Qatar is not, when you look more widely, some kind of rogue state peopled by a different kind of human being. In fact, the best way to look at it is perhaps as a very literal-minded and efficient expression of the forces at work across every other modern state. Qatar just does it wilder, harder and without apology. It is a reductio ad absurdum of the idea of supremely wealthy overlords, of the surveillance state, of an underclass of workers, of increasingly repressive laws, of the global carbon addiction. Do any of these sound familiar? In many ways Qatar is like your furiously able and efficient younger colleague; who has essentially looked at this, learnt the mannerisms, and said, yeah, we can do that.
Taylor Dotson, “Unsustainable Alarmism”:
Consider alarmism in the climate debate. Presenting climate change in catastrophic terms has allowed activists to discredit anyone who doubts worst-case climate scenarios as “denialists.” While crusading against denialism might seem like a strategy for achieving a consensus about the problem’s seriousness, it often ends up undermining the very conditions that make public deliberation possible. As Matthew Nisbet has argued, the “denialist” label is a way of “controlling who has the authority to speak on the subject.” When expressions of personal alarm become a litmus test for who has a reasonable understanding of the problem, alarmists naturally have sole authority. The effect, as Nisbet writes, is a “culture where protecting one’s own identity, group, and preferred storyline takes priority over constructive consideration of knowledge and evidence.”
I like the concept of alarm as a finite resource. There are a lot of people out there who seem to believe that what I have called “the absolutizing of fright” is sustainable forever. When everything is a world-ending disaster, then nothing is. It’s very difficult for us to weigh our problems accurately when all day every day we’re being told that something/everything is the WORST.
(And by something/everything I don’t mean the Todd Rundgren album Something/Anything, which in fact is the BEST.)
Being in London this week has been like having your home teleported somewhere else: You look around and everything is the same, but isn’t. The air is like Florida’s, hot and heavy to touch, the haze like a postcard of Los Angeles. My son went to school this morning in shorts, a vest, and a baseball cap that he turned backwards, as if he were actually in America. A mosquito buzzed in my ear as I sat in my darkened living room, the curtains drawn tight to keep the sun out. We don’t have air-conditioning in England, you see. That is the kind of thing people have in other countries, where the weather is extreme, where you go indoors to escape the heat—and where there are mosquitoes.
I just wrote an email to my friend Adam Roberts, who, like almost everyone in southern England and Western Europe, has been having a rough go of it:
Two years ago, when we had the Big Freeze here in Texas — three days without power, 35º F in most of the house, some warmth generated in one room only and by a rapidly diminishing supply of firewood (a friend eventually brought some over in his pickup) — the people responsible for the power generating stations said that their equipment wasn’t prepared for that kind of cold, and why should it have been, it was a freakish thing, once in a lifetime, etc. To which more reasonable people replied that that excuse works only once at most. From now on, they said, given the swings of temperature that we’ll surely be seeing, the Texas power grid will need to prepare for cold the way it prepares for heat.
It seems to me that the opposite may need to happen in northern Europe: an infrastructure preparing for heat the way it prepares for cold. And a mild-weathered place like Britain might need to invest in better preparation for both ends of the thermometer.
Fortunately, your nation and my state are blessed with exceptionally competent governments — they really know how to Level Up!!
Here in McLennan County we’re experiencing a heat wave and a drought. Not altogether uncommon in Texas; and it will become increasingly common. We’re all being asked to reduce our water use, especially lawn irrigation, and to reduce our energy consumption in the peak afternoon hours.
In my house, we’re doing it. (In fact, our standard thermostat settings and water usage would probably strike some of our neighbors as self-punitive.) But I wonder how many residents of the county will comply? I’d put the over/under at 3%.
Americans in general are not good at self-limitation; and asking people to limit themselves is pretty much the only tool government has in these matters. This is the way it’s always been: you have electricity and water or you don’t. And when people have ongoing access to a resource they seem, almost inevitably, to think of that resource as infinite.
If there’s a way to make sure that people who absolutely need electricity still get it, I’d be fine with scheduled brownouts — in fact, I think that would be good policy in times when the grid is stressed. I’m not sure what the equivalent would be for the water system; but we need something, something that will conserve resources for a people who won’t voluntarily restrain their consumption.
You always try to console yourself. Yesterday I said, “Hey, the temp didn’t hit three digits today!” Today I’m saying, “Hey, at least I don’t live in Phoenix.” So many bills coming due in the next decade or two….
