Thursday, April 20, 2017

Business as Virtue?

The world is filled with people who evaluate any activity as a possible business opportunity. Can it be done at a profit?  If so, how much can be made? Can I invest in it?

We see them on TV, hear them on radio, and are subject to their advertising at every turn. They comprise the majority of our government and corporate management, with our president as a perfect example.

The Amish have a very different view. They view excessive profit as a sin. When dealing with an Amish business, the owner often asks me "Is that too much?" after they hand over the bill, which is invariably modest. Has your hospital or university ever posed that question? Should they?

Our culture's acceptance of a desire to extract wealth from each other is in fact a disease, one born of a society that's increasingly crowded, anonymous, and individually focused. Business is by no means a disease in and of itself, but the view of business purely as a means of extracting wealth from our neighbors is. Not long ago, engaging in business was a means to contribute to the well being of our neighbors, with the generation of wealth as a secondary benefit.

Before the age of industrialization or even before agrarian society, people lived in small groups, typically under 150 people. Look at any indigenous society, and you'll find one where people performed a wide variety of tasks necessary to the group's survival.  Such tribes function essentially as extended family, where everyone wishes to remain part of the tribe (exile from the tribe typically amounted to a death sentence), and thus hopes to do their best in support of their tribe. There was no anonymity to hide behind. Anyone who made it their goal to extract inordinate wealth from their peers simply didn't get to stick around too long. Among the indians of the Pacific Northwest with their potlatch culture, the goal was to give away as much wealth as possible.

Even as societies become agrarian and grow into small villages, this same dynamic remains. Small businesses served only their immediate communities as a matter of practicality, and thus knew their customers personally. I suspect that most felt a sense of duty and connection within their community and acted accordingly. Anyone believed to be gouging their customers or producing an inferior product would soon find their lives made difficult by the other members of the community that they themselves depended upon.

As cities have grown to sizes such as those made possible by today's fossil energy use, the cloak of anonymity has gone from a rarity to the norm, where business owners likely serve customers on the other side of the globe whom they will never meet, and whom they care very little about. Today's businesses have grown to the point where personal integrity and virtue no longer drive their decision making. Most are driven primarily by the desire to extract the maximum amount of wealth from their clientele as possible. (This is in fact a legal requirement for publicly held corporations!) The greater their haul, the more we're encouraged to endorse their feast through investment.

Driving this dynamic even further is the idea that the only way to become truly wealthy, or just to retire, is to invest in such corporations and thus encourage their behavior. Gambling, usury, speculation, and the like were once taboos for good reason, as we're now discovering. Most were at one time illegal as well, because they destroy societies. They're currently destroying our life support systems, which is undoubtedly even worse than merely destroying our societal fabric.

As I see it, the morality, character, and ethical factors driving business decisions are in fact inversely related to the size of the business. Monopolies that now dominate the globe are by enlarge the greatest evils we've ever encountered. They may be the hand that feeds us, but they're by no means our only option.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


Shearing Day
I've got a thousand different thoughts rolling around my mind these days.  Few are worthy of a full blog post on their own. They all fall under a single category of thought:  disillusion. Yes, this is one of "those" posts.  No, I'm not pointing fingers (well... for the most part).  Just expressing disgust, dismay, and frustration at the way the world around me works... or doesn't. This is the rant of a raving lunatic, full of tangential thoughts and complete rambling nonsense.  Hopefully there's some agreement out there, somewhere.

In a world where our life support systems are clearly failing (the great barrier reef nearly dead, ocean fisheries depleted by 90% in the past 60 years, a clearly destabilized climate, burning forests, fundamental changes to the ocean's chemistry, CO2 going off the charts at an ever faster pace, the arctic likely to be ice free in a matter of months...), people still announce to me their plans for far-off air travel, expecting my joyful approval. The NY Times still promotes wonderful places to fly off to. Nobody bats an eye. The emperor's new clothes remain beautiful.

