20 March 2012

Spring (Vernal Equinox)

Today marks the vernal equinox, the official beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere. Ever since the winter solstice, in December, the days have been growing ever-so longer. Today the day and night will be roughly equal, and beginning tomorrow the days will begin to be lengthier than the nights. Throughout most of my life I have begrudged the coming of spring: I like cooler weather, and when spring arrives I know summer -- summer, that endless stretch of months that smothers the south with a hot, sticky-wet blanket of air until October -- will not be too far behind.  This year, though, I have experienced the winter more thoroughly than ever before. After a season of walking on cold streets with bare trees for company, I take positive delight in the arrival of spring. The trees are flowering, animals are chasing one another, and the days are just right for basking in the sun.

Spring, the sweet spring, is the year's pleasant king; 
Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring, 
Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing.
 Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!
(Thomas Nashe)

16 March 2012

Freethought Friday

Thomas Jefferson, 1743 - 1826

"Life is of no value but as it brings us gratifications. Among the most valuable of these is rational society. It informs the mind, sweetens the temper, cheers our spirits, and promotes health."

p. 79, Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe

For context, this was taken from a letter penned to John Madison from Thomas Jefferson, in which Jefferson invited Madison to retire from public life and buy a small farm near his estate, where Madison would have free access to the Jefferson library and the two could enjoy one another's intellectual company.

15 March 2012

Adapting to a New Reality

From Salon
In energy terms, we are now entering a world whose grim nature has yet to be fully grasped.  This pivotal shift has been brought about by the disappearance of relatively accessible and inexpensive petroleum — “easy oil,” in the parlance of industry analysts; in other words, the kind of oil that powered a staggering expansion of global wealth over the past 65 years and the creation of endless car-oriented suburban communities. This oil is now nearly gone.The world still harbors large reserves of petroleum, but these are of the hard-to-reach, hard-to-refine, “tough oil” variety. From now on, every barrel we consume will be more costly to extract, more costly to refine — and so more expensive at the gas pump.
 Those who claim that the world remains “awash” in oil are technically correct: The planet still harbors vast reserves of petroleum. But propagandists for the oil industry usually fail to emphasize that not all oil reservoirs are alike: Some are located close to the surface or near to shore, and are contained in soft, porous rock; others are located deep underground, far offshore or trapped in unyielding rock formations. The former sites are relatively easy to exploit and yield a liquid fuel that can readily be refined into usable liquids; the latter can only be exploited through costly, environmentally hazardous techniques, and often result in a product which must be heavily processed before refining can even begin.
 The simple truth of the matter is this: Most of the world’s easy reserves have already been depleted — except for those in war-torn countries like Iraq.  Virtually all of the oil that’s left is contained in harder-to-reach, tougher reserves. These include deep-offshore oil, Arctic oil and shale oil, along with Canadian “oil sands” — which are not composed of oil at all, but of mud, sand and tar-like bitumen. So-called unconventional reserves of these types can be exploited, but often at a staggering price, not just in dollars but also in damage to the environment.
In the oil business, this reality was first acknowledged by the chairman and CEO of Chevron, David O’Reilly, in a 2005 letter published in many American newspapers. “One thing is clear,” he wrote, “the era of easy oil is over.” Not only were many existing oil fields in decline, he noted, but “new energy discoveries are mainly occurring in places where resources are difficult to extract, physically, economically and even politically.”

Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves is a fascinating science-fiction work with a sad message. In it, human beings accidentally discover a means of accessing virtually free energy, and quickly become dependent on it. The man who made this energy source available is hailed as a hero of humanity...but nothing is without its price. Another scientist is the first to suspect something amiss, and discovers that long-term use of this energy source will prove ultimately destructive. He finds, however, that getting people so accustomed to free energy to wean themselves off of it is night-impossible. Ultimately, another scientific breakthrough must save the day. While I've tried to avoid spoilers, the novel implies that it is more likely that the laws of the universe themselves will change than it is that human beings will be far-sighted enough to end behaviors which are attractive in the short run but which will prove -- in the end -- destructive.  

We often prefer looking for ways to mitigate symptoms than to deal with the problem. Because we're not dealing with the source of the problem, though, it will keep appearing -- like a poisonous mushroom, no matter how many times we destroy the cap and stem, the underground spores will simply flower anew. For my own part, I increasingly prefer the direct approach of tackling the problem itself. This is why I'm particularly enamored of Stoicism: rather than dealing with the effects of emotions, Stoicism invites its students to address the emotions themselves -- to understand them, and so to deny them their power. The direct approach has served me well: it is why, in September when I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, I wasn't content to simply take a pill to regulate it.  I didn't want to be stuck taking medication the rest of my life, and saw no reason for doing so if I had a choice. So I changed my diet to avoid too much sodium, and I committed myself to an active lifestyle.  My doctor has since repeatedly slashed my prescriptions: while I once took 605 milligrams a day, I now take only 75, and I've lost 112 pounds to boot.  Directness bears many fruits.

The above article's premise, that the era of cheap energy is permanently over, is thus problematic considering how much of the modern world is oil dependent. The amount of petroleum-derived products (plastics) we use in everyday life boggles the mind, and that's only the tip of the iceberg. The entire global economy --factories ships, airplanes, delivery trucks, many trains -- relies on oil-using transportation to function, and much of that economy consists of industries which depend on oil for other reasons. Automobile manufacture, supposedly the backbone of the American economy, produces a product entirely dependent on oil --  and even hybrids which can use electricity rely on power plants which use fossil fuels, including oil.  In the United States, we have abandoned cities and mass transit in favor of suburbs and highway sprawl. Virtually everyone must  use a car to go everywhere. All of this is already unsustainable -- the infrastructure that sprawl demands is too costly for the amount of people using it -- but oil will make this even more so.   We can no longer take oil for granted. We must begin to force ourselves off the easy path and look for ways to live without using it as much. 

The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler

05 March 2012

The Joy of Living

Farewell you northern hills, you mountains all , goodbye
Moorland and stony ridges, crags and peaks, goodbye
Glyder Fach, farewell, Cul Beag, Scafell, cloud-bearing Suilven
Sun-warmed rock and the cold of Bleaklow's frozen sea...
The snow and the wind and the rain of hills and mountains
Days in the sun and the tempered wind and the air like wine...
And you drink and you drink till you're drunk
On the joy of living

Farewell to you, my love, my time is almost done
Lie in my arms once more, until the darkness comes
You filled all my days, held the night at bay, dearest companion..
Years pass by and they're gone with the speed of birds in flight 
Our life, like the verse of a song heard in the mountains
Give me a hand, then, love, and join your voice with mine
We'll sing of the hurt and the pain
And the joy of living

Farewell to you my chicks, soon you must fly alone
Flesh of my flesh, my future life, bone of my bone
May your wings be strong; may your days be long
Safe be your journey.
Each of you  bears inside of you the gift of love; 
May it give to you light and warmth and the pleasure of giving
Eagerly savour each new day in the taste of its mouth
Never lose sight of the thrill and the joy
Of living

Take me to some high place of heather, rock, and ling
Scatter my dust and ashes, feed me to the wind --
So that I will be part of all you see, the air you're breathing
I'll be part of the curlew's cry and the soaring hawk...
The blue milkwort and the sundew hung with diamonds
I'll be riding the gentle wind that blows through your hair
Reminding you how we shared
In the joy of living

04 March 2012

Confessions of a quasi-Luddite

Recently I surprised a blogger at the KunstlerCast forums when I mentioned my minimalism regarding cellphones. I currently don't have one and rarely miss it: when I did own one, I kept it turned off until the late evening after my day of activity was over. My friends and I didn't need phones to keep up with one another, so I used mine to keep in touch with family. It doubled as an alarm clock. Unlike most of my generation, I never took to the cellphone. Early on I despised the way people answered them in the company of others, even at the dining table, and regarded the practice of talking while driving madness. I endeavor to keep the phone in its place -- turned off, and hidden deep in my pockets.

I suppose it is a little unusual that someone as young as I would have such a hostile attitude toward technology. I did grow up in a generation where being tech-savvy was the norm. Not a year went by without producing some new toy  -- new game machines, watches with more features, CD players, mp3 players, etc. I used to keep up with it; I subscribed to appropriate magazines and spent long hours in the Electronics section of superstores, looking at all the wonderful stuff I might someday have. And yet, as I grew older, the allure faded. The constant stream of novelty began to bore me, as experienced prompted me to realize that no matter how excited people grew about one object or another, in a matter of months it would be broken and forgotten if not rendered obsolete by yet another gadget. By this time I'd entered the workforce and started to learn the value of money -- and for me, gadgets simply weren't worth my time and labor.

Beyond the factory, I've grown less starry-eyed about the advance of technology in general. I don't think our lives are actually improved by bigger televisions, smartphones, and monstrous vehicles with built-in TV players. History informs me that there are no actions without consequences, and the way people eagerly embrace changes without considering where they might lead concerns me. Take, for instance, cellular phones. I'm indebted to Neil Postman for giving me the vocabulary to articulate why the things bother me so: the ability to be connected constantly seems to have convinced people that we ought to be connected constantly, and moreover that there's something WRONG with not being connected. I for one like my privacy. I value solitude and quiet, and I truly despise the racket of a television and the obnoxious electronic whine of a phone. Every time one rings at home, I contemplate smacking it with a hammer. This ability of people to constantly demand one another's attention strikes me as entirely uncivilized: it is a medium of communication that demands virtually no consideration on our part, and the way people use them bears this out. They pull them them out everywhere, answer them everywhere, and let the world go by while their faces are drawn evermore frequently to a glowing blue screen, creating or reading some grotesque abortion of a sentence in English. Such is the practice of 'texting'.

Another example is that of automation. The term Luddite derives historically from a community of people who were angered that automation was rendering their work irrelevant. Their livelihood had been destroyed by machines, and rightfully they struck out against them. While I acknowledge that automation has made goods cheaper, I am also ever mindful of the human cost, and I cannot support its expansion unless some accommodation is made. I'm thinking of the other costs of automation, though: energy and the consequences of human inactivity. Although the US is in a prolonged energy crisis and over a third of Americans are obese (and susceptible to attendant health issues, like diabetes, hypertension, and cardiac woes), we insist on making life easier for people. We have constructed a society where most people MUST drive to get anywhere, by creating places unsafe to walk and bike, and spreading destinations across so wide an area that walking isn't remotely practical. Our homes are filled with 'energy-saving' appliances that force complete reliance on electricity, even when they're not in use. Considering that we are still relying on fossil fuels -- of which, in accordance with the laws of the universe there must be only a finite supply -- to power all this, the system is patently unsustainable. This is folly. We have made our lives so easy that we have to schedule time for 'exercise', whereas once we actually had to participate in life. I've come to believe that effort gives life meaning.

And so, for the last year or so, I've been phasing out dependence on some forms of technology when I can. I do this in part because I place so much value on sustainable -- reasonable -- living. I do this also because it makes my life simpler, quieter, and imminently more pleasurable.  There are fewer distractions to badger me, and fewer drains on  my resources. I'm evermore free to focus on the things which matter to me; the joy of living.

It's not that I'm a technophobe or an Amish convert. I'm enthusiastic about scientific advance and technological progress, but I don't confuse the latter with human progress. I simply believe we should be more mindful of our relationship with  technology, considering its consequences. It's no more sensible to embrace novelty for its own sake than it is to cling to tradition for the sake of tradition.  We should embrace or reject ideas based on their impact they have on our ability to enjoy happy, meaningful lives. A humanist in all things, I believe our actions and habits should be examined in the light of what they do for us -- or to us. We should be the masters of our tools, not the other way around, just as tradition and culture should serve us and not be our masters.  So the next time the phone rings during your dinner, or while you are in the shower or reading a book, exercise your dominance over the phone. Don't answer it. Don't worry about it. And if keeps ringing, smack it with a hammer.

(Works for me.)

"TV and Me"