Archive for July, 2009

Soylent Green is…robots?

Some days I love the internet – not in the Superman and Mrs. Blog sense, but in an entirely platonic haze of bafflement.

Which brings us to the. Best. Press release. Ever.

Company Denies Its Robots Feed On The Dead

Zombie jokes aside, though, it’s a cool idea at first glance. Basically they’re robots powered by biomass – twigs and leaves and so forth – which they’re able to gather themselves. Somebody suggested in the article comments that they could be used for clearing railroad tracks and remote roads and whatnot. So far so good.

The downside: at the moment, this is a military project, funded by DARPA. The company says the “commercial applications…are enormous”, but let’s not kid ourselves, eh? When people start talking about making war “greener”, I have to go and have a lie-down.

Also: I can’t help wondering how discriminating these robots are. I’m not talking about eating people here, but suppose we do end up using something like this for remote-area work (because in more populated areas, I’m pretty sure road cleanup is done by roving bands of Girl Guides – at least that’s what we had to do for our Community Service Merit Badges when I was a kid). Can we be sure they’re not going to start chewing up important bits of the ecosystem here? Robots are notoriously bad at visual recognition, and eating endangered species is exactly the kind of thing they’d probably do. Just for spite.

Eh, so basically, my inner geek and my inner environmentalist are going to be having some serious arguments over this one. Still, you gotta love robots.

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A Quaker response to climate change

Britain Yearly Meeting has just posted a statement on their website from Susan Seymour, Clerk, Meeting for Sufferings. I’m just going to post it in its entirety:

“The crisis of global climate change represents a supreme test of humanity’s collective wisdom and courage. Our immoderate use of the Earth’s resources violates the entire biosphere, threatening the lives of millions of people and the habitats of thousands of species. Many of the poorest people are already suffering a changed climate; they are asking us all to act.

How has humanity produced this crisis? Our faith response is that prevailing social values have obscured what it means to live authentically on this Earth. In rich European countries we consume more than we need within an economic system that divides us as a society; in much that we do, we cause harm to the planet and each other without enriching our lives.

The Earth is God’s work and not ours to do with as we please. We recall Gandhi’s saying, often quoted by Quakers: ‘Live simply that others may simply live’. As a Quaker community, we do try to live what we believe, guided by the values of simplicity, truth, equality and peace. Too often we fall short of honouring them. Climate change is challenging us to ask anew what our faith leads us to do.

As individuals and as a community, we are now making the difficult decisions and plans necessary to limit our ecological impact to a sustainable level. With encouragement from one another, we are progressively reducing our reliance on non-renewable resources while stepping up our campaign for wider social change. As a small religious society, we take heart in belonging to a community of faith groups and others working towards the same goals in a hopeful spirit.

We gladly take up our responsibility and call for unprecedented international cooperation to enable the large cuts in global emissions which are required. This will be a difficult road to travel but we are prepared to support decision-makers in taking the radical steps necessary. We appreciate progress made and uphold decision-makers as they navigate conflicting priorities, yet we challenge them to hold faith with the goal and not bend to short-term expediency.

An inequitable global agreement on climate change could lead to forced migrations and serious conflict. Any agreement must put the world’s poorest first; it falls to richer countries to bear the greater burden of responsibility for change. The goal is achievable but priorities will need to change: currently, the majority of states commit more resources to warfare than to tackling climate change.

Where we see crisis, we also see opportunity to remake society as a communion of people living sustainably as part of the natural world. By leading the simpler lives of a low-carbon society, we draw nearer to the abundance of peace, freedom and true community. Our faith in common humanity gives hope; love, rather than fear, can still lead us through this crisis.”

Susan Seymour
Clerk, Meeting for Sufferings
Britain Yearly Meeting
June 2009

This statement has been endorsed by the Europe and Middle East Section of Friends World Committee for Consultation. See their statement here.

Update: This is now an official minute of British Yearly Meeting. (Scroll down to section 32.)

More video!

We’ve got a great new video of Peter G. Brown speaking to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. It’s a bit long, but well worth it. For anyone who wants a fairly concise explanation of what’s wrong with the global financial system and what we at the Moral Economy Project think should be done to fix it, this is the video you should watch.

Once again, WordPress is being stupid about letting me insert videos into my post, so: to view the video, please click here. I apologize for the clunkiness. I’m still waiting for WordPress to reply to my first request for help on this.

Oh, and on a completely different note, this is sort of cool: an iPhone app that tells you when fruit and vegetables are in season, to help you buy local. Not having an iPhone, I can’t really evaluate this one myself, but if anyone out there has bought it, I’d love to hear from you.

Doom!

Today in my inbox I found a couple of end-of-the-world news stories that caught my attention.

Prince Charles has calculated that we have just 96 months left to save the world. The article doesn’t give any detail about how these calculations were made. It does note that “the Prince has been criticised for his own indulgences, including dozens of staff to run his homes and hundreds of thousands of pounds spent travelling around the world.”

On the one hand, I want to try to restrain my snarkiness here, because, you know, fish, barrel, etc. On the other hand, this seems at first glance like a clear case of “Stop being on our side; you’re making us look stupid”. On the gripping hand (+1 geek points!) it’s really just a question of scale. Yes, it seems slightly ludicrous for a guy who logs tens of thousands of kilometers of flight time every year to be campaigning against global warming. But how many environmental events have we all been to where everyone showed up in their cars and drank coffee out of styrofoam cups? We’ve all got blind spots. We can all improve. God knows I need to make more of an effort in a lot of areas; so does everybody. And at least Prince Charles is thinking about the topic, which puts him way ahead of a lot of people, including a big chunk of the readers who commented on this article.

On a more science-based note, the other article I got today on the we’re-all-doomed front is from CommonDreams.org. A report by “a diverse range of leading organizations such as UNESCO, the World Bank, the US army and the Rockefeller Foundation” has essentially said that we’re in for widespread catastrophe if we don’t start getting it together pretty darn quick.

I don’t have as much to say about this one, but this sentence from the report is worth highlighting: “Too many greedy and deceitful decisions led to a world recession and demonstrated the international interdependence of economics and ethics.”

Now, I can’t deny that I have serious problems with a diverse range of leading organizations such as the World Bank, the US army and so on, but I’m glad to see ethics getting into the conversation. It’s past time.

MEP loves the Discovery Channel

In the spirit of No Impact Man‘s recent post about reasons to love the planet, here’s my feel-good moment of the week:

Don’t say I never gave you folks nuthin’.

Genuine Progress

I got an email from Mike Nickerson‘s mailing list the other day containing a fascinating rundown on the creation of a Genuine Progress Index for Canada.

The idea of the GPI is that it would replace GDP as a measure of the economic health of a nation. GDP is simply a measure of all the economic activity occurring in a country, without distinguishing between beneficial, remedial and detrimental activities. So, for instance, the building of a new elementary school, the medical treatment of people with respiratory disease caused by poor urban air quality, and the sale of lead-contaminated toys to children will all show up in the GDP as “good”. This doesn’t give a clear picture of how well the economy is contributing to the well-being of the country – just of how fast it’s growing.

Enter the GPI, which tries to make these distinctions. It would aim to measure things like living standards, health, community vitality, environmental quality, education, time use, civic engagement, and arts, culture and recreation. It would give a more balanced picture: not merely economic activity in the abstract, but what the economy is being used for.

Needless to say, that’s really hard. It’s one thing to measure numbers, but when you have to start making value judgements to go along with them, there’s a lot of room for disagreement to enter the equation.

So who’s making the judgements? Well, not the government, yet. The House of Commons passed Motion M-385 several years ago: “That, in the opinion of this House, the government should develop and report annually on a set of social, environmental and economic indicators of the health and well-being of people, communities and ecosystems in Canada.” But they didn’t really follow up on it further. (If you think they should, write to your MP! Go here and click on “Current Parliamentarians” to find your representative.)

Meanwhile, partly funded by the Atkinson Foundation and affiliating with the University of Waterloo, a non-profit, independent group called the Canadian Institute of Wellbeing is doing it themselves. They’re just released their first report, which is available as a PDF from their website.

Hopefully this idea will catch on, and be officially adopted by the government, superseding current measurements. We need to start thinking more about what the economy is doing, and can do, for us as people, as citizens and as members of communities, and this is a better way to do it than anything we’re using now.

Elsewhere on the internets…

Just a quick note today: I want to give you folks out in blogland a quick rundown of all the other ways you can get in touch with the Moral Economy Project.

– On Twitter, we are @moraleconomy – come follow us!
– We have a discussion board on WiserEarth, where we’re posting all the material from our May symposium, among other things. We invite everyone to sign up and contribute to the discussion.
– We are on Facebook – you need to be signed in to your Facebook account for this link to work, I think.
– Our website, which is probably how most of you got here in the first place, is http://www.moraleconomy.org.

Finally, several people have contacted me about the Quaker Institute for the Future website, so: yes, we know it was down, but it is now back.