"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Existential Crisis’

Ecological Crisis And The Tragedy Of The Commodity

In Uncategorized on July 28, 2015 at 12:23 pm

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Oldspeak:”The ceaseless drive for accumulation inherent in capitalist commodity production speeds up the social metabolism. It results in a faster depletion of resources, stemming from increasing demands for materials and throughput, and the generation of ever-more waste. It degrades the conditions that support resilient ecosystems. The capitalist system creates numerous contradictions between nature and commodities; it progressively deepens and creates ecological rifts.”-Brett Clark and Richard York

“Yep. The above statement delineates the folly of market-based “green economy” responses to global warming and climate change. De-growth is not an option. Infinite growth and accumulation are immutable imperatives.This is the inherent and terminally destructive nature of the system of Global Industrial Capitalist Civilization which has played a major role in bringing about Earth’s 6th Mass extinction. Commodifying All has a price; and it is the end life on earth. The piece ends with a hopium-laced “sustainable” way forward, that artfully prescribes an end to capitalism, replacing it with an anacro-syndicalist, decentralized and democratized sociocultural system. Great idea. Far too late to matter as our proverbial goose is cooked.” -OSJ

Written By

We live in an era of ecological crisis, which is a direct result of human actions. Natural scientists have been debating whether the current historical epoch should be called the Anthropocene, in order to mark the period in which human activities became the primary driver of global ecological change.[1]

Initially, it was proposed that this new epoch, corresponding with the rise of modern capitalist and industrial development, began in the eighteenth century. The growth imperative of capitalism, as well as other sociocultural changes, is a primary factor generating major environmental problems that culminate in ecological crisis.[2]

It has become increasingly clear that humans face an existential crisis. The environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben explains:

Earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived…. The world hasn’t ended, but the world as we know it has—even if we don’t quite know it yet. We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they’re not. It’s a different place. A different planet…. This is one of those rare moments, the start of a change far larger and more thoroughgoing than anything we can read in the records of man, on a par with the biggest dangers we can read in the records of rock and ice.[3]

Many modern ecological problems are referred to as a tragedy of the commons, a concept developed by Garrett Hardin in the 1960s to describe the overexploitation or despoliation of natural resources.[4] We contend that they are actually associated with the tragedy of the commodity. While an obvious play on Hardin’s concept, this approach offers, we argue, a much more comprehensive and historically appropriate analysis of the drivers of ecological degradation.

The classic illustration of the tragedy of the commons used by Hardin involved the dynamic of herders and their livestock. He claimed that each herder will act primarily in his or her own interest by adding additional livestock to common grazing land when it served to increase individual benefits. Therefore, Hardin argued, each herder would attempt to acquire the benefits offered by the commons, while socializing the costs to all. For example, by adding an extra animal to the pasture the herder reaps all the benefit, but pays only a fraction of the environmental costs, such as depletion of the grazing land. Each actor, motivated by individual maximization of benefits, increasingly introduces grazing animals into a finite system of resources, leading to the tragic destruction of the land. With this Hardin concludes “freedom in commons brings ruin to all.”[5] For Hardin, and many others who have adopted this perspective, expanding private property is offered as a leading policy solution for avoiding ecological tragedies.[6]

The tragedy of the commons theory explains the behaviors of individual actors in given social circumstances. However, it does not address how historical conditions and the socioeconomic system influence individual actors. In other words, the social context is simply taken for granted. The existing social conditions and relations are regarded as ever-present, universal, and permanent. The model neglects to recognize that human interactions and exchanges with ecological systems change through time and are regulated by particular institutional conditions. Once examined from a sociological perspective, the tragedy of the commons theory is simplistic and one-sided in that it attempts to explain human social behavior, or human agency, without a thorough understanding of the historical social organization.[7] This simplification results in a mystification of the modern systems of production and consumption and the historically specific ecosystem effects.

In contrast, the tragedy of the commodity approach emphasizes the role of the growth imperative of capitalism and commodification in producing the institutional rules by which nature and, for example, the commons are governed and historically transformed. Ecological systems are never altogether free of social influences. Rather, they are shaped by social conditions including norms, traditions, economic rules, the organization of labor, politico-legal arrangements, etc.[8] The social actions that have emerged with capitalist development are dominated by what Adam Smith called “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange,” matched with a crude utilitarianism, where individuals follow pure self-interest without social constraint. Unfortunately, these actions are often incorrectly ascribed to innate human behavior.[9] Thus, what might appear to the casual observer to be a system governed by base greed and human instinct is in fact largely directed by the drive for capital accumulation and what Immanuel Wallerstein called the progressive “commodification of everything.”[10] Among other outcomes, the commodification process results in a social metabolic order—socio-ecological interchanges and interrelationships—that produces unsustainable social and ecological consequences.

In a society organized around the logic of capital, human activities tend to be directed toward the production of commodities. That is, capitalism can be understood in a broad sense as a system of generalized commodity production. The institutional arrangements result in particular social arrangements and generate distinct types of human social action. The commodity serves as a basic unit to understand the larger culture-nature relations and capitalism itself. It is a base element of capitalist market processes.

Nature is an essential source of use value, or the qualitative usefulness of things. For example, Earth’s biogeochemical systems provide the conditions and means that allow for the production of food. Karl Marx emphasized that under capitalist relations, nature was seen as a free gift; it was not considered as part of wealth.[11] He famously explained this in terms of a “general formula for capital”—whereby capital is understood as the “continuous transformation of capital-as-money into capital-as-commodities, followed by a retransformation of capital-as-commodities into capital-as-more-money.”[12] Even though use value expresses the useful properties of an item or service, it is exchange value, or market value, which knows only quantitative increase and drives capitalist economic activity.

Money is put into circulation in order to return money, a quantity for a quantity, “its driving and motivating force is therefore exchange-value.”[13] Thus, capital constantly expands into more capital, motivated by surplus value or profits, the generation of which is “the absolute law of this mode of production.”[14] Under this logic, money dominates the organization of social and natural relationships. Addressing the pervasiveness of this logic, Karl Polanyi explained, “All transactions are turned into money transactions.”[15] The emergence of an all-encompassing, self-regulating, market disembedded human practical activity from its foundation in the broader sociocultural and environmental conditions. Market activity directed by commodity production for the endless accumulation of capital acquired the irresistible impetus of a “process of nature.”[16] Accordingly, the organization of production and consumption activities is fundamentally transformed from the exchange of qualities into the exchange of quantities. Alienation from each other and nature increases, as qualitative relations of production and the universal metabolism of nature are subsumed under the quantitative growth imperative of capital and a culture of quantity.[17] This fundamental tension between the necessity of quantitative expansion to sustain the economic relations and the qualitatively unsustainable ecological consequences marks the defining characteristic of the modern ecological crisis and the tragedy of the commodity.

Capital tends to simplify natural processes and ecosystems, imposing a division of nature to increase economic efficiency. It directs the life cycles of plants and animals to the economic cycle of exchange. Qualitative social relations—such as subsistence use within an ecosystem—are not part of the capitalist accounting system and can suffer various forms of destruction as a result. Use values, as the qualitative means for meeting the needs of life, are limited given biophysical properties. In contrast, there are no limits to quantitative measures of wealth. In other words, growing returns on investment have no end, but real human needs are confined to definite and knowable material limits.

The ceaseless drive for accumulation inherent in capitalist commodity production speeds up the social metabolism. It results in a faster depletion of resources, stemming from increasing demands for materials and throughput, and the generation of ever-more waste. It degrades the conditions that support resilient ecosystems. The capitalist system creates numerous contradictions between nature and commodities; it progressively deepens and creates ecological rifts.[18]

The way forward, toward a more sustainable world, requires radical changes in the social conditions that have historically shaped the productive and consumption system of capitalism. Collective action must take back public commons and put them in control of the people who most closely interact with them and depend on them for community well-being. In order to be successful, these actions must (in effect) de-commodify nature. Commons must be decentralized and democratized, rather than, in the standard neoliberal view, privatized. Farmland and fisheries must be socially organized to advance nourishment and health. Forests must be valued as reserves of biodiversity, clean water, and culture. Economic activities must be embedded within society as a whole and the universal metabolism of the biophysical world, allowing for the continuation of reproductive processes, nutrient cycles, and energy flows that support all life. Human society must transcend the logic of capital, creating a new social metabolic order that increases the quality of life and enhances the potential for ecological flourishing and universal human freedom.

Recently, Pope Francis highlighted what we have been calling the tragedy of the commodity. In his highly publicized Encyclical on the environment, he mentions the “tragic effects of environmental degradation.” He goes on to say: “Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention. Moreover, biodiversity is considered at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation, with no serious thought for the real value of things, their significance for persons and cultures, or the concerns and needs of the poor.”[xix] He contends that a “cultural revolution” is required to address ecological crisis.

Interestingly, Pope Francis limited his suggested response to a cultural revolution when it is clear throughout the document that he is describing a political-economic problem. We agree that a revolutionary approach is necessary for addressing the ecological crisis. Nothing short will be adequate for challenging the tragedy of the commodity.

This essay is based on the new book The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans Fisheries and Aquaculture by Stefano B. Longo, Rebecca Clausen, and Brett Clark, published by Rutgers University Press (2015).

Works Cited.

[1]. Paul J. Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415, no. 6867 (2002): 23; Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “The New World of the Anthropocene,” Environmental Science & Technology 44, no. 7 (2010): 2228-31.

[2]. Will Steffen et al., “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369, no. 1938 (2011): 842–67.

[3]. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010), 2-3.

[4]. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162, no. 3859 (1968):

1243–1248.

[5]. Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” 1244.

[6]. Theorists of the tragedy of the commons also acknowledge the potential for state action and management as alternative arrangements for promoting resource conservation. See Elinor Ostrom et al., The Drama of the Commons (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2002).

[7]. Bonnie J. McCay and Svein Jentoft, “Uncommon Ground: Critical Perspectives on Common Property” in Human Footprints on the Global Environment: Threats to Sustainability, ed. Eugene A. Rosa et al. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 207.

[8]. Thomas Dietz et al., “The Struggle to Govern the Commons,” Science

302, no. 5652 (2003): 1907–1912; Elinor Ostrom et al., “Revisiting the Commons,” Science 284, no. 5412 (1999): 278–282.

[9]. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 2 Volumes (London: Methuen & Co., 1930); Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1976); Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).

[10]. Immanuel Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism with Capitalist Civilization (London: Verso, 1983).

[11]. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).

[12]. Robert L. Heilbroner, The Nature and Logic of Capitalism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985), 36.

[13]. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 250.

[14]. Ibid., 769.

[15]. Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 44.

[16]. Ibid., 132.

[17]. István Mészáros, Marx’s Theory of Alienation (London: Merlin Press, 1986), 35.

[18]. Brett Clark and Richard York, “Rifts and Shifts: Getting to the Roots of Environmental Crises,” Monthly Review 60, no. 6 (2008): 13–24.

[xix]. Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home (Vatican Press, 2015), 12, 139.

The Mother Of All Catch 22s: Industrial Civilization Threatens All Life On The Planet

In Uncategorized on May 27, 2015 at 2:10 pm

Oldspeak:”This piece is originally titled “Capitalism Threatens All Life On The Planet”. The interviewee would say it more like the title I gave it. Focusing the blame on Capitalism gives the impression that everything would be ok if we just went another way, with another economic system. It assumes the economic system is the key to “fixing this”, as if the economic system is our primary concern. It’s just not so. It’s is a “civilization” level predicament we find ourselves that has no fix. We’re long past the point of dealing with this existential threat in any meaningful way. It’s time we accept this. This is where we are at this moment. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. If we continue on, business as usual, we’re fucked. If we continue on with “conservation”/”mitigation”/or “green energy” market-based strategies, we’re fucked. If we stopped and went indigenous today, we’re fucked. We can talk around and bargain about and deny this stark reality until we’re blue in the face, but As Led Zeppelin opined  “The Song Remains The Same.” There is no good outcome for Humans here kids. Too many humans (this one included) are utterly dependent on Industrial Civilization, which has brought about Earth’s 6th Mass Extinction and have no interest in changing that state of affairs measurably. We can only use 2.1 Earth’s worth of resources every year for so much longer.  Resources and tolerable habitat are dwindling faster than we realize. The extinction train is rollin and it ain’t got no breaks… Enjoy the ride, doing the least harm, with as much love and compassion as you can.” -OSJ

By Dylan Murphy @ The People’s Voice:

“Let’s be honest. The activities of our economic and social system are killing the planet. Even if we confine ourselves merely to humans, these activities are causing an unprecedented privation, as hundreds of millions of people-and today more than yesterday, with probably more tomorrow-go their entire lives with never enough to eat. Yet curiously, none of this seems to stir us to significant action. And when someone does too stridently point out these obvious injustices, the response by the mass of the people seems so often to be . . . a figurative if not physical blow to the gut, leading inevitably to a destruction of our common future.” -Derek Jensen, The Culture of Make Believe

Tomorrow you will wake up and may well have a hot shower to start your day. Then you will go to your kitchen and use a variety of electrical devices to prepare breakfast. If you are lucky enough to have a job then you will travel to work in a car or use public transport. All of this activity requires the use of finite energy resources while producing varying amounts of carbon dioxide. According to the people at the World Wildlife Fund I alone need 2.19 planets to sustain my lifestyle. http://footprint.wwf.org.uk/.

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The unsustainable lifestyle that people lead is based upon the ever increasing consumption of finite resources which is destroying the natural world at in increasing rate of knots. The extinction of 200 species a day is just one manifestation of how capitalism and the industrial civilization it has spawned is killing the planet.

Critics may well say why are you so pessimistic? All we need to do is improve energy conservation and introduce renewable energy sources on a mass scale and everything will be fine and we can keep on enjoying our turbo consumerist lifestyle. Tim Garrett an associate professor of climate sciences at Utah University has exposed this belief as nothing short of wishful thinking:

“Making civilization more energy efficient simply allows it to grow faster and consume more energy,” says Garrett. “I’m just saying it’s not really possible to conserve energy in a meaningful way because the current rate of energy consumption is determined by the unchangeable past of economic production. If it feels good to conserve energy, that is fine, but there shouldn’t be any pretense that it will make a difference.”

Professor Garrett makes the controversial point that carbon dioxide emissions, which are a major cause of runaway climate change, can only be stabilized by a complete collapse of the global industrial economy or society builds the equivalent of one nuclear reactor per day.

“Stabilization of carbon dioxide emissions at current rates will require approximately 300 gigawatts of new non-carbon-dioxide-emitting power production capacity annually – approximately one new nuclear power plant (or equivalent) per day,” Garrett says. “Physically, there are no other options without killing the economy.”

Every week new scientific reports are published that note how industrial civilization is driving us towards catastrophic climate change. Last week the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, announced that March was the first month to surpass global carbon dioxide levels of 400 parts per million since measurements began. This is driving us towards the 2 degree rise in temperature that is seen by many as the upper limit for the planet. In the same week a new study was published in Nature Climate Change which reveals that sea level rise rates are speeding up. This poses a threat to the one billion people who live along shore lines around the world.

Runaway climate change is already having a massive impact all over the world. California is experiencing its worst drought in 1200 years. Professor Jay Famiglietti, from the University of California, Irvine, has revealed how California has only one year of water supply stored in its reservoirs and needs to start immediate water rationing.

Corporate politicians all over the world are beholden to their big business paymasters and so keep on glossing over or ignoring the issues. Meanwhile, the corporate media tries to lull the population into a false sense of security with its endless stories full of hopium that science and technology will save the day.

I spoke to Guy McPherson who is professor emeritus of natural resources and the environment at the University of Arizona, where he taught for twenty years. He is the author of a dozen books and has had hundreds of articles published on the consequences of our fossil fuel addiction: catastrophic climate change leading to near term human extinction. Guy lives in an off the grid straw bale house where he practices sustainable organic farming and working with members of his local community where a gift economy is in operation.

1) Many people believe that catastrophic climate change can be averted if we adopt the following measures as a matter of urgency on a global scale: energy conservation measures, stopping the use of fossil fuels and nuclear together with the mass use of renewables. Would such measures help avert catastrophic climate change?

No, they would not, for many reasons. First and foremost, civilization is a heat engine, as pointed out in Tim Garrett’s work. In addition, as I’ve written here, the notion of a Third Industrial Revolution is seriously flawed: http://transitionvoice.com/2013/11/hopium-for-the-masses-renewable-energy-edition/

2) Is geo-engineering a possible solution to global warming?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) admits global warming is irreversible without geoengineering in a The IPCC is among the most conservative scientific bodies on the planet, and their reports are “significantly ‘diluted’ under political pressure.” On 22 April 2014, Truth-out correctly headlines their assessment, “Intergovernmental Climate Report Leaves Hopes Hanging on Fantasy Technology.” Time follows up two days later with a desperate headline, “NASA Chief: Humanity’s Future Depends On Mission To Mars” (first up: greenhouses on Mars). As pointed out in the 5 December 2013 issue of Earth System Dynamics, known strategies for geoengineering are unlikely to succeed (“climate geo-engineering cannot simply be used to undo global warming“). “Attempts to reverse the impacts of global warming by injecting reflective particles into the stratosphere could make matters worse,” according to research published in the 8 January 2014 issue of Environmental Research Letters. In addition, as described in the December 2013 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, geoengineering may succeed in cooling the Earth, it would also disrupt precipitation patterns around the world. Furthermore, “risk of abrupt and dangerous warming is inherent to the large-scale implementation of SRM” (solar radiation management), as pointed out in the 17 February 2014 issue of Environmental Research Letters. About a week later comes this line from research published in the 25 February 2014 issue of Nature Communication: “schemes to Finally, in a blow to technocrats published online in the 25 June 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change, a large and distinguished group of international researchers concludes geo-engineering will not stop climate change. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences piles on with a report issued 10 February 2015, concluding geoengineering is not a viable solution for the climate predicament. As it turns out, the public isn’t impressed, either: Research published in the 12 January 2014 issue of Nature Climate Change “reveals that the overall public evaluation of climate engineering is negative.” Despite pervasive American ignorance about science, the public correctly interprets geo-engineering in the same light as the scientists, and contrary to the techno-optimists.

3) In your work you talk about feedback loops that have already been set in motion that will have very detrimental effects upon the planet. Could you explain how feedback loops will have a devastating effect upon the living planet?

These self-reinforcing feedback loops, or “positive feedbacks,” feed upon themselves. For example, methane released from the Arctic Ocean heats the region, hence the ocean. As a result, methane is release more rapidly from the ocean. The process continues until a negative feedback overwhelms the process.

Many of these feedback loops have been triggered. They are contributing to a rapid rise in global-average temperature. The relatively slow rise in global-average temperature to date has outstripped the ability of organisms to keep up: The rate of evolution trails the rate of climate change by a factor of 10,000, according to paper in the August 2013 issue of Ecology Letters. If plants cannot keep up with the ongoing, gradual rate of change, we can only imagine the destruction of the living planet now that abrupt climate change has been triggered.

The Sixth Great Extinction is proceeding very rapidly. We’re on track to exceed the rate of extinction during all prior events, including the Great Dying from about 250 million years ago. During that extinction event, more than 90% of the species on the planet were driven to extinction.

4) When the issue of near term human extinction arising from catastrophic climate change is raised with many people they get very defensive. Reactions range from ridicule suggesting that you are crazy to outright hostility. Why do you think people often react this way?

I suspect they are afraid. We’ve grown up during a time of enormous privilege. The technology surrounding us is astonishing: It seems we can fix anything with a simple app on our cell phones!

The race for technology has overwhelmed the living planet. Already, according to an August 2010 report from the United Nations, the rate of extinction is 150-200 species per day. Industrial civilization allows us to foul the air, dirty the water, and erode the soil into the ocean while communicating in real time across the globe.

The race for technology has overwhelmed our sense of humanity. Most people I know love civilization, which destroys life on Earth. And they especially love industrial civilization and the resulting toys.

5) It is clear that the capitalist class across the globe have neither the intention nor the intention nor the knowledge of how to stop catastrophic climate change. The pursuit of hydraulic fracking, tar sands, nuclear energy, geo-engineering all reveal how the capitalist system is blind to the pursuit of profit at all costs. We cannot place any faith in corporate politicians of any stripe to help ordinary people cope with the effects of climate change as it gets worse and worse. Who should ordinary people turn to for help in coping with climate change?

The corporate governments and the corporate media are not interested in we, the people. They are interested in profits for the corporations.

As individuals and as a species, I doubt we have much time left on the planet. I recommend passionately pursuing a life of excellence rooted in love. Identify what you love. Pursue it, with passion. Throw off the shackles of a culture gone seriously awry. Along the way, you’ll be viewed as insane. Most professional psychotherapists, embedded in an omnicidal culture, will provide little help.

Find your tribe. Spend time with those you love. Love the ones you’re with.

6) Tim Garrett of Utah University has done some very valuable research into runaway climate change. Could you summarize the research of Professor Garrett and explain its implications for us all?

Garrett’s work is published in refereed journal articles, the “gold standard” of science. His research points out that only collapse of civilization prevents runaway greenhouse. It does not point out that collapse of civilization triggers the catastrophic meltdown of the world’s nuclear facilities.

7) Many people sign petitions, send letters, organise lobbies of politicians and regulators in the hope of stopping the destruction of the environment. Is this type of resistance enough to stop capitalist civilization from destroying the planet?

Apparently not. This type of work has been proceeding for decades, and the 150-200 species are still driven to extinction each day.

8) You recently published a book with Carolyn Baker called Extinction Dialogs. How should we prepare for the extinction of all life on the planet?

By living with death in mind. By loving what is, not what should be. By identifying what we love, and pursuing it. By pursuing excellence in our lives. By doing what is right, without attachment to the outcome. All of which applies even if we live forever.

On Staying Sane In A Suicidal Culture

In Uncategorized on June 12, 2014 at 8:07 pm

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Oldspeak:The most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world… I look at the path we’re on, to the future, as having a ditch on either side, We have to hold onto each other, not to fall into the ditch on the right or left, which are, on one side panic and hysteria, and on the other side is paralysis and shutting down. You see this in the US in spades. There is more and more social hysteria, greatly aided by the corporate media and finger pointing, scapegoating, the panic. The mass shootings on the one hand, and on the other hand a death-like grip on closing down, keeping your eyes focused on a narrowed down life, to the pressures of the moment and what you need to do to put food on the table… those who are still on the path and not in one of the ditches are seeing with clarity that it is curtains for our way of life because the prices being paid, or extorted, from the planet are too high… The loss of certainty that there will be a future is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time.” -Joanna Macy

It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”- Jiddu Krishnamurti

“Invaluable and sanity saving wisdom in this piece. I stay sane by meditating, chanting, practicing Yoga, eating lots of plants, earthing, communing with the natural world, practicing  mindfulness. Being fully aware of and radically accepting the Great Turning, Great Unraveling, and Great Dying we are all bearing witness to whether we choose to see it or not. Allowing and accepting myself for feeling the profound grief and despair for what is happening to our Great Mother and being with and nurturing those feelings not medicating or distracting them away. Being present, aware, kind, open-minded, smiling, laughing, practicing unattachment, understanding, compassionate, forgiving, unconditionally loving, freely giving, grateful, life-affirming open-hearted, and telling the truth (the most difficult of all). How do you stay sane while awash in this endless ocean of insanity that is the industrial growth society?” -OSJ

 

By Dahr Jamail @ Truthout:

It was February 2005, and after several months of front-line reporting from Iraq, I’d returned to the US a human time bomb of rage, my temper ticking shorter each day.

Walking through morgues in Baghdad left scenes in my mind I remember even now. I can still smell the decaying bodies as I type this, nearly a decade later. Watching young Iraqi children bleed to death on operating tables after they had been shot by US military snipers has left an equally deep and lasting imprint.

My rage towards those responsible in the Bush administration bled outwards to engulf all of those participating in the military and anyone who supported the ongoing atrocity that was the US occupation of Iraq. My solution was to fantasize about hanging all of the aforementioned from the nearest group of light poles.

Consumed by post-traumatic stress disorder, I was unable to go any deeper emotionally than my rage and numbness. I stood precariously atop my self-righteous anger about what I was writing, for it was the cork in the bottle of my bottomless grief from what I’d witnessed. To release that meant risking engulfment in black despair that would surely erupt if I were to step aside, so I thought.

My dear friend Anita Barrows, a poet and writer, translated Rilke poetry with a woman named Joanna Macy whom I’d met once before, briefly. Anita, who is also a psychologist, had taken one look at me and shortly thereafter let me know Joanna wanted to have tea with me.

Shortly thereafter, I made my way over to Joanna’s home in Berkeley, driving through the chilled, foggy morning, unaware of how much help I needed at the time. I remember seeing only fog, not the trees.

I knew Joanna was an eco-philosopher and a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory and deep ecology. I knew she and her husband Fran had been anti-nuclear activists for longer than I’d been alive, and that she ran workshops for artists, writers and activists called the Work That Reconnects, of which Anita had spoken very highly.

Beyond that, I had no idea what I was about to get myself into.

Joanna invited me in, and we then went upstairs at her kitchen table while she prepared our tea.

After quietly pouring our mugs full, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, slowly, “You’ve seen so much.” My own grief beginning to be witnessed, tears welled in my eyes immediately, as they did in hers.

Thus began my learning about what those of us on the front lines of the atrocities being carried out against the planet, and those living amidst what she calls “the industrial growth society” must do, if we are to sustain ourselves, both within and without, as the future rushes towards us with ever increasing speed.

The Mortality of the Moment

“This is really happening. There’s nothing to stop it now.” These are the words of Thomas P. Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research for a recent report that showed the ongoing massive collapse of the Western Antarctic ice sheet that will raise global sea levels by at least 10 feet.

News like this finds us daily now, as the fire hose of information about the destruction the industrial growth society has brought to the planet gushes. It is an overwhelming amount of information. Being a mountaineer, every time I learn of the collapse of yet another massive glacial system, or the baring of a magnificent peak that was once gleaming in ice and snow, it feels like a punch in my stomach. Like I’ve lost a close relative, or a good friend. Again.

Macy, during the interview I did with her for this article, warned of the consequences of not allowing ourselves to access the feelings elicited by our witnessing.

“Refusing to feel pain, and becoming incapable of feeling the pain, which is actually the root meaning of apathy, refusal to suffer, that makes us stupid, and half alive,” she said. “It causes us to become blind to see what is really out there. We have a sense of something being wrong, so we find another target and project our anxiety onto the nearest thing handy, whether it is Muslims, or gays, or Jews, or transsexuals, or on Edward Snowden, who is now being accused of being a Russian spy and behind the Ukraine conflict. See how stupid we can be?” She laughed.

