Sunday, March 27, 2016

Trump in the Crosshairs

"There would be a clear shot as he walked from the jet to the copter. Getting close enough would not be a problem."

  The machine had worked, just as his father had said it would.

When Trevon Musk released the canopy latch and climbed out, he could not be certain about that. Granted, the place where he found himself was not the place from which he had climbed into the device. The gleaming white pod, now frosted and wafting cold vapor, was sitting in a large storage area surrounded by cardboard boxes with Apple logos.

Musk grabbed his attache from the cockpit then locked the canopy. He examined his surrounds. Nearby he spied an open box of Apple decals on a shelf. He took a large, colorful one, peeled off the vinyl sticker and stuck it on the side of the pod.

He walked through the doors and out into the Apple Store. Unnoticed, he strode through the store and past the glass doors at the front, entering the Roosevelt Field Mall. He turned left, passed Victoria’s Secret and turned right. He passed the entrance to Macy’s then turned into the next corridor. Then he knew for sure.

At the end of that hall, framed between a Tory Burch and Le Pain Quotidien, was the interior façade of Neiman Marcus.

He could not have gone back farther than 2016.

The 100,000 sq. ft. Neiman store was the last piece of a $200 million-dollar mall remodel that had turned Roosevelt Field, in East Garden City, Long Island, into the second-largest shopping mall in the state of New York and ninth in the country. It opened on Friday, February 19, 2016.

Musk knew he had travelled back no farther than that date. He also knew it was not later than October 30, 2019.

He had been only three years old that year, but he remembered his father rushing into his room in their Malibu home, snatching him up and carrying him out to the Audi, speeding up the coast to the California Yacht Club, and the two of them boarding the 50-meter Westport 164 and getting out to sea at full power.

Seared into his memory were the brilliant flashes coming from up and down the coast and farther inland, like a great fireworks display. They were several hundred nautical miles out to sea by then, but it had radiated the skies and created spontaneous auroras.

Musk knew that if his father’s capsule, built with advanced composites developed in their island laboratory and able to create custom wormholes to tunnel through time, had landed any later than October 30, 2019, Roosevelt Field would not be a mall. It would look more like the flat field it was in 1927, when Charles Lindberg lifted off in the Spirit of St. Louis headed for Paris.

Theoretical yield of Russia’s largest tested device (+/- 50%)
delivered as single missle, detonated 9 miles above Manhattan.
Inner ring vaporized, 2d ring pulverized, outer ring scorched.
Not fewer than 50 MIRV’d warheads had descended on the New York Metropolitan area that day in October, 2019. Garden City was only 30 miles from Ground Zero. It had been reduced to charred dust by the first single-warhead R-36M2 or MIRV'd DF-5A. After that came an hour or so of “bouncing rubble.”

Down the corridor to his right, past Williams Sonoma, Aeropostale and Brookstone, Must veered left and found Bobby’s Burger Palace near an outside exit. There by the door was a rack with USA Today and the date: March 25, 2016. Perfect. He was on schedule.

Donald Trump would not yet have Secret Service protection.

Trump just won the Arizona primary and came in a close second in Utah. He had 695 delegates now, and after a very strong showing in the remaining primaries, capped by California on June 7, would have the required 1,237 to clinch the nomination on the first ballot. That, and the Grand Jury indictment handed down against Hillary Clinton in September, and Trump would become President of the United States and Commander in Chief of its military. For all of 1013 days.

Trump would be returning to New York City and landing in a Trump Air jet at East Hampton airport on Sunday, March 27, to be picked up there by a Trump Air helicopter and ferried to his home helipad. There would be a clear shot as he walked from the jet to the copter. Getting close enough for his father’s handcrafted, laser scoped, smart rifle, now carried in his attache case, to do its work would not be a problem. There was cover in several small craft and buildings on the site and none would be searched ahead of time. Finding a safe egress and getting back to the pod in the Apple store could be a little more dicey, but certainly worth whatever the risk.

There is just one problem. When the time finally came to pull the trigger, “click.”


Musk tried again. Nothing happened. The time protection hypothesis had proved the causality paradox.

Time travel had been Trumped.

In the winter of 1961, Edward Lorenz, a mathematician and meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, set out to construct a mathematical model of the weather, namely a set of differential equations that represented changes in temperature, pressure, wind velocity, etc. Lorenz stripped the weather down to a crude model containing a set of 12 differential equations.

One day, while his computer, a Royal McBee, was printing out the result of a model run, he stepped out for a cup of coffee and when he returned discovered that the printer had run out of paper. By not having a sensor to tell the computer to pause it had simply not printed half of the result.

Lorenz’s Sample Data
After loading more paper, Lorenz decided to save time and restart the run from somewhere in the middle, using the last printout. He entered the conditions at some point near the middle of the run and re-started the run. The data from the second run should have exactly matched the data from the first run, and while they matched at first, the runs began to diverge, slowly, then dramatically — the second run eventually losing all resemblance to the first within a few "model" months. 

Weather is, frankly, unpredictable, but mathematics should not be, and neither should computer simulations of weather.

At first Lorenz thought it was hardware malfunction, but after checking, discovered a GIGO problem (garbage in - garbage out) in the data entry. To save space, his printouts only showed three digits while the data in the computer's memory contained six digits. Lorenz had entered the rounded-off data from the printouts assuming that the difference was inconsequential — one thousandth of a degree of temperature; a single drop of rain; an almost imperceptible puff of wind.

Eventually this would lead to the chaos theory and what Lorenz would term “the butterfly effect,” suggesting that a butterfly flapping its wings in North America could affect the weather in China. A tiny variation at the start of a long sequence of events can profoundly alter what happens later.

In other words, everything is connected to everything. “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” as John Muir said.

Theoretical yield of China’s largest currently deployed nuclear device
(part of a 10-20 array/missile) if detonated 3 miles above Manhattan.
Inner ring vaporized, 2d ring pulverized, outer ring scorched.
If you could travel back in time to assassinate Hitler when he was a house painter and spare the world The Holocaust, would you? You needn’t bother trying, you would fail anyway.

Kip Thorne was the first theoretical physicist to recognize traversable wormholes and backwards time travel as being theoretically possible under certain conditions. There is nothing in Einstein’s theories of relativity, or quantum physics, to rule out time travel, but it is nonetheless implausible because of the paradox of causality.
“A Predestination paradox occurs when the actions of a person traveling back in time ultimately causes the event he is trying to prevent to occur. He then becomes trapped inside a ‘temporal causality loop’ in which Event 1 in the past influences Event 2 (time travel to the past) which then causes Event 1 to occur, with this circular loop of events thus ensuring that history is not altered by the time traveler’s journey to the past. “
Astronomy Trek

Therefore, you cannot change the past and furthermore, anyone attempting to do so may literally find themselves trapped within a repeating loop of time. See, for instance, Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 (2015) or movies like TimeCrimes (2007), The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), or Predestination (2014). Astronomy Trek says the best renderings were a Twilight Zone episode called ‘Cradle of Darkness’ and an episode of Dr Who called ‘Let’s Kill Hitler.’

If Trevon Musk, a future progeny of Elon Musk, were to travel back to the past to prevent nuclear war from exterminating the human species, he might discover when he returned to an altered future timeline, that climate change, prevented or postponed in his original timeline by a devastating nuclear winter, had, in the new timeline, already accomplished precisely that.

You can’t time travel back and kill Trump, and killing him now is not something we advocate, either. People can vote, though.

Sunday, March 20, 2016


"Before you reach carrying capacity you start to make bad, short-term, expedient decisions."

Towards the end of our two-week Permaculture Design Course at Maya Mountain — their 11th as a host and our personal 50th as a teacher — we sallied out into the Maya world with Chris Nesbitt in search of a turkey for the graduation feast.

This took us to the home of James, a graduate of one of our earlier courses, who lives with his growing family in the village of San Marcos, in the Toledo District of Belize. From the last census we could find, the population of the village was 328, 99% Ke’kchi, 1% Mopan.

The Maya built their great culture on towns, regions and bioregional states. Most of these, particularly the smaller villages, survived the collapse of the Classic Era, the Spanish Conquest, and the Colonial Period. Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo in Mexico, most of Guatemala, more than half of Belize and the Western reaches of Honduras and El Salvador have similar political and cultural traditions that are now some 2500 years old and show no signs of going away. They are sustained by places as much as the memory of peoples.

Mayan cultural literacy is less about writing, music or the Bible and more about knowing plants and animals. Not just naming them. Knowing them.

Bird song, jaguar and howler growl, locations of raw materials, flows of streams, trail networks and portage routes are things that children learn early and do not soon forget.

Toxic wastes, plastics, logging, consumer society, fracking and GMOs are recent arrivals, and threaten everyone, but they are pretty puny in comparison to the depth of culture that opposes them. Human fecundity grounded in religious dogma is the greater threat.

In a classroom session pointedly aimed at those in the workshop that were Mayan, Garifuna or otherwise native Belizian, Chris outlined the hard numbers on the chalkboard. In 1985 the population of Belize was 150,000 and an equal number lived just across the border, in the highland Petén of Guatemala. Guatemala as a whole was 6 million then.

In 2015, Belize had grown to 347,369 — more than double in 29 years, but still the lowest population density in Central America. Petén was 2 million (a 13-fold increase) and Guatemala 14 million.
“Before you reach carrying capacity you start to make bad, short-term, expedient decisions,” Chris told the class. He spoke of people in Haiti baking cakes of clay and lard and selling them in the market, of the Balkanization of Eastern Europe, of Rwanda, of Syria and the European refugee crisis.

Native Toledians still speak of the forced Christianization of the region that happened to Punta Gorda Town with the arrival of the missionaries 500 years ago. Many who refused to be Christianized took refuge in the Maya Mountains. The Mopan call these people the Che’il and the Ke’kchi call them Chol. In the past they were objects of scorn, uneducated and primitive. Today they are venerated, except in the most westernized parts of the country. 

In Mayan villages incense is burned and prayers are said to these “wild Maya” who protect the animals and forests. Hunters and chicle workers take them salt from the coast as offerings.

