Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Slavery and Fossil Fuels

The nineteenth century global economy was a like a small scale version of today's global economy. Trade in slaves, sugar, coffee, tobacco, and cotton were the drivers of global economic growth. But the growing trade in the above mentioned non-human commodities was first made possible by slave labour in plantations in the tropics and the American South.

In our modern global economy, cheap fossil fuels have taken the place of slaves. Industrial farming, convenient travel by automobile, and the transportation of commodities by trucks and tankers is all made possible by fossil fuels.

The nineteenth century movement to abolish slavery, called “Abolitionism” was entirely based on the moral inhumanity of slavery. Slowly but surely, the idea of buying and selling human beings, of separating members of slave families, of punishing slaves with whippings and other forms of torture, came to be seen as morally unjustifiable.

The twenty-first Century movement to stop runaway global warming is based more on science than on morals. Science tells us that the unchecked growth in fossil fuel consumption is leading to accelerating global warming. Science also tells us that this warming has catastrophic potential for all humans because of the increased probability of drought, forest fires, flooding and destruction of biodiversity.

Because the case for preventing global warming is largely based on science it has a much better potential for gaining widespread agreement among the world's nations. It took fifty years for the British abolitionist movement to halt slavery in the British colonies, where it finally ended in 1833. But it took closer to a hundred years and a wrenching civil war for the United States to abolish it.

It's instructive to examine the difference between British and American abolitionism. In both countries slave owners and slave traders stood to lose profits from abolition. But in Great Britain slaveholders were a small society of men who owned plantations in the British colonies, mostly in the Caribbean. In the United States slavery was the basis of the Southern states' economy. When American abolitionists first aimed a direct mail campaign at the South in the 1830's, the Southern reaction was swift and decisive. The entire white population of the South rallied around the cause of slavery, intimidating and physically expelling anyone who dared to disagree.

As a voting block, the South was able to stalemate and paralyse all three branches of the federal government whenever attempts to deal with the issues of slavery were made. It took the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln in 1860, to end the stalemate, but the Southerners refused to accept the result and quickly declared war on the Northern states.

There is no doubt that the economies of Great Britain and the United States were harmed by abolition. Slavery, was, after all, profitable. But the majority of English and Americans were persuaded that the moral result was worth the cost.

In our modern global economy, it is some of the richest corporations – the oil corporations like Exxon and Shell that stand to lose the most from our taking action to stop runaway global warming. The fact that they are so profitable is relevant here because their huge profits are being used to subvert political systems all over the world.

Unfortunately, the 2016 U.S. election of Donald Trump has left us with an American Executive and Legislature that is bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry.   It's no wonder that they have made it their goal to block the kind of national and international action necessary to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

 One of our priorities  should be to put a stop to the undue influence of corporate money on politics. We don't even have ten years to turn things around, let alone fifty. There is no justification for putting the human race at risk for the sake of oil company profits.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

I had a conversation with my eldest son Michael about a month ago. It was just before I got married. We discussed: “Why can't knowledge be used to make things in society work better?” This question of my son's got me to thinking about what is knowledge and what is the difference between knowledge of nature and knowledge of human affairs. In philosophy, this is called epistemology, the study of knowledge.

I was very gratified that Michael was interested in this subject. And, though at that time that I studied philosophy in University, I wondered whether there was any point in it, my son's question made me realize how important the consequences of a particular epistemology can be.

Consider the case of “self-fufilling prophecies”. I believe that my neighbour is a witch. I accuse her in public. She denies it, but under the law the way to ascertain if someone is a witch is to torture them ( truth by ordeal). It's no surprise that the majority of accused will confess after being tortured. And the publicity of the case leads some people to see more witches, just by the power of suggestion. Soon more people confess to being witches and now we're into a full blown witch hunt.

Eventually the witch hunts ended but not before tens of thousands of women were burned at the stake. This happened about five hundred years ago. The interesting thing here is that the fact that witches with supernatural powers don't exist didn't stop Europe from seeing more and more witches. In other words, beliefs can be self-reinforcing even though they are false.

Consider another case closer to home. Banks don't actually have as much money as people deposit in them. They create money by loaning out multiples of their cash deposits. If most depositors believe that there is enough money then there is enough money. And as a consequence, each individual will have no trouble withdrawing their whole deposit if they want to. But if enough people believe that there isn't enough money, they will make a run on the banks, banks will close down and people will not be able to withdraw their money. So their won't be enough money.

Or, if enough people believe that money is worth less today than it was yesterday, they will delay paying back their loans, they will spend their money as fast as they can, the money supply will expand and prices will rise. So money will be worth less. Again, a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Our beliefs about ourselves effect our actions. Author George Soros calls this “reflexivity”. That means that human behaviour is not independent from our knowledge of it. Why is this important? Because it means that the correspondence theory of truth does not always work. A statement is true if it corresponds to reality. I'm sitting on a chair. This corresponds to the truth. No problem. But what if our thoughts change reality? Then the idea of “correspondence” is problematic because thoughts and realities are not independent of each other. It's when you get into things like witches and money that correspondence to reality is a problem because what we believe about witches or money effects their reality.

We can assume that the correspondence theory of truth works for natural science but not always for the social sciences because of the principle of reflexivity. Thus the idea that the way we study social science must be different in kind from the way we study nature. Of course we go on acting as if the truth of our statements about humans corresponds to reality but we have a lot harder time knowing for sure. What we believe could just be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the stronger we believe it the more self reinforcing it becomes.

If knowledge must be certain this implies that those with access to knowledge have a monopoly on the truth. Any political system based on this will be rigid and closed to change or improvement. This is the religious, tribal, and totalitarian approach to knowledge and it leads to a closed society. That's why epistemology is so important. If we believe that knowledge is fallible then we have to be at least open to other points of view and open to change in our views. And if knowledge is imperfect that means that there is always room for improvement.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Science and Religion

Science and Religion are two different things. But a long time ago they were one thing. The Greek Pythagoras lived at about the same time as the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews. He is said to have discovered irrational numbers and the Pythagorem theorem in geometry. Pythagoras was head of a mystical brotherhood of mathematicians. He is said to have believed in the transmigration of human souls, which he may have picked up from Hinduism. Pythagoras believed that numbers formed the ultimate reality and that knowing the numbers and their relationships revealed the divine nature behind the origin and perfection of the universe. This divine nature was called the “Logos”. An idea that influences the Apostle John in the New Testament, more than five hundred years later.

Pythagoras is situated at the birth of science when science and religion were not seen as seperate and they cross- fertilized each other. When they cross-fertilize they lead to heightened creativity, to bold new theologies and scientific theories. The idea that numbers are the ultimate reality eventually leads to modern science, especially in the figure of Copernicus. At the beginning of the Renaissance, European scholars began to rediscover the writings of the Classical Greeks. But Copernicus, was not happy with the astronomical predictions of Ptolomy, the greatest of the Greek astronomers. Ptolomy's calculations for the movements of the planets were inaccurate and imprecise. Copernicus went back and looked at the writings of the other Greek astronomers, H e came to realize that it was Ptolomy's theory about the relationship of the planets with the Earth and the Sun that was at fault.

Instead of everything revolving around the Earth, Copernicus said that the Earth was a planet and it and the other planets moved around the Sun. The Earth moves. But, of course, common sense tells us that the Earth does not move. We see the sun cross the sky every day and the moon and the stars every night. Besides, if the Earth moved, things would fly off of it.

This is what people believed and Copernicus was careful to have his theories published posthumously. Around the same time Martin Luther was busy challenging the authority of the Catholic Church. Luther took scriptural authority as ultimate, overriding the authority of the Church hierarchy. Luther's move to make scripture the ultimate authority, has had unfortunate consequences for the relationship between science and religion because it created a conflict between holy scripture and modern science. Copernicus says the Earth moves, but the Bible says that the sun moves around the Earth. Luther's Reformation creates a counter move in the Catholic Church - the Counter-Reformation. The Curch ends up condemning Copernican theory.

Science is cumulative. Unlike theology scientific theories can be falsified and overthrown. Science doesn't work by scriptural authority. To be a scientist, you don't need to follow the work of Pythagoras, Plato or Aristotle. Science evolves, it deepens our understanding over time. It leads to ever more specialized knowledge. A scientist like Einstein can create a theory that contradicts the earlier work of Newton, at the same that it deepens our understanding of gravity.

But the conflict between science and religion reaches a crisis four hundred years after Copernicus, when Charles Darwin publishes his theory of evolution. Darwin's theory contradicts the Bible on a number of crucial issues. It disagrees with the Biblical account of how the Universe began, and how humans were created and on the age of the Universe. As a result of Darwin's theory, the split between liberals and the Biblical literalists becomes permanent. Those who hold to scriptural authority, who we now call Fundamentalists, reject the theory of evolution because it contradicts scripture. Those Christians we call “liberals” accept the authority of scientific discovery when it concerns factual matters about the physical world.

The same divide between liberal and Fundamentalist Christians also exists around the issue of Global Warming. Most Fundamentalists reject the science about global warming. Why? It is not so much that it contradicts the Bible as that it draws attention away from it. Global warming is a more convincing story than the Biblical Apocalypses in the Book of Daniel and Revelations.

What is an apocalypse? It is a story about how the table is turned by a series of catastrophies, so that the wicked, who were formerly in power are cast down and the righteous are lifted up and exhalted. A modern example is the”Left Behind” series. Apocalyptic stories are elaborate revenge fantasies.

Global warming is more convincing than the Bible's apocalyptic stories because we can see the evidence for ourselves in the changing weather in the skies. What's more, the evidence fits the scientific predictions very closely. More frequent and more powerful storms, flooding, forest fires, and drought.

Of course the weather is not being selective about who it harms but it is quickly becoming a vehicle for people's fantasies. For instance, Bill Shanker of the New Covenant Fellowship of New Orleans says this about the significance of Hurricane Katrina:

"New Orleans now is abortion free. New Orleans now is Mardi Gras free. New Orleans now is free of Southern Decadence and the sodomites, the witchcraft workers, false religion – it's free of all those things now. God simply, I believe, purged all of that stuff out of there – and now we're going to start all over again."

Liberal Christians have accepted global warming as true, and it's beginning to influence the way they practice religion. Climate scientists have talked about the “moral imperative” of lowering carbon dioxide emissions. Al Gore calls it a moral and a spiritual challenge. Here we have the vital cross-fertilization of science and religion. People accept the predictive authority of science but religion inspires and motivates the science of global warming because people are concerned about the future,

The rivalry between fundamentalism and science has played a part in the Bush Administration's suppression of the science of global warming and could, if not checked, lead to a theocracy. Creativity, scientific knowledge, and basic human rights and freedoms would all be the causalties. The path of Pythagoras and religious liberalism has led to the fruitful cross-fertilization of science and religion. Science and religion need each other.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Building The Great Great Wall

"We will soon begin construction of a Great Great Wall along our southern border." - President Trump, inaugural address to Congress.

When I think of serious walls, two walls come to mind: The Great Wall of China, and the Berlin Wall. President Trump says that he is building a “Great Great Wall”.   This could lead to another diplomatic incident, inadvertently clashing with China's "One Great Wall" Policy. The Chinese will not take kindly to their Great Wall downgraded to something less Big.   

Nevertheless, these two historical examples  are instructive.  One wall was built to keep people out.  The other wall was built to keep people in.  Both were truly audacious projects, but in the end, neither worked out as planned.

The Chinese definitely win the prize for hubris for the sheer scale of their enterprise, in fact it is the largest man made object in the world.  No doubt their wall cost a lot of money, but it employed a lot of people and helped their economy grow, didn’t it?  And it employed lots of workers for hundreds of years.   And the people it kept out:  we’re talking pillagers and rapists, we’re talking bad hombres.  

The problem only came hundreds of years later when the worst pillager and rapist of them all -  Ghengis Khan - circumvented the  wall and conquered China and all of Asia Central,  and, this is documented, there is evidence in our DNA, this bad hombre sired more children than any other individual in history.

 So much for building a very big wall to protect your country.  China has been there, done that.  Now it’s their biggest tourist attraction.  This shows that with sufficient time, you too can recover from bad hombres running your country.  

In 1961 the East Germans, a client state of the now defunct Soviet Union, built a wall that followed the dividing line between East and West Germany through the city of Berlin.  They built this wall, topped with barbed wire and manned with machine guns, in order to stop East Germans from leaving the Communist East to go to the Capitalist West.  

Then in 1989 the Soviet Economy collapsed, probably because of chronically low oil prices, and very soon after that people tore down the Berlin wall, brick by brick, and within a few years Germany re-united.

Now, in 2017 the new Wall-Builder-In-Chief has officially  passed the baton of "the leader of the free world" on to Angela Merkl;  and this shows that you can recover and heal your nation after a particular ugly wall has been built, and even become the leader of the free world.  

 If you want to know why Trump wants to build The Great Great Wall, you can get a hint from Christian Evangelist David Barton, who runs an internet Website called "    “WallBuilders is an organization dedicated to presenting America’s forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built – a foundation which, in recent years, has been seriously attacked and undermined.”   So says David Barton, who calls himself - “America’s Premier Historian.”

 You see: “In the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, the nation of Israel rallied together in a grassroots movement to help rebuild the walls of Jerusalem…”  On this point I beg to differ with “America’s Premier Historian.”   If memory serves me well, the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls was no grassroots event.  It was overseen and funded by the Persian Empire.  It even says so, right there in the Bible. The Persian Empire was the new kid on the block at that time, and unlike the Babylonians and Assyrians before them, they actively supported subject peoples’ keeping their ethnic religious systems intact.

The new Nehemiah is going to build a Wall.  A “Great Great Wall” that will protect all the faithful against “Them”  -  the Coloured, the Muslims, the “Extremist Islamic Terrorists.”  

Nor will the Great Great Wall that is to come  be a grassroots movement,  because the Great Great Wall also requires a great military buildup, and a great new partnership between Industry and Government. That’s OK with Evangelical Christian, David Barton, because he sees Donald Trump’s new administration and I quote him: “I’m loving what I am seeing.”

To build a Great Great Wall  it was necessary  to pass the baton of "the leader of the free world" from America,  to the leader of the nation that managed to break down the last big wall.  This will be a point of interest to future Historians, if there are any.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The New Wizard of Oz

To paraphrase a great American work on the subject of American Politics:  "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore."  

In my opinion, the most appropriate guide to what is going on today, south of the border is The Wizard of Oz.  Toto, Dorothy's little dog, had the right impulse - to pull back the curtain on this spectacle.  We are getting so distracted by a train of spectacle, but all along the important stuff is happening behind the curtain.  

Rwanda isn't the U.S., but for weeks before the Rwandan Genocide, the radio in Rwanda broadcast a message in code over and over again.  The message amounted to the de-humanisation of one ethnic group,  calling them"cockroaches" and calling for their elimination.  In the United States we are seeing a dangerous polarization between Trump supporters and everyone else.  Trump, "The Great and Powerful Oz”  is creating spectacle after spectacle;  His followers are listening to him, not to the real press who are now "enemies of the state".

Trump started his campaign with the Birther Lie, then Mexicans, then Muslims.  He's building a "Wall" , but it is like the Wizard’s curtain, one that hides one reality from another.   The more this wall is internalized the more effective the de-humanization becomes.

Meanwhile, behind the curtain, America is being deconstructed - democracy, the social safety net, education, and scientific knowledge are being jackhammered out of existence by extremist Republicans.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Human System


I have an ongoing joke with my wife Candace about my “system”.  It’s the way I like to heat the rooms of our little  house in the winter, and it involves turning in-room heaters on or off and opening or closing certain doors at various strategic times. Candace smiles at the arcaneness of my “system”.  Here, where I am  referring to my “system,”  I mean “a way of doing things” that I repeat each day when the outside environment calls for it.  

We can call the local weather a system in another way.  It is certainly a regular way of doing things, but, unlike my opening and closing doors,  it is not a goal-directed process.  It is a natural, self-organized, physical process that begins in the Pacific Ocean and sweeps across parts of North America, eventually dissipating over the Atlantic.  

There are many other regional weather systems around the Earth, and these together make up an evolving Global Climate System that is presently warming, but that  last wrapped most of the Northern Hemisphere in ice sixty thousand years ago and then melted away over tens of thousands of years. The global Climate System has profound effects on Earth’s surface geology, and on the evolution of living ecosystems.

Here’s how I see things:  The Universe is a system, and it’s  a hierarchy of systems all the way down to the finest detail.  Here on Earth we are a part of the Solar System, which is, of course, a ridiculously tiny part of the Universe.  But we are in an orbit around the Sun that has afforded the Earth a temperature range that has kept most of its water in a liquid state for four billion years, and this is what has made the continued existence of life possible.

We humans are part of the Earth’s biosphere, or Life-system.  
Living systems are different from non-living physical systems because living systems purposively maintain themselves and reproduce, spreading until they reach every corner of our planet.  Since life took over it has been the determining factor in furnishing Earth’s global atmosphere of oxygen, carbon-dioxide, and nitrogen, it has, through preserving the oceans, kept the Earth itself alive and volcanically active over billions of years.  How is this possible?

Living things are so coupled to the Earth that ecosystems have changed both the atmosphere and the climate over aeons.  Indeed, the presence of life itself is also part of the reason that life has had almost four billion years to evolve from bacteria to humans.  Our very oceans have existed for this long time because photosynthetic bacteria and green algae have produced enough oxygen that it has, in the form of high-altitude ozone,  shielded the oceans from too much of the Sun’s ultraviolet light.  Without ozone, over billions of years, the excess ultraviolet would have split enough water molecules to empty the Earth’s oceans.

If you find this hard to believe, consider Mars:  Mars does not have a Life System, and so far, we see no evidence of there ever being one.  There is no water there now, not even a puddle, and very little atmosphere, but they say, that there used to be water there...  Life cannot maintain itself without water;  Water cannot maintain itself without life.  

The Universe is systems all the way down.  Life is a planet-wide system.  Humans are biological organisms, which means that each individual human is a single biological system made of skin, bones, muscles, specialized organs and consciousness.  All biological organisms, including humans, are systems entirely made of cells, and each cell is a tiny system of molecules, membranes, and organelles, containing a genetic blueprint that can direct the building of any cell in the body from scratch.    
The very long, from our perspective, timeline of natural systems, such as the Earth’s global climate, demonstrates this rule of thumb:  the bigger the system,  the longer the time frame that’s involved in that system.  Human systems occupy a middle ground, between microscopic systems that grow and die in minutes or days, and planetary, star, and galaxy systems that grow and die in the space of billions of years.

But here's an exception to my rule - hydrogen atoms. In relation to humans they are submicroscopic systems. And as for age they are the oldest of all, the same age as the Universe. Our bodies are made up of molecular systems that contain a significant proportion of hydrogen atoms in relation to other elements. And wait - there's more! Just about every atom in the Universe is either Hydrogen or it was made from Hydrogen by nuclear reactions deep inside of countless stars. They make up the most plentiful thing in the Universe and they just happen to be the oldest systems around.

Each one of those tiny systems is the basic building block for all other systems. Each hydrogen atom is directly connected by origin to the birth of the Universe. This is what it means, in systems theory, to say that everything is connected.

Let's go back to my rule of thumb: The bigger the system the longer the time-frame. I keep saying that humans occupy the middle ground. The reason is because it took the universe seventeen billion years to produce us. We are young, we are infants compared to almost everything else but our own artefacts.  Some say humans evolved one half million years ago.  I mark the dividing line at two million years, with the first evidence of Homo Erectus.  

Homo Erectus is more than just an ape man.  Hominins - that’s our evolutionary precursors - start to look more like modern humans with homo erectus.  And in the time space of one and a half million years after Erectus appears in the fossil record, humans evolved bigger brains, longer childhoods - thus greater potential for learning - and the abilities to cook, to make stone tools, to control fire, and to migrate out of Africa.

Should we claim for human systems the possibilities inherent in billions of years when we have only been around for scarce two million? Can we grow as big or bigger than the Earth’s life-system? I believe that these two  questions are really  the same question.

The fact that the human race is only two million years old, and it took  four billion years for the Earth’s Life-system to  reach that point, indicates nothing robust about humans.  We are delicate, precarious, particular beings.  We couldn’t have evolved eight million years ago, let alone four billion years ago.  Imagine a world without flowers, which evolved 160 million years ago, or mammals, who celebrate their 250 millionth birthday today.   We are contained in the Earth’s biosphere and cannot escape it because we utterly depend on it for our survival.  

What is the human system, that we believe that it could surpass the Earth’s Life-system?  Is it our technological systems that would make this possible?  The evidence of the last three hundred years decisively contradicts this hope.  We are now in the midst of an Extinction -Event, something that happens about once every hundred million years.  Scientists call this latest event The Anthropocene age, for the unmistakable fact that humans are causing this latest collapse in biodiversity.  And we are causing it because our advanced technologies give us access to fossil fuels.

When it comes to systems, size matters.  Large systems can  utilize more energy and have more powerful effects.  The Pacific Ocean has a greater effect on the Earth’s weather patterns than the Atlantic Ocean.  The Earth’s plate tectonic system has an even  greater effect through its access to the tremendous heat in Earth’s Core and Mantle, changing the shape of the continents and the seas over a time frame of hundreds of millions of years.

The human system cannot grow beyond the bounds of Earth’s Life-system.  We cannot grow bigger than a system that we totally depend on  without fatally undermining ourselves in the process. In point of  fact, one could ask, how is it even possible to do this?  How can humans, who must derive their nourishment from the biosphere, surpass the biosphere?

The human system has tapped into The Earth’s tectonic system to extract energy from fossilised carbon.  We have grown in numbers and power as a result.  We are using up the energy that was stored in the Earth for hundreds of millions of years in the space of only three hundred years.

It is because we have tapped into an ancient form of accumulated energy from the Earth that we humans have been able to build  global systems in the past three hundred years: systems of transportation, economic systems, communication systems,  legal systems, administrative systems.    When we start decreasing our use of fossil fuels our systems will have to get smaller too.  With less access to energy what the system can do will be less.

The best scenario I see is to gradually stop the extraction of fossil carbon and replace it with a more decentralized system of renewables.  Society will then have to run on a smaller scale because we will lack the concentrated energy of fossil fuels.

Or we can opt out of a future for humanity altogether.   We can continue to burn more and more fossil fuels and allow our systems to grow bigger and bigger, until the entire  human system, in all its power and glory, smashes into the wall and breaks apart into countless shards.
  Global Warming is a sign that we have already grown too big and gone too far, but why not push the envelope that much further, and risk our very future for the sake of greater financial rewards and bigger and faster cars?  

Size matters.  The Earth cannot sustain a population size of six billion humans or larger.  We have reached this size by using fossil fuels.  This increased usage of energy  is changing the Earth’s Climate System.  Remember, this system usually works on a time scale of tens of thousands of years or more.  Human civilization is less than ten thousand years old.  The use and extraction of fossil fuels only started in earnest about three hundred years ago.  The Climate is warming in the space of one hundred years. Each new year brings  more and bigger  Floods, Forest Fires, Droughts, Hurricanes;  it is like something out of the Bible.

With energy comes power, and power allows us to do more things. Having more power means having a bigger effect on other systems.  Eventually the effect of this power will alter the behaviour of the larger system in a way that undermines our survival as a species, because we cannot escape being dependent on the larger system.  When the Global Climate System works against us our human systems can quickly become overwhelmed.  When we have grown big enough to effect this system, we cannot escape the effects of altering it.  These effects will not be benign.  

Humans have been living in ignorance of these larger systems for  two million  years, with differing consequences.  When the Climate cooled, as it did a hundred thousand years ago, human systems shrunk dramatically.  When the Climate has been favorable, as it has been for the last ten thousand years, humans have prospered and human systems have grown exponentially.

Each system has an optimum size.  Too small and it loses too much access to energy.  Too large, and it undermines its own existence.  A star that grows too large destroys itself in a massive supernova.  A Galaxy that is too large becomes full of black holes.   A living population of organisms that grows too large, runs out of food and drowns in its own waste.

Our Solar system is four and a half billion years old, roughly a quarter of the age of the Universe.  The Earth’s Life-system is somewhat younger, at roughly four billion years old.   

At approximately two million years old humans are a young species.  Many species have been around longer than us - most species of birds and insects, for instance. The human system is young.  But it has the distinction of being  the first system that can identify and understand  all  or almost all other systems.

 Some human systems are very young. The internet is less than half a century old.  Writing, as a communication system is about three thousand years old.  Printing, in the West, is about five hundred years old.   Language as a general system of communication could be anywhere from one hundred thousand years to five hundred thousand years old.

On a smaller scale,  human systems, such as particular languages, nations,  and cities, have lasted for hundreds to thousands of years, families last from several to thousands of generations.  Economic systems grow and die over the space of hundreds of years.  Some  institutions  like marriage, have lasted thousands of years.   All these human systems grow and die, change and evolve, competing and sharing with other human systems.
Most non-human systems that we can observe are far older than any human system.  The geographic features that we live in can be anywhere from tens of thousands to tens of millions of years old or more.  

In the area that I live in, Northwestern BC, the geography was mostly the result of an ice-cap that covered the northern half of North America for most of the last hundred thousand years.  And for the first eighty-five thousand of those years, there were no human footprints here.  

The scale of many natural systems dwarfs the scale of human systems.  The only place that this is not true is in our imaginative systems.  We imagine that we are important because that’s how imagination works.  It always starts with our own experiences and generalizes from that.  

Our imaginations are self-contained.  They have their own rules, they run by their own logic.  But most natural and human systems are open to the influence of the environment.

One knows a system by observing its behaviour and its boundaries. In order to better understand the Human System, we ought to know as much as possible about when it began and how it began.  Then we can better distinguish it from other  kinds of living systems.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Oil Power

The Political and Economic Forces in AnteBellum America that supported slavery were very powerful.  They encompassed all of Southern White Society from the Carolinas to Texas:  the plantation owners, the merchants, the politicians, as well as businessmen in the North who benefitted from the cotton and slave trades. The nineteenth century American Abolitionists called these political and economic forces: “The Slave Power”

During the 1850’s “the Slave Power”  gridlocked American government.  It ensured that only judges who favoured slavery were nominated to the Supreme Court.  The Court’s Dred Scott decision forced citizens from free states to assist in returning escaped slaves to their owners.

Now, let’s imagine that instead of the Civil War, the Slave Power had actually prevailed. Imagine that  Stephen Douglas defeated Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and slavery spread to the Western States, where it continues to this day.  

It is very difficult to believe that that could have happened;  not the election, elections can be very close; it is difficult to believe that slavery could have survived intact today, because it is hard to imagine living in the kind of morally degenerate universe that that would entail.   

It took a bloody Civil War to defeat “The Slave Power”.  A momentous moral change, like that of abolishing slavery is not something that can be fixed in one election, or through one government policy.  It takes a mass movement, like a war, a revolution, or a religious movement.   

Societies are relatively stable.  It is not an easy or simple thing to change  the moral direction.  First, people are used to custom and tradition as well as convenience.  We don’t like to change our ways.  Secondly, many people have a stake in keeping things the way they are.  These wealthy owners stand to lose valuable capital if the system changes.    Even if one can make a good case for a moral change, people who have a strong financial interest in the status quo, such as the slave owners, will fight back hard to keep their privileges.  

A month ago there was another momentous American election.  This election went off like an atomic bomb.  We bid goodbye to Barack Obama, the first Black President, and shield our eyes from the brilliance of Donald Trump, the billionaire with the brightest orange hair imaginable.  

Why did I keep thinking about 1860 and the difference that that election would have made if the outcome had been reversed?  It is because of the power of fossil fuels, that I see this connection.   The Slave Power had a stranglehold on the American government, and only Lincoln’s election made it possible for America to break free of the chains of slavery.

If there were any doubts, it’s now official - Big Oil is back in power, ready to drill and frack everywhere, in America’s national parks and in the Arctic.   Trump’s  pick for Secretary of State is Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon, a company Tillerson has faithfully worked for for forty-one years.  Tillerson also has been friendly with Vladimir Putin and has been on record opposing sanctions against Russia because it interferes with Exxon’s interest in promoting oil exploration in the Russian Arctic.  

Trump has picked former Texas Governor Rick Perry, a man who promised to abolish the Department of Energy, to head the same agency.   He has picked Scott Pruitt a politician with deep ties to the Oklahoma oil industry to head the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency which Pruitt has been suing in order to get its regulations on pollution and CO2 emissions thrown out.  

Trump famously stated that Global Warming was a hoax invented by the Chinese.  Exxon, the corporation that Tillerson has been at the Tiller for the last ten years has spent tens of millions of dollars funding fake grass-roots organizations attacking climate science.  Fake scientists have even been  borrowed from the tobacco industry.  These fossil fuel front organizations have been largely funded by Exxon and the Koch brothers, billionaire owners of the largest privately owned oil company in the world.  

Deceptive PR, creating a fake scientific controversy by financing climate skeptics and paying internet trolls to harass and intimidate legitimate climate scientists has been  and continues to be a clandestine oil industry tactic.  

When you think about it, Putin’s Russia and the Big Oil companies are all using similar tactics to pollute the internet and create an atmosphere of chaos and confusion so that they can do their dirty-work out of the public eye.  

Trump’s team will waste no time in jettisoning anything that could possibly impede the oil industry in its triumphant return.  This will include the purging of climate scientists, and ecologists from the EPA, the Department of Energy, NASA, and other government organizations.  This will include eliminating all scientific efforts to measure and track the effects of CO2 emissions.  

Renewables?  I’m sure they can tweak the laws and regulations to put them out of contention and favour the maximum extraction of fossil fuels.  It’s all about getting it out of the ground as fast as possible before the Climate takes over the tiller permanently.  

Make a deal with Putin.  America needs Oil, and Russia has got it.  Oil is more important than freedom, it is more important than Science, it is more important than the Truth, it has the most money behind it and it can do the most good for our economies.  It is worth it to sacrifice Scientific Knowledge, a liveable Climate, and our collective health for bigger and faster cars and more military weapons.   We need to show the rest of the world that we are boss as long as we are able.

This is the sociopathic logic of The Oil Industry.  Money tells us to drill and frack to get more oil, it doesn’t tell us to save the planet.  The job of the Oil Industry is to plunder, rape, and pillage the earth, until everything is stained with its foul and toxic essence.  This is the Power that has taken over half the earth and yearns for the rest.   This is the Oil Power.