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July 26, 2010

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I spend a lot of time talking to people about this issue. It's so overwhelming in its threat that were the danger mediated by Muslims, gays, secular humanists, or Scary Black People, there would be a national mobilizaton underway to combat this Evil.

Unfortunately, its mediated by funders of the Rightwing Scream Machine, which means that science is the new Al Gore, something to ridicule and dispute with adolescent glee. Say this about the American right: there is no issue that cannot be explained away with smug malice. It's cold in Fargo! Take that, pointy-headed intellectuals.

A couple of columns in today's Times add further grist to this mill. Paul Krugman, the "shrill one", singles out John McCain for special scorn on account of political cowardice. His 2008 platform acknowledged the gravity of the problem and proposed a solution with a Republican pedigree: cap and trade. Now the same McCain along with the nihilists in party leadership heap scorn upon something so anodyne that a couple of years ago it didn't even merit a burp from the mouthbreathers.

The second column by Ross Douthat is more troubling because the current in-house conservative can't resist reframing anti-environmentalism as a rational response to left-wing hysteria. Global warming is real but you can't blame conservatives for opposing it since all those Club of Rome types were so "wrong" back in the 70s. In other words, reality is subservient to score-keeping. http://www.nytimes.com/opinion/

If people are confused about the science and the threat, then the blame ultimately rests with the opinion-shapers, journalists, media titans, and the political class. Yes, we're stupid, but we're stupid for a reason. We've been told over and over again that for every bad rightwing crazy there's a bad leftwing crazy. In effect, everything is relative and truth is conditional. Let moderation reign!

I'd like to make a modest proposal here: fuck moderation. If reality is so confusing that we believe only bipartisan thumb-twiddlers can be trustworthy, then let's elect Evan Bayh president and go back to sleep. The planet will burn regardless. If some of us do care, then we could stake our lives to the only issue that is legitimately existential in its threat. We're going to die anyway so let's act as if reality matters more than celebrity gossip and football games.

There's no gambling going on here, it is russian roulette with a full cylinder.

Wow, I didn't know that Lindsay Lohan was a natural redhead. Now, I don't have time to read the rest of this post: I have to turn on the TV news to learn more about Lindsay.

Thanks Rate Crimes! High on my list of things to do today was to spit my soft drink all over my key board.

Too funny.

On a more serious note:

I post the following thoughts:

*Mankind does an excellent job at soiling its own nests: big metropolitan areas damaged by garbage, water pollution, air pollution, light pollution, noise pollution, etc. Since all of the media resides in these polluted areas, they can't see out into the wilderness, where the air, the water and the land is pristine. Therefore, they can only report on the pollution.

*On a planetary scale, I find it quite audacious for mankind to think they can have a meaningful impact on global dynamics. A single volcanic eruption is capable of putting more gases and particulates into the atmosphere than all the combines gases and particulates put into the atmosphere since man discovered how to make fire. Again, the nests may be soiled. But the planet? Not even close.

*As a species, we are on pace to eat ourselves out of house and home. Hunger and thirst are by far the greater threats. If the earth's climate were to settle into a range that was pleasing and enjoyable to the scientists, the media and all of us, we would still be on course to eat ourselves out of house and home.

*We still can't comprehend the life cycle of a 2,000 year old tree. It is too long of a span of time in relation to our measly 75 years. So, how on earth can we grasp the ebb and flow of a 4.5 billion year old biosphere??

* We were (A) born and we will (B) die. I can give you my unconditional word that if you were A, then B is going to happen. All we can do on our journey from A to B is to be kind to your fellow man. Do the right thing, within your capabilites, to your environment. Stand up for what you believe in. (you all do that on this blog, so I know you do it in your life as well.)

And you better have fun. On your deathbed, I want you to think to yourself, "man, now that life was a challenge, but boy did we have fun along the way"


AZ REB

I hope I'm still a long way from my deathbed, but still, I often think, "man, if only Arizona wasn't ruled by selfish, small-minded, short-sighted, manipulative, scheming, reactionary, craven clodpates, then life there would a lot more fun."

