Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sitting In the Frying Pan, Preparing for the Fire

Note: The following is a review that I wrote as an assignment for a creative nonfiction class that I'm currently taking. This is the first draft. I may replace this posting in a couple of weeks, depending on how much I decide to revise it prior to submission of the final version for the class.

Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.

By Mark Hertsgaard.

(2011; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 339 pages; $25)

In the final chapter of this book, Hertsgaard describes the emotional reaction experienced by someone recognizing the magnitude of the global warming problem for the first time. He calls it the “oh, shit” moment, “when the pieces all fall into place, the full implications of the science at last become clear, and you are left staring in horror at the monstrous situation humanity has created for itself.” Having experienced my own such bitter epiphany a few years back, and having pushed my wife to hers (she has since forgiven me for doing so on our fourth wedding anniversary) this description resonates perfectly.

It also summarizes the first of two major purposes of this book: to impel the reader towards just such an “oh, shit” moment. And for a na├»ve reader with an open mind, the book should have no trouble in doing so. The authority of the sources, the meticulous attention paid to details and the carefully analytical manner employed by the author inspire confidence in the veracity of his conclusions; the contents of those conclusions inspire horror, outrage and grief by turns. Fortunately for the suicidally disposed, the doom and gloom is presented in easily digestible doses and is tempered with plenty of the second major purpose: to ignite hope in spite of the chaos – a hope, bolstered by science and real-world examples, that something worth doing can still be done.

Make no mistake: Hertsgaard does not, for one moment, gloss over the big ugly truths that global warming is here to stay and that the extremes of weather that we have seen over the past decade are only the early hints of the disasters in store. He clearly states that global warming is already locked in. Even if all emissions of greenhouse gases were to miraculously stop today, their levels have exceeded critical thresholds and processes have begun that will take decades to mature and possibly centuries (or longer) to reverse. Hertsgaard employs many helpful analogies throughout the book, one of which he uses to illustrate this irrevocability of climate change: “…imagine that our civilization is traveling in a train, heading downhill, picking up speed, and approaching a landscape obscured by storm clouds. We can hit the brakes by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and we must. But the train’s momentum ensures that it will be a long time before we actually come to a halt, and before we do, we will cross a great deal of unknown territory.”

This “unknown territory” is where the book spends much of its time. As Hertsgaard explores the various threats likely to be faced by the world of the next several decades, although each of them is a frustratingly complex Gordian knot of intersecting social, political, economic and physical powers, he roughly categorizes them into two categories: unavoidable and (potentially) manageable. The book’s mantra is “avoid the unmanageable, manage the unavoidable” and responses to the threats are framed in terms of mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation denotes long range efforts to halt and reverse global warming before conditions on the planet become physically incompatible with life (avoiding the unmanageable), while adaptation refers to development and implementation of strategies and technologies that promote survival of environmental stresses to which we’re already committed (managing the unavoidable).

With this framework in mind, Hertsgaard embarks on a globe-trotting exploration of the science, history, politics and implications of global warming and climate change. Through a series of interviews and case studies in places as geographically disparate as Seattle, Beijing, Bangladesh, New Orleans, rural China, the Netherlands, Sacramento and Burkina Faso, he examines three epic classes of calamity that are expected to increase in both frequency and severity as a result of global warming induced climate change: flood, drought and famine. In each real-life situation studied, Hertsgaard describes how one of these problems has impacted a community, identifies its sources, introduces the people affected (often through representative individuals) and analyzes the responses.

Some of the stories are victorious, such as the burgeoning of crop yields and the restoration of water tables experienced by farmers of the African Sahel. By allowing native tree species to grow, unhindered alongside their crops, these farmers harness a powerful arboreal water-trapping capacity that is lost when the land is systematically cleared for farming. Other stories are of sad failures, missed opportunities, misguided attempts, tragic ineptitude or sheer pigheaded greed.

This last category is rampant in regions where the climate change deniers hold sway. These “idealogues” are vilified as a whole throughout the book, and while the majority are portrayed charitably as the misguided masses, several groups and individuals are singled out for special recognition as criminals against humanity’s future. Hertsgaard has no qualms about assigning blame where he sees it to be it due, and one might argue that this is, a weakness of the book. By painting the actions of various corporate players, media sources and political figures so starkly, he probably alienates many readers, and undermines his own credibility, in their eyes, by appearing to be excessively biased. However, he backs all of his claims with substantial evidence in the form of hard science, public records, policy documents and expert testimony. Besides, it doesn’t seem that Hertsgaard is out to make friends; he’s trying to recruit allies. The book has an agenda, no question, and that agenda is driven by the author’s passion, but it is also driven by rational arguments and undeniable facts.

