November 17, 2007

"We Have To Get Smart Fast" Environment  Essays  Future

[This is a rerun — a post from February 2006 that may be worth another read.]

The Long Now Foundation seeks to foster the long view, looking ahead to the next 10,000 years of human society. It sponsors monthly lectures by some of the West's most original thinkers, the audio for which is archived here. It's an extraordinary collection. Go explore. (The talk by Bruce Sterling is a hoot.)

I want to touch on just one of the lectures here, a recent talk by anthropologist Stephen Lansing, who has studied the planting and water management practices of Balinese rice farmers. From Stewart Brand's summary of the talk:

With lucid exposition and gorgeous graphics, anthropologist Stephen Lansing exposed the hidden structure and profound health of the traditional Balinese rice growing practices. The intensely productive terraced rice paddies of Bali are a thousand years old. So are the democratic subaks (irrigation cooperatives) that manage them, and so is the water temple system that links the subaks in a nested hierarchy.

When the Green Revolution came to Bali in 1971, suddenly everything went wrong. Along with the higher-yield rice came "technology packets" of fertilizers and pesticides and the requirement, stated in patriotic terms, to "plant as often as possible." The result: year after year millions of tons of rice harvest were lost, mostly to voracious pests. The level of pesticide use kept being increased, to ever decreasing effect.

Meanwhile Lansing and his colleagues were teasing apart what made the old water temple system work so well....

The universal problem in irrigation systems is that upstream users have all the power and no incentive to be generous to downstream users. What could account for their apparent generosity in Bali? Lansing discovered that the downstream users also had power, because pests can only controlled if everybody in the whole system plants rice at the same time (which overloads the pests with opportunity in one brief season and starves them the rest of the time). If the upstreamers didn't let enough water through, the downstreamers could refuse to synchronize their planting, and the pests would devour the upstreamers' rice crops.

Discussion within the subaks (which dispenses with otherwise powerful caste distinctions) and among neighboring subaks takes account of balancing the incentives, and the exquisite public rituals of the water temple system keep everyone mindful of the whole system.

The traditional synchronized planting is far more effective against the pests than pesticides. "Plant as often as possible" was a formula for disaster.

It seems clear how such "perfect order" can maintain itself, but how did it get started? Was there some enlightened rajah who set down the rules centuries ago? Working with complexity scientists at Santa Fe Institute, Lansing built an agent-based computer model of 172 subaks planting at random times, seeking to maximize their yields and paying attention to the success of their neighbors. The system self-organized! In just ten years within the model the balanced system seen in Bali emerged on its own. No enlightened rajah was needed. (Interestingly, the very highest yields came when the model subaks paid attention not just to their immediate neighbors but to the neighbors' neighbors as well. If they paid attention primarily to distant subaks, however, the whole system went chaotic.)

There's a lot more in the talk. It's a great little introduction to complex adaptive systems. It's a deeply thought-provoking look at the role of religious and other stable cultural systems in maintaining social norms over time. It's an extraordinary look at ecological interconnections and the disastrous unintended consequences that can result when Western development models are jammed down people's throats. And much more besides.

The thing I wanted to emphasize, though, is this. The planners and development "experts" thought they knew better than the knowledge and wisdom that was stored in systems that had had a thousand years to reach a stable optimum. Much of that thousand-year-old knowledge was unconscious knowledge in the sense that it was woven into the very fabric of systems and social arrangements. It's likely that no one participating in it had a conscious, analytical grasp of how it all worked. No experts could articulate it. And yet it was very real and very profound. It was the kind of knowledge that is stored in the fabric of any healthy ecosystem.

But the development "experts" were so sure of the superiority of their own brand of knowledge that they didn't hesitate to upset the whole apple cart, all at once, with disastrous effect.

Wendell Berry has a wonderful essay, "The Way of Ignorance," in which he writes:

The experience of many people over a long time is traditional knowledge. This is the common knowledge of a culture, which it seems that few of us any longer have. To have a culture, mostly the same people have to live mostly in the same place for a long time. Traditional knowledge is knowledge that has been remembered or recorded, handed down, pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined over a long time.

To think you know better than people who have "pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined" their knowledge over many, many generations, that you know so much better that you can just uproot a way of life, all at once, with scarcely so much as a pilot project, you really have to be ignorant, arrogantly ignorant. As Berry says:

We identify arrogant ignorance by its willingness to work on too big a scale, and thus to put too much at risk. It fails to foresee bad consequences not only because some of the consequences of all acts are inherently unforeseeable, but also because the arrogantly ignorant often are blinded by money invested; they cannot afford to see bad consequences.

In this century, humanity is faced with global-scale challenges that will require global-scale action. The people at WorldChanging, for example, whose work I mostly admire, and who are determined to maintain an optimistic view of humanity's chances (which is a good thing), go so far as to talk a lot about "terraforming" and "mega-engineering", i.e., humans needing to engineer planetary systems on a planetary scale, literally re-forming the Earth.

It may come to that. That is, it may turn out that our only hope is to take the reins of Earth's systems and risk it all on a few rolls of the dice. But I have to confess that it all strikes me as crazy hubris, the very epitome of the "willingness to work on too big a scale, and thus to put too much at risk," the last wild perturbations in a system that's growing increasingly chaotic. If we can't interfere with a thousand-year-old system of rice paddies without ruining it, what makes us think we can mega-engineer the planet?

As Lansing said at the very end of his talk: with the challenges that face us, "We have to get smart fast."

Part of getting smart is knowing the limits of one's knowledge. Part of getting smart is working on an appropriate scale. And part of getting smart is to realize that there's enormous knowledge and wisdom woven into living systems, including traditional human societies, that have had millenia and more to arrive at solutions whose surface we have only barely begun to scratch. They have much to teach us. We have much to learn.

(Note: Lansing's written a lovely book on all this.)

Posted by Jonathan at 08:51 PM | Comments (4) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

October 05, 2006

The Human Algae Bloom Environment  Essays  Peak Oil

[Another blast from the past, along the same lines as the pieces on exponential growth reposted Tuesday and Wednesday. This one's also a couple of years old, but I think it's worth repeating.]

Life requires energy. Without a continual input of energy, without a continual flow of energy through them, organisms die.

This is a consequence of a general natural law (the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics) that says that if you don't put energy into a system it becomes more and more disordered. Put another way, things fall apart if you don't keep after them. Anybody who's ever tended a garden or maintained a house, a car, or a lawn — or, God forbid, a sailboat — knows this principle first-hand. The same principle applies to the maintenance of the internal order required by living organisms to sustain life.

For green plants, the energy input is sunlight. For the rest of us, it's food. We eat green plants directly, or we eat things that eat green plants, or we eat things that eat things that eat green plants. We humans also use energy that we don't consume directly as food. Such energy, however, we use indirectly to produce or acquire the necessities of life — more food, for example, or warmth, shelter, water, etc. It all takes energy.

Now, a given environment has a specific "carrying capacity" for a given kind of organism. I.e., there's a maximum size population of that organism that can be sustained in that environment. The carrying capacity is determined by whatever necessity is in shortest supply. In a desert, for example, the limiting factor might be water. Typically, the limiting factor is energy in one of its forms (e.g., food). Suddenly introducing a new source of energy can change things in a hurry, however.

There's a lake near my house. Every summer, fertilizers from surrounding lawns and farms find their way into the lake, creating an environment artificially rich in energy (from a plant's perspective, fertilizer = energy). As a result, every summer there is an explosion in the algae population, turning parts of the lake into a thick green goo. The algae experience a giddy period of runaway growth fueled by the influx of energy, but this growth increases the algae population to a level that's completely unsustainable once the fertilizers are used up. When that happens the algae population crashes, and there's a huge die-off until the population returns to a level that can be sustained without fertilizers — i.e., back to more or less its original level.

For the past two hundred years, human beings have been in the position of algae in a fertilizer-rich lake. For us, the artificial energy infusion has been in the form of an incredibly concentrated and easily acquired energy source: hydrocarbon fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas). In the 19th century, the key fuel was coal. In the 20th, it was oil. During this period, humanity has experienced a giddy population bloom like the algae's.

Hydrocarbon fuels are a one-time gift to humanity, however, and we're burning through them as fast as we can get them out of the ground. We in the industrialized nations — the US most of all — have been like a person who comes into a huge inheritance and proceeds to spend it as quickly as possible. The time comes when the inheritance runs out and one is forced to go back to living on what one can earn.

Most people, I think, attribute the "success" of the human population during the last two centuries to advances in technology, medicine, and knowledge generally. Of course, these have been contributing factors (to a large extent enabled by the energy surplus), but the most important factor has been the sudden infusion of an enormous supply of cheap, portable energy. Without this energy, or an equivalent substitute, the human population simply cannot be sustained at current levels.

Am I exaggerating energy's importance? Think of a modern city, with people stacked in high-rise buildings whose windows don't even open, utterly dependent on modern transportation/distribution systems to bring them the food they no longer grow or gather. Imagine New York City, or London, or Mexico City, or Los Angeles or any other modern metropolis if someone pulled the plug. Every so often we get a tiny glimpse of what this would mean when there's a blackout, but that only scratches the surface. Imagine that not only is electricity gone, but also gasoline, heating oil, natural gas, coal — and permanently.

The next time you're watching a film that has an aerial shot of a large city, especially one taken at night, think about the enormous flow of energy through that system — and the system's utter dependence on that energy flow. If you live in a large city, just look out your window. And then reflect on the fact that the majority of the world's people now live in cities and towns.

Moreover, the importance of hydrocarbons goes far beyond just their use as a source of energy. They are the raw material from which plastics and synthetic materials of all kinds are made, as well as pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. The last thing we should be doing is setting fire to them.

I'll have more to say about the specifics of our usage of and dependence on hydrocarbons — and the possibilities, if any, for a successor energy source to replace hydrocarbons — in future posts.

For now, I just want to leave you with the mental image of the algae bloom. Pump fertilizers into the algae's environment, and the algae undergo a giddy period of explosive growth, culminating in their turning what had been a stable, balanced equilibrium into a green goo. That's what living organisms do. Give them a source of surplus energy and they gobble it up and reproduce like crazy. It's the path of least resistance.

Pump hydrocarbons into the human environment and the same thing happens. We've spent the last two centuries creating our equivalent of the green goo. And the hydrocarbons are about to start running out.

Posted by Jonathan at 07:14 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

October 04, 2006

Exponential Growth Cannot Last Environment  Essays  Science/Technology

[Another repost of a piece from a couple of years ago, once again dealing with the meaning of exponential growth. I hope you'll make it to the punchline at the end.]

I've written about exponential growth before, but the concept is so essential to understanding the future that awaits us that I want to revisit it.

To say something grows exponentially is to say it grows at a constant percentage rate — for example, 3% per year. Anything that grows in this way doubles at a constant rate. You can estimate how long it takes to double by dividing the percentage growth rate into 72. So, for example, something that grows at a rate of 3% per year doubles every 24 years (72/3 = 24).

So, you can think of exponential growth as growth by doubling at a constant rate.

Doubling is an extraordinarily powerful process. Some examples (from M. King Hubbert):

1. If you start with a single pair, say Adam and Eve, in just 32 doublings you’d have a population greater than the total population of Earth today. Just 14 doublings later you’d have one person per square yard over the entire land surface of the planet.

2. If someone gives you a single grain of wheat for the first square of a chessboard, 2 for the second, 4 for the third, doubling at each square, by the time you finish the 64 squares of the chessboard you’d have more than a thousand times the total annual wheat production of Earth.

3. If you play the chessboard game with automobiles instead of wheat, by the time you finish the 64 squares you’d have so many automobiles that if you stacked them uniformly over the entire land surface of the earth, you’d have a layer 1,200 miles deep. (Think of that the next time some economist says world GNP can grow at 3% per year forever.)

What these examples show is that doubling (or exponential growth) is such a powerful process, that it takes only tens of “generations” of doubling — not hundreds, or thousands, or millions — to completely exhaust the physical environment of the planet. Put another way, in the physical world (as opposed to an idealized mathematical world) exponential growth cannot last for long.

When any living species is placed in a favorable environment — meaning an environment that doesn’t limit growth because of the lack of some necessity (e.g. food), the presence of a predator, or for some other reason — its population grows exponentially. In Nature, over the long run, limitations in their environments prevent species from multiplying exponentially. Otherwise, the world would long ago have been engulfed.

Why is all this important?

Early in a doubling sequence, the numbers grow slowly. Likewise, until recently in human history, human population grew slowly. Use of energy and material resources by humans also grew slowly, and the resources used were entirely of the renewable variety, except for tiny amounts of coal and metals. Everything else (food, energy, shelter, clothing, etc.) came from animals and plants (renewable), plus a small amount of energy from wind and water (renewable). If humans had continued to rely on renewable resources, that fact would have put a ceiling on population size.

Starting about two centuries ago, however, a revolution occurred in human life: people starting using non-renewable resources — hydrocarbon fuels and a variety of minerals — in a big way. This use of non-renewables removed the constraints on human population and activity, and exponential growth really kicked in. Not only has population grown exponentially, but human use of coal, oil, gas, iron, copper, tin, lead, zinc, etc. have grown exponentially as well, as has human damage to the environment. It’s the use of non-renewables — hydrocarbon fuels, especially — that has made this growth possible.

But, inevitably, we’re going to hit the wall, and sooner than we think. Even if we had infinite resources to draw on, exponential growth would soon fill up a finite environment, as we've seen. But that hardly matters, since we do not have infinite resources to draw on. Non-renewables are a one-time gift to humanity. They are finite. We’re burning through them at an exponential pace, and when they’re gone they’re gone forever.

Now, one of the really startling characteristics of growth by doubling is the following fact: if you consider the sequence of doubled numbers — 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc. — each number in the sequence is greater (by one) than the sum of all the numbers that precede it.

Why do I call this startling? Consider oil. World oil consumption is now growing at a rate that will double it every 15-20 years. This means, as long as exponential growth continues, in the next 15-20 years the world will consume more oil than was used in all of human history up to this point. More than in the entire 19th and 20th centuries combined — in just 15-20 years — assuming exponential growth continues. I don't know about you, but I find that startling.

I want to finish with a riddle I posed in the earlier post on exponential growth. I repeat it here because I’d really like this riddle to stay with you. If it does, you’ll understand exponential growth better than 99.9% of your fellow citizens.

Suppose you put a small amount of bacteria in a Petri dish. Suppose further that the bacteria population grows exponentially (i.e., by doubling) at a pace that causes it to double each hour. Suppose finally that it takes 100 hours for the bacteria to completely fill the dish, thereby exhausting their supply of nutrients. (It's a large Petri dish.)

Question: When is the dish half full?

After 50 hours (half of 100)?

No. Because the population doubles each hour (including the final hour), the dish is half full just one hour before it’s full. For the first 99 hours the bacteria have got it made. Then wham!

To make this more vivid and memorable, imagine the following as an animated cartoon. For the first 99 hours the bacteria are just partying and congratulating themselves on how smart and successful they are. It’s party hats and noisemakers, Conga lines and champagne, the bacterial Dow Jones going through the roof. Woo hoo! No limits! After 99 hours, some of the bacteria start to worry, but the rest party on — after all, the dish is only half full. Plenty of room left, plenty of nutrients. The first half lasted 99 hours, and there's another whole half to go! Sure, somebody’s gonna have to figure something out eventually, but meanwhile life is good, and nonstop growth will only make it better! An hour later — the world ends.

When growth is exponential, limits are sudden.


Posted by Jonathan at 04:46 PM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

October 03, 2006

Feedback Loops And Exponential Growth Environment  Essays

[We live in a world of exponential growth, but most of us find it hard to grasp what that really implies. Here's a post on the subject I originally posted more than two years ago. It's worth revisiting.]

There's an old story you've probably heard. Unless you understand this story, you won't understand many of the problems that face us in the coming century.

In an ancient kingdom, a clever man saves the life of the king's daughter. The grateful king, wishing to reward the man, offers to grant him whatever he asks for, within reason. The man, being clever, says give me one grain of rice for the first square of a chess board, 2 for the second, 4 for the third, etc., doubling the number of grains of rice for each of the 64 squares on the board. The king, who's not so clever, thinks he's gotten off easy and readily agrees.

How much rice has the king just agreed to give the man? If a sack of rice holds 18 million grains, the king has agreed to fork over more than one trillion sacks. The king is ruined. End of story.

The king did not understand exponential growth, which is growth by a constant percentage (100% in our story) at each step. The number of grains starts small and grows slowly at first, but soon you're doubling larger and larger numbers:

1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, 524288, 1048576, etc.

20 squares yield about a million grains, 30 squares yield a billion, 40 squares a trillion, 50 a thousand trillion, 60 a million trillion.

What makes the growth so explosive is the fact that the output of each step is fed back in as the input to the next step. This is what's known as a positive feedback loop. ("Positive" not in the sense of "good", but rather in the sense of "leading to increase".) Population growth is an example. Each generation's children (the output) become the next generation's parents (the input to the next step). In the absence of outside constraints, positive feedback loops give results like in the story of the rice.

The idea of a positive feedback loop — and the kind of ever-accelerating growth that can result — can be applied in a variety of settings, from population growth, to global warming mechanisms, to the way the situation in Iraq is spinning out of control, with chaos leading to greater resistance leading to more chaos, etc. Positive feedback also explains the exponential growth of technical and scientific knowledge, since each new technical effort builds on what has been discovered or invented in the past.

Unfortunately, we seem to have a built-in bias, either neurological or learned, that makes us extrapolate linearly into the future. I.e., we tend, instinctively, to estimate future change as involving the same size steps in absolute terms — not percentage terms — as in the past, so exponential growth always seems to take us by surprise. That's why, when the king saw that in the first several steps the change was just a few grains of rice, he unconsciously assumed that at every step the change would be just a few grains of rice. We all make this mistake. And it's a very dangerous mistake to make at this point in human history.

Here's a riddle.

Suppose someone puts a few bacteria in a petri dish at noon on Monday. Suppose further that the bacteria grow at a rate that causes their population to double every hour. Suppose finally that the growth is such that the petri dish is completely full of bacteria at noon on Wednesday.

Question: When is the petri dish half full?

Click the link below for the answer.

Many people say Tuesday at noon — halfway between noon Monday and noon Wednesday. That's linear thinking, and it's incorrect. Since the population doubles each hour, the dish is half full just one hour before it's full, i.e., at 11 AM on Wednesday. From noon Monday to 11 AM Wednesday, the bacteria have plenty of room to spare. No worries. Then wham!

What's the point? When growth is exponential, or when powerful feedback loops are present, we can think everything's going along fine until just before we hit the wall. Many of the problems that face us — problems of population growth, resource depletion, environmental degradation, political instability — involve exactly this kind of exponential growth caused by powerful feedback loops. If we don't have an appropriate mental model of what that means, we'll be complacent right up to the moment when we hit the wall — hard — and, like the king, lose everything.

It's crucial that we overcome our linear bias. We're living in a world of exponential growth, and our petri dish is filling rapidly.

Posted by Jonathan at 10:42 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

May 23, 2006

Justice As Fairness Essays  Ethics  Musings

At the time of the first Gulf War, I called into a local left-wing radio show to voice my oppostion to the impending war, and I was taken by surprise when the host asked me if war is ever morally justified. I didn't have a satisfactory answer at the time, but it's a question that has stayed with me ever since.

The standard I've come to is the following. It is (barely) possible to imagine a war fought to advance a cause so overwhelmingly important, so critically urgent, that I would support it even knowing that one of my own daughters might be killed — indeed, that I would still support it even if I knew one of my own daughters would be killed. Then, and only then, I think, could I say the war is justified. After all, every war means the death of someone's children. If I am not willing to accept that the child might be my own, I don't see any possible moral basis for supporting a war.

That's what makes the following story so distasteful (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of last August):

Staff Sgt. Jason Rivera, 26, a Marine recruiter in Pittsburgh, went to the home of a high school student who had expressed interest in joining the Marine Reserve to talk to his parents.

It was a large home in a well-to-do suburb north of the city. Two American flags adorned the yard. The prospect's mom greeted him wearing an American flag T-shirt.

"I want you to know we support you," she gushed.

Rivera soon reached the limits of her support.

"Military service isn't for our son. It isn't for our kind of people," she told him. [Emphasis added]

We recoil instinctively at the hypocrisy of the mother in the story. It is all too clear that the mother is able to "support" the war because she knows up front that no child of hers is at risk. It is that knowledge that makes her stance an empty one. Put her son at risk and watch how quickly her "support" will evaporate.

Some time after arriving at my standard for a just war, I happened across the work of American philosopher John Rawls, who worked out a beautiful generalization of what is at bottom the same idea, except that Rawls extended it to cover issues of justice generally, not only the issue of just war.

Rawls asks the question, what constitutes a just set of relationships in society? To answer, he suggests the following thought experiment. Imagine a hypothetical situation in which no one knows where he/she fits in the overall pecking order in terms of class or social status. No one knows whether he/she is more or less intelligent, talented, attractive, or capable than anyone else. No one knows if he/she is better educated or better connected than anyone else. No one even knows his/her conceptions of what is good and fair. Everyone is, as Rawls puts it, situated behind a "veil of ignorance". Under those (hypothetical) conditions, the relationships and rules that one would accept as fair are those that are truly fair.

For if there is anything human beings are good at, it's rationalizing their own self-interest. Wealthy people support tax cuts for the rich. Poor people favor welfare. Smart, well-educated people say let's abolish the social safety net and have a straight meritocracy. Healthy people see no reason why they should have to contribute to universal health care. Well-off people have no problem supporting a war poor people are going to have to fight.

Ah, but suppose for all you knew you were one of the poor, one of the infirm, one of the untalented. Surely, then, you would insist on a conception of justice as fairness, where society cares for all its members, rich or poor, healthy or sick, talented or not, equitably balancing their interests.

Rawls' standard is a hypothetical one, but I think it's an excellent yardstick to use when mentally evaluating the morality of a social arrangement: is it an arrangement you'd agree to even if you didn't know up front whether you were one of the lucky ones. Which is another way of asking, is it fair.

Posted by Jonathan at 08:41 PM | Comments (3) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

May 15, 2006

Big-System Hysteresis Environment  Essays  Peak Oil

I've just started reading Elizabeth Kolbert's global warming book Field Notes From a Catastrophe (excellent so far), and I came across this arresting passage:

The effect of adding CO2 to the atmosphere is to throw the earth out of "energy balance." In order for the balance to be restored — as, according to the laws of physics, it eventually must be — the entire planet has to heat up, including the oceans, a process, [a panel of scientists from the National Academy of Sciences] noted, that could take "several decades." Thus, what might seem like the most conservative approach — waiting for evidence of warming to make sure the models were accurate — actually amounted to the riskiest possible strategy: "We may not be given a warning until the CO2 loading is such that an appreciable climate change is inevitable." [Emphasis added]

The fundamental problem is the scale of the Earth's global climate system. Because it's huge, it moves slowly. It has built-in time lags — what scientists and engineers call hysteresis — that mean that by the time global warming effects become pronounced the system is already in a critical phase. Effects are delayed, but when they begin, the transition to a new equilibrium is likely to be quite sudden. This is especially true of the climate system because of the suddenness of phase changes — e.g., ice to water.

It has taken a long time to get this enormous ocean liner moving on its current course, and it will take a long time to turn it around. The time to start easing off the throttle is long before the icebergs come into view. When Bush et al talk about the jury still being out on global warming and about the need to wait until it's obvious to everyone that the problem is serious and human activity is the cause (as if we don't know that already), he is like the captain of the Titanic, barreling full tilt through the icy North Atlantic. The downside of slowing down would have been nothing compared to the downside of hitting an iceberg and sinking. And we know how that turned out.

Roughly analogous considerations apply to peak oil. Many of the same people who downplay the seriousness and urgency of the global warming threat blithely assert that when oil gets scarce, rising prices will naturally prompt people to conserve and develop alternatives.

But again the problem is the scale of the system and its built-in time lags. Shrinking below-ground reserves don't cause oil prices to go higher. Prices depend on how much oil is coming out of the spigot. Prices won't go substantially higher until the below-ground situation has become so critical that oil can no longer be pumped out of the ground fast enough: i.e., price signals, when they come, will come too late. Switching to new energy technologies in transportation will take years, no matter what. The time to ease off the throttle is now. As with global warming, the seemingly conservative wait-and-see approach is actually the riskiest strategy possible. The cost of showing some self-restraint now will be nothing compared to the cost of letting the system crash.

Posted by Jonathan at 09:46 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

February 22, 2006

"We Have To Get Smart Fast" Environment  Essays  Future

The Long Now Foundation seeks to foster the long view, looking ahead to the next 10,000 years of human society. It sponsors monthly lectures by some of the West's most original thinkers, the audio for which is archived here. It's an extraordinary collection. Go explore. (The talk by Bruce Sterling is a hoot.)

I want to touch on just one of the lectures here, a recent talk by anthropologist Stephen Lansing, who has studied the planting and water management practices of Balinese rice farmers. From Stewart Brand's summary of the talk:

With lucid exposition and gorgeous graphics, anthropologist Stephen Lansing exposed the hidden structure and profound health of the traditional Balinese rice growing practices. The intensely productive terraced rice paddies of Bali are a thousand years old. So are the democratic subaks (irrigation cooperatives) that manage them, and so is the water temple system that links the subaks in a nested hierarchy.

When the Green Revolution came to Bali in 1971, suddenly everything went wrong. Along with the higher-yield rice came "technology packets" of fertilizers and pesticides and the requirement, stated in patriotic terms, to "plant as often as possible." The result: year after year millions of tons of rice harvest were lost, mostly to voracious pests. The level of pesticide use kept being increased, to ever decreasing effect.

Meanwhile Lansing and his colleagues were teasing apart what made the old water temple system work so well....

The universal problem in irrigation systems is that upstream users have all the power and no incentive to be generous to downstream users. What could account for their apparent generosity in Bali? Lansing discovered that the downstream users also had power, because pests can only controlled if everybody in the whole system plants rice at the same time (which overloads the pests with opportunity in one brief season and starves them the rest of the time). If the upstreamers didn't let enough water through, the downstreamers could refuse to synchronize their planting, and the pests would devour the upstreamers' rice crops.

Discussion within the subaks (which dispenses with otherwise powerful caste distinctions) and among neighboring subaks takes account of balancing the incentives, and the exquisite public rituals of the water temple system keep everyone mindful of the whole system.

The traditional synchronized planting is far more effective against the pests than pesticides. "Plant as often as possible" was a formula for disaster.

It seems clear how such "perfect order" can maintain itself, but how did it get started? Was there some enlightened rajah who set down the rules centuries ago? Working with complexity scientists at Santa Fe Institute, Lansing built an agent-based computer model of 172 subaks planting at random times, seeking to maximize their yields and paying attention to the success of their neighbors. The system self-organized! In just ten years within the model the balanced system seen in Bali emerged on its own. No enlightened rajah was needed. (Interestingly, the very highest yields came when the model subaks paid attention not just to their immediate neighbors but to the neighbors' neighbors as well. If they paid attention primarily to distant subaks, however, the whole system went chaotic.)

There's a lot more in the talk. It's a great little introduction to complex adaptive systems. It's a deeply thought-provoking look at the role of religious and other stable cultural systems in maintaining social norms over time. It's an extraordinary look at ecological interconnections and the disastrous unintended consequences that can result when Western development models are jammed down people's throats. And much more besides.

The thing I wanted to emphasize, though, is this. The planners and development "experts" thought they knew better than the knowledge and wisdom that was stored in systems that had had a thousand years to reach a stable optimum. Much of that thousand-year-old knowledge was unconscious knowledge in the sense that it was woven into the very fabric of systems and social arrangements. It's likely that no one participating in it had a conscious, analytical grasp of how it all worked. No experts could articulate it. And yet it was very real and very profound. It was the kind of knowledge that is stored in the fabric of any healthy ecosystem.

But the development "experts" were so sure of the superiority of their own brand of knowledge that they didn't hesitate to upset the whole apple cart, all at once, with disastrous effect.

