Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Imagine No Possessions

“How many times do they expect me to buy the White Album?” This question expresses a common frustration about the continuous improvement in audio-visual technology: The Beatles released the White Album in 1968 as an LP, then we bought it on cassette or 8-track tape, then we bought the CD, then there was Super-Audio CD, and then…

But something new has happened: now you can buy the license to download the White Album to your hard drive, and the purchase gives you the right to listen to those songs, in whatever form you want, for the rest of your life. Instead of buying some thing—a record, cassette, CD—you buy the listening rights.

A bonus: we don’t have to store all those tapes and disks in our houses anymore.

The same goes for movies: why have shelves full of DVDs? You can drive to the video store, or better yet, download a movie from NetFlix and watch it instantly. In effect we are renting the right to watch a film instead of purchasing our own copy.

These examples, common experiences for many of us, are the vanguard of what Paul Hawken calls the “next industrial revolution.” This revolution is described in Hawken’s book Natural Capitalism: “The first of natural capitalism’s four interlinked principles is radically increased resource productivity. The others are: redesigning industry on biological models with closed loops and zero waste; shifting from the sale of goods (for example, light bulbs) to the provision of services (illumination); and reinvesting in the natural capital that is the basis of prosperity.”

Ray Anderson is the founder and (until recently) chairman of a global corporation doing more than $1 billion in annual sales, and he is trying to implement these principles. Anderson’s company, Interface, based in Atlanta, is the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial carpet tile. In 1994 he was asked to give his company’s salespeople some talking points about Interface’s approach to the environment. So he started reading about environmental issues, and thinking about them.

He was inspired by Hawken’s writings and began implementing natural capitalism’s principles in his carpet business, particularly the ideas about closed loops and the provision of services instead of sale of goods.

Biological systems operate in loops, where one creature’s waste is another’s food—in nature there is no such thing as waste. Our current industrial system operates in a straight-line: materials are extracted and used to manufacture products; products are sold to consumers; products are owned and used by consumers; when products wear out they are discarded by the consumer into landfills. This system results in lots of waste.

Anderson and Hawken envision a new industrial system based on circular processes, where materials for any given product are continuously reused in a loop. A product is manufactured and leased to a consumer who uses it until it wears out, at which time the producer replaces it with a new product. The producer doesn’t discard anything, but recycles all the worn materials into new products, which are then placed in a consumer’s home to replace worn-out items…

In this new scheme, we don’t buy things any more; we lease their use.

For example, Anderson’s company has developed a program they call “Evergreen Lease”: a customer doesn’t purchase carpet from Interface; they lease “carpet service.” Interface installs, maintains, and regularly replaces worn carpet tiles.

Anderson writes in his book Mid-Course Correction: “The customer pays by the month for color, texture, warmth, beauty, acoustics—the services carpet delivers—and avoids the landfill liability altogether; that’s our problem, and we intend to convert that liability into an asset through closed loop recycling…The economic viability of the Evergreen Lease for us and its ultimate value to Earth depend on our closing the loop. That is, we must be able to recycle used carpet fiber into new carpet fiber.”

Have you ever tried to recycle a computer? Some large computer manufacturers like Dell will take your old computer in exchange for a new one, but they just send them off to China or an African country and poor people strip the components for useable parts, incurring considerable risk to their health in the process from all the toxic components.

Hawken is talking about a future where we will lease “computer service” from a company such as Dell and they will be completely responsible for ensuring the components from old computers are reused. What this will do is spur innovation in building computers (and everything else) so they can be easily and safely dismantled and recycled/reused.

Imagine leasing the service of refrigerating food! You would no longer actually own a refrigerator, just lease the cold space. The manufacturer would take care of it when it needs replacing and would be responsible for dismantling it and reusing all the components. As a result, the refrigerator would be designed in such a way that it could continuously feed the materials loop.

Why does John Lennon’s song “Imagine” keep playing in my head:

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Vertical Farm

Reading “The Vertical Farm,” by Dr. Dickson Despommier made me feel optimistic about the future for the first time in a long time. Despommier proposes to turn cities into sustainable ecosystems where there is no waste; everything is recycled as in nature.

The vertical farm is the foundation of the sustainable city of the future: by bringing our agriculture into the city and off the soil, we can do so many things at once: cut water needs for irrigation (currently consumes 70% of our freshwater use); end the pollution of land and water with pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers; cut energy needs enormously—the transport of food is eliminated, just for starters; purify our grey/black water in the vertical farm system so there is no more sewage discharge into rivers and oceans; return agricultural land to its natural state restoring ecosystems and allowing for carbon sequestration; and eliminate many diseases caused by agriculture, worms and bacterial infections from using human feces as fertilizer, for example.

