30 March 2014

No to Climate Change, But No Time for System Change

We attended a lecture (we had to leave early, so missed the "public forum" part) the other night by Professor Richard Smith, Rutgers University lecturer, economic historian, member of the System Change Not Climate Change network in the U.S. and author of articles like "Green Capitalism: The God That Failed" and "Capitalism and the Destruction of Life on Earth: Six Theses on Saving the Humans."

Professor Smith's visit was sponsored by the Social Environmental Alliance and the Vancouver Eco-Socialist Group, organizations that see capitalism as a root cause of the climate change crisis and who are calling for "system change" as the crisis deepens.
"Ecosocialists see this ecological crisis as a symptom of the underlying economic and social system called capitalism, whose basic operating features include: (1) the imperative of profit and competition-driven expansion without limit, (2) the treatment of human labour and the natural world as commodities for sale rather than having value for human well-being and ecological stability; (3) benefits to a small and privileged social class wielding inordinate political power, (4) deformed social priorities amongst humans, including in our relationship to the rest of nature."
The title of Smith's talk was No to Climate Change - Yes to System Change. It was interesting and in many ways, spot on. He sure understands the climate change emergency. He is calling for a revolution away from capitalism -- or at least the worst forms of our Western, industrial, globalized, capitalist economy (the pillaging sort of capitalism that doesn't give a damn about the consequences of habitat destruction, resource loss, pollution or climate change). 

The problem is, we don't have time for an economic revolution. We need to get going on what we can be doing now. And that's simple. Economists keep telling us that the market can solve our ills. The time has come for them to prove it. Let's see what that "invisible hand" does with the market once we've set the following in place. My guess is that investments will swing briskly toward renewables!

1. Stop all direct and indirect subsidies for fossil fuels.**

2. Tax carbon. Really tax carbon.

3. Charge for pollution. Let companies pay for the social (health) and environmental costs of their businesses, damn it. Seriously, why should taxpayers have to cough up when corporations should be paying these costs before calculating their profits and paying dividends to shareholders?

4. And what of the banks? Don't they have just a teeny weeny bit too much power ("credit capitalism")? With none of the responsibilities?

** Some people worry that removing all fossil fuel subsidies will be unjust for poorer people. In the short term, this could well be true. But long term, fossil fuels are going to kill all of us, whether we're rich or poor. However -- and I welcome your thoughts on this, as mine aren't fully formed yet -- I think that winning an international race to zero carbon will actually be easier for the least developed nations, as they have come late to the fossil fuel party. Climate justice is for future generations as much as for today's less fortunate.

23 March 2014

"Can't You Read the Signs?"

It's been another week of convergences, but this time with a much different flavour. This time, I received several emails and links that added up to a sense of promise that I haven't felt in a long, long time. It's as though the world (our EuroAmerican world, our globalized EuroAmerican economy) is finally understanding that things have to change, and fast.

Let me share some of these with you.

First, I'm reading more and more commenters who "get" the urgency, who have grasped the danger in the ocean heat lag and carbon feedbacks, who are calling for zero carbon and negative carbon (sucking it out of the atmosphere and sequestering it). Just that alone, while not comforting, is a sign that people are waking up.


Next, I'm seeing more and more mention of a "carbon bubble" in the investing world. And anything with the word "bubble" in it scares the wits out of investors these days. They're saying that the world's financial markets could be creating a "carbon bubble" by over valuing the fossil fuel assets of large companies, when those assets are actually useless because they're going to have to stay in the ground. 

This is coming from the Environmental Audit Committee of the UK Parliament. Not a bunch of slouches, I'm guessing. Committee chair Joan Walley MP, has said, "Financial stability could be threatened if shares in fossil fuel companies turn out to be overvalued because the bulk of their oil, coal and gas reserves cannot be burnt without further destabilising the climate." (See what I mean about people waking up?) 

Update: Check out this week's Climate Denial Crock of the Week, Huge: Exxon Will Advise Investors on Carbon Bubble Exposure.


Sustainability advisor Paul Gilding recently posted Carbon Crash Solar Dawn. He wrote: 
"I think it’s time to call it. Renewables and associated storage, transport and digital technologies are so rapidly disrupting whole industries’ business models they are pushing the fossil fuel industry towards inevitable collapse…. 
One thing I’ve learnt from decades inside boardrooms, is that, by and large, oil, coal and gas companies live in an analytical bubble, deluded about their immortality and firm in their beliefs that 'renewables are decades away from competing' and 'we are so cheap and dominant the economy depends on us' and 'change will come, but not on my watch'. Dream on boys." 
Well worth a read, if only because it plants the seed of what is possible -- and inevitable. Can we get the timing right? That's the big, terrifying question.


And then some Donella Meadows quotes came my way, as if to somehow reassure me. It's said that she had "the enviable ability to maintain her inner serenity and her faith in the better angels of human nature, even in the face of the terrifying trends and scenarios she was all too familiar with." But still, that capacity to hold a middle space must have allowed her to keep working. When asked, "What is your greatest source of hope that society can shift to more responsible patterns of production and consumption and achieve a sustainable future?" she answered:
"The fact that we have to. If we don't choose to, the planet will make us. And the fact that our lives will be better if we do. It isn't sacrifice we're selling, it's a more meaningful, time-filled, love-filled, nature-filled existence. So, as Herman Daly says, we are about to be hit by the hammer of necessity, but we are cradled on the anvil of desirability. We have no choice but to conform." 
"I've grown impatient with the kind of debate we used to have about whether the optimists or the pessimists are right. Neither are right. There is too much bad news to justify complacency. There is too much good news to justify despair." 
"We are not helpless and there is nothing wrong with us except the strange belief that we are helpless and there's something wrong with us. All we need to do, for the bear and ourselves, is to stop letting that belief paralyze our minds, hearts, and souls."

16 March 2014

Local Versus Global Sustainable Development ... Local is More Fun

A friend of mine called the other day just after I'd finished listening to a webinar on the UN's new Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. I was feeling somewhere in between sad and seething, and my friend asked if it was because the webinar was all doom and gloom.

"Hell no," I responded. "There wasn't *any* doom and gloom! That's what got me so upset!"

Here's what happened. The webinar was put on by a world-renowned expert in the field of sustainable development (and if you're not familiar with my stand on sustainable development as the most transformative new paradigm to come our way in ... well, since forever, check out this post) through a network of sustainability professionals: people who care enough to be doing this stuff for a living.

I have to admit that I'd lost track of the UN's "update" of their Millennium Development Goals (which, although some of them have been deemed "met," didn't slow the climate crisis one iota, therefore any successes will soon be moot), so it was great that this fellow brought us up to speed. But when "Climate" wasn't listed as a top focus area, I started to get worried. Sure enough, turns out it's #15. Out of 19. I was completely flummoxed! 

But then I got really worried when, after noting that Focus Area #2 is Food Security and Nutrition (that's good), I had to read waaaaay down before I found this subgoal: "strengthening resilience of farming systems and food supplies to climate change."

In a letter from the co-chairs of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (dated 21 February 2014), they noted:

Throughout our discussions, the group emphasized that eradication of poverty, inequitable development within and among states as well as protection of the environment are amongst the most pressing sustainable development challenges facing humankind in this century.   

Okay, so far, so good sort of. The co-chairs also explained that:

The sessions were guided by the consensus that the SDGs should be action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries, while taking into account the different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities. The goals should address and incorporate in a balanced way the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development and their interlinkages. 
Note the misconception in the last sentence, that the 3Es of sustainable development - environment, social equity and economy - should be "balanced," when the original principle and intent was that they be "integrated." There's a difference ... one that economists fail to recognize all the time. (The economy would not exist without society, and society cannot exist without the environment. So it wouldn't be very prudent to "balance" economy with environment, would it?)

But also note that the SDGs should be "action-oriented" - not survival-oriented. There's still no sense of the urgency. (Especially when you find out that the deadline for meeting these goals is 2030. I guess the goal setters are getting sick of setting goals and want a break for a while. But the world could be in complete turmoil by 2030, especially if our food systems have broken down by then due to climate chaos.)

Now have a look at the climate change focus area:
Focus area 15. Climate
Climate change poses a grave threat to sustainable development and poverty eradication. Some areas to be considered include: reaffirming and reinforcing international commitments, such as limiting the increase in global average temperature through equitable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions; providing effective means of implementation; building resilience and adaptive capacity in developing countries; with a view to reducing global emissions of greenhouse gases, introducing inter alia economic incentives for investments in low-carbon solutions in infrastructure and industry; developing low-carbon, climate-resilient development strategies and plans. Regard must be paid to the principles of the UNFCCC, including that of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, and to supporting and urging greater ambition in the ongoing negotiations towards a strong and effective agreement in 2015. Interlinkages to other focus areas include: food security, water, education, health, energy, sustainable consumption and production, sustainable cities, oceans and seas, ecosystems and biodiversity.  
See any, uh, problems there? A "grave threat to sustainable development and poverty eradication"? Are they kidding me? It's a grave threat to the survival of most life on the planet! An area "to consider" is "limiting the increase in global average temperature through equitable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions"? How about every single gawddamn nation in the world achieving the goal of zero carbon emissions by yesterday?

Perhaps the SDGs should be called "intentions" rather than goals. Because unless we make big leaps in survivable development, these goals are just nice aspirations floating on the breeze. See why I got so upset? That's where we're at on a global level.

Then later that evening (do you ever do this?), I got watching a whole pile of videos online. I couldn't stop. They were so inspiring and exciting! I think I'm going to watch some more today, in fact. They're permaculture videos by Geoff Lawton, a wonderful permaculture teacher who works all over the world. These videos have really helped me solidify the principles that I learned in the Permaculture Design Course I took two years ago. 

One of the three ethics of permaculture is Earth care ("the Earth provides us with everything we need, so we need to think beyond 'sustainable' to 'regenerative.'") And Geoff Lawton knows and understands the multiple threats we're facing. He's doing everything he can to help people learn how to survive multiple crises (water shortages, food shortages, fossil fuel energy shortages, climate disruption and erratic weather, etc.).

So I'd like to leave you with a link to Geoff's video website. You might have to give them your email address, but that's just so they can let you know when the next video comes out. If you have any interest in survival or water catchment or land restoration or greening the desert or growing an abundance of food in your own backyard, take a bit of time to watch Geoff's videos.

Picturing THIS happening locally is what keeps me going when I get down about the rest of the world insanely ignoring what's happening. So please enjoy!

09 March 2014

Living Off the Interest?

Much talk of interest and investing and capital and capitalism and the economy in my life lately. Not only has my local little transition group given up the ghost (well, it's morphed into something less oriented to transformative change, even before we got around to relocalizing our economy), but I just had a meeting with my "green" financial advisor the other day, and I'm editing a series of (quite damning) reports on "socially responsible investing" by my favourite investigative writer. 

I'm pleased to announce that I'm now pretty proud of my investment portfolio (miniscule as it is by some standards) — or at least I was until I started reading the latest installment in Cory Morningstar's series (you can read Part I here; scroll down a smidge). Suddenly I realized that, well, many things:

  • That by the sheer fact that I have money (from years of teaching and living fairly frugally) to invest, I am part of the world's 1%. I must remember to remember how blessed and lucky I am. I must remember the power and influence that money gives me, and put it to good use.
  • That any sort of investing where I lose track of my money (ie, I'm not investing in my neighbours or my community ... yet), I am part of the economic system that is annihilating life on Earth, without conscience.
  • That even an investment in solar, wind or geothermal energy might still be responsible for environmental degradation and displacing people and other species.

And that's just off the top of my head. Capitalism, by its very essence, along with the rules (crutches) we've developed to prop it up, is inherently dangerous. We allow business, as Bill McDonough explains, to get away with murder because we appreciate how speedy and innovative it is compared to government. We give it a free ride when it comes to the damage it creates, allowing corporations to keep all the benefits (aside from a few pesky taxes) while externalizing social and environmental costs. Through our taxes and other government income, we subsidize (to the tune of almost $2 trillion per year, according to the IMF) the most devastating and destructive companies on the planet (fossil fuel corporations). 

But here's what I really wanted to share with you today. It's an odd little message that I scrawled to myself while I was on vacation:
Build your sustainable economy from hair and nails and bellybutton lint. Once you start harvesting fingers and toes — or worse! — you know you're going to run out eventually. And not raw hair and nails, either. Value-added hair and nails!
I don't remember why that came to me. But it struck me one day that our capitalist economy is (and I'm sure I'm not the first to notice) rather cannibalistic. I got this picture in my mind's eye that it's like each of us is chopping off our fingers and toes (our "capital," a word that kind of eerily comes from the Latin caput, meaning head) to keep things chugging along, and you know how long that can last! 

