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Deep thought - May 13

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Letter from Sweden: The State of the End of the World

Alan AtKisson, WorldChanging
... The 100th in a series of Stockholm Seminars featured a star cast of scientific minds, including Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton, a lead author of the IPCC Report; Johan Rockström and Carl Folke, who together lead the Stockholm Resilience Center; Johan Kleman, an expert on ice sheets and how they melt; and several others. The topic was climate, ecosystems, and development, and the many ways in which their fates are inseparable.

And, potentially, quite bleak. “There is no good news from science right now,” said Johan Rockström. A recent meeting of 2,400 scientists in Copenhagen had concluded that the worst scenarios of the IPCC Fourth Assessment report were being realized. The “Quadruple Squeeze” of human growth, climate change, ecosystem degradation and ever-more-likely “surprises” was making the photo of planet Earth on his presentation slide look wobbly indeed. He named four dilemmas, each with a numerical signature:

• The 20/80 dilemma, with the 20% of Earth’s population that is rich causing most of the damage that could prevent the 80% that is poor from achieving their material aspirations.

• The 550/450/350 dilemma, where the world seems committed to a 550 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide level even though 350 — or lower — is what may be necessary to preserve a stable climate.

• The 60%-loss dilemma, meaning, the sharp decay of the world’s ecosystems, precisely at the moment when we need strong ecosystems to buffer the shock of a changing/warming climate.

• And the 99/1 dilemma, meaning the increasing chance that unlikely things will happen —; unpleasant surprises of various kinds, issuing out of the combined changes in social, economic, and ecological systems (think global food price shocks, times 10).

Phrases like “crisis,” “looming disaster,” and “worst-case scenario” are commonplace in the climate-and-ecosystems-and-development debate. Still, they take on a special weight when uttered in the room next to where the Nobel Prizes in science are decided. Not all was doom and gloom, as we shall see, but I could not help feeling a certain relief in knowing that later today, I would be drinking beer with friends in the crisp, clear, lengthening evenings of Sweden. I had the feeling I was going to need it.
(11 May 2009)

Using Thermodynamics to (Re)Examine Environmental Kuznets Curves

David Murphy, The Oil Drum: Net Energy

The Environmental Kuznets Curve (henceforth EKC) was developed from a paper written by Simon Kuznets in 1955 titled Economic Growth and Income Inequality. His theory explained that the relationship between economic growth and income inequality forms an inverted U-shape graph with income inequality on the y-axis and economic growth (e.g. GDP/capita) on the x-axis. EKCs extend Kuznets’ original theory by stating that pollution increases as economies grow from agrarian to industrial, but as the population becomes wealthier a turning point is passed after which the amount of pollution decreases as income grows, forming an inverted U-shape (Figure 1). As such, EKC theory has been cited as a justification to prioritize economic development over environmental stewardship (Beckerman, 1992), and just last week the science reporter for the New York Times, John Tierney, wrote an article claiming exactly the same thing: “The richer everyone gets, the greener the planet will be in the long run.”

However, after 20 years of research and over 100 peer-reviewed papers, academia has yet to come to a consensus over the exact mechanism driving EKCs. Much of the disagreement over EKCs stem from shaky empirical support. To be sure, numerous studies used empirical tests and found the existence of EKCs, but many of these same studies disagree in two important ways: 1) estimates of the turning point of the inverted U-shape for pollutants vary widely and 2) the EKC relationship describes the trends for some pollutants only, not all. I propose that the lack of consensus surrounding EKCs stem from the fact that EKC theory, as it has been studied, ignores the laws of thermodynamics.

(11 May 2009)
A general rule of thumb: be skeptical about poorly substantiated theories that provide a justification for the status quo. They generally serve to stifle inquiry. -BA

Why I Fired My Broker

Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic
With his 401(k) in ruins, our correspondent visits investment gurus, hedge fund managers, and a freakish Arizona survivalist with one question in mind: How can the ordinary investor recover?
... THE WAY I SEE IT, it’s all a con game,” Cody Lundin was saying. “What I mean is that Wall Street has always been an illusion. Now it’s an illusion that’s crumbling. Wall Street is like someone who’s having heart trouble. It’s in constant need of resuscitation, but after a while, it just doesn’t work anymore. People think that Bernard Madoff was unique, that he was an illusion, but he’s just an extension of the same illusion, the same con game. This is one of the reasons I don’t like to have any debt. When you have debt, you become part of this illusion, and sometimes you get trapped by it.”

We were standing outside in a foot of snow in the mountains above Prescott, Arizona. Lundin was arguing so cogently against the American culture of easy credit, in tones far more thoughtful than one hears on cable television, that I forgot for a moment that he wasn’t wearing shoes, or socks. He was standing in the snow barefoot. Also, in shorts.

“It’s all about regulating core body temperature.” For long hikes in the snow, he wears three pairs of socks, without shoes. He suggested I try this.

Other things Lundin asked me to try include making fire with sticks, eating mice—“a free source of protein in survival scenarios”—and living without electricity for a week to “see where it hurts.” Lundin himself eats mice and rats he traps at his off-the-grid passive-solar house in the wilderness, because “why waste free protein?”

Lundin is a freak; twin blond braids fall from his bandanna-covered head, giving him the appearance of a stoner Viking. But in the event that the economy crumbles, and civilization with it, I would appoint him my financial adviser. He is my favorite survivalist, the author of a book on getting by in the wilderness and another on urban preparedness, and a teacher of primitive-living skills.

... Lundin is not a racist; in fact, he’s an Obama supporter, and he resents the racist associations attached to survivalism. Nor does he wish for the grid to go down. He says he enjoys electricity and indoor plumbing. He tends to think, though, that civilization is a thin film, and that in times of economic distress, it’s smart to be prepared for the day when Safeway runs out of milk. “This isn’t something I hope for. But what if the illusion does really crumble, and we have to move as a society to something else?”

I asked Cody how he invests his money. “I don’t believe in the intangible economy; I believe in the tangible economy. When I have extra money, I buy tools, food, or land. I like to be able to see what I’m buying. And I really don’t like debt, so I’d rather not have certain things than be in debt to anyone. I just feel better knowing that I don’t owe money, and I feel good knowing that I can take care of myself. That’s the American way, to be able to be self-reliant.”

For the record, I don’t think the grid is buckling under the weight of consumer debt or the mistakes of AIG. But we’re in a strange moment in American history when a mouse-eating barefoot survivalist in the mountains of Arizona makes more sense than the chief investment strategist of Merrill Lynch.
(May 2009)
Suggested by Big Gav at Peak Energy (Australia).

The Century of The Rights of Mother Earth

Leonardo Leonardo Boff, Latin America in Movement (ALAI)
Perhaps the most impressive statement in the speech of the President of Bolivia Evo Morales Ayma to the General Assembly of the U.N. on April 22nd, when that date was proclaimed the International Day of Mother Earth, was: «If the XX Century is recognized as the century of human rights; individual, social, economic, political and cultural, the XXI Century will be known as the Century of the Rights of Mother Earth, of the animals, plants, all living creatures and all beings, whose rights must also be respected and protected.»

We now stand before a new paradigm, centered in the Earth and in life. We are no longer mired in anthropocentrism, which failed to recognize the intrinsic value of each being, independent of the use we made of it. A clear awareness is growing, that everything that exists deserves to exist, and that everything that lives deserves to live.

We must therefore broaden our concept of democracy, as a biocracy, or sociocosmic democracy, because every element of nature, each at its own level, forms a part of human sociability. Would our cities still be human without the plants, the animals, the birds, the rivers, and pure air?

We now know through the new cosmology that all beings possess more than mass and energy. They are also carriers of information, with a history. They become complex and create orders that comport a certain level of subjectivity. It is this scientific basis that justifies the widening of the juridical personhood of all beings, especially of the living.

Michel Serres, the French philosopher of science, fittingly affirmed: «The Declaration of the Rights of Man had the merit of saying ‘all men have rights’ but its defect was in thinking that ‘only men have rights’.» Only through much struggle are the rights of the indigenous, of the Afro-descendants, and of women gaining full recognition. Similarly, it will require a great deal of effort for the rights of nature, of the eco-systems and of Mother Earth, to gain recognition.

Just as we developed the concept of citizenship, the government of Jorge Viana in the State of Acre, Brazil, coined a word, florestania, for the way of life in which the rights of the forest are affirmed and guaranteed.

President Morales requested that the U.N. issue a Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, whose principal topics would be: the right to life of all living beings; the right of the Planet to the regeneration of its biocapacity; the right to a pure life, because Mother Earth has the right to live free of contamination and pollution; and the right to harmony and equilibrium with and among all things. And we would add, the right to connect with the Whole of which we are part.

This vision shows us how far we have come from the capitalist conception, of which we have been hostages for centuries, and according to which the Earth is seen as a mere instrument of production, without purpose, a reservoir of resources to be exploited at our pleasure. We lacked the perception that the Earth is truly our Mother. And the Mother must be respected, venerated and loved.

This is what the President of the General Assembly, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, stated at the closing of the session: «It is very right that we, brothers and sisters, take good care of Mother Earth because, when all is said and done, she nourishes and sustains us.» For that reason, he appealed to everyone to pay close attention to the original peoples. In contrast to the violent robbery of the agro-industries operating all over the Earth, and in spite of all the pressures on them, they keep alive the connection with nature and with Mother Earth, and produce in consonance with her rhythms and with the possible capacity of endurance of each ecosystem.

The decision to welcome the celebration of the International Day of Mother Earth is more than a symbol. It is a total change in our relationship with the Earth, fleeing from the dominant pattern that can lead us, if we do not make profound transformations, towards self-destruction.

Leonardo Boff is a theologian, member of the Earthcharter Commission
Free translation from the Spanish by sent by Melina Alfaro, done at REFUGIO DEL RIO GRANDE, Texas

(11 May 2009)
Also at Common Dreams.

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