Following the facts to where they lead

Via LGM, the approaching 200th birthday of Karl Marx is indeed a moment to digress upon the notion that Marx was right about a lot of things:

The key factor in Marx’s intellectual legacy in our present-day society is not “philosophy” but “critique,” or what he described in 1843 as “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in 1845.

Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the “eternal truths” of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.

We have become used to the go-getting mantra that to effect social change we first have to change ourselves. But enlightened or rational thinking is not enough, since the norms of thinking are already skewed by the structures of male privilege and social hierarchy, even down to the language we use. Changing those norms entails changing the very foundations of society.

Also true that quite a number of people are afraid to even delve into Marx because ‘Marx,’ which is it’s own quiet little brand of pathetic. Add ‘closing books you’ve never opened’ to the long list of epithets at the heart of our ignorance. Plenty of ills have flowed out of his ideas, but the posture of critique about all of this madness is one we cannot afford to be afraid of.

Image: Marx welcoming pedestrians in his birthplace of Trier.

Back at the Front, part MCMLXVI

We diddle about whether there is anything to do anything about, meanwhile Australia (highest per capita carbon emissions) passes a tax on carbon.

The legislation would force about 500 of the biggest polluters to pay for each tonne of carbon dioxide they emit.

The tax is central to the government’s strategy to combat climate change, but the opposition says it will cause job losses and raise the cost of living.

Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter and one of the biggest per capita greenhouse gas emitters.

“Today is a significant day for Australians and the Australians of the future who want to see a better environment,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard said before the vote.

It can be done and people (and people fromerly known as companies) will adjust. As they will to a tax on trading stocks, bonds and derivatives.

The jobs’ bill filibuster… look into it and you’ll see how completely captured our (odd pronoun choice, more needed) legislators are to the will and wishes of corporate interests. They can’t even discuss voting on a jobs bill, much less a carbon tax.

But Australia did. Maybe they decided to put the sharks back in the water where they belong.

Enters the Leaf

Primo Levi survived Auschwitz to write a prodigious amount of scholarship, essays and fiction before plunging to his death down the stairwell of his Turin apartment building in 1987. This is from the final section of his memoir, The Periodic Table, in which he imagines the life of a carbon atom.

Our character lies for hundreds of millions of years, bound to three atoms of oxygen and one of calcium, in the form of limestone: it already has a very long cosmic history behind it, but we shall ignore it. For it time does not exist, or exists only in the form of sluggish variations in temperature, daily or seasonal, if, for the good fortune of this tale, its position is not too far from the earth’s surface. Its existence, whose monotony cannot be thought of without horror, is a pitiless alternation of hots and colds, that is, of oscillations (always of equal frequency) a trifle more restricted and a trifle more ample: an imprisonment, for this potentially living personage, worthy of the Catholic Hell. To it, until this moment, the present tense is suited, which is that of description, rather than the past tense, which is that of narration – it is congealed in an eternal present, barely scratched by the moderate quivers of thermal agitation.

But, precisely for the good fortune of the narrator, whose story could otherwise have come to an end, the limestone rock ledge of which the atom forms a part lies on the surface. It lies within reach of man and his pickax (all honor to the pickax and its modern equivalents; they are still the most important intermediaries in the millennial dialogue between the elements and man): at any moment – which I, the narrator, decide out of pure caprice to be the year 1840 – a blow of the pickax detached it and sent it on its way to the lime kiln, plunging it into the world of things that change. It was roasted until it separated from the calcium, which remained so to speak with its feet on the ground and went to meet a less brilliant destiny, which we shall not narrate. Still firmly clinging to two of its three former oxygen companions, it issued from the chimney and took the path of the air. Its story, which once was immobile, now turned tumultuous.

It was caught by the wind, flung down on the earth, lifted ten kilometers high. It was breathed in by a falcon, descending into its precipitous lungs, but did not penetrate its rich blood and was expelled. It dissolved three times in the water of the sea, once in the water of a cascading torrent, and again was expelled. It traveled with the wind, for eight years: now high, now low, on the sea and among the clouds, over forests, deserts, and limitless expanses of ice; then it stumbled into capture and the organic adventure.

Carbon, in fact, is a singular element: it is the only element that can bind itself in long stable chains without a great expense of energy, and for life on earth (the only one we know so far) precisely long chains are required. Therefore carbon is the key element of living substance: but its promotion, its entry into the living world, is not easy and must follow an obligatory, intricate path, which has been clarified (and not yet definitively) only in recent years. If the elaboration of carbon were not a common daily occurrence, on the scale of billions of tons a week, wherever the green of a leaf appears, it would by full right deserve to be called a miracle.

The atom we are speaking of, accompanied by its two satellites, which maintained it in a gaseous state, was therefore borne by the wind along a row of vines in the year 1848. It had the good fortune to brush against a leaf, penetrate it, and be nailed there by a ray of the sun. If my language here becomes imprecise and allusive, it is not only because of my ignorance: this decisive event, this instantaneous work a tre – of the carbon dioxide, the light, and the vegetal greenery – has not yet been described in definitive terms, and perhaps it will not be for a long time to come, so different is it from the other ‘organic’ chemistry which is the cumbersome, slow, and ponderous work of man: and yet this refined, minute, and quick-witted chemistry was ‘invented’ two or three billion years ago by our silent sisters, the plants, which do not experiment and do not discuss, and whose temperature is identical to that of the environment in which they live. If to comprehend is the same as forming an image, we will never form an image of a happening whose scale is a millionth of a millimeter, whose rhythm is a millionth of a second and whose protagonists are in their essence invisible. Every verbal description must he inadequate, and one will be as good as the next, so let us settle for the following description.

Our atom of carbon enters the leaf, colliding with other innumerable (but here useless) molecules of nitrogen and oxygen. It adheres to a large and complicated molecule that activates it, and simultaneously receives the decisive message from the sky, in the flashing form of a packet of solar light: in an instant, like an insect caught by a spider, it is separated from its oxygen, combined with hydrogen and (one thinks) phosphorus, and finally inserted in a chain, whether long or short does not matter, but it is the chain of life. All this happens swiftly, in silence, at the temperature and pressure of the atmosphere, and gratis: dear colleagues, when we learn to do likewise we will be sicut Deus [like God], and we will have also solved the problem of hunger in the world.

But there is more and worse, to our shame and that of our art.

Counting Carbon Calories

Now there’s an idea, from Amanda Little in the Times:

Americans use more oil than people in any other developed country, about twice as much per capita, on average, as Britons. Indeed, our appetite for petroleum, like our fondness of fast foods, has spawned a kind of obesity epidemic, but one without conspicuous symptoms like high blood pressure and diabetes. And because we don’t see how much energy goes into the products and services we purchase, we’re shielded from knowing the full extent of our personal energy demands — and unprepared when rising fuel prices increase the cost of everything else.

This illusion stems, in part, from a measurement problem: while we expect and understand labels on our food products that quantify caloric, fat and nutrient content, we have no clear way of measuring the amount of energy it takes to make our products and propel our daily activities.

There are lot of paths to using less, everything from profit incentives to utility companies to sell us less juice, to this one; we just need to start walking. Instead we can only call for more drilling or use congressional hearings to debate whether the planet is really warming.

They should have those hearings using only half the lights in the room – they’re already using only half (the) wits.

Intrinsic Angular Momentum

IAM, or spin, in other words. If we could capture the power of the earth’s magnetic power on itself, what would we plug it into? The conundrum would be similar, if not perfectly analogous, to attempting the transformation of hype into literal energy. There is something blocking the association – a physical law or two, sure, but also an imaginary plane of separation dividing these possibilities.

And I’m not talking here just about Newtonian physics not working at the quantum dimension. After all, do we not admit that our abilities to entertain magical possibility are powerful? Sustainable, cheap green energy that does not displace our devotion to modern convenience, for example; or the elimination of a seemingly necessary level of waste, for another. Do these imply mutual exclusivity? And if they don’t, what’s the problem, then?

One aspect might be stopping some of what we’re doing as a form of doing something about a problem. Conservation has its naysayers, but alone or teamed with constructive counter steps, substantial benefits cannot be denied. The cessation in consuming fast food as means to healthier living, for example; we would want to continue eating but may well choose tastier options that do not require industrial-scale agriculture in order to exist. A better example might be deforestation – stopping it as a means to reducing carbon emissions. Here we have the opportunity for greater carbon sequestration via the presence of more carbon cycling mechanisms (trees), coupled with the reduction in ghg emissions themselves by actually cutting down and hauling away less trees. Double dip in each column, if you want. But it’s not a ‘something for nothing’ proposition. Not a magical bullet, as they say. Just an initiative

known as the Carbon Benefits Project, was launched today by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Agroforestry Centre, along with a range of other key partners. The project is being funded by the Global Environment Facility.

Under the United Nation’s climate convention and its Kyoto Protocol, developed countries can offset some of their greenhouse gas emissions by paying developing economies for implementing clean and renewable energy projects such as wind, solar and geothermal power.

In December 2009, at the crucial UN climate convention meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, nations may decide to also pay to tropically-forested countries for maintaining standing forests under a scheme known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD).

This is because up to 20 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions linked with climate change is coming from deforestation—more than from cars, trucks, planes and ships combined.

I’ll stipulate how dangerously close this line of thinking may be to not making art as a conceptual form of art making if it can also be noted for the record that not cutting down trees is a viable form of tree-having.

Living in the City

Ah… the immortal words of Lee Ving, via a lot of good research presented in this article by Ed Glaeser.

The five metropolitan areas with the lowest levels of carbon emissions are all in California: San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. These areas have remarkably low levels of both home heating and electricity use. There are cold places, like Rochester, that don’t air-condition much and thus use comparably little electricity. There are warm places, like Houston, that don’t heat much and thus have comparably low heating emissions. But coastal California has little of both sorts of emissions, because of its extremely temperate climate and because California’s environmentalists have battled for rules that require energy-efficient appliances, like air conditioners and water heaters, and for green sources of electricity, such as natural gas and hydropower. (Some analysts argue that this greenness is partly illusory—see “California’s Potemkin Environmentalism,” Spring 2008—but certainly, by our measures, California homes use less energy.) Also, despite the stereotypes about California highways and urban sprawl, some of these five cities, like San Francisco, have only moderate levels of transportation emissions, since their residents actually live at relatively high densities, which cuts down on driving.

In one of the charts, they measured overall carbon emissions for cities, then differentiated emissions of central city residences from the suburbs. Surprises abound.

Boston and Philadelphia are the third and fifth cities on the list. Though hotter summers and more coal make Philadelphia browner than Boston, the city-suburb differences in both areas reflect the high density and abundant public transportation in their central cities. Nashville and Atlanta, on the other hand, rank second and fourth not because their central cities are particularly green but because extensive driving makes their far-flung suburbs particularly brown.

However, even these are not without their caveats, exceptions and reasons why. So you should read the whole thing. Land use patterns and incentives that shift us toward high energy-use locales instead of green ones – those are the issues.

Plus, it beats getting fat and dying your hair.

The joneses, keeping up with

This is exactly what I was talking about in this week’s column. Admittedly it does involve foreign concepts like nonprofit utility boards and conscientious people, but this

The utility thinks behavior modification could be as effective in promoting conservation as trying to get customers to install new appliances is, Mr. Starnes said, and maybe more so.

is universal. Set aside ethical sympathies about the environment. Shame people into keeping up with their neighbors and they’ll take care of the imaginative/innovative part; you just put the comparative graphs on their bill. Okay, and the frowny faces, too.

In a 2004 experiment, he and a colleague left different messages on doorknobs in a middle-class neighborhood north of San Diego. One type urged the residents to conserve energy to save the earth for future generations; another emphasized financial savings. But the only kind of message to have any significant effect, Dr. Cialdini said, was one that said neighbors had already taken steps to curb their energy use.

“It is fundamental and primitive,” said Dr. Cialdini, who owns a stake in Positive Energy. “The mere perception of the normal behavior of those around us is very powerful.”

Zero the Carbon

A colleague at Flagpole pointed me to this, a partially, if unintentionally, hilarious article in the ATL newspaper about a shopping district billing itself as the nation’s first carbon-neutral zone. Excellent. A local firm is auditing the businesses for the their carbon footprint to tell them how much they should pay in off-sets to 1)feel better about it and 2) use the good feeling to advertise the district so that shoppers can feel better about spending money there. Rinse, repeat.

While this could be seen as the latest chapter in the annals of green marketing — another emission in all the talk about global warming — there’s actually substance behind the boast.

Is there ever. It’s paper-like, six inches by two-and-a-half.

The carbon-free zone is the result of a pilot project engineered by a local environmental company — an intricate transaction linking 18 merchants, a trading exchange in Chicago, a charitable foundation in Atlanta and thousands of acres of forest in rural Georgia.

Okay, so the landlord, seeing the genius of the plan, actually takes up paying for the audits if the tenants will pay their own offsets. Fair enough. But you see where this is going, right? No? Okay, try this.

Sandor[father-in-law of the auditing company founder] started the Chicago Climate Exchange, a market where carbon credits and offsets are traded like pork belly futures in the interest of fighting climate change through capitalism. Time magazine called him “the father of carbon trading.”

So… will off-sets allow us to just put our carbon-conscience on the credit card and otherwise continue with our as-you-were sets of priorities? It sort of answers itself. The reporter, before providing some glorious quotes from the business owners, does site the precedent of Papal Indulgences as a reasonably-related precursor. But… those quotes:

“The carbon thing wasn’t the issue. People were more concerned about the cost,” says Brian Jolly of Half-Moon Outfitters, a store on North Highland.

The price of the offsets ranged from $10 a year for Lulu Blue, a petite sweet shop, to $600 for Highland Tap, a steakhouse. Restaurants inevitably leave a larger carbon footprint with their sizable staffs and higher utility use.

“I’m the biggest polluter over here,” says the Tap’s general manager, Ron Haynes, who commutes 30 miles from Peachtree City [emphasis mine] and employs 35 people.

He’s still unsure whether his check bought anything more than a fuzzy feeling of virtue.

“It sort of made sense to me when they explained it,” he says. “But I do wonder what I’m doing to curb global warming. It feels like I’m just spending money to make up for the damage I’m doing to the environment. I guess it’s better than doing nothing.”

Is it? Inquiring minds want to know – not necessarily the answer to that question but, as comes up oftener and oftener these days, whether these are the only two choices. Especially when you have to live 30 miles from work.

Expensive-r gas

I saw this article in the Guardian UK over the weekend, which features Dr. James Hansen of Goddard Institute of Space Studies waxing darkly about green:

Hansen said current carbon levels in the atmosphere were already too high to prevent runaway greenhouse warming. Yet the levels are still rising despite all the efforts of politicians and scientists.

Only the US now had the political muscle to lead the world and halt the rise, Hansen said. Having refused to recognise that global warming posed any risk at all over the past eight years, the US now had to take a lead as the world’s greatest carbon emitter and the planet’s largest economy. Cap-and-trade schemes, in which emission permits are bought and sold, have failed, he said, and must now be replaced by a carbon tax that will imposed on all producers of fossil fuels. At the same time, there must be a moratorium on new power plants that burn coal – the world’s worst carbon emitter.

It’s a cheeky lede and all, but the point is taken. All you Nether-philes out there, get serious about getting serious. But then the chorus about a global economic slowdown and its effects on measures to counteract rapidly-advancing climate change pipes in.

Governments are putting plans aimed at mitigating carbon dioxide emissions on hold at a time when concerns are focused on finance rather than ecology and when the collapsing price of oil and gas is undermining incentives to invest in renewable energy.

Another blow to the sector is the tumbling price of permits for emitting carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. In countries where emitters must buy these permits, like those in the European Union, low prices mean emitters have fewer incentives to make their production process more efficient or move to less greenhouse gas intensive fuels.

So… let’s say we have identified a dependable correlation between the price of gas (natural or petrol) and the value of carbon-emitting permits, such that as the price of gas falls, efforts to raise efficiency AND demand for carbon permits also flag. What to do? Call the psychic hotline? Follow your heart?

How about we look into this conundrum and… wait for it: raise the price of gas ON PURPOSE!

Brilliant. villainous. sneaky. shrewd. under-handed. UnAmerican. Exactly.

Carbon-free city, sea view

Via, the United Arab Emirates capital of Dubai is planning construction of the world’s first ‘zero-carbon’ city in the middle of a petroleum-drenched desert. It sounds like offering pony rides in the middle of a zombie theme park, but also looks like they’re serious.

Using the traditional planning principles of a walled city, together with existing technologies to achieve sustainable development, this six sq km expanse will house an energy, science and technology community.

Called the Masdar (meaning ‘source’ in Arabic) Initiative, this ambitious plan for a ‘Green City’ is being driven by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, a private, joint stock company established and wholly-owned by Mubadala Development Company.

‘‘As the first major hydrocarbon-producing nation to take such a step, Abu Dhabi has established its leadership position by launching Masdar, a global cooperative platform for open engagement in the search for solutions to some of mankind’s most pressing issues — energy security, environment and truly sustainable human development,” Masdar chief executive Sultan Al Jaber said.

Abu Dhabi accounts for more than 90 percent of the UAE’s oil resources, and the country’s reserves, exceeding 100 billion barrels, ranked third largest in the world.

The ‘Green City’ will house the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a graduate science and research institute that will be established in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; world-class laboratories; commercial space for related-sector companies; light manufacturing facilities and a selected pool of international tenants who will invest, develop, and commercialise advanced energy technologies.

There is also a lark in there about ‘rapid personal transport systems’ and reference to the fact that Abu Dhabi sees temps north of 50C in July and August, so  like any good theme park brochure there’s a little something for everyone.

Even with petroleum reserves of more than 100 billion barrels, the Sultan is seeing the writing on the wall. From the time of Aristotle, scientific knowledge has profited from time spent in Arab hands, so we’ll see. It’s not like we’re trying anything similar outside of Indianapolis or anything. Imagine the headlines if that were the case.