Popular Field Mechanics & Stream

I’d prefer to write about these ten new wind turbine designs many of which you could put on your house and one or two you might even be able to fit on your personal person, or not far from it. Power to the people.

But no. It seems that other developments warrant a speculative word or two. It may just be that the Republican/big Pharma/big coal/petro industry best hope for derailing both climate change legislation and major health care reform will be signing onto a special prosecutor for Bush-era war crimes and interrogation practices.

Now imagine that. Obviously an SP is something none of our oligarchical overlords would want, so it introduces a bit of a devil’s bargain. Because the above would seem to welcome the other legislation even less. Or would they? Will they say, “Go ahead and have your Cheney circus but leave our unsustainable profit streams alone? I wonder which it’s going to be. Is this the development of a bargaining chip for one side, or the other? As dastardly cynical as that sounds, what makes it any more inevitable than if we were able to spare the nation a divisive trip back into Cheney-tainted extradition and assassination practices with resounding bi-partisan support for a C02 cap/ universal healthcare double bank shot? Let’s let us make a deal.

Oh the joys of a unstable age.

Sustainable You

In order to keep oneself going, there are basic needs involving inputs and outputs which determine whether an entity dies or remains viable. In the debate over global climate change and whether anything should be done about it, we discuss and reflect on the effects of various elevations in temperature on our ability to secure the inputs necessary for viability. Or we act like there’s no such thing as climate change at all. But we’ll set that aside and believe for a moment that most people are sufficiently convinced.

Granting this, even if we can summon the political will to begin to limit greenhouse gas emissions to combat runaway climate change, would the resulting society otherwise be viable into the future? Do we believe we can achieve this and then be able to keep things – living standards, consumption levels – much as they are? In other words, would a reduced carbon-centric model be sustainable?

Many of the policy implications of limiting co2 emissions would necessarily alter the way we live. I trust this is a well understood point – and vociferous opposition to Waxman-Markey suggests that it is. The distaste and outrage toward this kind of change does not mean that it is any less likely. You can see the same evidence in the collapsed housing market, the financial services industry in tatters, the job losses in manufacturing, fractured global supply chains. When will this economy begin to recover? The question, taken with its constituent parts, almost answers itself. Or it should.

Even if there were no such things as rising oceans or the greenhouse effect, we could not sustain anywhere near present levels of energy consumption, and without those amounts of cheap energy, our society as presently construed cannot keep up its requisite levels of inputs needed for viability. We could not even keep it were it is.

Now, whether this adjustment is down or up would depend on nothing so much as our relative capacities for creativity and imagination – of course, the very reasons it all seems so unthinkable to so many. It is, literally. In order for there to be an evolution of our ideas about green, there will have to be a throughway beyond even sustainability.

Image: Henrik Hakansson, Fallen Forest, 2006.

Protecting Green, redux

While I was watching the USA-Brazil Electric Meltdown Boo-galoo II yesterday, I wrote a long and rambling post on the Waxman-Markey bill’s passage that I ultimately decided not to publish. For all the reasons 2-0 is the most dangerous score in soccer, trying to write about all the reasons other than a warming planet that we should limit carbon emissions is a bit of a fool’s errand, and an unnecessary one at that.

… But this transportation model has corrupted our most basic social arrangements by de-valuing actual community, an isolation enshrined by a complex communication system that leaves us poorly informed across a broad spectrum. With a wealth of information at our fingertips, we are unconcerned about where we’re going or what we’re about to do, and unsure about what happened yesterday, much less last week or five years ago. We have achieved an acute ability to wait until the last minute to do anything, which marks both our prowess and near-native anxiety.

We idle across unnecessary distances, sitting in traffic, hailing this voluntary expansion of sphere as progress even as we sacrifice depth of influence for mere distance of reach. Bold and innovative companies have brought us a succession of needless products demeaning the most basic tools as obsolete in favor of ever-greater complexity; this economy grooms us on its own pre-eminence, via the tenets of disposability, while weening us of any regard for unique settings or uses, moments or sensations in favor of collective experience. Activities that do not directly produce a financial benefit we have come to understand as non-performing. The reality that planetary preservation is an issue worth weaving into our advertising, spending habits, food, shelter and energy strategies, government policies, fashions and other cultural identifiers is a massive acknowledgment that undermines its own cause the wider its use and dissemination.

Is this model in jeopardy? Should it be?

Exhibit A for why I usually read instead of write on Sunday. Fortunately, Paul Krugman is/was having none of that and demonstratively points out that climate change is in fact more than reason enough to pass the bill:

But if you watched the debate on Friday, you didn’t see people who’ve thought hard about a crucial issue, and are trying to do the right thing. What you saw, instead, were people who show no sign of being interested in the truth. They don’t like the political and policy implications of climate change, so they’ve decided not to believe in it — and they’ll grab any argument, no matter how disreputable, that feeds their denial.

That’s the crux right there – they don’t like the policy implications, so they choose not to believe in the problem! It’s the ultimate in convenience, sort of like the new Shimmer – if someone was courageous enough to just point out that being a dessert topping AND a floor polish are converging conspiracies of household indulgence.

Speaking of which, here is a group that deserves special recognition: Democratic reps from districts Obama won who voted against bill. Jim Costa and Pete Stark of California; John Barrow of Georgia; Bill Foster of Illinois; Peter J. Visclosky of Indiana; Michael Arcuri of New York; Larry Kissell of North Carolina; Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio; Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon; Ciro D. Rodriguez and Solomon P. Ortiz of Texas; Glenn Nye of Virginia.

Keep ’em Coming

In the same way that having Insurance company executives testify on camera before Congress about what their companies do is be the best way to guarantee passage of universal health coverage, Republican opposition to climate legislation written by the coal lobby will likely be its best friend, as well.

House Republicans are circulating a PowerPoint document that purports to show the regional breakdown of costs for energy consumers under the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill (ACES). The header: “Most States Lose Under the Pending Climate Bill.”

The catch? It appears to have been authored by the coal giant Peabody Energy. [Note: It was actually authored by the National Mining Assocation; see updates below.]

The document was discussed on a conference call held by the “Rural America Solutions Group” within the GOP caucus on Thursday, hosted by group co-chairs Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Sam Graves (R-Mo.), and Doc Hastings (R-Wash.). According to a press release, the call was meant to “highlight how the Democrats’ National Energy Tax will make it more expensive for rural Americans to fertilize the crops, put fuel in the tractor and food on the table.”

It isn’t that this is anything more than run-of-the-mill skulduggery, which it is, by and large. The interesting point about it is just how out-to-lunch this approach is to governing, in terms of using government to enact solutions to massive problems that require a centralized organization. Like a government. Industry shills and bought-and-paid for politicos are our connection to the Gilded Age proper. If you’re a romantic and wonder what it was like, this is what is was like.

Its excesses and corruption were its undoing and eventually led to reforms. Our excesses being a little more poisonous in terms of waste and emissions, and our corruptions enlarged to include the intellectual, our undoing is likely to be far more jarring than a matter of a few reforms.

So it is enlightening, in its way, to have chief polluters and fiscal looters advocate and agitate for the policies that have enshrined their advantageous positions. They’re as likely as any of us to be perfectly frank about their successes and points of view. Not always truthful, but you’d be amazed.

These strategies keep our refusals to change right in front of us, which is where they need to be. The longer we/they keep people right out in front spouting nonsense about the how costs of staying healthy or using less energy are too great to bear, the more effective measures to protect health and save energy can be.

The Big Picture

That’s the name for a ‘news stories in photographs’ feature on the Boston Globe site and it’s really excellent.

Words can be hurtful and leave permanent scars, but images are even more powerful. They can help explain conditions and situations by harkening back to the essential and human in us. Maybe images can even be helpful to people like the chairman of the House Agriculture committee, who holds great sway over measures that will combat climate change, even though he does not understand what it is.

… has been blocking the passage of comprehensive climate legislation, dismissed a White House report on the damaging effect of global warming on U.S. agriculture. Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the chief of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association and one of the top scientists in the Obama administration, called the climate impacts report released yesterday a “clarion call for action” for a problem that “is happening now, and in our own backyards.” However, the Wall Street Journal reports that Peterson, “when asked by reporters Tuesday about the report’s findings, said they run counter to what many in his region are experiencing“:

We’ve just had the biggest floods and coldest winters we’ve ever had. They’re saying to us [that climate change is] going to be a big problem because it’s going to be warmer than it usually is; my farmers are going to say that’s a good thing since they’ll be able to grow more corn.

If you’re in a position of influence and don’t know what you’re talking about, on what basis do you continue talking?

  1. the soothing sounds of one’s own voice
  2. The shill/hack continuum
  3. ?

Maybe someone can draw me a picture.

