Sunday, December 15, 2013

Space Station Logic Applied to Spaceship Earth

The International Space Station, orbiting above earth, has a problem. One of its cooling systems has failed. The astronauts responded in a refreshingly rational way. According to the AP report, they "dimmed the lights, turned off unnecessary equipment", and will take action over the next couple weeks to repair the cooling system. Even in space, where the outside temperature is -454 degrees F, cooling is a big deal. Extremetech reported that "Fortunately, there is a redundant cooling system, otherwise the six-person crew would be quickly bailing out and heading back to Earth aboard a Soyuz capsule before being cooked alive."

It's important to have a safe place in the universe to return to if the space station were to fail. Unfortunately, the earth has its own cooling problem. To keep its overall temperature steady, it needs to dissipate as much energy as continuously pours in from the sun. But the cooling mechanism has begun to malfunction, because we've altered the atmosphere with all the extra molecules we're pumping up into it from underground. Our neighboring planet, Venus, is 900 degrees F not so much because it's closer to the sun but because the atmosphere is so dense with heat trapping molecules--the same ones we're adding. That the molecules are invisible is part of their power. They seem harmless, but it is in their nature to let sunlight in while trapping heat headed out--the massive increase in their numbers is catching more and more of the earth's heat before it can dissipate out into space.

The heat buildup is not causing us to be baked alive, but it's enough to cause a gradual breakdown in the planet's critical systems. Unlike the cooling malfunction on the spaceship, which can be fixed by switching out some components, the earth's predicament has a momentum that builds with each passing day. Procrastination is the enemy; a last minute fix will be impossible. In addition, even if everyone on earth could jump in a billion Soyuz space capsules and abandon the planet, there's nowhere to go.

Space station logic dictates the obvious solution for earth--take immediate action to power down as much as possible so the problem doesn't get worse, all the while powering up with energy sources that won't harm the planet.

But earth logic doesn't work that way. If earth logic were applied onboard the space station, the astronauts would debate whether the warning signal on the dashboard was politically motivated. Or they might not talk about it at all because it's too depressing. They'd bridle at the inconvenience of reducing their power use, even temporarily. Instead of fixing the cooling mechanism, they might think the breakdown is too daunting to fix, or is God's will, and invest instead in dubious plans for somehow surviving the calamity when the other cooling mechanism also fails.

The space station has been controversial. Because it's so hard to keep people alive in the hostile environment of space, manned missions are far more expensive than using robots. The station's scientific value has been questioned, and it tends to transform astronauts from heroic adventurers into plumbers or, in this case, AC repairmen.

There is, however, one very important service the space station could provide humanity, as a demonstration of how to live within our means. While we on earth have seemingly unlimited supplies of energy and water streaming into our homes through wires and pipes, the astronauts must live within a strict energy and water budget. The station literally harvests today's energy--produced by the sun only eight minutes prior--to run its machines. Without the star-crossed option of raiding the earth's long buried stores of fossil carbon energy, the astronauts must make do with the 75-90 kilowatts of energy their one acre solar array captures. Rather than depending on nature to continually supply more water, most of which goes down the drain unused, the station is designed to use most of its water over and over again.

The astronauts, then, are directly responsible for harvesting the energy they use, and face immediate consequences if they misuse the energy and water available. We tend to think that the astronauts are living the fantasy life up in space, but they live in a world of responsibility and consequence that is far more reality-based that ours.

About the malfunctioning cooling system, a space station spokesman said, "the problem may eventually be serious, but is not an emergency at the moment." Out in space, a problem that "is not an emergency" gets immediate attention nonetheless. Worst case scenarios are taken seriously. The stakes are too high to procrastinate or hope for the best. We, too, live on a spaceship--the best ever fashioned. If we learn from the astronauts' example and adopt space logic in our own lives and policies, then what began as a fantasy of space travel will have paid unexpected dividends, by speeding our journey back to reality here on spaceship earth.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Nelson Mandela and What the World Demands of Its Leaders

With the passing of a leader who persevered beyond all measure, and finally triumphed to father a nation, a cluster of wishes:

- that a leader's job were easier, and a misleader's job much harder,
- that humanity's inner compass would lead more towards unity and compassion than division and resentment,
- that a nation's foundations were so strong and its trajectory so well considered that even a mediocre leader would do.

Telephone Town Halls, and the Unprocessed Politician

As the temperature dipped below 20 degrees F on a Thursday evening, the choice looked to be between fulfilling my responsibilities as designated dog walker or attending a "senate debate" at Clio Hall on the campus of Princeton University. The subject: Creationism. Their debates earlier this year dealt with gay marriage, gun control, and the use of steroids in sports, so you have to figure these debates are not historical reenactments. If not for the cold weather, I might have made it to Clio Hall, if for nothing else than to see how half of Americans process out of existence the overwhelming physical evidence of evolution. Instead, the pooch got a chance to correspond with the other local canines, after which a more substantial alternative to the debate suddenly arrived, in the form of a phone call.

It was an electronic call, from my representative in Washington, Rush Holt. Stay on the line, the recording said, to participate in a Telephone Town Hall session. What followed, as more than 1000 joined in, was about 45 minutes during which I had this eerie but pleasing feeling that I live in a civilized democracy where representatives listen, and take reality and people's diverse needs seriously. Consider how rarely we actually hear our elected representatives speak at length on any subject, in words unpackaged, unprocessed by the media filter. On news programs dominated by news personalities and pundits, a representative's words are used primarily as additives, fodder for the audience's amusement or scorn, or to make a pundit's point. If the representatives' faces appear at all, it tends to be when they have done something embarrassing. They become, then, caricatures, barely recognizable after all the media processing.