I was once naive enough to think that people would eventually recognize the danger of our continued business as usual, and eventually pull their heads out of their asses with regards to climate change, flying (the fastest way to burn our future), cars, and the whole shebang.  Now, I've had people effectively tell me they plan to change nothing of their own free will, no matter how bad the consequences. We'll keep on flying, keep on driving, and drive our families right over the cliff, because that's the most comfortable way to go, apparently.  I'm far from perfect myself, but would at least like it if there was someone goading me to do better than I am.  If they exist, I have yet to meet them.

If we actually wanted to look at our kids and not feel pangs of terror when we envision the future we're busily creating for them (my mother tells me I shouldn't share my thoughts with my son), we're going to have to suck it up in a big way.  It's going to be uncomfortable, in the same way that it was for members of the "Greatest Generation" to roll out of their landing craft on Omaha beach. The task before our generation, however, is both more difficult and far less likely to succeed at this late stage.

Americans, by enlarge, still trust corporate media sources who have demonstrably lied and done their best to enslave us through their promotion of various rackets (housing / mortgages, healthcare, higher education, etc). Modern day enslavement uses no chains -- only debt.  Even those who manage to avoid debt must compete (and thus pay prices inflated by cheap credit) with those who willingly partake of it.  It's the same tool predatory Americans used on other countries for decades, and it's increasingly being used on everyday Americans.

I learned recently that Mark Twain, bright guy that he was, fought tirelessly against America's decision to become predatory imperial assholes (this was around the time of the Spanish-American war).  He and his ideals lost, of course, and have continued to do so for well over a century now. USMC General Smedley Butler came to similar thoughts after spending time on the pointy end of the imperialist asshole stick.  Geez, why do all those middle-easterners want to blow us up?  Must all be crazy...

Likely as a result of our continued trust in corporate media, most Americans still seem to be afraid of socialism, to the point that they don't even recognize it when they do see it.  There are in fact things which are *best* done in a socialized manner.  Public roads.  Firefighting.  Police. Military defense. But, while someone is eating our lunch (healthcare insurers and pharmaceuticals?), we're not allowed to recognize the fact that healthcare is among those things best accomplished in a collective, socialized way. With the election of Trump and his appointment of DeVoss, our education system will soon be privatized, and will come to resemble our healthcare system.

If Three Mile Island and Chernobyl weren't enough, Fukushima has fully demonstrated that we cannot handle nuclear energy. The complete melt-downs experienced there have yet to be contained, and still spew radiation into the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean which will be wreaking havoc for many thousands of years to come. Even our best robotic technology can't get close enough to the reactors to even observe it, much less do something to contain it. Yet, nuclear energy is still promoted throughout the world. China is still building dozens of reactors, including ocean-based mobile reactors. Some people deserve a swift kick in the nuts for this stupidity. Or several kicks. With pointy-toed cowboy boots.

Energy. Yes, perhaps as little as a decade ago, I would get excited about things like fusion reactors, biofuels, new battery technology, wind generators, solar energy, and other ways around our seeming predicament with regards to fossil fuels destroying our future. It's clear to me now that cheap energy is the problem, whether it comes from fossil fuels or not. Limitations on humanity and our ability to do whatever we like are critical for keeping our world intact and our species alive, despite short term effects which may appear otherwise (such as an individual not being able to fly to a hospital after an accident, for instance).  The continued search for the holy grail of carbon-free energy is little more than a search for a nicer rope to hang ourselves with.

Corruption. Well, this is nothing new of course. It's the reason congress can't figure out our little healthcare problem, with us currently paying more than any other country on the planet while getting some of the worst results. It's the reason that we invariably have to attack and kill people (expensively, of course) any time someone can think of a reason to do so. Eisenhower got it right with regards to the military industrial complex.  If only someone with enough guts to do something about it had listened to him.  Oh wait, someone did...

When Bradley Birkenfeld blew the whistle on 15,000 Americans illegally hiding cash in Swiss banks to avoid taxes, only one person went to jail. He did. Hillary Clinton personally travelled to Switzerland to make sure that these people weren't unmasked (all but 5,000 of them, anyway).  Great -- so the people who should and could be financing our country are going to continue buying mega-yachts instead.  She nearly became president you say?  Brilliant!

Still, nobody knows about this.  How did the Clintons fare in the deal?

“Afterward the Clinton Foundation’s cash registers rang up $600,000 in UBS gifts,” he writes. “The bank also decided to partner with the Foundation on some inner-city development programs, issuing a $32 million loan at very reasonable rates. Oh, and suddenly UBS also thought that Bill Clinton would make a very fine paid speaker about global affairs, so they paid him $1.52 million for a series of fireside chats with the bank’s Wealth Management Chief Executive, Bob McCann. It was Bill Clinton’s biggest payday since leaving the office of the Presidency.”

When Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the NSA (the Snowden movie is well worth watching), he became an exile. When Assange exposes criminal wrongdoing in the US and around the world, his life is threatened. When Manning exposed war crimes, he was put in jail. Corruption rules, and nobody cares, because those in position to fix it are being paid to stay quiet once they're back in the private sector. That's how a society dies, though perhaps we won't have to worry about it much longer if our whole planetary ecosystem gets there first.

Do something uncomfortable, socially unacceptable, or otherwise difficult. For your family if nobody else. Even if you're doomed to fail.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

More Making

Master shoe maker Cliff Pequet at his shop in Shipshewana, Indiana.

A song sparrow has laid claim to the brush near our barnyard, and regales me with his morning melody while I busy myself with the manure fork, harvesting the night's crop of cowpies. It's a song I remember from Washington as well. It always reminds me of sitting with my father and sister in our little aluminum fishing boat on Lake Cassidy, feeding worms to the fish that typically evaded capture.

It's always a surprise when the birds start singing again in the spring, as it makes me realize that I hadn't even noticed their absence through the winter. We don't notice the things that slowly fade nearly so much as those which change quickly. The host of a podcast I regularly listen to noted something similar, the fact that his family's annual pilgrimage to their favorite vacation spot no longer involves cleaning the splattered bug-goo from their car's windshield at each gas stop. He said they had exactly 3 bugs smear the windshield last summer.  I've noticed the same thing, now that he mentions it. Seems as if we're getting rid of all the bird food these days, courtesy of Monsanto and Syngenta. When it threatens "nice bugs" like the monarch butterfly, or the honey bee, we create "butterfly highways" or "bee habitat" instead of solving the problem, which happens to be the same problem that's killing bees and a million other critical insects that we know little about. Gotta keep that cheap chemically-enhanced food (or is it Monsanto shareholder returns?)  flowing at all costs, even if it kills us apparently.

The cheap food isn't actually cheap, of course.  Instead of paying full price at McDonalds or the grocery store, we pay it later in ways we have trouble connecting (which is just the way the chemical companies like it). We pay for it with fewer insects, fewer birds, more cancer, diabetes, heart disease, birth defects, and everything else that has slowly become "normal" over the last few decades. Considering that industrial food production is one of the chief contributors to climate change which now appears likely to cost us our future, the externalized cost of our "cheap" industrial food is in fact far higher than that of any food ever produced.

Changes to my work schedule (the work that makes money... not the farm, that is) have opened up a new world for me that I like quite a bit.  Instead of leading a perpetually harried existence, worrying about which neglected project most needs to be prioritized, I'm able to cover most of our farm tasks now as they arise.  I even find time for many the activities I've wanted to do but always lacked the time for.

With this in mind, Rachel's Christmas gift for me was a certificate to learn shoe-making from Cliff Pequet, maker of shoes and leather goods, and proprietor of a truly amazing antique store.  It's indeed rare for a customer to leave Cliff's shop without making some interesting new discovery, as his historical knowledge is unrivaled by anyone else I know.

