The Danger of Inspiration: A Review of On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal

11 09 2019

Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, has one crippling flaw—it’s inspiring. At this moment in history, inspiring talk about solutions to multiple, cascading ecological crises is dangerous. Republished from the Resilience site……

At the conclusion of these 18 essays that bluntly outline the crises and explain a Green New Deal response, Klein bolsters readers searching for hope: “[W]hen the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.” It is tempting to embrace that claim, especially after nearly 300 pages of Klein’s eloquent writing that weaves insightful analysis together with honest personal reflection.

The problem, of course, is that the statement is not even close to being true. With nearly 8 billion people living within a severely degraded ecosphere, there are many things we cannot, and will not, achieve. A decent human future—perhaps any human future at all—depends on our ability to come to terms with these limits. That is not a celebration of cynicism or a rationalization for nihilism, but rather the starting point for rational planning that takes seriously not only our potential but also the planet’s biophysical constraints.

Klein’s essays in this volume make it clear that she is well aware of those limits, but the book’s subtitle suggests that she is writing not only to inform but also to mobilize support for Green New Deal proposals. This tension runs throughout the book—when Klein reports on and analyzes the state of the world, the prose challenges readers to face difficult realities, but when making the case for those policy proposals, she sounds more like an organizer rallying supporters.

That’s not a dig—Klein is a writer who doesn’t sit on the sidelines but gets involved with movements and political projects. Her commitment to activism and organizing is admirable, but it can pull a writer in conflicting directions.

This critique should not lead anyone to ignore On Fire, which is an excellent book that should be read cover to cover, without skipping chapters that had been previously published. Collections of essays can fall flat because of faded timeliness or unnecessary repetition, but neither are a problem here. As always, Klein’s sharp eye for detail makes her reporting on events compelling, whether she’s describing disasters (natural and unnatural) or assessing political trends. And, despite the grim realities we face, the book is a pleasure to read.

Before explaining concerns with the book’s inspirational tone, I want to emphasize key points Klein makes that I agree are essential to a left/progressive analysis of the ecological crises:

  • First-World levels of consumption are unsustainable;
  • capitalism is incompatible with a livable human future;
  • the modern industrial world has undermined people’s connections to each other and the non-human world; and
  • we face not only climate disruption but a host of other crises, including, but not limited to, species extinction, chemical contamination, and soil erosion and degradation.

In other words, business-as-usual is a dead end, which Klein states forthrightly:

I feel confident in saying that a climate-disrupted future is a bleak and an austere future, one capable of turning all our material possessions into rubble or ash with terrifying speed. We can pretend that extending the status quo into the future, unchanged, is one of the options available to us. But that is a fantasy. Change is coming one way or another. Our choice is whether we try to shape that change to the maximum benefit of all or wait passively as the forces of climate disaster, scarcity, and fear of the “other” fundamentally reshape us.

On Fire focuses primarily on the climate crisis and the Green New Deal’s vision, which is widely assailed as too radical by the two different kinds of climate-change deniers in the United States today—one that denies the conclusions of climate science and another that denies the implications of that science. The first, based in the Republican Party, is committed to a full-throated defense of our pathological economic system. The second, articulated by the few remaining moderate Republicans and most mainstream Democrats, imagines that market-based tinkering to mitigate the pathology is adequate.

Thankfully, other approaches exist. The most prominent in the United States is the Green New Deal’s call for legislation that recognizes the severity of the ecological crises while advocating for economic equality and social justice. Supporters come from varied backgrounds, but all are happy to critique and modify, or even scrap, capitalism. Avoiding dogmatic slogans or revolutionary rhetoric, Klein writes realistically about moving toward a socialist (or, perhaps, socialist-like) future, using available tools involving “public infrastructure, economic planning, corporate regulation, international trade, consumption, and taxation” to steer out of the existing debacle.

One of the strengths of Klein’s blunt talk about the social and ecological problems in the context of real-world policy proposals is that she speaks of motion forward in a long struggle rather than pretending the Green New Deal is the solution for all our problems. On Firemakes it clear that there are no magic wands to wave, no magic bullets to fire.

