Monday, October 30, 2006

Whose Problem of Evil?

Keywords: Richard Handler; problem of evil; theodicy; Sartre; Buddhists; morality; karma; Viktor Frankl; existentialism.

strikes back with a zinger of an e-mail, a neat riposte to my recent blog about him and the devil. The heart of his message runs like this:

“But Metta: If God is the whole shebang, that doesn’t much help with the ‘problem of evil.’ In fact, as I understand the argument, if we are “beyond good and evil” why should privilege (let me use an academic term) compassion? Why not just kill or be killed? It’s God’s will. Like those nature docs on the Discovery channel….
“If the universe is what IS (as scientists like to tell us) the mind of god equals the laws of physics) then all morality is simply made up. Back to existentialism, post 1945. Jean Paul Sartre.
“But with all the oneness and acceptance, Buddhists carry their moral universe tucked in their robes. If in fact, as you say, ‘Everything that exists constitutes a great system in which no part – not even the tiniest or the most evil part – is surplus…” then the only thing we can do, is like those old Christians say, accept God’s will, because we sure don’t understand it.
“But why would this universe care for us? Why should it not be stunningly indifferent (as many scientists and secular humanists argue)?”

Excellent. Very nice, Richard. I agree with at least half of this. And I’m not the right person to defend Buddhism, since I am not one myself, though maybe my assumptions are closer to Buddhist than Christian.

However, when you say that this God-is-everything notion doesn’t help with the . I disagree. It works for me. For one thing, it tells me not to be so certain that I can tell good from evil. It’s not that I am personally “beyond good and evil” but that what seems good or bad only does so within a certain frame of reference. Suppose you and I are game wardens watching over herds of wild animals. You’re on one side of the desert watching antelopes, while I’m on the other side watching lions. One day a lioness kills your favorite baby antelope. That’s evil, for sure. But I’ve been worried about my lion cubs, who are under-nourished. Today their mama drags home an antelope for their supper. I’m happy about it. What is evil to you is good for me because our loyalties differ.

Whose side is God on – the antelopes or the lions? I don’t know. But that’s not a Buddhist question anyhow, since they don’t have any god of that sort. However, it seems to me to solve the problem of evil pretty well. The problem of evil is a Judeo-Christian problem, isn’t it? It’s about – justifying God’s ways to man. If you’re really a good God, why did you let Auschwitz happen? You don’t have to go that far to find something bad to blame on God. You don’t have to be Job, either. Stubbing your toe will be a perfectly adequate evil experience to blame on God. For women, giving birth poses that question every time. Why did you set the universe up so we have to go through that, God?

My own imagined answer: So there would be lots of interesting problems for you to solve, my child. The universe is a terrific game – not a trivial, boring one, but one where you can really win or lose a lot. There’s huge suffering you can work on solving. You can lose big-time: you can die in agony – or you can hit the jackpot and experience bliss. I wouldn’t have God change a thing about this world, though I hope I can make some useful changes myself. If he fixed everything, I wouldn’t have anything exciting to do.

Is this a Buddhist idea? I haven’t heard them talk that way.

Does the universe care about me? Does it matter whether I try to do good? Well, the Buddhists have this thing about , which I don't believe. They don’t have a personal god who rewards or punishes you for doing good or evil. It’s supposed to be an impersonal, automatic machine that delivers the consequences of your own acts to you later on, so you always get what’s coming to you – good luck or bad. I’ve never believed in that because I don’t see how any “cosmic bookie” could calculate what is due to us. At a horse race, they pay you off when the race is over. But the race is never over for us. The consequences of our actions go on unfolding infinitely, to the end of time (except that Buddhist time never ends but goes in circles). The effect of every action of mine will have good consequences, then a bad consequence, then a good one, and so on, endlessly. At what point does the karma machine calculate your payoff?

But a Buddhist universe without either God or karma does sound to me as cold and impersonal as it sounds to you. It is not exactly a determinist universe, though. Your past deeds influenced the situation that you face right now, but they don’t determine the choices you make about your next act. So you’ve got some freedom there, if that makes you feel better.

It may not. It may make you feel worse because, if Buddhism leaves you free to choose your next action, it also leaves you without any guidance, should you want some advice. There’s no point in praying for suggestions about the right choices to make now. Nobody answers such prayers. There’s karma that pushed you, from behind, to the point where you’re standing now. But there’s nothing out in front of you beckoning you to come in any particular direction.

I think I’m actually more of a mystic than the average Buddhist. I DO believe I can get guidance. When I meditate, nothing much happens. Eventually I just get sleepy and go to bed, with no deep insights. However, if I meditate while asking for guidance about some problem I’m trying to solve, most of the time when I wake up, the answer comes to me. That’s not a Buddhist belief. It came to me from personal experience, though I understand that Quakers have a practice similar to that.

I’m also not sure whether I think existentialism is a good or bad thing. You obviously think it’s bad. I might also if I had not read Viktor Frankl at the time when his famous book was still bearing its original title, From Death Camp to Existentialism. Frankl (see photo) said there’s meaning for us in every situation. There’s a task for us – a unique responsibility that is ours alone, which life hands to us and demands that we take upon ourselves. He called that philosophy “existentialism” though it is opposed to Sartre, who said we make up our own morality. To Frankl, we don’t make it up, we can ignore it or take it up, but it’s assigned to us by life. (He could have said God but he said “life.”)

That’s not Buddhist either, but I believe in it. And when I’m trying to figure out what this next assignment is, I begin by trying to discern what IS. And it just IS true that I want to do good. That’s just a fact for me. I can’t speak for you, but I imagine it’s true for you too. I don't think you need to have a God who doles out rewards and punishments in order to want to do good.

Does the universe CARE for us? I think so. Assigning big tasks to a person is evidence of caring, isn’t it?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Eric Fawcett Day, 2006

Keywords: Pugwash; Science for Peace; Eric Fawcett; Claude Le Blanc, Walter Dorn; Sergei Plekhanov; Afghanistan; Taliban; Pakistan; zones of peace; Siddiq Weera; Guatemala; Congo; Malaya; British administration; Kandahar; NATO

Every year and Science for Peace have a joint day of lectures and discussions in memory of (see photo), a University of Toronto physicist who belonged to Pugwash and was the founding president of . In Toronto, most people who belong to Pugwash also belong to Science for Peace, as I do. Yesterday was our Eric Fawcett Day, and we had four lectures, four simultaneous break-out groups, and a lecture by Claude Le Blanc from the ministry of national defence, updating us on Canadian defence policy.

I was rapporteur for the whole day, which means that tomorrow I must try to tease out the deepest messages from all the notes I took, then prepare a report to send to the government. Naturally, all the presentations were exercises in worrying, except the one by Mr. Le Blanc, which was probably meant to reassure us by expressing the position of the Conservative government. It did not.

probably expressed the mood of the audience best, and when the break-out groups assembled, I was in the one that picked up on his issue and carried it forward. It was about the policy regarding Afghanistan, where some 2,000 Canadian troops are engaged in a bloody civil war. The whole issue is the top story in the news every day.

Walter had been asked to serve in to head the civilian reconstruction team. He refused, saying that he did not agree with the approach they were taking. On that very day, the person whom he would have replaced was killed. In Walter's opinion, the best role for Canada was to moderate the military retaliatory action of the United States toward Afghanistan. Instead, Canada has simply encouraged the United States.

Referring to a typology of birds, Walter's own position is neither that of hawks nor doves, but of . The "hawk" view is simplistic — freedom versus the Taliban — and it encourages extremists by polarizing the two sides. Hawks insist that we must win the war. Yet they create more enemies than they destroy. Doves, on the other hand, seeing the needless deaths caused by the hawks, would simply withdraw and abandon the efforts to save .

