Monday, January 31, 2011

Rogue's Gallery

The Admissions staff were asking for photos of the Sustech students and students in general in action on sustainability projects.

I had a bunch of good pictures, but didn't see why we couldn't also see them on the blog.

From the top, no last names:

1) Kiera and Jennifer rig a met tower

2) Cody on a naval look-out tower, potential community wind site

3) Cody on a former radome tower, potential state-owned wind site

4) Ryan makes a beam for the animal barn

5) Dead-eye Dierdre on the animal barn roof

6) Jake with an airfoil for a home-made turbine

7) Tim, different Jake and I help CAT raise their Marbec turbine

8) Cody and Steve out on the Vinalhaven anemometer job

9) George Baker and Jamie with a sensor

10) Jamie, Mary, Steve, Cody, Heidi and self at Vinalhaven #1

11) Heidi hugs a turbine. Needs bigger arms.

Meditation, mental health, homesteading, and sustainability

Most of my students and colleagues would be surprised to hear that I'm interested in meditation almost as much as I am in farming.

I've long had a reputation for being a grumpy kind of curmudgeon around these parts, someone who can be relied upon to explain the potential bad consequences of any action in great detail to anyone who will listen. I doubt there are many of my colleagues who consider me particularly meditative. I think a lot of people think my primary interest is in raising pigs, with similar meditative abilities as my porcine friends, and in some ways they wouldn't be far wrong.

Pigs are very underestimated critters, in my book. But that's another story.

But I am quite interested in meditation, although not so much for the trendy mind-bending technique itself, but for what the science of meditation and similar mental states tells us about human nature and consumption.

Which, once you think about it, is pretty important to sustainability economics.

So, for the record, I am particularly interested in those aspects of human nature revealed by meditation, prayer, and related spiritual practices that are related to production and consumption, and the marginal utility of consumer goods.

What I'm not interested in is the head-in-the-sand-ness that comes when practitioners successfully escape from the "real" world of consumption, conflict, competition and climate change, and then somehow decide that this escapism is generalizable, that somehow meditation alone can solve all our problems.

Tell that to an out-of-work assembly line worker in Peoria.

I learned to meditate during a very brief stay at the Findhorn commune in Scotland during the period of large scale unemployment the UK experienced in the mid 1980s. The stay was quite brief, only a year, because the work my friends and I were doing there, community economic development and adventure therapy work with long-term unemployed youth in the surrounding area, proved impossible for the expert meditators at the commune to support. One very non-meditative argument after another revealed that the purpose of the commune was to serve as a place for people to bury their heads in the sand, not engage with the very real and very gritty social problems of Margaret Thatcher's Morayshire, with its fifty percent youth unemployment, drugs, crime and general hopelessness.

But learning the technique of meditation there at Findhorn led eventually to an interest in the relationship of one's mental state to questions of knowledge and truth, which in the end led to the Quakers. I formally became a Quaker in 1999, when, after three-four years of "seeking" hosted by one or the other meeting, I petitioned for membership of Athens Monthly Meeting, in Georgia. This particular meeting, of which I technically remain a member, has a long and peculiar association with economics and ecology, because of the number of members who are also members of the University of Georgia Institute of Ecology, the foremost ecology research center and think-tank in the USA. I was studying there, and learning to teach there at the time, and with my background it was natural for me to attend meeting.

I'm not an active Friend at this point in my life, but I remain very interested in the way the human mind works in respect to knowledge and truth. The Quaker/Buddhist practice of "just sitting" and reflecting seems to me to be an essential, if terribly under-explained, part of the human way of gaining knowledge and closely related to the relative satisfaction of material sustenance.

And of course, there are massive economic consequences. For those of us who manage somehow to learn to use meditation and reflection and the equanimity that results to partially escape the cycle of consumption in western economies, there are huge gains to personal well-being.

And I do believe that there are aspects of this that are generalizable.

In other words, if we all learned to meditate, we'd need to consume less to be happy, and that would on the whole be good for us and for the planet.

I say partially escape, because no-one ever succeeds in completely escaping the need to consume. We all need some food, shelter, clothing, energy, and even entertainment.

But I do feel that some propagandists for meditation and related techniques also advocate disassociation from society, particularly from politics and from competition. And the Keynesian result of a large-scale increase in meditative approaches that resulted in a large scale decrease in consumption, and thus aggregate demand, would be catastrophic for employment.

So what is needed, along with a decent explanation of why meditation is good for you, and why it can reduce the propensity to consume, is a system of economic thought and policy that provides access to employment, and the resulting ability to consume, or some alternative, to counter the fact that overall needs for consumption goods would fall as a result of increased equanimity, and thus aggregate demand would also fall, leading to widespread poverty and unemployment.

This is all closely related to productivity and the poor prospects for employment in general. Mechanization and computerization add massively to our ability to produce more goods with less employment per unit good. This mean that while there are on the aggregate more goods in circulation, and prices drop, there may also be less employment available per unit good, or at least less meaningful and productive employment.

As long as employment is the main ticket that gives ordinary folk the right to consume, we have a major chicken-egg problem here. There is no built-in ability for society to more equitably distribute employment if demand for employment exceeds supply. There's also the knotty question of underemployment, and/or questions relating to the low dignity of "trickle-down" employment, where we become dependent on jobs pampering the rich.

The result is increasing concentration on more and more meaningless employment, along with the least sustainable forms of consumption, which, while it may help maintain an uncertain and easily exploited kind of mass employment in Peoria and Peking, isn't very good for us spiritually and emotionally, and is disastrous for the planet.

Some possibilities for reducing this difficulty include a recognition of the value of part-time employment and/or home production, the idea of job-sharing, and the trendy notion of down-sizing and becoming more meditative about once's consumption. Being content with less has been a major feature story this last Great Recession, in case you hadn't read the articles. This latest is an example.

But a major bottleneck manifests itself with notions of reducing expectations for employment, in the corresponding lower ability of ordinary people to gain access to a home without decent employment. It's already more or less impossible for large numbers of Americans to get a secure home with the relatively low access ordinary people currently have to fully remunerative and meaningful employment. Reduce expectations for employment yet further, and fewer still of us will be in decent housing as a result.

If we were really smart, we'd study the ideas of Sir Patrick Geddes in this respect. Geddes, an economic thinker of great spiritual consequence, was also a great realist of human nature. He believed that the real "economic problem" to be solved was not the Keynesian one of sustaining aggregate demand and increasing consumption, but the Jeffersonian one of providing easier and sustained access to the primary real capital goods of homes, farms and gardens.

Your could call this theoretical Jeffersonianism, or something like that. Of course, Geddes put this into widespread practice with his planning schemes in Britain, France, Palestine and India.

Once you have a home with a farm or garden attached, the marginal propensity to consume external consumption goods can be much reduced, while a good deal of remunerative employment can be found right there in the farm or garden, or on the physical fabric of the home itself, without such a great need for engagement with the external economy.

In Skidelsky's second volume of Keyne's biography, an interesting question is asked: Why were the recessions and depressions of the 19th century so much less harsh in their impacts on ordinary people than the recessions of the twentieth century, especially in the United States?

The answer, to my mind, is that the transformation to an industrial economy was far less complete and so many ordinary people still had a homestead to fall back upon. And wasn't the original American dream one of a decent farmstead or homestead?

We should all wish for this additional level of economic security in these troubled times.

Pigs are, of course optional, but I find them entertaining, and even quite meditative animals.

I don't have any great conclusions for this thread of thought right now. I can see that a truly ecological economics would have to address the spiritual aspects of life, but I feel strongly that with the current system, there is insufficient ability to gain access to Jeffersonian/Geddesian capital if we all down-size.

I plan to meditate on it some more. But there will be more of this kind of writing on this blog in the weeks to come, because I'm working on some of these ideas for a paper in June.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

More Revkin

I'm not sure how good a use of my (spare) time it is that I spend between half an hour and a couple hours a day with the debate on the Revkin blog, but that is where the science and policy problem I'm most interested in is most usefully discussed.

I like re-posting my comments here though, because otherwise this work and writing is quickly lost to the blogosphere. Here, I'll be able to find it again when I need it.

This is my latest, in response to this post on environmental communication.


I'm still mulling over Mr. Clark's prescription, and am not completely done thinking about it yet, but two items that I partly disagree with stand out.

One is that climate or sustainability education can work, in certain circumstances, even with a hostile or apathetic audience. This is my day-to-day, so I have some experience. Almost every working day I teach one or two hours of a college class in basic sustainability. There's a mix of students. Roughly a third are criminal justice majors and moderately conservative. Another third are future non-climate scientists and applied scientists and middling politically. A remaining third are either future climate or energy wonks or moderately green in general and mildly activist. The class is required for all majors.

The outcomes are essentially that they can understand the science, whether they agree with it or not, and can write about their preferred solutions, even if their preferred solution is "I still don't see the problem here."

If we stick completely to the science facts and to "discovery" and socratic pedagogy, forming our own hypotheses as we go and testing them against the available data, using raw climate data and statistics right there in class, essentially re-doing some of the science, and always carefully stating the null hypothesis (or logical opposite or giving both sides of the argument, depending on whether it's a science question, a logic question, or political angle of sustainability we're discussing) and letting the data settle the matter on each major question, eighty to ninety percent of students come away understanding climate science moderately well, to the point where they can pass an objective test on the science and write about their own preferred solutions in a short paper.

If, after learning the science, they're still unconvinced, students can still get a good grade, even an "A," by passing the objective test on the science knowledge, and stating in their essay the reasons why they're unconvinced.

I should probably mention that solutions are part of the class, and we discuss nuclear power, "clean coal," and natural gas as well as the usual renewable and efficiency ideas.

I would concede that this takes an enormous amount of patience for both professor and students, particularly in getting students to be even-handed and withhold judgment. On both sides. There certainly isn't time for this kind of work in mainstream media or politics.

The other partial disagreement I have is not with Mr. Clark's notion to shift the debate to energy. I agree with that. But some of the respondents' ideas about which energy solutions are viable seem biased against solar and wind viability. Both are viable, as part of a mix of energy solutions that are complements, not alternatives.

This is related to the "base load" problem. Solar can't make base load, but it can make peaking load one day in two or two days out of three and so reduce electrical generation fuel needed by up to a third or perhaps more in combination with other measures such as storage or electrical vehicles. There still needs to be redundant stand-by capacity, but the cost of the solar capital is offset not by the cost of standby generation capital but by saved generation fuel. As long as the solar capital plus operating cost/watt is less than the fuel cost/watt, then this makes business sense. This threshold is already crossed in our sunniest states, although subsidy is involved. But the price of modules continues to drop, so the subsidy can be removed soon.

Wind can make base load, as a recent NREL study and European experience has demonstrated, but there still needs to be standby capacity. Again, the cost of wind power capital is measured not against the cost of other generating capital but against fuel saved. The total build-out capacity is a combination of economics and wind geography. I don't think turbine prices are going to drop like solar prices are. we seem to have hit some kind of flat spot in turbine costs. Then it boils down to the quality of the site and the competing price points. With subsidy and/or high fossil fuel cost, more wind generation sites are viable. Without subsidy and/or high fossil fuel cost, far fewer sites have enough wind to pay for the turbines and make an ROI. The current target is 20% of generation, and I think this remains realistic in terms of the resource, but meeting the target will require us to use offshore sites.

