On companionship

The toil of our Sisyphean condition, the endless struggle to understand our meaning in life and place in the universe, is made tolerable only by the fact that we have each other. It is in being together that I find my sense of meaning, and so it is for companionship, interaction, community, and perhaps most importantly, love, that I create my purpose in living; love for the utter connectivity of the universe, for the Earth, for other animals, for humanity, and for particular special people. This pervasive love abounds with the epiphany of our ultimate oneness with existence. The point of my philosophy is to forget distinction, for upon creating distinction one separates the ideal of self from the flow of things, and in this separation we are vulnerable to losing our sense of natural meaning in life that comes from being but one aspect of a single greater whole. In being together, in loving, we are more able to appreciate the process of rolling Sisyphus’ boulder up the mountain. Together, in companionship, life is worth living. Of course there are other purposes that make life worth living, but love is a good place to start.

JM Kincaid

University of Florida’s record-setting graphene solar cells

While Sagoway is working on solar power’s storage problem at MIT, physicists in Gainsville, Florida, are working to improve the efficiency of graphene solar cells. Recently they were able to get 8.6% efficiency in converting light energy to electricity, a new record up from 2.9% with this particular technology. Below is a link to the University of Florida’s news bulletin that got me looking into this. Cheers!

Graphene solar cells

JM Kincaid

Sadoway’s liquid metal battery

The Sun’s energy contribution to the Earth is more than enough than what would be necessary to power the modern world. But there are two technological hurdles to solar society. On one hand, solar panels need to be more efficient. On the other, solar energy is intermittent and human demand is not, which means that we need good batteries to store solar power when its available. But so far, our batteries aren’t so good.

Donald Sadoway and a group at MIT are currently working to fix the latter problem with liquid metal battery technology. Sadoway’s presentation is so impressive I couldn’t not share it. Can his team find the missing link to alternative energy?

JM Kincaid

New progress

The “classical” idea of progress is that human beings should pursue the continuous linear improvement of the human condition through advances in science, technology, and social organization. Progress, as such, is an arbitrary normative teleological judgment – we judge that the purpose of human life is to progress and that its pursuit amounts to a moral imperative.  The social and political prioritization of this pursuit, I have argued in the problems of society – part two, has culminated in “the paradox of progress,” which manifests today as our ecological crisis. The paradox is made in the fact that, through ecological disruption, human progress undermines its enabling conditions.  One could also think of this as a negative feedback cycle.

Negative feedback cycles are generally desirable in complex systems because they are self-regulating. James Lovelock and Andrew Watson’s Daisyworld provides a beautiful example of negative feedback and its homeostatic propensity. In terms of human progress, however, negative feedback ultimately means a regression in our standard of living, which, I assume, most people do not find desirable. But because the paradox of progress is beginning to become obvious in the forms of global climate change, ocean acidification, extreme weather events, hypoxic zones of oceanic proportions, unprecedented biodiversity loss, and global sea-level rise, all of which constitute serious degradations to the natural conditions upon which our economies, our standards of living, and the very habitability of the planet depend, we must quell any absolute aversion to changes in what we believe “progress” to mean.

In response to the ecological crisis of the paradox of progress, the classical version of the idea of progress is undergoing an evolution of sorts. As we approach the cusp of the paradox, norms about progress are adapting. The new take on progress is but a slight change from the classical version. “New progress” is the idea that humans should pursue the sustainable improvement of the human condition through advances in science, technology, and social organization.

The difference is between the pursuit of continuous linear improvement and sustainable improvement. The latter is a far less rapacious pursuit, and because the idea of sustainability is fundamentally concerned with enabling the continued fulfillment of our objective biological needs, a non-arbitrary purpose, new progress, while still normative and teleological, is not an arbitrary judgment, unlike classical progress.

Today we witness the development of a new idea of progress. Since the United Nation’s issuance of the Brundtland Report in 1987, human institutions the world-over have begun to adopt ideals of new over classical progress. Social norms about progress are starting to become intertwined with norms about sustainability; sustainability is, after all, a very natural evolution when faced with the prospect of regress or, in the most radical scenarios, collapse. The capacity of the sustainability movement to overcome the paradox of progress remains to be fully proven, yet an undeniable sense of optimism blooms from projects like those of the United Nations Environmental Programme, 350.org, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, and the Clinton Foundation.

