Archive for January, 2014

Diabolics 101

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Troy Coulterman
[Project Unspell is proceeding apace. Meanwhile, here is a guest post by Claire about her firsthand experience teaching people to read in write using the “diabolical” English orthography. Teachers like her, who have the knowledge and the skill to achieve superior results, are few and far between. The average results are abysmal: it takes upwards of eight years of formal instruction for native English speakers to achieve adequate literacy, and as many as ten for non-natives. Many of them never make it. Meanwhile, it takes a year or so to achieve the same results given almost any reasonably designed orthography. The opportunity cost to society of English spelling is absolutely staggering. But help is on the way: Unspell is specifically designed to be learnable “by osmosis.”]
Twelve years ago I was shocked to find I had no idea how to teach anyone to read and write. For most people this would be no reason to panic. But it was for me because I was in my final year of teacher training. Incredibly, I’d spent nearly four years in the education faculty of an Australian university and no one had mentioned the mechanics of the English writing system, where it originated and how to teach it. This omission seemed even more bizarre when I later discovered that English is one of the hardest languages to learn to read and write.
So instead of being taught something useful, I had to read scores of academic articles about how to create a language-rich classroom in which to immerse my students. All this richness and immersion was somehow meant to help children “emerge into literacy” provided they were “exposed” to truckloads of print. In other words, learning to read and write would occur via osmosis with little or no instruction from me.
Despite this ludicrous premise, it didn’t immediately occur to me that this osmosis theory is bonkers. So I went along with the charade until it hit me that our writing system is a human invention that needs to be taught. Like driving, for instance. A car is a human contrivance in need of a driver to navigate it around the landscape. Yet no one seriously expects a learner driver to “emerge into driving” by standing on a street corner and being “exposed” to traffic. Learner drivers need direct instruction on how to handle a car and no one is idiotic enough to suggest otherwise.
And yet, when it comes to teaching one of the world’s most fearsome orthographies, we seem to think the less instruction the better. And even when we do give instructions, they’re often wrong or misguided. This is a disastrous way to approach a complex written language and the functional illiteracy rate in English-speaking countries attests to this. 
Strangely, this pedagogical boondoggle did not occur in the education faculty’s mathematics department. I have no recollection of anyone arguing that children “emerge into numeracy” provided they are “exposed” to lots of numbers. Instead, it was made clear that mathematics is a human invention that needs systematic instruction. Consequently, I was taught howto teach our number system.
Anyway, after I stopped panicking I figured that if I was going to teach children to read and write a difficult writing system, then I was going to have to do it properly. Luckily, I encountered a book by Geoffrey and Carmen McGuinness called Reading Reflex. It taught me the structure of the English written language, where it originated and how to teach it. It also confirmed what I suspected – that reading and writing need careful and systematic instruction, especially with an orthography as diabolical as ours. And the thing is, children can learn to read and write English provided those who teach them know what they’re dealing with. The trouble is, many of us don’t. Because we’re not trained to deal with it.
Here’s what we’re dealing with: A code. An alphabet code we inherited from the Romans, who, inspired by the Ancient Greeks and the Phoenicians, created it by listening to the sounds of their language and devising a symbol to represent each of these sounds. Consequently, if the sound-based nature of this alphabet code is misunderstood, then written English is not taught in the way it was designed. The result: lots and lots of people who can barely read and write.
So it makes sense to teach it well. But nothing makes much sense in our society, so the teaching of reading and writing makes little sense either. Frankly, I’m amazed anyone reads and writes at all given the poor training teachers receive and the haphazard way literacy is taught.
Something else I didn’t learn at university. A writing system like English is called an opaque alphabet code. This means we have more than one symbol for each sound and more than one way to read and write each sound. This contrasts with transparent alphabet codes like Italian, Spanish and German where there is mainly one way to read and write each sound. It’s no surprise, then, that this makes transparent codes easy to teach and learn.
And, believe it or not, English itself was once a transparent code. Here’s the sad story:
Once upon a time, English had a perfect written language. It was easy to read and easy to write. One sound equalled one way of reading and writing it. English was as near to phonetic written perfection as you can imagine. Two Dark Age luminaries were responsible for this linguistic marvel. The first was an Anglo-Saxon king and the second, an Irish bishop. Astonishingly, in the wilds of Northumbria in 635 AD, King Oswald and Bishop Aiden created a writing system we now know as Old English. Somehow it managed to survive centuries of Viking mayhem before finally meeting its Waterloo at the Battle of Hastings when the Norman-French army defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold II in 1066.
Old English then suffered such a calamitous decline that I’m thankful King Oswald and Bishop Aiden never lived to see its fate. This is because English has gone from a near-perfect writing system to a bizarre creature that needs to be wrestled to the ground. Where once it was delightfully easy to read and write, it is now a mad jumble of multiple spellings for the same sound and multiple ways to read the same sound.
Of course, the Norman-French weren’t the only ones responsible for this linguistic farrago. As I’ve already said, the Vikings had already done their best to obliterate Old English with their raids on libraries and monasteries, but early Medieval English priests, judges and scholars also joined the fray and threw Latin and Greek spellings into an already heady mix of Anglo-Saxon, Danish and Norman French.
The upshot of all this Norman invading and Viking pillaging and nerdy Latin/Greek obsession is that English ended up with no less than five languages and their orthographies layered over one another: Anglo-Saxon, Danish, Norman French, Classical Latin and Greek. No wonder modern English is so tricky to read and write.
Anyway, several years after I graduated, I felt confident enough to start my own remedial reading and spelling business. I had no shortage of pupils, all of whom were doing their best to make sense of a written language that made no sense to them whatsoever. At their first lesson, I told them about English and how it had once been easy to read and write. I then told them about King Oswald and Bishop Aiden. I also suggested that they blame at least some of their spelling woes on the Vikings and the Norman French and the medieval scholars and judges and priests. 
It was at this point that their faces softened. Finally, they could relax. It wasn’t their fault. They were not stupid. They were just stuck trying to understand a writing system that had strayed a long way from King Oswald’s and Bishop Aiden’s original, magnificent creation. For theirs was a linguistic masterpiece that, had it survived, would make the lives of countless children and adults less miserable and throw people like me out of a job.
Reading Reflex, McGuinness, C. & McGuinness, G., Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999.
Early Reading Instruction, McGuinness, D.,The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004

