Saturday, August 29, 2015

Distributed Intelligence

"We may not understand it, but with quantum mechanics, we are beginning to be able to name what we can't comprehend."

Plants communicate — they are actually quite loquacious communicators. They are able to distinguish kin and non-kin. They communicate with plants of their own and other species and they communicate with animals and humans.

We are here in Iceland teaching a permaculture course with Robyn Francis and she likes to say plants are just upside-down humans. We have our senses up at the top — in our mouths, noses, ears and fingertips. Plants keep those mostly down in their roots but they also smell and taste and touch like we do. We keep our sex organs hidden down in our bottoms, but plants put them up on full display at the top.

But can a plant be intelligent? Some plant scientists, like Stefano Mancuso, think they are — since they can discover, learn, remember, and even react in ways we would call intelligent.

Michael Pollan, author of such books as Cooked, The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, wrote a New Yorker piece a couple years ago revisiting The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird (1973) with a review of the latest developments in plant science. He said that for the longest time, even mentioning the idea that plants could be intelligent was a quick way to being labeled a whacko. But science has silenced the critics.

The new research causes a problem because it is often called plant neurobiology and plants do not use a central nervous system or have brains.

Nonetheless, it appears that plants can sense the presence of water or feel an obstruction in the path of its roots, before coming into contact with moisture or the obstruction. Plant roots shift direction to migrate towards the water source or to avoid the obstacle. If you've tried to cage bamboo perhaps you've encountered this.

Plants may be able to teach humans a thing or two, such as how to process information without a central processor like a brain.

Do plants use quantum mechanics, or can we speak of something called “quantum biology?” Jameel Sadik "Jim" Al-Khalili is an Iraqi-born British theoretical physicist, author and broadcaster. He is currently Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey. His recent TED talks provide an overview of some of the processes we are just learning about, including quantum tunneling in photosynthesis and DNA replication.

In a longer talk to the Royal Institution in 2013, Professor Khalili explored how quantum theory might explain some of the mysteries of plant senses.

In a forest system, Robyn tells our class, mother trees nurture young seedlings by sending them water and nutrients. They also starve out and steal nutrients from emerging plants they consider hostile to the ecology they are cultivating. In South Africa acacia trees increased the tannin in their leaves by 400% to poison the soil in order to halt an invasion by kudzu.

Plants may have as many as 15 senses, not just the six we take for granted. They can hear pollen. They can taste poisons at minute thresholds. They can feel the coming weather. They can smell danger. Photoreceptors in leaves sense and respond to changes in light, wind and humidity. Cryptochromes set circadian rhythms and control photomorphogenesis in response to blue or ultraviolet light. We know that salmon, sea turtles, spotted newts, lobsters, honeybees, and fruit flies can all perceive and utilize geomagnetic fields. Lately we’ve learned some plants (e.g.: Arabidopsis thaliana) also have magnetic compasses coming from a radical pair mechanism within the protein of their cryptochromes.

The entanglement of life is beyond an observable physical effect. We may not understand it yet, but with quantum mechanics, we are beginning to be able to name some of what we observe of the mystery.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

The First Casualty

"In the future, Hiroshima should not be remembered not just for the destruction of its inhabitants, but also for being the flag for the epidemiological cover-up of the biggest public health scandal in human history."

We sometimes wonder if death by climate change is not more merciful for homo non-sapiens than reaping the unseen harvest of nuclear and toxic damage bequeathed to our genetic and ecological inheritors in this and later centuries. As we fly off to Iceland to teach a permaculture course this week, we have been fortunate to obtain this guest post by Chris Busby. It originally appeared at on Hiroshima Day and was reposted this past week on Counterpunch. 





After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a Third Nuclear Atrocity: the Corruption of Science

On the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, articles are appearing everywhere discussing the historical, philosophical, scientific, public health and social meaning of this event (I almost wrote ‘war crime’).

The bombings can be extrapolated onward in time through the atmospheric testing fallout and Chernobyl, to the more recent contamination in Japan after Fukushima.

Today, the analysis of the health risks from the Japanese A-Bombs is being cleverly twisted to provide a rationale for the development of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not just some historical tableaux that we can weep crocodile tears over, and discuss as socio-historic phenomena.

They are here today, present as ghosts, in all the manipulations and devious calculations made by the international radiation risk agencies and nuclear-industry scientists giving results that continue to permit the release into the environment of the same deadly substances that emerged for the first time in 1945.

Abusing Hiroshima to deny nuclear bomb health damage

I am currently presenting a case for the British Atomic Test veterans in the Royal Courts of Justice in London. The case pivots on the faulty radiation and health risk model that is based on the Lifespan Study of the Japanese A-Bomb survivors.

This model, of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), is used by the Ministry of Defense in the courts to deny responsibility for the cancers in the Nuclear Test Veterans and the congenital disease in their children and grandchildren.

However, the Hiroshima model also predicts that those exposed to radiation and fallout from future nuclear ‘exchanges’ would suffer little downstream genetic damage. Thus the Doctors Strangelove and the generals can argue that a nuclear war is winnable and that the increases in cancer and genetic effects in those exposed to Depleted Uranium (DU) in Iraq somehow don’t exist.

The bogus analysis of the health outcomes from Hiroshima has left the world with a major public health problem. In an effort to refute the mounting evidence, the ICRP model was relaunched by The Lancet to coincide with the Hiroshima anniversary.

A whole issue is given over to the presentation of wacko accounts of the health consequences of Hiroshima, Chernobyl and Fukushima through articles (at least partly) written by those who hold the reins of the ICRP chariot. The key issue is accurately described at the start:
“The linkages between Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Fukushima are thus more than just symbolic, having shaped current health management practices, and the institutions that run them, as well as public responses to these events.”
However, these current health management practices are wildly in error.

Nuclear war

Everyone has seen the photos of Hiroshima. The primitive Uranium-235 bomb ‘Little Boy’ that fell on Hiroshima with an explosive power of 13 kilotons (13,000 tons of TNT, the conventional chemical explosive) flattened the city and killed some 80,000 people of which 45,000 died on the first day.

