Archive for May, 2006

>Be Prepared

2006/05/31 1 comment

>by Charley Reese

King Features Syndicate (May 19 2006)

One of the most pervasive and damaging myths in modern society is the belief in perpetual economic growth. Like the perpetual-motion machine, perpetual economic growth is an impossibility.

This notion is particularly difficult to dislodge from the American mind because economic growth has been part of our lives. We’ve seen it with our own eyes. Of course, part of what we’ve seen is an illusion of growth created by gradual devaluation of the currency and statistical games played by the government.

But nevertheless, there has been real economic growth, and it has been powered by cheap fossil-fuel energy. “Cheap” is the operative word here. Subtract cheap fossil-fuel energy, and the life we know will be altered drastically – perhaps, if we don’t prepare for it, catastrophically.

For 99 percent of the time man has been on Earth, he has had to rely on human and animal energy,
with some assistance from water and wind. The bulk of civilization was built with human labor, which is why slavery came into existence and lasted so long. When the planet was thinly populated, human labor was a valuable resource and became part of the booty in war. Right now, the planet is overpopulated, and there is a surplus of labor.

But our cheap fossil-fuel energy is on the verge of running out. According to essayist Wendell Berry, 99 percent of the oil burned has been burned in the lifetime of people still living. Something that took nature thousands of years to create is being consumed in decades. Oil production in the lower 48 of the United States peaked in 1970. It will begin to peak in various foreign countries in the not-too-distant future. At the same time, more and more nations are attempting to industrialize. Hence, competition for the dwindling supply will increase. At best, that will bid the price up, and at worse cause oil wars.

How did the notion that six billion people couldn’t deplete Earth’s resources ever get started in the first place? The constants in human nature throughout history have been selfishness, greed and a willingness to sacrifice the future for short-term gain. That’s exactly what we are doing by laying a trillion dollars’ worth of debt on our posterity.

Another concept we need to understand is the difference between ephemeral or temporary value and permanent value. The permanent value of a house is the land on which it is built and the labor and materials used to build it. The market value is a temporary and ghost value. It does not even really exist until the moment the house is sold. It is based on what people are willing to pay and on what the owner is willing to sell for. That can fluctuate. In the late 1920s, Florida land that sold for $6,000 an acre almost overnight couldn’t be sold for $2 an acre. People who lived through the Great Depression can tell you a lot about the myth of perpetual growth. That wasn’t the first economic upheaval, and it won’t be the last.

Energy represents a temporary value. Until it’s used, it has no value, but to use it is to destroy it. Military expenditures represent yet another ghostly and temporary value. A bomb has no value at all until it is used, but it is used to destroy human life and human property, and is destroyed itself in the process. War is always a net subtraction of human wealth.

Paper is another impermanent value. If you think the paper your shares of stock are printed on has any permanent value, ask the people at Enron, who one day were well off and the next day were flat broke.

We just need to start thinking about the post-cheap-energy era. If your house, for example, is 25 miles from work, what will happen to its market price if gasoline is $6 a gallon? What will happen to public education if cheap energy becomes a thing of the past, as it surely will? Can we then afford to power the buses and the air conditioners and the lighting?

I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but the Boy Scouts are right about being prepared.

Copyright (c) 2006 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>The Inspectors Who Look the Other Way

>Why won’t anyone enforce our building standards?

by George Monbiot

Published in the Guardian (May 30 2006)

For 21 years builders in this country have been legally bound to construct homes which conserve energy. The building regulations tell them how much insulation they must use, what kind of windows they must fit and how good their draught-proofing will be {1}. Guess how many builders have been prosecuted in that period for non-compliance. I won’t keep you in suspense. The answer is none {2}.

There could be only one good reason for this: that they are building houses so well that enforcement is unnecessary. But a study conducted by the Building Research Establishment, looking at just one factor (the rate at which cold air leaks in) found that 43% of the new houses it checked should have been failed by the inspectors {3}. All of them had been passed. In some homes the requisite amount of insulation had been left in the lofts, but it was still tied up in bales {4}. No one has been prosecuted because no one gives a damn.

A new survey of the people who are supposed to enforce our building rules – building control officers – published this month by the Energy Efficiency Partnership for Homes found that they treat the energy rules as a joke {5}. Part of the problem is that since their profession was deregulated, many of them are involved in a standing conflict of interest. In the past, building control officers were employed by the council. Today builders hire “approved inspectors” to certify their houses. If the inspectors are too tough, they won’t be hired again. As the major parties compete to cut red tape, businesses are seldom prosecuted for anything, let alone such a petty misdemeanor as killing the planet.

Even if the officers wanted to enforce the rules, it is hard to see how they could. They inspect homes only towards the end of construction, when it is too late to see what’s inside the walls. But the biggest problem appears to be their attitude. Several of them told the survey that they saw energy efficiency as a “trivial” matter, and would never dream of witholding a certificate because a house wasn’t properly insulated. They saw their real job as ensuring that houses won’t fall down or catch fire. No one was going to sue them if a building they had approved leaked heat. Poor energy efficiency, some of them said, is “not life threatening” {6}. Oh really?

In a letter to the Independent last week, Tadesse Dadi, an Ethiopian relief worker, reported that “we have not needed to wait for graphs to prove climate change is hurting us. We have seen it in increasing floods and droughts and decreasing and less predictable rainfall. These disrupted seasonal patterns leave millions at risk of starvation … An 82-year-old farmer in northern Ethiopia, Mr Mengesha, recently told me that thirty years ago his harvest lasted his family for more than two years, but now erratic rains mean his sons barely harvest enough to last them seven months.” {7} His observations are supported by the science. Last year a paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society showed that “warm sea surface temperature[s] … in the southern equatorial Indian Ocean produce an anomalous circulation that reduces rainfall” in Ethiopia. The short rains there have “fallen off consistently since 1996” as a result {8}. The Stern review on climate change, which the government will publish in October, will show that temperatures in Africa are likely to rise about twice as fast as those in the rest of the world {9}. I know it still seems improbable that shoddy building work in Exeter will kill people in Ethiopia, but this is the weird reality the science of climate change forces us to accept.

