Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Sense of Style

Reading Steven Pinker's book "The Sense of Style" helps one think about writing, have a look:
A master of communication Pinker is clear in defining objectives and critical of the waste many authors create. We must be articulated when addressing an environmental issue, must be direct and clear without distractions or examples that are not relevant.

I am with Prof. Heidi Owsley writing a book titled "Earthkeeping" where we bring together the analysis of human nature and its relationship to how humans relate to their physical environment. We can not forget that the way one behaves relates directly to the way one thinks.

Another aspect of communicating is honesty. Are we communicating to inform? or are we communicating to convince? or are we communicating to mislead? There are ways one have to express an idea so the reader has to be involved in the process. Dave Levitan in his book "Not A Scientist" focus on the misleading tools and artifacts that people use to mislead. Mainly politicians that use this gimmicks for their political gain. 
Natural science is a complex discipline and can be oversimplified both for good and for bad purposes.

One can talk about human evolution in general which is systematic or in particular which is selective. The systematic approach needs to take into account all particularities of its elements and that makes it complicated. For this approach to be effective the elements in the system have to be organized within categories, take for example an organism the categories would be organs and functions. Humans as organisms have organs (hearts, eyes, lungs, etc.) and functions such as senses (sight, smell, taste, etc.) and motions (grabbing,  locomotion, etc.) Individual organs can also be analyzed as systems when parts of it can be defined, this appears to be a fractal relationship appearing always in the universe.

An interesting philosophical proposition.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Externalizing Cost and the keystone pipeline

Keystone is in architecture the piece that hold a structure together. Metaphorically speaking is used to talk about the most important element of a system that maintains it working and holds it together, it could be a person in an organization or a species in an ecological system.
 It is in this way the the Keystone pipeline project between the USA and Canada becomes very important, not only economically, but most important politically.

So the question is why are so many people opposed to this project? And why it is so important for those involved in favor of the project?

Economically it makes sense to move resources to where they can exploited more efficiently. That means that if the raw oil extracted in Canada can be refined more efficiently in the Gulf Coast refineries then transporting it there is the thing to do. From the Gulf refineries these refined and processed petrochemicals can be exported to the rest of the world. They can also be transported to the rest of the USA if necessary.

So what is wrong with this picture? Why are so many people opposed? Aren't already lots of pipelines underground in the USA as we can see in this Wikipedia figure?

For one there is this thing about how are we using fossil fuels, and how are we adding green house gases into the atmosphere. Another is how are we supporting or not alternative technologies that are friendlier to the environment and accelerate economic growth?

It is sad that yesterday March 28, 2017 the US administration through executive orders rolled back provisions that regulated emissions from coal power plants and other environmental regulations. Now China is becoming a leader in power generation and transportation technologies such as electric cars that will conform the structure of future society. This structure is multinational, international, and global in character and there is nothing we can do to stop this trend. China on one hand and Russia in the other will tend to dominate markets based on their technological (China) and energy (Russia) resources. The pacific region dominated until now by the USA will shift its fulcrum to China and the Atlantic to Europe.

In the mean time who will pay for this? One thing is to allow free investment in energy like the Keystone pipeline, and another thing is who is going to pay for all the damage to the environment. It is ironic that the same day that the rollback of the environmental protection regulations was signed an oil spill in North Dakota near the Standing Rock indian reservation was detected. For more read here. This spill gives even more support to the demonstrators at the Standing Rock indian reservation that are afraid of the danger and damage their livelihood is facing.

Who will pay for these devastating incidents? We, of course, pay for them. This is how it has been, when ever there is a cost associated with pollution we tax payers foot the bill. The industries causing the damage get aways, sneaking out through the back door, with all the profits and gains.

This is what externalizing costs means. Internalizing gains and profits for the shareholders but making society (us) pay for all costs associated with the damaged environment. Is there anything we can do as a democratic society to change this?    

Saturday, March 11, 2017


This week I learned that the class "HUM-212 Earthkeeping" that I co-teach with Prof. Heidi Owsley will not continue in the same format next year. It looks like it will change to a course focus more on "Environmental Ethics." This will change how I will be addressing my participation in the environmental movement and how I will be focusing more on the creation of an environmental professional program at Warner Pacific College. This new program will be prioritizing the science, mainly chemistry, as the need for stewardship with an technological foundation increases. So, with that in mind is how I am now focussing on the book that I have been writing.

There are many books on environmental studies that address issues related to the relationship between human activity and the state of the environment. Most are descriptive of the situation with statistics and quantification of natural resources as a function of the needs of the human population. Almost all of these books have a historical description of the changes that our societies have gone through and end with the ideas that are now in vogue for the future. Ideas based on technological and scientific discoveries such as increased efficiency in transportation and housing.