Within four months the death toll was about 140,000. Three days after Hiroshima, a 20kT Plutonium bomb ‘Fat Man’ was dropped on Nagasaki (Why? Did the US think perhaps the Hiroshima bomb might have been overlooked?). Both weapons were mostly made of Uranium.

Note that. Since then, from 1950, a study of the survivors by the US funded Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission ABCC (and later the Radiation Effects Research Foundation) has defined the relationship between radiation dose and cancer.

In passing, recall that the explosive power was 13 kilotons. Anyone who wants nightmares should buy the standard work: The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, by Samuel Glasstone, the physical chemist. The more recent versions of this book have a nifty little plastic calculator in the back where you may, by rotating the bezel, inform yourself of the radii of blast, radiation dose, building destruction etc. for any size of bomb.

The US has spent lots of money and time blowing up stuff in the Nevada and Pacific test sites to obtain these data. Modern thermonuclear warheads, of which there are currently some 15,000, pack about 800kT. Just one of these jobs would put paid to most of New York, Tehran or Jerusalem.

I visualize some poor civil defense chief sitting in a shelter somewhere desperately twisting the scales on this pretty ‘Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer’ (developed by the Lovelace Research Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico) whilst waiting for the ground to disappear.

The ruins of Nagasaki the day after the bombing.

Nuclear war is not longer unthinkable

The problem we have in the world in 2015 is that the economic system and power relations between countries encourages those taking big decisions to think in terms of geopolitical strategies that include the use of nuclear weapons.

There are potential resource wars; there are food-production issues following changes in global weather patterns, there are technological developments in what were historically manipulatable countries. Nuclear weapons are now in the hands of nine nations including three which are not party to the non-proliferation treaty (and why should they be?): India, Pakistan and North Korea.

Negotiations with Iran are currently argued to be “of tremendous importance” in a region where Israel has the nuclear potential to wipe out all the local Arab states at a sitting. The Russians have massive nuclear capability and are being baited on their borders in Ukraine by NATO and those who control NATO.

This shit-stirring now has moved to the Baltic States. I live in Latvia, and this Spring I saw a new tank with a Latvian flag rolling though the center of Ropazi, a small town 40km west of Riga near where I live. Every day, the sky overhead had big helicopters and transport aircraft, donated to the Latvians by the US. Why?

The Baltic States and Poland are conscripting armies to defend the motherland against invasion by the Russians. What’s going on? Those who sow the wind reap the whirlwind, my grandmother would say. Let us hope not.

A systematic cover-up of nuclear dangers

In all the high level strategic thinking that is associated with this nuclear warmongering, the post attack population death yields from fallout are computed according to the ICRP risk model. But that Hiroshima model is a chimeric construction, built in the Cold War to back up the atmospheric testing.

The observable effects (increases in infant mortality, the 1980s cancer epidemic) were covered up following a 1959 agreement between the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization, which left the IAEA, the nuclear physicists, the bomb makers, the deniers of Chernobyl and Fukushima effects, in charge of the research into health.

And so it remains today with The Lancet article ‘Long-term effects of radiation exposure on health‘, co-written by particle physicist Richard Wakeford, ex-head of research of British Nuclear Fuels at Sellafield, nuclear industry representative on the UK CERRIE committee, member of the ICRP, adviser to the Japanese on Fukushima, and so forth.

The evidence from real studies of the offspring of the test veterans, and the soldiers and civilians exposed to Depleted Uranium, is that a nuclear war will be the end of life on earth as we know it.

The test veterans have a 10-fold excess risk of children with birth defects, 9-fold in the grandchildren. Although millions will be blasted away, the real outcome will be global sterility, cancer and malformation. All the Mad Max stuff but worse: Hollywood got it right.

Evidence and errors in the Hiroshima lifespan studies

If you find that there is a doubling of breast cancer or child leukemia in those living downwind of a nuclear power station, at an ‘estimated dose’ less than external background, the ICRP model tells you that the effect cannot be due to the releases from the power station because the dose is too low.

The epidemiologist Martin Tondel found in 2004 that there was a significant excess cancer risk in Northern Sweden after Chernobyl. He was told to shut up because what he found was impossible: In other words, the dose was too low.

The same in Belarus and Ukraine where my colleague Alexey Yablokov has collected together an enormous compilation of peer reviewed evidence of appalling effects. Most recently we see the Hiroshima-based denials in the case of thyroid cancer in Fukushima prefecture (see below).

The study groups for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) probe were assembled in 1950. Thus there were five years in which those who were badly affected by the radiation could die. The study was of a “healthy survivor” group, something which the late Dr Alice Stewart demonstrated.

But that is not the worst accusation. There were roughly 109,000 individuals recruited, including six dose groups from 0 to 200 rad (0-2+ Gy) and two Not in City (NIC) groups, the 4,607 Early Entrants (NIC-EE) and 21,915 Late Entrants (NIC-LE).

These NIC groups should have been the controls, but they were not. If you look at the reports you find they were abandoned as being ‘too healthy’. The final exposure groups were defined by how far they were from the detonation.

But all groups were exposed to residual radioactivity from the bombs. The US and ABCC denied (and still denies) this. There were internal exposures to all the groups whatever their external dose had been at the detonation.

Uranium: a genetic poison that targets DNA

The origin was the “black rain” which contained Uranium-235, Uranium-238 and particularly Uranium-234, which is the missing exposure, and is probably responsible for most of the cancer effects in all the survivors. We know that the Uranium was there because it was measured by Japanese scientists in 1983.

A recently declassified US document tabulates the enormous U-234 content of the enriched Uranium used in the bombs, codename: Oralloy. The Uranium nanoparticles in the Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) black rain were available for inhalation by all the exposure groups in the ruins of Hiroshima for years after the bomb.

