On energy systems and worldviews

According to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world has just 5 years in which to radically transform its carbon-intensive energy infrastructure before the “lock-in” effect will make runaway climate change inevitable. A rather somber and urgent warning from one of the world’s most respected – and conservative – energy bodies.

Given the scale and design of our industrial energy infrastructure, high-carbon energy generation – coal plants, oil refineries, natural gas fracking wells, and “unconventional” tar sands mining – will continue to emit large quantities of CO² for many years after they are built. This “lock-in” effect means that the emissions of already existing or newly built carbon-burning energy sources will persist in the environment for years – centuries in fact – even once switched off. All of this makes the recent debate over whether to further exploit dirtier, more carbon-intensive forms of energy such as tar sands all the more ludicrous.

The message from scientists and energy experts could not be clearer: according to Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, “if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”

An opportune time then, for the global Occupy Movement to focus on the links between a violent, unsustainable economic system and the continued exploitation and pollution of our environment. On Friday the general assembly of Occupy LSX reached preliminary consensus on an official acknowledgment of this link, adding a tenth point concerning climate change to the Occupy LSX Initial Statement. Along with the recent commitment to installing renewable energy sources such as solar panels and bicycle generators at the St. Paul’s camp, these actions go a long way towards emphasizing that it is the same underlying worldview which results in increasing concentration of wealth, corruption of the democratic process, and degradation of the one earth which all else relies upon.

People are starting to question and speak out against this entrenched economic materialism in increasing numbers. In a major victory, sustained non-violent actions against the Keystone XL pipeline in the US and Canada has resulted in the Obama administration delaying approval of the pipeline until at least next year, effectively killing the project according to Bill McKibben and 350.org. A network of activists and ordinary citizens worried about the health affects of fracking are currently organizing a large protest in New Jersey on November 21 to prevent fracking in the Delaware River Basin, the source of drinking water for 16 million people. And of course, the global Occupy Movement has galvanized action against the pervasive corporate influence that has so entrenched the fossil-fuel and finance industries perpetrating these crimes against the earth.

A solidarity action in front of the US Embassy in London protesting the Keystone XL pipeline (Nov 6)

What the mainstream media misses though, is that opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and other similar projects is not simply about avoiding potential environmental and economic disasters like oil spills; it’s about preventing inevitable environmental and social disasters like irreversible climate change and increased privatization of the commons. Even if the pipeline does its job perfectly, ‘safely’ transporting crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to the US gulf coast, in simply consuming the resulting oil we will knowingly and consciously do more harm to the environment than any single oil spill could ever do.

It is the fundamental set of assumptions behind this pipeline – that the earth is for our exploitation, that increasing consumption will lead to higher wellbeing, that neoliberal economic policies are what is best for all – that people are beginning to reject in critical numbers.

The fact that this pipeline, like all other carbon-intensive energy projects, is painted as a savior for unemployed workers proves how untenable our current economic system really is. Yes, millions of people desperately need jobs – but not ones that will systematically destroy job opportunities and the potential to flourish for all future generations. In fact, the rapacious and extractive capitalist economy which depends on these types of massive projects necessitates systemic unemployment to keep labor costs down and maintain a surplus of workers willing to compete for any task offered to them.

Ultimately, long-term solutions designed to prevent climate change and restore the environment are also the only long-term solution to the systemic unemployment embedded in our industrial economy. And more crucially, they are solutions that restore the intrinsic dignity and meaning of work.

The transition to local, distributed, and restorative energy systems will not only drastically reduce carbon emissions and reduce environmental degradation, it will also redistribute economic and political power away from corporations and large-scale bureaucracies to communities and bioregions. Already several Transition Towns across the UK, including an ongoing project where I live in Totnes, have funded and built their own community power stations using entirely renewable energy sources. This simultaneously frees communities from dependence on fossil fuels and gives them complete autonomy over their energy supply.  The installation and maintenance of small-scale, community-owned energy systems also keeps jobs and money in local communities.

What we are talking about is not simply a matter of reconfiguring our energy infrastructure or reforming the financial system though. In the words of Joanna Macy, this is about shifting from an industrial growth society to a life sustaining society – a shift in values which places people and planet over profits and recognizes the intrinsic value of all life. This is the shift at the heart of the Occupy Movement because it represents the deepest challenge to the status quo. When our energy systems (and all other social systems) reflect a different, life-sustaining worldview, we will live in a much more just and healthier world.


The case for a Land Ethic

This post was first published at www.mnn.com on Mar 08, 2011.

“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.”
—Aldo Leopold
Over the past couple months, I have been thinking quite a bit about how our society relates to nature. From covering the PASA sustainable agriculture conference to discussing the tension between conservation and economic development in southwest Pennsylvania, this theme has been as much a response to current events as to timeless moral questions.
The question that everyone seems to be asking these days is whether it’s acceptable to sacrifice the future for the good of the present. It’s the argument that Republicans have been using to justify budget cuts, contending that mounting debt threatens our security and stability in the future. And of course this has been the argument environmentalists have been using for decades to demonstrate that short-term economic gains at the expense of environmental health is not sustainable. What we are really dealing with, though, is not purely economic or environmental — it is a matter of ethics.
Aldo Leopold wrote compellingly of the need for a land ethic over 60 years ago. He believed that ethics have developed in an evolutionary process, governing first the relationship between individuals, then between the individual and society, and finally between society and nature. “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts … The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
Our ethics evidently have not yet evolved. Not when increasingly risky and destructive methods of mining the earth — mountaintop removal coal mining, tar sand mining, deep sea oil drilling, and now hydraulic fracturing — are the basis of economic growth. In one of the first articles on their recently launched website covering the Marcellus Shale, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked of natural gas drilling, “A boom without a bust?” Even from a purely economic standpoint, the answer seems clear. If we consider the environmental and ethical dimensions of thus degrading the land, the answer is certain.
As I recently paraphrased Wes Jackson, drilling in deep shale is a sign not of technological advance, but of economic desperation. Recent stories by the New York Times on previously unknown environmental risks associated with drilling wastewater seem to confirm this.
We are too bent on defending a status quo that is no longer plausible given economic and environmental realities. But more than just our economic models and environmental regulations, it is our ethics that are outdated. How we choose to relate to the land will certainly have far-reaching consequences for ourselves and future generations.
Perhaps it is not too late, though, for our current economic and environmental problems offer an unprecedented opportunity for change. Evolution, after all, is the process of adapting to changing circumstances in order to survive and flourish. These global crises demand a new way of relating to the earth. Only through the lens of a land ethic can we have an honest discussion of the true value of life and the true cost of our current way of living.