Monthly Archives: February 2007

Keep hacking!

Whole Earth Catalog

From an NYT profile of Stewart Brand, written by John Tierney:

“You have to keep on trying new things.”

That’s a good strategy, whether you’re trying to build a sustainable career or a sustainable civilization. Ultimately, there’s no safety in clinging to a romanticized past or trying to plan a risk-free future. You have to keep looking for better tools and learning from mistakes. You have to keep on hacking.

Read the whole article for some challenging assertions!

Design on the Edge – David W. Orr (2006)

Design on the Edge

I recently finished Design on the Edge by David W. Orr, the story of the creation of the Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. From the beginning this was planned as a sustainability project, to design a building that would use less energy and water, be built of materials with minimal ecological impacts (both in their creation and use), and would serve as an ongoing learning center about ecological interconnections.  David Orr is a professor at Oberlin, and was a champion of this project through its full lifecycle.

Orr makes it clear that there were many hurdles along the way; most of them institutional, not technological. At this point it seems fairly clear that there are tested techniques for making these project successful, but it seems that the mindset of many people is not yet ready to embrace the concept. Orr was very disappointed to see that even after the proven success of the Lewis Center, that subsequent Oberlin building projects, in particular a new science center, were built using conventional approaches, with guaranteed higher lifetime costs.

It’s really time for a total embrace of smart, green building in all projects.  We know how to do this!

Reach exceeds one's grasp?

TS Eliot marker

Today I found a quote that I saved a while back, and figured it was time to finally jot it down here. It’s from T.S. Eliot, and he says “In ‘The Waste Land’ I wasn’t even bothering whether I understood what I was saying.” As an intro to the line, a reviewer notes, “Some of his earlier writing was obscure, he admits, and suggest that young poets can be difficult to make out just because they want to express more than they know how.”

I don’t know Eliot real well, but I think the same idea applies to all writers. As the best example, I suspect Thomas Pynchon would say something similar about ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’; a book which seems to suggest levels of deep understanding, assisted by a very metaphorical approach. Quotes have circulated that indicate that Pynchon could not always remember precisely what he was getting at as he re-read passages. In his latest opus, ‘Against the Day’, my sense is that Pynchon is much more aware of his own lack of full understanding, while acknowledging that he’s still fascinated by certain threads and strands that suggest deeper awareness is possible.

The Eiffel Tower

I’m just back from a 10 day stay in Paris. I got very lucky on the weather; last weekend was just lovely there!

The prime icon of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, is unavoidable, and is nowadays even more conspicuous at night as they frequently turn on flashing lights all up and down the tower. But what I find most interesting about the site is at the base – the beams of iron meeting the earth at a severe angle, creating a powerful image of tension.

Slow burn

The latest big climate report does not feature good news. There is increasing consensus that man’s activity is ‘very likely’ having an impact on the climate, and recent weather activity adds to evidence of climate shift. I think there’s still uncertainty on the longer range projections, but it now seems to be at the point where the risks of continuing unabated are outweighing the costs of taking action.

My feeling is that we will see increasing action, some helpful, some maybe not. I think green building will quickly become the new standard. I think oil & gas will be volatile in terms of price, both due to peak production issues and geo-political activities, so it’s hard to guess how people will react to that. I fear that ethanol (corn-based) will be more problematic than helpful.

Middle East Map

Middle East Map
I found this map very helpful in understanding why there’s essentially a civil war in Iraq. And why folks say a Shia-led government there is an ally of Iran.



James Howard Kunstler’s latest post ‘The Agenda Restated’ provides his ideas for action. I dig this one above all:

Expand your view beyond the question of how we will run all the cars by means other than gasoline. This obsession with keeping the cars running at all costs could really prove fatal. It is especially unhelpful that so many self-proclaimed “greens” and political “progressives” are hung up on this monomaniacal theme. Get this: the cars are not part of the solution (whether they run on fossil fuels, vodka, used frymax™ oil, or cow shit). They are at the heart of the problem. And trying to salvage the entire Happy Motoring system by shifting it from gasoline to other fuels will only make things much worse. The bottom line of this is: start thinking beyond the car.

And the bottom line:

The best way to feel hopeful about the future is to get off your ass and demonstrate to yourself that you are a capable, competent individual resolutely able to face new circumstances.


War on Iran? Bad Idea!

Map of Iran

Increasingly I am seeing stories in the media about a possible U.S. attack, such as this article “Imagining A War With Iran” from the New York Sun. Sabre-rattling is one thing, but the Bush Administration doesn’t really do that – its strategy always appears to be military first (kind of like thinking you can fix everything with a hammer). I think it’s a terrible idea for a variety of reasons.

1. I doubt we have strong intelligence about where supposed nuclear activities are actually occuring. Thus bombing will end up being semi-random and will not do what it’s claimed to do (but will, of course, kill plenty of innocents).

2. I think the regime in Iran is actually pretty unsteady already, and could fall before long. But if we knock it over violently, there will be hatred, not thanks, for the U.S. If we actually care about reducing long-term threats to the U.S., an attack on Iran is not the way to achieve it.

3. The U.S. can’t really afford to do this; particulary if it would create chaos in oil markets. $100/barrel may seem cheap if an attack happens. And of course however many hundreds of billions of dollars for war spending.

I’m sure there are plenty more good arguments against a war plan, but this is enough in my mind. I just hope that there’s some chance to stop it.

I note that quite a few people seem to think all the Iran talk is simply a red herring, and I hope they’re right. But doing always starts with imagining and planning.

Don't eat the yellow snow!

Snow in Omsk

This does not seem like a good thing:

Russia has flown a team of chemical experts to a Siberian region to find out why smelly, coloured snow has been falling over several towns.

Oily yellow and orange snowflakes fell over an area of more than 1,500sq km (570sq miles) in the Omsk region on Wednesday, Russian officials said.

Chemical tests were under way to determine the cause, they said.

Residents have been advised not to use the snow for household tasks or let animals graze on it.

“So far we cannot explain the snow, which is oily to the touch and has a pronounced rotten smell,” said Omsk environmental prosecutor Anton German, quoted by the Russian news agency Itar-Tass on Thursday.

Whole story at BBC.

Revolutionary Wealth – Tofflers (2006)

Revolutionary Wealth

Let’s get right to it. Revolutionary Wealth is not a very good book. I read about 80 pages and decided to stop. I guess I was hoping for a bit more than what’s here, which is a ton of facts loosely grouped into chapters. I was also disappointed to find that the word ‘sustainability’ does not appear in the index.  I could go on, but I think Robert Solow does a much better job in his review, entitled ‘Gee Whiz’ where he begins like this:

Reading this book is a lot like watching the preview of a new action movie: one rapid-fire, fragmentary scene after another, loud, flashy, logically unconnected to the one that came before or the one that comes after. It is very exciting, but when it is over you have no clear idea what the movie is actually about.

I hope he didn’t really read the whole thing!

PS. I’ve been trying to take Tyler Cowen’s advice to start lots of books and only finish the ones worth reading.