Facing the New Reality: Preparing Poor America for Harder Times Ahead
— A Special Report from the Community Action Partnership
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NEW REALITY CHECK
Partnership Strategic Initiatives Task Force
Becoming Animated | April 18, 2014
I would love to report that America and the rest of the world is finally mobilizing to effectively respond to the many serious challenges posed by the New Reality, as this post's title might suggest. Sadly, that it not yet the case. Instead the title refers to a rather amazing attempt by a professional animator, Dermot O'Connor, to capture the essence of what we call "The New Reality" in one 33 minute animated film. This remarkable little film manages to do a very credible job of laying out pretty much everything a person probably needs to know about:
- How and when petroleum, natural gas and coal were formed
- The history of fossil fuel extraction
- The role of energy in our modern economy
- The fundamentals of energy physics
- A review and critique of the limitations of renewable and other alternative energy sources
- Our debt-based monetary system
- Exponential math and the physical Limits to Growth
- Food, water, and the rest of environment as they relate to humans
- A bio-regions carrying capacity and population overshoot
- And finally, what we ought to be doing about all of the above.
Not bad for a 33 minute cartoon. In fact, having studied all this stuff quite intensely for most of the last decade, there are few things in this little animation that I would quibble about, most of them quite minor, with one rather glaring exception: Dermot O'Connor completely ignores climate change in this film. No idea why. And I don't like his film's title - There's No Tomorrow - in part because it doesn't fit his ending, but mostly because I do not believe that the end point of all this is necessarily Doom and Gloom. But that said, as an overview or introduction to these really important New Reality issues, or as a way to reach out to the growing ranks of "graphic learners" among us, this is a remarkable piece of work. It is also, apparently, its creator's freely offered gift to the world. That counts. Here is the link: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?&q=you+tube+resource+depletion&qft=+filterui:videoage-lt525600&FORM=R5VR8#view=detail&mid=21AF5F71718A5157498121AF5F71718A51574981
One thing that I have become ever more convinced of as we move further into the New Reality, is that we need to become better educated in our basic understanding of how the physical world actually works. Without this basic scientific knowledge, we will not be able to sort through the growing levels of propaganda, misinformation, baseless opinions, and simple nonsense that shapes the popular narrative these days and keeps us from responding appropriately to the dramatic changes unfolding around us. That failure will prove catastrophic, especially for the poor and vulnerable folks Community Action exists to serve. This little animation is a pretty good place to start.
While the animation above touches on the theoretical limits to economic growth, this bi-week's deeper dig expands on that theme with a talk that our good friend Richard Heinberg gave in Vancouver in February 2012; very near the same time that There's No Tomorrow was released. The talk is simply entitled: "Richard Heinberg on The End of Growth". This too is a remarkable film for much the same reason noted for the film above: It packs a ton of excellent and essential information into 39 minutes. I have heard Richard speak live on several occasions, and have seen him often on video, and I think this talk is his best yet. It is clear, concise, thorough and convincing; a good review for us regulars or a good introduction - especially to the economic dimensions of the New Reality - for anyone you may be able to bribe, trick, or otherwise coerce into taking 39 of their precious minutes to become seriously enlightened on some issues of real importance to them and to us all. Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPgohNERJBI&feature=player_embedded
The New Reality Quiz
First, last bi-week's quiz question: Between 2008 and 2013, the top five natural gas fracking companies in America between them: A) earned $53 Billion on their gas fracking operations, B) earned $21.5 Billion on their gas fracking operations, C) barely broke even on their gas fracking operations, D) lost $21.5 Billion on their gas fracking operations, or E) lost $53 Billion on their gas fracking operations. Answer: E) they lost $53 Billion on their gas fracking operations.
This bi-week's quiz question: So, what do you suppose will happen next to America's gas fracking boom? (hint: it's a four-letter word that starts with "b")
Back on May 2nd. It's snowing here in Wisconsin today, but April snows bring May.... no, that's not it....hmmm
The Emperor Has No Oil | April 4, 2014
For a blog post that claims "Reality" as its domain, the arena that calls itself "News" just seems to be getting a little more distant with each passing month. The dose of reality featured in this post touches on some widely aired news which, for this writer anyway, recalls that great tale of pride and denial; Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes." It's about our response to Russia's annexation of Crimea (or as I like to call it, the Crimean Citizens Democratically Expressed Right of Self-Determination by voting overwhelmingly to leave a country run by an undemocratically and illegally self-installed coup, but we will set that aside for now as being only slightly germane to the point of this post. And just for the record, this does not mean I like the deposed guy. I don't. There are more than two choices.)
The article is titled: "The Oil and Gas Weapon Won't Work": Davis and Leggett on Ukraine. Here's the intro:
- After many weeks of political chaos and bloodshed in Kiev, Moscow sent soldiers across the frontier into the Crimea on February 27, claiming it aimed to protect the Russian-speaking population. “Writing in the Washington Post on March 7, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice captured the essence of many in the US who advocate using oil as a weapon against Russia. She wrote that “soon, North America’s bounty of oil and gas will swamp Moscow’s capacity. Authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline and championing natural gas exports would signal that we intend to do precisely that.” Secretary Rice’s assumptions regarding the state of US tight oil and gas as “bountiful” are common among many opinion leaders in the West. They also happen to be wrong.
Before contemplating the use of US oil and gas as a strategic weapon, it might be useful to review a few key fundamentals. First, consider the following oil production, consumption and import/export numbers reported by British Petroleum for 2012. Russia produced 10.6 million barrels per day (mbd), consumed 3.2 mbd, leaving 7.4 mbd available for export. The United States produced 8.9 mbd, consumed 18.5 mbd, and imported 10.5 mbd.
OK, let's look at that last line again. The United States produced 8.9
mbd, consumed 18.5 mbd, and imported 10.5 mbd. What does that mean? It
means that after we consume what we need, we not only have no oil left
to throw at the Crimea problem, we have minus 10.6 million barrels of
oil per day to saber-rattle with! It's worth noting too that the lefty
tree-hugger providing this information was British Petroleum.
So maybe the former Secretary of State just got a little confused between oil and natural gas; which is a bigger part of the Russia-Ukraine-Crimea story. Here is where we sit on natural gas:
Petroleum geologist and energy analyst Arthur Berman also warns there would be unintended consequences to exporting American natural gas. “The U.S. imports nearly 4 billion cubic feet of gas per day. It seems a bit premature to be discussing natural gas export when you are a net importer and are likely to remain one until at least 2018 according to the EIA.” Lest we forget, conventional gas in the US accounts for almost 60 percent of the total produced and is declining at about 20 percent per year. Unconventional gas, meanwhile, is declining at more than 30 percent each year. “Taken together,” Berman calculates, “the US needs to replace 19 billion cubic feet per day each year to maintain production at flat levels.
And who is this "EIA?" well, it's the US Department of Energy's own Energy Information Administration and its only a mouse click away. Try it. It's fun and, more importantly, very easy: http://www.eia.gov/naturalgas/importsexports/annual/
It has a peachy graph with handy rollover features and makes the same point: After consuming what we consume and weighing what we export against what we import, in 2012 we were net importers of 1.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. So, the Emperor has no gas either.
So what's going on here? The facts are very credible and freely available to any and all (including the Russians) with a couple of mouse clicks, so why would Secretary Rice and literally dozens of other politicians and pundits risk their credibility and reputations by spouting this nonsense? Well, mostly I am just baffled, but I am beginning to suspect something I have long resisted; that societies behave in much the same way that individuals behave, and in the face of loss, whether the loss of a loved one, a bad diagnosis, or collectively the loss of imperial status or the loss of a cherished dreamed for a future of endless progress and prosperity, we respond to this loss by collectively grieving; and the first stage of that grief is denial. If someone has a better explanation, I would love to hear it.
