Friday, April 19, 2013

What kind of problem is climate change?

This post comes about as the result of a classroom debate, in which the opposite of what is supposed to happen took place, which is that my students made me think, not the other way around.

(I probably made them think too, but I doubt that they're up at 2 am writing about it. But one of the things I like about my small college is that this kind of thing happens all the time.)

The question I posed for my students is this: What kind of problem is global climate change? Is it the kind of problem that could be solved by an activist movement? Or is it a different kind of problem with an entirely different kind of solution?

This bout of classroom- and self-questioning comes about because I became uncomfortable with the thinking behind the Keystone Pipeline protest, currently the focus of the most visible climate change movement,, and was foolish enough to say so in class. Most of the class was interested in my reasoning, but one particularly activist student was a little upset with me.

I'm not unsympathetic. I used to be a student activist. But I had planned a career in environmental research and education, focused on the economics and political economy of climate change. When it came time for the PhD dissertation, I chose to focus on investigating an earlier movement of climate activism that has now all but petered out (a dissertation topic that enabled me to combine my interest in activism with economics), and so it's natural for me to wonder whether the current movement is heading in the same direction. Indeed, my advisor at the time, Robert Sprinkle, forced me to consider whether or not that particular movement might not peter out, and wouldn't let me defend until I had included this consideration in the dissertation. At the time I was upset, but later I came to realize he was just doing his job -- training a biased thinker to be more of a critical thinker.

I also noticed that many, if not most, of the campaigns I worked on while an activist also petered out.

The problem with the Keystone Pipeline protest is that it is very symbolic, almost purely so. Even it's primary author, Bill McKibben, realizes this and has said as much in numerous editorials. (In one, he likens it to the symbolic Stonewall riot in gay rights history.)

Stopping the Keystone probably wouldn't reduce climate emissions in the long run. That would require reducing or stopping the use of tar sands. To be fair, this is McKibben's ultimate goal, along with the end of coal use and a massive reduction in the use of oil and gas.

But the Keystone may be a poorly chosen symbol, and quite a lot of important recent opinion, from business thinker Joe Nocera to philanthropist Jeremy Grantham, has said so. (These are people otherwise favorable to reducing climate emissions.)

The problem is, were the Keystone stopped, the Canadian and American oil companies operating in Alberta would find other routes to get their tar sands oil to market, and in fact are already doing so; indeed, they seem to be expecting to have to use multiple routes, which is not irrational considering their situation.

Put yourselves in their shoes for a minute, if you can. If you were the owner or senior executive in a Canadian pipeline company (if you were unscrupulous enough to accept that position in life) you'd have decided already that it was intolerable that American environmental activists could attack one of your projects so, and you'd be organizing to prevent that happening again. The solution is obviously to route the tar sands bitumen through Canadian lines to Canadian refineries.

Clearly, if American activists want to stop the use of Canadian tar sands, the Keystone is just the first part of a long battle, and quite a bit of that battle will ultimately take place in Ottowa. It is probably true that the Keystone outcome will set the stage for that more purely Canadian political conflict. But I'm not sure it goes much further than that.

Of course, lost symbols can still be important ones. John Muir's battle for Hetch-Hetchy valley in the early 1900s was just such a symbol. The reservoir was built, the valley drowned, but the movement (the Sierra Club) goes on.

I could go on, back and fourth, pros and cons. At the very least, it should be easy to see that the Keystone is questionable as a focus in the medium to long run. Ultimately we have to reduce emissions across the board, across a huge range of industries, and even across borders. We have to get the Europeans and the BRIC countries to go along with us in doing so. It's going to take a lot more thought and policy.

So, what if this problem is more generalizable. What if climate change just isn't the kind of problem that activism can easily deal with, at least at this historic stage? What if it's an entirely different kind of problem? More systemic, more embedded in our economic system, so intricately entwined with the way we make our living as to be very difficult to unwind?

If solving climate change requires this great unwinding of the use of fossil fuels, isn't it more a problem of technology adoption and transfer? Perhaps exacerbated by the need for a stiffer economic morality than is currently in vogue.

Let's look for analogies and comparisons.

One interesting case is that of the abolition of slavery. Slavery was a legal lifestyle choice in the thirteen American states at the time of the founding of the Republic. Likewise, it was legal in all the major European empires which at that time controlled a large part of the rest of the planet's land surface, as well as in China and the Islamic world.

Much like the use of fossil fuel is a legal lifestyle choice today, two hundred years ago, even on the farm in Maine where I'm currently writing this, slaveholding would have been legal and proper. Even American Quakers in post revolutionary Pennsylvania and Maryland often held slaves.

