Sunday, January 25, 2015

Some climate ideas to save

I originally wrote this as a letter to Revkin, for possible publication as a "Your Dot" post on his NYT blog DotEarth, a response requested by Andy to this article here. It wasn't published, so I'm saving it here in case I want it again.

(Responding to "Six Myths About Climate Change that Liberals Rarely Question."

It’s an interesting read, and I agree with much of the gist, although I’m somewhat more more gung-ho on the prospects for solar, wind, and related tech like control systems and batteries, including those needed to run fossil fuel vehicles. I’m professionally closer to and more aware of the emerging technology and economics than the author is, so I can easily quibble with some of his points.

But where Mr. Lindberg and I can agree is that denial is on both sides. In fact, I don’t think the piece comes even close to enumerating and specifying all the kinds and levels of denial I think exist in the climate debate. And some of these other areas have yet more insurmountable difficulties associated with them than the ones he mentions (most of which can be overcome by technology).

For instance, there is incredible denial right now on the interactions and “feedback” systems we’re currently building, possibly quite permanently, into our political system. Imagine what happens if things continue as they are, in ten or fifteen years' time, and the Republican Party becomes irretrievably the party of climate denial and untrammeled fossil fuel usage, to the point where the GOP must effectively crash and bottom out as a party before they are willing to compromise on climate economics; while the Democrats become similarly irretrievably the party of renewables and efficiency? I see this as the kind of scenario that led to the Civil War. One party, the South, was so existentially challenged by the economic proposals of the other (i.e., give up all that capital value you have tied up in slaves), that they couldn’t begin to countenance them politically. They preferred to try physical aggression than to continue to try to argue it out further politically, especially when they began to lose politically (after Lincoln was elected). The North tried its level best to paint them into this particular corner, led in large part by activists (in denial?).

I’m not blaming the North for the Civil War, nor the abolitionists. I just don’t see any other solution at the time for the elite leaders of the South at the time than economic ruin.

If I’m right about this partial parallel, then we’re in bigger trouble than we think. I think a much higher level of political stress, perhaps leading to street violence if not civil war, is certainly a possible outcome if current trends continue. Simply put, climate change requires that important elite individuals that own fossil fuels and related capital give up on, say, eighty percent or more of the potential capital value in those investments. That isn’t quite economic ruin, considering how rich most such individuals are, but it’s close.

Right now these individuals are just fighting back with politics, albeit fairly dirty politics, and the GOP is only somewhat wittingly their main agent, and this is working for them. But eventually, after a few more extreme weather events, say, that kind of resistance won’t work anymore. What then? Will the GOP peel away from the Koch brothers and their ilk to save itself? Will these “fossil elites” resort to sponsoring violent protests? Will this remain a populist issue in particularly heavily fossil-powered states, so that elite holders of fossil capital can maintain a populist "army” of resistance (similar to the poor, non-slave-holding whites in the CSA?). Could Texas try to secede, so it can continue burning oil at high levels?

It’s all worth thinking about, particularly as those of us who want to see change make more and more investments and commitments politically. I think these are fairly obviously predictable possibilities. We should be strategic and careful about those commitments. We could easily paint our opponents into a corner this way.

I hate to write such a jeremiad without offering some solutions to the difficulties I raise. One is more democracy — more power to ordinary people and less to the fossil elites. That way we could begin to pass, for instance, more regional climate bills like RGGI here in New England, or AB32 in California. There’s an inherent socio-economic feedback loop in this,  in that investments in renewables have intrinsic local and regional economic multipliers. They help grow the local and regional economy simply because they stem the export of money for fossil fuels. This is something we can begin to document and track. Success in California and New England ought to begin to begat success. I also like divestment as a strategy, but then I’m biased, working at Unity College.

Another kind of denial that I think about a lot occurs in both liberal and conservative views of international climate policy. The recently announced agreement with China was very helpful, but a similar agreement with the major fossil-fuel owning countries, many of which are not at all democratic, is probably going to be beyond our reach for the foreseeable. A similar gang of global "fossil elites" has effective ownership of many international fossil assets. Putin’s Russia is one example, the members of OPEC comprise several others. Neither liberals nor conservatives wish these international fossil elites particularly well. We have a shared interest in weakening them. These powers also have to be defeated politically before a real climate solution can be achieved.

Most climate advocates concentrate on trying to convince their national governments to reduce emissions, but what we really need in the long run is a kind of "League of Democracies against Climate Change", so we can begin to garner to ourselves enough political power to enforce an international climate settlement. This takes a very different kind of strategy, one that would see an effective climate endgame as resulting from strengthening democratic governance in the US and its democratic allies, not from weakening it by what could easily be called penny-ante attacks on relatively minor national-level emissions regulations.

Again, the solution I offer is more democracy — more information, for instance, has to reach the citizens of Putin’s putative New Russian Empire than currently is. More power to ordinary Russians, less to Putin’s fossil elites. But again, there’s an inherent and helpful socio-economic feedback. The more for instance, that the EU invests in renewables and efficiency (and nukes), the less they need Putin’s gas.