In fact a failure to enforce the building rules is perhaps more consequential than any other climate-changing policy. It guarantees high carbon emissions throughout the life of the buildings. Unless the inspectors start doing their jobs, the polluting legacy of the 200,000 new homes the government wants us to build every year will be far more deadly than nuclear waste.

Yvette Cooper, the housing minister, boasted this month that “energy efficiency standards are forty percent higher than in 2002” {10}. That is not true {11}. But even if it were, they are worthless if builders know that they will never be enforced. She also flourishes her new voluntary “code for sustainable homes”, which urges builders to go green {12}. It is hard to think of a better means of reinforcing the impression that energy efficiency is trivial. We don’t have a voluntary code to prevent our houses from falling down. More constructively, she wants inspectors to be given more time in which to prosecute. Unfortunately, as the survey shows, they won’t use it. The officers still have every incentive not to uphold the law.

But I can support the government when it says it wants to “simplify and streamline” the building regulations {13}. My suggestion is that it reduces them to one sentence. “By 2010, no house in this country shall be built with a heating or cooling system”.

This sounds ridiculous, outrageous. Does Monbiot want us all to freeze to death? Far from it. In Germany there are now some 4000 homes built to the “passivhaus” standard {14}. A passivhaus is a house without radiators, fan heaters, stoves, air conditioners or any other kind of heating or cooling device. The only heat it requires is produced by sunlight coming through the windows and by the bodies of the people who live there. A study of over 100 passive homes showed they had a mean indoor temperature of 21.4 degrees during the bitter German winter {15}. That’s 2.4 degrees warmer than the average British home {16}.

All that distinguishes them from other houses is that they are built properly. They are airtight (the air which enters the house comes through a heat exchange system) and have no “thermal bridges” – material which can conduct heat from the inside of the house to the outside. The windows are matched carefully to the volume of the house. Because they have no active heating systems, they are not much more expensive to build than ordinary houses. A development of twenty homes in Freiburg, with a measured energy saving of 79%, cost just seven percent more than a typical building of the same kind {17}.

I fail to see why the passivhaus cannot become a universal standard. But this standard – like all those the government might propose – will be a waste of time until our building control officers are forced to do their jobs properly. What is the point in investing in nuclear power, or any other generating technology, if we can’t sort out something as simple as this?

The New Statesman reveals that in 1988, when Tony Blair was shadow energy secretary, he launched a passionate attack on the Conservatives’ climate policies. “What is unbelievably depressing about the government’s response”, he said, “is that they see, in the evidence about greenhouse gases, not an opportunity to promote environmental concern but a chance to make the case for nuclear power … Having made a big issue of the greenhouse effect, it became clear that energy efficiency was the best way to deal with it, but … the government’s position has been characterised by a malign reluctance to have anything to do with the notion of energy conservation”. {18} What better description of his own legacy could there be?


1. Part L of the building regulations was first introduced in 1985. The latest version is available at

2. Andrew Warren, March 2006. Time to Put a Stop to the Disdain for Regulations. Energy in Buildings and Industry magazine.

3. P Grigg, 10th November 2004. Assessment of energy efficiency impact of Building Regulations compliance. Building Research Establishment. Report for the Energy Savings Trust and Energy Efficiency Partnership for Homes.

4. Professor David Strong, 14th September 2005. Presentation to “resource 05” – a conference organisated by the Building Research Establishment. BRE, Watford.

5. AEA Technology, May 2006. Compliance with Part L1 of the 2002 Building Regulations. The Energy Efficiency Partnership for Homes.

6. ibid.

7. Tadesse Dadi, 26th May 2006. For farmers in Africa, the climate change disaster has started. Letter to the Independent.

8. James Verdin, Chris Funk, Gabriel Senay and Richard Choularton, 29th November 2005. Climate science and famine early warning. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Vol 360, pages 2155-2168.

9. Paul Vallely, 16th May 2006. Climate change will be catastrophe for Africa. The Independent.

10. Yvette Cooper, 17th May 2006. Green Alliance Speech, Haberdashers Hall.

11. The standards are actually forty percent higher than in 1997. On paper, they are 25% higher than in 2002.

12. See Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 4th December 2005. Code for Sustainable Homes – consultation document.

13. Statement from Department for Communities and Local Government, sent to me 26th May 2006.

14. H.F. Kaan and B.J. de Boer, January 2006 Passive Houses: Achievable Concepts For Low CO2 Housing. Paper presented to the ISES conference 2005, Orlando, USA.

15. J?rgen Schnieders, CEPHEUS – Measurement Results from More Than 100 Dwelling Units in Passive Houses. May 2003. Passive House Institute.

16. Department of Trade and Industry, 2005. Energy: its impact on the environment and society. Chapter 3, page 9.

17. Peter Cox, Winter 2005/6. Passivhaus. Building for a Future Magazine, page 19.

18. Jonathan Leake, 29th May 2006. The nuclear wisdom of young Blair. New Statesman.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Eat Your Lawn

2006/05/30 1 comment

>The Lawn Racket

by Stan Cox

Counterpunch (May 22 2006)

Now that May is here, perhaps you’re looking out at your lawn and thinking it needs mowing. Instead, you might want to think about whether you need that lawn at all.

The problem isn’t grass. Humans first lived on the grasslands of Africa, and until not so long ago, grasslands covered far greater swaths of North America than they do now.

But landscapes like those bear little resemblance to the classic American lawn – an industrial, shocking-green carpet whose very survival depends on our polluting the environment and disturbing the peace.

Other kinds of home landscapes can grow pollution-free. A natural-yard movement is showing that combinations of rugged plants, including grasses, can be far more interesting than a standard lawn while requiring little mowing, no spraying or fertilizing, and even no irrigation.

