Casaubon's Book

There are a lot of inherent contradictions in my life – and for the most part, I stand with Emerson and his claim that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Periodically someone throws at my claims that we’re going to have to radically reduce our fossil fuel usage “but you are writing this on a computer” as though the fact that there’s an underlying hypocrisy to this that undermines my claims. And there is a kind of hypocrisy, in the adolescent sense of the term – but the reality is that it is impossible to live in this world and the one that is coming without being a hypocrite in some measure.

Figuring out what an ethical level of hypocrisy consists of is an interesting project – and different people come down in different ways. Personally, I don’t think the world would be enriched by my turning entirely to full time farming – I get to influence way more people this way. I think there’s good reason to believe that the net impact of much of my time on the computer is reduced energy use in hundreds or thousands of households. On the other hand, neither do I think I could either maintain credibility or do as much good if I spent my time flying around the planet giving talks and gave up the farm. Part of my influence does depend on my walking the walk – even if I don’t do it perfectly.

That said, however, when the contradictions in my life begin to bother me, I generally know that something is not being handled as well as it could be. And I feel this way about my computer time right now – as I head into ASPO’s conference and then my own final push on the Adapting-In-Place Book. My life is unbalanced at the moment – and I find I mind that lack of balance both because of the costs of too much screen time (back pain, time away from my kids, etc…) and because I want to put my feet more firmly in the future.

In _Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed_, Jared Diamond observes that the vast majority of technologies create more problems then they solve. He observes in the aggregate, technology virtually always fails to keep up with the unintended consequences it generates. The more we’re able to do, the more net damage we do. He observes about people who advocate one or many technical solutions to our environmental problems all seem to be making the same basic error in reasoning,

“All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology. The rapid advances in technology during the 20th century have been creating difficult new problems faster than they have been solving old problems: that’s why we’re in the situation in which we now find oursleves. What makes you think that, as of January 1, 2006, for the first time in human history, technology will miraculously stop causing new unanticipated problems while it just solves the problems it previously produced?” (Diamond, 505)

To me, this query of Diamond’s is an important reminder that we have blinders on when it comes to the real feasibility of our solutions. For example, let us consider one commonly discussed strategy to address global warming – telecommuting. If only we could just get all those workers out of the office, we wouldn’t have to heat those offices, we wouldn’t have people sitting in traffic, etc… And that might even be true. Now it is worth noting that this is a solution heavily weighted to the benefit of rich folk – the person who cleans your toilet, the person who builds your house, the person who cooks the dinner you normally get by take out, those folks aren’t going to be permitted to telecommute – in fact, some will lose their jobs. But that in itself isn’t an argument against widespread telecommuting.

But the problem is that all those telecommuters would be buying more and better technology for their homes in order to be able to do the work they normally do at the office, and spending more time overnighting documents, heating their own homes, and doing all sorts of other things. Now it might well turn into a net gain – you never know. But it is worth noting, for example that recent evidence suggests that all of us on our computers are a huge global warming problem. All those new computers would be built and shipped, as would all that new software, and those extra laptops and fax machines, and the old ones would go leak mercury into the groundwater in Lagos (Did you know that when your computer dies, it gets to take a long vacation to a poor nation to be disposed of?)

Now I’m not opposed to telecommuting solutions per se, but I think it is worth noting, for example that the miracles of computer technology have not come with the environmental miracles we were already promised. Remember how we were supposed to all go paperless, and it would save a billion trees a year or more? Didn’t happen – worldwide paper usage rose by 4%, and it rose faster in the developing world. Remember how we were supposed to be getting greater efficiency from lower energy use – it turns out that between 2000 and 2005, worldwide energy emissions rose by 3 times what had been expected, and much of that was in the US, Europe and Australia, so we can’t blame China for everything. Oh, and I bet you remember all the extra free time we were told we’d have, in a new “leisure society” – that didn’t happen either.

Now I’m a Luddite by inclination and political persuasion. For those who aren’t familiar with them, the word “Luddite” does not actually mean, as it has come to in the popular parlance, “someone who hates or is afraid of technology for no particular reason.”

