Archive for June 10th, 2007

The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged, Either

Sharon June 10th, 2007

In _Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed_, Jared Diamond observes that the vast majority of technologies create more problems then they solve, and in the aggregate, technology virtually always fails to keep up with the unintended consequences it generates. The more we’re able to do, the more net damage we do. He observes about people who advocate one or many technical solutions to our environmental problems all seem to be making the same basic error in reasoning,

“All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology. The rapid advances in technology during the 20th century have been creating difficult new problems faster than they have been solving old problems: that’s why we’re in the situation in which we now find oursleves. What makes you think that, as of January 1 2006, for the first time in human history, technology will miraculously stop causing new unanticipated problems while it just solves the problems it previously produced?” (Diamond, 505)

To me, this query of Diamond’s is an important reminder that we have blinders on when it comes to the real feasibility of our solutions. For example, let us consider one commonly discussed solution to global warming - telecommuting. If only we could just get all those workers out of the office, we wouldn’t have to heat those offices, we wouldn’t have people sitting in traffic, etc… And that might even be true. Now it is worth noting that this is a solution heavily weighted to the benefit of rich folk - the person who cleans your toilet, the person who builds your house, the person who cooks the dinner you normally get by take out, those folks aren’t going to be permitted to telecommute - in fact, some will lose their jobs. But that in itself isn’t an argument against widespread telecommuting.

But the problem is that all those telecommuters would be buying more and better technology for their homes in order to be able to do the work they normally do at the office, and spending more time overnighting documents, heating their own homes, and doing all sorts of other things. Now it might well turn into a net gain - you never know. But it is worth noting, for example that recent evidence suggests that all of us on our computers are a huge global warming problem - as bad as flying all over the planet. All those new computers would be built and shipped, as would all that new software, and those extra laptops and fax machines, and the old ones would go leak mercury into the groundwater in Lagos (I bet you didn’t know that when your computer dies, it gets to take a long vacation to a poor nation to be disposed of - lucky it!).

Now I’m not opposed to telecommuting solutions per se, but I think it is worth noting, for example that the miracles of computer technology have not come with the environmental miracles we were already promised. Remember how we were supposed to all go paperless, and it would save a billion trees a year or more? Didn’t happen - worldwide paper usage rose by 4%, and it rose faster in the developing world. Remember how we were supposed to be getting greater efficiency from lower energy use - it turns out that between 2000 and 2004, worldwide energy emissios rose by 3 times what had been expected, and much of that was in the US, Europe and Australia, so we can’t blame China. Oh, and I bet you remember all the extra free time we were told we’d have, in a new “leisure society” - that didn’t happen either, as we all know.

Now I’m a Luddite by nature, inclination and political persuasion. For those who aren’t familiar with them, the word “Luddite” does not actually mean, as it has come to in the popular parlance, “someone who hates or is afraid of technology for no particular reason.” The original Luddites were those who were angered at the notion that they ought to sacrifice their livelihoods and starve to death in order to serve “progress.” They resisted and demanded that technology be bounded by recognition of human needs. Now they lost the battle (did you notice?) despite the leadership of the mythical “Ned Ludd,” and mostly were executed or starved. But they were right, and they weren’t afraid of technology - they simply didn’t think that they should be sacrificed for the greater economic good. Now we’ve gotten so used to the notion that that should happen we hardly notice it - but the simple fact is that economic systems are intended to serve us, not the other way around, and so is technology.

Modern Luddism is very simple - it merely observes that technology has consequences, and technologies shouldn’t be adopted without a clear eyed analysis of their net benefits and consequences, and a real assurance that the technology is improving lives (on a wholistic scale) more than it is harming them). The preference is for less dependence, rather than more, simpler rather than harder, things you can fix rather than things you have to throw away, human or animal power rather than fossil power or even “renewable” energy power.

Which brings me back to the computer. I am fond of mine. I make part of my living as a writer, and as a blogger, a notable irony. The internet is bringing a lot of people together who might never have been aware of environmentalism. And yet, all this time we spend blogging, and reading other blogs, and emailing each other has consequences. Some of them are the technological ones - when the computers break down, we replace them. We buy new software and games and update our stuff, and all that good stuff, along with all the time we spend talking about our sustainability goals is warming up the planet. It is so easy and so compelling to let the computers off the hook - after all, aren’t we changing the world? Don’t we need all this information at our fingertips? We don’t stop to count the costs of the infrastructure very often.

Well, it turns out that all this information isn’t making us better informed. We’re about as stupid as we used to be, according to a recent poll. And it isn’t changing the world, either. Our energy usage is going up, while we all sit around and talk about how to get it down - and while the climate warms faster and faster and faster. And just as some elements of the internet have saved us some energy and made some people’s lives better, it looks like the net harm is probably greater than the net savings. I know none of us like to hear this, of course. A lot of us derive a lot of satisfaction from the internet. But overwhelmingly, it isn’t making us smarter, or know more, saving us energy or changing the world. It is just another technology, doing some good and some bad, and probably a little more bad than good.

A recent Ohio educational study suggests that the average American 10th grader runs educationally behind the average Amish 15 year old - and the Amish kid left school two years before and no only doesn’t have a computer in her classroom, she doesn’t have electric lights. Poor adults in Kerala who get their news not by television or computer (don’t have ‘em) but by weekly newspaper are overwhelmingly better informed than average American adults, according to Bill McKibben. An political research firm in the Netherlands found that Brazilian 10 year olds in favelas had a slightly better understanding of globalization than middle class Americans with computers.

What about community? After all, that’s what the internet gives us, right, the chance to bond with people like us. Well I love that too - don’t get me wrong - but I hear more and more from people who say they can’t get along with the people they actually live near, who are on an endless quest for people just like them, to spend their post-peak time with the mythical community of perfectly like-minded people. I hear more and more that someone can’t have a relationship with their neighbors and the people near them, and need to move somewher
e else. Now that can be true - there are places that are just disheartening after a while. But the sheer number of people I hear from in those places suggest to me that there’s more too it. Perhaps that’s an unintended consequence of the internet, no? Now that we’ve experienced the joy of little clubs filled entirely with people focused on X or Y shared thing, we’re less able to get along with the people whose common connection to us is a place, or a history or a more formal relationship? Certainly we’re more alienated from our families, more likely to be divorced or live far away from kids and loved ones. The internet may be bringing us together, but it seems as though it is also enabling us to be apart.

What we do see is that people are less happy now than they were two decades ago. We have fewer social ties, and fewer emotional connections. Screen time is associated with mental illness and depression in both adults and children, and overwhelmingly, adults rate their screen time as less pleasurable than time they spend with other people - even when they are nominally “connecting” with others. It may be that the internet creates some of the problems it also relieves. Don’t get me wrong - I love the internet, and I’ve been its beneficiary in many ways. But our computers aren’t doing for us what they are purported to do, and it is worth being clear about this. I’m not suggesting we turn them all off - but perhaps more of us could spend less time on the computer, or share them more. Perhaps your household only needs one, or none - perhaps you could use the library computer a few times a week.

The thing is, it isn’t just that X technology won’t save us (insert preferred technofantasy where “X” is - hydrogen, desert sized solar panels, electric cars, etc…), it is that all of them won’t save us. There’s simply no way, as Diamond points out, of only producing “good” technologies - that’s not how it works. Pouring billions of dollars into R and D for how to make a better solar panel or wind generator isn’t going to fix the problem - and at some point, we aren’t going to have billions.

The only way we can fix the problem is to back up. We have spent several centuries asking “can we do it.” And often enough the answer was a resounding “yes we can!” But instead, what we need to ask is this - should we do it? We need to switch away from the engineering mode and towards the ethical. We could, if we chose, begin from the assumption that in most areas (some exceptions perhaps exist) we have done all the R and D we ever need to do.

What a radical concept that is, and how alien from the notion that we will always be able to make things better by simply taking the next step. I’m not trying to hinder science - I have no objection to tinkerers tinking away. But instead of devoting our economy to technical research, and to funding it with our government or with our personal dollars, spent on R and D after we buy stuff they’ve already developed, what if we tried to optimize what we already have?

What if instead of turning vast resources to making more things and different ones, we backed up and started asking “what is the best way for us to get what we need.” What if we took a look back at intermediate technologies, and considered how we might improve them. Someone once observed that if we’d put the same energies and money into breeding open pollinated corn as we have into hybrids and GMO, there’s no telling what we’d have. The same is true about a technological society that thinks that the next step is already better. What would happen if we backed up, and thought about how we could improve the wood cookstove, the solar oven or the hand washer?

Luddism may be the only answer. Unless we are willing to ask “is this really good for us, now and forever” we are likely to be trapped in the assumption that the next thing will magically set us free. And it won’t. The next thing will further invest us, and move us a little closer not to a solution, but to a collapse. What we want is to step away from the collapse - and the answer there is simple. Need less. Use less. Substitute human power and human scale tools for fossil based power and industrial scale tools. Back up. Slow down. Remember, the price isn’t what we think it is.

As a practical solution, I’m trying to turn my computer on only four days a week. I’ve always kept a sabbath, now I’m cutting back further. If I have to write my book and these posts in longhand and type them out quickly afterwards, perhaps it will be salutary to my writing (it could only improve my editing ;-) . It isn’t that I don’t love the speed of composition, the relationships, the research at my fingertips. It is simply that I don’t love them enough to pay the price, or to ask other people to pay it.


Two Steps Forward, One Step Back - 90% Reduction Week 1

Sharon June 10th, 2007

Well, the first full week of the 90% reduction is up, and things are proceeding, more or less. I should start by saying that we are NOT going to make our garbage quota this week. The reason is that while I was cooking dinner on Wednesday, I suddenly heard a thunderous crash. The metal shop shelving on which I keep much of my food storage had collapsed entirely, transforming itself into a twisted heap of metal. On the top shelf were all my pickles, which came crashing rapidly down, with predictable results, on three 50lb bags of oatmeal and wheat that I had just acquired and hadn’t gotten around to transferring into buckets. The metal sliced open all three bags, soaked them with pickle juice and filled them with fragments of broken glass and pickle. So besides the metal shop shelving, and the pickle juice, I found myself with 150lbs of wet, pickle-smelling grain with lots of glass in it. Unfortunately, that can’t even be composted. So we produced about 4 times the garbage we were supposed to produce.

The other thing adding to the garbage problem is that 3 years ago, I got a bunch of perennial plants cheaply from a nursery that was closing. I’ve wanted a big, ornamental perennial bed for a long time, never mind that weeds had mostly overtaken even the foundation plantings - I just wanted it. My husband’s grandparents had, in their collection of garden items, a lot of landscape fabric, and I thought “Oh, what would it hurt, just this once, to use it. After all, then I wouldn’t have to worry about weeds and even permaculturists sometimes use landscape fabric, never mind that its made of nylon or something.”

Well, there were several errors in thinking here. First of all, the stuff is butt ugly (yes, you cover it with mulch, but it inevitably peeks through somewhere), and the effect of perennials seperated by landscape fabric is rather gas-station-esque. And then the weeds start to grow *on top* of the fabric, and it is way harder to weed the top of these things than to just pull out the plants. Oh, and then it starts falling apart in little shreds. So by year 3, I had a large garden of landscape-fabric topped weeds with some perennials sticking through. So this year, I ripped the stuff up - boy was that fun. The years of attached mulch certainly weighed a ton, and did I mention the tendency to rip into tiny little shreds. Sigh. Even after I scraped all the mulch off, that didn’t help my garbage allotment any.

I must digress by noting that there’s clearly a total idiot living in my house. Someone decided to do this landscape fabric thing. Someones stacked the shelves way too heavily. Someone let the Canada thistles go to seed near the garden and now has to pull 1000 little thistles out of the ground). I’ve never had a great deal of patience with stupidity and incompetence, so I’m particularly appalled that my house has this moron living in it. It isn’t my husband or my kids (trust me, I’d blame them if I could), so it must be someone…but who?

We did a great job with consumer spending this past week, although today killed it all. We hadn’t spent a penny of the $80 per month we’re allotted, but today at the local yard sales, I ran into an 80 year old metal jab corn planter (works great!) for 20 bucks, and my husband found a good condition banjo with strings for $50. Used items are discounted, of course, bu t we’re still nearly halfway through our monthly budget. Still, Eric’s birthday was coming up, and the banjo was well worth it.

We drove 3 days last week, and we’re still organizing which days we’ll need to drive over the summer. If we can really get organized and rearrange some existing schedule things, we may be able to get our driving down to two days a week over the summer - Saturdays (to synagogue) and Tuesdays (old son’s swimming lessons, errands, and every few weeks, the dump). We’ll have to see.

Food was easy - we’ve got stuff in storage, but for the summer, we’ve simply given up the grocery store. We can buy everything we need at the local farm store and the bulk shop nearby. Our very first strawberries came ripe this week! Yay, homemade biscuits, local cream and strawberries!

Our electric was up a little for May, because we were running the brooder lamp for our chicks and turkey poults. I’ve got to think about alternatives to that - maybe get the birds in June instead of May so it is warmer next year. We’re back down now - the critters are all feathered out. The next project is weaning my scared-of-the-dark 5 year old over to an led nighlight, rather than the kind we’ve been using, and turning off the fridge.

We’ve been turning off the fridge during at least part of each winter (these weird warm winters have played some havoc with this), but we’re going to turn it off for the summer as well. We also have a seperate freezer, which for now, we’re going to keep. It will provide ice packs for the cooler that we’ll use instead of a fridge. For now, however, the challenge is to get rid of all the half-eaten jars of things that are crowding up the fridge. I don’t want to throw them out, so we’re using them as fast as we can - cheese and chutney sandwiches, anyone?

Keeping the heating bill to 0 wasn’t too much trouble this week, even though it was 37 on Wednesday night and 92 on Friday. Not that I’m not used to the northeast and its temperature swings, but this is a little much for my taste.

We averaged 14 gallons per person per day, which isn’t too bad. I’m hoping the guy will come to dig the cistern in the next few weeks - we should be able to get things way down then. I’ve decided I prefer showering at night, when I shower - I have a tough time getting into bed cruddy from the garden.

Everyone here is enthusiastic about this project. The boys have been helping make more raised beds for the dooryard kitchen garden, and are enthusiastic harvesters of spinach and strawberries. Isaiah has learned to operate the hand drill (the great thing about manual tools is that they are often much safer for small people to use), and Simon is full of energy cutting ideas (my personal favorite is that if we built him a set of wings like Daedalus built, he could fly around the house cooling it down without fans. We’re getting right on that.) Simon and Isaiah are excited that we’re going to make gingerale for Daddy’s birthday. Eli has become a good chicken feeder - he’s learned to fill the pans. And even Asher loves to assist (umm, hinder), shouting “Ashie help!.”

Sometimes it feels like two steps forward, one step back. But even then, we still got a little bit ahead this week.