Education: Societal Asset or Personal Debt

Americans have a strange attitude toward education. On the one hand, we all know that a college degree can significantly increase one’s life chances for achieving, until recently, a middleclass income and a comfortable “lifestyle.” On the other hand, college has become very expensive, as well as intimidating for anyone who has experienced a typical rag-tag urban or rural school-district high school education. Therein lies the personal dilemma.

A societal dilemma may be equally important. But pretense and illusion prevent its discussion in polite company. Education in the U.S.A. has gradually become a second-class institution. Politicians are unwilling to foot the bill for maintaining public higher education at the world-class level that characterized our colleges and universities in the 1950s. Growing costs and dwindling public support forced universities to raise tuition and seek research contracts from corporations and government. The nation’s seats of knowledge and discovery became businesses purveying information to whatever special interest paid the price.

Halcyon Days of Higher Education

Construction.Worker

In the 1950s, we didn’t have hard hats.

In the early 1960s, I was able to gain a degree from the University of California because I had worked each high-school summer as a construction laborer (at union scale of $3.50 per hour at the time when my friends got 90₵ at the local gas station). I felt pretty flush. In those days, simple manual labor at a union wage allowed a worker to rent an apartment or very small house in Los Angeles and live comfortably without most non-essential “consumer products.”

In the 1950s in Southern California, a (white) high-school graduate could get an entry-level job at an aerospace company, rent a small apartment, buy a car, and party. As a high-school student living at home in 1955, I was able to save enough to buy a scruffy ’51 Ford in my sophomore year, and transform it into a respectable “hot rod” by my senior year. At the same time, I saved money for college. Well, those were the “good old days.”

Rather than accepting the middle management job my father encouraged me to apply for on graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, I went off to graduate school, following my curiosity. I worked as a research assistant, then received a National Science Foundation fellowship, partly because the U.S. realized that the Soviets were moving into space full speed ahead with their “Sputnik” satellite while we had failed to support science education.

In 1970, PhD in hand, I began a  career as a professor, then for 35-years I watched from the inide as the California higher education system slide from globally top tier to mid-level mediocrity. Politicians excused the decline in the name of anti-pubic-sector cost cutting and resentment over the moral rebellion of university students of the 1960s.

Conversion of a Societal Asset into Personal Debt

Today, elites and their media mouthpieces treat education as no more than a means to an end. Little or no interest remains in developing the individual and her/his intellectual and moral capacities as a citizen. Higher education became so costly because of the privatization of its finance. Politicians promote the twisted view that its only value was to “train” skilled workers as functionaries in the industrial-consumer economy, even as jobs were automated and outsourced.

Students are “sold” degrees on credit. Privatized student debt has become, just like the private prison business, a huge profit-center for the nation’s financial elite. What should have become an asset for the educated citizen is an extended burden of personal debt constraining civic participation. The neoliberal economy of growth has fully subsumed society and human values beneath its quest for profit.

In that context, it is hardly surprising that the elites who control most institutions along with the economy no longer see the education of the person as an asset to society. Frankly, they don’t give a hoot about the society or its people. Rather, they much prefer to treat education as a commodity for sale and encouraging debt as another profit center. The result is a massive collective student debt that now burdens what might have been our future middleclass. As broad citizen education falters, the backbone of democracy is lost.

The Eccentric Lipidologist Revealed

What’s a lipidologist? Well, immediately we can see that the term’s Latin roots indicate that a lipidologist is someone who studies lipids. Ah, lipids: the dreaded cholesterol, et al. That seemed simple enough. A friend told me that a lipidologist practiced in Santa Fe, the only one in the whole state of New Mexico.

Okay, it’s a small state, population around 2 million, about half that of the city of Los Angeles, California. Only about 400 lipidologists work in the entire U.S. Why are they so rare? After all, blood lipids are a big deal these days. Interestingly, there is very little information in Wikipedia’s entry on Lipidology.

Despite its simple bad reputation, cholesterol is far more complicated than a mere matter of suppressing “bad” cholesterol and supporting “good” cholesterol in the bloodstream. The drug companies have worked hard to popularize the idea that cholesterol is “bad.” We produce cholesterol in the liver and we ingest it in the food we eat.

So, why do they cast cholesterol in such a bad light? Think drug company profits. I won’t get into the complex disputes over the efficacy and dangers of statin drugs in attempting to control cholesterol in the bloodstream. Or the role statins play in minimizing the risk of plaque building up in the coronary arteries. Suffice it to say, it is not all science.

artery.crossectionPicture to the left is a  Micrograph of an artery that supplies the heart showing significant atherosclerosis and marked luminal narrowing. Tissue has been stained using Masson’s trichrome. As Dr. M. explained, old plaque is scar tissue, and may not necessarily cause such blockage. High performance on a stress test indicates no blockage of cornonary arteries. Unlike new plaque, old plaque does not flake off, risking heart attack or stroke, unlike new plaque. However, both contain calcium, so measures of plaque do not distinguish between the two. So, you can have a very high score for plaque, pass the stress test indicating no blockage, and have low risk. Yet most cardiologists don’t make such distinctions; they just prescribe statins. If my arteries looked like the one in the picture here, I could not have passed the stress test with ease, as I did.

Dr. M. occupies a modest office in the local cluster of medical practices near the only hospital in Santa Fe. When I went to see him, he seemed in no hurry and spent an hour and a half with me. We had a very informative (for me) conversation about heart disease, medical practice, and the flaws of scientific practice in medicine in the U.S., where so many decisions are controlled by the insurance companies and where medical practices are dominated by the drug companies – otherwise known as “Big Pharma.”

When Dr. M. described the complex of bio-chemical, genetic, environmental, and behavioral elements that are involved with the multiple variable factors in the way cholesterol acts, I was impressed. No cardiologist had ever mentioned any of this stuff to me. It had always been a simple, “if your LDL is too high, take [the latest statin drug].” End of story.

The practice of medicine is too often a high-volume assembly-line operation that executes the “standard of care” in conformity to the specifications of Big Pharma and the medical insurance industry. Dr. M. does not play that game. He and a few other practicing medical scientists carefully measure the complex of interacting factors that may be at play in each individual and adjust treatments based on re-testing of bio-chemical and genetic factors and patient characteristics. Such doctors epitomize the scientific practice of medicine.

Medicine, it seems to me, should involve the scientific study and practice of treatments, traditional as well as modern, of potential benefit to patients. It requires carefully testing the efficacy of each treatment for a particular problem and adjusting treatment to the conditions of the individual patient. It is far more labor intensive than simple prescribing pills in accordance with the “standard of care.” I know only one lipidologist, but if he is representative of others in the specialty, then lipidology represents the best practices in medicine.

Lipidology is to the “standard of care” in cardiology as prostate oncology is to the “standard of care” among urologists, who are surgeons.

Dystopia, Utopia, or Drift?

Looking forward into the future is no easy task. It is hard to decide what to believe will happen next, and nearly impossible to predict a few years or decades down the line. So many variables, so many viewpoints, so many things are just not the same as we had expected them to turn out today. Now, the unexpected has become the rule, and a lot of us do not like the profound discomfort that causes. So, how can we look beyond today’s surprises and expect to see what is coming soon, much less later.

Of course, we live in a culture whose faith in “progress” is both deep and profoundly flawed. Maybe we just have an embedded optimism gene, but I think not. We do have a history of amazing good fortune, at least for some, and a trajectory of economic growth that seems unbounded. But it does seem to be reaching its limits. The die-hards still project their faith in technology and “free markets” to pull any rabbit out of the hat if the need arises. I used to see no end to the potential for new technology in every realm, but no more.

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Utopia may be more distant than we think.

Technology, after all, is a highly political matter. It is not just what’s possible, and that is not just anything we want. It is also about what someone pays for. Utopian dreams have become ever more expensive to realize, because there are limits.

For a while at the end of the twentieth century, the study of the future became quite popular. So called “Futurists” forecasted all manner of good things and a few possible trouble spots down the line and into the twenty first century – that would be now. We do not seem to hear so much from futurists these days. Or am I just not listening anymore?

As it turns out, although nobody knows for sure, everyone has an opinion about the future. Yet so many feel no need to base their opinions on facts or trends observed. In fact, most of the time opinions are not fact-based. Facts are what people selectively use to bolster their opinions, ignoring any facts that happen not to be consistent with closely held beliefs. Psychologists call that syndrome “confirmation bias.”

As things have developed in recent years, I have paid more and more attention to how confirmation bias interferes with rational thought and distorts public policy. Politicians face increasingly complex international, ecological, economic, climate, social, and just about every other kind of problem imaginable. Yet, they miserably fail to address these critical issues because they completely fail to “get it” and act in the public interest. But there is much more to it than confirmation bias, which is, for politicians at least, a convenient vehicle to carry them to the deepest levels of corruption.

If facts do not favor a political cynic’s position, well, they can just trot out “alternative facts,” conjured solely from the politics of the moment. Why? Because, they base their decisions not on rational analysis of the situation in context of the public interest, but on personal self interest in gaining wealth and power for themselves. (Now, that is a rather blanket statement about politicians and it is not true of many politicians, just the majority.)

Sarah Chayes has written a book called Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. It focuses mostly on what she discovered from many years of direct experience in working with citizens in nations such as Afghanistan, and as a defense official trying to get the higher ups to see the futility of both military and diplomatic efforts that produced both corruption and terrorism out of the impossible positions such policies put people in.

I think Chayes’ work is highly applicable to the situation within the United States of America as well. Her on-the-ground work shows clearly how shortsighted officials corrupt social and political systems. Such highfliers focus more on their political careers than on the realities their work ought to address.

The result is denial, corruption, and failure to achieve the progress that U.S. mainstream economics and politics always claims but increasingly rarely achieves. As the last vestiges of democracy fall to the Corporate State, drift becomes Dystopia.

Urban Agriculture and the New Great Transformation

One of the most informative websites out there, if you are interested in the fate of humanity on the planet, is http://www.resilience.org. The site offers a wide range of original and republished articles on the full range of matters related to getting to a place where climate and the other converging crises of our time can be mitigated and human groups can become more resilient and prosper in a post-carbon world. I just read an article by Jody Tishmack there, which I consider well worth anyone reading. It is titled, “Urban and Small Farm Agriculture.”

Jody Tishmack reports on research showing that expanding agriculture into cities could improve food security, ecosystem health, and have other benefits as well. I would suggest that such efforts will become increasingly necessary as the global industrial agriculture system begins to collapse of its own fossil-fueled weight.

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Riverpark Farm, New York City

The developments Tishmack describes are certainly heartening, not only for the community spirit and potential for continued development of major local/regional movements in urban agriculture. They also represent something even deeper and more important than she acknowledges in this article. This kind of work not only IS doing something about climate change, it will be an ever more important component of the New Great Transformation of human social organization that at this point appears to be the only viable collective response to the converging global crises of climate chaos, ecosystem destruction, economic disintegration, and political corruption.

After over a decade of research on the emergence and acceleration of these crises, I have concluded that the greatest chance to act to counter them is to act locally and cooperate regionally. The exponential growth of the global economic system, including industrial agriculture, is definitively unsustainable, as is mathematically demonstrated in renowned physicist Geoffrey West’s important 2017 book, Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of life in Organisms, Cities, economies, and Companies.

The governments of the world are so far behind the exponential growth of the converging crises of our era that we cannot count on getting them to do anything serious to address them. They remain pawns of the petro-chemically driven corporate system of growth that refuses to face scientific facts. National protests over political catastrophes and corruption are important symbolic expressions of objection to such failures, then everyone gets in their SUVs and hybrids and goes home.

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“Druid’s Garden” permaculture organic farm

We have already entered a New Great Transformation of the global economic, climate, and ecological systems, which barring massive intervention is leading to widespread collapse of living Earth systems, from local ecosystems to global climate. The primary question is whether we can act comprehensively and quickly enough to avoid widespread societal collapse. We will not be able to thwart the imminent collapse of industrial agriculture by convincing agribusiness to “go organic” or stop using neonic’s or GMOs. The most viable way to RESIST failing institutions is to turn away and create new social formations to REPLACE THEM.

The most viable response to the converging catastrophic crises we face is to re-organize human groups into local eco-communities, both urban and rural, that in that process REPLACE the global industrial-consumer economy with local eco-communities, in part by RESTORING the ecosystems where we live. I have rambled on in various posts on this blog, TheHopefulRealist.com and at www.resilience.org awhile back as well, which has led to the book I have prepared for publication in the coming months. An early effort in that regard is found at http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-12-24/becoming-indigenous-settling-a-population-adrift-in-an-unstable-world/ You can find many other useful discussions of such matters at resilience.org.

Now we just need for the work Jody describes to grow exponentially…

Craftsmanship for Creative Productivity

~ ~ ~ Another in the Mad Jubilado series ~ ~ ~

It seems a lot of retired men take up woodworking. At Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) I have met quite a few. Some are immensely talented and/or just have a huge storehouse of knowledge and experience. As with many fields of endeavor, only time and talent limit the depth and breadth of understanding possible in woodworking.

Description d un menuisier en travailOne of the most skilled of those I’ve met at SFCC is a woman who retired from a career as an ethnographer. In the typical class of 12 in the woodshop, ‘elder’ know-how is balanced by some very creative younger talent. It is a great experience to work with these folks. The environment is remarkably cooperative and supportive. Ideas and knowledge are shared; polite critiques and useful suggestions organically emerge from conversations about how to approach a problem of joinery, finishing technique or aesthetic design as a project evolves. It brings to mind an ideal image of how apprenticeships might have worked in shops producing for local communities and regional trade in the pre-industrial pre-corporate world of clear-air and artistry.

Solid.Wood.Furniture.Production.Factory

Industrial Furniture Production

Craftsmanship is not quite a lost art, though it might seem so. Industrial production, with its outsourced cheap mostly unskilled labor and highly automated production processes, has resulted in an overabundance of unimportant transitory products. Have you ever really thought about why a cable-television program such as “Storage Wars” exists?  So many people in so many suburbs across America have accumulated so much stuff, that a whole industry has developed just to store the overflow.

The glut of unused abandoned yet “valuable” consumer products that people are not yet willing to call waste, produces the ‘demand’ for all those commercial storage lockers. Without such ‘pre-waste’ there would be no need to find space for the overflow from garages where no cars can be parked because of the clutter.

Excessive extraction of materials needed to produce all that stuff, using gigantic mining and earth-moving equipment is seriously straining many living Earth systems, disrupting otherwise stable ecologies. The quantities of energy used, from mining to shipping to manufacturing to shipping again to warehousing to super-store display, are hard to grasp. It is all mechanized and automated to reduce labor costs in order to supply cheap stuff to feed the consumer culture. And they call it “progress.”

The whole global process is, of course, disrupting climate to a point fast approaching catastrophic collapse and global chaos. Too many “environmentalists” think we can fix the problem with new technology and substituting depleting resources with new materials. Instead of cutting back on their profligate consumerism, they want to “fix” the environment by recycling over-used materials and using just as much energy from more “sustainable” sources.

Instead, they could choose to live a less carbon-intensive “low-tech” life, buying only what they really need, goods the production of which is labor intensive rather than capital intensive. That would, of course, entail more work and more jobs. It would also entail a new great transformation in the way we live in relation to the planet and each other.

What if we all re-focused on smaller scale production of higher quality useful goods that last and require us to apply craftsmanship in their making? Many human-scale tools are available that require no energy inputs except those of the human head and hand to get the same work done.

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Nutrient Rich Organic Produce

Oh, but that would take more time to produce. Yes, and that would mean jobs, jobs, jobs! Everyone could have one. More people are turning to human-scale production. As it turns out, small organic farms are significantly more productive than giant factory farms are. They also restore soils to a natural state in which they provide the nutrients missing in industrial agriculture. Given the power of the neo-liberal corporate industrial economy, making the transition to a viable low carbon emissions future is the hard part. We have the tools. We just need to figure out how to transform extractive economies into ecological communities.

The experience of making meaningful things (or performing meaningful services) is exactly what is missing in our declining perpetual-growth industrial economy and is exactly the economic model needed for mitigation of climate chaos and for ecological restoration. Look for hand-crafted products, locally made. Become a “locavore.”  It’s our choice: Creativity or Catastrophe.

Hidden Costs Constrain the Benefits of Transitioning to Renewable Energy

It seems that little effort to understand fully the costs and benefits of the transition from fossil fuel to PV energy production has accompanied the rush to install utility scale solar and wind farms. However, it is very important to examine the environmental costs of achieving the environmental benefits of low carbon emissions energy production, especially at industrial scale. Moreover, that transition must involve so far largely ignored major societal transformations if humanity is actually to achieve the goals of zero carbon emissions, ecological restoration, and climate stabilization.

COP_21_Paris_Agreement-Celebration_Christiana-Figueres_Laurence-Tubiana_Ban_Ki_moon_François_Hollande

Paris Agreement Celebration

Given the accelerating trajectory of ecosystems collapse and climate destabilization well underway, achieving those goals is simply imperative. Yet, despite the importance of the technical, economic, and social complexities inherent in such a comprehensive transition to “sustainability,” utilities, governments, and corporations pursue the quest mostly in a business-as-usual format.The COP-21 Paris Climate Agreements, so difficult to implement, nevertheless fall short of needed international action.

Even before reading Ozzie Zehner’s book, Green Illusions, I worried about the carbon costs of the production of renewables. Zehner raised many questions but did not provide the kind of data-driven findings we need to optimize renewables deployment, though he rightly asserted the primacy of the problem of overconsumption.

Optimization Imperative

Importantly, the choices are difficult and the optimal solutions very hard to achieve.  In several ways, international trade is an important culprit. Not only does it add immensely to carbon costs; it also amplifies the waste resulting from not keeping manufacturing domestic in all PV markets. Corporate financial optimization conflicts with ecological and climate imperatives.

Clearly, we need an international agreement that works in the exact opposite direction from the extant NAFTA or delayed TTP regimes. No approximation of net-zero emissions will be possible in the near future without severely curtailing international trade and minimizing the distance between materials extraction, and the manufacture, installation and operation of near carbon-neutral energy systems. The same goes for all industrial production.

COP-21-Paris-Climate-Conference-Summit co2 chart

Only Deep Industrial Contraction can Achieve Adequate Reduction in Carbon Emissions.

We must accelerate the transition, but we must do so consistent with the goal of minimizing net carbon emissions in the process as well as in the outcome.  In that context, it is interesting to note that so little mention is made of energy conservation in the literature of emissions reduction and “sustainability” — except indirectly, in terms of improving production efficiency. The immensity of the task escapes most analysts.

DeGrowth and Consumption

One of Zehner’s core arguments is that the renewable energy transition not only consumes a lot of fossil-fueled energy production and depletes increasingly scarce mineral resources. It also encourages more energy consumption and waste.  It is not surprising to find the old pattern of “unanticipated consequences of social action” in this context.

The core consequence in this case is that the goal of zero carbon emissions to stabilize ecosystems and climate must entail significant contraction of industrial economies themselves – “degrowth.” Most government officials and policy wonks do not anticipate that deeply transformative consequence. It contravenes their deeply held beliefs in economic growth as the primary societal goal.

Two Kinds of “Grass Roots”

Most analysts and even political leaders agree on the need for large-scale highly rational international agreements to optimize the transition to a low-carbon renewable-energy-based economy. Yet little prospect for such large-scale political solutions is in sight. At one level, local community efforts to fight global warming are essential. However, some sort of “grass-roots” effort also must arise within the PV and wind industries, in order to optimize the extraction-production-distribution-installation matrix, despite the difficulty. Maybe the industry could form cooperatives to trade or share elements of the cycle in order to minimize distance between these elements in order to optimize carbon-reduction benefits. At this point, micro-economic incentives are lacking.

As Kris De Decker documented as early as 2015, based on diverse research findings, net-positive life-cycle carbon-reduction benefits from renewables are far from automatic. They only occur with localized optimization of supply chains. An important step is to bring awareness to the players — and to environmentalists too. However, some form of leverage on the industry is also needed, or it’s not likely to happen. Time is short, and the cost of time in this instance is very high.

How to Evolve

Someone quoted Jeff Bezos as saying that the biggest mistake is not to evolve. But what exactly does it mean to evolve? In the case of Amazon.com, it has always meant to grow Amazon by growing sales above all else, including profit. Well, the entire history of the industrial era has focused on growth as well. What distinguishes Bezos is that he was able to grow Amazon more powerfully than just about any other company on earth.

But really, is that all that evolving means? Of course, amazon developed many techniques of marketing more and more product lines, which enabled unprecedented corporate growth. One might argue that independent bookstores failed Bezos’ test of evolution by not following his business model as it evolved. But could they? Besides, we can hardly call copying someone else’s business model, evolving. Even more important, why should they?

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Evolution Gone Awry

The assumption that economic expansion is the only viable model for human progress has played a central role in the industrial-consumer economy. A growth-as-necessary-and-inevitable model of business success and of societal progress still drives the U.S.-led final stages of the industrial era. It also produced the converging crises of economic injustice, ecological destruction, and climate chaos that we now experience with increasing frequency and intensity.

The idea of evolving has always carried with it an underlying assumption that improvement is the ultimate goal of evolutionary change. Well, there’s the rub. Improvement implies change measured against some particular value. In human affairs, that has meant the cultural value of achieving a better life for more and more people. But we must be careful in how we define better. Is life really better if we can buy more junk cheaper at Wal-Mart than fewer products of higher quality with greater and longer use-value at a small locally owned store? Moreover, widespread access to affluence more closely appears as a fiction every day.

Quality and quantity have often conflicted in our ideas of progress. Quantity, often disguised as quality, has increasingly dominated the industrial-consumer culture as pressure for endless economic growth continues. Are more and more people living better lives today than they might otherwise? That remains a focus of political debate.

Then we have the other entrepreneurial standout, Elon Musk. Now, there we find another mixed bag of ingenious innovation of significant social value and pie-in-the-sky inventions of little use to anyone other than to entertain the super-rich. Low carbon-emissions transportation, home, and business energy storage now have immense societal evolutionary value. The potential for transportation to evolve toward carbon neutrality demonstrated by innovative Tesla vehicles, with their advanced designs, is remarkable. But the sci-fi fantasy of commercial space travel, given our current human evolutionary crisis, is nothing but counter-productive.

To evolve in the most positive sense is to make changes that take into account the context that those changes will affect. At this stage of human evolution, we have reached a crossroads. More than 200 years of our economic “progress” has caused increasingly widespread destruction to the living Earth systems that our species (and all others) depend upon to survive. Humanity has lost its resilience by destroying the conditions that make our lives viable.

We have run out of wiggle room. Now, we can only afford to (and must) evolve in ways that: 1) counteract the damage we have already done, and 2) radically innovate our economic activity in ways that help regenerate the severely damaged ecosystems upon which we all depend to survive.