On the liberation of despair

Thanks, Banksy!

[Former political prisoner Tim] DeChristopher was radicalized when he heard from a leading climate scientist how slim the chances of preventing catastrophic climate change actually were. “Once I realized that there was no hope in any sort of normal future,” he explained, “there’s no hope for me to have anything my parents or grandparents would have considered a normal future — of a career and a retirement and all that stuff — I realized that I have absolutely nothing to lose by fighting back. Because it was all going to be lost anyway.””

From Jacobin Magazine.

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12 thoughts on “On the liberation of despair

  1. I had the good fortune to meet Tim at a party in Salt Lake City once, before his incarceration, and got to have a long one-on-one conversation with him.

    In my opinion, he’s one of the most ethical people I’ve ever met. He’s also intellectually brilliant, friendly, personable, and unreasonably optimistic.

    The climate movement is lucky to have him, and the world would be lucky to have a hundred more just like him. That being said, I think Elon Musk ultimately will have more positive impact, as he’s using a carrot, and reaching for prosperity rather than using a whip and preaching austerity. He seems to understand that our only path forward is a transformation of industrialism, not an abandonment of it. Sure, there will be a lot more electric bicycles in our future than Model S’s, but the path to one leads through the other. We must sustain the economy.

    Some may argue that industrial civilization and the planet as we know it can’t both survive, but we’ve trapped ourselves. As currently configured, if the cards collapse and the grids go down, the reactors will all blow, and the ecology still does not survive. The path towards a kindlier, gentler, sustainable planet leads through an industrial energy transformation.

    On the bright side, it is happening.

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    • I hope you’re right. You’re certainly right that humans just walking away from the mess they’ve created (or dying off in some human-specific fantasy disease or something) would lead to a bigger mess, at least in terms of the concert we’ve come to think of as “nature.” You don’t have to look too hard to find evidence that the “recovery” in Pripyat is shot through with little ominous markers of trouble. There are more birds now, but they aren’t healthy birds.

      I’m personally less inclined to trust Elon Musk than you might be. When societies have come up against hard ecological problems in the past, (say, cholera) for-profit ventures haven’t really done so well. Specifically, the selective piping of water to paying clients in the London area did little more than confine cholera to the poor (who relied on municipal wells) and those wealthier folks who unknowingly contracted with water companies whose intakes were too near the Thames. The sewers were built by the city itself, and eliminated cholera for everybody. Working off your bike example, its not the just guy who designs a great bike who reduces dependence on cars, but also the mayor who makes great bike lanes, or closes off certain routes to ICEs. It takes a certain concerted organization of power, not just the brave (or clever) acts of individuals, to create a world in which defectors don’t undermine the sincere efforts of “good consumers.”

      That said, since no concerted effort seems to be transpiring, I will happily do what I can to support people who make disruptive bids on mineral rights or offer carrots, as you say. Or whips for that matter.

      A

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  2. Aside from being monetized to reach his objectives, I don’t think Tesla is a for profit venture per se. It is a vehicle for global transformation. Musk has basically said as much. He founded the company when he saw Toyota and Chevrolet crush their electric car programs. He essentially concluded that he would have to do it himself and put their feet to the fire, which he has in spades.

    Earlier this year, when he opened Tesla’s patents for anyone to use in good faith, I took him at his word that it was to speed the adoption of electric cars; that Tesla alone is not changing the market quickly enough, time is short, and he wanted to accelerate it.

    Oil at a sustained price of $100.+ a barrel may have influenced the advent of serious electric car programs worldwide also, but I don’t think the Musk effect can be discounted. There’s more than one way to “organize the concentrations of power” that you mention, and in my view, Musk used the fearsome specter of market dominance in electric cars to focus the concentration of the global auto manufacturers very effectively.

    Unlike Musk, I am not optimistic about the human future. I think we are fatally flawed as a species (too clever, too unwise, and too violent), and that isn’t going to change (we do have some good attributes also though), and we’ve already generated a perfect storm against ourselves. But, there are hopeful trends that give pause, and make me consider that I could be mistaken, and we may squeeze through the keyhole and not extinct ourselves right away, and that buys us time to wise up. They are:

    Conventional oil is clearly peaked.
    Unconventional oil plays are going bust, the majors are slinking away, and investors are fleeing.
    Hinkley Point nuclear project is demonstrating that nuclear is too expensive, and a bad investment.
    Chernobyl and Fukushima have demonstrated that the industries risk assessments are garbage.
    Market price for renewable energy is beating coal, and bearing down on gas.
    Large institutions are divesting from fossil fuels.
    Global investment is shifting to wind and solar dramatically.
    Germany is demonstrating that an advanced industrial economy can be powered solely with renewable energy.
    Germany is demonstrating that mass production housing can be zero net energy.
    It is being demonstrated that increased renewable penetration increases grid stability.
    Developing economies are skipping straight to renewable power sources.

