Tuesday, June 30, 2009

CCS and the boffins

An apparent contrast in views on carbon capture and storage between a Royal Society working group and David Mackay.

Going on the press release, the Society give as a prominent place to CCS. MacKay thinks it is the last thing we should talk about.

P.S. See correction in the comment attached to this post.

Old art, new art

Reviewing Radical Nature, Hari Kunzru thinks many artists have lowered their sights over recent decades:
If one thing unifies the second generation of Radical Nature's artists, it's a certain pragmatism. This may seem an odd thing to say of people who put wolves on trailers and build rafts for plants, but in a show where it's often hard to tell whether a piece was made in 1973 or 2003 it's one of the few areas where they seem to separate themselves from their predecessors. If the 70s generation was about global ideas and blue-sky thinking, there's now a certain modesty in the air. No one believes we're about to enter a new age. It's more about making the best of the old one. Projects are conceived in local terms and (barring floating cities) are less about saving the world than recovering some flotsam and jetsam from the collapse. This is perhaps another source of the pervasive sense of sadness I felt going round the show - the feeling that, 40 years ago, there was a sense of possibility that has since vanished.
He also mentions Amy Balkin, whose ambitions are sky high:
[the] legal battles [of this radical Californian artist] to make a piece of desert land truly "public" (This Is the Public Domain) and to create a global "climate park" in the atmosphere (Public Smog) show that the field has moved further on than one might think from wandering round the Barbican gallery.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The child in time

Abbie Garrington suggests that one impact of climate change may be to shake contemporary culture beyond postmodernism, which "created narratives in which time became uncertain...[and] we were invited to think again about the nature of storytelling". In the new regime:
narratives play with time in response to the overarching question of climate change – the priority has shifted from the storytelling itself, to the tale told, the message of the story, and the likely responses of the reader. This imagined future on the smallest scale – the future anticipated thoughts and actions of the reader of or listener to the narrative – is the point where storytelling meets activism. [1]
As has been well said, anthropogenic climate change pushes us to think about time in a very different way. This includes a challenge to adequately imagine the human place in deep time; one cannot, I think, really *get it* unless one fully digests the enormity behind phrases such as "greatest change since the PETM". [2]

A striking instance comes from Martin Brasier, who wonders whether we may be on the cusp of something as big as the Cambrian explosion. As I have noted
his hunch [is] that the perturbations in the Earth system consequent upon human activities [are] so great that 'we could be on the cusp of a Cambrian-like transformation' of life on Earth (bigger than, say, the K-T) -- though whether it [will] be a 'new Cambrian explosion' or a 'return pre-Cambrian conditions' he was not, when I asked him, inclined to speculate.
Get to this kind of scale, and a bifurcation explored by Thomas Nagel comes to mind:
From far enough outside my birth seems accidental, my life pointless, and my death insignificant, but from inside my never having been born seems nearly unimaginable, my life monstrously important, and my death catastrophic. Though the two viewpoints clearly belong to one person -- these problems wouldn’t arise if they didn’t -- they function independently enough so that each can come as something of a surprise to the other, like an identity that has been temporarily forgotten.
One of the challenges for stories tellers, activists and other change makers is to bridge that gap in ways that help provide a sense of meaning (and so may form part of the foundation for effective non-violent political organising to defeat 'planet traitors' [3]). It means, as has been well said, "finishing Darwin's sentence": coming to terms with evolution over the long term a human place in co-creation of the future. [4]

Related posts on this blog include The Holy Crap Factor, Holy Crap 2, Embers and Fear and Trembling.


[1] Garrington's post is one of several by participants in a 20 June workshop titled Changing Climate Stories. She continues:
Stories have the advantage over scientific data in this respect. While science has the analytical tools to predict the future, beyond modelling it cannot imaginatively inhabit the future it predicts. This is where stories come in.
[2] David MacKay's book (Robert Butler notes) is dedicated "to those who will not have the benefit of two billion years' accumulated energy reserves". This seems to join the long term and short term nicely in the mind (although I wonder about the reasoning behind "two billion years." Weren't the majority of fossil fuels, including methane clathrates, laid down in a shorter period just a few hundred million years ago?).

[3] Note the criticism of this rhetoric here.

[4] For Thomas Berry, an optimist:
the perspective of evolution provides the most comprehensive context for understanding the human phenomenon in relation to other life forms. This implies for Berry that we are one species among others and as self reflective beings we need to understand our particular responsibility for the continuation of the evolutionary process. We have reached a juncture where we are realizing that we will determine which life forms survive and which will become extinct. We have become co-creators as we have become conscious of our role in this extraordinary, irreversible developmental sequence of the emergence of life forms.

