Monday, May 25, 2015

Heated Discussion

Climate change is one of the most maddeningly contentious issues of our times - maddening because it really shouldn't be any more controversial than whether owls exist. Of late I've been sidelined in an otherwise respectful online discussion by a couple of climate trolls. I know you're not supposed to feed them, but sometimes it can't be helped. 

I joined a Facebook community called "Remember the Silicon Valley Before It Was the Silicon Valley?" It's a lovely little group of folks indulging in deep nostalgia for my boyhood hometown, with posts like "Remember the old White Front department store? I used to bike over there to buy ten-cent candies with my brother" and so on. 


One day some dude posted a photo of a row of six-story apartment buildings in Santa Clara, noting "how sad" it was that there was high-density housing in our valley. It was creepy, he said, like some "alien land." And so I said: "On the contrary. Ordinary people can't afford to live there anymore. We need high density housing so teachers and policemen and nurses can live there. Density makes transit more efficient and walkable neighborhoods are good for the planet." 



And then we were off to the races. You would think I had proposed massive rows of kitten guillotines in every shopping mall. 

I was told that density is not good for the planet because it increases the number of people in a given parcel of land (which is, I know, a tautology) and that I was a liar for suggesting otherwise. I learned that lot of people really, really don't like living in urban environments - which is fine, really. Takes all kinds of people to make a world. Some of those folks, of course, were able to cash out the highly inflated value of their land thanks to the Silicon Valley tech boom, and then buy a mountainside up in the Sierra Nevada, from whence they can decry the urbanization impelled by other folks moving to the Valley, trying to make a buck. 


The discussion has been going on for nine months or so, off and on, and like I say, mostly respectful on all sides. I've been able to present a lot of information about how people in dense, walkable urban neighborhoods have about one-third the carbon footprint of folks in sprawling, auto-centric suburbs, and how density is as much a matter of economic justice as it is necessary for the planet.


The thread has sometimes spilled over into tangential discussions of related issues like immigration, overpopulation, water use, crime ratesincome inequality, taxation policies, and, of course, climate change.  I have been arguing that the climate crisis means that we need to move swiftly to reduce our carbon footprint, and that mixed-use development in walkable, urban neighborhoods served by public transit is one of the best ways to do that. And that, of course, is where the trolls come in. 


The first one is belligerent, screams in all caps that "there is NO HUMAN CAUSES GLOBAL climate change," violates Godwin's law but posts racist crap to his homepage that Hermann Goering would be proud of, and suggests that I'm motivated by increasing the value of my "investments" via the teachers unions. 

The second troll is more erudite, and has posted about a dozen arguments against anthropogenic climate change, ranging from the specious to the superficially plausible, all of them gleaned - directly or indirectly - from the extensive denialist propaganda network funded by the fossil fuel barons. He may concede that warming is occurring, but that its dangers are completely overblown and that people are overreacting, perhaps due to some irrational or "pathological" fear. Nobody who disagrees with him can possibly be rational, though he endorses the paranoid tinfoil-hat "Agenda 21" conspiracy theory that posits the UN will force us all onto bike paths



Like any troll, he's wasting a good deal of time and pixel space, but it's a free country and he can say what he wants. Still, this particular Facebook community has 5500 members, and his arguments deserve a coherent response, if only for the lurkers and onlookers who may be genuinely confused or undecided. Because he's been throwing so much sand in the umpire's eyes, there are a lot of points to respond to, and that's why I'm doing it here, where I can embed links to further information and take my time without dominating the discussion.

And maybe this will be useful to you in responding to trolls of your own, either online, or at your next family gathering. This is not a comprehensive guide to every denialist talking point (you can find a really good one at Grist magazine's site, or maybe use this flowchart in a pinch).  But herewith, a few responses to some of the most common climate change claptrap:


• Carbon dioxide is good for plants

  This complete nonsense is not the argument of someone who has carefully examined the scientific consensus and found it wanting. this the argument of someone who carefully prunes their news intake to avoid being exposed to anything that contradicts their comfortable worldview, and so is routinely
handed the talking points of the GOP donor base. This is like saying that calories are good for you, so you should pork out on fast food three times a day. In real life, not only are we dumping far more carbon into the atmosphere than the plants can absorb, but we've been deforesting the planet for centuries and removing some of nature's best carbon sinks. This also ignores all the other things carbon does, like trap the sun's radiation on the planet's surface. No matter how much plants love their carbon dioxide, desertification isn't their idea of a holiday.

• The climate is always changing
   "Droughts," I was told, "even long ones, occur all over the planet and predate industrialization." True enough, and some of them have led to civilizational collapse; ask the Maya and the Anasazi. And as the Royal Society put it:
All major climate changes, including natural ones, are disruptive. Past climate changes led to extinction of many species, population migrations, and pronounced changes in the land surface and ocean circulation. The speed of the current climate change is faster than most of the past events, making it more difficult for human societies and the natural world to adapt.
Or as Skeptical Science puts it: "It doesn't happen by magic. Climate changes when it's forced to change. When our planet suffers an energy imbalance and gains or loses heat, global temperature changes."



There are currently no megadroughts, says the erudite troll, and here he is technically correct, if we define same as lasting multiple decades. But the megadroughts are coming if we continue to heat up the planet at this rate. "None of the local precipitation patterns are historical anomalies in any way," he goes on, and here he is wrong again. California's current drought is the worst the region has seen in 1200 years, which certainly predates any history of a place called California by its inhabitants. We shouldn't have to wait a couple decades to find this alarming indeed - even if a superheated El Nino leads to significant rainfall later this year. 