On the other hand many books have been written to describe the "human condition" from the philosophical to the psychological in order to explain behavior and to suggest ways in which human interact. Interactions that have a socio-economical implications and tangentially environmental. So there is a need for a bridging text. There is a need for a book that brings human nature and the natural world together. A text that explains the interconnectedness of human nature as a natural phenomena with the rest of the natural world, the physical world. Metaphorically using the pendulum to articulate the idea of balance, the idea of equilibrium, the idea of interconnectedness while at the same time exploring the notion of how a reality can be constructed based on empirical evidence through the scientific endeavor.

On the other hand, we have to address the issue of what makes us different as humans. What is in our humanity that makes us responsible and accountable for what is happening in nature. Acknowledging that there are natural phenomena like tectonic earthquakes that are not caused by human activity we have to understand how to prevent disasters in the face of a natural events. Even though it seems at times that humans are in control, we have to understand that the level of control generally is minuscule. The negative effects caused by human activities are over long periods of time -long term and require a deep understanding of the physical dynamics involved. There are no short term solutions that will fix the problem.

That will be one message in my new book.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A City In The Cloud

I have just find out that Microsoft is developing a system within its cloud to help city agencies to help their constituents. For an interactive demonstrations click here. These city agencies in general can be about education, health, transportation, utilities, safety, and in general anything that could have an impact on the life and well being of a city.

We are at this moment in our history going through dramatic and critical changes, maybe that is how it has been all along, but what is important is that this is our time, this is the moment that we can do something about it. There is nothing we can do about the past as the past is unchangeable, or the future as it is ahead of us. But we can make a future now based on what we do now, and that is in fact what we do all the time. Regardless of knowing how we are affecting the future, or the fact that we might no be intentional about some of the effects we are having in the future, we are modeling the future with our present actions. These ideas are of course redundant in some way but I wanted to be clear of how regardless of our actions we are affecting the future.

With this in mind let's think about education. We can't continue doing the same things in the same way as we have done for many-many years. But as we think about changes we must also think about what can't and will not change. "Human Nature" will never change, as long as we are humans we will have basic needs, and fundamental values that define us as humans. Values like freedom, justice, and respect for life are inherent in all cultures around the world. Even though the definition of these will in some respect depend on cultural context and connotation. Say freedom, in some cultures women ware costumes that cover them almost from head to toe, even though it appears that they are forced to do it, the cultural value insist that the reason behind that apparel is to free the women from male desire, or something like that.

Anyways, coming back to the idea of changing the way we do things related to education. It is clear that technology has induced a lot of changes, from the use of information that it is available online in many cases for free, to the hardware use in classroom and in online courses. So we have to stop, step back one step and evaluate what we are doing and how we are doing it. It seems to me that in most cases we are using these technologies reactive in response to the technological innovation and not proactively with a particular design, purposely with specific goals in mind, goals that have to be clearly assessed and evaluated.

The question I'm posting now relates to this intentional, proactive design of change in our education system. What are the processes that we need to define content in order to prioritize our goals?  

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A World of Cities

As of March 2016, world's population is estimated about 7.4 billion. More than half, about 4 billion is believed to live in urban environments. Which makes "understanding" cities a high priority when dealing with environmental issues. "Understanding" in this context is much more than being able to describe their elements and functions with statistical analyses, architectural, and civil engineering descriptions. There must be in this analysis a comprehension of the human nature that energizes and intellectualize the integration of the urban context and this is what I mean by "understanding". There must be a deep connection between the long term effects and the short term actions taken when a city is planning development. The gradual even though in some cases brutal development based on policies generated by a non-informed government or pushed by economic interests that appear to be unstoppable that are sources of corruption have been the common around the world. But luckily there are also great examples of policies generated by good governance. In this essay I will focus more on these good examples.

In a recent article  Kaufman from the Huffington Post writes about how Berlin is dis-investing in fossil fuels. This trend in the way we use investment to promote energy generation and use will have a strong impact in how we relate with the environment. Other examples refer to transportation where it is used to develop areas on top of the direct benefit brought by moving goods, and people. For example in Portland OR the MAX light rail system has been transporting a lot of people (part of a system that move more that 1.2 million people a month.) But as the light rail is connecting urban areas it is also creating new developments. A good example of this is the Orenco Station development. Planning for progress is key for a sustainable development of our society where communities live in peace.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Commons

What do we own?

When we say we, are we talking about us citizens? Or are talking about us humans?

These questions are relevant when dealing with environmental issues because they frame our relationships within our world. That is why we talk about it in our Earthkeeping class.  We have been looking at Nietzsche's view of human nature and we talked about Hardin's view "The Tragedy of the Commons" in Louis and Paul Pojman's book "Environmental Ethics."

