Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Warming Wednesdays: the political economy of slavery and the political economy of fossil fuel

Christopher Hayes has tried to quantify how much wealth the owners of known carbon-based fuels -- oil companies, the government of Saudi Arabia, tar sands magnates in Alberta, etc. -- would have to forgo to prevent civilization-destroying global warming.

... in order to preserve a roughly habitable planet, we somehow need to convince or coerce the world’s most profitable corporations and the nations that partner with them to walk away from $20 trillion of wealth. Since all of these numbers are fairly complex estimates, let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that we’ve overestimated the total amount of carbon and attendant cost by a factor of 2. Let’s say that it’s just $10 trillion.

The last time in American history that some powerful set of interests relinquished its claim on $10 trillion of wealth was in 1865 — and then only after four years and more than 600,000 lives lost in the bloodiest, most horrific war we’ve ever fought.

Yes -- that's what it required of this nation to free the slaves who before 1865 filled an economic role very similar to that played by fossil fuels today.

The connection between slavery and fossil fuels ... is more than metaphorical. Before the widespread use of fossil fuels, slaves were one of the main sources of energy (if not the main source) for societies stretching back millennia. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, nearly all energy to power societies flowed from the natural ecological cascade of sun and food: the farmhands in the fields, the animals under saddle, the burning of wood or grinding of a mill. A life of ceaseless exertion.

Before fossil fuels, the only way out of this drudgery was by getting other human beings to do the bulk of the work that the solar regime required of its participants. This could be done by using accrued money to pay for labor, but more often than not—particularly in societies like the Roman Empire that achieved density and scale—it was achieved through slavery. Slavery opened up for the slave owners vast new vistas of possibility. The grueling mundane exertions demanded of everyone under a solar regime could be cast off, pushed down on the shoulders of the slave.

So, as an industrial civilization -- a capitalist civilization if that is not a contradiction itself -- we substituted carbon-based fuels for human beings working in bondage.

Hayes looks for hope in the truth that extracting all of this oil and coal that will kill our civilization (and a lot of us) is incredibly expensive -- consequently popular agitation that leads to divestment, delay, and making extraction more expensive has a chance of keeping much of it in the ground.

I suspect he's onto something, given a response in the New York Times from Republican/libertarian Josh Barro. Barro thinks we'll have to buy off the current owners of unextracted fossil fuel. This is rather like the sort of gradual emancipation schemes that attracted even such moderate anti-slavery leaders as Lincoln before the slave owners decided to fight instead of switch. Interestingly, Barro thinks our economic system could absorb the costs of paying off the fossil fuel magnates, even if our political system might not accommodate this.

... reducing carbon emissions doesn’t have to be an either/or choice between buyouts and expropriation of existing resources. Sometimes, one will be more politically feasible than the other, and an effective policy approach can use a blend of the two. In particular, we can take advantage of the fact that a required reduction in fossil fuel production would be partly offset by a rise in prices for those fossil fuels that do get extracted. ... Proposals that give the value of the right to emit carbon to the existing carbon emitter may be a necessary and effective strategy to buy political support for carbon limits. These approaches look like a giveaway, but it’s worth making the giveaway if that’s what brings the benefits of stable temperatures.

I don't have Barro's level of comfort with rewarding the polluters; it is not as if they've been suffering without profits all these years. But "new occasions teach new duties" in the words of James Russell Lowell's anti-slavery poem. Global warming demands global changes we can barely envision, but move into a new paradigm we must.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Happy Earth Day

I almost forgot. Graphic is cribbed from a reflection by Joe Romm at Think Progress who urges us to focus:

The problem with Earth Day is it asks us to save too much ground. We need to focus. The two parts of the planet worth fighting to preserve are the soils and the glaciers.

Numerous studies show that nearly a third of the world’s land faces drying from rising greenhouse gases — including two of the world’s greatest agricultural centers, the U.S. Great Plains and a big chunk of southeastern China. On our current emissions path, most of the Southwest ultimately experience twice as much loss of soil moisture as was seen during the Dust Bowl (see “Dust-Bowlification“).

Also, locked away in the frozen soil of the tundra or permafrost is more carbon than the atmosphere contains today .... On our current path, most of the top 10 feet of the permafrost will be lost this century — so much for being “perma” — and that amplifying carbon-cycle feedback will “Will Likely Add Up To 1.5°F To Total Global Warming By 2100,” all but ensuring that today’s worst-case scenarios for global warming become the best-case scenarios. We must save the tundra.

... As for glaciers, when they disappear, sea levels rise, perhaps in excess of an inch a year by century’s end (see also here). If we warm even 3°C from pre-industrial levels, we will return the planet to a time when sea levels were ultimately 100 feet higher ... . The first five feet of sea level rise, which seems increasingly likely to over the next hundred years on our current emissions path, would displace more than 100 million people.

Go read it all.

Forward steps a red-crested DickHead

Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, earned himself a Mr. DickHead award on "Face the Nation" on Sunday.

Is the ability to buy contraceptives, that are now widely available — my Lord, all you have to do is walk into a 7-11 or any shop on any street in America and have access to them — is that right to access those and have them paid for, is that such a towering good that it would suffocate the rights of conscience?”

via Raw Story

Perhaps the good prelate has no acquaintance with any form of birth control except condoms? Not that what he doesn't know inhibits him from trying to prevent women from controlling our bodies ...

Monday, April 21, 2014

Of endangered cows and beer

Having survived the Easter Triduum and Easter Sunday in the style of the Episcopal Church, with a dose of Nancy Pelosi for good measure, it was time to kick back with a beer and read inconsequential internet gibberish.
Pretty good brew, actually.

So what did I read? This from Raw Story:

New regulations about to be implemented by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) threaten to dramatically increase the price of beer across the United States.

Currently, most U.S. brewers sell a by-product of the brewing process known as “spent grain” to local dairy farms. In addition to being high in protein and fiber — which is beneficial for the cows — disposing of spent grain in this manner is considered environmentally friendly.

But, charged with making the U.S. food chain more secure by the 2011 Food Modernization and Safety Act, the FDA has proposed a rule that would classify companies that distribute spent grain to farms as “animal feed manufacturers,” which would force breweries to dry and package the material before sending it to dairy farms.

Apparently this would cost enough so that beer prices would rise noticeably and cattle would suffer.

Jerome Rosa of the Jerosa Dairy said that the spent grain “is a premium product. I pay virtually nothing. But it’s like putting honey on your cereal. It makes the cows want to eat more and we notice it in their production.”

The FDA does not point to any actual harm from feedings of "spent grain." Apparently the bureaucracy is acting on a hypothetical.

Is this another instance of absurd threat inflation, like the hypothetical voter fraud at the polls that Republicans claim justifies reducing voter access? It might be. Can we trade "spent grain" restrictions for overkill in identification requirements? Just call it a wash? Something has to give ... this is wrong ...

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter: life rises again

Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.
Hymnal 1982; No. 204

This Jesus-risen-from-the-dead stuff that is the center of Christian experience is testimony to life triumphing. This is all about living, not about what we have done wrong. It is not about institutions and churches, those these provide a language and culture. It is not about how moderns can make peace with the stories in our ancient sacred books, though those tales can still provide vital fodder for mind, heart and imagination. It's not about worrying about eternal damnation in an afterlife; there's quite enough damnation all around us right now, thank you very much. It's not about rules and purity taboos.

It affirms God is Living. It is about delight in Living -- God's living and our living. I don't know what that means, but I live into its meaning.
The popular Irish Catholic historian Thomas Cahill took a long view of religion in a recent interview with Bill Moyers:

In writing these books, six of them so far, I've come to the conclusion that there are really only two movements in the world. One is kindness, and the other is cruelty.

I don't think there's anything else, really. You can explain virtually everything by those two movements. The cruelty in religion is so often a form of, "Under no circumstances may you do this, because if you do, we will exclude you." ...

… And I think that all partisanship and sectionalism within Christianity is stupid. I don't think there really is anything to fight about. ...I'm a believing Christian who finds himself equally at home and equally impatient and equally ill-at-ease in virtually any church. ...

"Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." That's Christianity. The rest of it, isn't worth a hill of beans.

I can live with that.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Night falls -- will morning ever come?