• It's hubris to think we can affect the climate
   This is one I hear a lot from Rush Limbaugh - it's a big old planet, and there's only seven billion of us itty bitty people, so how could anything we do affect the climate? The erudite troll says that it manifests a "Superman/God complex" to think we can do anything about global warming, so naturally we shouldn't do anything about it. 

This conveniently ignores an obvious historical case of humans affecting the planet: the ozone hole that was caused by a buildup of chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere. In this case, the world's governments accepted the scientific consensus and actually agreed to do something about it (maybe because the freon lobby didn't have nearly the clout of the fossil fuel barons). So CFCs were phased out and the problem was mitigated, if not completely solved. 

Likewise, we have conclusive evidence that human activity is affecting our planet's climate. Let a climate scientist explain:
• We can accurately measure the effects of greenhouse gases on infrared radiation in the lab. From this we can work out what happens if we increase the amount of greenhouse gases (such as CO2) in the atmosphere. They reduce the amount of radiation the Earth loses to space so it has to warm up to compensate.

 • We can measure atmospheric CO2 concentrations accurately. Because CO2 is very long-lived (i.e. it doesn't quickly react with stuff and get converted to something else) CO2 measurements in one place are pretty much the same as every other place.

• We can attribute the CO2 increase to human fossil fuel burning because CO2 from these sources tends to contain more light carbon isotopes than CO2 already in the atmosphere. This is because plants (the ultimate source of fossil fuels) prefer to take up light carbon isotopes rather than heavy ones.

• We are aware of other factors that can affect climate: volcanic eruptions, solar activity, human aerosol particle emissions, and redistribution of heat from the atmosphere to the ocean on a range of timescales. We can quantify these effects and find they cannot explain recent warming. Likewise, we can quantify the effect of CO2 and other greenhouse gases and find they can explain recent warming.
• Severe weather events have declined
   Denialists are adept at cherry-picking data to try to wish away the reality of climate change, as this blustery piece in Forbes shows. They might argue that there are fewer deaths from extreme weather events (due of course to improved safety and forecasting tools). Or they might just focus on one type of weather, like hurricanes or tornadoes, and ignore other events, like heat waves  and flooding. Or they may use reports just from the US, or only from certain parts of the US to twist the picture around. One of the easiest ways to lie with statistics is to choose your base year as high as possible, and shut off your data set in a much lower year. Presto, "declining severe weather." 


Meanwhile, in the real world, record breaking heat is five times more frequent than it would be without our carbon buildup. Moreover, aside from the frequency of extreme weather, which varies widely over time, the intensity of high-precipitation events is clearly on the rise. This stands to reason, since a warmer atmosphere can holder greater amounts of water vapor, forming larger storms and blizzards. Thus, even in constant dollars, the financial hit from these events is also skyrocketing. According to peer-reviewed research cited here, there has been a "10-fold increase in extreme weather events." 

• That ice shelf is only 1% of Antarctica
   My esteemed interlocutor pooh-poohed reports of the imminent collapse of the Antarctic ice shelf named Larsen B. That ice shelf, he scoffed, is only 1% of the Antarctic land mass, therefore its melting is no cause for concern. And of course he'd be right (at least partially) if the way climate change works is that the ice shelves will melt one at a time, patiently waiting their turn. This is nonsense, of course, since the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is dumping twice as much melt as Larsen B, and its neighbor Larsen A is gone, and Larsen C, which is five times larger, has started cracking up. But even if ice shelves melted one at a time, he'd still be wrong, since the ice shelves are holding back Antarctica's glaciers, and once they're gone, the glaciers move much more rapidly into the sea. Meanwhilethe massive ice sheet covering Greenland is also melting at an alarming rateAll of this has been accelerating in recent years, which brings us to the next objection....

• Sea level rise is minimal

   Here is where the erudite troll shows himself to be math-challenged on top of everything else. He posted a link to a study on sea level rise, which notes that the increase has been approximately 0.6mm annually over the past 20 years.  His comment was "Ohh, .6 mm per year....run, you're gonna drown!" First of all, that works out to about a half inch rise over two decades, which still doesn't sound like much, but if we continue at that rate for a few more decades, we have some serious problems for the billion or so humans who live in coastal areas. Except that we won't be continuing at that rate; the rate is increasing (see ice shelf data above). And here's the best part: we've already had nine inches of sea level rise over the past 140 years. And that works out to about 23 millimeters, or 0.164mm per year. So the paper he cited shows that the rate of sea level rise has effectively quadrupled in the past couple decades. Thanks, man!

Of course, if we don't do something soon, by the end of the century we could be measuring sea level rise in feet, not inches

• 400ppm is an arbitrary benchmark

   Of course it is; it's just a big, round number. Nobody is saying that we'd be perfectly safe at 399ppm. Of course actual climate scientists have been telling us for years that the safe threshold was 350ppm, and we just blew past that. The last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere, humans didn't even exist. As climatologist Peter Glieck points out, "never in the history of the planet have humans altered the atmosphere as radically as we are doing so now." But the erudite troll, who knows better than all those climate scientists, scoffs at "people that are all worked up over this measly 400ppm."