By contrast, the “perfect” lawn is a monotony of color and texture, yields no useful harvest, and may rarely even be trod upon. But for growing the lawn-care industry a crop of hard cash, the synthetic grasslands of suburbia are fertile ground indeed. To replace all of that high-maintenance turf with something more resilient – to stow all that equipment and dispose of all those chemicals – would cause a $35 billion industry to wither.

Among the industry,s ever-proliferating lines of new-and-improved products, the most visible – and audible – are those that replace muscle power with fossil-fuel power. The lawn mower has undergone what is probably the most astounding metamorphosis, the larger commercial versions now resembling a hybrid between lunar rover and La-Z-Boy recliner.

Despite tightened regulations, mowers are still serious polluters. On average, 2006 lawnmower engines contribute 93 times more smog-forming emissions per gallon of fuel than do this year’s cars, according to the California Air Resources Board. For homeowners, a little electric mower may seem clean, but its cord likely leads back to a coal-fired power plant that belches global-warming carbon dioxide.

And other gas and electric contraptions, like leaf blowers and string trimmers, have joined mowers to make Saturday afternoon in suburbia sound more like Monday morning in a sawmill.

Meanwhile, the nearly universal creed for weed and pest control has become “let us spray”. The Environmental Protection Agency says pesticide use in the home-and-garden sector, once in decline, has grown by more than 25 percent since 1995. Herbicide use almost doubled between 1982 and 2001, and continues to grow.

Of the thirty most commonly used lawn pesticides, 29 are toxic to birds, fish, amphibians and/or bees {1}. Environmental groups have raised the biggest clamor over the herbicide 2,4-D, which a growing number of studies show to be a possible contributor to non-Hodgkins lymphoma and other cancers.

Whether or not they use pesticides, homeowners know the only way to get a lawn as deep-green and uniform as a pool table is to pour on fertilizer and water. Much of that fertilizer washes right past the shallow roots of lawn grasses and into storm drains.

One Minnesota study showed that “lush lawns are more of a water quality problem than poorer turf lawns”, because of phosphorus runoff {2}. Some states and communities have restricted fertilizer use, and many others are considering it.

In a 2003 look at the lawn industry, Paul Robbins and Julie Sharp of Ohio State University cited studies showing that to homeowners, “property values are clearly associated with high-input green-lawn maintenance and use”, so many Americans have “associated moral character and social responsibility with the condition of the lawn”.

How can a patch of ground that delivers fertilizer-laden pollution into streams, greenhouse gases and a terrible racket into the atmosphere, and pesticide residues into the neighbor’s dog – and probably the neighbor – come to embody “moral character and social responsibility”?

Last summer, my family and I removed our front lawn and replaced it with an “edible landscape” of fruit trees, berry bushes, herbs and other plants as part of a project by our local art center and Los Angeles artist/architect Fritz Haeg {3}.

We’ve been asked plenty of questions about this move, the two most common being, “What do your neighbors say?” and “Has the city fined you?”

Our answers: “They like it” and “No”.

But fears like these still keep Americans from ditching their lawns.





Stan Cox, a plant breeder and senior scientist at the Land Institute, Salina, Kansas, wrote this for the institutes Prairie Writers Circle. He can be reached at

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>The Origins of Anti-Litter Campaigns

>by Bradford Plumer (May 22 2006)

I’ve never known anyone who was objectively pro-litter. Litter’s awful. It’s disgusting. We’re all agreed. But it seems that the nationwide anti-litter campaign, which began in the 1950s, was a bit less pure in its origins. According to Heather Rogers’ Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage (New Press, 2005), the entire anti-litter movement was initiated by a consortium of industry groups who wanted to divert the nation’s attention away from even more radical legislation to control the amount of waste these companies were putting out. It’s a good story worth retelling.

After World War II, the story goes, American manufacturers were running at full blast, and needed American consumers to keep buying more and more junk if they wanted to maintain their profit margins. And since there’s an upper limit to how much junk a given family genuinely needs to own, manufacturers had to figure out how to convince consumers to keep throwing their existing stuff out, so that they would buy new stuff.

In part, that meant companies had to ensure that in a few short years consumer goods would become either unfashionable (advertising can do that), or obsolete (simply stop offering customer support for anything a few years old), or broken (like the non-replaceable batteries in iPods that wear out after two years). Giles Slade describes some of these strategies in his book, Made to Break (Harvard, 2006), and they’re techniques that have existed for decades now. But another way to ensure that factories could keep churning out junk was to introduce “non-renewable” packaging for products – for instance, the aluminum soda can – that could be produced, trashed, and then produced again.

The problem is that all of this endless – and needless – manufacturing creates a lot of garbage and pollution that generally wreaks havoc on the earth. (Packaging currently accounts for one-third of all trash in the United States today.) And eventually people wised up to this fact. In 1953 Vermont passed a law banning “throwaway bottles”, after farmers complained that glass bottles were being tossed into haystacks and being eaten by unsuspecting cows. Suddenly, state legislatures appeared poised to pass laws that would require manufacturers – and the packaging industry in particular – to make less junk in the first place. Horrors.

So that’s where litter comes in. In 1953, the packaging industry – led by American Can Company and Owens-Illinois Glass Company, inventors of the one-way can and bottle, respectively – joined up with other industry leaders, including Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company to form Keep America Beautiful (KAB), which still exists today. KAB was well-funded and started a massive media campaign to rail against bad environmental habits on the part of individuals rather than businesses. And that meant cracking down on litter. Within the first few years, KAB had statewide antilitter campaigns planned or running in thirty-two states.

In essence, Keep America Beautiful managed to shift the entire debate about America’s garbage problem. No longer was the focus on regulating production – for instance, requiring can and bottle makers to use refillable containers, which are vastly less profitable. Instead, the “litterbug” became the real villain, and KAB supported fines and jail time for people who carelessly tossed out their trash, despite the fact that, clearly, “littering” is a relatively tiny part of the garbage problem in this country (not to mention the resource damage and pollution that comes with manufacturing ever more junk in the first place). Environmental groups that worked with KAB early on didn’t realize what was happening until years later.

And KAB’s campaign worked – by the late 1950s, anti-litter ordinances were being passed in statehouses across the country, while not a single restriction on packaging could be found anywhere. Even today, thanks to heavy lobbying by the packaging industry, only twelve states have deposit laws, despite the fact that the laws demonstrably save energy and reduce consumption by promoting reuse and recycling. (A year after Oregon passed the first such law in 1972, 385 million fewer beverage containers were consumed in the state.) And no state has contemplated anything like Finland’s refillable bottle laws, which has reduced the country’s garbage output by an estimated 390,000 tons. But hey, at least we’re not littering.

So it’s a nifty judo throw, as far as it goes. I’m guessing that much the same thing is behind industry promotion of recycling. Again, no one can be “against” recycling. It’s very good. But of the three suggestions in the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, the last is the practice least effective in curbing the manufacturing of junk. And that’s exactly why, during the environmental movement’s peak in the 1970s, the industry-funded National Center for Resource Recovery – which was founded by none other than Keep America Beautiful – lobbied state and national legislators to favor recycling as the means to address concerns about rising tides of garbage. It beat forcing people to “reduce” or “reuse”.

The catch is that recycling can probably only do so much to limit garbage production. As Rogers’ book points out, many materials can’t be recycled too often before it gets junked, and a vast amount of material marked for recycling simply gets trashed anyway, or is sent overseas to be dumped. Recycling certainly has very considerable upside, not least of which is that recycled stuff requires vastly less energy to create than making new junk from scratch, but it’s only a partway solution to reducing the 230 million tons of trash generated by this country each year, if that’s what people think should be done. A longer-term solution is to stop creating so much junk in the first place. Essentially, though, that’s what ideas like litter prevention are meant to obscure.

Posted by Bradford Plumer on 05/22/06 at 02:48 pm


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Rogers book also has a nice demonstration of the problem with plastics recycling, where the profusion of materials and numbers, combined with the inability of many localities to recycle all varieties, leads to recycling inaction, despite what is ostensibly consumer information designed to aid recycling. Mixing plastics types in packaging – like the cap and ring of plastic soda bottles – starts looking like cynical nose-thumbing at people who want to do at least a little.

Posted by: allen claxton on 05/22/06 at 03:48 PM

Ok. Meet me. I am very much pro-litter and active in littering. And actively try not to use “non-renewable packaging”, or else prefer “disposable packaging”. I wonder why exactly “the aluminum soda can” just out of the prodcution line is not “junk”, but becomes “junk” as it’s littered, this defination of “junk” was not objectively coined or was industrially biased, I always felt.

Posted by: Tasneem on 05/23/06 at 03:45 AM

This article has been made possible by the Foundation for National Progress, the Investigative Fund of Mother Jones, and gifts from generous readers like you.

Copyright (c) 2006 The Foundation for National Progress

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Comfort or Survival?

>All shades of opinion are in denial about the magnitude of the environmental challenge facing us. Our need to be comfortable may be stronger than our will to survive. Rather than face up to climate change and do what can be done, humanity may opt to let it happen.

NS Essay by John Gray

New Statesman (May 29 2006)

During the present century, human beings are likely to experience a change in the planetary environment unlike any in history. Climate change is irreversible, and accelerating fast. No one, apart from a few cranks speaking on behalf of the Bush administration, doubts that global warming is a side effect of human activity. Accumulating scientific evidence suggests strongly that climate change is happening on a larger scale and more quickly than was suspected even a couple of years ago. Observable processes such as the melting of the Antarctic ice cap point to rising sea levels that will wipe out much of the world’s arable land and flood many coastal cities. The face of the planet is changing before our eyes.

The message of science is clear: humans will soon find themselves in a world different from any they have ever lived in. Altering our way of life to cope with these conditions will be phenomenally difficult – if it can be done at all. Yet all sections of opinion are in denial regarding the scale of the shift and the magnitude of the challenge it poses. Mainstream politicians and green activists differ on many points; but they all believe that climate change can be halted or rendered innocuous, if only we adopt the right policies. They are at one in rejecting the fact that runaway climate change is a result of the toxic mix of rapidly growing human numbers with worldwide industrialisation. Across the whole political spectrum there is a refusal to face up to this reality. This is nowhere clearer than among the Greens, who persist in a delusional faith that sustainable development and renewable energy can save the day.

In this consensus of denial, there are some who tell us not to worry. So-called “sceptical environmentalists” suggest that the scientific consensus is not to be trusted, and counsel inaction until the damage done by climate change is undeniable. That is the view of Nigel Lawson, who recently advised a business-as-usual strategy. Preparing for climate change is costly and troublesome, the former chancellor said, and we should alter our way of life only when the evidence is incontestable. The trouble with this view is that climate change is not doom-mongering speculation: it is already happening, and it is foolish to shut one’s eyes and hope it will go away. If it takes the abrupt and radical form that many scientists believe is now likely, it will have disastrous effects on the lives of millions – possibly billions – of people.

Under the leadership of David Cameron, Lawson’s own party is not so complacent, but it, too, is in denial. Cameron talks lightly of “green growth”, and has demonstrated the seriousness of his environmental commitment by riding a bicycle and installing a wind turbine on the roof of his house. The underlying assumption of his approach is that the crisis can be tackled without doing anything difficult or unpopular. The facts tell a different story. Wind power is not terribly efficient, and certainly cannot replace fossil fuels as the source of most of our energy. Even if combined with other types of renewable power such as solar and geothermal and implemented together with rigorous policies of energy conservation, the output of the hideous windfarms springing up across the country could not meet the rising demand for energy that goes with current patterns of economic growth.

Nor would a large-scale shift to renewable energy in Britain have any perceptible impact on global warming, which is far more affected by emissions originating in China, India and the United States. It might be argued that Britain should do what it can to reduce emissions regardless of the behaviour of other countries; but there is only one existing technology that can provide energy on the scale Britain needs while reducing its production of greenhouse gases, and that is nuclear power – which is highly unpopular. Images of Chernobyl and its aftermath are potent antidotes to rational thought, even if all they tell us is how horribly unsafe nuclear technology was in Soviet times. We live in a culture in which personal emotional comfort counts for more than any objective assessment of risks and consequences, and public attitudes to nuclear power reflect this. As a type of psychotherapy for shopped-out consumers troubled by occasional pangs of environmental guilt, renewable energy may be quite effective. As an appropriate response to environmental crisis it is a non-starter.