Cliff makes shoes the way they've been made for centuries -- measuring the customer's feet, making a last to match each foot, and then cutting and stitching everything by hand. They're not cheap by modern standards now that most shoes are glued together in China, but are quite a bargain by historical standards, where a pair of shoes typically cost the same as an ounce of gold (currently $1250).  Now you know why going barefoot was once so popular.

The shoes I chose to make are a pair of "jeffersonian bootees", a style made famous by Thomas Jefferson in 1801.  As I understand it, wealthy people of that time typically owned and rode horses, for which boots were the preferred footwear.  Commoners did not own horses, walked everywhere, and thus preferred shoes.

The leanings of a politician -- towards either the common man or the moneyed class -- could thus be determined by the height of his footwear.  When Jefferson showed up in footwear that was neither shoe nor boot, he was accused in various political cartoons of being two faced.

The shoe project of course revived my interest in working with leather, which got me back to finishing the tanned hide of Gertie, our first "retired" cow.  Her hide has become a sheath for the knife I made Henry for Christmas, and I've learned a fair amount in finishing the hide.

The Jeffersonian Bootees
There are precious few resources on hide tanning, either online or in books.  Particularly lacking is information on bark-tanning large hides such as cowhides, so I've been learning as I go.  While the dehairing and tanning process seem to be fairly simple, the hide softening process on such large hides is difficult.  Initially, I thought that bark-tan would not need softening, but I was wrong.  That's a project worthy of its own blog post someday soon though...


In addition to the new shoes and leatherwork, I had a chance to complete a nightstand I started many moons ago. What started as a bird-poop-speckled pile of rough-sawn black walnut lumber from a farm auction was slowly transformed into my first piece of "real" furniture, based on a design from Aldren Watson's Furniture Making:  Plain and Simple.

Made without a single power tool whatsoever, it features all pinned mortise and tenon joints, chamfered and tapered legs, and a nice little dovetailed drawer (my first ever attempt at dovetails!). I'm quite pleased with the end result.  The top is made from a single plank -- a width that would be impossible to find with conventional lumber.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

It's still worth fighting a losing battle, or "Learning to Die in the Anthropocene"

Turn Point Light Station on Stuart Island in the San Juans.
What does it have to do with this blog?  I'm not sure exactly.  I've been missing it lately, and am thinking of the fact that much of what makes it among my favorite places in the world is not likely to last long if we continue to avoid the reality of our current situation.  My wife and I sailed past here on our honeymoon, escorted by dolphins who regularly swim out to play with passing boats.

It's becoming increasingly clear that Trump's plan to "Make America Great Again" involve a return to America's "glory days", back when there was no such thing as the EPA, when rivers used to catch fire, the toxic clouds of Gary, Indiana contaminated anything and anyone unfortunate enough to be downwind, and DDT was the insecticide of choice.

His selection to lead the EPA has long campaigned for its destruction, and is also a climate change denier from  -- Oklahoma (I'm shocked, shocked!).

Better yet is Betsy Devos, his choice for education secretary.  She's a multi billionaire (her family wealth comes from being co-founders of the multi-level marketing scam known as Amway) who has been a lifelong advocate of abolishing public education in favor of private schools, preferably with a good dose of fundamentalist christian indoctrination. Want to see America complete its current trajectory of becoming a third world country of haves and have nots?  She's your lady!

Of course, nobody is all good or all bad, though most of us have trouble categorizing someone as both. My Grandparent's friends (who grew up in 1930's germany) once explained to me how Hitler had threatened a polluting cement plant with closure if they didn't clean up their act. Despite complaining that such measures were impossible, the plant did in fact clean up and remained in business (though I suspect that WWII might not have been all that good for them or their employees).

Trump isn't entirely bad either. Withdrawing from the TTP and calling for a renegotiation of NAFTA are both good moves which were supported by my candidate of choice in the elections. Unbeknownst to Trump, however, is the fact that a healthy economy is fully reliant upon a healthy environment with intact life support systems. By trying to improve our economy at the expense of our life support system, Trump will be dooming far more people to short and miserable lives with his actions.