But withdrawal leaves a vacuum, says Walter Dorn, as happened when the Soviets abruptly withdrew from Afghanistan. The same thing happened in Somalia, which is now being taken over by Islamists.

Thus the owls prefer to look for human security, neither by "staying the course" nor abandoning it, but by changing it. This is complicated but not impossible. Dorn recommends the "ten percent solution." In Kandahar now, 90 percent of our effort is going into combat. The money flows through corrupt hands. Instead, we should do ten percent combat and 90 percent .

This could be done by creating . What was done in Kabul was a good working model, but instead of following that approach elsewhere, the military went into Kandahar with a mailed fist. Dorn would have Canada withdraw somewhat from Kandahar and deploy into areas where there is more receptivity. Leave some areas ungoverned until one can convince the people in those areas that they want to belong.

In the break-out group, someone described Walter's approach as the establishment of "citadels of peace, order, and good government." The Canadian military would be confined to protecting these citadels rather than spreading throughout the country. Its objective would be defence, not offence — some military expansion, but with elements of peacekeeping.

Not everyone in the group readily accepted Dorn's proposals. In fact, the rest of the conversation amounted to a controversy about how much military force will continue to be needed in Afghanistan. This involved comparisons with similar historical cases. There was one comment, for example, that portrayed this approach as parallel to the "strategic villages" approach in Vietnam, which was disastrous. These "zones of peace" were seen as islands that relied on the corrupt government of South Vietnam, which was supported by the US. But, Dorn replied, the problem in Vietnam was that there was too much of an aggressive edge, which invited retaliation.

There were other comparisons made to Guatemala and the Congo. In Guatemala, a number of peace villages emerged that declared themselves to be on neither side of the conflict. They announced that they would not harbor soldiers on either side. Yet these were not altogether successful. Some of them were bombed by the government for declaring neutrality. A few were successful, others not.

Max Kelly was the main person in the group who doubted whether force could be reduced as much as Dorn and Sergei Plekhanov wanted. In the Congo, he said, the French went in, proclaimed the existence of a "weapon free zone," and suppressed the violence. But in Afghanistan, how can you control the suicide bombers, who are invisible?

Dorn replied: Only by winning the hearts and minds of the people, who will inform you about suicide bombers.

More doubts were expressed: How can you win hearts and minds after all this violence? NATO has bombed and killed 70 people in one single recent raid.

Dorn replied: We just have to apologize and withdraw slowly from Kandahar. It will be embarrassing for the hawks, but it is the only way.

Yet another comparison was made now: this time to Malaya, where there was once a successful counterinsurgency by the British rulers. The struggle lasted twelve years. In the early phases, they made many mistakes by using overwhelming force. The success came later, when they took a paramilitary, rather than military, approach. They were more like police, with people walking the beat and using intelligence and only a minimum of necessary force.

Walter Dorn agreed with this model. He added that the last rebels did not give up until the 1980s. The important thing, though, was that Britain granted independence to Malaya. They were able to start winning hearts and minds with "soft touch sanctions." They didn't starve people, but made it more difficult for them. They frisked grannies for weapons. This is the right approach in Afghanistan today.

I mentioned the recommendations of Siddiq Weera, the Afghan physician who has been urging Canada to return to a peacekeeping, policing role, protecting civilians in cities while also organizing negotiations with the Taliban and warlords. This model seems to have a great deal in common with Walter Dorn's suggestions. It is an idea that Sergei Plekhanov has also been promoting.

Yet there were still expressions of misgivings in the group. For example, Max reminded us that when the UN mission took a traditional reactive approach in the Congo, it was a failure. Violence spiraled and overwhelmed their ability to police the situation. There's some danger in going too far when shifting to the soft approach, he insisted. We may not want to cede the entire countryside because that will give power to the Taliban and the warlords. The cities might lose access to food crops.

Walter Dorn conceded that it is unclear how large the zones of peace should be. That's a scientific calculation to work out. There could, indeed, be some attacks on the cities. Still, the idea of establishing protected areas goes back to the British, who said that sometimes it's not feasible to carry on administration everywhere. In some places, you have to cede power to local leaders.

Sergei argued that Afghans have to make Afghanistan for themselves. The government still does not have complete legitimacy. The Pashtuns remain the base of the Taliban, who were simply thrown out of power, much as the Baathists were thrown out of power in Iraq. This creates a problem of legitimacy. Only two weeks ago did NATO give a green light to Pakistan to negotiate with the Taliban. Karzai is a Pashtun, but he's viewed as an American; the Taliban boycotted the election. The solution is, as Siddiq Weera has suggested, to create something that is truly representative. This can only be done through a real peace process with all the important forces sitting at the table. Hold a Loya Jirga to determine who will sit at the table.

There are also important forces to pay attention to outside the country — obviously most of all in Pakistan. The Pashtuns are a divided nation. The treaty that settled the border between them has expired, so Pakistan's government cannot use much force against the Taliban. It's militarily impossible. Therefore, it is necessary to bring the neighbors into the discussion too. NATO doesn't want to deal with Iran with regard to Afghanistan, but it and all the other neighbors have constituencies inside Afghanistan.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Devil and Richard Handler

Keywords: theology; evil; Marx; Freud; Pavlov; devil; god; blame; respect; sin; Buddhism.

My friend (see photo) is CBC's "The Ideas Guy," an erstwhile who sometimes presents himself as a psychologist, sometimes as a sociologist, sometimes a theologian. This week he’s a . In an essay discussing the theories that have been concocted to explain away bad deeds, he starts off with a theological invention, the claim that “the devil made me do it.” Then he considers some alternative theories that place blame on social or psychological factors – Marx’s , Freud’s motivations, and Pavlov’s causation — before he settles upon the initial theory. There is in the world, he says — wrongdoing that goes beyond the level of mistakes that decent people perpetrate — and the “devil” is as good an explanation for it as any other.

He set me thinking. It seems that he’s dealing with two different variables here: (a) the morality of the deed – good or bad – and (b) whether the actor acknowledges being the source of it or claims to be controlled by some powerful external influence. Here’s a four-fold table showing the moral status of persons, according to these four conditions.

Bad DeedGood Deed
External forceDevil made me do it so I'm not to blameGod's grace led me so I deserve no credit
Free choiceI am a sinnerI am a normal upright person

The upper row consists of deeds that we do not claim authorship of – actions that we may say are shaped by a powerful, external spiritual force. The lower row consists of actions that we claim to have caused and for which we accept responsibility.

This latter distinction is important — between acts that we acknowledge having caused freely and those that we do not – but Handler only notices one of the possibilities: those involving bad deeds, not good ones. He depicts our attempt to fob the blame for wrongdoing off onto the devil, or onto our economic circumstances, or our unconscious mind, or our conditioning, as the case may be. But he does not consider the possibility of denying responsibility for actions that are good.

Of course, he is mainly right, for we usually only try avoid blame; we usually crave respect for our good deeds. Nevertheless, there denial of responsibility for good deeds is a logical possibility. Moreover, if the is supposed to exist as the origin of evil, he must have a counterpart — God— who is the origin of goodness. God and the Devil are external spiritual powers to whom we occasionally assign responsibility if we cannot give a reasonable account of our own actions. Fortunately, if pressed, we can give an account for almost everything we do. Ordinarily, then, we stay in the lower right hand cell of this table where morally upright human beings spend most of their time. Only when we do wrong and blame ourselves for it are we located in the cell for self-declared “sinners.”