After a pause, she added, “The closer we get to midnight, the more we lose intellectual capacity. So not feeling the pain is extremely costly.”

As the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, Macy has created what has been referred to as a “ground-breaking theoretical framework for personal and social change,” as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application, to which this writer can attest personally.

Six months after having tea with Macy, I found myself with her and a few dozen others in the redwoods of coastal California, where for 10 days we dove deeply into the violence that was happening to the planet, what it meant to humans and all other species, and how dire our situation really was. (Today, several years later, it is of course far, far worse.)

I allowed myself to plunge into my grief around all I’d witnessed in Iraq – watching school children being shot at by US soldiers, refugee tents filled with widows weeping for their disappeared husbands, myself being shot at by US troops, car bombs detonating near me and then witnessing the carnage on the streets in the aftermath. I began to weep and was unable to stop for two days.

During one of Macy’s discussions, she said, “The most radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world.”

For me, the price of admission into that present was allowing my heart to break. But then I saw how despair transforms, in the face of overwhelming social and ecological crises, into clarity of vision, then into constructive, collaborative action.

Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” has been ongoing for decades, and has involved thousands of artists, writers and activists from around the world. (Photo: Dahr Jamail)

“It brings a new way of seeing the world, as our larger living body, freeing us from the assumptions and attitudes that now threaten the continuity of life on earth,” Macy said of this experience.

Her lifelong body of work encompasses the psychological and spiritual issues of living in the nuclear age and is grounded in a deepening of ecological awareness which has become all the more poignant as the inherently malefic industrial growth society of today’s corporate capitalism continues on its trajectory of annihilation.

“I look at the path we’re on, to the future, as having a ditch on either side,” she continued. “We have to hold onto each other, not to fall into the ditch on the right or left, which are, on one side panic and hysteria, and on the other side is paralysis and shutting down. You see this in the US in spades. There is more and more social hysteria, greatly aided by the corporate media and finger pointing, scapegoating, the panic. The mass shootings on the one hand, and on the other hand a death-like grip on closing down, keeping your eyes focused on a narrowed down life, to the pressures of the moment and what you need to do to put food on the table.”

Macy believes that those who “are still on the path and not in one of the ditches” are seeing with clarity that it is “curtains for our way of life” because the prices being paid, or extorted, from the planet are too high.

She sees all the people, particularly younger people, who are emerging to form a growing resistance movement against the tar sands and fracking as evidence of a “conscious acceptance of the mortality of the moment, that we have a narrowing window of time, and maybe we’re already into runaway climate change, but still we are doing what we can.”

From Personal Pathology to Non-Separateness

Macy’s own dark night of the soul occurred while she was involved in a lawsuit against a Virginia power company she was trying to stop from racking their nuclear fuel rods too close together. The company’s actions were illegal, in addition to the fact that such actions could very well have caused their nuclear power plant to go into criticality.

“My job was to gather data on health statistics,” she explained. “And even when there is no [nuclear] accident, the information I got was horrific in the extreme about how incidents of miscarriage and sterility and stillbirth and deformities rise the closer you get geographically to the nuclear installations.”

She was thrilled to have found the scientific proof, and truly believed, as do so many journalists who come across a big story, that when people knew the information they would wake up and, as Macy put it, “stop this dangerous folly.”

Hence, she saw firsthand that it appeared as though most people simply did not want to know the stark reality, even if it meant their willful ignorance was putting their and their families lives in grave danger.

“That was a turning point in my life, and that was the beginning of the Work That Reconnects,” she said.

She began experimenting in ways that people could deal with the truth of what was happening in the world, and found, instead, “It wasn’t that we didn’t care or didn’t know, but that we were afraid of getting forever stuck in despair, and immobilized.”

She told of the formation process of the work that now spans the world:

“What people ached to do was to tell the truth of their own experience. Tell what they know and feel and see what is happening to our world. And then they found the feelings they feared, the feelings didn’t last, and the feelings turned into relief and a sense of empowering solidarity with others, and they broke out of their self-imposed isolation into energizing collaboration.”

This message was and is, in fact, subversive to the message that pervades the dominant society because the message most people in the Western world are raised with is that the grief, outrage and profound sadness we feel for the world are reducible to a message that there is something wrong with us. Our genuine feelings and natural human responses are thus pathologized.

“Given the hyper-individualism of our culture, this phenomenon has resulted [in] building a nation of obedient people, isolated people,” Macy said. “And they turn their grief for the world against themselves, to try to fix themselves, to build an identity out of a consumer self.”

In one of her books, Macy addresses, precisely, how the corporate consumer culture we live in works to propagate the message that everything is fine: “Even if we have inklings of apocalypse, the American trance functions to discourage our feelings of despair and, if they persist, to reduce them to personal pathologies. Though we may respect our own cognitive reading of the signs, the spell we are under often leads us to imagine that it is we, not the society, who are going insane.”

Macy believes that “despair work” involves nothing more mysterious than telling the truth about what we see, know and feel is happening to our world, which are things that should be as simple as telling someone the time of day, “if it were not for all that isolates us from each other and befuddles us with self-doubt.”

“When corporate-controlled media keep the public in the dark, and power-holders manipulate events to create a climate of fear and obedience, truth-telling is like oxygen,” she has written.

In fact, she believes it is not in the self-perceived interest of multinational corporations, or the government and the media that serve them, “for us to stop and become aware of our profound anguish with the way things are.”

Macy went on to explain what her work really addresses, which is, in essence, the core of the human condition.

“We all ache to come home to a larger identity and belonging, and deep ecology as a movement has been very helpful in that regard, as has eco-psychology. But the practices in the Work That Reconnects fully validate what our true longing is. And it’s not to be numb and separate, but it’s to be together, even in pain. But then the pain gets transformed into passion for life and a bubbling up of compassion. Freeing yourself from that prison cell of the separate ego and the lonely cowboy ego.”

Macy believes in each of us is “a longing for coming home to the sacredness of our belonging to the living body of earth and the joy of serving that at every step.” (Photo: Dahr Jamail)

Macy does not believe that becoming engaged in work for the betterment of the planet involves arduous sacrifice, but rather to do what at our deepest level we crave most of all.

“It is a longing for coming home to the sacredness of our belonging to the living body of earth and the joy of serving that at every step,” she said. “I make it sound easy but we can’t do it alone. Just hearing the news of what is happening each day on the planet, I can’t handle all of it alone. I’m not supposed to. Even looking at it requires we reach out to each other and take each other’s arm and I can tell you how I feel, and you will listen. The very steps we need to take bring us the relief and reward of the whole point of it, which is our collective nature, our non-separateness, because this is the only thing that can save us.”

The Loss of Certainty

Macy has been active in several large social movements throughout her lifetime, but it was her involvement in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s that acquainted her with the degree of danger, as she described it, “that truly seemed suicidal for our culture, and ecocidal for our planet.”

Watching the generation of radioactive materials at great speed and volume, and the growing production of nuclear energy and weapons “turned my mind inside out,” she explained, because she saw “that we were threatening the very basis of complex life forms” by “generating materials that will literally last forever, without realizing that disease and genetic mutation will inevitably follow.”

From that time on, she has felt we are all living on borrowed time, and that the present is now simultaneously “a scary moment and an absolutely necessary moment for us to wake up to certain realities.”

By certain realities she does not mean only the colossal, mindless damage humans are causing, “but to certain realities that are the same as the spiritual truths of the great religions and the indigenous traditions . . . that our earth is alive. It is a sacred being of which we are a living part. That we belong to the earth, and to each other, and once we get that, everybody is capable of knowing that because it is our true nature, then we can walk away from our stupidity.”

Nevertheless, she continues to believe it is going to take something earthshaking to liberate us in the Western world from our consumer culture and our “obedience to government industry and media, and especially to the power of money, which has tightened the corporate grip on the government, military and media.”

Macy believes that the ongoing crisis of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), which is intensifying daily, now provides the possibility to snap out of our cultural amnesia, and what she describes as “the delusion that we’re somehow separate from our planet that we can pollute and mine and destroy and contaminate. When we make that mental leap, which isn’t very big, there is a whole shudder of glorious coming to of the psyche and the relationships upon which our culture is built.”

Macy holds great concern and sadness about what her grandchildren, who are in their early teens, will face in the coming years as ACD progresses.

“Of course the sadness that I haven’t been able stop it, is beyond words,” she explained, beginning to weep. “It’s a sadness that has to go unspoken in a way, because right at the moment I’m working on a chapter in a book about working with youth and children, and how to talk to young people about this. But it’s the biggest challenge. And they are kept too busy, so glued to their electronic appliances, the whole culture is . . . you can’t live in this culture without being semi-hypnotized.”

Our situation so often feels hopeless. So much has spun out of control, and pathology surrounds us. At least one in five Americans are taking psychiatric medications, and the number of children taking adult psychiatric drugs is soaring.

From the perspective of Macy’s teachings, it seems hard to argue that this isn’t, at least in part, active denial of what is happening to the world and how challenging it is for both adults and children to deal with it emotionally, spiritually and psychologically.

These disturbing trends, which are increasing, are something she is very mindful of. As she wrote in World as Lover, World as Self, “The loss of certainty that there will be a future is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”

The Razor’s Edge

Macy, who is also an author of 12 books, is well known for having coined “The Great Unraveling,” which references the collapsing of systems (both natural and human-made) under the weight of the failing industrial growth society that is literally consuming the planet. She is even better known for “The Great Turning,” which she believes is what is happening simultaneous to the Great Unraveling.

“The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time,” Macy said. “The shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. The ecological and social crises we face are inflamed by an economic system dependent on accelerating growth. This self-destructing political economy sets its goals and measures its performance in terms of ever-increasing corporate profits. In other words by how fast materials can be extracted from earth and turned into consumer products, weapons and waste.”

“All you can know is you’re allegiance to life and your intention to serve it in this moment that we are given.” (Photo: Global Oneness Project)

She believes that a revolution is already well underway because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying the world.

“We have the technical knowledge, the communication tools and material resources to grow enough food, ensure clean air and water and meet rational energy needs,” she explained. “Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society.”

As in Buddhism, which urges practitioners to follow the “middle path” which Macy alluded to earlier, her Work That Reconnects calls on people to live with full awareness of both the Great Unraveling and Great Turning.

“Not closing our eyes but seeing clearly as we can the unraveling of the ecological and biological and cultural systems of our planet and of our minds,” she said. “The growing prospect of losing all complex life forms, and at the same time seeing the Great Turning to a life-sustaining society and taking part in it.”

Never before in history has humankind found itself amidst such a convergence of crises: runaway ACD, the global economy in chronic crisis, deepening militarism and surveillance, and a growing lack of food and water as the global population continues to explode.

While a great percentage of the population remains unaware that upward of 200 species are being made extinct each day, even greater numbers of people are ignorant to the very real possibility that humans may well be included in that number some day, whether it be from global thermonuclear war or runaway ACD.

Hence, Macy believes nothing short of a radical shift in consciousness is mandatory.

“What I’m witnessing is that this uncertainty is a great liberating gift to the psyche and the spirit,” she said. “It’s walking the razor’s edge of the sacred moment where you don’t know, you can’t count on, and comfort yourself with any sure hope. All you can know is your allegiance to life and your intention to serve it in this moment that we are given. In that sense, this radical uncertainty liberates your creativity and courage.”

Given that the planet has never been in such a state of chronic crisis, nor that humans have so starkly faced our own extinction, each of us must today find a way to cope, continue to function, and are called to evolve our ways of thinking and being.

Carl Jung warned that if humans didn’t evolve into a new planetary consciousness, we would, as a species, go extinct.

My experience showed me that if I had not evolved beyond my own war trauma, I, too, could well have become a statistic of some negative type. If for me it was indeed evolve or die, how can it not be thus as a species when we fathom the true gravity of crisis we call modern life?

About Joanna Macy

Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, PhD, is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory and deep ecology. A respected voice in the movements for peace, justice and ecology, she interweaves her scholarship with five decades of activism. As the root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, she has created a groundbreaking theoretical framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application.

Her wide-ranging work addresses psychological and spiritual issues of the nuclear age, the cultivation of ecological awareness, and the fruitful resonance between Buddhist thought and contemporary science. The many dimensions of this work are explored in her books Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age (New Society Publishers, 1983); Dharma and Development (Kumarian Press, 198); Thinking Like a Mountain (with John Seed, Pat Fleming, and Arne Naess; New Society Publishers, 1988; New Society/ New Catalyst, 2007); Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (SUNY Press, 1991); Rilke’s Book of Hours (1996, 2005) and In Praise of Mortality (2004) (with Anita Barrows, Riverhead); Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (with Molly Young Brown, New Society Publishers, 1998); Joanna’s memoir entitled Widening Circles (New Society, 2000); World as Lover, World as Self (Parallax Press, 2007), A Year With Rilke, (with Anita Barrows, Harper One, 2009); and Pass It On: Five Stories That Can Change the World (with Norbert Gahbler, Parallax Press, 2010).

