The coming great cook-out? Part 4 of 4

Mendocino County

July 2, 2009 Ukiah, Mendocino County, North California

George Was Right!

On June 22, Sonja Sharp reported on Mother Jones that the far northern Siberian town Oymyakon was undergoing an unprecedented heat wave. The previous day temperatures were recorded at just under 32 C, or nearly 90 degrees F (32.6 C is the highest ever recorded temperature), with weekend temperatures in the high 80s. This past winter, temperatures twice dropped to -60.2 C, or nearly -86 F, marking one of the coldest winters the village of once-nomadic reindeer herders has suffered in nearly a century.

At the moment, we appear to be experiencing a duel between a cool sun and a warming atmosphere. The sun has been warming, with short respites, for millions of years, as astrophysicists assure us it will continue to do. So, I know how I’m betting.

I often wonder why I’m bothering to write these, especially given the doubts I have that we humans can get our heads out of pails filled with meaningless distractions. Oh, my, Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died, as headlines informed us. I’m sure this caused distress for some. How many others died as they did? Do you know of any who haven’t or won’t? How many will die if we cook the Earth? How many will die if we exhaust the Earth’s productive soils and fresh water, as we are doing, and food production collapses.

Let’s not talk about such depressing things, it is too distressing. Let’s leave it to the experts to save us, those engineers who created all those wonderful electronic devices that we must have. Let’s go shopping, which is always fun.

Funny thing, I’m unafraid to look these concerns and the pending failure of the capitalist economy in the face, and I’m still the happiest I’ve ever been as I live in the moment. It is a astoundingly beautiful world, perpetually wondrous, perpetually changing. I don’t mean here the world of the big box stores, fast food outlets, and filling stations, indistinguishable wherever found in the country and increasingly the world. I’m speaking of, for example, a tree in my backyard.

Every leaf on that tree is unique as even a simple examination will discover; it never existed previously and shall never again. No two trees, no two blades of grass, no two sparrows are identical, even to themselves moment to moment. Everywhere in the natural world, I see such uniqueness, such amazing beauty and complexity, trillions of cells working cooperatively. Who could be bored, if they are aware? I am in such awe and so thankful of having had the opportunity to have such experiences.

My overwhelming concern is that we may destroy these gifts. In fact, all over the Earth we are doing so – in order to construct, duplicate, more cars, more televisions, more computers, more fashionable clothing, and more “educated” children who can plug into the corporate workplace. All of these soon become old and new better products are ever coming that we must have. I find this so sad, as I hope you do.

It seems we’re reaching a stark turning point. One direction leads to exhaustion of the Earth’s resources, likely climate collapse, and death of almost all life. The other leads to collapse of the capitalist, money, economy, with almost certain death of most of us humans, but maybe with salvation of some of the Earth’s other residents. If this isn’t clear, let me be more precise: if growth capitalism doesn’t fail, the conclusion of almost every scientists who is studying such events is that we all burn up. Please attempt to convince me otherwise, but understand that I’ve been looking since the sixties and earlier. I was born in the midst of the Great Depression on a subsistence Iowa farm, so please don’t tell me we can’t shuck all that shop/shop/shopping garbage and not be happy and well fed.

Can anyone prove these events may happen? Of course not, proofs are for mathematicians. Scientists probe, collect data, run experiments, estimate projections, make hypotheses, question, disagree, argue. The only way to determine who might be more right, in the climate change case, is to stick around for fifty or more years and watch what happens. But, that would only test one possible future; the others will never happen. What then can we non-scientists conclude? We investigate claims, understand their arguments the best we can, and watch what is happening around us. Some predict that drought is a consequence of global warming, and here is drought. They predict higher temperatures, and it is getting hot. They predict that Arctic and Antarctic ice will melt, and it’s melting. The great question beyond all others we must ask: what if those predicting global warming are shown to be accurate and we could have done something to mitigate it – and didn’t because we didn’t want to impact our lifestyles?

The immediate reason for writing this is Bob Wattenburger’s letter in the June 25 UDJ. His lead paragraph: “In Dec. ’08 at the UNs Global Warming [actually Climate Change] Conference in Poznan, Poland, 650 of the world’s top climatologists stated man made global warming is a media generated myth without basis in fact.” Thanks to the web, it is easy to check this statement. Attendance was about 11.600, so about 0.056 of them, a bit more than half of a percent, were in disagreement with the meeting’s climate change assumptions. Since the conference was open to all, I’ll have to take Wattenburger’s word that these 650 were “of the world’s top climatogists.” How many other such attended and disagreed with them? It actually isn’t hard to find scientists who will disagree with almost anything – if their paychecks and investments depend upon them doing so.