Wendell Berry has a wonderful essay, "The Way of Ignorance," in which he writes:

The experience of many people over a long time is traditional knowledge. This is the common knowledge of a culture, which it seems that few of us any longer have. To have a culture, mostly the same people have to live mostly in the same place for a long time. Traditional knowledge is knowledge that has been remembered or recorded, handed down, pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined over a long time.

To think you know better than people who have "pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined" their knowledge over many, many generations, that you know so much better that you can just uproot a way of life, all at once, with scarcely so much as a pilot project, you really have to be ignorant, arrogantly ignorant. As Berry says:

We identify arrogant ignorance by its willingness to work on too big a scale, and thus to put too much at risk. It fails to foresee bad consequences not only because some of the consequences of all acts are inherently unforeseeable, but also because the arrogantly ignorant often are blinded by money invested; they cannot afford to see bad consequences.

In this century, humanity is faced with global-scale challenges that will require global-scale action. The people at WorldChanging, for example, whose work I mostly admire, and who are determined to maintain an optimistic view of humanity's chances (which is a good thing), go so far as to talk a lot about "terraforming" and "mega-engineering", i.e., humans needing to engineer planetary systems on a planetary scale, literally re-forming the Earth.

It may come to that. That is, it may turn out that our only hope is to take the reins of Earth's systems and risk it all on a few rolls of the dice. But I have to confess that it all strikes me as crazy hubris, the very epitome of the "willingness to work on too big a scale, and thus to put too much at risk," the last wild perturbations in a system that's growing increasingly chaotic. If we can't interfere with a thousand-year-old system of rice paddies without ruining it, what makes us think we can manage the planet?

As Lansing said at the very end of his talk: with the challenges that face us, "We have to get smart fast."

Part of getting smart is knowing the limits of one's knowledge. Part of getting smart is working on an appropriate scale. And part of getting smart is to realize that there's enormous knowledge and wisdom woven into living systems, including traditional human societies, that have had millenia and more to arrive at solutions whose surface we have only barely begun to scratch. They have to much to teach us. We have much to learn.

(Note: Lansing's got a book coming out in a few weeks. I've already ordered my copy.)

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November 26, 2005

Open Source Politics, Part I Activism  Essays  Politics

A particularly significant evolutionary development enabled by the Internet is the "open source" phenomenon.

First, there was open source software (like Linux), where a system's source code is published openly and a number of individuals scattered around the world — people who often have never met in person — collaborate loosely in its creation and improvement.

To the surprise of many, it turned out that people are eager to contribute their efforts and expertise in projects of importance, with no expectation of profit beyond the emotional satisfaction of doing quality work and gaining the respect and appreciation of others. I.e., people jump at the chance to take part in the "gift culture", as opposed to the "exchange culture" of ordinary work and commerce. (Non-commercial blogs can also be seen as part of the gift culture, or free culture, phenomenon.)

Maybe even more surprising, given the loose, largely decentralized organization of the average open source project, was the discovery that the results of open source development were in many cases of higher quality than what was being developed in closed, for-profit settings. In closed source development, a given section of code is typically examined by at most a handful of people, and often only by the author herself. In the open source model, hundreds or even thousands of people may inspect every line of code. The result, ideally, is that defects are quickly spotted and fixed.

Most of you reading this are using Microsoft Windows-based computers, and you may think open source software like Linux has only marginal importance. But read what Tim O'Reilly says in an illuminating essay on what he calls the open source paradigm shift:

I have a simple test that I use in my talks to see if my audience of computer industry professionals is thinking with the old paradigm or the new. "How many of you use Linux?" I ask. Depending on the venue, 20-80% of the audience might raise its hands. "How many of you use Google?" Every hand in the room goes up. And the light begins to dawn. Every one of them uses Google's massive complex of 100,000 Linux servers, but they were blinded to the answer by a mindset in which "the software you use" is defined as the software running on the computer in front of you. Most of the "killer apps" of the Internet, applications used by hundreds of millions of people, run on Linux or FreeBSD. But the operating system, as formerly defined, is to these applications only a component of a larger system. Their true platform is the Internet.

In another article, O'Reilly explains further how the Internet is based on open source software. Here are a few examples among the many he gives:

Every single internet address — both web and email — depends on the Domain Name System, or DNS. At the heart of the DNS is an open-source program called BIND...Given the importance of the Internet today, BIND is arguably one of the most mission-critical programs in the world.

And that's not all. Virtually any email message sent over the net relies on sendmail, the [open source] mail transport server that serves approximately 75% of all internet sites (including many at large companies that don't even know they are using it.) Because email messages are always handled by at least two mail servers in going from one site to another, chances are very good that almost every message relies on sendmail.

The Internet is based on open source software, developed for free. Open source software just works.

[To be concluded in Part II, tomorrow]

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September 25, 2005

The Mothers Of Us All Activism  Essays

Back from DC. Yesterday was an amazing day, a feast for the senses and the soul, but the highlight for Molly and me was the hour or so we spent at a rally organized by the women of Code Pink. It preceded the main rally, at a site a few blocks away, so it was much smaller (just a couple of hundred people) and a lot more focused and intimate. Code Pink's energy is wonderful: playful, high-spirited, openhearted, joyous, humane. The crowd was mostly women, perhaps a majority of whom were dressed in Code Pink's trademark shocking pink. Lots of pink slips (as in lingerie) symbolizing the pink slip we'd all like to give to the Bush gang.

The psychological effect of all that pink was tangible: it created a women's space, first of all, and it created a sense of high-spirited fun and playful rebellion. Smiles and laughter all around. A welcoming atmosphere that generated an island of peace in the heart of the Empire. The tongue-in-cheek playfulness kept one from taking oneself too seriously; that in turn fostered feelings of openness and peacefulness — and peace is what it was what all about, after all. The lesson: one can be determined, unwavering, without having to puff oneself like the warmakers do, without becoming the warmakers' mirror image. And it can be fun.

A number of women spoke. Some, like Joan Baez, sang as well. But the woman I will always remember was Cindy Sheehan. Dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, she spoke for a few minutes and then stayed for another twenty minutes or so at the back of the low platform that was serving as a stage. The crowd was small enough that Molly and I had no trouble walking up to the side of the stage where Cindy Sheehan was standing, and we watched for a while as people came up to her to say a few words, to have their picture taken with her, to shake her hand or give her a hug. It was something to see. She is an extraordinarily grounded, warm, down-to-earth, considerate, generous-hearted woman. She gave each person who approached her her complete attention and regard. There wasn't an ounce of pretentiousness or artifice about any of it. And perhaps most striking of all was that there was something utterly maternal about the compassionate and generous way she responded to each individual person who approached her. My daughter Molly and I both got to speak with her, and Cindy was so exquisitely tender with Molly that it moved me to tears.

What is becoming clearer all the time is that we men need to stand aside and let women step to the forefront. It's their time. Cindy Sheehan is the phenomenon she is because she embodies a grounded, open-hearted, unpretentious womanly wisdom. She's not one to shout slogans or meet anger with anger, but she's not going to let anyone turn her around either. She's determined, but she seems also to be at peace with herself. Of all the speakers and antiwar leaders at yesterday's rally, she's the one who captured Molly's and my imagination. It's not a question of personal charisma. It's a question of the grounded, wise, peaceful, womanly energy that she embodies. And there are many more women like her. It's their time.

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September 02, 2005

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Disasters  Essays  Politics

[Originally posted September 1st, but re-posted now to bring it back to the top of the page.]

The Federal response to the disaster along the Gulf coast, and in New Orleans (Lake George) in particular, is so thoroughly and completely incompetent that I am almost — I say almost — tempted to believe they're doing it on purpose, to burn into people's consciousness an image of government as incapable of solving social problems, of making things better, not worse. These Republican ideologues make no secret of their desire to denude government of all of its social welfare functions. The last thing they want is for people to see government coming to their rescue in ways no one else can or will.

I say almost. I don't think it's quite that simple. But I do think there's an important connection between the Republican view of government and the total incompetence they're demonstrating in the present crisis. They don't believe in the public good, and they don't believe that government has a legitimate, useful role in safeguarding and supporting the public good. They don't trust government, and they are actively trying to undermine it, especially its social welfare functions.

It is small wonder, then, that they are so bad at it. If you don't believe in government, you're not going to be any good at governing. If you don't believe government can help people, you're not going to be any good at planning and organizing to use government to help people.

I.e., they believe government is incapable of helping people, and that belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What we need in government are people who actually believe in government and in governing well. People who want to see government succeed. People who are willing to do the work required to make government succeed. People who are the exact opposite of what we've got.

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May 13, 2005

The "Price" Of Being Neighborly Economy  Environment  Essays

The other night, I heard part of an interview with author and environmentalist Bill McKibben on NPR's "On Point". McKibben is the author of The End of Nature and Enough, two books that are pretty pessimistic about the environment and our future prospects, but he's got a new book, Wandering Home, that's rather more hopeful, at least at the local level.

McKibben took a 200 mile walk across Vermont's Champlain Valley and into New York’s Adirondack wilderness on the other side of Lake Champlain. He writes about what he encountered along the way: lots of people busy working at the local level to create sustainable food and timber economies based in local production and distribution.

First, a few statistics he mentioned. The average bite of food in America travels 1500 miles before it arrives on our tables. In some parts of the country 40% of trucking is devoted to transporting food. One calorie's worth of California iceberg lettuce requires 90 calories of petroleum energy to bring it to your table. (Maybe we should visualize our typical salads as swimming in a big bowl of diesel fuel. Now, that's appealing.) Clearly, a local food economy is a lot more rational than what we have now, and, as the age of cheap oil winds down, it's going to become increasingly necessary for our very survival. Any other way of doing things will come to seem crazy.

One phrase McKibben used really caught my attention. He agreed that seeking out local, organic, sustainably produced goods — i.e., buying from our neighbors — can take a little more time than rushing out to Wal-Mart, but that, as he put it, is "the price of being neighborly."

As it happens, I've just come back from a long weekend spent with my dear friends Kent and Kathy Tenney (Kent's the photographer who provides the daily Gumpagraphs on this site) and their daughter Erin and grandson Sebastian. They live on 120 beautiful acres outside Ashland, Wisconsin, a stone's throw from Lake Superior.

It was a wonderful visit and a deep learning experience. The Ashland area is rural, northwoods Wisconsin, and people generally have a lower economic standard of living there than many people do here in Madison. They have chores that urban folks don't even think about. But they also have deep bonds of community and a progressive ethos that suffuses every aspect of their lives. They are happier, more grounded, more connected with their environment and with one another — by far — than the great majority of city-dwellers. In their neck of the woods, community is an absolute good, friendships are deep, and newcomers are welcomed.

I got to meet a wonderful assortment of Kent and Kathy's friends and neighbors, and they are, without exception, interesting, authentic individuals. There seems to be something in the rural experience that gives people more space to be who they truly are, quirks and all, and they're truly delightful. The Ashland area has attracted a great many talented and principled folks — artists, environmentalists, activists of all stripes — who've settled in alongside the locals, put down roots, and become locals themselves. The result is a marvelous human mix, and everywhere you turn, you meet the most wonderful people. I can't wait to go back.

So, back to "the price of being neighborly." One evening Kent, Erin, Sebastian, and I took a little ride to buy some tea and ice cream. For the tea, we stopped off to see a neighbor named Harry Demorest who runs a coffee, tea, and spice business out of a little workshop out back of his farmhouse. When we turned into the gravel driveway, we were greeted by Harry's dog, barking excitedly. Harry heard the barking and emerged from a shed in back. He took us into his fragrant, impeccably organized workshop, filled with containers of coffee, tea, and spices from all over the world. Organic products, handled with a craftsman's care.

 
Harry
© Kent Tenney 

Harry's a down-to-earth, good-natured man, quick to smile and in no particular hurry otherwise. He regaled us with stories about the different blends Kent was buying or considering, about coffee roasting, and lots more besides. Meanwhile, Fritz, another of Harry's neighbors/customers, came in to pick up some coffee, and the conversation broadened to include Fritz and what he'd been up to. Lots of laughter and good-natured ribbing. The whole transaction took maybe a half hour, which by city standards might seem inefficient, but I left feeling enriched and enlightened. Nourished. Instead of a completely forgettable and soul-killing mega-store experience, I had experienced something that I'll remember — happily — for a long, long time.

 
Harry
© Kent Tenney 

From Harry's, we drove a short distance to another neighbor with an on-site business: Tetzner's dairy. Tetzner's is a family farm that supplies much of the area with milk, and they make their own ice cream on the side. You pull into their farm, and among the splendid barns and pens and tractors, there's a shop where you can serve yourself to ice cream sandwiches, bulk ice cream, and milk. You take what you want and leave money on the honor system. In this case, there wasn't the opportunity to shoot the breeze with neighbors, but still it was a rich and unique experience — no supermarket visit. And, as in Harry's case, there was the satisfaction of knowing you were supporting a neighbor, someone you knew.

So the "price" of being neighborly turns out not to be a price at all (which of course McKibben knows full well), but a boon. The experience is richer, more human, more memorable by far than any trip to Stop-N-Go or Wal-Mart. It is nourishing and enriching, not taxing. It feeds the soul. The products are superior. One knows where they came from. There are real people — neighbors — associated with them.

On a global scale, things do look grim. Too many other nations are copying our mistakes. According to McKibben, every year China adds electrical generation capacity equal to all of Southern California's, nearly all of it coal-fired. And here in the US, there are more people in prison than there are full-time farmers. But, it's also true that all over the country people are spontaneously developing small-scale, local alternatives. Ten or fifteen years ago, US farmers' markets numbered in the hundreds. Now there are some 10,000. (To put that in perspective, there are only 3,086 counties in the US.) And people are taking it upon themselves to develop communities where a sensible, sustainable way of living can be re-learned.

And the beauty of it is that it's no grit-your-teeth-and-be-noble sacrifice. Exactly the opposite. It's a better way to live. Richer. Happier. Healthier. More human. More real.

More neighborly.

You don't have to move to the country to play a part. Buy local. Support local farmers' markets and CSAs. Support neighborhood businesses. Get out, meet your neighbors, give them your business. Never set foot in a Wal-Mart again. When the cheap oil's gone, local and regional economies will be keys to our survival.


