Tuesday, July 31, 2007

How Much Power Does the President Wield?

had an interview the other night with two guys who are trying to get both and impeached. I hadn’t taken it seriously before — maybe because I assumed nobody could do it — but they convinced me.

Their point is that Bush (and especially Cheney) are grabbing power from Congress and putting themselves above the law by opening citizens’ first-class mail, and similar illegal shenanigans. They have made themselves unaccountable, establishing precedents that will follow in future presidencies unless checked. It’s not enough just to wait another year and a half and vote them out of office. They can’t run next time anyhow.

Congress, or at least has declined even to entertain the idea of seriously. As a result, de facto, the power of the president will remain in the tool kit for the next president to use when he/she is in a jam and needs extra leverage. If we don’t blow the whistle now, we’ll allow this power-grab to become standard practice, to be invoked by any future president who needs it. That sounds right to me.

Besides, last night on TVO’s “The Passionate Eye” I saw proof that Cheney's former company was a primary beneficiary of the loose administration of many billions of dollars in Iraq. It seems that there was Iraqi oil money in US banks when the invasion took place, so was supposed to use that money to rebuild . The US laws regulating such matters were suspended, and so were the Iraqi laws, so the process lacked accountability. The dinars were changed into $100 U.S. bills and tons of the cash were sent to Iraq, to be stashed in vaults that sometimes were not even locked. Halliburton did send in invoices, but for goods and services hugely inflated. Many billions of dollars in Iraq money were stolen or misappropriated, leaving hospitals and other facilities inadequately supplied.

It seems that Cheney, the real power behind the presidency, is even worse than Bush himself, so there is more pressure for him to be impeached. I received an email poll, which I dutifully checked off “yes” and sent back to be counted with the others favoring impeachment. The US population as a whole seems to be almost two-thirds in favor of impeaching Cheney. I don’t remember the numbers for Bush.

The rationale is that there’s too much power in the Oval Office. But is that really the case?

I think so, but (of Stratfor fame) thinks not. I was surprised to read one of his stimulating essays in which he claims that presidents are greatly constrained and don’t have nearly as much room to make original decisions as people assume.

Democrats, he points out, have won control of Congress but they are not making any decisions that actually reverse Bush’s war strategy – which proves to Friedman that no American politicians, including presidents, have much real power. I can hardly agree with him. This one may lose office because of his abuse of power, if the movement for impeachment grows.

Anyhow, Friedman says that since most people — notably most Iranians — do mistakenly believe that any US President enjoys immense power. Hence they are following the next election closely and waiting to see how it will turn out before deciding their own course of action.

But the next election is more unpredictable than the usual one, where there are several rules that allow one to gauge the probable outcome. First, no senator can win. Second, No Democrat can win unless he or she is from the Confederacy. Third, no Republican can win who is not from California, or Texas.

But this time, the are going to nominate a senator from the northeast — Clinton or Obama — instead of John Edwards, who would fit the bill nicely otherwise, since he is a southerner who is no longer a senator.

And the Republicans are probably going to nominate Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani, neither of whom is a senator but also neither of whom is from California or Texas. Schwarzenegger would be an ideal Republican candidate but he’s not eligible constitutionally. So the outcome of this election is inherently unpredictable.

And despite his abysmal ratings in the polls, Bush continues to act as if he had plenty of confidence. This is perhaps because foreigners don’t know what to expect, even after an election, which will not become clear for 18 months. According to Friedman’s explanation:

“This gives Bush his strange strength, No president this low in the polls should be acting with the confidence he shows. Part of it could be psychological, but part of it has to do with the appreciation that, given the strange dynamics, he is not your normal lame duck. Everyone else is tied in knots in terms of policy and in terms of the election. Bush alone has room to maneuver, and the Iranians are likely calculating that it would probably be safer to deal with this president now rather than expect the unexpected in 2008.”

This argument holds together pretty well. (See, I told you Friedman was smart!) Still, I don’t agree with him. I attribute Bush’s “strange strength” mostly to the factor that Friedman accepted in part, but rejected largely in favor of this elaborate political rationale: “psychological” factors. Bush can’t change and can't perceive the need for change, that’s all. The guy is just dumb and stubborn, poor thing.

Poor us.


Saturday, July 28, 2007

Soil Creation, Carbon Sinks, and Pine Beetle Partners

Like me, you’ve probably heard that it takes thousands of years to create and replenish what is being eroded from farmlands. Evidently that’s not so. As I wrote in an earlier blog entry (see the archive at the right, where it is the first entry in March 2007). The figured out how to produce rich some 4,000 years ago – and it is still there in Brazil, replenishing itself within twenty years when it is removed. It's called “.” (See photo.) The deposits can be up to 1 –2 meters deep, though the average is around 40-50 cm.

Best yet, this rich soil is a wonderful . Johannes Lehmann, a soil biochemist at Cornell University cites several other researchers, saying that,

“Soil organic carbon is an important pool of carbon in the global biogeochemical cycle. The total amount of organic carbon in soils is estimated to be 2011 Gt. C, which constitutes about 82% of the global organic carbon in terrestrial ecoysytems. Amazonian dark earths have high carbon contents of up to 150 g. C/kg soil in comparison to the surrounding soils with 20-30 g C/kg soil. ...Furthermore, the organic matter in the ark earths is persistent since we find these elevated carbon contents even hundreds of years after they were abandoned.”

These soils are highly fertile. can be as short as six months. Some terra preta lands have been under continuous cultivation without fertilization for over 40 years.

Clearly, if terra preta can be produced by or for farmers around the world, the prospects for agriculture are enhanced at the same time that the planet’s carbon sinks are greatly expanded.

But how can this be done? The magic secret of terra preta seems to be the burying of in the soil. Presumably any kind of organic waste could be converted to , but the main source is certainly . Charcoal is created by being burned slowly in the near-absence of oxygen, as for example by being buried throughout the burn cycle. This is a simple method.

Naturally, it would defeat our purpose if we cut down forests just to obtain the wood for the production of bio-char. Tragically, however, the Mountain Pine Beetle is destroying for us, It’s impossible to feel grateful for this devastation, which results from global warming. Cold winter weather used to kill the insects, but no longer does so, leaving them to kill wide swaths of forest in British Columbia and Alberta. In fact, the logging companies are working as hard as possible to remove dead trees before the wood becomes unusable. There are more wood products now, therefore, than can be used. Whole mountain ranges are covered with pines that are now red. A drive through the Rockies will shock you.

Though this destruction is tragic, there is a potential up-side, allowing us to replenish and enrich around the world, while sequestering large amounts of carbon for thousands of years. I hope some technical specialists will explore the following idea. (I am not a scientist, so I may be wrong, but it seems worth a look.)

What would work would be the creation of large furnaces near the dead forests. Loggers could bring the wood and other forest debris to the furnaces, where it would be burned in the absence of oxygen, thus producing bio-char. The resulting heat should not be wasted, but could be used to generate electric power (or conceivably for some other project requiring energy). Then the charcoal could be sold in North America or provided as to poor farmers abroad, reducing the need for , which can pollute.

If any readers have the right institutional contacts and can bring this possibility to their attention, I’ll be grateful.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Your Beliefs and Mine

You believe that the shortage of is the world’s great danger.

— I believe that we can easily handle changing energy technology but that is an enormous danger that must be confronted immediately, with all the commitment that intellectuals and activists can muster.

You believe that the way to solve the energy crisis is to reduce your personal “” to fit the “” of our land.

— I believe that one can reduce the “footprint” only by changing the of whole societies, and that this can be done in ways that do not cause much inconvenience or deprivation. Indeed, the global footprint and the carrying capacity are always relative to a particular prevailing technology. Whenever technology improves, it is possible for the land to support larger populations, so the “carrying capacity” increases.

