Dying trades & ocean temperature

SUBHEAD: Sixty years of taking ocean water temperature in a bucket tells the tale of global warming.

By Jan TenBruggencate on 20 November 2012 for Raising Islands -

Image above: A bucket of sea water.  From (http://www.imagekind.com/wood-water-bucket-art?IMID=9e7a32fa-daca-45a9-9517-8d5026ca6755).

University of Hawai`i researchers report that changes in ocean temperatures may be responsible for the dying of the trade winds over the past 60 years.

The scientist team used an amazingly low-tech data set to help them reach that conclusion—buckets hauled aboard ships to test ocean water temperature over decades.

The study, published in the Nov. 15, 2012, issue of Nature, was led by Hiroki Tokinaga, associate researcher at the International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

It argues that warmer waters are linked to weakening tradewinds and an eastward shift in oceanic rainfall, toward the Central Pacific. That’s associated with a slowing of what climate scientists call the Walker Circulation, in which a regional wind pattern is created by warm, moist air rising over warm waters.

RaisingIslands.com covered the dying trades last month.

Climate scientists have been baffled by the significant change in wind and rain patterns, because their climate models couldn’t explain them. Tokinaga felt that might simply be because the models didn’t have precise enough water temperature information.

He tracked down archived sets of old data collected over the entire 60-year period, in which ships kept track of night time marine air temperatures as well as ocean water temperature—determined by putting thermometers into buckets of water pulled from the sea as the ships crossed the Pacific.

“To our surprise both measures showed that the surface temperature across the Indo-Pacific did not rise evenly with global warming, but that the east-west temperature contrast has actually decreased by 0.3-0.4°C, similar to what happens during an El Niño,” Tokinaga said.

When they plugged to reconstructed temperature data into four separate computerized atmospheric models, “the scientists were able to reproduce quite closely the observed patterns of climate change seen over the 60-year period in the tropical Indo-Pacific and the slowdown of the Walker circulation.”

Here is the University of Hawai`i press release on the study. An abstract of the actual paper is available here. A nice piece on Walker Circulation from NOAA and NASA is here.

"Our experiments show that the main driver of the change in the Walker circulation is the gradual change that has taken place in the surface temperature pattern toward a more El Niño-like state. We don't have enough data yet to say to what degree the slowdown over the last 60 years is due to a rise in man-made greenhouse gases or to natural cycles in the climate," Tokinaga said.


Last chance for normal climate?

SUBHEAD: To really address climate change UNFCCC Summit should decide to leave more than 2/3 of the fossil reserves in the ground!

By Bill McKibben, Nnimmo Bassey & Pablo Solón on 30 November 2012 -

Image above: Top officials take notes on the opening day of the 18th UN climate change conference, currently under way in Doha. From (http://al-shorfa.com/en_GB/articles/meii/features/2012/11/27/feature-02).

As the UN climate negotiations kick off in Doha, Qatar, people all over the world are watching as floods wash away their lives, fires consume their houses and droughts decimate food crops. Just this morning, UNEP released a report warning that melting permafrost could release massive amounts of methane--a powerful greenhouse gas--into the atmosphere, bringing the planet ever closer to runaway climate change. Here's a letter from three powerful advocates for a safe climate to the leaders and negotiators in Doha:

To really address climate change UNFCCC-COP18 should decide to leave under the soil more than 2/3 of the fossil reserves!

2012 saw the shocking melt of the Arctic, leading our greatest climatologist to declare a 'planetary emergency,' and it saw weather patterns wreck harvests around the world, raising food prices by 40% and causing family emergencies in poor households throughout the world.

That's what happens with 0.8ºC of global warming. If we are going to stop this situation from getting worse, an array of institutions have explained this year precisely what we need to do: leave most of the carbon we know about in the ground and stop looking for more.
"Now is the time to act for the future of humanity and Nature."

If we want a 50-50 chance of staying below two degrees, we have to leave 2/3 of the known reserves of coal and oil and gas underground; if we want an 80% chance, we have to leave 80% of those reserves untouched. That's not "environmentalist math" or some radical interpretation--that's from the report of the International Energy Agency last month.

It means that--without dramatic global action to change our path--the end of the climate story is already written. There is no room for doubt--absent remarkable action, these fossil fuels will burn, and the temperature will climb creating a chain reaction of climate related natural disasters.

Negotiators should cease their face-saving, their endless bracketing and last minute cooking of texts and concentrate entirely on figuring out how to live within the carbon budget scientists set. We can't emit more than 565 more gigatons of carbon before 2050, but at the current pace we'll blow past that level in 15 years. If we want to have a chance to stick to this budget by 2020 we can’t send to the atmosphere more than 200 gigatons.

Rich countries who have poured most of the carbon into the atmosphere (especially the planet's sole superpower) need to take the lead in emission reductions and the emerging economies have also to make commitments to reduce the exploitation of oil, coal and gas. The right to development should be understood as the obligation of the states to guarantee the basic needs of the population to enjoy a fulfilled and happy life, and not as a free ticket for a consumer and extractivist society that doesn’t take into account the limits of the planet and the wellbeing of all humans.

There's no longer time for diplomatic delays. Most of the negotiators in the Eighteenth Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) know that these are the facts. Now is the time to act for the future of humanity and Nature.

• Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of 350.org. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

• Nnimmo Bassey is executive director of Environmental Rights Action and coordinator of Oilwatch International.

• Pablo Solón is the Executive Director of Focus on the Global South. He was the former Bolivian ambassador, under the Evo Morales government, to the United Nations. As ambassador to the UN, he became known as a tireless advocate for the rights of nature; he delivered the now famous speech explaining why Bolivia chose to “stand alone” by not signing the Cancun climate agreement in 2010. Before holding this post, he had been a social activist involved in indigenous movements, workers’ unions, student associations, human rights and cultural organizations in his native Bolivia. He is also extensively involved in the global justice movement.

See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: 2012 UN Climate Change Talks 11/28/12

Police & Freedom of Speech

SUBHEAD: Cop’s message - “I hope other fellow officers will see this and not view freedom of speech as a threat”.

By Mac Slavo on 28 November 2012 for SHTF Plan -

Image above: Deputy Sheriff Lenic explaining legal rights in confrontation with TSA and airport regulations. Still frame from video below.

Deputy Stan Lenic, the law enforcement officer recently caught on tape in an incident at the Albany, NY airport involving airport officials and TSA-opt out activists Ashley Jessica and Jason Bermas, has reportedly received an overwhelming public response for his defense of the First Amendment.

In a video originally published at Infowars, Lenic is shown advising an airport public relations director that activists who were distributing fliers about the dangers of TSA backscatter scanners and Americans’ rights when being subjected to TSA security checks were acting within their Constitutionally protected rights.

With the public regularly treated to scenes of officers involved in police brutality and activities violative of the principles of liberty, Lenic’s actions have become a shining example of what it means to serve the people and uphold the rule of law.

The American people are desperate for officials and representatives with their best interests at heart, and the support Lenic has received since the video was made available is proof positive:

Lenic later emailed [videographer] Jason Bermas the following message;
“I am overwhelmed by the support your viewers have given me. I hope other fellow officers will see this and not view the freedom of speech as a threat, but an opportunity to show the professionalism that law enforcement should be held to. I remember the day I was sworn in, and I remember that I am supposed to protect the constitution of the United States. I am proud to be a Deputy Sheriff, and try to do my job to the best of my ability so help me God.”
Lenic also told Bermas that his superiors were considering giving him an official commendation for his exemplary actions in defending the constitutional rights he swore to uphold.
Via: Infowars
As America’s police state crackdown becomes more aggressive and expansive, finding protectors of the Constitution is getting to be much harder to come by.

But they’re out there, and every so often we are able to witness a shining example of what it means to be an American – to fearlessly exercise our god-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In the Albany, NY airport, Ashley Jessica and Jason Bermas did just that. When handing out flyers detailing the TSA’s abuses and educating travelers on what the TSA can and cannot do, airport officials attempted to derail their activities by attempting to have them moved, detained and arrested. Bermas and Jessica stood their ground, citing city, state and federal law as guidance for their legal activities.

Airport public affairs director Douglas I. Myers would have none of it, and asked Sheriff’s deputies to step in.

Deputy Stan Lenic did.

But what came next was nothing short of shocking, especially in modern-day America, where law enforcement officials often overstep their authority and presume guilt over innocence.

 “Obviously this is your constitutional right, as far as we’re concerned you’re not breaking any laws,” Sheriff Lenic tells Bermas.

When Myers asks the Sheriff to detain the activists, Lenic responds, “I can’t do that.”

Myers then asks for Bermas’ identification, to which Sheriff Lenic responds, “He doesn’t have to show you his identification.”

“I need to get it from you,” Myers tells the Sheriff as he winks at him, to which Sheriff Lenic responds “I can’t give you that.”

“Just so you know, he’s not doing anything wrong,” Deputy Lenic forcefully tells Myers, before quoting the New York penal law code.

