After a $14-billion Upgrade, New Orleans' Levees Are Sinking

Thomas Frank, writing in Scientific America:

The agency’s projection that the system will “no longer provide [required] risk reduction as early as 2023” illustrates the rapidly changing conditions being experienced both globally as sea levels rise faster than expected and locally as erosion wipes out protective barrier islands and marshlands in southeastern Louisiana.

A slow moving disaster in the making. Let’s hope the Army Corp. and the residents and decision-makers in all levels of government start addressing this now.

Here's How Paradise Ignored Warnings and Became a Deathtrap

More outstanding work by the Los Angeles Times, who has had some of the best Camp Fire reporting by any news organization. The LA Times Paige St. John, Joseph Serna, and Rong-Gong Lin II conclude

In truth, the destruction was utterly predictable, and the community's struggles to deal with the fire were the result of lessons forgotten and warnings ignored. The miracle of the tragedy, local officials now concede, is how many people escaped.

This is a brutally frank assessment of the socianatural origins of the Camp Fire, and how policy and human decisions factored into creating the highly vulnerable conditions. File this story in the “there is no such things as a natural disaster” bin.

Don't Blame Climate Change for the Hurricane Harvey Disaster, Blame Society

There is an old adage in disaster studies: "there is no such thing as a natural disaster." This article explains that idea clearly by arguing that nature and climate change are not driving causes of crises like Harvey, but instead the causes originate from social and political structures and human decisions. Kelman writes:

A disaster involving a hurricane cannot happen unless people, infrastructure and communities are vulnerable to it. People become vulnerable if they end up lacking knowledge, wisdom, capabilities, social connections, support or finances to deal with a standard environmental event such as a hurricane.

The socionatural disaster in Houston, as well as in New Orleans during Katrina, were largely caused by uncontrolled sub/urbanization, unregulated development of industry and housing, and as Michael Grunwald, writing in Poltico outlines, by Federal flood insurance policy. However, in Katrina we witnessed the failure of the structural, technological mitigation system and the failed political evacuation, rescue, and rebuilding, which all took its heavies toll on African Americans and the poorest residents of New Orleans and surrounding Parishes. We have yet to see the uneven toll that our social order has taken on the people of Southeast Texas. This will become more clear in the days, weeks, and months, and honestly years. 

What America Looked Like Before the EPA Stepped In

Excellent photo essay depicting how the United States looked before the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clear Air Act and Clean Water Act. To quote an environmental radical, former President Richard Nixon: 

Shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?

The Media Loves Doomsday Stories About the West's Water Crisis

Brad Plummer interviews John Fleck on the politics and empirics of the Western water crisis. Rather than doom and gloom, Fleck argues that when you look behind the headlines you find communities, users, and governments working to solve the problems. Fleck argues:

And the reason is that all across the West, when people are confronted with the fact that there’s not enough water, they’ve been really successful at using less. So rather than the catastrophe I’d been led to expect, what I found instead was people working hard to figure out how to adapt.

Water crises and their variability, Fleck argues, are not natural but rather: 

the difference has a lot to do with the socioeconomics of land use planning and infrastructure in poor communities.

Check out Fleck's new book Water is For Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West. 

Flint's Water Crisis Is A Blatant Example of Environmental Injustice

Sociologist Robert Bullard in an interview about the Flint water crisis:

In studying the history of environmental justice, you see over and over that it generally takes longer for poor communities to be heard when they make complaints. Government officials received complaints in April 2014 expressing that something was wrong with the water in Flint. If regulators at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had had to drink that water, or serve it to their children, their response would have been different.

Flint, Michigan's water crisis: what the national media got wrong

Connor Coyne, writing for Vox.com, on the unfolding of the Flint poisoned water crisis:

In October 2015, the state finally confirmed the worst of our fears: There was lead in the water after all. The city switched back to Detroit water, but the damage had already been done. We, and our children, were being poisoned.

The whole article is worth a read. It's part first person narrative and part sociological overview of the crisis. 

US solar power is still growing fast — but it's about to hit a speed bump

Solar only accounts for a small 0.6% of U.S. electricity but since the mid-2000s, thanks mostly to Federal tax credits and cheaper (Chinese) panels, solar instillation radically increased (mostly in California). In 2017, the Federal tax credits expire and as Brad Plumer explains, U.S. solar photovoltaic growth might hit a serious speed bump, particularly for residential installation. 

