Beyond Hope

Fat cats like to breathe clean air: that was the facile takeaway from the Sierra Club’s recent conferring of its Trailblazer Award on Michael Bloomberg for his advocacy of the Club’s ‘Beyond Coal’ program and the support provided by Bloomberg Philanthropies. The event was held at a cavernous exhibition hall in San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts complex – an early monument to globalism built as the centerpiece of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, which celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal and thus the linkage of the old Atlantic World with the emergent Pacific Rim.

There’s plenty of historical precedent for the rich and powerful supporting environmental advocacy or simply ensuring that certain parts of the world are maintained in a pristine state for their edification and enjoyment. The shahs of Persia built their pleasure gardens, English kings maintained depopulated forests for the pleasures of the chase and Teddy Roosevelt saw in the creation of America’s National Parks (depopulated too, of their Native American inhabitants) the preservation of his big-game hunting privileges. Bloomberg is set to enjoy the results of shutting down the nation’s coal-powered power plants and breathing the cool fresh air (free of sooty particulates) that may thus result from averting global warming: and he is magnanimously sharing this beneficence with the rest of us. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – unless you are uncomfortable with the self-interested perspectives of the uber wealthy.

It is just such a blinkered vision that informs Michael Bloomberg’s and Carl Pope’s recent best-seller, Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses and Citizens Can Save the Planet, 2017. Pope is a former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club (any synergy resulting from the publication of the book and the Club’s award to one of its authors is doubtless coincidental). The two writers seem like twin Pollyannas with conjoined fingers to the wind, which they only care to extend when the breezes are balmy.  Somehow, out of ever-worsening climate scenarios, they manage to fashion a book that conflates the amelioration of climate change with capitalism, new technologies and economic growth. Left unmentioned is any reference to the U.S. military as the country’s biggest CO2 polluter and that, lo these many years, economic growth and the unforeseen results of technological innovation have consistently been the primary drivers of anthropogenic climate change. Bloomberg and Pope celebrate a new generation of technological innovation that attempts the reduction of the climate impact of large-scale agri-business, inter-continental trade, discretionary travel, urban growth and a burgeoning global GDP; nary a word of disapproval is aimed at these fundamental building blocks of civilizational hubris, egregious energy consumption and of the destruction of wildlife habitat.

Their book documents the Sierra Club’s campaign ‘Beyond Coal’, which has been hugely successful in reducing the number of coal burning power plants in the U.S. and thus their climate impacting CO2 emissions, and is to be lauded on that account; but while Bloomberg and the Club may be in the process of winning this particular battle (he has pledged to continue his support of the program for a further three years), by undertaking environmental reform with the allied purpose of technologically driven economic growth, they and others like them, are fated to lose the battle for a sustainable planet.

Entirely missing from Climate of Hope is an historical awareness that coal itself was initially considered a great boon to mankind in its ability to power machines that vastly reduced the levels of back-breaking labor to which many had been inured for centuries, quite apart from its miraculous ability to energize the economy and jump-start the Industrial Revolution. These impacts were thought to totally out-weigh the brutal circumstances of its mining and were embraced in complete ignorance of coal’s long-term deleterious climate effects when burnt as a fuel, which were first identified at the end of the nineteenth century.

Now, production of photo-voltaic panels requires major inputs of energy and raw materials, including iron, copper and aluminum.  Indeed, the panels require greater amounts of iron per produced KWh than conventional sources of energy – including coal fired installations. They also require a number of exotic minerals such as Telluride, Indium, Cadmium and Gallium which are by-products of the mining of zinc, aluminum and copper. The benefits of solar energy almost certainly outweigh the negative impacts of the panels’ production and land utilization, but the authors scrupulously excise any such considerations from their relentlessly upbeat survey. Other alternative energy strategies harbor deleterious environmental impacts which are entirely overlooked both in this book and in their euphoric public acclamation.

The authors do, however, document the very recent history of how ozone depleting CFCs, a class of multi-purpose industrial chemicals primarily used in refrigerant lines and aerosols, were replaced in the late 1980’s with HFCs which have subsequently added greatly to the atmospheric release of carbon dioxide and which themselves are now subject to global banishment – a cautionary tale that should have tempered their enthusiasm for the other behavioral and technological fixes for climate damaging economic activities which they tout so enthusiastically.

They acknowledge the role of concrete production in adding to the atmosphere’s carbon load, but blithely applaud infrastructure projects that feature massive use of the material. The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate estimates that the world will add $90 trillion in infrastructure by 2030. Much of that will be physically underpinned with concrete which currently contributes 5% of annual global anthropogenic CO2 production. The Commission further suggests that the level of today’s infrastructure will be doubled within the next thirty-five years: Bloomberg characteristically sees this as a financing challenge rather than the devastating source of aggravated CO2 production and of the eco-system destruction that it truly represents. As Carl Pope writes, in another context, “we need to get out of the nature-destruction business and into the habitat-restoration business”.

There is a great deal to be said for many of the initiatives which Bloomberg and Pope document in the on-going fight to restrain climate change. They chart progress in eco-system restoration projects throughout the world. Their plea for the capture of methane released in agricultural and oil production processes for use as a fuel is beyond reproach. Similarly, their documentation of efforts to reduce the use of automobiles and promote walking and bicycling is nothing but encouraging. They quite reasonably favor the city for its live/work adjacencies, as well as its more efficient utilization of ground space and energy because of its high rise apartments and concentrations of commercial and retail spaces.

But Climate of Hope remains relentlessly self-serving: it validates the continuing predation of the oligarchy whilst valorizing their selective support of green initiatives – the ones that, as Bloomberg candidly admits, hold the most promise of profit. It denies the reality that capitalism depends on economic growth – and that the planet likely reached the limits of sustaining that growth some decades ago.

What we need now is a similarly popular book, and perhaps a similarly popular and well-funded environmental non-profit (which might also adopt the imprimatur of John Muir) to serve as similarly relentless shills for the adoption of a new economic model of no-growth, one not addicted to technological fixes, and one that is fully compatible with the goal of keeping the planet in a condition which supports the vibrant mix of species in which they have evolved. Discontinuous environmental change, to which we are fated if the alteration of our climate and eco-systems is not checked, will inevitably pick favorites: humanity is not likely to be amongst them.

Full Disclosure: the book and an umbrella with a fabric rain canopy by the American designer Maya Lin (but made in China) were gifted to me at the end of the Sierra Club event. 

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John Davis is an architect living in southern California. He blogs at Urban Wildland

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