Announcing: MassTrails 2.0

Javier Pérez, the world\’s most complete database of maps of wild places in Massachusetts to which the public has access is now even more complete. It has also been redesigned, and the search engine overhauled. Now is not the time to venture out into the woods (unless you happen to like frostbite), but as the weather warms I hope that those of you who read this blog and who live in Massachusetts (about a thousand people) try it out. There is a good chance you\’ll find an interesting place to go and spend time outdoors that you otherwise wouldn\’t know existed. Also, please spread the word among your friends and family. Thank you. Many thanks to Will Kilburn for compiling the database, Colin Owens for the design, and me (yes, me) for writing the code.

The Peace-Violence Axis

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Maria Rubinke
Albert\’s plot of thinkers has elicited some strong reactions. The vertical “Ecotopia”/“Collapse” axis seems somewhat less controversial: it seems that some people are more optimistic, some less optimistic, but that this is a personal preference that others can easily accept. But the horizontal axis, especially in his initial version, where it went from “peaceful transformation” on the left to “violent revolution” on the right, didn\’t sit well with many people. The new version, which goes from “transformation” to “resistance” may be more politically correct, but I feel that something is lost in eschewing the concept of violence, which I feel is omnipresent and inescapable.
Perhaps the new axis should start out with “appeasement” rather than “transformation”? Doesn\’t it stand to reason that to remain scrupulously peaceful and cooperative in a situation where acts of unspeakable violence are being carried out in your name is to tacitly condone that violence? When US citizens pay their taxes, or cast their vote for President, they, wittingly or unwittingly, give their approval to a system of mass imprisonment that has surpassed both Hitler\’s and Stalin\’s, become complicit in the mass murder of foreign civilians, a.k.a. “collateral damage,” that number in the hundreds of thousands, and underwrite a system of global surveillance that has put East Germany\’s Stasi and USSR\’s KGB to shame. By this standard, a law-abiding, hard-working, tax-paying American is automatically one of the worst criminals mankind has ever known. How is that nonviolent?
Turning our attention to the right end of the axis, where the label has been changed from “Violent revolution” to “resistance,” things are not any less muddled. A good example of “resistance” is the recent Greenpeace action to stop Russian oil and gas drilling in the Arctic. The activists got arrested, charged with “hooliganism,” imprisoned, and then amnestied and released. The Russians were able to neutralize their effort and to deter any repeat of the action. As far as their drilling program, no damage has been done. Another good example is the “resistance” against XL pipeline, where various celebrities burned lots of jet fuel and gasoline to travel to Washington and get themselves arrested. Unlike most Russians, most Americans can\’t seem to see the irony in burning fossil fuels to protest the burning of fossil fuels. It is rather late in the day for the environmental movement, and it seems to have devolved to the status of fossil fuel industry\’s “useful idiots.” Is resistance just another form of appeasement?
If so, then the horizontal axis goes from “passive appeasement” on the left to “active appeasement” on the right, and both of them, and all points in between, are soaked through with violence—against people and against nature. The difference between them seems to be a matter of posturing: some people prefer to act in ways that get them invited to international conferences which fail to achieve anything; other people prefer to hire college students to stand around on the sidewalk and get money from passing pedestrians, so that they can then grandstand on the high seas and get caught, charged with “hooliganism” and released. It\’s a question of style: some people prefer business-casual, while others like to dress sporty.
If resistance=appeasement, then what is left? What is the actual behavioral difference that actually does make a difference? It is not resistance, it is defiance. Now, there are two types of defiance: open defiance and secret, clandestine, plausibly deniable defiance. Open defiance is the domain of fools and madmen: refuse to pay your taxes, and you get fined and jailed. Secret defiance is the key to success: don\’t oweany taxes, and you find yourself living better than most. It is also the key to making tangible improvements to your tiny patch of the world. Now, it would make no sense to ask people to place themselves on the “obedience”/“defiance” axis, since doing so would constitute open defiance, which is foolish. Moreover, secret defiance starts with defying classification.
Classification, you see, is a form of violence—a subtype of “objective violence.” The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek defined the terms “subjective violence” and “objective violence” roughly as follows: subjective violence happens when you are walking down the road and somebody throws a brickbat at your head and robs you; objective violence happens when you then get taken to a hospital emergency room, stitched up, and later receive a hospital bill for tens of thousands of dollars, including $300 for a $3 bandage, plus a separate exorbitant bill from a doctor who didn\’t even see you. Now, you could say that the robber “classified” you as an easy mark—somebody who could be robbed—but that\’s stretching it, because the robber\’s victims do not constitute a recognizable class. On the other hand, when you are received in the emergency room, you are immediately classified as a patient, triaged, treated, and, upon release, pursued in the public realm of collections agencies and bankruptcy courts. Epistemologically speaking, your victimhood in a robbery is a matter of perspectival identification—“that guy over there,” while your victimhood in this commonplace episode of medical extortion is public identification—based on your full name, social security number, date of birth and, if you decide to flee, your fingerprints and biometric data that are on file.
Classifying people is almost always an act of objective violence. Let\’s try an exercise. You probably fancy yourself as a member of the middle class. Most people prefer to consider themselves middle-class, because upper-class aspirations seem arrogant and overweening while lower-class aspirations don\’t exist. On the other hand, it is often said that the middle class is rapidly disappearing. The parents might still fancy themselves middle-class, but their underemployed basement-dwelling adult children have scant hope of keeping up the appearances. Now, let\’s follow this trend to its obvious conclusion. The middle class is gone; what are you now? Let\’s introduce some categories: we have nobs(filthy rich bastards), proles (who have a job serving the nobs) and bums (who don\’t have such a job). Which one are you? Do you feel slightly offended at being classified in such a manner? Well, you should be. Classifying people is an offensive thing to do.
But this sort of thing goes on all the time, and English-speakers seem particularly susceptible to it. English, with its definite and indefinite articles, which, unlike other languages, convey semantic rather than grammatical distinctions, makes it a grammatical requirement to classify things. In Chinese or Russian, you can only say the equivalent of “president of bank”; in German you can say ”Bank-Präsident”; while in English you might say “a president of the bank” or “the president of a bank”, in each case picking out one or more members out of one or more classes. It is commonly believed that different languages do not set limits on what thoughts their speakers can entertain, but they certainly do set limits on what thoughts their speakers can refuse to entertain, and English-speakers cannot refuse to entertain thoughts about the class membership of the objects they wish to discuss. I believe that this may help explain the appalling level of objective violence and the horrific level of social stratification and inequality that can be observed in most English-speaking societies.
And so I am quite happy that Albert\’s plot produced such great discomfort; maybe there is some hope for us English-victims after all… I certainly have resented the classification “Orlov is a collapsitarian” (whatever that means) with which some fool writing for Mother Jones once tried to pin me down. I defy efforts to classify me. I suppose this puts me somewhere on the defiance spectrum, but I can\’t tell you how high or I\’d be openly defiant, i.e., I\’d be a fool. Maybe you can do even better. This is one parameter in which some one-upmanship might be called for. How defiant are you?

David Holmgren\'s Crash on Demand

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Gary Larson
There has been a lot of reaction in recent days to David Holmgren\’s recent reassessment of his Future Scenarios paper of 2007. In that paper, Holmgren describes four alternative scenarios, calling them Brown Tech, Green Tech, Earth Steward and Lifeboats. In his reassessment, he notes that Peak Oil has so far failed to trigger any sort of decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, while the projected effects of rapid climate change have gone from bad to borderline lethal for human survival. Noting that previous strategies for stopping this slide to environmental destruction, such as international negotiations, mainstream climate activism, the Transition Towns movement and all the rest have had a negligible effect, he proposed a new approach:

“I believe that actively building parallel and largely non-monetary household and local community economies with as little as 10% of the population has the potential to function as a deep systemic boycott of the centralized systems as a whole, that could lead to more than 5% contraction in the centralised economies. Whether this became the straw that broke the back of the global financial system or a tipping point, no one could ever say, even after the event.”
In response, Nicole Foss has written a lengthy, thoughtful peace, in which she explains that each of these scenarios operates at a different scale: the current juggernaut of Brown Tech, including shale oil and gas production using fracking, deepwater oil and gas production, tar sands and so on are conducted at the national or the transnational scale; Green Tech initiatives such as solar installations, micro-hydro, shift to bicycling over driving and so on are happening, where they are, at the city or regional level; the Earth Steward approach functions best at the local level of the town or the village; finally, building Lifeboats is largely a personal or family pursuit.
I agree that treating these four as distinct scenarios is at best misleading: these are just different facets of reality, observable, as Nicole points out, at different scales. Brown Tech is a set of desperate coping mechanisms: in the face of Peak Oil (conventional global oil production peaked in 2005-6) and declining production from conventional wells, energy companies have attempted to keep production up by resorting to desperate measures such as fracking and drilling in the Arctic, and have succeeded, so far, albeit at a much higher cost. Notably, what has made it possible for them to do so is the magical levitation act performed by the world\’s central banks, which has kept global lines of credit open against all odds. My feeling is that once gravity starts working again Peak Oil with reassert itself with a vengeance, and that the Brown Tech economy is a dead man walking. Let\’s have some respect for the dead.
I am, obviously, a fan of Green Tech. A few years ago Boston had no bike lanes; now it has bike lanes along all major streets, and a very successful bike sharing program. What\’s not to like about that? I am also, at this point, practiced at installing solar panels and wind generators for easy off-grid living. I\’ve experimented with having a composting toilet aboard a boat, with mixed results, but have extracted some useful lessons. At some point I would like to try my hand at welding up a biochar converter. But will any of this have much of an effect at the global scale? I doubt it! In fact, I doubt that anything will. The Massachusetts state legislature just voted $50 million to mitigating the effects of climate change. Problem solved! LOL!
Likewise, Earth Stewardship sounds lovely. I haven\’t been involved in Permaculture beyond reading a bunch of books. My problem is that Permaculture requires land, and I don\’t happen to have any. Perhaps some day I will get to try a few experiments setting up self-perpetuating patches of edible plants on uninhabited bits of coastline. But there is another type of culture with which I do have direct experience: the kitchen-gardening culture in Russia. Gardening can be a lifesaver. You still need to periodically get a sack of grain from somewhere, and it\’s hard to survive with eating an animal now and again, but it can make a huge difference. All you need is a patch of dirt and some skill; no swales, guilds or other Permaculture concepts needed. Can kitchen-gardening make a difference at a national scale? Yes it can. It has and it will again. There is just one problem: foodies. They don\’t want to merely survive by eating a balanced diet of potatoes, turnips, cabbage and rye periodically augmented with guinea pig stew; they want fresh, delicious produce and fancy recipes. I\’ve often thought that a good trifecta for a collapse-related blog to hit would be to incorporate climate change, peak oil and delicious, healthy, organic, local food. There could be three tabs: near-term human extinction got you down? Click on another tab and look at some luscious, mouth-watering tomatoes. But if the foodies can be reigned in, then kitchen-gardening becomes something of survival value.
Likewise, there is nothing wrong with Lifeboats. I happen to live on a boat, so I have taken the concept beyond the metaphor stage. But even metaphorically, it\’s a good idea to have a plan for what to do in case of the sudden shutdown of global finance followed by the shutdown of global supply chains for everything from Saudi oil to Canadian toilet paper. Someone who hasn\’t made any preparations for that at all is going to have to go and bother those who have, with mixed results. If you don\’t like thinking about big disasters, think small. I have backups upon backups: if electricity goes off, I have batteries; if I can\’t heat with diesel, I can heat with propane; if shore water goes off, I can switch to internal tanks; if internal tanks run dry, I have a jerrican of potable water. Such minor emergencies do occur with some regularity, so these preparations are not in vain. Being prepared for minor emergencies makes it easy to take the next step and prepare for big ones.
So these are all facets of reality, not alternative scenarios. The fact that the Brown Tech facet is currently expanding by leaps and bounds is problematic. It would certainly be nice if it collapsed sooner rather than later. If, like Holmgren says, 10% of the population boycotted global finance, and global finance crashed, Brown Tech would probably just shut down, because its activities are very capital-intensive. Now, since our voices—Holmgren\’s and mine and those of other people who may be consonant with Holmgren\’s message—are mainly projected through blogs, I can do some math and figure out how many me-equivalents it would take to bring about the required change in global sentiment.
This particular blog gets around 14k unique visitors a month. Let\’s assume a sky-high conversion rate of 50%, where half of my readers pledge to support Homgren\’s boycott. That\’s 7k people. Global population is 7 billion, 10% of that is 700 million. Dividing one into the other, we get our result: it would take on the order of 100,000 me-equivalent activists/bloggers to bring about the required change of consciousness. Next question: how many me-equivalent (give or take) bloggers are there out there? Albert Bates has obliged with a nice chart that shows all the notable ones.
Note that there are quite a few worthies hiding out along the axes. Bates cares about the means (peaceful) and is agnostic about the outcome. Five more are distributed along the Ecotopia-Collapse axis, which means that they are agnostic about the means. One—Kunstler—is agnostic about both. Note my position on the chart: between Greer and MacPherson. Greer thinks that collapse will take a few centuries; McPherson thinks that humans will be extinct before then. My hunch is that those alive today will live to see the Earth\’s population decrease by at least 50% through famine, disease and war—if they live to see it, that is. How can you tell if you are extinct if you happen to be extinct?
Back to the math: of the 22 activists/bloggers on Albert\’s chart, how many might go along with the plan? We already know that Rob Hopkins wants us to count him out. He wrote that Holmgren\’s Crash on Demand “isn\’t written for potential allies in local government, trades unions, for the potential broad coalitions of local organisations that Transition groups try to build, for the diversity of political viewpoints…” Yes, I can see why local govenments might take a dim view of a plan to zero out their budgets, and why the trade unions might not be enthused by a plan that would put their entire rank and file on the unemployment line. I guess Hopkins\’ “potential broad coalitions” will just have to wait for collapse rather than try to bring it about. Potentially, that is.
Not that any of that matters, of course, because, even if we assume that everyone will go along with Homgren\’s plan, dividing one into the other we still get a 99.98% shortfall in the required number of activists/bloggers. La-de-da. But don\’t let that stop you from trying because, regardless of results (if any) it\’s a good thing to be trying to do.