Putin’s fossil-based strategy for power is currently collapsing quite nicely, so we can see where to go on this. Not for the right reasons, unfortunately. Mostly he seems to be getting punished by the Sunni members of OPEC for Syria, among other defaults, and one consequence of lower oil prices will be that increased consumption will cancel out the benefits of recent emissions reduction in the EU and USA. But the West should double down if it can and bring him or preferably his successors to the table, on Ukraine, Syria, and eventually on climate emissions. Climate advocates should be in the vanguard of these developments, strengthening Obama’s hand in this domestically, if we can. If we think we can get to a global climate settlement without defeating Putin politically, then we’re in denial. But we’re also in denial if we think we can defeat Putin politically without giving the national aspirations of ordinary Russians someplace to go, in other words, if we paint them into a corner at the same time.

I don’t think there are many climate advocates that entertain these kinds of concerns very much at all. And that, as Mr. Lindberg points out for other similar issues, is clearly a problem of denial. But bottom line, when you begin to realize that the people, the fossil elites, who really benefit from the status quo are quite few, then the problem seems somewhat more surmountable.

All this assumes that you feel, as I do, relatively positive about the prospects for renewable energy, efficiency, and related technology like electric vehicles, and you see it as inherently less centralized and thus more democratic. (It’s inherently more libertarian too — a furrow we could plow more! Here’s an example.).

Mr. Lindberg, presumably is less than convinced right now about the effectiveness and economic power of renewables. I can’t say I blame him, given the situations he describes (and does so, I think, quite accurately), but I tend to want to believe that I’m closer to the truth on this. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

(But if I remember right, it was at least seven or eight years ago I was telling you that domestic, “behind the meter” solar power would soon be close to grid parity, and now it clearly is beyond that in most states.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Advice to a mature student

(I sometimes post some of my correspondence on my blogs, if it's interesting or useful to other people. This seemed to fit the bill.)


Hey Mick,

As my adviser, I was hoping you could advise me :)

I am struggling with the increase in tuition and what is needed for rent. I've been applying for scholarships and trying to find a job. I want to stay in school and accomplish something in life. I have family and friends that tell me to quit and get a "real" job, but that is why I am in school, to better myself, to help others who want to succeed and encourage people to make a change to preserve the world instead of depleting it.

I need direction because I have none, not many people I know have graduated a four-year program, let alone are doing something to preserve the environment.

It is a dream to graduate from Unity College and I'm now wondering if its even a possibility. I'm not afraid to work for it, I just don't what to do.

thank you for your time,




Good. We’re ready to think things through properly.

First up, one purpose of a four-year degree is to train leaders to solve complicated, convoluted problems. You seem to have a private personal complicated convoluted problem that is something like “WTF do I do with my life?” Am I right? Is there a better way to put it? Try to nail it for me. I’m serious here. Get to the bottom of things. Don’t hold back. Be a good critical thinker.

If that’s the root problem, “WTF do I do with my life?”, or something like it, then one solution to the problem is “Get a four-year degree and get a good job and a serious career.” There are other equally good solutions, like, “Drop out and become a lotus-eating Zen master” or “Join the marines and see the world.” As a college professor of long experience advising undergraduates, I am agnostic on which solutions are best. It’s your life, after all. Who am I to say what you should do? What I want out of the deal are willing students who are motivated to learn, so your choices must be freely made.

It’s important to also note that some of these other solutions are WAY cheaper than a four-year college degree. Like, the marines will actually pay you to see the world. In the interest of full and fair disclosure, I also have to say that it’s possible to have a great career without even getting a college degree. If you’re Steve Jobs, that is, or someone creative and driven like he was. Most people aren’t, so they take a degree to make up for it.

If you put your thinking cap on and work from the “WFT.?” question and eventually do get to the solution of “Get a four-year degree and get a good job and a serious career,” then it naturally follows that another decision must then be made: “Where to go to school?”

Unity College is one place to go to school, but only one of many, and middle-of-the-road expensive. Why pick Unity?

One answer is that Unity College is an acknowledged leader in a thing called the "sustainability movement” and has been for over a decade now, since the late 1990s, in fact. This is a very broad and hard-to-define movement, but it exists, and can certainly be an environment where a person can have a serious interesting career helping to solve some very difficult problems like climate change or biodiversity loss. So coming to Unity can definitely help you join the sustainability movement, if that is what you really, really want to do.

Note that these environmental problems are not very well understood by the majority of people. The average person, even someone who had a decent education, if given the exhortation “join the sustainability movement to help solve climate change” would be very confused, and one response they might have to that confusion would be that this is bad advice and they might then tell you so. This is I think where many students' friends and families who tell them to go to a “real” college and to get a “real job” are coming from. They simply don’t understand that thousands and thousands of people have interesting, well-paid, real jobs solving climate change in the sustainability movement or working with biodiversity protection. But they do.

Me, for instance. I have one such job. So does my wife. And we’re not doing too badly.

However, at this point it’s important to note that you could have a very good and even socially redeeming carer going to some other college and becoming, say, a lawyer, an accountant, or a business professional. Or “join the marines and see the world.” See, we’re back to square one.

And it’s certainly possible to go to a four-year second tier state-run college and get a degree in accounting or business for much less than the Unity College degree. To make it yet more complicated, you could even go get that degree and graduate and join the sustainability movement. There’s no law to say you can’t. So, for instance, you could get a plain Jane four-year accounting degree for less than $40 K from East Overshoe State College in upstate New Guernsey, and then go to work for a solar PV installation firm organizing finance for household solar installations, and in a lifetime’s work making several hundred such installations happen, getting paid pretty well for this service, and when all is said and done, who would be able to say say that you wouldn’t have contributed as much if not more to solving climate change than, say, a fat old professor of Sustainable Energy?

No-one, that’s who.

The only thing that would be required to go down this other road is that you find your own ways to think about the sustainability movement and climate change. This is because they aren’t going to cover that in the curriculum at East Overshoe State. Not in any organized way. They may have the classes on the books, but they won’t be "joined up” in any way that makes sense. Not right now, at least. In twenty years they will be, and all boring old accountants graduating East Overshoe and all the hundreds if not thousands of other places like it will be made to take courses in climate change and renewable energy technology. That’s what society will need, and so that’s what will happen. But not right now, not right away.

Whereas at Unity College they will be joined up and they would make sense. (Not necessarily right away, but eventually, after a semester or two or three.) This is probably what we mean by “interdisciplinary" or “transdisciplinary” sustainability studies: that the ideas with which we work are joined-up, organized and connected and function across the traditional disciplines, which are rapidly being made obsolete by the demands of the marketplace for ideas. This is what we do at Unity College and we do it particularly well if you’re willing to pay attention.

(Note that not all of the students in all of the classes you’ve been in so far are paying attention. If they’re lazy students, or drunk, or smoking weed, they probably don’t know what a good sustainability education they’re getting, and so some UC students will add to the confusion by not being aware of their own situation. Don’t be like them. You can’t afford it, for one. But for another, it’s a very silly way to be in this world. Education is often wasted on the young.)

More complications and convolutions: If you went to Flagship State University instead, it’s possible and even likely that you could get a half-way decent joined-upsustainability education for about the same price as UC, or even a bit less. Most of the big state colleges, like UMaine Orono, by now have such programs. I’d like to think that they aren’t quite as thought-out and joined up as the Unity degree, but I’m a little biased, and some of them probably are pretty well organized by this point.

So, to summarize: If, after doing all this thinking you decide that you want a career solving climate change or biodiversity loss, then you’ll almost certainly need a four-year degree, and by all means Unity College is a good choice, but not the only choice at this point. If you decide you want to go someplace else, just tell me and we’ll think it through and find you a place to go.

Now the housing problem. I’m going to say right off the bat without even looking at things properly that most housing problems are in fact budget problems. If they were not, all students would be living in ten-thousand square foot MacMansions with poolside bars, right?

Budget problems are always solvable. They require some accounting skill, and, when they’re college budget problems they require some knowledge of the federal financial aid system. But they are solvable. The way to begin is to list all the expenses and income. I would go monthly since that’s the way bills tend to appear in the mail: list all the monthly expenses required. (Some annual expenses or annual income will need to be divided by 12 to make them monthly.)

Make a two column list “Monthly Expenses for my College Degree.” You could use Excel or paper and pencil. Here’s an example.

Item/Monthly Cost
Rent  $500
Electric bill $100
Food $150
Car payment $150
Car insurance $50

Etc, etc. Leave tuition out, for now.

When you get to the bottom of the list and have listed everything and added it up, make another list: "Monthly Income for my College Degree.”

This second list should look like something this:

Item/Monthly Income
Student loan $1000
(divided by 12)
Part-time job $800
Summer full time job  $700
(divided by 12)

Etc, etc.

This will be likely a much shorter list. Unfortunately.

If after you do both lists, income is greater than expenses, then you are probably OK, at least for now.

If expenses are greater than income, then we have to add income or reduce expenses. More likely, we reduce expenses. Break it down and work on one item at a time, but don’t forget that some items are joined together. So rent might be more expensive in Unity, Maine, but you wouldn’t perhaps need to have a nice car if you could walk or bike to school until the snow flies. An old beater might do. Or you might find cheaper rent in Waterville, but need a better and more fuel-efficient car to exploit this. Remember, nothing on the expenses list is sacred, not if you’re serious about your goal. (Except maybe food.) Do you really need a $100/month cell phone when a $14 one would do? And so on. More than likely your real list has different items and problems than the examples I’m using, but you get the idea.

You may need to up your loans. We can talk at more length when you come back to school about student loan repayment plans and forgiveness programs and whether or not loans are worth it, but bottom line is, they’re much more generous than they were five-six years ago. This is one really useful nation-building thing Congress has done in the last few years, that most folks don’t know about.