Here is the link: http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/the-oil-gas-weapon-wont-work-10041?page=show Take a look at the author's info at the end of this article. Some of you may remember that Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, whose writings have appeared in the New Reality Check before, is the recipient of the 2012 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling. Jeremy Leggett was asked to present his views at the World Economic Summit in Davos this year. A couple of pretty credible guys.
History is full of examples of societies, or more precisely governments, responding to loss and catastrophe by doubling down on whatever it was that brought them not just to greatness, but beyond greatness to a period of overshoot and decline, and thereby accelerating that decline. Think Easter Island, Rome, the Soviet Union. The list is long. If it turns out that we are on the same track, the wise response may be to get off the train. What this means back here in normal old reality, we will consider in an upcoming post.
The deeper dig this week goes further into the idea of societies behaving like individuals, though it looks not at grief and loss, but at addiction. Again, while I started and remain skeptical, the parallels between the behavior of a drug addicted individual and an oil addicted society are more than a little unsettling. Like our featured article this week, this piece also looks at our irrational behavior in response to the Ukraine - Crimea - Russia situation. It is written by another important voice on New Reality issues, Michael T. Klare, and it is titled "Carbon Delirium: The Last Stage of Fossil-Fuel Addiction and Its Hazardous Impact on American Foreign Policy" Here is a taste:
- If a reasonable concern over the fate of the planet were stronger than our reliance on fossil fuels, we would expect to see, if not a reduction in carbon emissions, then a decline at least in the rate of increase of emissions over time. Instead, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that global emissions will continue to rise at a torrid pace over the next quarter century, reaching 45.5 billion metric tons in 2040 -- more than double the amount recorded in 1998 and enough, in the view of most scientists, to turn our planet into a living hell. Though seldom recognized as such, this is the definition of addiction-induced self-destruction, writ large.
This is a well-reasoned and interesting piece; if more than a little troubling. Here is the link: http://www.resilience.org/print/2014-04-01/carbon-delirium-the-last-stage-of-fossil-fuel-addiction-and-its-hazardous-impact-on-american-foreign-policy
The New Reality Quiz First, last tri-week's quiz question: In 2013, the big five oil companies combined, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell, earned $177,000 dollars in profits every A) day, B) hour, C) minute, or D) second? Answer: C) minute. And you thought it was every second. Ha! C'mon, these guys aren't that greedy....
This bi-week's quiz question: Between 2008 and 2013, the top five natural gas fracking companies in America between them: A) earned $53 Billion on their gas fracking operations, B) earned $21.5 Billion on their gas fracking operations, C) barely broke even on their gas fracking operations, D) lost $21.5 Billion on their gas fracking operations, or E) lost $53 Billion on their gas fracking operations
Back on April 18th. Happy Spring!, or as we call it this year in Wisconsin, Winter!
The Lyin' in Winter - Part 2: Environmental Justice | March 14, 2014
The concept of environmental justice was kicked around in some circles in the late 1970's and early 80s, but for some reason, this issue does not seem to be raised much anymore. The Weekly New Reality Check did touch on it briefly in an article about mountaintop removal and waterway pollution in Appalachia last year. And I suspect that this issue will be reinvigorated as we move further into the New Reality, and the ranks of those affected move further into the shrinking middle class.
The concept of environmental justice is pretty simple, though there are a couple of common variations which come at the issue from opposite directions. In one variation, environments that have been seriously polluted, despoiled or degraded by some industrial or agricultural process or another, lose much of their appeal and value. As a result, they become affordable or accessible to people with little or no wealth who then tend to inhabit these places.
So in addition to the other ills of poverty, these people also have to deal with the environmental hazards that made the land cheap; hazards that are detrimental to their health, safety, and general quality of life. The other variation has to do with where these environmentally degrading processes are located in the first place; and again, if the people to be affected are poor and relatively powerless, it is often their homes and neighborhoods that pay the environmental price. Like the poor families downstream and downhill from mountaintop removal in Appalachia. Here is what our friend Wendell Berry had to say about this in a recent interview:
Mountaintop removal is as near total destruction as you can imagine, because it does away with the forest, it does away with the topsoil that sustained the forest, it does away with the very topography — even people’s family graveyards go. And it’s done in complete disregard not only of the land but of the people who live downhill, whose lives are threatened, whose water supplies are destroyed, whose homes are damaged. The people downhill, downstream, and ahead of us in time are totally disregarded. (and tend to be poor - phk)
Examples of this environmental injustice are becoming increasingly common as resource depletion, growing population and naked greed drive ever more desperate and destructive measures to obtain the dwindling reserves of industrial resources required to sustain our unsustainable industrial economies. From mountaintop removal to the almost unimaginable destruction of boreal forests in Canada for the extraction of bitumen hydrocarbons from tar sands, (despite strong opposition from local indigenous Canadians) to the Golf Coast dead zones (destroying generations-old local fishing economies) to the garbage choked shorelines and river banks that are home to countless millions of slum dwellers in "developing" countries to industrial logging and mining in the Amazon Basin to fracking operations in Pennsylvania and North Dakota and to frac sand mining operations right here in west central Wisconsin, the worst of the environmental impacts consistently fall most heavily on the poor and powerless.
Now why is that, do you suppose? Well, look what happens when Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobile, the largest fracking operations company in the world, takes a gander out the window of his five million dollar Texas mansion and imagines an unsightly water tower appearing - a proposed water storage facility to support a fracking operation down the road:
As ExxonMobil’s CEO, it’s Rex Tillerson’s job to promote the hydraulic fracturing enabling the recent oil and gas boom, and fight regulatory oversight. The oil company is the biggest natural gas producer in the U.S., relying on the controversial drilling technology to extract it.
The exception is when Tillerson’s $5 million property value might be harmed. Tillerson has joined a lawsuit that cites fracking’s consequences in order to block the construction of a 160-foot water tower next to his and his wife’s Texas home.
The Wall Street Journal reports the tower would supply water to a nearby fracking site, and the plaintiffs argue the project would cause too much noise and traffic from hauling the water from the tower to the drilling site. The water tower, owned by Cross Timbers Water Supply Corporation, “will sell water to oil and gas explorers for fracing [sic] shale formations leading to traffic with heavy trucks on FM 407, creating a noise nuisance and traffic hazards,” the suit says.
When he is acting as Exxon CEO, not a homeowner, Tillerson has lashed out at fracking critics and proponents of regulation. “This type of dysfunctional regulation is holding back the American economic recovery, growth, and global competitiveness,” he said in 2012 . Natural gas production “is an old technology just being applied, integrated with some new technologies,” he said in another interview. “So the risks are very manageable.”
In shale regions, less wealthy residents have protested fracking development for impacts more consequential than noise, including water contamination and cancer risk. Exxon’s oil and gas operations and the resulting spills not only sinks property values, but the spills have leveled homes and destroyed regions .
The link: http://www.nationofchange.org/exxon-ceo-comes-out-against-fracking-project-because-it-will-affect-his-property-values-1393081778
If you are reading the New Reality Check, I probably don't have to expound on why all this suggests a high degree of social injustice.
