Tuesday, January 30, 2007


W described climate change as a “serious challenge” in his State of the Union speech last week. What he actually means by that and what he aims to do to address this challenge remain to be seen.
The UN environmental agencies are drawing to a close a major study on global climate change. The news wires report that the study is expected to predict a 3.0 C (5.4 F) warming of average annual temperatures between now and 2100. This report is to further attribute this warming, with some 90 percent certainty, to the activities of humans.
While far from perfect, the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol by much of the industrialized world has enjoyed some success in putting the brakes on what the best science in the world believes to be the cause of this problem.
The US government has sat idly by while many of our friends and allies have worked to reverse this problem. The excuse given by the Bush administration was that adopting the Kyoto Protocol would cost Americans jobs. I have to ask, how many American jobs does the purchase of foreign oil create? How would cultivating a domestic biofuels industry be bad for the economy?
Given the speed of government and the fact that Kyoto runs-out in 2012, it may be Kyoto’s successor that turns on the heat under the US. In conjunction with the UN’s new report on global climate, there is a redoubled effort to hold a new summit on climate. UN scientists are lobbying Secretary General Ban to hold such a summit in September. Given planned discussion of warming-related concerns like the flooding of coastal cities, perhaps the Bush administration will suggest New Orleans as a venue. Perhaps not.
Can we wait for the government to stop talking and start acting? The US and its neighbors to the north and south have enormous agricultural resources. We have the potential to move toward energy independence by producing ethanol and biodiesel for transportation, but the entrepreneur, not the bureaucrat, must realize this change.
American industry has been stymied by a government of the oil, by the oil, and for the oil. Perhaps if we stopped creating an infrastructure so lopsided in favor of petroleum, other sources of energy could compete in a free market. McDonald’s could start marketing McDiesel, made from all of that used fry oil, and Mr. Daniel could start selling Old No. 7 high-performance fuel for hogs. Or is that “hawgz”?
We need more consumer demand and new policies that don’t hand so much to oil companies.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Capitalism 3.0

Wednesday evening, I saw author Peter Barnes give a talk at Busboys and Poets, on his latest book, Capitalism 3.0. Barnes raises some good points on the role of both the state and the corporation in the division of resources, and offers some ideas on innovating the relationship between economy, ethics, and environment.
He contends that the state's role in commerce has historically been to redistribute collective resources or "common wealth" to entrepreneurs or corporations. Examples include the ridiculous land give-aways to US railroad companies in the 19th century, or the distribution of broadcast spectra to media companies in the early days of radio and television. Think farmsteads, mineral rights, logging rights, &c on previously public land. (Eventually, the state winds-up fighting itself with the advent of anti-trust and monopoly laws. The government punishes corporations for being very good at what the government helped them accomplish.)
Barnes discussed the expansion of trusts to act as perpetual agents of commonly held resources, in much the same way corporations act as perpetual agents of shareholders. Though, in his vision, trusts would be established not simply to curtail suburban sprawl in choice farm country, but also to leverage the economic value of common resources like the atmosphere, or the Gulf of Mexico. Companies would buy the rights to release waste into the air, rather than essentially getting this resource for free. On the whole, I think this philosophy has great potential.
I can't help but think that some of the event's peripheral discussions about for-profit organizations directly supporting nonprofit organizations may not be advocating the best new model. Clearly there is great potential for social benefit in such an arrangement. But, I'm increasingly thinking that we need to enact a broad shift toward the integration of ecological and social "cash flow" into the fabric of private enterprise. To become sustainable in the true sense, the firm must create products and services that directly benefit their communities and our collective environment.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


