Friday, July 27, 2012

Vacuuming the Atmosphere

My beef with the whole “solutions” thing comes from my travels around the country, talking on college campuses and such; there is this whole clamor for “solutions.”  The idea is, if you’re not optimistic enough, you should shut up.  But there are subtexts to all these things.  And the subtext to that particular meme is, “Give us the solutions that will allow us to keep running our stuff the same way we’re running it now, except by other means.”  They don’t really want to hear about other arrangements.  They want to keep on running all the cars, only differently.  You know, like hybrid electric cars, or electric cars, or cars that run on algae secretions.  But they don’t get that we’re done with that way of life.  The mandates of reality are telling us something very different.  They are telling us we have to inhabit the landscape and move around in it very differently in the future.
— James Howard Kunstler, in Rolling Stone, July 12, 2012

Scientists grasping at geoengineering straws to maintain a quasihuman technotopia into the post-Anthropocene have proposed a lot of bad ideas but occasionally something pops up that could conceivably work. Those in the latter category need to be put to the proof. We will have a closer look at one of those, but first a quick bit of background.

In 1989, when we were proofreading publishers’ galleys and drawing illustrations to go with our planned January 1990 release of Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What You Can Do, two new books came across our desk that seemed to confirm the importance of what we were writing. The two were Bill McKibben’s End of Nature and Steven Schneider’s Global Warming. The first we dismissed out of hand because it seemed overly prosaic and we did not agree with the premise — nature was not going away, although we humans well might.

The second gave us greater concern because, like Climate in Crisis, it put the science out there for the average person to read in terms that were easy to comprehend, and it told a story by scientific discoveries, in a sequence not unlike our own, from ice cores to better light bulbs.

With the hindsight of 31 years, we’d have to say we owe Mr. McKibben an apology — he was right and nature really is dying. Much of it is already dead. Our approach, like Schneider’s, was too cautious, too conservative, and too timid. We proposed that the “Peace Dividend” from the end of the Cold War be used to remake a clean, green, economic engine of sustainable development — a solar-powered future. Looking at that now it seems laughable: a technofetishist utopia. Back in 1989 we couldn’t really face the worst —the Venus scenario — it was too horrible. We described it, but then we went right back to light bulbs and Energy Star appliances.

In his recent Rolling Stone piece,  McKibben shredded many environmental groups’ strategic choices of the late 20th century, albeit acknowledging that the efforts had to be made if only to show them wrong:
This record of failure means we know a lot about what strategies don't work. Green groups, for instance, have spent a lot of time trying to change individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs. Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we're certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it's as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.

By now, we are in complete agreement with him on this point. Technofixes have to be seen for what they are — nostalgic longing for an extinct, Disneyesque futurism. Torus energy, biofueled airliners, Virgin Galaxy trips to the moon and desert cities encased in air-conditioned biodomes are all forlorn grasps at a tiny twig of what-might-have-been, as we plummet off the cliff face into a hellish post-Anthropocene.

Our most recent book, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, proposed a realistic and still feasible end run around the politicians and bankers by going straight for the farmers and homesteaders working to hold back the deserts. The Biochar Solution is geoengineering disguised as organic gardening.  It takes two fundamental human needs — food and energy — and provides the former much more reliably in the changing landscape of the 21st century by extracting the latter in an ancient, alchemical way. Nothing is needed by way of exotic metals, crystals or fractional reserve banking, and we know it works because Christopher Columbus and Genghis Khan both used it to reshape our atmosphere and climate once before. By reforesting entire continents (albeit unintentionally, as a side-product of genocide and mass-enslavement) they each interrupted “natural” warming cycles and brought about major cooling cycles — even minor ice ages — virtually overnight.

Less proven and more in the realm of exotic metals, crystals and fractional reserve banking is a strategy being proposed by a team of academics turned entrepreneurs led by Columbia University’s (no relation to the Italian navigator) Peter Eisenberger and Graciela Chicilnisky. They propose low-cost, high efficiency, air extraction (carbon scrubbers). They want to use artificial trees to vacuum the atmosphere, take out the CO2, and stick it somewhere useful, such as in lagoons, where it can grow algae for $0.40/gallon biodiesel, or in hothouses, where it can boost hydroponic pot yields.

If you remember Apollo 13 (The Movie), you might recall that the crisis Tom Hanks character faced was less the loss of oxygen than the oversaturation of CO2, which presented a life-threatening problem. Engineers on the ground improvised a way to join the cube-shaped Command Module canisters to the Landing Module's cylindrical canister-sockets by cannibalizing a space suit.

Later space shuttles had a carbon dioxide removal system that regenerated its sorbent, leaving no wastes. The metal-oxide sorbent was cleansed by pumping air heated to around 200°C (400°F) at 7.5 scfm through its canister for 10 hours.

