Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Kids’ Play & Macro-economics (It’s OK not to own much, maybe even best).

100 years after its occurrence, it was almost impossible for American kids to conceive of anyone not knowing about the Civil War. Not now, but at least many of us are learning not to call ourselves “Americans” or be otherwise so presumptuous. Or, at least I hope so.
In the early 60s John Kennedy instituted the Peace Corps and the President’s Physical Fitness Program. Kids at Fernbank Elementary School in Decatur GA (near the great Stone Mountain commemoration of the Confederacy, rival to Mount Rushmore, but also near Atlanta, liberal heart of the Old South) had to do jumping jacks, and try to do pull-ups, outside in the fresh air. This was good.
Only a year before, my family lived in southern Indiana, not so far from the infamous Mason-Dixon line. There we kids’d play Civil War soldier games. At our new home there was physical evidence of that conflict all around, including a large foxhole dug into an embankment by the house we’d moved into, where we found a piece of a wagon wheel. In 3rd grade now, I was finally learning to read, starting with Curious George books (staring a monkey) and soon moving on to the book that made my life, Trappers and Traders of the Old West (out of print, author forgotten). Into our purely white, “segregated” and well-dressed comfort, the daughter of a rich, prominent Brahmin from India was dropped – a real bomb indeed. She cried every day she was there, so tortured, by almost all of the other kids, was she. One girl, clearly the most intelligent in the class (the only one with glasses), confided concerns about this to me, but we knew there was nothing we could do. This was a school where later I had to disguise ballet tights my mother imposed on me (trading after-school ballet lessons for her sons for harp instruction she gave the ballet teacher’s daughter). Had my tights ever surfaced, my life at school would have become as unendurable as that of the unfortunate elite-class brown girl (who was soon gone and forgotten, at least by others).
Rosalyn, Jocelyn and Trixie took immense pleasure in taunting the “colored” garbage-men who’d arrive while we “exercised”, chanting “2,4,6,8, we don’t want to integrate!” as loud as they could, for as long as they could hope to be heard by the sanitation engineers, then falling over clutching themselves in laughter. People prize their individuality, unique idiosyncrasies and distinctions.
Only one other boy wore jeans - the adopted son of my father’s boss. He’d learned interesting things while in orphanage, and was fascinatingly world-wise. He even taught me how to trap and skin muskrats. Peavine Creek rolled down a long series of low falls, making great loafs and clouds of foam on washing days… there were “poor” folk living along it, who used it to do laundry. Thus, perhaps, the importance of clothes to my fellow school kids – some wore suits, emphasizing class-consciousness. Two close friends, Jimmy and Joe, claimed their new suits matched exactly… Who was associated with who was very, very important.
Sam, my friend with jeans and checkered past, had a maid working at his home, near my own. The maid spoke something called “Gullah” which I later studied about at university. Of course the linguists were misinformed (I was about to start learning much of this academic tendency): supposedly it was spoken only on islands off South Carolina. But no, not only did the maid speak it, but so did an elderly carpenter who lived by the train tracks near an overpass, “Uncle”, whom we gave Bantam chickens to raise. Sam had a wonderful big dog, Micky, who answered to whistles, herded chickens and treed squirrels. We spent lots of time in the woods, collecting mistletoe to sell in Christmas season, doing minor vandalism and occasionally terrorizing other kids. But only the white kids – whom we’d have been glad to be friends with, outside of that environment. For in it was another thing entirely - kids who spoke Gullah and only Gullah, who lived in a one-room shack with one bare light-bulb and a real “outhouse”, kids with whom we could follow streams which would disappear underground, and catch great snapping turtles that broke sticks larger than our fingers in their sharp mouths. We’d bring turtles home, causing Sam’s maid to scream in terror, “Terrapin! Terrapin!” and me to remember that Gullah word for turtle (and wonder if turtles pin down the world which rests on a turtle’s back…). We kids even hopped freight trains for short rides, though this wasn’t something for the young fancy dressers of Fernbank…
But, one day one of those found us in the woods and invited us to a “party” at a nearby suburban house where parents weren’t home. We were 10 and 11 then, and the world of wealth wasn’t yet the place of paranoia it’s locked into now. At the invitation, my heart skipped for joy. I was in! It was to be the party life! I was accepted! But there, sulky, petty Rosalyn, Jocelyn and Trixie, in frilly dresses, expected presents. They had hardly a fun or civil thing to say - no personal problem with us, I knew, as we’d practiced bike riding together when first learning… No, it was just their manner - never content, always demanding. Everything was material, and nothing personal but dissatisfaction. They were pretty - yes - but apparently not so much so inside. I no longer wanted to be their friend.

Those who have too much often also have too little, and not just compassion. Too little sharing, give-and-take, adventure and love of life. They just want, and want much more strongly even than those do who’ve hardly ever had much at all. Because that’s all they know. I learned this without words, and thus much more about “anthropology” than I ever learned from the wonderful, charismatic, imagination-inspiring Margaret Mead, an important and popular writer throughout the 60s who came to lecture at Emery U., where our fathers taught… My mother had been reading to me from her People and Places, and I took it to ask for an autograph (Sam and I were quite familiar with the academic area, from raising white rats for the psychology department, and raiding the Coke machines for prize-winning bottle-caps). She liked us, asked that we attend her Introductory Anthro series, and meet her after class every time to show lists of words we didn’t recognize (she quite liked boys that age). We complied. In class, she said she knew 40 languages, found herself thinking in other languages sometimes; and I believed her. Now I know how long she spent in Samoa, (she gained fame from Coming of Age in Samoa, now regarded as a Utopian fantasy, after spending less than half a year there in the 20s), and also how long it takes to learn anything of another culture. I’ve lived on the opposite side of the globe from where I started in two very different countries (Korea and Thailand), for a total of well over a dozen years now. I speak mainly Thai at home, and publish books on local history and culture, but am just beginning to really know parts of it, and to use the language, in my private mind, more than just rarely, and only in phrases. And Thai is a “simple” language: another girl from India, much later in my life, tried to teach it to me… Her family, she explained quite truthfully, had picked up the language in-country, and still used it in correspondence, finding it much easier than English, or Urdu.
We tend to like thinking highly of ourselves, and to be demanding of other people. Often we claim more than what we have any right to. This indicates immaturity, that we are not yet fully developed. How then “Intelligent Design” but perhaps within Evolutionary context? Let’s hope we are still developing anyway. Margaret Mead meant well, and her ideas certainly influenced mine, and encouraged me to live with, and try to understand other ways of life (like trappers and traders of the Old West had to do!).
In the Aranachel Pradesh wilds of the Upper Bhramaputra, and in the highlands of central Kalimantan (Borneo) live women who consider any man who hasn’t killed another man not worth having sex with. I’ve come to strongly feel that it is not the job of any outsider to attempt to alter this viewpoint, at least not directly.
Many great writers have glorified the incredible cultures of people adapted to extreme circumstances, living where others cannot: Lawrence van der Post’s Lost World of the Kalahari and Farley Mowat’s The Desperate People and People of the Deer stand out in my mind. Siberians, Tarahumara, Yanamamo, Amazonian tribes in Brazil, Incas, Australian Aborigines and Southeast Asian Sea Gypsies have also made for fascinating reading. One marvels with reverence at knowing of such achievement of spirit, of civilization without exploitation and so much successful interaction with nature. To learn of such folk is to learn that there are varieties of desirable, non-technological advancement we should revere, and certainly not even diminish, let alone demolish. Yet these varieties of society are on the endangered list. The greatest threat to them is globalization and the cash-addicted lust to consume which is blinding and crippling the world.
Would we know about valuable medicines like quinine, cat’s claw or even aspirin if transmitted knowledge only came through government schools? Some people need to live “close with nature” (clichéd phrase or no), and if, by “wringing hands” we cannot find a way to provide such people safety from “economic” demands, our close descendents will have lives much less happy than we wish to know.
We use transportation too much, use too much oil, cement, combustion, and general overhead getting what we need. Blinded by potential for ease, ‘modern’ people have become over-worked, over-fed, lacking in community and confused. People used to make jeans themselves, from marijuana fiber - it’s not just urban legend, conspiracy theory, sour grapes, or rabid sentiment. People provided for themselves, perhaps generally better than most do now (at least in important kinds of quality); and it was a good, healthy, wholesome thing. Now we consume things produced far, far away, and allow opinion to prevail that everyone needs to be involved in the exchange networking. What I want to stress is the opposite - without ‘disconnected’ people, economically, we will have more ‘disconnected’ people emotionally, mentally and socially (what is it now? AD/HD? Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder? Aspergers? Bi-polar? Whatever one uses, we’ll have more of it if we don’t right our flopped-over ship)! There’s too much focus on “standard of living” and almost none on “quality of life” (which, when we allow torture to protect our ‘freedom’, we certainly do not have).
Academicians usually favor “intellectual property” but, in my mind, anyone with love of God and this life will not. Too many of us never learned to share, nor to trust. It’s not necessary to determine where everything will come from, only to be capable of meeting new challenges as they arrive. Academicians, like doctors, tend to be ‘control freaks’ asserting authority and unwilling to respect divergent opinion. And here I mean respect, not just tolerate: respect as in admire, honor, and care for. No, we all do as I myself, unfortunately, want to do - assert the self and claim superior knowledge. But it’s not more technology or competitive skill we need, but the self-confidence to know we can make do, find what we really need with or without what we might sometimes want.
Some say, “we need to better educate and train our workers.” But centralized power and pyramidal systemings are killing us. What we need is more reliable individual decision-making. We need to stop trying to be boss! When I sold art and artifacts in Columbus, Ohio, over a decade ago, it was conventional wisdom among local gallery owners that the “self-taught” were the brightest spot on the aesthetic landscape…

In Thailand almost 20 years now, and ChiangRai, part of the “Golden Triangle”, over 12, I’ve also lived and worked with Hopis, Navahos, Koreans and Mexicans. For years I worked in other people’s art galleries, then for three ran my own, specializing in aboriginal and ethnographic art and artifacts. I admire wood-carving and weaving and many of the practitioners of those arts whom I’ve come to know. For me, to live a self-sustaining life without cash is a fond, though futile, dream.
For the woman I’ve lived with eight years now, things look different. She’s lived without cash, and spoken to me of there still being freedom in Burma - freedom to find an unoccupied hill in the jungle and make a farm there. Like trappers and traders of the Old West giving way to settlers and cowboys, her Lahu ‘Hunter’ (Musur or ‘good roast tiger meat’) tribe now does agriculture. But land’s a problem – she’s stateless and without any legal right to own. For the value of my car, perhaps, she might purchase citizenship; we consider this, but the car is important too. I use it to distribute books, and also to carry food and building materials to her family home in the high hills just this side of the border. As I began composing this, she was working for 25 cents an hour, too shy to ask for the 50% raise I’m sure she could have successfully demand (she worked, to support her family, only when my finances were tight; as I continued working on this, she worked for 40 cents an hour, 10 hour days, then began to get more handicraft sales).
I mention these personal details to show that I’m not just a bleeding-heart idealist unhinged by fanciful books or Luddite fantasy. I write about indigenous wisdom when I can, but hardly as an anthropologist. I use local herbs on a daily basis, but am hardly scientific about that either. I’ve sometimes been a teacher, who found need to motivate students, and often a student, confused by a language I speak intimately, daily (and also confused by a culture I’ve been deeply immersed in for over 20 years). What I want, and what I’ve found, money can’t buy. We must all learn to cherish what cannot be traded, and although is free, doesn’t come easily.

