Friday, June 30, 2006

Accuracy in Media: "universities can serve as a breeding ground for eco-terrorists"

Via Chaone Mallory on the ISEE list comes a link to this misleading and inflamatory article by Accuracy in Media (the Scaife-funded group that once called Walter Cronkite a "soviet dupe.") The article, written by the head of Accuracy in Media" claims that "universities can serve as a breeding ground for eco-terrorists" and implies that we college professors teach students how to commit arson. The main tactic the article uses is to give the impression that a guy named Dr. Jerry Vlasak of the reprehensible Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) is somehow a mainstream figure in the academic left.

The part of the article that is really disturbing though is the claim, attributed to the Justice Department that ecoterrorists are the leading domestic threat in the US. Perhaps environmentalists will be the next swept into the category "enemy" as a part of the Global War on Anything We Decide to Label Terrorism. The "terrorist" label is already so vague that it has been applied by the government to pacifists and Quakers. If people who take a principled stand against all violence can be terrorists, then really we are all at risk.

Slight tangent: the mention of SHAC reminds me that activists, left and right, don't typically do a good job denouncing people on their own side when those people behave unethically. To help remedy that I would like to say to Ward Churchill: Good riddance to bad rubbish.

"History is an angel being blown backward into the future"

Via Evelyn B in email comes this report of an indigenous Andean language whose speakers point behind them to indicate the future and in front of them to indicate the past. Spoken idioms reflect this use, so the phrase for last year literally means "the year in front of us." Apparently, this use reflects the idea that the past is what you know, and what you know is before your eyes.

Speaking of reversals, I had always assumed that most cultures viewed the sun as male and the moon as female, like the Greeks and Egyptians. I started to Google around for an exception to this rule, only to find that it is not a rule at all. According to Wikipedia sun goddesses are at least as common as sun gods, Norse and Japanese mythology providing prominent examples of sun goddesses.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Demand for Oil

So once again today we were talking about the possibility that the market will take care of the peak oil problem, but today it seemed as though the issue boiled down to a single, empirical question: what is the demand elasticity for oil from the price of oil? "Demand elasticity" refers to how much people are willing to change their use of a product. Some products--like airline tickets, I'm told--have very elastic demands. Slight changes in price lead to large changes in demand. Other products, like health care, people seek out at almost any price.

If the demand for oil is very price elastic, then the free marketeers are completely right. As the price of oil goes up, the economy will adjust and people will find alternatives. If the demand for oil is not very price elastic, though, people will wreck the world rather than change their ways. People will, for instance, invent shitty pretexts about weapons of mass destruction in order to invade countries that have a lot of oil.

Interestingly, the environmental movement sends very mixed messages on the issue of demand elasticity due to price. On the one hand, peak oilers always say "Everything anyone does anywhere depends on oil. We can’t simply stop using oil. We need to prepare now for oil shortages.” On the other hand, people who promote conservation say, “There are so many simple things you can do that will save a lot of energy!” You’d think these messages are complementary, but if you are wondering if the market can fix the problem, they are in conflict. If reductions are easy, then people will make them as soon as the price goes up. The only reason to ask for changes beyond what the market will bring is if the changes are not easy.

In the seminar today, Richard Heinberg discussed the Oil Depletion Protocol, an international treaty which he is pushing. The bottom line is that all the nations of the world would agree to import 2.6% less oil every year. This means an exponential reduction in global oil consumption. Local people who work on energy conservation said that a 2.6% reduction would be easy. Richard agreed, saying gluttonous Americans could achieve ten years worth of energy reduction in a single year if they put their mind to it.

Well this sounds great, but Greg, our free market guy, pointed out that the 2.6% annual reduction in oil consumption essentially mirrors the decline in consumption that shrinking production is supposed to cause. Oil imports are going to shrink anyway, because there will be less oil to import. The Oil Depletion Protocol simply asks us to start shrinking imports before nature forces us to. The only reason we would want to do this is if the process were hard, and we would want extra time.