Activated carbon, made from pyrolyzed biomass, can also be used as a low-cost carbon dioxide sorbant. Once the activated carbon is saturated the CO2 can be removed by blowing air through the bed, but that would create dirty exhaust, so a better method is to immerse the activated charcoal in a reactant like soda lime, sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, or lithium hydroxide that are able to chemically react and entrain the CO2. This is similar to the process we use when mixing sawdust or chopped straw fiber with lime putty in making lime renders and plasters for natural buildings. Over time, the carbon is incorporated into the hydrated lime, leaving a hard surface, just like limestone.

The scrubbers Eisenberger and Chicilnisky propose are ceramic honeycomb filters coated with immobilized amine sorbants (aminopropyl or aziridine-based sprays). Air is forced through the filters and the amines adsorb appreciable amounts of CO2 at ambient temperatures, and subsequently desorb the CO2 when temperatures are raised to 75-120°C (170-250°F). The energy to power the fans and heat the desorption process can be fossil-fueled, solar thermal, geothermal, or biomass (including Combined Heat and Biochar —CHAB— units). Using fossil fuels seems to defeat the purpose, but filters can even be installed on a coal or diesel power station and used to render the air from the smokestack cleaner than the air coming into the furnace from the sky.

The specific reactant agents are a trade secret, and the group has been ramping up its business under the name “Global Thermostat LLC” of New York. At the UN event in Rio, Eisenberger and Chicilnisky disclosed that their process would extract CO2 at the rate of 2 kg/kWh-e consumed. “Aggressive operational deployment is assumed to begin in 2015, a date believed achievable given the state of the technology,” they said. They projected that by 2040, with half of all new power plants in the world adopting the technology, they could be extracting 34 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year (GtCO2/y) for the remainder of the century. Worldwide land requirement at that extraction level is put at <300 km2, about the size of Malta. Their spitball estimate of net sequestration by 2100, if all goes according to plan, is 2400 GtCO2.

The “Terrifying New Math” as Bill McKibben titled his Rolling Stone piece, now takes on relevance to this discussion. McKibben says, “Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees. (“Reasonable,” in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter.)” He then points out that proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries that act like fossil-fuel companies, is a much larger number — 2795 Gt.

If all of the proven reserves of coal, oil and gas were to be burned by 2100 (2795 Gt), and at the same time the air extraction experiment of Global Thermostat were to be scaled up as Eisenberger and Chicilnisky project (withdrawing 2400 Gt), then Earth’s atmospheric parking lot would still have space for 170 more Gt before it hits the Kyoto limit of 2 degrees of warming (2795-2400 = 395; 565-395 = 170).

But, there are several reasons why this math is still fuzzy. First, there is no right answer, yet. The normal interglacial CO2 concentration is 280 ppmv, not 350 — McKibben’s target — or 390 and rising, which we have now. Methane should be at 650 ppb but instead is at 1765 ppb, 2.5 times higher than it has been for millions of years. Aiming for 350, or even just staying where we are, is probably not good enough.

No one has actually seen Global Thermostat’s scrubbers in action, and likely won’t, until there is some kind of emissions cap or price attached to carbon that forces coal plants to install them. Obama’s torpedoing of the Kyoto treaty at Copenhagen and again in Cancun and Durban assures that no such cap is waiting in the wings. Neither Mitt Romney nor Obama’s nominal successor, Hillary Clinton, seem likely to go down that road as long as their financial backers remain climate deniers. Without financial incentives, neither the buyers nor the sellers have a market for carbon scrubbers. Indeed, this was the central thrust of Chicilnisky’s presentation in Rio. She wanted Hillary’s “Green Climate Fund” (more recently called the “Green Energy Fund”) to be tasked almost exclusively to air extraction technology (aka “clean coal”). $300 billion is a suitably large stimulus with which to launch her small New York LLC.
We don’t really know what the Global Thermostat ceramic tree technology would cost, because we don’t know what is required to make Dr. Magic’s Patented Immobilized Amine Elixir, or how much Dr. Magic wants as a royalty for use of his patent.

However, Dr. Magic’s snake oil dispensary carriage is being overtaken by the central villain in McKibben’s piece, Father Time. McKibben concluded his essay with these words:

This month, scientists issued a new study concluding that global warming has dramatically increased the likelihood of severe heat and drought – days after a heat wave across the Plains and Midwest broke records that had stood since the Dust Bowl, threatening this year's harvest. You want a big number? In the course of this month, a quadrillion kernels of corn need to pollinate across the grain belt, something they can't do if temperatures remain off the charts. Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we're now leaving... in the dust.

The problem with trying to stop large scale climate change is that it may no longer be possible. We missed 150 years of warnings by Fourier, Tyndall, Arrhenius, Keeling, Broecker, Gore, the IPCC and many others. The warnings whizzed past like orange traffic cones, telling us the bridge was out, just ahead. Now we are sailing through space. We don’t know at what point we may have already triggered the shift to a new stable state, or what scientists call an attractor, that may be 5 degrees warmer than the Holocene.

If we are lucky, we can land at something resembling the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum which our (reptilian) ancestors experienced 55 million years ago, lasting 200,000 years, but for that to happen, the curve of acceleration for climate forcing positive feedbacks will have to reverse, and fairly soon, and given the current state of methane clathrate bubblings, off-gassing permafrost, summer ice loss, Atlantic Conveyor retardation, and more, even that discomforting Eocene 5-degree scenario seems implausibly Pollyannaish. 

