Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Cybernetics of Black Knights

Serendipity’s a funny thing. When I started planning out this post a couple of days ago, I knew that I was going to have to pull my battered copy of Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature off the bookshelf where I keep basic texts on systems philosophy, since it’s almost impossible to talk about information in any useful way without banking off Bateson’s ideas. I didn’t have any similar intention when I checked out science reporter Charles Seife’s Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking from the local library, much less when I took a break from writing the other evening to watch “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for the first time since my teens.

Still, I’m not at all sure I could have chosen better, for both of these latter turned out to have plenty of relevance to the theme of this week’s post. Fifty years of failed research and a minor masterpiece of giddy British absurdity may not seem to have much to do with each other, much less with information, Gregory Bateson, or a “green wizardry” fitted to the hard limits and pressing needs of the end of the industrial age. Yet the connections are there, and the process of tracing them out will help more than a little to make sense of how information works – and also how it fails to work.

Let’s start with a few basics. Information is the third element of the triad of fundamental principles that flow through whole systems of every kind, and thus need to be understood to build viable appropriate tech systems. We have at least one huge advantage in understanding information that people a century ago didn’t have: a science of information flow in whole systems, variously called cybernetics and systems theory, that was one of the great intellectual adventures of the twentieth century and deserves much more attention than most people give it these days.

Unfortunately we also have at least one huge disadvantage in understanding information that people a century ago didn’t have, either. The practical achievements of cybernetics, especially but not only in the field of computer science, have given rise to attitudes toward information in popular culture that impose bizarre distortions on the way most people nowadays approach the subject. You can see these attitudes in an extreme form in the notion, common in some avant-garde circles, that since the amount of information available to industrial civilization is supposedly increasing at an exponential rate, and exponential curves approach infinity asymptotically in a finite time, then at some point not too far in the future, industrial humanity will know everything and achieve something like omnipotence.

I’ve pointed out several times in these essays that this faith in the so-called “singularity” is a rehash of Christian apocalyptic myth in the language of cheap science fiction, complete with a techno-Rapture into a heaven lightly redecorated to make it look like outer space. It might also make a good exhibit A in a discussion of the way that any exponential curve taken far enough results in absurdity. Still, there’s still another point here, which is that the entire notion of the singularity is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what information is and what it does.

Bateson’s work is a good place to start clearing up the mess. He defines information as “a difference that makes a difference.” This is a subtle definition, and it implies much more than it states. Notice in particular that whether a difference “makes a difference” is not an objective quality ; it depends on an observer, to whom the difference makes a difference. To make the same point in the language of philosophy, information can’t be separated from intentionality.

What is intentionality? The easiest way to understand this concept is to turn toward the nearest window. Notice that you can look through the window and see what’s beyond it, or you can look at the window and see the window itself. If you want to know what’s happening in the street outside, you look through the window; if you want to know how dirty the window glass is, you look at the window. The window presents you with the same collection of photons in either case; what turns that collection into information of one kind or another, and makes the difference between seeing the street and seeing the glass, is your intentionality.

The torrent of raw difference that deluges every human being during every waking second, in other words, is not information. That torrent is data – a Latin word that means “that which is given.” Only when we approach data with intentionality, looking for differences that make a difference, does data become information – another Latin word that means “that which puts form into something.” Data that isn’t relevant to a given intentionality, such as the dirt on a window when you’re trying to see what’s outside, has a different name, one that doesn’t come from Latin: noise.

Thus the mass production of data in which believers in the singularity place their hope of salvation can very easily have the opposite of the effect they claim for it. Information only comes into being when data is approached from within a given intentionality, so it’s nonsense to speak of it as increasing exponentially in some objective sense. Data can increase exponentially, to be sure, but this simply increases the amount of noise that has to be filtered before information can be made from it. This is particularly true in that a very large fraction of the data that’s exponentially increasing these days consists of such important material as, say, gossip about Kate Hudson’s breast implants.

The need to keep data within bounds to make getting information from it easier explains why the sense organs of living things have been shaped by evolution to restrict, often very sharply, the data they accept. Every species of animal has different information needs, and thus limits its intake of data in a different way. You’re descended from mammals that spent a long time living in trees, for example, which is why your visual system is very good at depth perception and seeing the colors that differentiate ripe from unripe fruit, and very poor at a lot of other things.

A honeybee has different needs for information, and so its senses select different data. It sees colors well up into the ultraviolet, which you can’t, because many flowers use reflectivity in the ultraviolet to signal where the nectar is, and it also sees the polarization angle of light, which you don’t, since this helps it navigate to and from the hive. You don’t “see” heat with a special organ on your face, the way a rattlesnake does, or sense electrical currents the way many fish do; around you at every moment is a world of data that you will never perceive, because your ancestors over millions of generations survived better by excluding that data, so they could extract information from the remainder, than they would have done by including it.

Human social evolution parallels biological evolution, and so it’s not surprising that much of the data processing in human societies consists of excluding most data so that useful information can emerge from the little that’s left over. This is necessary but it’s also problematic, for a set of filters that limit data to what’s useful in one historical or ecological context can screen out exactly the data that might be most useful in a different context, and the filters don’t necessarily change as fast as the context.

The history of fusion power research provides a superb example. For more than half a century now, leading scientists in the world’s industrial nations have insisted repeatedly, and inaccurately, that they were on the brink of opening the door to commercially viable fusion power. Trillions of dollars have gone down what might best be described as a collection of high-tech ratholes as the same handful of devices get rebuilt in bigger and fancier models, and result in bigger and costlier flops. They’re still at it; the money the US government alone is paying to fund the two fusion megaprojects du jour, the National Ignition Facility and the ITER, would very likely buy a solar hot water system for every residence in the United States and thus cut the country’s household energy use by around 10% at a single stroke. Instead, it’s being spent on projects that even their most enthusiastic proponents admit will only be one more inconclusive step toward fusion power.

