We saw it coming—the polarization that has led bitter and bloody divisions. Well, a few saw it coming, many should have, and others just ignored it. An article in the current Smithsonian on public intellectuals made me curious about a 1968 debate between Canadian media analyst Marshall McLuhan and macho novelist Norman Mailer.
Mailer says, “Look Marshall, we’re both agreed that man is accelerating at an extraordinary rate into a super-technological world, if you will. And that the modes and methods by which men instruct themselves and are instructed are shifting in extraordinary . . . [interrupted]
Later McLuhan replies, “An electronic world retribalizes man, yes.” And even later McLuhan, leaving Mailer out of his depth, explains how the retribalization has begun and will proceed. “When you give people too much information, they resort to pattern recognition.”
What patterns stand out for us a half century later? The patterns that reinforce the goodness of our ideas and of the groups that want these ideas to govern the world. And we see patterns that confirm the existence of our enemies – people who want to run the world differently. In a world where so much is changing, and change is accelerating, these patterns are reassuring. At best they create cooperative communities energized for good causes. They also divide us into warring tribes.
Accelerating and radical change is very unsettling to anyone who wants to settle down with a comfortable perspective, a loyal family, a stable set of friends, a nurturing tribe, and a defensible faith. The threat of losing these cherished human comforts means that each group or tribe defends or asserts its identity with increasing ferocity. Discipline and peer pressure within a group become more and more important and dissent becomes more dangerous. The vilification and dehumanizing of outsiders also intensifies. The proof is everywhere.
It’s here in America and in the violence of the Middle East. At home Liberals demonize conservatives and Trump supporters as greedy, coldhearted, selfish, ignorant, and bigoted. Conservatives and Trump supporters demonize liberals as elitists, naïve ideologues, extortionists, big spenders of other people’s money, hypocrites, and bigots.
In the Middle East and Afghanistan enforced tribalism and demonizing outsiders has displaced millions as it fuels suicide bombers, slavery, and mass murder.
Both the good and the bad consequences of technology, of course, come in degrees. European and American divisions are not even close to civil war though people have been bloodied and bruised, and a few have been murdered.
Across the Atlantic the European Union is even more divided and close to falling apart after its first secession. America’s Brexit was the election of Donald Trump, though less of a Brexit than a Break-It.
The mainstream media gets a large share of the blame for the bitterness of our divisions. Politicized college faculties and curricula also bear a big burden. Fortunately, the Internet that serves the very social media and independent web sites that fuel divisive tribalism is also overflowing with new ideas, new patterns. We will get what we look for.
How serious are you about:
1. Feeding the world
2. Cruelty to animals
3. The destruction of the natural environment
4. Big reductions in green house gases
I predict a lot of people are not serious enough to consider answers that could succeed beyond their fondest dreams. Answers that would make livestock slaughter unnecessary, save hundreds of millions of acres of land, and make food shortages a thing of the past.
The answers require genetically modified meat, tissue culture, and capitalism. Below are a few excerpts from a recent summary of what we can do, how, and when.
By Tara Duggan and Jonathan Kauffman
May 3, 2017 Updated: May 3, 2017 12:00pm
The current goal of Finless Foods: to produce a simulacrum of bluefin tuna fillet to help relieve the pressure on the prized, but severely overfished, species.
Animals have little to do with the future of meat, milk and eggs, argue Selden and Wyrwas — and similar new companies and their funders. Instead, that future belongs to scientists who can hack yeast cells to produce egg whites, torque plant proteins into musclelike fibers and grow slaughter-free “duck” or “chicken” in factories.
. . . The money flowing toward alternatives to animal agriculture in the past four years has been notable: Impossible Foods, the Redwood City company that makes plant-based burgers, has raised north of $180 million from funders that include Bill Gates. Modern Meadow, a New York firm that cultures leather cells, has taken in $53 million.
Those are just the marquee companies. Operating on funding in the six-figure and low seven-figure range are newer enterprises like New Wave Foods (high-tech plant-based shrimp), the aforementioned Finless Foods (cultured seafood) and several “meat breweries,” including Clara Foods and Geltor, which ferment yeast cells to express egg whites and collagen, respectively. Most are based in the Bay Area; in fact, several, including Geltor and New Wave Foods, share office and lab space in San Leandro.