As we told our readers 32 years ago, there is a 25- to 50-year lag time between when we reach zero emissions and the planet stops getting warmer. Put another way, the droughts, wildfires, extreme storms, and all the other manifestations of climate change we are experiencing now, in 2012, are the direct result of the muscle car and hot rod culture of 1962. In 1962 there were 50 million automobiles and commercial air travel was in its infancy. Putting a man on the moon was a Kennedy campaign slogan. In contrast, what kind of footprint do we have today, and what kind of mark is that making on the world of our grandchildren?

Rather than either embrace or reject the Global Thermostat process, we cautiously welcome air extraction as one more possibly helpful, hopefully harmless technology that could shave a few degrees off our sentence.

Air extraction by no means provides a license to keep the party going, as some at the UN event may have hoped, or to burn all those proven reserves. McKibben is dead right about this — those carbon reservoirs must remain in the ground if we are to stand any chance.

Air extraction, if and as it ramps up to Malta-size filtration farms by 2040, could also start pulling off radionuclides, which would be a good thing, taking us back pre-Fukushima, even to the pre-Trinity era c. 1943, when fallout referred to hair-loss. But, since no legislator has ever found a way to appropriate enough money to take nuclear waste from leaking tanks in repositories, overfilled swimming pools at reactors built on coastlines or earthquake faults, or any number of other death traps set to ensnare future generations, it is difficult to imagine spending taxpayer money on extractive radionuclide removal (never mind carbon dioxide). Will private business shoulder that burden? Show us the money.

We should remember that biochar and other carbon farming techniques don’t need CO2 emissions markets or a Green Climate Fund. They improve farm yields and drought resistance independent of the speculative price of carbon. They can be entirely market driven without stimulus, right now.

Our more practical strategy, as we outlined in 2006 in The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide, remains to increase climate and economic adaptability and resilience — personal, neighborhood, community and regional — while working to facilitate a transition to a saner social arrangement that promotes planetary healing. That could and should involve air extraction, and not just for carbon. We just use trees. Real ones.

We need to let Gaia do what she does best. If we can just stop wounding her further, she might yet recover. She has the will to do it, although, at the moment, that happens to involve a serious and most unpleasant fever. It took us, the two-leggeds, hundreds of thousands of years of compassionate living, in the aggregate, for a stable Holocene period to emerge from the chaotic climate regimes of all preceding times. We pushed the edges of that stability with our cities, redirected rivers, man-made deserts and agriculture, but we also helped her recover, bypassing and even protecting huge expanses of rainforest and sacred, untouched mountains.

The balance our predecessors struck with our mother was a delicate one, and in a mere 150 years we destroyed it, but that equipoise may not be yet beyond redemption. We just have to put the forests back and stop soiling our nest.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Toward a Unified Field Theory of the Elusive Kyoto Particle, or What the Green Party might learn from the Alaska Permanent Fund

"The Alaska Permanent Fund can be seen as a successful example of a universal basic income — a natural resource dividend. It de-externalizes the price of nature — our primary economy in the final analysis. It makes it possible, by valuating pollution and depletion of limited resources, to save whales and glaciers. And it builds a buffer against hard times ahead when drill-baby-drill turns dry-baby-dry."

“Sarah Palen’s Alaska — they use the oil revenues as a matter of legal right — everyone gets a piece. Where did that come from? It's ‘Maverick Country’ but there it is. They don’t do that in Texas, but, we’re going to do that a lot, elsewhere, when we get to where we’re going to get.”

— Gar Alperovitz, placing Dr. Jill Stein’s name into nomination for President of the United States at the Green Party National Convention, Baltimore, July 14, 2012.

As much as we would like for our personal lifestyle choices — planting trees for miles travelled, growing food on living roofs, constructing passive A/C, wearing clothes made from bamboo — to be enough to stop catastrophic climate change, we know that it’s not. Global effects require global efforts.

At the UN Earth Summit in Rio this past June there seemed to be two kinds of delegates. There are the hard-nose practical negotiating ones, who are trying to lay out a path to a sustainable world with technofixes, keeping consumerism intact and talking about the “green economy.” They are nearly oblivious to the connection between environmental and economic collapse, or the speed both are coming down the track and the distance between now and a brick wall. Call these the Reformers — they believe problems can be solved without system change.

Then we have those who demand paradigm shift and were staging unauthorized demonstrations, or blocking carbon trading or REDD+, patiently waiting for Godot or the second coming while chanting and burning incense. Or perhaps they are living in a tent in a city plaza somewhere, eating in the soup kitchen and browsing a dog-eared copy of Trotsky’s writings from the free library table. In Rio the UN went to great lengths to put distance and razor wire between them and the Heads of State.

You might call these the Radicals, or to be more charitable, the “Cultural Creatives.” They believe in sweeping system change because as long as our current arrangement survives, it will torpedo anything else. Capitalism is the problem.

If these two world views have anything in common, it is unrealistic hope.

Recently we made a short trip to Alaska, where glaciers are vanishing and Pacific tuna is radioactive. Walking the streets of Juneau, we happened to come across something that might actually shift the economy to something more sustainable then an intravenous liquidity drip from the Fed. We glimpsed a middle ground between Reformers and Radicals, between Liberals and Conservatives, between Doomers and Techno-optimists; or at least something that might buy negotiating time.

It's the Alaska Permanent Fund.

Shortly after the oil from Alaska’s North Slope began flowing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1976, the Fund was created by amendment of the Alaska Constitution. Twenty-five percent of proceeds from royalties were set aside in a non-governmental corporation to benefit “current and all future generations of Alaskans.” AFP is not a development bank for in-state projects but an investment vehicle. Whenever and whereever revenue from a natural resource is large enough, it can be invested in a fund like this, and dividends paid from interest on the fund. That’s the Alaska Model. Given a much smaller revenue stream per capita than that from Alaskan oil, it makes more sense to convert the principal directly into dividends and keep the current account small.

There is some irony here, because the State hired well-known cornucopian Daniel Yergin in 1984 to estimate the potential future value of the Fund and he predicted that oil prices would probably never go above $9 per barrel “for the foreseeable future.” About two weeks after that prediction, oil went to $60 and has never looked back. It occasionally shoots to more than double that. The first time it shot much higher it killed Lehman Brothers and nearly killed the United States. We could argue that it precipitated the Arab Spring, which precipitated Occupy, but regardless, it is all of a kin. We have been living on a one-time savings account accrued over 500 million years, and we spent the first half of it in 150 years.

courtesy of The Aden Forecast
More recently oil prices went a little higher, took down Greece and Spain, and seriously threatened the European Union. Every time it does that it throws a spanner into the global economic engine, and it sinks the Baltic Shipping Index, slowing deliveries from China to million-square-foot WalMart warehouses in Houston. Cash poor, China piles up coal freighters beside the docks in Guangdong and in central China the lights go out. That slowdown eases the demand for fossil fuels just enough to stabilize prices until the next political attempt at economic growth resets the marble at the top of the race.

Alaska designed a way out of that cycle. By banking on a diminishing resource, Alaskans virtually guaranteed that their Fund will always appreciate. It is currently worth about 40 billion and return on investment was 20.6% in 2011.

Each year the Fund pays a dividend to any Alaska resident, regardless of age or years of residency, if they lived within the state for a minimum of one year and weren’t convicted of a felony or served jail time during that year. The dividend is usually between $600 and $1500. Call that a basic income, albeit a small one.

Bucky Fuller (with David Blume)
R. Buckminster Fuller once said,

“We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living…. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing the nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist…. The true business of people is to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before someone came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

Whenever we read this we think of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who died a young pauper, unable to pay his rent, and we wonder, how many other Mozarts have we sacrificed to the Malthusian-Darwinian gods? How many potential Einsteins or DaVincis die of malnutrition because of the intransigence of our default economic arrangement?

Imagine now, as Climatologist James Hansen suggests, that we were to apply the Permanent Fund model to carbon in the atmosphere and the “green economy” initiatives that Jill Stein and the Green Party want. Maybe we wouldn’t have to wait for the death of capitalism to get a Kyoto treaty.

University of Maine Professor Michael W. Howard, in a new book, Exporting the Alaska Model, outlines it this way:

“The government … sets a cap on the amounts of coal, natural gas, oil, and imported carbon intensive products, at levels determined by scientific requirements for reducing GHG concentrations. Any agency or company wanting to introduce carbon in any of these forms into the economy would need to buy a permit at auction. The price of the permit will be passed along in the prices for fuels, and other products further downstream, and the higher prices for carbon will reduce demand and will make alternative energy more competitive. The auction will generate substantial revenue — hundreds of billions of dollars per year. While some portion of the revenue could be set aside for government spending, say for transitional assistance to workers displaced as a result of the higher fuel prices, in a robust cap-and-dividend scheme most of the revenue is returned to residents on an equal per capita basis.”

We want an atmosphere that is a healthy 290 ppm of carbon (350 is a weaker and less justifiable target, and a pre-industrial 290 would be better for coral reefs and Antarctic ice sheets). We could set limits on nitrogen, hydrogen, chlorine or fluorine while we are at it, but lets just run the C numbers now. The C concentration in the atmosphere needs to come down and it will do that on its own (in a century or two) if we just stop injecting more all the time. We can stop injecting more by one of two ways: making it an international crime and enforcing sanctions; or putting a price on licenses to pollute and steadily shrinking the supply of permits, thereby gradually raising the price until only the most cost-effective projects can compete.

In Rio, as in Durban, Cancun and Copenhagen before, many environmental groups and spokespeople — Indigenous Peoples Network, Climate Justice, Vandana Shiva, Martin Khor — were adamantly opposed to the notion of monetizing carbon, calling it a Pandora’s Box and a Ponzi bubble. We sympathize, but we think the chances of getting carbon criminalized are pretty remote, and we can’t see the world adopting eco-socialism any time soon, so option 2 seems like all we have to work with.