All the bombs were made of Uranium, about 1 ton per Megaton yield. For all those tests in Nevada, the Marshall Islands, Kazakhstan, Christmas Island, the results were the same: down came the nanoparticles to be inhaled by anyone nearby and distant.

Why does this matter? New research has been carried out on Uranium. We find that Uranium targets DNA through chemical affinity. This causes terrible and anomalous genetic damage, out or all proportion to its “dose” as calculated by ICRP. Other fallout components also bind chemically to DNA, e.g. Strontium-90, Barium-140.

Those exposed: Uranium miners, Gulf Veterans, Test Veterans, DU civilians, Nuclear Uranium workers, Nuclear Site downwinders, all suffer chromosome damage, cancer, leukemia, heart disease, the works. All this is published, as are the results of laboratory and theoretical studies showing mechanisms. But in the Lancet: nothing.

S L Simon and A Bouville who wrote the article on the health effects of the nuclear testing did not even mention Uranium there, nor in their epic 2010 study of the Marshall Islands exposures. The Nevada site data that they used for their baseline calculations ignored it totally.

In 2012, I made a presentation for the Marshall Islanders at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, attacking the Simon et al analysis. In their Lancet nuclear test article, Simon and Bouville major on Iodine effects. So let’s look at those.

Scientific evidence from Fukushima: massive excess of thyroid cancers

In Fukushima Prefecture, surveys have confirmed 103 thyroid cancers in 380,000 18-year olds (25 or so are still being checked out). The Lancet article by Wakeford et al. presents an excess Relative Risk culled from the Hiroshima studies of 0.6 per Sievert (Fig 2 p 473). In the very same issue, the maximum thyroid dose was given as 18mSv with the median dose as 0.67mSv.

So in the two years of screening, if everyone screened got the maximum thyroid dose of 18mSv we should expect an increase of 0.018 x 0.6 = 0.011, a 1.1% increase in the background rate. This background is about 1 per 100,000 per year or 7.6 in two years in 380,000. So the radiation should increase this to 7.7 cases (i.e. one extra case in 10 years).

There are 103, that is 95 more cases than expected, an error in the ICRP model of 95/0.14 = 678-fold. That is, there are 678 times more thyroid cancers than the Hiroshima-based ICRP model predicts.

This calculation is based on what was written in The Lancet – but nobody made the calculation. This on its own should show the authorities (and the public) that the game is up. But instead of doing the simple calculation, another article in The Lancet, written by Geoff Watts, praises the work of those at Fukushima Medical University, who are busy telling everyone that the increases in thyroid cancer cannot be caused by the radiation.

In other words, once again, the predictions from Hiroshima are believed, rather than the evidence in front of their eyes. It’s a kind of mass hypnosis (or maybe not).

Finally, someone is trying to get to the truth of the matter

In case you think this is all mad stuff, there does at last seem to be some measure of concern evolving in this area of internal radiation, though no one in The Lancet articles mentions it. The European Union radiation research organization MELODI has finally moved into action, led by the French radiation protection agency IRSN.

The matter was raised (by me) at the inaugural MELODI conference in Paris in 2011, but nothing seemed to develop. I said that there are likely to be dose estimation problems associated with internal exposure to nuclides which bind to DNA, and particularly Uranium; that this potentially falsified the Hiroshima risk model.

A hugely expensive European research project has now been proposed. It is CURE: Concerted Uranium Research Europe. In the report launching this development in March 2015 the authors wrote: a large scale integrated collaborative project will be proposed to improve the characterization of the biological and health effects associated with uranium internal contamination in Europe.

In the future, it might be envisaged to extend collaborations with other countries outside the European Union, to apply the proposed approach to other internal emitters and other exposure situations of internal contamination, and to open the reflections to other disciplines interested in the effects of internal contaminations by radionuclides.

In the future, Hiroshima should not be remembered not just for the destruction of its inhabitants, but also for being the flag for the epidemiological cover-up of the biggest public health scandal in human history, whose victims number hundreds of millions – in cancer deaths and miscarriages, infant deaths, loss of fertility and the introduction of genomic instability to all creatures on Earth.

Let us pray that it will not be allowed to sanction the final nuclear exchange, on the mistaken prediction that such an event will be winnable.

This article was originally published by RT, and is reproduced by kind permission of the author. Dr Chris Busby is the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Riskand the author of Uranium and Health – The Health Effects of Exposure to Uranium and Uranium Weapons Fallout (Documents of the ECRR 2010 No 2, Brussels, 2010). For details and current CV see For accounts of his work see and

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Stairway to Heaven

"Let us stop talking about collapse, peak oil, and global weirding and begin a conversation about what is cool and what is uncool."


In Nine to Five Jane Fonda's character, Judy Bernly, is the office newbie.  In a scene evoking Lucille Ball on the assembly line, she pushes too many buttons on an enormous Xerox machine and fills the floor with blizzard drifts of copy paper.

Technocornucopians see the world of the future as a great 3D printer with an unlimited supply reservoir. Push a few buttons and we can fulfill everyone's wildest dreams. What need have we for terror or strife? Vivek Wadhwa, vice president of innovation and research for Singularity University says:

The next decade will be the most innovative decade in human history: technologies are advancing so rapidly, entire industries will be wiped out and new ones created out of nowhere. … We don't think about man-machine convergence or all this sci-fi stuff. We talk about practical implementation of today's technologies -- harnessing advancing technologies to do good for mankind.

Think of each piece of paper flying out of Judy Bernly's grasp as just another great solution searching for a problem. Go ahead Judy, push that button again. The machine will know what to do.

It's not true that we can't solve big problems through technology. We can, we must, but these four elements must all be present: Political leaders and the public must care to solve a problem; institutions must support its solution; It must really be a technological problem; and we must understand it. The Apollo mission, which has become a kind of metaphor for technology's capacity to solve big problems, met these criteria. But it is an irreproducible model for the future. It is not 1961. There is no galvanizing contest like the Cold War, no politician like John Kennedy who can heroize the difficult and the dangerous, and no popular science fictional mythology such as exploring the solar system. Most of all, going to the moon turned out to be easy. It was just three days away. And arguably it wasn't even solving much of a problem.
- Jason Pontin, Can technology solve our big problems? (TED talk, Oct 2013)

Technology might even come up with a 3D printable stairway to heaven but that capability should not be confused with the availability of the natural resources required to fuel it or the machinations of humans allowed to control it.

