By Daniel Rigney
cross-posted to Open Salon (Danagram)
We earthlings think and speak in clichés, those little cultural expressions we string together like colored beads to form strands of effortless thought.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
We couldn’t have survived as long as we have without our human treasury of clichés, platitudes, catch phrases, slogans and the like. These are the common coins of shared meaning that speed our thoughts and mediate our transactions. Today, through the magic of the web, even the most pedestrian thought can now travel around the world at nearly the speed of light.
One might argue that we virtually are our mental habits. Through the cultural routines and subroutines encoded in our neural circuitry, we learn to act and react habitually – almost robotically -- to the world around us. (Present company excepted.)
Luckily for us, though, we occasionally demonstrate the creative capacity to renew and transform our habits of mind when we absolutely have to, updating these with more sustainable routines as we adjust to unfamiliar changes in the world around us. Older cultural clichés yield reluctantly to fresher, more adaptive ways of thinking and talking about the world, and our inherited social institutions (the habit structures of societies) eventually give way to new institutions. And so we evolve together for better or worse.
The Twilight of the Carbon Age
Today I’m exploring some of the ways we habitually think and talk about energy and environment. Economically, we're still living in the carbon age. The internal combustion engine remains the machine at the center our industrial economy (no offense, computers), an economy still largely dominated by the oil, automobile, highway and suburban-sprawl industries, including real estate development and freeway enterprise. Or is it just Houston?
Our personal lives, like our economy, are driven by our addiction to carbon-generated energy, from the coal-fired electricity that lights our homes and workplaces to the gasoline that fuels our long and wasteful rush hour commutes. So dependent are we on our fossil-fueled way of life that it’s hard to imagine and talk about any other way of living. It’s as though the carbon car is driving us.
Lately, though, we’ve begun to notice warning signs. The carbon car’s check-engine light has gone on, and its temperature gauge is climbing slowly but steadily toward red. Meanwhile we speed onward through the smog.Climate and life scientists warn us with growing urgency that our carbon-driven way of life may be on a collision course with the laws of nature. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we expel into the atmosphere have crept steadily upward, trapping heat and resulting in ecological and climate instabilities that endanger the long-term survival of many of earth’s species, including our own.
The road ahead is full of obstacles and uncertainties, but one thing is sure. The carbon age is grinding slowly -- too slowly -- to an end.
At the heart of carbon’s failure is the phenomenon of global warming, which is also a global warning that we can no longer rely on fossil fuels to drive our lives.
Those of us in modern industrial societies have produced a sharp spike in greenhouse gas emissions in recent decades, and this self-created problem is becoming more urgent with every uptick in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere -- most notably carbon dioxide, measurable as CO2 ppm or parts per million, but also water vapor, nitrous oxide, ozone, and the potent methane.
Climate scientists warn that rising concentrations of atmospheric CO2 trap heat and warm the planet, increase the probability of climate turbulence, and intensify dangerously self-amplifying feedback loops that produce still higher concentrations of CO2. Vicious cycles of this kind may be triggered by the melting of light-reflecting icecaps, the release of greenhouse gases from thawing tundras, and rising water vapor and CO2 released by warming seas, among other factors.
The recent acceleration of polar icemelts suggests that human activity is already activating these vicious and self-amplifying cycles, and that these are likely to spin further beyond our control the longer we wait to slow them by reducing our reliance on carbon.
Let's hope there's not a fail-safe point, a point of no return beyond which anything we do will have been too little too late.
Thus we find ourselves living through what looks like an imperative shift from unsustainable industrial systems (capitalist, socialist, or more often a mix of the two) to sustainable systems. Industrial systems have been running mainly on dirty carbon fuels (coal, oil and gas), while sustainable systems rely instead on cleaner renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric power.
The transition to sustainability has begun. Whether we make that transition intelligently, equitably and wisely remains an open question.We homo sapiens are about to find out just how sapient we really are.
The transition from carbon to renewables will be stormy, and the laws of nature (and natural selection in particular) don’t seem to care whether we sustain ourselves through it or not, any more than natural selection cared about the souls of dinosaurs.
Nature’s seeming indifference to our survival makes the matter of sustainability our own responsibility. We earthlings, with all our tragic and comic flaws, must save ourselves from ourselves. We are now our own gravest threat. As the cartoon-philosopher Pogo says: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
We can’t afford to procrastinate on the road to renewables. The laws of nature will exact automatic and impersonal penalties if we do too little too late to change our course, and the human and financial costs of stalling are likely to be severe (e.g., severe heat, severe drought, severe storms, flooding and rising sea levels; and severe food and water shortages, creating political instabilities and sparking resource wars). Nature’s penalties will almost surely be even more harsh and costly the longer we wait to avert them. Future generations will pay the price if we don’t speed the transition now.
Precisely because it is uncaring, nature doesn’t accept excuses for tardiness, and it doesn’t have a sense of humor about our endearing human foibles, such as massive delusion and denial. Nature is not a person, and so nature is not amused.
Under these rather unpleasant existential circumstances, I believe we have no decent choice but to complete the transition to sustainability as smartly and soon as we can, for ourselves and our posterity.
I was surprised to realize recently that, short of cataclysm, many of the children born today are likely to live to see the 22nd century. (Do the arithmetic.) I wonder what kind of world they’ll be looking out onto.
At this historic pivot point, I wonder whether we have the wisdom and ingenuity to cultivate green civilizations that will leave the newborns of today a world worth living in. I wonder whether we have the imagination to create cultural memes that can effectively promote a renewable future for ourselves and future generations.
I use the term “meme” here its original sense, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins defined it in The Selfish Gene, and not in the trivialized cute-kitten-gone-viral sense.
Not that there’s anything wrong with cute kittens.
Memes, in Dawkins’ sense, are the “genes” of culture -- bits of culture (such as words or phrases, gestures, melodies, or visual images) that can be replicated and propagated through human populations by imitation or copying.
Memes are also sometimes likened to “viruses of the mind,” jumping from brain to brain through the many and varied channels of human communication. In our digital times, memes now spread largely through electronic social networks, and those memes that prove contagiously popular are said to have gone viral.
The virus analogy is a little misleading, however. We typically view biological viruses in negative terms, as conveyers of disease, harmful to their host organisms. But cultural memes are not necessarily harmful to civilizations. On the contrary, like genetic mutations, they sometimes prove useful and life-sustaining. We couldn’t live without our most vital memes, for they constitute our cultures. These are cultural innovations of the past that have somehow managed to endure (for good or ill) and propagate themselves to the present day.
So what, then, are “green memes”?
A green meme is any bit of culture that promotes sustainable energy and environmental practices. Like a good TED talk, it’s an “idea worth spreading.” The green memes we need most urgently now are those that might help ease the world’s difficult but necessary transition from reliance on toxic and non-renewable fuels to renewable resources.
New sources of renewable energy will coevolve with a culture that cultivates greener habits of mind than those we’ve inherited from the carbon age. Mental habits formed in the carbon-industrial culture rested on the false assumption of potentially boundless economic growth based on the exploitation of finite resources – what economist Kenneth Boulding termed the “cowboy economy.”
In that economy we could exploit our environments rapaciously with little restraint. We could despoil them. We could leave our messes behind and move on toward the next horizon. Or so people thought.
These plunderous habits of mind have now become dangerously maladaptive, and the meme of “growth” itself (crudely measured by quantitative instruments like GDP), now begins to seem tumorous and even malignant in a world of natural constraints. "More is better," the core cliche of industrial culture, is no longer a self-evident truth.
In place of the cowboy economy, Boulding called for a “spaceman economy,” which achieves a sustainable equilibrium and a high quality of life by conserving and recycling its resources.
How well we make the transition from a cowboy economy to a spacecraft economy will depend in large part on how soon the world’s natural scientists and inventors can create or improve the design, production, distribution and efficient battery storage of renewable energy resources. This will depend, in turn, on the public and private investment of heroic levels of funding and civic support.
Our transition to renewables will not depend on scientists and engineers alone, however, but also on the creative work of cultural inventors (potentially all of us) who can contribute green memes, products and services to the collaborative venture of creating sustainable civilizations.
Musicians and poets, earth farmers, you tubers, liberal artists, custodians of the infrastructure, gamers and game designers, students (K through 20), teachers, scholars, barristas, journalists and editors, comedians, cartoonists, buskers, lineworkers, talking heads, acting bodies, civil servants, laity and clergy of all faiths or none, progressive politicians and their speechwriters, oil changers, hybridizers, foodies, film makers, webweavers, bloggers, entrepreneurs, philosophers, sun worshippers, kitemakers, philanthropists, angelic investors, green product developers and marketers, geeks and nerds working together; employed, unemployed, underemployed and unemployable souls everywhere.
Creative citizens of the world, we can all be toilers in the vineyard of culture, seeding and growing and sharing the next harvest of green memes.
To these cultural inventors (you? each other? all of us?) we look for the clichés of the future. The time is now to imagine fresh iconic images and ideas – ideas worth spreading -- that will benefit earthlings of the 21st century, or what’s left of it now that we’ve wasted the first decade or so.
Classic Green Memes
In this open call for new green memes, I’m not suggesting that we toss every older meme into the landfill of cultural history. Many earlier eco-memes are still serviceable -- even indispensable -- to the creation of sustainable futures. “Sustainability” itself (or sustainism if you prefer) may turn out to be the most important word and idea of our time if we’re willing to explore it fully in all of its dimensions, including the philosophical and spiritual.
Many other memorable memes deserve a place in the green canon or hall of fame. I would certainly vote to include Rachel Carson’s disturbing depiction of a “silent spring” without birdsong; Donella Meadows and her MIT colleagues’ early exploration of “limits to growth”; the metaphor of “spaceship earth” proposed by Barbara Ward, Kenneth Boulding, Buckminster Fuller and others; Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” (though it’s really more like a global metropolis); E. M. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” (economics as if people mattered), and the maxim, dubiously attributed to Chief Seattle, that we should make every decision today with the “seventh generation” in mind.
Feel free to nominate your own green classics.
Visual images in the green hall of fame would surely include the first iconic images of earth taken from space, still visible on some Earth Day flags; the symbolic association of the color green with the ecology movement and the Green Party; Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”; and the now-familiar three-arrowed triangle symbolizing recyclability, often joined by the 3R slogan, “reduce, reuse, recycle.” My personal favorite (I’m a baseball fan) from earlier days: “Nature bats last.”
These and other classic memes deserve to be remembered, reused and recycled by future generations of environmentalists.
But we can’t live forever on the ecological watchwords and slogans of the past. Our creative challenge is now to grow our own gardens of fresh green memes, cultivating clever and useful new ways to think and talk about energy and environment before time runs out.
Tick. Tick. ____.
My Backyard Meme Garden
Today I’m starting my own backyard garden of green memes, previewed here. You’re welcome to borrow and spread any of these (like manure) if you like. I’m guessing that other phrase-makers have already come up with some of these independently, but no matter. As far as I’m concerned, this garden belongs to everyone. Let many memes blossom, and pick what you like.
What is your CO2 Number?
The more I try to educate myself as a concerned earthling, the more I find myself zeroing in on what we can call, for the sake of simplicity and viralocity,“the CO2 number.” “CO2 Number” is easier to remember and say than “carbon dioxide per million parts of atmosphere.”
For the centuries prior to the industrial revolution, the earth’s CO2 number generally hovered around 280. Last year in Alaska, the number hit 400 according to scientists at NOAA. The worldwide average continues to climb and may reach 400 by 2016.
NASA scientist James Hansen estimates, famously and controversially, that concentrations of CO2 higher than 350 parts per million (350 ppm) are hazardous to human civilization, increasing the statistical probability of life-threatening events and dangerous longer-term climate trends.
The bad news: We’ve already shot past 350. (At this writing, most the world has a dangerously elevated CO2 reading of nearly 390 and rising.)
The good news: Public awareness of the CO2 number is growing, maybe just in time for us to join the race to renewables and help avert global roasting.
Suggested meme: “Your planet’s temperature gauge is rising, and its engine light is on.”
Beyond safe levels, elevated carbon levels (think elevated cholesterol) threaten to set into motion a dangerous array of positive feedback loops or self-amplifying cycles in the global ecosystem, creating climate turbulence and other unpleasant things (e.g., global warming, increasing likelihood of hurricanes, flooding, drought and crop failure; melting ice and rising sea levels, submerging populated coastlines; thawing of the Siberian permafrost, releasing large soil deposits of greenhouse gases; an increase in water vapor and submerged CO2 rising from the oceans, causing further warming, etc.).
Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy ride aboard spaceship earth, as we go where no earthlings have gone before.
Let's personalize this. Do you know your own CO2 number ? It varies by latitude, and also seasonally (dipping as the greenery of spring absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, rising again in winter, to create an annual sawtooth effect). But if you’re like most people in the world, your typical CO2 number is getting up toward 390 and rising. You can look it up. (See the link above.)
Once you know your carbon number (just say “about 390 and rising”), you are unofficially licensed to ask others whether they know theirs. (Hint: It’s the same as yours.)
For added fun, contact your local news sources and ask them to publicize your city’s CO2 number as a regular feature in their weather reports. Urge them to display the trend graphically. (Send them to the link above.)
Then hold your breath and wait for them to do it. In carbon-centric cities like mine, the rising concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is the dinosaur in the living room. We'd rather just pretend it's not there.
Another crucial statistic – one I haven’t found yet but hope to find – concerns the proportion of the world’s resources now directed toward renewable energy research and development over time. It’s not enough to know our carbon numbers. We also need to know what we’re doing to replace carbon with renewable, sustainable energy.
I’ll bet these two numbers, examined together over time, will tell a revealing story. They’ll tell us how serious we are about leaving a habitable world to future generations, both near and distant.
So as ecologists continue to track the CO2 Number, I hope economists are busy tracking the RERD Number (Renewable Energy Research and Development, expressed in parts-per-million Global World Product). If reaching sustainability will require heroic investments in renewable R&D projects, then the sooner and more smartly we invest in such projects (e.g., see the MIT Energy Initiative), the sooner we may slow and perhaps eventually reverse atmospheric concentrations of CO2.
I ask you: In in this twilight of the carbon age, and the dying of the carbon dinosaurs, who could possibly oppose heroic investment in renewable energy R&D?
One way to think afresh about our world is to take stale catch phrases and invert them or give them unexpected twists, creating oddly familiar yet unexpectedly novel ways of thinking and talking. New constructions of this kind are called snowclones. Here are some pertinent examples.
We’ve all heard of “smart growth.” Start referring to suburban sprawl as “dumb growth.”
Refer to global warming as “turning up the oven,” “baking (or steaming) the nest,” or “boiling the frog.”
Around Christmas, start referring to the North Pole the “North Pool.”
Sport a bumper sticker that reads: “Earthlings on Board” or “Homo Sapiens on Board.”
Or one that reads: “The Forest -- Save It, Don’t Shave It!”
Refer approvingly to environmentally-aware Democrats as a “Blue-green Democrats” or “Teal Democrats.”
A partisan political ad might feature this recent gem from a California Mayor: “I may be a Republican, but I’m not an idiot.” (Apparently the mayor is both a conservative and a conservationist. Who knew you could be both?)
And then, of course, there’s the rich vein of comedic opportunity afforded by the word “fracking.” And please, no “horizontal drilling” jokes.
Anti-environmentalists could surely come up with a few of their own snowclones. The coal industry could launch a campaign with the tagline “A mine Is a terrible thing to waste.” Sarah Palin could welcome global warming with a rousing call to “grill, baby, grill.” But we’re not here to lend inspiration to the carbon right.
Care to make a green snowclone of your own?
The carbon industry has tried with some success in recent years to rebrand itself with the misleadingly inclusive label “energy industry” and to euphemize its products. Remember the "clean coal" campaign and the spiritual transformation of British Petroleum into Beyond Petroleum?
And when was the last time you heard an oil company refer to itself as an oil company?
The “energy industry” – known traditionally here in Texas as the “awl bidness” – has sunk relatively few resources into renewable energy, despite corporate image campaigns to the contrary. This is understandable. Pursuing ways to make renewable energy cheaper and more affordable would, after all, compete with the industry’s own deeply-sunk investments in hydrocarbons, including its reputed stake in the exploitation of world oil reserves large enough to cook the planet several times over.
But wait! Natural gas will save us. It's only about half as dirty as coal, and two-thirds as dirty as oil [if you don't count methane leakage].
And hydraulic fracturing and deep horizontal drilling can be done safely with minimal harm to water supplies [though these methods are themselves extremely water-intensive and depletive, and require the use of chemical "secret sauces" whose ingredients are withheld from the public.]
Natural gas will serve as a bridge to renewable energy, giving the energy industry precious time to develop new energy sources. Meanwhile the industry publicly affirms its support for renewable energy development [while privately resisting, suberting and lobbying against it].
Natural gas is economically competitive with other energy sources [if you don't count external costs or externalities not reflected in its price] and is far cheaper than solar or wind [so long as the industry blocks their development and the subsidies that could make them nore cost-competitive, as subsidies now help make gas competitive.]
For all of these bold reasons, gas is the answer. Earth is saved!
Thank you, GasMan!
To be fair, natural gas really is a relatively cleaner (read: less filthy) alternative to other carbon fuels such as oil, bitumen from tar sands, and coal; and gas probably must serve as a bridge fuel until more affordable renewable alternatives are available. Natural gas is already replacing coal in the generation of electricity in the US, and has the potential to replace coal in China and other industrializing countries with high and rapidly growing carbon emissions.
Nuclear energy may also be a necessary bridge fuel. With all its attendant risks (radioactive waste, the proliferation of nuclear capabilities worldwide, the potential for sabotage of nuclear plants, earthquakes and tsunamis, etc.), nuclear energy probably won’t toast us like carbon will, though I worry that it could microwave us to death on a bad day.But gas and nucular (as W says) are undeniably preferable to coal, if we’re forced to choose. The only thing dirtier than coal is more coal. So I say “half a lung is better than none.”
Okay, then, let’s replace coal (and oil) with gas where we can, as a stopgap, harboring no illusion that doing so is “saving the planet.” It’s not. It’s only postponing the problem of thermal pollution and climate change, as atmospheric CO2 continues to rise above its already perilous level.
On to 500!?
Suggested meme: “Switching from coal and oil to natural gas is like switching from unfiltered to filter cigarettes and calling it a cure for cancer.”
No doubt it’s better to smoke filtered cigarettes than unfiltered, but the sooner we quit smoking altogether, the better. Let’s not let natural gas be our excuse to keep smoking … just a little longer.
Some environmentalists are more concerned than I am about “fracking.” My own greatest concern about natural gas is not the industry’s growing use of hydraulic fracturing and deep horizontal drilling per se. Rather, my fear is that that the current celebration and joyful exploitation of shale gas discoveries in Texas and elsewhere will forestall, until it’s way past too late, the intensive funding of renewable research and development.
Gas will give us a convenient excuse to procrastinate on the vital path to renewables, but nature isn’t interested in our excuses. Nature is a teacher, and our homework is already late.
Richly funded carbon lobbies are even now at work to block funding of renewable energy in the interest of near-term profits. Consider recent efforts by the notorious Koch Brothers (suggested memes: “The Carbon Brothers?”; “The Koch Brothers Gang?”) to sabotage renewables, both federally and state by state.
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision, carbon wealth can now flow more freely and legally than ever through underground political pipelines to industry-owned politicians and legislatures, instructing them to subvert the transition to sustainable energy.
(I’m reminded of the story of the Texas legislator who was asked how he would be voting on an upcoming bill. He replied, “I haven’t been told yet.”)
Natural gas can and should replace dirtier fuels in the energy mix for now, even as scientists and progressive engineers pursue environmentally saner alternatives. But I fear that gas’s “bridge to renewables” narrative is actually a smokescreen the gas industry hides under, rather cynically, to buy time while it extracts all the fracking profits it can.
Am I being too cynical?
Meanwhile, the carbon industry continues to project images of beneficent concern for the environment, and for the well-being of future generations. My favorite oil commercial features ducklings paddling happily in a serene pond at the foot of a looming Oklahoma oil refinery.
Thank you, ConocoPhillips, for caring.
What’s needed now, in response to this sort of corporate branding and image-polishing, is a little creative counterbranding.
In the interest of pointed satire, I propose that we drill down deeply into the creative unconscious and discover ways to rebrand carbon, replacing commercial euphemisms like “energy industry,” “clean coal,” and “beyond petroleum” with more honest descriptions of what the carbon industry is actually about.
That would be … carbon – its discovery and extraction (upstream), its transport, processing, and storage (midstream), and its distribution and marketing (downstream) and subsequent expulsion into the warming atmosphere, where it remains for many decades, raising your great-grandchildren’s CO2 numbers.
We’ve long read and heard of King Coal and Big Oil. Soon we’ll be smirking about Big Gas. But with the rise of alternative fuels, I hope we’ll be hearing more in the future about Big Wind, Big Sun, and Big Steam or Big Geo, Big Bio, and Big Renewables in general.
I’m also hoping to see, in my lifetime, a championship tag-team match between Team Carbon and Team Renewable, or “Big New” as those in the sustainable corner will know them.
If that match were fought today, billionaire Okla-Tex gas baron Aubrey McClendon would be betting big and doubling down on hydrocarbons. Ridiculing what he calls the “fantasy world of no fossil fuels,” McClendon recently told a Forbes interviewer that the “reality is wind and solar can never be more than about 15% of our power requirements (and will likely never be cost competitive with natural gas)." [emphasis added]
But “never” is a long way off. In fact, “never” never comes.
Meanwhile I hear on the street that in the long run, the smart money is disinvesting in carbon and betting on renewables -- solar energy (meet Elon Musk), wind power, paint-on batteries, and other fast-rising frontiers of energy tech.
P.S.: Expect unexpected breakthroughs that haven’t even been conceived yet, such as hydroponic electrolysis and zorkoids.
* * *
So there’s this season’s harvest of green memes from the backyard garden, featuring the CO2 Number and the RERD Number; a few snowclones (“dumb growth,” “North Pool,” Teal Democrat,” etc.), and a call to rebrand the “energy industry” as what it really is: Big Carbon, and Big CO2.
Of course, no single green meme or future cliché will “save the planet.” But coming up with a few fresh and imaginative ways to grow a sustainable future probably wouldn’t kill us.
Why not grow some green memes of your own?
:] … pissing againt the hurricane since 2011