Friday, December 12, 2008

An Original Thought

Caught myself thinking while making food and wondering if, in the age of the internet, it is possible to have an original thought.  With so much information flowing around us, how do we separate what is ours from what we have just noticed with a glance as we wade through the data-dense web?  Then, if I suspect that I have had an original thought, it will be frustrating to verify.  Either I will look on the internet, find nothing and curse the web and its limitations (and myself as a searcher), or I will find something and realize that I am just an information recycler, my brain spontaneously regurgitating something I have seen in the hazy scrolling from page to page. Ultimately, the consequence of my alleged original thought will be the frustrated, bleary eyed staring at a screen that both disables the original thought process and provides more fodder for the intellectual rumen.  How do we become thinkers in this age of information?

Monday, November 17, 2008

What Economic Crisis?

Well, it has been a few months since I last wrote, proving my own inability to contribute regularly to this blog. Yet the thoughts remain here to return to when I am ready. In the past few months a lot has changed. Gas prices are back down to below what they were last year at this time, though everyone still complains about the price at the pump (last year prices). Yet now we have a full scale financial meltdown (there I said it too, in case we haven't heard it enough) and have a brand new president. So its good news all around. I doubt I am the only person who is getting tired of hearing about the various companies that are failing due to a misplaced confidence in their own blind calculations in the pyramid scheme of the American housing market. I saw this coming two and a half years ago and I am no economist or financial analyst. I was wondering if I was crazy then for not understanding how these new unregulated derivatives were such a great thing. I am still wondering if I live in my own simple world of madness as I lay in bed in the morning listening to the radio, each day announcing a new way to give money to the people who made the bad judgements to get us into this situation. They can't be serious, can they? And if they are, we can't seriously be considering giving them money, can we? Oh, we are.

Well, I am very excited. This is the time I have been waiting for, for years. The unsustainable, intensive care capitalism that has been the corporate status quo for decades has finally revealed itself for what it truly is, a charade. A facade of material wealth inflated by bad loans and an enormous throughput of fossil fuel energy. When both of those fragile props are shaken, the whole system shudders, wobbles and falls. As we wobble, it is laughable that we are actually considering trying to prop up the edifice with more bad loans (2 Trillion from the future taxpayers of the U.S.) or with the throughput of more energy (Clean Coal, Syngas, Drill, Baby, Drill!) It reminds me of a story about the Alewife fish in lake Erie. Alewives were introduced to the lake by game managers to provide food for the sport fish (salmonids) of the lake. The problem is that the baby alewives didn't provide the food for the salmonids as hoped. Instead the alewives ate the same food as the baby salmonids, and even ate the baby salmonids themselves, and so reduced the total sport fish population. The alewives were so good at eating the food in the lake that eventually their populations got really big. As part of this equation, Lake Erie was quite polluted with excessive algae growth from nutrient runoff and phosphate detergents. As the Clean Water Act began to be enforced the algae growth was reduced, causing a cascade up the food web, leading to a major die off in the alewife population. Dead alewives by the truckloads were washing up on the beach. The alewife population in the lake became so reduced that it was nearly extirpated entirely. Which would have been good, since they were artificially introduced and caused a lot of problems in the lake. Yet, groups formed to call for actions to Save the Alewives. Not everything that goes away is bad.

I feel like the financial bailout, the talk of keeping property values high or growing, the bailout of auto manufacturers, trying to keep the price of oil and gas low, trying to keep food cheap and low quality, trying to keep retail sales high for the holidays is all trying to Save the Alewives. We have heard about the problems caused by all these behaviors, in our culture, in our communities, in our families, in our environment, in our foreign relations, in our own health, and yet now when they are on the verge of a natural death, we are putting these failing systems on life support. Perhaps it is time to let them go and move on. That is when the excitement starts.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Slap of the Invisible Hand