The original Luddites were those who were angered at the notion that they ought to sacrifice their livelihoods and starve to death in order to serve “progress.” They demanded that technology be bounded by recognition of human needs. They lost the battle (did you notice?) despite the leadership of the mythical “Ned Ludd,” and mostly were executed or starved. But they were right in part. They weren’t afraid of technology – they simply didn’t think that they should be sacrificed for the greater economic good. Now we’ve become used to the notion that “creative destruction” is a part of life, that we should lose jobs and bear the costs because of some abstract greater good. We are so accustomed to this thinking we hardly notice it – but the simple fact is that economic systems are intended to serve us, not the other way around, and so is technology.

Modern Luddism is very simple – it merely observes that technology has consequences, and technologies shouldn’t be adopted without a clear eyed analysis of their net benefits and consequences. All technology requires a real assurance that the technology is improving lives more than it is harming them. This is complicated of course – my computer improves my life, whereas children living in the garbage dumps of Lagos or being flooded in Pakistan might argue that my computer and its emissions are pretty destructive. But something being difficult or complex doesn’t free us from the moral responsibility to do the right thing.

My preference is for less dependence, rather than more, simpler rather than harder, things you can fix rather than things you have to throw away, lasting things rather than ephemeral ones, human power rather than fossil power or at least renewable energies.

Which brings me back to the computer, which is not lasting, is complex, often needs to be thrown away and cannot be fixed – or is more costly to fix than replace. I am fond of mine. I make part of my living as a writer, and as a blogger. I even came to understand the emergence of modern luddism on the computer, ironically enough. The internet is bringing a lot of people together who might never have been aware of environmentalism.

And yet, all this time we spend blogging, and reading other blogs, and emailing each other has consequences. Some of them are the technological ones – when the computers break down, we replace them. We buy new software and games and update our stuff and require big servers, and all that good stuff, along with all the time we spend talking about our sustainability goals is warming up the planet. It is so easy and so compelling to let the computers off the hook – after all, aren’t we changing the world? Don’t we need all this information at our fingertips? We don’t stop to count the costs of the infrastructure very often.

Well, it turns out that all this information isn’t making us better informed. We’re about as stupid as we used to be, according to several recent polls I’ve seen. And it isn’t changing the world, either. Our energy usage is going up, while we all sit around and talk about how to get it down – and while the climate warms faster and faster and faster. And just as some elements of the internet have saved us some energy and made some people’s lives better, it is complicated. I know none of us like to hear this, of course. A lot of us derive a lot of satisfaction from the internet. But overwhelmingly, it isn’t making us smarter, or know more, saving us energy or changing the world. It is just another technology, doing some good and some bad.

What about community? After all, that’s what the internet gives us, right, the chance to bond with people like us. Well I love that too – don’t get me wrong – but I hear more and more from people who say they can’t get along with the people they actually live near, who are on an endless quest for people just like them, to spend their future with the mythical community of perfectly like-minded people. I hear more and more that someone can’t have a relationship with their neighbors and the people near them, and need to move somewhere else.

Now that can be true – there are places that are just disheartening after a while. But the sheer number of people I hear from in those places suggest to me that there’s more too it. Perhaps that’s an unintended consequence of the internet, no? Now that we’ve experienced the joy of little clubs filled entirely with people focused on X or Y shared thing, we’re less able to get along with the people whose common connection to us is a place, or a history or a more formal relationship?

And while the internet brings us closer together when we’re far away, it also makes it easier to *be* far away – just like cars do. It is great that technology enables Grandma to be in Iowa, Mom working in Michigan and the Grandkids at college in Florida and Ireland and still talk every weekend by skype webcam and come together on the holidays by planes – but we shouldn’t forget that without those technologies, one or two of them might actually be living nearby. Maybe they wouldn’t – lots of families have always been apart, but in many cases, the goal was to get back together. You left the old country and then brought over your sisters and your parents and your kids. Now we don’t have to get back together.

