Friday, January 11, 2013

The Future

I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all
but love's the only engine of survival
Your servant here, he has been told
to say it clear, to say it cold:
It's over, it ain't going
any further
And now the wheels of heaven stop
you feel the devil's riding crop
Get ready for the future:
it is murder 

-Leonard Cohen

A rather foreboding beginning for my first post of 2013, sandwiched in between my last post of December 21, 2012, the day the world was supposed to end according to the Mayan calendar, and tomorrow, when I will be turning 40.  That's my official excuse for starting off with a soundtrack of "doomer porn".  Mortality isn't staring me in the face, but I do feel its presence enough to supply a wry commentary track.  For those readers who haven't heard the phrase, doomer porn is a term coined largely within the Peak Oil community to describe what Kurt Cobb calls "extreme Mad Max-style scenarios concerning the human destiny".  I'll admit a penchant in the past for getting off on staring wide-eyed into the abyss.  Maybe I can't truly treasure the best of life's wonderful possibilities until I've considered just how terrible it could get.  Or maybe gazing into a crystal ball through Mad Max eyes gives the false sense of security that somehow, despite the world falling apart around me, I'll tough it out.

But there's only so much preparation that can be done on a personal level.  Lately, I've been more concerned about our lack of preparation on a societal level, more in regard toward Global Warming than Peak Oil.  As I've said many times, both issues are flip sides of the same coin addressing Global Fossil Fuel Dependency, Peak Oil doing so from an economic perspective, Global Climate Change from an environmental perspective.  But Global Warming gets a lot more press than Peak Oil.  Type Peak Oil into a Google search, you get 62,100,000 results, type Global Warming, you get 285,000,000 results.  Where MSM is concerned the disparity between the two is much greater.  And politicians?  The divide is wider than the Milky Way.  And I give credit to any politician, regardless of whether they're as far to the right as Roscoe Bartlett or as far to the left as Dennis Kucinich, who does shine a spotlight on Peak Oil.  Unfortunately, none have had the marquee clout of Vice President Al Gore (among many high-level politicians, just to name the most prominent Global Warming voice), thus accounting for the disparity.  But that's precisely what alarms me: despite the huge spotlight on Global Warming, civilization has done nothing to stop it.
Before you protest about all the wonderful work being done by activists in your community to combat Global Warming, understand when I say we have "done nothing", I am using the definition as Yoda did in The Empire Strikes Back: "No! Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try."  I don't care how many counties force their supermarkets not to carry plastic bags, how many individuals recycle aluminum cans, or how many companies slap solar panels on their fucking roofs.  I've got two words for all of you: Nice Try.  Let's stop kidding ourselves and admit these are just feel-good, back-patting excuses for trying instead of doing.  The reality is that in spite of all that we have tried, we're not doing any better where Global Warming is concerned, we're doing worse.  The first paragraph of the best article of the year for 2012 confirms this:

Global Warming's Terrifying New Math

Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe - and that make clear who the real enemy is

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez
July 19, 2012 9:35 AM ET
If the pictures of those towering wildfires in Colorado haven't convinced you, or the size of your AC bill this summer, here are some hard numbers about climate change: June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Read more:

Again, if for the past 327 months you've been recycling (like me), retrofitting your home to run on renewable energy, or completely eliminating fossil fuels from your daily diet, nice try, but you've done nothing.  Because it's not about you.  It's not about your like-minded conscientious community.  It's about civilization as a whole and the future we face as a result of our collective output.  The future in this case is not a crystal ball where we can project our unconscious visions, be they of the Mad Max variety or Pollyanna.  The future can be determined by math and science, projected from the standpoint of civilization carrying on business as usual which, all nice tries aside, is exactly what we're doing.  Here's some clips from the article on the three simple numbers Bill McKibben highlights to summarize where we're headed:

The First Number: 2° Celsius

Some context: So far, we've raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.) Given those impacts, in fact, many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target. "Any number much above one degree involves a gamble," writes Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes, "and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up." Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank's chief biodiversity adviser, puts it like this: "If we're seeing what we're seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much." NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet's most prominent climatologist, is even blunter: "The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster." At the Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: "Some countries will flat-out disappear." When delegates from developing nations were warned that two degrees would represent a "suicide pact" for drought-stricken Africa, many of them started chanting, "One degree, one Africa."

