Monday, July 28, 2014

Apocalypse Almost?

This story is fascinating. One of the more obscure risks to civilization is a massive solar “Carrington Event,” This is a solar flare (coronal mass ejection) that hits the earth’s magnetosphere and causes all electronic equipment to malfunction. One of these hit the earth in 1859, before the entire world was electrified. It caused significant disruption, but as we learned earlier, progress did not really begin until 1870.
On September 1–2, 1859, the largest recorded geomagnetic storm occurred. Aurorae were seen around the world, those in the northern hemisphere even as far south as the Caribbean; those over the Rocky Mountains were so bright that their glow awoke gold miners, who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning.People who happened to be awake in the northeastern US could read a newspaper by the aurora's light.The aurora was visible as far from the poles as Cuba and Hawaii. 
Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed, in some cases giving telegraph operators electric shocks. Telegraph pylons threw sparks. Some telegraph systems continued to send and receive messages despite having been disconnected from their power supplies.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_storm_of_1859

Ever since people have wondered what if one of these happened today rather than 1859, with our hyper-connected globalized world and our utter reliance on technology. It sort of hangs over modern technological civilization like the proverbial sword of Damocles. Everything from our entire economy to our water and food production is dependent upon just in time electronics.

Well, apparently, there was a very close near-miss that would have been TEOTWAWKI a couple of years ago:
The date of 23 July 2012 could have been the day the lights went out, along with suddenly not-so-smart phones, computers, satellite transmissions, GPS navigation systems, televisions, radio broadcasts, hospital equipment, electric pumps and water supplies. 
On that day an "extreme solar storm" did its best to end life on Earth as we know it. The sun forced out one of the biggest plasma clouds ever detected at a speed of 3,000km per second, more than four times faster than a typical solar eruption. Fortunately it missed. 
"If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces," said Daniel Baker, of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado. "I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did. If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire." 
With colleagues from Nasa and other universities, Baker has been studying the disaster that wasn't. If the coronal mass ejection (CME) had hit the Earth, it would have disabled "everything that plugs into a wall socket". 
There would have been major disruption to all satellite communications and electrical fluctuations that could have blown out transformers in power grids. Most people wouldn't have been able to turn on a tap or flush a toilet because urban water supplies largely rely on electricity. 
Nasa has calculated that the cost would have been 20 times the devastation caused by hurricane Katrina, at $2tn.
'Extreme solar storm' could have pulled the plug on Earth (Guardian)

I find the date particularly fascinating. As you may recall, certain people were expecting the world to end on June 20, 2012. This event was only about a month later! And, according to NASA, if it had happened just one week earlier, earth would have been in the line of fire and hit with a blast even more severe than the Carrington event.

Was this what the Mayans were predicting? Given the scale of time, one could be forgiven for being less than a month off. Did they somehow see this coming and try to warn us, and we just got lucky? I imagine if this had happened, that prophecy would have loomed large, instead of being consigned to the dustbin of history. The Mayan paranoiacs could have claimed vindication. Even though June 20, 2012, went down in history as Nothing Happened Day, we now know how close we were to chaos.

Just as scary is the fact that there is a twelve percent chance of this occurring again in the next ten years. So what are we doing? Well, everything in our power to become even more reliant on electronics, thanks to the "Internet of Things," and the smart-everything stuff that Corporate America and Silicon Valley are flogging in their never-ending quest for novelty to shore up profits. So in ten years, when the Internet of Things has been fully deployed, we can look forward to not being able to drive our cars, get into our house, or even open our refrigerator in addition to having our bank accounts wiped and our phones disabled.
CWG’s Steve Tracton put it this way in his frightening overview of the risks of a severe solar storm: “The consequences could be devastating for commerce, transportation, agriculture and food stocks, fuel and water supplies, human health and medical facilities, national security, and daily life in general.” 
Solar physicists compare the 2012 storm to the so-called Carrington solar storm of September 1859, named after English astronomer Richard Carrington who documented the event.

“In my view the July 2012 storm was in all respects at least as strong as the 1859 Carrington event,” Baker tells NASA. “The only difference is, it missed.” 
NASA says the July 2012 storm was particularly intense because a CME had traveled along the same path just days before the July 23 double whammy – clearing the way for maximum effect, like a snowplow. 
“This double-CME traveled through a region of space that had been cleared out by yet another CME four days earlier,” NASA says. ” As a result, the storm clouds were not decelerated as much as usual by their transit through the interplanetary medium.”
NASA’s online article about the science of this solar storm is well-worth the read. 
 Perhaps the scariest finding reported in the article is this:  There is a 12 percent chance of a Carrington-type event on Earth in the next 10 years according to Pete Riley of Predictive Science Inc. 
“Initially, I was quite surprised that the odds were so high, but the statistics appear to be correct,” Riley tells NASA.  “It is a sobering figure.”
How a solar storm two years ago nearly caused a catastrophe on Earth (Washington Post)

What If the Biggest Solar Storm on Record Happened Today? (National Geographic)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Political Dimension of Breakdown

This article claims that scientists have discovered an energy-efficient way to make biofuels. This brings up an often-overlooked point that there is nothing we can do under our current techno-industrial regime that requires fossil fuels. Anything we can do currently with fossil fuels we can theoretically do without them – power cars, generate electricity, make plastics, and so forth. There are substitutes – for example, ethanol and biodiesel in place of gas, corn for plastics, solar panels for electricity, and the like. We simply cannot do them on the scale we do now, because we would be limited by the earth’s solar budget. Fossil fuels were essentially “free” energy in so far as the EROI was so high because the sunlight that had created them occurred over the course of millions of years a long time ago. But to say that the techno-industrial system will cease to function with decreasing quality fossil fuels or net energy is simply not correct. It will simply decrease in scale. But that’s a different problem.

That’s also why the price issue never made sense to me. The argument is that the lower EROI of unconventional oil will cause the price of fuel to rise and the industrial economy to crash. So oil gets more expensive. So? Lots of things get more expensive, and the economy adapts. Oil was probably a lot cheaper fifty years ago than today. Well, we had an exploitative capitalist economy then, and we have one now. Nothing’s really changed. When something gets more expensive, it simply means that less people have access to it. Yes, the economy contracts, but so what? If it contracts slowly enough, no one will notice thanks to creeping normalcy.

Two recent stories about Detroit should illustrate this point. One is that thousands of people have been cut off from running water for delinquent bills. What has not been shut off, however, is water to the golf courses, businesses and sports fields, even though their bills are also delinquent:
Welcome to Detroit's water war – in which upward of 150,000 customers, late on bills that have increased 119 percent in the last decade, are now threatened with shut-offs. Local activists estimate this could impact nearly half of Detroit's mostly poor and black population – between 200,000 and 300,000 people.

"There are people who can't cook, can't clean, people coming off surgery who can't wash. This is an affront to human dignity," Charity said in an interview with Kate Levy. To make matters worse, children risk being taken by welfare authorities from any home without running water.

Denying water to thousands, as a sweltering summer approaches, might be bad enough in itself. But these shut-offs are no mere exercise in cost-recovery.

The official rationale for the water shut-downs – the Detroit Water Department's need to recoup millions – collapses on inspection. Detroit's high-end golf club, the Red Wing's hockey arena, the Ford football stadium, and more than half of the city's commercial and industrial users are also owing – a sum totalling $30 million. But no contractors have showed up on their doorstep.
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/true-north/2014/jun/25/detroits-water-war-a-tap-shut-off-that-could-impact-300000-people

Second, this story points out that while services and pensions are slashed for working people, billionaires are still enjoying taxpayer-funded subsidies:
As U.S. states and cities grapple with budget and pension shortfalls, many are betting big on an unproven formula: Slash public employee pension benefits and public services while diverting the savings into lucrative subsidies for professional sports teams.

Detroit on Monday made itself the most prominent example of this trend. Officials in the financially devastated city announced that current and future municipal retirees had blessed a plan that will slash their pension benefits. On the same day, the billionaire owners of the Detroit Red Wings, the Ilitch family, unveiled details of an already approved taxpayer-financed stadium for the professional hockey team.
http://www.ibtimes.com/detroit-other-cash-strapped-us-cities-states-slashing-pension-benefits-while-subsidizing-1635660

There’s some idea that things will fall apart for everyone. They won’t. Things will keep chugging along for the rich and powerful in their air-conditioned sports luxury boxes and their golf courses and their gated communities; it’s just the people on the outside who won’t have access to jobs, adequate shelter, health care, decent food, or running water. Industrial society, however, will keep chugging along, even with $200.00 a barrel oil, because the pain and suffering can just be pushed down to those lower on the socioeconomic totem pole. We’ve already seen this with jobs – the workforce participation rate is down to what it was in the late 1970’s and this is rationalized as “the new normal.” No doubt not having access to healthcare and running water will be also rationalized as “the new normal” at some point in the not-to-distant future. There are still plentiful high-paying jobs for those with the “right” skills, and those skills mainly consist of having the right parents or knowing (or sucking up to) the right people. And if you’re not on the inside, it will be rationalized as “your own fault.”

People overlook the political dimension of collapse. Too often peak oil was used as an excuse for doing nothing. “What’s the use when it will all collapse anyway?” the argument went. "The economy will collapse and we’ll all be even anyway," they thought. The slate will be wiped clean. The dollar will collapse and we’ll all be on an even footing once again trading with gold nuggets or something.

But the stories from Detroit show that even in a collapse situation, the elites will keep resources – water, oil, money, etc. – flowing to themselves even as they deprive them from the rest of us. Politics will appropriate the remaining resources, however scarce, and keep them flowing to the elites. Technology and industry may be deprived from us, but it will not be deprived from them, because there will always be some way to power industrial civilization within the earth’s solar budget for a certain ever-shrinking segment of the population. In that sense, collapse will never happen. For a certain segment of people, though, it has happened already. Just ask Detroit.

If we use collapse as some sort of excuse to not fight back politically, we will be left without, but rest assured, the elites will not. Not only will it not happen, but we will be as lambs to the slaughter.

BONUS: Who Bled Detroit Dry? (Vice):
The Water and Sewage Department has claimed some residents could pony up if they really wanted to but were simply mooching off the city. 

This was a view shared by the surly cabdriver who gave me a lift into town from the airport. The city is “going to shit” he said before making the sinking sound of a bomb landing with his lips. The citizens of Detroit are, by and large, slovenly idiots—the kind of people who keep going back to the convenient store for cans of beer instead of buying the whole six-pack, he explained. The cabby had lived in the city for 35 years after immigrating from Iraq, but, he told me, these days “Detroit is worse than Baghdad.”

And certain statistics back him up. Baghdad actually has both a lower unemployment rate and a lower murder rate than Detroit.