    and swinging back around to Musk, it seems obvious to me that:

    Somewhere around 2017, Tesla will begin rolling Model III’s off the line with power packs straight from their Reno Giga-factory, and in conjunction with Solar City, will offer sign on the dotted line lease or purchase packages for an electric car and a rooftop solar array to power it, for a lower monthly cost of ownership than can be had with an combustion car burning petrol. Road trips will be free of course, because the car will have a 200+ mile range, and access to the Supercharger network that blankets the entire continental U.S. and Western Europe. Nissan and BMW will be fiercely competing with their own electric offerings.

    at that point, the future of the combustion engine car will be terminal. It already is, even now.

    It’s not improbable that our world could be largely fossil fuel free by 2060, and once we cease emitting carbon, we can get serious about sequestering what we already emitted.

    I can see a viable path past peak oil now, and a possible mitigation of climate change. Ten years ago, all I could see was the immanent collapse of industrial civilisation, and those reactors popping, one after another.

    -RIban

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    • First of all, I disagree with you and respect the crap out of what you’re writing here. That is, I’d almost rather keep my mouth shut and hear what you think about the rest of this blog than risk alienating you over this! However, I do disagree. I think the problem with the Tesla idea is not the money-making aspect of profit-seeking but the individual-consumer-choice aspect. So perhaps I miswrote in my previous reply. Asking everyone to individually switch to a more-expensive car, to avoid more-expensive gasoline, simply creates two perverse incentives for the wealthy- to flagrantly consume fuel and/or giant electric cars, as a power signifier, and pushes everyone else out of their vehicles. The advantage to regulatory change is that if everyone needs to switch to bikes, or electric cars, or whatever- Segways, who cares- compliance is less likely to become class-loaded.

      The other concern about the Tesla model, which I agree Musk is making an effort to defuse, is that the infrastructure is just too heavy. For the same reason nuclear plants are hard to build (though you’re right that safety and waste disposal are separate, and huge, problems) an entire new fleet of cars for America is hard to build- its just too much hard iron that needs smelting. Lithium is a shit-ton easier on the planet than petroleum, but petroleum is something like a third of the global economy; can we just “repurpose” all that stuff? Probably not fast enough to ensure a seamless transition.

      I just got online for the first time in a few days; somewhere out there is a global resource prediction report that includes something called “the Fortress World Scenario” which is pretty much the powerful-get-everything-and-bunker-up outcome. I think the best activism right now, from street protests to engineering, is that which makes the Fortress World less likely. Sorry this is such a short comment.

      A

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  3. At some point the scales will be lifted from the eyes of the majority of people and that is when it gets interesting and when the climate change needs to have big plans in place because the only thing with the capacity to get us through this mess is a wartime-style command economy run by governments. Just have a look at the stories from WW2 in the UK, people happily went to where the government sent them, women went and worked in the factories and on the farms and everyone pulled together because they believed in the cause.

    The ‘liberation of despair’ gives us the chance to imagine a future where people unite again, this time to basically save the planet. Of course it requires everyone to confront reality, give up on their current dreams and feel hopeless for a time but I find the idea of everyone in my country coming together to solve the problems of climate change really exciting. Our current meaningless western existence will be replaced by the challange of rescuing the ecosystem and saving humanity – personally I find that a hell of a lot more meaningfull than “I shop therefore I am”.

    Like I say it will require a command style economy and genuine leaders like those that keep popping up in Latin America. It will require total support from the population and the abandonment of the aspiration culture, which means the generation entering adulthood now is the one that will start the mass movement, but most of all it requires a vision and genuine leadership to be ready at the moment when mass hopelessness sets in because thats when the population will be most vulnerable to following the wrong sorts of leaders.

    My hope is that somewhere in the climate change movement is a think tank planning for the moment of crisis and I hope that they’re ready to communicate this vision of people united together to fight for a common cause.

    That’s about the best future I can imagine at this point and I actually think most people will love it.