"But wait", as they say on the late night ads for the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, "there's more." I am going to suggest that the reality of human generated Global Warming and the devastating effects of the Climate Change resulting from that warming have opened up a new arena for Environmental Justice; one that coincidently also features Mr. Tillerson and ExxonMobile along with a host of similar folks and organizations. It goes something like this:
Freedom of speech notwithstanding, everybody understands that it is, in fact, a crime to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre when there is no fire, and if a person does yell "Fire!" when there is no fire, that person is culpable, or criminally responsible for the deaths and injuries that ensue if the crowd panics, rushes the exits, and folks get trampled. Now let's reverse the scenario; let's say there is a fire in that theatre, but a respected authority, the manager say, gets up on stage and - even though he knows there is a fire, but is crossing his fingers and hoping that the maintenance staff can figure out how to deal with it before it gets out of hand and he has to refund his ticket sale proceeds - grabs a microphone and says something like: "Can I please have your attention folks? Those small flames and smoke you see over there in the corner are nothing to worry about. We're just testing some special effects for a live rock concert coming up. Stay in your seats, everything will be fine." And then he slips out the side door while the theatre becomes engulfed in flames and everybody inside is burned or trampled to death - because the doubt created by the manager's announcement kept the audience unsure of what do to do until it was too late to make a safe and orderly exit. Is that theatre manager culpable for the deaths of those patrons? Undoubtedly. So what of ExxonMobile and others who have for years funded PR efforts and junk science to cast doubt on the reality of climate change and have effectively paralyzed the world's efforts to prevent and mitigate the devastating effects of climate change? Are they not equally culpable for the deaths and destruction caused by the inaction their efforts created? I can't see why not. Take this little gem from a 2005 story in the Washington Post:
Exxon was criticized by several Senate Democrats in June after it announced the hiring of Philip Cooney, a White House official and former lobbyist with the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group. Cooney had just resigned from the White House after reportedly revising government scientific reports to cast doubt on the link between global warming and the emission of greenhouse gases. (note: This isn't just ignorance, this is a an act of deliberate malice. - phk)
And from the Guardian in 2006;
ExxonMobil is the world's most profitable corporation. Its sales now amount to more than $1bn a day. It makes most of this money from oil, and has more to lose than any other company from efforts to tackle climate change. To safeguard its profits, ExxonMobil needs to sow doubt about whether serious action needs to be taken on climate change. But there are difficulties: it must confront a scientific consensus as strong as that which maintains that smoking causes lung cancer or that HIV causes Aids. So what's its strategy?
The website Exxonsecrets.org, using data found in the company's official documents, lists 124 organisations that have taken money from the company or work closely with those that have. These organisations take a consistent line on climate change: that the science is contradictory, the scientists are split, environmentalists are charlatans, liars or lunatics, and if governments took action to prevent global warming, they would be endangering the global economy for no good reason. The findings these organisations dislike are labelled "junk science". The findings they welcome are labelled "sound science".
Among the organisations that have been funded by Exxon are such well-known websites and lobby groups as TechCentralStation, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Some of those on the list have names that make them look like grassroots citizens' organisations or academic bodies: the Centre for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, for example. One or two of them, such as the Congress of Racial Equality, are citizens' organisations or academic bodies, but the line they take on climate change is very much like that of the other sponsored groups. While all these groups are based in America, their publications are read and cited, and their staff are interviewed and quoted, all over the world.
The link: http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=115x67913
Now, most of this was undertaken while Rex Tillerson's predecessor, Lee Raymond, was at the helm, but as noted before in this blog, even when Tillerson did surprise a lot of folks as he finally acknowledged the reality of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change in 2013, he dismissed it's seriousness and cast his share of doubt in a speech at the Council of Foreign Relations:
ExxonMobil chief executive, Rex Tillerson, has said fears about climate change ,...are overblown.
In a speech on Wednesday, Tillerson acknowledged that burning of fossil fuels is warming the planet, but said society will be able to adapt.
Tillerson blamed a public that is "illiterate" in science and math, a "lazy" press, and advocacy groups that "manufacture fear" for energy misconceptions, in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Tillerson, in a break with predecessor Lee Raymond, acknowledged that global temperatures are rising. "Clearly there is going to be an impact," he said. But he questioned the ability of climate models to predict the magnitude of the impact. He said that people would be able to adapt to rising sea levels and changing climates that may force agricultural production to shift.
"We have spent our entire existence adapting. We'll adapt," he said. "It's an engineering problem and there will be an engineering solution."
The link: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/jun/28/exxonmobil-climate-change-rex-tillerson
The point here isn't to beat up on Rex or Exxon, there are a host of other unindicted co-conspirators like the Koch brothers, Fox News and others eager to propagate and fuel this debilitating and totally trumped up "debate". The point is to raise the question of criminal accountability for these dangerous and deeply unpatriotic behaviors.
Speaking of patriots, what then are we to make of the 160 self-identified climate deniers who currently serve in the US House of Representatives? Are they simply ignorant of the facts like the Flat Earth Society, the Holocaust Deniers and those folks out there who believe that NASA faked the moon landing footage and never really got there? Or are they knowingly misleading the public; willing to risk the safety and security of America in order to appeal to their voting base, funders, and likely as not these days, future employers in some corporate lobbying firm? Tough choice, really. In support of the ignorance theory, there is this rather wry observation made by Upton Sinclair in the 1930s: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on him not understanding it.", but I am guessing that most of these smart folks can grasp the reality of the scientific consensus around anthropogenic climate change, and have seen its devastating effects in their home districts. I'm not questioning these folks' patriotism, but I this baffling behavior is beyond me. Well, maybe these professed Christians will get the chance someday to explain it to The Judge. (See painting at the top of this post.)
But while we are still down here, there is another deeply troubling dimension to this aspect of environmental justice; the politicization of science. As it turns out, 130 of the 160 folks in Congress noted above, happen to be Republicans. This is crazy. I attempted to address this absurdity in a talk I gave a few year ago to a largely Republican Rotary Club luncheon. I held a pen a few inches above the podium and let it drop with a loud clatter. Then I asked the audience what made that pen fall. When a couple of brave folks suggest tentatively that the cause was gravity, I replied; "That's correct. Now, was it Democratic gravity or Republican gravity?" Point made, I think, at least to the noon Rotary in Menomonie, Wisconsin. I fear that our Republican friends will pay dearly for the politicization of Climate Change as this reality becomes increasingly impossible to ignore.
"And if you act now," the Popeil Pocket Fisherman ad goes on, "we will also include.." Yes, there is one more manifestation of Environmental Justice this post will address: What happens when we violate the laws of Nature? This differs from the human criminal code in one important aspect: There is no ambiguity about the certainty or swiftness of Environmental Justice when Natural Law - the laws of physics, chemistry, geology, and biology - are violated. This is heart of the New Reality; physical limits, mathematical certainties and environmental justice without appeal are the landscape we are moving into as we continue to squabble and squander our way down the Dark Mountain. Christ's face in The Last Judgment, Michelangelo's masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel (above), shows no trace of emotion; no compassion, no mercy, no anger, but only a dead certain and inescapable finality. So it is, and perhaps not coincidentally, with the judgments of Nature. Only fools break these laws.
For this connection, let's go back up to the burning theatre analogy above, only this time the authority figure comes on stage in time, calms the crowd, and directs an orderly evacuation. So with the certainty of climate change now upon us and little time left for action, is there anything we can do to mitigate the effects this will have on the lives of our low income families? The answer is, of course, yes; there are many things we can still do. By way of illustration, here a few things I did when building our new but smallish house on the farm seven years ago that made a big difference on how we fared during this extreme winter. First, given that we had access to forest land and hence, firewood, we put in non-electric wood stoves as our primary heat source with the option to cook with wood as well. No matter what happens to the cost or availability of heating fuel, we will be able to cook and keep warm at very little cost. Second, in anticipation of deep price swings and possible supply disruptions, and though we only use it for hot water and a small gas range, we installed a 1000 gallon propane tank when a 200 gallon one was recommended as sufficient for our needs. Because of that, we have been able to fill up at no more than $1.44/gal. when prices have risen as high as $8.00. And we have about an eight year supply on hand in case we have an even worse propane crises in the years ahead, which I believe will likely be the case. Finally, I had the plumber put in our underground water and septic system two feet lower than code requirements in anticipation of the greater weather extremes predicted by climate science, extremes like we encountered this winter. The plumber thought I was nuts and tried to talk me out of it, but I wrote the check, so he did it. By coincidence, I ran into him this winter when he was desperately trying to unfreeze the municipal sewer system in front of our office. I asked him if he still thought I was crazy. He said; "No," and noted that a lot of water systems built to code in my neighborhood were freezing up this year. To be very clear: The point is not that I am particularly smart or lucky, or that these ideas would work for everyone. I'm not and they wouldn't. The point is that preparation can make a huge difference in our experience of the New Reality as it begins to bite, but we have to do it now while we have the time and resources are still available. A second point is that all the measures cited above cost little more than their conventional alternatives, and all have paid for that difference several times over already. In reality, we can't afford not to invest in the real future; a future of scarcity and scary weather and a contracting economy. But our time to act in preparation for that future is running out.