Think of student loans as an investment, as if you were starting a business. If you were starting a business, like a bakery or an auto shop, you’d probably get a bank loan of several tens of thousands of dollars to buy equipment, but you’d need to show the bank your business plan. In this case we’re starting a business called “XXX’s Career,” and making a similar investment. The investment needs to pay off in the sense that you can afford to pay the student loan when you get done, and still have money left over for other goals like a nice life, a house, or retirement, so this also has to be a very well-planned investment. That’s not as hard as it sounds with the new lower interest rates, pay as you earn, forgiveness and wotnot.

And people in the sustainable energy business are hiring. To properly plan, we need to start looking at some of these jobs, think about which kinds of jobs you’d like to do, and see how much they pay. We can talk more when you get back. If you’re a serious student, and plan, student loans shouldn’t be a problem.

One thing: Never, ever take out a private student loan. Make sure all your loans are federal.

Never eat at a place called “Moms," never play poker with a guy called “Doc,” never take out anything but a fixed interest mortgage, and never, ever take out a private student loan. (That’s all the fatherly advice I have, I’m afraid, and even this is partly stolen from an environmental writer called Ed Abbey.)

Hope this helps,



Saturday, November 23, 2013

Mick's somewhat more original thinking

Welcome to the Sustainability Thought and Deed Annex.

If you've arrived at this page it's either through following the link from the main page, or through a Google search of my name Mick Womersley. I'm a British academic who lives and works in the United States, and who thinks and writes about climate change, energy, and the future of civilization.

Presumably you are trying to find out more about what I think and do.

(If not, then this is a good time to leave.)

One of my many mentors, Professor Mark Lapping of the University of Southern Maine, is fond of saying that professors should profess, using the older, very Quakerish meaning of the word: to give testimony or to affirm faith.

Here's the Wiktionary definition:

  1. claim openly but often falsely that one has (a quality or feeling).
    "he had professed his love for her"

  2. affirm one's faith in or allegiance to (a religion or set of beliefs).
    "a people professing Christianity"
    synonyms:affirm one's faith in, affirm one's allegiance to, avow, confess More

I think that what Mark meant by this was that academics, especially college and university professors, should be sure to be true to our own ideals and ideas, instead of constantly referring to the academic literature or relying on the canon. Which, if we were being honest, is what most of us do and what our institutions expect us to do, unless we're total "rocket stars", academically speaking.

Mark thought instead that professors should have their own original ideas, or at least some of them.

This particular blog page acts as a repository for what I believe is the most useful of my academic work in recent years, which is the reflective writing I've done on Sustainability Thought and Deed.

This webpage therefore contains my profession, such as it is.

These writings are not what most people, and indeed, most academics, would consider at all important, academically speaking. They're not peer-reviewed, formal, published research. Nor are they critically acclaimed creative products.

That's because I'm rather an idiosyncratic and unorthodox academic, as far as the expectations are concerned for that particular role in life in 21st century American colleges and universities. Not very ivory-towerish. I'm just as interested in doing as I am in thinking, and in fact find a balance of both to be essential to my emotional health.

In fact, I notice that I tend to think a lot as I do things, and vice versa, which leads me to hypothesize that people that can't do anything particularly well perhaps cannot also think very well.

I also notice that unless I take time to reflect, I often make incorrect assumptions.This leads me to hypothesize that unreflective people make a lot of mistakes.

This idiosyncratic approach to thinking, rather strange for the academy, is mostly due to my background and education. I've had a much more varied working life than most academics.

I started out in the UK military, where I was a member of the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service and trained as an aircraft engineering technician at the RAF's Number 1 School of Technical Training, RAF Halton (intake APD 34). You'd have to have been both an RAF engineer or an RAF mountain rescue "troop" to really understand what kind of training this combination entailed. Most people would never be able to understand and it would take me a long time to explain. Suffice it to say that there was a time when I was supposed to be able to run up and down Ben Nevis in only a couple of hours, lead-climb the Matterhorn, accept responsibility for horribly injured people many miles from help and save them, fix fast jet fighters when they broke, and lead a squad of airmen in ground combat. I'll leave it your imagination to guess which of these I did particularly well.

I worked in servicing hangers, on flight lines, and on the mountains for just under seven years, before applying for and receiving compassionate discharge due to my developing environmental and political viewpoints, which could be quickly summarized as emerging horror over what the government of Margaret Thatcher was doing to the communities of my North British homeland. How I won my release is a story unto itself, but suffice it to say, I have an honorable discharge and kept my pension, more due to the very intelligent and understanding views taken by the RAF officers that dealt with my case, than to the case itself or the way I made it.

I then "bummed around" the communities and backwaters of the British and American counter-cultures for about three years, learning about home construction, renewable energy and farming by doing, all the while looking for an alternative to Thatcherism.

Finding none, I entered the academy, specifically the University of Montana, in the fall of 1989, to see, more formally, if an alternative could be found there. I went straight through the BA and MS degrees to the PhD. I eventually found the alternative to Thatcherism in the principles and theory of ecological economics, but remain confused as to how the world could ever get to the point where this more enlightened theory could inform events.

But sometimes process is more important than the goal. In my case, as a partial result of all this experience, I'm a competent mechanic and itinerant engineer, as well as a moderately competent builder and farmer. I still fix all my own cars and equipment (including a 43-year old Land Rover and a 41-year old tractor), and maintain my own home. I also build, and remodel buildings, for energy efficiency and agricultural use. I install and maintain renewable energy and energy efficiency equipment, perform building energy analysis, and measure the wind using huge anemometer towers for the state of Maine. I also have considerable experience in the British and American environmental movements as an activist, for organizations ranging from the UK Green Party to Earth First! I grow my own food, with my wife Aimee, on a small scale sustainable homestead in Jackson, Maine. I'm still active in search and rescue and will have been faculty advisor to the Unity College Search and Rescue Team for  fifteen years this fall. I just stepped down from several years as an officer of, and resource coordinator for, the Maine Association for Search and Rescue. I am the editor of the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Association's journal, On the Hill, the publication of my ex-serviceman's association, and have been for several years now.

I'm a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, or RSA, which as far as I know is the only professional organization in the world that believes that doing and thinking are just as important as one another, and advocates for this point of view.

Finally, and in many ways least important to me personally, I've had a wide range of experiences in the American academy, where I studied ecology, social science, policy and economics with leading academicians.

I spend a lot of time teaching others to do these kinds of things. I also spend a lot of time thinking about these kinds of things, and why the planet is the way it is, right now.

Hence the title, "Sustainability Thought and Deed." By now, you should be getting the idea.

What I can say about these writings is that they contain complex, nuanced ideas about the future of our planet. I think these ideas are useful and important. (But I'm biased.)

If you're interested, you'll read some or all of them. If not, no hard feelings.

Here are my favorite posts. Read at your own risk!

Advice to a mature student. I find myself reiterating this article in many if not most of my discussions with advisees. Read it now and save yourselves the trouble.

GK and GP
My proposal to the MIT Climate COLab contest, as it was in summer 2014. This proposal unites most of my geopolitical thinking about climate change in one swell foop. It's my best academic work, ever. I may just retire now, because I'm not sure I can improve in it in the future. The version available on MIT's web page is subject to change, as the rules of the contest require revising after receiving comments from the judges and membership.

Green Keynesianism and Green Protectionism
Ideas relating to the problem of how the world's free countries can protect democracy and the planet's climate at the same time. A precursor to GK and GP, above. Relatively succinct and to the point.

Principles of Sustainability Thought and Deed
More, earlier, meandering on principles and practice.

What kind of a problem is climate change?
A student's questioning made me review my attitude to the Keystone Pipeline controversy, with possibly generalizable results.

Key thoughts on climate change and education.
What will it be like? (Understanding likely climate effects)
What do I think is most likely to happen to our climate? Empirical sensitivity may be less than expected, but it would be dangerous to act on this because there may be hidden tipping points. I hope we will act, but if we don't, or don't act enough, I pray that the tipping points don't tip.

Some new tech ideas I like

Critical of thinking
Some notes on how to teach critical thinking to "millennials," if at all feasible.

On despair and its management

Climate problems are going to be very difficult to deal with. But every generation has faced down its own set of problems and this one will too.

Meditation, mental health, homesteading and sustainability

If we all thought more, we'd consume less, and be happier.

On the role of engineering and industry
Whatever happened to western engineering supremacy? Actually, we still have it. But you wouldn't know, considering all the buzz about China.

Green economics and the metaphysics of quality
Ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Don't. I once did, and it messed up my whole life.

Careers in green tech and how not to get one: A teaching philosophy

There are lots of green tech careers, but what is the proper attitude and training?

Divestment 2.0
A running list of how-tos to reduce fossil fuel emissions. (Not very original.)

PS: Here's my current CV

Academic bio:

(This biographical material was appended to the post above, but it was getting too long. Then I realized I was mostly just trying to list, and explain to myself, what all I'd done with my life to make me the very idiosyncratic person I am. So I moved most of it down to this second post. Again, read at your own risk.)

In 1985, after nearly seven years' service, I left the UK's Royal Air Force (RAF) in protest against the policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. I was one of a handful of servicemen who did this during the mid-1980s. A particular catalyst was the women's peace camp and anti-nuclear protests at RAF Greenham Common. In particular at the time I was concerned about Reagan's placement of intermediate and short range nuclear missiles on British soil, but not controlled by British authorities. I was also concerned about Thatcher's economic policy, particularly the outrageous attacks she ordered on northern and mining communities. Those difficult days were the beginning of my development as a political economist, even though it was several years before I entered the academy to formally study the issues.

I remain in close contact with my unit and former colleagues, the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service, through their association. Of all the worlds so-called "Special Forces," there is none other that I would be more content to be associated with.

After leaving the military, I spent a year at the Findhorn eco-commune in Scotland, with mixed results. In particular, I worked with the Findhorn children and regional under-privileged youth through the Findhorn Foundation Youth Project.

Although this loving but muddled intentional community was a safe place to land after such a difficult experience, it was also very isolated from the real work problems I wanted to work on. As a result, I developed, among other things, a sense of how cults work and of how religion holds power over people's minds. (These concerns led in part to my eventual PhD dissertation about religious environmentalism in the United States, particularly religious environmental attempts to address climate change. But I'm jumping ahead in the narrative.)

I then emigrated to the US in 1986, and bummed around the west as a mountain guide and rescue technician, worked in various other western resource-based jobs, including short stints in a mine, a timber mill, and so on, and two years helping to manage a boarding school for troubled youth, before finally beginning attending the University of Montana at the age of 28 in fall 1989.

A Late Bloomer.

As an undergraduate student in Zoology, I worked for Dr. Alan McQuillan at Wilderness Institute, part of the University of Montana Forestry School. I helped out with various conservation, wildlife, and wilderness projects, including the Cabinet Mountains Fisher Reintroduction Project, and was the coordinator of the Institute's field programs, a wonderful job that gave full reign to several of the deeper threads in my life. I was also an Earth First! activist and journalist during the early 1990s, based in Missoula, MT, and published, with my ex-wife Beverly Cherner, several issues of Earth First! Journal.

My first graduate school was the UMT Forestry School, where I studied economic development and sustainability in northern Japan and the Highlands of Scotland. I then went to the Maryland Policy School for six years for a PhD. I did graduate research work under some fairly hi-falutin' academics and survived. One factor which may be a strength or a weakness is a breadth of influences. I'm not a name-dropper, but, for example, I took classes in economics from, and was mentored by, both Herman Daly and Carmen Reinhart.  If you know anything about economics, you will understand that this is an interesting combination, to say the least.

Interesting as in the (apocryphal) Chinese curse.

My PhD was partly funded by a NOAA Sea Grant Fellowship, and I was involved with a number of different social science research projects, mostly under the tutelage of Dr. Mark Sagooff and Mr. David Wasserman, JD, an odd-couple research team that worked together for many years during the 1990s with Sea Grant and EPA funding. The one thing David and Mark do have in common is that they are both Jewish, and bring that faith's ancient and abiding humanitarianism to their work. I sometimes refer to this period, tongue in cheek, as my "rabbinical" education, and value it highly. Towards the end of the PhD experience I was able to spend two semesters at the University of Georgia's Institute of Ecology, where I worked under some interesting academics on some new problems and was able to test out my teaching skills, another valuable experience.

Altogether, I have degrees from the University of Montana in Biology (BA) and Resource Conservation (MS) (the latter from the Forestry School), and from the University of Maryland (PhD) in Environmental Policy Analysis. 

I came to Unity College in the year 2000 as temporary Assistant Professor, while still an ABD PhD candidate. Assigned to general education classes in sustainability and the economics and policy classes, I soon found outlets for the other threads in my life, particularly through the Unity College search and rescue team, and through the engineering work associated with the college campus sustainability programs.

I enjoy Unity College students, who are generally unspoiled young people from practical backgrounds, concerned about the environment and social and political issues. They prefer practical solutions and practical education, for the most part, and respond as well to being outdoors and doing things with their hands as they do to being in class thinking about things. We get along. I was also the college's first sustainability coordinator. I'm now a senior faculty member, a "full professor," and a faculty leader. Our efforts over the years to make the college an example of sustainability are now garnering the attention of the world's media, and, as one of the people responsible for these efforts,

I'm quite proud of our small college's sustainability efforts -- I call it "The Little College that Could", and indeed, former Unity College president Mitchell Thomashow will shortly publish a book about our experiences in campus sustainability.

My formal research area is now in renewable energy planning, climate mitigation and related quantitative analysis, and my teaching is in sustainability, economics, and renewable energy.

I have a good deal of published research, and give a lot of formal presentations. Most recently I've been contributing in the area of pedagogy relating to sustainability, particularly quantitative analysis. Students are often terrified of math, and their ability to understand climate change and economics suffers as a result. I've been thinking about, and experimenting with, different ways to address this problem, and have had some success, publishing and presenting on the results at various conferences.

Related to this very broad and eclectic background, in an ongoing internal research project, I try to reconcile Keynesian economics with ecological economics in very practical terms, and hope soon to take a sabbatical to write my thinking up as a short book. I recently gave a conference presentation on this topic, but the majority of my writings, what I've had time to do, are published in this Annex to my main blog.

I also have a moderately significant technical research project in wind energy measurement and modeling, until recently funded by the federal government and the state of Maine. As a result I maintain a repository of Maine wind data for use in the public interest and provide wind energy analysis for regional and local planning.

I use my blog, Sustainability Thought and Deed, to unite research, teaching and and praxis as seamlessly as I can. When you dabble in as many areas as I do, and teach for a very small college that repeatedly asks you to take on new roles and new subject areas, you have to find a way to bring it all together.