So here is the empirical question: What is the demand elasticity of oil based on price? As someone naturally skeptical of free market solutions, I instinctively think demand is not very elastic. But what evidence do I have? I asked Greg how one would go about investigating the issue, and he said you would have to “plot out the demand curve” (or something like that) which is very complicated and requires a lot of data.

So we are left with an empirical issue and a fuck of a lot of uncertainty (again). Honestly, at this point I simply fall back on unreliable personal experience. I personally find it very hard to use less oil. The phrase “addicted to oil” resonates with me. If this limited experience is at all representative, we should start trying to conserve *now,* before the price goes up, just to get ourselves used to dealing with less.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Some Kids' Stuff

1. Joey's vocalizations are now distinctly word-like. Several times this week I have asked him questions and gotten a distinct "no." ("Would you like this apple" [pointing to a older, mushy one] "No." "How about this one" [pointing to a fresh one ] "Ygdhhsht.") A couple of times he has said "no" simply after I had told him "no." I'm calling this language use.

2. Salon has a nice article up about all the great kids music that is being made these days, leading off with my personal hero, Dan Zanes. Also featured are Laurie Berkner, Justin Roberts and They Just Might Could Possibly Be Giants. Quoth John Flansburgh
"Writing for kids is uniquely liberating, it just invites you to be as adventurous as you can be," he says. "There's no downside to it in a way, except you can't talk about death and sex. We don't write that much about sex anyway, and we've probably written too much about death, so those were easy concessions to make."

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Comparing the Collapse of the Soviet and American Empires

I commend to you, the internet, this brilliant presentation by Dmitri Orlov: Closing the Collapse Gap. The whole presentation is really funny in a "we are all completely fucked" sort of way. His premise is that the American empire will soon suffer the kind of economic collapse that killed the old Soviet Union. We suffer a lot of the same problems including crazed military spending, government deficits, trade deficits and "delusions of grandeur [that] prevent honest political discussion." On the other hand, the Russians had a lot of social structures that allowed them to weather the collapse, including closeknit multigenerational families living under one roof, instead of diffuse families isolated in suburbs. Another amusing pair of bullet points on the families slide. Russian families: "Accostomed to hardship"; American families: "Feelings of entitlement."

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

My meet up with The Blogger Who Likes to Use Funny Pseudonyms and Never Shows Faces

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

My family and I had the honor of being extras for a little while at Jo(e)'s house a couple weeks ago. I know, I should have blogged it sooner, but Jo(e) did such a nice job of it, and I have had little chance to do anything besides work related posts recently, and I'm even behind on reading her blog so I didn't even know she had posted naked pictures of herself, and oh well I'm blogging it now.

This picture is a Writing as Jo(e) two-fer, since you get to see both Jo(e) and With-a-Why without seeing their faces. With-a-Why was one of the last of Clan Jo(e) we met, and when he walked in the room he almost immediately curled up, kittenish, on her lap. All the clan members were introduced to us both by their real name and their blog name, and the juxtaposition revealed an extra little joke in With-a-Why’s pseudonym that those of us who had only been reading the blog would get. After spending some time on her lap, he went to the piano, and there was debate over whether he should play The Doors or “Real Music” (= Classical). The Doors won out at first, but it turned out to be a little too interruptive for polite conversation.

While we were there we met all the Jo(e) family members--Boy in Black, Shaggy Hair, With-a-Why, Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter, Spouse--and two of the regular extras, Blonde Niece and Skater Boy. It was neat to meet Spouse: He gets less time on the blog, and there is a serious pseudonym imbalance between him and Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter. In the end, I couldn’t figure out why he isn’t blogged as Wonderful Smart Beautiful Spouse. Like the rest of the family, he spontaneously produces music in conversation. With us, he picked up one of those wooden-frog-percussion-things and began quietly tapping a complicated rhythm. As an inveterate tapper myself, I can recognize quality idle music production.

Jo(e) is just like her blog, sweet and playful and funny. As soon as we came, she got down on the floor with Joey and Caroline and played, bringing out a wooden train set and blowing up balloons. We talked a little of the politics of pseudonymous blogging, and she served some lovely pasta salad. It was easy to become extras at her house as soon as you walked in the door.

Happy First Birthday Joseph L. Hinshaw!