Many thousands of people around the world have participated in Joanna’s workshops and trainings. Her group methods, known as the Work That Reconnects, have been adopted and adapted yet more widely in classrooms, churches and grassroots organizing. Her work helps people transform despair and apathy, in the face of overwhelming social and ecological crises, into constructive, collaborative action. It brings a new way of seeing the world, as our larger living body, freeing us from the assumptions and attitudes that now threaten the continuity of life on earth. Joanna travels widely giving lectures, workshops, and trainings in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia. She lives in Berkeley, California, near her children and grandchildren.

 

 

Mounting Evidence Of Acceleration Of Anthropogenic Climate Disruption Across The Globe

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2014 at 6:00 pm

Comparing LIP and Human emissions. How oceans get overwhelmed by rapid large CO2 emissions from Large Igneous Province (LIP) eruptions and human emissions. CCD = Carbonate Compensation Depth, CO32- = carbonate. Based on text in Zeebe, Annual Reviews 2012.

Oldspeak: “Evidence is mounting that we are in the midst of a great extinction of species. An “ecocide” is occurring, as the human race is in the process of destroying life on the planet. This sobering thought becomes clearer now as we take our monthly tour of significant global pollution and anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) related events.” -Dahr Jamail

“Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick…… The rate of anthropogenic climate change and accompanying mass extinction caused by human activity in 2014  is significantly faster than the rate of climate change during Earth’s worst, fastest and 90% of all life devastating Permian Mass Extinction 252 million years ago. Human’s activities have released comparable amounts of CO2 and Methane Gas in 300 years as were released in 2000 – 18,ooo years of the Permian! Let that sink in for a spell. When it does you’ll realize that there is no fixing this. We’re done and in all probably all other life with us.  Humans have precipitated the worst extinction event in the history of the world. Accept it. By the time the sociopaths in charge decide to do something, it’ll probably make shit worse. The folk at the conservative Skeptical Science break the situation down down pretty bluntly :

the Permian Mass Extinction has been linked to massive volcanic eruptions in Siberia. Volcanic CO2 and a cocktail of noxious gasses combined with burning coal and geothermally-baked methane emissions to enact a combination of toxic effects and, most importantly, ocean acidification and global warming. It led to a world where equatorial regions and the tropics were too hot for complex life to survive. That’s a fact so astonishing it bears repeating: global warming led to a large portion of planet Earth being lethally hot on land and in the oceans! The cascading extinctions in ecosystems across the planet unfolded over 61,000 years, and it took 10 million years for the planet to recover!…

In “High-precision timeline for Earth’s most severe extinction,” published in PNAS on February 10, authors Seth Burgess, Samuel Bowring, and Shu-zhong Shen employed new dating techniques on Permian-Triassic rocks in China, bringing unprecedented precision to our understanding of the event. They have dramatically shortened the timeframe for the initial carbon emissions that triggered the mass extinction from roughly 150,000 years to between 2,100 and 18,800 years. This new timeframe is crucial because it brings the timescale of the Permian Extinction event’s carbon emissions shorter by two orders of magnitude, into the ballpark of human emission rates for the first time.

How does this relate to today’s global warming?…Rapid carbon belches, such as in the Permian and today, occur within the timeframe of fast feedbacks (surface ocean, water vapor, clouds, dust, biosphere, lapse rate, etc) but before the vast deep ocean reservoir and rock weathering can cut-in to buffer the changes. The carbon overwhelms the surface ocean and biosphere reservoirs so it has nowhere to go but the atmosphere, where it builds up rapidly, creating strong global warming via the greenhouse effect. The surface oceans turn acidic as they become increasingly saturated in CO2The oceans warm, so sea levels rise. Those symptoms should sound familiar….

Burgess et al’s paper brings the Permian into line with many other global-warming extinction events, like the Triassic, the Toarcian, the Cretaceous Ocean Anoxic Events, The PETM, and the Columbia River Basalts, whose time frames have been progressively reduced as more sophisticated dating has been applied to them. They all produced the same symptoms as today’s climate change – rapid global warming, ocean acidification, and sea level rises, together with oxygen-less ocean dead zones and extinctions. They were all (possibly excluding the PETM – see below) triggered by rare volcanic outpourings called “Large Igneous Provinces,” (LIPs) that emitted massive volumes of CO2 and methane at rates comparable to today’s emissions. The PETM may also have been triggered by a LIP, although that is still debated

Can we seriously expect Earth’s climate to behave differently today than it did at all those times in the past?” 

Nope. Don’t think we can. I mean seriously. On a bit of an Lorde kick today, this quote seems fitting here:

I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out of my ears, my eyes, my noseholes–everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!”  -OSJ

Related Story:

Alarming New Study Makes Today’s Climate Change More Comparable To Earth’s Worst Mass Extinction

By Dahr Jamail @ Truthout:

“The frog does not drink up the pond
in which he lives.”
~ Sioux Proverb

This month’s dispatch comes on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent report, and the news is not good.

“No one on this planet will be untouched by climate change,” IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri announced. The report warned that climate impacts are already “severe, pervasive, and irreversible.”

The IPCC report was one of many released in recent weeks, and all of them bring dire predictions of what is coming. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued a report warning that “the rate of climate change now may be as fast as any extended warming period over the past 65 million years, and it is projected to accelerate in the coming decades.” The report went on to warn of the risk “of abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes in the Earth’s climate system with massively disruptive impacts,” including the possible “large scale collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, collapse of part of the Gulf Stream, loss of the Amazon rain forest, die-off of coral reefs, and mass extinctions.”

To read more about anthropomorphic climate disruption, click here.

 

Just prior to the release of the IPCC report, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported that 13 of the 14 warmest years on record had all occurred since 2000. The agency’s secretary-general, Michel Jarraud, described the global trend: “Every decade has been warmer than the preceding one over the last 40 years. In other words, the decade 2001-2010 was warmer than the ’90s, which in turn were warmer than the ’80s, which were warmer than the ’70s. All the best models were used for this study, and the conclusion is actually very interesting and of concern. The conclusion is that these heat waves, it is not possible to reproduce these heat waves in the models if you don’t take into account human influence.” Jarraud also noted greenhouse gases are now at a record high, which guarantees the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans will continue to warm for centuries to come. Arctic sea ice in 2013 did not reach the record lows seen in 2012 for minimum extent in the summer, but nevertheless reached its sixth lowest extent on record. The WMO noted all seven of the lowest Arctic sea-ice extents took place in the past seven years, starting with 2007, which scientists were “stunned” by at the time.

NASA released the results of a study showing that long-term planetary warming is continuing along the higher end of many projections. “All the evidence now agrees that future warming is likely to be towards the high end of our estimates, so it’s more clear than ever that we need large, rapid emissions reductions to avoid the worst damages from climate change,” lead author and NASA climatologist Drew Shindell said. If he sounds alarmist, it’s because he is, and with good reason. The NASA study shows a global increase in temperatures of nine degrees by the end of the century.

This is consistent with a January Nature study on climate sensitivity, which found we are headed toward a “most-likely warming of roughly 5C (9 F) above current temperatures, which is 6C (11 F) above preindustrial” temperatures by 2100. Bear in mind that humans have never lived on a planet at temperatures 3.5C above our preindustrial baseline.

Hence, as contemporary studies continue to provide ever-higher temperature projections, they are beginning to approach higher estimates from previous studies. A 2011 paper authored by Jeffrey Kiehl from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and published in the journal Science “found that carbon dioxide may have at least twice the effect on global temperatures than currently projected by computer models of global climate.” Contrary to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) worst-case scenario of a 6C rise by 2100, which itself would result in a virtually uninhabitable planet, Kiehl’s paper distressingly concludes that, at current emission rates, we may actually see an unimaginable 16C rise by the end of the century.

“The last time it was 6C there were snakes the size of yellow school buses in the Amazon,” Guy McPherson, professor emeritus of evolutionary biology, natural resources, and ecology at the University of Arizona, told Truthout. McPherson, a climate change expert of 25 years, maintains the blog Nature Bats Last. “The largest mammal was the size of a shrew,” he said. “And the rise in temperature occurred over thousands of years, not decades. I doubt mammals survive – and certainly not large-bodied mammals – at 6C.”

Dr McPherson went on to explain further what the planet would look like as temperatures increase.

“Rapid rise to 4C eliminates all or nearly all plankton in the ocean, along with a majority of land plants,” he said. “The latter cannot keep up with rapid change. The former will be acidified out of existence. At 16C, your guess is as good as mine. But humans will not be involved.”

Bear in mind that the “current” emission rates in Kiehl’s study were significantly lower than those of today, as they were from more than three years ago. Emission rates have grown in each succeeding year.

Evidence is mounting that we are in the midst of a great extinction of species. An “ecocide” is occurring, as the human race is in the process of destroying life on the planet. This sobering thought becomes clearer now as we take our monthly tour of significant global pollution and anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) related events.

Earth

Ongoing drought and other ACD-related impacts have caused the Amargosa vole, one of the rarest mammals in North America, to become an endangered species. This saddening occurrence shouldn’t come as a big surprise, given that chronic drought and shifting weather patterns are causing things like a wall of dust 1,000 feet tall and 200 miles wide to roar across parts of West Texas and New Mexico.

Evidencing warnings from the IPCC report about ACD’s dramatic impact on wide-scale food production, the president of the World Bank warned that battles over water and food will erupt within the next five to ten years. As if on cue, hungry monkeys in northern India have begun raiding farms as their forest habitats shrink.

Meanwhile, on the coastal areas of Alaska, melting permafrost and stronger storms are combining to erode coastline and cause greater numbers of villages to begin contemplating evacuation.

Water

A new NASA study shows that the length of the melt season for Arctic sea ice is growing by several days each decade, allowing the Arctic Ocean to absorb enough additional solar radiation to melt as much as four feet of the Arctic ice cap’s thickness in some places.

Going into wildfire season, California is coming off its warmest winter on record, aggravating its enduring drought, which has caused the Sacramento River to drop so low that the state may need to truck 30 million salmon from hatcheries to the sea. California’s central valley farmland was in trouble prior to the historic drought, but now it appears to be on its last legs. The area, critical to the US supply of fruit and vegetables, was suffering from decades of irrigation that leached salts and toxic minerals from the soil, which then had nowhere to go, thus threatening both crops and wildlife. Now, to make matters worse, remaining aquifers are being drained at an alarming pace, with some farmers even drilling more than 1,200 feet down in their ongoing search for ever-more-rare water for their struggling farms.

Meanwhile, Texas and New Mexico have been waging an interstate legal battle over water from the ever-shrinking Rio Grande. Both states struggle with ongoing drought, while farmers in Texas are still reeling from the historic 2011 drought as moderate to exceptional drought continues to affect 64 percent of that state. Fierce legal and political battles over who controls the water are now becoming the norm in California, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and other western states.

Drought-parched Wichita Falls, Texas, is so desperate for water that officials there are currently awaiting state regulatory approval for a project that will recycle effluent from their wastewater treatment plant, which means residents would begin drinking “potty water.”

The severe drought across the west has forced the Mount Ashland Ski area in Oregon to remain closed for its entire season, something it has not had to do for 50 years.

“Higher food prices, water bills and utility rates,” the Las Vegas Sun reported recently of the cascade of crises impacting the US West due to drought:

Greater wildfire risk. Shrinking communities, fewer jobs and weakening economies. Amid growing concern that the drought gripping the West isn’t history repeating itself but instead is a new normal brought about by climate change, the effects of the dwindling water supply in the region are beginning to become all too clear. As a pattern of longer dry periods and shorter wet cycles continues, the effects will be felt across the region by millions of people from farms to cities, faucets to wallets. More than 70 percent of the West – a zone spreading across 15 states – is experiencing some form of abnormal dryness or drought, with 11 drought-affected western and central states designated as primary natural disaster areas by the Agriculture Department.

In Canada, the mining of the tar sands continues to destroy vast areas of sensitive wetlands in Alberta, with scientists warning that it is impossible to rebuild or rehabilitate the complex ecosystems there after the industrial assault of the mining process.

A recent report underscores the impact of the oil and gas industry heyday in Canada on the indigenous populations there, as “industrial development” and warming temperatures are leading to growing hunger and malnutrition in Canada’s Arctic.

Rising seas and coastal erosion problems are persisting and spreading around the globe as ACD progresses. 18 months after Hurricane Sandy lashed the northeast coast of the US, homeowners living on the coast have to decide whether to rebuild or move inland…a decision everyone living on a coast will eventually have to make.

China now estimates it has lost $2.6 billion from ACD-linked storms and rising sea levels since 2008, while a new report has confirmed that people living in the coastal regions of Asia will face some of the worst impacts of ACD as it continues to progress.

Continuing rising temperatures have caused scientists to warn of “disturbing” rates of ice melt on Africa’s highest peaks like Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, saying that within two decades even the highest peaks on the continent will no longer have any ice – only bare rock.

Meanwhile, the rate of ice melt on the Greenland ice sheet has researchers alarmed. It was long believed that the interior of Greenland’s huge ice sheet was resilient to the impacts of ACD, but no more. Greenland recorded its highest temperatures ever in 2013, and the equivalent of three Chesapeake Bays’ worth of water is melting off the island every single year, raising global sea levels.

Along with storing over 90 percent of the heat, the planet’s oceans continue to bear the brunt of the impacts from ACD. More than 24 million metric tons of CO2 from the industrial-growth society are absorbed into the seas every single day, and are causing seawater to become more acidic, a phenomenon that is already producing dire consequences.