AZREB writes:

"Since all of the media resides in these polluted areas, they can't see out into the wilderness, where the air, the water and the land is pristine. Therefore, they can only report on the pollution."


They can't? Scientists can't observe and journalists can't write? Thanks for a denialist argument so risible that it flunks the most basic test of logic.

AZREB writes:

"On a planetary scale, I find it quite audacious for mankind to think they can have a meaningful impact on global dynamics..."

This denialist non-argument is common and employs a kind of cracker-barrel empathy for ignorance. "I must be kinda dumb because I looked at my family tree and didn't see no monkeys". Well, yes, science is audacious to those who regard comfort as an epistemological system. But on its own terms science only does what its methodology allows. It's perpetually self-correcting because those that do it are bound to critique one another. So, unless you're positing a huge global conspiracy among scientists to fudge the data, what would account for such institutional bias and malevolence? One scientist might well be wrong, and a particular research team might be misguided. But all of them? Everywhere?

The curious thing about this non-argument is that it is compelling if only as an example of psychological projection. Polluter propagandists at right-wing think tanks do fudge the data insofar as they make tendentious arguments out of minor data sets. It's like claiming because 1998 was a very hot year that every year since then has been cooling (that's wrong even on its own terms, but....). Why hasn't global warming theory been challenged in its most basic premises? Because atmospheric physics is not an opinion.


AZBEB writes:
"We still can't comprehend the life cycle of a 2,000 year old tree. It is too long of a span of time in relation to our measly 75 years. So, how on earth can we grasp the ebb and flow of a 4.5 billion year old biosphere??"

This appeal to mystified ignorance would make Rush Limbaugh and his dittoheads giggle. It suggests scientific knowledge is inadequate to explain anything. Now, if the person making this argument were a scientist, the humility might be reassuring. But when the argument comes from someone denying basic science, then warning flags unfurl. Not knowing things does not invalidate what others do know. If you know something to be wrong, then it's incumbent to present your evidence. If you're globally positing ignorance as an inescapable and perpetual condition of human beings, you're extrapolating from an individual condition and making it universal.


Denialism is fun. It makes some people enjoy the thought of somehow "knowing" more than those smarty-pants scientists with their ivory-tower airs. I understand the anti-elitist impulse at work here. But assume for a moment that you might be wrong. Assume that science is not a conspiracy but valid in its fundamental premises. You would, if you are not a sociopath, want to do everything possible to avert a global catastrophe these scientists are warning about. Because if they're wrong, the worst thing that would happen was losing a few points of GDP growth. If they're right, then you behaved in the only way a morally sentient person would behave.

But first you have to acknowledge you could be wrong. Something tells me you won't do that. Individually, this won't matter. Collectively, it is doom.

soleri, I do way, way more than most people to reduce my carbon footprint. A few posts back, I challenged all of you on this blog to take a simple test to see how you all stacked up on water conservation. I wanted to see if all of you talked the talk and walked the walk. As you can see, the response was very disappointing. Why talk, talk, talk on a blog then go out and do the opposite? Besides the main point I tried to make about the arrogance of mankind in relation to global impact, is my biggest concern that we are fighting the problem at the wrong level. Over-population is the main problem. We need to deal with that, not the end result of over-population which is pollution. Why is over-population untouchable and not allowed to even be discussed? Here's a simple equation: People = Pollution. It is impossible to reduce pollution without reducing people.

Do I believe our globe is warming up? Yes, I do. Heck, all you have to do is go up to Glacier National park, stand there and say "Dang, where did all the glaciers go!"

What's the cause? I don't know. I bet it's a combination of things which won't become clear to man until eons from now.

If all of us on this blog got together and said "let's do everything possible to stop man's impact on global warming, who among us would have the strength and charisma to talk 300,000,000 Americans away from their TV sets, computers, iPhones and Crackberries to pay attention to our plea?

azrebel, (if we're keeping score) I drove 2K miles in my car last year, 7K on my bike. So far this year, zero miles in my car. When I was in AZ I captured rainwater and composted for my garden. I did not own a clothes dryer other than AZ sunshine. I am a practicing (though unrepentantly casual) vegetarian. In the past two years, I travelled more miles by train than by plane. I do not shop at Walmart. I buy local. I chuckle when ASU's oxymoronically-named "Global Insitute of Sustainabilitiy" is mentioned. Still, my American footprint is far heavier than are the footprints of my friends from Eastern Europe.

