Old King Coal

Chinese-coal-miners_2-450x299There is a tendency among critics in the growing Energy Humanities camp to focus almost exclusively on the symbolic politics (and geopolitics) of petroleum. This reflects, I think, the way that the current dominant mode of resource exploitation shapes our consciousness, regardless of differences of time and space.

Yet while oil may be the fuel that drives US culture – and US imperialism – it is by no means the dominant fossil fuel. Coal is still incredibly central to global energy politics, notwithstanding its association with outmoded c25_00RTX1WQmodes of production and outmoded moves of working class organizing in the developed world.

An absolutely crucial and heartbreaking series of articles in The Guardian discusses the impact of coal on rural communities in contemporary China. Coal is still very much powering economies, and wrecking lives, in the present.

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Autocratic denial of the potential for individual human flourishing

capFrom David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, which I’m currently reading:

Marx’s position is that capitalism can probably continue to function indefinitely but in a manner that will provide progressive degradation of the land and mass impoverishment, dramatically increasing social inequality, along with the dehumanization of most of humanity, which will be held down by an increasingly repressive and autocratic denial of the potential for individual human flourishing (in other words, an intensification of the totalitarian police-state surveillance and militarized control system and the totalitarian democracy we are currently experiencing).

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Fossil Free

fossil freeThe campaign to divest from fossil fuels continues to pick up steam on campuses around the US and throughout the rest of the world. Only days ago the Norwegian parliament voted to divest its country’s sovereign wealth fund from investments in coal. This is a huge victory: Norway was one of the world’s top ten investors in the global coal industry.

But the struggle faces immense odds. A recent report from the International Monetary Fund – of all places – assessed the annual subsidies to fossil fuel industry at a jaw-dropping $5.6 trillion, or 7% of annual GDP for the entire world. These subsidies come in the form of direct payments, tax breaks, and unpaid environmental costs.

The report by IMF researchers, How Large are Global Energy Subsidies?, is pretty shocking in its frank condemnation of these subsidies to fossil fuels. Among other damaging impacts, the report states that subsidies:

  • Damage the environment, causing more premature deaths through local air pollution, exacerbating congestion and other adverse side effects of vehicle use, and increasing atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations.
  • Impose large fiscal costs, which need to be financed by some combination of higher public debt, higher tax burdens and crowding out potentially productive public spending (for example, on health, education and infrastructure).
  • Discourage needed investments in energy efficiency, renewables and energy infrastructure, and increase the vulnerability of countries to volatile international energy prices.
  • Are a highly inefficient way to provide support to low-income households since most of the benefits from energy subsidies are typically captured by rich households.

Among other benefits of ending these enormous kickbacks to dirty energy producers, the IMF researchers calculate a $1.8 trillion net gain in social welfare, a gain that could be increased were this gain used to invest in education, health and other public benefits.

So why don’t we cut these suicidal subsidies immediately? The answer, of course, is that the fossil fools have our politicians in their back pockets. Breaking their political hegemony is one of the greatest radical tasks of today.

The campus-based movement for fossil fuel divestment is a great start. But it is only a drop in the bucket.

As Sasha Abramsky argues in his brilliant Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution, there are exciting potentials for alliances between rural social movements (where most of the fossil fuels are located), urban dwellers the world over (who need affordable and sustainable forms of decentralized energy), and workers in the energy sectors (both carbon-based and renewable).

This kind of radical movement is, not surprisingly, hardly touched upon by the IMF analysts. Instead, they talk of ending fossil fuel subsidies through a series of environmental taxes. But we need a far more radical program, one that brings energy production squarely under public control during this moment of crisis.

As Pete Dolack puts it in an article in The Ecologist:

Energy is too important not to be put in public hands. The trillions of dollars of fossil fuel subsidies are the logical product of allowing private interests to control critical resources for private profit and leaving ‘the market’ to dictate outcomes.

We can’t make what is unsustainable sustainable through a better tax policy. That the enormous scale of reform proposed by the IMF paper still falls far short of what is actually necessary to create a sustainable economy demonstrates the severity of the crises we are only beginning to face.

Time to go fossil free!

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Bleak, but not unexpected, news: capitalism is destroying the planet

greenland glacierBleak, but not unexpected, news today. According to a new report published in Nature, sea level rise over the last two decades has taken place at a significantly faster rate than previously reported. To be specific, the acceleration is 25% higher than so far assumed. Coasts from Florida to Bangladesh are threatened.

In a not-unrelated report, scientists also announced that 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded. The graphic to the right makes this point in quite stark terms.hottestyear2014

Finally, two studies by international teams of researchers have concluded that humans “are eating away at our own life support systems” at a rate not seen in the last 10,000 years. According to a summary article in The Guardian,

Of nine worldwide processes that underpin life on Earth, four have exceeded “safe” levels – human-driven climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land system change and the high level of phosphorus and nitrogen flowing into the oceans due to fertiliser use.

Near the conclusion of the article, the articles’ lead author, Professor Will Steffen of the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, is quoted as saying,

“It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive. History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.

A surprisingly direct indictment of capitalism, although the word is never directly mentioned by Steffen or by The Guardian.

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Regulate Synthetic Biology Now!

Patient DNA dataIn a triumph for the fight against the commodification of the global commons, the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity has voted to formally recommend nation states to regulate Synthetic Biology (SynBio).

SynBio is a powerful new form of genetic engineering through which biologists are capable of turning living organisms into man-made factories through the manipulation of their genomes. Organisms created using SynBio are increasingly looked at as private property, since they have supposedly been created through human ingenuity. The result is a potentially sweeping privatization of existing life forms, as well as the creation of all sorts of new creatures who will be the hapless property of global agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies.

The vote by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity is an important step in signalling that such Frankenstein-like acts must be regulated and subjected to strict ethical standards.

As this report by SynBio Watch notes, the vote at the UN meeting was resisted fiercely by nations with significant SynBio industries. This is, no doubt, one of many battles to come in the effort to challenge SynBio’s enclosure of the global genetic commons.

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Rhinos and Resource Extraction

white-rhino_755_600x450Rhinos are one of the oldest species of mammals on the planet.  Brought back in from the brink of extinction in southern Africa, they are once again under grave threat.

As a very strong article in The Guardian details, one of the world’s greatest preserves for rhinos, the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi park in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, is threatened by plans to permit the opening of an open-cast coal mine near the border of the park. The mines would draw large numbers of people to the area, many of whom would inevitably be enticed by the high prices of rhino horns on the international black market.

The question of what South Africa is doing opening so many coal mines is the gaping question that underlies current developments. The article in The Guardian mentions that the number of operating mines in South Africa has increased from 993 in 2004 to 1,579 in 2012. The government argues, the article suggests, that these mines are necessary to provide power to the country’s majority population, against whom apartheid policies discriminated in many ways, including energy provision.

But why is coal power, the most dirty form of fossil fuel, the dominant mode of energy generation in South Africa? To a certain extent, this seems like a misguided policy on the part of a national government – the ANC – desperate to provide resources to its people under constrained conditions.

But such an analysis ignores the significant boost that coal has gotten from international interests, including the World Bank. As Patrick Bond details in an account of the grievously misguided loan from the World Bank for the building of the coal-powered Medupi power station in northern South Africa, international lenders such as the World Bank have a long record of supporting the most purblind and environmentally destructive development policies in South Africa.

Among the many destructive impacts of such policies, then, we might think about how the support for coal mining contributes not just to climate change on a global plane, but also to the potential extinction of one of South Africa’s greatest natural treasures: the white rhino.


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Waste Politics and Detective Fiction

0-TOXIC_LAND001Toxic waste, the mafia, and corrupt politicians: a marriage made in Italy.

In the region around Naples, the local branch of the mafia – the Camorra – has for decades been involved in dumping toxic waste exported by rich industrialized countries such as Germany, as well as from the industrial zones in northern Italy.

In the current issue of National Geographic, Greg Kahn has a powerful photo essay on toxic waste in the Campania region of central Italy. The image above from the series is of a lung cancer patient, one of the many residents of the region suffering from heightened levels of cancer as a result of the toxic dumping.

One of the most well known exposés of organized crime in Naples, Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra (subsequently made into a film of the same title by Matteo Garrone), touches on this problem of toxic dumping. Here’s a trailer for the film.

A lot more could be made of this history of toxic waste in Italy. Most of the public in Italy knows about this, but relatively few outside the country are aware of this kind of abuse.

There are parallels in the US, particularly in the cancer alley in Louisiana focused on in Richard Misrach’s powerful book Petrochemical America.

This account of what Misrach and Kate Orff call our country’s petrochemical “sacrifice zone” in turn inspired the recent TV series True Detective.

It’s highly appropriate that a detective series be set in this toxic landscape. In Italy, in fact, there’s a whole series of novels called “verde/nero” or green detective novels, the premise of which is to reveal the various forms of environmental violence done by the “ecomafia.” It’s published by Legambiente, one of Italy’s major environmental groups, and contains some very interesting titles exploring many of the major facets of the environmental crisis, past, present, and future.

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