Image via vox.com

Image via vox.com

Will the solar boom be another false start–like the 1970s–or will the Federal government reinstate the subsidies before they expire in 2017? Will panels prices continue to fall, making unsubsidized or lower subsidies panels affordable? Will Obama's Clean Power Plan make the States pick up the slack? Question to be determined in the coming years.

Portland Now Generating Hydro Power in Its Water Pipes

A cool new way to get hydro power right under our cities, and they don't require dams.

The Lucid system taps the power of gravity in the city’s water system. Water flowing through the Portland Water Bureau pipe at 147th and Powell will now flow through four small turbines as well, generating enough electricity to power 150 homes along the way. The turbines are 3.5 feet wide – just big enough to span the diameter of the city’s water pipe.

Most Disaster Prone Places in the United States

Below are some great maps with types of crises. It appears simply geographical, but we must also remember the social factors that produce different and unequal experiences before, during, and after socio-natural crisis. The full article has a mouse over feature so you can look up each county of the United States for more fine grain detail.

Image via Washington Post

Image via Washington Post

CSU Chico Commits to Full Divestment of Fossil Fuel Holdings

Right before the Fall 2014 semester ended big news on the fight against fossil fuels came out of CSU Chico, where I teach: 

Chico State University showed immense leadership as one of the first public universities in the nation to commit to fully divesting from the top 200 coal, oil and gas companies within four years. The resolution, authored by members of Fossil Free California State University, was passed 8 – 4 by the CSU Chico University Foundation.

United States and China Enter Into Bilateral Energy Transition Agreement

An historic deal. We'll have to monitor closely to see what actually happens. Here is the gist as reported by Jeff Spross at ThinkProgress:

The pledge commits the U.S. to cut its emissions 26 to 28 percent below their 2005 levels by 2025. This builds on the current target of a 17 percent reduction below that baseline by 2020, and could actually double the pace of emission cuts set by that initial goal — from 1.2 percent a year to as high as 2.8 percent per year. The White House has actually been looking into the possibility of expanding beyond the 2020 target since 2013, and has been involved in occasional interagency meetings to that effect.

For its part, China is committing to get 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030, and to peak its overall carbon dioxide emissions that same year. China’s construction of renewable energy capacity is already proceeding at a furious pace, and this deal will require the country to deploy an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of zero-carbon energy by 2030. For comparison, 800 to 1,000 gigawatts is close to the amount of electricity the U.S. current generates from all sources combined.

In the US, with virtually no solid Congressional support, it will be interesting to see how such a commitment will fair in the short-term, let alone spanning multiple Congressional and Presidential terms. China, on the other hand, with a centralized one-party rule might be able to enable a more consistent and coherent energy transition strategy. It's also important to remember that most of the carbon in the atmosphere now was put there by Europe and the United States over the past 150 years or so. 

Is This Truly a Wild Life? Emma Marris on the Grand Canyon "wolf"

Emma Marris, writing on her Beacon wolf project, about the recently spotted "wolf like animal" in the Grand Canyon. What is the animal's potential fate? 

The first is that his or her fate will entirely depend on human values, human categories and human laws. Whether it is allowed to roam free, moved to a refuge or shipped south will depend on its genome—not whether it attacks livestock or not or any other fact about its actual behavior. This is despite the fact that it neither knows nor cares which category it falls into, and that it is highly likely that its individual personality is more predictive of its behavior than its species assignment. The only thing it can count on is being darted and tranquilized, because even if it is determined to be a gray wolf, agency officials will want to re-collar it. Is this truly a wild life?

Consider pledging and following Marris' wolf project. It's great stuff.

Climate Fair Share

Interesting new website (in beta) that gives a visual story of each countries emissions reduction targets. It includes both domestic fair share as well as embedded export emissions. I like how it begins with equity considerations. This quote caught my eye:

We demand action from everyone, but we don’t believe that everyone is equally responsible for the crisis.

Palau to Ban Commercial Fishing and Become Marine Sanctuary

 
Image Screen Capture of Google Maps via treehugger.com

Image Screen Capture of Google Maps via treehugger.com

Fascinating idea: moving from an extraction economy to a tourist economy by creating a gigantic marine sanctuary. Worth following this development. Bonus story: they will be using drones to help enforce the ban.

What if We Never Run out of Oil

 
The Atlantic

The Atlantic

Why waiting for peak this or that and waiting for doom and gloom is a bad strategy. Capitalists and technologists continuously find ways to circumvent "limits" and "barriers." We need to take on the inequalities and socio-ecological harms the fossil fuel economy creates, rather than wait for the system to implode. They're not waiting.

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.