Even people that knew better, in other words.

To understand this, you need to understand a good deal more about the Anglo-American history of slavery than is usually taught in history classes. How could pre-Revolutionary war Quakers, often held up as exemplary New Testament, Sermon-on-the-Mount liberal Christians, accept slavery so easily? The answer is that black African-American slavery grew out of white indentured and penal servitude. Indentured servitude itself grew out of feudal serfdom. All were systems for organizing slave labor. Owning other people was a basic form of capital in the pre-industrial era across the western world and indeed across the planet. The other basic capital good was, of course, land. Both were needed to produce goods. Indeed, prior to the Enclosure Movement in British society, serfdom was the most common form of labor organization. It was the way things were done.

Early American Quakers, many of whom would have been indentured themselves at one point, accepted the use of indentures as an valid institution, a techno-legal system, for training apprentices and for organizing farm and industrial labor, and later, following the example of the Caribbean plantations, extended the system to forcible black Africa-American slavery. It was the eventual recognition that forcible, permanent, race-based slavery is a very different thing than an indenture that began the abolition movement. (It's ironic that only the advent of fossil fuels permitted the abolition of race-based slavery, and, eventually, white indentured servitude.)

In much the same way that the early Quakers accepted the economic facts of life unquestioningly,  the Womerlippis, who clearly know better, still use some oil and gas.

Like those long-ago Quakers probably did, we assuage our consciences with the feeling that we've done as much as we can, as fast as we can, to reduce our dependence on the "peculiar institution" of fossil fuel. We live in a fully-retrofitted, super-insulated home that needs no oil for heating and has super-efficient appliances. My wife Aimee and I grow as much of our own food as we can, reducing food miles, and buy much of the rest from fair trade outlets. We long ago divested our retirement funds. We tend to buy very few new consumer goods, instead utilizing a lot of second-hand and repaired items, as well as fair-trade, home-made, or local products. We don't take fossil-expensive vacations, or fly much at all. And we both work in the sustainability movement, for a leading sustainability college. I even take some credit for introducing the idea of sustainability to little Unity College, many years ago.

We're not good candidates for fossil fuel bad guys.

But we are.

We still use oil and propane. A good deal less than most folk, than the average, but we use some.

This gets mildly technical. There remain two areas in which we have yet to divest ourselves of the need for fossil fuel. No fault of our own, we currently can't afford to buy electric cars. We also have a propane-based hot water heating system, albeit a super-efficient on-demand type. We can't afford a solar thermal system. We have to pay our house and student loans off first, before making these other purchases, and that's taking longer than it should. We do know better. Specifically, we know that despite our otherwise heroic efforts at living fossil-free, there are still some fossil-free technologies we need to adopt, but the pace at which we can adopt them remains limited by finances.

Does this make the Womerlippi's hypocrites? I think the answer has to be "yes," at least for now. I don't think you can meaningfully teach or research sustainability in the absence of a sustainable lifestyle. Never mind the morality, that we expect internal consistency from advocates. It just doesn't work. Students and the general public lose respect almost immediately they detect even mild hypocrisy, and so will then disbelieve almost everything else that person says.

Put another way, teaching is leadership, and in most cases, you have to lead from the front.

So, what to do? I'm no perfectionist, but this bothers me a good deal, and I've even considered building my own electric car, or running a diesel vehicle on waste oil, two solutions that I've helped students and friends with over the years. I tend to think if I did, I'd quickly run out of time for other enterprises I have to keep going, particularly my wind power research. And I doubt these self-help approaches would be cheaper in the long run. I have a long track history of spending too much family money on experimental fossil fuel-reduction schemes, such as the Bale House, my recent Land Rover project, our piggery, or our sheep farm. So far, I've decided to wait until we can afford a first-generation, second-hand Chevy Volt or a Nissan Leaf. This may take a while. I may utilize a second-hand Prius as a bridge to the fully electrical vehicle we nearly need, once I've gotten the maximum number of lifecycle-analysis efficient miles out of our old Ford wagon. I keep running the numbers in my head, and my current thinking is that I have perhaps twenty more thousand miles to go until the Prius, the first stage of the scheme. I think my wife appreciates my reticence.

I expect that there were a lot of Pennsylvania and Maryland Quakers in the mid- to late-1700s and early 1800s that felt much the same way about their slaves as I feel about our cars. The economized and moralized at the same time, and drew trade-offs between the two. They probably found all kinds of ways to explain to themselves why they had to continue to own other human beings. They needed them to run their farms and businesses. The slaves would be treated worse if they were released. The slaves were part of the family. They needed them for a comfortable retirement. It was the way things were done. If you're familiar at all with the history of the abolition movement, you've heard or read about these kinds of sentiments.

