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United States: An Obituary

United States: An Obituary

The United States of America was problematic from the start. It was founded on genocide and slavery, and, while frequently congratulating itself on the rights and freedoms it granted its citizens, never managed to confront the demons in its past. The question would arise repeatedly, generation after generation: rights and freedoms for whom?

Nevertheless, the immigrants who founded a nation on a stolen continent managed to show up in the right place at the right time. The luck of geography and history insulated them from most wars in Europe, while supplying them with vast forests, navigable rivers, rich topsoils, valuable minerals, and much of the world’s most easily accessible coal, oil, and natural gas.

The result, after a century-and-a-half of wealth accumulation and industrial buildup, was global dominance. America invented and taught the world the magic formula of consumerism: cheap energy + advertising + consumer credit = ever-growing levels of commerce, employment, tax revenue, and return on investment. The transformation of nature into quantifiable wealth via energy, technology, capital investment, and labor had never before occurred so rapidly, or on so grand a scale.

The 20th century was without question the American century. After World War II, which was fought at a distance from American soil, the dollar became the world’s reserve currency, and there could be little doubt who was in charge. Even though politicians in Washington insisted that their nation led by example and shouldn’t be thought of as an empire, any other nation’s hesitance to adhere to US rules resulted in a CIA-engineered coup, an invasion, or economic sanctions.

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Nobody takes the renewable energy transition seriously

Nobody takes the renewable energy transition seriously

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Despite all the demands from climate activists, scientists, and even policy makers, hardly a single country is taking the shift to renewable energy seriously. Even countries and regions that claim to be working toward an energy transition are failing to do what would be required in order for the transition to succeed. What’s behind this surprising and disturbing state of affairs?

The energy transition is a big job, it’s complicated, and it needs to be done quickly if we are to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Therefore, it can’t just be left to the whims of the market. Yes, if solar panels produce electricity cheaper than coal power plants do, then more households and businesses will buy solar panels. But the energy transition demands far more than this: it requires either finding ways to hook up millions of new intermittent power sources in such a way as to provide electricity that matches demand day and night, summer and winter, or giving up on the luxury of having 24-7 access to power at our fingertips. And it requires finding ways to curtail the energy demands of manufacturing and transport systems and to run those streamlined systems on renewable electricity rather than solid, liquid, or gaseous fuels.

In short, it requires a plan. Small teams of academic researchers have already attempted to provide transition plans, but so far these are little more than schematic suggestions based on assumptions that are typically over-optimistic and untested. A serious plan would, of course, be constantly revised on the basis of new findings and changing circumstances. Nevertheless, without a serious and detailed plan, and one endorsed by high-level policy makers, we cannot hope to achieve much.

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A Sea Change Moment?

A Sea Change Moment?

Tomorrow begins Global Climate Strike Week, led by young people to demand urgent action to address the climate emergency. What many hope will be a sea change moment in the struggle to mobilize a real response to this existential threat had a humble start a year ago when a young Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, began spending her Fridays protesting in front of the Swedish Parliament. Inspired by Greta’s example—and her blunt, uncompromising stance—millions of students have since joined her in the “Fridays for the Future” movement. This week is an opportunity for the rest of us to participate.

I will be out on the streets tomorrow and the following Friday in my hometown, and I’ll be joining a number of other activities planned locally over the coming week. PCI is supporting our staff to actively participate in the various communities where they live. We’d like to encourage you to do the same. Visit the Climate Strike website to find activities near you.

I’ll be honest, I’m not much of a protester. But if nothing else, this week presents an opportunity to show younger generations—who will be dealing disproportionately, and unfairly, with the consequences of previous generations’ profligate burning of fossil fuels—that we hear and see them, and support them to take agency.

That said, we will utterly fail them (not to mention future generations and the millions of species who have equal rights to a livable planet) if we simply go back to life-as-usual come October.

This crisis is, quite simply, wicked. As a member of the Post Carbon Institute/resilience.org extended family, you understand that the climate emergency is one of a broader, more complex set of crises that will force an almost unimaginable set of changes to virtually every aspect of modern life — whether we make those changes proactively or are dragged there.

