Thursday, June 12, 2014

Grief off a Key Ring

Along with my house and car keys, I used to have a second interlocking ring for church building keys.  I was active enough in the congregation to have been issued a master key and a key to the financial file cabinet.  But the building air quality got so bad that in order to avoid an asthmatic cough, I needed to wear an uncomfortable painter’s respirator.   I got so tired of fielding comments about it that I stopped volunteering in the office and attending church functions.  
Losing my beloved church family hit me like a death, but various mental exercises helped me to get through the grief.  First, I drew a picture of a treasure chest.  There, I wrote reminders of all the good memories: seeing friends every Sunday, church socials, making connections with new people, and giving such well received talks that people asked for copies of them.
Below the treasure chest, I drew a trash bag where I put the bad memories: my chemical sensitivity not being taken seriously, not being able to attend worship with my partner, and fruitless meetings: with the accessibility group that met once, with the environmental committee who was saving the planet from carbon dioxide, the finance committee who refused my donation toward air quality improvement, and the building committee who took two years (during which time others also complained) to put air quality on the improvements list.  
The treasure chest and the trash bag helped my grief process, but the mature approach wasn’t enough.  I needed something stronger – sour grapes! I grumbled about wasting time with people who couldn’t get it together to do anything to make the building accessible, a professed church value.  I growled at the congregation, who used to be my kind of folk, but now seemed more concerned with their righteous causes than each other.
After my sour grape harvest, I could savor the good memories from the treasure chest, just as I can reminisce about high school without wanting to go back.  Moreover, it was a relief to no longer have to deal with the issues in the trash bag.
Once I turned in my church building keys, my key ring became lighter.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Divestment, the Feel Pure Choice

My congregation’s Climate Justice Committee, along with Bill McKibben of 350.org, recommends divestment from fossil fuel stocks.  However, UUA Treasurer Tim Brennan,  (UUWorld Summer13) who believes, “the world is hurtling toward climate change disaster,” distinguishes between divestment, which is not effective and something that actually is effective, disinvestment.  http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/285525.shtml
Disinvestment means the refusal to provide start-up capital (Initial Public Offering).  It’s an effective move because corporations need more capital to expand and profit.  Brennan points out that it was disinvestment that was effective dismantling apartheid in South Africa.  
On the other hand, divestment means selling off stock in a corporation in the secondary market.  However, the corporation doesn’t care who owns its stock and gets a share of the profits.  Besides, if one party sells, someone else will buy.  Only if almost everyone sells, will the value of the stock decrease in value.  Then indirect effects come into play, such as managers’ portfolios decreasing in value, employee stock options being less attractive, and the corporation having less bargaining power.
However, an organization that continues to own stock in a corporation can collect the corporation’s profits as dividends to use for good.  Moreover, shareholder activism allows the organization to influence the other stockholders and the Board of Directors, also for good. Besides, brokerages charge fees for stock transactions.  Hence, divestment wastes time and money that could be diverted to good works.
Since fossil fuel corporations deliver concentrated, storable energy, they aren’t going broke any time soon, in my opinion.  And on the alert for ever more profit, they will go green as soon as it’s economically feasible.  For instance, Big Oil Chevron, one of the world’s leading producers of  geothermal energy, is also developing solar energy and non-food biofuels.
Corporations make money by selling what they produce.  If nobody buys their products, they go broke.  So, instead of divesting, our congregation could affect fossil fuel corporations’ profits by refusing to buy fossil fuels, and using only our solar panels.  Though I doubt we’re willing to forego our gas heat in the winter and most of our electricity.
Surely an astute politician like Bill McKibben understands the difference between divestment, refusal to own stock, and disinvestment, refusal to provide capital.   Is he taking advantage of the fact that most people conflate the two?   Most of us, not having the odd million to throw around, can’t disinvest, but we can divest through our churches, other organizations, or our personal portfolios.  Hence, divestment involves many more people than disinvestment ever could, thus gaining adherents for the climate movement.   (350.org, founded in 2007, has grown to the point where it can get 50,000 people at climate rallies.)
Fossil Free, a website promoting divestment, says it’s wrong to profit from wrecking the climate.  In other words, divestment comes down to a purity issue, allowing an organization to avoid sullying itself from what it considers morally questionable ventures such as alcohol, tobacco, guns, or nuclear and fossil fuels, without affecting those ventures.  (Note that nuclear energy doesn't generate CO2.)  Divestment falls into the same category as eating organic food because it’s pure, not because it’s nutritionally superior.
The resolution concludes “Finally, be it resolved that we the members of the Fellowship shall urge each other to divest from personal holdings in fossil fuel corporations.”  Instead of encouraging spiritual growth, we’re encouraging fiscal purity.  What a go-ahead for self-righteous busybodies!
We’ll be voting on this issue at the annual meeting next month, but I won’t be able to speak at the meeting because I need to wear a gas mask to breathe at church where the CO2 concentration is over 2000ppm in the sanctuary, six times the 350ppm goal.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Loaves and Fishes for All

The Bible story of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes says Jesus fed four or five thousand people on five or seven barley loaves and a few fishes with leftovers to spare;  the details differ in different versions.  Some interpret this story as an uncomplicated miracle, that is, Jesus, being God, made something out of nothing, a feat He would be most capable of.
Unitarian Universalists, who don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, might say those people in the crowd who had a lot were led to share with those who had little and that’s why there was enough.  Both of the above interpretations rest on the premise that it took something special to make sure there was enough.
At GA 2010, Ralph Ellison suggested another interpretation of the story: the disciples just thought there wasn’t enough.  In other words, maybe the story means although it may not seem like it, there can be enough for all.
Our job as beings with brains is to use our ingenuity to provide enough for all rather than limit how many are at the table.  Ten thousand years ago, everyone in the world was a hunter-gatherer.  I can imagine some old cave sage saying, “We’ve driven the large mammals to extinction! Our lifestyle is not sustainable! We’re overpopulated!” (The hunter-gatherer world population was around five million, less than a tenth of a percent of today’s population of seven billion.**)
I hear a soft but determined voice reply, “Not so fast, old man! My sisters and I saved seed from last fall and planted it by the river.  Now we can gather more grain in days than we used to be able to gather in weeks!”   The invention of agriculture wasn’t the last time human ingenuity overcame perceived unsustainability.
Things continue to improve. During the 20th century alone, we captured the nitrogen for fertilizer from the air [Haber-Bosch process] and bred high yielding grain [Green Revolution].  In 1981, 52.2% of the world’s population lived on less than $1.25 a day;  by 2008 only 22.4% did.*** From more than half poor to less than a quarter poor in twenty-seven years!  Billionaire tech mogul Bill Gates predicts there will be no more poor countries by 2035.****
As the Loaves and Fishes parable says, our job as humans is to work with and trust the processes that will bring us all enough.

*http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/170691.shtml     Rep Keith Ellison on radical abundance at GA 2010.
**http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/.  

***http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty

****http://annualletter.gatesfoundation.org/

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Clicker Training and Climate Change

Bozeman, my new fifty pound mixed breed rescue, is devouring the food in his bowl.  I approach.  He gobbles faster.  I take another step closer.  Instead of his usual soft adoring look, I get a hard stare.   Being prudent, I step back.  Despite the thirty-four pounds of kibble stored in the kitchen, Bozeman believes there’s not enough dog food in his universe.  Hence, he’d best keep anyone else from getting any of his food. In Bozeman’s mind, resources are limited.
My challenge is to convince Bozeman that there is enough, resources are not limited, and that people approaching when he’s eating means more food for him, not less.
Bozeman being a dog, I’ll have to act out my explanation.  After he finishes, I go to his bowl, click (the signal a treat’s coming) and drop in a delicious spoonful of wet dog food.   After a week of training, I can pick up his bowl while he’s still eating, add the canned food and return the bowl.  His tail wags.
Some humans such as Paul Ehrlich, and David Suzuki follow the 19th century Reverend Thomas Malthus, who claimed population increases exponentially while food resources only increase arithmetically.  These pundits believe that food will run out because people will multiply without end.  Like Bozeman with his limited vision, they don’t see the big picture.  They extrapolate from such simple situations as bacteria in a petri dish or fruit flies in a milk bottle that do overshoot the carrying capacity of their environments.  Humans, on the other hand, figure out solutions, for example the Green Revolution’s advances in agricultural technology.  Since Malthus, and in the forty years since Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, humans have simultaneously increased both their numbers and their overall wealth.
Nevertheless, the Malthusians are still catastrophizing.  They claim humans and their activities are destroying the planet via climate change caused by fossil fuel use.  Hence, to maintain the climate, the use of fossil fuels should be restricted.   Poor countries should not be allowed to use fossil fuels to develop, which will keep them poor.  Coincidentally, the resources of those that already have them will be conserved.  
However, when countries develop and become richer, women get educated and have fewer babies, not more.  We saw this phenomenon in Europe during the 19th century and in the United States during the 20th century.  The population growth curve levels off.   This change from high death rates and birth rates to low death rates and birth rates is called the Demographic Transition.
The Demographic Transition is the click or signal to tell the Malthusians not to worry. Populations will level off.  There will be enough.  We big-brained humans can figure it out.
After a month of training, Bozeman figured it out.  I can pick up his half-eaten bowl of food and return it without incident.   Bozeman has been persuaded that humans approaching him during meals is a good thing. Would that the Malthusians likewise see human beings as a good thing!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Good or Bad? Indifferent (morally) is Best!

We can all identify with the guy who goes to McDonald’s, orders a bacon and cheese quarter pounder with a large fries on the side, then to be “good” tops his meal off with a diet coke.  As the example shows, making food choices “good” or “bad” doesn’t work very well to improve people’s diets because people want to feel like they’re good and will reward themselves for a tiny bit of “good” behavior with a lot of “bad” behavior. *
Take the woman who drives her gas guzzling SUV to stock up on organic veggies.  Or me who used to keep a sixty-watt lamp on during the daytime during our gray Oregon winters, but now with the curly bulbs using only thirteen watts each, I feel justified in burning four of them at a time.  I save eight watts per hour.  Am I good or what?   No, moralization of green behavior doesn’t work any better than it does for eating behavior.  
When behavior becomes moralized, it’s no longer a matter of personal preference.  For instance, I don’t like Brussels sprouts, but I don’t care if you eat them. Brussels sprouts are a matter of personal preference, not morality.  Once a behavior becomes moralized, nobody should do it and people who do are bad.
Moreover, moralization is worse than ineffective;  it’s dangerous. The infinite good of the  perfect future world justifies whatever means needed to achieve that infinite good.  Think of the millions of deaths under fascism and communism that were supposed to bring about a better world.  
Moralization of a cause gets people worked up over the cause and benefits the leaders of the cause.  Once people are worked up, they stop questioning and do what the leaders tell them.
Some feel the infinite good of the planet justifies immoral behavior toward those in the way.  We see ad hominem attacks.  Those who have a non human generated CO2 driven explanation for the 1980-1998 warming are called Deniers.   Trains carrying coal are named death trains.  The references to the Holocaust, arguably one of the most evil acts ever, are obvious.  
Some believe it’s wrong to associate oneself with fossil fuel by owning stock in fossils fuel companies.  This belief leads to moves like divestment (selling off the stocks of fossil fuel companies) for an attempt at moral purity.   It’s a time wasting attempt because stockholders don’t give the evil fossil fuel corporations any money;  they just reap some of their profits.   Besides, stockholders can vote and therefore influence the corporation.
Although physicians take an oath to do no harm, all medical procedures and pharmaceuticals have risks.   We undertake treatments when their benefits outweigh their risks.  But when an issue becomes moralized, we think in all or nothing terms.  It’s Good or Bad. Hence moralization stops the discussion of risk vs benefits of a policy.
Getting beyond moralization about climate change allows us to focus on the risks and benefits of policies. Should we focus on adaptations such as dikes and relocations to escape rising sea levels?  Or should we focus on mitigation (reducing the amount of carbon dioxide) by  making energy more expensive via a carbon tax or inefficient (so far) alternate sources?  Unfortunately, expensive energy creates and maintains poverty.
I can’t agree with the progressive clergy who claim climate change is a moral issue** because creating and maintaining poverty cannot be a moral mandate.
  I’d rather emulate the woman in the McDonald’s restroom who wiped out the sink.  Now that’s leaving the world a better place.

*http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/16/AR2010071606839.html
**http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/apr/06/nasa-scientist-climate-change J Hansen

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

David Suzuki's 59th Minute

“David Suzuki, Co-Founder of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist, and broadcaster.  He is renowned for his radio and television programs that explain the complexities of the natural sciences in a compelling, easily understood way.”   http://www.davidsuzuki.org/david/.  Here’s Suzuki in an interview with Steve Curwood on 12-17-2010 on Living on Earth, an independent media program:
SUZUKI:"I give you a test tube full of food for bacteria – that’s an analogy with the planet – and I put one bacterial cell in and it is us. It’s going to go into exponential growth and divide every minute. So, at time zero, at the beginning, there is one bacterium. One minute, there are two. Two minutes, four. Three minutes, eight. Four minutes, 16. That’s exponential growth.  And at 60 minutes, the test tube is completely packed with bacteria, and there’s no food left. When is the test tube only half full? And the answer of course, is at 59 minutes. So, at 58 minutes it’s 25 percent full, 57 minutes, 12 and a half percent full. At 55 minutes of the 60-minute cycle, it’s three percent full. So, if at 55 minutes, one of the bacteria looks around and says, ‘Hey guys, I’ve been thinking, we’ve got a population problem.’ The other bacteria would say, ‘Jack, what the hell have you been drinking, man? 97 percent of the test tube is empty, and we’ve been around for 55 minutes!’ And, they’d be five minutes away from filling it. So, the bacteria are no smarter than humans. At 59 minutes they go, ‘Oh my god! Jack was right! What the hell are we going to do, we’ve got one minute left! Well, don’t give any money to those economists, but why don’t you give it to those scientists?’ And, by God, somehow those bacterial scientists in less than a minute, they invent three tests tubes full of food for bacteria. Now, that would be like us discovering three more planet Earths that we could start using immediately. So, they’re saved, right, they’ve quadrupled the amount of food in space. So what happens? Well, at 60 minutes, the first test tube is full. At 61 minutes, the second is full, and at 62 minutes, all four are full. By quadrupling the amount of food in space, you buy two extra minutes. And, how do you add any more air, water, soil or biodiversity to the biosphere. You can’t, it’s fixed! And, every scientist I’ve talked to agrees with me. We’re already past the 59th minute."

How do we know that we’ve arrived at the 59th minute when we don’t know when the 60th minute will arrive?   Although that 59th minute is a powerful analogy, it’s only an analogy –  a visual image of the exponential growth of humans on a finite planet.
Suzuki implies humans are no smarter than his mindlessly multiplying bacteria.  Thomas Malthus all over again;  Paul Ehrlich deja vu.  Suzuki rehashes Malthus who stated in 1800 that human populations multiply exponentially while resources can only grow arithmetically; therefore the humans soon run out of resources.  This idea is certainly plausible and some accept it without question.  Not only that, it has the veneer of math and science, and therefore certainty.  But is it true?  Do humans multiply endlessly like bacteria?  Are they mindless and helpless like bacteria in a culture?  What do the data show us?  What have we seen in history in the two hundred years since Malthus?
  Two hundred years after Malthus, world population has grown to seven billion.  Paul Ehrlich said forty years ago we’d run out of food in the eighties. Didn’t happen although the population has doubled since he wrote.
Why haven’t the grim predictions come true?   Possibly because machines can do a lot more work than slaves or draft animals and because of world trade in goods and ideas, people all over the world have become more prosperous since Malthus. The world’s wealth never was fixed.
Malthus left human ingenuity out of his grim calculations.  Ingenuity in communications, transportation, and especially in agriculture.  The scientific improvements in agriculture, plant breeding, irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticides, which saved a billion human beings from starvation, are called the Green Revolution. Some people oppose the Green Revolution on the grounds that it’s not sustainable.  They say increased food production has led to overpopulation, without taking the Demographic Transition, the change from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates, into account.
As people become prosperous, death rates fall, but they continue to have many children.  The population grows exponentially for a while, but then birth rates fall as well.  In a prosperous society, people don’t need as many children to be farm hands or to take care of them in old age.  Educated women fulfill themselves with careers instead of many children.  Rather than continue to grow exponentially, the UN expects the world population to level off at about ten billion around 2050, then remain steady or decline.
Opponents of the Green Revolution claim there may have been improvements in yields, but there is still hunger because of poor infrastructure and governmental corruption.  However, these are political, not technological problems.  The Green Revolution did not claim to address the problem of food distribution.  
Another reason the Green Revolution is said to be unsustainable is because modern fertilizers and pesticides are made from fossil fuels and maybe we’ve reached peak oil.  However, methane clathrates are nearly inexhaustible. Methane plus nitrogen from the air (80% of the atmosphere) makes fertilizer, the Haber-Bosch process discovered early in the 20th century. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/05/what-if-we-never-run-out-of-oil/309294/
  Are the opponents of the Green Revolution saying the Green Revolution is unsustainable in order to get rid of those pesky carbon-spewing humans using up resources for their  grandchildren?
Not only bacteria but ideas multiply exponentially. As Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, says, “ideas have sex.”   The more people, the more communication between them, the faster new ideas are generated.  Ideas grow faster than people.  The volume of scientific papers has been doubling every fifteen years.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2909426/  
There needs to be a minimum of prosperity beyond an uphill struggle for existence for ideas to flourish.  When people are educated, they can be the helpers, not the eaters.   Poverty-stricken people are just mouths to feed, but prosperous people can use their minds to invent.  
Too few people can be a bad thing.  The Tasmanian aboriginal people lacked the ability to make fire, bone tools, or to catch fish, although the Australian aborigine groups from whence they emigrated had these skills.  Jared Diamond says, “All other things being equal, the rate of human invention is faster, and the rate of cultural loss is slower, in areas occupied by many competing societies with many individuals and in contact with societies elsewhere.”
http://www.edge.org/conversation/why-did-human-history-unfold-differently-on-different-continents-for-the-last-13000-years
  “Every scientist I’ve talked to agrees with me,”  Suzuki claims.  Maybe he doesn’t get out much.

 FOOTNOTE:  Let’s unpack the literal image presented.  To see if it makes sense, we need to attach quantities. Starting with that one bacterial cell with an approximate volume of one microliter  [1 µl ], according to Suzuki’s thought experiment, this cell will double every minute (about ten times faster than real life bacteria) for a total of sixty doublings, which means the final volume will be two raised to the sixtieth power [2E+60] µl, a very large quantity.  Since our number system is based on ten, 20E+60 converted to powers of ten is 10E+18.
If 2E+60 = 10E+18,  the volume of the culture after sixty doublings is 10E+18 microliters in volume, equivalent to one cubic meter.  A cubic meter of water weighs a metric ton; hence the spent culture would weigh about a ton.  Mighty big test tube!
From algebra.com: It would take 2639 minutes or ~44 hours for an E coli bacterium doubling every 20 minutes to reach the mass of the earth!  In real life, exponential growth doesn’t continue as it does in a thought experiment. Suzuki’s 59th minute analogy is a ton (literally) of specious reasoning!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

How I Learned to Think my Hands Warm

In New York’s North Country, winter blew in with a white Halloween, followed by a white Easter, with nary a thaw in between.  I dressed for the season:  two pairs of socks, boots, thermal long underwear, corduroy pants, and flannel shirt – for inside the house.
One morning I borrowed my roommate’s car, promising to fill it up.  I put on my outside gear that I’d wear even for a trip to the mailbox: a down parka, a wool scarf, and down filled mittens. One didn’t take chances in below freezing weather.  
Along the road, the bottom layer of snow had packed into ice, the same process that forms glaciers.  When I got to the gas station, I took off my mitten to use the key to unlock the gas cap.  It wouldn’t turn.  Aaargh! One more thing that wouldn’t work in this godforsaken subarctic climate.  I was downright furious at the car, the weather, and general circumstances.
The gas station guy helping me said, “Aren’t your fingers cold?”
“No,” I said.  They really weren’t although the morning’s breeze had moved the wind chill factor to well below zero.
Back on the road with a full tank, I pondered what had happened.  I realized my frustration and anger had moved the blood down into my fingers and kept them warm.  So, if my mind could warm my hands when I was angry, it could do the same thing without my getting angry and upset.
  When I got back home, where the snow had blown under the door and hadn’t melted, I tried again to warm my hands.  All I had to do was relax and move the energy into my fingers.  I let it happen like when I fell asleep, rather than forced it to happen by using will power.  Behold, I could think my hands warm!  
Ten years later during my menopause, the ability to move the warm blood into my fingers came in handy. When I had a hot flash, I’d hold something cold like a glass of ice water and mentally move the heat out of my body through my fingers onto the cold surface.  At night I’d lay my palm on the cool floor to dissipate the heat.

Last year, I learned that when beginning meditators can make their hands warm, they know they’ve made progress in their meditation practice.  Hence, anyone can master what I learned by happenstance.