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Dec. 10th, 2008

must... stop... reading...

 In the midst of everything-is-due-right-now...

End of first semester of grad school is edging a little closer to subdued hysteria.

My lack of a tightly-defined research question for my ecological stoichiometry term paper is making it WAY too
easy to just keep googling... skimming... googling... skimming... looking for the magic idea to jump out of a fucking hat. 

Stop it, you*. I need to just write and write, and the rest will fall into place. 

Apparently I go to the internet to give myself a pep talk.

NO MORE RESEARCH. NONE. I've got what I need to present tomorrow night. What I don't have is an actual presentation, so that's what I'll do now. Instead of more research. Instead of poring through more Works Cited sections.


OK, let's go!


Nov. 21st, 2008

desire vs. academia vs. everything

My favorite intellectuals are the ones with natural science chops.

I came to grad school to get a livelihood (via the design world).

And I came to become a better intellectual, 
by honing empirical and technical analytical tools.

And I came to become more useful for change.

Will any of these goals be met? This afternoon it all seems to be in serious doubt.

I hear the first year is constant battle with existential dread (of the Kafka-esque bureaucratic flavor) anyhow.

I've never been good with delay of gratification.

All I really want to do is teach and learn with dissident intellectuals. 
I can't recall anything ever making me feel more alive.

I heard that relationships succeed and fail based on the compatibility between
• How we like to express care, and
• How our interlocutor recognizes care.

Dissident intellectuals might be the only ones who really recognize the way I express care.

Maybe I came to grad school to increase my ability to convene an audience. 

It's almost enough to wish I had never encountered SfDaS.
The contrast with everything else is unbearable.
But that's probably my blood sugar crashing.

Nov. 12th, 2008

On studying w/ John Todd, after Bateson


“After they had cast God out of the Garden, they really went to work on this purposive business, and pretty soon the topsoil disappeared. After that, several species of plants became ‘weeds’ and some of the animals became ‘pests;’ and Adam found that gardening was much harder work. He had to get his bread by the sweat of his brow and he said ‘It's a vengeful God. I should never have eaten that apple.’

- Gregory Bateson, “Conscious Purpose Versus Nature,” 1968


“When we recognize that there is no design in "Nature," this perception will set us free form the old controversy, so that we can go on to recognize that indeed the phenomena called ‘adaptation,’ ‘acclimation,’ ‘addiction,’ and so on are always brought about by the dualism of interactive processes. It takes two or more organisms and an environment, all interacting, to generate and regulate any evolutionary process. And the resulting process may be beneficial (to whom?) or stabilizing or lethal.”

- Gregory Bateson, A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1977

I'm interested in constructing a way of looking at the world that lets us use some of the same indicators for social health as for ecological health. I want that way of looking, as an intervention into the way we think about design. I've written about social health, ecological health, and design elsewhere (though that paper is getting kind of crusty) - for now suffice to say this:

Changing the world is not the problem.
The world is changing right now, faster than ever before.
Don't try and change how the word is - there is no lever big enough.
Change how the world changes.
Design is the systematic practice of change.
Intervene into the way we do design, and you change the way we 
translate our intentions into tools, landscapes, institutions, art, policies, etc.
Change design, and you change change.

Following Bateson implications above (and elsewhere), the dominant mode of design in the world today can be characterized aslinear goal-seeking. Identify a goal, visualize the shortest path to achieve it, break that path into discrete steps, and begin. That’s the exoteric version. There’s also another, hidden, element of linear goal-seeking design: Think of your goal as cut-off from the rest of reality - an island unto itself - and steadfastly maintain that sense of isolation as you pursue it. Keep your eyes fixed firmly on the prize.


After a few thousand years of (some of) humanity getting better and better at this mode of design, the result are in. The consequences for the natural world - as well as for humanity - are disastrous. And the better we get at it, the bigger the disaster is.

Why is this? There are two reasons. 

One: When we constrain nonlinear systems according to the mechanistic pursuit of a single goal, we inevitably impair their ability to self-organize.

The process of linear, goal-seeking design, which shapes so much of the human environment, strips the native complexity from the systems it touches. One need only compare a forest to a farm, or a village commons to a grade school classroom, to see that. We begin with a system whose complexity affords it a great deal of resilience, and by shaping and constraining it according to a narrowly-defined goal - if not replacing it wholesale - we render it fragile, easy to disrupt or shut down.

The presence of a grid pattern in a living system is a sure sign (though not the only one) that the system is being reorganized for extraction, and that it's ability to self-organize is being impaired. 


Two: Our goal is not isolated. We, and the system we are designing, are both coupled to a larger system that is, by definition, infinitely more complex. So when we practice linear design, we create a complexity gradient between the comparatively crude and fragile system we create, and the greater social and ecological systems it is coupled to. This complexity gradient is, in effect, an adaptive pathway for unpredictable complexity to reinvade the impoverished system. 


That patch of the world on which we impress our design - a landscape, a community, an individual - is no longer performing the balancing and regulation functions that are part of its adaptive history. Instead, it is doing one thing very well - pursuing our goal - while achieving a set of unexamined and accidental consequences. That addition and subtraction of functions pushes the myriad systems (with which our patch of the world is coupled) out of whatever basins of stability they had occupied. Social and ecological systems become unstable.


As changes cascade through coupled systems, the adaptive intelligence of the whole “attempts” to re-establish its developmental trajectory, in ways that are utterly unpredictable in detail, and (by now) totally predictable in pattern. We see this as “invasion” of new organisms, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, pesticide-resistant weeds, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And we see it as school shootings, global military conflict, and xenophobic suspicion and violence. All of these can be viewed as systems that have been thrown off a metastable developmental trajectory, and into a zone of chaotic oscillation between potential adaptive strategies. 


When our systems prove fragile and clumsy, we use linear design to compensate with more of the same. We create checks, buffers, balances, and compensators, that of necessity are created out of the same process that produced the problem. Our human environment becomes more and more a house of cards, a sprawling, interlinked set of systems that are each designed to achieve one goal, by the shortest path possible. We build more and more complex, more and more fragile systems, out of our own linear goal-seeking subsystems, while stripping complexity, resilience, and self-organization from the living world around us. 


It begins to appear that the massive increases in social complexity in the past 5000 years might be a less than zero sum game. For every new differentiation, for every new alternative, created in human society, our world as a whole has lost complexity. Following Bateson, the light of the Mind that is immanent in the global biosphere is dimming, becoming obscured, even as a few flares illuminate the shadow-shrouded landscape of human society.


Enter ecological design.


The precepts of ecological design (as expressed in From Eco-Cities..., but others could do just as well) turn the worldview of linear goal-oriented design on it’s head. They are a system of pointers, that serve to direct our attention to crucial intersections - the coupling of our design with the larger world, the internal coupling of the subsystems within our design, and even to that crucial connection between our own mental system and a larger immanent Mind. 


In contrast to linear goal-oriented design, ecological design demands nonlinearity. While it retains the sense of a design goal, that goal is understood as radically connected with the matrix of the living world, rather than simple and unitary. 


The design schematic becomes: 

• Identify a problem. • Examine the network of causality and information that surround that problem. • Envision an assemblage of biological systems that, in their functioning as a whole, transform the circumstances of the problem • Examine the network of causality and information that will attend this transformation. •  Allow this vision of consequences to affect the design.  • Assemble these biological wholes, and give them the conditions necessary for self-organization. • Observe, gather data, assimilate, and repeat.


The precepts, taken as a whole, produce a single imperative that counters the trajectory  that linear, goal-oriented design propels us along. 


That imperative is:

Conserve complexity.


By addressing human needs with ecological design methodologies - by bringing together familiar and novel assemblages of organisms, and fostering their self-organization - we get out of the trap of trading in smart complexity for dumb. Instead of creating fragile systems at the expense of resilient ones, we bring long-term evolutionary intelligence into our designed systems, to create a more vigorous, adaptive, coevolutionary process. 


“Conserve,” in this context, carries both its meaning “to preserve” and its meaning “to limit.” Following the pattern of intelligence - of immanent Mind, in Bateson's term - that marks evolutionary processes in the biosphere, we set our sights on maximizingstable gains in complexity. That requires an enlightened “net accounting” - for any gains that require gross losses elsewhere in the system will not be stable. If it turns out that all our fancy and interconnected information technology in some way actuallyrequires the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, then the gross gains in complexity won’t really be gains at all. Nor will they be stable - from the perspective of immanent, evolutionary intelligence, they will be a flash in the pan - evanescent complexity, rather than resilient.


Each of Todd’s precepts points down a pathway of building evolutionary intelligence into the meeting of human needs. This is the only pathway that promises a bright future for humankind. Only by creating space within human settlement for the flourishing of evolutionary intelligence (much older than humankind) can we hope to achieve a sustainable global culture. Only by conserving the resilient complexity of the natural world, and weaving it more throughly through the fabric of our lives, cultures, and built environments, can our civilization survive the coming years - at least, in a form worth having. We have an opportunity, by limiting the fragility of our infrastructure, and social systems, to stop trading in smart complexity for dumb, and create a civilization worth the effort of sustaining.  


