September - October, 2005

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September 1. In the context of Hurricane Katrina, with the media sensationalizing looting and lawlessness, Betsy sends a quote from Martin Luther King:

This blood-lust interpretation ignores one of the most striking features of the city riots. Violent they certainly were. But the violence, to a startling degree, was focused against property rather than against people. There were very few cases of injury to persons, and the vast majority of the rioters were not involved at all in attacking people... From the facts, an unmistakable pattern emerges: a handful of Negroes used gunfire substantially to intimidate, not to kill; and all of the other participants had a different target -- property.

I am aware that there are many who wince at a distinction between property and persons -- who hold both sacrosanct. My views are not so rigid. A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being.

September 2. The History Channel has an upcoming special on Roman engineering, and in the ads they're calling the Colosseum "the world's first Superdome." On top of that, we have the much circulated photo of Bush (Nero) playing a guitar (fiddling) while Rome (New Orleans) burns (drowns). Have you seen Bush, at any other time, playing a musical instrument? It really looks like there's a world behind this one, playing the same records over and over, and every age has its own stereo system on which they sound a little different.

September 4. Understanding evil is not that hard. Have you ever felt good about pulling a weed in your yard, or taking a shovel to one coming up through a crack in your driveway, or trimming the edge of the grass to have a clean line where it meets the sidewalk? That's evil: valuing deadness over life, valuing your control over another being's freedom, valuing uniformity over any complexity that did not originate in your ego. You felt good about snuffing something to maintain the sanctity of dead geometry.

Play with that feeling -- let it extend to other humans, and before you pull it back, hold it there a moment and find out how it tastes. Now pull it back and next time push it farther, and in recoil, try to pull it all the way back. And out again. Keep at it, and you'll understand it, and the next time you see it in action, you won't waste any time being surprised or angry or baffled. As Thaddeus Golas said, "What can we do about evil? A great deal, if our heads are clear."

September 7. Dead links about Katrina. An exceptional account by two paramedics. And an account by a French tourist in the Superdome, Three Days In Hell, with the original French here: Trois jours de cauchemar.

One time, to amuse themselves, the soldiers threw bottles as hard as they could into the crowd, like in baseball. A woman was hit in the head. The Navy arrived and it was even worse: the soldiers did not stop yelling at us.

September 16. (December 2012) I've removed "What We Learned From Katrina" from the essay page and put most of it here in the blog archives, where I think it fits better.

1. The authorities are not your friends. If they help you with one hand, it's so they can control you with the other. In any crisis, the totality of what they do is likely to be worse than if they had left you alone. Do not put yourself in a position where you depend on them.

2. Ordinary people are competent and decent when you strip away the system and the roles it requires us to play. A catastrophe is an opportunity for us to learn to help each other as equals.

3. "Roving gangs" happen but they're overrated. They do not attack hard targets and fight to the last man like in the movies. If you're defending a private home or business with a grim look and a big gun, you almost certainly won't have to use it.

4. The key to survival is mobility. Supposedly people got stuck in the city because they didn't have cars, but I was told by someone who evacuated New Orleans by car that traffic moved only 3-5 miles per hour. You could go that fast on foot, and two or three times that fast on a bike. Bicycles can carry more people per hour over a bridge of a given size than any other technology, with more energy efficiency, and without any gasoline or electricity. Of course a bicycle can't carry nearly as much stuff as a car, so you need another place to go that already has shelter and food. It helps to have friends in a lot of places.

5. The system is not fragile. Doomers would have predicted that a hurricane that destroyed New Orleans and crippled the oil drilling in the Gulf, plus some refineries, would have sparked economic Armageddon, or totally collapsed America. So far the only effect in my area is that gasoline is a little more expensive. Even though the system is overstressed and breaking down in almost every way, it has great inertia, a huge mass of habit that can absorb hard blows and channel them into many slow changes.

September 22. Deadly plague hits Warcraft world. Nigel comments:

Almost anyone who has run across this has loved this bug, mostly because they are tired of the "grind" (kill monster, get gold, buy more equipment, kill monster, etc rinse repeat).

It's interesting that even in a game that's designed to be fun, players still get bored and crave catastrophe.

September 30 / October 1. I've been thinking about the whole human drama of societies getting incrementally more complex, and then collapsing hard, and wondering why it has to be that way. Sure, it's easier to add complexity a little bit at a time than all at once, but is it really easier to go through a crash than to remove unwanted complexity a little bit at a time? Why can't we do that?

I'm thinking of nations that keep adding laws until the whole thing is so clunky and inefficient that they have a revolution and start over. I'm thinking of musicians who start out with just voice and guitar, and then add backup instruments, and by the fifth album there's a damn orchestra... and then at some point, all at once, they strip it back down. Why doesn't anyone ever strip it down gradually? In an email, Dmitry Orlov suggests that this is just "the way of all life":

Take any relatively dry patch of sand in a mangrove swamp: it might really take off for a while, with lots of lush vegetation, but that evaporates a lot of water, making the sand in the area too salty. Then all the vegetation dies, turning the patch into a stinky black desert. Then a storm sweeps through, washes it all away, and leaves a sandy hole. And then the process begins all over again. Trees don't know how to un-grow themselves when the water starts turning briny; they just die.

For me, that just drives the question into metaphysics: If nature works that way too, then why? Are there other worlds that work differently? I think there are, because I don't live my own life that way. As an individual, I can and do incrementally reduce complexity. I stripped my ten speed bike down to a singlespeed. I stripped my waffle batter down to raw sourdough starter. I stripped my expenses down to food and tools. Because of my personal experience, I view the cycle of complexity-and-collapse as a symptom of lack of discipline -- even when nature does it. And I have a vision, maybe only possible on some other level of reality, of ecosystems and societies with smooth equilibrium. I don't mean stasis, but cycles that move gently like a slow pendulum, where as soon as things go a little out of balance, they turn and go back, instead of going more and more out of balance and crashing.

One of my ambitions is to actually create such worlds on "lower" levels of reality: I want to design role-playing games and computer games where the more stuff you have (levels, powers, resources, territory, etc.) the easier it is to lose it, and the less you have the easier it is to gain it, so the game goes on forever...

October 2. There's a new hybrid corn, PuraMaize, that "rejects pollen from all other strains of corn except its own -- meaning that any biotech pollen that happened to drift by could not contaminate it."

This is actually bad. The big threat of genetically modified food is not that it's weird or dangerous, but that it enables central control over what we grow and eat. Right now, the biggest thing holding back the biotech companies from replacing all food crops with varieties that they own, and thereby making human survival owned, is consumer fear of genetic contamination. Now, at least for corn, that obstacle is gone.

October 7. David Holmgren interview, Peak Oil and Permaculture, with a good bit in the middle about the survival of the suburbs, and this great bit at the end:

...fossil fuels represent hundreds of millions of years of stored energy -- effectively the surplus of the abundance of Gaia as a self organizing organism, the living earth. You could say that now we've dug it all out again, in a way we've done nature's task -- humanity's task is now over. We've put it all back into the atmosphere, recycled all the biological elements, and nature will now use that to develop to a higher level of energy... We just have to worry about what it means to be human and to continue to attempt to live out that story.

October 10. New Jersey considers selling turnpike. I had never thought about this, but now it takes only a minute to think it through: a network of expensive, well-maintained toll roads for the rich, and everyone else forced to drive (walk, ride) the deteriorating old highways, which, if we're lucky, will be free of both police and bandits.

October 12. Adam M. writes:

The post-apocalyptic future I see is a kind of Burroughsian self-organising anarchy. Rather than nations, there will be races and clans, weird and unique, constantly morphing. New belief systems will proliferate massively. Corporations will build their own 1984 style city-states, which are preyed on by gangs of vampires. There will be bird people who fly and merpeople who live and converse with dolphins. In short I suspect we may be (re-)entering Mythical Times.

October 18. An article about Stirling Solar-Thermal Generators, super-efficient solar energy systems that, "due to their size and cost, are intended for industrial use only."

Notice that every article about energy systems contains the word "needs." How much energy do we need? Our ancestors did fine for two million years, or two hundred million if you count our pre-human ancestors, with energy gathered by plants through photosynthesis, taken into our bodies through eating, and channeled through our muscles. Do industrial energy systems make us happy? Do they give our lives meaning?

The only thing we need, beyond basic survival, is participation in a system that builds itself bottom-up from autonomous action. Energy makes us unhappy and stupid when and only when it is gathered and parceled out by control systems. The nice thing about oil and coal is that they run out, and that they pollute the air to cause eco-catastrophes, which are preferable to having our lives managed by the institutions that own the energy. Sustainable, clean energy that you can't cheaply gather in your back yard is a threat, because it strengthens systems that give us comfort without participation.

October 26. There's an urban myth that I see all the time in discussions about energy scarcity: that Jimmy Carter wore a sweater to tell Americans to turn their thermostats down. In fact, he wore a sweater every time he addressed the nation, to cultivate a laid-back common-man image. It had nothing to do with energy and he never said it did. (research credit Tom Moody)

October 29-30. Congress Rams Through Sneak Attack on Organic Standards. Actually, even the organic standards we have now are significantly weaker than the old state standards. Back in the 90's, when farmers made the mistake of asking for a single federal standard, I researched the issue and wrote up a pamphlet summarizing the worst of the dozens of weakenings and corruptions of the state standards. Everyone was focusing on genetic engineering and toxic sludge, but those were just thrown in as bargaining chips. The big obvious changes got taken out and the little ones slipped through, making the "organic" label fully compatible with corporate rule.

What small organic growers need to do now is abandon "organic" and get a new word. They could incorporate aspects of biodynamic agriculture, have really good animal treatment standards, prohibit importation of materials from outside the bioregion, or even prohibit tilling the soil.

Risa recommends the Certified Naturally Grown program, with the same standards as USDA Organic, but with more transparency, and less paperwork to burden small farmers. Or here's another idea from Joshua: "Describe everything you do and use in your farming, and call it Full Disclosure. If you can get an inspector to certify that you have Disclosed Fully, you can even call it Certified Full Disclosure." Then we wouldn't even have to agree on a standard, only on the definition of "full disclosure."

October 30. Scientists aim to beat flu with genetically modified chickens. Ahh, that's what the bird flu scare is about, to frighten us into accepting the replacement of all chickens with genetically engineered chickens, which of course will be patented and owned. Next, they'll invent a human gene that gives immunity to some scary disease, and responsible parents will buy that gene for their kids, and then we'll all be the property of Monsanto, which by then will have changed its name to EarthTech.

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