Moving Toward an Ecological Infrastructure. Part III: Ecological Transformation

An ecological society will require some basic changes in the way we live. Most analyses of climate change are about disruptions leading to untenable future conditions. Specific reductions in carbon emissions will require transformation of economic infrastructure, which is rarely discussed.

To stabilize global temperature, return to 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere is necessary. That goal might be achieved if a tipping point is not reached before we take major actions. We are already at about 400. Several indicators suggest such a tipping point is near, where positive feedback loops will amplify already accelerating trends, even if we drastically cut emissions. Warming melts tundra releasing methane, causing more warming, etc. Calling for “further research” excuses intolerable inaction. We must act now based on what we know now.

Carbon Control
It is impossible to list all major contributors to carbon pollution in a blog post. But here are some major categories of carbon polluting infrastructure we need to get under control.

● The Built Environment. More carbon emissions come from fossil fuel burned to heat, cool, and supply electricity to homes, apartments, commercial buildings, and factories, than any other source.

Transportation. Cars, trains, boats, and planes consume huge amounts of fossil-fuel energy and emit greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

Energy Production. We burn a lot of carbon fuels in the process of extracting the raw materials from which those fuels are refined. Power plants emit 40% of U.S. carbon pollution. Fracking, the latest technology for extracting oil and gas, is itself a major methane polluter and consumes huge amounts of water and fuel. Tar-sands extraction and processing is another big one. That’s why the Keystone XL pipeline is so dangerous.

Electronics Everywhere. Little thought is given to the immense amount of electricity used to run electronic equipment. ‘Phantom load’ from computers, music electronics, and appliances in standby mode accounts for about ten percent of the electricity usage in households. “The Cloud,” consists of many competing computer “server farms” the Internet giants use to store and process data of all kinds. Let’s not forget the giant telecom corporations. The NSA and other surveillance operations consume massive amounts of electrical energy, mostly from fossil fuels.

The Military. The various branches of the armed forces consume more fossil-fuel energy than any other economic sector. Not surprising. Always contemplating future threats to its viability, the DoD has been pursuing research on alternative propulsion systems and energy sources for a number of years.

These diverse economic sectors involve infrastructure powered by fossil-fuels. Each requires different changes to achieve carbon-neutrality. Priorities must be set and ‘least-impact’ parameters established to make reasonable decisions for each of these sectors. Who is doing that?

Conversion of Economic Infrastructure
All infrastructure conversion requires technology, materials, and labor. Reducing carbon emissions from buildings is labor intensive, which translates into lots of jobs. Most talk of energy efficient buildings is about new construction. But existing buildings produce most of the energy wasted. So investing in retrofitting existing buildings with energy conserving technology will best upgrade this sector of infrastructure.

Conversion to electric cars seems inevitable. But it requires infrastructure – mostly solar-powered charging stations to allow commuters to use their cheap second-generation Teslas. International trade involves massive amounts of mostly diesel fuel consumption. Advanced designs for solar and wind driven ships are now proven. But new ship building takes time. Meanwhile, the false economies of corporate “free trade” must be restrained. The free movement of capital to exploit cheap immobile labor must be curtailed so that local labor can be employed to serve local needs.

If the environmental and social costs of fracking were taxed, the practice would come to a screeching halt. It poisons local water resources, spews lots of methane into the atmosphere, and accelerates global warming. A carbon tax reflecting the real costs would put an end to fracking and accelerate solar power installations and adoption of electric cars.

The Cloud” provides no better data storage than increasingly cheap local storage, which by comparison minimizes electricity use. It should be abandoned for most computing purposes. “Phantom load” is easily controlled by inserting ‘smart’ power bars between the source and all those electronic gadgets and appliances.

The best way to reduce military energy consumption is to stop all the futile wars of choice, eliminating a major source of terrorism as well as the huge environmental costs of war. Cancel absurd super-weapon projects. The vast savings could be converted to useful activity, like converting to an ecological economy.

These are only a few of the economic conversions that are necessary to bring carbon emissions under control while converting to an ecologically viable economic infrastructure and employing millions of citizens.

Necessary Social Mobilization
Here’s the rub. The large scale infrastructure conversions required to realistically control carbon pollution to minimize climate chaos are huge. Yet, national and international institutions remain moribund. Their response to the climate crisis consists mainly of false promises and finger pointing. A major social mobilization is necessary and must be from the bottom up.

Direct action is needed now to mitigate climate disruption and dampen its most extreme effects. Only engaged citizens can take such immediate action. Awareness is surging. Clear mechanisms for meaningful effective action must be made a matter of public knowledge. Bill McKibben and 350.org have made divestment from fossil-fuel industries the centerpiece of direct climate action. Move your money to local credit unions and banks. Drastically slash corporate consumerism — what do you really need and from what local source can you get it? Take advantage of federal and state tax rebates for solar installations while they’re still available. Be creative. Momentum follows action. Join others. Act.

What It Will Take: Living in a World We Made But Never Expected to See, Part I

For most of us the world we see around us is “normal.”  We see little difference between the natural, social, and economic worlds – they are mostly one experience.  We are born into cities, suburbs, small towns, and (rarely anymore) farms.  We see history through the limited scope of textbooks once read as required and through the pop-history of the mass media.  Large historical changes are not easily seen in our everyday lives.  We view the past as quaint times when people didn’t know much or have much.  Yet, increasing numbers of things don’t seem to be quite so normal anymore.

Today we are inundated with technological change and the material “progress” that is made possible by the ever-expanding application of debt and capital to technical innovation and industrial production.  The smart-phone, the iPad, and mobile connectivity, along with all the previous technical innovations that have changed the world of employment as well as social life, are all quickly absorbed into our view of the natural order of things, which is, however, heavily dependent on the pervasive culture of corporate consumerism and an endless supply of materials for their production.  “Server farms” and “the cloud” are vague images of the information age no clearer in our minds than the National Security Agency’s “data mining” of everyone’s phone calls, email messages, and credit card records.  The dominant culture of debt-driven economic growth and the rise of the “security-surveillance state” have become culturally detached from, yet remain completely physically dependent on Nature.

We have lived most of our lives surrounded by rapid change (at least as compared with previous eras in human history).  We are accustomed to the changing conditions that have resulted from the economic-growth imperative that has driven our world since the dawn of the industrial revolution – though we are largely aware of only the present and very recent past as represented by our personal experience and the mass-media shaped “reality” constantly presented to us at various stages of our lives.

We are not paid to engage in critical thinking or to reflect on the course of human history beyond the roles we play – or roles we have lost to “outsourcing” – in the growth economy.  Yet we know that something is terribly wrong.  The contradictions between what we are told and what we experience keep growing.  We know that the “financial crisis” continues as a giant pyramid scheme; we know that natural resources are being used up rapidly; we know that the progress we expected in the form of “The American Dream,” is just not happening for “the 99%.”  We know that while profits grow exponentially, stagnant wages and longer work hours buy less and less of the endless array of the products of economic growth.  Most now realize that it’s time to set aside the propaganda of the industry-funded “climate denial” propaganda and face the known scientific facts of how the biosphere works and is being disrupted by the emissions from fossil-fuel combustion.  And, we have now begun to experience directly the climate disruptions that scientists have been forecasting for a couple of decades and we recognize that something has to be done.

But what is most difficult to imagine is what it will take to avoid the catastrophic results of even a 2º Celsius increase in average temperature on the planet.  Look around.  Where do you see infrastructure that is not dependent on fossil-fuel based technology?  Survival requires that most of that infrastructure be eliminated or somehow converted.  But what will replace it?  The ‘political’ answer is to do more research on “alternate fuels,” which simply dodges the question.  But many alternative technologies for producing and conserving energy already exist and new ones are emerging.  These need to be implemented now.  To describe them all and how they might be implemented rapidly would take a book-length discussion.  But the coming “great transformation” will require that we reorganize the ways we use energy from the local to the national level.  That means reorganizing the way we live.

Even climate advocates rarely talk of the massive societal reorganization needed to achieve their goal of returning to 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere needed to re-stabilize the climate.  Speculations are desperately needed on the actual changes in people’s lives and on how to transform social relations and institutions required to meet the challenge of climate disruption so that the biosphere can be stabilized and we can survive on the planet.  It is hard to forecast the future; many have tried and failed.  But it is even more difficult to imagine what everyday life will be like when climate disruptions force humans to drastically reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  A viable response must be comprehensive ecologically, which means we will have to change the way we want to continue living and others (in the third world) want to live.

The societal implications of radical reductions in fossil-fuel consumption and conversion to carbon-neutral and carbon-negative ways of living will take very different kinds of innovations than we are used to – including major cultural change for a new ecological economy.  Those innovations must come in the form of both appropriate technology and appropriate social organization.  Part II of this essay will consider what seem to be some of the key logical necessities and possible strategies for the coming greatest transformation of all time.