Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Beats Golf

This is a detail from a two-hour drawing from Monday night. The whole page wouldn't fit on my scanner. What I cropped were odds and ends from the studio floor, and my black-and-white rendering of a large abstract painting by Lisa Colwell.

Members of this co-op rotate modeling duties, with new members beginning in front of the group. Models are always clothed, which I value, since there are plenty of opportunities to draw nudes, but not that many to study clothing. I value narrative and anecdote, and the way we costume ourselves has meaning for me.

Shading and shadows are stamp-pad ink, applied with my fingers. I told another artist, Emma, that I did it so there'd never be any doubt about who had drawn this portrait.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy Holidays And Global Doubt

When Sam was still small (he’s twenty-eight now), he said he thought that it should be coldest when there was the least amount of sun -- the winter solstice. I didn’t handle that well. I took it for granted that there should be a lag between the time when energy input would be slightest, and the time when we were coldest, and I understood that it takes time for masses to absorb or re-radiate energy, but the words did not fall glibly from my tongue. Sam survived and prospered.

So. Sam, here’s how it works: There’s a period each year when the rocks and things don’t get enough sun to add energy. They lose energy, but it doesn’t happen all at once. There’s one day when the sun shines for the least time, and at the most oblique angle, but the matter around us still has energy to lose. Each day after that, there’s more, and more direct sun, but it’s still slight, and the rocks continue to lose energy. Around here, it stays pretty frigid well into February or March, with the hardest weather toward the end of January.

It works the other way half a year from now, with the hottest weather weeks after the strongest sunshine.

Other things work that way, too. Barbara told me that the most depressing day was the third Monday in January. Apparently there’s a record, because more people have crises then. My hypothesis would be that the crises happen because of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the depression that happens because we don’t get enough light at higher latitudes in winter. The light’s coming back a month after the solstice, but it takes a while for the body to react to environmental changes, and it still isn’t strong. (If this is really the case, the occurrence on a Monday implies that work is the proximate cause, and argues for design changes in the way we make our way in the world.)

Buckminster Fuller said that social changes have “gestation periods.” He pointed to material and production cycles, with predictable periods, in industry, and expected “utopia or oblivion” I think by 1985. We’re still here, a quarter century later -- and this sure ain’t utopia -- but social changes must have something we could call “gestation periods.”

If industry is adversely affecting Earth’s climate, we need to understand that it’s happening, the knowledge needs to spread, people need to believe that the knowledge is correct, and that something can be done, people need to design solutions. Knowledge of the solutions must spread and be accepted, or commanded by government, and then the solutions need to be implemented, with time taken for testing, tooling, construction, correction, and response from the environment.

I seem to be going through some kind of personal gestation.

First, I stumbled over the objection to the fact of anthrogenic climate change by a scientist who has been a flack for oil, coal, tobacco, and Sun Myung Moon. The ad hominem temptation is strong to dismiss anything this guy says out of hand, because of the company he keeps, but he is somebody with a PhD, and who was competent enough to have received tenure at the university that Thomas Jefferson built. Any arguments I can make, he knows. Would somebody be so dishonest as to know that there is -- or even might be -- global warming, and to argue citizens into complacency? His chief argument seems to be events that have been inconsistent with predictions of believers’ computer models. Does that mean that, to be a good citizen, I need to re-learn calculus, teach myself differential equations and bone up on computer modeling, then wade through the library of papers written by scientists about what their computers have been doing?

I’d never get anything else done, and by the time I was sure of myself, the Statue of Liberty could be knee-deep in big muddy.

Second, I’ve been reading Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, whose outline Brand pretty much quoted in his TED presentation that I reviewed last summer. Brand has no doubts about global warming (incidentally, he says that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Ross Ice Sheet are decaying, as does James Hansen, NASA scientist, Hansen referring to satellite measurements of Antarctic ice mass, begun in 2002), and interviews a number of scientists with respectable records of achievement, including James Lovelock, atmospheric scientist, and discoverer of the fact that viruses cause flu. Lovelock’s warnings about planetary warming are particularly dire, but the best case Brand quotes come from Saul Griffith, 2007 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipient, and an inventor working with renewable energy, batteries, and inexpensive lenses. Griffith expects a two degree (centigrade) rise, resulting in “large loss of species, more severe storms, floods and droughts, refugees from sea level rise, and other unpalatable, expensive and inhumane consequences.”

Brand has solutions that are challenging me at least as much as S. Fred Singer’s denial, but I want to say that global warming may parch the farms and cause famine below third-world glaciers, and wash away the homelands of island peoples, but in the US, we will see it as entire populations of immigrants who compete for our jobs, economic depression, lost work, shuttered factories and shops, trade war, rationed health care, stalled transportation, and probably military adventurism and authoritarian government in the service of the bastards who profited from it all. And then we see our villages drowned, and die of thirst.

Brand, whom I have never met, and I have a history that goes back to the day that the headshop guy gave me a bunch of Whole Earth Catalogs that he couldn’t sell. WEC was Brand, providing “access to tools” to his “friends starting their own civilizations out in the sticks.” I always figured he was an asshole, but one with a lot of informed curiosity, and a relaxed interest in the common good. WEC introduced me to Soleri, Bateson, Lovelock, Margulis, Erlich, Hawken, Diet for a Small Planet, and Permaculture, and stoked my interest in a lot of other similar people and ideas. I trust Stewart Brand because so much of what’s been important to me has come my way through his auspices.

Now he wants me to embrace nuclear power and genetically engineered food, and I’m almost persuaded. (Genetically engineered food is a genie that’s out of the bottle, because it’s a cheap and simple enough technology that hobbyists and rinky-dink governments can do it, and it can feed starving people. With nuclear power, the argument is that it’s the only baseload power that can replace coal; without it, global warming is inevitable. Civilization needs sixteen terawatts of power, and needs to cut fossil fuel use back to three over the next twenty-five years. Two terawatts of photovoltaics equals thirty thousand square miles of 15% efficient panels, and so on for wind, solar thermal, geothermal, and biofuels. Brand winds up with an area the size of the United States, dedicated to powering the world.) I don’t know whether to take a walk or wind my watch, I feel so marginalized. If he’s right, it’s the same bastards, mentioned above, who stay on top.

Third, while I’m baring my soul, I should mention that I was probably too facetious when I commented about Brendan O’Neill’s call for a bazillion more Irish babies. We rely on those who come after us to provide for us in our declining years (I sense a libertarian argument about personal responsibility in the wings, but it’s baloney -- end of story). This has come up in the United States with regard to Social Security: Mine is the greatest generation, at least in terms of numbers, and we happen to be declining at the point in history at which we meet the limits to growth. Productivity will go down, per capita and in aggregate. To maintain population requires 2.1 babies per woman, and birthrate in the developed world is 1.56, and as low as 1.2 in some places. China is at 1.73. Mexico is at an even 2, and falling. At mid-century, world population could hit 8 billion and begin to fall at crisis rate (I’ll be 101). Clearly it’s a delicate balance that needs to be struck: stay within the world’s carrying capacity for humans, yet maintain a population that’s large enough and vigorous enough (not old) to provide for itself.

Fourth, I’ve been busy making deliveries, and doing tasting demos for Barsy’s Almonds, and trying to whomp together twenty-five or so unique, hand-made, company Christmas/Kwanzsticekka cards. I’ve been going a little nuts.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Questions About Global Warming

One of the problems in being a good citizen in the 21st century is that it’s more than a full-time job. Take global warming. If human industry is making the planet warmer, dangerously so, that demands toil, blood, sweat, and tears in volume unprecedented even in world War II. It raises cans of worms relating to problems of capital and ownership whose opening will, themselves, cause pain. If there is no real warming, or if there is warming that’s merely climatic noise, then arraying resources and labor, legislating and enforcing new customs, and negotiating the surrender of national sovereignties, may be better left undone. We can say much the same for any number of social challenges, and it’s enough to make you wish for monarchy.

For me, the greenhouse effect has been a “glass bead game,” an interesting intellectual puzzle, an idea-toy acquired from a magazine article in 1979. I’ve been a partisan of the environmentalist side, saying essentially, “It’s a reasonable hypothesis. Since the consequences of inaction (if we are truly warming the planet) are dire, and since I value conservation anyway, I favor acting as though it were a fact." I’m going through a kind of scared period in my life, and suddenly climate disruption seems too real.

Arguing in my mind for the fallacy of the climate change argument is S. Fred Singer, briefly, in of all places the Costco Connection, a magazine sent to members of the giant buying club. Singer does not say much: Earth’s climate fluctuates naturally, there was a period of warming which ended a decade ago, modern society requires a lot of power, and people speaking for conservation and change are “political.” To support this, in the brief magazine interview, Singer says, "Thirty years of comprehensive satellite observations show a warming in the northern part, little warming in the tropics and the southern portion -- and a distinct cooling in Antarctica." This led me to his website,, where I found two items from January 26, 2002, referencing cooling in the Antarctic, including one which quotes two academics, Antarctic researchers writing in the January 18, 2002 Science, as saying that the Ross ice stream flows have halted or slowed, and the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is thickening.

Singer has been an academic hired gun for a variety of energy lobbies, as well as the tobacco industry and Sun Myung Moon, but it would be a mistake to dismiss what he says because he says it for interested hardball players, or has been mistaken in the past. Here are the questions that the Costco interview raises for me:

What does Singer mean by “thirty years of comprehensive satellite observation”? Which thirty years does he mean? What do the satellites measure, and how? What does “comprehensive” mean  -- for instance could we look up the temperature 3700 feet above Fort Smith, Arkansas at 11:30 PM, June 17, 1993? Maybe I’m picking nits, but I honestly don’t know what this means, and I mean to find out.

Are Singer’s claims true? Are they interpretations of data that might have different meanings for someone else?

How much did the northern part (hemisphere?) warm? The tropics and southern part? How do these square with climate models that researchers have used to predict climate change?

The distinct Antarctic cooling Singer refers to a January 2002 article in the online version of the journal, Nature. The link is broken, but the SEPP website quotes it as saying that “Antarctica has cooled measurably during the last 35 years -- despite a global average increase in air temperature of 0.06 degrees centigrade during the 20th century (is this figure correct?) -- making it unique among Earth’s continental landmasses.” The SEPP website says that this cooling was measured in Antarctica’s interior, unlike earlier measurements, which were taken on the peninsula, which, of course, reaches toward the equator. The same article is quoted to say that Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is breaking up as part of an older, non-human-driven process. Stewart Brand, writing in 2008 and 2009 (seven years after the Science and Nature articles) says that Ross is breaking up, and West is breaking up. The 2002 Science article says that Ross’s flows have stopped or slowed, and West is thickening. How is Ross doing now? How is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet doing now? What was the case in 2002? Have these two ice sheets behaved consistently in the past seven years? Were the Antarctic temperatures inconsistent with 2002 climate models? If temperatures in Antarctica are not consistent with 2002 climate models, has theory developed in the intervening years to account for them.

Singer would, no doubt, be able to make any arguments I could in support of a belief in anthrogenic climate change, yet he is completely dismissive of the idea. When I list the anecdotes that tempt me to believe that human industry is disturbing the planet’s climate, it is much longer than his. In persuading Costco members against organizing around greenhouse gas reduction, is Singer representing the greater warming in the north, and the cooling in Antarctica as having more weight than arguments carbon-reduction advocates might make?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

I'd Had My Suspicions

Constant Battles Inhumanity And Carrying Capacity

Stewart Brand quoted Steven LeBlanc's Constant Battles in his book Whole Earth Discipline. Now I have another title on my list. LeBlanc is a Harvard archaeologist, and Brand summarizes Constant Battles as showing that, for most our history, we have dealt with the carrying capacities of our ranges by robbing our neighbors, killing them, or enslaving them. In spite of World Wars, we modern people lose about three percent of adult males to war, but over our history we've lost twenty-five percent that way. This rang a bell for me. Napoleon Chignon says this is about what the Yanomamo, an Amazonian people, lose to war.

The Nazis weren't monsters, they were vestiges. If we're not careful, we may see them again, or worse, be them.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Pictures Of Winter In Minneapolis

The first real snow in Minneapolis. There was snow as far back as late September, hard on the heels of an eerily summery month, but this one is on the ground until spring. It looks like three or four inches of fine, blowing stuff, and it took me about an hour and a half to scrape sidewalks and driveway.

With the Copenhagen Climate Summit underway, General Obama’s receiving his Nobel on Thursday, and the leak of the “Danish Text,” I probably ought to write about the greenhouse effect. There was an interesting interview in the “Costco Connection,” in which University of Virginia environmental sciences professor emeritus S. Fred Singer, dismisses the notion of human-caused warming, and says that a natural period of global warming ended a decade ago. Singer supports that contention with the statement that “Thirty years of comprehensive satellite observation show a warming in the northern part of the globe, a little warming in the tropics and the southern portion -- and a distinct cooling of Antarctica.” I don’t need climate change on my plate, human-caused or not (although I would probably behave the same, global warming or not), so I hope he’s right. Deconstructing Singer’s statement will take some research. One of the consequences of a contracting economy is frantic periods when you have to put off study, and I’ve been otherwise booked.

On the other hand, a piece in the magazine Ode (for rich people with compact fluorescent lamps) got my Irish up, and an answer came immediately to mind. Brian O’Neill, of Spiked, a British Internet magazine, wrote five hundred or so words under the headline “Who’s Afraid of Billions of People.” He says, “No limits should be set on population growth. I hope in my lifetime the human population on Earth will reach the tens of billions, and it won’t be a problem if it rises to hundreds of billions.” (An Irishman wants more children. Swate sooferin’ Jaysuss! I don't think I can eat that many babies.)

Here’s his case: Efforts to limit reflect a lack of faith in human ingenuity. If you believe in civilization you shouldn’t worry about carrying capacity, because we can figure out how to feed ourselves. More people equal more brains. The population control and reduction lobby has been around since Malthus, and keeps changing its rationale. Malthus said that food supply increases arithmetically, while population increases geometrically. O’Neill says that Malthus didn’t count on the technological innovations of the last two hundred years. Population lobbyists of the early twentieth century were racists and eugenecists, and current anti-birthers want to protect Mother Earth, but whatever our stated reasons, we really don’t have faith in ourselves. We are disingenuous because we say that the planet has a fixed carrying capacity. He points to uranium, which was known to ancients as a mere tint for glass. He says we inhabit only a tiny fraction of the planet’s surface. He finishes by saying, “Anyone who thinks people are a good thing rather than a menace, and believes we can find solutions to our problems, should reject the population control argument and make the case for full freedom of choice on reproductive matters.”

Thank you, Mr. Rand.

Around 1963, Buckminster Fuller said that all of the world’s population, about half what it is now, could be inside, in New York City, doing the Twist. I don’t know how he figured all of that city’s floor space, but okay... I wondered about now. I did the Twist in my kitchen, and measured the area required, sixteen square feet. I multiplied sixteen by 6.8 billion, divided by the number of square feet in a square mile, and got Iceland. Imagine, every wonderful ingenious (and ingenuous) human soul dancing to the music of Chubby Checker, under the midnight sun. The volcanoes would probably erupt.

