Big ideas and the harsh deadline of climate change

Prairie Festival events are concentrated in an unpainted barn, the summer roots of Kernza perennial grain unfurled side by side with those of wheat. Photo/Allen Best

Big ideas about energy and agriculture on the Kansas prairie and the hard deadline of climate change

by Allen Best

SALINA, Kan. — Bill  McKibben didn’t always make a habit of getting arrested. He was a wunderkind, a Harvard graduate who became a staff writer at the New Yorker at the age of 25 but also was a competitive cross-country skier, ran a homeless shelter, and taught Sunday school at a Methodist church.

One Sunday morning in late September, the 58-year-old McKibben was at The Land institute in the middle of Kansas farm country, preaching about the imminent crisis of climate change. It is, he said at the Prairie Festival, a cause of such existential importance to civilization that some people, especially those who are older, with less to risk, should join him in civil protests that will likely cause them to be jailed, as McKibben had been the month prior to his Kansas visit.

McKibben’s 1989 book, “The End of Nature,” was arguably the first general circulation call to curb greenhouse gas emissions caused primarily, but not exclusively, by the burning of fossil fuels. Since that book came out 30 years ago, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased 65 parts per million. That compares with the estimated increase of 70 ppm during the first two centuries after the industrial revolution. Climate scientists for several decades have warned that greenhouse gases could trigger wild climatic gyrations and, of course, rising temperatures.

It was getting hot on the Sunday morning he spoke, the temperature in nearby Salina, a farm town of 47,000 people, approaching the low 90s and humidity close behind. It wasn’t a record, but it has been a year for record heat, each year now seeming to surpass the previous one.

Heat and a sinister beauty

Humans can do 10% less work outside on a given day now as compared in the past, but productivity will decline 30% a half-century from now, he said.

In this record-setting spree of heat, some places have struggled more than others. He cited new individual marks of 129 degrees F on the Asian subcontinent.

“The human body can survive at 129 degrees for a few hours, but after that, your ability to cool off disappears. You just can’t do it. On the trajectory we’re on — scientists are clear — that kind of temperature will not become record-breaking and rare, but will become normal across much of the Asian subcontinent and central China plain. If that happens, it really means that people won’t be able to live there any more than they will be able to live in the cities along our coasts that are already beginning to see the rise of sea level.”

Seas have been rising, in part, because of melting glaciers. McKibben described seeing chunks of ice the size of 12-story skyscrapers calving off glaciers in Greenland last year. The waves, 60 to 70 feet high, had a “kind of sinister beauty,” he said. Those melting glaciers raise ocean levels some tiny degree.

If all of Greenland’s ice melts, however, oceans will rise 23 feet, submerging low-lying places like the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Wes Jackson, left, founder of The Land Institute, and Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. Photo/©The Land Institute

The Prairie Festival is the Land Institute’s signature annual event, this year drawing upwards of 900 people who assembled on chairs in an unpainted barn, its floors still of dirt, the overflow crowd spilling out to sit on portable lawn chairs and on hay bales placed under trees and around grain bins.

The institute was formed in 1976 by Wes Jackson with the goal of developing perennial grains that mimic the ways of nature. Civilization in the last 10,000 years has hewed to annuals such as corn and wheat and, in the last century, application of massive doses of petrochemicals. The institute’s motto is “transforming agricultural, perennially.”

Jackson and his crew in recent years have given talks at Crested Butte, Aspen and, in Vail, at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. The latter has an exhibit about roots that will be on until Nov. 2. It was created in a collaboration of Jim Richardson, a National Geographic photographer, and The Land institute.

See: https://www.vaildaily.com/entertainment/get-to-the-betty-ford-alpine-gardens-exposed-the-secret-life-of-roots-before-it-closes-on-nov-2/

The idea of perennials is a big one, with implications for the carbon cycle. Perennials do a better job of leaving carbon in the ground.

Organic carbon compounds also compose a third of human bodies. “We take carbon in every day, and we breath carbon out every second,” said Fred Iutzi, president of The Land Institute. “It’s ironic that we have managed to get ourselves into a situation where the word ‘carbon’ is fraught.”

Was Keystone XL defeat a success?