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When a warming climate threatens your dinner plate

Introducing Understanding Food and Climate Change : A suite of free digital resources

Whether you’re a student in Osaka, Japan, tucking into a bento box of salted fish and edamame, a University professor in Dakar munching on Senegalese yassa, or an American steelworker unwrapping a hamburger, chances are you sit down several times a day to a plate of food, no matter who or where you are. You may not be aware of all the ways your choices at mealtimes are affecting the climate, but they are, and greatly.

Our understanding of the links between food systems and climate change is growing, but public awareness of the importance of this relationship is not widespread. Even people who accept that anthropogenic climate change is occurring are more likely to think first about home energy or focus on transportation. Fewer people consider the impact of the dinner on their plates, but the connections between climate change and food systems are deep and wide-ranging—the food choices we make; the ways we grow, raise, transport, process, store, prepare, and serve food; how we manage food waste. The Center for Ecoliteracy is making great strides toward shifting this awareness.

The Center for Ecoliteracy recently released a suite of free digital resources with two parts: a collection of essays, and an interactive guide that offers videos, original animations, interactive pages, photography, and sample activities to help explore the relationships between food and climate change. The suite is generating broad interest among students, educators, campaigners, environmental advocacy organizations, and food producers. The resources serve as a primer on the principles of ecology as well as an inquiry on what it means to think in terms of systems and relationships when it comes to our personal lifestyle choices and the impact they have on a changing planet.

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Human Predators, Human Prey: Part 3

 Read Part Iread Part II.

Society as Ecosystem in a Time of Collapse, Part III

6. “Disease organisms” (revolutionaries), “parasites” (criminals), and “immune systems” (law and punishment) in times of growth and release

In his brilliant 1976 book Plagues and Peoples, historian William H. McNeill explored how infectious disease has shaped human societies through the ages. A remarkable paragraph on page 84 of the Anchor paperback edition has stayed with me for several decades and partly inspired this essay:

Very early in civilized history, successful raiders became conquerors, i.e., learned how to rob agriculturalists in such a way as to take from them some but not all of the harvest. By trial and error a balance could and did arise, whereby cultivators could survive such predation by producing more grain and other crops than were needed for their own maintenance. Such surpluses may be viewed as the antibodies appropriate to human macroparasitism. A successful government immunizes those who pay rent and taxes against catastrophic raids and foreign invasion in the same way that a low-grade infection can immunize its host against lethally disastrous disease invasion. Disease immunity arises by stimulating the formation of antibodies and raising other physiological defenses to a heightened level of activity; governments improve immunity to foreign macroparasitism by stimulating surplus production of food and raw materials sufficient to support specialists in violence in suitably large numbers and with appropriate weaponry. Both defense reactions constitute burdens on the host populations, but a burden less onerous than periodic exposure to sudden lethal disaster.

At the risk of over-quoting, I will reproduce McNeill’s next paragraph as well. He’s on a roll here, and the explanatory firepower of these passages is measurable in megatons. These are insights that would later help win a Pulitzer Prize for Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Remember: the context of his discussion is the role of disease organisms in the evolution of human societies.

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Cornucopian Renewable-Energy Claims Leave Poor Nations in the Dark

Jacobson’s previous “100 percent renewable” papers have prompted other researchers to publish their own studies pointing out faulty technical assumptions and analyses that cast a shadow over his claims. I expect that we will see technical critiques of Jacobson’s latest study as well published in coming weeks or months (if, that is, there are experts out there who are willing to risk being sued by Jacobson for questioning his results. He’s got one such sketchy lawsuit in the courts already.)

But even if we disregard the technical weaknesses of claims that all future demand can be satisfied with renewable energy sources—even if we assume for the sake of argument that such rosy scenarios really are achievable—there will remain the problem of energy poverty. As I have noted,

Billions of people around the world need more energy than they can afford, while billions of others can buy far more energy than is required to meet their needs. Global 100-percent renewable scenarios are based on these distortions; as a result, they typically aim to satisfy a worldwide per capita energy consumption that’s about one-eighth of what Americans consume. . . the 100-percent scenarios would leave in place huge gaps in consumption between affluent and poor communities, both among and within countries.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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