Saturday, May 12, 2007


Flying the Guilt-Free Skies: Paying to Absolve the Sin of Emissions

How to Fly the Guilt-Free Skies. This was my introduction to carbon offsets, an article in the NRDC journal (winter 2005) by a travel writer with environmental sympathies trying to rationalize his way of life. The idea is to offset carbon emissions by coupling these actions with others that create carbon sinks of equal proportion. There are organizations, especially websites, that can do the computation for you and take your money to supposedly fund the offsetting activities.

The foundational offsetting action is tree-planting. Forests as well as oceans are carbon sinks. I heat with wood. When I first took my forested “holding” on our landtrust – essentially a lifetime lease – a fellow community member, a retired nuclear engineer, calculated that I could heat with wood and sustain the 3.8 acres, for the woodlot would easily regenerate 2-3 cords of wood harvested yearly. In fact, we use on average one to one and a half cords, and there have been times that I contemplated a little side cordwood business to keep up with the dead and dying specimens in our healthy ridge forest. The balance I strive to achieve does not rely on tree planting, but is the natural process of ongoing forest regeneration.

“Scrubbing” our emissions by carbon offsets in the form of tree-planting is a mixed bag. Sources that I trust say NOT to fund offsetting technologies that rely on tree-planting because the efficacy of such actions depends upon where you plant, and which species are used. It is a complex process, involving albedo as well as the speed of the respiration cycle in trees. And when does this offsetting ameliorization take place? Granted the main CO2 uptake is in a young forest, but the calculations are made over a 60 year life cycle. If we’re talking about offsetting our emissions in the imperiled now, not during the potentially chaotic downswing in the latter half of the century, then a more honest tree-planting activity would be Real Time Carbon Banking, where enough trees are planted to offset 2007 emissions in 2007. That is a lot of trees. Alternatively, one can purchase offsets that fund alternative energy projects in a wide variety of places, especially those groups who would have a hard time raising money for these capital-intensive projects. Examples:

The screening of An Inconvenient Truth was undoubtedly a protracted watershed moment, for 2006 marked the year that most US citizens got it, and the retrograde anti-science types began their final retreat, shrieking louder as they sensed their historical moment was passing. The film deserved it’s award as the best, and indeed most timely, documentary. But the most prominent image in the film was Al Gore’s jetting all over the world to give his presentations. Knowing what I do about jet fuel emissions, I found this deeply disturbing as a model for the potential activists seeing the film.

All of us have to weigh the importance of our footprints as we work to change our own and others’ habitual carbon-filthy behaviors, and certainly there are going to be incidental contradictions as we start contracting the footprint. I was struck in the Ram Das interview with the Australian John Seed, a leading deep ecologist, that Seed readily accepted this contradiction as an occupational hazard necessary to meet the dire emergency of our times. But by which criteria do we assess the means we employ to enact our imperative to act at this critical juncture in earth history? Gandhi walked and rode the train to project his message. The website What Would Jesus Drive? misses the radical nature of his message. I think you can forget the idea of Jesus as driving a hybrid, even more, being a jet-setter.

A few weeks after seeing An Inconvenient Truth, I saw Gore’s claim that his family lived a carbon-neutral existence. I was deeply skeptical. Recently, I read about the huge Gore mansion, and the amount of natural gas, costing more than $2400/month, required for space heating and cooling. Something is deeply wrong with the assumption that one can simply buy green credits and keep living an excessive lifestyle. Gore and Queen Elizabeth, who spent $20,000 to offset her recent trip for the Jamestown quater-centenary, may be able to afford these offsets. The rich are invited to buy indulgences in the form of carbon offsets, leaving the rest of us to wallow in our state of ecological sin. Most of us live like kings but can’t afford to pay the true costs. As for the efficacy of the indulgences, are they guaranteed to deliver on their carbon-reduction promises? Green indulgence would indeed be a better term than carbon offsets, for it would point back to our greatest unmerited indulgence, to live as if there were three or four earths to support our (American) lifestyles.

