Thursday, January 28, 2010

Exotics and the March of Technology

And now for the good news…. Those of you who read my columns may have noticed that while I'm generally optimistic I do tend to worry a lot about the big scary issues. In this piece I'm going to take a break from worrying and indulge in some unfettered technophilia.

Like most Gen X males, I’m into my gadgets. I follow new technologies pretty closely and when I can afford it I indulge in some cool toys like the latest smartphone or computer, etc. In the renewable energy field, there are a number of cool gadgets either already here or in development that should give us all some real hope for the future — a class of renewable energy technologies I call “exotics.”

The key trend for exotics is the improvement of information technology and its associated computing power. Moore’s Law — the rule that computing power doubles about every two years — is akin to magic when we ponder the fact that in the 60 years since Moore’s Law was formulated we have increased computing power by a factor of one trillion (2 to the 30th power)! This kind of computing power allows for an increasing control over our environment, or, at least, important parts of it. And this is just what the new exotics do.

Read the rest at Renewable Energy World

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Was Jesus a Hindu?

A recent piece I wrote on Cameron's new movie, Avatar, inspired an indignant response from a reader, decrying my suggestion that Christ's teachings are compatible with the idea that we are all, each of us, God. Rather than write a full response here now, I'm going to be a little lazy and link to someone else who wrote a great response. And see below for more from Alan Watts, who inspired the below writer's thoughts.

Chris Watson's thoughts on John: 10.

Alan Watts was an amazing teacher and scholar. See here for one of his many very illuminating lectures. And check iTunes podcasts for more of Alan Watts.

Is the Magically Deflating Oil Price All About Speculation?

I wrote this piece in 2009 when oil prices were very low. As oil prices continue to rise - perhaps back to their historic highs in mid-2008 - it's worth pondering these thoughts again. I think prices will in fact rise far higher than the 2008 levels by 2012 or so, but the timing depends very much on the timing of the recovery of the global economy. The bottomline is that the structural problems in the global oil supply system are still there, just masked by the global recession.

Question: Are speculators and Enron ex-employees behind oil price turbulence, as 60 Minutes recently asserted? Answer: No.

That line alone would be a tad short for an op-ed, so let me explain. 60 Minutes, the most popular and respected newsmagazine on television, devoted a segment on January 11 to dramatically declining oil prices. The show gave airtime to many commentators, all of whom argued strongly that the key factor in the run up of oil prices in the first half of 2008, and the precipitous decline since then, was oil market speculation. There was even a brief discussion of Enron's erstwhile employees and their continuing role in energy markets. The implication was that there may yet turn out to be some malfeasance in the oil price gyrations over the last few years.

60 Minutes opened the piece with a disclaimer about the complexity of the forces behind oil price movements. But then the show spent 15 minutes painting a very one-sided story about the reasons for oil price movements, with not a single dissenting view presented.

I agree that oil markets are highly complex. And I agree that at this point literally no one knows the full answer as to why markets have been on such a wild ride. But the sketch provided by 60 Minutes is only half the story, at best. The more complete analysis takes into account the fact that prices have been driven as much by supply and demand, and the perception of supply and demand, as by speculation. I'll unpack this statement below.

Read the rest at Energy Pulse.

We Are All Environmentalists Now

I wrote this piece in April of 2009, but it's still timely.

It’s about time. Yes, it’s about time the mainstream of America joined this party. For decades now, self-identified environmentalists have constituted about 20 percent of the population. Whether it’s due to reticence to label ourselves, or being turned off by the more extreme type of environmentalism, for some reason most Americans have not described themselves as environmentalists.

So what’s changed? Well, awareness is changing — which leads to behavior change. So even if people don’t want to label themselves as environmentalists, most of us are now acting like environmentalists. There’s a new paradigm in town and this paradigm is serious. (OK, sometimes a bit too serious.) I’m talking about concerns about climate change, of course. For most Americans, the debate over the need to take action on climate change is over. Our very own Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in 2006: “We know the science. The debate is over.” And it’s heartening to see that even those who don’t agree with particular plans, like those presented by Schwarzenegger or President Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal, aren’t offering criticism on the grounds that we shouldn’t be doing anything. Rather, they’re criticizing these plans on the grounds that they’re the wrong remedy or will cost too much, etc. This shift in approach is in itself a sea change.

Read the rest at Noozhawk.

Have Computer, Will Vote

I wrote this piece a year ago, but it's definitely still timely - we REALLY need an improvement in our system of democratic governance.

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
— Winston Churchill, 1947

Democracy does indeed have its drawbacks and we can identify two broad themes: Failures as a result of the influence of powerful and moneyed interests on elected officials and failures as a result of the fear that choices by elected officials will not be easily explained to an electorate that has little time or attention for nuance. The cure for democracy’s failings, however, is not less democracy, but more direct democracy, empowering individuals through increased knowledge and new technology.

Public financing of all political competitions would go a long way toward fixing the first problem. Publicly financed candidates receive money from a common fund after passing muster as legitimate candidates. For example, candidates in some jurisdictions that have publicly financed elections must collect a required number of signatures or a required number of very small donations. Public financing relieves candidates of the pressure to collect money from the usual sources, such as wealthy individuals, corporations or unions, freeing them from implicit or explicit “strings” that come with such contributions.

Public financing is making slow progress in the United States, with states like Arizona and Maine ahead of the curve. The experience of these states has been very positive and the public financing movement is catching on elsewhere.

Surprisingly, California is far behind the curve, only recently passing into law a very limited public finance pilot program that will kick in by 2014, if it is approved by voters in a ballot initiative in 2010. We can do far better.

Read the rest at Noozhawk.

Where Are the Local Stimulus Packages?

I wrote this piece almost exactly a year ago, but it's still very timely.

Add California to the list of states that "see renewable energy as their future," as the LA Times reported earlier this month. Our employment figures are down on a net basis, but renewable energy and energy efficiency remain bright spots in an otherwise maudlin economy.

"Some states — including Michigan — already see renewable energy as their future: It's the only sector that appears to be making room for more employees despite the recession." Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2009.

With President Obama now inaugurated and many states already working on climate change mitigation plans, 2009 will be the year to turn the rhetoric of the green energy revolution into reality. He stated on the campaign trail: "Breaking our oil addiction . . . is going to take nothing less than the complete transformation of our economy."

Now he's doing more than talk; he has already presented his stimulus package to Congress, calling for over US $800 billion in tax cuts and incentives for infrastructure and — most importantly, from my perspective — US $15 billion in various incentives for renewable energy, better transportation and energy efficiency. Obama has said repeatedly that the need for action on climate change and energy independence is urgent. And he recognizes that strong action to mitigate these problems will also provide a substantial boost to our economy, helping to address the current economic slump.

By my count, that's at least three birds with one stone: climate change, energy independence and a major boost to the economy.

The obvious follow up question: if this equation holds true at the federal level, why not at the state and local levels? A clear difference between the federal, state and local levels is that authority to exceed budget limits in any given year is more restricted for state and local governments than it is for the federal government. But there are many ways to follow Obama's lead without breaking state and local coffers, even on a temporary basis.

Read the rest at Renewable Energy World.

A Call to Action on Peak Oil

This is a piece Walter Kohn (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, UC Santa Barbara) and I wrote in June of 2009. It's message is even more timely than ever.

We are being lulled to sleep by temporarily low oil prices caused by the global financial crisis. In fact, low prices may lead to an increased level of consumption and accelerated exhaustion of oil reserves.

“Peak oil,” the point at which global oil production peaks and then rapidly declines, is still not sufficiently on the minds of the American public and policymakers. We don’t know exactly when peak oil will arrive, but it is very likely to occur within ten to twenty years. Some say that it may even be here now – the US Army Corps of Engineers, for example, wrote in a 2005 report: “We are at or near a peak in global oil production.” Peak oil should be at the forefront of everyone's mind – here’s why:

As soon as the global economy recovers, we can expect oil and other fossil fuel prices to shoot right back to where they were last summer, and probably far higher. The International Energy Agency (IEA), formed in the 1970s to act as an energy watchdog for western nations, stated in its 2008 World Energy Outlook:

Current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable …The future of human prosperity depends on how successfully we tackle the two central energy challenges facing us today: securing the supply of reliable and affordable energy; and effecting a rapid transformation to a low-carbon, efficient and environmentally benign system of energy supply.

This is a call to action of the most urgent kind and we dare not ignore it.

Read the rest at Renewable Energy World.

Obama's Bush-Lite Foreign Policy Agenda

After nearly a year in office for President Barack Obama, we are now in a position to fairly judge his direction on foreign policy.

We can’t entirely separate this analysis from domestic policy, which obviously has taken up the majority of our new president’s time. But nor can a fair-minded observer dismiss any perceived shortcomings in foreign policy by simply invoking our ongoing domestic difficulties.

The question: Has Obama been the transformational figure he promised to be? As a longtime observer of foreign affairs, and as a former military man (U.S. Army, 1990-94), I’m forced to conclude that the answer is a resounding no. Obama has generally followed George W. Bush’s foreign policy agenda, in action if not in rhetoric or tone.

Read the rest at Noozhawk.

The Nobel Peace Prize Speech Obama Should Have Given in Oslo

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Distinguished Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Citizens of America, and Citizens of the World:

I receive this honor with deep gratitude and great humility. It is an award that speaks to our highest aspirations — that for all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.

Justice and peace are irrevocably intertwined. Some would say they are synonymous. Too often in practice they are not, because of the imbalances of power that prevail in the world today. All informed and conscientious people would agree that peace is the preferred state of affairs, within nations and between nations. Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the fact that we, as human beings, come from an often brutish past, vestiges of a time when nature was indeed red in tooth and claw.

But times change. And people change. I stand before you, and the world, as a testament to change. I stand before you as a testament to the nonviolent struggles of my forefathers. It is only through the tireless, loving and peaceful actions of the civil rights movement in America and other countries that I could have earned the privilege to lead the world’s last remaining superpower. I will not — I cannot — forget the debts I owe to those who preceded me.

Read the rest at Noozhawk.

The Duality of Hope

Greg Mortensen attempted to climb K2 in 1993, one of the highest and most dangerous mountains in the world. He failed and almost died in the process. Stumbling down from the mountain, he was rescued by impoverished Pakistani villagers who nursed him back to health despite their meager means. Mortensen was so inspired by his benefactors that he wrote a book about his experience, Three Cups of Tea, and started a non-profit organization upon his return to the U.S. His organization has now built over 130 schools in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia.

Mortensen's Central Asia Institute is among the ranks of hundreds of thousands of "non-governmental organizations" (NGOs) that have sprung up around the world over the last century. NGOs are more commonly called "non-profit organizations" or "civil society." The Salvation Army is an NGO, as is the Sierra Club. This sector of our society, still little understood by most people, collectively forms the eighth largest economy in the world, employs over 19 million people, and spends more on international development than the World Bank. It is clearly a major force for change.

Read the rest at Santa Barbara's Independent.

The Decade of Climate Change and Peak Oil

Wow. Another decade has passed. In the years ruled by the iPod, the death and rebirth of hope (you know who I’m talking about), Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Roger Federer, reality TV, Coldplay and Britney, flat-screen TVs and ShamWow!, climate change and energy may seem a relatively small blip on the cultural big screen.

It is true that on a list of 20 issues presented to the American people in a 2009 Pew survey, climate change came in dead last. But this is a mistake of perception and judgment. These issues really should be at the top of the list; even above the ailing economy (No. 1 on the list) because the economy is a subset of the environment, not the other way around.

Read the rest at Renewable Energy World.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Avatar, blue skin and the ground of being

Online at Noozhawk

A recent New York Times columnist described Jim Cameron’s latest blockbuster, Avatar, as a “long apologia for pantheism.” This is, we learn as we read further, a bad thing. Pantheism is the notion that the entire universe is God. Pantheism is generally relegated by modern theologians and scholars to an earlier, less advanced, stage of humanity, with a less well-developed notion of divinity. But the Na’vi people of Avatar’s moon known as Pandora may well hold the more accurate – and ultimately more helpful – notion of divinity after all.

Theism is the, since the days of Thomas Aquinas, the basis for most of Christian faith (though what defines Christian faith in the many hundreds of different Christian traditions is itself rather hard to pin down). Aquinas was a 13th Century Italian monk who wrote the authoritative text for Christianity in his era, Summa Theologica. This work remains highly influential today. The basic tenets of traditional theism hold that there is one God and the universe is His creation. God and the universe are separate. God is eternal and uncreated. The universe is created and will one day end – rather soon, according to some of the more fiery theologians.

Pantheism, to the contrary, holds that God and the universe are one: it’s all the same stuff. Pantheism doesn’t necessarily require that there be only one god, and the more “primitive” versions of pantheism view the world as containing a multiplicity of gods. Einstein, not exactly an intellectual scrub, subscribed to Spinoza’s pantheistic God. Spinoza, a 17th Century Dutch Jew, stated that “matter and soul are the outside and inside aspects, or attributes, of one and the same thing in itself …; that is to say, of ‘Nature, which is the same as God.’” (Spinoza’s Ethics, 1677).

As with most things in real life, there are more than two flavors possible. In this case, in between traditional theism and pantheism is panentheism, described by one scholar as “the god of the philosophers.” Panentheism – the extra “en” being very important – holds that the universe is within God but not identical with God. So all of the universe is God, but God transcends the physical universe. Modern proponents of panentheism include the British philosopher and physicist Alfred North Whitehead, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Hartshorne. And of course Hinduism has taught a version of panentheism for many thousands of years, based on the Vedas and Upanishads, which were first written about 1800 BCE. In Hinduism, Brahman is the ultimate ground of being, what some describe as God.

This takes us back to Avatar’s blue-skinned Na’vi. Cameron’s epic depicts a far-flung moon inhabited by a humanoid race that enjoys a tight bond with nature. This bond can at times be physical, due to a bio-psychic link that allows the Na’vi to literally connect with the global living network they describe as Eywa by using open nerve endings at the end of their long ponytails. Eywa, a global network consisting of all life on Pandora, is a clear parallel to Hinduism’s Brahman. Brahman is the source of all things. It is the soil from which every other thing grows.

And the Na’vi’s blue skin is a clear parallel to Krishna, Hinduism’s Christ-like figure. Krishna is always depicted with blue skin. Krishna stars in such epics as the Bhagavad Gita, one of the primary books of the Hindu tradition. The third indication that Cameron intentionally mirrored Hindu teachings is the name of the movie itself. In Hinduism, an avatar is an earthly incarnation of a god, such as Krishna.

We realize, then, that Avatar does not really describe pantheism; rather, it describes a panENtheistic way of life, made very real for its people due to the actual physical connections the Na’vi enjoy with Eywa.

Avatar, as with all movies, is a metaphor. The metaphor in this case is complex and of course open to interpretation. My personal interpretation is that the Na’vi’s ability to interconnect with Eywa and download the collective wisdom of all life on Pandora is a metaphor for every human’s ability to connect with the ground of being and enjoy that same kind of wisdom.

Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist who decried Avatar’s alleged pantheism, apparently disapproves of Avatar’s religious message, based on his conclusion that this message contradicts Christian teachings. This, however, misses the true meaning of Jesus’ life and message. Interpreting exactly what Jesus’ life and message really were, however, is a veritable cottage industry in this new millennium. Two recent books have been helpful for me in gaining a better understanding of Jesus and situating his teachings within the broader context of universal spiritual truth: Deepak Chopra’s The Third Jesus and Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted.

These books and many others demonstrate that we may accurately interpret Jesus’ teachings as harmonious with the Hindu teachings of Brahman and Atman. Jesus claimed to be God, according to the Gospel of John (interestingly, the only gospel that contains this teaching). Jesus’ claim was considered heretical by not only the Jewish authorities of his day, but also the Roman oppressors. For this and other crimes, he was crucified.

To a Hindu, however, the realization that each of us is God is greeted with a hearty congratulations – “welcome to reality!” This is the case because the core teaching of Hinduism – particularly the Vedanta tradition – is that not only is Brahman the ground of being for all things, but that all things constitute a non-dual oneness. It’s all just one thing. And when we realize that it’s all just one thing, we realize also that we are that one thing. I am the universe, you are the universe, we are the universe. I am God, you are God, we are God.

For Jesus to say he is God is not, then, such a stretch. In fact, it becomes rather pedestrian. But it is a pedestrian truth that all of us should internalize and live, each day. Paul Tillich, a 20th Century German theologian, has written extensively on a similar interpretation of Christian faith.

When we realize that all other people are in fact just pieces of the grand oneness that is us, Brahman, the ground of being, it becomes a lot harder to treat each other inhumanely. And the same realization leads to a renewed reverence for the natural world – because the natural world is just another manifestation of our true identity, the entire universe. And this is, ultimately, a very Christian teaching.

Tam Hunt is a Santa Barbara attorney.