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Reflections on Rep. Grijalva's Global Warming Roundtable

Dave Ewoldt

April, 2007

   I heartily applaud U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva's convening of the Climate Change Roundtable at Armory Park Del Sol in Tucson, AZ this past Friday, and would like to thank the two dozen Southwest experts in green building, alternative energy, and environmental protection and conservation who took the time to participate. It marked the beginning of an important, necessary--indeed urgently vital--community conversation on designing cooperative, equitable solutions to the local effects of global crises.

   There were, however, a number of questions unasked, and contributing factors unmentioned that many people think are going to have a much larger role in our immediate future. Among these were the sanctity of economic and population growth, overconsumption, and the difference between standard of living and quality of life. Do we need alternative energy sources, or do we need lifestyles that demand less energy? Is it rational to base our future on prayers for a technological miracle to deliver salvation?

   Congressman Grijalva joked about the political reality of not being able to move the elephant in Washington, DC, and true as this undoubtedly is, the real problem is not being able to see the elephant in the living room from a social perspective. This of course leads to an inability to create meaningful solutions that do anything more than clean up elephant poop.

   Congressman Grijalva also rightly pointed out that solutions must be comprehensive instead of piecemeal. In order for this to occur, however, the solutions must be grounded in a systemic framework and address the underlying causes of our global crises.

   It has always been assumed that today's debt can be repaid by tomorrow's growth. This is how central banks get away with loaning more money than they have on deposit. Economic growth, however, is dependent on increasing supplies of cheap and abundant energy, as well as on having more consumers demanding more stuff. Markets must expand, and as long as industry could get away with planned obsolescence and a throw-away society addicted to having the latest model, while concurrently ignoring the personal, social, and environmental costs of pollution, chemical toxicity, and resource depletion this infinite expansion seemed to remain within the realm of possibility.

   Rising greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere is the outcome of a rising demand for energy which is supplied by fossil fuels. Fortunately--or not, depending on one's frame of reference--fossil fuels are at their peak of global extraction and production. Fossil fuels are the feedstock for energy production, industry, transportation, agriculture, and much of modern medicine, i.e. the foundation for the global growth economy. As global oil supply and production peaks, what's left is of lower quality and is harder to get to. It requires more energy and is more expensive to extract and refine. Fossil fuels are no longer either abundant or cheap--especially if you factor in the cost of the wars thought necessary to secure these resources.

   It seems obvious to me that the global economy is set to collapse at approximately the same rate as the oil fields do. Thus the mad scramble to exert hegemony while there's still enough fuel to power the military.

   Additionally, another prime contributor to the anthropogenic causes of catastrophic climate destabilization is deforestation, and switching to alternative fuels will only exacerbate this problem. Agro-fuels will do little to nothing to alleviate poverty, slow the depletion of other natural resources, or reverse the urban sprawl that is paving over ecosystems and slicing wildlife corridors to shreds.

   Finally, for the sake of completeness, we should also consider the particulate pollution in the upper atmosphere from industry and urban sprawl. This creates an effect known as global dimming because it reflects a small percentage of the Sun's warming rays back into space. This slightly counteracts global warming, and thus masks the full magnitude of global warming and the speed with which it will occur. This means that as we clean up our act, without doing anything to address the underlying causes, global warming will get worse.

   All of this leads me to wonder why some roundtable participants expressed the unquestioned assumption that financial incentives are necessary to gain buy-in for sustainable alternatives? The continuation of life isn't enough of an incentive? Providing the conditions for right livelihood for all and true security has no value? Carbon offsets, caps, and trading do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions-at best they merely slow or stop the rate of increase. When do we take the blinders off and admit the market economy has brought us to today's untenable position, so why continue to worship or even trust it? Why all the effort to protect and save an economic system that is entirely dependent on inequity and exploitation--best referred to as the doomsday economy?

   There were a few mentions during the roundtable of the need to adapt, but no mention of what, exactly, we're supposed to be adapting to. If to less consumptive and energy intensive lifestyles, this would display the height of rationality (and thus be somewhat out of character for Western civilization). But if the thought that we need to adapt to a warming planet with a less hospitable climate and fewer habitable areas, let's be realistic about that prospect and the rate of evolutionary change.

   The last time the planet saw an overall rise in temperature of six degrees F, it took about 2,000 years to occur and the only large land mammal to survive was a pig like creature. I'm not too sure how we're going to adapt to the same temperature rise in a little over one century as one-quarter to one-half of the world's species go extinct. Thus, reversing the anthropogenic causes of greenhouse gas production should be the only option we even waste any time considering.

   Many panelists parroted the official line that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by 2050, even though serious scientists say the target really should be 90% less by 2030. But, no one mentioned that even this lower figure is what is necessary to--hopefully--merely stave off the worst effects of catastrophic climate destabilization. And, all this does is postpone until future generations the eventual collapse of a life supportive biosphere. This goal isn't what is needed to achieve sustainability, which will require a return to pre-industrial levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases. However, this is a distinct possibility using today's technology, if and only if we simultaneously deal honestly--and compassionately--with global overpopulation, which is also within the realm of possibility.

   If we continue to focus on putting band-aids on the symptoms of an economic and social system that is unsustainable at its core, we really have no hope for a future. We also shouldn't be too surprised when people don't get overly enthused about playing along with making lifestyle changes that are mere window dressing, or in supporting fixes that don't hold responsible the corporate and political systems that are creating and maintaining the problems. We could all change our lightbulbs and buy a Prius, but if we allow another 150 coal-fired generators or coal gasification to be approved in order to protect the economy and affluent, wasteful lifestyles, we're doomed.

   Fortunately, there is a systemic alternative that directly addresses the root causes of the global crises we're facing. Known as relocalization, it is the process to create a sustainable future based on the natural systems principles that create and support the web of life. Every aspect of this process will result in an increase in every quality of life indicator known--except one. This one is economic growth.

   And thus we come face to face with the core ethical and moral questions of modern times: Is the health of the economy more important than the health of people and planet? Is infinite economic growth the only path to prosperity and security? Is materialism really an acceptable substitute for psychological and spiritual health and well-being?

   Another "problem" with relocalization is that it shifts the locus of power back to the local level and puts control of wealth, health, and well-being in the hands of everyday people and local government. It is distinctly at odds with a financial system of unfettered "free-markets" that are most accurately described in their daily workings as economic cannibalism. Relocalization can also effectively flatten the class hierarchies we have come to accept as natural, but which are actually the outcome of nothing more than a story which we legitimize.

   Within a healthy ecosystem that is vibrant and resilient, all living organisms grow to a point of maturity, and then they reach and maintain a steady-state. Each organism gives back to the system throughout its life cycle without taking more than it needs. The system self-organizes mutually supportive relationships. This is the core activity of life. Little more is obtained from outside of the system other than sun and rain, and nothing is created that keeps surrounding ecosystems from receiving their share of these natural resources. An ecosystem in this state of being is sustainable because it stays within the carrying capacity of its watershed.

   A steady-state economy can be built from this model that demonstrates the same level of sustainability. Market sectors can evolve and shift in relative prominence, and there is nothing in the steady-state economic model that intrinsically hinders innovation. In fact, compared to the orthodox economic growth model, just the opposite is the case. The sustainable development at the core of a steady-state model focuses on becoming better instead of bigger. It also provides more opportunities for more people to find fulfillment and reach their potential, as it isn't dependent on the exploitation of the many to benefit a few.

   A natural systems approach leads to a framework in which to examine the questions being asked in regard to the best way to formulate community and national responses to global warming. More specifically, responses to the anthropogenic causes of global warming.

   If sustainability is the goal, a new way of thinking about how we define prosperity is going to be necessary. More housing developments, indeed growth in general, even if it's "green" will move us in the opposite direction of achieving the goal of sustainability.

   Perhaps the most important shift that must happen is a shift in mindset to what is possible from what we're told we must learn to tolerate. This was made clear in Rep. Grijalva's closing comments that we need to find ways to balance the impact of growth. The never questioned assumption, however, is that we must accept and accommodate growth. This simply isn't true, and there are a couple of ways this can be approached at the local level that are legally defensible.

   The time has come where we must answer the questions: Isn't being more a better indictor of quality of life than having more? Hasn't society reached maturity, and it's now time to get better instead of bigger--to move beyond juvenile fantasies of conquest and develop the wisdom of adults?


"Learning is not compulsory... neither is survival."
W. Edwards Deming


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