Sunday, April 27, 2008

What ecolocalism won't achieve

I am currently tangentially involved in the Transition Town movement. I believe that it may well be able to make a real difference, albeit primarily as a demonstration to politicians that apparently unelectable policies can be made electable, and to the rest of us that something can be done quite quickly and easily.

yet it seems to me that there are limits to ecolocalism of the TT kind. Here are few examples:

  1. All Transition Towns want to 'power down' their local community. But in the absence of corporate-level decisions, who can persuade my local Sainsbury's or Woolworth's to turn off their lights at night, and so on? Only an alliance of local groups - and one that has been able to agree not only a common policy, strategy and approach, but also to accept that some local inequalities are likely to persist.
  2. Local authorities lack critical powers (especially regarding taxation and spending) that a truly radical localisation would demand.
  3. There are some social functions that can probably never be localised. Health, education, welfare, security -although much can be done to localise, what is left over is likely to be very substantial indeed. Managing them will require common action and policies and organsiaitons that operate at a non-local level.
  4. Many of the greatest problems facing the environment relate to organisations and systems that operate on a national or even global scale. Oil companies, governments, businesses of all kinds.

It will not help to refuse these problems, as it were. They will exist whatever local groups want. The only issue is how to manage them. That willrequire a concerted action that many localists will find difficult to stomach.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Fall of the Roman Empire 2.0

Like most people concerned with the environment, I remain mystified by the attitudes of governments. Let us be perfectly clear about this: every single 'worst case scenario' scientific research has come up with so far has proved to be the best case. So when we are told that the threat we are facing is equivalent to the Second World War, perhaps a more credible marker should be laid down.

The threat we are trying to stave off is the worst humanity has faced since the fall of the Roman empire.


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Transition Towns

Everyone should know about Transition Towns. They are local initiatives designed to galvanise local action to reduce a locality’s carbon footprints and energy usage. There are currently dozens of towns active in the UK, Europe, USA and elsewhere.

The Transition Network (an umbrella body in the UK) publishes a full-size manual on how to start up a Transition Town initiative, and provides training and an annual conference. And it links you to lots of friendly, helpful, enthusiastic people.

Most of all, they make me feel like someone somewhere is really doing something that everyone can join in with.

Arguments against peak oil

The fact that the oil industry is chronically obscure, if not downright dishonest, about its reserves is no reason to believe that the situation is as bad as the Peak Oil lobby believes. Personally I would guess that the peak of our oil supply is already upon us, but this entry will try to list any reasons to disbelieve in the urgency of peak oil.

  1. It is in corporate and oil-state interests to create a sense of panic, to drive prices up and to justify 'emergency' actions in their own interests.
  2. Companies and oil states report increased reserves.

Anyone have any more reasons to disbelieve in Peak Oil? I think they need to be aired and, if appropriate, refuted. And if they can't be refuted, what then?

Industries for which oil is currently essential

I don't recall where I got this from, but here is a partial listing of the industries that, in their present guise, depend fundamentally on oil:

Ammonia, anesthetics, antihistamines, artificial limbs, artificial turf,
antiseptics, aspirin, auto parts, awnings, balloons, ballpoint pens, bandages,
beach umbrellas, boats, cameras, candles, car battery cases, carpets, caulking,
combs, cortisones, cosmetics, crayons, credit cards, curtains, deodorants,
detergents, dice, disposable diapers, dolls, dyes, eye glasses, electrical
wiring insulation, faucet washers, fishing rods, fertilizer, fishing line,
fishing lures, food preservatives, food packaging, garden hose, glue, hair
coloring, hair curlers, hand lotion, hearing aids, heart valves, ink, insect
repellant, insecticides, linoleum, lip stick, milk jugs, nail polish, oil
filters, panty hose, perfume, petroleum jelly, plastics, rubber cement, rubbing
alcohol, shampoo, shaving cream, shoes, toothpaste, trash bags, upholstery,
vitamin capsules, water pipes, yarn.

Any more?

Why capitalism?

Why does this blog plan to bring capitalism into the picture? For the same reason that, were we living under a feudal regime or in a slave society or under the old Soviet regime, That is, one of the worst mistakes you can make about the environment or peak oil is to imagine that it is a purely natural phenomenon. The reason why these are problems – why they are such huge problems for our kind of society, why these problems arose in the first place and whether they have solutions – is directly connected to the kind of society we live in. Peak oil and the environment are problems only because of the kind of society we live in.

In many respects capitalism is the most impressive society humanity has ever created. It is fantastically productive – if we felt like it we could raise new pyramids every day. It has raised the global levels of knowledge and education (not least through environmental science) to a level where our children routinely learn things at school that would have astonished Aristotle or even Newton. It has made possible levels of health, education, welfare and security that are completely unprecedented.

But capitalism hasn’t done all this without exacting a price. Its ideas of health, education, welfare and security are very specific. Its over-inflated self-image and propaganda notwithstanding, it isn’t much concerned with markets or the free flow of capital, resources, goods and services. If it were it would still be a huge problem, but freedoms of that kind are purely secondary. Basically, whatever it does has to turn a profit. That means that capitalist corporations (and the governments that accept capitalism’s vision of society) will only invest to make a profit and will only deal with those from whom it can extract a profit.

For example, there is no food shortage in the world and there seldom, if ever, has been. But increasingly food production and distribution are controlled by the globalisation of the search for profit. For decades now small farmers have been forced off the land or reduced to tenants or sharecroppers as corporations and bank-funded agricultural policies have progressively undercut and then bought out local producers, replacing them with outsider managers, genetically manipulated crops, high-tech fertiliser and expensive machines.

