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Earth’s most valuable resource is the space between the sand

Tim Rawling, The Conversation

For centuries, the shallow parts of the earth’s crust have provided us with fuels to burn in our fireplaces, foundries and generators. Now, as we try to break free from our reliance on some of the dirtier fuels such as brown coal, we have begun to develop a number of alternative or cleaner ways to extract energy from the earth.

Many of these new technologies have received a lot of good and bad press. They include energy extraction techniques such as geothermal, unconventional gas, coal seam gas, and coal liquefaction; as well as carbon pollution abatement techniques such as geological carbon storage.

A number of these technologies show considerable promise. They have the potential to provide ongoing energy supplies with reduced CO2 emissions. But the management and development of these opportunities is complicated. This is largely because many of them effectively utilise the same part of the earth’s crust – the space between the grains of sand within porous rocks, known to geologists as the pore-space.

The pore-space has typically been the preserve of the oil and gas industry, as perhaps the most valuable commodity contained within it are high-value natural hydrocarbon accumulations (crude oil and natural gas). As a result we have fantastic geological and geophysical data, gathered at huge expense, which allows us to model those areas that contain oil and gas reserves.

But as we begin to develop these new energy technologies we also need to stop believing that the commodity (the oil, gas, heat, water and coal for example) that we can extract and sell is the resource. Instead, we need to think of the pore-space itself as the resource….

(21 November 2012)

Moments of revelation trigger the biggest transformations

Jo Confino, The Ecologist

All the science in all the world will not have the same impact without that one moment of revelation.

There is constant questioning in sustainability circles about why the very clear data on our parasitic impacts on Mother Earth is not leading to a drastic change in our behaviour.

But if you delve into the triggers for transformation among business leaders, it is often an epiphany rather than greater knowledge that leads to the raising of consciousness as well as concrete action.

Part of the reason for this is that the experience is often so deep that it momentarily knocks the ego out of the way; what shines through is a sense of knowing in which ambivalence has no shelter.

In this place, the relentless drive of short-term profits at the expense of the long-term health of the planet and the wellbeing of humanity shows itself to be hollow at best.

This is in no way to deride the importance of science and knowledge, both of which are absolutely critical in building a foundation for change. But intellectual awareness does not necessarily lead to courageous action….

(20 November 2012)

Beyond Civilized and Primitive

Ran Prieur,

Western industrial society tells a story about itself that goes like this: "A long time ago, our ancestors were ‘primitive’. They lived in caves, were stupid, hit each other with clubs, and had short, stressful lives in which they were constantly on the verge of starving or being eaten by saber-toothed cats. Then we invented ‘civilization’, in which we started growing food, being nice to each other, getting smarter, inventing marvelous technologies, and everywhere replacing chaos with order. It’s getting better all the time and will continue forever."

Western industrial society is now in decline, and in declining societies it’s normal for people to feel that their whole existence is empty and meaningless, that the system is rotten to its roots and should all be torn up and thrown out. It’s also normal for people to frame this rejection in whatever terms their society has given them. So we reason: "This world is hell, this world is civilization, so civilization is hell, so maybe primitive life was heaven. Maybe the whole story is upside-down!"

We examine the dominant story and find that although it contains some truth, it depends on assumptions and distortions and omissions, and it was not designed to reveal truth, but to influence the values and behaviors of the people who heard it. Seeking balance, we create a perfect mirror image:

"A long time ago, our ancestors were ‘primitive’. They were just as smart as we would be if we didn’t watch television, and they lived in cozy hand-made shelters, were generally peaceful and egalitarian, and had long healthy lives in which food was plentiful because they kept their populations well below the carrying capacity of their landbase. Then someone invented ‘civilization’, in which we monopolized the land and grew our population by eating grain. Grain is high in calories but low in other nutrients, so we got sick, and we also began starving when the population outgrew the landbase, so the farmers conquered land from neighboring foragers and enslaved them to cut down more forests and grow more grain, and to build sterile monuments while the elite developed technologies of repression and disconnection and gluttonous consumption, and everywhere life was replaced with control. It’s been getting worse and worse, and soon we will abandon it and live the way we did before."

Again, this story contains truth, but it depends on assumptions and distortions and omissions, and it is designed to influence the values and behaviors of the people who hear it. Certainly it’s extremely compelling. As a guiding ideology, as a utopian vision, primitivism can destroy Marxism or libertarianism because it digs deeper and overthrows their foundations. It defeats the old religions on evidence. And best of all, it presents a utopia that is not in the realm of imagination or metaphysics, but has actually happened. We can look at archaeology and anthropology and history and say: "Here’s a forager-hunter society where people were strong and long-lived. Here’s a tribe where the ‘work’ is so enjoyable that they don’t even have the concept of ‘freeloading’. Here are European explorers writing that certain tribes showed no trace of violence or meanness."

But this strength is also a weakness, because reality cuts both ways. As soon as you say, "We should live like these actual people," every competing ideologue will jump up with examples of those people living dreadfully: "Here’s a tribe with murderous warfare, and one with ritual abuse, and one with chronic disease from malnutrition, and one where people are just mean and unhappy, and here are a bunch of species extinctions right when primitive humans appeared."

Most primitivists accept this evidence, and have worked out several ways to deal with it. One move is to postulate something that has not been observed, but if it were, would make the facts fit your theory. Specifically, they say "The nasty tribes must have all been corrupted by exposure to civilization." Another move is to defend absolutely everything on the grounds of cultural relativism: "Who are we to say it’s wrong to hit another person in the head with an axe?" Another move is to say, "Okay, some of that stuff is bad, but if you add up all the bad and good, primitive life is still preferable to civilization."

This is hardly inspiring, and it still has to be constantly defended, and not from a strong position, because we know very little about prehistoric life. We know what tools people used, and what they ate, but we don’t know how many tribes were peaceful or warlike, how many were permissive or repressive, how many were egalitarian or authoritarian, and we have no idea what was going on in their heads. One of the assumptions I mentioned above, made by both primitivism and the dominant story, is that stone age people were the same as tribal forager-hungers observed in historical times. After all, we call them both "primitive". But in terms of culture, and even consciousness, they might be profoundly different.

A more reasonable move is to abandon primitive life as an ideal, or a goal, and instead just set it up as a perspective: "Hey, if I stand here, I can see that my own world, which I thought was normal, is totally insane!" Or we can set it up as a source of learning: "Look at this one thing these people did, so let’s see if we can do it too." Then it doesn’t matter how many flaws they had. And once we give up the framework that shows a right way and a wrong way, and a clear line between them, we can use perspectives and ideas from people formerly on the "wrong" side: "Ancient Greeks went barefoot everywhere and treated their slaves with more humanity than Wal-Mart treats its workers. Medieval serfs worked fewer hours than modern Americans, and thought it was degrading to work for wages. Slum-dwellers in Mumbai spend less time and effort getting around on foot than Americans spend getting around in cars. The online file sharing community is building a gift economy."…

(15 November 2012)

Why Gridlock Is Good (If You’re a Progressive)

Deepak Chokra, The Ecologist

There is widespread lamentation over the current gridlock in American politics. After a quick shot of elation for Democrats – which I wholeheartedly shared in – Washington went right back to the status quo. Commentators point out that the same players are sitting in the same seats. The chances for tax reform and a solution to immigration may have improved slightly, we are told, but with more than 50 Tea Party members in the House and battle lines drawn everywhere on ideological lines, it doesn’t look so promising for successful negotiations.

I accept all of that, but it seems to me that gridlock is good for the progressive side, and liberals shouldn’t join the general lamentation. Gridlock is the political equivalent of a medically induced coma. Basic life functions continue while a critical disease runs its course. Being in a coma isn’t good for anyone, but when the disease is extreme, sometimes a coma may be the only way to return to health.

In Washington’s case, the disease is right-wing reaction. Its effects have already been dire: drastic economic unfairness, the Iraq war, control of Congress by lobbyists, intractable ideologues infecting the democratic process, and a draconian war on drugs that has filled our prisons in a campaign comparable to what Stalin did in the Gulag (according to Fareed Zakaria, America’s prison population has tripled since 1980, almost totally due to drug convictions, and we now incarcerate people at ten times the rate of other developed countries).

To halt the spread of reactionary policies, gridlock brings a coma-like stasis. But the other part of an induced coma is that Nature takes its course to heal the patient. That is happening, too. The re-election of President Obama held back the worst aspects of the right that Romney pandered to. It allowed four more years for demographics to continue to outnumber the Republican base (the party has already lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections). Less noticed but still good is the rise of a younger generation of Christian fundamentalists who do not share their parents’ rigid Bible belief.

When all these forces finally come to fruition, the state of gridlock should have run its course – say in 20 years, 10 even if we are lucky….

(20 November 2012)