Friday, March 25, 2005

Is It Time To Cry "Peak Oil"?

Peak oil is one of those issues that is closely linked with the fable of the boy who cried wolf. It is surrounded by hype, hyperbole and a population who mostly just have their heads in the sand. Looking for informed, objective information is like searching for a needle in a haystack. That said, it is potentially the critical issue of our time--perhaps even of our species (it really does attract hyperbole, doesn't it?). I've been searching for the best information available on Peak Oil, and I'd like to share what I've found. These two presentations (both Adobe Acrobat .pdf files) are the work of Oil-Industry investment banker and analyst (and notably, not environmentalist--he's a big advocate of drilling ANWR) Matthew Simmons of Simmons and Company, International:

1. The Status of Future Energy Sources

2. Plan B: What Happens After Peak Oil?

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Lessons from Madagascar

Some words of wisdom from David Graeber's Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology:

[taken from the emerging autonomous/anarchist groups Graeber observed in the Madagascar highlands]

"The Merina rice farmers described in the last section understand what many would-be revolutionaries do not: that there are times when the stupidest thing one could possible do is raise a red or black flag and issue defiant declarations. Sometimes the sensible thing is just to pretend nothing has changed, allow official state representatives to keep their dignity, even show up at their offices and fill out a form now and then, but otherwise, ignore them." (p. 63-4)

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

New Projects in Rhizome & Weak Network Development

Just a couple of updates on projects that are experimenting with the potential of rhizome structure and weak networks:

Locus: Billed as an "Experimental Social Interface", Locus examines your instant message patterns, compares it to the characteristics of other IM users, and identifies shared interests and similarities that you may not have been aware of within your existing network. This raises the possibility that the expanding connectivity and power of the internet may automatically suggest to rhizome nodes potential link partners--either online in the sense of suggested blogs to link to, or off-line in the sense of business networking, etc. The potential to partially automate the process of creating weak links (See TOP Chapter 9) in a social or business network provides rhizome yet another advantage over hierarchy, as hierarchy cannot effectively utilize such a tool without jeopardizing its structural command and control.

(Above) Diagram from HP's analysis of social networks

HP Leadership Diagrams: Hewlett-Packard is now experimenting with a process of analyzing the email flow within an office to identify the de-facto leaders, and the most critical participants in various fields. By examining who sends emails to who, and in what proportions, along with the content of these emails, HP is diagramming the power relationships within business structures. As expected, they have identified that most leadership and power is held by hubs in these email communications networks, and not necessarily by those appointed with positions of formal power. As email communication (or other forms of easily diagrammable communication) become increasingly ubiquitous, what impact will this type of automated analysis have on the evolution of hierarchal or rhizomatic power structures? Does this type of diagramming represent a tool to better control the information processing problems within hierarchy, or does it represent a tool to better adapt rhizome structure to areas previously dominated by hierarchy?

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Zero-Sum, Rhizome and Robert Wright’s “Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny”

Robert Wright’s book “Nonzero” isn’t exactly new (2001), but it deserves a place here as it raises a parallel discussion to this Blog’s primary focus: the effects of the organizing patterns of hierarchy and rhizome. Wright’s basic premise is that there is a basic trend towards an increase in non-zero-sum interaction in humanity, and that this leads to directionality in history. As a foundation, a zero-sum interaction is one where one party wins, and by default the other loses. A non-zero-sum interaction, or a positive-sum interaction, is one where both parties win. International trade is generally given as an example of positive-sum interaction: both parties exchange goods that are locally available to the benefit of all (A note of caution: one of the main themes of “open source), economic or cultural swarming (i.e. productive flash mobs) and localized energy capture (cooperative, localized passive solar or gardening). The ultimate effect of non-zero-sum activities may actually be the localization of sovereignty.

In fact, Wright’s concept of a positive-sum driven directionality in history is nothing new. Anthropologists have long used the term “intensification” to describe the tendency of human society to grow increasingly large, complex, centralized and hierarchal as a result of the accumulation of non-zero-sums in leadership, warfare, agriculture and industry. What Wright’s “Nonzero” fails to acknowledge is that this intensification (or to use his more benign term, “directionality”) results in the increase of phenomena that are increasingly incompatible with human genetic ontogeny—what our fixed genetic code requires for us to lead healthy, happy, productive lives. “Non-zero” does create more wealth to spread around, but it tends to increase hierarchy and stratification in the process, resulting in less wealth for most, and a dramatic increase for a few. Non-zero also creates entities that require increasingly large investments in information processing—acting as a brake on efficiency that further compounds the incompatibility of hierarchy and stratification with our ontogeny. Finally, non-zero is one in a long line of historical trends that continue for a long time as long as certain underlying supports remain in place—namely the ongoing availability and increase in high-surplus energy supplies. How much of non-zero-sum increases have been driven by the external evolution from wood power to coal power to oil power, or from the ability to derive an increasing number of calories from an acre of land through use of petroleum based fertilizers? In my opinion, the “miracle” of non-zero-sum interaction is more a mirage of increasing hierarchy driven by trends in energy and communication. Even if these trends continue forever, they will increasingly run in to the brick wall of a fixed human ontogeny. But non-zero is not a failed concept—far from it, it is fundamentally valid. We must simply recognize that it has potential—perhaps greater potential—to facilitate the growth of a human compatible rhizome structure.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Nigeria Photos

Media Distortion in Coverage of Lebanon Rally?

I certainly can't demonstrate intent here, but observe the disparity in the number of people each news source says turned out at the recent pro-Syria rally in Beirut:

CNN: "Tens of thousands of pro-Syrian protesters"

BBC: "Hundreds of thousands gather in Lebanon's capital to support Syria"

Corriere de la Sera (Italy): "Beirut, un milione in piazza con gli Hezbollah" (Beirut, a million in the plaza are with Hizb'allah)

Funny thing is, if you plot those numbers on a graph (X axis), along with the relative support for Syria getting out of Lebanon (Y axis), you get a very straight line...

Of course, reports 500,000, so maybe the trend isn't quite so clear?

Friday, March 04, 2005

America, the "Christian Nation"?

This is an old debate. One side says that America was founded upon Christian principles. Another says that the founding fathers were not Christian at all. Well, a new article in The Nation (Thanks Vince) brings up a nice primary source to address the issue. From the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli:

"As the Government of the United not in any sense founded on the Christian religion--as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen--and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries."

This was signed by President Adams, and ratified by a unanimous vote in the Senate. While this was the 339th recorded vote in the Senate, it was only the third unanimous vote. There was no debate over the wording.

That should make things pretty clear.

Jefferson, Franklin, Paine... the most clear-cut deists and atheists, and also the people who really laid the remarkable framework of our nation. This seems to set up a pretty interesting trend: The more you base your life on the mistranslated words of a probably-fictional Jewish carpenter who supposedly regurgitated a bunch of common sense, interspersed with psilocybin-induced hallucinations some 2000 years ago, the less likely you are to do anything good in government.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Victorian Cartographers & The Levant

Or, perhaps this post would be more accurately entitled: "Victorian Cartographers Give the Levant the Gift that Keeps on Giving"?

My personal model for geopolitical analysis attempts to convert all influences into the same denomination so that their interactions and impacts can be more accurately viewed in light of each other: that denomination remains something of a fuzzy concept inside my head, but I think it's best explained as a kind of non-linear attractor basin, or even more plainly, I convert everything to a kind of conceptual geography. The mountains that separate Lebanon from Syria are mountains in the very literal geographical sense. They are also mountains in that they create two economic basins, and act as a ridge impeding interaction between the two. In my model, a road connecting Beiruit with Damascus--by way of facilitating transport and communication over those mountains (both conceptual and geographical)--has the effect of creating a conceptual valley connecting the two basins. Similarly, the religious differences between Levantine Christians, Levantine Shi'a Muslims, Levantine Sunni Muslims and Syrian Allawites all create their own conceptual relief which interacts with the other forms of conceptual geography in the area. Political boundaries--whether artificial or conforming to the existing conceptual relief features--also create relief features. This relief--as if this wasn't already complicated enough--also functions in time. Over time, human activity tends to create dense networks of interconnectivity within basins, with far less connectivity reaching across prominent relief features--regardless of whether they are religious, political, economic or physical geography. This process creates natural basins of interaction: the Tigris & Euphrates river valley, the Nile valley, the Island of Great Britain, etc. When one of these natural basins is cut in two suddenly and sharply by the creation of an artificial political boundary, two things happen: first, there is significant disruption to the human activity in the basin, which must suddenly adapt its network to the new geography (Think of the impact of the Himalayas suddenly springing up between Chicago and New York). Second, the longer this artificial barrier is maintained, the more the basins on either side evolve in along their own path, creating unique institutions and patterns that will make them strongly incompatible with each other if the artificial barrier is ever removed.

So returning finally to the actual topic here, that last scenario is exactly what drives the fundamental conflict in the Middle East today--more specifically the conflict between Syria and Lebanon. The two basins around Beirut and Damascus have alternately been combined as one (major trade routes connected the internal lines coalescing at Damascus with the maritime routes at Beirut for much of the last millennium) and divided by artificial barriers. This has created the classic situation where there are powerful simultaneous forces pulling the two together and driving the two apart. Most recently, the Sykes-Picot agreement between the British and the French on how to divide up the region, and then the removal of those two powers from positions of influence in the region, has set up the present-day dynamic that is driving the current conflict. Take a look at these two maps. Specifically, see if Beirut and Damascus are being pulled into the same basin, or divided in two separate basins by artificial political boundaries:

1. Middle East in the 19th Century
2. Sykes-Picot Agreement

The artificial division of the levant between 4 zones (British, Quasi-British, French, Quasi-French) explains much of the current situation. And, as with most Victorian cartography, the lines were drawn without an understanding (or at least without a concern) for their impact on the "natural-tendencies" of the regions to form specific basins of activity. We see the same thing taking place on the border between Iraq and Syria--an artificial division that divides a historically prominent basin. Perhaps it is asking too much to think that cartographers should anticipate the impacts of their actions 50 years down the road when their present empire no longer exists? Perhaps this phenomena is yet another argument for atomization of polities united under a loose federation--the way Europe seems to be trending in some ways? Either way, I think that such a "basin-approach" is a valuable explanatory model for understanding the cause of present conflict, and predicting the future impact of present actions...

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Slippery Slope of Sovereignty & Suzerainty

Try saying that three times fast...

Today I read that Mel Gibson is buying a 5,411 acre island in Fiji. Trouble is, "natives" (and I don't use quotes to disparage their claim, but rather to point out that this is not as clear-cut a label as many believe) claim that they were forcibly evicted from this island many generations ago, and that they are the rightful owners.

Add to that a developing group in the "sovereign-citizen" movement: the "Little-Shell Pembina Band". This is basically a group of Confederate flag-wavers who claim to be adopted and naturalized members of a Native-American group that never negotiated their "sovereignty" away to the US government... so, they claim, they are therefore not subject to US law.

So who really "owns" land? Is there really such a thing as "sovereignty", some divine mandate of heavenly authority on Earth? Or (as I think, most of the time...), is "ownership" and "sovereignty" nothing more than a claim AND the physical power necessary to back it up (or at least the ability to create the perception of that physical power)? So does Mel Gibson "own" an Island in Fiji? No: his money, and the general value to a certain class in Fiji of "rule of law" (read: the power to back up a certain set of decrees) provides the physical force (Fijian army, or at least their police force) to back up his claim. The "little-Shell Pembina Band" are attempting to undercut the claim of sovereignty over land and people by the US government. Good luck: the US government has more physical power. Their only hope is that they can prevent the US government from applying that power--by (as presented in "A Theory of Power") either removing their will to apply that power (maybe by "claiming" to be sovereign, but not doing anything about it that ticks off Uncle Sam), creating a localized power imbalance (they could become guerrillas in the Badlands?), or flying under the radar (too late, they have a website and license plates...).

From the effort that both of these groups appear to be going to explain and reinforce their claims, they seem to be trying to work within the "law". Law, of course, is nothing more than a body of rules and procedures intended to govern the application of violence by an entity (State) that claims a monopoly on violent acts. Think about it: don't pay your taxes, what happens? Well, eventually, you get arrested and given some kind of punishment. If you resist? Well, you can't because the State claims (and can normally enforce) a monopoly on violence, so they make you, through threat or application of physical force. This jump--the claim of a monopoly on the use of (or at least a monopoly on the regulation of) violence--is what really sets the State apart from Chieftains, Tribes and other anthropological labels for levels of societal organization. But let us not forget that this always remains a claim--one that must often be backed up, and one which often cannot back itself up. The history of revolution and insurrection, social evolution, law, sovereignty, suzerainty and "ownership" is ultimately one of recourse to violence. We can dress it up as nicely as we want, but the foundation of social order remains the ability of one group to beat the crap out of another.

Well, at least the perception of that ability. So I guess as long as the Fijian natives have seen Braveheart, Mel Gibson will get his island? Unless Russell Crowe decides he "owns" it.