Screen time is associated with mental illness and depression in both adults and children, and overwhelmingly, adults rate their screen time as less pleasurable than time they spend with other people – even when they are nominally “connecting” with others by computer. It may be that the internet creates some of the problems it also relieves.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the internet, and I’ve been its beneficiary in many ways. But our computers aren’t doing for us what they are purported to do, and it is worth being clear about this. I’m not suggesting we turn them all off all the time – but perhaps more of us could spend less time on the computer, or share them more. Perhaps your household only needs one, or none – perhaps you could use the library computer a few times a week.

The thing is, it isn’t just that X technology won’t save us (insert preferred technofantasy where “X” is – hydrogen, desert sized solar panels, electric cars, etc…), it is that all of them won’t save us. There’s simply no way, as Diamond points out, of only producing “good” technologies – that’s not how it works. Pouring billions of dollars into R and D for how to make a better solar panel or wind generator isn’t going to fix the problem – and at some point, we aren’t going to have billions.

The only way we can fix the problem is to back up. We have spent several centuries asking “can we do it?” And often enough the answer was a resounding “yes we can!” But instead, what we need to ask is this – should we do it? We need to switch away from the engineering mode and towards the ethical. Perhaps we might even begin to imagine that in some areas, we have done sufficient R and D.

What a radical concept that is, and how alien from the notion that we will always be able to make things better by simply taking the next step. I’m not trying to hinder science – I have no objection to tinkerers tinking away. But instead of devoting our economy to technical research, and to funding it with our government or with our personal dollars, spent on R and D after we buy stuff they’ve already developed, what if we tried to optimize what we already have?

What if instead of turning vast resources to making more things and different ones, we backed up and started asking “what is the best way for us to get what we need?” What if we took a look back at intermediate technologies, and considered how we might improve them. A plant geneticist of my acquaintance once observed that if we’d put the same energies and money into breeding open pollinated corn as we have into hybrids, there’s no telling what we’d have.

The same is true about a technological society that thinks that the next step is already better. What would happen if we backed up, and thought about how we could improve the wood cookstove, the solar oven or the hand washer, and turned the same energies to that as we turn to developing the even tinier cell phone with an even better video program in it?

But this would undercut the market, some will cry. Yes, it would. The same market that has given us unchecked climate change and absolutely no viable solutions of any kind for it since the death of Copenhagen. This would impede scientific progress – well, maybe. But maybe not – we tend to see science as unhindered, but of course, its progress is wholly determined by where we put money and also by a host of ways that we value certain disciplines and projects over others. There is no inherent reason why it is more important to go out into space than it is to know the identity of every amphibian on the planet. And yet, we put vastly more resources to one than another. These too are choices, and they are not unfettered.

Given the failure of markets (as the Stern report puts it, climate change is the greatest market failure in history) and the failure of technologies to be unambiguous, what’s left to us? The fossil fuels really aren’t infinite. The planet is vastly less habitable to most people at 4 or 5 or 6 degrees warmer than it is now. These failures result in livelihoods destroyed and will be measured in dead bodies – they are measured in dead bodies.

It is the height of foolishness when something has failed miserably to keep tying one’s hopes to the same thing. So I would propose the intercession of the ethical – the Luddite’s solution. Unless we are willing to ask “is this really good for us, now and forever?” we are likely to be trapped in the assumption that the next thing will magically set us free. And it won’t. The next thing will further invest us, and move us a little closer not to a solution, but to a collapse. What we want is to step away from the collapse – and the answer there is simple. Need less. Use less. Substitute human power and human scale tools for fossil based power and industrial scale tools. Back up. Slow down. Remember, the price isn’t what we think it is.