“If I was to ask for his identification he does not have to give it to me because he’s not doing anything wrong,” adds Lenic.

Myers’ claim that Jessica is blocking the escalator is also dismissed by Lenic. Myers then claims the filming is illegal because it is “commercial” and could appear on the Drudge Report – which is a news aggregator and not a commercial website.

Lenic should obviously be commended for his fine job in upholding constitutional rights. If there’s an award for cop of the year, he should win it hands down. He is a shining example to other police officers who have completely failed to apply the law in similar situations.
Source: Transcript and video via Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars.com.

Video above: Sheriff Lenic uses proper procedure regarding TSA and American's freedom.  From (http://youtu.be/O-G8k44m3VE).

This is how we protect our liberties and those of future generations.

First we must have a populace willing to stand up to tyranny. The people must know the laws of the land, and be willing to face scrutiny and even arrest in the defense of those laws.

Second, law enforcement and other officials of the government need to be informed. They need to understand that their first and foremost duty is to the people through the protection of the fundamental laws of the land as codified in the Constitution of the United States of America.

Finally, the populace must be willing to be informed, not by mainstream media pundits who tout the status quo and neuter the free and open expression and thoughts of the people, but by citizen journalists and activists who challenge the notion that we must kneel before our elected benefactors.

We must hold our government to account – and this is an example of how that’s done.

• To voice your views, you can contact the Albany, NY Sheriff’s Department at (518) 487-5400 or the albanycounty.com/sheriff/


On the Border

SUBHEAD: The rock-star charisma that surrounds great warlords in an age of imperial collapse has only just begun to flicker on our border.

By John Michael Greer on 28 November 2012 for Archdruid Report -

Image above: 'Caution" illegal immigrant crossing sign in USA near Mexican border. From (www.cipamericas.org/archives/2508).

The topic of last week’s post, the likely fate of Israel in the twilight years of American empire, makes a good example of more than one common theme.  As I commented in that earlier discussion, Israel is one of several American client states for whom the end of our empire will also be the end of the line.  At the same time, it also highlights a major source of international tension that bids fair to bring in a bumper crop of conflict in the decades before us.

The word “irredentism” doesn’t get a lot of play in the media just now, but my readers may wish to keep it in mind; there’s every reason to think they will hear it fairly often in the future. It’s the conviction, on the part of a group of people, that they ought to regain possession of some piece of real estate that their ancestors owned at some point in the past.  It’s an understandably popular notion, and its only drawback is the awkward detail that every corner of the planet, with the exception of Antarctica and a few barren island chains here and there, is subject to more than one such claim.

The corner of the Middle East currently occupied by the state of Israel has a remarkable number of irredentist claims on it, but there are parts of Europe and Asia that could match it readily—and of  course it only takes one such claim on someone else’s territory to set serious trouble in motion.

It’s common enough for Americans, if they think of irredentism at all, to think of it as somebody else’s problem. Airily superior articles in the New York Times and the like talk about Argentina’s claim to the Falklands or Bolivia’s demand for its long-lost corridor to the sea, for example, as though nothing of the sort could possibly spill out of other countries to touch the lives of Americans.

I can’t think of a better example of this country’s selective blindness to its own history, because the great-grandmother of irredentist crises is taking shape right here in North America, and there’s every reason to think it will blow sky-high in the not too distant future.

That’s the third and last of the hot button topics I want to discuss as we close in on the end of the current sequence of posts on the end of American empire, and yes, I’m talking about the southern border of the United States.

Many Americans barely remember that the southwestern quarter of the United States used to be the northern half of Mexico. Most of them never learned that the Mexican War, the conflict that made that happen, was a straightforward act of piracy. (As far as I know, nobody pretended otherwise at the time—the United States in those days had not yet fallen into the habit of dressing up its acts of realpolitik in moralizing cant.)

North of the Rio Grande, if the Mexican War comes to mind at all, it’s usually brushed aside with bland insouciance: we won, you lost, get over it. South of the Rio Grande? Every man, woman and child knows all the details of that war, and they have not gotten over it.

That might not matter much on this side of the border, except for two things.  The first, which I’ve discussed here several times, is the dominant fact of 21st century North American geopolitics, the failure of US settlement in the dryland West.

In the heyday of American expansion, flush with ample wealth from undepleted resources and unexhausted topsoil, the United States flung a pattern of human ecology nurtured on the well-watered soils of the Ohio and upper Mississippi valleys straight across the continent, dotting the Great Plains and the dry lands between the mountains with farms and farm towns.

The dream was that these would follow the same trajectory as their predecessors further east, and turn into a permanently settled agricultural hinterland feeding wealth into newborn cities.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was the first sign that this grand fantasy was not going to be fulfilled. Behind the catastrophic impact of farming techniques poorly suited to the fragile western soils was a deeper, natural cycle of drought, one that the native peoples of the West knew well but white settlers  were by and large too arrogant to learn.

Since then, as the vulnerability of agriculture on the southern Plains to cyclical drought and other ecological challenges has become more and more clear, the usual response—throw more money and technology at it—has solved problems in the near term by turning them into insoluble predicaments in the longer term.

Thus, for example, farmers faced with drought turned to irrigation using water from underground aquifers that date from the Ice Age and haven’t been replenished since then, gaining temporary prosperity at the cost of permanent ruin later on.

The details vary from region to region but the effect is the same. Across the dryland West, from the Great Plains to the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges, a new kind of ghost town is emerging alongside the old breed from the days of the gold and silver rushes.

Homes, churches, schools, city halls sit empty as tumbleweeds roll down the streets; with the decline of the old agricultural economy, all the townsfolk, or all but a few stubborn retirees, have gone elsewhere.  There are county-sized areas in several of the Plains states these days that once again fit the old definition of frontier: fewer than two non-Native American people per square mile.  In response, the vacuum is being filled by the nearest nation that has enough spare people and cultural vitality for the job.

I encourage those of my readers who doubt this claim to book a long bus trip through any of the major agricultural regions of the United States west of the Mississippi valley. You’ll want the run that stops at every other two-bit farm town along the way, because that’s where you’re going to see a significant part of America’s future: the towns that are Mexican by every standard except for a few lines on a map.

It’s not just that the signs are all in Spanish; the movie posters in the video shop windows are for Mexican movies, the snacks in the gas stations are Mexican brands, the radio announcers are talking excitedly about Mexican sports teams and the people on the street are wearing Mexican fashions.  Such towns aren’t limited these days to the quarter of the United States that used to be half of Mexico; they can be found in most of the country’s agricultural regions, and increasingly beyond them as well.

In the United States, this isn’t something you talk about. There’s plenty of rhetoric about immigration from Mexico, to be sure, but nearly all of it focuses on the modest fraction of those immigrants who cross into the US illegally. Behind that focus is another thing people in the United States don’t talk about, which is the bitter class warfare between America’s middle class and its working class. Illegal immigration is good for the middle class, because illegal immigrants—who have effectively no rights and thus can be paid starvation wages for unskilled and semiskilled labor—drive down the cost of labor, and thus decrease the prices of goods and services that middle class people want.

By the same token, illegal immigration is bad for the working class, because the same process leaves working class Americans with shrinking paychecks and fewer job opportunities.

Nobody in the middle class wants to admit that it’s in their economic interest to consign the American working class to misery and impoverishment; nobody in the working class wants to use the language of class warfare, for fear of handing rhetorical weapons to the next class down; so both sides bicker about a convenient side issue, which in this case happens to be illegal immigration, and they bicker about it in the shrill moral language that afflicts discussions of most issues in today’s America, so that the straightforward political and economic issues don’t come up.  Meanwhile, the demographic shift continues, and redefines the future history and cultural landscape of the North American continent.

Students of history will recognize in the failure of US settlement in the dryland West a familiar pattern, one that is also under way on the other side of the Pacific—the Russian settlement of Siberia is turning into a dead end of the same kind, and immigrants from China and other Asian countries are flooding northwards there, quite probably laying the foundations for a Greater China that may someday extend west to the Urals and north to the Arctic Ocean.  Still, there’s another pattern at work in North America.  To make sense of it, a glance at one of the core sources of inspiration for this blog—the writings of Arnold Toynbee—will be helpful.

Central to Toynbee’s project, and to the sprawling 12-volume work A Study of History that came out of it, was the idea of putting corresponding stages in the rise and fall of civilizations side by side, and seeing what common factors could be drawn from the comparison. Simple in theory, that proved to be a gargantuan undertaking in practice, which is why nearly all of Toynbee’s career as a writer of history was devoted to that one project. The result is a core resource for the kind of work I’m trying to do in this blog: the attempt to gauge the shape of our future by paying attention to the ways similar patterns have worked out in the historic past.

One pattern that has plenty of examples on offer is the evolution of borderland regions caught between an imperial power and a much poorer and less technologically complex society.  Imperial China and central Asia, the Roman world and the Germanic barbarians, the Toltecs of ancient Mexico and their Chichimec neighbors to the north—well, the list goes on. It’s a very common feature of history, and it unfolds in a remarkably precise and stereotyped way.

