Some Right Things Done in All the Wrong Ways for All the Wrong Reasons

Free Trade, Fair Trade, Tariffs, Trade Wars, and all such matters reflect a complex of political-economic issues that will soon become mostly irrelevant. Yet pundits persistently pontificate on their putative principles and pitfalls – within the bubble of business-as-usual.

The problem is that all the parties disputing matters of international trade envision the future as an ideal version of the already fading present. They wallow in utopian dreams of a world that cannot be. They argue over the arrangement of secular deck chairs on the Titanic of endless-growth economics, ignoring the iceberg of Earth-systems transformation just ahead.

Utopian dreams continue in an increasingly dystopian world. “Increase our speed! The Titanic must make headlines when we reach port.” Headlines indeed! There is no port in the emerging geological era of the Anthropocene for grand-scale corporate international trade or today’s global industrial consumerism

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Fossil-fueled International Trade

International trade is a very complex system of exchange founded in conditions that no longer exist and assumptions that conflict with the new reality so widely denied or ignored. Corporate utopian dreams promote never-ending economic expansion of the global industrial-consumer economy in a finite world.

We have already exceeded natural limits. Yet economists and politicians continue to routinely deny or ignore them. They try to hold onto the only system they have ever known, as it continues to destabilize the living Earth systems from which it draws its power.

Earth Systems Transformed

The current global system of neo-liberal economic growth at any cost must grow, but it cannot. Like a cancer, it grows until it kills its host, and then must die itself. Neither the dwindling supply of raw materials nor the growing instability of climate and ecological systems can sustain the technosphere much longer. ALL forms of life on the planet, including global political-economic elites, depend on living Earth systems for survival. Yet, we have destroyed the stability of these systems. They remained constant for most of the 11,000 years of the Holocene, allowing humans to “inherit the Earth.” Yet the global industrial system has broken Earth-system stability. The Holocene is over. The Great Acceleration since World War II has rapidly destabilized the entire Earth System.

Anthropocene-GreatAccelerationSocioEconomicTrends-1750-2010From the perspective of mainstream (neoliberal) economics, Trump’s arbitrary imposition of tariffs on European allies and Chinese trading partners is rather stupid. It may very well stifle growth and foment a full on global trade war. International capital has begun to run scared. That makes sense from within the assumptions of that system, but that system becomes increasingly unstable as its foundations crumble. So, the establishment critics are right within their bubble, but wrong in the context of global, or I should say, planetary conditions. The very system within which the argument rages is unsustainable.

Trump is wrong to say that starting and winning a trade war is easy. Well, it’s not hard to start if you ignore allies and “competitors” alike. But win or lose, if international trade continues to contribute massive amounts of carbon into the already destabilizing biosphere, then neither trade alliances nor trade wars will matter.

Anthropocene Rising

Clive Hamilton put it clearly in his book, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. The continuation of the global consumer-industrial system beyond natural limits led humanity to cause a deep rupture in the geological evolution of the entire Earth System. Our actions have now propelled the planet into a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, which has already transformed Earth’s living systems and its climate in ways that will intensify for centuries, and likely persist for thousands of years.

Going forward, life on planet Earth will change radically, regardless of the human response to human-caused Earth’s destabilization. We cannot stop the planetary forces we have set in motion. However, we can mitigate the effects of continuing down the path of destruction so many still deny.

To reduce superfluous international trade – even by Trumpist blundering into trade wars that constrict imports and exports – would significantly reduce total planetary carbon emissions. International trade is a major contributor to global warming. Only by transforming the ways humanity relates to living Earth systems – by radically reducing the disruption of ecosystems and climate – can we minimize the damage and perhaps find ways to adapt to the new harsh conditions we now face in the Anthropocene. Doing all the right things, especially for all the right reasons, will be very difficult to achieve.

The Eccentric Lipidologist Revealed

What’s a lipidologist? Well, immediately we can see that the term’s Latin roots indicate that a lipidologist is someone who studies lipids. Ah, lipids: the dreaded cholesterol, et al. That seemed simple enough. A friend told me that a lipidologist practiced in Santa Fe, the only one in the whole state of New Mexico.

