Annihilation of Space by Time: High Speed Rail Edition

 
 Alfred Twu via grist.org

Alfred Twu via grist.org

We can dream. We can dream.

Update: Sarah Laskow on Grist gives us the depressing actual state of train travel in the US. It's not pretty.

Climate Change: End of Social Science?

A new article by Clive Hamilton argues that climate change reveals the long Western notion of the separation of humans from nature (nature/culture dualism) to be a sham. Climate change, he argues, lays bare that humans are and always have been embedded within natural systems, which at this point in time, we are so entangled we cannot epistemologically and ontologically separate the two. Hamilton writes, 

Climate science is now telling us that such a separation can no longer be sustained, that the natural and the human are mixed up, and their influences cannot be neatly distinguished.

This is an idea that has been circulating in environmental history (William Cronon) and political and urban political ecology (e.g. Nik Heynen, Maria Kaika, and Erik Swengedouw, among many others). Recently, the hybrid thesis is moving into mainstream writing with the help from writers like Emma Marris.

Hamilton declares the social sciences to be on the way out. Why? He argues that since nature and society are not separate categories there is no longer a need for a dedicated social science. He writes,

So the advent of the Anthropocene shatters the self-contained world of social analysis that is the terrain of modern social science, and explains why those intellectuals who remain within it find it impossible to “analyze” the politics, sociology or philosophy of climate change in a way that is true to the science. They end up floundering in the old categories, unable to see that something epochal has occurred, a rupture on the scale of the Industrial Revolution or the emergence of civilization itself.

It's a bold argument. But I think he's wrong.

Environmental sociologists and other environmental studies folks, far from fading into oblivion, have an unique position in these matters because of their understanding of cultural, political, and economic systems, which analyzed properly are not siloed away from nature, but rather the society-nature hybrid is integrated into an overall analysis. Multi-disiplinary and trans-disciplinary collaboration, such as the Sustainable Engineering and Ecological Design institute at my alma matter. 

Furthermore, Hamilton oddly enough makes an environmental determinist claim, which goes against his overall argument:

From hereon our history will increasingly be dominated by “natural processes”, influenced by us but largely beyond our control. Our future has become entangled with that of the Earth’s geological evolution...it can no longer be maintained that humans make their own history, for the stage on which we make it has now entered into the play as a dynamic and capricious force.

He wants to argue that social science is going away, that the Modernist human-nature duality is crumbling, but then makes a statement that subsumes society into the totality of nature and puts us at the complete whim of nature. This is not hybrid socio-nature thinking that I and others, and Hamilton, up until that point, make.

Environmental studies requires systems thinking rather than category thinking. We may be embedded within natural systems, but it is incorrect to argue that we are now at the whim of nature. It is not enough to just turn Modernity on its head, as Marx once turned Hegel on his head, replacing base with superstructure. We need to continue to push the boundaries and dissolve the categories towards new socio-ecological studies. Down with dualisms, old and new.

"Nature" More Persuasive Than Sceintists

A new poll shows that extreme weather events have more impact on changing the perceptions of climate change in respondents than scientific studies. Natural and socio-natural events, and our perception of them, can shift society's attitudes more than rational discourse and science. Perception/experience vs. rational thought. What does this mean for climate change politics? Well, as more and more climate events transpire, whether due to anthropogenic climate change or not, it's possible that public attitudes and perhaps politics will begin to shift even further in favor of concrete steps to reduce CO2 emissions. Yet, it is also possible that more frequent and extreme weather events, with death and destruction, will only fuel the politics of despair and give more weight to the secular Dooms Day environmentalism that is so popular. 

The Great Dithering

Presidential debates do not determine actual policy, but they do set conversation agendas. After three debates this year, global climate change was not mentioned once. It's increasingly clear that the US political machine is incapable at this time to address the threats posed by climate change. Global climate change is not even on the conversation agenda.

Further, the US political elite have zero coherence on matters of an energy transition. Striking evidence of this fact is that typically celebrated capitalist entrepreneurialism, in the form of renewable, green energy technology companies, are openly ridiculed and lambasted by right-wing pundits and politicians. Yes, some of these companies received government loans and subsidies, and yes a few of them failed, but almost all US businesses benefit form direct and indirect subsidies (roads, highways, tax codes, etc).  

Global climate change is a dead policy issue in Washington, but the end around energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables is also so politicized that no policy coherence seems possible. The nascent US wind turbine industry is poised to collapse if congress doesn't renew subsidies for the industry. Contrary to the ahistorical accounts from pundits and politicians, all energy transitions involved policy guided capitalism (see English industrial revolution, or US automobile, oil boom). 

Sadly, novelist Kim Stanley Robinson is probably right, in 200 years our period will be known as the Great Dithering.

Geoengineering, Let's Just Fiddle with the Earth

Businessman from the US conducts unregulated geoengineering experiment off the coast of Canada, dumping 100 tons of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean. Native American communities were told it was a salmon enhancement project. It was not.

Businessman says of international regulations:

George told the Guardian that the two moratoria are a "mythology" and do not apply to his project.

We are going to see more of these kinds of geoengineering stories and the international governance institutions need to agree on rules, norms, and regulations for these kinds of activities.

Update: The Guardian now reports that members of the Canadian government knew about and was complicit in this experiment.

The chief executive of the company responsible for spawning the artificial 10,000 square kilometre plankton bloom in the Pacific Ocean has implicated several Canadian departments, but government officials are remaining silent about the nature of their involvement.

Energy Democracy

I won't give away David Roberts' punchline, read the article, but I'll start you with this:

Just as a cleaner electricity system would be preferable, so too would a more small-d democratic system, one that distributes economic and social power more widely.

