Sunday, December 21, 2014

Homo eradicatus

Season's Greetings - Merry Christmas, Super Solstice, Happy New Year etc - all fellow ruthless, insatiable members of our species Homo eradicatus who are watching the approach of the gathering storm!  As usual I have been collecting links to emerging science about ozone poisoning forests, but that topic will have to wait until after the family festivities.
After I hit "publish" it will be full-out baking and decorating. This post will just note that massive tree declines have been detected by NASA in the Amazon, and scientists are pointing to deforestation as a primary reason that debilitating droughts ensue.  Yes - science now affirms that this is how we have created deserts throughout history.
If you are looking for a movie to watch over the holidays, I highly recommend Belle (assuming you haven't seen it already).  I initially rented it because I love the escapism of a good historical costume drama, but it turned out to be much more than that - the tale delineates the distinctions of class, sex, race and marital politics of the day.  Based on a true story, it follows the struggles of the child of a slave who is raised by her wealthy relations in England.  Her impish intelligence shines through in this astonishingly lovely contemporary portrait with her more privileged white cousin who, in no small irony, winds up as much a prisoner of her gender as Belle is of her race.
It also, primarily, involves the passionate debate over slavery that dominated the times, revolving around the complex court case, presided over by Belle's conflicted guardian, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield.  The insurance company has refused to pay damages following the infamous massacre of the ship Zong about which, I am ashamed to say, I had never heard of before - even though The Slave Ship, a painting which immortalizes the event by J.M.W. Turner, hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts - so I know I must have seen it.  A high resolution view can be found here and packs a astonishingly powerful, visceral punch with incredible delicacy and subtlety.

There is romance in the movie too but, above all, it resonates with a complexity that is lost in the vacuous anti-civilization posturing that passes for historical analysis in too many corners of the internet and alternative media today.

Along these lines, I watched the following quick excerpt from a talk by Derrick Jensen, which is compelling and heartfelt, but (in my opinion) fundamentally flawed:

My comment was - He's right - it is a failure of imagination. The problem that he is missing is that most people can't help it - they LITERALLY can't imagine a world without a living biosphere, because (with the exception of the clinically depressed aka mutants) the human brain neurologically just doesn't work that way.  So unless there is some way to magically evolve the human brain to be different than it is - maybe another 500,000 years or so - Homo eradicatus is trapped in an unsolvable, intractable dilemma.  The research discussed in an article winningly titled Your Brain Won't Allow You To Believe the Apocalypse Could Actually Happen -  is only one of many neurological studies that demonstrate the rigidity of human behavioral attributes, and observes the results of both experiments and MRI studies:

"...this human propensity toward optimism is facilitated by the brain's failure to code errors in estimation when those call for pessimistic updates. This failure results in selective updating, which supports unrealistic optimism that is resistant to change."

Humans seem to have a propensity towards one sort of imagination - that which is optimistic and hopeful. This has some felicitous results - who would try to invent something new if they didn't think they would succeed? But it also is the power that has enabled our species to colonize the earth - who would pick up their wife and kids and put them on a covered wagon or a canoe and set off into the complete unknown if they didn't have a near fanatical belief that they would find better circumstances over the horizon? Perhaps this has over time selected the optimism/hopeful trait, as those are the explorers - and survivors.

"The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory", a book by Cynthia Eller skewers the WooWoo proponents of that particular fairytale on much the same grounds.  She explains "...why an invented past won't give women a future" which, like the equally popular myth of the noble, sustainable hunter-gatherer tribe, is an insidious hope that interferes with a rational assessment of our predicament.

She writes of how, starting in the 1970’s, the myth began to dominate the cultural mainstream in the following decades, and of how these fictional societies were proposed to be “…not crude reversals of patriarchal power, but models of ease, leniency, harmony with nature, and significantly, sex egalitarianism”.

How well I can relate to her confession!

“…I had no trouble appreciating the myth’s appeal.  Except for one small problem - and one much larger problem - I might now be writing a book titled Matriarchal Prehistory:  Our Glorious Past and Our Hope for the Future.  But if I was intrigued with the newness and power of the myth, and with its bold gender reversals, I was at least as impressed by the fact that anyone took it seriously as history.  Poking holes in the ‘evidence’ for this myth was, to rely on cliché, like shooting fish in a barrel.  After a long day of research in the library, I could go out with friends and entertain them with the latest argument I’d read for matriarchal prehistory, made up entirely - I pointed out - of a highly ideological reading of a couple of prehistoric artifacts accompanied by some dubious anthropology, perhaps a little astrology, and a fatuous premise…or two or three”.

I find myself in a position similar to what she describes as to why she bothers to dispel the fantasies:  “For certainly there are other myths that I have never felt driven to dispute:  White lotus flowers blossomed in the footsteps of the newly born Hakyamuni? …Truth claims seem beside the point to me: what matters is why the story is told, the uses to which it is put and by whom.”

Just as I would never bother to argue with a devout Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist over their faith (I long ago gave up arguing with climate deniers, and nowadays don't often bother with chemtrailers even though they, at least, are cognizant that trees are dying), still, I too frequently feel compelled to dispel the myth of sustainable hunter gathers - because perpetuating that fantasy ensures we will never accurately examine and assess our behavior, our prospects, our alternatives - honestly.  See what Jensen says in another short clip about our species:

An impassioned spokesman for the theory of a peaceful, sustainable culture of hunter-gathers, he asserts - against vast evidence of perpetual warfare and slavery; and ubiquitous habitat and species destruction chronically followed by sequential collapse - that humans lived in harmony with nature for many thousands of years.  He assigns blame for the current pattern exclusively to recent industrialization and a culture of materialism, despite a plethora of relics of the importance of status as displayed by personal possessions - whether shells or feathers or gold trinkets.  Aside from the utterly relentless colonizing of even the most marginal habitat of the entire earth going back to the exact timeframe he cites - in itself enough evidence that humans are not and never have been "sustainable" as we eradicated habitat, burning and slashing ruthlessly through verdant, pristine paradises in merciless pursuit of meat - the extirpation of the megafauna by the first arrivals in every new location is now only disputed by true believers...the evidence has become so overwhelming.

One of the best discussions I have found on this topic is available to read for free on-line at - Speak Out About Endangered Species, by Baz Edmeades.  I won't post any excerpts, because it's brilliant, and anybody who cares about this topic should read it.  Or, if it is too long (although it is tremendously well-written) you could instead cut to the chase with a very amusing short column in, of all places, the Havana Times, titled The Myth of a "Sustainable Primitive Community" in Cuba (even still the locus of farming sustainability myths) which chronicles the demise of indigenous creatures that went into the cooking pot of the first immigrants to arrive on the island 6,000 years the Ornimegalonyx, at one meter in height believed to be the largest species of owl that ever existed (among many others forever lost).

This first film, a visually stunning time-lapse sequence, is a splendid example of our optimistic, powerful imagination at work...a city - sanitized, glorious, almost a sacred monument to man's ingenuity.  It is followed by a far more depressing, and I would say realistic, version of our contribution to earth today that left me in tears, even though I should know better by now.

Cityscape Chicago II from Eric Hines on Vimeo.

Many thanks to David Lange, Jenelle Green, David Veith and other friends both facebook and otherwise, who enrich my life by diligently sharing many of these wonderful links to videos, articles, and research.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

All About Us

In this post are screenshots and notes I made from a lecture by James White of INSTAAR, U Colorado Boulder, given last week at the annual meeting of the AGU (American Geophysical Union) in San Francisco.  Anyone can see it, for free, although it requires jumping through some hoops to register.  Here is the link I used to access it - you can try to login as me (email, password agupass1) or register yourself and search for James White in "Virtual Options" at the conference home site.  It is well worth persistence to see.

