after gulls and pelicans as far out as fifty yards before I call her back.

Copper’s favorite playmates tend to be the young dogs of her approximate age and energy, although her energy level surpasses that of almost every dog she encounters. When her playmate might tire and withdraw from the high-energy wrestling and running, Copper sometimes starts barking impatiently, demanding more play. As it turns out, Vizslas mature slowly and continue to exhibit puppy characteristic until four or even five years. She is four and a half now, and clearly retains some of that ‘puppiness.’ However, she will always be a “fun dog.”

Trade Wars and Climate Chaos

It is as sad as it is fascinating to observe the complete disconnect between the assumptions behind current emerging trade wars and those behind the current pretensions of nations to taking climate action.

On the one hand, news reports of steps taken on either side in the escalation of Trump’s trade war with China assume that human progress depends on extensive international trade. They portray such steps as damaging imports and exports and therefore “the economy” itself. That, of course, results from the near-universal belief in the value and necessity of expanding the Global Extractive Industrial Consumer Economy.

Perpetuating the Impossible

On the other hand, it is eminently clear from the overwhelming abundance of scientific evidence that the very same global economy is the primary source of the disruption of ecosystems around the world. Industry not only destabilizes local and regional ecosystems by aggressively extracting materials for production. That global system of extraction, shipping, manufacture, more shipping, promotion, sales, consumption, and waste – what Dmitry Orlov calls the “technosphere” – is the driving force behind climate chaos and destabilization of the entire Earth System. Yet, it is deemed necessary and good.

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Global Air Temperatures, June 2019

Of course, while China and other nations recognize the existential threat of climate chaos for their societies, the U.S. remains hog-tied in a political struggle between the know-nothing, anti-science, fossil-fueled corporatists and climate activists. Even as China begins to turn away from coal as a major source of energy production, the sheer momentum of its growth adds significantly to global carbon emissions. Despite the international agreement to limit carbon emissions to achieve global warming no greater than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels – which is itself an inadequate goal – global carbon emissions continue to grow.

System Dynamics in the Real World

Everyone who pays attention to the growing body of scientific evidence understands the destructiveness of the trends, especially in the self-amplifying feedback mechanisms that accelerate climate chaos. The two obvious examples are: 1) methane release from melting tundra adds to the warming that caused it; 2) deep blue arctic waters absorb more heat than did the reflective white Arctic ice that has melted into the seas. The evidence is now clear that even if we were to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, significant climate chaos will result.

The sad fact is that no government in the industrial world has made any serious effort to curtail emissions to an extent anywhere near the level required of all nations to avoid societal collapse within a couple of decades. To reduce carbon emissions to “net zero” will require dismantling the Global Extractive Industrial Consumer Economy and replacing it with local and regional ecological societies that embed economic activity within the parameters needed to restore ecosystems and restrain climate instability. The implications for social change are nearly inconceivable.

Societal Transformation for Survival

Clearly, pulling off such a New Great Transformation of societies is a long shot. Nevertheless, it is the only shot we have to avoid extreme destabilization of climate and the destruction of ecosystems upon which humanity depends for survival. Global, regional, and local collapse of societies will follow as ecosystems and climate destabilize, causing massive crop failures, violence, and loss of life. Fighting or resolving trade wars, in this context, is the global equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Forget international trade, except for limiting it to exchanges that assist devastated nations to survive. The industrial and industrializing nations must abandon the entire culture of industrial consumerism and the extraction, production, and trade that it perpetuates.

Unfortunately, national governments and the corporations that control them continue in exactly the wrong direction. Trade wars are part of the old global industrial-consumer economy, which dominates national governments. That is why it is now up to the people to find a new path out of the death dance of industrial consumerism.

Joy of Dog II

Copper has an on-off switch. Two positions: full speed ahead and sleep soundly.

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Copper luxuriating in our Durango Hotel room, Winter 2016.

 

Even when she’s being “bad,” stealing sox or slippers and playing keep away with anything she knows I want back, it’s all about having fun. Humans should be so free. Vizslas don’t fully mature until four or five. At four, she still has some of her puppy perspective. She is smart, strong-willed, and just charming enough to get her way…too often. Playful would be a monumental understatement.