A .pdf slideshow with reference to the NREL study is at this web site here, under Michael Milligan the author:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The State of the Disunion

This is something I wrote for Revkin's blog today, which I'm posting here for people to access if they wish. The original topic was why the president didn't mention climate change in the State of the Union.

Andy's post:

And my post:

If I navigate around the denialist comments here, Andy's informal focus group here on the State of The Union is mostly interesting for the lack of discussion about the economics the president is invoking. But it's a lot easier to see what the White House is thinking once you factor that in.

If I'm not mistaken, there's an implicit but obvious retreat from direct Keynesian stimulus here, a small fraction of which was previously targeted to the environment, energy, and climate in general. There might have been several tens of billions of this in the $700 billion ARRA.

This isn't because the White House isn't Keynesian. It is, in a canny, abrasive, Chicago-politics kind of way. See Austan Goulsbee's video on GM for a flavor of this:

But the White House can't get the money it needs for a Keynesian policy. What we instead is the combination of milder stimulus with tax-shifting and tax-subsidy shifting, with a focus on reinvestment. All rather constrained and carefully pitched to keep our animal spirits up.

Keynes would argue, and worry, that the low quantitative value of the remaining stimulus would prolong the liquidity trap, reducing growth well below potential growth, risking another dip of recession, or at the least, slower growth out of the recession. The advice (from the gay blade of Cambridge and Bloomsberry) would be to forget your Puritan morality, realize that the economy is not about personal character, deficit-spend your way into faster growth and allow prosperity and the better tax returns that result (not necessarily tax hikes) and a little inflation to take care of the deficit. Obviously at least half and probably 3/4 of Congress either doesn't believe this, or more likely, doesn't know these ideas or understand them.

Other than wondering if one reason conservatives don't like Keyne's ideas is just because he was gay, the question then should be, what about jobs?

Germane to this, structural change has reduced the growth of possibilities that exist for ordinary people to win middle class incomes. Various shifts such as the use of robotics in manufacturing, or the computing that eliminated the typing pool are to blame, but there's no one culprit, just lots of little ones.

So this was not your grandad's, or even your father's recession. There isn't going to be an easy way out for jobs. The White House knows this.

These days we even seem particularly adept at redistributing finance away from existing economic "losers", such as ordinary folks looking for a job, and towards existing "winners" of all kinds. I was astounded to hear recently that some HR specialists are predicting 4 and 5% raises for senior management in 2011. Then there's the bonus outrage. Some recession. Shared sacrifice? I can't imagine what would happen if we had a real war and had to make a) the rich sacrifice and b) the rest of us fight it, or produce materiel. I'm not sure we're that America any more.

So Obama's notion to shift the debate from climate to "energy quest" seems to me to be a kind of second-best for the White House. They couldn't get more stimulus and know it, because the Congress won't pay. Exit Summers, his usefulness much reduced, might as well go back to Harvard. Let's instead try to work the competitiveness angle to sell some decent climate-aiding energy ideas to the American people, and see if we can't somehow avoid a second dip, and cross our fingers and pray for better jobs growth than our models say we will get.

And don't mention climate because every time we say climate the Republicans will say "job-killing."

Instead we'll do our best to shift a little tax subsidy from fossil fuels to renewables, and hope for some jobs out of that.

You can hardly blame them.

What we ought to do now is think about whether a restructured energy economy can provide good middle class jobs and contribute to reducing income disparity in our society. I tend to think it can, because although, for example, the Chinese may be able to make some kinds of solar panels cheaper (not the thin-film kind, where the west still has the technology advantage), they can't yet come over here and install them for us.

And we're going to get restructuring whatever we do, because of the global strength of oil demand over oil supply, something even the Republicans can't filibuster. If we can't get jobs out of proper economic policy, we need to get them somewhere. The energy economy is vast, and so there's a major force here to work with, a force that is changing whether we like it or not.

So overall I was content with the thinking behind the State of the Union. It's the general level of denial that exists about all these important ideas that bothers me. We don't understand science, climate, economics, energy, technology, or even business competitiveness very well at all, and are in some level of denial about all of them.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Off the dole

A very interesting new article by Jeffrey Leonard, a renewable energy investor and chair of the Washington Monthly.

Interestingly, his suggestions to remove all energy subsidies gel completely with those of Dale McIntyre, a regular commentator on Revkin's DotEarth blog, with whom I've had a couple of on-line debates.

McIntyre works as a researcher for Conoco-Phillips (although his personal comments are not authorized by the company) and often appears to be an apologist for oil (although he actually works in the bio fuels area).

But in this case the two points of view coincide.

I don't think Leonard will get his wish, there being rather too many vested interests involved for Congress to do away with energy subsidies in one fell swoop as he suggests, but nevertheless it's an interesting proposal.

And Leonard is completely up-to-date in the state of play across the entire energy market. It's always a pleasure to read anything this knowledgeable. Much of what passes for energy debate these days is spouted by people who know nothing about what's going on in solar, wind, or natural gas.

Friday, January 21, 2011

New thin film process, fifty cents per watt, fifty percent margin

Paleo-technologists, for whom coal and oil are the highest form of human energy engineering, are already endangered, but what is interesting to me is how few people actually know it yet.

I've mentioned many times how close we are to a revolution in solar pricing. This latest bulletin suggests another massive drop in prices is likely in the next twelve months.

