Wednesday, December 26, 2007

My Generic Christmas Letter, 2007

Much happiness to you all!

My year has been wonderful — because it was so full of excellent . I’m still influenced by an epiphany I experienced at age seven. My grandmother was teaching our Sunday School class and someone asked her what heaven was. She explained that it was a place where you can go after dying, and there will be no problems whatever. Anything you wish for, you will immediately get. I decided that I’d refuse to go to such a boring place. I’d want lots of difficult problems. And I still do.

When people hear this, they ask me how many problems I require. Until this year I have replied, “About as many as the world offers now.” But I was wrong. In 2007 the world has offered more and more of them and I have felt even more interested and happy. Normally there is a shortage of wonderful opportunities to make a difference, but now they are abundant. Hence I’m willing to share some of my top issues with you.

There are still the . Unfortunately, fewer people realize how dangerous they are, so this compounds the problem. We anti-nuclear weapons activists have to work even harder, especially to effect before there’s an accidental detonation. (Let me know if you care to tackle this, since I can provide useful information.) Oddly, those old warriors, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and George Schultz have joined Robert McNamara in campaigning against nuclear weapons. And both Obama and Edwards are on their side. Not Hillary, though.

But to me 2007 brought a huge new challenge: the looming prospect of climate change. I got interested, paradoxically, when some dear friends joined the ““ movement and induced me to read about that. I concluded that the impending shortage of oil won’t be a serious problem, as my friends believe, but that the continued and growing use of it is the real problem. So I have devoted most of my time to the search for solutions to , which I offer herewith.

The best solutions came from a splendid book, Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, by a British journalist, (see photo). You must see Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, and read Monbiot’s book before you do another thing in 2008! Then you and I have to make some lifestyle changes to reduce .

Fortunately, Monbiot shows that we can continue living comfortably (albeit with a few noticeable changes) as we handle these problems. We won’t have to retire to mud huts to save the planet from burning. However, we must drastically limit . Sir ’s search for solutions notwithstanding, there are no near prospects that planes can run on renewable resources. Accordingly, I will no longer fly unless the reason is urgent and of compelling importance. No more family visits or holidays abroad. I’m trying to get my computer set up with video-conferencing equipment so we can have coffee klatches for five people for free. That should compensate for a lot – but not for the hugs I’ll miss. I traveled to Ottawa, to Montreal, and to Atlanta via New York by train and will soon go to Florida by train too. Car trips with one or two passengers are morally okay. I rode to Nova Scotia with my friends Adele and Peter Buckley to celebrate ’s 50th anniversary. But I need to go to Russia for research on a long-stalled book, and for that I may have to fly unless I can find a freighter that accepts arthritic 76-year-olds. Most don’t.

Then there’s the food issue. Some say we should eat locally, but I’m not willing to jeopardize the livelihood of poor producers who send us mangoes, chocolate, and coffee. (You can take on solving that problem if you want to.)

However, I did get conscientious about eating meat from animals. Beef is worst, so I won’t eat much of it or veal anymore. But even milk cows fart and burp , so I am moving toward soy milk and cheese from sheep and goats. I cannot ascertain how much less methane sheep and goats produce, but so far I still eat their meat. And also pigs, poultry, and fish, none of which are ruminants. Methane is about eight times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than .

Individually, these are the main contributions we can make right now. We’ll have to make big institutional changes to reduce greenhouse gases sufficiently. We have to choose between two solutions: versus . I prefer the latter. (To read an explanation and justification for this preference, see the December issue of Scientific American.) As a member of Science for Peace, I organized a Carbon Tax committee that meets for dinner in a restaurant once a month to hear a speaker on the subject. As soon as we are well-informed, we’ll launch a campaign to make the general public aware and stimulate political demand. In January we will begin training ourselves to give twenty-minute Power Point lectures on carbon dioxide taxation in church basements. We have a petition almost ready to go.

This group now includes several real experts and, apart from endorsing carbon taxation, we don’t always agree. There are three main controversies; they concern biofuels, nuclear power, and economic growth.

We all do agree that from corn is a terrible idea, if only because it is taking land out of production for food. But it is inefficient too; you only get 1.3 times as much energy out of the ethanol as you put into producing it. One of our members argues that no biofuel can be sustainable, but some of us disagree. Soon there is coming a technology for making ethanol from products. The efficiency will be much greater than that of corn-based ethanol and it’s sustainable, but I admit that it cannot be anywhere near adequate to solve our energy shortage.