This fourfold table represents the theological model we have inherited in Western culture for describing our moral condition. It refers to human actors who perform deeds for which they may or may not feel responsible. If they don’t feel responsible, it is almost always for some deed that they regret having performed because it was immoral. However, on rare occasions a person may be surprised at herself and unable to explain her own good actions, so she may attribute them to — a figure who intervenes in the ordinary chain of causality to bring about a miraculous outcome.

In this Western model, there are two categories of events:(a) those caused in the usual ways, according to the ordinary laws of physics and human psychology, and (b) those produced by a transcendent external force that interrupts the ordinary chain of and takes possession of human beings, forcing them to perform miraculously excellent or supernally evil actions.

If this table maps our inherited Western theological assumptions, there are alternative views in Eastern religion that are worth considering instead. Most philosophy, for example, offers quite a different perspective. First, it does not allow us to distinguish sharply between — and therefore not between the devil and God, if such beings can be said to exist at all. (“Evil" events can give rise to "good" events, which in turn may give rise to "evil" ones, so it is impossible to say whether any particular evil is "really" evil or whether it is merely a preliminary phase of some good event. Or vice versa.)

Second, Buddhist philosophy does not allow us to distinguish between those events that are caused routinely (as in the everyday workings of nature and society) and those resulting from the occasional eruption of forces. Thus the line between the two columns is erased and so is the line between the two rows. Everything is now inside one big box – a single cell. The universe operates in the same way all the time. If there is a god (or, for that matter, a devil) he or she works with and through causality, not by interrupting it. Hence there is no way of distinguishing between acts that we did cause and those that we didn’t. Everything in the universe is causally connected to everything else. Everything has causes and everything has effects. God does not stand outside the universe, creating it, interrupting it, and finally destroying it. If God is here, it is in everything, all the time — and always was. God is not making the system work; it is the system at work. It is you and me. It every neutrino, every quark, every nebula, every galaxy. It is in every gesture of love and every genocidal massacre. Everything that exists constitutes a great system in which no part — not even the tiniest or the most evil part — is surplus.

Your move, Richard.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Conspiracy-theory Scientists

Keywords: Academic freedom; Professor Steven Jones; research; cold fusion; Mormon; Brigham Young University; World Trade Center; conspiracy; thermite.

What should be the rules of ? I am heartily in favor of the principle that scholars should be allowed to follow their noses when they are on the trail of an interesting discovery or theory.

Yet of course no principle is absolute; we live in a real world where “my freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” And there are also institutional rules managing the right to investigate interesting problems. Probably the most significant regulation comes from funding, or the lack thereof. Scholars have to present their research proposals for competitive review if they are to obtain grants to support their research. And when it comes to publication, they also must submit their reports to scrutiny by qualified peers. Benefits such as promotions and salary increases, not to mention tenure in universities, all are based on the dossier one accumulates over the course of a career. The dossier is only part of the story; there is also the informal reputation one builds as a careful researcher or a wild-eyed nut case.

Still, it is generally possible for a dedicated (or fanatical) researcher to carry on persistently investigations that others regard as goofy, even within the limitations imposed by these standards and institutional procedures.

But suppose you’ve built up a good record throughout a twenty-year career, apart from an occasional quirk or two, but then you come out with something really shocking and implausible. What may the university properly do to you to indicate its displeasure? That’s a question that occurred to me this afternoon at a meeting when we were informed about the plight of Professor of Brigham Young University, and were asked to write a letter protesting against the university’s punitive treatment of him. I’m really not sure how far to go in supporting him strictly on the basis of my belief in academic freedom.

It seems that Professor Jones (see photo) is a physicist who has done a good deal of credible scientific research in the field of fusion. My antennae quivered in response to the term “cold fusion,” though I was reacting mostly out of prejudice. In the mid-1980s, there was a flurry of excitement about the apparent discovery of an unexpected phenomenon in the laboratory: “cold fusion.” Fusion is considered the much-sought-after solution to all energy problems on earth, but it has not been developed in a practical way. Some physicists suddenly claimed to have discovered evidence that fusion was taking place in the laboratory. Jones was one of those scientists, though another team of researchers, Professors Pons and Fleischmann, announced their own discoveries ahead of him, and were roundly criticized for their sloppy methods. Jones, on the other hand, made much more modest claims and his paper received a favorable review. In the end, nothing came of their approach. was not exactly a hoax, but rather the result of some anomalous findings resulting, most likely, from error. This evidently did not tarnish Jones’s reputation.

But then there were some other odd-ball papers. Jones (along with most of the inhabitants of Utah) practices the faith. He wrote a strange paper presenting archaeological evidence that Jesus had visited Native Americans after his resurrection, as , the Mormon founder, had declared. This paper probably damaged his reputation as a scientist, but it may have enhanced his credibility on the campus of Brigham Young University, which is a Mormon institution. Besides, it is assumed that one’s religious beliefs are exempt from criticism on scientific grounds, so perhaps the article was not a liability to Jones’s career.

In 2003, Jones moved further along his quirky path by publishing his theory that the US government had orchestrated the falling of the towers on September 11, 2001. He claims to have physical evidence too: the existence in materials from ground zero of a substance called , which is used in military detonations. Terrorists could not have obtained this material, he insists.

He had already been arguing the case for a , even before publishing his scientific conclusions about the traces of thermite. For example, at a meeting this summer he gave a speech saying,

“The chain of events leads me to reluctantly conclude that indeed there does seem to be insiders. In other words, not just hijacked planes, but also others setting these thermite cutting charges into the World Trade Center and bringing them down.”

Partly in response to Jones’s charges the State Department has issued a rebuttal in a 10,000 page report.

Brigham Young University took stronger measures. Criticizing Jones for having not published his findings in the appropriate scientific venues, the university put him on paid leave, assigning his courses to other professors to teach. He would, however, be allowed to conduct research while the university reviews his actions. Jones responded by retiring from the university. Yesterday he and the university finalized a retirement package. He will be out of their hair as of January 1.

The scientific community has mixed opinions about what should be done in this case. Mostly the reaction is against the university for abridging academic freedom – and not for the first time. At the Science for Peace meeting today, one scientist read aloud a letter than he had written in support of Jones, asking us to endorse it and send it on letterhead to the Brigham Young authorities. Another scientist wanted to water down the language somewhat, particularly to make sure it did not say that we find Jones’s theory plausible. To resolve the matter, we agreed that the two men would meet and work until they could agree on a text, which we would then sign.

I have to say this much: I have read some of the publications by other “9/11 conspiracy theorists” – especially – and there are some problems in the official story. Or perhaps there are good explanations for the anomalous findings, if I would but look more deeply into the matter. I understand that a substantial majority of Americans now doubt the official story, as I myself also do. However, that does not make me into a conspiracy theorist. I cannot imagine that any conspiracy of that magnitude would hold up. Thousands of people would have had to be in on the plot, and surely some of them would have come forward by now to tell about it. The most I can accept is that there are some unanswered puzzles, for which we may never learn the full account.

Did Jones deserve to be put on paid leave by his university? Probably not. Does a university ever need to resort to such measures? Probably so. I know of one case when a professor had a full-blown psychotic episode while teaching a large class. His problem was treated as a medical issue, as it should have been.

There have been real conspiracies. I discount conspiracy theories just because it’s a line of thinking that I don’t like to pursue, for it becomes too hard to know what is crazy and what is not. But a few of them are probably true. It’s almost unthinkable that the US government was complicit in 9/11. But I wouldn’t persecute a person for speculating about it, so long as he or she does other scholarly or scientific work that is sound. The system has to be able to tolerate odd-balls just to make room for genuinely original research. It’s a tricky issue, fraught with risk. But I for one would be willing to sign the letter urging that Professor Jones be allowed to continue his dubious investigation of the World Trade Center collapse,

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Keywords: Electric car; Henry Ford; California smog; EV1; zero emissions; oil; car manufacturers; battery; electricity; hydrogen fuel cells; greenhouse gases; Imbrecht; plug-in car.