So no, we need to be living off the interest, the bits that grow back, like hair, nails and, yes, bellybutton lint. My fear is that if we don't get this straight, we'll get to the end of our fingers and toes and start going for the organs.

And not only that, but we're losing some wonderful friends from our little community at the end of this month, and it's making me sad. They're leaving because they can't make a living here. They've struggled for years and they're tired and ready for some financial ease. Why don't we ever insist that industries can't ship our hair and nails and bellybutton lint away "raw" — they ought to be ensuring local jobs through value-added hair and nail products.

Okay, the metaphor has gone on long enough. At the very least, please could we start talking about these issues? Instead of pretending there's nothing wrong? Please?

02 March 2014

Scientists Displaying a Different Kind of Denial — A Different Kettle of Fish

A Different Kettle of Fish by DeviantArt.com
My husband and I have noticed that ocean and marine scientists seem to either understand better or care more deeply (pardon the pun) about the climate change crisis than scientists in many other fields. I figure it's because ocean and marine science is about life, or always comes back 'round to life (unlike pure chemistry and physics, for example, or geology and atmospheric science). There's still lots of scientific modelling in this field, but the modelling seems to be about life (often in some form of "seafood").

This is why the new kind of denial of the climate change emergency that I witnessed recently is so disheartening. As a guest at the conference my husband attended this past week, I was able to sit in on a couple of sessions. During the first, a bioscientist at a marine laboratory explained the impacts that ocean acidification is having (along with a whole host of other depredations, including atomic testing!) on coral reefs. He walked us through the graph showing the different scenarios that he and his colleagues had run. And then he stepped in it. 

Perhaps you'd like to read the background to this first. In a world where scientists keep abdicating from telling the full truth about the urgency of this spectacularly serious problem because, in their words, they don't want to give policymakers an excuse to do nothing about climate change, they have given policymakers no reason to do anything! Not only that, but the notion that scientists don't want to "be political" went out the window the moment they made a decision about which and how much science to share with policymakers.

This fellow told his huge audience that he insisted to his research / modelling team that they run a fifth — and totally unrealistic — scenario through the model, a good news scenario where we all stop emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow and everything gets pretty much back to normal. He thought this was necessary so that policymakers wouldn't lose hope.

Dude! You've once again given policymakers a reason to do nothing! Policymakers don't deserve hope, Mr. Scientist. They haven't earned it. They haven't taken action yet. But you scientists haven't given them reason to take action, so who's to blame?

You say the scientist's job is to provide "the best available science" (I would add "within the context of the precautionary principle"), and yet you provided them a way out. You gave them a big, fat "See? Things will be just fine again!" With one little line on your graph that goes up when it should have gone down.

But that wasn't the worst of it. I stayed for the next plenary session, which was entitled Why Aren't They Listening? Ironically over half the audience walked out before this one even began (hence the name of the session could have been Why Aren't Half of Us Listening?). (Granted, it was verging on the lunch hour, and scientists get hungry, too.)

The panelists proffered some good suggestions:

  • Make this (climate change) issue an issue that governments already care about (jobs, economy, health).
  • Offer to help politicians and policymakers make sense of the climate science.
  • Say "As a scientist, this is what I see. As a concerned citizen/parent, this is what I feel."
  • Create a human connection with the people you're communicating the climate science to.
  • The information is out there. Appeal more to people's emotions and values. 
  • In the United States (I can't imagine that this is true in very many other places), the sector with the highest credibility is the military. Remind people that militaries around the world, but especially in the US, see climate change as a security issue.
  • Do all this, but keep working on your tenure and promotion first and foremost.

No, wait. What? Work on tenure and promotion? As though there's a normal future for these young scientists? WTF? Is this panel not discussing climate change?

There it is. They slipped it in, but there it is. Their denial of the climate change emergency. Although they're ocean scientists and they can see what's happening (especially with ocean acidification), they keep living, working, and giving advice to young scientists as though nothing has changed.