Thursday, June 28, 2012

Is This the Santa Cruz We Want to Live in? - Car Edition

We choose the world we live in, day to day. 
Is this the world we want?

Over 50% of the land surface in Santa Cruz is devoted to roads,
parking and automobile services.

Automobiles are so ubiquitous in the United States we don't even notice them. We've forgotten that our neighborhoods used to be quiet, day and night, free of the constant traffic noise that plagues our community today. We've forgotten how to walk from one place to another, or even ride that wonder of the early 1900s, the bicycle.

Here in Santa Cruz, where the sun shines 90% of the time, where it only rains, intermittently, from December to May, the streets are clogged every day with cars, carrying one person, traveling less than two miles around town.

Rather than a coastal town, Santa Cruz has become a car town. Access to coastal amenities means sailing through an ocean of cars, struggling for a berthing spot within a ten minute walk, then finding the car again and swimming upstream to get back home again.

The Municipal Wharf  has become the Municipal Coastal Parking Lot, a half-mile long line of cars decorating the fading facades of topside businesses.

For those who don't have cars, either by choice or circumstance, other means of transportation, and income are required.

Surely, we can do better. 

Must our vision for a livable future for Santa Cruz include our present obeisance to the automobile?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Is This the Santa Cruz We Want to Live In?

Thoughts while riding my bicycle on the levee trail:

Where do these people come from?

Where do they go?

What will they be able to do when they get there?

Are we proud of this part of our town?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Economic Equality Aboard the Titanic

We see it in the headlines every day, especially with the run-up to Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. 

We are told we “need” 3% economic growth worldwide per year to provide jobs for our growing population, seven billion now and still increasing rapidly. 

We are told we need to develop economies in emerging and “underdeveloped” countries, so they can meet the demands of “climate change” brought about by fossil fuel burning in developed countries. We are told continually that poorer nations must be allowed, even encouraged and facilitated, to grow to the level of other nations so that all seven billion + of us can have access to all the goods and services that everyone has in every other country.

We are told overall that all this growth and development must be “sustainable,” which, according to the United Nations, means “growth that meets present needs without compromising those of future generations.” 

An Experiment

When I was in high school, I did a science project that involved running white mice through a maze while on dextroamphetamine (the mice, not me. This was the early 60s. It was relevant then.) Since I lived in a small town in Nebraska, I had to raise my own white mice to have enough subjects for the tests.

This biological experiment quickly turned into an economic experiment, as I soon learned the lessons of exponential population growth in a closed environment. I was very quickly overrun by white mice. I couldn’t give them away fast enough to disperse the growing population of my experimental subjects. I eventually had to turn the bulk of them out into a cold and unforgiving world, where they lived out the remainder of their brief and exciting lives as prey for local predators.

The lesson stuck with me through my college years and beyond. Unlimited growth in a world of finite resources is impossible.

The Problem

The underlying problem is that international development agencies such as the United Nations are run by economists rather than biologists. 

Economists are master illusionists who rely on a set of fictions, fantasies and forecasts that emanate from a core magical mantra of Perpetual Growth that goes untested year after year.” Paul M. Ferrill, Myth of Perpetual Growth is Killing America.

Economists think that the only species on the planet affected by human growth is Homo sapiens itself, when, in reality, all species are negatively affected by habitat destruction and pollution caused by a growing overabundance of a single species, that same Homo sapiens.

Ed Abbey once told us that unlimited growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell. This was never more true than today. Rather than oncologists, our world is run by cancer proponents, who want every human being on Earth to have cancer, thus committing humans to long term pain, misery and death in a world depauperate of resources, quiet and desperate of all other species.

The United Nations was conceived of as an international body of governmental representatives convening to address problems and solutions common to all humanity. Conceived and implemented as a social organization, dealing primarily with fascism, imperialism, war, international health and economic equality, the UN has always been an exclusively human centered organization. Missing in the charter and focus of the organization was any realization that humans are but one of many species on this planet, and, as such, Homo sapiens has no inherent prior claim to exclusive exploitation of natural resources at the expense of all other life.

This overemphasis on human economic equality, in the form of “sustainable” economic growth, is like arguing on board the Titanic that all passengers should get an equal refund for an incomplete voyage. There are simply too many people, consuming too many resources on this planet already. Insisting that all seven billion of us, and counting, should have equal access to all resources and equal opportunity for economic growth is an insane philosophy that could only have come from economists who have lost their grip on reality.

The Solution 

We cannot buy our way out of this mess by shuffling the deck chairs of wealth from First Class to Steerage. We must reduce the passenger load, repair the ship and steer a new course into a rational future based on biological and geophysical realities of life on this the only planet we have, to sustain the only source of Life we know.

It’s time to think or thwim.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Back to Environmental Basics

Ecology and environmentalism can be confusing due to the complexity of natural systems and the myriad ways in which human activities affect complex natural cycles. Sometimes things that seem to be true intuitively turn out to be not so black and white as they seem.

Does human-produced carbon dioxide cause climate change?

Do carbon offsets and carbon trading schemes reduce human CO2 production?

Will reducing human CO2 production “stop” climate change, or reverse “global warming”?

Are solar panels and wind generators carbon neutral and pollution-free?

Can we shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources to keep our civilization going as it is?

Can we produce enough potable water through sea water desalination to allow our populations to grow beyond local supplies?

The answers to these questions are not immediately clear and unambiguous. How can we find definitive answers to these and many more questions? How do we evaluate new technologies and new energy sources for their environmental effects now and on into the future?

Forty years ago, physicist and ecologist Barry Commoner suggested The Four Laws of Ecology as a means to evaluating human activities in ecological terms:

1) Everything is connected to everything else – From galaxies to quarks, we have long learned that everything in the Universe exists in complex interrelationships with everything else.

“One could not pluck a flower without troubling a star.” Loren Eiseley

“The most important characteristic of the Eastern world view - one could almost say the essence of it - is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness. All things are seen as interdependent and inseparable parts of this cosmic whole; as different manifestations of the same ultimate reality.” (Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, 1975)

2) Everything must go somewhere - We cannot throw anything away; there is no “away”

3) Nature knows best - The way things work in Nature are derived from millions years of testing through natural selection and evolution. Humans are newcomers on the scene. We cannot assume that we can do things better just because we walk upright and have large brains.

4) There is no such thing as a free lunch - If something seems to good to be true, it probably is. Everything comes from something else. The true cost of something may be far more in the long run than it’s immediate price.

And, in addition to Commoner’s Four Laws, my Father often told me:

5) You can never do just one thing — every proposed action should be followed by the question: “And then what?” Often the consequences of action are greater and more far reaching than the original “problem.”

When facing the global challenges of climate change, Peak Oil, and water production, it is best to initially approach the problems with humility, holding our ignorance in our hat, prepared to learn and become enlightened.

I suspect that many perceived environmental problems can improve with studied neglect. Often we hasty humans propose and implement “solutions” for problems that don’t really exist, or that will correct themselves given time and lack of interference, especially when economic gain is involved. Frequently, just leaving things alone is the best response to what appears to be a problem, but is in reality just a naturally system working itself out over time. The “Precautionary Principle” and the “1% Doctrine” are often employed as excuses to justify what we want to do anyway.

A proposed solution to a perceived problem, if indeed a “solution” is required, should be tested against the above five Laws of Ecology:

1) What else will be affected by this change?
2) What are the waste products, how fast will they accumulate and where will they go?
3) How does Nature handles this “problem”?
4) What is the total energy cost of this solution?
5) After the solution is applied, what happens next?

Sometimes the results of such an analysis will reveal that a simple solution is more elegant and effective in the long run, or that no “active” solution is required at all.

“Waiting is.” Valentine Michael Smith

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself? Lao tzu

As one grows older, one sees the impossibility of imposing your will on the chaos with brute force. But if you are patient, there may come that moment when, while eating an apple, the solution presents itself politely and says, ‘Here I am!’ Albert Einstein

Clarity and foresight are the results of simplicity and patience. The simple approach sometimes yields the most profound results.

Friday, June 01, 2012

I Am Not a Leftist, Right-Wing, Environmentalist Denier!

The discussion over climate change, global warming, anthropogenic or natural, is polarized along several lines that create needless misunderstanding, obfuscation and dissent.

On the one hand, vocal proponents of anthropogenic global warming/climate change often accuse those who do not accept this view without question as being "deniers," driven by an overwhelming right-wing, oil company-funded propaganda campaign.

On the other hand, those who question the reality of anthropogenic global warming/climate change often accuse the proponents as being leftist environmentalists seeking to redistribute wealth and destroy civilization by promoting wind generators and solar panels.

Of course, both of these extreme positions are misleading. There are principled, independent scientists and activists who are not Right-wing, who are not funded by oil companies and who question the claims of human causation of climate variation. And there are principled proponents of human caused climate change who are dedicated environmentalists who are not Leftists and who do not seek redistribution of wealth and who are genuinely concerned about the effects of human development on the natural world.

More troubling is the right-wing, property rights, fossil fuel/nuclear power propensity of many self-avowed climate change "skeptics." A recent article, The Cost of Running the World on Renewable Power, by Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, suggests that a shift to renewable energy sources is overwhelmingly expensive, unattainable and unnecessary. This is far more of an ostrich-in-a-hole viewpoint than the "denier" accusation. It's abundantly clear that fossil fuels are finite and will become uneconomic to produce long before they "run out." It is also abundantly clear that we have no solution for the problem of  dispersing nuclear waste materials that will remain radioactive and toxic for centuries, even if there were unlimited sources of nuclear fuel. At some point, we will change to a renewable energy economy. Why wait for the crisis? Change now and avoid the rush!

I am one of those caught in the middle. I have been an active environmentalist for over forty years, working to limit, as much as possible, pollution, habitat and biodiversity loss and unlimited economic growth. I am also skeptical of claims for human caused climate variation. I've studied climate science, as an archaeologist, since 1991, and the case for human produced CO2 climate change causation is not supported by the evidence. Yes, humans do affect local weather and climates, but these effects do not result in global climate variation. There are many natural factors in climate variation that far overwhelm the contributions from human technology and behavior.

My problem is I am tarred with both the "denier" and "Leftist" brushes, even though I am neither. When I write about natural factors active in climate variation, I am called a denier and accused of accepting money from oil companies. When I write about the necessity of limiting pollution and habitat and biodiversity loss, I am accused of being a warmist and part of the United Nations Agenda 21 sustainable development conspiracy.

I can't win. I hesitate to identify myself in either camp, as I am marginalized and ignored by proponents and opponents alike. Between Scylla and Charybdis, I swirl in the whirlpool of universal obloquy.

The truth is I'm a scientist, albeit a semi-retired, unfunded, independent and non-academic scientist. I read the literature on both sides of the climate change debate and draw my own conclusions as the the  relevancy of the evidence and methodology with respect to the conclusions of the publications' authors. I have gone back and forth in my conclusions, at first convinced by the data that humans are indeed causing significant climate change, then, over the years, reversing that position to conclude that, while human activities do influence climate variation, they are but one of many influences, human and natural, both positive and negative forcings and feedbacks, that result in a highly complex, chaotic and largely unpredictable global climate system.

It seems that the tide may be turning, slowly on its own cosmic timetable. But I am fearful that the withdrawal of public attention from climate change will take with it support for traditional environmental defense and activism, as I have cautioned for many years. Throughout all the global warming hyperbole, pollution and habitat loss have continued unchecked, to have far greater and much more immediate effects in our lives today, not in some computer modeled, hypothetical future.

The natural world doesn't know Left or Right, Deniers or Warmists.

"Not bird, nor plane, nor even frog,
It's just little old me...  Underdog."