Thursday, May 24, 2007
Thursday, May 17, 2007
We have met Big Foot(print) and he is us
Two recent articles, one by Inter press service news agency concentrating on the work of Rees and Brian Czech, president of the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, a Washington, DC economic think tank, and one a guest article by Professor Francois Cellier at TheOilDrum.com, focus on the footprint problem. As Cellier points out, the first major work done in this area was global modelling by the "Limits to Growth" authors such as Dennis Meadows. The most recent "Limits of Growth" study, recently revised to 2004, is one of the great books of the last few decades. It shows as well as anyone else the sheer folly of using up all of our resources the way we have been doing it. One of the most depressing aspects of the models, which Cellier points out, is that the sooner the resources run out, the better, because the longer the "party" of using resources like there is no tomorrow keeps rolling, the more people are around to eat shit when it all runs out...of course, they were much more articulate than that.
Anyway, the main point of this blog/rant is this: human civilization will not end if we do not drive cars. Human civilization was doing OK until the 1920s -- Ok, not great, considering things like WWI and imperialism -- but at least in the U.S., we were not busy, if you will excuse the pun, driving toward the cliff, because cars were basically a luxury. Unless you were a farmer you lived near enough to a town or city center that, at worst, you had to take a streetcar to go shopping, go to work, etc. By the end of the 1950s, and through to now, that all changed, and if most Americans all of a sudden lost their cars, they might die of starvation.
Without oil, there are no cars, and without cars, there is no suburbia. Therefore, without oil, there is no suburbia. QED. However, suburbia does not equal civilization. Therefore, without suburbia, civilization does not come to an end, QED.
I therefore request that, when these fine scholars (and there are many others) try to figure out what a world without fossil fuels looks like, they simply eliminate, not only the oil used for cars, but also all the materials that go into cars, highways, parking lots, refineries, tankers, etc., etc., as well as the medical expense of, in the U.S., 40,000 + deaths and millions of injuries a year, and figure they could use the metal from the cars and the materials from the suburban homes and build intra- and interurban rail systems and comfortable apartment complexes (which would include stores and offices) within walking distance of said rail systems, and then figure out what the footprint would be, and would billions really have to die so that we can keep using cars? Not that I'm accusing said scholars of implying that, we might still completely screw the pooch, as they say.
For instance, Cellier mentions that the Swiss have a world-class public transit system, but most Swiss still own cars. That's nice. What if they didn't have cars? Apparently there is a functioning organization in Switzerland that is attempting to decrease energy usage there radically. Apparently they can't figure out how to do it, but it is unclear whether they have considered a car-free country.
The one place that Cellier calculates has actually figured out how to live sustainably is, believe it or not, Cuba. Cuba was cut off from its oil addiction quite brutally one day when the U.S.S.R., which had supplied all of Cuba's oil, collapsed. They are doing decently, and if memory serves me, hardly anyone drives a car. And the country did not collapse!
However, cars are only about half the problem of fossil fuel use, the other major problem being electricity generation, driven mostly by coal, some by natural gas, some by nuclear, less by hydropower, and teensy weensy bit by solar and wind. Solar and wind are maybe a few to many cents more expensive by kilowatt hour. That's all??!! We're torching the planet and stinking it up and making it radioactive over a few cents per kilowatt hour, when an honest accounting of the health and other effects of coal would probably make it about twice as expensive as solar and wind right now?
So here's another assumption we could try in the models: Say the governments of the world decided to use a particular percentage of the economic activity and resources of their respective countries to put solar energy systems on every conceivable building, to put up concentrating solar power systems in every desert, wind farms on every windy plateau and mountain, rebuild their energy grids to handle all this stuff, build storage systems to try to smooth out fluctuations in wind and sun, so that at the end of a certain number of years, solar and wind power would be much cheaper than coal, nukes, even hydropower (which is often quite harmful), and then, the market could make its grand statement: whaddaya know, coal and nuke companies should go bankrupt, renewables are cheaper! (after all, the market has no memory of how it got to where it is now). And our footprints would be teeny, and people could still go around pounding their chests about the miracle of markets.
We would probably free up so much material that we could get by recycling industrial materials for quite a while without even mining, and if we actually put permaculture/sustainable agricultural farming around and within the walkable towns and cities, footprint shmootprint, I wouldn't have to worry about my grandchildren surviving and the food would taste better!
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Towards dismantling the empire
"I believe that there is only one solution to the crisis we face. The American people must make the decision to dismantle both the empire that has been created in their name and the huge (still growing) military establishment that undergirds it. It is a task at least comparable to that undertaken by the British government when, after World War II, it liquidated the British Empire. By doing so, Britain avoided the fate of the Roman Republic — becoming a domestic tyranny and losing its democracy, as would have been required if it had continued to try to dominate much of the world by force."