In Praise of Nomads

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Leah Giberson
For the past couple of months we have been living with a tent pitched over our boat. It is what most people who live on boats in northern climates choose to do. When the weather starts turning cold, people erect frames, usually consisting of a ridge pole that runs the length of the boat, sloping fore and aft, supported by a few poles and a network of straps run out to the stanchions. Each boat requires a slightly different arrangement. Once the frame is ready, the shrink-wrap goes on, barn-raising style. The plastic is, trimmed, tucked under straps that run around the hull and welded to itself to make a single whole. Once the plastic is on securely, it is shrunk, creating a translucent dome over the entire boat. The welding and the shrinking are done using with a large propane-fired heat gun in one hand and a welding glove on the other. The effect is to cut heating bills more than in half, because during the day, even an overcast day, the greenhouse effect makes the temperature on deck quite comfortable, allowing people to turn off the heating, open hatches and air out the boat. Even on a frosty day it is usually warm enough to sit in the cockpit in shorts and a t-shirt. The dome also allows winter clothing, supplies and many other things to be stored on deck rather than in the cabin, freeing up scarce space down below. When the spring comes, the plastic is cut up and recycled, and the frame is dismantled.

The act of putting up shrink-wrap may seem mundane, but it is strangely satisfying. It is architecture at its purest, from the Greek archi, “one who directs” and tectos, “weaving.” There is a lot of thought that goes into designing the structure; the goal is to produce the strongest, stiffest structure using the minimum number of structural elements, the least amount of material and the least amount of effort. Buckminster Fuller\’s concept of tensegrity comes into play: the structure is made self-supporting by carefully balancing tension and compression. The result is nontrivial: a strong, functional, weatherproof shelter able to stand up to a nor\’easter is constructed in less than a day of work and less than $200 of materials by a single person (with some help from neighbors when it comes to lofting the plastic—thanks, Lee and Ray!). And when it\’s time for the boat to move again, it can be taken down just as easily: a couple of hours\’ work with a rigging knife, and no trace of it remains.

Once the boat has been moved to its summer quarters, a different, much simpler task awaits: to put up the cockpit awning. This is a rather complicated piece of dark canvas, cut and stitched to fit the structure of the boat, that makes the cockpit bearable even on the hottest days. Its functions are to block the sunlight, to let in the breeze and to shed water when it rains. On sunny days it lowers the temperature in the cockpit by some 15-20 degrees by heating up in the sun and creating an updraft, which sucks in cooler air off the water. This is generally enough to stay comfortable without air conditioning. Our current cockpit cover has seen better days; it\’s been restitched a few times, and will need some patching before too long. At some point we will stitch together a new one, costing us somewhere around $150 in fabric and a day of labor.
These all strike me as supremely efficient adaptations: winters spent in a sheltered cove under a translucent dome; summers spent under an awning out in the harbor where the seabreeze is almost constant. What makes these adaptations possible is lack of a house. Technically, we might be considered homeless, although the idea strikes me as bizarre: our boat is very much our home. Rather, what we are is “houseless,” which, to me, seems like a blessing in disguise. You see, the median price of a single-family home in the US is around $200,000 while the median family income in the US is around $50,000. The basic rule of thumb is that spending on housing shouldn\’t exceed 30% of income, although half the renters in the US pay more. But taking 30% as a guide and doing the math will tell you that it takes the average US family 13 years to save up money to buy a house. Since they need a place to live in the meantime, they buy it on credit, and the interest can be easily double that, meaning that about a third of a family\’s productive years are squandered on securing a place to live!
Beyond the sheer inanity of this arrangement from an economic point of view there are numerous other problems. First of all, the house doesn\’t move. Now, for me it is always a thrill to move to a new place, even just a few miles, without having to pack or prepare in any way beyond taking off the sail covers, warming up the engine and undoing the dock lines. When people stay in one place for a long time, they go blind. Not literally blind—they can still see shapes and colors and recognize faces and avoid running into things, but that\’s about it—because looking at the same scene day after day makes it impossible to see it with a fresh eye, to observe how it changes over time, and to be able to see it for what it is. Just shifting back and forth between summer and winter quarters is enough to destroy this effect, making it possible to see how each place improves or deteriorates over time.
Secondly, houses are ill-suited for each and every purpose. They are cold in the winter, requiring lots of expensive heat. They are hot in the summer, requiring lots of expensive air conditioning. They are built along streets, exposing their residents to car exhaust. It is not possible to make the roof translucent in the winter and reflective in the summer, to knock down walls when the temperatures get hot or to throw up some extra insulation if the winter turns out to be colder than usual.
Lastly, houses are almost unique among civilization\’s artifacts in that they are conceived as being permanent. This means that houses stay up even after they outlive their stated purpose (such providing cheap housing for industrial workers) slowly degenerate into slums and ruins, and eventually cost a great deal of money to tear down. Architectural fashions change, but buildings do not. “Fashionis something so uglywe have to change itevery six months,” Oscar Wilde once said. But one cannot burn an ugly building the way one can burn an ugly pair of shoes. With a few exceptions (hilltop towns in Tuscany spring to mind) houses destroy the landscape by crowding it with unfashionable ruins.
Doing away with the a fixed abode confers numerous advantages: you become free to move; you are prevented, by your circumstances, by accumulating consumerist crap; you get a chance to construct your own shelter to suit the situation; a third or more of your income is saved rather than squandered. These are all practical considerations, but there is more to being nomadic than being practical. Nomadism, you see, is not just a good adaptation for uncertain times. It is also godly and sublime.
Most people, when they hear the biblical phrase “the house of the Lord,” imagine a cathedral or a temple. Their fixed notion of a house is a large, permanent, immobile structure. What a surprise it is, then, to learn that the house of the Lord was, to begin with, most definitely a tent: Ancient Hebrew “beth” or Arabic “beyt” are both words that signify “tent.” The tension between the settled and the nomadic is present throughout the Bible. It is the tension between slavery and freedom, and the biblical account makes it clear that God, or Yahweh—originally a nomad god, the Bedouin god of flocks and herds—always sides with the nomads.
Let\’s look back at one of the world\’s great founding myths, the story of Abraham, who gave his name to the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, whose adherents account for more than half of the population of the Earth. In the story, Abraham and Lot, his nephew, leave the city and, with their herds, travel to Canaan and live there as nomads at the edge of the desert. But they quarrel, and Lot departs for Sodom and Gomorrah. Yahweh punishes him for his choice, destroying the cities, and turning his wife into a pillar of salt just for looking at the destruction, while Abraham stays pure and on the move, and his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, live on to create the two great nomad tribes, the Arabs and the Jews.
Although nomadism is the ideal, the tension between the nomadic and the settled is ever-present. Droughts, famines, and political oppression often force nomads to take refuge among the settled. If they stay long enough, they may lose their nomad ways and become stranded. Even Abraham was driven by famine to leave Canaan and take refuge in Egypt for a time, but was quick to escape as soon as conditions improved. Later, another famine forced his descendants back into Egypt and a life of servitude, but here their sojourn lasted long enough for them to lose their nomadic skills, condemning them to slavery. But they managed to produce a visionary—Moses—who married a Bedouin woman. This woman turned out to be the key cultural transplant that allowed the Jews to escape into the wilderness and regain their freedom.