McKibben writes often for such magazines as Rolling Stone, Nation, and Time about the fraught state of the planet. He also leads a frantic speaking schedule. I’ve heard him three times in just the last year, once in a Denver bookstore where there were fewer than 30 of us. It’s a wonder when he finds time to write much less spend time in jail.

In 2007, he and students at Vermont’s Middlebury College, where he teaches, formed 350.org, now a powerful agent at fomenting protests directed at fossil fuel interests. The group had a role in President Barack Obama’s veto of the Keystone XL pipeline, which was proposed to transport bitumen from Alberta’s oil/tar sands to the United States. That veto has been reversed by Presidential Donald Trump, but Keystone XL remains unbuilt.

The effort was a triumph, showing that “it was possible to stand up to big energy,” said McKibben. “A lot of the time you win. That’s the thing about movements. When you fight, you often win.”

(U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, in his book “The Land of Flickering Lights,” has a different take on the Keystone XL fight. He voted for the pipeline not because we don’t need to take dramatic action on climate change, he says, but rather because the consequence of the pipeline is negligible and sent the wrong message. It galvanized environmental activists but not the general public, whose understood the defeat as a rejection of economic growth.)

McKibben and others have also had success with the divestment campaign, which in September passed the $11 trillion mark. Peabody Coal, when it declared bankruptcy, blamed the divestment campaign for its woes, he said. Shell calls it a “material risk to its business.”

Now comes an effort to alter lending practices of major financiers of fossil fuel extraction. “The oxygen on which the fires of global warming burns is the money of the banks and insurance and asset managers,” said McKibben. Soon, he said, his organization will call for people to cut up their Chase credit card. And, he added, if that succeeds in altering investments by Chase, the world’s largest lender for expansion of fossil fuel extraction, it will have a tidal wave effect on Wall Street within hours.

Responsibilities of  ‘experienced Americans’

In Kansas this year, McKibben’s audience consisted of people in their 20s and 30s, devoted to agrarian reform, but as many or more older people, gray-headed, as is McKibben.

In speaking to such crowds of what he calls “experienced Americans,” McKibben calls for civil disobedience similar to his own. He often cites the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, another non-violent revolutionary whose most famous writing was “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute expounds on energy efficiency. Photo/©The Land Institute

Amory Lovins has been a revolutionary, too, but of a different sort. He was only 28 when his seminal work advocating a “soft path” for energy was published in Foreign Affairs in 1976. The 10,000-word bundle of big ideas was titled “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken.” His arguments weren’t immediately embraced, but his young genius is becoming more evident each year.

A mountaineer then, Lovins relocated to a Colorado where, in 1983 he co-founded the Rocky Mountain Institute, a now influential think tank. Lovins still lives in the house he built then in a secluded valley only 10 or 15 minutes on an unpaved road from Snowmass, the ski area where most people who “ski Aspen” actually ski.

There, Lovins raises tropical fruits without aid of fossil fuels. He even lacks a fireplace or stove, such as might be used to combust old energy studies—the only useful purpose of old energy studies, he cracked. Tours are available, he advised. “Just ask for the banana farm.”

In Kansas, Lovins mentioned arrest only once, during his explanation of concept he calls integrative design. He called it “arrestingly simple.” The example he used was in pipes, fans, motors, and ductwork. Creating designs at the outset that result in fatter, shorter and straighter pipes instead of skinny, long and crooked — the usual method, he said — can reduce friction 80% to 90%, dramatically reducing the energy required for electric motors and fans.

“If everybody did that it would save a fifth of the world’s electricity,” he said. His team at the Rocky Mountain Institute observed a payback within a year on retrofits. In new construction, of course, the payback would be instantaneous.

Solar panels at the Garfield County airport at Rifle, Colo. Photo/Allen Best

LEDs are an example of improved technology, as distinct from design. They’re 30 times more efficient, 20 times brighter, and 10 times cheaper, he said. He’s not asking for personal privation, just smarter thinking.

Lovins’s first wife, Hunter, once described Lovins as being like a fire hydrant of information. In his public presentations, he always spits out facts and figures with practiced precision, sometimes with a witty jab at those who fail to understand the obviousness of his insights.

The 10,000-word piece published in 1976 began with the key lines from Robert Frost’s poem about roads not taken then neatly laid out the choices: continued expansion of centralized energy supplies, especially in the form of electricity, or a new path. That new path emphasized energy efficiency and deployment of renewable energy “matched in scale and in energy quality to end-use needs.”

