April 24. Some happy links for the weekend. Meet the School That Hates Rules. There's no economic reason that all schools couldn't be like this. The only obstacle is cultural.
Scythe Demolishes Weed Whacker In Grass-Cutting Competition. Note that this is a scythe champion. Because a scythe is more difficult to use, an unskilled person with a scythe would lose to an unskilled person with a weed whacker. This is why weed whackers will remain more popular, but also why using a scythe is more rewarding.
And some awesome space jazz from 1974: Gong - Master Builder.
April 23. Just rewrote the top of yesterday's post to replace my words with a reader's words on the subject of permaculture feudalism.
April 22. Two reader comments about future eco-feudalism. Anne thinks that Paul Wheaton's ant village challenge sounds like sharecropping. More generally:
The goal of permaculture often seems to be less producing food and other usable products and more about re-envisioning the landed gentry of the late middle ages. You know, the full-service estate model, where everything from charcoal to wagon wheels was produced on a single manor farm, and mostly consumed there as well. Obviously there are different forms of social organization that can make that happen, but it has not escaped notice that the set-up most popular among permaculture dreamers (and a few actual landowners) is for the landowner to serve as a benign autocrat, and unpaid laborers to partake in the bounty of the land.
Owen offers a nicer vision, where all humans will be like aristocrats in self-sufficient households, and robots will do most of the work. I like this, and I think it's realistic on the level of technology, but not politics. Even with robots doing all the work, political power has positive feedback: people who make decisions tend to make them in a way that preserves and increases their power to make decisions.
April 22. On Monday's post, a reader comments that Paul Wheaton's ant village challenge sounds like sharecropping, and more generally that permaculture, which could fit all kinds of social systems, is often being used in a system like feudalism, where landowners benefit from unpaid workers. And if you host a certification class, you can get workers to pay you to improve your land. You could argue that this is a win-win, because trees are being planted and people are learning. But unless the workers have their own land one day, they're just building their eco-serf resumes.
Another reader has a nicer vision of future eco-feudalism, where all humans are like aristocrats in self-sufficient households, and robots do most of the work. I like this, and I think it's realistic on the level of technology, but not politics. Even with robots doing all the work, political power has positive feedback: people who make decisions tend to make them in a way that preserves and increases their power to make decisions.
I also want to say, if you aspire to own land, consider my experience: I've tried growing a food forest on remote acreage, and on an urban residential lot, and because the urban lot has a longer growing season, better topsoil, closer access to soil amendments, and a water hose, my urban plants are growing ten times better than my rural plants with a tenth of the work. Just this week my neighbor's landscaper gave me a cubic yard of grass cuttings that I hauled to a compost pile without having to own a truck. Here's a picture of my back yard that I just took today.
Toby Hemenway wrote much more about this subject back in 2004 in Urban vs Rural Sustainability. Of course you don't have the money to get an urban lot just anywhere. But for the price of adequate rural acreage, you can get a good sized lot with a house in a rust belt city like Detroit, St Louis, or Buffalo.
April 18. Bonus weekend post. Thanks Jason for donating two pounds of to Leigh Ann. I don't make coffee myself, and could happily live without it, but if some is around I'll take a sip. (Actually I feel that way about a lot of things.)
April 20. Over the weekend I had a visitor, Nick, who was on his way to Missoula to check out Paul Wheaton's ant village challenge. We talked about all kinds of things, and I always forget how much better conversation is face to face than over the internet. I learned lots of stuff about the possible future of energy. For example, you can have a parabolic reflector focusing sunlight on a point through which you pass a fluid that can hold lots of heat, and then this fluid can transfer heat to water, driving a steam engine, so you've got solar power without a high-tech infrastructure making photovoltaics. Nick's utopian vision is a kind of home-scale mini-biosphere or super-greenhouse that would make such good use of sunlight and water that people living in it would be almost completely self-sufficient. This kind of thing will have to be developed if we ever want Mars colonies, but then it would turn out to be more useful to help us live better on Earth.
We also talked about psychedelics, a topic that has come up a lot for me lately. The other day there was a great discussion on the Psychonaut subreddit, inspired by an Alan Watts quote, about the value of psychedelics: is there a simple message that you only need to hear once, or an endless landscape of insights as you explore deeper, or something in between? I still have never used anything stronger than marijuana (happy 4/20!) for two reasons. One is a good reason: that I have never had access to the stuff. The other I've decided is a bad reason: that I can feel good about myself for having trippy insights without any help from drugs -- but of course I've had lots of help from reading the experiences and ideas of other people.
April 18. Bonus weekend post. Thanks Jason of Anodyne Coffee for donating two pounds of roasted beans to Leigh Ann. I don't make coffee myself, and could happily live without it, but if some is around I'll take a sip. (Actually I feel that way about a lot of things.) Some humor from the New Yorker, Ayn Rand Reviews Children's Movies. (I knew Willy Wonka was evil.) And a fun image gallery, After You Die. My favorite scenario would be a hybrid of purgatory, reincarnation, and simulation: given sufficiently powerful consciousness-managing technology, an obvious way to make a utopian society would be to put everyone through simulations until they become a good enough person to live in the real world.
April 17. Two links from readers. First, Matthew Crawford on distraction. It's about how technologies designed to capture our attention are getting more powerful and they're in more places. Crawford's solution is for people to engage physical reality, for example by playing sports or making a car, which is more satisfying than techno-distraction and tends to block it out. Another interesting point is that money can buy shelter from distraction, like special airport lounges, and this creates a feedback loop where powerful people have the silence to think their way to more power, while powerless people are too distracted to resist. I don't think the article has enough faith in humanity. Today's young people would be immune to advertisements from the 1950's, which means we're getting smarter. I think human adaptability is bottomless, while the techno-distraction industry is now running to stand still, with ever more powerful brain candy reaching for the last crumbs of our numb and cynical attention. This might even be bad for rich people, if they're so insulated from distraction that they don't develop enough resistance to survive on their own. The article also has a fascinating paragraph about music in gyms. There used to be one boom box with music decided by one person or by consensus. Now they play "awful generic gym crap" and everyone is just listening to their own music on earbuds. This is part of a larger trend of technology enabling cultural divergence. I think this process is still in its infancy, and I'm curious where it's going to take us. Another example of cultural divergence, Unequal, Yet Happy. The observation is, while wealth inequality is enormous and growing, happiness inequality has been steadily shrinking. And the theory is, this is because status is becoming less vertical and more horizontal. Instead of everyone envying the rich, everyone thinks their own subculture and lifestyle is best. The author thinks this is bad because it makes us stop caring about wealth inequality. I think this is a case of an intellectual getting fixated on an ideology and forgetting the original point, which always comes down to people feeling good. But don't worry: when climate change trashes global agriculture and only the rich have food, wealth inequality will be a popular issue again.
March 11. Sarah Perry has a new post on Ribbonfarm, . It's so dense with ideas that it's taken me a week just to wrap my head around it. These are the main points:
Related: Steven Strogatz on the dangers of
April 15. A few more thoughts on yesterday's subject. I've seen discussions of whether writers "walk their talk". I hope that nobody, writer or reader, would allow something as important as actions to be determined by something as sketchy as words. My goal has always been to talk my walk: to accurately use words to explore and explain my actions and motivations.
This is harder than it sounds. Being accurate and writing well are two different skills, and there's a constant temptation to slant the story toward words that sound good, or phrases that readers are familiar with. I know I've done this and I regret it. And even if you're scrupulously honest, you can still be misunderstood if you get too close to any popular myth, which can distort perception and make people think you have values that you never said you had.
I don't know where the myth of social asceticism even comes from. Medieval monks? Diogenes was not avoiding guilt but avoiding constraint. Did Thoreau ever write anything that contradicted his practice of going into town every weekend for a family dinner?
I feel like I was a novice wizard who accidentally summoned demons. If I write differently and people just stop reading, that's cool; but if someone lashes out at me, that means I was feeding something that should not have been fed.
April 14. Just a heads up that there's a new subreddit thread about the differences between my old writing and my new writing. I made a couple comments there, including that my old writing was about making people feel strong emotions, and my newer writing is about seeking understanding. Or you could say I've shifted from being a warrior to being a scout.
I also want to say, I was in a dark place for a few decades. As recently as ten years ago more of my energy went into what I was against than what I was for. At times I got so deep that I made the number one counterculture error: morally condemning people for participation in an imperfect system. Now I think that's a mistake on every level, but when someone condemns me, I don't mind -- it's karma.
April 13. Can civilisation reboot without fossil fuels? This is an important question, and I'd like to see more than just this one guy trying to answer it. His answer is that the most realistic source of energy would be charcoal and wood gas, but that wood power would be heavily constrained by competition with agriculture.
I think the most likely scenario is that solar power is able to adapt and survive through the coming resource bottleneck, and eventually it will grow to surpass the energy we're now getting from fossil fuels. Then, if the most powerful nations have stable zero growth economies, we've got utopia, but I don't expect humanity to learn that fast. Probably there will be solar empires, still addicted to growth and all fighting each other, and we'll eventually hit peak solar, in which it takes more and more effort to harvest the last few photons. Then we'll either finally figure out how to live without growth, or we'll get another crash.
Loosely related: a short video posted to the subreddit about Max Weber and the Protestant Ethic, arguing that religion used to be about staying out of the economic rat race, but that all changed when Calvinism tied salvation to material success.