Model this: Plain vanilla tests beat out "concept maps"

Any scientist who uses or teaches dynamic systems modeling of any kind at the college and university level faces an interesting problem when they encounter students who've been earlier taught by other, possibly trendier teachers using a technique called "concept mapping."

Concept mapping is outwardly similar to the first stage of a modeling problem, where charts with "circles and arrows" (see Arlo Guthrie's famous "Alice's Restaurant" for the reference) are used to make conceptual connections between phenomena.

The problem is, conceptual connections are not at all the same thing as physical flows of matter and energy, nor are they the same thing as "feedback" loops between statistically correlated phenomena.

Modelers restrict their modeling calculations to these two kinds of relationships. Computer modeling language in fact distinguishes between the two. There are differently shaped or color-coded circles and arrows, or boxes and arrows, to symbolize the relationships that are intended to differentiate flows of matter and energy from those that are intended to simulate cause and effect.

And of course, the aim of modeling is to actually quantify, mathematically the flows of matter and energy in the system, in light of the dynamics of the particular flows, and the cause and effect relationships that impinge on those flows.

Altogether, it's very much more mathematically-disciplined a thought process than this so-called "concept mapping."

In concept mapping as used in middle and high schools (and, woefully, some college classes), students are encouraged to draw circles and arrows more or less willy-nilly between whatever, often vaguely defined concepts they think are involved in a phenomenon.

This is encouraged by their teachers who are then easily pleased with the images that result, and reward the students with praise and so on. Little critical thought is applied to whether or not the relationships drawn actually exist, whether they can be detected or measured, or, perhaps most importantly, whether or not they satisfy basic physical laws such as the First and Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The problem develops when the student subsequently enters a college or university program where physical, chemical, or biological processes are modeled in one way or another using far more stringent rules that must satisfy statistical conventions and the Laws of Thermodynamics.

College teachers then have to undo and unpack the undisciplined and messy conceptual thinking that the students have become accustomed to being rewarded for.

This is often unpleasant for both teachers and students.

Another facet of trendy teaching silliness is this notion that we have to accept and praise whatever "creative" output a student provides.

Well, no, actually, we don't. Not when basic laws of science are contradicted.

Heaven forbid a teacher should actually correct a student for getting something wrong, and try to teach them the correct science fact instead!

So, after years of this particular struggle, I was pleased to see this NYT article that debunks concept maps as pedagogical technique.

It doesn't work.

I could have told you that.

Just drawing circles and arrows in an undisciplined fashion doesn't get you very far at all, not in my world. Pretty pictures are not the real world. The real world can sometimes be described symbolically and mathematically, in all its complication, using flow charts that are then specified quantitatively and used for prediction. Our society actually depends on this technique, especially when it's used in medicine, agriculture, industry, or resource conservation. But it generally takes a good deal of effort to make useful models that actually work for prediction.

No wonder we have such a hard time getting ordinary people to understand climate change. A lot of my students must think that climate scientists just draw charts with circles and arrows to make climate models from our creative imaginations. No wonder they're taken with a pinch of salt.

To be fair, and to give the article the proper interpretation, the researchers found that concept maps do work a little bit. They're just are not as successful at entraining long-term memory of ideas and concepts as conventional systems of tests and practice tests.


Now maybe we can put this behind us and learn some real modeling. When students have an appreciation of how disciplined modeling is, perhaps more of them will realize how rigorous climate models can be, and how likely it is that the major General Circulation Models will prove to be accurate in their predictions.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

700 offshore wind jobs for East Yorkshire

This is a follow-up to the more speculative article of a few weeks back. It seems they sealed the deal.

If they can do it in Hull, we can do it in Bath, ME.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

NYT's economists flunk on solar job leaks

I was interested to read the NYT's editorial debate today on "green collar" jobs after the Evergreen solar debacle, which I blogged about the other day.

But I didn't learn much from it. What a parade of conventional and classical economic dogma! Going on and on about public goods, intellectual property rights, and free trade!

It's not that I don't believe that David Rickardo still has something to teach us about free trade, or that identifying the public good nature of technical knowledge isn't important.

But really, is it appropriate to jump straight to controversial classical and neoclassical theorizing, when you haven't properly specified the area of industry you're talking about, and so you haven't realized that you're talking about two completely different industrial processes that just happen to make a compatible product?

It's as if it were the early 1900s, and Henry Ford had developed and deployed the assembly-line technology in automobile production for several years already, and you were sitting around bemoaning the fact that all the hand-built car companies were going out of business because they couldn't compete.

Let me repeat: It doesn't matter if polycrystalline technology goes to China. They have it already, in fact they've had it for several years already. They can do it with their eyes closed. Evergreen is just going to be one of hundreds of plants that assemble solar modules from raw cells.

It's the proprietary systems for the very different amorphous semiconductor techniques, such as the various top-secret recipes for thin film solar "ink" that we need to protect from Chinese industrial espionage, and that we need to add public and private capital to.

That's the future of solar power.

And while there won't be very many jobs in making the new type panels, because these new thin film factories use robots to do that, there will be thousands of jobs in installing the systems, jobs which can't be exported to China.

A couple of the economists got that part right.

I'm so glad I never had a conventional economics education. Nearly all of my econ teachers were mavericks of one kind or another, greens, Quakers, ecological economists, radical libertarians. There was even a Greek sado-marxist, from whom I learned, believe it or not, supply and demand and free trade.

And I'm also glad I worked in manufacturing and construction and other technological work at various times during my life. It sure does make it a lot easier to understand what's going on in industry.

Maybe an assembly line or mining or timber-mill or construction job should be required for all economists before we let them into MS and PhD programs.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Solar job leaks

Photo: Not rocket science: Unity students assemble solar modules in class, using a "breadboard"-type experimental approach as used in old-fashioned electronics experiments. This allows students to deduct the proper association of series and parallel connectivity to produce a target voltage. This is basically all there is to making a poly- or monocrystalline solar module. This and a few choices of laminate and frame engineering. Safety note -- the over-eager student on the table was told to get down as soon as the picture was taken.

In my business, the news that Evergreen Solar, an important US-based manufacturer of polycrystalline solar modules, will move it's assembly operation to China at a cost of something like 800 jobs might be perceived like a big "hit" to advocates of growing the US "green" economy.

That would be the simple version.

But one source of the competition Evergreen has faced, and one reason it needed the cheaper labor costs offered by the move, is the rise in western-produced, amorphous-semiconductor based technology.

Amorphous or thin film technology requires much less human labor in assembly. I show students in my classes a YouTube video showing the Nanosolar factories in California and Germany, and ask them what they notice.

The first thing they notice is, there are very few people.

What you have to understand, to understand the situation, is that the Evergreen plant in Massachusetts was primarily an assembly plant putting together pre-assembled components made elsewhere, not a fabrication plant that used raw material inputs.

Polychrystalline technology has been superseded by amorphous technology, but it's not dead yet because it's still economically viable. But it won't be for the long haul. It requires too much energy and too much labor.

Sooner or later the cost of producing thin film will drop yet further, and when it does, the only way that polychrystalline technology will thrive is through continued subsidy. It makes sense for Evergreen to go to China where such subsidy will no doubt be forthcoming in all kinds of ways, lower or non-existent local taxes, free educational support, free buildings, high-priced government contracts for product and so on.

Not to mention labor at pay rates any self respecting American would consider penurious.

What we do need to do is to hold on to the thin-film technology for as long as we can, so that the democracies benefit politically. If technology like that owned by Nanosolar and its ilk goes to China, then we're in trouble.

I think it's a problem for the US and the west in general if we let all the polycrystalline assembly jobs go to China. There's probably room for improvement in the older technology still, and we don't know yet how long-lived the new amorphous-type panels will be. We should keep our hand in. But we shouldn't worry about the loss of Evergreen. Nothing is going to China that the Chinese don't already have.

What this example does show is the difficulty of governments picking winners in the solar business. The 30% technology-neutral tax subsidy that goes to householders and businesses (for a short while yet) is a much sounder proposition from a strategic viewpoint than the several kinds of hidden subsidies the Chinese are using, most of which require them to pick a bet on the technology. We should keep it in place for now.

How much longer will we need that subsidy? Not long, if prices drop below $1.50 a watt, which is close to parity with other electricity generation.

Cheap solar will make household scale wind power obsolete within two years. No-one will want to buy a Bergey or a Skystream when you can get a noise-free 6K solar array for less than a Skystream.

To some extent, cheap solar will eventually make wind farms obsolete too, but not as quickly, and not as absolutely, because to some extent the timing of wind generation over the day and year is an economic complement to the timing of solar generation, not a substitute. We're going to want some wind farms around, especially here in the frozen north.

(Anti-wind activists -- be careful not to misquote or selectively quote this last for your own purposes. Try to actually help the conversation along for once. Use the whole quote.)

So how long should we keep the subsidy in place?

About until Congress removes the subsidies on coal and oil.

Especially the mountain-top subsidy. the one that lets coal companies destroy whole mountaintops and the climate for free, when solar and wind are cheaply available.

That's a really bone-headed subsidy. But you don't see the Tea-Partiers wailing about that one, do you?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Critical of thinking

Wikipedia photo of Rodin sculpture

I teach a good deal of critical thinking.

Which is to say, I am responsible for teaching a lot of classes in which critical thinking, as generally defined in academia, is the primary outcome, and so, if I'm a responsible academic and teacher, my students' abilities in critical thought at the end of the class should be measurably greater than they were at the beginning.

This is a fairly tall order, given the natural tendencies of the average American college student, indeed of any young person, and given the difficulty of measuring the quality of thought.

Take the first of these: If I consider my own life, I'm not sure I stopped to think until I was around, oh, 35 years old, or so, and my level of testosterone poisoning had eased somewhat.

I was more of a perpetual motion machine than a critical thinker at that age.

I was in the military and so my perpetual motion was channeled in ways that were more or less useful to society, so this wasn't a great problem. But that was what I was like. Always hiking, always on the move, up hill, down dale.

I generally teach at the junior and senior level, and these days I have more women in my classes than men, so the natural tendency for my students to be in motion rather than thought is reduced a little, but still, thinking, per se, is not quite what students, what young people, are about, not at core, is it?

And measuring improvement in critical thinking is probably possible, but difficult. Especially when you are busy enough trying to teach it.

Besides, how can you teach what is actually a fairly rare habit of mind, even among older adults? Let's just fess up to it. Faced with a new problem, most people don't actually think their way out. It would be nice if we did. Politics would be transformed, for starters.

But unless you're a habitual and well-trained critical thinker, the average person's response to a new problem is to try again whatever worked with old problems, not to think, not hardly at all. The main reason, I think, is that we carry around with us a lot of very powerful mental models of the social or other context in which problems occur, and we tend not to be able to question those models and that context very well, and so we take the new problem and force-fit it into the context of old problems we know and love, and so fail to see that it's a new problem at all.

Context, especially social context, is deeply rooted in the psyche. Static ideas about context are easier to handle, psychologically, than shifting ones. It's very hard for people to re-adjust their ideas of how the world works around them without encountering existential doubt, which doubt can be fairly crippling in all kinds of difficult ways. Asking adults to reconsider and re-frame their ideas of how the world works is difficult enough. Asking teenagers, or youths just leaving the teenage years, who have just spent several years testing out and trying on personality traits that are independent of their parents, and are still trying and testing as they come to your class...

...well, like I said, it's a tall order.

If we were smarter as a society we'd acknowledge this and delay college until students are in their thirties or forties. Those few students I get that are this age are generally wonderful to teach.

A well-trained, well-practiced critical thinker, faced with a new problem, should be able to frame the the problem into its context carefully and if necessarily differently, perhaps even changing the context, and see that the problem is in fact new and different, without experiencing any of this self-doubt and worry about identity.

But that ability really only comes with improving social, psychological and mental stability, which, I tend to think, only comes with age.


But with advancing age comes stability, possibly complacency, and in many cases even though a person may be more secure in their identity, they are less likely to want to deeply rethink context that might then require them to reappraise and, heaven forbid, change, that identity.



How do we get out of this?

I think the tendency or habit to frequently and consistently re-frame context can be taught by practice. Possibly the best kinds of initial practice include those kinds of experiences in which we have to re-frame context just because, like traveling to another country. And I don't mean cruise-line, mainstream hotel-type traveling. I mean real, down and dirty, mixing with the natives traveling.

I like travel courses for this reason. Taking students to a different country, which I've done several times in my teaching career, can be very effective, and in my experience you see a very great improvement in critical thinking abilities among nearly all students who travel with you. In a different country it's obvious that the context has changed, and only the dullest of students is unaffected by this. A little de-briefing, some encounter-group type activities during and at the end of the trip, and you can get students to talk about what they see and hear and give them practice in context and re-framing.

I've had students come up to me weeks and months after a travel course with a question or problem they first encountered on the course, and you can see they've been cogitating and reflecting on it ever since. And reflection, the experts tell us, is key to critical thinking.

If you can't go to another country, you can go to a different social setting or context within the country you're in. Field trips, conference attendance, internships, volunteering, alternative spring breaks, all of these are very good, and I like to get my advisees and mentees turned on to these opportunities as soon as possible.

But how can you do any of this in a regular classroom, in a regular, three-times-a-week, fifty minute lecture class?

First up, let me say I hate the fifty-minute, lecture-class format with a vengeance. It seems to me to be the perfect excuse for lazy professors to have nice lazy professorial lives, going from class to class, looking busy, while at the same time being as perfectly well stuck in that context as any of their charges are stuck in their dorm-room, just-out-of-high-school mentality. It's the academic equivalent of walking around the base with a clipboard.

(If you want to have an easy time in the military, you wear a clean, pressed uniform and clean shiny shoes, keep a short haircut, and stroll around the base with a clipboard. No-one ever asks a soldier with a clipboard what he's doing, as long as the soldier is well-enough turned out so as not to attract attention.)

So I do everything I can not to get stuck in fifty-minute lectures. And Unity College is especially good at affording me these kinds of opportunities. If I taught at East Overshoe State, I'd have pretty much nothing but fifty-minute classes and hardly every get to go on a field trip or to a conference with students, let alone on an overseas trip.

But like most academics, I can't change everything about college, and a lot of teachers prefer the fifty minute class, and it is useful for some topics and some kinds of students, like first-year science lectures, for instance, where students can't handle the complexity of what is taught if classes are very much longer, but this means that that the rest of us have to fit in with this, and just because, and before you know it, the whole schedule is pretty much nothing but fifty-minute lecture classes.

So much for critical thinking in academia...

So you do what you can in fifty minutes. Striking images and movies that help jar students out of the context they're in work well sometimes. The Internet has transformed my classroom because there is so much of this kind of good material available. You can virtually travel to any place or any setting in the world on the Internet.

Getting students to move around the classroom and do different work in different groups works well, since this changes the context a little, especially if some of the people in the class are new to some of the other people. Although the slowest students will just sit there in any group and let the others do the work.

Asking provocative Socratic questions works very well, especially if they're slightly uncomfortable questions that push the boundaries of the students' social context. You need a sense of humor to pull this off, and sometimes it backfires, but if you can ask edgy questions without getting students too uncomfortable, and keep them on edge just long enough, you can begin to get them thinking.

It's a little insecure personally to do this, especially if the students are in majors where they take most of their classes with faculty who don't challenge them with these kinds of awkward, hard-minded questions.

The soft-cushion majors.

These students will give you bad evaluations if you keep them on edge like this for any length of time. But the science majors, and we have mostly science majors at Unity College, are usually more welcoming of being made to think, as are the better students in any of the liberal studies majors.

It's the c-plus and b-minus students in the easier, mostly professionally-oriented programs, the ones that are just there to get a nice middle-class job in Blah Management, and are willing to admit it, that will react most poorly to being made to think by a provocative teacher.

Sometimes, when I'm standing in line at the DMV watching how badly the system works, or when I encounter some item of bureaucratic nonsense in the news, I get to thinking that these are the kinds of students who need to be made to think the most.

After all, society is run, at least at the middling level, by former b-minus students in Blah Management, isn't it?

How can we get them thinking better?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Musings: More Green Keynesianism

Probably the only reason I usually publish a reflective piece around the college's winter break is that this really is a good time to reflect, and sometime the only time for several days' sustained reflection, given the college, wind research, and farm calendar. The end of the spring term, in contrast, is much more busy, as our wind field research gets going.

This time of year, if I wish to sit in my den for several hours and write something that isn't an administrative document or a wind report, I actually have the time.

