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Offline RE

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Diner Book Reviews
« on: August 13, 2012, 10:27:51 PM »
Use this thread for Reviews of any Books relevant to Collapse topics.

Begining the thread,

A Complexity Approach to Sustainability – Theory and Application: Review
Aug 06, 2012 1 Comment by John Jopling by Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker
Imperial College Press 2011
review by John Jopling

The sustainability of a human society is not just about its relationship with the environment: it’s a problem concerning the nature of the society and the way it is organised. This is the important message of a book by Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker: A Complexity Approach to Sustainability – Theory and Practice. Both authors were pupils and colleagues of the late Stafford Beer who saw that hierarchical forms of government were incapable of dealing with the complexity of the problems faced by modern societies. Beer’s Viable Systems Model was designed to help any organisation or society cope with its own complexity and that of its environment. The book describes how it has been used by businesses, communities and nation-states to help them learn how to organise themselves better and adapt to changes in their environment. The authors contend that it can and should be applied to every level of government, including the global level. A global Cap and Share scheme could be one of humanity’s ways of adjusting the global economy in response to the threat of runaway climate change.


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Human society is in a terrible mess. This is due, the authors believe, to two main factors: one is our attitude to the natural world as something to be exploited; the other is our use of hierarchical modes of managing our affairs. The interesting claim made in this book is that the latter factor is the more fundamental: the sustainability of a human society is not just a question about the relationship between the society and its environment; it is basically a problem concerning the nature of the society and the way it is organised. Governments as we know them are simply not the right kind of organisations to be capable of managing a transition to sustainability. To become sustainable, human societies need to learn a new way of organising ourselves. We need to put in place a new kind of government.

What would the new kind of government have to look like? To answer that question the authors describe the Viable Systems Model designed by the late Stafford Beer. This purports to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions for any system to be ‘viable’, meaning able to cope with its environment and to adapt as necessary to changes in its environment. Both authors were pupils and colleagues of Beer and have extensive experience of the use of the model.

The reason given for choosing this model is the complexity of the problems societies face. Top-down, command-and-control forms of government are incapable of coping with the complexity they encounter. The book traces how the VSM emerged from developments in complexity sciences or systems thinking over the last half-century or so – insights associated with names such as Arthur Koestler and Gregory Bateson are briefly referred to. Books like Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life have described the new way of understanding how the world works. Beer’s Viable Systems Model was designed to enable societies to cope with complexity.

According to Beer, the natural world is made up of living systems nested and embedded within smaller or larger systems each of which must have been capable of coping with the far more complex world it lives in and of adapting in response to changes in that world, otherwise it wouldn’t have continued to exist. Much the same rules are thought to apply to human social systems. The VSM is a model, in purely abstract terms, of the necessary and sufficient conditions that every system at every level of recursion, it is claimed, must satisfy.

The book describes the components of the model and their interactions: the system’s primary activities are seen as carried on autonomously, supported by ‘metasystem’ functions – such as coordination between the primary activities, relating effectively to changes in the environment and maintaining the system’s identity – which ensure that the primary activities operate together as a single viable system, able to cope with its own complexity and with the complexity of its environment.

These are difficult ideas for many people to grasp until they’ve spent some time on them. One of the great strengths of the book are the case studies illustrating the conscious application of the model in a wide variety of situations, in many of which Beer himself or one or both of the authors were personally involved.

The case studies bring the VSM to life. In addition to Beer’s own project in President Allende’s Chile, they include nation-wide projects in Columbia in which Angela Espinosa played a leading part, a small worker coop in the North of England of which Jon Walker was a member, a village community in Ireland (in which as it happens this reviewer is a member) and the Transition Network. The case studies bring out the many and diverse practical benefits of using the model, its value for example in promoting the ethos of learning needed in a self-evolutionary society. They also stress an important feature of the VSM derived from cybernetics, namely the use of sustainability indicators, real-time measurement systems with continuous monitoring and rapid response, including ‘algedonic’ (indicating abnormal pain) signals which bypass the usual channels.

It is noteworthy that all the case studies concern projects undertaken at the invitation of the relevant government or organisation or someone closely involved in it. They do not convince me of the value of the VSM in bringing about change within systems currently dominated by values inconsistent with sustainability, such as most of today’s nation-states, or that are embedded in larger systems, such as the global economy, dominated by such values.

These doubts are not apparently shared by the authors. They carry out a VSM diagnosis of the world, dividing it into recursions from individual, family and community scales right up to the global level, suggesting how at each recursion some at least of the requirements of the VSM might be satisfied. The vision is clear: the human world must be re-ordered as a recursive set of embedded autonomous social systems with self-organised autonomous units each served by meta-systems using a new family of indicators, real-time measurement systems and appropriate responses thereto. At the community level, for example, there could be a Community Operations Room, modelled on the one Beer designed for Chile; or a ‘New Agora’, a public sphere of enquiry and communicative action based on the ancient Greek agoras.

After referring to Transition Towns the authors consider eco-regions and then nation states, suggesting the form the various meta-system functions might take. In this context a case study describes Transition Management, an approach for “orienting long-term change for sustainability” pioneered by the Dutch government. From the subnational and national levels we move to the continental level. Here the authors merely restate the requirements of the VSM though without suggesting how these might be met. Finally the need for a global recursion is asserted and its components based on the VSM explored in a little more detail. The final case study is the proposal for a global Cap and Share scheme designed by members of Feasta. For me, as someone who has contributed to that concept, it is helpful to see it in the context of a global-level VSM, to see it as a part of the global level recursion’s metasystem, a support function rather than a command-and-control power.

I was a little disappointed that the possibility of another recursion was not explored, that of James Lovelock’s Gaia, with humanity’s activities as one of its primary activities. I not sure that this is any more fanciful than the authors’ vision of the global recursion of human society. Might it not be useful to see humanity as one of the systems embedded in Gaia, to explore what meta-systems Gaia operates and consider how humanity relates to these?

The concept I myself have the most difficulty with is that of a recursive world of embedded viable systems. It seems to me that this concept poses highly debatable issues about what areas or other entities to regard as the autonomous entities at each level of recursion, never mind just how to provide the necessary meta-systems at each level: is it realistic to believe that in the real world these issues could ever be resolved? Perhaps these difficulties point to an even more fundamental question: is it right to see humanity as a recursive system that, to be viable, has to satisfy the conditions of the VSM at every level of recursion?

Something else about the book kept on troubling me, that is the underlying assumption that if only we changed the way we thought and our dominant values, we would then act differently. I am sure there is some truth in this but I am worried that it may also be a dangerous half truth. For example, the current dominant aim for economic growth is not due to the way people think but to the bank- created money system’s dependence on economic growth, plus the hold that bankers, who benefit from this system, have over virtually all governments. What’s needed to change the bank-created money system lies in the sphere of political change, not paradigm change.

That comment leads however to a more constructive and hopeful one. If it’s right that the bank-created money system depends on growth, then if further growth becomes impossible, whether from the limits of natural resources or otherwise, it will collapse and that in turn will crash the real economy. This might so weaken the current dominant system of government, or, in systems terms, might lead to a period of chaos, that there might be opportunities in various countries to create new governance systems; the shock doctrine in reverse. Could that be an opening for use of the Viable Systems Model?

The importance of this book lies in its basic approach, the treatment of the sustainability of a human society not as a question about the relationship between the society and its environment but as a problem concerning the nature of the society and the way it is organised. Not that these authors are the authors of this approach, as indeed they make clear, but they do develop it further than anyone else has so far as I am aware. This is essentially why I believe this book is so important. The fact that I found some of it quite provoking should probably be regarded as another plus.

