Category Archives: Science

Data farm: MacArthur genius looks for food solutions from space

MacArthur genius using satellite data to get a space-eye view of our food system.

So, for example, Lobell and his collaborators have been able to show how global warming is stunting major food crops. Depressing findings like this have a practical side: They show plant breeders and farmers the kind adaptations they need to be working on.

Toward A Living Economy: From Here To There

In this series I have been considering the idea of a living economy in an article by David Korten. He points to three rules or principles from nature that would shape such an economy: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. In this last post I want to explore some ideas about how to get from here to there. Some of these thoughts are influenced by E.F. Schumacher and an article from the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) “NWF adopts Key Element of Steady State Thinking” by Eric Zencey.

The first thing that must change is our obsession with GDP to some measurements of economic activity that more accurately describe and account for the totality of human life.

Every economics textbook warns that GDP is a poor measure of well-being, and yet by default it continues to be the indicator that economic policy seeks to maximize. GDP doesn’t measure well-being at all, but simply tries to tally the dollar value of final goods and services produced in the U.S. …By design, GDP also leaves out ecosystem services; if you hang your laundry out to dry, the sun and wind do the job, but if you throw it in the dryer you use electricity, increase your carbon footprint, and give GDP a bit of a bump. Ecological economists identify a dozen categories of ecosystem services, including climate stability, recycling of nutrients, creation of soil fertility, maintenance of a library of genetic diversity, pollination, purification and transport of water by the solar-powered hydrological cycle, flood protection services of marshlands and forests, and so on.

In some ways, this is a more radical shift than it appears. It’s not just that we should replace GDP with a better number and continue relying on only one measurement. At some point economics came to be commonly understood as a discipline that dealt with business and finance, which while certainly being important was not the totality of human life and existence. The reality is that economics is not somehow compartmentalized and segregated from those parts of our lives that economics accounts for and those it doesn’t.

GDP fails to measure things that concern well-being such as volunteer work and domestic production, ecosystem services, defensive and remedial expenditures. According to Zencey, “By some estimates, as much as one-quarter to one-third of our GDP consists of such expenditures.” On the other hand there are some interesting examples of things GDP counts as economic positives that most people would not.

GDP also misreads our level of well-being by treating defensive and remedial expenditures as positive economic activity. Remedial: the $12 billion that British Petroleum alone has spent (so far) in its efforts to clean up the catastrophic oil release in the Gulf of Mexico counts as an increase in GDP, though the expenditure comes nowhere close to putting things back to their pre-Deepwater state. Defensive: if someone breaks into a neighbor’s house and you decide to buy a burglar alarm, GDP goes up—but you probably don’t feel as secure as you did before the break-in.

There is an dark underbelly to the economics of our current incarnation of capitalism that depends heavily on defense spending and fancy accounting to make oil spills economically positive activities. I do see a lot of hope that economists (what little I read) seem to be moving away from the previous dependence on this one measurement. However, without a larger shift in thinking toward holistic approaches, I believe we will continue to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of our society. Zencey goes on to describe what he sees as the primary problem in our current economic understanding.

The root cause of our environmental problems—our ecological crisis—is infinite planet economic theory, the rules and axioms of a discipline that tells us that it is possible to have infinite economic growth on a finite planet…You can get to that conclusion only if you ignore the laws of thermodynamics. Economic production is, at bottom and unalterably, a process that relies on physical inputs. No amount of human ingenuity will ever let us make something from nothing or nothing from something. No amount of ingenuity will let us create energy out of nothing or recycle it to use it again.

In other words, economics must become more of a hard science than the soft science that it continues to be (regardless of what the mathematical geniuses that brought us the financial crisis tell you). Economics must have as its foundation in the science that is the basis for our understanding of how the world works, what is possible and what is not. If economics contradicts science in its assumptions, which one should we rely on? Should we alter the laws of thermodynamics to fit our economic theories? Sounds silly, but that’s the current state of our economic theory.

So, what’s the alternative to our current system?

The National Wildlife Federation did not specifically sign on to the steady-state vision; but by calling for an accurate measurement of the costs of economic growth, it has officially joined us on a path that can lead nowhere else.

