Saturday, January 30, 2010

It's all about the stories you tell

Turns out, you can probably sell your political agenda better if you can turn it into a compelling story.

That's what some authors are finally realizing, as reported here by BBC News.

Looking back at the healthcare debate, then, it might have been better strategy for the Obama admin to have sold their reform agenda more along the lines of David versus Goliath (i.e., average American vs. Big Insurance/Big Pharma) than spewing lots of facts and figures about the need for industry reform, factual as they may have been.

By the way, the photo leading the article is, to me, emblematic of Americans' increasingly angry, divisive politics-- a situation created and encouraged, I would argue, by the power elite, who know that so long as we're fighting with one another over this or that comparatively minor detail, no reform can ever interfere with their power-mongering plans. (The photo also reflects the ugliness of self-imposed ignorance.)

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

A love story for the ages

Here is a hidden tale of love revealed.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

A world of increasing contrast

This is iconic, ironic, and insane:

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Minimal Impact Man

I went to a screening of the documentary film No Impact Man at a local indie cinema here. I'd been looking forward to it since hearing about it several months ago.

It's a good film and raises important questions about our profligate American lifestyle--- and more importantly, about the flexibility of that lifestyle. If, as many suggest, the effects of Peak Oil occur powerfully and suddenly, our present wasteful, energy-rich lifestyle will go right out the window in a hearbeat. What happens then?

Perhaps, as Colin Beavan and family did by choice, we all will find ourselves foot-stomping our laundry in the tub and using beeswax candles for light--- but by necessity. How many will adapt? How many will insulate themselves with money (the rich, duh!) to avoid change, even if it can produce positive effects on their happiness and fulfillment (as was arguably the case for Colin's family)?

I've been making efforts to reduce my own impact, but there's always further to go. Maybe a long-term transition is the key to minimizing the impacts.

I recommend finding a screening of the film and hearing what it has to say about how we live.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Peak Oil - Hirsch on the Hirsch Report, 4 years later

Robert Hirsch, author of the so-called Hirsch Report (October, 2005; pdf file), spoke with Steve Andrews of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas - USA this past September, in advance of the October ASPO-USA conference held in Denver.

I recommend reading their brief interview (~2,200 words), as it offers not only Mr. Hirsch's current views on the subject of peak oil (things ain't any better), but also some insight into the glaring absence of this issue from the mainstream media and political discourse.

Read the surprisingly brief (10 pages) report itself as well, for greater background on this essential subject.

Folks, I don't know how urgently I can promote the importance of this issue without seeming like an Apocalyptic nutjob; and at the risk of alienating a few friends and acquaintances, I'm happy to go that far. I can't conceive of an issue with more grave impact upon our immediate future than this one. By "our," I mean humanity at large: all peoples in all nations, oil-importing or -exporting, rich or poor, populous or underpopulated.

While it's certainly refreshing that coverage of environmental fragility and impending eco-disasters (led by "global warming") has not only reached the forefront in mainstream media news coverage, but has also stimulated a considerable degree of political, economic, and social change; yet the consequences of peak oil, in the short and medium term, are far more deleterious. I've said it before: this issue is civilization-changing. I really want to say civilization-ending, but that's an argument that requires a solid definition of civilization I'm not prepared to present. But peak oil will almost without question bring an end to life as we know it in the wealthy nations of the Northern Hemisphere, which change will, in turn, profoundly affect the rest of the world as well.

Please educate yourself on this vital topic. Spread the word, talk with people. Write or call your congressional representatives. Fire off a letter to the editor of your newspaper asking why they don't offer (more/any) coverage. Ask your friends, co-workers and colleagues, "Have you heard about peak oil?" Awkward? Possibly. But that's nothing to the awkward you'll experience when the effects of peak oil come crashing down.

We can avoid the worst effects of peak oil, but only if we act NOW, as in TODAY. Hirsch, in the interview, suggests the situation may already be dire-----

We found that because the decline rate in world oil production was going to be in multiple percents per year, it was going to take a very long time for mitigation to catch up to the decline in world oil production. Basically, the best we found was that starting a worldwide crash program 20 years before the problem hits avoid[s] serious problems. If you started 10 years before-hand, you are in a lot of trouble; and if you wait to the last minute until the problem is obvious, then you’re in deep trouble for much longer than a decade. As it turns out, we no longer have the 10 or 20 years that were two of our scenarios.

----- but cause for hope comes from the fact that while the general populace has remained largely ignorant of the subject, there are great minds at work on the problem and some of them offer potentially powerful tools to mitigate some of the consequences of the coming socio-economic transition: the Transition Initiative is one such tool.

Please take a few minutes to learn about peak oil. Please.

