SEF News-Views Digest No. 118 (1-27-16)
So far, the first three weeks of 2016 have produced some whopping newsworthy events, some of which are discussed in articles below. Headlined reporting of worldwide economic woes has focused on widespread fluctuating financial markets, the implications of falling oil prices, and the growing gap between the obscenely rich and the rest of us. Another prime topic in the headlines addresses spreading social unrest, largely the result of multiple wars that are creating life-threatening conditions, destroying countries, and producing record numbers of refugees. And then we have the ongoing tragedies associated with extreme climate disruptions, like the past weekend’s deluge of winter weather events across several eastern states.
Also headlining the news: politics! Sadly, we Americans must continue enduring a year of unholy, uncivil political debates that threaten to separate us even further into two opposing ideological camps: progressives on the left, and conservatives on the right. Thankfully, the cooler heads among us will realize there are many binding commonalities that deserve our mutual respect and compromised support.
So what does all this have to do with the title, “Anthropocene Politics” Jedidiah Purdy’s latest book—After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene—provided the inspiration. His primary theme addresses the central role of politics in finding ways to appreciate a world that has been damaged throughout humankind’s long historical journey, from a primitive state to a highly technical modern culture. He rightly claims that we have imposed our needs and wants on the earth, often with the benign intent of improving it, at least aesthetically.
Purdy explains that, over the last several centuries, humans have responded to the natural world according to two basic models, or poles of aesthetic response. As “beauty — to see places as orderly, regular, welcoming, and made for the human eye, human use, and habitation. The model of a beautiful place might be, for instance a pastoral landscape of fields and farms and some forest, but not too dark, or too mysterious, or too inaccessible.“
Humankind’s other response to the natural world is to see it as sublime, fundamentally as a place not made for us. In other words, as far as humans are concerned, sublime nature is essentially indifferent and uncaring. It may provide inspiration and awe, but it does not exist to provide comfort. Purdy explains that many aspects of raw nature are sublime—the ocean, a tornado, and even climate change, albeit often in awful ways. Moreover, he says: “To be afraid of that, to respond politically to fear of what we’ve made [done to our environment], I think is at least part of where an Anthropocene politics can begin.”
Purdy admits that we don’t know very much about the politics of collective self-restraint, politics in which people actually pivot from a more consumer-oriented lifestyle to a simple one [my wording]. Some experts refer to this self-restraint using such terms as powering down, voluntary simplicity, having enough, degrowth, or living within limits. Unfortunately, Purdy fears that people will be freaked out when adopting the practice of self-restraint, possibly producing intolerant, extremist populisms, perhaps like we’re experiencing with the Trump campaign.
The author believes that creating a polity capable of thinking seriously about collective limits first requires providing greater individual security. This can be achieved, beginning with deepening and extending the mid-20th century commitments made by the North Atlantic Nations to provide universal accessible education, adequate universal healthcare, and public security. He suggests that mid-20th century liberalism in Europe might provide an effective model, a form of social democracy that demonstrated prospects of an environmentally responsible politics.
Purdy concludes: “And we only have one way of collectively, bindingly pivoting the direction in which we’re taking that world — and that is political.” I think you’ll enjoy reading this article, the first in the Views section. ––– Clifton Ware, Editor-Publisher
> Yale Environment 360: In Search Of A New Politics For A New Environmental Era (Diane Toomey; Interview, Jedidiah Purdy). In his latest book, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, Jedidiah Purdy, 41, a Duke University law professor, looks at a world irrevocably changed by humans and finds that it demands a fundamentally different politics – one that places a moral value on climates and landscapes and takes responsibility for future generations. The “democratic Anthropocene” he’s calling for has some fundamental underpinnings; it is less beholden to Big Money; it wrestles with placing a moral value on climates and landscapes; and it puts far more emphasis on our responsibility toward future generations. In order to reverse the unfettered exploitation of nature, this new politics must move society toward greater self-restraint — never an easy sell. But, he says, politics remains our best hope.
> Resilience: The Schizophrenic Society (Book Review, Frank Kaminsky). In Roger Boyd’s latest book, The Schizophrenic Society, the author identifies some common psychosomatic symptoms prevalent in society that have driven us to engage in appalling, murderous and ultimately suicidal behavior with complete dispassion. Boyd’s assessment that we’re “lost in a make-believe world while we destroy the real one” seems all too apt. He skillfully draws together research from neurobiology, cognitive psychology and socio-psychology to explore why most people in the developed world continue to deny the reality of our crises, all the while maintaining confidence in endless growth. Boyd argues that this supposed make-believe reality, which is perpetrated by the ruling elites through corporate mass media, amounts to a societal-level hallucination.