I've recently had a conversation with two close family members, who are both convinced that things would be far better if people like me had voted for Clinton.  (I voted instead for Stein)  Both avid watchers of television, they couldn't fathom why I wouldn't favor her over Trump the Terrible. Suffice it to say that I'm convinced that she's a corrupt corporatist neo-conservative of the George W Bush type, with a bit of artificial leftist rhetoric thrown in to gain the acceptance of those who look no deeper into her record. Despite an occasional penchant for environmental rhetoric, her actual record on such issues closely mirrored that of Dubya, as did her extensive record on foreign policy.

Clinton's role along with that of her DNC and corporate media accomplices as not just immoral but criminal, in their back-stabbing of the best presidential candidate we've had in my lifetime (Sanders). If you haven't read Greg Palast's well researched account of how they rigged the California primary elections, you should.  If you think such actions were limited to California, I'd suggest taking off those rose-colored glasses.

I see Trump's primary value as the fact that his presidency appears to have ruffled the feathers of our corporate overlords (well, some of them at least). This is perhaps overshadowed by the fact that his actions will awaken this country's left, which has long laid dormant as corporate whores in both parties sold us out. Those on the democratic side keep us sedated through a steady stream of empty rhetoric to cover up the wounds left by their regular backstabbing (healthcare, education, environment, etc).  Fortunately, I see signs of people waking up to this fact now.  Better yet, trust in the corporate "mainstream" media is probing all-time lows.

I've long applied a litmus test of environmental ethics to any candidate I might support, because I view the environment as both of primary importance to all human activity, and because I'm convinced that it has been damaged much further than most people realize. The dramatic decrease in exposure to nature we've all undergone in our increasingly urbanized and industrialized world has done us no favors, and has made it easy to overlook the single greatest threat to our lives. Trump -- who rarely goes outdoors except to play on one of his golf courses -- is the poster child of this disconnect.

An understanding of exponential change is critical to understanding environmental degradation. The best illustration of exponential change I've seen is the example of duckweed. Placed into the right conditions, it can nearly double itself each day.  Imagine, if you will, a small pond with a clear surface, seeded with a single duckweed plant. The plant doubles itself each day, such that after 30 days the pond is completely covered. Stop for a moment and think.  At which point will the pond appear to be in danger of being completely covered? Day 29 (50% coverage), or perhaps day 28 (25% coverage) for the astute observer. The point is that things look just fine until the end is nigh. Such changes simply do not follow the slow, plodding linear path that most of us seem to assume.

Human population growth, and the damage we've wrought upon ourselves through industrialization is undoubtedly undergoing exponential change right now.  While our "pond" may not be completely covered just yet, signs of environmental failure are showing up everywhere.

One of my close family members has recently suggested flying out for a visit.  I'm all for the visit, but not so sure on the flying. While I try to communicate that our situation really is dire enough that she should rule out flying, I know that she (like most people) doesn't have the supporting knowledge to understand what I'm saying, and in fact avoids it whenever presented with such knowledge. It's depressing, after all, so I understand her position.

Guy McPherson, a university of Arizona biology professor and well known "doomer", has concluded that our planet will cease to support human life within a decade, with major changes occurring within the next two years. I'm sure that most would write off such claims as chicken-little fear mongering from a complete quack, given the background knowledge they've gleaned from the corporate media. I've read much of his work and listened to him speak, and I can assure you that he's no ignorant quack. As much as I would like to find a hole in his argument, I can't find anything of significance. While his timing may be off, his conclusions, based upon hundreds if not thousands of peer reviewed scientific papers, are not likely to be far off the mark.

I'd recommend visiting his website and reading his (extensive) climate change essay.  I'll happily buy a beer for anyone who finds any demonstrable flaws in the logic.

I believe much of his premise and short timeframe revolves around the coming "blue sea event" -- that being the point at which the arctic ocean first becomes ice-free. We've been flirting with that for nearly a decade now, but this last summer set new record lows, and this winter has seen an unprecedented drop in the winter re-freeze of sea ice. This event has the ability to set multiple feedback loops into high gear (McPherson counted some 67 feedbacks the last time I listened to him), such as the "clathrate gun" that NASA scientist James Hansen fears would end human civilization.

So how do I personally deal with such knowledge that I believe to be sound? I'm not entirely sure. I grapple with it daily. If you cannot improve the quantity of your life, perhaps you should work to improve the quality. I also find Roy Scranton's Learning to Die in the Anthropocene essay to be a very helpful way of viewing things.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Spending days and money

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives 
-- author Annie Dillard

I can't remember where now, but one of the blogs I frequent used this quote recently.  It made me think, something which I've been able to do a lot of lately.  It's easy to get caught up in our daily lives and end up going nowhere, so any goals we have need to be met through our daily actions.  They're not something to be saved for later, when things will be easier (which, quite often, is never).

Without the sort of job I've held for most of my adult life (40+ hours at a desk somewhere), I've found myself doing many of the things I want to do, spending my days as I would want to spend my life.

There are of course the daily tasks which never cease on the farm -- feeding, milking, watering, and scooping up after cows and horses, cutting/splitting/stacking firewood, etc, but now there's more. Those daily chores are in fact things I enjoy, even if scooping wheelbarrows full of poop doesn't sound like fun. You know that addictive endorphin response you get when you see a new email in your inbox or get a new "like" notification on Facebook?  I get the same thing when I find a big steaming cowpie nestled in the straw.

These tasks help me to achieve my life goals of better health for myself and those around me as well as reducing our environmental impact. I'm putting myself closer to life's essentials and am much less reliant on a destructive industrial system that is more primed for failure with each passing day. I'm fulfilling the dream of working with big monsters -- the dream that developed while my mom was reading books like Where the Wild Things Are or Dr. Doolittle to me as a toddler. Now the wild things are out in our barn, and some even have horns like the monsters in the first book (which they like me to scratch).  Others (Penelope the cow) like to express their affection by licking my beard with their goobery, cud-dripping tongues. Monsters can be a little annoying sometimes.

I like being out in the weather, even when it's 10 below, blowing, and snowing. Unlike sitting at a comfortable desk in a climate-controlled cubicle and looking longingly out the window, I'm alive. The good life isn't about achieving some leisurely, passive and risk-free existence of the sort promoted by Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or the travel section of the New York Times. It's about making and doing things, and interacting with the world and its inhabitants. I don't like being a spectator.

When I initially quit my job in August, my idea was that I needed to jump into something lucrative like Donald Trump does (wood carving?) with a full-time dedication, or I was bound to fail and end up back in cubicle prison. Then again, the tech recruiters who keep calling haven't been following up much after seeing my latest resume. Might have something to do with quitting my last job cold turkey? I burned that bridge to keep my future self from getting scared and running back across it, and it seems to be working (thank you, former self! ... I think). Maybe I don't need to worry so much about returning to a cubicle so much as I need to figure out which bridge to live under.

Leatherwork: a dagger sheath
The problem is that I'm not sure there's any one thing that I really want to do 40 hours a week, non-stop. There are certainly lots of things I enjoy doing -- but anything gets boring if it's all you do. What I'd really like is to do a bit of everything. Farming, construction, remodeling, wood carving, blacksmithing, making things with leather (shoes?), tending to our bees, our orchard, logging, working with our horses, cutting firewood, and yes... scooping poop!
Blacksmithing: Henry's christmas present

Some friends have congratulated me for cutting the cord to the regular job, which I appreciate. At the same time though, I'm not yet convinced that congratulations are in order. While I've managed to escape the prison walls, the cops of fiscal responsibility and their bloodhounds are still hot on my trail.

So for now, I'm living my days the way I'd like to live my life.  I'm not sure how long it can last, but I'm enjoying it while I can.  Who knows, maybe I'll pull it off?