Then there’s the question of nuclear power. Everyone knows that there are dangers involved, but some people think the demand for energy is increasing so fast that it is hard to argue against constructing new . The alternative is , but those of us who want neither it nor nuclear have to show that there are ways to develop alternative fuels quickly enough to make up for the looming deficiency. That’s still possible, but a huge challenge.

A third controversy concerns economic growth. Some members of our group (and environmentalists at large) believe that the capitalist economy cannot continue to grow, since everything we manufacture uses up finite natural resources and destroys the world’s inter-dependent ecosystems.

But if we want to retain (and I certainly do) we will have to sustain economic growth, since every business must bring in more money than it spent, so as to repay the investors with interest. Without economic growth, firms will collapse, one by one.

Recognizing this fact, there are some in our group who would even switch to some form of localized communism to stop economic growth, though it would also reduce consumption. Any such change would also halt economic development in the poorest countries of the world, so I would never support such a change. Economic development is the key to reducing and producing a healthy, educated, democratic global society.

Fortunately, it will be possible to have economic growth without destroying the environment. In Third World countries the poorest people are now making real progress for the first time through the spread of micro-credit and micro-finance systems. (See ). More efficient technologies can hasten such growth.

In our affluent societies the trend is toward “” of the economy by the growth of the knowledge sector. Almost no friends of mine actually manufacture anything tangible, but as professionals we are prosperous and our economies are growing. Our output consists, not of things, but of ideas, which we sell to each other or to corporations or the government. As for consumption, the same de-materialization goes on. “The good life” no longer consists of acquiring multiple homes, fashionable clothes, or wine cellars, but of practicing yoga, listening to tiny iPods, and getting psychotherapy sessions. Money changes hands, but with little use of raw materials. The increasing need not involve an increased “through-put” of physical stuff. But I have not brought all of my friends round to this way of thinking.

Clearly, the future of humankind depends on the policies we adopt. This challenge excites me. Yet climate change does not depend wholly on our success in reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. There are several other variables in the equation. For example, the soil and oceans are huge carbon sinks. Whenever a plow turns over a furrow and exposes the to the air, the carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Left alone, the roots would retain the CO2 for a generation or more. is bad; farmers need to develop alternative methods, as for example by not tilling the soil and keeping groundcover growing all the time. And herds of animals should be kept bunched tightly together and moved around together; their movements maintain the health of the soil. (See Savory, Holistic Management.)

Knowledge is changing fast as research continues to explore the factors determining climate change. For example, in my blog I wrote about a NOVA show that portrayed “” as one of the great dangers we now confront. The writers said that water vapor, gases, contrails from airplanes, and particulates in the atmosphere blanket south Asia during the dry season with “.” These presumably block out some of the sunshine, having an overall cooling effect on the planet that partially offsets the warming effect of greenhouse gases. This means that the true effect of greenhouse gases would be even worse were these pollutants removed from the air, as we must certainly try to do, if only for the sake of our health. The “global dimming” theory was bad news, presenting a dilemma: Clean up the pollution or die even faster from global warming.

But I was mistaken – or rather, NOVA was mistaken. Subsequent research reveals that the brown clouds have several ingredients that have differing effects on the climate. The clouds do cool the atmosphere, but the particulates largely add to the warming of the planet. Hence if we remove the from Asia’s developing industrial economy, we will help to cool the planet instead of worsening our problem. And one way to help cool the planet might be to increase the cloud cover by spraying water vapor.

This brings us to the topic of . Every delay in reducing greenhouse gases decreases the chance that we’ll keep the planet’s heating below two degrees – the threshold number where terrible, possibly irreversible changes must be expected. That being so, there is every reason to begin developing alternative ways of saving the planet. A number of different technological innovations have been proposed for cooling Earth. My favorite is ’s “,” which would soak up the carbon from the atmosphere, so that it can be buried. This would be expensive, but with enough of these structures at work, the atmosphere could be restored to pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide.

There are several other such engineering proposals, such as one scheme that would put mirrors in outer space to deflect light away from the planet and thereby keep it cooler. I have written about these in my blog throughout the year.

I haven’t said much about my personal life, which has been generally rewarding. I had a cataract removed from one eye. I continue to work on the development of a movie or TV series about a Green Cross team. (There are grounds to hope for success on this latter project, but the eggs have not hatched, so I won’t count the chickens yet.) I am surrounded tonight by poinsettias, the gifts from my warm and interesting friends, who assembled here last night for dinner. On New Years Day, I’ll celebrate with even more others here too.

May you have many fascinating problems throughout the New Year!




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