Archive for the ‘Environment’ category

A Different Angle on the Chief

September 1, 2017

In an effort to get back to more posting here, let me begin with some photos from the rock climbers’ access to the Stawamus Chief at Squamish, BC, Canada.  This follows on the previous post about my favorite hike to one of the granite monolith’s main three peaks.

On this recent occasion, my friend Bob, who is a devoted hiker of just about anything in the Squamish-Whistler corridor, told me it was quite interesting to walk along the bottom of the cliffs where the rock climbers go.  Neither of us are rock-climbers, although I like to bring up that I did do some rappelling and rock-scrambling in my youth.

This is also an area with truly massive boulders where we passed several parties of younger climbers practicing, crash pads at the ready on the ground.  But we went inside that belt to approach the bottom of the Grand Wall, and moseyed our way along for a while right at the bottom.

(At the second photo down, where Bob is standing against the cliff, if you look up, up, up you can just make out a couple of climbers – one with some red on.)

Climbing the Wall

Scaling the bottom of the Grand Wall

Bob Pan Stitch

At the bottom of the Grand Wall

Chief ClimberRV1

Rock climber prepared for the Chief

Notes on images:  These were all shot with my Fuji X-100s.  The second is a vertical panorama of course, stitching three photos together with Microsoft’s wonderful (and free) Image Composite Editor.




Hiking the Chief

March 11, 2017

Last fall, in late September, I hiked the Chief in Squamish, which I try to make an annual habit.  The Stawamus Chief, as it is officially named, is a massive knob of granite overlooking the town of Squamish, BC.

Some claim it to be the second largest granite monolith in the world, after El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California.

In any case it is an impressive hunk of rock.  I can see why the local natives might view it to be of spiritual significance.  In some sense it has become that to me: as I get older it becomes a measure of what I can do, and it has long been my favorite hike in the Lower Mainland.

Although steep and mildly challenging in a few parts of the ascent, getting up to one of the three peaks, and back, can be done in a long afternoon.

I’m talking here about the hiking trail; the Chief is probably more famous as a destination for rock-climbers.  I remember sitting up on First Peak with a friend having lunch near the rim of the cliff overlooking Howe Sound one day, when a helmeted head peaked up at us from over the sheer drop, shortly followed by another.  Two young guys clambered over the rim, gathered their ropes amidst the clanking of carabiners, said hi, and made their way nonchalantly to the trail we had come up on.

There are three main summit areas, First, Second and Third Peak, but apparently there is also a more distant peak called the Zodiac Summit, which I’ve never been to.  On the occasion of this hike, I decided to go up to Second Peak.

At 65, the steepness of the hike over the rocks, although occasionally arranged stepwise by those who maintain the trail in this provincial park, made me understand more of the reality of aging.  I had to stop and rest a number of times, but I was glad to see that many of the younger set also had to pull over for a moment or two to catch their breaths and allow their legs to recover.

I don’t know how many more years I will be fortunate enough to clamber upwards on the Chief, but I am grateful for all the the times I have done it.  To stand on the top on a sunny day and gaze over Creation with a friend or on my own lifts my spirits.


The Chief


At the Trail Bottom


A Steep Hike


Alternate Path to First Peak

Upwards to Second Peak

First Peak

From Second Peak, the View Over Howe Sound

The Way Down


Note:  Photos taken with my little Olympus XZ-1.

Can Modern Human Beings Inhabit A Sustainable Environment?

April 4, 2015

Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem
by Jack Harich, System Dynamics Review, 2010, 37 pages

Is it our nature as human beings that we must be so intractable and incapable of change, even against our best interest?

Must the culture to which we belong remain so bent on turning everything into commodities and markets that it becomes less and less possible to live in a decent, dignified way in a healthy world?

Is nature itself doomed by humans unable to get a grip on themselves, like addicts who repeat the same destructive patterns over and over again while constantly talking ineffectually about their plans to get better?

I’ve often wondered about these things, but rather pointlessly without any particular insight, as the world’s stresses mount. But I came across Jack Harich’s paper a while ago, and the analysis he makes of the situation from a systems perspective seemed to actually get at the real difficulties.

I can’t claim any special knowledge about the systems approach, but it does seem to be about the interdependence of things and events.  You can’t look at completely independent elements this way — but what do you know, the world does seem to be wholly interdependent, if not interpenetrating!

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking comes out of General Systems Theory as formulated by the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1930s and 40s with application to everything from biology to cybernetics to the social sciences.

“Cybernetics” is almost a quaint term to me, probably undeservedly so.  But it seems to go along with images from the last century of revolving magnetic tapes on massive IBM computers, and 1970s talk about feedback loops.

But it is actually about information, in all its aspects, and how it changes and makes a difference in the world about us.  Witness all the gadgets and the distracted people.

And of course it can’t help but bring to my mind the book Psycho-Cybernetics, that wildly popular self-help book from the 1960s by cosmetic surgeon Maxwell Maltz.  (I can still see that cover.)

Actually Maltz’s field, although one might be snide about it, was instrumental in developing what the book tried to say: that only with a positive self-image can one strive towards goals worth having, and be able to correct one’s path along the way. In his experience, many of his patients still felt ugly after his surgical attempts to beautify them.  Although perhaps others benefited enough to pursue goals in life with a renewed self-confidence. He saw human behaviour as a negative feedback, cybernetic system.  (It seems to me, though, that self-clarity is just as important as self-image in any such system.)

This can only be peripheral to Jack Harich’s more academic considerations in his article on change resistance and environmental sustainability, although his approach is all about correcting a path that leads nowhere.  And maybe humanity is coming to have a self-image problem….

The situation is that after at least 30 or 40 years of well-intentioned effort, humans have failed to move towards living sustainably on this planet.  The science of environmental sustainability is unable to solve its central problems. Harich proposes a new paradigm, a new way to think about the problems.  But first we need to understand the “old” way.

The Old Paradigm

He identifies the old paradigm as focusing on “proper coupling” as the central problem to solve. Proper coupling occurs when the behavior of one system affects the behavior of other systems in a desirable manner, using the appropriate feedback loops, so the systems work together in harmony in accordance with design objectives. For example, if you never got hungry you would starve to death…. ”

“In the environmental sustainability problem the human system has become improperly coupled to the greater system it lives within: the environment.”

He notes that in 1972 the publication of The Limits to Growth brought the problem of environment sustainability to the world’s attention and defined the problem as how to devise economic and ecological sustainability that could last far into the future.  How can the ecological and economic systems be properly coupled? More elaborations of coupling mechanisms were proposed such as “a broad natural capital depletion tax, application of the precautionary polluter pays principle, and a system of ecological tariffs.”

In 2007, the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report encouraged governments to create incentives to mitigate environmental problems.  Another way to promote proper coupling.

The New Paradigm of Change Resistance

Harich recounts a discussion years ago over a difficult problem with a young engineer from the U.K., who suggested that if you’ve looked at a problem from every angle and still are stumped, then you probably have a missing abstraction.  Find it, and the problem becomes more solvable, he says.

So to Harich, change resistance is that missing abstraction.  The term describes the tendency of a system to continue its current behavior, despite the application of forceful measures to change that behavior. The main feature of this is that the status quo represents an equilibrium between the barriers to change and the forces favoring change.  And the status quo today, as Harich points out, is an unsustainable world.

When anyone attempts to solve sustainability problems, the system maintains its balance by automatically increasing the barriers to change.

He proposes decomposing difficult social problems into two more workable sub-problems: 1) overcoming change resistance, and 2) achieving proper coupling — that is linking proper consequences to actions, as in universal suffrage or the dangers of smoking tobacco. (His analysis depends on having a relatively democratic society.  Unfortunately, the democratic features of the developed world are also increasingly in question.)

For sustainability, there is obviously massive change resistance.  This indicates, Harich says, an implicit goal of the system in which we find ourselves. He identifies a process of “Classic Activism” which has been long used by citizen groups to solve problems of the common good that governments are not addressing.

Most environmental literature, including The Limits to Growth and the IPCC assessment reports can be seen as part of the Classic Activism of finding the proper practices; telling people the truth about the problem and proper practices; and exhorting, inspiring and bargaining with people and groups to get them to support the proper practices.

The Process of Classic Activism Fails

Harich describes how while Classic Activism works on some problems, it has failed to adequately address the global environmental sustainability problem.  His diagrams of the feedback loops at play are fascinating.  (Check out Figure 3 on page 45 in pages 35-72 of his article.)

He says classic activists don’t see the feedback mechanism of systemic change resistance or assume it is only a minor issue, easily solved by overcoming individual change resistance.

He cites an interesting table from Donella Meadows on places to intervene in a system in increasing order of effectiveness.  At the low end are playing around with subsidies, taxes and standards, moving to the higher leverage items of addressing the goal of the system, and even transcending paradigms.

In his model of the process of Classic Activism and its failures, there is no discussion of why social agents are motivated to solve problems and also to resist solving problems.  It’s just how the loops function.

Basic to his discussion is the “common good” as the mixture of “industrial production, social factors, environmental health and other elements that optimizes quality of life for all living people and their descendents.” Hirach writes, “In a common good problem, altruistic activists stand on the side of the truth of what will benefit the common good, while selfish special interests resisting change cannot.”  [ His emphasis.] He goes on: “Overall, one side employs the truth about the need for proper practices while the other side utilizes bold lies, half-truths, spin, sophism, reality as they see it and all sorts of twaddle.”  (Twaddle, I’m sure, is a technical cybernetic-type word….)

But “deception” is a defined term, meaning the act of convincing others to believe what is not true or only half-true, not out of malice necessarily but as a way to achieve the goal of resisting change.  Thus deception is an objective term which describes a certain kind of observed behaviour in Hirach’s model, and which serves to play the largest role in political decision making.

Wakeup Call Catastrophes

He observes that most environmental progress is made piecemeal as a result of some “wakeup call catastrophe” such as the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole or acid rain or the Love Canal. “…Reliance on the use of Classic Activism and wakeup call catastrophes to overcome change resistance will not work, because by the time large enough catastrophes occur to solve the complete sustainability problem, it will be too late.”

As Harich sees it, the main problem for Classic Activism is that change resistance is much more likely to be systemic than local or located within individual agents.

Getting at the Root Cause

The root causes usually identified as important in hampering environmental sustainability such as population growth, economic inequality, lack of cooperation and maladapted values are not the deepest root causes of inability to change.  They are only intermediate and pseudo root causes to Harich.

Harich warns that what he will present as possible solutions “may appear impossible.”  Such impossibilities as universal suffrage and the end of slavery as an institution could be considered similar.

The modern corporation can be viewed as a kind of life form, following the same principles of behaviour that genetic life forms do.  He cites an abundance of literature showing that large for-profit corporations are “now the dominant life form in the biosphere.”

The Goal of the Dominant Life Form on the Planet


The corporations’ goal of maximizing profits is mutually exclusive with the goal of Homo sapiens to “optimize quality of life for those living and their descendents, which includes protecting the environment on which we depend for life.”

This is identified as the root cause of “improper coupling.”

Harich asks us to conceive of the modern corporation being re-engineered to be a trusted servant of Homo sapiens, which historically was the original idea.

The new re-engineered goal would be serving our species as its highest priority, “by optimizing components of quality of life as stated in its charter,” both in general and for specific outputs of the corporation.  Goal achievement would be measured by contribution to a sustainable quality of life index.  Others have already done much work on such an index, Harich says.

“Such an index would be expressed in percent of goal achieved.  A negative amount means a company performed so poorly it should be penalized.  Over 100 percent indicates expectations were exceeded.  The index would be calculated by each company as part of normal accounting.”

This is one suggested approach and will require further experimentation and refinement.  Harich says, for example, instead of an index something called the Triple Bottom Line could be used.

“The new goal must be as simple, unambiguous, measurable, and motivating as the one it replaces: profit maximization.”

Corporation 2.0

He calls this Corporation 2.0 and says it could be introduced on a gradual basis over a couple of decades.  Solving common good problems, because this advances the goal of Homo sapiens, would now benefit the new corporations.

“Imagine what it would be like for large corporations to work as hard to solve the sustainability problem as they have worked in the past to not solve it.”

So all seems to depend on redesigning the modern corporation — and Harich expects “strenuous resistance from the corporate life form to loss of dominance.”

So then he goes on to ask what is the root cause of change resistance to corporate redesign?

“The root cause appears to be deception effectiveness high enough to thwart, weaken, or delay changes that run counter to the goal of the corporate life form.”

The corporations’ have promulgated two high-impact beliefs to further their goal: 1) corporations are good and essential to society’s wellbeing, and 2) growth is good because gross domestic product (GDP) and the stock market are the best indicators of a nation’s wellbeing.

Harich says both points are only half-true.  It is only the production role of corporations that is essential, not the way they are currently defined.  And GDP doesn’t measure quality of life.  Serious disasters automatically raise the GDP as more is spent to reconstruct, for instance.  And the stock market is a kind of con game.

High Deception Effectiveness

But how to overcome the high “deception effectiveness” behind systemic change resistance?

Harich suggest pushing “on the related high leverage point of general ability to detect manipulative deception.”  This might be done by more and better education on how to detect common fallacies (see end of this post for an example); independent political truth rating organizations such as; corporate environmental responsibility ratings; and the use of quality of life and sustainability indexes.

Unfortunately, the current ability to detect manipulative deception is very low.  But if it should ever start to rise, “deception effectiveness” will then start to fall, and the corporations’ two high-impact beliefs will begin to lose credibility.

Hirach points out that worst historic excesses of dictators, kings, warlords and other tyrants were eventually, in a way now intuitively obvious, reduced by the addition of the voter feedback loop.

“This could also be called the ruler benevolence feedback loop.  Is the system missing the corporate benevolence feedback loop?”

*       *      *

In some ways, Harich’s analysis in systems-speak is stating the obvious.  But his approach does have the advantage of providing of a more-or-less objective means of detailed analysis in terms of all the feedback loops that govern our way of life.

In his model, you can add or modify a feedback loop, and observe in a verifiable, repeatable way what kind of impact it might make on the whole system.  It is a quite detailed, technical representation that one should read his paper to appreciate.

You can read more on Jack Harich’s site about the sustainability problem at

And finally, here is a summation of the Truth Test as presented by Robert Gowans and included in Harich’s article as a table:

“Table 3. The truth test

1. What is the argument?
2. Are any common patterns of deception present?
3. Are the premises true, complete, and relevant?
4. Does each conclusion follow from its premises?

The truth test is a simple test designed to tell whether a statement is true, false, or just plain nonsense. This allows voters to tell reality from illusion. They can then answer the question every democracy depends on: Is this truth or deception?

By using pattern recognition you can determine the truth of most political appeals in little more than the time it takes to hear or read them. All that is required is to learn the patterns.”


Note on cartoon source:

From Marc Roberts Cartoons

The Five Stages of Collapse – A Book Review

November 1, 2014

The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit by Dmitry Orlov, New Society Publishers, 2013

This book is one long challenge to most of the notions we received as part of our schooling and socialization. …It questions what being properly socialized means: is it being able to ignore the obvious signs of incipient collapse that makes you a well socialized individual?
Dmitry Orlov

As the world, or at least many places in it, seems to lurch from one crisis to another, one may be forgiven about thinking about stability and the direction of things as a whole.

I came across this book recently and found it surprisingly objective and cool-headed as it describes the end of the world as we know it.  Orlov anticipates that unsustainable crises will really start to bite by the middle of this century.  The financial, commercial and political systems will crumble, to be followed potentially by social and cultural collapse.

orlovThis is not a “survivalist” book about retreating to the renovated bomb-shelter with your shotgun so much as it is an attempt to describe the mechanisms of social decay in our way of life.  It is survivalist in the sense of that being forewarned may help to ease the transition to the changes that are coming.

I look around where I live on the west coast of North America which in many ways is one of the best places to live on Earth.  But more and more, from transportation systems, to sewers, to water supply, to education (including the universities), to medicine, to communication, to food supply, I find I often whisper to myself: we can’t afford our infrastructure.

In addition, there’s all the damage we continue to do to the land, water and air that sustains us.

Standing Outside the Mainstream

Over the years, I can see that I’ve been influenced by the thoughts of men, and women, who manage to find a place to stand outside the mainstream.  There’s William Irwin Thompson, cultural critic and historian, who out of yogic meditation brought forth his critiques of academia and society.  There’s author Doris Lessing, whose seeking led her to the objectivity of the Sufism of Idries Shah, and wisdom about humanity.  Also there’s Wendell Berry, whose livelihood upon the land gives him an essential grounding that expresses itself in his poetry, prose and politics.  I think of Thomas Homer-Dixon who found useful points of reference in the decline of the Roman Empire and the ecology of forests as a civilizational model to look at our society’s resilience, or lack of it.

In the case of Dmitry Orlov, his perspective and independence of thought seems to come mainly from being ex-Russian.

Orlov and his family left the Soviet Union in 1976, as part of a wave of emigration used by Moscow at the time to rid itself of undesirables and dissidents.

Orlov has observed, and sometimes experienced, currency tribulations, widespread surveillance, the abuses of a police state, and the rise of a criminal/oligarchic class that has now largely integrated with the former KGB agents who currently run Russia.

I’d like to run through a little of what Orlov has to say about each of his five stages of collapse.  He includes fascinating case studies that highlight points he’s making, some of which I find disagreeable.

Orlov appears to have no ideological agenda to further, other than his sympathy for anarchism and family as a means to community.  He says:

“There is no agenda here – just the assumption that collapse will happen, the conjecture that it can be analyzed as unfolding in five distinct phases and, based on quite a bit of research, the conclusion that each phase will require a different set of adaptations from those who wish to survive it.”

Stage 1: Financial Collapse

The result of this first stage is that financial institutions become insolvent, savings are wiped out and access to capital is lost.

Orlov’s point is that the global financial system is a mental construct which confidence maintains, and if confidence is lost, as we could see in 2008, it starts to unravel and fall apart.

The financial system is a house of cards built on ever-increasing debt in order to grow.

He sees usury (lending at interest) as the inevitably rotting root of the system.

“…We have become dependent on global finance, which is based on fiat currencies (ones unsupported by any traditional, fixed store of value such as gold, silver or land) that are loaned into existence by banks, at interest.”

Money in our system does not conform to the laws of physics – everything else diminishes with time.  Usury, in Orlov’s view, makes financial collapse inevitable.  Usury is only viable in an expanding economy.  “Once economic growth stops, the burden of usurious debt causes it to implode.”

And so we see the collapse of the economies of sovereign states, such as Greece, on the large scale, and at a smaller scale, the bankruptcy of cities such as Detroit.

The only remedy that central banks of any nation have is to print more money, which inevitably devalues it.  We have seen this up-to-now slow process over my lifetime – a dollar now is worth much less than what it did in 1980, say.   In the US,  the dollar has lost 8000 percent of its value in the last 41 years, Orlov says.

Orlov observes that although our economic system depends on infinite growth, once that endless growth fails to materialize, what then?

He proposes storing value in real commodities although that has its limits.  Are there alternatives to money that  communities can create for themselves?  He looks at barter and other systems of trading.

Although he concedes he may be hopelessly idealistic, Orlov sees the ultimate solution in strong, extended families that pool all their resources and are presided over by elders, who band together and form a larger community and create self-governance by a council of such elders.

The inevitable end of the fossil-fuel era, and the dream of never-ending expansion it engendered, will necessitate a return to older, smaller scale means of exchange between individuals, families and communities.

Iceland as a case study

Orlov uses the instance of Iceland which suffered a financial meltdown due to the events of 2008 and after, and then began to recover.   Iceland is one of the few places in the world still small enough to have direct democracy rather than the degenerate forms of representative “democracy” many of us are subject to.

Iceland’s approach was to let financial institutions go bankrupt rather than prop them up by printing more money.  Orlov argues that Iceland made a heroic and wise decision:  the failure of banks freed up resources for productive activities that benefitted the entire society.

Stage 2: Commercial Collapse

This review will go on much too long if I delve in depth on each of the stages, so I will just touch on highlights for the remainder.  For the intelligence and general contrariness of Orlov’s thought, leavened by his good humour, I urge you to take a look at the book itself.

Our commercial system has become one of increasing numbers of middle men, each scratching to take as much out of the money chain as possible.  It too will not be sustainable.

“… [This] can be characterized as cascaded failure, in which the first failure (which happens when the assumptions underlying contemporary financial arrangements suddenly become regarded as untenable) has a knock-on effect on commerce (due to a lack of commercial credit), which in turn, has a knock-on effect on government finances (through a rapidly shrinking tax base).”

The so-called free market is based on a system of property law, a legal system able to enforce contracts and a law enforcement system that can deter economic crime.

Orlov notes that without the legal, enforceable basis, the Russian experience shows that the free market becomes a criminal market, “where debts are settled for pennies on the dollar by having creditors murdered.”

He ends this section with a case study on the Russian Mafia.

Stage 3: Political Collapse

Political collapse can only be disruptive.  “The ruling classes and the classes which serve them (the police, the military, the bureaucrats) generally refuse to go softly into the night and allow the people to self-organize, experiment and come together as autonomous new groups adapted to the new environment in their composition and patterns of self-governance.”

One obvious result of this is that “for the sake of preserving national unity, a failing nation-state often looks for an external enemy to attack, preferably a weak, defenseless one, so that it poses no risk of reprisal.”

In his discussion, Orlov makes a strong case for anarchism, despite our conditioning to see the typical anarchist as an antisocial and bomb-throwing terrorist seeking violent overthrow of the existing order.

Orlov points out that as a student of nature, anarchism makes sense as a system of cooperation and can be seen everywhere among animals.  He notes the Russian scholar Peter Propotkin’s writings on anarchic cooperation as essential to the success of many species.

Orlov’s personal definition of anarchy is “absence of heirarchy.”  He also draws from recent research into “complexity theory” by physicist Geoffrey West.  It leads him to think that collapse is not an accident but an engineered product by those who “think that a higher level of authority, coordination, harmonization and unity is always a net benefit at any scale.”

Governments are good at certain things, Orlov is very willing to admit: maintaining a national transportation infrastructure, a reliable post office, and a fast internet….

Orlov’s case study to conclude this section  is that of the Pashtuns, who occupy a tribal area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.   They continue to succeed in defying all the empires and nations that have arrayed against them over the past century – the British, the Pakistanis, the Soviets and most recently the U.S.

Their governance is semi-leaderless and self-regulating.  Some of their governing methods date back to Athenian democracy or before.  Orlov admires their hardiness and tenacity.   He doesn’t mention too much about their ties to the Taliban and the related negation of the essential worth of the female population, which really can’t be seen as a survival trait.

Stages 4 & 5: Social & Cultural Collapse

“Few places are likely to remain sufficiently insular to escape the onslaught of internationally displaced groups driven from their land by a variety of forces, from political unrest to economic dislocation caused by globalization to habitat destruction caused by rapid climate change.”

In Orlov’s view, it will be better to concentrate on a safe way to be, with others, rather than some imaginary, for most of us, safe place to go.

Communities who already live with hardships of one kind or another will be more resilient than, say, gated communities of the affluent.

In his discussion of social collapse, Orlov sees organized religion as a binder among people and communities that will endure and may assist in regenerating society.  (I think of the classic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz in this connection.)

Personally, organized religion appears pernicious, undesirable and unnecessary, but I can also see its utility in building and sustaining a sense of community.

Orlov is not as strong in his thinking in this part of his book, and he admits to that.  If we get to this stage, whatever happens after social and cultural collapse will be up to each of those who survive – there may not be a lot of useful prescriptions.

His case study for social collapse is the culture of the Roma, the Gypsies of Europe and North America who have learned to survive in difficult circumstances.  They are a nomadic and insular, even secretive people, but they are well-suited to thrive in a disordered, disorganized society.

The Case of the Ik

For a case study on cultural collapse, he cites the famous anthropological research of Colin Turnbull on an African tribe called the Ik, which Turnbull published in the book The Mountain People, in 1972.  I remember reading that book many years ago, and being dismayed about the Ik’s profound abasement as a society and what it may show about ourselves.

As Orlov says, the Ik are rugged individualists – to a fault.  Their language is unrelated to any others in their vicinity, but has characteristics of Middle-Kingdom Egyptian.  Under a permanent suntan, their skin is red not black like the surrounding African tribes.

The Ik are a post-collapse society which has been under stress for many, many years.  They were once nomadic hunters and gatherers, but various colonial and national authorities took their hunting grounds away from them and made them settle and try to subsist on barren land of no agricultural value.  The result has been intermittent famine and starvation.

Their language has lost all of its pleasantries and niceties.

Their village compounds consist of concentric circles of stockades penetrated by small and cryptic openings as a defense against their closest neighbours.

They seem to have almost no emotion except for occasional gruesome hilarity at the misfortune of others.  They do their best to eat alone and in secret.  Children are abandoned early and  learn to feed themselves by watching baboons.

As Orlov observes, it is rare to have an anthropologist spend two years with a tribe and come away urging that the object of his study be broken up into small groups and settled far away from their homeland.  Turnbull was traumatized by his stay with the Ik.  Turnbull realized that we all have a bit of the Ik in us, and that people of the developed world are becoming more “Ik-like.”

The Ik show a way of surviving cultural collapse.  It’s better not to have to go that far.


Weird, Wonderful and Watch Your Back

April 4, 2013

How weird is money?

As a gift this year for one of my brother’s birthdays, I gave him $100 trillion dollars.

You might think this was perhaps overly generous, but it only cost me $9 Canadian for that denomination of Zimbabwean currency.


Zimbabwe in Africa in June, 2008, under the dictatorship of Richard Mugabe enjoyed an annual rate of inflation of 11.2 million percent.  The country abandoned its currency soon after and uses the US dollar and the euro to get by.

How did this come to be?  In the end, it reflects the lack of credibility of the regime.  And there were so many bank notes produced for wars and corruption they lost any common sense of value.

In the 1920s, the Weimar Republic in Germany underwent a similar inflation with its money, although one of the causes there was the insistence by the victorious nations that Germany make economy crippling reparations for WWI (and thereby set the stage for Hitler’s rise to power).

There is said to be hyperinflation currently in Iran due to sanctions, although some economists dispute this.

Geopolitics aside, the tactile reality of the Zimbabwean trillion dollars banknote in my hand and its accompanying lack of substance provides me with a little meditation on the nature of money.

Oh….  Sorry, I like to just sit around and contemplate these things without necessarily reaching any conclusions…. I muse about Money as a modern god with economists as high priests, about what really does carry value, about all the artificialities we as humans rely upon for our sense of worth.

It’s interesting to note that bitcoin, a “decentralized digital currency”  is starting to come into prominence. It’s not your everyday currency: there is no central bank or organization but a distribution network based on the internet.

Some people actually view it as an investment, but the Bitcoin open-source developer defines the system as an “experiment.”  It is quickly becoming influential.

One recent headline reads: “Bitcoin Prices Blasts Through $100, Driving Speculators Wild.”

Artful renditions of childhood’s weird creatures

These are probably more an adult’s darker elaboration of the simple line-drawings that we made as kids, but there’s still a truthful element about that scary monster under the bed.

In an article by Rian van der Merwe, I discovered Dave DeVries’ The Monster Engine project.  It was initiated by an impulse to make his niece’s drawings come to life, as DeVries does for various comic publications.


The whole gallery is on view at The Monster Engine website….

The wonderful Global Village Construction Set

Moving on to the wonderful, we come to the open technological platform of the Global Village Construction Set.

It reminds me, in a way, of my own feeling about the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica as a way to restart Western civilization, if we should ever want to.

But the GVCS as it is known provides a likelier shortcut: plans for  fabrication of the 50 different industrial machines that it would take to create a comfortably modern environment from scratch.

They include such machines as the 3D printer (which might be invaluable in the assembly of some of the other 49), the 50 kW wind turbine, the dairy milker, the hay rake, and the laser cutter.

Lifetrac2The whole enterprise is being developed by a network of farmers, engineers and supporters.  They are working to make the plans for all these machines available to everyone.   (For a short video on what they’re up to, see here.)

If you’re into TED talks, there’s a four minute intro there.  (TED being a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing out ideas on Technology, Entertainment and Design.  It’s kind of a wonderful thing too, actually.)

The wonder of pee power

In line with this same innovative frame of mind, an article caught my attention about four young girls from Nigeria who are working on developing an electrical generator which runs on piss.

Their idea is to use an electrolytic cell to crack the urine into nitrogen, water and hydrogen.  The hydrogen is purified through a water filter and goes into a cylinder which pushes the hydrogen into another cylinder with borax (readily available) to remove moisture.  The hydrogen can be then used to power the generator and provide six hours of electricity for every litre of urine.

This might be a more worthwhile startup idea than Facebook….

Nine-year-old Socrates in a backyard

You really should go look at this post by Robert Krulwich who writes on science on the National Public Radio website: it’s about a conversation a friend of his had with a 9-year-old boy in a Washington backyard patio which the friend felt compelled to put on video.  The boy’s mother nonchalantly mentions that the lad is “interested in cosmology.”

In the video, the young one has a refreshingly large view of things, beyond his years.  Towards the end of his remarks, I am taken by the saving grace of his or any other person’s thought process, a position of freedom and essential equilibrium: “But then again, I might be wrong.”

With this ‘don’t know’ mind he wiggles and fidgets like the fourth grader he is, while he discusses with obvious passion the clear ideas that come to him about life, the universe and destiny.

The first human holy place?


I am fascinated by antiquity, and human history (or what we are able to know of it) as it fades into pre-history.  I think such artifacts as the Antikythera Mechanism, and sites such as the first known religious structure at Gobleki Tepe in Turkey, reflect the possibility of complex human civilizations reaching much farther back into those prehistoric mists than current scientific wisdom is willing to allow.

At Gobleki Tepe, with structures dating back to 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid, the site has been described as “massive carved stones about 11,000 years old, crafted and arranged by prehistoric people who had not yet developed metal tools or even pottery.”

The archaeologist who discovered the site, Klaus Schmidt, feels certain that this is the first human holy place.   He has said, “We are 6,000 years before the invention of writing here.”

Schmidt is advocating a different model of civilization based on what he has found at Gobleki Tepe.  Rather than civilizations of sufficient development producing such a remarkable and sophisticated structure, it was the urge to glorify their sense of the sacred which led the ancient hunters and gatherers to create civilization.

To build this site required a great concentration of materials, people and organization.  Sociocultural changes come first, then agriculture in this view.

It’s just that I find a certain arrogance in such statements as: “At the time of Göbekli Tepe’s construction much of the human race lived in small nomadic bands that survived by foraging for plants and hunting wild animals.” [From the article in National Geographic.]

On extremely limited data, inference and supposition, all of pre-history is constructed for us in this way.  Perhaps there’s more and different that hasn’t been discovered yet.

The National Geographic article goes on to say:

“Discovering that hunter-gatherers had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife.”

And from another site:

“The unique method used for the preservation of Gobeklitepe has really been the key to the survival of this amazing site. Whoever built this magnificent monument, made sure of its survival along thousands of years, by simply backfilling the various sites and burying them deep under, by using an incredible amount of material and all these led to an excellent preservation.”

Almost like a time capsule….

The Watch Your Back part

In line with the dangers of the coming surveillance society (as I remarked upon some time back  in Subversive Fiction), I came across a recent news item or two on spyware called FinFisher being marketed by a European software company called Gamma International.

According to Wikipedia, the “surveillance suite is installed after the target accepts installation of a fake update to commonly used software.”

This is software ostensibly being offered to law enforcement agencies and other government organizations.  Unfortunately, Egyptian dissidents who helped overthrow Hosni Mubarak found that Egypt’s savage secret police had a contract with Gamma International.

Activists in the Persian gulf kingdom of Bahrain were targeted by the software and FinFisher servers have also been found in the authoritarian regimes of Turkmenistan and Ethiopia.

“It’s installing a backdoor on your computer to record your Skype conversations and go through your email,” said a recent report based on Canadian research.

Very recently, a French based journalists’ organization called the company one of the “five corporate enemies of the Internet.”

The software is now being used in Canada by someone or something, as servers hosting the software have been found here.  Such servers are also found in the United States among 25 other countries.

If you like science fiction….

In an effort to end in a more imaginative place, and as a reward for any reader who makes it this far (if they like science fiction), here is a link that includes the 6 minute and 26 second short film R’ha.

In that brief time, we are given a fully realized story and quite amazing special effects for such a small scale production.  It’s in high-definition and I recommend sizing it for viewing as large as you can.

It fits in the wonderful category, although it has its share of weird as well.  I like the alien….



Notes on images, from top down:

1) My photo of the Zimbabwean currency….
2) From The Monster Engine site.
3) The low-cost, multi-purpose, open-sourced LifeTrac tractor.
4) An artist’s re-creation of Gobleki Tepe.

The Plague Year Trilogy — Book Review

January 29, 2012

Plague Year, 2007
Plague War, 2008
Plague Zone, 2009     by Jeff Carlson, Ace Books, New York

“If it happens that the human race doesn’t make it, then the fact that we were here once will not be altered, that once upon a time we peopled this astonishing blue planet, and wondered intelligently at everything about it and the other beings who lived here with us on it, and that we celebrated the beauty of it in music and art, architecture, literature, and dance, and that there were times when we approached something godlike in our abilities and aspirations. We emerged out of depthless mystery, and back into mystery we returned, and in the end the mystery is all there is.” 
— James Howard Kunstler

I don’t know if it’s the times, or the latter days of a life at 60, or just happenstance, but I’m reading a lot of apocalyptic science fiction these days.

As Susan Sontag understands about science fiction in the movies: “Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art.”  The same can be said for much of the genre in its written form, from A Canticle For Liebowitz on….

I’ve read, for instance, the first two volumes of John Birmingham’s curious trilogy (its first volume named Without Warning) about the disaster that befalls North America when a mysterious force field called the Wave wipes out 99% of the United States’ population.  If you can accept this mysterious premise for the books, which is never really explained, but just occurs, then you can go on to find of interest the well-told tale of global and local political, military and societal turmoil.  But in the end, the world of the novels began to falter for me as just too farfetched to take seriously.

I’ve also recently read Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy that began with Forty Signs of Rain. This is a writer I admire, the author of the remarkable Mars trilogy about the deliberate transformation of that planet into one usuable by humans.  In the more recent Forty Signs of Rain trilogy (which goes on with Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting), Robinson explores weather disasters precipitated by global warming here on Earth.

I found Fifty Degrees Below of particular interest, with its tale of the paradoxical cooling result of global warming, as the ice caps melt and change the beneficial warm ocean currents which in the Atlantic, for example, keep Britain from freezing to death.  If the moderating effect of the Gulf Stream shuts down from the sudden influx of colder water, that means constant blizzards and sub-zero temperatures in London and on the East coast of North America, especially if the currents find a new and altered equilibrium.

(In connection with this, you may find two recent scientific references of interest: Melting Glaciers May Affect Ocean Currents and Thermohaline Ocean Circulation .)

But returning to the subject of this post, recently I happened to pick up the novel Plague War.  This exemplifies the problem I have with trilogies or series of any kind.  I hate not beginning at the beginning, and so I tend to avoid them unless I know I’m able to read them all. But Plague War caught my interest so intensely, after mistaking it initially for a stand-alone volume, that half-way through I had to try to find the other two, which I did in a Vancouver used book store specializing in science fiction.

Plague Year

So I stopped dead in the middle of Plague War, and began again with Plague Year, the first book.

It’s about nanotechnology, and a series of catastrophes wrought by it.  And what is nanotechnology? It’s about manipulating matter at the molecular and atomic scale, even to the extent of creating machines that operate sub-microscopically.  Such machines could, for instance, travel along capillaries to enter and repair living cells, or assemble multitudes of nanoscopic parallel-processing computers which could create more of themselves, and other miniscule machines for purposes not easily achieved at a larger scale.

Surely this is just a wild idea of science fiction, no?  On my book shelf I have the book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology written by the Father of Nanotechnology, Eric Drexler, back in 1986. Then the whole idea of assembling machines smaller than individual cells seemed farfetched in the extreme.

But today research into nanotechnology is burgeoning, with new materials and processes constantly being developed, as science approaches the accomplishment of some limited aspects of Drexler’s vision.  For instance, surgeons are predicting the coming usefulness of nanotechnology in their practice, engineering researchers have made a significant breakthrough in the use of nanotechnologies for the construction of a synthetic brain, and there is research into using nanoparticles for more effective delivery of chemotherapy to treat cancer.

And this brings us to the disaster that befalls North America and then the world in the first novel.  Microscopic machines designed to fight cancer instead go awry and begin to disassemble warm-blooded tissue to make more of themselves. Eventually the human body succumbs to the onslaught of the spore-like machines. They spread like a virus by way of bodily fluids and through the air.

The intriguing premise though is that either on purpose or as a design flaw, the nanovirus is limited by altitude, namely 10,000 feet.  All warm-blooded animals are killed below that elevation, while humanity retreats to high places.  Some of these islands in the sea of deadly nanotech are small and only a few souls find their way to them, while in some places, such as Colorado in the Rockies, there are enough high altitude facilities for civilization to struggle on.

In some ways, this is similar to Birmingham’s setup in his trilogy mentioned above, where geograpical limitation and action against humanity sets the world on its ear.  But in the case of Plague Year, the terrifying nature of what nanotechnology could mean both for good and ill provides a much more interesting, and plausible, context.

The intensity of Plague Year comes from a desperate struggle for survival of primarily two characters: Cam, a ski bum with full emergency medical training and a remarkable talent for survival, and later Ruth, a genius capable of manipulating and designing nanotech.  In the isolated heights where Cam and a small party of others find themselves, they struggle to survive by occasional short sallies below the nanotech line to scavenge supplies and by cannibalism of the weak and fallen.  The short rushes into nanotech territory result in rashes, blisters and scarring.  The cannibalism becomes a matter-of-fact necessity of avoiding starvation and death.

As a novel, this could descend into a ghoulish mess of no interest, but the author’s characterizations, pacing and the end of the world on the line pull it into a fascinating tale of people under ultimate stress.

Above in the International Space Station, Ruth is conducting nanotech experiments when the world falls apart almost overnight.  She and other astronauts battle to return to Colorado where they crash land a shuttle and barely survive.  Meanwhile there are news and rumours of weaponized nanotech, and even of an antidote to the deadly scourge of the lowlands.

The thing is, those who run what remains of the United States and its military intend to keep the antidote or vaccine nanotech solely for their own use, while they put the rest of the world into abject dependency.

With the lightning spread of the nanotech plague, the Chinese, Russian and Indian powers are fighting to seize and retain control of high plateaus and mountaintops in their parts of the earth, and the rest of the world descends into darkness as well.

Ruth and a few rogue officers conspire to take over the vaccine nano, which is highly experimental and not completely dependable.  By the end of the first novel, Cam and Ruth are on the run together, as what remains of the might of the US military circles to hunt them down, and as they desperately strive to spread the vaccine to others.

I admire the author’s skill in constantly keeping everything in the air — the politics, the intrigues, the conspiracies — while sending Cam and Ruth on their run to literally save the world.  There is much more to the story than I can or want to relate here, in hopes that you the reader will pick up and find the series as fascinating as I do.

The weaponization of nanotech

You know that something as effective as what nanotech may become in its full form will be begging to be turned into weapons to fulfill the aims of nation states.  Just as there is biowarfare and nuclear warfare, so will there be nanotech warfare, and it may turn out to be the worst of all.

Even now there are cautionary signs on the horizon…. nanotechnology is currently being developed to create “dangerous and destabilizing” refinements to nuclear weapons technology.  For example, the technology may be used to significantly reduce radioactive fallout, which according to one article, means it becomes more acceptable in its use.  The article points out that tiny nano-robots may turn out to be physically impossible or impractical at a tiny scale, but larger, but still very small, military machines may well be developed.  I’m sure there are dreamers in the Pentagon loving the idea of nano-drones….

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology warns that an eventual flexible, easy-to-use, preferably large-scale, molecular manufacturing system, quite likely by 2025, would lead to such dangerous miniaturizations as nanotech-built tiny antipersonnel weapons capable of seeking and injecting toxin into unprotected humans.

These potential problems are of sufficient concern for the US Government to devise a national strategy for ensuring that environmental, health and safety research needs are met in “this emerging technology.”

On to the second novel, Plague War

Plague War becomes more of a character study of Ruth and Cam in harrowing circumstances, struggling with their doubts and fears, while battling to survive in inhospitable terrain and to avoid infestations of insects. Insects such as ants have become a plague of their own after the demise of all warm-blooded animals, including birds, altered the normal constraints on their proliferation.

The two, who struggle with their friendship and what might be more, are not a normal couple — the tension between them also drives the story forward.

As they struggle to find recipients for the nano vaccine, the world of human warfare goes on around them.  The Americans are engaged in a civil war. The Russians drop a huge nuclear weapon on the Colorado capital of the United States, to create enough disarray to allow an invasion to the US’s relatively abundant higher ground.  The Chinese start to invade, having somehow got their hands on the same vaccine that Ruth and Cam are trying to spread which allows survival on the land below 10,000 feet.

Deadly variations on the nanotech continue to raise the stakes until Ruth (without giving away too much of the story) convinces, or extorts, the Chinese and US leaders into a cease-fire.

Whew!  Where can it go in the third and last installment after that?

Plague Zone

All is not well at the beginning of the third novel. The small community where Cam and Ruth live is slowly losing the battle with the environment as ant infestations overwhelm their greenhouses.  Then a new nano plague makes itself known, a nano machine in the brain that dilates wide the eyes and makes the sufferer behave like a demented zombie.  I know, the zombie thing…. it’s a little too trendy, but these aren’t your typical drooling braineaters.  There’s more going on.

The Chinese military, who still have a major presence in North America along with the Russians, have a devised a new nano strategy to conquer the allied American and Canadian forces: spread the mind nano everywhere while they inoculate themselves with the vaccine.  It affects time sense and memory and spreads immediately at the merest contact.

Cam and Ruth go back on the run to avoid the new plague and to try to figure out how to counteract it.  After all the deaths, including nuclear strikes, Ruth is one of the last people on earth capable of finding a way out.  She needs to find a place and samples so that she can unlock the nano’s secrets and find an antidote.

We observe the Chinese side of the war from the viewpoint of a Chinese colonel orchestrating the mind nano.  This dastardly fellow, for instance, strangles his closest female confidant, who trusts him completely, because he believes it’s his duty to do so for the good of the country since she knows too much.

In the end, Cam and Ruth must go back to the source of the original nano plague and its creator to find the key to unlock a new vaccine.  Ruth succumbs to the mind nano.  The fate of nations, what remains of them, hangs in the balance….

I’ve probably given too much away of the story for all three books, so I will leave it there.  I will say by the end, Cam and Ruth feel like old friends that one has been through the wars with, and it’s sad to leave them behind.

Why do I enjoy these so much?

As Jeff Carlson said in an interview, none of these books are the The Joy Luck Club. This is not subtly refined literature.

The books are visceral, even shocking.  In a way, they are like Harry Potter books for adults, with nano subbing in as the new magic. Evil is rampant and everyday, and sometimes part of us too, while at the same time we are capable of rising above it.

The books are immensely skillful in what the author accomplishes: the sense of a complete world in dire straits not exactly like our own but very similar, and constant movement past great soul-searing obstacles that only these particular characters are capable of overcoming….

Those who study story, like myself, can find a lot to learn here.


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Emissary from the Kingdom of Weeds

July 21, 2011

“One is tempted to say that the most human plants, after all, are the weeds.” — John Burroughs

At the front door of our townhouse, the patterned bricks we had placed there years ago come right up to the wood siding and the concrete underpinnings. Rather than leave an empty gap at the wall, we put sand in there, figuring that it would drain well enough not to cause a problem.

We have a window-box nearby, my wife’s pride and joy, with the flowers we planted there exuberant in their growth.

But this year, we have a weed flowering right at our front door in the gap between the bricks and the wall. I think it’s a weed, if a lovely one, or maybe some stray domesticated plant gone feral. I like it so much, we’ve just left it there, this odd and pleasing growth at our door.


But it made me think about weeds and what they mean.

“A flowering weed;
Hearing its name,
I looked anew at it.”
— Teiji

In a way, the idea of “weeds” exposes our mental worlds, our unthinking assumptions of division and judgement. It is a human construct forced on the world for our convenience. It’s all about us of course, our natural predisposition.

But seeing that allows one to step back and to consider the world for a moment, even if only the universe of plants, in an imaginative way without that division, the label of “weed”. How does the world seem then?

I don’t know about you, but it feels friendlier to me….

“I sympathize with all this luxuriant growth of weeds.”
— Thoreau, in one of his journals

Weed1This leads one necessarily to consider all the other concepts and constructs we place upon reality to order our days, from the bare nouns we use to let us feel we know something because we know its name, to the philosophical realms pigeonholing mind, body and existence, and to the ideas we act on to war against each other. Like “weeds”, these are all human creations, and not necessarily true to reality.

But all this talk about concepts is too conceptual… Weeds end up returning me to the mystery of the most ordinary things, about what the best photography and painting try to show us.

And what is more ordinary than myself?

I learn more about God
From weeds than from roses;
Resilience springing
Through the smallest chink of hope
In the absolute of concrete….
Phillip Pulfrey

Trust an eccentric Englishman to have written an entire book on weeds along these lines. Described as a forager and crypto-forester, Richard Mabey wrote Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature.

(A crypto-forester, by the way, is one who favors the disarray as nature takes over planned forests such as the plantings along highways or the ignored wild bush and tree stands on undeveloped margins of all kinds.)

Mabey notes for instance that nettles were so esteemed by the Romans as a medicine and raw material that when they invaded Britain they brought their own varieties.

I appreciate the misunderstanding
I have had with Nature over my perennial border.
I think it is a flower garden;
she thinks it is a meadow lacking grass,
and tries to correct the error.
Sara Stein

Weed2Of course the picture is complicated by invasive ‘alien’ weeds out-competing, sometimes by sheer virulence, resident species of a longer history. I think of the giant hogweed, which can grow upwards of 20 feet high and the sap of which can cause skin lesions and blindness. So maybe we don’t want to embrace all weeds.

But my sympathies do often lie with the weeds. They symbolize the unstructured effervescence of life, and the limits of the ‘useful’.

“What would the world be, once bereft of wet and wildness? Let them be left. O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins

That symbol of contemporary western civilization, the lawn, is where the conflict between weed and preferred plants is often dramatically played out. I think of ridiculous lawn fertilizer and herbicide TV ads which extol victory over plantain, mallow, and crabgrass, and glorify oneupmanship over the neighbours.

But there are those who have ceased the arms race and converted their lawns to meadows.

Using all native plants, they are already adapted to the climate and may need no watering, fertilizing, or tending whatsoever. But what will the neighbours say?

I think of a great line from one of Jakob Dylan’s songs for the Wallflowers: “I’ve been waist deep in the burning meadows of my mind.”

It would lose something to refer to “the burning lawns of my mind…. ”


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