Water Wells and Appropriate Technology

When my well failed a while back, I had just begun re-reading E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. It is a remarkable book, even more relevant today than in 1973, and available in many newer editions. Schumacher’s perspective of “Buddhist Economics” emerged from his experience as an economic development expert in Burma and his time spent in a Buddhist monastery there. The viewpoint he expressed was more profound than recent, though valuable, critiques of neo-classical economics and the endless-growth economic ideology.

5e47df09c0fca445cf795801139960aa--water-well-drilling-rigsI watched Daniel and his helper set up the big well-repair rig with its crane and other equipment required for such jobs. The engine was running, supplying the power for the hoist and crane. Several other mechanical devises allowed them to raise then secure the pipe, wiring, and connectors, holding them in place. That allowed them to disassemble the wellhead components to make their repairs. Fortunately, the problem turned out to be an intermittent short in a wire not adequately secured, allowing friction to produce a sporadic failure of the pump to maintain water pressure. The fix was relatively cheap, far better than having to deal with an exhausted well.

Work and Energy

It was interesting to watch the merging of manual labor with fossil-fueled powered equipment. I started thinking of how they might accomplish such work without burning so much fossil fuel. Clearly, the men needed a lot of power to leverage their work with the manual tools. Electrical motors powered by lead-acid batteries recharged by the truck’s engine drove the equipment.

If an electric motor drove the truck itself, powered by its own batteries, the whole operation would have been relatively free of carbon emissions. However, if the battery charging system back at the shop got its electricity from the grid, powered mostly by coal-fired and nuclear power plants, such a system would still contribute carbon to global warming.

If an array of photovoltaic solar panels charged all the batteries, however, the whole system would be mostly free of carbon emissions. All of the necessary technology for such a setup exists today. Like any system, it would require new investment. As far as I know, nobody has set up such configuration yet although the technology is available.

In order to achieve a low carbon footprint, we do not need to give up the necessities of modern life, though we will have to curtail significantly our profligate “consumer lifestyle”. After decades of delay in taking significant climate action, recent research findings demonstrate that we have reached the tipping point where only radical societal transformation can constrain the most severe climate chaos, ecosystem collapse, and species extinction.

Transforming Energy and Society

No minor “ecomodernist” tweaks of green consumer products will be enough. Nor can risky illusions of geoengineering the atmosphere address the deeper problem of the “technosphere” overshooting the Earth System’s capacity to carry its destruction. We must redirect current massive investments of capital into the doomed financialized globalized economy of growth toward replacing it with appropriate technology locally applied.

We need to convert our power generation to emissions-free technologies that are available today, and not waste energy on the pursuit of high-tech trivia. We have the knowledge; we need the action, now. We will have to give up the excessive consumerism and the reckless waste of the growth-at-any-cost global economy. Fewer ephemeral consumer products, replaced by carbon neutral, higher quality necessities, and a refocusing on human values as their measure, are all necessary. That will mean that society will have to run the economy, not the other way around. For more on carbon emissions, ecological overshoot, and the costs of affluence, see other posts at www.thehopefulrealist.com.

Internet Freedom the Co-op Way

I pay $35.00 per month for unlimited Internet service. I get about the same speed as most of the corporate Internet Service Providers offer, for about half the price they charge. All the customers/members of our co-op get the same service for the same price, with no restrictions whatsoever on content because our ‘provider’ is a cooperative owned by its members. Its sole purpose is to provide ourselves with high-speed internet access. All ‘profits’ go to the members in the form of better service and price. For a small increase in the monthly fee, we can upgrading to a higher bandwidth.

We are all encouraged to contribute work in upgrading the equipment of the co-op as well as help set up new members’ receivers, etc. The La Canada Wireless Internet Co-op buys access to large high-speed optical transmission lines. It then transmits all Internet content equally to its members via its installations atop hills in the Santa Fe area. Members install their own transmission/receiving equipment on their rooftops. Usually, more technically knowledgeable members help them.

Ethernet.cable on blue

Ethernet Cable

We members collectively own our own “pipeline” to the World Wide Web and all the information and communication that entails. We are, in effect, shareholders. Because we are our own Internet Service Provider, we do not have any interest in restricting speed and/or content in order to squeeze greater profit from customers – we are not customers, we are member/owners. Unlike Comcast, Time-Warner, or any of the few communications and entertainment giants, we have no conflict of interest between providing the “pipelines” of the Internet and trying to generate profits from particular “content” by giving preferential access to content we own.

When the same media giants control content and transmission, censorship is inevitable, if only a means to greater profit. But remember, political censorship follows directly from economic interest and power. We cannot achieve the democracy of Net Neutrality until Internet content and transmission functions are economically independent of one another.

It is no different from the public officials switching the source of water for Flint, Michigan to save money and poisoning the children of Flint in the process. The supposed beneficiaries of the service become its victims because they are subservient to the institution and have no control over its policies. Those in control had little or no interest in the wellbeing of the citizens/customers or their children, who as a result continue to suffer from lead poisoning. The managers of Flint acted in their own narrow economic/political interests instead of in the public interest. At least with the giant media corporations, the damage is merely cultural, not genetic.

One of the biggest problems with modern societies is that the most powerful economic institutions rule the society instead of the society managing the economy in the interests of the citizenry. That is why some call it the “corporate state.” If you think you need to “take back our country,” then you should forget about the minorities the demagogues encourage you to hate – as a distraction from their theft of our democracy. Instead, start by taking back control of the economy from those giant corporations that run it not in the public interest, but solely in the interests of the economic greed of the financial corporate elites that dominate politics and society alike.

Debate on “Modern Monetary Theory” Misses the Mark

Artificial wealth comprises the things which of themselves satisfy no natural need, for example money, which is a human contrivance.

~  St. Thomas Aquinas

Buzzwords seem to rule public discussion of just about everything. Money is no exception. Now it’s “Modern Monetary Theory.” What’s that? Well, it depends on who you ask. In modern times, debates usually center on public debt and the government’s fiscal and monetary policies.

An article in Boomberg News argued that the supporters of The Green New Deal favor Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Critics argue that the costs of universal health care, publicly funded higher education, infrastructure buildout, and conversion to 100% renewable energy production would require unsustainable public debt. MMT supposedly sets no limits on public debt. That is apparently not quite true, but within the U.S. monetary system and corporate political squeeze on public spending, the costs of the Green New Deal, if financed by public debt, would be quite high.

Of course, if we calculate the infrastructure damage of climate chaos even if we met the limits of the Paris Accords – never mind the costs in terms of human lives – the comparative costs of implementing the Green New Deal would be trivial. In that sense, costs are relative. The underlying question is: What does society want to achieve and is it willing to pay for achieving it?

The Debt Illusion

Money is a social construction. It exists by social convention, by consensual definition. Throughout history, money has taken diverse forms, as long as the forms taken could provide the security needed for money to be money. That is why gold worked so well as currency until the global economy grew so large that the supply of gold could not keep up with the need for more currency.

Scholars have written some very large books on the nature of money and debt. How money evolved is quite fascinating. David Graeber’s book, Debt: the First 5000 Years, is quite enlightening, particularly regarding the diverse forms money has taken in history.

Public debt is not necessary; instead, it is a convention devised by bankers to control the economy of nation states. In that, the banks have succeeded.

If a sovereign nation controlled its central bank, it would not need to borrow the currency it issues since it is the sole source of authority to create money. The creation of the U.S. Federal Reserve as a banking cartel in 1913 made that impossible.

The expanding Roman Empire paid its soldiers using gold and silver coins it minted from metals mined mostly in Spain and Portugal. It did not borrow its money from anyone. Among the many causes of the fall of the Empire, was the fact that when the mines played out, the Empire could no longer satisfy its need for more coins to pay an expanding army. The operations of the Empire were stifled because it could not pay its soldiers.

Money need not be based on public debt, but in the industrial economies of the modern era, it is. That political choice enriches the banks and the corporations they fund, and it impoverishes nations. Neither supporters nor critics of Modern Monetary Theory seem to get this.

Implementing a national project or sustaining an institution is not a matter of how much debt we can tolerate. Rather, it is a matter of political will. The lavish support for the military that sustains the global modern industrial-consumer economy demonstrates that.

Fearful Fantasies and Fiat Money

To work effectively, money has to be made of a material and in a form that has some unique irreplaceable quality that makes it impossible to replicate by just anybody. That is why rare metals worked so well until economies grew so large in the modern era that the money supply could not expand enough using gold and silver.

When paper money replaced gold, the idea of “fiat money” implied that paper money was not really “real money” like gold. Nevertheless, it worked because it is hard to counterfeit, making it unreproducible by anyone other than the sovereign (for the most part).

Unnecessary debt combined with the failure to tax corporate profits creates annual deficits, which add to the national debt. The central bank creates fiat money through the sleight of hand of issuing government debt in the form of bonds as the basis of “loaning” money created out of nothing, to the government. If the sovereign issued money without the mechanism of “borrowing” from the central bank (in the U.S., the Federal Reserve) it would not create debt by issuing money.

It’s crazy. But the banks that in practical terms own the Federal Reserve love it.

If a sovereign issued money solely on the basis of needing to fund worthy projects, to hire the workers and buy the materials to complete the projects, the money would, as a result, circulate among the population of the nation, providing the ‘buying power’ needed to generate the goods and services people need.

National debt is unnecessary. In stark contrast, something very much like the Green New Deal is as necessary as anything can be. It is a matter of survival.

On the Ground Again: Enchanted in Lyon

In recent weeks, I have had the experience of being in some very large chunks of the “built environment.” The airports in Houston and Mexico City are just huge, if not spread out as far as the terminals at Denver. Even looking out the bay windows in an attorney’s Mexico City airport1downtown 16th-floor conference room at the snow-capped Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque was stunning. It wasn’t just the view, it was the character of the monumental architecture that provided it. These structures are meant to impress.

Livable Cities

What makes a city work? Well, people of course. But so much more. It is about how they live and work and interact, and how they maintain the qualities of the more mundane elements of the built environment they inhabit. Cities, towns, and villages are all complex adaptive systems with all sorts of nodes and links between them, which function in so many ways to keep them alive. The average lifespan of corporations is ten years. Cities live so very much longer for too many reasons to list here. In short, they are alive.

Some Cities, like New York, succeed in spite of themselves. It helps to be the financial center of the universe if you want to be known for super highrise office buildings. But where is New York’s charm, its human qualities? In its neighborhoods, of course. Don’t look for charm in Trump Tower’ all you will find are pretensions of wealth. Extreme disparities in wealth and poverty can exist within an otherwise great city.

011_Haarlem,_Netherlands_-_Kleine_HoutstraatHaarlem is a small city near the much larger Amsterdam, in progressive Holland where public spaces are revered, used, and preserved. Haarlem has all the benefits and less of the crowding of its larger neighbor 15 minutes away by rail, bus, or car.

City as Celebration

Edinburgh is my favorite city in Scotland, but I was only there during its world-famous month-long summer Edinburgh Festival, which made crowding fun. The Festival is accompanied by “The Fringe,” the world’s largest arts festival, scattered among the streets throughout the city. It seemed every language could be heard on the cobblestone walk-street near Edinburgh Castle. And the Edinburgh Book Festival, held that same month, is exciting for any reader. Well, again, it’s a world-famous lovely city. Its charm is well aged.

But what is it about Lyon? Despite all the iconic sights and sounds of Paris, I much prefer Lyon as a city to simply be in and enjoy. Of course, it has lots of museums, a major university, medieval walk streets and neighborhood cafés, etc. Much of Lyon remains at human scale.

Lyon walk streetIn the beautiful green rolling hills of springtime central France, I enjoyed watching the two rivers running through Lyon. Rivers offer special opportunities for urban living. As with the canals in Haarlem and Amsterdam, which are lined with houseboats and barges, they are venues for walking along park-like banks with lots of trees and the occasional monument.

Lyon has integrated the medieval and the modern in its architecture. A tram runs up to the cathedral on an adjacent hilltop where you can look over the entire city, noting the changes in texture from center to periphery. On a clear day, you can see the Alps.

Unlike in the U.S., the French don’t constantly destroy the old to affirm the new. In central Lyon, the ancient buildings, mostly hand built of stone, are “modernized” in their facilities while retaining the beauty and charm of their ancient origins. And it is all at a human scale. The city is walkable, which allows discovery of that small otherwise unknown shop, café or bistro, or that statue on the square where elders converse and children play.

Valuing the Valuable

Instead of donating them to the Metropolitan Museum as promised, Donald Trump simply threw away the art deco sculpture and ironwork from a historic building he tore down to replace with one of his megalomaniacal towers. The French helped us gain our national independence from our British colonial masters (who also appreciate the old). We still have much to learn from the Europeans about, well, just living.

Our cities – and our politics as well – could use some of their sensibility now. Santa Fe has retained some of the aesthetic of its Pueblo Indian and Spanish Territorial styles in its historic district and classic plaza, giving it much of the character lost to so many American cities. We have so much to do to make American cities livable (not pseudo-“great again”), and so little cultural will.

Intermediation Blues

As commonly used in finance, “intermediation” refers to banks and other financial institutions borrowing from savers/investors and lending to companies that need funds for investment in operations and new projects. I will look at the idea more broadly here.

Intermediation occurs in countless ways in our industrial-consumer society. Most of the time, we do not even notice the indirectness of our mostly transactional lives. When did you last buy a product directly from the person who made it?

About the only way you can make a direct purchase from the producer of food is to buy those organic carrots or tomatoes from your local farmers market. What percentage of your food purchases are those? Most likely, very small. In most other cases, a direct transaction with no intermediation is impossible.

Dependency and Distance

The more distance between you and the other (if there is a singular other involved), the more dependent you are on a process beyond your reach. When did you last negotiate what characteristics your iPhone would have? To do that you would have to contact the maker, but like so many other products, smartphones result from thousands of makers producing countless components for assembly somewhere you have never heard of.

A team of people whose criteria result from complex sets of information from engineering and marketing studies designs the product. The design criteria and information intermediate between the revenue goals of the giant corporation controlling the process and estimates of how large a market their advertisers can influence to buy the product. Who decides what use-value an object may have for the end user? And who, exactly, is the end user? That is not always clear either.

Intermediation of Communication

When inventions like the telephone and telegraph became available for use by consumers and businesses, many praised their power to facilitate long-distance communication. Messages were sent directly from one party to another by telegraph; people talked directly to one another on the phone. The mail service provided delivery of direct written communications from one party to another. Today, people use their smartphones and computers to engage with social media or to send texts or email more than to communicate directly to anyone. Their calls to businesses are intermediated by complex, often dysfunctional telephone menu trees leading to recorded messages, not to humans.

Social media may be the most obvious technology of intermediated communication. How many Facebook friends do you have? How many have you actually met, face to face? People have “meetings” over Skype because it intermediates in a way that simulates face-to-face conversations. But face it, you are actually looking at an electronic image approximating the person you are talking with. The same process is involved when your geographically dispersed committee or board of directors meets via Zoom. You are replicating the experience of direct human communication.

Dangerous and Deadly Intermediation

People rightly complain that the use of drones such as the MQ99 Reaper in warfare feels in ways unseemly. A drone operator commands the aircraft from afar. He drops its bombs somewhere in Pakistan or Yemen by viewing images on a screen and receiving “intelligence” reports in his air-conditioned office near Las Vegas. He has no direct way of knowing whether the targeted group of people in a village or on a road consists of a terrorist group or a wedding party. Intelligence reports are often sketchy or based on false data. Combat drone operators experience PTSD at equivalent rates as troops on the ground.

Lion 737 Max_8

Lion Air ~ the First of two suspiious crashes.

Why was I not surprised when in a very short period two Boeing 737 Max-8 airliners crashed shortly after takeoff, one in Indonesia and the other in Ethiopia? Numerous pilots had complained of a tendency of the new autopilot software to force the aircraft into an abrupt nose down or nose up attitude. If any human technology epitomizes intermediation, it is the autopilot.

Software designed to control aircraft flight is extremely complex. Airborne situations are also extremely complex and diverse. I do not know what exactly went wrong and killed all those passengers and crew. But I do know that in automated control systems, the more complex the system, the more statistically susceptible to catastrophic collapse it is.

When I got my new small airplane in 2008, equipped with a basic autopilot, I was amazed at its ability to fly the aircraft in light to moderate turbulence better than I could. Its electronic responses were faster than my own in responding to change. But on a couple of occasions, the aircraft began to oscillate to the point where I had to hit the autopilot master switch and take manual control. Those 737 Max pilots didn’t have a chance since the defective software had been designed to override “pilot error” and drove the aircraft into the ground.

Disintermediation Rising

Intermediation has its advantages in complex systems, as long as it works. But there are limits to its benefits and there are dangers in its over-use. It appears that in several ways we have already reached the limits of utility and risk.

In the coming decades, deteriorating economic and ecological conditions will force industrial-consumer economies to contract for their societies to avoid suffering the most extreme consequences of climate chaos and the other converging catastrophic crises. Disintermediation must be part of the process of mitigating these crises.

We must examine many processes as to whether to disintermediate them. Many of the solutions to the converging crises at the end of the industrial-consumer era will involve returning to direct human interaction to accomplish tasks for which intermediation poses too many costs.

The Democratic Party Dilemma: Is it Real?

As Republicans try to drive a wedge between “centrist” and progressive Democrats, the Democrats might not need any help to achieve failure. They are well on the way to falling flat in front of the unique challenges they face in a bizarre couple of years running up to the 2020 presidential election.

Party Palliatives

DNC operatives and their favorites, the candidates who spout conventionally “liberal” slogans yet act like Reagan Republicans still control the Democratic Party. They take large corporate donations and “dark money” that tie them to the neoliberal economic thrust that takes us closer to full-blown climate chaos each day. Well, actually, the crisis is here and it is now.

In the run-up to the 2016 debacle, I remember seeing a survey posted online by Senator Keith Ellison asking Democrats to respond with their three top priorities for the Democratic Party Platform. The list provided did not include any mention of climate action, the overwhelmingly denied and ignored yet most critical issue of our time. Here is the list:

  • Raising the minimum wage
  • Civil rights
  • Making college more affordable
  • Protecting women’s health care choices
  • Immigration reform
  • Protecting and expanding Social Security
  • Overturning Citizens United
  • Reducing economic inequality
  • Wall Street accountability and consumer protection
  • Common-sense gun reform
  • Affordable housing
  • Criminal justice reform
  • Other

Okay, these are all issues that call for political action to achieve a livable society – in the abstract. Each is general enough that a politician could proclaim allegiance to taking action on it without actually having to do anything. The climate silence was deafening. The current listing of issues in the 2016 Party Platform on the party website does mention “Combat Climate Change,” briefly in the middle of the list. Once Bernie from contention, the greatest existential threat to humanity ever, Hillary mostly ignored it through the campaign. However, fear of a Trumpist future caused the 2018 midterm elections to blow a fresh new breeze into the U.S. House of Representatives.

Here Come the New Progressives

AOCAlexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) rapidly emerged as the face of the new progressive Democrats elected to the House in the midterms. Her unexpected trouncing of an old-line centrist incumbent in the primary quickly became the icon of new progressive thinking among the new representatives, who are mostly women of color.

A good measure of their impact and importance for possibly bringing the Democratic Party into the twenty-first century is the outrage and disdain expressed by Republicans at AOC’s very presence. Her highly articulate and charming outspoken expression of progressive values and her specific legislative proposals took the media’s attention away from the old party hacks.

The new progressives have already proposed a Green New Deal and helped shape HR-1, the bill that would take back control of politics from Big Money and give it to the people through electoral reform and other measures to protect democracy from the corporate state. Mitch McConnell predictably called it a “power grab,” yes, they replied, a power grab for the people.

The Struggle is On

The Corporate Democrats are not about to give up. They have already joined Republicans Ilhan Omar_400x400in attacking Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) for her calling out knee-jerk American political support for Israeli oppression and war crimes against the Palestinians. Omar had tried to distinguish between anti-semitism – of which anyone who criticizes Israel’s policies is accused – and reasoned and principled foreign policy by the U.S. But the women of color who expressed their solidarity at the State of the Union address by wearing white in honor of the original suffragettes, are strong and they are not about sit down and shut up as subservient freshmen representatives.

The Green New Deal may be only a policy preference piece, pointing in the direction of the extreme decarbonizing actions required to avert the most extreme threats to human survival inherent in the accelerating climate chaos we have already begun to experience. In one of the most honest assessments of the extreme crisis we now experience, David Wallace-Wells article in the New York Times is aptly titled, “Time to Panic: The planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us.” It seems that the only politicians to get it and openly discuss it are the new progressive representatives.

The American people are wising up. They see the catastrophic climate changes already accelerating around the world. They can no longer imagine the U.S. as a sanctuary for the industrial-consumer “lifestyle” in a world of growing chaos. The Democrats would do very well to acknowledge the extreme existential threat we face and make it the centerpiece of their platform. But the new progressives must take control of the party if it is to represent the interests of the American people.

In the Air Again: Expectations and Complications of Global Travel

I was not ready for more travel, though I had to go to L.A. for a doctor’s appointment a couple of days ago. An airline ticket was actually cheaper than a half-hour telephone consultation, which insurance does not cover. Not that I don’t like traveling; I do. But it is, after all, part of that middle-class and above, often excessive, “lifestyle” subsidized by debt, both personal and national.

As I have said before, somewhere, I don’t like the term, “lifestyle.” It seems to convey a sense that one’s life is merely a fashion statement. It implies that we are all free to choose whatever “style” of life we want. It also assumes that “lifestyle” choices entail no costs beyond the credit card. Only our economic success limits our ability to “choose our own lifestyle.” Culturally, it has become a matter of “consumer rights.” After all, with the inevitable march of “progress” as endless economic growth, we will all be middle class or even super-rich someday, right? Well, not so much, if you are a realist, however hopeful.

Old World and New

In Europe and other ‘older’ societies, families have lived in the same place for centuries. Who of us can say that? Most Americans move at least once every ten years. If you are a Euro-American and living in Santa Fe, NM, for over ten years, many transplants from California, New York, or Texas, will consider you a virtual native. Yet Native Americans or the heirs to Spanish conquistadors of four hundred years ago, would disagree. But that’s another story.

Commercial aviation is becoming a complicated affair in the twenty-first century. Yet it remains affordable for many among the shrinking middle class. Plans for expansion

2016-southwest-source.cnn_

Popular Airliner ~ source: cnn.com

abound. The executive elite of the increasingly infamous one percent travels bi-coastally and internationally on a regular basis. The rest of us travel occasionally, relying on credit cards that many rarely pay off. All this is possible because of heavy public subsidies of companies like Boeing and Airbus. We all pay for the aviation infrastructure that makes the FAA’s Air Traffic Control system and National Weather Service work so well. Who would fly if it were all rolled into the price of a ticket from L.A. to Paris?

Externality and Ecological Costs

Like so many other industries, aviation “externalizes” the social and ecological costs of its operations to the people and the planet in the form of disease and climate chaos. As a general aviation pilot, I find it difficult to face the fact that aviation is generally an ecological disaster. At least aviation does not have the biggest industrial carbon footprint. No matter the relatively small ecological damage from small planes versus big jets, the total carbon emissions from the industry are huge. Yet, the status of “frequent flyer” is widely subsidized.

On the other hand, I calculated that my little 180 horsepower airplane consumes about the same amount of fuel per mile traveled as a standard American automobile. I don’t fly it all that many hours per year, so I can rationalize my hobby as having a relatively small carbon footprint. But then, American cars get terrible gas mileage compared to cars driven in Europe. I don’t have aggregate numbers, but the anecdotal evidence is consistent. Last time we were in France, we rented a little diesel Mercedes mini SUV, drove it all over, and rarely needed fuel. That car is not available in the U.S. However, the only viable future for the automobile industry is electric.

Airline flying for business or pleasure has a huge carbon footprint when considered as a whole. Yet the middle and upper-class American public considers it virtually a civil right to fly around the nation or planet at will. How can this conflict between species survival and the consumer culture of personal privilege be resolved? The increasing chaos of the living Earth systems will resolve it for us, in a very bad way, if we do not change our ways. As we move through the new era of the Anthropocene, we must harmonize with the ecosystems upon which we depend for our lives, or our lives will be lost in the consequent chaos.