The Anthropocene: It’s Not All About Us

15 05 2014

heinbergA guest post from my friend Richard Heinberg, originally published as MuseLetter #264 in May 2014.  This is a long but important essay. I recommend a large cup of your favourite poison, and a biscuit or two….  Enjoy!

Download printable PDF version here (PDF, 126 KB)

 

Time to celebrate! Woo-hoo! It’s official: we humans have started a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene. Who’d have thought that just one species among millions might be capable of such an amazing accomplishment?

Let’s wait to stock up on party favours, though. After all, the Anthropocene could be rather bleak. The reason our epoch has acquired a new name is that future geologists will be able to spot a fundamental discontinuity in the rock strata that document our little slice of time in Earth’s multi-billion year pageant. This discontinuity will be traceable to the results of human presence. Think climate change, ocean acidification, and mass extinction.

Welcome to the Anthropocene: a world that may feature little in the way of multi-cellular ocean life other than jellyfish, and one whose continents might be dominated by a few generalist species able to quickly occupy new and temporary niches as habitats degrade (rats, crows, and cockroaches come to mind). We humans have started the Anthropocene, and we’ve proudly named it for ourselves, yet ironically we may not be around to enjoy much of it. The chain of impacts we have initiated could potentially last millions of years, but it’s a tossup whether there will be surviving human geologists to track and comment on it.

To be sure, there are celebrants of the Anthropocene who believe we’re just getting started, and that humans can and will shape this new epoch deliberately, intelligently, and durably. Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, contends the Anthropocene will require us to think and act differently, but that population, consumption, and the economy can continue to grow despite changes to the Earth system. Stewart Brand says we may no longer have a choice as to whether to utterly re-make the natural world; in his words, “We only have a choice of terraforming well. That’s the green project for this century.” In their book Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene, Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute say we can create a world where 10 billion humans achieve a standard of living allowing them to pursue their dreams, though this will only be possible if we embrace growth, modernization, and technological innovation. Similarly, Emma Marris (who admits to having spent almost no time in wilderness), argues in Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World that wilderness is gone forever, that we should all get used to the idea of the environment as human-constructed, and that this is potentially a good thing.

Is the Anthropocene the culmination of human folly or the commencement of human godhood? Will the emerging epoch be depleted and post-apocalyptic, or tastefully appointed by generations of tech-savvy ecosystem engineers? Environmental philosophers are currently engaged in what amounts to a heated debate about the limits of human agency. That discussion is especially engrossing because . . . it’s all about us!

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The viability of the “we’re-in-charge-and-loving-it” version of the Anthropocene—let’s call it the Techno-Anthropocene—probably hinges on prospects for nuclear power. A concentrated, reliable energy source will be required for the maintenance and growth of industrial civilization, and just about everybody agrees that—whether or not we’re at the point of “peak oil”—fossil fuels won’t continue energizing civilization for centuries and millennia to come. Solar and wind are more environmentally benign sources, but they are diffuse and intermittent. Of society’s current non-fossil energy sources, only nuclear is concentrated, available on demand, and (arguably) capable of significant expansion. Thus it’s no accident that Techno-Anthropocene boosters such as Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Schellenberger are also big nuclear proponents.

But the prospects for current nuclear technology are not rosy. The devastating Fukushima meltdowns of 2011 scared off citizens and governments around the globe. Japan will be dealing with the radiation and health impacts for decades if not centuries, and the West Coast of the US is gearing up for an influx of radioactive ocean water and debris. There is still no good solution for storing the radioactive waste produced even when reactors are operating as planned. Nuclear power plants are expensive to build and typically suffer from hefty cost over-runs. The world supply of uranium is limited, and shortages are likely by mid-century even with no major expansion of power plants. And, atomic power plants are tied to nuclear weapons proliferation.

In 2012, The Economist magazine devoted a special issue to a report on nuclear energy; tellingly, the report was titled, “Nuclear Power: The Dream that Failed.” Its conclusion: the nuclear industry may be on the verge of expansion in just a few nations, principally China; elsewhere, it’s on life support.

None of this daunts Techno-Anthropocene proponents, who say new nuclear technology has the potential to fulfill the promises originally made for the current fleet of atomic power plants. The centerpiece of this new technology is the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR).

Unlike light water reactors (which comprise the vast majority of nuclear power plants in service today), IFRs would use sodium as a coolant. The IFR nuclear reaction features fast neutrons, and it more thoroughly consumes radioactive fuel, leaving less waste. Indeed, IFRs could use current radioactive waste as fuel. Also, they are alleged to offer greater operational safety and less risk of weapons proliferation.

These arguments are forcefully made in the 2013 documentary, “Pandora’s Promise,” produced and directed by Robert Stone. The film asserts that IFRs are our best tool to mitigate anthropogenic global warming, and it goes on to claim there has been a deliberate attempt by misguided bureaucrats to sabotage the development of IFR reactors.

However, critics of the film say these claims are overblown and that fast-reactor technology is highly problematic. Earlier versions of the fast breeder reactor (of which IFR is a version) were commercial failures and safety disasters. Proponents of the Integral Fast Reactor, say the critics, overlook its exorbitant development and deployment costs and continued proliferation risks. IFR theoretically “transmutes,” rather than eliminates, radioactive waste. Yet the technology is decades away from widespread implementation, and its use of liquid sodium as a coolant can lead to fires and explosions.

