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 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.

May 2, 2010

Centering the Community

Long supply chains have been the bane of generals and emperors throughout history. The globalized flat-earth market (flat, of course, only to the movement of fiat capital) with its tangled webs of transport, where a single product’s components may be manufactured in 3or 4 different countries on 2 or 3 different continents, while the product is assembled in another and sold in yet another, depends in its entirety upon cheaply available energy. And while investment fraud may have played a pivotal role in the most recent economic downturn, fraud, as John Updike’s character Rabbit Angstrom observes early in his career, makes the world go ‘round. And it is just possible that the steep ascent of oil prices during the summer of 2008 to just under 25% of GWP may have made some contribution to the precipitous skid in stock prices. Given the vulnerability of the market to the vicissitudes of oil pricing and supply and the notorious fragility of long supply chains (especially those that share the global financial markets’ crippling dependence upon the oil supply), it would seem only prudent, from a risk-management perspective, for local communities to develop a certain degree of self-sufficiency with respect to the production and exchange of critical goods and services.

Going back to the historical difficulties of supply chains, we find Sun Tzu writing, “we may take it then, that an army without its baggage-train is lost; without provisions it is lost; without bases of supply it is lost.” Local communities, with their current, near total dependence upon supply chains whose complexity would make Rube Goldberg dizzy, are little more than high-cost encampments plopped down any old place with no knowledge of local resources and no infrastructure to develop them. Ask Napoleon, next time you see him, how that worked out for him in his Russian Campaign.

Yuichiro Miura, the subject of the 1970 documentary, The Man Who Skied Down Everest, had, at least, a parachute which enabled him to stop, just barely, before he sailed over the edge of a deep crevasse. Very few communities today have even that much of a safety plan.

Nothing will Come of Nothing

The great depression delivered a nasty rabbit punch to the US economy and caused widespread deprivation in the midst (and in spite) of vast natural wealth. The fundamental problem was not that there wasn’t enough good land and agricultural know-how to feed everyone or that there wasn’t enough work that actually needed doing to achieve full employment or that there were any shortages of the energy or material resources needed to fuel the economy. The problem arose from a failure of the prevailing system of money and credit. Vesting the power to extend credit, and thereby create money, in the banking system in a monopolistic fashion interferes with money’s ability to function as a pure information medium in the same way that ownership of an influential newspaper by a large corporation with a vested interest in a specific ideological perspective tends to skew editorial policy.

Inability to accurately valorize natural capital, be it human labor and know-how or material resources, makes it difficult or impossible for individuals, businesses, or governments, either local or national, to access investment capital to match it. Monopolistic money can only represent the values of its creators. When the financial system views natural resources as externalities, it becomes blind to their true value – both as already functioning contributors to the general economy and as potential contributors to the development of essential products. Conventionally, we tend to think that it is the entrepreneur’s job to bring this value into light by inventing creative ways to develop and market it. But even the most creative of entrepreneurs is constrained by the in-built myopia of the market within which he must operate.

Nothing will come of nothing. In many cases poverty in fact arises from poverty in fancy. Where there is lack of vision, wrote Lao Tzu, the people perish.

Success to the Successful

All activity arises from nature’s abhorrence of a gradient. Electrical current flows because of a charge difference that sets up an electrical field between two battery terminals. This field is nothing other than a charge gradient. The flow of electrons functions to neutralize this gradient. All forces in nature arise in a similar fashion. Speculators in a market, on the other hand, love a financial gradient. Any gap in information or assignation of value creates an opportunity for arbitrage. But the flow of money across this gap constitutes an exchange of information that tends over time to eliminate this difference in valuation of the product or service in question. In order to stay in business, the gap-speculator must either find a way to conceal either his profitability or his source. Or, he can invest in a congressman or two in an attempt to create a law that works to preserve his value gradient. In other words, like any good business, he must invest some of his profits toward maintaining the resource that produced them.

If he is successful, his profitability should improve over time, giving him even more disposable income to put to work toward increasing his future profitability. In this case, the wider the gap, the greater will be the profit margin of its exploiter. If you can buy a commodity for dollars-a-ton and sell it for dollars-a-pound you can ride the gravy train all the way to seats on numerous influential boards-of-directors. You can dine with senators, drink with celebrities, and spend quality time with the young and the beautiful while your spouse goes shopping somewhere fashionably (and conveniently) far away.

All this success requires that you constantly mind the gap. And this gap is good, you think. This gap creates jobs on both sides. But increasingly, the lion’s share goes to the speculator, and to the others, the employees, the small, third-world-country farmers or suppliers, the factory workers, goes the trickle. Because your wealth depends on a gap, the gap must be maintained. To paraphrase, to him that hath it shall be given, and from him who hath not it shall be taken even that which he hath. Or words to that effect.

Democratizing the Money

Is there a natural or universal law that says only banks can create money? Clearly there is not. In fact, as we have seen, sequestering this right within the confines of one business, organization, or institution actually works to create wealth for a very few and poverty for very many. It functions to actually undermine the health of an economy and the well-being of the general populace.

If I have something that I value, whether it is an old guitar or a well-honed skill, all I have to do to profit from it is to find someone else who value’s it and has something else that I value. Generalize this idea to the notion that everyone has something of value to someone else and you have the makings of a small-scale, independent credit exchange system. The goal of such a system would be to provide its members with an alternative to monopolized bank money by empowering them to create their own exchange medium in the form of trade credit. Such a system can cast a much finer net over the distribution of resources within a local community. It can focus a community’s economic vision on developing these local resources and local talent rather than relying, in the fashion of the western Pacific cargo cults, on outside capital and investment whose lenders are guaranteed to take more of value away than they will bring in. They have to make a profit to stay in business, after all. Learn to see and value what’s all around you and create your own system of exchange and distribution, and you can begin to free your community from its dependence on the long and fragile supply chain that ties it to the interests of people who, let’s face it, apart from your value to them as cheap producers of what they want to buy and consumers of what they have to sell, have no reason to care whether you live or die.

In order to establish a truly local economy, you will need to put effort into developing the local infrastructure and resource basis, as well. You will need to establish farms using good soil management practices so that your yields continue to grow year after year because of soil improvement. There are ways to do this. It’s not rocket science. Likewise, other industries will have to be developed. Again, none of this is new or difficult to understand. The function of a localized trade, currency, or credit system is to facilitate investment on a scale that is small enough to succeed, rather than too big to fail.


Lets Systems: The Home Page

Interlinking Mutual Exchange Systems

Cooperative Principles and Complementary Currency

A successful Swiss Economic Circle Cooperative

Local Currencies:

E. F. Schumacher Society: List of local currencies…

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.
Older Posts »

Blog at