Saturday, October 13, 2018

How many cats to catch 100 rats? Not what you think.

Anthony Doerr's World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See poses the following question in the notebook of Werner Pfennig, a mathematically gifted German boy. Take a couple of minutes to answer the riddle, then expand to read my take.

If five cats catch five rats in five minutes, how many cats are required to catch 100 rats in 100 minutes?

My intuition initially jumped to an answer of "one hundred cats." It feels like a simple scaling: 5 x 5 x 5 to 100 x 100 x 100.

My next instinct was that the answer couldn't be that easy, or there'd be no reason to pose the question. So I applied logical analysis and mathematics to yield an answer of "five cats." Most answers to similar questions on internet sites take the same approach.

However, this conjecture is only accurate if the cats are killing machines, malevolent cousins of the Energizer Bunny, methodically catching rat after rat until their batteries run down. But real cats are individuals with motivations and needs and desires.

So, why do these hypothetical cats want to catch rats?

Cats often stalk and play with mice for practice or for fun, but rats are significantly larger than mice, relatively dangerous prey armed with sharp teeth and claws. Cats usually only take risks with rats in hopes of a substantial meal. In my experience with a sample size of one rat hunter (hi Pookie!), a hungry cat can eat an entire rat in one sitting, then might catch a second rat in the same night, to partially eat or stash for later. I'd guess it rare for a cat to risk catching more than two rats in one hundred minutes.

If five cats catch five rats in five minutes, how many cats with wills of their own are required to catch 100 rats in 100 minutes?

Taking into account what I think I know about cats and their motivations, my answer is "about seventy or eighty cats."

* * *

Our culture turns everyone into numbers, manipulated as variables in equations to maximize profit. Trees older than any human, soaring skyward and spreading a vast canopy sheltering countless individuals of hundreds of species, become board feet. Hens, evolved to scratch and eat seeds and insects while gossiping and squabbling and teaching their chicks to forage, become "layers," their worth measured in eggs deposited from battery cages.

Humans evolved to be nurtured by and in turn contribute back to an intimate community. Human communities evolved to be nurtured by and in turn contribute back to their land bases. In such environments, people fully express their personalities, develop their interests and strengths, and build lives of purpose and responsibility and meaning. In contrast, our culture reduces us to taxpayer IDs, statistics and quotas, interchangeable employees of global systems of extraction and exploitation.

In Nazi Germany, the Jewish men, women, and children in cattle cars were the quintessential abstraction of living beings into numbers, forcibly computed into a final solution. In Doerr's book, even Aryan Germans are valued not as individuals, but because "what the f├╝hrer really requires is boys. Great rows of them walking to the conveyor belt" as war fodder, "this final harvest of the nation's youth rushing out in a last spasm of futility."

Werner Pfennig, trapped within the Nazi war machine, is repeatedly told "It's only numbers, cadet. Pure math. You have to accustom yourself to thinking that way." But as the story unfolds, abstract numbers wielded in the real world impact real people in devastating, even deadly ways.

Our minds are evolved to form and maintain relationships with a few thousand humans and nonhumans, lifelong family and friends and acquaintances. We can only conceive in abstractions of the 7.6 billion humans and trillions of nonhumans with whom we share the earth. We can't possibly feel the reality of 40.3 million human slaves, 6 million annual deaths from fossil fuel pollution and climate change, 2.4 million children dead from malnutrition, half an acre of natural forest lost every second. In a world globally linked by technology, abstractions are often necessary to grapple with the ethical choices of our time.

But we must never forget that there are lives behind the abstractions. It's not only numbers.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Book review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

So states one of the nine protagonists of a story good enough to change minds, and perhaps the world as a result. The Overstory weaves the growing science and philosophy of biocentrism with traditional myth and with emerging legends of our digital creations, all illuminated and explored by multiple human narratives. The result offers us a desperately needed alternative path into the future, characterized by relationship rather than exploitation; satisfaction of actual needs rather than endless pursuit of ceaselessly manufactured wants.

Other reviewers (such as Barbara Kingsolver) have extolled the book’s literary merit. As expected from an author with a decades-long string of major awards, Powers’ writing is excellent and engrossing. The story builds slowly as Powers grows its roots one person at a time. The mini-biographies are engaging in and of themselves, but the real payoff comes once they intertwine. It’s difficult for us short-lived humans to understand a time perspective an order of magnitude larger than our own, but the patient arc encompassing multiple generations nudges the reader towards thinking on the scale of forests.

The rise to dominance of our culture has taken place within the lifetime of some trees, the merest blip in planetary history. Our fall will likely occur even faster, as our collective unwillingness to live in relationship with the rest of the world’s inhabitants will doom not only industrialism but hundreds of thousands of species to ruin, leaving the world impoverished for millions of years. Powers sees the insanity of our course clearly. He writes with passion, despair, and anger commensurate to the crisis (albeit leavened by awe for the wonders here now, the possibility of protecting them if we act, and solace in life’s eventual long long long term recovery.)

In many ways this is the antitheses of T.C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth. Both books revolve around the practical and moral questions of how to respond appropriately to environmental atrocity after atrocity, with one answer being ecosabotage for planetary self defense. But while Boyle’s book is nihilistic, with unconvincing characters motivated by often petty anthropocentric goals, Powers writes eight realistic journeys of people who come to respect, even love, trees. All make sacrifices for their nonhuman kin, some even risking freedom and their very lives. Several are fully biocentric, recognizing trees as intelligent, communal beings and rejecting the notion of human exceptionalism.

Powers sympathetically portrays the decisions to take underground action, making it easy to understand why the activists in his novel, like those in real life, escalate to illegal tactics. With the system designed to coopt or disempower dissidence, and well practiced at circumventing democratic processes and brutally suppressing protest, anyone wanting to make substantive change is forced outside the box of accepted and expected tactics. Unfortunately, as in A Friend of the Earth, the novel’s ecosabotage is ineffective because it’s limited to a strategy of attrition and doesn’t target critical infrastructure. The eco-fiction genre still needs a story of strategic activists instigating cascading failure by shutting down fossil fuels.

The pursuits of Powers’ protagonists include not just blockades and ecosabotage, but scientific research, art, land restoration, psychology, and harnessing artificial intelligence. Within this diverse tapestry, anyone can find strands which resonate and beckon, inviting the reader to join in the real life struggle with whatever skills and interests he or she can bring. The true measure of The Overstory will not be whether it makes best seller lists or wins critical acclaim and literary awards, but whether it motivates readers to action:

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people. But Ray needs fiction now as much as anyone. The heroes, villains, and walk-ons his wife gives him this morning are better than truth. Though I am fake, they say, and nothing I do makes the least difference, still, I cross all distances to sit next to you, keep you company, and change your mind.

Perhaps it’s true that even the best arguments won’t change minds. If so, then what we all, human and non-human, need right now is fiction which can. The Overstory may be just that.


Read a long, thoughtful and deep interview with Richard Powers: Here’s to Unsuicide


Review originally published at Stop Fossil Fuels

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Book review: A Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle

T.C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth could be a fun read for tree huggers and tree spikers alike. In a narrative split between the climate battered world of 2025 and life as a circa 1990 ecosaboteur, environmental doom meets righteously taking on the system. Supporters of Deep Green Resistance, Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front, or Stop Fossil Fuels are reminded of the climate chaos and mass extinction we’re fighting to head off, and can vicariously (and safely) enjoy the thrill of underground, illegal tactics against a system immune to transformation from within.

The Annoying

The book falls short of its potential, reflecting real life limitations of early (and all too much contemporary) monkeywrencher culture: misogyny and an absence of strategy. This is understandable, since the book was published in 2000 before activist rape culture and toxic male behavior was being called out, and before serious analysis of how to bring down the industrial economy was readily available. If the reader can accept these historic limitations, she can probably still enjoy the book for what it is.

To get past those shortcomings, let’s discuss the negatives first. The protagonist, Ty Tierwater, is 40 and 75 years old in the two narrative time frames. At both ages, he heavily objectifies women, as do most of the other male characters, and he’s obsessed with sex. Maybe this is meant to be cute in a 75 year old man, but is in fact offensive, boring, and distracting in both time periods. Ty mentions many (many) times the large size of his wife Andrea’s breasts (and, oddly, her hands), but at least her personality is also fleshed out in some depth. None of the supporting characters are fully convincing as real people, but Andrea comes as close as anyone. Their daughter is less well developed, but adequately so, and at least she’s subject to less sexual objectification than most of the female characters.

At ages 40 and 75, Ty has the emotional maturity of someone half his ageimpulsive, reckless, alcoholic, bickering, self pitying, jealous, easily distracted by petty revengea case study of someone you don’t want in your underground affinity group. Presumably he’s meant to be an antihero, but his unnecessary misogyny on top of all this moves him to the very margins of being a sympathetic character. (Or perhaps beyond the margins; it’s easy for me as a male to find his woman-hating to be merely annoying, but others may, understandably, give up on the book entirely.)

A Friend of the Earth also suffers from rampant nihilism. The opening torrential rains which will, we’re told, inevitably give way to punishing heat and drought, warn us from the start that the activists’ 1990 efforts to save the world are doomed. Given their absence of strategy, their failure makes sense, but Ty and the book as a whole relish hopelessness, martyrdom, and juvenile lashing out, rather than an adult approach to solving an (admittedly massive) problem. Even Ty’s motivation to protect the earth is more of a passionless “just cause” than the love of someone in relationship with his non-human community members. The book repeatedly depicts humans losing against nature when they stray from the role of subjugator, further undermining the gravity of Ty’s work.

Resignation to failure is understandably common for activists burned out by a failing strategy, but Boyle could choose a different emotional theme. The book hints early on at renewed struggle by the older-yet-wiser activists in the 2025 time frame, with Andrea declaring “Earth Forever! is going to fly again, in a big way.” But Boyle abandons this plot point, instead allowing the book to wallow in despair amidst a broken world. This may realistically depict many one-time activists, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying story. More damningly, it demoralizes rather than inspires readers, including potential activists needed to derail the future Boyle clearly recognizes as a real danger. With the world at stake, using his authorial gifts so perversely is irresponsible.

The Good

The plot moves forward quickly and keeps the reader engrossed. Ty’s irascible narration, though at times over-the-top, generally convincingly portrays a flawed man doing his best to protect the animals he (at least abstractly) loves.

The book excels in its realistic, if unflattering, baring of the failures of the environmental movement. An early nonviolent direct action illustrates the futility of such tactics in the absence of media coverage. The physical danger to the blockaders, unprotected in the absence of witnesses against the sadism of agents of the state, is frighteningly accurate. In the aftermath, Ty and his comrades ratchet up their struggle with tactics straight out of Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching. (This escalation is appropriate for the environmental movement as a whole, but since Ty and his fellow arrestees are known to the state as aboveground environmentalists, taking up underground action seriously violates the firewall between above- and belowground actionistsa security error all too common among real life activists, even today.)

Ty has some success with his monkeywrenching campaign, wreaking havoc on many earth destroying machines. But as with most real life underground actors in the past decades, he chooses minor targets. Local battles are temporarily won, but the industrial economy at large is allowed to proceed unhindered, and the larger war is therefore lost. Ty exemplifies Lierre Keith’s critique of acting like a vandal rather than thinking like a field general, and the real life experience of busted ecosaboteur Michael Carter around 1990: “We had some vague ideas about tactics but no manual, no concrete theory. […] We had little strategy and the actions were impetuous. If we’d been robbing banks instead, we’d have been shot in the act.” (Carter’s full interview is a fascinating reflection on ecosabotage gone wrong.)

Ty and his comrades belong to Earth Forever!, a conflation (understandable as a simplifying literary device) of Earth First! and Big Green NGOs. Boyle captures well the tension between directly stopping destruction of the land through small scale illegal action, vs garnering donations and political clout by working within the system. (It’s easy to be cynical now about the latter approach, but in 1990 it probably wasn’t as obvious that obediently begging for the scraps of reform dispensed to the well behaved gives no hope of changing the system’s trajectory.)

Since, as in real life, neither Ty nor Earth Forever! act to materially challenge the industrial economy, it falls to an eccentric 2025 pop star, with Ty’s employed help, to play God in deciding which species live or die. As the biblical rains fall and the floodwaters rise, the reader wonders whether they’ll succeed with those animals deemed worthyor perhaps stops caring, with a shrug of “too little too late.”

The Verdict

If you can get past the misogyny, A Friend of the Earth is worth the read. Just be aware that unless your thing is doomer collapsism, you won’t find satisfaction and fulfillment here. A great tale could be spun of ecosaboteurs who bring down the electric grid, halting industrial destruction and proving themselves true friends of the earth. Until then, enjoy T.C. Boyle’s work for what it is.


Originally posted at Stop Fossil Fuels

Friday, June 08, 2018

Reefs At Risk

A good friend of mine and her mom have produced a short video about the impacts of sunscreens on our oceans, especially on coral reefs. The governor of Hawai'i will soon sign pioneering legislation to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate, chemicals especially dangerous to the health of humans and oceans. If you buy sunscreen outside of Hawai'i, and even within the state since the ban doesn't take effect until 2021, please take the time to understand the ingredients. Switch to a product safer to reefs if your sunscreen is harmful, and let the manufacturers know why you're making the change.

View the video by Malina Fagan and Lynn Pelletier below, download their reef safe sunscreen guide (PDF), or learn more from their Reefs At Risk website. Please share these resources with anyone concerned about our oceans!

Monday, June 04, 2018

Crop summary: Air potato, Dioscorea bulbifera

Eric Toensmeier's Perennial Vegetables first introduced me to this easy staple carbohydrate. Although it's only truly perennial in the subtropics or warmer, I brought a few back to Portland from my first Hawai'i visit. I hoped to cultivate it similarly to a dahlia, overwintering propagules in a non-freezing space to be planted in spring, and yielding crop and more planting stock before the killing frosts. Alas, my precious babies rotted away in our pseudo root cellar before I ever got to plant them, so I didn't get to really make their acquaintance until I moved to Hawai'i.

As the name hints, air potato vines form large (up to triple-fist sized) balls of starch in the air, so no soil disturbance is necessary for harvest. Fortunately, you needn't stare worriedly at the vigorous vine engulfing its 30' living trellis tree, wondering how you'll get to the crop. After the deciduous plant dies back in the fall, the ripe tubers fall to the ground (from November through February here in Puna.) You should ensure that the ground under the vine is reasonably clear of vegetation, or can be hacked down before the tubers start falling, so you can find them with reasonable ease. Once you have them, use them in any way you would potatoes. Peeling is optional.

One year yield
A yam relative, Dioscorea bulbifera is very low maintenance; I pretty much just plant them under or near a tree I don't mind having covered by the vine, weed them once or twice or maybe thrice, and pee on them now and then. The yield can be excellent. Last April (or May?), I planted three moderately sized tubers, roughly the size of the three at far right in the photo. The harvest from those three plants is collected on the table (not counting any I failed to find; I didn't follow my advice above about having clear ground for easy harvest!) So in their first year, the plantings gave back roughly thirteen-fold, and hopefully now that the perennial roots have established, they'll yield even more this year.

Stored air potatoes beginning to sprout
Planting is from any of the tubers you harvested in the previous months; the larger the propagule, the more vigorously the vine takes off. I've found that the harvested aerial tubers sprout as much as two months earlier in storage than the roots remaining in the ground.

Toensmeir writes that you can cut a tuber into smaller pieces to plant out individually, so I cut three large tubers in half to double my planting stock. While the halves which got the existing sprouts continued to grow quickly, it took the other halves 6-8 weeks to develop new sprouts, so it may be best to perform this surgery well in advance of spring.

You could also make the cuts to eat most of the tuber while planting just the portion with the sprout.

A land owner where I lived has seen pigs eating both aerial and belowground tubers, but nonetheless, many plants survive from year to year. If pigs are a threat on your land, keep an eye out. Be prepared to gather fallen tubers frequently during harvest season, or to harvest them before they fall.

Hawaiians introduced both a bitter form of air potato, and Dioscorea pentaphylla. Both grow wild but are only eaten as famine food.

If you're curious for more, check out Spencer's air potato write up at Tropical Self Sufficiency.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Permaculture: Revolution or Lfestylsm?

Covering two of my three blog themes—permaculture and resistance—Boris Forkel writes a piece I wanted to republish here:

Capitalism reaches fulfillment when it sells communism as a commodity. Communism as a commodity spells the end of revolution.

—Byung-Chul Han

I’m a permaculturalist. And I became a permie in the first place because I wanted to break free from this culture.

To me, permaculture was and still is highly political. “Permaculture is revolution disguised as gardening” is one of my favorite Bill Mollison quotes.

After all, what freedom can we have without subsistence, without having control over our most basic resources, our own food? “There is no sovereignty without food sovereignty,” said Native American activist John Mohawk.

I’ve been so ardent and naive. I thought that the permaculture-approach is so ingenious that it would become a mass-movement, indeed a quiet and peaceful revolution. It would free us from being dependent on the digital food they sell us in grocery stores nowadays, and from the wage economy at the same time, because we would build small, local food cooperatives that would all be sharing the surplus.

Unfortunately, time and experience shows that it’s not that easy.

One of my permaculture teachers, who taught me the concept of the food forest, often said: “I don’t understand what’s the problem for all these critical people. Nowadays, we have all the freedoms we want.” He also articulated a very strange notion about the future: “Once we have reached the number of 10 billion, human population growth will come to a halt. Thanks to Internet technology, humans will then all be connected and serve as the consciousness of planet earth.” Attendants hung on his lips when he said that, and while everybody else was amazed by this perspective of a golden future, I sat quietly, stunned.

I knew in my heart that he was wrong, but couldn’t articulate a sufficient answer to his statements back then.

It made me angry. How can one say that “we have all the freedoms we want,” while the air we need to breathe is being polluted, the greatest mass extinction in planetary history is happening, the climate is being destroyed, the oceans are vacuumed and filled with toxic garbage? In short: when the most basic functions of our planet to support life are being destroyed?

What about the freedom of having breathable air? What about the freedom of having a livable planet? What about the freedom of having a future?

I’ve given a lot of thought to his statements ever since, because they seem so appealing to many people. The Earth never supported more than 2 billion humans until Fritz Haber and Robert Bosch indeed broke the planetary boundaries with the invention of the Haber-Bosch process. Nowadays, we are hopelessly overpopulated. So the number of 10 billion is purely random and nothing but magical thinking. The notion of Internet technology and humans as the consciousness of the planet is nothing more than a new fashion of the good old ideology of humans as the crown of creation. What about nature in this fantasy? With 10 billion (industrial) humans, there will hardly be anything left.

Everybody with a sane mind and a little understanding—especially a permie—should know that the trees, the fungi, the soil, the air, the water, the animals and so on, in short what we call nature, indeed is the consciousness of planet earth. Apparently, the manifest destiny of the technocrats is to eradicate what they perceive as primitive, raw, red in tooth and claw, wild and uncontrollable, and to replace nature with a “better” system of human technology.

Deconstructing that was the easy part. The hard part is his statement about freedom. With all this in mind, the primary question is: what does freedom mean for someone like him?

A friend of mine, who was lucky enough to hear Noam Chomsky speak live, told me that in the discussion after somebody asked the usual question: “What can we do about it?” Chomsky responded that he thinks this is a strange question. People from so-called developing countries would never ask such a question, only westerners, he stated. Apparently, third-world-people still have a clearer sense for suppression and cultures of resistance. “We should rather ask what we can’t do,” Chomsky said.

When I attended a talk by Rainer Mausfeld, of course someone asked the very same question. Mausfeld stated that this question shows how well the soft power techniques he’d been describing work. We can’t even imagine any form of resistance.

For more than a century, the political left’s analysis has been very clear: The suppression and exploitation of the poor (working class) by the rich (owning class), that is the very basis of capitalism, can only be solved by organized class struggle to come from the working class. This concept isn’t hard to understand. It is classic Marxism. But somehow, the ruling class has managed to completely eradicate it from the proletarian minds.

I’ve come across a lot more of what I like to call liberal lifestyle-activists. I understood that most permies chose permaculture not because they want a revolution (like I did), but because they want a more sustainable lifestyle for themselves. They believe that they are free, because they perceive their individualism and their freedom of choice as the greatest freedom, the greatest achievement of modernity. Being part of any group, class or movement is perceived as regressive. The notion of class struggle is so yesterday.

At the same time, they’re usually educated people, and they know that a lot of things are going badly wrong. But as liberals who are taking power out of the equation, and individualists lacking any concept of social group our class, they must take it all on themselves. “It is all of us who are causing the destruction,” they’d say.

As a result, the only thinkable form of political action are personal consumer choices. Buy organic soap and feel better.

A great example of this are vegans. No doubt that factory farming is horrible and has to stop. But as a lifestyle-activist, all you can do about it is to stop consuming meat. In your worldview, the problem can only be solved by everybody stopping eating meat.

For liberal lifestyle-activists, “having all the freedoms we want” can only mean the freedom to consume (or not consume) whatever we want, whenever we want, in any quality and quantity we want. This is the kind of “freedom” with which capitalism has hijacked us. If we can afford it, of course. But within neoliberal capitalist ideology, there is no such thing as a suppressed class. The poor are poor because they don’t work hard enough, or they are simply to stupid to sell themselves well enough.

“Neoliberalism turns the oppressed worker into a free contractor, an entrepreneur of the self. Today, everyone is a self-exploiting worker in their own enterprise. Every individual is master and slave in one. This also means that class struggle has become an internal struggle with oneself. Today, anyone who fails to succeed blames themselves and feels ashamed. People see themselves, not society, as the problem.”

Byung-Chul Han

For radicals, the question remains: Without the possibility of mass movements, how do we stop the destruction of the planet that is our only home?

For a new generation of serious activists who are tired of all that shit and ready to take action, DGR has the Decisive Ecological Warfare strategy.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Blog to know: Tropical Self Sufficiency

A Puna, Hawai'i resident named Spencer has been experimenting for a couple of years with perennials in the tropics, and he's written up some excellent experience based species profiles. You'll find many of the species explored by Toensmeier's Perennial Vegetables, one of Spencer's inspirations. Some species are purely tropical, but many are familiar friends (or could become such!) of temperate permaculturists as well.

The site is loaded with information on propagation, growth, harvest, and use of perennials, in a combination of collated research and original discoveries. Multiple photos accompany each entry, usually including shots of the plants living in polycultures, with the surrounding species conveniently named as well. As the site title indicates, there's an emphasis on staple crops.

All in all, my kind of info-dense resource! Check out Spencer's site at Tropical Self Sufficiency.