Monday, October 3, 2011

The Tim Version/Your Pest Band/Holy Shit!/Nothing in the Dark/Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children Macnuggits
Saturday, 24th September 2011
Fubar, St. Petersburg, FL

I am sat on a damaged stool, glancing around the bar at familiar characters from home.  A moments thought reveals them not to be those same people, and another moment made up of silly disappointment follows.  A track by a soulful, melancholic woman plays in the background to help capture the instant.  Then some crappy pop comes on and really ruins it.

I think at this time that I've missed the band Nothing in the Dark (who I was particularly excited about seeing), because Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children Macnuggits have just started performing and I was under the impression they were going on second.  This turns out not to be true, but for the moment I'm bummed, and the youtube humour of BJECM isn't helping.  'Youtube humour' is a reference to the lower standards we place on comedy when it's in an internet video, and the same is true of much 'comedic' music.  It's not personal - Tenacious D don't do anything for me either - and maybe the specifics of the songs are cleverer than you might initially think.  But themes of zombies and beer need more going for them than quirk factor, in my opinion.  On the plus side, they do cover Billy Bragg, and venture into posi/political territory with the chorus "life is excellent (the tap water tastes like excrement)."  

Gripping my Nothing in the Dark free demo, I move to the front of the venue.  I see a snare drum onstage with a picture of a topless, sexualised, black woman on it, and continue to be grumpy, thinking about what a stupid white boys club punk can continue to be.  I don't know which band owns the drum, but the guys setting up have a guitarist in a cast, which is uh, progressive!  Or cool anyway.  It is revealed that this is in fact NITD, giving me the burst of punk I most heavily needed, and wearing surprisingly bright blue and yellow shirts for a band so-named (and the cast is orange!)  The vocal style is similar to Leftover Crack, but the music is more consistently good, bearing a pinch of pre-shitty Against Me!.  Their (excellent) song 'Drink Hard With a Vengeance" sounds a lot like something else that I can't place.  Though I suspect its obvious and I'll feel stupid later.  They have a few great solos and are one of the best acts I've heard in a while.  

Holy Shit! are a band with a name that can be applied numerous ways, which is relatively genius.  It pulls the rug out from under any would-be critics.  "Harhar, you think we're holy shit? Yes, very witty."  They take a while to get started, informing us that the Japanese name for Jigglypuff is Pudding, and playfully mocking.  To be honest, I don't think Americans are in any position to question what the Japanese call a computerised marshmallow with a face, given some of the names of real, human children in this country.  Talk about holy shit moments.  Anyway, once they get going it's clear they play a lovely shitstorm (no pun intended) of noise/power/arse/whatever and very enjoyable it is too.  It's the kind of music that could sound like a chaotic mess, but an element in there is holding it together in an unconventional way.  They do suffer from a bit of 'When do I clap?' syndrome due to the storm's structure, so hopefully they understand they are not unloved.  

In quick and exciting succession come Your Pest Band from Tokyo.  They also have a touch of 'When do I clap?' syndrome but are more melodic than Holy Shit!.  Their driving punk rock is anything but pest-like and and as they have invited us all to be honourary members of their band, I welcome them to come play near me at anytime.  They "love PBR" and yet they "hate PBR" (like all those with sense).  They love NOFX enough to cover them but hate wearing t-shirts.  Really brilliant.  Considering how far they have traveled it's a shame they don't perform for longer.  Check out and the connected videos on the right-hand side. (Edit: and see for this particular performance!)

The short set of YPB is made just a tad more disheartening by the long wait for The Tim Version.  The energy in the room starts to dissipate, but there's promise at the sight of a band member wearing a Leatherface shirt, and, elsewhere, a Public Enemy sticker on a guitar.  The raspy, mush-y vocals here are inspired by some strand of punk, but I can't for the life of me think which, not even when listening to their song 'Leatherface.'  All I know is that the beard at this point seems to have become an instrument in its own right, filtering regular vocal chords into pools of warm and comforting awesomeness.  A beautiful dog, with a full-body beard, is being walked around the venue, and it agrees and approves.  At times, the slow epics aren't quite making the grade for 1am.  However, a crowd-enforced encore of their opening number makes me think a differently-timed version of The Tim Version would make the jump from good to great. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Bigger They Are, the Harder They Fall

How Simple Geography Insulates Centres of Power Originally published at Dissident Voice

What needs to be done to stand out in 2011?  Aside from the problematic blind spots that the media normally sports, so much has been happening around the world during the first two-thirds of this year that it takes something pretty special to get on the radar.  The rolling protests against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline — recently concluded at the White House — seem like a good contender for coverage.  Despite the normally smart-but-tough environmentalist Bill Mckibben stating that “[t]he last thing we want to do is harass the president,” and a policy of only allowing sit-down tactics, the action is gutsy, huge, exciting, and the level at which the climate movement needs to be thinking.  Over 1,200 were arrested between August 20th and the finale on September 3rd.