The heat wave on the Indian subcontinent is making the terrifying opening chapter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future feel a good deal more prescient than KSR wants it to be.
“Another Green World,” by Jessica Camille Aguirre:
NASA has also dabbled in space agriculture. In the late Nineties, it conducted experiments at the Johnson Space Center in Houston called the Early Human Testing Initiative, enclosing volunteers in sealed chambers for up to three months at a time. In one experiment, the oxygen for a single crew member was supplied by 22,000 wheat plants. A more ambitious project to enclose four people, named BIO-plex, was planned for the early Aughts, but was ultimately shelved because of budget concerns. Still, NASA researchers have continued work on space agriculture, albeit on a more modest scale. A few years ago, astronauts succeeded in growing lettuce aboard the International Space Station in a miniature garden called Veggie.
Most recently, the China National Space Administration has collaborated with Beihang University to build Yuegong-1, or Lunar Palace 1, a sealed structure with small apartments and two growing chambers for plants. Beginning in 2018, eight student volunteers lived in the capsule, rotating in groups of four for over a year. Their diet consisted of crops they grew, including strawberries, along with packets of mealworms fed with biological waste. Like the ESA’s loop, carbon dioxide was cycled through plants, which were enriched with nitrogen from processed urine. Yet even Lunar Palace 1 fell short of being a truly closed system. While it managed to recycle 100 percent of its water and oxygen, it managed to do so for only 80 percent of its food supply.
A fascinating story about biospheres and other strategies for living in places other than the Earth.
Metafoundry 75: Resilience, Abundance, Decentralization:
We mostly only close materials loops when it’s ‘economically viable’ to do so. By and large, what that means is that it takes less energy to recycle the material than it does to create it in the first place, which is true for aluminum, steel, and glass, but not for materials like plastics or concrete. But the promise of access to renewable energy is that it changes this equation, putting processes that are intrinsically energy-intensive, like recovering the carbon from plastics for reuse or desalinating seawater to make it potable, on the table. It doesn’t matter how much energy a process needs if it is inexpensive, doesn’t limit the energy available to others for their use, and is non-polluting. There’s a virtuous circle here too: the faster that renewable energy systems are up and running, and the closer we can get to achieving this potential, the more that we can apply that clean energy to repurposing the materials of our current technological systems to build out the physical infrastructures of our new ones. Not beating swords into plowshares, but recycling cars into electric trams. We live on a sun-drenched blue marble hanging in space, and for all that we persist in believing it’s the other way around, that means we have access to finite resources of matter but unlimited energy. We can learn to act accordingly.
I don’t know anyone smarter than Deb Chachra. Please read the whole letter.
Moving to Texas eight years ago forced me to think often about water — and the future of American places that simply don’t have enough of it to sustain their populations. (I have an essay on this topic coming out in Raritan, but not for a few months.) Stories like this one are, to me, harrowing, and they always push me towards a counterfactual thought experiment: What would America look like if the growth of our population and the movement of our people had been governed by rational expectations of water supply?
[Wendell] Berry is a serious Christian, and also a serious reader of poetry. His prose is studded with quotations from the Bible and the poetic canon. It may be surprising (though it shouldn’t be, really) how easy it is to find a text in Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Blake, or Wordsworth celebrating humility, fortitude, magnanimity, chastity, marital fidelity, or some other Christian (though not exclusively Christian) virtue. Character and virtue are indeed fragile, and it’s reasonable to exploit all the resources of human culture to shore them up. But although it lends his writing gravity and grace, I’m sorry that Berry insists on giving the agrarian ethos a religious framework and on situating human flourishing within a “Great Economy,” by which he means not Gaia but the “Kingdom of God.” As a result, he speaks less persuasively than he might to those of us who feel that our civilization has somehow gone wrong, and that at least some part of traditional wisdom is indeed wisdom, but who cannot believe that this universe is the work of the Christian God, or of any God. And yet we need Berry’s preaching as much as anyone. Jesus came, after all, to call sinners, not the just, to good farming practices.
Our culture’s great need today is for a pious paganism, a virtuous rationalism, skeptical and science-loving but skeptical even of science when necessary, aware that barbarism is as likely as progress and may even arrive advertised as progress, steadily angry at the money-changers and mindful of the least of our brethren. I don’t see how anyone who shares Berry’s Christian beliefs could fail to adopt his ideal of stewardship. But if those religious beliefs are necessary as well as sufficient — if there is no other path to that ideal, as he sometimes seems to imply — then we may be lost. One cannot believe at will.