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Friday, January 08, 2010

Save Appalachia!

Along with the 2009 EPA finding that CO2 is a pollutant, a great deal of attention has been directed toward the coal mining industry, and specifically toward the deplorable, though increasingly common, practice of mountaintop removal (MTR). This attention is good and long overdue.

What's perhaps most astounding is the seeming absence of the scientific community in all this-- until now. And they're arriving with a vengeance. This article at Grist describes a paper just published in the journal Science, "Mountaintop Mining Consequences," in which the authors note the obvious-- MTR is bad for mountains. Go figure. (Apparently, this sort of official review of the obvious is a necessary step in the process of change, given how things work in the policy world, so this paper is important, if unsurprising.)

Coal extraction is, to my view, America's Dirty Little Secret. But before you get all up-in-arms and take on another progressive cause on behalf of which you will storm your representatives in Congress with letters and petition-signings, give a think to this fact: almost half of the electricity on the grid in the U.S. comes from burning coal. That means that anyone who uses electricity is complicit in this ongoing environmental disaster. It's easy enough to decry the profit-driven actions of huge corporations, but it's more than a little disingenuous to do so when you directly benefit from those actions. Such righteous indignation is akin to complaining to the driver of a car that he's polluting, while riding in the back seat.

Please don't mistake my intention: my plan is not to scold. I believe 100% that MTR must stop, and I mean yesterday. It is an antediluvian practice intended solely to maximize profit for the coal mining interests (though I'm sure they'd point out the health and safety benefits to workers who don't have to go underground anymore). But if we're going to solve the problem, we must 1) recognize that we're all in this together-- we all use electric power (most of us don't generate all we use!); 2) acknowledge that our lifestyle choices have a direct impact on the environment, whether in our own backyards or hundreds of miles away; 3) that it's much easier to solve problems working in concert rather than in the fray of opposition.

American pop culture has taken the "us vs. them" mentality about as far into the absurd as anyone could possibly want to go. Let's try working together toward solutions. As a starting point, how can you use less energy at home in order to reduce the grid load that mining companies are feeding? A sufficient drop in demand will obviate the need for finding new energy sources (or at least push that need farther into the future)-- that means stopping another coal-burning power plant, which leads directly to a reduction in MTR. It's all connected. What can you do? Plenty! See my earlier posts, but here's a short list:

    Install CFLs and LED lighting
    Use switched power strips to turn off phantom loads
    Line dry laundry (esp. if you have an electric dryer)
    Buy a new, Energy Star fridge, or fix the seals and clean the coils on your existing fridge
    Put outdoor lights on timer/sensors
    Give up the spare fridge (they're typically old and inefficient, and often poorly utilized)

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Wacky connection

Is it possible-- just crazy-possible-- that there could be a conflict of interest between branches of the Federal gov't regarding foreign oil and national security? There are those in Washington who believe, naturally enough, that our dependence on foreign oil impinges upon our national security. But if such voices are heeded, and we adjust our policies to effect substantial reductions in foreign oil imports (esp. from U.S.-unfriendly regimes), wouldn't that leave our military with, uh, a lot less to do?

I am enough of a cynic (read: pragmatist) to suspect that the military-industrial complex would be-- shall we say "disturbed"?-- by any successful efforts to reduce our oil imports (and therefore our military presence) in the Middle East.

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Health care?

In the first chapter of Atul Gawande's new book, The Checklist Manifesto, reprinted here at, I found this little tidbit:
On any given day in the United States alone, some ninety thousand people are admitted to intensive care. Over a year, an estimated five million Americans will be, and over a normal lifetime nearly all of us will come to know the glassed bay of an ICU from the inside.

I find this statistic both astounding and rather horrifying.
Reading a few lines further, I next found this stark sentence, "Fifty years ago, ICUs barely existed."

What is the trend revealed in these factoids? At the very least, I would say our unrestrained worship of technology. Coupled with our similarly unrestrained worship of profit, is it any wonder we strode into this health care mess in so short a period of time-- essentially, since WWII?

With the reliance upon technology comes the annoying corollary: reliance upon the technologists. We loves our gadgets-- but few people know how they work, how to build them, how to fix them. So, naturally, we are beholden to a minority class of technologists who can supply our needs; and even they are not the top of the heap. Most of the folks who know something of how our many machines and technologies work are merely product-savvy salespeople, high-level repair people (part-swappers), or well-trained and experienced industry insiders who, through long familiarity, have acquired a wide knowledge base from which to draw. Those who actually know how the stuff works, on a nuts-and-bolts (or, more likely, transistors-and-lasers) level are the true technologists, the upper-class of the technology food web: we can call them the Sci-Tech Elite. And who directs this Elite? The economic upper-upper-class-- the profit-mongers, of course! Even if the R&D is done at a major university or branch of government, the goal, somewhere along the line, is, or ultimately becomes, the production of profit for the top dogs.