As Professor Robin Hahnel at Portland State University reminded us,

“To do this we need an international treaty that places mandatory caps on national emissions. Moreover, if caps are to be fair, then richer countries, which bear greater “responsibility” for cumulative carbon emissions and have greater “capability” to solve the climate problem, must be assigned tighter, or lower caps. However – and this is what many climate justice activists fail to understand — if national emissions are capped fairly then (1) carbon trading significantly reduces the global cost of emission reductions and thereby lowers political resistance to necessary reductions, and (2) carbon trading generates a large flow of payments from more developed to less developed countries. Which means the climate treaty negotiated in Japan in 1997 known as the Kyoto Protocol put the world on the right track, and it was a huge setback when the Kyoto framework was abandoned at the climate meetings in Copenhagen in December 2009 and replaced by a vague agreement to discuss voluntary emission targets.

* * *

“Instead of denouncing cap and trade and carbon markets, climate justice activists should have been fighting alongside reformers in Copenhagen to protect the Kyoto framework from its enemies and fix its flaws by replacing the outdated annex-1 non-annex-1 categories with a more accurate index measuring national responsibility and capability on a continuum known as the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework “responsibility and capacity indicator.” Based on readily available data this indicator requires high income countries to reduce emissions significantly right away, middle income countries to reduce emissions only after achieving a higher level of per capita income, and allows low income countries to raise emissions for decades while they struggle to achieve a minimal level of economic development. Moreover, by solving the problem of how to cap emissions in all countries fairly the GDRF indicator makes it possible to leave the difficult job of awarding emission reduction credits to national governments — freeing the international treaty organization to concentrate on the far easier job of measuring actual national annual emissions — and it protects the global emission cap from being punctured by any bogus carbon trading that does occur.”

There is a lot to unpack in that statement, and we have been doing that for the past few years in this space, but for now, lets just say, “its complicated.” Hahnel assumes a number of things that should not be assumed. Like, should all Indians aspire to drive BMWs? Who guards the emissions trading henhouse and who watches them? If we agree that even poor populations should have food, basic sanitation and health services, what prevents a corresponding population surge? And, how exactly do you induce high-income countries to reduce emissions significantly, right away?

Neither is the Permanent Fund without controversy. For one thing, it attracts vultures the same way the Juneau city dump does. The legislature smells money and circles around, rubbing its hands, as did Todd and Sarah Palin. Since the Permanent Fund almost always shows a surplus and the State budget almost always shows a deficit, the temptation of the vultures to dip in is great.

Most Alaskans (84% in 1999) disapprove allowing the government to tamper with the fund, especially if that means government might spend Fund income, but currently the Legislature has authority to appropriate all of the fund's realized earnings if it wants to. Annual proposals to limit legislative draws to 5% of the Fund have consistently died in committee. Still, voter wrath has so far deterred the vultures, and the Fund abides.

James Hansen, in the February 2012 AAAS meeting in Vancouver, trotted out his Permanent Fund for Carbon Dioxide. Polluters pay. Hansen suggested the levy be $5 per ton the first year, then $10/T/yr and $100 after 10 years. At $100, the consumer fallout would be an added $1 per gallon of gas purchased at a filling station or oil delivered for home heating (although the first year it would only be 10 cents).

At ten years, according to Hansen, just the United States would add $600 billion annually to their fund (others suggest lower numbers). Six hundred billion works out to $3000-6000 per legal resident, with half shares for children (up to 2 per family). Most USAnians, except the heaviest energy users, would get more back than they pay in increased prices. The average family would receive ~$9000/yr, which could be distributed electronically to a debit card. Call it a basic income.

Hansen also pointed out what others advocating cap and share, like the late David Fleming or Richard Douthwaite recited for more than two decades: it would spur incentive for innovation/reduction. At the end of 10 years, Hansen estimated it would drop fossil use in US by 10% — 13 times the oil supply from the tar sands pipeline.

Republicans and Tea Partiers rejoice! As in Alaska, such a scheme places no burdens on taxpayers or adds new bureaucracies to government. The spending choices are in the hands of consumers.

The Alaska Permanent Fund can be seen as a successful example of a universal basic income — a natural resource dividend. It de-externalizes the price of nature — our primary economy in the final analysis. It makes it possible, by valuating pollution and depletion of limited resources, to save whales and glaciers.

Suppose for a moment that instead of oil, Alaska had, back in the second half of the 19th century, imposed a levy on gold. For every ounce of gold removed from the ground, 25 percent had to be placed into a State Permanent Gold Fund.

From 1869 when the first mine opened, to 1985 when the veins were played out and mines closed, the fund would have accumulated 1.75 billion of the 7 billion ounces from the northern side of the southwest part of the state — the Juneau Goldbelt. At today’s price that would be worth over $2.7 trillion. Just the annual interest at a modest 5% would be $135 billion, or enough to give everyone in Alaska all those things that George W. Bush promised Iraqis (and enshrined in their US-written constitution): the right to full education, cradle to grave health care, FDR’s four freedoms, etc. Alaskans could have that basic security right now, based on the gold taken out of just the Juneau Goldbelt a century ago.

