Friday, December 31, 2010

Lynn Margulis

I never believed what they told me, I believed what I saw myself.

                                                                                          Lynn Margulis

Lynn Margulis was born in 1938. She is a biologist and teaches in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Margulis is interested in how the cells that we're made of came to have parts called "organelles." She believes that complex cells, called "eukaryotes," are the descendants of simpler cells. The ancient, simpler cells tried to eat each other. Instead they began working relationships. They became parts of something new. Margulis says a cell isn't like a bacterium. It's "a microbial community."

 When Margulis first published these ideas, scientists didn't believe them. Now they are accepted by most biologists.

She believes that new species happen when existing species take on genes from other species. The traditional theory says that genes mutate, and if the mutations help, the new species survive. Margulis also helped originate the Gaia Hypothesis. The Gaia Hypothesis says that life works to keep the world's oxygen and other elements at the levels that life needs.

Marie Curie's Beauty Tips Department: Margulis was married to the late astronomer and television personality Carl Sagan, and is the mother of five.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Julian Assange And Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian scholar, born in 1911, died 1980, author of the books The Mechanical Bride, Gutenberg Galaxy, and Understanding Media among others. He is the author also of the statement "the medium is the message," and the phrase "global village." In fact another of his books is titled The Medium is the Massage, its idea being that media are extensions of our senses, whose use condition our nervous systems differently from each other. In other words, a television watcher will be have different, but no less real strengths than readers. McLuhan claimed that electronic media condition people in this culture to behave more like pre-literate villagers than like our great grandparents.

Julian Assange is an Australian-born activist and journalist, the editor of Wikileaks, the publisher of government and corporate files submitted by whistleblowers. Assange is currently in England battling extradition to Sweden to face charges of multiple sexual assaults. He asserts that he is resisting extradition because Sweden would be more likely than the UK to extradite him in turn to the United 
States. PayPal and various credit cards have stopped handling donations to Wikileaks, Wikileak apps are verbotten on the iPhone, and Wikileaks' Swiss bank has frozen its accounts. My take on it is that Wikileaks is the first of a phenomenon -- along with Stuxnet, improvised explosive devices, and extraordinary rendition, part of war as the planet now wages it -- and that whatever happens to it, the idea of an internet platform for whistleblowers to publish documents from the vaults of transgressing governments and companies is established and will co-evolve with efforts to defend against it.

There is a systematic tendency on the part of human beings to avoid accountability for their own decisions. That's why there are so many missing feedback loops -- and why this kind of leverage point is so often popular with the masses and unpopular with the powers that be, and effective, if you can get the powers that be to permit it to happen or go around them and make it happen anyway.

                                  Donella Meadows, "Places to Intervene in a System"

In 1986, the US government required that every factory releasing hazardous air pollutants report these emissions publicly. Suddenly everyone could find out what was coming out of the smokestacks in town. There was no law against these emissions, no fines,no determination of "safe" levels, just information. But by 1990 emissions dropped by 40 percent. One chemical company that found itself on the Top Ten Polluters list reduced its emissions by 90 percent just to "get off that list."

                                  Donella Meadows, "Places to Intervene in a System"

Missing feedback is a common cause of system malfunction. Adding or rerouting information can be a powerful intervention, usually easier and cheaper than rebuilding physical structure.

                                  Donella Meadows, "Places to Intervene in a System"

Real total war has become information war. It is being fought by subtle electric informational media -- under cold conditions, and constantly.

                                  Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage

A new form of politics is emerging and in ways we haven't yet noticed. The living room has become a voting booth. Participation via television in Freedom Marches, in war, revolution, pollution, and other events is changing everything.

                                  Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage

The instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once. No detachment or frame is possible.

                                   Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage

The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village.

                                   Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage

(Wikileaks defends itself against litigation)  by using every trick in the book that multinational companies use to route money through tax havens, Instead we route information.

                                   Julian Assange

Friday, December 10, 2010

Altgeld Portfolio

In 1986, I rode my bicycle from Minneapolis to Macomb, Illinois. In Macomb, I spent a week cleaning stalls at the Pres Oder Stables, and seeing friends. I spent a lot of time thinking about  permaculture -- although I didn't know the word -- and the adventure energized me. Back in Minneapolis, I did a comic I called "Altgeld Portfolio" about Altlgeld, a fictional college town which had found a way to thrive in a time when other small towns were dying. (John Peter Altgeld was an Illinois governor who sacrificed his career to behave with integrity toward labor, and toward three condemned activists who were framed for murder.)

I showed this thing all over the Twin Cities energy and environmentalist scene, but the nicest reaction I got was back in Macomb, where Rick Meloan told Joe Alexander that they should get John Long to travel around West Central Illinois buying up derelict VW Bugs, and bring them back to Alexander's farm for rehab.

Permaculture Comic Book (1987)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Honor a Neighbor Sketch

Sean Gosiewski and Rachel Hefte came to the Corcoran Neighborhood, a decade ago, to be near the Farmers’ Market and the Midtown YWCA. They and their eight-year old, Marianna, live with books cats and a piano, on a block where life-long Minnesotans like themselves (White Bear Lake and Fergus Falls) rub shoulders with transplants from Morales, Mexico.

Marianna is a lively kid, learning piano from her mother, and ballet (she wants to switch to tap), and swimming outside. She is a student at Dowling Urban Environmental School, and fascinated by her class’ current unit on “Westward Expansion.” While we talked, Marianna showed me a Conestoga wagon she had made from other toys and household odds and ends. She enjoys working in the family garden, and is a champion bean and carrot harvester.

In 1987, Rachel, in her middle twenties, picked Nicaraguan coffee. Her labor was useful, but another reason for the presence of young gringo coffee pickers, in Nicaragua, during that country’s civil war, was to make the Contra revolutionaries think twice about attacking the laborers. Rachel protected by young men with Kalishnikovs, and escaped massacre by one village. Since then she has taught, traveled to Namibia, and trained Anoka County workers in alternatives to violence. She is part of Garden Matters, working with community gardeners, and works as a professional facilitator, helping groups do vision and strategic planning.

Sean is the program director for Alliance for Sustainability, a Twin Cities-based organization whose mission is to promote just, humane, and ecologically and economically sound projects that will help civilization through its current rough patch. I met with the Hefte-Gosiewski household the day after the Sustainability Networking Fair at South High, organized by Sean. The Fair’s keynote speaker was Richard Heinberg, author of The Party’s Over and other books about energy and economics, a thinker who is planning for a sustainable energy mix around 2075. The Fair also hosted break-out sessions that discussed solar power, the Midtown Market, raising city chickens, and more. Sean says he likes making linkages between people and organizations. He’s a member of Corcoran Grows, this neighborhood’s Transition group, and one of his goals for Saturday was to see other Twin Cities neighborhoods form similar organizations. I asked him how he organizes an event like the Sustainability Networking Fair. He said that it takes “holding a vision of the day, and getting people to come.”

I came away from chatting with Rachel, Sean, and Marianna impressed and a little jealous of a family whose life together seems of a piece, and dedicated to a world which Marianna will see mature, peaceful and prosperous with solar income.

Hags and Hagiography

I write and draw a monthly neighbor profile for my neighborhood paper. I think of it as a sort of people magazine for ordinary people. I'm interested in people who do interesting things, and especially people who have ideas or have made things that will let civilization endure.

The three scans come from Grosset and Dunlap's 1931 offering, Minute Biographies: Intimate Glimpses into the Lives or 150 Famous Men and Women by Samuel Nisenson and Alfred Parker, and from a show of paintings by Rob Shetterely, Americans Who Tell the Truth. Some of those 150 men's and women's stock has gone up, and some down, in the seventy-nine years since Santa gave my eleven year old father Minute Biographies; Adolph Hitler is not among the 150, but Vladimir Lenin is included as the "Russian Emancipator." Shetterly's oil portraits are attractive, and his choices are exemplars of integrity and justice. My own preferences would be of people who know how to expedite those virtues in society.

Monday Night Drawings

My live drawing is going through a slump. I'd like to think that there's something happening that's inaccessible to my conscious notice, some synthesis or growth, so I keep plugging away.

These are drawings from Monday night. The young man, Garrett from Brisbane, was kind enough to model for our group, kept nicely still, and was in good humor throughout something like ninety uninterrupted minutes. Emma gave him the watercolor she painted, and Lisa photographed everybody's efforts for Garrett to take back to Oz. I feel like I'm coming along, and this drawing has its moments (look at the hands), but my measuring is uneven, and what I see is too raw.

The other drawings are of regular, Laura. Laura posed with a blanket-sized piece of tule, the stuff of bridal veils, looking to push us to new levels of composition. The damned stuff is stiff, transparent, white, and makes many complicated folds that rearrange themselves with the model's slightest fidgets. Even the mass's silhouette kept changing. I really do want to learn to draw drapery, but if I were going after tule, I'd start by setting it up in a series of still lives, and use scratchboard.

Tom Roark

I'm planning to expand this series of drawings, that includes Odum, Schumacher, Teilhard, and Hardin. The one above is a self portrait. The point of the exercise is to get adept at drawing from photographs, although my choice of subjects so far is fairly tendentious.

Garrett Hardin

The laws of our society follow the pattern of ancient ethics, and therefore are poorly suited to governing a complex, crowded, changeable world.

                                                                      Garrett Hardin

Garrett Hardin was a Texas ecologist (b. 1915, d. 2003), whose most widely read work is called The Tragedy of the Commons. In it, he discusses population, and lets population stand for any human choice that affects the environment's carrying capacity for humans.

His metaphor is a pasture (a "common") upon which a community of herdsmen feed their families' flocks. Each herdsman, as a rational being, will try to maximize the common's benefit to him by increasing the number of animals he runs. Any one of these pastoralists would be responsible for only marginal wear and tear on the pasture, but together, the community overgrazes it, and reduces the number of animals it can support, ultimately wrecking it.

This is parallel to human overpopulation, and to various other issues in which the interests of communities, or humanity as a whole, are different from those of individual, rational, economic beings. Hardin urged us to arrive at and regulate a consensus to regulate population, and those other issues.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

It is our duty as men and women to behave as though limits to our ability do not exist. We are collaborators in creation of the Universe.

                                                                                 Pierre Teilhard

Teilhard was a French Jesuit and paleontologist, born in 1881. He participated in the discovery of Peking Man, Homo erectus, in China in 1923.

Teilhard was the author of several books, reconciling evolution and Christianity, his masterwork being The Phenomenon of Man. When the Vatican and his Jesuit superiors forbade him from publishing, Father Teilhard was faithful to his vow of obedience. After his death in 1955, friends published his work.

To Teilhard, Christ is the personality of the Universe, and evolution is a process of convergence and complexification. We are drawn toward union with each other, and an ultimate union with God, which he called the Omega Point.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

E. F. Schumacher

Today, a person has to be wealthy to enjoy this simple thing, this very great luxury (to have hands and brain productively engaged): he has to be able to afford space and good tools; he has to be lucky enough to find a good teacher and plenty of time to learn and practice. He has to be rich enough not to need a job; for the number of jobs that would be satisfactory in these respects is very small indeed.

                                                                   E. F. Schumacher

It took me thirty-plus years to get around to reading Small Is Beautiful, the book that made E. F. Schumacher famous. I figured it must be smarmy, new-age something-or-other, but an economist-engineer I interviewed told me Schumacher was tough.

Schumacher was a German economist, born in 1911, who rejected the Third Reich, and fled to England. He became the British Coal Board's chief economist, and went on to consult with developing economies and the Carter White House.

If you get only two things out of Small Is Beautiful, they should be that modern commerce's abundance is based on capital, not income, and that "the chance to work is the greatest of all needs, and even poorly paid and relatively unproductive work is better than idleness."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Howard Odum

A whole generation of citizens thought that the carrying capacity of the earth was proportional to the amount of land under cultivation and that higher efficiencies in using the energy of the sun had arrived. This is a sad hoax, for industrial man no longe eats potatoes made from solar energy, now he eats potatoes partly made of oil.

                                                                                                      Howard Odum

I got two ideas from Howard Odum, an ecologist and member of the World War II generation who died in 2002.

If an energy source -- be it fossil fuel, nuclear, or solar -- produces a calorie of energy, that calorie isn't its yield, because of all the energy costs of obtaining, transporting, storing and using it. The yield is what it makes, minus what it takes to get it.

Embodied energy is the energy available to us, or that we can use to obtain other energy in some resource: oil, the sun, wind, gravity, manure, water, and so on.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Drawings Of The Bergstrom Kids

I expected these drawings to take about eight hours. These are the Bergstrom kids, grand niece and nephews of a friend from one of my drawing groups, Gillian, Ike, Gary, and Mikey. Instead it surprised me that I couldn't get the proportions right. Working from snapshots seems like a separate skill from drawing live models, and I unknowingly seem to have come to rely on the proportions and landmarks of adult faces. And I just couldn't catch the perspective of Mikey's far eye. The stakes were higher than usual, because I was drawing pictures of a stranger's beloved children. Freaked me out, and took half a year.

These are great kids, bright and polite. I especially enjoyed meeting Gillian, who is a fearless and outgoing baby. I am enormously pleased to get them off my easel!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Richard Heinberg, Short Version

I forgot to put on my hat the Saturday of the big wet snowstorm, and walked to South High for the Neighborhood Sustainability Networking Fair, “Building Resilient Communities: Preparing Together for an Changed World.” I was thinking I wouldn’t mind if the world waited a couple of years to change, but I do have ideas about how I’d like it to be, so I went looking for allies.

Alliance for Sustainability organized the event: vendor displays (energy conservation, gardening, electric cars, environmental justice, local food), topical and neighborhood discussions, and keynote speaker Richard Heinberg. Heinberg is a journalist, Senior Fellow at the  Post Carbon Institute, and author of The Party’s Over and other books about scarce oil and its economic consequences. His talk gave the day its subtitle, “Preparing Together for a Changed World.”

Heinberg’s a sturdy sixty-year old with spectacles and wispy sandy hair. He spoke for about an hour, with slides of diagrams and pictures to dramatize his remarks.

We’re living at a critical moment in history. Heinberg’s case runs something like this: The US and the world have a debt that we can never retire. The housing bubble that burst in 2008 was four times as large as any before. The bail out cost in the trillions, compared to The Vietnam War’s $600 some billion price tag. US productivity has nearly doubled since 1975, but household income has stayed flat, with households compensating with debt. All this debt assumes growth, but the end of oil, with no adequate alternatives ready, assures us there will be no more growth. Heinberg quoted Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, that the economy is resetting to a lower level of spending and consuming. (I would refer skeptics to Saul Griffith, who has calculated that the world would need an area the size of Australia, “Renewistan,” devoted to alternatives, including nuclear, to replace all but a fifth or sixth of our current fossil fuel use.)

Heinberg says it is up to us to invent a new normal, imagining how we’d like to see the world in 2050 (I’ll be 101), and filling in the steps from here to there. He had a list of areas to work on. We need to emphasize what is positive: community, satisfaction from honest work, intergenerational solidarity, cooperation, free time, happiness, artistry, and beauty in the built environment. We need to reduce spending and consumption, grow our own food, get to know our neighbors, and imagine the best-case scenario. This crisis is our opportunity.

Our communities need resilience:

    * Redundancy in critical systems, in other words different ways and places to get what we need, and to get around, so we can endure loss of one or some parts;
    * Dispersed system control points, meaning, I think, that commerce and government get spread around, not eliminated;
    * Dispersed inventories: no more big-box bargains, but more work and less vulnerability to disaster;
    * Balanced feedback loops, for instance concentrated wealth would not be able to organize to further concentrate.

Yeah, but, like the widower said at the funeral, what am I gonna do tonight? We need conservation and activism. There’s no excuse not to insulate our houses. Neighborhoods can afford what individuals can’t, so we can share expensive tools. We can relearn the skills that got our parents and grandparents through the Great Depression and war rationing, gardening, canning,
different kinds of repair. Walk, ride bikes, get away from the fastest and cheapest. Pay attention to the block clubs. Get to know Corcoran GROWS. Buy locally, Tom said, in his WalMart jeans and sweatshirt, sipping a cup of Colombian coffee.

In the medium term, we need better rail, cellphone and GPS facilitated ride sharing, local food processing, some way of getting people and businesses into idle buildings, local currencies, and neighborhood economic laboratories, which could also be sites for car sharing, credit union, job center, and clinic.

After Richard Heinberg’s presentation, came the topical breakout sessions, then we met with people from our neighborhoods.

I chose local food because of our household’s almond business. That was a useful choice. Community Table Cooperative was soliciting ideas from local food processors, and I got to brainstorm about how that organization could help us thrive. There was a hazel nut grower from Lake City in my group, and it was good to exchange names with him, since we’ve talked about using local hazels in addition to Californian almonds. (Another member of my group -- somebody I think I recognized from way back in my weatherization days -- told me I should realize that I’m an elder, and I said “Speak for yourself, brother.” I think the world is finally catching up with me.)

The neighborhood session was less immediately profitable, but sitting down and sharing ideas about what we’d like to see in Corcoran forty years from now was fun. I think we made progress.

Joan, Kit, And Stony