My primary concern is for an issue more profound than global warming: the soul of our culture must be healed.

"I'd like to make a modest proposal here: fuck moderation." - soleri

soleri, I empathize with your sentiment (and enjoy the irony). Yet, for all the consternation and bitterness I feel, I continue to (imperfectly) practice moderation.

We should not allow ourselves to become as stupid, shrill, mean, and belligerent as are those we oppose. Yet, we must continue to name them for what they are. Hopefully, some will listen to the quiet voice of reason.

An aside:

I just began watching the 2005, 10-part interpretation of Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita". Y'all might enjoy it too.

azrebel, why should anyone pay attention? You're essentially denying the reality of the problem and, therefore, the solutions. Your own conservation is admirable but appears to exist only for that admiration.

Whether we drive or not misses the point. Or conserve water. Or buy fewer things. What is required here is A) an acknowledgement of the problem, B) an understanding of the trade-offs, costs, and necessary global cooperation, and C) our willingness to forgo tribal and nationalistic chauvinism in forging that coooperation.

We're all in this together. I appreciate the Ed Begley Jrs. of the world but we're not going to solve this huge problem with contests to see who has the smaller carbon footprint. We need concerted action that springs from political will and meaningful action. This is what's currently missing. It's missing because the right wing has persuaded a majority of us to believe fairy tales and disbelieve science.

Overpopulation is a problem that can't be solved by fiat, unfortunately. The highest birthrates are in places with the lowest greenhouse emissions. These places will also be the first to suffer from global warming. Overpopulation will eventually be solved by global warming. It will be extremely ugly.

Why talk in this blog instead of haranguing people on street corners? I don't really know but I hope that the few people who read this blog are also the most likely to understand the gravity of this issue. What happened in the US Senate is a deeply depressing story that should haunt us for a long time going forward. Let's not miss the teachable moment in this debacle by pretending science isn't real.

Granted, global climatology is a subject that is both complex and in its infancy: but there does seem to be a broad consensus among professional scientists specializing in the field that:

(a) global warming is real;
(b) industrial emissions are a major contributor (and to the extent that other factors may be involved, we need to concentrate on what we have control over);
(c) it if is not successfully addressed, the results to life on the planet, and human civilization, will be catastrophic.

The possibility of scientific error is real, but from a pragmatic standpoint, the question is do we really want to take that chance, and if we do, what do we stand to gain from the risk?

The issue of climate change is really an excellent opportunity to kill two very large birds with one stone, because the solutions to climate change -- conversion to alternative energy sources (non-coal burning and non-oil burning) and increased energy efficiency (thus descreased energy use) are the very solutions that will ameliorate an energy/economic crisis resulting from eventual oil supply problems.

The double-header (save the planet / Western civilization) is an agitprop dream: if you can't mount an effective campaign of public education and political action organization with these gifts fallen into your lap, retire to a porch in West Virginia and take up banjo playing.

China is the big fly in the ointment. As of 2007, its CO2 emissions exceeded those of the United States and were well on their way to exceeding those of North America; the problem can only accelerate as the Chinese economy grows. See pdf-page 46 (internal document page 44):

http://www.iea.org/co2highlights/CO2highlights.pdf

China, despite its admirably forward-looking, large investments in alternative energy sources, has made it clear that it regards pollution as an inescapable byproduct of industrialization, and that it will not sacrifice its domestic economy to global environmental goals. Other developing countries (e.g., India) eager to grow their economies via manufactured exports and the industrialization accompanying this, will follow suit.

Coal is plentiful and relatively cheap, and treatment of industrial emissions is expensive. The carbon footprint from massive and dirty industrialization in these countries will dwarf that of the West.

In the West, and in America in particular, there will be a reluctance to sacrifice economic competititiveness in a race already tilting toward China, without the cooperation of the world's biggest polluter.

There is a very simple, unilateral solution to China's recalcitrance: the imposition of punitive tariffs on imports of Chinese goods. Again, this will kill several birds with one stone. By slowing Chinese growth, it will massively reduce both carbon emissions and demand for oil; by making Chinese exports uncompetitive, it will revive manufacturing, if not in developing countries then in regions immediate to them (e.g., Mexico). The latter will increase consumer demand by increasing consumer incomes in our region, and that will take us out of the doldrums of economic stagnation.

It will even address our "immigration problem" if we make private investment in Mexico sufficiently attractive: Mexico, not China, shares a border with the United States; if you thought you saw a lot of immigration last decade, wait until Mexico's oil exports (its number one legal revenue source) dry up and Mexican citizens look north for employment. Instead of shipping all that Canadian tar-sands oil in tankers on long, constant round-trip voyages to the other side of the planet, build a pipeline through the U.S. down to Sonora.

It isn't as though China is such a sterling member of the world community that we couldn't bear doing this. China is a police dictatorship with dreams of militaristic regional hegemony, remember? Why arm potential military competitors with our own consumer dollars?

Yes, there is the problem of all that Chinese owned debt. As of May, 2010, mainland China owned a whopping 22 percent of U.S. debt to the public:

http://www.ustreas.gov/tic/mfh.txt

That's going to take some finessing, and its the weakest point of the argument, requiring a detailed and compelling solution if the argument is to avoid easy dismissal. Some sort of swap agreement with Europe and Japan (which might also benefit from such policies) could allow potentially hostile Chinese debt-lords to be replaced with proven friends and allies and more democratic governments, while allowing the fiscal burden to be shared without bankrupting any individual country.

Aside from debt vulnerability, one would imagine that all of this, from extending the effective life of oil supplies ("Cheap gasoline!") to giving our own domestic economy one hell of a buck-you-up, to reducing illegal immigration, not by harsh and ineffective laws like SB 1070, but by doing the Mexicans a favor, would be an easy sell all around. So, why isn't it?

Well, there are two distinct opponents, and while they are potentially natural enemies of each other, they share enough overlap on critical points to enable them to act as a formidable front against progress. They are:

(1) The neo-liberal agenda. This is to be identified with internationalism in commerce with the single, overriding goal of putting more money in the pockets of the financial elite (say, the top 1 percent of the income pyramid), from increased profits and the increased stock values following from these, via the mechanism of labor-cost cutting, through the exploitation of foreign labor in economies where standards of living are low, regulatory overhead is low or non-existent in practice, and restrictions on union and/or political organizing, guarantee a better return on investment. (There are other factors determining the desirability of a country for investors, but no need to digress here.)

When a large portion of your income derives from stock values, and stock values derive from profit margins, and profit margins can be increased by cutting labor costs, there is little business incentive (or personal incentive for the wealthy) to be loyal to a place: layoffs don't affect them personally, and increasingly they don't affect the bottom line, since the portion of company income deriving from foreign markets is growing and in some cases is already a majority of the revenue of major international corporations.

So, it's easy to find self-serving justifications objectifying their greed, and converting it from a moral defect to a set of virtues based upon "the inevitability of progress" and specious economic arguments in which the benefits trickle down in a way that offsets the little people's "temporary" loss. (Those dear, dear, short-sighted, parochial little people, who must be led by the wise past the Scylla and Charybdis of "protectionism" (which built this country) and troglodytic opposition to change.)

Since the Overclass benefitting from these policies owns the media (many of whose most prominent members in radio and television belong to it), and has inordinate influence over the political governing class via our private campaign finance system, they are a most formidable foe.

(2) Right-wing reactionaries, typified by the vast bulk of talk-radio listeners. The mere mention of anything "leftist" sets their hairy nostrils quivering with righteous indignation. Yet, they are themselves neither rich nor elite, and are potential enemies of the Overclass.

So, what's the counter-strategy?