That being said, what is there to say? The flurry of family visiting around Christmas is done. Blessed few sustainability activities take place in early January in Maine, unless we're talking about bio-fuel heat, which around here means putting another log in the wood stove. The college and the SusTech program are in good shape, doing more or less what they were meant to be doing in the world, despite the upcoming departure after this year's graduation of President Mitch Thomashow and VPAA Amy Knisley. Both these leaders have had their fair share of salutary impact on the college, particularly in fund raising and in academic quality, but the college is self-renewing and self-sustaining academically and organizationally at this point and can thrive without them, even though they will be missed.

At home the Womerlippi Farm is in winter recess, awash in hay and oats, awaiting lambs in March or April. Nothing requires much attention there once the hay and oats are doled out each morning. Aimee collects the eggs, while I shovel the snow and run the wood stoves. All is white and slow and peaceful.

And while our wind research program has anemometers whirring and logging all over the good old State o' Maine, there's little or no servicing to do this time of year, a deliberately planned circumstance. This is no time to handle steel structures in the field. You can lose your fingers that way. The small matter of a battery change for a unit atop a 100 foot radio tower in the western foothills can await the start of the term, the return of students who may wish to help with that project, and a very sunny day.

Our search and rescue team's efforts are also in winter recess. The state is covered in a new blanket of snow from the recent blizzard. Deep new snow means two things for search and rescue: Number one, anyone who is foolish enough to go into the woods on foot and get lost or hurt leaves obvious tracks for the Maine Warden's Service to follow. Number two, since few Mainers actually go into the woods on foot these days, only hardy Unity College types, it sometimes seems, most call-outs this time of year are for snowmobile accidents, and so the Wardens respond on snowmobile. These two together largely negate the need for large search parties of the kind we specialize in. Organizing chores for state-wide SAR do take place this time of year, and I have a few to do, but none that have to be done right away.

So it's a very quiet time, the quietest of the year, for which I am exceedingly grateful. Time to think. And what I am thinking about, of course, is climate change and energy and the future of global humanity.


But that is my real job, isn't it? If I'm hired and given the exalted rank of Associate Professor of Human Ecology at Unity College for any discernible reason at all, it's that I'm hired to regularly teach a basic class in global sustainability to the undergraduate students of the college.

I'd better have an interesting idea or two about this problem, hadn't I?

Most of my thoughts, however, it should be stated, are developments of ideas I studied while in graduate school at the University of Maryland's Policy School in the 1990s, where I studied under Professors Herman Daly and Peter G. Brown, now at McGill. If I have anything to add, it's footnotes. Useful, practical ones, I hope, but footnotes all the same.

At that time and in that place, with those professors and an international and cosmopolitan group of graduate students, it was possible, and even encouraged, to think quite large and far-reaching thoughts about the direction of humanity, and particularly about the problems of ecological sustainability. It was quite an education.

Since then it's been interesting to be an observer, from the relatively safe vantage point of this small hilltop farm, and this small environmental college, on the doings of the world and on humanity's slow progress towards a sustainable way of life.

In an earlier cogitation, I expressed the opinion, developed on the basis of study of the current American political rhetoric about green jobs and the ARRA stimulus package, that what we have begun to develop at this stage in the political economy of the west seems to be a green Keynesianism.

(Full disclosure: the ARRA, though the Efficiency Maine Trust, funds some of our basic wind research for the state of Maine.)

"Green Keynesianism" might be when the government targets Keynesian economic stimulus measures deliberately at the development of the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors. In this case, in the United States, several ARRA-funded programs, and various other programs run by the Department of Energy, the military, and various state governments, including Maine's, take dollars from deficit spending, and inject them into the economy. Similar programs exist in the UK and European countries.

The difference between the "green" form and other historical Keynesian measures is this deliberate target of stimulus at the development of the emerging green energy technology sector (increasing the money supply), and on widespread energy efficiency measures (a demand-side approach).

According to the various theories of my mentors in economic and environmental policy, the ideas of Herman Daly or Peter Brown, Green Keynesianism could never be sufficient to secure humanity's sustainable future. Keynesian economics is a growth economics. There are means and ends. The means is to increase aggregate demand to jump-start the economy when in recession and spur growth. The ends of such growth is to raise living standards and increase prosperity, while avoiding recession, war, and other mayhem.

Dalian ecological economics, in contrast, calls for economic growth to be discontinued as the primary goal of economic policy, and substitutes instead the concept of development without growth in material and energy throughput.

Indeed, since Daly first published his ideas, it has become apparent that some reduction in throughput, specifically of fossil fuels, will actually be necessary to avoid dangerous anthropogenic climate change.

Brown's best ideas, influenced greatly by Daly in the 1990s, were developed and expressed through the Quaker Institute for the Future's Moral Economy Project, with which I was involved, and took matters a step further, calling for a global "commonwealth" organization to take charge of governing the planet's environment and providing a "basic needs" income for all humanity.

Both thinkers are of course quite radical and well ahead of conventional opinion in the mainstream of growth economics and political economy in the United States and even Europe. But that might be the point -- they have realized that we need at some point to get away from growth economics.

For myself, although this seems quite ungrateful -- to repudiate my own PhD advisors! -- I'm become much more reflexive and conservative about ending growth and developing any world government. I feel we'll get there in the end. We must. It's the natural direction of humanity to develop both over the next century or two. But where I differ primarily is the timing. I'm content with Green Keynesianism for now, and the foreseeable future, as a stepping stone to a fully developed global political economy.

I can live with a few years or decades more of growth theory and non-world government, as long as the leadership of the west is intact.

My reasoning is, the world is unfortunately not yet safe for democracy.