The first phase of that unfoldment begins with the rise and successful expansion of the imperial power. That expansion quite often involves the conquest of lands previously owned by less wealthy and powerful nations next door.  For some time thereafter, neighboring societies that are not absorbed in this way are drawn into the imperial power’s orbit and copy its political and cultural habits—German tribal chieftains mint their own pseudo-Roman coins and drape themselves in togas, people very far from America copy the institutions of representative democracy and don blue jeans, and so on.

A successful empire has a charisma that inspires imitation, and while it retains its ascendancy, that charisma makes the continued domination of its borderlands easy to maintain.

It’s when the ascendancy fails and the charisma crumbles that things start to get difficult. Toynbee uses a neat if untranslatable Latin pun to denote the difference: the charisma of a successful imperial power makes its borderlands a limen or doorway, while the weakening of its power and the collapse of its charisma compels it to replace the limen with a limes, a defensive wall. Very often, in fact, it’s when a physical wall goes up along the border that the imperial power, in effect, serves notice to its historians that its days are numbered.

Once the wall goes up, literally or figuratively, the focus shifts to the lands immediately outside it, and those lands go through a series of utterly predictable stages. As economic and political stresses mount along the boundary, social order collapses and institutions disintegrate, leaving power in the hands of a distinctive social form, the warband—a body of mostly young men whose sole trade is violence, and who are bound by personal loyalties to a charismatic warlord.

At first, nascent warbands strive mostly with one another and with the crumbling institutions of their own countries, but before long their attention turns to the much richer pickings to be found on the other side of the wall.  Raids and counter-raids plunge the region into a rising spiral of violence that the warbands can afford much more easily than the imperial government.

The final stages of the process depend on the broader pattern of decline. In Toynbee’s analysis, a civilization in decline always divides into a dominant minority, which maintains its power by increasingly coercive means, and an internal proletariat—that is, the bulk of the population, who are formally part of the civilization but receive an ever smaller share of its benefits and become ever more alienated from its values and institutions.

This condition applies to the imperial state and its inner circle of allies; outside that core lies the world of the external proletariat—in the terms used in earlier posts here, these are the peoples subjected to the business end of the imperial wealth pump, whose wealth flows inward to support the imperial core but who receive few benefits in exchange.

The rise of warband culture drives the collapse of that arrangement. As warbands rise, coalesce, and begin probing across the border, the machinery that concentrates wealth in the hands of the dominant minority begins to break apart; tax revenues plunge as wealth turns into warband plunder, and the imperial state’s capacity to enforce its will dwindles.

The end comes when the internal proletariat, pushed to the breaking point by increasingly frantic demands from the dominant minority, throws its support to the external proletariat—or, more to the point, to the successful leadership of one or more of the external proletariat’s biggest warbands—and the empire begins its final collapse into a congeries of protofeudal statelets.   Much more often than not, that’s how the final crisis of a civilization unfolds; it’s also one standard way that common or garden variety empires fall, even when they don’t take a civilization down with them.

As the United States faces the end of its overseas empire and the drastic contraction of an economy long inflated by imperial tribute, in other words, it faces a massive difficulty much closer to home:  a proud and populous nation on its southern border, with a vibrant culture but disintegrating political institutions, emergent warbands of the classic type, a large and growing demographic presence inside US borders, and a burning sense of resentment directed squarely at the United States.  This is not a recipe for a peaceful imperial decline.

Nor is there much hope that the classic pattern can be evaded:  the wall has already gone up, in the most literal sense, and the usual consequences are following.  The warbands?  The US media calls them “drug gangs,” since their involvement in drug smuggling across the border makes good copy.

They haven’t yet completed the trajectory that will make them the heirs of the Huns and Visigoths, and in particular, the rock-star charisma that surrounds great warlords in an age of imperial collapse has only just begun to flicker around the most successful leaders of the nascent Mexican warbands.

Give it time; the glorification of the gangster life that pervades popular culture toward the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid these days shows that the seeds of that change have long since been planted.

Can anything be done to prevent this from proceeding all the way to its normal completion?  At this stage in the game, probably not.  An empire in the days of its power can sometimes stop the spiral by conquering the entire region—not merely the border area, but all the way out to the nearest major geographical barrier—and absorbing it fully into the imperial system; that’s why Gaul, which had been a source of constant raids against Roman interests early on, didn’t produce many warbands of its own in the years of decline until it was conquered and settled by Germanic tribes from points further east.

Had the United States conquered all of Mexico in the 1870s, admitted its states into the Union, and integrated Mexican society fully into the American project,  that might have worked, but it’s far too late in the day for that; the polarization of the borderlands is already a fact, so is the bitterness of a dispossessed people, and so is the ongoing unraveling of American power.

The other endpoint of the process—the only other endpoint of the process that can be found anywhere in recorded history—is the collapse of the imperial power.  The United States has prepared plenty of other disasters for itself, by way of its unusually clueless choices in recent decades, and some of them are likely to hit well before the defense of the southern border becomes its most pressing and insoluble security problem.

Still, I would encourage those of my readers who live in the dryland West, especially those within a state or so of the southern border, to keep an eye open for the first tentative raids, and perhaps to read up on what happened to those parts of the Roman Empire most directly exposed to warband incursions in the twilight years of Roman rule.

I would also like to ask any of my readers who are incensed by the above to stop, take a deep breath, and pay attention to what is and is not being said here.  Again, the shrill rhetoric of moral judgment that treats every political question as an opportunity for self-righteous indignation, popular as it is, has no particular value in this context.

More than a century and a half ago, American politicians decided to go to war with Mexico; over the next century or so, as a result of that decision and its cascading consequences, the social order basic to any viable society will most likely be shredded over a sizable part of what is now the United States, and stay that way for a good long time.  That’s simply one of the things that can happen when an empire falls, and it’s something many of us can expect to see here in America in the years ahead.


2012 UN Climate Change Talks

SUBHEAD: There's an Earth Summit going on in Doha, Qatar. I'm sure those events would be better served without the air-conditioning and limousines.

By Juan Wilson on 28 November 2012 for Island Breath -

Image above: Area of Kempinski and Somerset Hotels in West Bay from a beach near InterContinental Hotel at morning dusk. Doha, Qatar, January 28, 2012. From (http://www.asergeev.com/pictures/archives/compress/2012/1007/02x.htm).

The fact that Doha, Qatar was chosen as the sight of this conference is not a good sign. Environmentalists found the choice of Qatar as host of the two-week conference ironic. The tiny Persian Gulf emirate owes its wealth to large deposits of gas and oil, and it emits more greenhouse gases per capita than any other nation.

This week the Obama Administration will reveal its hand on the extent it will fight for the reduction of CO2 that produces climate change and the consequent mass extinction of life on Earth. Obama has been re-elected and is free to commit itself to saving the planet.

Who do you trust?
As the The 2012 United Nations Climate Change Conference takes place this week in Doha, Qatar, we can only scratch our heads an wonder. Given the last 20 year history of the United States taking any responsibility and self-discipline on CO2 emmisions, the signs are not good.

Who would trust the Untied States on any commitment to fighting global warming and the resulting climate change that grips the world?
No nation.
Moreover, what developing nation would voluntarily deny itself using its natural resources to attain the level of industrial "comfort" of the Untied States?
No nation.
We can only watch and comment on the events in Doha. But I'm sure those events would be better served without the air-conditioning and limousines, given the history of Earth Summits.

1992 Rio Summit
We are twenty years downstream of the Rio Dijanero United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or Earth Summit, that adopted policies in Brazil in 1992. The story of America's participation in this Earth Summit is appalling. In conferences leading up to the Rio meeting the United States (under then President G. H. W. Bush) gutted much of what might have been accomplished. 
In the end, however, the United States refused to accept much of the PrepCom work. During PrepCom IV in New York City, for instance, 139 nations voted for mandatory stabilization of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by the year 2000, laying the groundwork for what promised to be the showcase treaty of the Earth Summit. Only the United States delegation opposed it, but after behind-the-scenes arm twisting and deal-making, the targets and compulsory aspects of the treaty were stripped away, leaving only a weak shell to take to Rio de Janeiro. (http://www.bookrags.com/research/united-nations-earth-summit-1992-enve-02/)
1997 Kyoto Summit
Although Clinton signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming, ostensibly committing the United States to a draconian program of energy reduction while leaving huge nations such as China and India exempt.

However,  lack of commitment to planetary sanity continued. In March 2001, the administration of President George W. Bush announced that it would not implement the Kyoto Protocol, claiming that ratifying the treaty would create economic setbacks in the U.S. and does not put enough pressure to limit emissions from developing nations. Shortly after Canada reneged on its participation.

2009 Copenhagen Summit
This brings us up to the presidency of Barack Obama. In 2009 we witnessed the events of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly known as the Copenhagen Summit. The conference was held in Denmark, in December. The event was a political stalemate between the developed industrial nations and those still developing.

On Friday 18 December, the final day of the conference, international media reported that the climate talks were "in disarray". Media also reported that in lieu of a summit collapse, solely a "weak political statement" was anticipated at the conclusion of the conference.

Obama was key in the drafting of the Copenhagen Accord in partnership with  China, India, Brazil and South Africa that same day. The United States judged it a "meaningful agreement". It was "taken note of", but not "adopted" in a debate of all the participating countries the next day.

2010 Cancun Summit
Things didn't improve the next year. In 2010 Mexico hosted the Earth Summit meeting in Cancun, a location that is already suffering from the effects of ocean rise due to global warming (http://islandbreath.blogspot.com/2010/12/cop16-as-cancun-disappears.html). As Albert bates reported concerning the failure of the conference to reach a deal on tackling global warming:
Climate change, put as simply as possible, is the impact of having 7 billion people living at the highest level of resource consumption the world has ever seen. In many ways, that is a mark of the success of the United Nations, and of the international aid and development work of many agencies and individuals over the past 50 years. And not surprisingly, many of the stakeholders one finds roaming the halls at a UN event have the expectation that “sustainable development” mandate can and should continue. Most, if not all, would even go so far as to say it must continue. 
2011 Durban Summit
Does anybody even remember that there was a United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2011 in Durban, South Africa? The conference agreed to a "legally binding" deal comprising all countries, which will be prepared by 2015, and to take effect in 2020. Scientists and environmental groups warned then that the deal was not sufficient to avoid global warming beyond 2 °C as more urgent action was needed.

2012 Doha Summit
For details on events and schedule of the Doha Summit see (http://unfccc.int/2860.php). 

Bottom Line
Given our past behavior, we are probably committed, by the second law of thermodynamics, to well past the two-degrees-celsius rise in atmospheric temperature rise by 2050 that climate scientists marked as a safety limit. Continuing on as we are, we'll be into the 4º-6ºC range... or beyond.

It will be interesting to watch the political, industrial and financial power brokers pretend they are dealing with our activities that threaten planetary extinction. Can they even keep a straight face as they gobble sushi and champagne at post conference parties?

We shall see - and act accordingly.


Why is Gridlock Good?

SUBHEAD: Gridlock is the political equivalent of a medically-induced coma which can sometimes be the only way back to good health.

By Deepak Chopra on 20 November 2012 for The Ecologist - 

Image above: People stand next to their cars during a traffic jam in Shenzhen city, Guangdong province, China. From (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/9578774/Gridlock-as-China-begins-its-Golden-Week-holidays.html).

There is widespread lamentation over the current gridlock in American politics. After a quick shot of elation for Democrats - which I wholeheartedly shared in - Washington went right back to the status quo. Commentators point out that the same players are sitting in the same seats. The chances for tax reform and a solution to immigration may have improved slightly, we are told, but with more than 50 Tea Party members in the House and battle lines drawn everywhere on ideological lines, it doesn’t look so promising for successful negotiations.

I accept all of that, but it seems to me that gridlock is good for the progressive side, and liberals shouldn't join the general lamentation. Gridlock is the political equivalent of a medically induced coma. Basic life functions continue while a critical disease runs its course. Being in a coma isn't good for anyone, but when the disease is extreme, sometimes a coma may be the only way to return to health.

In Washington's case, the disease is right-wing reaction. Its effects have already been dire: drastic economic unfairness, the Iraq war, control of Congress by lobbyists, intractable ideologues infecting the democratic process, and a draconian war on drugs that has filled our prisons in a campaign comparable to what Stalin did in the Gulag (according to Fareed Zakaria, America's prison population has tripled since 1980, almost totally due to drug convictions, and we now incarcerate people at ten times the rate of other developed countries).

To halt the spread of reactionary policies, gridlock brings a coma-like stasis. But the other part of an induced coma is that Nature takes its course to heal the patient. That is happening, too. The re-election of President Obama held back the worst aspects of the right that Romney pandered to. It allowed four more years for demographics to continue to outnumber the Republican base (the party has already lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections). Less noticed but still good is the rise of a younger generation of Christian fundamentalists who do not share their parents' rigid Bible belief.

When all these forces finally come to fruition, the state of gridlock should have run its course – say in 20 years, 10 even if we are lucky.

It took 30 years for the electorate to swing right, gradually driving out better candidates because they were unwilling to be vilified and face Willie Horton-style tactics. Ten years is only a fraction of that. Scorched-earth tactics didn't defeat Obama. Good candidates may take heart and start to return.

For the time being, the crystal ball isn't clear. Human nature is stubborn, and there is no viable reason for the intractable right wing to cede power in Congress.  They suffered pain in the last election, but pain doesn't create change, as history abundantly shows us. Situations that contain implacable divisions (Sunni versus Shiite, Israel versus the Palestinians, slave-owners versus abolitionists) don't heal; they fracture.

The good news for our body politic is that we have already broken the fever. Not in the way that Joe Biden called for when he foresaw the House accepting compromise after Obama won. They won't, just as the Republican Party won't become less radical through defeat. At best the two sides will lurch toward partial solutions with teeth grinding all the way.

The rise of reactionary forces over 30 years has depended on legitimising the worst in human nature, the darker side where irrational prejudice, resentment, and fear are lurking. If we are honest with ourselves, each of us feels these impulses. But the essence of progressivism is to resist the worst and nurture the best through idealism and fair-mindedness.

By acting like an adult and never giving way to revenge, Obama has used the patient tactic of leaning against a wall until it moves. He is counting on the electorate to wake up to its own better nature. If he succeeds - and I think he will - Lincoln won't be the only President from Illinois who was a man of destiny. Obama is presiding over a shift in consciousness that will restore American uniqueness by curing us of a malady that was heading toward disaster.


Beyond Civilization & Primitive

SUBHEAD: Primitives see time as a circle. Civilized see it as a line. We are about to see it as an open plain where we can wander at will.

By Ran Prieur on 15 February 2008 for RanPrieur.com-

Image above: Spiral clock - circle or line?  From (http://technabob.com/blog/2011/12/20/spiral-clock-twirls-time-into-view/).

Western industrial society tells a story about itself that goes like this: "A long time ago, our ancestors were 'primitive'. They lived in caves, were stupid, hit each other with clubs, and had short, stressful lives in which they were constantly on the verge of starving or being eaten by saber-toothed cats. Then we invented 'civilization', in which we started growing food, being nice to each other, getting smarter, inventing marvelous technologies, and everywhere replacing chaos with order. It's getting better all the time and will continue forever."

Western industrial society is now in decline, and in declining societies it's normal for people to feel that their whole existence is empty and meaningless, that the system is rotten to its roots and should all be torn up and thrown out. It's also normal for people to frame this rejection in whatever terms their society has given them. So we reason: "This world is hell, this world is civilization, so civilization is hell, so maybe primitive life was heaven. Maybe the whole story is upside-down!"

We examine the dominant story and find that although it contains some truth, it depends on assumptions and distortions and omissions, and it was not designed to reveal truth, but to influence the values and behaviors of the people who heard it. Seeking balance, we create a perfect mirror image:

"A long time ago, our ancestors were 'primitive'. They were just as smart as we would be if we didn't watch television, and they lived in cozy hand-made shelters, were generally peaceful and egalitarian, and had long healthy lives in which food was plentiful because they kept their populations well below the carrying capacity of their landbase. Then someone invented 'civilization', in which we monopolized the land and grew our population by eating grain. Grain is high in calories but low in other nutrients, so we got sick, and we also began starving when the population outgrew the landbase, so the farmers conquered land from neighboring foragers and enslaved them to cut down more forests and grow more grain, and to build sterile monuments while the elite developed technologies of repression and disconnection and gluttonous consumption, and everywhere life was replaced with control. It's been getting worse and worse, and soon we will abandon it and live the way we did before."

Again, this story contains truth, but it depends on assumptions and distortions and omissions, and it is designed to influence the values and behaviors of the people who hear it. Certainly it's extremely compelling. As a guiding ideology, as a utopian vision, primitivism can destroy Marxism or libertarianism because it digs deeper and overthrows their foundations. It defeats the old religions on evidence. And best of all, it presents a utopia that is not in the realm of imagination or metaphysics, but has actually happened. We can look at archaeology and anthropology and history and say: "Here's a forager-hunter society where people were strong and long-lived. Here's a tribe where the 'work' is so enjoyable that they don't even have the concept of 'freeloading'. Here are European explorers writing that certain tribes showed no trace of violence or meanness."

But this strength is also a weakness, because reality cuts both ways. As soon as you say, "We should live like these actual people," every competing ideologue will jump up with examples of those people living dreadfully: "Here's a tribe with murderous warfare, and one with ritual abuse, and one with chronic disease from malnutrition, and one where people are just mean and unhappy, and here are a bunch of species extinctions right when primitive humans appeared."