That doesn’t mean there is no price, that doesn’t make it easy. But as I said before – but that is the merit of the ethical mode – it does its best work when things aren’t easy.\

For myself, I’m tied to my computer a little longer by obligation. And if that were the only reason, I’d probably send back my book advance (it isn’t very much money anyway) and resign my board membership – I’m just not that big a hypocrite. Except that what I do now does reverbate. So I’m trying to find some measure of balance – and a gradual path for turning off and down and finding other ways.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Lisa Z
    September 23, 2010

    This is a great essay. Right now our family of four has just one computer that can access the internet, and as the kids get older and need it for school, etc., it gets more difficult to have just one. However, I’m thinking the tension is worth it because it limits our time to (mostly) what’s essential, and just a little of the non-essential (blogs, games, etc.). I grew up in a family with a tv in every room and saw how it kept our family apart, so I said that when I had a family we’d have only one tv in our house. Well, somehow we’ve ended up with three (only one of which is hooked up, and we don’t have cable)–all hand-me-downs because everyone knows we’re not going to buy the latest flat screen so they give us their tv when they do. Oh well, it doesn’t even matter because we so rarely watch tv these days. What we do is the internet, and if that isn’t a worse time-suck than tv ever was…

    The only issue I have with this essay is this line: “…I want to put my feet more firmly in the future.” Really? I have decided I just can’t do that–too much anxiety, and the kids are growing up too fast anyway so that it’s just a bummer to not live in the present. I can’t spend my time imagining what will be any more than I can spend my time re-inventing the past. I want to keep my feet more firmly in the present, and answer today’s problems looking to the future but not there yet.

    I also have a question for you: when you’ve complained about this lack of balance between computer and farming before, have you managed to make changes to the way you’re living? I’d be interested to know what worked. Or didn’t.

  2. #2 Sharon Astyk
    September 23, 2010

    Hi Lisa – Maybe I wasn’t clear by what I meant by putting my feet in the future – what I mean is that I want to live my life now as much as I can as I believe life will have to be lived, at least in positive ways.

    Have I made changes – yes, I have. I was taking writing only three days a week for a long stretch – but then the book contract caught up with me again. I took the book contract because I thought Eric was going to lose his job, and I’d do it again, but that does ruin that balance thing. The problem is that the situation changes and changes again. At the moment, the only way for me to make changes in my way of life would be to default on my commitments – which I have considered doing, honestly, at least with the book. But it would mean no future books, and probably be the end of a major portion of my career and if Eric loses his job, we’d be in big trouble.

    Sharon

  3. #3 dewey
    September 23, 2010

    As someone who knows what it is like to suffer through writing something you are sick of, just let me say again, hang in there! Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect – it just has to be DONE.

  4. #4 Lisa Z
    September 23, 2010

    I for one agree that you should be writing, Sharon! And as I often think, there are some times when balance can’t be had, when something more important must be done. In my own life, keeping up with the kids is pretty unbalanced, but alas they’re teens already and the years go fast. You will get lots of time to do that farm work, keep striving for it…

  5. #5 Brad K.
    September 24, 2010

    Sharon,

    First – thanks for this essay. I might quibble a bit about whether the internet is more detrimental or beneficial in various areas – mostly minor. Your concerns are well argued.

    As for the deteriorating interpersonal issues, that is a process that I believe began long before the Internet, here in the US, and is more heavily influenced by factors aside from the Internet.

    For one thing, it has been observed that the US is a Capitalist nation. For the most part, government here has supported capitalists and capitalist endeavors. The early railroads were capitalism in action. Also the growth of multi-national conglomerates, skyscrapers, the stock markets and commodity markets – and marketing.

    Marketing is an important factor in our consumerist society. Marketing exerts enormous pressure to redefine “acceptable” and “desirable” with regard to products and services in our lives. I contend that the existence of 30 second and 60 second commercials, as well as public announcements and other radio and TV interruptions of programs is a significant change in the way we and our children think. That is, instead of a single, uninterrupted story – we develop scattered attention spans, where we get used to being interrupted and have to work at concentrating on – or valuing – long attention span activities. Thus working for three or eight hour shifts without an MP3 player or cell phone is felt to be “unthinkable”.

    Cell phones, and especially texting, have enabled impersonal interactions. Emails and blogging are more like the preceding technologies of letter writing and printed press article – or letter to the editor – writing. Writing expresses a bit of soul, the existence of coherent thought is fairly apparent, and the value of re-reading and referring to previous writings enriches the experience.

