The economy isn’t coming back

Presently Americans wait with bated breath, watching sales numbers and unemployment statistics, grasping for signs that an economic recovery is underway. We search for signals that indicate we’re growing, that there will be a job for everyone who wants one, and that the United States will resume the prosperity and standing in the world it once had.

We wait in vain.

Sometimes it takes a cartoon character to show the absurdity of our global economic system
(click to play video)

The economy isn’t coming back. On the contrary, it’s a patched-together mess on its way to the crapper. Though the Obama administration might crow about a tepid recovery, even today’s insufficient economy is itself a lie, propped up by governments printing money to buy their own bonds and simulate growth. The Dow ascends to ever more lofty heights, and yet few believe it’s tied to improving conditions for regular people. China, the economic engine of the world, is now slowing precipitously, and experiencing serious market declines and confidence problems. Europe is an economic mess, and when the EU eventually implodes (it really is a when and not an if), it will send shocks through the rest of our globalized world.

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The high price of materialism


Descartes might have figured this out if he had access to monogrammed bath towels

A war on climate change is a war on materialism, plain and simple. The carbon pollution spewing out of our power plants and tail pipes is a natural byproduct of the monstrous engine of economic growth we have built, an engine that exists solely to satisfy the demand our materialism creates. Indeed this demand is so great that if everyone in the world lived like Americans, we’d need 4 whole Earths worth of stuff to satisfy it. Yet despite the absurdity in that statement, that’s exactly what’s happening as other nations race to emulate our lifestyle of ravenous consumerism. Therefore taming this beast is absolutely crucial in the fight against climate change.

And yet, it’s sometimes difficult to even see consumption as the problem, since in the moment buying things feels so good! It doesn’t help that everywhere we look there’s advertising, that siren song of consumption, reinforcing our baser instincts. We see these messages of Eat! Buy! Consume!  on television, on websites, public bathrooms and even our children’s schools. It is baked in to the very fabric of our society, so much so that we hardly notice it any more. Beyond mere purchases, this drumbeat of materialism also influences the way we organize our lives. We make fundamental life decisions about where we live, where we work, what we do, and how we raise our children, all to maximize income so we can buy more stuff — because that’s what our culture teaches us to value.

The following video (5:37 long), for which this post is named, does a brilliant job of explaining all of this with visual flair:

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The speech he should have given

Uh oh, jacket coming off. Shit just got real.

Uh oh, jacket coming off. Shit just got real.

Yesterday afternoon Barack Obama gave his first major climate address to the nation. While many environmentalists jumped for joy, I found myself singularly unimpressed — the speech lacked any real sense of urgency, mired in the same plodding, informative language that convinces few of the seriousness of the problem, much less compels them to act. So I decided to write him the speech he should have given. Enjoy.

Ladies and gentlemen, members of Congress, my fellow Americans…

We are at war.

Now I speak not of our fledgling war on obesity, in which my beautiful wife Michelle and legislators across this great nation seek to instill better eating habits in America’s youth. Nor do I speak of our failed War on Drugs, now in its 42nd year and costing billions of dollars to treat sick people like criminals without bringing us any closer to a solution. And no I’m not talking about the War on Terrorism, the pursuit of which has seen us sacrifice thousands of American lives and many of the morals and civil liberties we hold most dear.

The war I speak of is bigger than all of these combined. This war already costs the world trillions of dollars every year, and threatens to wipe out every last human being on Earth. Our enemy in this war is ruthless, showing no remorse as it poisons our air, razes our crops, and destroys our cities. Our enemy is also cunning, as it disguises its attacks, seeds chaos around the globe and makes us turn on one another. Above all, our foe is deadly: every year it claims 400,000 lives, including 1000 children each day. 1000 children a day…think about that. Our enemy inflicts all of this damage, and yet collectively we can barely utter its name.

That changes today.

Here, on the world stage, I declare to the American people that we are indeed under attack, and we will not sit by while our very existence is threatened. The real enemy at the gates — the one that threatens all life on planet Earth — is climate change.

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The answer to climate change

When I give these climate talks, by the end people are typically agitated and full of questions. “What technology is going to fix this?” “How are we ever get people to agree on a solution?” “I’m just one person, what could I possibly do that would make an impact?”

My answers often catch people a little off guard: I try to instill that more important than any technical fix is a cultural change, a shift in awareness and social values from which all other solutions will flow. When enough minds change, either through insight (yay, science!) or pain of loss (boo, natural disasters), the plan will become clear. Naturally, people hate that answer! We all hope for simple solutions to our problems…buy something, recycle something, pass a law and be done. Hearing that there’s a huge problem with no simple fix drives people nuts.

Well for those people, watch the video below and take heart! It outlines the best plan I’ve seen to address climate change, hands down. Its steps are concrete and achievable, its approach is ripe for magnification by the power of the internet, and it puts everything in its appropriate social and cultural context along the way. It’s equal parts technical fix and social revolution all wrapped in a stunning visual package (the animations were all crowd-sourced). I have plenty more to say on this great work, but for now just watch the video and we can talk afterwards.

While climate change is certainly a fact of the physical world, at its core it’s a social problem, born of our cultural emphasis on consumerism and growth. And social problems need social solutions.