The information that is being missed here is that fusion power isn’t a viable option. Even if sustained fusion can be done at all outside the heart of a star, and the odds of that don’t look good just now, it’s been shown beyond a doubt that the cost of building enough fusion power plants to make a difference will be so high that no nation on Earth can afford them. There are plenty of reasons why that information is being missed, but an important one is that industrial society learned a long time ago to filter out data that suggested that any given technology wasn’t going to be viable. During the last three centuries, as fossil fuel extraction sent energy per capita soaring to unparalleled heights, that was an adaptive choice; the inevitable failures – and there have been wowsers – were more than outweighed by the long shots that came off, and the steady expansion of economic wealth powered by fossil fuels made covering the costs of failures and long shots alike a minor matter.

We don’t live in that kind of world any longer. With the peak of world conventional petroleum production receding in the rear view mirror, energy per capita is contracting, not expanding. At the same time, most of the low hanging fruit in science and engineering has long since been harvested, and most of what’s left – fusion power here again is a good example – demands investment on a gargantuan scale with no certainty of payback. The assumption that innovation always pays off, and that data contradicting that belief is to be excluded, has become hopelessly maladaptive, but it remains welded in place; consider the number of people who insist that the proper response to peak oil is some massive program that would gamble the future on some technology that hasn’t yet left the drawing boards.

It’s at this point that the sound of clattering coconut hulls can be heard in the distance, for the attempt to create information out of data that won’t fit it is the essence of the absurd, and absurdity was the stock in trade of the crew of British comics who performed under the banner of Monty Python. What makes “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” so funny is the head-on collisions between intentionalities and data deliberately chosen to conflict with them; any given collision may involve the intentionality the audience has been lured into accepting, or the intentionality one of the characters is pursuing, or both at once, but in every scene, cybernetically speaking, that’s what’s happening.

Consider King Arthur’s encounter with the Black Knight. The audience and Arthur both approach the scene with an intentionality borrowed from chivalric romance, in which knightly combat extracts the information of who wins and who loses out of the background data of combat. The Black Knight, by contrast, approaches the fight with an intentionality that excludes any data that would signal his defeat. No matter how many of the Black Knight’s limbs get chopped off – and by the end of the scene, he’s got four bloody stumps – he insists on his invincibility and accuses Arthur of cowardice for refusing to continue the fight. There’s some resemblance here to the community of fusion researchers, whose unchanging response to half a century of utter failure is to keep repeating that fusion power is just twenty (more) years in the future.

Doubtless believers in the singularity will be saying much the same thing fifty years from now, if there are still any believers in the singularity around then. The simple logical mistake they’re making is the same one that fusion researchers have been making for half a century; they’ve forgotten that the words “this can’t be done” also convey information, and a very important kind of information at that. Just as it’s very likely at this point that fusion research will end up discovering that fusion power won’t work on any scale smaller than a star, it’s entirely plausible that even if we did achieve infinite knowledge about the nature of the universe, what we would learn from it is that the science fiction fantasies retailed by believers in the singularity are permanently out of reach, and we simply have to grit our teeth and accept the realities of human existence after all.

All these points, even those involving Black Knights, have to be kept in mind in making sense of the flow of information through whole systems. Every system has its own intentionality, and every functional system filters the data given to it so that it can create the information it needs. Even so simple a system as a thermostat connected to a furnace has an intentionality – it “looks” at the air temperature around the thermostat, and “sees” if that temperature is low enough to justify turning the furnace on, or high enough to justify turning it off. The better the thermostat, the more completely it ignores any data that has no bearing on its intentionality; conversely, most of the faults thermostats can suffer can be understood as ways that other bits of data (for example, the insulating value of the layer of dust on the thermostat) insert themselves where they’re not wanted.

The function of the thermostat-furnace system in the larger system to which it belongs – the system of the house that it’s supposed to keep at a more or less stable temperature – is another matter, and requires a subtly different intentionality. The homeowner, whose job it is to make information out of the available data, monitors the behavior of the thermostat-furnace system and, if something goes wrong, has to figure out where the trouble is and fix it. The thermostat-furnace system’s intentionality is to turn certain ranges of air temperature, as perceived by the thermostat, into certain actions performed by the furnace; the homeowner’s intentionality is to make sure that this intentionality produces the effect that it’s supposed to produce.

One way or another, this same two-level system plays a role in every part of the green wizard’s work. It’s possible to put additional levels between the system on the spot (in the example, the thermostat-furnace system) and the human being who manages the system, but in appropriate tech it’s rarely a good option; the Jetsons fantasy of the house that runs itself is one of the things most worth jettisoning as the age of cheap energy comes to a close. Your goal in crafting systems is to come up with stable, reliable systems that will pursue their own intentionalities without your interference most of the time, while you monitor the overall output of the system and keep tabs on the very small range of data that will let you know if something has gone haywire.

That same two-level system also applies, interestingly enough, to the process of learning to become a green wizard. The material on appropriate technology I’ve asked readers to collect embodies a wealth of data; what prospective green wizards have to do, in turn, is to decide on their own intentionality toward the data they have, and begin turning it into information. This is the exercise for this week.

Here’s how it works. Go through the Master Conserver files you downloaded, and any appropriate tech books you’ve been able to collect. On a sheet of paper, or perhaps in a notebook, note down each project you encounter – for example, weatherstripping your windows, or building a solar greenhouse. Mark any of the projects you’ve already done with a check mark. Then mark each of the projects you haven’t done with one of four numbers and one of four letters:

1 – this is a project that you could do easily with the resources available to you.
2 – this is a project that you could do, though it would take some effort to get the resources.
3 – this is a project that you could do if you really had to, but it would be a serious challenge.
4 – this is a project that, for one reason or another, is out of reach for you.

A – this is a project that is immediately and obviously useful in your life and situation right now.
B – this is a project that could be useful to you given certain changes in your life and situation.
C – this is a project that might be useful if your life and situation were to change drastically.
D – this is a project that, for one reason for another, is useless or irrelevant to you.