The problem is that the Green New Deal does rely on one bit of magical thinking—the techno-optimism that emerges from the modern world’s underlying technological fundamentalism, defined as the faith that the use of evermore advanced technology is always a good thing. Extreme technological fundamentalists argue that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. (If anyone thinks this definition a caricature, read “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”)

Klein does not advocate such fundamentalism, but that faith hides just below the surface of the Green New Deal, jumping out in “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which Klein champions in On Fire. Written by U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (the most prominent legislator advancing the Green New Deal) and Avi Lewis (Klein’s husband and collaborator), the seven-and-a-half minute video elegantly combines political analysis with engaging storytelling and beautiful visuals. But one sentence in that video reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].”

First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to that rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean, “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.” The problem is, we don’t have all technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that, we are guaranteed to fail.

Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about this claim. (For example, “The science is in,” proclaims the Nature Conservancy, and we can have a “future in which catastrophic climate change is kept at bay while we still power our developing world” and “feed 10 billion people.”) But even accepting overly optimistic assessments of renewable energy and energy-saving technologies, we have to face that we don’t have the means to maintain the lifestyle that “A Message from the Future” promises for the United States, let alone the entire world. The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion.

Welcome to the third rail of contemporary political life. The question that the multiple, cascading ecological crises put squarely in front of us is, “What is a sustainable human population?” That question has to be split in two: “How many people? Consuming how much?”

It’s no surprise that political candidates ignore these questions, but progressive writers and activists should not back away. Honestly engaging these issues takes us well beyond the Green New Deal.

On the second of those questions—“consuming how much?”—Klein frequently highlights the problem, but with a focus on “profligate consumption.” She stresses the need to:

  • “scale back overconsumption”;
  • identify categories in which we must contract, “including air travel, meat consumption, and profligate energy use”; [I do wish people would get off the back of meat consumption and point the finger at industrial scale agriculture instead…]
  • end “the high-carbon lifestyle of suburban sprawl and disposable consumption”;
  • reject capitalism’s faith in “limitless consumption” that locks us in “the endless consumption cycle”; and
  • make deep changes “not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our economic system.”

No argument with any of those statements, especially because Klein rejects the notion that simply improving efficiency will solve our problems, a common assumption of the techno-optimists. But challenging “overconsumption by the comparatively wealthy” focuses on the easy target: “The bottom line is that an ecological crisis that has its roots in the overconsumption of natural resources must be addressed not just by improving the efficiency of our economies, but also by reducing the amount of material stuff that the wealthiest 20 percent of people on the planet consume.”

My goal is not to defend rich people or their consumption habits. However, constraining the lifestyles of the rich and famous is a necessary but not sufficient condition for sustainability. Here we have to deal with the sticky question of human nature. Klein rightly rejects capitalism’s ideological claim that people’s capacity to act out of greed and short-term self-interest (which all of us certainly are capable of doing) is the dominant human trait. Human nature also includes the capacity to act out of compassion in solidarity with others, of course, and different systems reward different parts of our nature. Capitalism encourages the greed and discourages the compassion, to the detriment of people and planet.

But we are organic creatures, and that means there is a human nature, or what we might more accurately call our human-carbon nature. As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute puts it, life on Earth is “the scramble for energy-rich carbon,” and humans have gotten exceedingly good at grabbing lots of carbon. Not all cultures go after it with the same intensity, of course, but that scramble predates capitalism and will continue after capitalism. This doesn’t mean we are condemned to make the planet unlivable for ourselves and other creatures, but public policy has to recognize that we not only need carbon to survive but that most people—including most environmentalists—like the work that carbon can do for us when we burn those fossil fuels. And once we get a taste of what that carbon can do, it’s not easy to give it up.

As Klein points out, curbing our carbon-seeking is not merely a test of will power and matter of individual virtue; collective action through public policy is needed. I believe that requires a hard cap on carbon—limits that we can encourage people to accept through cultural advocacy but in the end must be imposed through law. A sensible approach, called “cap and adapt,” has been proposed by Larry Edwards and Stan Cox. In a forthcoming book, Cox will expand on a cap-and-ration strategy that could help in “drawing the human economy back within necessary ecological limits,” a follow-up to, and expansion of, his earlier book that made a compelling case for a rationing.