I'm probably in deep enough. Let's call it good for this bi-week.
The New Reality Quiz
First, last bi-week's quiz question: OK, if you made it all the way down to the bottom of this post, you need a softball. Here 'tis. The title of this post is a pun. On what? Answer: The Lion in Winter, a 1966 play by James Goldman, depicting the personal and political conflicts of Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, their children and their guests during Christmas, 1183. In 1968, the play was made into a film starring Peter O'Toole as Henry II and Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor. In this writer's humble opinion, one of the best films ever.
This bi-week's Quiz Question:
In 2013, the big five oil companies combined, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell, earned $177,000 dollars in profits every A) day, B) hour, C) minute, or D) second?
Off travelling on state business next week, then on to the National Community Action Foundation Legislative Conference in DC the following, so this post will re-appear on April 4th, on the 46th Anniversary of the day I bought my first motorcycle. Don't care? Well, it was a big deal to me at the time!
The Lyin' in Winter - Part 1: Denial | February 27, 2014
The last New Realty Check closed with a brief description of winter 2013 - 14 as we are experiencing it in west central Wisconsin. Well, two weeks on and the plot thickens; as does the snow, the damaging ice dams on poorly and even on reasonably well insulated rooftops, the depth of the frost line now freezing municipal water and sewer systems across the region, and the pile of emergency fuel assistance applications on our intake worker's desk. And the forecast is for nighttime lows of -11F to -18F for several days ahead. This is real temperature, not wind chill. Wind chill tonight is -36F. Even for winter-hearty Wisconsinites, this weird winter has been hard.
It is not surprising, then, to hear the smug voices of climate change deniers ridiculing global warming once again because they happen to be cold at the moment. Sigh. And, since environmental degradation, especially climate change, is one of the three mega-trends (along with resource depletion and economic turmoil) that are driving the New Reality, this post takes a look at the question: Is weird winter weather related to climate change? To answer this question, we turn first to an article published a couple of days ago on the British web site, Yale Environmental 360. The article is entitled: "Is Weird Winter Weather Related to Climate Change?" and seems like a pretty good place to start. Here are a couple of relevant excerpts, the first making the important point that the impact of climate change on weather is a global phenomena, though we experience the effects locally:
- This year, the jet [stream] has been unusually far north in the Pacific, bringing balmy weather to Alaska. But across the Atlantic it has been unusually far south, unusually persistent, and 30 percent faster than normal. It has sent more than 30 storms, many of them much larger and more intense than normal, crashing into the shores of Britain in the past three months. With the storms have come high winds and heavy rains almost every day, delivering amounts of precipitation unseen in records going back more than a century — and probably exceeding anything else in the last 250 years, according to the Met Office [the British Government Meteorological Office] report.
- At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago this month, climatologist Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University linked "this bizarre winter" to climate change, and in particular to changes in the jet stream caused by a warming Arctic. "Weather patterns are changing," she said. "We can expect more of the same." (This final sentence should be of some concern to those who find this winter's California drought, Alaskan avalanches, Wisconsin heating fuel crisis, Atlanta ice storms or Pennsylvania power outages to be serious issues. - phk)
And while the article properly notes that it is very difficult to prove that climate change actually has caused these specific perturbations of the jet stream, it does make this rather more important point:
Data from weather stations around the world reveal more extreme precipitation events — and more droughts, too. This is firmly in line with the predictions of climate models and is "what is expected from fundamental physics," says the Met Office. A warmer atmosphere will contain more energy, and more moisture from evaporation, says Woollings. It already does. And, in general, more energy and moisture will mean wetter storms in many places.
This is a very interesting and informative article. Here is the link: http://e360.yale.edu/feature/is_weird_winter_weather_related_to_climate_change/2742/
From my perspective, however, even this does not quite get it right. The point is not whether climate change has caused this or that flood, drought, tornado, hurricane or temperature extreme. The New Reality is that the planet has warmed up by 1.8 degrees F and that all the weather we now experience, even the "normal" stuff, is causally related to that change. So if we want to know what impact climate change has had on weather, then, like the no-see otter above, we just have to open our eyes, ears, and minds, and look around. We're in it. We cannot escape it.
Another baffling aspect of this weird winter is the extent to which the mainstream media still generally covers all these weather disaster stories as if these weather extremes are unexpected, unique, surprising events. So we move on to the next question; Should this come as a surprise? To answer that, we turn to climate advocate, environmental author and 360.org founder, Bill McKibben's recent Democracy Now interview entitled: "This Should Not Come as a Surprise." He is talking about, amongst other things, this weird Winter. An excerpt:
- None of this should come as a surprise if people have been paying attention. It’s exactly what climate scientists and climate campaigners have been saying now for the better part of two decades. I mean, I wrote the first book about this for a general audience literally 25 years ago. And these are exactly the sort of things scientists said would happen. They’re happening somewhat more quickly and on a somewhat larger scale, mostly because scientists are, by their nature, conservative and underpredict. But the fear of scientists is palpable. That’s why so many of them are out there getting arrested to stop things like the Keystone pipeline, speaking out in all the ways that they can think of.
This text/audio/or video interview also leads into next bi-week's post: The Lyin' in Winter - Part 2: Environmental Justice. The link: http://www.democracynow.org/2014/2/13/this_should_not_come_as_a
The connections between weather extremes and the work of Community Action are everywhere, and have been much discussed in these New Reality Check posts in connection with food prices, disaster relief and such. This harsh winter in particular, has increased the cost and hardship of being poor as both heating fuel prices and the amount of fuel needed to heat a home have risen dramatically. Cars get poorer mileage in the extreme cold, and the older, more worn out cars low income families often have to rely on are more prone to failure and repair as starting systems and other components are stressed. The list goes on.
As program operators, the effects of weird weather can be very immediate. Our agency, to pick one example, has developed several tax-credit affordable housing projects. In addition to higher energy costs, snow removal costs at one of our 24-unit projects that were $1802 for all of 2011, were $7565 for 2013. In January 2014 alone, snow removal cost $2,345 for a project that struggles to break even with $10,750 per month in total rent revenues. February will likely be worse. As we dip into dwindling reserves to pay these bills, this kind of persistent weather could put this much needed affordable housing at risk of insolvency. The list goes on.
Beyond that, Community Action is largely a creature of government; or more precisely, of an electorate whose will is manifest through representative government's policies, laws and programs. Our fate is subject then, to the resources and effective capacity of government to function, so we need to pay attention to the impact on local and state governments when a severe winter breaks budgets as well as pipes. An excellent New York Times article last week shows how this is unfolding over large areas of America in a piece titled: (you guessed it) "A Severe Winter Breaks Budgets as Well as Pipes:"
SYRACUSE — Century-old water mains here have ruptured behind City Hall, popped in residential areas and split under the city’s bar and restaurant district. The mayor says she has personally reported three breaks, while exhausted crews work 18-hour shifts in subfreezing temperatures to repair the damage.
In Detroit, a break in a 30-inch main flooded a southwest neighborhood on Tuesday, turning streets into streams and stalling cars in water above their hubcaps. As city workers pumped away the water, and police officers and firefighters rescued stranded motorists, icebergs formed above the blacktop, locking some vehicles into place until the next thaw.
