Envisioning Real Utopias: response from Bill Barnes

by John Quiggin on March 23, 2013

I’m going to talk about Wright’s complete failure to say anything about the herd of elephants in the room that completely blocks our way toward any of the desirable futures that the book envisions – climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and their epidemiological, social, economic and political consequences. That Wright did not recognize this in the course of his five years of work on, and world-wide presentation and discussion of, the book’s arguments, mid 2004 to mid 2009 (pp. xi-xv– “I felt that I was part of a global conversation on the dilemmas of our time,” xv) – that in all those presentations and discussions no one ever raised the climate change/environmental degradation issues with sufficient force as to leave a footprint in the 2010 text – despite the scientific evidence and argument that was accumulating during those same years – that is very telling – a sign of our historic failure in meeting our responsibilities as intellectuals – one mark of the current world-historical failure of the social and policy sciences in general, of intellectuals at large, and of the modern state.

In an important respect, Wright’s statements here [re our inability to predict the future possibility of capitalist crisis, quoted in the full post] are out of date. In fact, we now have a body of very compelling theory, backed by strong evidence, of the mechanisms that have begun to generate such a long-term intensifying crisis. But this does not mean that “Capitalism’s” intensifying crisis opens the way to “emancipatory social transformation.” Quite the contrary. We have recently developed a good deal of relatively thick “knowledge of the conditions likely to be faced in the future,” and those conditions take “robust projects of emancipatory social transformation” entirely off the table in most respects for a long time. Instead we have to play defense against the unintended consequences of industrialization and high modernism, “capitalist” and every other kind.

The essential question to be asked of any proposed “real utopia” is not the definitional, “is it reasonably possible that human beings, as we have known them in this world, could someday put such social arrangements into sustained practice in a way that is generally true to the ideals invoked, and that does not in practice betray other values of acknowledged importance?” Realistically, the essential question is, can you get there from here, given where we are now, given the history that’s already happened and its material consequences? By this, I do not mean to raise merely issues of “pragmatism” or “political realism,” or “path dependancy.” But rather the question of whether any such line of possibility (which in the past may have qualified as a real utopia) may have been definitively cut off for all of imaginable human history, because in real time we have blindly destroyed indispensable, unreconstructable, irreplaceable bridges, opportunities, way-stations, building materials? In other words, the question of the “realness” of a proposed “real utopia” must be historicized – and not just in the sense of the usual theories of “path dependency.”

For us humans of the early 21st century, the question has teeth, big teeth. At this point in our history, there is only one really real Utopia left to us: the creation of forms of political economy, and a world order, that can cope with and stabilize, in an at least minimally just and humanitarian way (de facto Social Darwinist solutions don’t qualify), the climate-changed, environmentally-degraded, resource-depleted world that is bearing down upon us. Holding open the possible realization of grander utopian visions, in some distant future, rests on achieving substantial success on this front over the course of this century. And such success is very much in question – in fact, as things stand in early 2013, a long shot.

The limits we face now are limits set not only [as Wright argues] by our current (but changeable) beliefs about humans, social life, and the physical world, but also set, in part, independently, by unchangeable facts and laws of physics, chemistry and biology, and by the unchangeable facts of the historical record to date. Future humans may eventually be able to hedge or work around the second law of thermodynamics to some degree, but there’s no reason to believe they’ll ever be able to repeal it. And no matter what we believe, we can’t erase from our history the 200 years of massive deforestation of the planet, or the 150 years of intensive carbon-loading of the atmosphere, or the population explosion of the 20th century, or what 20th century industrial agriculture and the chemical industry have done to the planet’s fresh water supply, or the massive species-die-off of current times, or the place to which such historical realities, in interaction with the laws of science, have brought us as of 2013. (Unless, of course, we are economists of a certain ilk, in which case we can simply say, “assume a time machine.”) [Insert Toles cartoon.] Please note, I am not insisting that various imagined techo-miracles, in some sense “reversing” and remediating some consequences of our past history, are pure pipedream, forever. But even if someday it becomes possible to scrub the atmosphere of carbon and the aquifers and oceans of toxins, etc, the history between now and then will have been hell, taken a horrendous (in many ways fatal) toll, and will leave massive scar tissue. Personally, I find it hard to take comfort in the idea that, with luck, millennia from now it will all be water under the bridge.

One bottom line: The viable maturation and authentic living-up-to-avowed-ideals of “middle-class democratic capitalism,” and/or the radical transcendence of “capitalism” and realization of a viable and authentic “democratic socialism,” might each have been hundred-year “real utopias” (at least for half the planet) circa 1945-1965. But neither is any longer – given what humanity did, and failed to do, over the second half of the 20th century (coming on top of the unappreciated reality of what we’d done over the preceding 150 years). If those projects are ever to regain the status of real utopias, it will be only after, and thanks to, the realization of the only utopia that is really “real” for us at this point in our history.

We need something close to 100 years of sustained non-economistic, producerist Green Social Democracy – starting no more than 20 years from now. In Wright’s terms, what I’m arguing for is a symbiotic, class-compromise strategy that seeks to expand and defend the space for interstitial tactics, while fighting for a radical break with high-modernist and neo-fascist tendencies within “capitalism.” But where that gets us, if we’re lucky, is not any fully egalitarian, just or emancipatory political economy, rather, it gets us through hell, and back to a world of options akin to 1945, with our basic humanity in tact and a lot of hard lessons learned.

That’s a reasonably realistic utopia.

For a full-length version, click here.

{ 168 comments }

1

Sandwichman 03.23.13 at 6:56 am

“We need something close to 100 years of sustained non-economistic, producerist
Green Social Democracy…”

And here I though “20 years of boredom for trying to change the system from within” was a harsh sentence!

2

Brett 03.23.13 at 7:03 am

And no matter what we believe, we can’t erase from our history the 200 years of massive deforestation of the planet, or the 150 years of intensive carbon-loading of the atmosphere, or the population explosion of the 20th century, or what 20th century industrial agriculture and the chemical industry have done to the planet’s fresh water supply, or the massive species-die-off of current times, or the place to which such historical realities, in interaction with the laws of science, have brought us as of 2013.

Maybe not all of it, but we can erase a lot of the ecological damage. Forest coverage in the US is greater than what is was 100 years ago IIRC, and rivers are a lot cleaner – just look at the Cuyahuga and Thames Rivers compared to what they were only 60 years ago. Extinction we unfortunately can’t reverse, and neither climate change.

This may sound heretical, but shouldn’t we try to stabilize climate at wherever it ends up once we actually can realistically get something done to prevent further CO2 emissions? It’s not really the higher temperatures that devastates life, it’s the rapid change in climates.

As for our basic humanity . . . honestly, I don’t think humanity will be recognizable in 100 years, even if we aren’t doing stuff like crazy body modification and bionics.

3

Sandwichman 03.23.13 at 7:10 am

Here’s a better idea: a “cap and trade” for hours of work. Set some aggregate “lump of labor” target, divide that figure by the adult population and then allocate the resulting number of hours credits to each adult. People who didn’t want to work so many hours — or at all — could sell their hour credits to workaholics and so on. Reduce the size of the lump each year to conform with the emission reductions targets.

What’s the point? There’s an almost one-to-one correlation between aggregate hours of work and aggregate greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. over the last 20 years. Your not going to reduce the latter while the former are rising. And as our old friend Karl Marx advised, “The legal limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvements and emancipation of the working class must prove abortive…”

Utopian? Realistic?

4

Random Lurker 03.23.13 at 8:04 am

The reason we need a non capitalist society is that, purportedly, capitalism needs to grow constantly to stay in place.
However the reason capitalism needs to grow is that capitalists need evergrowing profits ; but they could have evergrowing profits just by exploiting people more, or alternatively a big crisis (say, peak oil) can wipe out present capitalists for good, and still a new accumulation process could begin.
In other words, we still can have both capitalism or socialism if we drive rickshaws instead of cars.
We just have to stop giving space to the “drill baby drill” guys or the people that say that greens always destroy the economy.
But those people at best represent the current crop of capitalists and not capitalism itself.
So I ‘m not sure that it is a good idea to say that we need a non capitalist form of government to stop environmental apocalypse because this antagonizes people who could otherwise agree, I think it would be better to say that we need “creative destruction” of the present form of industrialization.
I’m all for [some sort of soft] socialism, but this is beside the point.

5

Charles Peterson 03.23.13 at 8:05 am

This is great, up until the emphasis (by omission of every other possibility) on interstitial tactics that don’t sound like they will make a dent against the Death Star of global warming. Any reform winnable now is probably worth getting. I’m pessimistic about the future and only hopeful that I am wrong.

Also, global warming, the full impacts are not likely to be reversible in millennia, not mere 100’s of years, and not counting, of course, the mass extinctions and suffering. All the fossil money is on the table for 500 ppm or more this century and continuing to rise with positive feedbacks. That probably means full global ice melt is inevitable, raising sea levels 80 meters, and a sum total climate change that is nearly unimaginable. True, it tis but one of our follies, so far, we could do much more and still might. Even the limited ice melt coming on real soon now will be catastrophic for large parts of the world that depend on that for water and flood control. And the hurricanes and droughts and floods continue to get worse. And the full on ice melt…more and more things point to acceleration beyond any serious prediction.

6

BruceK 03.23.13 at 10:27 am

@2 (Brett): ‘we can erase a lot of the ecological damage. Forest coverage in the US is greater than what is was 100 years ago IIRC’

That may be optimistic – not all forests are ecologically equal. Some of the increase may consist of timber plantations, and older woodland is generally ecologically richer than newer – see Oliver Rackham’s book on Woodlands for a discussion of this in the UK.

Also, there is the effect of tree diseases such as chestnut blight, Elm disease, ash die-back etc to consider, regardless of the extent of forest.

7

The Cardiff Kook 03.23.13 at 1:30 pm

Well I certainly will not deny that solving problems throws off wakes which can be problems of their own. Economic and technological progress have allowed us to rise out of the “natural” Malthusian state of humanity, but have created new problems in so doing.

Since the advent of agriculture, we have lived lives of mere subsistence. The vast majority of us lived at the equivalent of two or three dollars a day, never more than one harvest away from starvation. Half our kids died before reaching adulthood, and many of those that made it did so as orphans. Health care was non existent. We were uneducated, unfree, illiterate, short lived, disease ridden and dirt poor.

We now have billions, yes billions, of people who have not died. Who have risen out of poverty, and created the knowledge, health care, entertainment and comfort of modern living. The path is human cooperation via free markets, science and technology.

I caution against any poorly thought out abandonment of the path out of abject poverty and early death. Billions of people’s lives depend upon this. Foolish social engineering we lead to billions of casualties.

All the problems mentioned in this piece are solvable. They are solvable in ways which preserve the engine of progress which we depend upon.

I will just end by stating that only a person who has been elevated out of true destitution would be capable of taking their lives for granted in such a way that they rationalize destroying that which allowed them the luxury of worrying about higher order things like species extinction.

8

Bruce Wilder 03.23.13 at 2:58 pm

Excellent and much-needed post, even if “expand and defend the space for interstitial tactics” isn’t exactly a slogan for the ages.

I appreciate putting quotations around capitalism, as in “capitalism”. The reification of “capitalism” by the revolutionaries of a revolution that never comes of itself, as if capitalism has ever been one distinct and essential thing, quite apart from human nature, society or culture, and we could pick out an alternative, as if from a menu at a restaurant, is more a cynical excuse than an insight.

That said, certain elements of the industrial revolution, which many liberals as well as conservatives, are reluctant to own — conquest, the seeking after and waste of virgin resources, the use of power to impose externalities on the powerless, the predatory spirit of business, the parasitic spirit of class — will only make things much worse, until they are tamed, or destroy themselves and us.

We will have to find ways — decentralized, yet coordinated ways — to cope with the effects of depletion and congestion of the commons. The conservatives will want to use their power to “adapt” to climate change, which is to say, to push the pain onto the less powerful, even at the cost of failing to stop the runaway train, perhaps even accelerating it. The liberals will remain optimistic, and will want us all in this together, even if it means trying to gloss over the implications of gross overpopulation: the fact that the planet can accommodate, maybe, slightly less than a billion people, and is headed toward a peak population of 8, 9 or 10 billion, is a problem that is not going to have entirely pleasant solutions.

We are going over Seneca’s Cliff, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

9

Hector_St_Clare 03.23.13 at 3:10 pm

Re: It’s not really the higher temperatures that devastates life, it’s the rapid change in climates.

That depends entirely on what you mean by ‘devastates life’. There’s no particular reason to believe though that humans, or other species of interest, would eventually be able to adapt to higher temperatures such that we did perfectly fine at them. A warmer world would be one in which entire ecosystems were missing or greatly reduced.

10

Bill Barnes 03.23.13 at 3:23 pm

Bruce (and others) — Please read the whole post, if you haven’t yet. It’s long and multifaceted – with something to provoke almost everyone — and I need feedback.

Bill

11

Luis 03.23.13 at 3:39 pm

The thrust of the argument here is very fair. I think maybe Wright avoids it because it is so completely hopeless within his framework – once you assume ruptural change is roughly impossible, you’re pretty much abandoning hope on the ecological front, because only ruptural change is enough. (I should add that the environmental problem is harder than the problem Wright throws up his hands about – change from capitalism to socialism – because there is no evidence that moving away from capitalism reduces the desire to consume. So the impossibility of ruptural change looks even worse, I think.)

That said, I think Wright is still worth reading and thinking about here, because we have seen (repeatedly) complete failures by environmentalists on two fronts: (1) how do you convince people in the wealthy, profligate countries to want less or want it more efficiently (and quickly)? and (2) how do you convince people in poor countries that they don’t want to strive for material parity with the first world? (Or, to put it in Bruce’s framing, how do you convince people that only one in five couples should have children? Good luck with that!) It is only in part for lack of trying, but there has definitely been a lack of trying – lots of people seem to think that it will be sufficient to repeat numbers about temperature and sea-level rise. That clearly hasn’t been sufficient, and there hasn’t been much plan B. So not-quite-Wright-ian experiments in local persuasion, if not necessarily local solutions, seem like an obvious next step. What are the good examples of that? How can we build on them?

12

Billikin 03.23.13 at 3:55 pm

Historically, what about examples of healthy economies in the midst of limited resources? Two possible examples come to mind: ancient Egypt (bounded by desert) and Tokugawa Japan (not only an island, but cut off from the rest of the world). Is there any guidance there?

13

Anarcissie 03.23.13 at 4:09 pm

The interstitial is interesting because one can do something. The apocalyptic environmental Goetterdaemmerung, although it would make a good movie, will (if it occurs) be in practice a rather life-long tedious reset to the early Middle Ages, about which no one can do anything. Especially any leftish things, because the worse things get, the more authority, inequality, the military virtues, surveillance, propaganda, and violence will be valued, pursued, and honored. Therefore I will spend the afternoon with Food Not Bombs.

14

William Timberman 03.23.13 at 4:14 pm

No, we mustn’t talk about the apocalypse in apocalyptic terms. We definitely mustn’t do that. After all, we have hydraulic fracturing. We have the North Dakota oil boom and the Keystone XL pipeline. There’s no reason why we can’t have cheap oil and gas forever. America can be no. 1 again. Etc., etc. (I beg everyone’s pardon, but I live in AZ, which, since 2008, has cut education funding by 50%, the moral equivalent of putting the state’s fingers in everyone’s ears.)

As an old New Leftist, I found Wright’s book comforting — the promise of a world-wide Portland, OR and all that — but like Bill Barnes I didn’t find it comforting enough. There’s a lot of good people out there, doing a lot of good things, but North Dakota is all we’ll hear about in the U.S., and even in Germany, where there actually is a Green Party, and politicians generally have a much greater sense of urgency about global warming, it looks as though industry’s insistence on forcing the consumer to bear the full cost of the Energiewende has brought on a political knife fight likely at best to confuse the issues at stake for everyone.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better — a lot worse. Building the new inside the shell of the old, yeah, right! Back in the Sixties, that was something we thought we could do, but unfortunately for most of us, we hadn’t understood Marx as well as we’d understood Locke and Mill and Jefferson. Economies of scale trapped us just like it did all the other suckers who couldn’t quite understand that the future saw them more as objects than as subjects. I hope Bill Barnes and my grandchildren have better luck. If smarts are the determining factor, I figure they’ll do better than we did. Whether or not they’ll do better enough is still to be determined.

15

Manoel Galdino 03.23.13 at 4:16 pm

This post is by far the most important in some time here at CT. However, people isn’t discussing it. Why is that? So few comments so far? Do people think that, if they don’t talk about it maybe the problems pointed in the text will no longer exist?

16

jb 03.23.13 at 4:18 pm

I think people tend to post comments very slowly on CT in general.

17

Lee A. Arnold 03.23.13 at 4:27 pm

If climate change brings us stronger storms, then they are very likely to keep pounding one of the predominating power centers of world capitalism: the eastern seaboard of the United States. That could become the cause of a “public relations” turnabout. On the pessimistic side, I also fear that climate scientists are not looking at another possible scenario, perhaps one that is a lot closer in time: there may be a lot of natural variation that is hidden in the temperature signal, and the upward rise in temperature could see a sudden acceleration upward, for a few years, before returning to the “normal” upward trend (thus, a sudden “spike” in temperature). Everyone would argue about what caused it — that is, if there is anyone left to argue! Because if it got hot enough to destroy world agriculture for a few years, this alone would destroy most of civilization.

18

Bill Barnes 03.23.13 at 4:44 pm

William T,

“Back in the Sixties, that was something we thought we could do, but unfortunately ….. I hope Bill Barnes and my grandchildren have better luck.”

I’m sorry to have to tell you I’m of your age – another child of the movement of the ’60s — the battle against the Fortress America response to the climate-changed world that is coming is the last great struggle of our generation.

19

Rich Puchalsky 03.23.13 at 4:58 pm

When the person who wrote the post says “read the whole thing”, you shouldn’t expect lots of comments quickly.

I haven’t read the whole thing yet. But, as a placeholder for future comments, yes, 1) the failure to incorporate environmental limits in any serious way into economic / social theorizing is one of the big failures of the left, but 2) I’ve seen far too much writing that goes in the other direction, as if all of these choices are going to be sharply limited for us, by catastrophe, whether we like it or not. The kind of statements that begin “At this point in our history, there is only one really real Utopia left to us [..]” are firmly of the second kind. It’s as if people gave up on Marx but didn’t give up on thinking like Marx. And if you’re talking about “a radical break with high-modernist tendencies”, that’s a bad thing.

20

William Timberman 03.23.13 at 5:10 pm

On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog. I apologize for projecting you into the future, but I still think it’s fair to say that my grandchildren are more likely to be influenced by what you’ve written than by what I say. The dynamics of generations, etc.

Yes, there are a lot of us still around, but having by some miracle reached the brink of the biblical fourscore and ten, I find I spend as much time catching up on what I missed en route as I do trying to project forward what I’ve learned. It’s a weird notion to come to terms with, this becoming part of history while we’re still alive, especially when there’s so much left unfinished. It’s a good thing, I think, to be aware of our own mortality, but not to dwell on it. Viva Noam Chomsky, in other words — and Bill Barnes, too, for that matter.

21

William Timberman 03.23.13 at 5:18 pm

Make that threescore and ten, if you please. Mustn’t get ahead of myself, or tempt the gods.

22

LFC 03.23.13 at 5:30 pm

Haven’t read the full version of the post. The version here might have mentioned the environmental implications of urbanization. A UN report of ’08 projected that by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. Five million or so people in poorer countries move from countryside to cities (often slums/shantytowns) every month. That’s 60 million a year.

Although The Economist is capable of rhapsodizing about mega-city slums as “reservoirs of tomorrow’s winners,” I very much doubt the editors of that publication would want to live in one.

23

TheSophist 03.23.13 at 5:41 pm

For anybody involved in the world of competitive policy debate: This article is where kritik alternative debates go to die.

And a quick question for Mr/Dr/Prof Barnes – I’d like to show this piece to some students, who will probably ask about the author’s credentials. How should I finish the statement “Bill Barnes is…”

Thanks.

24

Bill Barnes 03.23.13 at 5:42 pm

LFC, “The version here might have mentioned the environmental implications of urbanization. “

From the full version:

A central challenge will be massive population movements out of coastal
areas of flooding, hurricanes and typhoons, on one hand, and out of inland areas of
drought and food-and-water-shortage on the other hand, into ever-more-massive
refugee camps and urban slums. What we have seen over recent decades in major
cities throughout the Third World will be multiplied many times over at an
accelerating rate throughout much of the Global South. If the “surplus
populations” of the burgeoning refugee camps and slum metropolises of that world
are ever to be productively and humanely (not to mention “democratically”)
integrated into their societies, those societies will have to be radically reorganized
so as to make such integration possible, consistent with environmental exigencies
and limits, and resource endowments. Such will require radically different modes
of modernization and globalization, requiring in turn the institutionalization of
very different priorities in the advanced world in order to create permissive
conditions and real assistance. The idea that something much less radical will do,
that some version of neo-liberal capitalist “democracy,” a creature of the actuallyexisting world system but capable of coping with the on-coming cascade of crises, might ever be built in the more densely populated and resource-poor countries, is pure pipedream.

25

The Raven 03.23.13 at 5:42 pm

“This may sound heretical, but shouldn’t we try to stabilize climate at wherever it ends up once we actually can realistically get something done to prevent further CO2 emissions?”

You do understand that we are now on a course for 6°C warming by 2100? We are talking wrath-of-god stuff. Storms. Rising seas. Drought. Flooding. On the human side: war, famine, tyranny. It’s not going to be a matter of soberly considered action, it’s going to be bloody global panic.

26

Bill Barnes 03.23.13 at 5:49 pm

TheSophist, “How should I finish the statement “Bill Barnes is…””

When my students ask me that, we sometimes settle on “Uncle Bill.” U of Michigan political science PhD, UC-Berkeley JD – made my living as a trial lawyer most of the time from 1984-2008.

27

The Raven 03.23.13 at 5:51 pm

To the main subject. Mr. (Professor? Representative?) Barnes, I have now skimmed your essay. I think you are right on, for what that is worth, and I hope you get wider attention. I think, though, you are probably too Eurocentric in your thinking: if anything is to be done, it will have to be done globally, and it seems to me that we do not know what is appropriate outside of the USA, Canada, and Europe. It is fine to dream of “Green Social Democracy,” and I hope we achieve that, or something equally kind, but I will be pleased if we just make it, so that there will be something to grow again, after the coming chaos.

28

Luis 03.23.13 at 5:55 pm

Bill, I’m writing a much longer (and mostly positive) reply to your long piece right now, but on the issue of urbanism: I don’t think that really counts as a reply. In particular, transportation is one of the most carbon intensive things humans do. So dense urban areas are not an ill to be avoided, but the only way we can sustainably have a modern population. Simply waving our hands and saying “we have to reconfigure things” is exactly the kind of non-viable non-answer Wright attacks in the old utopians; I wish your (otherwise quite good) article avoided that sort of talk but instead it is fairly common.

29

The Raven 03.23.13 at 6:03 pm

Lee A. Arnold@16 “If climate change brings us stronger storms, then they are very likely to keep pounding one of the predominating power centers of world capitalism: the eastern seaboard of the United States.”

Just so. Yet none of the wealthy and powerful are so far willing to lead, in the way the reactionaries have. There are no green Koch brothers or Murdochs. And yet some must believe. Where is their sense of urgency?

I suppose, also, that some of the wealthy and powerful believe their wealth and power will protect them from global catastrophe. We have hints of this from Mitt Romney: he apparently is willing to jettison 47% of Americans and, I assume, the entire rest of the world, come the crunch.

