Thursday, December 1, 2011

Wrong Way on a One-Way Street

Wrong way on a one-way street

What if James Watt had been born under French skies, and not in Scotland? Or what if Augustin Mouchot’s invention of the solar-powered steam engine had preceded rather than succeeded Watt’s by 100 years? The history of industrial age energy might have taken a radically different course. As it is, from its beginning its Anglo-centric history projected a trajectory similar to traveling the wrong way on a one-way street. Instead of looking below the Earth’s crust for ever-declining resources to fuel the industrial age’s growing need for energy, it might have been wiser to look above to the sun as Mouchot did for the ever-renewable energy it could provide in limitless quantities.

Today, the 266th day following the planetary disaster at Fukushima, the morning dawns shrouded in fog so dense, the tall redwoods lining the opposite side of the street hover like ghosts, their crowns barely discernible at 40 feet. It reminds me of what Londoners called pea-soup fog, the result of burning coal in all of London’s fireplaces against the winter chill.

What were the Scottish skies like when James Watt made his appearance on earth in 1736? What were the skies like in 1825 when Augustin Monchot was born? Why did one man look below the earth for redemption, while another looked to the sun? Long before the year of Watt’s birth, the so-called “primitives” of the Southwest had thought to orient their cliff dwellings on the north sides of their steep canyon homes to benefit from the sun’s radiation in the winter months. Even proponents of Feng Shui will tell you a front door opening east is always propitious. How did it occur to a Westerner to see with eco-centric eyes and with a sensibility that concerned itself with implications for the future?

Watt and Mouchot were very different men in terms of social class, in culture, and sensibility. While Watt was born into the merchant class, inadept at any scholarship other than mathematics and mechanics, Mouchot was born in the Morvan, a district in the heart of France known for its natural beauty. Except for the year in which the Ministry of Education gave him a grant and a leave of absence to travel to Algeria to perfect his invention of a solar steam engine, he served as a schoolmaster, moving from teaching grammar school in the Morvan, to teaching high school in Tours and later in Rennes.

“One must not believe, despite the silence of modern writings, that the idea of using solar heat for mechanical operations is recent. On the contrary, one must recognize that this idea is very ancient and its slow development across the centuries has given birth to various curious devices.” What curious devices might Mouchot have referred to in his 1880 statement? The small book he published in 1869, the same year he displayed one of his first models, Chaleur Solaire credits the Arabs with their glass-making skills for experiments focusing the sun’s rays to obtain heat and traces their interest to ancient Egypt and later Greece, evidence of Mouchot’s historic sensibility. Even more telling, in another short section he points out the sun’s role in regulating the planet’s wind and ocean currents, and nurturing the life of plants and animals, suggesting a deeply ecological cast of mind. But, unlike Watt, he never succeeded culturally or financially in obtaining support for his invention. He taught school till his retirement. One can only imagine how fortunate were those pupils who studied under him.

By 1869, the year he displayed one of his first prototypes, the price of coal dropped, effectively making his invention all but irrelevant in the eyes of the public.

“Eventually industry will no longer find in Europe the resources to satisfy its prodigious expansion... Coal will undoubtedly be used up. What will industry do then?” Mouchot wrote those words in 1878, the year he exhibited at the Universal Exposition in Paris the great axicon he had perfected—essentially a solar dish.

The earlier model he displayed in 1869 disappeared in 1871 during the chaos and destruction of the Franco-Prussian War during which—ironically —France lost its access to cheap coal with the German annexation of the mining district of Alsace-Lorraine—which may in part explain why present-day France is the European country relying most on nuclear energy.

It’s hard to imagine what the consequences to our planet might have been had Mouchot’s timing been otherwise, had the Industrial Revolution not resulted in the growing infrastructure that guaranteed support for Watt’s invention to the exclusion of Mouchot’s: the coal mines in which children and women worked sixteen hours a day stripped to the waist to better withstand the heat, crawling on their knees to push the coal cars in galleries too shallow to allow for mules or machines to do the work, how thousands died of tuberculosis in the crowded cities of newly industrialized Europe whose skies became darkened by carbon pollution, air so thick, at dusk you could see the carbon particles shimmer in the fading light.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Greed or Bleed

Even (some) billionaires agree: the greed class ought to pay taxes.

