Suggested Song: Mad World, written by Roland Orzabel and covered by Gary Jules
Suggested Drink: Gates of Hell cocktail; tequila, lemon juice, lime juice, cherry brandy

Villages were burned, men were beheaded, women were sold as slaves, their daughters raped and passed to the marauding troops as plunder, entire families were slaughtered, sprayed with bullets and buried alive. The world watched it all online, spellbound with the terror unfolding, and did nothing until our own innocents met the butcher’s knife. After the Nazi death camps, the savagery in Rwanda and Bosnia, how could moral and enlightened societies have stayed so detached so long in the face of genocide? It was a world gone mad.

Emilie Parker, Sandy Hook victim
Emilie Parker, Sandy Hook victim

Dozens and dozens of school children – glowing with promise and unknowable potential – were massacred methodically, senselessly, in cold blood, year after year, at Columbine, at Sandy Hook, at Red Lake and others. Warped and bitter psychopaths were left unrestrained, unchecked to arm themselves from head to toe and wage suicide missions against our most blameless and pure. Encouraged, then enabled by the profiteers of violence to buy guns whose sole design was to kill a lot of people quickly, efficiently, effortlessly. The men and women elected to protect a nation looked on, delivered empty speeches to each other, wet themselves in the face of powerful lobbies, and did nothing. Could campaign funding and gun money really have mattered more than the lives of children? It was a world gone mad.

thelma louise 2The science was indisputable, the evidence undeniable, the credible consensus absolute, and the dire direction of things predictable. The world was warming, the climate changing, sea ice melting, islands flooding, hurricanes strengthening, our fertile fields and orchards turning to dust, 100+ species dying off daily, CO2 levels rising, heat records breaking each year and then the next. Implications for the earth that future generations would enjoy were daunting, yet we only strengthened the poison dosage in the name of growth, focused on discovering more oil deep in the seas, extracting more gas trapped in shale, burning more carbon. World leaders pointed fingers, talked over elaborate dinners, made half hearted promises that they knew were empty, and all the while unleashed the glory of our industries to amplify the cause and intensify the effect, moving us slowly and most surely beyond the point of real options. We were Thelma and Louise, defiant to the consequences and united in that drive off the cliff, holding hands and singing American Pie and dragging future generations along for the ride. It was a world gone mad.

I am normally neither a fatalist nor a pessimist but can’t stop wondering when things will really change, if ever, in light of some of the less encouraging news items recently. Facebook awarded Snapchat with a $16B check earlier this year for 32 engineers and an app that lets people chat worldwide without fees. Alibaba – a Chinese e-commerce company – was valued at over $200B this week by investors gobbling up its IPO shares. All good, but when a pesky but ballooning ebola crisis that is ravaging West Africa can’t be stamped out because the $1B needed is difficult to source, one has to wonder about our priorities.

My next post will be sunny, I promise!

Bill Magill

Suggested Song: Burning Down the House, Talking Heads
Suggested Drink: a cool glass of water, straight up

If communism failed the people, capitalism has failed the planet.

Privately owned corporations big and small are committed to one simple obsession: maximizing returns to their shareholders. They pursue this by growing revenues, cutting costs, and playing the system. There is no reward or incentive to voluntary raise their cost base – for example, to account for the indirect costs of damage to the environment as a result of their activities – for the sake of the public good (unless customers reward them for it). That is where governments (are supposed to) step in. While businesses play their end of the game commendably well, the public sector has been woefully ineffective in its role as guardian of the environment. And is there a greater public good?

Economic growth raises all boats, is the elixir to all social ills, and must be pursued at all costs. The maxim that economic growth must be the guiding national priority is held by world leaders of every industrialized country and most all learned men of the dismal science, as we roast through Saharan summers and freeze through Arctic winters. Lower the unemployment rate? Grow the economy. Balance the budget? Grow the economy. Get reelected? Grow the economy.

oil-refineryFew will argue against healthy economic growth in principal as a good thing, but what is healthy about an earth rendered barren and unfamiliar in 2-3 generations? Growth is only spurred by consumption. Consumption is enabled by production. Production requires resources and applied power, and these require energy. Over 80% of today’s global energy production comes from the burning of fossil fuels – oil, coal, and natural gas – that poison the globe with CO2 emissions and other discharges. This sullying of our planet blue has been accepted with little complaint through the industrial revolution – out of site, out of mind – but now things are getting weird with the weather. There is a growing tension between our genuflection to economic growth and the need for nature’s ecosystem to remain vibrant. So we have a problem (that growing we who accept that the planet is warming and we-the-people are causing it.) For those of you clinging to flat earth society sensibilities, no need to read further.

Should this tension between growth versus globe be a near-term concern? A December article posted in the Huffington Post by Dahr Jamail (click here to read) offers some disquieting facts about our current situation:

  • We’ve never been on a planet with no arctic ice. Ice-free summers will start this decade.
  • We’ve never been on a planet with atmospheric CO2 levels above 400 ppm (considered the tipping point of no return by many climate scientists). That will also happen this decade.
  • A 50-gigaton “burp” of methane from thawing arctic permafrost beneath the East Siberian sea is “highly possible at any time” according to a July 2013 article in Nature. That would be the equivalent of about 4 times the volume of CO2 humanity has emitted into the atmosphere since the birth of the industrial revolution, and methane is 105 times more potent than CO2 when it comes to heating the planet on a 20-year timescale.
    • A fun fact about methane: the Permian mass extinction that occurred 250 million years ago, wiping out an estimated 95% of all species, is believed to be related to rapid methane releases after a 6C increase in earth’s surface temperature.
  • A 3.5C planet temperature increase by 2100 was predicted by the U.N. Environment Program in 2009 that would lead to the destruction of most ocean plankton and many land plants. Humanity has never experienced an earth at 3.5C above the current baseline. In 2010 the U.N. program increased their forecast to a 5C increase by 2050. And a recent International Energy Agency report (November 2013) place the temperature rise at 3.5C by 2035.
  • Between 150 and 200 species are going extinct daily, a pace 1,000 times greater than the “natural” extinction rate.

CO2 levels

Let’s pause here to consider a question: if you were offered a very well-paying job to taste test cigarettes, at a sampling rate considered high risk for lung cancer and other ailments, would you accept it? For readers answering yes, would you still accept it if the damage done was genetic in nature; i.e., your children and their children were almost certain to inherit your disorders and in advanced stages earlier in their lives? Okay, onward.

Back to our tension between growth and globe; two scenarios seem possible.

  • Option A: Stay the course, stump for more economic growth, and continue to develop alternatives to carbon-based fuels at the margin while subsidizing the fossil fuel industry to the sum of $480 billion annually (a 2013 IMF report placed total subsidies to this industry at $1.9 trillion actually when accounting for indirect subsidies; i.e., not requiring the industry to repair environmental damage from global warming due to the burning of their products, or address adverse effects to health from pollution and other costs to society).  Unfortunately, given the minimal impact renewable energy has made to date on the swelling global demand for more energy supply Option A provides no reason to believe that the coming meltdown will be averted.
  • Option B: Revolution. These are rarely pretty, but can be anticipated when food and water run short, lives are disrupted (or lost) and the masses get angry. Ambrose Bierce submitted over 100 years ago that “Revolution is an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment.” Is there something seriously misguided in our governments today.

CO2 temp chartThose who manage our options – politicians and the corporate bosses with whom they sip whisky and play golf – are incentivized to Option A. Ribbon cutting ceremonies at new solar farms make for great photo-ops and keep the hounds at bay. And the likes of Exxon Mobile, who’s 2012 profit was the second largest in U.S. history (surpassed only by its own 2008 record) shouldn’t be expected to do anything radical that would threaten returns to its shareholders (see paragraph 1). Politicians’ reelection campaigns depend on the patronage of big business, and anyhow no one gets elected being the bearers of bad news like the sky is falling. I mean it’s sad about those Tuvaluans and their submerged island, but they aren’t part of my electorate, and we can engineer a sea wall around Lower Manhattan, right? All is good, steady as she goes, stay the course.

Those who bear the brunt of option selections – the collection of humanity on all points of the globe (for global warming and its impact is just that) – may at differing time points decide that their politicians promoting Option A must go. Such invitations to leave are best achieved through orderly electoral processes. This takes time however, and some of us (depending on geographic location) are on a tight schedule. When Spain’s productive orchards wilt and fail and aquifers in the North China Plain go dry don’t be surprised when buildings start to burn. Elections be damned. Thank Napoleon Bonaparte for this one: “Revolution is an idea which has found its bayonets.”

From the perspective of a flu-ridden planet swinging from sweats to chills, capitalism and the free market economy is badly in need of overhaul. It is creating immense wealth for a shrinking affluent class, but doing little to address the looming climate disaster. The billions invested into cleantech by the venture capital community has failed to produce a serious and massively scaleable energy alternative to fossil fuels. How do tiny start-ups with novel but expensive innovations compete with an entrenched industry built on mature technologies and subsidized by hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars? Fracking has lowered Americans anxiety over exposure to Middle East oil. And Obama is likely to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which he identifies as essential to support our economic growth. It doesn’t sound like anyone is concerned about a falling sky. For every dollar the U.S. government hands to the renewable energy industry in direct subsidies (to great fanfare and flourish), it discretely hands another $5.75 to the oil industry, which as noted above needs little help. Can real change be expected when less than half the members of the Republican party believe that the earth is warming, according to a 2013 Pew Research Poll?

chicken littleOn an optimistic note, more than a few Chicken Littles have started a dialog on economic alternatives, should anyone care. On the academic scene economists are talking about natural capital, which brings the value of natural resources such as topsoil, water, and genetic diversity into the economic equation. And various governments across the globe, including numerous U.S. states, China and the UK, have begun including natural capital into their assessments of progress and policy making.

Herman Daly, a University of Maryland Professor and former World Bank economist proposes a “steady state” economy for countries that have achieved material affluence. “Using tools such as carbon taxes on fossil fuels, the economy’s material production and consumption would be capped at the Earth’s capacity to cleanse and replenish itself. Higher consumption would be replaced by higher quality of life.”

Finally, there is an emerging interest, particularly by the young who stand to lose the most from a warming planet, in a “sharing economy.” This lifestyle lowers the consumption compulsion and is best exemplified in the growing trend of car sharing, which in theory could be extended to many other tools and appliances that sit on our garage shelves unused most of the time. Why does every household need one?

Any other bright ideas? Ready to join the revolution?

Bill Magill

Song Suggestion: The Road to Hell, Chris Rea
Drink Suggestion: Sea Breeze (vodka, cranberry juice, grapefruit juice)

I don’t know what is more depressing: the destruction left in Sandy’s wake or the teachable moment lost through the storm grates. The “C-word” (Climate) has replaced the “N-word” during this presidential run as the nastiest of national slurs, and pox on the lips from whom it spews. It’s as if we have entered the world of Hogwarts and things that must not be named. Neither candidate has used this opportunity to show real leadership on the very real problem of climate weirdness. It was no different in France, by the way, during the presidential elections there earlier this year. Crise climatique, c’est quoi ça?

Romney deserves credit for ducking the issue with the greatest temerity. When a heckler at his Virginia rally this week shouted “climate change caused Sandy!” and flashed a sign reading “End Climate Silence,” Romney responded with 2 minutes of clueless silence and blank (but brilliant) smile that seemed to say, “can anyone help me out here?” The crowd’s reaction was predictable: a loud chorus of boos for the heckler and stirring group chant of “USA! USA! USA!” while the inconvenient truther was escorted roughly from the event. Romney supporters are evidently in Camp America is Awesome!, with the unifying conviction that by sheer will we – God’s favored nation – can dictate terms on the weather like just another Olympic basketball opponent. But challenging climate science is not a sporting competition, right? We do all get that? Evidently not.

Romney’s take on the climate (what problem?) may be alarming for a Harvard man who may be king, but certainly not surprising. This is the guy who defended the coal industry with a cheery campaign commercial titled “War on Coal,” in which he glibly asks, “We have 250 years of coal. Why wouldn’t we use it?” Well, for starters it is the most carbon intense – i.e., dirtiest, nastiest – fossil fuel on this planet earth, accounting for over 40% of the US’s CO2 emissions and about 65% of China’s. Of course if one chooses to deny that CO2 emissions and global warming are linked, then voila, pas de problème. After all, the Church managed to deny that whole sun-at-the-center-of-the-universe baloney for 200 years after Galileo proved otherwise in 1610. These things do take time.

What is more discouraging, however, is Obama’s silence on climate change and its probable role this week in producing the highest Manhattan storm tide on record, or since 2000 producing 9 of the globe’s 10 hottest years on record, or in 2008 clearing both the Northeast and Northwest arctic passages of ice for the first time in recorded history, or…, and… ,in addition to ….  ad nauseum.  To be fair, the president has made an effort to at least acknowledge global warming and endorse the consensus of 99% of the world’s climate scientists that we are indeed on the road to a very toasty hell. He’s passed auto emissions standards and pushed investment in alternative energy, but his leadership on climate change as an issue of critical importance both nationally and globally has been in a word, tepid.

The 2 candidates and most all of our national leaders have adopted the it may go away if I stop thinking about it approach to problem solving. That F in math, well if I stop looking at the report card it may just go away before I have tell mom and dad. That mole on my neck, well if I stop looking in the mirror then it’s not really there. Think about global warming like an angry wart on your genitals. Yes, you can choose to ignore it for a while, but that may severely diminish your most divine, meaningful experiences of life permanently in just a few short years. Actually it’s worse. In this case your kids (and their kids and grand-kids) get the wart too, because you declined to get treatment.

If there was an opportunity for the candidates to establish a bit of “climate cred” this was the moment. Imagine either of them declaring after the storm, “Okay enough, now we get it and MUST act decisively.” I might have even considered taking a closer look at Romney if he had taken that kind of maverick position. It was a missed opportunity to draw in enlightened centrists and he blew it.

It was New York’s Mayer Bloomberg who took value from Sandy’s harsh lesson by breaking his pledge not to endorse either candidate and tip his hat to Obama (more precisely away from Romney) specifically for their respective positions on the changing climate. In his published endorsement, Bloomberg wrote that “Our climate is changing, and while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.” His beef with Romney is his position shift on global warm, criticizing him for “abandoning the very cap-and-trade program he once supported. This issue is too important. We need determined leadership at the national level to move the nation and the world forward.” Bravo (and please consider a run in 2016).

So where does this leave us? In case there was any doubt, this is the new and nasty normal we can all expect moving forward: hotter summers, bigger storms, higher tides, more severe weather. I would not be recommending ground floor properties in Lower Manhattan, whose residents may be joining the islanders of Vanuatu on the list of the permanently evacuated . The question is no longer how do we fix this problem, it is now how do we live with this permanent change, and how do we limit even greater damage?

For some truly frightening reading on the damage done and what to expect next, read Eaarth by Bill McKibben. And you thought Halloween was scary!! Buckle up.

Bill Magill