The fact is, there is no reason why we cannot make a world in which each exchange with another living system - individual, ecosystem, or community - fosters the health and self-organization of that system, even as it fosters our own. It’s a worthwhile goal, and might be the only pathway that will get us through these times. Our most formidable task is simply countering the worldview of linear, goal-oriented design. This is our Great Work. We don't even need to know where we are going - only that we are avoiding what definitely doesn't work. We have a lot going for us - deflecting a dynamic system toward something new, away from failing strategies, is also how natural selection does its design work. We can bring that evolutionary intelligence into our design process, and in doing so, conserve the vibrant, functional, living complexity of the human and natural systems we live in. We don't need to set a world into motion - thank goodness - we only need to inflect it's course. 

Sep. 13th, 2008

autosum: from facebook


After high school?

Messed around, played in bands, delivered pizzas (among other ignominious jobs), partied pretty hard. 

After about 5 years of that, I began to tire of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle.

Enrolled at Ulster Community College, then after a semester transferred to SUNY New Paltz. I studied Music Theory & Composition there. 

Favorite composition: "Springtime in the Elephant Graveyard"

After 3 semesters of that, transferred to Bard. Intimidated by the music scene there, and experiencing a surge of interest in thinking about the world, I dove into social theory. Eventually settled on anthropology. Got seriously into radical politics.

Thesis title: "This Is What Democracy Looks Like: Modes of Resistance in the Praxis of the US Direct Action Movement"

Best scam: Got Bard to pay for my trip to Prague to attend the anti-IMF/World Bank protests there in Fall of 2000.

Graduated just before my 27th birthday in 2001. Moved out of my apartment in Kingston, and didn't move back in anywhere until 2005. Travelled around the US mostly - visiting punk houses and anarchist collectives, touring w/ puppet cabarets, forging Greyhound bus passes, hopping freight trains. 

In 2003 went to Latin America for 3 months. Guatemala, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina. Started learning Spanish. Started studying Permaculture.

Kept studying Permaculture.

Got mixed up with School for Designing a Society.

In 2005, came back to the Hudson Valley to try and settle down a bit. Got a place with some friend in Red Hook, got a job working in green building. Learned a bit of carpentry.

Started dating Brook, my sweetheart.

Started developing a workshop curriculum about creating personal, conceptual, and strategic relationships between ecological design and social justice. Called it Liberation Ecology.

In Summer 2006, moved to Germantown to live at a collective farm. Stayed for a year. Learned a bit about farming. Learned a bit more about dense group dynamics than I wanted to.

In Summer 2007, decided to embark on making Permaculture & Liberation Ecology my full-time (or nearly so) gigs.

Last autumn, decided to apply to grad school. Spent the winter in Austin TX, being with my sweetheart and working for an ecological engineer.

Did my first Liberation Ecology workshop tour.

Came back to the Hudson Valley in the springtime, with newly long-distance relationship in one hand, and my funding letter to for grad school in the other.

Helped organize the Northeast Climate Confluence over the summer, thus helping ensure that the conversation about grassroots, community-driven responses to climate change can get rolling in the northeast, while also ensuring that I would be stone broke for most of the season.

Move to Burlington the week before classes started.

Now two weeks deep in grad school. Don't know hardly anyone here. Lots of fresh acquaintances. Lots of uncertainty about institutional culture, institutional power. Not sure who to trust.

Studying amazing things - ecological design, simulation modeling, field ecology, more. 


Aug. 8th, 2007

while we're at it, a lovely quote from my friend

"Everything I've ever done was when I was younger."
                               - Brook Lightning, Germantown, NY

quote of the, err... season

"...medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing but medicine on large scale."
                   -Rudolf Virchow

This is interesting for me, since I'm in the process of reframing the liberation ecology project in terms of social and ecological health, rather than justice and sustainability.

I don't know what text this came from, since I pulled it second-hand from an essay by James McManus on the criminalization of stem-cell research, "Please Stand By While the Age of Miracles is Briefly Suspended."

There is a sweet wikipedia page on Virchow. It sounds like he was the Paul Farmer of the nineteenth century.

Oh - I posted a position paper on my slowly-forming website www.liberationecology.org. It's big and awkward for the format - I don't yet know how to do basic things like make it available for download or put it in a separate page. I'll figure it out. There's only so many hours in the day.

May. 1st, 2007

Wendell Berry quote

"A change of heart or of values without a practice is only another pointless luxury of a passively consumptive way of life."

Apr. 2nd, 2007

Whew! Phew!

I spent Thursday through Sunday attending the annual conference of the American Society for Cybernetics:
Constructivism, Design, Cyberntics: Radical, Social, Second-Order.

It was sponsored and hosted by Mark Enslin of the School for Designing a Society.

