Hacking at the Branches of Evil

Sometimes a small saying says more than an entire book … “Let the beauty we love be what we do”–Rumi “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” –Henry David Thoreau ”It is an irony that millions of dollars are being spent to combat obesity in one half of the globe, while the other is dying of hunger.” –Evo Morales “Silence is the home of the word.” –Henri Nouwen “Eventually, everything connects.” -Charles Eames “Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.” –John Muir “One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.” –Henry Miller It is told that an architect offered to build for Plato a house in which every room would be hidden from the public eye. “I will give you twice the money,” Plato said, “if you build me a house into every room of which all men’s eyes can see.” -William Barclay “You must be prepared to act upon your dreams, in case they do come true.” –Bill Strickland, TED Talk 209 “It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson “Western science is a major response to minor needs” –Matthieu Ricard, TED talk 191 “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.” –Mark Twain “Giving up mission can become the most effective space for mission to take place.” –Peter Rollins “Theology. Because love isn’t enough.” –anon “A witty saying proves nothing.”  

Taken on Good Faith

Because he was always the good-hearted one, the ingenuous one, the one who knew no cunning, who, if “innocent” didn’t quite apply, still merited some similar connota- tion of naïveté, simplicity, the sense that an essential awareness of the coarseness of other people’s motives was lacking so that he was constantly blundering upon situations in which he would take on good faith what the other rapaciously, ruthlessly, duplicitously and nearly always successfully offered as truth. . . All of that he understood about himself but he was also aware that he couldn’t alter at all his basic affable faith in the benevolence of everyone’s intentions and that because of this the world would not as in romance annihilate him but would toy unmercifully with him until he was mad. – C.K. Willams, from the poem Self-Knowledge,  

Energy and Population

I’ve written before on the direct link between energy and population growth. Many of us think this is today’s most important structural issue: energy-population. I’ve hyphenated these words to stress that energy and population are interchangeable on a macro scale. The world would not have 6.5 billion people today without access to highly concentrated energy (e.g, fossil fuels). Of course, it took human ingenuity to harness the energy which created today’s “carrying capacity.” Humanity exploded in parallel with an understanding of energy application. It’s a chicken-and-egg spiral, yet energy remains the raw capital of social efficiency as well as the world’s largest business (by a huge margin). Earthbound energy is stored sunlight. The idea of energy = population is really self-evident if you take the extreme case. Prevent access to caloric energy: mammals parish. Restrict caloric energy: some survive while others die off. Measured in calories, today’s industrialized citizen uses roughly 230,000 kcals per day, and over 90% of that energy is consumed as fossil fuels. Compare this with pre-industrial societies (earlier than 1800) who used roughly 1/20th the energy we use today – and virtually all of that was biomass (wood, dung, etc.). Compare the relationship of GDP to energy. During the last 100 years, petroleum energy has accounted for fully two-thirds of the USA’s GDP, with stronger weighting during the last half of the century. An  exhaustive study was presented at the 2005 ASPO Conference by Robert Ayres (Professor Emeritus, Physics, INSEAD). Granted, we’re getting more efficient with our energy, which is why since 1980, GDP is increasing faster than historic energy comparisons, but we need to see this curve accelerate much faster to make a difference. Energy and GDP are still unbreakably linked. Populations have always grown… but very slowly until we learned how to harness high quality fuels. The Industrial Revolution (1700-1900) championed coal (steam engines, etc.) which fueled a dramatic rise in social efficiencies, leading to a rate of population growth seven times greater than the 1500-1700 era. Cheap, concentrated fossil fuels again doubled the rate of population growth (1900-1960), and then doubled again during the (1960-2000) Green Revolution. We could not have added and sustained an additional 3 billion souls (in just 40 years) without petro-chemical enriched soils, energy-intensive pesticides, and other energy-focused farming methods of the Green Revolution. Someone once calculated that fossil fuels have provided industrialized citizens with the equivalent of 30 unpaid servants. Maybe so. In 1900, roughly 80% of the U.S. population derived income from some manner of agriculture. Today, it’s less than 2%. Here’s a table I’ve created showing annual population growth during the last 2000 years. 0-1000AD: nil 1000-1500: 0.10% / yr 1500-1700: 0.12% 1700-1900: 0.83% 1900-1960: 1.56% 1960-2000: 2.58% (Green Revolution) In absolute numbers, global population looks like this. 0 AD 300 million 1000 310 million 1500 500 million 1700 600 million 1900 1.6 billion 1960 3.1 billion 2000 6.2 billion (source U.S. Census: http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/worldhis.html) More people have been added to the Earth during the past 50 years than have been added since the dawn of man. Some call the beginning of time through 1800 the “biomass fueled population” – just as coal reached a 20% share of energy resources. The “coal population” spans 1800-1940 or so, when oil reached at 20% share of energy resources. Post 1940 might be called the “oil population.” Nobel laureate, physicist, nano-pioneer Richard Smalley (d.2005) was considered by many as the world’s foremost authority on macro energy. He spent that last 20 years of his life researching world energy, population, social trend, etc.. He tirelessly lobbied world governments, industry, and classical economists to radically change the way we look at our energy future. He understood the dynamics of energy-population and warned that, without deliberate structural intervention, we would be facing an energy-economic shortfall unparalleled in human history. Classical economics defines energy as an “external event.” Economists see energy as a “constant” in their supply/demand equations – they assume that cheap, abundant energy will always be available. Energy researchers (physicists, geologists, engineers..) know this is wrong. Where there is a will, there is not always a way. Unfortunately, many people still think in terms of pure economics and dismiss the idea of energy scarcity. Certainly, rising energy costs will drive conservation, along with development of alternative energies. This will help to moderate the energy issues which confront us and future generations. But is it enough? Can emerging alternatives sustain industrial / economic growth as we know it? A growing body of research says no – that in the very near future our lives will be changed significantly by the reduced availability / affordability of fossil energy (explored in-depth on this blog). We’re entering an age where energy is no longer a fixed “external event,” but rather a dynamic variable in supply/demand equations – an anchor against the notion of unlimited growth. Short of discovering some new, highly concentrated, almost-free energy source (like oil and natural gas in the last century), economic performance will become inexorably tied to the increasingly higher costs of energy. Historically, demographers, drawing heavily from classical economic theory, have largely ignored the impact of energy on population growth. Yet many are now showing that energy is the underlying reason for much of this growth. Economic theories of growth have gotten a free-ride while energy has been cheap and plentiful. Now that we’re entering into an era of energy scarcity, classic energy economics is seen to be based on wrong assumptions. The study of world energy is massively complex. I don’t pretend to know what the future holds. We’re all making our best guesses based on the data we feel is most relevant. And, as always, I think it’s best to err on the side of caution. Some related resources on: energy vs. population, sustainability, carrying capacity. Jay Hanson on Friedman Economics & Energy Western Oregon University Summary on Historical Energy Consumption Drivers of Growth, INSEAD (excellent systems-level study) Paul Chefurka’s World Energy and Population Trends Energy Transitions – A Look at Both Sides (this post is a continuation of a conversation at Peter Rollins’  

Happy 25th!!

Taking this public opportunity to congratulate my bride on surviving 25 wedded years with me. Happy 25th my angel! To celebrate the occasion, a local restaurant sat us right in the middle of their kitchen. No menu tonight. We just ate what the cook brought over: Quail risotto, ricotta gnocchi with truffles, and a lovingly handcrafted dessert. To another beautiful 25 years, my love. Since it’s our 25th anniversary and everything, allow me share a little bit about what happened 25 years ago. Cynthia and I met in 1978 in Lake Tahoe, and were married there five years later. Many of our friends were dancers and musicians, so we invited them to dance and play at our ceremony and reception. I loved watching our guests’ expressions as our friends started dancing around the sanctuary. Good times. Wedding photos on one’s 25th does not count as cat blogging, so  

The Limitations of Nature

What follows is my response to a friend – sparked by the premise of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. Classical economic theory is failing us. Granted, when taken as a percentage, more people have access to adequate nutrition, clean water, and shelter than 50 years ago. But in absolute terms, the number of hungry people has been steadily increasing with the population boom. Freidman-based economics is not organic – it misses the holism of life in favor of a myopic assumption that pure markets are the best regulator of culture. This places core power into the hands of corporatists, whose legal mandate is to maximize wealth at the expense of all other social metrics. It’s imbalanced, but greed is a powerful force – Friedman and his ideological predecessors legitimized it. Social studies show that people don’t really need much to be happy. What we need as a world people is access to healthy food, clean water, basic hygiene, and protection from the elements. As it is, a large percentage of the world does not have access to these basic needs. Any social system that doesn’t provide for universal basics is a failure…. which brings up the conversation on universal health care. The problem with UHC is one of scale. Health is now equated with a massively expensive Friedman-based economic system. For a price, we can do any known medical procedure. But is that wise? i think we need to re-define basic health care in light of this. That said, you can’t artificially prevent the creative spirit. This was Mao’s #1 mistake – trying to force culture into artificial common denominators. People need psychic freedom to flourish, to reflect their creativities and celebrate their differences and diversities, and those with the most to contribute should be rewarded in a free-market manner. It’s not like Friedman needs to be abandoned – just balanced with real-world empathy and compassions. Corporations can NOT run the show any longer, nor can centralized politics. I think we’re entering into an era of global participation where new social paradigms can flourish. But old systems die hard and those with power don’t let go without struggle. Maybe Klein’s thesis is better called “the denial doctrine,” for no matter how clear and concise her (and others’) warnings, the vast majority of civil culture will continue to ignore the obvious and be satisfied with apathy and trend. I’m a student of religion and it’s where I see these social dynamics at work clearly. There are natural groupings of social trends, and virtually -all- of them follow the bell curve. We’re living in the most complex, fastest changing, new paradigm creating, mass-dangerous time in history. And no matter what politics or economic theory we propose, energy (as commodity) will continue to pull the strings behind the curtain, for it is the foundation of all contemporary economic and political theory, and has been since world populations sextupled entirely from access to an “unlimited” new source of cheap energy. The choice is no longer between free-market capitalism and centralized socialism. Most of us agree that “government ownership of the means to production” is dead (except maybe in Cuba and N. Korea). The tension is now to find an economic system which is sustainable within a finite system. Thirty years ago, University of Maryland professor Herman Daly proposed an economic model called “Steady State Economics” – the Peer To Peer Foundation calls SSE “a P2P-informed approach in which non-human life, future generations, and ‘nature’ are taken as partners, from which no more can be taken, than its ability to regenerate itself.” This is where we need to be focused – a free-market system sensitive to the limitations of nature, where profit is encouraged yet balanced with all stakeholders, not just shareholders. An analogy might be drawn here to spiritual community. Institutional religious power-centers are starting to be replaced by P2P, participatory communities. It’s a small movement now, but as new generations embrace virtual connectivity, ecclesia will be thoroughly reconstructed via direct relationships, while religions of layered mediation will fade into  

Laptop Orchestra

Last year, one of our interns was accepted into the CCRMA masters program at Stanford — the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. This weekend I received an e-mail from him pointing me to videos of a new CCRMA project called the Stanford Laptop Orchestra. “SLORK” is a large-scale, computer-mediated ensemble that explores cutting-edge technology in combination with conventional musical contexts – while radically transforming both. Founded in 2008 by director Ge Wang and students, faculty, and staff at CCRMA, the ensemble requires more than 20 laptops, human performers, controllers, and custom multi-channel speaker arrays (all designed and built by CCRMA grad students) to provide each computer meta-instrument with its own identity and presence. From the SLORK website: The orchestra fuses a powerful sea of sound with the immediacy of human music-making, capturing the irreplaceable energy of a live ensemble performance as well as its sonic intimacy and grandeur. At the same time, it leverages the computer’s precision, possibilities for new sounds, and potential for fantastical automation to provide a boundary-less sonic canvas on which to experiment with, create, and perform music. Offstage, the ensemble serves as a one-of-a-kind learning environment that explores music, computer science, composition, and live performance in a naturally interdisciplinary way. SLOrk uses the ChucK programming language as its primary software platform for sound synthesis/analysis, instrument design, performance, and education. This intern came to my attention at an Audio Engineering Society conference some time ago. I was one of three judges in the “Student Design Competition” (one of the other judges was the late Bob Moog, largely credited as the father of commercial music synthesizers.) His student project was a MIDI controlled car using electronic bagpipes as the controller. The SLORK project gives us a glimpse into the direction of music, and future community dynamics in general. Sound, composition, ensemble, orchestration – virtual collaboration changes everything. Just as the modern orchestra is largely a product of the last 500 years (renaissance, reformation, industrial age), I think future music will be defined by the emergence of real-time global collaboration and virtual modeling. Spiritual community, I believe, will be impacted