    Texting, IM, tweeting – these portray a sense of discussion, of actually interacting with another. Yet the ability to pick and choose what to respond to, and especially the ability to pick and choose when to respond, turn out to be immensely manipulative. The sense of interaction without the interpersonal cues of body language as well as editing responses to leave out honest reactions – creates a dysfunctional media that shines when dealing with technical data “we need a quart of milk, pick some up. Kbye” – and masquerades as a conversation, shams connecting and engaging with another.

    Yes, the telephone did originate this remote interpersonal dilemma – connecting people, but increasing ability for the average person to manipulate the conversation. And, yes, so did letter writing before the telephone. But they weren’t “during the work shift” portable. It turns out that someone that texts a lot – is a red flag indicator of a dysfunctional relationship.

    Is the Internet, or computer, responsible for reclusive habits? What about card playing – I was introduced to Solitaire with a deck of cards, long before I came to know Might And Magic (I, II, III [the most playable, I think], IV) – and Spider Solitaire. “Devotion” to professional and local team and individual sports, billiards, gambling, boxing, wrestling, etc. all take advantage of people’s ability to distract themselves from work, meaningful relationships, community building, meditation, exercise, and faith. I notice that most of my list is a product of affluence and marketing during the era of cheap energy.

    The initial allure of the Internet for many – pornography – still exists. Like blogging and listening to music, though, many that were too distracted from life – like the gambler and many others – have reached a “tipping point” and abstain or have found a balance. Is the Internet an additional problem for society, or does it merely displace other searches for values and identity gone astray?

    The Internet certainly wasn’t responsible for the marketing that created a “better” way to raise babies, that happened to serve the interests of the dairy industry for baby formula products. Creating a need to appear “modern” and “convenient” at the expense of breast feeding happened long before the Internet.

    In one sense, the Internet is freer of the disruptive influence of break-the-concentration commercials. I am able to read – and re-read your article until I am done, without a marketing interruption dragging my attention from what I am interested in, to what someone has paid to cause me to want to buy. Yes, there are ads, but they aren’t able – yet – to temporally interrupt my thoughts, my attention – or my intent to use the information I seek.

    Does the Internet solve more problems than it creates? My own actions make it seem that I think it does. I do believe, though, that much of your concern about dysfunctional actual, people being together, face to face relationships is caused by other factors.

    Thanks.

  6. #6 MacTurk
    September 24, 2010

    The short version of Emerson’s aphorism is “Consistency is the virtue of the mediocre”.

  7. #7 Adrian
    September 24, 2010

    I like the way you face reality head on. Since becoming aware of Peak Oil 2 years ago I’ve felt an increasing mental stress in the way I live my life. I work in IT and sit at a computer all day long, it increasingly seems wrong and pointless. I’m trying to get out!

    I like the inherent contradiction in your essay. UK readers might remember the TV programme, “Why Don’t You”, which encouraged children to make and do things. The theme song being “Why Don’t You Switch Off the TV set and do something less boring instead!”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Why_Don%27t_You%3F

    I wonder whether a sustainable lifestyle will be comparitively easier to live when the unsustainable lifestyle is too expensive/impossible. Since for now you have to participate somewhat in conventional culture because that is where everyone else is.

    As an example trying to make a living farming without fossil fuelled machines is *comparatively* difficult because you compete with farmers using cheap fossil fuels. As they get more expensive the non-fossil fuel approach will get compete more strongly. However, this is too simplistic since so many other costs and unforeseen difficulties will arise.

    Keep writing for now though. I’m enjoying “Depletion and Abundance” and am gently encouraging my wife to read it.

  8. #8 Aquilegia
    September 24, 2010

    You’ve made a critical, foundational mistake in believing that “the simple fact is that economic systems are intended to serve us”.

    Economic systems are not designed, notwithstanding all our attempts to do so, to understand and modify them. They are “systems” in the same sense that ecological communities and hurricanes are, not in the sense that computers and cars are. They have evolved, and they have done so under the same game-theoretic constraints and rules that apply to the evolution of populations and species, or any other situation in which agents compete. The end result is a somewhat-stable and not-very-invadable system whose main property (which could be confused with its purpose) is that it continues to exist.

    People have certainly tried to design economic and political systems to serve us, with … mixed results. These designs are technologies, and they certainly seem to follow Diamond’s conjecture that technology creates bigger problems than it can solve.

    Let’s say mechanical, computational, engineering-type technology can’t save us in the long term. So we move on to social, political, and economic technology – and find that it also creates problems that can’t be solved by thinking on the level that created them. So we drill down to the underlying dynamics and look for a way to change the rules of agent interactions and competition; to imbue people with our notions of higher, more cooperative morality.

    In the past, that’s typically been done at the point of a gun, but maybe marketing, framing, and social internet sites will do it more subtly. But this solution sounds an awful lot like “If we could repeal the laws of physics, everything would be fine.”

    Facing reality head on … might be like facing an express train head on.

    Jus sayin.

  9. #9 Steve
    September 24, 2010

    @ Aquilegia:

    I think economic systems are designed, and dynamically to boot. The design seeks to maximise profit – the ideal corporation would hold a monopoly in a profitable area (and ideally addictive to the users) – so can (ab)use that position to extract every penny possible. Also, they would have no staff apart from a small CEO team (an idea kicked about in the UK c. 1990 – could IT be developed to the point of replacing the workforce, managers and all? This minimises costs and maximises profits – but creates a system in which the human population become unemployed bystanders, powerless as the automated juggernauts towering about them – do what they like. Familiar?). Do not think this is not intended; it is very deliberate. It’s called “capitalism”.

    About Sharon’s essay… Cost, embodied energy and intrinsic longevity may ride to the rescue. I’m typing this on an old PC; with a little TLC and occasional expert intervention most PC’s have a life far, far beyond their “junk though obsolescence” date. I’m also Linux aware, so know that you genuinely do not need modern kit to have a responsive, snappy system. Put Puppy on a machine from 2001 and, as long as it has a decent amount of ram -i.e. 128M+, it will run better then a new dual-core laptop with Windows 7 and 4G ram. And surf the web with a modern browser, do office work etc.

    Thus I see no reason why a decade of standing still in the tech area would be like falling off a cliff; yes, there would be hardware failures and deaths from power-surges etc – but the bulk would keep going by re-using old kit. Got an old PC? Fire it up :) 4 out of 5 chances it’ll work 1st time; just slowly. Mostly all these things need is electric power and IT TLC / awareness. Cell phones are the same…

    People upgrade because of fashion, apparent speed, ease of use – and boredom. The stuff they throw mostly works.

    So I don’t see the internet a decade after “collapse” as also collapsing; it may just be slower.

    (meanwhile there is a power-sipping dual-core Dell server with 2x 700Mhz PIII’s going free at work – this 1999 Dell is built like a tank and would need a shotgun to kill it. Doesn’t even need fans on the cpu’s! I’ll rehome it.)

  10. #10 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    September 25, 2010

    I’ve never read Jared Diamond, but it is trivially easy to see that his theory as described above can be rejected. We have on average a better standard of living than ever before, and the society supports _many_ more persons than initially – all thanks to science and technology. Mainly the increased efficiency (“need less”).

    Problems stems mainly from the biological factor, natural population increase. (And similar problems of a society which never had and will never have central planning as the article asks for, as in “is this really good”.) Even that is curbed as societies gets rid of mass poverty. See for example the TED talks on Gapminder.

  11. #11 Charlie Compton
    September 25, 2010

    Having been a Luddite my whole life, (75 yrs ) I really appreciated this one for sure. Sure was nice to hear someone say the same things I was saying 50 yrs ago. Now if you could just convince the other 6 and 1/2 billion people on earth, maybe, just maybe, your children and their children will still have something to live for.

    charlie

  12. #12 Sharon Astyk
    September 27, 2010

    Torbjorn, I think the difficulty with your set of assumptions is that it ignores climate change and energy depletion. The correct framing of your claim is that society *temporarily* supports many more… The problem is that the supporting ground is extraordinarily fragile and being destroyed by precisely the the things that support one generations.

    I think viewing population in isolation from its supporting elements is a really basic logical fallacy. Populations respond biologically to emergent conditions – again, it is the technologies that support the situation that also create the degradation.

    Sharon

  13. #13 darwinsdog
    September 27, 2010

    Populations respond biologically to emergent conditions –

    “Emergence”: what a concept. The colligative properties of the water molecule are “emergent;” i.e., could never be anticipated from the properties of the oxygen & hydrogen atoms. Yeah right.

    In the early-/mid-20th century the scare in social science departments was that the disciplines were going to be subsumed under biology, while biologists concurrently feared that their field was about to be subsumed under chemistry & physics. Vitalism was dead so something else was needed to protect academic turf and so “emergence” emerged. Less metaphysical than vitalism yet sufficient, it was hoped, to keep biology the purview of biologists since biological phenomena were irreducibly “emergent” from their underlying chemical & physical foundations. And human behavior, culture & technology were “emergent” from human biology, to keep all the social scientists happy. That’s all “emergence” is about: a ploy to protect academic turf. “Emergence” is as superstitious as “Intelligent Design” and indeed shares many of the same features, notably the idea of “irreducible complexity.” The idea of “emergence” is unscientific & metaphysical and shouldn’t be appealed to by anyone hoping to ground his or her message in materialism & empirical science.

  14. #14 Aaron
    September 27, 2010

    Great post – my wife and I are moving off-the-grid and struggling with many of the same issues in trying to find a balance. It’s not easy. But my wife is blogging about it – our little corner of the revolution.

  15. #15 Mal Adapted
    September 27, 2010

    dd:

    The idea of “emergence” is unscientific & metaphysical and shouldn’t be appealed to by anyone hoping to ground his or her message in materialism & empirical science.

    Citation needed. Or do you claim to own the definition of “emergence”?

  16. #16 Sharon Astyk
    September 27, 2010

    DD, I’ve noticed the tendency in you to use a word one way, and insist that that’s the only possible way to use it. This would be another example. You do realize that the word “emergent” is used differently in other disciplines and fields than your own, right, plus having several popular meanings that don’t imply anything like what you are talking about. “Emergent conditions” in plain english = conditions as they emerge, the world as it changes.

    Sharon

  17. #17 Gary
    September 27, 2010

    Sharon,

    Very enjoyable essay and close to my heart. As an engineer, by nature I like to “solve problems.” As a person living in the world on the brink of a major climate catastrophe I want to do all I can to avert it. Hence, I am a proponent of a couple of technologies that show promise, namely agricultural biochar as a potential method for improving soil and sequestering carbon at the same time, and high altitude wind power as a replacement for fossil fuels. Of coarse these technologies may have down-sides as well as the hoped for positive aspects. Particularly, energy technologies that promise high relative returns only allow us to grow that much bigger before we find the next physical limit. New technological solutions that could be developed enough to make a difference in our growth-based economy must themselves be able to grow to global scales. My hope for biochar is that the purported agricultural benefits will be enough that farmers will pay for char to put into their soil, and the growth imperative of capitalism could propel the technology forward, in spite of its climate benefits. Similarly, high altitude wind could prove cost effective and be able to provide a substantial fraction of our power needs without producing greenhouse gases. Perhaps if both these technologies were to come to fruition we could fit another four billion people on this earth before it totally choked.
    So, like you Sharon, I go out to the garden. I think about where fertility really comes from in my urban setting and how I can capture a little of it. I turn the compost and consider when to harvest this year’s experimental amaranth crop.

  18. #18 Brian
    September 28, 2010

    Fair enough. Every groundbreaking new technology generally lets more people live longer. And more people living longer depletes reserves that we’re rapidly running into a wall on. So it’s time for some serious decisions, and one of those would be the involuntary limitation of population growth. (Your computer leaking mercury into Lagos groundwater is irrelevant, even for the people who live in Lagos).