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    • That first sentence was supposed to read:
      At some point the scales will be lifted from the eyes of the majority of people and that is when it gets interesting and when the climate change movement needs to have big plans in place…

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    • Not a terrible comparison; war to climate change response. Generally when I get most depressed is when I think of how many people will have to give up so much to make this thing go- forget turning down the thermostat, this is maybe-leave-town-once-every-three-years kind of a thing. You’re right that wars have engendered that kind of singularity of purpose, though the existential threat was a bit clearer.

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  4. If you don’t think Tesla is a for-profit venture, write them and ask them to give you a car. Or even give you a car at cost of production. Not to say that Musk doesn’t also think he’s changing the world—I am at present working in a part of the country where every other car on the road is a Tesla. It looks… actually, not much changed. Just very rich.

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  5. The power grid isn’t the only thing humans can (and might) walk away from. For just one example, agricultural practices have stripped or rendered barren much of the earth’s top-soil layer, which we really can’t regenerate with any fancy “eco-solution,” as is the buzzword here in Austin. Even if humans abandoned every monocropped and industrialized field right now, feedback loops are in place to continue envrionmental degradation to the point of collapse. In other words, we’re not just at peak oil or peak energy, but at peak soil, peak bee, peak water, etc. Even if we all bought electric cars or all switched to bikes tomorrow, which you know we won’t, we still need bees to pollinate our food, and we can’t fix the bee problem the good ol’ fashioned way (spending and consuming). We can’t eat electricity, either.

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    • Hi Austin! Lived there for five years once, back when you could do that without a T1 cable implanted in your skull.

      I’m not sure about the soil issue, but we haven’t desertified the planet yet. Generally when you look at permanently ruined farmland, you’re looking at evaporative salination. Irrigation water (with some dissolved ions) goes on the soil, pure vapor comes off, repeat for enough generations and you get salty sand. Depending on the salinity (and hence the source) of your irrigation, this can be super-fast (northeast Africa after the Aswan) or relatively slow (Ogalalla, so far). What you need is surplus runoff to wash away your salt, which means you need non-soluble storage for biomass; if all your nitrogen is locked up in humates and urea, you better have pure (i.e. rain) water or you’re going to wash out your soil. If your nitrogen is in trees and cover crops that don’t head off downstream, you’re in much better shape.

      That said, where I live now made the second half of that mistake in a big way, and has somewhat come back. Starving, facing extortionate rents, farmers plowed “from ridgeline to ridgeline” and all the soil washed downhill. Didn’t help with the hunger or the rent, but now its pretty common to see skinny trees on the slopes and farming only in the bottomlands, where the runoff isn’t so bad. So far (and for the forseeable future, thanks to a kink in the climate predictions) we’re going to be okay on rain farming so salt isn’t too bad.

      My point is, if you are talking about trademarked systems of rebuilding soil that I can’t name here, there’s not much return on labor for a very long time, and if you depend on that for a living, you’re going to starve. On the other hand, short of actual desertification, soil comes back in as little as a hundred years, provided your release the destructive pressure in the meantime.

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  6. Anne,

    You won’t alienate me by disagreeing with me; educate is more likely. Your blog was a happy find through Ran Prieur, and your Ebola articles are simply great. Your writing is excellent.

    First off let me confess that I hate cars. They are expensive, noisy, dangerous, cause horrible human unfriendly built environments, and really don’t save any time. They make people lazy, unfit, and anti-social. That we are exchanging the viability of our eco-sphere, in part, for the temporary ‘benefit’ of the convenience they provide, is simply astonishing.

    My default is to walk and bicycle for transportation. I live on the Wasatch Front in Utah, and we have a transit system which is likely in the top ten in the U.S.. The linear geography of our metro area in theory is very conducive to transit. I’m ideologically disposed towards it. If I need to travel long distances, I try and use it.

    However, I find that in practice it is expensive, more than doubles travel times (at best), exposes me to pathogens, and routinely leaves me stranded, and doesn’t really go where I need it to. It doesn’t take very many instances of having to wait an extra two hours at a train station because the bus delivering you there was late, before you default back to other options, if you have them.

    Climate change data has brought me to the conclusion that, aside from breathing, it is unethical to emit greenhouse gasses. Period. I have a home office, so no daily commute, but I do have to drive to meet with clients several times a week. My social life is impacted by my views; there are parties that I miss, camping trips that I don’t take and visits to family and friends in neighboring cities and states that I don’t make as frequently, because it makes me so uncomfortable to burn gasoline for ‘elective’ reasons. I will electrify my bike soon, which will broaden my car-free range. Do I think that my doing so accomplishes anything? No. My individual action accomplishes nothing, but our collective actions are the entirety of the problem, so, ethical dilemma.