“Live simply that others might simply live” needs expanding: Encourage simplicity, diversity and independence, that our children might have lives, too.

We don’t need to be richer,
We need to be more caring.
We don’t need more trade,
We need more community and self-reliance.
We don’t need to teach the rest of the world,
We need to listen to it.
We don’t need a plan, we need many.
We need justice, checks on power, less
Nationalism and more humility.

What’s most wrong with ‘Globalization’ is the diminishment of self-sufficiency, the snowballing of cash-addiction, the empowerment of unfettered, autocratic, often amoral mega-corporate bureaucracy, and accelerated loss of cultural diversity. The unchecked power given to agents whose only goal is satisfaction of greed (yes, little old ladies living off the stock market can be accused of that) is alone enough to make globalization a complete horror; but the loss of self-respect via diminished opportunity for display of integrity in adjusting invention to be appropriate for local conditions and local distinctions, and used without incurrence of obligation (as befits proper moral understanding - I’m talking here of that nonsensical idea “intellectual property”) looms with similarly ghastly duress. Globalization equates not only to homogenization, but to cheapening, trivializing actually, important aspects of life - through the effects of propaganda, the inundation of advertising. The stuff once of fantasy becomes mundane. Does no-one now care about quality of spirit?
From the “Free Trade” of globalized corporations (whose contradictory legal definition as a person who/which can be owned confirms questionable status “above the law”) we get myriad forms of pollution including morally bankrupt politics where superior money always wins, corrupt dynasties of cowardly decision-makers intent on buying happiness or perhaps some kind of grandeur, mega-tons of toxic waste, carcinogens, radiation, chemical spills, ozone depletion, carbon-dioxide inundation, water that needs to be cleaned before use, increased liver disease, bone and other cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, emphysema, asthma, learning disorders and etc… Environmental conservation and protection become but juvenile slogans as our resources go mostly to gluttony and over-indulgence, generating usually but palliatives, absurd status-symbols and snubs to the modest or poor. We get not only a dying Earth, but fear and dying soul, as religion becomes prostituted, torture justified and laughingly indulged, and humility and open-mindedness turned into treason. Accountability disappears, GMO crops replace nature, quality of life becomes a forgotten dream, and the future evaporates for humanity. To put ‘free’ and ‘trade’ together is just to propagandize.
There’s always resistance to recognizing past mistakes - most especially exploitationist attempts at do-gooding, “progress”, about which I can’t help but see two sides. No longer is there much focus on ‘Native’ exposure to Western examples denigrating trans-generational cultural transference (demeaning cultural values): no, but it has become recognized that extra-cultural involvement is usually interference. This is real; so is TV and government, also the evils of almost unavoidable cash-addiction. People who stake enough to really care feel strongly about this, as I do - and from living my beliefs (more than I found myself able to before coming here) I’ve found myself able to think in ways more clearly formatted.
People are better adjusted, healthier, happier and more productive when involved in decision-making regarding their work and home. Sweatshop factories may provide increased purchasing power for many, but certainly not quality of life, actualization of potential, or any kind of social stability. People are never without choice; the big question is how much the wealthy will recognize this, and when (meaning, rather willingly or, eventually, unwillingly). In so many ways, hunger for cash has attained a moral equivalency to hunger for addictive intoxicants, and similar also to the power-mad lust for control besetting modern society.
Laws designed to enhance or increase state power, instead of to protect and insure the rights and welfare of individuals, cannot promote peace, well-being or significant, lasting cultural growth. Corporate, like feudal, hierarchy leads to disease and despair, humiliation, crime, fear, rage, the expense of protective weaponry and guards (who guards – protects us from - the guards?), restriction and excessive taxation. What it gains for those on top is matched by what is simultaneously lost for them, something which apparently only the more enlightened, or perhaps more exposed to reality, ever recognize. Perhaps those aware of or bothered by losses to quality and potential in their ‘powerful’ lives enjoy the superiority implicit in infliction of distress, but this is clearly a false superiority. When the powerful “enrich” themselves at the cost of society, it’s like having the ball, but no game.
It may be widely believed that some unity in belief and understanding is essential to the integrity of a nation, and that much deviance from the norm would lead to common disaster, but it is proven that real strength and stability lies in variety, in diversity. Most might disagree, but I find I must submit, increase in trade under the present system with its dominant multinational mega-corporations, tends towards decreased diversity, and thus increased inherent instability and peril to human success and future generations.

Almost daily there’s important, but glum, news, reminders of immature leadership and the “weakness of the flesh.” One repeatedly needs to seek out avenues of new hope…
Instead of poisons to attack poisons, we can use life to strengthen life. A strong system can resist intrusion, and self-repair. Violence is just violence, and seldom a final solution except in case of death. Disease can often be rectified by producing change, strengthening the system and closing invasive routes.
If body politic can be seen as parallel to physical, blooded body, national boundaries can be seen as a kind of strangulation or poison, and far extents of cultural similarities as potential for life enhancement. It is the cash-poor, we must realize, who harbor the incubation of culture as it revives itself. Artists, scholars, political theorists, commentators and others must endeavor to check the ability of the overly-moneyed to squash that life.
Burmese generals, military-might maddened and punitive, surely feel a strong moral superiority to current meta-materialistic Thai polity. Other regimes in Southeast Asia, in Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Viet Nam, concur, hypocritically seeing Thailand as sold-out. The Thai, naturally sensitive to this, respond in their special Thai way - ‘nevermind’ and if you must talk about that, well, we just won’t be talking together. Thais now are, anyway, doing much better, materially, than many of their neighbors, and having fun with make-up, status symbols, pretensions, and putting cement everywhere. This is “progress” (kwam jalern in Thai, the bringing up and bettering, enriching, of things).
But the unmitigated acquisitive lust of the Thai ruling clique has met a powerful nemesis in the tricky Burmese autocrats. Both are heavily influenced by Chinese multinational societies, networks, though secret and often rival, which are poised to eventually become king-makers in Beijing, as they have been in Taiwan. These societies represent a new form of the Japanese East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Well trained through experience in drug trafficking, they have been taught by, and are well able to contest with, MI5, the KGB and the CIA.
The last-name societies of the Teh Chew, Hainan, Hakka, Wu - these are monetary forces with clout to rival nations of tens of millions. There are quiet representatives for them most places. Their influence in eastern and southern Russia, west Canada, Indonesia, Kashmir, and throughout Southeast Asia, especially in terms of high-seas crime, should not be under-estimated. A few hundred of the top men are billionaires. Some exert major influence over trillions. Theirs is a particularly Chinese agenda, which has involved removing non-Chinese tribals from Yunnan into Shan State. There the ‘lowly’ tribals are controlled by Chinese mobster/warlords not strongly under Beijing control, but very deeply involved in international Chinese trucking and extended transport. Some Japanese goods still successfully compete with things Chinese: vehicles, photographic stuff, pornographic videos. But it’s Chinese speakers who pull the most important strings in Southeast Asia.
Distressing reports have long been narrated by refugees clearly suffering great emotional distress, of Burmese army gang rape, unpaid forced labor, eviction of whole villages, ethnic cleansing, general gangsterism and recently even human sacrifice! Thousands of Lahu tribes-people lost their homes and livestock to Wa people relocated from the Chinese border. Tens of thousands of these Wa came from Yunnan, China, accompanied by, it seems, over 1000 Chinese ‘advisors’. They now live just north of the Thai border.
These displaced populations have brought to the fairly porous northern border area pneumonia, hepatitis, malaria, dengue, typhus, typhoid, cholera, encephalitis, TB and even, reportedly, humans infected with anthrax! Tea pickers and other laborers cross daily and traders and even big businessmen do regular, though often officially unsanctioned, cross-border commerce. Altogether over 150,000 people have recently been relocated in the Chinese and Thai borderlands of Shan State, Myanmar, where the Wa produce amphetamines (used by truck drivers, in sweat-shops, by laborers...). Tribal refugees continue to arrive in Thailand, but are not recognized as such, but called, rather, economic migrants.
Until we work out better micro-economics, we’ll never effectively counter the greed contributing to stress in our lives, in so many ways, today. Small is indeed, and still, beautiful. And peace better than noise.

Whoever is self-sufficient is rich... (Tao Te Jing, Part I, 33)
Grace is shameful, something inferior (Part I, 13)
The Man of Calling does not heap up possessions (Part II, 81)
True Words are not beautiful.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ethical Ecological Economics

©2009, by Joel J. Barlow, with thanks to Eric Rosenblum; included in my novel "Watching Little Sister"

Ethical Ecological Economics

Ethics, systems for determining our responsibilities and ruling conduct, must challenge “value-free” economic theories which result in degraded environment and a limited future.
The Greek word oikos (house) is the root of both economics (“household laws”) and ecology (“household science”), while the word ethics derives from the Greek ethos (“custom” or “habit”). When ethical judgments derive from awareness of inter-relatedness in the biosphere, we have environmental ethics, with principles including biotic integrity, inter-generational equity and the precautionary principle. As environmental ethics constrains use of resources, ecological economics must acknowledge society’s dependence on the natural world.
The term ecology, coined in 1866 by German scientist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), was fashioned from the Greek word for household and the suffix logos (“word” or “study”). Haeckel proposed to study “the economy of nature,” i.e. each animal in relation to its inorganic and organic environment, so as to better understand “all those complex interrelations referred to by Darwin as the conditions of the struggle for its existence.” John Muir (1838-1914) urged the federal government to adopt a forest conservation policy as of 1876, and bemoaned overgrazing and environmental depletion. Biologist Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (1962), revealed that causal effects of human actions were more complex and less predictable than had been thought: not only did DDT kill insects, but also birds which ate them (thus, “Silent” Springtime). This shattered faith that damage we cause our Earthly nest is insignificant. Educated people had to accept that “rule” of Earth entails responsibility. Carson stimulated worldwide awareness of the dangers of pollution and thus began an environmental protection movement.
But awareness of the importance of unintended consequences has been slow to grow, especially among economists. That many more consequences to our decisions are unintended than intended should come as a surprise to no-one; we simply cannot take enough into consideration. This doesn’t help encourage responsibility. There are many difficult truths people find themselves inclined to ignore.
Vast amounts of evidence show how our natural environment has been degraded through technology, by over-population and over-consumption. Many now realize there’s much we need do to reduce our impact on the environment, mostly by using resources more effectively, but pervasive public resistance to innovations that require even slight changes in behavior remains. And politicians are so focused on their support base(s) they’re unwilling to invest in long-term solutions to pressing problems.