Marc Andreeson, who developed the first internet browser and today runs one of the largest venture capital firms in Silicon Valley was interviewed by The New Yorker  earlier this year:
“Even if we could do perfect analysis, we just can’t know the future,” he said. “What if Google Ventures had access to all Google searches—could you predict hit products? Or perfect access to all of people’s conversations or purchases? You still wouldn’t know what’s going to happen. How is psychohistory going?” he went on, referring to Isaac Asimov’s invention, in his “Foundation” novels, of a statistical field that could predict the behavior of civilizations. “Not very fucking good at all! Which, by the way, is part of what makes this job really fun. It’s a people business. If we could revise the industry completely, we’d just dump all the business plans and focus on people—the twenty-three-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs.” He acknowledged, though, that his optimism dims once human beings—with their illogic, hidden agendas, and sheer bugginess—enter the equation. “We’re imperfect people pursuing perfect ideas, and there’s tremendous frustration in the gap,” he said. “Writing code, one or two people, that’s the Platonic ideal. But when you want to impact the world you need one hundred people, then one thousand, then ten thousand—and people have all these people issues.” He examined the problem in silence. “A world of just computers wouldn’t work,” he concluded wistfully. “But a world of just people could certainly be improved.”

Over the last couple of months Samuel Alexander has published two collections of essays, the first called Prosperous Descent: Crisis as Opportunity in an Age of Limits; the second Sufficiency Economy: Enough, for Everyone, Forever. Perhaps one of the better features of Alexander's writing, which tends toward tedious restatement of the obvious, is when he summarizes. Here, for instance, are 12 guiding precepts:
  1. Pursuing limitless growth on a finite planet is a recipe for ecological and humanitarian catastrophe.
  2. ‘Green growth’ is a dangerous myth that entrenches the status quo.
  3. ‘Degrowth’ (i.e., planned contraction of resource and energy demands) is necessary in the developed nations in order to move toward a just and sustainable economy that operates within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.
  4. Addressing poverty within a degrowth framework implies a redistribution of wealth and power on a much more egalitarian basis.
  5. Degrowth implies radically reduced energy and resource requirements compared to overdeveloped nations.
  6. It is not enough merely to live more simply within existing structures and systems.
  7. At some point, when the social movement becomes powerful enough, there will need to be some democratic social planning of the economy to ensure that the necessary degrowth transition does not collapse the economy.
  8. Degrowth is thus incompatible with capitalism.
  9. A swift transition to renewable energy is necessary to respond to climate change and peak oil.
  10. Climate change and peak oil are not the fundamental problems. Rather, they are the symptoms of the cultures and systems of consumer capitalism.
  11. Material sufficiency in a free society provides the conditions for an infinite variety of meaningful, happy, and fulfilling lives.
  12. Chances of success do not look good.

It is not enough to know what is wrong. You also have to be able to know how to fix it. Over several millennia keen observers have committed forests of paper to describing the wrong turn being taken by their respective cultures. Relatively few were able to forge a popular will towards making course corrections, and most of those changes were eventually canceled out by the law of unintended consequences. 

Consider Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, exposing corruption in the meat packing industry. Meat-packing unionized, the FDA was created, and today you will find it difficult to purchase non-GMO, grass-fed, ranch-slaughtered cattle and poultry, or raw milk. What about Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, the anti-slavery tome by Harriet Beecher Stowe? When introduced to Ms. Stowe, Abraham Lincoln is said to have remarked, "So this is the little lady who started this great war." From that book we get blackface minstrelsy and stereotypes of dark-skinned mammys and faithful-to-their-oppressor Uncle Toms.

Can we be more thoughtful about culture repair than we have been in the past? Alexander says:
First, we must adequately understand the nature and extent of the overlapping crises that confront us today. Secondly, we must envision the alternative world, or matrix of alternative worlds, that would adequately dissolve the current crises and provide the foundations for a flourishing human civilisation into the deep future. And thirdly, having provided an accurate critique and having envisioned an appropriate and effective alternative, we must meditate deeply on the question of strategy – the question of how best to direct our energies and resources if we are to maximise our chances of building the new world we have imagined. Then, and only then, are we in a position to ask ourselves the ultimate question: what is to be done? If that question is asked prematurely, or if it is asked having answered any one of the preliminary questions inadequately, then there is a great risk that one’s action, motivated by the best of intentions, is directed in ways that fail to effectively produce any positive effect and, indeed, may even be counter-productive to the cause.

Alexander follows in the footsteps, as he acknowledges, of the seminal work of Eugene and Mary Odum and in particular, their 2000 paper, A Prosperous Way Down.   Of the impending energy collapse, the Odums wrote:
We recognize four main stages of the pulsing cycle: (1) growth on abundant available resources, with sharp increases in a system’s population, structure, and assets, based on low-efficiency and high-competition (capitalism and monopolistic overgrowth); (2) climax and transition, when the system reaches the maximum size allowed by the available resources, increases efficiency, develops collaborative competition patterns, and prepares for descent by storing information; (3) descent, with adaptations to less resources available, a decrease in population and assets, an increase in recycling patterns, and a transmission of information in a way that minimizes losses; (4) low-energy restoration, with no-growth, consumption smaller than accumulation, and storage of resources for a new cycle ahead. The pulsing paradigm has always been in front of our eyes. Forest ecosystems never did anything different, with short pulsing cycles that we were able to see and understand. 

It was the Odums' hope that decisive changes in attitudes and practices can divert a destructive collapse, leading instead to conservation of resources and renewal. That is in large part why they took up teaching — as a way to influence future trendmakers. The "how" in Alexander's four step sequence was, for the Odums, to be found in changing the attitudes of the next generation.

Frankly, we find Alexander's kneeling curtsies to the slower students in mainstream culture less than endearing. Here, for example, is Alexander wringing his hands about capitalism:
Admittedly, this is a realisation that I resisted for some time, hoping that the social, economic, and environmental crises that human beings face would not require such terrifyingly fundamental change. Couldn’t we just reform capitalism? Eventually, however, I realised that there was no honour in deceiving myself and potentially others just because the challenge of replacing capitalism seemed, and still seems, like an impossible pipe dream. The first question to grapple with is whether capitalism needs to be replaced, not whether we will ever succeed in doing so, and the nature of capitalism is such that it is unable to deal with the crises we face.
Capitalism has a ‘grow or die’ imperative built into its very structure. At every turn participants in the market economy are more or less compelled to pursue profit or else risk being destroyed by competitors running them out of business. The technologies and products that are developed under capitalism are the one’s [SIC] that promise the best return, not the one’s [SIC] that are most needed. Similarly, the distribution of resources is determined by who has the most money, not who needs the resources the most. The structures and incentives of capitalism also create constant pressure for individuals and businesses to externalise environmental and social costs, making it impossible to price commodities in a way that ensures ‘optimal’ consumption and production. The consequence is that the justifications of capitalism based on wealth-maximisation and efficiency are rarely if ever reflected in reality. Furthermore, the vast amounts of private and public debt that have been taken on in recent decades depend on continued growth for those debts to be repaid. For all these reasons, the idea of reforming capitalism in a way that deals with the crises of civilisation entails irresolvable contractions. Perhaps the most compelling reason for why capitalism cannot produce a just and sustainable world, however, is because capitalist economies would collapse if existing structures tried to deal with the necessary degrowth of resource and energy consumption. This is especially so in a globalised economy where it is becoming increasingly difficult for one capitalist economy to defy the neoliberal world order. Localisation and contraction of national economies in such a context will require democratic planning of the economy.

In our 2006 book, we put it more simply:
What do we do when we can no longer grow the economy because we can no longer consume oil and gas at a 2 percent annual increase, but instead are having to cope with a 2 percent (or more) annual decrease in supply? How can capitalism function in a negative-growth scenario? What happens when there is little possibility of profit, interest, and net earnings to be reinvested?

Oil geologist M. King Hubbert told a government committee in 1974 that:
[M]oney, being a system of accounting, is, in effect, paper and so is not constrained by the laws within which material and energy systems must operate. [But in] fact money grows exponentially by the rule of compound interest …. [T]he maintenance of a constant price level in a non-growing industrial system implies either an interest rate of zero or continuous inflation.

Hubbert provided this advice to the Congressional Committee:
Since the tenets of our exponential-growth culture (such as a non-zero interest rate) are incompatible with a state of non-growth, it is understandable that extraordinary efforts will be made to avoid a cessation of growth. Inexorably, however, physical and biological constraints must eventually prevail and appropriate cultural adjustments will have to be made.

Alexander doesn't really offer anything new in this regard. Indeed, as near as we can tell he does not offer anything not previously covered in our own two descent-oriented cookbooks, The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide (2006) and The Financial Collapse Survival Guide (2d Ed., 2014) or in the work for the past 20 years of permaculture, the Global Ecovillage Network and Transition Network.

What we have been urging here for all that time is a strategy of viral meme creation of the type discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000).

Let us stop talking about collapse, peak oil, and global weirding and begin a conversation about what is cool and what is uncool.

Miami condos that sell for $4 million today but likely will be underwater by mid-century are uncool. Hive villages designed to assemble light and mood to engender living and breathing spaces in service of humankind and the planet are cool.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump mouthing words about redressing income inequality while growing their own private wealth are uncool. Bernie Sanders running for president as a socialist is cool.

Once-through consumables that generate more waste and disease than product and enjoyment are uncool. Biological systems that sequester carbon while making food, fuel, energy, and clean water are cool.

Conspiracy theories are uncool. Conspiring theorists are cool. That is why we welcome Alexander to the party. Just watch out for the green button on the Xerox machine.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Snatching Defeat

Last week we concluded our post on climate change with a quote from James Hansen, "the matter is urgent and calls for emergency cooperation among nations." All this year we have been leading up to our collective fin de seicle moment in December, the grand denouement of the Framework Convention on Climate Change and Kyoto Protocol in Paris. At this late date, we are frankly pessimistic for the outcome there.

It isn't that we expect the parchment won’t get inked, but rather that the document won’t actually accomplish its task even if the conference is a complete success. After more than two decades of negotiating for every paragraph, the Paris Treaty will be two decades out of date and strategically misdirected.

In those 20 years the goalposts have moved. They are not farther away now. They are closer.

The United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt's singular passion, is showing signs of age, architecturally symbolized by its under-maintained (owing to deadbeat nations who never pay their dues, nudge to the ribs of USAnians) 1950s rusting steel and chipped glass edifice fronting the East River on the New York skyline.

Instead of peering through the mists into a bright but challenging future, the building peers out across the river to Roosevelt Island and back in time to a Rooseveltian utopia with strong labor unions and a chicken in every pot. Actually, a-chicken-in-every-pot was the 1928 campaign slogan of Herbert Hoover, a Republican president who presided over the Crash of ‘29. Hoover advocated "kinder, gentler" capitalism. He said, "We want to see a nation built of homeowners and farm owners. We want to see more and more of them insured against death and accident, unemployment and old age." It would become the mantra of future candidates of both parties, a code for enslaving the working class through health and home insurance, college and mortgage loans while feathering the nest of banks and insurance companies.

This is oddly where we find the United Nations now, making impossible promises to lure the gullible while holding a finger on the scales of justice.