Most primitivists accept this evidence, and have worked out several ways to deal with it. One move is to postulate something that has not been observed, but if it were, would make the facts fit your theory. Specifically, they say "The nasty tribes must have all been corrupted by exposure to civilization." Another move is to defend absolutely everything on the grounds of cultural relativism: "Who are we to say it's wrong to hit another person in the head with an axe?" Another move is to say, "Okay, some of that stuff is bad, but if you add up all the bad and good, primitive life is still preferable to civilization."

This is hardly inspiring, and it still has to be constantly defended, and not from a strong position, because we know very little about prehistoric life. We know what tools people used, and what they ate, but we don't know how many tribes were peaceful or warlike, how many were permissive or repressive, how many were egalitarian or authoritarian, and we have no idea what was going on in their heads. One of the assumptions I mentioned above, made by both primitivism and the dominant story, is that stone age people were the same as tribal forager-hungers observed in historical times. After all, we call them both "primitive". But in terms of culture, and even consciousness, they might be profoundly different.

A more reasonable move is to abandon primitive life as an ideal, or a goal, and instead just set it up as a perspective: "Hey, if I stand here, I can see that my own world, which I thought was normal, is totally insane!" Or we can set it up as a source of learning: "Look at this one thing these people did, so let's see if we can do it too." Then it doesn't matter how many flaws they had. And once we give up the framework that shows a right way and a wrong way, and a clear line between them, we can use perspectives and ideas from people formerly on the "wrong" side: "Ancient Greeks went barefoot everywhere and treated their slaves with more humanity than Wal-Mart treats its workers. Medieval serfs worked fewer hours than modern Americans, and thought it was degrading to work for wages. Slum-dwellers in Mumbai spend less time and effort getting around on foot than Americans spend getting around in cars. The online file sharing community is building a gift economy."

Identifying with stone age people is like taking a big stretch. Then if we relax, we find that a lot of smaller stretches are effortless, that we can easily take all kinds of perspectives outside the assumptions of our little bubble. We could even re-invent "primitivism" to ignore stone age people and include only recent tribes who we have good information about, and who still stack up pretty well against our own society. We could call this historical primitivism, and a few primitivists have taken this position. The reason most don't is, first, our lack of knowledge about prehistory forms a convenient blank screen on which anyone can project visions to back up their ideology. And second, stone age primitivism comes with an extremely powerful idea, which I call the timeline argument.

The timeline argument convinces us that a better way of life is the human default, that all the things we hate are like scratches in the sand that will be washed away when the tide comes in. Often it's phrased as "99% of human history has been that, and only 1% has been this." Sometimes it's illustrated with a basketball court metaphor: It's 94 feet long, and if you call each foot ten thousand years, then we had fire and stone tools for 93 feet, agriculture for one foot, and industrial society for around a quarter of an inch.

The key word in this argument is "we". Where do you draw the line between "us" and "not us"? Why not go back a billion years, and say that "we" were cell colonies in the primordial oceans? Call a billion years a football field, and the age of agriculture can dance on the head of a pin! This would seem to be a much stronger argument, and yet I've never seen a primitivist draw the line even as far back as Homo habilis two million years ago -- or as recently as Homo sapiens sapiens 130,000 years ago. Why not?

This is a difficult and important question, and it took me days to puzzle it out. I think we've been confusing two separate issues. One is a fact, that the present way we live is a deviation from the way of other biological life. If this is our point, then a million year timeline is much too short -- we should go back at least a thousand times farther!

The other issue is a question: Who are we? When you get below the level of culture, down to the level of biology or spirit, what is normal for us to do? What is possible? What is right?

If you're talking about who we are, then the million year timeline is much too long. The mistake happens like this: "We are human, and we can plausibly call Homo erectus human. Therefore our nature is to live like Homo erectus, and the way we live now is not our tendency, not our normal behavior, but some kind of bizarre accident. What a relief! We can just bring down civilization, and we'll naturally go back to living like Homo erectus, but since we don't know exactly how they lived, we'll assume it's like the best recent forager-hunter tribes."

Now, I'm not disputing that many societies have lived close to the Earth with a quality of life that we can't imagine. Richard Sorenson mentions several, and explores one in depth, in his essay on Preconquest Consciousness. What I'm disputing is: 1) that we have any evidence that prehistoric people had that consciousness; 2) that that consciousness is our default state; 3) that it is simple for us to get back there; and 4) that large-scale technologically complex societies are a deviation from who we are.

Who we are is changing all the time, and new genetic research has revealed shockingly fast change in just the last few thousand years, including malaria resistance, adult milk digestion, and blue eyes. According to anthropologist John Hawks, "We are more different genetically from people living 5000 years ago than they were from Neanderthals." (link)

Now, you could argue that some of these changes are not really who we are, because they were caused by civilization: without domesticating cows and goats, we would not have evolved milk digestion. By the same logic, without inventing clothing, we would not have evolved hairless bodies. Without crawling onto dry land, we would not have evolved legs.

My point is, there is no place you can stick a pin and say "this is our nature", because our nature is not a location -- it is a journey. We crawled onto dry land; we became warm-blooded and grew hair; we moved from the forests to the plains; we walked upright; we tamed fire and began cooking food; we invented symbolic language; our brains got bigger; our tools got more complex; we invented grain agriculture and empires and airplanes and ice cream and nuclear weapons.

This isn't quite fair, because all of us adopted fire, but not all of us adopted grain agriculture, and riding in airplanes is much easier to reverse than walking upright. It's more likely that some of our descendants will be using fire and stone tools, than that some of them will be using Prozac and silicon microprocessors. But I still don't think, as some primitivists do, that civilization is a dead end, or an unlikely accident.

If civilization is a fluke, we would expect to see it begin only once, and spread from there. But instead we see grain farming and explosions of human social complexity in several places at about the same time: along the Tigris and Euphrates, and also in Africa, India, and China. You could still argue that those changes spread by travel, that there was one accident and then some far-flung colonies -- unless we found an early civilization so remote that travel was out of the question.

That civilization has been found. Archaeologists call it the Norte Chico, in present-day Peru. From 3000-1800 BC, they built at least 25 cities, and they had giant stone monuments earlier than anyone except the Mesopotamians. Even more shocking, their system was not based on grain! All previous models of civilization have put grain agriculture at the very root: once you had grain farming, you had a denser, more settled population, which led to a more complex society, and also you had a storable commodity that enabled hierarchy.

The Norte Chicans ate only small amounts of grain, but they did have a storable commodity that enabled hierarchy, something that allowed small differences in wealth to feed back into large differences, and ultimately entrenched elites commanding slaves to build monolithic architcture. It was cotton! So we have people on opposite sides of the world, in different geographies, using different materials, falling into the same pattern, but that pattern is not about food. It seems to be about economics, or more precisely, about human cognition. After thousands of generations of slow change, human intelligence reached a tipping point that permitted large complex societies to appear in radically different circumstances.

Now it's tempting to call "civilization" the new human default, but of course, in many places, these societies did not appear. Also, they all collapsed! And then new ones appeared, and those collapsed. I don't think it even makes sense to talk about a human default, any more than it makes sense to talk about a default state for the weather. But the range in which we move has widened.

My information on the Norte Chico comes from Charles C. Mann's book 1491, a survey of recent findings about the Americas before the European conquest. Mann is neither a primitivist nor an advocate for western civilization, but an advocate for, well, far western civilization, which was a lot more like western civilization than we thought. At its peak, the Inca empire was the largest in the world, with exploited colonies, massive forced resettling of workers, and bloody power struggles among the elite just like in Europe and Asia. The Maya deforested the Yucatan and depleted its topsoil only a few centuries after the Romans did the same thing around the Mediterranean. Aztec "human sacrifice" was surprisingly similar to English "public execution" that was happening at exactly the same time. Even North America had a city, Cahokia, that in 1250 was roughly the size of London. In 1523, Giovanni da Verrazzano recorded that the whole Atlantic coast from the Carolinas up was "densely populated". In the 1540's, De Soto passed through what is now eastern Arkansas and found it "thickly set with great towns". Of course, that population density is possible only with intensive agriculture. Mann writes, "A traveler in 1669 reported that six square miles of maize typically encircled Haudenosaunee villages."

By the time the conquest really got going, all these societies had been wiped out by smallpox and other diseases introduced by the first Europeans. Explorers and conquerors found small tribes of forager-hunters in an untamed wilderness, and assumed it had been that way forever. In a blow to both primitivism and "progress", it turns out that most of these people were not living in the timeless ways of their ancestors -- the "Indians" of American myth were post-crash societies!