. . . The very company that lured Memphis Meats to San Francisco, SOS Ventures, has been a major factor in turning the Bay Area into the hub for animal-free animal products. Sean O’Sullivan’s $150 million fund operates six accelerators around the world. One of them is IndieBio, and 25 percent of IndieBio’s participating companies, says chief science officer Ron Shigeta, are working on food.
Among the technocrat billionaire set, Bill Gates isn’t the only one to invest money in high-tech meat alternatives. Google co-founder Sergey Brin helped fund the Dutch research that produced the first lab-grown hamburger in 2013. Obvious Ventures, backed by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, bought into Beyond Meat, a Southern California plant-based meat company. Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt told a group of investors at the Milken Institute, a Santa Monica think tank, last year that replacing livestock with plant-based meat is No. 1 on a list of technologies he predicts will change the world.
The payoff that they are chasing is almost unfathomably huge. “Almost everybody eats meat,” says Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, an advocacy group working to end industrial animal agriculture. “It’s a $200 billion market in the United States alone.”
At the moment, plant-based meat represents one quarter of 1 percent of that. Even if it reached parity with plant-based dairy (soy and nut milks), sales would be $20 billion a year — in the United States alone.
. . . raising animals for meat and dairy accounts for 14.5 percent of all human-produced greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report on livestock and climate change.
Perfect Day Foods, which is developing what seems like an oxymoron — animal-free milk based on yeast-fermented cow milk proteins — says it has the potential to use up to 65 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and 84 percent less energy, 98 percent less water and 91 percent less land than traditional dairy production, according to an analysis by the University of the West of England.
Memphis Meats claims that its cultured meat eliminates the risk of e. coli contamination on the slaughter floor, as well as widespread antibiotic use on farms, which has been shown to contribute to antibiotic resistance.
The future that many of the Bay Area’s faux meat producers envision — meat grown in a lab, gelatin made in a tank from genetically engineered yeast — is exactly the opposite of the pastoral idyll the sustainable food movement has been pushing for four decades: Small family farms where chickens and pigs cavort in the sun until the moment they are given a merciful death. Wild fish allowed to prowl the oceans until they’re snatched out of the water.
That vision, says the Good Food Institute’s Friedrich, may be a beautiful one, but it’s too limited, at far less than 1 percent of total meat sales. The vast majority of industrial animal agriculture involves confinement and giant manure lakes and stockyards that can be smelled for miles.
With factory farming, says investor Coller, “we’ve been treating animals as objects.” To those in the meat-alternative market, cows and pigs will soon become an outdated technology.
If these answers repulse you and you don't want to see these new products, then seriously consider if you are a change agent or a dreamer.
Could it be that voters cared little about Trump's self-contradictions because the media has habituated them to such stuff?
CNN.com October 19
“Election officials and cyber experts say it’s virtually impossible for Moscow or some other outside group to influence the election outcome.”
New York Times, October 18, 2016
“Top Republicans must reject the ridiculous notion that a national election can be ‘rigged.’ ”
New York Times, Dec. 11, 2016
“Trump should be leading the call for a thorough investigation, since it would be the only way to remove this darkening cloud from his presidency. Failing to resolve the questions about Russia would feed suspicion among millions of Americans that a dominant theme of his candidacy turned out to be true: The election was indeed rigged.”
CNN’s Brian Stelter questioning Politico’s Julia Ioffe, Dec. 11, 2016
“Julia, we’re talking about a candidate who has lost in a historic way in terms of the popular vote but clearly won in the Electoral College. Is this something of a national emergency? And are journalists afraid to say so because they’re going to sound partisan?”
Perhaps this does prove Clinton was the better candidate since while she was sure to win, elections could not be rigged, but as soon as she lost, elections could be rigged.
f FaceBook pages could scream, I’d be deaf. When I look at what friends have posted and reposted every day, most of what I see are screaming, undocumented, divisive, demonizing, dehumanizing, ignorant, gloomy and divisive memes. Most of them play free with the facts or are fact free.I have good friends and family who are liberals, conservatives and almost every one of them is posting these screaming memes. I can’t think of any one of these people as evil or nasty or shallow or mean spirited in person. Yet they post these really nasty and shallow memes. It’s like watching boils erupt on healthy skin. It’s like watching a whole community suddenly having a bad drug trip and attacking each other.
As one friend who posts lots of memes recently said, they are not supposed to be dialogue and will change no one’s mind. So what are they for? Perhaps they are self-cleansing cries of anger and pain? If so, why are they almost always direct or implied attacks on someone else?
I’ve mediated hundreds of conflicts in the courts and in private, and almost all of them start this way—with one or both sides demonizing or dehumanizing or vilifying the other. The challenge for any mediator is to get both sides to listen TO each other rather than shouting AT each other.
Would that someone could mediate this national discussion, these FaceBook conflicts. Would that they could get good people to come out from behind their memes and talk to each other. Maybe it would be sufficient to ask if the memes people post don’t say more about the person posting than about the subject of the meme. Are people really as nasty and shallow as the stuff they post?
The Great Pension Fund Hoax
When Bernie Madoff cheated thousands of investors out of their life’s savings, he went to jail. Michael Milken went to jail for ten years and paid a $600 million fine for failing to file necessary securities reports about his high yield bond trading. So, what should happen to public officials who have engaged in fraudulent management of pension funds for millions of government employees?
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton almost daily call for throwing “Wall Street” scammers in jail. They have been silent about government officials who have perpetrated much larger and more obvious scams—not on voluntary investors, but on public employees and taxpayers who usually had no choice but participate in the public retirement plans. Both candidates, of course, are beneficiaries of public pensions and of donations from the public officials who run the pension scams.
Hundreds of counties and municipalities, maybe thousands, will not be able to pay the pensions that they promised their workers or which they created to win the money and votes of employee unions. The simplest part of their fraud is very easy to understand.
In order to promise public employees comfortable to luxurious pensions, many governments simply chose a return on the invested funds that would yield the required pension benefits. They also made assumptions about how long pensioners would live. Requiring pensioners die early and requiring unrealistic rates of return on investment, allowed governments to claim that 10 or 20 years from now, they could support present workers in a style to which the rest of us are not accustomed. That includes most private sector workers.
In 2009 New York City had about 275,000 retired workers on pension. They received $6.7 billion in benefits. The city didn’t have the money in the retirement fund. It took the money from general revenues. That means they took it from money that could have paid for schools, homeless shelters, hospitals, or roads. How did this happen?
The city estimated a 7% return on its pension funds. It received 3.4%, less than half. Depending on how one estimates, the city was $70 to $150 billion short on pension funds. The rosy 7% return on investment that helped create the shortfall was like those Madoff returns, a hoax to keep the members happy and ignorant. Federal Reserve and bank deposit interest rates were below 2%. Prudent stock investors considered 3-4% the best they should hope for.
This past week Chicago, the President’s hometown run by his former chief of staff, reported a pension liability of $18.6 billion, more than double from the year earlier. The fraud was uncovered by new rules that have long been used by the private sector. The city plan had to apply realistic rates of return for the growth of the pension funds. The city had been using 7.5%.
States and cities have also been investing billions of dollars of retirement funds through hedge funds. Those are the very Wall Street financiers that are the most heinous villains in Bernie Sanders’ campaign—the people he wants to send to jail. A teachers’ union analysis recently found that the hedge funds investments cost way more in commissions and returned less than funds invested outside the hedge funds. Nevertheless, CNBC reported earlier this month, “Large public pensions planning or considering an increase to their hedge fund allocation are the California State Teachers Retirement System, and the general state pensions of Massachusetts and North Carolina.” One is almost tempted to conclude that liberal states love Wall Street hedge funds.