This exercise will produce a very rough and general intentionality, to be sure, but you’ll find it tolerably easy to refine from there. Once you decide, let’s say, that weatherstripping the leaky windows of your apartment before winter arrives is a 1-A project – easy as well as immediately useful – you’ve set up an intentionality that allows you to winnow through a great deal of data and find the information you need: for example, what kinds of weatherstripping are available at the local hardware store, and which of those can you use without spending a lot of money or annoying your landlord. Once you decide that building a brand new ecovillage in the middle of nowhere is a 4-D project, equally, you can set aside data relevant to that project and pay attention to things that matter.

Of course you’re going to find 1-D and 4-A projects as well – things that are possible but irrelevant, and things that would be splendidly useful but are out of your reach. Recognizing these limits is part of the goal of the exercise; learning to focus your efforts where they will accomplish the most soonest is another part; recognizing that you’ll be going back over these lists later on, as you learn more, and potentially changing your mind about some of the rankings, is yet another. Give it a try, and see where it takes you.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Closing the Circle

A couple of weeks ago, Energy Bulletin revisited some predictions made in 2000 by Amory Lovins, then as now one of the most vocal proponents of technological solutions to the crisis of industrial society. Under prodding by energy analyst Steve Andrews, Lovins insisted among other things that by the year 2010, hybrid and fuel cell cars would account for between half and two thirds of the cars on the road in the United States.

Lovins was completely wrong, as we now know – hybrid cars account for maybe 5% of the current US automobile fleet, and you can look through every automobile showroom in North America for a car powered by fuel cells and not find one – and it’s to Andrews’ credit that he pointed this out to Lovins at the time. What makes Lovins’ failed prediction all the more fascinating is that there was never any significant chance that it would pan out, for reasons as predictable as they were pragmatic. Hybrid cars may cost less to operate but they’re much more expensive to build than ordinary cars; fuel cell cars, while they could probably have been made for a more competitive price, could only compete in any other way if somebody had invested the trillions of dollars in infrastructure to provide them with their hydrogen fuel. In both cases economics made it impossible for either kind of car to account for more than a token fraction of the US car fleet by this year, and it makes their chances of being much more popular by 2020, or 2030, or any subsequent year not much better.

Those specific reasons can be usefully subordinated to a more general point, which is that airy optimism about technologies that haven’t yet gotten off the drawing board is not a useful response to an imminent crisis in the real world. This is a point worth keeping in mind, because airy optimism about technologies that haven’t yet gotten off the drawing board is flying thick and fast just now, especially but not only in the peak oil scene. Mention that industrial society is in deep trouble as a result of its total dependence on rapidly depleting fossil fuels, in particular, and you can count on a flurry of claims that Bussard reactors, or algal biodiesel, or fourth generation fission plants, or whatever the currently popular deus ex machina happens to be, will inevitably show up in time and save the day.

One of the things that has to be grasped to make sense of our predicament is that this isn’t going to happen. Some of the reasons that it’s not going to happen differ from case to case, though all of the examples I’ve just given happen to share the common difficulty of crippling problems with net energy. Any attempt at a large-scale solution at this point in the curve of decline faces another predictable problem, though, which was discussed back in 1973 in The Limits to Growth: once industrial civilization runs up against hard planetary limits, as it now has, the surplus of resources that might have permitted a large-scale solution are already fully committed to meeting existing urgent needs, and can’t be diverted to new projects on any scale without imposing crippling dislocations on an economy and a society that are already under severe strain.

The green wizardry being developed in these posts thus seeks to craft responses to the crisis of our time that don’t ignore the predictable impacts of that crisis. For this reason, we aren’t going to be exploring the sort of imaginative vaporware that fills so many discussions about our energy future these days. Instead, the curriculum I have in mind starts with a sufficiently solid grasp of ecology to understand the context of the wizardry that follows, and then moves to practical techniques that have been proven in the real world and can be put to use without lots of money or complicated technology. That may seem dowdy and uninteresting, but that’s a risk this archdruid is willing to run; if your ship has already hit a rock and is taking on water, to shift to a familiar metaphor, passing out life jackets and launching lifeboats is far less innovative and exciting than sitting around talking about some brilliantly creative new way to rescue people from a sinking boat, but it’s a good deal more likely to save lives.

All this makes a useful prologue to the subject of this week’s post. Last week we talked about energy, and explored the way that the laws of thermodynamics shape what you can and can’t do with the energy that surges through every natural system. It’s easy to make energy interesting, since there’s always the passionate hope we all retain from childhood that something might suddenly blow itself to smithereens. Even when it doesn’t, watching energy make its way down the levels of concentration toward waste heat is exciting, for most of the same reasons that watching the silver ball bouncing off the bumpers of a pinball machine is exciting.

This week is different. This week we’re going to talk about matter, the second of the three factors that move through every natural system, and matter appeals to a different childhood passion, one that most of us somehow manage to outgrow: the passion for mud. Matter is muddy. It does not behave itself. It does not do what it’s told. As you found out around the age of two, to your ineffable delight and your mother’s weary annoyance, it gets all over everything, especially when stomped. Most people discover this in childhood and then spend the rest of their lives trying to forget it, and one of the ways they forget it in modern industrial cultures is by pretending that matter acts like energy.

Get a piece of paper and a pen and I’ll show you how that works. At the top of the paper, draw a picture of Santa Claus in his sleigh, surrounded by an enormous pile of gifts, and label it "infinite material resources." In the middle, draw a picture of yourself sitting on heaps of consumer goodies; put in some twinkle dust, too, because we’ll pretend (as modern industrial societies do) that the goodies somehow got there without anybody having to work sixteen-hour days in a Third World sweatshop to produce them. Down at the bottom of the paper, draw some really exotic architecture, with a sign out in front, put up by the local Chamber of Commerce, saying "Welcome to Away." You know, Away – the mysterious place where no one’s ever been, but where stuff goes when you don’t want it around any more. Now draw one arrow going from Santa to you, and another from you to Away.

Does this picture look familiar? It should. It has the same pattern as a very simple energy flow diagram, of the sort you sketched out last week, with Santa as the energy source and Away as the diffuse background heat where all energy ends up. That sort of diagram works perfectly well with energy. It doesn’t work worth beans with any material substance, but it’s how people in modern industrial societies are taught to think about matter.