30

LFC 03.23.13 at 6:11 pm

B Barnes @23
the institutionalization of very different priorities in the advanced world in order to create permissive conditions and real assistance

And I would add as a part of that: the ‘advanced world’ should stop supporting institutional arrangements, such as the current set of rules for global trade, that disadvantage many poorer countries in order to get marginal advantages for the richer ones. Also, it’s not just a matter of “integrating” poor urban populations into their societies; it’s also necessary to redouble efforts on rural development so that living in urban squalor, but near some jobs and opportunities, does not continue to look so much more attractive to millions of people than remaining in villages.

Right now it’s a big sort of negative feedback loop, of course, b.c, for one thing, the more people in cities, eventually the more cars, motor rickshaw/taxis, or other polluting forms of transportation, the more CO2 emissions, the worse the eventual climate effects, and then even more pressure for rural-urban migration. A reasonably powerful and authoritarian govt like China’s can try to control the rate of rural-urban migration, but Bangladesh’s or India’s govts, for instance, cannot. And if city authorities ban one form of polluting transport (say motor rickshaws), it’s likely that other forms will emerge. (Etc.)

31

Luis 03.23.13 at 6:18 pm

Bill, I want to first thank you for deeply engaging with Wright – you simultaneously are the most fair to, and most devastating to, his book and his project of any of the essays so far.

That said, having now read the whole piece, I want to push a little harder on two of my points above – first, that it is a crisis of capitalism, rather than human nature; and second, that we have no proposed solutions in your piece that are at all viable.

On the first point, you appear to see the coming environmental crisis as a (the?) Marxist crisis of capitalism (p. 4). And I’m really not clear that is the case. First (less importantly), because I’m not clear it is a Marxist crisis- it isn’t driven by any factors Marx would recognize (labor unrest, overproduction in his sense, etc.) Second and more importantly, I see no reason to believe it is a crisis of capitalism per se. Improving the material standard of living – which is to say, increasing the level of destructive production – has been an aggressive goal of every non-capitalist/anti-capitalist government of the 20th and 21st century, just as much (or more so!) as it has been a goal of every capitalist government.

And there is plenty to suggest that buying piles of ecologically destructive stuff is a goal of individual people as well, not just their governments. The Chinese government is investing more aggressively in mass transit right now than arguably any government in the history of the world, and yet individual people are also choosing to buy cars at a rate rivaled only by the post-war US. (Similar trends in food, with famine in China being ended pairing with high demand for “the next step” – carbon/methane-intensive meat replacing rice/vegetables.) (And of course, they all want to vacation in the US or Europe – which really does make the world a better, more aware place… and also by itself arguably blows your carbon budget for the year.)

Surely some of this is the Evils of Capitalism (notably advertising) but it seems, more strongly, to be a problem of “human beings, as we have known them in this world” (to quote Wright).

And that brings me to the second point I’d like to discuss. We like the taste of meat; we like the autonomy of personal transportation; we like procreating. You recognize that, because of this, solving the problem will be challenging (more challenging than simply the traditional vision of transitioning from capitalism to socialism, p. 16). You also advocate for activism to prepare the professional classes for grappling with the problem. That’s a start, but your discussion of the actual solutions is literally “blah blah blah” (p. 17) and vague handwaving about “green social democracy.”

That lack of solutions makes your piece very, very frustrating – especially when viewed through Wright’s own lens of viability. You’re very convincing in demolishing non-environmental utopias as unviable, but I see no evidence here that your utopia is viable either. Maybe that is hidden in some of the citations? I’m genuinely curious, and I think it is extremely important: you’re getting the pushback you’re seeing because of a very Wright-ian problem: no one wants to hear the bad news if it isn’t paired with a viable, plausible way out of the trap. (The misdiagnosis of the problem as a crisis of capitalism rather than a crisis of human nature also makes it harder.)

I’m not sure that Wright’s methods offer a solution here; his interstitial micro-utopias (“utopia writ small”, I think Holbo said?) are likely to be too little, too late. But my instinct (perhaps wrong) is that most of us would do much better to start advocating for them, and being involved in them, than to spend our time pushing for better awareness among elites (your only concrete suggestion in the larger paper). That way when the external forces start making awareness inevitable, we’ll have some concrete examples to work with, not just ivory tower theories. Is that enough? Probably not… but it is something.

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Lee A. Arnold 03.23.13 at 6:20 pm

Bill #17: “another child of the movement of the ’60s”

It could be that the 1960’s was just a harbinger or foreshadowing. I’m no fan of Timothy Leary, but I think that his later slogan (from the 1980’s) still applies: “SMILE: Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension.” Forget space migration for now: what if biomedical innovation increases intelligence and extends life (even of those already born)? This is likely to happen in the very near future. And in pill form!* What would this development do, psychologically? 1. It would equalize many talents, and 2. remove fear of death (and thus some of the impulse to aggrandize personal possessions, as Ernest Becker indicated). What would this do to capitalism? I think it might remove its psychological underpinnings entirely, as the psychedelic ’60’s briefly intimated — underpinnings which have predominated in the human race, and predated capitalism back to the cavemen kings. And what would then remain for the apologists of capitalism, except the contention that inequality is necessary for technological innovation and economic growth? But: A) the need for inequality is not proven, and appears to be ridiculous, if you talk to any young artist or scientist, and B) even Schumpeter foresaw that people would become discontent with their incomes, as most innovation fell under the purview of corporate research departments (Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy — and he could scarcely foresee that scientific discovery and technological innovation themselves might become computer-automated, and with “in silico” design testing in addition! But if you follow his logic all the way, this book would go back to the Grundrisse. Sometimes I think old Joe P. would have ended up a closet Marxist, but for the alarming political example of the old Soviet Union.) So, whereas it is easy enough to be pessimistic about the future, and indeed it is a certain speciality of the Crooked Timberlings, and I have never been a slouch in that department myself (I don’t even have enough money to buy Wright’s book at this moment), I think it is possible that the future may unfold in a way in which only the optimistic polymaths of the 19th century were able to muster enough of an cultural overview to adumbrate (though they could scarcely foresee biomedical innovation): Capitalism may go extinct due to technological development.

33

Lee A. Arnold 03.23.13 at 6:25 pm

*Life extension in pill form, latest news:
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130307145259.htm

34

LFC 03.23.13 at 6:25 pm

Luis @27

“Dense urban areas” are *precisely* where you get polluting forms of transport in critical quantities — haven’t you seen stories about auto congestion/pollution in, e.g., Beijing, such that at one pt the city was forced to ban all cars from the streets at certain hrs?

In the mid-90s I spent a couple of wks in Dhaka (Bangladesh), a city designed for maybe a million or two people (at most) that is projected to have roughly 22 million people by 2025. The pollution from motor rickshaws was a severe problem, certainly for a visitor and presumably for the respiratory health of residents; I heard the city subsequently banned them but I don’t know the current situation on that. Of course most residents were focused on daily survival (some *weren’t* surviving) and daily routines rather than on the air quality, and who could blame them? But I am skeptical that dense urban areas will be nirvanas for clean transport. It’s worked in a few cities but not all that many, ISTM. Plus, just as important if not more, the pressures that increasing urban populations put on things like water supply and infrastructure, electricity etc. is immense. Cf. Lahore today, for instance. (Or Mumbai. Or…)

35

Luis 03.23.13 at 6:31 pm

“Dense urban areas” are *precisely* where you get polluting forms of transport in critical quantities — haven’t you seen stories about auto congestion/pollution in, e.g., Beijing, such that at one pt the city was forced to ban all cars from the streets at certain hrs?

That’s deceptive. You’re confusing the absolute amount of pollution (which is admittedly quite high) with the per capita amount of pollution (which is relatively quite low, given the amount of human activity in the area). If the same number of people lived further apart, and had the same amount of activity, there would be even more cars, fewer bicycles, and less mass transit. Of course, you can just say “no movement at all” and let them stew in their home villages, but good luck getting that to fly until after the great collapse.

36

LFC 03.23.13 at 6:58 pm

Luis @34
Of course, you can just say “no movement at all” and let them stew in their home villages, but good luck getting that to fly until after the great collapse.

This is one of the reasons I made the point about rural development @29.

37

John Quiggin 03.23.13 at 7:04 pm

I’ve argued alreadyt that we can stabilise the global climate while greatly improving living standards

My closing para

The ultimate barriers to achieving a good life for all, free of the lash of financial necessity, are neither technological nor environmental. They are in our beliefs, values and social institutions. If we collectively prefer to stay on the treadmill, chasing bigger and better consumption goods, we can do that, at least until we hit the limits of sustainability. But if we choose to use the opportunities given to us by technology to eliminate poverty and drudgery, and to protect and restore the environment, that choice is equally open to us. The world can’t sustain the current consumption patterns of one billion rich people, let alone 10 billion. Yet everyone could have a better life right now with less energy use, more leisure, and drastically lower emissions of greenhouse gases. And, over a few decades, there’s nothing to stop the whole world’s population from attaining living standards at least as good as, though not the same as, those currently enjoyed by those of us in the developed world.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.23.13 at 7:06 pm

Luis: “On the first point, you appear to see the coming environmental crisis as a (the?) Marxist crisis of capitalism (p. 4). And I’m really not clear that is the case. First (less importantly), because I’m not clear it is a Marxist crisis- it isn’t driven by any factors Marx would recognize (labor unrest, overproduction in his sense, etc.) Second and more importantly, I see no reason to believe it is a crisis of capitalism per se […]”

I have to agree very strongly with Luis here. But to add to what I wrote above about giving up on Marx, but still thinking like a Marxist, one of the troublesome parts of this is to go from acknowledging history into historical determinism. Let’s recall some of the actual science that has occurred around predictions of catastrophe, which have indeed been heard since the sixties. It used to be “you can’t have exponential growth on a finite planet!” — all very true, but our population is indeed leveling off, largely because of greater empowerment for women (i.e. matters that those social utopians are concerned with). The predictions of the IPCC say that damage from global climate change will be very bad, but not catastrophic in the sense that very few alternative courses of events are possible. World peak oil happened in 2006, probably, and may have contributed to the Great Recession, but again has not been catastrophic in the sense used here. Biodiversity losses are serious, but yes, there is more (inferior, not old growth) forest than there was.

There are still many multiple futures. Wright not considering these factors as constraints, or as items that have to be worked on for real utopia, is bad, but so is telling people that utopia is pointless because now we all have to turn to survival.

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Luis 03.23.13 at 7:18 pm

Rich: I don’t give much credence to the “conditions for civilization will be over” crowd (we’re very, very adaptable) but it is very plausible that given slight environmental changes, lots of socio-political things could go very, very far backwards quickly. e.g., it probably doesn’t take a whole lot of drought to cause a new Mexican-American or Russo-Chinese war (both of which would cause a lot of spillovers that are negative to justice); nor a whole lot of flooding to badly disrupt the entire supply chain for the electronics that are one of our best hopes of reducing consumption of other forms of consumer goods. So I think the critique of Wright is important, even if Bill’s diagnosis of the problem is wrong.

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Bill Barnes 03.23.13 at 7:35 pm

John Q.,

As you know, you and I have debated this, but I don’t recall you ever before going as far as “over a few decades [!!], there’s nothing to stop [!!!] the whole world’s population [!!!!] from attaining living standards at least as good as, though not the same as, those currently enjoyed by those of us in the developed world.” John, you know that there is no real possibility that that will actually happen, even were it in some sense technically feasible (which it’s not within that timeframe), and to say “there’s nothinmg to stop” it from happening is insane.

41

The Raven 03.23.13 at 7:45 pm

Luis@39: “I don’t give much credence to the ‘conditions for civilization will be over’ crowd.”

We are now leaving the Holocene. Please put your seatbacks up and return your tray-tables to the upright and locked position.

Luis, we don’t live in the world where civilization developed any more.

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Lee A. Arnold 03.23.13 at 8:07 pm

Luis #39: “I don’t give much credence to the ‘conditions for civilization will be over’ crowd”

Again — though the occurrence appears to be a low probability — you ought to consider the immediate aftermath of a heat spike that crashes agricultural crops worldwide for a year or two. “Bloody mayhem” would be the description.

43

LFC 03.23.13 at 8:13 pm

From John Quiggin’s piece that he linked @37:

In the US, car fuel use would drop to 20 per cent of current levels simply by adopting the 2025 fuel efficiency standards and halving the distances travelled. It would be more difficult to halve that again, but still feasible and still consistent with improving living standards. (emphasis added)

One way to achieve this is to replace car travel with a combination of mass transit and walking or cycling. That, in turn, means living in cities. Fortuitously, while inner-city living was once associated with slums and poverty, it has now become the preferred lifestyle of a significant segment of the professional middle class. There is no technological reason why it could not be extended to a much larger portion of the population.

It’s somewhat o.k. that JQ wants to stuff most people into cities in the U.S. — I agree that might well have good effects in terms of reducing car use, provided that cities invested more heavily in mass transit. But, what are you going to do with the suburbs (n.b. not necessarily ‘affluent suburbs’, just all the ordinary suburbs w single detached houses that were built in the U.S. in great quantity in the years after WW2)? Are you going to go all through all of them with a huge bulldozer, raze the houses, plant green spaces, and then forcibly move all the inhabitants to apt bldgs in center cities or new planned developments? Either way, you’re going to have change incentives for builders. Now, admittedly some of that is going on already as (U.S.) jurisdictions try to encourage development around subway stations or other transit lines, but you’ve still got lots of suburbs and towns where people get in their cars to make a short drive to the supermarket. (Short drives which add up.) How are you going to change that? Or maybe just wait a couple of decades and assume it’ll all disappear?

Then there’s the issue of very fast urbanization in the poorer countries. As I’ve suggested above, an effect is and increasingly will be to place huge strains on infrastructure for the delivery of water, sanitation, and electricity, among other things. Some cities already don’t even try to provide such services to those living in slums: e.g. Kibera/Nairobi — see the description I previously linked here.

It’s true that some progress has been made on the Millennium Development Goals, but the picture is mixed there. (See e.g. John McArthur in current issue of Foreign Affairs.) So I think the prospects in general, even under a good set of political conditions, are not as rosy as JQ believes.

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Bill Barnes 03.23.13 at 8:18 pm

Luis at #31: Thank you for your engagement. As to what you say in this post, I see no serious disagreements between us. As I’ve written elsewhere (with Nils Gilman):

….. For those whose existing level of materialism is well below real affluence, radically scaling back material consumption as part of a program to save the planet is more like getting a gangrenous leg amputated — there’s nothing inspiring or ennobling about it, but it’s better than the alternative. Our problem is that most of the time the gangrene feels good – and a variety of powerful forces assure us it is not dangerous and urge us to enjoy it (here “legitimate” economic actors and deviant entrepreneurs are in full partnership). So how can people be convinced to accept amputation before it’s too late? It would be one thing if entire populations could leap from where they are straight into a fully-formed world of universal rights, reliable public goods, and rich social capital. That would be the equivalent of immediately being fitted with a state-of-the-art prosthetic. But of course the world does not work that way – not least because of the shared vested interests of “legitimate” economic actors and deviant entrepreneurs in precluding it from doing so.

We need to develop an alternative political economy that can survive and cope in the face of the new world that is coming. What would such a political economy look like, and how might we get there from where we are now? What resources exist that might make possible the building of Green Social Democracy under such difficult conditions? While it is not true that we are close to having – at least in the lab – the clean/green technology we need, and all that is lacking is the will to fund full development and deployment, it is true that around the planet there are many people, groups, and communities that know and practice (at least in bits and pieces) something like the techniques, methodologies, and policies needed to step back from high-carbon materialism. The state of Kerala in India, with a population of over thirty million, is a striking relatively large-scale example. There are also many lessons, models, and toolkits to be picked-up from communities and organizations around the world.. What we do not have is an example of a national society adopting such practices anywhere near comprehensively – or even trying to move decisively in that direction. This is particularly true of the largest societies. As things stand, the voracious, high-ecological-footprint urban sectors of the largest societies will drag the rest of the world down into oblivion with them, no matter how Green the rest of the world becomes.
For national societies to move toward institutionalizing appropriate practices and technologies, existing institutions must be reoriented and reconfigured so as to enable, coordinate, and manage appropriate investments, and both institutional personnel and the population at large must buy-into the program with some dedication. This will require a profound switching of gears, a radical intellectual and political reorientation that in turn demands a basic retooling of the entire stock of human capital of the social sciences, the professions, organizational management and public administration.
So is there some way to gather together the lessons, stores of knowledge, toolkits, and green practices that are accumulating around the world and synthesize them into a set of models which majorities everywhere might be persuaded to choose among, adopt, and enact? Existing environmental movements seems unlikely to get that job done, given the power of the opposition and the recalcitrance of majorities in thrall to the hegemonic culture of materialistic modernity. What we need then is a larger narrative with the potential to legitimize radical departure from the status quo to wider audiences, including renunciation of aspirations to affluence and the moral ostracism of those who insist on indulgence in material luxury. Neither radical environmentalism nor centrist ecological modernization policy-discourse is providing the larger narrative we need to challenge and replace the hegemonic orthodoxy of neo-liberal modernization theory and “the American way of life.”
The twentieth century’s leading sources of broad transformative vision and narrative, the Marxist and socialist traditions, are largely unhelpful in this regard, given that they always expected to take over and build on the material abundance and technological wizardry of advanced capitalism. In most mainstream versions of socialism, capitalist consumerism was cast not as ecologically unsustainable, but rather as the penultimate form of economic modernity, one revolution short of the end game. In the finalized form, the entire population was to enjoy a version of the affluence formerly limited to the wealthy, as well as “higher” values. Even those who saw the early years of the “transition to socialism” as occurring in the context of spartan Third World revolution assumed that the revolution would eventually fulfill itself in a socialism of mass abundance. That a life of higher values might be constructed in the face of not the temporary but the permanent absence of mass affluence was not contemplated in these traditions, at least not in their twentieth century versions.
We propose looking to a different historical tradition, namely, the petty- bourgeois-radicalism political culture of North Atlantic capitalism’s early and mid industrial eras This tradition did not call for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, but rather argued for a more modest and cautious (in a sense more “conservative”), more egalitarian and democratic, more decentralized “producerist” capitalism. A twenty-first century producerist capitalism would seek to recast this politically democratic tradition, but in the context of vigorously and comprehensively Green economics. Elaboration of such a vision and practice of robust community-centric self-empowerment could perhaps serve as a basis for a viable alternative to going down with the ship of modernity as it breaks up, or to taking to the lifeboats captained by warlord entrepreneurs.
Recognizing and revivifying this political tradition provides an Archimedean point from which to critique the pop-modernization-theory view of economic viability and societal success that has become hegemonic over the past sixty-five years. Recapturing the energies and hopes of this lost political assemblage, before it was defeated and coopted, allows us to more clearly see the assumptions and limitations of the orthodox, growth-centered vision of modernity that has led us to the brink of global ecological catastrophe. From the Civil War to World War II, neither economic theory nor popular political folklore insisted that modernity necessarily came as an integrated package, a package whose central components include the unlimited pursuit of on-going industrial revolution incarnated in gigantic, ravenous factories; the transformation of the mass of the population into “personnel” within complex, hierarchical organizations; and the elaboration and institutionalization of a culture of material consumerism and high-tech entertainment. Arriving at a hegemonic culture that takes these developments for granted as central to modernity has not been simply the product of the natural progress of efficiency, science, and rationality; rather, a particular pattern of contingent political victories and defeats has played a major role. This pattern need not be accepted as fully irreversible.
We now need to revive aspects of the popular political culture of petty bourgeois civic republicanism that valued community, solidarity, moral economy, meaningful work, self-management, and democratic citizenship over economistic individualism, material affluence, and private consumerism. Note we are not saying that any of the earlier incarnations of producer republicanism could have been fully victorious in its time, nor are we saying that any could be or should be reincarnated whole now. Recovery must include critically-minded up-dating and reformulation in the light of the lessons of the past seventy-five years. In particular, we need to spike that retrieved heritage with a major dose of cosmopolitanism regarding race, gender, and sexuality, while giving up the vision of an eventual metamorphosis into a socialism of abundance. Such a project is surely not without intellectual rewards, and, as a leading historian of American Progressivism and petty bourgeois radicalism has said,

“Nor are such utopias unattainable. … Charles Sabel, Michael Piore, and Jonathan Zeitlin have created something of a school of political economy that has demonstrated the economic viability of small-scale production within flourishing, democratic economic networks. Historically, Sabel and Zeitlin reconstruct and rehabilitate a craft-based alternative to mass production, an alternative that had impressively strong roots in various cities and regions throughout the nineteenth-century transatlantic world. Flexibility and constant innovation in specialized production formed the foundation for a labor process that revolved around skilled workers. …with owners and workers often attaining a solidarity difficult for us to imagine as part of business relations. And despite the many defeats this small-scale alternative met at the hands of both capitalist and social democratic advocates of a mass-production economy, it did not disappear but merely went underground, showing a remarkable resurgence since the 1970s. Especially strong in western Europe, “flexible specialization,” or “small firm networks,” provide a contemporary living model of what Michael Albert has aptly characterized as “Capitalism against Capitalism.””

45

Rich Puchalsky 03.23.13 at 8:23 pm

“Again — though the occurrence appears to be a low probability “

During a long period of European history you could have told everyone truthfully that “There’s a low probability that next year a third of us will die from the Black Death!” And… so? “Maybe in any year we’ll be wiped out by a large Earth-impacting asteroid!” Why is it that this is considered to be an adequate response to “Maybe we can think of a better kind of society”?

It’s only an adequate response if the kind of thinking about society being done would inevitably — or at least, be very likely to — bump against that catastrophic outcome. And no, heat spikes that crash agricultural crops worldwide are not being predicted by anyone that I know of as a scientific consequence of global warming. Even Luis (who again I largely agree with) seems to me to be using a bad example with his cited article about Thailand disk makers being flooded. OK, so they are raising their prices. This will cause people to start building factories to make these things elsewhere — it’s not like Thailand has some kind of critical natural resource. The idea that this disruption of the supply chain is going to last long enough or be disruptive enough to significantly impact the reduction in consumption of other consumer goods seems to me to be far-fetched.

46

Lee A. Arnold 03.23.13 at 9:30 pm

Rich Pulchalsky #45: “Why is it that this is considered to be an adequate response to “Maybe we can think of a better kind of society”?

“Why is it” indeed? What train of logic transforms my comment into a response to that question?

“heat spikes that crash agricultural crops worldwide are not being predicted by anyone that I know of as a scientific consequence of global warming”

That would be why I clearly wrote, “I also fear that climate scientists are not looking at another possible scenario”. The real condition of knowledge is: Nobody knows. One problem is that the year-to-year temperature record does not extend back very far, so if this sort of thing (i.e. short, spikey natural variation) can happen, particularly in periods of climate forcing, we do not have evidence about it, either way — and secondary evidence of huge temperature spikes (up or down) that crashed primary green plant production for a year or two would NOT necessarily show up in the fossil record (which has far less annual resolution), since a few of every species might survive in cryptic refugia. Go run that mouthful past any climate scientist you know, and see what they say. Or to put it another way, we know that general complex systems tend to increase the range and frequency of oscillation, under forcing. If nobody really knows why the following graph looks exactly the way it does, why can’t it suddenly spike far UPWARD, for a year or two?:
http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs_v3/Fig.A2.gif

47

Rich Puchalsky 03.24.13 at 1:30 am

Well, I’ve now read the full piece, and my reaction to it isn’t substantially different than my reaction was to the excerpt posted here. It pretty much comes down to this:

“We can say confidently that if we remain on our current course, our options will progressively narrow in certain major respects, and, within a century or somewhat more, “civilization” will become impossible over most, if not all, of the planet. “

Can we say that confidently? The problem is that scientists are not saying that. I don’t mean GOP propagandists — I mean reputable climate scientists, ecologists, and so on. Barnes’ encounter with Theda Skocpol, whose piece on cap-and-dividend is what everyone in my circles is talking about these days, is instructive:

“Afterward, I approached her and made a bit of my usual pitch. Her reaction was first to talk about some technical policy issues re cap-and-trade vrs tax-and-distribute-the-proceeds-universally, and second to say strongly and repeatedly that one absolutely must not talk apocalyptically. I said I agreed in terms of general public political discourse at this point, but tried to explain my argument about what we need to be doing “within the social sciences.” She couldn’t hear it.”

Maybe she couldn’t hear it because people aren’t ready to confront reality and so on. Or maybe she couldn’t hear it because it’s not true. We do not know confidently that this period is when we either save civilization or don’t. We certainly have a lot of good reasons to think that we urgently need to address these problems, but making it apocalyptic means that we prefer a scary story to the truth, just as the quietists prefer a calming story to the truth.

I have my own problems with Theda Skocpol’s analysis, and with whether cap-and-dividend can really break through the barriers in U.S. politics that cap-and-trade couldn’t breach. But (paraphrased) “social scientists have to man the barriers against upcoming fascistic Fortress America” is not exactly the alternative that I think we need. It’s a bit bemusing that Barnes finds the time to call Green Anarchists impractical, but thinks this kind of thing is.

At any rate. It’s good that Barnes pointed out that Wright’s book pretty much ignores these issues. Environmental issues are really the live points, right now, for anyone concerned with international utopia-building, because they are such aspects of abject failure of the state, of capitalism, and of the international order. But the tendency of apocalypticism is to treat them as if they essentially force a choice to go in a particular direction, unless you want civilization to fall. And that’s possible, but we really don’t know that.

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Bill Barnes 03.24.13 at 2:48 am

Rich,

You say that my piece boils down to: “We can say confidently that if we remain on our current course, our options will progressively narrow in certain major respects, and, within a century or somewhat more, “civilization” will become impossible over most, if not all, of the planet. “ And you respond: “Can we say that confidently? The problem is that scientists are not saying that.”

I don’t agree that my argument boils down to that. An equally important emphasis is the likelihood that, absent effective opposition, the wealthy and privileged of the world will pursue a social darwinist solution with virtually genocidal consequences. But in any case, I don’t know which “scientists” you are reading, but those I read do say that “if we remain on our current course” (meaning no substantial efforts to radically reduce GHG emissions), we will see 5-8 C degress of warming over the course of the second half of this century, “our options will progressively narrow in certain major respects,” and much of the world will suffer catastrophic consequences by the end of the century, possibly leading to massive ecological and societal destruction late in the century and early in the following century.

49

John Quiggin 03.24.13 at 3:05 am

@Bill: if you’re going to criticise utopian thinking on the basis that “it won’t actually happen”, there’s not much point in talking about specifics.

Why talk about environmental constraints, if you’re not going to say they are really binding. Instead, you’re relying on the obvious fact that neither Wright’s utopia nor mine is going to happen in the absence of political changes that currently seem highly unlikely.

50

The Raven 03.24.13 at 3:17 am

Rich Puchalsky@47: As far as I know, climate scientists agree that the world is on track for 6°C warming in this century, and that the consequences will be catastrophic for civilization. Who among climate scientists disagrees? (Aside from Lindzen, who also questions the statistical link between cigarettes and lung cancer.)

51

Bill Barnes 03.24.13 at 3:18 am

John: So that’s an argument for focusing on the political requirements of getting to a place where a halfway effective solution becomes within the range of possibility, of real near-term implementation at sufficient scale. If instead you say, “really this is not at all a difficult problem, we can solve it easily if only the idiots will get out of the way, in fact it’s so easy that we can solve it with one hand tied behind our backs” — that is so unrealistic, both scientifically and politically, as to be self-defeating.

52

John Quiggin 03.24.13 at 3:27 am

But if it isn’t a technically difficult problem, what else am I supposed to say? (granting that, to a greater or lesser extent, all of us are “the idiots” who need to get out of the way). If we could get a global carbon price of $50/tonne, rising gradually over time, and a bunch of sensible energy conservation measures of the type that have already been adopted in many places, we could stabilize global CO2 concentrations at 450 parts per million, which would give an even chance of 2 degrees of warming (not ideal, but probably not catastrophic). So $25/tonne, which we currently have in Australia (though probably not for long) would meet your criterion of “a halfway effective solution”, at least in arithmetic terms.

I’m advocating measures that are currently on the table, being debated in actual legislatures, and you’re saying this is “so unrealistic, both scientifically and politically, as to be self-defeating.” How so? If I were saying I expected these measures to be adopted any time soon, I agree that would be unrealistic. But what am I supposed to do here – join the Repubs and work for reform from within?

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The Raven 03.24.13 at 3:44 am

Hansen says that 350 ppm is the goal to aim at. Honestly, I’d trust that over the 450 ppm figure. I don’t think anyone’s ever won an argument over planetology with Hansen. He has an awfully good track record on predictions and he’s got there before everyone else in the field.

BTW, I recently read Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren and McKibben’s Eaarth with an eye to updating my basic knowledge on the subject. Distressing material; I wrote up some of my reactions.

54

Lee A. Arnold 03.24.13 at 3:49 am

I am surprised that people don’t know the information found in the book Six Degrees by Mark Lynas, a pop work with a long, serious science bibliography. At only One Degree (Centigrade hotter than today) in the 12th century (i.e. possibly the so-called Medieval warming period) the western half of the United States from the Dakotas onward was a rolling sand-dune desert stretching from Mexico up to Saskatchewan — it still exists in some areas, not far below the present surface — and tree rings from southern California up to the northwest reveal the occurrence of enormous forest fires. I sincerely doubt that the likely economic costs of mitigating global warming have been properly tallied by anyone, and I imagine that we can safely discard any claims to the contrary.

55

The Raven 03.24.13 at 3:54 am

An actual cite and abstract seems worth adding.

“Paleoclimate data show that climate sensitivity is ~3 deg-C for doubled CO2, including only fast feedback processes. Equilibrium sensitivity, including slower surface albedo feedbacks, is ~6 deg-C for doubled CO2 for the range of climate states between glacial conditions and ice-free Antarctica. Decreasing CO2 was the main cause of a cooling trend that began 50 million years ago, large scale glaciation occurring when CO2 fell to 450 +/- 100 ppm, a level that will be exceeded within decades, barring prompt policy changes. If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm. The largest uncertainty in the target arises from possible changes of non-CO2 forcings. An initial 350 ppm CO2 target may be achievable by phasing out coal use except where CO2 is captured and adopting agricultural and forestry practices that sequester carbon. If the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects.”—Hansen, J., M. Sato, P. Kharecha, D. Beerling, R. Berner, V. Masson-Delmotte, M. Pagani, M. Raymo, D. L. Royer, and J. C. Zachos. “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” arXiv:0804.1126 (April 7, 2008). doi:10.2174/1874282300802010217.

Google Scholar lists some 780 citations for this paper.

56

Bill Barnes 03.24.13 at 3:56 am

John, I repeat, we need to focus on the political requirements of getting to a place where a halfway effective solution becomes within the range of possibility, of real near-term implementation at sufficient scale – meaning politically possible. I think getting to that point is at least a 20 year struggle – if we start now. I’ve said quite a lot in the full piece, and in #44 above, sketching some ideas about that – about what you should be doing.

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The Raven 03.24.13 at 3:57 am

The Gnomes of Crooked Timber, it seems, are reviewing my post #53.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.24.13 at 3:57 am

Bill and The Raven, I’m reading the IPCC report, and those are the climate scientists who I mean. I also tend to trust the scientists who write on RealClimate. If you read those things, you’ll see plenty of very alarming stuff. Not much on the fall of civilization.

But if you describe it as ““if we remain on our current course” (meaning no substantial efforts to radically reduce GHG emissions), we will see 5-8 C degress of warming over the course of the second half of this century, “our options will progressively narrow in certain major respects,” and much of the world will suffer catastrophic consequences by the end of the century, possibly leading to massive ecological and societal destruction late in the century and early in the following century”, that’s pretty different, isn’t it? There’s a lot of work being done by “confidently” in the earlier quote, and “possibly” in this one.

What’s the real problem with this kind of thing? It’s not just some pettifogging over the difference between “confidently” and “possibly” — although that really is an important difference when you’re talking about the fall of civilization. It’s like what happened in this old Michael Tobis post. (Tobis is someone who you probably should be reading at his new blog/site). There’s been a Great Recession — and all of a sudden, it must be due to long-term resource limits, and we’re never going to get those jobs back. Well, we may never get them back, but that has nothing to do with, as far as I can see, long-term resource limits. The apocalypticism becomes a derailment. Work on anything else? Well, you shouldn’t, because civilization is going to fall. Pressure people to remember what Keynesianism is about? Why bother, resource constraints mean it’s hopeless. Think about utopia? But we need to survive, forget about all that. That would all be the right thing if it were true, but is it?

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Lee A. Arnold 03.24.13 at 3:59 am

To be clearer, I agree with John Quiggin: the costs of reducing global warming are not as great as advertised by the petrochemical lobby. But I think the costs of mitigating the effects of unreversed global warming may be astronomical.

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Lee A. Arnold 03.24.13 at 4:04 am

By the way, this is coming from someone who just finished the full Keynesian explanation for the Great Recession, in under four minutes, here it is:

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Bill Barnes 03.24.13 at 4:04 am

Rich: “The apocalypticism becomes a derailment. Work on anything else? Well, you shouldn’t, because civilization is going to fall. Pressure people to remember what Keynesianism is about? Why bother, resource constraints mean it’s hopeless. Think about utopia? But we need to survive, forget about all that.”

But my whole argument is just the opposite of such fatalism – you persistantly ignore the course of action that I actually advocate.

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John Quiggin 03.24.13 at 4:13 am

@Bill I agree with you on the need for a strategy, but let’s get the facts right first. You say

While it is not true that we are close to having – at least in the lab – the clean/green technology we need, and all that is lacking is the will to fund full development and deployment

but in fact this is broadly true, even without the “in the lab” qualification. We have renewable electricity sources, effectively unlimited in quantity, at a cost only modestly higher than coal or gas. We can replace oil with electricity in most transport applications (electric cars and trains. Best practice energy-efficient technologies for most purposes use less than half the average energy of what is actually deployed. And so on.

This doesn’t mean we should maintain our existing consumption patterns, simply replacing existing energy sources with renewables. That would be silly even on our existing economic model, which is clearly failing to deliver much in the way of happiness anyway. But, we ought to be clear about what our choices are, rather than invoking resource constraints as a way of shutting down the discussion, or imposing a preferred solution.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.24.13 at 4:34 am

“But my whole argument is just the opposite of such fatalism – you persistantly ignore the course of action that I actually advocate.”

I do? Let me look back at your long piece again. Here’s what I see:

Give up on thinking about utopia:
“At this point, we simply can’t afford the distraction of indulging in wishful theorizing about unreal utopias”

Give up on democratic socialism:
“One bottom line: The viable maturation and authentic living-up-to-avowed-ideals of “middle-class democratic capitalism,” and/or the radical transcendence of “capitalism” and realization of a viable and authentic “democratic socialism,” might each have been hundred-year “real utopias” (at least for half the planet) circa 1945-1965. But neither is any longer – given what humanity did, and failed to do, over the second half of the 20th century”

Give up on talking about anything else:
“But we need to put this issue on the front burner almost everywhere, almost all the time, and for the duration. “

Don’t work on anything else or the Nazis win (Godwinning in original):
“It will be as if every “Good German,” long uncomfortable with the rise of Naziism but remaining apolitical, had been dramatically confronted with the reality of the Holocaust from its very inception. Right now, we still have a chance to avert this fate, by dedicating ourselves over the next two decades to assembling the building blocks necessary to forestall or defeat the evolution of the United States toward a fascistic Fortress America.”

So what should people do?
“It is, rather, a call for a broad Green popular front against the coming neo-fascism and/or social darwinism. “

OK. What does that mean?
“But the immediate goal I’m talking about is not orchestrating this kind of rapid coalescence of a larger social movement, but rather the mobilization of progressive professionals for this kind of political work within their own professions and institutions, in the educating, training, advising of students and younger colleagues, and the policy intellectuals who consult with them, so that over the next 15-20 years, as many as possible will come to be on the same page re refusing to follow, work for or with, vote for, accept as colleagues, the advocates of the Fortress America response to climate-disasters-reaching- crisis-proportions – insisting that an alternative response be constructed.”

Um.. OK? That’s a kind of vanguardism, I guess. Feel free to give it a try: I’m not a “professional” in the sense you seem to mean, so I’ll leave it to you. Anything more about the Green popular front?

“We need something close to 100 years of sustained non-economistic, producerist Green Social Democracy – starting no more than 20 years from now. In Wright’s terms, what I’m arguing for is a symbiotic, class-compromise strategy that seeks to expand and defend the space for interstitial tactics, while fighting for a radical break with high-modernist and neo-fascist tendencies within “capitalism.””

That really seems to be the only part of the piece that advocates a course of action for anyone but the vanguard. And it’s awfully vague, and lacks the focus of the rest. I really think that my characterization of the piece as saying “we need to survive, forget about anything else” is pretty accurate.

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Bill Barnes 03.24.13 at 4:57 am

John,

There is already enough carbon in long-term residence in the atmosphere to cause us terrible problems for a long time, and we will soon have added enough more to possibly take us past tipping points. We are not close to CCS technology that can operate efficiently and effectively at the necessary scale to deal with this, nor, so far as I know are we close to technology that could do the same re water issues. It’s my impression that in lots of other areas there remain great uncertainties about how technologies currently being piloted might be deployable and operable at scale.

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John Quiggin 03.24.13 at 5:05 am

I agree on CCS, but you need to update your impressions if you think wind and solar PV are “currently being piloted”.

The uncertainties about whether they “might be deployable and operable at scale” have been resolved fairly directly, by deploying and operating them at scale (100 GW of solar PV and more than that for wind ( for comparison, the total installed base of nuclear is about 400 GW, though with a higher capacity factor). These numbers are growing rapidly, and there is no obvious technical constraint. We are down to second-order problems, like how to integrate these technologies into grids and pricing structures designed for coal and nuclear.

Overall, a lot of your argument reads as if it is a restatement of positions formed a decade or so ago. There’s a lot of new data to take into account here.

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Bill Barnes 03.24.13 at 5:06 am

Well Rich, it appears to me that you’re determined to read me that way no matter what I write — there’s certainly lots of contrary stuff in my #44 above — and, I don’t know how old you are of what experience you have of real vanguardism (mine is from the U.S. in the 1960s and Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s and 90s), but your use of the term here is highly inappropriate.

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Alan 03.24.13 at 5:11 am

Many of these discussions of Utopias resemble proposals to re-decorate a suite on the Titanic.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.24.13 at 5:16 am

JQ: “The uncertainties about whether they “might be deployable and operable at scale” have been resolved fairly directly, by deploying and operating them at scale”

Yes. There seems to be an up-to-date knowledge of dangers, but not of actually existing technology.

I think that one of the recent tipping points in the U.S. wasn’t Hurricane Sandy hitting the East Coast, it was the minor embarrassment of the right-wing media over having said that Germany was succeeding with solar panels where the U.S. wasn’t because they were a country that had so much sun.

Just because the U.S. is frozen by the right wing — the same right wing with at least 30% highly committed popular support that’s going to firmly prevent us from having a broad Green popular front, in my opinion — doesn’t mean that all countries are. Those countries are going to do better than we are as renewable power becomes cheaper and fossil fuels become more expensive. Eventually people are going to realize that we’re on a path towards irrelevance and that we’re buying all our cutting-edge energy technology from elsewhere. And then we’ll either change, or we will become irrelevant, and the planet wins either way.

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Bill Barnes 03.24.13 at 5:17 am

John, no I wasn’t talking about solar and wind, as you know since you and I have talked in the past about the great success of Germany in taking solar to scale. If you recall, we also talked about some of the difficulties involved in retrofitting entire urban cores, and transmission infrastructure problems + technological problems with nuclear. And generating electricity is not the only big technological issue. At any rate, I don’t think disagreement about the exact current state and near-term prospects of helpful technology is the main issue between us.

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John Quiggin 03.24.13 at 5:35 am

LFC @43 Certainly, I’m talking about changes over decades, rather than years, in the case of things like urban residence patterns and physical structures like houses. But, these things do change. For example, there have been no new shopping malls built in the US since 2006 and casual observation suggests that quite a few existing ones are becoming derelict. So, trips to the mall aren’t a fixed way of life.

As regards houses, they are durable, but they don’t last for ever, particularly if people don’t want to live where they are located. Look at what happened in small towns in rural America, and later to manufacturing towns in the Midwest. Processes of decline can be managed well or badly, but they happen regardless.

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The Raven 03.24.13 at 6:09 am

Rich Puchalsky@58: Who, specifically? I don’t know any scientist who seriously believes that the current world political order would survive a 6°C warming, even if we discount Hansen’s concerns with tipping points. The IPCC 4th Assessment is five years old and changes are coming fast—or are you reading the leaked draft of the 5th Assessment?

I think perhaps you are being misled by two things: the measured language physical scientists use and the exceptional caution that most climate scientists must use in their speech and writing on climate change. Every word is being read by hostile critics who will not hesitate to destroy their careers if they see an opportunity. Hansen is one of the eminences of the field, in his 70s and secure in his position; he can speak as he wishes. This is true of very few climate scientists.

Perhaps a third thing: none of the NASA scientists who contribute to RealClimate are social scientists, political scientists, or historians. I reviewed the lead authors of the North American section of IPCC AR4 WG2: “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” and found the only social scientists to be economists. They are not equipped to make assessments of political impacts or historical outcomes and not likely to do so outside of their fields.

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bad Jim 03.24.13 at 9:56 am

To twist and borrow a line, nil desperandum, y’all, and put your feet up. The world is going to go to hell in your lifetime (if not mine), but that doesn’t absolve you of having to make the best of what you’ve got. Even if you have to resort to geoengineering, you’ll still have to move to a sustainable technology, even if by that point you’re choking and gasping and crawling on your knees.

The problem is that doing anything about it in the U.S. is if anything less likely than doing anything about guns. Toyota released a new version of the RAV 4 and the reviewer groused about the loss of the 6-cylinder version. Consumers want more power! The Very Serious People deem debt and deficit reduction preemptively redemptive and everything else is off the table.

Our governments are not going to get around to doing anything about saving ourselves very soon. We’ve got no place else to go, though.

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Chris Bertram 03.24.13 at 12:17 pm

Thanks for this contribution Bill, I have a lot of sympathy with your argument here. (I dropped out of the symposium myself, because I found I didn’t have enough positive to say.) Just a query then to you and John about CCS and other geoengineering solutions. Tim Harford suggested in his FT column yesterday that solar radiation management is “absurdly cheap” (though with dangerously unforseeable consequences). Is that right. If it is, and things get sticky, then it is predictable that powerful nations will start to use it (for good or ill). See
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/89772b46-91bd-11e2-b4c9-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2ONdVaNrN

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Watson Ladd 03.24.13 at 12:29 pm

I’m deeply confused by this argument. The world in 1917 was significantly poorer then today, yet that didn’t stop Lenin and others from envisioning a social world of abundance. (Certainly Marx could) As for the question of small-scale production, one could imagine a return to the world of Adam Smith only if we agree to forget everything we know about making the world a better place for humanity. The advent of the industrial revolution changes the face of capitalism. Small-scale producers with skilled labor are integrated into the largest concentrations of capital: the high-carbon steel a knifemaker shapes came from NuCore like all other steel.

A world without mass production is a poorer world, without many essential technologies.

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LFC 03.24.13 at 12:30 pm

JQ@70

there have been no new shopping malls built in the US since 2006
I didn’t know that — good.

casual observation suggests that quite a few existing ones are becoming derelict
Purely anecdotal — in the general area where I live, I know of one mall-complex that I think is slated to close in the next year or two; however, the one that’s a few minutes away has been expanding. (defensive note: I drive considerably less than the median inhabitant here. fwiw)

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Rich Puchalsky 03.24.13 at 1:12 pm

“Well Rich, it appears to me that you’re determined to read me that way no matter what I write — there’s certainly lots of contrary stuff in my #44 above”

Then I suggest that you put more of what’s in comment #44 into your piece. You mentioned that you were still revising it.

Not that, frankly, I really like what’s in comment #44 any better. It appears to be a mixture of hairshirt social sanction:

“What we need then is a larger narrative with the potential to legitimize radical departure from the status quo to wider audiences, including renunciation of aspirations to affluence and the moral ostracism of those who insist on indulgence in material luxury.”

And nostalgia (no matter how much spiked with “a major dose of cosmopolitanism”):

“We now need to revive aspects of the popular political culture of petty bourgeois civic republicanism that valued community, solidarity, moral economy, meaningful work, self-management, and democratic citizenship over economistic individualism, material affluence, and private consumerism.”

I don’t think that’s either desirable or workable — any more workable than going up to fellow professionals at conferences and trying to get them to join into the new retraining of the young / shaming of the evilthinkers within the social sciences that your main piece talks about. It’s basically “Why does Al Gore fly on helicopters so much? He must be a hypocrite about global warming” seen from a slightly different angle.

The fact is that doing something about global warming relies on doing something about major infrastructure, which is something that individuals really don’t control. The vast majority of people in the U.S. presently have to drive to work whether they want to or not — so it’s not a moralistic problem of individuals wanting affluence. The problem is that our power plants run on the wrong things. Making it into contest of social sanctions means that you’re setting yourself up for a fight that I see no sign that you can possibly win, as opposed to one that’ s going to be cheaper to do than not even within our current system.

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Anarcissie 03.24.13 at 2:07 pm

@71: ‘…They are not equipped to make assessments of political impacts or historical outcomes and not likely to do so outside of their fields. …’

I am surprised to hear that any of the social sciences has reached the point of being accurately predictive, especially about long-term developments. I think NASA and other people interested (scientifically) in climate are having a hard enough time dealing with the purely physical complexities of the planet. It is true they could hire social scientists — and artists and shamans and so on — but I doubt if it would make things any clearer for them.

It seems to me a greater appreciation of our ignorance might be in order.

@72: It seems to me that elites are mainly concerned with preserving and extending their power in the present, which probably uses up almost all of their attention and energy, since they know that if they fail to do this others will quickly take their place. This has been my experience of business and mainstream, Main Street politics. For American elites, gun rights – gun control and climate change disputes are mainly a way of setting the lower orders against one another — divide et impera — and thus continuing to prevail in the class war. If I am correct the only constructive step outside of tending one’s heat-raddled garden will be some sort of interstitial, subversive utopianism which decreases the power of the elites. The apocalyptic-vanguardist approach seems doomed to failure because it erects yet another elite to deal with the existing elite; see above for the result. Besides depressing everybody.

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Bill Barnes 03.24.13 at 2:55 pm

Chris #73: Re geoengineering, via Nils Gilman, : gu.com/p/3ejgm/tw . Has anybody seen Clive Hamilton’s new book Earthmasters: the dawn of the age of climate engineering? John Q, I imagine you must be acquainted with Hamilton? How about asking him to chime in here?

Chris B, sorry you decided not be part of this – I was looking forward to your contribution — did you see my email?