I believe that those on the left are making a fundamental propaganda error by concentrating too exclusively on environmental concerns. These are important, and can scarcely be avoided -- indeed, are a powerful tool to embrace in trying to convince others to "save the world"; but the first rule of rhetoric is "know your audience", and not every audience consists of social-minded individuals sensitive to environmental degradation.

A comprehensive message embracing economic, environmental, and national values (including an appeal to patriotism), carefully weighted, would have broad appeal. Those on the left might also consider the adoption of techniques developed by the ad industry.

The idea is to convince others that their PERSONAL economic, environmental, and self-identified national interests, are at stake. Environmentalism should not be presented in abstract terms involving a few degrees celsius increase in global average temperature, or of glaciers receding, or of coastal waters rising in Polynesia.

Individuals don't live in "the Earth", they live in specific countries and localities. For many Americans. glaciers and coastlines are a vaguely conceived "elsewhere" occupied by "them". Make the message personal and concrete and appeal on as many levels simultaneously as possible. Be compelling, but be scrupulously honest. Don't overstate your case with dubious factoids: the hardest trust to win is the trust once lost.

As for Begleyism, individual actions can have a collective effect if sufficiently widespread. Here's an interesting item posted by Bloomberg News just today:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-07-27/u-k-carbon-calculator-shows-80-emissions-reduction-is-achievable-by-2050.html

Typo correction. I wrote:

"By slowing Chinese growth, it will massively reduce both carbon emissions and demand for oil; by making Chinese exports uncompetitive, it will revive manufacturing, if not in developing countries then in regions immediate to them (e.g., Mexico)."

Substitute: "...if not in DEVELOPED countries..."

As written, I overstated the extent of Chinese holdings of U.S. debt. I wrote:

"As of May, 2010, mainland China owned a whopping 22 percent of U.S. debt to the public:"

I meant to write "22 percent of U.S. debt to the public HELD BY FOREIGN HOLDERS:"

With total U.S. debt to the public at $8.7 trillion as of July 5th, China's $868 billion in holdings amounts to "only" 10 percent. Still whopping, but not nearly as bad as I inadvertently suggested.

Emil,

I would like to offer a toast to you in the form of a quotation from a book I just read again, "Schindler's List".

The first part of the paragraph applies to us "doomers" on this blog, me included.

"when you chronicle the predictable and measurable success evil generally achieves - it is easy to be wise, wry, piercing, to avoid bathos."

The paragraph ends as follows and I dedicate it to you:

"But it is a risky enterprise to have to write of virtue."

Thank you for all that you post on this blog. The research, your intuitive interpretation, your optimism.

Thank you.

You may save me yet.

AZ REB

Thanks, azrebel!

Here's another idea for dealing with the threat of a "Chinese debt-pullout".

The Chinese hold $868 billion in U.S. debt. It's an interesting coincidence, because as a result of Federal Reserve actions during the financial crisis (specifically, a policy known as "quantitative easing") there is supposedly on the order of $1 trillion worth of "excess liquidity" sloshing around in the reserve system of U.S. commercial banks.

You may recall the fact from numerous "hyperinflation scare" stories and opinion columns making the rounds of the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers, before it became clear that the economic recovery was going to take just a wee bit longer than hoped. Presumably, the U.S. could use this to finance the Chinese sell-off, leaving only $132 billion in excess liquidity to be managed.

Actually, however -- and here's a point which is seldom considered -- a Chinese sell-off would require considerably smaller funds to deal with: a sale by the Chinese in the secondary markets (i.e. to other investors) might drive down Treasury yields but it would not leave the U.S. Government (or taxpayer) owing one thin dime; only if the Chinese government demanded remuneration directly from the U.S. Treasury could a mass sell-off threaten U.S. economic security; and the Chinese can only demand money this way for the Treasury securities which have matured and come due. Since U.S. Treasury securities range in maturity from months to decades (30 years), it would depend on the particular mix held by the Chinese at the time of sale.