David Biello, writing in Scientific American, concludes that, “To date, fast neutron reactors have consumed six decades and $100 billion of global effort but remain ‘wishful thinking.’”

Even if advocates of IFR reactors are correct, there is one giant practical reason they may not power the Anthropocene: we likely won’t see the benefit from them soon enough to make much of a difference. The challenges of climate change and fossil fuel depletion require action now, not decades hence.

Assuming enough investment capital, and assuming a future in which we have decades in which to improve existing technologies, IFR reactors might indeed show significant advantages over current light water reactors (only many years of experience can tell for sure). But we don’t have the luxury of limitless investment capital, and we don’t have decades in which to work out the bugs and build out this complex, unproven technology.

The Economist’s verdict stands: “[N]uclear power will continue to be a creature of politics not economics, with any growth a function of political will or a side-effect of protecting electrical utilities from open competition. . . . Nuclear power will not go away, but its role may never be more than marginal.”

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Defying risk of redundancy, I will hammer home the point: cheap, abundant energy is the prerequisite for the Techno-Anthropocene. We can only deal with the challenges of resource depletion and overpopulation by employing more energy. Running out of fresh water? Just build desalination plants (that use lots of energy). Degrading topsoil in order to produce enough grain to feed ten billion people? Just build millions of hydroponic greenhouses (that need lots of energy for their construction and operation). As we mine deeper deposits of metals and minerals and refine lower-grade ores, we’ll require more energy. Energy efficiency gains may help us do more with each increment of power, but a growing population and rising per-capita consumption rates will more than overcome those gains (as they have consistently done in recent decades). Any way you look at it, if we are to maintain industrial society’s current growth trajectory we will need more energy, we will need it soon, and our energy sources will have to meet certain criteria—for example, they will need to emit no carbon while at the same time being economically viable.

These essential criteria can be boiled down to four words: quantity, quality, price, and timing. Nuclear fusion could theoretically provide energy in large amounts, but not soon. The same is true of cold fusion (even if—and it’s a big if—the process can be confirmed to actually work and can be scaled up). Biofuels offer a very low energy return on the energy invested in producing them (a deal-breaking quality issue). Ocean thermal and wave power may serve coastal cities, but again the technology needs to be proven and scaled up. Coal with carbon capture and storage is economically uncompetitive with other sources of electricity. Solar and wind are getting cheaper, but they’re intermittent and tend to undermine commercial utility companies’ business models. While our list of potential energy sources is long, none of these sources is ready to be plugged quickly into our existing system to provide energy in the quantity, and at the price, that the economy needs in order to continue growing.

This means that humanity’s near future will almost certainly be energy-constrained. And that, in turn, will ensure—rather than engineering nature on an ever-greater scale—we will still be depending on ecosystems that are largely beyond our control.

As a species, we’ve gained an impressive degree of influence over our environment by deliberately simplifying ecosystems so they will support more humans, but fewer other species. Our principal strategy in this project has been agriculture—primarily a form of agriculture that focuses on a few annual grain crops. We’ve commandeered up to 50 percent of the primary biological productivity of our planet, mostly through farming and forestry. Doing this has had overwhelmingly negative impacts on non-domesticated plants and animals. The subsequent loss of biodiversity is increasingly compromising humanity’s prospects, because we depend upon countless ecosystem services (such as pollination and oxygen regeneration)—services we do not organize or control, and for which we do not pay.

The essence of our problem is this: the side effects of our growth binge are compounding rapidly and threaten a crisis in which the artificial support systems we’ve built over past decades (food, transport, and financial systems, among others)—as well as nature’s wild systems, on which we still also depend—could all crash more or less simultaneously.

If we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns and potential crisis with regard to our current strategy of constant population/consumption growth and ecosystem takeover, then it would seem that a change of direction is necessary and inevitable. If we were smart, rather than attempting to dream up ways of further re-engineering natural systems in untested (and probably unaffordable) ways, we would be limiting and ameliorating the environmental impacts of our global industrial system while reducing our population and overall consumption levels.

If we don’t proactively limit population and consumption, nature will eventually do it for us, and likely by very unpleasant means (famine, plague, and perhaps war). Similarly, we can rein in consumption simply by continuing to deplete resources until they become unaffordable.

Governments are probably incapable of leading a strategic retreat in our war on nature, as they are systemically hooked on economic growth. But there may be another path forward. Perhaps citizens and communities can initiate a change of direction. Back in the 1970s, as the first energy shocks hit home and the environmental movement flourished, ecological thinkers began tackling the question: what are the most biologically regenerative, least harmful ways of meeting basic human needs? Two of these thinkers, Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, came up with a system they called Permaculture. According to Mollison, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”  Today there are thousands of Permaculture practitioners throughout the world, and Permaculture Design courses are frequently on offer in almost every country.

Permaculture principles

Other ecologists didn’t aim to create an overarching system, but merely engaged in piecemeal research on practices that might lead to a more sustainable mode of food production—practices that include intercropping, mulching, and composting. One ambitious agricultural scientist, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina Kansas, has spent the past four decades breeding perennial grain crops (he points out that our current annual grains are responsible for the vast bulk of soil erosion, to the tune of 25 billion tons per year).

Meanwhile, community resilience efforts have sprung up in thousands of towns and cities around the world—including the Transition Initiatives, which are propelled by a compelling, flexible, grassroots organizing model and a vision of a future in which life is better without fossil fuels.