In 1971, John Rawls (1921-2002) formulated a principle of justice, stating: “Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.” He wrote, “Each person possess an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.”
Religious ethics may or may not be utilitarian, but “Do not do to another that which is hateful to yourself” and “Judge not lest ye be judged” present goals which can be seen as practical, depending on one’s focus, goals and sense of what actually works. Whether or not monotheistic (and anthropocentric) religions value the environment as an aspect of creation, and allow certain rights to nature and animals, pantheistic animism reveres nature, casting important light on the notion of progress.
The importance of ethics as the foundation of good governance is widely recognized, but awareness of the political significance, and necessity, of ethics, is clearly in decline. Today ethics is taken as a personal matter, a standard of publicly acceptable behavior, akin to politeness. This overlooks a serious purpose of ethics - the achievement of individual well-being and social welfare, to which end it engages in the systematic evaluation of goals, rights and responsibilities.
The term economics, formed from two Greek words - oikos (house) and nomos (law) - early on meant the art of managing the household. Many ancients knew economic practices concerned not only household, or family, duties and benefits, but involved power and prestige, and also sometimes, wealth (an unworthy goal described as “unlimited acquisition”). Economic choices, like other choices, reveal our values and ideals about our rights, our responsibility to others, and our expectations.

Modern economics began with Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). It described a free market steering business owners and laborers, each acting out of self-interest, to manufacture goods providing the greatest national revenue – with no monarch or trade associations required. Smith claimed that a free market brings maximal welfare to society, as though each buyer and seller were “led by an invisible hand… without knowing it, without intending it, [to] advance the interest of the society” and “promote an end which was no part of his intention.” He thus gave rise to a phrase still in common use, “the invisible hand of the market-place.” By equating the supply of goods in the marketplace with the welfare of society, Smith adopted utilitarian values (“the greatest good for the greatest number”), and called laissez-faire capitalism the system of perfect liberty. Competition, being a protective mechanism similar to conscience or superego, he posited, helps one to better one’s condition – through “a desire that comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us until we go into the grave”.
For a century, economics was consumed with the search for a general theory of equilibrium describing how wages, prices, rent and interest balance in the marketplace. Others refined Smith’s concepts, and much later, Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) explained how an equilibrium price is fixed by that enduring concept, supply and demand, at precisely the point of marginal utility, ensuring optimum efficiency and full employment. But as macroeconomic models became more precise, they also became increasingly unreal. Dissenters (notably Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen) accurately observed some disturbing market trends (towards overproduction, monopoly and unemployment), but these criticisms were generally ignored. The Russian Revolution and the stock market crash of 1929 began to change this. Whatever might be said of the merits of classical economics, it should also be admitted that its practitioners not only failed to predict the Great Depression, but were helpless to aid in its recovery. In 1879, American economist Francis Walker blamed economists’ “bad odor amongst real people” on economists’ inability to understand human behavior. People just don’t act the way economists think they should! They’re not only less selfish and less rational, but resent economists’ egotistic interest in self-interest; as economists give up on trusting others, others give up on trusting economists (perhaps to their advantage).

In late 1919 John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) made himself unpopular with very important and powerful people, by pointing out that the stringent reparations forced on Germany after WWI made for a corresponding unlikelihood that payments would be made. He advocated public works to reduce unemployment and create useful jobs. “Respectable” economists expected automatic adjustments by the free-market to solve all problems, and saw public works as useless as increases in government deficits would cause equal declines in private investment – quite contrary to the British experience since the incorporation of the Bank of England in 1694. Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money described how governments could shore up economies during downturns, by borrowing money to create jobs; as he explained it, since wage earners are consumers, borrowed money would circulate until impact of the “multiplier effect” was sufficient to stimulate private investment. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government took Keynes’ advice, intervened in the market, economic conditions improved and the Great Depression eased (somewhat).
Subsequent governments have used Keynesian policies to promote economic growth, manage employment, and control inflation. Unfortunately, these policies discourage savings, depend on perpetually enlarging markets (economic growth), and operate not unlike a Ponzi pyramid scheme, to the benefit mostly of people NOT in need (the political and social elites). Savings, which the Keynesians don’t much like, may slow the rate of spending, or velocity of money, but so does flow of money into the hands of the already rich. A non-productive segment of society supported solely by growth-dependent investment profit, and another whose parasitical “work” consists entirely of gambling with derivatives, short-selling, futures speculation and currency trading (unfortunately now virtually insured by the US government), promise another bubble-burst, through the very (Keynesian) mechanism used to fix the current (2009) market collapse - the bail-out. The cure is but temporary, a slight-of-hand tactic the ancient sophists were familiar with: using regression in place of explanation or solution (much as ‘foot-note’ textual references seem to, but don’t actually, verify a claim, or as positing the origins of life on Earth as having arrived from outer-space may briefly seem to provide (but not actually provide) an answer to the question of life’s origins).
Prominent Quaker professor of economics Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993) put it, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world, is either a madman or an economist.” Boulding also quite wisely claimed, “There is no such thing as economics, only social science applied to economic problems.” Many an academic discipline means but little, in isolation from understandings available from other academic disciplines. Social ‘sciences’ cannot involve the testing of physics or chemistry; much is but conjecture.

Keynes’ student John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) described a symbiotic relationship between government and industry, with industry able to increase wages by raising prices, and corporate growth becoming “inseparable from the goal of national economic growth”. But he also criticized the assumption that continually increased material production is a sign of economic and societal health. His 1954 The Great Crash, 1929 describes the infamous Wall Street melt-down, how markets progressively become unhinged from reality in speculative booms, and how people behave when their wealth is threatened. Although considered a Keynesian, he followed Veblin (evolutionary economist, author of 1899’s The Theory of the Leisure Class and coiner of the phrase “conspicuous consumption”), in believing economic activity can’t be distilled into inviolable laws. Arguing that speculative bubbles are inherent in the economic system because of “mass psychology” and the “vested interest in error that accompanies speculative euphoria”, he cautioned: “The world in finance hails the invention of the wheel over and over again, often in a slightly more unstable version.” Although a key adviser to President Kennedy, Galbraith has been denigrated as a “policy entrepreneur” writing solely for the public, as opposed to writing for other professors, and for making unwarranted diagnoses and over-simplistic answers to complex economic issues. Some academics dismissed him as a mere media personality. Regardless, economists can’t present theories without money and prestige that usually come to them only through acceptability to the active financial system. One almost never hears an economist challenging the absurdly less-than-questionable corporate status as both juristic “person” and property – like slaves of old. Even less does one hear economists espousing anything like a sufficiency economy, or “living simply that others may simply live” – so the accusations reek of the pot calling the kettle black!
Jospeh Stiglitz (1943-) won the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics for work in asymmetries of information showing that “whenever information is imperfect and markets incomplete, which is to say always… the invisible hand works most imperfectly.” While micro-economics has been providing increasingly useful specifics, macroeconomics involves no ‘unified field theory’ and economists mostly continue to describe and predict market activity that doesn’t really exist outside of theory. Economics has attained a dangerous degree of unreality – unreality unfortunately matched in politics, in theories of social science, in “string-theory” and in many other areas of study and endeavor. Problems of bureaucracy, quality control, patent and copyright law, power centralization, the corporate legal entity and its responsibilities, education and training, recycling, cleanliness, maturity and expectations – these just don’t sufficiently enough enter into our markedly delineated and overspecialized current academic disciplines, to gain the analysis and inspection necessary. Generalized, cross-spectrum, studies were what the liberal arts were organized to provide, but academia seems to have lost sight of that.
Economists have cultivated a kind of sophisticated fatalism that portrays negative social and environmental consequences as inevitable results of the marketplace, rather than as the product of their own erroneous policies. Unfortunately, environmental or economic collapse may be needed to reform our economic models.

Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912-2009, father-in-law of Diana Ross) produced ‘deep ecology’ theory (1990), with tenets that reject the artificial distinction between individual and environment, and oppose pollution while supporting democracy, diversity and decentralization. Focus on the inter-connectedness of all things got ecology nick-named “the subversive science” as its findings, perspectives and principles are often used to challenge political, economic, and religious perspectives. Ecology could give rise to an ethic based on holistic values, and eventually successfully subdue economic theories based on individual consumption. According to Næss, every living being has an equal right to live and to flower – an ethical attitude hardly amenable to big business!
In the 1972 report to the Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth, ecologists predicted shortages of oil and other resources unless population growth slows or consumption decreases. A bio-centric principle of interconnectedness, developed by British environmentalist James Lovelock in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979), describes our planet as a complex interacting system, self-regulating and capable of reestablishing ecological equilibrium, with or without human life. Despite emphasis on spirituality, some extreme forms of deep-ecology have been criticized as anti-humanist, as they entail opposition to famine relief and immigration, and also accept large-scale loss of life through AIDS and other pandemics. Lovelock claims evidence to support his view in the co-evolution of earth’s atmosphere with that of plants and animals; the Gaia hypothesis proposes that living and non-living parts of the earth form a single organism. Lovelock argued that, as a result of global warming, “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable” - by the end of the 21st century, and that 80% of humans will perish by the end of this century.

Farmer and writer Wendell Berry (1934-), an advocate of sustainability, also writes of the interconnectedness of life. He characterized topsoil as “ceaselessly transforming death into life, ceaselessly supplying food and water to all that lives in it and from it.” From the farmer’s perspective, Berry (1987) claims: “Our life and livelihood are the gift of the topsoil and of our willingness and ability to care for it, to grow good wheat, to make good bread; they do not derive from stockpiles of raw materials or accumulations of purchasing power.”
But global-corps and politicians they own don’t care. Viable electric cars are among the oldest of automobiles, but despite viable Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda and Nissan models, few are on the market (‘though since 2001, India’s had one, it now has a very cheap one). Although problems with electricity production mean electric vehicles are little more ecologically sound than internal-combustion ones, solar, wind and geo-thermal production (among other available processes) can greatly reduce our fouling of our nest.
Atmospheric science casts doubt on the earth’s ability to absorb waste products of human activity. Chlorofluorocarbons reduce ozone in the upper atmosphere, reducing filtration of ultraviolet light hazardous to human health. Carbon dioxide traps infrared radiation and increases global temperatures (the “greenhouse effect”); other pollutants and urban areas warm the earth, and our cows produce lots of dangerous methane. Discovery of these facts has alerted us that consequences of human activity are global in scope, hazardous, and not readily reversed. As Jared Diamond showed in Collapse (2005), many societies have died from failure to deal with ecological impacts they incurred.
All processes of releasing energy from oil and gasses cause pollution. Some claim that mankind is insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and that the planet’s chemical makeup has changed only naturally, as usual over long periods of time. Ocean covers 80% of the planet and releases carbon dioxide. There’s precious little we can do about climate; about sun spot activity, we can’t do anything at all. But, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and better safe than sorry. Whether one believes in a deity or deities or not, there is truth to the proverb, “God helps those who help themselves.” These aren’t just hackneyed slogans, but have much to do with our respect for our collective selves – respect which is a two-way street. It can only be gained by exerting the strength of will to address pressing problems.

Externalities, large-scale effects of production and use which distinguish between private costs and social costs, are “spillover effects” - effects which spill over onto parties who may suffer or benefit, without participating in an associated transaction. Arthur Pigou (1877-1959), founder of behavioral economics, developed the externalities concept in The Economics of Welfare (1920). He’d studied with Alfred Marshall of King’s College, Cambridge, whose Principles of Economics (1890) introduced the concept of elasticity of demand, emphasizing that price and output are determined by supply and demand, which act like “blades of the scissors” in determining price. Pigou, among the first to recognize the importance of externalities in the marketplace, explained that production and distribution costs or benefits (conferred on others) often aren’t accounted for by those creating these costs or benefits. Pigou argued that negative externalities (costs imposed) should be offset by tax, and positive externalities rewarded by subsidies. His theory was somewhat undercut by ‘public choice’ economists observing that governments can and do fail, sometimes more spectacularly than markets. A more recent idea is that companies could buy vouchers giving legal right to pollute. With vouchers costing enough, businesses would try to find cheap ways to stay within emission standards. But business interests in the USA spend multi-millions on lobbying and think-tanks to influence legislation… and neither governments nor money can always solve the problems people create.
Despite its problems, the “spillover effects” idea retains validity. Pigou distinguished between social and private welfare, noting that private value differs from social value when “costs are thrown upon people not directly concerned, through, say, uncompensated damage done to surrounding woods by sparks from railway engines” and that, “All such effects must be included… in reckoning up the social net product.” For example, when erosion from a clear-cut hillside silts up creeks, but the lumber’s sale-price fails to include costs for compensating affected fishermen, this “externalized” environmental cost is passed on to society at large - through fish becoming more rare, fishermen less rewarded for their time and effort, and a diminished economy. Logging companies lack enough incentive to use less destructive methods, so they do ecologically devastating clear-cuts; but also, timber-buyers wanting cheap prices don’t seek substitute materials. Similarly, costs of automotive pollution aren’t included in car prices. China has used up most locally available raw materials to produce cheap goods, without reckoning on the impending consequences of having done that. While markets (and consumers) may fail to distinguish between sustainably harvested wood and wood harvested from a clear-cut which destroyed habitat and future productivity, a tax to offset the value of lost resources might help redress the situation; otherwise, the market promotes annihilation of the ecosystem, enriching a few but diminishing quality of life and likelihood of a viable future. Some will say, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” But Gretchen Daily and Katherine Ellison counter this well, observing (2002), “A woman’s work is never done - nor fairly compensated - and this is nowhere truer than in the case of Mother Nature. Much of Nature’s labor is of enormous and obvious value, which has failed to win respect in the marketplace until recently.”
For survival of humanity, our natural capital (natural resources) must be preserved, enhanced, and fostered into as much revival as practicable; technology must be directed towards increasing productivity of natural capital, instead of human-made capital. If these things don’t happen, Pigou asserts, we’ve acted “uneconomically, in the most orthodox sense of the word.” Pigou’s suggested system of “bounties and taxes” to influence the price of goods might help markets to recognize the importance of externalities; ecological economists now devote considerable effort to determining the value of environmental externalities, to include in product price. But regulation by price is still regulation, and demands bureaucracy, itself a danger to humanity. The character of bureaucracy was systematically analyzed first by German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920). He failed to note many bureaucratic maladies: over-devotion by too many officials to precedent, inflexibility, reluctance to admit error, indifference to feelings and convenience of citizens, abuse of power, inaccessibility and ineffective organization, remoteness from the rest of the community, excessive self-important arrogance in dealing with the public, procrastination and waste of labor, and obsession with the binding authority of departmental decisions.
In finance as in bureaucracy, functionaries often cease to work for the public benefit, or even any tangible goal, but instead work only to improve their position within the system that dominates their days, indeed, whole lives. Means to ends become perverted into ends themselves. In what one must hope was unconscious parody of this monomania, Lawrence Summers, when president of Harvard, autographed dollar bills bearing an imprint of his signature (from his Treasury secretary days) to present to students – a far cry from a check signed by Picasso!
Max Weber did note, though, that bureaucracy is inefficient when a decision must be adopted to an individual case, and that bureaucratic officials form status groups which mould their personal orientation, with over-specialization making individual officials unaware of larger consequences of their actions, and also other problems, including the discarding of common sense and tendency to mold “Catch 22” road-blocks. Later, Michael Crozier, re-examining Weber in The Bureaucratic Phenomenon (1964), noted that a “bureaucratic organization is an organization that cannot correct its behavior by learning from its errors” (countering Weber’s view of bureaucracy as the ultimate expression of rationality and efficiency). In attempt to create rules to cover all possible events, bureaucracies inevitably fail, as has parallels in physics, philosophy, economics and many other areas of analytic endeavor. Crozier also showed how, as hierarchic strata need to be isolated from each other for efficiency, individuals operating within zones of uncertainty or un-clarity wield considerable, unaccountable, and dangerous power.
Others soon noted that those who work to preserve the organization as opposed to working towards achieving its goals will eventually gain control of it, and implement policies and regulations contrary to public interest. In 1968, Lawrence Peter introduced the concept that job promotion continues as long as work is performed competently, then stops - when it no longer is. Workers thus reach a “level of incompetence” – where they stay. So, “in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties,” with what little real work is accomplished done by “those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence” (The Peter Principle).
The ultimate dictum, though, is: The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource. This derives from Parkinson’s Law (1955).
Bureaucratic malfunctions were best depicted by C. Northcote Parkinson, British naval historian who, only somewhat facetiously, explained that “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” Administrators make work for each other, he said, so as to multiply their number of subordinates and enhance their power and prestige. His second law, “Expenditure rises to meet income,” is detailed in The Law and the Profits (1960): government functionaries, he posited, are inclined to expand their own ranks as long as sufficient taxes can be raised to pay for them. Bureaucracy, like Keynes’ economy, must always enlarge (and thus defeat its original purpose) – or lose its power.
While for many Peter and Parkinson were but humorists, maybe a bit lighter than Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 but still merely playing on cynicism, an important message they all served to help transmit, that there’s too much human tendency to appreciate hierarchic posturings, remains important, indeed essential, to any realistic effort to address our present quandary and achieve a viable future.

