The Fugue of Techno-Narcissism

I recently saw a story hit the newswires, claiming that U.S. oil production (from Bakken shale) could surpass Saudi Arabia by 2017 Years ago, I looked into shale and found that the amount of “net energy” input to extract and convert shale deposits into oil was very high. The mantra for years has been that, as the price of oil/energy gets high enough, it will become economically feasible to make oil from U.S. (Bakken) shale. But the problem is EROEI – energy return on energy invested. Last I checked, it takes about 1 bbl of oil energy to extract 8 bbls of U.S. crude oil. It takes roughly 1 bbl to produce 4 bbls of Canadian tar sand oil. Shale is a far less efficient process than sand – perhaps approaching 1:3 EROEI. And this, in short, is the theory of peak oil. We’re getting desperate for cost-effective energy. There will always be billions of bbls of oil out there, but the cost to extract it (relative to supply-demand) will continue to rise, until EROEI approaches 1:1, at which point there will be little use for oil. The “low hanging fruit” (relative to demand) we’ve enjoyed for 100 years is now gone. If regenerative / sustainable energy alternatives are not in place as we approach smaller EROEI fossil ratios, economics and commerce will slow considerably (and perhaps has already). The global economy as we know it relies on cheap energy, yet the cost of that energy is increasing far faster than average inflation (which is troubling since energy is a core % of many inflation indicators). This was / is a central peak oil theory prediction and it seems to be holding true. There’s an equal if not greater problem – the environmental damage of shale extraction. Canadian tar sand extraction is a terribly dirty process. I’m told that shale extraction is worse.  When we combine the cost of extraction with the environmental damages, I don’t see where Yergin and Goldman Sachs get their rosy predictions. In the WSJ article, I find at least two glaring misstatements by Yergin. Not surprising, given that he’s one of the oil industry’s highest paid PR gurus. Anyway, the ever colorful James Kunstler penned a reply to Yergin and Goldman which I want to pass along. Enjoy. … This much can be stated categorically about the USA these days: the more distressed our economy gets, the more delusional thinking you will encounter. People want to assign the cause of their misery to this or that (socialism, abortion, Jews, the New World Order). People want to believe that their world is a safe place with bright prospects (climate change is a myth, we have a hundred years of shale oil). The realm of oil is especially ripe for misunderstanding, since we depend on the stuff so desperately, and the world’s geology is complex indeed, and then you have to bring math and money into the picture. But it’s another thing when professional propagandists take the stage and attempt to systematically mislead the  

The Very Idea of Humanity

Gus Mantel As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures…The very idea of humanity, as far as I could observe, was new to most of the Gauchos of the Pampas. This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honoured and practised by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion.  – Charles  

This Present Future

My friend Richard Thieme gives the closing keynote address at the 2011 ECOMM conference in San Francisco. In this talk, he artfully summarizes and integrates the “meta-themes” presented during the prior three days of the show. ECOMM, a 400-person invite-only conference, explores the dissolving boundaries of Telecom, IT and media industries. The balance of power between producers and consumers is shifting and the economics of “value creation” is being transformed. These shifts are being enabled by the “communications industry” itself, accelerating myriad new forms of dynamic interaction and defining a new epoch. The result is that new uncontested spaces for innovation are emerging. How we relate to the world around us, and the connectedness of humanity are all at stake. Richard, a former Episcopal priest, global security authority, and one of the deepest multi-disciplinary thinkers I know, masterfully summarizes a larger picture of emerging interactivity, modularity, and fluidity. His juxtaposition of techno-fascism vs. human empathy is stunning (29:15 – 33:00). “People often describe me as a futurist. But I’m not a futurist. The future is an artificial construct local to individual cultures. What I try to do is describe the present. But so many people live in the past that, to them, I sound like a futurist.” – Richard  

Consent of the Networked

Excellent TEDTalk by Rebecca MacKinnon on keeping the Internet free from corporate and political sub-interests. MacKinnon argues that the Magna Carta was a breakthrough in limiting the power of kings, followed by a radical experiment called “consent of the governed” in America’s founding. She argues convincingly that it’s time for a third paradigm shift she calls Consent of the Networked. She shows how no country is immune from using its policing powers to stifle speech it considers inappropriate to its “national interests.” She extends her arguments to U.S. corporations which effectively gate-keep today’s Internet (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc.). Without certain essential unalienable virtual freedoms, the Internet becomes a tool of control rather than a tool of liberation from control. MacKinnon has given a powerful, prophetic TEDTalk. Humanity moving forward will be shaped largely by our degree of freedom in  

John Hunter’s Classroom

One of my favorite speakers from TED2011 is John Hunter. The night before his talk, at the TED party, I randomly sat down to dinner next to him and shared some of our family wine. I was fascinated as he described his unique work as an elementary school teacher. It wasn’t until later that I found out he was giving a main-stage TED Talk the next day. And what a talk he gave. Standing ovations weren’t as plentiful this year, but after John’s talk, the entire auditorium immediately jumped to their feet, many in tears. Take 18 minutes and be inspired by this man’s unique and remarkable teaching methods. I’m convinced that student engagement is the key to deep and lasting scholastic success, and John is proving it  

Zeitgeist 3 – Moving Forward

Peter Joseph (probably not his real last name) has released a new Zeitgeist film. I disagree with a number of Peter’s “Venus Project” assumptions, conclusions, and leading questions. I also found his first two films especially lacking in solid content, relying more on hearsay, dubious history, and weak conspiracy theories. In some cases, Zeit 3 is terribly naive (“upgradable” technology, idealized production and distribution incentives and strategies, utopian city design, overstated energy alternatives, etc.). Yet I’m sharing this movie with you because I think the film is a good conversation starter and especially good thought provoker, addressing a number of profoundly important questions. I find it ironic that the filmmaker, an atheist, uses a John Ortberg lecture as his core value statement — ultimately pointing to the failure of GDP as an adequate, or even relevant, measurement of our individual and collective well-being (a position I passionately agree with). I’m convinced that we need to start thinking towards third-way “systems-based” economies that combine the best elements of free-markets and central resource planning, while retaining the liberties of an unalienable rights-based republic re-imagined in healthier paradigms of resource sustainability, human empathy, and global-equitable access to fundamental human needs. Centralized economies fail for many reasons. One reason is because, historically, they haven’t appropriately rewarded the people and organizations who excel and add real value back into the community. But cultural definitions of excellence, value, reward, and community vary subjectively. Corrupt, bailed-out banking systems and an obese military-industrial economy are two areas in which we can start to radically re-define the terms excellence and reward. And we can start to expand our definition of community from tribes and borders to a sense of global family. I agree with the filmmaker (@ 2:16) that we are faced today with a potentially fatal “value system” disorder and (@ 2:20) that many of today’s economic assumptions are gross distortions driven by temporary access to cheap, concentrated energy. For the health and well-being of our great grandchildren and our planet in general, we need to develop a better informed and more comprehensively linked value system between our economic systems, our natural resources, and our fundamental connectedness as a human  

Non-Violent Resistance

Perhaps no single living person was more influential in the recent non-violent toppling of Egypt’s regime than Nobel Peace Prize nominee Gene Sharp. His 900 page classic The Politics of Non-Violent Action was condensed into a 100 page manifesto a few years ago, and was used by the leaders of Egypt’s resistance. I’ve just finished reading this tiny manifesto. Every page is a gem of collective wisdom. “When people refuse their cooperation, they are denying their opponent the basic human assistance and which any hierarchical system requires. If they do this in sufficient numbers for long enough, that hierarchical system will no longer have power. This is the basic political assumption of non-violent action.” “The people who are always pushing for violence and acts of sabotage need to be isolated, for they may well be the agent of your opponent. Don’t fall for this. The non-violent struggle must be continued on a non-violent basis otherwise you erode and destroy your own power capacity, and with that the power to achieve your objectives.” -Gene Sharp, The Politics of Non-Violent Action, Part  

It’s Not Your Imagination

“It is not your imagination that there are more bad things than ever before happening all at once, intertwined. It’s not your imagination, because the world that you are inheriting is at a crossroads – dozens of crossroads all at the same time. You are inheriting a world filled will peril my generation never faced. The good news is: you’re going to have tools we never had. I urge each of you to answer the grand challenges of our times by committing to positively impact one million people.” – Dr. Larry Brilliant’s 2010 keynote at Singularity University (with quote from Peter Schwartz) Larry (who co-founded one the world’s first public virtual network) chairs the Skoll Global Threats Fund, focused on promoting innovative solutions to the world’s most challenging problems. Singularity University hosts small gatherings of world leaders and bright students. The goal of “positively impacting one million people” is clearly within the reach of each Singularity invitee. More importantly, this goal is within the reach of virtually all people willing to dream big, sacrifice time, and continually renew their efforts in the face of tribal and ideological adversity. “We should not live out of a sense of duty, but out of a sense of intoxication” – Martin Shaw (HT Richard  

Addicted to Risk

“Ignore those creeping fears that we have finally hit the wall. There are still no limits. There will always be another frontier. So stop worrying, and keep shopping.” – Naomi Klein, TEDTalk I appreciate Naomi’s voice in the conversation on sustainability vs. risk as we enter the era of “extreme energy.” This is a compelling talk about “master narratives” which may challenge you to reconsider your preconceptions. Her overview on the Alberta Tar Sands is especially powerful. “Just when we understand that we must live off the surface of our planet – off the power of sun, wind, and waves – we are frantically digging to get at the dirtiest, highest carbon-emitting stuff imaginable… This is how Jared Diamond and others have shown that empires commit suicide – by stepping on the accelerator at the exact moment they should be putting on the brakes… Life is too precious to be risked for just any profit… We need different  

Futurism on NPR

NPR gives some air time to Singularity: the idea (among others) that artificial intelligence will one day be smart enough to learn on its own, and grow exponentially smarter day-by-day until it surpasses the collective intelligence of humanity. And continues to grow. I enjoyed Ray Kurzweil’s book of same name and agree with him that we are making a mistake – thinking that the pace of change in the future will be the same as the past. Change, of all kinds, is accelerating. And while I’m more reserved about humanity’s future than Ray, both in time scale and degree of social disruption, I do think that many futurists are underestimating the power of accelerating returns. Tech-fueled globalism will continue to flourish relentlessly into the future, connecting all humanity on increasingly deeper levels of understanding and empathy. Technology assures this unstoppable human bonding – it is who we are as a species: we connect. This frightens many people, especially those with strong religious-tribal or nationalistic agendas. Personally, I believe that a deeply networked planet can’t come soon enough. What concerns me is not the world becoming a single place of meeting, but the institutional interests (ideological, financial, etc.) who seek  to dominate this emerging global town square. The organic nature of a free and open global network assures that every ideology has a voice. It’s only when we have a flattened sharing of all ideas that the most universally helpful ideas can truly rise to eminence. But when a free and open network is not assured (think China, Iran, and even recent attempts by the U.S. FCC to control the Internet), imbalances emerge and grow – voices are institutionally silenced – the network no longer collectively reflects the planet’s inhabitants, but rather becomes a platform for the narrow interests of old pre-networked institutions grasping for