The National Academy of Sciences recently published a report that raises concerns over US resources for observing and predicting weather and climate. NASA has suffered a loss of some half a billion dollars with respect to its programs that observe the Earth, while NOAA is suffering through cost and schedule overruns on some of its own critical Earth observation programs. These are critically important programs that require adequate funding.
In his State of the Union speech, the President called for Congress to “control spending in Washington”. Given the push to balance the budget without raising taxes, gutting the civilian government would be necessary, since there is apparently no effort to control spending in Baghdad.
It's too late to spend the cost of facilitating civil war on the kinds of science that forewarn of a Katrina or put the climate change debate to bed. Any more words spent on "could've, would've, and should've" are wasted energy.
The President paid lip-service to the development and use of biofuels. The public should applaud him for his about-face on this topic. The implementation of biodiesel, instead of a plan to supplant fossil fuels by funding research into a horizon technology* like fuel cells, is a sound decision. However, the ponderous “diversification” of energy sources to yield a 20% reduction in gasoline use over the next 10 years, as the President suggests, is inadequate. Government is not the solution. Like so many environmental problems, the answer lies with entrepreneurs.
Given the enormity of the US agricultural sector, why is it that biodiesel isn't available from every filling station in the country? New businesses require demand. As long as we accept only what we are offered, businesses have little impetus to change.
Clearly, the government’s values and long-term plans are flawed. We have collectively chosen to spend money fighting a war for oil, rather than investing in energy independence and in our environment. Demand more and be part of the solution.

*It is not the author's intent to disparage fuel cell technology, nor to question its technical feasibility. It is characterized here as a horizon technology because of the difficulty in commercializing it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Picture of E.R. Dunhill

It’s been a good long while since I’ve done any writing of consequence. By this, I don’t mean to suggest that what I was writing over the summer changed the world, but rather that what I wrote was an effort to change my world. I can deflect the blame for little and poor writing to all of the distractions that take place on the other side of the blog, but this seems disingenuous.
It seems now, maybe as the result of evolution, or maybe the simple realization of something that has been true from the beginning, that my MO for writing this blog is not what I'd like it to be. I’ve been keeping the reader at arms-length by neglecting writing much about what I think.
A few words from Emerson have been with me the last two months as I relocated a few miles down the road from where I used to live.

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me.

I increasingly wonder if perhaps the underlying premise of this thought is flawed. The problem of society may in truth be with the self, in which case, a man must retreat from his own mind and practice in order to find some improved state. I have been endeavoring to do this by reading new perspectives and trying to craft for myself a philosophy, a calling, perhaps. When I have that all figured-out, I’ll let you know.
As I’ve looked around over the last few weeks, I think this place, Phrenology, requires a change, too. More on that, later.

Monday, January 22, 2007

A view from my living room, yesterday at half past three

snow falls on bamboo
tiger-gusts will cut it down
I sip hot chocolate

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Waste not, want not

In keeping with my reading plan, I’ve just read William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s treatise, Cradle to Cradle. The book discusses traditional environmental and industrial philosophy and is a call to adopt a new design ethic with roots in both mass-customization and systems ecology.
The authors summarize recent industrial history, with some emphasis on the USA, noting both early design successes and a few of the causes for environmental negligence and exploitation. They also outline what they see as fundamental shortcomings of modern environmental thought. On the latter, they sometimes degenerate into a practice unfortunately common within the environmental camp, flogging anything that sounds mainstream. (They also use entirely too many parenthetical asides.)
However, accepting this and the fact that the book sometimes reads like recycled marketing collateral, their positions have considerable merit. McDonough and Braungart envision a broad design school that gives appropriately equitable weight to economy, environment, and ethics. They propose an overhaul of design practices to be appropriate to local environments and to eliminate the concept of waste, in favor of cycles of reusable resources.
For my part, I am a little concerned over the notion of a wholesale (or even very broad) shift of an economy of products to an economy of services. The authors suggest an ingenious and potentially highly efficient economy in which the raw materials within most products are essentially leased. In this scenario, for instance, when you were “done” with your car, the manufacturer would reclaim the vehicle which could then be reintroduced into the manufacturing process and become an entirely new car.
This model belies the authors’ backgrounds (McDonough, an architect; Braungart, a chemist) as knowledge-workers. From the knowledge worker’s perspective, wealth is developed by directly creating something valuable, or adding value to a process or product. For many others, building wealth is predicated in some part upon the ownership of resources. This becomes difficult in an economy in which every resource of any transferable value belongs to a corporation.
Despite this and some comparatively minor points of argument, I think Cradle to Cradle is an excellent read. Students of business, economics, and environmental disciplines should make a point of reading it. In the spirit of the book, borrow it from your library or buy it from a local book shop. If you have any recommendations for books, please post.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Koan, document design

If “this page is left intentionally blank”, then why isn’t it?