Fishermen in British Columbia are struggling to deal with catastrophic financial losses as millions of oysters and scallops are dying off in record numbers along the West Coast. Experts suggest, of course, that this is caused by increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere, which leads to rising ocean acidity.

Recent research shows that as ACD continues to warm the oceans, fish growth is being stunted: a variety of North Sea fish species have shrunk in size by as much as 29 percent over the past four decades. Off the coast of Australia, warming oceans are causing jellyfish blooms to increase in size to vast levels, causing them to inhibit both the environment and fishing and tourism industries.

The final and likely the most important note on water this month: A new study published in Nature Climate Change has revealed a very troubling fact – that the deep ocean current near Antarctica is changing due to ACD. “Our observations are showing us that there is less formation of these deep waters near Antarctica,” one of the scientists/authors said. “This is worrisome because, if this is the case, we’re likely going to see less uptake of human produced, or anthropogenic, heat and carbon dioxide by the ocean, making this a positive feedback loop for climate change.” Given that the Southern Ocean is critical in terms of regulating climate, the slowing current is an ominous sign for our future.

Air

Air pollution and its related problems seem to be increasing exponentially.

Toxic smog engulfing Britain caused more than 1.6 million people (30 percent of the population) to suffer asthma attacks.

After exceeding safe levels for five days, air pollution prompted a Paris car ban.

In North Dakota, gas flaring related to fracking has doubled, pumping even more CO2 into the atmosphere.

In India, where being a traffic cop is a life-threatening occupation due to air pollution, people are suffering from some of the worst air pollution in the world. It is so bad that diesel fumes there are even impacting glacier melt in the Himalayas.

Pollution haze in Sumatra has blanketed several provinces there over the last two months, causing thousands to suffer from various pollution-related illnesses as the air quality continues to decline.

Tons of toxic materials are being released in Virginia, including millions of pounds of aromatic chemicals.

The World Health Organization now estimates that air pollution killed seven million people in 2012, adding that one in eight deaths worldwide were tied to air pollution, making it the single largest environmental health risk on the planet.

Not surprisingly, scientists in Boulder are reporting record-early CO2 readings at their key reading site at the NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. The readings hit the key benchmark of 400 parts per million (ppm) for CO2 at least five days in a row recently. 400 ppm was recorded for the first time only last year, and that level was not recorded until May 19th.
Atmospheric CO2 levels have seasonal swings which tend to peak in May. “Each year it creeps up,” the director of the global monitoring division at NOAA, said. “Eventually, we’ll see where it isn’t below 400 parts per million anywhere in the world. We’re on our way to doing that.”

Fire

The New York Times reported: “‘Out of work? Nowhere to live? Nowhere to go? Nothing to eat?’ the online ad reads. ‘Come to Fukushima.’ That grim posting targeting the destitute, by a company seeking laborers for the ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, is one of the starkest indications yet of an increasingly troubled search for workers willing to carry out the hazardous decommissioning at the site.”

However, those working directly at Fukushima are not the only ones exposed to its lingering effects. As radioactive water from the Fukushima disaster continues to leak into the Pacific Ocean, the FDA has added testing of Alaska salmon to its radiation monitoring program due to possible contamination. And US sailors who were aboard the Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, which was involved in the Fukushima relief effort, are suing TEPCO over illnesses they say were caused by being exposed to radioactive plumes from the nuclear meltdown.

Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have crowd-sourced a network of volunteers taking water samples at beaches along the US West Coast in an effort to capture a detailed look at the levels of radiation drifting across the ocean from Fukushima. “We know there’s contaminated water coming out of there, even today,” Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at Woods Hole, said. “In fact, it is the biggest pulse of radioactive liquid ever dropped in the ocean.”

This is of particular concern because it is an example of ramifications and chronic problems resulting from meltdowns occurring at one nuclear power plant.

Given the IPCC’s report of how worsening ACD will cause disruptions to our infrastructure and generate greater social unrest, it is clear that power disruptions are very likely in our not-so-distant future.

Nuclear power plants are intensely dependent on the power grid to function, and to keep the fuel rods and power cells cooled. Without a steady stream of large amounts of electricity, the 450 active nuclear power plants around the globe will all go into meltdown.

Fukushima is but one example.

Denial and Reality

While the pollution insults to the planet and ever-increasing and obvious signs of advancing ACD continue to mount, the urge for many people to bury their heads in the sand, often at the request or manipulation of industry and its media arms, continues apace as well.

The state of Wyoming has become the first state to block new science standards, because the standards include an expectation that students will understand that humans have significantly altered the planet’s biosphere.

Corporate media’s ability to misinform and manipulate the masses should never be underestimated, as a recent Gallup poll found that only 36 percent of US citizens believe that ACD would seriously impact their lives.

Recently the Republican-led US House of Representatives advanced a bill that would require federal weather agencies to focus more on predicting storms and less on climate studies… hence promoting denial of ACD.

The aforementioned efforts are the modern equivalent of passengers on the Titanic who opted to stay in the bar.

Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly challenging to even keep pace with all the signs.

While the eastern and central US experienced a colder-than-average winter this year, the National Climatic Center released data showing that most of the rest of the planet registered the eighth-warmest winter on record.

Penn State climatologist Michael Mann wrote in Scientific American recently that a climate crisis looms in the very near future, saying that if humanity continues burning fossil fuels as we are, we will cross the threshold into environmental ruin by 2036.

As noted earlier, one of the world’s largest and most knowledgeable scientific bodies, the AAAS, wants to make the reality of ACD very clear: Just as smoking causes cancer, so too are humanity’s CO2 emissions causing Earth to change, with potentially unknown and unalterable impacts. The AAAS’s Alan Leshner said, “What we are trying to do is to move the debate from whether human-induced climate change is reality.”

The group’s full report, an important read, adds: “The overwhelming evidence of human-caused climate change documents both current impacts with significant costs and extraordinary future risks to society and natural systems. The scientific community has convened conferences, published reports, spoken out at forums and proclaimed, through statements by virtually every national scientific academy and relevant major scientific organization including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that climate change puts the well-being of people of all nations at risk.”

Upon request, Dr McPherson provided Truthout his latest writings, which address the likelihood of abrupt climate disruption and even the possibility of near-term human extinction:

Gradual change is not guaranteed, as pointed out by the US National Academy of Sciences in December 2013: “The history of climate on the planet – as read in archives such as tree rings, ocean sediments, and ice cores – is punctuated with large changes that occurred rapidly, over the course of decades to as little as a few years.” The December 2013 report echoes one from Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution more than a decade earlier. Writing for the 3 September 2012 issue of Global Policy, Michael Jennings concludes that “a suite of amplifying feedback mechanisms, such as massive methane leaks from the sub-sea Arctic Ocean, have engaged and are probably unstoppable.” During a follow-up interview with Alex Smith on Radio Ecoshock, Jennings admits that “Earth’s climate is already beyond the worst scenarios.” Skeptical Science finally catches up to reality on 2 April 2014 with an essay titled, “Alarming new study makes today’s climate change more comparable to Earth’s worst mass extinction.” The conclusion from this conservative source: “Until recently the scale of the Permian Mass Extinction was seen as just too massive, its duration far too long, and dating too imprecise for a sensible comparison to be made with today’s climate change. No longer.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Dahr Jamail

Dahr Jamail, a Truthout staff reporter, is the author of The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, (Haymarket Books, 2009), and Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from Iraq for more than a year, as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last ten years, and has won the Martha Gellhorn Award for Investigative Journalism, among other awards.

 

How to Destroy A Planet Without Really Trying: Humanity’s Path To Disaster

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2013 at 8:25 pm

Oil Refinery.Oldspeak: “So, at one extreme you have indigenous, tribal societies trying to stem the race to disaster.  At the other extreme, the richest, most powerful societies in world history, like the United States and Canada, are racing full-speed ahead to destroy the environment as quickly as possible.  Unlike Ecuador, and indigenous societies throughout the world, they want to extract every drop of hydrocarbons from the ground with all possible speed. 

Both political parties, President Obama, the media, and the international press seem to be looking forward with great enthusiasm to what they call “a century of energy independence” for the United States.  Energy independence is an almost meaningless concept, but put that aside.  What they mean is: we’ll have a century in which to maximize the use of fossil fuels and contribute to destroying the world.

And that’s pretty much the case everywhere.” – Noam Chomsky

It didn’t take long.  In the immediate aftermath of the dropping of the “victory weapon,” the atomic bomb, on two Japanese cities in August 1945, American fears and fantasies ran wild.  Almost immediately, Americans began to reconceive themselves as potential victims of the bomb.  In the scenarios of destruction that would populate newspapers, magazines, radio shows, and private imaginations, our cities were ringed with concentric circles of destruction and up to 10 million people in the U.S. and tens of millions elsewhere died horribly in a few days of imagined battle.  Even victory, when it came in those first post-war years of futuristic dreams of destruction, had the look of defeat.  And the two wartime American stories — of triumphalism beyond imagining and ashes — turned out to be incapable of cohabiting in the same forms.  So the bomb fled the war movie (where it essentially never made an appearance) for the sci-fi flick in which stand-ins of every sort — alien superweapons and radioactive reptilian and other mutant monsters — destroyed the planet, endangered humanity, and pursued the young into every drive-in movie theater in the country.

As late as 1995, those two stories, the triumphalist end of “the Good War” and the disastrous beginning of the atomic age, still couldn’t inhabit the same space.  In that 50th anniversary year, a planned exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum that was supposed to pair the gleaming fuselage of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that carried the first atomic bomb to Hiroshima, with the caramelized remains of a schoolchild’s lunchbox (“No trace of Reiko Watanabe was ever found”) would be cancelled.  The outrage from veterans’ groups and the Republican right was just too much, the discomfort still too strong.

Until 1945, of course, the apocalypse had been the property of the Bible, and “end times” the province of God (and perhaps a budding branch of pulp lit called science fiction), but not of humanity.  Since then, it’s been ours, and as it turned out, we were acting apocalyptically in ways that weren’t apparent in 1945, that weren’t attached to a single wonder weapon, and that remain difficult to grasp and even deal with now.  With that in mind, and with thanks to Javier Navarro, we have adapted a video interview done with TomDispatch regular Noam Chomsky by What, the association Navarro helped to found.  Reworked by Chomsky himself, it offers his thoughts on a perilous future that is distinctly in our hands. ” –Tom Engelhardt

Our Grand Era Of “Savage Capitalism” will come to an end. Whether we like it or not. It’s not a matter of if but when. Get Apocalyptic.

By Noam Chomsky @ Tomsdispatch:

What is the future likely to bring?  A reasonable stance might be to try to look at the human species from the outside.  So imagine that you’re an extraterrestrial observer who is trying to figure out what’s happening here or, for that matter, imagine you’re an historian 100 years from now — assuming there are any historians 100 years from now, which is not obvious — and you’re looking back at what’s happening today.  You’d see something quite remarkable.

For the first time in the history of the human species, we have clearly developed the capacity to destroy ourselves.  That’s been true since 1945.  It’s now being finally recognized that there are more long-term processes like environmental destruction leading in the same direction, maybe not to total destruction, but at least to the destruction of the capacity for a decent existence.

And there are other dangers like pandemics, which have to do with globalization and interaction.  So there are processes underway and institutions right in place, like nuclear weapons systems, which could lead to a serious blow to, or maybe the termination of, an organized existence.

How to Destroy a Planet Without Really Trying

The question is: What are people doing about it?  None of this is a secret.  It’s all perfectly open.  In fact, you have to make an effort not to see it.

There have been a range of reactions.  There are those who are trying hard to do something about these threats, and others who are acting to escalate them.  If you look at who they are, this future historian or extraterrestrial observer would see something strange indeed.  Trying to mitigate or overcome these threats are the least developed societies, the indigenous populations, or the remnants of them, tribal societies and first nations in Canada.  They’re not talking about nuclear war but environmental disaster, and they’re really trying to do something about it.

In fact, all over the world — Australia, India, South America — there are battles going on, sometimes wars.  In India, it’s a major war over direct environmental destruction, with tribal societies trying to resist resource extraction operations that are extremely harmful locally, but also in their general consequences.  In societies where indigenous populations have an influence, many are taking a strong stand.  The strongest of any country with regard to global warming is in Bolivia, which has an indigenous majority and constitutional requirements that protect the “rights of nature.”

Ecuador, which also has a large indigenous population, is the only oil exporter I know of where the government is seeking aid to help keep that oil in the ground, instead of producing and exporting it — and the ground is where it ought to be.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died recently and was the object of mockery, insult, and hatred throughout the Western world, attended a session of the U.N. General Assembly a few years ago where he elicited all sorts of ridicule for calling George W. Bush a devil.  He also gave a speech there that was quite interesting.  Of course, Venezuela is a major oil producer.  Oil is practically their whole gross domestic product.  In that speech, he warned of the dangers of the overuse of fossil fuels and urged producer and consumer countries to get together and try to work out ways to reduce fossil fuel use.  That was pretty amazing on the part of an oil producer.  You know, he was part Indian, of indigenous background.  Unlike the funny things he did, this aspect of his actions at the U.N. was never even reported.

So, at one extreme you have indigenous, tribal societies trying to stem the race to disaster.  At the other extreme, the richest, most powerful societies in world history, like the United States and Canada, are racing full-speed ahead to destroy the environment as quickly as possible.  Unlike Ecuador, and indigenous societies throughout the world, they want to extract every drop of hydrocarbons from the ground with all possible speed.