The fraud is everywhere. The average rate of return used by state and local governments is 7.62%. According to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators only 10% of public funds estimate rates of return at less than 7%. The Administrators say 51% use rates over 8%. In other words, almost all public employees are being duped by the kind of promises that put Madoff in jail. They are being duped by accounting gimmicks far worse than those that sent Milken to jail.
The pension problem has been aggravated by the artificially low interest rate experiment that the Federal Reserve, with government support, has been running since 2009. Because the yields on government bonds has been kept below 2%, investors, including pension fund managers, have been desperate to chase higher yielding investments in stocks and corporate bonds. As they bid up the price of a stock or bond, its yield decreases. (I.e. a $10 return on a $100 stock or bond is 10%. If investors hungry for such a return bid up the price to $150, the return is 6.6%.)
How can politicians and public employee unions avoid this disaster that is building as certainly as pressures on the San Andreas fault? Tax the rich is the quick answer. Also a fraud. No conceivable tax on the rich would make the pension funds solvent again—even if the rich had no loopholes (like giving to the Clinton Foundation), and even if all the revenues went to pension funds. (Many rich people are already moving out of high tax cities and counties.) The only other answer is for the federal government to print trainloads of new money. That would cause inflation—the ability to pay promised pensions with dollars that buy far less transportation, food, clothing, housing, or medical care than anyone planned for.
Inflation, of course, would bring higher interest rates on government debt at a time when the national debt of some $19 trillion has almost doubled in the last 8 years. Washington and all other governments with debt would face soaring interest expenses.
Why aren’t the candidates talking about some fuzzy thing called “Wall Street” but not about this massive and widespread scam in state and local governments with names? As present and future benefits are taken back and more and more cities go bankrupt taxpayers will join beneficiaries in revolt. But that won’t happen before the November elections. Or are the beginnings of that revolt already energizing the Trump campaign?
Chicago's imploding economy leads to requests for the Illinois legislature to bail it out. The reasoning? It's too big to fail. Doesn't this situation which has already played out in Detroit and California cities suggest that the real problem with "too big to fail" handouts is not in the private sector but with governments and politicians? Hello, Senator Sanders? Mrs. Clinton? Boss Trump? Occupy Wall Street?
When I attended the annual gathering of the Thoreau Society last month Thoreau, working through the medium of my friend, his Iranian translator Alireza Taghdarreh, introduced me to Bill Powers. Bill had been corresponding with Ali via the Internet. Bill is also a medium for bringing Thoreau's voice into the present. Herewith, whether you have read or whether you like or dislike Thoreau, I want to recommend Hamlet's Blackberry by William Powers (Harper Perennial).
It hardly needs my review and recommendation since names you know already praise it: Bob Woodward, Peggy Noonan, Laura Lippman atSalon.com, Laurie Winer in the New York Times, Stephan Balkam at Huffington Post, Walter Isaacson author of Einstein: His life and Universe, and many more.
Bill begins by noting all the great gifts of the digital age. (One of them was his connection to Ali's work in Iran.) However, he writes that the great burden and danger of the digital age is "We're all busier. Much, much busier. It's a lot of work managing all of this connectedness." He adds, "We're losing something of great value, a way of thinking and moving through time that can be summed up in a single word: depth. Depth of thought and feeling, depth in our relationships, our work and everything we do. Since depth is what makes life fulfilling and meaningful, it's astounding that we're allowing this to happen."
This makes me think of the explosion of shallow memes that so many people often post on Face Book and other sites, a hurried and simple minded way to express their feelings, to substitute those feelings for facts. Far worse the memes often turn real people with whom they disagree into shallow caricatures. Memes are a way to substitute someone else's voice and thinking for their own. Many of these intellectual Potemkin Villages are posted by people with graduate degrees from distinguished universities where they once learned how to think for themselves.
When we try to understand this and answer why we let it happen, Bill Powers writes, "From there it's just a short hop to the big-league existential stumpers, Why are we here? and Who am I?"
How to lead a full, deep life in the Digital Age is the subject of the book. "It's a struggle that's taking place at the center of our lives. It's a struggle for the center of our lives, for control of how we think and feel. When you're scrambling all the time, that's what your inner life becomes: scrambled. Why are we doing this to ourselves? Do we really want a world in which everyone is staring at screens all the time, keeping one another busy? Is there a better way?"