The book is filled with illustrations of what a vertical farm could look like (none exist today) along with detailed schematics to demonstrate the various functions, like purifying sewage and generating energy. You can see some designs on the Vertical Farm webpage.

I was a child of the 1960’s and loved watching the TV cartoon show “The Jetsons,” showing a typical American family living in the future with jet-cars and robots and all sorts of marvelous technologies. I find myself really wanting to live in a sustainable city of Despommier’s imagining.

Despommier argues that agriculture was always a flawed technology; it just took 10,000 years for that to become obvious. For example, one of the birth places of agriculture, the famed “Fertile Crescent,” is now a desert; centuries of intensive agriculture completely depleted the soil.

The second phase of the agricultural revolution occurred a little over one hundred years ago with the invention of internal combustion machines for plowing and harvesting and agrochemicals to artificially stimulate fertility and suppress weeds and insects. But this only made it more obvious that soil-based agriculture is unsustainable. Despommier cites scientists who believe the Central Valley of California only has another 25-50 years of productivity because the salination of the soil from decades of irrigation is about to reach critical levels.

In addition he gives positive evidence of how quickly over-farmed land can recover. The Dust Bowl is a prime example; 20 years after the land had been reduced to sand dunes it had recovered and was a flourishing tall-grass prairie again. It recovered because it had been completely abandoned. Another example is the forests of the U.S. Northeast. They were clear-cut for agriculture at least three times, Despommier says, but finally the residents realized agriculture was impossible there and the farmers moved to Ohio and westward. The forests grew back and became the basis of a flourishing furniture industry. He also recommends Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” for a first-hand account of Wisconsin farmland returning to forest.

So how do we make this future happen? Despommier has a fantasy of a U.S. federal-government sponsored competition among the states to design and build 10 vertical farms. It makes complete sense but of course in our dysfunctional political structure it won’t happen anytime soon. The hope is that a wealthy country in the Middle East, say one of the United Arab Emirates, sees the advantages. They can’t grow their own food in the desert, and they have no fresh water. A vertical farm would solve these problems, and the hope would be that the success of the farm would spur its adoption in countries around the world.

This John Lilly quote, used on one of the book’s chapter page, is apt: “Our only security is our ability to change.”

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Our Culture's Strange Attitudes Towards the Male Body

The Anthony Weiner episode revealed the widespread presence of (from my point of view) backwards attitudes towards sex. And this attitude is present in supposedly sophisticated elite media types.

For example, on John Stewart, a woman “analyst” gave the female point of view: “Women don’t want to see men’s bodies because they’re ugly. Women have beautiful bodies. Men just need to keep their shirts on.”

This past week Doonesbury portrayed the FOX reporter wrestling with the issue of his inappropriate tweets, and when he showed a female coworker one of his pictures, to test whether they were lewd, she recoiled in disgust.

How often did I hear in discussions of the issue that Weiner had sent “pics” of his “junk.” In other cultures, for example ancient Greece, the male body has been the model for artists—see Michelangelo's sculpture of David. I find it very odd that most people in our culture seem to agree that the male body is ugly. How many women have tweeted photos of their bare breasts? How many men have complained?

We are still an incredibly Puritanical people. This is in evidence in our reaction to “sex scandals,” but how much does sexual repression cause people to do incredibly stupid things like tweet a picture of their erection in their underwear to a stranger? Maybe if we got over our old-fashioned attitude toward sex and allowed more freedom to people to express themselves sexually (other than for a lifetime with one partner) we’d have fewer of these scandals. Why can’t men (and women!) visit prostitutes? Why can’t erotic performances be staged in major halls? Why can’t we follow the sexual connections we feel with certain people in our lives, even if it’s only a one-time experience?

Ted Rall calls sexual freedom the next frontier of civil rights in his syndicated column. He writes,

If slavery was America’s original sin, Puritanism was its original curse.

In recent years the United States has made significant strides towards greater equality and freedom. Racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry have been significantly curtailed by new laws and cultural education. But we still have work to do. Four centuries after people so uptight they couldn’t get along with the British invaded the New World, however, the United States remains one of the most sexually repressed Western countries.

It is not good for us.

“If expression of sexuality is thwarted, Christopher Ryan wrote in Psychology Today last year, “the human psyche tends to grow twisted into grotesque, enraged perversions of desire. Unfortunately, the distorted rage resulting from sexual repression rarely takes the form of rebellion against the people and institutions behind the repression.”

In other words, mean parents, churches and right-wing politicians.

“Instead,” Ryan observed, “the rage is generally directed at helpless victims who are sacrificed to the sick gods of guilt, shame, and ignorant pride.”

Like, for example, gays. Fourteen states still had sodomy laws on the books by the time the Supreme Court invalidated them in 2003...

One day, I hope, we will live in a nation where another person’s sexual expression is no one’s business but theirs and their sexual partners. We will be allowed to do whatever we want with whomever we want, as long as what we do is with a consenting adult.