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

More from our dear leader

That is why I call on Americans of both parties to support my Renew America's Vision Act, which will reform the tax code to send more values to the most productive segments of the economy. I also call on Congress to pass the Precious Little Timmy Act of 2006, which will help the most prosperous among us in their prosperity, to insure that tragedies like the one that happened to precious little timmy never happen again.

Hey, I could be a white house speech writer!

Today we stand in the strength of our freedom in truth, united in victory. Our values are our liberty, and our honor is our pride. There are those who say we should slacken in the face of adversity. To them I say: Liberty. The American nipples will not soften, nor rest in the supple slackness of dispair, until the light of values shines pure over all nations. Our dream is our hope is our courage which will always be pure truth in the creator. God bless stand tall our mighty rubble in oil dollar freedom. Squiertz, fuxbuzdg. Goodnight.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Father's Day Notes, 2006

1. To whomever taught my eldest child to say "no way, josé": I loathe you.

2. My sitemeter numbers have been way down for several weeks. I think this is largely becaus I haven't had a chance to blog as much or comment as much on other people's sites. I've been away from the internets more, because I have largely switched roles with Molly: I've been doing her share of the childcare, and she's been spending as much time working as I used to. The net result: I'm completely exhausted most of the time. And I've barely had a chance to get any work done. Basically, I've been doing my peak oil seminar, and that's it. I would now like to publically express my gratitude for all the childcare Molly has done up to now. I've been on her schedule for only a few weeks, and it is killing me. The fact is, she is a fucking rock. Hopefully by the end of the summer I will be at her level of endurance.

3. There is a lot of chatter right now about Linda Hirshman's claim that women who drop out of the workforce are betraying feminism. On one level, she's probably right. If you drop out of the workforce, you harm yourself by making yourself economically dependent, and to the extent that this serves as an example for others, you hurt others. Hirshman is also right to say that a fulfilling life in the public sphere is a big part of human flourishing. (I don't know if she puts it this way. I'm actually entirely dependent on second hand information, and have no intention of acquiring first hand information right now.)

But there is a really important flipside to Hirshman's arguments that isn't being discussed in the few parts of the interweb that I have had a chance to read recently. If you don't raise children, you are also missing out on an important part of the human experience--shit, you are missing out on an important part of the mammalian experience. Hirshman is within her rights to criticize other people's lifestyle choices, but the lifestyle critique cuts both ways. If you want to make robust claims about the good life--and I do--then in the end, you hare going to have to admit that having children is a part of that.

The difference between the decision to have children and the decision to drop out of the workforce, of course, is that having children is an incredibly selfish thing to do. (Of course, neither of these are always or even usually decisions, but we'll leave that aside.) When Molly and I had children, we enriched our own lives in unimaginable ways: but we also became a big huge resource drain on the planet. If you never have children, you can drive as many Hummers as you want and you will never take as much from the commonweal as we have. So there is an asymmetry between the decision to drop out of the workforce and the decision to have children. If a woman drops out of the workforce, she hurts herself and by example other women. If you choose not to have children at all, you hurt yourself, but you probably benefit others.

4. I'm blogging drunk right now. I hope my family lets me sleep in tomorrow.

5. I've been thinking recently, again, about the choice molly and I made to follow a very labor intensive style of parenting called Attachment Parenting (AP). The parents who are reading this are probably sick of hearing about AP, and the nonparents have probably never heard of it at all. Lets leave it at this: AP is touchy feely and labor intensive. (Actually, most touchy feely hippy programs wind up being labor intensive: organic agriculture, for instance.)

Why are we doing this? I’ve decided to give up on rational justification. I don’t know the research on outcomes, and I’m not going to investigate. Molly read all the books, so I will have to leave the rational part to her. I am doing this because I have made an instinctive decision to trust nurturing instincts. I’m going on instinct both at the first order and the meta level.

And so to bed.

Sometimes I worry that I have unprofessional material posted about myself on the internet

...and then I compare myself to guys like this. (Via Unfogged)

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Famine and Peak Oil

I've got a presentation in a few hours, and I'm uploading my power point notes here, in case the computer can't read my thumb drive for some reason.

Peak Oil and Famine

A Trial Thesis

  • Famine is caused by injustice in food distribution, not underproduction of food.
  • Peak oil will not change this situation.

Elaboration & Clarification

  • Peak oil will force a massive reorganization of the food chain.
  • But this will only lead to additional starvation if people react to it unjustly
  • Preparation for the agricultural reorganization should focus on institutions of justice,
  • Preparation for should not be an attempt to match food production to population levels.

  • Background on Famines and Forecasting
  • The current size of the buffer
  • Alternative sources of nitrogen
  • The value of systems thinking over productionism

On famines
  • Famines are not correlated with the underproduction of food, and rarely caused by them.
  • Famines can occur when food production is at a high.
  • Food production can drop as much as 70% in a poor region without triggering famine.
  • Famines come with a particular group loses access to the food stocks

On Forecasting

  • You forecast to help deliberate
  • You deliberate over what you have control over (Aristotle)
  • The goal of forecasting is to develop a range of possible outcomes of differing desirability that you have some influence over.
  • Given this, many cornucopias and catastrophists are forecasting irresponsibly.
The Size of the Buffer

Where is the food missing?

  • Congo
  • Rwanda
  • Burundi
  • Angola
  • Zambia
  • Tanzania
  • Ethiopia
  • Central African Republic
  • Mozambique

Alternative Nitrogen Sources

Alternative Feedstocks for Haber-Bosch

  • Hydrogen from electrolysis
  • Coal, low-quality hydrocarbons

Biotech sources

  • Engineering non-leguminous plants to form a symbiotic relationship with Rhizobia
  • Engineering a nitrogen fixing microbe to operate at an industrial scale, independently of green plant symbiosis.

4. Productionism v. Systems Thinking


  • “Productionism is the philosophy that emerges when production is taken to be the sole norm for ethically evaluating agriculture” (Thompson 1995)
  • “There are no philosophically sophisticated defenses of productionism,” although Earl Butz is a kind of productionist icon.(Thompson 1995)
  • Malthusianism is pessimistic productionism.

Sustainability as systems thinking

  • Identify boundaries of the system
  • A system is sustainable if it is free from internal threats. (Thompson 1995)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Televised Dominoes

On ESPN. They are showing live championship dominoes. For people who find parking lot security cam feeds too exciting.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Natural Gas and the End of Oil

All this month, I'm attending a seminar on peak oil run by Richard Heinberg, and one thing its doing for me is providing a lot of pessimistic data and arguments regarding aspects of the problem I had some confidence about. I count my self a peak oil moderate: there is a very serious problem here, but it is one we can handle with the right combination of cooperation and foresight. I am fond of this comparison of Peak Oil to the Y2K problem: a disaster is possible, but if enough important people actually listen to the doomsayers and Cassandras, it can be so thoroughly averted that people will wonder what all the fuss was about.

One of the keys to this work together optimism is the possibility of finding a bridge fuel to tide us over until real renewable technology is in place. In the end, we will probably all live off wind and solar energy, perhaps stored in hydrogen fuel cells, or perhaps in ordinary batteries, but we need something to tide us over until that point, because the oil is running out now. The leading candidate for a bridge fuel is natural gas, which is why I was so dismayed to hear so much bad news about natural gas at the seminar yesterday.

Oh, sweet clean burning natural gas, who knew you were so fickle? I had believed that the natural gas peak would come after the oil peak, but apparently I should not be so sure. Colin Campbell, the dean of peak oil studies, believes that natural gas will peak at the same time as oil. Heinberg said that credible estimates for the peak for natural gas range from 2010 to 2050, and there is no way to adjudicate between them. More troublingly, the production curve for natural gas is likely to look like a plateau with a rapid decline at the end, rather than a nice, smooth bell curve. Heinberg’s power point at the seminar described the evidence for this as simply coming from what is known about the discovery curves for natural gas. Natural gas discoveries tend to quickly rise to a stable rate, stay at that level for a long time, and then drop precipitously. That is what the discovery curve for North America looked like. Since the production curve generally mirrors the discovery curve, we are likely to see all the natural gas disappear from under our noses quite quickly. Colin Campbell, in this interview attributes the problem to the inability of a free market to recognize the kinds of signals natural gas supplies give when they are about to run out. On the other hand, it is also clear from that interview that Campbell never met a central planning regime he didn't like.

So natural gas production tends to drop off suddenly without notice, and could do so at any time. What other bad news is there? Well, both Heinberg in the seminar and Colin Campbell in the interview I just linked to are very pessimistic about the ability of liquefied natural gas to create a global natural gas market. Right now there is no spot market for natural gas. [correction: no spot market for liquified natural gas] The gas is [mostly] traded locally using long term contracts. From what I gather, you have to build a pipeline from buyer to seller, and agree to send a lot of gas down that pipeline for a long time. The only way to create a global market for natural gas like the one that exists for oil is to start trading in liquefied natural gas, which can be put aboard tankers and shipped anywhere. The problem is that liquefied natural gas (LNG) is expensive to make and ship. There is a 15% energy penalty right away for liquefying it, that is, you loose 15% of the energy content of the fuel when you turn it from a gas to a liquid. LNG also requires all sorts of special tankers and transfer facilities which need to be built and operated. Roberts (2004) opens his chapter on natural gas with an awe inspiring description of a massive LNG port under construction on the Baja peninsula. Heinberg and Campbell simply don’t think the expense of building all of these will allow for the kind of cheap energy we are all used to. Thus the natural gas market will always remain local.

If natural gas can drop off precipitously and at any time, and we are dependent only on local natural gas sources, North Americans are in trouble. Local natural gas is already in decline. This is affirmed both in the seminar I’ve been attending and in Roberts’ book. In other words, North America could find itself in a severe natural gas shortage very soon. Heinberg predicts more rolling blackouts in California next summer for precisely this reason.

Roberts, Paul. 2004. The end of oil: on the edge of a perilous new world. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 0618239774.

Reductio ad Absurdum of Paul Feyerabend

Well, maybe its less reductio than satire, but here it is, courtesy of The Onion: Rogue Scientist Has Own Scientific Method

Things have been crazy hectic around here since I started doing two shifts at the child care co-op and participating in a peak oil seminar. Hopefully I'll be able to write more soon.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

My Presentation at the ISEE/IAEP

This was written Thursday, but I'm just posting it now.

This morning I gave my talk to the ISEE/IAEP conference, and received some excellent comments from John Fisher. John opened with a strong reading of my paper: My thesis boils down to saying that one cannot appreciate nature properly unless one has achieved Buddhist enlightenment. He implies that for this to be true, Buddhism would have to be “The true metaphysical account of ourselves and the world.” (I’m reading an “if” as really an “only if.”)

To review: In the paper I outline several different ideas about how one should appreciate nature that have been put forward in the analytic aesthetics literature. I then claim that a better account can be found in traditional Buddhist texts like the Theregāthā including this poem. The core of my argument simply comes from the first three of the Buddha’s noble truths. Nature is full of suffering. We suffer because we desire. The way to see the world as it is without suffering is to eliminate desire. I first blogged on this topic here

So am I saying that only a Bodhisattva appreciates nature? Well, John actually suggests and answer for me, that the model is only a regulative idea. And this is certainly right. To the extent that we approach enlightenment, we also approach the ability to properly appreciate nature. But there is more to be said here. I’m somewhat ambiguous in the paper about the role of pluralism in my aesthetics, and I need to clean that up, to explain the role of this model as a regulative idea.

In the paper my attitude boils down to this: this model, the Theragāthā model, is only one model among many. The other models have their uses for different times and different people. Children’s experience of nature should be engaged--in fact, there is probably no way for them to disengage. When Caroline is outside, in the backyard or down by the river, she runs from site to site and from experience to experience. “Look, an ant!” “Look a pretty rock!” “Look, a wish!” (“Wish” = a dandelion when it is white and ready to loose its seeds.) Each of these sites, these parts of the yard, call on her to act. A wish should be blown. A rock must be handed to an adult. Ants should be coaxed to crawl on a leaf or into a jar. This engaged mode of dealing with nature is right and good for her.

But for most adults, with the capacity to see a lot of nature, the disinterested model is needed. It is needed to see the world as it is without suffering. Really, what I am offering here is not pluralism, but a sort of contextualism. Whether or not a mode of nature appreciation is appropriate depends on time, place, the background of the person experiencing nature, whether or not she is three years old, etc.

Another major objection raised was that the mode of appreciation I am discussing is either not about nature, or it is not aesthetic, or both. I attempted to deal with this by referring to a Hepburn essay, but John rightly points out that this is inadequate. Here’s the real problem: the mode of experience I am discussing can be had almost anywhere. It is at best an empirical generalization that natural environments are likely to yield this experience. As one commenter put it to me, you can engage in this kind of contemplation in Times Square. The attitude toward nature is at best instrumental. I also totally didn’t justify my claim that the appreciation I am discussing is aesthetic.

I am labeling the experience I am talking about the aesthetic appreciation of nature, because I believe there is a cluster of phenomena that all of the thinkers I have discussed are trying to describe. Shaftsbury, Dewey, Carlson, Berleant, and the ancient monks and nuns all have related experiences in nature. By emphasizing different aspects of the experience, they create models that are to degrees both normative and descriptive. The Theragāthā model clearly belongs in this cluster. Buddhist non engagement belongs in a family with classical aesthetic disinterestedness. They both involve a suspension of means-ends rationality and some sort of bracketing of personal desire. The Theragāthā model is also at least as much about nature as the other models in this cluster. It is true that this mode of contemplation can take place in Times Square. It could also take place in art galleries. But this is at worst simply a similarity between the aesthetic experience of nature and the aesthetic experience of art and everyday life, a connection which is made by many of the writers I am drawing on.

Of course, there are some ways in which the state described in the Theregāthā model differs from the state described by the other thinkers. But this is just to say that it is a model which makes different normative suggestions. It isn’t fair to say that the Theragāthā model is less aesthetic or less about nature because it stresses different aspects of the experience, and pushes the experience in different ways.

The final big objection was that the Theregāthā model does not link the aesthetic appreciation of nature to a duty to preserve nature. The disconnect was expressed in two ways. First, if disinterested, noncognitive experience is possible in a variety of environments, why bother to preserve this particular environment. Fisher made a stronger point. If one is truly nonattached to the landscape, then one will be impassive in the face of its destruction.

The stronger version of this objection is false, and the weaker version is true but not really a problem for the model. As for the stronger version, Buddhist nonattachment is meant to allow for action, and indeed there are Buddhist environmental activists in SE Asia. As for the weaker criticism, I think it is simply true. To the extent that similar aesthetic experience is possible in other environments, aesthetics isn’t that strong a motivator for preservationism. But I have argued elsewhere [add link] that there are plenty of other reasons for doubting the moral force of aesthetic values.

Changes to make in the paper before sending it off:

  • Explicitly describe the model as a regulative idea early on. You owe this to Fisher.
  • Clarify ideas of pluralism of pages 17 and 18.
  • give response to the “Is this about nature? Is this aesthetic?” question its own section.
  • Ralston as another example of an engaged cognitivist. You owe this to Fisher.
  • explain that you are grouping together nonattachment, disinterestedness, and quiet contemplation as a simplifying device.
  • add section on non attachment, action, and aesthetic motivations for preservationism--or perhaps this can just go into the “how this model solves problems” section.
  • fix section on Mahayanist attitudes and formal appreciation of nature to deal with Simon’s objections.
  • Add note saying that Berleant may well be bizarrely off base about Kant and imperialism, but that this doesn’t matter for my argument. (credit simon here.)

Thursday, June 01, 2006

More ISEE photos

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Photos from Environmental Ethics Conference

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Moving from a TV conference to an environmental conference is a little jarring. My brain is too full of ideas. Perhaps I should blog more to sort them out.

In the meantime, check out the pictures. The conference is at the Highlands Resort, near Estes Park, Colorado and the Rocky Mountain National Park. There's some first rate green space around here.My pictures are in my photo stream. I've also created a flickr group, which hopefully other conference goers will join