    The unfortunate reality is that we have built our cities and towns around cars. This will be difficult and take a lot of time to unwind. Most people could not abandon their cars even if they wanted to, which, most don’t.

    So given all of the above, when I see Nissan Leafs about town, I’m envious. Because were I to have one, along with a mere 1kW solar PV array to power it cleanly, I could once again drive for normal if frivolous reasons. I would still walk and bike as my primary default though, because I enjoy moving around in the world under my own power.

    With all of that for context, here’s my thoughts on your reply:

    Electric cars are already cheaper than combustion cars in total lifetime cost of ownership. This is even true for Tesla’s offering when compared to equivalent vehicles.
    The cost of power to ‘fuel’ an electric car is equivalent to $1. per gallon gasoline.

    So electric cars will be no more class loaded than cars already are, and although replacing the entire global car fleet is an enormous industrial undertaking, it is something we already routinely do about every fifteen years. Electric cars do not require more materials to build than combustion cars, and within a few years (2020?) they’ll be at price parity without subsidy. They can also be used for load balancing when integrated with a smart grid, so they are synergistic with renewably sourced power.

    Steel is largely already in a global cradle to cradle closed recycling loop. Cars can be manufactured to be 100% recyclable.
    Tesla’s batteries are 97% recyclable, and lithium itself is 100% recyclable. The battery recycling loop will be closed from the very beginning.

    And yes, fossil fuels are an enormous component of the global economy, but wind already provides more jobs than the coal industry does. It is not likely to be seamless, but an energy transformation is already underway. It is very clearly happening, faster than projections. Renewable power is starting to beat fossil power on wholesale market price. Whether we can transition to carbon free energy by 2050, a mere 35 years, which would supposedly constrain our warming to 2 degrees C, who knows. Seems very unlikely. But in my view, and this is really my main point, attempting a transition to a carbon free advanced industrial economy is really our best option to try and avoid both catastrophic and catabolic collapse. And at least for the time being, electric cars will play a significant role in that attempted transition.

    Personal car ownership is very likely to decline however. I think the near future will bring autonomous electric car share, both private and public (see what Paris is doing as an example). These will ultimately kill bus and light rail transit, but promote intercity and interstate passenger rail. The autonomous vehicle will allow for packet routing within cities, and possibly the elimination of traffic lights. With no need for cars to be stopped half the time, travel speeds could be halved, to 25 or even 20 mph, so walking and biking become much safer, and cyclist on electric bikes can simply ride in traffic.

    Aaron,

    China has a government run command economy, and their environmental record is dismal. They can take policy action more quickly than democracies, but time will tell whether that is ultimately an ecological advantage.

    As for requiring everyone to give up their current dreams and feel hopeless for a time, that is not a strategy that will mobilize people and save us.

    Housing produces about a third of our carbon emissions: We know how to build Passiv Haus and positive-net-energy housing. Total cost of ownership for such homes is already LESS.

    Transport produces about another third of our carbon emissions: Electric cars are viable replacements for combustion cars. Freight can be electrified. Farm and heavy equipment can be run on bio-diesel. Air travel? Not yet resolved.

    Industry contributes the last third of emissions. Germany is demonstrating that an advanced industrial economy can be transitioned to renewable energy.

    A strategy of austerity would collapse global economies. This would make it far more difficult to transition to a clean economy. We’d be too broke to do it.

    The problem with radical revolutions is that there is no guarantee that they will succeed in ushering in something better. Reforming the system if possible has much greater chance of success. Industrialism has a lot more problems than just its emissions, but if we were to end suddenly, in a time frame that would avoid catastrophic warming, billions would die. Chaos would rage. Grids would collapse, and reactors would go critical and explode.

    kerricklucker,
    Insolvency wouldn’t help Tesla accomplish much of anything. Profit taking and social benefit are also not mutually exclusive anyway. To me, the absence of a tail pipe on those rich looking cars you see everywhere, is a huge difference. Also, that rich look is purposeful. It is part of Musk’s strategy to kill the perceptual damage done to the notion of electric cars by the triangle golf carts of the seventies, and anything Zap! has ever shit out for the purpose of defrauding investors. The Roadster, The Model S, The Model X, those cars are not Musk’s goal. They are a strategy to get to the goal, which is affordable mass production electric cars (by Tesla, but also by others) which will permanently kill the combustion engine cars, because they are better cars.

    expedehurculem,

    We might fix the bee problem by banning neonicitinoid pesticides, which Europe has already done provisionally, and by leaving some of their honey for them.

    But, yeah, much seems dire.

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