> Post Carbon Institute: Night Of The Living Dead, Climate Change-Style (Bill McKibben). Even as the global warming crisis makes it clear that coal, natural gas, and oil are yesterday’s energy, the momentum of two centuries of fossil fuel development means new projects keep emerging in a zombie-like fashion. In fact, the climactic fight at the end of the fossil fuel era is already underway, even if it’s happening almost in secret. That’s because so much of the action isn’t taking place in big, headline-grabbing climate change settings like the recent conference of 195 nations in Paris; it’s taking place in hearing rooms and farmers’ fields across this continent (and other continents, too). The only way to short-circuit this [zombie-like] process is to fight like hell, raising the political and economic price of new infrastructure to the point where politicians begin to balk.
> Our Finite World: Why Oil Under $30 Per Barrel Is A Major Problem (Gail Tverberg). Some observations: 1) Oil producers can’t produce oil for $30 per barrel; 2) Oil producers need prices that are higher than the technical extraction costs, making the situation even worse; 3) When oil prices drop very low, producers generally keep producing; 4) Oil demand doesn’t increase very rapidly after prices drop from a high level; 5) The sharp drop in oil prices in the last 18 months has little to do with the cost of production; 6) One contributing factor to today’s low oil prices is a drop-off in the stimulus efforts of 2008; 7) The danger with very low oil prices is that we will lose the energy products upon which our economy depends; 8) The economy cannot get along without an adequate supply of oil and other fossil fuel products; 9) Many people believe that oil prices will bounce back up again, and everything will be fine, which seems unlikely; and 10) The rapid run up in US oil production after 2008 has been a significant contributor to the mismatch between oil supply and demand that has taken place since mid-2014.
> The Economist: Who’s Afraid Of Cheap Oil? (Staff). In the past 18 months the price has fallen by 75%, from $110 a barrel to below $27. Yet this time the benefits are less certain. Although consumers have gained, producers are suffering grievously. The effects are spilling into financial markets, and could yet depress consumer confidence. Perhaps the benefits of such ultra-cheap oil still outweigh the costs, but markets have fallen so far so fast that even this is no longer clear. Some are predicting a trough of as low as $10. Collapsing revenues could bring political instability to fragile parts of the world. Cheap oil drags down the global price of natural gas, which crowds out coal, a dirtier fuel. But in the long run, cheap fossil fuels reduce the incentive to act on climate change. Most worrying of all is the corrosive new economics of oil. As oil collapses against the backdrop of a fragile world economy, it could trigger defaults.
> The New York Times: This Time, Cheaper Oil Does Little For The U.S. Economy (Binyamin Appelbaum). As oil prices have fallen to levels not seen since 2003 — sagging below $27 a barrel on Wednesday before rebounding to about $30 on Thursday — many experts now say they do not expect lower prices to bolster the domestic economy significantly in 2016. Lower oil prices historically were a cause for celebration in the developed world, including the United States. But this time is different. The losses from lower prices are larger and quicker than expected as energy companies cut back on investment and lay off workers, while the gains are smaller and slower to materialize, as consumers save some of their windfalls. Interestingly, a study of credit card spending by the JPMorgan Chase Institute found that people spent much of the gas windfall on more gas.
> Resource Insights: Volatility, Oil And Stock Markets (Kurt Cobb). The question for investors this year will be something like this: Can central banks keep stock markets around the world afloat despite poor fundamentals? I’m doubtful. They didn’t prevent a crash in 2001 or 2008, the first the result of a tech bubble and the second the result of a housing bubble. Both bubbles were caused by easy credit due to low-interest rate policies by central banks that stoked overinvestment. With short-term interest rates near zero for seven years in major economies, central banks are repeating the same mistake again.
> The Archdruid Report: Donald Trump And The Politics Of Resentment (John Michael Greer). Of all my predictions for 2016 (in post two weeks ago), the one that has stirred up the most distress and derision is my suggestion that the most likely person to be taking the oath of office as the next president of the United States is Donald Trump. It so happens you can determine a huge amount about the economic and social prospects of people in America today by asking one simple question: how do they get most of their income? Broadly speaking, it’s from one of four sources: returns on investment, a monthly salary, an hourly wage, or a government welfare check. Trump’s figured out that the most effective way to get the wage class to rally to his banner is to get attacked by the salary class. Trump’s candidacy may be a major watershed in American political life, the point at which the wage class wakes up to its potential power and pushes back against the ascendancy of the salary class.
> NBC News: Winter Storm Live Updates: Massive Snowstorm Slams East Coast (Staff). Ongoing aftermath coverage of the deadly snowstorm that broke records and impacted millions of people on the East Coast reveals that at least 31 deaths have been blamed on the severe weather. Airports are recovering, but at least 1,500 flights were canceled Monday, FlightAware said at 7:30 a.m. ET. New York City missed is its all-time storm record by a tenth of an inch, with 26.8 inches at Central Park. Meanwhile, 30.1 inches was recorded at JFK airport. Worst hit was the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, according to the National Weather Service, with 42 inches recorded in Glengarry and 40.5 in Shepherdstown.
> The Guardian: Climate Change Responsible For Super-Charging Winter Storms, Scientists Say (Suzanne Goldenberg). Climate change is super-charging storms like the blizzard engulfing the American northeast, scientists said on Monday. The heavier storms of recent years – snowfalls that shut down cities and brought heavy flooding to coastal areas of New England – carried the imprints of climate change, as researchers get better at detecting the fingerprints of global warming, even from snow. In general, climate change produces more extreme precipitation in North America – and if it’s cold enough, that produces snow. Ocean surface temperatures off the US Atlantic coast were unusually warm last year – about 2F above normal over huge expanses of the Atlantic off the east coast. As result, there was about 10% more water vapor in the atmosphere. Approximately half of that extra moisture was due to climate change.
> The New York Times: 2015 Was Hottest Year In Historical Record, Scientists Say (Justin Gillis). Scientists reported Wednesday that 2015 was the hottest year in the historical record by far, breaking a mark set only the year before — a burst of heat that has continued into the new year and is roiling weather patterns all over the world. It will take a few more years to know for certain, but the back-to-back records of 2014 and 2015 may have put the world back onto a trajectory of rapid global warming, after a period of relatively slow warming dating to the last powerful El Niño, in 1998. In the contiguous United States, the year was the second-warmest on record, punctuated by a December that was both the hottest and the wettest since record-keeping began. One result has been a wave of unusual winter floods coursing down the Mississippi River watershed.
> USA Today: What’s Up With The Wild Extremes Of Weather? (Doyle Rice). Recent bouts of extreme weather are linked to large fluctuations of wind patterns high above the Earth’s surface, says a study published Sunday in the British journal Nature. These strange fluctuations in wind patterns, related to jet streams at upper levels of the atmosphere, and their connection to global warming have been the subject of extensive research within the climate science community. The weather extremes the authors analyzed in the study were month-long heat waves, cold spells, droughts and prolonged wet periods, which occurred over large areas of the world from 1979-2012. A second study from scientists at Stanford University finds that climate change is expected to increase air stagnation, with an air mass remaining over an area for an extended period. Increased pollution exposure can have serious health implications, such as cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems.
> Common Dreams: Report Warns That Plastics Will Soon Outweigh Fish In World’s Oceans (Lauren McCauley). The weight of plastic waste clogging the world’s oceans threatens to exceed all fish by 2050 if the world’s seemingly insatiable appetite for the material continues at the current explosive rate, warned a new report presented on Tuesday. The amount is expected to double by 2030. The study—The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking The Future Of Plastics (pdf))—introduced at the opening day of the WEF’s annual summit in Davos, Switzerland is the first of its kind to comprehensively assess global plastic packaging flows. The report makes an economic case for what it calls the “New Plastics Economy,” described as “a new approach based on creating effective after-use pathways for plastics; drastically reducing leakage of plastics into natural systems, in particular oceans; and decoupling plastics from fossil feedstocks.”
> Common Dreams: Debating ‘ Medicare For All’ System Is Good For Nations’ Health, Say Doctors (Andrea Germanos). The idea of a single-payer healthcare system has entered the presidential debates—and that’s a very good thing, a doctors group says, as it is “only equitable, financially responsible and humane cure for our healthcare ills.” In a statement released Friday by the non-partisan Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), its president, Dr. Robert Zarr, calls it “a welcome development,” and also refutes a number of myths surrounding such a plan, sometimes referred to as a Medicare-for-all plan, including supposed high costs and lack of public support. On cost, says Zarr, “Single-payer is the only health reform that pays for itself;” in contrast, “keeping the current private-insurance-based system intact is not [affordable.]”
> Star Tribune: Conservation Leader Paints Bleak Picture Of Future (Dennis Anderson). On Jan. 15th Jim Martin, director of the Berkley Conservation Institute, delivered to DNR leaders a sobering look at the future of the nation’s natural resources, and particularly the fast-diminishing ability of state and federal fish, wildlife, land and water managers to show what appears to be an inexorable slide of the nation’s natural heritage into an abyss.
