Tuesday, January 17, 2017

In California we are overcoming words that blind and bind: the trap of the technology promise

Every species is genetically programmed to reproduce. Typically the biosphere's self-regulation mechanisms force upon all species population limitations. Somewhere along the way humans creatively began to push back against those mechanisms in technological ways for which there are no precedents.

Over a million years ago controlled use of fire - raw energy - was achieved by some of our ancestors, a technology permitting them to more successfully adapt to the environment.

About ten thousand years ago we humans, not content to be healthy hunter-gatherers, created an agrarian culture which we organized to make more efficient use of all types of energy.

Since that first fire pit, energy from combustion has kept us warm and allowed for a different diet. Plus, when combined with the use of centralized hierarchical organizations based on the agrarian model, our experience with combustion ultimately facilitated travel at speeds faster than sound and fueled the internet.

With that said, the fact that even though humans first mastered combustion over a million years ago and first created an agrarian culture about ten thousand years ago, we only began to accelerate the disruption of the biosphere's self-regulation mechanisms in the past 300 years.

That disruption is accelerated by
  1. the frequent regular accidental and deliberate introduction of non-native species to new areas by global travel, 
  2. by the isolation of native species by forest removal and other modifications to the land for agriculture and development, 
  3. by the discharge into the atmosphere significant quantities of carbon dioxide, methane, and a few other gaseous chemicals,
  4. by the discharge into the water significant quantities of biological and chemical waste, and
  5. by the injection into the lithosphere at high pressures water, mixed with sand and chemicals, to create tiny fractures in the rock to obtain oil and natural gas.
At this point the issue is not about mitigating our impacts on biosphere. It's about adapting to a new biospheric balance. If we don't adapt we will become extinct along with many other species.

With that said, assuming effective adaptation to climate change impacts there are new technologies that could provide a shift in how much we impact the biosphere's self-regulation process in the next three centuries.

Oh goody! New technologies....

We must use care as we still don't get it even when we think we do. And that is particularly true in Silicon Valley.

Here in California, like elsewhere, it is true that when many believe an incorrect statement, it can become a mass delusion whether spread by people who do so in error or who do so as a lie "with intent to deceive."

An example of this is the broadly accepted idea that recent shifting from gasoline powered autos to electric autos has been good for the environment. On the surface, this is easily believed if you lived in a California urban area in the late 1900's where smog created by autos was/is an issue.

In fact the mass use of batteries has required in the industrial battery manufacturing process lithium, cobalt and graphite, all for "tech".  This has resulted in significant harm to the environment and to the health of thousands of people in third world countries in South America, Africa, and Asia. It has allowed the accumulated riches of Silicon Valley, "rewarding" all Western World tech industry owners and their employees in the U.S. - particularly in California - when comparing the living standards between those employees with the average human.

Many writers (whose works have been ignored) since the early 2000's have told us what we are doing to other people by making the choices we make. But only this year when a series of articles appeared in The Washington Post have we seen any awareness develop - The cobalt pipeline: Tracing the path from deadly hand-dug mines in Congo to consumers’ phones and laptops, In your phone, in their air: A trace of graphite is in consumer tech. In these Chinese villages it's everywhere, and Tossed aside in the ‘white gold’ rush: Indigenous people are left poor as tech world takes lithium from under their feet.

Have we seen any serious response from tech industry leaders? Yep. That response has been in the theme of "we're working on it" which has been offered in the well-known context of "while we're storing money offshore to avoid paying taxes in the U.S. and Europe."

Which brings us back to the electric auto. Most of the energy powering electric vehicles is generated by fossil fuel power plants not located in urban areas but which contribute to the disruption of the biosphere. That energy is stored in batteries the creation of and disposal of which may result the killing of children - but Third World children so who cares?

No, that is not a lie or error, it is a fact - even if you cannot believe it which means you must believe an error, or lie to yourself. In writing this on a "device" with a battery, I am participating in the continued disruption of the biosphere. If you can read this, so are you.

Many, many Americans honestly believe, and repeat their belief, that electric cars are a net good for the environment even though the truth is something else.

They aren't lying. They just live in the iWorld shared with Donald Trump where a mass delusion is being propagated which has horrific long-term, big-picture implications.

Are we yet aware that almost all technology comes with a price that we don't initially understand until we've used it for at least 50 years or are we still ignorant?

The picture above reflected the  shifting world technology impacting on the first half of the 20th Century.

The fact that most Americans in "The Greatest Generation" and their parents did not give much thought about any of these WWI technology "advances" is why they had to live through WWII and, in the process, create nuclear technology.

The picture above reflected the impacts of the increased American agrarian dependency on the first half of the 20th Century.

The fact that most American Baby Boomers and their parents and children have not given much thought about any of this is why Americans will have to live through another dislocating time - worse than The Dust Bowl of The Great Depression, perhaps a time that is catastrophic as WWII was on the world in terms of human death and dislocation.