Globalism and Architecture

Once upon a time, the great architecture of the world was strictly local. Travelers seeking the wonders of London, Paris and Florence saw buildings designed by Londoners, Parisians and Florentines. Or at least the English, the French and the Italians. Though architects were not necessarily tied to one city — Raphael was born in Urbino but built in Florence and Rome — most stayed close to home. Take Bernini’s attempt to spread his wings: Louis XIV invited the artist and architect to finish the east front of the Louvre but eventually turned the work over to a Frenchman, finding Bernini’s facade to be too Italian. And so it was, and so was he. 
Today, European architects regularly work in the United States, Americans work in Europe and everybody works in Asia. This globalization of architecture would seem like a good thing for us, and it’s obviously good for (many) architects. If you are a city hoping to ping the world’s cultural radar, an institution looking to attract donors, or a condominium developer trying to lure deep-pocketed tenants, your architect better have a recognizable name. 
At minimum, imported talents just passing through town — however talented they may be — don’t intimately know the place they are working in. Sometimes it’s as simple as not understanding the climate. When New York-based Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed the IDS Center in Minneapolis, they included a glass-roofed atrium, which has on occasion been cordoned off during the winter because of leaks and glass breakage as fragments of ice fall from the adjacent tower. Gehry’s Stata Center at M.I.T. experienced similar problems. 
More to the point, a true sense of place is an abstract and rather elusive concept. Cities have their own patterns of building, influenced by the pace of life, the quality of light, historic traditions or simply the materials available. Buildings that acknowledge these patterns reinforce the sense of a particular place — they belong. Sparkly, effervescent Venetian Gothic belongs to La Serenissima, just as severe stone Georgian belongs to Edinburgh. And when we are in these cities, they make us feel that we belong, too. To invert Gertrude Stein, there is a there there.
The Franchising of Architecture (NYTimes)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Efficiency versus Resilience

Hmmm...has Mark Buchanan been reading my work?
This relentless pursuit of efficiency, though, has repercussions that humans are only beginning to understand. Researchers have found that typical honeybee colonies contain trace residues from more than 120 pesticides, which, in concert, can interfere with the bees’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to diseases. Bees also lack the nutrients they would normally get from flowering plants, which have been eradicated from huge expanses of single-crop fields. This may help explain why honeybee colonies, which can be crucial to improving crop yields, have been dying all over the world.

Fewer bees might also mean fewer birds. A recent study in the journal Nature, looking at insect-eating birds in the Netherlands, reported that their populations in the 1990s fell faster in places with more pesticide pollution. It's likely an effect of the depletion of the insects, bees included, on which the birds normally feed. Pesticides may reach further through food webs than we thought.

Sometimes the conflict between efficiency and its unintended effects borders on the absurd, as in the case of a plant called Palmer Amaranth. Also known as Pig Weed, it's an invasive “superweed” that threatens U.S. agriculture, especially the farming of soybean, corn and cotton. Amaranth grows fast and has developed resistance to glyphosate-based herbicides, including Monsanto's famous product Roundup, the most important herbicide in global agriculture.

Palmer Amaranth is resistant to Roundup in large part because we've been subjecting it to Roundup. Now it is costing U.S. farmers millions of dollars every year. The deeper irony is that the weed is edible and was once widely cultivated by Native Americans across North America. It's extremely nutritious, containing more protein than common grains such as corn, wheat, and rice, and is several times richer in calcium, iron and vitamin E.

In other words, the U.S. agricultural industry is killing off a valuable food source in its efforts to produce more raw material for the fast foods and sodas behind the country's problems with obesity. The myopic focus on certain crops means that many farmers and businesses see no option but to use increasingly powerful and more toxic chemicals, even though this will only further increase weed resistance.
Ecological disasters often have their roots in ordinary human attempts to solve problems. Absolutely no one, I'm sure, wants to see marine life or bees or birds disappear, but -- and it's a topic I've touched on before -- we do have a limited ability to imagine or foresee how different facets of our world may depend on or influence one another. I doubt we’ll ever learn how to solve one problem without creating another. So we need a different approach, demoting efficiency as the only goal and instead pursuing greater flexibility...
The Downside of Efficiency (Bloomberg) For more on Palmer Amaranth, see This weed is taking over the planet. On the upside, it’s delicious (Grist)
Palmer amaranth: It’s a fast-growing, tractor-busting, herbicide-defying weed. When you read about it in the news these days it sounds like the epitome of evil. But when I first heard of it, I did a double take because amaranth is also a food grain used historically throughout the Americas, by the Hopi in the north all the way down to the Inca in the south. Back in 1977, an article in Science called amaranth “the crop of the future.” These days, you can find it on health-store shelves in breads and bars and cereals.

OK, so those are different species of amaranth. But not so different. People can eat both the leaves and the seeds of palmer amaranth, which is commonly known as pigweed. They are highly nutritious! They are gluten free! Surely with a little breeding and refinement we could beef up the size of those seeds, and harness that weedy vigor. It would be a sort of culinary ju-jitsu: Instead of fighting the weeds, overhaul our diets completely and nurture them. If you want superfood, start with a superweed.

Umair Haique on Bullshit

David Graeber talked about bullshit jobs. But bullshit jobs are just a side effect of the bullshit machine. And it's starting to bore Umair Haique (and perhaps you too?):
I’m bored, in short, of what I’d call a cycle of perpetual bullshit. A bullshit machine. 
The bullshit machine turns life into waste. The bullshit machine looks something like this. Narcissism about who you are leads to cynicism about who you could be leads to mediocrity in what you do…leads to narcissism about who you are. Narcissism leads to cynicism leads to mediocrity…leads to narcissism. The bullshit machine is the work we do only to live lives we don’t want, need, love, or deserve. 
Everything’s work now. Relationships; hobbies; exercise. Even love. Gruelling; tedious; unrelenting; formulaic; passionless; calculated; repetitive; predictable; analysed; mined; timed; performed. 
Work is bullshit. You know it, I know it; mankind has always known it. Sure; you have to work at what you want to accomplish. But that’s not the point. It is the flash of genius; the glimmer of intuition; the afterglow of achievement; the savoring of experience; the incandescence of meaning; all these make life worthwhile, pregnant, impossible, aching with purpose. These are the ends. Work is merely the means. 
Our lives are confused like that. They are means without ends; model homes; acts which we perform, but do not fully experience. 
Remember when I mentioned puritanical Calvinism? The idea that being bored is itself a sign of a lack of virtue—and that is, itself, the most boring idea in the world? 
That’s the battery that powers the bullshit machine. We’re not allowed to admit it: that we’re bored. We’ve always got to be doing something. Always always always. Tapping, clicking, meeting, partying, exercising, networking, “friending”. Work hard, play hard, live hard. Improve. Gain. Benefit. Realize...

[...] 
Tap tap tap. And yet. We are barely there, at all; in our own lives; in the moments which we will one day look back on and ask ourselves…what were we thinking wasting our lives on things that didn’t matter at all? 
The answer, of course, is that we weren’t thinking. Or feeling. We don’t have time to think anymore. Thinking is a superluxury. Feeling is an even bigger superluxury. In an era where decent food, water, education, and healthcare are luxuries; thinking and feeling are activities to costly for society to allow. They are a drag on “growth”; a burden on “productivity”; they slow down the furious acceleration of the bullshit machine. 
And so. Here we are. Going through the motions. The bullshit machine says the small is the great; the absence is the presence; the vicious is the noble; the lie is the truth. We believe it; and, greedily, it feeds on our belief. The more we feed it, the more insatiable it becomes. Until, at last, we are exhausted. By pretending to want the lives we think we should; instead of daring to live the lives we know we could. 
Fuck it. Just admit it. You’re probably just as bored as I am. 
Good for you. 
Welcome to the world beyond the Bullshit Machine.
The Bullshit Machine (Medium)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Plutocrats Discover Technolgical Unemployment

It's encouraging to see at least some of our plutocratic overlords endorse the obvious conclusion that we should be working less. Here's Carlos Slim, Mexico's richest person:
“People are going to have to work for more years, until they are 70 or 75, and just work three days a week – perhaps 11 hours a day,” he told the conference, according to Paraguay.com news agency.

“With three work days a week, we would have more time to relax; for quality of life. Having four days [off] would be very important to generate new entertainment activities and other ways of being occupied.”

The 74-year-old self-made magnate believes that such a move would generate a healthier and more productive labour force, while tackling financial challenges linked to longevity

“People are going to have to work for more years, until they are 70 or 75, and just work three days a week – perhaps 11 hours a day,” he told the conference, according to Paraguay.com news agency.

“With three work days a week, we would have more time to relax; for quality of life. Having four days [off] would be very important to generate new entertainment activities and other ways of being occupied.”

The 74-year-old self-made magnate believes that such a move would generate a healthier and more productive labour force, while tackling financial challenges linked to longevity.
Carlos Slim calls for a three-day working week (Financial Times)

Here's Google's Larry Page:
In a theoretical part of the interview, Page also said he would tackle unemployment by trying to get companies to hire two part-time workers instead of one full-timer.

"That way, two people have a part-time job instead of one having a full-time job," said Page. "Most people, if I ask them would you like an extra week of vacation, 100% would raise their hands. Two weeks or a four-day work-week? They'd raise their hands. Most people like working but they also want more time with their families or their interests. We should have a coordinated way to adjust the work week."

He did not say he would be taking that tack at Google.

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said of course it would be nice to work less and for companies to employ more people. But that doesn't solve all the problems. "I can see value in two people getting work experience and competitiveness, but it doesn't solve the problem of not being fully employed," he added. "It's not like rent is half as expensive if you are half-employed."

The comment could also fuel the growing anger in the Bay Area between the tech-haves and the have-nots. "It is a good example of reinforcing a belief that they haven't worried about paying rent or filling the refrigerator for a long time," said Moorhead. "This is out of touch with your average Google user and comes off as a bit idealistic."

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said Page sounds like he's living in, or at least envisioning, a utopian world. "Page's strategy sounds a lot like the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where they constantly allude to a society where automation has taken away the need for humans to work for the necessities of life," said Olds. "Like the show, Page also skips over the inconvenient details like how well part-timers will be able to live on half salaries, particularly in a place as expensive as Silicon Valley."

The idea, though, might fly with Americans who've been struggling to find work...
Google's Larry Page talks of killing the 40-hour work week (Computer World)

And although America's richest person, Bill Gates, hasn't endorsed that solution, he clearly sees the potential for what automation does to the workforce:
Big changes are coming to the labor market that people and governments aren't prepared for, Bill Gates believes. Speaking at Washington, D.C., economic think tank The American Enterprise Institute on Thursday, Gates said that within 20 years, a lot of jobs will go away, replaced by software automation ("bots" in tech slang, though Gates used the term "software substitution").

This is what he said:

"Software substitution, whether it's for drivers or waiters or nurses … it's progressing. ...  Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set. ...  20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model."

He's not the only one predicting this gloomy scenario for workers. In January, the Economist ran a big profile naming over a dozen jobs sure to be taken over by robots in the next 20 years, including telemarketers, accountants and retail workers.

Gates believes that the tax codes are going to need to change to encourage companies to hire employees, including, perhaps, eliminating income and payroll taxes altogether. He's also not a fan of raising the minimum wage, fearing that it will discourage employers from hiring workers in the very categories of jobs that are most threatened by automation. He explained:

"When people say we should raise the minimum wage. I worry about what that does to job creation ... potentially damping demand in the part of the labor spectrum that I’m most worried about."
Bill Gates: People Don't Realize How Many Jobs Will Soon Be Replaced By Software Bots (Business Insider) I agree with this comment:

"And in other news: tens of millions of people are about to be declared lazy union thugs by right-wing talking heads, and told if only they would take $4.50 an hour and work harder, they wouldn't have lost their jobs...Fox News will be around to reassure the public that it's the average Joe's fault because he wouldn't take $4 an hour and work 60 hours a week to make the rich richer."

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Agony of Being with Ourselves

While reading an article on Karl Ove Knausgaard on the Guardian (I'm fascinated by anyone who can make a living by writing and not have report to an office), I came across this comment which I thought was particularly well-written and I liked it so much I copied it down:
Actually, human beings (even modern ones) are perfectly content being bored and doing nothing. Left to our own devices in a society that didn't try to distract us from our own experience at every waking moment, and didn't demand constant and usually needless self-improvement of one kind or another, doing nothing or not very much would be what most of us would choose to do. Instead, we have allowed the growth of an economic system that enslaves not only our time (as has always been true) but increasingly our minds and appetites, making activity (economic or otherwise) our default modus operandi and of course enriching the few who feed off the spoils of our agitation. Boredom in post-industrial capitalism is a vacuum that must be filled - that has been engineered never to go unfilled - and in being filled so remorselessly has become for many people an existential horror as dreaded as dead air time on the radio.

I have a social media fantasy in which billions of consumers around the world would voluntarily refuse to consume, even for a day, all those things we waste so much of lives on: goods, products and especially services such as social media. The pundits and politicians would despair at the lack of economic activity, growth forecasts would tumble, but life would go on. No, it would be reclaimed. We've let our world become a Looney Tunes cartoon, full of sound and fury, signifying not very much that's of any lasting value.
And another put it more succinctly:
We now live in a society where you're not allowed to have a minute of down time. Very, very sad people don't feel comfortable with their own thoughts.
Welcome to the summer of nothingness – how one book made it hip to be bored (The Guardian)

Where it sat on my hard drive awaiting its use. Well, last week, you may have heard the story, widely reported, that people would rather administer electric shocks to themselves than be left along with their own thoughts:
People, and especially men, hate being alone with their thoughts so much that they’d rather be in pain. In a study published in Science  Thursday on the ability of people to let their minds “wander” — that is, for them to sit and do nothing but think — researchers found that about a quarter of women and two-thirds of men chose electric shocks over their own company.

“We went into this thinking that mind wandering wouldn’t be that hard,” said Timothy Wilson, University of Virginia professor of psychology and lead author of the study. “People usually think of mind wandering as being a bad thing, because it interrupts when you’re trying to pay attention. But we wanted to see what happens when mind wandering is the goal.”

Wilson didn’t think his subjects would struggle with the task. “We have this big brain full of pleasant memories, and we’re able to tell ourselves stories and make up fantasies. But despite that, we kept finding that people didn’t like it much and found it hard.”
Would you rather shock yourself than just sit there? (Marginal Revolution)

The sheer terror of being alone with our thoughts (The Week)

Most Prefer Electric Shocks To Solitary Thinking (Future Pundit)

Shocking but true: students prefer jolt of pain to being made to sit and think (The Guardian)

I suspect this is a modern affliction. I also suspect that Americans would be far more uncomfortable than any other people on earth (especially Scandinavians) being alone and silent with their thoughts. We need to distract ourselves from birth to death to make living in this society tolerable.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Green Rust Belt

There’s a weird piece of serendipity today – I browsed to Resilience.org, and to my surprise what do I see right up top but a long article on my home base of Milwaukee. Not only that, but it’s written by Richard Manning, who I was already planning to write a blog post about!

Manning is that author of what I think is the definitive book about agriculture – Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization. I was planning on publishing some excerpts from that book, but I’ll save that for another time. I was thinking about that because I recently heard an excellent podcast with Manning, which deserves a listen to:
“Agriculture is really the dominant system of 8,000 years, and it’s more than a way of growing food. It’s a way of domesticating humans and organising humans. It is ‘the’ system.” So says the environmental author and journalist Richard Manning in the latest podcast from The Eternities. “And the system that brought us here and made us sick is not going to fix us.”

Manning is the author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization, which argued that major world shaping forces, such as trade, imperialism and disease, were conditioned and driven by agriculture, both for good and ill. But, mostly ill.

Manning has now returned for another tilt at civilization with Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization, co-authored with John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of such titles as A User’s Guide to the Brain. Their new book attempts to show that our human physical evolution is lagging far behind civilization’s socio-cultural advances, significantly affecting health and well-being.

By drawing upon what we understand of our genetic heritage, the authors present strategies to tweak modern lifestyles, aping the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Paleolithic age, for which they argue we remain adapted.

In the podcast, Manning argues that his and Ratey’s work exists within the field of medical inquiry termed “diseases of civilization”.

“[This] began when the imperialists from Europe began looking at primitive cultures around the world. [T]hey found that the people that lived there didn’t suffer the diseases that were killing the Europeans. Things like cancer, heart disease, diabetes [were] virtually absent in those cultures. And it’s because of the way they ate.”

In terms of advice, Manning offers a place to begin. “Eliminate sugars and grain from your diet for a couple of months and see what happens to you. You’re going to lose weight and you’re going to feel a lot better.You’re going to find yourself feeling better in ways that you didn’t quiet imagine. And that’s the almost immediate pay-off to this. You don’t have to believe me, you can go ahead and try it, and you’re going to find out that your life improves dramatically.


The podcast also included discussion of such topics as the hunter-gatherer diet; the origins of agriculture; ways to improve modern agriculture; the rise of autism; and high fruit diets.


Anyway, the article makes Milwaukee seen like a great place for green living – and, in many ways, it is! I live next to a park, can go for days without using my car, and farmer’s markets abound. Because Wisconsin is mostly pastureland, I can get grass-fed beef easily, along with awesome cheese, fruits, and apples (but no raw milk!). Milwaukee is surrounded by farmland, which means getting locally grown stuff is easy, including a lot more Community Supported Agriculture farms (CSA). We’re on a lake shot through with waterways, which is why I once pointed out the irony of having to turn to aquaponics for our fish (or flying them in from China). I'd also give honorable mention to things like Concordia urban gardens, Cambridge Woods, Will Allen's Growing Power, the Kompost Kids and Milwaukee Makerspace. Of course, it's not all good news - the train from Milwaukee to Madison, whose cars were to be built in old reactivated factories in Milwaukee, was killed by the infamous Tea Party governor Scott Walker.

Backyard gardening in Milwaukee
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is known for taking prickly offense at the term “Rust Belt.” Nonetheless, the belt fits. The old-line manufacturing cities of the upper Midwest preceded the rest of the nation in collapse by decades. Foreclosure, blight, drugs, failed schools, homelessness, brownfields, pollution, decay, and crime: there’s plenty to justify the term, and Milwaukee has it all. Or maybe had it all. Because a closer look at the city reveals whole vats of lemonade where once were heaps of lemons.

Wisconsin may be a national poster child for dysfunctional politics and red-blue tensions, yet Barrett, a Democrat, is serving his third term, winning reelection twice with more than 70 percent of the vote. Political scientists no doubt can explain his popularity in their fashion, but the more satisfying analysis comes from an ant man. Three decades ago, the reigning eminence of conservation biology, E. O. Wilson, offered up the biophilia hypothesis—biophilia, from the Latin, meaning love of life, all life, as in nature. In a 1984 book, Wilson argued that love of nature makes humans more attentive to their surroundings, just as affection allows attachment to and knowledge of a loved one’s face. In evolutionary terms, attentiveness and attachment confer fitness. Now this bit of arcane evolutionary theorizing has wended its way through a web of disciplines and experiments, through education and public health, landscape architecture, psychiatry, urban planning, and banking to become a playbook for politicians like Barrett, who is consciously using environmental science to loosen the bind of the rusty belt.

Wilson’s idea has given rise to the closely related concepts of biophilic design and biophilic cities, the latter actively promoted by Tim Beatley, a landscape architect at the University of Virginia. In interviews, Beatley and Stephen Kellert, Wilson’s co-editor on an early book about biophilia and a chief proponent of biophilic design, both stressed that the idea includes—but more crucially goes beyond—concepts like green building and simple sustainability to capture the innate human attachment to nature and increase well-being by honoring it.

Beatley has developed a list of criteria that includes this extension and has compiled a list of biophilic cities worldwide: Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; Phoenix; Singapore; Wellington, New Zealand; Oslo; Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain; Birmingham, England—and Milwaukee. Part of the reason for including Milwaukee, he told me, is the city’s explicit attention to and understanding of the larger idea. With that in mind, I went to talk to Mayor Barrett about the transformation that is under way in his city.
 Milwaukee Sees the Light (One Earth)

A lot of people are advocates of reinvigorating the Rust Belt, so it's nice to see it get some coverage. Unlike the Southwest, we have no shortage of water here. This is the kind of place Jim Kunstler thinks we should be moving back to. Incidentally, Milwaukee is the city where Kunstler's ideas might have had the biggest impact. Our previous mayor before Mayor Barrett became friends with Kunstler and became enamored with the ideas of New Urbanism (he is now the head of the Congress for New Urbanism in Chicago). He tore down a freeway in Milwaukee to free up space for development. It was a bold, visionary move whose ultimate results are still being determined.

Personally, I’m passionate about learning from and recycling the old industrial infrastructure into something sustainable and resilient (in fact I once pitched a building idea to Kaufman, who is also mentioned in the article). I was planning on doing a project that converted an old brick warehouse building on the river near me to a farmer's market, but they started tearing the building down, so perhaps it's too late :( . In any case, I really love the old industrial buildings for their aesthetics and resilience; many of them are designed to harness as much natural light as possible and be highly durable and adaptable. I should know, I work in one.

BONUS:
Kunstlercast episode with John Norquist
Urban Milwaukee

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Techno-Fixes Are Counterproductive and Mad

This article is about all of the high-tech ideas that are tossed out every so often to clean up the ocean and deal with things like the giant plastic garbage patches floating out there (larger than the state of Texas by now!). You’ve probably seen these in TED talks, the pages of Wired Magazine or promoted by the Long Now people and other “bright green” environmentalist types. You know the story – brave, earnest, high-achieving high school student invents magic super-machine that will solve (_insert problem here_). Now we can all relax and forget about all the problems, because “they” have solved them.  It's a sign of our easy quick, cargo-cult, techno-fix culture that refuses to ever question the secular religion of growth, innovation and technological progress:
 Every so often, somebody comes up with a plan for finding and removing the particles of plastic that litter our oceans and accumulate in "garbage patch" gyres. These plans meet with great acclaim ... from everybody except the people who know the most about garbage patches and plastic pollution.

Why do marine scientists and non-profits like The Ocean Conservancy speak out against ideas like 19-year-old Boyan Slat's ocean cleanup technology? Primarily, it's because plans like Slat's tend to be based on a really simplistic understanding of both the problem and ocean systems and, as a result, wouldn't actually work in the real world.

But there's a bigger issue here as well. This isn't a matter of mean old scientists talking dirt on the big ideas of a brave, smart kid. Great-sounding-but-not-actually-effective ocean cleanup plans have real consequences. They divert limited money and time away from the actually useful work. Worse, they inadvertently help prop up an unsustainable system where it's totally okay for us to keep letting plastic get into the oceans ... because we can just come back later and clean it up. But that's simply not true, writes Stiv Wilson, policy director of the ocean conservation nonprofit 5Gyres.org.

    "I find debating with gyre cleanup advocates akin to trying to reason with someone who will argue with a signpost and take the wrong way home. Gyre cleanup is a false prophet hailing from La-La land that won’t work – and it’s dangerous and counter productive to a movement trying in earnest stop the flow of plastic into the oceans. Gyre cleanup plays into the hand of industry, but worse, it diverts attention and resources from viable, but unsexy, multi-pronged and critically vetted solutions..."

There are real solutions to the problem of plastic pollution, but they don't come in the form of feel-good gadgets that will sift the particles out of the water. And if we convince ourselves otherwise, then we're going to ignore the stuff we should really be doing
Plastic pollution in oceans can't be solved with a gadget (BoingBoing)


Teen invents device to clean giant ocean garbage patches (Treehugger)

This is a point I've tried to make too - these techno-fixes divert time, money and resources from real, honest solutions that will have less blowback and achieve a more permanent resolution. But they wont preserve the wealth and power of the elites, and so they are ignored in favor of the latest wonder gadget, will will just cause more (profitable) problems down the road.

Not only do these techno-fixes not actually deal with the underlying problem, they are actually counterproductive. What they do is give people the false idea that there is a quick fix with some sort of gee-whiz technology and that the status quo is sustainable. This allows the people who benefit from the status quo to keep it going, to deflect criticism, to head off any uncomfortable questions, and to prevent any significant, meaningful change that will tip their apple cart. Instead, they assure us that there is a techno-fix for every imaginable problem. You name it, air pollution, resource scarcity, peak oil, climate change, topsoil erosion, droughts and falling aquifers, etc.; for example, electric cars, carbon sequestration, geoengineering, carbon trading, putting prices on “ecosystem services,” genetic modification , desalinization, and so on. Even social problems like inequality and unemployment will magically disappear with technological progress (Vote online! Computers will magically create jobs! Online courses!).

My favorite recent example is colony collapse disorder. This seems like a  parody straight out of The Onion, but as we know, there is no way to make the culture we live in any more ridiculous and insane than it actually is. People are now proposing to build millions of tiny flying robots to pollinate the crops to replace all the bees we’ve killed off with (most likely) neonicotinoid pesticides (which also, by the way, are killing birds). I swear I am not making this up!:
Honeybees, which pollinate nearly one-third of the food we eat, have been dying at unprecedented rates because of a mysterious phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The situation is so dire that in late June the White House gave a new task force just 180 days to devise a coping strategy to protect bees and other pollinators. The crisis is generally attributed to a mixture of disease, parasites, and pesticides.

Other scientists are pursuing a different tack: replacing bees. While there's no perfect solution, modern technology offers hope.

Last year, Harvard University researchers led by engineering professor Robert Wood introduced the first RoboBees, bee-size robots with the ability to lift off the ground and hover midair when tethered to a power supply. The details were published in the journal Science. A coauthor of that report, Harvard graduate student and mechanical engineer Kevin Ma, tells Business Insider that the team is "on the eve of the next big development." Says Ma: "The robot can now carry more weight."

The researchers believe that as soon as 10 years from now these RoboBees could artificially pollinate a field of crops, a critical development if the commercial pollination industry cannot recover from severe yearly losses over the past decade.
Tiny Flying Robots Are Being Built To Pollinate Crops Instead Of Real Bees (Business Insider)

So we’re going to spend millions of dollars to develop robotic bees which still aren’t even viable (“But RoboBees are not yet a viable technological solution. First, the tiny bots have to be able to fly on their own and "talk" to one another to carry out tasks like a real honeybee hive”) instead of, you know, trying not to kill actual bees that have co-evolved with plants over millions of years. That might impact profits, after all. Because one good technofix (synthetic pesticides) deserves another (robot bees!). I’m sure our artificial solution will be even better and cheaper than the original, right? I can’t think of a better example of what I’ve been saying on this blog over the years – most innovations today are just trying to solve the problems caused by earlier innovations.

In fairness, they do note, “Although Wood wrote that CCD and the threat it poses to agriculture were part of the original inspiration for creating a robotic bee, the devices aren't meant to replace natural pollinators forever. We still need to focus on efforts to save these vital creatures. RoboBees would serve as "stopgap measure while a solution to CCD is implemented," the project's website says.” Sure. But somehow stopgap measures have a way of becoming permanent solutions in our modern industrial global civilization. I wonder how many resources will go into building millions of these robot bees. But those resources will spur economic growth! More profits for robotics companies! After all, that’s the main purpose of human society, isn’t it? Surely that will be the new “green” solution.

I also love how the execrable business tabloid Business Insider (have those ads crashed your browser, too?) calls this a “game changer” and lumps it in with all the other high-tech intensification “game changers” being touted by global mega-corporations and Silicon Valley  – Frankenmeat, insect ranching, and “Future Food: How Scientists And Startups Are Changing The Way We Eat.Future food, eh? Somehow, I don’t think "future food" is going to be as good as "past food" and I don’t think "changing the way we eat" is going to end up well for us. It hasn’t historically – obesity sits side-by-side with starvation. Will we even get a choice in the matter? Somehow, I’m guessing that the rich and powerful will get to stick with the old way of eating the past foods that the rest of us won’t be able to afford anymore. They probably won’t suffer from the same diseases and die prematurely either. But the corporate media won’t tell you that, or course, they’re busy flogging the newest techno-fix (water from clouds!, Robot farmers!, artificial leafs!)

What’s the alternative? Less growth, less profit, less technology, and more sanity that takes into account the quality of human life and the realities of our planetary ecosystem.. But you won’t read about that in “Business Insider” or see it at TED anytime soon.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Falling Sky

I just found out about this book, and I think readers might be interested in finding a copy:
Davi Kopenawa is a member of the Yanomami people of North Brazil, an initiated shaman and a land rights activist. First published as La chute du ciel in 2010, The Falling Sky is the fruit of his collaboration with French anthropologist Bruce Albert, who describes the book as “a life story, autoethnography, and cosmoecological manifesto” aiming at spreading Kopenawa’s story and educating Westerners about environmental issues (p.1). The first-person narration, uncommon in academic works, allows the reader to follow its narrator along a winding path blending personal recollections with the collective experience of the people, explanations of traditional knowledge, and Kopenawa’s personal elaboration on these traditions. Albert calls the hybrid structure of the book, with material arranged both chronologically and thematically, “an attempt to blend pure narrative parts with more ethnographic ones” (p.454).The Yanomami are a distinct cultural and linguistic group from the Amazon forest. With very little contact with white society, they have been able to retain their language and most of their habitat and customs, as opposed to First Nation Canadians, Australian Aboriginals, or Maori people, who were forcefully assimilated into settler society. Kopenawa himself is an internationally recognised advocate for climate consciousness who succeeded in getting official recognition for Yanomami land, or Terra Indígena Yanomami, in 1992. Among his many trips overseas, Kopenawa also spoke in front of the UK Parliament in June 2009.

The heart of The Falling Sky, entitled “Part II – Metal Smoke,” focuses on Kopenawa’s journey towards activism. After discussing Yanomami cosmogony through the story of the demiurge Omama, creator of all people and first owner of metal, Kopenawa mentions ancestral customs and takes the opportunity to condemn the introduction by white people of fatal epidemics and what he sees as the dangers of consumerism and materialism. The core of his activism is clearly to ensure the survival of his people and their way of life: “I want my children, their children, and the children of their children to be able to live in it [the forest] quietly. This is my entire thought and work” (p.259).
Book Review: The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert (LSE Book Reviews)

Here are selections from the book:
[Inhabitants of the cities] tell themselves that we must be ignorant and liars. They prefer contemplating the word drawings of the endless merchandise they desire. The beauty of the forest leaves them indifferent. They only repeat to us: “Your forest is dark and tangled! It is bad and full of dangerous things. Do not regret it! When we have cleared it all, we will give you cattle to eat! It will be much better! You will be happy!” But we answer them: “The animals you raise are unknown to us. We are hunters, we do not want to eat domestic animals! We find it nauseating and it makes us dizzy. We do not want your cattle because we would not know what to do with them. The forest has always raised the game and fish that we need to eat. It feeds their young and makes them grow with the fruit of its trees. We are happy that it is like this. They do need gardens to live, the way humans do. The earth’s value of growth is enough to make their food flourish and ripen. As for the white people, they wipe out the game with their shotguns or scare it away with their machines. Then they burn the trees to plant grass everywhere to feed their cattle. Finally, when the forest’s richness has disappeared and the grass itself no longer grows back, they must go elsewhere to feed their starving oxen.”

[T]he white people’s ears are deaf to the xapiri’s words. They only pay attention to their own speeches, and it never crosses their mind that the same epidemic smoke poison devours their own children. Their great men continue to send their sons-in-law and sons to tear out of the earth’s darkness the evil things that spread these diseases from which we all suffer. Now the breath of the burned minerals’ smoke has spread everywhere. What the white people call the whole world is being tainted because of the factories that make all their merchandise, their machines, and their motors. Though the sky and the earth are vast, their fumes eventually spread in every direction, and all are affected: humans, game, and the forest. It is true. Even the trees are sick from it. Having become ghost, they lose their leaves, they dry up and break all by themselves. The fish also die from it in the rivers’ soiled waters. The white people will make the earth and the sky sick with the smoke from their minerals, oil, bombs, and atomic things. Then the winds and the storms will enter into a ghost state. In the end, even the xapiri and Omama’s image will be affected!
Selections from The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert (Harvard University Press) Interesting page. The pointer comes from Marginal Revolution (!!!), where a commenter recommends the following:

Jeffrey Kripal: Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2011)

Wade Davis The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (CBC Massey Lecture, 2009)

Daniel Everett, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (Pantheon, 2008)

Rupert Ross, Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Indian Reality (Penguin, 2009)

No mention of the classic Black Elk Speaks?

A long time ago my father told me what his father told him, that there was once a Lakota holy man, called Drinks Water, who dreamed what was to be; and this was long before the coming of the Wasichus. He dreamed that the four-leggeds were going back into the earth and that a strange race had woven a spider's web all around the Lakotas. And he said: "When this happens, you shall live in square gray houses, in a barren land, and beside those square gray houses you shall starve." They say he went back to Mother Earth soon after he saw this vision, and it was sorrow that killed him. You can look about you now and see that he meant these dirt-roofed houses we are living in, and that all the rest was true. Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking.