June 2010 Archives

Ask Your Doctor; Tell Your Doctor

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Do you feel a certain emptiness in your life. Are there moments when you have absolutely nothing to do? Do you find yourself have to go constantly--anywhere on line? Have you been using the other remedy, the old-fashioned book to occupy your precious time. If you have any of these ailments, there is a new treatment available to you.

Ask your device doctor about the new miracle cure for all that ails you: the iPadberrydroidle, approved for use by people of all ages by the FDA, the Foolish Device Administration.

Certain rare side effects such as boredom, continuous partial attention, traffic accidents, and other results of competing devices may occur. Stop using the iPadberrydroidle immediately if any of these should occur. Do not use the device in the shower or take it outside in the rain. Loss of function may occur. Don’t tweet if you are texting, linking in, or facebooking. Do not use if you suffer from occasional device withdrawal pangs or pains. Tell your doctor if you have other symptoms of withdrawal including unexplained bouts of crying or moments of panic. Tell your doctor if you keep exchanging your weekly allowance or food stamp allotment for another iPadberrydroidle. Tell your doctor if you start growing a second pair of hands to hold multiple devices. This is a very rare but serious side effect. If you observe any signs of irregular bumps appearing around your wrists, immediately stop using the device.

Finally, the answer is there for you who have suffered so long. You can now avoid having to push your granddaughter’s swing and aggravate your arthritic back. Just text her every four hours to let her know you are there for her. But tell your doctor if you develop overactive thumb muscles.

You can be at your daughter’s wedding without fear of erratic bladder disorder (EBD). Not actually present at the ceremony, of course, but watching on the screen of your iPadberrydroidle while you send a stream of loving messages to hers, placed out of sight in the special corsage she is carrying.

Make sure you do ask your device doctor next time you visit the iPadberrydroidle service counter at your nearest store. Appointments not necessary, but recommended.

[Are you as sick of all those obnoxious drug and medical device ads as I am?]

Sustainability and the Meaning of Life

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Last night, our long standing (about 35 years) couples book club met. We usually read a work of fiction, but this time we read a short "memoir" of Leo Tolstoy, [A] Confession. Our book chooser for the occasion had been moved by the recent film of Tolstoy's later life, "The Last Station." In Confession, written in his 51st year, following his greatest literary successes, Tolstoy describes his existential battle with uncertainty about the meaning of life. Asking himself this question, "What Is the meaning of life?", Tolstoy could not come up with a satisfactory answer that he could use to justify his own existence, and seriously flirted with suicide.

Eventually he changed his mind, and discovered a positive reason for his existence. First he had to recognize that he had been asking the wrong question. He had been asking abut the meaning of his life, but then realized that this was not the same question as asking about the meaning of life in general, for everyone alive in the past, present, and future. He saw the peasants (Russia, then, was sharply divided between the peasants and everyone else.) spending their lives successfully, without suffering the pangs of not knowing explicitly the answer to his question, but living as if they did indeed know. He attributed their success to a faith in existence tucked within the vastness of the infinite universe. Once accepting the infinitude of the cosmos against the finiteness of one's own life, one can stop looking for answers and live on the basis of that faith alone. Now with a faith of his own, he was able to rejoin the world he had been shunning.

Not through the sense of religious faith, however. Tolstoy, who began his life with an unexceptional immersion in the Orthodox religion was disappointed and disenchanted with the answers he got from church officials, theologians, and other scholars. After an extended period of silence following the publication of this book, Tolstoy turned to writing again, but shifted his fictional focus to the lives of ordinary people, and toward the mystical. His unorthodox view of faith was not acceptable to the organized church and Tolstoy was eventually excommunicated.

Coming back from our book club, I started thinking about our conversations about the book, especially the parts touching on Tolstoy's distinction between the finite and the infinite. Somehow, I sensed a connection between his journey and my own quest to find the meaning of sustainability. Remember that I define sustainability as the possibility that all life will flourish on the planet forever. I have often been challenged on my use of forever as failing to reflect our awareness of the initial appearance of life on Earth nor the expectation that our home will disintegrate in a few billion years hence.

I usually argue that forever, as it is used here, is just a metaphor for a very long time. Tolstoy's pondering makes me think of another reason why it is important to include forever, that is, infinity in the temporal dimension of the universe. If we think only in terms of our own lives, then like Tolstoy's discovery, there is no reason to justify our existence. But in the context of the mystery of the infinite, sustainability is fundamentally an expression of faith that we exist in an infinite cosmos whose expanse harbors whatever reasons we might find for existence.

And although we expect to disappear a long time from now, short of a vast migration to another hospitable planet, we can, and I believe should, celebrate the mystery of our existence. We should strive to keep our world going, and to live our lives fully within it, as did the faithful peasants of Tolstoy, even though we would say they lacked much of what we deem necessary for flourishing. If we think as most do today that sustainability means only to keep things from collapsing in the present or near future, we will be unable to answer anyone who asks "Why should we?" except as some statement of our hubris.