Case in point: college age kids. Grist just ran an article featuring an eco-activist working with the students and administration to make Brown University’s carbon-neutral pledge an honest one. Yet these same Brown students fly an average of 16,000 miles a year (documented by an on-line commentator, citing examples from that student body’s version of “What did you do this summer?”). With or without offsets, is this just and sustainable? A friend who “graduated” from one of my deep ecology workshops gave a similar story about her daughter-in-law’s eco-footprint calculation. She was looking great until she plugged in her three-four air trips for the year. This is a familiar story for many of my friends and family. My own son, a deeply committed environmentalist, has made it clear that he will not curtail his air travel in order to be “pure,” to be carbon-neutral.He owns no real estate and very little stuff - other than climbing gear. Yet when he travels - on average slightly less than the Brown figure - he is producing roughly the same footprint as a burgher with a large house, inefficient space heating, and conventional diet who stays put. We love travel, and, thanks to the petroleum interval, are in its golden age – at least until the markets realize oil has peaked. And I understand that travel, undertaken with care and a sympathetic, open-minded, inquisitive spirit, can help make a more rounded, whole person, certainly one with a global perspective. Many of us assume that traveling widely is part of a liberal education. This is particularly true of travel to cultures that are radically different from our own. I have frequently thought that the value of universal service for our youth would be that many of the options could include exposure to these cultures, such as Peace Corps service. But accessing many of them requires transoceanic travel. On the other hand, one can reach some of the nearer cultures by train and bus. If one is not committed yet to a job and family, still in a state of psychosocial moratorium (those college kids), why not even bicycle or take a freighter? And those of us who don’t have to measure our yearly vacation in terms of a few weeks have sufficient time to take the train, even across the continent (as I will do for the fourth time to attend that same son’s wedding in Yosemite this fall). But air travel is more convenient, and still absurdly cheap, so we – virtually all of us – are tempted. Some, businesspeople and the moneyed class, are tempted a lot. I certainly am not ready to give up my free miles. The imperative in the face of climate change is not for the shrinking number of those who can afford them to buy indulgences but to radically change our lives. And I do not mean simply becoming more efficient and conserving more. I mean letting go of whole categories of desire, and subjecting every supposed need to what are the implications of this act for Gaia? What we all really want, beyond meeting our basic needs, is spiritual fulfillment, meaningful lives, and, because we are social animals, community. Giving up on habitually using three and a half earths to fulfill what we think we require need not mean deprivation, but an opportunity to live more fully, and yes, much closer to home, which would be a huge boost towards fulfilling our neglected need for community.

Union of Concerned Scientists has a helpful analysis of comparative emissions by air, train, bus, and car. Going by train is significantly more efficient only if the train is mostly full, which is true only on some routes. A transcontinental air trip on a fully loaded plane uses the same emissions as a 35 mpg car with two passengers. Short flights are the worst, since so much energy is used in takeoff and landing (braking). But flying has the added downside that its emissions occur in the stratosphere, whose chemistry multiplies their effect. The most efficient means of motor travel is a long-distance bus.

Friday, May 04, 2007


The Fearsome Wave Revisited: Is there Still a Strawberry at the End of the World?

At the zenith of human history, half the oil extracted from her bowels, the victory is the earth's. "Sustainable development" we cried! James Lovelock, who brought Gaia back into our vocabulary and systems theory to its most elegant earthly summit with his theory that the Earth is one self-regulating organism, says in his testament that the words are an oxymoron. On an earth unable since 1985 to replenish herself, what we need is not more development but a "dignified retreat" if we still can pull it off. The kairos cries out for it. Lovelock calls it The Revengeof Gaia.

Never mind the ten-year-olds, what do we do at such a moment? The core of these moments is that nothing you could do would really matter. The sun is setting. That is Lovelock's position, as he points to a future in a mere hundred years of "isolated breeding pairs" at the still-habitable poles, the remnants of humanity ruled by warlords. But, unlike Kenneth Deffeyes, Lovelock is trusting his intuition, reading the graphs idiosyncratically, following his hunches - which made him a genius of a theorist, conceiving Gaia as more than metaphor. Yet if we stick with the cold probabilities, regularly recomputed with ever more elegant climate models, we may be on the brink, asymptotic to the moment. It is not inevitable, ony highly probable. Unlike peak oil, it is not a plateau, because even the Kyoto signatories are emitting more, not less CO2. And then there's the US, China, and India, the fossil-guzzling Three Tipping Tipplers. The expectant noise in the halls of Congress and in the iconic Step It Up sites is that our represetatives might pass a tough law mandating 80% reductions by 2050. James Hansen, the climate scientist I take my cues from, gives us until 2015 to acheive a global 10% reduction of CO2 emissions - or there won't be any second chances.

Mittelpunkt III
Analysts like to talk about the stock market's moving average. What about the moving average of species diversity, as we lose 30 a day? The middle of today's heat, near-record for April 30. It is now 80. I duck my gardening, turning off the hose tied to my lifeline as a gardener, the deep artesian well with 2.5 gallons/minute flow (when last we checked). A renter, an avid gardener, once drained it dry by watering heavily, and we had to pull the submersible pump and replace it. We are again having semi-drought. But out West, they are entering their sixth or seventh year in some cases. The aquifers are being drained and there's no recharge available. Some climate scientists think that the American Southwest is no longer in drought, but has simply changed to a desert climate. Look at a geological map and, thinking like the earth, experience how little it would take for this to occur. Ignore the vast cities, multiplying like vigorous cancers. For the earth will ignore them as she realizes her changed geology. Remember the mighty Colorado River? So does the earth, but her preferences in these matters are less predjudiced than ours.

Right in the middle of this afternoon's heat is the power that gave rise to all of this, and that can take it all away, riding the moving average. Midpoint of the Lord: the Sun.

The birds chirp drily. I write in shorts, ready for a hot run with the dog, avid as ever for the fray. Good thing he's not a polar bear, bless 'em. The moving average is going to carry them in a few short decades to the brutal teen-boy world of toast, dead meat. Meanwhile, conservation agencies ask me for $25,000 to do my part in moving them to Siberia, where they might have a chance to avoid extinction a little longer. Siberia? The tundra is melting, not yet recorded in the methane tables for this year, where we are told that atmospheric methane is on the rise .03%. Bullshit. Read the gauges thrust into the permafrost and the satellite data, compute, and then think again. The moving average, the midpoint of this quickly turning world, needs to be published daily. But everybody, including me and the sunnysmug Amory Lovins - needs to check their figures. Never say my antinuke physician colleagues with "scientific training." I understand where they're coming from, but let me submit this. The Hippocratic oath needs to be revised to pay attention to greenhouse gases, otherwise it is suddenly quaintly irrelevant

At such a moment the perfect action is to string the tanpura. Yes, the shaman's act, like Orpheus tuning his lyre, then raising his plectrum on Mount Parnassos in mid-winter, Helios' rays passing through the atmosphere his model for tonal perfection. Or maybe change your life! That would mean extending the fleeting moment of non-doing, converting our greedy global civilization person by person to carbon neutrality. Paying attention, mindfully suspending the moment asymptotic to Peak Oil, Peak Human, Peak Interglacial.

Doing this we would become more responsible farmers, honoring subsistence and local and regional self-sufficiency. We would become a "one-child world" - or less. (One author, a sardonic environmental humorist, calls for having no sex for a hundred years, a "Shaker Final Solution" that would improbably restore the biosphere.) We would have to watch people die - no life-support systems or quintuple bypass surgeries - starving as the industrial farming machine withered for lack of oil and we prayerfully gave over vast reaches of earth to desert as we preserved nigh-drained aquifers for careful farming. The Israelis could send drip-agriculture consultants out to join Castro's 100,000 doctors who would move into the vaccum left by the collapsing US healthcare system and its bloated predators. Two homes in a world where 4000 square feet is considered a "small house," up to your neck in stuff and still dissatisfied?

Let's talk about air travel, one of the most insidious and entrapping forms of desire, making even our nomadic youths with virtually no possessions into atmospheric players who consume multiple earths. We live between moments, precariously close to giving way to the next one, in which we'll helplessly watch the towering Wave, the tsunami of climate change, hovering above us until we tumble into it. How do you choose to live this moment, brothers and sisters? The outcome of our biggest battle, the moral equivalent of war, is nigh.