Friday, June 26, 2009

To read

‘This is a guide for instructing posthumans in living a Dada life’ Codrescu begins. ‘It is not advisable, nor was it ever, to lead a Dada life. It is and it was always foolish and self-destructive to lead a Dada life because a Dada life will include by definition pranks, buffoonery, masking, deranged senses, intoxication, sabotage, taboo breaking, playing childish and/or dangerous games, waking up dead gods, and not taking education seriously.’ This entirely impractical self-help guide to Dada provides an A-Z encyclopedia of the movement’s buzz-words, all in the context of an imaginary chess game between Tristan Tzaa and V.I. Lenin.
-- from The Posthuman Dada Guide by Andrei Codrescu

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Iran analysis

Danny Postel circulates four views:
Slavoj Žižek
We are witnessing a great emancipatory event... If our cynical pragmatism will make us lose the capacity to recognize this emancipatory dimension, then we in the West are effectively entering a post-democratic era, getting ready for our own Ahmadinejads.

Hamid Dabashi
We are witness to something quite extraordinary, perhaps even a social revolution... We need to adjust our lenses and languages in order to see better... This movement is ahead of our inherited politics, floating ideologies or mismatched theories.

Robert Fisk
Symbols are not enough to win this battle: It is indeed an 'intifada' that has broken out in Iran, however hopeless its aims.

Behzad Yaghmaian
A specter is haunting Iran, the specter of a bloody civil war... The democracy movement may become collateral damage in a larger war.

Gadgets of desire

At last, my search for what it takes to be a real man is over...

With technological brilliance of this order to hand, tackling global warming should a cinch.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Anime in the Anthropocene

A O Scott makes a case for Princess Mononoke by Hayao Miyazaki as a response to anxieties around global warming and environmental catastrophes.

Flows, not stores

Oliver Morton, sounding a little like Walt Patterson, talks sense:
The fact that a great deal of energy was stored away in fossil fuels over time has conditioned people to think of energy itself as something embodied in fuels. But energy, which cannot be created or destroyed, is far better seen in terms of flows than of stores.

An extraordinary amount of solar energy flows through the earth-system, coming in as sunlight, leaving as infrared radiation. On its way through the system it runs through many different channels, like the wind and the waves and the carbon cycle. The challenge of the carbon-climate crisis is to put to work these flows and others — the flow of heat stored for billions of years in the interior of the earth, and of energy stored away earlier still in the nuclei of radioactive elements — in ways that make civilization independent of the fossil fuels stored away in the crust.

The question of how to use the biosphere against global warming is thus better seen in terms of harvesting energy from the carbon cycle, rather than storing away carbon. And there is much that can be done here. Biomass already supplies a lot of energy — a large part of the world cooks with it, for example — but the ways in which it is used are terribly inefficient. New agronomy, new crops and new technologies can all add to the flow of energy out of the plant and into the cooker battery, hot water or whatever. In that way, bioenergy can be substituted for fossil fuel.

But, Morton continues, "in itself, expanding the carbon cycle this way cannot be the whole solution."

Meanwhile, James Hansen and others make a stand against coal.

Monday, June 22, 2009

'Values and stories'

Remarks by Caspar Henderson for Panel 1, "The necessities of conservation" at The Open Ground, 20 June 2009.


I didn’t have to think for very long about the title of this panel before I realised that the questions it raises are too difficult for me. So instead here is some recent news from a parallel universe:
Dateline: Earth. Former U.S. vice president Al Gore—who for the past three decades has unsuccessfully attempted to warn humanity of the coming destruction of our planet, only to be mocked and derided by the very people he has tried to save—launched his infant son into space Monday in the faint hope that his only child would reach the safety of another world...

In the final moments before the Earth's destruction, Gore expressed hope that his son would one day grow up to carry on his mission by fighting for truth, justice, and the American way elsewhere in the universe, using his Earth-given superpowers to become a champion of the downtrodden and a reducer of carbon emissions across the galaxy.
OK, that’s enough from The Onion.[1] Speaking seriously now, the issues require much greater knowledge and understanding than I have. My fellow panelists Sam Turvey and Emily Nicholson have already outlined more than a few of the rudiments, as well as some warnings. Still, in the few minutes available I want to make a some remarks that I hope will help open space for thought and exchange in the discussion that follows. I want to say something about values and stories.

1. Values on shifting ground

I can think of at least two sets of questions relating to our title, ‘the necessities of conservation’. First, what is needed in order to conserve threatened species and ecosystems (not to speak of cultures)? In other words, how do we do it? Second, what are the reasons we need conservation? In other words, why do we do it?

I suspect that for many people here the answer to this second set of questions seems obvious, and goes something like this: even where we do not depend directly on threatened species and ecosystems for our life and well-being they have absolute value as a source of beauty, wonder and potentiality; we and the world are better off merely by the fact of their existence. [2]

I want try and explore what an answer like that really means. It’s not that I don’t endorse it. I probably do. It is, rather, that I think we need to look deeper and further ahead if an answer along those lines is going to stand up in a world that, as we’ve been hearing, is already greatly impoverished in its biodiversity and where things look likely to get worse.

In the cultures of contemporary industrial capitalism, and in other cultures, we make a distinction between on the one hand things and beings that are instrumentally useful (that is, entities that may be used or consumed), and on the other hand things and beings judged to be of absolute value (entities that may not be used or consumed, or at least only used or consumed in specific and limited ways). So, to take a trivial example, a cool drink on a hot day has value in use, in consumption: it is instrumental in quenching thirst (and, maybe, providing a pleasurable taste). By contrast, the well-being of my little daughter is -- for me, and in law -- an absolute good. I can ‘use’ her by asking her to fetch me a cool drink, but I will not exchange her for a cool drink, at least not today!

In our society, and in others, the line between what is instrumentally useful and absolutely valuable shifts over time. Think of the institution of slavery and laws on human rights or even animal rights. This line, or borderland, remains a matter of intense negotiation and debate. [3] But in every culture, as far as I know, there are things and beings that are considered absolutely valuable (or sacred) and which cannot be wholly consumed or exchanged for things that are of only instrumental value. [By the way, if anyone thinks this last assertion is wrong I’d be fascinated to hear the argument.]

With regard to conservation today, there comes a point -- or so many conservationists and others believe -- when instrumentality goes too far, and you have to make a stand for the absolute value of you seek to protect, no matter what the cost. Where ‘nature, like liberty, has no price tag …[and] species are priceless, as are human dignity and freedom’.

That assertion, made by the prominent conservationist Richard Leakey in 1997, is taken up by another, a bird man named Nigel Collar [4], in a paper published in 2003 titled ‘Beyond Value: biodiversity and the freedom of the mind’.
The diminishment of nature is the diminishment of man. Extinction is the negation of the possible; it creates poverty in the mind. Our capacity to experience, to imagine, to contemplate, erodes with the erosion of nature, and with it we forfeit piecemeal — landscape by landscape, site by site, species by species — the freedom of mind which yet we cherish as ultimately the greatest feature of our human identity. This is not to say that we should never seek to provide justifications for conservation based on precise, measurable benefits to mankind at whatever scale. It is, however, to say that we should also and primarily have the courage and honesty to assert that the reason biodiversity matters is because it confers on us an imprecise, unmeasurable and immeasurable well-being that is located in the spirit rather than in the wallet.
Fine words, you may think. How well will they fare against the challenges of the 21st century?

Your answer will depend in part on what you think those challenges are. I will assert, rather simplistically, that they are of two kinds. First, there are the obstacles presented by people and institutions in our own society and in others who simply do not accept the claims made by Leakey, Collar and others, either because they are indifferent or because their sense of what is absolutely valuable does not extend to threatened ecosystems and species. To take just one example, there are those whose “deeply embedded view is that Christ is returning soon, so why should we care about the environment?” The good news, I think, is that while overcoming these kinds of obstacles will be far from easy and is not guaranteed, it is -- other things being equal -- achievable. [5]

But, of course, other things are seldom equal, and this is where we come to the second set of challenges, which may be deeper and more intractable. I’m thinking of the challenges presented by rapid environmental change and the consequences for ecosystems and human behaviour.

Exactly how these changes manifest now and how they will manifest in future is something on which reasonable people disagree, up to a certain point. Quite a lot is unpredictable and/or depends, at least in part, on decisions not yet made. Nevertheless, a powerful body of evidence indicates that, in addition to the ‘normal’ encroachments and impacts of economic development (which by themselves can collapse a fishery or eliminate up to 80% of wild orangutans in a decade [6]), human activity is also leading to turbulence in the biogeochemical cycle greater than at any time in hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. This is likely to lead to large scale displacement and/or extinction of plant and animal species (creating space for other ecosystems and species). We may also see large scale social disruption: mass migration [7] and conflict as societies seek new coping strategies or fail to cope.

However complex the picture is already, there are further uncertainties. We may well see new ways in which human beings become resourceful. There is the possibility of ‘game-changing’ advances in science and technology (including but not limited to step changes in information-, energy- and biotechnology). There may be surprises, for good or ill, that we have hardly imagined.

This second set of challenges and what flows from them is, I think, likely to alter the ground, both literally and figuratively speaking, on which our values lie. Our sense that there are some things that are absolute goods may not change, but our sense of what they are may well do so.

2. New stories

One of the important ways in which values are communicated and tested is through stories. I’m using the word story here in a very broad sense -- governing myths and narratives, and the many ways people string events, ideas, symbols together in fiction and other arts, marketing [8] and propaganda. The poet Muriel Rukeyser was largely not completely wrong when she said “the universe is made up of stories, not of atoms."

Here’s another quote: "If Lévi-Strauss is right, myths are constructed by a universal logic that, like language itself, is as characteristic for human beings as nest-building is for birds." [9]

So wrote Lewis Thomas, a noted American physician and essayist who died in 1993. He continued "our powerful story [today], equivalent in its way to a universal myth, is evolution. Never mind that it is true whereas myths are not; it is filled with symbolism, and this is the way it has influenced the mind of society."[10]

Thomas’s contention is nicely illustrated by the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. In an essay titled Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers, he recalls how his mother helped to open a new way of looking at the world to him:
While most of the flowers in the garden had rich scents and colors, we also had two magnolia trees, with huge but pale and scentless flowers. The magnolia flowers, when ripe, would be crawling with tiny insects, little beetles. Magnolias, my mother explained, were among the most ancient of flowering plants and had appeared nearly a hundred million years ago, at a time when "modern" insects like bees had not yet evolved, so they had to rely on a more ancient insect, a beetle, for pollination. Bees and butterflies, flowers with colors and scents, were not preordained, waiting in the wings -- and they might never have appeared. The would develop together, in infinitesimal stages, over millions of years. The idea of a world without bees or butterflies, without scent or color, affected me with awe.

The notion of such vast eons of time, and the power of tiny, undirected changes which by their accumulation could generate new worlds -- worlds of enormous richness and variety -- was intoxicating. Evolutionary theory provided, for many of us, a sense of deep meaning and satisfaction that belief in a Divine Plan had never achieved. The world became a transparent surface, through which one could see the whole history of life...
Evolution is one of the big stories in our society and in others over the last 150 years or so. But it is not the only one. Another -- older but no less potent for that -- is what Mankind does with the powers it acquires. “Our quest, as a civilisation”, says Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of ‘virtual reality’, “is to answer the question, how do we save ourselves from ourselves without losing ourselves?”

Contrasting future scenarios are captured in the terms ‘Eremozoic’ and ‘Ecozoic’.

The Eremozoic means the ‘age of loneliness’. The term was coined by the entomologist E O Wilson , who had in mind the prospect of a biological age after the sixth great extinction when life on earth will be greatly impoverished as a result of human activities. John Gray, the political philosopher famous for his pessimism, picks up and runs with the term:
It seems feasible that over the coming century human nature will be scientifically remodeled. If so, it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organised crime, and the hidden parts of government vie for control. If the human species is re-engineered it will not be as a result of humanity assuming a godlike control of its destiny. It will be another twist in man's fate.
The Ecozoic, by contrast, is ‘happy time.’ Thomas Berry, an eco-theologian and deep ecologist who died aged 94 at the beginning of this month, defined it as:
the future period when human conduct will be guided by the ideal of an integral earth community, a period when humans will be present upon the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner. [11]
Those two scenarios (cartoon-like in how I present them here) lie towards the extreme of a continuum where outcomes are more mixed and murky. And it’s somewhere in this middle of this continuum, unsure of how things will go, that we actually live and tell our stories.

I am writer, not a conservation practitioner. (My experience of actual conservation work is pretty much confined to planting trees in rain and mud!) At the moment I am working on something called The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. It’s a 21st ‘bestiary’: stories about unlikely animals and other beings that share the continuum with us. I use the word ‘stories’ advisedly. All of the animals I am writing about are real, and all of the stories are true. But why write about animals at all? Part of the answer is that (to quote the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once again and very much out of context ) “animals are good to think with.” [12]

Here are a few examples (not necessarily covered in the book):
The African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis

An example you may be familiar with, not least thanks to a recent article about extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert published in the New Yorker. This remarkable amphibian was used for the first widespread pregnancy tests in the early 20th century after it was discovered that the urine from pregnant women induced oocyte (female germ cell) production in the frog. The frog was distributed to physicians offices all round the world. Unfortunately, it looks as if Xenopus Laevis had a hitchhiker: a fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis which causes it no harm is fatal to many other amphibian species: global amphibian crash.

