Saturday, May 31, 2014

Saturday Night Music - Édition Afrique

For some reason, exotic music like this combined with warm weather makes me wish I were living in some funky neighborhood in Brooklyn or the Mission in San Francisco (or Montmartre). If only I had that kind of money, *sigh*. Hopefully you're enjoying wherever you are.




Friday, May 30, 2014

The Impossibility of Growth

Eternal growth: both insane and impossible:
Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham. Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.
To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created. Ignore if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues were miraculously to vanish, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity impossible.

Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.

It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and the pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, as the most accessible reserves have been exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.

The trajectory of compound growth shows that the scouring of the planet has only just begun. As the volume of the global economy expands, everywhere that contains something concentrated, unusual, precious will be sought out and exploited, its resources extracted and dispersed, the world’s diverse and differentiated marvels reduced to the same grey stubble.

Some people try to solve the impossible equation with the myth of dematerialisation: the claim that as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturised, we use, in aggregate, fewer materials. There is no sign that this is happening. Iron ore production has risen 180% in ten years. The trade body Forest Industries tell us that “global paper consumption is at a record high level and it will continue to grow.” If, in the digital age, we won’t reduce even our consumption of paper, what hope is there for other commodities?

As the philosopher Michael Rowan points out, the inevitabilities of compound growth mean that if last year’s predicted global growth rate for 2014 (3.1%) is sustained, even if we were miraculously to reduce the consumption of raw materials by 90% we delay the inevitable by just 75 years. Efficiency solves nothing while growth continues.
The Impossibility of Growth (George Monbiot)
Virtually every economist rejects the concept of limiting growth – by which they normally mean growth in GDP.  As Larry Summers, famous as a major cause of the recent U.S. financial disaster, once stated, “The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error, and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs.”  More typical of the intellectual contributions of mainstream economics, John Makin of the American Enterprise Institute recently asserted that “There is no magic bullet for stimulating long-term growth, which depends largely on persistent technological change and population growth.”  Long-term growth is, of course, a “ bullet,” but lethal, not “magic,” being fired directly into the heart of civilization.  Even most smart economists, for example Paul Krugman, cannot get over the notion that growth is necessary to solve human problems.  As Krugman said recently, ” Oh, and politics: between the non-disaster of Obamacare…and the prospect of a decent rate of economic growth, the midterm elections may not go the way many on the right currently expect.”  Krugman recently spent time on TV talking about how to get growth without bubbles, opining, among other things, that Japan’s growth had slowed because of its demographic situation (Japan is one of a handful of overdeveloped nations whose populations, blessedly, have begun to shrink).  He is thoroughly hooked on growth, most recently advocating reducing inequality (a good idea) to promote growth (a very bad idea).  And Robert Reich recently stated that income inequality is “the enemy of economic growth,” (since it limits the power of the middle class to buy more junk).  Economists like Reich and Krugman are wisely concerned with the pain people suffer through poverty and joblessness, which even in a nation as rich as the United States can still lead to clinical depression, hunger, illness, and even death.  It is diagnostic of their growthmania that economic growth is inevitably their solution to the problems of maldistribution of resources  – alternative approaches such as a shorter work week (an historic solution to the problem of job shortage), redistribution (except by changes in marginal tax rates), and (in the longer term) steps to limit family size are never considered.

How does one explain that economists, many of whom have knowledge of mathematics, consider that 3% per annum is a “healthy” or “decent” economic growth rate?  After all, a simple calculation shows that if the U.S. (or any other) economy grew at 3% for about 23 years, it would double in size.  In less than 150 years the economy would be 100 times as big.  Picture the drought situation in California or the air pollution in Beijing with a doubling of economic activity occurring in only 23 years. Then picture a doubling again and again every couple of decades.  Is this the future we want for our children and grandchildren?
Economists’ Growth Insanity (Paul Erlich)
The capitalist system requires continual growth, which means expansion of production. Its internal logic also means that its incentives are to use more energy and inputs when more efficiency is achieved — the paradox that more energy is consumed instead of less when the cost drops. Because production is for private profit, growth is necessary to maintain profitability — and continually increasing profitability is the actual goal. If a corporation doesn’t expand, its competitor will and put it out of business.

Because of the built-in pressure to maintain profits in the face of relentless competition, corporations continually must reduce costs, employee wages not excepted. Production is moved to low-wage countries with fewer regulations, enabling not only more pollution but driving up energy and carbon-dioxide costs with the need for transportation across greater distances. Economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary simply to maintain the unemployment rate where it is and “substantially stronger growth than that” is necessary for a rapid decrease, according to a former White House Council of Economic Advisers chair, Christina Romer.

Under capitalism, all the incentives are to continue business as usual, no matter the dire future that business as usual is leading humanity. Richard Smith, in a tour de force paper published in the Real-World Economics Review, “Green capitalism: the god that failed,” summed up the dilemma:

    “[T]he problem is not just special interests, lobbyists and corruption. … [Under] capitalism, it is, perversely, in the general interest, in everyone’s immediate interests to do all we can to maximize growth right now, therefore, unavoidably, to maximize fossil fuel consumption right now — because practically every job in the country is, in one way or another, dependent upon fossil fuel consumption. … There is no way to cut CO2 emissions by anything like 80 percent without imposing drastic cuts across the board in industrial production. But since we live under capitalism, not socialism, no one is promising new jobs to all those … whose jobs would be at risk if fossil fuel use were really seriously curtailed. … Given capitalism, they have little choice but to focus on the short-term, to prioritize saving their jobs in the here and now to feed their kids today — and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.” [page 121, March 2011]

“Green” enterprises will not be granted an exemption. They, too, will be pushed by market forces the same as any other enterprise. Dr. Smith writes:

    “Biofuels, windpower and organic crops — all might be environmentally rational here or there, but not necessarily in every case or forever. But once investments are sunk, green industries have no choice but to seek to maximize profits and grow forever regardless of social need and scientific rationality, just like any other for-profit business.” [page 142]

All the more is that so for the capitalist system as a whole. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, in their book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, write:

    “ ‘Green capitalism,’ even if products are produced using the utmost environmental care and designed for easy reuse, offers no way out of a system that must expand exponentially and thus continue to ratchet up its use of natural resources, its chemical pollution, its contaminated sewage sludge, its garbage, and its many other toxic substances. Some of these ‘fixes’ will probably slow down the rate of environmental destruction, but the magnitude of the needed changes dwarfs these approaches.” [page 120]
Why Green Capitalism Will Fail (Counterpunch)

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Sobering Statistics That Prove Modernity Has Failed

• There are nearly twice as many prisoners as farmers in the United States.
http://fatknowledge.blogspot.com/2006/03/more-prisoners-than-farmers-in-united.html
http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/building.html#_edn2

• There are more American men on disability insurance than doing production work in manufacturing.
http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/05/the-wisdom-of-larry-summers.html

• The workforce participation rate is the lowest since March, 1978.
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-05-02/workforce-participation-at-36-year-low-even-as-more-jobs-beckon.html

•  More black men are behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system than there were enslaved in 1850.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/12/michelle-alexander-more-black-men-in-prison-slaves-1850_n_1007368.html Of course, there are far more people in the U.S. than in 1850, but it's still a sobering statistic for those who think society is headed in the right direction. Here is the full data:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1850_United_States_Census Related: 

• One hundred forty-three years after passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and 60 years after Article 4 of the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights banned slavery and the slave trade worldwide, there are more slaves than at any time in human history -- 27 million.
http://www.alternet.org/story/142171/there_are_more_slaves_today_than_at_any_time_in_human_history

More people now have mobile telephones around the world than have access to a flush toilet. Given that the water closet is several centuries old and the mobile phone really only about 30 years mature that’s a pretty stunning difference in the two technologies' adoption.
http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/03/23/more-people-have-mobile-phones-than-toilets/
 

"Progress" Update


Over the past 15 years, the world has witnessed an explosion of cases of myopia, or nearsightedness. A quarter of the world's population, or 1.6 billion people, now suffer from some form of myopia, according to the Myopia Institute. If unchecked, those numbers are estimated to reach one-third of the world's population by 2020. While myopia has always affected a fraction of the population, at least in countries that have kept records, the condition has recently reached unprecented rates among children and young adults. 

