Thursday, February 16, 2017

FEW Nexus Episode 6: Progress in Food Production

Class Lecture Module 6: Progress in Food Production

In 1968, when I was and impressionable six years old horrified by what the television was showing about the Vietnam War, listening to the Beatles sing 'All you need is love', my parents bought a book called "The Population Bomb" by scientist Paul Ehrlich.

 It suggested that we were running out of resources because our population was growing too fast and we were consuming our earth's life support system faster than it could regenerate.  Two years later, on the first Earth Day, I began my activism, rounding up the neighborhood kids and  staging a clean up of the polluted stream behind our apartment that ran into the Hudson River.  A year later my Beatle idol George Harrison held a "Concert for Bangladesh" to raise awareness of the suffering there.  Like many kids worried about the "starving kids in Bangladesh" I asked in  school why things were getting so bad.  Like most school children around the world, we were told how the population bomb supposedly worked, how it ticked. The idea went back to the Reverend Thomas Malthus who argued in 1798 that "population increases geometrically, while food supplies increase only arithmetically".  This has been the prevailing wisdom for over 2 centuries and is often illustrated by the following graphs: (Links to an external site.)
Looks neat, right -- so mathematically precise and inevitable.
The problem is that it is wrong.
I felt it as a kid. It bothered me throughout middle school and high school and on in to college.
The reverend's now famous "Malthusian" predictions of doom and gloom came from a man who never studied biology... we now realize that he was a religious zealot and bigot who made up theories to try and stoke anti-immigration fever, arguing that undesirable poor people were basically breeding like rats.
The problem in his logic is easy to spot when you use Nexus thinking:
Food comes from living creatures who have populations. They expand GEOMETRICALLY.  If you let them. If you encourage them.  It doesn't matter if we are talking about Brewer's yeast or earthworms or oak trees or apple trees or chickens or ears of corn or cattle or cocoa covered ants...  whatever you eat comes from living organisms that are programmed to reproduce as fast as they can... that WANT to reproduce... geometrically.  Just like us.
So... population increases geometrically, whether it is us or our food.  Starving kids in Bangladesh or Ethiopia simply shouldn't happen, and, I will insist to you, WOULDN'T, if we allowed the organism we eat to do their thing.
So the curves on those graphs should continue to go up in lock step, until we reach the limits set by sunlight.  And then we will have to figure out safe, harmless ways to grow not just ourselves and our "economy" but our ecology, and eventually help grow new planets.  But even that... the promise of space stations and terraforming planets, isn't out of the question. After all, the one thing that doesn't seem to ever be in any danger of NOT expanding... is the universe."
Today’s lecture is about “Progress in food production: a new wave of ancient practices and post-modern technologies that use less water and less energy, produce less waste and can even produce more energy.”
And I believe, to paraphrase Deuteronomy 12:3, we have to start by “tearing down the altars and smashing the sacred pillars” that were erected by wrong headed Malthusians who used a gross misunderstanding of biology and a total lack of nexus and systems thinking to scare us into what I call “induced paralysis for profit”.  The idea  comes from what is called in economics classes “The Scarcity Model: the fundamental economic assumption of having seemingly unlimited human needs and wants in a world of limited resources, which  states that society has insufficient productive resources to fulfill all human wants and needs”.  When the scarcity model is used to create fear, to create an atmosphere of doom and gloom, to predict the inevitable arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (Conquest, War, Famine, and Death), political economists and political ecologists suggest that it is much easier for elite groups to manipulate the masses.  They control the machinery of conquest and war, and they use the specter of famine to gain their power.
Food production sits at the heart of the nexus – every animal on this planet (and doubtless the vast majority of beings in our universe) finds food to be the fundamental.  It is priority number one, for unless you are a being of pure light you need the food that grows with light to survive.  And if you spread misinformation that famine is imminent, that starvation is just around the corner, you can mobilize armies.

However, looked at from a FEW Nexus perspective, this fear of famine we have been living with since Biblical times (the four horsemen are part of the Book of Revelation of Jesus Christ to John of Patmos, at 6:1-8 in the New Testament written during the Roman occupation of Palestine)   is a peculiar Middle Eastern and North European phenomenon it turns out, coming from civilizations in regions of the world where water stresses constrained food production.  People in well-watered tropical regions rarely felt threatened by food scarcity and in fact were described by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins as living in a state of perpetual abundance. He postulated  that hunter-gatherers were, in fact “the original affluent society” at a symposium entitled "Man the Hunter" in 1966 and this idea has been tested and found true for most peoples around the world where water was not a limiting factor.  It explains why hunting and gathering and subsistence farming persist to this day, and why so many people resisted being brought into modern civilization or adopting modern agriculture methods.  In fact the work of historian Anthropologist Eric Wolf, such as “Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century” and Yale professor James Scott in books such as “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed” teach us that there have been enough failures due to the form of agriculture that emerged from the conquering civilizations that the conquered were willing to sacrifice their lives to revolt against them. Somehow, it seems, those certain schemes to improve yields were social and ecological disasters that should have been rejected by civilizations but instead were used to confirm the Reverend Malthus’ scientifically unfounded hypothesis – a classic but often neglected example of what is known as confirmation bias – which wiki defines as  “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities”.  When it comes to food production, the alternative possibility, which is persuasively argued in Richard Manning’s book “Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization” is that monocropping annual vegetation and basing civilization on grain agriculture, on the use of plants in the family Poaceae/Graminae, that is the grasses – wheat, rice, corn, barely, oats and sugar – yes, sugar is a grass – is, to caricature the 45th president of the world’s most powerful agriculture and military empire, “ a disaster”.
History records that agriculture and famine are the Jekyll and Hyde of the long and often militarized march of civilization. The one came because of the other, says Manning. Most of us were taught the opposite weren’t we? Taught that human life, as the 17th century imperial philosopher Thomas Hobbes decried in his book Leviathan, was “nasty, brutish and short” We were told that humans lived in a state of semi-starvation UNTIL they discovered agriculture.  We were told that agriculture saved our species from hunger and misery, gave us the surpluses that enabled our climb to civilization.  Sounds good, turns out not to be true.
 Even Harvard’s Spencer Wells, a friend of mine who is the geneticist who leads the National Geographic Genographic project writes in his book “Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization” that when humans shifted from hunting and gathering in that original affluent society to grain agriculture the average height of men dropped from about 5 foot 7 to 5 foot 2 and women’s pelvic girdles narrowed to the point where death in childbirth increased in frequency. These were clear signs of malnutrition recorded in the fossils. Agriculture was to blame… floodplain agriculture dependent on disturbance species that grow like weeds after a disaster because they are weeds. And they end up causing disasters thereafter because they evolved to live in disaster environments, places where floods and fires ravage the countryside on a regular basis.  In effect they DEPEND on disasters for their own reproductive survival.  It is as though once we hitched our caboose to the weeds and became weed eaters, we started living for them and not the other way around.
Michael Pollan talks about this in his wonderful book that reframes our relationship to addictive plants called “The Botany of Desire”.  He points out that you could look at us as the slaves of addictive plants that evolved to control us through their effect on our brains so that we would help them reproduce.  This idea, which British Scientist Richard Dawkin’s calls “The Extended Phenotype” in the battle of Selfish Genes, isn’t really new.  In 1872, when Samuel Butler published his utopian fiction “Erewhon” the major premise of the people who fled Europe to live on the island of Erewhon in the hopes of creating a better civilization was that they would not allow themselves to submit to the control of their addictions or any system that makes us into its own slave.  On the island they refuse to use technology like cars and  steam engines and typewriters and telegraph or any machines.  It isn’t that they don’t know about these things – in fact they have an entire museum where they keep them safely on display in glass cases. They tell visitors, “in your civilization machines don’t serve you, you serve them.  You go to work in the morning and waste your days slavishly building more machines and oiling them and fixing them and keeping them running. It is like the bee that is the servant of the flower… flowers can’t move to reproduce themselves, so they addict the bee with beauty and nectar and perfumes and the busy bee spends its whole life toiling just to help make more flowers”.  The phenotype of the bee is being controlled by the genes of the flower, not the bee. This is the concept of the extended phenotype, which finds its purest expression in parasitology.
So there are some who believe that the crops we turned to in our modern agricultural systems are acting more like Parasites that food stuffs, and that when we think we are serving food in the “restaurant service” sense , we literally are serving food – i.e. we now serve THEM, as servants.
This makes sense from the perspectives of evolutionary psychology and behavioral ecology.
Whether it was drought in arid desert regions or winter freezing water into ice, the limits to plant growth and reproduction, and hence to animal fecundity were set by the availability of water.  In the Middle East, certainly, it was not energy that was missing from the Nexus.  Sunshine has always been abundant in those latitudes to provide energy for food production.
In the European countries the harsh winters did indeed constrain plant productivity and famines could result in winter if care wasn’t taken to take the enormous fecundity of the spring, summer and fall and store the harvest surplus for the fallow period.    But Hunter Gatherers North and South, in the cold regions or the hot ones, originally depended on agroforestry, on tree crops, on perennials, not annuals.  And they depended on the animals that depended on forests – on forest boars and jungle fowl and woodland ungulates – all the ancestors of our modern pigs and chicken and cows.  In the north the forest leaf fall in the fall built up incredible rich soils during the winter ready for an explosion of food in the spring and summer which created enough surplus for the mammals we ate to survive the winter. In the south the forests retained the water that fell sporadically and created their own microclimates through transpiration.  They forests created environments so rich in the cornucopia of foodstuffs that our mythology now recalls as “The Garden of Eden”.
And if you want some mythological proof of the disaster or agriculture, just look at the curse we were to endure after eating the tree of knowledge and getting kicked out of the garden,
“To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat from it,' "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you will eat the plants of the field; 19By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, Till you return to the ground”.  So eating bread isn’t salvation, eating bread is the CURSE.  No wonder so many hunters and gatherers said, “shoot, I’m going back into the forest, no way I’m doing hard time through painful toil to eat when I can pick fruits and vegetables and trap animals.”  And the fossil evidence of malnutrition affecting the pelvic bones of women,  noted by Spencer Wells in Pandora’s Seed, is corroborated in the curse in Genesis when God says, “To the woman he said, "I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." 
We can even comment on what this reveals about the emergence of patriarchal rule due to the shift to grain agriculture.  My experience with hunter-gatherer populations is that the women are usually the ones who understood the sheer abundance of biodiversity that nature offered to put into the cooking pot.  I experienced it when I was living with Melayu and  Dyak tribes in the rainforests of Borneo and was taken into the forest by the medicine woman who was cooking our meal and her grandson who climbed the trees to get the foods.  She was called the “witch doctor” and as she laid out the huge variety of foods we collected to put in the cooking pot I had images of the witches’ cauldron with its “eyes of newt, frogs legs, bats wings” – all things that would have provided great inexpensive abundant protein but which today are shamefully associated with evil and witchcraft.  After all, women were BURNED at the stake for understanding and promoting biodiversity in diet by the European patriarchy, and children punished or mocked for thinking they could go into the forest as kids do and come back munching on lizards and grubs.  Agriculture can be blamed not only for this tremendous patriarchal violence and loss of biodiversity as we simplified the landscape to a handful of weedy grasses, but for what James Scott calls the “dummification” of humanity.  At one time, as I experienced among the hunters and gatherers of Borneo, harvesting food was an educational adventure that made women and children experts who rivaled the best Ph.D. botanists and naturalists who Harvard sent out.  With agriculture we turned brilliant self-sufficient peasants into outdoor factory workers and, of course, quite literally when you are talking about the first 400 years of agriculture in the European colonized Americas, slaves.  The violence inherent in agriculture rears its ugly head everywhere.
  And it could be said that Genesis itself records the clearest indication that grain agriculture is the scourge of mankind, the source of its original sin of violence in  The story of Cain and Abel. This chapter of the Bible is the clearest indictment of wheat agriculture one could imagine, and nobody seems to comment on it.  Abel is a pastoralist who tends a flock of animals who wander about like ungulate hunter gatherers, eating what God has given them.  His brother Cain is… a wheat farmer, somehow stupidly living out God’s curse to scratch a living in the hot sun through toil amidst the thistles and thorns that always accompany weed agriculture.  Abel brings a lamb meat sacrifice to the altar of God, along with diverse  fruits and vegetables he has gathered, and God is pleased.
Cain then comes with a bunch of wheat and the Bible says,
“but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD (Links to an external site.) said (Links to an external site.) to Cain, (Links to an external site.) "Why (Links to an external site.) are you angry? (Links to an external site.) And why (Links to an external site.) has your countenance (Links to an external site.) fallen? (Links to an external site.)7"If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it."…
To me this is a clear indication that the ancients saw wheat offerings as a kind of sin, the sin of an addiction, an addiction which Cain could not master.  In his anger he turns around and kills his gentle carnivorous animal slaughtering brother.
Think about it for a moment… it is enough to make Vegans go mad:  The vegetarian is the killer, the slaughterer of baby goats is the gentle one.