In 1850, concerned about the flow of people across the mountains, British Honduras closed its Western Border, although it was not until 1934 that that border was even surveyed, never mind guarded. These days, the tensions along the border are growing as Belize begins to fret about the increase in immigration and Guatemala once more rattles its sabre, reasserting its legal claim to, if not the whole of Belize, then merely from the Sibun River south. This claim amounts to roughly 53% of the country and includes significant portions of Cayo, Belize District, Stann Creek and Toledo. Emigration serves Guatemala’s purposes here.

When we first started going there, the trek down to Punta Gorda was an 8-hour ordeal over bad roads, sometimes impassible in the rainy season when we would resort to the coastal boat route. Then came the Hummingbird Highway with its regular flow of scheduled services in recycled Bluebird school buses, shortening the distance from Belize City on the Northern coast. 

A few years ago, Belize finally made good a 150-year-old promise and started cutting a road to Guatemala through the mountains. Under the terms of the Wyke–Aycinena Treaty of 1859, Great Britain — whose unintended and ungovernable “colony" composed of shipwrecked Anglos, Scots and later Baymen immigrants and Garifuna had, on its own, fought off Spanish territorial claims in 1798 at the Battle of St. George's Caye — promised to build that road from Punta Gorda in exchange for Guatemala agreeing to give up land claims inherited from Spain's Vatican-sanctioned Treaty of Tordesillas with Portugal in 1494.

Now the road is finally going in, two centuries later, and Guatemala is saying, thanks very much, but too late. You blew it. Without that road being built by British Baymen in 1859, we are no longer bound to give up King Ferdinand’s claim to the New World. Guatemala also points to the 1783 Treaty of Versailles, wherein Britain agreed to abandon British forts in Belize that protected the Baymen and give Spain sovereignty over the soil, which made it part of Guatemala (conveniently forgetting the embarrassing loss to the uppity Baymen at St. George's Caye in 1798).

Guatemala's new president, Jimmy Morales, when campaigning in 2015, said "Something is happening right now, we are about to lose Belize. We have not lost it yet.” Perhaps he was referring to the road as the thing that was happening. If he thinks he will get the Belizeans to walk away from their country, after only just gaining independence from Britain in 1981, he is wrong about having not already lost it.

Between 1975 and 1979, Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Panama changed their stances from supporting Guatemala to supporting Belize. The OAS, trying to defuse the conflict, established a border zone extending one kilometer (0.62 mi) on either side of the 1859 treaty line. Guatemala has taken the matter to the International Court of Justice. Both sides have strengthened military presence at the border, as road-building continues.
A little way past the junction with the Hummingbird Highway, where the new road turns towards Guatemala is the turnoff to the town of San Marcos.

San Marcos is a long, narrow village bisected by a ridge road running up its middle, then dog-legging left. The houses look much the same as in other Mayan villages of the region — stick walls, thatch roofs, hand pump in the front yard. In 1975, three families came here to found the village, led by brothers Santos and Luciano Muku and Camilo Rash. Before that the families had lived on private property in the dump area outside Punta Gorda Town. New settlers came to join them, mostly Kek’chi from Guatemala fleeing the genocidal holocaust of the late 70s and 80s. In 1981 they built a church and school and named their village San Marcos. 

St. Mark, it is worth recalling, was born of Jewish parents around 3 AD in the city of Cyrene in Pentapolis, now Libya. Shortly after his birth, his family migrated to Palestine to escape Berber attacks. A few years later when his father Aristopolos died, Mark was taken in by Peter Simon who would later become an apostle. Mark studied law and the classics and later authored the earliest known gospel. He was martyred in 68 AD by being tied to a horse’s tail and dragged through the streets of Alexandria for two days. We mention this not for the shock value but to point to similarities between the mass migrations now underway in the Southern Mediterranean and 2000 years ago, and also to the similarities of the atrocities perpetrated on the Maya in Guatemala by Reaganista Evangelical Christian governments in the early 80s.

In San Marcos about a third of the population today are Catholic and the remainder either Evangelical Christian or Mennonite. Apart from a small sliver of the Mopan Maya, the first language of the village is Ke’kchical with both Spanish and English learned at home or in school by age 10.

A 1995 survey of occupations in the village shows that 18% farm produce, 46% raise animals, 10% hunt and the remainder fish, although we suspect that most do all of those and the survey form was simply passed around the house for everyone to put down their favorite.

More revealing is the age demographic. Only 7% are over 50. Nine percent are 35-49. Those age 34 or less make up 84% of the population and 64% are under 17, reaching fertility in the next decade. Principally because of total agreement between Catholic, Evangelical and Mennonite doctrines on this point, nearly all families will resemble James’ family — six to twelve children per mother, with the next generation coming as soon as biologically possible. Besides the refugee influx, this philosophical tradition is also what Guatemala brings into Belize, which is now Latin America’s fast growing country.

Guatemala is already outstripping its abilities to provide for its own. Whole forests have fallen to the axe in the Petén. Refugees come through the mountains and trickle into Maya settlements all over Toledo. The village closest to Chris’s farm, San Pedro Columbia, has quadrupled in size in the years we have been coming here.