    The other is a clear-eyed reckoning of the costs of the world we live in. It’s a sustainable world (barely) with the technology we have. The real limiting factor now is energy – we are adept enough with the modern alchemy that we can support these 6.5 billion people, given a sufficient supply of energy. And it’s time to face the fact that “green” energy will never meet that standard. Ever. Nuclear power is the only viable answer I can see, and the steadfast refusal to understand this is baffling. Even given the problems of large swaths of Earth becoming uninhabitable due to disposal of radioactive waste, and the threat of meltdowns. More people stand to lose as a result of global warming and peak oil. And the other choice is basically forcing people not to have children. Because giving up your jetplanes and computers is not going to make a difference.

  19. #19 ToddInNorway
    September 28, 2010

    Brilliant essay, thanks! I dare to claim though that to solve our most urgent global problems-greenhouse gas emissions and energy security-we must accelerate creative destruction of the current fossil fuel energy economy and infrastructure, and replace it with as much electrified transport and decarbonized power running on as much solar PV, wind and geothermal energy we can possibly bring on stream as fast as possible. It will be a painful transition for a lot of people, but if we do not do it, the alternative outcome will cause much, much more suffering.

  20. #20 Charles Rouse
    September 28, 2010

    Thanks, Sharon, for a great post. I also am a self-proclaimed Luddite, not because I don’t like technology, as I’m actually a technology professional. Technology, as you pointed out about the economy, is supposed to work for us, and is only truly useful to the extent that it improves our lives. In the current regime, technology also creates systemic, high-order dependencies. The result is a society that no longer possesses the fundamental skills or knowledge to live an independent life, even when they have access to the primary resources. It’s hard to believe this is an accident.

    The marketing of technology is primarily aimed at de-commoditizing skill and craft, and falsely commoditizing leisure time. Most of us work for money – that is we trade time for fungible wealth. Industry then implicitly tries to sell us our time back in the form of labor saving gadgets/prepared food, etc.. This frequently requires trading more of our time for fungible wealth, which then requires more gadgets, and repeats ad nauseam with the ultimate effect that no one has any money or time, except possibly those at the top.

    My form of Luddism is aimed at breaking that nauseating cycle, starting with my own family. We are reclaiming our time and applying it to meeting our own needs. My wife occasionally disagrees, but I’m thrilled with the results as evidenced in my children’s outlook on the world – one where mom and dad cook, the family picks vegetables just before dinner, dad fixes things, we help our neighbors (and sometimes they bring cookies in gratitutde), they have their favorite farms to visit, and everyone at the farmers market knows them by name.

    Finally, I just wanted to say, that I’m finally getting to read your book, ‘A Nation of Farmers’, and find it wonderful and inspiring. I’ll definitely be recommending it to everyone I know.

  21. #21 darwinsdog
    September 28, 2010

    Posts #15 &16:

    The debate over “emergence” is historical. Ernst Mayr devoted considerable attention to this issue. I briefly summarized this debate for those who may not have been aware of it, or aware of all the baggage that the term comes burdened with. If people don’t appreciate attempts to inform them then these same people may need to be aware that others may react similarly to their own outreach over peak oil or climate change awareness.

    #17:

    As an engineer, by nature I like to “solve problems.” As a person living in the world on the brink of a major climate catastrophe I want to do all I can to avert it. Hence, I am a proponent of a couple of technologies that show promise…

    Perhaps if both these technologies were to come to fruition we could fit another four billion people on this earth before it totally choked.

    #18:

    Nuclear power is the only viable answer I can see, and the steadfast refusal to understand this is baffling.

    Even given the problems of large swaths of Earth becoming uninhabitable due to disposal of radioactive waste, and the threat of meltdowns.

    Guys, I am simply in awe at the irony!

  22. #22 gary
    September 29, 2010

    @dd

    “Guys, I am simply in awe at the irony!”

    Don’t think we are not aware of it! As Kermit said, “It’s not easy being green.”

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