Archive for March, 2008

The Philosophy of Objectivism

March 26, 2008

I saw “The Corporation” last night, a 2003 Canadian documentary film critical of the modern-day corporation, considering it as a class of person and evaluating its behaviour towards society and the world at large as a psychologist might evaluate an ordinary person.

I found this quote particularly compelling:

“Drawing the metaphor of the early attempts to fly. The man going off of a very high cliff in his airplane, with the wings flapping, and the guys flapping the wings and the wind is in his face, and this poor fool thinks he’s flying, but, in fact, he’s in free fall, and he just doesn’t know it yet because the ground is so far away, but, of course, the craft is doomed to crash.

That’s the way our civilization is, the very high cliff represents the virtually unlimited resources we seem to have when we began this journey. The craft isn’t flying because it’s not built according to the laws of aerodynamics and it’s subject to the law of gravity.

Our civilization is not flying because it’s not built according to the laws of aerodynamics for civilizations that would fly. And, of course, the ground is still a long way away, but some people have seen that ground rushing up sooner than the rest of us have.

The visionaries have seen it and have told us it’s coming. There’s not a single scientific, peer-reviewed paper published in the last 25 years that would contradict this scenario: every living system of earth is in decline, every life support system of earth is in decline, and these together constitute the biosphere, the biosphere that supports and nurtures all of life, and not just our life but perhaps 30 million other species that share this planet with us.”

—Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, The Corporation

 Robert Hessen, who critiques “The Corporation,” calls it propaganda and makes an argument that “The Corporation” should not be shown in 8th grade classes because children of that age do not have the intellectual sophistication to make an argument against what is presented.

“Everyone in the world could, at a cost, reduce the chance of his or her death.  You could chose to not to walk across the street.  The question is, is whether that person is willing to pay for it.  Consumers should be free to decide what type of risk they want to bear.  And the government has the right to provide courts of law to allow people to sue corporations if (for example) they fraudulently conceal gas tanks that are not sufficiently safe to protect the consumer.  

Strangely, people are not willing to pay very much.   And people do many stupid things that can lead to their death.  People jump out planes, people smoke, even thought they know that it’s bad for them.  But the underlying principle is that individuals should be able to decide how much they are willing to pay.  It has nothing to do with evil corporations.”

So, the folks who are promoting “The Corporation” are jumping up and down, saying that our current economic system is not sustainable, and we’re gonna crash because we’re gonna run out of resources to use.

Hessen replies that there are plenty of resources, and doing things much differently than we are currently doing it would be cutting our own throats, for no reason.

Hessen’s main critique of “The Corporation” is that corporations are an agreement between individuals — “the corporation” and “the consumer”;  the corporation is a product of the freedom of association, and Hessan sees that any criticism of the corporate form is a criticism of that freedom. 

Hessen is a “Randian”, a follower of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.  The Objectivists believe that the fundamental right is the right to life— that is, the right to act in furtherance of one’s own life — not the right to have ones life protected or to have ones survival guaranteed by the involuntary effort of other human beings.  Secondly Objectivists believe in the right to property: one person’s right to life cannot entail the right to dispose of another’s private property, under any circumstances. 

Objectivism holds that human beings have the right to manipulate nature in any way they see fit, as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others.

 Ok, so if you’ve read this far, this is what got me — from Wikipedia:

“On the Objectivist account, the rights of other human beings are not of direct moral import to the agent who respects them; they acquire their moral purchase through an intermediate step.

An Objectivist respects the rights of other human beings out of the recognition of the value to himself or herself of living in a world in which the freedom of action of other rational (or potentially rational) human beings is respected.

Ones respect for the rights of others is founded on the value, to oneself, of other persons as actual or potential partners in cooperation and trade.”

Really, the fact that very powerful humans, humans who control our planet through the use of its resources and disposal of commercial waste, live and operate by this philosophy is terrifying. 

And it explains a lot.