Of another ex-Marxist, Dwight Macdonald, Scialabba once wrote that though Macdonald “despaired of politics,” he “was an exemplary amateur,” for he “sought to apply to our politics and culture the strict critical standards of an honest intellectual craftsman — standards at once deeply conservative and deeply subversive.” That last phrase encapsulates why Scialabba’s detection of a final incompatibility between the ideas of those like himself and those of people like Berry — a group that includes me, at least by distant aspiration — is too quick. What irks, finally, is not that he misreads or fails to sympathize with Berry’s work, but that he misses that Berry is, or can be, a co-belligerent, if not a comrade, in a shared project. Scialabba can see this clearly in the case of former communists “hurt into” disenchantment and exile; he should see it too in Berry.
True, Berry is a certain kind of Christian and a certain kind of conservative, but just for that reason he is also a certain kind of friend to Scialabba’s goals for the world’s improvement. Not all of them, to be sure, but who can find a friend like that? On the contrary: given the overturned table of contemporary politics, it’s catch as catch can. All the more so if Berry’s art, like Chiaromonte’s, like Macdonald’s, avoids a moralistic reduction of politics to personal responsibility, and embodies instead the refusal to separate what belongs together: truth and justice, art and activism, private and public. That refusal was radical in their time, and it remains radical today.
We think of climate change as a separate issue on our priority list, but the only reason you care about climate change is because of what’s already at the top of your list – keeping your job, taking care of your family, worrying about your health, worrying about your kids, worrying about the place where you live – whatever it is that you’re already worrying about.
When you are taking action for climate, it’s not for climate change, it’s for you. It’s for your family, it’s for everything you love, everyone you love, every place that you love – that’s why you’re doing it. There’s a significant mind shift there, so that we don’t see it as an extra “to do” on our list.
To say that On the Situations and Names of Winds is a “pseudo-Aristotelian” text is to say among other things that it is the sort of text Aristotle could have written. He did in fact write of the names of the winds in his own Meteorology, and in the History of Animals he also, like Pliny, attributes to the wind the power to impregnate horses. To recognize that a philosopher, indeed “the Philosopher” as he was long known, could have been expected to write about the winds, and to do so in his capacity as a philosopher, is an occasion to think about the shifting priorities of a discipline that is unusually difficult to define. These days you can go to college and take a class called “Philosophy of Sport,” but on no list of course offerings will you find, say, “Philosophy of the Sun”. You can take a class called, “Philosophy of Journalism”, but you cannot take one called “Philosophy of Wind”. We take it for granted that this is how things should be, but a moment’s reflection will force you to admit that, if philosophy is reflection on the most important things in life, then the Sun surely deserves its own class well before “sport” does. There is no “sport” without the Sun, whereas the reverse is obviously not the case. Wind might be less important than the Sun, but I would place it well before “sport” or journalism on the list of things that fundamentally shape our lives. Similarly “Philosophy of Climate Science” is hot stuff these days; “Philosophy of Weather” is non-existent. If I were ever permitted to teach a course on the philosophy of wind, I would begin with the questions: How did the winds lose their names? And what does it mean for us to live in a world of nameless winds? I step outside and I feel a gust. “That’s wind,” I think to myself, and I have nothing more to add beyond that. I don’t know the winds. […]
It seems to me the last philosopher to write about nature in a way continuous with the classical tradition of natural philosophy was Gaston Bachelard, and this has something to do with the fact that for much of his career Bachelard was a rural schoolmaster rather than an urban, status-anxious university professor. He did not write a philosophy of wind, though he did write a psychoanalysis of fire. Here “psychoanalysis” is not understood in the Freudian sense, and has nothing to do with the subconscious symbolism of fire in our dreams or erotic fantasies. Bachelard, rather, is analyzing the soul of fire itself, trying to figure out what fire essentially is, through the combination of his cultural erudition, his scientific literacy, and his poetic imagination. More recently one might be tempted to cite the name of Peter Sloterdijk, who writes entire tomes on things like bubbles. But as far as I can tell it never takes very long for Sloterdijk to move on from the bubbles themselves to other things that the idea of the bubble might help us to understand, things that are held to be more important than real bubbles (just as “sport” is more important than the Sun), like the metaphorical bubbles of financial markets and so on. Now more than ever, I think, we need to revive the tradition of Bachelard, which as I’ve said is continuous with the way philosophy was understood for most of its history, and to pursue the philosophy not just of wind but of bubbles too, and of fire and of the Sun: in themselves and for their own sake. I’m serious about this.