Sixty-one percent (61%) of taxes went to what’s euphemistically called defense. Defense means keeping upwards of 700 imperial bases throughout the world, even in countries which don’t want the US finger in their pies; it goes to droning civilians, woman and children; it goes to the torture budget at black sites, and at Guantanamo; it goes to running night raid “operations” on Afghani civilians.  Even toady-fellah Hamid Karsai doesn’t like that kind of surgery. It means dropping depleted uranium (essentially waging nuclear war) on countries which have our oil beneath their sands. Of 547 babies born to a sampling of 55 Iraqi families, 15% had serious birth defects caused by contamination of Iraq’s water, soils, air and food stuffs. 

Maybe paying taxes is not such a good idea, not even for billionaires.

An alternative proposal: If you (few) billionaires really want to contribute to your country, why not get an alternative energy enterprise off the ground. The government for sure won’t do it because the government is eyebrow deep in oil, uranium, and CO2.

Most 99% of the bleed class agrees: we need jobs jobs jobs.

What kind of jobs, jobs, jobs?  Combined Systems, Inc. located in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, employs between 100 and 250 people. It manufactures “non-lethal” crowd control paraphernalia for foreign and domestic use combined. Its tear gas canisters litter Tahrir Square today. Tahrir is described by one on-site reporter, Abdel-Koudous, as the largest field hospital in the world. Unarmed people face the military’s lethal weapons. Thousands of people have been wounded, and as of 6 A.M. today, November 22, 2011, 33 people had been killed . The wounded are picked up by two motor bikes which lift them off the ground in tandem and rush them to field hospital stations on the square where they are patched up and return to the front lines.  They keep going back. They know they will be injured if not killed.  One protester lost one eye some months ago. Yesterday he was blinded in the other eye.

Maybe not all jobs, jobs, jobs are such a good idea, not even for people who’ve been foreclosed by the banksters who’ve ripped us off.

A modest proposal: Maybe Combined Systems, Inc. needs to be occupied by the 99%. After all, you can’t eat teargas, and rubber bullets won’t pay the rent.

Monday, November 21, 2011

HABITABLE ZONES: A Fukushima Diary

We picked out planets that are just the right size—between the size of Earth or twice that—and all are within the ‘habitable zones’ of their stars, at distances where there’s the best chance for liquid water—and possibly life—to exist.
Dan Wertheimer, space sciences lab astrophysicist
There is no place more wonderful than this. There is no place more marvelous than here.

Starry night.  All along the horizon, telescopes rotate, staring at the night sky.  In the Atacama Desert, where the skies are transparent like no other place on earth, free of the pollution of city lights, and of temperate zone moisture.

The human race is looking for planets. Hungry for planets in our own image, in the image of Gaia, of Earth. Planets near enough yet far enough from their distant suns not to burn up, not to freeze. Planets which show signs of water in their atmospheres. Planets that revolve around the maybe 50 billion stars in the local galaxy, in the neighborhood we call the Milky Way, and in the narrowest possible tranche of it, 1,235 planets have been sighted that correspond to such spacial parameters, and of those 1,235, 86 stand out, 86 which answer within reasonable limits to those conditions: sufficiently distant from their suns (but not too distant) to entertain the possibility of water.

Imagine 86 watery planets, each with its own orders of life: its own set of one-celled organisms, of invertebrates, of phyla inherited from a primordial past, of the first cone bearing trees, of the first flower bearing plants, of mammals, of insects, of trees, and shrubs and flowers. Imagine 86 planets with their own hereditary, evolutionary lines culminating or perhaps on the way to culminating in sentient, intelligent beings with appendages to hold tools, to compose music, to create dance, with tongues to bend around the syllables of languages structured entirely other than any Earthlings can begin imagining.  Eighty-six planets with their own dynasties of composers, choreographers, writers, poets, singers of songs.  Take all the sounds of all the languages of 86 planets, and all the sounds of all the music of 86 planets, meld them together, imagine the chorus. Now turn down the volume to a whisper: the whisper of the sounds made by the sentient beings of 86 planets. That is only 1/600,000,000th of the sounds of all the neighborhood galaxy’s planets, and, of the universe’s, a fraction so unfathomable, human cognition cannot imagine it.

But this one, this Earth, this Gaia is the one you have.  This one, and only this one. Its rocks, its fossils, palimpsest of times more ancient than time, its petroglyphs of a mankind more ancient than language, more ancient than writing, its horsetails and ginkos, survivors of an unfairytale age of dragons, of cone bearers, of spore bearers, of molds, of microorganisms, of nematodes, of annelids, of the lowliest of beings without which none of our living, none of our songs, or our musics, or our dances, or our writings or our tongues could ever have been possible.

This Gaia is all you have.