Johnson's article is important not just because of his analysis of the American empire, which is peerless as usual, but because he also lays out a goal toward which the American Republic (or what is left of it) should strive. These include:
1) Drastically curtailing the military budget (about which more later);
2) Closing 700 of the 737+ military bases worldwide
3) Stop treating foreign territory like American territory (or worse)
4) A nonunilateral foreign policy, such as no U.N. vetoes and respecting international law.
5) Close down the covert operations arm of the CIA and other intelligence organizations.
6) Use tariffs and industrial policy to revive the manufacturing economy.
One important statistic he cites: $934 billion as the true national defense budget. Of that, let's say the $69 billion for the homeland security department is useful (and should probably be increased for cargo inspection), $245 billion for interest payments and retirement can't be cut, and the $70 billion for treating wounded soldiers should probably also be higher (judging from the Walter Reed scandal, at least). That means that there is this big, juicy, pot of cash to the tune of $550 billion just sitting there waiting to be used for something useful. Let's say we keep $100 billion per year for the military, which would be plenty to mothball all the military equipment we have, keep a small corps of people trained on the equipment, and most importantly, have a force available to do important things like prevent fishing bottom trawlers from scraping the ocean floor or keeping people out of rainforests. That leaves $450 billion for some real programs.
Which brings us to Bruce Gagnon's piece, "Global warming or conversion of military-industrial complex?". Bruce, Coordinator of Global Network against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, and a Friend of This Site, has been a peace activist and observer of the Pentagon's designs on space for many decades now. In his article, he discusses the various forces maintaining the political machine known as the Department of Defense, as well as the role our military has in contributing to global warming. To quote near the end of his article:
"It is abundantly clear that no real alternative sustainable technology investment will be possible on the scale needed to avert catastrophic global warming without conversion of the military industrial complex. It is imperative that the peace movement, environmental movement, social justice movement, and labor movements create a unifying vision and political demand calling on Congress to use our hard-earned tax dollars for conversion of the military industrial complex.
May I humbly submit that a great way to build support for such a conversion is to propose an attractive package of programs that a conversion would make possible? For instance, look at the program proposed at the top of this blog, and picture the government doing the following:
1) putting solar energy systems on most buildings in the country, 2creating a huge network of dispersed wind and solar energy farms, 3) constructing high-speed intercity train networks and streetcar systems for every town and city; 4) consider each major city buying land for local permaculture food systems, and 5) starting up local manufacturing firms to rebuild our manufacturing economy.
$450 billion per year would go a long way toward the funding of such a program, and if we restored taxes on the rich and corporations comparable to those that we had before Reagan, not George W. Bush, we could probably approach one trillion dollars a year to transform our society from one based on fossil-fuels to one based on truly sustainable energy, agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing. And have lots of jobs for everybody (I'm not promising a cure for acne, however).
Monday, May 14, 2007
Where is the global warming Left?
After two columns blasting global warming, we can, I feel, simply skip the scientific arguments he makes (there are probably better global warming skeptics elsewhere, and for a good place for anti-anti-global warming arguments, see "How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic" at Grist, and realclimate.org recently had a response to Cockburn's first piece). Now Jeffrey St.Clair, an excellent environmental investigative journalist, and Cockburn's co-editor of Counterpunch, has also come forth with his take on global warming, which is pretty much opposite to his co-editor.
However, they are both interesting in terms of the problems they ascertain facing global warming movements. If you skip past the scientific discussion in Cockburn's pieces, and combine it with St. Clairs, you can see the rudiments of a Left critique of the global warming movement, but still they don't seem to want to come up with what it is we should do. Herewith, my best shot at their list of, shall we say, concerns:
1) Global warming concern could lead to a new lease on life for nuclear power. Al Gore and others sort of mumble about nukes under their breath, and used to scream a bit from the rooftops. Tony Blair manages to mangle his own concern about global warming by pushing nuclear power, and what do you know, Margaret Thatcher did the same (she also hated coal workers). I'm not too worried about this, because I think nuclear power has so many problems it's not going to be easy. Although, amid an alleged win for the environment, when the Texan utility was bought by KKR and canceled all but two of 11 proposed coal-powered plants, they turned around and announced they were going to build 2 nukes instead. We shall see, but uranium may be just as peak-ish as oil
2) The corporados are making hay with carbon trading. This is a big problem, and all kinds of hanky-panky is going on, globally (Adam Stein at the Gristmill blog seems to have a good focus on this).