The foundation of Hertsgaard’s passion is divulged early in the book and is revisited frequently throughout. He has a young daughter, Chiara, and it is for her that he writes. She and all of her generation are destined to inherit a planet that is already broken and is poised on the brink destruction. In keeping with this consciousness of the grim fate that has been meted out to Earth’s children is Hertsgaard’s use of yet another overarching theme: fairy tales. Invoking imagery of dragons, heroes, epic battles and games of wit he eloquently illustrates both the staggering magnitude of the ordeal before us and the height of the stakes that leave us only two options: a committed, concerted response or annihilation. Although he never claims the role, through the love, dedication and perseverance that he manifests in the creation of this book, Hertsgaard himself emerges as a kind of fairy-tale hero. The man who knows from the start that his quest is impossible and that he lacks the strength and power to accomplish it alone, but who is willing to die trying… and who clings ever so desperately to the hope that maybe, just maybe, he isn’t alone – that enough likeminded would-be heroes will join him, and that together they will avert some of the chaos and misery in store.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Silver Linings

A recurring theme on this blog is the coming third-world status of the United States. Well, third-world won't be the right adjective. We'll probably still be first-world, it's just that the standard of living associated with the adjective will have slipped somewhat. A first-world country in 100 years will be one where the overwhelming majority of citizens aren't openly starving in streets filled with flies and filth. The first-world metropolis of the future will probably look an awful lot like Havana, Cuba, a vibrant but poor (by western standards) city that produces much of its own food and is more thoroughly integrated with its countryside than we are used to. Cuba in general is an amazing case study for peak-oil social response, in fact, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the sudden loss of the majority of their petroleum imports. That's another post, though.

Rather than looking on all of this with sadness or horror, I'm actually encouraged. I think it might be because I've actually BEEN poor and dirty, living in crowded substandard housing with an odd mix of friends and strangers. I've sheltered homeless people on my living room floor, both because I cared for their well-being and because I realized objectively that I had nothing worth stealing, anyway. I'm not going to pretend that the day to day struggle of finding work, holding on to it as long as possible before it was expedient to get rid of you, rinsing, and repeating, struggling to keep the roof over your head and the power on and food on the table, wasn't stressful as hell. I'm also not going to pretend that I know all of the struggles and pains facing the endemically poor; my experience with true poverty lasted a few years, and was ameliorated by the fact that I'm a white male citizen and reasonably well-educated, amongst other unearned advantages. But it WAS an enlightening exercise in community, and a lot of the coping strategies I learned during a few years living hand to mouth will, I suspect, come in handy again in the post-carbon world. After bringing this experience up in the occasional comment stream, Ed encouraged me to flesh it out more thoroughly for the main stream.


I moved to Oregon in the summer of 2005, with a bunch of other college students who had the idea to start a free-love commune and make the world a better place, etc. We were even less prepared than most people who undertake this sort of endeavor, so we rapidly found ourselves packed six strong (then, quickly, seven when a homeless couch surfer started throwing food stamps into the pot, a not insignificant contribution at that point!) into an 80-year-old three bedroom house in Springfield, Oregon's "Little Mexico." The place was so old that the outlets that actually worked were two-prong only, with no ground; I estimated the wiring hadn't been overhauled since the '50s. The roof leaked, the place was full of cobwebs and spiders, and there was mold everywhere. The insulation was so bad that the house was cruelly hot in the summer and fucking frigid in the winter. The electric heat didn't work and the landlord wouldn't fix it, but we were barely keeping the power on anyway so it mattered very little. Rent was $600 a month, and even for 7 people this would prove to be a hardship. We were all unemployed and had spent all of our resources just getting TO Oregon. Most of us had plans to go back to school, but we all wanted to establish residency first, so we set forth to make a living for a year as penniless migrants with poor job histories and no college degrees.

Hoo, boy.

Needless to say, it was pretty touch and go. We were pretty close to the bottom of the social ladder. We were all white and US citizens, which are NOT trivial advantages, but otherwise we pretty closely resembled our Hispanic neighbors, economically. I've stood in front of a Home Depot in hopes of picking up some day labor, worked nights on construction crews, and worked as a groundskeeper in gated communities and upscale apartment complexes. The latter was a weird fucking experience; I'd never been completely invisible to the people I was working for before. Rich people are dicks.

Ahem. The point of all this, is that had I tried to hack this alone, I would never have made it. In our household, only a few of us were holding down work at any given time. Only by sharing resources and buffering one another through rough patches were we able to hang on, moving our resources around to deal with one financial calamity after another. A traffic ticket of $100 strained the resources of the entire community, and we lived in collective uninsured terror of the illness or injury that would require any sort of medical intervention, and level us as surely as a bomb dropped on a tar-paper shack. And that community extended beyond our own walls; we sought and gave help with a number of friends and acquaintances, neighbors, homeless kids crashing for the night, co-workers at shitty dead-end jobs. I've never in my life known so many people to share so much of so little. At the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum there is an awareness that one cannot stand alone, that problems have to be met collectively and friends and neighbors held up when they are knocked down. This holds regardless of political alignment; most of the people we were living with and around were actually quite conservative, nominally. But the realities of the situation trump all, and we were rarely short a helping hand when it was needed. Help from ABOVE was conspicuously lacking, except for a handful of grudging government aid programs, mostly food stamps (for which I'm grateful, don't get me wrong); rather, helping hands came from down in the shit next to us.


Even after our commune collapsed due to relationship drama (turns out moving across the country to start a polyamorous commune where not everyone had even met everyone else was a bad idea; who knew?), this pattern of community held when J and I moved into an apartment complex in the roughest neighborhood in the city, a run-down little place with '60s architecture, a pool filled in and lawned over, and a pair of bird-shit covered lion statues proclaiming "The Royal Chateau Apartments" to the stripjoint across the street. We knew our neighbors. Something else that I'd rarely encountered in a more affluent childhood; when we moved in, people came 'round to introduce themselves, welcome us, check us out. Cautious at first, then pleased to discover a young couple who seemed clean. Have some cookies. Watch out for apartment so-and-so, that guy deals drugs out the back door, we all avoid him. Don't make eye contact with the guys who hang out at the Seven-Eleven, this is their turf but they won't bother you if you don't make eye contact. That sort of thing.

Walking home from the bus stop in the evenings, I noticed that one of the upper floor apartments always had a group of older gents on the balcony, overlooking the complex parking lot. They were usually playing cards, often smoking, always talking and laughing. There were different men there from night to night, but there was always someone up there, and frequently until two or three in the morning. I asked them about it once, and I was told they were the volunteer "night-watch" (this was said with a laugh). The kept an eye on the parking lot, which was the sort of dark, well covered place that usually attracted all sorts of dangerous activity. Since they'd started their watch, no one had had a car busted into, and the local dealers had moved on to an abandoned plot next door. It was a simple, proactive community solution to a problem unfixed by overworked and indifferent police. I was impressed.

One day, a few months after we moved in, one of our neighbors showed up at the door. Did we have a shovel? Another neighbor's cat had been killed by a car, and distraught he was asking for help in burying him. I had a trowel from when we'd tried to get a vegetable garden going back at the first house, and J went off to see if someone had a box we could use as a coffin while I went with our neighbor to find a suitable place. Word spread through the complex pretty quickly, and I was amazed to see an impromptu wake for the cat develop in the complex's ratty courtyard. By the time we'd laid Garfield to rest, a couple dozen people had pooled resources and we returned to burgers, hot dogs, a few bottles of cheap wine. The cat's owner, an elderly widower who was nigh inconsolable, was looked after, and the community took the excuse to celebrate the simple pleasures, the only ones we could afford anyway. It had all happened so smoothly, so spontaneously, it was more like watching an organism react than a group of people. Shared sorrow was halved, and shared joy, doubled, as Spider Robinson used to say.


One of the biggest fallacies brought about by the industrial revolution and the technology glut that followed is the idea that people are islands. Excessively mobile, always seeking the next job or financial opportunity, the affluent in our society have lost community, the symbiotic relations with people around you that serve as a social safety net when all else fails. The Great Depression, I think, was the single greatest realization of this, when a broad systemic economic crash hammered into a country that had lost a lot of its internal resilience. As much as I support government social programs, I think they can only go so far in replacing the community connections that sustained people for so long. A widespread and sustained economic contraction like the one we face in the coming decades will force communities to reconnect and become a driving force in our society again. I think that's a good thing.