The ease with which so many splintered greens agreed to come together is an indicator of what a disaster the dirty fuel corridor would be.  Through its sheer 1,700 mile proposed stretch from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, however, the pipeline and the protests it has prompted draw attention to a more subtle subject that affects many of the biggest issues we face.  That subject is distance: getting to Washington DC or any particular place in a continent-spanning country is extremely difficult.  The unspectacular but useful insulation that this provides to those causing harm in the world is something we have failed to properly acknowledge.

There are, of course, many reasons why it’s hard to get large numbers of people together here for an event worthy of 2011.  An openly smashed and undermined public transport system coupled with the extreme normalization of the car plays a part.  As does the criminalizing and marginalizing of protest.  A bad economy makes any kind of travel expensive, and even in the good times those who most needed to voice their discontent had a hard time getting cash together or time off work.  And in the case of environmentalism, the desire to not be seen as hypocrites who drive or fly to protests is an understandable if misguided notion.

Geographic realities, however, may appear free of blame, and to some extent, they are.  Despite the best efforts of industrialism to reshape the Earth’s crust and coasts, no human is responsible for the overall shape of the Americas or any other landmass.  But significant decisions made over centuries have dictated where people will live and of what nationality they will be.  There is irony in the fact that the past imperial expansion of Manifest Destiny, scattering populations until they started to pile up on the West coast, today provides protection to the architects of further expansion.  The American founders made no secret of their wishes to see their country bathing over a massive area; among the objections to King George III in The Declaration of Independence is his “raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

It makes sense that they would seek to grow.  There is a connection between physical country size and power.  Medium-sized Western European nations managed to attain global rule through a groundbreaking form of energy exploitation that allowed them to mimic bigger places: a single barrel of oil contains the equivalent energy of five agricultural laborers, working 12 hour days, 365 days a year.  As the glorious new pathway to prosperity spread, it was, in the words of British economic historian John Clapham, inevitable that “a continent would . . . raise more coal and make more steel than one small island”1 – thus came the rise of the United States and the USSR.  We see this today in the increasing influence (however bogeyman-style distorted by current rulers) of coal-filled China, biofuel-powered Brazil and even Harper’s Canada, which is not pushing tar sands for fun or social programs.  In this age where fossil fuels are at the epicenter of many issues, irony is compounded, as those countries most in need of dissent (mainly still the US) are the ones with the best geographic insulation.

In what way should we frame this problem?  Some may think back to that old phrase “think globally, act locally.”  As our oil-hungry and autistic economic systems2 continue to unravel, local work is essential.  But the centers of power are not going to collapse politely.  Large, confrontational events are essential as well, as we have seen across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.  Simply turning our backs on the places where big decisions are made will give the players there further free reign.

The Declaration of Independence also complained that the Monarchy had “endeavoured to prevent the population of these States.” Could population growth be part of the solution here?  Perhaps, but it is a very blunt instrument.  As the population rises, more space is taken up and proposals for better mass transit could emerge – but a certain density is needed, and by the time any significant impact was to be felt in this regard, the destruction of hundreds of millions more American lifestyles would be evident.  With over half the world’s people living now living in cities, it’s also obvious that we tend to live in places that are already more on the heavily populated side.  And although it’s not a direct correlation, more citizens mean you need more protesters for the same impact: this is one reason we don’t hear about China experiencing “. . . riots worse than those in England every single week.” (Another reason is we’re being groomed to think that the Chinese are a monolithic hive-mind who are going to steal our freedom or our African oil or something.)

Building better long-distance transport should remain a goal, but it would be a mammoth task to get even a modest amount of the population an improved way into D.C.  Plus, in the short term at least, high-speed rail will remain as expensive for passengers and around as polluting as cars and planes.  Dynamiting the continent into smaller pieces is probably not a popular or sensible option.  This appears to leave reshaping the arbitrary map lines in which we put so much stock, and how we relate to them.  Perhaps it is because of the presence of strong regional and state identities — coupled with the balance of state/federal power — that Americans seem more concerned about the possibility of separatism than people of other nations.  The name of the country might be a powerful sedative, but neither it nor the fact that 50 is a lovely round number should be sufficient argument for holding together.  And then there’s the memory of the civil war – an occasion when preventing a perverse practice (to stick with the usual simplistic narrative) was a good, ethical reason to overrule Southern autonomy.  Not all — or even many — conditions meet this grade.  While the politics that dominate in some states today may be ugly, they are not akin to chattel slavery.

At the risk of upsetting liberals, there is nothing inherently more progressive or effective about governments that preside over large populations and areas than those that work in one-fiftieth of that space.  Even governments of much smaller countries are often clueless about what life is like beyond a certain radius of the capital city.  Conservatives who advocate states rights are on to something (where they fall down is identity confusion).  The thought of having to win political victories in 50 (or more) separate locations as opposed to one may seem daunting, but that’s because we lie to ourselves if we think getting anything done at the current federal level is in any way easy.  If it seemed, under a revised geopolitics, that raising objections weren’t so pointless, you might even get more protesters from within any individual state than you would in making a US-wide call-out for everyone to converge on that state.

It is a prime time for this topic to be discussed, as several actions even more ambitious than the Keystone XL demonstration are coming up soon, and their success may depend in part on whether distance keeps numbers down. On September 17th a group suggesting a “US Day of Rage” wants non-violent assemblies to take place at the local and national level, demanding that the influence of money be booted out of politics.  In an associated event, the magazine Adbusters is behind a call to occupy Wall Street with a tent city on the same date making similar demands, and hopes people will stay for the long haul.  In October, the Afghanistan War goes into an 11th year, the 2012 federal austerity budget begins, and on the 6th another ongoing square takeover is planned for Freedom Plaza in D.C.  The former of these plans acknowledges that local options are necessary, though it comes with the risk of diminishing totals at the main event.

Even though protest targets and decision makers know that any number of activists suggests wider support, the likes of square occupations require physical bodies to have the desired effect.  Cautious optimism suggests that if nothing else these mobilizations will be stepping stones and warning shots, but pessimism whispers that if they do not produce results, it will harden the perception that change and revolution are things by, and for, other people in other places.  For an example of what it would be like to live in a different kind of place, see Iceland.  In November 2008 when the neoliberal dream died there, 9000 people took to the streets against banks and government, as a modest part of a more radical movement.  Mathematically adjusted, that is the equivalent of 9.5million Americans.  That many converging on the White House is physically unlikely and a logistical and safety nightmare.  That many across a continent of autonomous and easily accessible small governments would be a big moment of excess.
  1. J. H. Clapham, qtd in The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money, Stephen S. Cohen and J. Bradford DeLong, 2010, Basic Books, p38
  2. The author realizes that there is a spectrum of autistic conditions; however, the use of the term to describe an intelligent but tunnel-vision economy is not his own.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Captain of Industry

Review of Captain America: The First Avenger

Originally published at Dissident Voice

Spoiler alert: America wins! (But seriously, spoiler alert.)

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a man masturbating with an American flag forever.  That is at least part of the message that I took away from Captain America: The First Avenger.1 The US is that unique superpower that will never fall, and as evidence for such a position withers, the way that the history of such a power is presented can make all the difference in the remaining number of true believers.

The film is set during the final years of World War II, when the US was kicking Nazi ass and preparing to become captain-in-chief of the post-war planet.  In the 21st century, Nazis are incredibly useful storytelling tools.  They were white, so you don’t have to worry about those annoying charges of racism and the hard work of checking for privilege in the script writing.  They’re the nearest there is to a consensus when it comes to identifying real-life bad guys (so you don’t have to worry about alienating too many potential customers), whereas every murderous rampage since has been morally murky and not suited to superhero simplifications.  And for an increasingly large majority of people, they are not known by memory, and can thus be embodied with whatever evil or comical characteristics suit the occasion (and of the minority who do remember, not too many go to summer blockbusters). If the country has been waging war in the name of peace since before we can remember, why shouldn’t we think that it will extend at least that far again into the future, if not indefinitely?

Whilst we’ve been continually retelling the story of our ‘finest hour,’ however, the world has, in fact, changed.  Domestic dollars no longer provide enough of the monetary expansion needed, and while the proportion of the global population mired in poverty has scarcely changed (thanks to decades of neoliberalism and economy crushing depressions), there are still more opportunities abroad than in 1945.  Just as the gangrenous News Of The World was severed by Murdoch, the filmmakers have cut out a lot of the overt pig-headed chauvinism embodied in a character who is so laughably named (aside from the occasional “there’s flags in MY future” comments; i.e., the American flag; i.e., the American nation).  The script makes fun of cheesy wartime bond-selling efforts.  It doesn’t mention the dictator Mussolini or his military even when a significant part of the plot takes place in 1943 Italy, separating that group of potential ticket holders from the “real” villains, the Nazis (a trick employed with more sophistication in the forward-thinking 1943 Humphrey Bogart film, Sahara).2 The story of German defector Abraham Erskine, an anti-Hitler scientist who develops the “super soldier” serum but is then immediately and unfortunately assassinated out of the rest of the series, is retained.

A Frenchman is given one line, and looked at funny for saying it in French.  Unlike the actual army, Captain America’s handpicked team is integrated, yet the Nazis are apparently so well documented that the white supremacist nature of their threat is never even mentioned, lest we notice the glaring contradiction of Allied powers with legal systematic racism and centuries-old empires fighting for freedom.  In fact, since the real baddies of the film are not Nazis but a weird fictional cult who don’t think the Nazis can manage the job, Germans are further assured that their money is welcome.  At one point an English soldier says “Mind the gap” for no logical reason, purely for the amusement of American viewers, but hell, those limeys should be happy that they were even bloody well included.

Which brings us to the English love interest, patronisingly dolled-up for the modern era with a feisty right hook and some military knowledge.  Despite such skills she, of course, falls for the muscleman in the stupid rubbery outfit and does her best to support him in his serious manly tasks.  Like their involvement in American conflicts since at least the first Gulf War, the point of the UK soldier in this case is to serve as a fig-leaf for international co-operation.  No matter the size of the deployment, they are generally presented as enough proof that the US is not the testosterone-fueled lone ranger serial killer that it secretly fears itself to be, and the adventures can continue.  It is important to show that not only was the US the big dog of power even way back then (bigger than it actually was, extending the imaginary future), but that it was viewed and admired as such by select foreigners.  Despite the desire of Churchill to involve the US in the war in the early years, that was a matter of practicality, not worship.  At the time many English people viewed the US in the way Westerners view more recently freed colonies today: a quaint little pseudo-country, which can be tolerated as long as it doesn’t get too ambitious.  You see, arrogance in declining imperial nations takes a generation or two to even begin to subside (as the US is now learning). But never mind accuracy — here, England is the lapdog. England has always been the lapdog.

Several other myths are dragged out of our grandparents age to serve the current agenda.  America is the humble little shit who believes in justice and tries his best, then through ingenuity and new technology improves his situation and clambers to the top of the heap, where he deserves to be.  Having gotten there, with many jealously still picking on him, he turns the other cheek and saves them in glorious fashion.  Our enemies, the Islamo-/fascists, have the same destructive technology as us, but cannot be trusted to be responsible with it (whether super soldier serum or nuclear weapons).  When Captain America saves New York from a suicidal plane by taking it down early and sacrificing himself, you can practically hear the writers soapboxing: this world of fictional history is around us today!  September 11th is a one-dimensional tale of good versus evil and could have been prevented had we realised it in time!  We don’t need to worry about the details and complexity that surround us or about our role in terrorism, because superheroes fight bad guys and always win!  Just in case this isn’t obvious enough, the Captain is then frozen in ice and wakes up in the present day — in New York.

Yes, the character was created in 1941, and we should make some allowances for the prejudices and viewpoints of the day.  Yes, Captain America is sent to the future to set up the next Marvel film, The Avengers (also laughably named. It would more suit an un-American group. Al-Avengers perhaps.)  No, the observations made here were not necessarily the goals of the people involved.  But that does not mean that the film is incapable of unwittingly pushing certain agendas or fitting certain convenient narratives.  If you want to prolong an empire, keeping up the confidence of its inhabitants will ensure that they continue to work hard for it.  The subheading for the film, character accuracy aside, should not be The First Avenger  but The First Shots It was during the mid-1940’s that the United States went for global domination while it had the chance, setting up the UN Security Council, IMF and World Bank to work in its favour3, and dropping nukes to tell the USSR to back off.  The makers of this film are both desperate to return to this time of glory and reshape it to make Americans feel good today.  When both the past and present are distorted, the future becomes an unnerving blur.
  1. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), a film by Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures. Starring Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving. Directed by Joe Johnston.
  2. See part of the impassioned speech that seeks to draw a distinction between wartime Germany and Italy here.
  3. George Monbiot, How to Stop America, New Statesman, 9th June 2003.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bust a Groove

Various Artists
GrowthBusters: Earth Day 2011 Soundtrack
Citizen-Powered Media, 2011

Originally published at Dissident Voice

Fatih Birol has done it again. At the end of May the chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA) was quoted in The Guardian as saying that preventing a 2 degree increase in global temperatures might be nothing but “a nice Utopia.”  About a month earlier, on the Australian network ABC, he repeated his organisation’s belief that “crude oil production has already peaked, in 2006.”  It’s starting to look like his tolerance for restrained advisement on energy issues has also peaked and gone into decline.

The Guardian article in question was noteworthy not just because it reported that runaway climate change might be unavoidable depending on what happens this year (a reasonable prediction that, unfortunately, has lost its impact due to continuous warnings), but because it showed how strong the link is between resource consumption and economic growth. Because of the worst recession in living memory, global carbon emissions fell from 29.3Gt (gigatonnes) to 29Gt between 2008 and 2009. Compare that with the huge jump to 30.6Gt that took place in 2010, even as we still swim in the thick of financial troubles (and apparently, declining amounts of cheap oil). The link is not only explicit – it’s completely out of proportion. Everything seems to hinge on finding a different goal for our economy.

A group called GrowthBusters, made up of a core of dedicated activists and international volunteers, has been pointing this out for five years. Their film, Hooked on Growth, is due for release this October. As part of the effort, an Earth Day soundtrack is currently being sold to raise funds and awareness, and features a mix of artists from various genres. The legendary folk singer, Pete Seeger, makes an appearance, and his amusing live contribution, “We’ll All Be A-Doubling,” is a fine centrepiece for much of the CD’s acoustic singer-songwriters.

If you like your music a little more extreme, there’s a decent amount on offer here as well. South Australian act The Chairman provide “Zero (Al Bartlett).” In the vein of PPK’s “I Have a Dream” and Coldcut’s Blair-bashing “Revolution,” it’s an electronic track featuring quotations from physics professor Bartlett, who is most famous for his lectures on the exponential function. Black Piranha’s “It’s Our World” is New Orleans style classic rock with sincere 80’s riffage. Jake Fader, teaming up with different vocalists, puts in two great songs. The first, the documentary’s theme, opens the album in a Ghostbusters-influenced-reggae direction, obviously. The second, “All The Little Birdies,” is reminiscent of Erykah Badu neo-soul, with its near-rapping and relaxed drum, piano and guitar beat.

Not everything on the compilation will be to everyone’s taste. Like the solutions we seek, it needs to be a diverse affair. For me, the album echoes the history of growth economy: the same ideas run throughout, but towards the end of the timeline it doesn’t seem to be as enjoyable. There was a long period when re-distribution really might not have provided enough for everyone, and growth seemed like a noble goal. Now that the generation of additional money is causing more harm than good, we need to be able to accept that it has outlived its usefulness (and the last couple of tracks on the CD are aimed at kids, to be fair). Hopefully the as-yet-unwritten bonus songs will be beautifully crafted art, and not grim, unlistenable shite.

You can hear samples of all the music here. Both digital downloads and physical copies are available for the same price. If you’re interested in financially supporting the film but don’t fancy the soundtrack, a Kickstarter campaign has just gotten underway to fund final production costs. GrowthBusters is aiming to raise $20,000 and any pledge you make will only be taken from your account if the goal is met by August 7th.

Friday, June 3, 2011


The choice of font for the Blair’s Air Conditioning and Heating company says a lot about what we want. The letters are coated in snow;1 we wish, at least initially, to go from one extreme temperature to another, and may the Floridian that has never had to wear a jacket to an indoor activity be the first to deny it.

Enjoyment of extremes — which can also be seen at beaches — is just one of the methods for weaning ourselves off of refrigerated air that Stan Cox suggests in his book, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer).2 As a person from the North of a country in the North of a continent in the Northern hemisphere, I was, until I moved to St Petersburg, fairly uninterested in air-conditioning. Being dependent on electricity, I had imagined that cleaning up its environmental impact would be a simple matter of changing the energy source, at least compared to improving heating systems based on natural gas. But air-conditioning is more than just an ironic indicator of the problems we face in preventing a warming planet. Cox shows that it has changed our world in ways that are hard to comprehend.

The following figures are approximate. Air-conditioning now accounts for a third of electricity use in the U.S. (20% in homes, 13% in the commercial sector). The same amount of electricity is used for AC today as for all purposes in 1955. Between 1993 and 2005, the total amount of energy used for AC doubled. Each American uses as much electricity for AC as 3 Africans use for all of their needs. We would create as much pollution if every U.S. household bought an additional vehicle and drove it around for 7000 miles per year. I cannot bring myself to depress you with the figures projected for AC’s increasing use as the Earth heats up. 

The direct energy burdens air-conditioning creates are only part of the story. As Cox points out, “from the desert Southwest to the Everglades, air-conditioning has played an essential role in drawing millions of people to some of the country’s most fragile environments.” It has acted as a bridge between the places humans can naturally thrive and other glorious forms of destruction. For example, a 2006 report by the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition shows that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approves more permits to destroy wetlands in Florida than any other state, approving 12,000 permits between 1999 and 2003. The number of applications rejected: one. Gary Mormino of the University of South Florida is quoted as saying that it is “inconceivable” that 18.5 million people would be in Florida today without AC.

Even without population growth, domestic use of AC would have exploded. The excesses documented are some of the most infuriating problems in the book, but they may well prove the easiest to solve. They include cooling empty winter homes in the summer to protect possessions, and homeowners associations that ban visible fans or window air-conditioning units — both less wasteful than centralized air — on the grounds of aesthetics. More troublesome is the fact that in the last half of the twentieth century, average housing size doubled and per occupant floor space tripled. An “efficient” 3000 square foot house uses far more energy than a leaky 1500 square foot house.

That other great twentieth century innovation, the car, would also be a much different beast without artificially cooled air. A typical vehicle in Hawaii uses 94 gallons of gasoline per year just to run the AC unit; in Arizona the amount is 76, in Florida, 73. When you add all the numbers together, the national cost is 7 billion gallons of fuel annually, or 5.5% of the total — a point worth remembering as we hit peak oil. A habit has developed among some of leaving AC blowing in vehicles whilst they wait in parking lots for their owners’ return. Wealthy Americans can now store their pride-and-joy mid-life-crisis indicators in climate-controlled rooms known as car condos. Cox even ponders whether AC is responsible for the United States’ wider car culture: “It seems worth asking whether the working people of America would be in open revolt by now against the mind-numbing ordeal of ever-lengthening commutes were it not for air-conditioning” and other mobile comforts and distractions.

We should be glad that that band of hippies, the U.S. military, is working on expanding its use of renewable energy, as at present, 85% of the diesel taken into Iraq and Afghanistan is used to run AC. Air-conditioning may not only have made invasions of intensely hot countries possible, it may have made them even more inhumane than they otherwise would have been. Troops in air-conditioned Humvees rather than open top vehicles can’t easily interact with locals, adding to the illusion of the war video game. The concern is not so much hearts and minds as heat and melting.

Air control has affected our health in many ways, including our ability to cope with extreme heat. But as air-conditioning is often not just a health issue, but a life or death issue — as the Immokalee farm workers, living in metal trailers based on oven blueprints, know to their peril — what is the solution? Among his conclusions, Cox undermines several prominent lines of thinking that dominate present climate policy. 

The first is that striving for energy efficient appliances is worthwhile under our current program of perpetual economic growth. Efficiency at present simply lowers prices for both producers and consumers of energy and results in higher levels of consumption. The governments Energy Information Agency, for example, expects a 22% increase in commercial sector cooling over the next 20 years, even with improvements in efficiency — the growth of the sector will undo any technological gains made, and then some. This effect is called rebound, and it explains why nothing other than a large global recession seems able to even dent our carbon dioxide output. The only way to slash emissions sufficiently is to cut overall energy use, and that means dumping economic growth.

The second myth, which is found all over the political spectrum, is that we are going to trade our way out of trouble. If there is anybody left who still can’t see a problem with markets, and that accepts climate change science, one simple fact devastates their proposed path to sustainability. Under solely market forces, U.S. renewable energy generation is expected to quadruple by 2030, but that will only provide enough energy to power 75% of AC use, let alone anything else. This again shows that attempting to meet current energy demands rather than using less of it is unlikely to be enough.

In response to these problems, Cox pads his technological and efficiency-based tree shades and solar-powered systems in a bed of other elegant solutions. He shows that when we choose to try and live in natural temperatures, our bodies participate in regulating our internal thermometers, and our tolerance grows as a result. Cooling centers could provide a way to give relief to everyone, whilst bringing us out of the individual homes that air-conditioning has sent us hiding in to. Tough truths also have to be accepted and acted upon. Air-conditionings demands only add to the need to reduce our dependence on the private vehicle. States like Florida need to restrict the over development that is ramping up Northern flight and sending them into the Gulf of Mexico (although the crushing of Amendment 4 by big money this past November 2nd demonstrates how hard this may be). We may simply need to leave some hot areas for good.

Air-conditioning activism provides no excitement for anybody. It allows us neither the glory of storming the local coal power station or the feel-good easiness of eco-shopping. It is so boring in fact that I can barely bring myself to pump up this concluding paragraph. But, as the rest of the world climbs towards American levels of use, we must deal with it. Serious work on sustainability sometimes requires confrontation with drab subjects. The benefits of living with less artificially cooled air, such as more outdoor activities and more employee control of comfort in the workplace, will slowly begin to surface. In the meantime, I can tell you that writing book reviews in your underwear is a good way of keeping the thermostat turned up.
  1. Newsletter ‘HomeSense’ from Blair’s Air Conditioning and Heating, Fall 2010
  2. Unless referenced, all other statements are taken from or based on this book. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Logan Albright
Self-published, 2010

John Milton would probably be disappointed to see the continued existence of extravagant royal weddings in England in 2011. The famous poet and republican who lived during the country's blip without monarchy wrote directly and indirectly of the dangers of unchallengeable power, messages which the modern royal family have sidestepped through a misleading PR campaign about symbolic figureheads and tradition. During the recent offensive, many United States citizens have fully embraced a power structure that they once threw off, without discarding any of the ideas on which that revolution was based. One man who hasn't succumbed to such nonsense compartmentalisation is Logan Albright, the author of a recent novel based on Milton's Paradise Lost, named Pandemonium.

The stripped-down yet sleek packaging of Pandemonium is a far cry from pompous self-indulgence, with an understated brown-paper coloured cover reminiscent of an organic vegetable box delivery. Does it contain as much flavour and revolutionary potential? Or is slogging through this book the hell which its title implies? While the story itself contains more than one hellish location, it is, thankfully, a joy to read. It takes place in a vast futuristic galaxy of anthropomorphised birds, the majority of whom work for a corporation named Infinity United. To call it a corporation is something of an understatement, as Infinity United control virtually all aspects of life, having taken over the role of governance long ago. Nobody, even within the regime, can remember how it began or its early years of expansion, such is the breadth of its power. We follow a small group of rebels, led by a former high-ranking employee named Lucas, in their mission for liberty over security.

For reasons that are initially unclear, the plot begins with the group on a lifeless volcanic rock of little significance. It bears no resemblance to the glistening headquarters of their banishers and former employers on the planet Plerixia, which features threatening tooth-shaped buildings and a surface that is 97% paneled over. In these places and elsewhere, Albright describes his environments well. His characters, likewise, are sharply defined, and even those in supporting and minimal roles are interesting enough to keep the reader from becoming lost and disinterested in this unimaginably large setting. As I was introduced to new individuals and spacey species, I thought of the world of Starfox and the Lylat system (the title having already made me think of another game series, which appeared in part, oddly enough, on the spaced-out Saturn console). We come to see their amusing quirks and faults in a relatively short space of time, and the intelligent and humble Lucas would no doubt find a kindred spirit in the fox commander. Nowhere is the comparison more fitting than the battle scenes, where lasers and razor-sharp talons relay a sense of chaos that is both thrilling and horrifying, knowing you can only possibly be learning of a small part of the carnage.

Until I was about two-thirds of the way through Pandemonium, I kept waiting for a political turn in narrative that never came. You see, I know Logan Albright personally. As a representative of the libertarian right, he has for many years outraged and mocked me and my radical positions. But I have a hard time disliking him. He doesn't take his opinions lightly or wear them as a fashion accessory, and is the ideal antidote to the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Instead of a laughable haircut, he has facial hair somewhere between Frank Zappa and John Waters, and instead of a clown-like naivete, he is actually a respectable human being. Stories of revolution and tyranny are, of course, prevalent all over the political spectrum (particularly in the United States), but Pandemonium and its character-driven epic reads a lot like a novel by the progressive comedian and author Ben Elton (Blackadder, Gridlock). Unlike with Elton, however, the books excellence stems from the fact that the politics are present and important, but universal. They are also, like the human beings of the plot, a supporting species, yet filling a significant (and in the humans case, chilling) role. It takes a big person to perform this kind of separation in their art, and the skill needed to tell such a big story in an easily digestible size is evident in Pandemonium too.

Pandemonium can be bought in both paperback and kindle form, and a preview can be read at the amazon page. Logan Albright has also recently published a new book, entitled Errant Heirs: A Character Study in Five Parts.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Trading Bluebloods for Oil
Why anti-Monarchist activists and peak oilers should care about one another’s campaigns

Originally published at Transition Voice

This past November an announcement shocked the world.  We all suspected that it would be confirmed eventually, not least because of years of media speculation.  But suddenly we had a date for it - a date that could be stamped decisively into the history books.  It has dominated the headlines ever since and even threatened to overshadow the seriousness of the austerity cuts being implemented across most of the Western world, an issue to which it is closely connected.  I am of course talking about the announcement from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that global conventional oil production peaked back in 2006, signaling officially that our industrial way of life is on the way out(1).

Unfortunately, the media coverage wasn’t quite that which is given to your average Royal engagement (or even 1%).  And on the surface, perhaps that’s fair.  We learn when we are children that oil is a finite resource.  Those interested in peak oil have always known that the exact time of the peak wouldn’t be obvious until years after it happened, and a casual look at the data since 2006 made it pretty clear that we were probably already very close to the stage of decline.  But the Paris-based IEA is a conservative and restrained body.  Its coupling of the announcement with absurd reassurances that tar sands and other polluting and pathetic technologies would keep economic growth trundling along for a few more decades is proof of that.  For this organisation to finally give us a specific date in the face of its usual policy of trying to keep everyone calm (and in the dark), was a sobering moment.  This world-changing problem took on a solid form.

The fantasy world of energy resources is mirrored in the fantasy world of the Wills and Kate wedding.  Politicians and newspapers invited us to escape our economic woes by living vicariously through them and their Disneyfied lives.  Despite the fact that it is actually they who are living through us on their taxpayer-funded special day, it is tempting to buy into this logic – what’s wrong with a little innocent escapism?  The problem is that the Royal establishment is using this once-in-a-generation event to revitalise a positive image of themselves as saviours of the nation, at a time when dissenting questions regarding their place in the world are increasing.

The simplest criticisms of the monarchy are self-explanatory.  The head of state is a hereditary position, unelected and impossible to democratically remove.  They take money from everyday people to fund lavish lifestyles, with little in the way of a defense.  They portray a stereotypical image of British people around the world as out-of-touch, snobbish, arrogant and old-fashioned, to say nothing of the image that we all support having such Royalty.  The Queen represents a violent, shameful and embarrassing colonial past in her continuing position as head of state of 15 other countries. 

However the more alarming issues are rarely heard about.  The royals have been relatively shielded from Freedom of Information laws since their introduction in 2005, but in January of this year they were effectively given complete protection from disclosing their activities to their ‘subjects’(2).  Royals are given military ranks, medals and jobs irrespective of whether they are qualified for them or deserve them(3).  The monarchy is an area in which the BBC is most spectacularly far from impartial.  The monarch effectively holds the entire British government in her hands.  He or she (he will still always be picked over she, by the way) has the ability to veto any legislation passed by parliament.  They can appoint whoever they like as Prime Minister, dissolve Parliament (triggering an election) or even dismiss the entire government(4). 

All this is kept under wraps and unreformed by a mighty Buckingham Palace PR machine, which uses virtually unlimited public money to convince us that we cannot have any kind of national identity separate from an institution whose primary achievement is a thousand years of anti-democratic oppression.

Monarchists argue that these powers are hardly ever used as to do so would open the monarchy to criticism and threaten its existence.  But this is surely a tacit admission that the powers are unjustified.  We may have had a smart political operator in the driver’s seat since 1952, who knows to keep her opinions quiet or non-partisan and her interference in governance subtle and - perhaps - minimal.  There is no guarantee her successors would act in the same way.  Prince Charles, with his outspoken moral judgments and personal scandals, is being urged and maneuvered out of taking over the reins not just by republicans, but by some monarchists too, because he runs the risk of bringing the whole palace of cards down.

It is not difficult to see how increasing social turmoil caused by a series of interlinked crises – peak oil, the end of economic growth, climate change, food shortages – could lead to a return of using never repealed royal powers, subtly or otherwise.  Strong leadership may become welcome, but when you have an illegitimate platform to proclaim your leadership skills, and the public has no way to hold you to account, it becomes less appealing.  A state of emergency may make the ability to use privileges and power within the military, media, political and tax systems seem worth the bad publicity.  It might seem that if we’re going to have an unelected head of state going into a period of resource shortages, it would at least be beneficial to have someone like Charles who seems to have knowledge of some of the issues.  Yet putting aside that his mandate would still be entirely undemocratic, Charles’ understanding of energy is often exaggerated, simply because of his status. 

Unsurprisingly, his views are completely lacking in class analysis.  He routinely encourages regular people to green their lives, whilst ignoring the fact that his stolen millions commit him to spending his way through resources.  In September, shortly before his son’s marriage distracted everyone, Charles was traveling the country by train to promote the eco-consumerism message.  Once again letting the capitalist economy off the hook, the adventure cost taxpayers at least £50,000, caused untold pollution and demonstrated the ego of somebody who really has nothing new to add to the debate(5).  He has flown to Scotland by private jet for an Easter getaway and flown business class to New York to pick up an environmental award(6). His reliance on religious answers to our environmental troubles could lead into medieval territory, if he and those closest to him take the remaining oil, while the rest of us are encouraged to pray as we shiver around candles(7).

Even more worrying than the powers the monarchy holds onto are the powers the monarchy hands over to politicians in exchange for unwavering support.  These include the ability to make treaties, govern overseas territories, appoint and remove peers and ministers, declare war and deploy ‘Her Majesty’s’ Armed Forces – used most infamously by Tony Blair to invade Iraq.  All this can be done without parliamentary or public consultation, let alone approval(8).  The Queen meets up with the Prime Minister on a weekly basis to discuss policies.  As you can see, we really do have a choice: between a dictatorial head of state and a dictatorial head of government.

The point here is not that these two issues are of equal weight.  Even the main UK group working against the monarchy, Republic, has said itself that there are more imperative problems, and set itself a modest goal of success by 2025(9).  Unlike the end of cheap oil, on which everything from medicines to mass-produced food to waging oil wars relies, republicanism lacks urgency.  But both campaigns desperately need more supporters, action and widespread awareness, and it seems that some solidarity might be in order.  Anti-monarchy activists don’t want to see the royal family gain even more power and prestige.  Peak oil activists don’t want there to be even less freedom ahead of us.  If there’s one thing we’re not going to need in the coming decades, it’s the knowledge that we could have abated the situation if only we had connected the dots.

There is one more way in which the Royals are already making the future a more daunting place.  The “Wedding of the Century,” as Entertainment Weekly billed it(10), is the celebrity culture at its peak.  Every moment spent obsessing over the lives of the rich and famous is a moment not spent preparing for a fragile tomorrow, or even, living our own lives.  Does it seem likely that the monarchy doesn’t have a back-up plan, in the event that the lights go out?

  1. It’s official: Peak oil came in 2006. Transition Voice magazine. November 10th 2010.
  2. Royal Family granted new right of secrecy. The Independent. January 8th 2011.
  3. Royals and the Military. Republic.
  4. The British Constitution. Republic.
  5. And Finally. SchNEWS. September 10th 2010.
  6. Charles 'the hypocrite' takes private plane for 500-mile trip to Scotland. London Evening Standard.  March 31st 2007.
  7. God versus Greens. The Guardian. May 25th 2000.
  8. The British Constitution. Republic.
  9. Join Network 25. Republic.
  10. You are invited to a Media Frenzy! Entertainment Weekly cover story. March 4th 2011.,,ewTax:1144,00.html