3) Biofuels (Ban the Biofuels, anyone?). This is a huge boondoggle, I have a blog on it below, there may be a "tipping point" emerging against this one. However -- if gasoline gets very expensive, people won't care, so global warming activists should combine peak oil with their analysis so that they are not side-swiped when oil starts to run out.
4) "Clean coal". John Kerry likes this one, so there must be something wrong with it. I remember being very taken with this, but now it sounds like another boondoggle, and it would require a huge commitment in resources, which could be better used for solar, wind, etc.
5) The big environmentalists aren't doing shit. If you look at all of their sites, most of their advice on global warming starts with, "Things you can do", in other words, no collective action, no legislation even, no government-led programs, not much of anything. If you look around their sites, it certainly looks like there are some things they are doing right, but I have a feeling that they have a certain problem: if they get out in front of too many of their 100s of 1000s of supporters, they'll lose some, therefore, they aren't going to do it. Much less corporate donors. So, to return to the beginning of this post, there doesn't seem to be any large organization that is trying to get to the root of global problems.
Labels: global warming
The N.Y. Times and the trade deficit
In fact, "many American companies are enlarging their operations overseas.", in other words, they are continuing to outsource and shut down U.S. production: "At the same time, a number of American workers have lost their jobs as companies moved more business overseas. And there is always the risk that the dollar could suddenly plunge and set off a global economic crisis." Oh yeah, that problem. A collapsing dollar and a global depression. But what were we talking about? Oh yes, large American corporations are doing well! Thanks to the crack staff at the N.Y. Times for a profound lesson in investigative journalism.
I will spare the reader the quotes from the various economists, which are even worse. Well, one quote is worthwhile; in an eery echo of the old Vietnam prediction of "turning the corner", one economist avers that "We’re past the inflection point". Good, he got to use a mathematical word, makes it sound ever so scientific.
Except that if you look at the data at the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis, well, "it don't look so good". The trade deficit actually went up in March, but that's "only" because of oil, the Times says. But everything else in manufacturing is basically staying the same. This, even though the dollar has been going down relative to the Euro. Since the Chinese and basically the Japanese prop up the American economy by keeping their currencies ridiculously low, the trade gap with Asia doesn't move either.
A trade deficit, that is, a situation when a country imports more than it exports, is supposed to result in the currency of the offending nation going down relative to other currencies. That way, its exports are relatively cheaper, and imports are relatively more expensive, so foreigners buy more (exports therefore go up) and the people of said country buy less (therefore the imports go down). However, since the dollar started sliding against the Euro the trade deficit with Europe has worsened. Since the dollar can't go down vis-a-vis China, there has been no movement there either. But even were the Chinese to relent, my guess is that the trade deficit would not move much.
The fundamental problem is that the U.S. is losing its competence and capacity in manufacturing. So even if the dollar goes down, the U.S. can't ramp up its exports as much as it should, and seemingly can't provide its citizens with goods either, so imports don't go down, or they even go up. But the readers of the N.Y. Times, and other media and academics besotted with neoclassical economics, are not aware of this problem because they have reassured themselves and others that manufacturing doesn't matter (for a contrary view, please see my paper "Why manufacturing is central to the economy").
Meanwhile, Chrysler is going private, Ford is hemorrhaging billions, and GM just lost its leadership position to Toyota. But not to worry. We live in the best of all possible worlds.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Bush, the invasion of Iraq, and power
All of these may be part of the answer, but sometimes it is useful to apply the principal of Occam's razor: "The principle states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating, or 'shaving off,' those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory". If one looks through history, one finds a long list of kings and emperors constantly trying to enlarge their dominion. The historian normally doesn't even have to explain why the aggressor is doing this; it is just assumed that when a head of state decides that he can conquer another country, he will do so, subject to a certain amount of "ambition" on the part of the conqueror.
The historian Geoffrey Blainey concluded that most wars are caused by miscalculation: if the aggressor is correct that he is far superior militarily, and the victim understands this to be true, the victim will generally just give up. If the potential victim really is able to defend itself, the aggressor has miscalculated, and fights a losing war; if the potential victim tries to defend itself but loses, then the victim miscalculated.
This explanation was very attractive for perhaps the leading international relations theorist today, Kenneth Waltz, who continues the long tradition of what is called "realism", that is, the view that power and the distribution of power among nations is the most important factor in international relations. Although this is often a conservative position, it need not be; one could argue that Noam Chomsky, for instance, has been recording the acts of the powerful against the less powerful for many decades now. In the 1990s, Waltz predicted that the U.S. would overextend itself and bring on a coalition that would create a balance of power, because Waltz felt that, democracy or not, the U.S. would use its excessive power to try and dominate other nations as thoroughly as it could. Overwhelming power leads to a desire to dominate, which leads to a balancing of power.
As it was, in a sequence that would not be mysterious to most historians, Clinton was not particularly expansionistic, but a different part of the ruling elite, in the form of the Project for a New American Century, were. These kinds of rifts among elites are normal. What made the situation dangerous was that the Soviet Union had disappeared, which had altered what Waltz calls the "structure", or distribution of power, in the world. Had the Soviet Union existed, the United States would not now be in Iraq.
So the first thing to consider is that Bush invaded Iraq because the Soviet Union did not exist, and no other power has emerged to challenge the U.S. The second consideration is that the expansionist part of the elite took power. I would argue that it still took 9/11 to enable Bush and company to pursue their nefarious designs on empire, because in a democracy some kind of justification is necessary for expansion -- which isn't to say that dictators don't also offer justifications, just that in a democracy the drama has to be higher. Whether Bush and company knew about 9/11 before it happened, or whether Osama bin Laden had good intelligence that Bush would attack Iraq if al qaeda attacked the U.S., which is what I suspect, is actually a secondary matter. The more important point, besides an expansionist elite in power and a severely unbalanced global power structure, is that Iraq was exceptionally weak. Not just weak, but just as important, Saddam had managed to thoroughly alienate Iran and Kuwait by invading them, and hadn't forged alliances with anyone else. It was like a wounded, isolated wildebeest in the Serengeti facing a pride of lions. Well, dumb lions, that pursued the wildebeest into a swamp.
The expansionist part of the American elite were licking their chops at such a prone prize. I'm sure that if one looked at the 5,000 year history of the states surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates, it would not be the first time that happened. Even before the invasion of Iraq, bin Laden was comparing the U.S. with Hulagu Khan, who conquered Baghdad in 1258, and virtually destroyed the city. The U.S. invasion fit in perfectly with his propaganda.
That Bush and company had no idea what they were doing, knew nothing of the region or how to rule, is nothing shocking when seen through the history of the last few thousand years, because mind-boggling stupidity is a constant feature of would-be conquerors. Certainly, Rumsfeld's desire to "transform" the U.S. military into a lean conquering machine was nothing new. Ever since history started, first cavalry and then tanks have been used to try and outmaneuver a slower enemy. This was the idea behind the blitzkrieg, an idea that Hitler used, based on the writings of the British strategist Liddel-Hart. Hitler, having been involved in one of history's biggest examples of stupidity, the huge, vain, incredibly murderous offensives on the Western Front of World War I, was determined to create a lean conquering machine. The spectacle of U.S. tanks going full blast across the Iraqi desert was well within the blitzkrieg mode. What was completely off script was the decision to rule Iraq by destroying the native bureaucracy, which even Hitler was not stupid enough to do, having left the French government virtually completely in place, for instance.
Not that even keeping the Baath party in place would have helped, although we'll never know. Perhaps the only way the invasion would have worked would have been to eliminate Hussein and his sons and keeping the rest of the Baath party in power. It would have made it easier to pursue what I think was Bush and company's larger goal, a full-scale empire (not that it would have been called that) in the Middle East and Central Asia, full of weak, struggling, divided pseudocountries, just ripe for the picking.
The only good that has come from this horrible war is that a wider empire will not be possible, no matter how much Bush clings to the idea. This whole fiasco was made possible, not only because of Blainey's insight, miscalculation, but because that part of the world is weak. Which brings us back to the more positive vision of this site, which is to propose a global makeover, which requires that each region of the planet be strong enough to provide enough of a balance that war becomes very unlikely. If every region of the planet was as industrially advanced as Europe and Japan are now and the U.S. used to be (it is currently building its military on top of built-up industrial power from the past), then a major war between regions would be virtually unthinkable. In order for every region to achieve this, there must be enough unity within the region to allow for at least a European Union type situation, which in turn is probably only possible if all the countries involved are democratic, and if they are all committed to a path of industrialization, as opposed to simply exploiting and selling off whatever natural resources are in their territories. And all this must be built in a sustainable way, if we want to avoid the ugly tragedy of war, as we see now in Iraq.
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
The case of biofuels
By trying to solve the global warming and "energy security" problems, the problems of poverty -- and agriculture -- and deforestation are being made worse. Even more tragically, carbon emissions may be increased, since deforestation for palm oil production in Indonesia has made that country the third greatest generator of greenhouse gases on the planet, as the peat bogs are burned in that country (China and the U.S. are first and second -- not clear who is first at this point).