A National Institutes of Health study published in 2009 showed that myopia prevalence in the United States increased by 66 percent between the early 1970’s and the early 2000’s.
What's With All the Nearsighted People?  (The Atlantic)
The number of people in the world who are obese or overweight has topped 2.1 billion, up from 875 million in 1980, the latest figures published in the Lancet show.

And not one country is succeeding in treating it, said the research.

US, China and Russia had the highest rates and the UK was third in Western Europe, the 188-country study said.

Experts said the rise was due to the "modernisation of our world", causing "physical inactivity on all levels".
Global population of obese and overweight tops 2.1bn (BBC)
Using fossil records to measure cranial capacity through the millennia, researchers have found that as we become increasingly domesticated as a species, the size of our brain continues to shrink. Bruce Hood, psychologist at the University of Bristol, UK, says shrinkage is best explained by changes in society: "We have been self-domesticating through the invention of culture and practices that ensure that we can live together." Hood notes that as humans have domesticated other species, from cows to dogs, their cranial capacity has also shrunk as they learn to enlist the help of their human masters rather than invent their own solutions.
Human Brain Size Is Shrinking. Thank Domesticity. (Big Think)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Slow Death of All Glass Buildings

 

Over the weekend, I saw this article in the BBC: Could the era of glass skyscrapers be over? Apparently Ken Shuttleworth formerly of Foster and Partners now has regrets over cladding modernist high-tech towers in all glass.
"The Gherkin is a fantastic building," he says. "But we can't have that anymore. We can't have those all-glass buildings. We need to be much more responsible." 
The building at 30 St Mary Axe - nicknamed after a gherkin because of its bulbous silhouette - kick-started a decade of strangely shaped glass towers. The Cheesegrater, the Walkie-Talkie and the Shard loomed up from the pavements of London. The skylines of both Birmingham and Manchester were drastically altered by the addition of towers by property firm Beetham.
One of the best-known glass building mishaps took place last summer, when the Walkie-Talkie at 20 Fenchurch Street in London was accused of melting cars. The 37-storey building reflected light in its glass facade and shone powerful rays at its surroundings. Cars parked underneath were damaged, and passers-by even managed to fry eggs using only sunlight. 
Since leaving Foster and Partners in 2006, Shuttleworth has become a key voice in the fight against glass. Despite his background working on giant glazed buildings, he has founded an architectural practice in which floor-to-ceiling windows are considered an archaic luxury. 
"Everything I've done for the last 40 years I'm rethinking now," he says. "If you were designing [the Gherkin] today... it wouldn't be the same product all the way around the building. We need to be much more responsible in terms of the way we shade our buildings and the way we thermally think about our buildings."
It’s a good roundup of how the glass skyscraper came to be. It even has a shot of the Crystal Palace – the original steel and glass building and a landmark in the history of modern architecture (THE landmark in my opinion).

I think all-glass buildings probably confuse non-architects more than anything else. What’s with all the glass? Well, your walls don’t hold up the building anymore, steel or concrete columns do that. So you’ve got to cover your building in something, and all-glass walls are quick and cheap. That’s pretty much all there is too it. This was caused by the invention of two things - aluminum smelting (which requires electricity), and float glass (which 'floats' molten glass on a bed of tin). Architects justify this with letting in “natural light” and the fact that the building can be rearranged (since you’re always next to a window). But, of course, this is nonsense – windows accomplish this just as well. The adaptive reuse of old buildings in the old industrial areas of all major U.S. cities is a testament to that – these are the most desirable areas of most cities.

Incidentally, as this fascinating program from BBC details, windows used to be an expensive luxury and seen as a sign of status. Buildings included windows as signs of conspicuous consumption. In fact, most Western European countries actually taxed the amount of windows in your home.

Lloyd Alter at Treehugger.com has been writing for years about the fact that all-glass buildings in this day and age should not be considered "green," no matter their other qualifications:
…almost every modern condominium building these days is clad in floor to ceiling glass with an R value for the wall of about 4. A wall in Ontario is supposed to have an R value of 20, but there is no restriction on the amount of glass, so the actual R value is far lower. In the winter, that balcony is a radiator fin, radiating the heat from the apartment out into the atmosphere. There essentially is no wall, just window and fin.
What's Wrong with This Picture?
One would think that a façade that works in New York might not work in LA, but this is what every architect is doing now. And while there are high-tech films and glass technologies that can cut down the heat gain or loss, and even vacuum glass coming in the near future that can get up to R-12, most developers don't spend money where the customers can't see it, the mirrored look is definitely not in style these days, and so they continue to shift the problem onto the operating costs through more heating and cooling, or on the homeowners to put up expensive shading or listen to New York designer Jamie Gibbs: "You'd better pick beige interiors, because everything is going to become beige in two years."
Stop With the Glass Façades Already
Glass balcony panels are raining down on the streets of Toronto from the shiny new condominiums, building envelope expert John Straube was interviewed on Ontario Morning to discuss the problem. He didn't say a whole lot about why the panels are falling, but did a great explanation of the problems that come from building condos out of glass. There is a big difference between the glass on office buildings and on condos; the former is usually curtain wall, that runs continuously on the exterior, the latter is window wall, really a modified store-front wall redesigned for condos, supported by each floor and running from slab to slab. It is a lot cheaper. Straube does a good interview; some bon mots:

• Glass and aluminum are great for cookware but not for buildings.

• With floor to ceiling glass, you have nowhere to hang a picture, place your furniture or change your underwear.

• Energy efficiency is five times lower than a conventional wood framed house.

• The glass area is so large that it is difficult to control temperature, it's too hot or too cold.

• If we care about the long term, we should go for a balance, no more than 30 or 40 percent glass.

Straube noted that while aluminum and glass are easy to clean and durable, the sealants and gaskets are not, and will need maintenance and replacement down the road. This is not cheap or easy, and the burden falls on the condominium association and the owners. (Glass and aluminum have very different coefficients of expansion, and the sealants are exposed to sun, wind and rain for years.)
Why Architects Shouldn't Build Condos out of Glass And People Shouldn't Buy Them
One hundred years ago, buildings heated by wood or coal faced cold indoor temperatures if fuel ran out. But they did not depend on electricity to run their heating systems and would not suddenly lose heat all at once. Similarly, buildings with natural ventilation didn’t depend on air conditioning and fans. Today’s buildings are different, and we face the risk of a power outage causing a widespread, immediate loss of heating or cooling capabilities citywide.
All-glass buildings could be deadly in a blackout
For decades, modern office buildings have been pretty much covered in glass curtain walls. Some are high performance and very expensive, like the super-green LEED Platinum Bank of America Building at 1 Bryant Park in New York, or they can be the standard crappy suburban office building thrown up across North America, looking the same in California or Calgary.

But as Steve Mouzon points out, even the very best glazing has an R-value that is equivalent to a 2x4 wall with fiberglass insulation, something that nobody has built for years. Most office buildings don't even approach a third of that. So why do architects design buildings this way?