[And if you want some great organic coffee, tea, or spices from an honest craftsman who knows his business inside-out, go to Harry's website at http://nwcoffeemills.com/. He's got a great assortment and he'll ship to you wherever you are. If you've got a locally-owned alternative, go for it, but if your alternative is Starbucks or a supermarket chain, consider throwing some business Harry's way. He'll take good care of you.]

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April 28, 2005

The Thermodynamics of Life, Part 2 Essays  Science/Technology

[Continued from Part 1, which should be read first]

Nature "wants" to get rid of gradients. They're unnatural. Statistically improbable. What the new thermodynamics shows is that complex systems are more efficient than simple systems at wiping out gradients. Where gradients are pronounced, complex systems arise spontaneously. Extreme temperature/pressure gradients spontaneously produce thunderstorms, for example, and tornadoes. These large-scale storm systems are highly structured and complex compared to the usual random movements of individual air molecules and small wind currents. Many similar examples of spontaneous self-organization in open systems are known. Prigogine calls them "dissipative structures" — they are structures that dissipate gradients.

Life, it turns out, is particularly effective at doing Nature's job of breaking down various physical and chemical gradients in the environment. One such gradient is the enormous temperature gradient between the earth and the cold, empty space that surrounds it.

When I had a motorcycle, I used to love to take it out on a hot summer day and drive through the arboretum of the University of Wisconsin here in Madison. The arboretum contains a rich forest of deciduous trees, and as soon as I entered the forest, the temperature would drop a good ten degrees. On a motorcycle, it's dramatic and delightfully refreshing. And it's not just a question of shade. One rides in the shade of tall buildings, say, and feels no temperature drop at all.

Forest ecosystems consume the sun's energy and turn it into chemical energy rather than heat. They are very good at so doing. The richer the ecosystem, the more energy it consumes. This can be measured. Margulis and Sagan:

[T]he tendency to locally organize "in order to" get rid of the statistical anomalies incarnated by gradients is profound and organizes life at all scales. The superior efficiency of complex ecosystems at reducing gradients is measurable and has been measured, for example, by airborne thermometers that show the superior ability of tropical forests relative to grasslands and deserts to cool themselves, thereby reducing the solar electromagnetic gradient. This is no vague and abstract theory of complexity, but a tested hypothesis: As measured both by low-flying airplanes and by satellites [and bloggers on motorcyles], ecosystems are cooler when they are more mature and biodiverse. Ecosystems begin with fast-growing colonizing species and at first are relatively inefficient gradient reducers. But as they mature, the energy and material cycles become larger in scope. New organisms enter the system and establish new habitats. Growth slows down, but overall the integrated ecosystem is better than its predecessor at reducing the gradient between the sun and space. The fact that mature tropical ecosystems stay cool displays the system’s power of gradient reduction.

Life feeds on gradients and, in the process, helps to reduce them. In so doing, life does Nature's work. The bottom line: thermodynamic principles do not oppose life, they practically command it into existence. Life is an integral part of the universe, completely consistent with the thermodynamic principles that unite both living and nonliving matter. Life belongs.

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April 27, 2005

The Thermodynamics of Life, Part 1 Essays  Science/Technology

[Even if you have a mild allergy to science, I think you may find the following interesting. It's based on a passage in the book Acquiring Genomes by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan.]

Hot coffee gets cold. Ice cream melts. Material structures fall apart. Things wear out and run down. These commonplace phenomena are illustrative (approximately) of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that in a closed, isolated system (one where no energy or matter enters or leaves) entropy (disorder) spontaneously increases.

Life, however — most especially the evolution of life — seems to fly in the face of this law. Living things not only maintain order and complexity, they evolve to become ever more complex individually and to participate in ever more complexly interconnected ecosystems. Life and evolution seem, therefore, to violate the Second Law. But do they really?

The first thing that can be said is that the Second Law doesn't actually apply to the environment in which earthly life finds itself, because the earth is not a closed system. It receives an enormous, continuous input of energy from the sun.

Discussions of how life coexists with the Second Law usually stop there: the Second Law isn't violated because the system's not closed. True enough, but not terribly satisfying. While it does explain how life is possible in the presence of the Second Law, it hardly explains what we see everywhere we turn: life spontaneously, aggressively, irrepressibly expanding to fill every available niche in the environment, creating ever richer and more complex ecosystems comprising an ever-expanding variety of increasingly complex life forms. We don't see life just getting by in the face of the Second Law; far from it. I.e., life isn't just side-stepping the laws of thermodynamics; somehow, life is actually favored by them.

This is where it gets interesting. The closed systems covered by the Second Law are only an artificial and very limited case. They were, for many years, the one case that was well understood, so they were the one case people considered. They are not what occurs in nature, however. In recent decades scientists like Ilya Prigogine (in work that won him a Nobel Prize), James Lovelock, and others have studied the thermodynamics of the kinds of systems that do occur: open systems far from equilibrium. The new thermodynamics puts life in a new perspective.

First, we need to take note of an important generalization of many everyday phenomena. Water runs downhill. Hot coffee cools to the temperature of its surroundings. Air rushes in to fill a vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum, yes, but what unifies the foregoing examples is a much more general law: Nature abhors a gradient (where a gradient is a difference in some physical quantity across a distance). Water runs downhill because of a gravitational potential energy gradient. Hot coffee cools because of a temperature gradient. Air fills a vacuum because of a pressure gradient.

[Don't miss the punchline in Part 2, tomorrow]

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March 15, 2005

Evolution And Randomness, Part 2 Essays  Science/Technology

[Continued from Part 1, which should be read first]

As we saw in Part 1, it's impossible that biological complexity was created via a purely random process. Some people try to turn that into an argument against evolution.

But evolution is not a purely random process. Far from it. Yes, it has an element of randomness — mutations are random — but there is more to it than that. Much more:

How much difference does that make? Let's see.

To investigate, I wrote a little computer program that generates phrases according to rules that simulate the above characteristics of evolution. (Richard Dawkins did something similar in The Blind Watchmaker, which inspired this post.) This computer program generates the 39-character "target phrase"

TO BE OR NOT TO BE THAT IS THE QUESTION

according to the following rules. A random 39-character phrase is generated as the starting point. For example,

DOBLF DAVPEHJCI RKCQTIMRRKHXCPBZAMEFSYC

This random starting point is the first "generation." A sequence of generations is then created as follows:

  1. Starting with the outcome of the previous generation (the "parent"), the program creates some number (200, say) of "children".
  2. A child is created as follows: any characters of the parent that are correct (i.e., that match the target phrase) are retained in the child. (This is analogous to DNA’s ability to "remember" prior successful mutations.) So, for example, the phrase
    DOBLF DAVPEHJCI RKCQTIMRRKHXCPBZAMEFSYC

    happens to be correct in the 2nd, 6th, and 16th positions, so its children would keep those characters unchanged.

  3. The remaining characters (the incorrect ones) are replaced with a new random character, with the restriction that the random replacement must be within some number of letters (5, say) of the letter it's replacing. (This closeness requirement is roughly analogous to the fact that biological children don't stray too far from their parents in a single generation.) So from

    DOBLF DAVPEHJCI RKCQTIMRRKHXCPBZAMEFSYC

    we might get

    FO KF DFTNJDHFK NKCUOFRNWNEVGM UBLIKPYH

  4. From among the children, the "best" phrase, i.e., the one closest to the target phrase, is selected. This "best" child becomes the parent of the next generation. (This selection process is roughly analogous to natural selection.)

The program lets this process run until the target phrase is reached. The number of generations required turns out to be astonishingly small — especially considering that, as we saw in Part 1, a fully random process would, on average, require far more steps than could be generated during the entire lifetime of the universe!

The following is a typical set of results obtained when each generation consists of 200 children and random replacements are within 5 letters of the letters they replace:

DOBLF DAVPEHJCI RKCQTIMRRKHXCPBZAMEFSYC
FO KF DFTNJDHFK NKCUOFRNWNEVGM UBLIKPYH
KO HC IAPNNCMCJ QG ZSFVKWN ZDP ZBGJNLXE
MO GE GAKNNBMHO PG UOERHXQ VAK ZGGHRLZB
NO GE KCGNMEKIO QB RODVCSV UDH XIILPQUA
OO DE KDENMCFKO PB VQHY XZ SHD TGFHSLWA
NO GE PD NPEAGO ND UMDW VW SHB YEFINKXA
IO BE UH NUI HO JF UHDX TY PHG WIGNIMTC
KO BE QG NQN MO GA XHCT TU OHE UMKJMJPE
MO BE SL NOO NO FB VHFT OT THE UQFKJEQH
RO BE RM NOS PO IC ZHGT LW THE UTDPKJPM
WO BE SL NOR TO FC UHIT HT THE RUHUOHQN
TO BE OP NOW TO GC ZHDT IS THE SUDPSLQN
TO BE OS NOX TO CG VHCT IS THE UUERUGSN
TO BE OT NOT TO DE RHBT IS THE RUEWQJON
TO BE OS NOT TO AE UHCT IS THE OUESTHON
TO BE OT NOT TO DE THAT IS THE OUESTHON
TO BE OS NOT TO CE THAT IS THE QUESTION
TO BE OR NOT TO BE THAT IS THE QUESTION

19 generations. 19! A far cry from 1 with 55 zeroes after it.

No magic. No intelligent design.

Now, nobody's claiming that this little program is perfectly analogous to evolution. Of course not. (For one thing, evolution has no specific "target" that it's shooting for.) It does, however, give us a feel for what an enormous qualitative difference there is between evolution and a purely random process. Random mutations are the "raw material" of evolution, but evolution itself is not random. Or even "mostly" random. It is, in fact, almost the opposite of random.

In a purely random process, each generation would be created from scratch, bearing no relation whatever to the generations that preceded it. There would be no development, no progress, no homing in on the target phrase, just a sequence of unrelated "guesses."

In evolution, each generation takes the preceding one as starting point, changes are generally small, unsuccessful mutations are weeded out, and successful mutations are preserved and accumulated over time.

And that makes all the difference.

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March 14, 2005

Evolution And Randomness, Part 1 Essays  Science/Technology

Arguments against the theory of evolution take many forms. Among them is an argument based on probability, which goes something like this:

According to the theory of evolution, the particular DNA sequence that defines a gene is the result of a series of random mutations. The number of possible DNA sequences is so huge, however, that evolving a particular sequence would take far longer than the lifetime of the universe.

To see why this argument appears to make sense and then why, when you look closer, it falls apart, let's examine an analogous problem: the problem of monkeys typing Shakespeare. You’ve no doubt heard it said that a group of monkeys banging away on keyboards could, given enough time, reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare.

Bob Newhart used to do a comedy bit based on the premise that if anybody actually were to perform the experiment with the monkeys, there would have to be people whose job it was to go around and check what the monkeys had typed (and you think you have a boring job). The punch line had one such inspector excitedly calling out to his partner, "Hey, Ed, I think we may have something here!" He then proceeds to slowly read, "To be or not to be, that is the... gazornenplatt."

Theoretically, the monkeys would eventually accomplish the task, though the length of time required would be unimaginably large. Suppose, for example, that we drastically simplify the task and require them to reproduce not Shakespeare's complete works but just the following phrase:

TO BE OR NOT TO BE THAT IS THE QUESTION

This phrase consists of 39 characters, each of which can be one of 26 letters or a space — i.e., there are 27 possibilities for each character. Let's say we have our typewriting monkeys banging out 39-character-long phrases using those 27 characters. How many such phrases are there?

It's easy to calculate. There are 27 possibilities for the first character. For each of those 27, there are 27 possibilities for the second character. That means that there 27 x 27 = 729 possibilities for the first two characters taken together. For each of those 729 possibilities, there are 27 possibilities for the third character, and so on. Altogether, then, the total number of possible 39-character-long phrases is the product of 27 times itself 39 times — i.e., 27 to the 39th power — which is larger than 1 with 55 zeroes after it.

How big of a number is that? If you created one such phrase per second, to create them all would take more than a trillion trillion trillion times the lifetime of the universe so far.

Obviously, then, evolution can't be creating its DNA "phrases" via a purely random process. Does that mean the theory of evolution is wrong?

[To be concluded tomorrow]

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February 16, 2005

The "Ownership" Scam Corporations, Globalization  Essays

[The following is inspired by the eye-opening article "The Divine Right of Capital" by Marjorie Kelly (available here, starting on p. 7). Quotations are from that article. References to "corporations" should be taken to mean "public corporations" — i.e., corporations that sell stock to the public.]

Shareholders Contribute (Almost) Nothing, Get (Almost) Everything

US corporations exist to maximize returns to owners of their stock (shareholders). They are, in fact, required by law to do so. I.e., corporations are legally bound to operate as if only shareholders matter. Not employees, not customers, not communities, not the earth — only shareholders. If a corporation treats employees well, it is only as part of its strategy to maximize returns to its shareholders.

But what do shareholders actually contribute to earn such treatment? In most cases, absolutely nothing. Zero. Zilch. Zip. Nada.

Strangely, it's axiomatic in American business that shareholders deserve their exalted status because they contribute needed capital to the corporation. But this is almost never the case: a shareholder’s money almost never actually reaches the corporation. In almost all cases, when you buy stock, you do not buy it from the corporation. You buy it from someone else who owned the stock before you. It's like buying a used car. When you buy a used car, your money doesn't go to the car manufacturer; it goes to the previous owner.

The only exceptions are the rare occasions when a new corporation "goes public" and sells stock for the first time or when an existing corporation issues additional stock. Only a tiny percentage of stock transactions are of this type. Among the Dow Jones Industrials, for example, "only a handful have sold any new common stock in thirty years. Many have sold none in fifty years...According to figures from the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission, about 99 percent of the stock out there is 'used' stock. That is, ninety-nine out of one hundred 'invested' dollars are trading in the purely speculative market, and never reach corporations." (Kelly)

Corporations do need capital, but they get very little of it from the sale of common stock. They generally issue stock only as a last resort; they are far more likely to borrow instead. "In 1993, for example, corporations needed $555 billion in capital. According to the Federal Reserve, sales of common stock contributed 4 percent of that." (Kelly) Four percent. Somehow, that entitles shareholders to be considered "owners."

But what about in the past? Surely, sales of stock played a crucial role in creating what have become the important corporations of the present day. Actually... no. Take the steel industry. An accounting study of capital expenditures in the steel industry in the first half of the twentieth century found that issues of common stock provided only 5 percent of capital. And that was during a period of intense growth in the industry.

Somehow, we have been brainwashed to think of shareholders as the rightful "owners" of corporations, even though they are almost always just speculators who have bought "used" stock from other speculators. Their contribution to the corporation is non-existent. In many cases, they have only the vaguest idea what it is the corporation does or where it's located. And yet, they are treated like feudal lords. It’s their plantation; the rest of us just work on it.

Marjorie Kelly put it this way:

[I]n the life of most major companies today, issuance of common stock represents a distant, long-ago source of funds, and a minor one at that. What's odd is that it entitles stockholders to extract most of the corporation’s wealth — forever. Equity investors essentially install a pipeline, and dictate that the corporation’s sole purpose is to funnel wealth into it.

The truth is, the commotion on Wall Street is not about funding corporations. It's about extracting from them.

The wealth of corporations is created by the human beings employed by them and by the communities and nations that provide them infrastructure and support. Shareholders are just along for the ride. Even banks that lend capital funds to corporations have a more legitimate claim on a share of corporations' profits than do 99% of shareholders. The fact that shareholders are, by custom and by law, placed at the top of the pyramid is simply a function of who wields power in modern capitalist societies.

We've been scammed.

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December 09, 2004

Wrathful Deities Essays  Religion

A marked and decidedly peculiar feature of the rising tide of neo-Puritan right-wing "Christian" religiosity in America today is how little Christ actually seems to figure into it. Right-wing "Christianity" seems rather to consist of Old Testament judgment and vengeance blended with fevered interpretations of The Book of Revelations.

Consider how right-wing "Christians" are forever agitating to get the Old Testament's Ten Commandments placed in courtrooms, classrooms, etc. Never does one hear them advocate similar prominence for the New Testament sayings of Jesus, whom they profess to follow. It's as if the words of the Sermon on the Mount, in particular, — Blessed are the poor, Blessed are the meek, Blessed are the peacemakers, Love thy enemies, Turn the other cheek — were never spoken.

On the theory that you can learn a lot about people by what they worship, it's worth considering what a cruel, wrathful, powder keg of a deity the Old Testament God really is. As James Wolcott tells us, when an interviewer put it to Noam Chomsky that the moral codes embedded in the world's religions are a benefit to humankind, this was Chomsky's reply:

You can find things in the traditional religions which are very benign and decent and wonderful and so on, but I mean, the Bible is probably the most genocidal book in the literary canon. The God of the Bible — not only did he order His chosen people to carry out literal genocide — ...but was ready to destroy every living creature on earth because humans irritated Him. That's the story of Noah. I mean, that's beyond genocide — you don't know how to describe this creature. Somebody offended Him, and He was going to destroy every living being on earth? And then He was talked into allowing two of each species to stay alive — that's supposed to be gentle and wonderful.

For the right-wing neo-Puritans, even Jesus adopts this vengeful aspect. Consider, for example, the enormously popular "Left Behind" novels that portray events leading up to Jesus' Second Coming and the imminent end of this world. These novels, which have sold tens of millions of copies, were described by Nicholas Kristof as follows:

The "Left Behind" series, bestselling novels for adults in the United States, enthusiastically depicts Jesus returning to slaughter everyone who is not a born-again Christian. The world's Hindus, Muslims, Jews and agnostics, along with many Roman Catholics and Unitarians, are heaved into everlasting fire: "Jesus merely raised one hand a few inches and ... they tumbled in, howling and screeching."

Politically correct notions of religious tolerance enjoin us to treat all religions as equally valid, equally deserving of our indulgence. In a world beset by escalating religious and tribal warfare, however, we are entitled to question these wrathful and bloodthirsty notions of Divinity. People (be they Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh) who choose to live in a lurid nightmare fantasy of a final cosmic battle between Good and Evil — and to act on that fantasy — are a real and present danger to the rest of us.

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November 27, 2004

Tool Man Environment  Essays  Ethics

One often hears it said that the tools of technology are ethically neutral. They can be used for good or ill, and it’s up to us to use them for good. If a given tool is harmful, people say, we should not blame the tool. This strikes me as a pretty superficial assessment.

For one thing, we don’t just use tools. Tools also use us, often in unforeseen ways. Think, for example, of how profoundly the automobile shapes our lives. We have adapted to it and become dependent on it. Cities and suburbs are designed around it. Pedestrian life has been largely lost as a result, and with it age-old forms of community. Foreign policy and military industry are centered on the control of petroleum sources: wars are fought to feed our cars. And so on. We serve the automobile as much as it serves us, and at great cost to ourselves.

Tools also change the way we think and how we see the world. Consider, for example, the mental impact of the use of money technology. As Richard Heinberg points out in his book The Party’s Over, money technology has pushed people to emphasize numerical quantification, calculation, and written language, and it encourages us to perceive objects, living organisms, and other people in terms of numbers, as abstractions rather than individuals. Or, consider how our mental models have been shaped by machines in general and computers in particular. We're led to see living things as machines and DNA as software, there to be tinkered with, and we de-emphasize or ignore altogether the historical, holistic, and ecological/systemic dimensions of life.

The point is that tools (technologies) and their users are deeply intertwined. It's inescapable. As Heinberg notes, a human with a tool is effectively a different organism from a human without it.

I think it’s ethically useful, therefore, to actually visualize tools (technologies) as artificial extensions of our bodies. Then we can ask ourselves, as we contemplate the use of a given tool or technology, if the result is a form of human that we really want to be.

Do I want, for example, to have an assault rifle as prosthetic hand? Do I want to excrete waste products that poison the earth far into the future? Do I want my body to have an insatiable appetite for oil?

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November 16, 2004

On Apples, Abstractions, Counting, And Seeing The World Essays  Musings

Let's take a little break from politics.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a George Monbiot fan. A couple of weeks ago, Monbiot wrote a long piece about apples and the effect on growers of new EU subsidy regulations. I'd like to quote a bit of what he has to say about apples, then take the discussion in a different direction:

It takes a while to work out what it is about Hogg and Bull’s Herefordshire Pomona. What it is that, two or three minutes after you’ve started lifting the heavy pages, makes you, quite unexpectedly, want to cry. It’s not, or not only, the pictures. The apples and pears painted by a Miss Alice Ellis can almost be rolled off the page and bitten. She added nothing, took nothing away. Where she saw warts, she painted warts, where scabs, scabs. And yet they glow. They are more real than — than any real apple you’ll find in the shops today.

It’s not, or not only, the text. It’s a classic of late Victorian natural history, pedantic and passionate. Here, among quotes from Shakespeare and Homer and Clare, are recipes for orchard manure, dissertations on specific gravity, the cordon-system of growing pears, Roman cooking, the "laws of Vegetable Physiology", pests, fermentation, soil, grafting. There are chapters on the lives and times of the great fruit growers, transcripts of folk songs and poems, no end of nonsense about the druids and the ancient Britons, unlikely claims about the longevity of habitual cider drinkers.

Then you see it. It’s the names. The names of the fallen. Foxwhelp, Sheep’s Snout, Hogshead, Duck’s Bill, Black Wilding, Brown Cockle, Ramping Taurus, Monstrous Pippin, Burr Knot, Broadtail, Carrion, Hagloe Crab, Eggleton Styre, Norfolk Beefing, Cornish Aromatic, Skyrme’s Kernel, Peasgood’s Nonesuch, Tom Putt, Bitter-scale, Slack-my-girdle, Bastard Rough Coat, Bloody Turk. The list runs into thousands. It is a history of rural England, a poem in pomology, rough and bitter and sad.

 
© Kent Tenney 

Sprouting from every name is a tree of knowledge. Before I read this book, I am ashamed to say, I thought that an apple was something you picked and ate, sometime around October. Now I know that the best dessert apples are those which must be stored for a month or more. There are some which aren’t ready to come off the tree until December; others which are unfit to eat unless they’ve been in the cellar from October till March. There is one variety, the Winter Greening (Shakespeare’s Apple John), which can be kept for two years. There are apples which taste of aniseed, banana, pineapple, nutmeg and carraway. There are apples grown for roasting over the fire, so that they burst and turn into "lamb’s wool", the flavouring for a winter drink. There are others bred to be broiled in a pan. There are hundreds which cannot be eaten in any state, but are grown for making cider. Some are the size of walnuts: the smaller they are, Hogg and Bull contend, the better the cider.

One is struck, reading this, how very much we've lost — and we don't even know we've lost it. Here is an entire world of forgotten lore, hard-won by our forebears and now largely squandered. In place of this extraordinarily varied, fine-grained sensory world what do we now have? Apples as abstractions. (Of course it’s not just apples. The same thing has happened across the board in our relationship with Nature.) We walk into the abstract microcosm of the supermarket and encounter a very few standard varieties — Macintosh, Red Delicious, Yellow Delicious, maybe a half dozen others — all bred now to present a uniform, blemish-free appearance. All individuality abstracted away. That is what most of us now know as an "apple".

 
© Kent Tenney 

When I was a boy, I remember reading in several books — school textbooks and others — condescending accounts of so-called "primitive" peoples who had only a limited concept of number. In their languages, we were told, the only number words were "one", "two", "three", and "many". The smugness of these accounts always bothered me, but it wasn't until years later that I understood what lesson to draw from them. People gain something when they learn to number the world, but they lose much as well. And if you know your world well enough, if you see your world well enough, you don't need numbers.

To illustrate, let me ask a question: How many Presidents have there been since FDR? I don’t know the number (unless I stop to count), but I know their faces, I can list their names. So I do know how many there have been, I just know it in a concrete way, not in the abstract form of a number. How many people work in my office? Same thing. I don’t know the number off the top of my head, but I know all of the people as individuals. And I'm sure you'll agree that by knowing them as individuals I know a lot more than if I just knew their number. So-called "primitive" people, who are intimately aware of and knowledgeable about their natural surroundings, see a tree or a stone or an animal as an individual, not as an instance of the abstract class of Trees, Stones, or Animals. They really see them. They don't need to count them. And since they don't have a lot of private property, they don't need numbers to count all their stuff.

In the world we've created, numbers and other abstractions are useful and necessary. But we are fools if we imagine that people who don't live in a numbered, abstract world are somehow dull and deserving of our condescension. Human beings who survive on their wits and powers of observation in a relatively untamed natural world possess a degree of awareness, concentration, and sensory acuteness — and a wealth of minutely detailed knowledge — that most of us can scarcely imagine. We, in contrast, find food and shelter by driving along a flat paved street lined with logos and brand names.


(For more on the brain-power and sensory acuteness needed to survive in the natural world, I invite you also to read this post.)

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October 04, 2004

It's The Peak, Stupid Energy  Essays  Peak Oil

[Third article in a series on the fundamentals of Peak Oil.] [Previous]

Everyone knows that the modern world runs on fossil fuels and fossil fuels will be exhausted someday. "Someday" is not far off. Oil, in particular, will run out in just a few decades given current and projected levels of demand. Coal will last a while longer. A few decades isn't much, but we tell ourselves we've got time. Somebody will figure something out; somebody will find something to replace oil.

What far fewer people realize, however, is that the critical date is not the date on which the last drop of oil is pumped from the ground. Rather, it's the date when oil “production” (i.e., extraction) begins its inevitable decline. At that point, rising demand will meet declining supply, and the result will be sky-rocketing prices, chronic shortages, and — especially after the people of the world wake up to the fact that oil production is falling, that oil is running out, permanently — bitter and violent competition among nations for the lifeblood of modern industrial society. Iraq may be just the beginning.

The key fact to understand is this: if you graph the rate of extraction of a resource like oil, it follows (approximately) a symmetrical bell-shaped curve. The rate ramps up slowly at first as people figure out how to find and extract the resource and as uses for it are discovered or invented. Soon, the rate accelerates, climbing the left-hand side of the bell curve. Because the curve is symmetrical, production peaks when half of the resource has been consumed.

The largest oil fields are discovered early on, since they're the easiest to find. (If you close your eyes and throw darts at a wall full of targets, chances are you'll hit the big targets first.) Inevitably, though, the large oil fields reach their peak and, individually, begin to decline. It becomes progressively harder to find new sources, and the ones that are found are progressively smaller. In time, the overall world-wide extraction rate flattens out and, finally, it too begins to decline. Not only does the rate decline, but extraction becomes harder and more expensive — it's a lot harder to get toothpaste from a nearly empty tube.

Discovery and extraction both have this kind of bell-shaped history. Extraction mirrors discovery (after a delay) since whatever is discovered eventually gets extracted, and you cannot extract what you haven't discovered. When discovery peaks and begins to fall, it is inescapable that extraction will follow suit, after a delay. World-wide, the extraction curve has mimicked the discovery curve, but with about a 30 year delay.

World-wide discovery peaked over 30 years ago.

So where are we?

Facts about oil:

  1. Currently, 95% of the world's transportation runs on oil.
  2. Most synthetic products – plastics, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals – depend on oil.
  3. Modern agricultural and food distribution systems run on oil.
  4. There is a finite supply of oil on earth.
  5. It is a one-time gift to humanity. Once it's gone, it's gone forever.
  6. The world has used about a trillion barrels of oil to date.
  7. About a trillion barrels of recoverable oil are left in the ground.
  8. It took humanity a century to burn through the first half of the world's oil.
  9. We consume oil so rapidly now that at current rates we will burn through the second half of the world's oil in just a few decades.
  10. The world currently consumes about 82 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil – 30 billion barrels per year.
  11. The scale of consumption is so colossal that all the recoverable oil in Alaska, for example, would satsify the world for just a couple of months.
  12. Do the math: if world consumption holds at 82 million bpd, the remaining trillion barrels will be totally consumed in less than 35 years.
  13. However, world oil consumption is projected to continue to increase rapidly, not hold steady at 82 million bpd.
  14. If consumption continued to increase as projected, the world's supply of oil would be exhausted in something closer to 20 years. (This won't actually happen, since supply won't be able to keep up with projected demand.)
  15. The rate of extraction of a resource like oil follows a roughly symmetrical bell-shaped curve over its history.
  16. Because the extraction curve is roughly symmetrical, the peak point occurs when about half of the resource has been extracted.
  17. After the peak point, annual oil extraction necessarily declines, slowly at first, then more rapidly, never to rise again.
  18. From #6 and #7 above, it follows the world is at or near the peak point right now.
  19. Increasing demand coupled with decreasing supply is a recipe for sky-rocketing prices, chronic shortages, international conflict. We are witnessing the early stages of this process already.
  20. National security planners and world financial institutions know all this. They're working up the nerve to tell the rest of us.

The main point to remember: it's not just the end of oil we should be thinking about, it's the peak.

To paraphrase James Carville: It's the peak, stupid. That's when all hell breaks loose. And it has already begun.

The first half of the Oil Age was marked by continual growth in the availability of oil. The second half will be marked by its continual decline.

But won't advances in technology find more oil for us? Can't we drill deeper? Can't we drill under the ocean? Won't the market save us? Won't rising oil prices give oil companies the profit incentive to keep finding more and more oil?

We'll consider those questions in the next installment.

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September 12, 2004

The Sixties Are Over Activism  Essays  Politics

On one level, the mass march and the other demonstrations in NYC were glorious and heartening. I would have loved to have been there myself. On another level, though, it's not clear that they accomplished much of any real significance. A half million people filled the streets with color and spirit, and the next day little had changed. It seems clear that we need to find new methods and tactics.

In that vein, here's some food for thought from Matt Taibbi (excerpted, with emphasis added).

We are raising a group of people whose only ideas about protest and opposition come from televised images of 40 years ago, when large public demonstrations could shake the foundations of society. There has been no organized effort of any kind to recognize that we now live in a completely different era, operating according to a completely different political dynamic. What worked then not only doesn't work now, it doesn't even make superficial sense now.

Let's just start with a simple, seemingly inconsequential facet of the protests: appearance. If you read the bulletins by United for Peace and Justice ahead of the protests, you knew that the marchers were encouraged to "show their creativity" and dress outlandishly. [...]

And the New York Post and Fox were standing on the sidelines greedily recording all of this unbowed individuality for posterity, understanding instinctively that each successive t-shirt and goatee was just more fresh red meat for mean Middle America looking for good news from the front.

Back in the 60s, dressing crazy and letting your hair down really was a form of defiance. It was a giant, raised middle finger to a ruling class that until that point had insisted on a kind of suffocating, static conformity in all things — in sexual mores, in professional ambitions, in life goals and expectations, and even in dress and speech. [...]

[Now, however, the] vision of hundreds of thousands of people dressed in every color of the rainbow and marching their diverse selves past Madison Square Garden is... a great relief to the other side — because it means that the opposition is composed of individuals, not a Force In Concert.

In the conformist atmosphere of the late 50s and early 60s, the individual was a threat. [...]

That is not the case anymore. This current American juggernaut is the mightiest empire the world has ever seen, and it is absolutely immune to the individual. Short of violent crime, it has assimilated the individual's every conceivable political action into mainstream commercial activity. It fears only one thing: organization.

That's why the one thing that would have really shaken Middle America last week wasn't "creativity." It was something else: uniforms. Three hundred thousand people banging bongos and dressed like extras in an Oliver Stone movie scares no one in America. But 300,000 people in slacks and white button-down shirts, marching mute and angry in the direction of Your Town, would have instantly necessitated a new cabinet-level domestic security agency.

Why? Because 300,000 people who are capable of showing the unity and discipline to dress alike are also capable of doing more than just march. Which is important, because marching, as we have seen in the last few years, has been rendered basically useless. Before the war, Washington and New York saw the largest protests this country has seen since the 60s — and this not only did not stop the war, it didn't even motivate the opposition political party to nominate an antiwar candidate.

There was a time when mass protests were enough to cause Johnson to give up the Oval Office and cause Richard Nixon to spend his nights staring out his window in panic. No more. We have a different media now, different and more sophisticated law-enforcement techniques and, most importantly, a different brand of protestor.

Protests can now be ignored because our media has learned how to dismiss them, because our police know how to contain them, and because our leaders now know that once a protest is peacefully held and concluded, the protestors simply go home and sit on their asses until the next protest or the next election. They are not going to go home and bomb draft offices, take over campuses, riot in the streets. Instead, although there are many earnest, involved political activists among them, the majority will simply go back to their lives, surf the net and wait for the ballot. Which to our leaders means that, in most cases, if you allow a protest to happen... Nothing happens.

The people who run this country are not afraid of much when it comes to the population, but there are a few things that do worry them. They are afraid we will stop working, afraid we will stop buying, and afraid we will break things. Interruption of commerce and any rattling of the cage of profit — that is where this system is vulnerable. That means boycotts and strikes at the very least, and these things require vision, discipline and organization.

The 60s were an historical anomaly. It was an era when political power could also be an acid party, a felicitous situation in which fun also happened to be a threat. We still listen to that old fun on the radio, we buy it reconstituted in clothing stores, we watch it in countless movies and documentaries. Society has kept the "fun" alive, or at least a dubious facsimile of it.

But no one anywhere is teaching us about how to be a threat. That is something we have to learn all over again for ourselves, from scratch, with new rules. The 60s are gone. The Republican Convention isn't the only party that's over.

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about "300,000 people in slacks and white button-down shirts, marching mute and angry," but there's no denying it would send shock waves like nothing else could. The trick would be to get the energy right, so that white shirts don't become brown shirts — especially now, when there's more than a whiff of fascism in the air. In dark times, the power of psychological contagion should not be underestimated.

That said, I heartily agree with Taibbi's main point. We have to think in terms of action, not just expression. We need to look beyond just trying to get on the evening news. For the most part, the NYC demonstrations didn't even manage to accomplish that.

The march did look like glorious fun, and personally, I'd rather dance than march any day. But this isn't a time for self-indulgence. It's a time for dancing only if dancing works. It's a time for marching only if marching works. It's a time for what works.

In the 60s, turning on the news and seeing images of other kids showing the way to a freer, groovier, more ecstatic and more activist way of being was electrifying in itself. Those images made millions of other kids want to climb aboard the Day-Glo bus and march in the tear-gassed streets. They were Ice-9, a lightning flash in a darkened landscape, the sudden catalyst that triggered the nascent collective moment.

Such images no longer have that psychological or cultural power. We need new images, a new lightning flash. Something that says collective will and collective competence and seriousness. Something that says the people, united, are a match for corporate power. Something that says we won't take no for an answer.

Put another way, it's time to put down Abbie Hoffman and pick up Gandhi. Not the Gandhi of Western imagination, the kindly old Hindu saint, but rather the fiercely activist Gandhi of mass boycotts and general strikes. Follow Gandhi, too, in our hearts, so that the 300,000 people in slacks and white button-down shirts marching mute and angry are not embodying some fascist mob impulse, are not burning with personal animosity, but rather are acting out of righteous indignation, anger at injustices and wrongs and the institutions that enact them. Fiercely resolute, not nursing a grudge. Determined adult human beings.

Now that would be something.

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August 29, 2004

Bonhoeffer, Part 2 Activism  Essays  Film  Religion

[Continued from Part 1]

The Church had long since ducked the moral challenge of the Sermon on the Mount by taking the position that it set an unattainable standard for the purpose merely of making us see our sinful natures. Bonhoeffer, however, came to realize that Jesus' message was far more radical in its import: Jesus intends us actually to live the Sermon on the Mount, to put its precepts into practice and apply them to the moral challenges that come our way.

Bonhoeffer had no illusions about the difficulty of so doing. In Discipleship, he wrote about the difference between cheap grace and costly grace:

Cheap grace is grace without the Cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ. Costly grace is the Gospel. It costs people their lives. It cost the life of God’s Son. And nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God.

To me, a non-believer, those are electrifying words, as powerful as anything I have ever read along these lines. They reveal in a lightning flash a whole new dimension of the Crucifixion story: the Crucifixion is a moral demonstration of the profoundest possible sort. The radical principles Jesus enunciated in the Sermon on the Mount (blessed are the poor, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers, love thy enemies, and all the rest) are principles that worldly powers will resist even unto death. Putting those principles into practice can get you killed — even if you are the Son of God.

They are radical principles. But Jesus, the ultimate embodiment of human godliness, shows us by his self-sacrifice how seriously he himself takes those principles and how seriously he means for us to take them. They are not just noble sentiments. They are not just pie in the sky. They are principles one must be prepared to die for. They are principles the Son of God was prepared to die for. They are principles God Himself was prepared to sacrifice his Son for.

Notice that Bonhoeffer says costly grace — authentic grace — involves "the living, incarnate Jesus Christ." That is, it must be lived, it must be incarnated here on Earth, it is inseparable from what one does in this world. As Bonhoeffer wrote to his fellow conspirators after ten years of Nazi rule:

We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and to action.

Notice also that Bonhoeffer says costly grace involves the Cross. I.e., it involves a willingness to take onto oneself struggle, self-sacrifice, and even death. Indeed, Bonhoeffer wrote, "Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death." Costly grace is earned the hard way.

Let’s read those words again:

Cheap grace is grace without the Cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ. Costly grace is the Gospel. It costs people their lives. It cost the life of God’s Son. And nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God.

Bonhoeffer’s grace was costly indeed, and therefore authentic indeed. His moral struggle unto death was a modern crucifixion; he lived the drama of the Crucifixion in his own life. For Bonhoeffer, to be a Christian was to follow Christ by being in this world, as Christ was, acting on behalf of those who suffer, as Christ did, and being prepared, as Christ was, to sacrifice everything.

Compare that with the decidedly cheap grace claimed by many born-again Christians in present day America. The belief that all one has to do is accept Christ and one is thereby automatically Saved, that Christ died for our sins and saved us by His death, lets one escape paying any real cost at all. It is as if one is standing on the sidelines cheering for Jesus as he goes to his crucifixion, when what Jesus wants is for us to take up our own cross and follow him. That is, we are to follow Jesus’ radical moral example and not let even death deter us.

"Nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God."

[Click here to view a photo of Bonhoeffer]

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August 28, 2004

Bonhoeffer, Part 1 Activism  Essays  Film  Religion

In an earlier post, I wrote about religion as metaphor, and the considerable mischief that ensues when people insist on taking it as literal, factual truth. To say the metaphors are not to be taken literally, however, is not to say one cannot take them seriously. That is, one can choose to take them to heart and to allow them to resonate powerfully in one’s psyche (or soul, if you prefer) in a sort of willing suspension of unbelief, while remaining aware of their status as metaphors, and remembering that the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. All of which is meant as prelude to suggest what I, a non-believer, can mean by the following.

I've recently watched the excellent documentary film Bonhoeffer, the story of the Protestant theologian, teacher, and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer of Germany. Bonhoeffer steadfastly and publicly criticized Hitler, then joined in the anti-Hitler Resistance, and finally plotted with others to assassinate Hitler. He and his co-conspirators were discovered by the Nazis and hanged.

It’s a remarkable film that I recommend highly, not least because of its relevance to us in these dark times. Bonhoeffer was one of those rare individuals who refuse to absolve themselves in any way from the responsibility to confront the injustices of this world. He wrestled with the deep moral questions of his day with every fiber of his being, in a struggle that continued until his death. You can see it in his magnetic young face and you can hear it in his words, and his example is profoundly instructive, inspiring, and moving.

A variety of influences made their mark on Bonhoeffer, from the Christ-centered theology of Karl Barth, to the nonviolent activism of Gandhi, to the heartfelt immediacy of African-American worship and spirituals. The bedrock of Bonhoeffer’s moral vision, though, was the Sermon on the Mount. As he wrote:

I think I am right in saying that I [will] only achieve true inner clarity and sincerity by really starting to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. This is the only source of strength that can blow all this [Nazi] nonsense sky-high.

[Part 2 tomorrow]

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August 26, 2004

The Human Algae Bloom Environment  Essays  Peak Oil

[Second article in a series on the fundamentals of Peak Oil.] [Previous] [Next]

Life requires energy. Without a continual input of energy, without a continual flow of energy through them, organisms die.

This is a consequence of a general natural law (the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics) that says that if you don't put energy into a system it becomes more and more disordered. Put another way, things fall apart if you don't keep after them. Anybody who's ever tended a garden or maintained a house, a car, or a lawn — or, God forbid, a sailboat — knows this principle first-hand. The same principle applies to the maintenance of the internal order required by living organisms to sustain life.

For green plants, the energy input is sunlight. For the rest of us, it's food. We eat green plants directly, or we eat things that eat green plants, or we eat things that eat things that eat green plants. We humans also use energy that we don't consume directly as food. Such energy, however, we use indirectly to produce or acquire the necessities of life — more food, for example, or warmth, shelter, water, etc. It all takes energy.

Now, a given environment has a specific "carrying capacity" for a given kind of organism. I.e., there's a maximum size population of that organism that can be sustained in that environment. The carrying capacity is determined by whatever necessity is in shortest supply. In a desert, for example, the limiting factor might be water. Typically, the limiting factor is energy in one of its forms (e.g., food). Suddenly introducing a new source of energy can change things in a hurry, however.

There's a lake near my house. Every summer, fertilizers from surrounding lawns and farms find their way into the lake, creating an environment artificially rich in energy (from a plant's perspective, fertilizer = energy). As a result, every summer there is an explosion in the algae population, turning parts of the lake into a thick green goo. The algae experience a giddy period of runaway growth fueled by the influx of energy, but this growth increases the algae population to a level that's completely unsustainable once the fertilizers are used up. When that happens the algae population crashes, and there's a huge die-off until the population returns to a level that can be sustained without fertilizers — i.e., back to more or less its original level.

For the past two hundred years, human beings have been in the position of algae in a fertilizer-rich lake. For us, the artificial energy infusion has been in the form of an incredibly concentrated and easily acquired energy source: hydrocarbon fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas). In the 19th century, the key fuel was coal. In the 20th, it was oil. During this period, humanity has experienced a giddy population bloom like the algae's.

Hydrocarbon fuels are a one-time gift to humanity, however, and we're burning through them as fast as we can get them out of the ground. We in the industrialized nations — the US most of all — have been like a person who comes into a huge inheritance and proceeds to spend it as quickly as possible. The time comes when the inheritance runs out and one is forced to go back to living on what one can earn.

Most people, I think, attribute the "success" of the human population during the last two centuries to advances in technology, medicine, and knowledge generally. Of course, these have been contributing factors (to a large extent enabled by the energy surplus), but the most important factor has been the sudden infusion of an enormous supply of cheap, portable energy. Without this energy, or an equivalent substitute, the human population simply cannot be sustained at current levels.

Am I exaggerating energy's importance? Think of a modern city, with people stacked in high-rise buildings whose windows don't even open, utterly dependent on modern transportation/distribution systems to bring them the food they no longer grow or gather. Imagine New York City, or London, or Mexico City, or Los Angeles or any other modern metropolis if someone pulled the plug. Every so often we get a tiny glimpse of what this would mean when there's a blackout, but that only scratches the surface. Imagine that not only is electricity gone, but also gasoline, heating oil, natural gas, coal — and permanently.

The next time you're watching a film that has an aerial shot of a large city, especially one taken at night, think about the enormous flow of energy through that system — and the system's utter dependence on that energy flow. If you live in a large city, just look out your window. And then reflect on the fact that the majority of the world's people now live in cities and towns.

Moreover, the importance of hydrocarbons goes far beyond just their use as a source of energy. They are the raw material from which plastics and synthetic materials of all kinds are made, as well as pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. The last thing we should be doing is setting fire to them.

I'll have more to say about the specifics of our usage of and dependence on hydrocarbons — and the possibilities, if any, for a successor energy source to replace hydrocarbons — in future posts.

For now, I just want to leave you with the mental image of the algae bloom. Pump fertilizers into the algae's environment, and the algae undergo a giddy period of explosive growth, culminating in their turning what had been a stable, balanced equilibrium into a green goo. That's what living organisms do. Give them a source of surplus energy and they gobble it up and reproduce like crazy. It's the path of least resistance.

Pump hydrocarbons into the human environment and the same thing happens. We've spent the last two centuries creating our equivalent of the green goo. And the hydrocarbons are about to start running out.

Posted by Jonathan at 01:10 AM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

August 24, 2004

Exponential Growth Cannot Last Energy  Environment  Essays  Musings  Peak Oil

[This is the first article in a series on the fundamentals of Peak Oil. I'd like to start with some important ideas of a general nature. We’ll get to the specifics of oil soon enough.] [Next]

I’ve written about exponential growth before, but the concept is so essential to understanding the future that awaits us that I want to revisit it.

To say something grows exponentially is to say it grows at a constant percentage rate — for example, 3% per year. Anything that grows in this way doubles at a constant rate. You can estimate how long it takes to double by dividing the percentage growth rate into 72. So, for example, something that grows at a rate of 3% per year doubles every 24 years (72/3 = 24).

So, you can think of exponential growth as growth by doubling at a constant rate.

Doubling is an extraordinarily powerful process. Some examples (from M. King Hubbert):

1. If you start with a single pair, say Adam and Eve, in just 32 doublings you’d have a population greater than the total population of Earth today. Just 14 doublings later you’d have one person per square yard over the entire land surface of the planet.

2. If someone gives you a single grain of wheat for the first square of a chessboard, 2 for the second, 4 for the third, doubling at each square, by the time you finish the 64 squares of the chessboard you’d have more than a thousand times the total annual wheat production of Earth.

3. If you play the chessboard game with automobiles instead of wheat, by the time you finish the 64 squares you’d have so many automobiles that if you stacked them uniformly over the entire land surface of the earth, you’d have a layer 1,200 miles deep. (Think of that the next time some economist says world GNP can grow at 3% per year forever.)

What these examples show is that doubling (or exponential growth) is such a powerful process, that it takes only tens of “generations” of doubling — not hundreds, or thousands, or millions — to completely exhaust the physical environment of the planet. Put another way, in the physical world (as opposed to an idealized mathematical world) exponential growth cannot last for long.

When any living species is placed in a favorable environment — meaning an environment that doesn’t limit growth because of the lack of some necessity (e.g. food), the presence of a predator, or for some other reason — its population grows exponentially. In Nature, over the long run, limitations in their environments prevent species from multiplying exponentially. Otherwise, the world would long ago have been engulfed.

Why is all this important?

Early in a doubling sequence, the numbers grow slowly. Likewise, until recently in human history, human population grew slowly. Use of energy and material resources by humans also grew slowly, and the resources used were entirely of the renewable variety, except for tiny amounts of coal and metals. Everything else (food, energy, shelter, clothing, etc.) came from animals and plants (renewable), plus a small amount of energy from wind and water (renewable). If humans had continued to rely on renewable resources, that fact would have put a ceiling on population size.

Starting about two centuries ago, however, a revolution occurred in human life: people starting using non-renewable resources — hydrocarbon fuels and a variety of minerals — in a big way. This use of non-renewables removed the constraints on human population and activity, and exponential growth really kicked in. Not only has population grown exponentially, but human use of coal, oil, gas, iron, copper, tin, lead, zinc, etc. have grown exponentially as well, as has human damage to the environment. It’s the use of non-renewables — hydrocarbon fuels, especially — that has made this growth possible.

But, inevitably, we’re going to hit the wall, and sooner than we think. Even if we had infinite resources to draw on, exponential growth would soon fill up a finite environment, as we've seen. But that hardly matters, since we do not have infinite resources to draw on. Non-renewables are a one-time gift to humanity. They are finite. We’re burning through them at an exponential pace, and when they’re gone they’re gone forever.

Now, one of the really startling characteristics of growth by doubling is the following fact: if you consider the sequence of doubled numbers — 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc. — each number in the sequence is greater (by one) than the sum of all the numbers that precede it.

Why do I call this startling? Consider oil. World oil consumption is now growing at a rate that will double it every 15-20 years. This means, as long as exponential growth continues, in the next 15-20 years the world will consume more oil than was used in all of human history up to this point. More than in the entire 19th and 20th centuries combined — in just 15-20 years — assuming exponential growth continues. I don't know about you, but I find that startling.

I want to finish with a riddle I posed in the earlier post on exponential growth. I repeat it here because I’d really like this riddle to stay with you. If it does, you’ll understand exponential growth better than 99.9% of your fellow citizens.

Suppose you put a small amount of bacteria in a Petri dish. Suppose further that the bacteria population grows exponentially (i.e., by doubling) at a pace that causes it to double each hour. Suppose finally that it takes 100 hours for the bacteria to completely fill the dish, thereby exhausting their supply of nutrients. (It's a large Petri dish.)

Question: When is the dish half full?

After 50 hours (half of 100)?

No. Because the population doubles each hour (including the final hour), the dish is half full just one hour before it’s full. For the first 99 hours the bacteria have got it made. Then wham!

To make this more vivid and memorable, imagine the following as an animated cartoon. For the first 99 hours the bacteria are just partying and congratulating themselves on how smart and successful they are. It’s party hats and noisemakers, Conga lines and champagne, the bacterial Dow Jones going through the roof. Woo hoo! No limits! After 99 hours, some of the bacteria start to worry, but the rest party on — after all, the dish is only half full. Plenty of room left, plenty of nutrients. The first half lasted 99 hours, and there's another whole half to go! Sure, somebody’s gonna have to figure something out eventually, but meanwhile life is good, and nonstop growth will only make it better! An hour later — the world ends.

When growth is exponential, limits are sudden.

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August 19, 2004

Blogging At The End Of The World Environment  Essays

We live in a world of instant news coverage. Each day, fresh news stories are delivered to our newspapers, televisions, and browsers. Stories without a current news "hook" hardly get covered at all.

Unfortunately, the truly momentous stories about forces and trends that'll have a profound impact on human beings for generations to come tend to be stories that unfold only gradually, and it's rare that some news event brings one of them to the foreground. Even when that happens, the story shows up as just one story out of many and then quickly disappears.

On May 15, 2003, as Richard Heinberg recalls in his new book Power Down, newspapers worldwide covered a study that had just been published in the science journal Nature. The study, "Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities," concluded that "the global ocean has lost more than 90 percent of large predatory fishes," mostly because of commercial fishing. As Heinberg elaborates:

In many species, when populations are reduced beyond a certain point, recovery becomes impossible. Many fish species appear to be beyond, at, or close to that point of no return. With this news story, the world human community was effectively put on notice that the oceans may be dying.

In other words, humans may be on the brink of losing forever one of their most important sources of animal protein. Even if fish weren't food, it's utterly horrifying to contemplate a world where humans have permanently erased fish from the sea and must forever afterward live with the guilty knowledge of that fact. By any standard, that would be a story of earth-shattering importance with few parallels in human history, but it was only because of the "news event" of the journal article's publication that the possibility was covered at all.

That same day, newspapers carried a number of other headlines, touching on subjects ranging from Argentinean politics to the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine. In the days that followed, the political stories continued (alongside the usual celebrity scandal nonsense), while the story of the oceans' dying disappeared. Without some "hook" — like the publication of a new bombshell journal article — the ocean story wasn't "news".

Months later (on October 19), the ocean made a brief reappearance in the news when The Independent reported that due to global warming "the North Sea is undergoing 'ecological meltdown'". Heinberg again:

Scientists say that they are witnessing "a collapse of the system," with devastating implications for fisheries and wildlife. Record sea temperatures are killing off the plankton on which all life in the sea depends, because they underpin the entire marine food chain. Fish stocks and sea bird populations have slumped.

That day, the big news in the UK was that the Pope had beatified Mother Teresa and Tony Blair was back at work after experiencing an irregular heartbeat. And again, after the one article, the ocean disappeared from the news.

Since I started this blog a couple of months ago, it's bothered me that a similar process has been playing out here as well. I'll post an essay that isn't tied to any current news story but that has, I think, deeper, longer-term significance — an essay (like this one, for example) that I really hope people will read. But then I'll follow it with a dozen "news-y" posts about Bush or Iraq or other timely topics, and before I know it the essay with the greater long-term importance has scrolled down so far that probably only a handful of people will read it, and fewer still will remember it for very long.

It's a dilemma.

Researching and writing a thoughtful essay on a topic of more than passing importance takes a lot of time and work. One wants to get it right. Quoting and commenting on Bush's latest folly is comparatively quick and easy — and there's no shortage of follies to choose from. And besides, it's hard not to feel a sense of urgency regarding Iraq and the gathering Fascism here at home. So the longer-term, slower-developing stories get pushed to the background.

And then there's the problem that blogs by their nature tend to favor short, standalone posts. The ideal way to treat a topic like peak oil, say, would be to develop it in a long series of posts that build on one another. But blog readers come and go, and there's no guarantee that the reader of one post will have read the earlier posts that laid the foundation of the argument. Still, I think that's the only way to break out of the cycle of simply noting and commenting more or less superficially on the immediate news of the day. So, I'm going to try mixing in more series-oriented posts, and we'll see how it goes. Your feedback would be most welcome.

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July 28, 2004

Satyagraha Activism  Essays  Musings

Reading, in Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World, a wonderful chapter on Gandhi's militant nonviolence — satygraha, often translated as "soul force", but meaning also "being steadfast in the truth" — I've learned some surprising and inspiring new truths about Gandhi's principles that I'd like to share with you.

Gandhi chose nonviolence as a tactic and as a way of life not out of any passivity or meekness. He was as fierce an activist as any who who has ever lived. "Non-cooperation is not a passive state," Gandhi said, "it is an intensely active state — more active than physical resistance or violence." As Schell says, "Satyagraha was soul force, equally it was soul force."

In fact, says Schell:

Asked to choose between violence and passivity, Gandhi always chose violence. "It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our breasts," he said, "than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence. Violence is any day prefereable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent." "Activist" is a word that fits Gandhi through and through. "I am not built for academic writings," he said. "Action is my domain." Indeed, if he was a genius in any field, that field was action. "Never has anything been done on this earth without direct action."

He chose nonviolence not just because it's a morally superior path, but because it works, because is the most powerful — albeit the most difficult — way of effecting real change — and it is the most powerful because it is morally superior. Gandhi said, "Nonviolence is without exception superior to violence, i.e., the power at the disposal of a nonviolent person is always greater than he would have if he was violent." And, "The practice of ahimsa [doing no harm] calls forth the greatest courage. It is the most soldierly of a soldier's virtues.... He is the true soldier who knows how to die and stand his ground in the midst of a hail of bullets."

Gandhi knew that the people of India were no match for modern British armaments in a violent revolution. But he also knew, with absolute, steadfast certainty, that British rule would end if Indians withheld their cooperation.

His understanding of this principle — that rulers can rule only so long as the people consent to be ruled — went very deep indeed. To Gandhi, because rulers rule by the consent of the people, the people are responsible for the rulers they get.

"The English have not taken India," he wrote, "we have given it to them."

Later, he said this:

It is because the rulers, if they are bad, are so not necessarily or wholly by reason of birth, but largely because of their environment, that I have hopes of their altering their course. It is perfectly true...that the rulers cannot alter their course themselves. If they are dominated by their environment, they do not surely deserve to be killed, but should be changed by a change of environment. But the environment are we — the people who make the rulers what they are. They are thus an exaggerated edition of what we are in the aggregate. If my argument is sound, any violence done to the rulers would be violence done to ourselves. It would be suicide. And since I do not want to commit suicide, nor encourage my neighbors to do so, I become nonviolent myself and invite my neighbors to do likewise.

Schell continues as follows:

Liberal-minded people have often held that society's victims are corrupted by a bad "environment" created by their privileged masters. Gandhi was surely the first to suggest that the victims were creating a bad moral environment for their masters — and to preach reform to the victims. Even allowing for a certain raillery and sardonicism in these passaqes, there can be no doubt that Gandhi is in earnest. Here we touch bedrock in Gandhi's political thinking. All government, he steadily believed, depends for its existence on the cooperation of the governed. If that cooperation is withdrawn, the government will be helpless.

Reading this, it struck me for the first time that "The Emperor's New Clothes" is a profoundly subversive political fable.

Even more, it struck me what a powerfully and profoundly mature person Gandhi was. How extraordinary — and how challenging — to take responsibility for one's leaders. To take responsibility for one's oppressors. To take onto oneself so profoundly the truth that one must begin with changing oneself, and that by changing oneself one finds the true path of change. Not in some vague, mystical way — Gandhi was nothing if not concrete, specific, and fiercely activist. Gandhi would have us take responsibility for ourselves first — but never to stop there. He would have us go forth and help others — by example, word, or deed — find that there is another way. And going forth is part of what changes us. Not acting is another form of consent, and that consent must be withdrawn.

Posted by Jonathan at 09:27 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

July 18, 2004

Is the Iraq War About Oil? Essays  Iraq  Peak Oil  Politics  War and Peace

Is the Iraq war about oil?

A number of commentators ridicule the very idea. They claim it doesn’t matter who controls Iraq’s oil, since in any case the US will have access to it as it comes on the world market. I.e., we can simply buy what we need.

This analysis completely misses the point. It’s not just a question of ensuring our cars have gas. It’s also a question of control, geopolitically and economically. (Note that this isn’t an either-or question — i.e., saying it’s about oil doesn't mean there can't also be other motives, but if Iraq had no oil and was located in an oil-poor part of the world, does anyone really think the US would have taken an interest?)

James Akins, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (and my favorite diplomat, because he seems to always speak his mind) says:

It has everything to do with oil. If we control Iraqi oil and we continue more or less to control Saudi oil then whatever Europe or the rest of the world wants in the field of energy is going to be essentially irrelevant because we will be OPEC, we will be the new OPEC. [My emphasis]

Of course, it doesn’t hurt if American oil companies (and oil infrastructure companies like Halliburton), rather than French, Russian, or Chinese companies, pocket the profits. Critics say it’s naïve to think the US would go to war just because it benefits certain US corporations. (Lots of people criticize Fahrenheit 9/11 on that basis.) But no one is saying that it’s just because of profits that we’ve gone to war — rather, it’s a contributing factor. I.e., one shouldn't ignore the domestic political influence of the energy sector, especially vis-à-vis the Bush administration.

Moreover, Saddam Hussein, during the 1990’s, signed oil exploration deals with France, Russia, and China. If UN inspections had been allowed to run their course and the UN had certified Iraq as WMD-free and lifted the sanctions with Saddam still in power, those contracts would have cut US firms out of the action. Instead, those contracts are now null and void, and UN Security Council Resolution 1483 (March 2003) has put the US and UK back in control.

It’s also a question of mindset. The Bush White House is populated with former oilmen (and women). They naturally see the world through an oil lens. It’s my guess that people like Dick Cheney are acutely aware that world oil production may be peaking, which would mean that we’re entering a time of permanent and accelerating decline in the supply of oil available on the world market. Supply declining while demand continues to increase rapidly — especially with China and India coming online — is a recipe for chronic shortages, sharply (and permanently) rising prices, and an increasingly desperate competition among nations for whatever oil is available.

This is the phenomenon referred to as peak oil. I’ll write about it at length in future posts. For now, let me just say that I think it likely that the administration knows that peak oil is inevitable and indeed may be just over the horizon, and I think it’s that realization, in part, that explains why the administration has been so anxious to use 9/11 to sell the country on invading and occupying Iraq. Dick Cheney has said, "The American way of life is not negotiable." In a peak oil world, that’s a very dangerous attitude to have.

Peak oil is one aspect of the story that has been under-appreciated and under-reported. There is another aspect, possibly equally important: namely, the critical importance to the US of ensuring that the US dollar remains the world’s reserve currency and the currency used world-wide for international oil sales. I.e., it’s not just about oil itself, it’s about making sure that oil continues to be paid for with dollars, not euros.

Keeping the dollar the universal petro-currency has been a recurring thread of US foreign policy since at least the early 1970’s. One of Saddam's sins was that he had, less than a year before 9/11, converted Iraq’s dollar reserves into euros and started selling Iraqi oil for euros instead of dollars. Several other OPEC nations, including Iran and Venezuela, seemed poised to follow suit. I’ll have more to say about the dollar vs. euro story in future posts.

For now, the point is that the US invasion/occupation of Iraq is very much about oil, but in deeper and more complex ways than are usually reported.

Posted by Jonathan at 12:49 AM | Comments (2) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

July 09, 2004

What Good is a Large Brain? Essays  Science/Technology

Human beings have large brains. Why? Presumably, because intelligence confers an evolutionary advantage. But then why hasn’t evolution endowed other species with larger brains? Wouldn’t a smart chicken beat a dumb chicken in the race for survival?

As with so many other questions in biology, the key consideration is energy. As Richard Manning says in his book Against the Grain, on which the following discussion is based:

A brain, energy-wise, is an enormously costly organ. That is, pound for pound, it takes far more energy to keep it running than any other organ. It accounts for about 3 percent of our body’s mass, yet close to 20 percent of our energy needs. The [evolutionary] quantum leap in [human] brain size brought with it a stiff increase in the individual’s need for calories. Thus, if that bigger brain did not bring with it at least a proportional leap in our ability to feed it, there would be no net gain, and it would not confer fitness, would not survive evolution’s merciless test.

Several factors made big brains a worthwhile investment for human beings. Pre-human primates were already highly mobile, highly social creatures with versatile hands and were therefore uniquely capable of putting added intelligence to good use. A genius chicken would be hard-pressed to take real advantage of its extra intelligence; primates were all set to take the leap. As Manning says:

The sudden leap in brain technology [put] a bigger, flashier engine in a chassis that was already engineered to handle it. We know this because our closest relatives that didn’t get this big brain are still fairly impressive animals, relying on a set of skills that would dovetail nicely with souped-up intelligence.

What particular benefit did intelligence confer on early humans? This is where it gets interesting. Says Manning, they became generalists, developing a strategy of feeding on an enormous variety of plants and animals. This, in turn, allowed humans to flourish in almost any kind of environment and to adapt to change, culminating in the spread of humanity over the entire surface of the earth.

Koala bears feed on eucalyptus leaves and little else. If eucalyptus trees die off in a region, the koalas die off as well. Hunter-gatherer humans, in contrast, typically eat a wide variety of foods. Indeed, when the well-preserved body of an early iron-age hunter-gatherer was unearthed in Denmark, his stomach was found to contain the remnants of sixty species of plants. And that’s just what he had eaten in his last day or two, at that particular season of the year!

(By the way, koalas too were generalists long ago. At some point, though, they switched to their current strategy of relying on a single food source. What happened? Their once big brains, no longer needed, shrank. Today, koalas are dumb as a post, with “a tiny brain rattling around in a large brainpan.” The large brain was no longer needed, so evolution quickly down-sized it to eliminate the extra energy cost. The brainpan has a lower energy cost, so its down-sizing has proceeded more slowly.)

Now, imagine what it would take to acquire the incredibly detailed knowledge of one’s environment and the requisite sensory mastery to be able to locate and consume as many as sixty species of plants in the wilderness, in a single day or two. You would have to know which plants are edible and which plants — or parts of plants — are poisonous, or are poisonous only in certain seasons, or aren't poisonous but look almost exactly like other plants that are. Add the corresponding knowledge required to hunt a variety of animals and avoid predators. Then factor in the need to constantly adapt to changing or new environments, and to pass all this knowledge and skill along from generation to generation. All of this requires exquisitely tuned senses, and lots of brain power.

How much brain power? Manning offers a telling anecdote. His friend, the anthropologist Richard Nelson, lived for a number of years among the Koyukon people of the Yukon River basin. When he left the Yukon, Nelson settled on an island off of southeast Alaska, a very different environment from the one he had left. After several years, he invited a couple of his Koyukon friends to visit him. As Manning explains, this was “a big deal for them, in that they had never been outside their familiar surroundings.” The story continues:

Nelson, of course, was curious as to how they would respond, but not quite prepared for the way this reunion with old friends worked out. It was silent. As with all reunions among friends, there was catching up to do, greetings to be made, stories to tell — but none of this happened, at least not right away. His friends simply lapsed into silence. They were so wrapped up in observing everything around them that there was no part of their brains left for speech. This went on for days. When finally they did speak, they revealed to Nelson all sorts of details about his closely observed island that he himself had never noticed.

You and I, never having learned to observe our environment in this way, have no real idea of the enormous sensitivity, concentration, and sensory acuteness human beings are capable of when they depend solely on their wits and their powers of observation to survive in an untamed wilderness. What separated us from that world was the invention of agriculture, an invention that Manning says robbed us of much. That’s the main topic of his book, but it will have to wait for future posts.

Posted by Jonathan at 12:12 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

July 08, 2004

The Desert of the Real Essays  Musings

Slavoj Zizek starts his book Welcome to the Desert of the Real with the following passage:

In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: "Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it’s true; if it’s written in red ink, it’s false." After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: "Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair – the only thing you can’t get is red ink."

A wonderful joke, on a number of levels. It’s a witty riff on classic self-referential paradoxes like the Liar’s Paradox. And it’s a parable on the plight of the ostensibly free person in a modern, media-drenched society.

Attempt to express a non-mainstream opinion in such a setting (especially via a short sound bite — or blog post), and you find yourself in the position of the letter writer. The shared conceptual vocabulary of mainstream discourse (‘war on terror’, ‘democracy’, ‘free trade’) is our collective blue ink. You’re ‘free’ to write what you like — but in blue ink, which necessarily limits and distorts the message. Sometimes, the best one can do is to do what the letter writer did — signal the unavailability of the needed red ink and hope readers or listeners work out the implications for themselves.

All of which is reminiscent of The Matrix, where instead of blue and red ink there are the blue pill and red pill that Morpheus offers to Neo. Take the blue pill and continue on in blissful ignorance of the ocean of assumptions that engulf you; take the red pill and step out onto dry land. When Neo chooses the red pill, Morpheus congratulates him, saying:

Welcome to the desert of the real.

That’s our struggle, politically, emotionally, spiritually — to find our way out of the matrix of our unexamined assumptions, prejudices, and illusions, to arrive at last at the desert of the real. And to help each other get there. Freedom is impossible without truth.

Posted by Jonathan at 06:37 PM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

July 01, 2004

Energy Slaves Energy  Essays

A few facts from The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg: The average sustained power output of a human being is about one-twentieth of a horsepower. We can use that fact to convert common energy applications into human terms. For example, to keep a single 150-watt light bulb burning would require the continuous work of five people. A car generating 200 horsepower is equivalent to the power output of 4000 people.

Now, if you add up all the power we middle-class Americans use, on average, to light and heat our homes, transport us, etc. and convert it to the human energy equivalent, it's as if each of us has 50 "energy slaves" working for us 24/7/365. That is an unimaginable opulence by the standards of all the humans who came before us, except perhaps a few pharoahs and kings.

Most of that energy opulence comes from fossil fuels, but fossil fuels won't last forever. Oil, in particular, will be exhausted within decades — i.e., within the lifetimes of my children — and will be subject to shortages much sooner than that. Fossil fuels are a one-time gift to humanity, and when they're gone, they're gone forever.

We must rein in our extraordinarily wasteful energy habits, and we must do it now. Toward that end, it may be useful to make a practice of visualizing the "energy slaves" that provide the energy we use.

If I leave a lamp burning on my desk when I leave the room, I should imagine five slaves on treadmills, condemned to generating the energy I'm not even bothering to use. It's time to give 'em a rest.

Posted by Jonathan at 09:28 AM | Comments (0) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

June 14, 2004

Follow the Carbon Energy  Environment  Essays  Science/Technology

Last week, a trucker called in to Al Franken’s Air America Radio show. He said most of his fellow truckers ridicule the idea that greenhouse gas exhaust from internal combustion engines is a problem. Their “reason”: human beings and other living things supposedly emit far more carbon dioxide than engines do. The caller wanted someone to explain how to debunk this claim. For the next half hour or so, various people, including at least one environmental engineer, called in to explain that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by a person is far less than that emitted by a truck.

True enough, but totally beside the point. If we look at this question more closely, we can learn something very important about how our Earth works. We need to follow the carbon.

The amount of carbon on earth is constant. Carbon atoms are neither created nor destroyed; they’re just recycled endlessly in what is known as the carbon cycle. In simplified form, this is what happens: Green plants take carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) out of the air and combine it with water (using energy from sunlight) to create sugar and oxygen. Animals eat plants or other animals and do the reverse: they combine sugar and oxygen (that’s why we can’t live without oxygen) to create carbon dioxide and water, releasing the energy the plants got from sunlight. This cycle repeats endlessly. It seems like a perpetual motion machine, but it isn’t; what makes it work is the constant input of energy that plants receive from the sun.

Animals do release carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) back into the air when they exhale. The key point, though, is that the carbon that animals release into the air is carbon that plants earlier removed from the air. There is no net increase in the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide. When we exhale, we’re not doing anything to increase global warming - not because the amount we exhale is negligible but because we're part of a balanced cycle.

That’s the simplest expression of the carbon cycle. There are a couple of wrinkles, though. Some carbon is “stored” in forms that get recycled only very slowly. Limestone, for example. From a global warming perspective, the key forms of carbon storage are 1) the trees and other plants of the Earth’s great forests and 2) fossil fuels: oil, gas, and coal. When humans cut and burn the great forests, and when they dig up and burn fossil fuels, they are causing a net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. They're taking carbon that was stored long ago – millions of years ago in the case of fossil fuels – and putting it back into the atmosphere. It is a qualitatively different act from breathing in and breathing out.

Now think about this: Fossil fuels were created from organic matter that was deposited during brief periods of intense global warming in the geologic past. Back then, carbon, in the form of hydrocarbons, was buried in the earth, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was thereby reduced, and global warming subsided. What are we doing when we dig up and burn every last bit of fossil fuel we can get our hands on? Remember: it’s the same carbon that existed back then. Carbon atoms are neither created nor destroyed. We’re just locating all the carbon that once caused global warming, digging it up, and putting it back into the atmosphere. In other words, we’re recreating the conditions the caused global warming in the distant past.

Still, an awful lot of people want to convince themselves that somehow the outcome will be different this time around.

Posted by Jonathan at 08:56 PM | Comments (1) | Link to this  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

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