The incredible biological abundance of North America was also a post-crash phenomenon. We've heard about the flocks of passenger pigeons darkening the sky for days, the tens of millions of bison trampling the great plains, the rivers so thick with spawning salmon that you could barely row a boat, the seashores teeming with life, the deep forests on which a squirrel could go from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without touching the ground. We don't know what North America would have looked like with no humans at all, but we do know it didn't look like that under the Indians. Bone excavations show that passenger pigeons were not even common in the 1400's. Indians specifically targeted pregnant deer, and wild turkeys before they laid eggs, to eliminate competition for maize and tree nuts. They routinely burned forests to keep them convenient for human use. And they kept salmon and shellfish populations down by eating them, and thereby suppressed populations of other creatures that ate them. When human populations crashed, nonhuman populations exploded.

This fact drives a wedge between two value systems that are supposed to be synonymous: love of nature and love of primitive humans. We seem to have only two options. One is to say that native North Americans went too far -- of course they weren't nearly as bad as Europeans, but we need to return to even lower levels of population and domestication. I respect this position morally, but strategically it's absurd. How can the future inhabitants of North America be held to a way of life that the original inhabitants abandoned at least a thousand years ago?

The other option is to say that native North Americans did not go too far. The subtext is usually something like this: "Moralistic ecologists think it's wrong that my society holds nature down and milks it for its own benefit, but if the Native Americans did it, it must be okay!" This conclusion is nearly universal in popular writing. Plenty of respectable authors would never be caught idealizing simple foragers, but when they find out these "primitives" hunted competitors and cleared forests to plant grain, out comes the "wise Indian" card.

There is a third option, but it requires abandoning the whole civilized-primitive framework. Suppose we say, "We can regrow the spectacular fecundity that North America had in the 1700's, not as a temporary stage between the fall of one Earth-monopolizing society and the rise of another, but as a permanent condition -- and we will protect this condition not by duplicating any way our ancestors lived, but by inventing new ways. And these new ways will coexist with large complex societies, rather than depending on their destruction."

I admit this is a utopian pipe dream, something to aim for but not to bet on. To grow biological abundance for its own sake, and not for human utility, is still a fringe position. But my deeper point is that the civilized-primitive framework forces us to divide things a certain way: On one side are complexity, change, invention, unstable "growth", taking, control, and the future. On the other side are simplicity, stasis, tradition, stability, giving, freedom, and the past. Once we abandon that framework, which is itself an artifact of western industrial society, we can integrate evidence that the framework excludes, and we can try to match things up differently.

The combination that I'm suggesting is: complexity, change, invention, stability, giving, freedom, and both the past and the future. This isn't the only combination that could be suggested, and I doubt it's the easiest to put into practice, but it's surprisingly noncontroversial. Al Gore would probably agree with every point. The catch is that Gore is playing to a public consciousness in which "freedom" means a nice paint job on control, and in which no one has any idea what's really necessary for stability.

Americans think freedom means no restraint. So I'm free to start a big company and rule ten thousand wage laborers, and if they don't like it they're free to go on strike, and I'm free to hire thugs to crack their heads, and they're free to quit, and I'm free to buy politicans to cut off support for the unemployed, so now they're free to either starve and die, or accept the job on my terms and use their freedom of speech to impotently complain.

A better definition of freedom is no coercion. I define "restraint" as preventing someone from doing something, and "coercion" as forcing someone to do something, usually by punishing them for not doing it. Primitive societies tend to be very good at avoiding coercion. In The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff writes that among the Yequana, it is forbidden to even ask another person to do something. It seems strange to us, but to have a society where no one is forced to do what they don't want to do, you actually need a lot of restraints.

So there's one place where we can learn more from looking backward than looking forward. But there is more than one way for coercion to appear -- it's like a disease with multiple vectors. Primitive cultures have extraordinary resistance to the way coercion must have appeared over and over in their history -- among a group of people who all know each other, an arrogant charismatic leader arises. But they have little or no resistance to another way it's been appearing more and more often over the last few thousand years: as a hidden partner with seductive new physical and social tools.

To understand what's necessary for both freedom and stability, we need to go deep into a close ally of the critique of civilization: the critique of technology. Now, as soon as you say you're against technology, some nit-picker points out that even a stone axe is a technology. We know what we mean, but we have trouble putting it into words. Our first instinct is to try to draw a line, and say that technologies on one side are bad, and on the other side are good. And at this point, primitivism comes into the picture as a convenience.

It reminds me of the debate over abortion, which is ultimately about drawing a line between when the potential child is part of the mother's body, and when it's a separate person with full rights. Drawing the line at the first breath would make the most sense on biblical grounds, but no one wants to do that, and almost no one wants to draw it at passage through the birth canal. But if you go farther back than that, you get an unbroken grey area all the way to conception! Fundamentalists love to draw the line at conception, not only because it gives them more control over women, but because they hate grey areas.

In the same way, primitivism enters the debate over good technology with a sharply drawn line a long way back. We don't have to wrestle with how to manufacture bicycles without exploitation, or how to make cities sustainable, or what uses are appropriate for water wheels, or how to avoid the atrocities of ancient empires, if we just draw the line between settled grain farmers and nomadic forager-hunters.

To be fair to primitivists, they still have to wrestle with the grey areas from foraging to horticulture to agriculture, and from camps to villages to towns, and with arguments that we should go back even farther. The real fundamentalists on this issue are the techno-utopians. They say "technology is neutral," which really means "Thou shalt not ascribe built-in negative effects to any technology," but of course they ascribe built-in positive effects to technologies all the time. So it ends up being not a statement of fact but a command to action: "Any technology you can think of, do it!" This is like solving the abortion debate by legalizing murder.

We must apply intelligent selection to technology, but we aren't really worried that the neighboring village will reinvent metalworking and massacre our children with swords. We just want bulldozers to stop turning grassy fields into dreadful suburbs, and we want urban spaces to be made for people not cars, and we want to turn off the TV, and take down the surveillance cameras, and do meaningful work instead of sitting in windowless office dungeons rearranging abstractions to pay off loans incurred getting our spirits broken.

We like hot baths and sailing ships and recorded music and the internet, but we worry that we can't have them without exterminating half the species on Earth, or exploiting Asian sweatshop workers, or dumping so many toxins that we all get cancer, or overextending our system so far that it crashes and we get eaten by roving gangs.

But notice: primitive people don't think this way! Of course, if you put them on an assembly line or on the side of a freeway or in a modern war, they would know they were in hell. But if you offered them an LED lantern made on an assembly line, or a truck ride to their hunting ground, or a gun, most of them would accept it without hesitation. Primitive people tend to adopt any tool they find useful -- not because they're wise, but because they're ignorant, because their cultures have not evolved defenses against tools that will lead them astray.

I think the root of civilization, and a major source of human evil, is simply that we became clever enough to extend our power beyond our empathy. It's like the famous Twilight Zone episode where there's a box with a button, and if you push it, you get a million dollars and someone you don't know dies. We have countless "boxes" that do basically the same thing. Some of them are physical, like cruise missiles or ocean-killing fertilizers, or even junk food where your mouth gets a million dollars and your heart dies. Others are social, like subsidies that make junk food affordable, or the corporation, which by definition does any harm it can get away with that will bring profit to the shareholders. I'm guessing it all started when our mental and physical tools combined to enable positive feedback in personal wealth. Anyway, as soon as you have something that does more harm than good, but that appears to the decision makers to do more good than harm, the decision makers will decide to do more and more of it, and before long you have a whole society built around obvious benefits that do hidden harm.

The kicker is, once we gain from extending our power beyond our seeing and feeling, we have an incentive to repress our seeing and feeling. If child slaves are making your clothing, and you want to keep getting clothing, you either have to not know about them, or know about them and feel good about it. You have to make yourself ignorant or evil.

But gradually we're learning. Every time it comes out that some product is made with more than the usual amount of exploitation, a few people stop buying it. Every day, someone is in a supermarket deciding whether to spend extra money to buy shade-grown coffee or fair trade chocolate. It's not making a big difference, but all mass changes have to start with a few people, and my point is that we are stretching the human conscience farther than it's ever gone, making sacrifices to help forests we will never see and people we will never meet. This is not simple-minded or "idealistic", but rational, sophisticated behavior. You find it not at the trailing edge of civilization but at the leading edge, among educated urbanites.

There are also growing movements to reduce energy consumption, to eat locally-produced food, to give up high-paying jobs for better quality of life, and to trade industrial-scale for human-scale tools. I would prefer not to own a car, but my motivation is not to save the world -- it's that cars are expensive and I hate driving. I'll use a chainsaw when I have a huge amount of wood to cut, but generally I avoid power tools because they make me feel dependent on an industrial system that gives me no participation in power, and I feel stronger working with my own muscles.

When I look at the discourse around this kind of choice, it's positively satanic. People whose position is basically "Thundersaw cut fast, me feel like god" present themselves as agents of enlightenment and progress, while people with intelligent reasons for doing something completely new -- choosing weaker, slower tools when high-energy tools are available -- are seen as lizard-brained throwbacks. What's even worse is when they see themselves that way.

This movement is often called "voluntary simplicity", but we should distinguish between technological simplicity and mental simplicity. Primitive people, even when they have complex cultures, use simple tools for a simple reason -- those are the only tools they have. In so-called "civilization", we've just been using more and more complex technologies for simple-minded reasons -- they give us brute power and shallow pleasures. But as we learn to be more sophisticated in our thinking about technology, we will be able to use complex tools for complex reasons -- or simple tools for complex reasons.

Primitivists, understandably, are impatient. They want us to go back to using simple tools and they don't care why we do it. It's like our whole species is an addict, and seductive advanced technologies are the drug, and primitivism is the urge to throw our whole supply of drugs in the garbage. Any experienced addict will tell you that doesn't work. The next day you dig it out of the garbage or the next week you buy more.

Of course there are arguments that this will be impossible. One goes like this: "For civilization, you need agriculture, and for agriculture, you need topsoil. But the topsoil is gone! Agriculture survives only by dumping synthetic fertilizers on dead soil, and those fertilizers depend on oil, and the easily extracted oil is also gone. If the industrial system crashes just a little, we'll have no oil, no fertilizer, no agriculture, and therefore no choice but foraging and hunting."

Agriculture, whether or not it's a good idea, is in no danger. The movement to switch the whole planet to synthetic fertilizers on dead soil (ironically called "the Green Revolution") had not even started yet when another movement started to switch back: organic farming. Present organic farmers are still using oil to run tractors and haul supplies in, but in terms of getting the soil to produce a crop, organic farming is agriculture without oil, and it's the fastest growing segment of the food economy. It is being held back by cultural intertia, by the political power of industrial agribusiness, and by cheap oil. It is not being held back by any lack of land suitable for conversion to organic methods. No one says, "We bought this old farm, but since the soil is dead, we're just going to leave it as a wasteland, and go hunt elk." People find a way to bring the soil back.

Another argument is that "humanity has learned its lesson." I think this is on the right track, but too optimistic about how much we've learned, and about what kind of learning is necessary. Mere rebellion is as old as the first slave revolt in Ur, and you can find intellectual critiques of civilization in the Old Testament: From Ecclesiastes 5:11, "When goods increase, they are increased that eat them: and what good is there to the owners thereof?" And from Isaiah 5:8, "Woe unto those who join house to house, and field to field, until there is no place." If this level of learning were enough, we would have found utopia thousands of years ago. Instead, people whose understanding was roughly the same as ours, and whose courage was greater, kept making the same mistakes.

In Against His-story, Against Leviathan, Fredy Perlman set out to document the whole history of resistance to civilization, and inadvertently undermined his conclusion, that this Leviathan will be the last, by showing again and again that resistance movements become the new dominators. The ancient Persian empire started when Cyrus was inspired by Zoroastrianism to sweep away the machinery of previous empires. The Roman empire started as a people's movement to eradicate the Etruscans. The modern nation-state began with the Moravians forming a defensive alliance against the Franks, who fell into warlike habits themselves after centuries of resisting the Romans. And we all know what happened with Christianity.

I fear it's going to happen again. Now, the simple desire to go primitive is harmless and beneficial -- I wish luck and success to anyone who tries it, and I hope we always have some tribal forager-hunters around, just to keep the human potential stretched. And I enjoy occasional minor disasters like blackouts and snowstorms, which serve to strip away illusions and remind people that they're alive. I loved the idea in Fight Club (the movie) of destroying the bank records to equalize wealth. That's right in line with the ancient Jubilee tradition, where debts were canceled every few decades to stabilize the economy.

But to cause a global hard crash (if it's even possible) would be a terrible mistake, and the root of it is old-fashioned authoritarian thinking: that if you force someone to do something, it's the same as if they do it on their own. In fact it's exactly the opposite. The more we are forced to abandon this system, the less we will learn, and the more aggressively we will fight to rebuild something like it. And the more we choose to abandon it, the more we will learn, and the less likely we will make the same mistakes.

Of course we will not have another society based on oil, and per-capita energy consumption will drop, but it's unlikely that energy or complexity will fall to preindustrial levels. Hydroelectric and atomic fission plants are in no immediate danger, and every year there are new innovations in energy from sun, wind, waves, and biofuels. Alternative energy would be growing much faster with good funding, and in any case it's not necessary to convert the whole global infrastructure in the next twenty years. Even in a general collapse, if just one region has a surplus of sustainable energy, they can use it to colonize and re-"develop" the collapsed areas at their own pace. Probably this will be happening all over.

I don't think there's any escape from complex high-energy societies, so instead of focusing on avoiding them, we should focus on making them tolerable. This means, first, that our system is enjoyable for its participants -- that the activities necessary to keep it going are experienced by the people who do them as meaningful and freely chosen. Second, our system must be ethical toward the world around it. My standards here are high -- the totality of biological life on Earth must be better off with us than without us. And third, our system must not be inherently unstable. It might be destroyed by an asteroid or an ice age, but it must not destabilize itself internally, by having an economy that has to grow or die, or by depleting nonrenewable resources, or by having any trend at all that ratchets, that easily goes one way but can't go the other way without a catastrophe.

These three standards seem to be separate. When Orwell wrote that the future is "a boot stamping on a human face -- forever", he was imagining a system that's internally stable but not enjoyable. Techno-utopians fantasize about a system that expands into space and lasts billions of years while crushing any trace of biological wildness. And some paranoids fear "ecofascism", a system that is stable and serves nature, but that represses most humans.

I think all these visions are impossible, for a reason that is overlooked in our machine-worshipping culture: that collapse often happens for psychological reasons. Erich Fromm said it best, in "What Does It Mean to Be Human?"

Even if the social order can do everything to man -- starve him, torture him, imprison him, or over feed him -- this cannot be done without certain consequences which follow from the very conditions of human existence. Man, if utterly deprived of all stimuli and pleasure, will be incapable of performing work, certainly any skilled work. If he is not that utterly destitute, he will tend to rebel if you make him a slave; he will tend to be violent if life is too boring; he will tend to lose all creativity if you make him into a machine. Man in this respect is not different from animals or from inanimate matter. You can get certain animals into the zoo, but they will not reproduce, and others will become violent although they are not violent in freedom... If man were infinitely malleable, there would have been no revolutions.

In 1491, Mann writes that on Pizarro's march to conquer the Incas, he was actively helped by local populations who were sick of the empire's oppression. Fredy Perlman's book goes through the whole history of western civilization arguing for the human dissatisfaction factor in every failed society. And it's clear to me and many other Americans that our empire is falling because nobody believes in it -- not the soldiers, who quickly learn that war is bullshit, not the corporate executives, who at best are focused on short term profits and at worst are just thieves, not the politicians, who are cynically doing whatever it takes to maximize campaign contributions, and not the people who actually do the work, most of whom are just going through the motions.

Also, America (with other nations close behind) is getting more tightly controlled, and thus more unbearable for its participants. This is a general problem of top-down systems: for both technical and psychological reasons, it's easy to add control mechanisms and hard to remove them, easy to squeeze tighter and hard to let go. As the controllers get more selfish and insulated, and the controlled get more frustrated and depressed, and more energy is wasted on forcing people to do what they wouldn't do without force, the whole system seizes up, and can only be renewed by a surge of transforming energy from below. This transformation could be peaceful, but often the ruling interests block it until it builds up such pressure that it explodes violently.

The same way the ruling interests become corrupt through an exploitative relationship with the people, we all become corrupt when we participate in a society that exploits the life around it. When we talk about "nature", we don't mean wheat fields or zoo animals -- we mean plants that scatter seeds to the wind and animals that roam at will. We mean raw aliveness, and we can't repress it outside ourselves without also repressing it inside ourselves. The spirit that guides our shoe when it crushes grass coming through cracks in the driveway, also guides us to crush feelings and perceptions coming through cracks in our paved minds, and we need these feelings and perceptions to make good decisions, to be sane.

If primitive life seems better to us, it's because it's easier for smaller and simpler societies to avoid falling into domination. In the best tribes, the "chief" just tells people to do what they want to do anyway, and a good chief will channel this energy into a harmonious whole. But the bigger a system gets, and the longer a big system lasts, the more challenging it is to maintain a bottom-up energy structure.

I have a wild speculation about the origin of complex societies. The Great Pyramid of Giza is superior in every way to the two pyramids next to it -- yet the Great Pyramid was the first of the three to be built. It's like Egyptian civilization appeared out of nowhere at full strength, and immediately began declining. My thought is: the first pyramid was not built by slaves. It was built by an explosion of human enthusiasm channeled into a massive cooperative effort. But then, as we've seen in pretty much every large system in history, this pattern of human action hardened, leaders became rulers, inspired actions became chores, and workers became slaves.

To achieve stability, and freedom, and ecological responsibility, we must learn to halt the slide from life into control, to maintain the bottom-up energy structure permanently, even in large complex systems. I don't know how we're going to do this. It's even hard for individuals to do it -- look at all the creative people who make one masterpiece and spend the rest of their life making crappy derivative works. The best plan I can think of is to build our system out of cells of less than 150 people, roughly the number at which cooperation tends to give way to hierarchy, and even then to expect cells to go bad, and have built-in pathways for dead cells to be broken down and new ones to form and individuals to move from cell to cell. Basically, we'd be making a big system that's like a living body, where all past big systems have been animated corpses.

Assuming that our descendants do achieve stability, what technological level will they be at? I want to leave this one wide open. It's possible in theory for us to go even farther "back" than the stone age. I call this the Land Dolphins scenario -- that we somehow transform ourselves into super-intelligent creatures who don't use any physical tools at all. At the other extreme, I'm not ruling out space colonies, although the worst mistake we could make would be expanding into space before we have learned stability on our home planet. I think physical travel to other solar systems is out of the question -- long before mechanistic technology gets that far, we will have moved to new paradigms that offer much easier ways to get to new worlds.

The "singularity" theory is also off the mark. Techies think machines will surpass humans, because they think we're nothing but machines ourselves, so all we need to do is make better machines, which according to the myth of "progress" is inevitable. I think if we do get a technological transcendence, it's going to involve machines changing humans. My favorite scenario is time-contracted virtual reality: suppose you can go into an artificial world, have the experience of spending a week there, and come back and only a day has passed, or an hour, or a minute. If we can do that, all bets are off!

The biggest weakness in my vision is that innovation can go with stability, that we can continue exploring and trying new things without repeatedly destabilizing ourselves by extending our power beyond our understanding. Maybe we're just going to keep making mistakes and falling down forever, and in that case the best we can do is minimize the severity of the falls. I think we're doing a pretty good job so far in the present collapse. Even in America, we might escape with no more than a long depression, a mild fall in population, and a much-needed shakeout of technology and economics. Life will get more painful but also more meaningful, as billions of human-hours shift from processing paperwork and watching TV to intensive learning of new skills to keep ourselves alive. These skills will run the whole range, from tracking deer to growing potatoes to fixing bicycles to building solar-powered wi-fi networks -- to new things we won't even imagine until we have our backs to the wall.

Humans are the most mentally adaptable species on Earth, and not bad at physical adaptation. Our species can easily survive the worst-case scenarios for climate change and industrial collapse. If we go extinct, it will be through self-transformation. We might use biotech to genetically change ourselves into something that's not robust, or use information technology to get so good at entertaining ourselves that we're no longer interested in reproduction. Or we might spin off many cultures and subspecies that go extinct, while a few survive.

I think we can see the future in popular fiction, but not the fiction we think. Most science fiction is either stuck in the recent past, in the industrial age's boundless optimism about machines, or it looks at the present by exploring the unintended consequences of high tech. Cyberpunk is better -- if you put a 1950's version of the year 2000 through a cyberpunk filter, you would be close to the real 2000. The key insight of cyberpunk is that more technology doesn't make things cleaner -- it makes things dirtier.

Fantasy, while seeming to look at the past, might be seeing the future: elves and wizards could represent the increasing diversity of post-humans, and "magic" is what we in the industrial age dimly perceive as the world outside our objective materialist philosophy. I think steampunk does the best of all, if you factor out the Victorian frippery. Like cyberpunk, it shows a human-made world that's as messy and alive as nature, but the technological system is a crazy hybrid of everything from "stone age" to "space age" -- rejecting the idea that we are locked into ages.

Primitive people see time as a circle. Civilized people see it as a line. We are about to see it as an open plain where we can wander at will. History is broken. Go!

Modernity Bites

SUBHEAD: Modernity has nearly put us out of business. Leave the exhausted enterprise behind and be human for while.

By James Kunstler on 26 November 2012 for Kunstler.com -

Image above: Charlie Chaplin is fed soup in 1936 movie "Modern Times". From (http://cockeyedcaravan.blogspot.com/2011/09/first-15-minutes-project-6-little-tramp.html).

There is surely a correspondence between an exhausted culture and a populace devolved so far into mental dullness that it can't recognize its predicament. We don't seem to get how much the industrial production spree of the past 200 years has just plumb worn us out, not to mention the ecosystem we were designed to dwell in.

My general sense of things for at least a decade is that we are closing this chapter of history and heading into something smaller, slower, and simpler, and that we could either go there willingly or get dragged there kicking and screaming by circumstances.

It interests me to reflect that the way things are temporarily is the way people define normality, and think things will always be, so that if you are living in a big city like New York where so much remaining wealth is concentrated, and you are dazzled by the whirr and flash of things, including all the pretty young people drilling into their iPhones, you might expect a longer arc to the moment at hand.

Out here in the provinces it's a different story. The exhaustion is palpable. I dropped into the mall at mid-day on Sunday to take the pulse on the ballyhooed post-Thanksgiving ritual shopping frenzy and the place was like a ghost town. The sparse stream of supposed "consumers" had the dazed, beaten-down look of people pushed beyond the edge of some dark threshold, like displaced persons in a low-grade war zone.

Their behavior seemed ceremonial, though, mere acting-out as opposed to acting. They were not carrying bags with purchases. I saw almost nobody actually shopping, that is, fingering the merchandise, in either the two department stores I passed through or the smaller shops lining the corridors.

There were strikingly few clerks in either the big or little retail operations and you got the feeling that these stores were now expected to run on automatic pilot, with a skeleton crew of employees because the margins just aren't there anymore. They are going through the motions of being in business, and when Christmas is over some will not be there anymore.

America has had enough, notwithstanding the latest YouTube videos showing crazed mobs fighting over worthless plastic crap at the "Black Friday" WalMart openings elsewhere around the country.

The physical condition of our so-called towns (many of them just "facilities" smeared carelessly over the landscape) is something else. We are not taking care of our property in part because we don't have the money, but also because so much of it is obviously not worth caring about, was not designed and built to be cared for - and anyway, there is the lure of the narcotic flat-screen television within to distract anyone with a fugitive thought of opposing the pervasive entropy of these times. The disgrace of this nation - I mean it quite literally - is now total, from our bodies to everything around us. We are entropy made visible.

Variations on this exhaustion are playing out in other parts of the "advanced" world, Europe and Japan, where all the money-related parts of the modernity machine have gravel in their gears and are grinding into self-destruction. China will get to the same event horizon soon, too, despite the fact that so much of their stuff is brand-new - after all, what use is a set of new super-highways if Brent crude prices remain above $110?

What if we just accept the reality that the industrial spree was a self-limiting adventure and now we have to move on? What do we give up? What do we actually do with our time and effort?

There's a clear trend to give up on the gigantic nation-state, at least in its current corporatist configuration, most recently in Spain with separatists winning this week's election in the northern province of Catalonia. Perhaps greater Spain will now join the defunct entities of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR.

There are rumblings of "secession" here in North America now, where a certain moron-inflected cohort favors a replay of the Civil War, largely for sentimental reasons instilled by TV. What Dixieland doesn't seem to grok is the unraveling of its own Sunbelt miracle economy which was, in effect, a suburban development bubble, and which will land them back in a ditch with a sack of turnips like Jeeter Lester's family in Tobacco Road.

Here are some trends we would benefit from getting comfortable with:

Globalism is withering and will end with a whimper (sorry, Tom Friedman). The economy of North America will become much more internally focused in the decades ahead. If you are young, think about getting into the boat business on the continent's magnificent inland waterway system. There will be no more trucking to move stuff around, and at the rate we're going the railroads will never be fixed.

National chain retail will be dying as its economies-of-scale vanish. WalMart and everything like it will be gone. No more Black Friday toy riots. Sorry. If you are young, think about getting into some kind of local business that will play a role in your rebuilt local economic network. There will be plenty of work for you, but not so much new cheap plastic crap to hassle with. Lots of opportunities for the business-minded!

Farming comes back to the center of economic life. Hard to believe, I'm sure, if you live in an iPhone fantasy-land of apps and tweets. Forget all that stupid shit. The electric grid will certainly fail, or at least fail to be reliable enough to matter, in the next couple decades, and the real value in human existence will be using the land to produce a living. Lots of opportunities for young people who like to work outside. Also, some chance of political revolution to expedite changes in land tenure.

Farewell to the auto age and hello again to real communities. Hard to believe, I'm sure, as you read this in traffic on your iPad, but your commuting days are numbered. Indeed the whole car thing comes to a rather stunningly abrupt halt - though we are certainly doing everything possible now to prop it up.

The old Herb Stein formulation will apply here: people do what they can until they can't, and then they don't. The implications in this for how we inhabit the landscape going forward are rather huge. Find a nice small town on a waterway surrounded by farmland and get ready to have a life.

In the meantime, as these circumstances roil in the background, you can be sure that the people running things will campaign strenuously to keep the current set of rackets running. The results will be sad and possibly terrifying.

Be brave and seek opportunity in these epochal changes. Modernity has nearly put us out of business. Leave the exhausted enterprise behind and be human for while. Enjoy the time-out from techno-progress that is at hand. It will be something to be grateful for.