Okay, it’s a small state, population around 2 million, about half that of the city of Los Angeles, California. Only about 400 lipidologists work in the entire U.S. Why are they so rare? After all, blood lipids are a big deal these days. Interestingly, there is very little information in Wikipedia’s entry on Lipidology.

Despite its simple bad reputation, cholesterol is far more complicated than a mere matter of suppressing “bad” cholesterol and supporting “good” cholesterol in the bloodstream. The drug companies have worked hard to popularize the idea that cholesterol is “bad.” We produce cholesterol in the liver and we ingest it in the food we eat.

So, why do they cast cholesterol in such a bad light? Think drug company profits. I won’t get into the complex disputes over the efficacy and dangers of statin drugs in attempting to control cholesterol in the bloodstream. Or the role statins play in minimizing the risk of plaque building up in the coronary arteries. Suffice it to say, it is not all science.

artery.crossectionPicture to the left is a  Micrograph of an artery that supplies the heart showing significant atherosclerosis and marked luminal narrowing. Tissue has been stained using Masson’s trichrome. As Dr. M. explained, old plaque is scar tissue, and may not necessarily cause such blockage. High performance on a stress test indicates no blockage of cornonary arteries. Unlike new plaque, old plaque does not flake off, risking heart attack or stroke, unlike new plaque. However, both contain calcium, so measures of plaque do not distinguish between the two. So, you can have a very high score for plaque, pass the stress test indicating no blockage, and have low risk. Yet most cardiologists don’t make such distinctions; they just prescribe statins. If my arteries looked like the one in the picture here, I could not have passed the stress test with ease, as I did.

Dr. M. occupies a modest office in the local cluster of medical practices near the only hospital in Santa Fe. When I went to see him, he seemed in no hurry and spent an hour and a half with me. We had a very informative (for me) conversation about heart disease, medical practice, and the flaws of scientific practice in medicine in the U.S., where so many decisions are controlled by the insurance companies and where medical practices are dominated by the drug companies – otherwise known as “Big Pharma.”

When Dr. M. described the complex of bio-chemical, genetic, environmental, and behavioral elements that are involved with the multiple variable factors in the way cholesterol acts, I was impressed. No cardiologist had ever mentioned any of this stuff to me. It had always been a simple, “if your LDL is too high, take [the latest statin drug].” End of story.

The practice of medicine is too often a high-volume assembly-line operation that executes the “standard of care” in conformity to the specifications of Big Pharma and the medical insurance industry. Dr. M. does not play that game. He and a few other practicing medical scientists carefully measure the complex of interacting factors that may be at play in each individual and adjust treatments based on re-testing of bio-chemical and genetic factors and patient characteristics. Such doctors epitomize the scientific practice of medicine.

Medicine, it seems to me, should involve the scientific study and practice of treatments, traditional as well as modern, of potential benefit to patients. It requires carefully testing the efficacy of each treatment for a particular problem and adjusting treatment to the conditions of the individual patient. It is far more labor intensive than simple prescribing pills in accordance with the “standard of care.” I know only one lipidologist, but if he is representative of others in the specialty, then lipidology represents the best practices in medicine.

Lipidology is to the “standard of care” in cardiology as prostate oncology is to the “standard of care” among urologists, who are surgeons.

Seeking Sanity in Science within the Medical Establishment

About ten years after being diagnosed with a non-aggressive prostate cancer and narrowly escaping the surgeon’s knife by finding a real prostate oncologist who shared all the treatment alternatives with me, then undergoing non-invasive yet pretty darn effective treatment, something entirely unrelated happened, or so it seemed.

Self-Serving Medical Practice

I recall the urologist who had diagnosed the cancer with strong distain. He was a surgeon and had glibly said, “Don’t worry, it’s not that aggressive; give me a call and we can schedule surgery in the next couple of weeks.” His conflict of interest coincided with a complete lack of objectivity as well as indifference to the risks for the patient – me. He failed even to mention alternatives to surgery. I was lucky to find a prostate oncologist, escape the knife, and find an effective non-invasive treatment.

Then, once again, a decade after that narrow escape from unnecessary surgery, by finding the right information and dodging routine medical practice – the so-called “standard of care” – I was able to choose a better path than passive acceptance of self-serving medical “authority” would have allowed.