[update, 2/12 - the video is up on youtube here.  Alex Smith interviewed Dr. White here.]

The title refers to his recent study, "Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change:  Anticipating Surprises" that was co-authored by numerous scientists and published by the US National Academy of Science (free download here).  He begins by defining aspects of "abrupt" as, among other perimeters, occurring within the lifespan of a human - since after all, he declared with ironic emphasis, "it's all about us".  In other words, if we don't feel immediate impacts, we won't do anything about it (if then).

He refers to himself as a paleoscientist, and much of his research is in the cryosphere - the study of climate change as it has been recorded in ice.  Amazing new technology has enabled him to reconstruct the deep past by studying the slivers of evidence in cores with great efficiency, and what he has found should be of gravest concern to anyone who is the slightest aware of the dangers inherent in climate change.

There were some moments in his talk that I applauded, others that caused me grief, and some that made me laugh with derision.  One of the latter was his so-called solution to overpopulation, which is to "empower women".  It is gratifying that he understands and at least mentions that population is a problem since very few in the sphere of climate do - but he misses the fact that growth is a function of technology increasing food, and instead thinks that cultural changes will control it.
Equality between the sexes only exists anywhere thanks to the surplus luxury of cheap energy.  This fundamental facet of human behavior seems to have escaped him.  He places the pressures of population, however, as being overwhelmed by the problem that billions of poor people want lifestyles comparable to the wealthier citizens of the world, and that their concurrent increase in consumption of goods and energy per capita is far more significant than the absolute number of people.  He calls it the "nasty dilemma".  Thus, "empowering women", which will only happen through greater economic progress and consumption in developing nations, is logically inconsistent with his assertion that extending justice to the billions of people who aspire to energy and pollution intensive lifestyles is the greater threat.

Most of his talk is concentrated on tipping points and thresholds, in human as well as natural systems. He compares them to a canoe just about to plunge over Niagara Falls, which is well past the tipping point, or threshold, where changing course would have made a difference.  The fear is that you can't see the falls until it is too late to get off the river.  He acknowledges numerous potential tipping points including the loss of plants to absorb CO2, but he avoided the lethal potential of methane clathrates, and concentrated on sea level rise for some solid reasons.  Sea level rise is already happening, as is evident on islands and low-lying coastal areas.  It is unstoppable, because the thermal expansion will continue, as will the contribution from melting ice, particularly Greenland and Antarctica.  Sea level rise is accelerating, and will continue to accelerate - although no one knows exactly how much.

This enormous question he addresses by investigating past episodes of rapid sea level rise, as determined from studying ice cores, and the results are not reassuring, at all.  From the rapidity of sea level rise, he extrapolates the warming that would necessitate ice melt, and it is staggeringly fast.
Each slide indicates worse and then worse scenarios that have occurred in the past.
He indicated that the results of his studies are so preposterously alarming that he and his colleagues don't even present them all.

Below is a video of Jeremy Jackson, in the latest iteration of his fabled "Ocean Apocalypse" speech, which is as usual riveting - and yet has received a pathetic audience on youtube of less than 30 views since he spoke at Franklin & Marshall on November 25.  As always, he does a good job of integrating the multiple negative impacts of human activity on the ocean, and delineating the relevance to those species who make their home on the land.  He made his usual droll analogy for the horror that should accompany coral reef decline to how people would react if suddenly all the trees died - of course not recognizing that in fact, the trees ARE dying, and hardly anybody even notices and if they do, they certainly don't care enough to give up cars and electricity to save them.  Despite his efforts to educate the public about overfishing, acidification, pollution, and warming, he still holds out hope that engagement in the political process will regulate human activity so that ecosystems can recover.  This, of course, is nonsense - if the Obama presidency has proven anything, it is that no matter how much politicians nibble around the edges, consumption and pollution continue to increase globally - see for example, the article, "As US cleans up, it's exporting more pollution" which says:
Heat-trapping pollution released into the atmosphere from rising exports of U.S. gasoline and diesel dwarfs the cuts made from fuel efficiency standards and other efforts to reduce global warming in the United States, according to a new Associated Press investigation. 
Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. has reduced more carbon pollution from energy than any other nation, about 475 million tons between 2008 and 2013, according to U.S. Energy Department data. Less than one-fifth of that amount came from burning less gasoline and diesel fuel. 
Yet the U.S. is sending more fuel than ever to other parts of the world, where efforts to address resulting pollution are just getting underway, if advancing at all. U.S. exports of gasoline and diesel released roughly 1 billion tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere elsewhere during the same period, according to AP's analysis. 
This fossil fuel trade has helped President Barack Obama meet political goals to curb carbon dioxide at home, by taking it off America's pollution balance sheet. But that does not necessarily help the planet.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Tilting at Windmills

In honor of the youth of the world, I will be silent on December 10.  I will wear a green wristband, take a picture, and send it to

I will do it even though, as the following essay from TransitionMilwaukee demonstrates, it IS impossible to avert a horrendous crash.  The author ably demolishes the pet fantasies of climate activists for a green high-tech society, despite the obligatory hopium tacked on in the last section.  We are not, as he asserts, on the "brink" of the 6th mass extinction - it is well underway.  In fact, the case can easily be made that it began over 10,000 years ago when homo eradicatus extirpated dozens of species of megafauna, thus altering the entire ecosystems by disrupting everything from seed disbursal to precipitation.

The exhortation to Americans to consume less won't be enough to avert the climate catastrophe that is already irreversible, even if "making substantial changes in the way you live" also includes forgoing light and heat and food from the grocery store, wearing only clothing woven from homespun yarn, and refraining from even so much as an aspirin for the sick...because all those basic goods and services - food, electricity, clothing and medical care, to say nothing of travel and electronics - only exist in quantities sufficient for billions of people because they are derived from a globally industrialized civilization powered by fossil fuels.  No one is going to willingly give those up, thus nothing substantive has been or will be done.

We cannot have a "revolution" against ourselves.
Earth Day, 1972
But I will be silent on December 10 anyway - why not - make a meaningless gesture for all the bewildered and frightened children who will inherit these wrecked oceans and ruined lands.

If the world population is not stabilized… nothing but pain and grief will follow. The future will then indeed be based on our cries of agony. ~ Sir Fred Hoyle, 1963 

Tilting at Windmills ~ Gustave Doré (1863)

Six Myths About Climate Change that Liberals Rarely Question
By Erik Lindberg
Myth #1:  Liberals Are Not In Denial 
“We will not apologize for our way of life” –Barack Obama
The conservative denial of the very fact of climate change looms large in the minds of many liberals.  How, we ask, could people ignore so much solid and unrefuted evidence?   Will they deny the existence of fire as Rome burns once again?  With so much at stake, this denial is maddening, indeed.  But almost never discussed is an unfortunate side-effect of this denial: it has all but insured that any national debate in America will occur in a place where most liberals are not required to challenge any of their own beliefs.  The question has been reduced to a two-sided affair—is it happening or is it not—and liberals are obviously on the right side of that.
If we broadened the debate just a little bit, however, we would see that most liberals have just moved a giant boat-load of denial down-stream, and that this denial is as harmful as that of conservatives.  While the various aspects of liberal denial are my main overall topic, here, and will be addressed in our following five sections, they add up to the belief that we can avoid the most catastrophic levels of climate disruption without changing our fundamental way of life.  This is myth is based on errors that are as profound and basic as the conservative denial of climate change itself.
But before moving on, one more point about liberal and conservative denial: Naomi Klein has suggested that conservative denial may have its roots, it will surprise many liberals, in some pretty clear thinking. [i]  At some level, she has observed, conservatives climate deniers understand that addressing climate change will, in fact, change our way of life, a way of life which conservatives often view as sacred.  This sort of change is so terrifying and unthinkable to them, she argues, that they cut the very possibility of climate change off at its knees:  fighting climate change would force us to change our way of life; our way of life is sacred and cannot be questioned; ergo, climate change cannot be happening. 
We have a situation, then, where one half of the population says it is not happening, and the other half says it is happening but fighting it doesn’t have to change our way of life.  Like a dysfunctional and enabling married couple, the bickering and finger-pointing, and anger ensures that nothing has to change and that no one has to actually look deeply at themselves, even as the wheels are falling off the family-life they have co-created.  And so do Democrats and Republicans stay together in this unhappy and unproductive place of emotional self-protection and planetary ruin.
Myth #2:  Republicans are Still More to Blame
“Yes, America does face a cliff -- not a fiscal cliff but a set of precipices [including a carbon cliff] we'll tumble over because the GOP's obsession over government's size and spending has obscured them.”  -Robert Reich
It is true that conservative politicians in the United States and Europe have been intent on blocking international climate agreements; but by focusing on these failed agreements, which only require a baby-step in the right direction, liberals obliquely side-step the actual cause of global warming—namely, burning fossil fuels.  The denial of climate change isn’t responsible for the fact that we, in the United States, are responsible for about one quarter of all current emissions if you include the industrial products we consume (and an even greater percentage of all emissions over time), even though we make up only 6% of the world’s population.  Our high-consumption lifestyles are responsible for this.  Republicans do not emit an appreciably larger amount of carbon dioxide than Democrats. 
Because pumping gasoline is our most direct connection to the burning of fossil fuels, most Americans overemphasize the significance of what sort of car we drive and many liberals might proudly point to their small economical cars or undersized SUVs.  While the transportation sector is responsible for a lot of our emissions, the carbon footprint of any one individual has much more to do with his or her overall levels of consumption of all kinds—the travel (especially on airplanes), the hotels and restaurants, the size and number of homes, the computers and other electronics, the recreational equipment and gear, the food, the clothes, and all the other goods, services, and amenities that accompany an affluent life.  It turns out that the best predictor of someone’s carbon footprint is income.  This is true whether you are comparing yourself to other Americans or to other people around the world.  Middle-class American professionals, academics, and business-people are among the world’s greatest carbon emitters and, as a group, are more responsible than any other single group for global warming, especially if we focus on discretionary consumption.  Accepting the fact of climate change, but then jetting off to the tropics, adding another oversized television to the collection, or buying a new Subaru involves a tremendous amount of denial.  There are no carbon offsets for ranting and raving about conservative climate-change deniers.
Myth #3:  Renewable Energy Can Replace Fossil Fuels
“We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” –Barack Obama
This is a hugely important point.  Everything else hinges on the myth that we might live a lifestyle similar to our current one powered by wind, solar, and biofuels.  Like the conservative belief that climate change cannot be happening, liberals believe that renewable energy must be a suitable replacement.  Neither view is particularly concerned with the evidence.
Conventional wisdom among American liberals assures us that we would be well on our way to a clean, green, low-carbon, renewable energy future were it not for the lobbying efforts of big oil companies and their Republican allies.  The truth is far more inconvenient than this: it will be all but impossible for our current level of consumption to be powered by anything but fossil fuels.  The liberal belief that energy sources such as wind, solar, and biofuels can replace oil, natural gas, and coal is a mirror image of the conservative denial of climate change: in both cases an overriding belief about the way the world works, or should work, is generally far stronger than any evidence one might present.  Denial is the biggest game in town.  Denial, as well as a misunderstanding about some fundamental features of energy, is what allows someone like Bill Gates assume that “an energy miracle” will be created with enough R & D.  Unfortunately, the lessons of microprocessors do not teach us anything about replacing oil, coal, and natural gas.
It is of course true that solar panels and wind turbines can create electricity, and that ethanol and bio-diesel can  power many of our vehicles, and this does lend a good bit of credibility to the claim that a broader transition should be possible—if we can only muster the political will and finance the necessary research.  But this view fails to take into account both the limitations of renewable energy and the very specific qualities of the fossil fuels around which we’ve built our way of life.  The myth that alternative sources of energy are perfectly capable of replacing fossil fuels and thus of maintaining our current way of life receives widespread support from our President to leading public intellectuals to most mainstream journalists, and receives additional backing from our self-image as a people so ingenious that there are no limits to what we can accomplish.  That fossil fuels have provided us with a one-time burst of unrepeatable energy and affluence (and ecological peril) flies in the face of nearly all the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.  Just starting to dispel this myth requires that I go into the issue a bit more deeply and at greater length
Because we have come to take the power and energy-concentration of fossil fuels for granted, and see our current lifestyle as normal, it is easy to ignore the way the average citizens of industrialized societies have an unprecedented amount of energy at their disposal.  Consider this for a moment: a single $3 gallon of gasoline provides the equivalent of about 80 days of hard manual labor.  Fill up your 15 gallon gas tank in your car, and you’ve just bought the same amount of energy that would take over three years of unremitting manual labor to reproduce.  Americans use more energy in a month than most of our great-grandparents used during their whole lifetime.  We live at a level, today, that in previous days could have only been supported by about 150 slaves for every American—though even that understates it, because we are at the same time beneficiaries of a societal infrastructure that is also only possible to create if we have seemingly limitless quantities of lightweight, relatively stable, easily transportable, and extremely inexpensive ready-to-burn fuel like oil or coal. 
A single, small, and easily portable gallon of oil is the product of nearly 100 tons of surface-forming algae (imagine 5 dump trucks full of the stuff), which first collected enormous amounts of solar radiation before it was condensed, distilled, and pressure cooked for a half-billion years—and all at no cost to the humans who have come to depend on this concentrated energy.  There is no reason why we should be able to manufacture at a reasonable cost anything comparable.  And when we look at the specific qualities of renewable energy with any degree of detail we quickly see that we have not.  Currently only about a half of a percent of the total energy used in the United States is generated by wind, solar, biofuels, or geothermal heat.   The global total is not much higher, despite the much touted efforts in Germany, Spain, and now China.  In 2013, 1.1% of the world’s total energy was provided by wind and only 0.2% by solar.[ii]  As these low numbers suggest, one of the major limitations of renewable energy has to do with scale, whether we see this as a limitation in renewable energy itself, or remind ourselves that the expectations that fossil fuels have helped establish are unrealistic and unsustainable. 
University of California physics professor Tom Murphy has provided detailed calculations about many of the issues of energy scale in his blog, “Do the Math.”  With the numbers adding up, we are no longer able to wave the magic wand of our faith in our own ingenuity and declare the solar future would be here, but for those who refuse to give in the funding it is due.  Consider a few representative examples: most of us have, for instance, heard at some point the sort of figure telling us that enough sun strikes the Earth every 104 minutes to power the entire world for a year.  But this only sounds good if you don’t perform any follow-up calculations.  As Murphy puts it,
