Sunday, February 04, 2007

Planetary Engineering

Planetary Maintenance Engineering

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 04

Today I want to talk about the environment, which is suddenly the number one concern for Canadians, and probably of the inhabitants of most other lands too. But first some announcements. My friend Stu is holding his first chess class for beginners and intermediate players at the Dunnville Public Library this Wednesday. It is mostly for 7 to 12 year olds, but last year we had several adults too. Plus, here is the announcement for this week's discussion at the Wainfleet Library:

Philosopher's Cafe
Thursday, February 8
6:30 p.m. in the Library's meeting room
A second Thursday of the month destination for provocative, insightful discussion around ideas and issues that matter.
Wainfleet Township Public Library
19M9 Park Street, P.O. Box 118
Wainfleet, ON  L0S 1V0

Gwynne Dyer's column this week has a long title, long enough to define in a nutshell what needs to be discussed here and wherever thoughtful people come together.

"Seeking a Planetary Maintenance Engineer; We did not listen 28 years ago when scientist James Lovelock warned us that human activities threatened our system, now we must survive the short run if we hope to see the long run." (Feb 3, 2007, Hamilton Spectator, D21)

Dyer recalls Lovelock warning decades ago that runaway positive feedback loops and sustained oscillations in climatic mechanisms could mean that one morning we will,

"wake up ... to find that (we) had the permanent lifelong job of planetary maintenance engineer... The ceaseless intricate task of keeping all the global cycles in balance would be ours."

With the publication of the report this week by the world's climate scientists, which at last got the publicity the crisis deserves, it is now over 90 percent certain that humans are heating the planet. Dyer discusses the main points of this report, an outline of the problem itself, leaving solutions to an upcoming study. He then says that they do not give enough attention to the really big danger, the one that worries me the most about this situation: mass starvation.

"If the global average temperature rises by 4.5 C, shifting rainfall patterns will bring perpetual drought to most of the world's breadbaskets (the north Indian plain, the Chinese river valleys, the U.S. Midwest, the Nile watershed) and reduce global food production by 25 percent to 50 percent. If it goes to 6 C, we lose most of our food production worldwide."

Long before that happens there will surely be wars and upheavals of unprecedented severity; when starvation stares you in the face one tends to take shortcuts. Dyer then goes over the increasingly desperate high-tech mega-projects being proposed to either reduce emissions or the amount of sunlight hitting the earth. Though they are extremely expensive, he suggests that last ditch efforts could slow down the heating long enough for conservation and other long-term industrial economies to kick in.

"Maybe in a couple of centuries the human race will be able to restore the natural cycles and give up the job (of planetary maintenance engineer) again, but it will not happen in our lifetimes, or in our children's either."

Actually, the Bible gave us this job not temporarily but permanently; we have shirked the responsibility God laid on our shoulders when He ordered us to "go forth and multiply." Since then it has been a moral imperative to assure that our planet is as healthy and productive as possible. Clearly, folly and greed have driven us far beyond what is sustainable, so we need to regroup and think about how to eliminate waste and lower consumption. It should be possible with intelligent planning to b economize and improve facilities and services at the same time. Conservation can go hand-in-hand with growth and prosperity if we take advantage of what knowledge and high technology offer. But no matter how you cut it, optimizing our place in our environment means facing head on to the Most Great Obstacle: morality.

Consider what Ali, the first Imam, said,

"Beware that sins are like unruly horses on whom their riders have been placed and their reins have been let loose so that they would jump with them in Hell. Beware that piety is like trained horses on whom the riders have been placed with the reins in their hands, so that they would take the riders to Heaven. There is right and wrong and there are followers for each. If wrong dominates, it has (always) in the past been so, and if truth goes down that too has often occurred. It seldom happens that a thing that lags behind comes forward." (Ali b. Abi Taalib, Sermons)

Moral progress is like riding a horse, you create habits and the horse goes on autopilot. Then if your attention wanders and you let loose the reins, it knows the way home. If it is lost, a horse is smart enough to find its own way back home, using habit, instinct and its own senses. The ethical grounds of society are the same, starting by little habit and skills, and proceeding to big matters. If your horse is trained to go home to heaven, so much the better. Otherwise, there is the hell we are in for.

In Ali's time horses were the most intelligent means of transport available -- of course now we laugh at that. We have progressed so far that with luck and scientific advances in robotic technology, within a decade the cybernetic brains in automobiles will increase in processing power to the level of a cockroach. Meanwhile organic farmers using sustainable agriculture are finding that teams of workhorses are actually cheaper, easier and better than diesel-guzzling tractors; horse "emissions" not only do not contribute to warming, they actually fertilize the fields as they plow.

Meanwhile entire cities are designed for total dependence on carbon fuel guzzlers, degrading the health of both inhabitants and the planet itself. Only now is economics starting to reflect harsh realities that once were masked. For example, houses near busy highways are starting drop in price while the value of others placed further back are worth more. This is so ever since studies found that lung cancer rates get higher the closer a home is to traffic. Myself, I am extremely sensitive to car fumes, but few neighborhoods allow the likes of me to escape them. Another recent study reports,

"For decades, housing and population growth in U.S. suburban areas have outpaced those in city centers. Shifts in commuting patterns reflect the trend toward people residing at a sizable distance from where they work, shop, and play. According to U.S. Census data, the average commute lengthened from 22.4 minutes to 25.1 minutes between 1990 and 2000, and the proportion of workers walking or biking to work dropped by one-quarter.

"In the first of the 2003 reports, researchers analyzed data from a nationwide survey in which each of some 200,000 people reported his or her residential address, physical activity, body mass, height, and other health variables. Residents of sprawling cities and counties tended to weigh more, walk less, and have higher blood pressure than did people living in compact communities, concluded urban planner Reid Ewing and his colleagues at the University of Maryland at College Park's National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education.
"Frank's team, like the other groups, found that areas with interspersed homes, shops, and offices had fewer obese residents than did homogeneous residential areas whose residents were of a similar age, income, and education. Furthermore, neighborhoods with greater residential density and street plans that facilitate walking from place to place showed below-average rates of obesity.
"The magnitude of the effect wasn't trivial: A typical white male living in a compact, mixed-use community weighs about 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) less than a similar man in a diffuse subdivision containing nothing but homes, Frank and his colleagues reported." ("Weighing In on City Planning; Could smart urban design keep people fit and trim? by Ben Harder, Science News, <>)

This article in all fairness considers that it may be that fatter residents are sorted, not made; that is, sedentary people may flock to segregated neighborhoods. The point is moot, though, since it is immoral for designers and policy makers to allow the option at all. Serial killers should stick to more containable instruments of murder, such guns and knives.

I think the answer is the mound Kolektivhus town planning system I have been building in my mind for the past few years. This would be far cheaper than space mirrors, atmospheric seeding, reflective balloons, or any other of the crazy ideas being suggested for slowing the climate crisis. These mega-projects would be money sinks, while a redesign of neighborhoods would pay for itself as it went. The main cost is psychological. We like exclusivist private property, for example, even though it is at the root of global warming.

A system of shared ownership would combine the best of private and public proprietorship; it would encourage enterprise and initiative while avoiding waste, pollution and the excesses of unsustainable development. In this way present, inefficient buildings could be appropriated into maximally environmentally friendly building projects without losses for the present owners. In exchange for their inefficient land use they would gain shares in the collectively owned projects that replace them. With such a share they would be able to move anywhere in the world and live with the full privileges of a local owner.

Absolute ownership is a crock. It swindles owners as much as it cheats the planet. In a communally owned Kolectivhus mound project I would have few personal possessions but I would have shares in a large concern. My shared wealth would include many more possessions than all but the super-rich can hope for today. For example, I would have access to swimming pools, gymnasiums, saunas, hot tubs, multi-sport complexes, rinks, and arenas, all within walking distance of my home. I would own a share in the whole building. Knowing that I own a part of many good things would increase my stake in the public thing, in many other things beyond the private and personal. The value of the town that I live in and partly own rises I would profit with a dividend, if only a few pennies. I would have shares in the street where I live, and if there is a natural disaster, the price would drop. I should feel such losses in my bank account as well as in my heart.

A better community, then, is the first thing that the new planetary maintenance engineers should design. An efficient, self-sustaining home and neighborhood with modular, mobile housing, owned collectively would alleviate the imminent dislocation of, to name just one, the sudden influx of hundreds of millions of refugees moving inland from suddenly rising sea levels.

No comments: