Author Archives: gary of gnusystems

The Information Economy, part 3

If you are engaging in a genuine inquiry – that is, trying to find out the truth, whether it agrees with your current opinion or not – then you need sources of information beyond your own limited experience. But on any given question, there are likely to be more sources available than you can possibly use – especially if you are searching the Internet (rather than, say, your local public library). Therefore you have to select the sources worth investing your attention in, and filter out the rest. Your personal prejudices – which we all have – don’t work very well as filters because they will reinforce whatever self-deception you might be indulging in.

fractal network

fractal network

But there are some common-sense principles by which you can select reliable sources, and these will weed out most delusions and deceptions (although some may still get through the filters simply because we are all fallible). I’ll give a short list of these below, but first we need to clarify the difference between genuine and bogus information.

Genuine information is not necessarily useful for ‘practical’ purposes, because practical purposes are limited and partial. Sometimes ‘useless’ information is just what we need for the deeper purpose of forming or reforming our habits and partial purposes, moving them toward a deeper connection with the wholeness of reality. The arts, although they may seem to offer nothing but diversion from ‘the real world’, can afford us genuine information by refreshing our perception. A play or work of art can show us real possibilities we hadn’t imagined, or present our own habits to us in a new context (holding the mirror up to nature, as Hamlet says). On the other hand, ‘information’ that distracts our attention from the real world without refreshing our perception is useless for learning anything. This is what i call tabloid information, after the kind of media which are devoted to distraction.

Distraction (or “entertainment”) is a lucrative industry these days, but there’s an even more lucrative industry devoted to disinformation. This is even worse than useless because it misrepresents reality in order to serve some partial purpose, such as increasing corporate profits or advancing some partisan agenda. Standards of ‘truth in advertising’ and ethics in ‘public relations’ are supposed to protect us from disinformation, but the public agencies charged with enforcing those standards are sometimes overruled or manipulated by those in power – especially those who owe their positions of power to the success of their own disinformation campaigns!

Some people call disinformation “propaganda”, but that’s not what the word means. By definition, propaganda is anything that propagates a particular point of view. An activist who discovers a particular truth through honest investigation might devote herself to propagating it (informing others of it) simply because it’s important. Marie-Monique Robin’s documentary film The World According to Monsanto is an example. On the other hand, a corporation might want to sell more of its product, and therefore propagate a positive image of it rather than the whole truth about it. Monsanto’s own advertising (or indeed just about any advertising) is an example. An activist promoting a cause in which he sincerely believes (such as anti-nuclear or anti-wind power) might produce a third kind of propaganda, which differs from the first kind because it aims to propagate a belief without first engaging in honest inquiry to find out whether the belief is true.

In its lack of respect for the whole truth, this third kind of propaganda resembles advertising more than investigative journalism. The main difference is that the activist is usually quite sincere in his belief, while the advertiser doesn’t need to be sincere – he is paid for effective persuasion, not for what he believes. But sincerity is no guarantee of truth, as the sincere believer may be just as willing as the advertiser to filter out facts, testimony or reasoning that don’t suit his purpose. The honest inquirer, on the other hand, will not allow her belief to interfere with the quest for truth, not even in her propaganda. She will instead present all sides of the issue that are even partially valid, and explain (if necessary) why one side is more valid than another. This kind of propaganda often comes closer to the truth than so-called “objective” journalism, where the journalist follows the rule of giving equal time to both sides of a debate, even when he knows that one side is misinformed or lying. In order to avoid “editorializing”, this journalist is following a conventional business rule rather than the principles of genuinely investigative journalism. Those principles, because they respect both the whole truth and the common good, require a journalist to make some impartial common-sense judgements about the quality of information.

Propaganda is not necessarily disinformation, but even when it is truthful, it adds to the problem of inflation in the information economy, increasing the challenge of sorting out the genuine from the bogus. Previous posts in this series have tried to show that the first step in regaining control of our attention is to see how our own habits can lend themselves to self-deception. The next step is to show how self-critical thinking can help us meet the challenge of recognizing genuine information sources. If we can’t find reliable sources in the flood of bogus information, we can’t invest our attention wisely, and then we turn into ‘an entire culture suffering from attention deficit disorder’ (David Orr 2002, 72).

We can of course screen out bogus messages by disconnecting from the media which carry them (turning off the TV, or ignoring the tabloids at the supermarket checkout) – but if we get too selective, blocking out whatever we don’t want to hear, we cut ourselves off from genuine information and dialogue too. Indeed that is what Anders Breivik did, according to an acquaintance of his who was recently interviewed on CBC Radio’s As It Happens. (Breivik is the man who killed at least 87 fellow Norwegians in the Islamophobic rampage of July 2011.) Insulating ourselves from information in this way doesn’t turn us all into mass murderers, but it could mean wrapping ourselves in such a comfortable cocoon that we never emerge into the real world.

We can invest our attention wisely in sources of genuine information if we can learn to distinguish them from the bogus. And we can recognize them by following a few common-sense guidelines, which i would formulate as follows:

• Anyone whom you know to be honest, impartial and well informed in a specific field is a reliable source of information in that field. If you want to know how to grow cucumbers, go to your neighbor who has been doing it successfully for years. Implicit here is the more general principle that learning builds on your belief system rather than replacing it: new information has to be integrated into your belief system in order to make a difference to your habits. This generally entails checking it against what you know from other sources. This takes time, which you don’t want to waste by checking claims that are highly implausible, or would not make much practical difference to our habits even if they were true. That’s the kind of claim we find in ‘tabloid information’.

• A reliable source is independent of other sources. In other words, the information provided by that source is based on her own experience or inquiry – it’s not just copied from somewhere else because it suits her purpose or prejudice. Sources who violate this principle include many climate change denial blogs and websites, which frequently repeat each other’s rumors, false claims and fabrications without checking the accuracy of the information for themselves. But in order to apply this principle, the inquirer would have to see that the information has been copied from elsewhere – and the perpetrator is unlikely to tell you that. Hence the next principle:

• Reliable sources use reliable sources themselves, and document those sources so that readers can check the origin and quality of their information. They also reveal their own identity and that of any organization they represent. “Front” groups for corporate interests (which many climate change denial sources are) usually try to conceal their affiliation with those interests, but this information is often easily found on the Internet, if you know how to look for it. Once you find that a source relies on unreliable sources, you can cross it off your own list of reliable sources.

• When reliable sources state their opinions or beliefs, they also present the factual evidence and reasoning on which those opinions are based. Bogus sources often appear to do this too; the difference is that bogus sources ‘cherry-pick’ the evidence to suit their pet belief rather than basing their belief on the facts or checking their opinion against all relevant facts, as an honest inquiry would do. Common sense recognizes that if you want to ‘prove’ something badly enough, you can usually find all sorts of ‘evidence’ and ‘reasons’ to back up that belief. But you wouldn’t do this if you respected the independence of truth from our beliefs. This kind of argument does pose a problem for the investigator because ‘cherry-picking’ is hard to detect if you aren’t somewhat familiar with the facts of the matter already. However, once you develop some skill as a researcher, you can readily spot this kind of thing, and sloppy or specious reasoning becomes pretty obvious. And once you’ve seen that a source is bogus, you don’t need to waste any more time on it in your quest for truth.

• When it comes to factual information, reliable sources are generally consistent with each other. (We are of course talking about independent sources here – consistency between sources counts for nothing if they are simply copying from each other.) Facts are public, available to all observers, and the reality of facts is independent of anyone’s belief in them. This is perhaps the most basic principle of common sense. If we really believed the contrary, that each person lives in a world of his own with its own set of facts, we could not even begin to communicate, let alone investigate. It follows that when factual statements conflict, we are entitled to assume that at least one of them is mistaken (or else that we have misunderstood the statements). On the other hand, when multiple independently reliable sources tell us the same thing, we are justified in believing it (until some new fact calls it into question).

The network of independent, consistent, reliable sources constitutes an information web that resembles in many ways the web of life. Ted Perry, inspired by Chief Seattle, wrote that ‘Man does not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.’ The same goes for everyone who contributes to the information web – as we all do, in one way or another. We can’t be sure whether a specific message or symbol (book, webpage, article, movie, broadcast, rumour or whatever) will turn out to be truly informative until we invest our attention in it. But by following the common-sense principles above, we can guess well enough to learn from the genuine information without being distracted too much by the bogus. This will lead to improvements in our habitation of the web of life, both individually and communally, because we will have a better understanding of the real situation we inhabit.

The Information Economy, part 2

My earlier posts about the energy economy referred to the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources, and the technological options involved. Like all the transitions now under way, this one involves a change of habits at every scale. Our technology is an extension of our habits, a framework that constrains them while also affording them opportunities for development.

fractal information

fractal information

Any change that actually improves our way of living – makes it more sustainable and less destructive, or enhances its connectivity with the rest of the biosphere – involves learning. And just as our civilization requires inputs of energy from natural sources, learning requires information from reliable sources.

The word ‘information’ has many and varied uses for various purposes. Here it refers to whatever informs our habits, shapes them, makes a difference to their form. (This is explained much more fully in my peer-reviewed paper on Peircean semiotics, Rehabilitating Information.) Humanity needs to be better informed in order to inhabit the Earth in a healthier way than we do now. But the information economy is currently suffering from inflation: there are far more messages available to us than we have time to pay attention to. Even as the supply of cheap energy dwindles, we are flooded with more cheap messages than ever. Many are generated by advertising and propaganda for corporate or partisan interests, some of them pushing an agenda quite contrary to the common good. There’s also a flood of what i call tabloid information, which may also affect our habits, but not in a way that enhances our connectivity with the real world. Propaganda and entertainment (including ‘infotainment’) are multi-billion-dollar industries today, so the messages they produce are not ‘cheap’ in terms of the financial investment that went into them – i call them ‘cheap’ because they’re not worth paying much attention to.

Information is useful to the extent that it serves some purpose; propaganda, for instance, is useful to whoever benefits from the belief it aims to propagate. But information is genuine to the extent that it connects form, experience and reality. Our purposes guide our habitual practices, but they can only work within the limits of our imagination and our experience – and we habitually forget how limited these are. Reality is much broader than anyone’s experience and much deeper than we imagine. But our only direct contact with reality is through experience, and our only way of comprehending experience is by recognizing the forms embodied in it. This means that our only way of learning anything is through signs connecting form, experience and reality to create genuine, habit-changing information. But when learning opportunities occur, our attentional habits – the habits which determine what we pay attention to and what we ignore – often make the difference in how we read the signs, and thus whether we learn anything from them or not.

One of our deepest instinctive habits is to maintain the integrity of our belief system. If a new message or other sign conflicts with strong beliefs, you are unlikely to accept it unless your own experience (or something even stronger) forces you to. But since most human belief systems are fairly complex (even though they simplify the real world for us), it’s not unusual for new information to conflict with some part of the system while confirming other parts. If it turns out to be a genuine discovery, then your whole belief system will reorganize itself, incorporating some new beliefs and eliminating some old ones. In other words, you will learn something that changes your habits. This is how common sense evolves. But habit systems would rather not change if they can avoid it: they are naturally conservative, because their survival depends on stability and consistency.