A Choice

President Obama signed an Executive Order "Accelerating Investment in Industrial Energy Efficiency", which comes on the heals of new improved car fuel efficiency standars for 2025

Meanwhile, Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney turned climate change into a punch line during his acceptance speech as the RNC:

Obama has been pretty good about promoting new energy sources, green tech, and efficiency, not so good on climate change however. Romney, on the other hand, represents old, dirty energy production. Gas, coal, oil. No eye for the future, whether new energy sources or climate change.

The Global Conspiracy

Bill to ban sustainability action fails in Arizona, reports Maria Gallucci at Inside Climate News

Sometimes geographic uneven development is a political and cultural decision. Arizona and the other states that are attempting to block renewable energy money and investment are feeding uneven development in the US. How? Some states will benefit from these developments (West and North East, Texas), while other states will be cut out of future rewards, and hence fall behind. Uneven development. It's very short sighted, and a dangerous politics. At least it failed this time.

Think tank warns of turbulent outlook for US renewable energy industry

The recent rapid expansion of the US renewable energy sector could be thrown into reverse unless policy makers take urgent steps to reform subsidy regimes which have delivered a cycle of "boom and bust" that could yet result in a "clean tech crash".

The real problem for nascent markets: being crushed by the incumbent market. In this case, the fossil fuel industry, and all the subsidies, direct and indirect, that the incumbents receive from the government. 

Climate Defeatism, Nihlism, and (anti)Civilization

Interesting debate about sustainability, climate defeatism, nihilism, and civilization posted on Grist. Anti-civilization folks and eco-centrics have been going at it for decades, but Kingsnorth is a new entrant. I like the author's (Stephenson) rebuttal and his stated position at the end. Can we be for humans and nature, and not be humanists or eco-centrics? (hint: socio-nature)

Trouble on the rails

The problem with train travel in the US is largely the rail network. I traveled from Central California to San Diego this week and the train had to stop and wait repeatedly. The trip took entirely too long. We had to wait for other Amtrak trains, MetroLink trains, and freight trains. We were stopped for up to 20-30 minutes at times, and were once stopped about 100 yards from a major station as we waited for a freight to pass.

If train travel is ever going to be competitive, efficient, or convenient the issue of track space and track right of way needs to be addressed. Imagine if while on a plane the captain said, "Ok folks, we've got to land at the next airport because the airway is being used by another plane. We'll be down and up off the ground as soon as we can." Amtrak has a disadvantage because it doesn't control its network, and its network is not prioritized like airspace or freeway networks by state and federal government.

Our rail network is not built or optimized for passenger rail, but rather for freight. Faster trains and cheaper fares won't make up for the notion and reality that you don't arrive on time and that it takes longer than it should to get from city 1 to city 2. Europe doesn't have this problem.

That said, there really are some nice benefits of train travel: little to no lines to wait in (show up minutes before departure), no security checks, more eco-friendly, can be cheaper, and I think it's more relaxing than flying.

Why Open Science Failed After the Gulf Oil Spill

Great article by John Timmer over at Ars Technica on scientific uncertainty during an intensely political and costly crises.

One quibble, I don't think we can easily assume "Scientists, in general, just wanted the actual number" of oil being release into the Gulf, whereas all the other interests were political/economic. One can think of the intense and controversial period after Katrina in the engineering field, as engineers embedded in different institutions had conflicting results. The production of knowledge is always entangled with political, cultural, and economic relations. Scientist are not outside those relations.  

Do We Need to Talk About Climate Change, In Order to Talk About Energy?

I am looking forward to reading  provocative sounding new book Before the Lights Go Out. Koerth-Baker's short answer to the question above: no we do not; we do not have to agree on the "whys" in order to reach the same solutions. We'll see. The book comes out in April.

The Republican Brain: Why Even Educated Conservatives Deny Science--and Reality

Chris Mooney on the "smart idiot" effect:

The idealistic, liberal, Enlightenment notion that knowledge will save us, or unite us, was even put to a scientific test last year—and it failed badly.

Indeed, if we believe in evidence then we should also welcome the evidence showing its limited power to persuade--especially in politicized areas where deep emotions are involved. Before you start off your next argument with a fact, then, first think about what the facts say about that strategy. If you’re a liberal who is emotionally wedded to the idea that rationality wins the day—well, then, it’s high time to listen to reason.

Great article on why educated conservatives deny climate change and believe erroneous things. Answer: it's not a lack of education. So, all the time spent bemoaning education, arguing on facts, trying to reason may not be the best strategy. Truth with a capital T doesn't guarantee political success. I think the occupy movement has been able to use the statistical data of wealth inequality in the US, combine that with a strong narrative, and street politics, which has enabled them to move past the limits of evidence fairly well. Narrative matters. 

Not time to cut

Richard Harris at NPR reports that Congress might be planning to cut subsidies to the wind industry. 37,000 jobs could be lost and a nascent industry set back. 

When the tax credit last expired in 2003, wind farms took a big hit. But in those days, the wind turbines were largely imported. Now, the domestic manufacturing industry is growing rapidly. And that changes the politics.

and Gamesa VP says,

As the technology improves, wind becomes cheaper. Rosenberg says his company only needs four more years of tax credits, and it will be ready to compete without further federal help.

Heritage Foundation wants them ended,

We're $15 trillion in debt," says Nick Loris at The Heritage Foundation. "We have a robust energy market. And electricity demand and the demand to transport our vehicles back and forth is always going to be there. And I think that profit motive is incentive enough.

We're in debt, yes. But it is not time to cut clean energy subsidies. We need to find more ways to scale these projects and roll out new ones. At the moment, subsidies for producers and consumers help this goal.