I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in January 2014. This is a minor honor in the UK. The RSA is a venerable institution (est. 1754) for academics and practitioners from industry and commerce that are interested in societal problems, and in particular how they can be addressed using science and technology. You can read about it here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Table of Contents: An ecological political macroeconomics.

This is an annotated table of contents for a book I'm working on -- on the political economy and economics of sustainability. I'll work on it from time to time as my other workload allows. If you happen here and read these ideas and use or republish one or more of them, please make sure to cite them. People often steal my ideas without attribution, and it's very annoying, mostly because the operating rules of my workplace and the Academy in general require me to publish such ideas, or perish (professionally speaking), and only give me full professional credit for them after they are successfully published. As I've mentioned elsewhere in the annex, my high teaching and service workload prevents me from getting the kind of concentrated time required to do a really good job of writing an ecological macroeconomics, so the alternative is to eke it out in stages like this. In order to get some collaboration, and because I enjoy the intellectual freedom of the blogosphere, I choose to publish these ideas here, which then, unfortunately, makes it easy for you to steal them.

So. Don't steal: Cite.

Better yet, drop me a line at, or in the comments section and engage with me.

If you do cite, the formalities will be hard to wrangle into the requirements of your particular journal or other outlet. The proper form of the citation should probably be something like,

Womersley, Mick, 2014: Table of Contents: An ecological political macroeconomics, work in progress, retrieved from the Internet (your date here),

Working title: An ecological political macroeconomics. 

(I know I'll need something more creative than this, but A Guide for the Perplexed, Small is Beautiful and The Limits to Growth are already taken. I'm working on it.)

Table of Contents: 

1) The nature of the sustainability problem in the opening decades of the 21st century: How bad is it, really? What are we going to lose and what we will gain if business as usual (BAU) continues? How does the emerging climate-and-energy crisis interact with freedom and democracy? Where does the world stand with respect to freedom and democracy? Do we have enough of it? How could things be any better? What is my vision of a more just future?

2) An indictement of modern economic theory, how it fails most of the world's people. How a supposedly scientific, positivist theory is really a biased political economy. But is there anything better? What are our options, for a generalized theory of how we should use scarce biophysical resources for competing human physiological and cultural ends? Business as usual capitalism? Socialism? Traditionalism? Other command economies? Anarchism? A mixed economy? All are fundamentally flawed, but capitalism may be less flawed than all the others when you consider the nature of human enterprise and the role that enterprise and entreprenuerialism plays in developing products and production processes. But how could capitalist economics be modified to work better under the conditions of a climate crisis, which may itself just be the first dose of a generalized human sustainability crisis?

A key insight: Is economics really about efficiency, or is it more just the rules of a game we play when we're not playing war? A plug for civilization, instead of war, should go here. A better, more nuanced explanation of how capitalism has served civilization is long overdue.

How well does this game work out for individuals and communities? Who are the winners and who the losers? A new political economy theory of capitalism: Winners compensate losers, or oppress them, in order to maintain the game and so prevent war. It works much as Rawls imagined it to work, but the reality is much more complicated than the theory, far too complicated and entwined in culture and language for any game theorist to game it out. And Rawls didn't concern himself much with oppression, which is clearly a big part of the game.

The result, in societies of the west, is a dynamic balance between the parties of potential or imagined winners and the parties of potential or imagined losers, and various complex cultural combinations thereof, who fight out the levels of compensation required, generally using party politics, sometimes using mob rule.

In the east, things tend to be more black-and-white: actual winners pretend to be, or are, benign dictators, while actively suppressing actual losers violently, using the state's apparatus of power, the legal system, prison, which eastern winners have co-opted, and of course the old favorites, torture and execution. Eastern winners have to always be alert to prevent powerful combinations of losers, especially losers with modern weapons, especially the ubiquitous AK47, and, worst of all, modern ideas, especially democracy. The problem for eastern losers is how to get any free space at all. The only alternative is to become a slave to the system.

(I understand the west-east dichotomy doesn't work that well -- India and Japan, for instance are important democracies, as is South Korea. I may work up a different nomenclature to use here, democratic versus non-democratic. But for now, it's helping me to work through the various problems.)

The problem for western losers and imagined losers, especially environmental and economic radicals is, the west is a much better place to be a loser -- not as free or as delightful as the winners or imagined winners would like us to believe, but still better. Losers, imagined or otherwise, are, for the most part, free to think, imagine, and organize. Or get drunk, do drugs, or religion, and generally exclude themselves from the debate thereby. (Alcohol and drugs having much the same effect as many religious approaches in this respect.)

This freedom is allowed not so much because of capitalism, but because of the systems of human rights in which western capitalism is required to operate. Systems of rights erect boundaries to the excesses of capitalistic winners over the losers, providing intellectual and biophysical spaces for losers and imagined losers to function in. A short history of the development of these systems is in order here. This is also where Amyarta Sen's ideas about personal actualization come in. There also deserves and needs to be a better explanation of the recent democratization of both credit and investment, which has both benefited western losers and imagined losers, and reformed the game of capitalism. Western radicals rarely like to discuss these ideas.

Eastern losers would love to have these rights and opportunities, and western technology, led by "evil" western capitalist corporations such as Google, Microsoft and Apple, as well as the western government-designed internet system, is actually helping them be better and safer activists in their battles against their various dictators. One consequence of the internet revolution is that ideas can now spread very much faster than they used to. If western radicals had their druthers in trammeling western capitalism and technology, one impact would be the loss of these meager but increasingly important opportunities for eastern activists to spread ideas. Luckily, western radicals are not going to get their druthers. But it's one example of the hypocrisy and nonsense of the radical position in the west that such things are thought of, and even muddled up in prescriptions for dealing with climate change.

Another problem for western activists is that western military power sets boundaries to the expansion of the eastern dictators' various empires. Western activists, some of whom are real losers, others of whom are just self-imagined losers, dislike western military power and deny it as a force for good. For good reason, since it is often used to control them. The west is not free of oppression, just relatively free of oppression. They resist this power and refuse to serve it. This is another kind of nonsense, though, because although there have been horrible moments of betrayal, wherein some of the stupider westerners in the military have committed horrible atrocities, various My Lais and Abu Ghraibs, or wherein western governments have betrayed their own rights systems, such as in Guantanamo Bay, for the most part western military systems are a force for good, since they exist to protect systems of rights. Unfortunately, by doing so, they also protect capitalism, and which one they are protecting at any given time is muddled. But when they do protect systems of rights effectively, they are a force for good.

Hence the rescue system which I served for many years and still do, as a civilian paramilitary rescue worker. Hence the various peacekeeping and disaster recovery efforts, and on, and on. And of course, the fully necessary boundary-policing function mentioned above. If western activists had their druthers, all this would come to an end, or at least be modified greatly, so, for instance, the vaunted American military would become more like the feeble Dutch one (that failed so spectacularly in Rwanda), or worse. But I don't think we're going to be able to do without the western military arm, especially as climate change continues. We'll need to keep the dictators at bay, occasionally we'll need to supervise the transition of a former dictatorship to democracy, and we'll need to provide increasing amounts of military and paramilitary disaster rescue and recovery. Somewhere in here a better Keynesian and Marshallian explanation of military peacekeeping and transition operations, as well as military and civilian-but-paramilitary rescue and disaster recovery is deserved.

3) Alternatives to unrequited western capitalism: Macro: The macroeconomics of sustainability. Dalian economics and the biophysical nature of credit. What is money in the biophysical world? How should we think about fractional reserve banking, monetary policy, interest rate manipulations, open market policies and the like, in a world where there are biophysical limits to growth? A new New Deal and a new Marshall Plan for climate change, as well as market reforms required to make sure the new system isn't gamed before it even gets going. A better, more realistic idea of how these reforms can be implemented without taking capitalism head on, a tactic sure to fail. (Some description of why this is sure to fail.)

4) Alternatives to unrequited western capitalism: Micro: A better explanation of the microeconomics of climate change and sustainability, taking into account the democratization of credit and investment: how policies and processes can be rearranged. Where is the microeconomic space that can be coopted by the losers and put to work to make western society more egalitarian? Some notes and how-tos on divestment, on worker's cooperatives and credit unions, on small-scale farming and industry, on how to dissent creatively within and without corrupt, unrequited capitalist concerns, are long overdue here.

5) Alternatives to unrequited western capitalism: Trade: A Climate Free Trade zone. How we can use protectionism to isolate and pauperize the dictators and reduce emissions at the same time. How this might backfire, and what steps we should take to prevent this.

6) Unspinning: How to be a real climate radical in this complex world: Where are the real front lines? In the boardroom, or the boiler room? In front of the barricades, or behind them, in the military or civilian rescue services? You can't succeed with literary and artistic notions of radicalism alone, and we have to stop spinning things, or at least, teach students to better sort out the spin from reality. Some applied engineering is helpful here. To fix climate change we're going to have to know how the engine works, get our hands dirty, try fixing something or making something, try setting up production for something, anything useful, and doing so without using fossil energy, or not very much of it. Old fashioned engineering gumption isn't out-of-date, it's more relevant than ever, and we're going to need it to work better than ever before to survive climate change with any vestige of civilization left. Sure, the artist or writer serves civilization too, but where would we be without the builder or mechanic? A plug for vocational schooling long overdue here. How technology and engineering knowledge are being democratized, the possibilities of a post-industrial society, of the 3-D printer and the open source and "maker" community, how democratized credit and investment plays a role.

7) The role of meditation and moderation: How losers can win -- in their own heads, and how winners actually lose, by being so caught up in their own acquisitive craziness, they never smell the roses. The proliferation of good states of mind: Keynes was a snob, but he was onto something that, if democratized, is worth billions. But its over-enthusiastic application could also cause the worst recession ever. How can we downsize and "degrowth" without causing a recession?

6) Wrap-up: My imagined world of the future, post-climate change.