Thursday, April 12, 2012

the "Blinding Obsession with Carbon"

I read an article today that was something of a revelation.  In a way it presented mostly things I already know, but with much greater clarity.

As soon as I noticed that trees are dying, I assumed that it was from climate change.  It took about a year for me to realize that in fact, it is pollution.  Even so, because the pollution - the precursors to ozone - largely result from the same industrial civilization that produces such copious emissions of CO2, they seemed obviously connected.  But over the years any such linkage has been rebuffed by almost every environmental activist and climate scientist I have ever contacted.  Sometimes quite rudely rejected.

The explanation for what initially seemed paradoxical eventually became clear.  The CO2 adherents didn't want to include ozone even as a topic of discussion, because it is what has been described an "intractable" problem, for the simple reason that the ONLY conceivable way to fix it is to drastically curtail our level of consumption not only of fuel but also, of absolutely everything else - including food, which would require a decrease in population.

And I've understood that deep down inside, these activists and scientists harbor the hope that we will find magic technological fixes for our energy use, so that we can maintain the contemporary life-style of a developed country by replacing fuels that create CO2 with so-called "cleaner" sources like natural gas, biofuels and the rest of the solar, wind, and wave array...and if necessary geo-engineering can offset temperature increases.

Even assuming climate change can be mitigated by such efforts - a big stretch - it won't do a thing to slow the acidification of the ocean, or the collapse of forests.  And since most reactive nitrogen comes from fertilizer, and methane is a major ozone precursor, these facts have all conspired to make ozone about as taboo a conversation in climate and environmental circles as incest - they won't even entertain the topic.

This is just a long way of introducing the article written by co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, an effort I've always wished was a lot closer than Britain, Paul Kingsnorth. "Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist", which in addition to being evocatively written, has crystalized my thoughts on the above in a way that is simultaneously exhilarating, humbling and, not too surprisingly, really sad.  What follows is a little bit, but not nearly all - better to follow the link and read the whole thing because he has much more to say.  Naturally I liked the painting too:

"Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist" ~ by Paul Kingsnorth
Today’s environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world. Most of us wouldn’t even know where to find it. We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people—us—feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so.
It is, in other words, an entirely human-centered piece of politicking, disguised as concern for “the planet.” In a very short time—just over a decade—this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in between. The success of environmentalism has been total—at the price of its soul.
Let me offer up just one example of how this pact has worked. If “sustainability” is about anything, it is about carbon. Carbon and climate change. To listen to most environmentalists today, you would think that these were the only things in the world worth talking about. The business of “sustainability” is the business of preventing carbon emissions. Carbon emissions threaten a potentially massive downgrading of our prospects for material advancement as a species. They threaten to unacceptably erode our resource base and put at risk our vital hoards of natural capital. If we cannot sort this out quickly, we are going to end up darning our socks again and growing our own carrots and other such unthinkable things. All of the horrors our grandparents left behind will return like deathless legends. Carbon emissions must be “tackled” like a drunk with a broken bottle—quickly, and with maximum force.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t doubt the potency of climate change to undermine the human machine. It looks to me as if it is already beginning to do so, and that it is too late to do anything but attempt to mitigate the worst effects. But what I am also convinced of is that the fear of losing both the comfort and the meaning that our civilization gifts us has gone to the heads of environmentalists to such a degree that they have forgotten everything else. The carbon must be stopped, like the Umayyad at Tours, or all will be lost.
This reductive approach to the human-environmental challenge leads to an obvious conclusion: if carbon is the problem, then “zero-carbon” is the solution. Society needs to go about its business without spewing the stuff out. It needs to do this quickly, and by any means necessary. Build enough of the right kind of energy technologies, quickly enough, to generate the power we “need” without producing greenhouse gases, and there will be no need to ever turn the lights off; no need to ever slow down.


  1. Good one. I have a 25 year old daughter, and I would like to see her prosper. Because of that, my answer to the question of what to do as activism against the problem of growth is to step away from Empire as best I can, bringing as many people along as I can, so that there is something left for her in the future. If you could pull the emergency brake for our civilization’s flywheel economy, would you do it?

    Mary Logan

  2. Mary, this was sent to me by RPauli - very fascinating questions!

    Humans now seem to be faced with real-life expressions of two thought experiments - each is an ethical quandary:

    The Trolley Problem - where we must force pain to some so that many more can live. (would you force a train onto a side track that must kill one person, just so that 5 people would live? ) Experimenters report that 90% of test subjects refuse to act.

