Friday, March 28, 2008

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

This week scientists from the British Antarctic Survey announced that the Wilkins ice sheet—a body of ice roughly the size of Connecticut—has begun to break up. The collapse of this ice sheet now seems likely within the next few years. Discussing the importance of the break up of this ice sheet, David Wilson, a member of the survey team said, “We predicted it would happen, but it's happened twice as fast as we predicted...The importance of it is it's further south than any ice shelf we've seen retreating before, it's bigger than any ice shelf we've seen retreating before and in the long term it could be a taste of other things to come if climate change continues in the Antarctic. ''

This unfortunate occurrence is hardly surprising, since scientists have been warning for some time that global warming trends are eroding the western ice sheets of Antarctica much faster than was previously expected. Indeed, Antarctica has experience an unprecedented warming over the past thirty years that have caused seven ice sheets—Prince Gustav Channel, Larsen Inlet, Larsen A, Larsen B, Wordie, Muller and the Jones Ice Shelf—to collapse completely.

It is probably too late to save the Wilkins ice sheet from collapsing. But this event should be a wakeup call for all of us to start taking the threat of global warming seriously. Although the breakup of the Wilson ice sheet won’t cause sea levels to rise because it is already floating, the melting of land-based glaciers in southern Antarctica and Greenland could have profound consequences for low-lying areas of the world and possibly even for the future climate of Europe.

As I have argued repeatedly, if we want to mitigate the more harmful effects of global warming, we have to start taking dramatic action NOW. This will inevitably mean having to DRAMATICALLY alter our way of living in the United States so that our actions have less of a negative impact on the environment. I will try to spell out in more concrete terms what I think a new model of ecological living might look like in the United States in future blogs.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Bit of Libertarian Sanity

I would like to thank the folks at EcoBlog for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this blog. Although I am a libertarian at heart, I am also concerned about the state of the environment. Thus, while I like what this blog is basically trying to do, I have some big problems with its emphasis.

My first thought is that far too many of the blog entries here are little more than leftest propaganda. There is too much time spent complaining about George Bush, the war in Iraq, and greedy American corporations. How about talking about solutions to our eco problems rather than simply setting up straw men to bash.

My second thought is that there is no talk at all in this blog about market-based solutions to threats like global warming. We have seen that government regulations and heavy-handed approaches simply don't work. Let capitalism work the way it's supposed to and you will see American businesses embrace green technology. Government, as Ronald Regan said, is the problem, not the solution.

I looking forward to contributing to this blog in the future and adding a sane voice to some of these discussions.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Iraq War...Five Years Old and Still Going Strong

This blog is supposed to be about environmental issues--sustainable living, development, and economics, voluntary simplicity, vegetarianism, and the like. It is not supposed to be a venue to spew partisan political venom (as Publius so frequently reminds us). Protests around the country, however, commemorating the fifth anniversary of our occupation of Iraq have compelled me to bring up this contentious issue yet again.

Yesterday, in a speech delivered at the Pentagon, President Bush confidently assured the American people that the nation is at the brink of a great "strategic victory in Iraq." If this great victory is anything like the previous "victories" that we have had in this war, then we are in serious trouble indeed. Let's just look at some of the fruits that this war has borne:

  • According to recent estimates, the total costs for the Iraq war could be as high as 3 trillion dollars--funds, as we have already seen, that could be put to much better use right here in the United States.
  • Almost 4000 American soldiers have been killed since the war began and 29,395 have been wounded.
  • Over 1 million Iraqis--many of them children and teenagers--have died as a result of this war. 2.4 million Iraqis (approximately 20% of Iraq's prewar population) are now refugees to more "stable" countries like Jordan and Syria. So much for making life better for the average Iraqi!
  • Our failure to succeed in Iraq has emboldened our enemies around the world. Iran now is poised to be a major player in Middle Eastern politics, and Islamic extremist groups are gaining power in Egypt, Palestine, and Pakistan.
  • The Bush administration's incompetent prosecution of the war has made us seem like a "paper tiger" to many nations, like Iran, who previously would have been unwilling to thwart our global interests.
  • Our all too facile use of torture and "extraordinary rendition" has caused us to lose our credibility and moral standing among our allies in Europe and around the world.

With "successes" like these, I would hate to see what failure in Iraq would look like....

Just Foreign Policy Iraqi Death Estimator

There is another aspect of this war that is rarely discussed. Our tolerance for specific culturally sanctioned types of violence--whether it is the violence of an unjustifiable war in Iraq, the violence of the mass slaughter houses that "produce" our meat, or the environmental violence caused by programs like mountaintop removal--does nothing more than create a climate in our society in which people ultimately become completely desensitized to violence in general. Only by rejecting violence in all its forms, and adopting an ethic of peacefulness--the kind of ethic that comes right out of the Gospels--can we hope to create a world in which human beings can live sanely with one another.

Stopping the war in Iraq would be the first step towards this end. But it is only a first step. As Will Tuttle writes in his new book, The World Peace Diet, we also need to consider the impact of things like our food choices on the levels of violence in our society. If we are willing to cram animals into filthy feeding lots, pump them full of antibiotics and growth hormones, and then brutally butcher them just so we can have the satisfaction of being able to enjoy a juicy steak or piece of chicken, is it any wonder that we have so little trouble killing innocent women and children in Iraq?

...And Let's Not Forget Tibet Either

The crackdown against protestors in Tibet has led to the deaths of over 100 Tibetans, at the same time that the U.S. government has removed China from its list of top 10 human rights violators.

Tibet was illegally invaded and taken over by China in 1951. In 1959, The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, was forced to flee to India to escape impending imprisonment. Since then, the Chinese government has systematically closed Tibetan monasteries, pillaged the once pristine Tibetan countryside, and impose its own poiltical, cultural, and economic order upon the country.

What China has been doing in Tibet over the past 50 years is nothing short of cultural genocide. And yet, the world community--and the U.S government in particular--remains strangely silent. When it won the bid to host the 2008 summer Olympics, China made a promise to the world community to improve its human rights record. They clearly have reneged on this promise.

I think that the only thing that could possibly get the Chinese to grant a greater degree of autonomy to the Tibetan people is the threat of a boycott of this year's Olympics. I for one have
already contacted my elected officials in Congress and told them that I demand that the U.S. withdraw from the 2008 Olympics unless human rights abuses in Tibet are stopped immediately. If enough of us do this, the U.S. government might eventually be shamed into taking action on this extremely important issue.

Free Tibet Campaign

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Eleventh Commandment

I have recently become convinced that protection of the environment is the most important issue confronting us in the 21st century…more important than the war in Iraq, more important than the sagging global economy, and even more important than world poverty. All these other problems will work themselves out one way or another, but the damage to threatened ecosystems around the world is potentially irreversible. Just today the New York Times reported that the king salmon that run in the Sacramento River have all but disappeared. Although this will be a hardship for the salmon fishing industry in California, it is a disaster for the entire Sacramento River watershed. One California official called the collapse of salmon stocks “unprecedented.” Interestingly, this is the same term that experts have used to describe many of the other ecological problems that we have witnessed in recent years—the severity of hurricanes, regional droughts and forest fires, the bleaching of coral reefs around the world, and the melting of Arctic glaciers. All are unprecedented in their scope and magnitude. And, if we don’t start taking decisive action now to correct these problems, we may very well be dooming ourselves as a species (I know; I’m becoming hysterical again).

The solution to our environmental problems—if there is a solution at this point—is to completely transform our relationship to the natural world. We need to begin taking care of the environment in the same way that we take care of our bank accounts (actually we need to do even better than that when one considers that American savings accounts are all but depleted). We need to begin recognizing—as the Vatican recently did—that ecological callousness is as much of a “deadly sin” as greed or envy. We also need to feel as guilty about wasting water or electricity, using chemical fertilizers on our lawns, buying stuff we don’t need, or throwing recyclable bottles into the garbage as we do about breaking any of the traditional Ten Commandments.

In fact, I would argue that we need to add an eleventh commandment to the list:

"I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not piss me off by destroying my beautiful planet."


Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Positive Side of Inflation

Over the past ten years prices on consumer goods have increased at a manageable rate of 2-3.5%. This year, however, prices have risen at a rate of 7.4%. With oil at $111.00 a barrel, it is going to become increasingly more difficult for American families to heat their homes, drive their gas-guzzling cars, and still have enough money left to pay their mortgages, taxes, health insurance premiums, and credit card balances.

If wages had also been rising steadily, this wouldn't be a problem, but in fact the wages of working Americans have been declining in real terms since the 1970s. And now many poor and middle-class Americans are faced with stagnant or declining wages at the same time that inflation is on the rise and credit is being tightened. To make matters even worse, Americans have taken on record debt and have the lowest level of savings--the numbers now are in the negative regions--since the Great Depression. In short, things are bad, and they are probably going to get much worse during the next few years.

Although it may not be a comfort to those folks who will lose their jobs and be driven out of their homes during the economic meltdown that we are about to experience, there is something positive that can come out of this economic mess. During the past 35 years, American consumption has exploded thanks to cheap oil and easy credit. We live in bigger homes, drive fancier cars, eat out more often, and take more vacations than any other human beings on the planet. If we are forced to dramatically reduce our levels of consumption, this would actually be a good thing for our souls and for the state of the planet. It would be good for our souls because, as the ancients understood, mindless consumption necessarily leads to misery and discontent. It would be good for the planet because less consumption necessarily means less waste.

The solution, then, to our spiritual malaise and to our ecological crisis is to follow the wisdom of that great philosopher, Paris Hilton, and start living...

This is not as far-fetched as it might sound. For the past thirty years, we Americans have lived like bloated pigs at the trough (the trough, of course, representing the world's resouces, which we have been depleating at an alarming rate). Now circumstance rather than moral wisdom will necessitate that we dramatically reduce our standard of living. Depending upon how bad things get, Americans may have to start getting used to living like our parents did in the 1950s...eating at home more often, using public transportation more frequently, cutting out coupons from the Sunday newspaper to reduce costs at the supermarket, and traveling to the Catskills for vacation rather than to Europe or the Caribbean. For many Americans who have gotten use to the fat life, this sort of existence will represent nothing short of a living hell. There are others, though, who will probably do just fine during, what James Howard Kunstler has prophetically called, "The Long Emergency." Sure, we won't be able to go out for lattes at Starbucks any more, but we may actually start to value those intangible goods that make life worth living--more time with our family and friends, opportunities for personal growth and spiritual enrichment, and a more intimate connection with the natural world.

If that doesn't sound appetizing, you can always find a large building to jump off of. Just make sure that no one is standing beneath you when you take the plunge!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why even conservatives should be concerned about the state of the planet!

Sure, global warming could be a big hoax...a nasty myth perpetuated by pinko environmentalists who hate capitalism. I am well aware that climate change skeptics—many of whom are funded by the gas and oil industry—continually make the case that the dramatic changes in global climate that we have recently seen are a natural phenomenon and not necessarily the result of human activity.

In reality, however, there is little scientific debate that concentrations of greenhouse gases—mostly in the form of carbon dioxide emissions from combustion of coal, oil and gas—are to blame for the warming trends that we are now seeing. In fact, hundreds of scientific studies point to some alarming trends that should cause us all grave concern:

  • During the past decade, as a result of global warming, heat waves have become much more intense. In 2003 an extreme heatwave in Europe took the lives of nearly 35,000 people. In 2005 many cities in the United States broke all-time records for high temperatures and for the number of consecutive days with temperatures of 100 degrees or more. Indeed, the year 2005 was the hottest year recorded since 1860. Just a coincidence?
  • Climate change has caused severe droughts throughout the world. It is predicted that 1.8 billion people will face water shortages by 2025.
  • The warming of the earth’s oceans has increased the severity of hurricanes, making them much more damaging to humans and property than they were in the past. There is a consensus among scientists that global warming will lead to an increase in the number of hurricanes hitting the United States in the future. Insurance companies have already begun to deny homeowners in costal areas flood insurance because even they are beginning to understand the potential impact of global warming on their "bottom lines."
  • Climate change has already caused glaciers to retreat at an unprecedented rate. Simulations project that a 2-3 degree celsius increase in temperature could cause the meltdown of Greenland’s icesheets. Continued melting of glaciers during this century will inevitably cause sea levels to rise, flooding low lying areas such as Bangladesh and causing a potential wave of refugees into neighboring countries. If sea levels rise as significantly as some scientists predict, much of Long Island and lower Manhattan could be covered in water.
  • Climate change has the potential to lead to the mass extinction of animal species. In a 2004 issue of Nature, scientists studying the world’s diverse hotspots have predicted that by 2050 a quarter of the world’s species could be on the path to extinction as a result of global warming. Subsequent studies seem to bear out these findings, leading scientists to warn that catastrophic species loss could occur across the planet.

Even if only some of these predictions come true, it would mean that the world our children will inhabit in the future will be significantly less hospitable than it is now. This should inspire us all--whether we are liberals or conservatives--to work together to solve the grave environmental problems currently facing the planet.

One positive trend to note is that the three major candidates running for president--four if you count my hero, Ralph Nader--have fairly solid environmental records. So, even if John McCain becomes the next president, we will probably see some bipartisan efforts to reduce our dependence on oil and stem the tide of global warming. And this, of course, is in everybody's best interest.

- Mike

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Gospel of Consumption

In the New York Times (3/11/08) Bob Herbert reports that, out of a total population of 300 million, 37 million Americans live in poverty. An additional 60 million are just above the poverty line, living with household incomes that range from $20,000-$40,000 annually for a family of four. In the current economic crisis in which we find ourselves, these are the people who are going to suffer most from the rising prices of oil and food, the plummeting housing market, and the decline in jobs that pay a minimum wage.

Of course, the middle class in the United States—those making less than $200,000 a year—are not much less vulnerable during an economic downturn like this one. Many of these Americans, buying into the consumptive mentality that drives our society, have taken on an enormous amount of debt since the 1970s, have virtually no savings, and have seen the equity in their homes plummet like a middle-aged man’s saggy midsection.

Since 70 % of the American economy is consumption driven, the prophets of mass consumerism—led by its head cheerleader, George Bush—have told us time and again to do our patriotic duty and spend, spend, spend. In the past, Americans have duly submitted to this philosophy using easily attainable credit to buy tons of stuff they really didn’t need.

But now the hens have come home to roost. Personal and national debt is the highest it has been since World War II and banks are tightening up on the loans they make. Furthermore, unemployment levels have been increasing and middle class wages have been fairly stagnant at the same time that inflation seems to be on rise. And yet, despite all this Americans continue to drive themselves further into debt through their endless consumption.

The solution to our economic crisis is not to consume more, but to consume less. To live simpler, more ecologically sustainable lives. Americans would certainly benefit if they adopted some of the basic principles of the voluntary simplicity movement...most notably the recognition that human happiness can not be attained through ever-increasing levels of consumption

Of course, if we suddenly stop our mindless consumption, this will make Wall Street and the White House extremely unhappy. But that’s their problem. The job of each individual during an economic meltdown, such as the one that is inevitably coming, is to get his or her own house in order by reducing consumption and increasing savings.

Fortunately, the Voluntary Simplicity movement has a number of web sites available to help overspent and overworked Americans live simpler and more fiscally responsible lives. Here are two of the most popular of these sites:

The Simple Living Network
The Simplicity Resource Guide

Reasonable and Humane Enviornmentalism

I was very glad to be asked to contribute to this blog since I am generally an opponent of its goals and tenor. Hopefully, a fair and charitable discussion of the issues at stake can lead to a consensus - on at least some things.

First, some points of disagreement:

The very motto of the site speaks to an excessiveness and apocalypticism that is not only irrational, but by its radicalness, keeps people from wanting to be associated with environmental responsibility. It only preaches to the choir.

"Saving Humanity - One Planet at a Time" is both melodramatic - and nonsensical. Humanity is not in danger of extinction. Claims to the contrary are unscientific and frankly - scaremongering. It would be enough to state that modernization harms the natural world in certain ways. And human beings thrive best in a healthy environment. A beautiful and robust natural world makes life more beautiful and enjoyable.

Instead, environmentalism is always trying to avoid planetary destruction and extinction. It's unserious.

Evidence of this continues here on this blog with calls for vegetarianism, media blackouts, bemoaning the Iraq War - undoubtedly to be followed by cries against capitalism, corporate America, the Republican Party, and apple pie.

Other than my disagreement on some of these matters themselves, I'm disappointed because many people react to this political theatre by throwing the environmental baby out with the left-wing bath water.

People have a good and natural disgust for environmental destruction. Oil slicks on pristine waters, animals covered in crude, hillsides stripped bare, poisoned fish, smog and grime in city air, lakes and rivers and oceans closed to swimmers and fishing, animals extinct forever - all these things repel your average person and the environmental movement can do much if it appeals to sense and common decency.

But people also generally have a disinclination to apocalypticism and conspiracy theory. Human experience and history has shown them that it is usually a kind of hysteria to some real, but manageable problem. They also have a revolutionary hatred of having others opinions imposed upon them by governmental - or non-governmental - force.

The nature of our problem in the modern world is human ingenuity - it is also part of the solution. We have the greatest command of natural fores and productivity in the history of the world. There are more people in the modern age than have even existed for most of history put together. And so we have new problems - one of which is not spoiling the natural world we live in.

I, and many people can get behind that goal. But seeing as how there is a new environmental crisis every few years (nuclear fallout, new ice age, the ozone layer, acid rain, rain forests, whales, global warming, etc. etc) the environmental movement is destroying its credibility year by year. The global cooling trend that emerged in 2007, if it continues, (as scientists who believe solar activity causes global temperature cycles say it will) it could be another deadly blow to the current environmental movement.

An environmental movement tied to general left-wing politics is an environmental movement doomed to spectacular failure. Unless the real goal is left-wing politics and a blind insistence that the two are inseperable, the environmental movement needs to unhitch itself from these other problems.

We need a strong environmental movement. One that has room for all people, with differing opinions. One that puts human beings first. Human beings that need and thrive in a healthy and beautiful natural world.

Simple living and a love and care of nature is an environmental movement that is built for all people.

And built to last for centuries.


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