Belief systems tend to conserve their own simplicity in the face of life’s complexities. One way of doing this is to adopt certain beliefs as fundamental, which means clinging tenaciously to them and rejecting or ignoring whatever would challenge them. But faith in a fundamental belief is at best a substitute for genuine faith in the integrity of the belief system as a living whole capable of growth. If we have genuine faith in our ability to recognize the truth about some subject – which does not depend on what any person or group thinks about it – then we have to accept that any one belief is fallible, open to question and improvement. That doesn’t mean we can question everything at once – questioning itself relies on the integrity of the belief system, which means that in practice we have to take some things for granted in order to question others. Some beliefs may be taken for granted so consistently and productively that nothing ever happens to call them into question. But if and when the question does arise, the healthy belief system is open to it, whereas the fundamentalist will fight to keep itself closed.

When the process of inquiry goes public, new complications arise because we are dealing with a collective belief system that can only learn by testing new ideas against many observations. In science (meaning an organized system of public inquiry), a hypothesis that would modify the established belief system is not accepted unless it is supported by the experiments or observations of many independent investigators, and even then its acceptance is provisional. In order to count as part of this testing process, an investigation must be open to the scrutiny of other investigators qualified to assess its methods: the individual can only contribute to the inquiry as part of a network. The author of a new idea may arrive at it through intuition or inspired guesswork, but she can’t rely on her authority to get it accepted into the scientific belief system. In science, as C.S. Peirce pointed out, ‘experience is our only teacher’ and authority counts for nothing. But since this kind of inquiry requires a large investment of time and attention (not to mention money), often for inconclusive results, only a minority of people can fully engage in the kind of specialized inquiry we call scientific. In the broader community, since we can’t afford that kind of investment, we have only indirect access to that kind of experience. So we have to rely on simpler ways of deciding what information to accept or reject.

One short cut we commonly use is to rely on the authority of specific trusted sources. But how do we know what sources to trust? The simplest way is to trust those who tell us what we already believe – but this amounts to indulging in self-deception. Another way is to trust those sources which are most persuasive. But as we all know, persuasion has become a highly sophisticated, powerful and lucrative industry, often used – by those who can afford it – to manipulate public opinion. So this leaves us open to another kind of deception, unless we apply some critical thinking to the means of persuasion. Hence the importance of ‘sales resistance’ for the information economy.

Accordingly, many of us are in the habit of ‘questioning authority’ and resisting whatever we hear from the mainstream media, the scientific or professional establishment, or the government. Indeed this is just common sense, given the level of corporate ownership and influence over all of the above. But we sometimes overcompensate for our distrust of the establishment by placing uncritical trust in ‘alternative’ sources of information. We seem to think that since the ‘authorities’ are constantly lying to us, anyone who makes a point of opposing them must be telling the whole truth. This tends to make us partial to unconventional beliefs, ‘revolutionary’ (but untested) theories, ‘alternative’ medical treatments and so on.

When we are partial to a belief, we tend to overlook the lack of evidence for it. This makes us partial to conspiracy theories, which give us a convenient excuse for ignoring the lack of evidence: it’s not there because “They” have conspired to cover it up! Only a believer in conspiracy theories would think that the lack of supporting evidence for a theory is a good reason to believe it. Conspiracy theories are tempting, though, because we all know that conspiracies do happen; besides, the corporate media do suppress information, when they can get away with it, without even having to conspire. But the only way to stop them getting away with it is to find and document the facts and make them public. Endless debates about who killed JFK or who was responsible for 911 or what’s hidden at Roswell are the stuff of tabloid information, not genuine public inquiry.

If we believe anything simply because it’s contrary to what established science or authority says, or accept anything as fact without looking at the evidence for and against it, we’re indulging in self-deception. That’s a step backward in the evolution of common sense, which calls for critical thinking to be applied impartially to every idea that claims a place in our belief system – and it’s the beliefs we are partial to that really need our critical attention. We can’t honestly claim to know something unless we can tell how we know it.

But this brings us back to the clash between the flood of information and the limitations of our attention. Genuine critical thinking is not easy, and we don’t have time to apply it to everything. So the third and last part of this series will set forth a few guidelines for judging whether an information source is worth paying attention to or not. There’s nothing terribly original in these guidelines – they’re just common sense, really. But like any other set of tools, they’re more likely to be used wisely if we can see why they work.

The Information Economy

Do you have time to read this article?

dialog

dialog

That’s a question you have to ask yourself (consciously or not) every time a potential source of information, a possible learning opportunity, presents itself to you – anything that could influence your habitual way of interacting with the world. It could be a song, a film, a book, a news broadcast, a conversation with a friend, a webpage or blog. Do you have time for it? Learning opportunities are virtually unlimited, if you have the means of engaging with them – but your time and attention have definite limits. This is the challenge of the information economy: How do you decide where to invest your attention?

When you are looking for specific information for a specific purpose, that question is relatively easy to answer, if it comes up at all. For instance, if you wanted to make a bomb out of fertilizer and common household chemicals, and you knew how to search the internet for that kind of information, you could find it easily enough. A certain Norwegian man apparently did just that in July 2011. But he also had a purpose for making the bomb, which he made public on a website just before using it: he intended to punish Norwegian liberals for allowing Muslims to carry out their program of world domination. How did he arrive at that intention?