Like a military bureaucracy busily arming with the obsolete weapons of the last war, the United Nations is stuck in the past century, driving a pink Cadillac to the Mall. Here, for instance, is a chart of its projections for world population, which it derives from fertility, life expectancy and demographic trends over the past decades:

Those dash-dotted blue lines at the margins are the range that would be accomplished if there were half-a-child more or fewer births per woman than at present. Half-a-child smaller families is all it would take to move planetary stress out of the red zone.

Another way would be for the entire globe to follow the example of Greece and depopulate immediately, just by starving pensioners and slashing budgets for hospitals, fire departments and other vital services.

One problem is that projecting the past into the future is always a fool's errand. Consider the UN's projections for low-lying island nations:

By 2100, if not 2050, most of these low-lying chains will be under the ocean. Are these projected people, still worth counting, presumed to be in refugee camps, waiting at border crossings in places like Calais, or in submarine cities?

Which brings us back to stranded expectations.

Our friend Joe Brewer, a linguist who, with George Lakoff and others developed the concept of "framing," wrote a thoughtful piece on the language of the UN's sustainable development goals, now scheduled for ratification in September. Just take a moment, though, to consider the embodied ignorance of a term like "sustainable development."

What is it, exactly, that we wish to sustain? Development? What kind? Do we want Donald Trump to build condos for billionaires in Namibia? Or maybe we want more jobs for Namibians assembling smart phones in Chinese factories while former Chinese factory slaves spend their renminbi vacationing in Dubai?

Last month the long laboring UN Open Working Group announced it had formalized 17 Sustainable Development Goals with 169 associated targets and deemed them “integrated and indivisible.” It submitted a lengthy report for ratification by the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly in September. Beaming with pride at its accomplishment, it bragged:
Never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavour across such a broad and universal policy agenda. We are setting out together on the path towards sustainable development, devoting ourselves collectively to the pursuit of global development and of “win-win” cooperation which can bring huge gains to all countries and all parts of the world.
And then, in the next breath, it snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
We reiterate that every state has, and shall freely exercise, full permanent sovereignty over its wealth and natural resources.

We will implement the Agenda for the full benefit of all, for today’s generation and for future generations. In doing so, we reaffirm our commitment to international law and emphasize that the Agenda is to be implemented in a manner that is consistent with the rights and obligations of states under international law, taking into account different national circumstances, capacities and priorities.

With these caveats, the UN essentially emasculated its own achievement. It was kind of like saying, “From now on, no-one shall be allowed to shoot heroin or smoke crack. We will accomplish this through voluntary self-regulation by all would-be addicts.”

The simile is not that far-fetched. Neurobiologists and psychologists that have studied the problem of addiction have a much more nuanced picture of crime and punishment than do lawmakers or the public. They know what can reduce addiction — supportive community ties and self-respect, among other factors — and what elevates it — punishment, isolation and disgrace - but they have been unable to make that scientific case in public debate without getting shouted down, and so the criminal justice system stereotypes and victimizes addicts.

How the UN plans to discipline unfettered growth addicts is by loving them. Not tough love. Friendly advice kind of love. A forgive but not forget kind of love.

The UN plan continues:
The new Goals and targets will come into effect on 1 January 2016 and will guide the decisions we take over the next fifteen years. All of us will work to implement the Agenda within our own countries and at the regional and global levels. We will at the same time take into account different national realities, including capacities and levels of development, and culture. We will respect national policies and priorities and policy space for economic growth, in particular for developing states, while remaining consistent with relevant international rules and commitments. We acknowledge also the importance of the regional and sub-regional dimensions, regional economic integration and interconnectivity in sustainable development. Regional and sub-regional frameworks can facilitate the effective translation of sustainable development policies into concrete action at national level.
Brewer says:
The frame of national sovereignty conceals the much more nuanced picture of networked financial assets that are coordinated through a nested shell system of corporate structures—enabling things like the tax haven system and cross-cultural propaganda efforts that shape social norms at scales of regional markets.
The Committee on Sustainable Development:
We are committed to ending poverty in all its forms,including extreme poverty, by 2030. All people must enjoy a basic standard of living, including through social protection systems. We are also determined to end hunger and malnutrition and to achieve food security as a matter of priority. We will devote resources to developing rural areas and supporting small farmers, especially women farmers, herders and fishers.
We will seek to build strong economic foundations for all our countries. Sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth is essential for prosperity. This will only be possible if wealth is shared and income inequality is addressed. We will work to build dynamic, sustainable, innovative and people-centred economies, promoting youth employment and women’s economic empowerment, in particular,and decent work for all. We will eradicate forced labour and human trafficking and eliminate all the worst forms of child labour. All countries stand to benefit from having a healthy and well-educated workforce with the knowledge and skills needed for productive and fulfilling work and full participation in society. We will adopt policies which increase productive capacities, productivity and productive employment; financial inclusion; sustainable agriculture, pastoralist and fisheries development; sustainable industrial development; universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy services; sustainable transport systems; and resilient infrastructure.
Lately we have been trying to purge our vocabulary of the word "sustainable" (as offensive to polar bears) in much the way we purged our vocabulary of "rule of thumb" 20 years ago (as offensive to women, even though the origin was a parody, not an actual law, that husbands could beat wives with canes no wider than a thumb).

What we must ask is what we intend to sustain when we speak of sustainability? Is it, as Iowa Congressman Paul Simon famously proclaimed, our God-given right to the American way of life? Is it exponential growth of resource consumption on a finite planet? Is it a sustained rate of whale kill, coal burning, or forest-clearing? What are we talking about sustaining once fossil fuels no longer can give us all those billions of energy slaves?