You believe in reducing your standard of living so as not to consume too many scarce resources or disturb the ecosphere.

— I believe that reduction of personal is necessary in some ways (especially by not flying in airplanes) but that overall it cannot make the decisive difference. Our future depends primarily on technological innovations that enhance efficiency.

You believe that the use of technology inherently endanger the natural and that it will be necessary to use low-level technology to stay in harmony with nature.

— I believe that when shortages arise, there are many solutions — primarily through the mechanism of price signals in a market economy, which prompt innovations using resources more efficiently or substituting other materials. We have to keep aware of environmental side-effects and respond to them intelligently with economic, political, and technological innovations.

You believe that the majority of the human is doomed because of the looming energy shortage, and that we can do nothing to prevent it this die-off, nor should we, since the world will be better off with the small, sustainable population that survives.

— I believe that every human being is precious and a partner in developing our common future. We must do everything within our power to protect our species and our civilization. Moreover, we are doing so with great success. Almost everywhere on the planet, is increasing, along with improved health, , , and acquaintance with the wider world.

This improvement has been going on at least since the industrial revolution, though there have always been doomsayers predicting famine. Hunger only occurs when there is no effective demand – insufficient money to buy food. But over time around the world, the price of food and other commodities generally have declined – become less scarce, rather than more.

This is the result of improved technology. Look at the chart above, for example; it shows the real over time. The world's population has multiplied six times since the industrial revolution. If the world's raw materials were becoming scarcer from these increases of consumption, the graph would go up, not down.

You believe that economic growth is inherently destructive and must be replaced by a – one without growth. Economic growth, you assume, uses up the world’s resources and enables populations to expand, hastening the inevitable day when the world’s resources are used up and most people must die.

— I believe that is essential for the well-being of the poor everywhere, and if it stops, even the current capitalist system will collapse, impoverishing everyone. (For example, one borrows money from the bank at interest to start a business. If the business does not grow, it will be impossible to pay the principal back with interest, and the business will go bankrupt. Multiply this by the number of businesses and you'll see the outcome.)

—I believe, moreover, (and in every case, evidence supports this belief) that economic growth is famously the “best contraceptive,” for whenever nations become prosperous they reduce their so that their population levels off or declines by choice, not as the result of shortages.

— I also believe that current technology advances by deploying less material and more knowledge – intangible goods and services. saves gas, for example. We hardly even need to drive to the library anymore, since we can read journals on-line. Even newspapers are going out of business. Only travel remains an insurmountable problem; we do have to curtail flying.

You believe it is ethically acceptable to withdraw to a small farm and carry on subsistence farming, so as to live in harmony with nature, thus writing off the rest of urban civilization for extinction.

— I believe that resource conservation is morally obligatory when practicable within the society where I live. (I am glad to be living in a high-rise building, for example, near a subway, for these allow for substantial reductions in greenhouses gases.) Nevertheless, conservation is far from decisive in determining the future of the planet. What makes a difference will be the policies enacted by governments to choose among new technologies and legislate structural changes affecting energy and climate.

Policymaking and political engagement are the task of intellectuals and technological experts. Anyone capable of participating in this work is ethically obliged to do so – full steam ahead, for we are faced with the stupendous task of saving Planet Earth and its inhabitants. I count myself among the most privileged people in history, for the opportunity I have to address these problems and the hopeful prospect that they can be solved. Not for anything in the world would I abandon this challenge.

You believe the universe has no purpose and no meaning.

— I believe that that everyone who seeks, can find guidance, encouragement and consolation from sources beyond everyday knowledge. Without that belief, I might even believe many of the things that you believe.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Mo Zi's Universal Love

I've been thinking about and -- the latter because of his analysis of Weber's paper on “World-Denying Love.” By that he means transcendent love for all, an attitude that all the great Axial age religions — except Confucianism — promoted.

In Buddhism this kind of love is called "" -- yes, like my name, though my parents didn't know it when they named me that. Now and then I practice "metta" meditation, or at least I try to. You're supposed to start by loving yourself, then someone dear, such as your husband, then some others who are acquaintances but not close friends, then enemies, and then the whole world.

But I can't do it. I am curious whether a person can build up a capacity for . When I experience love, it seems to be mostly a spontaneous response to the goodness, charm, or beauty of someone else. Surely it must be possible to acquire a stronger sense of love that I can bring on whenever I try.

If some reader has had that experience, I'll be grateful if you'll tell me about it, so I can ascertain whether it is really worth attempting in my spare time. Presumably it is, since the "Metta Sutta" is one of the great texts and the meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. We ought to know by now if it is not possible to carry out.

There's a different question, too: whether such universal love is even an ideal that a person ought to pursue. This question was the main controversy in ancient China between Mohists and Confucians.

(see photo), the founder of , was born in 490 BCE - nine years after Confucius had died. He taught his followers to feel equal affection for all human beings. Not everyone admired the idea -- especially not , who insisted that love should not be indiscriminate. One should dole out one's affection in an appropriate way, especially through pronounced "filial piety” toward one's parents and much less affection (if any) toward strangers.

But universal love was definitely a prominent ideal during the Axial age -- roughly the millennium extending before and after Christ's death. During that period lived the Buddha, , and — all of them promoters of what Weber called “world-denying” or “” love, but which I'd prefer to call " love, in contrast to ordinary, everyday love.

The difference is that sensible, normal people give love to those who will, at least to some degree, . Nothing is more painful than unrequited love, and that's not just in the romantic sense. It makes no sense to waste your life taking care of someone who does not even appreciate it. Ordinary love is built up cautiously, by offering a little, getting some back from the other, and offering some more until, if you're lucky, you have a mutually satisfying relationship. This kind of quid pro quo relationship does not have to be taught by a religious leader; it is the practical approach that we all learn in society by seeing people exchange favors and assistance.

But Mo Zi appeals more to me as a spiritual hero. Although he was not really a pacifist, he strongly opposed aggression of warlords and tried to mediate and prevent wars. But when a ruler was aggressive anyway, Mo Zi created a highly-disciplined army and offered his warriors to the weaker rulers to help defend them against aggression.

I don't know that Mohists' universal love was exactly what Christ taught (he didn't urge anyone to go to war, even on behalf of an underdog) but it had strong similarities. And as Weber pointed out, this selfless kind of love (which he called ) became an important aspect of Christianity, though of course it caused tensions in other spheres of life, especially the family.

Christ, the Buddha, and St. Francis of Assisi were examples of spiritual virtuosi who demonstrated universal love to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who came along, but they could only do so by living as homeless, wandering beggars. People who had regular obligations to kin, neighbors, and co-workers could hardly be so profligate with their resources.

Weber's and Bellah's essays explored precisely the tensions that arose when universal love is practiced as a way of life. But neither writer really wanted to jettison the brotherliness ideal. Though they never quite said so, they both seem to have been searching for ways to reconcile the two types of love.

I think about it too, though it is not exactly an existential problem for me, since I am not overwhelmed by so much love that I have trouble deciding where to direct it. I wish I did. I can't even stir it up when I sit and meditate on metta. Still, it's a question worth addressing.

I have a sense that the answer must come from recognizing the true nature of universal love. I have learned a lot about that from my friend Hanna Newcombe. It doesn't have any defining qualities. It doesn't necessarily manifest itself in any overt way. It doesn't occupy time or space, nor does it require attention. It can go on in the background while you're thinking about other matters. And since it does not take up time or space, it is not material and is not bound by the conservation of energy. You can experience as much of it as you want (or at least as much as you can generate) without taking any love away from anyone else. As Hanna points out, nobody need feel possessive, since there can always be more transcendent love, plenty to go around — at least if you don't confuse it with ordinary love, which is manifested behaviorally.