The impacts of a society predicated on boundless economic growth via boundless sensory stimulation are at least in some ways measurable. Visit this website, for example, and you can see a real-time counter which will tell you just how much waste has been dumped around the world this year as a result of this way of living. At the time of writing, the counter is reading 1.4 billion tonnes. It’s only September.
We can enjoy our little towns here in the richer bits of the world because the waste we generate through our excitable purchases of big-screen tellies, lego sets, foreign holidays, cheap clothes, cheap food and all the rest of it always ends up somewhere else. The dioxins and PCBs go into the water and soil, the plastic goes into the oceans, the carbon dioxide goes into the air. Fifty million tonnes of ‘e-waste’ is shipped every year to the poorest countries on Earth, which are least equipped to deal with it. But then they’re not really supposed to deal with it: they’re supposed to keep it away from us. We don’t know what else to do with all this crap, so we — for example — ship 4000 tonnes of toxic waste, containing carcinogenic chemicals, to Nigeria, and just dump it on the beaches. The same way we dumped 79,000 tonnes of asbestos on the beaches in Bangladesh, and 40 million tonnes of our poisonous waste in just one small part of Indonesia. The same way we run our old ships up onto the beaches in China and India, and leave them for the locals to break up — if they can. The same way we dump nine million tonnes of plastic into the oceans every year.
I unequivocally support the point Kingsnorth is making here, but … I really dislike this kind of numerically bludgeoning rhetoric. The problem, as so often, involves scale. One point four billion metric tons of waste is obviously a lot … but is it, you know, a lot? How even to think about these matters? Wolfram Alpha tells me that the earth weighs 5.97×10^21 metric tons; in comparison to that 1.4 billion isn’t even a rounding error. The mind boggles at these digits, does it not?
What would be a reasonable amount of waste for seven billion people to produce, an amount that would indicate ecologically appropriate living? Whatever the answer is, any number expressing it would still seem massive to us. If you cited it readers would be horrified. Or maybe just numbed, as they are by these numbers.
Richard Wilbur was right to warn his imagined prophet against invoking “the long numbers that rocket the mind.” Similarly, Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito reflects on the ways our attention is naturally drawn to smaller rather than larger tragedies — this, he thinks, is the inevitable, the human, “arithmetic of compassion.” A few photographs would serve Kingsnorth’s point better than the incomprehensible numbers he cites.
Musk owns Tesla Energy. And I think he’s going to turn a profit on Starship by using it to launch Space based solar power satellites. By my back of the envelope calculation, a Starship can put roughly 5-10MW of space-rate photovoltaic cells into orbit in one shot. ROSA—Roll Out Solar Arrays now installed on the ISS are ridiculously light by historic standards, and flexible: they can be rolled up for launch, then unrolled on orbit. Current ROSA panels have a mass of 325kg and three pairs provide 120kW of power to the ISS: 2 tonnes for 120KW suggests that a 100 tonne Starship payload could produce 6MW using current generation panels, and I suspect a lot of that weight is structural overhead. The PV material used in ROSA reportedly weighs a mere 50 grams per square metre, comparable to lightweight laser printer paper, so a payload of pure PV material could have an area of up to 20 million square metres. At 100 watts of usable sunlight per square metre at Earth’s orbit, that translates to 2GW. So Starship is definitely getting into the payload ball-park we’d need to make orbital SBSP stations practical. 1970s proposals foundered on the costs of the Space Shuttle, which was billed as offering $300/lb launch costs (a sad and pathetic joke), but Musk is selling Starship as a $2M/launch system, which works out at $20/kg.
So: disruptive launch system meets disruptive power technology, and if Tesla Energy isn’t currently brainstorming how to build lightweight space-rated PV sheeting in gigawatt-up quantities I’ll eat my hat.
more on geoengineering
As a follow-up to my recent post on climate change and the various means of addressing it, see this from the Economist:
Some form of geoengineering technology, therefore, would seem inevitable if the world has any hope of meeting the Paris targets.
Despite the uptick in interest, the technologies themselves are nowhere near ready. Resistance from some scientists and environmentalists has made research in the field very difficult. In March, for example, a project in Sweden that would have tested scientific equipment to be used in future experiments to release particles into the atmosphere had to be cancelled after protests from local environmental groups. The locals argued — as have others who oppose geoengineering — that the technology being tested would distract from the more important task of reducing carbon emissions.
That is a worthwhile argument. But preventing research on geoengineering has risks too. There are plenty of technical, ethical and environmental questions to answer about these technologies: do they work as intended at scale? If they do work, who should control them? What are the unintended side-effects of all this climate-tampering? If the technologies are not properly scrutinised and governments don’t agree on rules for their proper use, what’s to prevent a rogue actor (whether a country or a billionaire) from going it alone and doing something dangerous?
Geoengineering cannot (and should not) displace the urgent need to cut global carbon emissions. But in the long-term struggle against climate change, the world will need the best information and every useful tool it can invent.
The argument that the exploration and testing of geoengineering technologies should be stopped is not “a worthwhile argument.” It’s a dumb argument. We cannot afford to put all our eggs in the emissions-reduction basket, for the simple reason that there is no good reason to believe that the world’s governments will impose the necessary constraints. We have to have a Plan B, and also Plans C, D, E, and so on. It is tragically wrong for activists to allow their desire to punish us all for our bad choices, to force us all to confront and suffer for our reckless behavior, to overwhelm the need to stop warming by whatever means available. As the article rightly says.
Climate activists often say — Kim Stanley Robinson effectively says this in The Ministry for the Future — that the struggle against climate change is a struggle against climate injustice, and you can’t disentangle those: fighting against climate change necessarily entails dismantling the system that produced it. There are many things one might say in response to this claim, but the most obvious and to my mind irrefutable one is simply this: When faced with an enormous problem you don’t know how to solve, it’s not a good move to chain it to another enormous problem you also don’t know how to solve.
As someone with a great sympathy for anarchism — and indeed for the Mondragon-style anarcho-syndicalism that KSR often commends — I would certainly like to see transnational capitalism dismantled. It is my fervent hope that that happens, ideally through a peaceful process of subsidiarist devolution. But we don’t know how to do that, and even if we ever figure out how to do it, the process of devolution will be very long. (The idea that you can simply sow chaos and expect something better to emerge, somehow, from that is just childish.) In the meantime, if it’s possible for the current global capitalist order to develop technologies that will ameliorate climate change, then I think that would be a very good thing indeed.
UPDATE: This additional piece from the Economist usefully suggests the difference between, on the one hand, reckless and overbold forms of geoengineering and, on the other, more limited and responsible forms.
UPDATE 2: One more along these lines, from Todd Myers: “On The Dispatch Podcast last week, Sarah Isgur and Jonah Goldberg expressed the hope that a future Norman Borlaug would do for reducing CO2 emissions what the original Borlaug did to feed the world. There may be a climate Borlaug out there, but it is far more likely that climate change will be solved by a million Borlaugs — small innovators whose efforts add up to big changes. The cost of innovation has declined radically since the Green Revolution of the 1960s, and we are already seeing an explosion of new carbon-reducing technologies.”
Kim Stanley Robinson’s most recent novel, The Ministry for the Future, begins with a long and horrific set-piece about a massive heatwave in India, in the year 2025, that leaves perhaps twenty million people dead in a single week. The almost unimaginable death toll kick-starts a serious worldwide determination to deal with climate change; one consequence of this determination is the multinational organization that gives the book its title.
But the Ministry is only one such endeavor. Robinson devotes a lot of time — too much time, for this sometimes glassy-eyed reader — to the description of committee meetings and other workings of a vast bureaucracy, because he thinks that, boring or not, such patient work will make a difference to our climate future, if any difference is to be made. However, as he repeatedly makes clear, bureaucratic action is not the only kind of action there is — systemic inertia and global capitalism being what they are:
The disaster had happened in India, in a part of India where few foreigners ever went, a place said to be very hot, very crowded, very poor. Probably more such events in the future would mostly happen in those nations located between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, and the latitudes just to the north and south of these lines. Between thirty north and thirty south: meaning the poorest parts of the world. North and south of these latitudes, fatal heat waves might occur from time to time, but not so frequently, and not so fatally. So this was in some senses a regional problem. And every place had its regional problems. So when the funerals and the gestures of deep sympathy were done with, many people around the world, and their governments, went back to business as usual. And all around the world, the CO2 emissions continued.
A new government in India, perhaps the first truly representative government in the country’s history, knows that that’s how it goes. So it begins a seven-month campaign of sending cargo planes as high aloft as they will go to release aerosol particulates meant to reflect sunlight away from the earth. Some nations protest; India doesn’t care. India sends the planes because Indians have seen up close what happens when a heat wave occurs that simply overwhelms the resources of the unprotected human body.
Does the seeding help? Probably; a little. It was, one of the pilots thinks, worth a shot no matter what.
Later in the book Robinson describes a more complex technological effort: a massive project of drilling in the Arctic and Antarctic meant to allow meltwater to escape, which in turn slows the shifting and calving of the glaciers. In a related effort, the Russians assume responsibility for dyeing the Arctic Ocean yellow to reflect heat and keep it relatively cool.
I have read many accounts today of the bluntly alarming new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and only one of them (in the Economist) has mentioned technological approaches to addressing the climate crisis — approaches other than those related to the reduction of carbon emissions, which is anyway typically portrayed as a behavioral rather than a technological matter — even though a good deal of research in this field is being done. I’m sure some accounts say more, but certainly the overwhelming message from the media is simple and straightforward: We must reduce carbon emissions, and reduce them by a degree hitherto unthinkable. (And, they add, even that won’t stop significant temperature increases.)
Why so little attention to technological helps unrelated to the reduction of emissions? Well, for one thing, that reflects the emphasis of the report itself; also, that makes for a simple story, and writers of press releases and journalists alike prefer simple stories. But — and this is the meaning of my title — I speculate, I suspect, than something else is at work. Something maybe more important than simplicity.
There’s no doubt in my mind — not one iota of doubt — that we are headed for a global nightmare because of our own greed and self-indulgence. And if technological solutions emerge that slow or stop global warming, then that will mean that we get away with it. We get away with our greed and self-indulgence; we don’t pay the piper, what goes around does not, after all, come around. And that is — for those of us with a strong sense of justice, and I count myself among that number — a bitter pill to swallow. It’s precisely the same impulse that made so many of us choke on the Wall Street bailout a decade ago. They got away with it, the bastards.
Of course, just as I accepted a Wall Street bailout because I believed that it would result in less destruction and suffering than allowing the system to burn down, I would also accept — eagerly! — technological solutions that left us as greedy and self-indulgent and regardless of the future as ever but averted the loss of countess lives (human and non-human) and the destruction of countless square miles of habitat. Surely this is also true of the journalists and climate activists remaining silent about possibly ameliorative technological endeavors.
But here’s the thing: How much hope does any of us really have that the world’s governments will do the right thing? Oh, they may very neatly re-arrange the deck-chairs on the Titanic — but more than that? There ain’t a snowball’s chance in Waco circa August 2075. In his novel, Robinson imagines the emergence of a kind of chastened and de-centralized capitalism — and I want to come back to that in another post, if I have time — but, like Bill McKibben, I fear that “Robinson underestimates not just the staying power of the status quo but also the odds that when things get really bad, we will react really badly.” (KSR may be a better prophet in his anticipation, in the Mars books, of “transnational” capitalism.)
McKibben suggests that such bad reactions could include the emergence of more authoritarian strongmen, and one would have to be naïve to discount the possibility of that, but I think it’s more likely that elected politicians will just find ways to kick the can a little further down the road, again and again and again. Politicians in a democratic order only think as far as the next election — those who win such elections do, anyway — and unelected ones only think of bread, circuses, and mechanisms of intimidation. Long-term thinking about the common good is simply not a political virtue, insofar as “politics” means “gaining and keeping power.” And that is, after all, what politics means.
I, therefore, have nearly zero confidence in political solutions to our changing climate, which means that I am all the more interested in the likely emerging technologies. I wish it was easier to find out about what people are experimenting on, what they are planning. My primary fear for the medium-term future is that, in a time of particular pain, something like Robinson’s picture of a desperate Indian government acting precipitously will come about — and that the consequences will be much worse than those were. This is why I would like to hear less about the reduction of carbon emissions and more about what the scientists and engineers are planning against the Dies Irae.