> Skeptical Science: The Quest For CCS (Andy Skuce). CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) is being proposed as an effective way of reducing CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. If we are to keep future temperatures from getting far outside the 10,000-year historical range of global average temperature, humanity will be forced to reduce fossil fuel emissions to zero by 2050. Bioenergy is one favored negative-emissions technology for carbon capture and storage (BECCS). This involves burning biomass – such as wood pellets – in power stations, then capturing the carbon dioxide and burying it deep in the earth. The technology has not yet been demonstrated at an industrial scale. Using the large amounts of bioenergy envisioned in such scenarios will place huge demands on land use and will conflict with agriculture and biodiversity needs.
> U of MN: Grand Challenge Curriculum. The Grand Challenge Curriculum (GCC) addresses important global issues through a solution-driven, interdisciplinary approach to learning. Teachers who bring unique perspectives to the Grand Challenge being explored teach GCC courses that address such topics as climate change, disease, renewable energy, justice, health, and environment.
> Bloomberg: Fixing Drafty Old Buildings Becomes $20 Billion U.S. Industry (James Nash). A decade of progressively stricter laws aimed at reducing energy use, and consumer desire to lower costs, have already bred a $20 billion-a-year industry in the U.S. Consultants guide property owners through the regulatory maze and help them file paperwork. Contractors retrofit old ventilation systems and fixtures, replace drafty windows, doors and roofs, and install state-of-the-art environmental controls. Because regulators historically went after gas guzzling cars and smokestack industries to improve air quality, office buildings and apartments attracted relatively little scrutiny until the past decade. Now policy makers are switching their attention from simply requiring periodic energy audits to compelling property owners to replace inefficient fans, windows, lighting and other components.
> Smart Growth: Placemaking And The Human Scale City (Stephen Burke). Human-scale advocates share a common concern about the impacts of unrestricted development on neighborhoods. Everyone has the right to live in a human-scale city, and one way to achieve this is through placemaking. “Human scale” implies giving more attention to pedestrians than vehicles in community planning. Placemaking is usually defined as a community-led process, but another way to say this is that it is human-led. There is no single human scale, but by engaging in a placemaking process, an appropriate scale can be found that works for every community.
> Resilience: Treatment Wetlands Equal Cleaner Water And More Birds (Debra Segal & Robert Knight). Some of the most productive birding hotspots in Florida are man-made treatment wetlands that were designed to remove nutrients and pollutants from treated wastewater and storm water. Increasing wastewater flows and storm water runoff are the inevitable results of increasing human populations. But a growing number of communities in Florida and worldwide, are turning this liability into an asset by initially treating this water through conventional advanced treatment technologies and then recycling the partially purified water into wetland systems designed to provide final purification cost-effectively. One ancillary benefit of these treatment wetlands is their high biological productivity that supports complex and abundant wildlife populations, including many wetland-dependent birds.
SUSTAINABILITY INFO & EVENTS
> Co-Sponsored Water Event: Climate Adaptation: Transforming Awareness Into Action, Jan. 28, DoubleTree by Hilton North Minneapolis North, 2200 Freeway Blvd., Mpls. Hosted by University of Minnesota Water Resources Center.
> Citizens For Sustainability: Monthly Meeting-Forum, Sat., Feb. 13, 10am- noon, St. Anthony Village Community Center, 3301 Silver Lake Rd.
> Northland Sustainable Solutions: Building a Movement with Energy Solutions – the UN Climate Change Talkback. A one-day event sponsored by Northland Sustainable Solutions and many other groups, including MN350, featuring a panel discussion, including indigenous voices, of people who attended the recent UN Paris Climate Change Conference, Sat., Jan. 30, 9:30am- 4pm., Carondelet Center, 1890 Randolph Ave Saint Paul, MN. Register and purchase tickets here
> 2016 Made in Minnesota Program: Solar Incentives For Minnesotans. Deadline is Feb. 28th to submit applications via Innovative Power Systems. Applicants are entered into a lottery and randomly chosen winners receive a 10-year grant to assist with the pay off of their residential or commercial solar array. The program has a total of $150 million to distribute among the lottery winners. If you are interested in applying for the lottery or would like more information, contact IPS today. For more details on these options see: programs & financing page.
> Clean Energy Resource Teams: Clean Energy Accelerator. Metro CERT – offering rapid energy assistance to cities, counties, & schools.