Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wishing You Enough

In America, we are extremely fortunate to lead lives of abundance. We do have homeless and hungry, but most of us have never known true poverty. We've always had enough. More than enough. Truth be told, most of us are burdened with way too much.

And too much is a burden . . . not to the same painful degree that too little may be. Without a doubt, the starving in Darfur would love to be burdened with too much. But what most of us don't seem to realize, as we run around frantically cramming more and more into our already overcrowded lives, is that too much is uncomfortable as well. Excess has to be dealt with. Where do you put those new shoes? You need a bigger house with bigger closets. Where do you put those excess calories, waistline or hips? Where do you invest your excess wealth? The stock market is volatile and bonds are risky. We suffer from too much entertainment and not enough connection. We suffer from too much escapism and not enough pragmatism.

We need to rediscover enough. Enough is warm and fuzzy . . . it's stretching out in a comfortable chair and losing yourself in a great book. Enough is taking a walk with a wide-eyed three-year-old and stopping to watch a caterpillar inch its way along a twig. Enough is a candlelight dinner with your one true love, even if it is yesterday's stew. Enough is a warm blanket on a cold, rainy day. Enough is when you stop at full and happy, avoiding stuffed and bloated.

I read an article today that sums it up well:

"I think that the real trick to finding that sense of satisfaction is to realize you don't need much to attain it. A window-box salad garden and a mandolin hanging on the back of the door can be all the freedom you need. If it isn't everything you want for the future, let it be enough for tonight. Living the way you want has nothing to do with how much land you have or how much you can afford to spend on a new house. It has everything to do with the way you choose to live every day and how content you are with what you have. . . . Find your own happiness and dance with it."*

So for now, I wish you enough.

*From "Life on the Homestead," by Jenna Woginrich in Mother Earth News, April/May 2009

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Was That a Coors?

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we had a prolific new member at Dblspeed, as he called himself, wrote long posts with multiple questions that none of us regulars had the time or patience to answer. Then on Christmas day, in the lull between opening packages and fixing dinner, I sat down with my computer and attempted to answer some of his obvious misconceptions. I thought it one of my more brilliant posts. As far as I know, no one ever read it. Not wishing such brilliance to go to waste, I've decided to reprint it here. So here, in a nutshell, is the history of the IPCC:

Once upon a time, back in the 1970's, there were a bunch of scientists who were sitting in the local bar having a brew. As the evening wore on and the effects of beer became more noticeable, scientist #1 turned to scientist #2 and said, "You know, Joe, I've been thinking. We all know that greenhouse gases are what keep our planet warm enough to support life. And we all know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. And we know that burning fossil fuels releases abnormally high amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Do you think there's any chance that all this CO2 we're releasing could heat the planet a tad too much?" Before Joe could answer, scientist #3 leaned over the bar and put in his two cents worth. "Naw, Veronica. It sounds logical, but the facts don't support your little hypothesis. The world isn't getting warmer, it's getting cooler. For all we know, we could be starting into another ice age." Joe looked at them both a moment and then said, "By golly, this sounds like an important question. Maybe we should dig into this a bit and find out for sure!"

Fast forward to the 1980's. The same bunch of scientists are having another drink at the same bar and the same conversation comes up once again. "Hey, Joe, remember when we said we were going to take a look at that greenhouse gas thing? You done any research yet?" Joe answered, "Yeah, I've been doing quite a bit of research and I'm beginning to notice a trend here. Atmospheric CO2 levels are definitely on an upward climb. How about you, Veronica, have you got anything for us?" "Well, I guess I do. I've been studying particles in the atmosphere -- you know, air pollution, volcanic ash, etc., and it looks like some of them have a cooling effect. If we didn't have those floating around, blocking the sun, the climate would be a good deal warmer." Scientist #3 put in his three cents worth, "I've been studying this ice age idea and that was a dead end -- it seems it was those particles that caused the cooling trend, not an imminent ice age. Maybe your hypothesis on global warming has some merit after all, Veronica, but I still think we need more research before we jump to any conclusions." Joe nodded vigorously. "You're absolutely right, Lester, but who is going to put it all together? We need someone who takes my research and your research and Veronica's there and looks at the big picture. We need something like an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We could ask the top scientists the world over to review our findings and put them together into one comprehensive report every few years. Whatcha think, guys?" They all said, "Here, here," and clinked beer glasses in agreement. And that is how the IPCC was born.

Okay, so I took a little literary license. If you want to know the dry facts without the colorful embellishment, click here.

The IPCC does not do research of its own. It is comprised of hundreds of scientists the world over who study peer-reviewed research done in their field of expertise and look at the implications of that research. They are interested in the big picture, the one you don't get if you only look at individual studies. Their final report goes through an exhaustive review process which, in effect, waters it down a bit (opinions at both ends of the spectrum tend to get washed out in the process). Peer review, by the way, is not a nutritionist reviewing work by an astronomer. It is a physicist reviewing work by a physicist in his own particular field of physics -- it is experts reviewing experts and looking for any possible mistakes. That does not mean infallibility, it just means as accurate as humanly possible. That is why the IPCC reports are taken so seriously -- they represent the work of the thousands of scientists who are doing on-the-ground research. They represent the thousands of scientists who are doing the armchair reviews of the thousands of scientists who are doing on-the-ground research. And they represent thousands of man-hours by the most knowledgeable people on earth who put it all together and present 'the big picture.' When they say a conclusion is 'unequivocal,' that is as close to proof as the science community will ever come.

As for the claim that the IPCC has never done even one study that can be replicated by others, the answer to that is, "True." The IPCC does not do studies, they review studies. And the studies they review are based on empirical data that can be checked by anyone who wishes to spend time examining ice cores in Greenland or measuring CO2 on Mauna Loa. They do create computer models that put the findings into a projection of what we can expect in the future given a variety of scenarios. As the years have gone by, their models have gotten more and more reliable -- for one thing, there is more data for what is currently going on in the world. For another, there is better proxy evidence for what has happened in the past. And for another thing, computers have gotten more sophisticated and our ability to use them has improved vastly. You may see headlines along the lines of "The Arctic is melting faster than models predicted" and that, too, is for several reasons. One is the watering down process that eliminated the extremes in the models but not in real life. Another reason is that the models do not include all positive feedback systems because not enough is known about them and how they interact. And lastly, the IPCC assumed that the world would have listened and started mitigating emissions by now . . . and instead, emissions have increased.

Dblspeed, I don't know where you are, but this beer's for you!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Schooling, the Right and Wrong of It

I haven't thought much about education lately -- though at one time it was an obsession of mine. Thankfully, Sharon Astyk has been thinking enough for all of us. I highly recommend her most recent posting.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Not the Grand Canyon Yet, But Getting There

This past week there has been a conference in Copenhagen at which some of the world's smartest people have been announcing the world's most important news. Did you know that? If you scavenge the internet as I do, it has been a hot topic. However, if you get your news from the local paper and national news shows, you probably haven't a clue.

The world's most important news? Yeah, right, says who? . . . Well consider the following:

The Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research (where much of the hard science on global climate destabilization is conducted) has warned that even with significant reductions of CO2, we have only a 50-50 chance of preventing catastrophic climate change. The degree of reductions needed to get even the 50-50 chance are not yet being considered, much less implemented.

The Amazonian rainforests are already facing the likelihood of an irreversible 20-40% die-off and much worse if temperatures increase in excess of 2C, which is where we'll be if we don't act soon. The Amazon is known as the lungs of the world because it not only sequesters CO2 but also provides some of the oxygen we breathe. Without the Amazon, this would be a very different world!

If that's not enough to twist your shorts, climate change is exacerbating the water crisis in an overpopulated world and could conceivably "render half of world's inhabited areas unliveable."

I could go on, but you get the point. And that's just the climate change slice of the pie. If you tune into Chris Martenson's The Crash Course or read James Howard Kunstler, it becomes pretty obvious that our economy shares a fate with poor, old Humpty Dumpty. We built our economic model on one giant Ponzi scheme, and now that it is broken, all the king's horses and all the king's men aren't going to put it together again. And while our attention is fixed on gluing eggshells back together, Peak Oil is waiting in ambush.

It would be easy at this point to give up in despair, but despair is not what is called for, change is. And change is not only possible, it is already happening the world over. In the UK, Rob Hopkins and friends have started a transition initiative for re-creating self-sufficiency in our towns and cities. In the US, the permaculture movement is gaining momentum with individuals the likes of Sharon Astyk and the Dervaes family, and with entire towns such as Earthaven. In Austin, Texas, the Rhizome Collective is teaching people how to make windmills out of used bicycle parts and use bioshelters to grow food and house chickens. In the deserts of Jordan, new ways of farming are transforming wasteland into gardens, and in Lesotho, South Africa, Cowforce is teaching people to grow their own food in amazing little keyhole gardens.

So what's the big deal? We have problems and we have solutions. Well, our biggest problem is the huge gap between the people who understand the challenges we face and those who don't. The solutions are there, but unless we embrace them as a culture, they are destined to be too little too late. We need to change everything, from the way we grow and distribute our food to the way we manufacture and sell our goods to the way we structure our society.

You've got to be kidding! I like my life the way it is! No one is going to tell me what to grow in my yard or where to set the thermostat or what kind of toilet paper to buy! Everything is fine just the way it is. Well maybe not so fine, but it will be in a few months when the economy gets back to normal -- when my stocks go back up, when my house starts appreciating once again. This is just another cycle like every other cycle. Watch the news -- every night they talk about the recovery and how soon it will happen. And as for that global warming talk, there are smart people on both sides of the argument. I don't know who to believe, but it won't happen for a hundred years anyway. There are plenty of smart scientists in this world -- they'll find a way to fix it. Peak Oil? Give me a break. There's plenty of oil still to be found -- they're finding more every day. And even if they don't, we have hundreds of years of coal still in the ground. Don't mess with my life, Bub!

The gap between what is real and what is popular myth has gotten so huge that it is approaching the Grand Canyon in scale. And the larger the gap becomes, the harder it is to make the leap from one side to the other. The truth is not easy to grasp; it involves changing all one's perceptions of culture as we know it. Unfortunately, those of us who have made the leap just look like crazed lunatics to those who haven't. And sometimes even to ourselves.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Is it Crazy in Here or is it Just Me?

Picture this:

Act I: The earth is in danger of overheating. Sam Scientist has made a critical discovery and is running around waving data sheets in the air and warning everyone of the coming calamity . . . but no one is paying much attention. Joe Politician, being Joe Politician, tries to shush the doomsayer – “We don’t want to create a panic,” he says, “Just do what you have to do to fix it.” “This isn’t something I can fix on my own,” Sam calls to Joe’s retreating back as Joe returns his attention to baby kissing.

Act II: The climate is showing signs of stress. Weather-related disasters are more violent, more frequent. Sam is back with even more data to substantiate his fears. He implores Joe to listen and take action. “I thought I told you to fix it,” Joe growls from the side of his mouth without missing a single wave to his cheering public. This time Sam is not so easily dismissed. He follows Joe into the crowd calling in strident tones, “We have got to do something before it is too late or mankind will be facing extreme hardship for the next one thousand years.” The crowd grows quiet as all eyes focus on Joe’s calm, smiling face. Joe turns the attention to Sam with a sweep of his hand. “This man,” he tells the crowd, “has come to me with an unproven theory that the earth is getting warmer. He wants you to drive less, consume less, change your light bulbs and adjust your thermostats. He wants me to tax you for your energy use. He wants me to take your hard-earned money and invest it in fancy, schmancy new technologies that will cost billions of dollars. What do you want?” Joe asks the crowd with a smirk. “Should I raise your taxes?” “No new taxes!!” the crowd calls in response. “Should I invest your money in unproven technology?” “No new spending!!” the crowd calls in response. “Should we cut back on consumption?” “No new rules,” the crowd roars, “let’s go shopping!” With a grim face, Sam turns away, muttering under his breath. “Do what I told you in the first place,” Joe calls to the forlorn figure. “Fix it!”

Act III: A jubilant Sam strides confidently into Joe’s office. “I’ve done it!” he exclaims loudly, “I’ve figured out how to fix it!” Joe leans back in his chair and puts his feet on the desk. “I knew you would,” he grins. “I have every confidence in your abilities! So, tell me, what’s your plan?” “I’m going to build a cannon .6 miles in diameter,” Sam begins. “And I’m going to load it with tons of little mirror-like lenses. Then I’m going to blast the mirrors a million miles out into space. They will fan out and form a shield about 100,000 miles square. This shield will reflect enough sunlight so that earth won’t overheat after all.” “Brilliant!” Joe replies. “When can you have this ready?” “In twenty or thirty years. Of course, I’ll need money to build this thing. Oh, and the mirrors will need replacing every fifty years or so.” “Every fifty years -- for how long?” “Oh, I don’t know – a thousand years -- maybe longer.” “What about this cannon. Is it safe?” “Well, not really. As a matter of fact, it’s enormously dangerous.” “And what about the mirrors, any chance they could cool the earth too much? Or disrupt photosynthesis and plant growth? Or that we wouldn’t get enough sunlight to keep our tans?” “Don’t know until we try it, do we?” “Sounds great!! How much did you say this would cost?” “Well, I’m figuring $350 trillion but you know -- cost overruns, inflation, resource depletion, peak oil – who can say for sure? But heck, if it can save the world for centuries to come, it’s gotta be worth it!”

No, wait!! Hollywood won’t buy off on this one. Even the most hardcore sci-fi fans expect some degree of plausibility. Something this crazy could never be fiction, it could only be true.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Not a Ski-resort

Jeff Vail is an attorney at Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP in Denver, Colorado specializing in litigation and energy issues. He is a former intelligence officer with the US Air Force and energy infrastructure counterterrorism specialist with the US Department of the Interior.
Hardly the profile I would have expected from a like mind, but life is full of surprises!

Jeff's latest post on scale-free design has me really excited. In a nutshell (does using that cliché make me a nutcase?):
Scale-free design describes a process that operates similarly at any scale, at any level of organization, that is fractal in structure. It is neither grass-roots nor top-down, but rather consciously, simultaneously “all of the above.” More than that, rather than merely a collection of separate national, local, and individual programs, it strives to develop programs and practices that operate simultaneously at all these levels. A simple example would be the achievement of 25% energy self-sufficiency—that is, for individuals to produce 25% of their energy needs domestically, for communities to produce a further 25% of their energy needs locally, etc.

Not only that, but Jeff takes as his model for organization the rhizome, a metaphor I am coming across more and more often as I delve into the wondrous spheres of the internet. The rhizome, as Jeff explains it:
takes it name from plants such as bamboo, aspen, or ginger that spread via a connected underground root system. As metaphor, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari used rhizome to refer to a non-hierarchal form of organization. I have extended this metaphor, referring to rhizome as an alternative mode of human organization consisting of a network of minimally self-sufficient nodes that leverage non-hierarchal coordination of economic activity.

And what's more, the man is brilliant in areas I know nothing about. (When I called us like minds I was not, alas, implying a shared brilliance, only a shared outlook on life.) He blogs on topics such as fractional reserve banking and oil price volatility as it relates to the cobweb model and explains them in ways even I can understand!

And for those who may not understand the title, the reference was to Vail, Colorado, a ski-resort. Lame, I know, but there it is!