I slipped away to the movies this afternoon, all by myself. I’d missed seeing when it was showing around town a few months ago, but this matinee was an extra opportunity. I can’t say I exactly enjoyed it, but I hadn’t expected to do so; most documentaries are not entertaining. Yet I think everyone should see it, for you'll feel as shocked and appalled as I did.

The plot is easily summarized: initially expected cars to be electric, and at first most of them were. One can’t help concluding that the world would be better if all cars had stayed that way. California has reached this same conclusion ahead of other states because of the that blanketed the southern part of the state. As the dangers of became urgent, the state enacted legislation that would have required car manufacturers to produce autos with . Suddenly, in the early 1990s, new electric cars began appearing on California highways. General Motors produced a stunning, quiet, fast, clean, zero-emission auto called the — which became the star of this movie (see photo of one being charged).

Everyone who drove that car loved it. Yet under pressure from the car manufacturers, the government agency that was supposed to protect the air by upholding the high new standards failed to do so. They caved in, relaxing the legislation that the resisted. Everywhere, the EV1 gradually began disappearing, though at first no one realized what was happening. All further leases on the cars were terminated, and the beautiful machines were being taken away to be ground up or smashed. Protesters mounted a vigil, attempting to shame GM for this, but all their complaints and even their civil disobedience were ignored. By 2003 every single EV1 had been seized.

The movie doesn’t assign the “murder” of this car to any single culprit, but finds several suspects guilty: the government, the auto industry, California’s , the petroleum industry; and even , who failed to give the innovation enough support to make it profitable in the short run.

You get mad when you see this documentary. It’s horrible. It reveals the way the industry failed to promote the car, obviously trying all along to prove it unprofitable. Yet even in the end, there were buyers who begged for the opportunity to buy every car that was being confiscated and destroyed. To publicize the tragedy, the protesters held a formal funeral in a cemetery to mourn the passing of these beautiful machines.

The film exposes the avarice and mendacity that led to this tragic abandonment of the car by the company that had invested a billion dollars to develop it. The industrialists’ bad decision will damage the lives of billions of human beings by spoiling the world's climate. It is easy to understand their thinking: there’s still a lot of in the ground. So long as there is money to be made from it, every technology that might render the combustion engine obsolete threatens the oil industry and must, therefore, be suppressed. Just as the whole network of inter-urban had been trashed early in the 20th century, the new electric cars were now aborted before their potential could even become a real challenge to the investors. I am not a great believer in class struggle, nor do I assume that corporate interests always work against human well-being — but in this case, the narrator does not have to spell it out. We see selfish motives that are utterly transparent, beyond disguise.

The EV1's most obvious shortcoming was its limited range. It had to be recharged after driving fifty or sixty miles. Yet even this was not necessary, for already a better battery had been created that would go 100 miles; GM never installed that battery into EV1s but instead used a weaker one.

The filmmakers expose the hype that is constantly generated nowadays by the oil interests in favor of cars. When owners of electric cars go for a ride in these hydrogen models, they hate them. Besides, they are far from being ready for mass production, and they may never be as efficient as the electric auto.

Yet when I came home, I had to wonder whether there was more involved. The script never tries to address one important question: Would there have been enough electricity to run a fleet of EV1 cars? Certainly, there were no greenhouse gases emitted from the electric cars directly, but what about the power plants that would have fueled them? Electrical generators are, I presume, powered by fossil fuels. Presumably if all the drivers in California adopted electric cars, there would be a huge need for additional electricity, just as the sale of correspondingly diminished. Would that have been an environmental disaster in its own right?

I turned to Google for answers but found nothing conclusive. Perhaps someone reading this blog can inform me. However, I did find some provisional answers in a 1995 article by Charles R. Imbrecht, the chairman of California’s Energy Commission. When he wrote the article, the state was still gearing up to go for electric cars in a big way, and he was completely optimistic. He explained:

“Twenty years ago about two-thirds of all California's electricity
came from burning oil. Today, less than one-percent of
electricity comes from burning oil. In the process, we have
created an industry for renewable energy and advanced power
generation that has made California, as some call it, the ‘energy
laboratory of the world.’

“This ‘portfolio approach’ of many sources for electricity
production is being extended to our transportation sector, which
consumes about one-half of all energy used in California....

“Using electric vehicles will make the electricity system more
efficient. During off-peak hours when less electricity is
consumed, such as over-night, many power plants have to be either
shut down or scaled back. The Energy Commission estimates that
most electric vehicles will recharge during these off-peak hours
when electricity is available and less expensive to produce than
during peak periods.

“California currently has enough excess capacity (the power not
used during off-peak hours) to handle the demands of charging
millions of electric vehicles. Even by 2010, EVs will only
consume 3.2 percent of the total electricity produced.”

I want to know more about the sources of electricity that supplants the gasoline. Still, if Imbrecht is right, the overall effect of electric cars on the environment would have been distinctly positive. And the people who told the history of their beloved EV1 were, at the end of the show, happy and optimistic. The charming spokeswoman for that car throughout the film stated, in the end, that she is now working for a “plug-in” car that is going to be the car of the future. And there’s also the hybrid car – a mongrel engine that combines gasoline and battery power. Soon hybrids will be able to go 150 miles on a gallon of gas. Not bad!

One of these days, perhaps the lovers of electric cars will hold a different ceremony: not a funeral but, rather, a christening — a triumphant celebration of newness, a victory over the life-threatening forces of greed. I hope I’ll be invited.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Helmut, I Still Prefer Ted Turner

Keywords: Helmut Burkhardt, Science for Peace; biofuels; green energy; insolation; cellulosic ethanol; fuel efficiency; photosynthesis; Doha Round; fossil fuel; solid waste; Ted Turner.

Today I got into a dispute about with Helmut Burkhardt, a physicist and member of . I came home and read a paper he has prepared on the subject, then concluded that there is a tenable middle ground between our two positions. As he wrote me later in an e-mail:

“Here is my philosophy, which I share with the Swedish ‘Natural Step Group’: politicians, economists, and sociologists have a large degree of freedom in making relevant choices, as long as they are inside the limits set by the laws of nature. With respect to using biofuels, the economic arguments are good if applied to using biomass wastes. However, can only supply a few percent of humankind’s energy needs, and any large scale energy plantations are in direct competition with food production, and detrimental to biodiversity, which stabilizes our vital ecosystem; furthermore, energy farming requires large amounts of biologically productive land, fertilizers, and lots of water for irrigation. All of these are in short supply on this planet.

“Yes, this ‘green energy’ from biofuels sounds so attractive; it would solve the peak oil problem and prevent climate change at the same time. Unfortunately, it is one of those inappropriate myths that need to be exposed. – There are other non-nuclear solutions.”

Burkhardt’s arguments are based on his calculations about the total use of power by human beings: an average at present of 2300 W per person per day. is the amount of solar radiation reaching a given area. Using the global average insolation, Burkhardt calculates the average human being’s daily energy consumption as equivalent to the insolation of ten square meters of the planet’s horizontal surface. Of course, the satisfaction of human needs will vary according to the efficiency of the methods used for collecting this solar radiation. Solar cells and wind are quite efficient. Indeed, humankind’s present energy needs can be met with solar collectors of an area about 30 square meters per person on buildings or on dry land.