Finally I should mention that this is an orderly book with excellent headings and numbering of paragraphs, 24 figures and 16 tables. The fact that it is an academic book (the first is a series on Complexity Science) is reflected in the price. I very much hope that the authors will be able to write a book on the same subject for the non-academic public.
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Offline widgeon

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Re: Diner Book Reviews
« Reply #1 on: September 06, 2012, 04:33:41 PM »
Morris Berman
Why America Failed

http://www.amazon.com/Why-America-Failed-Imperial-Decline/dp/1118061810/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1346973512&sr=8-4&keywords=berman

I definitely enjoyed this book.  It's the last of a trilogy; I haven't read any other works of Berman's except this one title.

Really, I enjoyed the first 3 chapters the best.  Berman cites a long series of historical works that critique "America" from it's earliest time ... citing that in the eyes of observers from elsewhere, American's were positively obscessed with making money ('hustling') to the virtual exclusion of any public good; community, etc.  I was almost completely unaware of this thread of history & critique ... but it's there.

He cites an observation of Thoreau that, for it's time, is positively clairvoyant; something to the effect that 'Americans are working very hard to get to place that isn't worth going to.'

Berman spends alot of time presenting and defending the thought that the true reason for the American Civil War was the South's resistance to Northern Corporations: that the South saw the dangers that lie ahead down the corporatist road and wanted no part of it.  He cites comments from the time from the likes of John C. Calhoun stating that the North could keep it's economy, the South didn't want any part of it.  Southerners were quick to observe and argued that factory workers i9n the North were hardly distinguishable from 'slaves.'  The term "wage slave" came from this time and those cultural debates.

Berman has some videos on youtube that can also give a flavor of the POV he presents; for instance ...

Conversations with Great Minds with Morris Berman, Part 1. Why America Failed






Offline Surly1

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Re: Diner Book Reviews/Christopher Hitchens Stands Trial
« Reply #2 on: January 27, 2013, 05:38:27 AM »
Important discussion on the role of the intellectual celebrity by a first rate mind.
http://inthesetimes.com/article/14415/christopher_hitchens_stands_trial]
[url]http://inthesetimes.com/article/14415/christopher_hitchens_stands_trial
[/url]

Christopher Hitchens Stands Trial
With great vim and gusto, a new book dissects the ever-controversial Christopher Hitchens.
BY GREGORY SHUPAK

What emerges is a picture of Hitchens as an intellectually lazy poseur and a huffy racist—a man who, despite the remarkable breadth of his reading, “often lacked depth” and was “either unable or unwilling to cope with the sorts of complex ideas that he occasionally attempted to criticize.”

By the time of his death in December 2011, Christopher Hitchens had built a status perhaps outstripping that of any contemporary intellectual: His passing was considered worthy of the New York Times’ front page, and he was mourned by Tony Blair, Sean Penn, David Frum and Patrick Cockburn, among others. It is from this altitude that he is yanked down by Richard Seymour in the clever, incisive Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens. The slim critique of Hitchen’s ouevre focuses on his engagement with British politics and literature, his work on religion and his double-armed embrace of American imperialism.

Though only 35, Seymour has made a name for himself as a thoughtful political analyst, notably in his book The Liberal Defence of Murder, on how the language of humanitarianism helps camouflage imperialism, and on his blog Lenin’s Tomb, an indispensible source for analysis of neoliberalism, the War on Terror and Islamophobia. Ironically, Seymour’s literary style often evokes that of Hitchens at his best. Some of Seymour’s turns of phrase are positively Hitchensian, such as his opening salvo in the introduction to Unhitched: “This is unabashedly a prosecution. And if it must be conducted with the subject in absentia, as it were, it will not be carried out with less vim as a result.”

And when writing in the prosecutorial mode, Seymour has, like his subject, a gift for reeling off an entire firing squad’s worth of bullets in a single sentence: “Hitchens was a propagandist for the American empire, a defamer of its opponents, and someone who suffered the injury this did to his probity and prose as so much collateral damage.” Seymour is also a Trotskyist, as Hitchens once was. But there the comparisons end, because Seymour is plainly a caliber of intellectual that his subject is not.

Accuracy, Seymour demonstrates, was not a major hang-up for Hitchens. Hitchens referred to Hugo Chávez as “the General” even though the Venezuelan never held that rank; said that Muammar Gaddafi turned over a “stockpile of WMD” although Libya never possessed even one such weapon; claimed in February 2003 that an invasion of Iraq would be justified because Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s presence in that country demonstrated a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda even though Zarqawi was an opponent of al-Qaeda at the time and it wasn’t clear that he was in Iraq at all; and asserted that Tunisians revolted against the Ben Ali regime because they did not have to fear violent repression on the same scale that Iranian protestors face despite the fact that 224 Tunisians were killed in their uprising as compared to the 72 killed in the Iranian dictatorship’s crushing of the Green Movement in 2009.

What emerges is a picture of Hitchens as an intellectually lazy poseur and a huffy racist—a man who, despite the remarkable breadth of his reading, “often lacked depth” and was “either unable or unwilling to cope with the sorts of complex ideas that he occasionally attempted to criticize.” Here Seymour adduces Hitchens’ gross misreading of Edward Said’s Orientalism, his travestying of Marx’s view of history, and his crude theological discussions: for example, Hitchens interprets the biblical Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac as divine endorsement for the murder of children, an unpersuasive claim given that the story had precisely the opposite function in the historical context in which it was written and received.

Hitchens’ record on intellectual honesty is also rather blotchy. Seymour is not the first to note this; he points to John Barrell, who argued in the London Review of Books that sections of Hitchens’ Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man were lifted from other sources without proper attribution. Seymour contends that Hitchens’ The Missionary Position was a re-write of research done by an Indian author who does not receive credit in the original hardback, and demonstrates convincingly that Hitchens’ essay “Kissinger’s War Crimes in Indochina” borrows from Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s The Political Economy of Human Rights without crediting the authors.

If Hitchens was a serial plagiarist who failed to get even the simplest of facts right, was allergic to nuance, and made no scholarly contributions, one might reasonably conclude that he ought to be ignored, and that a reader’s time and Seymour’s considerable talents be put to better use. But Hitchens matters precisely because of the inverse relationship that the quality of his work has to his status. His career reveals much about the function of the public intellectual.

The familiar narrative of Hitchens’ career has it that he made an abrupt turn from Left to Right in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but Seymour complicates this, noting that traces of Hitchens’ sympathy for empire could be detected much earlier in his career. As an example, Seymour cites Hitchens’ 1992 claim that European colonization of the Americas “deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto.” While Seymour notes that Hitchens did some important writing prior to his ideological shift, particularly in his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, he says too little about the high-quality work Hitchens did in the 1980s on Palestine and Reagan’s wars in Central America.

That said, Hitchens’ later years and the enormous celebrity he enjoyed during that period are a case study of just how handsome the rewards are for those willing and able to serve as attack dogs for the dominant powers of their place and time. Hitchens’ main service to the American elite was to employ a combination of innuendo and character assassination to cast aspersion on virtually every high-profile figure critical of American foreign policy after 9/11—a roster that includes Julian Assange, Noam Chomsky, George Galloway, Michael Moore, Harold Pinter, Edward Said, Cindy Sheehan, Oliver Stone and Gore Vidal.