Alaska, relying on oil revenue to fund most of its state budget, abolished its state income tax. Alaskans cheered. However, that created a difficult choice for Alaskans down the road, when the oil revenue runs out. Alaska will either have to enact some kind of tax, which is not likely to be popular, or divert more funds from the dividend into government expenditures, also likely to be unpopular. Looking down that road, Alaska should start diverting more oil surtax or other natural resource revenues into the Permanent Fund now, building a stronger capital buffer against hard times ahead when drill-baby-drill turns dry-baby-dry. How about salmon?

The US Congress toyed with this idea at the start of Obama’s presidency, but it died at the hands of Mitch McConnell and Lamar Alexander’s scorched earth real politik. Contrary to claims by the Heritage Foundation and others that the 2009 American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act (H.R. 2454), also known as the Waxman-Markey bill, which passed the House, and a similar bill introduced by Kerry and Boxer, which died in the Senate, would cost thousands of dollars per household, both the EPA and the Congressional Budget Office concluded that average net household costs in energy price hikes would be more than offset by dividends gained. Typically, with a 100% auction and 75% rebate, at least 70% of households in every state are net gainers and the remainder have the highest incentive to innovate.

Where to set the rebate — 75%, 50%, 25%? — depends a great deal on whether you lean to neoliberal or neoconservative. Neoliberals would favor a lower dividend to put more program money into government-directed efforts to stimulate innovation in carbon-abatement, energy efficiency and renewables. Neoconservatives would prefer a higher rebate because then the choices — and research agendas — are market-driven. Not surprisingly higher rebates tend to favor the rich. Poorer households spend a higher proportion of household income on energy, even though they spend less per capita on average than upper income households.

A more progressive formula, also introduced in Congress but stalled by Republicans, would involve using 14% of the revenue to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) by 50%. Since the EITC is received only by wage earners, there would be no relief for unemployed youth, retired people, the disabled, and volunteers working for subsistence at charities, so this scheme has problems, although that is not why Republicans opposed it. Professor Howard suggests that those negatives could be remedied if the EITC were made refundable, i.e., converted to a negative income tax.

There is room for expansion in each case. The APF [Alaska Permanent Fund] could be redesigned to cover additional resources, and a higher proportion of the APF revenue could be distributed as dividends. Both the PFD [Permanent Fund Dividend] and a carbon dividend could be complemented by other basic income policies, such as a refundable Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). What is important about each, from the point of view of basic income policy, is that each is an unconditional income, funded from commonly owned resources. At the state level, and the national level, each can perhaps begin to legitimize the idea of citizens receiving income decoupled from work.”

Howard notes that a carbon dividend may be the easiest point of entry into American political consciousness of universal income decoupled from work or conditional entitlement. This is the Fuller paradigm shift, stealthily disguised. Howard says that once created, the carbon dividend would be resilient in the face of efforts to eliminate it, as is the dividend in Alaska.

What is not to like about a monthly check in the mail for every household? It could be a winning proposal for a Green Party candidate. Granted, this is not going to solve most of the challenges confronting our species. Would we ever consider auctioning off procreation rights and banking that money to provide life-extending universal health care? Would we ever try to degrow energy and gadget consumption, including solar server farms, on a Green Party platform plank? Unlikely. We are still crows, after all, and we have a fascination with shiny things. And, we are the only animal that soils its own nest or continuously invents new ways to mass-murder its rivals.

The Permanent Fund, or cap and dividend, is a middle way. It doesn’t get us out of the woods, but with a little luck, the innovation needed to find that path might just be liberated by some budding DaVinci not having to go out and earn a living.


_, Exporting the Alaska Model: How the Permanent Fund Dividend Can be Adapted as a Reform Model for the World , Ed. Karl Widerquist and Michael W. Howard (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012)


Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Leaving Rio de Janeiro, site of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, we mulled the meaning of what we had witnessed, but could hardly put it any better than Charles Eisenstein in his excellent summary, Why Rio+20 Failed:
You know folks, I’m a bit worried about my 16-year-old son, Jimi. When he was 13, he grew three inches. When he was 14, he grew five inches. When he was 15 his growth slowed to three inches, and no matter how much I feed him, now he isn’t growing at all past his current six-one. Could someone please tell me how to achieve sustainable growth for my son, so that he can keep getting bigger forever?

Eisenstein concluded,
Our consciousness has shifted from the early-20th century ideal of conquering nature. However, our institutions, whether money or politics, are not yet in accordance with our changed consciousness. They trap us into behavior that no one really chooses and render us helpless to avert our collision course with catastrophe. That is why it is so important to question the blind ideological assumptions — particularly that of sustainable growth — that underlie those institutions.

