Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy Holidays And Global Doubt

When Sam was still small (he’s twenty-eight now), he said he thought that it should be coldest when there was the least amount of sun -- the winter solstice. I didn’t handle that well. I took it for granted that there should be a lag between the time when energy input would be slightest, and the time when we were coldest, and I understood that it takes time for masses to absorb or re-radiate energy, but the words did not fall glibly from my tongue. Sam survived and prospered.

So. Sam, here’s how it works: There’s a period each year when the rocks and things don’t get enough sun to add energy. They lose energy, but it doesn’t happen all at once. There’s one day when the sun shines for the least time, and at the most oblique angle, but the matter around us still has energy to lose. Each day after that, there’s more, and more direct sun, but it’s still slight, and the rocks continue to lose energy. Around here, it stays pretty frigid well into February or March, with the hardest weather toward the end of January.

It works the other way half a year from now, with the hottest weather weeks after the strongest sunshine.

Other things work that way, too. Barbara told me that the most depressing day was the third Monday in January. Apparently there’s a record, because more people have crises then. My hypothesis would be that the crises happen because of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the depression that happens because we don’t get enough light at higher latitudes in winter. The light’s coming back a month after the solstice, but it takes a while for the body to react to environmental changes, and it still isn’t strong. (If this is really the case, the occurrence on a Monday implies that work is the proximate cause, and argues for design changes in the way we make our way in the world.)

Buckminster Fuller said that social changes have “gestation periods.” He pointed to material and production cycles, with predictable periods, in industry, and expected “utopia or oblivion” I think by 1985. We’re still here, a quarter century later -- and this sure ain’t utopia -- but social changes must have something we could call “gestation periods.”

If industry is adversely affecting Earth’s climate, we need to understand that it’s happening, the knowledge needs to spread, people need to believe that the knowledge is correct, and that something can be done, people need to design solutions. Knowledge of the solutions must spread and be accepted, or commanded by government, and then the solutions need to be implemented, with time taken for testing, tooling, construction, correction, and response from the environment.

I seem to be going through some kind of personal gestation.

First, I stumbled over the objection to the fact of anthrogenic climate change by a scientist who has been a flack for oil, coal, tobacco, and Sun Myung Moon. The ad hominem temptation is strong to dismiss anything this guy says out of hand, because of the company he keeps, but he is somebody with a PhD, and who was competent enough to have received tenure at the university that Thomas Jefferson built. Any arguments I can make, he knows. Would somebody be so dishonest as to know that there is -- or even might be -- global warming, and to argue citizens into complacency? His chief argument seems to be events that have been inconsistent with predictions of believers’ computer models. Does that mean that, to be a good citizen, I need to re-learn calculus, teach myself differential equations and bone up on computer modeling, then wade through the library of papers written by scientists about what their computers have been doing?

I’d never get anything else done, and by the time I was sure of myself, the Statue of Liberty could be knee-deep in big muddy.

Second, I’ve been reading Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, whose outline Brand pretty much quoted in his TED presentation that I reviewed last summer. Brand has no doubts about global warming (incidentally, he says that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Ross Ice Sheet are decaying, as does James Hansen, NASA scientist, Hansen referring to satellite measurements of Antarctic ice mass, begun in 2002), and interviews a number of scientists with respectable records of achievement, including James Lovelock, atmospheric scientist, and discoverer of the fact that viruses cause flu. Lovelock’s warnings about planetary warming are particularly dire, but the best case Brand quotes come from Saul Griffith, 2007 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipient, and an inventor working with renewable energy, batteries, and inexpensive lenses. Griffith expects a two degree (centigrade) rise, resulting in “large loss of species, more severe storms, floods and droughts, refugees from sea level rise, and other unpalatable, expensive and inhumane consequences.”

Brand has solutions that are challenging me at least as much as S. Fred Singer’s denial, but I want to say that global warming may parch the farms and cause famine below third-world glaciers, and wash away the homelands of island peoples, but in the US, we will see it as entire populations of immigrants who compete for our jobs, economic depression, lost work, shuttered factories and shops, trade war, rationed health care, stalled transportation, and probably military adventurism and authoritarian government in the service of the bastards who profited from it all. And then we see our villages drowned, and die of thirst.

Brand, whom I have never met, and I have a history that goes back to the day that the headshop guy gave me a bunch of Whole Earth Catalogs that he couldn’t sell. WEC was Brand, providing “access to tools” to his “friends starting their own civilizations out in the sticks.” I always figured he was an asshole, but one with a lot of informed curiosity, and a relaxed interest in the common good. WEC introduced me to Soleri, Bateson, Lovelock, Margulis, Erlich, Hawken, Diet for a Small Planet, and Permaculture, and stoked my interest in a lot of other similar people and ideas. I trust Stewart Brand because so much of what’s been important to me has come my way through his auspices.

Now he wants me to embrace nuclear power and genetically engineered food, and I’m almost persuaded. (Genetically engineered food is a genie that’s out of the bottle, because it’s a cheap and simple enough technology that hobbyists and rinky-dink governments can do it, and it can feed starving people. With nuclear power, the argument is that it’s the only baseload power that can replace coal; without it, global warming is inevitable. Civilization needs sixteen terawatts of power, and needs to cut fossil fuel use back to three over the next twenty-five years. Two terawatts of photovoltaics equals thirty thousand square miles of 15% efficient panels, and so on for wind, solar thermal, geothermal, and biofuels. Brand winds up with an area the size of the United States, dedicated to powering the world.) I don’t know whether to take a walk or wind my watch, I feel so marginalized. If he’s right, it’s the same bastards, mentioned above, who stay on top.

Third, while I’m baring my soul, I should mention that I was probably too facetious when I commented about Brendan O’Neill’s call for a bazillion more Irish babies. We rely on those who come after us to provide for us in our declining years (I sense a libertarian argument about personal responsibility in the wings, but it’s baloney -- end of story). This has come up in the United States with regard to Social Security: Mine is the greatest generation, at least in terms of numbers, and we happen to be declining at the point in history at which we meet the limits to growth. Productivity will go down, per capita and in aggregate. To maintain population requires 2.1 babies per woman, and birthrate in the developed world is 1.56, and as low as 1.2 in some places. China is at 1.73. Mexico is at an even 2, and falling. At mid-century, world population could hit 8 billion and begin to fall at crisis rate (I’ll be 101). Clearly it’s a delicate balance that needs to be struck: stay within the world’s carrying capacity for humans, yet maintain a population that’s large enough and vigorous enough (not old) to provide for itself.

Fourth, I’ve been busy making deliveries, and doing tasting demos for Barsy’s Almonds, and trying to whomp together twenty-five or so unique, hand-made, company Christmas/Kwanzsticekka cards. I’ve been going a little nuts.

1 comment:

GooseBreeder said...

Even someone you trust can be wrong!
Scientists from reputable institutions have much invested in pushing the same envelope as industry and do,regularly and with great benefit to both.Why would you trust them or their shonky models?
There are many problems to solve and all the Copenhagens you can fix will not solve some of them when there are other agendas.
Happy Christmas!