Archive for April, 2012

Fundraising in Extremis

Chen Wenling
Catch of the Day

<!– @page { margin: 0.79in } P { margin-bottom: 0.08in } [日本語訳] [en français]

There are some important projects that need to be up and running starting like yesterday, because they are key to human survival. Unfortunately, they cannot be funded in the usual ways because of the warped nature of market economics and global finance, which dictates that the only goal of investing money is to make more money. The project of averting disastrous outcomes is not a money-maker, per se, and does not get funded. But shipping in millions of plastic orange Halloween pumpkins from China every year is a sure bet, and so the free market prioritizes orange plastic pumpkins above doing what is essential to keep us all alive. The invisible hand of the free market, it turns out, is attached to an invisible idiot.

A good example of this sort of project is shutting down nuclear power stations before the electric grid goes down and they all melt down à la Fukushima Daiichi, poisoning land and sea around them for thousands of years. The electric grid is indeed going down: the rate of power supply disruptions has been increasing exponentially in the US. Just recently a large and important piece of central Boston went dark because of a transformer explosion. The response was to roll in diesel generators to provide emergency power.

The transformers within the grid tend to be old, sometimes decades old, are at this point only built overseas, and, since they are expensive, there aren\’t too many spares sitting around. As this infrastructure ages (as it does, and will continue to do, since there is no money to update it) such incidents increase in frequency, putting greater and greater pressure on already scarce and expensive diesel supplies. Already in many places emergency diesel generators are run not just in emergencies, but to fill in gaps in the power supplied through the grid during peak load hours. Diesel is already used for sea and land freight, as well as for most other heavy machinery, and there is not much of it to spare anywhere in the world, so the idea of replacing the electric grid with local diesel generators runs into a very serious problem almost immediately. In fact, looking at the many reports of diesel shortages around the world, it already has.
An extended blackout is fatal to a nuclear power plant. Without a grid to power, the reactors have to be shut down, but they still need to be cooled in order to avoid a meltdown. The power to run the cooling pumps comes from the power plant itself, or the electric grid, or, if both are down, from, you guessed it, diesel generators. There is usually only a few days\’ worth of diesel on hand; beyond that, cooling water boils out, the zirconium cladding of the nuclear fuel assemblies catches on fire, and the whole thing melts down and becomes too radioactive to even go near, never mind clean up.
Worse yet, most of the 100 or so nuclear power plants in the US are full of spent fuel rods. The spent fuel is no longer potent enough to generate power, but a lot of it is still quite hot, and so the rods are kept in pools of water, which has to be circulated and cooled to keep it from boiling away. The spent fuel contains decay products that span the entire periodic table of elements, many of which are both radioactive and toxic. If the water boils away, the fuel rods spontaneously combust, blanketing the surrounding countryside with a plume of radioactive and toxic products of nuclear decay. The solution is to fish the rods out of the pools, put them into dry casks, and place the casks deep underground in geologically stable formations away from seismic zones. This is a slow and expensive process, for which there is currently no money.
Another, associated and equally important project, is in helping populations, especially those in developed countries, transition to a life without much electricity. In most places, some combination of technologies based on renewable sources of energy needs to be put into place to provide electricity for illumination and communications (the only uses for which electricity is critical). In addition, passive and concentrating solar installations can provide thermal energy for domestic and even some industrial uses. This, again, is a large-scale, expensive project, requiring a high level of funding over an extended period of time. It is also not expected to be any sort of money-maker: nobody will want to pay to have their multi-kilowatt domestic electric system replaced with a few LED lights and chargers for portable electronics, and go back to washing dishes and clothes by hand in solar-heated water. They\’d rather just stay comfortable, and then, when that is no longer possible, just sit silently in the dark wearing dirty clothes.
And so, where would all of this money come from? Certainly not from governments: they are too busy bailing out the banks and finance companies that provide the politicians with their political campaign funds. That only leaves private individuals, so let\’s examine them as a potential source of this critical funding.
Taking the United States as an example, and going up the economic food chain starting from the bottom, we have the downtrodden: the various victims of slavery, genocide, economic exploitation and racial and ethnic discrimination that made this country great. Let\’s just call them “the poor people.” They serve a key function in society: that of making the slightly less downtrodden worker drones feel superior, thinking “at least we are better off than they are” and continuing to labor for a pittance. Funding large projects is not one of the functions of either of these population groups, although they may be tapped to provide labor, and they do buy an awful lot of lottery tickets. Most of them are either destitute, or poor, or surviving paycheck to paycheck, mired in debt.
