Small World, Big Change: Chasing the New Great Transformation

The cliché, “the world is getting smaller,” sometimes jumps right out at you in an incident or experience that is entirely unexpected. That happened to me one cool fall evening. My wife sat at a table at the entrance to the Torreon Marriott Hotel (a small part of a global story of transformation in itself), as I retrieved my jacket from the car. She introduced me to the gentleman with whom she was talking. Georg is some sort of international executive with BMW, who was considering an extended stay in Mexico to help establish certain BMW business interests there. He had just completed a seven-year stint in China. Georg speaks five languages and owns a home in the U.S. One crosses interesting paths in unexpected places in the small world of international travel. I sat down, anticipating an interesting conversation.

Naturally, topics ranged from cars – especially those “ultimate driving machines” – to international agreements on climate action. Georg confirmed how terrible the smog has been in Beijing. However, he assured us that it is getting much better since the government forced the move of over a hundred companies out of the city. Of course, that does not change the total carbon pollution resulting from Chinese industry, but it does provide a bit of relief to Beijing residents. Georg confirmed my impression that the Chinese, despite their massive current levels of carbon emissions, are taking a number of positive steps toward carbon constraint.

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Beijing Smog. Source: BoredPanda.com

I asked Georg if he knew of any incentives for conversion to electric cars in China. He replied that in Beijing today, a license for a fossil-fuel driven car is more expensive than the car itself, and it is very difficult and time-consuming to obtain. If you want to buy an electric car, the license is free and immediately available. Since a charging infrastructure is not yet built, electric vehicle drivers in Beijing can rely on mobile charging units simply by calling a company that will come and charge their electric car for a modest fee, while they work, shop, etc., at a particular location.

Like so many, Georg affirmed his bafflement over the U.S. election of Donald Trump. He indicated how ambiguous the consequences seem for implementing international agreements on climate action. We didn’t dwell on “The Donald.”

I suggested that development of battery technology seems to be progressing well. Georg confirmed my thought, stating that 250-mile range is available now and 350-mile range configurations are coming on line for production. For the U.S. that would eliminate the issue of range if we built a recharging infrastructure soon. However, in the U.S., the political climate remains dominated by climate denial, despite the incontrovertible science and growing public awareness. Politicians of all stripes talk of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, but they usually refer to roads and bridges for our fossil-fueled vehicles. Trump likes to assert that our airports are “terrible, terrible,” and need to be “modernized.” Airlines make public relations gestures around reducing carbon emissions, but no real plan to do so exists. Established economic interests dominate political decisions.

Mexico’s transportation sector is much like the U.S. Crowded cities with similar traffic jams punctuate vast open spaces. Neither have adequate rail transportation, except for industrial transport. In both, conversion to electric vehicles would require a deliberate government policy of establishing a network of recharging stations and incentives for conversion to electric vehicles. Of course, that will be a problem in the U.S. with its continued political culture of climate denial and fear of “liberal conspiracies” to control everyone by programs of climate action. Do we really have to leave climate progress up to Elon Musk?

The fundamental underlying fact is that humanity is now undergoing a New Great Transformation, much larger than the industrial revolution and vastly more crucial to our prospects on this planet. In 1944, Karl Polanyi, in his prescient book, The Great Transformation, predicted many of the problems that have resulted from the industrial revolution and subsequent proliferation of industry. The ecological consequences of globalization of the industrial system have reached far beyond anything he could have imagined.

Today we are already witnessing the early stages of a New Great Transformation that will change the role of humanity on earth forever. We must take action globally now if we are to make the big changes necessary for our own survival in the context of the converging crises that are leading to global chaos. We must act or suffer the consequences. The actions required themselves constitute a great social transformation.

We have already changed the world in entirely unanticipated ways. Vested interests in our increasingly suicidal path resist Big Change, seeking short-term profits while ignoring the obvious signs of a catastrophic future. Failure to take the extreme corrective actions needed to re-stabilize both the climate and ecological systems worldwide will be disastrous. We must take charge of the New Great Transformation; it is a matter of survival or extinction.

The world may be getting smaller, but its problems are getting much bigger than ever before imagined. We live within complex living ecological systems, long ignored by our economic and political elites. Our actions have destabilized those systems, yet we are utterly dependent upon them. That is the essence of our problem. Big Changes are already the reality we have inadvertently created. Our situation now calls upon us to change our behavior in ways that are unprecedented and very hard to imagine. The New Great Transformation is for humanity the point of no return. We must imagine a future that our world can tolerate.

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.

Moving Toward an Ecological Infrastructure. Part II: Infrastructure of an Ecological Economy

Almost everyone agrees that much of America’s infrastructure (highways, bridges, electrical grid, power plants, etc.) is in desperate need of repair or replacement. Economic ideologists of corporate “free enterprise” oppose public investment as they attempt to drive corporate taxes to near zero. Nevertheless, we must find a way to move beyond these old powerful forces and ask the more important question. What infrastructure? Here is where we must part with the economic ideology of general “growth” as the answer to every economic problem. Climate disruption forces economic policy to be driven by the immediate need for carbon-neutral infrastructure.

Ecological Energy Production
First and foremost, we must radically reduce carbon emissions to reduce the effects of greenhouse gases. If we don’t, climate chaos will soon turn into economic and social chaos. Simply repairing existing infrastructure would add a lot of carbon and stimulate more carbon-producing activity. Under current conditions, almost any construction or reconstruction process would worsen climate disruption because it relies on fossil-fuel energy. To develop “carbon neutral” industry or products will inevitably involve some carbon emissions too. The only way to minimize that is to go to the root of the problem: energy production. Some predict that within two or three years, half of automobile production will be electric cars. Great. But if the energy to produce them continues to be from coal-fired power plants, well, not so great.

So, in considering the upgrading of U.S. economic infrastructure, the first priority must be to convert energy production from burning fossil-fuels to the proven renewable energy sources: solar, wind, and to a lesser extent, geo-thermal technologies. Hydro-electric generation is great, but there is little opportunity for it. To be clear, nuclear power is a non-renewable, highly expensive and dangerous, and an economically futile path. That is why neither big investors nor big insurance companies will touch it without government guarantees and subsidies. For an ecological economy, nuclear power is simply off the table.

Strong Systems: Distributed and Human Scale
So called “economies of scale” are over-rated. At a certain stage in the industrializing era, bigger factories that took advantage of labor-saving technologies were more cost-effective. But beyond a certain point, returns diminish and size becomes a burden. The power grid is a good example. The big investor-owned utilities have profited from their monopolies — by law, not by efficiency. The giant electric grid with long transmission lines is very inefficient and vulnerable. Now, “smart-grid” technology is available and can better manage a grid, reducing waste. But size is still a problem.

Systems analysts have long known that the larger and more complex a system, the more vulnerable to disruption it is. Smaller self-sufficient power grids, interconnected for backup, are much more reliable, efficient, and defensible. With today’s advanced science and technology, small local systems have advantages that were not available to small tribes and communities of the pre-industrial world. Today, large complex systems are vulnerable to climate chaos, terrorist attacks, and internal system failures, not to mention internal corruption.

Whether it’s power grids, industrial production, food production, or other economic activity, small local systems are the most effective. But they are strongly resisted by powerful existing institutions. The problem, of course, is that the entire trajectory of the industrial and industrializing worlds has led to centralization and gigantism. Concentration of wealth, income, and political power in the hands of an integrated power elite has been the result. This has prevented the establishment of a rational economic policy to serve the public interest. Distributed power, whether electrical, economic, or political, conflicts with the interests of the power elites. Yet, this is exactly what is needed to not only respond effectively to climate chaos, but to establish viable economies for human societies.

The Hard Part: Achieving an Ecological Society
The power elites have a firm grip on the existing national economic and political institutions. That is clear. That renders electoral politics nearly moot for effecting sufficient change quickly enough. In the little time left before climate disruption engulfs the world in economic, political, and social chaos, radical changes are necessary. Any time extreme changes must be accomplished in a short time, a lot of unknowns arise. Uncertainty breeds anxiety. Anxiety causes resistance. Add in all the corporate propaganda and political stagnation is a likely result. That is the state of the national political scene today; not so, local communities.

Despite all the denial propaganda, many people are directly experiencing the immediate impact of the initial stages of climate disruption. Drought, floods, extreme storms, and other extreme weather events are confronting people’s lives directly. Awareness is rapidly growing. The U.S. may be lagging behind most countries in responding to the threat, but public awareness is catching up quickly.

An uncountable number of small groups all across the country are taking action in their local communities to spur adoption of solar energy, resist fracking, and establish community action networks to accelerate societal response to climate disruption, from the grass-roots up. That is exactly the last best hope for human mitigation of global warming and for adaptation to the effects that are already upon us. Part III of this essay will discuss the particulars of the localized political and economic actions that may bring about an ecological society.