Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Where will we find the batteries?

The nice thing about snow days is the opportunity to binge watch Netflix. This snow day finished watching a Discovery channel series, Mega-Engineering. They discussed building a dome over Houston, drilling a tunnel from Siberia to Alaska, constructing a floating version of New Orleans, and a personal pod system for rapid transit in DC. Terribly ambitious, but fascinating. One can't help but be impressed at the scope and ambition of the projects.

In one episode, there was a blanket statement about the fact that there is nothing that we can't accomplish with the proper use of technology. Of course it makes me wonder about the "could/should" divide. Just because technology makes it possible, should it be done? All of this tech that the engineers discuss is marvelous, but it also requires huge amounts of power to simply keep the system continuing as it is. Of course, my mind goes to the question, what happens when the grid fails? What happens when the US is balkanized into separate districts, when we suffer an ELE, when the Yellowstone Supervolcano blows? At that point, how regular will our power grid be, and how will these power-reliant systems survive?

Another example of stunning technology is in the development of alternate protein sources. The setup is simple: modern industrial agriculture is a drain on resources and creates an incredible burden on the environment. Simply put, it takes too much water and grain to feed cows, and they fart too much. One possible solution? Find alternate sources of protein that satisfy the need (or desire) for meat in modern industrial society. One alternative is a soy-based formula that passes through an extruder:

The result is supposedly a substance that has the same texture as chicken. Haven't tried it, but I honestly have trouble with anything that has been extruded. "Extrusion". Ick. Another idea is to clone meat. Yummy petri-dish meat. That sounds almost worse than extrusion. I will stipulate to the fact that I have no idea how these "meats" taste or if they feel like meat. The concept freaks me out. Along with the general horror at extruded, lab generated meat is the question of what happens after our society has completely bought in to the generated meat idea, and then the power goes out? When we lose our technological abilities and the processes have failed, how will we turn back? Will we know how to raise animals, how to create a sustainable agriculture? I don't buy the Star Trek model that shows the advanced technological society able to pick up on technology from days gone by:

Looking forward to what will be an inevitable collapse (it happened to Rome, it happened to China, it will happen to us), I wonder if the solution doesn't come from increased technology, but a willingness to look back to a time when humans lived sustainably.  In the middle ages, peasants owned their land, and could not be thrown off. They were taxed on the yield, not on the land itself. Along with this were guilds who were committed to preserving the standards of their profession and disciplining their members. Society was conducted at a smaller scale, with more limited desires, rather than seeking the grand (and illusory) ideal of infinite progress and growth. This system was investigated and extolled by such Catholic thinkers as GK Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc. They called it Distributism. The idea is simple: each man owns a parcel of land, which he can rent out, but never sell. He is free to do with his land what he sees fit. If he has no ability to farm, he can rent out his land to a farmer in exchange for rents paid in crops, or cash. In the local community, each person owns their land and sees to its care and proper use. The community is organized around the principle of the good of the community as a whole. It might be cheaper to throw up a factory to carry out piece-work for pennies a day, but it is not the best thing for the community. Each person has a contribution to make and an inherent value. This would require smaller communities than can be found in modern cities, but it could prove to be more sustainable, less reliant on technology, and more humane. 

And it doesn't require batteries...

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Road Goes Ever On and On...

Looking at the calendar reminds you of a number of things, not the least of which is the time you have before you, and the time that you have spent. And in a sense, the aphorism is true...time is money. Or it is like money, in that it can be invested or wasted, or simply spent. Invested, time yields benefits later on. Wasted, it falls into that yawning chasm of "could have, would have, should have" that plagues most of us in the quiet dark hours. Simply spent, and time serves as the canvas of a series of fleeting experiences that, in all honesty, we won't remember.

I vaguely recall, as a teen-ager, that we promised ourselves that we would "never forget" this or that person, or moment, or experience. Now 25 years in the future, and I find myself forgetting the names of fellow students, experiences I was supposed to have had, places I saw. At this point, the only things that seem clearest to me are those memories formed from the most painful experiences. And as much as I would like to flatter myself with the idea that I learned from these experiences, that they helped me grow into the man I am, I find that I only remember the pain, and the shame and embarrassment that go along with it, and I do my best to quickly stifle any more memories.

Looking at the calendar ahead of me, and aware of the time that remains there for me, I am struck by how little it seems now. My oldest will graduate high school this year. My youngest is walking and talking. My wife and I have grey hair and wrinkles and aches and pains. I have to slide my glasses onto the tip of my nose to read anything anymore. The unexpected upside? It mortifies my oldest daughter when I do it in her presence in public. (That is one thing I am glad to have left behind, that hyper sensitivity to the image that is presented to the world around me.) Now the calendar looks smaller, and the days look shorter.

But what to do? Horace coined the over-used and too little understood phrase carpe diem, "seize the  day" (which, by the way, is part of a poem dedicated to convincing a girl to sleep with him, because we never know if we will see tomorrow. You think Andrew Marvell is the first guy to use poetry to get girls to give it up?). Seizing the day, day in and day out, can be wearying. In Horace's case, he wrote more often about enjoying wine and poetry than he did about scamming girls. He observed daily life and wrote about it, and didn't seem to spend his time set on "carpe diem" mode.

That is if we think that carpe diem is to be understood as going out and doing big things. Enjoying a sunset. Taking a run. Reading a book with a glass of pinot next to you. Deriving pleasure from pleasurable things, can that be what it is to follow the dictum carpe diem?

Of course, if we return to the idea of "investing" time, there does seem to be little profit found in these small moments. While I often had ambitions of greatness when I was younger, reality slapped me in the face pretty quick, to the point that I would like to be up to the task of daily life. But I would like to look at my year and think that I had made judicious use of the time at hand. "I have wasted time, now time doth waste me", says Richard II through William Shakespeare. The idea of investing time is, to me, the idea that I will emerge better, wiser perhaps, with something to show for my efforts.

 So I look at the calendar at the start of the year, and I wonder, where will it all end up, when we come to another December 31st? Will it be a wasted year? Will it be a year "well-spent"? As I make my plans, I look forward to a year where I might emerge more confident and on a firmer footing, where I can believe truly that I did all that I could, and fulfilled God's will for me. I don't think there is much more that we can hope for.