As the day progressed, the same square was taken over by around 3,000 zombies -- Halloween revelers trying to look freshly killed. The question is begged, what really are people's priorities here in Hipster Land? Judge not, I told myself, for Yea these zombies are less zombie-like in their daily lives than the rest of the normal population.
A more precise question of the hour: How many people in either event were really committed to the idea of bettering the climate-change agenda -- say, from that of the technofix, which some believe can get the planet down to 350 parts per million atmospheric CO2, to the more audacious and safer Luddite level of 280 ppm of pre-industrial civilization?
On the square, a Food Not Bombs activist advised me of a related event later on, a City Repair get-together at their new digs at St. Francis Church in SE Portland. She said Gaia University spokespersons were showing up. Their appearance cinched it for me, and off I pedaled. Once there in the park-like church grounds, after new friends put up the famous Tea Horse (a mobile living room) and enjoyed a pot luck dinner, a couple of dozen people filed into the Church's Che Guevara Room for a presentation around a circle of couches and chairs.
The purpose of Gaia University runs counter to the system that gave rise to today's university as we know it. When the founders of Gaia University were rebuffed several years ago at the gates of academia for trying to get Permaculture included in curricula, this revealed that Permaculture ideals of doing minimum work for maximum natural gain, and seeing problems as solutions, ran smack into the top-down regimentation that the ruling elite insists on. It seems clear that Permaculture (and common sense in general) has to be suppressed -- if just ignoring it first does not suffice.
As a somewhat jaded activist, I was truly excited to learn about Gaia University. The idea of setting up a global educational collective based on the principles of Permaculture and Ecovillages, for sustainability and regeneration, appeals to me greatly. Andrew Langford and Liora Adler are the dynamic duo in this endeavor, with cohorts in such places as the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm, Tennessee. Andrew and Liora have not only got their "Small Is Beautiful"-like system figured out; they are solidly up and running. Turning upside down the prevailing notions of learning and education, in favor of learning what's truly useful for the better world we are trying to build, is the enlightened, practical purpose of Gaia University.
Just a few years old, accredited in the U.K., Gaia U. is moving forward with a new, flexible model beyond borders -- taking the advice of Buckminster Fuller who questioned whether fixing the old broken model is worthwhile. The circle-crowd in the Che room also could relate to Adler's and Langford's position of uncovering and teaching what has been subjugated for the sake of corporate profits and suppression of the mass psyche's hurts. "Fasting," I chimed in. At the end of the evening, it was icing on the cake for me to learn that Gaia University is keenly interested in a floating campus that fits right in with the concept of Sail Transport Network.
Short of the U.S. having a college as radical as the Earth University, in Chiapas -- Universidad de la Tierra, outside San Cristobal de las Casas, an autonomous zone in rebellion within Mexico -- Gaia University is one of the most promising models for organizing and moving forward. Please check out the program and community at Gaia U, and get your degree for the Earth while you keep up your good work.
see also: Ea O Ka Aina: 350 Rally in Waimea, Kauai 10/24/09
• First, acknowledge the problem. Even in circles of well-informed scientists and agricultural experts, the notion that our land use and agricultural practices rival climate change as a global environmental threat comes as a big surprise. Clearly we need to have a larger international conversation about this issue, on par with the recent efforts of the climate change community and Al Gore, to give it the attention it deserves. • Invest in revolutionary agricultural solutions. The Obama administration has invested billions of dollars into new energy technology, research and infrastructure, and aggressive plans for new climate mitigation policies are being developed. These strategies are important, but I wonder where the stimulus funding for new “out of the box” agricultural research is? • Where are we investing public dollars in revolutionary approaches to feeding the world, while reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture? These might include the development of new hybrid crops, designed to use water and nitrogen more efficiently, or the invention of perennial crops that don't need to be planted every year. Don’t such ideas count as national priorities, too? Can’t we afford to launch a “Greener” Revolution? • Bridge the artificial divide between production agriculture and environmental conservation. We cannot solve these problems by boosting agricultural production at the expense of the environment, nor can we ignore the growing need for food in the name of preserving natural ecosystems. Instead, we must find ways to simultaneously increase production of our agricultural systems while greatly reducing their environmental impacts. This is not going to be easy. Yet, drawing on the lessons from recent research, including the successes and failures of local organic practice, combined with the efficiency and scalability of commercial agriculture, will be crucial.In recent years, for example, U.S. farmers — working with agricultural experts — have dramatically improved practices in the corn and soybean belt, cutting down on erosion, nutrient loss, and groundwater pollution, even as yields have continued to increase. As a first step, advocates of environmental conservation, organic farming and commercial agriculture all need to put down their guns and work toward solving the problems of food security and the environment — with everyone at the table. Providing for the basic needs of nine-billion-plus people, without ruining the biosphere in the process, will be one of the greatest challenges our species has ever faced. It will require the imagination, determination and hard work of countless people from all over the world, embarked on one of the noblest causes in history. But the first step is admitting we have more than one problem.
By Juan Wilson on 24 October 2009 for Island Breath -
Image above: Tiana Kamen explains impact of one-meter sea rise on Waimea Town, Kauai. All photos courtesy of Juan Wilson.
There were to be worldwide demonstrations expressing resistance to global warming by CO2 emissions on October 24th. The idea was to achieve a goal 350part-per-million (or less) of CO2 in our atmosphere to avoid run-away global warming - raising seas and desertifying the land.
image above: some participants hold Waimea "flood" map up for a rally portrait. (l. to r.) Tiana Kamie, Linda Harmon, Linda Pascatore, and Helene Kamen.
We had heard of no announcement of a scheduled event by the www.350.org rally for the westside of Kauai until October 20th. Living in Hanapepe we delighted when we heard about a planned event in Waimea today. That meant we would not have to burn too much gas driving around the island to protest adding CO2 to the atmosphere.
The Waimea 350 event was held in the park with Captains Cook's statue across the street from Ishihara's Market. It was organized by Francois Rogers (on Oahu) and Ivory McClintock, of The Blue Line Project (www.bluelineproject.org). Kauai native Tiana Kamen and her mother Helene were on the ground in Waimea with blue 350 T-shirts, handout material, and a map of Waimea that illustrated what the coastline of the town would be with a one- meter rise in sea level. It wasn't pretty if you owned a home in the area.
Image above: A local resident is the first to draw a blue line down the sidewalk of his town.
One of the rally activities was to draw a blue line ( (a line in the sand, so to speak) down the sidewalk in the middle of town to demonstrate our concern and resolve about not letting global warming come to the point of sinking our towns.
Only a small number of people gathered over the two hours of the rally, but they were concerned and dedicated folks. One claim to fame they had was being the most western and last place for a 350 gathering in the world on 2 October 2009.
Image above: Juan Wilson add some yardage to Waimea's blue line.
One thing seems clear, the scientific community and the progressive activists involved with social justice and the environment are in agreement. A disaster is unfolding that can only be stopped by political will and courage that is in too short supply. The Obama administration is sending veiled signals that it won't be possible to go to Copenhagen in seven weeks with a US agreement to stop destroying the planet.
If we won't agree to wash our hands of oil and coal in the near future, why should China or anyone else in in the back of the world bus - as it plunges over the cliff. The 350.org founder Bill McKibbon thinks the United Nations climate meeting in Copenhagen will be the most important gathering of human leaders in our history. To me it will demonstrate if money is more important than life, and whether we really are more intelligent than dinosaurs.
Ea O Ka Aina: A Breakthrough Moment 8/26/09
Ea O Ka Aina: 350 Fun Action Alert 10/20/09
Ea O Ka Aina: None Like It Hot 10/23/09
By Jason Bradford & Craig Wichner 1 May 2009 Energy Bulletin -
Image above: Restored taro loi at Limahuli Garden & Preserve of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens on Kauai, Hawaii. Visit http://www.ntbg.org/gardens/limahuli.php. Photo by Juan Wilson.
Framing the Discussion: Sustainable Agriculture = Sustainable Society
Developing a sustainable agriculture is a necessary part of creating a sustainable society. The root of the word sustainable is the verb, to sustain, which means to nourish and prolong. In social and environmental contexts we say something is sustainable when we believe it can persist indefinitely without exhausting resources or causing lasting damage.
The actions we take as individuals are at the core of both the problems and the solutions. Just by purchasing conventional goods at your local supermarket, you cause 4 lbs of pesticides to be put into the environment each year. The food supply chain averages of 4200 miles to reach your plate, when it could come from local farms and use a fraction of the transportation fuels. And the 2.6 acres of U.S. farmland (your pro-rata share) have lost 50% of the carbon in the soil since 1907, the equivalent CO2 of burning 90 barrels of oil – on top of your normal carbon emissions.
Cumulatively, agriculture impacts our society at a scope and scale that few appreciate, far beyond the initial realms of our food safety, quality, and the local environment. Due to the scale of natural resources required to provide food, fiber and fuel to 6.7 billion people, agriculture requires continued global-scale supplies of fertile land, clean water, fossil fuels, fertilizers, pesticides, and transportation infrastructure. These issues underpin our civilization’s energy security, population distribution and capacity, national security, and cause agriculture to be a key player, for good and bad, in the fate of our planet’s climate.
A 2008 article in the popular journal New Scientist titled “How our economy is killing the Earth” included a number of graphics showing the exponential growth in consumption of planetary resources…leading to an exponential growth in problems. Agriculture, both directly or indirectly, contributes to resource consumption and pollution, and can be used to benefit or aggravate the situation.
...Exponential growth is by definition unsustainable, and signs such as fishery collapses, forest loss and species extinctions, and melted glaciers and other evidence of climate change all are warning signs at best…trip-wires at worst.
Discussions of an alternative path, or sustainable development, often begin by reviewing a schematic of development that balances social, economic and environmental parameters, which are often called the “three pillars”.
Ecological Economists would produce a different schematic that places the economy and all social systems as a subsets of the environment to reflect that humans are a part of and totally dependent upon the environment. In other words, these are not three parts in a balanced relationship but a nested set of parts with a clear hierarchy.
Both views of sustainability, however, establish criteria for understanding the long-term viability of related environmental, social and economic systems. This white paper will do so for agriculture.
The Impetus for Change
Our modern agricultural system, the so-called “green revolution,” has enabled tremendous productivity gains from the land, enabling us to grow from 2 billion to 6.7 billion people on the planet over the past 100 years.
Modern farming methods are designed to generate maximum financial and production returns, and they do this well over the short and even medium term. For example, conventional farmers usually grow a single crop over large acreage; use herbicides to sterilize the soil prior to planting, then add artificial fertilizers to stimulate crop growth and pesticides to treat overpopulated pests (caused by monocropping); all the while decreasing the productivity of the soil over time.
However, such practices have been shown to reduce returns (net of fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide costs) by 25% to 30% in as few as five years4, while requiring increasing amounts of costly and toxic artificial inputs. Unfortunately, once started, the system is very difficult to escape.
Even with its history of yield improvements, agricultural production today is no longer keeping up with current demands. For example, from 1998 to 2008 the global consumption of grain has outpaced total production in most years, leading to low carry-over stocks.
Achieving expected growth is daunting as well. If demographic trends continue, agricultural output will need to nearly double by 20506, yet the available fertile farmland per person will be one-third the levels in 1950. Demand for farmland production is increasing due to rising population, greater consumption of meat (requiring additional grains to feed the animals), and new biofuel mandates consuming corn and oil-seed crops. Meanwhile farmland acreage worldwide is decreasing due to land development, soil and water depletion, increasing soil salinity, and other factors.
Furthermore, these farm practices are environmentally unsustainable on a global level, as they:
- Degrade soil, air and water quality from tillage, chemical applications, and concentrated wastes. Topsoil with low organic matter content and little biological activity is unable to hold onto the added chemicals, with the runoff causing algal blooms and then “dead zones” in fresh water and oceans.
- Consume and deplete non-renewable resources such as ancient aquifers, natural gas and petroleum-based fuels, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and use mined minerals such as rock phosphate to promote productivity.
- Put 5 billion pounds of potentially harmful chemicals into the environment each year through pesticide use (includes herbicides, insecticides and fungicides), with over a billion pounds in the U.S. alone. This goes directly into our food, with 77% of the food consumed in the U.S. containing pesticide residue, and 47% containing residue from multiple pesticides.
- Contribute to greenhouse gas emissions from the direct use of fossil fuels, and indirectly through the breakdown of soil carbon and the conversion of natural ecosystems such as forests and wetlands. About 16% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from food production, distribution and retail.
Climate change and water supply issues are likely to significantly affect agricultural production. About 70-90% of global freshwater withdrawals are used for agricultural irrigation. Globally, crop models show a general decline in the yields of major food crops and livestock, with the carbon dioxide fertilization effect being overwhelmed by extreme events and trends in temperature, water availability and pest pressures.
For example, over the course of this century climate models show California's water supply declining overall, but especially during the spring and summer months when irrigation use is critical.
A recent study from a University of California agricultural economist projected that the productivity and value of California farmland could drop by about 50% (range 13% to 67% across several models) due to higher temperatures and reduced water availability.
In summary, demographic momentum is pushing the human population into a predicament where more and more food is expected to come from less and less land and water, all the while requiring full and growing production and keeping no reserve. While food today is still generally plentiful and inexpensive, the trends suggest we are nearing system limits. At the same time, most agricultural practices degrade key ecological assets, including topsoil, fresh water, and the climate system.
Unfortunately agriculture today cannot be easily relocated due to climate change, loss of topsoil or water – the loss of growing regions or growing capacity due to a degraded environment will have a direct affect on us.
Defining Sustainable Agriculture
With respect to the environment, society and economics, sustainable agriculture would:
- Not harm the environment from pollution,
- Not be reliant on non-renewable inputs or degrade renewable ones,
- Nourish people with non-toxic, healthy food and other useful feed stocks, and
- Provide a fair, steady, return on effective investment in labor and capital.
Sustainable farms employ productivity systems inspired by nature to deliver high yields through ecological synergy, diversity and resilience. Sustainable farms are managed as fully-integrated ecosystems, where knowledge of soils, macro and microscopic organisms such as bacteria and fungi, water, crops, weeds, pests, equipment and techniques are used to maximize the long-term health, productivity and economic profitability of the farm.
To know if a farm is sustainable we should be able to measure its impact on the environment, society, and its finances. Does the balance of farm activities emit or sequester carbon dioxide? Is topsoil being lost or built? Is the runoff of water from the farm clean or a burden to local rivers?
Metrics can be developed for a number of important sustainability indicators, including:
- No build-up of persistent pollutants into the environment,
- Development of soil carbon and a balanced soil food web
- Enhancement of regional biodiversity and ecosystem services,
- Use of renewable energy and recycled mineral resources,
- Humane care of farm animals,
- Food quality and health,
- Worker fairness and safety, and
- Economic viability.
Farms are ideal places to deploy renewable energy systems, as they typically have abundant sunshine and may include significant wind or moving water resources. Liquid fuels are highly valued in farming because they can be used in machines to perform highly time sensitive work, such as planting and harvesting. Perhaps 20% of farmland would need to be set aside for biofuel crops for on-farm use. Some are exploring options to electrify tractors.
...What a Sustainable Agricultural System Will Look Like
Many terms are used to describe alternatives to conventional, industrial agriculture. Organic, local, and sustainable come to mind. Less often used is “agro ecology,” which views the agrarian landscape the same way an ecologist views the natural landscape. Farms also can’t exist in isolation from the broader society.
A truly sustainable farm is an integral part of the local community. There are biophysical reasons for this, as plants and animals essentially draw nutrients from the soil that in a closed-loop system must be returned. When food is exported across the globe, soils and water are being exported too. In ecosystems nutrient cycling is predominantly local, and this is why sustainable food systems must be locally oriented.
Because humans are omnivores, our normal diets tend to draw upon diverse agro ecosystems. Tree fruits and nuts are a type of forest. Pasture is a type of mature grassland that can raise meat. Fields of grains and legumes are immature grasslands. And vegetables and root crops represent very early successional plant communities. We evolved from people who combined hunting and gathering across fields and into forests with garden-scale plots. Sustainable farm landscapes reflect the omnivory of human diets.
...In summary, a transition to organic and sustainable farming is required for environmental, social and economic reasons. Fortunately, organic farming is a robust business model, delivering superior economics over conventional farming on a wide variety of metrics such as crop yields, gross and net income per acre, cost of inputs, per farm income and more.
As society provides the financial and organizational capital to re-create agriculture, the living soils, plants and animals will respond, over time, to support us. Each acre converted to organic, sustainable methods is one acre closer to a societal tipping point for sustainability – or at least one less acre as a source of harm.
Ea O Ka Aina: Food For Thought 10/18/09
Ea O Ka Aina: Opportunities for a New Agriculture 10/20/09
The financial crisis and subsequent global recession have led to much soul-searching among economists, the vast majority of whom never saw it coming. But were their assumptions and models wrong only because of minor errors or because today's dominant economic thinking violates the laws of physics?
A small but growing group of academics believe the latter is true, and they are out to prove it. These thinkers say that the neoclassical mantra of constant economic growth is ignoring the world's diminishing supply of energy at humanity's peril, failing to take account of the principle of net energy return on energy invested (ERoEV). They hope that a set of theories they call "biophysical economics" will improve upon neoclassical theory, or even replace it altogether.
But even this nascent field finds itself divided, as evidenced by the vigorous and candid back-and-forth debate last week over where to go next. One camp says its models prove the world is headed toward a dramatic economic collapse as energy scarcity takes hold, while another camp believes there is still time to turn the ship around. Still, all biophysical economists see only very bleak prospects for the future of modern civilization, putting a whole new spin on the phrase "the dismal science."
Last week, about fifty scholars in economics, ecology, engineering and other fields met at the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry for their second annual conference on biophysical economics. The new field shares features with ecological economics, a much more established discipline with conferences boasting hundreds of attendees, but the relatively smaller number of practitioners of biophysical economics believe theirs is a much more fundamental and truer form of economic reasoning.
"Real economics is the study of how people transform nature to meet their needs," said Charles Hall, professor of systems ecology at SUNY-ESF and organizer of both gatherings in Syracuse. "Neoclassical economics is inconsistent with the laws of thermodynamics."
Like Hall, many biophysical economic thinkers are trained in ecology and evolutionary biology, fields that do well at breaking down the natural world into a few fundamental laws and rules, just like physicists do. Though not all proponents of the new energy-centric academic study have been formally trained in economics, scholars coming in from other fields, especially ecology, say their skills allow them to see the global economy in a way that mainstream economists ignore.
Central to their argument is an understanding that the survival of all living creatures is limited by the concept of energy return on investment (EROI): that any living thing or living societies can survive only so long as they are capable of getting more net energy from any activity than they expend during the performance of that activity.
For instance, if a squirrel burns energy eating nuts, those nuts had better give the squirrel more energy back then it expended, or the squirrel will inevitably die. It is a rule that lies at the core of studying animal and plant behavior, and human society should be looked at no differently, as even technologically complex societies are still governed by EROI.
"The basic issue is very fundamental: Why should economics be a social science, because it's about stuff?" Hall said.
'Peak oil' embraced
The modern biophysical economics movement may be relatively young, but the ideas at its roots are not.
In 1926, Frederick Soddy, a chemist who was awarded the Nobel Prize just a few weeks before, published "Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt," one of the first books to argue that energy should lie at the heart of economics and not supply-demand curves.
Soddy also criticized traditional monetary policy theories for seemingly ignoring the fact that "real wealth" is derived from using energy to transform physical objects, and that these physical objects are inescapably subject to the laws of entropy, or inevitable decline and disintegration.
The sharpest difference between biophysical economics and the more widely held "Chicago School" approach is that biophysical economists readily accept the peak oil hypothesis: that society is fast approaching the point where global oil production will peak and then steadily decline.
The United States is held as the prime example. Though the United States is still the world's third-largest producer of oil, its oil production stopped growing more than a decade ago and has flatlined or steadily fallen ever since. Other once-robust oil-producing countries have experienced similar production curves.
But the more important indicator, biophysical economists say, is the fact that the U.S. oil industry's energy return on investment has been steadily sliding since the beginning of the century.
Through analyzing historical production data, experts say the petroleum sector's EROI in this country was about 100-to-1 in 1930, meaning one had to burn approximately 1 barrel of oil's worth of energy to get 100 barrels out of the ground. By the 1990s, it is thought, that number slid to less than 36-to-1, and further down to 19-to-1 by 2006.
"If you go from using a 20-to-1 energy return fuel down to a 3-to-1 fuel, economic collapse is guaranteed," as nothing is left for other economic activity, said Nate Hagens, editor of the popular peak oil blog "The Oil Drum."
"The main problem with neoclassical economics is that it treats energy as the same as any other commodity input into the production function," Hagens said. "They parse it into dollar terms and treat it the same as they would mittens or earmuffs or eggs ... but without energy, you can't have any of that other stuff."