If you look at any given home it seems idyllic. Food trees — banana, papaya, mango, sapote, are never far from the front door. Chickens, ducks, turkeys and pigs free range in the yards. James’ family has a small corn mill in a front room so they make masa for the village— nixtamalized dough for tortillas and empanadas — on demand. When Chris asks for 4 kg, a daughter goes to a wet barrel and ladles out soaking, reddish dent kernels into a sieve, takes them to the pump to wash, and delivers them to her mother in the mill room. 

The rehydrated field corn she had ladled had been parboiled in slaked lime (Calcium Hydroxide)— 1 Tbsp per kg. CaO + H2O -> Ca(OH)2. Some poor villages that cannot afford or find lime (Mexican Cal) use wood ash to extract potash. They leach the ashes in a large pot, strain and evaporate the liquid to produce Potassium carbonate (K)2(CO3), which is alkaline and can be used as a substitute for Calcium hydroxide.

Nixtamalization of maize was one of the great culinary discoveries of the world, allowing us to unlock the amino acids of corn to make a balanced protein. Without knowing about nixtamalization, Columbus just made people sick and malnourished with the maize he took back to the Old World.

It is kind of a pity that Columbus, making landfall in Lisbon after his first crossing, felt compelled to go brag about his discovery to King John II of Portugal. The Italian Navigator was always sniffing around for grants. Had he kept mum about it until he got back to Spain, John would not have complained to Ferdinand and Isabella and they in turn would not have gone running to the Pope (Pope Alexander VI /Rodrigo Borgia) who came up with an encyclical that precipitated the Treaty of Tordesillas and today's claim by Guatemala for 53% of Belize. 

James’ wife throws a knife switch and engages a 10 HP motor that turns a pulley shaft, the daughter loads her washed corn into the hopper. When done, the masa is bagged, weighed and handed to Chris who pays her a few dollars.

We stop at the neighbors’ and pick out our 30-lb. turkey, which goes live into a gunny sack for transport in the dugout back up to Maya Mountain Research Farm.

Teaching permaculture in a culture such as this, one is never quite sure whether Albert Bartlett’s classic lecture on the exponential function has much meaning. People here have a hard time relating to the doubling times of bacteria in a bottle. But what time is it when all the available cleared land is occupied and you have to cut down the forest to make more space for houses? Answer: One minute to midnight.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Fickle Fates

Vowell's theme — brash adventures of a rich French teenager that profoundly changed history — reminds us how fragile the course of our common future is, and how that mere fact permits hope in an otherwise hopeless time.

The teenage brain — skirting risk in search of greater dopamine
Between ages 15 and 25, a juvenile male's brain is still underdeveloped in some key regions. Adolescents don't "see" barriers and limitations the way adults do. Thinking outside the box is the rule, not the exception. Challenging supposed limits is the essence of the teenage mind.

The human brain nearly doubled in size about 3 million years ago. Another 50% was added some 300,000 years ago, bringing it to today's 1200-1400 ml size. Teenagers were the evolutionary solution to allow our wetware to reboot from the older, slower brain to the newer, bigger, faster brain. Do it in stages.

The Marquis de Lafayette by Joseph-Désiré Court
Réunion des musées nationaux

The final and most recent addition to our brains is the prefrontal cortex. It winds itself up, kicks into overdrive, and then settles back into stability in the teens and early 20s. The prefrontal cortex allows us to "time travel" as we consider the past, process the present, and contemplate possible trajectories in our future. It helps us plan, exercise judgement, control our impulses, organize and strategize.

Defending its turf, the older, impulsive limbic portion of the brain also increases its activity at this time, making teens act emotionally and spontaneously, without thinking through the consequences. Morbidity and mortality go up 300%. If you bore into the most frequent causes of teenage death, the entire top 10 are related to errors in judgement and making poor decisions.

Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton by Joshua Reynolds.
Tarleton was Lafayette's teen nemesis. Tasked
by Cornwallis to hunt the Marquis, he nearly
succeeded in capturing Thomas Jefferson instead.
In these years the brain shows an increase in dopamine in one small region called the nucleus accumbens, the same area that governs addictive behavior. Teen love is, in fact, a profound addiction that pumps the reward system of the brain. Rejection can be likened to going through withdrawal, with lasting consequences. The nucleus accumbens issues dopamine to the pleasure centers, and if it is not cranking up enough already, loud noises (or music), intoxicants, the presence of friends and surviving dangerous situations (especially with friends) can take it up a notch.

As we traveled to remote workshops in the Two-Thirds World these past five weeks, idle hours sitting in airports, planes and shuttles afforded us time to “read” a number of audiobooks, the best of which, hands-down, was Sarah Vowell's Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. The book was read mostly by the comedienne herself, a gifted voice actor (Violet in The Incredibles), with cameos by Fred Armisen (von Steuben), Bobby Cannavale (Franklin), John Hodgman (Adams), John Slattery (Lafayette), and Patton Oswalt (Jefferson), among others.

We love Vowell's sardonic style and always surprising interplay of serious history with banal bits of contemporary Americana. So, for instance, to her neighbor, who thought she was writing a book about Lafayette, Louisiana:

Washington and Rochambeau at Yorktown
Auguste Couder - in the Palais de Versailles
I explained that I meant Lafayette the French teenager who crossed the Atlantic on his own dime to volunteer to fight with George Washington in the Revolutionary War, therefore I was more likely to visit Pennsylvania, where he got shot. She nevertheless professed her fondness for zydeco.

This encounter aroused such indignation in my breast that I moralized upon the instability of human glory and the effervescence of many other things. No, wait, that's what Herman Melville did in 1870 when a random stranger in a cigar store had never heard of his Revolutionary War hero grandfather.

When I found out my old neighbor had never heard of my Revolutionary War hero protagonist I went and got a taco with my sister. Still, it does seem eerie how one day in 1824 two-thirds of the population of New York City was lining up to wave hello to Lafayette and nineteen decades go by and all that's left of his memory is the name of a Cajun college town.

However, Vowell's theme — brash adventures of a rich French teenager that profoundly changed history — reminds us how fragile the destiny of our common future still is, and how that mere fact permits hope in an otherwise hopeless time.

How quickly USAnians are ready to forget that had it not been for Lafayette, vonSteuben, and a handful of others who volunteered without pay, or even cast in their own fortunes to help the Revolution, Washington's brave but battered army would have been routed, collapsed, and disbanded by 1777, or 1780 at the latest.

Vowell shows us how the traits we can now ascribe to the teenage brain striving to manufacture more dopamine were easy to spot in the young Marquis — in his reckless escape and transatlantic crossing, puppy love for George Washington, irrepressible quest for glory, and fondness for loud cannonades. We can also watch him mature into a cautious, strategic thinker, able to apply his inside knowledge and powers of persuasion to seize and embolden the hearts of others. He is Amy Winehouse in a tricorner hat and spurs.

With a closer reading of history, one can readily appreciate the American Revolutionary War for what it represented militarily: an astonishing feat of legerdemain carried out by the French Royal Navy — Expédition Particulière — with the navies of Spanish Louisiana and Spanish Cuba in close support.

The Battle of the Chesapeake, V. Zveg (US Navy employee)
US Navy Naval History and Heritage Museum
Few today are taught in school that there were no American observers on hand to witness the epic Battle of the Capes that sealed the fate of General Charles, Earl Cornwallis,' army at Yorktown, or that in that final and decisive land battle against the superior English Empire, the well-equipped and trained French sailors and marines greatly outnumbered the bedraggled and bloodied Colonials standing behind a line of artillery supplied by French ships and directed by Lafayette.

As Vowell documents in her inimitable style, the Continental Congress was never more than an embarrassment to the Revolution and it was much more a tireless diplomacy by Franklin and Lafayette that tipped the balance with the French king, his generals and admirals, sparing North America and Europe an entirely different fate.

Had England triumphed, slavery might have ended much sooner and without a Civil War, women would have gained suffrage in the Eastern States almost as quickly as their Mormon sisters in the West, and perhaps far fewer First Nations would have been genocidally exterminated. But consider what might have happened to Europe once George III cemented his hold on the men and material of these United States of England. Fortunately for France and the other countries of that continent, the British Parliament was as hamfisted and dysfunctional as its Colonial counterpart that gathered in York after being ousted from Philadelphia.

It was Lafayette's poignant letters to the French court and military commanders, spiced with a reality check that featured precisely those future scenarios of Anglo-hegemony that compelled Louis XVI to extend his neck (thence to be severed) to send men, ships and looted Spanish gold to aid the barefoot, starving, disconsolate and bleeding Colonial Army.

Surrender at Yorktown, October 19, 1781, by John Trumbull
Overruling Washington's reckless plan to storm New York, the cagey French instead sent their fleets up the Chesapeake where Lafayette had positioned John Knox's crackerjack Ticonderoga artillery regiment to trap and hold Cornwallis and then batter him into submission. Suffering a severe case of outmaneuver, the British Army, superior to Washington's in every other respect, was forced to furl colors, stack arms, and surrender.

Vowell uses the narrative to point out how the recklessness and fecklessness we saw when Texas teabagger Ted Cruz was able to tie up the budget process of the US Congress to close all the National Parks and squander billions of tax dollars to boot — is not a new concept, but rather the norm since before the country was founded. 
When not busy trying to undermine Washington's command or fleeing from Philadelphia, the Continental Congress went back to doing what they did best, which was fighting themselves. By the time the French intervened, the Colonial currency had become virtually worthless, public support for the war, about to enter its sixth year, was waning, and army troops were becoming mutinous over pay and conditions.

She also points out that the choice to toss blood and treasure as a lifeline to Lafayette's Americans was not without cost to Louis and others who went to the guillotine when the full extent of rash overspending came home to France as bankruptcy, starvation and disease, coinciding with several years of bad harvests, and the knee-jerk response of raising taxes.

It is small wonder then, that when Lafayette returned, having been released from prison, in 1824, 80,000 of New York's 120,000 citizens turned out at the docks to greet him, or that so many streets, towns, schools, racehorses and babies are named for him.

