Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Long Count – Maybe the Mayan Calendar has 2012 as a Year of Huge Change

[Note -- Sustainability action plans and these "cool cities/cool counties" intiatives and all the news about mayors signing onto climate change plans, all of that is important up to a point. These steps (incremental) are happening all around the USA and world. But it's a fact that we have not put fire to the feet of CEOs. It's a world where corporations and state governments are not doing enough to push for big measures to deal with climate change, respect for cultures, and sane planning for a clean world and restoration of environments and ecosystems already slashed by man. More than US 500 cities and counties have adopted some sort of sustainability plan. Spokane has, but it's been contentious to the point of silly and retrograde, as some council members yammer on about how the earth is cooling or how the earth is only 6800 years old, therefor, all the scientists are wrong about EVERYTHING.

This opinion piece looks at Spokane as a microcosm to the United States' challenge to change over to a carbon free world. It also looks at the world from the view of true sustainability. Much needs to be addressed when it comes to ecosystems, oceans dying, and resources plundered and carbon footprint inequities. It always comes back to what corporations and their industries are doing to screw the planet, us. That's a future column-blog.]

Can Sustainability Be the Answer to the Collapsing World?

By Paul K. Haeder

The brouhaha over the so-called sustainability plan for Spokane is being muddied with several axiomatic problems that illustrate just how far we need to move our collective heads to get way beyond oil. The faux clashing of ideals – radical libertarian “let the country sink or swim” ethos, or the light-weight greens -- is discordance in the troubling echo chamber of our bizarre political theater.

In one corner, the greens and sustainability proponents have their collective heads wrapped around the right issues, but they are scattered, mired in a capitalistic system that depends on war and resource exploitation. The other corner, as I have confronted many times – the Arizona or Texas militia or “minutemen” come quickly to mind – are these self-described patriot and tea party nihilists who demonstrate how a little misinformation about a complex series of issues – climate change, global warming, geologic and atmospheric tipping points, feedback loops, energy, economics, resource peaks, collapsing systems like the seas going more acidic, poverty, hunger, war – can jam up true forward progress toward working hard to find those “ten technologies to save the planet” (to use the first part of the title of Chris Goodall’s new book).

The Lyndon LaRouche and John Birch Society backers also showed up June 28 to stymie adoption of the mayor’s Sustainability Task Force report (it passed, 5-2) , a flimsy document considering where we are at now. First the oil:

USA 20, 680, 000 barrels per day
China 7, 578,000 BBL/day
Russia 2, 858,00 BBL/day
Canada 2,371,00 BBL/day
UK 1,763,000 BBL/day

As far as other un-sustainable factoids tied to this last year in the first decade of the 21st Century, 2010:

• four million gallons of oil a day gushing into a large chunk of complex ecosystems (Gulf Coast)
• the US is fighting two overt wars to position itself around oil and natural gas reserves
• China is buying up huge swaths of land in Africa and South America to feed its energy, resource and food appetites
• myriad scientists are warning of acidified oceans caused by CO2 and methane release
• ice shelves are melting at alarming rates
• vector borne diseases are scooting along in all the newest places over the globe
• 20 or more percent of the world’s species are on their way to be wiped out by 2050
• water shortages are limiting food production growth so the world needs to raise water productivity/efficiency similar to that which nearly tripled land productivity over the last half-century, according to Lester Brown
• “At the beginning of 2009, the World Bank reported that between 2005 and 2008 the incidence of poverty increased in East Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa largely because of higher food prices, which hit the poor hard,” writes Brown

The Task Force and the so-called action plan were flawed from the start basically because the intent was not to create a living, expanding and applicable set of policies and developmental strategies and technical and entrepreneurial incentives to move Spokane, the County and the region toward a real cutting edge implementation plan to get us positioned to meet the problems of our time: expensive and more difficult to get at fossil fuels, climate change and basic energy demands. Plus, true sustainability is about fixing poverty and making citizens healthy and accessing education and decent housing.

The plan has no real vision, no teeth, no real rubber meeting the pavement policies or nuances. No incentives, no department set up to go after investors, venture capital, innovative private-public partnerships. What adoption does is give Spokane the chance to at least get to the dance floor to either sink or swim when competing for state and federal loans and grants for big projects like sewer or rainwater remediation.

The current Washington State mandate caveats cities and counties have to have “mitigation” (ugly overused empty term) measures to reduce greenhouse gasses, but in reality, what we need is a complete change in our age – how we get, use and reduce energy.

Hands down, the world needs to reduce energy use, develop huge technological advances, and agree to significant lifestyle changes if we are to stop and eventually reverse the rise in greenhouse gasses.

After 16 years reading books on climate change and talking with experts in dozens of fields, and after spending time in Vietnam working on biodiversity transects and other studies, I understand clearly the science of climate change. In reality, I never really spent much time looking at UN materials.