As one commenter on our post last week said:
The Hansen approach - concentrating on CC [carbon capture] from a 'we obviously want to continue western civilisation, that's not the question' perspective, can be seen as a form of denial.
Joe Brewer, looking at the Sustainable Development Goals, unpacked four foundational weaknesses revealed by their language:
Insight #1: The entire effort rests on a mis-framing of poverty. The SDG documents consistently frame poverty as a disease, which, in contrast to their own promise to eradicate it by 2030, evokes the logic that it should be expected and managed, but cannot go away. When they conceptualize poverty this way, they misunderstand what it is and overlook the essential list of structural causes that must be addressed for any transition to a sustainable world. They fail to say how poverty is created. 
Insight #2: The language obscures “development as usual”. It ignores this topic entirely and fails to articulate that it is based on a particular, specifically neoliberal and corporatist conception of how the world economy does and should work. Also noteworthy, there is no reference to corporations—the most powerful institutions on the planet, whose influence in development spaces has been growing considerably in recent years, including via this process—an omission that prompts suspicion that an unpopular agenda may sneak through under the radar. This has the effect of neutralizing analysis on the core elements of the development model, and any consideration for the role of power politics or financial influence in development outcomes.
Insight #3: The poison pill is growth; specifically undifferentiated, perpetual growth as represented by GDP as a measure of progress. An awareness is acknowledged of the deep problems and contradictions when relying on GDP growth to tackle poverty. It is then deliberately kicked into the long grass and left as the prime operative of economic development. Indeed, the only thing the SDG framework has to offer on this is that it has nothing meaningful to offer; instead it passes this challenge to future generations.
Insight #4: The language is self-contradictory and conflicted on the relationship between nature and the economy. There is a clear and laudable intent to connect development and the environment—indeed, calling themselves the Sustainable Development Goals they could not make a bigger signal about needing development to be sustainable—but then the logic repeatedly demonstrates a confused and contradictory understanding of whether the economy is something linked with or separate from nature; there to dominate or work within. No credible use of the word sustainable would perform this way.
These insights lead to a simple antidote that can heal the SDG process and move us closer to real sustainability—tell the story of poverty creation that reveals systemic and structural causes of “development as usual.”
Brewer’s key point is that poverty is not a disease, something you catch by being born in the wrong place or choosing to be a slacker. Poverty is institutionally created.
The rules of the system are set up to extract wealth from the economy and hoard it in the hands of the few who control the money supply. This is done through unfair trade agreements, regressive tax structures and tax evasion, structural debt relations, land grabs, privatization of public utilities, and other widely used business practices. When the SDG framework conceptualizes poverty as a disease, it misunderstands what it is and overlooks this essential list of structural causes that must be addressed for any transition to a sustainable world.
Part of the problem, Brewer suspects, is that we like to break large, unmanageable problems down into smaller, more manageable pieces. In this case, the UN is putting different issues — rights of women and children, indigenous peoples, unsustainable agriculture, deforestation and desertification, energy costs and climate change — into issue silos, rather than treating them as part of a larger pattern of our human relationship to nature. Brewer says the two competing systems — environment and development -
“are treated as separate and distinct, which artificially divides humans from nature—an untenable position that ignores the foundational knowledge of physics and biology for living systems.”
He points out that mischaracterizing poverty as a disease leads to a complete disconnect when wealthy countries are confronted with the need to scale back or pay reparations -
Those countries that are “less developed” could be reframed as “more pillaged” and those that are “more developed” are countries that have “reaped the benefits of pillage.” - and also when under developing countries are told they should no longer try to imitate the West and think that some day they will be able to consume and hoard on a comparable scale.
What enabled the wealthy nations to pillage was the presence of natural wealth - human, plant and mineral - that could be brought under the sword or cross and systematically extracted. Where now do emerging economies like China, Brazil, India and South Korea turn to find such wealth? How does the aristocracy of the overdeveloped world keep its high-entropy investments secure without finding somewhere new to recharge them?

The UN working group is silent on these points because it has accepted without challenge a Neoliberal world view and ignored the over-consumption, financial destabilization, and enlarging inequality that demands.

Australian rancher Darren Doherty is fond of saying that sustainability is a weak ambition to begin with. “You are treading water. Is that all you want to do, tread water?”

Regeneration is a much more hopeful and ambitious term: Civilization 2.0. The goal is not to sustain high entropy habitation and extend it to 7 billlion or 12 billion people, but to redesign habitation to be low-entropy and biodiverse, letting nature heal, and to gradually bring human numbers down to something that is more (watch out, almost said sustainable) manageable within ecosystemic limits.

A couple years ago the UN Commission on Human Rights issued a report to address the subject of whether provision of minimum food support is a human right. The only practical way that could be achieved without overexploiting all the available arable land, the report said, was by transition to what they termed "eco-agriculture" but was really permaculture - primarily tree-crops and perennial grasses with some aquaculture. As we described here last week, this approach is also much more adaptive and mitigating in the climate change context, as our ancestors discovered several thousand years ago.

We are training ourselves to use "resilience" and "regenerative" in place of "sustainable" wherever possible. We particularly loathe "sustainable living" which always brings images of zombies to our mind. Ultimately nothing sustains, and any attempt to attain that end will fail. If sustainability is treading water, resilience is swimming forward against the current. And actually, once you get the hang of it, the current shifts and flows with you. 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Mysteries of Eleuthera

" What kind of force can leave a four million pound rock on top of a cliff? According to the oceanographers, it was waves. "

Eleutheran boulder
  The Glass Window Bridge of North Eleuthera is one of the island's more popular attractions. Once a naturally formed bridge of rock, it was destroyed in a hurricane and has been replaced by a man-made version, presently in need of repair. From the bridge, a narrow span uniting separated parts of the long, thin island, you can see the dark blue Atlantic churning away to the East and the calm turquoise waters of the Caribbean to the West.
In their seminal piece on the emerging Hyper-Anthropocene,  James Hansen and co-authors provide a photo of mysterious boulders on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The boulders, we now know after extensive research by many geological experts, were dredged from the ocean floor, taken up and over a cliff and left there like Easter Island statuary, in a great storm event during a past interglacial warming epoch. The largest weighs about 2300 tons.
It is hard to imagine that the air we exhale lifted these huge boulders, but indirectly, it did. "CO2 is the principal determinant of Earth’s climate state, the “control knob” that sets global mean temperature," Hansen's group says, pointing to the ice core correlations between temperature and CO2 tracing in lockstep back 800,000 years. CO2, once emitted, takes 100,000 years to be removed from the atmosphere by nature.
Bangladesh with 1m sea level rise;
Bates, Climate in Crisis (1990)
To provide a comfortable climate for mammals such as ourselves, atmospheric concentrations of 260 ppm CO2 prevailed through much of the Holocene, a far cry from the Anthropocene's current 400 and rising.

