Already figured out

A list of things we have already figured out, ways of living that support the planet’s future, to be quite frank about it.

Fast(er) trains – take the best one in the U.S., the Acela in the northeast corridor. We should have deeded it over to France or Japan years ago. They would charge us less, the trains would already be faster and more efficient, likely easily spread south and west for obvious reasons, displacing an over-reliance on regional airline traffic. Because we… see title.

Live close to work, school and play. This supposed magic to happy living requires no reverse engineering, and actually very little engineering at all. Just incentives and penalties, zoning, bikes lanes, public transport, and host a host of things we… see title.

Eco-friendly products, ‘perils’ of greenwashing (who’s, exactly?), and renewable energy generation. The barriers holding us back to realizing these are… the decisions not to embrace them. It’s very much akin to not funding pre-K or other early childhood education that we already know works really well. They all exist right now and have for decades. Renewable energy is in its early adulthood, and the so-called ‘perils’ are only fueling the corporate campaign to delay changing anything:

The peer-reviewed paper, published Thursday in the journal Science, analyzed all known climate predictions produced or reported by scientists at ExxonMobil and its predecessor from 1977-2003, and found that they were “at least as skillful” as those by independent experts (Exxon merged with Mobil in 1999). Like those independent models, most of Exxon’s proved to be accurate.

“They didn’t just vaguely know something about global warming decades ago, they literally knew as much as independent academic scientists did,” said Geoffrey Supran, the paper’s lead author, who recently left a research position at Harvard University to become an associate professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric and Earth Science. “We now have this airtight, unimpeachable evidence that Exxon accurately predicted global warming years before it turned around and publicly attacked climate science.”

How much longer we’ll have to let the debates about ESG rage on, die off, and make comebacks are more about the fate of business news operations and PR than they are about investments in viable products, power, or even politics. Getting past what we’ve already figured out is the only route to splashy new breakthroughs like, hey, the coral reefs might actually survive.

Image: ACC Transportation and Public works

Paper, scissors, rock and a hard place

There is an old truism (cite?) that when capitalism and democracy come into conflict, capitalism will always win. But for a long time now it has seemed that the holy virtues of the market are failing the political preferences of the American right. Reasons become excuses and victors turn themselves into victims when they really have to fight against ideas they once supported like market power, not to mention the popular vote. It’s all a bit embarrassing once you step back for a moment. We’ve just gotten used to it, but the whole concept of ‘far-left finance’ is just as crackpot as ‘left-wing corporate media.’ We’re sorry, but no:

Economic modernity isn’t what it used to be. Today, some of America’s largest investors are pension funds that aggregate the savings of unions and public-sector employees, and mutual funds that pool the retirement accounts of white-collar professionals. None of these constituencies are remotely as demographically or ideologically similar to the contemporary conservative base as the capitalist class of yore was to the right-wingers of the mid-20th century. Indeed, over the past 70 years, America’s top executives, money managers, and professionals have grown more diverse, cosmopolitan, and socially liberal, even as the GOP base has grown increasingly animated by exclusionary nationalism and culture wars.

At the same time, consumer-facing brands now covet the favor of young city dwellers, both within America’s borders and beyond them. This is because such consumers are more likely to try new products than your average elderly person in rural America, and the former’s brand loyalty is more valuable, since they are less likely to die soon. That reality, combined with the imperative to compete outside the U.S. market, leads many of America’s most visible firms to align themselves, however superficially, with a progressive and cosmopolitan cultural politics.

Finally, the reality of climate change has given private investors both ideological and financial reasons to disfavor the carbon-intensive industries that supply a disproportionate share of the GOP’s corporate funding. Many public employees and socially liberal professionals like the idea of investing in the green transition, while plenty of far-sighted financiers believe that heavy exposure to fossil fuel assets is unwise in the long-term.

To blame this on some sort of woke anything is just a slur. They can’t compete so they just whine. Refusing to acknowledge where the markets and money flow is not some sort of physics you can undermine with new made-up laws of specialer relativity because you don’t agree with gravity.

Babies are at least honest about what’s in their diapers.

Machines learning

But despite the hype (and… oh boy!), not in a good way. So-called artificial intelligence – no relation to intelligence, but the word just seems so suggestive – is actually just machine learning. And who teaches the machine to learn how they learn what they learn? Humans. Thus, AI/ml also includes all the joys of human foibles.