I think the reasons are simpler: laziness. In most cases, the architect is no longer really designing the exterior of a building, worrying about proportion and detailing and materiality, he or she is simply outsourcing the design to a curtainwall supplier. It looks really good on a rendering, and makes it easier to get approvals; the simple, reflective skin disappears against the sky. It is easier to administer; one trade is providing the entire skin of the building. It's thinner; the client gets more rentable square feet.
Can an All-Glass Office Building Really Be Considered Green?

Telus sky is going for LEED Platinum, and projects energy savings of 35% compared to similar size developments, but look what is going on here: every single residential unit is projecting a corner out that has a deck on top and a soffit below, three additional surfaces exposed to the weather. The architects have gone out of their way to increase the surface area of the building, including the toughest condition any architect and builder has to deal with: terraces on top of occupied space, for every unit yet. It's ingenious, and gorgeous, but it is a thermal nightmare.
A closer look at Telus Sky: Can an all-glass tower really be considered green?

Are these all-glass buildings really built for a more energy-constrained world? No, and they don’t have to be because they are built for the global one percent who will be able to afford all the energy they want, since the rest of us won’t be using it. After all, we won’t have cars or houses anymore, the permanent financial crisis has seen to that. Meanwhile, Detroit is urged to tear down 40,000 buildings (!!!) and Milwaukee is plagued with hundreds of  ‘zombie houses’ even as we continue to build condos for the wealthy downtown.

In other very sad architectural news, the iconic library of the Glasgow School of Art burned down. C.R. Mackintosh is one of my favorite “forgotten” designers who invented new and innovative designs in the twentieth century without throwing out 2,000 years of Western building traditions. Meanwhile, they're still trying to tear down Paul Rudolph's buildings.

Finally, I picked up and read this book last month: Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture. This entire book makes a lot of the same arguments I've made about the state of architecture and the profession today. I'm hoping to write a full review in the future. If you're an outsider who wants to know why modern architecture is the way it is, glass facades and all, I highly recommend the book - very readable and an excellent historical survey.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Trapped (short fiction)

Some short fiction for the holiday. I wrote this some years ago while reading Jared Diamond's 'The Third Chimpanzee' and a lot of Vonnegut. Hope you enjoy.

 How I came to be in possession of a human body is a matter of some conjecture.  Originally, I could transfer my consciousness from place to place as all the inhabitants of my planet can do, then, suddenly, and without my consent, I became confined by time and space, trapped in this form on a planet the inhabitants call earth, a small blue rock of water and gasses teeming with large, aggressive, talking apes.

     They think they are quite clever, these apes.  They walk on two legs and have opposable thumbs.  They’ve discovered written language, can count objects, and can use a few tools.

     I’ve been assigned some sort of symbol-manipulation task.  I sit in a temperature controlled room gazing at a bunch of colored dots that form pictures—symbols representing numbers, images, sounds, ideas and concepts.  I manipulate these by means of several devices, including one which lets me select and move the pictures on the screen as if they were real, and one which has dozens of printed symbols on it which look like this: ‘A’, ‘W’, ‘p’, ‘@’, ‘7’, ‘*’, ‘<’, ‘?’ and ‘$’.  The last one is especially interesting to these apes.  They punch that one over and over and over.


Sunday, May 25, 2014

Egalitarianism in Nature


What do other primates tell us about inequality?
Among social animals, inequality is a fact of life. Millions of ants do all the work for one reproducing queen. Troops of chimps form male-dominated hierarchies, males bossing females around and forming a pecking order with one highly aggressive alpha male on top. Poorly paid migrant workers pick grapes for $200-dollar bottles of wine enjoyed by royalty and corporate executives. But sometimes the top dog gets toppled, inequality diminishes, and equality prevails.

On a peaceful Sunday afternoon in Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania, as tourists and their guides looked on, a fight broke out between Pimu, the alpha male, and four of his underlings—and they killed him. Chimps were known to form such large gangs and attack and kill chimps from other troops, but typically coalitions that challenge a chimp within a troop consist of just two or three individuals, and no one dies. A long time had passed since the males in this troop had had to cooperate to defend their territory, and with just six females for the group’s 10 males, competition for mates was fierce. Moreover, “Pimu was a particularly violent individual; therefore, the other males might not have liked him,” says Stefano Kaburu, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. He and his colleagues described the attack in 2013.

An aggressive male also roused the ire of a bonobo troop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bonobos have been called the hippie apes because conflicts are rare and they have a lot of sex. Male bonobos are bigger than the females and have bigger teeth, but unlike male chimps they don’t boss the females around. Nor do males form coalitions....“But they are not as peaceful as has been described,” says Gottfried Hohmann, an anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Pecking orders do exist, and females do bond, enabling them to dominate the males...Hohmann and his colleagues witnessed the head male try to attack a young female carrying an infant. Chimps often practice infanticide to get rid of rivals’ offspring and to hasten a female’s return to fertility, but this usually doesn’t happen in bonobos. This offending male was the son of the dominant female, but even so, the females immediately came to the target’s defense. They drove the offending male away—for good. “This is one lesson that humans can learn,” says Hohmann. “Our picture of dominant males over females is not always true.”

These two recent incidents in our closest relatives help “establish the fact that our human nature is set up so that we will resent authority and being bossed around, and we are able to form coalitions to do something about that,” says Christopher Boehm, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Southern California. Lions, meerkats, wolves, and dolphins can all work together, but they don’t seem to take the next step and turn on undesirable leaders. The fact that other primates do “helps explain modern democracy,” he proposes.
One group of baboons [in Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya] lived near the garbage dump of a tourist lodge and foraged there; another group lived about a mile away. Males from the latter troop that were big and strong enough to fight their way past the rival group and into the garbage dump did so, forgoing daily grooming with their own troop members to get access to a rich food supply. But one day contaminated meat was left in the dump, and these males (along with most of the troop living near the dump) succumbed to tuberculosis. Their loss changed the atmosphere of their home troop....With the most aggressive males gone... there were far fewer confrontations among the remaining males. This much more benevolent culture persisted for more than a decade, even as new males joined the troop. The newcomers took their cues from those already there and maintained an unusually peaceful culture.
Some animal species regularly maintain egalitarian societies. The reasons behind equal sharing of mates, food, or other resources vary. In some cases, social control of others just doesn’t work. In others, equality seems to arise as a way to keep a group strong.
These Animals Stick Up for Social Justice (Slate) And, related to that last anecdote:
The forest troop was markedly different after the deaths — calmer, less violent, with more grooming and much more positive interactions than before. He decided not to study them, as they were clearly waiting for other aggressive, dominant males to show up and return the troop to its old, violent ways.

An assistant was sent to do a census on the forest troop years later, and returned to Sapolsky very excited. Sapolsky reluctantly agreed to see what was so shocking. He was stunned to find that the members of the forest troop were still acting “friendly,” and doing things no baboons had ever been observed doing before. Male baboons never groom each other — except in the forest troop. Males have no role in raising their kids, and never hold/carry their kids — except in the forest troop. The average distance between troop members was reduced by more that 50 percent.

Sapolsky was eager to learn how the troop, which now seemed far too peace-and-love oriented to defend itself, had managed to avoid being taken over. Then, one day, a violent, dominant male fell upon them and attempted to subjugate the troop to his rule. The troop instantly turned on him and literally tore him limb from limb. When Sapolsky went out to study the troop the next day, the baboons were quietly grooming each other as usual, and on the ground beside them was the severed face of the would-be usurper. The group managed to avoid a return to violence by reserving all their aggression for the males who occasionally tried to fill the power vacuum.
How to Fix Society, One Baboon Group at a Time (Order of the Good Death) Maybe our CEOs, financiers, and politicians need to be torn limb from limb. In any case, it seems the alpha males set the tone of society.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Cosmos, Purple Drank Edition

Niel DeGrasse Tyson has been sippin' on some sizzurp:

(yes I know it's slowed down)

Greed Wasn't Always Good

Greed wasn't always good - the moral strictures of the Catholic Church frowned on self-interest and usury. But that gradually changed, and pursuit of self-interest came to be seen as acceptable if it provided benefits to the wider society. This underpinned the commercial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, where businessmen were seen as creating prosperity for all. Of course, those businessmen were usually engaged in some sort of productive activity, and their behavior was still held in check by moral restraint, generally speaking.