The CO2 dial must be turned to 260 ppm to achieve a Holocene-level interglacial. CO2 250 ppm was sufficient for quasi-interglacials in the period 800–450,000 years before present, with sea level 10–25 m lower than in the Holocene. Interglacials with CO2 [at]∼ 280 ppm, i.e., the Eemian and Holsteinian (400,000 years ago), were warmer than the Holocene and had sea level at least several meters higher than today.

For many years, climate scientists have predicted that sea level rise would be slow but inexorable, driven less by ice melt and more by thermal expansion of water molecules. Because of the speed with which humans are changing climate, this conventional wisdom has been undermined. Newer science shows that the paleohistoric sea level changed not over 1000 year periods, as earlier thought, but in decades to centuries.

Bates, Climate in Crisis (1990)
The IPCC (2013) report increased estimates of sea level rise compared to prior IPCC reports, but scenarios they discuss are close to linear responses to the assumed rising climate forcing. The most extreme climate forcing [RCP8.5, 936 ppm CO2 in 2100] is estimated to produce 0.74 m sea level rise in 2100 relative to the 1986–2005 mean sea level, with the “likely” range of uncertainty 0.52–0.98 m.

Bates, Climate in Crisis (1990)
Less than a meter rise over the coming 85 years is no longer credible. The reason is the rate of ice melt.

Ice melt is proceeding so fast now that it will be the primary driver of sea level rise this century. Moreover, what is being added to the oceans, primarily at the poles, is freshwater, not saltwater. Freshwater sinks at a different rate than saltwater, so in those parts of the Earth where there is a downwelling of the oceans, the current will be slowed. For the Atlantic Conveyor, this slowing effect has not yet been confirmed by observations. Nevertheless, Hansen's models predict a 30% slowdown by 2100. As the driving currents that move oceans around the world slow, heat becomes more concentrated at the Equator. The differential is magnified by the cooling effect of icewater pouring into the oceans at the poles.

Sea level rise will occur rapidly at high latitudes because of ice melt. Sea level rise will also occur at low latitudes, but because of more profound thermal expansion there.

But there is another, bigger impact in the tropics, and it involves those Eleutherian boulders. Ocean warming will disturb familiar weather patterns.

Owing to the spin of the Earth and the equatorial heat of the land surface in Africa, most Atlantic hurricanes originate as tropical storms moving East to West along the Tropic of Cancer. As they reach the warmer waters of the continental shelf, they pick up strength. More available heat energy builds bigger hurricanes.

What kind of force can leave a four million pound rock on top of a cliff? According to the oceanographers, it was ocean waves, propelled by "a potent sustained energy source" taken from an unusually warm tropical ocean and strong zonal temperature gradients in the North Atlantic. These conditions last existed at the end of the Eemian epoch, before the last great ice age, 115–120 thousand years ago. 

Hansen writes:

Bates, Climate in Crisis (1990)
The boulders must have been transported to their present position by waves, as two of the largest ones are located on the crest of the island’s ridge, eliminating the possibility that they were moved downward by gravity or are the karstic remnants of some ancient landscape. A tsunami conceivably could have deposited the boulders, but the area is not near a tectonic plate boundary. The coincidence of a tsunami at the end-Eemian moment is improbable given the absence of evidence of tsunamis at other times in the Bahamas and the lack of evidence of tsunamis on the Atlantic Coastal Plain of the United States. The proximity of run-up deposits and nested chevron ridges across a broad front of Bahamian islands is clear evidence of a sustained series of high-energy wave events.

Sea level rise relative to coastlines is not gradual. Storms are the means by which changes occur, because in their scale and violence they carve new landscapes that remain altered when the events subside. New bays are formed, old ones filled in. Barrier islands are erased, peninsulas split into islands, and cliffs are carved from windward slopes.

Bates, Climate in Crisis (1990)
Hansen's group warns:

Temperature change in 2065, 2080 and 2096 for 10 year doubling time should be thought of as results when sea level rise reaches 0.6, 1.7 and 5 m, because the dates depend on initial freshwater flux. Actual current freshwater flux may be about a factor of four higher than assumed in these initial runs, as we will discuss, and thus effects may occur 20 years earlier. A sea level rise of 5 m [16 feet] in a century is about the most extreme in the paleo record but the assumed 21st century climate forcing is also more rapidly growing than any known natural forcing.

Another effect of the freshwater is to retard the speed of ocean warming, since salt stores heat more efficiently than water. This is good news in the near term, but worrisome once the freshwater input ends, about the same time sea level rise reaches 5 meters. Then the cooling effect is removed and the full effect of warming begins to be felt. The oceans warm much faster, the energy imparted to storms becomes much greater, and besides the pounding surf, we may once more experience boulders the size of volkswagens being deposited miles inland.

Bates, Climate in Crisis (1990)
Of course, it will be a wonder if anyone is still there then. Yesterday the heat recorded in the city of Bandar Mahshahr, Southern Iran was 115°F, but when you add the moisture – the dew point was 90 – it felt like 165 (74°C). Will this be coming soon to a place near you? The best scientific minds seem to think so.

Team Hansen says:

[T]here is no morally defensible excuse to delay phase-out of fossil fuel emissions as rapidly as possible. We conclude that the 2◦C global warming “guardrail”, affirmed in the Copenhagen Accord (2009), does not provide safety, as such warming would likely yield sea level rise of several meters along with numerous other severely disruptive consequences for human society and ecosystems. … Given the inertia of the climate and energy systems, and the grave threat posed by continued high emissions, the matter is urgent and calls for emergency cooperation among nations.




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