From the Passion facade of the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, design by Antoni Gaudí, executed by the sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs.

Friday, April 18, 2014

In which Rep. Nancy Pelosi defends the indefensible

Congresswoman Pelosi yesterday joined a very mixed lot of her constituents, organized by the San Francisco Organizing Project, for an interfaith, Holy Thursday observance at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in the Mission.

Immigrants told their stories of lives disrupted and families torn apart by the Obama administration's deportation policies. The administration imprisons over 300,000 people a year for immigration irregularities and has deported some 2 million persons since taking office.

This youngster shared her story with Spanish-language TV.

Fr. Richard Smith put the case for our neighbors starkly: it is time that our government stop doing irreparable harm to innocent individuals who only want to work and improved their lives.

The Democratic Minority Leader argued that Republican Speaker John Boehner has President Obama over a barrel, threatening to sue if the administration doesn't keep the deportation prisons humming. That may play well in Washington, but giving in to such bullying is pretty meaningless among people who are losing parents and siblings to the deportation grinder.

Alongside Episcopal Bishop Marc Andrus, Congresswoman Pelosi participated in the the ancient Christian ritual of washing feet of our brothers and sisters as part of this special season. She graciously suggested she hopes to be able to come back next year. Here in San Francisco, there's a growing movement demanding action on immigration reform, not just sympathetic words.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The crazy continues

Last February, after years of litigation, the U.S government was ordered by a federal judge to remove all references to Malaysian architecture professor Rahinah Ibrahim from its mushrooming "terrorist" databases. He concluded that secret testimony showed that back in 2005 an FBI agent had "checked the wrong box" on a form.

But, as reported by Robert Egelko in the San Francisco Chronicle, our secret spook masters won't let go. On Monday, they denied her a visa to visit the U.S. for "terrorist activities."

The case of a former Stanford graduate student barred from returning to the United States since 2005 has taken another twist with a U.S. consulate's decision this week to deny her a visa because of "terrorist activities" - after the government told a federal judge that she posed no threat to national security.

... [U.S. District Judge William Alsup] ordered the government to purge all references of the listing from its records and to allow Ibrahim to reapply for a visa. But he said he could not order officials to issue the travel documents, because that decision was up to the government.

On Tuesday, Justice Department lawyers submitted declarations from the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies attesting that they had deleted Ibrahim's watch-list placement from their files.

However, they also submitted a State Department declaration disclosing that she had been denied a visa Monday in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur under a law that bars those involved in "terrorist activities" from traveling to the United States.

The tenacity of this woman who has fought their Kafkaesque system for nearly a decade must scare the spooks badly.

The judge's decision can be read here. Too bad it apparently has no force.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Warming Wednesdays: Boycott and divestment?

A couple of weeks ago, the archbishop emeritus of Cape Town. South Africa, Desmond Tutu, wrote in the Guardian in full support of boycotts of the monster companies that are belching the most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere:

Who can stop it? Well, we can, you and I. And it is not just that we can stop it, we have a responsibility to do so. It is a responsibility that begins with God commanding the first human inhabitants of the garden of Eden "to till it and keep it". To keep it; not to abuse it, not to destroy it.

The taste of "success" in our world gone mad is measured in dollars and francs and rupees and yen. Our desire to consume any and everything of perceivable value – to extract every precious stone, every ounce of metal, every drop of oil, every tuna in the ocean, every rhinoceros in the bush – knows no bounds. We live in a world dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth. ...

It is clear that those countries and companies primarily responsible for emitting carbon and accelerating climate change are not simply going to give up; they stand to make too much money. They need a whole lot of gentle persuasion from the likes of us. ...

Tutu proposes boycotts and divestment from the fossil fuel giants.

I'm of many minds about boycotts. In the 1970s I worked as an organizer on the United Farm Workers Union boycotts of table grapes and some wines. These efforts were considered effective; they also took years of extremely dedicated work by ever growing armies of volunteers and consumers. And it is not even clear that the economic effect on the growers was what gave the workers a chance at a union. We succeeded in "giving a bad name" to a whole class of fruit; perhaps the growers, rightly, feared the long term effect of people learning to pass up grapes; certainly millions of folks stopped buying grapes for many years.

Tutu credits boycotts of South Africa with helping to bring down apartheid. Contemporary pro-Palestinian activists urge us to boycott, divest and sanction Israel over its dispossession of the native people of that land. In both those instances, the effect is probably not so much economic as on reputation. A growing boycott lets an offending state know it has crossed boundaries of what the world community thinks of as decent behavior. Such boycotts routinely evoke defiant objections from their targets, but they also seem to sting in some way that goes beyond their material effects.

Boycott and divestment from climate polluters is a tough project, one that starts with defining the appropriate targets. After all, we mostly all like living in a civilization that runs on abundant electricity and easy transport. But which companies are profiting without trying to adapt so as not to sink their own boat? The Institute for Southern Studies produced some lists. I'll just reproduce some of the publicly owned offenders in the United States:
  • Chevron, San Ramon, Calif. (investor-owned)
  • ExxonMobil, Irving, Texas.
  • ConocoPhillips, Houston, Texas.
  • American Electric Power, Columbus, Ohio
  • Duke Energy, Charlotte, N.C.
  • Berkshire Hathaway, Omaha, Neb.
  • Ameren Corp., St. Louis, MO
and then
  • there's the real monster among dirty energy energy purveyors: the U.S. Government.
We may not be able to divest from the Feds (or even want to) but we sure can see one entity that citizens ought to be targeting here.

More from Tutu:

Tutu says an apartheid-style boycott would be a way to curb polluters' stranglehold over energy policy. "We cannot necessarily bankrupt the fossil fuel industry," he wrote. "But we can take steps to reduce its political clout, and hold those who rake in the profits accountable for cleaning up the mess."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sign of the times in the city: media overlap

With the influx of affluent, over-busy new tech worker residents in San Francisco's Mission district, enterprising immigrant entrepreneurs see a business opportunity. How to spread the word?

With human power, naturally, when that is what is available: door to door leafletting and car flyering.

But customers can sign up for service online, also naturally when the internet is home.

The photo of a crumpled flyer is a by-products from my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco. If intrigued, take a look and sign up for sporadic email updates.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Some things are not ours

Reproduction of the Barcelona Haggadah, 14th century C.E., on display at the Museum of Jewish History in Girona, Spain
Tonight I'll have the privilege of attending a Passover Seder. My longstanding women's group consists mostly of Jews partnered with non-Jews, so we gentiles have become accustomed to retelling the Jewish people's story of liberation from bondage in Egypt with our friends. I've learned some Hebrew blessings and I love the food -- though nothing will convince me that Manischewitz is drinkable wine.

My pleasure in the Seder is enhanced by knowing that this celebration is not mine. I don't have to claim it as my own; I can simply delight in being invited into someone else's ritual.

A wise UCC minister/scholar has written a blog post that explains to Christians that although Jesus is recorded as participating in some kind of ritual meal before his seizure and execution, this cannot have been a Seder.
... we [Christians] really do not know for sure what the “original context” of Jesus’ ‘last supper’ was.  We think we do: since Sunday School we’ve been taught it was a Passover meal, or Seder; but scholars continue to debate the precise character of the meal Jesus shared with his disciples that night. One thing we know for sure, however, is that, although it may have been a Passover meal of some sort, it was not a Seder in the modern sense. We know this because the introduction into Jewish ritual life of the Seder we know today came after the time of Jesus.

Modern day Jewish celebrations of the Passover are a melding of traditions that arose shortly after the destruction of the Temple (70 CE), through Late Antiquity and into Middle Ages. It is a developing tradition, too, with additions being made to the haggadah even to this day. Ironically, some scholars believe that the modern Seder developed in part at least as a reaction and resistance to the growing influence of the Christian church and its sacred meal. ...
She goes on to warn Christians off the temptation to hold their own imitation Seder observances. Churches sometimes think they are being broad-minded or innovative through such exercises. But this beautiful ritual is not ours.
Contempt takes many forms: I think the celebration of a Seder by Christians for Christians for our own Christian agenda is one of them. ...
I could not agree more. But I am thrilled to enjoy my Jewish sisters' Passover meal.
From the Museum of Jewish History, Girona, Spain
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