Nomadism is culturally and technologically advanced, involving such elements as portable shelter, a relationship with animals that borders on symbiosis, ability to self-organize in groups large and small, to survive in a harsh and nearly barren terrain and to control and defend a large and ever-changing territory. In all nomadic cultures more than half of this cultural and technological DNA is the explicit domain of women, for it is the women who create and maintain the tent. Men practice animal husbandry, make tools, hunt, fish, fight, make tent poles, but it is the women who spin, weave and stitch. The tent is typically part of the dowry and remains the possession of the woman, hers to keep in case of divorce.
Walk into the tent of any nomad, and you will find the same separation of concerns reflected in the interior layout. To the left of the entrance is the women\’s side. Here, stacked along the walls you will find everything needed for preparing food, for working with leather and fabric, and for taking care of children. To the right is the men\’s side. Here, stacked along the walls you will find tools, weapons, saddles and harnesses. In the middle is the hearth; to the back of the hearth is the sacred place, with an altar. Before the altar is the seat of honor. In case of the Arabs, the separation is enforced using a curtain, called the qata, while in the tipi of a North American Indian the separation is implicit, but it is always there—a nomadic cultural universal. This is an evolved trait that makes perfect sense: the life of the nomad is so complex and requires such competence that a separation of concerns between men and women is essential to survival. A lone male can lead a nomadic existence, but for nomadism to exist as a civilization requires a woman-nomad, with woman-nomad knowhow.
Women tend to be more conservative than men (politics aside) in that they tend to pass on their skills to their daughters more or less unchanged. Thus we find, in nomadic architecture, incredible stability of forms. The black tend described in the Bible, under which the Israelites camped in the Canaan, are to be found along a desert belt stretching from Casablanca on the Atlantic coast of Africa all the way to Tibet (where they use belly hair of the yak for the fabric). It is a rectangular piece of goat-hair fabric, stitched together out of wide woven strips and erected using a few poles and stretched using long lines secured to pegs. It keeps the interior cool by blocking sunlight and creating an updraft and pulling air up through its loose weave, but when it rains the goat hair fibers swell up and create a waterproof surface that sheds water.
North of the black tent belt lies the yurt belt. Yurts use a freestanding frame that consists of a barrel-shaped latticework at the base, a tension band at the top of the latticework, a crown, sometimes supported by center poles, and poles which are mortised into the crown and hooked onto the tops of the latticework. Over this frame is pulled a covering of felt, its thickness in proportion to the coldness of the climate. A fair percentage of the population of Mongolia lives in yurts to this day, and yurt-dwelling Mongols once made it as far west as the gates of Vienna. Buckminster Fullers dymaxion house was essentially a yurt—fabricated out of aluminum, which is an unfortunate choice of material, since aluminum doesn\’t grow on trees or on sheep.
North of the yurt zone and throughout the circumpolar region we find two basic shapes: the cone tent and the dome tent, covered either with skins and hides or with steamed birch bark. Inside, we often find the same layout: hearth in the middle, women to the left, men to the right, altar in the back. The Koryak-Chukchi yaranga is particularly notable. These tribes, which inhabit the very farthest north of Siberia, use a tent within a tent, called polog, to keep warm in spite of temperatures that are often colder than -40 below. The inevitable condensation is dealt with by taking the polog out during the day, allowing the condensation to freeze solid and beating it out with a stick.
Nomadism is an innovation, requiring a great deal of advanced technology and knowhow. It is relatively recent, and in many places its advent coincided with the domestication of various animals. It is the symbiosis with these animals that gave the nomads their speed, range, and ability to sustain themselves in places where a stationary population would quickly perish of hunger and thirst. The desert, black tent nomads rely on the camel and, in the case of Tibet, the yak; the yurt nomads of the plains rely on the horse; the circumpolar tribes rely on the reindeer in Eurasia and its undomesticated cousin the caribou in North America. Prior to the advent of nomadism most of the places where nomads could survive remained uninhabited.
Of course, there are places in the world where not even a nomadic tribe can survive, but, when they see circumstances change, at least they have the option of moving. A settled population relies on a stable climate to be able to bring in crops from the same patch of land season after season. Over the past 11,000 years this was possible in many more places on Earth because during this period of time the climate was particularly stable and benign, but it appears that this period is now over, and the Earth has entered a period of climate upheaval, in which the regular patterns of nature on which agriculture relies can no longer be taken for granted.
Although the cultural preference in many parts of the world has been to disrespect the nomad, it is likely to turn out, for more and more people, that their choice lies between turning nomadic (if they can) or perishing in place. And it bears repeating that being nomadic requires a much higher-level of set skills than just staying in one place—one that can\’t be learned in a single generation, and perhaps not even in a single lifetime.