Hitchens could never have amassed such a large following—and perhaps more importantly, such a powerful following—had he not so entirely embraced American power and its corresponding ideologies after 9/11. Would Hitchens have been invited on as many talk shows if, rather than writing fawning biographies of safely institutionalized figures like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, he had taken as his exemplary subjects two others he professed to admire even near the end of his life, C.L.R. James and Rosa Luxemburg? If, instead of levying facile criticisms of organized religion primarily at the United States’ enemies, Hitchens had selected neoliberal capitalism for his most ferocious late-career critiques, is it likely that 60 Minutes would have profiled him when he was ill with cancer, or that his audience would have been extended to readers of Newsweek, much less the Weekly Standard?

Seymour’s book makes clear that Hitchens provides the best evidence one can find for Chomsky’s hypothesis that as intellectuals achieve increasing degrees of power, “the inequities of the society will recede from vision, the status quo will seem less flawed, and the preservation of order will become a matter of transcendent importance.” Nor is there a more perfect embodiment than Hitchens of Said’s argument that “Nothing disfigures the intellectual’s public performance as much as … patriotic bluster, and retrospective and self-dramatizing apostasy.”

To put the matter another way, consider Seymour’s justifiable revulsion at Hitchens’ revealing shifts in political friendships after 9/11: “It is one thing to sell out Sidney Blumenthal to the GOP, but to exchange Edward Said for Ahmed Chalabi? To smear Noam Chomsky yet endear oneself to Paul Wolfowitz?” Hitchens’ is the logic of an intellectual opportunist, of a man who has figured out the benefits of taking a clear stance with the established order: Relationships with Said and Chomsky will impress in certain circles, but they won’t get you the ear of the President of the United States or help you become chummy with the Prime Minister of England.

Hitchens was what Antonio Gramsci called an “organic intellectual”: a person who claims to speak for the interests of either a hegemonic or counter-hegemonic class. And, despite Hitchens’ protestations and pretensions of working-class sympathies, Seymour’s book makes clear Hitchens sided manifestly with the ruling class, particularly those factions of it that are concerned with foreign affairs. The most concrete expression of this was probably his joining the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which was initiated and headed by Bruce Jackson, a former vice president of Lockheed Martin. However, the primary task that Hitchens took up for America’s elite was to attempt to de-legitimize its opponents. In addition to his vicious but generally insubstantial attacks on critics of American empire, this took the form of him repeatedly asserting that all anti-capitalist movements were dead and that market forces are the world’s truly revolutionary force; of his sliming the alter-globalization movement and his justifying Arizona’s racist immigration laws (though these last two are among the few points that Seymour overlooks).

Hitchens thus stands in contrast to an organic intellectual of the counter-hegemonic kind—one who practices what Chomsky sees as the responsibility of intellectuals in Western democracies: to utilize “the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.”

By no means is Seymour the first to call Hitchens a hack and a sell-out. In the aftermath of his full-throttled embrace of gunboat diplomacy post-9/11, unmasking Hitchens became almost a cottage industry for Left intellectuals. Among the finest of these are Tariq Ali’s chapter on his former comrade in Bush in Babylon, Clare Brandabur’s “Hitchens Smears Edward Said,” Norman Finkelstein’s “Hitchens as Model Apostate,” Glenn Greenwald’s counter-obituary, and more work by Alexander Cockburn and Terry Eagleton than I could list. But Unhitched offers a more thorough and in-depth discrediting of Hitchens than anything previously published. And in doing so, Seymour has made an important contribution to understanding the political role of the intellectual celebrity in our time.
"We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." -  Louis Brandeis

Offline Golden Oxen

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Re: Diner Book Reviews: Daniel Dennett's Seven Tools for Thinking
« Reply #3 on: May 25, 2013, 07:08:16 AM »
                                                     
dennett 010
dennett 010


Daniel Dennett's seven tools for thinking

Cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett is one of America's foremost thinkers. In this extract from his new book, he reveals some of the lessons life has taught him


1 USE YOUR MISTAKES

We have all heard the forlorn refrain: "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!" This phrase has come to stand for the rueful reflection of an idiot, a sign of stupidity, but in fact we should appreciate it as a pillar of wisdom. Any being, any agent, who can truly say: "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!" is standing on the threshold of brilliance. We human beings pride ourselves on our intelligence, and one of its hallmarks is that we can remember our previous thinking and reflect on it – on how it seemed, on why it was tempting in the first place and then about what went wrong.

    Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking
    by Daniel C Dennett

    Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book

I know of no evidence to suggest that any other species on the planet can actually think this thought. If they could, they would be almost as smart as we are. So when you make a mistake, you should learn to take a deep breath, grit your teeth and then examine your own recollections of the mistake as ruthlessly and as dispassionately as you can manage. It's not easy. The natural human reaction to making a mistake is embarrassment and anger (we are never angrier than when we are angry at ourselves) and you have to work hard to overcome these emotional reactions.

Try to acquire the weird practice of savouring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked out all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you and go on to the next big opportunity. But that is not enough: you should actively seek out opportunities just so you can then recover from them.

In science, you make your mistakes in public. You show them off so that everybody can learn from them. This way, you get the benefit of everybody else's experience, and not just your own idiosyncratic path through the space of mistakes. (Physicist Wolfgang Pauli famously expressed his contempt for the work of a colleague as "not even wrong". A clear falsehood shared with critics is better than vague mush.)

This, by the way, is another reason why we humans are so much smarter than every other species. It is not so much that our brains are bigger or more powerful, or even that we have the knack of reflecting on our own past errors, but that we share the benefits our individual brains have won by their individual histories of trial and error.

I am amazed at how many really smart people don't understand that you can make big mistakes in public and emerge none the worse for it. I know distinguished researchers who will go to preposterous lengths to avoid having to acknowledge that they were wrong about something. Actually, people love it when somebody admits to making a mistake. All kinds of people love pointing out mistakes.

Generous-spirited people appreciate your giving them the opportunity to help, and acknowledging it when they succeed in helping you; mean-spirited people enjoy showing you up. Let them! Either way we all win.
2 RESPECT YOUR OPPONENT

Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticising the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent's case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view – and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harbouring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack.

But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody's time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one's opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport.

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. Attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said). Following Rapoport's rules is always, for me, something of a struggle…
3 THE "SURELY" KLAXON

When you're reading or skimming argumentative essays, especially by philosophers, here is a quick trick that may save you much time and effort, especially in this age of simple searching by computer: look for "surely" in the document and check each occurrence. Not always, not even most of the time, but often the word "surely" is as good as a blinking light locating a weak point in the argument.

Why? Because it marks the very edge of what the author is actually sure about and hopes readers will also be sure about. (If the author were really sure all the readers would agree, it wouldn't be worth mentioning.) Being at the edge, the author has had to make a judgment call about whether or not to attempt to demonstrate the point at issue, or provide evidence for it, and – because life is short – has decided in favour of bald assertion, with the presumably well-grounded anticipation of agreement. Just the sort of place to find an ill-examined "truism" that isn't true!
4 ANSWER RHETORICAL QUESTIONS

Just as you should keep a sharp eye out for "surely", you should develop a sensitivity for rhetorical questions in any argument or polemic. Why? Because, like the use of "surely", they represent an author's eagerness to take a short cut. A rhetorical question has a question mark at the end, but it is not meant to be answered. That is, the author doesn't bother waiting for you to answer since the answer is so obvious that you'd be embarrassed to say it!

Here is a good habit to develop: whenever you see a rhetorical question, try – silently, to yourself – to give it an unobvious answer. If you find a good one, surprise your interlocutor by answering the question. I remember a Peanuts cartoon from years ago that nicely illustrates the tactic. Charlie Brown had just asked, rhetorically: "Who's to say what is right and wrong here?" and Lucy responded, in the next panel: "I will."
5 EMPLOY OCCAM'S RAZOR

Attributed to William of Ockham (or Ooccam), a 14th-century English logician and philosopher, this thinking tool is actually a much older rule of thumb. A Latin name for it is lex parsimoniae, the law of parsimony. It is usually put into English as the maxim "Do not multiply entities beyond necessity".

The idea is straightforward: don't concoct a complicated, extravagant theory if you've got a simpler one (containing fewer ingredients, fewer entities) that handles the phenomenon just as well. If exposure to extremely cold air can account for all the symptoms of frostbite, don't postulate unobserved "snow germs" or "Arctic microbes". Kepler's laws explain the orbits of the planets; we have no need to hypothesise pilots guiding the planets from control panels hidden under the surface. This much is uncontroversial, but extensions of the principle have not always met with agreement.

One of the least impressive attempts to apply Occam's razor to a gnarly problem is the claim (and provoked counterclaims) that postulating a God as creator of the universe is simpler, more parsimonious, than the alternatives. How could postulating something supernatural and incomprehensible be parsimonious? It strikes me as the height of extravagance, but perhaps there are clever ways of rebutting that suggestion.

I don't want to argue about it; Occam's razor is, after all, just a rule of thumb, a frequently useful suggestion. The prospect of turning it into a metaphysical principle or fundamental requirement of rationality that could bear the weight of proving or disproving the existence of God in one fell swoop is simply ludicrous. It would be like trying to disprove a theorem of quantum mechanics by showing that it contradicted the axiom "Don't put all your eggs in one basket".
6 DON'T WASTE YOUR TIME ON RUBBISH

Sturgeon's law is usually expressed thus: 90% of everything is crap. So 90% of experiments in molecular biology, 90% of poetry, 90% of philosophy books, 90% of peer-reviewed articles in mathematics – and so forth – is crap. Is that true? Well, maybe it's an exaggeration, but let's agree that there is a lot of mediocre work done in every field. (Some curmudgeons say it's more like 99%, but let's not get into that game.)

A good moral to draw from this observation is that when you want to criticise a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form …don't waste your time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff or leave it alone. This advice is often ignored by ideologues intent on destroying the reputation of analytic philosophy, sociology, cultural anthropology, macroeconomics, plastic surgery, improvisational theatre, television sitcoms, philosophical theology, massage therapy, you name it.

Let's stipulate at the outset that there is a great deal of deplorable, second-rate stuff out there, of all sorts. Now, in order not to waste your time and try our patience, make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find, the flagship examples extolled by the leaders of the field, the prize-winning entries, not the dregs. Notice that this is closely related to Rapoport's rules: unless you are a comedian whose main purpose is to make people laugh at ludicrous buffoonery, spare us the caricature.
7 BEWARE OF DEEPITIES

A deepity (a term coined by the daughter of my late friend, computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum) is a proposition that seems both important and true – and profound – but that achieves this effect by being ambiguous. On one reading, it is manifestly false, but it would be earth-shaking if it were true; on the other reading, it is true but trivial. The unwary listener picks up the glimmer of truth from the second reading, and the devastating importance from the first reading, and thinks, Wow! That's a deepity.

Here is an example (better sit down: this is heavy stuff): Love is just a word.

Oh wow! Cosmic. Mind-blowing, right? Wrong. On one reading, it is manifestly false. I'm not sure what love is – maybe an emotion or emotional attachment, maybe an interpersonal relationship, maybe the highest state a human mind can achieve – but we all know it isn't a word. You can't find love in the dictionary!

We can bring out the other reading by availing ourselves of a convention philosophers care mightily about: when we talk about a word, we put it in quotation marks, thus: "love" is just a word. "Cheeseburger" is just a word. "Word" is just a word. But this isn't fair, you say. Whoever said that love is just a word meant something else, surely. No doubt, but they didn't say it.

Not all deepities are quite so easily analysed. Richard Dawkins recently alerted me to a fine deepity by Rowan Williams, the then archbishop of Canterbury, who described his faith as "a silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark".

I leave the analysis of this as an exercise for you.

This is an edited extract from Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking by Daniel Dennett, published by Allen Lane (£20)

www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/19/daniel-dennett-intuition-pumps-thinking-extract/print  :icon_study:
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Re: Diner Book Reviews: Daniel Dennett's Seven Tools for Thinking
« Reply #4 on: May 25, 2013, 10:56:07 AM »
                                                     
Daniel Dennett's seven tools for thinking

Funny thing, though, is that Dennett uses these tools and ends up as a materialist, while others (like me) use these tools and end up concluding that materialism is ridiculous.

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Re: Diner Book Reviews: MY Walden
« Reply #5 on: August 17, 2013, 08:48:51 AM »
Isn't it utterly amazing what a wonderful influence one good book can have on so many people and generations.  :icon_sunny:

                                                     
mywalden2
mywalden2

MY Walden

By Corinne H. Smith

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a
book.  The book exists for us perchance which will explain our
miracles and reveal new ones. (Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden)

When we marked the 159th anniversary of the publication of Walden; or, Life in the Woods on August 9, 2013, I was returned to the story of my own first copy of the book.

I suppose I became an unofficial “Thoreauvian” after reading the essay “Civil Disobedience” in Harold Sachwald’s tenth-grade English class at Hempfield High School in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It was in the early 1970s. I was an only child who felt that she was under the daily scrutiny of a domineering mother. Thoreau’s spirit of independence and inclination toward non-violent protest immediately resonated with me. “The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right,” Henry told me. Wow. I sure wanted to drink more water from this well.

Walden was the book I knew I had to read next. So I checked out the copy from our school library. It was several inches thick, had a leather spine, and was probably from the 1930s or 1940s. It had a leafy decoration on the cover and a few nice engravings that illustrated each chapter. But I couldn’t quite get into it. The opening section on “Economy” had me stymied. But I still sensed that the contents would be important to me, so I kept renewing it and kept hoping that I would someday understand it. I carried that book around for most of my junior year. Finally, I returned it to the library, heavily fingerprinted, but unread.

In the second semester of twelfth grade, I took an elective American literature class that included the reading of Walden. For no recorded grade and for only half of one academic credit. I bought my own paperback — ironically enough, at Walden Books in the Park City Mall — so that I would be free to underline the good parts. I even liked the way this edition looked, with its funky and colorful 1960s cover showing a solitary individual, sitting under a tree, gazing across a body of water. I paid 75 cents for it. I wanted to be that person.

I’ll admit that it took the intervention of English teacher Thomas McVey for me to finally begin to digest Thoreau’s prose. But suddenly nearly every page contained at least one nugget that I felt was inspirational and worth saving: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” for instance; “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” for another. I underlined them all with my see-through, blue Bic pen. These were powerful words for a teenager, especially for one who was on the verge of carving out her own place in society. I took the philosophy of Walden to heart. I was hooked on Henry for life.

Many years have passed. (Just how many and where they have gone, I cannot fathom.) I now own at least half a dozen copies of Walden; including a German edition I bought in Munich in 1986 and a Canadian reprint that I picked up in Ontario in 2009. But whenever I need to find a favorite passage, I turn to my well-worn paperback. I open it up and smile at my youthful wavering blue underlines. And I find just what I was looking for.

At used book sales, I have sometimes spied sister copies of this edition, MY edition, with the person sitting under the autumn-leafed tree on the cover. I used to buy them as I saw them so that I could have multiple copies of MY Walden. Recently, I changed my mind. I now leave the books behind so that someone else can find them. I hope that their new owners will be as inspired by Thoreau’s words and THEIR editions as I have been.

http://thoreaufarm.org/2013/08/my-walden/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=my-walden :icon_study:   :icon_sunny:
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0817 wolves
0817 wolves

The Present & Forthcoming Police State in Modern Day America
By Mark Mondalek

  When I first heard news of this month’s worldwide travel alert proclaiming potential terrorist attacks emanating from al-Qaeda or its affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula to be particularly imminent throughout all of August, an excerpt from John W. Whitehead’s newly released A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State (SelectBooks, June 2013) immediately came to mind:

    Fear, and its perpetuation by the government, is the greatest weapon against freedom, and propaganda is the most effective tool for keeping the populace in check. Propaganda, an expertise of politicians, is in reality a fiction. But it is an effective fiction. And in an age of amusements and entertainment, the so-called masses of Americans, who often take what television’s talking heads say as the gospel truth, have difficulty distinguishing between fiction and reality.

In tackling this truth over fiction media-government perpetuity, as far as I can tell, there are only two opposing viewpoints to choose from for the American populace: we can either remain compliant and accept a Big Brother Knows Best mantra for the rest of our lives, or we can attempt the seeing through of a glass darkly, so to speak, and seek to capture a glimpse of what the ramifying factors of our country’s national security policy actually entail.

Whitehead doubtlessly adheres himself to the latter option.

In speaking to fear, A Government of Wolves paints a disastrous vision of an America that appears ever more analogous to that of a police state, rather than a free and open society.

The gradual militarization of law enforcement agencies––who in “appearance, weapons, and attitude” are being increasingly transformed into civilian branches of the military––is one of the more observable concerns that Whitehead addresses. It’s a process that can be dated back to the early 1980s under the guise of the “war on drugs,” using SWAT teams and paramilitary units to serve drug warrants and force entry into the homes of private citizens, sometimes unannounced. Back then, such raids were reported to occur fewer than 3,000 times per year. Today, the yearly figure is thought to be over 50,000.

Likewise, the nation’s incarceration rate has tripled since then with 13 million people being introduced to the American prison industrial complex in any given year, mostly on account of drug offenses. With one out of every one hundred Americans currently serving time behind bars and with for-profit prisons run by corporations such as Corrections Corp of America and its cohort GEO Group popping up all across the country––a $70 billion industry in which cash-strapped states must agree to maintain a 90 percent occupancy rate for at least 20 years––the comparisons that Whitehead draws from the horrific corporate-collaborated labor camps of the Third Reich are eerily justified, in my opinion.

One must also acknowledge the advancements in weaponry that have taken place since the 1980s, along with the government’s history of commandeering military technology for use against Americans.

    “Today,” notes Paul Craig Roberts, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and associate editor of The Wall Street Journal, “17,000 local police forces are equipped with such military equipment as Blackhawk helicopters, machine guns, grenade launchers, battering rams, explosives, chemical sprays, body armor, night vision, rappelling gear, and armored vehicles. Some have tanks.”

Covert military training “exercises” have now become common practice in major cities, slowly desensitizing Americans to the sight of Blackhawk helicopters scaling office buildings and buzzing in between skyscrapers. Whitehead provokes heedful words in noting how degradations such as TSA screenings at the airport (and surprise stings throughout the country), the NYPD’s shameful “stop-and-frisk” program, and the use of metal detectors and drug-sniffing dogs inside our schools all stand to “indoctrinate children to accept pat downs, full-body scans, and other invasive procedures as a regular component of the relationship between government and its citizens,” adding that: “A child who has been molested by government officials since before he could read is unlikely to question such activities as an unjustified exercise of authority when an adult.”

This form of “conditioning” is a gradual process by design, but one that certainly appears to be rapidly advancing, especially given the continuous trade-off between freedom and (the illusion of) security that Americans find themselves repeatedly succumbing to. Just as the perpetuation of fear has led us several steps closer to totalitarian-style authoritarianism ruling the streets, the gradual indoctrination of the incoming surveillance state has officially annihilated every safe-zone that once existed in the United States between its citizens and the prying eyes of Big Brother.

“At one time,” writes Whitehead, “the idea of a total surveillance state tracking one’s every move would have been abhorrent to most Americans. That all changed with the 9/11 attacks.”

An important by-product of this Orwellian reality that we now find ourselves living in––one that seems to be sometimes lost amongst feelings of privacy invasion and the general perversity of the NSA––is the terrible threat against freedom of speech, which has truly become something of an albatross for us all.

    Privacy is also instrumental in nature. This aspect of the right highlights the pernicious effects, rather than the inherent illegitimacy, of intrusive, suspicionless surveillance. For example, encroachments on individual privacy undermine democratic institutions by chilling free speech. When citizens––especially those espousing unpopular viewpoints––are aware that the intimate details of their personal lives are pervasively monitored by government, or even that they could be singled out for discriminatory treatment by government officials as a result of their First Amendment expressive activities, they are less likely to freely express their dissident views.

To me, this crippling invasion of privacy and its ability to further silence those who dare question the policies of the government is truly the most legitimate insinuation of a prevailing American police state: the very fact that anything you say or do will be used against you.

Today, society as we know it is effectively under arrest.

John W. Whitehead is a well-published author and very influential attorney-advocate in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) has called him “one of the most eloquent and knowledgeable defenders of liberty, and opponents of the growing American police state, writing today.” In 1982, Whitehead founded The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated, located in Charlottesville, Virginia. His commentary is posted weekly on the Institute’s website and distributed to hundreds of newspapers.

Unique to his general thesis on both the present and forthcoming police state in modern day America is the reservoir of several key films (and moreover, the books that they were based on) that Whitehead uses to reinforce the terrifying reality that what was at one time conceived of as pure fiction is now quickly becoming rather standardized in our everyday lives. Iris scanners, facial recognition software, Rumsfeld’s Ray Gun, the LED Incapacitator, “cybugs” and, of course, the drones.

“The mass introduction of drones into domestic airspace has one main goal,” writes Whitehead, “to empower the corporate state by controlling the populace and enriching the military industrial complex.”

His propensity to lean on cinematic references such as V for Vendetta or Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report can come across as somewhat distracting at times, or, worse yet, a frivolous means of adding page count to an already thin text. However, my general consensus on A Government of Wolves is that of a book which was very much written for the sake of the present-tense. Whitehead layers his facts and opinions swift and to the point, packing big punches into a small amount of space with a sense of urgency that screams through every page. To that effect, such fictional metaphors only add to the accessible nature of the text itself and its capacity to inform its readers just how deep into the rabbit hole we already are.

To the unenlightened, A Government of Wolves reads like a beacon. And for those impatiently waiting for the rest of the country to awake from their slumber: a sign of hope.

 
# # # #

Mark Mondalek – BFP contributing author, is a writer and editor based in Detroit

http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2013/08/17/bfp-book-review-a-government-of-wolves-the-emerging-american-police-state-by-john-w-whitehead/   :icon_study: :icon_study: :icon_study:   :'( :'(
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Offline Karpatok

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Re: Diner Book Reviews
« Reply #7 on: August 18, 2013, 01:15:50 AM »
Thanks for the book review GO. It just confirms the ugliness of what we already know to be occurring everywhere . But it's plenty scary just the same. Any suggestions as to what we could do to turn this state from its present course? K

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Re: Diner Book Reviews
« Reply #8 on: August 18, 2013, 06:02:58 AM »
Thanks for the book review GO. It just confirms the ugliness of what we already know to be occurring everywhere . But it's plenty scary just the same. Any suggestions as to what we could do to turn this state from its present course? K

None K, very sorry. I have become a fatalist about our impending doom. Like our Peter, it has become obvious to me that resistance has now become futile, they have all the bases covered, and our representatives represent them, not us, as well.

The fact that I have children and grandchildren had always forced me to try and be optimistic in some way. My thought was that a fearless good leader of the people would arise from this morass of evil, that idea has become a mere pipe dream to me now.

You pointed out once how the Diner could be viewed as a microcosm of the real world and what we face. You no doubt witnessed what becomes of someone who dares mention the word Libertarian and let's get government out of our daily lives. Take the message that was conveyed to heart. I sympathize with your situation and your urge to run away, it is too late for any of that in my view. We have sold our souls to the devil and hell, at least in this physical world, is our future. My only hope now is that we fall into that horrible place slowly rather that get cast into it in a brief moment.


The Devil’s Face

By Katie Farris, guest-edited by Ilya Kaminsky


The girl has been learning how to shit on the devil’s face. It is a slow process. First of all, one has to take into consideration the setting. In order for the devil to get a hard-on, he must be surrounded at eight points.

To the north, above the devil’s head, a soul writhing in eternal agony. On his right hand, a man with infinite bowels being disemboweled, infinitely. At his feet, a vain woman looks into a mirror where boils rise continuously to the surface of her face. To his left, a quiet old man masturbates. To the northeast and southeast, solemn demons. Northwest and southwest, fallen angels snivel. It is difficult, he explains, after millennia of existence, to get off.

The girl finds it hard to move her bowels properly under the circumstances. She is constipated, seized up, she anticipates the look of disgust on the face of the masturbating man; the angels in their chains rattle in a most distracting manner, and the castor oil has not yet kicked in. She bears down, she changes her position to a squat, she balances herself on the shoulders of one angel and one demon. The devil looks at her with the familiar look of a man about to come, who needs just one more, just one more thing.

The girl has been taking 25 mg of hydroxyzine, an anti-anxiety medication, to deal with her difficulties shitting on the Devil’s face. She feels it a personal failure; she has never failed to fulfill a man sexually. She doesn’t think to blame it on the fact that he has never been a man.

She blames herself but also the fetish and moreover the look on the devil’s face, possessive and mocking under his thin beard, as if daring her anus to discharge. The next time the situation is arranged, the dais well-lit, the tortured man mocking her with his ropes and ropes of loosened bowel, she mounts the devil, then turns to face his horny corny feet. He grunts, he is displeased. She turns to leer at the masturbating man; noticing for the first time how lopsided he is—how massive his right arm, how puny his left! He turns away, ashamed by her frank stare. And it is this, this mutual shame, this turning away, which finally moves her

                                                             

                                                           
Golden Oxen

Offline RE

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Re: Diner Book Reviews
« Reply #9 on: August 18, 2013, 06:13:08 AM »
You no doubt witnessed what becomes of someone who dares mention the word Libertarian and let's get government out of our daily lives.

Libertarian suffers from the same problem Christian does, which is that you immediately become associated with all the other people who take on this mantle, most of whom are assholes.  Even if you are not an asshole, you have aligned with others who are assholes, even though you think they are frauds.

RE
SAVE AS MANY AS YOU CAN

Offline Golden Oxen

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Re: Diner Book Reviews
« Reply #10 on: August 18, 2013, 06:41:42 AM »
You no doubt witnessed what becomes of someone who dares mention the word Libertarian and let's get government out of our daily lives.

Libertarian suffers from the same problem Christian does, which is that you immediately become associated with all the other people who take on this mantle, most of whom are assholes.  Even if you are not an asshole, you have aligned with others who are assholes, even though you think they are frauds.

RE

I understand fully RE, but this is what happens when you only have three choices in a political system, let's face it, two actually.

You find someone that comes closest to your idea that government has become out of control and has to be curbed, and you end up being cast in the same light as every nit wit in the group; and then have clowns demanding you explain how you can be a member of a group that has so and so in it. You can never ask the question though, "How can anyone be a Democrat if Anthony Weiner is one, or How can you be a Republican if Dick Cheney is one. If it is one head of the two headed monster that controls us it is OK. 

Golden Oxen

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Re: Diner Book Reviews
« Reply #11 on: August 18, 2013, 06:49:26 AM »
You no doubt witnessed what becomes of someone who dares mention the word Libertarian and let's get government out of our daily lives.

Libertarian suffers from the same problem Christian does, which is that you immediately become associated with all the other people who take on this mantle, most of whom are assholes.  Even if you are not an asshole, you have aligned with others who are assholes, even though you think they are frauds.

RE

I understand fully RE, but this is what happens when you only have three choices in a political system, let's face it, two actually.

You find someone that comes closest to your idea that government has become out of control and has to be curbed, and you end up being cast in the same light as every nit wit in the group; and then have clowns demanding you explain how you can be a member of a group that has so and so in it. You can never ask the question though, "How can anyone be a Democrat if Anthony Weiner is one, or How can you be a Republican if Dick Cheney is one. If it is one head of the two headed monster that controls us it is OK. 

If you saw and read the article that JoeP dredged up, it outlines what happened to the Libertarian project once David Koch got his hooks in it. An eye-opener.

As to divide et impera, all one can say it has always worked, in every faction across the whole of the political spectrum, as among nations.  And it continues to work to this day. Keep people sniping at one another, emphasize bullshit differences, and keep people from coming together to discern their common interests-- and especially, to understand and define their common enemy.
"We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." -  Louis Brandeis

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Re: Diner Book Reviews
« Reply #12 on: August 18, 2013, 07:02:18 AM »
Thanks for the book review GO. It just confirms the ugliness of what we already know to be occurring everywhere . But it's plenty scary just the same. Any suggestions as to what we could do to turn this state from its present course? K

None K, very sorry. I have become a fatalist about our impending doom. Like our Peter, it has become obvious to me that resistance has now become futile, they have all the bases covered, and our representatives represent them, not us, as well.

The fact that I have children and grandchildren had always forced me to try and be optimistic in some way. My thought was that a fearless good leader of the people would arise from this morass of evil, that idea has become a mere pipe dream to me now.

You pointed out once how the Diner could be viewed as a microcosm of the real world and what we face. You no doubt witnessed what becomes of someone who dares mention the word Libertarian and let's get government out of our daily lives. Take the message that was conveyed to heart. I sympathize with your situation and your urge to run away, it is too late for any of that in my view. We have sold our souls to the devil and hell, at least in this physical world, is our future. My only hope now is that we fall into that horrible place slowly rather that get cast into it in a brief moment.                                             
I have to disagree with you, GO.  Not on the inevitability, but on the hope.  We are going to have to go through hell.  The time for avoiding this fate was Jimmy Carter's second term.  The hope lies on the other side, if any survive, that we will have learned our lesson and stop living unsustainably.  But while a fast crash is not desirable, the longer we continue BAU, the worse the eventual outcome will be.

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Re: Diner Book Reviews: Head Count - Elizabeth Colbert
« Reply #13 on: October 16, 2013, 05:54:38 AM »
Head Count

Fertilizer, fertility, and the clashes over population growth.

by Elizabeth Kolbert October 21, 2013

                                                     
131021 r24117 p233
131021 r24117 p233

Some experts worry that we have too many children; others that we have too few. Illustration by Nishant Choksi.



   On May 12, 1907, toward the end of the annual meeting of the German Bunsen Society, which was held that year in Hamburg, a distinguished chemist named Walther Nernst insulted a not so distinguished junior colleague named Fritz Haber. The topic of the put-down—the synthesis of ammonia at very high temperatures—was, even by Bunsen Society standards, abstruse, but the gibe was strongly worded, so everyone at the meeting understood Nernst’s intent. Haber, who suffered from a variety of nervous ailments, was mortified. When he returned home to Karlsruhe, his skin broke out in hives. Before Nernst’s attack, he hadn’t been all that interested in synthesizing ammonia. The insult had the unintended consequence of stiffening his resolve. Haber threw himself full time into proving that ammonia could indeed be cooked up in the laboratory, using hydrogen and ordinary nitrogen gas. The result of this effort, which eventually became known as the Haber-Bosch process, had unintended consequences of its own, some of which proved to be world-altering.

Nitrogen is a tease. It’s crucial to life but exists mostly as N2, a form that living things can’t make use of. Early in the history of agriculture, people realized—without, obviously, understanding the chemistry behind this insight—that when usable nitrogen ran low fields turned barren. Eight thousand years ago, farmers in the Middle East were already planting legumes, whose roots harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria, in rotation with cereal crops, such as wheat. Later, Cato the Elder recommended that Romans “save carefully goat, sheep, cattle, and all other dung.” Bird shit is an excellent source of nitrogen, and in the early nineteenth century, when Europeans learned that there were mountains of the stuff on remote islands off Peru, the discovery inspired a guano rush; by the eighteen-fifties, Britain was importing four hundred million pounds of bird poop a year, and the United States a hundred and seventy million pounds. In 1856, the U.S. Congress passed the Guano Islands Act, which authorized Americans to lay claim to any deserted guano islands they could find. (Through the act, the U.S. did not come into much nitrogen; it did, however, acquire a host of minor territories, including Midway Island.)

By Haber’s day, the appetite for crop-friendly nitrogen was so huge that scientists had turned their attention skyward. Nitrogen is the most common element in the earth’s atmosphere—nearly four times more plentiful than oxygen and more than eighty times more plentiful than argon—but almost all of it is floating around in the intractable form of N2. When the humiliated Haber showed how to bust up N2 to produce ammonia—NH3—he basically solved the problem. No more guano would be needed. Haber had, it was said, figured out how to turn air into bread.

The first industrial-scale factory to employ the new Haber-Bosch process opened almost exactly a century ago, near Ludwigshafen. It pumped out more than ten tons of ammonia a day; this was further processed into fertilizer and sold as quickly as it could be manufactured. When the First World War broke out, the plant was converted into a munitions factory; nitrogen, as it happens, is also critical for making explosives. Thanks to the Haber-Bosch process, the Germans were able to keep the bombs dropping even after their supplies of saltpeter had run low. (According to some historians, without the process the Second Reich would have collapsed as much as two years sooner.)

Since the end of the Second World War, nitrogen-based fertilizer production has increased at least twentyfold. Such are the quantities being churned out in factories from the U.S. to Uzbekistan that humans are now likely responsible for fixing more nitrogen than all terrestrial ecosystems combined. It’s been estimated that almost half of the world’s current population subsists on crops grown with the output of the Haber-Bosch process. These people—who may well include you and me—are eating bread made of air, and so, in a sense, are made of air as well.

In a 2007 best-seller, “The World Without Us,” Alan Weisman imagined a planet suddenly devoid of humans. His new book, “Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?” (Little, Brown), represents a less radical thought experiment. Instead of eliminating people from the planet altogether, Weisman wants only to get rid of several billion of them. He argues that when Haber figured out how to make bread out of air, things took a turn for the worse. The circumventing of the nitrogen cycle allowed Homo sapiens to reproduce at an unprecedented pace. (E. O. Wilson has described the rate as “more bacterial than primate.”) Among the results of this explosive growth has been a buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which now puts not only humans but also pretty much every other creature on earth at risk. Since it was the Haber-Bosch process that made the surge possible, the process also suggests a target for the abatement.

“Before artificial nitrogen fertilizer became widely available, the world’s population was around 2 billion,” Weisman observes. “When we no longer have it—or if we ever decide to stop using it—that may be a number to which our own naturally gravitates.” The alternative to an orderly global “countdown” is, he warns, pretty dire. “Whether we accept it or not, this will likely be the century that determines what the optimal human population is for our planet,” he writes. “Either we decide to manage our own numbers, to avoid a collision of every line on civilization’s graph—or nature will do it for us.”

There is, of course, a long tradition in English of grim, though never quite realized, predictions of this sort. Thomas Malthus published “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798, around the time humanity was reaching the one-billion mark (not that Malthus would have had any way of knowing this). It stated that people would inevitably produce more mouths to feed than food to feed them, since population “increases in a geometrical ratio” while “subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.” Even a “slight acquaintance with numbers,” Malthus wrote, was enough to appreciate the “immensity” of the mismatch. War was one way the population and the food supply might be kept in line; another was “epidemics, pestilence, and plague.” If none of these proved sufficient, then “gigantic inevitable famine” would come to the rescue and “with one mighty blow” solve the problem.

A century later, in 1898, the number of people on the planet had nearly doubled when William Crookes, a chemist who’d recently become president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, warned of an imminent crisis. According to Crookes, wheat production was levelling off, even as the number of wheat eaters continued to increase exponentially. “England and all civilized nations stand in deadly peril of not having enough to eat,” he declared. He gave the “civilized” world three decades.

By 1968, there were three billion people on the planet. That year, Paul Ehrlich published “The Population Bomb,” which announced that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over.” According to Ehrlich, a professor of biology at Stanford University, nothing could be done to avert disaster: “in the 1970’s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” In the most optimistic scenario Ehrlich could envision, after the “major die-back” had ended, those countries left with functioning governments—the United States, Russia, and Canada among them—would embark on a program of agricultural development that would allow what remained of humanity to survive. Ehrlich challenged his readers to come up with a plausible but more upbeat possibility. “I won’t accept one that starts, ‘In early 1972, the first monster space ships from a planet of the star Alpha Centauri arrive bearing CARE packages,’ ” he wrote. Since Ehrlich issued this challenge, the global population has once again more than doubled, to 7.2 billion.

According to one school of thought, what’s instructive about the Malthusian tradition is how consistently wrong its predictions have turned out to be. At any particular moment, it may look as if we’re at the end of our proverbial rope, but just at that moment we find new rope: synthetic fertilizers, the Green Revolution, genetically modified crops. If human numbers increase geometrically, so, too, it seems, does human ingenuity.

According to a second school of thought, Malthus et al. weren’t wrong, exactly; it’s just that their timing was off. Technologies like Haber-Bosch and genetic engineering mask but do not solve the underlying problem, which is that the earth’s resources are finite. By delaying the final reckoning, they guarantee that when the crash eventually comes it will be that much uglier.

The latest population projections from the United Nations were released in June. If they’re correct, by 2025 there will be eight billion people on the planet. By 2050, there will be nine and a half billion, and by 2100 there will be nearly eleven billion. This is an awful lot of mouths to feed. It’s also a lot of people for Weisman to turn, as it were, back into air.

When demographers peer into the future, the key figure that they look at is the total fertility rate, or T.F.R. The T.F.R. is designed to offer a snapshot of a process—childbearing—that occurs over many years. Roughly speaking, it represents the average number of children that the average woman will produce in her lifetime. Weisman’s goal of bringing down the world’s population to two billion within two or three generations requires a global T.F.R. of about one, which is to say a more or less universal one-child policy.

How could this be accomplished? Much of “Countdown” is spent trying to answer this question. Weisman’s method is to travel around the world asking people what they think about topics like family size, birth control, and impending environmental disaster. He spends a lot of time in China, which forcibly imposes a one-child limit. Weisman doesn’t exactly endorse this idea, nor does he exactly condemn it. He quotes a Chinese environmentalist named Ouyang Zhiyun, who says that most Chinese recognize the need for the policy. Without it, Ouyang observes, China’s population, now 1.3 billion, would be heading toward two billion and beyond. “Good-bye food and water,” Ouyang says.

Weisman seems to be happiest in Japan, because there they do it—or, really, don’t do it—voluntarily. (As a mother of one in a fancy Tokyo neighborhood puts it to him, “Frankly, Japanese people don’t have sex much anymore.”) Japan’s T.F.R. is 1.4. This is actually lower than China’s, which, despite official policy, is 1.5. Japan’s population peaked in 2006 and last year declined by nearly three hundred thousand. Life expectancy in the country is among the longest on earth, but, even if it continues to grow, the number of Japanese is expected to keep dropping at least through the middle of this century. In the mountainous Nara Prefecture, Weisman visits a town whose population has already shrunk by three-quarters. As the people have disappeared, those left behind—nearly half of them over the age of sixty-five—have found that animals are returning. Once heavily logged, the prefecture’s forests are growing back and being recolonized by bears, herons, macaques, and eagles. Weisman meets with a newcomer to the town, a thirty-three-year-old who is planning to take over an abandoned wasabi farm. The man has a girlfriend, and they are hoping to get married and to perhaps have one child.

There are lots of countries where the T.F.R. is approaching one, and even some where it’s dropped below that. Singapore’s T.F.R. is just .79. Taiwan’s is 1.1, and South Korea’s is 1.2. Most European countries have T.F.R.s under 1.5; these include Italy, Spain, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Even in some countries where the population is still increasing at a rapid clip, owing to what’s known as “demographic momentum,” fertility rates are way down: Iran’s T.F.R., for example, is 1.9 and Brazil’s 1.8.

But there are plenty of other countries—mostly in Africa—where the T.F.R. remains above five. Niger’s, the highest in the world, is seven. Mali’s, the second highest, is 6.25, and Somalia’s, the third, is 6.17. Such are the mathematics of fertility that, barring some sort of Malthusian crisis, these high-fertility countries will add a lot more people during the coming decades than the low-fertility nations will lose. They will also be home to an ever-increasing proportion of the world’s population. Nigeria, for example, currently has a hundred and seventy-four million people and a T.F.R. of 5.3. Within a few decades, it’s expected to overtake the U.S. as the world’s third most populous country. By the end of the century, it will have as many people as China. (By that point, India is expected to be the most populous nation on earth.)

Weisman travels to several countries with moderately to very high fertility rates. When he asks people in these countries what should be done to bring down the numbers, mostly the answer is “Nothing.” In Niger, in the village of Mailafia, he encounters a mother of eight who laments the lack of milk in her town. “All we want is food so we can produce children,” she exclaims. Also in Niger, in the city of Maradi, he meets an imam who tells him, “We know the future is alarming. But man cannot hold back doomsday.” In the Israeli city of Brei Brak, Weisman meets another mother of eight. She tells him she’s not the least bit concerned about the world’s burgeoning population, because “God made the problem, and He will solve it.” At a clinic in Karachi, Pakistan, he meets a technician who refuses to administer the contraceptive injection that one of the clinic’s patients has just been prescribed. “I don’t believe we should practice family planning,” the technician says. “Our community should increase in number.”

“Countdown” seems set up to take on the challenge posed by the Nigérien imam and the Israeli mom, yet it never quite gets around to doing so. Weisman ends more or less where he began, wondering whether it might be possible to persuade people to “embrace the idea of, so to speak, refraining from embracing as much,” so that, two or three generations from now, the population can reach an “optimum number.”

Steven Philip Kramer is a professor at the National Defense University, in Washington, D.C., specializing in the branch of military decision-making known as grand strategy. Like Weisman, he’s worried about demographics. The problem that concerns Kramer, however, is not too many children; it’s too few. In “The Other Population Crisis: What Governments Can Do About Falling Birth Rates” (Johns Hopkins), Kramer argues that countries like Singapore and Italy, where the fertility rate has dropped below replacement levels, are in deep trouble. As their populations age and ultimately shrink, low-fertility countries will have fewer and fewer workers supporting more and more retirees. This will strain their social-welfare systems. To compound the problem, young people, Kramer says, tend “to be in the vanguard of technological innovation,” so aging countries may suffer from a sort of app gap.

Kramer visits several nations that have tried to lift their birth rates, with varying degrees of success. (Boosting fertility is, Kramer maintains, even harder than reducing it, as “you can sterilize people so they can’t procreate, but even the Nazis could not force people to breed.”) France gets high marks. The country has a variety of “pronatalist” policies, including direct grants to families with two or more children, generous tax deductions for dependents, and four months of paid maternity leave financed through the national health-insurance system. These programs appear to be at least somewhat successful, as the country’s fertility rate, which fell to a low of 1.74 in 2002, has since rebounded, to 2.08.

To Kramer, as to Weisman, Japan stands out, though as far as Kramer is concerned the country is a basket case. Its policies are notable only for their “inadequacy.” Child-care slots are limited, and tax deductions for couples with kids are too low to make a difference. Also like Weisman, Kramer is struck by the national prudishness. He cites a recent study by the Japan Family Planning Association indicating that “36% of males 16-19 had no interest in sex or even despised it, that 59% of female respondents said they were uninterested or averse to sex, and that 40.8% of married people said they had not had sex in the past month!”

In the United States, the fertility rate is currently estimated at 2.06. This figure puts the U.S. ahead of all European nations except France, and right about at replacement level. Nevertheless, according to Jonathan Last, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard, the country is facing doom by depopulation. At the start of “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster” (Encounter), he breaks the number down by race, income, and education. Black women have what Last terms a “healthy” fertility rate of 1.96. Hispanic women are “doing most of the heavy lifting,” with a rate of 2.35. White women, by contrast, are slackers. Their rate is 1.79, which makes them about as productive or, if you prefer, unproductive as the Dutch and the Norwegians. Poor women generally have more kids than middle-class women, while women who drop out of high school have more than those who graduate, and way more than those who earn advanced degrees. All this adds up, Last writes, to a “kind of reverse Darwinism where the traditional markers of success make one less likely to reproduce.”

Last has aimed his book at the same sort of readers who subscribe to The Weekly Standard. He describes himself as an “anti-abortion nut job,” lampoons the “feminist-industrial complex,” and laments a decline in marriage rates among the “lower classes.” Those who find Last’s politics less than congenial are likely to be less than convinced by his arguments. Among the problems he attributes to low fertility rates is that they tend to make countries reluctant to fight wars. Among the solutions he advocates is cutting back on higher education, thereby reducing its depressing influence on American fertility.

It may seem that one world can’t have two population problems: either the glass is too empty or it’s too full. But the crises Weisman and Kramer are worried about can ultimately be traced to the same cause. In most of Europe and also in the U.S., social-welfare systems were put in place at a time of rapid, Haber-Bosch-fuelled population growth. The programs were structured around the assumption that there would always be more young people paying for benefits than there would be old people receiving them. (As Last points out, Social Security operates on much the same principles as a Ponzi scheme.) Thus the systems depend on endless population growth, but endless population growth is probably not possible and certainly not desirable. This double bind is distressing to contemplate, but, as Malthus advised his unhappy readers, “The most baleful mischiefs may be expected from the unmanly conduct of not daring to face truth because it is unpleasing.” ♦


http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2013/10/21/131021crbo_books_kolbert   :icon_study:

« Last Edit: October 16, 2013, 07:50:08 AM by Golden Oxen »
Golden Oxen

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Re: Diner Book Reviews
« Reply #14 on: October 16, 2013, 08:15:58 AM »
We have to get past the idea that we need to grow the population to support the social welfare system. This is fine example of Really Bad Thinking.
What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.

 

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