Ending The Endless War

Last year was the the hottest year since modern record keeping began in 1880, capping all the other recent record-breakers. And it’s NOT going to get better. If you were born in 1985 or after, you’ve never experienced a year in which the global temperature has been below the 20th-century average.

And then there’s methane. Mother of Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (who isolated Franklin’s “flammable gas”)! Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. For the length of human civilization, most of the CH4 on the planet has been frozen and out of the way, no bother at all to, say, Sumerian seal carvers, Medieval shepherdesses, Arabic astronomers, Incan princesses, Nri-Igbo traders, Australian song-line cartographers, or even lardy Americans bellowing from their couches at corporate sportainments on their big, big screens. Most of the gas has been locked up in the permafrost and at the bottom of the polar oceans in the form known as methane hydrate. But now our warming-by-CO2 planet is unleashing the CH4, adding it to the blanketing layer of atmosphere-trapping heat. And it will be astonishingly bad for humanity.

I call it the methane bomb ~ not with fire, and certainly not with ice… but with a fart?

The Arctic Methane Emergency Group — contemplate that name for a moment — is calling for a re-freezing of the Arctic to prevent this eruption. I think we can safely say that that’s a non-starter now, and if it ever is a starter it will be too late. The feedback mechanisms we have set in motion are no longer a matter of turning things on and off, even if we could. We’re hit 400 ppm of CO2 (not so long ago, 350.org put where they wanted to draw the line in their name). Among other effects, the AMEG gets to the rub of what is often confusing about radical climate disruption when they note that the methane bomb’s effects will be “disruption of jet stream behaviour, with abrupt climate change leading to crop failures, rising food prices and conflict in the Northern Hemisphere.” Because it’s not the planet that’s ending, not for a long time yet, barring a meteor collision. What’s going to end is the world as we know it, the world as the last 10,000 years of humans have known it. Yes, rising waters, fiercer storms, greater flooding, harsher droughts, — and yes, more snow when, as happened off New England this winter, very warm ocean water (unusually warm ocean water, soon to be the norm, not so unusual), pumping more moisture into the atmosphere, meets cold air from the north — but the really terrifying and terrible changes will be the resulting political ones, the human ones. Considering that the world is already a chaos of conflicts, beset by refugees, terrorism, overweening authoritarianisms, and the rapid movement of disease, lighting a massive fire under current conditions must obviously make things infinitely worse. (Remember, we’ve seen weather-related economic migration already within the US itself; they were called “Okies” by the Californians who wanted to keep them out; I called one of them my mother.)

Rebecca Solnit, who is one of the essential writers of our time, has a short essay in the February Harper’s that is mandatory reading. (It is, however, subscriber only, but this is a necessary publication amidst so much corporate shit, so don’t tell me you aren’t subscribing already.) She writes of the war being waged against Earth; she dates it as a kind of continuation of the Second World War (I might argue it’s older, but certainly it became fiendishly modernized in the last half century with plastics, pesticides and nuclear power). A servant of the oil and gas industry, the carbon lobby suicide squad that for all intents and purposes currently owns a significant part of our country, is quoted here on the “endless war” against the Earth and all its Earthlings. But it’s not endless; it’s going to end, sooner or later. That time should be ours to decree. Later will be very much worse for today’s children and their children.

King Carbon is as wrapped up in our economy and lives, our entire civilization, as slavery once was. Capitalism, with its bottomless maw for finite resources, can’t be permanent, which is why it desperately wants to devour other worlds. What this means, though, is that, like slavery, these things can be ended. Thomas Jefferson, for all his blindness, rightly called the Missouri crisis the “fire bell in the night” that “awakened me and filled me with terror” for the firestorm to come. Jefferson heard it late in the game; it had been ringing already for two centuries before the fire came, always louder and louder. We have rather less time now to heed the screaming klaxon.

7 Responses to “Ending The Endless War”

  1. 1 Beverly Seaton March 1, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    Amen. Whenever I try to cheer myself up by saying that reading history shows that we just keep recycling stupid human behavior, I do realize that what we are now facing is not recyclable. It will end. We can keep fighting one another for many more eons, but not earth itself.

  2. 2 Nate March 1, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    Nuclear power doesn’t deserve to be listed next to plastics and pesticides for its destructive impact, especially in an article talking about climate forcing and the methane bomb. As far as energy sources go, nuclear power has created a shitload of energy, has accounted for comparatively little mess and hasn’t released any carbon. Fat Americans can give up their football, mcmansions and consumerism but that only goes so far. Firewood is no longer a viable way to heat. Calling for an end to capitalism is a bit of a sledgehammer solution.

    The current set of green sources isn’t very inspiring. Solar happens to have the highest public support but produces so little energy that it’s a scam. Coal mines look lovely compared to the habitat that could be destroyed by solar. Wind is similar – we need half a million turbines in the US (one every eight square miles) to offset fossil electricity alone, not counting carbon-based transportation and heating. If people don’t like the idea of hotels on the rim of the Grand Canyon they certainly won’t want to see wind generators on every hilltop (on the other hand, some hills are more special than others). Most other ideas produce so little energy that they could best be described as novelties. The more we live in our wind/solar denial, the more fossil we can burn. In their commercials Shell shows images of solar panels and wind turbines and says that we need to broaden our energy mix – it’s bullshit. The carbon industry owns our government, but the green public by supporting wind and solar make carbon a continuing easy sell.

    The problems with nuclear aren’t nearly as bad as they’ve been made out to seem and I think it has the greatest potential to pull us out of our carbon mess. Nuclear power seems to have taken a lot of the bad rap that nuclear weapons fairly earned. The two major accidents weren’t as bad as we’ve been led to believe (fatalities for Fukushima: 0, Chernobyl: 56 is the most solid number). All of these reactors were designed before cars had seatbelts. Commercial nuclear waste, which there isn’t really that much of, can be recycled into something less hideous. Nuclear produces huge amounts of electricity in a small space. The much despised Indian Point generates more electricity than all of the wind and solar in California. It produces roughly 25% as much as all the wind power in the US. France is 77% nuclear and almost zero emissions but doesn’t get much credit for it. Germany, with its mix that includes 75% fossil fuels, makes headlines with its 25% renewables. Nuclear’s biggest problem is that it scares people more than coal does.

    But talk about building a new nuclear plant anywhere and see if the Sierra Club doesn’t show up with picket signs with clichés about poisoning children. They’ll say we need solar and wind power, and that we need LED light bulbs. Some wind turbines will be built along with a new gas/coal plant and they’ll call it a success. This is the way the war will continue as far as I can see.

    Our descendants aren’t likely to care much about a radioactive mine, but they should not forgive us for killing our reefs and thawing the poles.

  3. 3 Donna E. March 2, 2015 at 10:16 pm

    The one thing I will say in favor of nuclear power is that when it goes awry, we do seem to ruin things mainly for ourselves; it is Homo Sapiens who have to clear out of the affected areas. Flora and fauna appear to demonstrate much greater resilience, and recolonize in a relatively short time. Humans, more persistently sickened by radioactivity, are therefore out of the picture and nature can go about its business without our befouling, land-gouging, interfering presence.

    As for solar energy: why we are taking perfectly good tracts of fields and grasslands and covering them with acres of shade-casting panels is beyond me, when we already have a nation covered in asphalt ready and waiting: the roofs of strip malls, cities, suburbs, industrial parks, warehouses, and the infinite parking lots and roadways thereof. Put the panels on surfaces we’ve ALREADY made impermeable and useless for the ecological cycle of growth and decay, for God’s sake!

  4. 4 Nate March 4, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    The flora and fauna are returning to Chernobyl, even wolves and bears that have disappeared elsewhere. I wouldn’t list the Chernobyl Wildlife Refuge among the selling points though. It’s interesting to think that fields, houses and roads are more harmful to animal populations than a massive radiation release. There’s a minefield penguin refuge in the Falklands that I’d love to see, from a distance. The penguins aren’t heavy enough to set off the mines but humans are. The penguins nest there now.

    The Coney Island Stillwell station is a good example of rooftop solar. I found one source that said it cost $1.1 million but I couldn’t verify it. It’s huge but only provides 10-15% of the energy that the terminal itself uses, never mind trains. It’s expensive greenwashing and doesn’t really solve any problems, it just stalls the conversation.

    Solar doesn’t produce a lot of electricity per dollar or per square foot. The Topaz Solar Farm in CA (not rooftop, but no less solar) produces almost 1.1 Twh/yr. It cost $2.5 billion and is nine square miles. At that density, you’d need 486 square miles of panels to feed NYC its 60Twh/yr, if we got as much sun as the California desert. It would probably cost $135 billion, $16k per resident. They would only produce energy four hours per day – the baseload problem. I don’t know how many million lead-acid batteries you’d need to keep the lights on at night (they’re as eco-friendly as they sound and the green articles never mention those either). None of that will do anything about heating oil, transportation or those moody steam vents in the streets, which collectively account for more emissions than electricity does.

    Solar looks good though, and they make people feel like we’re making green progress. But if you count the watts it doesn’t make any meaningful contribution. The proponents will say it’s all about the energy mix – solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, etc. This is acknowledgment that none of these are good options and we’d have to combine all of them in a fairy tale to produce what we need. There was an article in the NYT today about the problems Japan is having with their solar.

  5. 5 marclallanilla March 5, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    Nate: We’ll just store all the nuclear waste in your neighborhood, OK?

    In the meantime, the rest of us will get on with real, sustainable solutions to our energy and environmental crisis.

    But since I’m almost done reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction,” I have a sense of real dread about our prospects.

    As Wills notes, Big Carbon is so finely woven into our political and social fabric that it may take some kind of revolution — peaceful? bloody? — to get anything meaningful done. If we have time…

    I’ve spent my entire adult life working in science, health and environmental issues, and I often look at children today and silently shake my head. What does their future hold?

    I’ll be dead by 2040, if not sooner, and I sometimes fear that the last thing I’ll see will be a desolate, treeless plain, not unlike the grim images we see of the war-torn Iraqi countryside.

    After I’m gone, what will today’s kids live through? And don’t their parents care?

    Humans are a reactive species, not a proactive one, so I suppose we’ll just keep destroying the planet until some media-genic disaster — an environmental 9/11 — wakes us up.

    By that time, however, it will be too late.

  6. 6 mthew March 5, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    The problem of nuclear waste remains. In a sense, it’s a mortgage on the future, in some cases the far future. As such, it’s also a question not just of technology but of the upmost morality and responsibility: who are we to force the stuff on future human beings?

  7. 7 Nate March 5, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    From what I gather, the feeling among those that are aware and concerned about the environment is grim resignation. “What can you do?” they always say, followed by a long pause in the conversation.

    I’m sortof optimistic about the future. Brooklyn is a certified environmental disaster. But there are loons, eagles, plants and critters galore here (not exactly what they’d call “unspoiled” though). Nature is resilient and we can screw up the climate but life will go on, it will just be a very dramatic and awful change to have to observe. Maybe in the future they’ll look at images of beasts that live now and it will inspire wonder, like the dodo or the mammoth do to us.

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