I now know more clearly why I always criticize this common use of sustainable. Sustainability requires that we get beyond all of the arguments made on the basis of the finite, the known world, formulae, positive knowledge, and so on, and open up to the possibility of the infinite and the mystery that life is and always will be. Then, it makes sense to conduct our individual lives so that all life will flourish on the planet forever. In the meantime, we seem to living as did Tolstoy before his epiphany, coming close to suicide.

Black Swans Salmon

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A small story in today's NYTimes would perhaps be unnoticed in quiet times, but coming soon after the Gulf Blow-out, it merits attention. A Waltham, Massachusetts genetic engineering company announced that they are in the later stages of approval for a genetically modified salmon species that will grow to maturity in farms in half the time of an ordinary breed. In writing this last sentence I struggle to know what to call the unmodified salmon. Natural, no, the salmon raised in farms come from a line that has forgotten what it is to live in the wild. Wild, no, at least not along the Eastern seaboard. So many farmed salmons have escaped and interbred that the original Atlantic salmon is endangered and rare, if it exists at all now. A similar situation occurs along the Pacific coast.

The laboratory scientists developed the new species by injecting DNA from a Chinook salmon and a genetic switch from the ocean pout, a distant relative of the salmon, to activate the Chinook gene in the cold temperatures where the salmon would be farmed. This would allow the fish to grow all year round, accounting for the shorter time to full size, at which point they can be harvested and sold. These "engineers" claim the fish will be indistinguishable from "ordinary" salmon in every characteristic of importance to people eating the fish.

Without further comment here about genetic modification in general, I am most concerned about the following sentence fro the story

Mr. Stotish said the salmon would be grown only in inland tanks or other contained facilities, not in ocean pens where they might escape into the wild. And the fish would all be female and sterile, making it impossible for them to mate.

I have been using the black swan metaphor of Nassim Taleb to talk about the possibility of "impossible" events, with regard to the Gulf blowout. Fish farmers have not been the most careful of operators, and his statement gives little assurance that these fish would not be grown under circumstances that lead to their escaping into the ocean. I am not aware of the inspection and monitoring procedures for fish farming, but I suspect they are not great. And we have little knowledge or control of practices outside of the US. I picture the emergence of a "black" salmon phenomenon here when something happens to surprise us in a situation where what happens could not have happened. Having the FDA as the agency in charge of this process gives me little solace that we will ever be prepared for the consequences of being wrong.

More Thoughts About the Blow-out

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I have found it difficult to write for my blog this week. Maybe it’s because the good weather outside of our Maine cottage beckons or maybe I am a bit depressed by everything going on these days. I’m still thinking about the implications of the Gulf spill. In spite of the zillions of words written about it the situation seems pretty stark and can be largely captured by just a few sentences.

  1. It’s crazy to drill for oil in places where a blowout, however unlikely, would cause great harm.

  2. It’s crazy to let companies like BP or any other operate without constant monitoring. No matter how well meaning they are, they operate out of the wrong mindset, believing that they are in control. It’s just the way technology-based companies always act.

  3. It’s crazy to assume that anyone can understand all the things that can go wrong even with the most sophisticated computers available. Complex systems like the oil exploration rig sitting on the surface of the sea attached by a pipe to the bottom of that sea with a crew of human operators in charge running a system designed by other human beings always have behavior possibilities the models can’t predict.

  4. It’s crazy to believe what anyone says in the aftermath of a major accident. Maybe it’s best to act like Chicken Little and assume the sky is falling and act accordingly.

  5. It’s crazy to expect that things will return to the same normalcy as before the accident. Once complex system jump into a new regime, they are likely to stay there in spite of massive efforts to return to the old state.

  6. It’s crazy to seek the responsible parties that caused the disaster. Complex systems fail as systems, not because any single person does a bad thing. Maybe someone can be found to be a trigger, but it is always the system that fails. If anyone is to be made responsible it is the one that decided to drill in the first place, or allowed the company to drill. Once the system was in place, its failure cannot be attributed to a single action. Did the o-rings cause the Challenger accident or was it the decision to launch that day or…?

  7. It’s crazy to believe that anyone in government or elsewhere can now design or permit or operate such a system that is, using the phrase of the day, too big to fail. It’s not that they are materially too big to fail (it’s just the opposite; they are already complex and intrinsically capable of unforeseen malfunctions), it is that the consequences of failure are too much for the world or whatever is impacted to bear. After systems become complex, they are always prone to unexpected failures. The only way to avoid the possibility of failures is not to build the systems in the first place or to keep them simple enough that they are understandable by humans as well as computers.

  8. It’s crazy to assume we know what to do when a Katrina or Gulf blowout happens. Everything else about the blowout sends a message that we don’t really know what to do when an event like this happens. Fixing a complex system is itself a complex task. All the plans cannot anticipate the reality that has to be faced. Find somebody responsible for the messes involved in cleaning up is as futile as finding the one who caused the accident. The line between incompetence and simply being at the mercy of the system is very fine.

  9. It’s crazy to believe that we can put a price on nature and on human suffering.

With a few changes in the wording, you can describe the collapse of any complex system in these same terms. Instead of oil exploration and BP, substitute Lehman Brothers and the financial system. Nassim Taleb, who I wrote about in a recent blog, says many of these same things in his ten rules for dealing with black swans, his metaphor for rare, but disastrous, events like the blowout.

Sustainability, as manifest by flourishing, involves rebuilding the world socio-economic system which is now too big to fail, in the sense that it is so big that we, the world, cannot afford to let it collapse or undergo a major regime change (to use another phrase of the moment). If that were to happen, all of our established institutions and systems for taking care of ourselves would likely fail or become ineffective. Unlike the recent economic collapse, there is no Treasury or Federal Reserve to start up the printing presses and pour money into the system. Attempts at averting a regime change in the global climate system and the subsequent impacts illustrate what happens when nobody can metaphorically print money to prime the pump. Basically, nothing happens. There is so much to learn from the financial collapse and the blowout that can move the possibility of sustainability up a notch, but gets lost in the the rush to assign blame and find the quick fix.

Sorry, Nathan, but I Really Do Disagree.

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My last post drew upon an article in Greenbiz by Nathan Shedroff. Nathan wrote me to ask why I had disagreed with him. The issue is sufficiently complex that I want to devote another post to it. I have copied the guts of Nathan's rejoinder. Part of my response was a reaction to the "funny" headline in Greenbiz, but that's not the real reason.

John, I don't understand your point or why you disagree with me that sustainability should be an accepted and assumed "given" in how we do business instead of, still, a question to ponder. I never stated that business is doing all they can or knows all they need--quite to the contrary. What I tried to describe is that organizations of all types have what they need at their disposal to start moving in a more sustainable direction--and even have a significant, positive affect--but simply aren't yet. They lack the will, not the knowledge to act upon. And, they shouldn't. What I'm tired of is convincing business leaders that sustainability is a successful strategy that is in their own best interests. I'm tired of seeing supposedly smart people shown the obvious by leading experts only to have them discount it or waffle simply because it wasn't taught to them in business school.

I see I do need to clarify my response. I agree with Nathan that sustainability is such a serious matter that it should not be necessary to cajole companies into action. The issue revolves around what is meant by sustainability and what kinds of action? My disagreement is that firms (and just about everyone else) do not know what sustainability means, and so they cannot take the requisite steps. What Nathan is talking about are actions to reduce the impacts that firms make in the production and marketing of their offerings and in the use of those offerings by their customers. I am always careful to speak about such actions as reducing unsustainability, and it is critical to do it. But these kinds of actions cannot produce sustainability, which means that the earth's environmental and social systems have attained a level of homeostasis that permits all life to flourish.

As long as we are depleting our resources, we must ultimately rely on innovation and technology to compensate for the negative changes in the Earth's systems. Maybe we can achieve this end for materials, but not for fossil energy sources. When all the oil, gas, and uranium is gone, we will have only energy from the Sun to support us. Companies that continue to ignore this limit to social life on Earth do not know, contrary to Nathan's claim, what sustainability is and need to be educated and cajoled or more than cajoled into changing and deepening their understanding.

It is a serious misuse of the terms, sustainable or sustainability, to connect them with improvements in the environmental or social performance of firms. Their efforts toward this end will be inevitably thwarted by growth and thermodynamics. And by believing they are doing the "right" thing, they will only make matters worse in the long run. Nathan does understand that consumerism must end, but how can that happen when firms survive today only by feeding the consumers' hungry mouths, and where growth is a central foundation for the success of a firm and the economy of which it is a part?

By all means, there is a difference between being "more sustainable" (which is what I was discussing) and being 100% sustainable (which, I'm not sure we can even ever achieve). But, this is simply a matter of degree. Surly, you're not arguing that organizations and individuals should do nothing in this regard until they can leap to 100% sustainability on the planet? We can't (as individuals, organizations, or societies) move from where we are to "absolutely sustainable in every way" without moving through "more sustainable." If a jump from where we are to the ideal is the only acceptable path then it is a path that will never be taken by 99% of humanity.

As I have just written, sustainability is not "simply a matter of degree." Sustainability means getting the whole system back to a state where it can function to produce flourishing. It is all or nothing. We will attain a state where life can continue to flourish or not. It will take structural and cultural change, far beyond the reductions of impacts that Nathan and all others talk about when addressing sustainability. Business will have to be a major, but not sole actor, in bringing about such changes. If they focus only on using the conventional tools and strategic devices for "sustainability" that have been currently accepted as "state of the art," they will not only be disappointed in the results but will continue to point us in the wrong direction.

I would not disagree if Nathan and others would re-label the efforts they now associate with sustainability to something like reducing unsustainability. I know that's a mouthful and not easy to market, but it is what they are doing, and should continue to do with any more cajoling.

Nathan does neat things with design.

Sick of Sustainability--Wrong Picture

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Greenbiz is one of the best websites to go to to keep on top of what the business community is doing and telling about sustainability. I could easily write more than a few posts a day responding to the news, information, and misinformation to be found there. Most posts would be boring, with my usual complaint that few if any of the articles or the firms they picture get sustainability right. There are lots of references to environmentally friendly or green products, and sustainable businesses. If it takes a healthy environment to allow businesses to persevere over long times, then it will take more than green products to do the job. But Nathan Shedroff writes of being sick of sustainability, with the headline: "Are You as Sick of Sustainability as I Am?"