Population Media Center is working to ensure we don’t get to ten billion humans by enlisting creative artists in countries with high population growth rates (which are usually also among the world’s poorest nations) to produce radio and television soap operas featuring strong female characters who successfully confront issues related to family planning. This strategy has been shown to be the most cost-effective and humane means of reducing high birth rates in these nations.

What else can be done? Substitute labour for fuel. Localize food systems. Capture atmospheric carbon in soil and biomass. Replant forests and restore ecosytems. Recycle and re-use. Manufacture more durable goods. Rethink economics to deliver human satisfaction without endless growth. There are organizations throughout the world working to further each of these goals, usually with little or no government support. Taken together, they could lead us to an entirely different Anthropocene.

Call it the Lean-Green Anthropocene.

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The Techno-Anthropocene has an Achilles heel: energy (more specifically, the failings of nuclear power). The Lean-Green Anthropocene has one as well: human nature.

It’s hard to convince people to voluntarily reduce consumption and curb reproduction. That’s not because humans are unusually pushy, greedy creatures; all living organisms tend to maximize their population size and rate of collective energy use. Inject a colony of bacteria into a suitable growth medium in a petri dish and watch what happens. Hummingbirds, mice, leopards, oarfish, redwood trees, or giraffes: in each instance the principle remains inviolate—every species maximizes population and energy consumption within nature’s limits. Systems ecologist Howard T. Odum called this rule the Maximum Power Principle: throughout nature, “system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency.”

In addition to our innate propensity to maximize population and consumption, we humans also have difficulty making sacrifices in the present in order to reduce future costs. We’re genetically hardwired to respond to immediate threats with fight-or-flight responses, while distant hazards matter much less to us. It’s not that we don’t think about the future at all; rather, we unconsciously apply a discount rate based on the amount of time likely to elapse before a menace has to be faced.

True, there is some variation in future-anticipating behavior among individual humans. A small percentage of the population may change behavior now to reduce risks to forthcoming generations, while the great majority is less likely to do so. If that small percentage could oversee our collective future planning, we might have much less to worry about. But that’s tough to arrange in democracies, where people, politicians, corporations, and even nonprofit organizations get ahead by promising immediate rewards, usually in the form of more economic growth. If none of these can organize a proactive response to long-range threats like climate change, the actions of a few individuals and communities may not be so effective at mitigating the hazard.

This pessimistic expectation is borne out by experience. The general outlines of the 21st century ecological crisis have been apparent since the 1970s. Yet not much has actually been accomplished through efforts to avert that crisis. It is possible to point to hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of imaginative, courageous programs to reduce, recycle, and reuse—yet the overall trajectory of industrial civilization remains relatively unchanged.

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Human nature may not permit the Lean-Greens’ message to altogether avert ecological crisis, but that doesn’t mean the message is pointless. To understand how it could have longer-term usefulness despite our tendency toward short-term thinking, it’s helpful to step back and look at how societies’ relationship with the environment tends to evolve.

The emblematic ecological crises of the Anthropocene (runaway climate change and ocean acidification, among others) are recent, but humans have been altering our environment one way or another for a long time. Indeed, there is controversy among geologists over when the Anthropocene began: some say it started with the industrial revolution, others tag it at the beginning of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, while still others tie it to the emergence of modern humans thousands of years earlier.

Humans have become world-changers as a result of two primary advantages: we have dexterous hands that enable us to make and use tools, and we have language, which helps us coordinate our actions over time and space. As soon as both were in place, we started using them to take over ecosystems. Paleoanthropologists can date the arrival of humans to Europe, Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas by noting the timing of extinctions of large prey species. The list of animals probably eradicated by early humans is long, and includes (in Europe) several species of elephants and rhinos; (in Australia) giant wombats, kangaroos, and lizards; and (in the Americas) horses, mammoths, and giant deer.

People have also been deliberately re-engineering ecosystems for tens of thousands of years, principally by using fire to alter landscapes so they will produce more food for humans. Agriculture was a huge boost to our ability to produce more food on less land, and therefore to grow our population. Farming yielded storable food surpluses, which led to cities—the basis of civilization. It was in these urban social cauldrons that writing, money, and mathematics emerged.

If agriculture nudged the human project forward, fossil-fueled industrialism turbocharged it. In just the past two centuries, population and energy consumption have increased by over 800 percent. Our impact on the biosphere has more than kept pace.

The industrialization of agriculture reduced the need for farm labour. This enabled—or forced—billions to move to cities. As more people came to live in urban centres, they found themselves increasingly cut off from wild nature and ever more completely engaged with words, images, symbols, and tools.

There’s a term for the human tendency to look at the biosphere, maybe even the universe, as though it’s all about us: anthropocentrism. Up to a point, this is an understandable and even inevitable propensity. Every person, after all, is the centre of her own universe, the star of his own movie; why should our species as a whole be less egocentric? Other animals are similarly obsessed with their own kind: regardless of who furnishes the kibbles, dogs are obsessively interested in other dogs. But there are healthy and unhealthy degrees of individual and species self-centeredness. When individual human self-absorption becomes blatantly destructive we call it narcissism. Can a whole species be overly self-absorbed? Hunter-gatherers were certainly interested in their own survival, but many indigenous forager peoples thought of themselves as part of a larger community of life, with a responsibility to maintain the web of existence. Today we think more “pragmatically” (as an economist might put it), as we bulldoze, deforest, overfish, and deplete our way to world domination.

However, history does not portray a steady ramp-up of human hubris and alienation from nature. Periodically humans were slapped down. Famine, resource conflicts, and disease decimated populations that were previously growing. Civilizations rose, then fell. Financial manias led to crashes. Boomtowns became ghost towns.

Ecological slap-downs probably occurred with relatively great frequency in pre-agricultural times, when humans depended more directly on nature’s variable productivity of wild foods. The Aboriginals of Australia and the Native Americans—who are often regarded as exemplar intuitive ecologists due to their traditions and rituals restraining population growth, protecting prey species, and affirming humanity’s place within the larger ecosystem—were probably just applying lessons from bitter experience. It’s only when we humans get slapped down hard a few times that we start to appreciate other species’ importance, restrain our greed, and learn to live in relative harmony with our surroundings.

Which prompts the question: Are the Lean-Green Anthropocene prophets our species’ early warning system whose function is to avert catastrophe—or are they merely ahead of their time, pre-adapting to an ecological slap-down that is foreseeable but not yet fully upon us?

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Throughout history, humans appear to have lived under two distinct regimes: boom times and dark ages. Boom times occurred in prehistory whenever people arrived in a new habitat to discover an abundance of large prey animals. Booms were also associated with the exploitation of new energy resources (especially coal and oil) and the expansions of great cities—from Uruk, Mohenjo-daro, Rome, Chang’an, Angkor Wat, Tenochtitlan, Venice, and London, all the way to Miami and Dubai. Boom-time behaviour is risk-seeking, confident to the point of arrogance, expansive, and experimental.

Historians use the term dark ages to refer to times when urban centres lose most of their population. Think Europe in the fifth through the fifteenth centuries, the Near East after the Bronze Age collapse around 1200 BCE, Cambodia between 1450 and 1863 CE, or Central America after the Mayan collapse of 900 CE. Dark-age behaviour is conservative and risk-averse. It has echoes in the attitudes of indigenous peoples who have lived in one place long enough to have confronted environmental limits again and again. Dark-age people haven’t skirted the Maximum Power Principle; they’ve just learned (from necessity) to pursue it with more modest strategies.

Needless to say, dark ages have their (ahem) dark side. In the early phases of such periods large numbers of people typically die from famine, also from war or other forms of violence. Dark ages are times of forgetting, when technologies and cultural achievements are often lost. Writing, money, mathematics, and astronomy can all disappear.

Still, these times are not uniformly gloomy. During the European Dark Ages, slavery nearly disappeared as new farming methods and better breeds of horses and oxen made forced human labour less economic. People who previously would have been bound in slavery became either free workers or, at worst, serfs. The latter couldn’t pick up and move without their lord’s permission, but generally enjoyed far more latitude than slaves. At the same time, the rise of Christianity brought new organized charitable activities and institutions, including hospices, hospitals, and shelters for the poor.

Today nearly everyone in the industrialized world has adopted boom-time behaviour. We are encouraged to do so by ceaseless advertising messages and by governmental cheerleaders of the growth economy. After all, we have just lived through the biggest boom in all human history—why not expect more of the same? The only significant slap-downs in recent cultural memory were the Great Depression and a couple of World Wars; in comparison with ecological bottlenecks in ancient eras these were minor affairs; further, they were relatively brief and played out three or more generations ago. For most of us now, dark-age behaviour seems quaint, pointless, and pessimistic.

It would be perverse to wish for a Great Slap-Down. Only a sociopath would welcome massive, widespread human suffering. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore these twin facts: our species’ population-consumption fiesta is killing the planet, and we’re not likely to end the party voluntarily.

Will we avert or face a Great Slap-Down? We’re already seeing initial signs of trouble ahead in extreme weather events, high oil and food prices, and increasing geopolitical tensions. Sadly, it seems that every effort will be made to keep the party going as long as possible. Even amid unmistakable signs of economic contraction, most people will still require time to adapt behaviourally. Moreover, a slap-down likely won’t be sudden and complete, but may unfold in stages. After each mini-slap we’ll hear claims from boom-time diehards that a techno-utopian takeoff has merely been delayed, and that economic expansion will resume if only we will follow this or that leader or political program.

But if urban centres feel the crunch, and if widespread Techno-utopian expectations are dashed, we can expect to see evidence of profound psychological disruption. Gradually, more and more people will conclude—again, as a result of hard experience—that nature isn’t here just for us. Whether this realization emerges from extreme weather, plagues, or resource scarcity, it will lead an ever-expanding share of the populace grudgingly to pay more attention to forces beyond human control.

Just as humans are now shaping the future of Earth, Earth will shape the future of humanity. Amid rapid environmental and social change, the message of the Lean-Greens will gain more obvious relevance. That message may not save the polar bears (though ecosystem protection programs deserve every kind of support), but it might make the inevitable transition to a new species-wide behavioral mode a lot easier. It may lead to a dark age that’s less dark than it would otherwise be, one in which more of our cultural and scientific achievements are preserved. A great deal may depend on the intensity and success of the efforts of the small proportion of the population who are currently open to Lean-Green thinking—success in acquiring skills, in developing institutions, and in communicating a compelling vision of a desirable and sustainable post-boom society.

In the end, the deepest insight of the Anthropocene will probably be a very simple one: we live in a world of millions of interdependent species with which we have co-evolved. We sunder this web of life at our peril. The Earth’s story is fascinating, rich in detail, and continually self-revealing. And it’s not all about us.

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Dear Humanity, Time Is Running Out

9 04 2014

Next and final chapter in IPCC climate change assessment will say window is fast closing for society to respond to worst impacts of fast-warming planet

– Jon Queally, staff writer

Avoiding dangerous climate change will require not just rapid reductions in fossil fuel use but also a revolution in the structures of our economies and societies, according to a momentous UN scientific report on climate change to be released next week in Berlin. (Photo: Shutterstock)

 

The next chapter of the UN climate panel’s scientific report on global warming is due out next week in Berlin, but a draft of the document seen by the Reuters news agency reveals that the main message for humanity and society is simply this: time is running out.

According to Reuters:

Government officials and top climate scientists will meet in Berlin from April 7-12 to review the 29-page draft that also estimates the needed shift to low-carbon energies would cost between two and six per cent of world output by 2050.

It says nations will have to impose drastic curbs on their still rising greenhouse gas emissions to keep a promise made by almost 200 countries in 2010 to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times.

This third chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fifth Assessment Report will move away from the causes and scientific consensus of climate change (covered in the first chapter) and the impacts of global warming and changing climate patterns (covered in the second), and focus on the possible steps that can be taken to avoid the very worst case scenarios that scientists have set forth.

To avoid these dangers, the report will say, society will not only need to rapidly reduce use of fossil fuels, but also revolutionize the structures of its economies, food systems, and energy grids.

“Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings.” —Rebecca Solnit

What this next chapter will highlight is that for all the alarming warnings generated by the scientific community and confirmed by the IPCC’s comprehensive analysis of that science, is that world government’s and the powerful private sector have done next to nothing to meet the challenge now before humanity.

“So far, world leaders have sorely lacked the political will to make the shift to low-carbon societies,” said Dipti Bhatnagar, Friends of the Earth International Climate Justice and Energy coordinator, as she responded to the latest IPCC draft.

According to Agence France-Presse, which also saw a draft of the chapter, the panel suggests there is a 15-year window for affordable action to safely reach the UN’s warming limit of two degrees Celsius.

“Scientists confirm that we must take urgent steps to avoid triggering catastrophic climate change and its irreversible impacts on humans and ecosystems. Real solutions to the climate crisis are already available. We need community-based energy solutions, energy efficiency and reduced consumption levels, not dangerous energy sources like fossil fuels or nuclear power,” said Inga Roemer of Friends of the Earth Germany / BUND.

Roemer was responding to potentially controversial aspects of the IPCC recommendations, which may include the use of nuclear energy to offset the imperative of scaling back reliance on fossil fuels. Environmentalists have largely rejected those in the scientific community who have suggested that nuclear power —even if “done right” and safer—is a realistic and responsible solution to the carbon-based energy system.

For all the warnings, however, what environmentalists and climate activists are calling for is the paradigm shift that the science—and the economic implications of the fossil fuel industry—have long been showing is necessary.

As green activist and author Rebecca Solnit writes at the Guardian on Monday, the consistent and current refusal by governments and industry to address the crisis of human-caused climate change should be called what it is: violence against humanity and planet Earth itself.

Solnit writes:

Climate change is anthropogenic – caused by human beings, some much more than others. We know the consequences of that change: the acidification of oceans and decline of many species in them, the slow disappearance of island nations such as the Maldives, increased flooding, drought, crop failure leading to food-price increases and famine, increasingly turbulent weather. (Think Hurricane Sandy and the recent typhoon in the Philippines, and heat waves that kill elderly people by the tens of thousands.)

Climate change is violence.

So if we want to talk about violence and climate change – and we are talking about it, after last week’s horrifying report from the world’s top climate scientists – then let’s talk about climate change as violence. Rather than worrying about whether ordinary human beings will react turbulently to the destruction of the very means of their survival, let’s worry about that destruction – and their survival. Of course water failure, crop failure, flooding and more will lead to mass migration and climate refugees – they already have – and this will lead to conflict. Those conflicts are being set in motion now.

What comes next, Solnit says, is entirely up to humanity’s capacity to admit the problem, call it by its true name, and then systematically and aggressively address it.

“That’s a tired phrase, the destruction of the Earth,” admits Solnit. “But translate it into the face of a starving child and a barren field – and then multiply that a few million times.”





Sacred Economics with Charles Eisenstein – A Short Film

21 12 2013

No sooner had I clicked on the “publish” button with my last post……..  along comes this great video clip on my FaceBook…….

BRILLIANT….





The Symbiosis Project

12 10 2013

I often go on and on about the need for revolution……  well, I’ve discovered this blog site that describes the most amazing revolution one could organise, and it all starts with a beer.  And I know how to make beer!

Reblogged from http://www.thesymbiosisproject.org/

Enjoy……

This is a true story. It all starts one week from today.

After reading about it on the internet, a single person in a neighborhood in Portland, OR, decided to start a community beer-brewing co-op. He gathered a group of eight neighbors, and together they bought the equipment to brew 30 gallons of beer for $500. They went up and down 3 blocks, and found 45 people who also wanted to drink and brew beer with them. Here’s how it worked. They asked for $30-100 a month, sliding scale, and in return, the members all got a “share” of one growler (4 pints) once a week at the weekly brew session. At $30 a month that was only $1.88 a pint for delicious home-brewed beer, brewing lessons, and access to expensive brewing equipment. But most importantly, it was an excuse to get together every week with neighbors over a few drinks. Folks who couldn’t make it to the brew sessions got their growlers delivered to their door the next day.

It turned out that everyone in the community was strapped for cash, so everyone just paid the minimum amount, $30 a month, and even still they collectively raised $1350! The ingredients cost $400 a month for 120 gallons, and the brew equipment cost $500 the first month, so in just the first month, the group had covered their expenses and created a surplus of $450, and still had 30 gallons of beer left over even after they gave all the members their growlers. So at the end of the month, they decided to throw a big block party, and invited all their neighbors, whether or not they were part of the coop, to have dinner in the middle of the street and discuss how they wanted to spend their surplus!

During the discussion, one thing that kept coming up is that everyone felt they were paying too much for internet. One member of the community happened to be interested in networks, and offered to use the $450 to buy routers and set them up as a free community WiFi network. For $350 a month, he proposed, they could buy a high speed business internet connection, which could provide fast internet service to everyone on the street! It turned out this would save all 45 households in the neighborhood $30 a month! So during the second month, the wifi network was installed, and another $1000 was raised from the beer brewing.

By the third month, they had raised $1000 from the second month, $1000 from the third, and were now collectively saving $1000 a month on internet. Now they had $3000 a month to work with as a community. Another neighbor had had solar panels installed by Solar City the previous year, and remembered that they offered solar panels for zero money upfront. They made their money by owning the panels and selling the electricity back to the grid, and offering slightly cheaper electricity to the customer, saving the customer $5-10 a month for 15 years. They also offered $400 for referrals. So the neighbor mentioned it to his neighborhood, and, since he didn’t want anyone to think he was trying to sell them something, he said that if anyone got panels and referred him, he’d pitch the referral to the neighborhood fund instead of keeping it for himself.

Panels don’t work on all houses, but out of 45 houses, five of the households did end up getting solar panels, and they all put their referral bonuses towards the community fund, adding an additional $2000!

With weekly brew sessions and monthly community gatherings in the street, the community began to get closer socially, building trust and mutual understanding. Not everyone was best friends, but people generally understood where their neighbors were coming from. At one of the community meetings, someone suggested that they all sign up for Getaround.com. Getaround.com is a car sharing program, that allows neighbors to share their cars. Getaround charges a fee, but it covers full insurance while the car is borrowed, so the owner is covered if anything happens. They tried it out, and found that it met their needs for transportation. A few folks who had cars no longer needed them, because was much cheaper to simply rent the cars from their neighbors at a low rate whenever they needed one. Owning and maintaining a car costs an average of $6000 a year. Every person who was able to get rid of their car on the block was now saving $500 a month!

Sharing food and cars and beer (not all at the same time) eventually brought the community close enough to start talking about hard topics. At a community dinner, one community member admitted that she had lost her job, and was facing foreclosure on her house because she was unable to make her mortgage payments. The community decided to work out an agreement to keep her in her house. The community agreed to rent the house from her, covering her mortgage payments, and in exchange she got to stay in the house and bake bread for everyone in the community, something she loved to do anyway, while she looked for another job. She also offered up an open room in her house as a bunk room, so people could come in live for free in exchange for doing community work, like WWOOFing. The community began accepting applications for people to live in the house for free in exchange for doing the work they were passionate about.

Some students from Concordia University and PCC Cascade, studying urban planning, permaculture, and engineering, heard about this opportunity and applied to their faculty sponsors to receive credit to work as interns, to apply their studies and ideas directly where they live.

One of the students was passionate about bikes and engineering, and offered to build the community a fleet of open-source hybrid electric tricycles, which are electric assist, able to carry groceries and other cargo, and can be weather enclosed so they are comfortable to ride in the Portland rain. They meet all legal standards of a bike. With $3000, one month’s surplus, he was able to build 4 of these, that the community can check out at any time. In addition, by then a few more neighbors had realized that they work near to each other, and had started carpooling to work. This, coupled with Getaround, made it so a few more folks could stop owning cars without compromising their transportation needs at all.

Now that there were significantly fewer cars on the block, the neighbors noticed that they had much more space to meet and play during their monthly community block parties. One of the students, studying city planning, proposed to the community the idea of a Street Vacation Permit- a legal permit that allows the residents of a neighborhood to close their shared street, and own it collectively in trust.

This permit costs $5000, but the community already had that money put away. It takes a lot of work, but the student volunteered to bottom-line the project for school credit. So they began the process, and began planning what they will do with their new communal space. One of their neighbors turned out to be an architect, and another turned out be a contractor, and so they work with the students to create a plan.

The plan closed the street to car traffic, and left 4 parking spaces on either side for community shared cars. It also left a single, 8 foot wide common area large enough for one car to drive down the middle, so that firetrucks and emergency vehicles could enter if necessary. A community kitchen was planned in the middle, with a bread/pizza oven, biogas stove, and beer brewing kettles. EPDM rubber was laid down over the pavement, since it was much cheaper than tearing up the concrete and allowed the neighborhood the option of changing their minds about closing the street. That left 400×32 feet, almost 13,000 square feet of community space, most of which was dedicated to growing food. The sides of the street were lined with gravel-filled beds that ebbed and flowed with water from aquaponics systems- symbiotic systems of plants and fish, which created a source of hyper local meat and fresh produce for the community. The edges of these beds served as community benches where people could gather and talk.