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Black Carbon — New Report

March 25, 2008

A new report was published on line this weekend at Nature Geoscience:

Nature Geoscience
Published online: 23 March 2008 | doi:10.1038/ngeo156

Global and regional climate changes due to black carbon
V. Ramanathan1 & G. Carmichael2

——————————————————————————–

Abstract:

Black carbon in soot is the dominant absorber of visible solar radiation in the atmosphere. Anthropogenic sources of black carbon, although distributed globally, are most concentrated in the tropics where solar irradiance is highest. Black carbon is often transported over long distances, mixing with other aerosols along the way. The aerosol mix can form transcontinental plumes of atmospheric brown clouds, with vertical extents of 3 to 5 km. Because of the combination of high absorption, a regional distribution roughly aligned with solar irradiance, and the capacity to form widespread atmospheric brown clouds in a mixture with other aerosols, emissions of black carbon are the second strongest contribution to current global warming, after carbon dioxide emissions. In the Himalayan region, solar heating from black carbon at high elevations may be just as important as carbon dioxide in the melting of snowpacks and glaciers. The interception of solar radiation by atmospheric brown clouds leads to dimming at the Earth’s surface with important implications for the hydrological cycle, and the deposition of black carbon darkens snow and ice surfaces, which can contribute to melting, in particular of Arctic sea ice.

——————————————————————————–
The paper concluded that black carbon’s warming effect in the atmosphere is about 0.9 watts per meter squared, compared with IPCC’s consensus estimate of 0.2 to 0.4 watts.

“The positive side of this discouraging story is we know how to cut down black carbon,” Ramanathan said. “We have reduced it. So this is something we can do now.”
(Los Angeles Times, 25 March 2008 )

Faster Than Expected

March 18, 2008

BBC reports that some of the world’s glaciers are melting twice as fast as they were just 10 years ago.  “In its entirety, the research includes figures from around 100 glaciers, with data showing significant shrinkage taking place in European countries including Austria, Norway, Sweden, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.”

In a second report today, University of Vermont ecologist Brian Beckage discusses changes in the forests of Vermont: “Scientists have long thought it would take generations if not centuries for tree populations to shift in response to a warming world.”

One of Beckage’s graduate students, Ben Osborne, measured significant shift of the transition zone, where deciduous hardwoods, like sugar maples, must give way to boreal conifers, like balsam fir.

“Acid rain damaged trees, creating openings in the forest canopy,” Beckage says, and this might have accelerated the hardwoods’ uphill push.

There’s an important message in these two reports. The thing is, scientists are trained to study in depth one small thing in one field. And so they point to this one thing and say, “well, warming temperatures won’t change the forests quickly, because trees live for tens of decades.” They don’t take other climate change factors into consideration, such as acid rain, insect attack, and increased forest fires.

And the problem with that is that we have a lot of scientists out there telling people that there is cause for concern, but no need to panic, eh? We have plenty of time to get our ducks in a row…

A Different Ocean

March 17, 2008

“Estimates of future atmospheric and oceanic carbon dioxide concentrations, based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change CO2 emission scenarios and general circulation models, indicate that by the middle of this century atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could reach more than 500 parts per million, and near the end of the century they could be over 800 ppm.  This would result in a surface water pH decrease of approximately 0.4 pH units as the ocean becomes more acidic, and the carbonate ion concentration would decrease almost 50 percent by the end of the century (Orr et al., 2005).

To put this in historical perspective, this surface ocean pH decrease would result in a pH that is lower than it has been for more than 20 million years (Feely et al., 2004).”

Written Testimony of Richard A. Feely, Ph.D.,Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce Hearing on Effects of Climate Change and Ocean Acidification on Living Marine Resources, Before the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, United States Senate, May 10, 2007

The prediction of the world’s oceans in 2100?  Dead, crumbling coral reefs and more slimy rocks, a different mix of plankton and fewer fish.  And this prediction is only when taking acidification into the scenario.  Additionally, melting glaciers will decrease salinity and ocean temperatures will rise, further stressing marine life.

 What does this mean to the average American?  I mean, who eats that much fish anyway?

According to the United Nations, one in every five humans depends on fish as the primary source of protein.  The ability of the ocean to produce fish is of vital importance to an estimated 200 million people worldwide as they depend upon the ocean for jobs and for food. (United Nations, 2004)

With Gaia, it’s not just one thing; it’s never just one thing. It’s an interconnected web of life, and baby, we’re unraveling it.

Transportation: Getting Around in a Changing World

March 13, 2008

The National Academies has just released a new study: Potential Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Transportation . The study notes that transportation planners are still using historical data to guide their operations and investments.

“Transportation professionals should acknowledge the challenges posed by climate change and incorporate current scientific knowledge into the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of transportation systems. Every mode of transportation and every region in the United States will be affected as climate change poses new and often unfamiliar challenges to infrastructure providers.”

The scientists down in Antarctica studying glacier melt note that the new IPCC report didn’t take Greenland or Antarctic glacier melt into consideration in their rising sea level projection. Studies have already come out, warning that the IPCC projection was much too conservative.

Scientists are funny people. A person has to listen closely to what they’re saying, and what they’re not saying. Scientists who are studying the West Antarctic Ice Sheet say that if it succumbs to warming, the oceans will rise from 3 to 5 meters. They talk in shocked tones about how quickly the WAIS is melting from underneath. They caution that more research needs to be done, a decade of research, and that few people have a clear understanding of the play between the Antarctic atmosphere and ocean.

The National Academies advise transportation professionals: “Climate warming over the next 50 to 100 years will be manifested by increases in very hot days and heat waves, increases in Arctic temperatures, rising sea levels coupled with storm surges and land subsidence, more frequent intense precipitation events, and increases in the intensity of strong hurricanes…

Potentially, the greatest impact of climate change on North America’s transportation system will be flooding of coastal roads, railways, transit systems, and runways because of a global rise in sea level coupled with storm surge and exacerbated in some locations by land subsidence. The vulnerability of transportation infrastructure to climate change, however, will extend well beyond coastal areas…

USDOT should take a leadership role along with professional organizations in the forefront of civil engineering practice across all modes to initiate immediately a federally funded, multiagency research program.…Federal agencies have not focused generally on adaptation in addressing climate change.”

West Antarctic Ice Sheet and Ocean Upwelling

March 10, 2008

Science writer Marc Airhart writes in Geology: “The new IPCC reports on climate change had essentially sidestepped the issue of Antarctica’s potential contribution to sea level rise. The authors pointed out, rightly, that there was just too much uncertainty to make predictions.”

So what’s going on with study of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet? The new theory has to do with ocean upwelling.

“Antarctica is encircled by atmospheric currents that largely insulate it from the rest of Earth’s climate and keep it colder than it otherwise would be,” Airhart writes. These air currents push water away from the continent. “As surface water is pushed away, warm deep water rises to replace it.” The stronger the air currents, the more the upwelling. It looks like what is happening is that as the world climate warms, these air currents become stronger and there is more upwelling.

This is the hypothesis. There isn’t enough observational data to validate this hypothesis yet.

However, it has been observed that the antarctic glaciers aren’t melting from the top, they’re melting from underneath.  If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet lost it’s “plug”, the Thwaits Glacier, the rest of the WAIS might follow.

 NASA’s Dr. Jim Hansen predicts a 5 meter (16 1/2 feet) rise in sea level by the end of this century.  Back in 1991, the EPA estimated the cost of a one meter rise in sea level would be around $250-$500 billion dollars.  But the fact that this rise will  be happening everywhere all at once, in the midst of an economic recession … really, I have no idea of what the fallout of something like that would be.  It will be a disaster, but a disaster in slow-motion. 

The Economics of Climate Change

March 5, 2008

The Story of Stuff got me thinking more about the economy. Anyone who knows me is probably boggling, because I’m not someone you’d call a financial whiz kid; give me rocket science any day.

My friend Stef Maruch commented:
The entire premise of capitalism is based on ever-increasing levels of production and spending. It’s a Ponzi scheme.Companies with kazillions of customers, like eBay, are considered to be “weak” if they don’t add MORE kazillions of customers.  Now, increasing production and spending don’t have to involve using up more physical resources…as the people making money on Second Life can attest…but generally they do.

TimesOnline reported (13 Dec ’07):
European leaders and environmental campaigners reacted angrily yesterday after the United States rejected guidelines for reducing greenhouse gas emissions intended to check global warming….

The negotiations were given urgency by the publication last month of a report by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which gave warning of irreversible catastrophe caused by global warming if greenhouse emissions are not rapidly reduced….

(The IPCC) concluded that it was possible to limit average temperature rises to 2.4C by the middle of the century, but only if carbon emissions peak by 2015 and then start to decline. It calculated that, in order to achieve this, industrialised countries should reduce their greenhouse emissions by between 25 and 40 per cent compared with 1990 levels by 2020 – this is the figure which the EU wishes to see in this week’s document.

All of this has got me thinking about the economy. I can see a couple of different senarios:

1) “Global warming” is a bunch of hogwash; sure we might warm a couple of degrees, but this talk of the dire effects of global warming is irresponsibly alarmist. Though it is too bad about the polar bears.

2) There will be an amazing scientific answer to the problem which will pull our nuts from the fire, and we will be able to engineer our environment to suit our needs.

3) Global warming will happen gradually, with most of the effects being felt in the poles and tropics. We’ll have a different world, but we’ll be able to adapt.

4) “The Shit Will Hit The Fan

Most people believe #3. So I started thinking — what if senario three is what will really happen?

First, the third world would be the first to suffer from the effects of global warming. There will be changes in climate that will effect the food and water supply, as well as increased severe weather events. The scientific community is pretty straight-forward about this prediction.

Much of the world’s manufacturing takes place in the third world. As the third world infrastructure degrades and its populations suffer from lack of food, shelter and heath services, their economies will most likely crash. I think that there will be bottlenecks in manufacturing and costs will increase dramatically.

Secondly, as we see the world change, I think that there will be more and more focus on consuming less. This is already happening, though nowhere near to what it needs to be to decrease emissions to the level that is needed to avert senario four.

What both of these things point to is a slow down in the economy. Since the US is already heading into a rather significant recession, I wonder if it will have the resiliency to avoid a serious economic crash.

Statistics show that “American consumers owed a grand total of $1.9773 trillion in October 2003, according to the latest statistics on consumer credit from the Federal Reserve. That’s about $18,654 per household, a figure that doesnt include mortgage debt. The number is up more than 41% from the $1.3999 trillion consumers owed in 1998.” (MSN Money)

An economic slow down means that more and more people will be out of work — we might be able to feed and shelter ourselves, but we won’t be able to pay our outstanding debts.  This will greatly aggravate the depression, throwing more and more businesses into failure. 

People who have spent their lives saving for their retirement will lose everything.  And this will hit us at the height of the elderly baby-boomer population.

We are spending like there is no tomorrow. We are using up our world like there is no tomorrow. 

Salmon and Caribou in Trouble

March 5, 2008

Two reports today on species in trouble.  The first comes from National Geographic, about a phenomenon called “Rain on Snow“. What happens is that, when it warms just a little bit too much, water collects at ground level under the snow, and when it gets cold again, the water freezes. Animals like caribou and musk-ox starve, because they can’t break through the ice to feed.  

This happened in 2003, up in the Northwest Territories of Canada, killing off some 20,000 musk-oxen. “Stories told by local people suggest that these events occur in Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Canada, and affect approximately four million Arctic inhabitants.”

In a second release, the San Diego Union Tribune reports that “Scientists examining the sudden and widespread collapse of West Coast salmon returns are pointing to the unusual changes in weather patterns that caused the bottom to fall out of the ocean food web in 2005.”

Because this year has been colder than the last few, scientists are hoping that upwelling will improve, and the species might rebound.

NASA’s Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Service have a nice article describing this process: “When the Pacific Ocean is in what oceanographers consider a “normal” state, wind/water interactions along the Equator result in the world’s largest upwelling zone, which brings nutrient-rich subsurface waters to the surface. These nutrients sustain the growth of phytoplankton. However, when the Pacific Ocean is experiencing the phenomenon called El Niño, warmer water at the surface of the ocean suppresses upwelling, and phytoplankton growth is severely diminished.”