Look, I understand that you can’t prove a negative, and I don’t want to be like those nineteenth century scientists that didn’t think we could survive speeds of sixty miles an hour, or build flying machines, but here’s the deal. We need various resources, metals, soil for growing food, etc. We took the easy stuff first. We started out getting iron from hematite, now we’re down to taconite. It takes more energy to use the resources we’ve left ourselves with, and we’re running out of high-quality fuels.

Maybe we can jump off cliffs and sprout wings, but I don’t think so. Maybe we can make energy from water and sand, but you need electricity to get hydrogen from water, and the energy return on investment for photovoltaics is about eight percent.

The Green Revolution did increase crop production per acre, but at the cost of reducing it per calorie, and production per acre has stalled, as energy has become dear. We might increase land under production, but once again, we started with the best land. O’Neill says that forty-six percent of British land is used for agriculture, and eleven or twelve is wooded. His context here implies that there are still plenty of places to stack Brits, but this raises the issue of opening new land (the other forty-two or forty-three percent) to agriculture production. I’m all for eliminating lawns, but is that what O’Neill is calling for?

His comment about people’s, thousands of years ago, thinking of uranium merely as an interesting rock, makes me wonder if O’Neill thinks ingenuity equals nuclear power. I’m not as excitable about ticking Geiger counters as a lot of people, but I have to insist that there are problems with nukes that I haven’t heard solved, and there’s not a whole lot of precedent among the other species for playing with radiation. Nuclear power’s energy return on investment is about three percent.

I believe in human ingenuity, too, but I’ve driven enough miles in city traffic, and watched enough people ignore exercise etiquette at the gym, to take it for granted. And don’t forget the US’s 108th Congress. I believe in human ingenuity. I yearn for it. But when it comes, there’s only so much it can do.

(Thanks to Marissa for the Jonathan Swiftie!)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Elegy For A Mazda 323

If the world ends -- at least the developed one -- not with a bang but a whimper, what does that whimper sound like? When I dispatched for the world’s most infuriating interstate bus company, it was like this: The aging fleet came into the shop needing maintenance, and we sent the buses back out still needing it, because we had so many broken vehicles that we couldn’t afford to take any more off the road. The limping buses broke down, then, someplace where I’d have to hire a charter company to rescue the passengers, a tow truck to rescue the bus, and a commercial shop to fix what our shop should have, for more than it would have cost us. Rich guys in Beamers and nice suits owned the place, and thought their jobs were to lobby state legislatures for subsidies so buses would stop in small towns.

What does the whimper sound like now? I meant to write about this the first time Jason, Barbara’s Barsy’s Almonds business partner was burglarized. But I had other things to say. Then he was robbed again, and I had fantasies of bringing back the whipping post, and de-pantsing thugs in the public square, but I still was busy.

The outline was something like this: Buckminster Fuller said that technology was enriching us, so that we were feeding more people, and a greater proportion of the world’s population, and feeding them better than ever before. Further technological evolution, and deliberately arraying our technology to serve human needs, would make us four billion billionaires (This was more than thirty years ago).

In fact, Fuller didn’t adequately account for abundant fossil fuels, particularly oil. I meant to quote E. F. Schumacher that, “The...illusion (that science and technology have given us unlimited powers) is based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most (in regard to irreplaceable and powerful fossil fuels).”

I would have said that energy decline and post-peak economic contraction would give, maybe are giving, us a rewind of the past. I’d just read Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York, and meant to quote it for examples of squalor and violence.

The punch line would have been that whatever colorful punishments we meted out to the depraved on account of they’re deprived would become rights of passage for thugs, and work against us. Even killing them would affect us by making them heroes to their tribe. The real answer is realizing our true human identity, by mimicking and integrating with the world ecology. (Warriors against terror, take note.)

The Friday night, some idiot stole Barbara’s and my car. I’d neglected to put it in the garage. We’d had a rash of auto break-ins a while back, and I leave it unlocked so I don’t have to replace glass. There’s nothing valuable in the car, and who’d steal a beat-up ‘91 sub-compact, really?

I had a meeting Saturday morning, with my neighborhood Transition Town group, and then I was going to relieve Jason, who was flogging Barsy’s Almonds at the Midtown Global Market. I left the house, expecting to drive over to Joe’s house. “Okay. I must have put it in the garage.” Not in the garage. Back to the street, to look slowly up and down the block, step out into the street and look from that angle. Back to the garage to make sure I hadn’t missed the car there in my panic. I opened the door, and squatted to look in. At that angle, the car would prevent my seeing the back wall. “Nope. There’s the wall.” Call Barbara and ask her if she had taken the car after all (she’d made other plans). “No, sweetie, I don’t have it.” I didn’t want to call Barbara, she was busy handing out samples at a store, and it would be better if she found out later.

I walked over to Joe’s house, and stayed calm during the meeting. (The idea of transition towns is that we can’t count on the larger society, so we adapt locally to the economic issues precipitated by the looming thresholds of peak oil and climate disruption.) Then I called 911. Then I waited for the cop. I moved furniture, and sat and repaired a lamp shade. I was raging in Martian gibberish at a snarl of thread when the cop arrived. Fortunately she was a forty-something woman with a severe bob. I managed to pull myself together, and make a report. The officer told me that with some of the older small cars, any key you can get into the ignition will turn it.

I walked and took the bus to the market to relieve Jason, and sold a lot of almonds. Somebody came by from another holiday market, in Wayzata, where the rich people live. She said that it was full of fantastically turned-out women. “I swear, Tom, the older they are, the higher the heels on their boots. It makes their butts look firmer. They aren’t buying anything, and they look at you like you’re a bug.”

I thought of statistical tragedy and immediate tragedy. I thought of my ugly little car, ripped off by some dim little jerk, looking for a warmer way to get home. Immediate theft. Cold, well kept women in fur jackets and knee-high boots with stiletto heels, driving second or third cars that cost more than my house, while their husbands cook the books to keep little Muffy and Chert in ponies. Statistical theft. There’s a clutch of women walking miles, through sub-Saharan Africa, to get water every day because of each one of those Wayzata wives. I’ll be damned if I whimper.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Drive Your Car The Professional Way

I used to be a rotten driver. When I was a teenager, I had accident after accident. The main problem was that I didn’t pay attention, and the reason I didn’t pay attention was that I didn’t know what I was supposed to pay attention to.

That seems strange to say. You’re supposed to pay attention to road conditions, other drivers, and things like speed. There are signs that tell you that the road is going to curve, that you shouldn’t pass here, and what’s a safe speed. It’s a dumb kid who can’t follow directions.

That’s fair, but I see people every day, grownups, too, who don’t know what to pay attention to. It’s a skill, and one that nobody taught me until I drove professionally. Maybe it’s all a driver’s education teacher can handle to teach a couple dozen squirrelly fifteen year olds the legal details, like what diamond-shaped yellow signs mean, or the mechanics of moving a thousand pounds of metal down a narrow strip of concrete.

Not so. Trucking firms and bus companies usually teach new hires a driving system that keeps them out of major accidents. (Or should. Some drivers are less receptive than others.) Drivers who have been trained in other places, or who have been driving for many miles are included in a company’s training, because driving systems, like the Smith Safety Keys, keep buses out of the shop, and insurance premiums low (to say nothing of keeping people safe).

There’s a mnemonic for the safety keys: “All Good Kids Like Milk,” but I always have to think to remember it. The “Keys” are:

Aim high in steering. The actual technique is to pay attention fifteen seconds ahead of you. At highway speeds, that’s a quarter mile or more. Notice if there are cars fifteen seconds ahead of you, if there is a curve or reduce-speed sign. What are the cars up there doing? Are there brake lights? Is somebody in some trouble you need to avoid? A trick, in city driving, is to watch the stoplights, and try to anticipate changes. Is that light “fresh,” meaning that it just changed to green, or is it “stale,” about to change to red? Keep scanning rows of parked cars, driveways, alleys, and intersections for “snipers,” vehicles and pedestrians about to do something dumb or rude, and make your life hard.

Get the big picture. Pay attention to the road conditions. How crowded is the road? Are there pedestrians or parked cars? Do you have vehicles in the lane to your right or to your left? Are you going into some place you shouldn’t? There are a lot more parking-lot fender benders than serious, highway accidents. You need to pay attention in places where you’re obliged to drive slowly, and there may be places where your shouldn’t go.

Keep your eyes moving. This may be the hardest, because it can feel artificial, or like you need to study what you see, but practice. I had one teacher who insisted that I move my head and shoulders, so, she said,  that the official who tested me would see that I was keeping my eyes moving. Really, she was training me to really keep-my-eyes-moving. Look fifteen seconds up the road, move your eyes to the car right in front of you, check your left mirror, check your right mirror (buses and trucks don’t have rear windows, but in a car, check your inside mirror), look left then right then left at an intersection, check your gauges, look fifteen seconds ahead. Don’t stop.

Leave yourself an out. First, and most important, maintain your interval. Trucks and buses need to stay four seconds behind the car in front. Greyhound tells its drivers to stay five seconds back. Lighter vehicles don’t take as long to stop as big ones, but your reaction time is the same in either. Minnesota used to tell drivers to stay two seconds back, now it says three. Increase your following distance as roads get wet or it gets darker. On four lane roads, don’t linger next to another vehicle. This way, you can steer into a slot in the next lane, as well  as brake to avoid an accident. If somebody moves into the slot next to you, slow a little to make them pass you.

Make them see you. Drive with your lights on. Use your turn signals. Responsible shops don’t let trucks and buses go when their horns don’t work. Don’t use your horn to scold stupid drivers, but do use it to keep them from hitting you.

Knowing how to drive, I find myself enjoying the scandal of other drivers’ bad habits. In other words, I get pissed off. I find that if I see myself as the grownup, responsible for the safety of myself and the drivers around me, I calm down.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Robert Reich's Supercapitalism

Robert Reich was Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor from 1993 until 1997, and teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. In his 2007 book, Supercapitalism, he outlines the history of the rise of global capitalism, to the detriment of democracy, local community, and the environment.

Reich tells of the “not quite golden age” of capitalism, in the years between World War II and Viet Nam. That was a time of paternalistic employers and “corporate statesmen” who considered all stakeholders, shareholders, employees, and communities in operating their companies. A hyper-competitive international capitalism -- “supercapitalism” -- has replaced capitalism’s “not quite golden” form. Consequently, human interests (and, after all, what is business for?) have suffered.

Reich doesn’t blame the usual villains, Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts and deregulation. Supercapitalism came out of Cold War technology, and developed-world citizens’ hunger for bargains and return on investment. Computers, global communication, and global transportation let manufacturing go where overhead was lowest. (Those shipping containers, that go from dock to ship to railroad car, and that you’re supposed to be able to convert to post-industrial hovels, were developed for sending ordnance to Viet Nam. Carriers, looking for return cargo, helped establish small Asian manufacturers, who began to compete with American industry. Ironic, huh?) Harried consumers, trying to make ends meet and save for retirement, demanded cheap consumer goods and growth in our stock portfolios. Business organized to influence government, partly to externalize costs to society, but mostly to protect themselves from competitors.

Consumers-1; Citizens-0.

Reich says that corporate executives responsibility is to satisfy consumers, making money for their investors. As long as they do this legally, they are doing what they are supposed to do. The answer lies in what’s legal. Government needs to regulate industry, rather than vilify its leaders. With the vast industry of lawyers, experts, and publicists arrayed by business to influence government, this is unlikely. Citizens need to demand campaign finance reform and reform of the lobbying industry.

My quibble with Supercapitalism is that it ignores the effects of both declining fuel reserves and climate change. This would probably have distracted from Reich’s argument, which was new to me, but I’d still be interested to hear how supercapitalism and resource crises will interfere with each other.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Earthships For Spaceship Earth

Here's an ideal, a self-contained house -- no utility hookups, none -- constructed from society's castoffs. I learned that buildings have their own metabolisms when I weatherized conventional houses for the DOE, but this is ninety steps closer to house-as-extension-of-human-metabolism, Homo sap's equivalent to bee's waxy dwellings: Michael Reynolds' Earthships.

The objection is that we're committed to existing structures, and part of a house's energy cost is its construction. Once again, earthships are an ideal. If you build, build something that takes care of itself, and uses waste from other cycles as components. If you have a house, tune it with Earthships in mind.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

John Henry And The Budget Truck

I drove the rented Budget truck across Macomb to my Aunt Martha’s house. She had the desk my grandfather had made from cherry wood harvested at the farm, and which my Aunt Elizabeth had left me in her will. Brother, Tim, his 19-year old son, Conor, brother-in-law, Ed, and his son-in-law, Darren, were there to lend muscle.

We pulled the single drawer from the desk, and Ed and Darren carried the desk down the narrow stairs, through the living room, and out the front to the curb. I moved furniture to clear the path. The desk isn’t heavy, twenty pounds tops, but it is top heavy, and a little awkward to carry. The truck was around the corner, maybe two hundred feet away, and I said I’d move the truck so Ed and Darren wouldn’t have to lug the desk any further. Because the street in front of Marts’s house is a one way that would force me away from my helpers and the desk, I drove around the block. While driving I realized that the truck was using more energy than Ed and Darren would have.

Later I did the math. The amount of energy used to drive about a quarter mile is slight enough that it fades into the noise of a 440-mile trip, but it’s real. I’ve made a lot of assumptions and rounded everything, but when I guessed, I guessed in a way that would be likelier to say that Ed and Darren would have used more energy than the truck.

Truck MPG: 440 Miles/31 Gallons~14MPG (The bulk of my driving was rural, mainly Interstate, so MPG for my trip around the block was higher than 14.)

Fuel Used: 14 MPG/0.25 Mile=1/56 Gallon;

1 Gallon Gasoline=125,000 BTU;

BTU for Trip=1/56X125,000=2,232 BTU;

3.964 BTU/1 Food Calorie;

2,232/3.964=563 Food Calories Used by Truck in Going around the Block.

I used the exercise and activity calculator to figure how many calories Ed and Darren would have burned by carrying the desk around the corner. The calculator had them carrying bricks, but it didn’t specify how many. I assumed it would have taken them two minutes.

Calories Used by Two 150-Pound Men Carrying Bricks for Two Minutes: 36;

Factor by Which Truck Energy Use Exceeded Human Expenditure: 563/36=16.

It is a very nice desk, historically significant, and one of a kind. I needed to go to Macomb anyway.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Spam Blog

It's great when somebody comments.

What I'm trying to do is promote a point of view which, while not unique to me, I hold dear, and which I can articulate well. Besides, the more visits comments and followers I get, the more the spiders (whatever they are) are aware of me, and the higher Can't Learn Less will be to the top of the page when you Google something I've written about.

Somebody commented strangely on my methane digester/science fair post. The message was a string of dots, and I was disappointed that whoever it was didn't leave a message, or was too arch for me to understand. I forgot about it over the weekend, then something moved me to click on the name. I found a nearly empty profile, with a link to a blog. The blog was empty, too, except for a very few headings in Asian characters. Next, I clicked on one of the dots, and it took me to some soft-core porn: young woman, in thong, posing provocatively on rumpled bed, more Asian characters.

I found out that the blog is called a spam blog, and reported it to Blogspot.

Maybe I have my head in the clouds, but is this good marketing? It took me almost a week to think to click on the name and the dots, and it was vanity about my blog that made me do so. I suppose a machine put the links there, and put them in millions of other places. What a world!

Thanksgiving Day: Here's To Change

Barbara and I drove four hundred or so miles to Macomb, Illinois, home of Western Illinois University, formerly home of a bunch of stuff, formerly home to me. We celebrated Thanksgiving Day with brother, sisters, cousins, mother, aunt, family friends, and various children, diapered to diapering.

Mom has moved to an apartment, and manged to sell the house. We loaded two rented trucks, and various cars. Then we took things to a megachurch secondhand store, and the dump. Well, the dump was closed. We’d never heard of a dump closed on Thanksgiving, so rather than put the garbage on top of another pile of garbage at the bottom of a fifteen-foot cliff, and risk blind justice and twenty-seven color glossy photos with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, and all the rest, we went down the alleys, distributing the garbage in the dumpsters behind student apartments. Payback is sweet. And the students were out of town, at their own Thanksgivings.

I got some of my dad's jazz records, a copy of Catch-22 that he had stuffed with newspaper clippings, a bunch of lamps that I didn’t want, and a fairly new leather sofa. I also brought back a desk that my Aunt Elizabeth had bequeathed me. It was locally made, around 1920, from a cherry tree that grew at the family woods.

I took the pictures in Macomb, or on the way back. There still are profitable, local businesses in Macomb, but the damage done by chains and franchises, concentrated wealth, offshoring, and military extravagance are evident. If you go one county seat west, every last one of the buildings facing that courthouse is empty. A few years past-peak, and Macomb will look the same. All those buildings -- plumbed heated and wired -- all those unemployed people and people toiling to burn oil and make somebody else rich. What a waste.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Methane Science Fair Project

Here’s a high school science fair project for a student whose parents own a feedlot, a video camera, and a fire extinguisher. Your very own methane digester, made out of inner tubes.

The plans came out of the hippie movement (New Alchemy Cell) in 1973. Stephen Gaskin said that roach clips were the height of hippie technology, in a lot of the towns he visited. Not so Falmouth, Massachusetts. You could see if the folks here still have a copy for an energetic kid. There were some New Alchemy papers online there as PDFs today (good science fair ideas, too), but not this one. If you strike out there, get in touch with me.

(This is the first of three posts for this date.)

Transition Town Handbook From A Friend

Good neighbor Joe Hesla brought by a copy of Rob Hopkins’ The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to oil resilience. Joe is a high school math teacher who is trying to organize a mutual self-reliance group in the Corcoran Park Neighborhood. The Transition Town movement assumes increasing fuel scarcity, and aims to replace fossil fuels with human ingenuity.

The book wouldn’t fit onto my scanner bed. There’s a motto at the bottom of the cover quoting Richard Heinberg, “If your town is not yet a transition town, here is the guidance for making it one. We have little time and much to accomplish.”

Blogging (and the gift of brevity)

A friend I draw with asked me why I blogged. I stammered something about having a point of view that doesn’t get enough press. Another (pictured) said she’d read me, but didn’t like to read that much text online. Me neither.

From here on out, I expect to be a little more...uh...aphoristic.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Alternate Liner Notes: Patty Larkin's La Guitara

Some artists feed your thoughts back to you. When Barbara introduced me to singer-songwriter Patty Larkin around the turn of the century, I knew this was a grownup who had watched the same craziness that I had during the first thirty years of my adult life. I thought of rock-and-rollers, born within toilet training of 1950, that moved me, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Winwood, Mark Knopfler, David Johansen, Jackson Browne, and wondered why I’d never heard of this one.

At the end of her performance of “Don’t” on her live compilation, A Go Go, Larkin says, “I believe black leather is optional. I believe girls can play guitar. I believe it’s not butter.” In her liner notes for guitar anthology, La Guitara, she writes, “It’s so over. This - ‘There are no girls/women/chicks (god help us) who play guitar.’ This - ‘Why are there no great female rock guitar players? Must be genetic.’ This is the eye opener.” La Guitara is in support of Larkin’s thesis that “girls can play guitar.”

For a while I argued with Larkin. Of course girls can play guitar, but they don’t play the kind of guitar that rock gods play. Rock and roll is cheaper, schmaltzier, more accessible. A jilted twenty year-old boy recognizes the bombastic grief of Clapton and Allman’s “Layla,” turned around by Bobby Whitlock’s piano solo, and resolved with a calmer guitar bridge, one that feels like the you just gave that last sighing sob. Don’t get me started on Nick Drake or Tim Buckley. Emotionalism -- and familiarity -- that doesn’t have much to do with virtuosity -- Clapton and Allman notwithstanding -- make guitar gods more common than goddesses, but Larkin has enough to claim a spot in the pantheon, and lyrically she’s at least up to Lou Reed-Rhymin’ Simon level.

I was skeptical about the other guitarists on La Guitara. There used to be a lot of Leo Kottke records in a house where I lived, and I expected the record to be expert wallpaper. Some of La Guitara is dry, and a lot of it isn’t rock, but repeated listening has me going, “Whoa...dude!”

Wu Man opens with an “Invocation” on the pipa, a Chinese lute, dating from twenty-two hundred years ago. The tune is fairly Asian-sounding, but accompaniment and studio technique give “Invocation” a modern and western sound. This is the toughest nut for me to crack. It’s also short, and feels like a curtain opener, a stately, mysterious procession of unresolved phrases, over a bass drone, and against various muddy bells and electronic effects.

Sharon Isbin plays a classical “La Catedral: ii Allegro solemne,” by Augustine Barrios Mangore. Does it count if you didn’t write it? The Cathedral is a good name for the piece, and it makes me imagine column after column marching toward the altar, and Gothic ribs soaring overhead. There’s mystery to this piece as well, but the mystery is resolved again and again, perhaps as an allegory of faith.

Patty Larkin plays my favorite piece on the album, “Bound Brook.” Bound Brook is a town in New Jersey, thirty or forty miles west of New York city, but I’m guessing the song is named after the city’s namesake stream, which flows through a swamp. The musical “Bound Brook” is a studio piece with Larkin playing at least two guitars. She opens by repeating the same phrase several times. Something about the melody or the recording makes this sound antique. After establishing the vamp, Larkin plays over it on an electric slide guitar. A violinist friend of mine once wondered why we electrify guitars. To get this kind of color. The lead switches to rippley fingerpicking, still over the vamp, silver filigree against the slide’s satin, then back to satin.

Memphis Minnie takes us from faux antique to 1932 -- complete with static hiss -- in a record cut with Kansas Joe, “Let’s Go to Town.” The song is an acoustic twelve-bar blues instrumental with a lot of variety. It bounces like a flivver heading down a bumpy country road on Saturday night.

Mimi Fox takes us from Northern Mississippi to what's gotta be Manhattan, with “Lady Byrd.” It’s an unaccompanied jazz piece on electric. It’s pretty abstract, but about the time I was ready to start singing Rodgers and Hart’s “I Like to Recognize the Tune,” Fox hits us with the melody. It’s very little-black-dress-and-martini-esque.

Kaki King’s “Kewpie Station” rocks. One girl, one guitar, and lots of melody and percussion. King contrasts her string snapping and slapping, harmonics, and bass-string melody, with more familiar-sounding fingerpicking. Kewpies were cloyingly cute baby dolls and a series of illustrations by Rose O’Neill in the Ladies Home Journal, circa 1909. I didn’t hear one of them in this song.

Ellen McIlwaine, likewise rocks on “Sidu,” but differently. McIlwaine was an American who had Jimi Hendrix in her band for a while, and whom I’ve vaguely included in that British milieu that included Burt Jansch and Richard Thompson. This tune is a raga-like slide guitar tune (a Guild steel-string head shows in the photograph). It’s very world-music, with a scat vocal that sounds like a muezzin in heat.

Badi Assad (say the dees like jays) plays a Sergio Assad number, “Preludio e Toccatina.” We are introduced with a soothing, Spanish-sounding passage that could be the “quiet chords” in Jobim and Lee’s “Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars.” Soon, though, we’re caught by an ascending, almost shrill, scale, and we know something else is going on here. There are suspense and importance, and nostalgia, sometimes childish melodies, with the guitar singing two strong parts. Assad teases us with a long ending, and finishes with a chord and a slap. Is this song about sex?

Alex Houghton plays “The Bear” with bass, drum, and loop accompaniment. “The Bear” lumbers playfully, exploring its range, but constantly forges ahead. “The Bear” is one of the two or three prettiest tunes on the album, and the most rhythmically interesting.

Vicki Genfan’s “Joy” is a reflective tune. Genfan is a fingerpicker, and a string tapper. Harmonics also figure prominently in this composition.

Muriel Anderson contributes a piece by Isaac Albenz, “Rumores de la Caleta.” I tried to translate the title, but wound up guessing that it means “sounds of the cove.” If it does, it’s apt. This is another classical piece, and could represent lapping waves and offshore breezes.

Rory Block contributed an original, “Guitar Ditty.” Block, the daughter of a Greenwich Village sandalmaker (!), discovered the blues at fifteen and might be expected to provide a cover by one of her Delta Blues mentors. This is a slide piece and a blues. When Patty Larkin said “I believe girls can play guitar,” Block had to be at the top of the list.

Jennifer Batten. “Whammy Damage.” Operatic metal. Storm and fury. Hammers. Pull-offs. Slides. Distortion. Phantom of the Opera on acid. No accompaniment. This is the next-to-last song on the album, and Larkin had to be thinking “Nobody expects a chick to play like this.”

Elizabeth Cotten, 1895-1987, closes La Guitara with her tune, “Wilson Rag.” Cotten composed the folk-instrumental standard, “Freight Train,” and you can the same writer's voice on “Wilson Rag.” There’s a powerful contrast between this song and the previous one, and Larkin probably finished with Cotten to say, “Here’s one you'll like. Bet you didn't know a girl did it.”

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Ten: Thinking About The Tragedy Of The Commons

The case is that overpopulation is a problem without a technical solution; the solution has to be in the behavior of individuals; individuals whose consciences allow them to act against the larger interest will out-compete individuals who act in the larger interest, and shape the future to fit their desires; coercion of individuals by society is necessary, both to keep irresponsible people from shaping the future, and to be fair to those same, conscienceless individuals; there are precedents for this kind of restricted freedom; society’s net freedom will increase because there will be less wear and tear on the commons, that decline restricting freedom by reducing wealth; the restriction, “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon,” must be negotiated among the members of society.

The web site where I read “The Tragedy of the Commons,”, includes an objection to Hardin’s argument, by Beryl Crowe. The essence of the objection is that social values are too diverse to allow the negotiation of mutual coercion.

Hardin was writing hard on the heels of the civil rights movement, and at the height of the Viet Nam War, and its antithetical social experimentation. Hardin himself seems to have been partisan to the antithesis, given his comments about the “Dark Age of Eros” and Puritanism. American society may have seemed almost monolithic then, in spite of war resistance, psychedelics, and the sexual revolution. America was a white protestant milieu, at a peak of human wealth, under the fairly benign gaze of paternalistic capitalism. Catholic and Jewish assimilation, black assertion of equal rights, feminism, Islam, Buddhism, new age beliefs, and immigration of various refugee populations have diversified American values, but the greatest challenges to finding an agreement to mutual coercion are probably the ascendance of a presumptuous brand of Christianity, and a suburban solipsism whose adherents believe that the First Amendment to the Constitution and one passage in the Declaration of Independence bestow equal value to every point of view, and absolve them from the “responsibility” (sorry, Garrett) to acknowledge a superior analysis, or even a problem: “I’m sorry. I just don’t believe that.”

Hardin was writing with more than half of the oil to be pumped still in the ground, and the promise of more to be discovered. Nuclear power was a popular energy strategy, most objections to it only demanding easily understood technological solutions. I can recall public service announcements on television about overpopulation, and Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet was not far in the future, but Hardin was writing ahead of his time. Since then we have reached the moment of peak oil, when getting oil becomes harder and the bidding for it fiercer. The world’s population in 1968 was 3.56 billion, in 2009 it will hit 6.8 billion, almost twice 1968’s figure. Besides fuel, people are struggling with soil depletion, species extinction, climate change, and economic catastrophes with various immediate or proximate causes but which are rooted in the problem of providing for a growing population from a finite world. The situation is has become critical.

Hardin’s prescription is frightening: “Let’s surrender some of our freedoms, and punish people who won’t cooperate.” Libertarianism is basic to any American’s world view. At a tender age, we hear about laissez faire capitalism in Social Studies Class, and think, “That’s a pretty good idea.” In my generation’s religious instruction, we heard that temporal authority is hierarchical, with the authority of the state bestowed by God, and recalled that a few years before, our fathers had gone to war against an expanding empire whose fantasies moved it to torture and kill millions of its own. We know that finally each of us must decide the nature of the world and our own ways of negotiating it. Not only is Hardin asking us to surrender freedom, he’s asking for an expansion of our understandings of the world so great that it bridges a foundational notion.

As I made these notes, two alternatives to Hardin’s choice between mutual coercion and crash occurred to me. The first was that a pervasive new myth, in harmony with modern understanding of the world might spread the necessary ethic. It doesn’t seem likely, but who would have bet on Christianity two thousand years ago? The other is a hope based on Buckminster Fuller’s saying, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Will permaculture be enough, or will we have to oblige everyone to mimic and integrate with nature?

Today's illustration is a painting I did about a year ago, The Hole-in-the-Wall Miser.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tragedy Of The Commons IX: Recognition Of Necessity

Hardin summarizes that commons are justifiable “only under conditions of low population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.”

We started with food, abandoning hunting and gathering for agriculture. Later we abandoned the commons as space for waste disposal. Restrictions on sewerage disposal are typical in the developed world, but we ‘are still struggling” with disposal of toxins, radioactive waste, exhaust, etc.

“In a still more embryonic state, is our recognition of the evils of the commons in matters of pleasure.” Hardin mentions canned music, noisy airliners (specifically the SST which is now gone, leaving behind slower, but noisy enough kin), and advertising. He wonders if we are slower to recognize and regulate interference with pleasure because of Puritan guilt, and our acceptance of punishment for pleasure.

(There was a passage I didn’t outline in the section, “Pathogenic Effects of Conscience.” The passage about pleasure reminded me of it. “We in the Western world are just emerging from a dreadful two centuries-long Dark Ages of Eros that was sustained partly by prohibition laws, but perhaps more effectively by the anxiety-generating mechanisms of education. Alex Comfort has told the story well in The Anxiety Makers. It is not a pretty one.” Alex Comfort was the author of The Joy of Sex. I approve Hardin’s recognition of pleasure and its repression, but have a hard time integrating that with this essay.)

Hardin says every enclosure of the commons infringes on somebody’s liberty.

(“Enclosure of the commons” is a specific historical reference to the nobility’s forcing peasants and yeoman farmers into mines and factories.)

Past infringements don’t disturb us because, never having had the liberties, we don’t feel the loss. New infringements make us conscious of our rights or prerogatives. Hardin asks what freedom means. He says that when people outlawed robbery, we became more free. “Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free only to bring on universal ruin; once they see the necessity of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals.” He quotes Hegel that “Freedom is the recognition of necessity.”

Our greatest current necessity is to abandon the commons in breeding. He reminds us that there is no technical solution to overpopulation. He continues to recap that we’re tempted to propagandize for conscience so that we don’t have to do the hard work of negotiating coercion. We should avoid that “temptation, because an appeal to conscience selects for the disappearance of conscience in the long run, and increases anxiety in the short run.

He says this is the only way we can “nurture other and more precious freedoms.” Education should “reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed.”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tragedy Of The Commons VIII: Mutual Coercion Mutually Agreed Upon

In this section, Hardin begins, “The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that create coercion of some sort.” He argues in general that it is proper to institute coercive reforms, beginning with the obvious extreme of prohibiting banks robbers’ treating banks as commons. This section mostly argues by providing a series of examples. From bank robbery prohibition, Hardin moves to one in which society coerces temperance.

Parking meters and fines are ways in which “carefully biased options limit parking. Hardin says he prefers the “candor of the word coercion” to calling this persuasion. Coercion is a dirty word but Hardin says that it need not remain so. He isn’t talking, he says, about the coercion of remote, arbitrary bureaucrats, but “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.” “We accept compulsory taxes because we recognize that voluntary taxes would favor the conscienceless.”

He says this coercion doesn’t have to be perfectly just to be preferable to the commons, and supports this assertion with the example of private property and legal inheritance. Hardin says that justice would require that “ those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power” should inherit more, but that heirs often lack their ancestors’ virtues. We tolerate the system of property and legal inheritance because “the alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate,” and “injustice is preferable to total ruin.”

(I didn’t realize we were so thoughtful. It seems to me that we have the system we do because people organize to maintain their status. It may be that this system is preferable to the commons, but I’d like to throw a hankering for justice into the mix. Is custodial fitness for wealth and power identical to the fitness it takes to accumulate wealth and power? I’m sure I’m not the only schoolboy who noticed a paradox in which a good king was preferable to a venal and ignorant democracy, but that the good king could spawn a tyrant or fool.)

Hardin points out that there is a war between the status quo and reform, governed by a double standard. Reform must be perfect to be instituted, and requires unanimous consent. He believes inertia is based on two unconscious assertions: “that the status quo is perfect,” or “that the choice we face is between reform and no action.” We think we should wait for a perfect proposal before reforming.

Status quo is action. We should measure the costs and benefits of both status quo and reform, “discounting as best we can for our lack of experience,” and act in our best interests.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tragedy Of The Commons VII: Pathogenic Effects Of Conscience

An appeal to conscience has short as well as long-term disadvantages. Near the end of this section, Hardin says that responsibility is an attempt by society to get something for nothing.

(Individual do or forbear to do something because it is right. In exchange society ought to hold those individual harmless, relative to their competitors. If some individuals act in the general interest because it is right, and others individuals act in their own interests, against the larger interest, society has the advantage of the responsible individuals’ actions, without the cost of protecting them.)

The exploiter in the appeal to conscience hears that he will be condemned as irresponsible if he continues, and as a “simpleton” if he stops. Hardin invokes Bateson’s Double-Bind Theory of Schizophrenia.

("Double-Bind," not "double-blind." The idea is that paradoxical communication sets up the receiver to expect punishment no matter how he chooses: “Tell me you love me.” “I love you.” “Why do you only say you love me when I ask you?” An appeal to conscience will probably not produce many schizophrenics because the targets of appeals-to-conscience presumably have fully-formed ego, but it may be that pathological. The exploiter who is contemplating reform may expect the appeal’s founders to use his holding back to out-compete him. Certainly somebody will.)

Hardin says that appeals to conscience are tempting to leaders. He says every president in “the past generation” (Truman to Johnson) has asked labor to voluntarily keep wages low, and asked steel companies to keep prices low.

(More recently, Robert Reich, in his book Supercapitalism, has accused Congress of holding hearings, in which, by castigating business people, they appear vigilant, and business gets to continue to exploit, neither suffering the inconvenience of regulatory legislation. Appeals to conscience are a way for leaders to act without risking political capital. Talk is cheap.)

Hardin quotes Paul Goodman on guilt: “ ‘No good has ever come from feeling guilty, neither intelligence, policy, nor compassion. The guilty do not pay attention to the object but only to themselves, and not even to their own interests, which might make sense, but to their anxieties’.”

Hardin opposes policies of which the “tendency (if not the intention) is psychologically pathogenic.” Propaganda campaigns “browbeat” people into acting against their own interests. “Responsibility is a verbal counterfeit of a substantial quid pro quo.”

(The honest quid pro quo would be honest commerce, facilitated by regulation.)

Hardin says that if the word is used at all, it should be “the product of definite social arrangements.”

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tragedy Of The Commons VI: Conscience Is Self-Eliminating

We can’t control population by an appeal to conscience. Hardin says the argument is straightforward and Darwinian.

* Some people will respond to the appeal to conscience more than others;

* Those who don’t will produce more of the next generation;

* Differences will increase with each generation, with more active breeders coming to dominate.

(I believe this is the case for other appeals to conscience. A polluter has an economic advantage over his more scrupulous competitor. Because people organize to defend and expand their interests the more successful competitors will be better able to codify their right to pollute -- and to increase their increasingly larger share of the commons -- and to persuade others of the propriety of their doing so. This would extinguish Homo greenus, replaced by Homo pollutus.)

I’ll quote the entire final paragraph of this section, but Hardin uses a word “exosomatically” which I couldn’t find in either my dictionary or college Biology textbook. He’s talking about attitudes that children acquire from family custom and other social conditioning. (Exo=Outside; Somatic=Body)

“The argument assumes that conscience or the desire for children (no matter which) is hereditary -- but hereditary only in the most general formal sense. The result will be the same whether the attitude is transmitted through germ cells, or exosomatically, to use A. J. Lotka’s term. (If one denies the latter possibility as well as the former, then what’s the point of education?) The argument has been stated in the context of the population problem, but it applies equally well to any instance in which society appeals to an individual exploiting a commons to restrain himself for the general good -- by means of his conscience. To make such an appeal is to set up a selective system that works toward the elimination of conscience from the race.”

(Once again, you don’t have to be a Darwinian to buy this. If you kept tall people from marrying, you would breed short people. If you kept literate people from marrying, you would breed illiterates. If you rewarded short or illiterate people for marrying, the results would be the same.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tragedy of the Commons V: Freedom To Breed Is Intolerable

Hardin uses a quote from an essay for International Planned Parenthood News by U Thant in this section. U Thant was secretary general of the United Nations between 1961 and 1971, maybe the period when that body was most effective and widely respected. “ ‘The Universal Declaration on Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.’”

Hardin disagrees vehemently and essentially (and regretfully?) with U Thant’s assertion. He says that population affects the commons by its demands on resources as well as by using it as a sink for pollution. In a “dog-eat-dog” world parents who breed too enthusiastically would contribute less the gene pool/world’s population. (Note that the contribution is to both the number of booties on the ground, and to the population’s character.) Enthusiastic parents would be less able to care for their children, so fewer children would survive. He says this has been found to be the case among birds. “But men are not birds,” and may never have acted like birds. We don’t let the children of improvident parents starve. Hardin says society is committed to the welfare state. (Maybe the commitment is deeper than society, deeper than inventions like the welfare state. Hardin hinted at this in the discussion about birds, saying, men have not acted like birds for millenniums, at least.) The fact of the matter is that overbreeding limits the freedoms of society’s less prolific members, by concentrating resources among the more prolific families. (This is the point when Hardin most succinctly and cogently makes the case for what seems like a trespass, limiting human freedom at its most intimate. I don’t have to allow you the freedom to promiscuously limit my freedom. This thought resonates with Hardin’s earlier statement that “It is when hidden decisions are made explicit that the arguments begin.” I think he would agree that many of our libertarian inhibitions are merely conditioned, although this thought is far beyond any of “Tragedy’s” discussions.)

(In this section, Hardin is introducing the idea of selection in human heredity. You don’t have to believe that species come into being because of natural selection to recognize that humans pass on their physical characteristics. If you were to prevent marriage between tall people, over the generations, there would be fewer and fewer tall people.)

“...if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if thus, overbreeding brought its own ‘punishment’ to the germ line -- then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is so deeply committed to the welfare state, and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.”

(What is the "tragedy of the commons"? It is that individuals' "rationally" maximizing their own gains from a common resource, inevitably ruins the common.)

The dilemma in a contemporary “welfare state” is that freedom to breed is recognized as inalienable, and everyone is seen as having an equal right to the commons. Hardin says this dilemma “locks the world into a tragic course of action.”

Because this dilemma is held adamantly, either formally or tacitly in most of the world (this is the point when Hardin quotes U Thant), it’s difficult but important to deny “the validity of this right.” Hardin says that in denying it he imagines he knows how difficult it would have been for a seventeenth century resident of Salem, Massachusetts to deny the existence of witches. He says that there is a liberal taboo against speaking against the UN which has articulated the idea of a right to breed freely. He recommends speaking openly against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and persuading both the UN and Planned Parenthood away from their points of view.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Tragedy Of The Commons IV: How To Legislate Temperance

Hardin Says,“The morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed.” In other words an act may be moral at one time and immoral at another.

(This is situation ethics, which usually seems to refer to divergences from religion’s or society’s prohibitions. Thou shalt not commit adultery, except in cases of... What I think Hardin is getting at is a harder morality. Individuals -- or society -- need to know when to refrain from doing things they think of as perfectly benign, even necessary. Hardin’s main case is reproduction, but I think of diet, in terms of both curbing gluttony, and tailoring diet according to economic and ecological circumstances: What is the diet for a small planet?)

Hardin says this follows from an analysis of pollution as a function of population. Pollution of the frontier doesn’t harm the common good. In a city it can’t be allowed. Likewise frontiersmen could be careless in harvesting bison, but we have to manage the few that remain.

Hardin says that the morality of shooting an elephant or setting grasslands on fire “doesn’t show up in a photograph.” “The essence of an argument cannot be photographed: it must be presented rationally -- in words.”

(Was there a public service announcement on television that I don’t remember from the time, showing dead elephants or a burning savanna? In any case, the cliche is to accuse an anecdote of being “just a snapshot,” one moment of many.)

Our traditional morality is not “system-sensitive.” It is a list of prohibitions, “Thous shalt not.” This doesn’t work to govern a “complex, crowded, changeable world.” Because we don’t know when it’s okay to shoot an elephant or dump industrial waste into a stream, we “augment statutory law with administrative law.” We make laws that create corruption -- offices of vulnerable, venal, or incompetent bureaucrats. “Quis custodiet ispsos custodes?” “Who watches the watchmen?” Hardin quotes John Adams that we must have a government of laws, not men, and says that bureaucracies create governments of men, not laws, but lands, with regret on the side of bureaucracy.

(The ultimate answer, maybe not in this century, but eventually, must be wisdom. The problem is how to reach that time when everyone wises up. The bureaucracy is the expedient. We might hope that religion would answer, Bateson’s gods’ standing for cybernetic function, while we do our purposive, non-cybernetic calculations. Would that mean a change in existing churches’ teachings, or a new cult? Traditional myths don’t fit with modern understandings, churchgoers take their religion cafeteria style, and thinkers who could forge new myth would have a hard time taking the task seriously.)

Prohibition is easy, but temperance is hard. Hardin says, “We must limit possibilities unnecessarily, if we suppose the sentiment of Quis custodiet denies the use of administrative law. The great challenge facing us now is how to invent the corrective feedbacks that are needed to keep the custodians honest.” The authority of the custodians and the feedbacks must be legitimate.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tragedy Of The Commons III: Pollution

The tragedy Hardin outlines -- individuals’ maximizing personal wealth by overgrazing resources -- works similarly with pollution. A polluter pays the same tiny fraction of his damages as any other member of society, but increases his wealth without shring it. “We are locked into a system of fouling our own nest, so long as we behave as independent, rational free enterprisers.”

Private property, Hardin says, keeps us from overgrazing our land. (Maybe. Private landowners in 1968, and this year, allow soil loss, planting commodity crops.) But water and air practically have to be commons, and require “coercive laws” to protect them. Writing in 1968, Hardin says, “We have not progressed as far with the solution (to pollution) as we have with (overgrazing).”

(Hardin was writng four years in advance of the Federal Water Pollution Amendments of 1972, and nine years before the Clean Water Act, so we have made progress. We haven’t had a Great Lake catch fire for decades, but I would be skeptical about drinking from the Mississippi, which flows a mile and a half from my house, and I know I couldn’t take a mouthful of water from the creek back home without gagging. In the past year, there has been some attention to water pollution from compounds claimed by power plant stack scrubbers, and the murder of streams by mountain top removal. I assume the scrubbers are mandated, and the legislators goofed in not anticipating the new waste stream. Mountaintop removal is just goofy. The coal companies own the mountains, but have no plans for the land once the coal is exhausted, so effectively they’re renting it, and treat it like the kind of tenants who put their fists through the sheetrock. The streams are entirely somebody else’s problem.)

Harding says our concept of private property favors pollution. He says the law requires “elaborate stitching and fitting” to adapt to our current perceptions about the commons.

(Hardin is setting us up for the next section, “How to Legislate Temperance.” He says we need penalties for behavior that damages the commons. I would have liked to have talked to Hardin. I’m inclined to say it’s all a commons, and in spite of this paper’s seemingly wanting to eliminate commons, wonder if Hardin might not have felt the same. As nearly as I can tell there are two theories of property: “prior appropriation,” first to claim it keeps it, articulated in western American water-rights law; and “universal distribution of created goods,” articulated by the Catholic Church. I favor the latter. Could Hardin have arrived at the idea of making the commons private as an expedient for preserving it until such time as human beings muddle our way to distributing unevenly distributed goods equitably? The essay seems to be of two minds, one which would privatize the commons since people are more careful of what is theirs, and one which would coerce the behavior which would protect the commons.)

Population is the problem.

(But we’re stuck with it, barring die-off.)

Hardin’s grandfather (Hardin was born in 1915) told him that flowing water purifies itself every ten miles, but greater population overloads natural recycling processes. This calls for a redefinition of property rights.

(Something else that stretches Hardin’s grandfather’s ten miles of river is human ingenuity, which invents tougher wastes for the river to treat.)