Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Hammer looking for a Nail

A local man and friend wants to bring “Gardening for Decades” to the schools along with a mock up of a solar home with panels of various kinds.  He works for a local organization that has as an auxiliary a manufacturer of solar hot air panels and an installer of solar electric panels.  The main man funding all this made big money with an invention.  He is now working on fusion. 

I told my friend whom I have known for many years that I was afraid he was creating false hopes among the young.

Thanks for your honesty and concern.  "Gardening for decades" I feel has value.  The reality is that very few small and medium farms are making a profit, let alone a living wage, yet many continue to try. False hope is definitely not what we are looking to create, but your knowledge of whole systems could be very valuable, I believe.

Maybe we can get together and discuss.

My Answer

I have several essays that I would suggest you read since I have covered some of this material already. (see end of this message)   I don’t believe it will make any difference.  There are those who believe technology will “save us”.  To me they are simply “business as usual” proponents who do not look at the whole system of energy and other resources necessary for the “saving”. 

This is the tale of the technologist/cornucopian.  

  “.   .   .   Abraham Kaplan’s.  .  . : "I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding."  .  .   .  also been called the law of the hammer, attributed both to Maslow and to Kaplan.”
I heard it, when you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

In the 70s, I was at a debate where Dean Abrahamson, a physicists and physician at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, trashed the proponents of nuclear power.  A man sitting next to be was actually crying.  I asked him what was the matter.  He said, “I work for GE making nuclear power plants, this is how I feed my family.”

There is much to be addressed in the unintended consequences of technology and in the blind use of technology without total system consideration.  Having said that I continue to tilt at windmills.

I agree, "Gardening for decades" not only has value; it is a necessity.  I do not see this as “business as usual” simply absorbing gardening as another activity like golf or travel agent or wind generator technician.   For me, sustainability means the majority of us (globally) will need to be horticulturalist and practice animal husbandry.  

However, if “gardening for decades” is high towers and hydroponics and solar collectors heating the ground – then, to me, this is industrial gardening and not in anyway, shape or form sustainable.  This could be among my concerns of creating false hope.

It is the sustainability that I challenge.  How we live now is not sustainable – not physically and not psychologically.   It is a finite earth.  The present bright light - both literally from fossil fuels and metaphorically from human creativity - is simply too glaring in its need for resources and continued consumption.  Not only is this not sustainable; it threatens the very ecosystem that sustains life including our own – oceans, rivers, underground water, air, nuclear releases, human made chemical envelopment, overpopulation fostered by fossil fuel energy and its products (overshoot), invasive genetic manipulation, warming climate to name a few of the converging harms. 

As an aside, if fusion should be developed, what will stop it from continuing the trashing of the earth?  How will we assess the unintended consequences? This is more “business as usual”  (BAU)  For me the best place for fusion is 93 million miles away on the sun. 

Most looking at sustainability would address the physical needs -daily, seasonal and generational - to arrive at a sustainable way of being.  This is a question of materials and technology.   My belief is that we must also address the social/psychological questions, or all the technological adjustments in the world will only result across time (considered in generations not millenniums) with “same old, same old”. 

We are the biggest hurdle we face.  Without a resolution, I address this at the end of the essay.

Physically, our lifestyle/lifeway will need to be at a lesser level of energy consumption; a lesser level of nonfuel mineral consumption such as copper, iron, aluminum, rare minerals, phosphorus and many others for a non-brutish, yet simple lifestyle.

Envision this gardeningway - what physical tools are needed?  Hoes, shovels, cultivators, wagons, pumps, .  .  .  .
For each of these tools, we need to be able to answer the questions about what resources and energy sources are available to make them?   We need to ask the question what is the infrastructure that makes these tools available?  If you have steel, is it straight from ore or is it recycled?  Is that recycling via remelting and fabricating?   Or is it recycling by mining today’s trash and adapting the given shapes to needs?   What energy is needed to accomplish either of these approaches?  What quantity can be made?  Quality? 

How will the land be replenished?  If it is three-field rotation, how much land per person, family, group is needed for long term sustainability?  There must be a community of people to trade and interact.  Even more important, there must be many communities that are not human or human dominated.  In space and time, these need to be multiples of each human community.  We must not mine them for food, other energy or other minerals. 

What animals will be incorporated in the whole system as was done on farms of old?   All the questions of similar ilk for animal husbandry.   

How will we transport things?  How will we work the land?  How fast do we need to go?  A human and a horse walk around 3 mph.  How much “horse power” do we need?  What is the motive force?

Water???   How – a well?  Irrigation for the garden? 

There is one study out of Stanford University that says we can meet all our energy needs with “renewables” by 2030.  They do not really look at the whole system – infrastructure to make and continue making.   They also propose 50% from wind by 2030 which would entail if started in 2012 – 24 massive wind machines built and installed every hour, 24 hours a day for 18 years.  They argue (I had a lengthy email discussion with one of the authors) that we do that with automobiles.  Talk about more trashing of the environment.

If all of these concerns are not part of the equation, then technologically, I believe you are selling pipe dreams (not necessarily with a pipe but for me certainly myopic and a fantasy for the future).

However, the technology for the future is not our main problem.  The conundrum facing us is our own human/natural selves. There are at least five natural factors that determine and will continue to determine our history and future.
* All life reproduces to the maximum that their environment allows (this is population density).
* All life will use all the resources in its environment to promote its present living (this is population pressure).
* Much of life manifests an ‘us against them’ protectionism (even plants release poisons to the soil to protect their territory).  This is not conflict for physical resources but also political and religious beliefs.  This is the convergence of territoriality (which is manifest by all life) and the need to belong for this dependently social animal called human.
* We are immersed in an environment of our own making and our "brilliance" threatens us with unintended consequences (whether agriculture, human-made chemicals in the water or nuclear power).
* Groups larger than the small group of 30 to 200 people, which is the social environment in which we evolved for a million years, creates power-over and inequality.
These five factors are a natural part of life and being human. For more detailed exposition:

As a psychologist, I must add – once we deal with these five issues, we must then deal with the idiosyncrasies and “wounds” of individuals because family and culture inevitably shape us.  To paraphrase Arno Gruen, “to be born human is to be born into a dangerous situation because no one knows what they are doing.”  From Betrayal of the Self.

Here is a piece I wrote several decades ago:

If humanity were seen as a person who is 100 years old, the first 99 years of her life would have been spent as gatherer and hunter.  She would have only one year to adapt to the changes in family structure, living arrangements, child rearing and all the other pressures and stresses that the shift to agriculture brought.  This same 100-year-old person would have five or six days to adapt to the enormous changes brought about by the industrial revolution.   And less than a day to adapt to the mass of information made available by electronics.
Each adaptation moves us further away from the original social and physical environment of our emergence.  Is it bad or wrong?  This is not the criterion.  There is no fault.  Each accommodation comes from necessity and is the best we know at the time.  At the leading edge of human history is an accumulation that expands and deepens the knowledge of our travels.

“.  .  . it is easy to take up technics; it is almost impossible to lay them down.”
Introduction written by Frederick Wilhelmsen to The Failure of Technology by Frederich Jueger.  1956. pg. Viii.

“How you gonna keep them down on the farm once they have seen Paree?”

This is my concern – it is the hammer concern.  If you teach the young people that this technology will allow them to live a certain way, for me you are inadvertently and without malice misleading them.


  1. Hi John,
    Preaching to the choir. I want to see a windmill built from scratch (starting with the mining of the materials) using only the power of one windmill. Then I will start to embrace sustainable technology.

    1. Bill - Agreed. I can't get this across to true believers which of course answers it all.