Despite such well-founded misgivings, political realism bested scientific data, and the world settled on the two-degree target – indeed, it's fair to say that it's the only thing about climate change the world has settled on. All told, 167 countries responsible for more than 87 percent of the world's carbon emissions have signed on to the Copenhagen Accord, endorsing the two-degree target. Only a few dozen countries have rejected it, including Kuwait, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Even the United Arab Emirates, which makes most of its money exporting oil and gas, signed on. The official position of planet Earth at the moment is that we can't raise the temperature more than two degrees Celsius – it's become the bottomest of bottom lines. Two degrees.

The Second Number: 565 Gigatons

Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. ("Reasonable," in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.)

This idea of a global "carbon budget" emerged about a decade ago, as scientists began to calculate how much oil, coal and gas could still safely be burned. Since we've increased the Earth's temperature by 0.8 degrees so far, we're currently less than halfway to the target. But, in fact, computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere. That means we're already three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target.

The Third Number: 2,795 Gigatons

This number is the scariest of all – one that, for the first time, meshes the political and scientific dimensions of our dilemma. It was highlighted last summer by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a team of London financial analysts and environmentalists who published a report in an effort to educate investors about the possible risks that climate change poses to their stock portfolios. The number describes the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it's the fossil fuel we're currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We'd have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it's already economically aboveground – it's figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It's why they've worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada's tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.

As much as any of us individually tries to cop a greener than thou lifestyle, we are all Scrooge staring horrified at The Ghost of Christmas Future's bony finger pointing at our own tombstone.  And like Scrooge, I'm sure we all have the same question, "Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?”  Then consider that where the project of civilization is concerned there are billions of Scrooges that would have to transform collectively to achieve the happy ending Dickens penned in A Christmas Carol.  How do we do it?

Frankly, I'm not sure even Bill McKibben really knows how.  He showcases the divestment of apartheid-era South Africa as an example of affecting positive change, basically stating that if we could do to the fossil fuel industry now what we did to South Africa in the 80's, the problem would be solved.  But this isn't just an economic issue, it's a monetary issue.  Our money, whether you're talking about the physical fiat currency the Federal Reserve prints, the fractional reserves that banks create, or the compound interest that really floats the balloon, is all based on debt.  Why?  Because the economic infrastructure of civilization, and this is regardless of whether it's capitalist or socialist, is predicated on infinite growth, i.e. we'll always have more tomorrow to pay off the debt we create today.   A civilization based on infinite growth is no longer possible whether it's run on renewable or non-renewable resources with 7 billion people feeding at the trough of a fevered depleted planet.  Unless we change money itself to eliminate debt, we will continue to be the slaves of greed.

That's the real issue we are all guilty of: greed.  Some say it can't be helped, it's just human nature.  I say that's no excuse for flushing civilization down the toilet.  If we are truly civilized, we can find ways to offset the destructive aspects of our own nature.  We must find a way to eliminate the greed factor from money itself, so that we can have an economic infrastructure predicated on sustainable living for all.  My solution?  Technocracy.  Replace fiat currency, compound interest and fractional reserve banking with a system of energy credits.  Replace a culture that values consumption with a cuture that values conservation.  Replace a civilization that tries to live up to, as President Lincoln said, "the better angels of our nature", with a civilization that does so.

Or batten down the hatches and get ready for murder!


Tanya Savko said...

Lots of food for thought, especially the part about recycling and cloth grocery bags not doing a damn thing. I always wondered about that, yet week after week I continue to fool myself into thinking I'm "doing my part." Oh well. My favorite quote from this post is "Maybe I can't truly treasure the best of life's wonderful possibilities until I've considered just how terrible it could get" - I tend to agree!

Robert Paulsen said...

Thanks for highlighting that point, Tanya. You know why I continue to recycle and "do my part", in spite of what I can see is a half-measure falling short of achieving society's goal of reversing global warming? Greed. The costs for recycling the plastic products in our daily consumption diet are already figured into the pricing of what I buy, so why shouldn't I get the money back for what I already paid for?! It may sound horribly cynical, but the reality is we're trying to clean up the planet with the same strategy that put us in peril in the first place: making a buck.

Does that make me a hypocrite to rail against moneyed interests exploiting the selfish aspects of human nature while I scramble to get my share of the profits from the plastic breadcrumbs they let me redeem? Maybe. More food for thought, as you say. But bottom line, until we change the way money works, I have to operate the best I can within the status quo. Unless it collapses first. We may be dead by the time that occurs. But our children and grandchildren won't be. More food for thought!