The exceptionally cold and stormy winter battering the Midwest, South and Northeast has forced cities and states to put road crews on double shifts and step up purchases of asphalt, trying to keep up with an epidemic of potholes. They have also bought and spread so much salt that there is a shortage in the Mid-Atlantic States, with more storms expected.
With revenues and staffing still below pre-recession levels, many local and state governments face a new financial strain from storm-related increases in spending on overtime pay, contractors and supplies. On Saturday, another snowfall covered the Northeast, a reminder that winter is far from finished.
Cities still do not have a lot of cash available, so this particular storm season is having a really severe impact on their budgets... Whoever is paying, the repair work will be extensive and expensive....In Baltimore, 353 water mains ruptured in January, about one-third as many as in all of 2013. South Carolina officials estimated that a single weather system last month drained $2 million from the state’s budget....In addition to the direct costs to governments, harsh weather can also mean lower tax revenue by slowing economic activity. A downtown Syracuse water main break on — no kidding — Water Street left a deep crater in front of the Miss Syracuse diner....
And so it goes. With climate related costs rising and tax revenues shrinking, what are the prospects for increased government funding for the alleviation of poverty? Well, on that front there might actually, possibly, be a little good news, but it contains two big "ifs." We take this up in Part 2, two weeks down the road.
As a person who has spent many hours standing in front of video projections of graphs and facts and figures, trying to explain the New Reality to yet another mostly perplexed audience, (‘Facts’, Conrad wrote, in Lord Jim, ‘as if facts could prove anything.’) I am very sensitive to the need to be able to communicate this stuff both more effectively and to a wider range of listeners. Fortunately, another group of British folks; environmentally oriented writers, poets and artists for the most part, have chosen to put their talents in service to the same end through an initiative called the Dark Mountain Project. The piece I have selected for this week's "Digging Deeper" section is a recent Dark Mountain post by Paul Kingsnorth, raised in the south of England, about the recent severe flooding noted above in England's version of this weird winter. It is titled: "The Rising of the Waters." A sample:
For the last few weeks, the south of England has been flooded, to a degree that hasn’t been seen for years – even though ‘the floods’ have become, quietly unacknowledged, an annual event now. Gradually, quietly but entirely inexorably, everything I knew is sinking.
The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is at record levels, and we are continuing to pump the stuff up there at an accelerating pace. From here on in, it is all change; to what degree and at what speed, we have no idea.
We are not in control, and we don’t like it.
What is interesting to me personally is to see this hitting the south of England so hard. For a long time, environmentalists have been telling us that it is the poor who will be hit hardest by climate change. Of course, they are right in many ways. The flooding of Bangladesh is going to be much worse for its people than the flooding of England. Nevertheless, what we can see here is people in one of the richest countries in the world taking the full force of the climate shift that is now beginning. It has been happening elsewhere for a long time; it will keep happening, everywhere. This is just my small, local perspective on a shift that is taking place across the planet. The reality of that shift – of its scale, likely depth and inevitability – is only just beginning to seep into the public consciousness. But like the flood waters, it can’t be held back. In the end, it will cover everything.
It is easy to imagine that what we currently call progress will continue in the same direction, until everyone in the world is a car-driving consumer with a flight to the moon booked for their holiday. It is equally easy, and strangely comforting, to imagine everything falling apart in rapid period of time; a total and immediate collapse, from which there will be no recovery.
What is much harder – what seems almost impossible sometimes – is to imagine a gradual grinding down of our civilization. What is harder it is to imagine another century of floods, with the waters rising higher every year. No apocalypse and no bases on Mars. No industrial collapse followed by a return to hunter gathering, and no Singularity either. Just a gradual, messy, winding-down of everything we once believed we were entitled to.
A climb up Dark Mountain, like a climb up the tallest tree in last month's post, is not for everyone; not for the weak and not for the fearful. But like backpacking in the Tetons, if you are experienced and well conditioned enough to make the trek, the landscape is wild and beautiful and well worth the effort. Even hopeful in its own way. Here is the link: http://dark-mountain.net/blog/the-rising-of-the-waters-a-call-for-submissions-for-dark-mountain-book-6/
The New Reality Quiz
First, last bi-week's quiz question: Noted climate scientist, James Hanson, has calculated that the heat gain trapped on planet Earth as a direct result of the man-made pollution already dumped in the atmosphere, is the energy equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima sized atomic bomb explosions every: A) year, B) month, C) week, or D) day? Answer: D) 400,000 Hiroshima sized atomic bomb explosions every 24 hours. I have a post queued up on Big Numbers. Could be helpful as we try to really understand this stuff.
This week's New Reality Quiz Question:
OK, if you made it all the way down to the bottom of this post, you need a softball. Here 'tis. The title of this post is a pun. On what?
Love Letters | February 14, 2014
This St. Valentine's Day New Reality Check is based on a letter exchange - or rather our more common 21st century equivalent; an email exchange - between two folks whose love is not merely sentimental or romantic or limited to one another. It is an email exchange between two men who have demonstrated their love for their fellow humans and our shared planet through countless volunteer hours of research, deep thought, and skillful writing, intended to help all of us understand and prepare for a very challenging time; the present and the near future. Both of these guys have spent a lot of time in the tallest tree noted in the last post, and both see the same view when they look out in the direction in which we are all headed: They see the collapse of industrial civilization. What they are dealing with in this exchange specifically is: When is this collapse likely to come, and what metrics will help us figure that out?
Now in most of the circles in which most of us mingle, this would be written off as crazy talk. We simply cannot imagine the reality of our techno-advanced, strong and multi-splendored civilization ever actually, really, somehow collapsing; but I would advise against taking too much comfort in that failure of imagination. With the notable exceptions of some very dramatic events - like having an atomic bomb dropped on one of your peaceful cites, or watching volcanic eruptions or tidal waves obliterate your civilization before your eyes - the historical record shows that most folks in the middle of the collapse of their powerful, multi-splendored civilizations have not seen nor understood what was going on around them even as it was happening. A good case in point is probably the most studied collapse in human history, the fall of Rome. It turns out that Rome had been consuming itself for many decades in order to keep the shell of its empire intact (a process John Michael Greer terms "catabolic collapse") by 410 CE when the Visigoth army was at its undefended gates. By this time, Rome had consumed the resources necessary in order to effectively project its interests all over its dwindling empire by militarily superiority alone. So of necessity, they had developed some expertise in co-opting their enemies through diplomacy and assimilating them; essentially turning them into Romans (Which is of course what any and everyone would want to be, right?) and making them part of Eternal Rome, the 1100 hundred year old empire that would last forever. So they sent their diplomatic "A" Team out to negotiate such a deal with the Visigoth King, Alaric. The negotiations went something like this:
TEAM ROME: OK, it looks like you are pretty well poised to raze the city, so what do you want?
ALARIC: All of your property, the total surrender of your armies, and to have all your women and children become our slaves.
TEAM ROME (somewhat taken aback): Yea Gods! Why, whatever will you give us in return?
ALARIC (somewhat bemused): Your lives.
As Thomas Cahill wrote in his fascinating history: How the Irish Saved Civilization: "That Rome should ever fall was unthinkable to Romans: its foundations were unassailable, sturdily sunk in a storied past and steadily built on for eleven centuries and more..... Eternal Rome..hardly foresaw its doom." And yet collapse it did, and most decidedly so. And so it has happened many times to many civilizations before and since. If fact, you really don't have to go back any farther than the global credit crisis of 2008 for clear evidence that our current industrial global civilization could indeed collapse; a reality even recognized by a President not especially known for either his keen intellect or eloquence, but who pretty much nailed it with his famous observation: "This sucker could go down!"
The point of all this is simply that some form of collapse is really not out of the question just because it is not a topic of accepted conversation in the popular discourse. At the very least, given the enormity of what is at stake, the case for collapse is worthy of the most careful study. So, on to our "love letters:" the featured content for this New Reality Check post.
The exchange is between two men who have both appeared in earlier New Reality Checks; Dmitry Orlav and Ugo Bardi. As you may recall, Dmitry was a participant in the 2010 Facing the New Reality retreat and an author featured in the subsequent "Facing the New Reality" report, and a "mini general session" presenter at our 2010 Annual Conference in Boston. Dmitry Blogs at "ClubOrlov." Ugo Bardi is a professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy. (Not too far from Rome, actually.) Ugo blogs at "Cassandra's Legacy." Two sites I visit with some regularity.
This exchange was posted on "ClubOrlov" last Tuesday. Here are a couple of excerpts:
DMITRY: Over the past half a decade I've made a number of detailed predictions about collapse: how it is likely to unfold, what its various manifestations are likely to be, and how it will affect various groups and categories of people. But I have remained purposefully vague about the timing of collapse and its various stages, being careful to always append “give or take half a decade” to my dire prognostications. I wasn't withholding information or being coy; I really had no way of calculating when collapse will happen—until five days ago, when, out of the blue, I received the following email from Ugo Bardi:
UGO: I'm trying to draw a parallel between the collapse of the Soviet Union [in 1991] and the impending collapse of Italy. There are, as always, similarities and differences. In particular, the Soviet Union collapsed almost immediately after that oil production flattened out and started declining. On the contrary, the Italian government survives despite a loss of 36% in oil consumption.....[T]he Italian system is based largely on income tax and property tax. The government is losing revenues on commodity taxes (e.g. on gasoline) but it can compensate with property taxes. Italians, on the average, are “rich,” in the sense that they have savings in banks and most of them own their homes. So, the government can tax their properties and their savings. As long as Italians still have something taxable, then the government will survive. It will disappear only when it has managed to strip citizens completely of everything they have.
DMITRY: Very interesting article. Yes, the entire southern tier of the EU is in some early stage of collapse, but so far it hadn't occurred to me to draw parallels between it and USSR. Now that you mention it, the parallel is obvious: it is financial collapse triggered by something having to do with oil, but with polarities reversed, and delayed by a period of wealth destruction.... Now, I can see parallels to this in what is happening now in the US and in the EU, but with all the polarities reversed: here [in America] oil flows in and money flows out, and the coup de grace [will be] high oil prices ..[the purchase of which] has to be fueled by credit....where a unit of new debt now produces much less than a unit of economic growth. Financial collapse always comes first: all sorts of financial arrangements unravel as the center becomes unable to float the periphery, and in response the periphery starts to withhold economic cooperation. [This also played a big part of Rome's collapse. - phk] The result is a breakdown in supply chains, shutdown of production, and, shortly thereafter, shutdown of commerce.... This, then, is the key distinction: the USSR collapsed promptly because it was already skin and bones, whereas the US and the EU still have plenty of subcutaneous fat to burn through. But they are, in fact, burning through it. And so, the conclusion is, collapse will come, but here it will take a little longer.
And so here is the outline of the method for calculating the timing of collapses:
1. Find out when the collapse clock starts running by looking for a significant drop in energy consumption
2. Calculate how long the clock is going to run by dividing the total wealth of the citizenry by the economic shortfall of the shrinking economy
The full discussion is much richer and more nuanced than just these excerpts, and well worth the read, which can be found here: http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/2014/02/how-to-time-collapses.html#more
Some may view this piece as anti-government, but I don't think that's necessarily the case. These guys just read history, where we find it pretty clear that governments in general will do pretty much anything they believe they have to do in order to stay in power. This is neither all bad nor all good, but it is the reality.
Finally, the barbarians likely to appear at our undefended gates - especially if business as usual remains our only plan - will be much less compassionate than even the hard-nosed Alaric. In fact, they are incapable of compassion because they are neither human nor animal. These Visigoths are the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, geology and mathematics; and they don't care about us humans at all.
Once again, the main Community Action connection to this piece is the fact that any manifestation of economic or political collapse will surely hit the poor first and hardest, as it always does and always will. Beyond that, of course, is the imperative to build local economies and food systems to reduce dependency on the larger systems that are more prone to the kinds of systemic failure discussed in this piece.
Both of these serious intellectuals have much to offer as we move further into the New Reality. Ugo Bardi's "Cassandra's Legacy" site is great for several reasons, including the international perspective also found on Dmitry's "ClubOrlov" and the "FEASTA" site featured in the last post. You could spend weeks on these three sites without wasting any of your time. Dmitry's books, Reinventing Collapse and The Five Stages of Collapse are also, as you might expect, excellent, witty, and right on point for this topic.
The New Reality Quiz
First, last bi-week's quiz question: One huge dimension of the New Reality that we have not addressed in any great length is the world's increasing population. This is extremely important because all of the resource and environmental problems featured in the New Reality Initiative can be correctly viewed as problems of human over-consumption; a combination of both how much resource individual consumers consume, and how many consumers are consuming it. So, planet Earth is currently adding 1 million new human consumers (births minus deaths) every A) month, B) week, C) four and a half days, D) day and a half? Answer: C) every four and a half days. Something is going to break, if it hasn't already.
This bi-week's quiz question:
Speaking of dropping atomic bombs on peaceful cities (Note: This could be a candidate for Worst Segue Ever), noted climate scientist, James Hanson, has calculated that the heat gain trapped on planet Earth as a direct result of the man-made pollution already dumped in the atmosphere, is the energy equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima sized atomic bomb explosions every: A) year, B) month, C) week, or D) day?
From the Tallest Tree | January 31, 2014
On a cold morning after the President's State of the Union address, we try in this post to get our heads above the dense surrounding forest in order to assess the State of the New Reality heading into 2014. The tall tree we are climbing to get this view is a paper by John Sharry of the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainably (Feasta) in Ireland. The paper is entitled: "Hope in the Face of Disaster - Creating a sustainable, viable, future path for civilization."
A couple of thoughts before we begin the climb: First, I have been following Feasta for a number of years and have been consistently impressed by the quality, sophistication and depth of their work. In their words: "Feasta was launched in Dublin in October 1998 to explore the economic, cultural and environmental characteristics of a truly sustainable society, and to disseminate the results of this exploration to the widest relevant audience." I am pretty sure we will hear from these folks again, so we can add Feasta to the choir of helpful voices that the New Reality Check has assembled to help guide us through the tangled and dangerous forest ahead.
Second, the author of this particular piece is a practicing clinical psychologist. His insight into why it is that we as a society have - so far - so utterly failed to address the compelling demands and solid evidence supporting New Reality issues, is probably the most useful contribution of this post.
Here is how the author summarizes the paper:
Taking a long term view, this paper explores the many crises that civilization and humanity will face over the coming decades some of which are already starting to have an impact. The paper proposes a central cause to these crises and particularly explores the widespread psychological inertia in the face of these vast problems. Some potential constructive choices that individuals, communities and nations could yet make are outlined.
This is kind of a tough climb, so strap on your safety gear and let's get started; pulling ourselves up by the topic headings of the paper. Each heading will be followed by a brief quote from that section of the paper; an executive summary of sorts. Once we have taken in the whole view, John Sharry will share his compelling analysis of why we have failed to respond effectively to these challenges, and offer some realistic hope for moving forward.
The Illusion of Progress: (from the introductory parable)
‘We are heading the wrong way, we are headed towards disaster’ [the philosopher] shouted.
‘Shut up’ the engineer and scientist replied in unison ‘we are making great progress’.
Economic instability/Financial System Weakness: Many countries have completely unsustainable levels of debt that simply cannot be paid back and when a future crisis happens central banks and nation states will have less capacity to intervene (having spent most of their reserves to stabilize the system since 2008). Despite these problems there is widespread denial about the scale of the financial problems we face. As the economist and founder of Feasta, Richard Douthwaite notes:
Few of us think that anything radical has to be done. We assure each other that minor tinkering, like holding an inquiry, beefing up the regulatory system and limiting bankers’ bonuses, will be enough to allow us to carry on living pretty much as we do now for the foreseeable future.
Resource Shortage: Our world economy is so dependent on the cheap availability of oil, that even a small restriction in supply has the potential to collapse the entire system or plunge the world economy into depression....Current and future resource constraints are not just limited to oil and indeed almost all the vital resources on which we depend are being depleted at exponential rates.
Ecological Destruction: The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated....People are just not aware of the massive roles that the oceans play in the Earth’s systems. Phytoplankton produce 40 per cent of the oxygen in the atmosphere, for example, and 90 per cent of all life is in the oceans… The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.
Climate Change: As if the problems above weren’t bad enough, by far the most serious issue to come is global warming caused by human CO2 emissions leading to catastrophic climate change – this is biggest elephant in the room....Already, we are beginning to see the early stages of this in increased rates of flooding, severe heat waves and sea level rises but worse is to come. For many years, 2 degrees was proposed as the safe limit that civilization could tolerate but this looks likely to be breached on our current economic trajectory. As Prof Kevin Anderson of the Tyndal Centre notes
There is now little to no chance of maintaining the rise in global mean surface temperature at below 2 ̊C, despite repeated high-level statements to the contrary. The thing is, if 2 degrees C is extremely dangerous, 4 degrees C is absolutely catastrophic. In fact, according to the latest science, says Anderson, “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable”.
What is the Basic Problem? ..[M]odern civilization is collectively caught in the following terrible bind: In order to avoid collapse the modern economy requires continual growth and thus the increased exploitation of natural resources; however, economic growth depletes the earth’s resource base on which the economy depends and so will eventually collapse....This means that whatever choice we make we are facing into some form of decline and collapse. However, the earlier we choose ecologically sensitive alternatives to our current economic growth model, the more manageable such collapse and decline might be....In simple terms we are reaching the limits of the natural world and things will not be the same in the future. Already, we are feeling the tremors of the future shocks to come. World agricultural output is declining, the availability of crucial natural resources such as fresh water, fish stocks, arable land are all declining. Fossil fuels are increasingly harder to access or cause increasing environmental damage as they are exploited. The mining of tars sands and the boom in worldwide fracking are examples of this, both of which are barely economically viable.
Why is No One Listening? Despite increasing and overwhelming scientific certainty about climate change, there is a parallel increase in denial of the facts by the public. ...So why would this be? Why would people choose to deny the serious problems of the future posed by not just by climate change, but also by resource depletion, and environmental destruction? Why would people deny such serious problems when they are becoming most apparent? Why would we turn away from corrective action at the hour of our direst need? While people have suggested the answer to this lies in the existence of well organized vested interests in the energy and fossil fuels industries and this is indeed true, I think there is also a collective failing in our human psychology that explains this rampant denial.
Denial, Fear and Loss: The only pain that we can avoid in life is the pain caused by trying to avoid pain. - RD Laing
In many ways our collective behavior in response to the prospect of climate change and environmental destruction is similar to the behavior of a seriously addicted person. We in the West are addicted to availability of cheap oil and the consumerist economy that it provides us. ...Picking perceived ‘holes’ in the evidence about climate, however tenuous, or clinging to ‘vague solutions’, however unrealistic are all powered by denial. ...The recent growth of the number of ‘climate deniers’ and ‘climate ignorers’ can be explained by an increased awareness (on one level) of the problems and a resultant desperation to deny the facts and put them out of collective awareness.
Over Optimism and Collective Denial: One of the most striking things about the response to the current predicament is the lack of leadership and/ or collective denial that is endemic across our mainstream institutions. Our political masters, the mainstream media and most of our economists all agree that we must continue the economic growth or our ‘business as usual’ model, despite the patent unsustainability of this pathway and the harm it causes.
When Denial is Punctured: Crisis can be a time of opportunity and change, as well as trauma, and fracture.
...[O]ur collective denial [will] be punctured. Once this happens this will of course be a very perilous time. People, who have been hitherto in comfortable denial, will become fearful and desperate and may embark on desperate actions leading to social unrest, war and society breakdown. We need to be prepared to manage these social difficulties in the future which is likely to be as significant as managing the economy.
The famous psychologist Kubler Ross proposed a model of the individual’s response to bereavement or pending loss as going through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. ..Interestingly, many writers in the environmental field describe their own personal journey of awareness in similar terms. They describe a period of denial, before having a ‘climate change moment’ when they realize that the world on which they depend is unsustainable. This if often followed by a period of despair and finally by some acceptance and a commitment to constructive action.
Responding Constructively: I find it useful to conceptualize four stages to help individuals change which may provide a helpful framework in considering how we might collectively face the serious problems of resource depletion, climate change and economic collapse that are ahead of us. These four stages are
1) Honestly accepting the reality in which we find ourselves
2) Creating a meaningful vision/purposeful goal of how to live in the face of such reality
3) Focusing on constructive action
4) Building a community of support
Honestly Accepting Reality: We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us. - Joseph Campbell
For us to wake up to the sheer scale of the problems we face will indeed require great honesty and bravery. It will be particularly hard for us to accept our responsibility – that is it was our actions which caused all these problems in the first place through our refusal to abandon a harmful economic model. Hardest of all will be to accept that the problem is not fixable, that much of what we have done is irreversible.
Creating a Positive Vision: Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out. - Vaclav Havel
Once a realistic and grounded appreciation of reality is achieved the next step is to create a vision for living in the face of this reality.... For example, setting goals for more community oriented sustainable living, where people rely on their own resources to live, can be a more healthy and happy choice than the choice to live in our isolated, individual consumer societies.
Taking Constructive Action: Facing the current economic and environmental crises, there never has been such an urgent need for constructive action. Such action is both about arresting our business as usual path to destruction and finding alternative pathways as well as trying to adapt and build resilience in the face coming crises. ..if we wait until major crises hit and our economies are shattered then not only will our action be too late, it will also be impossible as we will have little economic infrastructure to put plans into action. You won’t be able to build flood walls or alternative energy sources if your economy is in chaos. Early preventative action, to build resilience or to reduce future problems, is always preferable and the sooner we act the better.
Personal Resilience and Preparedness: Simple things like prioritizing one’s health, getting fit, learning useful skills and accumulating resources that will be of enduring value in challenging times all create personal resilience....Building personal resilience is not just about building capacity to deal with future crises, the benefits also extend to how you live your life now. ...One of the most important benefits of a personal acceptance of the more challenging future we face is how it can alter a person’s appreciation of their current life. Realizing the potential losses in the future, many people choose to live more deliberately and with great appreciation of what they have as they sense none of this may be available in the future.
Community Resilience: Whereas in the past villages and towns depended more on locally produced food and energy, currently now locally grown food makes up less than 2% of produce and local energy production amounts to even less. This means that towns are extremely vulnerable to any global disruption to energy or food supply. [So] grassroots movements such as Transition towns are about galvanizing local people and communities into positive constructive action. Rather than sitting back, complaining about what is wrong or being fearful about the future, the Transition movement puts people in touch with like-minded people who can act together to make a difference. These projects connect people with their neighbors, provide meaningful community work and build social capital within communities. The personal psychological benefits of such constructive community action [emphasis mine - phk] are enormous.
National Resilience: With the common enemy of the Nazis, political leadership was strong and communities were galvanized into action. The ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign to encourage locally produced food was extremely successful....In the face of crisis, it is possible to conceive that current national politics could be transformed and reoriented in a similar way. Climate change and carbon emissions could become common enemies and national goals could be set for energy and food independence.
International Cooperation and Resilience: As a result the problems associated with unsustainable growth such as climate change, environmental damage and resource destruction are all truly global problems... While is possible that the stress of reduced resources and climate chaos could lead to fracture and conflict between nations, there is also the possibility that this could lead to more global awareness and force agreed global solutions as people work harder together to survive.
Building a Community of Support: While there is a myriad of future challenges facing humanity that are already beginning to impact, the future still is unpredictable and open to choice. ..If we strive now to honestly face the reality of our predicament, set meaningful goals that bind us together and take constructive action, then we can build a future worth living for.
- end -
It should be clear by now that if this is the executive summary, the full paper must have some heft. It does, a full 15 pages worth. But it is very good, and well worth the time. Here is the link: http://www.feasta.org/2014/01/08/hope-in-the-face-of-disaster-creating-a-sustainable-viable-future-path-for-civilisation/
Actually, it is difficult to find parts of this paper that are not relevant to Community Action now and in the years ahead. Like the rest of America, most of us are in denial, not only for the reasons noted by John Sharry, but also due to the sense of being overwhelmed by the day to day crises faced by our low income families and by our own agencies' struggles to meet rising needs with shrinking resources. Still, this does not alter the realities summarized in this piece, and we need to find the courage and resources to come up with a hopeful but realistic vision and action plan of our own.
My introduction to Feasta was their 2010 Book: Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the Risks of Economic and Environmental Collapse. I was drawn to the book in part because it included a chapter by New Reality author and friend, Nate Hagens, but soon realized that all these Feasta folks operate on a very high conceptual and intellectual level. A great place to go for a deeper dig.
The New Reality Quiz
First, last bi-week's quiz question: One of the essential resources that is becoming increasingly scarce these days is fresh water; much of which is used in the US to grow fruits and vegetables in California. So, how many gallons of water does it take to grow a single peach in Kern County, California? A) 2 gallons, B) 5 gallons, C) 63 gallons, or D) 142 gallons? Answer: D) an amazing 142 gallons per peach! For most of us 99%ers, it has been our usual practice to make some of our food buying choices, like whether or not to buy a peach, based on; "How much does it cost?" It may be prudent to start asking ourselves, "How much did this peach cost the planet?" (Note before the California Peach Growers Association comes after me: this point applies equally to all other food purchase choices.)
This Bi-week's New Reality Quiz Question
One huge dimension of the New Reality that we have not addressed in any great length is the world's increasing population. This is extremely important because all of the resource and environmental problems featured in the New Reality Initiative can be correctly viewed as problems of human over-consumption; a combination of both how much resource individual consumers consume, and how many consumers are consuming it. So, planet Earth is currently adding 1 million new human consumers (births minus deaths) every A) month, B) week, C) four and a half days, D) day and a half?
Toward Managing Scarcity | January 17 2014
The New Reality Check concluded its discussion of limits last bi-week with this John Michael Greer quote from his "Overview" piece in the "Facing the New Reality" report: "The work of social service agencies in the years ahead thus will have to shift from seeking a fairer distribution of abundance to the much harder task of managing scarcity." In this post, we begin to explore how it is that we might go about doing just that.
A good place to start, it seems to me, would be to look at how we apportion out what resources, or wealth, we have right now. This week's featured article by former US Labor Secretary, Robert Reich: "The Year of the Great Re-distribution," makes the unequivocal case that we have a very long way to go in the "fairer distribution of abundance" department before we even get to the much trickier "managing scarcity" bit. It's a short but powerful piece and well worth the read, but for the busy New Reality executive on the go, a couple of summarizing quotes:
2013 was a banner year for profits. Where did those profits come from? Here’s where redistribution comes in. American corporations didn’t make most of their money from increased sales (although their foreign sales did increase). They made their big bucks mostly by reducing their costs — especially their biggest single cost: wages.
...[C]orporate profits have been increasing throughout this recovery (they grew over 18 percent in 2013 alone) while wages have been dropping. Corporate earnings now represent the largest share of the gross domestic product — and wages the smallest share of GDP — than at any time since records have been kept. Hence, the Great Redistribution.
...America has been redistributing upward for some time – after all, “trickle-down” economics turned out to be trickle up — but we outdid ourselves in 2013. At a time of record inequality and decreasing mobility, America conducted a Great Redistribution upward.
Here is the link: http://www.nationofchange.org/year-great-redistribution-1388931380
In Osawatomie, Kansas on December 6th, President Obama gave a stirring speech on the American economy. In it, he called our growing income inequality "the defining issue of our time," further noting: "..."for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments -- wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren't -- and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up." With this speech, the President also placed income inequality high on the issue agenda for the 2014 mid-term election. This is a very positive development which may give us a small platform from which to do a little education of our own on the even greater income challenges American families will face as resource depletion, environmental degradation, and soaring debt, conspire to move our society away from the Age of Abundance and deeper into the Age of Scarcity.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's launch of the War on Poverty. As both Robert Reich and President Obama make clear, the great cause of economic justice in America is now losing ground to an economic and tax structure that increasingly increases (yup, that's what it does) injustice and inequality. If we hope to have any success in the next 50 years, we have to change the way the game is played. Support for any policies that effectively reduce America's growing income and wealth inequity would be a great place to start.
While Reich's piece makes a tight, compelling case for this increasing inequity, David Simon, creator of the critically acclaimed TV program The Wire, took this whole reality to a deeper level of understanding in a speech he gave recently in Sydney, Australia. Entitled "There are Now Two Americas. My Country is a Horror Show:" this speech does two things very well. It conveys what "income inequality" really means in America these days, and it begins to seriously take up the question of what kind of economic system is needed if we are going to turn this ship around. A couple of excerpts:
There's no barbed wire around West Baltimore or around East Baltimore, around Pimlico, the areas in my city that have been utterly divorced from the American experience that I know. But there might as well be.
...And so in my country you're seeing a horror show. You're seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income, you're seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You're seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we've put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.
... Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It's a great tool to have in your toolbox if you're trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn't want to go forward at this point without it. But it's not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.
... And one of the things that capital would want unequivocally and for certain is the diminishment of labor. They would want labor to be diminished because labor's a cost. And if labor is diminished, let's translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less.
... The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximize profit is juvenile. It's a juvenile notion and it's still being argued in my country passionately and we're going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I'm astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?
This is a very compelling and helpful piece. Warning! This piece contains, er, colorful language and (gasp!) references to Karl Marx. The link: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/08/david-simon-capitalism-marx-two-americas-wire
The New Reality Check Quiz
First, last bi-week's quiz question: The following text is excerpted from an advertisement for photovoltaic solar electric panels that appeared in a popular national magazine. The question will be to figure out when it appeared
Ever since Archimedes, men have been searching for the secret of the sun.
For it is know that the same kindly rays that help the flowers and the grains and the fruits to grow also send us almost limitless power. It is nearly as much every three days as in all known reserves of coal, oil and uranium.
If this energy could be put to use - there would be enough to turn every wheel and light every lamp that mankind would ever need.
Wow! So this lovely prose and extremely positive view of our energy future appeared in: A)1938, B)1956), C)1968, or D)1976?
Answer? B)1956, of course. The ad was in National Geographic; placed there by the photovoltaic solar panel inventor; Bell Laboratories. They were all excited about the great potential of PV for, amongst other things, "telephony." Imagine where we would be in reduced fossil fuel dependence today if we had invested more or our fossil fuel "capital" over the past 58 years in PV production rather than squandering it on SUV production. Check out the ad.
This bi-week's New Reality Quiz Question:
One of the essential resources that is becoming increasingly scarce these days is fresh water; much of which is used in the US to grow fruits and vegetables in California. So, how many gallons of water does it take to grow a single peach in Kern County, California? A) 2 gallons, B) 5 gallons, C) 63 gallons, or D) 142 gallons?
A closing note: The two articles featured in this post were sent from a father (Thanks, Jeff for the Robert Reich piece) and his son (Thanks, Jake, for the David Simon piece) who follow the New Reality Check. And thanks to my wife for finding the great PV ad featured in the quiz. Such referrals and any feedback about what you read here are most welcome and appreciated.