It's only when you think you have to demonstrate your transcendent love in some physical, overt way that there can be scarcity. We have to conserve everything that exists in space and time, but transcendent love is not physical, not conserved, not scarce. I don't know whether Jesus realized that fact, but apparently Mo Zi did not. He sent his armies to protect the weak, always motivated by universal love.

On the other hand, there's nothing to say that he should not express his love in that way. The only point I would make is that transcendent love has no indicators. You can't tell whether another person experiences it or not because, unlike , it's not dispensed according to any set of priorities. If Mo Zi's warriors went out to protect the defenceless victims, that's no proof that they had transcendent love. There's no way to find that out by watching them.

This is the argument I want to elaborate in addressing Weber and Bellah. They picked a good problem to work on. I'm glad I'll have a chance to address it now too.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Reforming Capitalism

A few things came together today that made me hopeful about our economic system. Thing number one: Some Globe and Mail columnist (I don’t remember who) mentioned that the lawyers who had been paid by Conrad Black’s had also been found guilty and will be sentenced for not taking a stand against his misdeeds several years ago. It seems that this verdict is making a lot of people nervous about their own complicity with illegal activities. When underlings are held accountable for not speaking up against a criminal plot, then all kinds of people are going to become more scrupulous about issues than before. (Which is, you must agree, a good thing.)

Thing number two: I received another e-mail promoting the practice of . I’ve never quite understood that term, which can refer either to the innovation of a useful money-making business or to the creation of a civil society organization that does good for some groups in society. promotes social entrepreneurship, and he’s a self-made capitalist who does as much for humankind as anyone I know. By definition, then, social entrepreneurship is a good thing.

Thing number three: Stratfor’s new “public policy report” deals with the future of (CSR), which I already knew to be a good thing. (Well, at least I personally think it is, though I have friends who believe that by definition, whatever a corporation does is a bad thing.) I googled “corporate social responsibility” to make sure I got more than one perspective on its future.

The Nestlé boycott was an early impetus for the corporate social responsibility movement, which is now going gangbusters. Next, as I recall, there were new ethical demands coming from , notably when a campaign arose for of holdings in South Africa. Next, annual meetings of corporations became lively as shareholders started standing up an demanding various reforms. Another good thing.

The Stratfor report made me think back a few years to a Group of 78 meeting where there was a presentation by a woman representing the , which had been created by (see photo). He must have been pretty keen on the project because she said that he even located it in his office. (I hope she meant his outer office.) He particularly encouraged an emphasis on increasing the of corporations’ activities — which seems to me a good place to start.

I googled the UN Global Compact to see how it’s going nowadays, and I found that it had just been holding a summit in Geneva from July 5 to 7, chaired by the new Secretary General, . This was “history’s largest and most significant event on the topic of leadership and corporate responsibility.” It featured business leaders, government ministers, and heads of civil society and was devoted to “building the markets of tomorrow.” Here’s a blurb from one of their reports:

“Launched by 2000, the UN Global Compact brings business together with UN agencies, labor, civil society and governments to advance ten universal principles in the areas of human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption. Through the power of collective action, the Global Compact seeks to mainstream these ten principles in business activities around the world and to catalyze actions in support of broader UN goals. With over 3,100 participating companies and hundreds of other stakeholders from more than 100 countries, it is the world’s largest voluntary corporate citizenship initiative.”

Some 63 percent of the leaders said they participate in the Global Compact to increase trust in their company.

It seems to work. Among the other (rather dull) reports of the summit I found a study by Goldman Sachs that revealed the financial benefits of being responsible. It showed that among six sectors (energy, mining, steel, food, beverages, and media) companies that lead in implementing environmental, social and governance policies have outperformed the general stock market by 25 percent since August 2005. That’s a pretty good thing.