Oh, and not just the racism + sexism. Also, the burning:

For example, recommendation and advertising algorithms are often used in advertising, which in turn drives people to buy more things, which causes more carbon dioxide emissions. It’s also important to understand how AI models are used, Kaack says. A lot of companies, such as Google and Meta, use AI models to do things like classify user comments or recommend content. These actions use very little power but can happen a billion times a day. That adds up.

It’s estimated that the global tech sector accounts for 1.8% to 3.9% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Although only a fraction of those emissions are caused by AI and machine learning, AI’s carbon footprint is still very high for a single field within tech.

With a better understanding of just how much energy AI systems consume, companies and developers can make choices about the trade-offs they are willing to make between pollution and costs, Luccioni says.

I know – that’s your shocked face. But move fast because it’s important to keep up with the language as it changes and the conditions do not, or are made worse. Because the investment society that cultures large language models and the like already feels three steps ahead, because they never under-invest in PR. Relying on ‘companies and developers to make the right choices about trade-offs’ is only in any way reliable to the extent we change the end of that statement above about what they are ‘willing’ to do. Otherwise, we’re only and ever at the mercy of the companies and developers, no matter whether they blame it on some disembodied algorithm, call it machine learning or whatever.

It’s definitely artificial something.

Image via reset.org

Slutty carbon

Sure, it will bond to any old thing – just a fun-loving, good time chemical element with the symbol C and atomic number 6. Call anytime.

And though carbon is not magnetic, it does attract kooks. Okay, no harm there, chacun à son goût and all that. We’re not all kooks. We even devise ways around it – solar, wind, other means of generating that dirty dirty electricity that we enjoy so much. And you won’t believe what happens next:

This scene from the village council meeting in June helps to explain why opponents of three solar projects proposed in Pickaway County, Ohio, can say they have the support of nearly every local elected official. It shows how a committed group of local residents have dominated the debate by packing county, village and township meetings, and making their displeasure known if officials don’t fall into line.

The prevailing emotion is fear, whether it’s fear of the solar projects—or fear of upsetting the people who oppose the projects.

And the local fight has broad implications. The world needs to increase its reliance on renewable energy, an essential part of avoiding the most destructive effects of climate change. Local opposition shows some of the disconnect between global needs and the concerns of some of the people who don’t want to live next door to wind and solar projects.

It’s a little beyond as well as different from traditional NIMBYism, though also quite similar in several ways, as the locals literally don’t want to be living next to utility-scale solar. They don’t want to see it and they don’t want to hear it. Though it’s not a discussion about energy and how they get it at all. “Just leave us alone,” they might say, then step back inside and to watch the ballgame. And there’s the rub.

Whether we blame them for not wanting to connect their own usage of dirty energy to their passions for their freedom not to see it, or blame the local school district that benefits from the increase in tax revenue for not being more vocal in their support for the solar projects, the moment and the conflicts should be noted. The difficulty of telling nominally self-governing people what to do when their own understanding of any right thing is itself in conflict with abstractions like freedom is certainly one of the more devious tricks slutty carbon has played on us.

It’s sort of a next-level struggle with renewables that has nothing to do with energy – because focused on how we’re gonna watch the game or dry the clothes, or even live that far from the grocery store [don’t get me started], the question changes entirely. At least the NIMBYism is familiar.

Image: Carbon–carbon bonds get a break | Nature

My EV in your ICE(e)

Lot lady: What kind of car are you looking for?
Driver man: What kinds you got?
Lot lady: These kinds

California is poised to ban the sale of new gas-powered vehicles — a far-reaching policy that is likely to reverberate throughout the rest of the country and the world.

On Thursday, the California Air Resources Board will issue the new rules that were first rolled out by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020, which would require 100 percent of new cars sold in the state to be free of carbon emissions, according to The New York Times.

The rule would phase in over time, with 35 percent of new passenger vehicles sold by 2026 and 68 percent by 2030. California says that over 16 percent of new car sales were “zero-emission vehicles” in 2022 — up from 12.41 percent last year and 7.78 percent in 2020.

Note those last few stats about percentages of non-ICE vehicles sold per year. That’s a very big jump and consumer choices are about to get very much wider.

Now, we’ll have to make indie renewable energy generation more commonplace, rooftop solar coming to your neighborhood house. Just enough to power your automobile would be a huge step in the right direction, but then what happens when it keeps working and electricity starts get cheap towards free? Then what will you do, huh? Didn’t think of that!

