Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Global Oilscape

After water, oil is perhaps the most vital fluid for contemporary life.  It’s also the most invisible.  Huge amounts of effort are expended in hiding the impact of its extraction, refining, and mass consumption.

This is perhaps what makes President Obama’s comparison of the Macondo blowout in the Gulf to the Al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. so radical.  For the first time, the global oilscape was presented front and center as a huge problem to the American public.

The centrality of oil in U.S. politics, its corrupting influence on government agencies such as the Minerals Management Service, the seamy global networks that oil links us to (after all, Osama bin Laden’s family made their money working for the oil potentates of Saudi Arabia), and the massive military expenditures that we must shell out to maintain its flow – all of these factors have been highlighted by the Macondo blowout.

Now we find the government telling us that the spill has magically evaporated.  I remember a similar story being told after 9/11.  I was teaching then, as now, at the College of Staten Island, commuting from Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  This meant that I had to wait downtown for an express bus to take me to Staten Island.  I would come up out of the subway every day and smell a cutting steely smell on the air.  Most people walked around as if things were normal, in that bizarre seeming simulacrum of everyday life that took over from the time of the attacks.  But every now and then I would see someone wearing a heavy mask of some sort, and I would think that they really had things sussed out.  Had I been waiting around longer for my bus, I probably would have invested in a similar mask.

Of course, years later, the government’s assurances that air pollution in downtown Manhattan was negligible after 9/11 have been revealed for the shocking canard that they clearly seemed to me at the time.  But such mendaciousness continues, this time in the Gulf of Mexico.  We’re told that all the oil has evaporated or been mysterious consumed by microorganisms.  This after BP’s policy of spraying toxic dispersant in a clear attempt to hide the extent and gravity of the spill.  Such transparent lying beggars the imagination.

I want to close this piece on the Macondo blowout and the global oilscape by recommending an excellent article by the wonderful writer Rebecca Solnit in the London Review of Books.  Solnit provides a wealth of important information about the Gulf and New Orleans, putting the Macondo blowout in the context of a long history of environmental destruction in the area.  New Orleans and its surrounding bayous and waters, one of the most ecologically and culturally vibrant parts of this country, has been dealt yet another death blow.  We all stand to lose a great deal if this unique and vibrant place is destroyed.

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Mapping power

Know where your power comes from!  How long until we have distributed power?  Is this a realistic prospect, or just a new age pipe dream promoted by snake oil peddlers like Jeremy Rifkin?

I buy my power from Con Edison Solutions, which offers either a combination of small-dam hydro power or purely wind power.  But where exactly does this power come from?  Looks like it’s not from anywhere around NYC.

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Pressing for Climate Justice

I just received a communiqué from the Bolivian government concerning the unfolding UN negotiations to address climate change, currently taking place in Bonn, Germany.  According to the communiqué, important provisions from the World People’s Conference on Climate Change last spring in Cochabamba, Bolivia have been incorporated into the text of the negotiating document.  These provisions include the following action steps:

* 50 % reduction of greenhouse gasses emission by developed countries for second period of commitments from the Kyoto Protocol years 2013 to 2017.
* Stabilize the rise of temperature to 1 C and 300 parts for million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
* To guarantee an equitable distribution of atmospheric space, taking into account the climate debt of emissions by developed countries for developing countries.
* Full respect for the Human Rights and the inherent rights of indigenous peoples, women, children and migrants.
* Full recognition to the United Nations Declaration on of Indigenous Peoples Rights.
* Recognition and defense of the rights of Mother Earth to ensure harmony with nature.
* Guarantee the fulfillment of the commitments from the developed countries though the building of an International Court of Climate Justice.
* Rejection to the new mechanisms of carbon markets that transfer the responsibility of the reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases from developed countries to developing countries.
* Promotion of measures that change the consumption patterns of the developed countries.
* Adoption of necessary measures in all relevant forums to be excluded from the protection of the intellectual property rights to technologies and ecologically sustainable useful to mitigate climate change.
* Developed countries will allocate 6% of their national gross product to actions relatives to Climate Change.
* Integrated management of forest, to mitigation and adaptation, without market mechanics and ensuring the full participation of indigenous peoples and local communities.
* Prohibition the conversion of natural forest for plantations, since the monoculture plantations are not forest, instead should encourage the protection and conservation of natural forests.

