IBI Watch 12/29/13

29 12 2013

We Need this Index //

We have many measurements and indexes that purport to tell us about various aspects of the economy – the consumer price index, the gross domestic product, the consumer confidence index, and so many others. We even have this seasonal nonsense, based on the familiar old Christmas song.

Seeing several stories bunched this week, I realized we are missing an index – one that could really educate us on the folly of how we run the economic ship. First there was this one, which really should be a startup of a support group, Sardines Anonymous. Then there is a great consumer credit data security scandal, courtesy of the retailer Target. And then we have this one – that steak looks amazingly appetizing, considering its building blocks. Yum.

The thread connecting these three stories may be clear, but here are a few more items. First, Marketplace did an investigative story on the making of a humble t shirt. Interesting, and gets into that inconvenient issue of dangerous work conditions for factory workers – but not like this. (Did you catch the passing reference to the empire built on the myth of “low, low prices?”) And looking to an even bigger picture, there is this grand initiative to put useless land to work supplying the engines of industry. And a related bonanza – the United States’ triumphant return to the elite club of oil exporters, thanks to the “miracle” of fracking.

The link should be clear by now – all these stories represent ways we pursue low costs without regard to consequences. So the index the world badly needs in my opinion is this – the TCCI. That is, the True Cost of Cheap Index. The purpose of this index would be educational – to help us understand that if something sounds too cheap for our own good, we probably need to dig into the reasons for that cheapness, and act accordingly.

My quixotic index idea won’t materialize anytime soon. Or ever. But there are ways to get at this information. A favorite of mine is the GoodGuide site – where you can find out the true impact of consumer products. Rate them on personal health, environmental safety, and societal concerns – and customize those to your values. Information about consumer products and large, planet-altering energy initiatives – fracking, tar sands oil, mountaintop-removal coal mining – is available in plain sight. And there are some nascent efforts to filter lies, character assassination and delusional raving out of public forums. But we are often too entertained, busy or economically challenged to seek it out truth, or glean it through the smoke of corporate propaganda.

That’s where wise regulation comes in. Regulation prevents hell such as this disaster that would ensue should certain ideologues commandeer all the reins of power. Corporate control over the media and the message promotes our obsession with low prices and pignorance (pretend-ignorance) of the true costs, often called externalities. Many of us know we need to do better – including NPR’s Linda Wertheimer. I enjoyed her essay about the current disastrously paralyzed Congress, but her solution – replace out incumbent bums with a new cast – falls far short of what is needed. The only way to get us on a planet-wise track, in my opinion, is to solve the root problem – the corporate pollution that poisons our policy, and twists it in the name of pursuing the quick buck. We will move solidly in that direction when corporations are no longer people, my friends.

Punching Back with Wisdom and Respect

Star Tribune commentator Bonnie Blodgett received a rare and well-deserved opportunity recently. That is, to respond in print to a corporate spin doctor who had cherry-picked and tried to undermine a well-researched column Blodgett had written on the often invisible and carefully managed power of corporate agriculture. Few can exceed her as an expert connector of seemingly disparate situations and trends. Kudos to the Star Tribune for doing the right thing. And kudos to Bonnie for hanging in there for the sake of the planet.

“Pope-ulist!”

The leader of my church of origin is really making waves. Pope Francis has angry greedmeisters like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News trembling on their gilded soapboxes. The new pope has the audacity to demand that we care about the poor, and pursue policies of fairness and generosity. How quaint. How “Marxist.”

I was very impressed with the ideas of Bill Moyers’ guest, Tom Cahill. The author of Heretics and Heroes (newly added to my reading list) says this whole debate can be boiled down to a single choice between two movements in the world – kindness and cruelty. Sadly, we too rarely make the better choice.

But we can’t finish this piece without a nod to Jon Stewart’s brilliant satire of both the right wing’s revulsion at the Pope’s insistence on fairness, and the mythical “World War C.” This will leave you laughing, guaranteed.

Beauty from a Distance

It was 45 years ago, and I was fascinated by the space program. I could not get enough TV coverage, first of the capsules orbiting the moon, and then just months later, sending modules down to its surface. My dad encouraged my enthusiasm by painstakingly explaining to me a lot of the technical challenges NASA overcame.

The mission we celebrate here is Apollo 8 – a mere orbiter compared to the later “small step for man” achievement. But it was Apollo 8’s team effort that gave us the iconic image that has become known as “Earthrise” – a touchstone for the environmental movement.

Author Andrew Chaikin has done us a great service with his 2007 book A Man on the Moon and his description of the “Earthrise” achievement. He is also the narrator of a fine NASA video on the mission.

Climate Change – Current and Coming Attractions

As 2013 closes, we are making sadly little progress on building consensus. Denialist obfuscation notwithstanding, the situation grows more urgent by the day. Amazing how a mere 90 million tons of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by little old us every single day of every single year can cause problems, I know, but bear with me for several perspectives.

First, here is a well-constructed, comprehensive look at right now. Note the emphasis on solutions, if we only were to wake up. Next, a Climate Progress piece on specific 2013 climate events, none of them too sanguine. And finally, a concise, idea-packed NPR interview with Andrew Steer of the World Resources Institute. Though Steve Inskeep picks an inopportune time to be a “tough, skeptical journalist,” (see if you don’t agree), Steer communicates a lot on what needs to happen to build consensus and how that might happen – concerted, committed, collective pressure from consumers and shareholders. A celebrated highlight – the growth of low carbon cities. Viva the shoe and the bicycle!

2013: the Jaded (but Justified) Rear Mirror

Goshen NY blogger Tom Degan has done it again. If you have never read his Rant, you are missing wise and wise-guy blogging at its best. I love his jaundiced and spot-on year in review. The Worst of the Rant, indeed.