NASA scientists won’t say that there’s a link from increased El Niño events to a warming climate, but they do note that there have been an increase of El Niño events over the last two decades.

climate vs. weather

March 3, 2008

I’ve heard a lot of talk on the cold, icy streets of the upper Midwest this winter, relieved voices: So much for that global warming, eh?

Yep, we’ve had a humdinger of a winter, a real, old-fashioned, over-the-river-and-through-the-woods kind of winter.

But there’s a difference between one year’s weather and the climate of a region. Here are some excerpts from the New York Times:

“Climate skeptics typically take a few small pieces of the puzzle to debunk global warming, and ignore the whole picture that the larger science community sees by looking at all the pieces,” said Ignatius G. Rigor, a climate scientist at the Polar Science Center of the University of Washington in Seattle….

“I will admit that we do not have all the pieces,” Dr. Rigor said, “but as the I.P.C.C. reports, the preponderance of evidence suggests that global warming is real.”  As for the Arctic, he said,  “Yes, this year’s winter ice extent is higher than last year’s, but it is still lower than the long-term mean.” 

Dr. Rigor said next summer’s ice retreat, despite the regrowth of thin fresh-formed ice now, could still surpass last year’s, when nearly all of the Arctic Ocean between Alaska and Siberia was open water.… 

“It’s all in the long-term trends. Weather isn’t going to go away because of climate change. There is this desire to explain everything that we see in terms of something you think you understand, whether that’s the next ice age coming or global warming,” explains Gavin A. Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan….”

It is very much a relief to see the regulation of climate and know how incredibly complex it all is. I look around at all this snow and ice and think, gee, maybe it won’t be so bad … maybe we’ll have more time…

It’s The Stuff

March 2, 2008

Last week I watched The Story of Stuff.  Although the narrator Annie Leonard was pretty upbeat about our ability to change, it left me feeling even more hopeless.

What it comes down to is this:

The US economy is based on increasing levels of consumption – Annie’s “Golden Arrow”.

Even the conservative IPCC report issued last October claims that the world needs to reduce carbon emissions by 20%-40%.  “If we continue to do what we are doing now, we are in deep trouble,” said Ogunlade Davidson of Sierra Leone, who served as co-chair of the IPCC Working Group that produced Working Group III Report “Mitigation of Climate Change”

IPCC thinks that we can all work together to reduce green house gas emissions. Annie Leonard urges us to work together to decrease our consumption.

But last week, I was sitting with my client, a nice little old lady named Martha, and listening to my boss talk to Martha about a stained bath robe. “Look at this Martha!  We need to get you a new robe.  This stain looks terrible!”

Martha clutched the robe to herself.  “I like this robe.  There’s nothing wrong with it.  So what if it has a stain?  It’s not like the President’s coming for breakfast.”

My boss tsked and shook her head.  “You deserve to have nice things, Martha!  I’m going to get rid of that old, stained robe and buy you a new one.”

This is a classic example of Golden Arrow Head;  we have been trained for a generation to consume, and our industry is locked into planned obsolescence. 

Do you buy a new pair of sneakers ever six to eight months?  How about only buying them every twelve to sixteen months, instead?  What?  They’ll fall apart before then?  Oh, right.

In 2007, Dr. Michael Raupach reported that greenhouse gasses are now rising three times faster than they were in the 1990’s.

Our green house gas emissions are rising three times faster since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol.

And, according to surveys, though most folks believe that the Earth is getting a might toasty, only about 15% think that it’ll get bad enough to effect their grand-children, let alone themselves.

The majority of Americans continue to oppose carbon taxes as a way to address global warming — either in the form of gasoline (67 percent against) or electricity taxes (71 percent against).

If we won’t agree to a rise in gasoline or electricity tax, I really don’t think that we’ll cut our consumption and increase our recycling to the level necessary to save us.

We just won’t do it.