See: Amory Lovins’s long, soft, and creatively optimistic path

It took a long time for Lovins’s ideas to get traction. They have now. But energy efficiency still has yet to be fully realized.

“The energy we have saved in this country since 1975 is 30 times the increase in renewable supply,” he said. “Yet the headline ratio-and the hit ratio is pretty much the opposite because renewables you can see on the skyline or on the roof, but energy is invisible, and the energy you don’t use is almost unimaginable.”

On the weekend that Lovins spoke in Kansas, the local newspaper in Salina had an op-ed by syndicated columnist Cal Thomas Jr. that echoed old tropes about the fears in the 1960s and 1970s were about a return of the ice age.

In his 1976 essay, Lovins said a commitment to a “long-term coal economy many times the scale of today’s makes the doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration early in the next century virtually unavoidable, with the prospect then or soon thereafter of substantial and perhaps irreversible changes in global climate. Only the exact date of such changes is in question.”

Neither despair nor complacency

The United States continued to build coal plants at a furious pace into the 1980s. Asian countries still are. In 2004, a task force overseen by former Vice President Dick Cheney called for a vast fleet of new coal-fired power plants. But in fact, energy efficiency has become a giant driver in the energy world.  Utilities in many areas are seeing flat and even declining demand. Economic growth has been decoupled from energy consumption and, according to Lovins, the decoupling has only started.

“Our climate models have conservatively understated the speed and the runway potential of climate change,” he said, “and climate policy model have similarly underestimated what we can do to stop climate change.”

Despair and complacency, he added, are equally unwarranted.

Lovins has often simplified his message to the argument that energy efficiency and now renewable energy should appeal to all good capitalists because it saves money. In response to a question at the Prairie Festival, he admitted it’s more complex than that, pointing to something that he wrote with Paul Hawken 20 years ago.

“We pointed out that markets make a splendid servant but bad master and a worse religion. Markets are very good at what they do: short-term allocation of scarce resources, but they are no substitute for politic, or ethics, or faith. And a society that thinks markets can do those things is in serious trouble.”

Kernza perennial grains have much deeper roots than wheat, an annual, during all seasons of the year.

In 1976, the same year that Lovins’s essay was published, Jackson left behind the security and benefits of a university job in California, conveniently close to the hiking trials of the Sierra Nevada and the cool breezes of Lake Tahoe, to pursue his vision of perennial grains.

One result is Kernza, a perennial grain with roots as long as an elephant is tall. You can now buy Kernza flour, such was used to make pancakes at this year’s Prairie Festival. You can also buy a Kernza-based beer, Long Root Pale Ale, which is brewed by Patagonia, the outdoor apparel. It’s tasty.

But Jackson’s ambition remains largely unfulfilled. At 83, he walks with a limp. Lovins’s big idea remains under-appreciated. The one-time mountaineer now tends toward portliness. And McKibben’s hair is turning gray and white. Like elephants, with their 95-week pregnancies, big ideas often take a long time to get vigorous traction. Now, those big ideas about agriculture, energy, and carbon are running smack into the immediacy of climate change.

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Allen Best

3 thoughts on “Big ideas and the harsh deadline of climate change”

  1. A good history of the movement and some of the key players who have had success. I just wonder if we have yet found the way to persuade a sizeable enough percentage of the population that serious action needs to be taken.

    Human nature does not like bad news. It is out there for all to see, but folks don’t want to accept it. In a way, people have to admit that the lives we have lived had brought us to a bad place. Yes, we have been lied to. But the world is now damaged and getting worse fast. A great amount of what we do has to stop. Our descendants will be living in a very different world than we have lived in.

  2. Grok this: According to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Americans waste 61% to 86% of the energy we use making us the best fiscally irresponsible (but far from the only “developed” country) on that list.

    We, mostly older white men speak the loudest about how to solve this dilemma, have spent most of our lives thoughtlessly enjoying the comfort and convenience of our profligate use of fossil fuels, our increasingly scarce source of great power and wealth.

    It’s time for us to close our mouths and listen to the voices of the children, on whom we have placed this ineffable burden. We have carelessly stolen from their future and left them with a dilemma that, if not resolved by them, will spell the end of civilization as we know it and possibly leave them to preside over the end of the species of homo collussus.

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