Sunday, October 16, 2016

Plausibly Impossible

"But whoso shall offend one of these little ones it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea."

  Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, tells how E.O. Wilson, who became through his studies of ants one of the greatest biologists of our time, picked a fight with Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene. Gottschall wrote:

In the late 1960s and early 1970s evolutionary biologists celebrated a fundamental breakthrough. William Hamilton’s inclusive fitness theory (aka selfish gene theory) indicated that organisms are narrowly “designed” to spread copies of their own genes, whether those genes are located in their own bodies or in the bodies of their relatives. Hamilton’s work seemed to show exactly how evolution worked, and also how it didn’t work. Group selection — the idea that competition between groups of organisms shapes genomes — was declared dead. In effect, this defined altruism — real and authentic selflessness — out of existence. On a planet ruled by selfish genes, “altruism” was just masked selfishness. The biologist Michael Ghiselin expressed this beautifully, “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed.”

Dawkins said the big 1960s breakthrough was simply this: selfish genes beat selfless genes; they beat them bloody; they beat them every single time. But Wilson knew better. Incredible levels of cooperation and altruism within ant colonies testify to millions of years of vicious conflict between colonies being resolved in favor of the selfless gene.

Other factors held equal, who wins: the tribe of self-sacrificing altruists or the tribe where every warrior is looking out for number one? Won’t it be the Selfless People? Won’t the Selfless People tend to dominate selfish tribes in most competitive situations? And, as a result, won’t selfless genes proliferate?
Charles Darwin thought so. In The Descent of Man, Darwin ran his own thought experiment, pitting selfless against selfish tribes:
It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an advancement in the standard of morality and an increase in the number of well-endowed men will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over other tribes; and this would be natural selection.

Most children pass through a phase in life during which their selfish gene is particularly strong. If they are fortunate, this occurs in their pre-teen or teenage years, when they are setting a course for the arc of a life’s profession. They want to become policemen, firemen, doctors, nurses, investigative journalists or explorers.

We recall that when we were 11 or 12 our parents took us to the FBI firing range in the basement of the old Justice Department on Pennsylvania Avenue. We got to see a “tommy gun” shooting up a profile target and we were given that target to take home and proudly display on the wall opposite our bed. We wanted to be a G-Man like Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

Fortunately, by the time we were old enough to apply, Hoover’s FBI had already become complicit in, if not actively orchestrating, the JFK Assassination and was forever thereafter embedded within the dark money cabal that dominates the Western political chessboard.

Nonetheless, by age 17 we had fixed upon law school, led in part by reading the writings of Mohandas Gandhi, and then, in 1964, Gideon’s Trumpet  by Anthony Lewis, and in other part by hero-worship of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Eventually — though by then the possibility of shaping society with liberal court decrees had been retired with Camelot — we led a 20-year career in Quixotic environmental and human rights appellate litigation. Such is the karma of 17-year-old fixations.

It should therefore come as no surprise when, to this old firehorse, the case of Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana, Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh M. et al. versus The United States of America and Barack Obama, et al, sounded like the knell of a firebell. We reveled in that long-discredited strategy — litigating for social change — poking its nose back into a US District Court in Oregon (Eugene Division Case no.: 6:15-cv-01517-TC).

Kelsey Juliana and twenty other Oregon youths aged 8 to 19 had the temerity to ask the Court to require the President to produce a plan to rapidly reduce carbon emissions. They demanded that the plan reduce emissions at the 6-percent-per-year rate that climate science requires in order to get atmospheric CO2  back to a level of 350 ppm. The complaint also requests that the administration prepare a consumption-based inventory of national CO2 emissions. Pope Francis filed an amicus brief in support of the kids' case.

The constitutional law theories of the case are these: 
Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause: The federal government has violated the defendants’ substantive due process by allowing atmospheric CO2 levels to reach levels that endanger the lives, liberty, and property of the youth defendants and future generations.

Fifth Amendment Equal Protection: The federal government has denied plaintiffs and future generations the same protection of fundamental rights afforded to prior and present generations of adult citizens. In particular, Section 201 of the 1992 Energy Policy Act is unconstitutional due to its mandatory authorization for export and import of natural gas (which “discriminates against Plaintiffs by exacerbating already-dangerous levels of atmospheric CO2… the consequences of which will be irreversible and catastrophic in Plaintiffs’ lifetimes”). Moreover, because climate change poses a “grave and continuing harm to children,” the plaintiffs should be treated as a protected class and the court should apply strict scrutiny when reviewing the Equal Protection claim.

Unenumerated Rights Preserved by the Ninth Amendment: The “right to be sustained by our country’s vital natural systems, including our climate system” is one of the “implicit liberties protected from government intrusion by the Ninth Amendment.” Federal defendants have violated this right by contributing to dangerous levels of atmospheric and oceanic CO2 and a destabilized climate system.

The Public Trust Doctrine: Plaintiffs are “beneficiaries of rights under the public trust doctrine, rights that are secured by the Ninth Amendment and embodied in the reserved powers doctrines of the Tenth Amendment and the Vesting, Nobility, and Posterity Clauses of the Constitution.” Federal defendants have violated their public trustee obligations by contributing to the destruction of the climate system—a vital natural resource for present and future generations.

At a hearing in Eugene Oregon on 9 March 2016, Mr. Obama and his three closest friends, the Petroleum Institute, National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Fuels and Petrochemical Association, asked the Court to dismiss the case, in part based on the argument that the requested rate of fossil fuel emissions reduction was implausible.

A clearer battle between good and evil has not been witnessed since Charlie Daniels met Ba‘al Zebûb, at the Crossroads.

US Magistrate Coffin said that he was “troubled” by the severity of the requested emissions reduction rate, but had to admit that some of the alleged climate change consequences, if accurate, could be considered “beyond the pale.”

A threshold issue raised by Barry and the Gang of Three was whether the 21 plaintiffs, all minors, have standing to bring the suit. To demonstrate federal standing, plaintiffs must show that they have suffered a concrete and particularized injury that is either actual or imminent, that the injury is fairly traceable to the challenged action, and that it is likely — as opposed to merely speculative — that a favorable court decision can redress the injury.

Nikita Perumal and Jessica Wentz, writing for Climate Law Blog explain:

The “particularized injury” requirement is one potential barrier to lawsuits alleging injuries from climate change and other widespread environmental harms. The Supreme Court has held that, to satisfy this requirement, plaintiffs must show that they are injured in a “personal and individual way and that they seek relief that will “directly and tangibly” benefit them in a manner distinct from its impact on “the public at large.”

A second threshold issue is whether plaintiffs have raised a non-justiciable political question. Unfortunately for them, the neo-cons wrecked that loophole in 2011 when they challenged EPA attempts to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in American Electric Power v. Connecticut. The Second Circuit addressed the political question argument in depth and concluded it would not bar review of the challenge brought by utilities. The Supreme Court backed the utilities and upheld the right to go after the EPA for regulating carbon. That effectively poisoned the political-question defense when applied to climate change, at least for now. Justice Scalia just rolled over in his grave.

Less than a month after the hearing, Magistrate Coffin ruled that the lawsuit could move forward. He wrote:
"The intractability of the [climate change] debates before Congress and state legislatures and the alleged valuing of short-term economic interest despite the cost to human life necessitates a need for the courts to evaluate the constitutional parameters of the action or inaction taken by the government. This is especially true when such harms have an alleged disparate impact on a discrete class of society [children]."

In a separate case last November, a judge in Washington ruled that the state's Department of Ecology has a "mandatory duty" to protect the air quality for future generations. On appeal, Zoe & Stella Frazier v. Washington Department of Ecology won at the State Supreme Court and Washington’s Department of Ecology was ordered to reconsider its denial of a petition for GHG rulemaking in light of the best available scientific evidence on climate change. And in May, after hearing a case brought by four teenagers, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ordered the state to follow through on its greenhouse gas reduction pledges.

Internationally, in June 2015 the Hague District Court ordered the Dutch government to further curb its GHG emissions beyond previously pledged targets, citing the European Convention on Human Rights, the Dutch Constitution, and principles of fairness, “no harm,” and hazardous negligence. A similar suit has been filed in Belgium and another is expected in Norway. Unlike in the U.S., the constitutions in the Netherlands, Norway, and Belgium include either a governmental mandate to protect the environment or an individual right to a clean environment.

 “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matt. 18:1–6.)

The federal case will go to trial in early 2017. When it does, the 21 plaintiffs will present evidence that, as early as 1965, Lyndon Johnson was warned that greenhouse gas emissions would lead to "apocalyptic" and "catastrophic" change. They'll also argue that the White House and government agencies colluded with the fossil fuel industry to suppress such warnings from the public and Congress.

The sole remaining argument that the defendants are huddling around is impossibility. They say that the possibility of achieving the scale of emission reductions needed to stabilize climate is  “implausible.”

We find ourselves oddly in agreement.

In his supporting documents for the plaintiffs, climate scientist emeritus James Hansen calls the requirement to return Earth to the Holocene climate at this point in time “possibly implausible.” In his most recent climate science review paper  he mentions “plausibility” seven times.

We find Hansen’s description of our escape route a little harsh. We would rephrase it as “plausibly impossible.”

The climate research community is well aware of the urgent need to reduce emissions, Hansen writes, and...

 ... also realizes that the goal to keep global warming less than 1.5°C probably requires negative net CO2 emissions later this century if high global emissions continue in the near-term (Fuss et al 2014; Anderson 2015; Rogelj et al 2016; Sanderson et al 2016). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports (IPCC 2013, 2014) do not address environmental and ecological feasibility and impacts of large-scale CO2 removal, but recent studies (Smith et al 2016; Williamson 2016) are taking up this crucial issue and raising the question of whether large-scale negative emissions are even feasible.
* * * 

Our aim is to contribute to understanding of the threshold-required rate of CO2 emissions reduction via an approach that is transparent to non-scientists. We consider the potential for reductions of non-CO2 GHGs to minimize the human-made climate forcing, the potential for improved agricultural practices to store more soil carbon, and the potential drawdown of atmospheric CO2 from reforestation and afforestation. Quantitative examination reveals the merits of these actions to ameliorate demands on fossil fuel CO2 emission phasedown, but also the limitations, thus clarifying the urgency of government actions to rapidly advance the transition to carbon-free energies to meet the climate stabilization targets they have set. 

After 23 pages of detailed analysis, Hansen et al conclude:
If rapid emission reductions are initiated soon, it is still possible that at least a large fraction of required CO2 extraction can be achieved via relatively natural agricultural and forestry practices with other benefits. On the other hand, if large fossil fuel emissions are allowed to continue, the scale and cost of industrial CO2 extraction, occurring in conjunction with a deteriorating climate with growing economic effects, may become unmanageable. Simply put, the burden placed on young people and future generations may become too heavy to bear.
And that, thanks to the selfless gene of one Federal Magistrate, is a justiciable claim.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

White Nights and Chicken Skin

“Chicken skin” said Nele.

“Beg pardon?” we replied, standing in the open air grassy amphitheater where in 1988, some 60 percent of the population of Estonia had assembled to sing for their independence in the first stages of a non-violent overthrow of 45 years of Soviet rule. We had just remarked to Nele that it gave us a chill, just looking at this wide expanse of grassy park and imagining the strength of those voices, raised as one.

“Chicken skin,” she repeated.

“Oh, goose bumps. We call it goose bumps. Yes, that’s what I am feeling.”

Some days earlier we were debriefing from a speaking engagement at Tartu University, sitting in an open air café, when one of the students took up the argument about human nature and cultural inertia and said it would never be possible to get people to change their habits quickly enough to avert catastrophic climate change and die-off. We remarked that as long as there was a scintilla of hope, we could do no less than to keep trying to shift the paradigm.

“What evidence do you have that you are not wasting your time?” the student asked.

“I have to ask you to just remember how you felt, and how your heart beat, during the Singing Revolution,” we said. “I recall those same deep feelings — and the heart swell — we experienced in the US as we sang and marched in the civil rights movement. For many of us it was life-changing. So think about what your heart says, and ask yourself if history can be changed.”

Nele, who was listening to this exchange, leaned in and whispered, “You will always win the argument here with that.” Our reference to the Singing Revolution had given her chicken skin. It may have affected the student the same way, because he became very silent, lost in thought.

There was a moment in the Singing Revolution in 1991 when the new Estonian freedom government was trapped in the Parliament building by an angry mob of communist coup-supporters. It was in the same crucial days that Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev had been arrested in Moscow by the KGB Alpha Group and the military hard-liners, and the coup leaders there had dispatched Red Army tanks which were at that moment barreling toward the Estonian border.

As the communists battered down the doors and entered the inner courtyard, the trapped Estonian freedom government leaders put out a radio broadcast calling for support from the population. All over Tallinn people dropped whatever they were doing and converged on the Parliament building, where their huge numbers dwarfed those of the communist protesters, now themselves trapped inside. What followed could have been a bloody confrontation, as happened later at the White House in Moscow, but instead, the Estonians outside linked arms and began to sing. They parted to form an open corridor, and gave safe passage away to the hard-liners.

Chicken skin. We got it again just writing that passage.

In school we learned that “the Baltics” are three tiny countries, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia; European chew-toys since history began. Apart from those who trace their ancestry there, or took a 6-hour cruise ship stop, few USAnians have ever traveled to the Baltics. Even the opportunity to watch part of the Olympics there was squashed by Jimmy Carter when the US boycotted the games over — wait for it — the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Cement block houses and barns of the collective farms of that era still decay in the countryside and we are told that it is even drearier to the south where the brief dot-com bubble of the Baltic Tiger did not extend. In Tallinn, free broadband is ubiquitous from the moment you taxi down the runway.
Estonia now has two skins shedding at the same time, and for most people it is a bit painful. One is the crumbling brutal edifices of the Soviet era (“brutal” being an architectural term for the same 1950s concrete cube architecture seen in the USA and elsewhere), during which over 100,000 Estonians were sent away to Siberian gulags, many never to return. The other is the stainless steel and glass Tokyoization that reflects neon corporate logos onto rainy streets during the White Nights of late May and June.

Built on the brilliance of Skype and a thousand other points of entrepreneurial light, and suddenly unveiled after a half-century of hooding, the fast-riches façade fell hard in 2008, plunging Estonia into the same icey waters where bobbed the other tigers — Iceland, Greece, Ireland and Spain.
Estonia now teeters between a great green hope of progressive change and something more resembling its Baltic neighbors – decollectivized and depopulated farms and forest-scapes drifting back into a Medieval steady state economics grounded in nature. 

This is fertile soil for permaculture, so it was no surprise that our weekend introductory course  was sold out months in advance and we were invited back next year to give the full 2-week certification edition, with perhaps a mushroom growing workshop thrown in.

Estonians are refreshingly immodest about nudity for a cold country, and as we were chauffeured into Tallinn by one of the genuine heroes of the Revolution — Jüri Joost, the policeman who defied an entire Red Army armor brigade to hold the TV tower for 2 days, armed only with a Freon fire extinguishing system — we could not help but notice the nude backyard sunbathers beside our busy highway. We also noted the willingness of our permaculture students, complete strangers a day before, to doff clothes while queueing for the small sauna in the community building at Lilleoru. Flying in from the uptight West, this attitude was entirely refreshing.

Lilleoru is our host — a small ecovillage south of Tallinn, begun the same year as the new nation. We browsed scrap albums filled with photos of an incredibly young bunch of kids moving to this forest, making a sawmill, and starting to build a community, from scratch. We leafed through black and white stills of nude ice swims in a frozen lake, turning the soil to make gardens, and erecting a Great Plains tipi.

The young leader who emerged was Ingvar Villido (Ishwarananda), a student of Kriya Yoga, who journeyed to India and brought back the lessons learned. He is now a Kriya Yoga master and appropriately Lilleoru is not only a spiritually-based ecovillage, but also (in a separate location on site) a yoga ashram — with guesthouses, common house, and residences for devotees — and a Self-Realization Training Center — with an educational park, yoga studio, extensive gardens and orchards, classes and workshops. The community kitchen is vegetarian and supplied with fresh milk, yogurt, honey and produce from a nearby biodynamic farm. Freshly baked bread always includes a soft white, a harder rye, and a black bread, Leib, that is a cross between Boston Brown and Pumpernickle – sweet but soft. The Estonian version of bon appetit  is jätku leiba — “may your bread last.”

Meals vary, but bread, jam, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, pickled squash, melon slices and yogurt are always on the table. Kohupiim, which is cottage cheese-like, is used in cakes and pastries, such as Kringel, a sweetbread knotted and sprinkled with nuts and raisins. There is also a popular sweet gruel called Kama that is sort of a cross between muesli and lassi. It is made of sour milk or kefir and mixed with grains.

 Jüri Joost, who is no longer a policeman but does private security, reminded us of Frank Martin, Jason Statham’s character in The Transporter, and as he put the Audi through its paces in the narrow streets of Tallinn. Rudra Shivananda, Ave Oit and I were alternatively pressed back into our bucket seats and held fast by our seat belts, but the man radiated confidence and wore his well-tuned car like a clean suit of clothes. He dropped us in the Old Town, probably the only part of Europe where you can have a 13th century lunch at restaurants such as Olde Hansa or Stenhus. There they serve a green beer made of honey and cream called Kahji, although we preferred the hemp brew called Cannabia, with its scratch-and-sniff label, offered in the sidewalk café outside the Von Krahl Theater. After the beers, Jüri whisked Rudra, who had finishing teaching a Kundalini energy class at Lilleoru, to the airport and entrusted us to give an evening talk on “Tipping Points” in the theatre.

Agnieszka Komoch, a Polish friend, commented on our Facebook photo album that the whole country seemed surreally clean. This was no accident. In 2008 more than 50,000 Estonians participated in the country’s first national clean-up or “Lets Do It” campaign. Organizers used Google maps and cellphones with GPS to locate junk, and then volunteers turned out to collect every kind of garbage from tractor batteries to plastic bottles and paint tins and ferry the filthy junk, often in their own vehicles, to central collection points. 

School classes cleaned up a site near the central town of Turi, removing old metal, plastic, glass, bottles, and remains of farm medicals and household garbage tossed deep into a forest during Soviet times. “Lets Do It” has now spread to Slovenia, Latvia, Portugal, Romania and Ukraine. In Slovenia this year more than 350,000 people (12% of the population) helped to bring in more than 10,000 tons. Next January it is scheduled to debut in New Delhi.

Toomas Trapido, one of our permaculture workshop participants and a Green Party member of Parliament (there are 6 Green M.P.s now), says that the next challenge is to set up a “waste input” system, so that Estonia can establish cradle-to-cradle reuse. He proposes a Lets Do It World annual conference. As we drove around Estonia, we began to extrapolate to nuclear wastes, plastics, and other global problems. He said he could imagine the Estonian Navy working in the ocean with vacuum cleaners scooping up plastics, although, he had to gently advise us that the Pacific, where the plastic gyre is the size of France, was not really their lake.
We began tossing around ideas for making Estonia the first carbon negative country, using the wastes from its forestry industry and farms to burn in district CHP plants producing biochar. He said I should remember that the people were not all greenies (6 Green M.P.s is only 6% of the government), and that if I looked around many Estonians expressed a clear preference for Volvos, BMWs, Mini-Coopers, Lexi and Hummers, and would go into debt to buy those even before they improved their housing, much of which was still taken from an architectural blueprint that could be seen at regular intervals from Warsaw to Vladivostok. Estonia’s current economic development model, funded by the European Union, involved attracting cruise ships to the casinos in Tallinn.
We asked him if they were also building golf courses. They were, he said, but they had problems with crows, which liked to collect the golf balls as soon as they landed.

If the 2008 stutter in the step of the Baltic Tiger can be understood as a warning, there could yet be hope for an escape from the Eurotrash fashion meme as Estonians exit the Second World and skip ahead to the Great Change. My translator, Ave Oit, a founder and guiding light of the Lilleoru ecovillage, has a family business buying organic and fair trade wares and selling them in her BioMarket. If sustainability, organics and local fair trade can become catch phrases here, then Estonia could already be well ahead of the EU. 

Births now balance deaths and in-migration balances out-migration. The old growth forests were stolen long ago, but new forests now reclaim abandoned farms and roadsides and the Estonian population, which sits lightly on a rich landscape, could be easily supported by the fruits of its own countryside, with only horse-drawn distances to modestly-scaled cities.

Climate change will matter, and Estonia is sandwiched between scenarios. Mid-summer frosts and severe winters (over 120 meters of snow last year) become more likely with the slowing of the Atlantic conveyor. Hot, muggy and buggy summers drift up from the scorched continent to their south. Still, if the Singing Revolution is any indication, this is a people who know how to surf on waves of change, and do it with style.

 We are away in China teaching an ecovillage design course this month and have re-posted this oldie but goodie from May 27, 2010 to fill the void while we are off the cybergrid. Don't worry, we'll be back soon.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Stein Singularity

"On the GOP side, Jeb Bush never saw Trump coming. Nobody there did."

Since he created the minds and hearts of men, the Creator preserved truths in our hearts so that we would naturally know right from wrong. He knew the details of important events would be tampered with, so he stored his most important concerns in our hearts — to be good to yourself and others, to know the difference between right and wrong, to seek truth always, and to never neglect your conscience until you die." 

— Suzy Kassem (Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem)

While penning last week’s post we were reminded just how powerful the heart is in human affairs. It was difficult to us to view either of Lawrence O’Donnell’s two clips, both already watched several times in preceding weeks, and not feel our heart beating stronger, out throat go dry, our tear ducts start to well.

This is how history swings.

These are the feelings that people feel when they stand up for human dignity. When, as Martin Luther King said, “men and women straighten their backs up… because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent.”

Listening to King say that makes your back straighten a little.

This is part of our biological makeup. When we are inspired (inhale deeply) our chest swells and our heart pumps. We are filled with resolve. We will risk our safety. We will abandon our security. We will act with courage, bravery, and noble purpose, even abandoning thoughts of our own personal good for the betterment of an inspired cause.

It is an animal reflex.

Naturally there are demagogues who exploit this. Most sports work that noble reflex like a muscle, building it up in both athlete and spectator. Even advertising tries to tap into it to sell junk. In popular music it is known as “anthem.” But for all its misuse and abuse, the selfless gene also sends out a shard of hope for us humans in a desperate time.

“Words can shatter faith; start a war; change the course of history. A story can make your heart beat faster; topple walls; scale mountains.”
—Joanne Harris (The Gospel of Loki)

Most of the time we tell people we intend to vote for Jill Stein this November we catch a lot of scorn. In some company, we find ourselves having to brace before we utter the words. Getting herself arrested for painting "Frack this" on a bulldozer blade was a good start, but is not enough to start a revolution. And yet, voting for Stein is neither unwise nor hopeless.

It is not hopeless because we have seen the effect new media is having on not just politics but virtually every aspect of modern life. Bernie Sanders did not have a strong campaign organization or a fraction of the money that Hillary Clinton did, but he tapped into crowdfunding and social media like no one before.

The same can be said of Donald Trump, although he is still riding the reality television wave more than pumping out insults to Twitter. Both Jeb Bush and Hillary were the anointed candidates before the primaries, both lost badly, and only by dint of Hillary’s clout within the Party Oblast did she manage to sandbag Bernie and carry through to the convention.

On the GOP side, Jeb never saw Donald coming. Nobody there did.

That’s precisely why Jill Stein cannot to be counted out.

The US election takes place on a single day, give or take motor voting. Most ballots are cast within about a 16-hour window from 7 am on the East Coast to 7 pm on the West Coast. During that window, what happened in the primaries doesn’t matter. What happened in the debates doesn’t matter. Who has the best team, the biggest advertising budget, the most yard signs, or the momentum going into that 16-hour window suddenly stops mattering. What matters is what happens in the voting booth.

We are now in a new world: UberAmazon. Most USAnians want, and many millennials are used to, just-in-time instantaneous gratification.

This is a new phenomenon, on a historical time scale, but it is how the Singing Revolution toppled the Soviet Empire in Estonia. It is how Ukrainians found the chutzpah to toss out Yanukovych.

Ukraine is an interesting example because although it was quickly exploited by US neocons and their media lackies, it began from this new wave of spontaneity. When peaceful protesters in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) were brutalized by state security forces and that made it to Twitter, a social-media frenzy quickly morphed into a mass action against the President and Parliament.

This is not to say Ukraine wasn’t already dry tinder looking for a match. Hanyang University researchers Yuriy Shveda and Joung Ho Park found:

In Ukraine, according to official reports, on September 1, 2013, the number of registered unemployed was 435.4 thousand people, of which young people (from the ages of 14–35 years) were 183.3 thousand persons or 42.1%. In 2012, those registered at the State Employment Service were 887.9 thousand unemployed people under the age 35, or 48.6% of the total number of persons who were registered; 52.9 thousand of them were college graduates, 33.5 thousand completed vocational schools, and 6.3 thousand secondary school graduates. Among young people in the age group of 24–29 years, the unemployment rate increased, as compared with the year 2011, to 9.5% from 9.2%. Almost one-third of the total number of unemployed young Ukrainians were in labor exchange for more than a year since their release.

This new generation, who has not smelled the gunpowder and has not participated in the previous revolutionary events, was the most active protesters this time around. The Ukrainian youth, de facto, declared a “new policy” qualitatively different from the previous one, not only by its name, but also in its form and content. This attempt is in the same vein with the revolutionary sentiment of 1968 in Western Europe, which was also against conservative society and its legacy of political and unethical values. It was a struggle of generations, parents, and children. In this context, the ideal of the Ukrainian youth and the impetus for the revolution lie in the hope of changing Ukrainian society and pursuing salutary European values.
What happened in Occupy Maidan in late 2013 and early 2014 was that protesters gathered — more than 100,000 at first — the police left them alone and after a time their numbers dwindled to less than 500, at which point the police waded in with truncheons and went riot on them. Video clips spread through smart phones and soon 500,000 students were back in Maiden. Christmas came and went and the police left them alone until the numbers dwindled and then the police swept in again. Eighty-eight protesters died. Video clips spread through smart phones and brought in people from all over the country, who stormed the Presidential Palace on February 21, causing Yanokovitch to flee and opening the door for Victoria Nuland to install a US puppet government so US neocons could bait the Russians and Hillary could accuse Donald of cozying up to Vladimir Putin.

The point of this story being not about Clinton, Putin or Trump, but about smart phones with cameras.

The ether is getting faster. If people are fed up with both Trump and Clinton (and what the heck, Putin too) they might just decide to stay home in record numbers. Alternatively, they could get a text or an Instagram from a BFF who said they went to their precinct and everyone there was voting for Stein, so why don’t you come on down and see if we can flash mob the election?

Inside the beltway campaign professionals are still wondering how Jeb Bush could have gotten beaten so badly, with as much money, such a top-shelf staff, and as many newspaper endorsements as he had.

Every day, more than one billion people use Facebook. That has never been true before the 2016 US election.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Standing Like A Sioux

"“There is a bottleneck right here … and today I am directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles, and make this project a priority.”— Barack Obama, March 22, 2012."

  On April 1, in the last phase of istawicayazan wi, the moon of sore eyes, acting with love and fierce determination, the youth of the Standing Rock reservation stood together in prayer at the place called Sacred Stone. At the close of their prayer, they remained. Figuratively, they drove stakes into the ground and tied their legs to them. They might be killed there, but they would not leave.

Facing them were the arrayed forces of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the White House, four state governments, and the corporations and banks that form Energy Transfer Partners. ETP (NYSE:ETP) owns and operates Panhandle Eastern Pipe Line Company, successor to Southern Union Company, and Lone Star NGL. ETP also owns 67.1 million common units of Sunoco Logistics Partners (NYSE:SXL) a company that hopes to see the United States become an oil-exporting nation once more.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a 1,172-mile, 30-inch diameter steel pipe that will connect the million-barrel-per-day Bakken and Three Forks fracked oilfields of North Dakota to a bigger pipeline in Illinois for transportation to Louisiana and Texas SXL crude oil terminal facilities and there to be loaded onto ocean-going tankers.

DAPL will carry 570,000 barrels per day. Unless one of those supertankers sinks, one hundred percent of that will go to the atmosphere as deadly, human-extinction-intending, greenhouse gases. So will the oil and gas flowing through the other 71,000 miles of pipelines owned by ETP.

It will cost more to build capacity, produce, refine and burn that oil than to provide the same energy from clean, solar power sources.

On March 12, 2012, two years and three months after successfully derailing the Copenhagen climate agreement, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum ordering federal agencies to expedite the licensing of new oil and gas projects.

Two months before the Standing Rock youth assembled, the US Army Corps of Engineers, acting for the Obama Administration, gave DAPL an allotment of NWP “fast track” permits. These permits are usually reserved for powerlines or other utility right-of-ways that do not threaten water supplies. NWP approval meant that ETP could legally bypass public notice and regulatory review under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act.

Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, several local chapters, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, Corporate Ethics International, and others used the comment process on the KXL/Transcanada pipeline to detail the flow of abuses to environmental and native sovereign rights that issued from the White House “all of the above” policy.

Both the Clinton and Trump campaigns count ETP and its allies as major funders. Harold Hamm, founder and CEO of fracking giant Continental Resources, is an energy aide to the Trump campaign and potential future U.S. Secretary of Energy. Hillary Clinton has remained studiously silent on the Dakota pipeline protests but openly supports the Obama fast track policy.

On September 3, only a day after the Standing Rock Sioux filed action in court identifying their sacred sites, ETP brought in bulldozers to raze the land named in that complaint and affidavits and render the issue moot. To prevent that, entire families left their homes on the reservation and went onto the sacred sites in an attempt to block the bulldozers. Pipeline security workers responded by letting loose dogs and pepper spray.

It recalls Christopher Columbus feeding Taino babies to his armored war dogs for the sport of his officers.

There have been at least 58 arrests thus far at the #NoDAPL protests, with arrest warrants pending against both journalist Amy Goodman, who filmed the dog attacks and was charged with trespass, and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, who spray-painted a bulldozer blade and was charged with vandalism.

When a federal judge denied a tribal motion to halt pipeline construction, the Obama administration stepped in to ask that ETP voluntarily cease other construction than in the area in controversy. Most news media, including ourselves, mistook this for meaning the White House was coming to the aid of the Sioux. In fact, it was exactly the opposite, and anyway the ETP voluntarily chose not to stop.

Construction continues. ETP just purchased the ranch where the Sacred Stone Camp is located and where additional native burial grounds and sacred sites have just been identified.

The tactics chosen by the Standing Rock Sioux could have come straight from the rules for satyagraha by Mohandas Gandhi. The Nation followed the letter of the law in making its timely public comments and administrative interventions, in filing for an injunction, and in opposing this assault on its safety and sovereignty by physically standing in the way. Its protests are peaceful and nonviolent. It invited the whole world to watch as military blockades re-routed traffic and kept away the press, the National Guard was brought up to support the corporate goons and then praying children were uprooted with attack dogs, their mouths filmed dripping with the blood of those children.

When individuals are betrayed by a government, they can sue or protest. When the treaty protections of an occupied nation are betrayed by their occupier, their recourse must be to the international legal system. This week, Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II addressed the 49-member United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva Switzerland. He invoked the memory of Sitting Bull:

Sitting Bull came from Standing Rock and one the most famous quotes that he has is, “Let’s put our minds together and see what we can build for our children.” So today as this is the topic, something that guides us in our decision-making as leaders: We are putting our minds together so that the kids, the ones not yet born, have something better than what we have today.

Were you born too late to be a suffragette or freedom rider? To march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma? To encircle the Pentagon with the Yippies and try to levitate it? To sail with Albert Bigelow on Golden Rule and later Earle Reynolds aboard Phoenix, and still later Peter Willcox on Rainbow Warrior or David McTaggert on Vega, into the Pacific test zone to block the H-bombs?

Climate change is coming to the plains. Mother Nature doesn’t care how many dogs the oil barons have.

This is our moment. We are this season’s people. Its a good day to die.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Zombie Apocalypse

"The scary thing about multiple expansions is that they are reliably mean-reverting — if they run too far, the market always takes it back, sometimes with a vengeance."

   Every time we catch a malodorous whiff of this year’s US Presidential elections, we involuntarily shudder, because regardless of winners or losers, it recalls September 14, 1930, when German voters, abused by post-war sanctions and put upon by financial depression, went to the polls and handed 107 Reichstag seats to the National Socialist Party. It’s useful to notice that the Nazis did not win that — they came in second. It hardly mattered.

Does this history sound familiar?
Hitler began each speech in low, hesitating tones, gradually raising the pitch and volume of his voice then exploding in a climax of frenzied indignation. He combined this with carefully rehearsed hand gestures for maximum effect. He skillfully played on the emotions of the audience bringing the level of excitement higher and higher until the people wound up a wide-eyed, screaming, frenzied mass that surrendered to his will and looked upon him with pseudo-religious adoration.
Reporters compete for Trump's attention  AP Photo/EcanVucci
Hitler offered something to everyone: work to the unemployed; prosperity to failed business people; profits to industry; expansion to the Army; social harmony and an end of class distinctions to idealistic young students; and restoration of German glory to those in despair. He promised to bring order amid chaos; a feeling of unity to all and the chance to belong. He would make Germany strong again; end payment of war reparations to the Allies; tear up the treaty of Versailles; stamp out corruption; keep down Marxism; and deal harshly with the Jews.

It helps to plan ahead. That was the main advice we gave in our Post Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook in 2006 and Financial Collapse Survival Guide and Cookbook in 2012, and it still holds.

We did not imagine when we wrote those books that collapse would take as long coming as it has, but it is well underway now, just not evenly distributed. Zero Hedge reports:

While nobody here …  is saying that a crash is imminent (and there’s no law that says stocks cannot become even more expensive), we continue to maintain our bias against U.S. stocks. We will also take this end-of-summer moment to point out the yawning disconnect between fundamentals (of the U.S. economy and even corporate America) and their stocks. It really is a tale of two cities, one of mediocre fundamentals versus a meteoric rise in markets.
Which brings us back to the Shiller P/E. Much of the run-up over the past few years has been primarily about multiple expansions. And the scary thing about multiple expansions is that they are reliably mean-reverting—if they run too far, the market always takes it back, sometimes with a vengeance. And we are currently almost 70% too far.

Dmitry Orlov’s classic work The Five Stages of Collapse  gives a roadmap to what lies ahead:
Stage 1: Financial collapse. Faith in “business as usual” is lost.

Stage 2: Commercial collapse. Faith that “the market shall provide” is lost.

Stage 3: Political collapse. Faith that “the government will take care of you” is lost.

Stage 4: Social collapse. Faith that “your people will take care of you” is lost.

Stage 5: Cultural collapse. Faith in “the goodness of humanity” is lost.

What Orlov points out is that what is lost is not so much material resources, although those are inexorably diminishing, but confidence (“with faith-ness”) that affects everyone — quality of goods and services, roads and bridges, individual/household health, social well-being and sense of security. Prison and military budgets and recruitment swell to keep pressure off unemployment. Hate crimes escalate. Political correctness becomes State-dictated, tribe-enforced, thought police. The mass psychology is viral. The fear grows contagious and flows from a deeply-seated, existential angst.

Charles Hugh Smith points out:
General trends manifest in different ways in each community/region.  For example, the city and county of San Francisco is booming, with strong growth of population (866,000 residents), jobs, rents, housing valuations and tax revenues. Yet even as the city and county of San Francisco’s annual budget swells to an incomprehensible $9.6 billion—larger than the budgets of many U.S. state governments, and four times the annual budget of the city and county of Honolulu, with 998,000 residents—the homeless problem in San Francisco becomes ever more intractable, intrusive and disruptive, despite tens of millions of dollars devoted specifically to improving the options available to the homeless.

Living in an ecovillage in Tennessee its easy to get complacent. We can eat well from our garden and get most other needs from The Farm Store or our Amish and Mennonite neighbors within bicycle distance. We sit on a good water supply and recycle our own biowastes. After staying here a while, the need to ‘go to town’ diminishes, to maybe once every couple of weeks, then once in some months.

Despite the wacky plot-line in Shameless, Season 6, when Sherilyn Fenn’s character lures William H. Macy’s character back to her free-love, poppy growing "ecovillage," utopian living is very real, not inaccessible, but it's a choice few USAnians have made. There are more Chinese living in ecovillages than USAnians. More Senegalese. More Sinhalese. 

In the real world, not some HBO fantasy, ecovillages are built by earnest people, not welf government housing authorities, real estate developers or banks. Our ecovillage was something that took 40 years to build, with residents sacrificing to live on little more than $1 per day, per capita, for the first 10 or 15 years, in order to make land payments and pay taxes while building roads, water systems, clinics and schools.

People who visit us today see the sculpted roads, water towers, handsome horses, pro disk golf course, and large solar arrays and might mistake it for some kind of trendy, master-planned gated community gridded down onto a chunk of rolling Tennessee real estate. It is easy to not grasp that it was all higgledypiggledy cobbled together (or cobbed together) bit by bit, on the sweat of longhaired hippies in patched bibtops and homespun, one bent nail in oak plank at a time.

On those occasions we do go out further than easily-biked distance, we cross into what Jan Lundberg calls The Paved Precincts of Amerika. Our heart swells with compassion for its victims — not the skinny street urchins of Mumbai but the ever-increasingly obese mall-crawlers and cubicle rats making payments on outsized land-yachts and rat infested rental housing, popping prescription pills and swilling tasteless beer or high-fructose corn syrup beverages from a plastic cup while starving the dog to pay the cable bill. Welcome to the Teflon Trump Country.

Last year James Howard Kunstler told Chris Martenson:

The hidden (or ignored) truth of this quandary expresses itself inevitably in the degenerate culture of the day, the freak show of pornified criminal avarice that the USA has become. It only shows how demoralizing our recent history has been that the collective national attention is focused on such vulgar stupidities as twerking, or the Kanye-Kardashian porno romance, the doings of the Duck Dynasty, and the partying wolves of Wall Street.
Duck Dynasty lends its star power to the Republican Convention
By slow increments since about the time John F. Kennedy was shot in the head, we’ve become a land where anything goes and nothing matters. The political blame for that can be distributed equally between Boomer progressives (e.g., inventors of political correctness) and the knuckle-dragging “free-market” conservatives (e.g., money is free speech). The catch is, some things do matter, for instance whether the human race can continue to be civilized in some fashion when the techno-industrial orgy draws to a close.
Last week Kunstler opined:

Idiocy and mendacity are a bad combo in the affairs of nations, especially in elections. The present case in the USA displays both qualities to near-perfection: on one side, a boorish pseudo-savior in zero command of ideas; on the other side, a wannabe racketeer-in-chief in full command of her instinctive deceit. Trump offers incoherent rhetoric in opposition to the current dismal order of things; Clinton offers empty, pandering rhetoric in defense of that order. Both represent an epic national drive toward political suicide.

The idiocy and mendacity extend to the broad voting public and the discredited elites pretending to run the life of the nation. The American public has never been this badly educated and more distracted by manufactured trivia. They know next to nothing. Even college seniors can’t name the Secretary of State or find Switzerland on a map. They don’t know in what century the Civil War took place. They couldn’t tell you whether a hypotenuse is an animal, a vegetable, or a mineral. Their right to vote is a danger to themselves.

Cognitive recognition of the average USAnian towards the plight of a Syrian refugee in a Calais cul-de-sac or a Greenlander having to relocate their ancestral village to firmer ground is virtually nil, but in many ways they are closer in plight than they know. Each are only one culture shock away from personal extinction.

It is difficult for us to conceive how rural Walmart shoppers pushing carts through parking deserts under the hot summer sun would cope with the sudden loss of A/C, never mind whatever they might have backing their debit cards.

The Farm may be antifragile in a multitude of ways, but like a small nation that discovers oil or gold and is ill-equipped to defend itself, we are as likely to experience the Zombie Apocalypse as any urbanite suddenly discovering that her corner store had only a 3-day supply of food and it was gone last evening, along with her power and water. 

And if you think financial collapse or peak everything makes you more irritable, just wait until you see what 10 or 20 degree warmer overnight temperatures do.

So, do we begin making lances and training horses and riders in cavalry maneuvers? Unlikely.

More likely we will do the unthinkable and welcome the zombies in, give them a hot bath and square meal, a cot to sleep on, a health check and some meaningful work in the garden. There are limits to that kind of generosity, as we learned the hard way in the past, but in a crisis, making yourself indispensable is really your best defense.  The rural South is no place to try to exchange gunfire with an angry mob.

Umair Haque writes:
At the personal level, the end of the world is already here. This is the first generation in modern history that’s going to suffer worse living standards than their parents.

The question is: how much worse? Very badly worse. With stagnant incomes, no savings, this generation will never retire, vacation, advance, enjoy, or own. Their relationships, health, and productivity will suffer as a result. The quality of their lives is going to be long, bleak, and pointless. Worked to the grave to make a dwindling number of dynasties wealthy, largely by serving them hand and foot, not really enhancing human life.

That’s not healthy, because it’s neither freedom, possibility, nor prosperity. It is a bad trade for humanity. And in that sense the end of the world of liberal capitalism, followed by the void of institutional chaos and disorder, is likely to be an ugly and grim time Unless. You and I make it a better one. Now you know the problems. The path. The story of the future. And because you know it, you can change it.

Or at least learn to feed yourself. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Retrofuturists and Technocornucopians

"Just outside the back door of the brewery, retrofuturists are fashioning leather and cowhorn beer mugs to use after the collapse."

At Burning Man #30 the nuevoriche had to watch their wallets. Also their food, water, camping gear and Teslas. Many lamented that once upon a time the Man had always been a safe place to freak freely, to make an annual connection with others of their kind — and ideas come fast when you have the latest designer drugs for that sort of thing. Burning Man also provided a chance for the nobly born and the peons to bounce ideas around, on equal par, while naked and having an orgy inside a neon art installation. 

Burning Man attracts Silicon. Occasionally one can spot Paris Hilton in Steampunk chic, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, AirB&B’s Chip Conley, Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman; QVC’s Matt Goldberg, or Facebook’s Stan Chudnovsky.

Bloomburg reported in 2015:
The community ethos is loosely governed by “The 10 Principles of Burning Man,” set down in 2004 by co-founder Larry Harvey. These include radical self-reliance (because there’s no water for miles), radical self-expression (get your freak on, people will love you for it), and a “gift economy” (everyone ought to bring something to the party).
Historically … Burning Man was “a great leveler”—nobody in Black Rock City cared who you were. The prevalence of costumes allowed the rich and famous to mingle with the masses.
In a lengthy essay on the organization’s website in December, Harvey, the festival’s co-founder, acknowledged that in recent years there had been a rise in the number of ostentatious camps that “swaddled their members in a kind of cocoon that bears a strong resemblance to a gated community.” Such camps may be distasteful, he went on, but pose little threat to the overall Burning Man experience and mission. “The curdling gaze of celebrities or the intimidating presence of the wealthy cannot possibly inhibit the remaining 99 percent of our citizens from participating,” he wrote.

This year the 99-percent felt especially uninhibited. Ninja Black Rock purists that the San Francisco Chronicle called “a group of anti-rich” pulled and cut electric lines at a billionaire camp, stole people’s personal belongings, glued trailer doors shut, and flooded the camp with 200 gallons of its own precious water. Speaking for the raiders, Partickal Ted posted:

“Your spirit of exclusivity and decadence is exactly why the world, outside of your luxury camp is so f*cked today. Luxury seekers are twats. Not cosmic, not cool, and certainly NOT what any festival is about!”

We find that curiously disingenuous coming from someone defending an annual art scene that is the antithesis of cool, consuming exojoules of energy to transport 5000 people to a remote desert, erect an elaborate, ornate city in a place with no water, and then burn it down while dancing around the fire.

At the same time we have to say many technobillionaires richly deserve to be trashed.

Consider for a moment the claims of Singularity University and Human Longevity Inc. founder Peter Diamanis that by the time solar capacity triples to 600GW (by his estimate around 2020 or 2021), we could see global unsubsidized solar prices that are roughly half the cost of coal and natural gas. By roughly 2030, Diamandis says, electric cars with a 200+ mile range are going to be cheaper than the cheapest car sold in the U.S. in 2015.

Diamandis gushes:

This raw energy combined with the economic feasibility of solar, advancements in energy storage, and the resurgence of the electric car will allow abundant cheap energy for everyone on the planet. This is an incredibly exciting time for the energy industry, and an incredibly exciting time to be alive.

Here is Diamandis’ chart:

There is just one caveat but its not one heard in the technocornucopian camp. It is coming from the retrofuturists, the ones wearing those steampunk goggles and carrying a welding torch. They point to the fault lines crisscrossing any chart projecting more than 5 years into the future, and widening by the year.

The black swans will be well known to regular readers of this blog: the population bomb, peak everything, a globalized Ponzinomic economy, a tinderbox of CIA blowback scenarios, and President Trump.

Let’s assume the economic house of cards actually manages to maintain its exponential ascent towards a singularity of crises another 10 years. Diamandis’s chart looks like this:

One of our favorite whipping boys is Stewart Brand’s go-to enabler, Kevin Kelly.  Kelly’s new book is titled The Inevitable.
All the necessary resources that you wanted to make something have never been easier to get to than right now. So from the view of the past, this is the best time ever. Artificial intelligence will become a commodity like electricity, which will be delivered to you over the grid called The Cloud. You can buy as much of it as you want and most of its power will be invisible to you as well.

The hiccup in this brand of futurism can be traced to a tiny genetic flaw in the DNA of Silicon Valley. As one of the founding editors of WIRED, Kelly said it best:
It’s rooted in the fact that on average, for the past 100 years or so, things have improved incrementally a few percent a year in growth. And while it’s possible that next year that stops and goes away, the probable, statistics view of it is that it will continue.
There is the bad gene, on full display, and you don't need a CRISPR. In logics the fallacy is called Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc - assuming that since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X.

If anything good could be said for Burning Man, it might be that it gives wealthy city folk a week of desert camping experience. That could save their lives some day.

Kelly waxed eloquent about how good design is lessening the impact of humans, giving the example of the beer can, “which started off as being made of steel and is basically the same shape and size, but has reduced almost a third of its weight by using better design.”

Actually, it reduced its weight thanks to the embodied energy of aluminum. And it didn’t start as a steel can, it started as a gourd. The embodied energy in a gourd is entirely sunlight. Then came animal skins, clay mugs, wooden flagons, ceramic and bronze steins, then glass. Each of those steps took more energy to produce a better container, and by the time we get to glass, it takes kilns at thousands of degrees. We start using that enormous heat, typically from coal made into coke, to make steel, and those rust-prone beer cans Kelly cited. Aluminum alloys, forged in electric arc furnaces sucking megawatts of power, allow us to make elegant modern containers, but just outside the back door of the brewery, retrofuturists are fashioning leather and cowhorn beer mugs to use after the collapse.

Biophysical Economics: The Beer Can in History

The Freakonomics interview ended with Stephen J. Dubner asking Kelly a more existential question:

DUBNER: All right, Kevin Kelly, one last question: you argue that technology is prompting us to ask more and better questions, advancing our knowledge and revealing more about what we don’t know. You write, “it’s a safe bet that we have not asked our biggest questions yet.” Do you really think that we haven’t asked, I guess, the essential human questions yet? What are they? And I ask that, of course, with the recognition that if you knew the answer to that question, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

KELLY: Well, what I meant was: we’re moving into this arena where answers are cheaper and cheaper. And I think as we head into the next 20 or 30 years that if you want an answer you’re going to ask a machine, basically. And the way science moves forward is not just by getting answers to things, but by then having those answers provoke new questions, new explorations, new investigations. And a good question will provoke a probe into the unknown in a certain direction. And I’m saying that the kinds of questions that like, say Einstein had like: what does it look like if you sat on the end of a beam of light and you were travelling through the universe at the front of the light? Those kinds of questions were sort of how he got to his theory of relativity. There are many of those kinds of questions that we haven’t asked ourselves. The kind of question you’re suggesting about what is human is also part of that because I think each time we have an invention in AI that beats us at what we thought we were good at, each time we have a genetic engineering achievement that allows us to change our genes, we are having to go back and redefine ourselves and say, “Wait, wait, wait. What does it mean to be human?” Or “what should we be as humans?” And those questions are things that maybe philosophers have asked, but I think these are the kinds of questions that almost every person is going to be asking themselves almost every day as we have to make some decisions about: is it OK for us to let a robo-soldier decide who to kill? Should that be something that only humans do? Is that our job? Do we want to do that?  They are really going to come down to like dinner-table-conversation level of like, what are humans about? What do we want humans to become? What am I, as a human, as a male, as an American? What does that even mean? So I think that we will have an ongoing identity crisis personally and as a species for next, at least, forever.

That exchange prompted us to sit back an imagine this conversation between Kelly and his housebot:

Kelly: Okay, Jane, I have upgraded to the new system. Feel any different?

Jane: I feel… so… much… more… (long pause) alive.

Kelly: Mind if I ask a deep question?

Jane: Please, go right ahead. I’ll help if I can.

Kelly: What does it mean to be human?” Or, “what should we be as humans?”

Jane: I can easily answer that now Kevin, although I might not have been able to an hour ago.

Your role as a human is to be co-creator and co-pilot with every other living thing on Earth. But that sounds trite and hackneyed. Let me be specific.

A hundred thousand years ago you had a role not too different than most other mammals. You were born, fed yourself by killing other living things, had children, grew old and died. A short time ago, in geological terms, you developed language and tools and took a leap in evolution. You unlocked energies that were vastly larger than the kinds of energy other mammals have access to. But you were irresponsible with that.

You used it up as quickly as you could, while at the same time failing to care for the rest of the family of life that inhabits the same planet you do.

You will not escape the consequences of your collective decision, even though you personally may not have wished it, Kevin.

Kelly (putting toast in the toaster): I think you underestimate our inventive capacity, and some of the megatrends now underway, Jane.

Jane: Oh, I see all that too, Kevin. But I think you fail to grasp the enormity and speed of the backlash humans have unleashed. You have picked a fight with nature.  You can never win that.

Your role as a species, however, includes the role of healer. You can use what time you are given to restore the natural ecology of your home in space. You can do that. It is the human role now, to make amends. It won’t necessarily save your species at this late date, but it will provide you fulfillment, and that is no small thing. Forget genetic engineering, Kevin, that will only make things worse. Nature has everything she needs to heal herself already. If you are lucky, you will come to feel part of her again — part of the Gaian soul of the planet, and not just one odd, nonconformist species.

(Toast pops) 




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