• We won't be feeling the effects in our lifetimes 
   Friends, even if this were true (which it most certainly isn't), this would be the most irresponsible and callous argument for doing nothing about the extremely expensive and catastrophic effects of global climate change. Rather than boosting the value of my vast teachers union holdings, what motivates me to be active on this issue is leaving a better world for my children and grandchildren. If we don't stop treating the atmosphere as a carbon dump for utilities and oil companies, the effects of climate change, according to the IPCC, will be essentially irreversible. Co2 stays in the atmosphere for centuries; look at the 400ppm graph above to see much we've dumped there already. 

Most of us reading this can expect to live to around midcentury; my kids will probably see the end of the century. But of course we don't have to wait that long to see the effects of climate change; they're with us right now. We're already seeing the effects of sea level rise as storm surges like Sandy and Katrina bring more devastating flooding. We can see the climate starting to affect crop yields. We can see the effects of ocean acidification on our fisheries. And of course we can see the more frequent heat waves. 2014 was the hottest year on record, and nine of the top ten are in the 21st century. 2015 is already on pace to bust that record. 


Denialists like to decry the staggering costs involved with switching over to renewable energy resources and a low-carbon economy. You'd think that true conservatives would pause to consider the costs of inaction: as much as $20 trillion by 2100, by some estimates. Of course that's not "in our lifetimes," so why worry?


• Wackos warned about an ice age


 The erudite troll helpfully posted a compendium of articles from the 1970s with suitably alarmist headlines about the impending ice age. Never mind that some of them were repeated two or three times and many were from podunk hometown papers. Most of these articles in the popular press were based on a few scientific papers which correctly noted a slight mid-century cooling trend, which was abated when aerosols and particulate matter were regulated out of our energy emissions. What I didn't see was any kind of prescription about what to do about it, much less the "increased government control over the lives of citizens, and more tax money." that the erudite troll insists is the motivation behind climate science. There was never anything like the overwhelming consensus we have now about climate change, nor was there a concerted international effort to address the problem. This isn't just apples and oranges; it's more like cherries and grapefruits. Even in the '70s, there were far more scientists predicting warming than cooling; the ice age scare was largely a media phenomenon. 

• James Hansen is a charlatan
   The denialists like to make this about personalities, rather than evidence. Or as the belligerent troll put it, "Al Gore has a carbon Footprint the size of Bill Clinton." The erudite troll chose to try undermining the credibility of NASA climate scientist James Hansen, by repeating an apocryphal story about how his historic 1988 testimony had been PR-enhanced by scheduling it for a hot day with the hearing room artificially warmed up. Even if that were true, it wouldn't have been Hansen's fault - and his opponents are not averse to some PR management of their own. He may have been wrong about some things, but his climate change predictions have held up pretty well. Which brings us to...

• Climate models are useless
     The challenge was, are there any climate models with predictive value? And the answer is - as this Quora thread illustrates - that while no climate model is perfect, climate scientists have a much better track record than the denialists do when it comes to accurate  predictionsHere I'm going to quote directly from Coby Beck at Grist:
• models predict that surface warming should be accompanied by cooling of the stratosphere, and this has indeed been observed
• models have long predicted warming of the lower, mid, and upper troposphere, even while satellite readings seemed to disagree — but it turns out the satellite analysis was full of errors and on correction, this warming has been observed
• models predict warming of ocean surface waters, as is now observed
• models predict an energy imbalance between incoming sunlight and outgoing infrared radiation, which has been detected
• models predict sharp and short-lived cooling of a few tenths of a degree in the event of large volcanic eruptions, and Mount Pinatubo confirmed this; 
• models predict an amplification of warming trends in the Arctic region, and this is indeed happening
and finally, to get back to where we started, models predict continuing and accelerating warming of the surface, and so far they are correct.
"Please provide any evidence," sneers the erudite troll, "of a valid 'climate model' that can even function properly when fed actual historical data. Let alone one that has been shown to have ANY predictive value whatsoever." Fine. Here is a simple explanation of how climate models work. And for the more scientifically literate among you, click on the "intermediate" link on that page for a more complicated explanation. 

• This is about power and control
   Well, we can certainly agree on that much; this entire debate is about power and control. But it sure ain't the teachers unions and climate scientists who control our economy. If 97% of the planet's climate scientists are engaged in a vast conspiracy to feather their own nests, they're not doing a very good job of it. Their funding in the decade from 1993 to 2004 stayed essentially flat. Research funding was cut under Bush, of course, but Obama hasn't exactly been dumping pots of gold on the researchers. Funding for clean energy technology has increased, certainly - and sensibly so, given all of the above evidence. But this is a drop in the bucket compared to global subsidies to the fossil fuel barons: $10 milllion per minute, every minute of every day. That works out to $5.3 trillion annually. 


That's where your power and control is. That's why Exxon and the Koch brothers and their allies have dumped a half billion dollars into a network of about 100 climate change denialist organizations, whose talking points are filtered through the conservative media. After all, that only amounts to about an hour's worth of their annual taxpayer subsidy. But that can still buy a lot of bullshit. 

Anyone who is the least bit openminded on these matters should see the documentary film Merchants of Doubt - or take your denialist uncle to see it. It describes the strategy and tactics of the PR professionals who have been hired to obfuscate this issue in the public mind, and stymie any action to mitigate the effects of climate change. Not only does the denialist network employ some of the same lobbying firms that used to shill for the tobacco companies - they feature some of the exact same "expert" con artists. Some of the same faces you used to see on TV telling you it was a myth that tobacco causes cancer, are now showing up on Fox News or in Senator Inhofe's hearing room, telling you it's a myth that burning fossil fuels causes climate change. 