Cognitive Dissidents

Foreign fighters among the Taliban with Birmingham (U.K.) accents? NASA planning massive space explosions in search of water on the moon? Unrelated incidents to be sure, but what, exactly, is going on?

These sort of bizarre happenings in parallel occur all the time, of course, and they have become a part of living in our present day – as curious as horseless carriages must have once seemed. Unpacking them at all, they may become even more Byzantine as curiosities. The Aston Villa tattoos on the recently-killed Taliban fighter are as crazy/easy to explain as would have been the case had their accents been from Birmingham, Alabama. Okay, maybe not. That would have been crazy. But no more so than scientists preparing to fly a rocket booster into the moon in order to trigger a six-mile-high explosion.

The four-month mission of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), which will be directed from NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, is to discover whether water is frozen in the perpetual darkness of craters near the moon’s south pole. As a potential source of oxygen for life support and hydrogen for rocket fuel, that water would be a tremendous boost to NASA’s plans to restart human exploration of the moon.

It is in this climate, where we have become nearly unable to differentiate the fabulous from the actual, where the words ‘incredible’ and ‘amazing’ have been displaced of their original meanings, where extraordinary measures of all sorts limbo beneath the radar, causing not the slightest flinch. Maybe it’s always been like this; or perhaps the volume of information bombardment itself is causing the greatest psychological displacement, such that we begin to allow for the unallowable. How else to explain this:

Using iron “seeding” to set off massive plankton growth in the ocean to slow climate change; creating artificial volcanic eruptions to release cooling sulfur into the atmosphere; increasing the solar reflectivity of clouds by adding sea-salt particles; building a giant space mirror to stop ice from melting in Greenland. These may sound like concepts straight out of a George Lucas film, but they are real ideas being proposed by scientists as part of the “geoengineering” movement — a school of thought based upon the idea that humans can engineer ourselves out of global warming on a massive scale.

How many people listened to this report on NPR driving home on Tuesday, looked around at the traffic and nodded their heads? Did they say to themselves, ‘that sounds like a good idea,’ or “I’m glad people are thinking about this’? Even the report hedged itself with a kind of reality check.

And experiments could create disasters. Alan Robock of Rutgers University cataloged a long list of risks. Particles in the stratosphere that block sunlight could also damage the ozone layer, which protects us from harsh ultraviolet light. Or altering the stratosphere could reduce precipitation in Asia, where it waters the crops that feed 2 billion people.

Should we be outraged* by these kinds of suggestions? We seem to be caught in an information spiral, where we’ve down-graded the importance of expertise in favor of a balance between opposing viewpoints. We lend credence to both and preserve the power to play Solomon, though we are greatly ill-educated and prone to believing in both our better impulses and the existence of an easy way out. Sitting in that car in traffic, we may need to first begin to agitate among ourselves, to regain control of what’s happening inside the car, first. Why shouldn’t we be able to counter the effects of climate change without driving less, wasting less, living differently? Do we even know?

* this can be a rather complex proposition in itself, e.g., toward what would the outrage be directed?

Climate Change as Metaphor

Overlapping metaphor, that is. This op-ed by the president of Emory University puts a bit of point onto the identifier as a term for what’s happening in the university. Though we can take it plenty further, it’s not a bad place to start.

Historically, watershed moments such as this have pushed universities to restructure everything from basic research to how and where our undergraduates live. This time, rather than being reactive, we should pause to ask careful questions about how best to move toward a transformation of our own choosing.

This time, our investment should include commitments that will return us to the transporting promise of the liberal arts — freeing all of us, teachers and learners alike, from the limitations of our self-centered perspectives; enabling us to understand the world from others’ viewpoints; and empowering us to be agents of societal change. We must affirm that education is as much about insight as it is about gaining information or job training; it is about the duty to listen as well as the responsibility to speak out, about the pursuit of wisdom as well as knowledge. We should understand that the study and practice of ethics must find a home in our graduate schools of business and medicine just as it does in our liberal arts colleges.

Maybe we can think of it as coming in from the cold of merely satifying the conflicting human needs for vengeance, justice and profit, having one of these always lose out and, over time, becoming greatly accepting of this outcome. As unseemly as it might be to posit the spiritual aspects of living better at a more reasonable scale, what the hell else are we actually talking about?

Up to now, our chief insights have been on the order of ‘might making right’ and other laws of a self-fulfilling jungle, whelmed periodically only by ferocious demands for social justice and, as seems to be the case now, imminent resource scarcity. Call them cataclysmic corrections as we might, but these opportunities that crop up in our haste to otherwise prevail (upon nature, each other, time, space) are nothing more, and thankfully nothing less, than a ticket to our once and preternatural state – the only place where the things we actually want are actually within reach: a return to uncertainty.

