Sunday Train: Trains and Not Destroying Civilization

(4 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

crossposted from Voices on the Square

When one first thinks about it, one  would think the politics of not destroying civilization should be simple. It seems that “Not destroy civilization, Yes/No” would get a very high “Yes” vote.

In the immediate future in US political, however, its far more complicated than that, given that one party’s position is “No”, and the other party’s position is “Maybe, a little bit of not destroying civilization, if its not too inconvenient”.

So, how would we go about not destroying civilization, why is the politics of not destroying civilization so messy, and what in the hell can we do about it?

Going About Not Destroying Civilization

First, a caveat: there’s a possibility that its too late, our goose is well and truly cooked ~ deep fried, in fact ~ and modern industrial civilization is a calamitous episode to be puzzled out by archeologists in the far distant future ~ whether human, more or less human, or something else altogether. The problem being recognized here is that global warming is not uniformly distributed, but rather global warming in polar regions is more dramatic than the average. As described at Arctic Climate Emergency, quoting from the 2007 IPCC:

“Methane is stored in the soils in areas of permafrost, and warming increases the likelihood of a positive feedback in the climate system via permafrost melting and the release of trapped methane into the atmosphere.

“Both forms of methane [permafrost and methane hydrate] release represent a potential threshold in the climate system. As the climate warms, the likelihood of the system crossing a threshold for a sudden release increases. Since these changes produce changes in the radiative forcing through changes in the greenhouse gas concentrations, the climatic impacts of such a release are the same as an increase in the rate of change in the radiative forcing.”

On the other hand, the runaway positive feedback possibility is just that: a possibility. If the positive feedback that results from Arctic methane releases is more limited, it may amplify and accelerate global warming, but without leading to the more explosive situation of a runaway positive feedback loop.

So if we are not sitting on a climate bomb that has already been triggered but just hasn’t gone off yet. …

That is, if its not like the dam blowing up in Force 10 from Navarone, where the damage is actually caused by something that gets a runaway feedback going, and our intervention just gets the process going …

… well then, if its not too late, what do we do to keep the damage down to a level that allows our civilization to survive? How do we not destroy civilization, assuming its still a possibility?

Lots of people have been looking at this, and in the 2012 edition of their Energy [R]evolution report, Greenpeace argues that it is, Their approach is based on five basic points:

  • Increase human well-being without fossil fuels.
  • Fair energy access for all, including the 1.7 – 2 billion people left without power in our current fossil-fuel based energy system.
  • Respect for natural limits: use no more resources than the Earth can provide us and don’t emit more than the Earth and the atmosphere can take back (in particular CO₂ emissions).
  • Phase out dirty, dangerous fuels like coal and nuclear.
  • Use proven, existing renewable energy. Every technology described in the Energy [R]evolution scenario or pathway already exists and has been proven to work.

The approach follows a two track approach: rapidly invest in increased energy efficiency, and rapidly invest in the conversion of our energy supply system from non-renewable and unsustainable energy sources to sustainable, renewable power.

The Sunday Train has focused heavily on the first of these two tracks, with the substantial energy efficiency gains of a national long haul electric freight rail network, investment in local trolleybus, electric light rail, and electric heavy rail transport, and investment in electric high speed intercity rail transport. If supported by effective rezonining, many of the these investments offer substantial leverage for even greater energy savings through reorienting our sprawl suburban development system that encourages every greater miles traveled per person per year with a clustered suburban and urban village development system that encourages an ongoing reduction in the travel-miles imposed by the sprawl suburban development system.

And in the Steel Interstate policy in particular, the Sunday Train has also looked at the second of these two tracks, with the proposal to utilize the right of ways and physical infrastructure of the national long haul electric freight rail network to also provide for a network of Electricity Superhighways, providing high efficiency long distance grid to grid transport of electricity, which substantially reduces the volatility of sustainable renewable power sources by averaging total supply over a wider area, and which leverages existing hydropower storage capacity.

Now, the program laid out is an ambitious one. However, the potential benefit is in line with the ambition of the program: compared to a Reference scenario in which CO2 emissions increase by 62% by 2050, under the more aggressive of the two Emergy [R]evolution scenarios, Global Energy related CO2 emissions are 85% below 1990 levels.

Changes in the global transport system play a major role in this. From the Energy Blue Print (pdf):  

Global transport: In the transport sector it is assumed that, energy consumption will continue to increase under the Energy [R]evolution scenario up to 2020 due to fast growing demand for services. After that it falls back to the level of the current demand by 2050. Compared to the Reference scenario, transport energy demand is reduced overall by 60% or about 90,000 PJ/a by 2050. Energy demand for transport under the Energy [R]evolution scenario will therefore increase between 2009 and 2050 by only 26% to about 60,500 PJ/a. Significant savings are made from a shift towards smaller cars triggered by economic incentives together with a significant shift in propulsion technology towards electrified power trains – together with reducing vehicle kilometres travelled per year. In 2030, electricity will provide 12% of the transport sector’s total energy demand in the Energy [R]evolution, while in 2050 the share will be 44%. (2012: p. 18)

So, why are the politics so messy?

One party saying to go for saving civilization, and the other saying to wait a minute, think about maybe doing it, but only if it doesn’t cost too much … well, given human nature, that seems perfectly understandable.

But one party saying wait a minute, think about maybe doing it, but only if it doesn’t cost so much, and the other one saying hell no, we aint supporting any policy to save civilization, no way and no how, nuh, uhn, uhn! … that suggests that there is something else going on.

Back in February 2012, Jonathan Chait wrote an analysis in the New Yorker as to what in the hell is going on with the modern Republican Party, 2012 or Never, with the subtitle: “Republicans are worried this election could be their last chance to stop history. This is fear talking. But not paranoia.”

The key to the article is the analysis of what has been happening in US politics since the “Great U-Turn” of the early 1970’s:

In 1969, Kevin Phillips, then an obscure Nixon-­administration staffer, wrote The Emerging Republican Majority, arguing that Republicans could undo FDR’s New Deal coalition by exploiting urban strife, the unpopularity of welfare, and the civil-rights struggle to pull blue-collar whites into a new conservative bloc. The result was the modern GOP.

The problem is, no governing majority coalition is a permanent governing majority coalition., and the clock is running out on the “Emerging Republican Majority”. The GOP is running out of Angry White Men, exacerbated by the fact that many of the younger Angry White Men are angry at the GOP’s backers rather than angry at “urban strife, welfare and the civil rights struggle”. For example, if the 1988 electorate had the demographics of the 2008 electorate, Mike Dukakis would have been elected President.

How to respond to the demographic challenge that the electorate is no longer structure so your former majority is a majority? Chait points to one obvious line of attack that many saw at the time:

… the most surprising response to the election of 2008 is what did not happen. Following Obama’s win, all sorts of loose talk concerning the Republican predicament filled the air. How would the party recast itself? Where would it move left, how would it find common ground with Obama, what new constituencies would it court?

The most widely agreed-upon component of any such undertaking was a concerted effort to win back the Hispanic vote. …

In the wake of his defeat, strategists like Karl Rove and Mike Murphy urged the GOP to abandon its stubborn opposition to reform. Instead, incredibly, the party adopted a more hawkish position, with Republicans in Congress rejecting even quarter-loaf compromises like the Dream Act and state-level officials like Jan Brewer launching new restrictionist crusades. This was, as Thomas Edsall writes in The Age of Austerity, “a major gamble that the GOP can continue to win as a white party despite the growing strength of the minority vote.”

None of this is to say that Republicans ignored the rising tide of younger and browner voters that swamped them at the polls in 2008. Instead they set about keeping as many of them from the polls as possible. …

Jonathan Chait offers this as the explanation that fits political choices made by the Republicans over the past two years that are difficulty to make sense of otherwise:

The way to make sense of that foolhardiness is that the party has decided to bet everything on its one “last chance.” Not the last chance for the Republican Party to win power-there will be many of those, and over time it will surely learn to compete for nonwhite voters-but its last chance to exercise power in its current form, as a party of anti-government fundamentalism powered by sublimated white Christian identity politics.

Democratic Politics in a Democratic Majority Era

Well, so there’s the “hell no we aint saving this civilization!” policy choice. How to explain the “maybe we’ll save civilization if its not too much trouble?” policy choice?

Here I use an aside in Jonathon Chait’s analysis as a springboard:

Bill Clinton appropriated some elements of this conservative coalition by rehabilitating his party’s image on welfare and crime (though he had a little help from Ross Perot, too).

Bill Clinton was more than just a small state Governor that went on to win a 3-Way Race for the White House … he was the architect of the Clinton Wing of the Democratic Party, what I often call the “Hedge Fund” wing of the Democratic party for short. And it was common in many Western Democracies for the political parties more aligned to Social Democracy in the 30’s and 40’s to experiment with “Third Wave” policies in the 80’s and 90’s to adjust to what was called a rising “conservative” tide but which in many cases, as with the “Conservative” movement in the US or the National Front in France, would be more accurately described as a rising reactionary tide.

And of course, President Obama is not just the incubment in the White House, but is also the leader of the Hedge Fund wing of the Democratic Party, as seen in a Justice Department that refused to prosecute the bankers who committed control fraud that led to the Panic of 2008 and the appointment of a bankster supporting Secretary of the Treasury.

The fundamental conservatism of the Obama Presidency should be no surprise to anybody. Given the audaciousness of pursuing a serious run for the White House as a very junior Black Senator from Illinois, with all the automatic reactionary opposition that was guaranteed to generate in any event, it would be unrealistic to expect an aggressively progressive policy stance on top of that.

However, win or lose, there will not be an Obama Presidency in 2017, and so even in looking to the medium term, let alone the long term, we must consider life after the Obama administration.

In the short term, there are people running today who, if elected, will be serving in 2017: the candidates for the US Senate. The Senate is where progressive legislation normally goes to die. The combination of the rising impacts of global warming, the ongoing demographic shift, and the likely economic consequences of the economic cluelessness of both major party establishments means that the Senate races of 2016 will be fighting on a substantially different political terrain than the same seats were facing in 2010. However, no matter how much the terrain will have shifted, it will only be 1/3 of the 2017 Senate being elected in that year, and 1/3 of the 2017 Senate will be those running for election this year.

In terms of the terrain of this race, due to the 2006 “wave” election, in the current Senate seats up for election, 21 Democrats, 2 Independents caucusing with the Democrats, and 10 Republicans were up for election. From the Nate Silver’s political horse racing guide,, there are 13 Democrats with a 90% or better chance of winning, 1 independent who caucuses with the Democrats, and 6 Republicans. As far as races rate 70% to 90% chances, there is one independent, in Maine, three Democrats, in Wisconsin, Connecticut and Virginia, and two Republican, in North Dakota and Nevada. And four races are inside 30%:70% chances of victory for either side:

  • Montana 64.1% R
  • Nevada 60.6% R
  • Indiana 53.4% D
  • Massachusetts 64.9% D

In only a few of these races is there anyone running who would be a serious, enthusiastic supporter of not destroying civilization. Most are between politicians who are enthusiastic supporters of destroying civilization and opponents who are either lukewarm supporters of destroying civilization or lukewarm opponents of destroying civilization. Still, the less bad the make-up of the re-elected or freshman Senate class of 2012, the less Senate lag there will be in the event of making a breakthrough in 2016.

In terms of the House of Representatives, in many states the partisan make-up of the House delegations are baked in by partisan gerrymandering. In these states, the partisan primaries decide the House make-up, not infrequently with less than a quarter of the electorate participating. However, there has been a movement to break up corrupt Democratic and Republican gerrymanders that make a mockery of the idea of Representative democracy by having the representatives pick their constituents, rather than the other way around. A system less prone to extreme partisan gerrymandering has been put in place in several states over the past decade, and an issue to bring genuine democracy to the election of the House of Representatives has been brought to the Ohio ballot this fall. Surely, however, the biggest prize in the fight against the gerrymander would be Texas, where aggressive gerrymandering is one important element in depressing Hispanic American turnout in elections.

But if we are indeed entering a period of a natural Democratic Majority, the challenge facing the nation is the entrenched behavior of Democrats, learned over the past four decades, of acting as if their best ideas are minority ideas, combined with the top to bottom corruption of our economic system, which is the most truly bipartisan feature of our political system.

Who Are Going To Be the Whigs?

Over the longer term, the urgency of the fight to save our civilization from its own worst excesses figures to be as traumatic politically as the fight over the institution of slavery in the middle of the 19th century.

Which leads to the question … which of the present two political parties are going to be the Whigs, with two wings forming up on opposite sides of the most central question of the day, and therefore ripped apart as the question comes to a head?

After all, the Civil War did not mark the transition from the Jacksonian Democratic Majority of frontier development politics fueled by racist treaty abrogation and land grabs to a Whig Majority, it marked the transition to the first Republican Majority, unbroken except for Grover Cleveland, through the rise of the Gilded Age and the rise of the United States to the largest economy in the world.

And as far as the early 21st century, it may be the Democrats who are at greatest risk, with the Democratic establishment dominated by the neoliberal Hedge Fund wing of the party of Clinton and Obama, but a substantial primary base electorate who believe, instead, in Social Democracy. In order to win a national Democratic primary fight, a candidate has to talk a Social Democracy game, as well as the importance of Green Jobs and Civil Rights … but a primary base electorate emboldened by the vision that their party is the natural majority party might become more demanding regarding candidates who talk the Social Democratic language, but legislate and act as members of the corporatist Neoliberal Hedge Fund wing.

Much of the outcome depends on whether the Hedge Fund wing remains in control of the party. Had the Anti-Slavery Whigs triumphed in their intra-party fight with the Pro-Slavery Whigs, then the Pro-Slavery Whigs would likely have been driven out into some form of alliance with the Democrats, and the Anti-Slavery Whigs would likely have collected many of the same coalition members that in history joined together to form the Republican Party. So in addition to the scenario of the Democratic party ripped apart by intra-party conflict, with those in favor of saving civilization purged from the party and forced to make their own way, there is also a scenario in which the Democratic party takes on the challenge, and those unwilling to join the fight move across to a Republican Party in the national political wilderness.

And The Trains?

As I have argued previously, with Energy Independence front and center of the discussion, there are many things that could be done quite quickly if the United States were to start to act to take on the crises it already faces. If the country is on an emergency footing with regards to transport, and can simply transfer road space that is presently wasted on the motor vehicle transport system, we can very quickly establish safe and effective pedestrian and cycling paths. We could very quickly begin the wholesale conversion of our diesel bus fleet to pluggable hybrid vehicles. With only a little more lead time we could begin establishing trunk trolleybus routes. Indeed, since we would first place pluggable hybrids on key transport routes, at the same time as we establish trolleybus routes, the pluggable hybrid buses can take over additional routes.

In the establishment of clustered suburban village centers to break down grossly inefficient single use zoning, the new suburban village cores can be designated because of accessibility to common carrier public transport routes. The material efficiency of redesigning a sprawl suburb by providing it with a village core is substantial, with a 1/2 miles radius suburban village core occupying only 4% of the area of a 2.5 mile hinterland, while bringing the entire hinterland in reach of the core via neighborhood electric vehicles, ebikes and bikes.

However, for some transport tasks, by far the most energy efficient solution relies on steel wheels on steel rails. And the lead time there can be far more substantial. If pursued as a matter one step below wartime emergency, the Millennium Institute models the establishment of a complete Steel Interstate system as taking six years. A more incremental approach, involving first establishing a pilot project, then establishing a backbone national network, then extending it to the entire Strategic Rail Corridor Network (STRACNET), would take ten to fifteen years. Even without funding headaches, building a new light rail line is normally a process that takes years, building a new subway a process that takes even more years. Building an all-new intercity transport alignment for an 500 mile High Speed Rail corridor normally takes ten to twenty years.

As appealing as rail is for its energy efficiency, after over a century of strong financial discrimination against rail and in favor of road transport, we do not have either the local or the intercity rail systems where we can just buy new trains and put on new services to address the need to substantially reduce our automotive mode share. And so there is a lot of track to lay, if we are to build a transportation system with the energy efficiency and ease of electrification to meet the kind of CO2 emissions targets set out in the Energy Blue Print.

The Transport Energy [R]evolution is, of course, only one of many. We need an Energy [R]evolution in Agriculture, Manufacturing, and Commercial and Residential Construction. We need to fight the pernicious influence of our overgrown, bloated finance sector and the gross inefficiency and waste that results from the real resources it diverts as a result of its paper games. None of these are optional: all of these are essential.

So those pushing for the Transport Energy [R]evolution are certainly not in any sense the only or highest priority game in town. However, given the massive CO2 footprint of motor vehicle transport in the US, second only to electricity generation, and sufficient together with electricity generation to account for half of our CO2 emissions, it is one of the important games in town.

Given the likely political turmoil of the coming decade, those pushing for urgently needed investment in more energy efficient rail transport may find it at times most strategic to shy away from becoming embroiled in the partisan fight of the day. The best outcome, for getting an appropriate corridor acquired and the track infrastructure laid down to allow transport services to begin, is for it to go ahead on a basis that will not be upset when one competing party of government gives way to the other.

The former Majoritarian Republican Party of Nixon through W Bush is now, in its last gasp gamble to grab onto and hold power for just a little longer, has in many places gone all in against rail. And so, as I will discuss next week, the fight for a rail project can take on a distinct partisan tinge, and it becomes necessary to do what can be done to try to punish those who have taken a stand in favor of an unsustainable status quo and against allowing a more sustainable alternative to be made available.

But for the vast majority of the people on both sides of the partisan divide, there are strong benefits to having more sustainable transport options available. So the advocacy of the establishment of more sustainable transport options has to take care regarding getting caught up in the partisan struggle for power for its own sake.

Midnight Oil ~ Read About It

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    • on 10/01/2012 at 02:56

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