We have to do the big lift, the big projects, the big transition, and, unfortunately, we have to employ some of the enemies of the environment like Boeing and Exxon and Halliburton to move forward on wind, solar, wave, biomass power, as well as electric cars, biochar, and soil and forest remediation.

“Some of the technologies in this book will fail,” writes Chris Goodall in his book, Ten Technologies to Save the Planet: Energy Options for a Low-carbon Future. “. . . and it is a reasonable bet that a clear majority of the innovative companies that I briefly profile will not even exist in ten year’s time. This shouldn’t particularly concern us. All that matters is that those technologies that do eventually succeed are rolled out on a massive scale.”

What has been passed by the 5 council members is a philosophical treatise with no teeth, no alarms, zero physical blueprints, no funding, no incentives and no deep analysis of how Spokane can go at its future as a low-carbon partner in a global community that will face many of the same issues concurrently and symbiotically. It’s boiler plate language already put forth in many dozens of other city sustainability action manifestos. Voting against it is like refusing to swallow.

The Sustainability Plan is just that, a skeleton of ideas, brainstorming sessions, rumination and hopes and dreams of people who want a better world. Whether 800 individuals had input into “the plan” or if 80,000 had their say, we are now – or have been for 20 or 30 years – at the precipice looking over.

The main Task Force was comprised of 13 members, not a very nice cross-section or much depth to the line of thinking. An Avista VP was positioned as chair of the committee. Lots of mistakes there. Plus, the mayor’s office of sustainability was disbanded or disheveled soon thereafter.

You have to have teeth, muscle and a constant flow of intellectual, creative and scientific energy in an office of sustainability; much that this city does – maybe it’s DNA related – is slow, circling the wagons mentality, and fearing being ahead of the pack.

Business, academia, government, private local, state, national and international business, and other partnerships have to be tapped, nurtured and be convinced to sacrifice. Corporations and agencies have to be forced to allow release time for the tens of thousands of people with the skills sets and impetus to begin cracking the whip around sustainability in the large sense.

This next 50 years involves a ship-load of sacrifice, as in the FDR and JFK kind, and that’s not just the individual who must sacrifice – the corporations have to be stopped from making profits hand over fist in their unsustainable businesses.

Many people on the “green” side I’ve talked with for the past two years have put tongue in cheek when confronted with the fact that the real science and work on energy and climate change paint a really bleak picture, one that needs atonement through massive change. The Sustainability Task Force report is feel-good lingo with zero impact on the problem of climate change and peak oil.

Yes, it’s bizarre to hear Spokane council members Nancy McLaughlin and Bob Apple yammer on about not believing in global warming, misanthropically saying the world is cooling, maybe believing the Grand Canyon is the way their creator made on the first day of seven. Absolutely obscene really, since I have acquaintances and have interviewed many more in the sciences or with development agency work under their belts who know their stuff – like natural history and earth sciences.

It’s more than an affront to these scientists from MIT, Scripps, Tulane and all points in between to be denigrated by lesser folk who foul the discussion with superstition and ignorance. It’s bad enough that American citizens are calling scientists communists or brainwashed by the United Nations when they feel compelled to study the collision of crashing ecosystems and earth life supports degrading. When the county and city pols echo that position in any shape or form, they need the boot.

Burning fossil fuel pollutes the atmosphere, and the oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide and are becoming more acidic. Forests are being cut down. Methane is being released because of man’s direct handicraft– golf courses, cattle raising, and rice paddies – and because of disturbances of methane and methane hydrates due to drilling and warming tundra.

These are dramatic times, with the northern sea ice melting, storms increasing in intensity, drought causing starvation, forests dwindling, crop yields falling. Major rivers in Asia will be dry during summers. We have 600 million cars competing with 7 billion people.

None of what these people are working on to figure out how the global community might function as tipping points begin to cantilever sideways has anything to do with a conspiracy to take away individual rights, to stop free enterprise or to create a one world government.

There are, though, some mighty big swatches of the green washing veiling smothering real progress.

I hate invoking a politician and the Federal Trade Commission to come to my aid defining sustainability or green, but it seems apropos that we give middle of the road folk wanting to do something good for the planet a bit of reality therapy: sustainability plans and small micro-measures like individual recycling are feel good efforts but do little to curb greenhouse gasses or stop the cycle of death of ecosystems. As several writers have mentioned recently, working in the biological sciences with ecosystems and species is like being a hospice worker.

The fact is corporations need to be forced to change their high carbon and highly wasteful ways – not just how dirty or how much energy they consume to make the junk they do, but also externalizing costs to the detriment of culture, non-human species and entire peoples and generations.

Too many people are making too much money calling the new black green. It’s more than just green washing, as in the term, “white washing away” truth. It’s unpatriotic, and, as the term eco-pornography evokes, absolute prostitution of the good intention of people trying to solve our problems but by ripping off the intent by making money inside a corporate structure whose sole purpose is to reap profits at the expense of people and environment.