As reassuring as this picture is, the photovoltaic area [required] represents more than all the paved area in the world. This troubles me. I’ve criss-crossed the country many times now, and believe me, there is a lot of pavement. The paved infrastructure reflects a tremendous investment that took decades to build. And we’re talking about asphalt and concrete here: not high-tech semiconductor. I truly have a hard time grasping the scale such a photovoltaic deployment would represent.  And I’m not even addressing storage here.” [iii]
In another post,[iv] Murphy calculates that a battery capable of storing this electricity in the U.S. alone (otherwise no electricity at night or during cloudy or windless spells) would require about three times as much lead as geologists estimate may exist in all reserves, most of which remain unknown.  If you count only the lead that we’ve actually discovered, Murphy explains, we only have 2% of the lead available for our national battery project.  The number are even more disheartening if you try to substitute lithium ion or other systems now only in the research phase.  The same story holds true for just about all the sources that even well-informed people assume are ready to replace fossil fuels, and which pundits will rattle off in an impressively long list with impressive sounding numbers of kilowatt hours produced.  Add them all up--even increase the efficiency to unanticipated levels and assume a limitless budget--and you will naturally have some big-sounding numbers; but then compare them to our current energy appetite, and you quickly see that we still run out of space, vital minerals and other raw materials, and in the meantime would probably have strip-mined a great deal of precious farmland, changed the earth’s wind patterns, and have affected the weather or other ecosystems in ways not yet imagined.
But the most significant limitation of fossil fuel’s alleged clean, green replacements has to do with the laws of physics and the way energy, itself, works.  A brief review of the way energy does what we want it to do will also help us see why it takes so many solar panels or wind turbines to do the work that a pickup truck full of coal or a small tank of crude oil can currently accomplish without breaking a sweat.  When someone tells us of the fantastic amounts of solar radiation that beats down on the Earth each day, we are being given a meaningless fact.  Energy doesn’t do work; only concentrated energy does work, and only while it is going from its concentrated state to a diffuse state—sort of like when you let go of a balloon and it flies around the room until its pressurized (or concentrated) air has joined the remaining more diffuse air in the room.
When we build wind turbines and solar panels, or grow plants that can be used for biofuels, we are “manually” concentrating the diffuse energy of the sun or in the wind—a task, not incidentally, that requires a good deal of energy.  The reason why these efforts, as impressive as they are, pale in relationship to fossil fuels has to do simply with the fact that we are attempting to do by way of a some clever engineering and manufacturing (and a considerable amount of energy) what the geology of the Earth did for free, but, of course, over a period of half a billion years with the immense pressures of the planet’s shifting tectonic plates or a hundred million years of sedimentation helping us out.  The “normal” society all of us have grown up with is a product of this one-time burst of a pre-concentrated, ready-to-burn fuel source.  It has provided us with countless wonders; but used without limits, it is threatening all life as we know it.
 Myth 4: The Coming “Knowledge Economy” Will be a Low-Energy Economy
"The basic economic resource - the means of production - is no longer capital, nor natural resources, nor labor. It is and will be knowledge."  -Peter Drucker
“The economy of the last century was primarily based on natural resources, industrial machines and manual labor. . . . Today’s economy is very different. It is based primarily on knowledge and ideas — resources that are renewable and available to everyone.”  -Mark Zuckerberg
A “low energy knowledge economy,” when promised by powerful people like Barack Obama, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg, may still our fears about our current ecological trajectory.  At a gut level this vision of the future may match the direct experience of many middle-class American liberals.  Your father worked in a smelting factory; you spend your day behind a laptop computer, which can, in fact, be run on a very small amount of electricity.  Your carbon footprint must be lower, right?  Companies like Apple and Microsoft round out this hopeful fantasy with their clever and inspiring advertisements featuring children in Africa or China joining this global knowledge economy as they crowd cheerfully around a computer in some picturesque straw-hut school room.
But there’s a big problem with this picture.  This global economy may seem like it needs little more than an army of creative innovators and entrepreneurs tapping blithely on laptop computers at the local Starbucks.  But the real global economy still requires a growing fleet of container ships—and, of course, all the iron and steel used to build them, all the excavators used to mine it, all the asphalt needed to pave more of the world.  It needs a bigger and bigger fleet of UPS trucks and Fed Ex airplanes filling the skies with more and more carbon dioxide, it needs more paper, more plastic, more nickel, copper, and lead.  It requires food, bottled water, and of course lots and lots of coffee.  And more oil, coal, and natural gas.  As Juliet Schor reports, each American consumer requires “132,000 pounds of oil, sand, grain, iron ore, coal and wood” to maintain our current lifestyle each year.  That adds up to “an eye-popping 362 pounds a day.”[v]  And the gleeful African kids that Apple asks us to imagine joining the global economy?   They are far more likely to slave away in a gold mine or sift through junk hauled across the Atlantic looking for recyclable materials, than they are to be device-sporting global entrepreneurs.  The Microsoft ads are designed for us, not them.  Meanwhile, the numbers Schor reports are not going down in the age of “the global knowledge economy,” a term which should be consigned to history’s dustbin of misleading marketing slogans.
The “dematerialized labor” that accounts for the daily toil of the American middle class is, in fact, the clerical, management and promotional sector of an industrial machine that is still as energy-intensive and material-based as it ever was.   Only now, much of the sooty and smelly part has been off-shored to places far, far away from the people who talk hopefully about a coming global knowledge economy.  We like to pretend that the rest of the world can live like us, and we have certainly done our best to advertise, loan, seduce, and threaten people across the world to adopt our style, our values, and our wants.   But someone still has to do the smelting, the welding, the sorting, and run the ceaseless production lines.  And, moreover, if everyone lived like we do, took our vacations, drove our cars, ate our food, lived in our houses, filled them with oversized TVs and the endless array of throwaway gadgetry, the world would use four times as much energy and emit nearly four times as much carbon dioxide as it does now.  If even half the world’s population were to consume like we do, we would have long since barreled by the ecological point of no-return. 
Economists speak reverently of a decoupling between economic growth and carbon emissions, but this decoupling is occurring at a far slower rate than the economy is growing.  There has never been any global economic growth that is not also accompanied by increased energy use and carbon emissions.  The onlyyearly decreases in emissions ever recorded have come during massive recessions. 
 Myth 5: We can Reverse Global Warming Without Changing our Current Lifestyles
“Saving the planet would be cheap; it might even be free. . . . [It] would have hardly any negative effect   on economic growth, and might actually lead to faster growth” –Paul Krugman
The upshot of the previous sections is that the comforts, luxuries, privileges, and pleasures that we tell ourselves are necessary for a happy or satisfying life are the most significant cause of global warming and that unless we quickly learn to organize our lives around another set of pleasures and satisfactions, it is extremely unlikely that our children or grandchildren will inherit a livable planet.  Because we are falsely reassured by liberal leaders that we can fight climate change without any inconvenience, it bears repeating this seldom spoken truth.  In order to adequately address climate change, people in rich industrial nations will have to reduce current levels of consumption to levels few are prepared to consider.  This truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.[vi]  
Global warming is not complicated: it is caused mainly by burning fossil fuels; fossil fuels are burned in the greatest quantity by wealthy people and nations and for the products they buy and use.  The larger the reach of a middle-class global society, the more carbon emissions there have been.  While conservatives deny the science of global warming, liberals deny the only real solution to preventing its most horrific consequences—using less and powering down, perhaps starting with the global leaders in style and taste (as well as emissions), the American middle-class.  In the meantime we continue to pump more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with each passing year.
 Myth 6: There is Nothing I Can Do.
The problem is daunting; making changes can be difficult.[vii]  But not only can you do something, you can’t not do anything.  Either you will continue to buy, use, and consume as if there is no tomorrow; or you will make substantial changes to the way you live.  Both choices are “doing something.”   Either you will emit far more CO2 than people in most parts of the globe; or you will bring your carbon footprint to an equitable level.  Either you will turn away, ignore the warnings, bury your head in the sand; or you will begin to take a strong stance on perhaps the most significant moral challenge in the history of humanity.  Either you will be a willing party to the most destructive thing humans have ever done; or you will resist the wants, the beliefs, and the expectations that are as important to a consumption-based global economy as the fossil fuels that power it.   As Americans we have already done just about everything possible to bring the planet to the brink of what scientists are now calling “the sixth great extinction.”  We can either keep on doing more of the same; or we can work to undo the damage we have done and from which we have most benefitted.  

[v] Schor, Juliet.  Plentitude, p. 44.

[vi] As Flannery O’Connor would say.

[vii] Making changes is especially difficult to do alone.  Fortunately, community efforts such as Transition Towns are popping up around the globe, giving people both practical help and the emotional support necessary to tackle such a large task.

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