What a delirious assortment of weirdos: inspiring, frustrating, incoherent, impossibly coherent, dim, provocative, virtuoso.
It was enriched exponentially by the presence of a horde of experimental theater performers/composers from Olympia, with their mentor Arun Chandra. Not to mention the indigenous Urbana experimental composers.

OK, I really just got on here to note two things. One is promising, the other is something less clear.

They are both sentences.

1: An economic system is whatever mechanism it is in a social system that connects the meeting of our needs to the frustration of our desires.

(Responding to questions about what is meant by the term "economic system.")

2: Human ecosystems have armies because we do not have decomposers.

(Not that armies are doing the work of decomposers. The system needs armies to do what armies do, because the work of decomposition/recirculation is NOT being done.)

Feb. 9th, 2007

Economic Identity and Ecological Caste [draft excerpt]

Here are some thoughts gradually cohering:

Since the advent of mercantile capitalism, and more so since the Industrial Revolution, and even more so since the Information Age, the ecological relationships and roles of the caste pyramid have become vastly more complex than the rudimentary and general outline sketched above. Instead of a well-demarcated relationship between ascriptive social role and energy budget (i.e. being born into the role of producer, processor, coordinator, or regulator), under the current system one’s energy budget is mediated – and consequently often obscured - by a variety of economic and cultural factors, the most overt being the presence or absence of monetary wealth.

Wealth, measured in money, is indeed a reasonable and reliable indicator for ecological caste. In the absence of a pricing system that reflects the true ecological costs of products and services, however, monetary wealth and caste will remain somewhat autonomous. The flow of money – now more than ever a flow of information - emerges from and coordinates flows of energy and resources, but it is not identical with them.

Thinking about “economics,” like other hard and soft sciences, we suffer from confusion over the use of one word for both the discipline and the phenomena that it observes. And in the case of economics, which unlike some other sciences is prescriptive, a confusion between what it describes and the rules and norms it proposes.

In the methodology of the symbolic/ecological split, then, economics belongs in the symbolic domain. It has long been accused by professionals in the hard sciences of having little or no empirical grounding, for all its mathematical sophistication. In that light, the discipline of economics (neoclassical economics in particular, the elite orthodoxy that it is) can be understood as a set of justifications and strategies for the coordination of ecological caste relations.

It is for these reasons that economic class, in caste ecology, is not understood as the foil to identity, a la class politics vs. identity politics. Rather, it is viewed as a particular kind of identity, albeit a unique, special kind. One is marked by money, much as by style of dress, accented speech, occupation (i.e. behavioral patterns), and other symbols, as having a particular class position. Class status is ultimately a symbolic marking for a particular kind of treatment by those with the power to allocate resources. In this way it is not, at the root of it, functionally different from the way in which we are marked by skin color, gender, other variations in accent and style of dress, citizenship, body shape, spatial/geographic location, etc. I don’t want to suggest for a moment that we should collapse class and other forms of identity – each system of marking operates according to it’s own logic (and illogic) and each requires it’s recognition as a distinct system, as well as it’s own strategies of resistance and techniques of subversion. I do mean to suggest each of these systems of marking are in effect at the same time, amplifying, suppressing, and distorting each other in ways that are not always predictable. The effects, however, are readily observable, in the myriad moments in anyone’s day, when one is granted or denied access to some resource – or singled out for violence. I propose that, for the project of collective liberation, it is singularly important to recognize a basic underlying unity to the function of the various marking systems, even as we maintain and develop our critical understanding of the particularities of the distinct codes.

This being said, it remains a reasonable methodology to look to monetary wealth as a rough indicator of energy budget, and thus ecological caste position. The monetary system of marking is the most powerful of the various symbolic modes for determining one’s access to and use of resources, and this in turn is perhaps the signature variable of the energy budget.


Feb. 5th, 2007

making moves

I'm taking a new tack this week: I'm setting aside the first half of the day, every day, for writing.

There's been a little compromising already today, but I think I've got a workable schedule for the rest of the week.

I'm excited about this. I'm generally dying to get more time to read and write. It's effing hard, what with working for money, working on farm-and-house related stuff, and maintaining relationships. Now that I've got a little (and I mean little) bit of money in the bank, some of the pressure is off. Now I need to push myself and really make time for writing, or I'll go crazy.

I've been working a little renovation job about 20 minutes from here, for a couple of really nice folks, and with a carpenter who I learn a lot from. The pay is better than I've gotten in a while, and off the books, so I don't need to work too many hours to get by. My expenses are pretty low, living in collective bohemian squalor like I do.

We have two pregnant goats, both of whom will be giving birth in the next couple weeks. There will be an unstoppable juggernaut of cuteness rolling through our homestead like a fuzzy, bleating tsunami.

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