It seems that everywhere you turn these days, sustainability is the hot topic. While this is a good thing -- and a needed one -- people are already getting green fatigue.

When I am sick over the way sustainability is talked about, I suffer from remorse pangs, worst nightmares, interrupted dreams, and other illnesses caused by unhealthy visions of the future. But that's not the reason that Nathan Shedroff is sick of sustainability. He wants to stop talking about it, believing that business is already on board, equipped with all the tools it needs to do something.

I don't understand his point. The fact sustainability is a "hot topic" doesn't mean that businesses know what it is all about and are acting correctly. I believe business hardly knows what sustainability is at all. Maybe subliminally, but not strategically. If anything we should be sick of all the posturing and activities coming forth in the name of sustainability.

As designers, engineers, project managers and other developers, we need to understand the four categories of impacts: financial, ecological, social and cultural, and put them into our processes -- now. it's not an option we sell to our clients or managers. It's imperative. It's not a bargaining chip to bargain away to lower the budget. It's standard -- and mandatory -- operating procedure. Only then can we make the strides we so desperately need.

Companies got serious about corporate social responsibility when they perceived that, in spite of many legal obstacles to the contrary, they really do need the public's "license" to operate. It's that perception that motivates business to voluntarily report on their socially responsible programs and activities. What these same firms fail to see is that they also require a license from Mother Nature to operate over long periods. Unlike the public's license which comes in the forms of laws and legal opinions, it is not written on a piece of paper. In fact, it is nowhere to be found, but it is there all the same. Nothing companies do is friendly to the environment. The only way possible for them to avoid disturbing the natural world would be to completely recycle the materials we have already extracted from the earth, using nothing but solar energy in the processes. I can't think of any company that is doing that or even thinking about doing that, but many still call themselves or what they do sustainable.

This is why we shouldn't have to cajole businesses, governments and customers to prioritize sustainability. It's just good business, good governing and good living to become more sustainable. Ultimately (and the sooner, the better), this should be the "given" it deserves to be and no longer a "nice to have," but expendable, option.

We do have to cajole businesses, but not to prioritize sustainability as they define it. Sustainability is used by Shedroff and others to mean activities that are less unsustainable, greener, friendlier, but not capable of producing sustainability in an absolute sense. Greenbiz is a carefully written and edited source of information about business and environment with some social responsibility thrown in, but fails to raise the critical point, except on rare occasions, that doing better is not at all the same as producing the conditions required for sustainability to come forth.

It's not about competitive success. I'm not at all sure competition as we know it is compatible with sustainability. Sustainability is a systems outcome, achieved only when all the parts are working cooperatively in harmony. Competition is fundamentally a zero-sum game which without laws to prevent monopolistic practices would end up with a handful of winners running the corporate world. The US economy is now the most unequal large economy on Earth, the result of competitive personal strategies overwhelming systemic coordination for the benefit of all.

But Shedroff does get one critical point right.

Besides, we have more important things to focus on: We need to kill consumerism.

Too bad it is only a tag line to yet another article about the greening of business.

More Help from Unexpected Sources Is on the Way

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Did Mother Nature anticipate that we would mess up her world so badly? She, as James Lovelock writes in Gaia, created a system that can maintain a nourishing environment for all her species. Now we are told by scientists that one of the more intelligent creatures around (maybe more so than we) can contribute to our battle against global climate change. Is it self (whale) preservation or concern for a fellow species?

Here's the article. The headline tells the story: "Scientists Discover Sperm Whale Poop Fights Global Warming." The secret is that these whales' feces contain large amounts of iron which act to fertilize algal growths which capture carbon dioxide. Great engineering feat!

Thank Goodness--Help Is on the Way

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Headline from a story from today's CSR Newswire:

Hooters Girls Donate Their Pantyhose to Create Booms and Absorb Up to 1 Million Gallons of Oil in the Gulf of Mexico

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Equality and Sustainability

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The Spirit Level is a recent book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett that argues that many societal ills can be traced to the degree of income inequality, rather than to the absolute level of affluence as is often believed. After a few introductory chapters, the authors present some nine chapters full of data that illustrate significant correlations between inequality and a wide variety of social indicators. One figure after another shows that some social indicator gets worse as inequality increases. The United States is almost always the worst as it has the largest income inequality of all the nations included in the study. The data have been derived from the works of other researchers.

I have reproduced one of their many examples below. (Thanks to Tony Judt and the New York Review of Books)


The authors include explanations for the results displayed in each of these nine chapters. The single causal mechanism that shows up most often is the power of relative levels of affluence (income) to overwhelm absolute levels. No matter how much someone has on an absolute scale, perceptions of position in some social pecking order exert more influence on life styles, and it is life styles that lead to differences in longevity, mental illness, teen pregnancy, and so on.

Some of the data may be suspect; a book, The Spirit Level Delusion questioning the data and thesis of the book was quickly published in response. The authors of this book aim to discredit the liberal policy positions taken toward the end of the Wilkinson and Pickett book. I did find a few of W & P's arguments relatively unconvincing, but the overall mass of data, derived from scholarly sources, and the accompanying discussion left me completely convinced that much of the basic policy of the developed and developing countries is on the wrong track, and that it will take substantial government initiatives to correct the current orthodoxy.

The last few chapters address the connection between equality and sustainability arguing, based on the data, that more equality leads to higher levels of well-being for all. Not surprisingly, the policy recommendations focus on leveling income rather than raising it. The authors do recognize that at very low income levels, it is important to raise the absolute level as well as maintain equality.

Highly skewed corporate salaries have contributed heavily to the unbalance. I did not hear any reference to the impact of inequality during the recent controversial conversations about the huge salaries paid to executives in the financial industry and large companies in other sectors. Most of the remedies are, given the present conservative tilt in most of the larger economies, politically challenged--capping salaries, for example. One of the obvious remedies proposed is to return to a more progressive income tax. Another is to encourage and facilitate more employee owned companies.

If one has been listening to the arguments that have been made for change in the health care industry, the financial sector, estate tax re-establishment, and other similar arenas, the voices of growth far outshout those on the side of favoring policies designed to produce more equality. The Spirit Level makes a convincing argument that more equality benefits all. The blinders economic policy makers wear, unfortunately, keep them from paying heed to the lessons of the book. I recommend it as an important read for those seeking practical routes toward sustainability.

Black Swans in Disguise

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb popularized the black swan theory around the time the financial system went south. Simply put, he argued that extremely rare events with serious consequences, like the Gulf blowout, do happen, but that we are almost never prepared to deal with them either before the event or afterward. Often, because the consequences are so large, these events can change the course of history.

In this case, we are seeing brown pelicans trying to survive the catastrophe, ending up as black, oil-soaked birds. Their appearance is all too close to the original metaphor that named Taleb’s theory. The same fate would have occurred to normally white swans, if they had lived in the Gulf. The photo shows a rare black, Australian swan that put the lie to the common aphorism that all swans are white, springing from a logical statement used in formal logic.

Taleb offers ten rules (free registration required) for dealing with black swans:

1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small. Nothing should ever become Too Big to Fail.
2. No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains.
3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.
4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant - or your financial risks.
5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity.
6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning.
7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”.
8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains.
9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement.
10. Make an omelette with the broken eggs.

Not all of these pertain directly to the blowout, but most have an almost ironic relevance, especially considering the Congressional hearings that are going on right now. The NYTimes ran a front page article, today, under the headline: “Oil Executives Tell Committee That BP Spill Is an Aberration.” What they meant was that it was a black swan, something that nobody, even the CEO, the regulators, the President would have expected to happen—so rare that nothing could have been done to prevent it. Several CEO’s from Exxon-Mobil and other major oil companies claimed that their companies were not likely to confront anything like this again. Without evidence, tellingly not provided, as to why nothing like this would happen in the future, one can only infer that they were saying the BP did not follow appropriate practices that they, of course, always do.

Ignoring the warnings of Taleb and others that understand that the most unlikely events in the context of an engineering mentality can happen simply out the complexity of the system, the firms blew this off and, on patriotic terms, argued the need to continue to allow the companies to engage in these risky practices.

Mr. McKay [the president of BP America], did, however, issue a plea for forbearance from Congressional and executive branch officials, saying: “America’s economy, security and standard of living today significantly depend upon domestic oil and gas production. Reducing our energy production, absent a concurrent reduction in consumption, would shift additional jobs and dollars offshore and place millions of additional barrels per day into tanker ships that must traverse the world’s oceans.”

If the hearings continue toward a useful and much needed end, the Representatives and their staff should pay particular heed to items 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, and 9. It would be much to difficult to make an omelette (#10) with the metaphorical broken eggs from the accident. Who would ever eat a pelican, even one without an oil coat? The simple (#5) alternate here would be to avoid drilling in fragile and sensitive areas altogether. Exactly the opposite of the CEO’s pleas.

Celebrating a Grandchild's Graduation

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I'll be back on Tuesday. I don't expect there is any room for blogging midst all the family events on Nick's high school graduation.

Silent Spring Revisited

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I generally try to avoid sensational blogging as there is already enough around. I have become skeptical that showing the horrific consequences of humans’ mistreatment of nature and other humans can change the course of history. There have been a few exceptions so I have only got as far as skepticism, not downright dismissal. The memories of these scenes quickly fades under the competition of the banal stream of media signals that capture public attention. Most people cannot make the connection between the catastrophe in the Gulf and the gas they pump at the local BP station. Just think for a moment about the irony the photo conveys. The fuzzy sign in the photo of a BP station says “You are responsible for spills.”

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I am moved today to join the sensationalists by posting this photo of an oil-soaked brown pelican. It is another irony that the brown pelicans are the species most selected often in photos depicting the effects of the spill on bird life.

This second irony is that this species was dropped from the endangered species list only a few months ago. Scientific American noted this a few days ago.

It is quite a blow for a species that was on the endangered species list until just six months ago. It had taken brown pelicans nearly 50 years to recover from the devastating effects of DDT and other pesticides that nearly wiped them out.

This pelican, along with the bald eagle, osprey, and other raptors near the top of the food chain, was among those strongly affected by DDT and other highly chlorinated chemicals, and was nearly driven to extinction. It took the work of Rachel Carson to bring the disappearing species to the public attention and to suggest a reason for their losses. Her work and that of others who joined her was vociferously countered by the chemical industry who argued that the benefits of using these dangerous substances outweighed the costs. She was personally attacked in the media by the opponents of any kind of regulation or government intervention.

I suspect many of my readers may not remember the uproar accompanying the publication of Silent Spring. I do. In 1967, I had just founded a small company to do research on air pollution. I named the company, Walden Research, inspired by Thoreau’s concerns about environment especially since our office was only about 20 miles from Walden Pond. In many ways Silent Spring was the critical driver leading to modern environmentalism. The Environmental Defense Fund was founded, also, in 1967 to defend the claims spring from Carson’s book in the litigation that followed. The novelty of early environmental initiative is noted in the EDF’s website.

Four decades ago, Environmental Defense helped launch the modern environmental era by winning a ban on DDT, the pesticide Rachel Carson warns about in Silent Spring. DDT causes eggshells to thin and break, threatening the survival of magnificent birds like the osprey, bald eagle and peregrine falcon. It is also a persistent poison that works its way up the food chain, thus endangering humans as well. The fledgling effort by a handful of scientists on Long Island to halt the use of DDT was a remarkable demonstration of how individuals can bring about lasting change. The group incorporated as the Environmental Defense Fund in 1967.

Our founders tried a novel approach, common today but unheard of in the late 1960s: The scientists teamed up with a lawyer and went to court on behalf of the environment. Their efforts led to a nationwide ban on DDT and the birth of modern environmental law. The osprey has since made a dramatic recovery, and the bald eagle and peregrine falcon have been removed from the endangered species list.

The causal chain Carson wrote about was invisible, unlike the stark evidence of the effects of oil from the blowout in the pictures we are able to view through the ubiquitous of internet media. Have our senses become dulled by the Internet as Nick Carr writes? The only sign of concern I have seen so far from our Congress is a bill proposed by about 30 Representatives to quadruple the clean-up fund fee assessed on oil produced in US territory from 8 to 32 cents a barrel. Too little; too late. Rachel Carson, where are you when we still need you?

Today's Synchronicity--the Classics

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A triple play today. It started with my writing a response to one of my students at the Marlboro MBA for Managing Sustainability program. We have been reading several essays probing what well-being means to economists. The last few selections were by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum in particular draws her framework from Aristotle who describes the Good as those things and action that create eudaimonia. The closest translation for this Greek word is flourishing or fully functioning. My interpretation, not necessarily hers, is that we have to look back to classical times to fully understand ethical or normative notions like good or well-being. Nussbaum believes that a political economy has to provide the capabilities for the good life, and develops a list of what those capabilities comprise.

Next, in my morning scan of the internet, I read David Brooks’s oped piece. As I noted earlier, Brooks has been exploring subjects of great interest to me recently. His theme today was the importance of including the humanities in college education. Although I disagree with his opening premise, his overall story is right on. Brooks begins by claiming that the present economic crunch and loss of jobs is driving students away from studying the humanities towards “accounting,” the metaphor he used for all professional education. Maybe so, but a little thinking suggests that in a smaller job market in the business world, maybe a general education would find places outside of that shrunken labor marketplace. Humanities have been disappearing from college curricula at a rapid pace over the last generation.

In any case, Brooks “stand[s] up for the history, English and art classes, even in the face of today’s economic realities.”

Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.
Later in the piece, he says:
Studying the humanities will give you a wealth of analogies. People think by comparison — Iraq is either like Vietnam or Bosnia; your boss is like Narcissus or Solon. People who have a wealth of analogies in their minds can think more precisely than those with few analogies. If you go through college without reading Thucydides, Herodotus and Gibbon, you’ll have been cheated out of a great repertoire of comparisons.
Altogether a column worth reading. And then I clicked on a nearby link in the Times and the words of Stanley Fish popped up. Fish was extolling the virtues of the classical high school education he had gotten in Providence some 55 years ago.
When I attended, offerings and requirements included four years of Latin, three years of French, two years of German, physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, English, history, civics, in addition to extra-curricular activities, and clubs — French Club, Latin Club, German Club, Science Club, among many others.

I, too, went to a similar public high school in Cincinnati a few years earlier. We were offered six, not four, years of Latin. The school dropped its Greek courses just a few years earlier. At my 50th reunion, one of my former classmates regaled us by quoting Caesar, instantly invoking images of my own experience.

Fish spends most of the column reviewing three books that are critical of the present secondary education system. All three urge returning to a more classically based curriculum. He quotes from Diane Ravitch’s recent book:

Ravitch’s recommendations are simple, commonsensical and entirely consonant with the views of Boitins and Nussbaum. Begin with “a well conceived, coherent, sequential curriculum,” and then “adjust other parts of the education system to support the goals of learning.” This will produce a “foundation of knowledge and skills that grows stronger each year.” Forget about the latest fad and quick-fix, and buckle down to the time-honored, traditional “study and practice of the liberal arts and sciences: history, literature, geography, the sciences, civics mathematics, the arts and foreign languages.”

Sustainability as flourishing builds on the classical image of flourishing as the desideratum of human social life. Unless we understand what that image is, there is little likelihood we will ever divert the current economic machine from its misbegotten path. If the most formative years of our school education lack any related content, where are these critical values and beliefs going to come from. Those already in college and beyond have missed the exposure, and will not be able to teach their children what is most important in life. These lessons are not the sole responsibility of our schools, but they can and must play a key role.

On a completely unrelated note, the Hairy Woodpecker chick, nesting in a pecked-out hole in a nearly dead birch next to the house, has flown the coop. We have been entranced for a week or so by the tiny head that peeks out to see the world and receive food from the adult that flitters back and forth. My bird book notes that Hairy’s often come back again to same hole to raise their chicks. I hope so. I do miss the chick’s chirping and the rat-a-tat-tat of the parent seeking insects to bring back to the nest.

(Rembrandt, Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer )

Technology Seen Through Art

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It's a little fuzzy. (Thanks to Sherry Immediato for pointing me to this.)

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This is the title of a classic psychological research paper, written by G. A. Miller in 1956. Miller’s thesis was that our cognitive system has limits to the amount of information a human can process in a short time. He discovered this more than 50 years ago before we had machines that could image the brain and find out so much about how our cognitive system works.

It should come then as no surprise that researchers are finding that extreme multi-taskers, people who constantly are bombarded with signals from a variety of devices, become distracted and lose capability in performing routine tasks. A long article in today’s NYTimes tells the story of a family where the father and two children are constantly on their phones and in front of screens. The parent tells how he nearly lost an opportunity to sell the company he founded because he overlooked an email containing an offer for 13 days. His son has begun to perform poorly at school. It’s only one long story but appears to be a common result of too much time before the screens.

While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress. And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.

Another example of the dark side of technology. There is a lot of irony here. The use of these devices is often touted as improving productivity in today’s information rich world.

I see another consequence with important links to sustainability. One of the features of technology as both a tool and as a way of thinking about the world is that is turns everything, including human beings, into objects that appear to us only as a means or an instrument to accomplish some purpose. The world, in Heidegger’s words, becomes “standing reserve.” Humans lose their basic sense of care in the process. As I have written, sustainability depends on restoring this fundamental sense of caring to the way we think about and visualize ourselves. The Times article goes on to say:

Mr. Nass at Stanford thinks the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room. “The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,” he said. “It shows how much you care.” That empathy, Mr. Nass said, is essential to the human condition. “We are at an inflection point,” he said. “A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.”

I believe we have gone beyond that inflection point and must work hard to recover. The Times story could easily have been written about alcohol or other substance-induced addiction. The devices written about in the article are no different from drugs in their effects, except that they lack equivalent recognition and social stigma. Quite the opposite. Apple sold two million iPads in the first two months following its introduction to the market.

More Oil Where It Shouldn't Be

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Maybe it’s global warming or just Mother Nature showing her displeasure at the way we are inflicting wounds on her body, but I was awakened early this morning by the most powerful thunderstorm I can remember. The rain was literally coming down in buckets, and the lightning lit up the bedroom like an old-fashioned flash bulb.

I, like most, have been focusing on the Gulf blow-out, but this is not the only place where drilling operations are creating havoc. Nigeria, where several international oil companies have been operating for quite a while, is suffering from both natural and political fallout. I won’t say much about this except to point to this link from the Guardian. This paragraph telegraphs the story.

With 606 oilfields, the Niger delta supplies 40% of all the crude the United States imports and is the world capital of oil pollution. Life expectancy in its rural communities, half of which have no access to clean water, has fallen to little more than 40 years over the past two generations. Locals blame the oil that pollutes their land and can scarcely believe the contrast with the steps taken by BP and the US government to try to stop the Gulf oil leak and to protect the Louisiana shoreline from pollution.

The social consequences have been well documented in both news reports and in fiction. I recommend two fictional treatments. One is a novel, Little Bee, by Chris Cleave; the other is one of the short stories in a collection, Say You’re One of Them, by the African writer, Uwem Akpan.

Would the profits of these companies be the largest of any corporations if they had to pay for the damages they inflict to the Earth and its inhabitants, human and otherwise? Would we do if these costs showed up at the gasoline pump?

Looking for Mr. Fixit

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With the oil still spurting out of a hole a mile under the sea, everyone is looking for Mr. Fixit. One of the front page stories in the NYTimes News of the Week in Review on May 30, 2010 discussed the incessant search for technological answers to all of our problems.

Americans have long had an unswerving belief that technology will save us — it is the cavalry coming over the hill, just as we are about to lose the battle. And yet, as Americans watched scientists struggle to plug the undersea well over the past month, it became apparent that our great belief in technology was perhaps misplaced.

The next day, David Brooks wrote in the same paper:

Everybody is comparing the oil spill to Hurricane Katrina, but the real parallel could be the Iranian hostage crisis. In the late 1970s, the hostage crisis became a symbol of America’s inability to take decisive action in the face of pervasive problems. In the same way, the uncontrolled oil plume could become the objective correlative of the country’s inability to govern itself.

The plume taps into a series of deep anxieties. First, it taps into the anxiety that the people running our major institutions are just not that competent. Second, it feeds into the anxiety that there has been an unhappy marriage between corporations and government officials, which has had the effect of corrupting both. Most important, the plume exposes the country’s core confusion about the role of government.

Anxiety is an emotion that arises when we suspect or know that the problem right in front of us can't be handled by any of our stock of individual or collective coping strategies. Fear is the ultimate form of anxiety showing up when that knowledge of having no solution at hand pops up very suddenly. We had a chance to think about the Gulf blowout for a few days before it became a bona fide disaster. When we suddenly encounter a bear in a forest, we have nothing in our bag of tricks unless we are a forest ranger. Fear usually leads to a decision to flee physically or metaphorically.

Part of the anxiety comes from the cultural expectation that we should have a solution at hand. That's the Mr. Fixit mentality that is accentuated by our implicit faith in technology, both in the shape of tools (giant shears or domes) or technically derived institutional processes (investigatory commissions). A few days earlier Brooks wrote another column recognizing the complexity of the Gulf situation. He warned against looking for simple solutions and pointed to a series of failings of both institutions and individuals when faced with complexity. It's a very good column but one in which Brooks fails to see the very problem he warns against. He concludes with a "solution."

So it seems important, in the months ahead, to not only focus on mechanical ways to make drilling safer, but also more broadly on helping people deal with potentially catastrophic complexity. There must be ways to improve the choice architecture — to help people guard against risk creep, false security, groupthink, the good-news bias and all the rest. This isn’t just about oil. It’s a challenge for people living in an imponderably complex technical society.

Improving the "choice architecture" is the wrong response if that means simply making it better. "Better" implies some technical improvement. We must emphatically transform the way we solve problems and make decisions about risky projects by giving up the basic belief that reality can be mastered by analysis and scientific knowledge. Complexity, even Brooks has it wrong, is not the same as complicated. It is a way of holding reality that admits from the start that we cannot "know" how most large socio-economic-technical systems work by invoking expertise and scientific methodologies. Complexity requires more attention be paid to local, experiential learning. Dealing with complexity requires pragmatic, prudent, cautious actions always accompanied by careful monitoring and means for adapting to unforeseen behavior. In some cases involving new, big systems, this may mean not doing anything.

In yet another article, Brooks (who has been remarkably non-partisan through this big mess) commends President Obama for his pragmatism (my choice of word) and acceptance of the primacy of local learning in his education reforms. Unfortunately, political [and business success] is still seen as finding the right Mr. Fixit.

Punching More Holes in the Ground

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While the Nation’s and the World’s attention has been focused on the catastrophe in the Gulf, another search for fuel for our insatiable appetite for energy has slipped under the radar screen. Operations to release methane trapped deep underground in layers of shale have been going on for some time. Known by the ungainly name of “fracking,” holes are being drilled deep into the Earth to tap what is said to be the largest natural gas reserve in the US.

One of the largest shale formations, called the Marcellus layer after the town where one of the first wells that penetrated the formation was drilled, lies under New York and Pennsylvania. I have found lots of information on this process and the political and environmental shenanigans that accompany these projects on the web. Much to much to report here. I did find this recent article in Orion tells the story of activities in the Marcellus in a compelling way as do most articles in this great magazine.

Drilling aims to reach layers 1 to 2 miles below the surface, passing through aquifers both potable and not. Once inside the shale layer, the drill head turns horizontal to access a large section of the stratum. Large quantities of water, containing chemicals and other substances, are forced down the well to open the structure and free the gas which then rises to the surface where it is captured, purified, and transmitted by pipelines. The Orion article describes the transformation of the landscape and land use that these projects are causing. What has been productive farming country for decades is being peppered with well sites.

I cannot read this article without a feeling a mixture of dread and sadness. I hope those who read this blog will not feel a sense of inevitability and resignation. It is too late to prevent all the harm to the Gulf, but there is still time to support action in Pennsylvania and New York to stop or slow down the relentless pace of these projects.

Here’s a list of actions I found on Alternet:

So here’s what you can do, especially if you’re in Pennsylvania:

1. Call Governor Rendell to demand a moratorium on this: 717-787-2500
2. Check out local environmental groups involved with this. In PA, that includes the Green Party and the Environmental Working Group. Check out your state here.
3. If you’re a Pennsylvania Democrat, vote for Joe Hoeffel in the gubernatorial primary - he’s the only candidate who supports a moratorium.
4. Check out the movie Gasland and the blog for more info on this, along with the links in the diary.

With all the recent publicity of the dangers of punching holes in the Earth, it should not come as a surprise that accidents happen. Given that public interests concerned with safety and environmental harms know that putting holes deep into the Earth is fraught with risk, one might expect to find these operations highly regulated. Wrong. Fracking is exempt from all pertinent Federal environmental regulation, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Superfund Law.

The NYTimes carried an article in March 2010 reporting a failure by operators in Texas to report violation of an memorandum of agreement they had signed with the EPA in which they promised not to inject diesel oil into wells. Doing this poses a risk to drinking water sources. The MOA was, according to the Times, signed to head off federal regulatory or legislative actions, leaving any oversight to the states. It should also come as no surprise that the parties involved were Halliburton, BJ Services and Schlumberger, the nations’s largest oil field service companies.

As Peter Seeger writes in his plaintive folk song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,”

When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?