‘Blood falls’, Antarctica

Not an animal but surely one of the strangest life forms on the planet [13]. Get a bit weird here: in a thousand years will humans or their descendants living in Antarctica (contra Stephen Pyne End of the World) [Try not to sound insane]

The Honey Badger

The ‘fiercest mustelid.’ Widespread dryland distribution. Interaction (debated) with Honeyguide in East Africa. Hadza people of Tanzania. The ‘man-eating badgers’ of Basra urban legend in 2007, and the British armed forces forced to deny responsibility (comedy). Serious point: the badgers may have been fleeing the newly re-flooded wetlands that Saddam had drained to eliminate a haven for his enemies.

The Japanese Macaque

Those are the characters you see in hot springs in the mountains of Japan. They are the northernmost member of the genus Macaque, which are the second most widespread primates after man. Macaques are not especially intelligent, but they do have particular kind of cunning, sometimes termed Machiavellian intelligence. The behavioural biologist Dario Maestripieri writes: By the time human beings start the global nuclear war that will destroy our civilization, there won’t be any great apes left for Earth to become the Planet of the Apes. But chances are there will still be plenty of rhesus macaques around.

Pacific Salmon

Pacific Salmon can distinguish a single drop from their own river among 8 million litres of seawater. When they arrive at their home rivers some of them swim as much as 2,000 miles upstream. They move against strong currents with little effort, much as a yacht tacks into the wind. And these are animals we now farm in cages.

The White-naped Crane

Something like 5,000 individuals remain in the wild. IUCN classes it as vulnerable to extinction. Breeds in Mongolia, China, and Russia (Khinganski Nature Reserve). One of its few remaining overwintering grounds is the DMZ in Korea, one of the world’s ‘Involuntary parks’ (other examples include the closed zone around Chernobyl). A beautiful and rare bird’s survival is at least in part down to multi-decade phony war that, even now, could spill into nuclear conflict. [more on ‘the dark side’].

A happy ending

Barack Obama’s remarkable speech in Cairo. [14] Crucial, he said, respect the dignity of all human beings. Conservation mission: extend recognition of dignity, glory (?!) (but not equivalence) to a wider-range of beings and earth system processes.

Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet. The challenge for our society is to create the conditions under which this is possible. It is the most urgent task of our times. [15]


1. Al Gore Places Infant Son In Rocket To Escape Dying Planet. The Onion, July 30, 2008.

2. In an old trope, failing to protect the rain forests is like allowing a library to burn down without having any idea of what’s in the books. Perhaps this image is obsolete in the electronic age.

3. See, for example, Michael Sandel, Reith Lectures 2009

4. Leventis Fellow in Conservation Biology, Birdlife International, Cambridge University Dept of Zoology

5. See The Eco Evangelist. The Observer, 7 June 2009. Craig Sorley an American evangelical Christian and head of Care of Creation Kenya. Selected as a ‘hero of the environment' for 2008 by Time Magazine.
Sorley's primary occupation is to use the Bible to make an environmental case: God delighted in his creation (Genesis 1:31) and put man in his garden "to work it and take care of it" (Genesis 2:15); Jesus found more glory in the wonders of nature than in the constructions of man (Matthew 6:28-29); all things were created by Christ and for Christ (Colossians 1:16). Conservative Evangelicals are far more receptive to an environmental message, explains Sorley, when it's presented to them in "the language they appreciate most ... the language of the Bible."
6. Among examples in the media in just the last few days: Mekong dolphins ‘almost extinct’ (BBC 18 June 2009): Pollution in the Mekong river has pushed freshwater dolphins in Cambodia and Laos to the brink of extinction, the conservation group WWF has said. Only 64 to 76 Irrawaddy dolphins remain in the Mekong, it says

7. See, for example, Making the Case for Climate as a Migration Driver by Tom Zeller, Green Inc, 15 June 2009 (thanks to Benjamin Morris for this link);The Human Tsunami: How Climate Change Will Move Masses -- Ghana’s Environment Refugees, Financial Times, 19 June 2009. Many parts of the world start from a position of high vulnerability. See: World hunger 'hits one billion', BBC online 19 June 2009

8. Marketing is now “the most dominant force in human culture,” claims Darwinian psychologist Geoffrey Miller.

9. See On the Origin of Stories by Brian Boyd (2009)

10. from Some Biomythology published in The Lives of a Cell (1974).

11. Happy as it may be, it doesn’t come without work. As one commentator on Berry’s work puts it:
the perspective of evolution provides the most comprehensive context for understanding the human phenomenon in relation to other life forms. This implies for Berry that we are one species among others and as self reflective beings we need to understand our particular responsibility for the continuation of the evolutionary process. We have reached a juncture where we are realizing that we will determine which life forms survive and which will become extinct. We have become co-creators as we have become conscious of our role in this extraordinary, irreversible developmental sequence of the emergence of life forms.

[12] "Animals which are tabooed are chosen…because they are good to think, not because they are good to eat." Animals that are good to think. What exactly does this mean? In The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption, the anthropologists Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood explain:
If it is said that the essential function of language is its capacity for poetry, we shall assume that the essential function of consumption is its capacity to make sense… Forget that commodities are good for eating, clothing, and shelter; forget their usefulness and try instead the idea that commodities are good for thinking; treat them as a nonverbal medium for the human creative faculty.

13. Glacier "Bleeds" Proof of Million-Year-Old Life-Forms National Geographic News, April 16, 2009
Gushing from a glacier, rust-stained Blood Falls contains evidence that microbes have survived in prehistoric seawater deep under ice for perhaps millions of years, a new study says. The colony of microscopic life-forms may have been trapped when Antarctica's then advancing Taylor Glacier reached into the ocean 1.5 to 4 million years ago. What's more, the tiny organisms' feeding habits apparently give the falls their shocking color.
14. Barack Obama concluded:
All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort -- a sustained effort -- to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.
15. the UK Sustainable Development Commission report Prosperity without growth

Friday, June 19, 2009

Clocking carbon

The carbon counter unveiled in New York City (report) is worth a look.

Its creators claim to have originated the idea of a real-time carbon counter as a way of providing people with a simple explanation of a complex problem.

But this is a creation with more than one paternity claim attached. At openDemocracy in 2005 we created a crude working model of a version proposed by E3G (see article here; the clock itself is no longer online).

Most conspicuous in the Deutsche Bank version is a display showing the total amount, in tonnes, of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases represented in carbon dioxide equivalent) estimated to be in the atmosphere.

In our version we tried to show the rising level of total CO2(e).

Which works better as a communication tool? Two advantage of our version, I'd say were:
1) You could look at that number in relation to whatever is judged to be a 'safe' level of atmospheric concentrations; and

2) the figures increased at a slow but steady pace, clicking over every few seconds like the tenths of a mile of the milometer in a fast moving car (only in this case measuring thousandths and hundreds of thousandths of parts per million). This was, I think, easier for the eye to take in, and -- perhaps -- more conducive to reflection than the hell-for-leather breakneck speed of the DB clock.
But it had disadvantages too.

You could, of course, make a case for another measure on the clock altogether, such as a countdown of the remaining carbon - perhaps half a trillion tonnes - that it is (within explicitly stated grounds of uncertainty) 'safe' to burn.

Or you can take another approach altogether. It's good to be reminded, for example, of what may be one of the best pieces of communication on climate change so far.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Living democracy

Let's see democracy as journey, not destination; let's stop worrying about where we end up, and start thinking about where we begin. I think that at Climate Camp we have a very strong sense that the project of revivifying democracy does not begin with a constitutional convention; it does not begin with electoral reform; it does not begin with citizen's juries, or people's peers, or independent MPs, or any of the other ideas you get coming out of the political and media elite. It begins with ordinary people, like you and me, taking action on something we believe in, and transforming society by first transforming ourselves. Because democracy is not something which is given, it is not something which is created from above - it is something which is won.
- Liam Taylor of the Camp for Climate Action at a session on "Radical democracy and imagination" hosted by Real Change at the Compass conference last Saturday, and online at Our Kingdom

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

From Iran

Live tweeting the revolution - AS.

P.S. The NYT Opinionator has a range of views on the tweets.


The need for control can inspire great achievements, such as dams that prevent flooding, medicines to ease our lives, and perfectly confected chocolate soufflés. But it can also lead to sub-optimal behavior...Studies show that people feel more confident they’ll win at dice if they toss the dice themselves than if others toss them, and that they are likely to bet more money if they make their wager before the dice are tossed than afterward (where the outcome has been concealed)... In each of these situations, the subjects knew that the enterprises in which they were engaged were unpredictable and beyond their control. When questioned, for example, none of the lottery players said they believed that being allowed to choose their card influenced their probability of winning. Yet on a deep, subconscious level they must have felt it did, because they behaved as if it did.
-- from Leonard Mlodinow on the limits of control

RB notes Joshua Greene's observation on why we care most about what is closest to hand.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The conflagration will be televised

Among macaques, humans and some other species, acts of violence are often a way of demonstrating a hierarchy of power amongst individuals (and, at least in the human case, groups), or challenging that hierarchy.

