Patchwork Design Lab

April 20, 2010

Dreaming a Post-Industrial World


Do a search on the phrase post industrial society and very likely the first hit will be Wikipedia’s definition – a post industrial society is a society in which an economic transition has occurred from an manufacturing based economy to a service based economy, a diffusion of national and global capital, and mass privatization. The prerequisites to this economic shift are the processes of industrialization and liberalization. This economic transition spurs a restructuring in society as a whole.

This, emphatically, is not what I mean when I talk about a post industrial world. Nothing, said King Lear, will come of nothing; speak again. There is no such thing as a service economy. Imagine sending an army of hair dressers and personal trainers, baristas, barristers, and mortgage brokers someplace like Detroit or Braddock, PA to get their economies back on track. This is nothing against baristas, for whom I have nothing but the greatest respect and affection. Service economy is nuance-speak for manufacturing has been shifted to countries where labor is cheap. Then, back home in the service sector, people get to hold down two or three part-time service jobs so they can buy stuff from the off-shore manufacturing sector, whose workers aspire to nothing so much as joining the ranks of the privileged uber-consumers back here in the service sector.

Nothing will come of nothing. People gotta eat and drive and live someplace, and the parts and pieces that go into those things have to be farmed or manufactured somewhere. There is no such thing as an economy built only on service jobs.

Do Something Basic Right

An argument is only as good as its premises. A building is only as good as its foundation. An economy is only as good as its resource base. People who write about sustainability in the mainstream media almost always focus on energy, when they are not obsessing about how to deal with global warming without rocking the status quo. Energy is basic. And it comes in many forms, but not all these forms are of equal quality. Nor are they interchangeable at a low cost.

Your college physics text defines energy as the ability to do work. Then it goes on to treat energy and work as interchangeable terms. Actually, the ability to do work always stems from a difference in potential. There is always a slope or gradient involved. A battery’s charge is equal to the potential difference between its “positive” and “negative” terminals. A furnace can heat a room because its internal temperature is higher than the room’s. You-know-what flows downhill because whatever is at the top is farther from the Earth’s center than what’s at the bottom, a difference in elevation. Project any such difference onto a system of spacial coordinates and you have a gradient. Funny thing about gradients – nature, contrary to popular wisdom, doesn’t have a problem with a vacuum, but nature abhors a gradient. No wonder uneasy rests the head that bears the crown.

Nature expresses this abhorrence in a forceful manner. Anything that is concentrated tends to disperse. A slope tends to erode. Temperature gradients produce heat flow to equalize the disparity. Structures fall apart, and what sticks out gets worn smooth. If the world were indeed flat, as one popular pundit would have it, then nothing at all would happen, ever. The forces that drive these flows do all the work and produce all the transformations in the entire universe. Heat flow can drive mechanical motion can generate electrical charge can motivate motors, and so on. But there is always a loss. And what is it that bears this loss? The structure that supports the difference that set up the gradient that caused the flow suffers some decrease in definition, sharpness, or integrity. Structures that tend to persist tend to divert some of the energy flow to processes that restore their definition, sharpness, or integrity. Or they may spend their capital making copies of themselves.

And what are these structures, you may ask, of which I speak? They are the containers that embody and concentrate the energy. They are the embodied, concentrated energy. They are the geological formations, the trees and lakes, the fruit and leaves, the mineral deposits, the very elements that compose all material objects. They are the resource base.

This is your planet; this is your body. Your resources are finite, as is your time. There is no operating manual. Good luck. Do something basic right.

You Can Never Do Just One Thing

The consequences of our doings always branch and multiply. The physical, chemical, geological, and biological processes that make up the biosphere are inextricably interconnected and interdependent. They convert solar energy into chemical energy and store it as plant structure. They circulate and recycle water, volatile gases, minerals and metabolic wastes. They maintain themselves and their integrity over vast reaches of geological time. They create structure and embody energy using the very processes by which nature attempts to degrade structure and release embodied energy. We have no technology that comes close to any of this in terms of genius, complexity, efficiency, or reliability.

Perhaps instead of fighting with nature we should be trying to learn from her. Given that anything we do produces multiple and largely unforeseen sets of consequences, it follows that if you do something basic right you are likely to get a cascade of benefits beyond what you might foresee. And if you do something basic wrong? Well, read the papers.

Taking all this into consideration, let’s see if we can begin to write our own operating manual, starting with some general guidelines. (Eventually, I plan to get down to specifics; I swear.)

Work With Nature Rather Than Against Her

This is one of the fundamental principles taught in the Permaculture Design Course. What does it mean? First of all, I’d say don’t replicate work, at considerable economic and energetic expense, that nature is already doing or at least quite willing to do for you. Why spend money and nonrenewable resources to fertilize your soil and manage pests when a properly designed agricultural system will continually improve the soil and balance the deprivations of “pests” in the same manner as any other ecosystem? Unnecessary work creates unnecessary waste. There is a reason that a forest doesn’t require fertilizers, weed killers, and pesticides. Don’t fight biological succession, and you won’t need to poison the soil, air, and groundwater in order to eat food that is contaminated with the poisons you used to produce it. Figure out how to plant in such a way that succession works for you.

To see a couple of examples of this type of agriculture, check out these two videos at you tube:

There are multitudes of natural processes that we can harness or situate to our benefit. People who live downstream of nasty, sweaty, snake infested swamps are drinking some of the cleanest water on the planet. Draining wetlands so we can grow McMansions with two and three-car garages destroys natural, embodied wealth in this and uncountable other forms. Constructing wetlands enables nature to create natural capital in multitudinous forms. Work in a stepwise manner. Do one thing right; then observe what happens next. Use your observations to guide further actions.

Use Nonrenewable Fuels to Invest in Lasting Infrastructure

A friend of mine maintains that we should never build anything that we don’t want to have around (and didn’t design to last) for at least 200 years. A lot of embodied energy goes into the design and construction of a building, particularly a public building, much of it in the form of the fossil fuels that are converted into work energy, heat, and “pollutants” in the process. Yet we’re lucky if much of what we build these days lasts a decade. There was a TV ad for a new housing development here in Albuquerque recently that offered a seven-year guarantee, promising, I suppose, that the houses wouldn’t fall down or leak or engage in other structural misbehaviors for seven whole years.

When you spend money you have in savings, you want it to count. You don’t want to spend your savings going to the movies or driving around town. We should use nonrenewable resources only to create the kind of durable infrastructure that lasts for centuries, collects natural capital passively, and doesn’t require constant additional nonrenewable inputs.

Salvage Before You Mine

The Earth’s crust contains a finite amount of mineral wealth, particularly close enough to the surface for us to mine. Iron and copper, among other metallic ores, are becoming noticeably scarce. Meanwhile tons of metal lie baking in the sun in salvage and scrap yards all over the world.

Nuff said: more tomorrow.

April 19, 2010

Creating a Place on Earth

Taos Pueblo in Winter - Bruce Gomez

Are you concerned about how economic growth will affect your home town? Are you worried that too-rapid growth will kill any trace of your town’s individuality but that a lack of growth will simply kill it? For the first of these concerns there is a simple solution. I can give it to you in a phrase. You’re not going to like it. Limit your town’s size. Don’t allow growth to proceed beyond an optimum. For the second of these concerns I have another strategy, which I can also give in a single line. I doubt you’ll like it any better. Roll up your sleeves and work with what you have. Let me explain.