I was driving my little Yaris like a professional driver on a closed course through the empty parking garage of the mall, thinking about the economy. All this infrastructure that is becoming useless. What other possible use is a parking structure? If the mall goes entirely out of business, which judging by the lack of cars seems imminent, what is the fate of all of this concrete and steel? How could the mall designers have gotten it so wrong to think that this mall would need four levels of parking in addition to the ocean of parking lots around this enclosed retail continent? I was there, driving through the emptiness, taking the corners at speed, just to go to the Sears entrance that was nearest to the tools, and to avoid passing through the perfume section downstairs. This brief moment without other cars gave a possible glimpse of the future. Every day the radio has an update on how expensive gas is, how everyone thinks the price is so high, how people are struggling to cope by taking the bus or carpooling. America is suffering. I decided I must not be allowed to complain about the price of gas. And come to think of it no one else should either. Here's why.
First, we had to have seen this coming. I mean, a finite resource that is being used at an increasingly rapid rate, what madness caused us to base our entire economy on its cheap abundance? Plus, we did get a warning, though the 70's oil crisis did little more than give a few foresighted energy do-it-yourselfers a short and limited publishing window. All the good ideas, the possible solutions, got thrown out the window with Reagan's "morning in America" that coincidentally coincided with the glut of cheap oil. Now, 30 years later we are in the long crisis, with no easy end in sight. It is not those wily Arabs this time, nor is it really the Nigerian rebels, nor the evil speculators, and not even those upstart Chinese. No, this time, despite all the empty rants of politicians, the culprit seems to be Adam Smith's Invisible Hand.
Basically, the Hand is the theory that individuals, by acting in their own self interests, will inadvertently (i.e. guided by the Hand) act in a way that benefits the community as a whole. I recently saw a description of this phenomenon that stated that the hand will lift all members of the community through their own self-interested actions. I think this misses the point. In many cases what is best for the community as a whole is not really what the community wants. We don't always (often?) want what is best for us. This is the slap of the invisible hand and why it stings a bit to pay more for what we have been convinced is our due as Americans.
Here is why Liberals can't be pissed about the price of gas. The price of gas is higher due to higher prices of crude oil on the global commodity market. This is in large part due to much higher demand and not much higher output. This means that more people worldwide are living a more affluent lifestyle. Those of us who are liberal in our values believe in equality and in equal access to a chance at improving one's lot in life. We shudder to think of poor factory workers living on less than a livable wage, unable to afford good food, good shelter, good transportation. The higher gas prices tell us that our hopes are coming true. More people, especially in China and India are living wealthier lives, they are eating more meat, (leading to higher food prices) and driving more cars, heating their houses a little warmer. Congratulations, liberals, we are succeeding. It just turns out (we did already know this, but somehow forgot that it would be an issue) that there is not enough to go around. For others to come up, we have to go down.
Here is why Conservatives can't be pissed about the price of gas. For years, the U.S. policy on global population issues has included the "global gag rule" instituted by that conservative icon, Ronald Reagan, that limited funds to family planning organizations that even mentioned abortion as an option. A corollary to this socially conservative limitation is that the U.S. came to a policy of attempting to limit population growth through targeted economic growth. Increase consumption and we could reduce population growth, plus we could open up markets for our goods, back when the U.S. actually produced goods for sale overseas. Congratulations, conservatives, it worked. Now, we do see a general downward trend in population growth numbers, but consumption is increasing. As the U.S. has proven, you don't have to have a large population to consume a lot. (U.S. has consumed 25% of global energy with only 5% of global population.) Now with everyone wanting to live the American lifestyle, there is less to go around. Victory for our brilliant foreign policy and for free-market economics!
This may not all be bad. Perhaps all 6 billion of us on Earth, acting in our own self-interest, really is helping the community as a whole. Smith never specified that it would be a feel-good process. Perhaps a little less consumption on our part would be a good thing. Perhaps a little less abject poverty elsewhere would also help the world. Let's not be whiny brats about having a few more hands in the cookie jar. Sometimes if you take more than your share, you get a slap on the wrist. Let's not get confused, looking over our shoulder for the hand that dealt the blow. Remember it's Invisible.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

First Steps on The Piste

I thought of this blog name driving back from the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture conference in February 2008. There was a lot of talk there that was train related. A lot of allusion to getting off the runaway train that is our food culture, our agricultural policy, our very economy. A lot of talk of getting off track. I thought of my favorite sci-fi author, Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote a trilogy about the colonization of Mars (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) and he called the trains that ran around the colonized and terraformed red planet the "piste." The name derives from French and has an interesting etymology which continues to intrigue me as I think about it more. It is pronounced in English with a long E sound and a silent e at the end, so that is sounds like the cartoon character Ren getting pissed off at Stimpy with his hispanic chihuahuan accent. "I am so Peest off at you for being soo stoopid, Steempy." I thought this pronunciation, with the cartoon dog echoing in my head, also was appropriate to the feeling expressed in at the conference. I desire a separate track, a parallel path, and I am peest off about the track we are on. The word, on further investigation mainly refers to the track of a wild animal. While I could never claim to be much of a wild animal, I do at times wish to be wild, to be freely crashing through uncharted, untrammeled territory and part of my thoughts retreat to those paths that I have not yet taken and may never travel. Incidentally, piste is also used to describe ski trails, which I cannot come up with a good metaphor to incorporate yet(give me time) and can only say that I come from Colorado and am writing this in Vermont, both of which at least can lay claim to a few ski pistes, different though they may be. I have no idea where this path leads. I have no confidence that a blog can serve in any way as a parallel path. I only think that a synonym for the word "piste" is the word "spoor" and a homonym for that synonym is the word "spore," which may be all that a blog can be. These words are simply part of a spore, a small propagule by which information is spread. It may fall on fertile or infertile ground, but the power of the blog may be only in the volume of propugules spread, rather than in the impact of the individual seed. In any event, there are many paths in the wilderness and we usually don't know where they lead until we decide to follow them.