Such acts are a kind of performance. War is, or can be, theatre (although it is never only that).

Extreme acts of violence can be among the biggest 'plays' (spectacles) of all. Karlheinz Stockhausen's controversial observation that 9/11 was Lucifer's greatest work of art does have something to it.

One possible future 'drama' is the detonation of a nuclear weapon in a major city. [1] This possibility, real or imagined, lurks like a sleeper shark down in the water column.

Image from 132 ways to bring a bomb into America by Lawrence M Wein.

[1] As Frank Rich has noted :
In his 2006 book on the American intelligence matrix, “The One Percent Doctrine,” [Ron] Suskind wrote about a fully operational and potentially catastrophic post-9/11 Qaeda assault on America that actually was aborted in the Bush years: a hydrogen cyanide attack planned for the New York City subways. It was halted 45 days before zero hour — but not because we stopped it. Al-Zawahri had called it off.

When Bush and Cheney learned of the cancellation later on from conventional intelligence, they were baffled as to why. The answer: Al-Zawahri had decided that a rush-hour New York subway attack was not enough of an encore to top 9/11. Al Qaeda’s “special event” strategy, Suskind wrote, requires the creation of “an upward arc of rising and terrible expectation” that is “multiplied by time passing.” The event that fits that bill after 9/11 must involve some kind of nuclear weapon.
Obama, Cheney and others struggle to control the narratives around such a possible event.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A dark week

This past week saw the anniversary of the death of Tom Paine, and the publication of 1984. But it started worse.

First the news that more than 900,000 people voted for the tacky British version of fascists.  

Then the prospects of much needed reform to the British constitution and voting system are set way back by being embraced Gordon Brown's government, where power centres on an unelected peer as First Secretary of just about everything.  (That so many people voted for fascists is not coincidental)

Then a study suggesting the UK may face a new generation of terrorists more dangerous than the semi-trained "amateurs" now in jail.

Fings, as they say, can only get better. Or can they?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Beyond tactical outrage

If people who have suffered the immediate horrors of war can find it within themselves to rise above the past, and construct a better future surely we can achieve the same level of maturity in climate politics?
-- Nick Mabey and Malini Mehra

Thursday, June 11, 2009

'Tragedy in Peru'

A friend forwards this note:
Most of you will have heard of the recent massacre of indigenous protesters by Peruvian special forces and about the violence and the persecution of indigenous leaders that has followed. Given the fact that the information available is sketchy, at best, you may want to watch this short and informative video report. One of the persons interviewed is a colleague with a long-term involvement in these issues, (his past work with shinai on land rights and oil companies was funded by the darrell posey foundation), the other is the president of the national indigenous federation, who the government has just charged with sedition.

Amazon watch is doing a key job by providing information from the ground- this is particularly important given the extent to which national media in Peru are controlled by the government and/or associated corporate interests. If you want more information or want to support that work, please visit Amazon Watch.
See, too Avaaz. Democracy now reports:
Over the weekend, Garcia, a free trade advocate, said 40,000 natives did not have the right to tell 28 million Peruvians not to come to their lands. Anyone who did so, he warned, would lead Peru into, quote, “irrationality and a backwards primitive state.”

Since April, indigenous groups have opposed new laws that would allow an unprecedented wave of logging, oil drilling, mining and agriculture in the Amazon rainforest by blocking roads, waterways and oil pipelines. President Garcia’s government passed these laws under “fast track” authority he had received from the Peruvian congress to facilitate implementation of the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Gates in the wall

Zionism, as Amos came to realize, had outlived its usefulness. "As a measure of...'affirmative action,' Zionism was useful during the formative years. Today it has become redundant." What had once been the nationalist ideology of a stateless people has undergone a tragic transition. It has, for a growing number of Israelis, been corrupted into an uncompromising ethno-religious real estate pact with a partisan God, a pact that justifies any and all actions against real or imagined threats, critics, and enemies. The Zionist project, a doctrine dating to the state-building nationalisms of the late nineteenth century, has long since lost its way. It can mean little—though it can do much harm—in an established democratic state with aspirations to normality. In any case it has been hijacked by ultras. Herzl's dream of a "normal" Jewish country has become an exclusivist sectarian nightmare, a development that Amos illustrated by slightly misquoting Keats: "Fanatics have a dream by which they weave a paradise for a sect."
-- from a remembrance of Amos Elon by Tony Judt

