Sustainability?

May 27, 2012

I have been reading a lot about sustainability lately, trying to pin down what it really means.  I am doing this because I have grown tired of hearing the term bandied about thoughtlessly, used as a marketing slogan in my profession, used as a rallying cry for unthinking do-gooders in the public sphere, and because it is connected with ideas I find fascinating, i.e., the notions that we have to connect us with nature, and the notions we have of nature itself.  Two pieces I looked at are this booklet by a professor in England who’s specialty it is, and this article on ‘carrying capacity‘ by a human geographer at Berkley.

Th images at the head of this post represent the two paths we are told we can follow:  The first is that of bacteria reproducing in a petri dish, the population growing rapidly, then crashing – that’s the path we are supposedly on now; the second is the ‘closed loop’ of eco, bio, sustainable, new age, no growth economics that the prophets seek to bring us to.  The theological/ethical dimensions of the latter view are obvious simply from the array of images presented when you google ‘sustainability’ for images.

Mr. Jackson’s booklet (Prosperity without Growth) goes into great detail about the inequalities, inefficiencies and spiritual dogmas of our present cultural ecology of free enterprise capitalism and consumerism.  He tells that countries with much lower GDPs than the USA or UK have the same, or better!, life expectancies, same or better infant mortality rates, and that new measures of ‘happiness’ show no strong link between materialistic or consumer abundance and satisfaction.  Is this news?  Is this what the Sustainability Program amounts to – a plea to examine the nature of The Good Life, and to act accordingly?  Very old wine in new bottles.

For the record, I largely agree with this philosophic critique of our current social arrangements, but where I part company with the prophets is my belief that our current path IS sustainable, though not preferable (to me).  What these folks are doing is packaging an ethical, philosophical, moral, religious, spiritual and political point of view inside a pseudo-scientific theory.  The logic goes, if we do not change towards a sustainable path, we, human civilization, will crash like those one-celled creatures in the graph at top.  (The intellectual incoherence of this view is dissected in Nathan Sayre’s essay that I have linked to this post.)  Without the Damoclean sword of global meltdown hanging over us, why would anyone do anything to change?  Because society would be more just, more fair, more satisfying, less damaging to the ecological communities we cohabit with on Earth?  There’s too much money to be made to bother with that stuff!

So, what do we end up getting in the absences of a reasoned and organized attack on the status quo?  We get the same old economic system and its injustice and inequality, but we get bike-lanes (I like ’em), ‘green products’, (I hate ’em), tony new-urbanist developments (works for me), hipster eco-esthetic (I like to shop there) carbon footprinting (useless and deceptive) and so on…

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How big and little?

June 4, 2010

~not to scale

I was listening to a talk on sustainability today, and the speaker showed a graphic depicting the Earth and a much smaller sphere that represented the amount of water on the Earth.  I don’t know if he meant it to be just freshwater or not, but that’s what is usually talked about.  Nobody cares how much saltwater there is to drink!

The point of his image was to impress upon us the relative scarcity of water as a resource for human life.  He did the same thing for the Earth’s atmosphere, presumably to show how small its total volume is so we take care about polluting it.  But, I wondered, how significant is this?  The fact that potable water is small in volume in comparison to the volume of the Earth should come as no surprise at all.  Is this just some enviro-sustainability scare story?  I did a few calculations:

Radius of the Earth ~ 6,400 km

Radius of the a sphere containing the Earth’s freshwater ~ 202 km

Radius of the liquid ‘biomass’ of the Earth’s human population ~ 0.4 km

That last one may have you puzzled, but I was just wondering how this hypothetical drinkable sphere compared to the mass of those that drink it.  I took the population of the globe, assumed an average weight of 60 kg (probably conservative, considering how many children and malnourished people there are in the world today) and assumed that 60% of their weight is water – estimates vary depending on age:  it seems to decline as we get older.  That’s how I determined our liquid biomass.

What does it mean?  Well, it’s very small compared to the water-sphere.  Of course, the water is not uniformly distributed, nor is it necessarily found where we need it.  For instance, a good proportion of it is locked into glaciers and the polar ice sheets.  But what does telling us that the water makes a sphere much smaller than the Earth tell us?  Not much there either.

Scale and perspective are key, and they are always in short supply.


Sugar tapping into the bit-stream

November 16, 2009

We are all connected!Sometimes in my job, I feel like I’m in a bad science fiction movie.  The one in which a technocrat is speaking to a well-heeled audience about some new computer gismo that is going to change all of our lives – for the better – while disaster looms outside…

I attended a conference today, in the grand interior rotunda of a university library, about the use of  “geospatial” technology – that’s my field, maps, GIS, location data,  etc. – and disaster preparedness planning.  One fellow, a doctor and a tireless worker in various international NGO’s, talked about all the great, whiz-bang Web locational stuff that is helping him and his peers “save some lives.”  I’ve no complaint with that!

He talked about a sugar tapper in the rainforest of Indonesia, a bona fide member of a head-hunting tribe, who has the right to tap twelve trees in this jungle, and how he was able to double his income once he received some global positioning (GPS) tools.  Since the same person spoke about how local people serve as guides to internationals because only they can find their way around the forest they have lived in all their lives, I wondered why GPS made a difference to this guy.  Born and raised to the area, wouldn’t he have all sorts of low-tech, traditional ways of keeping track of where his trees are and when it was time to visit them to collect sugar?  Isn’t that the sort of indigenous knowledge we techno-nerds of the West are always rhapsodizing about when we get bored with our toys?  I asked exactly that question, and the answer was simple.

The tapper had no problem finding his trees and organizing his work, but by selling his sugar as Certified Organic, he was able to abandon smuggling as a livelihood and enter the global market for “green” agriculture.  In order to gain access to this market, he had to produce lots of paperwork and keep detailed records, and for this, GPS, digital maps, spreadsheets, and various plug-ins and plug-outs are invaluable.

I am happy this man is able to support himself in this sustainable way, and glad that the local university is involved in helping his community overcome the technical hurdles to entering this market – it seems like a good local development effort on their part.  It is important to keep in mind, however, exactly what problem was being solved.  The farmer had no technical problem running his sugar operation.  The problem was in being accepted into the global network of selling.  How you feel about his success here depends on what you think about globalization, capitalism, organic agriculture, and a lot of other things.  I do get the feeling, though, that in these breathless presentations on the value of hi-tech spatial technology that we are often looking for ways to solve problems that the same technologies have created.

Another speaker, a professor who also runs this outfit, talked about how four or five infrastructure providers are collecting data each day on phone callers:  from where and when they place a call.  These corporations are looking for ways to use this data, “creative business opportunities, or societal-beneficial stuff ” he said.  Presented with this mass of data – the problem – they search for meaning, and create solutions to extract it.   At one point he said that using this data, we can tell who and what we are by virtue of our co-locating.  That is, you know something about people by knowing where they meet and with whom.  Except that this data just tells you where and when pretty much…

One such exercise involved graphing the volume of commuters to the financial district of San Francisco against the Dow Jones.  We see that people tend to go in to the office early when the market isn’t doing too well.  They come in later when the market seems to be trending upwards steadily.  Surprised?  Imagine, you could develop “smart advertising” targeting those people by changing digital ads in real-time on  trains, buses, and billboards! – my idea, BTW, but only in the particulars.  Unusually heavy early traffic going into the city?  Cue the bromo-seltzer and beer ads – it’s going to be a bruiser of a day on the trading floor!

I know that technology has wonderful and humane applications, but stuff like this is enough to make you a Luddite.  Part of the idolatry of the computer, and the relentless drive to draw us all into the web of the International Work (and buy) Machine.

Now, this leaves open only one question:  How do I get the four or five hundred people who visit this blog each day to pay me some money!!  How much would you pay for the privilege?



I hate to do this, but…

July 6, 2009

forward_stalin

…I couldn’t stop myself.  I don’t like to make fun of well-meaning people, but sometimes…

This letter was in the New York Times today, or rather, in the Soviet equivalent in…1929?

To the Editor:

Citizen Osterbrook knocks down the straw man of zero-emissions coal-fired power plants to prop up arguments for a path towards bourgeois endorsement of old, dirty, dangerous technology.

He is mistaken when he says that new energy needs cannot be met with clean energy sources alone. We must stand with our forward-thinking leader and comrade on this, and meet our new energy needs by commanding the technologies of the future.

Instead of perpetuating coal, let us instead become again that country that, when put to the test, built socialism in one country!

Wind and solar power can meet our new energy needs through technology available today. All we need is the political will to harness it. Naysayers like Mr. Osterbrook will leave us in the dustbin of history!

Isaac Bloom
Minneapolis, June 29, ?

Read the original, here.