It’s clear to all who sufficiently investigate our situation that days of ‘conspicuous consumption’ and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, or expecting each subsequent generation to enjoy greater material plenty, are over. A sizable minority of individuals have come to view ecological integrity not just as a preference, but as an essentially ethical matter, quite distinct from money or government, neither of which can do enough to compensate for loses resultant from many kinds of production. Our future rests on personal decisions: laws to protect endangered species have little effect when people believe those species can provide them with aphrodisiacs! An extreme example of choice is provided by the Amazonian Kichwa and U’wa people in Colombia, who’ve threatened mass-suicide rather than to allow Occidental Petroleum to drill for oil on their land. The only price they were “willing to accept” was infinite (Barnum 1998).
During the last half of the 20th century, both ethics and economics have been challenged to address social and environmental degradation. Issues from deforestation and vastly diminished fish-catch numbers, to global warming and ozone depletion, and to growing income disparity, all demanded response. Ecology presents a paradigm for understanding the world based on the unity and interdependence of nature and human society, but only a fusion of ecological thinking with ethics and economics can bring sufficient rethinking of fundamental principles in line with new understandings, so that human society can proceed with anything like normalcy.
Environmental ethics means more than the application of ethical principles to environmental issues: awareness of the interdependence of all life on earth implies ethical consideration of the rights of future generations, and accepting responsibility for remote, long-term environmental impacts in a way that tests our understanding of consequences to our actions (a concept called the precautionary principle).
In A Sand County Almanac, American forester Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) proposed a ‘land ethic’: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Leopold held that the duty to preserve ‘biotic integrity’ was ethics in its most evolved form. Taking a Darwinian view of ethics, he saw its purpose as the expansion of human awareness to ever-widening circles of community, including the entire biosphere as “member[s] of a biotic team.” Obligations to preserve biotic integrity entail corollary duties, the foremost of which is to acknowledge the rights of other species. Biotic integrity prevents us from pursuing our own economic and political goals at the expense of the global ecosystem.
Principles of deep ecology state that, “The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman Life on Earth have value in themselves… Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.” (Devall 1985) With this view, we must resist converting rain-forests into cattle ranches and mountains into strip mines. Deep ecology principles require familiarity with one’s neighborhood environment, to ensure that development protects the local ecology, even at high cost. The gap between rich and poor (both people and countries) must be reduced, not only out of a sense of fairness (however much justified), but to prevent the irreversible destruction of essential ecosystems. To meet their financial obligations, ‘developing’ countries from Brazil to Malaysia have routinely depleted their mineral and biological resources, severely, and often under the direction of international agencies. At the same time, ‘first world’ nations, with a quarter of the world’s population, consume 60% of the world’s food, 70% of the world’s energy, 75% of its metals, and 85% of its wood. The ethical necessity of relaxing pressures on poorer nations, and constraining consumption in richer ones, is obvious, practical challenges notwithstanding.
While the principles of biotic integrity can be seen as utilitarian (ensuring the survival of our species), they seek to extend rights to the biosphere, a controversial viewpoint countered by fundamentalists who claim (based on Genesis 1:28) that humans have a prior right to “rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and all living things.” Others contend that the very idea of granting rights to nature is fundamentally unnatural, as no other species will ever prioritize the needs of others over its own. This is specious, as, for instance, whether bees mean us well or not, we can’t get along without them (as we can’t without bacteria, trees, legumes and grains, among other things). As another for instance, when we deplete numbers of predators, we end up with uncontrollable numbers of scavenger pests (particularly, rodents and insects). In that we have any duty at all, we have duty toward all, as diminishing life diminishes our very selves, and not just metaphorically.
Another moral principle derived from ecology is an ‘expanded scale of responsibility’, both in space and in time. “We all live downstream”, a truism in the water industry, perfectly describes the expanded scope of environmental ethics. Ecology doesn’t respect arbitrary human boundaries, a point demonstrated when Canadian forests are wasted by acid rain from US factories, and when San Diego beaches are fouled by Mexican sewage.
Pollution is so bad that 2.5 billion people don’t have access to clean water. Air is even more polluted with the US producing 147 million metric tons of air pollution per year.
The herbicide Roundup (glyphosate, or glycophosphate), has been used for so long that weeds have developed resistance, with 249 species of weeds completely immune. These “super weeds” threaten farmland by chocking out crops. Tilling helps, but causes the soil to dry faster and kills off good bacteria, making its fertile life span significantly shorter. To replenish the depleted soil, fertilizer is used, which introduces a whole new set of problems to the environment. The rise in glyphosate use since the advent of GM crops may be responsible for the rapid deterioration of health in the US in the last 20 years. A study by former US Navy scientist Dr Nancy Swanson and co-authors charts the huge increase in 22 chronic diseases in the US over the last 20 years and plots it against the rise in the use of glyphosate and the percentage of GM corn and soy plantings. The correlations, portrayed graphically in super-clear charts, are striking. There’s a highly significant correlation between glyphosate use and the incidence of many of the diseases, including hypertension, stroke, diabetes, obesity, thyroid and liver cancer, kidney disease, and Alzheimer’s. There’s also a highly significant correlation between the percentage of GM corn and soy planted in the US and a similar list of diseases. Increases in these diseases are not due to people living longer; the authors adjusted for that in most cases. While it has not been proven that glyphosate causes these diseases, the authors argue that given the known biological effects of glyphosate herbicides, “it would be imprudent not to consider causation as a plausible explanation”. And while there are thousands of toxic substances and pathogens that could have contributed to the exponential rise in these diseases, the authors state, “No toxic substance has increased in ubiquity in the last 20 years as glyphosate has.”
Coal burning releases sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, where they accumulate in clouds until released as acid rain, causing havoc on the ground beneath and accumulating in rivers and lakes, harming life in them. Ground soaks up the acid, depleting the soil of essential nutrients. Trees absorb the acid, which damages leaves and slowly kills forest. Acid rain has completely eliminated entire species of fish, causing a snowball effect of damage to the ecosystem that relies on diverse organisms to sustain the environment.
Lead can be released as particles into the air, and the airborne particles directly inhaled; they can also settle out of the air into water and food supplies. Lead can accumulate in the human body over extended periods, resulting in cumulative poisoning which impairs cognitive ability and causes high blood pressure and kidney dysfunction. Lead emissions come from cars, planes, and lawnmowers (60% of lead emissions in the U.S.); industrial processes (28%) and fuel burning in power plants and home heaters (10%). Lead concentrations peak near mines, busy roadways, and factories that melt or fuse lead. The population most susceptible to elevated lead concentrations is children; effects include behavioral disorders, learning deficits, and lowered IQ. Our sloppy pollution habits also result in a rise in ill-health and death from heart disease, obesity, diabetes, kidney failure, cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Multiple Sclerosis, celiac disease, asthma, and organ diseases effecting the liver, adrenal gland, and thyroid.
With global plastics production rising to over 250 million metric tons per year, marine plastic litter, and thereby micro-plastics, will also increase. Plastic accounts for 90% of ocean surface trash. In total, about 20 million tons of plastic enter the oceans yearly, says Megan Herzog, a fellow in environmental law and policy at UCLA. For myriad reasons, this is problematic. Plastic water bottles take hundreds of years to decompose, never really degrading completely, only breaking into smaller and smaller microplastic bits. In the ocean, the sun breaks down these plastics into tinier and tinier pieces, a process called photodegradation. Microplastics can’t always be seen by the naked eye. Even satellite imagery doesn’t show a giant patch of garbage.
Plastic gets eaten by animals, and can lead to starvation. Herzog points out that floating bags resemble jellyfish, which loggerhead sea turtles like to eat. Plastic is hard to excrete and so builds up internally, interfering not only with digestion but hunger. Not just garbage goes into the oceans, but also nitrogen fertilizer. It gets carried from lakes, rivers and seas into the largest producer of oxygen we have, our oceans. Red tides of red algae are only one of the many negative results. Research by Scrips Institution of Oceanography in California shows 5 to 10% of fish contains small pieces of plastic.
Marine debris becomes trapped by the circular ocean currents of the five gyres (large systems of moving ocean currents: Indian Ocean, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, & South Pacific), where it builds up to form giant garbage patches often ten feet deep. Another garbage patch, about 500 million tons of trash, is in the Mediterranean. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is too large for scientists to trawl; the vortex’s area is nearly impossible to measure.
Scientists have collected up to 750,000 bits of microplastic in a single square kilometer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—that’s about 1.9 million bits per square mile. Most of it comes from plastic bags, bottle caps, water bottles and Styrofoam cups. The microplastics of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch make the water look like a cloudy soup. This soup is intermixed with larger items, like fishing gear (mostly nets) and even shoes, computer monitors and LEGOs . The seafloor beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is also a trash heap. Oceanographers say that about 70% of marine debris sinks to the bottom.
While oceanographers and climatologists predicted the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; racing boat captain Charles Moore first located it in 1997, while sailing from Hawaii to California. Crossing the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, Moore and his crew noticed millions of pieces of plastic surrounding his ship – “plastic…as far as the eye could see”. During a 2014 expedition, Moore and his Algalita Marine Research Foundation team used aerial drones to assess the extent of trash, and found 100 times more plastic by weight than previously measured, some in permanent islands over 15 meters (50 feet) in length.
Marine debris is harmful to marine life. In another instance, Albatrosses mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs. Seals and other marine mammals get entangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets, which are of their low cost and often discarded. Seals often drown in these forgotten nets. Marine debris also disturbs marine food webs by blocking sunlight from reaching plankton and algae, the most common autotrophs, or producers, in the marine food web. When algae and plankton are harmed, the entire food web changes. Fish and turtles have less food, and so decrease in population, making less food for their predators. As a result , seafood becomes less available and more expensive for people.
These dangers are compounded by the fact that plastics both leach out and absorb harmful pollutants. As plastics break down through photodegradation, they leach out colorants and chemicals like bisphenol A, chemicals linked to environmental and health problems. Plastics can also absorb pollutants like PCBs, from seawater. These chemicals can then enter the food chain when consumed by marine life.
Cleaning up marine debris is a huge challenge. Many microplastics are the same size as small sea animals. Nets designed to scoop up trash catch these creatures as well. Even if nets would just catch garbage, the size of the oceans makes the job far too time-consuming. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships a year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean. A transition from toxic, disposable plastics to biodegradable or reusable materials would be an important step in the right direction.
Beyond all that are radiation, oil spills and the effect on the planet of reducing the cooling system of water and oil between the hot interior and the crust, through massive extraction. Much remains controversial at best to some, boring at best to others, and difficult, at best, to deal with. Some would have us live for the minute and “be here now”… others, and not only those with children, find great benefit to planning ahead. Whatever the basis of one’s ethics, a garbage dump is hardly the most pleasant of places in which to pass time.
Environmental ethics require us to evaluate remote impacts of our activity, whether or not the studies are legally mandated, and to reduce the harm we cause. Since ecosystems persist for thousands of years, environmental ethics means responsibility to future generations, ‘intergenerational equity’ defined by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development as “the use of resources to meet the needs of today’s generation without inhibiting the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
Intergenerational equity is particularly challenging as it raises questions of how much effort we should expend on behalf of our descendants. Biologist E. O. Wilson (1984) observed, “We want health, security, freedom, and pleasure for ourselves and our families. For distant generations we wish the same but not at any great personal cost.” In response to The Limits to Growth calling for strict conservation, some critics complained that the report failed to account for technological advances to come. Others have argued that conservation could deprive future generations of challenges which would stimulate their technical creativity. A more balanced solution proposed by John Rawls involves making intergenerational decisions from behind a “veil of ignorance,” as though we didn’t know which generation we were born into, thus avoiding excessive savings on the one hand and unsustainable consumption on the other (Rawls 1971).
The ecological ‘precautionary principle’ states, “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” (Raffensperger 1999) This differs from risk analysis in its total aversion to risk, even of low probability or potential cost. We must ask, “What if we’re wrong?” and seek out alternatives with the least destructive consequences, and consider that our assumptions might turn out to be false, even though that will cause difficulties. We must better develop and implement non-carbon energy sources (solar, wind power, geo-thermal), since even if climate worries are unfounded, and these technologies unnecessary, global warming fears are real and the potential impact of not putting into place energy alternatives could be devastating. On a local level, the precautionary principle demands proper disposal of dental wastes, fluorescent bulbs and batteries - even while the receiving water’s capacity to absorb mercury and other toxins isn’t fully known. Better safe than sorry.
This approach is associated with ‘the soft path,’ as it prefers a diverse portfolio of low-impact projects with multiple benefits over large, capital-intensive solutions dependent upon a single resource (the ‘hard path’, i.e. nuclear energy). Recycling waste-water is better than building new dams and reservoirs, and investing in decentralized facilities, efficient technologies, and human capital is not really a choice. Among ‘soft’ techniques are conservation, reuse and providing water quality and quantity appropriate to the users’ needs instead of tapping new supplies. The soft path involves creating institutional policies to promote equitable access to water, proper application and use of economics, incentives for efficient use, social objectives for water quality and delivery reliability, public participation in decision making, and the education of youth for better understanding of ethical ecological economics.

