Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A World at Arms

My co-editor, bless his soul, has encouraged me post. Here goes:

I'm watching the State of the Union address, streaming on CNN.com. I was struck, watching President Obama enter the chamber, by how old our government is. They wear their age on their faces in lines and crows' feet. They wear gray suits, but these don't match their hair; it is white. They wear jowls under their chins like a badge of honor, and indeed they are the price of admission to Congress.

What is the defining quality of the old? Is it wisdom, or is it inflexibility? See here the fascinating Wall Street Journal chart on the average ages of Congressmen since 1949. It's going up. What conclusion can we draw from this? Are these old men and women sage, or simply saturnine? And what does it say about us that we young tolerate the domination of our country by the old?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


More, more, more. More economic growth, more cars, a 2nd home, more stocks and bonds.

More stuff.

Our economic system constantly demands more. It depends on filling voids, both real and perceived, with an endless stream of stuff. The consumption of goods requires the production of more goods. These goods are designed to fail sooner rather than later and to be easier to replace than repair. Within the limitations of this system, our logic often tells us that it is cheaper to buy a new item than repair the old. We often do not have a real choice in the matter.

Technology. The silver bullet. Our savior. The great enabler. We have endless variations on the theme, but it is basically the knowledge and tools we use to modify the natural world in order to satisfy our needs and wants. Agriculture is technology. Ideas are technology. (Perhaps our most important tool is our brain--is that technology?) Pens and computers and telephones and chairs and clothing are all examples. Technology enables so many things to happen. It is hard to deny that the computer that I am typing on is an incredibly complicated and fabulous piece of technology.

I love technology, but I also hate it. I hate the way is stresses me out, and the way it connects some people even as it creates barriers between others. I cringe when I see two people sitting together, out for a nice dinner, with individual noses in individual screens. I love being able to sit down in an airplane and travel to California to see my Grandmother, to Oregon to see the Hutchison clan and enjoy time on Cannon Beach, to Morocco to study Arabic, but I hate being crammed like sardines in with strangers on planes, feeling jetlag afterwards, and thinking about how many tons of greenhouse gases my 22 years of air travel have put in the atmosphere. I dread the thought of sitting for 8 hours a day in front of a computer screen for a career down the road. I hate how thoroughly hooked we are on having the newest gadgets, the latest model, and how sold we are on the endless stream of ipads, ipods, iphones, imacs, nooks, kindles, blackberries, laptops, cellphones. None of this stuff is designed to last more than a couple years--that is why it only comes with a 1 or two year warranty, max. They can't guarantee you more because it is intentionally designed to fail. Either that or it is designed to be somewhat limited in its features. That way, you will feel so fulfilled when you buy the gadget2.0 in a year. I saw a Harvard employee's desk once practically dripping with iproducts: a monstrous-screened-imac with wireless keyboard and mouse, a shiny new ipad (resting in its case at a jaunty 45 degree angle), and an iphone all jostled for space and vied for the young man's attention. He was checking all of them.


Okay, take a deep breath. I was ranting, of course, which doesn't do much good and doesn't solve any real problem (except for providing my brain with some much-needed release). A more productive approach is to take a step back and evaluate my personal relationship with technology, something that I think we all need to do more of. These devices are man-made tools, and they should serve a purpose. My housemate Libby sent me this great article called "Seven criteria for the adoption of new technology" by Will Braun. It is his take on the necessity to critically evaluate the adoption of a new technology or gadget, and he draws lessons from the Amish for his personal dilemma: whether or not to purchase a car. Whatever your opinion of the Amish is, Braun thinks they deserve some admiration for thinking hard about the long term social impact of a new form of technology. I agree with him.

This reminds me of a discussion I attended at the 2010 Boston Skillshare led by a pair of self-described neo-luddites. They are not against technology, per se, but they, like the Amish, question the things they use and the effects those things have on themselves and others. In particular, these two women got rid of their personal computer because they found it was causing more trouble than it was worth. It was a thought-provoking and eye-opening 50 minutes that I will probably never forget. As much as I complain about technology, I still carry a cell phone everywhere and am clearly writing to you on this computer. Many people talk about how much they hate technology but how hard it is to resist its allure, how easy it is to waste away hours in front of the computer yet stand up with a lingering feeling of what-did-I-just-accomplish? The example of the neo-luddites, and that of the Amish, show that it is possible to live, and live well, by taking a critical stance towards technology.

We all do this to some degree, but don't be afraid to fight back more. Reclaiming an hour of your life from television or the computer to read, write, play cards, cook, go for a run, anything, will do you good. Remember, we don't always have to be connected or accessible all of the time.

Friday, January 7, 2011

People Over Profit.

Capitalism is a system of winners and losers. Such an economic system inherently creates an unequal distribution of wealth and promotes profit and limitless consumption. Money and greed make people blind to the world around them. Large companies the size of small countries have no concept of the effects their economic activity has on the local scale, and if they do, they don’t care to stop and think about how or why.

Externalities, subsidies, free trade, expanding markets, tax breaks, and so it goes. Globalization and the inescapable free market dogma is increasingly making our planet into one big homogenized market, devoid of culture and individuality and values. Only accumulation of wealth and consumption are valued by this worldview. Priorities are out of wack. Things are too big. We are losing touch with the earth that is our only home, the source of our livelihood.

People are lost with their noses buried in telescreens and personal data assistants. Some are worrying about what ‘apps’ to get for their iphones, while others are filling out one JOB application after another. We have lost touch with our food system and we do not take the time to sit and enjoy the company of others with a good meal. Profit trumps happiness because profit is seen as the path to happiness. Justice is not observed.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Beyond Growth

It is imperative that we move beyond our pursuit of growth, elevated as the singular worthy pursuit that will in turn make everything else better. To a point, economic growth is imperative, liberating, uplifting. Beyond that point, more money and more stuff does not make us happier. Our plastic disposable culture is tenuous at best, propped up on propaganda and false rhetoric, revered and awed with a religious fervor. We are slaves to the free market, that untouchable fallacy that is neither stable nor free. As Bill McKibben describes it, the pursuit of Better must diverge from the pursuit of More, for these are two birds that no longer roost on the same branch, not even the same tree.

In Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, McKibben identifies three principal challenges to our obsession with growth. 1) Our growth-oriented economies, where more is always better, have produced more inequality and insecurity than widespread prosperity and genuine progress. 2) We do not have the energy to fuel growth for all, or the capacity to deal with the pollution it would create. 3) Growth is no longer making us happy.

While I agree that the market-based development paradigm has, at great costs, created a world of winners and losers, and I concur that all of our money and stuff has not made us more fulfilled or happy people, I must partly disagree with Mr. McKibben on his 2nd point. Burning fossil fuels, which escalates concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and causes climate change, whose effects are already being felt, drives economic activity and growth. As Dr. Nate Lewis, professor of chemistry at Caltech University, says in his talk on renewable energy (requires Flash player I think), "we didn't leave the stone age because we ran out of stone, and we won't leave the fossil fuel age because we run out of fossil fuels" (a quote from when he gave this lecture at BU in November, not sure if he repeats it exactly on the web version, but it is the same slides and lecture). According to Lewis, we have several hundred years of oil and natural gas supplies left and at least two thousand years of coal reserves remaining. If we wanted to, we could burn the black sooty stuff for millenia to come!

Certainly human activity is reaching all sorts of the earth's biophysical limits, but its supplies of carbon-intensive fossil energy are pretty extensive. Even though it is available, that does not mean we should use it. With the other technologies available, principally solar power, fossil fuels are outdated. We cannot afford to maintain our current trajectory of growth and energy consumption; as McKibben says, the costs, already very high, would overwhelm us.

Leaving the fossil fuel age behind us is much easier in theory than it is in practice. It is a necessary transition; however, and it will come hand in hand with a new deep economy of the kind that McKibben pushes for. Local, durable, community-based, self-sufficient, secure, and independent, with proper accounting measures that move beyond a tally of expenditures to provide a measure of the true wealth of communities, of their natural, social, and economic capital. This is where we need to go, and hopefully the rest of Deep Economy will provide the know-how.