If there was hope from the conference, it was perhaps best expressed by Uruguay’s President José Pepe Mujia at the Plenary session. Mujia grasped the global problem and put his finger on what really holds us back.
All afternoon we have been talking about sustainable development and we’ve been talking about bringing huge amounts of people out of poverty. So what are we thinking about in all of this? The patterns of production and consumption that we aspire to at the moment are those of the rich societies. Now, what would happen to this planet, I ask myself, if the Hindus were to have the same numbers of cars per family as the Germans do? How much oxygen would be left to breathe? The world has today the material elements that it needs for people to live in adequate comfort. Does it have the resources to be able to spend as much as the rich societies spend and use or not? We need to have a discussion about this.

Our civilization has to do with competition and the market. Natural resources are an expressive process, but the market has produced mercantile societies that demand that growth be explosive. And it’s led to our globalized view of the world, and a globalized market. But are we governing globalization or is it governing us? Can we speak of solidarity and say that we are all pulling in the same direction when we have economies that are based on unfair and unsustainable competition?

… The process we have before us is so huge that it encloses colossal. This great process is not political. Man does not govern this. Man does not govern the forces that man has released. It is the other way around. Those forces are governing man and life because we didn’t come to this planet to develop ourselves in a material way. We came to find happiness, because life is transitory, it is very short. And life is what is fundamental. But if life is going to run away from me, if all I’m doing is working to buy things to consume more, if the society of consumption is the energy driving everything, where does this go? If consumption is stopped or reduced then the economy slows down, and if the economy slows down then there’s stagnation. But consumption is the very thing that is consuming the planet. And people want to sell more and more. So we enter the vicious circle of the throwaway society….

We need to fight for another kind of culture. … Seneca said that a poor person is not someone who doesn’t have very much but the person who continues to need more and more and to desire more and more. So it's a cultural issue.

So I salute the efforts that have been made here and the agreements that have been concluded. … [but,] the water crisis and the degradation of the environment — these aren’t causes. The cause is our model of civilization that we ourselves have set up. What we have to revise is our own way of living. My country has 3 million inhabitants, a little more, 3.2 million. But we have some of the best cattle herds in the world and the best sheep herds in the world. My country exports meat and milk products. Almost 80% of the land of Uruguay is suitable for farming. My brother workers were formerly working 8 hours but now they work only 6 hours. But they have to have two jobs so they end up working more because they have to pay for the all of the things that they’ve bought, the cars and other things. It’s like rheumatism that is eating away at the body and taking away life. Is this the destiny of human life?

Development cannot fly in the face of happiness. It should promote human happiness, love, human relations, relationships between parents and children and friends. Life is the most important. When we fight for the environment, the first element of our environment is human. Our human environment is human happiness.

This sounds remarkably similar to our central thesis in the book that launched this blog, The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide. Economists like Herman Daly and Robert Costanza have been harping on this notion for decades. Nate Hagens recently waxed eloquent on the theme while in Vienna for the ASPO meeting:
Our society — Europe and US and increasingly China and elsewhere — is habituated to high stimulation and high consumption. The key point I've learned from studying neuroscience and evolutionary biology is that it's the 'wanting' that drives our behavior, not the 'having'. And in our fast paced, gadget saturated world, our neural high water marks keep getting reset higher and higher. Every day we wake up expecting/needing a certain amount of dopamine/neural stimulation — and our culture has set us up to get these brain chemicals by consuming and competing for status using resource intensive ways. On a world with finite resources this is a problem as everyday people who already have everything they need, strive to get 'more'. This 'more' ends up being taken from other people, other species, and other generations. We have to find ways to get our evolutionary derived brain 'cocktails' in more benign ways.

Leaving Rio in pursuit of novel brain cocktails, we were borne aloft by the great steel condor who took a northwesterly course that allowed us to gaze down upon Lake Titicaca and the Nazca Lines before descending into the upper Amazon and alighting at Iquitos, a sprawling shantytown of Honda moto-rickshaws and crumbling buildings. The contrast could hardly be starker — between the shiny high-rise hotels, haute cuisine restaurants, and high-end hookers parading their wares off the Copacabana to the mud, stink, and sweat of an overgrown logging town struggling to cope with constant in-migration of rural indigenous peoples losing their ways as the jungle gets divided up and sold off in commodities of land, oil, timber, ore, fish and produce.

Riverside at Santa Clara

From Iquitos we moto’d the muddy track of Calle las Flores to Santa Clara and passed up the snaking bends of the Rio Nanay by wooden dory to a nondescript river bank that marked the start of a trail to the village of Tres Unidos. If you omit the lost luggage in Lima or having to drink airplane water from plastic bottles, this was our first real ordeal of the journey, a sweltering hour mud-slog along a river trail that had itself been river a few weeks before (with the Andes glaciers melting, the Nanay reaches higher in the rainy season than it has in the memory of village elders), to finally emerge, as if entering Rivendell, in a cluster of trails between grass-roofed buildings known as the Temple of the Way of Light (3.44.309 S, 73.21.458 W).

There we joined the company of a skilled permaculture team from Terra Phoenix Design, Dave Boehnlien, Doug Bullock and Paul Kearsley, who had been on the ground for many months and had produced a preliminary master plan for a model in Amazonian permacultural sustainability. The plan encompassed the various elements of the owners’ vision — the Temple, a healing center employing traditional Shipibo medicines and rituals, including ayahuasca; the Chaikuni Permaculture Institute; and a budding residential community, nee ecovillage. The entire site is nested within a local community of mestizo people, Tres Unidos, who are neighbors, employees and partners in business with the Temple community.

