Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

August 20, 2008

Jared Diamond: Collapse Lecture

Filed under: culture, environment, history — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:42 am

Jared Diamond gives a lecture about his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”  Choose is probably too strong a word.  As Rush put it in their song “Freewill”:

If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice

The underlying point is that Malthusian catastrophes have already occured on small scales.  There are finally enough of us to accomplish disaster on a global scale.  The elephant in the room is population.  We can choose humanely and preserve human dignity and quality of life through zero population growth (although even this may entail some reduction in resource usage) or we can let the catastrophe choose for us.

Diamond asks what did the last Eastern Islander say when they chopped down the last tree?  It is a failure of imagination to think they did so out of stubborness, invoking property rights and such.  When it came down to one tree, the disaster was already upon them.  He/she probably saw no other option.  The society didn’t address the issue until it was too late to do anything about it, at which point they couldn’t.  The destructive spiral was most likely caused by desperation, a vain attempt to stave off the inevitable thus making the problem worse.

Issues, like deforestation, can strike very fast.  Easter Island may have been in a halcyon age right before it met unmitigated disaster.  Nothing is inevitable.  However, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.


July 18, 2008

Al Gore’s Challenge

Filed under: economy, environment, politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 8:59 am

Al Gore challenged the nation to get to renewable, zero carbon electricity within 10 years.  What Al Gore proposes is the type of large-scale action that is necessary to combat the related crises we are facing.  If you watched it on CNN, you probably didn’t see the website you could visit for additional information.  It is

Al Gore’s suggestions meet the scale of the challenge that lie before us, not just as a nation but as a species.  America needs to lead, not dig in our collective heels.  Gore demonstrated the type of rhetoric that demonstrates a good contrast between the ideas of the Republican party and his.  The Republican solutions to these crises are actually counter-productive as Gore explains in his speech.

In general, the Republicans don’t win because of the strength of their ideas.  They win based on image.  Glenn Greenwald examines this dynamic in his book Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics.  The corporate-owned, mainstream media plays a critical role.  The MSM doesn’t ask about climate change, they ask about lapel pins.

On the other hand, Democrats play along by trying to blur the distinctions between the two parties.  This is another reason why the FISA capitulation is so disappointing.  Democrats seem unable to convincingly stand by a principle.  The only “strength” they show is by a willingness to surrender even when their base tells them not to.

One thing that is so disappointing about the site is that the largest initiatives seem to be contingent on federal government action.  Sadly, the federal government is broken and there is no way it is getting fixed in time, even if the Democratic party is in control of both the legislative and executive branches.  Can we really afford to wait for this broken and corrupt institution before we take decisive action?  Is there any way to get a good head start without federal government help?  Not just researching it, but building it.  I can’t see how we will succeed otherwise.

May 14, 2008

Richard Dawkins: What is Natural?

Filed under: culture, environment, politics, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 7:53 am

(h/t Richard Dawkins)

Richard Dawkins gave a talk at the “New Scientist & Greenpeace Science debates” where he examines what is “natural.”  In it, he explains the “natural” thing for the human species to do is wreck the planet.  It is “natural” for us, as one species in nature, to maximize our short-term prospects, to be greedy.  This selfishness combined with our unprecedented success now puts us at odds with some of the ecosystems on which we depend.  These ecosystems are straining under the pressure we have inflicted either intentionally or unintentionally in pursuit of our immediate needs.

Dawkins believes the human species is uniquely poised to meet this challenge between short-term greed and continuing prosperity.  The giant brain which has been such a boon to our immediate success as a species can be applied to issues surrounding our long-term survival.  As Dawkins states, this is anything but a natural prospect.  In fact, it means setting aside short-term impulses in exchange for long-term goals.  Dawkins believes we have the capacity for such action and I agree.  The only question is if we have the collective will to carry it out.  The simple answer is: we’d better, but reality will be the ultimate judge.

May 12, 2008

Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance

Filed under: environment, film — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:35 am

Koyaanisqatsi was a film released in the early 80’s.  The film implies that we are living out of balance.  The film tries to demonstrate this fact rather than merely stating it.

I recently started reading “The Marx-Engels Reader” edited by Robert C. Tucker.  One of the central themes of Marx is alienation and self-estrangement.   Marx predicted the end of this estrangement which resulted in communism.  Marx’s formulation is, of course, flawed.  There is no natural progression of history.  Furthermore, there can be periods of great regression.  Anthropology shows that many early societies tended to truly “communistic.”  It was the introduction of Western values into these cultures that introduced the alienation that Marx sees as the natural course of history to eliminate.

Nevertheless, another kind of alienation exists in civil society, not only from man and his labor, but also from man and nature.  As long as man sees itself separate from nature and its dictates, man will not only be estranged from nature, but also man.

The difference between a fatal disease and benign organism is its ability to live in harmony with the systems on which the organism depends.  Fatal diseases are those that reproduce too rapidly and do too much damage that the host ecosystem that it collapses.  Benign organisms live sustainably with the surrounding systems frequently providing some benefit to the overall system.  In relation to the Earth, what is man?  Koyaanisqatsi provides the answer as it stands today.

April 11, 2008

Al Gore’s New Climate Change Talk

Filed under: environment, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:01 am

Al Gore has a new Climate Change Talk. In it he addresses some new points, debunks some counter-arguments (mainly about solar output), and has some alarming new data.

As Al Gore points out, changing the light bulbs is not enough. This is a global issue. We need to get everyone on board. More will be asked of the developed world than the developing world. However, we share this planet and solving this problem requires civic action.  Optimism must be combined with positive action, otherwise it the posture is just a delusion.

January 1, 2008

Human, All Too Human: Nietzsche

Filed under: environment, random, religion — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:02 am

Google video has a BBC documentary on Friedrich Nietzsche. He is most famous for phrase “God is dead.” I think the exact meaning was missed by those who promote the humorous but vindictive:

Nietzsche: God is Dead.
God: Nietzsche is Dead.

What Nietzsche was predicting was an existential crisis. Certain discoveries, not the least of which being evolution, challenged the need for a supernatural entity to explain the world. God had been an intellectual underpinning of much philosophical thought. Without God, much of what was previously believed was called into question. This upheaval and void is what Nietzsche was concerned with. Is it possible for humanity to have a transcendental purpose without God?

Nietzsche’s answer is focus inward on the so called super-men. This is a theme in Ayn Rand’s work also, where man’s transcendental purpose is industry. I have my own answer, and it is our collective survival as a species. To transform the species from an unstoppable cancer on the planet to one that is sustainable and can co-exist in perpetuity. Although collective survival seems base to begin with it, in the end it may prove to be the most necessary and challenging task, especially in a world with no hope of supernatural intervention.

November 21, 2007

Kucinich and Gravel

Filed under: environment, media, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:11 am

Rep. Kucinich gave an inspiring ten minute speech about the role environmentalism would play in his administration. The key question facing our species is whether we can overcome ruthless exploitation, not only with our fellow men but also planet we live on. A flawed notion of our species is that we are separate from nature. We build our societies, our homes, our machines, the world beyond our narrow affairs seldom enters into our day to day reality.  Nor is this surprising, because we’ve done such a great job masking it.  But, no matter how hard we try the underlying reality remains the same, our survival depends vitally on the ecosystem of the Earth as a whole.  It is easy to forget what we’ve taken and what we’ve wasted.  The Earth is so large and the resources have been so abundant.   However, there are now signs that we need to start considering those issues, because failure to so could very well mean our extinction.  And yes, war is an environment issue.

Mike Gravel is another dark horse Democratic Presidential candidate and former U.S. Senator from Alaska.  Someone put together a video of audio clips of him and Nine Inch Nails “In This Twilight” from Year Zero (an album about a dystopian future set in 2022).  I thought it was quite good and should pass it along.

October 30, 2007

Real Time: New Rules 10/26/07

Filed under: environment, history, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 8:14 am

Bill Maher had an excellent “New Rules” segment last Friday. It is good to watch in its entirety.