Even if we take pictures and post them online.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Sound of Success

Last weekend I tried to relax in the hammock in my front yard and enjoy the quiet of my mountain cove, but I had a difficult time screening out the noise of my neighbor’s lawnmower. This is no typical lawn. My neighbor’s house is perched high up on the mountain with 200 yards of lawn sloping to the road below. In addition, the owner seems to think that it is shameful if the grass gets any higher than an inch, so this mass of grass is shorn almost weekly in the summer. He spends hours on his rider-mower, infesting my otherwise peaceful suburban neighborhood with the droning din of a motor.

As I lay in the hammock, straining to relax, I realized that the sound of mowing has become even more irritating to me because it is a prime example of our unsustainable lifestyle. We cut down trees, plant vast monocultures of grass, prop up the artificiality with chemical fertilizers and herbicides, and then spend enormous sums of time and energy mowing…for what? For status. Lawns are an emblem of wealth. They show abundance. They show that we can afford to waste land, time, and resources. The history of lawns begins in European great estates, and Americans adopted the look as we got rich in the 1950’s.

It’s easy to condemn American culture for its equation of wealth and wasteful consumption, but it doesn’t take much investigation to realize that this is nothing unique to our country. Human societies across the globe and through time have worked this same equation—an obvious example is the Egyptian pyramids, constructed by untold thousands of laborers at unimaginable cost at no benefit to the society as a whole, created only to glorify the pharaohs. Other examples that come to mind are the long fingernails cultivated by the ancient Chinese aristocracy, which proved that they did no manual labor; and Hawaiian chiefs’ feather cloaks, which required tens of thousands of feathers and many years of other people’s labor. The equation of success with excessive consumption and leisure appears to be universal among humans.

This level of excess can’t be found among wild animals. The effort to survive is always too pressing. No wild animal has achieved a level of success over the survival imperative comparable to that of humans. Elephants, great apes, lions, sharks, dolphins, and whales may be at the top of their food chain, they may have time for leisure and play, they may not need to worry about predators, but they still work every day to eat.

It’s understandable that after the invention of agriculture, when survival became more assured through surplus food production, we would luxuriate in that abundance. This is nothing unique to humans: domestic animals become lazy and fat when given the opportunity.

As centuries passed and wealth accumulated the indicator of success became the manifestation of excess, the overconsumption of everything. Success means you own more land than you need, so waste it with lawns. It means you own more food than you need, so become fat and throw the extra away. It means you own more house than you can maintain, so hire a staff to keep it clean. It means you own more clothes than you can ever wear, so give them away so you can buy more. It means you have more vehicles to carry you in private luxury than you can use at any one time: cars, motorcycles, boats, planes. It means you have electronic gadgets to help pass the time you no longer need to fill with the effort to survive.

This equation, success equals profligacy, is leading humanity inexorably to our demise. The pursuit of excess by seven billion humans (and counting) is making the planet uninhabitable by our species.

For our survival we need to change the equation of success. But this appears to be a deeply rooted association, even an instinctual drive; are instincts impossible to change?

Humans have learned to deny the most primal animal instinct of all: self-replication. Many of us, including myself, have chosen not to have children because of our concerns about the environmental costs of human overpopulation. Many more have chosen to limit their families to one or two children.

If we can overcome such an incredibly powerful instinct as procreation, I am confident that we are capable of changing our attitude toward success. Andrew Carnegie, a fabulously wealthy industrialist of the late 1800s, gave most of his fortune away before he died. In an essay published in 1889, “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie argued that great fortunes should be used for the good of society as a whole, not bequeathed to the rich man’s children and wasted in dissolute living (see Paris Hilton). He concludes with this aphorism: “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.” Carnegie gave away over 350 million dollars and established 2,500 public libraries.

Many of our modern billionaires have followed this advice, setting up foundations to use their wealth for the good of the planet. Now this “gospel” needs to spread through the population at large so that we turn our culture from one that worships the lifestyles of the rich and famous to one that defines success as the opportunity to learn and grow, to more freely express our selves, to serve others, and to help create a better world.

Monday, June 20, 2011

War Powers Act

The War Powers Act was passed in 1973, in response to the Vietnam War debacle. Our country got into the Vietnam war slowly, gradually, at the direction of presidents without the input of the Congress (other than their budgetary capacity of course—they could always have denied funding!).

In 1973 Congress said, “Never again. This country will only go to war after the people have discussed it and approved it, through their representatives in Congress.” When you look at the Constitution it seems obvious to me that the Founders wanted it to be this way. They had just fought a revolution against a King who could make war on a whim. The last thing they wanted was a President with the same unilateral warmongering power. They gave Congress the power to declare war, and made the President the commander-in-chief; the President only executes military actions after the Congress has decided action is needed (see pertinent passages from the Constitution below).