Integral to the success of the sustainability movement will be a shift in global paradigm from anthropocentricism to ecocentricism, for the human-centered worldview is at the heart of our ecological crisis. We can no longer take for granted the capacity of Earth systems to abate our overwhelming pollution as if that were their purpose, nor can we continue believing human beings to be the most important and most significant aspect of the natural world. We must cultivate a sense of love, humility, and connectedness with the Earth and Sun, for they are, in many ways, life itself, and it is in both our rational self-interest and the collective ecological interest that we appreciate and protect the life-enabling natural conditions that together we enjoy and depend upon.

To do this, each of us must learn to be content, to find happiness in the very fact of our existence – a sentiment I’ve seen expressed by Lao-tze, Chuang-tze, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Shunryu Suzuki. We should try to satisfy our deepest existential longings through simplicity, companionship, love, music, sex, creation, and reflecting on the utter connectivity of everything from microbes to the universe and the constantly astounding reality that we happen to be the kind of animals that can consciously ponder our own existence. Of course, there is some room for material luxury in this picture, and there is an undeniably compelling case to be made for the nobility of human power and accomplishment. Even if I thought it were possible, I would not encourage doing away with the pursuit of progress altogether. To temper action with wisdom and proceed with the ecosphere in mind is good enough.

JM Kincaid

The ecological absurd

When Albert Camus faces one of the most pressing and controversial questions of philosophy, the point of living, his aversion to contradiction drives him from being indifferent to suicide. He juxtaposes human beings and the world in an effort to explain the pursuit of the meaning of life. For Camus, we confront existence and demand of it our meaning, our significance in living. But this, he says, is absurd, for despite our repeated questioning, the world answers only with indifference to our existential struggle. Endlessly we pursue an understanding of the meaning of life, yet find no ultimate answer. And upon seeing the absurdity of our condition, the Sisyphean nature of human existence, Camus concedes that some people might resign themselves to suicide. And so he creates an argument to assuage those distraught with nihilism.

The absurd condition is within the human, not out in the world, he says. And so to commit suicide (or to kill someone else) in reaction to the absurdity is to remove the absurd condition in a simultaneous affirmation and denial of its existence. With the exception of the Rebel, the simultaneous affirmation and denial of our condition is a contradiction, and avoiding contradiction is reason enough to perpetuate the absurd condition, rather than eliminate it. Further, we can find joy in being like Sisyphus through the ethic of quantity, Don Juanism, where we find happiness in life by choosing to eternally roll the boulder up the mountain. We can learn to enjoy the process of experiencing the absurdity over and over again.

In judging human beings to be something fundamentally distinct from the natural world, we create a juxtaposition similar to the one Camus uses to begin his explanation of the absurd condition. Since the European Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of modern science, we tend to be especially confident in our sense of superiority over nature. We feel that humans are over and above the rest of the ecosphere. And so we go about our business, consuming the natural world to an unprecedented extent to serve the purpose of progress.

In doing this, we deny our connection to the ecosphere by acting in such a way that undermines the life-enabling conditions of the planet. Yet we simultaneously affirm our ultimate unity with nature by demonstrating our dependence on its resources – an ecologically absurd condition. Thus we arrive at a contradiction similar to Camus’; our current behavior is a simultaneous affirmation and denial of our utter connectivity to the Earth, and we should strive to avoid contradiction. We should be sure that our pursuit of progress, of meaning, does not undermine the very environmental premises of our existence. Should progress be seen as Sisyphus’ boulder, the pursuit cannot be undertaken at the expense of the mountain. Our pursuit, by the ultimate oneness of human beings and nature, is inevitably bound up in the fate of the ecosphere. So too should be our sense of meaning in life. Is this not just cause for a revision of the classical idea of progress?

JM Kincaid

Progress, simplicity, and contentment

Progress, “classically” understood, means improving the human condition through advances in science, technology, and social organization. But what, then, should we do if our progress prevents us from progressing? What if progress begins to undermine the very resources that enable it? The solution is to limit progress. But, if limiting progress improves our situation, then, strictly speaking, it would be progress to slow our progress. It would also be progress to improve our technological efficiency, but this merely perpetuates the notion that infinite improvements in material wealth can come from a finite pool of resources, not to mention the rebound effect of efficiency improvements on consumption explained by Jevons’ Paradox. We must remember that the Earth is finite. It replenishes itself, but we have exceeded a sustainable rate of consumption. Our progress stands to preclude our future progress, and so it must proceed within limits. In order to progress, we must limit progress.

This is only disturbing if one judges progress by continuous improvements in material luxury. I challenge we humans of the “developed” world to be content with materially simpler lives. We must reduce our consumption. Where political corruption and incompetence in the United States prevents any real governmental movement toward ecocentricism, we as consumers must simply consume less. Progress is often understood as entailing more consumption, but today we must do the opposite to progress. It would be progress to move toward primitivism, or, less radically so, simplicity. But to see it this way would require a dramatic shift in values.

JM Kincaid

If Occam were an environmentalist…

We’ve all heard Occam’s old adage that the simplest explanation is probably best. Well, extrapolate that logic to problem solving, and you get something like the simplest solution is probably best. In January 2012, we graduate students at Bard CEP explored an easy and promising new treatment for a variety of environmental woes. In a hyphenated word: Bio-char.

Short for “biological charcoal,” bio-char can be added to soil to improve crop productivity, reduce expensive, eutrophication-causing fertilizer run-off, mitigate the effects of flooding or drought, and serve as a climate stabilization wedge by sequestering carbon that would otherwise find its way up to the atmosphere. Together, these benefits make bio-char an incredibly simple way to help mitigate several of humanity’s looming environmental concerns. Yet as of now it is relatively unknown and almost completely unregulated.

Bio-char is a carbon-rich material made by burning plant matter in a low oxygen environment, a process called pyrolysis. “Pyrolysis” may sound high-tech, but in reality everyone could do this at home with two, preferably clean, 1-gallon paint cans and an empty economy-size can of tomatoes. I won’t explain exactly how all that’s done here, but look up Hugh McLaughlin (Alterna Biocarbon’s bio-char guru) and the 1-G Toucan TLUD (Top-lit Updraft) pyrolysis unit if you’re interested.

The product is a dark, crumbly substance that looks like the end of a campfire. Crush it up, charge it with nutrients using compost or fertilizer, and mix it into the dirt. You will have officially improved the quality of your soil and sequestered carbon for thousands of years to come. We know this because ancient Amazonians did something similar to maintain their agriculture with what’s called terra preta, and the carbon they put in the ground is still there.

Now, when I say bio-char is good for agriculture, I mean it in two ways. The absorbent properties of bio-char can help farms save money on fertilizer and irrigation, while simultaneously producing bigger yields of larger crops. My colleagues and I recently paid a visit to the Small Farms Institute in Massachusetts where they’re doing some practical experimentation – they were pretty excited about some organic tomatoes they’d grown. Because of bio-char’s active molecular structure, it grabs onto nutrients and moisture and, like a battery, saves them for plants for when they really need it. This means that less water and fertilizer escape as run-off, saving farmers money and water from pollution (non-point source pollution, which the Clean Water Act has trouble controlling anyway).

So bio-char would be good for drought stricken, nutrient deficient regions like the southwest United States today because it keeps moisture in the ground. And, the same molecular structure that can absorb water and nutrients is very porous, which can make flood-prone areas drain faster, while simultaneously providing homes for nitrogen fixing microbes that help make soil fertile. These same principles could be applied to make people’s yards and gardens more water efficient, saving money on home watering costs.

Bio-char could also be of great value as carbon emissions offsets should the United States create a national carbon market and the bio-char community create a protocol for crediting offsets. In the same way it could be a powerful source of carbon offsets for states participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the first voluntary market-based regulatory greenhouse gas emissions reduction program in the US. In the meantime, any businesses looking to reduce their carbon footprint and improve their public image could use bio-char for sequestration projects. Not to mention the fact that making bio-char from renewable organic waste streams like down tree limbs and yard trimmings means less space taken up in landfills, and fewer greenhouse gases getting to the atmosphere via decomposition.

Bio-char presents an opportunity to do something simple, cheap, and effective. It could be Occam’s environmental panacea. Of course, anything taken to an extreme can yield unintended consequences, but bio-char is fairly straightforward, and if used in moderation could be very worthwhile. Let’s get it together humans.

JM Kincaid