This has created a food production system that relies on very expensive and high-tech inputs that local farmers could never have afforded, and means that, although the volume of food produced often rises, it does so at a price local people can no longer afford. So there is no shortage of food as such, but only a shortage of food increasingly many of the world people cannot afford. Plus the massive increase in ‘food miles’ as even basic staples are shipped around to the other side of the planet instead of down the road to the local market, so worsening the environmental price to be paid. Plus the growth of urban slums and poverty as farmers and agricultural labourers and their families are pushed off the land.

This is a radically embedded systems of relationships. In the contemporary world there is no realistic alternative to capitalism. As a result, political responses to its crises are necessarily temporary unless one is serious about opting out of capitalism. Right now whole countries are sealing off their exports of rice, which is a rational political response to disastrous local conditions created by global profit-seeking. But in the medium to long term, they will be back, not only because capitalism is the only global source of the funds needed for investment but also because the governments of rich countries will force then back in. After all, how else are we going to make sure there is cheap, plentiful food on the table?

Food crisis? What food crisis?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Incredible shrinking icecaps

Or as Michael Flanders put it almost 50 years back:

There'll always be an England. Well that's not saying much, is it? I mean, there'll always be a North Pole - if some dangerous clown doesn't go and melt it.

The unholy trinity

Most people are now pretty well aware of climate change, though few seem to have much sense of the magnitude of the threat or the urgency of action demanded if we are not to suffer catastrophically. Some people are also aware that ‘peak oil’ is also upon us – the point at which we will have extracted half of our realistic oil reserves. This is critical because:

  • Oil and gas (whose peak we may well have already passed too) provide most of the industrial world’s energy supplies.
  • All energy consumption projections say that the world demand for oil and gas is going to grow, not shrink.
  • Major strategic industries such as transport, plastics and fertiliser have little or nothing in the way of alternatives.

This effectively eliminates many of the options for even a quite radically adapted version of ‘business as usual’ as a way forward.

Taken together, climate change and peak oil are quite big enough – certainly far beyond anything our current plans can hope to deal with. However, there is yet a third problem, as yet largely neglected except in small corners of the political world. This is the fact that, not only is capitalism not geared up to such a radical change, but it is extremely doubtful whether capitalism is even remotely up to the challenge.

The problem has many strands, but here are three worth thinking about. Firstly, responding to both peak oil and climate change demand some form of ‘power-down’ - a radical reduction not only in energy use but also in consumption. It is true that capitalism, however useful consumerism has been to certain parts of capitalism, consumerism is not essential to capitalism as such. They can extract an equally acceptable profit from exploiting any number of other markets, including services that don’t require that anything be made at all. And as they managed to prove in the Second World War (which the USA left twice as rich as when it started), big companies can thrive on global crisis, given the right lead. So they might be able to come up with the goods this time too. Agree some basic global standards (e.g., a legal minimum of 75 mpg and negligible carbon emissions for all cars by 2012 and zero carbon for all homes, old and new, by 2020) and we might be able to make a fight of it.

But powering down isn’t likely to be that easy. How many of our industries would in fact be completely wiped out by any attempt to deal with climate change or peak oil? How much of mass consumerism is in fact based on products for which there is absolutely no environmental or energy justification? Can we have a fashion industry at all? Or any industry in which rapid turnover is driven by anything as ephemeral as fashionableness? How many people work in such industries? If they grind to a halt, what work these people do instead? How much such disruption can an advanced industrial county take before it ceases to be able to plan, manage and resources its response?

Finally, capitalism is not just predicated on profit. It is predicated on constantly expanding profit. Neither climate change nor peak oil is likely to make that possible, but we have plans neither to assure capitalism’s profits nor to extract ourselves from capitalism’s embrace. And what, in the mean time, will capitalist corporations do as their profits not only cease to grow but actually shrink?

Based on their track record when faced with obstacles to their profitability, it is not a pleasant prospect.

Looking around in a green light...

I have just conducted an impromptu audit of the energy being used in the building I work in. It is a modern two-floor office, housing maybe 220 people. There are 469 light fittings burning between the two floors, each with 4 18w fluorescent tubes. That's about 170 watts per person. Right now – just before 2 pm on a bright Wednesday afternoon in April - 90% of them are turned on. That’s comes to about 30 kilowatts.

That excludes the 25 much more powerful lamps blazing in the foyer, which is about 8 metres by 5 and has a skylight and main windows that, like the rest of the windows, provide ample daylight for anyone. It also excludes the stairwell opposite my desk where 9 large lamps burn. The staircase is seldom used and the lights are set so high in the ceiling that it is hard to imagine that they provide any real illumination. And in any case, the sides of the stairwell consist almost entirely of floor-to-ceiling windows. I turn the lights off every day, and every morning someone turns them back on. Also, it's heated, even though no-one spends more than a few seconds a day in there, and the heat would spread in from the main building anyway.

So what is it all being used for? It’s hard to say. We all work at self-illuminating computer screens. It’s true that it is surprisingly dark in here, but perhaps that is because people have the blinds down!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Passing the Olympic torch

How appropriate that the Olympic torch should be the focus of protests against the Beijing Games. It was after all another dictatorship – one of the very few for centuries that could claim an even more brutal record than the current Chinese regime – that invented the whole business – the Nazis.

If only Jesse Owen were here today to refuse to go to Beijing!