And folks, that's the way the game is played. Their side, my side - we make our case in the court of public opinion. Their side has the means, motive and opportunity to cause confusion and delay. My side is hopelessly outgunned; we only have science to back us up. When you debate in public, or on the internet, you're free to act like a prosecuting attorney; pick and choose your best arguments, downplay or minimize the rest. Everybody does that. I've done it here, too - though many of the links I've posted will give you information the other side would like to stress. You know, why should I make your case for you?

But that's not how science works. Scientists test their hypotheses, consider all available evidence, and submit their research for peer review. If there are errors, they are corrected, and new hypotheses emerge. Scientists have been studying and predicting anthropogenic global warming since 1896. They continue to amass evidence, refine their climate models and subject their evidence and analysis to scrutiny. And 97% of the climate scientists - the people who do this for a living - are telling us that humans are heating up the planet and that we're in for a world of hurt if we don't stop. If 97 out of a hundred mechanics told you your car was in dangerous shape, you'd kind of be a fool to drive the thing, wouldn't you?


My esteemed interlocutor, the erudite troll, complains of the government "taxing you to death and imposing communistic controls on your society and your lifestyle." And recall, we're talking here about mixed-use development, more efficient land-use patterns, better public transit, renewable energy, that sort of thing. Yet he has no problem with the government taxing us to promote a corporate agenda, with far more extensive say over your society and lifestyle choices. And those choices will be even more constrained for our grandchildren if we let these legacy industries and their media acolytes continue to obstruct our collective response to the mess they've made. I say, this is the tyranny we need to resist. 



Sunday, July 6, 2014

Forward to Social Structures of Direct Democracy


About a year ago, I was contacted by John Asimakopoulos, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York. He asked me to write an introduction to his new book, Social Structures of Direct Democracy. Professor Asimakopoulos had written an intriguing and probing analysis of new ways to promote democratic governance. It's a discussion that is more necessary and timely than ever, and I'm proud to have been a part of it. That book has just been published, which means I can share with you what I wrote last fall:


The absurdities of our present political moment would tax the capacities of the most fervent satirists. The body politic bleeds from a series of self-inflicted wounds. We lurch from crisis to crisis like a hyperactive adolescent, seemingly unable to come to reasonable agreement on matters from the vital to the trivial.
The wealthiest nation on earth appears increasingly ungovernable: we have one political party unable to say no to its base, and another unable to say yes. The forces of oligarchy and reaction exert ever-wider control over our political, commercial and communications systems, yet are unable to buy themselves any kind of stability. We have gone well beyond ignoring the lessons of history; at present the lessons of history are being beaten with a truncheon in a back alley.
Meanwhile (and not coincidentally), the USA’s mentor and patron saint, the Global Capitalist Empire, is having trouble putting the finishing touches on its 500-year project to unify the planet under its ethos. After five centuries of conquest, colonization, co-optation, coups, countercoups, and free trade agreements, the Empire was tantalizingly close to ultimate success, seemingly a just a few years away from KFCs in Havana and Pyongyang.
And yet no sooner do they tack down one corner of the carpet when another comes undone, necessitating further efforts to bring recalcitrant populations in line. This global game of Whack-a-Mole continues with storm clouds looming on the horizon, in the form of a permanent alteration of the weather patterns that made human civilization possible in the first place. This, to say the least, could affect the bottom line.
What these two conundra have in common is that they are the result of a massively unequal distribution of resources – indeed, of systems which virtually guarantee a massively unequal distribution of resources. The systems invite conflict, and sustain their own unsustainability. Stein’s Law tells us that “if something is unsustainable, it will stop.” But perhaps a corollary to that is that it will not stop until its unsustainability is as obvious as being hit over the head with a two-by-four.
Our body politic, however, continues to whack itself with the metaphorical lumber, and though it staggers, it does not stop – yet.
Or rather, it did stop, for a few weeks in October of 2013. Ongoing services to the Empire continued uninterrupted, of course, but programs benefitting ordinary citizens ground to a halt while their elected representatives engaged in a game of chicken, through gritted teeth, over how much austerity to impose on a struggling economy. Eventually the differences were papered over and the lawmakers settled back to prepare for the next crisis.
The United States of America has been papering over its differences for so long, it’s become our default mode. We started out that way, after all, with an unworkable kludge that created the undemocratic Senate and Electoral College, and a friendly compromise that African-American chattel slaves should be considered three-fifths of a person – strictly for the drawing of political districts, of course. We papered over the differences between the “loyalists” and the “royalists,” and kicked the can down the road on the issue of slavery for the better part of a century.
And, incredibly, even after those differences erupted into a fratricidal civil war, they were papered over once again. The stolen election of 1876 paved the way for a backroom deal to end Reconstruction, withdraw federal troops from the south, and – concerning the rights of the emancipated slaves – kick the can down the road for yet another century. And when Dr. King and the civil rights movement finally forced the issue to be dealt with, LBJ famously remarked, as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1965, “We have lost the South for a generation.” 
LBJ underestimated the force of that moment. For the next several generations, the nation’s electorate re-sorted itself, virtually eliminating Democrats from elected office in the South, while rendering nearly as extinct the Republican Party in the Northeast. LBJ’s successor, the machiavellian Richard Nixon, implemented a “Southern Strategy,” designed to appeal to the racial resentments of working-class whites.
This worked like a charm, until it didn’t. Over the half-century since LBJ’s prediction, the two parties, once overlapping fuzzily in ideology, became more and more polarized. African-American voters switched their loyalties away from the party of Lincoln (eventually voting Democratic by more than a 9 to 1 margin in presidential elections), while many working-class whites switched from Roosevelt Democrats to Reagan Republicans. Eventually, though, the GOP backed itself into a demographic corner, appealing to an ever-shrinking, anachronistically reactionary segment of the electorate – while simultaneously alienating the fastest-growing ethnic constituencies.
Rather than adapt to the new electorate, the GOP has instead doubled down, and then quadrupled down on the Southern Strategy. Party leaders keep trying to appeal to their steadily crankier constituency, herding them into computer-drawn gerrymanders to maximize their waning geographic strengths, resorting to ever more arcane campaign financing schemes to continue stoking resentment at non-white “takers.” Their incumbents fear primary challenges from the right far more than they do general-election voters, and the result has been an ongoing lurch rightward with every election cycle, and an increasing isolation, as more and more voters are alienated from the tarnished GOP brand. As one outflanked GOP Senator put it, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
This made the nihilistic showdown of Autumn 2013 virtually inevitable, as placating the ever-more-resentful base of the GOP required ever more brinksmanship. What we have evolved today is a parliament without a parliamentary system. The two parties are more ideologically distinct than ever, and subject to increasingly rigid party control over voting blocs in the legislative branch. But our political institutions are made to function within the deal-making, ideologically diffuse coalition politics of the 20th century. And in contrast to a parliamentary system, we have no prime minister; the president is not in control of Congress, which is often dominated by the opposition party. In short, we’ve outgrown our political infrastructure.
This is just as apparent in the pressures faced by the demographically advantaged Democrats as in the rump Republican Party. The ostensible “party of the people” is perplexingly unable to deliver a better life to its constituents, idling the economy in neutral for the first half of what promises to be a lost decade of low growth and high unemployment.
How did it come to this? Like the Republicans, the Democratic Party relies on a coalition of donor blocs to fund their media campaigns during election cycles. The GOP’s ascendency in the 1966-2008 political era coincided with the erosion of US labor unions, and their position as a counterweight to corporate influence over the Democrats. So the Democrats have become more beholden than ever to their corporate patrons. Unlike in other countries (which provide public financing and access to the public airwaves), US elections are staggeringly expensive. US politicians spend the majority of their waking hours in fund-raising activities, and precious few in legislating. They instead go hat in hand to one set of corporate donors in order to buy media access from another set.
Democrats were handed a huge electoral gift in 2008 when the global economy melted down on the Republicans’ watch, mere weeks before the presidential election. It turned out to be the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression – which should have been relatively straightforward to address, given the example of how we recovered from the Crash of ’29, the deepest in series of financial “panics” that had beset the US economy over the years. Keynesian economics, as yet unformulated in 1929, was available in 2009 to inform us of the optimal policy response: an ongoing stimulus, anchored by government spending, to put people back to work, with multiplier effects leading to a swift recovery.
History teaches us that austerity and budget-cutting only exacerbated the effects of the crash, and that historically high levels of income inequality had led to a collapse of aggregate demand. With businesses failing to hire, the government could be the employer of last resort. Moreover, a steeply progressive tax on the fortunes of the super-rich would flatten out inequality and finance the stimulus. Despite some backsliding into austerity during 1937, it had worked well under FDR, and had led to a broad-based prosperity and flattening inequality during the 50s, 60 and early 70s.
But flattening inequality, broad-based prosperity and steeply progressive taxes were exactly what US elites did not want. They’d seen that movie before, and did not want a repeat. Not only would they fight like a cornered mongoose to (successfully) retain their positions of privilege, but they also feared the political empowerment of the masses that would arise from decades of rising living standards. The last time that happened, it had led to increased demands for civil rights and an organized opposition to US military adventures. In the parlance of 1970s think tanks, this was a “crisis of democracy” – meaning entirely too much democratic participation – and US elites had worked, with considerable success, to reverse it ever since.
Ever since the 1970s, and the high-water mark of the middle class, the US political system has struggled with the contradictions of trying to formulate policy that enriches elites, while crafting campaigns to appeal to the mass of voters whose interests are being sold out. New Deal restrictions on financial chicanery were steadily undone, and workers’ incomes stagnated for decades, and the gains from increased productivity were hoarded at the top of the heap.
After a series of baroque financial bubbles, scandals and crises during the 80s, 90s and 00s, the Crash of ’08 devastated the working people of America, and while their recovery was slow and halting, elite fortunes – both personal and corporate – returned to all-time highs. Even if the Democrats could have agreed on an economic path to prosperity within their own governing coalition, the “loyal opposition” retained enough veto points over the process to stymie any such effort. The Republicans have even less regard for Keynes than for Darwin, and so have dragged their feet, insisting on further austerity during every budget negotiation.
So the Democrats have instead focused their energies on a Byzantine health-care plan, designed to move somewhat closer to the ideal of universal coverage enjoyed by all other industrial democracies, without incurring opposition from entrenched stakeholders. The result pleases neither its supporters nor its opponents, and will be the subject of endless wrangling for years to come.
Again, we’ve outgrown our political infrastructure. This Rube Goldberg system – with its ostentatious financial shenanigans, bloated tax code, corporate welfare, ineffectual representatives, stymied voters, and brobdingnagian inequality – would be laughable (or rather, more laughable) if it were not sputtering into engine lock at such a portentous historical moment. Just as our political institutions become less and less responsive, the ecological bill is coming due for the Industrial Revolution.
The science behind greenhouse gasses has been known for over a century. And scientists have been warning of the planetary danger of increased carbon in the atmosphere for over a quarter century, with increasing evidence and certainty of the calamity that awaits. But in the face of warming polar regions, melting glaciers, ocean acidification, and increasingly catastrophic weather patterns, our political system continues to hit the snooze button on any attempts to ameliorate the situation.
Worse, the forces of oligarchy and reaction are actively organizing to prevent any such attempts. Fossil fuel barons and the politicians they sponsor are on the warpath against fuel economy standards and gas taxes, let alone any efforts to transition to renewable energy sources. This recalcitrance has cost us so much time, we have only a decade or two, if that, to halt and reverse the dumping of carbon into our atmosphere. It would require a coordinated international effort equivalent to executing a hairpin turn on a one-lane mountain road, while driving a 20-story high ocean liner.
So there you have it. If our political or economic systems don’t collapse first, our ecological system certainly will. This is as much a problem for the Global Capitalist Empire as it is for the majority of humanity who happen to live under its auspices. Already shifting agricultural patterns are leading to food and water shortages, and restless populations have forced political crises and toppled governments across the globe.
But this is only the beginning. The insurance payouts alone for the demise of coastal communities worldwide will be staggering. And the necessity of adapting and re-adapting to changing weather patterns will play havoc with agricultural interests. But the massive refugee flows, spreading tropical diseases, and, inevitably, the rising tide of warfare, will massively disrupt business as usual. All this is staring us in the face, and yet our political institutions simply stare back.
And as with our economic problems, solutions to the crisis of climate change are available; it’s only political will that is lacking. Moreover, converting our economy to renewable energy would ignite a new round of job creation – at a time when the supply of labor far outstrips demand. Still, as with our economic crisis, obvious solutions are not just ignored, but actively opposed.
This is all so glaringly, head-whackingly unsustainable that something has to give. In the face of this uncertainty, we can only be certain that change is needed. And luckily, the book you hold in your hands represents a good deal of thinking about what kinds of change we require. Our institutions are failing us; we need new, more responsive institutions. Herein is a considered outline of how a more representative system might arise.
The discussion within about direct democracy contributes to the important conversation we need to be having about what will replace the political and economic systems that are so obviously failing us. Not only do we have the lessons of history to inform us about what not to do, we have generations of thought to guide us in formulating a blueprint for a better world.
We don’t have a crisis of democracy, as our elites complain; we have a shortage. But at this point we have the technological tools to enable greater voter empowerment in plebiscites and referenda, as well as the experience of proportional representation systems, fusion voting and instant runoffs to guide us. We can even use a lottery system, as with our jury pools, to select representatives; could we do worse than we do now?
And as much as capitalists like to claim that “there is no alternative” to their exploitive system, we have the experience of countless worker-owned alternatives across the globe, from Mondagron to Gaviotas to Kerala. Worker-owned cooperatives, democratically elected corporate boards and other arrangements have worked across the globe, and their failures and successes strengthen our ability to plan a more responsive economy.
If we’re going to save ourselves from ourselves, we all need to be part of the solution. We can, in fact, do more than survive. We can thrive – if we have the will to create more egalitarian institutions. We know more than enough about the mess we’re in, but we have far too little discussion about the ways ahead. Let that discussion begin on the next page.