Copper was only a few months old when we took her with us to visit friends staying near La Paz, Baja Del Sur, Mexico, four years ago. There, we drove to a deserted beach, planning to introduce her to water. La Paz faces east on the Sea of Cortez. The surf is very small. I waded out to coax Copper in hopes she would learn to swim. Immediately she swam right out to me, circled, and then swam back to shore, looking bewildered, yet excited. All I had to do was call her and she repeated the feat, over and over again. At 6 months, she had more to learn about swimming, but her unbounded energy and enthusiasm guaranteed success. Today, she is an accomplished surf-dog who loves playing in the surf as I did as a kid on the California coast so many decades before. (More on that in a later post.)

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Surf Dog

We were stunned to realize how much Copper loves to run. Each day while in La Paz, we took Copper to a deserted beach. Cynde and I would separate by about 50 or 75 yards along the shore and called her back and forth. We thought she would never tire. Finally, she sat down and looked in both directions as if to say, “Okay, guys, that’s it for me.”

In a couple of minutes, she was back at it. Right then we decided that taking her on walks around the neighborhood as we had done before the trip, was clearly not adequate to her running needs. She is, after all, a Vizsla, a field dog with remarkable energy and endurance.

The Fog of Play

Fog of Play

We take Copper to the dog park daily, even twice a day for the first few months, just to help burn off all that energy having fun. Copper easily learned to socialize with the other dogs and relished the appearance of other puppies with whom she could wrestle and chase. At the dog park, we would learn much more about dog social life and the humans who “own” them than we ever could have imagined.

The dog park has a way of bringing out the best and worst in people (mostly the best), highlighting the human dilemmas that make it so difficult to face both interpersonal and global crises. New revelations about the joy of dog awaited her two-footed companions at the dog park.

Controlled Burns: Misallocation of technology and labor

Once the extractivist culture began plundering the forests of North America for construction materials and fiber for paper and other products was well underway, the threat of major forest fires grew. A number of factors were involved.

Trump-Orders-FEMA-To-Withhold-Funds-For-California-Forest-Fires-In-Misspelled-Tweet-780x405

Trump orders FEMA to withhold funds for California Wildfires

The ideology and practice of forest-fire suppression to protect the property and sometimes lives of those who encroached on the forests caused a deep disturbance of the role fire played in the natural cycle of the life of forests. Because of fire suppression, increasingly dense undergrowth became more common in forests not decimated by clearcutting. That made them increasingly vulnerable to exceedingly hot, intense, and rapidly moving wildfires, such as the Camp Fire in Butte County, California, far more difficult to restrain or control than a century ago.

An Unnatural Relationship

Various forestry authorities deploy so-called “controlled burns” with the intent of eliminating the massive amounts of fuel (dry underbrush produced by alternating climates of heavy precipitation and drought) accumulated because of human fire suppression. In the past, the occasional forest fire did that job until the official forestry policy implemented the policy to “prevent forest fires.” Now it became a matter of “Man against Nature,” so typical of the industrial-consumer culture, which frames forests as just another source of materials to draw upon for industrial production.

In their natural state, forests are huge carbon sinks. That is not so when they are disturbed by massive intense wildfires and insect infestations and become net carbon emitters. Here is the problem. Never mind the risk of such “controlled burns” getting out of control due to rapid change in weather, such as high winds. What is the primary consequence of burning sections of a forest? Obviously, burning fuel of any kind adds carbon to the atmosphere – precisely the opposite of the most urgent need today. This counterproductive effect results from a misallocation of labor and technology as well as a misunderstanding of the Nature of the Earth System we inhabit.

Technology and Labor

We can accomplish many tasks more easily and efficiently by applying the power of fossil-fuel burning equipment than by the use of labor and hand-powered tools. Controlled burns use a mix of both. While the long-term effect may be to dampen the power of today’s super firestorms, the immediate effect is to increase the emission of carbon into the atmosphere. That, of course, is something that we simply cannot afford, especially when we see so little progress (as in NONE) by national and international authorities to reduce carbon emissions.

Given the situation and the growing probability of firestorms of unprecedented intensity and speed, it certainly makes sense to thin the forests of the excessive fuel (dried undergrowth) that poses a great risk of catastrophic forest fires. The fires themselves contribute much to the carbon in the atmosphere, forcing more global warming and consequentially more climate chaos. In either case, controlled burns or firestorms, the result is catastrophic in one way or the other. That is because both involve burning fuel. But wait, here’s another contradiction.

The global corporate free-market economy drives more people into low-wage jobs and/or poverty every day. The corporate economy cuts labor costs through automation and outsourcing. We live with the myth that American workers will not do the backbreaking work that we assign to illegal immigrants. Oh, what a difference a living wage would make.

Restoring the Forest Ecosystem

Like so many other ecosystem restoration necessities, we should restore the natural state of the forests in a way that allows sequestration of all that carbon contained in the underbrush that we need to remove. The process of pyrolysis can convert carbon from forest undergrowth into Biochar through thermal decomposition of biomass without oxygen (preventing combustion). Biochar can be used as a soil amendment, sequestering the carbon potentially for thousands of years.

However, the focus of controlled burns remains fixed on traditional ideas of protecting property from near term risk of conflagration. This ignores the bigger picture. In the context of our climate emergency, the first priority of any public policy must be the restriction of carbon emissions. Period.

When it comes to removing fuel from forest floors, the solution must be labor intensive, which has a very small carbon footprint. How can we accomplish that? Pay high wages for hard work and workers will come – they do so for the oil extractive companies. Remove the material and subject it to composting or biochar production and sequester it in agricultural soils. Win-win.

This is just one small example, well, not so small, of how proper climate action and economic justice can converge. Let’s get over that obsession with “labor-saving devices.” In many other ways, human labor can become a path to reducing climate chaos by increasing economic opportunity for all people.

Joy of dog

I didn’t really want another dog.

We enjoyed Shadow for nearly sixteen years, the last couple of which were very difficult for us all. Weimaraner life expectancy is 11 or 12. Shadow was a wonderful dog, but once she passed after almost 16 years, I didn’t want to take on the responsibility again, not for a while anyway. Nor did I want my travel to be constrained by the complications of boarding a dog.

Some dogs have no problem with staying for a few days or a couple of weeks at a commercial kennel, but others do. Shadow hated kennels. So would I, if confined like that with strangers.

Finally, I relented. Shadow had been Cynde’s first dog; she wanted to get another Weimaraner, but I opposed the idea. “You cannot replace Shadow, ever; we need to find another kind of dog, a different one.” I was adamant. Cynde was so attached to Shadow that I knew another Weimaraner would be difficult, not only because of the breed’s tendency to be hyperactive and its size (females run 55-75 pounds) in context of her back injury.

My resistance had already weakening when we accidentally discovered Vizslas. We were in the lobby of the Eldorado Hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, after an environmental awards presentation, when a young girl walked by, led by two beautiful copper-colored hounds, one older, one young. We asked the girl what kind of dog they were. We had never seen Vizslas before, nor did we know anything about them.

Vizslas are smaller than Weimaraners (females 40-55 pounds), look very similar. We soon found out that they also have sweet dispositions as well as being too smart for humans. They are an old Hungarian breed of hound. I’ve been told that the Weimaraner and the German Short Hair were bred from Vizslas. According to the AKC:

“The Vizsla is a versatile, red-coated gundog built for long days in the field. For centuries, these rugged but elegant athletes have been the pride of Hungarian sportsmen and their popularity in America increases with each passing year.”

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Copper at one year old.

Well, that was it. The Vizsla hunt was on, accompanied by my mixed feelings. Love of dogs versus responsibility aversion. When we found her, we just had to name her “Copper” because of her beautiful color. Dogs can be a great addition to a household, but ownership entails responsibilities. Humans need to be trained to properly relate to dogs. No other animal has a relation to humans anything like that of a dog.

In the U.S., the consumption of commercial pet food parallels that of human food; it is a huge carbon-intensive industry. Dogs evolved as domesticated animals because some former wolves gradually over generations, as scavengers, entered a symbiotic relationship with humans. The feeding of scraps became a central feature of our inter-species bonding. We certainly have enough food scraps these days to sustain our pets. Do we really need a major industry to supply specialized diets for the world’s greatest scavengers? Dogs and cats account for a quarter of the carbon emissions of all “animal agriculture.” For more on carbon emissions and the global costs of affluence, see various posts at www.thehopefulrealist.com.

Resilience Redux: Revisiting Mitigation and Adaptation as Climate Chaos, Ecosystem Collapse, and Extinctions Accelerate

The term “resilience” has become a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it projects the idea of humanity being able to do what we must to survive long term by changing human behavior. On the other hand, too many perceive the term to mean only our ability to adapt to conditions of life as they change. If it prevails, the second definition may be the undoing of our species.

When in October 2018, the IPCC finally proclaimed the global necessity to change radically the way humans do business in order to reduce global warming to 1.5◦ C. above pre-industrial levels within the next dozen years, a bit of a media stir ensued. But nobody followed-up with any kind of plan as to how that might be accomplished. Most governments were still absorbed in an international death dance around relative responsibility and power distribution. The media: characteristically out to lunch.

The Official Crisis

The IPCC Special Report (2018) said little about how to reduce carbon emissions beyond asserting various technical “pathways” to limiting global warming to 1.5◦C “with no or limited overshoot.” The media noted report’s assertion that the goal, “would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence).” [p.17] Then came the qualifier: “These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options …” [p. 17]

2 deg.vs.1.5 deg. global temp. limit_1_FS0UrraLgvnTmbnHOs_ucg

A 2◦ target = societal collapse. A 1.5◦ target = struggle to adapt with continued mitigation. Graphic credit:  https://picswe.net/pics/gcp-2000-f6.html 

One must ask, how does any of this translate into climate action at any real level, from national down to neighborhood? Well, it does not, for one simple reason, and that is the elephant in the middle of the room.

“These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options …Pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot … but there is no documented historic precedent for their scale…” [p.17]

Unprecedented Transformation Required

Of course there is no precedent for a global transformation of societies capable of reigning in global carbon emissions to pre-industrial levels. If accomplished “in all sectors” of the global industrial-consumer economy, such a transformation would be vastly greater than the industrial revolution. The report rather blandly qualifies the implication for societal transformation: “…but their scale depends on the pursued mitigation portfolio. [p.18].

Well, “the pursued mitigation portfolio” has to be the understatement of the century. In his definitive study of the industrial revolution, published in 1944, Karl Polanyi characterized the industrial revolution — which began the modern process of the human species overshooting the carrying capacity of the planet — as The Great Transformation. He could not have imagined how far that transformation would take us, although he hinted at potential environmental damage that unfettered industrial capitalism might produce.

All you have to do is think for a minute about what a “system transition” that entailed global deep restrictions on carbon emissions from transportation, buildings, land use (industrial agriculture and industrial deforestation), “resource-intensive diets” (meat-eating), and all the other elements of industrial-consumerism, would mean for the “lifestyles” we take for granted.

The New Great Transformation

Humanity cannot accomplish such “deep restrictions” on carbon emissions within the framework of the globalized fossil-fueled economic system in which our societies are currently so deeply embedded. That is why I call the path we are on The New Great Transformation. Depending on our actions we are headed to either total societal collapse or a somewhat softer landing characterized by massive mitigation and societal transformation under very harsh conditions.  Even if we achieve the carbon-emissions restrictions needed to allow us to adapt to the changes already “in the pipeline,” some form of New Great Transformation is inevitable. To become resilient, that is, able to adapt to the emerging chaotic conditions of a world at 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, society itself must undergo a great transformation the likes of which humanity has never experienced.

Despite the long overdue groundbreaking tenor of the IPCC Special Report, with all its technical jargon and unspoken catastrophic implications, the report still frames its assertions within the assumption that societies, as they exist, must take these drastic steps, restricting carbon emissions to mitigate global warming. However, societies as they exist now remain under the control of the globalized political economy that lies at the heart of the problem. That is the elephantine dilemma at the center of the room, to which analysts, politicians, economists, pundits, and the public remain blind. Their blindness is probably due to the fact that they cannot even contemplate the totally transformed society necessary to achieve the 1.5°C goal.

In this context, contemplating adaptation becomes a meaningless gesture unless it is adaptation by mitigation. That is, only by keeping global warming to within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels will we inhabit a world to which we are capable of adapting. We can achieve that kind of resilience only by a New Great Transformation of society itself. The resulting new societal formations must be locally and regionally sovereign to be capable of continued mitigation of ongoing degradation of ecosystems and climate in the hope of restoring some semblance of a stable world.