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 03.24.13 at 2:58 pm

With regard to utopian thought and imagination of the traditional sort, it should be said, with William Galston in Justice and the Human Good (1980), that
“Utopias are images of ideal communities; utopian thought tries to make explicit and to justify the principles on the basis of which communities are said to be ideal. [….] [T]he philosophical importance of utopias rests on utopian thought, although the practical effect of a utopia may be quite independent of its philosophic merits [….] Utopian thought performs three related political functions. First, it guides our deliberation, whether in devising courses of action or in choosing among exogenously defined alternatives with which we are confronted. Second, it justifies our actions; the grounds of action are reasons that others ought to accept and—given openness and the freedom to reflect—can be led to accept. Third, it serves as the basis for the evaluation of existing institutions and practices.

Utopian thought attempts to specify and justify the principles of a comprehensively good political order. Typically, the goodness of that order rests on the desirability of the way of life enjoyed by the individuals within it; less frequently, its merits rely on organic features that cannot be reduced to individuals. Whatever their basis, the principles of the political good share certain general features:

•First, utopian principles are in their intention universally valid, temporally and geographically.
•Second, the idea of the good order arises out of our experience but does not mirror it in any simple way and is not circumscribed by it. Imagination may combine elements of experience into a new totality that has never existed; reason, seeking to reconcile the contradictions of experience, may transmute its elements.
•Third, utopias exist in speech; they are ‘cities of words.’ This does not mean that they cannot exist but only that they need not ever. This ‘counterfactuality’ of utopia in no way impedes its evaluative function.
•Fourth, utopian principles may come to be realized in history, and it may be possible to point to real forces pushing in that direction. But our approval of a utopia is not logically linked to the claim that history is bringing us closer to it or that we can identify an existing basis for the transformative actions that would bring it into being. Conversely, history cannot by itself validate principles. The movement of history (if it is a meaningful totality in any sense at all) may be from the most desirable to the less; the proverbial dustbin may contain much of enduring worth.
•Fifth, although not confined to actual existence, the practical intention of utopia requires that it be constrained by possibility. Utopia is realistic in that it assumes human and material preconditions that are neither logically nor empirically impossible, even though their simultaneous co-presence may be both unlikely and largely beyond human control to effect.
•Sixth, although utopia is a guide for action, it is not in any simple sense a program of action. In nearly all cases, important human or material preconditions for good politics will be lacking. Political practice consists in striving for the best results achievable in particular circumstances. The relation between the ideal and the best achievable is not deductive. [….]

Thus, the incompleteness of utopia, far from constituting a criticism of it, is inherent in precisely the features that give it evaluative force. As has been recognized at least since Aristotle, the gap between utopian principles and specific strategic/tactical programs can be bridged only through an inquiry different in kind and content from that leading to the principles themselves. If so, the demand that utopian thought contain within itself the conditions of its actualization leads to a sterile hybrid that is neither an adequate basis for rational evaluation nor an accurate analysis of existing conditions.”

It seems Wright is being accused of providing us with something like “a sterile hybrid” insofar as his “real utopias” are caught betwixt and between traditional utopian thought and “specific strategic/tactical programs” that will get us out of out of the global environmental mess we’re in: climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion, and their epidemiological, social, economic and political consequences.” In essence, Wright is charged with not taking to heart or clearly understanding the true gravity and urgency of the environmental crisis, unlike, say, a Derrick Jensen, on the one hand, or a John Bellamy Foster, on the other or, say, Robert E. Goodin, Robyn Eckersley, or Partha Dasgupta: hence the problem with the “real” part of the equation. Moreover, as a “realistic” utopia, it appears ill-suited to present political realities, or so a Tony Judt would argue (as in Ill Fares the Land, 2010), wherein the best we can hope for is a renewed appreciation of the historic achievements of social democracy and an incrementalist struggle within the constraints of a “social democracy of fear” (of course even large-scale changes in social structure can only be introduced gradually), rather some distance, to put it mildly, from utopian hope, either traditional or “realistic.”

Indeed, if social revolutions depend on the thwarting of a hearty if not volatile combination of realized and rising expectations, then our time and place is hardly ripe for according sufficient let alone widespread consideration to the products of leisurely exercises or contemplative thinking characteristic of idealistic political philosophy and utopian musings, perhaps as well to the far more modest ambitions of “realistic utopias,” for we can barely hold on to the political and economic gains in social welfare and well-being that came with the welfare State, be it social democratic, corporatist, or even stingy liberal variety. A geo-political climate of neo-liberal austerity gives credence to dystopian scenarios that chasten and humble any utopian desires in the affluent parts of the world, at least as long as those in “global South” (after Vijay Prashad, not a strictly geographic designation) are still waiting to be seated at the table of abundance and opportunity.

While clear conceptions of the sundry criteria of human fulfillment: social justice, equality, solidarity, individual freedom, well-being, happiness and the like remain relevant, the socio-economic and political power of the capitalist juggernaut under the dark cloud of the environmental crisis still sets the terms and conditions of our political hopes and fears, our political strategies and programs, the remaining residues of utopian imagination residing in Promethean (high-)technological society. At the very least, we can still ask, with Tolstoy (‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’), and later Rawls and others: how do we more wisely and justly allocate that which is scarce. And that question is perhaps best asked sans the assumptions of the zero-sum games associated with the logic of scarcity and competition and framed within the parameters of ontological plenty (in the words of a former teacher: ‘the unwritten logic of the psychology, the ethics and morality, the mysticism and philosophy of plenty’). I think it’s the unknown parameters of ontological plenty that suffice to justify the critical and evaluative exercises that are intrinsic to utopian thought (assuming both that ‘the consequences of utopias cannot be conclusively established’ and that ‘only small-minded persons have imagined that the dreams and visions of men and women necessarily turn into nightmares’) and even the consideration of “realistic utopias” which may, like actual utopias, give birth to or materialize something unanticipated but no less worthwhile for all that. We need not become prisoners of our images of the ideal, be it utopian or realistic. And sincere contemplation of that ideal need not detract us from a simultaneous engagement in a politics minimally defined by the constraints of reasonableness, feasibility, and urgency.

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Bill Barnes 03.24.13 at 3:03 pm

Blurb on Clive Hamilton’s new book:

What if there were a magic bullet to fix our ailing planet? What if it meant seizing control of Earth’s climate? Clive Hamilton investigates the huge risks of reaching for desperate measures to save the planet, explains the science accessibly and uncovers the worrying motives of those promoting them.

‘As we collectively contemplate upping the ante on the same arrogant logic that created the climate crisis, we could ask for no wiser nor more trustworthy guide than Clive Hamilton. A dazzling, multilayered exploration of the strange and terrifying world of geoengineering.’ – Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine

While Washington, London and Canberra fiddle, the planet burns. It has become painfully clear that the big democracies won’t take the hard decisions to halt climate change. Climate scientists now expect the worst, and they’re considering a response which sounds like science fiction: climate engineering.

This means large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s climate using grand technological interventions, like spraying sulphur compounds into the upper atmosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the planet, or transforming the chemistry of the world’s oceans so they soak up more carbon. The potential risks are enormous: disrupting the food chain, damaging the ozone layer, the loss of monsoon rains in Asia – the list goes on. It is messing with nature on a scale we’ve never before seen, and it’s attracting a flood of interest from scientists, venture capitalists and oil companies.

We have reached the end of the epoch of climate stability that allowed human civilisation to flourish, and the end of the era of ‘progress’. Like an angry beast woken from a long slumber, climate instability is dangerous and resists efforts to control it. In his characteristically lucid and passionate style, Clive Hamilton spells out the implications for all of us.

‘I am in awe of what Clive Hamilton has done in Earthmasters.’ – James Gustave Speth, author of Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment

——————————————————————————–

One of Australia’s leading thinkers, Clive Hamilton is author of the bestsellers Requiem for a Species, Affluenza and Growth Fetish. He is Vice-Chancellor’s Chair and Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 03.24.13 at 3:06 pm

Erratum (leaving aside several other typos): “And that question is perhaps best asked sans the assumptions of the zero-sum games associated with the logic of scarcity competition and best framed within the parameters of ontological plenty….”

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Tim Worstall 03.24.13 at 3:27 pm

@74 “Small-scale producers with skilled labor are integrated into the largest concentrations of capital: the high-carbon steel a knifemaker shapes came from NuCore like all other steel.”

Very off thread, but one of the great things about Nucor is actually how darn green the company is. They only make recycled steel. Which, I guess, makes the point not all that off thread. And Nucor is also low capital as compared with people like US Steel etc who run blast furnaces. It’s one of these little oddities: it’s amazing how green parts of the metals industry are. The amount of recycling that takes place. We would argue that a steel company who only ever reprocesses scrap is “green” wouldn’t we? In the same way that recycling plastics or glass is “green”?

The OP itself keeps talking about “resource depletion”. And I can’t see that there’s as much of that about as seems necessary to support the argument being made.

I can see two resources that are being exhausted, the ability of the atmosphere to absorb CO2 and fisheries. The second we know how to cure even if no one’s really doing very much about it. The first we are well on the way to sorting out, as JQ points out. I’m actually rather more optimistic than JQ on solar for example. At some point in the not too distant future (I would bet on 10-20 years) solar will be grid compatible everywhere, not just in the few remote locations that it is now. Partly this is because I’m just an optimist but also because I’m involved in one end of the industry, the metals that go into making all these sorts of technologies. We can see what people are talking about needing to make stuff in the next few years. There’s already people looking around for the extra Ga, Ge and In that will be needed to make multi-junction solar cells (some 2x to 3x more efficient than current Cd/Te or silicon). And the material needed is out there: there absolutely isn’t a shortage of the minerals required to make such technologies.

In the specific metal that I deal with most often the largest demand is currently from wind turbines. Adding just a little bit to the aluminium making up the blades means you can run them in higher wind speeds: thus increasing the amount of ‘leccie you can get from any particular size of installation.

I see, from my worm’s eye view of the industry, that these non-fossil fuel generation systems are going to become ever more efficient and thus cheaper. So I am, as I say, more optimistic than JQ on how we might or will deal with climate change (I still think a carbon tax should be used to help it all along though).

But I also have a much larger problem with all the cries of “resource depletion”. We’re told often enough that we’re running out of metals and minerals. Jeremy Grantham is just the latest in a long line of people telling us it’s all going to run out. His bugbear being potassium and phosphorous for fertilisers.

Yet every time I try to follow up these predictions of imminent doom I find the prognosticators are making the same mistake. Every time. They look at mineral reserves and tell us that they’re going to run out in a few decades. At which point absolutely everyone in mining shouts “Well, yes, of course!”. For mineral reserves are, as a useful definition, those minerals that we have prepped up to use in the next few decades. That we’re going to use up what we’ve prepared to use up isn’t quite the shocking finding people seem to think it is.

The important question is whether there’s more out there that we can prep up. Which is what is called mineral resources and yes, there’s lots. In the case of Grantham’s fertilisers reserves are 30-60 years, resources (ie, known deposits of the same sort of rock we’re currently mining) are 7,000-13,000 years’ worth. This isn’t, I would submit, an immediate problem nor would we really call it “resource depletion”. And that 2.5% of the lithosphere is potassium indicates that we’re not going to have a problem in 13,000 years’ time either.

So before I am convinced that “resource depletion” is going to mean we’ve got to change society in any radical sense I’d rather like to see the proof that we’ve actually got resource depletion. For as I say, in my particular field, minerals, we’re not seeing any sign of it whatsoever.

Just as an example of how badly these claims are calculated. New Scientist ran some research back in 2007 claiming that hafnium was going to run out next year, in 2014. Their definition of how much hafnium there was available was the couple of thousand tonnes in the US DoD strategic reserve. The world uses a few hundred tonnes of Hf a year and thus it’s going to run out soon. They completely missed that there’s 20,000 tonnes of Hf a year in the zirconia we already use. We don’t bother to extract it because no one wants to use it. But there’s plenty of it about if anyone was actually interested in using it.

That hafnium story is repeated for all metals extracted as by-products too. The technical definition of reserves usually means that there are no reserves of them at all. Which doesn’t mean there are no resources of them. Only that they don’t meet the technical definition of reserves (to be a reserve it must be possible to extract, at a profit, using current technologies and prices. If you get something as a by-product then you’ll not have a reserve because if you go mining just for that element you’ll not make a profit. Strange but true).

Apologies for being a bit detailed on this: but I would want to have a great deal more evidence of resource depletion before I agreed that it was a problem. Simply because when I investigate, in my field, such claims of resource depletion they just turn out to be untrue. We’re absolutely using up mineral reserves. But that’s because mineral reserves are defined as what we’re about to use up.

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Bill Barnes 03.24.13 at 3:44 pm

Tim: As I say in the OP, the most important resource depletion issue is “safe” water, meaning “water free of dangerous microbes, chemical toxins, and concentrations of minerals deleterious to human, animal, plant metabolism” — including, and in particular, underground aquifers and the oceans. There are other “resources” as to which there are very definite limits as to what can be safely and efficiently accessed, and extracted from its natural state, under current technology.

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Luis 03.24.13 at 3:49 pm

By the way, for those who want something a little less handwavy on the carbon problem, the Princeton wedges approach is quite interesting, both as an analytical approach and to help judge the scale of the political/social problem.

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William Timberman 03.24.13 at 4:20 pm

I’d like to ask JQ and others who advance the thesis that both the technological and political means of reversing the course of global warming already exist, and could be easily deployed if we had the will to do it a question: Doesn’t the technology of hydraulic fracturing, as applied most notably in the Bakken shale formation of North Dakota alter your calculus significantly?

If the predictions of the enthusiasts are to be believed, exploitation of this one oil reservoir alone could increase U.S. proven oil reserves from 20 some-odd billion barrels of oil to as much as 400 billion barrels, all of it seemingly light sweet crude — cheap to get at, and cheap to refine. In ten years, these folks say, the U.S. is likely to surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer. And then, of course, there’s the upcoming decision on the northern half of the Keystone XL pipeline, which despite the present temporizing by President Obama, looks a cinch to be approved.

Up to now, the leave-it-in-the-ground advocates had the advantage of pointing out that easy oil was a thing of the past, and had at least a chance of convincing the public, if not the pig sty in Washington, that the mess of Alberta tar sands exploitation, the Deepwater Horizon blowout, and the playing out of Shell’s recent farce in the Arctic were all reasons to be circumspect about the future of fossil fuel development. There was also some evidence that the fossil fuel industry itself was having second thoughts, much as the nuclear industry before it, about its return on investment from these colossal money sinks.

Now all we hear (Bill McKibben aside) is that Happy Days are Here Again. (In Arizona, where I live, the price of natural gas delivered to residential furnaces has declined more than 40% in five years. This winter I was pleasantly surprised at the difference myself, even though I know the price we’re all paying for the personal windfall that fracking has bestowed on us.) Just when we were all thrilled to read little gems like Bloomberg’s report that even unsubsidized wind power was already cheaper than coal in Australia, we read that Germany, threatened by a consumer revolt seemingly engineered by the energy industry, is reducing government subsidies to renewable energy, and France, currently up a creek economically, now seems poised to re-certify its end-of-life nuclear plants in perpetuity, regardless of how little it can afford to invest in maintaing and upgrading them.

The depressing reality that shale deposits like the Bakken exist in places other than the U.S., and that fracking technology is a cat already out of the bag, seem to me to be real game-changers, and not in a good way. What do you think?

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Rich Puchalsky 03.24.13 at 5:04 pm

“Doesn’t the technology of hydraulic fracturing, as applied most notably in the Bakken shale formation of North Dakota alter your calculus significantly?”

It doesn’t alter the calculus of whether the technological means of reversing the course of global warming already exist. Those means either already exist or are already being invested in heavily enough so that they’re on the point of existing. It may well alter the political means, in that convincing people to give up on cheap fuel is a lot harder than convincing them to give up on expensive fuel. Although I don’t believe in “the predictions of the enthusiasts” in this case, it still might happen.

But getting people to give up on fuel that looks cheap but that has available substitutes and a very high social cost comes under the heading of “if we had the will to do it”. About which all I can say is that it certainly isn’t guaranteed. We did succeed with the Montreal Protocol, as a sort of smaller test case.

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Tim Worstall 03.24.13 at 5:32 pm

““Doesn’t the technology of hydraulic fracturing, as applied most notably in the Bakken shale formation of North Dakota alter your calculus significantly?”

It doesn’t alter the calculus of whether the technological means of reversing the course of global warming already exist. Those means either already exist or are already being invested in heavily enough so that they’re on the point of existing.”

Fracking changes the price of adopting the new (and better?) technologies, not the ability to do so. And I’m assuming that the prices of solar etc are going to continue to decline sufficiently that they’ll cover this new gap too. But a carbon tax would help too.

88

Tim Worstall 03.24.13 at 5:36 pm

“the most important resource depletion issue is “safe” water, meaning “water free of dangerous microbes, chemical toxins, and concentrations of minerals deleterious to human, animal, plant metabolism” — including, and in particular, underground aquifers and the oceans.”

Surface water is remarkably cleaner than it used to be: especially with reference to microbes. So I can’t see that that is getting worse. Aquifers are getting depleted, yes, which is bad, but I’m not sure any are being polluted. That arsenic thing in Bangladesh for example that aquifer has always been so polluted. Fertiliser run off is indeed a problem but I’m not sure there are any others with the oceans (except fish, which I’ve already mentioned).

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hix 03.24.13 at 6:16 pm

The promised land of energy policy – Germany, looks very undesirable when one has to live there. Renewable energy subsidy regimes are designed in a way that make them largely subsidies for owners of large suburban homes and farmers. The price has to be paid by a regressive tax on private electricty consumption. It is always nice to make up conspiracy theories about big electricity companies to explain every little pushback against such insanity. On the factual front, big electricity companies do pretty bad, while the receipants of arround 0,5% gdp (getting more and those are contractual commitments for 20 years) in “renewable” electricty subsidies do pretty good. Effects on environmental damage are maybe a tenth of what could be achieved by spending the same amounth of money in a sane way.

A large chunk of the subsdies go towards burning plants , which has an outright negative environmental impact. The biggest chunk goes towards rooftop solar installations, which were only made attractive investments thanks to subsidies up to 54 cent per kw/h. The newest fad is off shore wind, which receives 15 cent per kw/h in direct subsidies + at least another 2 cent for net connection. At the same time, money for highly efficient subsidies for home renovations that reduce heating energy use could not be found and coal mining still receives over 2 billlion in subsidies.

If one wants to “take solar to scale”, subsidicing rootop installations in Germany early into the process is sure not the way to go. Instead of spending far above 100 billion Euro on that, one could have spent 1 billion subsidicing panel production in China (with nationalism in the calcualtion, maybe 4 billion on r&d and solar machinery production, so the Chinese get cheap german equipment).

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William Timberman 03.24.13 at 6:57 pm

Hix, I appreciate the input from someone who’s already living the dream, so to speak. Isn’t it true, though, that support for the rate structures which finance the subsidy — i.e. that place the majority of the burden on residential and other small-scale consumers — is at least in part a strategic move on the part of the energy companies to push back against the Energiewende, which disrupts their hitherto favored investment policies?

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Bill Barnes 03.24.13 at 7:30 pm

Tim, #88: “Surface water is remarkably cleaner than it used to be: especially with reference to microbes. So I can’t see that that is getting worse. Aquifers are getting depleted, yes, which is bad, but I’m not sure any are being polluted. That arsenic thing in Bangladesh for example that aquifer has always been so polluted. Fertiliser run off is indeed a problem but I’m not sure there are any others with the oceans (except fish, which I’ve already mentioned).”

I don’t know where you live, but what you’re saying is at best half-true in much of the U.S. – unless the comparison is with particular periods of temporary high pollution between about 30 and about 120 years ago. And in much of the rest of the world it’s much worse. If any of us has our blood tested, it will be found to be full of dozens to hundreds of man-made chemicals of unknown or problematic effect (particularly endocrine disruption), many of which we get from the water we drink and the water involved in the manufacturing of stuff we consume or put on our skin. In the “less developed world” millions are sickened and die every year as the result of water-born disease. In places that depend on disappearing glaciers for potable water (particularly Bolivia at the moment), big problems are beginning or are in the offing. Major aquifers in the U.S. have been largely depleated, and the prospect is for sustained drought from the plains down through Texas and through the SouthWest. The science on the increasing warming and acidification of the oceans due to increasing CO2 absorption is grim, and not just for fish. Since the sea level of the oceans is rising, and will continue to do so at an increasing rate, this acidified salt water is invading coastal fresh water aquifers everywhere. There’s lots of science about all this stuff – and probably a lot more that I’ve never come across – do we have any professionals in such areas reading this?

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Watson Ladd 03.24.13 at 7:58 pm

Bill, IANAB (I am not a biologist, rather a mathematician) but water recycling is very mature technology. Furthermore, water-borne diseases are the result of primitive, low-impact, chlorine-free living: chlorination of drinking water prevents epidemics.

Fundamentally the issues of water depletion are about the cost of the water sources that we can use: any sort of puddle can be turned into drinking water by boiling or reverse osmosis. The question is one of energy cost. Arguing about people unable to afford this ignores the social structures that leave them unable to deploy the already existing technological resources we have.

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Bill Barnes 03.24.13 at 8:25 pm

Watson, from what I’ve seen of your commentary on CT, it’s clear that you and I live on different planets. But if you can put together a team to come up with a cheap, clean, low-energy method/technology for turning acidified salt water into drinking water at large scale, you are guaranteed at least one Noble Prize. You’ve got my best wishes, but I’ll have to bet against you.

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hix 03.24.13 at 9:37 pm

Quite the contrary, shifting the costs towards poor people with no lobby through a regressive tax is what made the EEG possible in the first place. Big energy companies have always been the target of conpiracy campaigns in the German green movement. “Local small scale” production was touted as a somehow supirior alternative. That is largely code for, i want lots of money for my rooftop solar installation on my oversiced house or farm or my small powerplant burning plants . There is no good reason for preferential threatment of such roof installations over large field systems which are much cheaper and there is also no good reason for preferential threatment of solar over wind. Just like there is no good reason for preferential threatment of “green” energy production over energy conversion in transport and heating application.

If energy intense companies would have to pay the EEG, they would move abroad, this is no empty threat. There is not that much left between private consumers/small business and those energy intense ones that is extempt for no good reason. Taxing those is fair enough, but it would not matter much. Big electricty companies have no reason to care either way.

Big energy companies are only indirectly affected by the EEG to a limited extend. What irks them more is that nuclear powerplants are shut down. The long distance networks, which have to pay for the grid connection of offshore wind were sold to foreign companies, which are not doing very well in the inner German lobby politics game. Electricity distribution is decently regulated. Big energy companies are only in conflict with the different renewable lobbies when it comes to energy production which is olgopolistic, not well regulated and very profitable. Renweable subsidies create some loss indirectly, by reducing the amount of profitable conventional generation. That is ultimatly small change compared to the money “green” producers receive in subsidies.

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Watson Ladd 03.24.13 at 11:03 pm

Who needs low energy when you can just dump seawater into trenches in the desert, cover the trenches, and collect the condensate? Yeah, it is slow and inefficient, but the sun is always there. Now can I have my Nobel Prize?

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lupita 03.24.13 at 11:33 pm

If the rich societies and their powerful, quasi-democratic states do not devote
themselves to heading off the full realization of the approaching catastrophes, by
helping to grow coping capacity all over the less developed world, things are
going to get very nasty.

Things will get nasty, not because the poor do not cope, on their own or with the help of the rich, but because the rich do not cut GHG emissions.

