Friday, June 13, 2008

Goodbye to All That?

"Aphrodite in the Shopping Mall" by Andree Tracey.Posted by Picasa

Gas and Gases

The impact of fast-rising gasoline prices is making news everywhere. Here on the North Coast of CA it's about $4.80 a gallon. The North Coast Journal has several articles on the impact this week. On my local beat--theatre--I'm hearing the impact is already being felt in smaller audiences for some theatres.
I knew this was going to be an issue, political and otherwise, when I visited western Pennsylvania about a year ago. One item of evidence: the major supermarket chain when I lived in Pittsburgh was apparently falling on hard times--until it revived its fortunes by giving credits towards gasoline with purchases. High gas prices was a topic of conversation last summer there, with keen interested in alternative fuels like biodiesel by people you wouldn't expect. And that of course was when prices were much lower than today.

But now those prices are rising so fast and so high that the economic effects are just starting. (Airline travel is also incredibly expensive, as well as awful. That's a big reason I didn't make it back to my family in western PA this summer.)
Prices of everything else are going up and will continue to do so, and even with that, some businesses are likely to fail, and jobs are likely to be lost. In past spikes, the spiral eventually stopped and gas prices stabilized. But that's no guarantee it's going to happen anytime soon, and with a leadership vacuum, it's possible it will keep spiraling to catastrophic levels.

There seem to be any number of culprits for this latest spiral upwards, though one factor that seems to be driving it is the weakening of the dollar, thanks to all the international debt accumulated by the Bushites in pursuit of their criminally wasteful war and determination to enrich the already rich at the expense of everyone else. Of course, everyone claims not to be making money on this, which could be classified as criminally laughable.

There is also the sense that though we've had warnings before, this time it's the crunch everyone knew was coming: the end of Easy Oil, cheap oil, the depleting of the oil supply. In past price spikes or gas shortages, people responded by driving less, using more public transportation, maybe buying a smaller and more fuel-efficient car, generally conserving. But before there were any structural changes--ramping up of clean energy alternatives principally-- the oil gods turned the spigots on again, while people got used to the new price levels, and the idea of changing was forgotten.

Maybe not this time. Just as the price rises are extreme, the responses are starting to look larger. Though Americans drove fewer miles this March than last for a decline of just over 4%, this still represents the steepest one year drop since 1942, as World War II took hold. And it's likely to be declining even more now. Here on the North Coast, gasoline demand is down 12 to 14%.

Mass transit is seeing the most riders since 1957. The often controversial federal support for Amtrak passed last week by veto-proof majorities in both houses. Of course, public transit still has a long way to go. It had its peak ridership in 1946, when there were half as many people in the U.S. as now.

High gas prices are causing hardships for the people least able to bear them, and Barack Obama is calling for targeted relief, as well as tax cuts to provide the middle class with more money to cope with this, the housing crisis and so on. But he is steadfast in saying we have to change our ways--beginning with more fuel efficient vehicles.

Also new this time is that the sudden interest in alternative energy systems comes at a time they're finally ready to respond. One of the great things about a lot of alternative clean energy systems (as well as more energy-efficient technology and habits) is that people can adopt them as individuals, families and communities. That's what especially interested those folks in PA, and of course that's been of special interest around here, particularly on the Humboldt State campus and in local businesses that have spun off from there and other institutions. People can help themselves and each other.

But clean energy on an even larger scale is definitely on the horizon, especially solar. Reuters quotes industry scientists as saying: "The tipping point at which the world's cleanest, most renewable resource is cost-competitive with other sources of energy on electricity grids could happen within two to five years in some U.S. regions and countries if the price of fossil fuels continues to rise at its current pace, they add." Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that solar will be cost competitive with fossil fuels in five years, and all energy will come from clean sources in a generation.

Of course, reducing fossil fuel use and ramping up clean energy are good news for slowing down emissions of greenhouse gases. Rising gasoline prices may provide the conceptual and practical link to greenhouse gases and real demand for action on the Climate Crisis. This is going to be a real challenge to the Consumer Society, the waste-all, want-all ethic. We've gone through something like this before, and we wound up with Reagan. But maybe not this time. Maybe the incremental changes and the generation of ideas, and a new sophistication, not only about clean energy technology but the role of community, etc.--maybe this time will be the time we really change.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Satellite image today of storm system over the
upper Midwestern U.S. Posted by Picasa

Disaster and Change

The tornado that hit a Boy Scout camp in western Iowa is only the latest weather-related disaster this week. At this hour, four people are known dead from this event, some 40 injured. It was a big tornado, destroying buildings and trees over some 1800 acres.

Meanwhile, eastern Iowa is bracing for the worst flooding in 15 years later this week, along with Missouri and places in other states. Serious flooding has been going on for days in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, along with torrential rains. Tornadoes have touched down this week in Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska and Kansas.

These disasters do more than immediately kill and injure. They throw communities into chaos, destroy homes, cut off power, flood crops, cause damage it can take years and major resources to repair.

Then there are the slow-motion disasters, like the heat waves that are roiling the northeast, from Pittsburgh to Boston and Washington. Seventeen people have quietly died because of these heatwaves just this past weekend.

Disasters like these have strange proportions. They dominate the reality of the people and places where they happen, and may have impact on their lives for a long time. But they are the subject of a few minutes on some newscasts (and if it's a heat wave, no more than that even in affected areas.) Many newspapers and cable glibfests ignore them. Even when media tries to cover them, their slovenly habits, poor training and experience result in reports that are even more inane than usual. And they really can't cover patterns of disasters. With rare exceptions, they don't seem to be smart enough.

There is always argument over whether this disaster or that one is related to the Climate Crisis. But global heating of the atmosphere is such a pervasive change, that even when it can't be established that they cause particular patterns of violent and extreme weather, it's unlikely that these patterns aren't related.

Lately I've become more persuaded that it will take major disasters for real action to be taken on the Climate Crisis. I'm a very reluctant convert to that view, though I hope to be pleasantly surprised. But if so, then the question becomes: what is major? And that's a matter of perception.

Right now, cumulative awareness is growing because there are more and more people who have been directly affected by one disaster or another. There are the long-term trends: drought here in the West, heat and storms in the East, with the two tendencies meeting violently in the Midwest. Plus these specific, awful instances and events.

These disasters aren't being ignored by everyone. Governments must deal with these disasters, and many businesses must pay attention to the effects. Both have to be smart enough to see patterns, and anticipate needs. Local and state governments in particular must be ready to respond. If they aren't, people will vote them out. So if there are patterns, they have to take them seriously. They have to be prepared. And if that takes regional coordination and eventually national networks, they work to organize those, even if these activities rarely make the news. And businesses that need to anticipate the future also may work quietly.

When there is destruction there must be rebuilding, and Climate Crisis awareness is already leading in some instances to design choices with it in mind. This can go beyond both "green buildings" and more attention to flood control, for instance. As Matthew Waxman wrote: " The planning policy would focus on finding sustainable solutions to broken or destroyed systems. Disaster in this way is used to jump-start changes in infrastructure and thus alter daily habits, patterns, and preferences on everything from energy consumption to transportation, housing and health, economic development, community and civic facilities, open space, food, and lifestyle."

And even if these separate disasters don't have the kind of single, focused impact that could spur policymakers to get serious and act, their cumulative effect may be that when leadership proposes, they will be ready to begin what will need to be a major shift in policy, action and daily life. Because if there is no action until disaster is so huge that it can't be ignored, there's a huge risk that by that time it will be too late. And a risk that the wrong decisions will be made in a climate of fear, as we learned all too well in the past decade.

Maybe it will happen like the Civil Rights revolution: years of writings, then single actions, grassroots leaders, demonstrations growing larger, until one President recognizes that America is paying attention and proposes the Voting Rights Act, and after his assassination the next President takes the lead. But in Congress it came down to a few heroes, to Everett Dirksen, the Republican Senate leader who famously said of it that it was an idea whose time had come, and to California Senator Clair Engle, remembered by Keith recently for casting a vote to break the filibuster, even though near death from brain cancer. He voted by pointing to his eye to indicate "Aye," because he could no longer speak.

I don't think we can really wait beyond 2009 for the change to begin in a big way. A lot of preparations have been made, but crucial years have been lost. Maybe people are ready. The media may not know how to talk about disaster, but perhaps under their increasingly blind radar, the change is underway.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Fiddling While the Icecaps Melt

imaging of Vatnajokull Glacier Icecap
Posted by Picasa

Undressed Rehearsal (with UPDATE)

Not even World Environment Day could deter the partisan and corporate interest politics that destroyed the climate crisis bill in the U.S. Senate. In some ways all the posturing was a charade within a charade: the bill, too weak to do much good, was never in danger of being passed.

It was at best a dress rehearsal for a real bill and a real debate next year, with a real chance at doing something. But while the debate began to introduce the issues in Congress, it also undressed John McCain's pretend support for doing something about the Climate Crisis. He was for this bill before he was against it. McCain is all talk on the issue.

But this bill that was charitably described as a first step but not the actual solution by the head of the UN climate panel was deemed inadequate by other environmentalists." We're thankful the bill was introduced," said KierĂ¡n Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity,"but more thankful that it did not pass." Clearly it's going to take President Obama to get a good bill introduced and an overwhemingly Democratic Congress to even get it sincerely debated.

This debacle is in the context of extraordinary weather events continuing (such as the flooding rains in Indiana and tornadoes outside Chicago and the worst-in-50-years rain in China just on Saturday) punctuating larger climate shifts--in the U.S. a moister East and a much dryer West: last week Governor Schwarzenegger officially declared that the entire state of California is in a drought, which it has been unofficially for a couple of years.

These changes are happening much faster and on a bigger scale than many scientists expected, and that's especially the case in the Arctic, where new evidence emerged of the break-up of the Arctic ice cap.

The Climate Crisis is obscured by rising oil prices and a weakening U.S. economy, which are not only related to each other but to the Climate Crisis--both in causes and in solutions. But oil companies are the richest corporations on the planet, and with their political minions they continue to obscure this connection, and charge that confronting the Climate Crisis will damage the economy and ordinary life. Nobody says it will be easy, but the solution common to all three areas is precisely to deal with the Climate Crisis through clean energy industries.

Update: Senator Obama has issued a statement on the bill. In part:

“As this week’s debate on climate change has unfolded, the American people and those watching us around the world had every reason to hope that we would act. Every credible scientist and expert believes action is necessary. This is critical and long overdue legislation that represents a good first step in addressing one of the most serious problems facing our generation.

Like many of my Senate colleagues, I believe the legislation could have been made even better. Had there been a substantive Senate debate about some of the concerns with this bill, I believe the outcome could have generated broad support. It certainly would have received my support.

Unfortunately, the Republican leadership in the Senate has chosen to block progress, rather than work in a good faith manner to address this challenge. This is a failure of our politics and a failure of leadership — a President who for years denied the problem, and a Republican nominee, John McCain, who claims leadership on the issue but opposes this bipartisan bill.

We can’t afford more of the same timid politics when the future of our planet is at stake."