It may be too much to ask from electorates that they confront unpalatable environmental realities. This month Tony Blair declared that nuclear power was “back on the agenda with a vengeance”. In a speech to the Confederation of British Industry, he suggested that the replacement of nuclear power stations – in conjunction with “a big push on renewables and a step change on energy efficiency” – must be considered as part of Britain’s long-term energy strategy. Blair is to be congratulated on attempting to thrust the real energy options we face into the forefront of public debate. His intervention comes near the end of his political career, however, and, given his disastrous role in the Iraq war, nothing that he says on any controversial issue will be taken seriously – even if, as in this case, it deserves to be.

In speaking out in support of nuclear power Blair runs up against the feel-good mentality: most people want to believe that the environmental crisis can be solved by policies which involve no risk – to them or anyone else. Green thinking encourages this mentality. For example, the Kyoto treaty may have symbolic value in acknowledging the anthropogenic origins of global warming, but it hardly deserves the iconic status it is given by the green lobby. None of the big three producers of greenhouse gases has signed up to it, and even if it were fully implemented it would do very little to alter the climate shift that is already under way. Above all, such a treaty cannot halt the stampede to industrialisation that is the human cause of global warming.

Global warming as we know it today is a by-product of the industrial revolution. The temperature of the planet has been rising since roughly 1800, when the use of fossil fuels began on a large scale. Industrialisation and fossil-fuel use are different sides of the same process, and it is the rising demand for energy that is fuelling global warming. Our present industrial civilisation began with coal, and it may well end there. Oil gained in importance in energy use throughout the 20th century, but as light crude oil becomes scarcer and more expensive, industrial societies are beginning to look to other fossil fuels which are still abundant – notably coal and tar sands. If the oil price remains high over the coming years, market processes will make these other fuels economically viable, and many economists think this will solve our problems. They have failed to factor in the increase in global warming that such a shift will entail. There are new technologies that can make coal cleaner, and we would be well advised to develop them further if we want to limit its environmental risks; but a global shift from conventional energy sources to coal and tar sands is bound to increase greenhouse gases. While shifting to other fossil fuels may make economic sense, there is nothing in the operation of the price mechanism that registers costs to the planet as a whole.

Green activists say they want a new global economic system in which fossil fuels play a much smaller part and damage to the planet is fully accounted for, but here again we are in the realm of denial. The type of energy-intensive industrial economy that is being adopted in India and China is clearly unsustainable. At the same time there is not the remotest prospect that the rush to industrialisation will be abandoned. The ruling elites of China are well aware of the hideous damage that their breakneck industrial growth has done to the country’s fragile natural environment – far more so than the western investors who gush on about the Chinese economic miracle. China’s rulers also know they cannot risk slowing economic expansion. Even with the one-child policy and rapid ageing, China’s population will continue to grow for the next fifty years, and the hundreds of millions who are moving from rural areas to towns will need jobs, housing and transport. If enormous social upheaval and political instability are to be avoided, economic expansion must continue whatever the environmental consequences. The same is true in India, and throughout the poor countries of the world.

Worldwide industrialisation has an overwhelming momentum that cannot be stopped by political means. Part of this momentum undoubtedly comes from continuing population growth, but any mention of growing human numbers is now taboo in environmental debate. In the affluent west, religious fundamentalists, neoliberal missionaries for free markets, development economists and the few remaining Marxists are as one in denouncing the idea that there can be too many people. Curiously, this view has not been adopted in poor countries. China, Egypt, Iran, India and many other developing countries have population policies. In per-capita use of resources, it is the richest countries that are most overpopulated, and this is often used to suggest that it is distribution of resources rather than the global human population that really matters. The inequalities are real and troubling. Even so, no redistribution of resources could enable the earth to sustain over the long term the human numbers projected for the second half of the present century, or even those that exist today.

The present human population of more than six billion people is supported by a type of industrialised farming that relies on rapidly depleting supplies of petroleum. Contrary to the romantics among greens who look back with nostalgia to an imaginary peasant culture of harmony with nature, farming has always been, ecologically, a highly disruptive human activity, and this remains true today. It is mainly the expansion of agriculture, not industry, which is destroying the Amazon rainforest; but agriculture everywhere is critically dependent on oil-based fertilisers. The green revolution was at bottom a process whereby food was extracted from petroleum. A human population of roughly nine billion – the UN estimate for the world in 2050 – would be even more dependent on fossil fuels, with all the harmful effects on global climate.

In a century or so, human numbers may decline as falling fertility spreads throughout the world. In the meantime there is a bottleneck, and governments are scrambling to secure control of the world’s remaining reserves of oil and natural gas. The resource war that is being fought for oil in the Gulf is likely to be one of many in the coming century, and will be accompanied by conflicts over fresh water. Population growth, resource war and climate change are intertwined. Without a smaller human population there can be no solution to the environmental crisis, and one way or another human numbers are sure to fall. Greens shy away from these facts, and insist that climate change and conflict over natural resources can be avoided by adopting a low-tech lifestyle. But organic farms and windmills cannot stop the destruction of the natural world, or support the present human population.

Rather than flirting with the fantasy of a low-tech society we need to focus on high-tech solutions to environmental crisis. Technology cannot change the human condition. It cannot repeal the laws of thermodynamics, or make human beings less prone to folly or illusion than they have always been. It cannot even deflect the current wave of climate change, which will go on for centuries whatever we do now. What technology can do is help us cope with the abrupt alteration in the planetary environment that human activity has triggered – a process of adjustment that is sure to be forbiddingly difficult. We cannot stop climate change. If we make the most of technologies that limit the need for fossil fuels we can avoid accelerating it.

James Lovelock has argued that we need to move away from traditional modes of farming to the production of synthetic foods, and it seems to me that, here as elsewhere, he points a way forward. Lovelock is best known for his support of nuclear power – a view I have shared since 1993, when I endorsed it in my book Beyond the New Right. Despite Chernobyl, the risks of nuclear energy to human beings have been greatly exaggerated. Just as important, nuclear power is vastly less harmful to the non-human environment than fossil-fuel extraction. For this reason alone, green activists should support it. Yet they remain deeply hostile to high-tech solutions, and part of the reason may be their well-founded suspicion of the idea that humans can master nature by means of technology.

In the past, high technology has been linked with Promethean philosophies that seek to subject the natural environment to human will. This was the philosophy that produced ecological catastrophe in the former Soviet Union and in China during the Maoist era – and which, in a different ideological guise, is continuing the destruction of the environment in those countries. In western countries, the Promethean view is to be found mainly on the right, among neoliberal boosters of the free market and Bushite deniers of climate change. Given this background, it is hardly surprising that green movements should reject technical fixes, but by doing so they have become part of the problem rather than its solution.

Today, high technology offers the only way the human ecological footprint on the planet can be reduced. Nuclear power has risks, not least of terrorist attack; but it is vastly less harmful to the planetary equilibrium than the continued reliance on fossil fuels that is the realistic alternative. The environmental dangers of genetically modified crops are as yet unknown, so it is right to resist their use at present; but it is not difficult to envisage a time when they could be less destructive of the natural world than the further expansion of petroleum-based intensive agriculture. Far from rejecting these new technologies, we should be developing and improving them – not in order to further our domination of nature, which has always been an illusion, but as ways of retreating from our hugely overextended position in the planetary system. Green movements look to political solutions to the environmental crisis. For them, its source is in a defective economic system and in abuse of corporate power. However, the planetary rebalancing that is under way cannot be prevented by any transformation of human society, however revolutionary. Adapting to the situation requires political decisions, but there is no political solution to the problems we face. The human species has overshot the planet’s resources, and it will have to use all its technological ingenuity if it is to avoid catastrophe.

It may be that the shift in habits of thinking that is needed is beyond human powers. We owe our evolutionary success partly to our capacity for denial. Blind hope has often been more useful than a rational estimate of danger in promoting human survival. Today the tendency to shut out from conscious thought the dangers we face has itself become dangerous, but it is a tendency that is encouraged in a culture which prizes emotional comfort over everything else. In the worst-case scenarios that are now looking increasingly realistic, the result could be a change in the way we live that has no precedent in human experience.

Abrupt climate change seems an apocalyptic prospect, and rather than face up to it and do what can be done to mitigate its effects, humanity may well opt to let it run its course. It is only in human terms that climate change can be viewed as apocalyptic, however. In the life of the planet, it is normal. A dramatic climate shift took place 55 million years ago, at the start of the Eocene era, in which most of the species that then existed became extinct. The planet revived and became the richly diverse biosphere human beings are at present destroying. The environmental change that the world is undergoing is another such shift. Much biodiversity will be lost, but the earth will renew itself. Life will continue and will thrive – whether or not humans are around to see it.

Copyright New Statesman 1913 – 2006

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>A Glimpse Of Freedom

>by John Pilger

ZNet Commentary (May 25 2006)

The long, wide, bleak streets of cobblestones and tufts of petrified grass reach for the sacred mountain Illimani, whose pyramid of snow is like a watchtower. There was almost no life here when I first came to Bolivia as a young reporter – only the freezing airport and its inviting oxygen tent; now almost a million people live in El Alto, the highest city in the world, the creation of modern capitalism.

El Alto is as symbolic of Latin America today as Cerro Rico is of the past. A hill almost solid with silver, Cerro Rico was mined by slave labour and served to bankroll the Spanish empire for three centuries. Both places are in the poorest country on a continent of 225 million inhabitants, half of whom are poor. Debt bondage, even slavery, still exists secretly in Bolivia, whose hill of silver now takes second place to other natural treasures of gas and water. I arrived in El Alto in the early hours of the morning. Through skeins of fog, the moonlit streets were deserted save for silhouettes of hunched men swaying in the cold, framed in doorways, waiting, hoping, for the morning’s first auctioned work.

Bolivia was second only to Chile as a laboratory of “neoliberalism”, the jargon for capitalism in its pure, Hobbesian form. The Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs designed the “shock therapy” that the IMF and World Bank administered in Bolivia, adding another dimension of poverty and suffering. With the privatisation of the mines, tin finally collapsed, and the miners and their families headed for La Paz, settling on the bitter plain at El Alto, a thousand feet above the capital, without water and power and with little food. Farmers forced off their land by IMF diktats followed them, and their mass migration was typical of that of millions driven out of secure work by the foreign managers of the “Washington consensus”, a fanaticism conceived at Bretton Woods in 1944 as a tool of empire. (Sachs sees himself as a liberal and is mentor to the gormless Bono, of Live Aid et cetera fame.)

Until now, Bolivia’s modern presidents have all been rich, white men who ran the country on behalf of a tiny wealthy minority. Owners of vast tracts of land control the lowlands around Santa Cruz, reminiscent of their equivalent in South Africa. The pre-Inca indigenous majority were the “blacks” who were politically invisible, except as occasionally troublesome workers, especially the miners. People chewed coca leaves to relieve hunger; many died in their early middle years and their children were stunted. “My mother was worked to death on a big estate near Santa Cruz”, a campesino told me. “If she was found learning to read, she was severely punished”.

The last president but one, Sanchez de Lozada, a multimillionaire mine-owner now exiled in Maryland, had grown up in the United States and spoke better English than Spanish. He was known as “El Gringo”. In colluding with the IMF and selling off the country’s gas and water at knock-down prices to Brazilian, American and European multinationals, he fulfilled his role, like so many Latin American presidents, as Washington’s viceroy. Indeed, Richard Nixon’s contemptuous remark about Latin America – “People don’t give a shit about the place” – was quite wrong; America’s imperial design was inscribed on the lives of the people in its “backyard”.