Here is a representation of our species' situation on this Earth.

A correlation exists between the population explosion, an expanding agrarian dependency, and the looming climate change impacts.

In addition to the writers mentioned previously,  Lierre Keith lays out the agrarian problem in The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability which explains in part:
Start with a piece of land—a forest, a prairie, a wetland. In its native state the land is covered with a multitude of plants, working in concert with the microfauna—bacteria, fungi, yeasts—and with animals from insects to mammals. The plants are the producers, turning sunlight into mass, creating both the oxygen-rich atmosphere for the rest of us to breathe, and the topsoil on which the rest of us depend. This is called a perennial polyculture. Perennial because most of the plants live many years, sequestering carbon in their cellulose bodies, forming miles of vast root systems through the soil. Polyculture because there’s so many of them, all cooperating, competing, contributing; all filling a niche with a necessary function. Perennial polycultures are how nature protects and builds topsoil, how life has organized itself to produce more.

This is what agriculture is: you take a piece of land and you clear every living thing off it, down to the bacteria. Then you plant it to human use with a tiny handful of species, often endless miles of a single plant like corn, soy, wheat. The animals are killed, often into extinction. They simply have nowhere to go.

The North American prairie has been reduced to 2 percent of its original size and the topsoil, once twelve feet deep, can now only be measured in inches. Agriculture is based on annual monocrops, the precise opposite of perennial polycultures, and it does the opposite of what nature does: it destroys topsoil. ....Agriculture is a catastrophe that never allows the land to heal. And keeping the ground bare involves enormous effort. ...Agriculture is really more like ethnic cleansing, wiping out the indigenous dwellers so the invaders can take the land. It’s biotic cleansing, biocide. In the history of civilization … the plowshare has been far more destructive than the sword. It is not non-violent.

What’s looming in the shadows of our ignorance and denial is a critique of civilization itself. The starting point may be what we eat, but the end is an entire way of life, a global arrangement of power, and no small measure of personal attachment to it.

I remember the day in fourth grade when Miss Fox wrote two words on the blackboard: civilization and agriculture. I remember because of the hush in her voice, the gravitas of her words, the explanation that was almost oratory. This was Important. And I understood. Everything that was good in human culture flowed from this point: all ease, grace, justice. Religion, science, medicine, art were born, and the endless struggle against starvation, disease, violence could be won, all because humans figured out how to grow their own food.

The reality is that agriculture has created a net loss for human rights and culture: slavery, imperialism, militarism, class divisions, chronic hunger, and disease. Agriculture has also been devastating to the other creatures with whom we share the earth, and ultimately to the life support systems of the planet itself. What is at stake is everything.

If we want a sustainable world, we have to be willing to examine the power relations behind the foundational myth of our culture. Anything less and we will fail. Questioning at that level is difficult for most people. In this case, the emotional struggle inherent in resisting any hegemony is compounded by our dependence on civilization, and on our individual helplessness to stop it.

Most of us would have no chance of survival if the industrial infrastructure collapsed tomorrow. And our consciousness is equally impeded by our powerlessness. There is no Ten Simple Things list in the last chapter because, frankly, there aren’t ten simple things that will save the earth. There is no personal solution. There is an interlocking web of hierarchical arrangements, vast systems of power that have to be confronted and dismantled. We can disagree about how best to do that, but do it we must if the earth is to have any chance of surviving.
I'm not quite as sanguine as Keith about whether we can do anything to confront and dismantle "vast systems of power" that support the dominant economic structure which depends upon population growth.

As the graph to the left indicates, there is a growth scenario that actually starts the world's population on a downward trend. It assumes a reduction in fertility - a radically reduced birthrate - while world wide longevity increases.

As a species we have few adaptation plans to implement and may lack the will to implement those we do have. There are consequences. Consider this graph:

The impact of the Black Death on the population of Europe gives us a hint at what mass ignorance can do - the Black Death is estimated to have killed at least a third of Europe's total population.

The point is that the biosphere in all its living complexity "sees" time as a movie hundreds of millions of years long. The plight of a species, with individuals that at best typically lives less than 100 years and which has been around maybe 50,000 years, is a pin prick on the film. (To understand the perspective of geologic time, see the table of geologic time in Wikipedia.)

Here in California we have overcome the words that blind and bind, that would prevent planning for adaptation. Our Safeguarding California adaptation program is broad, with many elements:

Perhaps it is good we are home to technology centers because we have the benefit of the old adage "familiarity breeds contempt."

"Technology" is not the word most think it is. It isn't about stuff we developed in the last 100 years. Per Wikipedia:
Technology ("science of craft", from Greek τέχνη, techne, "art, skill, cunning of hand"; and -λογία, -logia) is the collection of techniques, skills, methods and processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives....