Here’s what Bobby Rush, D-Ill., chairman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said at a hearing a year ago about the issue of green washing: “More than ever before, the shelves of our supermarkets, hardware, ‘Big Box,’ home improvement, and pet stores are being lined with goods bearing labels touting themselves as ‘natural,’ ‘biodegradable,’ ‘eco- friendly,’ ‘sustainable,’ ‘carbon-neutral,’ ‘recyclable’ and ‘non-toxic,’ just to name a few.” Congressman Rush is also concerned about inauthentic green certification labels, noting, “For a fee, these companies will certify anything as green, affording false comfort to purchasers that the products meet environmental and safety standards.”
The hearing, ironically, was titled, “It’s Too Easy Being Green: Defining Fair Green Marketing Practices.” Still, the enforcement division of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection is still having issues with creating these “green guides” to police environmental marketing claims.

I’ve been working the sustainability movement for more than 10 years, specifically sustainability with a big S, but before that, I worked on environmental movements, campaigns, and reported on and wrote about the environment as a journalist; been on campaigns to stop the Rio Grande from being polluted, worked on stopping New York sludge from being spread on West Texas soil by the train load. I’ve worked in communities dealing with political refugees during the Reagan and Bush–One administrations. I’ve seen sleepy fishing villages in Mexico and Central America turn into over-built tourist zones of toxicity.

I cut my teeth on the Sea of Cortez, as a diver and a college student. Those first dives in 1972 were like entering underwater heaven, or floating through an oceanic rain forest. Famed explorer and documentarian, Jacques Yves Cousteau, called the Sea of Cortez “the world’s aquarium.” More than 800 marine animals with hundreds of subspecies to their ranks inhabit the Sea of Cortez. I bring up that “locked sea” to finish this essay on sustainability as a capstone to how flimsy the terminology and the operating systems of developers, planners and technocrats have become when it comes to so-deemed “sustainable development.”

That place is barely a shadow of itself now, with so much over harvesting and large sections of the edge of the ocean destroyed and way too much sewage, wastes and other toxins put into it. That is unsustainable, for now and for future generations.

On the Baja side, facing that wondrous azure, is Loreto, where I spent many a weird and intense days and nights diving the reefs in 1980 and ‘81. It was an outback kind of place, but now, 30 years later, the bastardization of sustainable development is clashing with the values of local people.

It’s development in the name of tourism, retirement and fun in the sun, as the local activists and scientists are trying to pry apart the concept of sustainability as it applies to a golf course, rainwater and aquifer redesign (damming and catchments), and 6,000 condo dwellings constructed in an area labeled as a World Heritage site after the United Nations in 2006 added 244 islands, inlets and coastal zones in an effort to protect Sea of Cortez’s biological diversity.

Enter The Loreto Bay Company, the Mexican tourism development office and a Canadian firm, the Trust for Sustainable Development, whose director is a prominent developer.

It’s a tale of two sides, two stories, two narrative frames, but the bottom line is that the development is not as sustainable as the developers and Mexican government profess; in fact, much of the project, from guaranteeing protection to flora, fauna, and reefs, to respecting the indigenous cultural heritage and architecture, to dealing with trash, recyclables, to the amount of water being used per person, all the way through the project, it’s really questionable that moving into a unique ecosystem to create these high density tourism developments can even be anywhere near sustainable in the true sense of the word.

This is a beautiful and tough area to settle in, with one rain event happening sometimes every 14 months. The developers, architects, designers, engineers and government tourism guys who are looking for long and deep revenue streams really have little to show for a total systems approach to sustainability.

Development that has solar, wind, non-toxic paint, etc. Is that enough to deem a project sustainable? Hardly. Everything about the Loreto Bay project is tweaked with missteps and misapplication of the ideas of sustainability. They are even “importing” mainland labor to work cheaply and live in congested camps. It’s sustainable, alright – in terms of turning a profit margin while exploiting the people, natural bounty, future.

Therein lays the problem with confronting sustainability, climate change, post-carbon adaptation and such. There has to be common sense, and a systems approach to thinking things through. Tourists will drop trash, dump their waste stream somewhere, trample the beaches where animals reside and nest. It’s just a clear tragedy of the commons. A tragedy that North Americans and others want to ship themselves and their consumption habits to an area south of the border to find themselves or recreate?

All of this and more are what a real sustainability platform and development plan would consider. So, call the June 28, 2010 adoption of this Spokane plan, “Sustainability Action Plan: Addressing Climate Mitigation, Climate Adaptation, and Energy Security,” a small step, or inching forward. Don’t let either side co-opt fear, or market it for what it isn’t or can’t do as a 23-page document.

Patriot Party and Tea Party hangers on have gotten almost everything wrong when it comes to climate change, ecological collapse and sustainability. The green side has the heart in the right place, and the mind sort of there too, but they can only imagine a few years or decades into the future, and really both camps just can’t fathom a world where we all have to make huge financial and personal lifestyle sacrifices.

Yet that’s what the tea leaves say. Or as my old Greek friend in El Paso used to say, “That’s the way the baklava falls.”

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