Environmental ethics, under the precautionary principle, demand protection of the global ecosystem’s complexities, despite the difficulties of determining with precision what will result over extended periods of time. The underlying attitude is one of humility in the face of an interconnected world, one that is at the same time “known and unknown, visible and invisible, comprehensible and mysterious.” (Berry 1987) The approach points to the “ecological” nature of ethics itself, and requires consideration of events in a comprehensive manner, with the taking of responsibility for the consequences of our actions, even when they occur at second or third hand (as for instance, a drug dealer may be held liable for overdoses, or an arms dealer for terrorist deaths). While some have lauded this approach as evidence of our growing maturation as a species, environmental ethics adds a level of complexity to our decision making we’ve yet to come to terms with, as we must now balance ecosystem rights against individual and societal rights, including property rights.
Despite their common etymologies, ecology and economics have followed such divergent paths that they are often thought to oppose one another. WorldWatch founder Lester Brown (2001) noted, “The gap between economists and ecologists in their perception of the world as the new century begins could not be wider.” Economists see the environment as a subset to economy, ecologists see the economy as a subset to environment. One sees growth and progress, the other sees decline and depletion. Economists look at the global economy, international trade and investment to find a promising future with more of the same, while ecologists look ahead and see intense heat waves, more destructive storms, melting glaciers and ice caps, and a rising sea level that will shrink land areas, even as population continues to grow.
The explanation that some environmentally beneficial project is “not economically feasible” merely masks, but does not excuse, the fact that the decision maker, for whatever reason, doesn’t value the environment as highly as some other opportunity available at the same (monetary) cost. Here again we see the appropriateness of the original status of ethics and economics as branches of moral philosophy, for no matter how elegantly we analyze them, economic choices are like other choices, in that through them we reveal our values and our ideals about our rights, as well as our perceived responsibilities.
Cost-benefit analyses and similar tools can be useful, but should augment, rather than replace, group decisions based on shared values. To that end, a number of guidelines have been proposed to help stakeholder groups recognize the value of sustainability. Daly and Cobb (1994) offered three principles for resource use: 1) the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration (sustainable yield); 2) the rate of waste generation should not exceed the environment’s assimilative capacity; and 3) the depletion of non-renewable resources (where permitted) should correspond to equivalent development of renewable resources. The Natural Step (Hawken 1995) has four tests:
1.Does the project decrease dependence on non-renewable metals, fuels or minerals?
2.Does it avoid the production of new and persistent substances?
3.Does it increase biodiversity?
4.Does it use relatively fewer natural resources to create human value?
A “no” answer means environmental costs will be passed on to future generations. Like the Ten Commandments, the Eightfold Path and other ethical templates, these guidelines aren’t intended to expedite decisions, but rather to focus attention on our essential duties.

When Rachel Carson gave birth to a movement, she faced a severe challenge. As she expressed it, we are living in an era “in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.” If only the market is powerful enough to protect the environment, we may find that only the force of ethical argument is powerful enough to turn the market in the direction of sustainability.
In Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith warned against businessmen having too much influence over public policy, explaining that those who live by profit “have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public”, while cautioning, “any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order… ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined… with the most suspicious attention.” 200 years later, we find shrinking glaciers and ice-caps, spreading deserts and a hole in the ozone layer. We’ve gambled not only with the rent, but with our food money. We might possibly have the technical skills to live in equilibrium with our environment, but, do we have the ethical courage to overcome the obdurate fiscal and political obstacles?

Greek poet Hesiod told how Prometheus (‘Forethinker’), the supreme trickster and god of fire, gave fire to mortal man, ‘though Zeus preferred to keep it hidden. As the price of fire, and as punishment for mankind in general, Zeus created the first woman, Pandora (‘All-giving’), and sent her down to Epimetheus (‘Hindsight’), who, though warned by Prometheus, married her. Zeus commissioned Hephaestus (another god of fire, and patron of craftsmen) to fashion a jar or box into which he put all evils (particularly, hard work and disease). Pandora was warned not to open it, but curiosity got the better of her and she lifted its lid - out flew the evils to pester mankind. But Pandora shut the lid before Hope could escape, so Hope (an evil?) remains within, carried as woman’s, or household, burden.
Our degraded natural world results from a history of defective thought, a misplaced sense of the relation of human beings to Being (Life) itself, to other humans, and to what sustains us. We somehow decided life is a competition – that winners survive. And maybe some of their cells do, but we all, of course, die. Somehow the ancient gods of the hearth and hospitality lost out to other gods – jealous, even petty deities supportive of war and conquest. The followers of these new religions readily admit to having relinquished position as curator/caretakers of a wondrous Garden, and their history has been one of hypocritical imposition and assertion in the face of obvious contraries to all asserted. Supremacy has been its emblem.
Instead of being jovial part-time predators, many have found fulfillment as challenged participants in extermination. As the Crown of Creation or not, we can accept that we are limited, that we cannot “win” and that we cannot just dismiss others as wrong, or aspects of our world as completely undesirable. We can be less demanding, less self-centered, self-serving and critical, less mean-spirited and needy, and learn to laugh at slights real or imagined, which so many find cutting to the quick. We can be of bigger hearts than we have been, for millennia, and thereby reap great benefits. All we need do is but change our perception of challenge.
Crisis can be opportunity, and by renewing foundations of self-respect in allowing people to not only feel, but actually be, needed and useful, to gain prestige and feel important, we can reduce dependence on money, bureaucracy, production and theory. To accomplish this, we must come to see personal success as inextricably intertwined with the common good, and re-imagine not only other people as more important than possessions, but life in general as so.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

unstable atoms

Holographic string theory and Dance Speed

In issue 2691 of New Scientist magazine, 15 January 2009, Marcus Chown claimed that Stephen Hawking’s black hole information paradox shows that “black holes are in fact not entirely ‘black’ but instead slowly emit radiation, which causes them to evaporate and eventually disappear. This poses a puzzle, because Hawking radiation does not convey any information about the interior of a black hole. When the black hole has gone, all the information about the star that collapsed to form the black hole has vanished, which contradicts the widely affirmed principle that information cannot be destroyed.”
Interesting: information cannot be destroyed. Maybe “information” here has some special meaning. Newspapers here in Thailand have used interesting catch phrases (among them, “organic laws” and “form a national government” - as if laws can be alive, and there has been no national government), and educators use fancy language like “brain-based education”… Maybe this is little more than that. For, otherwise, why do we not know who built the Sphinx and when, how the stones of Machu Picchu were so nicely fit together, where the missing “Tribes of Israel” went, why Lee Harvey Oswald and two Kennedy brothers were shot, and where “labor leader” (and crime boss?) Jimmy Hoffa’s body ended up?
Seems, though, that modern physicists don’t have to make sense anymore. They can talk “authoritatively” about large numbers of dimensions, “orders of infinity” (my ton of lead weighs more than your ton of feathers, or something), and many, many “singularities”! Now, our universe is speculated to have an “event horizon” like black holes - a 2D (but circular, global) shell. Chown writes of “deep physical insight: the 3D information about a precursor star can be completely encoded in the 2D horizon of the subsequent black hole - not unlike the 3D image of an object being encoded in a 2D hologram.” On this surface, tiny pixels contain all the information of our universe (a bit of info per pixel) - and our world may be but a great big hologram. Now, it’s true that our world may be amazingly like a hologram, with everything penetrating everything, and the whole picture kept somehow within every little piece of it, but - and call me weird if you will - I somehow just can’t see us having sex in two dimensions.
String theory and gravity waves indeed.
Not only are we inherently, innately limited by birth and death, and by the vast and the infinitesimal, we’re limited in our capacity to perceive and understand our very selves. Digestion and appetite may well forever remain mysteries to us, as surely will the workings of mind. Artificial, electronic “intelligence” can never be the same as the internal systems which inform (or perhaps compose) us – with chemical as well as electronic messaging, and an elaborate series of connectivities extending, perhaps, even extra-dimensionally. As Kurt Gödel’s famous proof shows, systems have involvement beyond what we can explain! How is it that we have strong hunches, and often look around so rapidly, when someone is inspecting us from behind? We don’t even notice most of what our nose does, though scientists have shown that it functions much more than is readily apparent.
Our limitations don’t stop with failure to know ourselves or our universe - we adhere to protocols of etiquette and propriety that also enforce significant constraints. There is always taboo, bad form, the possibility of provoking anger and socially debilitating embarrassment; and these curtail ability to communicate and explore.
I certainly don’t mean to suggest anything like “too much learning is dangerous” or “there’s no real evidence or fact, merely only opinion” (though I do like Charles Sanders Pearce’s formulation, “Truth is that opinion to which all men who investigate sufficiently are fated to arrive” - except for the ‘fated’ part, that is…)… No, indeed. I’m just saying we need, as 2-year-olds do, to realize and accept limitations and constraints, so as to better proceed with doing what we can, and must.
It needn’t shame us to have inadequate explanations for sleep, beauty, arousal, hate or our many irrationalities. We need to understand ourselves, and our world, as best we can, but even more, we need to learn to live successfully with each other and our environment. In this is meaning, purpose, direction and perhaps, fulfillment. The answer, even, to the question of the meaning of life - it is a process of multiplicity organizing itself into shared, mutually beneficial patterns. I’m not really clear that we need more.

That sounds a bit overblown and preachy, but I can elucidate with a meaningful example: Not so long ago, the members of most communities participated in dancing, if not also singing and/or playing musical instruments of one sort or another. Waltz or square-dance, with call and response or story lyrics, or even just rhythmic line-dancing, this was (and sometimes still is) a backbone of cooperative spirit. It helps align and integrate, synchronizing personal rhythms, facilitating working together, group functionality and mutual aid. People who actively experience themselves as part of something, in this way, or other ways, usually have much less to prove - about their ego and sense of worth, integrity and self. Those lucky folk are aware of fitting in, being accepted.
It’s a great loss to have so thoroughly abandoned that. Jumping up and down to the electronic beat of a techno-DJ is hardly a sufficient replacement. Similarly, our enhanced ability to communicate – hand-phones, e-mail, radio – has led to content-vacuous, often semi-illiterate, text-messages, with limited variety of “smileys”… and some think, increasing hate-spewing. Words now refer to things, possessions - instead of the processes and patterns referred to in ancient sung languages (or so I like to suppose). Processes, cycles, and locations within them… relationship and place in pattern… another kind of valuing…
The search for technological, material comfort proves often counterproductive, with loss of sense of focus, direction and purpose. The great promise of cars, and of TV, have been belied by traffic jams, mindless programming and outrageous expense. For whatever has been gained, much has also been lost.
Surely society can be better organized and arranged, more stable and more conducive to intellectual and artistic creativity and contribution from almost every individual. Is it hard, or bad, to believe that more sharing, and more real satisfaction, is not only possible, but necessary, even essential? We must cease to be deceived by greed and material lust; and also, naturally, more able to do things in group. While also, I hope, maintaining at least some of the freedom inherent in individuality.
Communities of place, occupation, religion, academic interest, age, activity preference, sexual orientation, language, race, background, skill, handicap, involvement and/or obligation can forestall sense of alienation, and similarly of growth of desire for oblivion. And also forestall boredom, depression, anger, anguish, angst and especially despair, providing sense of place and belonging, involvement and acceptance, integrated fun as some moderns still have with ball games and other team activities. But dance, nicely, has no losers.

“Electromagnetic” radiations and the speed of light

Looking up “light” I find it’s considered a kind of radiation; James Clerk Maxwell published on this in 1873. The speed of light was first determined experimentally in 1675; in one of those imaginary vacuums nature so abhors, it travels at ‘exactly’ 299,792,458 meters per second (approximately 186,282 miles per second); and there’s no generally accepted support for the notion that this value has ever changed over time (although, if Big Bang theories are at all correct, very early on it must have). The speed of light, or, better said, perhaps, of electromagnetic radiation, in a vacuum, has somehow come to define the meter (a meter’s now defined in terms of the speed of light – anyone out there see a problem with that? Hint: think pragmatic, functional viability). Light travels slower in water, but somehow also at a constant speed, between the particles of any substance through which it is shining. Its photons excite adjoining particles which in turn transfer on energy, which may appear to slow the beam down, or something like that…; one web entry has it, “time lost between entry and exit results from displacement of energy through the substance between each particle that is excited.” Light doesn’t slow down, energy just gets displaced, like.
Light, an oscillating form of energy, moves from side to side between two limits (motion doubtless not taken into account in measuring light speed). It can convey information from one place to another; our eyes provide us with but a minute fraction of the information imprinted on light entering them. Light travels in waves which sometimes behave as particles (photons).
All recognized forms of EM radiation, in a spectrum ranging from very low frequencies (radio and television waves, microwaves, infrared) to visible light and on to ultraviolet light, X rays and gamma rays, have the same speed in vacuo, and show wavelike nature (with interference, diffraction, and polarization). Light, radio waves, X-rays and gamma rays are all the same type of thing: streams of photons. The only difference among them is the amount of energy in the photons. In the waves, electric and magnetic fields change their magnitude and direction each second, a rate of change (frequency) measured in hertz cycles. The electric and magnetic fields are always perpendicular to one another and at right angles to the direction of propagation. There’s as much energy carried by the electric component of the wave as by the magnetic component.
Matter can’t reach the speed of light - to do so would result in the matter acquiring an infinite amount of mass! Photons have no mass, but do have energy (again, anyone see a problem? e=mc²? If m=0, e=what? not much, but photons are very little? Well, there’s no nothing, except maybe far off perpendicular to our perceptible galaxies…).
Radiant-heat energy is emitted only in finite quanta (photons). Einstein asserted that the energy of a photon is proportional to its frequency; everything has both a particle nature and a wave nature, and various experiments can be done to bring out one or the other. The particle nature is more easily discerned if an object has significant mass.
Electromagnetic (EM) radiation is somehow said to have no mass and travel in waves. The photon, something like a tiny packet of energy, always in motion, is the base particle for all forms of EM radiation. The amount of energy a photon carries makes it sometimes behave like a wave and sometimes like a particle; low-energy photons (like radio) behave like waves, while high-energy photons (X-rays) behave more like particles. EM radiation can travel through otherwise empty space, which differentiates it from other types of waves, like sound waves, which need a medium to move through.

Problems with speed of light are many - not the least of which is the problem of time itself, by which speed is measured. If, at close to the speed of light, matter becomes denser, and chronometers work slower, has time slowed? When your watch is slow, you don’t assume time’s changed speed!
Except when influenced by intense gravity, light travels in a straight line, it’s claimed. But what’s straight? Straight is a mathematical formulation, like number, or parallels. Fine in Euclid’s Geometry, but maybe not in the experiential world, where all curves, if only just slightly. For a while it was assumed gravity had no effect on the path of light, but then it was shown that it does. It bends around planets, and can’t escape “Black Holes”!

Light travels at the same speed regardless of the speed of its point of origin - well, at least as far as we can determine. So much depends on context; we don’t know what speed we’re “really” traveling at, because there’s no absolute point of reference! And what is speed, anyway? Is something going quickly in a small orbit going fast? Maybe so, but what about something spinning? If you spin in a tiny orbit, really, really quickly, will you age slower? I suspect not!
Sound travels in waves but not quantum bursts or particles (quantum theory has electromagnetic radiation flowing through space in photons, also called light quanta, and thought of as packets of energy). Better experiments have been done with sound than can be with light, and people have exceeded its speed. But any measurement of velocity requires a definition of the measure of length and of time, and though great advances in measurement are claimed, all remains relative.
Scientists now say clocks run slower in strong gravitational fields, as well as at great speeds (Earth goes around the sun at 20 miles per second, but the sun, and the galaxy move too… so total speed is more than that, relative to what, we don’t know, except that, maybe, we’re going at only about 1/9000th the speed of light…). Atomic clocks, used since 1972, are pretty good, but we simply haven’t adequate data on atomic (cesium) emissions (or better, oscillations) under (greatly) varying conditions… for instance, in a much stronger gravitational field. Theory holds that if a cesium atom is totally unperturbed - not affected by any magnetic fields, no light shining on it - then its resonant frequency is stable; in reality, the resonant frequency changes all the time, and we’ve no absolute clock (much as we’ve no absolute measure of anything). It’s not really whether cesium activity is regular, but that rates of change can vary, and that ‘scientific’ data, and with all statistics, can be, and often are, manipulated for political (as well as economic) ends. Too much science is underpinned by questionable assumptions, and will surely again be re-writ (given human survival).

Why, I keep wondering, would energy and mass be functions of the speed of light? What kind of relation is that? And, since speed of light isn’t as precise as many like to pretend, or assume, squaring it could lead to a not very spot-on answer. Mass, too, is not as precise a quantity as we might like to imagine: for one thing, separate the parts of a molecule, and somehow you end up with more mass. Gold involves a lot of stored energy – but, I suspect, in a very different manner than radioactive uranium or plutonium.
An even bigger problem is that mass (inertia) and speed are incommensurates; multiplying them seems to me like multiplying height by an interest rate. Mass – according to what unit of measure (International Prototype Kilogram, avoirdupois pound, or the one used by engineers, nicely named the slug)? Speed – in miles or kilometers? And per second, at what rate of relative speed, someone else (but certainly not me) might even wonder.
If you multiply the horsepower of a car by its weight, you get a figure which could help compare its efficiency to other cars – although matters like accelerative capacity, oil use, exhaust production and expectancy for replacement part necessity aren’t included. A lump of granite can do “work” as a doorstop or weight, and copper (gold and silver too) as an electrical conductor, but I’m not sure that’s quite the same concept.
So, what is this “energy” quantity? Certainly not just the potential explosive power which could be produced. Energy is defined as the capacity for doing work. We burn wood or coal for energy (heat) produced, but certainly not gold, nor granite. Nor do we make nuclear energy from granite. Maybe it could be done from gold, but I won’t be expecting that. We use things already emitting energy, radioactive energy.
Is it all just baffling us with “science” or something like the neo-con republican think-tank verbal cons? I hardly know.
What I do know is that our conceptual framework isn’t all we like to believe it to be, and humanity seems to be losing capacity to interact cooperatively, working toward a shared goal. Hunters had to, and rice growers still do, but sense of common goal seems to be dissipating, diminishing or at least in decline.

Here’s a fascinating one: João Magueijo, a native of Portugal and professor at Imperial College, London, has put forth the idea that in the very early days of the universe light traveled faster. His varying speed of light (VSL) theory of cosmology - an alternative to the more mainstream theory of cosmic inflation - proposes that the speed of light in the early universe was of 60 orders of magnitude faster than its present value.
But if light were faster, distances were smaller (expanding universe and all)… time for some ‘duration’ immediately after a Big Bang had no meaning (no way to be measured - no clocks, cesium-133 or anything like that)… and for all we can expect, even gravity acted differently.
Conjecture on string theory, and about a Big Bang too, can not even be called wrong, but only meaningless. There is nothing referential about everything coming from nothing, the “first second” or, despite mystical experiences (which even I have had), some larger, meta-universe. All that is no better than talk of orders of infinity, the square root of negative numbers, or angels dancing on the head, or tip, of a pin. If anything at all can be said of those matters, anything at all can be said of them. An important idea here, usually lost sight of, is that there can be no 1:1 mapping, no complete description of anything, no explanation that takes into account everything. Like it or not, we are limited.
As for e=mc², why not mc³(cubed)? How can it be effectively claimed that the energy within an atom has really been fully quantified? What modern physics has presented us with has largely been but elaborate mathematics - little better than theology. It has not only presumed, but ignored, too much… and been used, perhaps, mostly, as propaganda to prop up political and economic power.
But scientists seem to ignore these matters, perhaps clarifying how some of them can believe in the ‘literal truth’ of the Bible. Can’t tolerate any pesky, enduring mysteries, at least outside of our canons of faith, can we?

More on Einstein, baffling the public and light speed

The more I think about Einstein, and especially about the equation e=mc², the more absurd it all seems. OK, maybe, just maybe, gold involves a lot of stored energy – but, I suspect, in a very different manner than radioactive uranium or plutonium. But why, I wonder, are energy and mass functions of the speed of light? What kind of relation is that? And, since speed of light isn’t as precise as many like to pretend, or assume, squaring it could lead to a not very spot-on answer. Mass, too, is not as precise a quantity as we might like to imagine: for one thing, separate the parts of a molecule, and somehow you end up with more mass. An even bigger problem is that mass (inertia) and speed are incommensurates; multiplying them seems to me like multiplying height by an interest rate. Mass - according to what unit of measure (International Prototype Kilogram, avoirdupois pound, or the one used by engineers, nicely named the slug)? Speed - in miles or kilometers? And per second, at what rate of relative speed, someone else (but certainly not me) might even wonder.
If you multiply the horsepower of a car by its weight, you get a figure which could help compare its efficiency to other cars – although matters like accelerative capacity, oil use, exhaust production and expectancy for replacement part necessity aren’t included.
A lump of granite can do “work” as a doorstop or weight, and copper (gold and silver too) as an electrical conductor, but I’m not sure that’s quite the same concept.
So, what is this “energy” quantity? Certainly not just the potential explosive power which could be produced. Energy is defined as the capacity for doing work. We burn wood or coal for energy (heat) produced, but certainly not gold, nor granite. Nor do we make nuclear energy from granite. Maybe it could be done from gold, but I won’t be expecting that. We use things already emitting energy, radioactive energy.
Is it all just baffling us with “science” or something like the neo-con republican think-tank verbal cons? I hardly know.
What I do know is that our conceptual framework isn’t all we like to believe it to be, and humanity seems to be losing capacity to interact cooperatively, working toward a shared goal. Hunters had to, and rice growers still do, but sense of common goal seems to be dissipating, diminishing or at least in decline.

