The Collapse of Western Civilization – a review

This little book by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway fully titled The Collapse of Western Civilization: a view from the future (Columbia University Press 2014) is a strange mix. Ostensibly ‘science fiction’ the fiction part is only 52 pages – in reality a long essay – and contains maps of future sea level rise for the year 2300 where much of the Netherlands, Bangla Desh and New York have disappeared under the waves. As well it contains a “Lexicon of Archaic Terms”, notes and an interview with the authors comprising a further 37 pages. All in all most unusual for a work of fiction.

The Introduction notes that “Science fiction writers construct an imaginary future; historians attempt to reconstruct the past. Ultimately, both are seeking to understand the present. In this essay we blend the two genres to imagine a future historian looking back on the present and (possible) future.” The difference between the collapse of western civilization and earlier civilizations was that the consequences were known and predicted. The book then goes on to outline the greenhouse history and the sorry fate of all the warnings of science and identifies crucial years when “immediate steps should have been taken to begin a transition to a zero-net-carbon world. Staggeringly the opposite occurred.”(p.9)

This ‘opposite’ is encapsulated in the chapter heading “The Frenzy of Fossil Fuels” most of which we are in the middle of and already well informed. The collapse – technically ‘not a collapse’- of the West Antarctic Ice sheet brings about rapid sea level rise and ‘social disruption”. Mass migration occurrs with more than 20% of the earth’s population being affected and this dislocation “contributed to the Second Black Death” and consequently the “Human populations of Africa and Australia were wiped out.”(p.33)

In the third chapter entitled ‘Market Failure” the future historians dissect the various inhibiting ideologies of western civilization. They conclude that the “ultimate paradox was that neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention” and that the “development the neoliberals most dreaded – centralized government and loss of personal choice – was rendered essential by the very policies that they had put in place.” (p.48, 49) A much depleted humanity however survives into the future. Though some of the more pessimistic amongst us are not even so sure of that.

Generally as science fiction I feel the work is unsuccessful although it has its moments. I much prefer the straight science history of the authors like their Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury 2011) a copy of which I have on my shelves. Their most recent work Discerning Experts on how science tends to underestimate the pace of climate change (See the Scientific American) sounds far more interesting and perhaps will ultimately be more successful.

*copy in the East Gippsland Shire Library

Gippsland Extinction Rebellion

Gippsland Extinction Rebels (Tony Peck)

The Extinction Rebellion protests in Melbourne over the second week of the month received an enormous amount of publicity. Twenty-three members of the Gippsland XR group – a number of whom are members of East Gippsland Climate Action Network (EGCAN) and the Baw Baw Sustainability Group – participated in the events with as many as 10 being arrested. Climate Activist Angela Crunden of Bairnsdale provided a rough list of those making the sacrifice including former Bairnsdale shopkeeper and Clifton Creek resident John Hermans, West Gippsland medico Malcolm McKelvie and the daughter of former Mayor of East Gippsland Shire Council Mendy Urie. Other Gippslanders not part of the XR group were also arrested. Inverloch resident Bron Dahlstrom reported that “Neil Rankine, the ex-Bass Coast Mayor was also arrested. These people are doing us proud.”

Angela commented on facebook on her week: “We lay down and stay still for 10 minutes Matt signifying deaths associated with the changing climate. We had mini shrouds over our faces. Died in Fed Square, Bourke St, Melbourne Central inside and out and Southbank. We sang once we rose from the dead. Check out EGCAN link for video and thanks for all your encouragement and good vibes.” Also on facebook the television image (Channel 9) of John Hermans being arrested received an enormous amount of attention with over 50 likes, a similar number of comments – mostly praise – and at last count 22 shares.

John noted that “when l was asked to talk on ABC Gippsland radio this morning, l was asked the question, ‘Was it all worth it?’ My reply, ‘Absolutely, look at the media we have generated, and the public discussion on the issues around Climate Change and the need to act now’. This comment no doubt lead to the termination of that interview, I had created my own platform and paid for it with a miserly $330 fine. Talk about getting credibility for something that is otherwise seen as a shameful misdemeanour! Prior to being arrested I was quite anxious about the whole idea of it, but now I can honestly say it has lifted my own spirits and determination. If you are feeling down about the world at the moment, get active, get arrested!

“But first join in with your local Climate Action group to find out how it’s done. The EGCAN group is only 7 months old, but we are punching above our weight with two hundred members and enjoying ourselves as we achieve our goals.”

Civil disobedience requires a certain amount of confrontation, inconvenience and disruption for many as well as the inevitable arrests. A few weeks ago I argued that the protests could be more carefully targeted as with the example of the civil rights movement in America targeting segregated cafes and buses. I have another, perhaps unfounded, worry that the climate change message will be buried. On this occasion at least I concede that the overwhelming attention the protests have received in the media more than compensates for the inconvenience of others and that congratulations are due all round. More to follow.

A Gippsland World First in Soil Carbon

An excellent article on climate change and farming in the Saturday Paper (5.10) by Matthew Evans alerted me to the work of Niels Olsen of Hallora. Niels has developed a carbon farming technique which boosts both productivity and soil carbon – the latter more than trebling in the amazingly brief period of 5 years. As a result of this activity Niels’ Soilkee farm has been the first anywhere to be issued “carbon credits” for “a soil carbon project under the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) and the Paris Agreement”.

The Soilkee Renovator works with “minimum till disturbance in spaced apart rows by means of rotating blades create a competition free seed bed for successful germination, leaving around 80% of the pasture undisturbed. A diverse mix of seeds from clover seed to faba bean size can be applied from the seed box during operation with seeds dropping in the kee’s. The undisturbed portion acts as a cover crop protecting the soil from the elements, reducing erosion and keeping around 80% of soil life habitat intact. Whilst creating the seed bed the Soilkee Renovator provides additional benefits of aeration and a green manure crop within the worked up portion, providing aerobic conditions and a food source that activates the soil fungi, bacteria and earthworm populations and the natural soil processes they perform.”

The benefits of this process besides the increase in soil carbon include a substantial increase in dry matter equivalent, better moisture retention and thus some drought protection, a general increase in a wide range of nutrients and their availability and better soil aeration. Sounds almost too good to be true. Aside from minimum tillage using a wide range of seed, especially deep rooted and nitrogen fixing varieties, ensures that the carbon sequestration and soil building process goes down a metre or more. And an added bonus for the Olsen’s has been the $15,000 in carbon credits from the ERF – the first payment for a form of carbon, capture and storage besides trees that actually works.

Understandably, as in many pioneering processes, there have been difficulties to overcome – in particular estimating the amount of carbon being stored and the cost of measuring this. There is also the possibility of governments proclaiming the success of the process and avoiding the dire need for climate action on as many fronts as possible. On the other hand this form of sequestration of soil carbon has massive potential for the rapid removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. But one must ask why the pollies and the news media have not been shouting loudly about this ‘from the rooftops’. Here we have one of the very few tangible developments of their much lauded ERF- a rarity that looks so promising. And we have a world first in Gippsland hardly anyone, even locally, has heard of.

Household Solar Options in the Climate Emergency by John Hermans

The typical solar array doesn’t come close to offsetting total emissions from an average household

(edited version of article first published in Renew No 148)

It is common practice for sellers of solar systems to ask clients for a copy of their electricity bill. With this information, a solar installer calculates the size of a PV array and inverter that brings your bill close to a net annual zero cost. For most customers this is their goal; recent articles in Renew have featured households whose solar systems have not only provided their home’s power requirements, but also powered a plug-in electric vehicle. This is undoubtedly a trend to be encouraged, but it does lead one to think: just how much bigger does a solar system need to be in order to provide for all of one person’s energy usage and emissions?

