Water Wells and Appropriate Technology

When my well failed a while back, I had just begun re-reading E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. It is a remarkable book, even more relevant today than in 1973, and available in many newer editions. Schumacher’s perspective of “Buddhist Economics” emerged from his experience as an economic development expert in Burma and his time spent in a Buddhist monastery there. The viewpoint he expressed was more profound than recent, though valuable, critiques of neo-classical economics and the endless-growth economic ideology.

5e47df09c0fca445cf795801139960aa--water-well-drilling-rigsI watched Daniel and his helper set up the big well-repair rig with its crane and other equipment required for such jobs. The engine was running, supplying the power for the hoist and crane. Several other mechanical devises allowed them to raise then secure the pipe, wiring, and connectors, holding them in place. That allowed them to disassemble the wellhead components to make their repairs. Fortunately, the problem turned out to be an intermittent short in a wire not adequately secured, allowing friction to produce a sporadic failure of the pump to maintain water pressure. The fix was relatively cheap, far better than having to deal with an exhausted well.

Work and Energy

It was interesting to watch the merging of manual labor with fossil-fueled powered equipment. I started thinking of how they might accomplish such work without burning so much fossil fuel. Clearly, the men needed a lot of power to leverage their work with the manual tools. Electrical motors powered by lead-acid batteries recharged by the truck’s engine drove the equipment.

If an electric motor drove the truck itself, powered by its own batteries, the whole operation would have been relatively free of carbon emissions. However, if the battery charging system back at the shop got its electricity from the grid, powered mostly by coal-fired and nuclear power plants, such a system would still contribute carbon to global warming.

If an array of photovoltaic solar panels charged all the batteries, however, the whole system would be mostly free of carbon emissions. All of the necessary technology for such a setup exists today. Like any system, it would require new investment. As far as I know, nobody has set up such configuration yet although the technology is available.

In order to achieve a low carbon footprint, we do not need to give up the necessities of modern life, though we will have to curtail significantly our profligate “consumer lifestyle”. After decades of delay in taking significant climate action, recent research findings demonstrate that we have reached the tipping point where only radical societal transformation can constrain the most severe climate chaos, ecosystem collapse, and species extinction.

Transforming Energy and Society

No minor “ecomodernist” tweaks of green consumer products will be enough. Nor can risky illusions of geoengineering the atmosphere address the deeper problem of the “technosphere” overshooting the Earth System’s capacity to carry its destruction. We must redirect current massive investments of capital into the doomed financialized globalized economy of growth toward replacing it with appropriate technology locally applied.

We need to convert our power generation to emissions-free technologies that are available today, and not waste energy on the pursuit of high-tech trivia. We have the knowledge; we need the action, now. We will have to give up the excessive consumerism and the reckless waste of the growth-at-any-cost global economy. Fewer ephemeral consumer products, replaced by carbon neutral, higher quality necessities, and a refocusing on human values as their measure, are all necessary. That will mean that society will have to run the economy, not the other way around. For more on carbon emissions, ecological overshoot, and the costs of affluence, see other posts at www.thehopefulrealist.com.

The Climate Does Not Compromise, Mr. Biden

The other day, Reuters reported that Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden has developed a “middle-ground” plan for Climate Action. Well, Joe, the Climate does not compromise with corporate favorites: fracked natural gas, futuristic hopes for carbon capture technology, or nuclear power. When it comes to climate chaos, the middle ground is where total societal collapse will start.

Climate chaos due to global warming, widespread species extinction, and the collapse of ecosystems around the world together constitute an immediate global emergency unaffected by political compromise. In fact, at this point, political compromise on climate is an immediate existential threat to humanity.

Out with the “Old School” Politics

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Joe Biden. Photo credit: The Hill

Biden is an old-time Democrat who does not seem to understand the planetary transformation that confronts humanity today. His focus seems, as always, fixated on gaining the support of the most powerful institutions and elites in the nation while trying to charm the American voters with that toothy smile, as if the existential threat to humanity were just another campaign issue among many.

The whole point of the Green New Deal is that there is no “middle ground” when it comes to the global chaos now emerging. Profligate carbon emissions and ecosystem destabilization from the global industrial-consumer economy have already gone too far. Climate inaction has pushed us close to some critical tipping points leading to climate, ecosystem, and therefore societal collapse. Simply put, we cannot survive the collapse of the living Earth systems in which we live.

No Green New Joe

Of course, the forces of the status quo objected to the Green New Deal. To take on emerging climate chaos fully requires that we denizens of the global industrial-consumer economic bubble must change the way we live. The young members of the Sunrise Movement and the Extinction Rebellion movement know this. They do not feel constrained by the old political deal-making that kept all those representatives and senators so well healed over so many decades.

Biden is an old-fashioned “business as usual” politician. His early lead in the run-up to the Democratic primary rests primarily on name recognition and on the disproportionate attention the corporate media give him. However, Biden does carry a lot of negative political baggage. Trying to unload some at the political last minute will not work. Ask Anita Hill. His glib generalities belie a stubborn refusal to acknowledge past patriarchal practices.

Wrong Side of History

All that suggests to me that he is still the same guy – an old corporate Dem who is more concerned with cementing relations with the same old corporate and financial elites that have controlled national politics for far too long. He was on the wrong side of civil rights, mass incarceration, and the Iraq war. What more might we want to avoid? Well, his key supporters (lobbyists and big donors) have apparently formed a $60 million “dark money” group; we know that kind of fundraising does not focus on small individual donations or the interests of the American people.

If Biden’s brand of business-as-usual politics prevails and the “Ecomodernsts” control climate action, the likelihood of societal collapse and human depopulation, amidst an increasingly unrecognizable and unlivable changing planet will rapidly approach certainty. Some argue it already has.

Speaking the Unspeakable: Climate Reality vs Industrial Culture

Green.New.Deal_AOC.MarkleyThe Green New Deal (GND) may or may not have much chance as a framework for drafting realistic climate legislation. Not only does a slavishly Trumpist Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, defy Senate tradition and democratic principles to fight any proposal the president does not like. He and his Republican cohorts block anything the Democrats propose, just as they embodied the Congress of No in racist opposition to anything President Obama proposed, even ideas formerly floated by Republicans.

Deep Denial

But an even deeper problem underlies the probable fate of the Green New Deal, even if, perchance, the 2020 elections were to install a Jay Inslee as President and capture the Senate for the Democrats. On the one hand, over 600 organizations, including Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity, and 350.org have signed a letter supporting the framework of the Green New Deal. However, in what may ultimately constitute a greater barrier to rational and necessarily extreme societal action to stave off the most severe consequences of climate chaos, including societal collapse, some of the largest environmental groups have refused to sign the letter supporting the Green New Deal.

Among the refusers, according to The New Republic magazine, were “the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, Mom’s Clean Air Force, Environment America, and the Audubon Society. Two green groups founded by deep-pocketed Democratic celebrities are also absent: Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and Tom Steyer’s NextGen America.”

Techno-Industrial Culture

Why the resistance from the biggest environmental organizations? In part, these groups object to the exclusion of still unproven carbon-capture technologies from the GND plan. GND exclusion of “market mechanisms” that where tried profited polluting corporations able to manipulate carbon trading but failed to make a dent in carbon emissions, was also a factor. The Sierra Club expressed the need for a more “inclusive process.” Resistance by the non-signers seems to center around what the Green New Deal excludes, such as nuclear power, geoengineering, and market-based mechanisms for trying to limit or sequester carbon emissions.

Here’s the thing. For a long time now, the biggest environmental organizations have depended on the biggest corporations for much of their revenue. These organizations saw financial success by extracting small concessions for big donations. In effect, they were paid off to demand only changes that the corporations considered minor “costs of doing business.” Now they want technologies favoring big corporate interests, included in the GND. The biggest environmental organizations remain captives of the techno-industrial culture.

Most institutions in the U.S. remain captured by the culture of neoliberal economic theory, that is, the ideology of the mainstream economy, which asserts that all good things come from free corporate markets. The climate-denialist and techno-industrial ideologies have infiltrated even philanthropy, to the extent of biasing research funding toward a milder take on the dangers of climate change than demonstrated by hard scientific data.

Resistance to the GND results in part from the fact that the public discourse remains under the control of an ideology that frames the “climate problem” as “fixable” by conventional technologies and market mechanisms that the corporate and financial elites control. That is the stance of the so-called “environmental modernists,” who cling to the dying ideology of technological innovation and free corporate markets as the essence of human progress.

Societal Collapse

There is nothing comfortable about the most precise scientific predictions of climate chaos leading to societal collapse. Nevertheless, with a high degree of certainty, the data show that the self-amplifying processes of system breakdown built into existing and forecasted planetary effects of global warming brought on by the overconsumption inherent in the industrial era. These processes will force the collapse of financial, political, economic, and ecological systems, and finally of society itself, all of which humans depend on for survival and comfort. If we try to hold onto our unsustainable comfort, we will lose the battle for survival.

Collapse is simply outside of the lexicon of big environmental organizations, no less most of the members of Congress or the American population. Nevertheless, the facts of destabilizing changes in climate, global finance, and politics, all foretell an extremely uncomfortable near future approaching human extinction, unless we undertake radical uncompromising climate action now.

Simple Complexity at ten thousand five hundred feet

I never stop marveling at the sophisticated complexity of modern technology. The fine performance of that flathead V-8 engine in my 1951 Ford when I was in high school was fully understandable by the average teenager at the time. Today, most of us do not have a clue about how the technologies we use every day actually work.

It is even worse than that. When I taught university students how to do research, I often gave them a “basic skills” test at the beginning of the semester. The test included a question asking where their water came from. Most were unable to describe much beyond the kitchen faucet. Some might argue that we don’t need to know the technical details, just how to turn the faucet on and pay the bill. Tell that to the children of Flint, Michigan. Complexity has power, but can be very dangerous.

The Simple and the Complex in Technology

I’ve always been curious about how the technology I use works. I learned to fly airplanes in 1976. I already understood aerodynamics and studied it further in preparing to get my pilot’s license. Decades later when I retired, I built my own airplane, a Glasair Sportsman II, with the assistance and direction of some incredibly knowledgeable mechanics. You could say that I know my airplane pretty well.

But there is so much more to modern technology than that. When the fuel pressure indicator on the flat-panel primary flight display went wild (see previous posts, “Up in the Air Again,” and “Decision to Land”), I could not determine with certainty the technical source of the way out-of-range indication while cruising at 10,500 feet. Normal fuel pressure is 25 psi; at one point, indicated pressure shot up to 107.

Information Determines Emergency

Was the fuel pump failing? If so, why would the pressure be so high, instead of lower than normal? Would excessive pressure burst a fuel line or connection, leading to a fiery crash? Or, was it just a false reading due to a faulty sensor? No answer to this “mission-critical” question was possible in the air. Even if a catastrophic outcome were unlikely, if it is possible why risk it?

After I made an emergency landing, it took a couple of hours of disassembly and checking various potential sources of the aberrant fuel-pressure reading. A young A&E (Airframe & Engine) mechanic from Alaska diagnosed the problem. He determined that the fuel pump, with its reputation for being “bullet-proof,” was likely not at fault. Besides, producing such high pressure made no sense. Since there were no obstructions in the filters, the fuel-pressure ‘sender’ appeared to be defective (a $32- part). Lucas is a clever innovative mechanic. He used a pressure gauge from his air compressor to test the actual fuel pressure; he got a steady reading of 30 psi. The difference was likely due to the difference between how it read air versus fuel pressure. But it was steady and close to spec.

I had lots of time to contemplate simple complexity as we waited over the weekend to order the part for overnight shipment. In Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the nearest airport when I decided to land ASAP, we awaited shipment of a new fuel-pressure sender. The “overnight” shipment, ordered Monday, took two days to arrive. Due to the long wait, it cost about a thousand dollars in lodging, food, and incidentals to obtain and install that $32- part. The actual installation took about ten minutes.

No Fail-Safe Technology for the Planet

No matter how sophisticated human technology may become, it is never fail-safe. The ill-fated Challenger spacecraft had many redundant fail-safe systems when it exploded after launch due to a simple oversight. Teams of corporate engineers could not figure out the problem; it took famed physicist Richard Feynman to give a simple tabletop demonstration of the failure of an ordinary o-ring due to freezing weather. Bureaucratic inertia and profit motive were the culprits.

Systems-thinking-01_kindling.xyzThe culture of modernity is stuck in traditional thinking. We live in a world of complex adaptive systems within a vastly more complex Earth System. We must begin to practice systems thinking. No fail-safe technology protects the Earth System against the destructive effects of ever-growing economic production. But increasingly complex and wasteful technologies of extraction, manufacture, distribution, sales, and use devour depleting planetary resources and destabilize living earth systems. We must become aware of the possibility of all sorts of failures, from the smallest device to the planetary ecological and climate disturbances our technological hubris has now produced.

Ecological necessity now calls upon us to engage in a fix so large and complex that it is difficult even to imagine. Yet it is now imperative. “Houston, we have a major system failure,” which permeates our entire industrial economy. We must fix our planetary problem in the air. We have nowhere else to land.

The Poverty of Environmentalism: II

A while ago, I read a post by Richard Heinberg on resilience.com titled, “You Can’t Handle the Truth,” after the famous line of Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie, “A Few Good Men.” Resilience.com is an excellent source for all sorts of analyses and opinion on the climate crisis, sustainability, and strategies for global-warming mitigation and adaptation.

Heinberg is an economist who has written a strong argument for The End of Economic Growth in his book of that name (New Society Publishers, 2011). He is one of a small group of economists who recognize the fatal flaws of neoclassical economics.

These “deviant” economists have criticized the dominant economic ideology of our time: endless economic growth (the Empire of Globalization) as the engine of human progress. Heinberg’s point in the resilience.com article is twofold.

First, most people know that something is terribly wrong with the economy, the climate, and our national and international political processes. Second, most who are aware, including most environmentalists, implicitly deny the depth and urgency of the problem.

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Unprecedented California Wildfires  ~  Wired.com

As we move toward a New Great Transformation of society forced by global economic growth, rife with unknowns, it is more difficult to “handle the truth,” than to figure out what the truth is. David Wallace-Wells’ article, “Time to Panic: The planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us,” in the New York Times, got it right. The crisis is now and we have much to fear.

The Decline and Fall of Electoral Politics

The preference for “none of the above” was widespread in the 2016 electoral season. I characterized it as a fight between “The Charlatan and the Huckster.” Clinton was widely perceived as dishonest, not trustworthy, and beholden to Wall Street. While it is hard to imagine that she does not understand it, her interest in the climate crisis seemed weak and obligatory.

Clinton’s attitude exuded disinterest born of corporate affiliation. An interventionist Democrat, insufficiently interested in consequences of political or military action, she too often looked for clues as to “Who Should we invade next?” Her State Department was too quick to support the military coup that overthrew democratically elected President Manuel Zolaya of Honduras. But her greatest weakness was the portrait the extreme right painted of her as dishonest.

Trump, the certified narcissistic sociopath who deployed his demagoguery very effectively, played on the fears and resentment of many Americans in a time when many had lost ground in seeking the American Dream. Michael Moore predicted he would win because Moore knew the attitudes of the American working class. Trump’s Tropes pandered to white working-class resentment of economic and social power-loss by focusing on hate, bombast, Hillary bating, and climate denial.

You Can’t Build a Wall to Keep Out Climate Chaos

The narcissistic sociopath continues his demagogic climate denial while he diverts attention from ubiquitous corruption in his administration by fear mongering demands to “build the wall” on our southern border. His “M.O.” is to double down on whatever inanity he last spoke. At least with Hillary, we would have had a relatively stable (in the very short run) period of business as usual as the climate crisis built.

Now, after two years, corruption prevails and Trump’s henchmen continue dismantling any federal program that either protects the environment in some small ways or protects the people from damage by the corporate state and its empire of globalization. The crisis deepens from the failure of national and international action to counter the destructive forces of deregulation, extreme inequality, and climate chaos. What’s a citizen to do?

As Bruno Latour puts it in his book, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime (Polity Press, 2018), we desperately need to rethink the role of humans on planet Earth and learn new ways to inhabit the Earth. The alternative is societal collapse.

The Poverty of Environmentalism: I

Environmentalism is stuck at a crossroads. A couple of years ago, I went to Denver where I presented a paper titled, “Calculating Survival: The Role of the Social Sciences” at the Summer Seminar of the National Social Science Association (NSSA). In the paper I argued that the biggest problem with climate change is not technological, it is sociological. We have all sorts of technical means of reducing carbon emissions, But we seem at a complete loss regarding how an entire society could possibly implement them.

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Rocky Mountain High

The green slopes of the Front Range near Denver contrast strongly with Santa Fe’s sparse green of our late summer “monsoon season.” Neither will survive our failure to attack accelerating climate disruption aggressively to achieve net-zero carbon in the biosphere. Everyone seems to think “they” will take care of the problem.

 

The NSSA is an association of social scientists most of whom teach in community colleges and universities. They work on diverse problems in the social sciences and emphasize effective teaching and learning strategies. My paper argued that the problem of mounting an adequate effort at climate action is not really a matter of technology; it is essentially a problem of societal transformation. That is the purview of the social sciences, which have not done much at all to illuminate this issue. How can we instill widespread recognition of that fact if the public discussion of climate policy focuses on pie-in-the-sky new technologies?

Stagnation of Vision

Nothing much has changed in the last couple of years, except for more dire warnings from the IPCC and from diverse scientists studying various impacts of climate destabilization. Environmentalism is still mostly in bed with the Corporate State. Most climate-crisis discussions focus on new energy technology and ignore the deep changes in society and culture needed to reach critical emissions reduction targets.

Some supposed environmentalists call themselves “eco-modernists” because they believe that we can have our modern industrial economy and “manage” the environment too. They emphasize replacing carbon-intensive purchases with products that have a low carbon footprint. They imagine that we can “decouple” modern economic growth from the climate the same way the industrial system sustained its growth for 200 years: technological innovation, new materials, and new product development. I don’t think they pay much attention to the numbers. Such sci-fi technologies are long-shots with little prospects for success. Even if they could be developed, we just do not have time to wait. Climate chaos is now and it is rapidly accelerating.

We do not have the time to do a lot of high tech research and development. We must reduce carbon emissions and restore diverse ecosystems around the world within the next decade if we are to have a chance of at least partly re-stabilizing the climate and the ecosystems that depend on it. If we do not, widespread crop failures, starvation, climate-refugee migration, resource wars, and societal collapse will follow.

Societal Change Like You Would Not Believe

To get there from here will require deep societal change, not new technology. In fact, we must rapidly revive and update a wide range of technologies that do not rely on heavy energy inputs, while we quickly “shrink the technosphere,” as Dmitri Orlov puts it.

What we need is exactly the opposite, for example, of Bill Gates’ imaginary new-technology, some “energy miracle” he wants rich nations to invest in order to keep the pace of the high-energy globalized economy. Actually, neither we nor the planet can afford such utopian dreams. Gates has assembled a collection of some of the world’s richest billionaire “entrepreneurial philanthropists.” I call them “Bill’s Billionaire Boys Club.” He wants the 20 richest nations to collaborate with them to fund research and development of new high-tech energy production systems. They are way off base. [See my article on Bill Gates’ Big Mistake, for the details.]

We will resolve the climate crisis not by racing further down the same energy-intensive path that caused the problem. We have appropriate technologies; we must conserve energy, consume less, and reduce our carbon footprint now. We are unlikely to achieve the necessary deep cuts in carbon emissions unless we face the fact that it will require comprehensive changes in how we live, work, and produce, profound changes we have still not yet acknowledged. The “Green New Deal” is at least a conceptual step in the right direction.