But — a fuel made from plants — is less efficient. For one reason, not all the photons absorbed by a plant perform photosynthesis. Also, some of the photons are reflected. Moreover, photosynthesis requires respiration, which requires energy. Hence, Burkhardt concludes that some 300 square meters per person of biologically productive land is required to supply the present energy needs of humankind with biomass fuel— a figure that is about ten times less efficient than solar collection panels. Even after that, one must subtract the energy costs involved in harvesting, transforming and processing the crop into fuel. Taking those factors into account, Burkhardt estimates that if we replaced the 2080 W per person now supplied by fossil fuels and nuclear energy with biomass energy, we’d need to use more than 4000 square meters per person of biologically productive land. Since that is not available on Planet Earth, Burkhardt concludes that it is irrational to count on ethanol for significant answers to our energy problems.

Okay. I cannot contest his calculations; I am no physicist. The other writers whom I have read do not calculate efficiency in terms of the amount of Earth’s surface that could yield energy via the different technologies of conversion. Instead they estimate how many units of energy must be expended to obtain one unit of fuel. In those terms, a quantity of sweet crude oil yields a net energy payoff of 100, whereas ethanol is estimated at only 1.34. (Using a different indicator of efficiency, it seems that corn-based ethanol has a positive energy balance of about 20,000 Btu per gallon.)

However, nowhere does Burkhardt distinguish between ethanol made from conventional sources (the starch in corn and other food products) and from . Though at the present, collulosic ethanol cannot be produced competitively with fossil fuels, the technology is being developed quickly and will vastly expand the amount of material that can be used — agricultural waste (corn stover, straw, etc.), as well as industrial and municipal (paper sludge, garbage, etc.). Indeed, an estimated 40% to 50% of the feedstock would come from such wastes. And cellulosic ethanol yields more energy than the corn version. A fact sheet prepared by Lee R. Lynd and Lester Lave reports:

“The ratio of energy output to fossil energy input is favorable (> 4) for production of cellulosic ethanol, and can be expected to improve further as the technology matures. Fossil energy inputs for production and delivery of cellulosic energy crops are modest, e.g. estimated at about 5% of the energy content of the feedstock for switchgrass production, and inputs for waste cellulosic feedstocks are potentially lower still. The energy content of unfermentable process residues is greater than the energy than required for conversion to ethanol in the current designs, with the excess representing an attractive source of electrical power. The combined energy yield of ethanol and power is over 50% of the energy content of cellulosic biomass for current designs.”

Still, even if the input-output ratio of ethanol were as low as 1:1, there are occasions when it would be useful. Ordinarily, of course, any fuel that did not create more energy than it consumed would be worthless, but that is not always the case. Take, for example, the use of wood to make alcohol. Wood is not nearly as portable as alcohol, so under certain circumstances you might even be willing to use two BTUs of wood to get one BTU of ethanol, if the price of gas goes much higher.

I don’t disagree completely with Helmut. He says we cannot replace oil entirely with ethanol, and I agree. Nor would I want to do so. However, it has certain important advantages — especially in the short term — that he seems to overlook. First, it can be produced and used right away (see photo of such a plant), whereas other alternative fuels will require a huge re-tooling. Every car on the road can already use fuels with 10 percent alcohol content, and with a little, inexpensive refitting, we could even use 85% ethanol fuels – pumped right into our existing cars at our familiar neighborhood gas station. No other existing fuel will work for transportation. Of course, we’re not thinking of using it to heat houses or make electricity, so the need for it will never be as great as Burkhardt’s worst case scenario.

But the main reason why I am so enthusiastic about ethanol is that it will help liberate us from oil dependency soon, while potentially doing the best favor possible for the poorest countries in the world. The was started for the explicit purpose of giving the developing countries some of the benefits of globalization, Every knowledgeable economist, so far as I know, agrees that the most important factor holding the poor countries back is the prevalence of agricultural subsidies in the rich countries. By enabling farmers in Canada (and Britain, the US, France, and especially Japan) to earn a good livelihood from harvesting an additional crop — cellulose for alcohol — each year, we will be able to eliminate agricultural subsidies and give the Developing World the opportunity actually to develop. That should matter as much to us as the discovery of a new and abundant source of .

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Which Birth Rates are Catastrophic?

Keywords: birth rates; Japan; James Lovelock; Gaia; demography; demographic transition theory; opportunity costs; William Ryerson; Population Media Center; television; mass media.
There was a jarring piece in today’s Globe and Mail by a BC woman, , that elaborates her concern about low . She claims that if you Google “low birth rate,” you’ll find panicked reports from all over the world. “’s drop is catastrophic; at 1.25 births per woman, Japan has the rate at which believe a cataclysmic downward spiral is inevitable,” she says. And she spends the rest of the article speculating about how to get women back into the breeding business.

I had to laugh. It’s true that there are some economic problems, mainly in affluent countries, that reflect disproportions in the size of the relative to their dependants — old, retired people and children. But it would be a terrible idea to try to bring the birth rates up as a way of solving these economic problems. The most serious global problems today result, not from our vanishing species, but from our vast numbers on the planet. The name of the game is to reduce the birth rate globally as much and as quickly as possible. Japan’s is the opposite of “catastrophic,” for the survival of humankind itself requires us to bring our population down enough to save the environment for future generations. It is bizarre to read articles based on the contrary assumption. Some knowledgeable people, such as , the theorist, even believe that the self-repairing homeostasis of the planet has already been fatally broken, so that most of us will die, leaving an environment that cannot sustain life for our descendants. Compared to that scenario, in which it is already too late to save humankind, the projected of low birth rates amount to mere piffles.

Tonight I’ve been reading some more articles about population problems and how to solve them. Fortunately, birth rates have been declining for several years but because of the large proportion of human beings who are still young, the actual size of our population is bound to increase for a while. The fateful question is: by how much?

The continuing growth of the world's population is not a result of high birth rates but of the sharp decline in death rates. Nevertheless, cutting birth rates is the only solution to this runaway growth. Indeed, we’re going to have to bring birth rates down well below the replacement level of 2.1 babies per woman if we’re to reach zero population growth in time to be sustainable as a species. That fact is not a subject of dispute.

Demographers simply differ in the variables that they identify as paramount in determining human reproductive behavior. There are lots of population theories, but few of them are very good at generating reliable predictions and policies about growth. However, three of the articles I've read tonight have given me a slightly different understanding of our situation.

's piece on the Population Media Center web site reviewed several theories or myths that all fall short when it comes to curbing the expansion of the population. The most widely accepted theory, the , predicts that as societies become more prosperous, their death rates decline. Since high death rates depend mainly on the mortality of children, a reduction of death rates means a reduction in . Parents recognize that the odds of their children surviving are increasingly favorable, so they need not produce extra babies to make up for the usual number of losses. Hence, a while after the death rates are reduced, the birth rates will start declining as well. It's the size of the population born during that time lag that determines population growth.

There is a lot of evidence supporting the demographic transition theory, but there are also variations in birth rates that it cannot explain. For example, sometimes after a society becomes more prosperous, its birth rates actually increase instead of declining, as predicted. Also, birth rates sometimes decline before economic development takes place, not afterward.

To improve on the predictions of the model, it is useful also to take account of "." Thus, if there is an increase in educational levels among women, along with more chances for them to take paid jobs, they will see child care as a costly impediment to their careers, and are less eager to give birth. Hence it is not merely economic growth that influences them but also the amount of income they must forgo by becoming mothers. Female education and employment determine such opportunities.