    And the ticking time-bomb problem notion that suggests that laws and ethics can be tossed aside - permitting violent action if we are faced with a catastrophic deadline that harms the greater population (ie torture terrorist to defuse the bomb). Also a situation that many can talk about, but not many are willing to face.

    While we all can define the population and global warming problems quite well, unfortunately, these two thought experiments suggest that humans have a slim chance of effecting change. And may have to endure unwanted physical consequences

  3. Gail, ethics are arguably situational. Although we've had 2 centuries of stability with increasing emphasis on autonomy and personhood in ethics, because we had the freedom and security of fossil fuels to live like kings, that situation is about to change? We will be in a situation where survival of the group is more tenuous, and difficult decisions may need to be made to sustain the community--something that we haven't really experienced in this country for over a century? Fossil fuels have allowed the freedom for rigid, standardized ethics where everyone is considered royalty, with maximum autonomy and rights.

    So perhaps we may shift to more utilitarian ethics. And perhaps we may shift to a form of ethic beyond utilitarian ethics, specifically oriented towards a contracting economy with waning resources. For instance, in the trolley scenario, what if one or more of the people were essential to the function of your small isolated community, without which the entire community might fail? Does that then shift the decision-making process?

    Energy System Ethics for All Scales (Odum, 2007, p. 329)

    Seek satisfaction in useful contribution
    Help maximize real wealth (empower)
    Reinforce environmental sources
    Treasure genetic and cultural diversity
    Adapt to natural hierarchy
    Minimize luxury
    Minimize waste
    Adapt to system rhythm
    Share information
    Optimize efficiency
    Circulate materials
    Circulate money
    Fit the earth
    Reproduce only as needed
    Have faith in self-organization

  4. Paul Kingsnorth is 37 years old. His memories of some state of nature are not older than 1980, most of his nature memories are from the 1990s.

    I'm about your age, Gail. There has long been no way to tell the young what has been lost. Pictures in books - digital files? - are no replacement. Mr. Kingsnorth has his Dark Mountain Project and his dreams and daily I know less what it is we are hoping to save.

  5. I don't know, Mary. I think if you look at the dark underbelly of the American Empire, we haven't been living ethically at all. We've just been insulated from the looting and murder done to secure the resources that have enabled us to live like kings.

    But that item in your list - reproduce only as needed - is key, and somehow I don't see that ever becoming accepted practice. I threw up a little in my mouth when I read that Ann Romney uses having SIXTEEN grandchildren as evidence of how hard she (and her five maids) has worked. All this had me thinking all night about what people would do if they lived on an island with no way to get off it - where they can't go and plunder new lands - it would be so obviously stupid to reproduce at more than the island can support. I guess we know how that turned out.

    Yeah, it's been a long night b/c Anon had me thinking about those shifting baselines. Actually Kingsnorth could have seen some very lovely nature 20 years ago. When I moved to western NJ farmland it was so gorgeous. I couldn't believe how many different wildflowers there were everywhere, a constant parade from early spring till frost. I wonder if anybody but me misses them.

  6. Peace and joy to you, Gail, and a good night's sleep, too. Away and over there are getting smaller; we have to live with some piece of American Empire. At least the limits are visible and have consequences at this point; our island is getting smaller. Yes, we tossed ethics and values in favor of capitalism. I got mine, I'll be gone, you'll be gone.

    Do it now or put it off--either way we are going to either pull the emergency brake or have Mother Nature do it for us. The longer we wait, the more sudden the stop. I would have pulled the brake 40 years ago, and 30 years ago, and 20 years ago, and 10 years ago, and I would pull it now.

  7. We're sucking the life from the whole of the world
    Can't be confined or condemned to be
    Reduced to a place that's a violent resolve
    To the end they will try
    And silence you.

    Ashes Divide - Sword

  8. Even assuming climate change can be mitigated by such efforts - a big stretch - it won't do a thing to slow the acidification of the ocean, or the collapse of forests.

    Good essay! Let me append a small correction: reducing CO2 emissions would slow the ocean acidification. To the degree that it would reduce the rate of surface temperature increase, it would also help out the forests, by reducing the rate of soil temp increase.

    The larger point is valid: selling hope in the form of "sustainability" is the stock-and-trade of environmental orgs. It's hard to see what the alternative would be; giving people the unvarnished truth about our planet's terminal condition isn't a very successful marketing strategy.

  9. Thanks Jim! I should have made it more clear - I wasn't referring to reducing CO2, but rather the geoengineering to reduce temperatures that doesn't reduce CO2 - like spraying aerosols into the atmosphere or painting roofs white. Or buying air conditioners at Walmart, which is the Heartlessland's recommendation!


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