Take for comparison the social problems in the United States surrounding Jim Crow and racial inequality in the 20th century. Some might say that the “fix” for racial inequality was the Civil Rights Act of 1968, but by 1968 the heavy fighting was largely over. Certainly the legislation cemented victory and codified the new values the nation was slowly internalizing. But the real “fix” was all the activity leading up to 1968 — the social movement that drove debate and protest to change our collective consciousness. The solution was born out of loose collaboration between many diverse constituencies (unions, women’s groups, housing advocates, Latinos, etc.) organizing around a common idea: equality.

Coalition Of The Willing uses that same approach, which is a big part of why I found it so inspiring. The “answer” to climate change isn’t closing coal plants, taxing carbon emissions, or funding rapid development of renewable energy. Those are of course all wonderful things to pursue, but the real answer to climate change, like any other social problem, is the organization of people around a new idea. The video conveys that idea beautifully, lays out the moral foundation for our struggle, and provides the concrete steps needed to build an organization for change.

In truth I should be pissed that this video exists, since it basically takes most of my own ideas and does them better. The concept of the Science Pope is, after all, the blending of scientific truth and widespread cultural awareness all aided by the internet. But I don’t feel usurped, I feel validated, inspired, and full of fresh hope.

Just Let Go

Ours is a world of increasing control…over our environment, our citizens, and the very building blocks of life. Culturally we learn to think of control as a good thing, yet I put to you it is exactly this pursuit of control that creates most of the worlds systemic problems, climate change included. That means at its root, climate change isn’t a technological or economic problem, it’s a problem of cultural philosophy.

Let me begin with a story.

I'm in the back right, looking ghoulish.

SAIL graduation class picture
(click to enlarge)

A few weeks ago I had my final class of SAIL, or Somerville Academy for Innovative Leadership (which you’ll recall I wrote a little bit about here). Near the end of the day we engaged in a very interesting exercise that began with our teacher Hugh O’Doherty asking the 22 people in class stand in a circle. He then described the game: as a group we were to count to 22, but each person could only speak a single number. There were no assigned numbers and no signaling allowed to assist in coordination. The trickiest bit was that if two people spoke at the same time, Hugh would shut us down and make us start over.

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may-the-source-be-with-youI probably should have written about this sooner, but is Open Source. I’ve been offering it up to friends and family for a few months, and you might have seen the spectacular Daniel McClure who wrote a piece called Beyond the Blue Bin a while back. The Science Pope experiment was always meant to be to be an exercise in community building and participation, so it’s high time it got announced as such to the larger community. It only makes sense, since we’re all in this together.

Here’s what Open Source means to me:

  • If you want to write an article for, I’ll post it with minimal (or more likely zero) editing. It doesn’t have to be about climate change, it can be about anything even vaguely related to sustainability, economics, culture, the internet, cool technology, energy, social movements, or what you had for breakfast.
  • If you want to post links or stories to the Science Pope Facebook page, you can.
  • If you want to design a better look for the website or the Facebook page, you can.
  • If you want to code a cleaner Wordpress theme or Plugin integration scheme for the site you can and should, because good lord I need help.

The Open Source model is the way of the future, and it works really well…after all what would Wikipedia or YouTube be without the contributions of their users? The reason it works is that when users feel they have ownership in something, they’re more likely to care for it and work to make it better. This in turn improves content, which draws in more users, who themselves improve content, and so on. It’s your classic positive feedback cycle.

So consider this your declaration of ownership. The site is yours now: go forth and contribute.

(click to watch)
If you want a brief introduction to Open Source culture, check out this cute video

Interview with David Roberts

If you’d like a better introduction to David Roberts and climate change at large, click the image to launch his TEDx talk titled Climate Change is Simple.

In my continued attempts to emulate real journalism, last week I reached out to David Roberts for an interview. David is a staff writer for Grist, an online non-profit magazine that has been publishing environmental news and commentary since 1999. Its tagline is “gloom and doom with a sense of humor”, which I think is why I’m drawn to their content, since I also strive for that aesthetic.

David’s writing embodies this “serious with a touch of the absurd” as well, approaching sober topics of climate and politics with a conversational tone and the occasional Star Wars reference. Through email I asked David seven questions, focused less on the nuts and bolts of climate science and more on the “softer” side of things (cultural values, emotion, outreach, etc.). His responses are reprinted below.

Which study on climate change do you consider to be the most current/accurate (IPCC, UNEP, IEA, etc.), and what does it project?

On climate models, I generally turn to a scientist named Kevin Anderson, who used to run the UK’s Tyndall Center. He argues, persuasively in my mind, that the models typically presented to policymakers contain several implausibly optimistic assumptions, chosen in part to soften their harsh conclusions. (For instance, models often understate the current rate of growth in global emissions and show them peaking far sooner than is plausible.) Once those assumptions are stripped out, the extremely harsh truth is left. I wrote about Anderson’s work (with his colleague Alice Bows) here.

One thing worth noting here: most everybody who does climate modeling is working with the same hard scientific information, mostly drawn from the IPCC, which shows us on track for 5-7 degrees C of warming by 2100 if we continue with business as usual. When you see big differences in forecasts, it usually traces back to assumptions about social and political change. How soon will emissions peak? How fast will they fall? What sort of policies will be put in place, and when? It’s these “soft” social and political questions that really determine our fate, and when it comes to answering them, scientists have no particular authority. Indeed, predicting social change is much more difficult than predicting physical change. I wrote a post about this, too.

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