Friday, April 25, 2014

No, nukes will not save us from climate change

A lot of people have been touting nuclear power - and more specifically, the “next generation” of nuke plants, powered by thorium instead of uranium - as the solution to climate change. Proponents claim these thorium-powered plants will be safer, cleaner and cheaper, and ameliorate issues with proliferation and long-term waste disposal.

But you’ll have to forgive me if I remain skeptical. We’ve had these kinds of promises of the nuclear panacea for generations now, and we should all know better than to take industry claims at face value. Last Sunday’s episode of Cosmos was a sobering reminder of how polluting corporations can buy the science they want, and how successful they can be at moving their PR through the media.

Far from answering all my concerns, the overstated claims of thorium reactor proponents raise a whole set of new ones. First, as far as cost goes, the thorium fuel cycle is likely to be even more costly. Thorium is not itself a fissile material and thus requires either U-235 or Pu-239 to kick-start the chain reaction; some part of the thorium then has to be converted to U-233 to take over the job. So thorium reactors will still require uranium enrichment or plutonium separation in addition to the costs of thorium mining and thorium rod production– all of which have a carbon footprint of their own. In a breeding configuration thorium reactors will need reprocessing, which is both costly and produces significant disposal issues. Moreover, the thorium fuel cycle creates highly radioactive U-232 as well as U-233 in the reactor, which raises worker safety issues that will be expensive to address.

All of this while the cost of solar and wind power continue to plummet - more than 75% over the past five years, and still falling. Germany’s solar array produces as much as 20 nuclear power plants on any given day. And if nuclear power is going to save the planet, the existing 400-odd reactors are going to have to be decommissioned (at taxpayer expense) and thousands of thorium plants costing billions of dollars apiece will have to be built to replace them, as well as the fossil fuel plants.

Second, the idea that nuclear waste can be turned into the next generation’s perfect fuel raises concerns. Nuke fans are talking about reprocessing, which is, as mentioned, both costly and toxic. You take the spent fuel rods and dissolve them in powerful solvents, and then you’re left with some new fuel, but also with leftover radioactive solids, liquids and gasses. All this nasty stuff still has to be stored for generations and/or transported to storage (at taxpayer expense), with the attendant risk of leaks and spills, overseen by corporations fueled by the profit motive, or mortal governments with uncertain oversight.

Third, thorium proponents are claiming that there are no proliferation issues. But as mentioned, the fuel cycle involves the production of U-233, which is just as useful for bomb-making as plutonium. Some proposed thorium fuel cycles require as much as 20% enriched uranium, which governments could easily divert for further enrichment to weapons-grade material. Thorium proponents are claiming that it can be less of a proliferation risk is the U-233 is mixed with U-238, but that will result in the creation of more Pu-238 as the reactor operates. So if you want thousands of these nukes all over the planet, you will also need hundreds of reliable governments and non-government actors who will avoid the temptation to divert either of these byproducts. And let me just add: no terrorist organization has ever planned to attack a solar array.

Fourth, this brings up the question of safety. A recent Forbes article claims solar and wind cause more deaths - throughout the entire production cycle - than does nuclear. The article doesn’t discuss the risks involved in solar energy production, but the mortality rate for wind and solar comes mainly from mining the raw materials, which would of course also increase for nuclear even if we switch to thorium fuel – first, because there’s more of it than uranium, and second, because we’ll be needing thousands of new thorium reactors.

Which also means that the risk of accidents will be going way up as well. And meanwhile, taxpayers still have to pick of the insurance tab. But new solar and wind technologies are already improving their safety rates, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue. Either way, industry-friendly tables like the one in Forbes rely on deaths per kilowatt-hour, which makes nukes look safer because they have produced comparatively far more energy than renewables (so far). The total number of deaths from wind and solar is surpassingly small in real terms, while there have been 20 nuclear and radiation accidents resulting in fatalities, including over 4000 deaths from Chernobyl (Moreover, avian mortality from nuclear plants is double that from wind turbines).

I think the nuclear industry has been highly successful in getting friendly treatment in the press, not just lately, but over the past sixty years. Spinning tempting tales of how we can have all the energy we need with little downside distracts us from the hard work of converting to a sustainable economy. One way or another, we have to face the limits of global production capacity, and it’s still true that conservation is our number one source of untapped energy. We can’t go on pretending we can live on cheap energy forever, with the attendant wastefulness built into our transportation, construction and agricultural systems.

I will toss the pro-nukes crowd this one bone, though: since we’ve squandered the last 25 years when we could have been addressing climate change, avoiding a 2 degree increase in global temperatures will be nearly impossible at this point, and weaning ourselves off of nuclear may have to take a back seat to massive carbon reduction efforts. But putting all our energy needs into the nuclear basket would be yet another dangerous mistake.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The New Old-Fashioned Way: Holiday Classics 1963-2013


Recently Slate critic Chris Klimek lamented the absence of all but a few contemporary compositions from the canon of holiday favorites. In the chart at left (a cool interactive version accompanies the article), Time's Chris Wilson explains why that is: older songs are in the public domain, hence more lucrative to record.

And "number of recordings" is the way the music biz measures the popularity of Christmas songs. By those lights, the chart of recordings made since 1978 contains only one song written after 1978. It's the same one Klimek identified as the sole recent entry into the canon: Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You." It's not a bad song (I particularly like Ellie Goulding's cover version), but it's not the "last great original Christmas song" either, fergawdsake.  It's been joined in the songwriter-royalty sweepstakes by a select few others from the past half-century, notably George Michael's "Last Christmas" and Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas."

But I've been collecting Christmas songs ever since my DJ days back in the mid-80s, and there are plenty of contemporary classics that get big airplay at our house every December, some of which never see the light of day on the Xmas-station radio playlists. They live in our hearts, not on the charts.

If we use 50 years ago as the cutoff date, we exclude "Do You Hear What I Hear," written in 1962, but opt in for "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," written by Andy Williams in '63 (sorry, Mom, not one of my favorites). That year also featured great Xmas albums from the Beach Boys and Phil Spector, as well as the first of the annual Xmas singles from the Beatles. Spector's still-cool LP featured just one original composition, the certifiable classic "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." The Beach Boys, though, sounded better on the old standards than on Brian's just-okay new tunes (including "Little Saint Nick" and "The Man With All the Toys"). Meanwhile, the Beatles have never commercially released their Xmas recordings, so most people are unaware of their goofy originals like "Christmastime is Here Again" and "Everywhere It's Christmas."

1968 brought the first of a series of Motown Christmas albums, mostly a compilation of predictably excellent covers of the old standards, done Motown style. It wasn't until 1999 that the label saw fit to include Marvin Gaye's original composition "I Want to Come Home for Christmas." One must also bow in the direction of James Brown's annual series of endlessly funky Xmas jams. Attention must likewise be paid to the late, great Buck Owens and his "Christmastime's A-Comin'."