Next Post:Flying the Guilt-Free Skies: Paying to Absolve the Sin of Emissions


Thursday, May 03, 2007


Earth's Midpoint, Leaning Towards Empty

Mid-afternoon vast emptiness. Perfectly still, the sun beaming off the rhododendron leaves, tree branches frozen in their lacy patterns.On the window, sixty ladybugs flit, crawl and tumble, herded by two wasps. At the fulcrum of each day there is a moment when you think of the 10,000 things to do, or the books to read, or the silent hungry writing desk, or the four directions in which you could walk through these mountains.Today, at such a moment, going outside to pee in the compost, smelling the cold fresh air and feeling acutely alive...

On such an afternoon you entered the Udaigiri Caves of Madhya Pradesh, the Middle State, and while the sun blazed outside on the Malwa Plain, watched a thousand hanging bats turning as one to observe you. Another time, you lay with Judith in a North Alabama's farmer's wide latewinter field to make love, a helicopter buzzing us in lazy circles. Afterwards, lying there, this vast turning cosmos - the same huge emptiness as if nothing had happened. Our little moment spent, we were ant-husks to the voyeurs above, who buzzed on.

The core of these moments is that nothing you could do would really matter, and, recognizing this, there is a fleeting desire to do nothing, to extend the nap, or go cuddle the dog. This moment is so sweet, so empty of action, like you are harvesting the whole 15 billion years' yearning of the Fireball universe - a net zero. But what passion is summed in that level scale! You are at a fulcrum bridging that blue sky, and the scythe of time is dead still, all desires that were ready to clamor forth herded, momentarily checked. It is at such a moment when the perfect action is to string the tanpura.

High Noon; look up. The Greeks knew the outcome of a battle by observing who had the momentum when the sun first started to set, that is the instant after noon. If you didn't have Helios with you when he started his downward course, it was just too much inertia to fight the combined forces of your present position and the sun's setting gravity.

December 28, 2006. Earth's Mittelpunkt, when all the energy we have usurped started running back into the system. The trees around me told me this, on this deck. Above me, a prop-plane, at Mittelpunkt since childhood, droning through the sky. Birdsong, a dog yapping in the distance. The huge space, the eternal space-time of it. Then, the sting of wool on my ankle, and I'm here.

Expert oil geologist Kenneth Deffeyes reached his mittelpunkt on December 16, 2005, when he announced global Peak Oil on NPR, tagging the moment when we had pumped half the available oil from the earth's entrails. He reached his date not by intuition or listening to the dying hemlocks, but by graphing all the data on oil availability and extraction rates. The NPR statement was radio theater, not a statement of scientific fact, based on probability. Extremely high probability.

High Noon: Mittelpunkt. Last hours of ancient sunlight Hartman calls it. We've used up half the stored sunlight, and we are now headed inexorably towards twilight. This solar peak is simultaneous with the setting sun of human history. Peak Oil, now being pictured on graphs spreading around the earth in corporate offices, schools and coffee tables, is chronological. But it is also a moment with quality, what the Greeks called kairos. In the heat of battle, there was a quality to the moment, not just a ticking of time. At just this moment Hector fell, and all that followed was pregnant within that moment: his being dragged around the walls, his wife and children enslaved, the recording of the Greeks victorious. Last hours of ancient sunlight.
The other characteristic of the kairos of the early twenty-first century is that we are on the cusp of runaway Global Warming. By a fit of burning like there was no tomorrow the beneficiaries of the industrial revolution have doomed future generations to tribal battles like the Greeks fought, too many people with too scarce resources. One is going on right now in the Sudan, another in Palestine, yet another in Iraq. Burning the stores of ancient sunlight, we are releasing CO2 in a global bonfire, trapping the sun's heat. The geologian Thomas Berry calls this fit of burning the "petroleum interval." Though brief, it has been pivotal, levering us into unsustainable territory, past our species boundaries to the precipice of population crash. We are subject to the same laws of population as the "dumb" animals and silent plants. Peak Oil and Global Warming are two spikes produced by the same madness: to splurge when there's available food and energy. We are like a ferocious algal bloom.
The sound of that prop-plane has always comforted me, made me feel secure. Once, though, when I was ten, I dreamt that it was suspended over Mobile's Crawford Park, and I ran to catch the Soviet nuke it had released. The huge round bomb just touched my hands as the dream dissolved. What do our ten-year olds do when they realize we are in global eco-crisis, midpoint turning quickly to endgame?

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