Obviously the article comes from proponents of a steady-state economy. So, perhaps this kind of hyperbole is to be expected. I still think stating this “can lead nowhere else” is an exercise in the same narrow thinking that led us to bow down to the almighty GDP. For those not familiar with the idea of steady-state economics, it is perhaps most easily understood in contrast with the idea of a growth economy. My understanding is that a steady-state economy is not based on the growth of economic activity, but the health and sustainability of economic activity. In other words, if the economy is able to support all its members then there is no need for growth. There is a kind of recycling of funds as dollars circulate through many hands.

The main criticism that I have heard of steady-state economics is that is not a dynamic system (like an ecosystem) which is able to be flexible and adapt to a constantly changing environment. If a steady-state system simply fixes the amount of resources available to the economy at some predetermined (sustainable” level then it is not in reality the kind of living system that a living economy would demand in response to the living dynamics of the ecosystems on which all life is based.

Here are my three main conclusions from this thought exercise about what is necessary to move in the direction of a living economy:

  1. Moving from narrow measures like GDP to more complex and holistic understandings of economics
  2. Basing economics on science in two ways: First, acknowledging the implications of thermodynamics on the means of production. Second, returning to an understanding of economics as a discipline concerned with understanding human behavior and interactions more than how to do business, make money or simply understand the complicated system we have developed.
  3. Find ways to experiment with other possibilities on local and regional scales, including steady-state principles and/or the idea of a living economy explored in this series. This can be done in small groups within churches or as congregations.

To expand slightly on #2, it seems that much of the energy of economists is spent on defining, studying, analyzing and understanding the complexities of the current system we have created. With complex financial instruments like credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities it’s clear that just trying to understand the economic system as it exists and functions today can easily take up all the time, energy and brainpower of even the brightest economists (and it does). The problem is that this narrow approach to the field of economics is not capable of solving the economic and ecological problems that face us. Economics must return, as stated above, to its roots as a discipline that seeks to understand human behavior and interactions.

The origin of the word economics is the Greek word oikos, meaning “household”, which incidentally is also the root for the word ecology. In other words, these concepts of economics and ecology encompass all of life. Therefore if economics doesn’t account for a more holistic picture of human life and activity, particularly as it relates to the ecosystems on which we depend, then it has ceased to have an authentic relationship to its roots. Instead of segregating these fields of economy and ecology we must recognize their fundamental relatedness. With a broader scope environmentalism and business would no longer need to be mortal enemies, because both will recognize that they are kindred spirits and both are interdependent.

I tried to be as practical as I could, but this still seems somewhat abstract and theoretical. I’d appreciate any suggestions for practical application of these thoughts.

Toward a Living Economy: Cooperative Self-Organization

In the previous post I explored the inherent contradiction between the desire to protect and conserve the environment and the need for development within the current economic system based on a growth economy examining the current political situation in Bolivia as a microcosm of this tension on a macro level. At the end of that post I suggested that the solution was to find a way to transition to a new kind of economy and development. David Korten wrote an article in Yes! Magazine entitled “Living Economies: Learning from the Biosphere” in which he said,

In our species’ immaturity, however, our dominant cultures have forgotten that our individual and collective well-being depends on the well-being of the whole. We must now step to a new level of species maturity, redesign the culture and institutions of our economic system to mimic the structure and dynamics of the biosphere, and learn to live by life’s rules. 1

Korten lists three key ideas that he gleans from the natural world about how we should organize our economic life together: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. First I want to look at his ideas, along with some others within the idea of a steady-state economy. Then we will have to talk about how to get from here to there.

Toward An Anarchist Economy?
The first rule of “Cooperative Self-Organization” has to do with the principles of biodiversity and cooperation. Korten explains,

Ecosystems have no central control structure. Their health and vitality depend on processes of cooperative self-organization in which each species learns to meet its own needs in ways that simultaneously serve the needs of others. The more diverse and cooperative the bio-community, the greater its capacity to innovate and the greater its resilience in the face of crisis.” 1

The idea of not having central control structures sounds very scary to humans accustomed to all the trappings of civilization with its institutions, organization and hierarchy, but this is an invention of the human intellect and not something inherent in the natural order or observable in natural ecosystems. While many libertarians and advocates of a completely free market profess to believe in such a decentralized state of affairs, I’m not sure they would allow it when the time came to really let go of the control. Most of the more moderate advocates of a free market turn that phrase into a misnomer, because there is incredible attempts to impose central control and regulation on the system. Usually the rules are rigged to the benefit of the rulemakers, which might fit some natural law, but is unsustainable and thus violates the most important natural law: that the system itself must survive.

All of this makes me wonder what an anarchist (which is the leftist version of the libertarian impulse) economy might look like. I don’t hear a lot of discussion about this among Christian Anarchists that I read. But if economy only means how we order our lives together, then in terms of how we exchange goods and services for our own survival, any community of people that is able to sustain itself has some kind of economy. If there is any possibility of a practical anarchism that can be lived out, then there must be some kind of anarchist economics that governs or guides the way that people live together.

Diversity and Cooperation
What creates stability, security and flourishing in ecosystems is diversity and cooperation. Of course there is competition within and among species for sources of food, but this assumes a scarcity that is not the case in stable ecosystems. If you out-compete all the other prey species in an ecosystem for food then your survival will mean that you are now the only target left for whatever predators there are above you on the sacred predator pyramid scheme. There is a delicate web of interdependence in healthy ecosystems that demands both diversity of species and cooperation.

Financial investors already understand this principal somewhat when they diversify stock portfolios to lower the risk and secure a steady rate of return, even if it’s lower than higher risk portfolios. On a broader scale, however, our economy does not support the broadest diversity in terms of the kinds of business and other economic actors that it supports and/or allows to exist. On the contrary the current system heavily favors large corporations. The larger and more multinational the corporation, the more advantages it has in the marketplace.

Everyone gives lip service to small businesses, but no one is serious about taking on the rules that allow Wal-Mart and others to easily put small companies out of business wherever they go. Therefore the rule in a living economy based on the rule of diversity and cooperation would be to give real incentives for small businesses and those that are active in creating a community in which other small businesses can thrive. Korten puts the tension between healthy ecosystems and the privileges of corporations in these terms,

“In a living economy, the rights and interests of living communities of living, breathing people engaged in a living exchange with the natural systems of their bioregion properly take priority over the presumed rights of artificial corporate entities that value life only as a marketable commodity and operate by the moral code of a malignant cancer.”

This puts a further clarification on the practical implications. It cannot simply promote any small business, but small businesses that understand, value and promote the values of diversity and cooperation. They should embody these principles within their own business structures by following worker-owned models in which there is the most possible transparency, openness and sharing of both the rights and responsibilities of honest work. They should encourage other business and the interaction, cooperation and interdependence of businesses of all sizes, from a single person selling produce from their garden to the largest local company in the area.

Monocultures of any kind, whether agricultural or business, are a direct contradiction to principles that govern natural systems. They will likely fail in the long term for the same reasons that natural systems cannot be supported where biodiversity is lacking. The answer is to learn from science and promote the interdependence of natural system that create flourishing, dynamic, vibrant and healthy systems of diversity and cooperation.

Our Changing Relationship With Mother Nature

I often go on and on about our relationship to nature, but Alain de Botton touches on something in a Treehugger article that struck me.

Nature doesn’t remind us that we are small, but rather provides chilling, awesome evidence of our size and strength. We glance up to the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and think of how quickly our coal generators have heated the earth. We fly over the denuded stretches of the Amazon and see how easily we have gashed the planet. Nature used to terrify us, now we terrify ourselves. We are responsible for the early flowering of those Wordsworthian daffodils. Our fingerprints are all over the uncannily early return of the migratory birds.

This recognizes how we assume that we relate to nature based on our mythologies, in contrast to the reality of how we really perceive nature and our relationship to it based on how we work things out practically in the real world. If you want to know what people (or societies) believe about something, don’t listen to what they say. Look at what they do and how they spend their money.

I listened recently to a TED talk by Paul Root Wolpe on the ethics of bioengineering. He talks about three phases of evolution. The first phase involved what we have come to understand as Darwinian evolution in which nature does all the work of random mutation, adaptation and selection. When we settled down into agricultural communities we realized that we could speed up this process and manipulate it in order to get traits of plants and animals that we wanted. So, we domesticated animals and selected plants with features that helped us cultivate easier, like large-seeded grains that did not fall off the plant until we harvested them. This second phase of evolution speeded up evolution from something like millions of years to thousands. So, the process was still pretty slow for a long time. However, we have entered what he calls the third phase of evolution in which we are able to actually design lifeforms and manipulate them in ways that do not require the process of Darwinian evolution. Paul Root Wolpe spends most of his talk describing the myriad of ways that scientists now are able to manipulate and use the building blocks and components of organisms and life to create all kinds of technologies and organisms.

One that really blew my mind was taking neurons from a rat which then organized themselves on a microprocessor into a network which was then used to run a computer. One experiment used a computer to monitor and understand the signals in a primate brain that moved its arm. Then the computer mirrored the monkey’s brain pattern to move a prosthetic arm in another room. Finally, the monkey was shown the arm that the computer was moving. Eventually the monkey stopped moving its own arm and was moving the prosthetic arm with his mind, essentially having a third arm that it could control. Another was wiring electrodes into the brains of animals which then made it possible for scientists to control their movements, running rats through a maze basically with a joystick. Wolpe mentions that some students involved in that particular experiment asked whether what they were doing was ethical, overriding and controlling another organism, effectively taking away its autonomy.

Wolpe as an ethicist calls for ethical discussion and consideration of these technologies. The point is that we are now capable of technology and manipulation of our natural environment in ways with which we have not, as a society, fully grappled. When we consider, not what could happen in the future, but what is possible right now, it is clearly true that nature does not terrify us. I wonder, however, if we terrify ourselves. I have close friends who are very confident in both technology and science to basically “do the right thing”. They think that the systems in place and the nature of the scientific community and process will basically take care of these ethical problems that some worry about. As is obvious to any casual reader of this blog, I do not share their confidence.

Our relationship to nature is the most important issue facing human beings today. For the vast majority, the nature of this relationship is simply assumed and goes unquestioned. The idea that we should recycle, change our light bulbs and not throw trash all over the place does not even scratch the surface of our relationship to nature. Yet this is the extent of most people’s probing of our relationship to nature. Until we deal with basic assumptions about what it means to be human and what that has to do with the natural systems that make up our planet, we will continue on a trajectory destined for disaster. As Paul Root Wolpe describes there is a sense in which our relationship to nature has changed dramatically, and we must understand and wrestle with these changes. However, there is another sense in which our relationship to nature does not and cannot change. This final reality will eventually catch up to us if we do need deal with it.

It seems to me that the idea that we perhaps should terrify ourselves relates to the concept of sin, in which we recognize potentialities and possibilities within ourselves that we do not want to realize or which we regret acting on. Sin is often described as brokenness or, better yet, broken relationships with God, other people and the planet. This seems to describe the state of our current relationship to the planet in which we continue to simply ignore the relationship or pursue an unhealthy kind of codependence that necessarily involves mental gymnastics and denial to sustain it.

As with healthy relationships with God and other people, we must first recognize that we are already related to them in some way, even if negatively (e.g. atheists or oppressive systems). Our civilization is designed in many ways to obscure and deny our relationship to the planet. So, the first step is to acknowledge our relationship and dependence. Then we can begin to listen to what we know about how ecosystems work and change our lives and systems to live within these systems rather than exploit, deplete and destroy them.

Sex and Civilization

An interesting tangent emerged in my reading of Ever Since Darwin. When considering some aspects of the evolution of human beings, Gould quotes Freud. In one case it concerned the idea that we retained juvenile traits of primates in our evolution, a process called neoteny. Our upright posture is a trait found in juvenile primates, not adults. Freud elucidates another interesting facet of this development in his book Civilization and Its Discontents (which is now on my list of books to read, not knowing that much about Freud).