At the same time, heads of state from the 27 members of the European Union met in Brussels to discuss the fiscal crisis and climate talks in Poznan. In the end, the European Union’s 27 leaders endorsed a plan for a 20% cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020. But, under the accord reached by the EU heads of state, industrial sectors such as cement, steel, and chemicals will receive free carbon emission permits at least up to 2020. While the EU has implemented cap and trade, these huge industries will be given free permits. The European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, was quoted in the Financial Times as admitting that the terms of the accord created the risk of windfall profits for some of the EU’s biggest polluters. According to several sources, including leaders from the wind industry with whom I spoke directly, lobbying by the coal, cement, steel and fossil fuel companies was furious, relentless and ultimately overwhelming in the context of the European fiscal meltdown. According to a senior EU Commission official quoted in the Financial Times, “about 90% of European manufacturers would qualify for free carbon permits under the package.”

The Waxman-Markey energy and climate bill has passed the U.S. House, thanks to Pelosi’s and Gore’s insistence. The Senate is appears to be a much bigger hurdle. The U.S. fossil fuel lobby carries a bigger club than any European industry and swung it hard in that bill, or so I read. The right thinks it will be so costly that it will sink the economy, but that may only be lobbyist talk. The left thinks anything Obama gets to sign will be a sell-out, worse than anything the Europeans had ever contemplated. Obama and Gore are telling us green energy and jobs will save the economy, so we can all go shopping again. I conclude anything that comes out of Washington is smoke and mirrors, much like the Wizard of Oz, but with David Rockefeller (think JPMorgan Chase Bank, think Federal Reserve Bank of New York) behind the mask. Of course, all conjecture; nobody is telling.

“One possibility is to just tag along with the fantasists in the government and industry who would have us believe that we can pursue our ideals of affluence, comfort, mobility, and leisure indefinitely. This curious faith is predicated on the notion that we will soon develop unlimited sources of energy: domestic oil fields, oil shale, gasified coal, nuclear energy, solar energy, and so on. This is fantastical because the basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity; it is moral ignorance and weakness of character. We don’t know how to use energy or what to use it for. And we cannot restrain ourselves. Our time is characterized as much by the abuse and waste of human energy as by the abuse and waste of fossil fuel energy. Nuclear power, if we are to believe its advocates, is presumably going to be well used by the same mentality that has egregiously devalued and misapplied man- and womenpower. If we had an unlimited supply of solar and wind power, we would use it destructively, too, for the same reasons.” Thus, wrote Wendell Berry in his 1977 book, “The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture”.

1977? Yes, that is correct. Twenty five years later he wrote an essay in which he concluded our situation had only gotten worse, that none had heeded his warnings.

Biofuels have been shone to waste more energy, i.e. fossil fuel energy, than they produce. Solar cells are immensely energetically costly and environmentally dirty to produce. Without any exceptions of which I’m aware, green energies fail to pass energy and environmental accounting examinations. Still, as long as none are watching, they continue to attracted excited investors and government subsidies.

As you surely know, I almost always disagree with George W. Will’s assessments. To my surprise, it appears to me that, in his article of June 25 entitled “Tilting at green windmills”, he has raised a valid point. His article is about Spanish windmills and doubts one right-leaning economist has about their economic feasibility. Will writes:

“What matters most, however, is not that reports such as Calzada’s and the Republicans’ are right in every particular. It is, however, hardly counterintuitive that politically driven investments are economically counterproductive. Indeed, environmentalists with courage of their convictions should argue that the point of such of such investments is to subordinate market rationality to the higher agenda of planetary salvation.”

There is much to disagree with here. It isn’t clear that politically driven investments need be economically counterproductive, though there are many such examples developed for and by, say, the military/industrial complex. “Market rationality” is good for a few chuckles. Will continues:

“Still, one can be agnostic about both reports while being dismayed by the frequency with which such findings are ignored simply because they question policies that are invested with righteousness, that methodical economic reasoning about their costs and benefits seems unimportant.” Here, Will is right on. He isn’t aware of it, but the same applies to the innumerable government subsidies that are showered on screwy corporate ideas. Our enthusiasms nearly always overwhelm considerations of costs and benefits. It seems doubtful to me that we shall learn in time to avoid one or another of the fatal turnings. We’re too busy shopping and playing with our electronic toys, increasingly with our purportedly green technologies, to notice.