The west has developed liberal democratic society, in which governments change peacefully by election, and in which freely elected politicians decide on the allocation of government resources based on a political process rather than any of the unhappy alternatives. Few non-western nations, India being perhaps the primary example, have succeeded in adopting these institutions.

What are the alternatives? Well, none good: one-party systems, religious doctrines, patronage, racial preference, crony-ism, elite culture, war, violence, brigandage, and the like. These are the Hobbesian fates which, like Keynes, I wish to avoid. As Churchill once said,

"No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

My feeling is that moving too quickly towards a steady state economy in the west invites China to become the most powerful nation in the world. And China is not a democracy. In the west in general, we have democracy, which we have developed and elaborated over the last, roughly two hundred years, but in my opinion this system is not currently widespread, nor internally stable enough, to survive a move towards an economics without growth, nor, indeed, any kind of world government. We must first manage a transition to renewable and low-carbon energy technology, and we must do it in such a way that the democracies are the masters of this technology.

If not, then we cannot guarantee that the great and continuing experiment that Lincoln outlined, and was instrumental in saving, government of the people, by the people, for the people, can endure.

Currently my hope is that this transition can be achieved in time. Unlike my former mentors, I am a trained technologist, an aeronautical engineer with a military training quite applicable to some of these technologies, particularly wind power, and I understand the basic physics as well as the policy and political economics of most green technologies very well indeed. And so I involve myself and my students with the development of these technologies, particularly wind power but also energy efficiency, solar power, and bio fuel forest systems here in Maine. I pay attention to the new information coming out of technology research. And I watch the news from the world of climate science too, like a hawk, partly so I can teach it, but partly so I can see what is happening.

It's a race.

In my version of green Keynesianism, not unlike the original, the reason for a period of continued economic growth is to protect civilized life by ensuring that the democratic civilizations are strong enough to protect themselves. In this view, the primary hope for democracy, possibly the only hope, is that the great democratic countries increase in strength at the same time as we develop and deploy an energy technology that weans us away from dependency on fossil fuels and also gives us independence from those forces arrayed against democracy. In the meantime, we can hope that more figurative Berlin Walls come down, and more democracies are born or developed.

I would not wish to live in a sustainable society without freedom of speech and religion, freedom from fear and want.

Unlike Keynes, however, the main reason I want to protect and further democracy by continuing economic growth is not to preserve the kind of elite culture Keynes loved. Keynes was a famous "Bloomsberry," a member of the Bloomsberry set of avant-garde liberal artist-activist-philosopher-writers and notable sexual hedonists that graced London before and after World War I. A major theory about Keynesian thought, from his biographer Skidelsky, is that it was developed to protect the possibility for this kind of higher culture.

I could care less about so called "higher" culture myself. My people, if they were artists at all, were working class British folk artists and traditional musicians, or nonconformist church singers of various persuasions. My grandfather served in the Great War that Keynes conscientiously objected to (while financing it through his UK Treasury job), and then served again in the second war Keynes sought to avoid. My other grandfather returned from civilian service in that war to put Keynesian economics to work building social housing for other returning servicemen. I was also a serviceman, for nearly seven years during the 1980s.

Indeed, without two distinctly Keynesian programs, the Pell Grant and the Stafford Loan, I wouldn't be writing this now. I'd probably be on the ground under some broken airplane with greasy hands, smelling of kerosene. For me, Keynesianism is personal, and more about breaking down barriers in society than maintaining them. And if my green Keynesianism is about protecting anything, it's about protecting the kind of independent Jeffersonian life we live, at Unity College and on this small farm, not a life of higher culture. Raising potatoes, not Picassos.

It's also about avoiding conflict.

This semester will see another of my students on a military plane heading east, bound for Afghanistan. Unity College students, my students, some of them at least, perhaps unfortunately for them, serve in the military.

(I read recently in the New York Times that only one or two students from Yale each class serve in the military.)

Our students need the now-generous GI Bill money for college, a program I supported and argued for, and so they serve. And so they are in harm's way, while the children of the elite in this democracy and others do not serve. And of course, our students are primarily rural, working class, down-to-earth, not at all from the kind of elite culture Keynes venerated.

What will happen to the security of the great democracies if fossil energy becomes more scarce, and if climate change continues to destabilize large past of the Muslim world?

And who will then serve us, to protect us?

Unfortunately, if we don't invest in a very great green Keynesian project of developing and deploying green energy, I see a future of conflict exacerbated by climate change, during which my people, the rural and working class people of the democracies of Britain and the United States will be asked, or required, to serve to protect those elites.

In the meantime, several of those elites, notably the Koch Brothers and Don Blankenship, but also many, many others, including many members of the current political leadership, are busily spreading the lie that climate change is not happening and a shift away from their energy technologies is unnecessary.

It will be a while before we sort all this out, and it will probably require climate change to get a bit worse, worse enough to get more Americans to pay attention (as if tornadoes on New Year's Eve were not enough). This is of course going to happen eventually, possibly soon, although I'm not looking forward to it. It seems more likely than not that the predictions in a recent paper by Judith Lean and David Rind, related to the expected effects of the eleven year sunspot cycle (among three other modeled factors that together explain eighty percent of variation in recent global average temperature), will prove correct, and that the next five years will see a considerable worsening of severe weather and other symptoms of increased atmospheric energy. Especially if we get another El Nino year.

That should be enough.

It had better be. We can't afford to let things progress very much further.

American public opinion is clearly the key factor here. Which brings me, more or less back to where I started. In a few more days time I will go again to work in the classroom teaching the basics of climate science and energy technology to two new classes of Unity College juniors and seniors.

Ho hum. Back to work. Not much time for reflection then.

But at least I know exactly why I'm doing it.