Our CO2 footprint goes way beyond our home and our personal transport. It includes everything that you can imagine: roads, hospitals, logistics, food production, goods manufacturing and all federal, state and local government infrastructure, are just a few things that give each of us our current high quality of life. Australia is embarrassingly close to the top of the list for highest CO2 emissions per person on the planet. Several sources suggest average per capita emissions of around 20 tonnes per person per year. As this is an average, many will be well below this, but many are unfortunately well above it.

The amount of CO2 released during the generation of one megawatt-hour (MWh) of energy in Victoria is close to one tonne. This accounts for 21% renewables as part of the energy mix, with 79% coal- and gas-fired generation…In Melbourne, a 1 kW PV array may produce up to 1.3 MWh of electricity in one year (depending on orientation, angle and shading). To offset one person’s 20 tonnes of CO2 by producing 20 MWh of clean electricity in a year, each person needs to install 15 kW of PV. An average home with four people would need 60 kW of PV to offset the carbon footprint that sustains their lifestyle as they enjoy the pleasures of living in Australia.

Rather than using our home electrical energy consumption to match it with a PV array, should we be looking beyond our energy-consuming lives by investing in larger PV systems? Minimising consumption is clearly the best option, but there is an awful lot of consumption on your behalf that you are not getting a say in!

It is clear that a privately owned PV system should be as big as possible, so that your meter’s primary function is for handling energy export. Many private dwellings with a 5 kW export limit also have a 5 kW inverter with only 5 kW of panels or less. In order to export as much energy as possible, an oversized PV array is the way to go. With a 10 kW array on a 5 kW inverter, no more than 12.5% of generation is ‘wasted’ annually due to the 5 kW export limit. This potentially wasted power can be reduced by shifting household loads to when the energy is being generated.

Almost all inverters will function with an oversized array. The inverter typically takes the power that it needs to produce its maximum output. A premium system sizing arrangement for a 5 kW export-limited site is for an 8.2 kW inverter with 10.8 kW of panels. This then allows for solar electricity to be used in the home while the full 5 kW is being exported, with enough energy to be diverted into a home battery or electric vehicle in the future. Such a system would use minimal grid energy.

Customers are often told that an inverter will only function correctly with 133% oversizing of the array, but this may not be a requirement of the inverter. The rebate on solar panels (which helps reduce the cost of new system installs) is capped at 133% of the inverter size. You are able to go well beyond the 133%, for good economic and environmental reasons—but check your inverter warranty as it may be tied to an upper limit. Your best interest is a liveable planet. To achieve this, your energy debt needs to be accounted for, so you need to generate a whole lot more than just your house or electric vehicle uses. Your response to a climate emergency needs to be reduced consumption and increased renewable generation.

On Climate Catastrophe by Ed Thexton (part 2)

Coastal erosion at Inverloch

​(Continuing an edited article from the Bass Coast Post)

I fled from the risk of fire into the waiting arms of a flood risk.  With little coastal experience I viewed the model as a conceptual event.  With accumulated observations and experience, I populate the concept with data.  Credibility is given to concept.  Hence the worry. Before Black Saturday, the mantra was “Prepare, stay and defend your property or leave early”. The emphasis was reminiscent of war.  In Strathewen it was so many of the most vulnerable, women and their kids included, who suffered when the prevailing catch phrases were played out to their final, tragic conclusion. The mantra changed in the light of Black Saturday. Catastrophes are not the domain of business as usual.

Stepping back from bushfire to the coastal risk.  A crowded coast, Bass Strait, 1800 kilometres of exposure.  We have the people, we have the risk, and we have the scale.

We need to transfer something from the revisionism of bushfire risk management to coastal risk management.  Perhaps look at strategic withdrawal rather than confrontation or mitigation.  I’ve never really understood some past real estate approvals.  How were the negative consequences ignored?  Was a collective blind eye turned?  Perhaps the embodiment of the term “privatising the profits and socialising the losses. It’s worth noting that in NSW political donations from developers are banned.

At the heart of coastal risk exposure are regulations that govern where people live.  In an advanced western democracy, this is almost the exclusive preserve of those with money.  Yet when disaster strikes, it’s more likely to be the less well off, the young, the old and less able who suffer disproportionately. As a step forward perhaps we should invert the process and learn to speak and formulate laws from their perspective.  Locally, for example, look at it from the perspective of how the least able will cope if houses are built in a particular location with exposure to potential risks, particularly extreme events. 

The trauma of risk exposure goes far beyond the relative few personally affected.  We are part of a society.  We have the capability to intervene, in language and action. There is no better example than the approach we have taken to dealing with road safety. Back in 1969, and for most of my life, the language of road death was “road toll”.  Carnage was masked.  This year it’s 165, so far, out of 6.4 million.   

Reading Black Saturday has made the intervening decade disappear for me, such is the power of a catastrophe close to home.  The subtitle Not the End of the Story is a call to the future. I take it as a call for our society, Bass Coast Shire included, to build on the changes forced by Black Saturday and those learned from averting road trauma; to change the language; to stop pretending; to squarely face up to scientific probability; and to avoid the impending calamity coming to a coast near you.

For the full article go here.

On Climate Catastrophe by Ed Thexton (part 1)

(Edited article from the Bass Coast Post)

A few weeks ago, at the Inverloch library I picked up Black Saturday – Not the End of the Story by Peg Fraser, a cultural history of a small place, Strathewen, with an extraordinary story… A decade after the trauma of Black Saturday, I’m in Inverloch.  Why Inverloch?  For one, it’s not the Yarra Valley, where I was born and raised and where we had a few acres and intended to build.  There are not the tight, winding, timber-bound, inescapable roads; not the poor sight lines, not the completely avoidable stress of the bad fire days.  Inverloch is home now, 400 metres from Bass Strait.  Our safe haven by the sea.

I reflect on home, security and safety.  I turn my mind back, to the still fresh recollections of that day a decade ago.  In the months and particularly the week preceding that Saturday afternoon the State was baked to a crisp.  I remember, the Premier warning on the Friday that Saturday would be the worst day in Victoria’s history. On Black Saturday, an energy intensity scaled at an estimated 1500 Hiroshima a-bombs was unleashed on Victoria with Strathewen receiving just a bit of it. Lives and decades of endeavour were blown into irrelevancy in moments.

How much forewarning – a morning of horrible dry, brutal winds and searing temperatures – is enough? Why didn’t sensible, competent people just get out of there? Why did one in ten people in that place not live out the afternoon? In this context what does forewarning mean?  Strathewen received a short, intense onslaught coming together as a consequence of locality, topography, and climate – general and localised – coupled with imprecise communications on the day.

So here we sit on a creek in a low-lying part of Inverloch on the edge of Bass Strait.  Topography makes us vulnerable.  We have the warnings in science. Why do we act as if nothing is happening or ever likely to happen?  Why don’t we factor in the most basic of precautionary principles when we go to buy or build in this locality? My own research, nearly 10 years ago, told me that sea level rise was of sufficient concern for the Government to have developed an accessible interactive map of sea flooding around the margins of Anderson Inlet. One of only a few places in Victoria.  I bought in the knowledge that with a water rise of five metres we would be in trouble.

Human catastrophes are not the product of isolated factors; they are, as on Black Saturday, the product of factors acting in concert, if only for a moment.  A gathering storm rather than a bolt out of a blue sky.  In catastrophic circumstances, scale compounds.  Survival often depends on the grace of good fortune. A sea level rise of centimetres may seem trivial but factor in a rain-soaked catchment with flooding rains, a king tide, a ferocious wind driving a large swell from the wrong direction.  Add in blocked drains or erosion, and suddenly five metres is surpassed, probably as much from land as from sea flooding. With the living room flooding, who’s going to stop and taste for salt?

To be continued. For the full article go here.

Conscription, Senator Lambie and the Climate Emergency

In a recent interview with the Sunday Age (15.9) Senator Jacqui Lambie from Tasmania called for the conscription of youth to fight the “climate emergency’. Although a headline the term “climate emergency” managed to be split between the front page and the following one losing a fair bit of its punch. The article emphasized how those conscripted could be used in ‘emergency services’ like the CFA and SES. As global warming progresses it is fairly certain the pressures on these and other government and semi government organisations will increase dramatically.

Despite her sometimes misdirected (and basic) rhetoric Senator Lambie has ‘hit the nail on the head’. For in a real climate emergency governments will adopt many of the procedures used in World War 2. Amongst them there will almost certainly be conscription or organisation of labour of some kind. In a way Lambie’s call is similar to the National’s ‘green army’ which turned into another ‘tokenistic’ failure of the governing parties.  But rather than condemn them outright it is far better to work out how this ‘coercive’ policy can be managed for the benefit of society.

Conscription should rightly direct the unemployed and underemployed of any age to unfulfilled tasks necessary to cope, and hopefully overcome, the climate emergency – including both mitigation and adaption. Many of these jobs are unattractive to private enterprise such as forest protection, re-afforestation and the many workers required in extreme weather emergencies such as catastrophic bushfires. This will necessarily include training in various tasks as well as education primers on the basics of global warming.

There are many older age citizens on the unemployment ‘scrapheap’ still able to fill essential roles in organising, directing etc. All those in this new ‘green army’ should receive a basic wage and for all those other than youth there should be no coercion involved – that they should be essentially volunteers. Even for youth those who have gainful employment, are students, or of other means, the draft should not be compulsory. In some ways it should resemble the old American ‘Peace Corps” and be as locally based as possible. Unemployment benefits should eventually be displaced.

For me there is a certain irony in all this. It was through the conscription policies of a Liberal government of more than 50 years ago that I became ‘politicised’. Now I am advocating a policy similar to the one that I once diametrically opposed. Hopefully such a policy, and others like it, will be for life rather than death or war, and be welcomed by the multitudes of youth and their supporters who have been striking for meaningful climate action. Senator Lambie at least seems to be working in the right direction.

Direct Action and the Climate Emergency

The rapid rise of the Extinction Rebellion movement is bringing the question of direct action to the fore in the climate emergency. There can be no doubt that various actions of this kind are urgently needed due to the failure of the media, our politicians and large parts of the bureaucracy to perceive the dire straits that we are in. With few exceptions they have yet to grasp or understand the diabolical problem we are facing – especially with regards climate inertia, tipping points and feedback loops. Even the Victorian Labor government with its forward policies on renewable energy is still hell bent on destroying the precious carbon store of our native forests or is yet to publicly plan for the forward closure of our brown coal generators. One important question is for activists to decide which tactics and actions to adopt. There is a need to identify those which work decisively in favour of the climate emergency and recognise those which don’t.

For many years various ‘green’ groups have been working in the forests blockading the felling of coupes, mapping the locations of species threatened with extinction, opposing the various outmoded concepts of controlled burns and other local actions – sometimes for temporary and marginal gains. Some of these actions have been poorly targeted. Similarly the blocking of traffic in the city or in the bush will probably create as much reaction as support. Many of these actions are attacking workers (and ordinary citizens) at the ‘coal face’ – people in the main who have no choice in the matter.

Surely it is far better to target the people who are making, or not making, the decisions – the politicians and the bureaucrats; the media which continues to ignore, or even oppose, what best science has been telling us for 30 years; and the large companies who continue to belch greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and use their huge financial resources to oppose any efforts to contain them. Some of the ‘good’ targets are obvious – the politician’s offices (especially those of climate change deniers), the parliaments, the offices of various bureaucracies, and those of the big polluters. One suggestion is for the forest blockades to be brought to Bairnsdale and Orbost – with sit-ins, blockades or even pickets, perhaps depending on the numbers. The first actions of Greta Thunberg, for instance, were in part striking (from school) and another part picketing (sitting outside the Swedish Parliament).