Like all purposes that guide human behavior, this one was based on a particular view of the world – that is, a ‘map’ of the world which enables us to see (or imagine) how the world works, even though the real world is always much more complex than anything we can imagine. This particular map could be roughly described as a xenophobic Christian fundamentalist view. All human purposes are informed by some kind of map; but this is a much deeper kind of information than the kind you might need in order to accomplish a specific purpose such as building a bomb. It’s deeper because any specific intentions you have must be based on the way your inner map is organized. How do you know that your map of the world is based on reliable information?

To ask that kind of question requires faith, humility and hope. You have to believe that truth and reality are independent of anyone’s belief; that beliefs can truly represent or misrepresent reality; that actual experience can reveal discrepancies between belief and reality; and that honest recognition of those discrepancies can enable a belief system to correct itself. Lacking that faith, humility and hope, a believer can only defend his or her belief system against any facts, opinions or experiences that appear to challenge it. That kind of self-defense is really self-defeating rather than self-correcting, because it prevents the believer from learning anything deeper than the information that’s useful for some limited purpose.

The context of all your conscious intentions and purposes is your internalized map of the world. Whatever informs your map of the world, or makes a difference to the form of that map, will affect your specific intentions. And this is where the deeper challenge of the information economy lies. It’s deeper because facing it honestly requires us to challenge our own belief systems instead of wrapping ourselves up in them like a suit of armor.

I am referring to ‘our belief systems’ as if each of us had one of his own, but we typically underestimate how much of anyone’s belief system is simply taken over from the collective belief system of the surrounding culture. Human belief systems are largely based on learning from experience (rather than being ‘innate’ or ‘hard-wired’), but very little of what you consciously believe is actually based on your personal experience; most of it is picked up, consciously or not, from other people. We routinely accept the testimony of other people unless we have some reason for questioning its accuracy or honesty. To test this, just look at any map of the world (i mean a ‘literal’ map this time): you probably believe that all the places labelled on that map really are where the map says they are. But how many of them have you actually been to?

It only makes sense that your personal experience accounts for so little of your ‘personal’ belief system; after all, your personal experience is extremely limited. Hence it also makes sense to broaden your information sources, and to deepen your map of the world by entering into dialogue with others. But that means selecting your sources and your dialogue partners, since you can’t attend to everything and everyone. That’s where the information economy comes in. And the point i’m trying to make about it here is that the most fruitful dialogue arises from the differences between you and your dialogue partner (provided of course that you have some common ground).

Our internalized maps of the world determine our purposes by shaping our habitual views and belief systems. These belief systems are necessarily simplified, but some are more distorted than others. We can detect the distortion, if we are honestly looking for it, by paying attention to facts, which are actual experiences made public. Facts are not imaginary, although they must be imaginable: anything in the public domain, any information we can have in common, must have some form which we recognize in every actual experience embodying that form. Thanks to that shared perception, we can tell when there’s a clash between the facts and our maps of the world. Thus the validity or truth of a belief system is not entirely a matter of opinion. Some beliefs really are better than others, because they are more consistent with the factual truth.

It’s also true, however, that we often form opinions of other people’s belief systems based on our own values rather than facts. For instance, it’s my opinion that any belief system strongly motivated by hatred is a bad one. It’s also my opinion that it’s bad to kill people just because you disapprove of them. But i believe that most normal people share these opinions, because i can see that most people act accordingly – which is the real test of what people believe – and people’s actual, observable behavior is a matter of fact, not opinion. It’s also a fact that this particular Norwegian killed about 70 people, a fact based on the testimony of many witnesses (as well as his own). And it’s a fact that this same person, just before going on that killing spree, expressed on a website the beliefs which motivated him to do so. So i would say that his actions were based on a highly distorted belief system, and more generally, that any belief system based on hatred is bound to be distorted. Those are opinions, not facts, but they are based on inferences from the facts cited above (along with many others). Opinions can be based on fact, by means of reasoning, but facts cannot be based on opinions. Recognizing the difference (and the connections) between fact and opinion is crucial to the maintenance of a healthy belief system. This makes it a basic principle of the information economy.

Accordingly, my point in stating my opinions above is not that my belief system is better than that Norwegian’s. The point is twofold: (1) that all belief systems are prone to distortion because they are highly simplified representations of the real world; and (2) that we can minimize the distortion, and keep our belief systems healthy, by checking them against factual information based on actual experience. It can also be helpful to check them against other people’s opinions too, especially when those opinions are based on reasoning which respects the facts. Likewise, we often have to rely on other people’s testimony for factual information, because our personal experience is so limited. The information economy is just as public as the energy economy, or the money economy.

The health of our collective belief system and our information economy depends crucially on the honesty of those who contribute information to it. If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that we are capable of self-deception, especially when we are more strongly attached to our own intuitive beliefs than we are to the quest for truth. Even if nobody was trying to deceive others, the health of our belief systems would still be undermined by self-deception – and those who are in the business of deceiving others are all the more effective at it if they can deceive themselves first.

The difference between the honest inquirer and the dishonest one is really very simple. The honest investigator is aware that her beliefs could be wrong, and actively searches for factual information or honest opinion that would challenge distortions in her own belief system. The dishonest investigator does the opposite: he is so strongly attached to his own values, beliefs and emotional reactions that he ignores or avoids any facts or inferences that would challenge his beliefs, and devotes his time entirely to attacking other people’s views and defending his own against challenging facts or opinions.

When he does this in public, on some issue of public policy, his dishonesty is evident in the way he will throw together facts, speculations, rumors, unverifiable testimony, and even pure inventions, all in support of his prejudice. He will claim that anyone who disagrees with him is an unreliable source. If he makes use of research reported to be ‘scientific’, he will not investigate how the study was done (i.e. what direct experience or observation the study was based on); nor will he consider critically the reasoning that led to its conclusions – unless those conclusions are contrary to his belief. He will question the motives of those who disagree with him, but never his own motives or those of anyone ‘on his side’ of the issue. In short, he stretches or cuts the information to fit his belief, while the honest inquirer actively seeks out information that will challenge her belief. Show the honest inquirer that he’s wrong, and he will thank you, because you’ve contributed to the self-correction of his belief system. Show the dishonest one that she’s wrong, and she will defend her belief against you – and defend it all the more desperately when it is clearly contrary to the facts – instead of hoping to correct it.

Naturally, this account is oversimplified. None of us is totally honest (or totally dishonest), and we all have our habits that tend to resist change whether it’s needed or not. This series will look into some of those habits and how they affect the information economy; but i simply had to start by showing how deeply information affects our everyday lives. I hope that someone who shares my faith in the reality of truth, and my hope that we can get closer to it, will find the time to follow the rest of the series – and perhaps to point out its errors, so i can correct them.

The Energy Economy, Part 2: EROI, efficiency and the grid

[For the large-print, easy-reading version of this post, click here.]fractal image

Besides the EROI (see previous post), another measure of the various energy options is ‘efficiency’. This is usually applied to mechanical systems and given as a percentage: a machine which turned all of its energy input into a useful output (without wasting any of it) would be ‘100% efficient’. In practice, of course, this never happens. ‘Zero waste’ may be a noble ideal when it comes to materials, but it is unattainable in the realm of energy usage – which of course is the realm inhabited by all living beings.

One of the basic laws of physics, namely the second law of thermodynamics, tells us that there is no way of using energy without wasting some of it by converting it unintentionally into useless forms. ‘Wasted’ or ‘lost’ energy is called entropy (which can also be mathematically described as randomness in contrast to order). Of course, the usefulness of anything is relative to who’s using it, and for what purpose. Many scientific sources refer to entropy as ‘heat’, because they have machines in mind, and heat is an unwanted byproduct of the work most machines are designed to do. But in another context – surviving a northern Ontario winter, for instance – heat can be very useful indeed. That’s why our four-legged neighbours have evolved ways to generate and conserve it (for instance fur).

Efficiency is a useful measure for comparing various devices which convert one specific form of energy into another. For instance, if you expose two solar cells to the same amount of sunlight, and Cell A generates more electrical energy than Cell B, then Cell A is more efficient. However, if it costs more in resources or energy to make Cell A, then its EROI – the ratio of energy output to the energy input required to generate that output – may not be higher. In other words EROI is the more comprehensive measure for use in making decisions about what technology to use.

The catch is that EROI may not be easy to calculate in practice, because the energy consumed by production and maintenance of any device or system may be difficult to measure. Like entropy (a.k.a. waste), guesswork can’t be entirely eliminated from the decision-making process, but we have to do the best we can if we hope to make the transition to a sustainable energy economy. And sometimes your guesswork has to rely on information you can only get from sources other than your own experience. How we can judge the reliability of a source is a problem i’ll take up in a future post.

Some of the decisions we face are related to the electrical grid. At the provincial level, it’s an obvious problem that a major part of the energy on the grid is generated from non-renewable (and polluting) sources such as coal. Current Ontario government policy is to reduce the amount of ‘dirty’ energy on the grid and bring more renewable sources online (hydroelectric, solar, wind). Some opponents of the latter option have argued that the grid itself is the problem, because it is inefficient: the greater the distance between energy source and user, the more is lost to heat. But this argument makes sense only if there is an alternative with a better EROI. I have yet to hear anyone suggest any such alternative, let alone compare its EROI with that of the existing grid.

Besides, the extended reach of the electrical grid also confers some advantages: not only economies of scale, but also the wide distribution of sources feeding into it – and this advantage increases as more renewable sources come online. The wind doesn’t blow all the time, but it does blow at night, and in the winter, when solar and some hydro sources are not producing much. And when the wind isn’t blowing, other sources may be able to make up the difference. The technology of matching demand with supply on electrical grids is already fairly advanced and customized to specific regions. One district in England has two reservoirs, one much higher than the other; so when they have surplus energy, they pump water from the lower one to the higher one, and when demand exceeds supply, they release the water through a turbine system that generates power as the water flows back down. Other innovative storage methods are always in development, and so is the ‘smart grid’ which can anticipate loads and direct energy where it’s needed.

Of course, there is one advantage to burning fuels as a way of generating energy: when demand increases, you can meet it by simply burning more. This advantage will be lost (along with all the disadvantages of fossil fuels) as we make the transition to renewable sources, and even the smartest grid won’t be able to supply everyone with energy on demand. Part of the transition, then, will be a change in our habits, as we learn to adjust our energy demands to the rhythm of our actual supply. Ontario Hydro is already pushing us in this direction by making energy more expensive at peak demand times. The loud complaints about this, and about rising energy prices generally, show how difficult it is for people to shift their consumption habits, once they’ve got used to having cheap energy on demand. But again, what alternative do we have in the long run?

If you are more ready than most to change your habits, you might consider getting off the grid as an alternative. Certainly it would force you to live within the limits of your household energy economy. But how viable that option is will depend on how much energy you are willing and able to do without. If you are off the grid, and your primary energy source is not producing (for instance solar panels on a long winter night or dark winter day), then what do you do? Go without energy until the sun reappears? If you value the usefulness of an energy supply, you will probably prefer to invest in an alternate source (such as a gasoline generator) or a system that stores enough energy to get you through the night (such as a bank of batteries). But even if you can afford all this, it seems unlikely that the EROI of your off-grid system is higher than the EROI of Ontario’s electrical grid. If anyone can show me that it is, using reliable estimates, i’ll be happy to eat those words. (Especially since we’ve already installed a solar-and-battery system here at gnusystems headquarters.)

Even if going off-grid is a viable option for you personally, that doesn’t make it viable as a provincial policy. At our place we heat with wood, but if everyone in the province did that, just think what effect it would have on Ontario’s carbon footprint and air quality, not to mention the forests … For the province as a whole, asking everyone to go off-grid is about as practical as asking everyone to burn wood. Whether it’s even practical for a typical Manitoulin household is no easy question. On the provincial level (and above), we are not likely to make the transition to sustainability by eliminating the grid. The more sensible course is to clean it up and diversify the sources feeding into it – and work out ways of dealing with whatever new problems accompany that shift. My next post will look at some of those.

Energy Return On Investment (The Energy Economy, Part 1)

[For the large-print, easy-reading version of this post, click here.]

photo by John Caddy

photo by John Caddy

The darkness of the winter solstice is a good time to step back and reflect on the year’s activities. On this Resilient Manitoulin blog, the activity has been irregular. Justin Tilson, who launched it, has been occupied elsewhere; so has Gary Fuhrman (that’s me), the only other person who’s posted here. We hope for a greater diversity of voices in the coming year – anyone following the blog who would like to become a co-author is welcome to contact gnusystems for any help you need.

But in the meantime, perhaps i can contribute more regularly here myself, hopefully without being taken for an expert in resilience. This is also part of the gnusystems mission of ‘accounting for what really counts.’ When it comes to the basic principles of resilience, there are other factors that really count more than money.

Take energy, for instance. The money economy as we know it is either a delusion or a spinoff from the energy economy. The dream of perpetual economic ‘growth’ is nothing but the shadow of surplus energy. The explosive growth of the 20th Century was driven by cheap energy from oil. Hence the 21st Century faces the challenge of coping with the decline of cheap energy – that is, with peak oil.

The latest oil production figures indicate that we are already past peak oil and starting on the downward slope, which is likely to prove just as steep on the way down as it was on the way up. Production of some other fossil fuels may peak later, but it’s all headed in the same direction. (That’s true of many other materials as well – ‘peak everything’, as they say – but for the moment let’s focus on energy.)

The era of cheap energy is coming to an end because it is increasingly expensive, in both money and energy inputs, to produce any given quantity of high-quality fossil fuel. The problem facing us is how to make the transition from an unsustainable economy based on fossil fuels to one that is sustainable. Add to this the climate change caused by our carbon footprint, and we have even more incentive to get past our oil addiction. But how? Perhaps the one thing we can all agree on is that it won’t be easy. We will have to make some difficult choices.

Curbing our waste of energy is certainly part of the solution, but it’s not enough – we will always need some energy, and resilience itself calls for more than a bare minimum. It follows that making the transition must involve using what’s left of the fossil fuels to power a shift to renewable sources. Waiting until the fossil fuel supply dries up is not an option – especially when the credit bubble (the money economy) could burst at any time. This means we will have to be careful how we use what’s left of cheap energy sources.

The key concept in making these difficult energy choices is energy return on investment (EROI). For any potential energy source, the question is: how does the energy we will get from it compare with the energy we have to invest in order to realize that potential? The answer is expressed as the ratio of energy output to energy input. For instance, the Alberta tar sands is generally said to have an EROI of around 3 to 1. If we use ‘barrels of oil’ as our measure of energy, this means that in order to get 3 barrels out of the tar sands, we have to use up one barrel’s worth of energy. In the early days of cheap energy, the ratio for oil was typically 40 to 1 or higher. Compared to that, the oil sands project is well on the way toward 1 to 1 – at which point, of course, it doesn’t pay (in energy terms!) to produce the stuff at all. The same goes for deep-sea or Arctic oil drilling, especially if we count the environmental damage they risk as part of the ‘investment.’ And to the extent that the money economy is dependent on the energy economy, oil production will cease to be profitable well before the EROI reaches 1 to 1. (Profit is surplus.)

If we are going to use the dwindling oil supply to power a shift to sustainable energy supplies, then the EROI is a very important measure. There’s no point investing energy in renewables if we’re not likely to get more out of them than we put in. Depending on how they are produced, some fuels (such as ethanol and hydrogen) currently have a very low EROI, even less than 1 to 1 in some cases. Photovoltaic solar also has a low EROI, at least in these northern latitudes. By far the best option yet in this part of the world, with an EROI of around 20 to 1, is wind energy – and the bigger the turbines, the higher the ratio (thanks mostly to economy of scale).

Obviously – especially to Manitoulin Islanders – there are other factors involved in wind farms besides the EROI. In order to think realistically about this or any other energy option, we have to take all predictable factors into account, giving each its proper due. We also have to take into account that a viable transition will have to work at every level – local, provincial, federal and global – and conflicts between levels will have to be addressed as they arise. But since the whole multidimensional picture is framed by the necessity of a shift to sustainable energy sources, we can’t make realistic choices if we leave out the EROI factor.

I hope to deal with some of the issues related to this transition in further posts, as time allows. And i hope that readers, in their comments, will point out any flaws they see in my analysis, so we can correct any mistakes along the way.

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA)

Access to locally sourced food is a key element of resilience. Recently the National Farmers Union has flagged yet another attempt by the government of Canada to hand over control of food sources to global agribusiness corporations. The NFU has a Fact Sheet and a petition to Parliament on their website. Here is the text of the petition:

Petition to the House of Commons in Parliament assembled

We, the undersigned citizens of Canada, recognize that the agreement known as CETA between Canada and the European Commission will impact on all aspects of our lives. This proposed agreement will jeopardize the ability of governments at all levels to procure goods and services that favour in any way local businesses thereby, for example, destroying arrangements that specifically source local food. Further this agreement is calling for the inclusion of UPOV91 a draconian form of Plant Breeders Rights legislation that will effectively eliminate a farmer’s or citizen’s ability to save, reuse, exchange and sell seed.

This agreement is also calling for the inclusion of enforcement procedures to uphold intellectual property rights that would allow for the judicial precautionary seizure of movable and immovable property, and the freezing of bank accounts of the alleged infringer. A farmer could see his/her home, land, equipment, and crops seized and have bank accounts frozen for being accused of using seed (including their own) that has a gene patent or other form of intellectual property attached to it. We also recognize that this agreement is likely to have very negative impacts on our Canadian supply management systems for dairy, poultry and egg farmers as well as the Canadian Wheat Board.

Therefore, your petitioners call on Parliament to refrain from entering into any arrangement that would restrict or prohibit governments from favouring local goods, services and local food. Further we call on Parliament to reject any agreement such as THE COMPREHENSIVE ECONOMIC AND TRADE AGREEMENT that would contain UPOV91 and any other restriction on farmers and citizens’ ability to save, reuse, select, exchange and sell seeds. We further call for the outright rejection of any provisions which would allow for the judicial precautionary seizure of crops, homes, land, equipment, and the freezing of bank accounts for alleged infringement of intellectual property. We call on Parliament to fully disclose the content of this agreement, including the text, throughout the entire negotiating process to the citizens of Canada.

NAME (printed)
ADDRESS (printed)
SIGNATURE

Please fill out and return to the National Farmers Union, 2717 Wentz Ave., Saskatoon, Sask. S7K 4B6 or fax to the NFU at (306) 664-6226.

For more information, contact the NFU office at (306) 652-9465 or by email at nfu@nfu.ca or go to www.nfu.ca.

This does need to be checked out because some aspects of it are confusing. For instance: the NFU recognizes CETA as a threat to farmers because their assets could be seized if they are accused of violating ‘intellectual property rights’ (for instance by saving seeds); but these rights are claimed by corporations who own patents to genetically modified organisms. Yet the NFU Fact Sheet says that the ‘CETA agreement does not apply to Genetically Modified Organisms’ (because of an Appendix inserted by the EU). This may need some explaining.

Permaculture arrives on Manitoulin

This webspace has been quiet all summer because it’s been so busy on the Island! Justin (who started the blog) has been laying the groundwork for Manitoulin Permaculture – which now has its own website, manitoulinpermaculture.com. He organized an introductory 3-day course in August, and will soon be offering more extensive learning opportunities – check the website to learn more about permaculture, which could be described as a set of design principles and practices for improving the resilience of local systems.

Another introductory course will be starting on Saturday October 2nd at the Little Current campus of Cambrian College, with instructor Mishka Soter. Here’s a description:

Introduction to a sustainable future. A course intended for local farmers, landowners and anyone interested in sustainable property management. In this course you will be exposed to exciting and evolving projects locally and abroad that are developing sustainable land use models. Big or small, all of these ideas are helping people feed themselves and their families in cost effective and responsible ways. By the end of this course you will have a basic knowledge of some ideas being used in permaculture, sustainable energy, building design, large and small scale organic farming. Course includes

  • Guest speakers on permaculture, building design, renewable energies and organic farming
  • Videos and printed material on the topics
  • Activities involving the design of personal property providing hands on teaching

The course will also introduce you to local and international people and groups who can further develop your design ideas or guide you toward future studies or employment. A large collection of reference materials and connections to online discussion/work groups will assist you in finding local volunteer projects to get involved with and connect people to any projects you may have planned. Working together we can all live well.

This course will run for 8 hrs and cost $56.00. There will be a follow-up course offered in the spring/summer/fall of 2011 to participants and new students (3 8-hr sessions at a project site). Mishka will also be adapting the course to use in the local elementary and secondary schools.

6 Foot Square Project

6FootProject

Debajehmujig is excited to be able to invite you to participate in The 6’ Project, a project that is meant to daylight, celebrate and bring together the many diverse relationships that Islanders have with this land that we share. So if you’re a farmer, fisher, painter, writer, teacher, mechanic; if you’re in Wiky, Gore Bay, Sheshegwaning, all the way out to Meldrum Bay, in town or out in the bush; if you’re 83, 42 or 7; if you’re a man, woman, youth or child who loves this land, Manitoulin Island, please share this love. Take part in The 6’Project!

Here are your instructions for love – I mean – participation:

1. Choose a 6’x6’ piece of land that you have regular access to, permission to be on, and a personal connection to.

2. REGISTER yourself and your location with project co-ordinator Elisha Sidlar (she doesn’t bite). She can be reached by phone at 859-1171 or at the6footproject@hotmail.com or through Facebook (Elisha Sidlar) – and join the group The 6 Foot Project; Conversations with the Land. Registration is important as all participants will be shown in a community exhibition and festival taking place NOVEMBER 5, 6, 7 of this year.

3. Make art there. It should be something that reflects your relationship to this land. Document it. You could … create a sculpture and document it, record the audio of that place (which is documenting it), take pictures of that place (also documented), write letters to that space (the letters would act as documentation) sit there every day and write a story (documentation), paint a particular flower’s life cycle (painting=documentation), erect some sort of shelter, be it tipi, mudhouse or sugarshack and live there, but just make sure you document it with like, a video camera or something.

4. Did I mention you need to document it? Documentation may take the form, but is not limited to, photos, video recording, audio recording, drawings, writings, songs and any other way you can think of. The actual pieces will take place out on the land. We need the documentation to be able to come together and share our experiences come festival time. Don’t feel limited if you don’t have some state of the art camera. Be creative.

5. All documentation must be submitted to Elisha by OCTOBER 22, 2010. Contact her for further information. All of this work will then be assembled into a community exhibition. Sa-weet! We are so jazzed by the thought of bringing together all the different ways that us Islanders relate and connect to this land. Artistically, historically, agriculturally, traditionally, reflectively, respectfully; this is an opportunity for us to come together and honour our relationships to the land and to each other, past present, and future.

6. Yay! Come to the Exhibition/Festival NOVEMBER 5, 6, 7, 2010 to be held at the Debajehmujig Creation Centre. Workshops! Music! Food! See old friends, make new ones. See everybody’s work. Talk. Laugh. Learn. Are you coming?

Please feel free to contact Elisha at 859-1171 or the6footproject@hotmail.com with any questions that may arise. One last gentle note; please show your love for the land by always treating her with respect. Have fun!

Love,
Debaj

Democracy vs. capitalism, local vs. factory food

Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, has just been released on DVD, and thanks to Maja Mielonen, we now have a copy on the Island. Maja will be showing it as one of our ‘movies that matter’ nights (and to celebrate the equinox) on Sunday, March 21. Moore’s ironic style has never been stronger, or deeper, presenting the whole sweep of American history as a struggle between capitalism and democracy – and showing how democracy can still win, despite the hijacking of the federal government by Wall Street.

Though Moore’s film is American to the core, the struggle between capitalism and democracy (or people vs. corporations) is a global one. A recent victory for democracy is covered by the excellent Yes! Magazine website in Iceland Busts the Banksters.

Yes! Magazine online is an excellent resource for resilience, and you can subscribe there (also for free) to a weekly highlights email. The current print version of Yes! also features an interview with Elinor Ostrom, a summer visitor to Manitoulin, who recently won the Nobel Prize in economics for her lifelong work on cooperation and common property.

farmersalatin_resizedAnother new DVD resource has been acquired by Chuc and Linda Willson, who are among the most active promoters of local food on Manitoulin: Food Inc. is a devastating exposé of the corporate food industry in the U.S., with a particular focus on meat production, including health issues and unfair labor practices, on Monsanto and its domination of soybean production, and on political issues in the U.S. such as labeling of GMO products. It also shows the viable (and more resilient) alternatives of organic, free-range and local food production. One of the film’s most articulate spokesmen for alternative farming is Joel Salatin, pictured here. Local and organic food advocate Michael Pollan is also featured, as he is in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one of the extra features on the new Michael Moore DVD. Food Inc.is well researched and powerfully delivered. Despite its focus on the U.S., the tight integration of North American food systems means that it’s relevant to Canada as well. It’s a welcome addition to earlier films on food issues, King Corn and The Future of Food (which are included in the Honora Bay Resource Library).

YOGA-THON FUNDRAISER March 7

MAYoga

Kagawong Park Centre
Sunday March 7, 2010

10:00 AM – 4:00 PM

Details:

10:00 AM – 11:30 AM:         POWERFLOW YOGA
A Dynamic sequence of yoga postures, challenging and energizing. This class moves at a pretty fast pace, and is best for people who have some experience.

11:30 AM – 12:00 PM:         BREAK

11:40 AM – 11:55 AM:         THAI MASSAGE PART I
Brenda Zuela from Jaguar Spirit in Gore Bay will give a ‘prone’ thai massage demonstration.

12:00PM – 1:30 PM:         HATHA YOGA
A series of yoga postures designed to strengthen, tone and loosen the muscles, while calming the mind and reducing stress. All levels, great for anyone wanting to try a yoga class for the first time.

1:30 PM – 2:00 PM:         BREAK

1:40 PM – 1:55 PM:         THAI MASSAGE PART II
Brenda Zuela from Jaguar Spirit in Gore Bay will give a ‘supine’ thai massage demonstration.

2:00 PM – 3:30 PM:         YIN YOGA / RELAXATION / MEDITATION
This gentle approach is used to peel away layers of tension and stress, mostly floor postures. Please bring a blanket and pillows for comfort. Followed by deep relaxation and a short meditation. All levels.

3:30 PM – 4:00 PM CLOSING: questions, chat, (belly)dance, replenish etc.

Minimum of $50 in donations required to the Manitoulin Food Bank (pledge sheets are available, see contact info below) for each participant. Come for the whole day, 1 or 2 classes, or to get information on yoga, meditation, and thai massage.

Bring a yoga mat, blanket, water and wear loose, comfortable clothing. If you are staying for more than one class you might want to bring a light snack and/or energy drinks.

To prepare for this event, yoga classes are held on Monday and Wednesday nights, and Saturday mornings in Honora Bay (contact Melissa), Wednesdays in Evansville (contact Julia Winder at: julia.winder@gmail.com).

Contact Melissa Arp at: 705-368-2597 or via email at: manitoulinyoga@gmail.com, for pledge sheets and more information.

PARTICIPANTS WILL BE ENTERED TO WIN A GIFT CERTIFICATE FOR 1 HOUR THAI MASSAGE AND 2 YOGA CLASSES!

If you are unable to attend, but would like to sponsor, you can send cheques directly to the Manitoulin Family Resources: PO Box 181, Mindemoya, ON P0P 1S0. Please make a note that it is for the Yoga Thon.