Innovations for New Years and Beyond

To provoke some forward thinking, I submit for your consideration CNN’s collection of 10 innovative ideas. Ranging from the practical but daunting (#1) to the “why the hell not?!” (#3) to the downright scary (#6), these will get you thinking about the future. Which is something we really need to do a lot more of. Along with acting more wisely, of course.

“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” – Wendell Berry

Happy New Year to all IBI Watch Readers!  Thanks for your continued support, sharing and working to build sustainability!

Contributed links to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 12/22/13

22 12 2013

The True Universal Language  //

A friend mentioned Esperanto the other day. Now that is something I had not thought of for a long time – the well-intentioned but largely futile effort to create an artificial but logical, easily learned tongue that aspired to be everyone’s second language.  Esperanto has not caught on widely, and that is a shame. But no matter. Another language is universally recognized, and it really gets results. . . or could anyway. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

First – what to make of the mass release of political prisoners in Russia this week? President Vladimir Putin (aka Vlad the En-Jailer) summarily liberated a virtual crowd of captives – ex-oligarch and rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the protesting punk group Pussy Riot, and the Greenpeace 30 protesters. So what’s going on? Is Putin finally morphing into the “good man” into whose soul our insightful ex-president George W peered? The easy answer is that Russia wants a cleaner image for the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics. But it is really the universal language at work. Positive image, more happy, well-heeled visitors, more money filling the Olympic coffers. Isn’t it nice when that universal language – cash – can deliver desired results? Think about it – all the various reasons Russia held this diverse crowd melted away when lucre loomed. Russia has another Olympic controversy to tame – its stern and hostile approach to gays – but that is another story for another time.

Second – North Dakota is experiencing an orgy of oil revenue. New, unconventional drilling techniques including horizontal exploration and of course fracking have unleashed a gusher of huge proportions. Investments are leading to piles of fast cash. In other words, money in but lots more money out. But the benefits bring challenges, some of them detailed in that MSN piece, some not. For instance, we have to ask if we have learned a damned thing from previous boom and bust cycles, especially when it comes to the environment. Just read this NY Times piece by Clifford Krauss, on efforts to manage the inevitable byproduct of all this oil exploitation – “waste” natural gas. Perusing those statistics about how much good could come from using that byproduct to heat homes and businesses provides the answer – not a damned thing. The rush for the quick money means grab the oil, fast, and do not be deliberate about capturing the gas byproduct. Let it burn aimlessly, producing harmful greenhouse gas emissions – just the cost of progress I guess.

Yes, I know it is a bit of a stretch to talk about money as a universal language. But I ask this – if money has the power to make Strongman Putin go all soft on his most prominent political prisoners, what power could it have, with sensible laws and regulations, to build the common good and save our sorry collective keister? What if it were not free to simply vent or flare “byproduct” gas?  What if every bit of carbon produced in oil and coal exploitation were assessed a fee, and the revenue used to create sustainability?  Would we be wantonly adding to the burden that we put on the already taxed atmosphere every day (90 million tons of carbon dioxide daily, but who is counting?) if producers were paying that fee for all the carbon? Of course not. We would be building the needed infrastructure in a hurry, in order to keep the oil and the oil cash flowing until renewables completely took over. Now that would be using money to produce results that benefit all.

There is a way to get those big benefits from the universal language of cash – make carbon pay its way. That’s just what Citizens Climate Lobby dedicates itself to. Read more about the carbon fee and dividend. And it is not just the carbon fee. How about saving waste heat? We need these ideas and so many more, before it is too late.

 

Too Late Already?

A growing chorus of scientists add up all the evidence and have a single grave conclusion – the human race is toast. This excellent AlterNet story by Dahr Jamail tells the story in articulate detail.  They may be right, but we really have not begun to fight. It is always a good time to cut through the pignorance (pretend ignorance) and get to purposeful work. And fortunately, many are trying – and there is progress to report.

Want proof that people can “get it” about clean transportation? Here – winter cycling is growing in, of all places, the coldest major metro area in the whole US – my adopted home region. And it regularly dips below zero here, folks. Want solar? We’ve got solar. In the hot desert? No, Iowa. Then there is the big picture – 2013 energy breakthroughs that are other than newfangled ways to get at more and more of the destructive old coal and oil. And what of powering the entire world with solar? How much land would that require? Less than you might think.

Remember Nelson Mandela’s words – “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

 

Incarceration Nation

I saw this Foreign Policy article, really a thought experiment, in my local newspaper this week. It imagines the outsized percentage of the US population, and the obscene portion of its minority population, as a distinct nation. The online version, of course, has the benefit of many links. This really got me thinking. And then Bill Moyers came along with his interview of lawyer/activist Michelle Alexander on the same topic. Here are facts and figures from the show, and here is the entire interview. Considering the cost, considering the unfairness, considering the wasted lives, you have to ask – Why?

 

Antibacterials Banned; Next up Phantom Plastic

One of the stupidest, but most enticing consumer ideas in modern America has to be the notion that we can make everything so damned squeaky clean that we never pick up any nasty bugs. That’s the idea behind antibacterial soap and its most ubiquitous ingredient, triclosan. That “miracle” substance, linked to health problems and more indirectly to mutant pathogens, will at long last face a sunset, barring lobbying by corporatists and other anti-science stooges. The only question is – what took so long?

So there is the good news. Now look at another issue. We can only hope we wise up faster on this one – minuscule plastic waste from personal care products that is fouling the Great Lakes. If it is all about the humans, then by all means we need do nothing. If we give a damn, then we need to read and act on the story’s punchline – “stop putting it out there.” Should be an easy choice. Learn more. Be sure to scroll down to the imbedded video. And then visit 5Gyres, an excellent site – new to me – dedicated to banning plastic pollution. You might even find a petition or three there, or something more useful – a chance to contribute.

 

Ambassador for Fairness

Billie Jean King is going to Russia with the American delegation to the Olympics. Her tennis glory is long past, but if you wonder about her message, see the note above in the comments about Putin’s Russia. I enjoyed this Scott Simon essay, and I think you will. Recently, I was so impressed with the tennis great’s intelligence, insights and magnanimity to her critics. Those were on display when she was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

 

Altering Earth’s Life Support System – Guest Post by Rolly Montpellier

This week’s guest post offers a concise summary of the state of climate change as reported by IPCC scientists, and discusses an important concept – the world carbon budget. Be sure to check out the excellent imbedded video from the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. Toronto’s Rolly Montpellier blogs at the Boomer Warrior site. That site sometimes features my work as well.

 

Threatened Polar Bears – Two Views

It is no secret that the polar bear’s natural world is melting, and the cause is nothing like natural. Here is a story on one result – interspecies mating with grizzlies, to the detriment of both. And here is an iconic, award-winning picture from National Geographic.

 

Climate Change All Over this Land

A friend shared with me this very rich site with abundant maps, links and graphs. From those crazy doomsaying radicals at the US Geological Service.

 

The Year in Extreme Weather Pictures

2013 has been quite a year. Just wait until next.

 

2000-Plus Years of Christmas

If you stay away from the “war” hogwash, you can learn some really interesting things.

 

Holy Sheep

Somehow I can’t resist featuring these guys every holiday season. Don’t know if it is the lights, the tongue-in-cheek delivery or the fact that one of my two dogs is a clever, obsessed, deranged, rescued border collie.

 

A World Worth Imagining and Building

And in pictures. Thank you, John Lennon, and thank you, Pablo Stanley!

 

Happy Christmas, and likewise for all other holidays you may celebrate!

 

“The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.” – Gaylord Nelson

 

Contributed links or content to this posting – Bobbie Chong, Allyson Harper, Rolly Montpellier, Tammie Stadt, David Vessel

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 12/15/13

15 12 2013

Careful with that Focus //

In photography, a macro lens in skilled hands produces eye-opening results. By zooming in on details, we can get a glimpse of a whole other world – think of pictures like these. But in the climate debate, the metaphorical macro lens produces results of an entirely different type. If you have a story to tell, particularly an anti-science, fossil-fueled fairy tale of “everything is fine, so shut up,” you can whip out that macro lens and find all sorts of material for your narrative.

The latest is the dramatic news that a new all-time low temperature may have been recorded in Antarctica. Sure, the reading is a bit tainted – satellite-collected, three years old and all that – but it is big news of a sort. And if you are telling the “climate change is a hoax” story, it is something to capitalize on. Here’s a post from my favorite denialist blog – though the site does not overtly beat the drum on this new evidence, it is easy to surmise why the story appears at all. A new all-time low casts doubt on the manmade climate change story, from that macro view. And then there is wintry weather cropping up in unexpected places, and politically beneficial (to the likes of James Inhofe and Company) places. And right here in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, it has been cold, no doubt about it. We have already had a series of overnight sub-zero low temps, and on several days the high barely crept above zero.  So many are assuming the return of the bracing winters of yore, and possibly imagining that well, maybe all that climate change stuff really isn’t all that big a story. Maybe it is not true at all.

The Antarctic low is the most macro of all information. Go to a slightly wider lens, and you see what is really happening – Phil Plait’s nicely illustrated blog post on Slate tells the wide-angle story. Despite isolated record-low temps and scattered colder-than-average spots, the continuing story at both poles is one word – melt. And far-flung or persistent wintry weather tempts us back toward the business-as-usual, all-is-fine approach, especially if we have bought the myth of climate change as a linear, lock-step, steady warming process. But that is foolish – all that cold and snowy weather far from the poles is itself a consequence of all our greenhouse gas belching – see here. And here in the Twin Cities, of course winter is cold. In fact, it is so cold that most Minnesotans, native or adopted, spend the better part of December – March complaining about it or headed for the airport. But the wide-angle focus is this – the last time the low temperature hit -20F was January 16, 2009. Historically – -20F to -30F is the annual bottom-out temperature in these parts, or was anyway. And lest you think this is simply the masochistic raving of a crazy winter sports fan (well OK so it is, but there is more), this is the real evidence of a long-term shift in the climate, and it has major long-term consequences. We can always count on Paul Douglas for the long view and the science backing it up. Please view his blog, and check the blog entry “Blissfully Numb.” No better irony than this. Sure it is cold in a few places on the globe, including the tip of my nose, but get a look at how much red (above normal) there is all around. And a global comparison from November of this year sure puts that satellite-collected Antarctic record in context.

And of course the biggest picture of all is this, and for the foreseeable future, the only way on that number is up. The only question is how far and how fast.

The first lesson here of course – beware wide-angle judgments emerging from macro lenses. The other lesson is let’s do something about it. Here is a recent recommendation, and an organization dedicated to the cause. And one more for good measures, like a carbon fee and dividend.

 

Newtown Echoes

It has been a hard week for listening to the radio and reading the papers. On the radio, we hear the voices of grieving parents of the children gunned down in the ghastly and senseless Sandy Hook Elementary massacre. And in the papers, we see again the faces of all those young lives snuffed out. What have we learned and done? Sadly, not nearly enough.

For one thing, the bloody toll continues. Watch this short Mother Jones video and dig into the investigative report. It is easy to see that it is only a matter of time before the next massacre. The NRA’s power to stymie efforts at reasonable regulation is undiminished. At the state level, the view is not quite so bleak.