At the end of this interview, the environmental historian Jason Moore says, “Capitalism … had its social legitimacy because in one way or another it could promise development. And I don’t think anyone takes that idea seriously anymore.” Which is a very strange thing to say indeed, because economic development is the one promise that capitalism has delivered on, and massively. (This is the chief burden of the books by Deirdre McCloskey that I wrote about here and here.) In fact, and quite obviously, economic development around the world is the chief reason we have a climate crisis, because that development has ravaged our environment — and the global nature of modern capitalism means that that ravaging has been dispersed over the entire globe.
Moore agrees with my friend Wen Stephenson that nothing serious can be done to avert the oncoming climate catastrophe except a world-wide political/economic revolution. Stephenson:
The sheer depth, scale, and speed of the changes required at this point are beyond anything a mere climate movement can possibly accomplish, because such a movement is inherently unsuited to the nature of the task we face: radically transforming the political-economic system that is driving us toward climate breakdown. Given the sclerotic system in which the Green New Deal — the only proposal ever put before Congress that confronts the true scale and urgency of the climate catastrophe — is dead on arrival, mocked even by the Democratic Speaker of the House, the pretense that anything less than revolutionary change is now required amounts to a form of denial.
I am skeptical about this proposal for two reasons:
- The revolution would have to be global, because if it happens only in Europe or North America, or both, then global capital will simply shift its attentions and energies to other parts of the world, East and South (which is already where most of the depredations of the environment are happening). But a single, ideologically unified, worldwide political revolution is simply unimaginable.
- I see absolutely no reason to believe that any socialist government, local or global, will implement the changes needed to slow climate change. Socialism has a uniformly terrible record in these matters, from the Soviet Union to Chavez’s Venezuela — totally dependent for its social stability on global petrocapitalism — to this little country you may have heard of called China. I strongly suspect that that pattern will continue: when socialist policies throw a spoke into the engine of commerce, and the economy starts to collapse so that there’s less and less wealth to distribute, then socialist governments, like all others, will not hesitate to exploit the environment to become more productive. (Or will become state-capitalists like the Chinese Communist Party.)
Where does that leave us? Well, you can offer a counsel of despair, as Jonathan Franzen does. Now, he says he doesn’t despair:
If your hope for the future depends on a wildly optimistic scenario, what will you do ten years from now, when the scenario becomes unworkable even in theory? Give up on the planet entirely? To borrow from the advice of financial planners, I might suggest a more balanced portfolio of hopes, some of them longer-term, most of them shorter. It’s fine to struggle against the constraints of human nature, hoping to mitigate the worst of what’s to come, but it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning. Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically — a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble — and take heart in your small successes. Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.
But this is frankly to admit that all the victories are short-term and small-scale. Franzen tries not to think about what’s happening in the longer term and on the global scale.
Does anything remain? Possibly: technological fixes. Any potential fixes are fraught with uncertainty and danger, but more and more scientists are quietly hinting that they just may be our last resort. But why are those scientists being so quiet in their hinting? Largely because almost every climate activist I know of is absolutely and unremittingly hostile to any such proposals. Like my suspicions about global socialist revolution, their suspicions about technological fixes come in two varieties. The first is straightforward and reasonable: Why would we trust the very technocracy that got us into this mess to get us out?
The second one, though, is a little more complicated. I think that many climate activists hate the very idea of technological fixes because if they should happen to work that would mean that the bastards got away with it. That is, if the global capitalist elite that has soo cheerfully and brazenly and heedlessly destroyed the natural world should, at the last moment, pull a technological rabbit out of their technocratic hat that stops the worst from occurring, that would feel like the biggest miscarriage of justice ever, because a group of people who have a very strong claim to the title of Greatest Criminals in History would walk away scot-free and indeed might even be thought of as heroes. It offends one’s sense of justice so profoundly that it’s hard to root for such technological fixes to work, even if they could indeed avert the worst consequences of capitalist exploitation of the planet.
But a planet saved is better than a planet ruined. Even if in the saving the Greatest Criminals walk free.
So I am thinking a lot about the various technological means of addressing climate change. I’m looking for actions less dangerous than the great big global fixes that some of the more imaginative technocrats propose, but that also would have, at least potentially, far greater effects than the strictly local actions that Franzen recommends. Ideas in this post seem to come in twos, so here are two very promising ideas:
The first involves making plants a little better at holding carbon dioxide:
Chory believes the key to fixing that imbalance is training plants to suck up just a little more CO2, and to keep it longer. She is working on engineering the world’s crop plants to have bigger, deeper roots made of a natural waxy substance called suberin — found in cork and cantaloupe rinds — which is an incredible carbon-capturer and is resistant to decomposition. By encouraging plants to have bigger, deeper, more suberin-rich roots, Chory can trick them into fighting climate change as they grow. The roots will store CO2, and when farmers harvest their crops in the fall, those deep-buried roots will stay in the soil and keep their carbon sequestered in the dirt, potentially for hundreds of years.