Freud argued that our assumption of upright posture had reoriented our primary sensation from smell to vision. This devaluation of olfaction shifted the object of sexual stimulation in males from cyclic odors of estrus to the continual visibility of female genitalia. Continual desire of males led to the evolution of continual receptivity in females. Most mammals copulate only around periods of ovulation; humans are sexually active at all times…Continual sexuality has cemented the human family and made civilization possible; animals with strongly cyclic copulation have no strong impetus for stable family structure. “The fateful process of civilization,” Freud concludes, “would thus have set in with man’s adoption of an erect posture.” (208-209)

I’ve read this paragraph over and over again, and the implications are only slowly sinking in. Freud claims that the basis of all civilization begins with the development of an erect posture which has an impact on sexuality and therefore family structure. Now, the thing you often hear about Freud is someone mocking his obsession with sex and that so much of his analysis is based on studying people with neuroses. I don’t know enough about Freud to comment on these common criticisms, but this particular argument taken at face value by a scientist like Gould appears to have some credibility.

When you think about the senses in terms of language it is clear that smell takes a huge backseat to almost all the other senses. Our sense of sight is certainly primary and we have more words to describe how something looks, sounds, feels or tastes than we do for how it smells. Just try and think of all the words related only to smell. How many are related to other senses? And the effect of this shift toward vision also moved our sexuality away from the natural cycles of pheromones to being constantly receptive and sexually active. I wonder how exactly this creates a stable family structure in the beginning. I assume it has to do with monogamy of some kind developing, but I’m not sure precisely how. The irony, of course, if this is true, that the shift toward a sexuality based primarily on visual stimulation formed the beginnings of civilization, is that the eventual effect of this shift in modern civilization is precisely the breaking down of family structures (among many other factors).

Perhaps this shift is also the beginning of the objectification of women, which makes a lot of sense, meaning that our social structures have developed unjustly based on evolving sexuality. Far from excusing this behavior based on some natural argument, the expression of genes has more to do with our environment, choices and social constructs. This is the argument Gould makes again and again in the book against scientific ideas like biological determinism that have led, and continue to lead, to the justification of racist cultural prejudices.

Of course nature is all about sex. That’s what keeps the whole thing moving and evolving (though he shares an interesting theory about the evolutionary benefits of homosexuality) swapping genes and trying to making sure yours survive. Yet Freud seems to also indicate that this fundamental understanding of our nature and relationship to the environment erodes as civilization “progresses”.

Freud argued further that as civilizations become increasingly complex and “modern,” we must renounce more and more of our innate selves…the price of civilization is individual suffering. “It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the nonsatisfaction…of powerful instincts. This ‘cultural frustration’ dominates the large field of social relationships between human beings.” (260)

As I hinted concerning the objectification and domination of women, it is possible that the “individual suffering” of civilization is partially the unfortunate result of the evolutionary traits which made civilization possible. It seems to me that the “renunciation of instinct” that seems to be required by civilization to an ever greater degree can be called neither good nor bad. In the case of the oppression of women (based ultimately on our evolving sexuality and then gradually the patriarchal institutions that grew out of that instinct) there is certainly a case to be made for renouncing this instinct. On the other hand, capitalism seems to require the suppression of more altruistic instincts that are present in natural systems and evolutionary theory. This may be an instinct that we have suppressed to our detriment.

People (most often those who oppose it, Christian fundamentalists mostly) tend to equate Darwinian theory with some form of determinism. The genius of Gould is his ability to deftly navigate between the extremes of bad religion and bad science. There are biological processes at work that shape us through evolution over generations and millenia, but genes are nothing until they are expressed. The expression of most of our genes is not like our eye or hair color, something we can’t control. Our genetic makeup only finds expression as we interact with our environment. Far from taking away our choice, this increase in knowledge places the responsibility squarely back on our own shoulders as unique creatures with the ability to make choices about how our genes are expressed in relationship to other human beings and nature. Civilization as we have constructed it is not natural because of Freud’s ideas about the influence of erect posture on its development. Genetic material is simply the raw stuff of possibility.

I’m still kicking a lot of these ideas around in my head. I find them intriguing, provocative and helpful in some ways. At the end of the day this rabbit trail once again points me to the hope that we can imagine possibilities beyond the world we’ve created.