As an antidote to that habit of thinking, after you’ve drawn this diagram, I’d like to encourage you to crumple it up with extreme prejudice and throw it across the room. It would be particularly helpful if Fido is in the room with you, decides that you’ve thrown a ball for him to chase, and comes trotting eagerly back to you with the diagram in his mouth, having gnawed it playfully first and reduced it to a drool-soaked mess. At that moment, as you meet Fido’s trusting gaze and try to decide whether it’s more bother to go get a real ball for him to play with or to take the oozing object that was once your drawing and then wipe a couple of tablespoons of dog slobber off your hand, you will have learned one of the great secrets of green wizardry: matter moves in circles, especially when you don’t want it to.

That secret is crucial to keep in mind. Back in my schooldays, corporate flacks trying to head off the rising tide of popular unhappiness with what was being done to the American environment had a neat little slogan: "The solution to pollution is dilution." They were dead wrong, and because this slogan got put into practice far too often, some people and a much greater number of other living things ended up just plain dead. Dilute an environmental toxin all you want, and it’s a safe bet that a food chain somewhere will concentrate it right back up for you and serve it on your plate for breakfast. It’s hard to think of anything more dilute than the strontium-90 dust that was blasted into the upper atmosphere by nuclear testing and scattered around the globe by high-level winds; that didn’t keep it from building up to dangerous levels in cow’s milk, and shortly thereafter, in children’s bones.

A similar difficulty afflicts the delusion that we can put something completely outside the biosphere and make it stay there. Proponents of nuclear power who don’t simply dodge the issue of radioactive waste altogether treat this as a minor issue. It’s not a minor issue; it’s the most critical of half a dozen disastrous flaws in the shopworn 1950s-era fantasy of limitless nuclear power still being retailed by a minority among us. A nuclear fission reactor, any nuclear fission reactor, produces wastes so lethal they have to be isolated from the rest of existence for a quarter of a million years – that’s fifty times as long as all of recorded history, in case you were wondering. In theory, containing high-level nuclear waste is possible; in theory, it’s equally possible to drill for oil in deep waters without blowing your drilling platform and eleven men to kingdom come and flooding the Gulf of Mexico with tens of millions of gallons of crude oil.

In the real world, by contrast, it’s as certain as anything can be that sooner or later, things go wrong. Despite the best intentions and the most optimistic handwaving, in a hundred years, or a thousand, or ten thousand, by accident or malice or the sheer cussedness of nature, that waste is going to leak out into the biosphere, and once that happens, anyone and anything that comes into contact with even a few milligrams of it will suffer a painful and lingering death. The more nuclear power we generate, the more of this ghastly gift we’ll be stockpiling up for the people of the future. If one of the basic concepts of morality is that each of us ought to leave the world a better place for those that come after us, there must be some sort of gold medal for selfish malignity in store for the notion that, to power our current civilization a little longer, we’re justified in making life shorter and more miserable for people whose distant ancestors haven’t even been born yet.

This extreme case illustrates a basic rule of green wizardry: there is no such place as Away. You can throw matter out the front door all you want, but it will inevitably circle around while you’re not looking and come trotting up the back stairs. There’s a great deal of Mysticism Lite these days that talks about how wonderful it is that the universe moves in circles; it’s true enough that matter moves in circles, though energy and information generally don’t, but it’s not always wonderful. If you recognize matter’s habits and work with them, you can get it to do some impressive things as it follows its rounds, but if you aren’t watching it closely, it can just as easily sneak up behind you and clobber you.

The trick of making matter circle in a way that’s helpful to you is twofold. The first half is figuring out every possible way it might circle; the second is to make sure that as it follows each of those pathways, it goes through transformations significant enough to make it harmless. I hope I won’t offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities here by using human feces as an example. The way we handle our feces in most American communities is frankly bizarre; we defecate in fresh drinking water, for heaven’s sake, and then flush it down a pipe without the least thought of where it’s going. Where it’s going, most of the time, is into a river, a lake, or the ocean, and even after sewage treatment, you can be sure that most of what’s in your bowel movements is going to land in the biosphere as is, because mushing feces up in water and then dumping some chlorine into the resulting mess doesn’t change them enough to matter.

Consider the alternative of a composting toilet and a backyard garden. Instead of dumping feces into drinking water, you feed them to hungry thermophilic bacteria. When the bacteria get through with the result, you put the compost into the middle of your main compost pile, where it feeds a more diverse ecosystem of microbes, worms, insects, fungi, and the like. When they’re done with it, you dig the completely transformed compost into your garden, and soil organisms and the roots of your garden plants have at it. When you pick an ear of corn from your garden, some of the nutrients in the corn got there by way of your toilet, but you don’t have to worry about that. The pathogenic bacteria that make feces dangerous to human beings, having grown up in the sheltered setting of your bowels, don’t survive long in the Darwinian environment of a composting toilet, and any last stragglers get mopped up in the even more ruthless ecosystem of the compost pile.

In the same way, the inedible parts of garden vegetables can be put into the compost pile or, better still, fed to chickens or rabbits, whose feces can be added to the compost pile, so that plant parasites and diseases have less opportunity to ride the cycle back to the plants in the garden. You can cycle other parts of your household waste stream into the same cycle; alternatively, if you need to isolate some part of the waste stream from the rest of it – for example, if somebody in the house is ill and you don’t want to cycle their wastes into your garden soil, or if you want to collect and concentrate urine as a rich source of fertilizer – you can construct a separate cycle that takes the separate waste stream in a different direction, and subject it to different transformations, so that whatever cycles back around to you is a resource rather than a problem.

This logic can be applied to every part of the Green Wizard’s work. Not everything can be transformed in this way; one of the essential boundaries of appropriate tech, in fact, is the boundary between the kinds of matter you can change with the tools you have on hand, and the kinds you can’t, and if you can’t change it into something safe, it’s a bad idea to produce it in the first place. It really is that simple. So, my apprentice wizards, you have three mystic maxims to contemplate:

Matter moves in circles, especially when you don’t want it to;

There is no such place as Away;

If you can’t transform it, don’t produce it.

Aside from that, for this week’s homework, I’d like to ask those of my readers who are pursuing the green wizardry project to replace the pulpy mass Fido’s been chewing for the last fifteen minutes with something less soggy and more accurate. Take one material item or substance you currently get rid of, and figure out, as exactly as you can, where it actually goes once it leaves your possession. Don’t cheat yourself by choosing something you already know about, and don’t settle for abstractions; with the internet at your fingertips, it takes only a modest amount of work to find out which landfill gets your garbage, which river has to cope with your sewage, and so on. Your ultimate goal is to trace your chosen item or substance all the way back around to your own front door – for example, by tracing your plastic bottles to a particular landfill, the polymerizers in the bottles to the groundwater in a particular valley, the groundwater to a particular river, and the river to the particular coastal waters where the local fishing fleet caught the fresh cod you’re about to have for dinner.

This may be an unsettling experience. I apologize for that, but it can’t be helped. One of the few effective immunizations against the sort of airy optimism critiqued toward the beginning of this post, and in another way a little later on, is to spend time wrestling with the muddy, material details of our collective predicament. If your wizardry is going to amount to more than incantations that make people feel better about themselves while their society consumes its own future, it needs to get into the nitty gritty of the work – first with the mind, then with the hands. We’ll pursue one more piece of basic theory next week before proceeding to the first hands-on projects.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Ways of the Force

By now those of my readers who have joined me on the current Archdruid Report project – the creation of a “green wizardry” using the heritage of the appropriate technology movement of the Seventies – should have downloaded at least one of their textbooks and either have, or be waiting for the imminent arrival of, the rest. Now it’s time to get into the core principles of green wizardry, and the best way to do it involves shifting archetypes a bit. Give me a moment to slip on a brown robe, tuck something less clumsy or random than a blaster into my belt, and practice my best Alec Guinness imitation: yes, Padawans, you’re about to start learning the ways of the Force.

Well, almost. The concept that George Lucas borrowed from Asian mysticism for his Star Wars movies is an extraordinarily widespread and ancient one; very nearly the only languages on earth that don’t have a commonly used word for an intangible life force connected to the breath are those spoken nowadays in the industrial nations of the modern West. I’ll leave it to my readers to make up their own minds about what the remarkable durability of this idea might imply, and to historians of ideas to debate whether it was one of the sources that helped shape the modern scientific concept of energy; the point that needs making is that it’s this latter concept that will be central to this week’s post.

That’s understating things by more than a little. Everything we’ll be exploring over the weeks and months to come has to do with energy: where it comes from, what it can and can’t do, how it moves through whole systems, and where it goes. In the most pragmatic of senses, understand energy and you understand the whole art of green wizardry; in the broadest of senses, understand energy and you understand the predicament that is looming up like a wave in front of the world’s industrial societies, and what we can and can’t expect to get done in the relatively short time we have left before that predicament crests, breaks, and washes most of the modern world’s certainties away.

Let’s start with some basic definitions. Energy is the capacity to do work. It cannot be created or destroyed, but the amount and kind of work it can do can change. The more concentrated it is, the more work it can do; the more diffuse it is, the less work it can do. Left to itself, it moves from more concentrated to more diffuse forms over time, and everything you do with energy has a price tag measured in a loss of concentration. These are the groundrules of thermodynamics, and everything a green wizard does comes back to them in one way or another.

Let’s look at some examples. A garden bed, to begin with, is a device for collecting energy from the sun by way of the elegant biochemical dance of photosynthesis. Follow a ray of sunlight from the thermonuclear cauldron of the sun, across 93 million miles of hard vacuum and a few dozen miles of atmosphere, until it falls on the garden bed. Around half the sunlight reflects off the plants, which is why the leaves look bright green to you instead of flat black; most of the rest is used by the plants to draw water up from the ground into their stems and leaves, and expel it into the air; a few per cent is caught by chloroplasts – tiny green disks inside the cells of every green plant, descended from blue-green algae that were engulfed but not destroyed by some ancestral single-celled plant maybe two billion years ago – and used to turn water and carbon dioxide into sugars, which are rich in chemical energy and power the complex cascade of processes we call life.

Most of those sugars are used up keeping the plant alive. The rest are stored up until some animal eats the plant. Most of the energy in the plants the animal eats gets used up keeping the animal alive; the rest get stored up, until another animal eats the first animal, and the process repeats. Sooner or later an animal manages to die without ending up in somebody else’s stomach, and its body becomes a lunch counter for all the creatures – and there are a lot of them – that make their livings by cleaning up dead things. By the time they’re finished with their work, the last of the energy from the original beam of sunlight that fell on the garden bed is gone.

Where does it go? Diffuse background heat. That’s the elephant’s graveyard of thermodynamics, the place energy goes to die. Most often, when you do anything with energy – concentrate it, move it, change its form – the price for that gets paid in low-grade heat. All along the chain from the sunlight first hitting the leaf to the last bacterium munching on the last scrap of dead coyote, what isn’t passed onward in the form of stored chemical energy is turned directly or indirectly into heat so diffuse that it can’t be made to do any work other than jiggling molecules a little. The metabolism of the plant generates a trickle of heat; the friction of the beetle’s legs on the leaf generates a tiny pulse of heat; the mouse, the snake, and the coyote all turn most of the energy they take in into heat, and all that heat radiates out into the great outdoors, warming the atmosphere by a tiny fraction of a degree, and slowly spreading up and out into the ultimate heat sink of deep space.

That’s the first example. For the second, let’s take a solar water heater, the simple kind that’s basically a tank in a glassed-in enclosure set on top of somebody’s roof. Once again we start with a ray of sunlight crossing deep space and Earth’s murky atmosphere to get to its unintended target. The sun passes through the glass and slams into the black metal of the water tank, giving up much of its energy to the metal in the form of heat. Inside the metal is water, maybe fifty gallons of it; it takes a fair amount of heat to bring fifty gallons of water to the temperature of a good hot bath, but the steady pounding of photons from the sun against the black metal tank will do the trick in a few hours.

Most of what makes building a solar water heater complex is a matter of keeping that heat in the water where it belongs, instead of letting it leak out as – you guessed it – diffuse background heat. The glass in front of the tank is there to keep moving air from carrying heat away, and it also helps hold heat in by way of a clever bit of physics: most of the energy that matter absorbs from visible light downshifts to infrared light as it tries to escape, and glass lets visible light pass through it but reflects infrared back the way it came. (This is known as the greenhouse effect, by the way, and we’ll be using it over and over again, not least in greenhouses.) All surfaces of the tank that aren’t facing the sun are surrounded by insulation, which also helps keep heat from sneaking away. If the system’s a good one, the pipes that carry hot water down from the heater to the bathtub and other uses are wrapped with insulation. Even so, some of the energy slips out from the tank, some of it makes a break for it through the insulation around the pipes, and the rest of it starts becoming background heat the moment it leaves the faucet for the bathtub or any other use.

Here’s a third example: a house on a cold winter day. The furnace keeping it warm, let’s say, is fueled by natural gas; that means the ray of sunlight that ultimately powers the process came to Earth millions of years ago and was absorbed by a prehistoric plant. The plant died without being munched by a passing dinosaur, and got buried under sediment with some of its stored energy intact. Millions of years of heat and pressure underground turned that stored energy into very simple hydrocarbons such as methane and ethane. Fast forward to 2010, when the hydrocarbons found their way through pores in the rock to a natural gas well and got shipped by pipeline, possibly over thousands of miles, to the house where it gets burnt.

The furnace turns the energy of that ancient sunlight to relatively concentrated heat, which flows out through the house, keeping it warm. Now the fun begins, because that concentrated energy – to put things in anthropomorphic terms – wants nothing in the world half as much as to fling itself ecstatically into dissolution as diffuse background heat. The more quickly it can do that, though, the more natural gas has to be burnt to keep the house at a comfortable temperature. If you’re the green wizard in charge, your goal is to slow down the dionysiac rush of seeking its bliss, and make it hang around long enough to warm the house.

How do you do that? First, you have to know the ways that heat moves from a warm body to a cold one. There are three of them: conduction, which is the movement of heat through solid matter; convection, which is the movement of heat carried on currents of air (or any other fluid); and radiation, which is the movement of heat in the form of infrared light (mostly) through any medium transparent to those wavelengths. You slow down conduction to a crawl by putting insulation in the way; you slow down convection by sealing up cracks through which air can move, and doing a variety of things to stop convective currents from forming; you slow down radiation by putting reflective barriers in the way of its escape. If you don’t do any of these things, your house leaks heat, and your checking account leaks money ; if you do all of these things – and they can be done fairly easily and cheaply – the prehistoric sunlight in the natural gas you burn has to take its time wandering out of your house, keeps you comfortable on the way, and you don’t have to spend anything like so much on more natural gas to replace it.

There are four points I’d like you to take home from these examples. The first is that they’re all talking about the same process – the movement of energy from the sun to the background radiation of outer space that passes through systems here on earth en route, and accomplishes certain kinds of work on the way. At this point, in fact, the most useful thing you can take away from this entire discussion is the habit of looking everything that goes on around you as an energy flow that starts from a concentrated source – almost always the sun – and ends in diffuse heat radiating out into space. If you pick up the habit of doing this, you’ll find that a great deal of the material that will be covered in posts to come will suddenly seem like common sense, and a great many of the habits that have are treated as normal behavior in our society will suddenly reveal themselves as stark staring lunacy.

An exercise, which I’d like to ask those readers studying this material to do several times over the next week, will help get this habit in place. Draw a rough flow chart for one or more versions of this process. Take a piece of paper, draw a picture of the sun at the top, and draw a trash can at the bottom; label the trash can “Background Heat.” Now draw the important components in any system you want to understand, and draw arrows connecting them to show how the energy moves from one component to another. If you’re sketching a natural system, draw in the plants, the herbivores, the carnivores, and the decomposers, and sketch in how energy passes from one to another, and from each of them to the trash can; if you’re sketching a human system, the energy source, the machine that turns the energy into a useful form, and the places where the energy goes all need to be marked in and connected. Do this with a variety of different systems. It doesn’t matter at this stage if you get all the details right; the important thing is to start thinking in terms of energy flow.

The second point to take home is that natural systems, having had much more time to work the bugs out, are much better at containing and using energy than most human systems are. The solar water heater and the house with its natural gas furnace take concentrated energy, put it to one use, and then lose it to diffuse heat. A natural ecosystem, by contrast, can play hot potato with its own input of concentrated energy for a much more extended period, tossing it from hand to hand (or, rather, leaf to paw to bacterial pseudopod) for quite a while before all of the energy finally follows its bliss. The lesson here is simple: by paying attention to the ways that natural systems do this, green wizards can get hints that can be incorporated into human systems to make them less wasteful and more resilient.

The third point is that energy does not move in circles. Next week we’ll be talking about material substances, which do follow circular paths – in fact, they do this whether we want them to do so or not, which is why the toxic waste we dump into the environment, for example, ends up circling back around into our food and water supply. Energy, though, moves along a trajectory with a beginning and an end. The beginning is always a concentrated source, which again is almost always the sun; the end is diffuse heat. Conceptually, you can think of energy as moving in straight lines, cutting across the circles of matter and the far more complex patterns of information gain and loss. Once a given amount of energy has followed its trajectory to the endpoint, for all practical purposes, it’s gone; it still exists, but the only work it’s capable of doing is making molecules vibrate at whatever the ambient temperature happens to be.

The fourth and final point, which follows from the third, is that for all practical purposes, energy is finite. It’s become tolerably common for believers in perpetual technological progress and economic growth to insist that energy is infinite, with the implication that human beings can up and walk off with as much of it as they wish. It’s an appealing fantasy, flattering to our collective ego, and it makes use of a particular kind of mental trap that Garrett Hardin anatomized quite a while ago. In his useful book Filters Against Folly, Hardin pointed out that the word “infinite” – along with such synonyms as “limitless” and “boundless” – are thoughtstoppers rather than meaningful concepts, because the human mind can’t actually think about infinity in any meaningful sense. When somebody says “X is infinite,” in other words, what he is actually saying is “I refuse to think about X.”

Still, there’s a more specific sense in which talk about infinite energy is nonsense by definition. At any given place and time, the amount of energy that is available in a concentration and a form capable of doing any particular kind of work is finite, often distressingly so. Every ecosystem on earth has evolved to make the most of whatever energy is available to do the work of keeping living things alive, whether that energy takes the form of equatorial sunlight shining down on the Amazon rain forest, chemical energy in sulfur-laden water surging up from hot springs at the bottom of the sea, or fat stored up during the brief Arctic warm season in the bodies of the caribou that attract the attention of a hungry wolf pack.

Thus it’s crucial to recognize that available energy is always limited, and usually needs to be carefully coaxed into doing as much work as you want to get done before the energy turns into diffuse background heat. This is as true of any whole system, a garden as much as a solar hot water system, a well-insulated house, or any other project belonging to the field of appropriate tech. Learn to think in these terms and you’re well on your way to becoming a green wizard.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Seeking the Gaianomicon

The archetype I proposed as a model for an appropriate-technology revival in the age of peak oil – the archetype of the green wizard – comes with certain standard features in folklore and fantasy. One of them happens to be a full-blown archetype in its own right: the book of ancient and forgotten lore. Those of my readers who plan on becoming green wizards will need to provide themselves with the grimoires, literally “grammars,” of that art, and in this post I propose to explain how to do just that. Yes, it involves a quest; the details will follow in a bit.

The archetype is more important than it might seem at first glance. Our time, as the media never tires of telling us, is the information age, a time when each of us can count on being besieged and bombarded by more information in an average day than most premodern people encountered in their entire lives. Now it’s important to remember that this is true only when the term “information” is assumed to mean the sort of information that comes prepackaged and preprocessed in symbolic form; the average hunter-gatherer moving through a tropical rain forest picks up more information about the world of nature through his or her senses in the course of an average day than the average resident in an industrial city receives through that channel in the course of their lives.

Still, the information the hunter-gatherer receives is the sort that our nervous systems, and those of our ancestors back down the winding corridors of deep time, evolved to handle. The contemporary glut of symbolic information—words and images detached from their organic settings and used as convenient labels for mental abstractions—is quite another matter. There are certain advantages to the torrent of abstract information available to people in the industrial world these days, to be sure, but there’s also a downside, and one major part of that is a habit of shallow thinking that governs most of our interactions with the information around us.

A hundred years ago, by contrast, a student pursuing a scientific or engineering degree might need half a dozen textbooks for the entire course of his studies. Every chapter, and indeed every paragraph, in each of those books would be unpacked in lectures, explored in lab work, brought up in tests and term papers, so that by the time the student graduated he had mastered everything those textbooks had to teach. That depth of study is almost unheard of nowadays, when students shoulder half a dozen huge textbooks a term, and have so little time to process any of the contents of any of them that the bleak routine of memorize, regurgitate, and forget all too often becomes the only option.

Combine that with the transformation of much of American higher education into a predatory industry fueled by aggressively marketed student loans, and every bit as focused on quarterly income as any Fortune 500 corporation, and you have the collapse of our educational system sketched out in a recent and harrowing blog post by former professor Carolyn Baker. The resulting ghastly mess is problematic in just about any sense you care to contemplate, but it has a special challenge for potential green wizards, because very few people these days actually know how to study information the way that a project of this nature demands.

Treat the material I’ll be covering in the weeks and months to come as a formality or a collection of hoops to jump through on the way to some nonexistent degree in green wizardry, in other words, and the result will be abject failure. If you plan on studying this material, dear reader, you need to pursue it with the same total intensity your average twelve-year-old Twilight fan lavishes on sparkly vampires. You need to obsess about the way an old-fashioned computer geek obsesses about obscure programming languages. You need to drench yourself in it it until it shows up in your dreams and seeps into your bones.

You need to do these things because the ideas central to the old appropriate technology contradict the conventional wisdom of today’s industrial cultures at literally every point. All the things that we learnt about the world by osmosis, growing up in a society powered by cheap abundant fossil fuels and geared toward a future of perpetual progress, have to be unlearnt in order to understand and use appropriate tech. The fact that they also have to be unlearnt to make sense of the world in the wake of peak oil is also relevant, of course; it’s precisely because many of us, even in the peak oil scene, haven’t yet unlearnt them that you see so many grand plans for dealing with peak oil that assume, usually without noticing the assumption, that all the products of cheap abundant energy will be readily and continuously available in a world without cheap abundant energy.

The old archetypal image of the book of ancient and forgotten lore is among the very few cultural images we’ve got of information that doesn’t belong to the read-and-forget category. Consider the Necronomicon, the imaginary tome of occult wisdom from half an hour before the dawn of time that plays so large a role in the horror-fantasy stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s characters don’t page casually through the Necronomicon and then go on to the current issue of People magazine; they search the world and risk their lives to get mere fragments of the text to study, even though they usually end up being dragged offstage by an unearthly tentacle because the fragment they got doesn’t contain the Voorish Sign or some other bit of protective lore.

Now I trust none of my readers will be dragged offstage by an unearthly tentacle, or even an earthly one, as a result of the studies I propose to offer them, but then a book “concerning the laws of death” (which is what nekronomikon means in Greek) is not going to be particularly useful for a student of appropriate technology. What’s needed instead is a Gaianomicon, a book “concerning the laws of Gaia” – if you will, a manual of the theory and practice of applied human ecology. Like Lovecraft’s tome, the Gaianomicon exists only in fragments, and your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to gather enough of those fragments to make a start on your education as a green wizard.