Then, over time, the pursuit of naked self interest became rationalized, and the moral vision of society changed to became a war of all against all to get as much as possible for yourself and your offspring, and the Devil take the hindmost. This coincided with financialization and globalization, where the gains made by financiers and corporations came at the expense of the wider society (such as offshoring jobs, getting people into debt, and raiding pension plans). Adam Smith became replaced by Ayn Rand:
We sometimes forget that the pursuit of commercial self-interest was largely reviled until just a few centuries ago. “A man who is a merchant can seldom if ever please God,” St. Jerome said, expressing the prevailing belief in Christendom about the relative worthiness of a life devoted to trade. The choice to enter business didn’t necessarily deprive one of salvation, but it certainly hazarded his soul. “If thou wilt needs damn thyself, do it a more delicate way then drowning,” Iago tells a lovesick Rodrigo. “Make all the money thou canst.”

The problem of money-making was not only that it favored earthly delights over divine obligations. It also enflamed the tendency to prefer our own needs over those of the people around us and, more worrisome still, to recklessly trade their best interests for our own base satisfaction. St. Thomas Aquinas, who ranked greed among the seven deadly sins, warned that trade which aimed at no other purpose than expanding one’s wealth was “justly reprehensible” for “it serves the desire for profit which knows no limit.”

It was not until the mischievous moralist Bernard Mandeville that someone attempted to gloss greed as anything other than a shameful motive. A name now largely lost to history, Mandeville became a foil for 18th-century philosophy when, in 1705, he first proposed his infamous equation: Private vices yield public benefits. It came as part of The Fable of the Bees, an allegorical poem that described a thriving beehive where dark intentions keep the wheels of commerce turning. The outrage Mandeville stoked had less to do with this causal explanation than with the assertion that only by such means could a nation grow wealthy and strong.

Greed, as such, became an acquisitive exercise that fell on the wrong side of this divide. Some of these activities, like the mugger’s, were fairly prohibited, but those of, say, the mean-spirited merchant were checked by censure and disgrace. These forces did not eradicate selfishness, but by the moral distinction they maintained, they helped establish a new ideal of the upstanding businessman.

That ideal was famously embodied by Smith’s friend, Benjamin Franklin. In his Autobiography, Franklin presented himself as the epitome of a new American Dream, a man who emerged from “Poverty & Obscurity” to attain “a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World.” Franklin found nothing to be ashamed of in riches and repute, provided they were turned toward some broader purpose. His success allowed him to retire from the printing business at 42 so that he might spend the balance of his life on initiatives—civic, scientific, philanthropic—that all enhanced the common good.

The example of Franklin, and those like him, gave reason for optimism to those who understood the mixed blessing of free -markets. “Whenever we get a glimpse of the economic man, he is not selfish,” the great English economist Alfred Marshall wrote toward the end of the 19th century. “On the contrary, he is generally hard at work saving capital chiefly for the benefit of others.” By “others,” Marshall principally meant the members of one’s family, but he was also making a larger point about how our “self-interest” can expand and evolve when we have achieved financial security. The “love of money,” he declared, encompasses “an infinite variety of motives,” which “include many of the highest, the most refined, and the most unselfish elements of our nature.”

Then again, they also include lesser elements. Andrew Carnegie might have proclaimed that it was the responsibility of a rich man to act as “agent and trustee for his poorer brethren,” but the steel magnate’s beneficence was backstopped by cheap labor, dangerous working conditions, and swift action to break strikes. Besides, the active redistribution of wealth was something of a side-story (and a subversive one at that) to the moral logic of free markets. The Invisible Hand worked not by appealing to the altruism of exceptionally rich men, but by turning an antisocial instinct like greed into an unwitting civil servant.

Still, by the early 20th century, some believed his services might safely be dismissed...
Enter Keynes, Schumpeter, and Ayn Rand -
“I think greed is healthy,” an apparent acolyte told the graduating class at Berkeley’s business school in 1986. “You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” The speaker was Ivan Boesky, who shortly thereafter would be fined $100 million, and later go to prison, for insider trading. His address was adapted by Oliver Stone as the basis for Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech in Wall Street. An exhortation to shareholders of a sagging company, it reads like a corporate raider’s war cry, with Gekko the grinning avatar of Agency Theory.
 Greed Is Good: A 300-Year History of a Dangerous Idea (The Atlantic)

And since we're on the subject of changes in moral sentiments over the past few centuries, here is another one I've posted before:
Prior to the late 18th century, the dominant school of economic thought saw poverty as a social good, essential for economic development. It may well have been granted that, other things being equal, a society with less poverty is to be preferred, but other things were not seen to be equal. Poverty was deemed essential to incentivize workers and keep their wages low, so as to create a strong, globally competitive, economy. Nor did the idea of what constitutes “economic development” embrace poor people as being necessarily amongst its intended beneficiaries. There was also widespread doubt about the desirability of, or even the potential for, governmental intervention against poverty. ...

[There] was little reason to think that poor people had the potential to be anything else than poor. Poverty would inevitably persist, and was indeed deemed necessary for economic expansion, which required a large number of people eager for work, and avoiding hunger was seen as the necessary incentive for doing that work. ... [Beyond] short-term palliatives to address shocks, there was little or no perceived scope for public effort to permanently reduce poverty. And a world free of poverty was unimaginable—after all, who then would be available to farm the land, work the factories and staff the armies?
Poverty used to be seen as a social good (The .Plan) And see Hunger Makes People Work Harder, and Other Stupid Things We Used to Believe About Poverty (Citylab)
Philosopher and economist Bernard de Mandeville explained in 1732 that if countries can't have slaves, the rich people who live there at least require a vast and permanent underclass to prop up the economy and their personal good times.

In the span of 200 years, these commonly held sentiments have of course come to be seen as deeply wrong-headed, in total opposition with today's notion that poverty is something we'd rather eradicate than exploit. The history of how we so dramatically changed our minds on the topic (and the related responsibilities of government) is chronicled in a fascinating new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Georgetown University economist Martin Ravallion.

Most fundamentally, as Ravallion writes, we've gone from thinking that poverty is a necessary ingredient for economic development to thinking that poverty constrains it. Numerous related assumptions have (mostly) fallen along the way: The poor were at fault for their own poverty (through moral weakness, alcoholism, laziness, a penchant for making too many babies). The poor were born that way, and nothing could be done about it. Besides, poverty had its own utility: If people weren't hungry, they wouldn't work. Thus, poverty was a social good.
Of course, those sentiments never went away, and they are honestly believed and steadfastly promoted by our sociopathic wealth class. No wonder the middle class is disappearing.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Saturday Night Music - Bonnie & Clyde Edition

Died 80 years ago today:


MMT Skepticism

Since I talked about MMT yesterday, I thought now might be a good time to post this: GROAF & CONTRAKSHUN (Naked Capitalism). But more important are the criticisms that NC articultates before the article, which I suspect are the exact same ones a lot of readers have. I thought it might provide a useful counterpoint:
So my take on the emerging “groaf” and “jawbs” meme at Naked Capitalism is that they reflect well-warranted reader cynicism about proposals to fix the economy. More of the same will merely produce “groaf” which is more income inequality and more environmentally destructive programs like fracking, and “jawbs” which are better than no work but low dignity and badly paid, for entities that treat workers like toilet paper and too often engage in intrusive oversight and impose unrealistic output targets. Obama is the chief salesman for “jawbs”, shilling for badly-paid, sweatshop-condition work in Amazon warehouses as “middle class jobs.”