But these reports were written in stodgy UN-ese, so I turned to other sources — a study of corporate social responsibility by the Credit Union in Vancouver, an ethical investment organization where I once parked a little money. The VanCity researchers had questioned 47 “thought leaders“ about the future of CSR, Some were optimistic, others pessimistic, but they all agreed that within ten years, CSR will become mainstream within business, even if not within public consciousness.

This change will reflect the growing influence of — consumers, employees, shareholders, suppliers, NGOs, governments, and business partners. The “thought leaders” expect that

“CSR companies in the future will be increasingly moving from identifying and managing stakeholders and their social issues to active engagement of stakeholders in issues of mutual concern. Many are calling this stakeholder dialogue, as distinct from one-way communication or two-way consultation. ... Indeed, some thought leaders see the future CSR company engaging its stakeholders in co-production... A few see the emergence of new governance models, predicting an increased role for stakeholders in governance, such as stakeholder councils and other forms of engagement.”

Now we’re getting somewhere! I have claimed all along that what needs is not to abolish corporations but to make them accountable. And this “stakeholder council” idea is pretty close to the solution that I envisage. I’d like to require that all corporations have on their board of directors persons representing all the major stakeholders – including consumers, employees, environmentalists, who could be chosen from large panels elected by comprising citizens concerned about those particular issues.

Capitalism is a brilliant invention, but it’s far from . The changes that we’re seeing here indicate promising ways of making the economy more democratic and more accountable and just.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What about Iraq?

Keywords: Iraq; John Burns; Joe Biden; Baghdad; Sunni; Shia; Kurds; federal government.

I just shrug. There’s no answer and I’ve stopped thinking about what to do.
But of course, one cannot shrug indefinitely. Political decisions have to be made about . I watched two interviews today about the country's future — one by interviewing the New York Times’ Baghdad correspondent , and the other by Judy Woodruff interviewing on the Lehrer New Hour.

John Burns (see the photo – he’s the one with the gorgeous curly locks) is the more pessimistic of the two. Basically he says that if the are removed anytime soon, there will be catastrophic massacres that dwarf any of the violence we are seeing now. He is not calling for the troops to stay, though, but is only pointing out what he claims is the prevailing opinion among Iraqis. You have to calaculate the costs, which are going to be horrible, no matter what. The in the south will have the upper hand in government, and they also have control of most of the . But they are divided among themselves about their relationship to Iran. The will not go quietly. It’s a question whether they could be induced just to take Anbar province and be quiet; Burns doesn’t think they will. And, he says, the only people talking about dividing the country into three parts are the Americans. The Iraqi people hate the idea.

The only hope he sees is that some of the politicians are beginning to take seriously the possibility that the US Congress will actually succeed in getting the troops withdrawn. Until now, they haven’t believed the US would do so, but now one of them, when assured that it was a real possibility, replied, “Then we will be slaughtered.” That prospect may, Burns thinks, convince these groups that they had better start working out a deal among themselves to prevent such an outcome.

Biden took a different line. He says the present specifies that the country is to be a decentralized federal system, but that nevertheless Al- and his followers keep trying to make a strong centralized government. They can’t. It will never happen. But if the constitution is actually implemented, with three different regions having constitutions of their own that give them control over local matters, it may be possible for the political crisis to simmer down enough so that, eventually (and he didn’t say when) the US troops could be withdrawn. In the shorter term, these troops could be reduced in number.

He wasn’t saying that there would be three different independent countries, but one decentralized one. But he also wasn’t clear about what would have to happen to get this federal system up and running. Yes, Maliki would have to be forced, but it is not clear how. And surely more than that would need to happen. Biden was not optimistic, exactly, but he sounded more so than Burns.

So what conclusions can I draw? I don’t think the US population will accept the present role of their armed forces in Iraq much longer. By March there will be a draw-down of forces beginning. It is hard to believe that Biden’s scenario could be realized in time for them to begin withdrawing in an orderly way without leaving the place open to further chaos. Burns must be closer to an accurate predictor than Biden, however much I wish otherwise..


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Our Biotech Future?

Keywords: evolution; Darwin; Freeman Dyson; Carl Woese; species; bacteria; transfer of genes; biotechnology; photosynthesis; Green technology; M. S. Swaminathan.

Why is evolution such a hot topic more then 200 years after ’s death? Ironically, Darwinian may be in its last phase, soon to be replaced by a different kind of change. At least, that’s what Freeman Dyson (see photo) suggests, and his judgment is remarkably astute.

Dyson’s article is brilliant. Its title as the same as the one above, except that I’ve added a question mark, for I’m a bit less optimistic on the subject than he. “Our Biotech Future” is in the July 19th issue of the New York Review of Books, and it takes off into some fanciful speculations arising from discoveries by the biologist .

Woese has added a third branch to the tree of life. It was formerly believed that there were only two: , which consisted of cells that lacked nucleui and , which had nuclei. Animals and plants are made from eukaryotes, whereas prokaryotes contained only microbes. Woese, however, discovered that there are two quite different types of prokaryotes, which he called bacteria and . The archea were initially believed rare, existing only in extreme environments such as hot springs, but now they are recognized as abundant everywhere on the planet.

Woese’s theory, as published as “A New Biology for a New Century,” in Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, June 2004. This theory portrays these three branches of cells as having arisen sequentially from an even earlier type, among which genes could be transferred and separate species did not yet exist. As Dyson describes the situation:

“Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic infoormation so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid...”

From this communal soup, one day a primitive bacterium emerged, possessing an advantageous gene that it did not share with the community. Dyson writes:

“Its offspring became the first species of bacteria — and the first species of any kind — reserving their intellectual property for their own private use. With their superior efficiency, the bacteria continued to prosper and to evolve separately, while the rest of the community continued its communcal life. Some millions of years later, another cell separated itself from the community and became the ancestor of the archea. Some time after that, a third cell separated itself and became the ancestor of the eukaryotes. And so it went on, until nothing was left of the community and all life was divided into species. The Darwinian interlude had begun.”

If Dyson calls our period an “interlude”of two or three billion years, it is because he expects it to end shortly. Whereas genes could be transferred only reproductively from one generation to the next within particular species, we are already able today to do again with technology what the primordial “communities” of cells did long ago: transfer “horizontally” from one individual to another.

It is the promise of this new biotechnology that Dyson celebrates. Darwinian evolution – the competition for survival of noninterbreeding species — was necessarily slow, for, once established, species evolved very little. Ordinarily, one species must become extinct so that new species can replace them. Indeed, after homo sapiens arrived on the scene, biological evolution was so slow that — the transmission of ideas — accounted for comparatively much more than it did.

But in the future, species will change radically and rapidly. Dyson predicts that “green” biotechnology is about to overtake the “gray” sciences based on physics and chemistry — including computer technology. He predicts that the future will involve both green and gray technology, but that during the next fifty years, the green side will become as widespread in society as computers have during the past fifty years. Children, he says, will learn to transfer genes from one organism to another, just as they have learned to operate computers — by playing games with them in their spare time.

The social impact he foresees as mostly benign, even as overcoming rural poverty. Villagers in developing countries will be able to find green biotech jobs in the countryside and no longer have to migrate to gray jobs in the cities. We will develop plants (perhaps with black leaves full of silocon) that can more efficiently harness the sun’s energy than do the chlorophyll leaves of today. Dyson goes on and on about other possibilities:

“Genetically engineered earthworms could extract common metals such as aluminum and titanium from clay, and genetically engineered seaweed could extract magnesium or gold from seawater. Green technology could also achieve more extensive recycling of waste products and worn-out machines...”

Like Dyson, I am enthusiastic in believing that most of the solutions to humankind’s present problems will come from technological innovations. Contrary to many people, I believe that there are.” However, I am also aware that biotechnology presents great dangers.

