Patchwork Design Lab

June 19, 2010

Might as Well Face it You’re Adapted to Oil

There are two phrases I’d like to deconstruct today. Both of them come from the highest levels of government. The first is America is addicted to oil, uttered first by George W Bush in 2006 and echoed by Barack Obama just recently. The second one, uttered first in 1992 by Bush Sr. and later echoed by Dick Cheney, proclaims, “the American Way of Life is not negotiable.”

First let’s look at the addiction comment. Here is a biological definition of addiction:

Addiction ( in psychiatry, a pattern of compulsive drug use characterized by a continued craving for an opiod and the need to use the opiod for effects other than pain relief. Alternately, the state of being given up to some habit, especially strong dependence on a drug. Being abnormally tolerant to and dependent on something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming (especially alcohol or narcotic drugs).

Addiction is a partial adaptation to a foreign substance. I’m somewhat familiar with addiction, though only second hand, because the propensity for substance abuse seems to run in my family. Since I can stake no claim to moral superiority in this matter, I can only conclude that I am biochemically fortunate. The type of substances to which most people tend to become addicted make me feel like hammered dog shit. But I have observed the symptoms at close-hand. And as much as the addict believes that without the craved substance he will surely die or, worse, not die, the need is usually more perceived than real, and after a seemingly endless but actually finite period of time the physical dependence will fade. But there is a point in the process where an addict is likely to say I really need this. My need is not negotiable.

Let’s consider what real need entails. Here is a biological definition of adaptation:

Adaptation (from –
ecology – The adjustment or changes in behavior, physiology, and structure of an organism to become more suited to an environment. According to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, organisms adapt to their environment to become better fitted to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation.

In adaptation, function is fitted to systemic processes, and form is fitted to function. Ecosystems arise around energy gradients which generate an ongoing flow. The structure of the system arises in adaptation to both the type and the quantity of flow. Natural systems tend to self-organize in a way that maximizes the rate of flow over time. Everything within the system is integral to this process. Everything an organism does, from its behavior in relationship with other organisms to its very metabolism fits into this regime. If the source gradient changes or is degraded, entire species can die out.

I would argue that modern civilization, the modern global economy, the social systems that humans have created over the millenia are either adapted or in the process of adapting to oil and its cousins natural gas and coal as the primary energy source. Americans are not addicted to oil; they are addicted to the American Way of Life. As is the rest of the world. The American Way of Life, though, is adapted to oil as its primary feedstock. Without a sufficient rate of production and refinement, the American Way of Life will vanish like a puff of smoke; it will collapse like a boneless elephant. Globalization is possible only because of the energy provided by oil and its products and the technologies and infrastructure that have appeared as a result.

You can’t build an “alternative energy” society on a petroleum infrastructure. Not all forms of energy are created equal. Earth receives an estimated 174 petawatts (1.74 X 10exp17) of solar energy a day. That’s a huge quantity of energy, but it’s not in a concentrated form. It is highly dispersed, unavailable (to use thermodynamic lingo) to do work, unless you happen to be a molecule of chlorophyll. Converting sunlight into a form that humans would consider useful takes work. We can use sunlight to heat water in a pipe or to cause gas to expand and drive a turbine to create electricity. We can also use photovoltaics to turn solar energy into electricity. But these technologies depend on energy in a more concentrated form to start with. In our case, the more concentrated form is oil or one of its derivatives. The highly centralized, long-distance, energy intensive lifestyles that we currently “enjoy” are entirely dependent on oil and its evolved infrastructure.

We humans have a huge task before us. We are all destined for rehab. We will have to kick our addiction to the American Way of Life and then create one that is adapted to a new, lower-energy regime. The American Way of Life is not negotiable; it is all but over. We may keep it on life support for a few more years, but, like it or not, it’s already circling the drain.

June 3, 2010

Something of Value

What if we were to organize neighborhoods or even entire communities around food forests rather than thoroughfares and shopping malls? If you think about it, this would be more like a traditional village society, where people settle somewhere because the place has something of value. What would this type of neighborhood look like? Forests in the real world (that is, the world not as humans would have it, operating from some abstract set of arbitrary fantasies) tend toward what you might call incompletion. Ecologists have come up with the term climax to describe a sort of goal toward which biological succession “strives”, but there are very few examples in nature of climax ecosystems. Instead what you tend to see are patchwork mosaics of varying “stages” of succession. The designer of this mosaic is a collection of energetic events that you could collectively classify as patch disrupters. These include fires, cyclonic storms, and the influence of invading species from other areas. Humans, it turns out, evolved to be patch disrupters par excellence. What makes us so good at this disruptive behavior? It is our ability to say, “hmmm…..” That’s it. Repeat after me: hmmmm…..

You may have noticed that activity and productivity clusters around borders and edges. There is more going on at the boundary of a wood and a meadow than there is in either the wood or the meadow. Borders and seaports are hotbeds of economic activity, both licit and ill-. We can theorize about the causes, but why not just accept the fact and take it as a pattern that we can use? So one thing we are looking for in our neighborhoods is a sense of dynamic incompletion, a sort of wabi sabi aesthetic where tidiness is not the point. Tidiness at a very small scale is pleasing; tidiness as an organizing principle is antinomic. A monoculture is tidy. It is simple and uninteresting. It has very little of order, since there is very little to order. Contrary to popular agricultural theory (sheepthink), thousands of acres of corn or soy is not the way to get a maximum yield. To get any yield at all from such a system requires heavy (read toxic) petroleum and economic subsidies. The toxicity of these subsidies is not limited to the field itself. Consider the recent out-of-control oil hemorrhage in the Gulf of Mexico or the current global financial system, which, if we were honest, we would be calling the wreckage of a global financial system. The point here (just to complete this wild tangent) is that the truly toxic tends not to arise without the aid of human hmmmm….ing, or if it does, it tends to become properly sequestered by geological processes. At least until the next major geological upheaval.

But back to our little neighborhood. We look at the lay of the land. We plant marshy plants in the lowest areas where the water tends to collect – remembering to select plants that provide for our needs in numerous ways. Marshes are great natural water filters as well as a good place to grow many types of berries. We look at natural marshes to get an idea of the type and variety of plants we will need. We organize the land according to water availability in such a way that it includes marsh, meadow, and woodland, all devised to be functioning ecosystems with higher-than-typical concentrations of plants that provide food for humans. We site our houses and public buildings on the least productive patches, patches with the poorest soil, for example, so that our way of life interferes as little as possible with our ability to make a living. We try to design our communities in such a way that the need to indulge in trade for basic necessities is minimized.

There are still houses, shops, paths and roads sprinkled through and winding in and out of this pastoral landscape. They add to its variety and richness, though, increasing the aforementioned edge-effect and making the overall system more diverse, more balanced, and more productive.

May 19, 2010

Technology and Entropy

Filed under: Human Ecology, Systems Ecology, Uncategorized — Lonnie @ 7:58 am

Technology is not static. No part of it is static. What is not continually used and refined is degrading and will eventually be lost. Those are the facts of entropy and technology. Technology combines information with tools. Most modern technology involves combinations of simple machines powered by motors or engines fueled by fossil fuel of one kind or another or else elaborate networks of electronic switches that perform logical functions in response to incoming signals, these networks also powered by fossil fuel of one type or another. The information comes from insights gleaned either from formal scientific research or else from practical application and experience. There are a few variations on the energy source, some hydroelectric power, some nuclear, a smattering of wind turbines and photovoltaic arrays. But mainly, it’s fossil fuel.

Information is a curious resource, because unlike other natural resources it is not depleted or degraded with use. On the contrary it is improved and refined with use and degrades when not applied. I saw a program on PBS several months ago which talked about how we/NASA no longer remember how to build a Saturn V rocket, the one used to launch the Apollo moon missions. There are no engineering documents that preserve the specifications of any of the components. There are no drawings, no parts lists, nada. On the program, scientists from NASA were obtaining old Saturn V components from a junk dealer in the area who specialized in such high-tech gadgetry and trying to reverse engineer the various sub-systems. My own experience debugging legacy code makes me wonder if it won’t take them longer to reverse engineer the technology than it took to develop it in the first place.

One of the trends I’ve seen in my working life is the dual push for automation, on the one hand, and specialization, on the other. My own “specialty”, that is whenever my job paid anything substantial (jazz musician, carpenter, writer, permaculturist, not so much), usually involved facilitating automation in some way. When the postal service wanted to automate, to some degree, the process of trouble shooting failures in its complex mail sorting and bar-coding equipment, I got a job first writing trouble shooting procedures for operators to use and later automating the process even further by writing interactive troubleshooting programs, again to be used by lower paying nontechnical employees. Ultimately they wanted a program that would use computer monitored voltage levels at different key locations to analyze failures and prompt operators to take the appropriate correctrive measures. Of course they didn’t want to hire and pay the number of people with the appropriate skills to complete the project within the timeframe they were looking at. I guess you can’t automate everything.

There is a modern myth which, if you unpack it, says that technology combined with free markets continually increases the efficiency of production, approaching something-for-nothing asymptotically. It may never reach it, but it can get arbitrarily close to it. Something for Nothing (for all practical purposes) is the bill of goods I’ve seen being sold all my life. No wonder we live in such an entitled society.

Here are the ABC’s of technology and entropy. Most people no longer understand simple machines, because they’ve been packed in black boxes and powered by black-box engines for almost a hundred years now. Technology, you might have observed, is a consumer of energy, not a producer. Sure, there are “energy generating” technologies, but that’s just word salad. Energy is neither “generated” nor destroyed. These technologies are really energy harvesting and transforming techniques. They are not all that efficient. And we are rapidly depleting their primary power source, fossil fuels. In the mean time, the cultural push for convenience, overspecialization, and something for nothing has brought about a decline in wet tech, the neural technology that actually understands the way some of these things work. Not to mention the older techniques of sustainable agriculture, animal husbandry, even – in many cases – basic cooking.

May 5, 2010

Valuing the Commons

Filed under: Human Ecology, System Dynamics & Culture, Systems Ecology — Tags: , — Lonnie @ 7:33 am

President Obama’s recent remark that we will repair the damage caused by the recent oil platform explosion and subsequent, ongoing oil hemorrhage off the gulf coast no matter what the cost is interesting to me. First of all, what is the cost of such an operation? Can he even know this? Certainly he has at least a vague idea that it must be in the billions of dollars. Second, is such a thing even possible? There is a difference, after all, between cleaning up the spilled oil and actually reversing the damage done to the local economies and to the ecosystems of which they are a part and upon which they depend. The movement of money in an economy carries information about the value of goods and services. But to whom do you send a check in payment for the work done by a forest as it contributes to annual rainfall, the ongoing supply of fresh air, and the building of fertile topsoil? Who receives the payment for actually producing the fish that are harvested from wild fisheries?

The fact is that since we simply help ourselves to these services and send no check to any theoretically external agency for these benefits, the circulation of currency carries absolutely zero information about the value of these services. So in the most literal sense, President Obama has no way of knowing the cost of his promise. Furthermore, there are legal limitations on a corporation’s financial liability in these cases. A corporation can be held accountable for immediate damages to property and local businesses, but as I understand it is exempt from accountability for the long term health, economic, and environmental consequences of its screw-ups. So whatever the full cost of remediation may be (to the extent that it is possible at all), the lion’s share of the burden falls upon the shoulders of the taxpayer.

This situation shouldn’t be at all surprising; it arises quite naturally from two archetypal system-dynamic traps. These dynamic patterns underpin the contemporary global economy to such an extent that once you understand how they operate, you begin to see them everywhere. They are called the Tragedy of the Commons, and Success to the Successful. The tragedy of the commons is a dynamic by which rational decisions made without ill intent but with a view to maximizing one’s profit cause one to take actions whose benefits accrue only to oneself but whose negative consequences are shared by all. Because you receive all the benefit but only a portion of the cost, you perceive the action to be quite reasonably taken. You perceive the odds of a major catastrophe to be low and take the projected long term effects to be purely hypothetical. And your increased income provides you with insulation against many of these consequences. Further, your perception of them is tempered by how dearly you value what has been lost. Clearly, the CEO of a company like Exxon or British Petroleum will not view the damage to coastal ecologies in the same light as will an Alaskan fisherman or Louisiana shrimper.

The second dynamic pattern, Success to the Successful, functions, effectively, to institutionalize the Tragedy. In a game where it takes money to make money, the wider your profit margin, the more quickly it grows – a classic case of exponential growth. Conversely, the slimmer your margin the greater the struggle required to maintain it. Those with a wide and rapidly expanding profit margin have disposable wealth which they can use to reinforce the circumstances that enabled them to succeed. They can influence legislation through lobbying. They can influence opinion through media ownership. They can even sway the types and quality of goods and services available to all by sheer volume of consumption. McDonald’s is a case in point. McDonald’s demand for a consistent product worldwide has so influenced the way beef is produced that it effects what is available even to those of us who never set foot in one of their establishments.

Accountability is a good thing. Everyone says so. Yet we exempt from accountability to any significant degree those people and organizations who have the greatest power to do harm. It’s not difficult to see how this comes about, given the dynamics at play, but it’s puzzling, sometimes, that remarking on the irony of the situation seems to be a public taboo. I guess such an observation is lacking in nuance.

The Problem of Money and Value

Filed under: Human Ecology, System Dynamics & Culture, Systems Ecology — Tags: — Lonnie @ 7:06 am

Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush

Many economists, though by no means the majority, recognize two distinct ways of understanding wealth and value. There is intrinsic value, the value of things-in-themselves, of embodied energy, information, form. Then there is market or exchange value, in which price is determined by market demand. In the first case value increases with abundance; in the second value increases with scarcity. The more arable land and potable water you have, the more people you can feed; ergo, the greater the wealth or value. On the other hand, the more severely you can limit access to arable land and potable water, the greater will be the demand for it and the higher its price. There is another element in this equation. In order for higher price to translate into a wider profit margin, there must be a price spread created either by economies of scale or by preferential subsidies from the government. Either way, the key that opens the doorway to arbitrage is ample capital – enough to purchase land in large quantities or to subsidize the candidacies of key representatives.

A rational man, desiring to maximize the value of his holdings, is motivated to increase his market share, thereby creating relative market scarcity and raising the exchange value of his holdings. He can accomplish this either through acquisition or destruction. The marketplace, with its invisible hand, turns a blind eye to this distinction. Here is a case for keeping government and commerce separate with the same vigilance that we use to maintain the separation of church and state. Government’s job is to identify, develop, and protect the country’s critical resources, both natural and constructed. Enterprises generally wish to sequester and limit public access to resources so that they can buy low, sell high, and maximize their profits. Undue influence of either on the other impedes the proper functioning of both.

This war of competing values sets up a conflict between public and private interests that tends to play itself out in a scenario first described in 1833 by amateur mathematician, William Foster Lloyd (1794-1852) and reintroduced to a wider public under the name tragedy of freedom in a commons, or simply tragedy of the commons by Garrett Hardin in 1968. Here is the scenario in his words:

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.
As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

  1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of an additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
  2. 2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

An economic system based exclusively on exchange value is the perfect expression of and arena for this dynamic. As such, a system of this type will never produce abundance for all. The rising tide does not lift all boats. The system is designed to create difference, apartheid, extremes of wealth and poverty. Those who benefit the most are the ones in a position to set policy.

This, of course, runs utterly counter to the prevailing economic paradigm, which says that the combined efforts of rational decision-makers, each working purely in her individual self-interest, will redound to the benefit of all. I believe that the basis for this kind of thinking, which was born in the 17th century European Enlightenment, lay in an early and somewhat rudimentary insight into system dynamics. Adam Smith understood markets to be largely self-regulating – self regulating within certain limits. These limits had to do with resource constraints. This idea of constraints was quickly discarded as unimportant, relating only to externalities, by his successors. They were more impressed with his notion that the marketplace has an invisible hand.

Classical economics presents a very neat and elegant system. There is a perpetual-motion-like cycle where money flows to investment which mobilizes resources to produce goods and services which generate money which flows to investment, and so on. The flow of money and resources through this cycle is regulated by a mutual compensating loop dynamic, which Adam Smith characterized as an invisible hand. This dynamic operates to regulate price via demand and demand via price. As demand rises, the price tends to rise. Rising demand creates an apparent scarcity which enables suppliers to raise their prices. At some point prices climb high enough to dampen the demand, causing it to fall and so lowering the price as well. In theory, these oscillations gradually subside, and supply and demand are brought into balance at a relatively stable price. Stable prices allow people to make reasonable financial plans; stable prices create a stable economy, which benefits one and all by allowing the perpetual cycle of money and production to continue.

This all takes place through the actions of a multitude of economic players, each trying to maximize her individual benefit in a purely selfish way. And it works quite well as long as you discount a few empirical facts. Many economists, even some who are Nobel Laureates, claim that in economic terms, resource limitations do not impinge on this system in any significant way. Their argument is basically that human ingenuity is unlimited, and for every critical resource that is exhausted another will be found. The question in my mind is do they really believe that? If I were to go to a bank and ask for a loan using my unlimited ingenuity as collateral, how much do you think they’d lend me? Okay they say, ignoring the question, look at the history. In the very early days of the industrial revolution, when England had exhausted its wood fuel through deforestation because of overharvesting, they discovered coal. And again, when the supply of whale oil was threatened, again by overharvesting because of growing demand, what did we discover? Rock oil (of all things): Petroleum. Of course the costs of these discoveries – the soil-destroying, climate-changing loss of biodiversity through deforestation, the wholesale destruction of entire watersheds through efficient coal mining practices, more recently the ongoing destruction of coastal ecologies and (by the way) gulf coast fishing and tourism industries because of an explosion on a drilling platform that triggered a deep water oil hemorrhage – are not economically relevant.

But never mind that. Let’s just look at history. It’s easy to find historical corroboration for almost any position (this is where human ingenuity is most outstanding). As counter examples to the industrial revolution, what about Easter Island’s population crash or the collapse of the Classical Mayan civilization, both caused by the economically irrelevant drawdown of critical resources, trees and topsoil, mainly? What about the gradual desertification of the fertile crescent through the dual practices of upriver deforestation and long term over-irrigation and over-grazing?

What about physics? The claim that there are no relevant resource limits violates the first law of thermodynamics, which says that while matter and energy can be transformed one into the other, neither can be created or destroyed. The total amount of matter/energy in the universe is constant. The amount of matter on Earth is finite and very nearly constant, disregarding the loss of particles stripped off the upper atmosphere by solar winds. Therefore any material resource is finite, as is the total number of theoretically interchangeable material resources. Additionally, the perpetual cycle of money to investment to production/consumption to money, etc., violates the second law of thermodynamics. A closed-system perpetual motion cycle is not possible, because there will always be some loss of energy and information in every transaction. You may hide your income from the IRS, but the universe’s accounting system is flawless and never misses a single transaction.

Then, we could discuss how lousy a model of a human being is the rational utility maximizer of modern economic theory. We could talk about how perception affects exchange value and how plastic and easily molded through media bombardment perception has proven to be – also considered irrelevant in theory though quite clearly recognized in practice. But you get the picture.

The prevailing economic paradigm is tantamount to a state religion whose precepts are upheld and enforced regardless of any and all discorroborating empirical facts. These precepts, unsupported by rational examination, are upheld through faith alone, which makes the theory behind the global economy look either like a religion that extols greed and exploitation, or else, if that possibility is too discordant to your ear, simple pseudoscience.

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