After a few years living in Northern New Mexico, what had been rather ordinary springtime allergies gradually morphed into full-blown year-round allergy symptoms. I was tested, and sure enough, I had become allergic to most grass and tree pollens in the area. After about four years of weekly allergy shots, my symptoms seemed moderately reduced, but far from eliminated. Then, following a particularly strong winter flu, I sustained a major sinus infection. My sinuses had become almost fully blocked. Sinus surgery followed; the result was wonderful. I was breathing clearly through my nose for the first time in years. And my allergy symptoms were reduced to occasional minor irritations.

The Arrogance of Authority

However, during the pre-op testing, EEG and EKG measures revealed a small heart valve anomaly. Of course, nobody tells you why you are getting extra tests or what the findings are. Finally, after the pre-op physician’s assistant sent me for a full abdominal ultrasound in search of a non-existent aneurysm, she scheduled me to see a cardiologist. “I don’t know why they did the ultrasound; maybe they thought you had an aneurism. But the good news is, you don’t,” said the cardiologist standing over me with a smug air of authority. He said the heart valve anomaly was minor and simply should be checked once a year. If it didn’t change, no problem.

But the cardiologist insisted that I begin taking Lipitor to keep my cholesterol numbers below their slightly elevated level. When I began to inquire about the “side effects” of statin drugs, he became indignant. “I’ve heard all those arguments. You need to take it to prevent more plaque buildup in your coronary arteries to prevent a heart attack or stroke.” He thereupon wrote a prescription for a strong dose of the generic form – Lipitor’s brand-name patent had expired. The man was over-the-top arrogant. To discuss a patient’s concern was apparently below his self-defined authoritarian dignity. I resolved to never see him again.

I was more concerned about the heart valve anomaly and didn’t like what I knew about statin drugs. So, I decided to visit the cardiologist in Beverly Hills that my oncologist had sent me to for a checkup and stress test over a decade before. He was a very bright guy, affiliated with Cedars-Sinai Hospital, and clearly part of what I would call the “high-end” medical establishment.  Back then I’d had stress tests and imaging a year apart and the year of regular gym workouts with a trainer in the interim had made the initially difficult stress test easy. All clear back then.

Knowledge Overcomes “Standard of Care”

“Oh, we saw that heart-valve anomaly ten years ago; it’s nothing to worry about.” He reported that I’d done perfectly on the stress test. “But you are off the charts on your arterial plaque. You must begin strong doses of Crestor immediately.” He gave me a handful of samples, insisting that I was in serious danger, based on such a strong score on arterial plaque. I did wonder why, if it was so bad, I had performed perfectly on the stress test and the imaging showed no obstructions at all.

Well, as it turned out with further research on my part and consulting with a lipidologist, my puzzlement with the inconsistency between the stress test and the “plaque score,” was well founded. Things were not as they seemed to the high-end cardiologist. So, next time I will report, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.”

Dystopia, Utopia, or Drift?

Looking forward into the future is no easy task. It is hard to decide what to believe will happen next, and nearly impossible to predict a few years or decades down the line. So many variables, so many viewpoints, so many things are just not the same as we had expected them to turn out today. Now, the unexpected has become the rule, and a lot of us do not like the profound discomfort that causes. So, how can we look beyond today’s surprises and expect to see what is coming soon, much less later.

Of course, we live in a culture whose faith in “progress” is both deep and profoundly flawed. Maybe we just have an embedded optimism gene, but I think not. We do have a history of amazing good fortune, at least for some, and a trajectory of economic growth that seems unbounded. But it does seem to be reaching its limits. The die-hards still project their faith in technology and “free markets” to pull any rabbit out of the hat if the need arises. I used to see no end to the potential for new technology in every realm, but no more.

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Utopia may be more distant than we think.

Technology, after all, is a highly political matter. It is not just what’s possible, and that is not just anything we want. It is also about what someone pays for. Utopian dreams have become ever more expensive to realize, because there are limits.

For a while at the end of the twentieth century, the study of the future became quite popular. So called “Futurists” forecasted all manner of good things and a few possible trouble spots down the line and into the twenty first century – that would be now. We do not seem to hear so much from futurists these days. Or am I just not listening anymore?

As it turns out, although nobody knows for sure, everyone has an opinion about the future. Yet so many feel no need to base their opinions on facts or trends observed. In fact, most of the time opinions are not fact-based. Facts are what people selectively use to bolster their opinions, ignoring any facts that happen not to be consistent with closely held beliefs. Psychologists call that syndrome “confirmation bias.”

As things have developed in recent years, I have paid more and more attention to how confirmation bias interferes with rational thought and distorts public policy. Politicians face increasingly complex international, ecological, economic, climate, social, and just about every other kind of problem imaginable. Yet, they miserably fail to address these critical issues because they completely fail to “get it” and act in the public interest. But there is much more to it than confirmation bias, which is, for politicians at least, a convenient vehicle to carry them to the deepest levels of corruption.

If facts do not favor a political cynic’s position, well, they can just trot out “alternative facts,” conjured solely from the politics of the moment. Why? Because, they base their decisions not on rational analysis of the situation in context of the public interest, but on personal self interest in gaining wealth and power for themselves. (Now, that is a rather blanket statement about politicians and it is not true of many politicians, just the majority.)

Sarah Chayes has written a book called Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. It focuses mostly on what she discovered from many years of direct experience in working with citizens in nations such as Afghanistan, and as a defense official trying to get the higher ups to see the futility of both military and diplomatic efforts that produced both corruption and terrorism out of the impossible positions such policies put people in.

I think Chayes’ work is highly applicable to the situation within the United States of America as well. Her on-the-ground work shows clearly how shortsighted officials corrupt social and political systems. Such highfliers focus more on their political careers than on the realities their work ought to address.

The result is denial, corruption, and failure to achieve the progress that U.S. mainstream economics and politics always claims but increasingly rarely achieves. As the last vestiges of democracy fall to the Corporate State, drift becomes Dystopia.

Over the Ultimate City: To Live or Die in L.A.

It is always unnerving yet comfortably familiar to fly into LAX. I will need to do so again in a month or so. The vast urban landscape from Palm Springs westward to the Pacific shore is amazing to behold, if you really look at it. For about 125 miles, the mostly low-lying “built environment” stretches the entire way. It takes 2 or 3 hours…or more… to drive via the freeways, “depending on traffic.” Asphalt and concrete everywhere separates apartment complexes, commercial buildings, strip malls, mega-shopping centers, suburban neighborhoods, and elite “gated communities.” It has been over six months since my last visit. Still, it is never any less strange and prosaic despite my having lived and worked there for nearly four decades — until I retired over a dozen yeas ago.

Last time I had a window seat aft of the wings. I can never resist watching the mega-city go by below. But I’ve seen it all many times, both as an airline passenger and as a private pilot. I learned to fly in 1976 over this same urban desert. The complexity even back then sure gave me a sense of the importance of the instructor’s official admonition to “stay well clear” of any nearby aircraft. It also instilled an appreciation of the complexity of the air traffic control system as a blend of highly skilled living beings interacting with sphisticated information technology that is always in need of an upgrade.

LA Sectional

LA Terminal Area Chart – LAX at west shoreline.

Whether as pilot or passenger, I experience both the air traffic control system and city below it as marvels of human ingenuity and collective coordination. Yet they seem ever more vulnerable to chaos and ultimate collapse. Sometimes around dusk, I used to fly my little Piper PA-161 from Compton Airport out to the north east below the LAX final approach path under visual flight rules, then west along the Santa Monica Freeway, passing downtown LA to my north, heading toward the Santa Monica shoreline.

That way I could take the coastal route north saving time by not having to file an instrument flight plan. It was quicker that way when controllers were so busy with “rush hour” airline and business-jet traffic and hardly had time to issue another clearance. The city lights of downtown LA, the sunset, the many other aircraft in all quadrants with their nav. lights and landing lights so easy to see threading their way through the geometrically parsed airspace as daylight receded were all so beautiful, yet so delicately tentative and dangerous.

On disembarking into the LAX terminal on my last trip, I faced a mass of humanity flowing haphazardly in all directions in the very large multi-gate concourse. A virtual sea of diversity was lining up at a Southwest gate to board the next flight. I had a sudden sense of the quantitatively unimaginable scale of worldwide over-population rarely mentioned among environmentalists or politicians these days as the consumption of resources and energy by the people of the industrial nations reaches truly crisis scale.

Even as Los Angeles still works, more or less, it is difficult to imagine how such intensity can continue much longer as so much fossil-fuel energy and so many resources reach their extractive tipping points. LA, with its 13.1 million people in the metro area, seems the epitome of the extent to which humanity can appear to overcome nature, then approach a dead end. Big changes lie ahead. Meanwhile, can we learn anything about our future from this glorious megalopolis that may soon die of thirst?

Craftsmanship for Creative Productivity

~ ~ ~ Another in the Mad Jubilado series ~ ~ ~

It seems a lot of retired men take up woodworking. At Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) I have met quite a few. Some are immensely talented and/or just have a huge storehouse of knowledge and experience. As with many fields of endeavor, only time and talent limit the depth and breadth of understanding possible in woodworking.

Description d un menuisier en travailOne of the most skilled of those I’ve met at SFCC is a woman who retired from a career as an ethnographer. In the typical class of 12 in the woodshop, ‘elder’ know-how is balanced by some very creative younger talent. It is a great experience to work with these folks. The environment is remarkably cooperative and supportive. Ideas and knowledge are shared; polite critiques and useful suggestions organically emerge from conversations about how to approach a problem of joinery, finishing technique or aesthetic design as a project evolves. It brings to mind an ideal image of how apprenticeships might have worked in shops producing for local communities and regional trade in the pre-industrial pre-corporate world of clear-air and artistry.

Solid.Wood.Furniture.Production.Factory

Industrial Furniture Production

Craftsmanship is not quite a lost art, though it might seem so. Industrial production, with its outsourced cheap mostly unskilled labor and highly automated production processes, has resulted in an overabundance of unimportant transitory products. Have you ever really thought about why a cable-television program such as “Storage Wars” exists?  So many people in so many suburbs across America have accumulated so much stuff, that a whole industry has developed just to store the overflow.

The glut of unused abandoned yet “valuable” consumer products that people are not yet willing to call waste, produces the ‘demand’ for all those commercial storage lockers. Without such ‘pre-waste’ there would be no need to find space for the overflow from garages where no cars can be parked because of the clutter.

Excessive extraction of materials needed to produce all that stuff, using gigantic mining and earth-moving equipment is seriously straining many living Earth systems, disrupting otherwise stable ecologies. The quantities of energy used, from mining to shipping to manufacturing to shipping again to warehousing to super-store display, are hard to grasp. It is all mechanized and automated to reduce labor costs in order to supply cheap stuff to feed the consumer culture. And they call it “progress.”

The whole global process is, of course, disrupting climate to a point fast approaching catastrophic collapse and global chaos. Too many “environmentalists” think we can fix the problem with new technology and substituting depleting resources with new materials. Instead of cutting back on their profligate consumerism, they want to “fix” the environment by recycling over-used materials and using just as much energy from more “sustainable” sources.

Instead, they could choose to live a less carbon-intensive “low-tech” life, buying only what they really need, goods the production of which is labor intensive rather than capital intensive. That would, of course, entail more work and more jobs. It would also entail a new great transformation in the way we live in relation to the planet and each other.

What if we all re-focused on smaller scale production of higher quality useful goods that last and require us to apply craftsmanship in their making? Many human-scale tools are available that require no energy inputs except those of the human head and hand to get the same work done.

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Nutrient Rich Organic Produce

Oh, but that would take more time to produce. Yes, and that would mean jobs, jobs, jobs! Everyone could have one. More people are turning to human-scale production. As it turns out, small organic farms are significantly more productive than giant factory farms are. They also restore soils to a natural state in which they provide the nutrients missing in industrial agriculture. Given the power of the neo-liberal corporate industrial economy, making the transition to a viable low carbon emissions future is the hard part. We have the tools. We just need to figure out how to transform extractive economies into ecological communities.

The experience of making meaningful things (or performing meaningful services) is exactly what is missing in our declining perpetual-growth industrial economy and is exactly the economic model needed for mitigation of climate chaos and for ecological restoration. Look for hand-crafted products, locally made. Become a “locavore.”  It’s our choice: Creativity or Catastrophe.

Hidden Costs Constrain the Benefits of Transitioning to Renewable Energy

It seems that little effort to understand fully the costs and benefits of the transition from fossil fuel to PV energy production has accompanied the rush to install utility scale solar and wind farms. However, it is very important to examine the environmental costs of achieving the environmental benefits of low carbon emissions energy production, especially at industrial scale. Moreover, that transition must involve so far largely ignored major societal transformations if humanity is actually to achieve the goals of zero carbon emissions, ecological restoration, and climate stabilization.

COP_21_Paris_Agreement-Celebration_Christiana-Figueres_Laurence-Tubiana_Ban_Ki_moon_François_Hollande

Paris Agreement Celebration

Given the accelerating trajectory of ecosystems collapse and climate destabilization well underway, achieving those goals is simply imperative. Yet, despite the importance of the technical, economic, and social complexities inherent in such a comprehensive transition to “sustainability,” utilities, governments, and corporations pursue the quest mostly in a business-as-usual format.The COP-21 Paris Climate Agreements, so difficult to implement, nevertheless fall short of needed international action.

Even before reading Ozzie Zehner’s book, Green Illusions, I worried about the carbon costs of the production of renewables. Zehner raised many questions but did not provide the kind of data-driven findings we need to optimize renewables deployment, though he rightly asserted the primacy of the problem of overconsumption.

Optimization Imperative

Importantly, the choices are difficult and the optimal solutions very hard to achieve.  In several ways, international trade is an important culprit. Not only does it add immensely to carbon costs; it also amplifies the waste resulting from not keeping manufacturing domestic in all PV markets. Corporate financial optimization conflicts with ecological and climate imperatives.

Clearly, we need an international agreement that works in the exact opposite direction from the extant NAFTA or delayed TTP regimes. No approximation of net-zero emissions will be possible in the near future without severely curtailing international trade and minimizing the distance between materials extraction, and the manufacture, installation and operation of near carbon-neutral energy systems. The same goes for all industrial production.

COP-21-Paris-Climate-Conference-Summit co2 chart

Only Deep Industrial Contraction can Achieve Adequate Reduction in Carbon Emissions.

We must accelerate the transition, but we must do so consistent with the goal of minimizing net carbon emissions in the process as well as in the outcome.  In that context, it is interesting to note that so little mention is made of energy conservation in the literature of emissions reduction and “sustainability” — except indirectly, in terms of improving production efficiency. The immensity of the task escapes most analysts.

DeGrowth and Consumption

One of Zehner’s core arguments is that the renewable energy transition not only consumes a lot of fossil-fueled energy production and depletes increasingly scarce mineral resources. It also encourages more energy consumption and waste.  It is not surprising to find the old pattern of “unanticipated consequences of social action” in this context.

The core consequence in this case is that the goal of zero carbon emissions to stabilize ecosystems and climate must entail significant contraction of industrial economies themselves – “degrowth.” Most government officials and policy wonks do not anticipate that deeply transformative consequence. It contravenes their deeply held beliefs in economic growth as the primary societal goal.

Two Kinds of “Grass Roots”

Most analysts and even political leaders agree on the need for large-scale highly rational international agreements to optimize the transition to a low-carbon renewable-energy-based economy. Yet little prospect for such large-scale political solutions is in sight. At one level, local community efforts to fight global warming are essential. However, some sort of “grass-roots” effort also must arise within the PV and wind industries, in order to optimize the extraction-production-distribution-installation matrix, despite the difficulty. Maybe the industry could form cooperatives to trade or share elements of the cycle in order to minimize distance between these elements in order to optimize carbon-reduction benefits. At this point, micro-economic incentives are lacking.

As Kris De Decker documented as early as 2015, based on diverse research findings, net-positive life-cycle carbon-reduction benefits from renewables are far from automatic. They only occur with localized optimization of supply chains. An important step is to bring awareness to the players — and to environmentalists too. However, some form of leverage on the industry is also needed, or it’s not likely to happen. Time is short, and the cost of time in this instance is very high.