So first we have to analyze a few ideas about who we are as humans, what drives our actions, what stops us, how do we value our  relationships. All these philosophical questions are very difficult to answer. So here we should only try to set a basic framework about these in order to analyze what is happened to the commons.

When we think about humans we see that there is the self and the ego characterizing the individual. We are what we think we are! Thus, actions are driven by the needs set by each individual self or ego that can be from the basic survival needs (food) to the most sophisticated like recognition by others.

Thursday of last week (4/21/2016) our class went up to Mt. Tabor for what we call our "Nature Walk". One objective of this exercise is to talk about the interdependence between the city of Portland and the water reservoir that have now been decommissioned. This park is part of the commons next Warner Pacific College so we have a conversation about the need to participate in the upkeep of the park. The picture above shows students enjoying the view.

An example of how there is no way to disconnect what we do from other people's activities is what in economic terms is called "externalizing cost". When we learn about horrendous train accidents that are endangering American citizens, like the one in Tennessee we see how connected we are. To read more about the accident click here.
This time is not oil but a toxic organic compound called acrylonitrile that when burns can produce cyanide which is extremely toxic. And as we the other recent train accidents many people have been affected, this time about 5000 people have been displaced.

Again the question is who is going to be held accountable? Not only who is going to pay the cost of cleaning up, but the invaluable damage to the environment and more important to the lives of those who live near by. The norm is that when profits are made by these companies they are distributed to the owners stock brokers and fatten the bonuses of the CEOs. (BTW these CEOs are paid millions, Michael Ward CEO of CSX the train corporation in this accident made more than 10 million in 2014 according to Bloomberg, click here for the reference.)  But what happens when something like what happened in Tennessee happens, who pays?

We all know how strongly opposed are these corporation to taxation. We all know how, even in the face of huge profits, these multinational corporations get tax incentives and contribute very little to the well-being of the regions where they operate. But when a disaster like this one happens, not only the environment is damaged but the livelihood of the inhabitants is affected. 

As the ego is nurtured through growth one can see why these corporate giants are so egotistic. We see how they are so self-centered that they can't see what is around them. It looks like size matters. When a business is small and more dependent on the local/regional inhabitants, it looks like the know how to connect and see the need of protecting the commons. 

Is there a limit on size for these corporations that can make them aware of the interdependence and inter-connectivity of us all in this planet?      

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Human All Too Human

The need for understanding human nature can go beyond a philosophical quest. Even though we need a philosophical understanding to frame the intricate relationships of humans. From the philological to the psychological this understanding of the human nature provides a reference that allow us to see how we can be better stewards of the environment.

This past weeks in our course Earthkeeping we had conversations around Harding's paper "The Tragedy of the Commons" trying to analyze why recently in our modern, western, capitalistic society properties that are based on communities appear to be neglected or that no one at the citizen level has the feeling of ownership. A case in point is the recent conflict in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Forest where some armed protesters took the land violently and claimed that the land should be "returned to the rightful owners". These occupiers were not at all informed about who the owners are and who the owners were, for sure the local residents now have never been private owners of that land. And, the officers working for the federal government are in a way representatives of the United States citizenry.

This morning news from a terrorist attack in Brussels Belgium make us think about the nature of humans that are willing to die terrorizing people who are just going through their daily lives. What is it in their humanity that incites them to act in this way? The apparent motive is, according to what they claim, a fight for the liberation of their religion. But in closer analysis we can understand that these actions have nothing to do with religion. There is something deeper here!
Humans have a need for a sense of belonging, a sense of being together with their own kind. This sense sometimes implies a definition of the other, a separation between oneself and others that are in some way different. This can be accomplished by looking at color of skin, country of origin, or any other cultural difference. The reality is that there are many sources of these differences that historically have been used to separate, and make enemies of "the other."

As the news are describing what happened in Brussels, political characters are taking the opportunity to advance their agenda. From the ones that support stronger military actions and occupations, to those (a minority) who are calling for more "intelligence" to deal with the threat of terrorism. There are few who are calling for an understanding of the nature of these humans who are acting in a way that disrupts the positive progress of our society.

A question one may ask is: Why are the terrorists acting in a counter-cultural way?

Apparently, there is a lack of understanding of what the commons means. When people see how some industries are polluting the environment without regards for the common good. When people see that our planet is one and we all live in the same place, making pollution to become global even though it might be produced locally. When we see how a terrorist attack thousand of miles away from where you live is "not that far away." The idea and sense of "the commons" today has to change, we now have a technological infrastructure that allows immediate communication that brings us all together in a single humanity.

After all, we are all humans!