Just Say No to Cargo-Cult Economics

There was a reason that your town appeared where it did, assuming that it was founded before the sprawling growth of throughway suburbia, with its attendant, cancerous proliferation of McTowns with their centerless, boundariless, soul deadening sameness. Either the location was favorable for farming, ranching, mining or some other economic activity, or it was situated at crossroad of some sort that made it a strategic choice for a market or trade center. Maybe it originated as a resort catering to people drawn by the site’s hot springs or natural beauty. Whatever the reason, your town is imbued with natural capital of some kind or else no one would have settled there to begin with.

The point is that your don’t need a Walmart or a Hewlett Packard phone center, an Intel or a Toyota plant to bring jobs to your town; you can create them for yourselves using the natural capital that’s all around you. I’m not saying that there is absolutely no place for large corporations to participate in a local economy, only that you should not allow them to replace your local economy. Don’t allow your city council to turn your town into a cargo-cult. Don’t send tax-incentive-perfumed prayers to the corporate gods hoping that they will look upon your community with favor and reward you with a couple hundred low-paying jobs.

Overshoot – Wile E. Coyote Was Here

Okay, why limit growth intentionally? Well there’s the obvious reason, the one that I usually rant about. There are physical limits to growth. You can’t continue to grow forever, whether you want to or not. Eventually you overshoot the carrying capacity of your economic base and find yourself walking into thin air over an abyss. And that is never pretty. Carrying capacity is an ecological term used to describe the population that a given eco-region can support without sustaining significant damage. By significant damage I mean reducing the natural wealth that made your city viable to begin with, stealing from the future. Reduced carrying capacity is called draw down. Historically, many civilizations have overshot the carrying capacity of their homelands and destroyed their natural capital through agricultural practices that tended to destroy rather than to build topsoil. Pastoral cultures have achieved similar victories over nature through overgrazing. These patterns were a major driving force for all the wars, conquests, and migrations we found so fascinating in World History class. Who’s your favorite general? Genghis Khan for tea, anyone?

There is an escape clause, here, it’s called trade. Trade allows you to exceed your local carrying capacity by exporting goods that you have or can produce beyond your needs and importing those which are in shorter supply. Ecologists call this process scope enlargement. The interesting thing about scope enlargement is that it may sometimes enable two regions joined by trade to support a larger combined population than the sum of what both regions could support separately. Of course this kind of heightened prosperity makes larger families more viable, and eventually either the new, enlarged-scope carrying capacity is exceeded or else other limiting factors come into play. If your wastewater and sewage stream exceeds the ability of your local wetland (assuming you have one) to filter and clean, then you begin to degrade the quality of the soil and water downstream. You can leap this hurdle by building a water treatment facility, but that requires additional materials and energy and investment which may lock you into further dependency on imported goods and services. If you’ve never had to do this sort of thing before, it’s likely that the skills you need will have to be brought in as well. The town will grow to accommodate the influx of people coming to answer the demand for these new skills. The thing can snowball, as you can see. Growth begets more growth.

More is Not Better?

But let’s forget about that for now. The common view these days is that growth is a good thing. So what tangible benefit can you gain by limiting your town’s size and population on purpose? What you have to gain is a sense of place, to begin with. Secondly you have a shot at creating a sustainable community with a substantially self sufficient, local economy. You can establish a degree of economic security that no number of troops and weapons purchased with your tax dollars and sent overseas will ever provide. Let’s start with a sense of place.

You have a head start in this regard, because every place-on-earth is naturally unique, provided it hasn’t already been paved and polluted beyond redemption. Either way, there are some guidelines. People have given this problem quite a bit of thought. Architect Christopher Alexander, has written two great books about this problem: The Timeless Way of Building, and A Pattern Language. David Seamon, of the Architecture Department of Kansas State University, describes these works as an implicit phenomenology of designable situations contributing to a sense of place.

Creating a sense of place goes hand in hand with another key consideration. Biologist, anthropologist, and systems thinker Gregory Bateson once remarked that there are no monotone values in biology… items of diet, conditions of life, temperature, entertainment, sex, and so forth – are never such that more of the something is always better than less of the something. Rather, for all objects and experiences, there is a quantity that has optimum value. Above that quantity, the variable becomes toxic. To fall below that value is to be deprived. This is quite relevant to my argument because, as Bateson goes on to point out, this anti-monotony principle does not apply to money; more money is supposedly always better than less money. Thinking in these terms, we tend to extend this monotony of value to the things that money can buy, thereby going against biological reality and undermining our own well-being. We are deceived into thinking that greed is good and that growth is prosperity.

Quality is a Pattern?

I would like to resurrect the tired, old, clichéd distinction between quantity and quality – clean it up and buy it a new suit of clothes. Give it a job and put it to work.

This distinction is important to grasp if we want to understand the rationale for limiting economic growth and rooting the global economy in local, relatively independent markets and enterprises. It is the distinction between standard of living and quality of life. We tend to measure standard of living quantitatively: GDP, annual income, the number and cost of our toys and the quantity of goods and services we consume. Quality of life is something else entirely. Quality refers to beauty, durability, good health, well being, vitality, and life. Living in an ugly building or town, no matter how exclusive or expensive, can undermines a person’s health and well-being. Much of this is a matter of perception and taste, it’s true, but there is a commonality to our preferences and perceptions which makes it feasible to identify some general patterns and implement them to suit our individual tastes. We are all drawn to experiences that manifest certain qualities despite the wide variation in how we may define or describe them.

Why, for example, do people working in corporate cubicle farms the world over aspire to the corner office? It is because within the dehumanizing context of such a space a corner office is the only place that fulfills two basic and universal human needs: a room of one’s own, and contact with the natural world in the form of adequate lighting, which a corner office provides by having a window on two of its sides. These two needs are explicitly recognized in two patterns in Christopher Alexander’s book, A Pattern Language:

A Room of One’s Own: No one can be close to others without frequent opportunities to be alone. A person in a household (or office) without a room of his own will always be confronted with a problem. He wants to participate in the [group] life and to be recognized as an important member of that group; but he cannot individualize himself because no part of the house (or office) is totally in his control…

Light on Two Sides of Every Room: When they have a choice, people will always gravitate to those rooms which have light on two sides, and leave the rooms which are only lit from one side unused and empty…

Of course, there is a third need that applies in particular to the workplace and which neither of these patterns addresses – the need to be connected, to belong. People cannot work effectively if their workplace is too enclosed or too exposed. A good workplace strikes the balance.

Christopher Alexander’s solutions never involve new or energy intensive technologies. They are purely geometric in concept, purely architectural, the essence of pattern – the arrangement of forms in space. You have a set of design criteria, backed by research and experience, which you try to fulfill by the felicity of your design. You are looking for the Goldilocks effect, balancing opposing influences or effects until you get a result that is just right. In this case Alexander and his colleagues chose 13 variables to experiment with and came to the following conclusions:
  1. You tend to feel more comfortable with a wall behind you. If your back is exposed you feel vulnerable.
  2. You feel more comfortable in a workplace if there is a wall to one side.
  3. There should be no blank wall closer than 8 feet in front of you. As you work, particularly if you work with a computer, you need to look up occasionally to rest your eyes by focusing them on something farther away.
  4. Workspaces where you spend most of your day should be at least 60 square feet in area. A smaller space will make you feel cramped and claustrophobic.
  5. Each workspace should be 50% to 75% enclosed by walls or windows.
  6. Every workspace should have a view to the outside.
  7. No other person should work closer than 8 feet to your workspace.
  8. It is uncomfortable if you are not aware of at least two other persons while you work. Too much exposure to others makes you feel like a cog in a machine; too little makes you feel isolated and alone.
  9. You should not be able to hear noises any different from the noises you make.
  10. No one should be sitting directly opposite and facing you.
  11. Workspaces should allow you to adjust your chair to face in different directions.
  12. You should be able to see at least two other people, but no more than four.
  13. There should be at least one other person close enough to talk to without raising your voice.

These are not hard and fast rules, but rather patterns, rules of thumb whose flexible application can have a profound effect on one’s quality of life in the workplace. They will also have an impact on other design decisions involving the shapes of individual rooms, the placement of windows and what one sees when one looks out of them, the lighting scheme, the shape of indoor space, etc. You may even disagree with some or many of them. That’s alright. They are only a starting place. What is important is the process of thinking and design that produced them.

Balancing all these variables is a job of work, as they say. But thoughtful work is part of what fulfills us, part of what enhances the quality of life and makes for a rich and meaningful place on earth. For now, though, it is enough to consider the possibility that an economy based on maximizing quality, the quality of life, the quality in terms of usefulness and durability of the products we produce, the quality of the soil, air, and water where we live, is possible and practical and not at all utopian. On the contrary, the utopian delusion is thinking that we can continue to multiply and consume more and more in perpetuity. And I would like also to suggest that a healthy local economy does not have to be purchased at the price of our sense of place or identity. Nor does a reasonable quality of life call for a standard of living that would make any reasonable person feel deprived.

April 18, 2010

Peak Oil

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 7:23 pm

Of Rates and Volumes

The volume of a sphere is finite, as is its surface area. If you take a single grain of wheat and double it, take those two grains and double them, take those four and double them and so on just 64 times, the number of squares on a chessboard, you end up with more wheat than has been grown in the entire history of humankind. If you just do it 63 times you end up with half that amount, still probably more than all people throughout history have ever consumed. Exponential growth of this kind starts out at a seeming snail’s pace but blows up quite rapidly after a few doublings. Even if the Earth’s entire volume were filled with petroleum, such a steady growth in consumption would use it up in a surprisingly brief period of time, a few centuries. Of course long before that could happen the growing strain on other resources or on the biosphere’s ability to clean up after us would put an end to the whole shebang.

The Earth is not filled with oil. Oil formed over periods in the neighborhood of 100 million years under a very restricted set of conditions and exists only at a particular depth and within rock strata having particular characteristics. Oil resulted from the crushing and cooking-under-pressure of dead algae deposited on the sandy bottoms of shallow seas sometime before T Rex was the latest thing in the ongoing evolutionary extravaganza of predation. Actually, in Pennsylvania there were places where the local oil’s subsurface crock pot had cracked, allowing oil to seep to the surface, but those spots were discovered and drained long ago. More recently, some have claimed that the Earth actually is filled, partially at least, with abiotic oil, oil that was formed below the surface through chemical processes, without the need for the ultimate sacrifice from billions of tiny Jurassic algae. Ilya, a physicist friend (from a small town in the Urals, but currently working in Silicon Valley), and beer maker extraordinaire told me he attended a colloquium at Berkeley about abiotic oil. Turns out it’s a real phenomenon. Problem is, it occurs at a depth of around 100 kilometers.

Now, I’ve worked as a deck hand on a drilling rig. Drilling is a painful process. Every so often the drill bit will crack or wear down to where it has to be replaced. At a decent depth it can take an entire shift just to retract all the pipe, disconnecting each section and stacking them all upright against the derrick, replace the bit, and reassemble the whole thing to get back down to depth with the new bit. I’m not sure the strength of your materials would allow you to drill a 60-mile shaft, or if they would how long it would take to do it. And if you could do it, what kind of a pump would it take to suck that stuff up a 60-mile straw. No such pump exists at this time. Even with biotic oil, the normal kind that rests at more friendly depths of 7500 to 15000 feet, once the natural gas that keeps the oil under pressure so that it comes to you like a trained volcano has been captured or burned off, you have to pump water into the well to keep the pressure up so you can continue to fill your tanks. Abiotic oil is not physically or economically feasible. Even if it were physically doable, you would burn more fuel bringing it to the surface than the operation would yield.

Of the Lifespan of Industrial Civilization

So, to review the bidding, oil is a finite resource that will not renew itself within the lifetime of a species. It is, for all practical purposes, nonrenewable. This means that it can be used up. And given our current economic system and an infrastructure that was designed and engineered to use oil as its essential feedstock, it will be used up, at least to the point where it takes more energy to mine it than it provides after refining.

The same basic argument applies to every other mineable mineral (or mineralized) resource, including coal, uranium, iron, gold, copper, magnesium, molybdenum, phosphorous, etc., etc., etc… Any way you slice it, industrial civilization, at least in any form we can currently conceive, is a one shot affair, a blip, a transient pulse, flash in the pan, parenthesis, choose your favorite metaphor. And that’s a good thing, because from where I sit industrial civilization appears to be a gigantic complex of processes that, if supplied with sufficient fuel, will not stop until the last blade of grass has been turned into toxic waste.

I had intended to talk more about geophysicist Marion King Hubbert and to go into some of the details of his theory and methodology. But that information is out there and readily available. If you want to know more go to The Oil Drum, or The Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), or Jay Hanson’s website. Or, you can look up Peak Oil on Wikipedia. The main point is that whatever you may ultimately conclude regarding Hubbert and the details of his theory and methodology, the realities of life remain: a civilization based on perpetual economic growth in a finite world is living on borrowed time. And really very little time when you get down to it.

I’m more interested, at this point, in talking about post-industrial civilization and how to make it bloom amidst the ruins.

April 17, 2010

The Law of Attraction

Filed under: System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 7:26 pm

Every year a number of magazines publish articles sporting titles such as, The Top 10 Cities in the US, or, The 10 Most Liveable Cities and Towns. Twenty years ago Austin, TX was on a list of the country’s most affordable places to live. Boulder, CO was another. Now, of course it’s another story. Over the years I’ve noticed that the names on these lists tend to change. If they didn’t, of course, such stories would gradually die out; they wouldn’t be newsworthy. They would be totally uninteresting. The fact is, though, that such stories have a permanent place both in the rags and the glossies. They have a permanent place in the imagination of anyone who is weary of the wallpaper tapestry of strip malls and thoroughfares interlaced with the cancerous topologies of the McHousing tracts. People are naturally attracted to places that actually are places, cities that have character, towns that are in some way unique. Funny, isn’t it, how being listed as one of the country’s most desirable cities is a sure way to kill its unique flavor within 5 or 10 years?

There is a dynamic at work here. It’s a process that is wholly predictable, given the basic human yearning for a place on Earth rather than a slot in a dystopian tapestry where the only thing that is nurtured is the need to consume. And what is the driving force behind this sprawling mediocritization? It is, I’m sure you’ve already guessed, the Law of Attraction.