Incidentally, here's an interesting article on why we don't have hyperinflation (scroll down to "So Where's The Inflation?"):

http://www.businessinsider.com/why-we-dont-have-hyperinflation-even-though-the-fed-has-printed-1-trillion-2010-2

If I once more hear the phrase, "teachable moment", even if used with irony, I'm gonna puke.

We live in a society with myriad such disconnected 'moments' where nothing profound is ever learned.

"tnemom elbahcaet"

Even backwards, Rate?

P.S. I like your website Rate, very cool. It's in my favorites now.

Mr. Talton, showing his usual discriminating taste, has provided Rogue Columnist readers with yet another recherche Front Page link ("Can the planet support the old model of growth?")

http://motherjones.com/politics/2010/05/peter-victor-deficit-growth?page=1

I mention this because it seems very much in line with the subject of the current blog item. I'm going to post a copy of my comment to Mother Jones and others may chime in.

* * *

Interesting article. A few points:

"In the past, the only no-growth societies were agrarian or consisted of hunter-gatherers."

Not so. Those societies grew their populations, and the range or size of their resource basket (land, crops, animals) and as a consequence, their consumption.

"Western consumption rates would need to shrink disproportionately so that citizens of countries like India and El Salvador could enjoy a lifestyle upgrade. Why? The no-growthers argue that a world with fewer yawning inequities between the rich and poor would be more stable; but quite apart from that, their models require stabilizing world population, and raising the economic lot of the poor is a proven way to do that. Given the shift in wealth needed to accomplish this, Americans would need to turn back the clock..."

This is a serious misunderstanding of the role of income in a society. Income exists to ration goods and services among the members of society. (Obviously, this rationing is not equal, because incomes are not equal). The point is that an economy only produces a quantity, X of actual goods and services; once total income equals the value of X, additional income cannot purchase anything. (Well, it can from OTHER economies, but implicit in the quoted paragraph is a systemic approach in which all economies are considered as a single super-economy.)

Reducing economic output will automatically reduce total income, because the total value of goods and services produced by an economy is equivalent to the earnings of the workers (wages and salaries) and owners (profit takers) who collectively produce/manage the production of those goods and services. Look at it this way: somebody is paying retail prices, and that business income goes to pay the cost of all the labor required to produce the end product or service, as well as the profits of the owners (which are THEIR income).

Again, how that divies up is determined by who controls the resources (and therefore the incomes). The idea that automation can allow both leisure and wealth only applies to those who own the means of production, or at least control the distribution of its revenues. Anyone else can be fired, have their wages cut, and so forth, as the owners see fit.

Note that you cannot make India richer by transferring "wealth" if by wealth you mean paper money. That will not create any increase in goods and services, either in India or in America; and if America is creating less actual goods and services, as suggested by the article, it cannot transfer more "wealth" if by wealth you mean goods and services rather than paper money. Rather the opposite: the less America produces, the less there is to share, both domestically and abroad. So, developing nations must grow or remain where they are in terms of living standards.

I think that no-growth economies might be feasible, but would require radical alterations that some would call socialistic. I also wonder about the role of credit (loans at interest) in such a society. (I am almost out of time this session and will have to leave that hanging: perhaps to be continued.)

An additional comment to Mother Jones directly relating to our discussion here:

* * *

Just a brief postscript: it may be necessary to postpone development (that is, of the accelerated variety in China and India) until the clean energy technology (not coal-fired plants and oil-burning vehicles) exists upon which to base economic development, and the developed powers have the will to share it with the third world. There is an interesting discussion related to such issues at Rogue Columnist [hyperlink].

* * *

Note that if this is to be done, it has to be done sooner rather than later, before China's domestic consumers can replace its export economy.

Remember, the increase in industrial emissions isn't just a function of China manufacturing products for export on an ever growing scale: it's also a function of the addition of its gigantic population as consumers, with their own gasoline powered motor vehicles, and so forth; and you can bet those motor vehicles will be dirty by modern western standards, because emission controls are expensive therefore less affordable by domestic consumers there paying a retail price which includes such expenses.

Also, the more Chinese consumers consume, the more energy they will need, and the more industrial emissions they will produce over and above their export manufacturing output.

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