I’m sure a lot of this is buried somewhere deep inside the Report to Greco. So, you can look it up.

The Art of Decision Making

This is going to annoy or excite you, likely depending on your one-free-cup-of-misanthropy card and how many holes it’s punched with.

NYT magazine yesterday has a long piece contextualizing the disconnect between believing the planet is in imminent peril and the willingness to do anything about it. Academic research behind the science of decision-making is explored in depth; I don’t believe any animals were permanently harmed in the gathering of data points for this article, but toward the end there was some heinous screeching. Maybe that was me:

Over the past few years, it has become fashionable to describe this kind of focused communication as having the proper frame. In our haste to mix jargon into everyday conversation, frames have sometimes been confused with nudges, a term made popular in a recent book, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness,” written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein when they were academics at the University of Chicago. (Sunstein later moved to Harvard Law School and has since been nominated as the head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.) Frames and nudges are not precisely the same; frames are just one way to nudge people by using sophisticated messages, mined from decision-science research, that resonate with particular audiences or that take advantage of our cognitive biases (like informing us that an urgent operation has an 80 percent survival rate). Nudges, more broadly, structure choices so that our natural cognitive shortcomings don’t make us err. Ideally, nudges direct us, gently, toward actions that are in our long-term interest, like an automated retirement savings plan that circumvents our typical inertia. Thaler and Sunstein explain in their book that nudges can take advantage of technology like home meters, which have been shown to reduce electricity usage by making constant feedback available. These appeal to our desire for short-term satisfaction and being rewarded for improvement. Or a nudge might be as simple as a sensor installed in our home by a utility that automatically turns off all unnecessary power once we leave for the day — a technology, in effect, that doesn’t even require us to use our brains. “I think the potential there is huge,” Thaler told me recently, when I asked him about environmental nudges. “And I think we can use a whole bag of tricks.”

Ouch. This is the con behind the con, something I’ve touched on many times, on which this site is more than nominally based. Having the subject laid bare academically could make you see that we’re still merely in the marketing phase of project self-preservation. We’re testing the waters – pondering survival, if you can call it that. Perhaps we could speed things up if we go ahead and ask whether life would be worth living without the ability to consume and waste vast amounts of resources, without the freedom of our corporate sponsors to find new ways to poison us and indebt us. As nothing quite solid has panned out yet, we’ll continue feeling around for just that perfect thing (‘nudge’) that will convince us to do something about what we know. The preference for a ‘Pearl Harbor’ climate incident to galvanize attention is noted. And stupid.

That this perfectly childish scenario is somehow normal, because we have a non-trivial percentage of our citizens and leaders who believe that a warming planet won’t be their problem and so shouldn’t merit their worry, is merely accepted as one among a workable array of factors and an insult to children everywhere. The contrived pull and yaw of doing/not doing anything can continue indefinitely.

So in terms of policy, it may not be the actual tax mechanism that some people object to; it’s the way a “trivial semantic difference,” as Hardisty put it, can lead a group to muster powerful negative associations before they have a chance to consider any benefits. Baruch Fischhoff, a professor at Carnegie Mellon and a kind of elder statesman among decision scientists, told me he’s fairly convinced a carbon tax could be made superior to cap and trade in terms of human palatability. “I think there’s an attractive version of the carbon tax if somebody thought about its design,” Fischhoff told me, adding that it’s a fundamental principle of decision research that if you’re going to get people to pay a cost, it’s better to do it in a simple manner (like a tax) than a complex one (like in cap and trade). Fischoff sketched out for me a possible research endeavor — the careful design of a tax instrument and the sophisticated collection of behavioral responses to it — that he thought would be necessary for a tax proposal to gather support. “But I don’t think the politicians are that informed about the realm of the possible,” he added. “Opinion polls are not all that one needs.”

Careful we don’t do anything to confuse or depress or worry people into changing the way we live. You wouldn’t want to cause a stampeed among so fragile a population… better to slip it in a like a suggestive value menu item.

I know there’s a chicken-and-egg quality to the way we follow leaders who think so little of us, but it’s not a closed loop. As this useful article makes implicit, there are plenty of ways of  breaking the spell, even if we must get psychological about it. We would proably relax if we could be sure that the next steps would merely be dangerous. And interesting.