The human species' use of technology began with the conversion of natural resources into simple tools. The prehistoric discovery of how to control fire and the later Neolithic Revolution increased the available sources of food and the invention of the wheel helped humans to travel in and control their environment....
In terms of our use of technology there is one thing we humans can't seem to avoid...

Greek mythology offers many lessons about life including "hubris." Again from Wikipedia:
In Greek mythology, Icarus is the son of the master craftsman Daedalus, the creator of the Labyrinth. Often depicted in art, Icarus and his father attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. Icarus' father warns him first of complacency and then of hubris, asking that he fly neither too low nor too high, so the sea's dampness would not clog his wings or the sun's heat melt them. Icarus ignored his father's instructions not to fly too close to the sun, when the wax in his wings melted and he fell into the sea.
From another source of wisdom we have Proverbs 16:18-19:
Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.
A good example of struggling with unfettered hubris can be found in the so-called "autonomous" or "self-driving" vehicle. The State of California Department of Motor Vehicles has been shutting down the prideful techies, including Uber, who want to start profiting from this super-clever technology right now.

This government regulation has caused outrage in some circles. After all, self-driving vehicles will save lives, blah, blah, blah.

Hubris and pride.

Again, almost all technology comes with a price that we won't initially understand until we've used it for at least 50 years. As indicated in the hubris picture above, our challenge is that the wings that lift us up too high are not made of feathers, but money. As I noted previously...
As Neoliberalism has evolved, it has become an ideology which asserts that 21st Century market metaphors, metrics, and practices should permeate all fields of human life. It is an ideology that is winning because its advocates in Silicon Valley have operated outside the traditional social, economic and political norms.
We need to reflect about technology, perhaps first repeating a mantra "lithium, cobalt and graphite equals killing children."

It is the State of California, already having adopted a program to struggle with the biospheric disruption impacts of technology, that is trying to say "whoa" to those who want to prematurely rake in the profits from autonomous vehicles.

Californians are trying to be open to acknowledging all biospheric disruption possibilities. For instance, at this time we are concerned about a disruption affecting the stability of the lithosphere which includes the crust and the uppermost mantle, the outer layer of the Earth subdivided into tectonic plates. After all, California is known for having earthquakes.

California has been an oil producing state. Oil companies started using fracking three decades ago. Recently a number of oil-producing counties have banned fracking, with the focus on protecting the water supply. But in 2016 we became aware of information indicating that like in Oklahoma, fracking is inducing earthquakes.

Click on image to see a larger version!

The area involved is near Bakersfield, not far from where controversial plans exist to build a high speed train.

The problem is that in a an area prone to frequent quakes, nobody notices an extra quake to ten. In 2015 a researcher found several earthquake clusters that coincided with high-volume wastewater pumping. The odds that these coincidences were random were less than 1 in 25.

How effective we can be taking on one of the biggest sources of Neoliberal funding - the oil industry - is yet unclear. But despite the economic stakes, Californian's have already started restricting fracking to protect the water supply and most certainly are aware of Oklahoma's problem.

On the other hand, Californian's are not immune from illusions particularly when we want to live in a certain style. Among the words the blind and bind, our greatest vulnerability is the word "water."

Here in California where in some areas we've seen drought for a decade, this year we've had rain and snow, lots of rain and snow. And already some are chomping at the bit to get out from under water use restrictions.

One of our favorite sons wrote about us...

“And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.” - John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Peter Gleick, water researcher and president of the Pacific Institute, pointed out recently a truth about California that I learned looking at the numbers in the late 1990's, before this recent drought:
There just isn't enough water for everyone anymore, even in a wet year.
We have the groundwork in place to deal with water overuse in the context of climate change impacts over the next 100 years. But whether there is any political will to use the mechanisms of Egalitarian Progressivism to deal with the water overuse problem has yet to be determined.

Neoliberalism favors agriculture in that desert we know as Southern California as well as opening up real estate development on the coastline despite decades of restrictions. Both seem to have won recent issue-oriented political victories. We should be concerned about this.

Because in California we are trying to overcome words that blind and bind, perhaps we'll finally prove Steinbeck wrong by the 22nd Century.  But as the family pessimist sitting here in California, at this time in our history when anger and disappointment in other states elected Donald Trump, it is hard to not take heed of Steinbeck's words from Grapes of Wrath, a book about drought impacts:
We’ll start over.

But you can’t start. Only a baby can start. You and me—why, we’re all that’s been. The anger of a moment, the thousand pictures, that’s us. This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us. We can’t start again. The bitterness we sold to the junk man—he got it all right, but we have it still. And when the owner men told us to go, that’s us; and when the tractor hit the house, that’s us until we’re dead. To California or any place—every one a drum major leading a parade of hurts, marching with our bitterness. And some day—the armies of bitterness will all be going the same way. And they’ll all walk together, and there’ll be a dead terror from it.

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