The second would turn air conditioners into carbon-capture machines:
A paper published Tuesday in the Nature Communications proposes a partial remedy: Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (or HVAC) systems move a lot of air. They can replace the entire air volume in an office building five or 10 times an hour. Machines that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — a developing fix for climate change — also depend on moving large volumes of air. So why not save energy by tacking the carbon capture machine onto the air conditioner?
Let a thousand such flowers bloom — a thousand ways to address our changing environment that are technologically feasible and highly scalable but do not require the complete transformation of the whole human order. Keep those ideas coming, scientist friends. We desperately need them.
the BAD problem
As it happens, a large amount of carbon sits in American dirt. If that carbon escapes into the atmosphere, it will worsen climate change. Should a small nation ever appoint you despot of all climate laws, please do something about dirt. But generally and politically speaking, dirt does not get the people going. Upon hearing the slogan “Dirt: Now More Than Ever,” most voters will not picture overflowing cornucopias of prosperity. They will picture bath time.
I have come to think of this tension as climate policy’s Boring-as-Dirt Problem: the BAD problem. The BAD problem recognizes that climate change is a very interesting challenge. It is scary and massive and apocalyptic, and its attendant disasters (especially hurricanes, wildfires, and floods) make for good TV. But the policies that will address climate change do not pack the same punch. They are technical and technocratic and quite often boring. At the very least, they will never be as immediate as climate change itself. Floods are powerful, but stormwater management is arcane. Wildfires are ravenous, but electrical-grid upgrades are tedious. Climate change is scary, but dirt is boring. That’s the BAD problem.
— Robinson Meyer. As Rob suggests, almost every social problem in desperate need of addressing shares the BAD problem.
“a benevolent green nationalism”
This, by Paul Kingsnorth from his new book, speaks for my politics about as completely as anything I’ve read in a long time:
Some of the new populists may hope they can sound the death knell of the green movement, but perhaps they can instead teach it a necessary lesson. What Haidt calls nationalism is really a new name for a much older impulse: the need to belong. Specifically, the need to belong to a place in which you can feel at home. The fact that this impulse can be exploited by demagogues doesn’t mean that the impulse itself is wrong. Stalin built gulags on the back of a notional quest for equality, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to make things fair.
The anti-globalist attack on the greens is a wake-up call. It points to the fact that green ideas have too often become a virtue signal for the carbon-heavy bourgeoisie, drinking their Fairtrade organic coffee as they wait for their transatlantic flight. Green globalism has become part of the growth machine; a comfortable notion for those who don’t really want much to change.
What would happen if environmentalism remade itself – or was remade by the times? What might a benevolent green nationalism sound like? You want to protect and nurture your homeland – well, then, you’ll want to nurture its forests and its streams too. You want to protect its badgers and its mountain lions. What could be more patriotic? This is not the kind of nationalism of which Trump would approve, but that’s the point. Why should those who want to protect a besieged natural world allow billionaire property developers to represent them as the elitists? Why not fight back – on what they think is their territory?
An estimated 10 billion people will inhabit that warmer world. Some will become climate refugees—moving away from areas where unbearable temperatures are the norm and where rising water has claimed homes. In most cases, however, policy experts foresee relatively small movement within a country’s borders. Most people—and communities, cities and nations—will adapt in place. We have highlighted roughly a dozen hotspots where climate change will disrupt humanity’s living conditions and livelihoods, along with the strategies those communities are adopting to prepare for such a future.
— What Life Will Be Like on a Much Warmer Planet – Scientific American. This article + infographic from SciAm (paywalled, I think, and if so, sorry) is pretty good, but I’d love to see another post on places that will benefit from climate change.
Now, before I go any further: I think anthropogenic climate change is real and is going to be, overall, enormously destructive. I favor serious global governmental intervention to head off, if possible, the worst of it.
But it’s not going to be bad for everyone, and it would be fascinating to learn who will benefit and how. But few journalists or scientists want to tell those stories, for fear that they’ll reduce public concern.