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Deep thought - 4 May

The Lost World

George Monbiot, monbiot.com
Where is the environmental vision that can resist the planet-wrecking project?

You think you’re discussing technologies, you quickly discover that you’re discussing belief systems. The battle among environmentalists over how or whether our future energy is supplied is a cipher for something much bigger: who we are, who we want to be, how we want society to evolve. Beside these concerns, technical matters – parts per million, costs per megawatt hour, cancers per sievert – carry little weight. We choose our technology – or absence of technology – according to a set of deep beliefs; beliefs which in some cases remain unexamined.

The case against abandoning nuclear power, for example, is a simple one: it will be replaced either by fossil fuels or by renewables which would otherwise have replaced fossil fuels. In either circumstance, greenhouse gases, other forms of destruction and human deaths and injuries all rise.

The case against reducing electricity supplies is just as clear. For example, the Zero Carbon Britain report published by the Centre for Alternative Technology urges a 55% cut in overall energy demand by 2030: a goal I strongly support. It also envisages a near-doubling of electricity production(1). The reason is that the most viable means of decarbonising both transport and heating is to replace the fuels they use with low-carbon electricity. Cut the electricity supply and we’re stuck with oil and gas. If we close down nuclear plants, we must accept an even greater expansion of renewables than currently proposed. Given the tremendous public resistance to even a modest increase in wind farms and new power lines, that’s going to be tough.

What the nuclear question does is to concentrate the mind about the electricity question. Decarbonising the economy involves an increase in infrastructure. Infrastructure is ugly, destructive and controlled by remote governments and corporations. These questions are so divisive because the same worldview tells us that we must reduce emissions, defend our landscapes and resist both the state and big business. The four objectives are at odds...

...If this vision looks implausible, consider the alternatives. In the latest edition of his excellent magazine The Land, Simon Fairlie responds furiously to my suggestion that we should take industry into account when choosing our energy sources(2). His article exposes a remarkable but seldom-noticed problem: that most of those who advocate an off-grid, land-based economy have made no provision for manufactures. I’m not talking about the pointless rubbish in the FT’s How to Spend It supplement. I’m talking about the energy required to make bricks, glass, metal tools and utensils, textiles (except the hand-loomed tweed Fairlie suggests we wear), ceramics and soap: commodities which almost everyone sees as the barest possible requirements.

Are people like Fairlie really proposing that we do without them altogether? If not, what energy sources do they suggest we use? Charcoal would once again throw industry into direct competition with agriculture, spreading starvation and ensuring that manufactured products became the preserve of the very rich. (Remember, as E.A. Wrigley points out, that half the land surface of Britain could produce enough charcoal to make 1.25m tonnes of bar iron – a fraction of current demand – and nothing else(3)). An honest environmentalism needs to explain which products should continue to be manufactured and which should not, and what the energy sources for these manufactures should be.
(3 May 2011)
The Simon Fairlie article George refers to in his article is here.

Peak Psychotherapy, Abundant Human Connection

Carolyn Baker, Speaking Truth to Power
In a world of unprecedented resource depletion, climate change, and economic catastrophe unseen since the Great Depression, each day manifests yet another reduction in energy, materials, services, opportunities, and funds for maintaining the status quo. We witness the almost moment-to-moment deterioration of every institution’s infrastructure, and the reality of the privatization of these entities becomes less and less unthinkable. But as peak oil and the collapse of industrial civilization intensify, even privatization will not be able to maintain the bulwark of systems dependent not only on gargantuan sums of money, but on fossil fuel energy and what are certain to be vastly underpaid personnel spread thinly across the substratum of a society in profound disarray.

For me, the topic of peak psychotherapy is not about wild speculation regarding the status of mental or other health care two decades from now. Will psychotherapy even exist, and if it does, what will it look like? We cannot answer that with certainty, but it is safe to assume that it will look very different from how it looks today and that however it looks in the future, it will be accessible to many fewer people than it is in present time—which may or may not be a good thing.

Most individuals who understand peak oil, climate change, and the ghastly economic realities of our time are likely to agree that access to health care as we have known it is rapidly vanishing. Yes, as collapse intensifies, alternative and natural healing techniques will abound. For some individuals, those methods will prove much more effective than allopathic medicine has been. For others, perhaps those who have suffered severe injuries or have advanced terminal illnesses, the absence of traditional health care will be fatal.

In any event, physical and mental health care as we know them today will probably not exist a generation from now. As humans cope with peak oil, they will attempt to acquire some form of energy to replace oil, and because they will not be able to do so, they will not have the products and services made possible by fossil fuel energy. As all students of peak oil know, there is no combination of energies on earth that can be implemented in time to avert a planetary energy crisis. Thus, the global infrastructure that has been operated on oil must eventually disappear. As the infrastructure disappears, humans will be forced to live differently. Likewise, as health care disappears, humans will be forced to heal differently. (Dr. John House’s article on health care in a post-peak world at Guy McPherson’s Nature Bats Last blog is especially relevant and useful.)...
(1 May 2011)

Delivering Educational Products: The Job Formerly Known as Teaching

Robert Jensen, Texas Observer
Hi, I’m Robert Jensen, a provider of educational products to consumers at the University of Texas at Austin.

I used to introduce myself as a UT professor, but that was before I attended a Texas Public Policy Foundation session last week offering more exciting “breakthrough solutions” to the problems of higher education.

At that session in a downtown Austin hotel, I learned that these very real problems—escalating costs and questionable quality of undergraduate instruction—can be solved in the “free market.” You know, the free market, that magical mechanism that gave us the housing bubble/credit derivative scam/financial meltdown. The free market that has produced growing inequality in the United States and around the world. That good old free market.

The solutions offered by representatives of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in the morning’s first session focused on ending public subsidies for higher education and treating it like any other business. These insights come on the heels of the much-hyped “seven breakthrough solutions” that TPPF has been pushing. (Read about them here, and for a satirical treatment, watch this.

Not surprisingly, both panelists spoke in the language of the market, turning education into a commodity. Panel moderator William Murchison, a conservative syndicated columnist, chimed in during the discussion, referring to “consumers of the educational product.”

I think that means students.

That pithy phrase led me to the microphone in the Q&A period, where I asked whether in this mad quest to turn higher education into a business the panelists might not be promoting efficiency so much as guaranteeing the final destruction of what’s left of real education. I said that I found it difficult to understand my teaching— which focuses on how citizens should understand concentrations of power in government and corporations, and on how journalists should respond—as “an economic exchange,” in the words of Cato’s Neal McCluskey.

...After 19 years of full-time teaching at the University of Texas, I’ve heard a lot of legitimate student complaints about professors who don’t care about teaching. I’ve complained myself about the irrelevance and inanity of so much of the “research” produced in the disciplines I know in the social sciences and humanities. I played that research game for my first six years to pass inspection and get tenure, but after that I dropped out of the scholarly publishing arena to concentrate on writing for a general audience. Shortly after that I stopped teaching graduate courses out of frustration with the self-indulgence of so much of the research/theory crowd in the study of media and mass communication. These days, I enjoy the challenge of connecting with undergraduates, writing about political and social matters, and speaking in public.

Let me be clear: This is not an anti-intellectual screed or an attack on systematic thinking and inquiry. I have learned a lot from the work of other scholars, which is reflected in the courses I teach, and such thinking and inquiry is more needed than ever to face these deepening crises. My writing for general audiences is rooted in research, defined more broadly. But the critics of the university have a point. Increasingly, the academic game that most professors play is so self-indulgent that ordinary people—not just reactionary ideologues with libertarian fantasies—will not, and should not, support it indefinitely. Education is not a commodity, but economics are relevant in the sense that we don’t live in a world of endless resources.

But here’s where I part company with the critics: Instead of pretending to be able to measure faculty output and draining the life from teaching, we need to embrace the ideals of the university rather than capitulate to the false promises of failed market ideology. The obsessions with measurement and testing have nearly destroyed K-12 public education, and if applied to higher education it will have similar effects...
(2 May 2011)

A National Security Strategy That Doesn’t Focus on Threats

Jim Dwyer, New York Times
Here’s a proposition: The death of Osama bin Laden brings a moment to talk about something other than threats — not because they don’t exist, but because for the country to see and speak of nothing else is mortally dangerous.

So listen for a moment to two military strategists, working at the highest level of government, as they turn to the subject of leaky air-conditioners in government buildings in New York. “Poorly fitted air-conditioners cost New York City 130 to 180 million dollars a year in extra energy consumption,” one of the strategists, Capt. Wayne Porter of the Navy, said Tuesday. “They generate 370,525 extra tons of carbon dioxide.”

Suppose, he says, you fixed them. And then you got the 40 states that waste the most electricity to match the 10 most efficient. The likely benefits are no surprise — less foreign oil, cost savings, job creation, decreased pollution.

Now follow that thread to “A National Strategic Narrative,” a paper written by Captain Porter and Col. Mark Mykleby of the Marines, which calls on the United States to see that it cannot continue to engage the world primarily with military force, but must do so as a nation powered by the strength of its educational system, social policies, international development and diplomacy, and its commitment to sustainable practices in energy and agriculture.

“We must recognize that security means more than defense,” they write. After ending the 20th century as the world’s most powerful country, “we failed to recognize that dominance, like fossil fuel, is not a sustainable form of energy.”...
(3 May 2011)
The report can be found here.

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