Furthermore, in your world-wide drought, cyclone, and famine scenario, I do not see why it would be more devastating to societies in Central America, with their varieties of low-yield but highly resistant corn developed over millennia, high birth rates, and easily rebuilt huts than to the US or Europe with their delicate, high-maintenance Monsanto seeds, low birth rates, and billions in infrastructure. Why is it that you envision a rich north not doing much coping that money cannot alleviate, other than some “good German” guilt pangs in the future, while the south does all the coping and dying? As far as radical change goes, it is the rich countries that have to reorganize their societies rather than the poor. The way of life most threatened is that of rich societies, not poor ones.

Then there is the fact that much of the GHG emissions in the rich countries cannot be possible without imported resources from the global south. Why would less developed countries continue to supply the north with resources just to cope with climate change instead of using them for their own development? The Berlin Mandate already did more for the poor than 20 years of progressive academics discussing matters and imaginings of future guilt ever will.

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Peter T 03.24.13 at 11:37 pm

Re JQs and Tim Worstall’s comments:

The limits concept is not really about shortages (something most people don’t get). It’s either about flow rates (peak oil), or extraction costs (fracking, deep water drilling), or overloading some natural support system (nitrogen re-cycling, water, ecological webs). Or, worse, some horrible combinations where one feeds into another – as fracking impacts the water cycle. Our present systems of measurement are not well adapted to these sorts of problems, either because the impacts are not quantified in money terms, or because we count the extra efforts involved as a gain, not a loss.

Hanson and others identified a few of these in the paper referenced here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetary_boundaries

The cost of moving to renewable energy may be quite modest. But what does it look like when one adds up the costs of re-engineering transport, houses, fishing practices, farming practices and so on? In total, quite a lot. And in each area we would be moving to a lower level of wants. This is not to give up, but to highlight that there is no solution where we all get richer and greener. We get greener and poorer, or….

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Bill Barnes 03.24.13 at 11:57 pm

Peter T: “The cost of moving to renewable energy may be quite modest. But what does it look like when one adds up the costs of re-engineering transport, houses, fishing practices, farming practices and so on? In total, quite a lot. And in each area we would be moving to a lower level of wants. This is not to give up, but to highlight that there is no solution where we all get richer and greener. We get greener and poorer, or….”

Exactly, particularly re major older urban cores and their infrastructures and the land-use patterns surrounding them (to make way for huge solar/wind farms and transmission infrastructure) — as a lawyer I can tell you that trying to do this in the U.S. will take decades and huge expenses to work its way through the courts under anything like the current property law regime and court system.

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Bruce Wilder 03.25.13 at 12:28 am

Watson Ladd @ 92: The question is one of energy cost.

Of course, it all comes down to “energy cost” or the implications of entropy within the limits of the local system we call, earth. In some respects, it may be worthwhile to think in terms of such an analytic unity, where everything flows from a single god problem, manifest is many ways and places. And, at other times, it may be worthwhile to think of a coincidence of problems, reinforcing each other in a cascade, within a complex network of networks: accumulation of GHG leading to global warming and ocean acidification, peak oil leading to escalating energy cost in the production of fossil fuels, overpopulation putting pressure on natural systems and wild reserves, global warming causing climate change and accelerating the extinction of species and the collapse of the ecologies, warming and acidification adding to problems of overfishing and various kinds of pollution accelerating ocean ecologies collapse, warming melting glaciers eliminating natural reservoirs of fresh water, warming causing ocean level rise, the multiplication of single-element systemic threats due to advancing technology and their acceleration due to the increased global scale of the 1st world economy (analogues to lead in gasoline or freon in hairspray bottles and refrigerators, both of which were due to the mistaken judgment of a single genius chemist; now, we’ve got a hundred such genius chemists to destroy civilization, and a time to civilization-destroying market-scale 50 years shorter). So, yeah, it’s all a problem of “energy cost”, but it is also bee colony collapse disorder and methane hydrates thawing in the arctic and 50-year storms that happen three times every decade and a global financial crisis that never ends, tripping over Russian oligarchs in (Greek) Cyprus, and billionaires, who want Canadian tar sands to keep up the profitability of their Texas refineries through the next half-decade, and don’t care about the ground water in Alberta or Nebraska, or the fate of humanity 50 years from now.

Anyway, there’s an app for Seneca’s Cliff:
http://download.cnet.com/Seneca-s-Cliff/3000-20415_4-75711850.html
;-)

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Bill Barnes 03.25.13 at 12:43 am

Lupita, #96: You stopped reading too soon — see below. Cuba and Costa Rica have coping capacity and the capacity to sustain national unity, the rest of Central America does not (well, I know nothing about Belize). I spent 20 years traveling frequently to and working in Nicaragua and El Salvador (1986-2006). The Sandinismo of the early 1980s had impressive coping capacity, as did the FMLN and associated center-left of the mid 1980s to mid 1990s. That’s all long gone, leaving very little of value behind – though perhaps a legacy that might be revitalized in the face of what’s coming.

What we have seen over recent decades in major cities throughout the Third World will be multiplied many times over at an accelerating rate throughout much of the Global South. If the “surplus populations” of the burgeoning refugee camps and slum metropolises of that world are ever to be productively and humanely (not to mention “democratically”) integrated into their societies, those societies will have to be radically reorganized so as to make such integration possible, consistent with environmental exigencies and limits, and resource endowments. Such will require radically different modes of modernization and globalization, requiring in turn the institutionalization of very different priorities in the advanced world in order to create permissive conditions and real assistance. The idea that something much less radical will do, that some version of neo-liberal capitalist “democracy,” a creature of the actually existing world system but capable of coping with the on-coming cascade of crises,
might ever be built in the more densely populated and resource-poor countries, is
pure pipedream.

Fullscale, drawn-out catastrophe … will hit first and hardest in areas with very large concentrations of very poor people within the territories of weak and failing states. The result will be numerous instances of mass starvation, epidemic disease, civil conflict, and large on-going refugee flows toward better-off regions. Disaster relief efforts, long-since stretched to the breaking point, will be overwhelmed and collapse. The governments of the better off regions in the path of the refugee flows (and of epidemics of deadly diseases) will turn increasingly to militarily response. These developments will get people’s sustained attention. (Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos is very good on this).

[Absent an effective counter-movement] the result of the realization of that threat will be defacto genocide over much of the planet, in defense of Fortress America and an allied archipelago of regional and local fortresses of privilege in other parts of the world.

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LFC 03.25.13 at 12:50 am

Re 97/98: worth recalling extent of absolute/extreme poverty.

World Bank: As of 2008, 22.4% of world pop., or 1.289 billion people, were living on less than $1.25/day (’05 int’l prices).
http://povertydata.worldbank.org/poverty/home/

Poverty headcount ratio by region ($1.25/day and $2.00/day):
http://data.worldbank.org/topic/poverty

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Bruce Wilder 03.25.13 at 12:52 am

Peter T: “The cost of moving to renewable energy may be quite modest. But what does it look like when one adds up the costs of re-engineering transport, houses, fishing practices, farming practices and so on?”

The incremental costs may be termed “modest”, but everything has to change — the scale of undertaking is beyond anything humans have ever done, and as you observe, “in each area we would be moving to a lower level of wants”. We can talk endlessly about “alternative” energy sources, but we’re giving up what has been the most convenient, dense and “cheap” energy source, and the most important “alternative” is to use much less energy in total — half if we’re real lucky, but, maybe, a fifth of what we use now, if we’re not so lucky. This, too, can be done. We “waste” a lot of energy, so the reduction in economic welfare doesn’t need to be anywhere near proportional to energy use. More than half the U.S. economy is devoted to salesmanship, much of it annoying or downright fraudulent; we could all work a lot less, and this could be a good thing, if not exactly utopia.

In his paper, Barnes anticipates an authoritarian response and vision, he refers to as, “Fortress America”. Given the foresight with which the powers-that-be approached the GFC (and, yes, I mean that straight — there was a lot of preparation, including the appointment of Bernanke, revisions to bankruptcy law, as well as the deregulation that made it all possible), I think it quite possible that the darkest forces will be way ahead of the naifs. My own recommendation would be to not resist the “Fortress America” rhetoric and frameworks as they come, but to embrace and extend. The Left only has a small chance of achieving power, and only achieves power when it is able to mobilize a large part of those to whom populist appeals are directed, the right-wing authoritarian followers. The Progressives had the Populists, and that made all the difference. FDR and the liberal New Deal had the urban ethnics and the trade unionists and the populist white supremacists in the South. Authoritarianism can strengthen the state, and that power can be turned to public purposes; localization can strengthen democracy. And, though global systems of control and cooperation will be necessary, workable, suitably decentralized ones will only be built after the current monoculture global system lies broken on the scrapheap.

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LFC 03.25.13 at 12:59 am

@B Barnes: Just downloaded yr full paper. Planning to read it.

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Bruce Wilder 03.25.13 at 1:17 am

Fullscale, drawn-out catastrophe … will hit first and hardest in areas with very large concentrations of very poor people within the territories of weak and failing states. The result will be numerous instances of mass starvation, epidemic disease, civil conflict, and large on-going refugee flows toward better-off regions. Disaster relief efforts, long-since stretched to the breaking point, will be overwhelmed and collapse. The governments of the better off regions in the path of the refugee flows (and of epidemics of deadly diseases) will turn increasingly to militarily response. These developments will get people’s sustained attention.

I suspect it will be a bit more of a slow motion apocalypse, than a two-hour Hollywood extravaganza or even five episode mini-series. Surprisingly few people I knew picked up on the role of neoliberal policy in creating the near-famine that triggered the Arab Spring. They still think it’s all aspiration for democracy and fundamentalist religious types duking it out with corrupt establishments.

There’s only one military worthy of the name, and that’s the highly energy intensive American one, which looks to be on the verge of a politically inspired implosion. And, someone is bound to notice its impotence, after 11 years in Afganistan; oh wait, Wolf Blitzer noticed.

People have noticed that vehicle miles travelled and gasoline consumption have plateaued in the U.S.; not many of them have put that together with a macro-economic policy of perpetual recession and high unemployment, let alone the new politics of peak oil and exporting (how stupid is that!?) petroleum products.

Things are seldom the way a Hollywood screenwriter would depict them, and not just because scriptwriters lack imagination. It is just hard to predict how masses of people will digest what happens, into narratives they tell each other. This is the backside of “expectations”. And, though the apocalypse is underway, and though its enormous scale makes up somewhat for its glacial pace in grabbing attention, we’re just at the beginning of making up the core mythic narratives, phenomena this central and all-encompassing demand.

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Bill Barnes 03.25.13 at 1:47 am

Bruce, Please check out my #44 above. Here’s the way that paper (co-authored by the intellectual historian Nils Gilman) ends:

Weak Spots in the Actually-Existing Hegemony, and the Future Possibility of Green Social Democracy

This brings us back to the question of whether or not there is any realistic prospect of overcoming the political obstacles that we have argued are so formidable as to render the programs of both radical and mainstream environmentalists unrealistic. Why should our suggested political project fare any better? Why should mixing environmentalism and producer republicanism produce a viable, powerful hybrid, much less a magic bullet? Why should a new Green Social Democracy, struggling to establish itself under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, do better in remaking failing systems than warlord entrepreneurs and neo-fascists do in exploiting system breakdown? Is it at all realistic to think we might create a path whereby we eventually find ourselves with modest Portlands out-numbering Puntlands and Pyongyangs?
Hope arises from two fundamental and interactive facts: First, none of the political economies and political cultures of our world are monolithic or completely controlled by those wedded to the status quo, but rather shot through with tensions, ambiguities, contradictions, even in societies (such as the United States) where dominant groups have been quite successful in legitimating themselves and institutionalizing their hegemony. In the modern world, middle classes and “publics” are really quite highly variegated, both within and across societies, and full of ambivalence. As system failures and breakdowns accumulate in the climate-changed and crisis-ridden world that is coming, along with ever-more credible warnings of worse to come, the existing high-modernist narrative will become less and less convincing and its hegemony harder and harder to sustain. Second, the necessary political culture is already (still) there, deep in the American grain, substantially defeated and co-opted, but never eliminated by the hegemonic, hyper-materialistic, high modernist version of the “American way of life.” Elements of producerist republican political culture are in fact being asserted in current public debate, including in right-wing constituencies, whose knee-jerk opposition to environmentalism may be amenable to neutralization by a green producerist republicanism that invokes new versions of familiar old values.
We recognize that realization of our hopes on any grand (i.e., sufficient) scale is unlikely, but the foregoing is the best strategy we can think of, and in any case, as Mike Davis says, “either we fight for ‘impossible’ solutions…or become ourselves complicit in a de facto triage of humanity” and “‘a moral failure on a scale unparalleled in history.’” Unlike much radical green thinking, our analysis is not predicated on semi-religious or New Age hopes for a spiritual revolution, but, rather is firmly rooted in class and social analysis. We know that, in order to succeed at a global scale, a broad cross-class coalition must be developed based on the conviction that continuing commitment to high-modernist affluence makes one complicit in a civilizational and human catastrophe of unfathonable proportions. Is it possible for the global middle and lower middle classes, and their existing stocks of human capital and social capital, in the most advanced societies and the largest societies in particular, to metamorphosize into being part of the solution instead of part of the problem? The human potential is there, but is it realizable in the actually-existing circumstances and within the available time-frame? It may well be that we cannot retool (technologically, institutionally, culturally, psychologically) fast enough, given the momentum and inertia of the old ways and the power of those who blindly insist on carrying those old ways forward. We cannot know, but what we can say is that it looks like the next couple decades will be our last chance to build the political and human-capital base that might make the required conversion possible.
Even short of this ultimate global political goal, we believe that promoting the sort of producerist republican political economy outlined here is worth pursuing locally. Such a shift will increase local social and political resilience in the face of oncoming climate-change induced catastrophes, and hold open the possibility that here and there we will end up closer to Portland than to Puntland or Pyongyang, and able to hold off the warlords and the fascists (at least if they have already bitten off as much as they can afford to try to chew before getting to us) – thus preserving decent models for the future.

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Lee A. Arnold 03.25.13 at 1:47 am

Terrific, quite relevant interview with a surprising proponent of alternative energy:

http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/12812

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Matt 03.25.13 at 2:15 am

According to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, as of 2011 the USA was responsible for 16% of world CO2 emissions. The EU emitted 11%. China emitted 29%, more than the USA and EU combined. Chinese per-capita emissions reached EU levels. The gap has only grown since then. I don’t think that citizens of the USA and EU should give up on reduced emissions, but the story of the atmosphere this century is not really in their hands any more.

The 21st century has seen 2 near-miracles of energy, in my opinion. The first was wind power becoming cheaper than new-build fossil fuel power in large areas of the world. The second was photovoltaic power becoming cheaper than petroleum power in large areas of the world. I am almost with JQ when he says that we can leave fossil fuels behind; I think we’re still waiting for the third miracle, affordable energy storage not dependent on special geography.

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The Raven 03.25.13 at 4:33 am

Tim Worstall@72: “I can see two resources that are being exhausted, the ability of the atmosphere to absorb CO2 and fisheries.”

Hansen et al. think that we’ve already exhausted the ability of the earth—not just the atmosphere—to absorb CO2. They give 350ppm of atmospheric CO2 as a safe limit and we’ve already blown past that.

109

lupita 03.25.13 at 5:45 am

Bill Barnes @ 100

You stopped reading too soon

Actually, I had read what you cut and pasted in your post, and I remain unconvinced a Tzontzil community in Chiapas is less likely to cope with climate change than a neighborhood in the Bronx. For starters, subsistence societies specialize in subsisting and have a glorious history of surviving all sorts of apocalyptic episodes, from conquest to epidemics, from marines to the IMF. The US, on the other hand, cannot even cope with the Kyoto Agreements. So what exactly do you mean by coping capacity, local social and political resilience?

Your scenario of 3rd world slums, civil war, and emigration to developed countries tempered by 1st world aid, ideas, and concept of sustainable modernity, is a narrative we have all heard before. According to you, the only prospect for indigenous communities is to disappear via emigration into a metropolitan slum to be subsequently integrated into a global Portland, that is, to survive by ceasing to be. Yet many of us are able to imagine, as the Zapatistas do, a world that fits many worlds, in this case, utopias.

110

Tim Worstall 03.25.13 at 10:36 am

@93

“Watson, from what I’ve seen of your commentary on CT, it’s clear that you and I live on different planets. But if you can put together a team to come up with a cheap, clean, low-energy method/technology for turning acidified salt water into drinking water at large scale, you are guaranteed at least one Noble Prize. You’ve got my best wishes, but I’ll have to bet against you.”

Interesting you say that for last week we had the announcement out of Lockheed that they’re got graphene working as a reverse osmosis filter. They claim a 100 fold reduction in energy requirements. Even allowing for exaggeration and accepting a 10 fold reduction that’s pretty good. Current costs are around 50 cents a cubic metre for reverse osmosis. Getting that down into the 5 cents to 0.5 cent per m3 range sounds pretty cheap to me. UK consumption is around 1,000 m3 a year per household (from memory, but it’s in that range). $5 to produce clean water for a household for a year? That sounds cheap doesn’t it?

111

Tim Worstall 03.25.13 at 10:47 am

@97

“Hanson and others identified a few of these in the paper referenced here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetary_boundaries

In which I find the following:

“The biogeochemist William Schlesinger thinks waiting until we near some suggested limit for nitrogen deposition and other pollutions will just permit us to continue to a point where it is too late. He says the boundary suggested for phosphorus is not sustainable, and would exhaust the known phosphorus reserves in less than 200 years.[39]”

That’s exactly what I’m complaining about above. “Phosphorous reserves” is simply the wrong number to be using when calculating how much phosphorous there is for us to use. I agree that if you do look at reserves then you get around 200 years of usage (or perhaps 60, depends on whether you take trend or flat future usage). But it’s simply the wrong number to be looking at. Resources is the better one and that’s out to thousands of years.

112

Tim Worstall 03.25.13 at 10:54 am

“Hansen et al. think that we’ve already exhausted the ability of the earth—not just the atmosphere—to absorb CO2. They give 350ppm of atmospheric CO2 as a safe limit and we’ve already blown past that.”

They do indeed say that. And a large number of climate scientists (no, real ones, not Heartland Inst. stuff) don’t agree with them. Estimates of climate sensitivity (see, say, James Annan) seem to be coming down….or perhaps the higher end of previous ranges is becoming less likely might be the way to put it. 1.8-3 seems to be the likely range these days. McKibben’s sort of “at 351 ppm we go into 8 oC meltdown*” is becoming an ever more extremist interpretation of the science.

*Entirely made up but that’s the sort of thing he does say isn’t it?

113

Tim Worstall 03.25.13 at 10:57 am

” I think we’re still waiting for the third miracle, affordable energy storage not dependent on special geography.”

Bingo. That is the main technical problem. My bet is that the solution will be fuel cells on a hydrogen cycle. But then I am betting exactly that given that such fuel cells are the sort of thing my major customers build. So take my hope with the appropriate amount of my talking my own desires.

114

Peter T 03.25.13 at 10:57 am

It may be worth thinking a bit more about how collapses actually happen. From a distance in space and time, they look fast and very messy, but in fact they are mostly slow and, at least initially, look a lot less like an apocalypse. Complex societies are many-layered machines, and the main response to prolonged stress is to shed complexity. Illustratively, Mayans mostly went from cities to towns and villages, Romans progressively lost the ability to transfer resources within the empire, and villas went from tied into large economic webs to being locally self-sufficient and so on.

The Western global trading system took one of these steps backwards from 1914 to 1975 – moving from a near universal gold standard and free trade to managed currencies, capital controls and greater degrees of national self-sufficiency (over the same period the internal arrangements of western states became more complex). Since then, the trading system has gone to new heights, but many state systems are showing clear signs of retreat – less able to invest in the new, and often struggling even to maintain what they previously built. JQ’s more money – measured by growth in GDP – does not seem to translate as before into better infrastructure, cheaper education and so on.

So rather than Bill Barnes scenario of wars and mass migration, I think we are first likely to see a a steady degradation in the ability of states to maintain the social and material fabric and quite often a retreat from globalism (not so much into fortresses as smaller, more locally focussed economies. The more marginal parts of the system will be left to decay – roads in Wisconsin, buildings in Detroit – or allowed to withdraw from the multilateral systems (some parts of Latin America seem to be charting this course), and it is in these areas that Bill’s alternatives have the best chance of taking root. At the end of this road are those communities -as lupita notes – who have long practice in surviving by avoiding complexity.

115

Rich Puchalsky 03.25.13 at 12:02 pm

“The Western global trading system took one of these steps backwards from 1914 to 1975 – moving from a near universal gold standard and free trade”

I’d be more sympathetic to the civilization-is-falling narrative if it didn’t do this kind of thing so much. This, for instance, is a prime example of “We need to get back to the good old days, before Keynesianism”, and its description of the gold standard as something that created a wonderful universal money that works better than managed money is just wrong.

And Matt and lupita are really bringing forward the problems with nostalgia for Atlantic “producerism”. Why do people assume that the U.S. is going to be that important in solving or reacting to any of these problems? Are people in China really going to be impressed with some kind of halfway around the world cultural tradition? Are the people in the mega-slums who we’re supposed to save going to have the most say in what’s happening to them, or us? Quoting lupita: “Your scenario of 3rd world slums, civil war, and emigration to developed countries tempered by 1st world aid, ideas, and concept of sustainable modernity, is a narrative we have all heard before.”

FInally, Hansen, and in general the search for the outlier paper. I respect him, but he’s one scientist. Here’s The Raven:

“Every word is being read by hostile critics who will not hesitate to destroy their careers if they see an opportunity. Hansen is one of the eminences of the field, in his 70s and secure in his position; he can speak as he wishes. This is true of very few climate scientists.”

This is very close to things that are true — the climate denialism / propaganda industry is real. But it’s not *that* powerful. In no other scientific field would anyone say “don’t listen to the consensus — listen to this one 70-something guy. He can speak out where the rest of the field has to watch their words to the point where they can’t.” That’s not how science works. Maybe it’s how science works in a global dystopia, but we’re not there. And every time someone else in this thread responds to “I read the IPCC reports” with “But have you seen this scary pop science book I read? It’s got a really serious bibliography” then sorry, but they’re not doing themselves any favors.

116

Barry 03.25.13 at 12:34 pm

Rich has a point here – climatologists *have* successfully fought the lying denialists, on the intellectual front (which is why I support an inquisition into freshwater macro, run by climatologists – and by ‘inquisition’ I mean Inquisition, with all that implies). They haven’t done as well on the propaganda front, but that’s not their core strength.

117

Richard Sandbrook 03.25.13 at 12:47 pm

Sadly, I think Berman is dead-on in his critique. It is remarkable how many studies of possible future worlds ignore entirely the looming environmental challenges that Berman acutely sketches. If anything, his critique is too optimistic in thinking we have 20 years in which to get our act together on environmental issues. Not only are carbon emissions increasing year by year, but the rate of increase is also growing. The sort of reductions in carbon emissions that could limit the average world temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius will require annual reductions of between 10-20 percent, beginning in 2020, according to reputable climate scientiests. How likely is that?

Regarding green social democracy, one needs to remember that the prime examples of social democratic movements in the global South, such as that in Brazil, are as pro-growth, pro-consumption as the center-right parties. Yet, without the cooperation of important countries like Brazil, we cannot hope to meet the needed limits on GHS emissions.

Humanity’s future depends, above all, on what happens to emission levels in China and India. How, realistically, can we envisage bringing these rapidly growing economies into a global pact on emissions abatement within a decade or so?

Beyond these immediate issues lies the central issue. It is clear that neoliberalism is incompatible with a program of deep and permanent cuts in carbon emissions, but can capitalism itself survive the move to a low-carbon future? If not, what is the alternative – bearing in mind that “socialist” regimes in the postwar era created even more environmental havoc than their capitalist opponents? That is the real starting point, it seems to me, for any discussion of our common future.

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Lee A. Arnold 03.25.13 at 2:00 pm

Rich Pulchasky “every time someone else in this thread responds to “I read the IPCC reports” with “But have you seen this scary pop science book I read? It’s got a really serious bibliography” then sorry, but they’re not doing themselves any favors.”

The IPCC is charged with predicting the degree of future climate change. It does not do much about reconstructing extended environmental consequences from the paleo evidence.

Here is the section of the serious biblio relevant to my comment:

Stine, S. (1994) “Extreme and Persistent Drought in California and Patagonia during Medieval Time,” NATURE 369: 546-9.

Swetnam, T. (1993) “Fire History and Climate Change in Giant Sequoia Groves,” SCIENCE 262: 885-9.

Laird, K. et.al. (1996) “Greater Drought Frequency and Intensity Before A.D. 1200 in the Northern Great Plains, U.S.A.,” NATURE 384: 552-4.

Meko, D. et al. (2007) “Medieval Drought in the Upper Colorado River Basin,” GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS 34: L10705.

Wolfe, S. et al. (2006) “Holocene Dune Activity and Environmental Change in the Prairie Parkland and Boreal Forest, Central Saskatchewan, Canada,” THE HOLOCENE 16.1: 17-29.

Mangan, J. et al. (2004) “Response of Nebraska Sand Hills Natural Vegetation to Drought, Fire, Grazing, and Functional Type Shifts as Simulated by the Century Model,” CLIMATIC CHANGE 63: 49-90

119

Lee A. Arnold 03.25.13 at 2:01 pm

And here are the paragraphs Mark Lynas constructs from it, in Six Degrees:

From Chapter 1, “One Degree” (i.e., only one degree Celsius hotter than present):

“…between A.D. 1000 and 1300…[when] the old trees in Walker River and Mono Lake were growing. Wildfires had raged in both national parks twice as frequently as before… The area we now call California had in medieval times been hit by a megadrought, lasting at different periods for several decades… …how geographically widespread was this event? Evidence from another lake, far away on the Great Plains of North Dakota… …scientists have now reconstructed long-term records…from old lake sediments. …before A.D. 1200, a series of epic droughts had swept the Great Plains…” (pp. 26-27)

“…the evidence is now overwhelming that what the western United States suffered during this [Medieval] period was not a short-term rainfall deficit but a full-scale mega-drought lasting many decades at least. …the [Colorado] river lost 15 percent of its water during a major drought during the mid-1100s. For 60 years at a time, the river saw nothing but low flows… …the remarkable coincidence of dates with evidence from New Mexico suggests that this was the very same drought that finished off the Chaco Canyon Indians.” (pp.28-29)

“…an immense system of sand dunes that spread across thousands of miles of the Great Plains, from Texas and Oklahoma in the south, right through Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, to as far north as the Canadian prairie states of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. These sand dune systems are currently “stabilized”: by a protective layer of vegtetation, so not even the strongest winds can shift them. But during the Medieval Warm Period…these deserts came alive… People who remember the 1930’s Dust bowl think they have seen the worst drought nature can offer… In a world that is less than a degree warmer overall, the western United States could once again be plagued by perennial droughts… Although heavier irrigation might stave off the worst for a while, many of the largest aquifers of fossil water are already overexploited…” (pp.29-30)

120

Lee A. Arnold 03.25.13 at 2:06 pm

Rich Pulchasky: “every time someone else in this thread responds to “I read the IPCC reports” with “But have you seen this scary pop science book I read? It’s got a really serious bibliography” then sorry, but they’re not doing themselves any favors.”

We could also add since Lynas’ book was written that Russia continues to have bad wheat yields and the U.S. has had a couple of years showing Dust Bowl-like conditions. While even the IPCC says we’re are just at the beginnings of change.

BUT LET”S DO OURSELVES A FAVOR, AND AVOID THINKING ABOUT IT.

121

Watson Ladd 03.25.13 at 2:13 pm

And a pile of rubble will withstand an earthquake just fine. Lupita, no one wants to be a third world peasant. Most of the diseases I have suffered from in my life would be death sentences in those places. I imagine you are female: consider carefully the impact of modern medicine on childbirth and maternal mortality before saying that being a peasant is wonderful.

Rich, the peasants of the third world are not that different from us in their aspirations. They want houses with running water, bathrooms, clean food, medical care, a job, an education for their children, etc.

122

Lee A. Arnold 03.25.13 at 2:14 pm

I will add one more thing, then quit this thread. In his excellent recent book Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand writes about Six Degrees by Mark Lynas:

“Lynas succeeds where most others fail in making inescapably clear how increasingly inhospitable the world will be with each increase of global temperature from 1 degree to 6 degrees C. The book is a cure for an incrementalist approach to climate change. You don’t think “We can handle a 2-degree rise” after you learn what that will mean.”

Asa someone who once got Isaac Asimov’s autograph, I absolutely agree. Six Degrees one of the best pop science books of this era.

123

Rich Puchalsky 03.25.13 at 2:26 pm

“The IPCC is charged with predicting the degree of future climate change. It does not do much about reconstructing extended environmental consequences from the paleo evidence.”

Um… what?

“We could also add since Lynas’ book was written that Russia continues to have bad wheat yields and the U.S. has had a couple of years showing Dust Bowl-like conditions. While even the IPCC says we’re are just at the beginnings of change.”

There used to be a guy on sci.environment — i.e. on Usenet, long before blogs — who every year would pick out some favorable farming report from somewhere or some drop in a commodities price. You see, he’d announce, this shows that the concerns about resource limits are all wrong. The concepts of “what time scale are you looking at?”, “are you doing a statistical analysis that distinguishes between frequency of events and ‘oh wow look at this headline'”, and “did you notice that good years are often followed by bad years and vice versa” always seemed to be lost on him.

It’s really not much better when you’re doing this kind of thing so that you can yell at people for “avoid[ing] thinking about it.”

124

Bill Barnes 03.25.13 at 3:11 pm

On the issue of climate sensitivity to atmospheric CO2 loading, whether scientific predictions of recent years have been too low or too high, see last month’s discussion on the site SkepticalScience, stimulated by Andrew Revkin’s NYT column of Feb 4.

More generally, see my OP citations: Andrew Guzman, The Human Cost of Climate Change; P. & A Ehrlich, “Can a Collapse of Global Civilization Be Avoided?” Proceedings
of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, March 2013, V. 280, No. 1754. Jorgen Randers, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years.
and even more generally, if you haven’t read Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos, please do. It’s great.

125

Tim Worstall 03.25.13 at 3:37 pm

Given Mark Lynas’ rowback on other environmental issues I’m not sure how much weight I’d put on “Six Degrees”.

126

The Cardiff Kook 03.25.13 at 3:42 pm

I thought the current consensus was a 3 degree C increase in temperatures over the next century? At this rate, the net benefits would outweigh the costs for the next few generations.

Regardless, isn’t the real solution figuring out how to get this CO2 out of the atmosphere, and/or how to counteract it?

127

Lee A. Arnold 03.25.13 at 3:50 pm

Rich Puchalsky: “Um… what?”

Go read the chapter yourself. There are NO reconstructions of environmental consequences. The “environment” is about ecology, the plants and animals, water tables, soil conditions, food webs, agriculture, you know, the stuff that doesn’t do us any favors.

128

Lee A. Arnold 03.25.13 at 3:51 pm

Tim Worstall, You might have linked to some of those rowbacks, your other efforts are usually so spotless.

129

Tim Worstall 03.25.13 at 3:52 pm

“P. & A Ehrlich, “Can a Collapse of Global Civilization Be Avoided?” Proceedings
of the Royal Society,”

Referring us to Ehrlich when Ehrlich has been a prime candidate for misunderstanding the very point that I am making, that reserves are not a suitable method of measuring resource availability, doesn’t actually help all that much.

130

Tim Worstall 03.25.13 at 3:54 pm

@127

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/mar/09/mark-lynas-truth-treachery-gm

“Once the crowd’s mannered applause had died down, he began. “My lords, ladies and gentlemen. I want to start with some apologies, which I believe are most appropriate to this audience. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I’m also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment. As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.”

Fifty minutes later, the audience reacted with what he describes as “shocked applause”. His website, on which he’d posted the text of his speech, crashed, unable to cope with the demand. He watched, on Twitter, as reaction spread around the world: Portugal, Spain, Chile, Argentina… Millions, he thinks, have now seen it. “It was a complete demolition, not just of anti-GMO but of the whole organic thing,” he says. “For a lot of people, it was an ‘Oh fuck’ moment. They realised they’d been lied to, at a very profound level, by the very people they’d trusted.” And what of his worst fear, that he wouldn’t have any friends left at all? “Well,” he smiles sadly. “That’s probably what happened.””

131

Lee A. Arnold 03.25.13 at 4:22 pm

#129 Tim now you aren’t making any sense. A person who retracts previous statements due to having found out better, thus respects the facts, is a true scientist. Please let us know when, how and what Lynas retracts in Six Degrees. There are now several dozen different “Climate and Global Change” (or however it’s called) centers at major universities all over world, all saying approximately the same thing about the dangers to social-ecological systems (which the IPCC is not I repeat NOT charged to study, unless that mission changes with the AR5,; though from the looks of the new draft, I’d say not.) Recent evidence pushes climate sensitivity UP, not down. And I’m not even an alarmist–I think we have time to do this. But we are running very late, the market system in particular will not save you, and the consequences will be severe, not fun.

132

Matt 03.25.13 at 4:55 pm

Regardless, isn’t the real solution figuring out how to get this CO2 out of the atmosphere, and/or how to counteract it?

There are two major consequences of increased atmospheric CO2 concentration: radiative forcing (making the atmosphere less transparent to some infrared radiation, thereby reducing the ability of Earth to shed heat to space) and oceanic acidification. Removing CO2 from the atmosphere counteracts both of these problems. There are also many proposals to increase Earth’s heat shedding capability that do nothing for oceanic acidification, such as producing reflective sulfate aerosols in the high atmosphere, painting rooftops white, and reducing “black carbon” particulate emissions from combustion processes.

Ocean acidification is dangerous to human interests primarily because it hurts the ability of shellfish and corals to construct their hard structures from calcium dissolved in water. As pH drops to more acid levels, it becomes harder for calciferous structures to form and endure in ocean water. An aside: the ocean is acidifying starting from an alkaline baseline. Even in extreme scenarios end-of-century ocean surface waters are still more alkaline than pure distilled water (pH 7). So it’s not like acidified ocean water will become dangerous to human skin or ship hulls, but it will become inhospitable to a lot of marine life that evolved in a more alkaline ocean.

Plant growth naturally removes CO2 from the air. When plants are metabolized the embedded carbon becomes CO2 again. One proposal to scrub the atmosphere is to plant a lot of fast-growing trees, and then either bury their contained carbon as charcoal or as CO2 in rock formations after fully burning the trees and recovering some energy from their combustion. Even fairly optimistic assessments of potential estimate that this could annually remove only about 3% to 10% of current annual human CO2 emissions. The draw-down would be much slower than the buildup.

In the long term, atmospheric CO2 concentrations are reduced by weathering of alkaline silicate rocks. Calcium and magnesium are slowly exchanged from rocks to produce silica and stable carbonates: CaSiO3 + CO2 -> SiO2 + CaCO3. The good news is that such rocks are extremely abundant, several orders of magnitude more than needed to scrub all historical human emissions. The bad news is that the process is naturally very slow; it takes something like 3000 years to dissolve a one-mm layer off of a basalt boulder.

It is possible to dramatically increase the speed of silicate weathering both by increasing the surface area of rocks and by putting them in environments where they erode faster. The fastest-eroding environment is warm, shallow ocean water that gets plenty of agitation from waves. Reducing basalt to sand-size particles and spreading them in warm near-shore areas could nearly reverse human emissions in a “really short” time, only a century or so. The absolute energy requirements would be enormous, but this is actually a fairly energy-efficient method to reduce CO2, certainly better than better-known proposals such as underground carbon capture and storage. The scale would be staggering, because human emissions have also been staggering. I once calculated that bringing the atmosphere back down to 300 ppm CO2 would require the equivalent of grinding the island of Kauai all the way down to the ocean floor.

133

Lee A. Arnold 03.25.13 at 5:16 pm

Tim Worstall #129: “reserves are not a suitable method of measuring resource availability”

Sorry I meant to quit this thread, but this needs to be qualified. “Reserves” is a rough indicator of requirements on energy density or intensity. Barring discoveries of new, easy deposits of a resource (e.g., oil or phosphorus), it seems to me that the state of “reserves” is a directional indicator of the energy intensity required to develop those resources. Directional: Will we need more energy to extract them, or less? For example, the cost of oil has nearly quadrupled, and this “supply shock” (though the word “shock” is usually used for the short-term Keynesian thing) is surely a main reason for the LONG-TERM economic slowdown because that cost goes into the rest of economic production, if and when it is oil-dependent, and of course it is almost ubiquitous. (This is a warning also found in the peak-oil arguments. This is also a point made by Jeremy Grantham in the remarkable interview linked above at #106. He also talks about the financial markets, so lots of people may be interested in that interview.) That higher price makes other forms of the resource to become price-available, for example shale oil. But it does not make those other forms energy-cheaper to produce, just price-available. This is an important distinction when we are talking about where the planet is going to be, environmentally, in 50 or 100 years. Because bringing shale oil through the Keystone pipeline (again, opposed — surprisingly — by Jeremy Grantham) could seem like a good stopgap measure to free-market ideologues, but may actually be actively detrimental in a “hysteresis” effect, because consuming the oil from the shale also releases carbon, while we have simultaneously lowered the future economic growth that will be necessary to deal with the mitigation of climate effects (or anything else).

I recommend the Jeremy Grantham interview for two additional reasons: 1) it is new, and it is intellectually coherent, and 2) it shows that some members of the top investment community (a.k.a plutocracy) are not as opposed to Greens as Bill Barnes might suppose. I am an alarmist, an apocalypticist — and I am also an optimist. I don’t think there is any other way to be.

134

Tim Worstall 03.25.13 at 5:21 pm

“Tim now you aren’t making any sense. A person who retracts previous statements due to having found out better, thus respects the facts, is a true scientist.”

Indeed so. Which is why I rather expect to see further walkbacks on some of the points Lynas made in 6 degrees.

135

Doug K 03.25.13 at 5:55 pm

Watson Ladd @92, “any sort of puddle can be turned into drinking water by boiling or reverse osmosis.”

Boiling doesn’t remove inorganic pollutants, for that you need distillation. Distillation doesn’t remove volatile organic compounds (benzene, etc) so a further purification method is required to get drinking water. Distillation is more expensive both in energy and in total costs than reverse osmosis, which is itself currently at a price where it’s not feasible except for areas where there are no alternatives – Saudi Arabia, W. Australia, California, etc. Also note for these places and many others like them there are no puddles available, it’s salt water only. Interior and high elevation locations require long-range transportation of water, which adds further to the costs.

Some data on actual costs can be found here:
http://www.watereuse.org/sites/default/files/u8/WateReuse_Desal_Cost_White_Paper.pdf

From both of these approaches demineralized acidid water is produced. There are health concerns around this, which suggest the costs of re-mineralizing and neutralizing the water needs to be added as well.

136

Matt 03.25.13 at 6:15 pm

According to the linked paper, it costs about 75 cents to produce 1000 liters of desalinated water from seawater with reverse osmosis. That’s daily drinking water for about 300 people; it would only cost about a dollar a year per person to provide drinking water from seawater.

But drinking is the lowest-consumption activity humans perform with water. In order of increasing consumption, there’s also food preparation, bathing and cleaning, and agriculture. Agriculture takes the lion’s share of fresh water. A kilogram of wheat takes about 1300 liters of water to produce; were that mostly sourced from desalination, it would triple the price of wheat.

137

Lee A. Arnold 03.25.13 at 6:22 pm

#134 — Tim, of course scientists should always do that. But I doubt your expectation that the correction of a few facts in Six Degrees will much change the story, by this point in time.

That is because there is another condition here which should be made explicit: We are dealing with a complex system (whether it is just the climate system, or the climate + social + ecological systems, which makes it even more complex). Complex systems are conceptualized by some sort of N-compartment model with lots of connections between the boxes or equation-terms. Certain consequences necessarily follow. The idea that the market will fix things is not one of them.

We all know that complex systems are inherently unpredictable, due to a set of very different problems in modelling, measuring, repeating experimental runs, verifying the results to the real world, etc. And even if we could get those things all right, we still have computational problems stopping definitive, deterministic predictions (the N-body problem) so the best we can do is run many computer simulations and state the collection of results statistically. Plus of course the philosophical problems that neither proofs nor disproofs of complex models are always revealing of anything true — in other words, Popperian falsification doesn’t necessarily apply. Everybody knows these things about complex systems, or ought to, and so all is well and good.

But there is DIFFERENT THING that we should know about complex systems, at the level of a meta-observation about them. This is an induction from observations of many different systems: wildlife, weather, Petri dish cultures, models running in silico, on and on: 1) they oscillate within statistical parameters; 2) occasionally they can shift to new regimes of oscillations, for reasons which are not always immediately clear (and sometimes may remain under dispute); and 3) most important for the present discussion, the probability of shifts to new regimes is accelerated in frequency and intensity, by external forcing. An example is a wildlife food web, which has certain, though imprecise and not entirely predictable, variations in the numbers of individuals in each species from year to year or season to season, and this may be shifted massively by the introduction of more predators or a new disease vector. External forcing. Similarly, we might expect that the climate, because it is a complex system, will suffer extra extremes from additional forcing of CO2.

We might expect it, but we wouldn’t know it, until evidence amounted that this might indeed be the case. That is all the certainty we are likely to get. In complex systems, it won’t be an open-and-shut, perfectly settled case, it will be a preponderance-of-evidence case. And if the evidence keeps appearing — of stuff happening now, of new discoveries of past paleo-catastrophes — then the importance of possible catastrophe gets bigger. The low probabilities of extreme catastrophes automatically become higher probabilities. It is why we run to the doctor once we start to feel sicker: the body is a partly-closed but complex system, too.

138

Rich Puchalsky 03.25.13 at 6:23 pm

“Tim now you aren’t making any sense. A person who retracts previous statements due to having found out better, thus respects the facts, is a true scientist.”

Except that, no, Lynas is not a scientist. Intellectual honesty, if that’s what this walkback is, is not something that only scientists have, and having it does not give you expertise in doing science.

139

The Raven 03.25.13 at 6:50 pm

“This is very close to things that are true — the climate denialism / propaganda industry is real. But it’s not *that* powerful.”

Seitz and an extractive resources industry lobby, and the Wall Street Journal tried to destroy Ben Santer’s scientific career. A lesser figure, or one with less fight in him, would have been driven out of the field. A few years later, the same was attempted with Michael Mann. And then there was the the computer break-in at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, a crime probably undertaken with an intent to discredit the institution where Santer did his doctoral work.

In what other academic field are such tactics deployed against researchers? Who hires criminals?

The IPCC 4AR is now five years old; it represents scientific consensus from some time earlier than that. In that time, we’ve seen Hansen’s predictions more and more realized. There’s a quote from Dr. C. Kutscher, an “alternative” energy researcher at NREL, on the back cover of Storms that I think has a lot of truth in it: “If you want to know the scientific consensus on global warming, read the reports by the IPCC. But if you want to know what the consensus will be ten years from now, read Jim Hansen’s work.”

This is a threadjack and I’m going to—no, perhaps two more things.

First, in many of the responses here, we are looking at small-c conservatism in action; the simple belief that all change is gradual and does not need dramatic response. There is a lesson here, if we can learn from it. A lot of people in this blog are political radicals, well, we need to be radical about this.

Second, there are many possible technical responses to global climate change that are not being given adequate attention. In a sane world, we would be funding research in these areas, instead of dragging our feet. Large scale solar energy production. Grid-scale solar energy storage. Even some forms of nuclear power.

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Lee A. Arnold 03.25.13 at 7:28 pm

Science, “Systematized knowledge derived from observation, study, and experimentation carried on in order to determine the nature or principles of what is being studied.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language)

It doesn’t say you have to be the one who does the observation and experimentation. Certainly Einstein did neither one. Of course Einstein could be categorized as a mathematical epistemologist. I would call Lynas a journalist and call his book a production of scholarship, but the science definition fits him, since we get a very good idea of the nature of the problem.

More broadly however, anyone who changes his views when the evidence changes is a good judge.

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LFC 03.25.13 at 7:58 pm

W. Ladd @121

Lupita, no one wants to be a third world peasant.

No one wants to be poor, or malnourished, or without access to safe water and sanitation. But the notion that no one wants to engage in farming (mainly for local consumption, say) is unsupported by any evidence of which I’m aware. The enormous rural-to-urban migration has no doubt several explanations, incl poor conditions of life in many rural areas in poorer countries, but that’s not the same as saying that no one wants to live in a rural setting if basic needs etc are met. The implication in yr comment that it’s impossible to deliver decent medical care in a rural setting is complete and utter nonsense and one of the most ludicrous things I have seen implied on CT in quite a while (and that’s saying something).

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Lee A. Arnold 03.25.13 at 9:04 pm

Bill bArnes, I have a question for you. You wrote, “The more aware I become of the huge and ever-proliferating array of thinkers, groups, organizations, community-development programs, etc, all over the world that are devoting themselves to working, discussing, publishing, blogging, etc, in the general area we’re talking about, the more impressed I am by their continuing fragmentation and lack of mutual engagement and reinforcement, lack of scaling-up, and by their failure to achieve a sustained, dramatic presence in the mainstream public sphere and in the upper echelons of the most powerful public and private organizations and institutions. This is ultimately a fundamental political failure.”

Here I think we may disagree. I think it is a fundamental conceptual (and rhetorical) failure. The political system could be made to respond. But the basic problem is, the Greens cannot explain to people in one-syllable words how their system will work, how the rich vested interests will be vanquished, and how the government stays out of your hair. How does a money system which isn’t private and individualistic work? I mean to say, the current plutocracy is born of market freedom — how do you plan to correct that, without onerous controls? Not saying it isn’t possible, just saying it hasn’t been explained. –The Keynesians can’t even explain themselves to the average clod!– Overall, increasing complexity is bollixing the propagation and comprehension of the public information on almost any subject. The world’s systems are getting more complex, and most voters cannot keep up with the explanations. So the low-information voter (which is almost all of them) substitutes trust in individuals as personalities, particularly ones who show a smiling face to the camera. Why should I vote for some apocalypticist who’s making lots of promises promises promises, when I can vote for an avuncular comfy-chair like Ronald Reagan? The voting systems are already there — it is not a political problem, it is a conceptual one. I don’t think the problem is money or interest groups either. Certainly they exist, but they could be circumvented. The problem is comprehension of the subject matter. And I’m not convinced that it is to be solved simply by better education, which I take as the default progressive solution. The whole system may be inherently too complex. But there may be new ways to handle more complexity. I just demonstrated one in the Keynesian video, linked above at #60. We may be able to accelerate comprehension by incorporating new degrees of freedom (e.g. visual motion) to make repeating meanings in standard grammars of new languages.
The Greens must get their explanations together. Ideas must come to a head, like a pimple.

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Bill Barnes 03.25.13 at 11:43 pm

Lee, please check my #44 and #105 above and add that into the later parts of my full OP. One of my main points is that once the shit begins to hit the fan bigtime and unremittingly, many more people will become open to education – the question is who will prevail in providing that education — those who will be arguing “America first” (or “white America first”) and keep out the barbarians, the rest of the world be damned — or people with a Green Social Democratic Internationalist Popular Front approach. “Educated professionals” are in fact a very large and institutionally widespread chunk of the adult population, not some elite or small group. We need to be conducting a Gramscian war of position now within and on the fringes of that population segment, in order to build the human capital necessary to conduct that larger educational war of position when the time comes.

And thanks for your steady contribution to this discussion. Don’t leave.

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Lee A. Arnold 03.26.13 at 1:16 am

Here again, I do not think that the question is who will prevail in providing that information. I think that the question is whether any information can be provided comprehensibly. Please point me toward, say, a 50- or 100-page statement by the Green Social Democratic Internationalist Popular Front that explains what is going on. Or make it 200-250 pages — around the length of Capitalism and Freedom, or The Road to Serfdom.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.26.13 at 1:55 am

“In what other academic field are such tactics deployed against researchers? Who hires criminals?”

Climate denialism takes most of its tactics from the tobacco industry, but it also takes from the kind of violence against environmentalists that Helvarg wrote about in _The War Against the Greens_. But, even so — all three of the high-profile campaigns that you write about (against Santer, Mann, and the CRU) were failures. That does not add up to a picture of everyone being scared off.

As for whether Hansen is giving us the consensus of ten years in the future, well, we’ll have to see ten years in the future. In the meantime, the whole meaning of consensus in the future means that it’s not consensus now. We’re back to “are you really confident that civilization is going to fall?” If you are, then you’re not confident on the basis of consensus science.

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Matt 03.26.13 at 2:00 am

Since this thread is dying down I’ll dump one more bit of numerical wonkery. Global primary energy use is about 16 or 17 terawatts. Nuclear and fossil fuels express primary energy as the production of heat, and then a heat engine is used to turn the heat into motion; electrical generators further transform motion into electricity. Most primary energy expended in vehicles and power plants is lost as heat rather than transformed to useful forms of energy like motion and electricity. The efficiency achievable increases as the difference between the “hot side” and “cold side” of the heat engine increases. Since we don’t control the temperature of the ambient environment, in practice this means running the hot side hotter. The practical upper limits are determined by the properties of materials, e.g. natural gas could be used to produce higher temperatures but would melt turbines.

The average US coal plant is about 32% efficient at thermal to electric conversion. Coal plants running at extreme temperatures and pressure can reach 45% or slightly above. Water moderated reactors, which make up nearly all commercial nuclear reactors, can only hope for 30-something percent efficiency, because they are not designed to handle water at extreme temperatures.

Hydroelectric, wind, tidal, and photovoltaic systems are non-thermal generators of electricity. They convert the kinetic energy of air and water, or the radiant energy of photons, into electricity without going through a heat engine. If an American coal plant produces 500 gigawatt hours of electricity, it probably used about 1500 gigawatt hours of primary thermal energy to do so. If the coal plant is replaced with wind, the 500 gigawatt hours of electricity is the whole story. The 1000 gigawatt hours of primary energy formerly wasted as heat just don’t appear.

If you’re fighting the rise of renewables, you can say “sure, wind power produced XX% of electricity, but only YY% of our total energy consumption.” Where YY is much smaller than XX. This neglects that about 2/3 of that total conventional primary energy production is is simply wasted as heat, and not applicable to non-thermal energy conversion.

There are exceptions: it is unlikely that passenger jets will be replaced with electric planes, for example. They need energy-dense chemical fuels. If you need to synthesize chemical fuels starting from renewable electricity, air, and water, the total energy requirement is higher than if you had started with fossil fuels. But in most cases, electricity can do more useful work than a formally energy-equivalent quantity of fossil fuel, so reducing primary energy use by a factor of 2 or 3 does not imply austerity.

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Bill Barnes 03.26.13 at 2:14 am

Lee: “Please point me toward, say, a 50- or 100-page statement by the Green Social Democratic Internationalist Popular Front that explains what is going on.”

There are many books and articles that in effect make some contribution in that direction. Hopefully there are many partial rough drafts of such a manifesto in the works, all over the world. We really need to be working on this, as THE envisioning real utopias project, with the hope of achieving such, and then generating an evolving educational curriculum based on it, over the next ten years.

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Peter T 03.26.13 at 3:38 am

Rich @115: I’d be more sympathetic to the civilization-is-falling narrative if it didn’t do this kind of thing so much. This, for instance, is a prime example of “We need to get back to the good old days, before Keynesianism”, and its description of the gold standard as something that created a wonderful universal money that works better than managed money is just wrong.

This is an exercise in reading what you want to read. No mention of the “good old days” at all. My comment was descriptive, not prescriptive. It happened that the level of integration of the world trading system reached by 1914 was unsustainable – it produced more strain and tension than could be managed. So it fell back into a somewhat simpler mode. Does Rich disagree?

The point of the illustration was that the current global system might well prove similarly impossible to sustain if subject to continual shocks. At which point devolution would be sensible as well as desirable, and smaller solutions work better – and the starting points would be on the margins.

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Tim Worstall 03.26.13 at 9:31 am

” “Reserves” is a rough indicator of requirements on energy density or intensity. “

No. Nothing like it at all. A mineral reserve is something that we have weighed, measured, drilled, proven that we can extract it using current technology, at current prices, and make a profit doing so. A lot of people are aware of the “make a profit” part and understand that when prices change so do reserves.

However, very few seem to grasp the implications of that “proven”. It costs a lot of money, many millions for even a small deposit, to “prove” reserves. Thus we all tend not to bother to spend that money unless we think that we’re going to dig those minerals up in some period of time that the time value of money makes reasonable.

You simply would not “prove” reserves if you had no intention of mining them for 50 or 100 years. Which is why reserves is a very bad method of estimating how much of anything can be used in the future. Because reserves is a measure which includes such problems. Resources is a better one. And when we use resources the “We’re about to run out of everything” story rather collapses.

“Barring discoveries of new, easy deposits of a resource (e.g., oil or phosphorus), it seems to me that the state of “reserves” is a directional indicator of the energy intensity required to develop those resources. “

Well, no, it isn’t. As above. As an example, think of the coltan (really, columbo tantalite) in the Congo. Yes, the child slavery, conflict, blood in your mobile stuff. This is extremely low energy to extract. That’s why it can be done with, quite literally, a bucket and spade (err, shovel, spades are used by farmers). They’re also not reserves: no one at all has spent the money to prove them.

As to Jeremy Grantham it is difficult to express quite how much I despise the man’s views. For he does know better.

He talks, interminably it seems, about potash and phosphate rock. Bewails the fact that reserves will run out in 30-60 years. When you look deeper you’ll see that he acknowledges the reserves/resources thing. Then says, yes, but we cannot see anyone trying to develop those resources into reserves. Woe for the planet therefore.

But if you went to Grantham the financier and said, well, Jeremy, I’ve the rights to these resources of potash and phosphate rock. Now I need the cash to “prove” the resources so as to turn them into reserves so I can raise the finance to mine them. What would Grantham’s response be? Rationally, it would be, well, we’ve 60 years of reserves so there’s no damn point in my giving you any money to prove more for, ooh, say 40 or 50 years, is there?

Reserves are what we’ve prepared for use in the next few decades. We don’t spend the money to develop resources into reserves for anything we’re not going to use in the next few decades. The time value of money means that we don’t. And as I say, Grantham the financier knows this. Would that Grantham the Green, indeed everyone else, also understood this.

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Bill Barnes 03.26.13 at 11:28 pm

Salvation cometh? Or just a different flavor of pie in the sky?
From Paul Gilding

http://paulgilding.com/cockatoo-chronicles/victoryathand.html

Victory at Hand for the Climate Movement?
MAR 20
There are signs the climate movement could be on the verge of a remarkable and surprising victory. If we read the current context correctly, and if the movement can adjust its strategy to capture the opportunity presented, it could usher in the fastest and most dramatic economic transformation in history. This would include the removal of the oil, coal and gas industries from the economy in just a few decades and their replacement with new industries and, for the most part, entirely new companies. It would be the greatest transfer of wealth and power between industries and countries the world has ever seen.

To understand this incredible potential we first have to step back and understand the unique structure of this social change movement, which may rank among the most influential in history. It is simplistic to characterise it as an alliance of grass roots organisations and activists pitched against a rich and well connected adversary. While that is part of the story, it is more accurately understood as an idea whose tentacles reach into every tier of government, the world’s largest companies and financial institutions, and throughout the academic and science communities.

Because of this, it is winning the battle from within: Its core arguments and ideas are clearly right; being endorsed by the world’s top science bodies and any significant organisation that has examined them.

Far from being at society’s margins it has the support, to various degrees, of virtually all governments, and many of the world’s most powerful political leaders, including the heads of state of the USA, China and other leading economies. It counts the CEO’s of many global companies and many of the world’s wealthiest people as active supporters – who between them direct hundreds of billions of dollars of capital every year towards practical climate action. And of course, this comes on top of one of the most global, best funded, broadly based and bottom up community campaigns we have ever seen.

That is the reality of the climate movement – it is massive, global, powerful, and on the right side of history.

So why, many ask, has it so far not succeeded in its objective of reducing CO2 emissions? Much has been written on this topic but most of it is wrong. It is simply an incredibly big job to turn on its head the global economy’s underpinning energy system. And so it has taken a while. Considering how long other great social movements took to have an impact – such as equality for women or the end of slavery and civil rights movements – then what’s surprising is not that the climate movement hasn’t yet succeeded. What’s surprising is how far its come and how deeply it has become embedded in such a short time.

And now is the moment when it’s greatest success might be about to be realised – and just in time.

We are at the most important moment in this movement’s history – in the midst of two simultaneous tipping points that create the opportunity, if we respond correctly, to win – eliminating net CO2 emissions from the economy and securing a stable climate, though still a changed one.

I have come to this conclusion after reflecting on a year when an avalanche of new knowledge and indicators made both tipping points clear. The first and perhaps the best understood is the rapid acceleration in climate impacts, reinforcing the view many hold that the scientific consensus on climate has badly underestimated the timing and scale of climate impacts. The melting of the Arctic Sea Ice, decades before expected, was the poster child of this but extreme weather and temperature records across the world, notably in the USA, suggested this Arctic melting is a symptom of accelerating system change.

It also became clear that this was literally just the “warm up” act – that we are currently heading for a global temperature increase of 4°C or more, double the agreed target.

In response came a series of increasingly dire warnings from conservative bodies like the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Perhaps most colourfully, the IMF chief and former conservative French finance minister, Christine Lagarde, said that without strong action “future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled”. The World Bank was similarly blunt about the economic consequences of our current path: “there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.”

These and other reports laid out the evidence that the only option was transformational economic change because the alternative was simply unmanageable. Action was no longer a preferred outcome but an essential one. As the World Bank said “the projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur”. Even the IEA, historically a kind of advocate in chief for the fossil fuel industry, came on board, pointing out that a stable climate and economy requires the majority of the global reserves of fossil fuels to never be burnt.

It is an extraordinary turn around when key mainstream economic institutions lay out the case for dismantling what is arguably the world’s most powerful business sector.

Of particular note in all this, observing both the message and the messengers, is that what was predominantly an ecological question is now primarily an economic one. This is a profoundly important shift, as economic risk is something society’s elites take very seriously. It also unleashes another major potential tipping point which we have seen signs of, but is not yet in full flight. When non-fossil fuel companies understand the broad economic risk posed by the lack of climate action, they will become genuine and strong advocates demanding climate action – in their own self-interest. This is one to watch carefully as it will see a major shift in the politics when it comes.

The second tipping point in 2012 was the clear evidence that a disruptive economic shift is already underway in the global energy market. There are two indicators of this, with the first being the much noted acceleration in the size of the renewable energy market with dramatic price reductions and the arrival of cost competitive solar and wind. It is hard to overstate the significance of this as it changes the game completely, as various recent reports have shown.

Rooftop solar for example has grown so fast it is now eroding the profitability of major utilities by taking away their high margin income – peak pricing – and reducing demand. This is already seeing major economic disruption to companies and national economic infrastructure as this report from UBS on developments in Europe shows, with major shutdowns of coal plants now inevitable.

Of equal importance, and partly triggered by these market shifts, is the awakening of the sleeping giant of carbon risk, with open discussion in mainstream financial circles of the increasing dangers in financial exposure to fossil fuels. This has been coming for several years because of the financial risk inherent in the carbon bubble. As Phil Preston and I argued in a paper in 2010 and I further elaborated in The Great Disruption, the contradiction between what the science says is essential and the growth assumptions made by the fossil fuel industry is so large it represents a systemic global financial risk. This has been well articulated and more deeply explored by groups like Carbon Tracker who have been taking the argument to the mainstream finance sector.

In 2012 this hit home, with significant economic and financial players like the IEA, HSBC and S&Ptalking about the concept of unburnable carbon and the financial risks in both investing in fossil fuels and in lending to coal, oil and gas projects. HSBC forecast a market value loss of 40 – 60% for oil and gas majors if the world acted to keep below 2 degrees. The IEA forecast the revenue loss in that scenario for the global coal industry would be $1 trillion every year by 2035.

Combined, these two tipping points present the opportunity for the broad climate movement to achieve success, if they are understood and responded to appropriately by the activist, policy and business communities. But first they must be seen for what they are – indications we are poised on the edge of a truly historic economic transformation – the end of fossil fuels and the building of a huge new industry sector.

To summarise:
– The science shows how we are not just failing to slow down climate change, but are in fact accelerating towards the cliff.
– In response, mainstream organisations focused on the global economy are becoming increasingly desperate in their calls for action, fearing the economic consequences if we don’t. They are arguing that the only way the world can avoid the risk of breakdown is to transform the economy urgently and dramatically.
– Our capacity to do so is now real and practical, with the technologies required already being deployed at very large scale and at competitive cost. The size of the business opportunity now on offer is truly breathtaking.
– In response, the financial markets are waking up to the transformation logic – if the future is based in renewables and these are price competitive without subsidy, or soon will be, the transformation could sweep the economy relatively suddenly, even without further government leadership.
– This then puts in place an enormous and systemic financial risk – in particular investments in, or debt exposure to, the multi-trillion $ fossil fuel industry.
– This risk is steadily being increased by activist campaigns against fossil fuel projects (worsening each projects’ financial risk) and arguing for fossil fuel divestment (putting investors reputation in play as well).
– In response investors and lenders will reduce their exposure to fossil fuels and hedge their risk by shifting their money to high growth renewables.
– This will then reinforce and manifest the very trend they are hedging against.
– Thus it’s game on.
Is that it? Can we now sit back and expect the market deal with this?

Most definitely not. It is probably true that the market would sort this out by itself if we had 60 years for it to do so. But we don’t. The science is clear that we have less than 20 – and this is where the opportunity for the climate movement emerges and why the choice of focus and strategy is now is so important. The task at hand is clear for policy makers, for business and investors as well as for the activist community. It’s acceleration of existing momentum – to slow down fossil fuels and speed up clean energy. To make the 60 year process, a 20 year one.

It is now realistic to imagine removing the coal, oil and gas industries from the economy in less than 20 years. Doing so is required if we are to have an 80% or greater likelihood of preventing the climate warming past 2 degrees C, a point past where the system could spin out of control.

What we are now hearing from major international economic institutions is that this is a binary choice. Either this happens or we head for social and economic breakdown. As the World Bank argues, the latter “must not be allowed to occur”.

Timing is the key shift the world needs to make in its thinking – this is no longer about the future, it’s about now. We don’t have 20 years to decide to act; we have 20 years to complete the task. If we follow the science, then in 20 years we must have removed the coal, oil and gas industries from the economy and replaced them. It’s simple, it’s urgent and perhaps most importantly, it’s now achievable.

History gives us many examples of dramatic economic shifts – like the arrival of the computer chip and with it, the internet, the emergence of communications technologies and other facilitators of globalisation. We also have many examples of “whoops” moments – points when we realise after the event something was a very bad idea. Like tobacco, asbestos, lead in fuels and paint, ozone depleting CFCs and various other chemicals. Collectively, this tells us something very important. While each case is different, we are capable of transformational economic change and while it’s often disruptive and always fiercely resisted, we regularly do it. This is much larger in scale but the same processes apply.

We need to keep reminding ourselves that this kind of economic transition is OK. That’s how markets works and while it will be challenging and require huge effort, it will work out. Yes, huge amounts of wealth will be lost and gained in the process, industries, countries and cities will face massive economic and practical restructuring challenges and many people will suffer in the process. But that’s how market shifts happen.

Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction” to describe this process and to explain why it’s the underpinning strength of capitalism, calling it: ”A process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”

But while we can be comfortable that this process will deliver the required outcome, it’s not going to be smooth or pleasant for many participants. It will rather be messy, highly controversial and see huge amounts of value and employment both destroyed and created as the economy restructures around the necessary reality of a post fossil fuel economy. I’m neither relaxed about this nor naïve about the scale of the challenge. I just accept that it’s now inevitable. I also know we can do it and that we simply have no choice.

Of course, the losers will fight all the way to the end, using every argument, manoeuvre and delay they can think of. We should expect nothing else of them and, realistically, most of us would do likewise faced with similar circumstances. But they will still lose.

I do not however think we should demonise the fossil fuel industry or the people involved in it. The job to remove this industry has to be done – the future of civilisation literally depends on it – but we can do this firmly and clearly without making it personal. As I’ve said in recent speeches on this topic – with some humour but a serious message – “we have to remove the coal, oil and gas industries from the economy with love and compassion.” This is the tough love of responsible parenting – the kids don’t like it but it’s still the right thing to do.

So with some surprise, this is where we find ourselves. It still won’t happen without focused and determined effort, but for the first time, we can envisage victory in the decades long fight on climate change. The science is clear, the technology is ready, significant sections of the elite are on side and the financial momentum is with us.

And this time, the economics is playing on the same side as the environment. Just in time.

=

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Roger Nowosielski 03.27.13 at 1:01 am

@142
“I think it is a fundamental conceptual (and rhetorical) failure. The political system could be made to respond.”

Can’t we use the aforementioned reminder as a point of departure, to introduce another dimension to the (general?) discussion of the “real” or “not-so-real” utopias that, I believe, has been overlooked thus far?

Let me cite here from the conclusion of C. B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke</i: (1962):

. . . technical change in the methods of war, that has made war an impossible source of internal cohesion, has created a new equality of insecurity among individuals, not merely within one nation but everywhere. The destruction of every individual is now a more real and present possibility than Hobbes could have imagined.

From this, the possibility of a new rational political obligation arises. We cannot hope to get a valid theory of obligation of the individual to a single national state alone. But if we postulate no more than the degree of rational understanding which is has always been necessary to postulate for any moral theory of political obligation, an acceptable theory of the individual to a wider political authority [my emphasis] should now be possible. Given that degree of rationality, the self-interested individual, whatever his possessions, and whatever his attachment to a possessive market society, can see that the relations of the market society must yield to the overriding requirement that, in Overton’s words, which now acquire a new significance, “humane society, cohabitation or being . . . . above all earthly things must be maintained.”

“Technical change in the methods of war” is but one among the vast array of global threats and challenges facing humankind (see Robert L. Heilbroner, An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect, 1973); whether taken individually, one by one, or in combination, in either case one can argue, just like Macpherson had, to the same general effect. Interestingly, though, whereas Heilbroner’s idea of a solution leaves the entire network of ever warring nation-states intact (socioeconomic institutions will have to bear the full brunt of dealing with these global challenges, according to Heilbroner), Macpherson, and quite rightly, IMO, presses for nothing short of a full-blown political solution to the very same challenges.

Is there a right or wrong here? Perhaps not! I find it quite telling, however, that most of the commenters on this thread, including Bill Barnes, have taken the political dimension for granted (to say the least). And no, I don’t consider the idea that “we . . . need to revive aspects of the popular political culture of petty bourgeois civic republicanism that valued community, solidarity, moral economy, meaningful work, self-management, and democratic citizenship over economistic individualism, material affluence, and private consumerism” (#44) as though a political solution, let alone a radical political solution, by any stretch. Sure, we’re treated here to high-sounding, even inspiring words, but when the dust all clears, we’re still left with the good ole’ concept of nation-states reigning supreme, providing but a context within which solutions must be found or else, never themselves regarded as a major part of the problem. From my perspective, this is myopic.

And no, we don’t have to give up on the technical expertise and/or comprehension that most of the commenters here have brought to the table. Far from it! Nor do we have to give up on some of the technical and scientific achievements that have come part and parcel with modernity and yes, with capitalism too. No, we don’t have to throw the baby with the bathwater and return to the Dark Ages as our only alternative. But this is not to say that there is no other way of pulling together of human, technical, and material resources in order to preserve our gains in areas and sectors of life if we so choose. Marx’s idea of ownership of the means of production by the workers, to include a say over the disposition and control of the surplus value, is one way. A communal form of organization and the sharing of resources is another. And so on and so forth. The point is, neither the state, nor a corporate entity, not even people with immense resources (like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, for instance), have any monopoly on organizing and pulling together social and material capital. There are other ways.

This inattention to the political is particularly disturbing in light of a myriad of instances of peoples, and yes, even some nation-states, “reaching out,” as it were, in order to transcend, or bypass, as the case may be, the rather rigid configuration given by the existing network of nation-states as though sole and ultimate repositories of all political authority. Global-warming/climate-change conferences is one example; the EU, though it’s likely to end up as a fiasco unless drastically revamped (because economic rather than political principles led to its formation), is another. So yes, I just don’t think one can seriously entertain global solutions to global kinds of problems, and that’s regardless of your technical expertise or comprehension or whatever, without taking account of the political. And if you think for a moment that nation-states aren’t part of the problem, that we can pull ourselves by our own bootstraps in spite of it all, then you’re more of a dreamer, my friend, and a utopian thinker than I am.

But then again, you have to be a die-hard anarchist to think that!

@142
“I think it is a fundamental conceptual (and rhetorical) failure. The political system could be made to respond.”
Can’t we use the aforementioned reminder to introduce another dimension to the (general?) discussion of the “real” or “not-so-real” utopias that, I believe, has been overlooked thus far?
Let me cite here from the conclusion of C. B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (1962):

“. . . technical change in the methods of war, that has made war an impossible source of internal cohesion, has created a new equality of insecurity among individuals, not merely within one nation but everywhere. The destruction of every individual is now a more real and present possibility than Hobbes could have imagined.
“From this, the possibility of a new rational political obligation arises. We cannot hope to get a valid theory of obligation of the individual to a single national state alone. But if we postulate no more than the degree of rational understanding which is has always been necessary to postulate for any moral theory of political obligation, an acceptable theory of the individual to a wider political authority (my emphasis) should now be possible. Given that degree of rationality, the self-interested individual, whatever his possessions, and whatever his attachment to a possessive market society, can see that the relations of the market society must yield to the overriding requirement that, in Overton’s words, which now acquire a new significance, ‘humane society, cohabitation or being . . . . above all earthly things must be maintained.’ “
“Technical change in the methods of war” is but one among the vast array of global threats and challenges facing humankind (Robert L. Heilbroner, An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect, 1973); whether taken individually, one by one, or in combination, in either case one can argue, just like Macpherson had, to the same general effect. Interestingly, though, whereas Heilbroner’s idea of a solution leaves the entire network of ever warring nation-states intact (socioeconomic institutions will have to bear the full brunt of dealing with these global challenges, according to Heilbroner), Macpherson, and quite rightly, IMO, presses for nothing short of a full-blown political solution to the very same challenges.
Is there a right or wrong here? Perhaps not! I find it quite telling, however, that most of the commenters on this thread, including Bill Barnes, have taken the political dimension for granted (to say the least). And no, I don’t consider the idea that “we . . . need to revive aspects of the popular political culture of petty bourgeois civic republicanism that valued community, solidarity, moral economy, meaningful work, self-management, and democratic citizenship over economistic individualism, material affluence, and private consumerism” (#44) as though a political solution, let alone a radical political solution, by any stretch. Sure, we’re treated here to high-sounding, even inspiring words, but when the dust all clears, we’re still left with the good ole’ concept of nation-states reigning supreme, providing but a context within which solutions must be found or else, never themselves regarded as a major part of the problem. From my perspective, this is myopic.
And no, we don’t have to give up on the technical expertise and/or comprehension that most of the commenters here have brought to the table. Far from it! Nor do we have to give up on some of the technical and scientific achievements that have come part and parcel with modernity and yes, with capitalism too. No, we don’t have to throw the baby with the bathwater and return to the Dark Ages as our only alternative. But this is not to say that there is no other way of pulling together of human, technical, and material resources in order to preserve our gains in areas and sectors of life if we so choose. Marx’s idea of ownership of the means of production by the workers, to include a say over the disposition and control of the surplus value, is one way. A communal form of organization and the sharing of resources is another. And so on and so forth. The point is, neither the state, nor a corporate entity, not even people with immense resources (like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, for instance), have any monopoly on organizing and pulling together social and material capital. There are other ways.
This inattention to the political is particularly disturbing in light of a myriad of instances of peoples, and yes, even some nation-states, “reaching out,” as it were, in order to transcend, or bypass, as the case may be, the rather rigid configuration given by the existing network of nation-states as though sole and ultimate repositories of all political authority. Global-warming/climate-change conferences is one example; the EU, though it’s likely to end up as a fiasco unless drastically revamped (because economic rather than political principles led to its formation), is another. So yes, I just don’t think one can seriously entertain global solutions to global kinds of problems, and that’s regardless of your technical expertise or comprehension or whatever, without taking account of the political. And if you think for a moment that nation-states aren’t part of the problem, that we can pull ourselves by our own bootstraps in spite of it all, then you’re more of a dreamer, my friend, and a utopian thinker than I am.
But then again, you have to be a diehard anarchist to think that!

@142
“I think it is a fundamental conceptual (and rhetorical) failure. The political system could be made to respond.”
Can’t we use the aforementioned reminder to introduce another dimension to the (general?) discussion of the “real” or “not-so-real” utopias that, I believe, has been overlooked thus far?
Let me cite here from the conclusion of C. B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (1962):

“. . . technical change in the methods of war, that has made war an impossible source of internal cohesion, has created a new equality of insecurity among individuals, not merely within one nation but everywhere. The destruction of every individual is now a more real and present possibility than Hobbes could have imagined.
“From this, the possibility of a new rational political obligation arises. We cannot hope to get a valid theory of obligation of the individual to a single national state alone. But if we postulate no more than the degree of rational understanding which is has always been necessary to postulate for any moral theory of political obligation, an acceptable theory of the individual to a wider political authority (my emphasis) should now be possible. Given that degree of rationality, the self-interested individual, whatever his possessions, and whatever his attachment to a possessive market society, can see that the relations of the market society must yield to the overriding requirement that, in Overton’s words, which now acquire a new significance, ‘humane society, cohabitation or being . . . . above all earthly things must be maintained.’ “
“Technical change in the methods of war” is but one among the vast array of global threats and challenges facing humankind (Robert L. Heilbroner, An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect, 1973); whether taken individually, one by one, or in combination, in either case one can argue, just like Macpherson had, to the same general effect. Interestingly, though, whereas Heilbroner’s idea of a solution leaves the entire network of ever warring nation-states intact (socioeconomic institutions will have to bear the full brunt of dealing with these global challenges, according to Heilbroner), Macpherson, and quite rightly, IMO, presses for nothing short of a full-blown political solution to the very same challenges.
Is there a right or wrong here? Perhaps not! I find it quite telling, however, that most of the commenters on this thread, including Bill Barnes, have taken the political dimension for granted (to say the least). And no, I don’t consider the idea that “we . . . need to revive aspects of the popular political culture of petty bourgeois civic republicanism that valued community, solidarity, moral economy, meaningful work, self-management, and democratic citizenship over economistic individualism, material affluence, and private consumerism” (#44) as though a political solution, let alone a radical political solution, by any stretch. Sure, we’re treated here to high-sounding, even inspiring words, but when the dust all clears, we’re still left with the good ole’ concept of nation-states reigning supreme, providing but a context within which solutions must be found or else, never themselves regarded as a major part of the problem. From my perspective, this is myopic.
And no, we don’t have to give up on the technical expertise and/or comprehension that most of the commenters here have brought to the table. Far from it! Nor do we have to give up on some of the technical and scientific achievements that have come part and parcel with modernity and yes, with capitalism too. No, we don’t have to throw the baby with the bathwater and return to the Dark Ages as our only alternative. But this is not to say that there is no other way of pulling together of human, technical, and material resources in order to preserve our gains in areas and sectors of life if we so choose. Marx’s idea of ownership of the means of production by the workers, to include a say over the disposition and control of the surplus value, is one way. A communal form of organization and the sharing of resources is another. And so on and so forth. The point is, neither the state, nor a corporate entity, not even people with immense resources (like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, for instance), have any monopoly on organizing and pulling together social and material capital. There are other ways.
This inattention to the political is particularly disturbing in light of a myriad of instances of peoples, and yes, even some nation-states, “reaching out,” as it were, in order to transcend, or bypass, as the case may be, the rather rigid configuration given by the existing network of nation-states as though sole and ultimate repositories of all political authority. Global-warming/climate-change conferences is one example; the EU, though it’s likely to end up as a fiasco unless drastically revamped (because economic rather than political principles led to its formation), is another. So yes, I just don’t think one can seriously entertain global solutions to global kinds of problems, and that’s regardless of your technical expertise or comprehension or whatever, without taking account of the political. And if you think for a moment that nation-states aren’t part of the problem, that we can pull ourselves by our own bootstraps in spite of it all, then you’re more of a dreamer, my friend, and a utopian thinker than I am.
But then again, you have to be a diehard anarchist to think that!

@142
“I think it is a fundamental conceptual (and rhetorical) failure. The political system could be made to respond.”
Can’t we use the aforementioned reminder to introduce another dimension to the (general?) discussion of the “real” or “not-so-real” utopias that, I believe, has been overlooked thus far?
Let me cite here from the conclusion of C. B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (1962):

“. . . technical change in the methods of war, that has made war an impossible source of internal cohesion, has created a new equality of insecurity among individuals, not merely within one nation but everywhere. The destruction of every individual is now a more real and present possibility than Hobbes could have imagined.
“From this, the possibility of a new rational political obligation arises. We cannot hope to get a valid theory of obligation of the individual to a single national state alone. But if we postulate no more than the degree of rational understanding which is has always been necessary to postulate for any moral theory of political obligation, an acceptable theory of the individual to a wider political authority (my emphasis) should now be possible. Given that degree of rationality, the self-interested individual, whatever his possessions, and whatever his attachment to a possessive market society, can see that the relations of the market society must yield to the overriding requirement that, in Overton’s words, which now acquire a new significance, ‘humane society, cohabitation or being . . . . above all earthly things must be maintained.’ “
“Technical change in the methods of war” is but one among the vast array of global threats and challenges facing humankind (Robert L. Heilbroner, An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect, 1973); whether taken individually, one by one, or in combination, in either case one can argue, just like Macpherson had, to the same general effect. Interestingly, though, whereas Heilbroner’s idea of a solution leaves the entire network of ever warring nation-states intact (socioeconomic institutions will have to bear the full brunt of dealing with these global challenges, according to Heilbroner), Macpherson, and quite rightly, IMO, presses for nothing short of a full-blown political solution to the very same challenges.
Is there a right or wrong here? Perhaps not! I find it quite telling, however, that most of the commenters on this thread, including Bill Barnes, have taken the political dimension for granted (to say the least). And no, I don’t consider the idea that “we . . . need to revive aspects of the popular political culture of petty bourgeois civic republicanism that valued community, solidarity, moral economy, meaningful work, self-management, and democratic citizenship over economistic individualism, material affluence, and private consumerism” (#44) as though a political solution, let alone a radical political solution, by any stretch. Sure, we’re treated here to high-sounding, even inspiring words, but when the dust all clears, we’re still left with the good ole’ concept of nation-states reigning supreme, providing but a context within which solutions must be found or else, never themselves regarded as a major part of the problem. From my perspective, this is myopic.
And no, we don’t have to give up on the technical expertise and/or comprehension that most of the commenters here have brought to the table. Far from it! Nor do we have to give up on some of the technical and scientific achievements that have come part and parcel with modernity and yes, with capitalism too. No, we don’t have to throw the baby with the bathwater and return to the Dark Ages as our only alternative. But this is not to say that there is no other way of pulling together of human, technical, and material resources in order to preserve our gains in areas and sectors of life if we so choose. Marx’s idea of ownership of the means of production by the workers, to include a say over the disposition and control of the surplus value, is one way. A communal form of organization and the sharing of resources is another. And so on and so forth. The point is, neither the state, nor a corporate entity, not even people with immense resources (like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, for instance), have any monopoly on organizing and pulling together social and material capital. There are other ways.
This inattention to the political is particularly disturbing in light of a myriad of instances of peoples, and yes, even some nation-states, “reaching out,” as it were, in order to transcend, or bypass, as the case may be, the rather rigid configuration given by the existing network of nation-states as though sole and ultimate repositories of all political authority. Global-warming/climate-change conferences is one example; the EU, though it’s likely to end up as a fiasco unless drastically revamped (because economic rather than political principles led to its formation), is another. So yes, I just don’t think one can seriously entertain global solutions to global kinds of problems, and that’s regardless of your technical expertise or comprehension or whatever, without taking account of the political. And if you think for a moment that nation-states aren’t part of the problem, that we can pull ourselves by our own bootstraps in spite of it all, then you’re more of a dreamer, my friend, and a utopian thinker than I am.
But then again, you have to be a diehard anarchist to think that!

152

Lee A. Arnold 03.27.13 at 2:24 am

Tim Worstall #142, So it is your contention that the price of oil has quadrupled because Jeremy Grantham refuses to give you the money to develop resources into reserves?

153

Lee A. Arnold 03.27.13 at 6:36 am

Roger Nowosielski #151, You quote Macpherson: “if we postulate no more than the degree of rational understanding,” where that “rational understanding” is being defined as, “individual self-interest” that can see that “the relations of the market society must yield to the requirement” of “‘humane society, cohabitation or being . . . . above all earthly things must be maintained.”

I have two points: (1) Almost everybody already agrees with this, though some of them will give parts of it different definitions, and (2) That is not a rational understanding, that is a sentiment. It is a very nice sentiment, to be sure. But it is not a rational understanding to anybody but an economist, or someone following the economics vocabulary. The economic definition of “rational” is: to be working in “self-interest”.

I would take a different definition of “rational understanding”. A rational understanding would have a comprehensive command of the details of what is happening in the world and how to correct it, so that each and every person can access it and internalize it. It would be the nuts and bolts of how the new and better system is to work, in a practical manner. I think the problem is, nobody has made a comprehesive attempt. There is nothing that incorporates individual aspirations, social needs, the financial system, the ecosystems, the climate.

Despite Bill Barnes’ hope that there are “many partial rough drafts of such a manifesto in the works, all over the world” I don’t think that we are writing about the same thing.

154

Tim Worstall 03.27.13 at 9:30 am

“Tim Worstall #142, So it is your contention that the price of oil has quadrupled because Jeremy Grantham refuses to give you the money to develop resources into reserves?”

Of course not. I’m talking about mineral reserves as is Grantham. Specifically, I’m talking about the same mineral reserves as Grantham, potassium and phosphate rock.

155

Lee A. Arnold 03.27.13 at 3:15 pm

Tim, I don’t understand your argument. If resources were discovered of high-grade phosphate rock, they would not be developed before low-grade phosphate rock, ceteris paribus?

156

roger nowosielski 03.27.13 at 6:17 pm

@ 153, Lee A. Arnold

Thanks for engaging me.

If by “rational understanding” you mean yielding to our “biological alternative,” in that the species survival must trump all other considerations, including our participation in and engagement with a “market society,” then of course you’re right. It’s a sentiment (as opposed to how Adam Smith, for instance, spoke of “moral sentiments”) because it presupposes a whole bunch of values, the notion that the species deserves to survive, for one. But why would you restrict this definition to the economists alone? I should think that most of us, unquestioningly perhaps, take this for granted. In any case, I think Macpherson is merely following Hobbes here; and the argument is all the stronger for the assertion that evenself-interested individuals would give up their “evil” ways if and when their survival was at stake.

If, on the other hand, all you’re saying is that “individual self-interest” is the economist’s idea of what “rational understanding” comes to, then I also agree with you; but surely, you can’t be calling that neither a sentiment nor a noble sentiment at that. It’s but a definition! Consequently, I’m less than certain whether I read your second paragraph correctly. Are you making the same distinctions I’m making?

I can’t but agree with the rest of your comment, albeit with the following provisos. First, technical expertise is not enough. I know you’re not saying that, but it bears reiterating. Technocrats (or, “professionals,” as one of the commenters had put it earlier) will not be our “salvation” or a rule by technocrats our panacea. And second, any viable solution to global problems and challenges facing us must take the present geopolitical system to task: that was the intended thrust of my original comment.

So indeed, “there is nothing [yet] that incorporates individual aspirations, social needs, the financial system, the ecosystems, the climate,” although in my modest way, I believe I’m trying to do something about that in the area of politics and political philosophy. In case you’re interested, here’s a link to some of my writings on the subject.

157

roger nowosielski 03.27.13 at 11:06 pm

erratum: should be “imperative”

158

Tim Worstall 03.28.13 at 11:17 am

” If resources were discovered of high-grade phosphate rock, they would not be developed before low-grade phosphate rock, ceteris paribus?”

cp, yes. But things never are cp are they? There’s a great deal of path dependency to such things. For example, low grade phosphate rock in Florida is more likely to be developed than higher grade material else where. Because Florida is already full of people mining phosphate rock. Easier to move the machines 500 yards than start all over again on another continent after all.

159

Lee A. Arnold 03.28.13 at 12:02 pm

“cp, yes… Easier to move the machines 500 yards than start all over again on another continent after all.”

So in other words, “reserves” is a rough indicator of requirements on energy density or intensity required to extract that resource?

160

Tim Worstall 03.28.13 at 2:26 pm

No, reserves is what I’ve been saying it is. It’s what we have weighed, measured, tested, proven we can extract with current technologies and at current prices and make a profit doing so.

This is not a measurement of energy density.

161

Lee A. Arnold 03.28.13 at 7:08 pm

I never wrote that it is a measure. I wrote that it is a rough indicator of energy requirement for extraction. (A better word would be “power”, the time-rate of energy.) As it must be, if any part of the definition of “reserves” is that it is economic to develop them. Another example: most of the fertilizer industry is convinced that the remaining phosphate rock is of lesser quality and/or is further underground, so it will cost more energy to produce the fertilizer. Worse still, it also apparently costs more energy to produce the energy to produce the fertilizer, because the price of oil has quadrupled and may never come down very much, again. So we are going to be forced to develop alternative energy sources of sufficient power that do not have the ecosystems-entropy (i.e. damaging waste) of oil (which is CO2, which causes warming) or nuclear (waste pile storage, which needs geological and political stabilities for thousands of years) — because we are going to need the energy to get the fertilizer. “Being forced” to do so, is not the same thing as a market signal. For years, systems ecologists tried to get economists to understand that the market system, on its own, may not fix this sort of problem in time to avoid disaster. The problem is not simply that there is not necessarily a market signal for an environmental waste, yes of course it is an “externality” but it is not a mere externality for economists’ blithe and hubristic nostrums, because in the mean time the waste may cause an ecosystems catastrophe. The point is certainly not original to Jeremy Grantham, and now of course economists have begun to realize the concept for themselves by thinking about the climate, which may have an unpredictable tipping-point. Now, an alternative solution may be in finding a way to scrub the atmosphere of CO2. Or perhaps finding a way to decontaminate nuclear piles by latching them to a new posse of Higgs bosons and disappearing them yonder into the vacuum… It may however cost even MORE energy (and therefore ecosystems-damaging waste, of some sort) to do things like that… Notice that we haven’t even mentioned the second-worst biogeochemical cycle cock-up after CARBON, the fact that NITROGEN run-off from fertilizer is causing marine dead zones all around the globe, still growing in size.

162

Matt 03.28.13 at 8:27 pm

Let me give a specific counterexample to the notion that reserves decrease until a more energy intensive process turns some resources into reserves. From 1933 to 1969, bromine was produced in the USA by Dow Chemical using extraction from seawater. It was the principle domestic source of bromine for most of that time. If in 1960 you wanted to know reserves of bromine, it would be 85 trillion tonnes – approximately the bromine content of the world’s oceans. Or maybe you cut that down to a mere 10 trillion tonnes in recognition that extraction is not perfectly efficient.

Fast forward 50 years. The USA still has unimpeded access to seawater. Yet the USGS now gives American bromine reserves at roughly 11 million tons — less than a millionth of the seawater number. What happened? Richer bromine-bearing brines, from underground wells and the Dead Sea, were used to produce bromine. The required capital and energy inputs were lower because the source material was more concentrated. Seawater extraction became uneconomic. The huge reserve turned back into a resource, not because its energy intensity was rising but because competing processes undercut it.

The process of reserves descending to resources as they are undercut by newer processes with different inputs has also happened historically with (at least) lithium, uranium, magnesium, and rare earths. When market conditions change those resources can move back into the reserves pile, e.g. the return of rare earth production outside China.

163

Lee A. Arnold 03.29.13 at 12:25 am

Matt #162, Exactly. I excepted the discovery of new, easier deposits of a resource in the comment #133, which set us onto this tangent. There is always the possibility that the extraction of some resource will cost less energy in the future. Certainly the size of reserves can grow with new extraction technology or with the discovery of greater concentrations. I don’t disagree with Tim Worstall’s point that “reserves” is an industrial economic categorization and is not the real amount of something that exists. But I feel that this may be beside the point in dealing with our current, predominating energy problem. The increasing costs of petroleum extraction are reducing the financial resources available for switching us to other energy sources or for mitigating the effects of global warming. On the other hand solar energy reserves might as well be expressed in billions of years, at any efficiency of extraction. Thus solar may be another counterexample, like bromine.

164

Matt 03.29.13 at 1:48 am

I think that high petroleum prices stimulate rather than starve the development of renewable energy. The first big wave of effort to develop solar energy, with both government and industrial research contributions, was set off by the oil shocks of the 1970s. Interest receded for a generation as oil got cheap again in the 1980s and stayed that way until last decade.

Discovering huge new resources of easy petroleum would not free up financial resources to fight global warming or transition away from fossil fuels. It would just spur accelerating emissions until the good times were winding down again.

165

Lee A. Arnold 03.29.13 at 5:23 am

It may depend upon how much you earn. If you are paying high prices for gasoline to drive to work, and in addition those same energy costs also increase the price of many other goods and services, then it may preclude your purchase of simple necessities — never mind putting solar panels on the roof of your house, or working in other ways to fight global warming. So in the case where the price shock is from a pervasive and all-encompassing thing like energy, there is a time interval when the market does not perform very well to do the right thing. (The first thing that happened in the 1970’s was stagflation.) High petroleum prices stimulated government policy to give tax breaks and other credits to the market, to develop renewables.

I agree that the 1980’s cheaper oil took the problem away from people’s minds and purses, but the policy decisions not to pursue renewables development were also ideologically motivated.

I think the present may be different, but I don’t quite have a handle yet on the current public perception of global warming; I think it may be changing to more alarm, which might then begin to moot the possibility of cheaper oil to do more harm. I suspect anyway that markets do not decide everything, or rather an economist might say that consumer preferences can sometimes change for other reasons, independently of the price.

166

Matt 03.29.13 at 8:21 am

It may depend upon how much you earn. If you are paying high prices for gasoline to drive to work, and in addition those same energy costs also increase the price of many other goods and services, then it may preclude your purchase of simple necessities — never mind putting solar panels on the roof of your house, or working in other ways to fight global warming.

In any individual’s case it may be that cheap gasoline leads to investment in efficiency elsewhere. But on average it is clear that the opposite happens. Cheap fuel increases fuel consumption, directly and indirectly. For every American who sees cheap gas prices as an opportunity to buy solar panels, there are several who will consider buying a bigger/heavier/more powerful vehicle, flying on vacation, or otherwise increasing their already high emissions. The collective solution to global warming can’t be provided by appeals to individual conscience any more than (e.g.) the problems of food adulteration or acid rain could be so solved.

It would be better to have a carbon tax than rely on tight market supply to curb consumption. With a carbon tax there would be incentives to invest in fossil alternatives even when the economy is humming along and oil prices are low (either absolutely or in relation to incomes). But in the absence of a carbon tax, I have to see persistent high oil prices as at least a half-victory for the pursuit of alternatives.

167

Lee A. Arnold 03.29.13 at 1:37 pm

Suppose that more people begin to feel certain that global warming is real, because its effects accelerate and combine: Megastorms become more frequent and/or more intense. Arctic ice loss continues. More Dust Bowl-like summers with crop losses. Will it remain necessary to appeal to conscience?

168

Tim Worstall 03.30.13 at 10:44 am

@161.

“Worse still, it also apparently costs more energy to produce the energy to produce the fertilizer, because the price of oil has quadrupled and may never come down very much, again.”

Blimey. We don’t use oil to produce fertiliser. We use natural gas. You know, this stuff that we’re awash with as a result of fracking?

It’s another one of my little bugbears, people just not understanding which resources we use to do what.

N2 + 3 H2 → 2 NH3

We get the 3 H2 by cracking CH4. Natural gas. The N2 comes from the atmosphere.

“I never wrote that it is a measure. I wrote that it is a rough indicator of energy requirement for extraction. (A better word would be “power”, the time-rate of energy.) As it must be, if any part of the definition of “reserves” is that it is economic to develop them.”

And as I keep trying to tell you this simply isn’t true.

Let me give you a real life example. I’m currently working on old mine dump in the Ore Mountains (the German / Czech border). Bunch of stuff left over from drilling the shaft for a tin mine a century ago. There’s tungsten in that rock in the mine dump. Not a lot, to be sure, it will produce about 5% of European production for a couple of years, no more.

This is not a reserve. It’s not even officially a resource as it doesn’t appear in anyones’ databases about mineral reserves/resources. Yet the energy required to process this material is less than that required to process conventional resources of tungsten ore. Because it’s already there above ground. So we just have to do the normal processing, not worrying about the mining.

Note, we will be using less energy to “mine” this deposit. Thus it cannot be true that new mines, new production, inevitably describes rising energy requirements.

And I’m afraid that there are innumerable examples of this around. The next hill over from us (Cinovec, it means “place of tin”) is Europe’s largest tin deposit. This will require much less energy to extract than the Cornish mines used to require. Less than Panasquera, the large Portuguese tin mine. The work is currently being done to turn that deposit from a resource (we know it’s there but haven’t properly tested it) into a resource (now we have spent the money to properly test it).

The work isn’t being done by me: I am not in the right sort of scale for a deposit like that. But the work is being done by the same firm of consulting engineers that I use in the Czech Republic. And I’m afraid it simply isn’t true that this deposit will cost more in energy to exploit than past mines or deposits.

Or think of coltan, that blood in the mobiles stuff. One large Oz mine has gone bankrupt (umm, Sons of Gwalia?). A Canadian mine (TANCO) has been on standby for years. Why? Because of those deposits found in DR Congo. The ones that are so low energy to mine that the mining is done with child slaves. This is, however despicable a practice, most certainly a low energy deposit to mine.

It just isn’t true that we move to ever higher energy requirements to mine minerals.

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