Could it be that this ancient myths were there to warn us that wheat is a weed, that grains are drugs, that we haven’t been growing food all along, but addictive substances that will end up mastering us through the Botany of Desire?

So, to get back to Reverend Malthus, who in my opinion must not have spent an awful lot of time delving into the hermeneutic interpretation of the books he preached in his fiery diatribes against the poor and the immigrants, it is clear to me that the entire Matlhusian premise is based on a fabrication of the weed eaters, who most likely did observe that if they kept planting grains and consuming starches and sugars their own sickly but ever increasing population would outstrip the fecundity of the land and so human populations would increase geometrically while their drug-food agriculture would only increase arithmetically if at all.

But if Abel had been Abel, we might have returned to the garden a long long time ago, where food is a self-increasing population grown in permacultural symbiosis into perpetuity.
The good news is, that the world as we know it IS coming to an end.  And what is ending isn’t the good life, but the bad life we inherited from our dummified forebears.  We can begin again. Permacultural Food Production shows us how.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Seeing in Technicolor and 3D...

Intrigo (Intrigue Oriented Introductory Video) for Module 1 of the FEW Nexus

Isn't it funny how many people see things as black and white? "You're either with us or against us" they will say, You are either on the left or on the right... liberal or conservative, democrat or republican... and this is to say nothing about the problems we face in  race relations.  People increasingly talk as if the world truly were in black and white.  Some folks, seeking to be more compromising, talk about "shades of gray".  They will show a strip of gray scale and point out that not everything neatly falls into the easy categories, but can sometimes take a position somewhere in between in that nebulous "gray area".
  Does anybody remember "technicolor"?  I mean, seriously, from the way the world is going you would think we were rushing headlong into the 1930s.  And by then we actually hadtechnicolor -- the process, applied to the way we looked at the world through film recordings,  was invented as far back as 1916, and major films were introducing it two decades later --  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Disney in 1937, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in 1939... the age of black and white films was coming to an end just as World War II was beginning. The Wizard of Oz in particular was subliminally telling Americans that amidst the turmoil of twisters and coming disasters we could still turn our dreary Kansas lives around and enter a magical world if we opened the door and looked out with new eyes.   Even everyday television was moving into color by the early 1960s -- I remember being in nursery school in 1966 and going to a wealthier friend's house to watch a vibrantly colorful episode of Batman and Robin on their big color TV in the living room.

So what is it about people, almost none of whom are color blind, continuing to see the world in black and white and shades of grey?  Have you seen the movies Pleasantville, from 1989, set in a faux-nostalgic black and white stylized conservative 1950s landscape where two teens fall in love and gradually bring color into their dreary and oppressive world?  Or how about the 2014 dystopian film "The Giver" where youth in a post-disaster world devoid of color need to reclaim their memories of a golden age where even gold was just another one of the magnificent diversity of  emotional colors that made life worth living. Why do we humans who live already, and always have,  in a diverse and colorful world, act as though things are so black and white?

And all this is to say nothing about what makes so many people continue to see the world in only two dimensions, with world views that are so shallow, so lacking in perspective and depth.  We can't blame the movies or TV for this.   I mean, 3D film making is everywhere these days, and it has actually been around since 1922 when audiences in Los Angeles flocked to see the feature film "The Power of Love" using the red-and-green anaglyph (Links to an external site.) 3D system.  3D Stereoscopy for looking at still images had been around and popular since the 1860s.  And for crying out loud, people naturally see the world in 3D, in color, because we are primates with binocular color vision from eyes filled with rods and cones.  And now we have immersive 360 degree virtual reality goggles, like the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR and all that, which simply make entertainment look more like the real life we've been immersed in for millions of years.  So what makes people continue to see the world as though we were staring at an old black and white TV?

I know what you are thinking now. You are thinking "what on earth does this have to do with Food, Energy and Water"?  Well my friends, in this module I'm going to seek to convince you that NEXUS thinking, the thinking that allows us to see the hidden connections between these three dominant sectors crucial to  sustainability, and helps us survive in our post-modern world, DEMANDS that you are able to see in more dimensions and with more degrees of freedom, and in living color, fully using the brain and sensory systems our ancestors evolved precisely to solve food, energy an water problems millions of years ago.  If we still see things as black and white and in two dimensions, like many reptiles,  we certainly won't be able to see the Nexus that connects us and that can keep us from the fate of the dinosaurs.  So... let's get started... before its too late!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The FEW Nexus and the Culhane Relational Summary: How My Classes Work

Instructions for Projects
How Relational Summaries work 

The FEW Nexus and the Culhane Relational Summary: How My Classes Work

Instructions for Projects
How Relational Summaries work 
 Video: Suggestions for how to create a Relational Summary

The above Video, 'Applied Environmental Psychology Relational Summary Explanation', was created by Dr. Culhane in 2012 for a class at Mercy College, NY where he developed his "relational summary" methodology. It helps explain the method to make it easier for you!)
Video: Suggestions for Gamifying a Course

The above Video, 'Applied Environmental Psychology Relational Summary Explanation', was created by Dr. Culhane in 2012 for a class at Mercy College, NY where he developed his "gamification" methodology. It helps explain the method to make it easier for you!

In this class we are unabashedly "project based".
And our class is "gamified".
  Living in uncertain times, in a time of climate uncertainty, where the only things that are certain, beyond "death and taxes", are that "times they are a changin'" and that we are in the midst of the greatest extinction event in the history of the planet earth, we have an obligation to immediately and without hesitation bend all of our learning outcomes toward meaningful product creation that strengthens our abilities to work together in common purpose to solve the very real problems and challenges now facing us.

Life support systems are failing, being compromised, being obliterated.  The relentless march of unsustainable development practices continues to take its toll, and environmental and social injustices are multiplying.

And YET... we have solutions.

There are two main ways to earn credit in this class:

1) The Relational Summary, completed after each class lecture each week
2) Independent and group project progress reports/updates/milestones

Both seek to get your motor running, get your juices flowing, get your mojo working and get you engaged with problem solving and creative solution sharing.

As we point out in the syllabus, each week you should strive to earn at least 20 points to earn enough by the end of the semester to purchase an A.  Some type of an "A" can be bought for 288  to 320 points (90% of 320 to 100% of 320).  Some kind of B (from B- to B+) can be purchased for 80 to 90% of 320 (i.e. 256 to 288 points), and some kind of C for 70% to 80 % (224 to 256 points).  You pass the class with a D for anything between 160 points and 224 points. You can't buy any grade at all (i.e. you "fail") if you earn less than 160.

The Relational summary, faithfully completed, can earn you easily between 8 and 12 points per week, so technically you can pass the class just by doing all the relational summaries well.  In 16 weeks you could get 160 to  192 points maximum just by doing relational summaries.

The rest of your points (an additional 160 or more) can be obtained by creative project based work, and that is how you get "rich" enough to "buy your A".

How you go about obtaining those points has much in common with a video game, like World of Warcraft (WoW!) where side missions and adventures and quests earn you the points you need to level up.  In many video games your ultimate mission is to help save the world.  In the FEW Nexus class this is also our ultimate goal.  The rules of the game, of course, are to use FEW Nexus Systems Thinking to achieve that goal, and demonstrate our mastery of these skill sets.

In this class we are about finding and communicating and implementing and enhancing those solutions.  In this class we are about putting the pieces of the puzzle into coherent focus and creating synergies that offer solutions.  We are about problem solving and actively combining theory and practice into praxis.  We are about NEXUS thinking -- a coming together of heretofore distinct seeming disciplines and thought patterns, through systems integration, into synergistic strategies for success.

The class is specifically about the Food/Energy/Water Nexus, taking those three existential domains that subtend all life on earth and teasing out their hidden relationships, learning to see them in a holistic self-reinforcing fashion and then communicating our nuanced understandings of their interconnections. And this class is about YOU, about how YOU relate to the dilemma of ensuring sustainable and healthy food, energy and water to all in an equitable fashion.

This class takes as its starting point that YOU are important, that what you think and what you do MATTER.  We take seriously the notion that "if you aren't part of the solution, you are part of the problem" and we take seriously that the way you see the world and interact with our models of reality and communicate them has a lasting impact on the whole.  We want to empower you to do your part to be a healthy part of the nexus.  You are a living being who consumes food, water and energy and transforms them, for good or for ill, into other forms.  You are also a consumer and transformer of information which radically affects how food, water and energy are produced and consumed and transformed.

Because of your importance, we want to know HOW and WHY you interact with food, energy and water the way you do.  We want to know HOW and WHY you think about food, energy and water the way you do. We want to know your experiences with them throughout your lifetime, and what ideas and visions you have to improve your relationship with them and with the rest of us who mutually depend on them so that we can count on you to be our ally in seeking a sustainable and just future.

To do this we have created two major ways to earn points in this class.

1) The first is what we call "The Relational Summary".

You are all familiar with the old school demand that you "summarize what you have learned".  You listen to lectures, you do readings, you engage in class discussions and research and then you distill all that work and all your thoughts and findings and create a summary that highlights the most important and salient points, separating the "wheat from the chaff" and communicating to others the essence of what you learned in a way that demonstrates your understanding of the topic, theme or issue.

The problem with "traditional" demands to "summarize" is that they were generally seeking to make you prove you were attentive to your classes through regurgitation so as to grade you competitively against another human being, with the underlying assumption that we were all cut from the same mold and were uniformly manufactured and should trained to see the world in similar ways. The function of most summaries is generally to see if you can be disciplined to  think like your professors or the authors of the literature he or she assigns, with the assumption that there is a set of "right answers" that are worthy of memorization and repitition.

The relational summary is a bit different.


A Relational summary asks you to EXPLICITLY weave your own narrative and model of reality into your restatement of what others have said about the topics you are studying.  A relational summary asks you to INJECT yourself into the subject, to insert your experience into the retelling of what others have said.  A relational summary demands you take ownership and responsibility for what comes through the selective filters of your perception.

A relational summary assumes that there is an objective reality out there, that there are "truths" to be revealed, but that you can't help but add a subjective element to to what you report on because you are not a copy machine, nor should you be treated as such.  A relational summary makes explicit that you are a unique being with something to say about the world, and that each time you learn new information, you have the right and obligation to synthesize it with your own lived interpretation of reality and present your summary with the ADDED VALUE of your own take on the material.

The point is that YOU ADD VALUE.  And for adding that value, which WE VALUE, we add points to your portfolio. We pay you points NOT for spitting back or parroting what we and/or the readings and discussions taught you, but for massaging that information through your subjective filters, through your unique brain and the unique experiences you have had in your life, and returning it to us ENHANCED through your interaction with the material.

So we PAY YOU FOR YOUR PARTICIPATION, we pay you for your interaction and contributions.

How do I write a relational summary then?

We have a RUBRIC that spells out how to earn the maximum number of points for summarizing what went on in class.  It looks like this:

The Culhane "Relational Summary" is the main "assignment" in this course and, if done faithfully, easily and enjoyably earns you enough points to pass the class.  You do a relational summary each time you finish a class, and you are encouraged to start working on it IN CLASS as you observe the lectures and participate in class discussions.
The first part of the assignment is "TAKING NOTE" of your environment.  Because so few people have been taking note of what surrounds them, noticing, observing, relating to and thinking about and engaging with their natural environments, I would argue that we have brought much of our ecosystem services and wilderness areas to ruin.
 In a classroom or online environment, our inability to take note the complexities of interacting with the material, the professor and the other students, and the college regulations often leads us to underperform or harm our GPA too.  So taking note is a generalizable phenomenon of importance, and in school it takes the form of "taking notes". That is how we commit what we notice about the changes occurring in our environment to a useful form.  Then we can incorporate those notes into the "relational summary".
A lecture or discussion in a class is meant to "change the world" at best,  and at the very least have some kind of impact, make some kind of change in your local environment, in your brain chemistry, in your perspective, in your understanding and in your relationships to the material and to the other human beings in the shared classroom environment.   So when you notice those changes occurring in you, in the way you think or express yourself, recording those changes is the best way to prepare yourself to communicate to the world about it.  Communicating your observations is the essence of science.  And we desperately need good science, citizen science, to survive the next few decades.
Your "notes" are the scientific record of your observations.  So you should be taking notes of everything you perceive and observe.

Then, you want to make sense of those notes by RELATING them to YOURSELF.  You relate the things you observe and take note of to your past life experiences and your ambitions and questions about reality. You PERSONALIZE them.

When class ends, you should have a sketch of what your mind grasped during the class and how it CONNECTS with your UNIQUE take on life, with your unique personality, life-history and dreams.

You then take that information and turn it into a RELATIONAL SUMMARY that captures all of that but also ADDS TO IT through the READINGS you do. You mine the readings (some that I suggest, some that you find yourself) and pull out relevant quotes and sections and ideas and put the ones that YOU CAN RELATE TO  in your relational summary -- WITH REFERENCES so that the rest of us can follow up and go down that rabbit hole with you if we find ourselves stimulated and interested and find that we can relate to those readings to. We want to be able to find those readings and read them too.  Your comments on those readings and the  way YOU relate to them is more important to us than what the actually readings say.  We gain insight into YOU through how you choose to use the readings and the quotes.

And since this is about gaining insight into YOU, into EACH OTHER, part of the relational summary involves interacting with and commenting on other student's relational summaries.

My own lectures, in fact, ARE relational summaries, so I am modeling the process for you most of the time!

So to summarize, a good relational summary, which is the constant weekly assignment, involves the following four sections, with are in our Rubric:
1) Relational Summary Includes at least three topics presented by the Professor in class
We want to know what you got out of the lecture, what you were attentive to of all the many things said. What stood out FOR YOU? What resonated with your interests? What piqued your interests? What did your mind consider important or noteworthy? (3 pts) 

2) Relational Summary includes at least three examples/illustrations/connected topics from the assigned and independently sourced readings

How do the readings that are assigned and that you find through your own research into the Nexus related to what we discussed in class? What examples/illustrations from the literature did you find that support/contradict what was presented in class (3 pts)

3)  Relational Summary includes at least three connections to YOUR LIFE -- illustrations and ideas from your life experience that connect to the topic/theme of the class lecture/discussion (3 pts)

The is all about YOU. YOU COUNT. You matter. Your ideas, opinions, dreams, aspirations, fears, imaginations -- they all are important. How does what we talked about in class relate to YOUR life? What life experiences have you had that connect to the material in today's class? 

4)  Relational Summary makes note of at least three contributions made by other students in the class during the class period We are building a community. We are a team. And we are only as strong as the weakest strand of the web we weave to build our FEW Nexus tribe. (3 pts)

We want to discipline ourselves to be PRESENT FOR ONE ANOTHER. To be ATTENTIVE to one another. That is what attendance is all about. We show up for EACH OTHER. And in this assignment we show that we are here for each other, that we paid attention to one another.
This is the basic relational summary assignment.
It earns you 12 points max.  

But if you want more, you can consider your relational summary, as I do mine, to be the start of a script that you use for your independent and group projects,  illustrated presentations, videos, performance art pieces... the list is endless, the possibilities almost infinite.  The relational summary gives you a voice, and chance to express yourself and be heard and make an impact on others.

2) Independent and group project progress reports/updates/milestones

The second way to earn points in this class is to DO SOMETHING with what you are learning!

The joke in the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland is when the rabbit screams to Alice, "Don't just do something... stand there!" showing the absurdity of life when the prime directive seems to vehemently contradict solving problems, urgently exhorting us to do nothing.   School has often been like that.  But not in this class.

Here we reward action.  We ask you to dare to take your knowledge and experiences, both those gleaned from this class and your other classes and your entire life, and APPLY them to problem solving using the Nexus approach.

HOW you do that is really up to you... and your team-mates.  We professors and teaching assistants can give suggestions and we will model the approaches that work best for US, but you are ultimately responsible for how you go about earning your "homework" or "assignment" credit.

Since the course is "gamified" we expect that you will join us in embracing  the video game trope of "discovery to mastery" where you start out with very little information and overt guidance and allow yourself to explore and experiment with ideas and techniques and allow the feedback that comes from the points you earn and the discussions we have about your evolving projects to guide and refine your work.

This method, familiar to anybody who has played most adventure or quest style computer games, is an essential part of the Systems Thinking component of the course.   We want you to LIVE THE METHOD because it EMBEDS the knowledge into your consciousness through real life practice.  As Marshall McLuhan famously wrote "the medium is the massage"... and that is the message we are trying to manifest into praxis.    We encourage you to embrace your confusion and allow yourself to help create emergent properties through various "random walks", similar to how ants and other social insects form their collective intelligence.  We provide a safety net and the reinforcing evolving feedback loops that allow you and your team members to co-create and discover the collective intelligence that emerges through interactivity.

As a safety net, we provide a "minimum wage" point value for the amount of time you spend experimenting with ideas and solutions.  You simply report to us with regular updates/milestones (usually a textual description of the amount of time you spent on a given activity in service of the mission, enhanced and supported when possible with photographic or audio-video evidence or by artifacts showing the results of your investment of time and labor and energy and thought.   In general, for every hour you spend working on a project you earn no less than 3 points.  Four hours of "homework" time/project time per week easily earns you 10 to 12 points, and over 16 weeks that easily pushes you into the A+ category!

So it is a no lose proposition -- you earn points in a myriad of ways that you bank until you are ready to buy your grade, you can't lose points, and the points don't expire.  Point values have a minimum defined by our rubrics to keep you safe, but the maximum is determined through the rubric's provisions for "collective bargaining" as your fellow classmates and team members see the utility of your contributions and role in the social nexus.   Our goal is to teach the Nexus by doing nexus things, to learn about systems thinking by engaging in systems thinking, to literally "be the change you want to see in the world".

To be or not to be? In this class you have signed on to be a part of the solution and NOT part of the problem.  Your journey toward being a leader in sustainability and justice for all starts today.

Ready, set... GO!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

FEW NEXUS Case Study: Standing for Sustainability at Standing Rock.

FEW NEXUS Case Study:  Standing for Sustainability at Standing Rock.

The ongoing conflict at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, where first nations tribes have been making a stand against the oil companies trying to run a pipeline through their land, is an example of a key opportunity for the FEW Nexus to show its power.

 The conflict itself is a Nexus Issue: The Lakota Sioux tribe is worried, quite justifiably, that a leak in the pipeline, which is intended to supply energy to Euro-American businesses, will contaminate their water supply. In so doing it will also contaminate much of their food supply.  This one energy issue, given the inevitability of leaks, would force them to depend on purchased water and purchased food and increase their dependency on the white businesses, further eroding whatever traditions and autonomy they have left.  Energy affecting water and food.  Can they ever be considered in isolation?

Nexus thinking showed us the problems – nobody today can look at a proposed energy project without considering the effects on food and water --  and Nexus thinking  can also reveal the solutions.

 At Standing Rock , the three camps of Water Protectors, Oceti Sakowin on the front lines, Rosebud and Sacred Stone, have become the temporary home for over 7,000 people from around the world who stand in solidarity with Native Americans defending all our access to clean energy, food and water. To keep the water protectors and their allies alive, particularly through the harsh winter, requires energy, food and water, and plenty of it.

Let’s start with energy.  At standing Rock there is no electricity.  So for heat and light the first things the protestors had to turn to was the oldest form of stored energy, used by the indigenous people here for thousands of years – firewood.

The dim glow of a campfire, its flickering embers illuminating the creased faces of the elders as they chant prayers and beat on drums, is a familiar sight each evening at the camp.  Figures huddled around chimneys from wood burning stoves within teepees harken back to a time here centuries ago before anybody knew petroleum existed. 

But people switched to oil from firewood for what they thought were good reasons that are as true today as they were a hundred years ago. Wood fires are poor sources of illumination, they create toxic noxious smoke and they so rapidly consume forest resources that with the number of people at the camp today, they can no longer be called renewable or sustainable. In fact there is already a small environmental outcry  (admittedly manipulated and promulgated by the pipeline profiteers) over the sheer amount of wood being consumed in this anti-oil environmental justice campaign.

So what to do?

Propane tanks were brought in, but while convenient for heating and cooling and running generators, they weaken the argument of the protestors because they are a product of the very industry the protestors are fighting against. In addition, the sherrif’s office ordered Ace Hardware outlets near the camp  to cease selling propane to the protestors to try and freeze them out.  So the dependency they create on outsiders who are hostile to the initiative makes the campaign vulnerable to sabotage. Faced with these challenges, an international effort began to provide renewable energy. Even the actor Mark Ruffalo, famous for his role as the Incredible Hulk in the Avengers, got involved delivering large solar electric arrays to the camp.

There are wind generators of various sizes and configurations, and even bicycle generators.  These provide fairly reliable electricity for lighting and power tools.

 I was able to make myself useful at Sacred Stone camp over Thanksgiving putting a 550 Watt photovoltaic array into the new emergency medical tent while my friend Chris Lindstrom gave electricity to the IBC compost toilet he built, and there was nowhere at the camps where one couldn’t charge laptops,  phones and cameras.   But using electricity to create heat is well known to be the least efficient use of energy and while it could be used in an emergency at the camp there was no economic incentive to devote those resources to heating.    There is a main geodesic dome gathering space where the Oceti Sakown camp holds their orientations and  decolonization meetings and hosts guest speakers like John Bowlingbough, the whistle blower from the oil spill cleanup crew who showed us his documentary expose on the lies the oil industry spreads about safety. This public space, which also serves as sleeping bag sleeping quarters for new arrivals like me, has a wood burning stove and is also heated by electric ceiling heat lamps that are variably powered by solar electricity, wind and a gasoline generator.

And every day more people arrive with the expertise and the vision to use Nexus thinking to solve all these problems in tandem.

The incredible thing about the Standing Rock protest camps is that the Native Americans who have called themselves the “Water Protectors” are also calling the rest of the world to join them in being Food and Energy protectors.  They see their cause, fighting against the “Black Snake” – a euphemism for the deadly and deceitful oil pipeline – as a rallying point around which humanity can come together and finally create a single location where the existential problems of survival are solved sustainably.  

It is a difficult road however, especially given that North and South Dakota’s food, energy and water problems are made far far worse by the yearly winter storms and radically reduced sunlight which render cold season  agriculture and energy production problematic and freeze water into an all but useless solid.

Still, in the hands of a people who survived in this frigid landscape for millennia before fossil fuels and plastics and engines and generators were discovered,  working with all of us around the world who have developed improved independence technologies, the FEW Nexus Eutopia seems more than ever achievable.

To give you some perspective, I recently received this announcement from my inventor friend Sam Smith, who is living in a tent at Standing Rock working on these technologies . Sam writes,

“With the eyes of the world on Standing Rock as a microcosm for indigenous rights and clean energy activism in general, we believe that our efforts here can have more of an impact then at other times and places. We believe that if we can help to demonstrate that clean energy systems are possible in the face of such an extreme environment during such necessary times, that they are possible to implement elsewhere, as well as directly helping the Standing Rock community who can in turn use them to teach other communities what really works.”

Sam noted that most of the many donations coming into the camp from around the world were creating a surplus of cardboard box wastes.  He writes,

“We figured out we were able to shred cardboard into a pulp and then press it into fire logs that could be burned in the camps wood stoves. We also were able to help by jumping cars, fixing stuff, and getting LED light strands with battery packs into several community spaces that needed lighting. In the first weekend we also worked on being able to do some guerrilla light projection, using an overhead projector that Sam had brought to project the words “NoDAPL” onto the snow in glowing 8' letters..

"On Monday night there was a high powered blizzard that managed to shake up our infrastructure quite a bit. After some damage control at 3am that night we were able to rebuild and recreate a working space over the next few days. Over the time we were there the temperature steadily dropped and we adapted accordingly with a lot of flexibility, a bit of luck, and a strong ability to fix things and adapt between the two of us. It was a harsh environment but we found that the harder we were pushed the more ready we were to rise to the next challenge.

Standing Rock in blizzard. Photo: Sam Smith

"We continued making friends and refining the process of making fire pucks for whole trip (which we affectionately called “fucks”. We wanted to have lots of fucks to give.) We ran into several difficulties, including the incredibly arduous task of finding and creating enough liquid water to mix with the cardboard shreds. This is something we can solve for on subsequent trips.

Cardboard pellets. Photo: Same Smith

Sam Smith's hand-made shredder. Photo: Sam Smith

Sam Smith's hand-made shredder. Photo: Sam Smith

Sam Smith's hand-made shredder. Photo: Sam Smith

Grinder. Photo: Sam Smith

"Sam and River got several projects going before we had to head home, including figuring out how to charge phones from wood stoves and make hot water consistently, which is a big damn deal in that environment. With the right parts and enough money we could make these and other related projects genuinely happen on the ground which would be a big deal to the people there.
The ultimate goal is to get Sacred Stone camp completely off of fossil fuels, notably gasoline and propane, as quickly as possible. This is an extremely attainable goal, and also an extremely challenging one. In such  a severe environment one comes to respect and appreciate the often life-saving availability and energy-density of such fuels. Getting off them entirely is a considerable design challenge.

"Here’s the current energy situation: The most common energy needs are electricity (mostly for lighting and phone-charging), hot water, and space heating. Electrical needs are being met with solar panels (wind turbines are in the works as we speak) and gas-powered portable generators. Hot water needs are being generally under-met in many parts of the camp, with clean liquid water being constantly scarce, water for dishwashing coming from melting snow, and hot showers basically nonexistent. Space heating is coming almost entirely from wood burning stoves.

"What we are working towards is a decentralized, easy-to-replicate waste-to-energy system that can be easily implemented in all of the community spaces and provide consistent and abundant electricity, hot water, and space heating, without using any fossil fuels. This means deriving electricity from wood and trash. There are many ways to do this, but the current plan involves shredding all burnable waste, including food waste, and compressing them into fuel bricks. These bricks must then be dried, but this can be done in a way that produces steam and distills out clean water while heating interior spaces.

Thermoelectric generator. Photo courtesy of Sam Smith.

Thermoelectric generator. Photo courtesy of Sam Smith.

"We are also exploring the use of Thermoelectric Generators, which are basically like solar panels for heat. TEGs can meet the electrical demand of lights and phones and be powered by ANY heat differential, which means wood stoves, or even wood stoves powered by fuel pucks, can produce electricity. This process also produces hot water as by-product. So the goal is to produce an integrated, open-source woodstove/dryer/distiller/water heater/electrical generator capable of meeting all needs for water heating, water filtration, space heating, lights, and power, all at once. We know this sounds fake; we assure you it’s not. The solutions and technology are all ready to go, it’s just a matter of putting the pieces together.

"Hopefully it doesn't come as a surprise but this fight against the building of the pipeline is still very much happening and still very much in need of solidarity and all forms of support. DAPL is not going to stop, they will pay a fine and break the law and keep building. The entire time we were there 30 or so football stadium lights blasted our light space from the work site and blocked our view of most of the stars. Helicopters circled often and disruptively. Everyone prayed peacefully before every meal and all day long. The sacred fire at Sacred Stone was an unflagging priority. This fight is hard, we know it is sometimes confusing, we know it is often overwhelming. This is also unquestionably a cause that deserves everything we've got.

"While we were there we saw such hope, and such growth, and such community. In the face of an overwhelming world we saw people work themselves raw every day to make a better one. Sacred stone is laser focused on answering the questions of how to generate solutions to our dependency on unsustainable energy.

"We saw port-o-potties get locked because they were unsustainable and problematic and composting toilets go up within a day. Lemme tell ya, that's amazing.”

Sam’s amazement isn’t just tied to the rapidity with which the more sustainable solutions can be implemented.  It is also about how much better things like composting toilets are from a Nexus perspective.  A “port-o-pottie” merely pretends to be a solution for dealing with human waste, but merely displaces the problem “downstream”, contaminating land and  water through the dumping of its chemical laden and now useless fecal material and, if incinerated, adding to the energy and air pollution problem.  A composting toilet by contrast, not only  renders fecal material harmless but actually builds life giving soil for new food production , keeps contamination away from water and air, and, though still unrecognized at the camp on a large scale, generates energy, producing enough heat through aerobic digestion that it can save lives in the coldest winters.  I have been witness to how the  Sherpas in Nepal’s Himalayas actually use composting toilets built next to their houses to add heat to the house.  I have used compost toilets in Portugal to stay warm on frigid nights.  So this one simple  technology turns out to be in itself a nexus solution of considerable power.

Copper coil heat exchanger on wood stove at Standing Rock. Photo courtesy of Sam Smith.

Combined with well insulated biodigesters, heated by solar hot water and the waste heat from the wood burning stoves, transforming all the food waste and some of the fecal material  into methane cooking fuel  and fertilizer, the waste turns out to be a solution instead of a problem.

Once people at the camps get their cultural taboos in order, abandon fecophobia and get their minds around using compost toilets and food-waste biodigesters  to help keep water liquid and help with space heating, it is my contention that a significant part of the winter problem facing the camp will feel solvable… the more people there are, the more heat will be generated.

And one of the great things about the camp is that as the fight goes on and the need to keep a permanent presence gets recognized, this remote area can serve as an educational hub to energize others.

Sam writes enthusiastically about  something I also observed with great hopefulness when I was at Standing Rock.

He writes,
“We saw a schoolhouse get built that is a true inspiration for the children who live on the land. We saw an unflagging intensity to kill the black snake with green energy, perseverance, extreme cleverness, community and prayer. We want to go back and help. We need to. We want to bring your intention and energy and support with us.”

The idea that there might finally be a schoolhouse and curriculum somewhere in the world dedicated to ending the rule of the black snake’s petro-dominance is lifting the hopes not just of the international allies flocking to the Indian reservation in  Dakota but of everybody connected to it through today’s light-speed spirit lifting social media.  Facebook, for example, is turning into a virtual classroom for the Food-Energy-Water Nexus where problem solvers and water protectors are connecting to connect all the dots, collect all the parts, learn all the systems and synergies and how to integrate them.

Sam writes to his facebook supporters,

“The items we need to be independent are:
-Solar Powered Fairy Lights and string lights
-Flexible Solar Panels (100, 120 or 150W) ($150-$250, easy to set up on tents)
-12V 100Ah AGM Lead Acid Batteries (Work with and expand our existing power systems)
-Plug-in Power Tools (battery powered ones don't work in the cold)
-Thermo-Electric Generator modules (DC electricity from ANY heat differential, also produce hot water)
-Portable Tables and Shelves (the nice plastic folding ones)
-Solar Powered Phone Battery Packs and/or nicer rechargeable battery packs
-7-20 ton Shop Press (3 needed to make hella fucks, we've got 1)
-Engine Block Heater (for when the engine block in the van freezes)
-20lb Propane Tanks (bonus if they have propane! We need to run heaters to be able to work until we can get alternative energy systems in place.)
-Large propane heaters (nice ones)
We love you all, we love Standing Rock, We are not giving up. We are dedicated and capable and determined.”

And why would you give up when an application of Nexus principles and the right technologies actually proves its utility by saving your life?  Those of us who live in the nexus are dedicated , capable and determined because we have lived the benefits, getting through earthquakes and hurricanes and economic collapses and wars and blackouts and other hard times precisely because these things DO work. And once you have seen them and felt them work, you can't give up.

The list Sam came up with is interesting because it is a good example of the prioritization that occurs when theory and practice collide and cohere into PRAXIS IN THE NEXUS, when practitioners on the ground start applying what they have learned and live what works and what doesn’t and where and why.  It is one thing to dream about some solar powered organically fed clean water eutopia free of fossil fuels and pollution and chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  It is another to be facing a harsh winter on a small piece of property surrounded by militarized police and barbed wire fences cut off from easy access to the outside world constrained by  limited funds and time.  Compromises have to be made and planning for success must embrace immediate realities and long-term ideals.

If we can succeed at Standing Rock we will prove that Nexus thinking really is the most powerful multi-tool in our sustainability tool-kit. Standing Rock makes a stand that is as timeless at it is urgent.  The first nations people stand as a symbol of independence and sustainability that was almost obliterated by the incessant march of greed and profit seeking capitalism driven by Europeans with  a world view based on resource extraction and plundering and expansionism because Imperialist Europe  lacked an understanding of or appreciation for  interconnections and the non-zero sum nature of resource cycles. Finally many of the descendants of the colonialist enterprise have come to understand nexus thinking and are willing to apply it. We are all just waiting for the right when and where.

It is my belief that when we heal this “original sin” of the American genocide, a time in history when an entire continent's people and their lifestyles were exterminated and slavery and fossil fuel power were employed to create the world’s leading economic and military and cultural power, the example will have the power to penetrate the consciousness of all the descendants of nations and cultures who profited from the take over of the Americas but who are now all suffering the same fate of health problems and ecosystem collapse.

Just as non-Nexus thinking and the absurd 19th and 20th century  logics of capitalist commercialization and compartmentalization and reductionism spread unsustainable practices all over the planet, a new wave of nexus thinking now needs to spread from the United States back out to the world.   America is arguably where the stone was thrown into the world development pond, sending out not just  ripples but a tidal wave of destruction as culture after culture adopted our destructive practices. This sacred stone of sustainability being dropped into the pool of history at Standing Rock could be the exactly what is needed to undo that damage.

It is for this reason that I conceive of the water war being waged at Standing Rock as the nexus for all issues concerning  sustainability – not just water, energy, food and waste, but culture as well.
Says, “This is the first time that leaders from across the Sioux Nation—representing all Sioux groups—have come together since 1876… more than 200 tribal nations have assembled peacefully there to resist the pipeline, travelling from as far as Hawaii, Canada and Latin America…As Noam Chomsky recently observed, “all over the world the leading forces in trying to prevent a race to [environmental] disaster are the indigenous communities.”

When indigenous communities all around the world choose a time space cultural and environmental  nexus like this, and join together with the descendants of their oppressors in applying new nexus understandings, for the first time in history, the race can finally be over. As the Beatles sang,  it is time to “Come Together, right now”… over this:  making a stand for food, energy and water sustainability at Standing Rock.