At 6 foot intervals along the street, guide poles were laid. Almost invisible during the summer, in the fall they allowed large bent metal poles to be installed easily, spanning the length of the street. These were covered with a reusable greenhouse sheeting. Installing the greenhouse every year took about a day, and so the community eventually made a festival out of it, celebrating the Fall Equinox on October 21st by raising the greenhouse during the day and eating underneath in the evening, celebrating the shelter and warmth it will provide during the rainy months. In the Spring, they had a festival for removing it in the spring, celebrating the return of the sun.

After having filed for multiple block party permits, the street vacation permit, and following all city and federal laws up to that point, the community was well known by the city government, and viewed as a model of urban sustainability. Now they had hit on something beyond they law, so, working with ReCode and the City of Portland, they installed the first communally owned neighborhood biodigester system, basing it on the new model of performance-based municipal code, as opposed to the outdated technology-based code model. This meant that as long as the system met and continued to meet the agreed upon standards for safety and performance, it could be based on any technology, quickening the pace off innovation and adoption.

The biodigester allowed for all of the neighborhood’s kitchen waste, food scraps, rotting fruit, and even food scraps from surrounding neighborhoods and restaurants to be converted by methanogenic bacteria into clean-burning methane fuel that could be substituted for natural gas. The effluent from the biodigester was simply water with dissolved nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous- a perfect liquid fertilizer! This allowed for the addition of even more aquaponic grow beds, and the production of more vegetables.

Once the biodigester was installed, one of the students hit on a novel approach to heating and lighting the greenhouse during the winter. A second hoop greenhouse was build over the first, with an air gap of 2 feet. The methane from the biodigester was piped through cheap gas lantern mantles, producing pure bright white light, clean CO2, and heat. As the sun went down during the winter, the light from the mantles extended the growing time for the plants by providing supplemental light. The CO2 coming out of the burning mantles passed through heat exchanging pipes within the greenhouse, cooling it down to room temperature while heating the greenhouse, and finally pumped through soapy water. This produced a fine, CO2-filled foam that filled the space between the two greenhouses. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that absorbs infrared light strongly. Water also absorbs IR very strongly, while the white foam reflects visible light. So the net effect was cheap artificial lighting that required no electricity and created an efficient insulation, all while processing the community’s solid waste into a useable fertilizer.


Since the students were working for credit, the community and their faculty advisors required them to show their work. The community required that all of the work the students did be made available for free to the whole world, using a decentralized system of information sharing called “Federated Wikis”- wiki’s that are hosted on servers that are decentralized all over the world, and automatically connect and reference each other when they are connected to the internet. So the project was extensively documented on a wiki page. The community installed a cheap, open-source Raspberry Pi microcontroller to monitor the inputs and outputs of the system- recording things like temperature, pressure, pH, flow volumes of influent and effluent, methane to carbon dioxide ratios, retention times etc. This micro-controller automatically updated data points to the wiki page in realtime, making it’s data available on the internet, along with specific designs, specifications, and materials lists so that anyone in the world could see the performance of the system and learn how to build it themselves and submit it to the same tests.

Due to the success of the project, several other groups from around the world decided to try and build the biodigester systems based on the community’s design. Naturally, each made adjustments based on new ideas, and make-shift adaptations due to the restraints of the materials they had around. It turned out that one of the groups, in India, made a novel design change that lowered the amount of electricity needed to pump water through the system, and another group, in Peru, happened to find that their culture of bacteria produced much more methane faster at the same temperature. They both linked their projects to the original project, so that people could now access not only the plans and performance data of the original biodigester, but the second iterations built by others, and compare their performance.

Back in Portland, the original neighborhood excitedly watched these developments. They could see the pictures and data from the other projects and compare them to their own, but the found that the team in India had written their documentation in Bengali, and the team in Peru had written their documentation in Spanish. Within 2 weeks, however, these projects had been automatically translated from their original languages into English, due to the use of an innovative platform called DuoLingo. DuoLingo is an online language-learning tool, that teaches language comprehension by giving students text to translate fro real-world sources. This harnessed the power of millions of language-learners around the world to translate these projects in every language, for free, while teaching people how to communicate better with other humans and keeping a diversity of languages alive in the face of an emerging global culture.

After the projects were translated, a fourth group was able to build on the new innovations and integrated the new culture of bacteria, and the new pump system, creating a new hybrid system that outperformed all the previous models.

This model of innovation was so successful, that communities around the world began using it to document their permaculture and sustainability projects, so that the entire world could easily find, replicate, share, modify, and improve them, all using standardized tests and measurements for performance, and rapidly being translated into every language. The federated wikis required to share this information, could be hosted and run on open-source Raspberry Pi’s- $30 micro computers that can be powered by solar or bicycle and connected to the internet at long range using shortwave radio.

In addition to federated wikis, the boxes also served as mesh-net routers, and hosted a federated social networking platform called *Diaspora. *Diaspora allows users to own their data, instead of selling it to Facebook, and it allows them to follow hashtags based on their specific interests. Using hashtags, users were then able to fill a social feed with projects from around then entire world, specifically tailored to their particular needs, interests, skills, and passions. It also allowed people with similar interests to find each other and collaborate on large projects by breaking up the R&D into small bits and each doing their part.

Projects could be replicated, and result compared. Improvements could be iterated, and claims could be confirmed. Like open source software, only techniques that had had their performance claims confirmed by independent groups were considered “Stable”. Techniques that had not been substantiated or replicated were considered “Experimental”.

The students leading these groups found that by documenting their work and making it open-source for the entire world to see, review, and replicate, they had recreated peer review in a form that was accessible to all people on earth, free of the for-profit University and Journal systems. The students found that since their work and achievements were immediately available on the internet, they could reference them as proof of mastery of skills and concepts, from engineering, to programming, to construction and design. They found that these documented projects reflected their applied knowledge and skills better than the outdated model of resumes and degrees, and they began pursuing projects as a form of education and reputation building, educating themselves and building careers outside of the debt-based education system.

The interns and students, since they had no other jobs, began engaging the children from the neighborhood in community problem solving as a form of education, using the challenges facing the community as projects and challenging them to apply their learned concepts critically. Children and teenagers, with unlimited access to the internet, were encourage to research problems on their own, and come up with their own solutions. The student mentors did not need to be experts, but simply guides to help the children find and utilize the information needed to problem-solve.

During one of these projects, one of the teenagers in the neighborhood, who was interested in programming, realized that once the data points from several technologies were established and confirmed, it was possible to model the performance of the systems in computer simulations. Just as she had observed in the aquaponics system that fed the neighborhood, the outflows of one system could always be made the inflows of another. By using maximization algorithms, she was able to find out the most efficient combinations of all the open-source technologies on the world-wide federated wiki network and discover new ways to fit them together in continuous cycles, creating plug and play, regenerating ecosystems designed to meet the specific human needs of any community and environment, entirely eliminating the concept of waste.

This led to a worldwide open-source innovation revolution, where the performance of all new micro-scale innovations were documented in a standardized format, and added to a database, with which users could simulate the performance of different combinations of techniques, that would utilize the flows of energy they had in abundance (solar energy, water, wind, decomposition, etc) and use them to drive ecosystems that met all of the needs of the community. Open-source laser sintering 3D printers that could print in metal, glass, ceramic, plastic, and graphene became widely available, allowing for specialized parts for systems could be fabricated immediately in every community, and new, improved parts, were constantly available for download, much like software updates are now.

Innovation on this scale allowed for the utilization of the vast resources of human ingenuity to tackle local problems and generate many different solutions. The computer simulations of the combinations of these solutions closed the gap of linear consumption, and ended the incentives to participate in linear consumption that did not feed resources back into the community. These naturally regenerating cycles created an abundance of food, clean water, energy, information, and technology, allowing the Earth to sustain a high standard of living for all 9 billion of it’s human inhabitants. The open-source model of innovation led to a global sense of brotherhood, since each community gifted it’s solutions in good faith, without forcing their ideologies or assumptions on any other community.

This innovation liberated 9 billion thinking, dancing, loving, exploring, laughing, striving human beings to spend their time exploring their connections with each other, the natural world, their own consciousness, and the things that sparked their passions, ending the age of competition and beginning the next chapter in the never-ending story of the evolution of consciousness.





The end of community?

10 04 2013

It’s 3AM, and I can’t sleep……  and it appears the internet can’t stop talking about Margaret Thatcher.  I mean, who would have thought I would write two posts about her?  But I just had an epiphany of sorts, since reading this:

Perhaps, though, Thatcher “the monster” didn’t die yesterday from a stroke, perhaps that Thatcher died as she sobbed self-pitying tears as she was driven, defeated, from Downing Street, ousted by her own party. By then, 1990, I was 15, adolescent and instinctively anti-establishment enough to regard her disdainfully. I’d unthinkingly imbibed enough doctrine to know that, troubled as I was, there was little point looking elsewhere for support. I was on my own. We are all on our own. Norman Tebbit, one of Thatcher’s acolytes and fellow “Munsters evacuee”, said when the National Union of Mineworkers eventually succumbed to the military onslaught and starvation over which she presided: “We didn’t just break the strike, we broke the spell.” The spell he was referring to is the unseen bond that connects us all and prevents us from being subjugated by tyranny. The spell of community.

I was on my own” writes Russell Brand…….  which got me thinking of course, because I’ve said many times on this blog that “we are on our own” as the powers that be do nothing to fix the looming dilemmas.  And when you think about it, it’s a counter-intuitive thing to say for a leftie like me…..

It was Thatcher who famously articulated the words “there is no society”.  No society?  Is that not tragic?  In many ways, she and Reagan did rid us of “society”, swapping it for “economy”.  And now I wonder if it wasn’t that revolution which has gotten us into this ungodly mess.  It was Thatcher’s revolution that got rid of society, even of socialism when you think about it……  “the left” died a long time ago, just ask Philip Adams.

Turning “society” into a bunch of selfish self serving greedy populace whose only thought is what else will they buy next is exactly why we’ve ended up with depleted resources and a debt crisis.  Everyone today feels “entitled”.  And it took Thatcher’s death to make me realise it was mostly her doing (Reagan also has a lot to answer for).

The concept of community, or rather the spell of it as Brand writes, of course also probably keeled over once cities took over from villages, and even villages turned into towns.  I have no doubt that many aspects of “progress” are no good at all for us.  And we will pay the price, one day soon, for allowing this to occur.  Especially if Brand is right and we end up “subjugated by tyranny” as even Dennis Meadows thinks.

There could be a counter revolution of course.  The pendulum swings a lot over the eons.  Though it may run out of energy on this last most important swing of all, the one swing the very survival of humanity depends on.  In some ways it’s a great pity Thatcher won’t see everything she ever believed in destroyed by her own ism.

We live in interesting times” has never applied more than today……