This little diatribe is already going in an unintended (though interesting) direction. The point in the discussion of health care that I set out to make is that we've placed our reliance-- indeed, the greatest measure of our faith-- in the health technologists. Who are they? Through habit and social history, we equate them with our healthcare providers-- the physicians who, for a few precious minutes at a time anymore, still see us and thump our chests and look in our orifices. Though they are not the true technologists behind the modern medical mistake we call healthcare, they have become the front-men and -women, the priest-class through which we access the glorious Technology in which we have so fully vested our faith; in point of fact, I'd say they are our pimps and pushers.

Generalities, all just generalities. There are still "good" doctors out there-- those who know what health and care really mean, and do not misplace their own faith in "the machine that goes Ping!" But by and large, their traditional Hippocratic skills and instincts have been subsumed into an enormous Health Machine-- a radiometric, laser-guided, computer-controlled, digitally-enhanced, sterile, disposable, and very expensive Health Machine.

What would happen, do you think, if we were to reclaim ownership of our own health and health care, by-- for example-- practicing sensible lifestyle habits and preventive care? Would we really miss high-tech medicine? (Sure, when you're smeared across 3 lanes of superhighway and you need to be reassembled; or when your congenital heart defect finally gets the better of you and demands a valve replacement; and the like.) But really-- in most cases, how much better could we make our lives by taking charge of our own health and health care, and no longer leaving it in the hands of the technologist-profiteers?

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Essential Progressive Reading List - please expand!

Those who know me know I'm not a big reader. So when I put together a must-read list, you know it's gotta be filled with important works! And since I don't read as much as I'd like to, please help me to expand this list of must-reads for the modern progressives. I reserve the right to edit!

In no particular order:

Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is the novelist/story writer's first book-length non-fiction work. Part one-year memoir, part overview and critique of modern American agribusiness and food production, this delightful book chronicles her family's yearlong commitment to eat locally-grown foods-- as in foods raised by the family themselves in their home garden, or obtained from farmers they've met, usually within a small radius of their western Virginia home.

As an critique, it offers disturbing insight into industrial farming and food production-- information which is terrifically disturbing to those who, like me, already have ample reason to distrust the direction our modern, energy-intensive lifestyle has taken us. Yet, rather than sounding a shrill message of impending doom, as it could easily have done, the book is more than sufficiently balanced by the intimate, sensuous descriptions of the foods produced and consumed during a turn of the seasons. It's clearly the work of one who loves good, wholesome food, and will appeal to the like-minded. Nor is this a fairy-story of idyllic pastoralism; she does not stint in her reporting the hard work and failures encountered in the process. It is not a promotion of vegetarianism, as they family raise poultry for food and also buy local meats, but the focus on the varied output of their modest garden draws more attention to the vegetal joys of a localized lifestyle than to the environmental and ethical issues surrounding flesh-farming. In sum, this book is a beautiful paean to the joys of good food and community that results from local farming; truly a foodie's book.

The Transition Handbook, by Rob Hopkins, is essential reading for the solution-driven progressive. Hopkins is the congenial, flap-eared founder of the now-global movement (begun in the UK) to relocalize our economies and build resilient communities in the face of the twin challenges of Peak Oil and Climate Change. This is neither hippie love-note nor ammo-stocking survivalist exhortation to hunker in your bunker; it's a well-crafted guidebook and open invitation to create a lifestyle that is BETTER than what we now enjoy-- or endure, depending on your perspective! Divided into three sections entitled Head, Heart, and Mind, the Handbook acknowledges and attempts to adequately address the complex nature of large-scale societal change-- including the psychology of resistance to change. But mostly it's a guide to the process of conceiving and creating vital, interdependent, local communities that can weather the coming changes (identified in the Head section as potentially hugely cataclysmic) and indeed thrive after the Age of Cheap Oil.

Yes, I've mentioned this book previously here on sharedyes, but it bears repeating (partly because things seem neater when they come in threes!). Apollo's Fire, by Congressman Jay Inslee and Bracken Hendricks, lays out the arguments for an Apollo moonshot-scale national program to shift our economy to renewable energy sources, and explains how it's much more sensible than the alternatives. Lots of explanatory economics and current information bolster their premise-- that fossil fuels are a dead-end from which we can emerge better than ever. I often call the proposal a legislative trifecta: shifting to renewable energy sources creates jobs, helps save the environment, and reduces foreign energy dependence and its concomitant geopolitical dangers (read: Iraq War).