A telephone town hall, then, is a bit like eating whole food. It lacks the zing of an Oriole cookie, but is more deeply satisfying. One of Rush Holt's recurrent phrases is "as if we have a future". We must govern, he says, invest in our youth and in the nation's infrastructure, as if we have a future. His is a lonely voice in the current political universe. How do you build a future when people are so focused on denying past and present, and making enemies out of science and government? The miracle of the mind gives us equal capacity to see deeply into reality and to deny it. It's the heavy processing that's getting in the way.

We tend to think of politics as a corrupting influence, but in Rush Holt, one sees how politics has actually made him more thoughtful, more considerate of others' viewpoints. He says he has responded to some 50,000 inquiries from constituents this year, writing the responses himself. He obviously has learned not to be dismissive, but instead to receive each concern with the same  seriousness the voter feels in expressing it. The desire to get elected, most commonly characterized as a corrupting influence, can also give the representative incentive to listen better.

There's a lot of whole grained reality out there--real food, real evidence, real people, unprocessed by factories, fear, media format or ideology, and full of nutrients for body, mind and soul. Last night's dose unexpectedly arrived in an unsolicited phone call.

Monday, December 02, 2013

America's Best Days

Written for Memorial Day, 2013

In a time when most people feel disconnected from the nation's wars and those who fight them, there's something missing on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. To begin restoring a celebration of public service most exemplified by those who put their lives on the line for this nation, I have an unusual proposal.

We have to free ourselves of the "Greatest Generation"--not the extraordinary generation that came of age in the 1930's and 40's, but the expression itself and the mindset it implies. Though I admire the book by that name, to call any past generation the greatest is contrary to what politicians repeatedly tell us, and what we all want to believe: that America's best days still lie ahead.

Furthermore, though one generation paid the ultimate price in battle, it wasn't just one generation that survived the Great Depression and won World War II. As with any great movement to overcome adversity, all generations from that era pitched in. There were grandparents helping out at home while the parents were on the front lines or in the factories. There were scientists in mid-career who stepped out of academia to develop better weaponry. There were kids who pitched in while living with scarcity and the uncertainty of when or if a parent would return from overseas.

Deprivation during the Great Depression taught Americans to make do with less, to help each other out, and fostered a sense of shared destiny. It made people more resourceful and ready to sacrifice when the war came along. They postponed their personal goals--career, marriage, family--and many sacrificed their lives, for a cause bigger than themselves, bigger than this nation, to determine if this world would be worth living in.

The nation achieved true greatness not through a particular generation but through a particular forging together of spirit, resourcefulness, government and economy, all in collaboration with allied nations around the world. The result, though not perfect, was equal to the challenge.

Most of us, by contrast, have lived through a long stretch of relative prosperity. We've been told to serve ourselves and the economy by shopping, and to be suspicious of government and global concerns. The keys to victory in WWII were everything that's now politically unpalatable: collective effort and personal sacrifice, strong government action, aggressive investment in new technologies. In our time, the Greatest Generation stands more as a shrine than an inspiration, a trophy on the shelf, to be given a solemn nod in political speeches--a sort of "glad we don't have to do that anymore."

To make matters worse, we are largely ignoring the one struggle that we, as individuals and collectively, could really make a difference in. What curious homage we pay to those who sacrificed for our country, as we cling to a status quo that speeds the loss of so much of our fertile land, precious shorelines and natural splendor to deepening droughts and rising sea levels.

If anything, our current challenge will require something far greater than the "Greatest". As seas rise and weather grows more extreme, we have no evil dictator to rally against. Guns will not protect us from climate change. Machines, vital for defeating fascism and long our ticket to extraordinary comfort and mobility, are liabilities in their current, fossil fuel-dependent form, as they exhale climate-changing gases through their exhaust pipes and chimneys. Because the enemy is not on some distant front but embedded in our lifestyles, we face a far more difficult task, emotionally and politically.

Those who defend the status quo, a "return to normal" after Hurricane Sandy, are not doing the American lifestyle and our futures any favors. "Normal" is what got us into this mess. Normal, by incrementally destabilizing the climate and the oceans, will in time make normal impossible.

While the meaning of Memorial Day parades and holding the flag high endures, the most meaningful way to show we value past sacrifice is by taking up the challenge of the future, rather than letting it wash over us. Though many get depressed by talk of climate change, as a force to oppose it has many convenient aspects. No one need die in the effort. Alternative energies are plentiful, and can be tapped with existing technologies. The human capacity to adapt to and overcome adversity--celebrated in the aftermath of catastrophes--can also be used to collective avert them. Tapping our own resourcefulness, we'll get better at squeezing fossil fuels out of the economy and our own lifestyles as we go along.

If we focus ourselves, our towns, states, nation and the world, on meeting the challenge of radicalized climate, will other problems languish? WWII showed that a massive, concerted effort to confront the central threat to civilization's future can bring progress in dealing with other problems as well. America came out of the war with a stronger, transformed economy. Women and minorities made gains. We can make progress on many problems by solving the biggest of them all.

If we act, we won't need our grandchildren to call us the greatest. The satisfaction of sparing their world, and ours, will be enough. We will know, and will have proven, that in a nation that both celebrates its past and believes in its future, the Greatest are always yet to come.