In Wall: a monologue (available as a podcast here), David Hare explores some the meanings manifest in gader ha'harfrada (Hebrew: separation fence) or jidar al-fasl al-'unsuri (Arabic: racial segregation wall). He quotes Sari Nusseibeh:
It's like sticking someone in a cage and then when he starts screaming, as any normal person would, using his violent temper as justification for putting him in the cage in the first place. The wall is the perfect crime because it creates the violence it was ostensibly built to prevent.
An unnamed Israeli intellectual says the defining paradox of his country is that:
We look so strong from the outside, we have such a large army, so many nuclear weapons, we're so certain in our expansion, and yet from the inside it doesn't feel like that. We feel our being is not guaranteed. You might say we have imported from the Diaspora the Jewish disease — a sense of rootlessness, an ability to adapt and make do, but not to settle. After sixty years, Israel is not yet a home.
In military terms the wall looks like a classic Maginot line-type mistake, now over-topped by rockets.

George al-Kasaba, who runs a cinema in Ramallah (the only one working on the West Bank; it mostly shows Egyptian comedies), looks through the other end of the telescope:
The wall is not around us. It's around them.
See, too, the video
Gaza: The destitute and the forgotten.

(image at top via BBC)

Monday, June 08, 2009


I almost buy Paul Krugman on Gordon the Unlucky

Thomas Paine, Englishman and citizen of the world

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

The religion that approaches the nearest of all others to true deism, in the moral and benign part thereof, is that professed by the Quakers . . . though I revere their philanthropy, I cannot help smiling at [their] conceit; . . . if the taste of a Quaker [had] been consulted at the Creation, what a silent and drab-colored Creation it would have been! Not a flower would have blossomed its gaieties, nor a bird been permitted to sing
Died 200 years ago today. Robert Ingersoll wrote:
Thomas Paine had passed the legendary limit of life. One by one most of his old friends and acquaintances had deserted him. Maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred – his virtues denounced as vices – his services forgotten – his character blackened, he preserved the poise and balance of his soul. He was a victim of the people, but his convictions remained unshaken. He was still a soldier in the army of freedom, and still tried to enlighten and civilize those who were impatiently waiting for his death. Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend – the friend of the whole world – with all their hearts. On the 8th of June, 1809, death came – Death, almost his only friend. At his funeral no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display. In a carriage, a woman and her son who had lived on the bounty of the dead – on horseback, a Quaker, the humanity of whose heart dominated the creed of his head – and, following on foot, two negroes filled with gratitude – constituted the funeral cortege of Thomas Paine.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Miracles of life

Q. Describe suddenly seeing in the three dimensions

A. It was an incredibly joyful experience, a whole new world. I had the hardest time listening to my students because I was fascinated by the way their hands looked while gesturing. Leaves on trees, house plants, door knobs! Everything looked so beautiful. It was hard to describe to people: they looked at me like I was nuts.
--Susan Barry.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

'What can be asked? What can be shown?'

A film from the Ashden Directory on 'British theatre and performance in the time of climate instability'.

Taking the waters

Jason Kotke notes a new high, or low, in designer waters:
Take Mahalo Deep Sea Water, at £20 for 71cl, which comes from "a freshwater iceberg that melted thousands of years ago and, being of different temperature and salinity to the sea water around it, sank to become a lake at the bottom of the ocean floor. The water has been collected through a 3000ft pipeline off the shores of Hawaii." According to the Daily Mail, Mahalo has a "very rounded quality on the palate" and it "would be good with shellfish."


At the polling station this morning. Two policeman come in to chat with the presiding officer. She has a copy of Burmese Days beside her on the desk. 'Orwell! That's ironic', says one of the policemen.

'Absolutely torture'

As The Man said, it's a no-brainer:

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Mixed messages

Mr. Obama will be speaking at Cairo University. When young Arabs and Muslims see an American president who looks like them, has a name like theirs, has Muslims in his family and comes into their world and speaks the truth, it will be empowering and disturbing at the same time. People will be asking: “Why is this guy who looks like everyone on the street here the head of the free world and we can’t even touch freedom?” You never know where that goes.
-- writes Thomas Friedman. Well yes, and Obama's message may seem a whole lot more convincing to many people than Osama's, but they will also see that he heads a government that continues to support the Egyptian and Saudi regimes, two of the least accountable major players in the region and perhaps the world.

P.S. 4 June: Obama's analysis and prescriptions "in most regards maintain flawed American policies intact" says
Ali Abunimah. As Tom Englehardt has reminded, the U.S. is building a $750bn dollar giant "embassy" compound in Islamabad.

But the speech is a classic.