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.

Sunshine in Ketchikan: The Trouble Ahead

I’d wanted to go to Alaska for a long time. Finally we arranged for a small-craft inner coastal waterway trip on the “Wilderness Adventurer,” from Juneau to Ketchikan for 6 days, to be followed by a road trip from Anchorage to Homer to Denali and return. After 5 days of beautiful weather, kayaking and hiking amid eagles and bears along shorelines and adjacent rain forests of the inner passages, I began to wonder when the more typical rainy weather of the South East Alaskan fjords might commence. Everyone expected overcast skies and spring showers. Rain, wind, and heavy seas were repeatedly forecast but never materialized.

With about 60 educated middle class ‘adventurists’, quite ecologically aware it would seem, there was virtually no conversation about climate change. Surprisingly, one of the guides, in a talk about the micro-climates, flora and fauna of the area, proclaimed that it was company policy to simply describe the patterns observed in the area and that we “are all adults here and you can draw whatever conclusions you want from what you observe.” But it was clear that was not her personal attitude. Wow! Corporate censorship on questions of climate change even from the outfitters of an ecological adventure cruise! The Koch Brothers’ propaganda is feared even in the wilds of Alaska! Economic fear trumps scientific findings once again.

All five days so far have been sunny and in the mid 60s. Highly improbable under “normal” spring weather conditions in the coastal passages of South East Alaska. Look at a map. It’s a prime example of a temperate rain forest, a marine environment with many islands, channels, fjords, glaciers, and rivers, and the wildlife that thrives in such places. First bald eagle(s) I’ve ever seen in the wild, ubiquitous ravens, huge sea stars at low tide observed while kayaking along shorelines. Tropical rain forests have the greatest bio-diversity, but temperate rain forests such as those in South East Alaska have the greatest total bio-mass according to the eco-guides on board. That is due to the typical rainy weather and cold temperatures at this high latitude, unlike the pleasant warm sunny days we’re having here this week.

Everyone on board is so grateful for the weather we’re having, and seem to not connect it to the climate chaos it portends. Dinner conversations reflect quite liberal notions, including those generally related to climate change. Yet, I’ve heard no mention of a possible connection of our momentary personal good fortune to the more catastrophic changes in weather events the world is already experiencing. If this highly educated group can so easily isolate its understanding of climate disruption from everyday experience, then the idea that rational analysis of the now obvious wealth of data and models of accelerating climate disruption past the tipping point can be applied effectively to political decisions seems really far fetched. But we humans so often segment our realms of experience and knowledge.

Of course, we are cut off from Internet and cell phone services because we are far from any towns or cities until we reach Ketchikan in a couple more days. We did picked up wireless access briefly when we stopped at the fishing village of Wrangell for a couple of hours of shore time. But the whole point of the trip was to experience the wilderness in its isolated natural state, from the security of a 145 foot ship capable of navigating the smaller fjords right up to the glacier faces where the big cruise ships with their built-in casinos and gastronomic binges can’t go as they transit from one tourist port to the next. Juneau, where we began our voyage, is overrun by these giant floating hotels that look a little like prison blocks; the town’s streets, of course, are riddled with ‘diamond shops’ and other ‘tourist traps.’

So, maybe we should just enjoy the wilderness while we can. But it does disturb me that a company that conducts ‘eco-tours’ is afraid to even mention the idea of climate change and instructs its guides to be silent on the topic. That seems emblematic of the entire ‘cultural’ problem of the politics of climate change in the industrial nations, right when the most open and honest discussion of the greatest transformation of human behavior we can imagine, is desperately needed.

Postscript: Over the next two weeks, traveling from the Kanai peninsula to Denali, we experienced only two days of light rain. All the locals I asked remarked how unusual it was, and mentioned how exceptionally warm this spring had been. This little anecdote does not prove anything. It is merely consistent with the overwhelming evidence – accumulated by hundreds of scientific studies worldwide over the past two decades – which confirm the certainty of the accelerating increase of climate disruption events toward a catastrophic tipping point beyond which the grave consequences of political stupidity and corporate greed can neither be mitigated nor adapted to. NOAA forecasts rain for Wrangell this weekend.

Apocalypse When? Revealing the World, If We can See It

The Next Great Transformation is inevitable. We live in a world that is changing, and that change is accelerating and increasingly undeniable, despite the efforts of the fossil-fuel and related industrial, financial and media elites to cover up the hard facts of climate science and economic failure in a shroud of denial. The direction of that change is not entirely clear, but it does not look good. Yet humans may be able to play a role in salvaging civilization from planetary disaster, if we can see what confronts us.

The nature and direction of the Next Great Transformation is not inevitable, though the evidence is increasingly troubling. But it may reach a tragic tipping point if humanity does not change the collective direction of its own behavior and do so rapidly. It is difficult to imagine such massive reorganization of humanity. Nevertheless, such a transformation of the way we live is a matter of survival. It may only be possible if we quickly revise our collective way of thinking and act upon what is thereby revealed.

Robert Jensen has presented an unusual assessment of apocalyptic thinking, entirely unlike the vision of the magical thinkers who see themselves as the “chosen” ones and expect a cataclysmic “apocalypse” any time now, in which all non-believers will be destroyed and the chosen few – which somehow always include these magical thinkers – will be saved and ushered into a new miraculous reality as the world crashes in upon the rest of us. These conclusions typically come out of revelatory imaginations and twisted readings of biblical scripture. Such fantasies are entirely at odds with Jensen’s understanding of apocalypse.

An apocalypse in the original Greek and Latin meanings of both terms, apocalypse and revelation, is an uncovering of hidden reality, a new understanding revealed, allowing hope through knowledge. The realities of climate disruption will be, without any scientific doubt, revealed to us all in the severity of the damage they cause, including the disruption of economic, political, and social systems which have been so dependent on fossil-fuel energy consumption. It is now only a matter of how extreme and rapid the catastrophic change will be and whether humans will be able to do anything about it. As a result of the elite’s cover up of this burgeoning reality, the whole culture has been corrupted by an imposed inability to acknowledge that, as Jensen puts it, “a large scale human presence on the planet at this level of consumption is impossible.”[1]

The falsifications of the fossil-fuel economic ideology will be uncovered as the economy breaks down from the consequences of its own dreamlike assumptions. Such revelations are inevitable as the old economic, political, and social systems collapse under the ecological stresses they have produced. The kind of apocalyptic thinking that Robert Jensen advocates would allow us to focus on uncovering the realities the elites do so much to deny. That would accelerate public awareness of the otherwise inevitable acceleration of global warming, so that humans could attempt to undo some of the anthropogenic climate disruption we continue to unwittingly cause.  Because of the lag between cause and effect, we will experience the damage due to global warming we have already caused; the big question is whether we will take it to the point of no return, to the collapse of civilization.

Whether Jensen’s kind of apocalyptic thinking can take hold and sufficiently reveal the urgency of his call to action soon enough for widespread human action to mitigate – not just adapt to – anthropogenic climate disruption is uncertain. But the only hope is to do everything possible to have sufficient impact to constrain the accelerating feedback loops that are rushing us to the wrong tipping point. What is most urgent now is to achieve a cultural tipping point resulting from a new awareness that will require us to mobilize humanity to prevent the planet from becoming uninhabitable.

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[1]  Robert Jensen, “A Call to Action.”  Transcript of speech in Austin, Texas:  Alternative Radio (24 February 2013).

So Much Stuff, So Little Time!

This past Christmas morning, as I watched children opening presents to the point of their exhaustion, I had the urge to write something about the surfeit of “stuff” in our lives – to use George Carlin’s term for the myriad of personal possessions in modern life. I held off. Now looking back as Spring begins, stuff looms more prominent in my mind. The holiday season things-we-don’t-really-need overload is but a magnified symptom of the core cultural defect that supports and is driven by the economy of endless resource extraction, economic growth and waste, all year long, relentlessly, every year.

All that plastic packaging often costs more than the various gadgets and trinkets of international manufacture, mostly from china, that it holds. Fun at first, disturbing by the end of that annual morning ritual, only later did that small epiphany gain full power. It was not the absolute excess of commercialized gift giving that was most disturbing – after all, I had grown up with it. The connection of the customs of everyday life as we know it to the larger problem of an economic system of financial gluttony, international aggression, and resource waste for profit is far more disturbing than the distorted orientation to “stuff” in the form of endless impulses to consume driven by manufactured desires rather than by need.

Holiday season overload is merely the peak of the constant pressure imposed by media-driven consumerism. We are all familiar with the critique of consumer culture – the externalization of the self in the objects of consumption, the personal identification with corporate images, the depersonalization of social relations, etc. But a much greater danger now lies in the fact that the role of consumerism is so central to keeping the growth economy going – right to the inevitable collapse of the economy and to political chaos as well. The greatest danger, we now understand, is not just the degradation of a culture. It is now clear that the leviathan of ever-growing industrial extraction-production-consumption-waste is destroying the very biosphere on which it and we depend for survival.

The Culture of Economic Growth is, unfortunately, most deeply ingrained in the everyday life of Americans, but is also blooming around the world. It is hard to imagine how such an entrenched way of life with all its enticements can be radically changed, despite the fact that “life as we know it” is unsustainable. The anthropogenic character of climate change is now scientifically certain. All sorts of details in the process and impacts of global warming are uncertain. Far more important, the overall trend and its impacts on the biosphere are undeniable as the speed of their occurrence accelerates. But the biggest question now is how human perceptions of risk can be attuned to the reality we face, in the context of the regular ‘forcing’ of public perceptions by the mass media that shape public opinion and are so closely aligned with the economic interests that profit from the causes of climate chaos.

Some research has begun on public perception of risk as a function of the relationship of existing belief systems to levels of awareness of extreme weather events and continued anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gasses, for example, by The National Socio-environmental Synthesis Center and others. But we know from vast quantities of prior research in the social and behavioral sciences that belief systems are highly resistant to change and that new information that contradicts them tends to be dismissed or ignored until overwhelming evidence forces a change in consciousness, a “paradigm shift” that is very hard to predict. (The evidence is well established, but is being blocked from the public by the mass media.) The big question now is whether such a powerful change in consciousness can occur in time and produce a “tipping point” in popular awareness sufficient to produce the massive social mobilization necessary. After all, we must overcome the resistance of the economic and political power elites that continue to profit from ‘climate denial.’ So far, they are limiting our collective response to small incremental improvements in carbon emissions that are clearly analogous to Band-Aids placed on a severed artery.

If civil society waits for the power elite to take actions necessary to experience its own paradigm shift to reach a transformative tipping point, then all is lost. Elites have so much to lose in short term profits and politics that they are blind to the long term consequences of their actions. The old sociological principle that consciousness is shaped by interests certainly applies here, particularly in the decisive short term. Only a massive civil uprising will get their attention. Even then, the elites have become so reliant on force or the threat of force in sustaining their power around the world and in the “homeland,” that they are likely to respond to broad public demands for rapid change by labeling them “terrorist” and attempting to suppress such demands by force. That is why non-violent civic action is the only hope left.

So much stuff, so much to change – behavior, culture, the political economy – so little time!

Tipping points need Paradigm Shifts: Paradigm Shifts are Tipping Points

If you are familiar with the history of science you have probably heard of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  In it, Thomas Kuhn describes how science progresses not by gradual evolution but by revolutionary transitions or “paradigm shifts” between “normal science” and new models of reality.  Normal science chips away at small areas of ignorance around the fringes to build out the basic accepted framework of knowledge. The new model or paradigm, on the other hand, incorporates all the information explained by the previous framework, but also explains incongruities in the old “normal” or accepted view, as well as incorporating new observations and problematic evidence that the previous paradigm could not explain.  A classic example would be the shift from Newtonian physics and Einstein’s relativity theory.

We very well may be at a point today where economics is undergoing a paradigm shift from the classical paradigm based on the assumption of perpetual growth, to a new ecological economics that takes into account the finite resource base, the ecological basis of human societies, and the planetary population limits that classical economic theory ignores entirely.

French mathematician René Thom developed catastrophe theory in the 1960’s to describe sudden transformations in natural systems.  Under certain conditions, a system will sudden transition into new very different kinds of behavior. This bifurcation value of the parameter is sometimes also called the “tipping point.”  The concept was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his immensely popular book by that name, in which he describes situations in everyday life in which such sudden fundamental transformations occur.

Today, we appear to be at or very near a “tipping point,” in our relationship to the earth system of which we are a part.  Much evidence now supports the idea that if we do not experience a cultural tipping point immediately, we will shortly find ourselves at a catastrophic ecological tipping point – beyond human control – that will lead to a fairly rapid slide into conditions that will force species extinction in a matter of a few decades.

What will it take to turn the corner from the “business as usual” approach which attempts to apply old imaginary entities such as “free markets” and Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” in attempting to respond to the economic implications of climate disruption, which is fundamentally outside the old economic paradigm?  That is the question of our time.  Only by a rapid cultural paradigm shift in political economy will humanity be able to respond adequately to the catastrophic consequences of the old model on the biosphere.

As markets developed in corporate industrial economies, and as corporations and cartels extended their domination over economies, the concept of free markets became irrelevant of to actual economic systems controlled by a few corporations.  Yet, the “science” of economics, as well as the practice of corporate business held onto the concept as a useful ideological tool to maintain political power. But both the ideology and the practice of market economics are increasingly detrimental to any scientific understanding of the relationship of economic behavior and systems to the biosphere on which we all depend.

Tipping points and paradigm shifts are like chickens and eggs.  Tipping points in human systems are constituted by cultural paradigm shifts.  The evidence of the failure of classical economics to operate as an “invisible hand,” guiding an ideal distribution of income and wealth without political intervention is now overwhelming, despite the political and economic power of corporate and academic “free market” ideologues.  The evidence of the severe damage of corporate-industrial economies to the planet is now irrefutable.

Yet the existing institutional interests fight hard to retain their cultural and political control.  The consequent inability of the political economy to respond to the ecological crises it has generated is now so obvious as to be undeniable [except, of course, by Senator Inhofe and a few other corrupt science deniers].  Not only is the paradigm no longer defensible as a framework for economics, but its ecological consequences are no longer tolerable from the perspective of human survival.

It is increasingly clear that a massive reduction in resource extraction and a re-allocation of existing resources by means of a comprehensive reorganization of society to effectively change the ways in which we live – in order to drastically reduce carbon emissions –  is necessary in the near term.  Otherwise, global warming will continue to the point where human action becomes futile and human survival is no longer possible.