Saturday, June 30, 2018

Planetary Overshoot

                                                                                                written 25 June 2018
                                                                                                published 30 June 2018

             It is insane to believe that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet.  Humans are now so numerous and consumptive, that we consume the annual production of the planet every 8 months.  We need 1.5 planets to keep going as we are, which is planetary overshoot.   
            It may be difficult to understand how we can exceed planetary capacity.  When financial capital is invested well, it generates interest as an annual return.  Spending only the interest is sustainable because the capital remains intact, to generate more interest the next year.  In the short term, it is possible to consume more than your annual interest income by spending some of your capital.  This leads to a smaller interest income the next year, requiring even more capital consumption to stay even.  This unsustainable consumption pattern eventually exhausts your entire capital, leaving you bankrupt.         Living systems have similar sustainability limits.  If a herd of 100 beef cows gives birth to 100 calves every year, it is sustainable to slaughter 100 cows a year.  It is possible to slaughter more cows per year, but the breeding herd starts to diminish, producing fewer calves every year, and eventually there are no more cows.  The productive capacity of the herd has been exceeded and system collapse is the result.
            When trees are harvested faster than the rate of growth, timberland productivity declines.  When fish are caught faster than they grow, the fisheries decline.  If the topsoil lost during cultivation is greater than the amount of topsoil produced each year, the soil becomes sterile and unproductive.  Our ever-growing economy of consumption extracts value faster than nature can replenish.  The planet is bountiful, but eventually the system will collapse.
            Our culture tells us that the price of things includes all the costs, so if we can afford it, we think the planet can afford it.  This is capitalist fiction.  The destruction of natural resources happens out of sight, and the warning signs go unheeded.  The huge oceanic gyres of plastic trash occur far from land.  Coral dies unnoticed underwater.  The people who actually fish know the fishing industry is declining, while the rest of us just notice when prices go up, or some varieties fall off the menu.  Nobody notices the water table dropping until the well suddenly runs dry.
            This is just the human impact.  When ecosystems are destroyed, all species that depend on that system die.  In 2000, it was estimated that human cropland and pasture occupy 1/3 of ice-free land area on Earth.  If we add logging and forest management, the least productive half of land is left for other species.
            And even that tragedy is an incomplete picture, for human consumption is not distributed equally.  If all 7.5 billion humans consumed like Americans, it would take the productivity of five planets to support us all.  Long before this happens, some part of the system will surely collapse.  If we can agree that everyone, including other species, have a right to life on this planet, we need to make some changes.
            Annie Leonard's "Story Of Stuff Project" has been examining the details of our economy for decades.  99% of all natural resources extracted ends up as garbage in 6 months.  This means that our consumptive economy is only 1% efficient!  That is like setting the house on fire to cook dinner.  We can do better than that.
            In order to give basic material comfort to every human, and leave half the planet viable for other species, we need to reduce consumption and increase our efficiency of production.  We are learning that stuff doesn't make us happy.  The growth in storage lockers is proof that we have more than we need, and it costs to keep that extra stuff.  If we cut consumption by a half, and increase efficiency of production to 5%, everyone could thrive.  
            A friend said that he is reluctant to give up some of what he has.  I asked if he would rather give up some stuff voluntarily, or have it all lost to system collapse, as that seems to be our choice.  Nature knows how to deal with ecological overshoot.  Unsustainable consumption is, well, unsustainable.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Design In Nature

                                                                                                written 16 June 2018
                                                                                                published 23 June 2018

           My high school biology class looked in detail at a stinging nettle, which uses a toxic irritant as a defense against being eaten.  The surface is covered with small spines, and anything brushing against these spines can be injected with the irritant.  It's a wonderful defense strategy for a plant, which cannot move to evade attack, and the details fascinated me enough that I remember them over a half-century later.
            Each spine is made of a brittle crystalline material, hollow up the center, but closed with an off-center knob at the tip.  When an animal presses against the tip of the spine, the knob shears off, leaving a surgically sharp point, which can penetrate the animal's skin.  The pressure that shears the tip also compresses the spine into the body of the plant, pressurizing a flexible sack of toxic juice at the base of the spine.  When the tip shears, and injects the animal, the pressurized toxin races up the hollow spine into the body of the animal.  This irritating chemical is what gives the nettle a sting.
            The simplicity of the design, and the elegance of the features, all working with minimum effort, using the force of the predator to power the defensive reaction, left me in awe.  I had been building things for years at that age, and could appreciate good design and craftsmanship.  That a plant could execute such a design gave me pause to consider the wonder of natural design.  The relatively recent field of bio-mimicry examines biological systems for inspiration in technological advances.
            The idea of design intention in nature is contrary to materialist science, which postulates a world of dead matter, evolving through meaningless accidental mutations. At the other extreme, Intelligent Design, an anti-evolution variation of Creationism, is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible and assumes God created everything in the relatively recent past.  Both seem inadequate.
            An example of ongoing evolution is insects developing resistance to the insecticides used to control them.  In addition to becoming resistant, one species of grasshopper placed a metabolized variation of the insecticide into the foam it builds around its egg case, creating a toxic barrier against predation by other insects.  Materialist science would say that many grasshoppers died before a random mutation induced resistance, but this doesn't explain how a simple insect seemed to be aware of the function of the toxic material, and applied it for its own benefit.
            In a previous article, I talked about the concept of randomness, which implies a lack of pattern, or meaning, in a process.  The only accurate statement an observer can make is that there "appears" to be no pattern, rather than the system "has" no pattern. Darwinian evolutionary theory declares that evolution is random, without purpose, so the proposal that there is meaning in evolution is a challenge, but there are rigorous, peer reviewed experiments that support this challenge.
            In the late 80s, a team of researchers, led by the British biologist John Cairn, experimented on bacteria that lived only on lactose.  They disabled the gene that fabricated the enzyme which metabolized lactose, fundamental to cell function.  They put these disabled bacteria in a lactose environment, to see what would happen.  Classic mechanistic biology suggests that evolution can come only from mutation during cell division, but cell division takes energy.  The disabled bacteria couldn't access any of the energy in their surroundings, so they should have died, but the experimenters found thriving colonies of cells.  Further investigation showed there had been a specific repair to the disabled gene for lactose metabolism.
            Cairns submitted these results to the British science journal Nature, which was reluctant to publish such a revolutionary result, but Cairns was a respected biologist in England, and the article was published.  The US journal Science wrote scathing reviews, calling it a step backward for science.  Subsequent replication of the experiment by other researchers confirmed the results, and biological theory had to evolve.  Even at the single cell level, meaningful evolution takes place.  There is immanent, purposeful intelligence in nature.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Jailing A Corporate Person

                                                                                                written 9 June 2018
                                                                                                published 16 June 2018

            Corporate personhood is an insane fiction of our times. 
            Wells Fargo is in the news again, with the potential of a $1B administrative judgment by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CPFB), the third action in three years.  In 2016 Wells Fargo was found to have created 3.5 million accounts without their customers knowledge. The CPFB judgment was a fine of $185M, which amounts to $53 for each bogus account.  Evidence shows that Wells Fargo was not deterred from committing further illegal actions.  When there are no real consequences to illegal behavior, there is loss of moral standard.
            A real person convicted of a crime in a judicial court can be jailed, sometimes for life.  Depending on circumstances, a negligent action can result in a court judgment to repay damages, provide compensation for pain and suffering, and restitution for any permanent economic loss.  If found guilty of intent to commit the crime, punitive damages may also be awarded.  
            A jailed person has no further employment income.  If they are unable to pay their bills, the holder of a secured loan can foreclose, forcing the sale of the asset to retire the loan.  The remainder of the defendant's assets, including bank accounts and securities, are liquidated to pay any judgments, so unsecured loans can be a complete loss to the lender.  Employees of the defendant lose their jobs. 
            If corporations expect the benefits of being a person, shouldn't they be held responsible for their actions as a person?  In this example, it would start with a motion for a temporary restraining order to revoke the Corporate Charter of Wells Fargo, and initiate judicial proceedings.  The CFPB showed Wells Fargo created 3.5 million accounts, accruing fees without their customers knowledge, which constitutes fraud.  If judged guilty in a court of law, the Charter could be revoked, preventing Wells Fargo from doing further business, similar to going to jail for a period of time.  A judicial sentence of one day of jail time per fraudulent account would be more than 9,500 years.  
            A judgement of $1000 per fraud, for economic damages, and pain and suffering due to a loss in customer credit rating, would total $3.5B.  Since fraud is by definition an intentional act, punitive damages may be awarded.  This fraud was one of several, so the bank is a repeat offender, showing no remorse.  A factor of 100 times real damages is reasonable as a deterrent and an example to the larger industry, for an additional judgement of $350B.
            Wikipedia lists Wells equity value at $207B.  After secured assets were sold to satisfy mortgage holders, the rest of the equity would go toward covering the judgment.  Stockholders, holding unsecured loans, would lose everything.  Wells Fargo's employees (more than 250,000 real people) would be laid off.  All bank accounts, which belong to the accountholders, would have to be transferred to another bank.
            In the Wells Fargo case, no one died, but many people die as a result of corporate activities.  I have seen a bumper sticker reading "I will believe corporations are people when Texas executes one".   In the 70s, researchers for Exxon-Mobile, headquartered in Texas, discovered that continued burning of their product would raise global temperatures, putting humanity at risk.  To protect their business, Exxon chose to bury the research and fund climate denial, making them accessory to deaths due to climate change.  Such calculated mass murder by a real person could get them executed.
            Since corporations, like zombies, aren't actually alive, killing one is problematic. A quick Internet search shows zombies can be killed by destroying their brains.  The brain of a corporation could be described as the Board of Directors and Operating Officers.  They would be judged for their part in the corporate person, not because of any culpability as individuals.  Execute them and the corporation is dead.  Execute even one corporation, and business ethics would immediately improve. 
            Real people don't have limited liability for their actions, why should corporate people?  Even the threat of taking legal action against a corporation as a person would reveal that corporations are "fake" people, unwilling to be as responsible as real people, and end the insanity of corporate personhood "rights".