These actions should be maintained as long as possible, be non-violent, have clear statements of purpose (eg to end logging of native forests and preserve them as a carbon store) and be promoted widely in the media and the social media. A wide range of other actions can be found. The three volumes of The Politics of Nonviolent Action by Gene Sharp (Extending Horizon Books, 1973) have been on my shelves for many years. The second, entitled ‘The Methods of Nonviolent Action’ deals with these choices in particular. Above all, whichever method of direct action is chosen, it should be targeted carefully.

Some of the Gippsland Climate Strikes

(Tony Peck)

The crowd at the Bairnsdale Strike for Climate rally was estimated to be about 800. Protesters filled the space between the Rotunda and the toilet block on the median strip. A feature of the rally organised by students from Nagle College was the march from the school in West Bairnsdale. More than 100 students started from school before 11am and marched to the Secondary College where they picked up their next contingent and then on to 754 where they picked up some primary students and parents. They then marched along Main Street to the Rotunda chanting and waving their placards where they were received with applause from the waiting crowd. There followed short speeches from the student organisers, music, and the protest was rounded off with some songs from local choir Alley Cats.

At Sale Gippsland 2020 founder Jo McCubbin estimated the crowd at Sale’s Clocktower mall at 700. Reporting on the rally the Gippsland Times noted that the strikers were there “to vent their anger at government inaction on climate change”. Then “wildlife artist and passionate climate change activist Dawn Stubbs* told the crowd climate change and species loss were connected, and protestors needed to continue to pressure government to take action to prevent more environmental “destruction”. Ms Stubbs received resounding applause when she said communities were rising up because they recognised the urgency of the matter, despite the government’s continual denial of the science behind global warming.” The march was televised on Win News.

Bairnsdale Strike organisers (EGN19.9)

At Traralgon the protest was much smaller with an estimated 200 attending. We have no information on the rally in Mallacoota or any of the events in south or west Gippsland. Many of the Bass Coast and west Gippsland students journeyed to Melbourne to join the huge crowd there estimated to be as high as 150,000  – certainly it surpassed the massive Vietnam war moratorium demonstrations of the early 1970s. One of the lessons from all this is to keep the ball rolling. There is a need to keep active. And as Greta says the most important thing you can do is talk to your friends and family about it – preferably every day.

*Dawn is also a regular at EGCAN meetings

Notes from Wonthaggi student Jessie Harrison on the Global Climate Strike

Based on an interview in the Bass Coast Post

I worry quite often [about climate change].  Every day there are more reports on the news: the hottest day on record. The other day I heard a report that we have only 18 months to act to reverse climate change and become carbon neutral or else there’s no return. Our generation will be hit the worst with climate change, with hotter summers… bigger floods and melting ice signifying just the beginning. I want to be able to live to an old age without experiencing the worst impacts of climate change.

[But] it doesn’t depress me. It does scare me, but in a good way. It makes me want to take action about what’s happening. We’re going on strike because we believe our government isn’t doing enough to support our future. By striking from school, onlookers take notice of us. If this was on a weekend or a school holiday our strike could be taken as a fun trip to the city, instead of a march through the streets.

I am angry about the response from our politicians because they’re not going to be as affected as us. I guess hopeless as well. They are the ones who can do something about it. We can’t. Our country is still using outdated forms of energy such as coal and fossil fuels and our leaders are continuously endorsing fossil fuel companies instead of moving towards a greener future. I’m not saying they [politicians] don’t care about their children but I guess the way they’re going about it is to think it won’t affect them either. I am aware of the policies of the different political parties on climate action.

I know my parents aren’t that supportive… There are a few teachers who are supportive but they’re not really making a comment on it. I do agree that school is important but our goal is to make a difference. At our age we can’t vote or make a significant difference to government but we can use our numbers and our voice. The strike is to enable us and the students who come after us to have a future.

*Jessie Harrison, aged 16, a student at Wonthaggi Secondary College, will join fellow students from around Victoria at next Friday’s climate change student strike in Melbourne. There will also be a Wonthaggi Global Climate Strike at the McBride Avenue gardens at 1pm on the same day.