Last year, I interviewed Pablo Solon, son of the great Bolivian muralist Walter Solon, in an extraordinary room covered by his father’s epic brush strokes. More visceral than Diego Rivera’s images of the Mexican revolution, the pictures of injustice rage at you; the barbaric manipulation of people’s lives shall not pass, they say. Pablo Solon, now an adviser to the government of Evo Morales, said:

“The story of Bolivia is not unlike so many resource-rich countries where the majority are very poor. It is the story of the government behind the government and what the American embassy allows, for in that building is the true source of power in this country. The US doesn’t have major investments here; what they fear is another Chavez; they don’t want the ‘bad example’ to spread to Ecuador and beyond – even to Nigeria, which might be inspired to tax the oil companies as never before. For the US, any genuine solution to poverty spells trouble.”

“How much would it cost to solve the poverty of Bolivia?” I asked.

“A billion dollars; it’s nothing. It’s the example that matters, because that’s the threat.”

I drove out of El Alto with Juan Delfin, an indigenous church deacon, taxi driver and artist, who spoke about the conquistadores if they were within his memory. This is a society where a half-millennium of history is a presence and its subjugation and impoverishment are understood with anger. With Illimani looming ahead of us, a cemetery consumed the horizon. On the other side of the road was a small hill not of silver, but rubbish: a stinking, smoking, acrid hell of dust and dead dogs and wild pigs and women in traditional bowler hats digging with pickaxes for something, anything. “Here you have the symbol of everything we live and reject”, said Delfin.

He took me to a plaque with the names of 24 people shot to death by the army in October 2003 when de Lozada tried to stop the people of El Alto marching down to La Paz in protest against his selling-off of gas. Juan Delfin linked their deaths to the lines of ordinary graves, many of them children, “who also died violently, from poverty”. A shepherd boy emerged from a pile of stones where he lived, looking too small for his age.

After de Lozada was driven from Bolivia, his successor Carlos Mesa capitulated to the demands of the social movements, such as El Alto’s Federation of Neighbourhood Committees. These are a new phenomenon of Latin America; the Landless People’s Movement in Brazil is the best known, but the most effective, politically, have been in Bolivia. For more than five years, the movements included almost the entire population of the city of Cochabamba as they fought the “water wars” against a foreign consortium led by a subsidiary of the American multinational Bechtel, which de Lozada had handed the city’s public water supply, causing water bills to consume a third of meagre incomes.

Even the right to collect rainwater belonged to Bechtel. With an annual revenue of more than $17 billion, the company’s power is such that it expected and got (without the inconvenience of bidding) the contract to rebuild the US fortress in occupied Iraq. Yet, not only was Bechtel driven out of Bolivia in 2000, shortly followed by its mentor de Lozada, but the company has now dropped its compensation action against the government. It is a victory of huge significance, because it warns other multinationals in Bolivia (such as British Gas) that even if the government is prepared to compromise the wrath of the people, the movements are not.

It is also a warning to Evo Morales, whose electoral victory in December remains largely symbolic here. An indigenous man now leads Bolivia for the first time; the chequered pre-Inca flags are proudly on high everywhere. “The elections aren’t something we asked for, ever”, said Oscar Olivera, the Cochabamba union leader who led the anti-Bechtel revolt. “What the social movements need to do now is to continue accumulating popular forces, to build up our ability to pressure whatever government that comes. A Morales government would be less difficult to love, but it will still be difficult.”

Unlike his absurd caricature abroad – a previous American ambassador to Bolivia likened Morales to Osama Bin Laden and his party (MAS) to an Andean Taliban – “Evo”, as he known here, is not a “radical”, not yet. His theatrical announcement of “nationalisation” on 1 May did not mean expropriation, and he made it clear the multinationals would not lose any rights. What they will lose is their grotesque share of profits and benefits; they will now have to pay true market prices for Bolivia’s gas, along with a proper rate of tax. His vice-president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, has said “capitalism will last for fifty years in Bolivia”. Before the election he told me: “In a small country like Bolivia, you can’t be heroes”.

But many have been heroes, in the blockade of Cochabamba, in the surge of people from El Alto down into La Paz, facing bullets and expelling their gringo president. Out of the new spirit abroad in Latin America, perhaps the Bolivians and Venezuelans have brought true revolutionary change closest. The contrast is with the “left-wing” Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, who agreed to IMF terms even before he took office and who has distributed less land than his right-wing predecessor.

The likeable Evo is on notice above all with his own people, but also with the Americans, the “government behind the government”. Unless Washington can “lobotomise him” (as it did with Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti), it is likely to encourage a secessionist movement in the landowners’ heartland of Santa Cruz, where the gas is and where the government has promised to redistribute unused land. Bolivia, like Venezuela, has glimpsed its freedom and demands our support.

John Pilger’s new book, Freedom Next Time, is published by Bantam Press on 8 June (GBP 17.99)

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Britain’s Most Selfish People

>Owning a second home during a housing crisis ensures that other people are homeless.

by George Monbiot

Published in the Guardian (May 23 2006)

What greater source of injustice could there be, than while some people have no home, others have two? Yet the vampire trade in second homes keeps growing – by three percent a year – uninhibited by government or by the conscience of the buyers. Every purchase of a second house deprives someone else of a first one. But to speak out against it is to identify yourself as a killjoy and a prig.

If you travel to Worth Matravers – the chocolate-box village in Dorset in which sixty percent of the houses are owned by ghosts {1} – you will not find hordes of homeless people camping on the pavements in cardboard boxes. The market does not work like that. Young people from the village, unable to buy locally, have moved away, and contributed to the housing pressure somewhere else. The impacts of the ghost market might be invisible to the purchasers, but this does not mean they aren’t real. Second home owners are perhaps the most selfish people in the United Kingdom.

In England and Wales there are 250,000 second homes {2}. In England there are 221,000 people classed as single homeless or living in hostels or temporary accomodation (these desperate cases comprise about 24% of those in need of social housing) {3}. I am not arguing that if every underused house were turned back into a home the problem of acute homelessness would be solved. I am arguing that homelessness has been exacerbated by the government’s failure to ensure that houses are used for living in.