Nor is conservation or energy efficiency the answer. In his presentation, Henshaw noted that the International Energy Agency's own data show that energy use is doubling every 37 years or so, while energy productivity takes about 56 years to double.
In fact, the small world of biophysical economists seems to agree that energy and resource conservation is pointless in the economic system as it is now construed, contrary to what one might expect. Such efforts are noteworthy as it buys the world a bit more time, but the destination is inevitably the same -- a gallon of gasoline not burned by an American will be burned by someone else anyway.
Though not as closely studied, biophysical economists theorize that the peak oil phenomenon holds true for all non-renewable resources, especially energy commodities. Proponents of the field say they are moving closer to understanding "peak gas" and "peak coal." Consumption of many of the world's most valuable minerals could likewise see those resources nearing exhaustion, as well, they say.
And no amount of technology can fix the problem. Hagens points out that oil extraction has evolved by leaps and bounds since the early 1900s, and yet companies must expend much more energy to get less and less oil than they did back then.
"It isn't that there's no technology," Hall said. "The question is, technology is in a race with depletion, and that's a whole different concept. And we think that we can show empirically that depletion is winning, because the energy return on investment keeps dropping for gas and oil."
The most pessimistic of the biophysical economics camp sees the oil-fueled world economy grinding to a halt soon, possibly within 10 years. They are all working to get the message out, but not all of them believe their peers in other professions will listen.
"Of course I'm trying to send a message," said Joseph Tainter, chairman of Utah State University's Department of Environment and Society. "I just don't expect there's anyone out there to receive it."
Sitting in the front row, author and climate change activist Bill McKibben is game. "Save some trees for me," he mouths, his head bobbing. The musician thankfully finishes and, after a brief introduction, McKibben quickly mounts the stage steps.
The feeling in the room changes instantly. Having flown down from Alaska that morning, McKibben has been on five continents during the last nine days. "If the planet isn't warming up," he jokes, "it's not for lack of me trying."
But the planet is warming up. Unable to stop it personally, McKibben is instead the relentless messenger of its alteration.
Like food activist Michael Pollan, McKibben is tall, lean, ascetic, ridiculously well educated and somewhat ill at ease in his role of scientific soothsayer. Like Pollan, he'd rather be in his home office writing than lecturing on our imminent demise. Unlike Pollan, he's still stuck--on this night at least--with the earnest, the gray ponytails, the activists who remember John and Yoko. He's preaching to the converted, as the Prius-packed parking lot attests. He's telling educated, concerned citizens what they already know. Nothing, other than the plain dire facts of his humor-laced presentation, is new to them. His message couldn't be more important, yet he's not a household name. Not yet, at least.
While Pollan's meme can be memorized like a short poem--eat food, not too much, mostly plants--McKibben's is even easier. It's simply a number: 350. Three hundred and fifty, the amount of carbon parts per million in the atmosphere that NASA's top climate scientist Jim Hansen has counseled will most closely support the earth upon which human civilization arose. McKibben has organized an international day of action in countries as disparate as Yemen and Croatia slated for Oct. 24 and known as 350 Day to highlight the number because 350 parts per million (ppm) is 37 numbers lower than the 387 ppm level that the atmosphere is currently at. In other words, we've already crossed what McKibben calls "the red line" for succoring the climate upon which human civilization arose. By a lot.
Missionary Man The author of 12 books, including the seminal 1989 global-warming text The End of Nature, McKibben, 49, is the kind of easy intellectual who joined the staff at The New Yorker magazine just after graduating from Harvard. He has written about subjects ranging from Hundred Dollar Holiday, in which he outlines spending just that amount on winter festivities, to Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families, which advocates having just one child, as he and his wife, the novelist Sue Halpern, have done with their daughter, Sophie. But all is not simply an orange stuck in a stocking for the lonely Christmas of an only child with McKibben. His relentless sense of humor and his indefatigable energy make him a fascinating magnet.
A religious man who teaches Sunday school at the Methodist church near his Vermont home, McKibben needs that energy to survive the task he has set himself this year, one in which he will have spent 355 of the annum's 365 days on the road, away from his wife and daughter, spreading the word about climate change. For McKibben, it is a moral necessity. He knows the truth about global warming--he's seen it firsthand from Bangladesh to Pakistan to Phuket to Mongolia to China. Global warming and climate change are not coming, he counsels: they're here. The 10 feet--feet--of water that fell last month on Taiwan is just one of an alarming number of natural calamities that attest to that.
McKibben has had dengue fever in Bangladesh, seen a rock new to human eyes suddenly emerge from a Mongolian glacier and knows that rising sea levels are already salinating the fresh Ganges River. If he doesn't personally deliver this truth to every person he can possibly grab by the lapels, he will have failed himself. He will have, in fact, harmed his own soul. And so, with red-rimmed eyes and a practiced presentation, McKibben finds himself on yet another stage in yet another town in yet another country trying to convince some 600 people at a time that this is something they should be concerned about.
Broken Chain As comfortable in front of the microphone as at the dinner table, McKibben has told his tale hundreds of times, changing it only to include the newest natural tragedy briefly grabbing international headlines--all of it, save Katrina, in far-off nations that, he passionately declares, "did nothing to deserve it!"
But even with an audience of the Prius-driving graybeards reasonably versed in the actual way of the world, McKibben must explain the petty basics of the earth's ecology. A plant that has for the millennia flowered at a certain week in April when the light and heat conspire perfectly and has been a fecund food source for an insect whose life cycle is keyed to the plant and is itself a delicious meal for an amphibian which awakens from the mud just as the insect is at its plumpest, which is itself a gorgeous lump of protein for a bird whose migration pattern is in part set by the availability of frogs in the area and whose eggs are a yummy treat for a mammal that has come to live year-round there due to the certainty on the eggs for its own breeding, and which is in turn eaten by another mammal larger and more adept. Its remains are ravaged by scavengers, its gristle dissolved by bugs (which in turn are eaten by the migrating birds whose excrement nourishes the April-blooming plant).
All of this rapacious blooming and pollinating and eating and excreting and reproducing and dying has eventually led humans, we of the big brains, to the establishment of such unnatural wealth as is found within any provincial supermarket. It is a cycle so seemingly robust that we simply take it for granted. But this life chain can be--and already has been--enormously upset by something as seemingly simple as a Fahrenheit degree, by an extra centimeter's worth of water, by a wind that should never have been whipped.
"The thing I am doing today is the single most important thing I can be doing," McKibben says. "We're going to find out in the next few years whether this big brain [that humans have] was a good idea and if it's linked with a big enough heart."
Arctic Alarm A scholar-in-residence at Vermont's Middlebury College, McKibben has plenty of access to young people and their sturdy energy. In 2006, he led a group of students and colleagues on a five-day walk through the Vermont woods that began at the poet Robert Frost's cabin ("'The road not taken' seemed apropos," he says) to make a global-warming statement that would end in Burlington. There, his group was joined by others until its ranks swelled to a thousand people marching upon Burlington's city hall. It was, he realized sadly, the largest public protest for climate change ever yet staged.
Astonished that the plight of the globe was so little remarked by its inhabitants, McKibben formed Step It Up in 2007. Using his student team from Middlebury and the endless swathe of the Internet, Step It Up promoted some 1,400 climate-change actions worldwide in April of 2007. McKibben was feeling pretty good about his work. And then the summer came, and then the Arctic melted.
"The Arctic sea was slowly melting, and then it suddenly fell off a cliff," he says. "We were losing ice sheets the size of California every month, at a rate 200 percent above what was predicted. My scientist friends panicked. This was on, and not just Arctic ice; there is 25 percent less sea ice than ever before. Satellite photos revealed that there was a lot less ice up top. Glacial ice is the most unsettling loss of all."
McKibben estimates that 300,000 people will die annually from global warming with just a one-degree temperature rise. "But we expect the planet to warm by five to six degrees more in this century if we do nothing.
"We have the technology to imagine what the future will look like," he continues. "The scientific method has worked, but so far the political method has utterly failed. We've had a 20-year bipartisan effort to do nothing, and it's succeeded brilliantly."
Chill for a Day Asher Miller, executive director of the Post-Carbon Institute, a global think tank that counts McKibben and peak oil theorist Richard Heinberg among its fellows, looks at fossil fuels almost fondly, as in thoughtful reminiscence. "The big human story is that we won the lottery," Miller says. "We found this amazing energy source that fueled our society and changed it completely, giving us luxuries and altering the course of human history entirely. Can you blame us for going nuts over it?
"But it's now a moot point. We're living in a difficult time. We're changing, and it's being dictated by climate. We have to be realistic, and we can't live the way we've been living."
Perhaps the most sobering part of McKibben's work is that those worried about climate change can swap out all the light bulbs they like, grow every bit of lettuce that they'll ever eat themselves, ride their bikes everywhere--and none of it will mean a thing unless our political leaders act. "How do we muster the will to get a global agreement that puts a price on carbon?" he asks. "We can't solve it one bulb at a time, not one state at a time, not even one country at a time. We have to deal with it one planet at a time.
"How do we muster the political power to make it happen? We have to build a movement. I say that as if I know what I'm talking about. I don't. No one really knows how we're going to muster it." 350 Day is his latest idea, a creative, almost joyful attempt to unite people the world over in protest against the lethargy of large, First World governments to alter policies, agreements, coal and oil consumption.
Miller isn't pessimistic--exactly. "The environmental movement has failed," he says. "Guilting people, talking about abstractions like polar bears. Boiling down complex stuff into a simple number like 350 is a good way to use what otherwise has become a battle of data and talking points.
"It would be great if people take to the streets on Oct. 24," he says. "But that's just one day. This is going to be every day. And it's already started."
McKibben could be said to agree. "There are no guarantees that any of this will work," he tells the Sonoma Country Day School audience. "There are scientists who think that the machination we've put in process is unstoppable. But the best science says that we still have a window. Because we have that window, we have to fight. For 20 years, I wondered what this fight would look like--and it's very beautiful. We're an amateur movement. This is a homemade operation, and that's the best thing about it."
McKibben's next focus after 350 Day is the December climate-change conference planned in Copenhagen. The United States will attend, as will other powerful and polluting countries. "Whatever we do at Copenhagen isn't enough. We know what the bottom line is, and we have to keep at it. The negotiations are occurring between human beings and physics and chemistry. Physics and chemistry have stated their bottom line: '350 is our demand.'"
Where There's a Wallet, There's a Way The most promising bit of national legislation, according to Ann Hancock, executive director of the Climate Protection Campaign, is something called "cap and dividend."
"It means putting a cap on carbon and every year reducing that cap so that every year, and rapidly, we meet the scientific imperative," she explains. So-called gross polluters--think Exxon and its ilk--will have the option to purchase rights to use fossil fuels. Cap and dividend will raise energy prices, it's true, but the current proposal, put forward by Democratic Rep. Christopher Van Hollen of Maryland, would also offer customer rebates on energy use. Those who use less fossil fuel would receive more money back; those who use more, less.
"I think that cap and dividend is the most powerful solution we need to have and that's worldwide," Hancock says. "I think that ['60s activist] Sal Alinsky said that most people will do the right thing for the wrong reasons. We're more concerned with our comfort and mortgage than we are with the climate. Pricing is the way to do it. The option of the right to pollute will generate perhaps trillions of dollars," Hancock says. "It will torque the whole economy in a green direction. If people have to pay more money for fossil fuel and they aren't made whole, they won't reelect those people."
Passing the Torch Bill McKibben is exhausted. After rallying the audience for an hour of passionate speech, his voice drops. "We set out to organize the world, a ludicrous proposition. Only McDonald's and Coca-Cola have succeeded. The only part of the climate change movement that's been left out is the movement part." But the key, he stresses, is the newest generation. "The real leaders of the moment are young people," he tells the sea of gray ponytails. A handful of students on the top tier applaud.
Asher Miller agrees. "There's this generational gap in the larger environmental movement," he says, "and Bill is helping to close that."
The next generation has every reason to be involved, as it's their adult lives, their children and probable grandchildren that are most affected. Climate change is here, and even if every coal facility in the world stopped production today, McKibben estimates that it will take two generations before we can return the earth's atmosphere to 350 ppm.
Miller, who has a toddler, chooses to be sanguine. "I fully expect that the next 10 years will be significantly different than the last 10 years," he says. "Things are different, and the sooner we can internalize that, the sooner we can make changes.
"The world is going to be different, but it may not be all bad."
see also: Ea O Ka Aina: Fun Action Alert 10/20/09