Two score and three or four years ago Jay Forrester published a book called Urban Dynamics, which presented a dynamic model of the workings of progressive urban blight. When a city reaches a certain age and its interior infrastructure becomes increasingly in need of maintenance and repair, many of its residents fall prey to the attraction of the clean and tidy suburbs. Over time the local businesses follow them to the outskirts, which are usually “designed” by real estate developers whose only agenda is to maximize the return on their investment in acres of scrub or of corn or alfalfa fields. The inner city demographic gradually shifts toward the poverty level. As businesses flee the interior, it becomes increasingly difficult “for a guy to get a break,” as the saying goes. Crime and homelessness start sprouting like spring weeds. Vandalism and neglect accelerate the inner city’s structural decay, and crime drives away any remaining enterprise that is truly local.

Well meaning affordable housing projects exacerbate the process of decline, actually causing it to accelerate. Thinking ahead, planners build affordable housing in excess of current need. News spreads to neighboring, similarly beleaguered towns where the homeless and those with inadequate housing are attracted by the prospect of having roofs over their heads. The numbers of the poor and jobless in the inner city rise as the poor in search of a place to live pour in. The homeless continue to arrive even after the number of vacancies has shrunk to zero. Now you have the same problems of poverty, crime, and homelessness but with a larger population and even fewer economic resources than before, since most of the remaining businesses have fled the flood of cashless consumers.

This is the gist of the argument presented in Urban Dynamics, set in less formal terms.

Meanwhile the growing suburban sprawl proceeds apace. Zoning laws, written largely by land “developers” who make a better profit subdividing land into individual housing lots than they do setting aside areas for businesses and for community development, separate residential neighborhoods from commercial areas thereby eliminating any infrastructure that might support smaller-scale businesses residing within and serving local neighborhoods. High rents in the commercial zones and strip malls tend to favor corporate franchises over small local businesses, so the lion’s share of the profits generated by businesses within these “communities” emigrates to corporate accounts in major financial centers elsewhere, with a small financial tax kickback going to the local municipality. Over time municipalities tend to develop a cargo-cult mentality that is dependent on the influx of corporate largesse and even to offer tax incentives (discounts on standard kickback rates) to attract new businesses to the area.

But I digress. Let’s return to the problem of place. If you are the mayor or city manager of a town that gets its name into one of these best places articles you consider this good news. You are no doubt deservedly proud of your town, its history, and its individuality. You are glad when the article attracts visitors and happy to receive the revenue of their custom. And you hope that the article will stimulate growth, growth in the form of new businesses and new residents to broaden your tax base. And the article will do that for you. The Law of Attraction guarantees it. But the kind of thinking that you are engaged in now is not the kind of thinking that made your town unique. It is the kind of thinking that turned the American landscape into a wallpaper tapestry of repeating patterns. And the newly arrived will demand what they are used to, not realizing that what they are used to is what they were fleeing by coming to your town, drawn by the law of attraction and the hope of finding a place on Earth.

April 15, 2010

All About Growth

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 4:47 pm

When I was growing up, there was a series of books, many of which found their way into our elementary school libraries, called the All About books. When I was in 2nd grade I discovered and became fascinated with Dinosaurs. So of course I read All About Dinorsaurs and every other book on the subject that I could get my grubby little hands on. Eventually, I exhausted the school library’s supply of such titles and, casting about in desperation, ran across another All About book: All About Early Mammals. I thumbed through the pages. Okay, I thought, they’re weird looking; some of them are almost as big as a dinosaur; I’ll give it a try. Reading the book in 3rd grade reading class, I discovered that much of our information on the subject came from fossils found in the La Brea Tar Pits. As I recall, the book went into some detail about the horrors of getting stuck in the tar pits; they were a regular prehistoric abbatoir. I became so engrossed, I forgot where I was. Gazing into space, the better to picture to myself the scenes of slaughter, I happened to hear one of the girls in my class reading from the day’s lesson: “Mary and Sue went down to the beach to play in the water.” “NO!” I corrected. “They were TAR pits!” Much hilarity ensued, along with a note to the parents, etc.

The only point to this little vignette is that the All About books were never totally satisfying because they fell far short of their title’s promise. They always left me a little disappointed. I was certain there was more. Fair warning Today’s subject is big. It involves strange and monstrous behaviors. And you can be certain that there is always more.

When we think about growth in ecological terms, especially in terms of human ecology, we’re looking at the idea in two separate but interconnected dimensions: growth in population, and growth in consumption. The more individuals there are, the more food, water, shelter, jobs, and entertainment they will require. Consumption, though, can also grow along a different axis, the axis of the individual. Consumption increases with population, but the appetites of the indiviual can increase as well. It’s important, here, to mention the canonical yet very important distinction between quantity and quality when it comes to the products we consume. The very first Europeans to arrive in the “New World” found themselves somewhat dwarfed by the indigenous people. The simplified diet of the “civilized” world couldn’t compete with the nutritional variety and quality inherent in the array of offerings from which the indigenes could choose. Another interesting factoid relates to the population density of the Americas circa 1491 – 1520. To illustrate, early Spanish explorers of Florida reported that the life expectancy of a Spanish soldier landing alone on some arbitrary stretch of beach on the southern Florida coast was around 3 minutes. Apparently the natives of those parts had gotten wind of the habits and intentions of the European explorers. Apparently my childhood history texts seriously underestimated the population density of the “New World” in 1491.

The distinction between quality and quantity will become very important when we begin to consider what kind of growth might be sustainable.

In 1798 a curate of the Church of England named Thomas Malthus published a paper entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population predicting food shortages by the end of the coming 19th century. His argument was based on the idea that the demand for food would outrun the supply because population grows faster than our abilty to increase agricultural yield. The rate of population growth increases with the number of people. The more people there are the more people there are to get down to the business of reproducing. So not only does the number of people increase with each generation, but the rate at which the number of people increases with each generation increases with each generation. Increased agricultural yield, on the other hand, depended on human effort:

man is a lazy animal, who would lead a satisfied life and procreate as long as his family was well fed. However, as soon as human population would feel constraints in food supply due to increase in population, he would again work hard to provide enough for his family. This might lead to an increase in agricultural production to provide for all, but at the same time man would be back to his complacent stage, where all his needs would be fulfilled. This would start the cycle of overpopulation and food shortage, all over again.

Of course, and as always, there were food shortages for the poor and the displaced. There were food shortages caused by agricultural policy, as in the Irish Potato Famine. But the full extent of his dire predictions did not come to pass within the timeframe of his theory. So his ideas are largely ignored these days. But while his predictions were falsified, his essential insight is still with us and stubbornly refuses to go away.

In the early 20th century quite a number of people began to wonder “how long can this go on.” The Great Depression was a great catalyst for such questioning. The great depression was a great example of poverty in the midst of plenty. Of course in certain parts of the country drought worked together with poor soil management to produce the dust-bowl shortages. But by and large the US was a country rich in natural resources and economic potential. Yet people went hungry all across the land. Looking back you could say that the depression represented a crisis of distribution, a problem in the financial system. You might say that the dynamics of the system were producing the very effects that the system was “designed” for. Of course the system’s design was not entirely intentional; it was the result of myriad decisions, political and economic over many decades. Nevertheless some people began to wonder. How long can this go on? What kinds of things actully limit growth, and how can we avoid these effects so that a catastrophe of this type doesn’t happen again?

So, alright let’s get to the meat. What is this thing called growth? Growth is an increase in quantity or size over time. In can also imply development, complexification, self-organization, a process of elaboration and refinement. It can be qualitative as well as quantitative.

Let’s look at quantitative growth. The type of growth I’m interested in is what you might call steady growth. In terms of steady growth the two relevant types are linear growth and exponential growth. Linear growth is interesting because it seems to be how humans are wired to think. We are very good at extrapolating trends in a linear fashion. Of course if you think of growth you have also to think of decrease or depletion, since mathematically depletion is just growth with a negative sign. Or, as one of my favorite comic strips, Pogo, says, “If you gonna talk about life an’ everthin’ else then that everthin’ else gotta be death. Seems like that makes life a perty risky business.” News reports are full of linear extrapolations. They usually begin with phrases like, “at present rates of consumption,” and then go on to predict that a given resource will last some number of years, usually in the hundreds. Linear growth is called linear growth because if you were to make a graph of your periodic measurements, annually, quarterly, whatever, the graph would be a line. Sure, the line could have a very steep slope, indicating rapid growth. But the rate of growth would never change. The slope of a line is always the same. And because we think naturally in terms linear growth, even linear growth that you might consider to be catastrophically rapid, would never surprise us. As soon as we see the growth rate, we know that it will be constant, and we can plan or adjust accordingly. Exponential growth is anothet kettle of fish, one that no one seems to like to smell much.

The really annoying thing about exponential growth (and decay) is that the rate is constantly changing. Now that’s great if you have a couple of hundred thousand dollars in the bank collecting compound interest but more difficult if you’re trying to figure out how many lanes to add to your local bypass so that you don’t have to do it again in 3 or 4 years. Dr. Albert Bartlett’s description of this frustration is illuminating:

When I first calculated the Exponential Expiration Time (EET) of U.S. coal for a particular rate of growth of consumption, … I used my new hand-held electronic calculator, and the result was 44 years. This was so short that I suspected I had made an error in entering the problem. I repeated the calculation a couple of more times, and got the same 44 years. This convinced me that my new calculator was flawed, so I got out tables of logarithms and used pencil and paper to calculate the result, which was 44 years. Only then did I begin to realize the degree to which the lifetime of a non-renewable resource was shortened by having steady growth in the rate of consumption of the resource, and how misleading it is for leaders in business and industry to be advocating growth of rates of consumption and telling people how long the resource will last “at present rates of consumption.”

So what type of steady growth is he talking about? Because linear growth seems to be steady, since the rate is constant, equal to the slope of the line.

The Power of Two

Since I’m feeling lazy, I’m going to quote Dr. Bartlett one more time:

Legend has it that the game of chess was invented by a mathematician who worked for an ancient king. As a reward for the invention the mathematician asked for the amount of wheat that would be determined by the following process: He asked the king to place 1 grain of wheat on the first square of the chess board, double this and put 2 grains on the second square, and continue this way, putting on each square twice the number of grains that were on the preceding square. …We see that on the last square one will place 2 exp(63) grains and the total number of grains on the board will then be one grain less than 2 exp(64).

How much wheat is 2 exp(64) grains? Simple arithmetic shows that it is approximately 500 times the 1976 annual worldwide harvest of wheat? This amount is probably larger than all the wheat that has been harvested by humans in the history of the earth! How did we get to this enormous number? It is simple; we started with 1 grain of wheat and we doubled it a mere 63 times!

The point he stresses is that “exponential growth is characterized by doubling, and a few doublings can lead quickly to enormous numbers.” Usually this type of growth is expressed as an annual percentage: 3% percentage annual growth in GDP, or some such. Three Percent? That ain’t shit! You might say. Well, actually, a steady annual growth rate of 3% will double the original quantity in 23 years and 4 months (give or take a couple of days). To get the approximate doubling time in this fashion, apply the rule of 70: T =(approximately) 70/r, where T is the doubling time and r is the percentage growth rate. If you want a more accurate number, do the math.

Imagine you are a healthy, reasonably well-off and respected bacterium in a nice jar of rice culture. You have a job as what passes for a city planner in bacteria culture, and there have been some rumblings among the masses concerning the dangers of overpopulation. What you don’t know is that the population is growing at a rate that causes it to double every day, at this rate the jar will be full in 30 days, and it’s now day 29. How does this look from your perspective? Well, you say, we have as much unused space as we have used in the entire history of our civilization. Therefore, you reason in your linear fashion, we can go on as we are for 29 more days. Remember, 29 days is a long time for a bacterium, think in the thousands of years range. Pretty funny, huh? The joke is on him. This is exactly how people think.

Tomorrow, back to peak oil and whatever else might be peaking.

April 14, 2010

The Empty Bathtub

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 3:32 pm

The world is complex enough, but when you add the cacophony of conflicting views and interests vying for attention and clouding every issue the noise can become so painful and distracting that to think about anything at all just seems like too much to deal with. Just let me ease on through as best I can. I have enough to deal with. There isn’t anything I can do about it anyway. Poor me. This is not the finger of accusation; it’s the litany of confession. But there is one thing I’ve found that clears the air for me. That is to stick to the basics and reason from fundamentals. It’s the way I got through school. It’s the way you learn to deal with multiple attackers in Aikido. It’s the only way I know to make sense of all this bruhaha.

One issue that has become particularly cacophonous over the past decade is the debate over what is the best policy to adopt given the looming shadow of impending resource limits. Just as concerns over pollution and sink-side limits to growth in general have coalesced around the phrase global warming and its attendant cacophony of ideological argumentation, fears about running out of this or that critical resource and their attendant ideological back-blasts have centered on the idea of peak oil. Just look at a list of blog-post-titles on the subject:

Reasonable criticisms of the idea revolve mainly, in my observation, around two points. The first criticism points to the reality of ongoing discoveries of new oil “reserves.” The second critique attacks the methodology used by “peak-oil-theorists.” Many of the arguments are contextualized in such a way as to suggest that some sort of cultish or apocalyptic psychology underlies all such theories (e.g., Mayan 2012 Peak Oil Prophecy). But such hitting-below-the-belt tactics are common and have to be overlooked in favor of evaluating the merits of the very arguments that they obfuscate. By that I mean that while it would appear that such a headline seems designed to get the reader to classify subscribers to the idea of Peak Oil with the likes of mayan-calendar-apocalypse wing nuts, we still have to read the argument charitably and, ignoring such “dirty tricks,” use it as a tool for testing our own position. Moving beyond the spin-packaging, we ask the question: are the analytical tools and methods used by the proponents of Peak Oil actually flawed?

To begin, though, I always like to refer to simple realities, basic patterns that anyone can observe, and reflect on the physical laws they illustrate. Consider the lowly bathtub. It is a simple system comprising a faucet, a basin, and a drain. Now, the water has to come from somewhere, just as the drain has a somewhere associated with it as well. But to begin, we’re going to draw a line around our bathtub system and consider source and sink to be externalities. Water flows into the basin from the faucet and flows out of the basin through the drain. If the rate of inflow from the faucet is greater than the rate of outflow through the drain, then the water level in the basin will rise. Reverse the situation and the level will drop. Stop both flows and the level will remain constant (disregarding evaporation). A simple system. If you want to a take bath, you plug the drain, turn on the faucet and let it run until the water reaches the desired level, and then shut it off.

But, of course, water is not the only thing that the basin stores. There is also heat, or more precisely, kinetic energy in the water at the molecular level. Left to its own devices a nice hot bath won’t stay nice and hot for very long. Unless you want to have to sit up every couple of minutes so you can drain some of the cold water out and replace it with fresh heat from the faucet, you’re going to have to find a way to balance the in and out flows so that the temperature of the water in the tub remains relatively constant. Let’s say that you are (a) really clever, and (b) obsessed with your daily extended period of relaxation in your nice, warm tub. So you add a control loop to your system in the form of a thermostat which triggers a system of servo-driven valves. The thermostat measures the water temperature and compares it with a preset temperature goal. Whenever the water temperature drops below the desired level, the thermostat produces a signal that triggers an electronic relay which connects the servos to their power source, causing them to open both valves and allow cold water to flow out through the drain and hot water to flow in from the faucet. When the water temperature rises to a preset high, the relay drops out, disconnects the servos, and shuts off the in and out flows. Ah…heaven. Bliss.

Talk about convenience! A person could get used to this. Acclimation is training. Whatever we get used to, we can stand more of. When this process takes us in a desired direction we call it training. When it goes the other way we call it addiction. You find yourself wanting to spend more and more time in this comfortable cocoon. One day your system fails. Maybe you have fallen asleep. You wake up in a tub full of freezing water into which cold water continues to flow. What’s wrong? Your system was fool proof. Such are the thoughts of a fool. Now it’s time to erase our imaginary system boundary and widen our focus to include the larger system of which our daily bath is just a small part. You investigate and discover that you have exceeded your water heater’s capacity. It turns out that your bath system exports heat faster than your water heater’s heating element can replace it. Obviously you need a heater with a larger reservoir. And a bigger heating element! You NEED More!!

You get the picture. This is the basic pattern we are working with. It’s a collection of dynamic interactions that incorporates living and mechanical systems along with their respective traits and foibles. In this, it is very much like an industrial economy. Our comfy bath-time was limited by the infrastructure we devised to regulate and deliver our warm water. If this process were to continue to a ridiculous extreme, it’s possible, or at least conceivable, that even with bigger and bigger water heaters, water heaters the size of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, we might eventually run out of fuel to burn. Because, as I discussed in my post on April 6th, all great truths begin as blasphemies (catchy title, huh? I stole it from George Bernard Shaw), planet Earth is physically, materially finite. No process that depends on energy and resources embodied on or within this planet can continue to grow in perpetuity. Eventually, you have to get out of the tub and get on with your day.

And now it’s time for me to get off my comfy couch and get on with mine. Tomorrow I want to talk about growth. Then we will be in a position to essay an evaluation of all this pique surrounding peak oil.

April 13, 2010

Of Sinks and Drains and Climate Chains

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 1:13 pm

The time has come, the Walrus said…

The question of the day, carried forward from yesterday’s blurb on global warming, is how do we know for certain that the greenhouse gasses that our busy, work-a-day, burning desires, ultimately, generate actually set in motion the climate shifts that appear to be taking place? What is the true chain of causation? Where does it begin? The short answer, to my way of thinking, is “who cares?” Not satisfying? Okay. I promised to talk about chains. By that I meant chains of causation, strings of interacting dynamic processes, cycles large and small, cycles nested within cycles, networks and filagrees of causal loops and chains stretching back, for all human intents and purposes, into beginningless time. Finding the Prime Culprit in all this is a bit like trying to unravel a Mandelbrot set. It’s a problem with an elaborate boundary that doesn’t resolve at any degree of magnification.

So how do we know for sure that we are the mischievous little culprits who, in our quest for heaven on earth, are busily bringing about our own undoing? Because that is the real claim. Of course it wouldn’t be difficult to make the argument that every species that goes extinct (and every species sooner or later goes extinct) participates in bringing about its own demise. Each one does this through its magnificent adaptation to particular set of rigorously difficult enviornmental constraints. Having a particular form, a particular metabolism, a particular set of skills and predispositions tied to a particular niche (or set of niches), a particular temperature range, and so on places one in a situation where ones existence depends on circumstances remaining within the set of constraints to which one has become irreversibly adapted. But we live in a world of cycles nested within cycles, cycles moving energy and material around at widely (or should I say wildly?) varying scales and magnitudes and over periods of time ranging from nanoseconds to billions of years. We like to think that the status quo is just the way things are and, really, the only way they could be. In reality, the status quo, the atmospheric balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide, the average planetary temperature range, the climatic stability of different regions are all governed and maintained by dynamic cycles and chains. Just ask anyone who has ever experienced an earthquake.

And you never know when the prevailing regime of reasonably navigable fluxuations will be interrupted by some much larger energetic cycle with a period in the thousands or tens of thousands of years and simply wiped away.

There. Have I expressed adequately the degree of causal uncertainty one might justifiably entertain regarding the causes of climate change? Within this vast and byzantine labyrinth of causal linkage what possible significance could our monkeying around with a bit of fire have? Shall we talk now of straws and camels and butterfly wings? No? Get to the point? Alright. Assuming the average planetary temperature is rising, as we discussed yesterday, whether or not the primary cause of this shift is human greenhouse gas emissions or a larger natural climate cycle, it seems to me that rising greenhouse gas emissions can only contribute to this dynamic. The larger planetary dream may already have us circling the drain, or it may not. Either way, I see no reason to go out of our way to hasten the outcome.

Speaking of drains, there is another dimension to this discussion. A drain has a place; it’s usually at the bottom of some kind of sink. Assuming that it’s possible to overload the atmosphere with CO2 generated by industrial activity, and it seems likely that it is if you look at the composition of Venus’s atmosphere, then at the point where the atmospheric percentage of CO2 alters the climatic heat engines to the point where most of the local climate regimes render our measly little metabolisms inconvenient, you are looking at what ecologists and others who study system dynamics call a sink side limit. There is only so much that you can change the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere before altering all the cycles–nitrogen, carbon, water–and chains, before resetting, as it were, the global thermostat.

And that’s all I have to say about that. Today.

April 12, 2010

What is This Thing Called Global Warming?

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 6:17 pm

Skepticism here in the US surrounding the subject of climate change and global warming is widespread. Phrases like “wow, record low temperatures and snowfall this year; I don’t see any global warming around here.,” have become overnight cliche’s. I’ve heard somewhat more sophisticated criticisms from a couple of friends of mine, one an environmental engineer and the other a cognitive psychologist, to the effect that “the hard scientific evidence isn’t there.” It seems to me that two very important ingredients are missing in this discussion: one, an understanding of complexity and of the nature of system dynamics modeling, and two, awareness of the importance of the principle of charity as applied to rational debate.

Let’s begin with number two. Long ago (CE 397), St. Agustine wrote an interesting little book entitled “On Christian Doctrine.” Despite its rather dogmatic sounding title, the book is really an early thesis on semiotics and hermeneutics, that is, how to translate and interpret texts, texts, in this case, of the Holy variety. In discussing the interpretation of ambiguous signs and expressions, in particular regarding whether they should be interpreted in literal or figurative terms, he proposed the The Law of Charitable Interpretation: whatever interpretation increases the feeling of charity (in his sense, the love for God and the love for your fellow humanoid types) is the correct interpretation. Whatever breeds otherwise is a misinterpretation.

To be clear, I’m not a theologian or even particularly impressed with any path or philosophy that requires strict adherence to a belief system. (I’m more impressed by the philospher Quine’s humorous take on the problems inherent in the very idea of belief, which you can find in his book Quiddities.) The point here is that the Law of Charitable Interpretation, with a more secular emphasis, has become a fundamental principle of rational debate, so much so that as a reader or listener, not to apply this law has come to be regarded as a major logical fallacy. If you want to refute someone’s position, then you have to understand and present it in its best possible light. If you want to refute someone’s argument and have your refutation actually mean anything, you must first articulate it in its strongest, most accurate terms. Not to do so is to indulge in knocking down paper tigers. In other words, you have to know and honestly represent what your opponent is actually saying. To the best of your ability.

So, what does the theory that has been dubbed global warming in the popular press actually say? To the best of my understanding, it says that different atmospheric gasses have different degrees of transparency to heat radiation. Gasses that are less transparent in this way tend to retard the radiation of heat from the Earth’s surface back into space. The atmosphere’s overall transparency to heat radiation results from the mixing of many gasses of varying degrees of heat transparency. So, one would predict that if the atmospheric percentage of gasses like methane, water vapor, and carbon dioxide rises significantly, then the average surface temperature on the planet should rise to some degree. Also, though, a rise in average temperature means that more solar energy is trapped inside the atmospheric blanket. More energy in any system translates into a more active, more excited system. Such excitation translates into wider variations in atmospheric temperatures and pressures, which leads to more frequent and severe storms and a shifting of weather patterns as the system struggles to fall into a new regime that is relatively stable.

So, while the average temperature rises, you should expect to see colder winters and hotter summers in some areas, though this is just one possible way the increase in atmospheric energy might manifest. Average temperature is a statistical measure. It’s possible that you might have an average temperature, X, planetwide at the same time that a temperature of X is never measured at any particular location. Global warming would not be a smooth, linear change. The effects would vary from location to location and in different latitudes.

The rise in average temperatures affects many many processes planetwide. Here is where complexity comes into play. You can think of complexity as an attribute, a sort of descriptive parameter, that applies to systems. A system is first a conceptual construct. It is a mental model of a particular kind, a kind that attempts to represent the dynamic behavior over time of some part of the world we live in. As such, and to correct Rush Limbaugh, the complexity of a system can be measured. It can be measured because it applies not to the world, but to our conceptual model. The test of our model, as in any scientific model, lies in how closely it fits the observed behavior over time of whatever part of the world we are trying to understand. If the fit is compelling, then we can say that something like complexity as we understand it is at play here. We can also then say that the degree of this something-like-complexity is at play to somewhere-near-the-degree that it is in our model.

So what is a system? A system is a collection of entities whose behaviors affect one another and therefore feed back on themselves. These entities can be people, molecules, atoms, organisms living in your garden’s soil, markets in different parts of the world, what have you. Complexity is primarily a measure not of the number of entities, though this number does play a role, but of the number of ways in which they interact. It is a measurement that reflects the density of the connections. So a complex system has multiple causal connections, many of them in the form of circles or loops — feedback. Changes in flow rates or storage levels are reinforced by some of these loops and balanced or negated by others. The overall result cannot be predicted analytically. The best we can do is try to build a computer model that reflects the behaviors as we understand them, and then run it to see what it does.

So when we think about global warming and climate change in these terms, certain things can be predicted with some confidence; others are more difficult to nail down. For example, common sense would tell you that if the average temperature world-wide is rising, at some point you should begin to see the melting of alpine and polar glaciers. This actually is happening at what, to many, is an alarming rate. If polar ice-caps are starting to melt, then it makes sense that the permafrost above the arctic circle should also begin to melt at some point. This is occuring as well. Here’s the interesting part. This melting of glaciers and polar ice is going to affect other dynamic processes. And the predictions you come up with regarding the long-term climatic effects of global warming will depend on some degree on which processes you have in your sights. Complexity is, you know, complicated.

For example. The melting of glaciers and oceanic ice in and around Greenland is dumping large quantities of fresh water into the North Atlantic. This is likely to interfere with the pumping mechanism that maintains the Gulf Stream, which in turn is largely responsible for Europe’s temperate climate. Normally, the cold dry air of the North Atlantic increases the rate of evaporation from ocean’s surface. The water evaporates, but the salt remains. This cold, salty surface water is very heavy compared to subsurface waters, so it sinks. This heavy, sinking water is like the piston of a pump, drawing in warmer waters from the south at the surface and pushing the subsurface waters away. If this pump were to slow or come to a standstill, perhaps because the surface water is less saline, it would have a slowing effect on global warming. As the warm subtropical waters cease to travel north, glaciers begin to grow, especially in Europe where you would be likely to see the beginnings of a new ice age. More ice would increase the albedo of that part of the globe, reflecting more of the incoming solar radiation back out into space, thus reinforcing the formation of more glaciers, and so on. So in this scenario global warming sets up a compensating loop that tends to reverse, or at least moderate, the effects of global warming. Though this occurs at great environmental and economic cost to Europe and possibly North America as well. Interestingly, though, the mechanism of this compensation takes the form of a run-away positivie feedback loop that could set a new ice age into motion. Unless, of course, other dynamics come into play to balance this dynamic.

For example, there is the melting permafrost. Within the permafrost methane is trapped in the form of methane hydrates. As the frost melts the methane is released into the atmosphere. Methane is a much more opaque than carbon dioxide to heat radiation; hence it is a much more effective greenhouse gas. More heat releases more methane which contributes to the dynamic of warming leading to more heat, still more methane, and so on. A viscious cycle.

How do all these complex dynamics resolve themselves? We don’t know. But either way there is potential for great economic and environmental mischief. So we might be wise to err on the side of caution. Ah, you say, but even granted that greenhouse gasses contribute to these dynamics, how do you know that human release of greenhouse gas emissions is actually the cause of all this? Climate cycles have occurred throughout the planet’s history.

Good question. But I’ll have to talk about that tomorrow. For now, I gotta go and swing some kettlebells around.

April 11, 2010

Why I Hate Cars

Filed under: System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 2:22 pm

Okay let’s get real. How much of your income goes into getting you to the job, which has turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, and back home? And did you take the job, in part, because it enabled you to buy the car that is making such a dent in your budget? And did you want a nicer car largely because of the amount of time you have to spend driving back and forth to work? No?

Okay how about this. Remember when you were a kid and could hop on your bike and ride from one side of the county to the other? Oh wait a minute! Who am I talking to? Most of you were probably born after 1975, in the era of the wholly planned, managed, and protected childhood. If you would rather go to the mall than escape into the foothills, or the woods, or the riverside then maybe you should skip over this little rant. Then again, maybe you shouldn’t.

It’s possible that you have to be a certain age to have noticed the ways in which the character of towns has changed over the last 50 years. Where once there were green alleys with apricot trees growing in them and shaded streets with houses that didn’t look like mausoleums or monuments to absent residents whose personal lives are spent mostly in transit, now there are wastelands of concrete and asphalt, glass and steel. Now there are rows and rows of residential streets with rows and rows of houses, which, at least in the town where I live, the builders didn’t even bother to insulate. Craftsmanship has gradually been replaced by mass production, cookie cutter architecture, soulless, wonderless, crapulous housing projects with no unique, local businesses: no neighborhood bars, restaurants, coffeeshops, or markets. Instead there are the strip malls and the glass-and-plastic-facade fast food outlets, which are just beyond convenient walking distance. And even though you could walk to some of them if you had to, is it really safe to do so? Were the needs of “pedestrians” taken into account at all by the town planners? Certainly not in the more recently established parts of town. Does anyone really like this shit?

Nowadays, you can’t afford not to have a car, because the bus systems in most cities are undependable, smelly, and socially stigmatized. Of course things have improved here in Albuquerque over the past few years. Now there is an express bus for which you seldom have to wait more than ten minutes. Of course, there are only three routes. So if you are going to any of four or five places, you’re sweet. Otherwise you’re at the mercy of the regular bus system or, if you bring your bike on the bus, the traffic-crazed shopper-commuters who spend their lives in hot, overpriced cars fuming in frustration at the idiot in front of them who has been daydreaming for the past 100 milliseconds since the light turned green.

All of this, I would argue, is because of the automobile. Of course other factors had to come into play to create this uniquely made-in-America type of sprawling wasteland. There was the discovery in the 1850s of “rock oil” (petroleum). There is human psychology with its complex of ape-descendant, dopamine addicted, adrenaline loving drives to seek status, trivial variety, and speed. There are economic and political ideologies crafted to promote a constantly growing need to consume. But without the automobile, all these other influences would have been forced to … well, to walk.

Seriously, it would be worth our while to think a little about the extent to which urban planning and design have been devoted to adapting our built environment to the ubiquitous presence of the automobile at the expense of the comfort and needs of human beings. An observer from another planet watching us through powerful telescopes from some distant orbit would have to conclude that the dominant life form on this planet is, what, a ’57 chevy? No, definitely an SUV.

April 10, 2010

How I Became a Runner

Filed under: Running and Related Obsessions — Lonnie @ 4:48 pm

Before starting to write this I read a bunch of how-I-became-a-runner testimonials. This taught me one important lesson. People who read how-I-became-a-runner testimonials don’t really want a lengthy scholarly analyisis of motivations and circumstances. So I’ll try to keep it brief, or at least narrative rather than analytical.

First, although I loved the book, I was not Born to Run. My right femur is longer than my left. If my weight is on my right leg, I’m 6’1″; if it’s on my left, I’m 6′ even. This places funny stresses on your left knee and right hip. So if you’re interested in an explanation of why I never took up running seriously until I was 57, there you go. Nevertheless Born to Run was the catalyst. But of course I had to be set up first.

A couple of years ago I stumbled onto a review of Louis Lebenberg’s The Art of Tracking: the Origin of Science, now out of print (click the link to check out the price!). The review was very good (sorry I don’t have a link for it), and it left me curious; it seems that if Lebenberg is right and his experience with the Kalahari Bushmen representative of hunter/gatherer methods from way back, then distance running is an essential element of being a human. It’s something we evolved to do.

So the soil had been prepared; I was predisposed but not yet really motivated. Then one day last fall, my girlfriend came by saying she was going for a run. I invited myself along, more to have an excuse to hang out with her than from any embryonic aspiration to become a runner. We ran a couple of miles, and she told me that I ran “like an elf” (okay ,so we’re Tolkein geeks — sue us). That was the second milestone; I found that it felt good. I was already in reasonably decent shape from 20 years of steady Aikido practice and, more recently, a fairly regular routine of kettlebell workouts. So the cardio was there, but the joints were still something of an issue, hence my ginger, elf-like stride. And hence the careful sidestepping of any intent to begin a regular regime.

A couple of months after that I went to Kuwait on business for a couple of weeks. No kettlebells and nowhere to train combined with sumptuous hospitality in the form of marathon meals left me desperate to find a way to break a little sweat every day. The hotel where I was staying, the Plaza Athenee, is situated near the shoreline, so I decided to get up early every morning and go for a run along the shore. The first day was like heaven. I ran along the Persian Gulf watching the sun rise through the mist like a big orange balloon. Pausing at my chosen half-way point to watch the morning for a few minutes I met a fellow runner, Gopal, a physicist from Mumbai who is doing solar energy research at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research. We talked for a while, and he gave me his card, saying, “call me if you need anything, even if it’s just a glass of water.”

I walked funny for three days after that, and it was almost a week before I attempted another run: sore hip and cramping calves. I had discovered that landing closer to the balls of my feet rather than heel-stiking is easier on my joints, but my calves weren’t yet used to the workload and decided to let me know it in no uncertain terms. After that period of adjustment, though, I was able to run every morning for the last few days, and it’s one of my favorite memories of Kuwait.

About two weeks after my return, my girlfriend went Donna Lee on me. For those of you who may not be jazz nerds, Donna Lee is a Charlie Parker tune based on the changes to “Back Home Again in Indiana.” Which is where she went: back home to Indiana. Her reasonable concern about the lack of career opportunities here in Fort Stinkin-Desert as well as her future with someone significantly older drove a wedge into our relationship and away she fled. Just before Christmas. Meanwhile work prospects dried up and the “economic downturn” rolled over New Mexico like a tardy tsunami.

Over the Christmas Weekend, I house/dog sat for a friend, which is where I found the book Born to Run. In a funk and needing a distraction, I gobbled it up. Reviews abound, so I won’t add mine to the pile. Sufficient to say that it made me want to run. It made me want to run ultramarathons. And, I guess, pathetically, it was a way to convince myself that I’m really not so old. The phrase that stuck with me was, “he’s didn’t stop running because he’s old; he’s old because he stopped running.” Into such foundations are fixed the posts around which life decisions pivot. So I started running the week after Christmas. I started running in a pair of old sport sandals, which got me some funny looks in the dead of winter. But I was convinced by the book’s argument that too much cushioning and support can contribute to knee injuries by preventing you from developing your calves, achilles tendon, and the muscles in your feet so that you can absorb more of the strike impact before it hits your knee.

Running, training for a 5k (to begin with), was a way to move forward that didn’t depend on anyone but myself. I started a run-walk program and followed it for a couple of weeks. That was interrupted by a construction job that lasted a couple of weeks and left me plenty sore and tired at the end of each day. After that I started over with the 13-week walk/run program from the Beginning Runner’s Handbook, coming in on week 3. Pretty soon, I found that running along the acequia trails down in the Bosque near the Rio Grande, watching the mountains and the sky, left me feeling relaxed and complete. Peaceful. Who needs a stinkin girlfriend? Or a job? Well, okay, a job right about now would be very welcome. And timely.

I’m on the last week of the 13-week program and running 4.5 to 5 miles on my longer run day. I’m running longer intervals with shorter walking breaks, up to 40 or 50 minutes at a time. Not bad for a 57-year-old-never-been-a-runner. I spend a little time every day pouring over marathon training regimes; I’ve even begun toying with the idea of training for a triathlon, ultimately the iron-man, of course. Do you think I may have a problem?

Hello, my name is Lonnie and I am a runner. Not looking for a sponsor, though.
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