Heroism can take many forms. What the young Marquis de Lafayette demonstrated was that even a rash teenage brain, guided by adult logic to a potentially winning strategy, can apply heroic instincts where they will matter. Young souls as these can even change history.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Maginot Line: Permaculture Realized, Part III

"There's a problem with all utopian visions which is that sooner or later if you try to put them into practice you run into problems with the real world."

The following transcript, from an interview for Permaculture Realized podcast on February 2, 2016, has been lightly edited for corrections and readability.

Levi Meeuwenberg: How do you foresee some of these new approaches starting to be implemented and then get rolled out in the long term?

Albert Bates: If you're a country and you've just signed the agreement along with 195 other countries, the first thing you did to get to that was to come up with an INDC — which is your pledged national commitment — your contribution to reduce climate change. It was a promise. You had to make a pledge. So all the countries that came to Paris had already put in their INDCs and if you add up all the sum of the INDCs we still get to three degrees by mid-century, five to seven degrees by end of century. The ambition was way too low.

We knew that. But don’t fret — that was the opening bid. if you're in a poker game that was the ante. You had to put in that much to get in the game. Coming out of Paris what they put in was what they called “stocktake.” This is a new word for Webster’s. Stocktake is what's going to happen for various parts at three or five year intervals. There are a lot of attempts by oil-based economies like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Malaysia, the ones who have coal and stuff, to have the stocktakes taken out but the stocktakes stayed in the treaty so the Paris agreement requires a revision at close intervals now. There is a science stocktake in 2018, and then the next big one for the pledge system is in 2020. The stocktake which will happen in 2018 will look at the 1.5 goal and see what kinds of INDC revisions would be necessary to get and hold global warming to 1.5 degrees C.

Dare I say? We probably already know the answer. If you know anything about climate science you know that 1.5 is already baked in the cake. There's no way that we're not going to go sailing right through a 1.5 degrees celsius increase in global temperature of the planet. We're on that trajectory and there are so many feedback mechanisms, so many positive forcings which are already in play that 1.5 is a done deal. To try to set such an ambitious goal is ignoring the science to begin with, but I'm fine with high ambition so, sure, set that goal. It's kind of like building the Maginot line. If you're familiar with the history of Europe after WWI the French, who had fought all that trench warfare with the Germans which was really nasty, said we're going to pre-build a defensive line of bunkers – cement, barbed wire, trenches and all that – and massive earthworks all around our border so that we can never have this trench warfare slaughter again. We're going to build this giant wall – kind of like Trump's wall with Mexico – around France.

What happened in the Blitz? Germany just flew right over and dropped paratroopers on the other side. The French Minister of War, André Maginot, was fighting the last war. The Wehrmacht had a responsive strategic design process. They laughed all the way to Paris.

What they're doing now is building a Maginot line on the climate and saying that they're going to hold the line at 1.5. Well, I've got news for you, we're already past 1.5. But that's o.k. because what they're doing in that process is education, an interactive education process. We understand that when we're talking about governments and making them change, they change all the time. There are elections and changes in government and you get crazies in and you get different kinds of things happening, two steps back and one step forward. That's just normal in government. Just look at the difference in Obama in the first term and Obama in the second term in terms of climate change. I think partly that's laid at the feet of John Holdren who's the White House Science Adviser who got to meet with Obama on a regular basis and educate him.

I think that in the future we're going to have the same problem of educating governments over and over again. The weather is doing a lot of that for us so we don't really have to worry that much. The underground cities they built on the Maginot Line might even be good examples for urban design in coming decades, as long as they are not on coasts. But the idea of changing the way we farm is going to have to involve a major shift away from Cargill, Monsanto, and the agro industry and the way things are done now.

How do you make a shift like that? Frankly, I see it through tools like permaculture, home gardens, victory gardens, urban gardens. People looking for food security in these turbulent times when the economy is doing really badly and there issues with energy and the absence of energy after the crash of the fracking industry. So we're going to find ourselves where everybody is going to want food security and to do that they're going to have to learn how and to do it in a way that sequesters carbon. If we can produce electricity using clever stoves and things which sequester carbon as well as boost nutrient density that way — that’s the revolution. That can happen worldwide and the seed for that revolution, the starter in the yogurt, is all these little permaculturists running around like a yogurt starter culture.

A lot of different strategies are around to try to deal with climate and I don't begrudge their particular strategy. I think all of them are needed and I think that one of the things that we are going to see in the future is the idea that Bill McKibben launched in Paris and afterward and we’ll see it coming from him, Naomi Klein, Greenpeace, and others, which is that the new standard is 1.5 degrees by mid-century.

So essentially, the international agreement is to go carbon negative in the second half of the 21st century, which is in the actual language of the treaty – which requires 196 countries to eliminate fossil fuels by around mid-century, maybe a little bit after. I think that the ratcheting process may speed it up because the more we learn about the science and the more weather events happen, the more incentive there will be to ratchet up.

But the slogan that Bill McKibben coined was 'every pipeline, every mine — you said 1.5' and I can hear that chant in the back of my head as companies try to send railcar loads of shale oil through cities or carve new strip mines in the mountains or open new fracked gas wells which have already been leased but have not been drilled: “Stop! Every pipeline, every mine, you said 1.5!”

From a science standpoint it's absolutely impossible to hold to the Paris limits if you open up new fossil fuel mines and pipelines. You cannot have any new ones. You cannot have any more. You should be starting to shut down the ones we have. That's the only way to get there. We saw a lot of Fortune 500 companies signing on to this whole notion of going carbon negative or at least carbon neutral. There were one hundred and fourteen companies that signed the science-based initiative of going completely neutral and several of them have already achieved that. That's actually a coalition between environmentalists and business that's happening so now it's up to the environmentalists to hold the feet of these people to the fire, including the governments. So the protests are completely justified.

I had trouble with a lot of protests earlier because I'm a student of Mahatma Gandhi. I read Mahatma Gandhi when I was a high school student. I read pretty much all of his writings when he was a newsletter editor and his various collected writings so I understood the principles of Satyagraha which is seeking truth through peaceful means. One of those principles is to give your opponent every possible opportunity to correct their actions peacefully before you do anything to obstruct them or otherwise cause them harm – economic harm, I'm not talking about physical harm. When Gandhi would plan a march he would notify the authorities – “here's where we're going to be, come and arrest us if you want” – and when he goes into court (and remember he began as a lawyer in South Africa) he asks the judge to give him the maximum possible sentence. “Let's just go ahead and dispense with the trial, I'm guilty, put me in jail for as long as you want.” That's Satyagraha.

Here we have every pipeline, every mine and the moral justification is now there. Everyone's on notice. Everyone has been notified. There is no excuse now. Everybody has already agreed in principle that this must be done – no new pipelines, no new mines. So I think it's completely within everyone's privilege and in fact their duty to oppose anything new in the way of getting fossil fuels out of the ground.

Levi: What are some of the most effective ways? Let's say that we know that there are existing frack wells nearby, which is the case, should we approach the company, should we approach the government, should we go through legal means, or should we just occupy the space? What approach would you say would be best for getting that message out?

AB: I'm not going to dictate local initiatives. I think that this should come from the locality and everybody can best judge in their own location what is the best strategy. I think it's a little more problematic when you're talking about existing structures because those have to be withdrawn in a gradual way so there's a certain amount of latitude that must be there. I understand that. On the other hand if there's a new one then I think that it's perfectly justified to block the well-drilling rigs. It's perfectly justified to oppose them at every stage. For instance, they have to get state permits in every state to go in and drill. They have to get state permits to use the roadways. They have to have NPDES permits which are pollution discharge permits. All of those are places of entry where citizens and groups can go and make statements at those meetings and even protest those meetings if the state decides to ignore the legal requirement. They're outlaws if they ignore the legal requirement.
What needs to happen is the elevation of general public awareness about what the law now says. We're talking about international law which is the supreme law of the land under the U.S. constitution.

Levi: I hear a lot of talk about renewable energy, solar and all that – maybe too much. People who don't have an understanding of permaculture solutions or more holistic solutions or soil solutions see renewable energy as solving everything in some way. How do you see that being part of the picture?

AB: I spent a lot of my book, The Paris Agreement, on this. I blogged for a year leading up to Paris and took all those blogs and wrote an introduction and did a daily blog while I was in Paris. Then I spent a week or two afterward summarizing, synthesizing, and putting it all together to make the book. I put the book out on December 19th which was seven days after the Paris Climate Conference ended. It included the entire text of the treaty along with the year-long analysis that led up to it and I think the point of the book and what I spent a long time talking about was renewable energy and the myth surrounding renewable energy which I saw a lot of in Paris.

It's kind of this idea, this notion to just take out the dirty, greasy, black gooey stuff, the dirty smelly stuff, and the dirty powdery coal and all that which makes our hands black. We'll get rid of all that dirty stuff and we'll put in this shiny polished stainless steel, poly-composite graphite windmills and solar arrays and thermal mirrors and all these fancy new devices, this whole new tech industry which will suddenly transform the world and employ our entire population and give us clean energy, green growth jobs and so forth.

That's the utopian vision and there's a problem with all utopian visions which is that sooner or later if you try to put them into practice you run into problems with the real world. In the real world there are natural laws and one of those is energy return on energy invested. So we have to look at what is the actual cost in the life cycle of a solar cell or the life cycle of a windmill and how much energy is required to make a windmill? Are there steel components? How was that steel made? Was it made with sunlight? I don't think so. What about aluminum? What about some other fancy composites? What about the silicon wafers in the solar cells? Where did they come from and how were they made? What kinds of facilities do that?

Actually, I have to take an aside here and say that some years back, probably 20 years ago now, Solarex, a big solar company, built the first solar breeder which was a factory in Hyattsville, MD which was solar powered and which made solar cells so that's actually something which can be done. But if you look on the energy return on investment and the life cycle and so forth what you suddenly discover is we have been running on high-entropy, high-return, energy density. For instance, oil and coal and these other dense forms of stored solar energy pack a lot of calories per unit of weight or volume, but took 500 million years of sunlight to make. They're concentrated sunlight which has been stored in the earth.

