Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


I have this friend. This friend has a good heart, but is a wee-bit lagging in the basic science department, which makes for interesting conversations. Recently, this friend posted this link in a discussion thread about alternative energy sources, as an example of "free energy" that refuted my statement the the conservation of energy = no free lunch, where energy is concerned.

The device described at the link is actually a really cool widget that coverts vibrational energy into electricity, via a weird class of compounds called piezoelectric materials that build up a charge as they undergo mechanical stress. Very cool. So they use this tiny device to scavenge energy from vibrating machines in factories to power microsensors that do various things that aren't really important here. The point is, my friend, and a lot of folks in the thread I was in, were talking about "free energy" and wondering why we didn't just build a billion of these things and make a power plant out of them.

*nose pinch*


This is, at least, better than the "zero point energy" thing I hear about pretty frequently in these circles (which is a topic for another post). Since I encounter basic misunderstanding about how energy flows through systems so regularly, I thought I'd put together a basic summary that would help someone figure out, without the need for advanced knowledge, why the idea that a piezoelectric generator yields free energy is bullshit. You can understand that immediately, without having to analyze it in a serious fashion, if you internalize two basic facts:

1.) Energy is not spontaneously created. It has to come from somewhere, and go somewhere.

2.) In the process of this moving about, some energy is always lost as waste heat. No mechanism for moving energy around is 100% efficient.

All I've done here is paraphrased the first two laws of thermodynamics (The Third law concerns the definition of absolute zero, and actually plays into why extracting zero-point energy is almost certainly impossible, but yeah, another post).

For the first point, consider that no human technology creates energy. They just turn various types of energy into our personal favorite, electricity. Generators convert kinetic energy into electricity via a spinning magnet. That kinetic energy in turn can come from a number of sources: steam pressure caused by heating water, as in the case of geothermal, coal, and nuclear power plants; the energy of falling water, as in the case of hydroelectric plants; moving air, as in the case of wind power, etc. Other materials generate electricity more directly, with no kinetic step in between: Photovoltaic cells convert sunlight directly into electricity using special materials, other materials can generate electicity using moving thermal energy (thermocouples, often used on space probes) or, as we just saw, from mechanical stress (piezoelectric materials).

In all of these cases, though, the energy comes from somewhere else, flows through the convertor of choice, becomes electricity, does our bidding, and dissipates as waste heat, never to return. That's the second law in action; eventually, the energy degrades into background heat, warming the universe imperceptibly and becoming impossible to use again. So energy is a unidirectional flow; we get useful work out of it as it meanders along, like a river, but eventually it reaches the sea and we can't do anything more with it. The energy river is long and has a lot of stops on the way, but ultimately we can trace it to only three sources:

1.) Geothermal heat. The residual heat from the gravitational compression that formed of the planet, plus quite a bit from the decay of natural radioactive isotopes. The Earth is not in thermal equilibrium with the space around it, and we can use that energy gradient to generate power.

2.) Radioactive isotopes. Ultimately these energy-dense elements got their energy from the immense energies released in the supernova that formed them, long before our solar system formed.

3.) The Sun. This is the biggie. A perpetual fusion explosion that bathes the planet in an incredible fucking wealth of high-energy photons. The sun is the source of solar energy via PV cells, but also drives wind power (wind is air moving around in response to temperature gradients caused by the sun) and hydroelectric (the water flowing into reservoirs gained its potential energy thanks to the sun's energy evaporating ocean water and driving it into the atmosphere). The Sun is also ultimately the source of fossil fuel energy, as fossil fuels are nothing except ancient plant and animal biomass that was created using solar energy harvested in photosynthesis. Fossil fuels are really just millions upon millions of years worth fo sunlight, stored up. John Michael Greer uses an excellent analogy for solar/fossil energy: if the energy striking our planet from the sun is like our income, our weekly paycheck, than fossil fuels represent an ENORMOUS savings account balance that the Earth racked up in the millions of years before we came along and strated drawing from the account.

So that's it. The energy harvested by that weird little vibrational gizmo is, ultimately, almost entirely solar energy (a portion of it may be from radioactive decay or geothermal, depending on whether the factory in question is hooked up to a nuke or geothermal plant). We can slap all the vibrational doodads on all the machines in the world, but the power we get from those doodads wills be less than the power that went into the machines themselves, and will ultimately be limited by the size of our three energy streams. 2nd law again. Everything we do, every power source we utilize, is ultimately just an attempt to harness one of these three energy flows. They are all there is, and they are finite.

That's right. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS RENEWABLE ENERGY. Not in the long term. The Earth will eventually cool to the temperature of the space around it. The radioactive isotopes will eventually all decay into stable end-products. The Sun will eventually run out of fuel and explode. When we talk about "renewable" and "non-renewable" energy, what we're really talking about is the relative time in which we expect an energy source to be depleted. If the amount of time it takes the energy source to run out (reach equilibrium with its environment) is, say, longer than the amount of time we can reasonably expect our species to persist, we can go ahead and call it "renewable."

And this is where an undertanding of basic thermodynamics brings us to the coming energy crisis.

For our purposes, geothermal and solar are renewable, radioactive isotopes and fossil fuels ("banked" sunlight) are not. In the case of the latter two, we can expect to use all of the reserves available to us in well under the lifespan of the species. Oil either has or will soon peak in availability, coal may have another few decades, and fissile radioactive isotopes would likely tap out in less than a hundred years (and that's assuming we were willing to tolerate all of the side-effects that wide-spread utilization of nuclear power brings to the table). In other words, we got our hands on Mom's debit card a couple hundred years ago and have been spending like fiends ever since. So the energy crisis comes down to one question: using only the solar energy continuously reaching our planet (keep in mind that this means hydro and wind, as well, indirectly), and whatever we can extract from geothermal, can we maintain the level of energy use we currently enjoy?

*cue crickets*

Nope. Not a chance. We have to share the solar energy with the biosphere, which we directly depend on for food and indirectly depend on for little things like oxygen and climate mediation ("ecosystem services," Google it). What's left can only be harvested so efficiently, and ultimately there simply isn't enough solar energy striking the Earth to meet our current quotas when you consider that. When someone says, for instance, that there is enough solar energy hitting the Sahara to power the world, they are completely neglecting th inconceivable cost of covering an area that large with PV panels, the immense engineering challenges in maintaining such a cast array, the difficulties in moving electricity around from a single point (transmission wires lose a significant amount of energy due to resistance, and the maximum economical range for AC power distribution is perhaps 2,500 miles, and the fact that the best PV panels we have would only harvest about 29% of that energy anyway. And we've not even discussed the tremendous and unknown weather and ecological effects that dropping the albedo of the world's largest desert may have.

This is the essence of the energy crisis. We have but three energy flows available to us; they are all finite, and only two of them are really renewable for our purposes. And those two simply can't meet the absurd levels of consumption we enjoy in industrialized nations today. There is only one possibility: we will reduce our level of consumption. Whether we, as societies and individuals, reduce that consumption in a planned and sensible way, or suffer the pain and chaos of a systemic collapse, is ultimately up to us.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The eye closes

Well, that's that.

I can't help but feel like the shut down of the Allen array is a particularly significant step back from humanity's abortive steps into the heavens. It was a more significant resource for SETI than even the (much more famous and photogenic) Very Large Array. It seems to me that failing to provide even the relative pittance required to keep a radio telescope array turned on is indicative of the rot at the core of our society; greed before curiosity, exploitation before exploration.

This sucks.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Funny video for SF geeks

I was perusing the 2011 Hugo nominations and saw that one of the nominations for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form is something called "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury." Convinced whatever it was had to be brilliant, I tracked down the video. Made me giggle.


The Video

Obama and the law

If you can stomach reading the whole thing, Greenwald does a great job of pointing out what Obama, the constitutional lawyer, thinks of our constitution.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Built on the backs of negative externalities

Forgive me for being remiss in posting. I've been preparing for my annual performance review (which is tomorrow, eek), so I've been playing tag with methane flux data for two weeks. However, every so often I see something in my morning blog feed that simply demands response. In this case, it's my favorite professional asshole, Jeffrey A. Tucker.

Mr. Tucker is a sad panda, you see. The webmaster of the Mises Institute, a libertarian think-tank, his articles all have the same mantra: Government is stealing your modern conveniences for no reason. 1 gallon per flush toilets? Low flow shower heads? Compact fluorescent light bulbs? Low-phosphorous dish detergent? Abominations unto Nuggin, all of them! Why, every one of them is an example of the reigning in of capricious resource consumption and reduction of negative externalities. If someone had invented The Sardonic Shit-Cannon (TM), that took the contents of a house's flushed toilets and fired them straight up into the air so raw sewage rained down on the town below, Mr. Tucker would get bent out of shape when the EPA banned it.

Because oh, he hates the EPA and the "goofy environmentalists." Poor saps, thinking that taking a swim in a non-poisonous river or having access to clean drinking water is more important than being able to clean your dishes without the horror of rinsing them off first. The nerve of us, asking an Important Man like Mr. Tucker to forgo consuming 20 times as much water per day as, say, someone from Cambodia, just so we can stop the Colorado River from drying up, or the Albuquerque Aquifer from collapsing. And to suggest that he might bear the "pain in the neck to carry a full tray across the room, spill a bit here and there, and then balance it carefully in the freezer," just so he can reduce his energy consumption a little bit and play his part in staving off the fucking climate apocalypse. Why should he care? He can afford the finest air conditioning and electronic security in a home high on a bluff in a safe region.

People like Jeff Tucker live on negative externalities. Libertarians exist in a fantasy world, where none of their choices have consequences, where they can consume and pollute as much as they want and "the market" will magically fix everything. They refuse to believe that they can buy a huge plasma TV directly because a family in Burma lives in abject poverty. They refuse to hear that the huge diamond rock they just gifted to their sweetheart was bathed in blood of African rape victims. They don't care that they can have a lithium-ion battery in their Blackberry because the US military blew up some Afghan kid's parents to secure the region's mineral resources. It doesn't matter that the capital gains bonus they used to buy a new hot tub came because an entire Michigan town was thrown out of work and factory moved to Vietnam. They don't see it, it doesn't appear in their ledgers and their portfolios, and they don't. Give. A shit.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why we can't have a nice planet. We will face fires and storms and rising waters and poisonous tides and collapsing fisheries and nuclear leaks and groundwater contamination and rampant disease. We will face these horrors, and more, so Mr. Tucker and his socialite pals can live in their air-conditioned McMansions on the bluff. Because Mr. Tucker and friends so hate to be inconvenienced, and they will peddle their influence with right-wing lawmakers to take away those pesky environmental regulations that only matter to people down in the shit, anyway.

It's about freedom. Didn't you get the memo?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Mobilization for national emergency: lessons of World War II for the age of eco-collapse

Michigan munitions factory, Second World War.

I'm currently reading the book War, Economy, and Society, 1939-1945, by British historian Alan S. Milward. It's an economic history of the Second World War. Milward surveys and analyzes how each of the major combatant powers re-organized their economies around the central, overriding purpose of waging a global war for national survival. Milward wrote the book in 1977, but from what I can tell it remains one of the standard works on the subject by a professional academic historian.

Milward delivers non-stop surprises, in the form of facts and interpretations that defy expectation. Prime example: the wartime economy of Nazi Germany. In view of the totalitarian nature of Hitler's regime, you would expect that the administrative apparatus of Germany's economy would be a model of ruthless, centralized, inhuman efficiency. The use of slave labor in the factories fits this notion. And it's true that the Nazi state was fueled by a horrific ideology of racial extermination. Nazi philosophy expressed a mystic reverence for war as a purifying force. The resulting totalitarian government exercised, in theory, absolute authority, unconstrained by any notion of ethics or constitutionalism.

So, then. The regime should have been able, one would think, to forge the German economy into a ruthlessly effective, monstrously machine-like regimentation of perfectly optimized industrial war-making. But, Milward makes clear, this didn't happen. The Nazi war economy suffered ongoing corruption, incompetence, and conflict among jealous bureaucracies competing for scarce resources. On paper, the Nazi government functioned as a massive, draconian hierarchy answering obediently and perfectly to the Fuehrer. In truth, a hierarchy did exist, and it did influence the making of economic policy. Clearly, an organization in the hierarchy that gained the favor of the supreme figure at the top had a political advantage. But the normal laws of petty bureaucratic squabbling still operated, even in totalitarian Nazi Germany. Totalitarianism did not create mechanized uniformity and harmony.

And the Nazi war economy, in Alan Milward's account, did not operate as the perfect engine of endless bomb-making that one might expect. Hitler explicitly ordered German war production to be kept below maximum possible levels for as long as possible. He did this because he feared that draconian regimentation of the economy for war would generate revolution against the Nazi state -- just as the social pressures of war had triggered revolution against the Kaiser after the brutal quagmire of 1914-1918.

You read that right: a government ruthlessly dedicated to totalitarian oppression did not eliminate all conceivable inefficiency or opposition. The poster child for absolute power, Adolf Hitler, did not rule without the possibility of challenge. His fears of dissent would be realized in 1944, perhaps from an unexpected direction, when a bomb concealed in a briefcase under his conference table exploded.

Only around 1943 did Germany's economy truly gear itself for all-out war, according to Milward's statistics. All out mobilization was not achieved, as popular imagination and Allied intelligence of the time would have it, in 1936 or thereabouts. Of course, by the time Germany mobilized fully, the war against the industrial juggernaut of the United States and the slave armies of Joseph Stalin was almost certainly lost. Still Germany fought on, against a strangulating blockade of its continental empire, amidst relentless physical attack on its cities, infrastructure, and resources.

Consequently, Nazi Germany faced increasing strain on its production capacity and its supply of raw materials. German output of oil, coal, steel and other essentials of military power took place under the most extreme conditions. Increasingly, production of raw materials, and hence of finished armaments, faltered.

Nevertheless, even under extreme duress, beset by organizational friction and dysfunction, the Nazi regime and its armed forces remained operational until the spring of 1945. Only when a crescendo of Soviet steel rolled toward Berlin and the armored columns of the Western democracies overran the industrial heartland of Germany did Hitler's regime finally begin to collapse.

* * * * *

Milward's history of the industrial world's first global emergency delivers a cornucopia of possible lessons to ponder as our generation faces the second. Here I will briefly note only some of them.

1) Nationwide industrial production and political organization under conditions of extraordinary resource strain and social pressure is feasible.

Implication: collapsing energy and resource supplies in the remainder of my lifetime -- 2011 to around 2040 -- will not inevitably destroy the effectiveness of national governments. Many scenarios for the next thirty years are possible. Some of them encompass the effective end of national institutions in the United States and elsewhere. Some of them do not. A range of outcomes is possible. In a complex, unpredictable ecological system, whether a rainforest or a society of hominids, multiple outcomes over time are possible in almost all cases, even if some are more probable than others.

2) Eventually, resource strain does become so great that the collapse of a national government is probably inevitable. Nevertheless, this strain had to reach extreme levels in 1945 before Germany -- and Japan -- became unable to organize their societies for effective military resistance.

In the meantime, for at least a short period, under increasingly dire circumstances, German and Japanese economic and political institutions successfully directed available resources to a single, critical goal. For the Axis powers in World War II, that goal was armaments production.

Implication: in the period 2011 to 2040, a similar national effort can be organized under analogous conditions of extreme emergency and increasing physical distress.

3) In World War II, both the Axis powers and their adversaries successfully re-engineered their entire economies in a very short time to serve a single, overriding purpose: national survival.

The nation-states of that time faced the most extreme circumstances imaginable. Except for the geographically isolated United States, the belligerent governments confronted a massive, relentless threat to their very existence. Even American officials believed that Axis victory would, in the long-term, force them to construct a regimented garrison state so unrecognizable as to constitute the end of the country they had known. So the United States and the other warring nations converted their entire economies to meet the threat.

Implication: the major powers could do so again today, even under extreme conditions, facing a different but equally monumental emergency.

4) In my view, the range of possible future histories for the period 2011 to 2040 encompasses one or more of the major nation-states responding to eco-collapse with a national mobilization effort equally as extensive as the mobilization for World War II.

Such a scenario is possible because, in the next three decades, it will become clear to the national elites of today that they face a threat at least as great as that of the 1940s. Any resulting national mobilization would not be undertaken for reasons of altruism, enlightenment, or justice. It would be launched for expediency and reasons of state. It would, in all likelihood, be implemented from above without much regard  for the wishes or well being of those below. The mobilization would be of, by, and for the people in power, serving their interests above all. Corporations involved in the effort would be assured of making money, their executives ensconced in positions of power. The military forces and their officer corps would take a central role. If the general population benefits from the mobilization, they would do so not by the goodness and mercy of the elite but because the elite fear what desperate masses might do.

5) The emergency of eco-collapse will last far longer than World War II. It has in fact begun already, and it will continue for the rest of the existence of the human species on this planet. But the initial decades -- 2011 to 2040 for certain -- will have certain distinctive features. Human beings of that era will live on the initial downward slope of a worldwide collapse, when the psychological shock of its onset will be potentially overwhelming, the speed of its acceleration breath-taking, and the force of its effects ever more devastating.

In all of these ways, the era of initial descent will resemble a period of global war. In fact, given the planetary scale of the crisis, an actual global war may occur. This would inflict even greater destruction than the global campaign of blitzkrieg and counterinsurgency now being waged by the United States. A more intense and massive future war could be exactly the trigger needed for an elite-driven conversion of national economies in the era of scarcity and collapse.

6) Nationwide economic conversion, once begun, can be completed in less than a decade. We know this beyond doubt from the experience of World War II. The mobilization for that conflict demonstrates that the physical apparatus of a modern economy can be quickly re-engineered. National institutions, once mobilized for supreme emergency, can be effectively sustained, even under extreme conditions and resource scarcity. Not forever, but almost certainly for a decade or less, to serve an overriding purpose. One purpose could be making bombs.

Another could be making energy from something other than fossils. And converting the other aspects of the economy accordingly, just as bomb-making required the rationing of every resource and the retrofitting of every factory the nation's industrial plant. Mass economic conversion can be done, even under continuous bombardment, whether the assault comes from literal bombs or a suddenly hostile biosphere. A decade-long crash conversion for a post-carbon society can be done, in principle. And a decade will be enough. Or so my reading of history and today's ecological trends would suggest.

It is more than conceivable that a self-interested national government will reach the same conclusion in the thirty years we are about to live.

* * * *

Human civilization is 5,000 years old, dating to the first cities along the Tigris and Euphrates. In all of that time, civilization and its periphery have been ruled jointly by princes, merchants, and priests (almost all of whom, until the last century, have been male).

The balance of power among the three branches has shifted constantly over time. A feudal prince in Paris, for example, had less power than Louis XIV. But the princes in the area we know as France have never gone away, in the millennia since extensive human settlements began to flourish west of the Alps. The princes have remained, whether they were chieftains of Gaul, governors from Rome, kings of the Franks, monarchs of the Carolingian dynasty, feudal lords of France, absolutist autocrats of the Enlightenment, or ministers of the modern republic.

Now the modern age is passing, giving way to the Anthropocene. The princes will continue. And they won't stay idle when they see the old world falling to ruin. They will try to make the new one theirs as well.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Monday Link

Today's link is a very accessible and effective take-down of "free trade" as a sustainable economic model, courtesy of the Huffington Post.

I really don't have much to add to this, but a basic take-home message. International Free Trade is yet another mechanism for the concentration of capital in the hands of a few. By moving capital and resources around to such an extent that virtually no nation is capable of meeting its own basic needs, agricultural or industrially, a world of corporate slaves is created. Free Trade destroys economies, plunders ecosystems, throws workers from their homes and jobs and pours the life's blood of our societies into Swiss vaults.

Read the link!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A quick note on names

Reave Vanshar is a prequel character in a series of fantasy stories I've written, but never published in any form. He's also been my internet alter-ego since I was in high school. It's kind of funny that I blogged under my old internet handle all of twice before discarding it. I guess I felt that there should be a blog post somewhere that came from Reave's voice.

I thought about blogging under my real name for a long time. I don't buy into the poisonous meme that words written in anonymity carry less weight or are somehow less true, but at some point you realize that what you are saying is important to you, important enough that it makes up a part of your identity. I am Steve McAllister, and I talk to people about peak oil and climate change. I teach people about sustainable technology. I garden. The words I want to write about in this space are, I realized, central to my calling in life, and I suddenly, and perhaps a little selfishly, want to be known for it. So here I am.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Feminism at the end of the world

I've broached this topic in a number of forums and blog threads about peak oil, and the reactions have been pretty interesting. Given the liberal bent of most people concerned about climate change and peak oil, I expected a warm reception of at least the discussion of feminism in the anthropocene world, but by and large I was quite mistaken. The biggest complaint I heard was that feminism was off-topic for post-carbon threads, and right behind that was the assertion that we needed to be humanist, not feminist. That the special treatment of feminism was some sort of a step back, because (and this was always the rich part) feminism won, didn't you hear?

I'll treat the former criticism first, that a discussion of feminism on a blog dedicated to discussing climate change and peal oil is "off-topic." I don't think any of my co-authors here (who am I pleased as punch to be blogging with, by the way) would contest that social justice is of tremendous concern in the anthropocene world. Societies enduring privation and upheaval are pretty much always less egalitarian, less safe, less just than we might like. They are also disproportionately less egalitarian, less safe, and less just for women. The Road Warrior, A Boy and His Dog, and other post-apocalyptic exploitation films of the late '60s through early '80s prominently featured the rape, torture, and murder of women for a reason. Wherever civil unrest occurs, whether it's a rebellion, a civil war, or any of a hundred other kinds of conflict, when society breaks down, women suffer for it. I would go so far as to suggest that one of the single most powerful metrics for measuring the health of a society is rapes per capita per year!

So feminism is on-topic for our concerns here, because we are heading towards a less stable, less organized world, which means that unless we work really, really hard, women in the anthropocene are going to face more violence and more injustice than they do now. Period.

And that's unacceptable.

Ok, you might say, but violence and unrest and injustice in general are liable to become worse as industrial society collapses; we're working here to ameliorate all of that, so why talk about feminism? Let's be humanist. Women are in pretty good shape now, so working to make a post-carbon society safe and just will benefit them just as much, right? I had sympathy for this argument for a long time, and it took a brilliant post by one of the 'net's preeminent feminist thinkers to change my mind.

My take home point here is not that I want to turn Seldon's Gate into a "feminist blog," in the sense that we spend a lot of time advocating for women's issues, dissecting sexist pop culture, and the like. There are many excellent spaces for that sort of thing, some of which I'm listing below. But I DO want Seldon's Gate to be a feminist blog in the sense that, when we discuss the shitstorm that is coming, we should be mindful of the particular implications it may have for the women in our lives. That we realize that fighting misogyny and racism and marginalization is every bit as important a part of the work we do here as educating people about green technology and community support in the face of climate change. I'm not a feminist blogger, but I am a blogger who's a feminist, and I'll be talking about that from time to time.

Below are some of the feminist blogs where I spend a fair bit of time reading and, in some cases, commenting. They are well worth a visit, as they also serve as a launching point into the battles against many types of marginalization, racial and economic as well as gender-based. They are also places frequented by some kick-ass and brilliant women, and meeting them is always a great thing.

Shakesville: If you read no other feminist blog, this is the one to read. With many contributors, it is updated over a dozen times a day most days and is the site of many excellent conversations about progressive politics. Melissa McEwan's "Feminism 101" series of articles (one of which I linked above) are required reading for anybody interested in learning more about feminism, and commenting on feminist threads without looking like an asshole. I speak from experience on that.

Echidne of the Snakes: Echidne writes a more focused blog about bullshit science and public policy as it intersects with social justice, and unleashes some truly awesome weapons-grade snark on a regular basis. This is frequently where I first hear about truly onerous federal legislation.

Feministe: One of the oldest feminist sites on the net, it tends to dissect popular culture more than politics, with the result that I am often caught out in my own surprising prejudices.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Too Many Words from the Final Figure of the Four

I was pleased, honored and surprised at the invitation to join this company of fine reader-thinker-writer-geeks. Before continuing with my introduction, however, by way of full disclosure, I must admit (with an appropriate measure of shame), that I've only read the first of Asimov's Foundation books. I promise to rectify the situation with all due haste. Actually, to be brutally honest, I've only been reading Science Fiction in earnest for about four years now. I read Wells and Verne as a child, as well as a couple of the great classics (Fahrenheit 451, 1984) in college, and the Dune books a few years later, but it wasn't until just a few months before encountering Mentat and Kir'Shara that I began seriously to pursue the joys, wisdom and insights of SF.

But once I did so, SF changed my life. Quite literally.

If it hadn't been for SF, I'd be about three months away from a solid six-figure salary right now, happily ignoring most of the environmental, economic and political turmoils around me. Instead, I'm not even a quarter of the way through at least four years on a grad student stipend and am, on my worst days, a doom-and-gloom junkie, and on my better days a raving leftist radical.

It was Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution series that really woke me up, convinced me to care about politics, economics, emerging information technologies, corporate power, workers' rights and welfare, energy crises, freedom of expression, etc. It wasn't just his books that affected me though; it was also his blog posts and their comment threads, through which I was able to interact with him on an ongoing basis while reading. This opportunity to engage directly with the author and follow his commentary on real world events lent extra power to the punch delivered by his books... and compelled me to honestly examine my beliefs, priorities and career trajectory... and ultimately to throw a big fucking wrench into the works.

There were other influential works of SF as well. Iain M. Banks' books rubbed my face into the horror and lunacy of war, the futility of torture, the extremes of sentient suffering (both physical and psychological) and the dream of a Utopian intergalactic system of government that sparkled with hope in spite of the selfish, flawed beings on which it was built.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy was more practical. It provided plausible flesh and bone to my emerging view of the world and society... and helped me to visualize the imminent destruction of this planet that I love. It also gave me a vision of what a human society should (and maybe even could, one day) be. And it helped me to imagine what a path (however narrow and unlikely) from here to there might look like. Most of my current opinions on politics, economics and business were formed while reading these books.

Paralleling my exploration of the SF realm, however, have been my readings of Kir'Shara's blog posts (including those written under a previous alias) and my real-life conversations with both Kir'Shara and Mentat. They (as well as others, both live and in print) have provided bridges between the all-too-relevant SF in which I immerse myself and the dissappointingly-not-fictional political and environmental reality that is destroying our world.

The intent of this post was to introduce myself briefly, however, and I think that I've already failed. In his post below, Mentat made mention of his superhuman skills of procrastination. It is quite possible that mine are even greater (note, for example, that I'm the last of the four to post). I also tend to ramble on in a long-winded fashion and incorporate too many themes into a single post. But Kir'Shara knew all of my literary shortcomings in advance, so you, dear readers, may address your complaints to him.

Of greater interest than my failings, however, may be my potential offerings. What have I to contribute to this merry band? I'm a thirty-something grad student pursuing advanced training in public health (environmental health, specifically). I took a rather circuitous path to get to my current position. I studied international health and development thinking that I would save the poor people of the developing world from disease. I started medical school with similar ambitions. I finished medical school disillusioned with the medical profession and disgusted with the way in which physicians in this country are forced to practice. I started a pathology residency thinking that I'd found an interesting and lucrative way to pass the days before retirement. I wasn't exactly content with this, however, and eighteen months into the four-year program, when I experienced the above described SF epiphany, I'd already determined the following: 1) the current medical system is unsustainable, even in the best of circumstances and 2) fighting disease through diagnosis and treatment is a losing battle -- prevention is our only chance. These ideas, combined with my increasing recognition of, and concern about the doom of our global environment landed me in my current program, where I hope to find ways of improving health through identification and elimination of environmental hazards. This too is a losing battle, but at least there's the possibility of fighting for the health of thousands of people at a time rather than for that of just one... at the expense of the neglected thousands.

I recently encountered a quote from Frank Lloyd Wright:

A doctor can bury his mistakes but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.

I think I know how he intended it, but the more I consider it, the more alternate meanings seem to surface, some of which are appropriate to the medical and health care realm as a whole, and some specifically to me. Maybe I'll write a post about that quote sometime.

As for today... now that I've rambled on about myself for long enough, I'll give you a preview of a post that will likely appear in about two months. Today I started reading Mark Hertsgaard's new book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. I'm to write a review of it for one of my classes, and it looks as though it will prove quite relevant to this blog.

More on that (and possibly other things) soon.

Mentat says 'hello' and breaks a ship

Greetings readers and fellow bloggers. I see that Reave has made his appearance and I thought I'd best do the same before my infinite powers of procrastination see me to mid-summer without having posted. Kir'Shara and I have known each other for nearly 25 years and over that generation (!) of time we've had many a discussion about politics, history, science, the human condition and the human future. Also, science fiction, fiction in general, film and television--the whole power and joy of narrative; so, he invited me to participate and here I am. I can't promise I'll be the most steady of contributors. I wasn't joking about my infinite powers of procrastination! But I shall try and not let too much time pass between posts.

As to the nature of my posts. Those of you who have read the science fiction book Dune, by Frank Herbert, will recognize that the mentats were the "human computers" who advised the rich and powerful in a society which had outlawed "thinking machines." I certainly don't claim to be a human computer, but one of the mentat's functions was to absorb vast quantities of information. Since I read voraciously and widely over many areas of interest, when I needed to come up with a google blogger handle, I whimsically chose "Mentat." So, most of my posts will probably be either book reviews, or musings about several books, or ruminations inspired by some book I have read. I won't always be on topic (i.e., not all my posts will focus on the ecological crisis or our post carbon future), but Kir'Shara assures me that that's okay. For this first post, however, I thought I'd keep it on topic by talking a bit about a cool YA (Young Adult) science fiction book I finished last July, called Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.


Ship Breaker's story is set several hundred years in our post-carbon future. Its protagonist, Nailer, is a boy living in a tough community of "ship breakers", people who scrape together their livelihood by salvaging what they can from abandoned and derelict oil platforms and tankers in the Gulf of Mexico. The world depicted is fascinating and believable-- the stark customs and moral codes prevalent in Nailer's community remind me of what one might find in poverty stricken shanty towns in West Africa: clannish and brutal, but also characterized by fierce loyalty to family and close friends. Nailer is small enough to work on a team of breakers that crawl through duct work and other tight places looking for copper wire. The community sells the salvaged material to corporations who keep them in a situation similar to indentured servitude. Nailer's life consists of making his daily quota, dealing with his abusive father, and day dreaming about the large clipper ships he sees passing by on the horizon to the south, indicating that somewhere in the world a post-carbon recovery has occurred complete with ocean going trade on these sleek, clean sailing vessels so different from the greasy, dank hulks he crawls through day after day. A hurricane precipitates the Novel's main narrative and Nailer's moral journey. He and one of his team members discover a beached clipper ship with a young girl, a "swank" from the North, still alive on board. Should Nailer claim the salvage rights to the ship? Or help this girl he doesn't know?

The world building in this novel is impressive and intriguing. Bacigalupi deftly hints at so much going on in the background (all in a "show-don't-tell" manner) that you really get a sense for this future world as a real place. The communities on the Gulf and north of mostly submerged New Orleans are well drawn. There are some tantalizing hints about the more affluent, recovered, societies to the North, with their post carbon technologies. There is an interesting subplot about the genetically engineered character named Tool, a human slave designed with canine genes for animal ferocity and loyalty. This being a YA novel, the plot moves along at a break neck pace. Bacigalupi manages to insert his world building and character development in a story that in many ways is a series of exciting action sequences. And yet, YA though it might be with its pacing and teenage protagonist, the story has several darker aspects that set this apart from much YA fiction (though I understand this sort of more complex, nuanced, YA fiction is something of a trend these days). As I read it I thought a lot about John Michael Greer's books, The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future in which he describes our future not as a sudden apocalypse so much as a long descent, a slow-motion catastrophe marked by energy shortages, climate change, wars and other painful adjustments playing out over decades and centuries. His descriptions of salvage-based economies as this long descent plays out obviously resonate with Bacigalupi's thoughts about our future.

Bacigalupi has made quite a splash in the last couple of years, winning the Nebula and Hugo awards with his science fiction novel, The Windup Girl, which I haven't read yet, but intend to at some point. In that book, I understand, he also depicts a post carbon future, but couched at a more adult level. When I get around to reading it, I'll let you all know what I think. Until then if you're looking for a good story set in a post carbon world with strong characters and cool world-building, you can't go wrong taking a look at Ship Breaker.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Blogomorphosis: Seldon's Gate expands its coverage of life in the eco-catastrophe

This blog began in June 2010 as the personal journal of a single individual on issues of energy, ecology, and climate change. This weekend it became something more: a shared online home for the writing of four people instead of one.

We, the authors of Seldon's Gate, come from different backgrounds and perspectives. But we share a common awareness that the unfolding ecological crisis is far greater in scale and implication than most people yet realize. It is terraforming our planet -- changing it into a different world, with radically new physical and ecological systems. This planetary catastrophe is devastating the climate, ecology, and resources that nurtured the first five thousand years of human civilization. The resulting upheaval will force massive transformation in human societies as they struggle to adapt. It will change everything.

Not someday, but now. In our lifetime. In our routine, ordinary lives as individuals, trying to make ends meet and get through the day. The planetary cataclysm will not be a distant event seen only on television screens. It is all around us, even now. In the people we know who are unemployed, poor, sick, anxious, fearful, and lost. Energy and resources are becoming scarce, services and institutions eroding away. Politics shifting, driven by tyranny and hate. It's all going to get worse, putting an end to the abundance and tranquility that Americans, at least, have always taken for granted. Something new is in the process of being born. The story of its emergence will define the remainder of our lives. 

All of us will be forced to ask: what do the changes mean, and what should we do now?

This blog now has four authors trying to answer those questions, instead of just me. Reave Vanshar has already posted his first contribution as one of my co-bloggers here. Also new to our cast of characters here are ilorien and Mentat. All three of them are smart, articulate, opinionated, and in every imaginable way supremely cool. All three of them are my friends.

Our writings here will vary quite a bit, in tone, topic, and perspective. The unifying thread will be the background awareness of what's happening to our planet and our people. But the individual posts might cover anything, from the frivolous to the profound. Each of the authors chafes against excessive specialization. Life is a landscape, not a niche.

The four of us together bring quite a considerable array of knowledge to this little corner of the webular-inter-tubes. As a collective, we know more than a little bit about history, politics, literature, information technology, ecology, economics, geology, medicine, and public health, to name a few. All four of us are lifelong fans of science fiction and fantasy. We know who Hari Seldon is. We grew up dreaming of new worlds and new civilizations. Which, I think, is significant. In the face of what's coming, we will need not just knowledge but imagination.

I hope this blog will be a useful record of how we and others tried to prepare for the new world.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Enter, stage left, a sarcastic scientist.

Greetings folks. This is my first post here at Seldon's Gate, and while I loathe introductory posts I should probably mention what I'm doing here. Kir'Shara was kind enough to invite me to contribute, since I clog up the comments stream so much anyway! I'm a PhD student in biology and geology, studying climate change. From this you know I am an intellectual masochist and a cynic. Anybody in ecology and climate science is intimately familiar with the systemic problems Kir'Shara has been discussing here, and my goal is to bring a slightly more technical and focused look at them to the table. All of the problems we face are, at the end of the day, going to take the form of individual-scale, daily struggles with energy flow problems, and I want to start conversations about how to meet those with the sorts of resources that will always be available to our communities, namely teamwork, brainpower, and not a little moxie.

In that vein, I want to point everyone to a simple little site that I've been mining for information for days; the "Compendium of Useful Information" is a link database to all sorts of DIY technology for dealing with peak oil and industrial collapse. It's far from comprehensive, and it is vulnerable to broken links (although I haven't found any yet), but the principle is great and represents a good start. My hope is to provide links to these sorts of resources whenever I find them. I urge anyone with the resources to spend the time to identify and PRINT OUT articles that look like they could possibly be useful in the future. The internet is a great vehicle for moving information, but it will not prove to be terribly effective at STORING it, not in the sort of situation we're facing. A few three ring binders stashed in you garage or under your bed may come in very, very handy later when you need to figure out how to reestablish water pressure in your house when the power goes out!