The Democratic Party Dilemma: Is it Real?

As Republicans try to drive a wedge between “centrist” and progressive Democrats, the Democrats might not need any help to achieve failure. They are well on the way to falling flat in front of the unique challenges they face in a bizarre couple of years running up to the 2020 presidential election.

Party Palliatives

DNC operatives and their favorites, the candidates who spout conventionally “liberal” slogans yet act like Reagan Republicans still control the Democratic Party. They take large corporate donations and “dark money” that tie them to the neoliberal economic thrust that takes us closer to full-blown climate chaos each day. Well, actually, the crisis is here and it is now.

In the run-up to the 2016 debacle, I remember seeing a survey posted online by Senator Keith Ellison asking Democrats to respond with their three top priorities for the Democratic Party Platform. The list provided did not include any mention of climate action, the overwhelmingly denied and ignored yet most critical issue of our time. Here is the list:

  • Raising the minimum wage
  • Civil rights
  • Making college more affordable
  • Protecting women’s health care choices
  • Immigration reform
  • Protecting and expanding Social Security
  • Overturning Citizens United
  • Reducing economic inequality
  • Wall Street accountability and consumer protection
  • Common-sense gun reform
  • Affordable housing
  • Criminal justice reform
  • Other

Okay, these are all issues that call for political action to achieve a livable society – in the abstract. Each is general enough that a politician could proclaim allegiance to taking action on it without actually having to do anything. The climate silence was deafening. The current listing of issues in the 2016 Party Platform on the party website does mention “Combat Climate Change,” briefly in the middle of the list. Once Bernie from contention, the greatest existential threat to humanity ever, Hillary mostly ignored it through the campaign. However, fear of a Trumpist future caused the 2018 midterm elections to blow a fresh new breeze into the U.S. House of Representatives.

Here Come the New Progressives

AOCAlexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) rapidly emerged as the face of the new progressive Democrats elected to the House in the midterms. Her unexpected trouncing of an old-line centrist incumbent in the primary quickly became the icon of new progressive thinking among the new representatives, who are mostly women of color.

A good measure of their impact and importance for possibly bringing the Democratic Party into the twenty-first century is the outrage and disdain expressed by Republicans at AOC’s very presence. Her highly articulate and charming outspoken expression of progressive values and her specific legislative proposals took the media’s attention away from the old party hacks.

The new progressives have already proposed a Green New Deal and helped shape HR-1, the bill that would take back control of politics from Big Money and give it to the people through electoral reform and other measures to protect democracy from the corporate state. Mitch McConnell predictably called it a “power grab,” yes, they replied, a power grab for the people.

The Struggle is On

The Corporate Democrats are not about to give up. They have already joined Republicans Ilhan Omar_400x400in attacking Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) for her calling out knee-jerk American political support for Israeli oppression and war crimes against the Palestinians. Omar had tried to distinguish between anti-semitism – of which anyone who criticizes Israel’s policies is accused – and reasoned and principled foreign policy by the U.S. But the women of color who expressed their solidarity at the State of the Union address by wearing white in honor of the original suffragettes, are strong and they are not about sit down and shut up as subservient freshmen representatives.

The Green New Deal may be only a policy preference piece, pointing in the direction of the extreme decarbonizing actions required to avert the most extreme threats to human survival inherent in the accelerating climate chaos we have already begun to experience. In one of the most honest assessments of the extreme crisis we now experience, David Wallace-Wells article in the New York Times is aptly titled, “Time to Panic: The planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us.” It seems that the only politicians to get it and openly discuss it are the new progressive representatives.

The American people are wising up. They see the catastrophic climate changes already accelerating around the world. They can no longer imagine the U.S. as a sanctuary for the industrial-consumer “lifestyle” in a world of growing chaos. The Democrats would do very well to acknowledge the extreme existential threat we face and make it the centerpiece of their platform. But the new progressives must take control of the party if it is to represent the interests of the American people.