Some environmental books

I gave a couple of environmental talks in Texas over the weekend, which have since been published on the web. One on sustainability in general. The other on climate change, science and politics.

To prepare for them and before and since, I read a bunch of environmental books, that I’ll discuss below.

Derrick Jensen, ‘Endgame’. Recommend this very highly. I came away with great respect for Jensen. It was just refreshing. I don’t agree with everything – I suppose I hope that he’s wrong about civilization being inherently unsustainable more than knowing that he is – but I agree with most, and I just found him to be honest, ethical, and serious throughout.

Chris Turner, ‘Geography of Hope’. Interesting reporting on alternative technologies in different parts of the world. Chris is a little breathless, I think too enthusiastic (though he acknowledges that his enthusiasm is strategic, because what’s needed is some breathless enthusiasm) and his framework is ‘Natural Capitalism’ by Hawken and Lovins (which I’ll also mention below), a framework I disagree with for various reasons. He also does an unfair and unhelpful swipe at Cuba, suggesting that their organic urban agriculture miracle occurred because it’s a dictatorship (as opposed to because their social process enabled them to accomplish things that capitalist societies cannot). But I like his style and I can recommend the book.

Paul Hawken and Amory & Hunter Lovins, ‘Natural Capitalism’. The idea here is that thinking only of financial and manufacturing capital and not of social and natural capital is a mistake. ‘Natural capitalism’ would value natural capital as capital and treat it that way, not as income to be spent. Interesting technology again. But my several problems are as follows. First, if the entire infrastructure created for the automobile is unsustainable, and I think it is, then even vastly more efficient cars are still an error, compared to more collective solutions such as rail and changes to urban form. Second, trying to put monetary value on what are called ‘ecosystem services’ invites tradeoffs for things that cannot be traded off. Jensen actually makes this point well – bringing something into the money economy almost certainly guarantees its doom. The authors of ‘Natural Capitalism’ don’t do too much such valuation, but the framework invites such exercises. Third, the pun of ‘natural capitalism’ implies there’s something natural about capitalism, and capitalism usually implies not just markets, but private ownership of the means of production and hierarchical class society. I can’t accept such things as natural.

David Suzuki and Holly Dressel, ‘Good News for a Change’. Good green technology stuff again.

James Howard Kunstler, ‘The Long Emergency’. Interesting work about how America’s suburban and industrial infrastructure depends on oil, how oil will run out before too long, and all the problems that will result. Kunstler says repeatedly that he isn’t prescribing, but predicting the future. But I disagree with this attitude towards the future. The one thing about the future that we like is that it is at least partly up for decision. Kunstler would probably answer that it is part of delusional fantasies to think we can decide on the future, which is true of some parts of the future but not of others. Kunstler also combines what I think is interesting technological and economic analysis with very conventional and I think off-base geopolitical and domestic political analysis. He doesn’t understand the motivations or the politics or the history of the people the US is fighting and killing in massive numbers in West Asia, nor very important elements of immigration in the US, nor very important racial and economic problems in the US. His analysis of these matters seems to rely on stereotypes, and I’d hoped for better from a contrarian. It’s almost enough to make me not want to recommend the book – but several parts of several chapters (especially chapters 1, 2, and 7) should be read regardless of the weaknesses of the other chapters. I’m prepared to elaborate on this, because separating where he’s right from where he’s wrong is, I think, important and worthwhile.

McDonough and Braungart, ‘Cradle to Cradle’. I really enjoyed this. The idea is that we redesign our industrial system to have no waste. Everything is designed to be re-used or re-incorporated into other products, indefinitely. If they are right and what they say can be done, then perhaps civilization isn’t inherently unsustainable. They are pretty agnostic about what kind of social system would accompany this technological revolution (they don’t seem to endorse capitalism, natural or otherwise, for example) but I really like their technology and their approach to it. Several of the others I’ve read (Jensen and Kunstler, for example) would probably say that ‘Cradle to Cradle’ can’t work.

I think there are others but I can’t remember them. There are also several more on my list that I’ll be reading too.

Another round of climate denial

Two blogs ago I was expressing incredulity that the Dominion would provide a forum for climate denial in the form of Denis Rancourt, who has a good reputation as an activist but whose essays on the climate are preposterous. According to Rancourt’s blog, Rancourt has recently inspired sociologist and activist David Noble to tackle the climate issue in an essay that basically calls George Monbiot a dupe for his deference to politicized science. I find this all rather depressing. Rancourt and Noble’s anti-science arguments seem to me to leave people without any standard for evaluating arguments. I like science because the idea of science is that there is much about the world that can be understood, and that anyone can figure out how something works, it is a matter of time and effort. If it’s all politicized, then perhaps we can just cherry pick those scientific (or pseudoscientific) arguments that suit us and leave the rest. Certainly that is what Rancourt’s essay does, and that is also what Alexander Cockburn’s recent piece on the topic does – indeed, it relies on the same claims. Cockburn’s piece, like Rancourt’s, didn’t pass peer review at any (politicized) scientific journal, but it did get past the editors of ZNet, where I work. I did not think it should have, but I only saw it after the fact. In any case we asked George Monbiot to reply, which he did very effectively. So did some climate scientists, at the excellent site . It’s a bit of an embarrassment that long-discredited arguments are being trotted out by really respected leftists. I suppose it’s because it was Gore, rather than someone with a more decent record, who raised the profile of the issue. But this is one aspect of left behaviour I don’t agree with. It’s as if because the dems or the establishment say something, it’s automatically false. But I guess that’s a corollary of there being no factual matters and everything being political – no need to evaluate claims, if they’re coming from people with bad politics…

Climate change denial, in thin leftist wrapping paper

I just read (briefly) an interview with Denis Rancourt, a professor at the University of Ottawa who claims climate change is not happening and that talk of climate change serves oil companies. My quick reaction is that this is like Michael Deibert on Haiti or Irshad Manji on Israel/Palestine and terror – reactionary politics wrapped up in some thin progressive language to either dupe or confuse leftists who would otherwise be the most solid advocates of progress (or decent survival). It will take more looking into his work to know the details, but I find his explanation for lay people unconvincing:

“I argue that there is no reliable evidence that the global average Earth surface temperature has increased in recent decades. I argue this by making a critique of how such trends are extracted, inferred and extrapolated from incomplete and artifact-laden data. I explain melting glaciers and receding permafrost as more probably arising from radiative mechanisms, linked to particulate pollution, land use/cover changes, and solar variations, rather than global warming. And I argue that atmospheric CO2 does not control climate, but is at best a witness of global changes. These arguments are technical but I have tried to present them as simply and clearly as possible in the article.

Radiative mechanisms, land/use cover changes, and solar variations – rather than global warming? And that the ice isn’t melting because of increases in temperature? Science advances through counterintuitive results, but that doesn’t make counterintuitive results true.

“More importantly, I argue that the real threat (the most destructive force on the planet) is power-driven financiers and profit-driven corporations and their cartels backed by military might and that you cannot control a monster by asking it not to shit as much. I argue that non-democratic control of the economy and institutionalized exploitation of the Third World (and all workers) must be confronted directly if we are to install sanity.”

This is a nonsequitur. It gets into political strategy, and what he says here is partly obvious and partly dubious (since no one serious is really saying what he is arguing against), but in any case has nothing to do with climate change or his claims about why the ice sheets are melting or that the average temperature has not increased.

Monbiot’s book, Heat, opens with four questions:

1. Does the atmosphere contain carbon dioxide?
2. Does atmospheric carbon dioxide raise the average global temperature?
3. Will this influence be enhanced by the addition of more carbon dioxide?
4. Have human activities led to a net emission of carbon dioxide?

To get the answers they have liked to these questions, the denial industry has had to pay PR people to falsify scientific claims to set progress back a decade. Now someone like Rancourt comes along and answers them negatively, dismissing climate scientists as “political” and “consensus-driven” but from the left, instead of from the right. I suppose the timing was ripe for something like this, but I truly hope that people do not get fooled.

Reading List

I have been reading books lately, and they’ve been great. Some environmental reading and some political reading. I’ll be reviewing some of the political ones, soon. Here’s the list.

-The Humanure Handbook by JC Jenkins. I have been reading about water issues and about things like the treatment wetlands and living machines developed by John and Nancy Jack Todd and written about in their popular recent book, “A Safe and Sustainable World” (also a recent read). But there is an alternative, JC Jenkins suggests, to trying to treat shit that’s in water – and that is to not put it there in the first place. To practice what Jenkins advocates you need some space – a backyard of your own, at least, and perhaps a garden for use of the compost. But by using thermophilic composting, using ample amounts of sawdust and other organic material, pathogens are removed and nasty odors dealt with, and the end product is good, non-toxic, non-dangerous compost. Doing this kind of thing in a city would require a public system, but more importantly it would require a change in attitudes, which leads us to the next book.

-Heat, by George Monbiot. An absolute must read for everybody. Everybody who saw ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and found Gore’s final lines about political will being a renewable resource insufficient is ready for Monbiot. Monbiot shows decisively that Kyoto is too weak and will not stabilize the atmosphere. Instead we need a 90% cut in emissions by 2030. Next he shows how this could be done, evaluating proposals for political as well as technical feasibility. This book is a major contribution to humanity. If we’re actually doomed, it won’t be thanks to George.

-Darker Nations, by Vijay Prashad. The word ‘beautiful’ applies. Vijay Prashad is someone whose books I always learn from and who always sends me thinking in interesting directions. He also always impresses me with how big he thinks too. It’s always the whole world, though that doesn’t mean he ever misses any details. He’s building a really stellar body of work and “Darker Nations” is an incredible contribution. It’s ‘a people’s history of the third world’, by which he doesn’t mean the history of all of the places (though he provides an impressive amount of that) but rather a history of the idea of the ‘third world’: independent, nonaligned, secular, socialist, nationalism. He traces the rise and fall of this idea and this movement, and he does so using a brilliant structure. Each chapter is the name of a city, usually a city where an important third world meeting took place, and he uses each chapter to delve into the politics of the time, as well as of the place.

-Holding the Bully’s Coat, by Linda McQuaig. A long overdue book about the recent changes in Canada’s foreign policy and our craven elites. McQuaig sees through the deceptions and she has both a wit and an indignation that is really refreshing. Especially after reading someone like George Monbiot, with his constant understatement, or Vijay, whose depth of analysis can make you feel like things couldn’t have gone any other way, it’s nice to read Linda and remember that this is actually an appalling situation and it shouldn’t be! I’m not done her book yet – in fact I think I’ll be going back to it tonight.

-I’ve also been reading some of the people Linda critiques in her book: JL Granatstein (Whose War Is It?), Andrew Cohen (While Canada Slept), Sean Maloney (Enduring the Freedom), David Bercuson (a book a year). They can make for demoralizing reading, so it’s especially nice to read Linda’s critiques.

-Anna Politkovskaya on Russia’s war on Chechnya. A friend recommended her to me and I picked up her book, which was very good. She was clearly a person of tremendous integrity and conscience. Amira Hass is the best comparison that comes to my mind.

Next to Politkovskaya in the library was the amoral and always useful analysis of the RAND Corporation, so I picked that up as well. Why should Americans read about Russia in Chechnya, the book asks? Because Americas enemies will look more like the Chechens than the Russians, and better that we learn from their mistakes than make our own, the book answers. RAND’s book came out a year or two before 2003.

It’s the new world water, and every drop counts

A reader sent me this article in the New Scientist. It is about a neglected aspect of the US/Israel war on the Palestinian population: the fact that it is a water war. I don’t have the statistics with me (Vandana Shiva cites a few of them in her book, Water Wars), but Israeli per capita water use is vast compared to Palestinians. Israeli agriculturalists are allowed to dig wells several times deeper than Palestinians. Gaza is always short of drinking water and every time it is besieged the Israelis essentially use the denial of water as a weapon. And, most tellingly, the Apartheid Wall‘s path follows the West Bank aquifer very closely.

The New Scientist article reports on a ‘plan’ for desalination plants to supply the Palestinian territories with water, while the Israelis freely use the Palestinian aquifer for their own water needs, as they are doing now.

This may come as a surprise to readers, but the US and Israeli officials agree that the plan is a good one, while experts, scientists, and Palestinians all agree that it is a bad one — all strictly from a technical point of view, of course. The immorality of a campaign of ethnic cleansing as part of a wholesale water theft (or is the water theft part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing?) doesn’t really come up in the article.

(thanks to the reader who sent me the article. points to any reader who can identify the song and the artist from which the title of this blog entry was taken and email it to me).