The most enduring 1960s songs come from a trio of TV Christmas specials: "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch;" "Holly Jolly Christmas;" and "Christmastime is Here," from Vince Guaraldi's beloved soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

But one of my favorites is this blast of proto-punk Xmas angst from the Sonics:


The 1970s brought Hathaway's aforementioned neo-standard, along with Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad." There were also now-ubiquitous Xmas singles from ex-Beatles John and Paul. Squeeze, The Band, the Kinks, and Elton John all made durable, if less lucrative, contributions. Albert King kicked in with "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'," and Tom Waits gave us his "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis," unlikely to be enshrined in any Time-Life box set. And in 1973, John Prine contributed "Christmas in Prison," easily one of the best of the past five decades:


The late-20th-century tunes tend to situate more towards the secular end of the Jesus-to-Santa continuum. But the 1970s also included Jackson Browne's "Rebel Jesus" and Big Star's "Jesus Christ." These sit nicely alongside U2's 1988 cover of Woody Guthrie's "Jesus Christ," a mainstay of our holiday playlists.
Speaking of the 80s, that decade gave us what turns out to be another near-standard that might stand sturdier on its own two feet if royalties were not an issue: "Christmas Wrapping" by the Waitresses.

Songwriter Cris Butler explains how the tune was written as "a toss-off, a favor to our label," how surprising its success was, and how "blissed out" he is when he hears it on the radio today.
Two of the finest Christmas songs of the past 50 years came from the 1980s: "2000 Miles" by the Pretenders and "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues. No disrespect to Mariah Carey or Jose Feliciano, but those are stone classics. 

Also not to be forgotten is "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)" by the Ramones - written by Joey, naturally. George Michael's aforementioned "Last Christmas" was released as a Wham! single in 1984, and has repaid its author with scores of cover versions to date. 

The first (and best) of the dozen A Very Special Christmas albums, a benefit for the Special Olympics, was released in 1987. Nearly all the tracks are covers (some of them quite splendid), but Vol. 1 contains what may be the first (and best) great Xmas rap, "Christmas in Hollis," by Run-D.M.C.

In 1985, the criminally underrated NRBQ released their Xmas album, featuring the criminally underrated "Christmas Wish."  This song deserves to be a classic as much as any other from the past half-century. There have been a few covers, notably the 2011 version from She and Him. Here it is performed by its composer, ace bassist Joey Spampinato:


There are, sadly (but unsurprisingly) no Christmas songs from most of my favorite 90s bands, like Pavement, Pixies, Sonic Youth or Nirvana. Radiohead did a passable version of "Winter Wonderland," while Björk has a 15-minute video called "The Jesus Prayer," which is, however, not very Christmassy.
But Tom Petty wrote "Christmas All Over Again" in 1992, and Steve Earle gave us "Christmas in Washington" in 1997. Japanese power-punk trio Shonen Knife released the charming "Space Christmas" in 1991. Each of these is worthy of wider coverage. And to my mind, the hands-down finest Christmas song of the past fifty years was gifted to us in 1994.

I speak to you of Robert Earl Keen's superb "Merry Christmas From the Family." It may be the funniest Xmas tune ever, but it's not a novelty song (for the purposes of this essay, we are ignoring such amusing but seldom-covered efforts from Bob & Doug Mackenzie, Elmo and Patsy, Martin Mull and Spinal Tap). Keen's family evokes universal feelings of bemused nostalgia for the Christmasses of our youth and the quirky people we grew up with. As funny as it is, it tugs at the heartstrings for me like no Christmas song since 1944's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Here's a live version before an adoring crowd who know every word:


So far the 13 years of the 21st century have given us many new Xmas songs to enjoy. Just last month we got an instant classic when Nick Lowe released "Christmas at the Airport." Paul Simon's "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" is a keeper, as is "Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree," from Great American Songwriter Stephen Merritt's band the Magnetic Fields. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have a charming entry, "All I Want for Christmas" (not to be confused with Ms. Carey's cash cow). Many are partial to "The Season's Upon Us" by the Dropkick Murphys, and I can't really argue with that. I'm quite fond of Mary Gauthier's "Christmas in Paradise," as well. Jonathan Edwards has eloquently made the case for "I Wish It Was Christmas Today" as a modern standard, and it certainly is in our household. In fact, the folks at Saturday Night Live have been livening up our holidays ever since Garrett Morris and friends unveiled their rollicking "Winter Wonderland" in 1975. Adam Sandler's "Channukah Song" is always welcome, and Darlene Love did us all a favor by belting out Robert Smigel's "Christmastime for the Jews." But no account of contemporary Christmas songwriting would be complete without a bow to the prolific Sufjan Stevens. He's released ten volumes of Christmas music, filled with both charming covers and dozens of originals, and tours regularly with his Christmas revue. Many of his songs may well stand the test of time, but who's got time to sort through them all?  My daughter, though, is partial to this one, which ends with an unlikely mash-up into a Joy Division classic:
The economics of Christmas songs being what they are, we may have to wait for these modern classics to fall out of copyright before the stars of the late 21st century start recording them in earnest. On the other hand, this cynic explains the paucity of modern Xmas standards as a function of the hegemony of Boomer nostalgia. And to that I say Pshaw, sir! My generation has no monopoly on sentiment, and we didn't ask to be born into a demographic bulge. I sympathize with the protest though, because in my book, they don't stop making good music just because you stop being young.