This document forms the basis for negotiations leading up to the 16th annual meeting of parties (COP16), the successor conference to the failed Copenhagen conference, which will meet in early December in Cancún, Mexico.


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The Emerging Emergency

Scientists are predicting that 2010 is likely to be the hottest year on record.  The last weeks have seen a series of meteorological catastrophes – including droughts, floods, and hurricanes – rock different regions of the planet.  Officials in Pakistan estimate that approximately 20 million people have been displaced by the flooding of the Indus River valley, the worst mass displacement since the partition of the sub-continent at independence in 1947.  The Russian forests have been burning down wholesale, and a giant iceberg just calved from the northern section of the Greenland ice shelf, suggesting that warming has made the entire continent-size ice mass unstable.

This week climate scientists from around the world will gather in Boulder, Colorado to discuss the creation of an early warning system to predict future meteorological disasters caused by climate change.  The expectation is that the events of this year are a (relatively modest) harbinger of climate change-induced catastrophes to come.  This will be the first full session of Attribution of Climate-Related Events (ACE), an organization set up by the leading meteorological organizations in the US and UK.

Such efforts are laudable.  But mitigation of the devastating human impact of climate change is going to take more than simply more effective meteorological science.  We need sweeping changes in current political systems, which remain very much bound by national paradigms and enmities.  If more effective prediction simply means more efforts to contain displaced people within particular nations, it could play into the hands of the increasingly apparent forces of xenophobia in the over-developed world.  There is still no UN-recognized designation for climate refugees.  This was one of the central demands of the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and it remains one of the foremost imperatives for climate justice as we begin to confront the emerging emergency.

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I’m in Austin, Texas visiting family.  It’s hot as hell here, but so far the forests aren’t burning down as they are in Russia.  Austin is a pretty progressive town, with a very forward thinking municipal energy company that does a pretty good job of encouraging people to switch to renewable energy sources.  My parents actually had to enter a lottery to get the right to buy wind power from the city – shows how popular it is!  And TX has some of the biggest wind farms in the country.

Nonetheless, people live like they’re in outer space here during the summer.  It’s over 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day in August, and everything is air conditioned.

Signs of awareness of the environmental crisis are not hard to find, though.  I recently went to a show at the Austin Museum of Art.  Called “Running the Numbers,” it focused on the work of the photographer Chris Jordan.  He was apparently a corporate lawyer whose work included defending oil companies until he had a kind of conversion experience and became a photographer focusing on the mammoth piles of detritus produced by our culture.  He began by simply photographing junk yards piled high with used automobile tires and similar objects.

His work has, however, evolved in far more interesting directions recent.  In “Running the Numbers,” digital photomontage images reference famous images from art history such as Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” and Van Gogh’s “Skeleton of a Skull with Burning Cigarette”.  If you click your computer mouse on these images, however, the computer zooms in to reveal that they’re made of hundreds of thousands (and sometimes millions) of smaller objects – aluminum cans in the case of the Seurat image and cigarette boxes in the case of the Van Gogh.  Each image exemplifies a statistic – in the case of the Seurat, 106,000 cans, equal to the number consumed every 30 seconds in the U.S. Very clever – it even comes out better on the computer than in the gallery since one’s eyes simply can’t zoom down to the scale obtainable through the computer.

The museum did a great job of contextualizing the show.  We arrived in the middle of the day and were given a tour by a very knowledgeable young intern who had been present when Jordan came to introduce the show, so we were able to ask critical questions about Jordan’s intentions, references, and impact.  The museum also provided a table filled with books dealing with similar topics, including a new publication by the amazing Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky on the incredibly timely subject of the oil industry.

Burtynsky’s images in this book are, in many ways, far more traditional than Jordan’s work – building as they do on longstanding practices of landscape painting and photography as well as the minimalism of Bernd and Hilda Becher.  But Burtynsky’s work evinces far less of a sense of awe at the physical structures created by industrial modernity and far more of a sense of dread at the horrendous waste streams we produce.  For me, the most powerful images in Burtynsky’s book are the ones at the very end, the ones grouped under the (perhaps wishful) heading “the end of oil.”

Going to a show like this is in many ways quite depressing.  Burtynsky’s overwhelming vistas of waste and Jordan’s even more mind- and soul-numbing aggregations of microscopic objects that illustrate death-dealing habits of mass consumption leave one feeling overwhelmed, desperate, and perhaps even numbed.  But at least there’s some acknowledgment here of the crisis of our times.  Better this than simply sticking our collective heads in the sand.