Ryerson points out that the most common approach to lowering birth rates has been to provide family planning facilities for couples, on the assumption that they will use if they do not want a pregnancy. This is not the case. Only about half of all the couples who are able to reproduce actually use contraception. Many women are passive and fatalistic; they don't want to become pregnant, but say that it is God's decision, not theirs. And of the people who do want to use contraception, the vast majority are able to acquire the material. According to a 1992 report by UNICEF, increasing access to birth control, making it available to absolutely everyone, would reduce the rate of world population growth by only about 30 percent. Some additional variable must be factored into the equation.

That extra variable is motivation, Ryerson explains. In other words, to bring the birth rates down, it is not sufficient to introduce structural changes in society. Psychological or cultural or attitudinal influences are also required -- indeed, they are the main point. So: how do we do that?

Answer: mainly through television. Robert Hornik and Emile McAnany's article, "Theories and Evidence: Mass Media Effects and Fertility Change" (in Communication Theory, Nov. 2001) indicates:

"There is evidence of a very substantial association between access to mass media and the level of fertility in a country....Excluding four oil-rich smaller countries, ... televisions per capital accounted for 74% of the variance in fertility in 1997. This is a substantially better prediction of fertility than one obtains from measures of GNP per capita, or from indexes of female education."
There are numerous studies showing the impact of television dramas that have been written specifically for the purpose of influencing public opinion about reproduction. Such soap operas a telenovelas are known to be immensely influential. What Hornik and McAnany are describing, however, is the effect of television in general, not the shows that are meant to change the culture. It seems that television has a generally effect on viewers, and this will translate over time into all kinds of behavioral changes in life style, certainly including motivations to limit completed family size.

This means that it will pay us to invest in television dramas of all kinds -- but especially popular series that demonstrate life styles that are ecologically sustainable, and especially that show happy single individuals and happy small families.

The Japanese have plenty of such shows. And so their birth rates are low — admirably, not catastrophically, so.

Monday, October 09, 2006

I'm Drunk on Ethanol

Keywords: ethanol; peak oil; Gaia; James Lovelock; cellulosic ethanol; switchgrass; biomass; greenhouse gas; C02; gasohol; E85; enzymes; Joseph DiPardo; Clostridium; Patricia E. Woertz; Archer Daniels Midland

If not intoxicated, I’m at least giddy with delight about ethanol. I’m no longer convinced that the shortage of fuel will do us in. Of course, there are still plenty of other dangers around; , the inventor, apparently believes that it’s too late to preserve earth’s homeostasis, and that we must expect climate change to destroy humankind within maybe twenty years, except for a few people in the melting Arctic.

Okay, saving Gaia will have to wait. Today was my day to save us from . (These capital letters are no accident. When any theory becomes all-encompassing, people tend to give it a proper name.) I am no longer afraid of the looming depletion of , for I have on my side. For my awareness of its promise, I am still thanking , idealistic huckster par excellence, who set me thinking and Googling about it.

For example, a report by the National Commission on Energy policy recently proclaimed that “biofuels coupled with vehicle efficiency and smart growth could reduce the oil dependency of our transportation sector by two-thirds by 2050 in a sustainable way.” That’s actually a modest projection, for some prophets are expecting equally good results even sooner.

For example, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory ( posted for a while a draft of their report, available now at entitled: “Renewable Resources Could Provide 99 Percent of US Electricity Generation by 2020.” It listed the potential amount of energy available from renewables as a percentage of the total projected US generation in 2020. Here are some of the expected sources:
Biomass: 9- 14 percent of the national petroleum demand in 2020
Geothermal: 4 percent of US electric generation in 2020.
Hydroelectric: 9.4 percent of electric generation in 2020.
Ocean (wave, tidal, and current): 4.5 percent of electric generation projected for 2020.
Solar:12 percent of the total US generation
Wind: 20 percent of total generation.

They also offer projections of longer-term possibilities from these sources, but I won’t copy them down here. However, the ones I’ve shown above don’t add up to 99 percent, as the title of the paper led me to expect, so I may have missed something. Still the report seems, if anything, to project quite moderate estimates rather than overly optimistic ones.

For example, Wikipedia’s entry of “” projects that ethanol produced from biomass cellulose products “might provide as much as 30 percent of the current fuel consumption in the US — and probably similar figures in other oil-importing regions like China or Europe. Moreover, even land marginal for agriculture could be planted with cellulose-producing crops like , resulting in enough production to substitute for all the current oil imports.” This 30 percent is far better than the aforementioned NREL estimate, 9-14 percent. And the Wikipedia writers also cite studies by the US Department of Energy conducted by the Argonne Laboratories.

“One of the benefits of cellulosic ethanol is that it reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent over reformulated gasoline. By contrast, starch ethanol (e.g. from corn), which uses most of the time natural gas to provide energy for the process, reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 18% to 29% over gasoline. Sugar ethanol, on the other hand, from sugarcane, reduces greenhouse gas emissions by as much as cellulosic ethanol...”

What about the energy efficiency of cellulosic ethanol? Until a few days ago I had dismissed all ethanol fuels as unpromising because, according to , they offer no net energy gain over fossil fuel. That is, for every unit of ethanol now being produced, one unit of fossil fuel energy is required. (Jack does admit that ethanol makes sense in Brazil, however, where the “feedstock” is sugarcane, which gets five units of energy out for every unit of input.)

Well, according to ’s paper, “Outlook for Biomass Ethanol Production and Demand,” ethanol does better than I had understood. Instead of referring to the input-output ratio, he describes the same issue in terms of “”:

“The net energy balance is calculated by subtracting the energy required to produce a gallon of ethanol from the energy contained in a gallon of ethanol (approximately 76,000 Btu). Corn-based ethanol has a net energy balance of 20,000 to 25,000 Btu per gallon, whereas cellulosic ethanol has a net energy balance of more than 60,000 Btu per gallon.”

Thus the corn-based ethanol does better than 1:1, and cellulosic ethanol does far better than that — though of course it cannot compete with petroleum (a new well of sweet crude oil has a 100:1 ratio of output to input energy).

The greenhouse gas emissions also vary according to the source (“feedstock”) of the ethanol, and the composition of its blend with regular gasoline. After a little mechanical tinkering, it is possible for ordinary cars and trucks to use (or “E10”) — a blend containing 10% ethanol. Some other blends are higher in concentration, such as E85, which is 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline. As DiPardo reports,

“Argonne National Laboratory estimates that a 2-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per vehicle mile traveled is achieved when corn-based ethanol is used in gasohol (E10), and that a 24- to 26-percent reduction is achieved when it is used in E85. Cellulosic ethanol can produce an 8- to 10-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions when used in E10 and a 68- to 91-percent reduction when used in E85. ”

This estimate seems consistent with the one I quoted above — 85 percent reduction, when cellulosic ethanol is “straight”— not mixed with gasoline at all. (I’m not sure whether it is ever used straight in cars, though.)

These papers assume more scientific knowledge of the reader than I actually bring to the task. For one thing, they describe the various processes that are being developed for making ethanol from cellulose, but I don’t follow the narratives. Evidently one process involves the use of to break down the cellulose into glucose molecules — a reaction that takes place in the stomachs of ruminants such as cows and sheep, which is why they can eat grass but you can’t. An alternative technology converts the carbon in the raw material into a gas, which is fermented by the action of a microorganism named Ijungdahlii. (That name doesn’t look plausible but I think I copied it down right.) Apparently there’s a new strain of Clostridium bacteria that’s twice as efficient in producing ethanol than this current one.

There’s something else that I don’t understand fully either: the basis for the reduction of emissions in ethanol as compared to fossil fuels. Most of the time the articles imply that alcohol’s superiority is simply because of its chemical composition. However, there seems to be another reason as well (or maybe instead of the former one): that it comes from renewable products. Yes, its combustion does produce greenhouse gasses; however, while it is doing so, the next crop of biomass plants is growing and absorbing an equivalent amount of . These absorptions offset the emissions.

Now, is this THE reason why ethanol is better than gasoline? Or is it an additional reason, beyond the superiority that derives from its chemical composition? I don’t know. (If a reader can help me comprehend this, I’ll appreciate your commenting below.)

In any case, the main advantage of cellulosic ethanol seems perfectly clear: It enables us to use ingredients that are otherwise wasted. For one thing, we can recycle and , including paper sludge. This eliminates the landfilling of wastes. One of the byproducts is — a material that can be recycled to make the plant self-sufficient in energy.

Agricultural wastes are abundant, for now they are simply burned or plowed back under. Some crops can be used for dual purposes: both food and fuel. Thus corn can be harvested for human or animal food, and the stover then used for ethanol, greatly increasing the farmers’ income. (As Ted Turner argues, this will enable governments to reduce or eliminate , thus giving developing countries the new opportunity to export their own products and escape from poverty.)

One of the most promising new crops for cellulosic ethanol feedstock is switchgrass (see photo), a perennial grass with a deep root system that prevents erosion and improves soil fertility. It can be raised in many unproductive areas without fertilizers or pesticides. It is also a superior feed crop, producing more protein for animals than corn.

I’m not the only person who is changing her mind about ethanol. In yesterday’s New York Times Business Section, Alexei Barrionuevo presented a big story about , who, as the head of refining at Chevron, used to argue against “mixing agricultural policy with fuels policy.” She has now become the CEO of , the biggest ethanol producer in the United States, which is investing heavily in its future production. Woertz expects ethanol to make up 10 percent of the country’s gasoline supply by sometime next decade, still using the same corn feedstock that is the mainstay for the current technology. When cellulosic ethanol technology is fully developed, she sees the possibility that it may one day replace more than half of gasoline. She is developing a collaborative relationship with Vinod the CEO of Sun Microsystems, which is investing in cellulosic ethanol. On Wednesday she is to give a major address in St. Louis at a conference promoting .

Well, good for her!

Friday, October 06, 2006

Hooray for Ted Turner, the Biofuel Guy

Keywords: WTO; Doha Round; free trade; agricultural subsidies; biofuels; ethanol; biodiesel; input-output ratio of energy

Ted Turner just changed my way of thinking. I can’t often specify the very minute when I reversed my opinion on any subject, but this time I can. I was reading a speech that Turner had delivered to the Public Forum in Geneva on 25 September. In it he announced that he’s always been in favor of free trade, but that he’s alarmed about the of talks, which had collapsed only a couple of months earlier. Those negotiations had been started with the intention of increasing the benefits of to the developing countries — and if the attempt fails, warns Turner, it will be tragic. “If we give up on Doha, we’re giving up on fighting poverty.”

But why has the Doha Round collapsed? Because the rich and poor countries cannot agree on the issue of . “In the US, government farm supports are 16 percent of total farmer income; in Europe, it’s 32%; in Japan, it’s 56%.” The rich countries “spend about $2 billion every week on trade distorting tariffs and subsidies.” As a result, African cotton farmers make only about $400 a year.

Turner argues that the voting farmers in rich countries simply don’t know what’s good for them. They could relinquish these protective subsidies and tariffs and still prosper, but they are operating with an obsolete notion about their own business opportunities. The market for food and fiber is not growing fast; subsidies are required because there is overproduction of agricultural products. But there’s another product for which demand is growing fast, and which can be met by agriculture: . Corn, beets, and sugar cane can be made into ; palm, soy, and rapeseed can be made into biodiesel. Someone just needs to tell the farmers. The WTO should adopt policies that support agriculture for fuel — but they can do that only if the farmers recognize the economic possibilities of doing so.

A strong market for biofuels can potentially eliminate the need for farm subsidies in the developed world. At the same time, this will help the developing countries, for the price of oil is so high that their imports have driven them into poverty. For example, “Gambia now spends six times as much money on fuel as it does on health.” By producing their own fuels, such countries can improve the standard of living in their own country immediately, and build up their exports.

“By converting part of their output from food and fiber to fuel, they will be entering a market with higher prices and rising demand, and are more likely to attract the kind of foreign investment that can modernize their agricultural practices — and increase their food production as well. This is a critical point, because there should be no food vs. fuel debate. We can absolutely produce both — all that’s required is investment. Economic growth, especially in rural areas, will help developing countries meet their food needs more easily. The answer to hunger is not more food, it is less poverty.”

This makes perfect sense. I knew already that biofuels do not increase the , so the plan is environmentally sound too. Moreover, it is a scheme that can begin right away. We can use the existing cars, and pour the ethanol into cars from existing gas pumps, without having to wait until a whole new technology is invented.

But there’s one catch – and it had stopped me cold. I had not believed in adopting biofuels as a sound approach because I knew that it is not an energy-efficient scheme. Many crops used for ethanol have an output of only one unit of biofuel energy per unit of input fossil fuel energy. And, at the present, that means that its payoff is too low to be economical.

But there are other advantages that I’d overlooked. I had considered the production of ethanol to be a merely political boon to farmers, not an overall advantage. It’s a , not an energy policy.

Turner made me realize that this “boon to farmers” is immensely beneficial. It will help economic development, and will enable poor countries to produce their own fuel. In some countries, notably Brazil, it is already efficient, allowing for an output: input ratio of energy exceeding 5: 1. And Turner claims:

“the opportunities will get better as the technology improves — and that’s happening right now. In the future, we should be able to produce new fuels like cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel that could be extracted from virtually anything grown anywhere. We will be able to genetically alter biofuel crops to make their conversion more efficient. And we will be able to create better bio-refineries, increasing the returns on biofuel investment.”

So why had I discounted the importance of shifting to biofuels? The answer is one that makes a point that I am glad to make about the educational impact of television drama.

I had watched an episode of The West Wing that dealt with the politics of promoting ethanol production in corn-growing midwestern states. The writers indicated that it is not now an efficient source of energy, and that its supporters are merely trying to boost the income of farmers. This argument had convinced me. Nobody had pointed out the other effects that might flow from this – the possibility of eliminating farm subsidies and , thereby allowing “developing countries” to actually begin developing.

What we need is a show that puts out the whole larger story. If I could be convinced by a television drama, other viewers — including farm families — could be convinced by a different and better script. That’s what wants to accomplish, bless his dear, kind heart! And he’s the perfect person to innovate by creating a new show that makes that very point. Go for it, Ted.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Who Stole Democracy?

Keywords: Democratic peace; Bush; minorities; Tocqueville; tyranny of the majority; Kant; Federalist Papers; war; proportional representation; Churchill; habeas corpus.

Democracy is the worst form of government -- except all the others that have been tried.
— Winston Churchill

Damn! It has happened again. I just had a phone conversation with R.L. — a smart sociology graduate student in Texas. The topic of “” came up. I could hear him wince, right over the phone. That drives me nuts because I’m a devout democrat. My interlocutor’s argument went like this: Bush and his cronies justify their policies by saying that they are spreading democracy, even imposing it on countries that never had it before. Hence, though R.L. doesn’t really oppose democracy, he dislikes arguing in favor of it. It’s tainted. He mentioned a political scientist who is claiming that democracy exacerbates inter-ethnic conflict and gives disproportionate power to , to the detriment of minorities.

What else is new? That’s what argued, and he had a point. If you think of democracy merely as “majority rule,” the tyranny of the majority will be one likely outcome. My definition of democracy has to include provisions, not only for opposition political parties, but for protecting the rights of minorities. A constitutional helps with that, and we also require a strong, independent , a free press, and institutionalized checks and balances to limit the power of elected officials.

I worry about democracy nowadays, not least in the country that pretends to own it: the United States. It’s not being defended, but rather subverted, by George W. Bush, who is accumulating excessive power in the presidency. With it, he has just abolished, for example, the right of for suspected terrorists, who may even be tortured (gently). Minorities are inherently vulnerable in a democracy, so the struggle toward freedom will never be finally achieved. It must be protected vigilantly – especially from any leader who uses its rhetoric in every sentence.

The danger to democracy comes from those who lead the “” — who use it to justify attacking other, non-democratic states. They have given it a bad name among liberals.

But what would liberals choose instead? was right. Democracy is the worst system of government -- except all the others.

I’m updating my entry on sociological studies for the Encyclopedia of Peace and Conflict with the collaboration of the graduate student in Texas. I want to strengthen the section on Democratic Peace, but that’s the part that made him nervous. A lot of studies have been published since my article came out and, taken together, they add greatly to the evidence for the theory. had it right. (See photo.) Democratic states almost never go to war against other democratic states.

Why does this finding upset liberals? I don’t understand it. Why should we fear that democracy will strengthen reactionary or aggressive politicians? Apparently both the right and the left suppose that it does.

Personally, I’m overjoyed by the finding. If it holds true in the future, that gives us a way to get international peace on earth: by fostering democracy around the world. If all countries become democracies — voila! — none of them will fight each other.

But evidently we need to remind people what the theory doesn’t say. First, it does not claim that democracies always behave benevolently toward all other states. One only has to look at recent US foreign policy to realize that.

Second, it doesn’t say that any state should impose democracy on other countries by force. That would be an oxymoron; if the people don’t choose it for themselves, it won’t be a democracy. However, I consider it perfectly fair – indeed, a duty — to HELP other societies win democracy by ousting their dictators nonviolently.

Third, it doesn’t say that any existing society enjoys perfect democracy. When it comes to inventing political institutions, humankind is still in the Paleolithic age. The Federalist Papers are but an instruction manual for creating superior arrowheads and stone knives, and the US is no longer chipping the best flint tools. Most are superior now because they have proportional representation and do not exclude minority political opinions from parliamentary representation.

As a left-liberal peacenik, I celebrate the prospect of democracy. It’s continuing to spread and, these days, that’s the most hopeful sign of progress that I can see. Let’s celebrate together.

Monday, October 02, 2006

What Can Howard Dean Accomplish?

Keywords: Matt Bai; Howard Dean; scream; Democratic Party; Republicans; Michael Lerner; Rahm Emanuel; The West Wing; Josh Lyman; Frank Rich; The Plan; John Kerry; Hillary Clinton; Iraq War; gerrymander; proportional representation.

has a fascinating piece, "The Inside Agitator," in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine about (see photo), who is now the national chairman of the . It is hard to love the Democrats nowadays — for ages, in fact — because they have little sense of direction. I’d throw up my hands about US politics if I could, but I have to live with the outcomes as long as I’m on this planet, and I’m not in a hurry to leave.
I have to deal with what’s really there. And the most promising realistic option is to hope for a Democratic electoral victory. Hence my respect for Dean.

Certainly I admired him when he was running for president. He and Kucinich were just about the only Democrats who opposed the war against Iraq, but of course he was defeated in some primaries and by (I’ve learned from Wikipedia) some flawed technology. In addressing a roaring crowd, he yelled to make himself heard, but the microphones filtered out the crowd noise and made it appear that he was just yelling out of anger. His inappropriate “” made him look so emotional that he lost credibility. I hadn’t heard that explanation before.

Still he managed to become chairman of the party and is undertaking some dramatic and risky reforms. Over the years, the party has come to focus almost all its energy and resources on winning certain key states, while ignoring the others where the outcome is almost a foregone conclusion. As a result, the few Democrats who live in solidly feel disenfranchised, excluded from political power. In his presidential campaign, Dean attracted much of his support from the grassroots, largely via Internet and Meetup discussions. He lacked support from the party’s elite, but a lot of zeal from bloggers and youth. His experience in dealing with these excluded Democrats made him realize that it is necessary to re-establish the party in all 50 states. He has been going around visiting regions where no important candidate or party official had set foot for 25 years.

Naturally, this ticks off the mainstream insiders of the party, who claim that he is seriously jeopardizing their opportunity for a victory this November. Both Bush and the Republican-led Congress are exceedingly unpopular now, and from the conventional point of view, this is the most opportune moment in years to win, at least if the party pours all its resources into the crucial districts. Dean knows this, but is doling out his funds with the long-term goals in mind. He is hiring young managers in every state and giving them free rein to campaign for local as well as federal offices. There may be some disappointment in the short term, but he believes that in another few years there will be a vigorous party organization in every one of the fifty states.

In this, Dean actually may be taking lessons from the Republicans, who also built up a more vibrant party over the years by establishing organizations in most regions of the country.

According to Bai, Dean has also learned not to write off voters who seem to be dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. Some studies have shown that rural voters, for example, are oriented more in terms of than specific policies. Therefore, Dean goes around using faith and values that makes Bai wince. For example, Dean (who is not known to be particularly religious) astonished a religious Latino audience about gay rights by saying, “…Equal rights under the law is not something that can be abridged by the Democratic Party because it’s really the law under Jesus Christ.”

Probably that argument would startle most other faithful Christians, but I rather like intention behind it. I am solidly aligned with , who argues that liberal Democrats have excluded from their midst people whose values are , forcing them to turn instead to the Republican Party if they want to address their religious and political concerns in the same discourse. I’ll gladly welcome outspoken Christians and any other devout group back into my own political crowd and I’m pleased to see Dean issuing that invitation.

I was surprised to learn that one of Dean’s main opponents is Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who had been Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff. (Emanuel was the real-life character on whom The West Wing’s Josh Lyman was modeled. In that fictional series, Lyman was astutely pragmatic, but in time he became the aide of a remarkably idealistic Democratic presidential candidate whose political principles resemble those of Howard Dean but who, unlike Dean, was elected. It is amusingly ironic to think of Emanuel/Lyman as a hard-nosed party insider in a bitter struggle against a visionary party chairman.)

And perhaps Emanuel is not just opportunistic. As a centrist, he has written a new book with Bruce Reed: The Plan: Big Ideas for America. According to a review by Frank Rich, Emanuel and Reed see all the Democratic candidates as sharing a few common political objectives: universal health care, energy conservation, universal citizen service along the Peace Corps/AmericaCorps model, a reduction in income inequality, and a restoration of constitutional protections of rights. Those objectives sound inspiring enough to restore considerable faith on my part in the Democratic Party.

Is Dean’s 50-states approach the best way to bring the Democrats back to power? I’m not so sure. It is simplistic to assume, as Bai seems to do, that the allocation of resources will determine the party’s fate with the electorate. True, the Republicans have lost credibility, but they have other advantages that may make an enormous difference. For one thing, they are already in power, and voters tend to re-elect . Besides, they have been in a position to districts greatly in their own favor. And finally, there’s the history of the Democrats’ own miserable record with respect to the . Nothing that John Kerry said last time could erase his own initial support of the war. And Hillary Clinton, who leads the next pack of probable presidential candidates, still to this day his not called for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq — much less acknowledged that she was wrong in agreeing to send them there in the first place.

With such uninspiring candidates, the Democratic Party cannot inspire much enthusiasm among voters. The best Dean can probably do is to induce many of us to choose the lesser evil.
To gain a heathy democracy, Americans need a wider range of choice than between Democrats and Republicans. Only can alter political realities in the United States enough to make a real difference. Regrettably, neither Howard Dean nor any other top political leader is about to endorse that kind of constitutional change.