About six months ago my friend and mentor Donna called to ask if I would be willing to give one of the keynote speeches at this yearʻs agricultural conference. Donna is one of those people with excellent people skills, which means that it is very difficult to say No to her: one because she will already have cultivated a relationship with you; and two, she will come armed with persuasions tailor-made to your psychology. She will appeal to your higher instincts for public service and your lower instincts for ego-gratification. Also of course it was an honor to be asked. So I agreed to give a speech. Continue reading “The Speech”
Here is Descartes, a founding father of the philosophy (myth, theory, story) of the modern world:
“And certainly the idea which I possess of the human mind inasmuch as it is a thinking thing, and not extended in length, width and depth, nor participating in anything pertaining to body, is incomparably more distinct than is the idea of any corporeal thing.” Descartes, Meditations
“I think,” my daughter Ua said gravely, ”I want to go up on the mauna.” In Hawai’i, these words have a distinct and edgy meaning lately.
The mauna (mountain) she was referring to is Mauna Kea, where an encampment of kia’i (protectors/protestors) of the mauna have halted construction of a cutting-edge telescope by occupying the access road. Continue reading “On the Mauna”
“How could we deem ‘realistic’ a project of modernization that has ‘forgotten’ for two centuries to anticipate the reactions of the terraqueous globe to human actions? How could we accept as “objective’ economic theories that are incapable of integrating into their calculations the scarcity of resources whose exhaustion it had been their mission to predict? How could we speak of “effectiveness’ with respect to technological systems that have not managed to integrate into their design a way to last more than a few decades? How could we call “rationalist’ an ideal of civilization guilty of a forecasting error so massive that it prevents parents from leaving an inhabited world to their children?” – Bruno Latour
Our rationality is leading us…to where? If rationality is a mental discipline, a method, then we must ask what purpose does it serve? Where does it begin and where does it go to? If we don’t know in what our rationality is rooted and where it is leading us, then what good is it? Or if our rationality is leading us somewhere that we don’t want to go, then it is worse than useless.
The anthropologist and historian of science, Bruno Latour, has written a political essay: Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime. This brief but fascinating book begins by invoking the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “From the 1980’s on, the ruling classes stopped purporting to lead and began to shelter themselves from the world. We are experiencing all the consequences of this flight, of which Donald Trump is merely a symbol, one among others. The absence of a common world we can share is driving us crazy.” Continue reading “A Review of of Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth”
“Here’s one of my scenarios. Let’s say there comes a time when human consciousness is readily uploadable into digital form, virtualized and so on, and pretty soon we have a box of a trillion souls. There are a trillion souls in the box, all virtualized. In the box, there will be molecular computing going on — maybe derived from biology, maybe not. But the box will be doing all kinds of elaborate stuff. And there’s a rock sitting next to the box. Inside a rock, there is always all kinds of elaborate stuff going on, all kinds of subatomic particles doing all kinds of things. What’s the difference between the rock and box of a trillion souls? The answer is that the details of what’s happening in the box were derived from the long history of human civilization, including whatever people watched on YouTube the day before. Whereas the rock has its long geological history but not that particular history of our civilization.
Realizing that there isn’t a genuine distinction between human intelligence and mere computation leads you to imagine that future — the endpoint of our civilization as a box of a trillion souls, each of them endlessly playing a video game, forever. What is the ‘purpose’ of that?”
— Stephan Wolfram, in Possible Minds, 25 Ways of Looking at AI, edited by John Brockton.
What is the purpose indeed.
Let’s just say that I hope we don’t have to wait until we’ve uploaded ourselves into some kind of general artificial intelligence to ask what the point of all this is. What is the purpose of all of our civilizational striving, our technological competitions, our race towards AI? Is it technological enabled ‘immortality’? Do we really want to put our souls in a box? But is this not the telos that our civilization seems to have chosen – this strange sterile vision of a purified, virtualized selves somehow made incorruptible through information technology? Our powers of symbolizing, of turning life into symbols, are turned upon ourselves. Do we not already treat each other – with our social media and big data – as symbols to be manipulated for profit?
As Jeff Bezos is quoted as saying in defense of his Blue Origin space project in the New York Times: “‘We will run out of energy,” Mr. Bezos said. “This is just arithmetic. It’s going to happen.’ At that point, to remain on Earth would require rationing and declining opportunities. But the rest of the solar system offers virtually limitless resources. ‘Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘This is an easy choice. We know what we want. We just have to get busy.’”
In other words, if we refuse to renounce the cult of growth and figure out how to live within the limits set by this planet in these humble, imperfect, contingent biological bodies, then ipso facto we must escape both bodies and planet in a technological rapture, more or less as described by Bezos and Wolfram.
Perhaps it’s just me but I don’t find these visions appealing. Nor am I convinced that such goals will bring the best ROI, if we must speak in such terms. Why are we allowing ourselves to be led towards goals (AI, space colonialism) that are, at best, questionable and by leaders who seem rather stunted in their understanding of the possibilities and purpose of Life on Earth?
I was at dinner with four women a few weeks ago to discuss protecting a nearby place of significance – what we would call a wahi pana. It is a ravishingly beautiful spot: a hanging valley overlooking the ocean, with groves of ancient native trees, flowers, ferns, orange trees, ginger, and bamboo. Most of the time there is a stream running through it, which, in this semi-arid district with its porous volcanic soils, is a wonder in itself. Naturally, this spot so blessed by nature was inhabited and beloved by the kanaka maoli – the native Hawaiians – for long centuries, until contact with the West decimated their population and nearly destroyed their culture. More recently, in the last few decades, it has been a religious retreat site. The Tibetan Buddhist philanthropists who currently own the land have other priorities on the mainland U.S. and so were talking of putting the property on the market. It was feared that the land could fall into the hands of owners who would treat it in the usual American way and plop down a trophy house so as to command the most sweeping view of the coastline. This would be a gut-wrenching desecration of the tangible and intangible qualities of the little valley. Continue reading “Four Earthly Ways of Being”
Earth Day is a opportunity to think big, as big as a planet, to let our thoughts unfurl into the still lovely expanses of this earth. It is a chance to remember our kinship, all our relations, to this extended family of ours, Life on Earth. It is an opportunity to remember that the most essential thing about us is that we are alive, as animals among animals, connected to plants, winds and rain. And to contemplate what an astonishing blessing and mystery it is to be alive on a living planet. Continue reading “Life on Earth Day”
Taiwan is a small country on a large-ish island, much blessed by nature, but struggling with the impact of a dense human population and rapid economic growth. Returning, for the first time in more than twenty years, to a country that I had lived in, off and on, for about a year, was most interesting. When I was last in Taiwan it was in the throes of its “Asian tiger” phase, and now has become, at least according to the taxi driver that picked my daughter and I up at the airport, much less dynamic. In the best tradition of the Taiwan citizenry, our driver was not at all shy about criticizing his government vigorously and with considerable sophistication.
Taiwan, also called the Republic of China (ROC) as opposed to mainland China, which is the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is always under more or less explicit threat of invasion or bombing by the PRC. Taiwan’s leaders must walk a thin line between asserting Taiwan’s right to exist as a country, which assertion is backed, more or less discretely, by the US, and provoking Beijing with too unequivocal and evident an existence. Alongside the global geo-politics are the more local politics that derive from waves of migration into Taiwan, with the indigenous Austronesian people of Taiwan having been displaced by successive sub-cultures of Han Chinese, as well as brief colonial occupations by the Dutch in the 17th century and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Taiwan is fascinating agriculturally as it has admirably fertile, well-watered alluvial plains on its western coast, which are intensively farmed in small plots (by American standards) usually of only an acre or two – much rice, some taro, vegetables, and fruit orchards. The excellence of Taiwanese plant breeding is a long-acknowledged fact in tropical agriculture circles.
Taiwan is a place that I found simultaneously delightful, disturbing and dystopian twenty years ago, and still find so, but for mostly different reasons this time around. One thing that is not so different and, unfortunately, much worse is the air quality in Taiwan. There are many explanations for Taiwan’s terrible air quality, such as major petrochemical processing facilities with footprints in the thousands of acres, large coal-burning electrical plants, trash incineration plants, the high tail-pipe emissions from the vast herds of scooters, second-hand pollution from the factories in mainland China, and the fine dust blown up out of the river-beds in dry, windy weather.
On the plus side, I was astounded by their success in addressing solid waste – trash, basically – and in the cleanliness of the rivers and streams. I have one unforgettably dystopian memory of Taiwan in the 1990’s, a scene glimpsed from the window of a bus – a man wandering through a vast, burning wasteland of trash in the outskirts of Taipei as the sun struggled to rise through the smoke . I also remember black, sulfurous waterways fouled with plastic trash, and the lovely white sand beaches of southern Taiwan littered by giant, surreal blocks of white styrofoam. None of that now, at least that I could see on this quick week-long trip. Quite an amazing feat, to change the everyday practices of everyday people so drastically, to effect social change so broadly, from big businesses to ordinary folks out in the country. This has been done through sustained policy efforts and clever design solutions over the last few decades that continue to evolve, energized by the demands of a politically active populace that demanded government action. Not only that but Taiwan has developed an outstanding network of buses, metros, trains, and bullet trains. Which is not to say that Taiwan has become an un-mitigated paradise – far from it – but there is much to learn from their successes.
Last but not least, for all our taxi drivers critical comments about the stagnant economy, the incompetent government, and the worsening air pollution, there was in him and generally in the people of Taiwan a gentle pride in their country, a sense of collective responsibility for being kind to each other and of representing their country well that my daughter and I felt wistfully envious of and wished, of all things, that we could bring back to the US.
I’ve had little time to think and write of late, as many small crises converge – from a sick elder dog to local political struggles to broken equipment to minor family exigencies, but there are always moments of grace amidst the scurrying and chaos, and one of the moments was seeing this photo in the bathroom of my veterinarian’s office. I immediately titled this photo in my head: The Richest Woman in the World. She is a dignified elder of native Hawaiian heritage. She is poor in material things – her house is old and ramshackle, there are no window panes and the foundation is buckling. This kind of house was and still is common in the area where I grew up – South Kona and Ka’u – although nowadays most such houses are either fixed up or abandoned and slowly falling down. But she is rich in a boundless peace and a connection to the world around her, she is rich in that native heritage and community which is so deeply place-based and family-centered, and she is rich in the companionship of her skinny but contented cats who sit at her feet amid the dust of her yard. It reminded me of Basho’s haiku:
Girl cat, so/thin on love/and barley.