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.