Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘permaculture

‘Remarks on Utopia in the Age of Climate Change’

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…from Kim Stanley Robinson.

So the question of history returns. How do we act on what we know? The time has come when we have to solve this puzzle, because the future, from where we look at it now, is different than past futures. Before we just had to keep on trying to do our best, and we would be OK. Things seemed to slowly get better, for some people in some places anyway; in any case, we would keep trying things, and probably muddle through. This is no longer the case. Now the future is a kind of attenuating peninsula; as we move out on it, one side drops off to catastrophe; the other side, nowhere near as steep, moves down into various kinds of utopian futures. In other words, we have come to a moment of utopia or catastrophe; there is no middle ground, mediocrity will no longer succeed. So utopia is no longer a nice idea, but a survival necessity. This is a big change. We need to take action to start history on a path onto the side of the peninsula representing one kind of better future or another; the details of it don’t matter, survival without catastrophe is what matters. In essence the seven billion people we have, and the nine to ten billion people we’re likely to have, exist at the tip of an entire improvised complex of prostheses, which is our technology considered as one big system. We live out at the end of this towering complex, and it has to work successfully for us to survive; we are far past the natural carrying capacity of the planet in terms of our numbers. There is something amazing about the human capacity to walk this tightrope over the abyss without paralysing fear. We’re good at ignoring dangers; but now, on the attenuating peninsula, on the crazy tower of prostheses — however you envision it, it is a real historical moment of great danger, and we need to push hard for utopia as survival, because failure now is simply unacceptable to our descendants, if we have any.

Thursday Night Linkdump

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* I hope someday my admirers are moved to unearth my terrible college fiction: Wes Anderson’s “The Ballad of Reading Milton” (1989).

* The true size of Africa. Also has the true side of Australia and the USA as a bonus.

* Liberal blogs are trotting out cell phone effect again. Looks like it’s time to call November for the GOP.

* “In these challenging economic times, it’s good to know you can get some financial protection for unexpected illness and injury to your pets,” the e-mail reads before listing the many benefits. Federal Employees Can Purchase Health Insurance For Their Pets, But Not Their Same-Sex Partners.

* Running it up the flagpole: Wheel of Fortune‘s Pat Sajak argues at National Review Online that public employees shouldn’t be allowed to vote in at last some state and local state elections.

* And in twenty years, we’ll need another Earth to sustain us. Time to get building.

Brecht on the Future and Suvin on Science

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Faced with all these machines and technical arts, with which humanity could be at the beginning of a long, rich day, shouldn’t it feel the rosy dawn and the fresh wind which signify the beginning of blessed centuries? Why is it so grey all around, and why blows first that uncanny dusk wind at the coming of which, as they say, the dying ones die?
—Brecht

Quoted in Darko Suvin’s excellent “On the Horizons of Epistemology and Science,” which has some nice affinities with the Kim Stanley Robinson talk from last January as well as what he has to say in the Polygraph interview. Here’s a excerpt from Suvin elaborating the difference between what he calls S1 (science that is “good” from the standpoint of global justice) and S2 (the majority of the present kind of science, “whose results are mixed but seem to be increasingly steeped in the blood and misery of millions of people”), using John von Neumann and Norbert Weiner as his templates:

Noble points out how the S1–S2 dichotomy can be followed in the diverging of von Neumann and Wiener paths from the 1940s. Von Neumann’s ‘mathematical axiomatic approach reflected his affinity for military authority and power’, while ‘Wiener insisted upon the indeterminacy of systems and a statistical, probabilistic understanding of their function … [T]he “steersman” [of his cybernetics] was human in social systems and thus moved not by formal logic but by skill, experience, and purpose … [He] urged “a constant feedback that would allow an individual to intervene and call a halt to a process initiated, thus permitting him … second thoughts in response to unexpected effects and the opportunity to recast wishes”.’ He protested against military secrecy, accurately seeing that ‘it will lead to the total irresponsibility of the scientist, and, ultimately, to the death of science’ (the good one, S1). As is well known, he was ignored by a solid wall of scientifico-military bureaucracy, and decided to stop further work in militarily usable cybernetics ‘to kill civilians indiscriminately’. He turned his attention to the development of prosthetic devices in medicine and cooperation with trade unions (Noble, Forces, 71–4; see Wiener’s 1946 ‘open letter’ in Haberer, 316–17).

Last but not least, a Wienerian responsible science, co-directed by other community members, would reopen, as he did, the totally forgotten question of its democratic accessibility and accountability, definitely lost since the atom bomb, with a return to full transparency, to a ‘cognitive democracy’ (Morin, 166–9). This would also mean fully reorganising education, from top to bottom, to prepare citizens for such an understanding.

And here’s a longer excerpt still on what the struggle for S1 might entail, with my emphasis:

This begins by noting that multiplicity entails choice. If science is a human and societal institution with a history, traversed by often intense class struggles, then our Archimedean point necessarily takes a stand on the side of humanity or against it, using all the good insights we can muster from practice, science, art or elsewhere.

We may need a modified version of the felicific calculus. I take my cue from the path-breaking work of Georgescu-Roegen, who pleads for a ‘maximum of life quantity’, which ‘requires the minimum rate of natural resource depletion’ (pp. 20–21; cf. Schrödinger, and Lindsay 440ff.). He starts in the proper scientific way by identifying life as a struggle against entropic degradation of matter, bought at the expense of degradation of the ‘neighboring universe’ or total system – for example Terra. The inevitable price to be paid for any life-enhancing activity reintroduces, as against classical physics’ narrowing of causality to the efficient cause of manipulating matter and its disregard of the time sequence, the importance of purpose, Aristotle’s final cause (pp. 192–5) discussed above, reinforced by Lenin’s cui bono, a choice ‘for the sake of what’ (in whose interest or for whom) is that activity undertaken. As Prigoginian theory puts it, there is never such a full reversibility that time (history) could be left out as a factor: matter has memory (cf. WallersteinEnd 164–6).

Georgescu-Roegen explains ‘life quantity’ as the sum of all the years lived by all humans, present and future. I differ from him by finding this first useful step still too Benthamite in its disregard for quality. True, we can neither properly specify a positive life-quality nor legislate for the horizons of future generations. But we know at least what is to be avoided as bad quality of life: lives traumatised by direct violence, hunger, (mostly evitable) diseases, and also by anxiety and aimlessness. And I think we know enough to say, first, what major financial orientations, and second, what major productive orientations are not to be pursued. As to the first orientation, his main continuator and updater, Herman Daly, points out that even in classical economics it is accepted ‘that in accounting income we must deduct for depreciation of capital in order to keep productive capacity intact. This principle … needs only to be extended to natural capital’ (p. 16). This means that environmental costs must be internalised into prices ‘so that the polluter and the depleter pay’, through tax measures (p. 15). Faced with the uncertain effects of new technologies or substances, ‘an assurance bond in the amount of possible damage [should be required], to be posed up front and then returned over time as experience reduces the uncertainty about damage’ (p. 16). Thus we could approach a Steady-State Economy, which is defined not by the capitalist instrument of GNP but by ‘ecological sustainability of the throughput’, which is NOT registered by market prices. (p. 32). ‘[T]he maximand is life, measured in cumulative person-years ever to be lived at a standard of resource-use sufficient for a good life’ (p. 32; Daly acknowledges that this standard is vague, but vagueness to be worked out in practice is much better than total disregard as in the GNP). Such a Steady-State Economy would also do better for the preservation of all other species.

As to the second orientation, according to Georgescu-Roegen’s ‘thermodynamic calculus’, only pursuits as minimally entropic as possible can be allowed if civilisation is not to collapse. This is directly opposed to the pursuit of unnecessary quantity: ‘“bigger & better” washing machines, automobiles and superjets must lead to “bigger & better” pollution’ (p. 19). But it is fully consonant with the post-Einsteinian concept of nature, from quantum physics to the catastrophe theory (cf. also Collingwood, 13, and Grene, ch. 9 on ‘Time and Teleology’). His approach can thus be usefully continued by using the notion developed by Nussbaum of ‘central human capabilities’ to be used in order to establish ‘a basic social minimum’ (pp. 70–71) for a life of human dignity. Her list of capabilities which also constitute entitlements is rich, and I shall mention from it only what seem to me two central groups and one precondition. The two groups are entitlements to life, bodily integrity and health, and then to a development of sense, imagination, thoughts, and emotions. The precondition is what I would rephrase as control over the relationship between people and the environment, which could be expanded to encompass all the inextricable political and economic means to the above ends (cf. pp. 76–7). These entitlements as rights supply a ‘rich set of goals … in place of “the wealth and poverty of the economists,” as Marx so nicely put it’ (p. 284).

Further, our technical competence, based on an irresponsible S2 yoked to the profit and militarism that finance it, vastly exceeds our understanding of its huge dangers for hundreds of millions of people and indeed for the survival of vertebrate ecosphere (cockroaches and tube worms may survive). For humanity to survive, we imperatively have to establish and enforce a graduated system of risk assessment and damage control based on the negentropic welfare of the human community and its ecosystem (which includes the fauna and flora) as an absolutely overriding criterion. This means retaining, and indeed following consistently through, Merton’s famous four basic norms of science–universalism, scepticism, public communism, and personal disinterestedness (cf. also Collingridge, 77–85 and 99ff.) – or Kuhn’s five internal criteria – accuracy, scope, fruitfulness, consistency, and simplicity – as well as strict scientific accountability in the sense of both not falsifying findings and accounting for them. However, it also means practising science from the word go (say, from its teaching) as most intimately co-shaped by the overriding concerns what and who is such an activity for, and thus why would it be worth supporting or indeed allowing by the community: ‘A stronger, more adequate notion of objectivity would require methods for systematically examining all the social values shaping a particular research process …’ (Haraway, Modest, 36, building on Harding; cf. also Wallerstein, End, 164–7, 238–41 and 264–5, and Cini). All theories can today be seen to have powerful biases, the goodness or badness of which must be treated in each case on its epistemologico-political merits.

But probably even this is not enough. We are today irreversibly steeped in technoscience: very little technology is to be had apart from the science that produced it, very little science is to be had apart from complex technology. It is a time not only of particle physics and molecular genetics, but also of nanotechnology and untold further possibilities of highly risky forays. We therefore have to draw on, encourage, and discuss all suggestions for limiting risks, such as the one by Kourilsky and Viney on precautionary steps before prevention, and many other debates for a ‘University of Disaster’ (Virilio). Yet, furthermore, we have to pick up the suggestion by Denis Noble ‘that there is an obligation on the part of creators of this stockpile of knowledge to work out how to disarm its ability to destroy’ (p. 184). ‘First of all, do not harm’: this old Hippocratic oath must be amplified by adding, ‘Whatever else you do, put up barriers against destruction.’ These would be still recognisably scientific debates (cf. Collingridge, 189–94), only enhanced by the wider horizon of a life-oriented S1, where the opponents are transparently honest and explicit about their presuppositions, and thus allow both an understanding of how rival interpretations of data may be arrived at and, where necessary, a questioning of the presuppositions (for example, not just where to build a highway and how to build a nuclear power-station but also whether). As mentioned above, this profile of decision-making should, after the original decision, be preserved for needed corrections as consequences unfold.

I do not pretend the above is more than a first orientation. Among its huge gaps is, for example, lack of discussion on who should establish and administer such reviews and controls, and how to prevent an unnecessarily cumbersome bureaucracy from taking root. These are, however, not beyond human ingenuity, if transparency and accountability are achieved. What ought to be stressed is that today science (S2) is fully accountable to and strictly steered by capitalist interests, while pretending to be technical and apolitical. It has therefore grown ecocidal and genocidal (for the genus Homo), with almost all scientists as ‘craftsmen of power’ (Haberer, 303), ‘barbarian experts’ (C. P. Snow), and today willing mini-entrepreneurs of destruction. We need a science for survival (S1), which would look anew at its reason for being by openly acknowledging its civic political responsibility, and which would be steered – probably, in the long run, less tightly than today – by the interests of community and species survival.

Milwaukee Has Certainly Had Its Share of Visitors

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Wayne Campbell: So, do you come to Milwaukee often?
Alice Cooper: Well, I’m a regular visitor here, but Milwaukee has certainly had its share of visitors. The French missionaries and explorers began visiting here in the late 16th century.
Pete: Hey, isn’t “Milwaukee” an Indian name?
Alice Cooper: Yes, Pete, it is. In fact, it’s pronounced “mill-e-wah-que,” which is Algonquin for “the good land.”
Wayne Campbell: I was not aware of that.
Alice Cooper: I think one of the most interesting things about Milwaukee is that it’s the only American city to elect three Socialist mayors.
Wayne Campbell: [to the camera] Does this guy know how to party or what?

I’m off to Mill-e-wah-que for a conference at the Center for 21st Century Studies on Debt; my paper is “Debt, Theft, Permaculture: Justice and Ecological Scale.” Blogging will be very light. I’ll be back blogging at better-than-full-strength on Monday.

Written by gerrycanavan

April 29, 2010 at 8:20 am

Seven Steps Toward a Sustainable Society

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Seven steps toward a sustainable society from Anne and Paul Ehrlich, recently submitted for President-elect Obama’s consideration via change.gov, via Dot Earth.

#1: Put births on a par with deaths.
#2: Put conserving on a par with consuming.
#3: Transform the consumption of education.
#4: Judge technologies not just on what they do for people but also to people and their life-support systems.
#5: Rapidly expand our empathy.
#6: Decide what kind of world we all want.
#7: Determine the institutions and arrangements best suited to govern a planetary society with a maximum of freedom within the constraints of sustainability.

Written by gerrycanavan

November 10, 2008 at 5:47 pm

Earthaven

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We’ll eventually be doing a full writeup for our Indy article on energy issues in the Triangle and North Carolina, but for now let me say that Earthaven Ecovillage near Asheville is easily one of the more interesting and inspiring places I’ve visited in six years in North Carolina. Nearly fifteen years old, and one of the largest communities of its kind in America, the project serves as a model for sustainable living and alternative, off-the-grid mode(s) of life.

I’m not going to lie to you: I was thinking about Mars the whole time we were there.

I’ve been up since six, so that’s about all the coherent thought I can manage at the moment. For a lot more useful background on Earthaven, check Think or Thwim’s report from a year or so ago. (There’s always the Washington Post, too.)

Lots and lots of photos—over a hundred!—at my Flickr site. Just a few favorites below…

One of the many signs greeting you as you enter the community.

A painting inside the community’s Council Hall.

A characteristically Ecotopian home.

Good advice.

Also good advice.

Delicious berries.

Delicious solar-powered golf cart.

Ducks.

Sometimes this happens. That’s part of it, too.

The name of the main thoroughfare in the community and a succinct expression of their mission statement—there really is one. And in fact, as our tour guide was quick to remind us, emphasizing the diversity of the community and the many approaches to sustainability to be found inside Earthaven, there’s not just another way, but other ways.

Written by gerrycanavan

August 7, 2008 at 4:29 am

Sermon for Capitalmas Eve

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On this Christmas Eve, Americans are having trouble paying off their credit cards, with 30-day-late accounts rising 26% to $17.3 billion and defaults rising 18% to nearly a billion. There’s a reason for all this, and you can find it in Bill Moyer’s PBS interview with Benjamin Barber (via MeFi), a Galbraithian analysis of capitalism’s production not of products but of needs themselves:

As a society becomes increasingly affluent, wants are increasingly created by the process by which they are satisfied…. Wants thus come to depend on output. In technical terms, it can no longer be assumed that welfare is greater at an all-round higher level of production than at a lower one. It may be the same. The higher level of production has, merely, a higher level of want creation necessitating a higher level of want satisfaction. 

The orgy of Christmas shopping that continues unabated today—to be followed by deep-discount post-Christmas sales on Wednesday, and on and on—is only the clearest proof that this is what capitalism has become in the post-industrial West and, increasingly, elsewhere as well. Barber thinks the productive energies of capitalism might somehow be harnassed, through willpower and ethical living, for better ends, but I’m much more skeptical that capitalism can ever really move in a direction other than the one it has. What we need is a new logic, a new organizing principle. Call it sustainability or call it permaculture, call it environmental Marxism or environmental capitalism if you want, it’s all the same to me—what’s important is that the world figure out some way to stop doing the things capitalism demands it must. We have to stop consuming everything, resources, the future, ourselves.

BILL MOYERS: When politics permeates everything we call it totalitarianism. When religion permeates everything we call it theocracy. 

BENJAMIN BARBER: Right.

BILL MOYERS: But when commerce pervades everything, we call it liberty.

Merry Christmas.

(cross-posted to culturemonkey, which returns Jan. 2 with an all-new blogger and an all-new organizing principle of its own)

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