There is one passage in Dyson’s article that sticks out like a sore thumb where he addresses (but only in a cursory way) the dangers of biotechnology. I think a harsh reviewer of the article must have read his light-hearted references to gene transfer as a child's game and insisted that he insert this passage, for it does not fit the euphoric tone of the rest. Here he writes, “Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.”

Yet the elaboration of particular rules does not interest Dyson, beyond his naming of the problems. He excuses himself in this way: “I do not attempt to answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.”

I hope they can. Yet perhaps Dyson’s optimism actually does reflect wisdom. “ .” (Matthew 6:34). We need not borrow problems from tomorrow, but should address those of today. Yet, there is a need for foresight too, and when it comes to the transfer of genes, I believe in the policy that expressed to me in an interview for the current (July) issue of Peace Magazine: “.”

Don’t give your kid a genetic modification toy just yet. We have some issues to work out first.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Unfortunately, Fish Swim

Keywords: fisheries; sustainable development; tragedy of the commons.

I've been sharing a ride across Canada with Adele and Peter Buckley, often debating with Adele about sustainable development. She's involved with a research project that uses a mathematical model to project the future stocks of essential raw materials, such as timber, oil, fish, and the like. The problem is that models don't predict very well, mostly because they are simple extrapolations from present use patterns into the future, without taking account of the significant impact of technological changes. It is true that we'd run out of raw materials if we continued using them on the current basis as population increases. But we don't. For example, 25 years ago, everyone would have predicted an enoromous increase in the number of telephones, which would mean an increase in the need for wires, etc. But along came cell phones and wireless computers, so the future seems to be one with even less need for wires than at present. The mathematical models cannot predict the technological future, so their projections are of limited value. All the efficiencies that we now are enjoying have come from technological changes, so that factor must be taken into account, though nobody except a fortune teller can do so.

However, there are certain non-technological innovations that can also make a huge difference. When we started talking about fisheries, I realized that I had to qualify my claims. I'd argued that the rising price of any commodity would, under a decent market system, provide incentives for users to conserve it and innovate alternative designs that use alternative types of material-- as, for example, fiber optics replaced copper when it became costly. These considerations have forced me to become increasingly favorable to capitalism, which favors private ownership and therefore creates individual incentives for producers to conserve and manage their own resources over time.

But there are indeed certain circumstances under which scarce commodities are actually depleted instead of conserved. In those cases, an institutional change can make a big difference. The most obvious example consists of any product that can be "mined" from a common stock of capital. Thus the most famouse case is the "tragedy of the commons" in which a common pasture is used by all the villagers. This is called, in game theory, a "mixed motive game" -- partly cooperative and partly competitive. That is, each villager will benefit by having as many cows as possible grazing on the common. But also, each villager will be harmed if the other villagers allow their own cows to graze as much as possible, for soon the grass will all be gone and all the cows will starve. The villager is torn between his own conflicting desires -- in which his collective interests clash with his individual interests.

The same goes for fisheries, which are now being depleted. As with cow pastures, the answer should be to divide the commons into individual plots and allow each farmer or fisher to manage his own grazing or fishing space. Some countries are actually doing that. New Zealand, for example, has a system of ITR -- individual, transferrable rights. These are assigned to individuals in perpetuity and may be bought and sold, just as land ownership is bought and sold.

But the trouble is, fish swim. That makes it difficult to create incentives for individual fishers to invest in maintaining their stock of fish, since the fish may simply swim away. Ultimately, we wanst a scheme that will give incentives to do even more than conserve fish -- but also use the space for "farming" fish in a susstainable way. There are systems of licensing that tax fishers for their hauls, but it seems that something better than that is required. So I hope someone can figure out how to make the oceans into discrete plots of private property rather than a huge global commons. This proposal will not appeal to many of my friends, who prefer socialistic answers to every problem, but I think there is no such answer to the problem of the world's declining fish stocks.