I’ve made the first part of your quest easy. Back in the early 1980s, when I worked my way through the Master Conserver program in Seattle, I collected the instructional handouts from the program and stashed them in a binder for future reference. I’ve still got them all, and have scanned them into a PDF document, which you can download from this page on the Green Wizards forum. Those of my readers with slow internet connections should be aware that this file is 190 pages long and comes to nearly 8 MB. The handouts cover one part of the curriculum we’ll be discussing, the part dealing with energy conservation and renewables, which will be given a more evocative name a little later in this process.

I’d like to ask everyone who downloads the file, by the way, to do two favors for me. The first is to print out a copy of the whole thing on paper, and put it away somewhere tolerably safe; the second is to make sure that at least one other person who doesn’t read this blog gets a copy of the file, either electronic or printed. I don’t actually know for a fact that this is the only set of these handouts in existence, but I have yet to meet or even hear of anyone else who kept their copies, and it would be useful if this material were to get handed on to the future. Think of it as a bit of cultural conservation, of the sort I’ve mentioned several times already in these essays.

That’s the first part of the quest. The second is going to be a little more challenging, though only a little. You don’t have to go hunting for the lost city of Roong in the mountains of Zarazoola on an improbable third hemisphere of this already overexplored world. Instead, you need to go to a local used book store. It needn’t be the biggest and best in your area, if your area has more than one – in fact, in my experience, you’ll be more likely to get good results by going to one of those out of the way hole-in-the-wall places where the stock doesn’t turn over too quickly and some of the books have been there for a good long time.

You’re looking, of course, for books from the original appropriate technology movement of the 1970s and 1980s. There were hundreds of them back in the day, a small number from the large publishing houses of the time and a great many more from struggling presses run by individuals, or by the little nonprofit groups that created so much of appropriate tech. You may find anything from professionally bound hardbacks with dust jackets down to staplebound pamphlets with hand-sketched illustrations. You may find them in the gardening section, or in the home repair section, or in the science section, or in the nature section, or in a special section all its own labeled "Homesteading" or "Back to the Land" or something like that. (I haven’t yet found a store that labeled it "Naked Hippie Stuff," but hope springs eternal.) You may even find it jumbled up all anyhow with the general nonfiction because the proprietor of the used book store has no idea where to put it.

Wherever it turns up, you’re looking for a book on organic gardening, energy conservation, renewable energy, or anything related to them, preferably one that includes hands-on projects or ecological philosophy, or some of both. If you get one of the classics – The Integral Urban House, Other Homes and Garbage, Rainbook, The Book of the New Alchemists, The Food and Heat Producing Solar Greenhouse, or the like – that’s good, but it’s not required. It counts just as much if you find a little staplebound pamphlet on composting, or a ragged trade paperback from a small press on building a solar oven, or an old Rodale Press hardback on insulated window coverings, or what have you.

There are two points to this exercise – well, actually, two and a half. The first point is that your work with green wizardry certainly shouldn’t be limited to what one middle-aged archdruid has studied and practiced, under sometimes sharply limiting conditions, over the last thirty years or so. If you make appropriate tech part of your life – and if you intend to practice it at all, that’s pretty much what you need to do – at least a modest library of books on the subject is essential. You will develop your own personal take on appropriate tech, and your own personal style in putting it to work; the books you read and study, whether you agree with them or not, will help you start the process of bringing the take and the style into being.

The second point is that many of these books are nearing the end of their useful lives. The limited budgets available to most of the appropriate tech presses meant that most of the books were printed on cheap paper and bound by whatever method cost least. If they’re going to become anything but landfill, and if the information they contain is going to find any sort of new home, somebody needs to take responsibility for making that happen and, dear reader, it might as well be you.

The half point is that the appropriate tech movement, like any other movement on the fringes of the acceptable, had its own quirky culture and its own distinctive take on things. If you were learning a martial art, let’s say, an important part of your early learning curve would have to do with picking up the customs and traditions and little unspoken rituals of the art, which have nothing to do with how to block a punch and everything to do with navigating the learning process and interacting constructively with your teachers and fellow students. This remains important even when the movement no longer exists and the surviving participants have either gone on to other things or have spent the last thirty years laboring away in isolation at ideas and practices nobody else cares about; your task is harder, that’s all, and one of the few ways you can get a sense of the culture of the movement is to spend time with its writings and its material products.

So that’s the second part of your quest for the fragments of the Gaianomicon. The third and final part is simpler, and those of you who are wondering why you can’t just do all your book shopping on the internet can take heart, because this part of the assignment can be done online if you like. Your task here is to get a good basic book on ecology. If at all possible, it should be a book from the late 50s, 60s or 70s, when the concept of the ecosystem was central to the field in a way that hasn’t always been the case since then; the ecosystem approach is central to the way of thinking we’ll be exploring in posts to come, and a good grounding in it will be essential.

If you don’t have any previous background in the life sciences – and if what you have is what you got in American public schools, that amounts to no previous background – a book I like to recommend is a deceptively simple little volume called Basic Ecology, by Ralph and Mildred Buchsbaum. Originally published in 1957, it has been in print ever since, and provides a clear introduction to the ideas you’ll need in a very readable and nontechnical form. If you’ve got enough background that a serious textbook holds no terrors for you, one to get is Eugene P. Odum’s Fundamentals of Ecology, probably the classic statement of the ecosystem approach. There are other good books on ecology to be had, however; while you’re at the used book store, you might want to take the time to see what’s in stock.

So those are your initial textbooks or, to use the archetypal metaphor with which I introduced this post, the tomes of ancient and forgotten lore you need to gather in order to begin your training as a green wizard: the Master Conserver handouts, one or more old appropriate-tech books, and a good introduction to the science of ecology with a focus on the ecosystem concept. If you already happen to have the latter two sitting on your bookshelves, and I know some of my readers do, that’s great; if not, please try to get them over the next week or so. Either way, put some time into reading them, and think about how the ideas contained in them might be applicable to the challenges of a world on the far side of peak oil. Next week we’ll start weaving some of those ideas together and exploring how the green wizardry of appropriate tech can be put to work.