Next we have the much smaller group of people who do have a non-negligible net worth. Since the term “middle class” has become all but meaningless, let\’s just call them “the rich people.” This group is shrinking every day, as more and more people come to measure their wealth not by how much then own but by how much they owe. If you think that savings and debt are diametrically opposed, you may be right, in a strict sense, but only if you ignore the essential purpose of money for the rich people, which is to make them feel rich. To feel rich, they need two things. The first includes all sorts of accoutrements of being rich: flashy cars and clothes, latest gadgets, women with large silicone breast implants, ski vacations and so on, and it doesn\’t matter too much whether these are procured by spending money or by running up debts; they feel rich either way, or at least richer than someone else they can look down upon, which is all that really matters. The second includes the abstract and addictive thrills of handling large sums of money, be they theirs or borrowed; the purpose of money is to make more money, and the purpose of debt is to make more debt. Parting with their savings to avert disaster and accept a more humble way of living will not make them feel rich in either of these ways.
Lastly, we have the über-rich: those who have simply too much money. People like George Soros or Bill Gates make a big deal of their philanthropy, promoting democracy or fighting malaria; couldn\’t they help? Theoretically they could (they certainly have the money) but we have to understand what they are. They are vampires. They suck not our blood, literally, but our time and our toil. We get a “living” and an increasingly empty promise of retirement (once we are too old to be useful to them) on an increasingly devastated planet; they get everything else. The way they confiscate our wealth varies—Soros stole people\’s savings by speculating in currency markets; Gates charged a “Microsoft tax” by foisting on the world a buggy, bloated and insecure operating system with the complicity of the US government; the Waltons who own Walmart did it by shipping US jobs to China while driving small businesses in the US out of business. But the way they extend their largess does not vary: its purpose is to make them look like they are good men. To gain some perspective on what that means, here is a poem by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Slavoj Žižek:
The Interrogation of the Good
Step forward: we hear
That you are a good man.
You cannot be bought, but the lightning
Which strikes the house, also
Cannot be bought.
You hold to what you said.
But what did you say?
You are honest, you say your opinion.
Which opinion?
You are brave.
Against whom?
You are wise.
For whom?
You do not consider your personal advantages.
Whose advantages do you consider then?
You are a good friend.
Are you also a good friend of the good people?
Hear us then: we know
You are our enemy.
This is why we shall
Now put you in front of a wall.
But in consideration of your merits and good qualities
We shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you
With a good bullet from a good gun and bury you
With a good shovel in the good earth.
The über-rich thus have two functions in society. The main function is to suck wealth out of the Earth and out of humanity as efficiently as possible. The ancillary function is to spit some of it back out in a way that makes them look like the Earth\’s and humanity\’s benefactors. But there is a problem with this balance of payments: in order for the Earth and humanity to derive a net benefit from their activities, they would have to spit out as much, if not more, as they suck in. In the process, they would cease to be über-rich; in effect, they would cease to exist.
And here we come to the crux of the argument. The only possible sources of funding for our project of making the planet survivable for future generations are the über-rich, but in the process they have to cease to exist. Brecht\’s approach is both simple and dramatic, but a more humane option can be imagined. There is a certain point in time when people are particularly malleable when it comes to the question of disposing of their money: on their deathbed. Lying in extremis, one inevitably ponders the fact that “you can\’t take it with you,” thoughts of a potentially unpleasant world beyond death begin to bedevil the mind… With the right sort of persuasion, dramatic results are often achieved by priests, heads of nonprofits and other mendicants. It is at this point that a pitch for saving what\’s left of the planet may succeed.
Imagine our über-patriarch lying in extremis. Arrayed before him are his various (ex-) wives (in a Western harem the wives are spaced out in time as well as in space, to abide by the local bigamy laws) and their various children, all waiting for their bit of the legacy. There is the leathery old harpy who came first, the now wilted trophy wife who tried to hold it together with facelifts and implants and Botox, but now looks like a partially deflated balloon animal, and the pretty but sociopathic young nymphomaniac that\’s been keeping him (and his bodyguards) company of late. They are all hideous in their hypocritical concern for his well-being/wish for his speedy death. The children are hideous in their own way: all practiced at the healthy sibling rivalry in who can do the absolute least to appease the daddy-monster and avoid being disowned. Maybe somebody becomes suspicious that the old ogre will leave all the loot to his favorite, and the favorite is found in the wine cellar, choked to death with a silk scarf. There is a reason why posh English-language writers write so many murder mysteries, and it\’s the same reason that landscape painters paint so many trees: it\’s what grows there.
But then a group of dignified and austere gentlemen arrives and asks for an audience. They are all bona fide members of a secret society with which our ailing patriarch is well acquainted, and they lay out a plan: his legacy is to be added to their war chest, which will be used to wage total war to win a survivable future. He will die so that the Earth may live. The lawyer is summoned, the Last Will and Testament is hastily amended and signed, and the patriarch expires in bliss.
And if that doesn\’t work, then there\’s what Brecht suggests.

The Strange Logic of Dreams

Maria Rubinke

Previously I have raised the question of why it is that, given compelling evidence that action is needed, we fail to act. Are we smarter than yeast? Perhaps not. But perhaps the problem is not with our inability to act but, more importantly, with our inability to think. We pay lip service to the power of reason, but by and large we choose to inhabit a fictional realm where we use abstract symbols to point at invisible objects, which we assign to one in the same realm of consciousness. Could it be that each of us inhabits, at the very least, a separate realm of consciousness, and, more radically, many different realms, in effect dreaming several different dreams, never fully waking up from any of them?

Sigmund Freud conveyed the strange logic of dreams with the following joke:
  1. I never borrowed a kettle from you
  2. I returned it to you unbroken
  3. It was already broken when I borrowed it from you.
This “enumeration of inconsistent arguments,” writes Slavoj Žižek in his Violence, “confirms by negation what it endeavors to deny—that I returned your kettle broken.”

Here is an entirely commonplace example: the canonic list of excuses made by a child who neglected to do her homework:

1. I lost it
2. My dog ate it
3. I didn\’t know it was assigned

A similar triad of counterfactuals seems to recur in many long-running, seemingly insoluble political conflicts. Each counterfactual inhabits a fictional realm of its own (it can be true only in its own parallel universe). The effect of the three disjoint statements taken together is to form a cognitive wedge, which blocks all further rational thought.

Here, for example, is how Žižek casts the way radical Islamists respond to the Holocaust:
  1. The Holocaust did not happen
  2. It did happen, but the Jews deserved it
  3. The Jews did not deserve it, but they have lost the right to complain by doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to them
On the other side of the great Arab-Israeli divide, we have a similar triad
  1. There is no God (Israelis are by and large atheists)
  2. We are God\’s chosen people; God gave Palestine to us
  3. Palestine is ours simply because centuries ago we used to lived there
Please note that I am not bringing this matter up to weigh in on the conflict, but to point out what makes it insoluble: both sides are dreaming not one but several contradictory dreams. No reconciliation is possible unless they awaken, but if they do they will have to abandon their strategic dream-positions and lose any standing they may have had to engage in negotiation. Some day they will awaken, not having noticed when the movie had ended, and their world will be gone.
Closer to home, last year, we were treated to the wonderful spectacle of Occupy Wall Street, with its incoherent “demands” and a lively cacophony of voices. The occupiers demonstrated quite forcefully that they exist, and that they stand apart. It was not a political revolt, but an ontological one: “we are not you.” Thus, making specific demands would have been superfluous. The occupiers could have achieved the same (perhaps even a greater) effect by chanting something rhythmic yet free of meaning:
Blah! Blah! Blah-blah-blah!
Blah! Blah! Blah-blah-blah!
In response, the political chattering classes spewed forth the following triad:
  1. The Occupiers lack specific demands
  2. The Occupiers\’ demands are unreasonable
  3. Meeting the Occupiers\’ demands would not solve the problem
They were asleep, you see, and dreaming of an occupation. Some day they will awaken, not having noticed when the movie had ended, and their world will be gone.
In the meantime, sweet dreams to you all!

Solo Sail Around the Americas


[Update: He won. First ever non-stop single-handed circumnavigation of the Americas. 27,077 nautical miles in 309 days, 18 hours and 38 minutes.]

In case you didn\’t know… Matt Rutherford is about to complete a first ever solo non-stop circumnavigation of the Americas aboard a donated 27-foot Albin-Vega. It took him about a year to get up north, navigate the Northern Passage, sail down the Pacific coast, across Cape Horn, and back up the Atlantic coast. His arrival back in Annapolis is scheduled for April 21st.