Archive for April, 2010

“I seem to be a verb”

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

In 1968 one of the students in my chemistry class brought me a copy of the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG. I loved it. In those days this catalog was the latest word in environmental wisdom and know-how. The cover featured the new NASA photo of the whole earth as first seen from space. In those heady days of 1968 we were also singing a folk-song that came out the same year.

“Those were the days, my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way”

It was the year of the hippie and even those of us who never joined a commune, never wore beads or shod ourselves in sandals, did share some of the mischief, silliness and fun. Inside the catalog there were articles, quotes and ads (with addresses and prices) for thousands of do-it-yourself recipes and gadgets (Swiss Army knives and geodesic domes were some of my favorites) that would lighten the human load on the earth and give “access to tools” that would help make life better and more earth-friendly!

The man behind the catalog was a quirky genius named Stewart Brand. He peppered the pages with great quotes from people like Buckminster Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Lewis Mumford, E. F. Schumacher (“Small is Beautiful”) and himself. It was in its way an early print version of the World Wide Web and Google.

“We are as gods” Brand claimed in the first Whole Earth Catalog. “And we might as well get good at it.”

Unlike some later environmentalists Brand was very pro-technology. In fact people like Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, were early supporters who later went on to invent the personal computer industry. Brand himself had another warning I liked at the time and one that seems especially appropriate today. “A blanket rejection of technology is trapping people in an alternate lifestyle of shabby creativity.”

Brand distanced himself from the New Left which was also rising in fame and power in the late 60s and early 70s. He wrote later “at a time when the New Left was calling for grass-roots political power Whole Earth eschewed politics and pushed grassroots direct power—tools and skills. At a time when New Age hippies were deploring the intellectual world of arid abstractions, Whole Earth pushed science, intellectual endeavor, and new technology as well as old. As a result, when the most empowering tool of the century came along—personal computers (resisted by the New Left and despised by the New Age)—Whole Earth was in the thick of the development from the beginning.”

In those days I was also a big fan of a man featured often in the Whole Earth Catalog, Buckminster Fuller. I was fortunate enough to meet Bucky in Chicago in the early 70s and get invited to his summer home on an island off the coast of Maine. With my two sons we spent a week with him and his wife along with a few other friends. The home and island had no electricity so a friend of mine brought along a small generator to power a slide projector for an evening entertainment. The featured presentation one evening was my recently completed first audiovisual production SPACESHIP EARTH. Bucky, of course, recognized that it was based in part on his vision. He was very appreciative and I was ecstatic. It was a memorable way to launch my new mid-life career as an educational media producer.

After reading and praising my just published book of poetry, A LITTLE WHILE AWARE (also featured as Part 6 in SPACESHIP EARTH); Bucky gave me a copy of a poem that I think he wrote that same week. His poem has the best definition of “environment” I have yet seen.

“Environment to each must be

All that is, that isn’t me.

Universe in turn will be

All that isn’t me–and me.”

I still think often of other Bucky quotes. “I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe.”

Fuller also started something he called the “World Game.” His idea had always been to “do more with less” and the goal of the World Game was “to make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone.” Too bad he is not with us anymore. We could use his wisdom on getting this done right.

Stewart Brand is still with us and still writing and working to help us learn how to be good gods. Today he has not lost his enthusiasm for the environment, nor for technology. Recently he came out strongly for reviving nuclear power and for using more genetic engineering, both technologies being in his opinion essential tools for helping to slow global warming and “making the world work for 100% of humanity.”

Brand today is advocating a science-based “whole Earth discipline” to tackle the global problem of climate change. He calls it “ecopragmatism.” He rejects the Luddite attitudes of many leaders and rank and file fellow travelers in the very environmentalist movement he helped to create and inspire. Their opposition to “factory” foods, genetic engineering and nuclear power, Brand says, is anti-science, anti-intellectual and counter-productive, especially to the most serious environmental challenge of our life-time, climate change. He goes further and doesn’t mince words when he says to environmentalists today “you’re harmful.”

Bill Stonebarger, Hawkhill Owner/President

P.S. My first production was inspired by Buckminster Fuller and called (in a title made popular by Fuller) SPACEHIP EARTH. It has been revised and released in live-action video form that is still available on our web site, www.hawkhill.com. Please also check out NUCLEAR POWER, GENETIC ENGINEERING and RESOURCES, POPULATIONS AND CLIMATE CHANGE for up-to-date information on powerful technologies that are “ecopragmatic.”

P.P.S. The big 2010 sale will end on June 1. Please take the opportunity now to stock up with top-of-the-line VHS videos and DVD programs at huge discounts. 90% for the videos, 70% for the DVDs. Your students will appreciate it next fall and you won’t be sorry. I guarantee it. Go to our web site: www.hawhill.com for further information and to place your order.

why we speak English and not Chinese

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

“I saw an old friend I hadn’t seen for twenty years the other day. And you know he had changed so much he didn’t recognize me.”

For that bit of wisdom I am indebted to my English friend, Piers McBride. Going against the grain, Piers is a great fan of American football which in his opinion is much superior to English “football,” the game we call soccer. As for myself, I think soccer is more fun to play, but football is more fun to watch. I also think that intellectuals in America often underestimate the value of sports, both playing and watching.

In a way sports are a zero-sum game. As they say in baseball, some days you win, some days you lose, and some days it rains. But in another sense they are win-win. Win or lose, participants gain health, physical and mental, and pleasure. And watchers too gain pleasure and inspiration whether their teams win or lose.

Some economic and scientific activities share this zero-sum/win-win ambivalence with sports. “Green” lifestyles for instance. On the one hand they are win-win. As the old saying goes, a penny saved is a penny earned. A stitch in time saves nine. Better safe than sorry. And every business person knows that a dollar saved on the expenses side is worth ten dollars gained on the sales side. In other words efficiency, frugality, security and conservation are always welcome virtues. Green lifestyles assure these virtues have a future. And of course, in so far as they do actually help the environment, they are win-win.

On the other hand you can’t make a living saving your pennies. You can’t make discoveries unless you venture into unknown waters. Nor can a society grow and prosper by focusing too exclusively on efficiency, frugality, security and conservation. You have to take risks, reach out, use a lot of energy, make mistakes and even waste a lot of resources to gain new knowledge and new wealth. Washington, Adams and Jefferson didn’t found a new country by conserving resources, resting their horses and recycling newspapers. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t pioneer a new industry by being frugal, efficient and playing it safe. In other words in the long run win-win growth economics pays off more handsomely than zero-sum green economics.

Those who protest and want to slow or stop growth and globalization might want to consider this interesting bit of history as they celebrate Earth Day, 2010.

From 1405 to 1453 during the Ming Dynasty the Chinese had the largest and most technologically advanced fleet of ocean-going vessels in the world. It was said that all of the ships of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama could have been stored on just one deck of a single Chinese junk. And they had over 300 ships in their fleet. China in the 15th century was the world leader in science and technology, in art and culture, in agriculture, in military might, in wealth, in trade and in world-wide prestige. Indeed, China in those days was the first example of the power of globalization. Then suddenly in the middle of that 15th century the Chinese Emperor made a terrible decision. He turned isolationist, ordered the entire fleet destroyed, made it a criminal offense to sail in the ocean, forbade trade with foreign devils, reconstructed the Great Wall to keep foreigners out, and set to work to protect and perfect his own country. What followed were many centuries of Chinese conservation, isolation and stagnation. Had it not been for that terrible decision by the Chinese Emperors, we would be speaking Chinese instead of English today.

So today, when green activists recommend that we eat only organic foods grown within 100 miles of our home, recycle instead of buy new, return to family farms and restrict or abandon “factory” farms, cut back on our use of resources and energy, buy local and shun foreign, cut back on consumer goods, stop immigration, praise “natural” and denigrate “artificial,” restrict lumbering, mining, and drilling, save endangered delta smelt fish and lose Central Valley California agriculture, move from private to public transportation, travel less, go bicycle and shun SUVs, make do with less water and less light, cut back on the military and concentrate on expanding social welfare programs–we need to be wary. Some of these recommendations may have merit at certain times, in certain places, and for certain people but if we all moved seriously in these zero-sum directions we could end up conserving and isolating ourselves into stagnation as the Chinese Emperors did five hundred years ago.

Bill Stonebarger, Hawkhill Owner/President

P.S. The big 2010 sale will end on June 1. Please take the opportunity now to stock up with top-of-the-line VHS videos and DVD programs at huge discounts. 90% for the videos, 70% for the DVDs. Your students will appreciate it next fall and you won’t be sorry. I guarantee it. Go to our web site: www.hawkhill.com for further information and to place your order.

P.P.S. For more detail on resources, green lifestyles and the relationships of globalization to democracy see some of our latest programs: RESOURCES, POPULATIONS AND CLIMATE CHANGE; CAPITALISM AND DEMOCRACY; and RESOURCES.

P.P.P.S. Late news: I just got a tip from a faithful reader and friend on a web site video that is worth watching. It is a 10-minute speech by a staff writer on the New Yorker magazine, Michael Specter. It is outstanding and quite relevant to the subject in this blog.

The web site itself, TED, is also worth knowing about.

so many and so few

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

It is surprising how few people it takes to make a big difference–for better or for worse.

Take Vladimir Lenin and Adolph Hitler.  Seldom have so many suffered so much at the hands of so few.

What about for the better? Are there times when the many have benefited so much at the hands of so few? Yes, indeed. Here are some examples.

Start with very big changes indeed. Say the change from a hunting/gathering lifestyle to agricultural one. We don’t know who or how many first found out the secrets of growing food and husbanding animals. My guess is it was a very small group.

The second really big change in human history was the discovery of reading and writing, the beginning of literacy. This happened maybe five or six thousand years ago and may have been accompanied, according to psychologist Julian Jaynes (see my previous blog on April 5), by the origins of consciousness in the human species. Probably a small group again.

The third really big change was the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. This world-changing event is arguably due to a single individual, Isaac Newton. He discovered the first of the four main forces in the universe, gravity. His equations for the universal law of gravitation and the laws of motion formed the base knowledge that led to the bewildering variety of machines that make up so much of our modern world.

The fourth big change was the birth and explosion of electricity and electronics. For this change we can thank the small group who discovered the second basic force, electro-magnetism, in the 19th century. Men like Thomas Edison, James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday.

The fifth big change was nuclear power. The discovery of the third and fourth basic forces, the weak and strong nuclear forces, is credited mainly (like the first force, gravity) to one individual, Albert Einstein.

There is still another basic force to go that no one has yet discovered. This  basic force is the one physicists hope will unite all four forces, explain the Big Bang, explain the dark matter that makes up most of the universe, and complete our understanding of just how the universe is powered then and now. This is the force that physicists are now looking for in experiments on the Swiss-French border with the just completed Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Just as the understanding of the first four forces led to surprising and revolutionary changes in the lifestyles of everyone on this earth, so the understanding of the final of the basic forces may lead to … ? Who knows? It will probably be surprising. It will probably be basic and revolutionary. It will probably make a big change in the lifestyles of everyone on earth.

The story of how the LHC came to be in Switzerland instead of the United States is sobering. Back in 1983 then President Ronald Reagan convinced Congress to appropriate a billion dollars to build a SuperCollider in Texas that would have been three times as powerful as the European one. They spent the money digging a hole and beginning construction, but by 1989 Congress got cold feet and spent another billion dollars filling in the hole and abandoning the project. The Europeans kept going on their LHC and so by default became the leaders in the quest for the final fourth force. They will probably also be the leaders in exploiting the discoveries it leads to.

In a way it will be fair. During and after the Second World War a few hundred top European scientists fled their home continent to work and to make their home in North America. This small group led the way in many scientific discoveries as well teaching a new generation of American scientists who went on to pioneer the explosion of knowledge, invention and economic growth in North America in the second half of the 20th century.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. I know I sound like a broken record, but remember our 2010 sale. 90% discounts on all VHS tape, 70% discounts on all DVD programs. That includes all of our best-selling science programs that highlight historical as well as scientific insights. STEM CELLS, CLONING: HOW AND WHY, THE HUMAN GENOME PROJECT, THE SOUL OF SCIENCE, EVOLUTION, ECOSYSTEMS, BIOTECHNOLOGY ON EARTH, ECOSYSTEM CYCLES. And more. Much more. See our web site for details:: www.hawkhill.com

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Avatar and cannibalism

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Did you see the blockbuster movie AVATAR? In 3D I admit it was entertaining and a technical triumph. Being a spoilsport though, I was disappointed once again at Hollywood for the liberal/reactionary politics of the plot line where the villains were the usual—greedy corporations—and the good guys were the usual—beautiful innocent native peoples.

Before my wife and I went to see it I had just finished a fascinating book that I first heard recommended on public radio, DINNER WITH A CANNIBAL (Santa Monica Press, 2008) by anthropologist Carole A. Travis-Henikoff. She writes from a lifetime of experience with primitive people who still live in regions of the Amazon and New Guinea. She liked them and she respected them (and had dinner with them!). But she did not sugar-coat what life is like in these pre-civilization regions, then or now. It was no Garden of Eden that’s for sure. Not at all like the beautiful Na’vi on Pandora who live in sweet harmony with nature.

Violence was the norm. Cannibalism was common. Like our Homo sapiens ancestors of 50,000 years ago these tribes live today in rough shelters and small villages and they survive by hunting and gathering wild foods. Like their ancestors (our ancestors too) who lived 50,000 years ago, on average about 15% of them (25% of the men) die a violent death at the hands of fellow human beings. If modern humans in the U.S. and Canada had this same rate of violence, you could expect 50 million of us (85 million men) would die from violence—and before the age of thirty. Partly because of this high rate of violence, but also because of high rates of starvation, malnutrition, disease and accidents, the average life expectancy was less than 30 years.

While not necessarily universal, cannibalism is very common today among these stone-age tribes as it was common 50,000 years ago. Carole Travis-Henikoff describes how one tribe in the Amazon today would raid another nearby village, kidnap the women and children and kill all the men. After the raid they would have a feast where they would eat the bodies of their victims. And they would do all of this without the least remorse or guilt. Analysis of bones from pre-historic camp sites show that ancient pre-literate tribes had similar parties.

One believable explanation for the violence and for the lack of remorse then and now could be a hypothesis of Julian Jaynes, late psychologist at Princeton, who wrote a remarkable and controversial book, THE ORIGINS OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND (Princeton Univ. Press, 1976). In this book he defended his theory that humans were not conscious until about three to four thousand years ago, roughly the time when people learned to read and write. They did of course have brains that sensed, perceived, spoke language and solved problems like all animals do, but they did not practice introspection, did not have metaphorical language ability nor did they have what we call a conscience. Instead, when they had to make an important decision they heard voices in their head (like modern schizophrenics) that told them what to do, releasing them from any responsibility for subsequent actions.

Like Achilles in the Iliad or Abraham in the Old Testament, people in pre-literate civilizations, claims Jaynes, had bicameral minds. They literally heard “voices” in the left hemisphere of their brain that were actually generated in the right hemisphere of their own brain. These voices carried a lot of authority. They interpreted them as coming from the gods and made sure they did what the gods told them to do. If that amounted to killing an enemy in Achilles case or killing his own beloved son in Abraham’s case, they proceeded to carry out the act with no guilt or remorse.

I realize all this may be a bit hard to swallow. I recommend the books though—both of them. They are both more convincing than you probably imagine reading this short summary. Jaynes died in 1997 before he could write a long-awaited sequel where he promised to bring his “voices” theory up-to-date with modern discoveries in neurology and with new insights from him into modern religion and social group psychology. There is a scholarly group who are studying his insights and testing his hypotheses today. Their web site is:  www.julianjaynes.org. Look it up. I guarantee it is a lot more scientifically sound than Avatar.

Bill Stonebarger, Hawkhill Owner/President

P.S. In the meantime check out our web site www.hawkhill.com for our huge 2010 sale. 90% discount on all VHS tapes, 70% discount on all DVD programs. That includes new sets like DEMOCRACY IN WORLD HISTORY, a set of 6 DVDs that has a listed school price of $458, but is available in our 2010 sale for just $137.40. That is less than $25 apiece for DVD programs that will last many years and help you teach civic literacy to hundreds if not thousands of students.

P.P.S. To put in a personal plug this time, if you want to buy books anytime soon I highly recommend my son’s new used bookstore in Baltimore, THE BOOK ESCAPE. You can learn more about them on his web site: www.thebookescape.com