Friday, January 29, 2010

At Home in the Universe

At Home in the Universe, by Stuart Kauffman, is a book I wish I had read a while ago--or perhaps at some point in the future. I got excited when I found it in the library and I just finished reading it, but as I was reading it, I got the feeling that it wasn't what I needed to be reading right now.

Not that this book doesn't contain useful stuff. Stuart Kauffman talks about self-organization and how things emerge as systems change and grow--very useful stuff if you're thinking about social change. (See my post on Complexity Theory, 7/16/08. Stuart Kauffman is a key Complexity theorist--I mention this book in that post and I have been thinking of reading it since.) It got me thinking a lot about how to create small systems (such as communities) that might enable the emergence of positive change--or even how to create the conditions that might emerge these systems.

But a lot of this book is about mathematical and computer models to show how self-organization works and, while I was tempted to try to follow a lot of it or even replicate some of the simple models, I'm clear that's not going to help me with things I am working on at this point. I ended up skipping or skimming through sections of the book and almost stopped reading it at one point.

Still, I am glad that I finished it and I might read it again in the future. There's a lot to think about in this book.

Kauffman's major premise is that while he is not doubting that Darwinian natural selection works, he thinks that the neo-Darwinians (such as Richard Dawkins) oversimplify the process. He feels that self-organization and other emerging dynamics of systems are as much involved in creating complex biological life as natural selection. He claims that Darwinian selection makes it seem like we are the random result of chance factors. (And sometimes, as he points out, these are extremely unlikely chances. He cites Fred Hoyle and NC Wickramasinghe as calculating the chances of a bacterial enzyme spontaneously emerging as an astronomically small number--1 in 10 to the power of 40,000--making the likelihood of this event "comparable to the chances that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.") Our existence becomes an unbelieveable fluke. Whereas when you add the tendency for systems to self-organize into the process (and he goes into quite a bit of detail about how this might happen) life, and even human beings, becomes a likely phenomenon--an emergent property of the conditions the earth started with. He refers to this in several places in the books as "We, the expected," and goes on to say that "We may be at home in the universe in ways we have hardly begun to understand."

It's interesting to put this in relation to the Gaia theory (see my post of 1/3/10) which focuses on how the earth and life organized to create a system that maintains a livable situation for life. I'd love to hear a conversation between Stuart Kauffman and Lynn Margulis.

And I am fascinated by the 'edge of chaos' phenomenon that he alludes to several times in the book. The idea is that order stagnates and chaos disrupts--but the boundary line between chaos and order is an extremely productive area. I suspect we would all benefit from a balance between order and chaos in our lives.

Toward the end of the book, he moves from biological systems to social systems and technological systems. While I don't buy a lot of it (he is too much in favor of capitalism and technology for me), there is still a lot of useful, thought provoking stuff here. He talks about the needs for decentralization and breaking a problem up into smaller pieces. (But not too many pieces. One big problem creates a situation that is ordered and stuck. A ton of little problems become chaotic and unmanageable. He provides mathematical models that indicate breaking problems up into a small number of pieces makes it more manageable--again the edge of chaos phenomenon.) And he uses the term "patches" which I like--it makes me think of a quilt.

At one point, he describes the typical ordered and chaotic social systems as a 'Stalinist regime' and a 'fanciful Leftist Italian regime'. A bit much but I can see where he is coming from. His edge of chaos is democracy which I do think is correct--but I am not sure that we have seen what real democracy is. (I think democracy is a still emergent phenomenon--something evolving through us. I'm taken with the Lappés' phrase, "...creating the path as we walk." See my post of 9/8/08 for more on this.) He ends the book with a chapter on 'An Emerging Global Civilization'. I suspect that this emerging civilization will be a lot more decentralized than he thinks.

Still, this is a book worth reading and even re-reading, if only for all the insights in it and thoughts it provokes. But right now, my focus is elsewhere.

Quote of the Day: "Why try if our best efforts ultimately transform to the unforeseeable? Because that is the way the world is, and we are part of that world. Because that is the way that life is, and we are part of life. ... If profound participation in such a process is not worthy of awe and respect, if it is not sacred, then what might be? ...
"We are all part of this process, created by it, creating it." - Stuart Kauffman

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Embodied Energy

A woman I know proudly stuck a minature wind turbine on the top of her house to show the world that she was serious about saving energy. The little turbine actually generated electricity which she'd use (I'm not sure for what). Someone later pointed out that the turbine probably used more energy in its manufacture than it would create in its whole lifespan.

The JPGreenhouse folks are serious about energy efficiency as a way to work against climate change. They are retrofitting their house so it uses very little day to day energy. (I wrote about this in my last post.) But beyond that, they were careful to use building materials that didn't use a lot of energy in their manufacture--cellulose insulation made from recycled newspaper for example. Their walls would be a lot thinner and save as much energy from heat loss if they used a high-tech building material like Polyisocyanurate panels--but there is a lot of energy used in the manufacture of these panels which are made, like most plastic and foam materials, from oil.

The concept of embodied energy is a way to look at how much energy is used in the manufacture of a product (any product) as well as how much energy it's using while we have it. The website 'WattzOn' has an 'Embodied Energy Database' which lists the average number of watts that were used in the manufacture of a given product. It's worth thinking about as you purchase new stuff. (And, of course, if you buy or get something used, that cuts down the embodied energy by quite a bit because you are extending the life of the product and stopping the waste of all that energy.)

An article that talks about embodied energy, and is more directly related to building projects like the JPGreenhouse, is "Reducing the Embodied Energy of Buildings" from the magazine Home Energy. One of the more interesting findings in the article concerns the cost of recycling. (Yes, recycling uses energy, too--sometimes more than you'd think. See my post of 11/24/09.) There's a table in the article that talks about the energy savings from using recycled materials vs 'virgin' materials. At the top of the table is aluminum, which uses an enormous amount of energy in its manufacture. The energy saved by using recycled materials is 95%. (Please, recycle those aluminum cans and all the aluminum foil you can!) At the bottom of the table is the amount of energy saved by using recycled glass--it's 5%. So, all things being equal, you'd still save a bit of energy by using recycled glass, but if the recycled glass was shipped from farther than you could get newly manufactured glass (and don't forget that shipping/trucking/transport uses energy as well) it probably wouldn't be worth it.

Another interesting thing from the Home Energy article was that 'energy-efficient' buildings often used more embodied energy in their creation. A Canadian article cited claimed that "...the more operating-energy efficient the house is, the larger percentage embodied energy will be of the structure's total energy." I'm not sure this would be true, however, if you used recycled newspaper for insulation and reused triple paned windows (the JPGreenhouse did both).

The moral is: Don't assume that your snazzy new 'energy efficient' toy is actually going to help the environment by saving lots of energy. That's corporate capitalist greenwash: "Saving the planet by buying more stuff!" It's not true and, in fact, there is more than embodied energy involved in making these products--there is also the toxic wastes produced in the manufacture. (See The Story of Stuff for more on this.) If you really want to make a difference, as I put in my post of 11/24/09, 'Reduce and Reuse'.

Quote of the Day: "That is why an electronic gadget can be sold for five bucks, even if its production contaminates drinking water supplies, makes workers sick and creates piles of toxic waste along the way. The price tag doesn't include the true cost of making the item." - Annie Leonard

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Passive House

One of the many things that I have been up to is assisting with 'Weatherization Barnraisings' in my home town (more on this soon). Early on I sat in on a workshop on 'Air Sealing' (which basically means cutting down on places where the warm air in your house can leak out and the cold winter air come in). At some point the presenter started talking about 'Passive House' (or 'passivhaus'--this was developed in Germany) standards. He lost me entirely. It might have been because I was tired that night and on the edge of being sick, but I had no idea what he was talking about.

A few months later, I heard about a place in Jamaica Plain (actually Roslindale) in Boston that was working on being as ecologically correct as possible. When I heard that they were looking for volunteers to help, I signed up. I figured that I could do something that might be useful and, hopefully, I would learn something, too.

This was the JPGreenhouse, the future home of Andrée Zaleska and Ken Ward, two climate change activists, and their children. And the first thing that happened my first volunteer day was a tour of the place, conducted by Declan Keefe, the project manager from Placetailor, who are the folks that are doing the construction work. JPGreenhouse, as it turns out, is going for Passive House certification and Declan explained what that meant in a way that made sense to me. In fact, at this point, I have taken the tour three times, each time learning a bit more about how all this Passive House stuff works.

First and foremost, Passive House is a set of standards. For those who like the technical aspects of this stuff, Passive House US lists the standards for houses built in the USA:

Performance Characteristics:

• Airtight building shell = 0.6 ACH @ 50 pascal pressure, measured by blower-door test.

• Annual heat requirement = 15 kWh/m2/year (4.75 kBtu/sf/yr)

• Primary Energy = 120 kWh/m2/year (38.1 kBtu/sf/yr)

What does this mean? It means that any building that wants Passive House certification needs to meet three criteria: it has to be air tight (to the required measurements), it can't use more than a certain amount to heat it each year, and it can't use more than a certain amount of overall energy each year. Those exacting standards mean that very little energy is used in heating the building--and, in fact, very little energy is needed to keep the building warm year 'round. The joke is that you could practically heat the building by the body heat of the occupants. (Particularly if they were exercising or dancing or had a very crowded party.)

How does it accomplish this? Here are what one person (from the 100K House Blog) saw as the key elements of a Passive House. (I am changing this slightly so it's easier to explain.)

First, the House uses Super Insulation (that is insulation that is well above what used to be accepted as 'normal insulation'). Generally, new houses have more insulation, but Passive House buildings use a very high amount.

The insulation must be airtight (as I explained above) and must minimize what's called 'thermal bridging'. Thermal bridges occur when building materials conduct heat--thus allowing the heat to escape right through the materials (as opposed to through air exchange). In other words, because there are neither air exchanges nor points where heat is conducted out of the building, the warmth stays in the house. (That's assuming you want the house to be warm--if it's hot out and you want the house to be cool, it works the same way, except the heat stays outside.)

Second, the House has highly efficient windows. Windows are one of the easiest places to lose heat in a house. Most Passive House designs use triple paned windows with an inert gas in between to really minimize heat leakage.

Third, using a special ventilation system is very important. Because Passive House buildings are so airtight, stale air, germs, smoke, and toxic gases will stay in the building (creating the famous 'sick building syndrome' ) unless a special system is set up. These Houses use what's called 'Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery'. The building's air is sent out of the building and fresh air brought in by means of fans, blowers, etc. Of course, this would defeat the purpose of keeping the building air tight if the warm air was sent out and cold air brought in (which is what would happen if you opened a window on a cold day). Passive Houses rely on Heat Exchangers (aka Heat Recovery Ventilators or Energy Recover Ventilators) which take the heat out of the air leaving the building and transfer it to the air coming in. (Of course these ventilators and exchangers have to be very energy efficient since the Passive House standards include total energy used as well as energy used in heating the house.)

Finally, since the House loses so little heat, what heat it does require can be gotten using simple, innovative, and efficient methods. The 100K House Blog lists four common methods that they've seen to heat the House: using a small heat pump, using a small condensing gas burner, using a small combustion unit for biomass fuel, or having one compact unit for all in one heating, ventilation and domestic hot water. (Or you could have a dance party every night!)

All this sounds very sustainable to me, since these houses use so little day to day energy. But the JPGreenhouse goes further. Andrée and Ken and the Placetailor folks were also concerned about the energy used in creating the building materials (also known as 'Embodied Energy'--the subject of my next post). So rather than using Polyisocyanurate (a foam material made--as most plastics are--from oil), they are mainly using cellulose (made from shredded newspapers) for insulation. Of course, to achieve the Super Insulation that Passive House requires, their walls have to be a lot thicker than if they used Polyisocyanurate. (And, actually, they are using Polyisocyanurate in a few places because it really made sense.)

In addition, the JPGreenhouse isn't a new house. Andrée and Ken bought an old store and are retrofitting it to Passive House standards. That means the builders have really increased the thickness of the walls. (It occurs to me that one way to make an old building a Passive House would be to build new outside walls over the old walls--creating a building within a building.)

What about costs? Declan pointed out that Passive House construction is only slightly more expensive than regular work, but it doesn't seem that way at first. As you put in all this insulation and expensive windows and exotic ventilation systems, the costs go up and up, well above average construction. Then, when it's time to put in the heating system, the furnace and ducts and everything that is used in an ordinary house, you don't need to. You've got a small heating system that not only uses little energy, but costs very little to install. And suddenly the costs slide back down toward where the average construction costs are. So for just a bit more, you've got a house that will use very little energy. I'm sure the payback period isn't very long.

A few months ago, I stumbled on an article in the Boston Globe that described a house that sounded a lot like the JPGreenhouse. But this place was in Roxbury, a completely different part of Boston. It turns out that this is the home of Simon Hare, one of the people behind Placetailor. He is also retrofitting an old house. And while it sounds like he is going to be as rigorous as Passive House standards (he wants something that won't need any conventional heat source at all), he is not going for Passive House certification. When I asked one of the Placetailor folks about that (I actually haven't seen Simon at the JPGreenhouse), the person told me Simon Hare didn't want to be constrained by the actual Passive House standards. In other words, he would be using the ideas without worrying about certification. (The JPGreenhouse folks are trying to be a demonstration, but Simon Hare is just working on his own house.)

So here is another set of ideas to think about as we build a sustainable society. We don't have to accept it all, but we can learn from it. Passive House isn't the final answer, but I think it raises a lot of useful points to think about.

Quote of the Day: "When Ken and I set out to create a new home for ourselves... we wanted to create a sustainable living space using very little energy and supplying much of our own food. We were astonished to find that there are few 'green' houses open to the public, and none in New England. Most demonstrations are also expensive new construction, not much help in rehabbing an old building on a moderate income. ... we purchased an abandoned 100 year old former neighborhood store ... to create the JP Green House - our home and an accessible model of zero carbon, sustainable living." - Andrée Zaleska

Friday, January 15, 2010

World As Lover

In my post on 'Mutual Causality' (12/18/09) I mentioned that the language of Joanna Macy's book Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory was 'dry and academic'. It's probably not the best book to read if you just want to understand the interconnections of Buddhism and General Systems Theory, or if you want to understand the Buddhist idea of 'dependent origination', or even just to see how Joanna Macy views everything as interconnected, everything as being in relationship. They are all in her book on Mutual Causality, but much of it is also in her book World as Lover, World as Self, which is a much more readable and fun book.

In fact, World as Lover, World as Self is a good introduction to much of Joanna Macy's work. She includes essays on how she got involved with Buddhism, her time with Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka and what we can learn from them, the basics of her Despair and Empowerment work, and quite a few bits from what she has done with Deep Ecology and The Council of All Beings.

Here she talks about us being more than our small selves, that we can open ourselves up to the world. In the title essay, she talks about how we can see the world as a lover, and learn to love 'everyone and everything we encounter'. Then she talks about how, as we open ourselves to the world, we can see it as a larger self, just as we are a small part of the world. She echoes that thought in her essay on "The Greening of the Self", that all the parts of the world are parts of our 'Self' and we should remember that the damage we do to the world is damage we are doing to ourself just as the healing of the world is the healing of ourself.

She also talks about the Tibetan prophecy of the Shambala Warriors--something I've heard referred to in other places but never understood. A brief version is that at a time "when all life on Earth is in danger" (sound familiar?) the Shambala Warriors will arise. They are trained in the use of two 'weapons': compassion and insight. (It certainly sounds like the type of warriors we could use now.)

Finally, she talks about the 'Turning of the Wheel' in Buddhism. She claims that the original Turning of the Wheel was when the Buddha spoke of a way to end suffering. She says that the 'Second Turning of the Wheel' was with a piece of scripture that appears five hundred years later called the Perfection of Wisdom which Joanna Macy claims features the 'Mother of All Buddhas'. This was the scripture that inspired Mahayana Buddhism, that features the ideal of the Bodhisattva. She ends this book by suggesting that we might be at the point of a 'Third Turning of the Wheel' where not only Buddhists but everyone sees the interconnectedness of everything in this world.

Even if you are not at all interested in Buddhism, there is much to learn from this book. She is clear that the reason we are destroying our world is our belief that we are somehow separate from it. There is a focus on not only understanding this but feeling it. She includes meditations from her Despair and Empowerment work and her Council of All Beings work to help us be in touch with what all this means.

My one regret is that this book doesn't really talk about her ideas about The Great Turning (see my post of 11/15/09 for more on that); but that's because this book was published in 1991 before Joanna Macy began talking about that. But clearly the underpinnings of these ideas are here.

Unless you are a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, or philosophy, forget the book Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory. World as Lover, World as Self is a much better book to understand what Joanna Macy is talking about.

Quote of the Day: "Our mission is not to escape from our world, or fix things by remote control, looking at charts and pushing buttons, and pulling levers, but to fall in love with our world. We are made for that because we co-arise with her--in a dance where we discover ourselves and lose ourselves over and over.
"In this Third Turning we build community." - Joanna Macy

Friday, January 8, 2010

Vision, Dissonance, Determination

I was arguing with a friend who insisted that outrage was necessary for social change. I don't think that's always true. I would like to claim, like the Buddhists that I am reading, that my motivation to change things is simply compassion. Unfortunately I'm not sure that would be entirely true either.

When I look at why I am so insistent a believer in the need for social change, while I do think that compassion is in the mix, and may have even been the instigating factor, what keeps me going is a combination of vision, dissonance, and determination.

I talked at the beginning of this blog about analysis, vision, and strategy. (See my post on Creating Social Change, 7/2/08.) In a way, this is the same bit on vision--except that this is visceral. This is no longer intellectual--it's personal. I can almost see a different society. I know a little of what it would look like, a little of what it would sound like, I can almost tell you what it would taste like. It lurks constantly in my peripheral vision. I know that another world is possible. I just don't know how to get there.

This creates dissonance. When I look around at the world that I live in, it is so far from what I can see, how I believe we should be living, where I want to be and where I want the world to be, that it almost hurts. I know I'm not the only one who feels that way; it's true of many of the writers that I read and often quote: Starhawk, Joanna Macy, Francis Moore Lappé, Richard Heinberg, Fritjof Capra, Arundhati Roy, and lots of the utopian authors I've talked about. (See 'Annotated Utopia' post of 7/14/08.) I could throw in a lot of other, now departed, folks: Audre Lorde, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Emma Goldman, Gandhi, and on back to at least the Diggers of seventeenth century England, and probably long before that. Not everyone had the same vision, but there is a lot in common and some of that is the realization of the chasm between what is and what could be. I just read a column by George Monbiot where he declared that the talks in Copenhagen weren't only about climate change, they were about redefining ourselves, about the question of whether we create another world or whether we continue on the road we are traveling. He sees it as a "global battle between expanders and restrainers". I see it as a fight for the future. I see it as dissonance between what we have and how things could be.

And that dissonance leads me to determination. The only way things are going to change is to do something. These posts are one attempt to do something. Building community is another attempt--a try at gathering likeminded people in the hope that together we can accomplish more than any of us can separately. I go to meetings and demonstrations and try to figure out how to support people who are pushing for social change. It may not be much, but as Gandhi said, "Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it is most important that you do it." So I do. I keep focusing every day on wanting to make a difference in the world. I see how things could be, I see how things are, and I keep looking for ways to push things a little further toward where I believe they must go.

It's not that it's a nice idea. It's that I feel compelled. It is what my life is really about.

Another world is possible. I know it.

Quote of the Day: "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, if you listen carefully, you can hear her breathing." - Arundhati Roy

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Two Hundred

Blogger informs me that this is my two hundredth post. It's hard to believe that I've written that much.

It's the middle of the first week of 2010. Between the new year and the milestone post number, I am taking this as another opportunity to look around at what I've written, and more importantly, what I'm planning to write.

At this point I am finally posting when I want to and about what I want, which is what most people do with their blogs. I have completed three long series in this blog, the first on what I believe, the second on US history, and the third on what our real needs are. I've also turned my first six months of posts into two zines--the latest being made up of the series 'What I Believe'.

I have said that I would do two things, one with my zine and the other with my blog. Now I am not sure of either of them. In fact, one of them I am not going to do.

I said at the end of the last zine that I would make the zine based on my series about US history. In fact, considering all I wrote in that series, I said the next zine would be Part One of US history. I've changed my mind. At this point, as far as I know, I've made absolutely no money from the zines. As the woman at the copy place said, this has been a labor of love. In fact, I have given a bunch of the zines to friends and family as well as places (good places that I wanted to support) that have sold them and pocketed the money with my blessing. I am glad to have gotten the information out into the world, but it has been costly and makes me think about what I really want to do with the zine. The stuff on US history just doesn't seem that important to me, so I am now planning to skip it. I do want to get out one more zine, probably some time in the spring, putting the series I wrote on real needs into print. We will see if I publish any issues beyond that.

And I have been saying since early on that I would write a series on education/changing consciousness. It needs to be done and I should do it, but I'm wavering and I am not sure when I will do it if I do it. Unlike the other series, I am not juiced to write about this and I'm not clear exactly how I would frame it and I am a bit burnt out on writing series. Plus, I am hoping this year to create the community I've been dreaming of and would rather put my energy into that.

I do have a bunch of posts that I am planning to write however. I am not abandoning this blog. Besides book reviews on some of what I am reading (I won't bore anyone with reviews on some of texts I've been reading on ecology and soil science, but I have also been reading some stuff I do plan on reviewing) I am planning to write posts on a bunch of interesting things that I have been learning about or thinking about. Upcoming topics include Prisoner's Dilemma, Passive House, and Embodied Energy as well as a post on what makes me want to work for change. I am also considering one on making decisions and another on (believe it or not) smoking. I also have two chapters from my last zine that I wrote fresh and I'm now thinking of converting into posts. I'm not sure all of these will make it into print but this is what I'm thinking at this point.

I do appreciate the opportunity that blogger gives me to put my thoughts out in cyberspace (as well as being able to read and comment on lots of other interesting blogs). Still, as fascinating as 'virtual communities' are, I'm yearning for flesh and blood connections.

Those are my thoughts now--I make no guarantees about the future.

Quote of the Day: " don't clickety clack down a straight line track, It comes together and it comes apart..." - Ferron

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Being a complete book worm, it's probably not a good idea for me to spend lots of time in a library. I was already in the middle of reading a bunch of books when I attended a lecture at the main Boston Public Library. Because I was traveling by public transit, I arrived 45 minutes early. What could I do? I prowled around the library, found a book on New England's flora and fauna and read it while waiting for the lecture to begin. I got what I needed out of the book and was returning it to where I found it when I noticed that the library had a whole bunch of books on the Gaia hypothesis. I had an old BPL card that I hadn't used in years in my pocket and so...

As I've been writing lately, I'm very interested in systems, especially ecosystems. Gaia is about the biggest ecosystem that I can think of--the whole planet as an interconnected system. I've been reading three books about Gaia: James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth; Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan, Slanted Truths: Essays on Gaia, Symbiosis, and Evolution; and Lawrence Joseph, Gaia: The Growth of an Idea.

What is the Gaia hypothesis? From an essay by Sagan and Margulis: "Innovated by the atmospheric chemist James Lovelock, supported by microbiologist Lynn Margulis, and named by novelist William Golding [author of Lord of the Flies], the Gaia hypothesis states that the composition of all the reactive gases as well as the temperature of the lower atmosphere have remained relatively constant over eons." In other words the Earth itself is a self-maintaining system. Gaia theorists use words like 'cybernetic' (coming from the way machines ranging from thermostats to computer systems control themselves) and 'homeostatic' (used to describe the way our bodies maintain themselves) to describe the process. Just as a thermostat maintains the temperature of the house and our bodies maintain a constant temperature, so does the Earth maintain it's near constant overall temperature--and all of them use feedback mechanisms. It's basic systems theory.

Not that the Gaia theory doesn't have it's detractors. Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, and Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould, among many other scientists, have criticised the theory. But there are scientists that support it as well. When biochemist Ford Doolittle (who wrote one of the first critical essays against the Gaia hypothesis, "Is Nature Really Motherly", in a 1981 issue of CoEvolution Quarterly) suggested that the supposed ability of Gaia to maintain its temperature implied that Gaia was conscious, Lewis Thomas (Dean of Yale Medical School and author of Lives of a Cell) pointed out: "...we do not understand, in anything like real detail, how even Dr. Doolittle manages the stability and control of his own internal environment, including his body temperature. One thing is certain, none of us can instruct our body's systems to make the needed corrections beyond a very limited number of rather trivial tricks made possible through biofeedback techniques. If anything goes wrong with my liver or kidneys... I rely on the system to fix itself, which it usually does with no help from me beyond my crossing my fingers." (There's a quote that I can't track down the source of although I'm sure I got it from CoEvolution Quarterly and I think it was said by Hazel Henderson: "You can't manage a system; a system manages a system."--or something to that effect. It's useful to remember as I talk about systems theory.)

If the Gaia theory had no other benefits, it got scientists from very different disciplines talking to each other. An article from the San Francisco Examiner (excerpted in Gaia: The Growth of an Idea) describes the first conference on the Gaia theory, held by the American Geophysical Union in 1988. "Microbiologists challenged atmospheric scientists. Oceanographers listened intently to volcanologists. Population biologists argued with geologists. Meteorologists, marine biologists, geochemists, geophysicists, botanists, space physicians, exobiologists, mathematicians and computer scientists wrangled, guffawed, laughed, drank, ate, quibbled and quarreled through five long days." Imagine. Scientists listening to each other and learning from each other. By that measure alone, the Gaia hypothesis has had some success. But I am intrigued by the basic idea--systems theory applied to the whole earth. It certainly gives new meaning to the idea of 'thinking globally'.

Quote of the Day: "Those who speak only for the special interests of human beings fail to see how interdependent life on Earth really is. ... Intellectually we separate ourselves ourselves from the rest of life, yet without it we would sink in feces and choke on the carbon dioxide we exhale. Like rats, we have done well separating ourselves from and exploiting other forms of life, but our delusions will not last." - Lynn Margulis

Friday, January 1, 2010

Three Questions

For New Year's Day, I am simply printing this story by Leo Tolstoy. I first read it in Thich Nhat Hanh's book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. I am reprinting it here right off a version I found on the internet(I assume the copyright is long gone) and I will use some of Thich Nhat Hanh's comments as my Quote of the Day.

Three Questions - by Leo Tolstoy

One day it occurred to a certain emperor that if he only knew the answers to three questions, he would never stray in any matter.

What is the best time to do each thing? Who are the most important people to work with? What is the most important thing to do at all times?

The emperor issued a decree throughout his kingdom announcing that whoever could answer the questions would receive a great reward. Many who read the decree made their way to the palace at once, each person with a different answer.

In reply to the first question, one person advised that the emperor make up a thorough time schedule, consecrating every hour, day, month, and year for certain tasks and then follow the schedule to the letter. Only then could he hope to do every task at the right time.

Another person replied that it was impossible to plan in advance and that the emperor should put all vain amusements aside and remain attentive to everything in order to know what to do at what time.

Someone else insisted that, by himself, the emperor could never hope to have all the foresight and competence necessary to decide when to do each and every task and what he really needed was to set up a Council of the Wise and then to act according to their advice.

Someone else said that certain matters required immediate decision and could not wait for consultation, but if he wanted to know in advance what was going to happen he should consult magicians and soothsayers.

The responses to the second question also lacked accord.

One person said that the emperor needed to place all his trust in administrators, another urged reliance on priests and monks, while others recommended physicians. Still others put their faith in warriors.

The third question drew a similar variety of answers. Some said science was the most important pursuit. Others insisted on religion. Yet others claimed the most important thing was military skill.


The emperor was not pleased with any of the answers, and no reward was given.

After several nights of reflection, the emperor resolved to visit a hermit who lived up on the mountain and was said to be an enlightened man. The emperor wished to find the hermit to ask him the three questions, though he knew the hermit never left the mountains and was known to receive only the poor, refusing to have anything to do with persons of wealth or power. So the emperor disguised himself as a simple peasant and ordered his attendants to wait for him at the foot of the mountain while he climbed the slope alone to seek the hermit.

Reaching the holy man's dwelling place, the emperor found the hermit digging a garden in front of his hut. When the hermit saw the stranger, he nodded his head in greeting and continued to dig. The labor was obviously hard on him. He was an old man, and each time he thrust his spade into the ground to turn the earth, he heaved heavily.

The emperor approached him and said, "I have come here to ask your help with three questions: When is the best time to do each thing? Who are the most important people to work with? What is the most important thing to do at all times?"

The hermit listened attentively but only patted the emperor on the shoulder and continued digging. The emperor said, "You must be tired. Here, let me give you a hand with that." The hermit thanked him, handed the emperor the spade, and then sat down on the ground to rest.

After he had dug two rows, the emperor stopped and turned to the hermit and repeated his three questions. The hermit still did not answer, but instead stood up and pointed to the spade and said, "Why don't you rest now? I can take over again." But the emperor continued to dig. One hour passed, then two. Finally the sun began to set behind the mountain. The emperor put down the spade and said to the hermit, "I came here to ask if you could answer my three questions. But if you can't give me any answer, please let me know so that I can get on may way home."

The hermit lifted his head and asked the emperor, "Do you hear someone running over there?" The emperor turned his head. They both saw a man with a long white beard emerge from the woods. He ran wildly, pressing his hands against a bloody wound in his stomach. The man ran toward the emperor before falling unconscious to the ground, where he lay groaning. Opening the man's clothing, the emperor and hermit saw that the man had received a deep gash. The emperor cleaned the wound thoroughly and then used his own shirt to bandage it, but the blood completely soaked it within minutes. He rinsed the shirt out and bandaged the wound a second time and continued to do so until the flow of blood had stopped.

At last the wounded man regained consciousness and asked for a drink of water. The emperor ran down to the stream and brought back a jug of fresh water. Meanwhile, the sun had disappeared and the night air had begun to turn cold. The hermit gave the emperor a hand in carrying the man into the hut where they laid him down on the hermit's bed. The man closed his eyes and lay quietly. The emperor was worn out from the long day of climbing the mountain and digging the garden. Leaning against the doorway, he fell asleep. When he rose, the sun had already risen over the mountain. For a moment he forgot where he was and what he had come here for. He looked over to the bed and saw the wounded man also looking around him in confusion. When he saw the emperor, he stared at him intently and then said in a faint whisper, "Please forgive me."

"But what have you done that I should forgive you?" the emperor asked.

"You do not know me, your majesty, but I know you. I was your sworn enemy, and I had vowed to take vengeance on you, for during the last war you killed my brother and seized my property. When I learned that you were coming alone to the mountain to meet the hermit, I resolved to surprise you on your way back to kill you. But after waiting a long time there was still no sign of you, and so I left my ambush in order to seek you out. But instead of finding you, I came across your attendants, who recognized me, giving me this wound. Luckily, I escaped and ran here. If I hadn't met you I would surely be dead by now. I had intended to kill you, but instead you saved my life! I am ashamed and grateful beyond words. If I live, I vow to be your servant for the rest of my life, and I will bid my children and grandchildren to do the same. Please grant me your forgiveness."

The emperor was overjoyed to see that he was so easily reconciled with a former enemy. He not only forgave the man but promised to return all the man's property and to send his own physician and servants to wait on the man until he was completely healed. After ordering his attendants to take the man home, the emperor returned to see the hermit. Before returning to the palace the emperor wanted to repeat his three questions one last time. He found the hermit sowing seeds in the earth they had dug the day before.

The hermit stood up and looked at the emperor. "But your questions have already been answered."

"How's that?" the emperor asked, puzzled.

"Yesterday, if you had not taken pity on my age and given me a hand with digging these beds, you would have been attacked by that man on your way home. Then you would have deeply regretted not staying with me. Therefore the most important time was the time you were digging in the beds, the most important person was myself, and the most important pursuit was to help me. Later, when the wounded man ran up here, the most important time was the time you spent dressing his wound, for if you had not cared for him he would have died and you would have lost the chance to be reconciled with him. Likewise, he was the most important person, and the most important pursuit was taking care of his wound. Remember that there is only one important time and is Now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person with whom you are, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future. The most important pursuit is making that person, the one standing at you side, happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life."

Quote of the Day: "We talk about social service, service to the people, service to humanity, service to others who are far away, helping to bring peace to the world--but often we forget that it is the very people around us that we must live for first of all." - Thich Nhat Hanh