Both political parties, President Obama, the media, and the international press seem to be looking forward with great enthusiasm to what they call “a century of energy independence” for the United States.  Energy independence is an almost meaningless concept, but put that aside.  What they mean is: we’ll have a century in which to maximize the use of fossil fuels and contribute to destroying the world.

And that’s pretty much the case everywhere.  Admittedly, when it comes to alternative energy development, Europe is doing something.  Meanwhile, the United States, the richest and most powerful country in world history, is the only nation among perhaps 100 relevant ones that doesn’t have a national policy for restricting the use of fossil fuels, that doesn’t even have renewable energy targets.  It’s not because the population doesn’t want it.  Americans are pretty close to the international norm in their concern about global warming.  It’s institutional structures that block change.  Business interests don’t want it and they’re overwhelmingly powerful in determining policy, so you get a big gap between opinion and policy on lots of issues, including this one.

So that’s what the future historian — if there is one — would see.  He might also read today’s scientific journals.  Just about every one you open has a more dire prediction than the last.

“The Most Dangerous Moment in History”

The other issue is nuclear war.  It’s been known for a long time that if there were to be a first strike by a major power, even with no retaliation, it would probably destroy civilization just because of the nuclear-winter consequences that would follow.  You can read about it in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.  It’s well understood.  So the danger has always been a lot worse than we thought it was.

We’ve just passed the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was called “the most dangerous moment in history” by historian Arthur Schlesinger, President John F. Kennedy’s advisor.  Which it was.  It was a very close call, and not the only time either.  In some ways, however, the worst aspect of these grim events is that the lessons haven’t been learned.

What happened in the missile crisis in October 1962 has been prettified to make it look as if acts of courage and thoughtfulness abounded.  The truth is that the whole episode was almost insane.  There was a point, as the missile crisis was reaching its peak, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wrote to Kennedy offering to settle it by a public announcement of a withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba and U.S. missiles from Turkey.  Actually, Kennedy hadn’t even known that the U.S. had missiles in Turkey at the time.  They were being withdrawn anyway, because they were being replaced by more lethal Polaris nuclear submarines, which were invulnerable.

So that was the offer.  Kennedy and his advisors considered it — and rejected it.  At the time, Kennedy himself was estimating the likelihood of nuclear war at a third to a half.  So Kennedy was willing to accept a very high risk of massive destruction in order to establish the principle that we — and only we — have the right to offensive missiles beyond our borders, in fact anywhere we like, no matter what the risk to others — and to ourselves, if matters fall out of control. We have that right, but no one else does.

Kennedy did, however, accept a secret agreement to withdraw the missiles the U.S. was already withdrawing, as long as it was never made public.  Khrushchev, in other words, had to openly withdraw the Russian missiles while the U.S. secretly withdrew its obsolete ones; that is, Khrushchev had to be humiliated and Kennedy had to maintain his macho image.  He’s greatly praised for this: courage and coolness under threat, and so on.  The horror of his decisions is not even mentioned — try to find it on the record.

And to add a little more, a couple of months before the crisis blew up the United States had sent missiles with nuclear warheads to Okinawa.  These were aimed at China during a period of great regional tension.

Well, who cares?  We have the right to do anything we want anywhere in the world.  That was one grim lesson from that era, but there were others to come.

Ten years after that, in 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called a high-level nuclear alert.  It was his way of warning the Russians not to interfere in the ongoing Israel-Arab war and, in particular, not to interfere after he had informed the Israelis that they could violate a ceasefire the U.S. and Russia had just agreed upon.  Fortunately, nothing happened.

Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan was in office.  Soon after he entered the White House, he and his advisors had the Air Force start penetrating Russian air space to try to elicit information about Russian warning systems, Operation Able Archer.  Essentially, these were mock attacks.  The Russians were uncertain, some high-level officials fearing that this was a step towards a real first strike.  Fortunately, they didn’t react, though it was a close call.  And it goes on like that.

What to Make of the Iranian and North Korean Nuclear Crises

At the moment, the nuclear issue is regularly on front pages in the cases of North Korea and Iran.  There are ways to deal with these ongoing crises.  Maybe they wouldn’t work, but at least you could try.  They are, however, not even being considered, not even reported.

Take the case of Iran, which is considered in the West — not in the Arab world, not in Asia — the gravest threat to world peace.  It’s a Western obsession, and it’s interesting to look into the reasons for it, but I’ll put that aside here.  Is there a way to deal with the supposed gravest threat to world peace?  Actually there are quite a few.  One way, a pretty sensible one, was proposed a couple of months ago at a meeting of the non-aligned countries in Tehran.  In fact, they were just reiterating a proposal that’s been around for decades, pressed particularly by Egypt, and has been approved by the U.N. General Assembly.

The proposal is to move toward establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region.  That wouldn’t be the answer to everything, but it would be a pretty significant step forward.  And there were ways to proceed.  Under U.N. auspices, there was to be an international conference in Finland last December to try to implement plans to move toward this.  What happened?

You won’t read about it in the newspapers because it wasn’t reported — only in specialist journals.  In early November, Iran agreed to attend the meeting.  A couple of days later Obama cancelled the meeting, saying the time wasn’t right.  The European Parliament issued a statement calling for it to continue, as did the Arab states.  Nothing resulted.  So we’ll move toward ever-harsher sanctions against the Iranian population — it doesn’t hurt the regime — and maybe war. Who knows what will happen?

In Northeast Asia, it’s the same sort of thing.  North Korea may be the craziest country in the world.  It’s certainly a good competitor for that title.  But it does make sense to try to figure out what’s in the minds of people when they’re acting in crazy ways.  Why would they behave the way they do?  Just imagine ourselves in their situation.  Imagine what it meant in the Korean War years of the early 1950s for your country to be totally leveled, everything destroyed by a huge superpower, which furthermore was gloating about what it was doing.  Imagine the imprint that would leave behind.

Bear in mind that the North Korean leadership is likely to have read the public military journals of this superpower at that time explaining that, since everything else in North Korea had been destroyed, the air force was sent to destroy North Korea’s dams, huge dams that controlled the water supply — a war crime, by the way, for which people were hanged in Nuremberg.   And these official journals were talking excitedly about how wonderful it was to see the water pouring down, digging out the valleys, and the Asians scurrying around trying to survive.  The journals were exulting in what this meant to those “Asians,” horrors beyond our imagination.  It meant the destruction of their rice crop, which in turn meant starvation and death.  How magnificent!  It’s not in our memory, but it’s in their memory.

Let’s turn to the present.  There’s an interesting recent history.  In 1993, Israel and North Korea were moving towards an agreement in which North Korea would stop sending any missiles or military technology to the Middle East and Israel would recognize that country.  President Clinton intervened and blocked it.  Shortly after that, in retaliation, North Korea carried out a minor missile test.  The U.S. and North Korea did then reach a framework agreement in 1994 that halted its nuclear work and was more or less honored by both sides.  When George W. Bush came into office, North Korea had maybe one nuclear weapon and verifiably wasn’t producing any more.

Bush immediately launched his aggressive militarism, threatening North Korea — “axis of evil” and all that — so North Korea got back to work on its nuclear program.  By the time Bush left office, they had eight to 10 nuclear weapons and a missile system, another great neocon achievement.  In between, other things happened.  In 2005, the U.S. and North Korea actually reached an agreement in which North Korea was to end all nuclear weapons and missile development.  In return, the West, but mainly the United States, was to provide a light-water reactor for its medical needs and end aggressive statements.  They would then form a nonaggression pact and move toward accommodation.

It was pretty promising, but almost immediately Bush undermined it.  He withdrew the offer of the light-water reactor and initiated programs to compel banks to stop handling any North Korean transactions, even perfectly legal ones.  The North Koreans reacted by reviving their nuclear weapons program.  And that’s the way it’s been going.

It’s well known.  You can read it in straight, mainstream American scholarship.  What they say is: it’s a pretty crazy regime, but it’s also following a kind of tit-for-tat policy.  You make a hostile gesture and we’ll respond with some crazy gesture of our own.  You make an accommodating gesture and we’ll reciprocate in some way.

Lately, for instance, there have been South Korean-U.S. military exercises on the Korean peninsula which, from the North’s point of view, have got to look threatening.  We’d think they were threatening if they were going on in Canada and aimed at us.  In the course of these, the most advanced bombers in history, Stealth B-2s and B-52s, are carrying out simulated nuclear bombing attacks right on North Korea’s borders.

This surely sets off alarm bells from the past.  They remember that past, so they’re reacting in a very aggressive, extreme way.  Well, what comes to the West from all this is how crazy and how awful the North Korean leaders are.  Yes, they are.  But that’s hardly the whole story, and this is the way the world is going.

It’s not that there are no alternatives.  The alternatives just aren’t being taken. That’s dangerous.  So if you ask what the world is going to look like, it’s not a pretty picture.  Unless people do something about it.  We always can.

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus in the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.  A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of numerous best-selling political works, including Hopes and Prospects, Making the Future, and most recently (with interviewer David Barsamian), Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books).

[Note: This piece was adapted (with the help of Noam Chomsky) from an online video interview done by the website What, which is dedicated to integrating knowledge from different fields with the aim of encouraging the balance between the individual, society, and the environment.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

 

Time To Get Apocalyptic: Why Radical Is The New Normal

In Uncategorized on May 30, 2013 at 10:29 am

A protest in support of Tim DeChristopher, Bidder 70, in February, 2011.

Oldspeak: “When people believe injustice is necessary to maintain their material comfort, some accept those conditions without complaint.” –Robert Jensen. This for me is the crux of the problem facing our civilization. Our ecocidal and reality-detached attachment to maintaining material comfort at all costs.  It is just as Professor Jensen said: “The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social norms and illegitimate authority… to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: The high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end.” How do people with critical sensibilities get those engaging the dysfunctional denial; pill popping, conspicuous consumption & positivity peddling that our dominant culture is enveloping us in to deal with the reality that bigger is not  better. That greed is not good. That ever “MORE” is not sustainable.  To recognize and accept as reality that “we now live in a time of permanent contraction—there will be less, not more, of everything.” To reject the existing systems of power predicated on extraction, growth, profit, & externalizing, and consider sustainable, inclusive, and collaborative, mutually beneficial systems. Agitate. Resist. Engage. Question. Confront. Speak truth to power and anyone you encounter every chance you get. It will be hard. You’ll probably lose some friends and acquaintances over it. We’ve been thoroughly indoctrinated to obey, to accept injustice and illegitimate authority. We’ve been led to believe that our technology is and will make everything better. Explode the official myths with reality based critical thought. The more and more people do this, the less power we give to dominant cultures and their attendant institutions. The more and more people “unplug” the weaker these unsustainable systems become. Your actions will inspire others to lift the world that has been pulled over their eyes to blind them from the truth. Be water, my friends.”

By Robert Jensen @ YES! Magazine:

Feeling anxious about life in a broken-down society on a stressed-out planet? That’s hardly surprising: Life as we know it is almost over. While the dominant culture encourages dysfunctional denial—pop a pill, go shopping, find your bliss—there’s a more sensible approach: Accept the anxiety, embrace the deeper anguish—and then get apocalyptic.

We are staring down multiple cascading ecological crises, struggling with political and economic institutions that are unable even to acknowledge, let alone cope with, the threats to the human family and the larger living world. We are intensifying an assault on the ecosystems in which we live, undermining the ability of that living world to sustain a large-scale human presence into the future. When all the world darkens, looking on the bright side is not a virtue but a sign of irrationality.

In these circumstances, anxiety is rational and anguish is healthy, signs not of weakness but of courage. A deep grief over what we are losing—and have already lost, perhaps never to be recovered—is appropriate. Instead of repressing these emotions we can confront them, not as isolated individuals but collectively, not only for our own mental health but to increase the effectiveness of our organizing for the social justice and ecological sustainability still within our grasp. Once we’ve sorted through those reactions, we can get apocalyptic and get down to our real work.

Perhaps that sounds odd, since we are routinely advised to overcome our fears and not give in to despair. Endorsing apocalypticism seems even stranger, given associations with “end-timer” religious reactionaries and “doomer” secular survivalists. People with critical sensibilities, those concerned about justice and sustainability, think of ourselves as realistic and less likely to fall for either theological or science-fiction fantasies.

Many associate “apocalypse” with the rapture-ranting that grows out of some interpretations of the Christian Book of Revelation (aka, the Apocalypse of John), but it’s helpful to remember that the word’s original meaning is not “end of the world.” “Revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden, a coming to clarity. Speaking apocalyptically, in this sense, can deepen our understanding of the crises and help us see through the many illusions that powerful people and institutions create.

But there is an ending we have to confront. Once we’ve honestly faced the crises, then we can deal with what is ending—not all the world, but the systems that currently structure our lives. Life as we know it is, indeed, coming to an end.

Let’s start with the illusions: Some stories we have told ourselves—claims by white people, men, or U.S. citizens that domination is natural and appropriate—are relatively easy to debunk (though many cling to them). Other delusional assertions—such as the claim that capitalism is compatible with basic moral principles, meaningful democracy, and ecological sustainability—require more effort to take apart (perhaps because there seems to be no alternative).

But toughest to dislodge may be the central illusion of the industrial world’s extractive economy: that we can maintain indefinitely a large-scale human presence on the earth at something like current First-World levels of consumption. The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social norms and illegitimate authority, but to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: The high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end. We can’t predict with precision how resource competition and ecological degradation will play out in the coming decades, but it is ecocidal to treat the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump.

We cannot know for sure what time the party will end, but the party’s over.

Does that seem histrionic? Excessively alarmist? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and reduction of biodiversity—and ask a simple question: Where are we heading?

Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a major reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds daily life. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy,” using ever more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountaintop coal removal, tar sands extraction).

Oh, did I forget to mention the undeniable trajectory of global warming/climate change/climate disruption?

Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing Earth beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” which means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”

That conclusion is the product of science and common sense, not supernatural beliefs or conspiracy theories. The political/social implications are clear: There are no solutions to our problems if we insist on maintaining the high-energy/high-technology existence lived in much of the industrialized world (and desired by many currently excluded from it). Many tough-minded folk who are willing to challenge other oppressive systems hold on tightly to this lifestyle. The critic Fredric Jameson has written, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” but that’s only part of the problem—for some, it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning. We do live in end-times, of a sort. Not the end of the world—the planet will carry on with or without us—but the end of the human systems that structure our politics, economics, and social life. “Apocalypse” need not involve heavenly rescue fantasies or tough-guy survival talk; to get apocalyptic means seeing clearly and recommitting to core values.

First, we must affirm the value of our work for justice and sustainability, even though there is no guarantee we can change the disastrous course of contemporary society. We take on projects that we know may fail because it’s the right thing to do, and by doing so we create new possibilities for ourselves and the world. Just as we all know that someday we will die and yet still get out of bed every day, an honest account of planetary reality need not paralyze us.

Then let’s abandon worn-out clichés such as, “The American people will do the right thing if they know the truth,” or “Past social movements prove the impossible can happen.”

There is no evidence that awareness of injustice will automatically lead U.S. citizens, or anyone else, to correct it. When people believe injustice is necessary to maintain their material comfort, some accept those conditions without complaint.

Social movements around race, gender, and sexuality have been successful in changing oppressive laws and practices, and to a lesser degree in shifting deeply held beliefs. But the movements we most often celebrate, such as the post-World War II civil rights struggle, operated in a culture that assumed continuing economic expansion. We now live in a time of permanent contraction—there will be less, not more, of everything. Pressuring a dominant group to surrender some privileges when there is an expectation of endless bounty is a very different project than when there is intensified competition for resources. That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to advance justice and sustainability, only that we should not be glib about the inevitability of it.

Here’s another cliché to jettison: Necessity is the mother of invention. During the industrial era, humans exploiting new supplies of concentrated energy have generated unprecedented technological innovation in a brief time. But there is no guarantee that there are technological fixes to all our problems; we live in a system that has physical limits, and the evidence suggests we are close to those limits. Technological fundamentalism—the quasi-religious belief that the use of advanced technology is always appropriate, and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences can be remedied by more technology—is as empty a promise as other fundamentalisms.

If all this seems like more than one can bear, it’s because it is. We are facing new, more expansive challenges. Never in human history have potential catastrophes been so global; never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time; never have we had so much information about the threats we must come to terms with.

It’s easy to cover up our inability to face this by projecting it onto others. When someone tells me “I agree with your assessment, but people can’t handle it,” I assume what that person really means is, “I can’t handle it.” But handling it is, in the end, the only sensible choice.

Mainstream politicians will continue to protect existing systems of power, corporate executives will continue to maximize profit without concern, and the majority of people will continue to avoid these questions. It’s the job of people with critical sensibilities—those who consistently speak out for justice and sustainability, even when it’s difficult—not to back away just because the world has grown more ominous.

Adopting this apocalyptic framework doesn’t mean separating from mainstream society or giving up ongoing projects that seek a more just world within existing systems. I am a professor at a university that does not share my values or analysis, yet I continue to teach. In my community, I am part of a group that helps people create worker-cooperatives that will operate within a capitalist system that I believe to be a dead end. I belong to a congregation that struggles to radicalize Christianity while remaining part of a cautious, often cowardly, denomination.

I am apocalyptic, but I’m not interested in empty rhetoric drawn from past revolutionary moments. Yes, we need a revolution—many revolutions—but a strategy is not yet clear. So, as we work patiently on reformist projects, we can continue to offer a radical analysis and experiment with new ways of working together. While engaged in education and community organizing with modest immediate goals, we can contribute to the strengthening of networks and institutions that can be the base for the more radical change we need. In these spaces today we can articulate, and live, the values of solidarity and equity that are always essential.

To adopt an apocalyptic worldview is not to abandon hope but to affirm life. As James Baldwin put it decades ago, we must remember “that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.” By avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe, we undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability.

As Baldwin put it so poignantly in that same 1962 essay, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

It’s time to get apocalyptic, or get out of the way.

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (City Lights, 2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online here

Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online here.

Water Scarcity: A Widening Global Emergency & The Coming Water Wars

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Oldspeak: “The wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.” –Ismail Serageldin.A comprehensive report from the global conservation organization WWF, released August 16, details how the looming water crisis is now affecting rich countries as well as poor. Global warming, diminishing wetlands, and inadequate resource management are the main causes of expanding water shortages worldwide, according to the group.” As water scarcity grows worldwide, mighty rivers to tiny streams dry up. We continue unabated to expand our obviously unsustainable use of water intensive and contaminating production of our food and energy. While 40% of the world population lives with little or no access to clean water (expected to jump to 50% in 12 years).  Investors are positioning themselves to profit from water shortages and the water purification technology that will be come essential. This is seen as normal and sound business in a civilization animated by greed and exploitation. Cannibal capitalism is that particularly vicious and vampiristic form of capitalism that encourages greed, austerity, prefers gambling to investing and advances the economic interest of the top 00.1% at the expense of all others.  At what point will we shift our priorities from manufactured crises like “The Sequester”, “The Debt Ceiling”, “Entitlement Spending” and “Crises of Confidence” to actual existential crises, threatening our water, soil, air and environment?

By Doug Hornig & Alex Daley @ Casey Research:

Water is not scarce. It is made up of the first and third most common elements in the universe, and the two readily react to form a highly stable compound that maintains its integrity even at temperature extremes.

Hydrologist Dr. Vincent Kotwicki, in his paper Water in the Universe, writes:

“Water appears to be one of the most abundant molecules in the Universe. It dominates the environment of the Earth and is a main constituent of numerous planets, moons and comets. On a far greater scale, it possibly contributes to the so-called ‘missing mass’ [i.e., dark matter] of the Universe and may initiate the birth of stars inside the giant molecular clouds.”

Oxygen has been found in the newly discovered “cooling flows” – heavy rains of gas that appear to be falling into galaxies from the space once thought empty surrounding them, giving rise to yet more water.

How much is out there? No one can even take a guess, since no one knows the composition of the dark matter that makes up as much as 90% of the mass of the universe. If comets, which are mostly ice, are a large constituent of dark matter, then, as Dr. Kotwicki writes, “the remote uncharted (albeit mostly frozen) oceans are truly unimaginably big.”

Back home, Earth is often referred to as the “water planet,” and it certainly looks that way from space. H2O covers about 70% of the surface of the globe. It makes all life as we know it possible.

The Blue Planet?

However it got here – theories abound from outgassing of volcanic eruptions to deposits by passing comets and ancient crossed orbits – water is what gives our planet its lovely, unique blue tint, and there appears to be quite a lot of it.

That old axiom that the earth is 75% water… not quite. In reality, water constitutes only 0.07% of the earth by mass, or 0.4% by volume.

This is how much we have, depicted graphically:

Credit: Howard Perlman, USGS; globe illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution (©); Adam Nieman.

What this shows is the relative size of our water supply if it were all gathered together into a ball and superimposed on the globe.

The large blob, centered over the western US, is all water (oceans, icecaps, glaciers, lakes, rivers, groundwater, and water in the atmosphere). It’s a sphere about 860 miles in diameter, or roughly the distance from Salt Lake City to Topeka. The smaller sphere, over Kentucky, is the fresh water in the ground and in lakes, rivers, and swamps.

Now examine the image closely. See that last, tiny dot over Georgia? It’s the fresh water in lakes and rivers.

Looked at another way, that ball of all the water in the world represents a total volume of about 332.5 million cubic miles. But of this, 321 million mi3, or 96.5%, is saline – great for fish, but undrinkable without the help of nature or some serious hardware. That still leaves a good bit of fresh water, some 11.6 million mi3, to play with. Unfortunately, the bulk of that is locked up in icecaps, glaciers, and permanent snow, or is too far underground to be accessible with today’s technology. (The numbers come from the USGS; obviously, they are estimates and they change a bit every year, but they are accurate enough for our purposes.)

Accessible groundwater amounts to 5.614 million mi3, with 55% of that saline, leaving a little over 2.5 million mi3 of fresh groundwater. That translates to about 2.7 exa-gallons of fresh water, or about 2.7 billion billion gallons (yes billions of billions, or 1018 in scientific notation), which is about a third of a billion gallons of water per person. Enough to take a long shower every day for many lifetimes…

However, not all of that groundwater is easily or cheaply accessible. The truth is that the surface is the source for the vast majority – nearly 80% – of our water. Of surface waters, lakes hold 42,320 mi3, only a bit over half of which is fresh, and the world’s rivers hold only 509 mi3 of fresh water, less than 2/10,000 of 1% of the planetary total.

And that’s where the problem lies. In 2005 in the US alone, we humans used about 328 billion gallons of surface water per day, compared to about 83 billion gallons per day of water from the ground. Most of that surface water, by far, comes from rivers. Among these, one of the most important is the mighty Colorado.

Horseshoe Bend, in Page, AZ. (AP Photo)

Tapping Ol’ Man River

Or perhaps we should say “the river formerly known as the mighty Colorado.” That old Colorado – the one celebrated in centuries of American Western song and folklore; the one that exposed two billion years of geologic history in the awesome Grand Canyon – is gone. In its place is… well, Las Vegas – the world’s gaudiest monument to hubristic human overreach, and a big neon sign advertising the predicament now faced by much of the world.

It’s well to remember that most of the US west of the Mississippi ranges from relatively dry to very arid, to desert, to lifeless near-moonscapes. The number of people that could be supported by the land, especially in the Southwest, was always small and concentrated along the riverbanks. Tribal clusters died out with some regularity. And that’s the way it would have remained, except for a bit of ingenuity that suddenly loosed two powerful forces on the area: electrical power, and an abundance of water that seemed as limitless as the sky.

In September of 1935, President Roosevelt dedicated the pinnacle of engineering technology up to that point: Hoover Dam. The dam did two things. It served as a massive hydroelectric generating plant, and it backed up the Colorado River behind it, creating Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country.

Early visitors dubbed Hoover Dam the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” and it’s easy to see why. It was built on a scale unlike anything before it. It’s 725 feet high and contains 6 million tons of concrete, which would pave a road from New York to Los Angeles. Its 19 generators produce 2,080 MW of electricity, enough to power 1.75 million average homes.

The artificially created Lake Mead is 112 miles long, with a maximum depth of 590 feet. It has a surface area of 250 square miles and an active capacity of 16 million acre-feet.

Hoover Dam was intended to generate sufficient power and impound an ample amount of water, to meet any conceivable need. But as things turned out, grand as the dam is, it wasn’t conceived grandly enough… because it is 35 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada.

Vegas had a permanent population in 1935 of 8,400, a number that swelled to 25,000 during the dam construction as workers raced in to take jobs that were scarce in the early Depression years. Those workers, primarily single men, needed something to do with their spare time, so the Nevada state legislature legalized gambling in 1931. Modern Vegas was born.

The rise of Vegas is well chronicled, from a middle-of-nowhere town to the largest city founded in the 20th century and the fastest-growing in the nation – up until the 2008 housing bust. Somehow, those 8,400 souls turned into a present population of over 2 million that exists all but entirely to service the 40 million tourists who visit annually. And all this is happening in a desert that sees an average of 10 days of measurable rainfall per year, totaling about 4 inches.

In order to run all those lights, fountains, and revolving stages, Las Vegas requires 5,600 MW of electricity on a summer day. Did you notice that that’s more than 2.5 times what the giant Hoover Dam can put out? Not to mention that those 42 million people need a lot of water to drink to stay properly hydrated in the 100+ degree heat. And it all comes from Lake Mead.

So what do you think is happening to the lake?

If your guess was, “it’s shrinking,” you’re right. The combination of recent drought years in the West and rapidly escalating demand has been a dire double-whammy, reducing the lake to 40% full. Normally, the elevation of Lake Mead is 1,219 feet. Today, it’s at 1,086 feet and dropping by ten feet a year (and accelerating). That’s how much more water is being taken out than is being replenished.

This is science at its simplest. If your extraction of a renewable resource exceeds its ability to recharge itself, it will disappear – end of story. In the case of Lake Mead, that means going dry, an eventuality to which hydrologists assign a 50% probability in the next twelve years. That’s by 2025.

Nevadans are not unaware of this. There is at the moment a frantic push to get approval for a massive pipeline project designed to bring in water from the more favored northern part of the state. Yet even if the pipeline were completed in time, and there is stiff opposition to it (and you thought only oil pipelines gave way to politics and protests), that would only resolve one issue. There’s another. A big one.

Way before people run out of drinking water, something else happens: When Lake Mead falls below 1,050 feet, the Hoover Dam’s turbines shut down – less than four years from now, if the current trend holds – and in Vegas the lights start going out.

What Doesn’t Stay in Vegas

Ominously, these water woes are not confined to Las Vegas. Under contracts signed by President Obama in December 2011, Nevada gets only 23.37% of the electricity generated by the Hoover Dam. The other top recipients: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (28.53%); state of Arizona (18.95%); city of Los Angeles (15.42%); and Southern California Edison (5.54%).

You can always build more power plants, but you can’t build more rivers, and the mighty Colorado carries the lifeblood of the Southwest. It services the water needs of an area the size of France, in which live 40 million people. In its natural state, the river poured 15.7 million acre-feet of water into the Gulf of California each year. Today, twelve years of drought have reduced the flow to about 12 million acre-feet, and human demand siphons off every bit of it; at its mouth, the riverbed is nothing but dust.

Nor is the decline in the water supply important only to the citizens of Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. It’s critical to the whole country. The Colorado is the sole source of water for southeastern California’s Imperial Valley, which has been made into one of the most productive agricultural areas in the US despite receiving an average of three inches of rain per year.

The Valley is fed by an intricate system consisting of 1,400 miles of canals and 1,100 miles of pipeline. They are the only reason a bone-dry desert can look like this:

Intense conflicts over water will probably not be confined to the developing world. So far, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado have been able to make and keep agreements defining who gets how much of the Colorado River’s water. But if populations continue to grow while the snowcap recedes, it’s likely that the first shots will be fired before long, in US courtrooms. If legal remedies fail… a war between Phoenix and LA might seem far-fetched, but at the minimum some serious upheaval will eventually ensue unless an alternative is found quickly.

A Litany of Crises

Water scarcity is, of course, not just a domestic issue. It is far more critical in other parts of the world than in the US. It will decide the fate of people and of nations.

Worldwide, we are using potable water way faster than it can be replaced. Just a few examples:

  • The legendary Jordan River is flowing at only 2% of its historic rate.
  • In Africa, desertification is proceeding at an alarming rate. Much of the northern part of the continent is already desert, of course. But beyond that, a US Department of Agriculture study places about 2.5 million km2 of African land at low risk of desertification, 3.6 million km2 at moderate risk, 4.6 million km2 at high risk, and 2.9 million km2 at very high risk. “The region that has the highest propensity,” the report says, “is located along the desert margins and occupies about 5% of the land mass. It is estimated that about 22 million people (2.9% of the total population) live in this area.”
  • A 2009 study published in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate analyzed 925 major rivers from 1948 to 2004 and found an overall decline in total discharge. The reduction in inflow to the Pacific Ocean alone was about equal to shutting off the Mississippi River. The list of rivers that serve large human populations and experienced a significant decline in flow includes the Amazon, Congo, Chang Jiang (Yangtze), Mekong, Ganges, Irrawaddy, Amur, Mackenzie, Xijiang, Columbia, and Niger.

Supply is not the only issue. There’s also potability. Right now, 40% of the global population has little to no access to clean water, and despite somewhat tepid modernization efforts, that figure is actually expected to jump to 50% by 2025. When there’s no clean water, people will drink dirty water – water contaminated with human and animal waste. And that breeds illness. It’s estimated that fully half of the world’s hospital beds today are occupied by people with water-borne diseases.

Food production is also a major contributor to water pollution. To take two examples:

  • The “green revolution” has proven to have an almost magical ability to provide food for an ever-increasing global population, but at a cost. Industrial cultivation is extremely water intensive, with 80% of most US states’ water usage going to agriculture – and in some, it’s as high as 90%. In addition, factory farming uses copious amounts of fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides, creating serious problems for the water supply because of toxic runoff.
  • Modern livestock facilities – known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – create enormous quantities of animal waste that is pumped into holding ponds. From there, some of it inevitably seeps into the groundwater, and the rest eventually has to be dumped somewhere. Safe disposal practices are often not followed, and regulatory oversight is lax. As a result, adjacent communities’ drinking water can come to contain dangerously high levels of E. coli bacteria and other harmful organisms.

Not long ago, scientists discovered a whole new category of pollutants that no one had previously thought to test for: drugs. We are a nation of pill poppers and needle freaks, and the drugs we introduce into our bodies are only partially absorbed. The remainder is excreted and finds its way into the water supply. Samples recently taken from Lake Mead revealed detectable levels of birth control medication, steroids, and narcotics… which people and wildlife are drinking.

Most lethal of all are industrial pollutants that continue to find their way into the water supply. The carcinogenic effects of these compounds have been well documented, as the movie-famed Erin Brockovich did with hexavalent chromium.

But the problem didn’t go away with Brockovich’s court victory. The sad fact is that little has changed for the better. In the US, our feeble attempt to deal with these threats was the passage in 1980 of the so-called Superfund Act. That law gave the federal government – and specifically the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – the authority to respond to chemical emergencies and to clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous-waste sites on both private and public lands. And it supposedly provided money to do so.

How’s that worked out? According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), “After decades of spearheading restoration efforts in areas such as the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, improvements in these water bodies remain elusive … EPA continues to face the challenges posed by an aging wastewater infrastructure that results in billions of gallons of untreated sewage entering our nation’s water bodies … Lack of rapid water-testing methods and development of current water quality standards continue to be issues that EPA needs to address.”

Translation: the EPA hasn’t produced. How much of this is due to the typical drag of a government bureaucracy and how much to lack of funding is debatable. Whether there might be a better way to attack the problem is debatable. But what is not debatable is the magnitude of the problem stacking up, mostly unaddressed.

Just consider that the EPA has a backlog of 1,305 highly toxic Superfund cleanup sites on its to-do list, in every state in the union (except apparently North Dakota, in case you want to try to escape – though the proliferation of hydraulic fracking in that area may quickly change the map, according to some of its detractors – it’s a hotly debated assertion).

About 11 million people in the US, including 3-4 million children, live within one mile of a federal Superfund site. The health of all of them is at immediate risk, as is that of those living directly downstream.

We could go on about this for page after page. The situation is depressing, no question. And even more so is the fact that there’s little we can do about it. There is no technological quick fix.

Peak oil we can handle. We find new sources, we develop alternatives, and/or prices rise. It’s all but certain that by the time we actually run out of oil, we’ll already have shifted to something else.

But “peak water” is a different story. There are no new sources; what we have is what we have. Absent a profound climate change that turns the evaporation/rainfall hydrologic cycle much more to our advantage, there likely isn’t going to be enough to around.

As the biosphere continually adds more billions of humans (the UN projects there will be another 3.5 billion people on the planet, a greater than 50% increase, by 2050 before a natural plateau really starts to dampen growth), the demand for clean water has the potential to far outstrip dwindling supplies. If that comes to pass, the result will be catastrophic. People around the world are already suffering and dying en masse from lack of access to something drinkable… and the problems look poised to get worse long before they get better.

Searching for a Way Out

With a problem of this magnitude, there is no such thing as a comprehensive solution. Instead, it will have to be addressed by chipping away at the problem in a number of ways, which the world is starting to do.

With much water not located near population centers, transportation will have to be a major part of the solution. With oil, a complex system of pipelines, tankers, and trucking fleets has been erected, because it’s been profitable to do so. The commodity has a high intrinsic value. Water doesn’t – or at least hasn’t in most of the modern era’s developed economies – and thus delivery has been left almost entirely to gravity. Further, the construction of pipelines for water that doesn’t flow naturally means taking a vital resource from someone and giving it to someone else, a highly charged political and social issue that’s been known to lead to protest and even violence. But until we’ve piped all the snow down from Alaska to California, transportation will be high on the list of potential near term solutions, especially to individual supply crunches, just as it has been with energy.

Conservation measures may help too, at least in the developed world, though the typical lawn-watering restrictions will hardly make a dent. Real conservation will have to come from curtailing industrial uses like farming and fracking.

But these bandage solutions can only forestall the inevitable without other advances to address the problems. Thankfully, where there is a challenge, there are always technology innovators to help address it. It was wells and aqueducts that let civilization move from the riverbank inland, irrigation that made communal farming scale, and sewers and pipes that turned villages into cities, after all. And just as with the dawn of industrial water, entrepreneurs are developing some promising tech developments, too.

Given how much water we use today, there’s little doubt that conservation’s sibling, recycling, is going to be big. Microfiltration systems are very sophisticated and can produce recycled water that is near-distilled in quality. Large-scale production remains a challenge, as is the reluctance of people to drink something that was reclaimed from human waste or industrial runoff. But that might just require the right spokesperson. California believes so, in any case, as it forges ahead with its Porcelain Springs initiative. A company called APTwater has taken on the important task of purifying contaminated leachate water from landfills that would otherwise pollute the groundwater. This is simply using technology to accelerate the natural process of replenishment by using energy, but if it can be done at scale, we will eventually reach the point where trading oil or coal for clean drinking water makes economic sense. It’s already starting to in many places.

Inventor Dean Kamen of Segway fame has created the Slingshot, a water-purification machine that could be a lifesaver for small villages in more remote areas. The size of a dorm-room refrigerator, it can produce 250 gallons of water a day, using the same amount of energy it takes to run a hair dryer, provided by an engine that can burn just about anything (it’s been run on cow dung). The Slingshot is designed to be maintenance-free for at least five years.

Kamen says you can “stick the intake hose into anything wet – arsenic-laden water, salt water, the latrine, the holding tanks of a chemical waste treatment plant; really, anything wet – and the outflow is one hundred percent pure pharmaceutical-grade injectable water.”

That naturally presupposes there is something wet to tap into. But Coca-Cola, for one, is a believer. This September, Coke entered into a partnership with Kamen’s company, Deka Research, to distribute Slingshots in Africa and Latin America.

Ceramic filters are another, low-tech option for rural areas. Though clean water output is very modest, they’re better than nothing. The ability to decontaminate stormwater runoff would be a boon for cities, and AbTech Industries is producing a product to do just that.

In really arid areas, the only water present may be what’s held in the air. Is it possible to tap that source? “Yes,” say a couple of cutting-edge tech startups. Eole Water proposes to extract atmospheric moisture using a wind turbine. Another company, NBD Nano, has come up with a self-filling water bottle that mimics the Namib Desert beetle. Whether the technology is scalable to any significant degree remains to be seen.

And finally, what about seawater? There’s an abundance of that. If you ask a random sampling of folks in the street what we’re going to do about water shortages on a larger scale, most of them will answer, “desalination.” No problem. Well, yes problem.

Desalination (sometimes shortened to “desal”) plants are already widespread, and their output is ramping up rapidly. According to the International Desalination Association, in 2009 there were 14,451 desalination plants operating worldwide, producing about 60 million cubic meters of water per day. That figure rose to 68 million m3/day in 2010 and is expected to double to 120 million m3/day by 2020. That sounds impressive, but the stark reality is that it amounts to only around a quarter of one percent of global water consumption.

Boiling seawater and collecting the condensate has been practiced by sailors for nearly two millennia. The same basic principle is employed today, although it has been refined into a procedure called “multistage flash distillation,” in which the boiling is done at less than atmospheric pressure, thereby saving energy. This process accounts for 85% of all desalination worldwide. The remainder comes from “reverse osmosis,” which uses semipermeable membranes and pressure to separate salts from water.

The primary drawbacks to desal are that a plant obviously has to be located near the sea, and that it is an expensive, highly energy-intensive process. That’s why you find so many desal facilities where energy is cheap, in the oil-rich, water-poor nations of the Middle East. Making it work in California will be much more difficult without drastically raising the price of water. And Nevada? Out of luck. Improvements in the technology are bringing costs of production down, but the need for energy, and lots of it, isn’t going away. By way of illustration, suppose the US would like to satisfy half of its water needs through desalination. All other factors aside, meeting that goal would require the construction of more than 100 new electric power plants, each dedicated solely to that purpose, and each with a gigawatt of capacity.

Moving desalinated water from the ocean inland adds to the expense. The farther you have to transport it and the greater the elevation change, the less feasible it becomes. That makes desalination impractical for much of the world. Nevertheless, the biggest population centers tend to be clustered along coastlines, and demand is likely to drive water prices higher over time, making desal more cost-competitive. So it’s a cinch that the procedure will play a steadily increasing role in supplying the world’s coastal cities with water.

In other related developments, a small tech startup called NanOasis is working on a desalination process that employs carbon nanotubes. An innovative new project in Australia is demonstrating that food can be grown in the most arid of areas, with low energy input, using solar-desalinated seawater. It holds the promise of being very scalable at moderate cost.

The Future

This article barely scratches the surface of a very broad topic that has profound implications for the whole of humanity going forward. The World Bank’s Ismail Serageldin puts it succinctly: “The wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.”

There’s no doubt that this is a looming crisis we cannot avoid. Everyone has an interest in water. How quickly we respond to the challenges ahead is going to be a matter, literally, of life and death. Where we have choices at all, we had better make some good ones.

From an investment perspective, there are few ways at present to acquire shares in the companies that are doing research and development in the field. But you can expect that to change as technologies from some of these startups begin to hit the market, and as the economics of water begin to shift in response to the changing global landscape.

We’ll be keeping an eye out for the investment opportunities that are sure to be on the way.

While profit opportunities in companies working to solve the world’s water woes may not be imminent, there are plenty of ways to leverage technology to outsized gains right now. One of the best involves a technology so revolutionary, its impact could rival that of the printing press.