And as much as I respect the work of MMT scholars and advocates for their persistent and effective efforts in educating economists and the media about monetary operations, credit creation, and the role of reserves, I must confess I get annoyed with some of their other policy recommendations for their Olympian disconnect with the realties on the ground. Yes, a job guarantee is an elegant concept for setting a floor under the price of labor. I have no doubt it would be very effective if it were ever implemented. If we lived in a world of selfless, intelligent technocrats, it would have a decent shot at getting a hearing. But that is not where we are now. As a policy recommendation, it is simply not going to get any traction.

As a result, those who are frustrated with the current political framework are left with no practical steps they can take to try to make things better, not even ones they can call their Senator about or advocate via a letter to the editor in their local paper.

I can see why many readers are looking to community-level action and organizing as the only possible hopeful avenue. It seems to be the only venue left where individuals or small groups can make a difference, given the corruption of pretty much all of the channels for state or regional action. And that focus is also a good defensive posture against the odds that our highly complex and very fragile economic system starts fragmenting sooner than the authorities dream possible.
See also the comments at the end of the article. I don't know if just a fictional device, but the world city proposal strikes me as a bit of classic Buckminster-Fulleresque top-down social engineering, but that's another weakness of us architects - we like to control and design everything from the top down, which is why we tend to get onboard with things like the Venus Project. I prefer a lighter William Morris/Jane Jacobs approach. If there's one contribution that liberatarian thinking has made (and that probably really is the only contribution), it's that people are individuals and there are limits to top-down control. However, I don't interpret this to mean that anything collective is bad and that the anarchy of the "free market" casino should be allowed to rule all, especially since nearly all sectors of the so-called free market are actually controlled and managed by corporate monopolies.

I do hope at least it dissipates some of the fear around the debt, which is wielded as a weapon of mass destruction by elites against the working classes around the world, as well as manufactured crises like the debt ceiling which the plutocrats use in their shadow-war against the United States government. Even a lot of people who are not ideological allies of the Republicans or the plutocrats have bought into this world view hook, line and sinker. The most important part about MMT for me is that it doesn't require drastic changes in the the existing framework, and it describes how money works, whether you choose to believe it or not (like evolution).

The Long Story of U.S. Debt, From 1790 to 2011, in 1 Little Chart (The Atlantic)

The myths and realities of America's debt (CNN)

Who Really Owns the U.S. National Debt? (Townhall Finance)

The Deficit Is Shrinking! (and Nobody Cares) (Businessweek)

Hard-line conservatives see victory in debt limit standoff (BBC)

Handbag economics: The ideology of austerity (Real World Economics Review)

This Is What Accounting Identities Look Like (Econospeak)

What are Taxes For? The MMT Approach (New Economic Perspectives)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Why Slowing Population Growth is a Problem

Why is slowing population growth, which we so desperately need, a problem? It's entirely due to the way in which we've set up our economies. In a recent blog post, Paul Krugman summarized why this is the case in conventional economics. basically, we've structured our economies to require permanent growth:
When Alvin Hansen first proposed the concept of secular stagnation, he emphasized the role of slowing population growth in depressing investment demand (and his warnings were made moot by the postwar baby boom.) Modern discussions return to that emphasis: Japan’s shrinking working-age population looks like an important source of its problems, and slowing population growth in Europe and America are important reasons to believe that we may be entering a similar regime.

But whenever I raise these points, I get questions from people who ask why I don’t regard slowing population growth as a good thing. After all, it means less pressure on resources, less environmental damage, and so on.

What’s important to realize, then, is that slower population growth indeed could and should be a good thing — but that what passes for sound economic policy is all too likely to turn this potentially good development into a major problem. Why? Because under the current rules of the game, there’s a strong bicycle aspect to our economies: unless they’re moving forward sufficiently rapidly, they tend to fall over.

It’s a pretty straightforward point. To have more or less full employment, we need sufficient spending to make use of the economy’s potential. But one important component of spending, investment, is subject to the accelerator effect: the demand for new capital depends on the economy’s rate of growth, rather than the current level of output. So if growth slows due to a falloff in population growth, investment demand falls — potentially pushing the economy into a semi-permanent slump.

Now, you could say that this should be easy to deal with; just reduce the interest rate sufficiently to sustain investment demand despite population slowdown. The problem is that the required real interest rate on safe assets may end up being negative, and is therefore achievable only if we have sufficient inflation — which runs into an ideological commitment to price stability.

This is basically a technical problem, and in a better world we would simply deal with that problem while enjoying the benefits of a less crowded planet. In this world, however, technical problems — magneto trouble — can in fact do immense damage, because so few people are willing to think clearly about their nature. And that’s why we worry about slowing population growth.
Demography and the Bicycle Effect (Paul Krugman)

I'm glad Krugman finally addressed this point. Of course, economies that require growth are a recent phenomenon - they have not existed throughout most of human history. And it seems ridiculous for the alternative to growth to be poverty, misery and unemployment. But what force can make that change?

Reader Nathanael suggests an alternative in the comments:
You don't need low interest rates to cause investment. 
Direct government investment will do just fine. And it's tried and true, it's worked throughout history. 
So the solution is very clear. Lower populations; and a government which directly puts money into investment. For instance, a large national railroad program, or a national solar panel installation program, or a national insulation program, or a national housing program, or....
Having government spend money to build stuff solves the problem. 
So again our REAL problem is that we have ideological opposition to that. Opposition from rentiers.
But of course the government cannot invest if needs to get money from a shrinking private sector. However, if the government can spend money into the economy, it can take care of vital needs while dealing with a private sector shrinking due to lower investment demand and slower population growth.

The "handbag economics" model tells us that only the private sector is the breadwinner, and the government, like a non-working spouse, must go hat-in-hand for a small portion of that money to run its operations, whatever the "husband" of the private sector will decide to allow the "wife" of government to spend. This is how the rich want it, since they control the private sector. But it's not how it works in reality. We're not constrained on spending for public goods - we only need to worry about things like inflation (which will not happen if private investment is down) and resource constraints.

A lot of people have major objections when I bring up Modern Monetary theory. But now you can see why I think it is essential for a no-growth economy. I don't think it's important to restore the permanent growth consumerist model. Rather, it's important to create a no-growth economy that will not end in riots, debt and desperation for the vast majority of citizens, which is what will happen if we don't change our economic thinking. But as long as "debt" is used to destroy the social safety net, this is what we can expect, especially in the age of mass automation. Again, please note that "debt" is never a constraint on the military-industrial complex nor the national security state, only for spending on the public welfare. Again, that's just the way they want it.

Here are some other good comments:
stephen
Orlando Florida 2 days ago
The problem is political. Those who skim off the labor of workers in various ways have different short term interest than workers. One businessman over 40 years ago told me that everyone lives off of the working man. And for all to do well long term the working man needed to prosper. Capital is important. But capital ultimately comes from labor. Adam Smith wrote about how money which really is a abstraction representing labor went from capital to worker then back to capital although he used the word stock for capital. Like in a Ecosystem when energy gets hogged by one organism the Ecosystem dies, when money gets hogged by a few the economy dies. Logically as population goes down and productivity goes up there should be more leisure for all. Letting the masses become unemployed and starve while letting a few work producing all of society's goods and services will create political insatiability. That would be the downfall of capital owners. As I have said before Joe Martini can be as stupid as Joe Six Pack. It would be better to let all work less and have a fair share of their labor.
***
Earl Killian
Los Altos, CA 2 days ago 
There are few things more important for the long-term prosperity of civilization than figuring an Economics of zero-growth, since the alternative is cycles of growth and collapse, since exponential growth in a finite world is impossible. And yet only a handful of economists seem to be working on the problem, and they don't seem to be coming up with much.
If someone counters that exponential growth is possible indefinitely, then they ha 
ve never really considered the exponential function. Wealth consists of control over matter, power (the flow of energy), and knowledge. The mass of the Earth bounds Earth's economic wealth based on matter, and the Sun's insolation bounds Earth's economic wealth based on energy, and the finite size of the human brain bounds wealth based on knowledge (machine intelligence bounds are based on matter and energy). If you guess these bounds are far off, then calculate rather than guess and you'll be surprised, and of course the true bounds are far closer than such hard limits.
***
John Seager
Washington, D.C. Yesterday 
Many of the negative impacts of population growth are "off the books" - as they involve climate change, species extinction, and destruction of unique ecosystems. Part of the potential or perceived economic dilemma posed by slower population growth can be addressed by investing in people through better education and health care so they can be more productive. And part of it entails redefining growth. Once people have a reasonable standard of living, which billions lack today, personal enrichment does not necessarily correlate with or require piles of new "toys." As for that bicycle effect, we can help address it by building more bicycles and bike trails. Both we and our planet would become healthier. Healthy is indeed the new wealthy. 
John Seager
Population Connection
***
Suzanne
San Francisco Yesterday 
Given the pressures on the planet from environmental degradation, climate change, and yes, over 7 billion people, it’s high time to rethink economic growth. We can start by using economic indicators other than GDP - tools that measure well-being, sustainability, satisfaction, etc. There are several out there; Mr. Krugman must be aware of them, as Joseph Stiglitz, Nicholas Sarkozy, David Cameron and others are working on this. 
I would also be curious if Mr. Krugman has read books like “Prosperity Without Growth” by economist Tim Jackson, or “Enough is Enough” by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill that analyze a different approach not steeped in the constant growth mantra.
And then there is consumption. The majority of people want to live like average Americans, who currently make up 5% of the world’s population but use 20% of the planet’s resources. The projection is for 8 to 10 billion people by 2050; it’s going to be difficult to keep that bicycle moving forward and still have a livable planet. 
http://6degreesofpopulation.org

***
K K
London 12 hours ago 
Krugman's article indirectly acknowledges that population growth is a problem and not a blessing, then basically makes no conclusions other than it's difficult to keep the economy growing without population growth. That presuposes that continued economic growth is the ultimate goal of any human society, a great fallacy which has played a part in leading us to our overpopulated, degraded world. Economic growth brings no benefits if the population is growing too. What matters is each individual person's slice of the economic pie. A so-called economic slump is not a problem if the slow down or even shrinkage in the economy doesn't outpace the slowdown or shrinkage in population. Ultimately, we simply cannot keep growing our populations or our economies: this is a planet with finite resources. It doesn't matter what stories we tell ourselves stories about how economic growth will make everything better. Climate change-induced food and water scarcity, massive human displacement, collapsing economies and public finances, snowballing unemployment and civil unrest are becoming increasingly common place, and yet the mainstream of political and economic ideology (such as Mr Krugman) continue to speak as if we can continue doing things exactly as before.
***
Kaleberg 
port angeles, wa Yesterday 
The 14th century offers an interesting counter-example. The Black Death introduced a negative demographic shock that drove up the cost of labor. The increased wages led to increased investment that we now refer to as the Renaissance. 
A slowly growing or even a shrinking population can lead to economic growth, as long as wages rise sufficiently. Right now, all productivity gains are captured by the owners of capital, not the workers. If workers were rewarded for some of their increased productivity, their increased demand could easily drive new investment.
***
Matthew Saroff
Owings Mills, MD 2 days ago 
There is a rather more severe analogue to stagnation due to population drop, the Black Death (c. 1350). Something around 1/2 of the population of Europe died. 
Clearly, GDP dropped, but per capita GDP soared, because of things like marginal farmland being abandoned, and economic inequality fell, as evidenced by the many attempts by the authorities to regulate, and reduce wages for the ordinary people. (In fact we only know that the plague hit Poland because of the wage issue, there is no historical record there). 
The net result was a general improvement in living standards for the bulk of the population.
In fact James Burke argues that it led to an information revolution: Better off peasants wear underwear, underwear wears out, the supply of linen underwear supports the growth of a paper industry, which leads to Gutenberg less than 100 years later. 
The important thing to remember though is that the post Black Death boom occurred in the absence of central banks and central governments taking actions to depress wages for most of the population.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Amazing China Facts

Chinese economic growth over the last few decades is unlike anything the world has ever seen. The so-called “Chinese miracle” is manifested in the exponentially growing domestic demand for consumer goods like televisions, smartphones, and cars. There are now more than 240 million cars on China’s roads, with more new vehicles added in 2012 than there were on the road, total, at the turn of the century.

China's Generation Green (International Reporting Program)

A fifth of China’s land is polluted
. The FAO/OECD report gingerly calls this problem the “declining trend in soil quality.” Fully 40 percent of China’s arable land has been degraded by some combination of erosion, salinization, or acidification — and nearly 20 percent is polluted, whether by industrial effluent, sewage, excessive farm chemicals, or mining runoff, the FAO/OECD report found.

Six Mind Boggling Fact About Farms in China (Grist)

China's coal consumption has grown rapidly in recent years, and is now far larger than anything the world has ever seen, with more than 3.2 billion tonnes per year, almost as much per year as all other countries combined, data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration showed Wednesday.

China Burning and Consuming Most Of World's Coal (OilPrice)

In just two years, from 2011 to 2012, China produced more cement than the US did in the entire 20th century, according to historical data from the US Geological Survey and China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

China Fact of the Day (Marginal Revolution)
In just two years, from 2011 to 2012, China produced more cement than the US did in the entire 20th century, according to historical data from the US Geological Survey and China’s National Bureau of Statistics. - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/page/2#sthash.GKpS62Wn.dpuf

Monday, May 19, 2014

Civilization and its Discontents - Part 2

 

Continuing on with our transcript of the discussion between Dr. Christopher Ryan and Daniel Vitalis (part one). Before we resume, here are a few relevant links:

Human Evolution 'Definitely Not' Over, Expert Says (Live Science):
Humans are evolving at an increasing rate, thanks to medical advances and a larger population, Pobiner said at the “Future Is Here,” a two-day conference celebrating the future of humans, the planet, life beyond Earth and deep space, hosted by Smithsonian Magazine. But just as humans are continuing to evolve, human parasites are evolving, too.

“I invite you to look into the eyes of our ancient relatives,” Pobiner said. "Why did most human ancestors go extinct, while homo sapiens survived? The answer has a lot to do with human brains.

The human brain represents only about 2 percent of the body’s weight, but consumes 20 percent of its energy. The biggest evolutionary changes have occurred in the neocortex, the brain’s outer wrapping that processes abstract thinking, long-term planning, empathy and language, Pobiner said.

As human brains continue to evolve, will humans eventually develop gigantic heads and scrawny bodies, as depicted in some sci-fi films? Historically, the birthing process has limited brain size, because babies’ heads had to fit through the birth canal.

Today, however, Caesarian sections circumvent that process. As many as 46 percent of babies born today in China are delivered via C-section, Pobiner said. With advances in fertility and better postnatal medical care, she asked, "Are we screwing with natural selection?"
And as a counterpoint, from last year: Why it's unlikely we are more stupid than our hunter-gatherer ancestors (The Guardian):
Before going on to the ancestral roots of this idea, it's worth noticing one objection to his theory that fails comprehensively. If the hunter-gatherers were so smart, how come they are almost extinct? Over most of their range they seem to have been hunted to death (often literally) by more settled farmers. All that are left are a few scattered populations in places no one else wants to live, like the rainforest and the Kalahari desert.

This is true, but it is false to suppose that evolution must always select for intelligence. Domesticated animals have generally smaller brains than their wild ancestors precisely because they no longer need to make so many decisions. Yet they are also far more numerous and successful. All evolution cares about is how many of your grandchildren survive. It's not picky about how and why this happens.

The idea that civilised man is a degenerate and self-domesticated variation on the wild type is partly a cultural trope, a result of the anxieties of industrialised life. You'll find it in some of the most influential works of pre-first-world-war fiction: Jack London, for example. It's taken to a different extreme in EM Forster's novella, The Machine Stops.
But is the good of the collective opposed to the good of the individual human? Since agriculture, we are behaviorally more similar to ants than primates. Is that a good thing?
Dan Vitalis: My first experience into the world might as well have been a gray alien probing on a spacecraft. Here I come from the warmth of the womb into this bright, white lit environment where alarms are beeping, people are running around screaming like it's an emergency. Mom's on drugs so I'm on drugs and the first thing I see is a guy in a mask with forceps in his hands. That is the initial imprint in the limbic system of the brain. Then what comes for me next is genital mutilation...

[...]

DV: Alright, so we said it was a zoo before, that’s a fun way of saying what it really is, which is a factory farm for human labor, for taxation of human labor, right? So we don’t produce meat in this factory farm, we produce labor to further civilization’s undefined goal… I’ve often wondered, what is the purpose? Is there some goal? Does anyone know what it is? Is it collective? Is there a parasite driving us? But here we are in more a factory farm than really a zoo. I think the zoo helps me sleep at night…The reality of this place is I think it is it is a factory farm. You know, in a factory farm you do things like, we found if we cut the tails off, the pigs won’t gnaw at each other’s tails, which is a behavior that only happens in captivity. Well, we found if we cut the foreskin off, that men are less likely to pleasure themselves and to feel gratification sexually and less intimacy will happen.

It’s kind of like that kind of a thing, we clip tails on…we clip ears on dogs, we clip penises on boys, all these weird things that we do. So I was turned onto this at a young age and I realized that what doctors are doing, this weird cutting, slashing, burning, irradiating thing, could never lead to health. I saw that schooling was only suppressing my ability to learn. So I escaped all that and followed my passion.
I think a better analogy than circumcision is the mass drugging of modern society. Like the pigs with clipped tails to keep them from gnawing them off in confinement, we’re being medicated to get us to “fit” into modern society, and any personality traits that do not make us profitable for the one percent (sit still, passively absorb information, behave ourselves, and jump through the various hoops put up in school) are classified as aberrant and in need of ‘correction.’ More and more pharmaceuticals and technology are used to bang the "square peg" of human nature into the "round hole" of modern technological civilization. And those of us who can't or won't fit will probably not make it through the sieve of our form of unnatural selection.

We’re surely being “bred” for the purposes of the elites as surely as domestic cattle. And we’re used the same way as herd animals - we’re chipped at birth, led around by the nose, stuck inside a sensory deprivation box, molded to be a “productive” member of society (productive for the one percent, not for you), and then discarded when you’re no longer needed. People who are malleable to this agenda are allowed to breed, those who don’t are ruthlessly culled. The logic of the CAFO is the same logic that animates globalized corporate capitalism.It's all the same mentality.
DV: The strong effect of drugs made me ask what’s the subtler effects of foods. Eventually that kind of led me to realize that there’s only artificial distinctions between drugs and food, and that an interesting thing. And that led me to wonder, what is the natural feed of humans?  What’s the natural food for humans? And that led me eventually to realize….it took me like fifteen years to realize if I wanted to figure out what was natural for humans to eat, I could look at what hunter-gatherers eat. That took me a long time to figure out. Nobody was talking about it back then. And here’s the analogy, it’s like if you want to figure out what chimpanzees eat, you’re wasting your time asking  zookeepers. You need to ask the people in the field who look at wild chimpanzees. And what’s going on in our culture is, it’s funny is, people want to figure out what’s natural for humans and they ask all the experts, who are just zookeepers. They’re the zookeepers, they definitely don’t know what humans beings eat.
And just where do 'the experts' get their information anyway? See this:

I Went to the Nutritionists' Annual Confab. It Was Catered by McDonald's  (Mother Jones) and Top 11 Biggest Lies of Mainstream Nutrition

And see this: The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease Even though the most fatty parts of the animals are the most prized in H-G cultures, we were told that fat is bad and started eating 'low fat' foods filled with processed oils and sweeteners.
DV: So that led me to look at natural people, and the more I looked at that the more I realized, oh my God, why are we not at least basing our modern life off of this? Obviously we’re not going back to it, I get that, but why are we not basing; why are not even trying to approximate any of it? Yeah, and this is a course of over twenty years. It took me a long time to arrive at any kind of sanity around the idea of how we should live.
Some discussion about the anger that comes when you realize how messed up society is and how to deal with that. The host reveals how he always felt that there was something wrong with the society he was born into, and how he was into Native American cultures at a young age as a rejection of the mainstream culture.
CR: You might be one of the only people who truly agrees with me that civilization itself has been a colossal mistake.

DV: And a pretty short-lived one, honestly, right? It’s not like it’s been around that long. One of the things that’s interesting about civilization…civil, it means city, citizens are people of the civility, the polis; they’re members of the city-state, really, and the city states are what, about 6,000 years old? So we’re talking like 5 percent of our current form has lived this way. So it’s certainly an experiment.
But it’s not the first one, right? We’ve had several. So we see, okay we rise up in Sumeria, let’s say. And what happens? It tanks. And then out of it we get Egypt. And what happens? They turn the fertile valley into a desert with, I love to point out, organic agriculture. It’s not like they were using pesticide back then. They turned Egypt into a desert. I think people picture the Egyptians living in the sand dunes as if it’s the place that it is now. Organic agriculture, way better than what we call organic agriculture today, too, right? A much more conscious form of agriculture and yet they turn the place to a desert. They collapse. The Greeks try civilization. It collapses. The Romans try it. It collapses.

I mean, so far, the whole track record with civilizations are collapses. They always collapse. So the idea… I love the transhumanists’ futuristic agenda, the singularity agenda is, we’re going to escape that pattern somehow, right, even though we have no evidence of that. I love when people believe in unicorns, you know.

CR: And then if you question it, you’re being unrealistic.

DV: ‘You’re such a Luddite…’

CR: A Luddite, or a romantic, but wait a minute...

DV: Don't question it, yeah. I believe in this thing I call the intrinsic taboo. We have a lot of taboos, but I believe for civilization the formative taboo is against wildness. It's the intrinsic taboo because civilization is antithetical to wildness, therefore expressions of wildness must be suppressed because wildness feels better than civilization feels.

CR: It's the most subversive thing there is, it's a rejection of the zoo.

DV: So if I smell your body odor, you've got to cover that because that reminds me that you're wild. I like this one, nakedness is my favorite. If we take our clothes off and walk outside right now they'll arrest us. They'll lock us up and we'll be charged as sex offenders. Nakedness is actually a controlled substance so we can sell it with a license as pornography.
Some discussion about the Nazi experiment with the auroch, which can be read here:

The Nazi breeding program that resurrected an extinct species (io9)

DV: The further that we get away from our robust hunter gatherer ways, the less likely it is that we can ever reintegrate back. The more degenerated we get; the sicker we get.

So I said before domestico-fragilis, that being our subspecies. And my goal with the rewilding lifestyle is to try to become Homo sapiens neo-aboriginalis. The feral human, through rewilding practices.