With Thoreau as his north star, Bill Powers proposes some answers for the present. In pursuit of ways to put his answers into practice, Bill left journalism to join a team the MIT Media Lab team that is developing new (and deeper) social media at the Laboratory for Social Machines.
In the promo material for Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, novelist Laura Lippman at Salon.com says, "it changed my life." People still say that about Walden.
Commentary for NPR’s “Living On Earth” May 2001
In my forest where Hurricane Fran in 1996 blew down tall trees and allowed sunlight to pour in a slow kind of fireworks or green explosion is taking place. Grasses, weeds, brush, vines and young trees compete with each other now for the light whose energy they need for growth and reproduction.
The older forest around this chaos appears more ordered, more decisive. The old trees are uniformly spaced. The oaks, beeches, and hickory have formed a ceiling, which is to say each has established its claim to a well defined share of the energy arriving from that nuclear power plant called the sun. Below the old trees scattered sourwood, dogwood, and red maple lift crooked trunks upward, having bent first one way, then another searching for light that escaped the big trees. Here and there a red cedar is slowing dying, its low crown as thin as the hair of a patient starting chemotherapy. In the deep shade on the forest floor only a few plants lift a green leaf here and there.
The process which created the comfortable order of the old forest was neither fair nor unfair. It was and is much like the process that created the best economy and character of the United States—I call it natural capitalism. The capital of my forest is its store of mass and energy. The successful green residents are those who best exercised their self interest to gather, horde, and transform the nutrients of the soil, the carbon dioxide and nitrogen of the atmosphere, and the energy of the sun into useful products, not for the forest as a whole or any of their neighbors, but first and foremost for themselves. Scientists can describe this achievement by neat hypotheses. One day science may even arrive at its Holy Grail—a unified theory of matter and energy. This kind of thinking requires meticulous and tedious work and considerable brilliance. It does not, however, create anything, nor does it contain the power to predict anything but statistical generalities. It cannot say which grass, shrub, or tree sapling will triumph in the clearings made by Hurricane Fran. Neither science nor its hypotheses created the order described. The forest can be described by centralized description, but it was not created by central planning.
The forest clearing has become a market place. Energy is the money here. The bidders for space and thus sunlight are freer than any corporate raider or manager of mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street. Most pour their investment into building the stiff fiber of wood that raises their living tissue toward the sky. Most of these investors, however, will grow poorer as fewer and fewer competitors get richer. Most of today’s small rich will become the big rich. Unlike the human world, the poor cannot move. The future for the poor is in waiting or in dispersing their seed or in the biological bankruptcy called death. After six or seven decades, of course, the chaos and competition will subside and the new tycoons and oligarchs of the forest will have negotiated fixed places and most changes will be trivial. It will be an old growth forest, a mature market.
Nor can science predict when and how this forest will fall any more than scientists could have predicted the strength and exact path of Hurricane Fran even after it had set its course for the continent. When the counterclockwise winds from the storm passing slightly east of my forest rushed into these hills from the north, they caught the biggest, oldest and most successful trees with their full late summer crown of leaves, and those crowns were heavy with the same rain that was loosening the soil around their roots. Everywhere in the north-south hollows and the bed of Morgan Branch that runs in front of my house the winds seized the crowns of the big capitalist trees 80 or 100 feet in the air and pushed on these great counterweights and tore the grip of the roots from the wet earth. Many still hung on to boulders that they lifted free from the soil as the tops fell and roots rose.
By the next spring the big trees were beginning to rot. Shiny rhinoceros beetles were boring under the bark and eating the dying sapwood. Grasses and saplings were springing up where little summer sunshine had touched earth for a hundred years. Nature was imitating capitalism now—downsizing, divesting, diversifying, acquiring and merging.
The day after the hurricane when I wandered out into the devastation of old trees I had known for decades, I was angry that nature had impoverished my life. Yet here too, the more your understanding of the market grows, the richer you get.