And of course, like the Womerlippis with their attempts to abolish their own fossil fuel dependency, those Pennsylvania and Maryland Quakers were "early adopters" of the new anti-slavery economic morality. The same ideas had to spread across a good deal of the northern part of the country, and then be the cause of a horrible civil war, before slavery was finally eradicated. And even now, even today, there's still an American slave trade, in trafficked women and children for sex, and in illegal migrant workers.

I don't think this analogy overblown. The use of fossil fuel robs our children and grandchildren of the ability to have a safe existence on planet earth. It makes them slaves to the misfortune of a deteriorating climate. One day it will be just as morally reprehensible to burn fossil fuel as it is to traffic modern slaves. One day, only criminals will do it, together with a very few enterprises licensed for the purpose by government.

But that day seems a long way off right now. Right now, most people think fossil fuel use a perfectly moral and proper lifestyle choice, much as many Americans felt about slavery in, say 1750.

By 1810 or 1820, most northerners knew race-based slavery was immoral, even un-Christian. Obviously, it took a good deal more time, and a civil war, to change the minds of a lot of southerners.

Abolition was, of course, an activist cause in its day. But long before the activism, there was this need for a moral and economic proof. Americans could live, and live well, without slaves. The first anti-slavery campaign in the United States was led by a Quaker, John Woolman, and consisted primarily of Woolman walking from one Quaker meeting to the next, explaining in very practical terms how to do without slaves.

In other words, Woolman explained how to do without the techno-legal concept that at that time was the primary method for organizing farm and industrial labor. Mostly, this meant paying a premium for free labor, or substituting labor-saving machinery. And indeed, just as with modern fossil-free technology, sometimes is was actually cheaper to do without slaves.

Woolman's ministry was in the 1750s and 1760s, much earlier than the rest of the abolition movement. The kind of activism we've come to expect, the John Muir, Bill McKibben type of campaigning for symbolic causes, the famous literature, the Uncle Toms, the Lovejoys, Frederick Douglas and Horace Greeley, the great symbolic campaigns, all that came later.

(Several decades later, actually, in the early 1800s, before the Civil War. We'll have to move faster on climate change. But I doubt the time-frame is an important part of the analogy.)

So slavery wasn't an activist type of problem, at least in the first few decades. It was a problem of legal, farming and industrial technicalities, particularly the legalities of how to organize labor. Morality was a driving force, but a techno-economic proof was first required. Without that, I tend to doubt there would have been much of an abolitionist movement at all.

If I'm right, then there needs to be more of the John Woolman kind of activism, a kind of evidentiary proof that humans can do just fine without fossil fuels. Ordinary Americans will need to realize that they can do without the inherent slavery of fossil fuel. We sustainability teachers have to lead from the front. We have to first demonstrate, then help everyone else imagine, a future where no self-respecting American family would be willing to do without an energy-efficient dwelling, an electric car, or a divested portfolio.

Seen in this light,'s divestment campaign, of which Unity College is a major partner, is perhaps a better focus than the Keystone pipeline. Divestment sends a more purely moral message that travels better and lasts well.

Keystone instead, and all-too-easily, leads into a kind of pointless chess game in Canadian politics, where one side will try to out-manouver the other, probably for years to come.

(It also suggests that the Womerlippis may need to restructure their finances to be able to manage an electric car sooner rather than later.)

This analogy also points to a potential major problem within climate activism, a problem to be avoided at all costs. Slavery eventually became a sectional and geographical issue, leading to North versus South in the Civil War.

Currently climate campaigning seems much more visible and important in the northeast and western parts of the country. It's not that hard to imagine the south getting left behind in all this. The south also has a good deal of coal, oil and gas, and so more vested interests.

Kevin Philips wrote, in The Cousins' Wars, that the American Civil War was just a sequel to the Revolutionary war, which itself was a sequel to the British Civil War. In each case northern mercantile industrialists, clergymen, and educators were pitted against southern aristocrats and elitists. At stake were various northern definitions of freedom and liberty, versus vested southern economic interests. (For an early text in this continuing sectional Anglo-American conflict, I recommend the Putney Debates.)

Is that going to happen again, over oil, coal and gas?

I don't think the regions break out in quite the same way, considering there is also fossil fuel in Canada, New York and Pennsylvania, and North Dakota. But it's not hard to imagine that at the endgame, in ten or twenty or thirty years time, any last-ditch political effort to support fossil fuel will come from the south.

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