Living in the so-called First World, many of us would find the spare accommodations of these jungle lodges difficult, but we are used to this sort of thing, and our hearts went out to the stout porteros who daily trek in and out with heavy loads of rice, beans, water, toiletries, and all of the construction material — wooden planks, bricks, mortar, cement — from which the temple continues to grow.

The Temple ceremonies themselves follow a pattern established by the Shipibo healers, wherein at an appointed hour up to 21 “patients” arrive to one of the large malokas — thatch-roofed round auditoriums enclosed with mosquito netting — in which are arrayed an equal number of freshly sheeted mattresses, arranged in a circle. Beside each bed is an ashtray and a vomit bucket, and just outside one door is a bathroom in case the purge comes at the bottom end of the intestinal tract. Medicine is carefully administered in participant-specific doses, lights are doused, and the evening begins. After about 45 minutes, when everyone is experiencing the rush of DMT into the bloodstream, the healers begin to chant their ikaros. Each, and there may be as many as 7 “unis” (those with knowledge), will move around the circle from bed to bed, singing to each patient while they diagnose their needs and call forth spirits to aid in fashioning remedies.

Subjectively, the process for the patient invariably begins with an ordeal. The drink itself is somewhat unpleasant tasting. Within the first hour it produces physical reactions such as agitation, alternating hot and cold sweats, nausea, dizziness and vomiting. There may be quite wild and vivid hallucinations. It can be acutely uncomfortable and unsettling, even for experienced voyagers, but one passes through these stages and gains insights, heals from within, and usually emerges with a deep appreciation for what has happened.

We have a friend who is a veteran of the Sun Dance ceremony in the Lakota tradition of the plains Sioux. Although he is Mohawk, he married into a Lakota teospaye and adopted his wife’s traditions. The Sun Dance is a very grueling ritual and he is not a young man any more. His hair is gray like ours. He has much scar tissue on his chest where, after days of dancing, the eagle claws suspending him on leather thongs from a pole — the tree of life — tore loose and ripped through his skin. We can only imagine what it must have been like with the foreknowledge of that ripping open of his chest in a prior year to sit and have his chest pierced again, deeply, and the thongs lovingly attached once more.

There are rituals in both the Catholic and Islamic traditions involving atonement by self-flagellation. On the Day of Ashura some Shi’a whip themselves with metal chains and spikes in the Zanjeer Zani ritual of mourning for Hussein. In the Hindu pilgrimage of Sabari Malai, a journey of 40 miles over blazing hot ground must be made barefoot and the majority of those walking get blisters and cuts on their feet and knee and ankle sprains. The same for many of the Guadalupeños who walk, run or crawl long distances across Mexico each December to show their devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

In an interesting essay on the SubBondage Net, author Chris M. links these sado-erotic rituals to our human psycho-physiology. “Over the eons,” he writes, “our nervous systems evolved, at least in part, to rescue us from bad situations. Upon injury, the nervous system jabs the brain with a message guaranteed to grab attention. Pain. It jolts the human beast into immediate action — a roaring scream, sudden spasmodic motion, fight or flight — all good things if, lets say, a saber tooth tiger takes an experimental bite of your posterior. Here's why it matters to us: To keep pain from crushing your ability to react, the brain floods the body with pain fighting natural opiates, hormones, enzymes, and adrenaline. And as any well-seasoned bottom knows, this response produces all sorts of fun. Feelings of excitement, arousal, clarity, even out of body or dream states. In short, the body's natural response to injury can be harnessed to create intense and mysterious sensations. When framed and emphasized by rites and rituals these natural responses would naturally be ascribed to supernatural powers.”

Brown rice diets, giving up pleasures for Lent, asceticism, hermitage, celibacy, hair shirts, fasting, and vows of silence and/or poverty have much in common with marathons, extreme sports, martial arts, the Whirling Dervishes, the Aboriginal walkabout, hard labor, boot camp, fraternal pledge hazing and body building. The common theme is ordeal. You can sometimes reach a mountain summit by auto-road, chair-lift, gondola or cog railway, but even with the great views of distant peaks and valleys, it is not the same experience and exhilaration, or the sense of self-reward that follows a long, exhausting hike or rope-work over difficult terrain.

So each time we resolve to “never again” punish ourselves with such sacrifice, pain, fatigue and sweat, we wipe all that resolution away in the instant that we reach our goal, when we have our moment of light and love and ecstatic remembrance that this is what life is all about. This is what we are here for. As José Pepe Mujia reminded us, whatever we do should promote human happiness, love, human relations, relationships between parents and children and friends.

Perhaps the pain and disappointment of Rio+20 and all the other conferences that promised so much and delivered so little are mere ordeal, the prelude to the ultimate awakening. We can only hope so, because from within the moment of the ordeal, all we ever have to go on is faith and perseverance.




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