Exodus to Yellowknife

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Once in a while I get a book in the mail that I haven\’t purchased. This is often a pleasant surprise, since I rip through books the way most people go through salted peanuts, and having more reading matter laying around rarely hurts. I do eventually read most of them. The exceptions so far have been a few self-published books sent to me by batshit-crazy authors who have zero chance of getting published. And when the book is a recent release sent to me by a publisher, I incur a debt of gratitude which I discharge by writing a review. And although the publisher is looking to pick up a ringing endorsement from me, I feel free-ish to actually express what I think.

Such is the case with my book du jour, sent to me by my contact at New Society Publishers: Gilles Slade\’s American Exodus, published just three months ago, cheerfully subtitled Climate Change and the Coming Fight for Survival. To get the unpleasantly honest part out of the way, let me just say that it is an uneven work—written well, edited badly. The same good points are made repeatedly in eerily similar ways throughout the book. Each chapter reads like a conversation with Slade, focusing on some specific topic, but meandering to encompass the rest along the way. A good editor would have taken a scalpel to this manuscript, eliminating the repetitions.
That said, the book is quite interesting. It is the result of an attempt by Slade to answer a simple question: Where should his son live should he wish to survive? You see, after absorbing a large volume of information on the expected results of climate change, Slade came to the conclusion that his options for survival will be *cough* circumscribed. But he does arrive at answer. Slade looks at rising ocean levels, at fossil aquifer depletion, at the disappearance of glaciers and of rivers fed by glacial melt, at the probability of various extreme weather events, and, taking it all in, makes a recommendation: his son should resettle in Yellowknife, capital of Canada\’s Northwest Territories. The 2011 Canadian census puts its population at 19,234. With the addition of Slade\’s son, that would make it 19,235. Where the rest of our children should move to should they wish to survive is left as an exercise for the reader. I have worked that out for myself, by the way, but I will save that bit of good news for last.
Slade is a West Coast Canadian who loves California, and his focus is the northern half of Western Hemisphere. He does mention the heat wave in Europe that killed thousands, and another in the Moscow region, but these are tangential to his pursuit. When he says “we,” he means “we the North Americans.” His world view consists of two slices of whole grain bread—Canada and Mexico, with a fat, juicy slice of baloney sandwiched between them. According to his research the climate of the future does not bode well for the lower slice or the baloney.

Bottom to top, Mexico will turn into a scorched desert where no food crops can be grown. The prairie states of the US will likewise turn into an unproductive dustbowl raked flat by ever-larger tornados, and the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer will spell the end of agriculture even in places where climatic conditions permit. Agriculture in the Central Valley of California, where much of the country\’s produce is grown, is likewise going to shut down due to lack of water for irrigation. Meanwhile, rising ocean levels coupled with increasingly energetic North Atlantic hurricanes will destroy much of the East Coast, where half the population and much of the wealth is concentrated. Similar effects will be felt in Canada: the Maritimes will partially submerge, and the prairie provinces will wither in the summer heat and blow away. But Canada, being the country with the second largest amount of land (after Russia), with much of it far to the north, where temperatures will remain moderate, will, Slade thinks, remain survivable longer; hence his plug for Yellowknife.

Photo credit: Matt Conti

In case you believe that nothing particularly dramatic will happen within your or your children\’s lifetime, perhaps you should look around. I have: above is a picture of what a part of Boston waterfront looked like during the New Year nor’easter: Boston is becoming like Venice, where Piazza San Marco is routinely awash during winter storms. A few more feet of sea level rise, and seawater will circumvent Charles River Locks, at which point high tides will inundate Back Bay, making Downtown into an island once again. The problem is much the same up and down the coast. In 2012 we had pictures of cars smashing about in the storm surge in Lower Manhattan and the Jersey Coast transformed into a pile of debris by Hurricane Sandy. Manhattan, where a great deal of wealth and activity is concentrated, is connected to the mainland by tunnels; rising sea levels will put the tunnel entrances below the high tide line, putting a damper on the activities. Further down the coast, Charleston is perhaps just one major hurricane away from being wiped out.

Taking all of this in, Slade makes an important point that goes beyond just anticipating all of this destruction: he thinks that as each part of the North American continent ceases to be survivable, their populations will relocate to more survivable places—hence the term “exodus.” First, Mexicans will flee to the US, in a well-rehearsed pattern. Then California and the prairie and desert states of the US will lose the rest of their populations (they have been depopulating for some time already, and this trend will only accelerate). Finally, all of this displaced humanity will slosh across the border into Canada, completely overwhelming the relatively tiny Canadian population.

Slade avoids discussing the practicalities and the mechanics of these mass migrations—what sort of military action will accompany the opening of the US-Mexico border, for instance—but the outline is visible. Projections are that 2050 US will be a majority-Hispanic country. That majority is unlikely to favor maintaining the Great Wall of Mexico. As far as Canada\’s chances of controlling immigration, they are scant: most Canadians live along the indefensible US border, well within artillery range of it. Most of their trade is cross-border. Faced with a crisis of the magnitude Slade foresees, the idea of making a stand for Canada\’s sovereignty will no doubt come to be seen as silly.

Most life forms tend to be preoccupied with the continuation of their blood line, and I assume that you are no exception. You may or may not concur with Slade\’s dire prognosis, but if you don\’t then I assume that you have done your own research and, if it happened to be fact-based, inevitably came to similar conclusions, in which case your disagreements with Slade\’s analysis are likely to be minor. And in that case you would probably like to know where to resettle your children before entire countries set of on a death march to lands unknown.
I do have such a plan, and it is simple. My son has a certain piece of paper, which I have gone through some pains to secure for him, and which grants him the birthright to some 17 million square kilometers of prime real estate, much of it quite far to the north (compared to Canada\’s paltry 5.4 million square kilometers). That piece of paper is called a Russian passport.
Slade\’s analysis concentrates just on North America, but I think North America will be a basket case and find it more worthwhile to look at the planet as a whole, and sort countries into three columns: “destroyed,” “devastated” and “damaged.” A lot of countries definitely belong in the “destroyed” column: island nations like Palau or Kiribati that are in the process of becoming ocean shoal nations, as well as nations irrigated by rivers that are fed by rapidly disappearing glaciers, like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Pakistan, Bangladesh and quite a few others. They will experience a decade of floods as the glaciers rapidly melt, followed by permanent drought. Next are the “devastated” countries; these are perhaps survivable, but for a much smaller and much more miserable population. I suppose that Slade is right and that Canada will be “devastated” because of incursions by its “destroyed” neighbors to the south across its long and tactically indefensible southern border. Russia, I believe, will be “damaged:” yes, there will be huge environmental problems—peat bogs and boreal forests on fire, gigantic floods, loss of coastal cities (St. Petersburg won\’t be able to hide behind its dam forever)—but Russia will, by and large, remain survivable for a great many people. Nor is it likely to be invaded: every invasion attempt since Genghis Khan\’s has gone badly for the invader. There will be large numbers of people moving into Russia\’s vast empty spaces from abroad, but only to the extent permitted by the Federal Migration Service.
If you don\’t like this analysis, or if my plan doesn\’t appeal to you, then do your own analysis, and make your own plan. And if you don\’t know where to start, then maybe Slade\’s book will get you started.