Some things pointed out many other places on the web:

Nikola Tesla, one of our greatest inventors, deserves credit for much modern technology. Critical of Einstein's relativity work, he said, “General Relativity is a magnificent mathematical garb which fascinates, dazzles and makes people blind to the underlying errors. The theory is like a beggar clothed in purple whom ignorant people take for a king..., its exponents are brilliant men but they are metaphysicists rather than scientists...” (New York Times, 11 July, 1935).
Tesla also said, “I hold that space cannot be curved, for the simple reason that it can have no properties. It might as well be said that God has properties. He has not, but only attributes and these are of our own making. Of properties we can only speak when dealing with matter filling the space. To say that in the presence of large bodies space becomes curved is equivalent to stating that something can act upon nothing. I, for one, refuse to subscribe to such a view.” (New York Herald Tribune, 11 Sept., 1932). He claimed that much of Einstein’s relativity theory had been proposed by Ruder Boskovic: “...the relativity theory, by the way, is much older than its present proponents. It was advanced over 200 years ago by my illustrious countryman Ruđer Bošković, the great philosopher, who, notwithstanding other and multifold obligations, wrote a thousand volumes of excellent literature on a vast variety of subjects. Bošković dealt with relativity, including the so-called time-space continuum ...” (from a 1936 unpublished interview, quoted in Anderson, L, ed. Nikola Tesla: Lecture Before the New York Academy of Sciences. 6 April 1897 : The Streams of Lenard and Roentgen and Novel Apparatus for Their Production, reconstructed 1994). Boscovich claimed that the observer can never observe the world as it is; he can only describe the interface (or “difference”) between himself and the world. A logical deduction from this is that a state of motion of the whole world relative to a stationary observer is equivalent to a state of external motion of the observer relative to the world.
Tesla, in 1936, said that he’d figured out how the universe and gravity worked, and wrote a book titled The Dynamic Theory of Gravity. But the book was never published and upon his death in 1943, the FBI raided his home and confiscated all of his research and notes. Tesla’s papers and other property were reportedly impounded by the United States’ Alien Property Custodian office.
A PBS special on Einstein’s wife stated that he did a lot of his early work with her; then, after their break up, his work wasn’t as good. Others credited with developing SR include, apart from Fitzgerald, Lorentz, Minkowski and Poincare. Although most historians of science don’t credit him with the discovery, some say Poincaré invented at least 90% of special relativity (light synchronization, the relativity principle, philosophical relativity of time, etc.) before Einstein.
Einstein tried to mechanistically explain the universe, and failed. Many of his ideas may have come from patents that he had access to through his Swiss Patent Office job… Tesla may have understood the universe better than Einstein, or perhaps not - his ideas just came to him, he claimed. Tesla’s good friend Mark Twain summed things up nicely: “Nothing exists except empty space and you - and you are but a thought.”

Unstable atomic nuclei

While I’m hardly a chemist, I can think, which lots of chemists can’t, at least not very well or much. Physicists are even worse: see the Schrödinger’s cat babble (either the cat is breathing or not, it’s not about the human observer). Our social structure is arranged so that we tend to believe that we have betters who can do things we ourselves cannot, which is hardly the case, but useful for social control. We’re given fables to live by, to insure some degree of social stability (instead of the egalitarianism of anarchy), and most of us simply accept them. Which causes lots of problems.
Matter, in a manner of speaking, is not discreet. It emits stuff – radiations, and particles that can be smelled, some from decomposition, some not. It doesn’t cling tightly together in discreet units, but is interactive, its boundaries really rather vague.
As is also the matter/energy relationship. Matter reacts; and energy is the advent of reactions of attraction &/or repulsion. Sometimes more is exhibited, sometimes less, but it is NOT an inherent quantity, any more than matter is truly solid. All is interactive, all a temporary state, leading, as it were, to its opposite. Matter and energy come and go.

Radiation is energy in motion, either at light-speed or less (but appreciably greater than thermal velocities, the velocities of molecules forming air). It results from unstable atoms, with an excess of energy or mass (or both).
One type, electromagnetic radiation, includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared rays, visible light, ultraviolet rays, X rays, gamma rays, and the neutrino. These have zero mass when at rest (theoretically). Another includes electrons, protons, and neutrons, particles which have mass in a (theoretical) state of rest. They’re constituents of atoms. When such forms of particulate matter travel at high velocities, they are regarded as radiation. Radiation includes heat, sound, ultraviolet frequencies, the visible color spectrum and EM radiation. Radioactive materials naturally degrade into lighter “daughter” elements, which in turn degrade, culminating in stable elements (a process called fission). When bombarded by neutrons, atoms of a rare type of uranium (uranium-235) release neutrons that split other uranium atoms in a chain reaction.
Unstable atomic nuclei spontaneously decompose to form nuclei with a higher stability. This decomposition is called radioactivity, and energy and particles released during the decomposition process, radiation. Radiation comes from unstable atomic nuclei, travels through space and can penetrate matter. Atoms with unstable nuclei are said to be radioactive.
Put alternately, radiation is a process where energy emitted by one body travels (in a ‘straight’ line through a medium or through space), and sometimes becomes absorbed into another body. In order to stabilize, unstable atoms give off, or emit, excess energy or mass, called radiation. Kinds of radiation are electromagnetic (like light) and particulate (i.e., mass given off with the energy of motion). EM gamma radiation originates in the atomic nucleus while EM x-rays come from electrons, the electronic part of the atom.
A brief digression: my parents were respected and successful educators: my father a scientist (behavioral psychology) and my mother a musician (harp). When I was having trouble with high-school chemistry, my mother suggested thinking of it as like cooking (not recognizing that I was still unclear about how to heat a hot dog). But my father said, no, that’s not right, it’s not the same. I suppose they were both partly right, and that the analogy I’ll use now is similarly only half-way appropriate. Radiation is like smoke, something given off from heat, internal activity, an undergoing of change.
Radiation is classified as either ionizing or non-ionizing. Non-ionizing radiation (visible light, infrared, microwaves, radio waves and long-wave, low-frequency radiation) is lower energy radiation that comes from the lower part of the EM spectrum; it doesn’t have enough energy to completely remove an electron. Energy released from radioactive atoms, ‘ionising radiation’, involves a non-radioactive atom hit by radiation, giving up an electron, and thus ‘ionised’. Ionising radiation is released by nuclear fission. It involves enough energy to detach electrons from atoms or molecules (the process of ionization), and comes from both subatomic particles and the shorter wavelength portion of the EM spectrum (ultraviolet, X-rays, gamma rays and subatomic particles including alpha particles, beta particles and neutrons). Subatomic particles are usually emitted as an atom decays and loses protons, neutrons, electrons or their anti-particles. Ionizing radiation, from unstable atoms, produces charged particles (ions). The three types of ionising radiation are alpha, beta and gamma; ionizing particles include alpha particles, beta particles, neutrons and cosmic rays.
About 1900, it was determined that some radiation is 100 times more penetrating than the rest; the less penetrating emanations became known as alpha rays, while the more powerful ones beta rays, after the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. Beta and alpha radiation are particulate radiation; alpha radiation consists of a stream of positively charged alpha particles, equivalent to a helium nucleus. Beta radiation is a stream of electrons, called beta particles. When a beta particle is ejected, a neutron in the nucleus is converted to a proton, so the mass number of the nucleus is unchanged (here I get lost, as the atomic number increases by one unit). Gamma Radiation, or Gamma rays, are high-energy photons of very short wavelength (on the short-wavelength end of the EM spectrum). The emission of gamma radiation results from an energy change within the atomic nucleus. Gamma emission changes neither atomic number nor atomic mass, but the high frequencies of gamma rays are even more penetrating than X rays. Alpha and beta emissions are often accompanied by gamma emissions, as an excited nucleus drops to a lower and more stable energy state.
Encyclopedia Britannica says, “Until the 20th century, physicists had studied such subjects as mechanics, heat, and electromagnetism that they could understand by applying common sense or by extrapolating from everyday experiences. The discovery of the electron and radioactivity, however, showed that classical Newtonian mechanics could not explain phenomena at atomic and subatomic levels. As the primacy of classical mechanics crumbled during the early 20th century, quantum mechanics was developed to replace it. Since then, experiments and theories have led physicists into a world that is often extremely abstract and seemingly contradictory.” Theories of wave/particle duality and indeterminacy arose, and the public became conveniently baffled. This hasn’t kept North Koreans (among others) from making quite dangerous bombs, though, although it has kept the Swiss from noting the full extent of the real dangers of particle colliders (which may or may not be even more dangerous, but do emit radiation).

Uranium, a silvery-white metallic chemical prevalent in the environment, slightly softer than steel, is unstable and weakly radioactive, and reacts with almost all nonmetallic elements. Normal functioning of the brain, kidneys, liver, heart and numerous other systems can be affected by uranium exposure.
Radiation varies in strength; while casual exposure to gamma rays emitted by some radionuclides can cause severe harm, alpha rays emitted by uranium outside the body poses little threat to human health. But when inhaled or ingested, uranium’s emissions alter the cellular reproductive process, creating great risk of lung and bone cancer. Radioactive substances harm living organisms by emitting alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma radiation, all of which ionize molecules they strike by knocking off a negatively charged electron. Even small amounts of radiation have potential to harm humans – especially ionizing radiation (light is hardly as dangerous). An antidote to uranium exposure is bicarbonate, used because uranium forms complexes with carbonate, becoming much less dangerous. We’re always exposed to radiations, and instabilities, but we can make choices, and it is part of our programming (a part fairly well circumvented in many ways) to try to protect ourselves. I’m afraid we could do a much better job of that, but have abdicated responsibility, allowing ourselves to become dependent on “our betters”. But “our betters” aren’t always thinking things through. Often they’re paid to think this or that, and not something else. Some of them even pay others to do their thinking for them (equally, in a certain way, and not in certain other ways). I was taught that Einstein’s work made atom bombs possible; by now I’m not at all sure there was much of a real connection at all.

And it was pretty weird to see a Yahoo!News headline saying a star had been observed coming out of a Black Hole… maybe that star is carrying info about the Sphinx, Machu Picchu, and some infamous dead folk?

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