January 29, 2015

The Challenge of Our Time

We’re continuing our “money machine” series on the cost of carbon capitalism. Gas gets cheaper, the weather gets warmer, and for our guests the environmental activists Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, the choice is clear: ...

We’re continuing our “money machine” series on the cost of carbon capitalism. Gas gets cheaper, the weather gets warmer, and for our guests the environmental activists Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, the choice is clear: change our ways, or reap the whirlwind.

In her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, Klein is counting on change in the atmosphere as the contradictions intensify between the earth and the economy. After all, she says, no one insures the globe, though it’s too big to fail. No one bails out the vanishing woods and wildlife.

We’re wondering whether and how American capitalism will take to remaking, especially since it’s the geopolitical meek who inherit the earth’s problems. (Check out this Guardian infographic, which shows where historical carbon emissions and rapid development collide to endanger… underdeveloped non-emitters.)

Read our social-media recap of the show on Storify. (One of our goals in 2015 is to add collect thoughts and reactions to our broadcasts, and this is one medium we’ll be experimenting with.)



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What has to happen: the Global Calculator

By Max Larkin.

American people on the left and right answered in common that they’d like the state to make changes to heal the climate. It’s unclear, though, whether and how us Westerners can reset their appetites and expectations to the problem, if push came to shove. (This was Elizabeth Kolbert’s big problem with This Changes Everything). Even in the age of Inhofe’s denialism, the citizenry knows that big change is called for. Still we patc together penny-ante fixes, scaled to what’s called ‘political will’.

What needs to happen? Where do we start? Enter the Global Calculator, a new online tool engineered by the UK Department of Energy & Climate Change and an international team of organizations. It looks like something that you might see on the deck of the Enterprise.

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Get over the learning curve, and you can see the variables, all of them notionally up for debate, that could keep us shy of the famous 2º threshold until 2050 — or push us past it.

You can hack your way to your own personal program using the tool — maybe you believe we all really need air travel, but can handle nuclear energy and favor ‘cozy’ apartments.

But maybe the most interesting feature of the Calculator is the list of “example pathways” to safe emissions. These 2º pathways share a few premises: that world population will grow toward 10 billion by 2050, and that the global economy serving those 10 billion will triple in size.

But a few scenarios stand out:

In the ‘consumer reluctance’ scenario our worst fears are confirmed, and consumers turn out to be unwilling to shift away from carbon-intensive transit, cooking and power. The calculator proves that even if this were the case, we could stay shy of 2º — but it would take much more nuclear power and renewables on the grid, and a makeover of land use and food production.
On the other hand, if Klein is right to be optimistic and we’re waking up to a new kind of citizen activism, we can get to climate health with less nuclear power and little tweaks: eating more chicken and lamb and less lamb and beef, for example. (This news will be taken hard in certain corners of our office.)
Speaking of which, The Vegan Society has the problem sussed — cut the average citizen’s caloric intake to 2,100 per diem (and ditch almost all the meat) and you’re well on your way.
Finally, there’s the World Energy Council’s consumption-driven pathway. The WEC named this revolution in buying the as “Jazz” scenario, compared to a “Symphony” of government-led remaking of industry. They say one isn’t necessarily better than the other, but it does dramatize that what we do in our homes doesn’t “get us to 2º” nearly as easily as structural reforms and laws can.

What can we learn about our own carbon footprints from the Calculator? A few lessons:

1.) Protect the forests and you’ve done a lot.
2.) World governments can save us, but they can kill us, too, by deregulating, digging, and fueling militaries all across the globe.
3.) Tolerate the vegetarians in your life, no matter how preachy they may get, because:
4.) America’s chickens may come home to roost, but it’s beef that will kill us all.

Vonnegut’s “Requiem”

Finally, take a listen to what amounts to Kurt Vonnegut’s literary last words, a kind of sigh over the ravaged planet. Our friend, the actor John Davin (veteran of our Chekhov readings), came by and did a wonderful job bringing the poem — never read by Vonnegut that we could find — to life.

Podcast • May 6, 2010

Bill McKibben: Coming into View, Another Eaarth

“That picture… a beautiful blue-white marble floating through the black empty void of space… is as out of date as my high school yearbook photo. It’s kind of the reverse of my high school yearbook ...

3134273868_06fdc0a0a2“That picture… a beautiful blue-white marble floating through the black empty void of space… is as out of date as my high school yearbook photo. It’s kind of the reverse of my high school yearbook photo. I have more white up top; the earth has less. It’s a very different place.”

Bill McKibben in conversation is counting a few of the ways that earth has changed since Apollo 8 Commander Frank Borman on his fourth turn around the moon in December 1968 tilted his craft and saw the earth rising, “the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life,” Borman said. “It was the only thing in space that had any color to it. Everything else was simply black or white. But not the earth.” Bill McKibben has a revised spelling for a changed place in his new book: Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:

Pretty much name a physical feature of the planet. Take the great boreal forests that dominate the northern hemisphere across, say, North America. We’ve lost now tens of millions of acres of pine trees. You get up in a plane and, horizon to horizon, there’s not a living tree because the pine bark beetle that had always been there… no longer has those cold winter temperatures to contend with. Last winter was the warmest winter ever recorded in Canada, and hence the beetles are spreading almost literally like wildfire, and in their wake comes actual wildfire as those dead trees burn. When they burn they put a whole new plume of carbon into the atmosphere.

Forest fire season across the west which used to be confined to warmest driest months of the year, three or four months of the year, now stretches from March to whenever snow finally falls in the fall. The number of fires goes up just astonishingly.

The great storms that circulate across the stormy bands around the middles of the earth are more powerful than they’ve ever been because of course they draw their power from the heat in the first few meters of the earth’s surface. So we see astonishing storms, Katrina being one example but by no means the only one.

Last summer the chain of typhoons that marched across Asia was a sight to behold. One stalled for three days over the mountains of Taiwan and before it was gone there were villages there that had received nine and a half feet of rain. Needless to say those villages are no longer there.

Those kind of things are happening on a new earth.

Bill McKibben wrote the first popular warning about climate change, The End of Nature, 21 years ago. These days he spends relatively less of his boundless energy writing than he does organizing a global grassroots mission, 350.org, to bring the carbon content in the atmosphere back down to a sustainable 350 parts per million. In key dimensions Bill McKibben and 350.org are mirror opposites of Tom Friedman and Hot, Flat and Crowded. The Friedman drumbeat is for a competitive corporate super-tech and, of course, super-profitable American-led greening of a global economy. It sounds to McKibben like “butch environmentalism.”

Look, it’s a nice fantasy that we would just keep the machine going as it’s going, but rip out the internal combustion engine and toss in a solar panel. And on we would fly. I don’t think it’s a realistic one. I think among other things it just completely ignores the physical difference between fuels. Fossil fuel was the most important thing about modernity. It’s what modernity was. It describes why we live the way we live. It’s dense, rich in BTUs, concentrated in a few places, easy to get at and easy to transport…

That’s not the world we’re moving into. The kind of energy we can afford to use, sun and wind and such, is very different. It’s omnipresent but it’s diffuse. It’s dispersed. The logic that goes with it is almost exactly the opposite logic.

We need a farmers’ market in electrons, and a farmers’ market in food… We need to figure out how to spread out and become stable and resilient, and part of that’s being smaller.

What’s the most important phrase of the last three years? If you ask me, it’s got to be, “too big to fail.” It wasn’t just our banks that were too big to fail. Much worse than that is our food system and our energy system. If they go, then we’re in much deeper trouble. They’re just as centralized, just as deeply linked and just as shaky as the banks ever were. And that’s why it’s encouraging that we’re at least beginning to think about how we might build those things down.

Bill McKibben in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 30, 2010.