Skins in the game

sidewalk plaque in Charlottesville, Virginia plaque featured chalk graffiti added by local artist Richard Parks.
(Courtesy of Richard Parks)

As if we need reminding (ed: we do!), set aside how much we hate women and remember how racist we are! The discussion about American universities – especially our oldest, most venerable institutions of higher learning – and their deep connections to slavery has barely begun to break through, even and especially at our oldest, most venerable institutions. So, while the public remains largely unaware of the history, we might wonder how universities have for so long escaped scrutiny about the past – about how they were built, how they succeeded, who they succeeded for, and how so much of this was connected to buying and selling people to use as free labor. The NYRB dives into a four new books, and sets the stage rather clearly:

One reason, perhaps, that academic institutions were spared from scrutiny was that they seemed, by design, to be physically removed from the vulgar transactions of commercial life. The trading houses where merchants contracted for consignments of cotton, rum, molasses, and human chattel; the insurance firms that indemnified slave owners for loss of human property; the clothiers that manufactured coarse smocks for enslaved field hands—all these were likely to be found among shops and markets, close to the banks from which they obtained credit and the wharves where human goods were loaded or unloaded for sale.

Think, on the other hand, of our early colleges: Harvard on its bluff above the Charles River, or Yale looking across New Haven Green toward the Long Island Sound, or Brown atop the heights of Providence. Their architecture (ecclesiastical) and setting (pastoral) seemed to say, “We stand above the fray, removed from the workaday world, in a high-minded sphere of our own.” For people like me whose shelves are filled with books about these colleges, it’s not a bad idea to paste a note every foot or so along the edge of the shelf bearing this reminder from the novelist James McBride: “The web of slavery is sticky business. And at the end of the day, ain’t nobody clear of it.”

And friends, of course it’s not just the Ivies. The preponderance of screaming denials (CRT!) and counter-recriminations (Woke!) arise out of fear and cowardice about facing this history as it bleeds to profusely into our present. Can’t stop the bleeding without finding the wound, cleaning it carefully, repairing as much damage as possible, dressing it and providing all available care for full recuperation. Only then can we attend and check on the healing.

Image via WAPO

Recessions fears 1, climate concerns 0

If you’re scoring at home, (and who’s not?) getting off the buying merry go round is proving to be incredibly difficult – even with ever-present reminders of plague, drought, and the cost of everything cross-referenced with the need to exercise and eat better, the joys of being outdoors and seeing people again. It’s all so confusing, especially when the answers are RIGHT there. You’re so close, Brigette:

As gas and food prices climb, Brigette Engler, an artist based in New York City, said she’s driving to her second home upstate less often and cutting back on eating out.

“Twenty dollars seems extravagant at this point for lunch,” she said.

And before you start, no one mentioned anything about anything being easy. But that doesn’t mean everything has to be intentionally more difficult to understand, i.e., predicated on a growing economy and not spooking ‘investor confidence.’ JFC… what does any of that even mean? Please subscribe to my newsletter, Which Word to Italicize:

How people spend their money is shifting as the economy slows and inflation pushes prices higher everywhere including gas stations, grocery stores and luxury retail shops. The housing market, for example, is already feeling the pinch. Other industries have long been considered recession proof and may even be enjoying a bump as people start going out again after hunkering down during the pandemic.

Still, shoppers everywhere are feeling pressured. In May, an inflation metric that tracks prices on a wide range of goods and services jumped 8.6% from a year ago, the biggest jump since 1981. Consumers’ optimism about their finances and the overall economy sentiment fell to 50.2% in June, its lowest recorded level, according to the University of Michigan’s monthly index.

That’s from the same article and I don’t mean to single out CNBC. Just listen Marketplace or any business/economic news and the dissonance is a cacophony (Ed. ?). Unemployment is bad, but a tight labor market rattles the Dow. Prices at the pump have drivers worried about filling up, but what’s the real price of fuel? Hint: Europeans already know. Sure there’s a macro-micro disconnect. But the larger disconnect is the one we keep shoring up: individual actions of millions, propped up and egged on by the corporate and government altars to the status quo, heating up the planet beyond what it can support.

Whether or not we need more reminders of the need to change how we live, more are on the way.

Image: Merry-Go-Round Photograph by Jurgen Lorenzen

Defeating the porpoises, an ongoing series

At the intersection of global climate issues and all things monetary, well, it can be difficult to decide which word to italicize anymore:

The U.S.-based crypto exchange Kraken has announced that, despite the layoffs and hiring freezes among its competitors in the ongoing “crypto winter”, they intend to keep hiring aggressively. They also took the opportunity to announce that they “believe bear markets are fantastic at weeding out the applicants chasing hype from the true believers in our mission”, and that they had “taken this opportunity to align our internal culture around a set of shared values”. They also make it clear that anyone who disagree with the changes can GTFO: “In commitment to these values, we also expanded our permanent benefits program to make moving on a bit easier for anyone who feels it’s time for the next chapter in their career.”