I think Congress was correct in the assertion of their power in 1973, and I think we need to reassert the correctness here in 2011. Every president since 1973 has pushed back against this law (except for maybe Jimmy Carter, and also Gerald Ford but he’s a special case anyway). Presidents like the power of their office and are always looking to expand it.

George W. Bush used 9/11 to greatly expand the presidential/federal powers, from ramming wars through Congress and torturing prisoners to illegally wiretapping Americans. Many people are surprised that Obama is not only not pulling back from these outrages but pushing them forward. But we shouldn’t be surprised. This is not an issue of ideology; it’s an issue of power. Every president chooses to increase the power of the office because it makes him more powerful now, and who cares what the next guy might do with it.

Pertinent passages from the US Constitution:
Article I, Section 8:
The Congress shall have power to… declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
To provide and maintain a Navy;
To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

Article II, Section 2:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States;

This is all it says about the President’s duty in terms of war. Obviously the Congress was vested with the power to decide when the military is used.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

14 Elements of Every Religious Worldview

Huston Smith ends his autobiography, "Tales of Wonder," with 14 points that comprise a “universal language” of religious worldview. (analogous to Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar of languages).

1. Reality is infinite.
2. “The Infinite includes the finite or we would be left with infinitude-plus-finitude and the Infinite would not be what it claims to be.”
3. The contents of finitude are hierarchically ordered—the Great Chain of Being, from the “meagerest kind of existence through every possible grade up to the boundless Infinite.”
4. Causation is from the top down, from the Infinite down through the descending degrees of reality.
5. Singularity becomes multiplicity. “In descending to the finite, the singularity of the Infinite splays out into multiplicity. The One becomes the many…The foundational virtue is existence.” India says primary virtues are “sat, chit, ananda—being, consciousness, bliss. The West’s ternary is the good, the true, and the beautiful, and these beginnings open out into creativity, compassion, and love until we arrive at Islam’s Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God.”
6. As ascend Great Chain of Being distinctions fade between virtues. “Teilhard de Chardin said that ‘Everything that rises must converge.’”
7. At the top of the Chain, where all becomes One, absolute perfection reigns.
8. Te Hermetic Principle, “As above, so below.” “Everything that is outside us is also inside us—‘the Kingdom of God is within you.’”
9. Human beings cannot fully know the Infinite.
10. Religious people write texts and these need to be interpreted.
11. Fundamentalism makes the error of thinking these texts can be taken literally.
12. Two distinct ways of knowing: rational and intuitive. “In Hinduism, the knowledge that effects union with God is not discursive; it has the immediacy of direct vision, or sight.”
13. Religions have two parts: an outer, exoteric, concrete, and representational form, and an inner, esoteric, abstract core.
14. Our knowledge is extremely limited. “We are born in ignorance, we live in ignorance, and we die in ignorance.”

These are just my summaries of course. Interestingly, as the points progressed Huston needed more and more words to explain them. The first point is made with just a few words, and point 2 uses only a few more than what I quoted above. But by the time you get to points 13 and 14 the explanation took a page or more.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Power is the Best Aphrodisiac

Today Rep. Anthony Weiner joined the long list of philandering male politicians who have been caught (the list of the ones who haven't been caught is probably even longer).

Last week I saw a documentary about ex-Governor Eliot Spitzer. I remember thinking after his ritual press conference with suffering wife at his side, "What was he thinking? Didn't he know they were after him, those Wall Street financiers whom he had investigated?" Just like I had thought about Bill Clinton, "What was he thinking? Didn't he know the Republicans were after him with everything they had?"

What occurred to me while watching the Spitzer film was that I was expecting rational behavior from these men. I was acting as if they had free will, as if they were sane creatures capable of choosing the best option for their life.

I have written a manuscript, "We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity," which argues not only that we do not have free will, but that our "choices" are made in a part of our mind which is not conscious. Our rational minds come along after decisions and actions have been made, spinning stories that explain why we think the things we think and do the things we do.

What is true about men, I think, is that power acts upon them as a strong aphrodisiac, which then stimulates some kind of reaction, most likely chemical, that greatly boosts their sex drive. They are not rational agents choosing to engage in risky sex, they are victims of a physiological response that naturally occurs when men gain power.

Of course, women are attracted to powerful men from an aphrodisiac reaction of their own, so the two reinforce each other.

Perhaps by recognizing this as a real, organic, and physical process that men are prone to, we could envision some way to prevent these politicians from self-destruction.

Or we could change our societal attitudes toward sex and say "So what?" when we hear of another politician engaging in sex outside his marriage.

As an aside, one of the things I found creepy about George W. Bush was that it was impossible to imagine him ever being embroiled in a sex scandal. What was wrong with him that he was so sexless?