Thursday, January 31, 2008

Natural Systems Solutions to Global Warming

Here's the talk I gave at the University of Arizona as part of their Focus the Nation teach-in on global warming.

With the necessary focus of today's Focus the Nation national teach-in being on solutions, let's first be sure we're responding to the right problem. Putting band-aids on symptoms isn't going to slow this train-wreck we call Western industrial civilization down one whit.

Because one of the problems with planning solutions to global warming, which should more accurately be called catastrophic climate destabilization, is that if we believe that it's just about greenhouse gas emissions, our responses will be ineffective or incomplete, but most probably both.

Mainstream media and government leaders like to portray global warming as just a result of burning fossil fuels, or doing so in a way that is inefficient. While releasing millions of years worth of ancient sunlight in the space of a few hundred years is indeed a major aspect of the crisis we face today, we must examine the reason we think we must continue to burn fossil fuels, or find a way to replace fossil energy sources to maintain the status quo of global economic growth. However, it is also imperative that we fully connect the dots amongst a number of other inextricably intertwined phenomena.

There is the small but significant effect known as global dimming that stems from particulate pollution, which is partially masking the full effects of global warming. We have destruction of rainforests for rare woods, for cattle grazing, and for cropland for agrofuels. We're overfishing the oceans, as they simultaneously become more acidic from both warming and pollution which is destroying plankton, the very foundation of the global food chain. We continue to generate mountains of waste and think there is an "away" when we throw things away.

These each would constitute a crisis by themselves, and they are all brought on and exacerbated by overpopulation, overconsumption, and the holy grail of infinite economic growth.

We're constantly being told that any proposed replacement solutions for the growing demand for energy must meet the supposed requirement to not only cause no harm to the economy, but must stimulate further economic growth. We have forgotten that money can't buy happiness, all it can buy is anti-depressants.

Instead of facing up to what must be done, we're being handed science fiction Rube Goldberg schemes to put giant parasols in space to reflect the sun's rays, or other geo-engineering plans for the oceans and atmosphere such as "carbon capture and sequestration" (known as the kitty litter solution -- bury it and fervently pray it doesn't come back up) to allow fossil fuel based industries to continue on their merry way of profit-taking until we've used up the entire world's supply. Of everything. And in the meantime, don't dare put any competition in their way through investments in alternatives such as wind or solar, and definitely don't touch the billions in subsidies that dinosaur industries get. ExxonMobile now has a book value larger than France.

One of the things that brought anthropogenic (meaning human induced) global heating into the clearest perspective for me was the recent evidence that the last time the earth experienced a warming period of the same magnitude (approximately 6 degrees F) that we are currently on course for due to the buildup of greenhouse gases, it took about two thousand years to happen, and the only large land mammal to survive this was the ancestor of the pig. We are on course to pump even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere within about a 200 year timespan. Not much time to adapt.

However, we now have a convergence of crises, with more dots to connect. Burning all these fossil fuels has created global warming, which is exacerbated by the loss of forests due to the needs of an ever growing population. Burning coal to fuel power plants, in addition to the regular greenhouse gases, also emits large amounts of sulfur, which causes acid rain, which kills off more forests, as well as lakes, rivers, and the aquatic life they support. Plus all the easy to get to coal is gone, so mountain top removal is now the extraction method of choice, which devastates more large sections of forests. But, we need more forests in order to suck up at least some of all the excessive carbon dioxide we're pumping into the atmosphere from burning all these fossil fuels.

Another factor in the crises is the fact that we've now used up half of all the recoverable liquid fossil fuels, especially petroleum. This is the peak in global oil extraction and production, popularly known as Peak Oil. For the first half of the petroleum growth economy, the oil was easy to get and of high quality--what's known as light sweet crude. For the second half, which unfortunately won't even last the same 100 years, we're stuck with petroleum known as heavy sour crude--more difficult to extract and more expensive to refine--as well as the environmentally devastating tar sands and oil shale.

As a point of reference, in the 1950s for every barrel of oil equivalent in energy, 30 barrels of oil were produced. Today we only get 5 barrels of oil for every barrel of energy put in to the system. When this ratio drops to 1:1 it won't matter if gasoline is selling for $1,000/gal, it will no longer be used for an energy source. The laws of physics and economics will finally coincide.

It's also instructive to bear in mind that many of today's oil reservoirs are being over pumped in order to keep production as close as possible to current levels. This will lead to even earlier collapse of the fields due to geological factors. This is, however, a losing battle. As Dick Cheney pointed out in 1999, global demand for oil is climbing by 3% per year, while global production is falling by 2% per year. This is why most country's strategic petroleum reserves are now close to empty.

This brings us back to the global growth economy that is entirely dependent on increasing supplies of cheap and abundant fossil fuels in order to pay back, with interest, the debts of global corporations and governments to central banks. Things don't look good when the energy to power growth is becoming scarce and increasing in price. This relates directly to the obscene profit taking of the major oil companies today, and America's misadventure of illegally invading a sovereign country to lock up the third largest oil reserves on the planet.

A culture of materialism that has let itself become convinced that constant growth is necessary for prosperity and well-being sees the challenge as "how do we protect the economy?" Forget about the living earth. We're told that life simply won't be worth living if the Industrial Growth Society collapses. The media propaganda is that we've just gotta be able to drive our Hummers to the mall from our 10,000 sq. ft. McMansions in the suburbs to get our Twinkie fix. Twice a day.

Is it any wonder that heroin pushers are so successful? They have the best role models in the known universe to look up to and learn from, as well as being able to operate in a social climate of oppression and repression that is so conducive to their trade.

Let's conveniently ignore the inconvenient truth that the Industrial Growth Society is causing a decrease in every quality of life indicator imaginable. Just ignore increasing global poverty and a widening wealth gap, and definitely don't think about your increasing body burden as industrial toxins and pesticides bioaccumulate. Don't question central banker's right to usury, or that a growth economy requires you getting further in debt. Ignore the fact that about 50% of Americans require at least one prescription drug per day in order to either make it through their day or to be able to tolerate their day. Add in alcohol and other recreational drugs that are self-prescribed, and it should be intuitively obvious to the casual observer that this is a very sick, and very sad, culture. Modern psychiatry puts all of its effort into trying to make us feel sane about living in an insane world. But, as J. Krishnamurti famously pointed out, it is not a sign of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society.

This is what we're trying to preserve? This is why we need to find a replacement energy source for toxic, polluting, and rapidly dwindling fossil fuels? Do any of you really believe that continued industrial activity of exploitation and domination would be just fine as long as the products it marketed were labeled as green?

How about a cultural shift from having more to being more? If one third of the global population can create all the stuff the entire population consumes, why aren't we all working two thirds less with full global employment, so we all could have the time to focus on what really matters? Powering down could very well be the best thing to ever happen to the human species and our poor beleaguered planet.

This is why I really prefer to talk about responses to catastrophic climate destabilization and its interconnected linkages instead of solutions. Solutions tend to make us think that as soon as we solve the problem we can just go back to business as usual.

A natural systems response would be one that is in keeping with the creative energies that have kept life evolving for billions of years. These energies are a natural, innate, intimate even, aspect of who we are as humans.

Natural systems solutions start with an understanding and acceptance of the four core principles that keep ecosystems healthy, vibrant and resilient--in other words, sustainable. These four principles are: mutual support and reciprocity, no waste, no greed, and increasing diversity. They are derived from the simple observation that the prime activity of living organisms is to self-organize for the creation of mutually supportive attraction relationships that support the web of life. Only in this way can an individual have any realistic hope of reaching its potential.

Natural systems principles also provide a foundation from which to develop a definition of sustainability that has environmental, moral, and scientifically measurable aspects.

The definition for sustainability is: integrating our social and economic lives into the environment in ways that tend to enhance or maintain ecosystems rather than degrade or destroy them; a moral imperative to pass on our natural inheritance, not necessarily unchanged, but undiminished in its ability to meet the needs of future generations; finding, and staying within, the balance point amongst population, consumption, and waste assimilation where watersheds and bioregions maintain their ability to recharge and regenerate.

This definition provides a framework for making decisions, is legally defensible, and can be used to measure our progress toward a sustainable future that is ecologically wise and socially just.

We can also observe that living organisms grow to a point of maturity, or steady-state, and then stop growing. But they do not become static. They continue to develop and better support their environment; the overall system advances to higher levels of complexity. The only thing that grows without stopping is a cancer cell that only stops when it has consumed its host. Thus, we can see that a growth economy defines the exact opposite of sustainability.

So the question for today becomes how can people easily embody this sustainable way of being? How can we build a culture with social institutions that are sustainable and reverse the trajectory of anthropogenic global heating?

Leading thinkers in the physical and social sciences say that at the root of our global crises today lies our disconnection from the natural world. We see ourselves as separate. We see the Earth as a resource we can control and use for our exclusive benefit, and more narrowly for the primary benefit of a small elite. We see nature as a wilderness to be tamed, and we apply this force-based mindset to subdue our own inner nature in order to become more efficient meat machines.

If the core of the systemic crises is our disconnection, then the most intelligent response would be to reconnect. This is what the field of ecopsychology works toward as it seeks to redefine sanity as if the whole Earth mattered. Nature is known to have numerous benefits for health and healing. It is, after all, the very source of our sustenance. Studies today show surgery patients heal faster if they are in a room that has a window that looks out on a natural area, crime is reduced in inner cities by planting trees along the sidewalks, prison gardens can reduce recidivism, and playtime in natural areas can reduce attention deficit and hyperactivity in children.

But the natural world is more than just a palliative. Going out and reconnecting to the natural world on rational, sensual, and spiritual levels isn't just a form of nature meditation in order to relieve the stress of the artificial industrial world. Nature supplies a source of answers for our questions in the models and metaphors it makes available to humans for their societies to become as sustainable as a climax ecosystem.

As natural systems principles show, it's all about relationships. Reconnecting with nature doesn't just mean the world outside your door, but also to the nature that exists in each person, to our sense of community that has evolved with a natural expectation for fulfillment, and to our own inner nature as well. Healthy relationships start with healing the mind/body/spirit split that dualistic, mechanistic, reductionistic modern science tries to make us think is normal.

The alternatives for what we can do differently become those that have been developed with natural systems as their basis, and this is what the process for becoming sustainable known as relocalization delivers.

The replacement systems for the status quo of infinite economic growth, resource extraction, and labor exploitation are steady-state economies, urban planning based on ecocity and permaculture design, bioregionally produced organic food, non-toxic goods, decentralized renewable energy, and waste management that stay within environmental and economic carrying capacity.

Among the things we can do differently are investing locally in the clean, zero-waste production of sustainable goods (instead of those built to be thrown away), build mutually supportive community relationships, overcome our separation from nature, and remember how to become more self-reliant within our bioregions. Instead of getting bigger, we must concentrate on getting better.

This is the hallmark of sustainable development through relocalization. We can become energy independent, restore ecosystems, and improve our quality of life at the same time as we work on reclaiming our sovereignty, our civil rights, and the commons.

The problem as I see it is what I call the Triumvirate of Collapse: Peak Oil, catastrophic climate destabilization, and corporatism which have their systemic roots in force-based dominator hierarchies. The only systemic, rational response, that also feels right, is to become truly sustainable by relocalizing our lifestyles and our communities, and reconnecting the human soul to its home in the soul of the Earth.