There’s no simple answer to how much energy and material resources we can consume without undermining the ecosystems on which our own lives depend, but I’m confident in saying that it’s dramatically less that we consume today, and that reducing aggregate consumption—even if we could create equitable societies—will be difficult. But that’s the easy part. Much more difficult is the first question—“how many people?”

On the question of population, On Fire is silent, and it’s not hard to understand, for several reasons. First, the Earth has a carrying capacity for any species but it’s impossible to predict when we will reach it (or did reach it), and failed attempts at prediction in the past have made people wary. Second, some of the most vocal supporters of population control also espouse white supremacy, which has tainted even asking the question. Third, while we know that raising the status of women and educating girls reduces birth rates, it’s difficult to imagine a non-coercive strategy for serious population reduction on the scale necessary. Still, we should acknowledge ecological carrying capacity while pursuing social justice and rejecting anti-immigration projects. Progressives’ unwillingness to address the issue cedes the terrain to “eco-fascists,” those who want to use ecological crises to pursue a reactionary agenda.

There’s no specific number to offer for a sustainable human population, but I’m confident in saying that it’s fewer than 8 billion and that finding a humane and democratic path to that lower number is difficult to imagine. [I’ll offer one, and it’s well below one billion – https://damnthematrix.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/losing-our-energy-slaves/%5D

The fact that these questions are troubling and/or impossible to answer does not mean the questions do not matter. For now, my answer—a lot fewer people and a lot less stuff—is adequate to start a conversation: “A sustainable human presence on the planet will mean fewer people consuming less.” Agree or disagree? Why or why not?

Two responses are possible from Green New Deal supporters: (1) I’m nuts, or (2) I’m not nuts, but what I’m suggesting is politically impossible because people can’t handle all this bad news.

If I am nuts, critics have to demonstrate what is unsound about the argument, without resorting to the cliché that “necessity is the mother of invention” and the faith-based claims of the technological fundamentalists.

If I am not, then those Green supporters face a quandary. When mainstream Democrats tell progressive folks that the Green New Deal is doomed to fail because it is not politically viable at this moment, supporters counter, appropriately, by saying that anything less is inadequate in the face of the crises. Those supporters argue, appropriately, that the real failure is supporting policies that don’t do enough to create sustainable human societies and that we need to build a movement for the needed change. I agree, but by that logic, if the Green New Deal itself is inadequate to create sustainability, then we must push further.

The Green New Deal is a start, insufficiently radical but with the potential to move the conversation forward—if we can be clear about the initiative’s limitations. That presents a problem for organizers, who seek to rally support without uncomfortable caveats—“Support this plan! But remember that it’s just a start, and it gets a lot rougher up ahead, and whatever we do may not be enough to stave off unimaginable suffering” is, admittedly, not a winning slogan.

Back to what I think Klein is right about, and eloquent in expressing:

Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mind-set, by a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview at every level, a transformation to an ethos of care and repair.

The domination/subordination dynamic that creates so much suffering within the human family also defines the modern world’s destructive relationship to the larger living world. Throughout the book, Klein presses the importance of telling a new story about all those relationships. Scientific data and policy proposals matter, but they don’t get us far without a story for people to embrace. Klein is right, and On Fire helps us imagine a new story for a human future.

I offer a friendly amendment to the story she is constructing: Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.

One story I would tell is of the growing gatherings of people, admittedly small in number today, who take comfort in saying forthrightly what they believe, no matter how painful—people who do not want to suppress their grief, yet do not let their grief overwhelm them.

What kind of person wants to live like that? I can offer a real-life example, my late friend Jim Koplin. He once told me, in a conversation about those multiple, cascading ecological crises (a term I stole from him, with his blessing), “I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief.” He was neither depressed nor irrational but simply honest. Jim, a Depression-era farm boy who had been permanently radicalized in the 1960s, felt that grief more deeply than anyone I have known, yet every day he got up to work in his garden and then offer his time and energy to a variety of political, community, and arts groups that were fighting for a better world.

Klein speaks of this grief in On Fire, in what for me were the most moving passages, often involving her young son’s future in the face of this “planetary death spiral”:

There is no question that the strongest emotions I have about the climate crisis have to do with [Toma] and his generation—the tremendous intergenerational theft under way. I have flashes of sheer panic about the extreme weather we have already locked in for these kids. Even more intense than this fear is the sadness about what they won’t ever know. They are growing up in a mass extinction, robbed of the cacophonous company of so many fast-disappearing life forms. It feels so desperately lonely.

The escape from loneliness, for me, starts with recognizing that Jim’s “state of profound grief” was not only wholly rational but also emotionally healthy. When told that even if this harsh assessment is correct, people can’t handle it, I agree. No one can handle all this. Jim couldn’t handle it every waking minute. I don’t handle it as well as he did. At best, we struggle to come to terms with a “bleak and austere” future.

But that’s exactly why we need to engage rather than avoid the distressing realities of our time. If we are afraid to speak honestly, we suffer alone. Better that we tell the truth and accept the consequences, together.





Saving the Planet is More Than Just Switching to Renewables

3 05 2016

I’m too busy sawmilling, wiring up power stations, and crushing apples right now to write much on DTM, though if the current ‘drought breaking’ rain continues, I will have an opportunity to write another update…. in the meantime, enjoy this article, a true breath of fresh air, even if it makes mo mention of Limits to Growth….

Photo credit: Bush Philosopher – Dave Clarke via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND. Article cross-posted from Local Futures. Written by Steven Gorelick.

Among climate change activists, solutions usually center on a transition to renewable energy. There may be differences over whether this would be best accomplished by a carbon tax, bigger subsidies for wind and solar power, divestment from fossil fuel companies, massive demonstrations, legislative fiat, or some other strategy, but the goal is generally the same: Replace dirty fossil fuels with clean renewable energy. Such a transition is often given a significance that goes well beyond its immediate impact on greenhouse gas emissions: It would somehow make our exploitative relationship to nature more environmentally sound, our relationship to each other more socially equitable. In part, this is because the fossil fuel corporations — symbolized by the remorseless Koch brothers — will be a relic of the past, replaced by “green” corporations and entrepreneurs that display none of their predecessors’ ruthlessness and greed.

Maybe, but I have my doubts. Here in Vermont, for example, a renewable energy conference last year was titled, “Creating Prosperity and Opportunity Confronting Climate Change.” The event attracted venture capitalists, asset management companies, lawyers that represent renewable energy developers, and even a “brandthropologist” offering advice on “How to Evolve Brand Vermont” in light of the climate crisis. The keynote speaker was Jigar Shah, author of Creating Climate Wealth, who pumped up the assembled crowd by telling them that switching to renewables “represents the largest wealth creation opportunity of our generation.” He added that government has a role in making that opportunity real: “Policies that incentivize resource efficiency can mean scalable profits for businesses.”[1] If Shah is correct, the profit motive ­— in less polite company it might be called “greed” — will still be around in a renewable energy future.

But at least the renewable energy corporations will be far more socially responsible than their fossil fuel predecessors. Not if you ask the Zapotec communities in Mexico’s Oaxaca state, who will tell you that a renewable energy corporation can be just as ruthless as a fossil fuel one. Oaxaca is already home to 21 wind projects and 1,600 massive turbines, with more planned. While the indigenous population must live with the wind turbines on their communal lands, the electricity goes to distant urban areas and industries. Local people say they have been intimidated and deceived by the wind corporations: According to one indigenous leader, “They threaten us, they insult us, they spy on us, they block our roads. We don’t want any more wind turbines.” People have filed grievances with the government (which has actively promoted the wind projects) and have physically blocked access to development sites.[2]

It seems that a transition to renewable energy might not be as transformative as some people hope. Or, to put it more bluntly, renewable energy changes nothing about corporate capitalism.

Which brings me to the new film, This Changes Everything, based on Naomi Klein’s best-selling book and directed by her husband, Avi Lewis. I saw the film recently at a screening hosted by local climate activists and renewable energy developers, and was at first hopeful that the film would go even further than the book in, as Klein puts it, “connecting the dots between the carbon in the air and the economic system that put it there.”

