Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mowing While Rome Burns

So yesterday I Skyped into a "Keystone Strategy Session" hosted by 350.org to see what the plan was to save the planet from climate chaos. The plan, according to Bill Mc Kibben, is, I quote, "to keep mowing the lawn". Underwhelmed? Oh baby. Because Keystone keeps popping back up (like grass) apparently the only thing to do is to keep mowing into perpetuity ( and sending them money). If any of the other "climate movement leaders" on the call were troubled by this Non-Profit Preservation strategy they didn't pipe up. Michael Brune from the Sierra Club threw down the gauntlet by threatening to sue the government, to litigate to the death. The Native American from South Dakota was asked whether another camp was going to be set up and he suddenly got very vague. One suspects the last thing they want is a clusterfuck Woodstock with thousands of white wanna be's and hippies playing flutes to the sunrise.

And the scariest thing is, all these folks act as if they are winning. Brimming with confidence. Which brings us back to disavowal; they know they are getting their ass kicked ( 406 ppm with rate of emissions accelerating) but they act AS IF they don't know it. The biggest hope was placed in the Market, with the "competitiveness" of renewables. The energy market which brought us this crisis will now save us from it. They all sounded like Obama.

Then Mc Kibben was asked about the role civil disobedience would play going forward ( the question I sent in) and he said it was "one tool in the toolbox, but like any tool, if you use it too often it gets dull." Of course the other "tools" they were promoting like signing petitions and writing letters and holding marches and rallies and fighting court battles, these apparently never get dull. And then there is the whole pretense that this was a participatory strategy designing session when it was obvious everything had been pre-decided in the "leaders" closed door meetings. When someone listed the six or eight different fossil fuel infrastructure proposals out there, they just said mobilize around each one, whack-a-mole style. When someone mentioned the failure of stopping banks from investing, they said" try harder", double down on the failed strategy.

Actually, they didn't all sound like Obama Clinton. There was one indigenous Canadian gal who dared to mention colonialism and capitalism as the roots of the problem but she was dismissed with nervous laughter. Those darned Canadians!

Monday, March 20, 2017


In the beginning of January, then Pres. Obama wrote an article for the journal Science claiming that the historic relation between CO2 emissions and economic growth (measured as GDP) had been "de-coupled". This is a seductive fantasy entertained by believers in Green Capitalism like Nordhouse, Herman Daly, Tim Jackson, etc. It is intended to provide hope, promising that if we get on such a such pathway and somehow unleash all this promised technological improvement we can meet these international goals yada yada.

It is also an incredibly dangerous proposition. If mankind places its collective hope in this purported "win/win solution" and it proves to be a chimera....The consequences are, shall we say, dramatic. In his article in Real World Economic Review 76, Ted Trainer finds "negligible de-coupling" and that the slight productivity gains of late are "due largely to greater use of energy"( food production, for instance). He pulls in many studies and I find his argument convincing; a "steady state economy" (were it even possible), can not save us from resource depletion and economic collapse. To avoid that scenario, we would need "de-growth" at a fairly rapid rate. Trainer takes the opportunity to promote his "Simpler Way", a small scale, highly self-sufficient, self-governing, primarily collectivist local economy.

The only way I see any of that happening is if Janet Yellin steps up. Indeed, the fate of civilization rests in her lap; quite a responsibility for the girl from Brooklyn, now chairwoman of the Fed and self-described "admirer of capitalism", because to save the humans she is going to have to dismantle her beloved system. Picture this: the neoliberal oracle Queen (as close to royalty as there is in modern times) takes the stage and announces that due to inherent limits to growth, primarily but not exclusively climate change, the global economy will need to shrink by 10% per year for the next ten years. This is not some doltish boor like Trump speaking; this is an actual serious person the entire global financial system listens to. So Janet; this is the voice of your conscience speaking.....