That was our savings account which we went through in about 200 years. We're now switching over to a checking account, based on daily income – how much sun falls on the planet? Most of that's on the ocean. How much of that can be transformed into useful energy, how much can make liquid fuels? What we find is caloric return per unit weight or volume is much lower, an order of magnitude or more lower than what we were getting from fossil. So it's the first time in history that we're going from a denser form of energy to a less dense form. Every other time we've moved from whale oil to shale oil, from wind from canvas to wind from hydraulics and electromagnets and now we're going back the other way.

There's enormous power stored in ocean waves and tides and things like that. We can and will tap all those things to our benefit but compared to fossil fuels they're going to be a step back. We're actually going to have to contract. The economy is going to have to contract. It already is. What we're seeing now with the broader global economy is a major contraction that's already under way. It's what James Kunstler calls the long emergency. It's going to last a long time and it's going to be in stair steps. It's not going to come all at once.

But if we think that somehow solar power is going to change that trajectory, it's not. We're still going to have to step down. There's a lot of ground to be gained from increased efficiency and from employing low tech solutions and so on. Lifestyle is going to have to shift to reflect that change too. Most people don't understand that.

Personally, I think that megacities are doomed, especially coastal ones. Megacities are based on the import of resources from the periphery to the center. That's going to become much harder when transportation fuels are at much more of a premium. I think that the bioeconomy is the future. We're going to learn to cascade our crops to be able to get ecosystem services from the way in which they are designed and then some food and maybe some fuel and energy from that. Then biochar and carbon, which we're going to put back in the soil, is going to make a reversal in the climate trend and that cycle – actually already – of using bioenergy is seven times more cost-effective from an energy production standpoint than photovoltaics.

If you're going to install photovoltaics in a remote location on a village scale you'll find you'll have seven times more bang for the buck if you go with a biomass kiln and a local crop of food which produces a waste stream for that kiln and the kiln is pyrolytic, it's gasified and so it makes biochar and is therefore a whole business for you. It gives you pharmaceuticals, animal feed and other kinds of things which are of benefit to you. I think that's the future. The problem is that it's a much different future than most people envision and is certainly different than governments coming out of Paris thought was going to happen.

Levi: I would go as far as to say many people can't imagine or have lost this ability to imagine a world that is so vastly different from what it is now. Especially kids nowadays who have access to TV shows and the internet so they don't have to use their imagination as much so I think it withers a bit.

AB: Let me jump in and say something about that. I think that some of the things that people do with permaculture design courses and with introductions to permaculture, and through lectures to the public and so forth, those kinds of entries into what we do in that world are ways of re-educating the population not just to the crisis that we face but also to the things that you can do to make your life better even while the world is undergoing this monumental shift.

I've been teaching this course in Belize for many years. It's the eleventh time we've taught this course at this one farm, an experimental research station in Belize. It is the 50th permaculture design course that I've taught. The thing that I'm getting out of that is that we bring people from North America and Europe into this setting which is a very rural, rustic place. It's the Mayan world. If you go deeply enough into the Yucatan peninsula you find the Mayan world which hasn't changed a lot since Columbus. It's been globalized to a large extent. People wear the same clothes as people in the outside world and they have bicycles and drive cars so the outer things have changed. But the first language is still Mayan. It's still an indigenous population which has indigenous ways. I just attended a funeral ceremony here where I am in the Yucatan right now and it's as much Mayan as it is Catholic.

In the Mayan mountains where we go to the course we're really putting people into a time portal. It's like an adventure where you get to go to a different planet because we're tucked into the foothills of the Mayan mountains two miles up-river from the village of San Pedro, Columbia in southern Belize. You have to get there by an hour in a dugout canoe being poled up river. That's the only way to get there. There's a trail but you probably wouldn't want to try that with a pack, and you still have to ford the river. When you get there, suddenly there's this beautiful sight that's all renewable energy. The food for the course comes from the land every day. For twenty years they've been doing integrated agro-forestry, what the UN calls eco-agriculture, and applied biodiversity. For a quarter of a century really, twenty-six years, they've been there growing organic food and converting citrus and cattle farming to a biologically diverse polyculture. So when you make this trip, when you go through this time portal, you're transported back to a society which existed a thousand years ago and was in complete harmony with the seasons, kept its population within the limits of production of the local watersheds, and had an elegant, simple, wonderfully fruitful life and a community society. You stumble over stones which are parts of old pyramids. This is a long lost city complex of the Maya and was there at its peak a thousand years ago. This is actually the best way to live the future, to see steady-state economies of the past which had it figured out and which actually can change the climate back to the holocene from the anthropocene, given the tools. So I recommend not just our course in Belize which anyone can attend but also other courses in similar settings where there are still indigenous cultures, for a wonderful experience in seeing what the future holds.

Levi: I really appreciate you coming on here and sharing all your great messages, all this information, and spreading it and all that you're doing.

AB: Thanks. It's been great talking to you. 




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