It is important to remember that the development of agriculture, civilization and the state were almost unquestionably praised. Hobbes summed up life in the state of nature thusly in “The Leviathan.”

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

This view of the state of nature went unchallenged for centuries, despite the fact that there was little evidence to support the claims.  In Hobbes’ view, the state was justified to exist, no matter how tyrannical or unjust because any state was certainly better than the horrific state of nature.  A funny thing happened when archaeologists went looking for the evidence to support this largely unquestioned view.  They found it largely unsupported.

Agriculture did not improve the quality of life, it actually made quality of life go down.  What it did allow was greater population density and growth.  100 unhealthy farmers could defeat 1 hunter-gatherer, no matter how healthy.  This essentially allowed the farmers to push the hunter-gatherers to the land they didn’t want, and set mankind along this tumultuous path.  The question is: can we, as a species, survive on the course we have chosen?  One, whose true legacy does not rest on the foundation of rational, enlightened betterment, but rather ruthless, resource efficiency.

One aspect is clear, we cannot continue to treat this world as an infinite resource and infinite trashcan.  Additionally, in this increasingly nuclear age, aggression and conflict can literally result in an epic calamity that would throw our very survival into doubt.  Events and consequences can rapidly spiral out of control.  The question is, what will we do about it?  Will we face the challenge and rise above it, or sit back as the world burns?

October 13, 2007

Al Gore Wins Share Of Nobel Peace Prize

Filed under: environment, politics — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 10:40 am

Al Gore and the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. This is after it was determined in the U.K. that showing “An Inconvenient Truth” required 9 points of guidance if it is used in schools. I don’t think there is a history textbook around that could live up to the level of scrutiny given to “An Inconvenient Truth” and I wonder when someone will file that suit. The judge did find the film was “broadly accurate.” However, the judge found that 9 points were outside a consensus and therefore warranted a disclaimer. Deltoid has a good breakdown of the 9 objections.

Gore has been the subject of broad, vicious ridicule which is largely undeserved. Therefore, it is good to see him vindicated in this fashion. Anthropogenic Climate Change has more do the rate that we burn hydrocarbon based fuels than simply using them. We are producing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases faster than the ecosystem can absorb them. The effect of an environment changing too fast for an ecosystem to respond is, by definition, catastrophe. For the future survival of the human species, it is necessary to be cognizant of our impact. In that regard, Al Gore deserves this award and many thanks although I doubt his critics will see it the same way.

July 20, 2007

Pollution in China and Elsewhere

Filed under: environment — codesmithy @ 9:17 am

The guardian has some amazing photos of pollution in China. The gray haze from as seen from space from the burning of coal just amazed me. The human perspective of the situation is present in other pictures.

As for the environments closer to home, the Oversight Committee is holding a hearing to investigate the response to trailers that FEMA provided to hurricane Katrina victims in which there were dangerous levels of formaldehyde. After they tested one trailer on the insistence of a 4 month pregnant woman and found formaldehyde levels 75 times that of the maximum work place exposure recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, FEMA took a deliberate see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil approach to the situation. The guidelines they did develop for further testing were deliberately trying to mask the problem, in which they tried to do everything they could think of to artificially lower the measured formaldehyde level, including leaving windows open, ventilation fans running, and AC units operating 24 hours a day. FEMA received numerous complaints about formaldehyde levels, including at least two that involved the death of occupants.

As a final note, BP is planning to dump more toxins into Lake Michigan. Although, one of the more outrageous things that I remember in high-school was that Grand Rapids sewage system used to overflow into the Grand River when there was a heavy rain. Initially, it didn’t happen too often, but over time, it seemed to be happening more often. This made people down the river rather upset, since the Grand River not only flows into Lake Michigan, but also into a series of bayous whose flow isn’t necessarily as rapid. Grand Rapids got sick of the bad publicity, so instead of fixing the problem, they just stopped issuing public statements letting people know that the sewage system had overflowed; their stance became: just assume the river has sewage in it.

The movement for environmental sustainability is about more than just climate change.

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