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Back in early July, I wrote a “Letter from London” based on a conversation I had had with a friend during a trip to the UK.  He told me of his fears about the implications of the new Tory government’s plans to slash government spending drastically.

Those plans are now being realized.  A recent article in the New York Times details the pain that is unfolding as the central government rolls out deep, wholesale, and apparently random cuts.  The Film Council, the Health Protection Agency, and dozens of other groups that regulate and distribute money in the arts, health sector, and other areas have simply been abolished at the stroke of a pen.  The ability of local authorities to plan and budget on anything beyond an immediate time-scale has been drastically interrupted.  The article quotes the chief executive of the country’s supreme court as saying that she doesn’t know whether the country will continue to function if the Tories’ promised cuts of 40% are implemented.

The U.S. needs to watch what’s unfolding in the U.K. very closely.  Already the recession and the failure of politicians of both parties to implement a genuine recovery program has led to brutal economic problems around the country.  As Paul Krugman discussed in a recent editorial, Colorado Springs recently made headlines by shutting off its streetlights in an attempt to save money.  The lights are going off across America, Krugman argues, as the dogmatic anti-statist doctrines of neo-liberalism are implemented remorselessly.

As the great urbanist Jane Jacobs argued in her final, dystopian book, there is a dark age ahead.

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Mainstream news organizations seem to be discovering anti-consumerism.  A couple of articles have appeared recently in the New York Times focusing on the ways in which the deepening recession is impacting Americans’ consumption patterns.  In a piece in the business section of the paper, for instance, the lack of correlation between purchases of material objects and happiness is noted.

The background, of course, is that the economic downturn has made it harder and harder for the U.S. middle class to stay on the treadmill of work and consumption that they’ve been persuaded to climb onto by decades of Madison Avenue advertising.  Money, the article argues, is far better spent on experiences (particularly ones with a social component) than on material things, since the latter quickly lose their aura of newness and become simply a drag, while experiences continue to resonate in our memories even after they are over.

But I think that the Times article makes a key mistake.  By linking the anti-consumerist movement to the economic downturn, it suggests that resistance to frenetic consumption is a product of forced austerity.  It well may be in some instances, but this perspective is likely to cement the association between the environmental movement and self-flagellating, hair shirt-wearing, humorless, style-deficient killjoys.  The point about happiness and the turn away from the hollowness of the consumer lifestyle gets lost in the very real sufferings created by the recession, about which the Times recently ran another article.  The recession may be leading families to stay at home playing scrabble more than previously, but it’s also leading to more grinding, quiet desperation and to more domestic abuse.  This is not a particularly silver lining.

Another problem with the Times article is that it treats our collective ambivalence about consumption as if it were a recent phenomenon.  In fact, such attitudes are rife in popular culture, and have been for a long time.  It’s not just Woody in Hollywood’s Toy Story 3 who notices that we’ve created a soulless culture of disposability.  Such an awareness is virtually ubiquitous, one might even say constitutive, of Hollywood.  From the days of Bladerunner and The Terminator, our major culture industry has been quite willing to limn our fear that the gadgets we create and then discard will bite back.

In a brilliant presentation at the Grad Center last spring (a brief summary of which you can find here), Professor Patricia Yaeger discussed the way in which films such as these represent our collective hopes and fears around consumption.  Yaeger spoke in particular about our fascination with robots, who provide us with anthropomorphized incarnations of our consumer fantasies that the things we create might somehow provide us with meaningful emotional relationships.  At the end of the day, however, as Marx pointed out long ago, commodities are just other people’s alienated labor.  They remain alien to us, and also ineluctibly linked to forms of exploitation – as well, it should be added, as environmental degradation.

Today, the issue of environmental collapse seems increasingly prominent in our collective meditations on consumption.  Peculiar, then, that the New York Times article didn’t focus at all on the environmentalist imperative behind campaigns to diminish consumption.  Perhaps the author was afraid of being painted as a killjoy.  But the point is that less consumption actually tends to increase happiness (once the basic requirements of life such as food and a safe dwelling are secured, of course), as long as it’s linked to deepening social networks.  And, of course, it’s also key to preventing runaway climate change.

Here’s an excellent report from the New Economic’s Foundation that underlines precisely these points.  It’s called Are You Happy?

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