Monday, March 13, 2017

Reform Blues or Demand the Impossible

Left wing activists are constantly reminded not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. That we must struggle for real material gains for real people as we work to overturn the system. But is it also possible that the "good" can preempt the possibility of the better?

Anyone who has worked in the world of social justice activism recognizes the tone of those who characterize radical goals and ideals as "utopian". Hillary Clinton's attacks on Bernie Sanders were emblematic: I can accomplish things in the real world (smirk), through a pragmatic approach to what is actually possible. At its most punishing, those who attempt to transcend the fundamental finitude and limitations of our situation are dutifully reminded of the Soviet Gulag as the end of history.

I will argue that in certain circumstances, working within the system for incremental, intermediate gains is worse than doing nothing at all. When we bestow legitimacy on the system, we undermine our own arguments and dissipate our energy. When we compromise at the outset by accepting the "rules" we are signalling weakness which the wolves can smell a mile off. Only when demands press against the "limits" of what is possible does the illusion of absolute hegemony shatter. To relay the urgency of crisis those demands must stretch what is possible.

The conscious prohibition on wanting what you desire has a long history, long enough for the prohibition to become internalized (the unconscious relation between want and desire we will leave for another time) This is the Serpents offer whose acceptance dooms us as "fallen" for eternity. It is the reason Icarus crashed to his death. The admonishment not to over-reach, to stay within prescribed limits, to tame "ambitious desire" is also a legacy of our Puritan past and imbues us with all that debilitating anxiety which keeps psychoanalysts and pharmacists in business.

Beyond merely wanting what you desire, difficult as this is, we must also act. But this is where it gets tricky. Rebecca Solnit would have us believe every act extends "hope" in some form, that every act of resistance is a success if viewed from a certain perspective. This is New Age bullshit, obvious on its face. If everything was such a success (anti-war protests, Occupy, Arab Spring, Standing Rock) why is the left in such a psychotic frenzy of hand-wringing and spontaneous, useless "opposition"?

If you rush into some Action Against Something, using the same old organizing playbook, using Hope in place of strategic planning, then end up getting your ass kicked- it matters. You demonstrate weakness, embolden you enemies and deflate your allies. You engender cynicism. We only have so many shots at this. Better get it right.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Water Is Life (for some)

Water is Life but when it comes to desalinization, the carbon footprint of providing fresh water now can mean death in the future.

“What you are doing is so crucially important,” said Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, to the participants at the conclusion of the workshop. She pointed out that while the world population is “going up, up, up, the amount of fresh water is basically a fixed asset.” And yet, there is “an incredible resource in the ocean, all the water you could want, yet it’s not suitable for human needs.” That’s why it is so essential, she said, to find a way to provide “access to clean water that doesn’t impact the environment in a negative way with its carbon footprint.”

“We need breakthroughs on this,” Zuber said, “and thanks to the efforts of all of you, I think we’re going to have it.”

The new high-tech desalinization plant in Israel confronts regional climate-influenced drought by using more fossil fuels. A temporary respite for the Jordan River and Dead Sea, but long term? More Syrias and South Sudans and Yemens. Most proposals call for more nuclear power to run these plants (near term) with research into geothermal or other renewable energy forms. But they will need investment from the same capitalist system causing the problem in the first place.

I believe Techno-optimism is a large reason people seem so unconcerned with the climate crisis. While many condemn scientists for doomsday modeling and projections, they trust these same scientists will produce perfect solutions if the problem turns out to be Real. Surely the brilliant minds giving us nano-technology, space exploration and artificial intelligence can fix a little problem like climate change!

I guess we all have to believe in something; an Invisible Hand, an Omnipotent Science, an Intelligent Design, a pluralist, egalitarian democracy. Goethe understood the bargain, the beauty and tragedy of human development.

It is obvious the Trump administration has decided how it will confront the problem: build walls, beef up the military and security services and create a fortress. America First (and last one standing)! Kill em all and let God sort em out!