That’s from Molly White’s terrific and wonderfully-named website and she’s is no danger of running out of content anytime soon. Because lots of everyones out there think all the other everyones are the suckers, or they’re not sure who is. But whatever, the sucker rule still applies.

And at the same time, it’s more than that. When the last necessary thing was another distraction from the burning and belching, from the fanning, the rising and the storming, everyones are out here convincing themselves to believe in yet another free ride. Yes, it would be great if blockchain ‘tech’ guaranteed that you could trust this invisible money (cf. the italics dilemma). But that’s not how people work. What people do is find the sucker, and adjust for scale, malheureusement.

Image via porpoisesdotorg, natch.

Shop ’til you stop

Insightful NYRB review of two new books about life in a slower economy. It’s NOT that things will necessarily be so much worse when we are spending less, driving less, burning less – they won’t be worse. It’s just the transition to consuming less itself we consider to be so painful as to be unthinkable. We’re such babies:

Generations of economists, meanwhile, have insisted on the goodness of economic growth and warned that any significant drop in consumption would vaporize jobs, leaving millions if not billions of people without a means of supporting themselves or their families. (Margaret Thatcher’s well-known phrase “There is no alternative,” sometimes shortened to TINA, refers to the assumed necessity of perpetual growth.) The resulting dilemma, as MacKinnon puts it, is that “we must stop shopping, and yet we can’t stop shopping.”

Rather than dismiss this conundrum, MacKinnon seeks to complicate it. Whose jobs would be lost, and for how long? How could societies and their economies adapt, and what could they gain in the process? How would other species react to quieter, less polluted habitats? To begin to answer these questions, he proposes a thought experiment to economists, entrepreneurs, and others: Say that on a single day not long from now, consumer spending falls 25 percent. What next? Predictions in hand, MacKinnon seeks real-world equivalents, finding disparate places and times where conditions similar to those of his thought experiment have already come to pass.

This approach, which might be called speculative journalism, was memorably employed by Alan Weisman in his 2008 book The World Without Us, which MacKinnon credits in his acknowledgments. To conjure a planet precipitously vacated by humans, Weisman interviewed architects, engineers, ecologists, and others qualified to forecast the fates of abandoned cities, farms, and forests. He then visited deliberately unpeopled places, such as the Korean Demilitarized Zone and the United Nations–controlled buffer zone between the Turkish and Greek sides of the island of Cyprus. In a kind of reverse archaeology, both Weisman and MacKinnon assemble shards of past and present into plausible futures. The most obvious difference between their thought experiments is that MacKinnon’s became all too concrete: when he was midway through his research, pandemic shutdowns upended the world economy, and the effects of his imagined fall in spending were inflicted on real people in real time.

The Day the World Stops Shopping is neither an economic treatise nor a detailed policy proposal, though it draws on both as sources. It is an enjoyably idiosyncratic tour led by a perceptive, empathetic guide. It assumes that any significant, lasting reduction in consumption will result from accidents and innovations, brought about not by individual households but by loosely coordinated communities, nations, and regions. In this sense, it is both more realistic and more persuasive than any technical argument, for it makes it possible to imagine not only one alternative to endless growth but many.

Lots of important points here, brought us by people who are smarter.

Wait and see

Sort of a corollary of f*ck around and find out. But.. good to see Biden getting serious about supporting Ukraine. That’s a big number and it needs to be. On verra, as they say.

The ‘let’s see if this sorts itself out’ attitude from some western countries – albeit, right now fewer by the day – mirrors the general tendency of the same countries to do very little about climate change. All the while:

Rising seas have long been a threat to coastal cities. New research suggests that cities—particularly in Asia—are sinking as well, compounding the risks of frequent and severe flooding.

In Karachi, land is sinking five times as fast as the sea level is rising, according to the study published this month in Geophysical Research Letters. Manila and Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second-largest city, are sinking at 10 times the rate of the rising waters.

In China’s Tianjin, a coastal city about 150 kilometers southeast of Beijing, the ground is giving way at 20 times that speed.

In those four cities alone, the phenomenon could affect roughly 59 million residents.

The study, which used satellite data to analyze 99 cities around the world from 2015 to 2020, points to groundwater extraction related to rapid urbanization and population growth, oil and gas production, and construction.

The next life you save just might be your own.