This issue received some rare press coverage last week when the Affordable Rural Housing Commission published its report {4}. It suggested that second home owners might be taxed more heavily in some places or that planning permission should be required to turn a home into a ghost house. Its ideas, though mild and tentative, were received with fury. “If the Government adopts these proposals”, the Telegraph roared, “it will be in order further to punish middle-class voters and to benefit from a grievance culture stoked by envy”. {5} In the Guardian, Simon Jenkins suggested that the commission’s proposals would deny “existing homeowners the value of their property and thus mobility for themselves and their children. It is a crazy wealth tax on the rural poor … To imply that those bringing new money and, in many cases, new economic activity to rural Britain are a social evil is leftwing archaism.” {6}

If caring about homelessness makes you a leftwing dinosaur, I raise my claw. It is true that clamping down on second homes would suppress house prices in the countryside, by a little. That is part of the point. But it is not as if rural homeowners are suffering from low values. The day before Simon’s column was published, the Halifax produced figures showing that the average rural house costs GBP 208,699 (or 6.7 times average annual earnings), while the average town house costs GBP 176,115 {7}. Jenkins seems to be asking us to care more about the profits of those who are already rich in capital than about the people who have nothing but a box to sleep in. It is also true that at weekends and during the holiday season, second home owners can bring new trade to local shops – especially the kind of picturesque boutiques which smoke their own fish and sell jamjars with paper hats on. But for the rest of the year, because the village is half-empty, business dies.

The environmental impact must also be stupendous. It is hard enough to accommodate the houses we do need in the countryside, let alone the fake homes now being built for weekenders. Open the pages of any property supplement and you will find advertisements for new “holiday lodges” in Cornwall, Dorset, Pembrokeshire and Norfolk. Regional airports are springing up (or trying to spring up) wherever City brokers start pricing out the locals. (People with second homes abroad cause even more damage: one survey suggests they take an average of six return flights a year {8}). This is to say nothing of the environmental costs of maintaining two homes, and doubtless leaving the security lights on and the appliances on standby while you continue your life elsewhere.

For all these reasons, I believe the commission’s proposals don’t go far enough. It treats second home ownership as a local problem, confined to the most desirable parts of the countryside. It doesn’t consider the wider contribution that owning them makes to homelessness, or to the destruction of the environment. Nor does it make the point – almost always missed by the media – that the majority of second homes (155,000 of the 250,000) are in towns and cities, where middle-aged businessmen turn what might have been starter flats into pieds a terre. I accept that it’s a rural housing commission, but I can’t help wondering whether this acknowledgement might have caused some trouble for Elinor Goodman – the commission’s chair – who has a second home in Westminster {10}.

I would like to see the ownership of second homes become prohibitively expensive, wherever they might be. It remains cheaper to own a second house than to own a first one. The government has reduced the rebate on council tax for ghost homes from fifty percent to ten percent {10}, but it still seems outrageous that there should be a discount of any size. Worse, as a letter to the Guardian pointed out yesterday, people are buying up weekend homes as fake holiday lets and setting these “loss making business” against tax {11}. Plainly this loophole needs to be closed. But why not a 500% council tax for all second homes, which local authorities are obliged to hypothecate: to use, in other words, for new social housing? It won’t stop the richest people from buying extra houses, but at least the people at the bottom of the ladder get something back.

We’re often told that punitive taxes of this kind won’t work, because couples could register their homes separately. But this would surely be possible only for people who are neither married nor in a civil partnership. It doesn’t stop the government from levying capital gains tax.

The real problem is that almost every MP with a constituency outside London has two homes or more, and there is scarcely a senior journalist who is not sucking the life out of a village somewhere, or a paper which does not depend on advertising by estate agents. Two weeks ago the Sunday Times revealed that the Labour MP Barbara Follett, who owns a GBP 2 million house in her constituency (in Stevenage), a flat in Soho and homes in Antigua and Cape Town, has claimed GBP 76,357 in Commons expenses over the past four years for her London pad {12}. Perhaps it isn’t hard to see why MPs aren’t clamouring for something to be done. On Friday, Peter Mandelson – the man who says what Blair thinks – told a conference that Labour’s primary challenge was to find solutions “to the angst of the hard-working middle-class … It’s not old Labour territory we have forgetten and which is detaching itself but the New Labour territory we have occupied since 1997 which is at risk”. {13}

In other words, the chances of getting the government to force the abandonment of second homes are approximately zero. But that should not stop us from pointing out that it is unacceptable to let the rich deprive the poor of their homes.


1. Richard Savill, 18th May 2006. Village trust to build houses for locals only. Daily Telegraph.

2. Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, reported by Faith Glasgow, 29th April 2006. The lure of a rural bolthole or one in the city if that’s more to your taste. Financial Times.

3. Shelter, November 2005. Building for the Future – 2005 Update. Table 4. Shelter Housing Investment Project Series.

4. Affordable Rural Housing Commission, 2006. Final Report.

5. Leader, 18th May 2006. Second homes and the politics of envy. Daily Telegraph.

6. Simon Jenkins, 19th May 2006. Not too round, not too precise: that’s why 11,000 is a magic number. The Guardian.

7. Press Association, 18th May 2006. Rural homes cost more than urban.,,-5829622,00.html

8. HACAN/Clear Skies, 2005. Cited by Transport 2000 in Facts and figures: aviation.

9. Charles Clover, 18th May 2006. Councils may be allowed to stop sales of second homes. Daily Telegraph.

10. Affordable Rural Housing Commission, ibid.

11. Peter Dunn, 22nd May 2006. The real causes driving up homelessness in rural communities. The Guardian.

12. Steven Swinford, 7th May 2006. MPs with mansions get second home perk. The Sunday Times.

13. Quoted by Ben Hall, 20th May 2006. Mandelson tells Labour it risks support in south. Financial Times.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized