Thursday, June 18, 2015

Canticle of the Sun

Laudato Si (“Praise be to You, O my Lord!”)
St. Francis of Assisi - Anglican version

Yes, be praised in all your creatures
brother sun and sister moon
in the stars and in the wind,
air and fire and flowing water.

For our sister mother earth,
She who feeds us and sustains us;
For her fruits, her grass, her flowersfor the mountains and the oceans

Praise for those who spread forgiveness,
Those who share your peace with others,
Bearing trials and sickness bravely!
Even sister death won’t harm them.

For our life is but a song,
And the reason for our singing
Is to praise you for the music;
Join the dance of Your creation.

Praise to You, Father Most Holy,
Praise and thanks to You, Lord Jesus,
Praise to You, Most Holy Spirit

The encyclical released by the Vatican today (hosted on GCI's site) appears on the heels of a leaked draft of this position by the Church a few days ago. It's led to speculation that Francis’ remarks on it will not only say climate change is real and caused by humans, but will explain how that happens according to the vast majority of scientists. Which of course is a stunning change of direction for this institution, but it highlights the critical nature of the planetary crisis that we're heading into. The Church also embraces the idea that people of faith and people of science can complement one another.

Upon its release today, the New York Times has signaled it as a call for swift action on climate change from an increasingly popular world religious leader. The encyclical is seen as an unsubtle nudge for action, even as it provides support for leaders faced with tough choices in countries with large numbers of Catholics. It goes on to outline an analysis of key portions of its statements in an interactive online format.

The Vatican has done significant outreach with climate researchers and other governments in order to forge a strongly collaborative position and frame it within the broad parameters of Catholic theology. A very large tent, in other words, which creates a space within which the moral parameters of addressing climate change can be done by people all over the world.

Update 6/19/15: This encyclical will trigger a long over-due “global conversation of, how do we even define prosperity? Is it just accumulating more dollars or do we have to factor in being accountable for our impact on the planet and all people that live on it?”

Update 6/20/15:  Pope Francis attempted to start a global conversation yesterday with his new encyclical on the environment. Unlike most encyclicals, it was addressed not to Catholics, but to "every person living on this planet", and embraces science as part of its policy.

Update 6/30/15: Responses to the encyclical
Aubrey Meyer: Degrowth to avoid extreme damages
David Suzuki: Shift away from growth model
Herman Daly: New Theology of Creation is degrowth 

Update 7/13/15:  In one sense, Laudato si is a critique of 21st century capitalism and as a consequence also of the philosophical underpinnings of the industrial revolution.
After the encyclical, lessons for climate activism?

In thinking we were ensuring our survival, we created the conditions for our own destruction, as is now obvious in the actuality of climate change and of unsustainable production and consumption.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Back to the Future

So what is drought? As discussed earlier, it's a condition where the population's requirements for water outrun the resources of a region or country. The MAHB covers this as well, noting that Taiwan is dealing with a severe water shortage, and we see this in devastating impacts in Kathmandu and Sao Paulo as well. It's a worldwide issue that we've seen coming for decades.

In California, the drought conditions are exacerbated by overuse of water from a formerly abundant system of water supply pipes and rivers from the Bay Delta and the Colorado River. It's a massive system of hydraulic engineering developed since well over 100 years ago to bring water into the drier areas of the state. This is a complex picture with no easy solutions and a lot of exhausted old ideas about how water is supplied and the way to keep the water supply system functioning without the environmental devastation that comes from the needs of nearly 40 million people, as well as the farming industry's demand of a significant portion of it. Devin Galloway, a scientist with the geological survey, sees devastation of a historic proportion returning to California. He says that even if farmers stopped pumping groundwater immediately, the damage already done to aquifers now drained to record-low levels will trigger sinking that will last for years, even decades.

A big part of the problem is the water contracts within this system, and as the chart above shows, the demand for water has now begun to outstrip the actual supply. Unfortunately the contracts held by the water suppliers in this system significantly exceed the actual supply of water, and are thus oversubscribed. But since these contracts are not adjusted, this "paper water" will continue to be sold to new water meters as development continues in the state. This slide is part of a presentation given by Bill Patzert, a climatologist with Caltech’s NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He presented it at the beginning of this month, which is covered in an interview at LA Magazine. To quote him: "The biggest change is not a global warming-related increase in temperature. The biggest change stems from the extreme makeover we’ve done in California. In L.A., the average temperature has changed more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 150 years."

The public response to this drought has been a multiple-broadcast presentation by Governor Jerry Brown via television and internet media this last week, in a conversation at USC. He held forth about the need to deal with water resources intelligently. “The metaphor is spaceship Earth,” Brown said. “In a spaceship you reuse everything. Well, we’re in space and we have to find a way to reuse, and with enough science and enough funding we’ll get it done.”

So, our Governor Moonbeam is back, and in the driver's seat. Given his rhetoric, he's evidently aiming for COP 21 and a leadership position with the agreements he's forged with the western states, Canada, China and India. This should prove to be a very interesting year.

Update 7/14/15: Historical background of California’s water crisis; the “paper water” principle is similar to financial derivatives, as paper water can be traded without the need for any tangible collateral. Real estate speculators saw this as a true chimera, enabling them to build virtually anywhere, regardless of the presence of water.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Another World Environment Day

Today, World Environment Day (WED) is celebrated every year on 5 June to raise global awareness to take positive environmental action to protect nature and the planet Earth. It is run by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).It was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972 on the day that United Nations Conference on the Human Environment began.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon makes very clear that “Humanity continues to consume far more natural resources than the planet can sustainably provide,” and invites the world's citizens to become agents of change to our capitalist system that's destroying the environment.

This is a strong counterpoint to the emerging thought in the Ecomodernist Manifesto sponsored by the Breakthrough Institute. It takes a position that rejects the idea “that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse,” and instead argues that what is needed is a reliance on technologies, from nuclear power to carbon capture and storage, that allow for a “decoupling [of] human development from environmental impacts.” A group of over fifteen researchers from the degrowth scholarship community has written a detailed refutation of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, which assumes that growth is a given, decouples growth from impacts, and it ignores the lessons of ecology and thermodynamics, which teach us that species (and societies) have natural limits to growth. Ecomodernism is condescending toward pre-industrial, agrarian, non-industrialized societies, and the Global South. It's basically a justification for greenwashing.

Another variant on this perspective is "Greening of Capitalism" by John A. Mathews of Macquarie University's Graduate School of Management in Sydney. The final chapter of this book brings together all the elements of the green that is emerging in the 21st century, where the firm itself can grow but the system as a whole remains within its ecological limits. But the assumption that the circular economy proposes here doesn't address the impact of growth on planetary resources, and, frankly, the continuing emissions created by all human activities driven by energy growth: even wind, solar, tide, geothermal and hydroelectric. A system re-designed to operate in this fashion doesn't reverse the damage that we've done fast enough to keep the planet from undergoing ecological disintegration.

The UN is quite evidently trying to steer a path for human civilization that avoids the worst of what's upon us and allows the human community to engineer a sustainable path to a smaller and regenerative civilization. This December's COP 21 agreement should prove to be a critical point on that path.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Its Keeling Over

Climate change has already passed the tipping point, as has been documented by NASA and many other scientific sources. We're headed for some drastic and possibly unsurvivable climate impacts by 2050, let alone the projection framework of 2100 on the table at COP 21 in Paris this year. The video above explains the famous graph that we've been seeing for many years now. It's very, very simple and very stark. We've passed the safe limit of 350 PPMV of carbon in the atmosphere, and are now above 400, rising rapidly.

Is there a way to avert dangerous climate change at this point? That's a position taken by Aubrey Meyer and his calculations in the CBAT online tool, which uses the Contraction and Convergence structure to compute the necessary equitable reductions per capita.  The diagram below shows one scenario that tries to get the planet back onto a survivable temperature curve by means of a drastic carbon reduction strategy (click to enlarge). Check out this tool and see what it involves to keep us from going into an irreversible and runaway climate change.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Deal with It

The National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Drought Monitor has a portal for the current global drought conditions. The status as of right now is this:

By the end of March 2015, a preliminary look at drought indicators points to a general degradation in drought conditions throughout the month.   Europe was mostly wet in March with the exception of the Iberian Peninsula and the Great Britain. Conditions around the Mediterranean  and Black Seas have improved during the past few months.  In Asia, drought continues to be focused in the eastern part of the continent.  Very dry conditions exist from Russia, through Mongolia and China, and into northern India and Southeast Asia.  In Taiwan, water restrictions are in place and two northern cities are experiencing a stop to their water supply service two days a week.

A recent report on Taiwan reveals that water rationing is underway. Water supplies will be cut off entirely for two days each week, on a rotating basis, in several northern cities due to lack of rainfall. In São Paulo the primary reservoir at Cantareira feeding much of the metropolitan city is nearly bone-dry. People in São Paulo are resorting to deliveries from bicycle riders carrying jugs of water. Others are digging their private wells on their own land or even in basements, which can lead to contamination issues. Those who can afford it are hoarding water, and the more resourceful are using cisterns and building rainwater catchment systems.

We're seeing a global impact on water supplies as areas of very high population experience drought as the planet warms up and dries out. The snow and glaciers no longer provide the spring water supplies that many areas rely on because of the lack of precipitation over the winter. In the United States, the western pacific states, particularly California, are in extreme drought, which is bad news for the California central valley that provides most of the produce sold across the country and about 28% of the crop that is exported to countries such as China, as well. Central Valley farmers are unlikely to receive water from the region's major irrigation project this summer, which means that growers will probably have to idle more land — and produce fewer crops — because there is simply not enough water for all of their fields.

So what is drought? It's a condition where the population's requirements for water outrun the resources of a region or country. California's drought is a periodic phenomenon with a historic record showing its fluctuations, documented by a report from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). It's an excellent study dated February 2015 (large file). But it's also exacerbated by the climate change that severely reduces the snowpack that's critical for the water supply in the Central Valley as well as the urban areas of the state. The urban areas have their own issues of inefficiencies and waste, consider the ongoing freshwater supply pipe breakage because of a deteriorating infrastructure in Southern California, especially in the city of Los Angeles, with regular flooding from water main breaks. California Governor Jerry Brown has therefore declared 25% water reductions in urban areas by executive order, emphasizing that climate change impacts are not a hoax.

A very good summary of the arguments developing over water in this state between agriculture and the large urban populations is summarized in an article in Grist magazine. It's not a simplistic problem that can be reduced to the blame game or pie-in-the-sky technology fixes; the best approaches to solutions involve far better management of lands and watersheds as well as recycling and reducing demand. It's a search for resilient solutions to the problem of limits. It's also a shift in expectations that the local populace has about their lifestyles, namely, the "English estate" lifestyle versus the reality of a dry Mediterranean climate. This inevitably leads to a discussion of population reduction or relocation, which still seems to be the "third rail" in climate dialogue and resource allocation negotiations.

Three agencies will implement a first-of-its-kind federal commitment to support resilience of the nation's natural resource via landscape partnerships at the national level. The Resilient Lands and Waters Initiative is a key part of the Obama Administration’s Climate and Natural Resources Priority Agenda, a first of its kind, comprehensive commitment across the federal government to support resilience of America’s natural resources. This is the necessary level of effort required of nations and regions in order to face the climate change impacts that have now become inevitable.

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Southern California Classic

A new book about Smith and Williams has been published by the Getty Press, reflecting an exhibit that was staged at UC Santa Barbara in 2013 and documented the work archived there by Whitney Smith. It's an interesting look back at some of the many projects done by this firm, including a brief look at the Community Facilities Planners office in South Pasadena that served as the office for this firm. It mentions in passing the roots of the firm's practice within the USC group that produced a significant body of work covered in Esther McCoy's documentation of The Second Generation of California architects.

The Case Study Houses 5 and 12 are mentioned, also a subject of an exhibit and a McCoy publication, which made use of the lath, or "screen" that became so prominent in their work as an integration of exterior and interior spaces. These became ancillary spaces to the formal structure of the collective smaller buildings themselves, as was used in the Neighborhood Church campus as an organizing element before the trellises and small buildings were demolished for a very large addition, amputating the entire site plan concept and overshadowing the existing historic Greene and Greene home on the campus (Cole House) as well as the adjacent Gamble House. This unfortunate overdevelopment obliterated the spatial qualities of the campus and erased the integration of the gardens and structures, resulting in a significant loss of coherence in the site design.

A few mentions in the book are made of post-1973 projects by Whitney Smith, but omitted is one of his last projects completed before he relocated to the pacific northwest. This small complex is located in South Pasadena as well, and makes a completely different kind of reference to the locally traditional mexican courtyard style vocabulary. He also made extensive use of skylights in the same way he did with his own separate office building designed after 1973, also in South Pasadena and not listed in this book. It's an example of the strategy of an adapted vernacular that has evolved dramatically in the profession today.

Main entrance off of the side alley
Birdseye view
The firm itself arose out of the collaborative process between many architects and professionals, and some of  that's covered in this blog as well as in another paper written by Tim Gregory as research for a residential project in San Marino. Whit started his practice with homes in this community. A further compilation of the Smith and Williams legacy and the exhibit is online here, courtesy of John Crosse.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Sound of Silence

"Fools," said I, "you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you"
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

Many more conservative voices are beginning to join the chorus of progressive warnings over the impact of the changes taking place on our planet. The small voices we heard forty years ago are swelling in alarm at the rapid shifts that we're seeing now in climatology, oceanography, geography and the enlarging drought plagued lands across the continents. The willful blindness of governments and industries about the impact of fossil fuels are beginning to crumble. Willful blindness is a legal concept which means, if there's information that you could know and you should know but you somehow manage not to know, the law deems that you're willfully blind. 

Or perhaps we now see that we're suffering a collective form of implicatory denial because of the overwhelming risks clearly before us, and now that denial is no longer possible or realistic. It has become too evident that swift changes must come and are coming to our economy because of the clear impact that carbon emissions are having on our planet.

The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies now hosts a website for their project on Climate Change Communication: Bridging Science and Society. It consists of research, outreach and a synopsis of possible actions that people can take to speak out and take action on restricting the carbon emissions that are changing our planetary systems and degrading the ecology that supports life.

A group that's spending millions of dollars to actively promote the need for engagement in the discussion of climate risk is the Risky Business Project, whose members are presenting research to business groups that highlights how the effects of climate change, like increased flooding, as in the streets of Queens, N.Y., could hurt business and the economy. This group uses the Clinton Global Initiative as a platform to influence public policy.

The Aspen Ideas Festival this coming June will engage conversation on this critically important issue, including "Our Environmental Future" which is a look at the manifestations of climate change as seen through extinction, drought, and natural resource development, juxtaposed with the trailblazing technologies and ideas that can reverse trends and rethink human interaction.  The Aspen Institute mission is twofold: to foster values-based leadership, encouraging individuals to reflect on the ideals and ideas that define a good society, and to provide a neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues. It's influential on public policy through the press and the Atlantic Magazine.

The sound of silence has begun to shatter.

Update 2/25/15: Denial dries up: Americans finally seeing the light on climate change

Update 3/11/15: Silences occur where powerful interests are at risk of exposure