But by film’s end, one is left with the impression that a transition from fossil fuels to renewables is pretty much all that’s needed — not only to address climate change, but to transform the economy and solve all the other problems we face. As the camera tracks skyward to reveal banks of solar panels in China or soars above 450-foot tall wind turbines in Germany, the message seems to be that fully committing to these technologies will change everything. This is surprising, since Klein’s book flatly contradicts this way of thinking:

“Over the past decade,” she wrote, “many boosters of green capitalism have tried to gloss over the clashes between market logic and ecological limits by touting the wonders of green tech…. They paint a picture of a world that can function pretty much as it does now, but in which our power will come from renewable energy and all of our various gadgets and vehicles will become so much more energy-efficient that we can consume away without worrying about the impact.”

Instead, she says, we need to “consume less, right away. [But] Policies based on encouraging people to consume less are far more difficult for our current political class to embrace than policies that are about encouraging people to consume green. Consuming green just means substituting one power source for another, or one model of consumer goods for a more efficient one. The reason we have placed all of our eggs in the green tech and green efficiency basket is precisely because these changes are safely within market logic.”[3]

Overall, Klein’s book is far better at “connecting the dots” than the film. The book explains how free trade treaties have led to a huge spike in emissions, and Klein argues that these agreements need to be renegotiated in ways that will curb both emissions and corporate power. Among other things, she says, “long-haul transport will need to be rationed, reserved for those cases where goods cannot be produced locally.” She explicitly calls for “sensible relocalization” of the economy, as well as reduced consumption and “managed degrowth” in the rich countries of the North — notions likely to curdle the blood of capitalists everywhere. She endorses government incentives for local and seasonal food, as well as land management policies that discourage sprawl and encourage low-energy, local forms of agriculture.

I don’t buy everything about Klein’s arguments: They rest heavily on unquestioned assumptions about the course of development in the global South, and focus too much on scaling up government and not enough on scaling down business. The “everything” that will change sometimes seems limited to the ideological pendulum: After decades of pointing toward the neoliberal, free-market right, she believes it must swing back to the left because climate change demands a huge expansion of government planning and support.

Nonetheless, many of the specific steps outlined in the book do have the potential to shift our economic system in important ways. Those steps, however, are given no space at all in the film. The focus is almost entirely on transitioning to renewables, which turns the film into what is essentially an informercial for industrial wind and solar.

The film starts well, debunking the notion that climate change is a product of human nature – of our innate greed and short-sightedness. Instead, Klein says, the problem lies in a “story” we’ve told ourselves for the past 400 years: that Nature is ours to tame, conquer, and extract riches from. In that way, Klein says, “Mother Nature became the mother lode.”

After a gut-wrenching segment on the environmental disaster known as the Alberta tar sands, the film centers on examples of “Blockadia” — a term coined by activists to describe local direct action against extractive industries. There is the Cree community in Alberta fighting the expansion of tar sands development; villagers in India blocking construction of a coal-fired power plant that would eliminate traditional fishing livelihoods; a community on Greece’s Halkidiki Peninsula battling their government and the police to stop an open pit gold mine that would destroy a cherished mountain; and a small-scale goat farmer in Montana joining hands with the local Cheyenne community to oppose a bevy of fossil fuel projects, including a tar sands pipeline, a shale oil project, and a new coal mine.

Klein implies that climate change underlies and connects these geographically diverse protests. But that’s partly an artifact of the examples Klein chose, and partly a misreading of the protestors’ motives: What has really driven these communities to resist is not climate change, but a deeply felt desire to maintain their traditional way of life and to protect land that is sacred to them. A woman in Halkidiki expresses it this way: “We are one with this mountain; we won’t survive without it.” At its heart, the threat that all of these communities face doesn’t stem from fossil fuels, but from a voracious economic system that will sacrifice them and the land they cherish for the sake of profit and growth.

The choice of Halkidiki as an example actually undermines Klein’s construct, since the proposed mine has nothing directly to do with fossil fuels. It does, however, have everything to do with a global economy that runs on growth, corporate profit, and — as Greece knows only too well — debt. So it is with all the other examples in the film.

Klein’s narrative would have been derailed if she profiled the indigenous Zapotec communities of Oaxaca as a Blockadia example: They fit the bill in every respect other than the fact that it’s renewable energy corporations, not fossil fuel corporations, they are trying to block. Similarly, Klein’s argument would have suffered if she visited villagers in India who are threatened not by a coal-fired power plant, but by one of India’s regulation-free corporate enclaves known as “special economic zones”. These, too, have sparked protests and police violence against villagers: In Nandigram in West Bengal, 14 villagers were killed trying to keep their way of life from being eliminated, their lands turned into another outpost of an expanding global economy.[4]

And while the tar sands region is undeniably an ecological disaster, it bears many similarities to the huge toxic lake on what was once pastureland in Baotou, on the edge of China’s Gobi Desert. The area is the source of nearly two-thirds of the world’s rare earth metals – used in almost every high-tech gadget (as well as in the magnets needed for electric cars and industrial wind turbines). The mine tailings and effluent from the many factories processing these metals have created an environmental disaster of truly monumental proportions: The BBC describes it as “the worst place on earth”.[5] A significant shrinking of global consumer demand would help reduce Baotou’s toxic lake, but it’s hard to see how a shift to renewable energy would.

Too often, climate change has been used as a Trojan horse to enable corporate interests to despoil local environments or override the concerns of local communities. Klein acknowledges this in her book: By viewing climate change only on a global scale, she writes, we end up ignoring “people with attachments to particular pieces of land with very different ideas about what constitutes a ‘solution,’ This chronic forgetfulness is the thread that unites so many fateful policy errors of recent years… [including] when policymakers ram through industrial-scale wind farms and sprawling… solar arrays without local participation or consent.”[6] But this warning is conspicuously absent from the film.

Klein’s premise is that climate change is the one issue that can unite people globally for economic change, but there’s a more strategic way to look at it. What we face is not only a climate crisis but literally hundreds of potentially devastating crises: there’s the widening gap between rich and poor, islands of plastic in the oceans, depleted topsoil and groundwater, a rise in fundamentalism and terror, growing piles of toxic and nuclear waste, the gutting of local communities and economies, the erosion of democracy, the epidemic of depression, and many more. Few of these can be easily linked to climate change, but all of them can be traced back to the global economy.

This point is made by Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of Local Futures, who explains how a scaling down of the corporate-led global economy and a strengthening of diverse, localized economies would simultaneously address all of the most serious problems we face – including climate change.[7] For this reason, what Norberg-Hodge calls “big picture activism” has the potential to unite climate change activists, small farmers, peace advocates, environmentalists, social justice groups, labor unions, indigenous rights activists, main street business owners, and many more under a single banner. If all these groups connect the dots to see the corporate-led economy as a root cause of the problems they face, it could give rise to a global movement powerful enough to halt the corporate juggernaut.

And that really could change everything.

##

[1] Shaheen, Troy, “Climate change may have economic potential for Vermont” VTDigger.org, Feb. 20, 2015.

[2] “Defining and Addressing Community Opposition to Wind Development in Oaxaca” Equitable Origin, updated January 2106.

[3] Klein, Naomi, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (Simon and Shuster, 2014), page 90.

[4] “Nandigram Violence a ‘State-Sponsored Massacre’” Countercurrents.org, August 9, 2007.

[5] Maughan, Tim, “The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust” BBC Future, April 2, 2015.

[6] Klein, op. cit., page 287.

[7] Norberg-Hodge, Helena, Localisation: Essential Steps to an Economics of Happiness, Local Futures, 2015.





Mark Cochrane on the Indonesian fires catastrophe…..

11 11 2015

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

I have finally escaped the endless haze of Indonesia for the moment. The last of my non-Indonesian team should have flown out this morning, but that still leaves the Indonesian people who have endured much more of this than anyone to continue to stew in the smoke. The rains have begun to return so the air is much clearer but worsens each afternoon and becomes serous if a day or two without rain passes.

This isn’t some ancient process started in the mists of time, this disaster began in 1996 with a misguided attempt to drain 1 million hectares of peat lands to grow rice of all things (Mega-Rice Project, overview). This calamity was made ever worse when the El Nino-spawned droughts of 1997-98 set the land aflame, initiating the now annual haze events that plague Southeast Asia. What most people do not appreciate is that once the land was drained the carbon loss process was set in place, regardless of whether the fires happen. Once drained the peat begins to be broken down by microbes and the peat subsides as CO2 is released to the atmosphere. When the fires occur they simply speed up the ongoing process, shifting the emissions to be more heavily weighted on carbon monoxide and methane. They also produce the toxic haze of particulates that blanket the region. For months no one ever saw the sun and shadows ceased to exist. The world was a luminescent ball of smoke during the daylight hours with no idea of the time of day. Usually it was white but on truly horrific days when the smoke layer was particularly thick the world was a sickly yellow in color.

The Mega Rice Project (MRP) is now long abandoned but the oil palm plantations have since taken over much of the peat lands across Indonesia furthering the country’s desire to supplant Malaysia as the leading global producer of palm oil. They’ve succeeded but now everyone is paying the price. The ex-MRP put in >4,000km of drainage canals in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) but over in Riau Province on Sumatra where I was in August the palm plantations have installed more than 22,000 km of canals to drain the peat. Out in Papua the oil palm developments are proceeding rapidly as well. Given the internal and international upheaval caused by this year’s fires, there is a desire to somehow ‘fix’ the situation with cloud seeding, air tankers dropping water, and thousands of troops in the field to fight the fires but the reality is that such measures have little effect. Now…

respiratory diseases rise

• Indonesia’s ministry of higher education is attempting to create a research consortium on disaster management.
• Data from Indonesia’s disaster management agency showed the number of people diagnosed with acute respiratory infection increased to 556,945 by November 6.
• After a limited cabinet meeting on Wednesday to discuss peat management, Jokowi said he wanted the research department of Yogyakarta’s University of Gadjah Mada to play a central role in proposing Indonesia’s new peat strategy.

Air quality in Singapore threatened to seep into unhealthy levels again on Friday as Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo instructed ministers to form a specialist haze task force to stave off another wildfire disaster next year.

“Do not let the dry season come around next year with us not having done anything,” Jokowi said.

No one wants to face the real issues of what must be done to truly stop this dynamic. If they want the fires to stop then the people will have to leave the peatlands (unlikely) or learn to live without fire as a major land use tool (doubtful). If there is truly a desire to stop carbon loss from these ancient peat forest lands then the drainage canals must be blocked (not easy or cheap) and the hydrology of the region restored, flooding the lands and the newly established palm oil plantations (economically disastrous). In short, the actions necessary to try to mitigate this disaster will be politically untenable unless there is some offsetting gain that can support relocating growing populations and replace the oil palm economy.

The worst part of this sad tale, which is also unappreciated is that the oil palm boom is going to be a short one before the bust comes on these peat soils. The peat must be drained and in many cases burned to create the conditions to allow the oil palm to grow, however once this is done the land continues to sink and erode. Every year the surface of the land will be lower and more susceptible to flooding. At best they will get one or two 20 year crop cycles in before the lands need to be abandoned. The combination of falling land levels and rising sea levels will destroy the peatlands and land uses they currently support. It is another short term strip mining operation that will yield nothing but profits for a few and another ecological disaster for the world.





The true cost of scraping the bottom of the barrel

4 03 2014

Garth Lenz

Garth Lenz

I have incredibly fond memories of travelling through Canada……  in the 1970’s it was pristine wilderness, almost everywhere you went.  What is going on in the Athabasca where the tar sands are mined is truly shocking.  So I want to share with you the impassioned plea for help from photographer Garth Lenz (what a great name for a photographer!) who shares shocking photos of the Alberta Tar Sands mining project — and the beautiful (and vital) ecosystems under threat.

For almost twenty years, Garth’s photography of threatened wilderness regions, devastation, and the impacts on indigenous peoples, has appeared in the world’s leading publications. His recent images from the boreal region of Canada have helped lead to significant victories and large new protected areas in the Northwest Territories, Quebec, and Ontario.

Filmed at TEDxVictoria (Vancouver Island) on November 19 2011

Share widely………..





What firefighters say about climate change

24 10 2013

The Conversation

Author

Michael Howes

Senior Lecturer in Sustainability and Environmental Policy at Griffith University

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/what-firefighters-say-about-climate-change-19381

You do not find many climate change sceptics on the end of [fire] hoses anymore… They are dealing with increasing numbers of fires, increasing rainfall events, increasing storm events. – A senior Victorian fire officer, interviewed in 2012 for a recent National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility report.

There have been fierce arguments this week about whether it’s opportunistic to discuss climate change in connection to the devastating New South Wales fires. Amid all the bluster, it’s surprising that we’ve heard so little from one group of experts: frontline emergency service workers, including the firefighters risking their lives for the rest of us.

Yet if you do ask for their opinion – as we did for a study released in June this year – many, like the senior fire officer quoted above, are not reluctant to talk about climate change. In fact, quite a few of the emergency workers and planners we interviewed said we should be talking about it more, if our communities are to be better prepared for disasters like the one unfolding in NSW right now.

Prepare for the worst, hope for the best

In 2012-13, I led a joint research team from Griffith and RMIT to prepare a report for the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF) on disaster risk management and climate change.

To do so, we compared the emergency responses to Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, the 2011 Perth hills bushfires, and the 2011 Brisbane floods.

We started by comparing the official inquiry reports into these events to the relevant research on disaster risk management. This was followed up by interviews with 22 experts from Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane, including nine fire officers, five emergency services workers, and eight assorted planners or policy officers. The proposals that emerged were then reviewed at a set of workshops.

One of the most interesting things we found in talking to the emergency service workers was an overwhelming acceptance and concern that climate change was already affecting Australia, based on their personal experiences with disasters.

As a Western Australian fire officer told our research team, we need to “get the scientists, who have a lot to share about climate change and climate change adaptation, talking to the operational people” – a suggestion backed by many of our interviewees.

Preventing future emergencies

Our report was not the first time that firefighters and other emergency workers have spoken out about climate change.

For instance, earlier this year it was reported that the United Firefighters Union released research by the National Institute of Economic and Industry Research that found almost 2 million Australians were relying largely on volunteer fire brigades to protect them and A$500 billion in assets.

The same article referred to research from the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research, a collaboration between the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, on how the fire season across much of south-eastern Australia appeared to be going on for longer.

In November 2009, 25 firefighters, paramedics, police, military and emergency services workers spent nearly a month running 6000 kilometres from Cooktown in Queensland to Adelaide and back to Melbourne, speaking to communities along the way about their concerns about climate change. Many of them had worked in the Black Saturday firestorm, in which 173 people died, as well as the record-breaking heatwave beforehand that health experts estimated killed more than twice as many people as the fires.

In the same year, the United Firefighters Union’s national secretary wrote to then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd:

On behalf of more than 13,000 firefighters and support staff in Australia, I write this open letter to request a review of Australia’s fire risk… As we battle blazes here in Victoria, firefighters are busy rescuing people from floods in Queensland. Without a massive turnaround in policies, aside from the tragic loss of life and property, we will be asking firefighters to put themselves at an unacceptable risk.

Firefighters know that it is better to prevent an emergency than to have to rescue people from it, and we urge state and federal governments to follow scientific advice and keep firefighters and the community safe by halving the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Lessons to be learnt

So what can we learn from listening to firefighters and other emergency services workers about how to be better prepared for future disasters?

Our study’s main aim was to come up with a set of practical changes based on those expert views on how to better integrate climate change adaptation into disaster management programs.

One suggestion was to set up a permanent fund, based on the success of Landcare. Anyone from government or the community might form a group and bid for money to tackle a particular issue, such as replanting local wetlands to reduce the impacts of flooding.

Another proposal was to set aside some local government funding to set up community resilience grants. Residents would be able to apply to their local council to fund projects, such as creating a network of people ready to assist elderly neighbours in times of bushfires or floods. Locals could even vote in town hall meetings on which proposals their council should fund.

Whatever we do, if we want to handle disasters better in the future, our frontline emergency workers have plenty of ideas to offer – if we’re ready to listen to what they say.