Another problem that could be "solved" by biofuels is the problem of peak oil, of the slow decline of output of oil globally. So peak oil solutions must also look at poverty and deforestation problems that could result from so-called "solutions".
The basic problem is this: something like 98% of fuel for transportation, at least in the U.S., derives from oil. In particular, cars and trucks use about 70% of our oil. Since, God forbid, nobody wants to move away from the use of cars and trucks, as gasoline becomes more expensive, oil-addicted societies like the U.S. won't care how they get their fuel. They'll fight wars for it, they'll let people starve to get it, they'll destroy what's left of the forests if it means that they can maintain the suburbs and highways. This is why it is essential to 1) propose programs for real renewables, solar, wind, geothermal, microhydro, but not biofuels; 2) Create rail systems that can use the electricity, because electric cars won't be able to replace the fast, heavy, long-distance automobiles we have now; 3) recreate town and city centers so that people can walk or use trains, instead of driving for shopping, seeing friends and relatives, going to school, to work, to think, to love, to do frickin' every-frickin' thing.
This three-pronged approach solves the peak oil problem, the climate change problem, saves forests, and if applied planet-wide, would develop poor countries without destroying them ecologically. The last piece in this puzzle is replacing the "Green Revolution" of dumping huge amounts of fossil fuels on agricultural land with intensive/permaculture/local/organic agriculture, so that poor people and rich people can eat decently.
For a good guide to the ills of biofuels, see "Peak Soil: Why biofuels are not sustainable and a threat to America's National Security". For a good discussion of a national rail policy, also at DailyKos, see "ENERGIZE AMERICA: The High Speed Passenger Rail Act, Draft 1 ". Harvey Wasserman and James Howard Kunstler are two high-profile intellectuals that understand the importance of trains replacing cars.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
To remake the world
Perhaps the global civil society, if I may call it that, that Hawken has identified, is where the "action" is in terms of an alternative to the present global order; remember that in 1999, at the Seattle WTO meeting, it was thought that an anti-globalization movement was forming. Walden Bello has written a piece called "World Social Forum at the Crossroads", discussing the best known of the current attempts to create a global...well, as Hawken says, it's not clear if this is a movement, so maybe "global civil society" is not a bad start for a label, although Hawken seems to like the idea that a label can't be applied.
On the other hand, I have the feeling that the literature on civil society (and there is quite a literature, particularly in political science) includes the idea that people participating in said civil society are aware of their membership, or participation, in a larger, normally national society. Not that nationalism is necessarily a part of it; but can the movements Hawken describes be considered part of a global civil society? It sems as if these people are aware of themselves as part of a planet, but because they are atomized, as Hawken says, there may be a certain lack of consciousness...
...which is a tricky word, having been somewhat abused by Marxists, generally to explain what the working class falsely has. But others, such as Teilard de Chardin, and currently perhaps some such as Edward O. Wilson, the biologist, have attempted to articulate a global consciousness, or the possibility that humans might be able to communicate across the globe and thereby save the planet.
Hawken says that there is no ideology pervading this global civil society, but this blog is, to a certain extent, devoted to trying to create a global ideology, as full of unmitigated audacity (to quote Frank Zappa, not Barak Obama) that may seem (or megalomanical, take your pick). It seems to me that at some point, millions of people will have to reach out and create a movement, with an ideology, and with a program, as terrible as that may sound after all the horrors of the 20th century, much less what the Republicans have done with a movement (evangelicals) an ideology (neoclassical economics) and a program (neocon). But I still feel that people need to discuss movements, ideologies, and programs in order to avert major global crises. At any rate, some excerpts from Hawken:
"They were from the nonprofit and nongovernmental world, also known as civil society. They looked after rivers and bays, educated consumers about sustainable agriculture, retrofitted houses with solar panels, lobbied state legislatures about pollution, fought against corporate-weighted trade policies, worked to green inner cities, or taught children about the environment. Quite simply, they were trying to safeguard nature and ensure justice...
this is the largest social movement in all of history, no one knows its scope, and how it functions is more mysterious than what meets the eye...
What does meet the eye is compelling: tens of millions of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world...
The movement has three basic roots: the environmental and social justice movements, and indigenous cultures’ resistance to globalization—all of which are intertwining. It arises spontaneously from different economic sectors, cultures, regions, and cohorts, resulting in a global, classless, diverse, and embedded movement, spreading worldwide without exception. In a world grown too complex for constrictive ideologies, the very word movement may be too small, for it is the largest coming together of citizens in history."