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Deep thought - Aug 7

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Insurgent American
A practical strategic resource

Stan Goff and Brian Russell, Insurgent American

New group site from Stan Goff and DeAnander, both of whom are aware of peak oil. Some selections from this unconventional left-oriented site...

About us:
A unique space where feminists, deracinated leftists, peak-oilers, anarcho-kids, intentional communities, permaculture advocates, oppressed nationalities, the religious left, organic gardeners, radical veterans, environmental justice advocates, academic and feral scholars, social justice advocates, and anyone else, can come together to share and refine analysis in an aggressively non-sectarian environment, and above all to share practical experience for the collective purpose of establishing independent oases - from commune to urban neighborhood to suburb - for the express purpose of discovering and grounding a new form of political resistance based on graduated independence... with each oasis reflecting particular local conditions.

Insurgent American's 35-Point Practical Guide for Action

(1) Make food. Even if its a windowsill or roof garden with a couple of tomato plants. Make a yard garden. Grow your own food, just a bit. You can expand on this later. Check out Food Not Lawns for inspiration. Start small, and don't over stretch yourself. Succeeding early is important.

(2) Take "one more step" to oppose militarism. If you are not sporting a button or bumper sticker against the war, then start doing that. if you're doing that, but not writing - Congress, letters to the editor, op-eds, email lists - then start writing. If you're doing that, then give money to an antiwar effort. If you're doing that, then start to attend local meetings. You get the idea. Take just one more step. Stopping this war will have unimaginably good ripple effects and empower all people's movements everywhere. More ideas and up-to-date info at Bring Them Home Now!

(3) Create a blog. Blogs can be a lot more than vanity sites. They are a form of democratic communication that allow us all to be simultaneous teachers and learners, and they increase the density and survival redundancy of our communications networks. They are communications infrastructure. More blogs, more links, more sharing, more community, better coordination. Basic Blogging for Women is very helpful, for everyone, and we can also open a discussion thread here at the IA forums.

(4) Commit to study. One of the most common - and in our opinion, flawed - complaints we hear among activists and frustrated, impatient political junkies, is that there is too much writing and discussion and not enough action. Here's what we have to say about that. Nonsense! Human agency is not simply in outwardly messing around with one's environment. It is being a conscious agent of change. If we are walking around blindfolded, we are taking action; but if we want that action to be efficacious, then we need to see, figuratively speaking. Studying is a critical form of action. Commit to study something new, and expand your understanding of a topic or issue every chance you get.
(August 2007)
One of the most interesting responses to peak oil and environmental crises. The viewpoint is strongly leftist, but breaks with the idea of a centralized dogma and leadership:

Grand cookie-cutter strategies do not work. The larger an organization or project is, the less its agility, and the greater the portion of resources and energy required to administer and manage, instead of do the work.

A trip around the site reveals a variety of influences, from feminism to permaculture, with a strong admixture of the New Left. There is an attempt to be practical and community-oriented, rather than theoretical and sectarian. Is there any other leftist site that advocates starting a worm farm?
-BA


Figuring Out Real Impacts

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon's Book
I'm going to bet many of you have seen this article, which came out today. Walking to the shops ‘damages planet more than going by car' (UK Times)

It will probably get major media airplay, simply because the media loves this sort of thing. And quite a few people will take the message to heart - oh, I don't have to stop driving or using plastic bags. Now there are some real virtues to doing counter-intuitive energy analyses, and I think this study has some (limited) merit. But let's take a closer look at it and its claims before we get all excited.

Goodall argues that walking to stores creates more carbon than driving there. The comparison he bases this on is this:

"The sums were done by Chris Goodall, campaigning author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life, based on the greenhouse gases created by intensive beef production. "Driving a typical UK car for 3 miles [4.8km] adds about 0.9 kg [2lb] of CO2 to the atmosphere," he said, a calculation based on the Government's official fuel emission figures. "If you walked instead, it would use about 180 calories. You'd need about 100g of beef to replace those calories, resulting in 3.6kg of emissions, or four times as much as driving.

"The troubling fact is that taking a lot of exercise and then eating a bit more food is not good for the global atmosphere. Eating less and driving to save energy would be better."

Now what's wrong with this comparison? Well, among other things it is assuming that we get all our walking calories from the worst possible source for the environment - industrial beef production. The idea is that whenever I get up on my feet, I'm doing it powered by feedlot cows. But even the most relentless Atkinsite occasionally eats a salad, and most of us who care about the environment grasp that eating industrially produced meat is not ok.

So what happens if you power that with 180 calories of salad you grew organically in your yard? Or with 180 calories of beans and grains grown sustainably? With your CSA share? With grassfed lamb grown on land unsuitable for tillage? I haven't done that math, but the numbers would be considerably lower. The application of common sense to statistics can be surprisingly useful.

Chris Goodall seems to have taken the road of media attention but little nuance - that is, his goal is get attention for his book, not to offer real and useful information for people. By presenting this as an artificial dualism, you give people the impression that they might as well just go on doing what they were doing. But pointing out that both reducing industrial food consumption and reducing driving are necessary doesn't get as much publicity.
(6 August 2007)
Congratulations to Sharon for doing a quick analysis and debunking of misinformation. Unfortunately, the misinformation was published in the British "Times" and her debunking was in her online blog -- a David and Goliath struggle. -BA


The really inconvenient truth - part I

Michael Fendley , On Line Opinion (Australia)
With ever-increasing attention to environmental crises, be they climate change, habitat destruction or drought, what has been our response? What have we done or failed to do? Why? Have we done anything meaningful? What should we do? This article - divided into two parts - seeks to answer these questions, seeks to look at the big picture - across time, cultures and ideas - of our relationship with nature in an attempt to gain some perspective on where we are and where we are heading.

Part One begins with a snapshot of our current situation and goes on to explore why we are struggling to achieve a good relationship with the natural world, with a particular emphasis on the difficulties posed by our biological traits and physical circumstances. Part Two - to be published in two week's time - will continue this search but shift emphasis to the dominant ideas and cultural systems governing our lives and will finish with suggestions as to how we might live better on and with this earth.

It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress, as much room for improving the Art of Living, and much more likelihood of it being improved.
- John Stuart Mill, The Stationary State, 1848.

I wonder what John Stuart Mill would make of the "art of living" at the start of the 21st century? Of our willingness to embrace anything like a steady state? I think he would be shocked to see that what he saw as "scarcely necessary to remark" - the finite nature of the world and the pointlessness and destructiveness of our quest to forever overspill its boundaries - was in no way more accepted in our time than it was in his. Perhaps this is the real, inconvenient truth of our life on this planet.

The complete failure of Mill's observation to take hold and have effect was brought home to me the other day when I glanced at some old notes and population figures while cleaning out my office on the way to new quarters. Looking at a population chart of the 20th century it struck me what an extraordinary species we are: in my short half-lifetime, commencing in 1960, our population has doubled. Yes, that's correct, up from three billion to more than six billion.

As extraordinary as this is, it is matched or even exceeded by our growth in consumption of everything from oil, to water, to the simple space we require to live in. Even with the supposed environmental awareness of the 1960s and '70s behind us, we in Australia blithely increased our house size by 23 per cent from the mid 1980s and by nearly 50 per cent since the 1950s while the number of people per house actually dropped.

Michael Fendley has worked on environmental matters all his life and currently manages education programs and consultancies for Monash University's Sustainability Institute. In the past he has worked for local, state and Federal governments on local conservation strategies, coastal conservation and endangered species programs respectively, taught HSC-VCE for six years, been Conservation Manager for Birds Australia, CEO of the Victorian National Parks Association, and a consultant to organisations such as Parks Victoria, Deakin University and the Murray Darling Basin Commission.
(6 August 2007)
Recommended by contributor Michael Lardelli as "a very good article on population and sustainability."


In Dusty Archives, a Theory of Affluence

Nicholas Wade, New York Times
For thousands of years, most people on earth lived in abject poverty, first as hunters and gatherers, then as peasants or laborers. But with the Industrial Revolution, some societies traded this ancient poverty for amazing affluence.

Historians and economists have long struggled to understand how this transition occurred and why it took place only in some countries. A scholar who has spent the last 20 years scanning medieval English archives has now emerged with startling answers for both questions.

Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, believes that the Industrial Revolution - the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 - occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save emerged only recently in human history, Dr. Clark argues.

...The basis of Dr. Clark's work is his recovery of data from which he can reconstruct many features of the English economy from 1200 to 1800. From this data, he shows, far more clearly than has been possible before, that the economy was locked in a Malthusian trap _ - each time new technology increased the efficiency of production a little, the population grew, the extra mouths ate up the surplus, and average income fell back to its former level.

This income was pitifully low in terms of the amount of wheat it could buy. By 1790, the average person's consumption in England was still just 2,322 calories a day, with the poor eating a mere 1,508. Living hunter-gatherer societies enjoy diets of 2,300 calories or more.

"Primitive man ate well compared with one of the richest societies in the world in 1800," Dr. Clark observes.

The tendency of population to grow faster than the food supply, keeping most people at the edge of starvation, was described by Thomas Malthus in a 1798 book, "An Essay on the Principle of Population." This Malthusian trap, Dr. Clark's data show, governed the English economy from 1200 until the Industrial Revolution and has in his view probably constrained humankind throughout its existence. The only respite was during disasters like the Black Death, when population plummeted, and for several generations the survivors had more to eat.

...After the Industrial Revolution, the gap in living standards between the richest and the poorest countries started to accelerate, from a wealth disparity of about 4 to 1 in 1800 to more than 50 to 1 today. Just as there is no agreed explanation for the Industrial Revolution, economists cannot account well for the divergence between rich and poor nations or they would have better remedies to offer.

Many commentators point to a failure of political and social institutions as the reason that poor countries remain poor. But the proposed medicine of institutional reform "has failed repeatedly to cure the patient," Dr. Clark writes. He likens the "cult centers" of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to prescientific physicians who prescribed bloodletting for ailments they did not understand.

If the Industrial Revolution was caused by changes in people's behavior, then populations that have not had time to adapt to the Malthusian constraints of agrarian economies will not be able to achieve the same production efficiencies, his thesis implies.
(7 August 2007)
A one word refutation of Dr. Clark's theory: China. As Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist for the World Bank, noted:

China is about to adopt its 11th five-year plan, setting the stage for the continuation of probably the most remarkable economic transformation in history, while improving the wellbeing of almost a quarter of the world's population. Never before has the world seen such sustained growth; never before has there been so much poverty reduction.

How could China have come so far so quickly, if the root cause of affluence is genetic change? The sheer numbers in China dwarf Dr. Clark's example of England.

However, discussion of the theory brings up many interesting points (for example, Malthusian theory and the astounding chasm between rich and poor countries).

Whether the roots of a culture are genetic or not, one wonders what characteristics will prove favorable in an era of declining fossil fuels? The current cultures of the U.S. and England seem to be particularly dysfunctional.

Research papers by Dr. Clark.

UPDATE: From the left, Louis Proyect writes: The transition to capitalism: is it in our genes?

-BA

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