There is a lot of depth on America’s violent culture in this interview by Bill Moyers with cultural historian Richard Slotkin. I had never seen the inside of the violent video games that Slotkin samples in the interview – even one specifically modeled on the Sandy Hook massacre. Warning – disgusting, shocking, hard to watch if you have any imagination or empathy.

A worthy group fights on for sensible gun regulation.

 

Looking Ahead – the Next Four Decades (Guest Post by Desmond Berghofer)

Guest blogger Desmond Berghofer provides a comprehensive look at socioeconomic and environmental trends looking out to 2052. He aptly notes that so much of this emanates from uncontrolled population growth. Interesting stuff. This post is from the BoomerWarrior site, the work of Toronto’s Rolly Montpellier. Rolly sometimes features my work. Berghofer also has his own blog, worth checking out.

 

At Last, Volcker Rules

What’s this? A step in the direction of sensible bank regulation? Believe.

A Sunny Forecast

Look out Germany, US solar is coming.

Play It Dumb or Smart

It’s reality or magical thinking. No other choice. Two cities diverge on the path to planning for climate change’s inevitable sea rises. Ideology is a powerful thing, for better or worse. OK, mainly for worse.

 

Feed Your Mind (Or Someone Else’s) – the IBI Watch Reading List

For years, I have threatened to post my recommended book list for titles connected to this blog. Drumroll, please. Well, all right, skip the percussion. But please take a look. Note especially my “top five” recommendations. Look for the bold type most strongly recommended items. I endorse the entire list of course, but I guarantee that anyone reading any of my top five for the first time will vastly expand their world view.

 

“Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Contributed links or content to this posting – Desmond Berghofer, Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 12/8/13

8 12 2013

Inequality and Apathy //

Income Inequality in America continues to grow, but how many of us are really paying attention? George W Bush scaled new heights of cluelessness with his apparently earnest celebration of an audience member who had three jobs. But that problem has not disappeared. Far from it. Try this Weekend Edition Saturday story about a certain class of people who are hiring valets for their one-year-old(!) progeny while hordes of that three-job class struggle for the scraps of income that tinkle down from on high. And of course former Labor Secretary Robert Reich campaigns on this crucial issue – his latest work being a highly-regarded documentary that I just have to see. Here’s the trailer, and a brand-new and worthy review from Canada.com.

What really got me thinking again about income inequality and economic justice this week was an opinion piece that I read in the Star Tribune. On its surface, Virginia Postrel’s Bloomberg News article is not even about income inequality.  Rather, it’s really more of an extended homage to the fun most of us – even the three-job crowd – are experiencing as a result of the entertainment technology revolution. That revolution has indeed bestowed a remarkable basket of benefits. Postrel’s argument – that the happiness bonus earned from lives enriched by wider entertainment options is not included in measures of well-being has some merit. But let’s look a little deeper. If her premise is correct – that all the entertainment whiz bang overrides the economic troubles that low-wage workers suffer – then the US, the home of the go-go economy and still the richest country in the world should be the happiest, or one of the very few happiest in the world. Sorry, not so. And when you look at measures of human health, there is an even more shocking lag.

Of course I benefit mightily from the entertainment tech revolution. While I am not a big gamer, the pleasures of playing word games online with friends around the world, carrying radio podcasts around with me on a device smaller than a matchbox, schlepping a whole universe of data on a smart phone smaller than a deck of cards, all of this is not lost on me. But entertainment tech is today’s opium. How else to understand how we have let the kind of gulf that Reich decries happen? How can we not pay attention to a system that allows all of this?

A significant part of the answer is exactly what Postrel celebrates – most of us, even the three-job crowd, even the middle class who are getting mugged in the name of austerity, are well entertained, i.e. anaesthetized against seeing what is really happening. And what is really happening is corporate control of our government system. Since Citizens’ United, that power has grown. (If you need a ghastly laugh at corporate rule, count on Jon Stewart!) Until we figure out a way to stop it, we will stay on the same dangerous path – recreating the Gilded Age, even a modern feudal system, where a tiny elite holds more and more power and wealth while all others shrivel. But hey, at least we are entertained!

There must be a better way. I like this Bernie Sanders petition and the wealth of information included in the bargain. Please join me in signing.

The Dangers of Abruptness

No, this is not about rude, curt communication but something much more consequential. Because our unrelenting and accelerating production of greenhouse gases has pushed the world’s climate into completely uncharted (in human time) territory, scientists tell us we must expect the unexpected. Here is the latest on what they are teasing out, and what we should do to comprehend and cope. (Be sure to catch the exit line from the NPR story, about how a certain party wants to handle the costs of crucial research.)

And of course it is not just risk of future change. It is already here – in the form of sea level rise that is already loaded in the system, a variety of costs that we are already paying, and persistent heat waves that are already scorching food crops. Though heat waves and climate change in general seem an odd topic to some in the north right now as we shiver, we really have to consider the big picture. Got 14 seconds for an animation? And of course the picture might be even bigger and darker, as proponents of the theory of near-term extinction are quick to point out. While noting that those pessimists have much evidence for their views, I say we should keep it from becoming the most awful of self-fulfilling prophesies.

So what are we doing? Some are pushing clean energy, others conservation – both parts of the mix. But in the long run we get nowhere without slaying that corporate power dragon. Here’s a start. Here’s another.

Look Beyond that Frozen Nose

This NPR piece is a refreshing big-picture antidote to the inevitable pignorant chorus about how the current American Arctic cold wave casts doubt on climate science. These things really are at stake, and the trends are sad.

Raw Deals for Women

Here are two stories that don’t seem directly related, until you think just a bit. First, a brief video expose of the beauty game, and an articulate video plea by scientist Emily Graslie, with a simple request – respect for her knowledge and research. Made me want to check out her science blog. I love her enthusiasm. Look out, Bill Nye!

Two Nearby States, a World Apart

This story is for residents of Wisconsin and Minnesota, but it has messages for all Americans really. I am certainly glad for which side of the divide I live on, though I have not an ounce of Scandinavian blood running in these veins. And as MPR rightly points out, but for the grace of 8000 votes, there went us in 2010. Oy, was that close! This also got me thinking big picture, and right back to a story I heard recently about the foundations of American liberalism and conservatism. I found this Tom Paine/Edmund Burke comparison fascinating, and I bet you will as well. I think I will have to read Yuval Levin’s book, The Great Debate. And keep voting.

Remember to Save the Bees

Here in December’s frozen northland, it is a bit difficult to think about pollinators at the moment. But think and act we must, because time is growing short. As you no doubt know from reading this blog and other sources of science, a variety of factors, led by a class of “miracle” pesticides, have been decimating populations of bees and other pollinators worldwide. Here are some updates. First, the European Union – those namby-pamby risk-averse wimps, have dared to ban these miracles of modern science for a few years and see what happens. That’s not exactly news, but this new update sheds more light an article by Robert Krulwich (whose RadioLab show you really have to check out). And if that dot-connecting piece inspires you to do something, you could always struggle against the empire.

Celebrating the Voice of Freedom

The airways are rightly full of tributes right now to a giant of the 20th century. Here is an entire library of material for you to sample, courtesy of PRI’s The World. While Nelson Mandela is lionized as a champion of freedom and justice, to me the most amazing and enduring example he set was forgiveness. A lesson we all need to learn.

“A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of.”
– Nelson Mandela

Contributed links or content to this posting –Allyson Harper, Mike Nevala, Lucinda Plaisance

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 12/1/13

1 12 2013

Science in Action //

Key, urgent decisions hinge on a clear understanding of scientific principles by decision makers. Those decision makers include the obvious – our executives, legislators and judges at all levels of government. But they also number all citizens – whether they seek out and try to understand scientific truth or not. That is a problem for the ages – ours and most crucially, those to come.

There really is no shortage of scientific information on humans and the environment, climate change, nutritional science, etc., but the problem is this. Much of the information that comes from science on these and other issues is not conducive to the business-as-usual inertia that pervades our policy. Corporate interests recognize the inconvenience of various scientific facts, and deploy armies of public relations specialists and lobbyists to spread spin and untruths to all those decision makers. To make it even more challenging, it is a rare scientist who can match up to a professional spin doctor with a contrary or fact-challenged tale to tell. This is what makes scientists who have left the lab to get the word out worth their weight in gold and then some. Here are just a few of my favorites, from the international to the local scenes.

First in line has to be James Hansen, who has crossed another line in recent years, becoming an activist willing to be arrested in his efforts to spread the truth about the climate crisis. I recommend his latest book, Storms of My Grandchildren, and also this TED Talk.

Next, there are some meteorologists who use their blow-dried TV news persona to blow denialist hot air on climate change. Among the most prominent in this corporate propaganda crowd are national figure Joe Bastardi and Twin Cities local anti-hero Dave Dahl. I find Dahl particularly entertaining in the way he has enlisted the Almighty in his anti-science campaign. I can’t find a link to something I heard him say – that it is arrogant to assert that mankind’s activity is upsetting nature’s balance ( which is really in the hands of God), but he is quoted in other terms with a whole crowd of compatriots right here. Fortunately for us in the Twin Cities, we have a genuine hero for the cause – Paul Douglas. He writes a fantastic, frequently updated blog in which he shares ample doses of climate science. He also speaks on climate change regularly, including this concise 2012 climate summary video. And oh yes – he is a Republican.

Then there is climate change’s dark, destructive twin – ocean acidification. Scientist and writer Ken Caldeira is on that beat. Here is a short video in which he talks about both science and the challenge of explaining it to those decision makers.

For the really big picture, Neil DeGrasse Tyson has carried on and built upon the work of the late Carl Sagan, and continued to promote astronomy and science more generally to a broad audience. Here he is on the Daily Show.

For science with entertainment value, it is hard to beat Bill Nye the Science Guy. Dancing exploits aside (funny!), Nye is always ready to weigh in on science topics that should not be controversial, but in this era of all-powerful corporate storytelling, remain so.

Locally here in the Twin Cities, University of Minnesota meteorologist Kenneth Blumenfeld is an expert on severe weather. He does frequent public appearances spreading the word on climate change, and also sends a great blind-copy newsletter on severe weather outbreaks across the US. If you would like to subscribe, send me a message and I will connect you. Blumenfeld has offered to debate this storyteller, but the offer has not been accepted. The state senator seems to be much wiser than the video would suggest.

Participation by scientists in the public debate may be on a slow growth trend. NPR tells us about a group that is training them to be more effective communicators. BioToasters. Take it from a Toastmasters alumnus – ya gotta love that. So efforts among scientists themselves are part of the success plan for science. But we the voting citizens also play a major role. We can vote for corporate poseurs or people with a genuine, fact-based interest in the public good. And we have responsibility beyond mere voting – understanding and acting on science as informed citizens. Here is an article from Nature magazine that can help in that quest.

It would be tempting to end this story with more bad news about the misuse of science in decision making here in this corporate paradise, but here is some positive news, from a very surprising place. This is one time where you can say “Don’t mess with Texas.”

 

Commuting Tough on the Wrong People

NPR has been doing periodic stories on commuting, and all are worth a listen. This latest entry documents the travails of a Chicago transit commuter trying to do the right thing and paying a big price in convenience and comfort. And if you try to do the right thing in another way – like anteing up for a gas-sipping hybrid – what happens? In some cases, we figure out a way for you to pay the price of not using enough gasoline. Say what?  We clearly need more big-picture-based, rational transportation policy that rewards the right sort of commuting behavior. That’s not what’s in the cards if this unfortunate idiocy comes to pass. Still, groups are working for reason on this issue – here is one. And anyone who needs convincing on the efficacy of public transit need only watch this very short stop-action video. Enough seen.

 

New Ideas in Rome

Holy Peter and Paul! Saints preserve us! What have we here? A populist pope, who takes all that kindhearted beatitude stuff seriously?  Looks like it. And certain people on the pious right are not at all amused. (The first four weekly conservative rants are broadsides at Francis; the rest are just a bonzo bonus.) Can you say “apoplectic”? You betcha.

 

Battle Lost; War Must Continue

The great divide in this country – people at the top, especially CEOs, getting richer while all others flat-line – has been well documented. It’s arguably the main quest of a populist hero, Robert Reich. Here is a recent Reich clip from the Colbert Report. And our penchant for running everything for the benefit of the rich oligarchs and executives is not unique to the US – in fact, you might say it is one of our most “successful” exports.

This week, there is some unfortunate news from Switzerland. Citizens of that bastion of financial stability had a referendum on the ballot and – voted it down.  I think the vote is more about that particular initiative than the quest. But time will tell if warnings from the likes of Reich and Naomi Klein for instance prove true. I know where I am putting my money.

 

Climate Change Ethics and Policy

Here are two items looking at who pays the price on climate change, and who is doing sinfully little to battle this existential threat to civilization. Many Strong Voices in concentrating resources and support in places that are currently feeling the brunt of manmade climate change – the Arctic and island nations. This HuffPost piece details corporate contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. And now for the news – shocking – I know – of where the US and Canada stand in a comparison of planetary policy among nations. Long way to go, friends.

 

Make Like a Hippie

There is much wisdom to live by in this short piece recalling what was very much forward thinking in the 60s. Please forgive the miscount – idealism may not correlate with math skills.

 

Corporations and Agriculture – the Big Picture

The Star Tribune’s Bonnie Blodgett has done it again. This time, she got a little more column space and wrote a tour-de-force on the agricultural revolution, the finances of farming and local solutions to conservation challenges. It might make you rethink which NGOs you support as well. Strongly recommended.

 

A Sociopolitical Barometer

I recommend this quiz. It runs six computer pages, but the questions are very thoughtful, as are the results. Where do you stand? My numbers are -7.38, -6.41. A wake-up call indeed. Who knew I was to the lower left of Jill Stein? Maybe I should rethink my long-time stance as an updated FDR Democrat.

 

Reverend Billy and the war on Thanksgiving

Yes, I know we hear so much about an alleged war on another way flashier holiday. But I think the good reverend has it right in picking out holidays to defend. And whoa, does this one need defending. Fortunately, Reverend Billy is more than up to the task – and is receiving recognition for his earth-dedicated efforts. Unfortunately though, he may soon be silenced – in prison for speaking out against corporate power destroying the planet’s natural systems. Please join me in signing this petition.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

“We are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.” – Paul Hawken

 

Contributed links or content to this posting – Mark Goldberg, Allyson Harper, Brendan Murphy

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 11/24/13

24 11 2013

Information, Please  //

When it comes to food, full disclosure is the only rational policy. And yet, thanks to the immense political power of the food industry, progress on information access is a grinding battle. Take meat for instance. This change in federal regulations is a big deal. Of course, cost is the main reason a change like this does not go down easy. The change happened only to keep the United States in compliance with international trade agreements. But this detailed accounting of origin is really only one step to full information access. Some say that people don’t care about the footprint, or impact, or production consequences, of consumer goods. But I say we have not really tried to put that information front and center.

In the case of mass-produced meat, what if the suppliers were required also to include the consequences of factory meat farming practices – such as inhumane treatment of animals, the misguided overuse of antibiotics on factory farms, and maybe most important of all, the impact of meat production on the climate crisis? Think about it – when the average person goes to the average supermarket, all those neat plastic meat packages are stacked up, their sale supported by discounts in the store’s advertising flyer. Where is all that impact information? That is why the origin labeling is a good thing, but really only a baby step toward what needs disclosing.

It’s a similar situation with genetically modified organism crops, though precious little progress has happened. Debates continue about the long-term health effects, but GMO crops are implicated directly in the destruction of family farms (though you will see some progress at that link!) and indirectly in the decline of pollinators worldwide. Not to mention that they are the key to the growth in power of the evil empire of agriculture, Monsanto. Research continues on the immediate and long-term human health consequences of consuming GMOs. A rational approach would be to fully inform, and let consumers decide. Another bit of progress at the previous link.

And then there a huge, hidden information crisis. Walk through your average grocery store, and you will find this product right there on the label of countless baked goods, snack foods, personal care items and other products. It’s a “miracle” modern product, palm oil. This ubiquitous substance clearly meets many needs, and will no doubt receive yet another boost in popularity now that we are finally eliminating those heart-surgery-promoting trans fats (the change due at least in part to labeling requirements). But there is one problem.

Palm oil production is a blight on a particular corner of the world, and is pushing an amazing creature toward extinction. As you saw in the former of those past two links, sustainable practices are having a slight impact – something like a bandage on a gushing artery. And then there is the biggest picture, the climate change connection.

It’s one thing to read “palm oil” on a label of a cracker box or a bar of soap. But what if some of that information on environmental destruction were required to be available? Would people just ignore the messages, and go ahead and buy? We don’t really know.

And for another look at the big picture, the story not told on consumer product labels, there is the inherent irrationality. As Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz tells us in this New York Times piece, our agriculture system not only rewards excess production, it perpetuates and exacerbates wealth inequality.

What if the consequences of all our purchases were readily available? That is the idea behind an entire school of thought – life cycle assessment. For all of us on the end of the product chain, this information can help us assess the impact of any product before we buy it. The GoodGuide site, brainchild of Dana O’Rourke, is a tremendous resource. What if all of us committed to taking a look at this site instead of just the advertising before buying products?  The truth can set us free, and maybe help save the world – if we let it.

Warsaw’s Two Camps

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, those two paired ideas – camps and Warsaw – evoke memories of the great East-West standoff. But today of course it is two different camps. And just as with the old matchup, the world’s fate hangs in the balance. This time, it is not the immediate extermination of life through a nuclear war, but the slow-moving (but accelerating) climate crisis. The division is familiar to anyone who follows the issue – it’s between the developed and developing worlds. And the current climate talks in Warsaw, predictably and sadly, show little sign of a planet-saving agreement in the offing.

The main battle now is over who is responsible – and should assist – in cleaning up the mess that the first century-plus of industrialization has created, and who should help poorer countries adapt and develop sustainably. Look at this chart to see who holds the biggest tab right now. Surprised? Me neither. And when you think about how we in the richer countries – especially the US – have externalized so much industrial production these past few decades, we are actually responsible for an additional large share of the developing world’s greenhouse emissions. Cheap is expensive.

Democracy Now ran an interview with two men who are arguing for “loss and damage” – Martin Khor, executive director of South Centre, and Nitin Sethi, senior assistant editor at the Hindu. You will be saddened – but probably not surprised – to see the US reaction to this idea. But what is even sadder is the content of the leaked document detailing the US strategy – also from Democracy Now.

There are reports as I write of a compromise. But it sure looks like more of kicking this can down the road, fiddling while Rome burns, rearranging Titanic deck chairs, choose your comparison. For a real, science-based solution? Consume less. Much less.

Busted at Last

This is a real blow against the gridlock that has paralyzed the Senate since President Obama’s election. Considering the dramatic escalation of filibuster use since 2008, the only real question to ask is – what took so long?! There is, of course, some fallout. And freak-out.  But for some additional good news on this story, look to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me – where one of the celebrity panelists pointed out that you do not hear this talked about as the “Nookyalar Option.”

A New Tornado Season

Until last week, many were marveling about the relatively quiet tornado season the US enjoyed in 2013. But wait. It’s not over yet. How unusual? You be the judge.

The Myth of Choice: How Junk Food Marketing Targets Kids – Guest Post

Guest blogger Rolly Montpellier (of the Boomer Warrior site) posts a commentary linking to an excellent new short video by Anna Lappe on striking back against the junk food marketeers.

Health Follies

I will stick to my pledge last week about not writing more Affordable Care Act stories . . . sort of. Nothing substantive here, mind you. But all you can do is stand aside and marvel at the gyrations we go through to preserve those corporate sacred cows, at the expense of, well, everything and everybody else. Here are a video, a cartoon and a timeless song for some bitterly funny entertainment.

50 Years on

Here is an observance on the JFK anniversary, from well-known blogger Tom Degan.

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.” – Ansel Adams

Contributed links or content to this posting – Mark Goldberg, Allyson Harper, Rolly Montpellier

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 11/17/13

17 11 2013

A Tale of Three Storms //

Important lessons repeat themselves until we learn. Here are stories from three extreme storms – all of them recent, one with a recently observed one-year anniversary, and one fading from memory already. They are from different parts of the world, and yet are linked in a crucial way. Each is supercharged by manmade climate change, denialist claims notwithstanding.

The first storm of course is the devastating Typhoon Haiyan, from which the Philippines continue to reel. The most important thing right now, with survivors still struggling to find water, food and shelter, is to help. Take your pick from the 25 organizations listed on this page. But the best way to help victims of future storms is to keep them from becoming victims at all. To do that, we must learn the lessons these storms teach, understand the connections, and, yes, change our fossil-fueled ways.

To get an idea of the level of destruction, look at the slide show at this CNN story, which also makes the climate change connection. For those willing to accept the science – not nearly enough of us to effect wise policy at this point – the most obvious climate change connection is documented sea rise. That means the storm surge gets a boost. But the other driving force is this – tropical storms of all sorts get their energy from warm ocean waters. For every degree of water temperature rise, the atmosphere holds 4-8 percent more water. So the storms spin up faster winds, and then have that much more water to drop as torrential rain. This story is told here and in this Democracy Now segment, which also includes comments from Jeff Masters of Weather Underground.

The Philippines is frequently the target of typhoons, and its state of development contributes to the effect of the storms and the difficulty in cleaning up afterwards. But even the richest country in the world finds it difficult to rebuild after devastating tropical weather. The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy was just a few weeks ago. This NPR Science Friday segment shows the NYC metro area is far from back to normal – and important long-term rebuilding and resilience questions remain. This Skeptical Science post takes on the climate change connection directly.

The third storm is very recent, well out of the normal range of weather behavior, and yet already largely forgotten. It is a storm of a different type – not tropical at all – and yet shows the effects of manmade climate change. It’s the out-of-season blizzard that hit South Dakota just last month – called a “freak blizzard” here at Time.com. It’s one thing to describe a storm like this as “freak,” but that sounds to me suspiciously like “fluke,” which definitely does not apply here. When 3.5 feet of snow falls, smashing records, that is definitely an example of extreme weather.  And this kind of extreme weather is an example of stalled systems. This is no doubt connected to a jet stream-warping phenomenon documented by Rutgers University’s Jennifer Francis. (You can learn more in one of my previous posts – Wacky Wobbly Weather.)

So all these direct and indirect connections to climate change should move us to action. Should, but not yet. But there is new evidence that more people here in America – which really must lead the way to meaningful global action on climate change – are seeing through the smokescreens spewed by the likes of the Koch Brothers, Exxon Mobil, etc., and their enablers in Congress. But then there is the current climate conference in Warsaw – with things not looking exactly rosy – surprise, surprise.

It’s clear – the dithering and self-interest continue as we get deeper and deeper into this manmade climate crisis. But Mother Nature will keep bringing us these lessons, and in this case her timing is uncanny. Typhoon Haiyan punctuates this year’s gathering. More or less the same thing happened in 2012, prompting an emotional speech by the Philippines’ representative, Naderev Saño.  This year, he is taking a more extreme step – a hunger strike.

I have heard it said that the only thing that will get our American government to care about climate change will be two direct-hit climate-change-warped hurricanes slamming into Washington DC. I am not sure even that would sway the paid servants of Big Oil and Big Coal, masquerading as representatives of the public. But until then, it is wise to support organizations like this one – the Climate Reality Project – that are working hard to turn the ship of state around. That of course, and prepare for the next lesson.

 

An Unhealthy Debacle

How is it possible? Starting with good intentions and a (nearly) universally embraced goal, health care coverage for all, the Obama Administration has actually made the situation arguably worse than when they started. I will spare you the details – all you have to do is turn on the radio or TV to be almost immediately drowning in them. But this morning’s NPR Weekend Edition did a nice job of outlining the political quagmire President Obama finds himself in, and that is just where the trouble begins.

My intent is to make this the last story I write on health care for a long time, and here are just a few reasons why:

  • Other advanced countries have universal health care, mainly via single-payer systems; we can’t, strictly for political reasons.
  • The whole notion of forcing people to buy private health insurance, though it squeaked by in constitutional terms, is also politically and commercially unworkable.
  • The whole basis of the Affordable Care Act (not “Obamacare!”) is a gigantic workaround that leaves in place the main reason why our current system does not work for so many – the profit motive at its heart. (Read more at my recent post. Scroll down to “Rube Goldberg’s Health Care for Cows.”)
  • The administration has been set up for failure here – first by the fact that corporate money rules our entire system, and second by being thwarted at every turn by the dramatically more corporatist of the two major parties – as two brilliant cartoons depict – Tom Tomorrow and the Star Tribune’s Sack.
  • In a single, errant stroke, President Obama may have simultaneously transformed himself into a limping lame duck, and handed the Republicans a thick club to beat Democrats with incessantly, starting with the looming 2014 Congressional election.
  • And the best reason of all – I am bloody sick of the whole pathetic disaster.

 

A Three-Headed Challenge

At the risk of oversimplifying, my goal here is to link three stories in one brief post. The first is the degree to which we are deforesting the planet. From Alberta tar sands to climate-change-driven catastrophic forest fires to the most concerning of all, the destruction of the Amazon and other rain forests, we are methodically disabling the planet’s lungs, on which all life depends. Here is more on that story from National Geographic.

Globally, the main driver of deforestation is agriculture, and that story is interesting, complex and also vexing. That’s because the challenge is not just the deforestation – which is bad enough – but also the way the farming land is managed. According to numbers cited in this Grain.org story, agriculture produces about half of all human-generated greenhouse gases. And a lot of that is based on unsustainable practices.

It’s not possible to think about these challenges without going to the root of the problem – human population that is well past seven billion, headed to where? Ten? Twelve? Rough, crowded sailing ahead. Here is a group working to challenge the growth at any cost mindset, and here is another actively working to give women more choice over how many or few children to birth.

 

Blows against the Shopping Empire

Though seasonable retail jobs have long offered workers a chance to pick up some extra income, it has probably become quite a drag for retail employees in recent years. Remember that quaint notion of Black Friday? When the stores would open at Friday sunrise for eager holiday shoppers?  Think how many thousands of retail employees who are now caught up in the Thanksgiving Day arms race? Enough, say two major retailers – Costco and Nordstrom’s. Worth supporting.

Also worthy – and very much in need right now – of support is that irrepressible anti-shopping activist, Reverend Billy Talen. This is a guy who ties it all together – social justice, environmental activism, over consumption – and presents his ideas in a mock-preacher persona that commands attention. Here is a recent video post marking the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. The good reverend – who by the way is set up for friends on Facebook – is looking at possible jail time for telling truth to power. I hope you will sign this petition to help head off this unfortunate, ridiculous exercise of stomping out free speech. Earthallujah!

 

Sharing is Good and Growing

Former President Bush does not show up in the news too often – no doubt by his choice. So I had to note this appearance that I think says a lot about his deepest held ideas. But in one of his more lucid, articulate moments in the public eye, he talked about an “ownership society,” and how owning things was a key to prosperity and stability. That is true to a point, but if everything is owned, it means we each have to have our own personal example of each product and device. What do you think that does to consumption?  Fortunately – and this is one of those things that can offer a glimmer of hope for the future – many younger people are learning the benefits of sharing services – especially, but not exclusively – cars. Learn more from this NPR story.

 

Help Will Not Come From Elsewhere – Guest Post

Rolly Montpellier offers a thoughtful essay on the futility of expecting magical techno-fixes. He offers a call to action, and includes an excellent clip from the late, great Carl Sagan that is always worth watching. Rolly Montpellier blogs at BoomerWarrior. He also features my work from time to time. Here is an example.

 

No Depression

With all the environmental problems facing us, this is no time for people who understand what is going on to curl up in the fetal position and surrender. How about some science-based ways to stay reasonably positive and motivated to make things better? Don’t worry, be happy. (responsibly, sustainably, of course!)

 

“Through our reactions we create delusions. Without reactions the world becomes clear.”  – Buddha

 

Contributed links or content to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Bobbie Chong, Allyson Harper, Rolly Montpellier

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN








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