Fighting Fire with Fire


Rocky Mountain High

     The techno-narcissism flowed like a melted Slurpee this torrid weekend at the annual Aspen Environment Forum where scores of scientists, media figures, authors, professors, and policy wonks convened to settle the world's hash - at least in theory. The trouble started Friday night when Stewart Brand, 74, impresario of The Whole Earth Catalog, and an economic cornucopian these days, exhorted the skittish audience to show a little goshdarn optimistic spirit about the future instead of just griping about climate change, peak oil, imploding global finance, and a few other vexing trifles. The audience's response was to not line up and buy a signed copy of his latest book. 
     The Aspen Institute is supported by a bizarre array of corporate donors and individuals ranging from the secretive, devious, extreme right-wing Koch brothers to Goldman Sachs, to Michael Eisner to Duke Energy. The mission of the Environment Forum is divided about equally between publicizing the gathering horrors of climate change and promoting an ethos of wishful thinking that all the problems of mankind will yield to technological rescue remedies.
    It's a very odd mix of hard-headed science and the most dismaying sort of crypto-religious faith in happy endings, tinged with overtones of corporate log-rolling and government propaganda. The basic message is: the world is hopelessly fucked up but thank God for technology. There is not even a dim apprehension that many of the aforementioned vexations originate in technology itself, and its blowbacks. Alas, this is about the best that the American intelligentsia can do right now, collectively, and it explains why we have such uniformly impotent and clueless leadership across the board in America, from the White House to the CEO offices to the diploma mills to the news media and every other realm of endeavor where thinking realistically about the future might be considered valuable.
     Another strange notion permeating this forum - and probably the entire Progressive intellectual class in America - is the belief that if you can measure things, you can control them. Thus, an endless regurgitation of statistics, which, after a while, resembles liturgical incantation and, pretty much, serves the same purpose, namely an obsessive-compulsive ritual aimed at calming the nerves. If it was, after all, techno-magic that led us to poison the oceans and upset the calibration of the earth's atmosphere, then maybe fresh applications of magic can make all those bad things go away, fighting fire with fire, shall we say.
     Speaking of fire, there was one burning up the valley from Aspen, which made the whole town smell like barbeque Sunday morning while six other wildfires blazed all around Colorado. One of them, the High Park fire, has been going for two weeks and burned over 82,000 acres so far with no sign of petering out. Temperatures in the high Rockies soared over 90 degrees all weekend and there was practically no snowpack left up in the elevations - a spooky development this early in the summer.
      The odor of empire's end also hangs over Aspen these days, despite the sheen of spectacular wealth visible around the little town and the emanations of glowing health in the buff and tanned population of exercise freaks. Everything that makes the town tick is in danger of unraveling. The ski industry can't possibly survive the eventual effects of peak oil, and the collapse of commercial aviation will put an end to the conveyer belt of tourists. The villas of the Wall Street and Hollywood kingpins that decorate the ridge lines above town give off a desolate vibe of futility, as if the foregone disaster of a global banking meltdown had already sent their once-proud owners to bankruptcy Palookaville. The place gave off eerie intimations of a ghost town in-the-making.
      Anyway you looked at America from the vantage of Aspen, Colorado, everything we do and stand for looks out of kilter. Our intellectual resources look spent, our prospects seem grim, and our assets are going up in flames. Maybe there's some consolation that we're not Europe. That said, I have never been to a conference in all my vagabond years where so many magnificent buffet spreads and overflowing gorgeous snack tables were laid in never-ending succession. It almost persuaded me that the old Right Reverend Malthus was too Malthusian.

Petroleum Paradox Reviewed by Inside New York


Politically Charged: Petroleum Paradox Art


Johnny Everyman “Obama Wants You”

Hidden away on the 4th floor of the building at 529 W. 20th St. (with plenty of loud construction nearby), Denise Bibro Fine Art Gallery is a hole-in-the-wall art space with visually appealing and politically stimulating pieces. Last week, it unveiled the results of its collaboration with the Women’s Caucus for Art: The Petroleum Paradox: For Better or for Worse? art exhibition.

Social activism is one of the Women’s Caucus claims to fame, and when I entered the exhibit, it came as no surprise. Almost front and center from the entrance is Johnny Everyman’s “Obama wants you.” The Uncle Sam poster that all American-borns know from childbirth was replaced with none other than Barack Obama. The slogan at the bottom was no militaristic tagline but instead read, “I want you to think there’s nothing wrong with my energy policy.” At the top right, Obama balanced a flaming earth on his finger like a basketball star.

As this Obama piece clearly showed, the exhibit was political but overall, not partisan. Three works to the left, I came upon Karen M Gutfreund’s “I want my WMD’s” bearing the likenesses of Condoleeza Rice, Dick Cheney, and who other than George W. Bush himself.

Regardless of the political affiliations of these two artists, the exhibit’s message was clear: the existence of petroleum is pervasive. Some pieces, like “Obama wants you” and “I want my WMD’s,” all but point at conspiracy. Others are subtler in their tactics to the point that they seem to be not condemning but aestheticizing petroleum. “This is Not Water” is a resin plexi glass with several water-like ripples frozen in action but mysteriously is not made out of petroleum at all, while “The Outcome” uses fiery-painted aluminum foil – perhaps, I thought, to cast an ominous glance on the future of a world based in petroleum?

By far the most poignant work was Robin M. Jordan’s “Breeze Above Ground.” It captured the “paradox” of oil most poignantly. A slab of glass was set up horizontally. Over it, a “breeze” was represented by a winding steel knot. Underneath dangled sea creatures from strings: Sea flowers, squid, jellyfish, kelp, and coral, each no bigger than my thumb. They were limp and faded in color. The paradox? The sea creatures themselves were made out of plastic, monofilament, glass beads, monofilament, and umbrella detritus. The exhibit, in acknowledging how pervasive petroleum is, couldn’t get away from relying on petrochemicals.

Once you finish the exhibit, go next door and seeing Linda Lappa’s Split Second NYC. Even if – and especially if – petroleum doesn’t get political activism pumping through your veins, there’s no better way to end the day than seeing paintings of NYC traffic and the MTA system frozen while in motion. Denise Bibro has a trove of artistic gems that remain hidden away in the bowels of 529 W. 20th St. and New Yorkers would do well to scope them out.

On view until June 23, 2012. Denise Bibro Fine Art Gallery, 529 W. 20th St. Free admission. Tues-Sat 11am-6pm. C, E to W. 23rd St

-Andrea Garcia-Vargas

insideNY (pdf)

Earth Observation Satellites


Something to watch over us

The Earth should be monitored more carefully

Blind Earth  

ON APRIL 8th Envisat, Europe’s largest Earth-observing satellite, unexpectedly stopped talking to its users on the Earth below. Since then those users have been frantically trying to re-establish contact. They rely on Envisat’s radars and other sensors for a wide range of measurements, from the temperature of the oceans to the chemistry of the stratosphere. Scientists have used it to gauge ocean conditions for shipping and to investigate earthquakes; its data have been the basis of thousands of scientific papers.

Envisat had, unlike much of Europe, forgone early retirement: designed for five years of operation, it was on its tenth. Given its advanced years, you would think that planning for its eventual end would be well in hand. You would expect that successor instruments would already be in orbit, their measurements carefully cross-correlated with Envisat’s so that the elucidation of the scope and pace of global environmental change could continue seamlessly. You would be wrong.

Wilful blindness

Providing earthlings with a reliable, continuous record of their planet’s condition would seem a sensible aim in any circumstances. With the state of the atmosphere and oceans upset in ways whose consequences are not easily foreseen, and may well prove catastrophic, it becomes an imperative. You do not need to know every little thing about the environment in order to make policy about it. But only long-term measurements will allow researchers to get a reliable grip on the science of climate change and other environmental stresses. A firm grasp of the basic trends is a necessary precondition for understanding and for informed policy.

The governments that build and operate satellites like Envisat are not taking that necessity seriously. According to a damning report from America’s National Academies, the number of civilian Earth-observing satellites flown by the United States government looks likely to fall from 23 today to just six in 2020, and the number of instruments in orbit could drop from 90 to 20. The situation in Europe is somewhat less disastrous, but has its own problems. The European Space Agency is unwilling to move forward with a new generation of satellites that can monitor the environment continuously until the European Union promises to pay their operating costs.

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The Ultimate Corporation


The New York Review of Books 
The Ultimate Corporation

JUNE 7, 2012
Bill McKibben

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power
by Steve Coll
Penguin, 685 pp., $36.00

Refinery The Strathcona Refinery, owned by Exxon subsidiary Imperial Oil, on the outskirts of Edmonton, Alberta, December 2008

Exxon’s executives, as anecdote after anecdote in Steve Coll’s book makes clear, enjoy easy access to every president. Its confident CEO is “a peer of the White House’s rotating occupants” who can usually count on the administration to see things as he does. In fact, the president is often more pliable than the CEO, who often goes his own way, 

aligned…with America, but…not always in sync; he was more akin to the president of France, or the chancellor of Germany…. His was a private empire.

Coll makes clear in his magisterial account that Exxon is mighty almost beyond imagining, producing more profit than any American company in the history of profit, the ultimate corporation in “an era of corporate ascendancy.”

This history of its last two decades is therefore a revealing history of our time, a chronicle of the intersection between energy and politics that explains much about our present and more about our (dismal) future.

And one of the key points that comes through in every chapter is that Exxon mostly earned its power the old-fashioned way: not by political influence, but by prowess, hard work, and discipline. Coll opens by describing the 1989 wreck of the Exxon Valdez and the fouling of Prince William Sound, the nadir of the company’s recent history—soon-to-be CEO Lee Raymond described himself as “chagrined…horrified and to an extent devastated.” He and the company responded to the tragedy by fighting every attempt to make it pay punitive damages—but also by embarking on a rigorous effort to change Exxon’s culture, unveiling to “its employees and executives a universal new management regime, the Operations Integrity Management System,” or OIMS, which one executive described as “more vinyl binders than you can possibly imagine,” covering every possible aspect of the company’s systems.

Exxon, far more than its competitors, did things “by the book,” and this was the book; its employees, if they wanted to remain, did not deviate. In fact, writes Coll, “those who stayed did not find OIMS ironic or extreme; they liked the culture of discipline and accountability.” And the results were inarguable: Exxon didn’t just make huge profits because of its huge size; its “return on capital employed” outstripped that of its peers year after year: 

Its exceptional ability to complete massive, complex drilling and construction projects on time and under budget meant that, in comparison to industry peers, it remained exceptionally profitable in recessions and boom times alike, when oil prices were high and when prices were low. 

Lee Raymond, CEO from 1993 to 2005, was intimidating, “Iron Ass” to his troops. He calculated, writes Coll, that given the size and sprawl of his global empire, the only way a chief executive could hope to extract disciplined results was to overdo it—that is, unless Raymond used his bully pulpit…to pound …

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Group Exhibition


denise bibro logo Denise Bibro Fine Art
529 West 20th Street 4W
New York, NY 10011
Tel: 212.647.7030


Obama Wants You!
by Johnny Everyman
will be in the exhibition
Petroleum Paradox
curated by Eleanor Heartney
May 24 to June 23, 2012
Tuesday-Saturday, 11AM - 6PM

Thursday, May 24th, 2012 6-8:00 PM

Sponsored by the Women's Caucus for Art