But the direction we’re going in…I sometimes think about this gray alien thing.  As you know we've had this symbol that's come along in the last two decades. We’ve seen  these alien images everywhere. And I often say that’s the direction of our evolution. That’s what I think that thing is.
So we have the creature with the big, bulbous head, because humans beings can maintain maybe what, I think 150 friends in a social network is what our brain can handle,  but with Facebook you have 5,000, so we need a bigger brain. Staring into screens all day really hurts the eyes, so you need these big eyes with built-in sunglasses. And you’re never outside, so you don’t need any melanin in your skin, it can just be translucent. A little devolved mouth because all you eat is processed food. No sex organ because, let’s face it, we don’t even need to have sex, we can just reproduce through cloning. Long, spindly fingers for manipulating touch screens so your big human sausage fingers don’t push two buttons at the same time. A hive-minded being who can live isolation and who  can experience the world through technology rather than…that to me is, we have hunter-gatherers as our progenitor and the gray alien is like  the extreme Chihuahua of what humans could become in a way, the humanoid insect almost, right?

So my point is this, the more domesticated we become, the less able we are to heed that call of the wild and to actually go experience it again.
Related, see this article: Out of Contact (New York Review of Books):

...Indians were viewed as second-class citizens or worse, and treated with derision by the settlers who were pushing ever farther into the interior. The Indians’ culture of survival that had served them so well prior to their encounter with Western society had little relevance or value afterward. The lure of “things” (including alcohol) was irresistible and led to dependencies. Missionaries forbade them to go naked, thus requiring them somehow to obtain clothing. With the convenience of matches, one quickly loses the knack for starting a fire. Shotguns decisively outperform bows and arrows, but cartridges must be bought at a good price.

Such newly acquired dependencies fundamentally altered the life of the Indians, who were compelled to work for wages instead of spending their days hunting, fishing, and tending their gardens. Exploited by settlers and unscrupulous merchants, and with little prospect of achieving a level of prosperity, independence, and self-respect that would have carried them over the cultural divide into real assimilation, many indigenous communities became trapped in a state of demoralization and profound cultural poverty, being neither what they once were nor what Rondon had envisioned for them.

If Indians living in the path of the Transamazon Highway weren’t contacted (“pacified” was the term of choice) and relocated, the consequences for them would have been disastrous. Conflicts with surveying and construction crews were inevitable. So were Western diseases—measles, influenza, dysentery, malaria. Isolated people have no resistance to such diseases and first contact with Europeans frequently results in demographic losses in excess of 80 percent. After demographic collapse, many tribes simply ceased to exist as organized entities.

DV: We don’t realize that the things we think we love here actually just occupy us enough so that we don’t realize how much of a hell this is.

[...]

There is a glut of data that shows us that every time we make some synthetic thing that it’s toxic to us…so I just think it’s funny, we do these weird artificial things to ourselves and then we always act is if we expect they’re going to be good and then act surprised when we find out that they’re bad. ‘Oh BPA is bad? We had no idea! We thought that it would work.’ Like, it never works. I don’t ever see it work.
See this: Your Food Is Poisoning You (Outside)

Some discussion of Google Glass and that this is the year of the cyborg and the drone.
DV: This is the era of 3D printed food. This is the new food movement. If you guys aren’t aware, listening out there, Google it. 3-D printed food.  So what they’re able to do…I’ve got a great quote at home. It’s a guide from the 3d printing food manufacturing world saying ‘Well in the future, only the rich will be able to afford real food.’ Vegetables and meats. The rest of us will eat biologically appropriate food for our body type that we buy in print cartridges, bring home and print off the meals that we want. And everybody’s meals will be tailored to what the top-down sort of Obamacare decides what your body needs.

CR: Dog food.

DV: Dog food, right. Domesticated human food.

CR: We’re already there. Let’s face it, only the rich can eat real food now, however we define real food.
[...]
DV: It’s funny with processed food, because when you learn foraging you realize that wild foods need processing. Most wild foods need processing with the exception of certain shoots and fruits, for the most part humans have to process food. When processed food got popular, the idea was, you are now like wealthy people, someone else processes your food, you don’t have to do it by hand, you’re no longer a peasant. But somehow then that morphed into foods that were industrial foods. And we call industrial food, processed food which is a little unfortunate, because as a forager, if I gather seeds I have to dehull them. That’s a process and it takes time.

CR: Cooking is a process.

DV: Cooking is…right, Fire is…we use it to detoxify foods or render them edible. But when we say processed food in this culture we really mean industrial food. Now we’re moving to technological food. And again, earlier I made the gray alien metaphor and maybe it sounded a little weird. But what would gray aliens eat, exactly? Can you picture gray aliens sitting down to a salad, with steak? Some kind of wierd proecessed food...Soylent Green.

CR: Astronauts. That's what astronauts eat.

DV: NASA actually developed the 3-D printer for food. So they've been funding this research because they want to use it in space.
He says Soylent Green as a  joke, but it's not a joke! It's a reality, courtesy Silicon Valley. They're already promoting high tech drinks so we don't even get to eat real food anymore, and they're pushing it. Now we can spend even more time at our desks being productive without having to burden ourselves with the need for food (or rest...eliminating sleep is next):

Man cannot live by bread alone ­— but we can survive on Soylent, a powdered meal replacement that’s getting press in articles portending the “end of food.” Developed by Robert Rhinehart, an electrical engineer turned amateur biochemist, the product is something like Ensure on steroids, containing thirty-five essential nutrients in one tiny pouch. Mix it with water and an oil blend and you have not just a substitute for a single meal, but a cocktail you could live on for all eternity.

Rhinehart and his small team are straight out of Silicon Valley. They not only discuss their startup with the hyperoptimism of the TED set, but its early consumers are “lifehacking” tech types who find drinking meals at their desk a fine way to maximize their productivity.

This is the reason many commentators fear the rise of Soylent and products like it. Under capitalism, we spend most of our waking hours under the direction of our bosses. We’re under pressure to produce ever more efficiently — not for more pay, but simply to keep our jobs. With stable 9-to-5 employment increasingly scarce, companies are not only making the workday longer, they’re making sure workers achieve peak productivity throughout it.

Pervasive surveillance of employees, the division of work into mundane and tedious component tasks, and the relentless pace of production have always been associated with labor under capitalism. But in the unionless cubicle of the future, workers have even less of a chance to push back against these trends.

For those of us still lucky enough to have it, a lunch break is one of the last reprieves from the tyranny of the workplace. It doesn’t matter that we’re spending half of it standing in line for Chipotle — socializing with others and having time away from the grind has tremendous value.

Our biological need for food to perform effectively as workers is one of the few things employers have to respect. A labor force sipping Soylent all day at their desks would satisfy that need without disruptive pauses for food preparation, consumption and cleanup. Lunch breaks could come to be seen as an antiquated luxury, relics from a bygone era of 40-hour workweeks, paid vacation and sick days, and “Cadillac” health and dental plans.


Let's embrace the end of food (Al Jazeera) and Soylent 1.0 arrives at Ars: We mix it up and slurp it down (Ars Technica)
DV: And when we look at the whole agenda, it almost feels like the goal is, 'we don't like this planet, we gotta get out of here.'

Sometimes I’ll talk about … like you take a hunter gatherer and you take a backpacker on let's say  the Appalachian Trail. And then you take an astronaut from the moon. The backpacker looks more like the astronaut than the indigenous person, right? The big oversized boots, the crazy shiny clothes, the huge pack, the helmet, the gloves. It’s like, modern domesticated humans going into nature act as if they've come from another planet and they’re in some hostile environment. And they need this whole space suit to walk across a trail. It’s almost as if we act like were not from this planet. We act as if we’re a bit more angel than ape or something…I just never understood what's wrong with this place. I love it...