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Reminder to folks in Santa Fe and Albuquerque:

Reception, talk, and discussion tomorrow, Thursday March 28, 2013:
'Decrescit Eundo?'  Rebellion, Resilience, and Stewardship in a Time of Radical Change,” which will begin at 5:30 pm at the Santa Fe Women’s Club, 1616 Old Pecos Trail.

March 27, 2013

Bulletin #167: Whither New Mexico, world capital of weapons of mass destruction?

"Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point," said Scrooge, "answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?" (Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”)

Dear friends –

As we enter yet another warm, dry spring in New Mexico many of us are acutely aware that the world, our country, and this state face a set of converging crises that existentially threaten our environment, society, and economy. 

Most of the best responses to these crises are no longer available.  We passed the best roads and didn’t take them.  Quite the opposite: our misdirected momentum is increasing.  But here we are, and things which can’t continue, won’t. 

One of those is “New Mexico as we know it,” meaning the gradual evolution of its economy and society along historical patterns – and everything we think we know about what is politically practical for us. 

What lies just ahead in this state, weakened for decades by a political addiction to nuclear weapon institutions, is unprecedented ecologic, economic, and social change.  How we craft our response to these circumstances, and in particular the vigor, clarity, and compassion with which we bend the arc of our history henceforth, will largely determine the quotient of joy in the lives of our children and theirs. 

In 1945 the Manhattan District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers needed the Jornada del Muerto to test something highly destructive.  Especially thanks to Pete Domenici and others that have followed and are following in his footsteps, there we have largely remained.

We need not stay there.  What seems impossible to us today may not be, and it may not be impossible tomorrow either, when harsher realities enter the picture.  Hannah Arendt reminds us that:

The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.  (The Human Condition)

In the meantime:

Let the truth now be told, as perhaps the one means left to keep the heavens from falling.  (Lewis Mumford, "Social Consequences of Atomic Energy," 1953)

Whatever truth we tell, it is not going to be an abstract or external truth which will keep the heavens from falling, or set us free for that matter.  What matters above all is the truth we embody.  “Preach,” said Francis, “and if necessary use words.”  We have to own it.  

Apart from its premier nuclear role, New Mexico lies in a part of our continent that is “ground zero” for anthropogenic global warming.  A human signature can be seen on our weather today, on the evolution of the landscape and the movements of mobile species, on our mistreated forests and grasslands – the latter stressed to the limit by overgrazing already.  Significant changes in atmospheric humidity and polar albedo, to pick just two mechanisms, affect all weather, tilting the scales in our case toward warmer days and especially warmer nights, drought, fire, and associated ecological changes, much less surface water, and the economic sequellae of all of this. 

Of course any given ensemble of weather events cannot be distinguished, most of the time, from what used to be “ordinary” weather and the effects of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in the Pacific.  That’s the point. 

There is at present no limit to how severe these changes could become, if we remain passive, if we let the massive business opportunities in renewable energy and conservation pass us by, and if our fossil-fuel-intensive way of life continues.  The first two are uncertain but we certainly will not be continuing a fossil-fuel-intensive way of life much longer, for reasons we will explain Thursday and on later occasions, as they affect all government (and private) policies. 

What, then, is the future toward which we are trending in New Mexico?  Under all variations of business as usual, we can look forward to:

  • Substantially increasing temperatures, less precipitation and much less runoff, and periods of extreme drought, which would lead to failures of livelihoods in rural areas, loss of wildlife (individuals and whole populations), irreversible degradation in grasslands and forests, loss of tourism and related income and amenity-based development, and self-reinforcing decline in real estate values;
  • Federal budget cuts (the Albuquerque Journal erroneously emphasizes the threat of defense budget cuts over non-defense cuts in this), leading to potentially severe economic and social impacts in New Mexico;
  • Failure of many private-sector economic engines, both current and hoped-for; many of the future ones being fanciful (e.g. the spaceport, always laughable) and others depend on federal largesse; others are vulnerable to national downturns; nearly all require safe communities with good schools, a skilled workforce, a good state university system, and an attractive set of environmental and community public goods, all of which are eroding;   
  • Increased net emigration, notably of skilled workers, especially those with skills not associated with the military, the nuclear labs, and the resource extraction industry;  
  • In the absence of effective compensatory policies and investments, there will be a considerable and self-reinforcing decline in real estate values, which could be fairly sudden;
  • Targeting of New Mexico by "pollution-shopping" private and federal entities (e.g. nuclear waste disposal, the proposed “ghost city” for testing unspecified technologies, prisons) which seek to take advantage of our low-value land and labor and to leverage our death-oriented industries, our desperation for jobs, and our tolerance for pollution;
  • Continued oil and gas development, including in tight formations locally burst by fracking; the pace and scale of this development and decline depending on many factors but in every case involving major pollution;
  • Failure of the lab-university model espoused by our new UNM president to ever produce independent local economic development and its devolution instead toward a simpler "feeder school" for the labs; failure of state’s institutions to produce any independent thought or real intellectual life, damaging all civic endeavors;
  • Increasing general ignorance, poverty, destitution, and violence and failure of the social contract, as income disparity continues to increase beyond its present level (already the highest in the U.S.); corresponding increasing political disparity (oligarchy) and rule by  administration;
  • Full shuttering of some rural communities due to economic collapse, emigration, and drought;
  • Continued or intensified control of the state by a transient corporate and federal elite without many roots or loyalty to the state or its people, described for Albuquerque by V.B. Price in City at the End of the World
  • Declines in tourism driven by wider U.S. economic decline and rising gasoline prices;  
  • Desperate policy recommendations by state leaders (e.g. attract more veterans by shifting tax burden to the non-veteran population, which would also have the effect of increasing the political likelihood of further austerity measures);
  • A further demographic shift from negative migration to the state just balanced by positive natural increase, to one of more rapid emigration and population decline; and
  • While a few in the nuclear weapons complex and other militarized outposts might rejoice over the prospect of a cowed state in which to work and play, a far more cautionary stance is warranted; there is no guarantee of successful recruitment, retention, postdoc conversion, or of producing a “high reliability organization” (HRO, in safety culture lingo) in a culturally ravaged state; there may be a threshold of disparity which is anathema to successful management; we may have reached it. 

As I am sure you recognize, there can be no "successful" adaptation of the present population to a much warmer and drier climate in New Mexico.  The simplest "adaptation" will be for most of our population to leave.  But to where?  Adaptation to unmitigated climate change is not feasible except as a respite and exigency, especially under conditions of declining conventional oil availability -- which decline has been underway in the developed west (OECD) for the past six years.  That decline is now picking up speed, and New Mexico will more affected than most because automobile fuel expenses are a greater part of our household finances than is the case in most other places.

For all this -- and this is crucial -- opportunities for redress remain.  The sun will rise tomorrow.  There will be huge differences in outcomes, depending on our actions.  What is more, and what is more important personally, for everyone, there will be huge differences in personal fulfillment as we respond.  We can be noble; we can make use of the natural human inclination to heroism (sensu Ernest Becker); we can find a greatness and an authenticity that the glutted consumer life does not know.  Instead of the failure of the liberal class so well described by Hedges (Death of the Liberal Class), we could be part of, and help lead, a new "greatest generation."  We could show the way.

So we in New Mexico are really at a moment of truth.  If we remain attached to militarized policies, or think our future could be secured by the next resource extraction boomlet (e.g. tight oil and gas), the best we can hope for here will not be enough to provide for a dignified life.  What is coming like a freight train under current policies is as economically inadequate as it is socially, environmentally, and politically destructive.  Either we will get off this track or we will get run over. 

The Los Alamos Study Group is ready to do its part, and we hope you will join us tomorrow evening, and after. 

Greg Mello

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