Sunday, August 26, 2007

America's need for light

A scientist speaks of rainbows

One of the most interesting books to come out during the past ten years is Richard Dawkins's Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. (Boston: Mariner Books, 1998). The title refers to a complaint from the poet John Keats that Sir Isaac Newton's work on optics was taking the mystery out of such beautiful events as rainbows. Dawkins argues that science actually adds mystery to life, because science never stops asking questions and never stops probing deeper. Religion, he suggests, is more prone to closing inquiry by giving answers, often superficial and inadequate ones, and discouraging further questioning. By way of illustrating how interesting scientific accounts can be, he offers a brief account of the optics that account for rainbows (pp. 45-49). Anyone who wishes to read that can borrow or buy the book. What I would like to do is not recapitulate the physics of rainbows but to take rainbows as a point of departure for discussing light poetically as a religious metaphor.

Where on earth is a rainbow?

One of the most interesting thinks to ask oneself about a rainbow is: where exactly is it? In thinking about this, consider that if one watches a rainbow from a fast-moving vehicle, the rainbow seems always to be about the same distance from the observer. This suggests that the rainbow is moving at the same speed as the observer. Now imagine that one is looking at a rainbow from a fast-moving train and passes a farmer who is standing in his field and looking at the rainbow. The farmer sees a rainbow that is standing still, and the person on the train sees a rainbow that is moving. Are they both looking at the same rainbow? If so, how can the same rainbow be simultaneously moving at the speed of the train and standing still?

Now consider what happens if one walks (or runs or drives very fast) toward a rainbow. The rainbow backs away. It always seems to be at exactly the same distance from the observer. What if, instead of one observer moving toward the rainbow, we had a hundred observers placed at a distance of one meter from one another. Each of them would see a rainbow that seems to be at a distance of, say, five kilometers away. (When one really thinks about it, it is quite difficult to estimate just how far away a rainbow appears to be. When I look at a rainbow from my house, it seems to be somewhere in front of the Sandia Mountains, and I know the crest of the Sandias is about 15 kilometers from my house, so presumably the rainbow seems to be closer than that.) Now if one hundred observers each see a rainbow that is five kilometers away, then either there is one rainbow located in one hundred different places, or there are one hundred rainbows, all but one of which remains hidden to each observer.

The way out of these problems seems to be to admit that each observer sees his or her own rainbow. And this would suggest that a rainbow is not located on the earth or in the sky at all. Perhaps, like the second moon one sees when one's eyes are not properly focused, it is not located anywhere at all. If it is anywhere, it could be in the eye (or mind) of the observer.

It is not, however, entirely satisfactory to say that a rainbow is merely in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. A rainbow does not appear to the beholder no matter which way she happens to be looking. The rainbow appears to an observer only if she is situated in a particular way relative to the sun. (More about this in a moment.) So the rainbow is not an internal visualization that one projects willy nilly onto an empty sky in the way that a Buddhist meditator might project an image of Amitabha Buddha onto a clear blue sky or a sunset. Where is that rainbow?

I love questions much more than answers, so I am not even going to try to answer the question of where the rainbow is. But let me return just for a moment to the question of where the observer has to be situated relative to the sun in order to see a rainbow. When the sun is still in the eastern part of the sky, the rainbow is in the west. When the sun has moved to the western part of the sky, the rainbow appears to be in the east. The observer always stands between the sun and the rainbow. In other words, an observer can see a rainbow only when his back is to the sun.

What, from an optical point of view, is a rainbow? It is the effect of clear, invisible sunlight being refracted by millions of tiny droplets of water, each of which has a prismatic effect of breaking clear light into several bands of colored light. Colored light is only a part of full-spectrum light. Colored light is light with a particular frequency, whereas whole sunlight contains all the frequencies of light at once. A rainbow, then, can be considered to be something like broken, fractured light. Whole light is invisible, yet it enables one to see everything that one sees, Fractured light is visible but enables one to see only part of the visual field. Looking at this poetically, a rainbow is an image of a display of partial and broken lights. One can see that only when one has turned one's back on the whole light, the light that enables one to see everything clearly.

Holding someone or something in the light

When Quakers know of someone who is undergoing difficulty, they often say “Friends, let us hold so-and-so in the light.” Quakers also talk of holding a concern in the light. In fact, at a Quaker meeting for worship for business, the entire proceedings are a series of holding issues in the light until it becomes clear to everyone what the right solution is. Quaker meetings for business are not run by Robert's Rules of Order. No one makes a motion. No vote is ever taken. Rather, an issue is discussed in the context of vigilant and attentive silence--silence broken only when someone has a leading to share a new dimension of the issue being discussed--and the discussion continues either until it is clear to everyone what the right policy is or until it is clear that at this time no clarity can be reached. (When the latter happens, the problem is set aside to be “seasoned” for a month or so.)

The Quaker way of discussing problems or handing conflicts can be see as doing just the opposite of what a prism does. A prism breaks up whole light into a spectrum of colors. In A Quaker meeting, each person comes in with a particular perspective, which is usually based on a partial understanding. Each Friend comes to the meeting seeing a problem in a colored light. As discussion takes place, all these colors of light merge into a more complete light. No Friend can see the full, clear light unless she is willing to turn her back to the rainbow of partial lights.

Quaker business meetings often feel as though something miraculous has emerged. Unity often arises out of what seems at first to be a set of irreconcilable diversities. Every month, after the monthly meeting for business at the Meetinghouse, I find myself wishing that America (indeed, the entire world) could do business in a similar way. I wish we could all have the courage and the will to abandon our partial perspectives and to look at every problem of life in the whole clear light, and I wish we could all realize that this can happen only when we all have the courage and will to listen carefully to everything being said, to hold it without reaction and judgment, and to let it have its way with us. This does not mean concluding that everyone is right about everything; it is not a descent into irresponsible relativism. Rather it is ascent into a higher understanding, one that is based on the recognition that everyone has a truth to tell and is therefore worth hearing out, but everyone's truth is partial and in need of being complemented by other perspectives.

Perhaps one of the reasons that few Quakers experience a conflict between religion and science is that the deep listening and reflection that is the soul of the Quakerly way of dealing with concerns is a way that is both the way of mystical religion and the way of scientific method. As long as one is willing to listen further and to reconsider issues in a fuller light than has been available so far, then one is prepared to do both good religion and good science.

At this stage of its development, a significant portion of the American nation seems to have developed the habit of turning its back on whole light and looking at all problems in isolation and in fractured, refracted light. That is a way of seeing that promotes fear, even panic, and results in ever-increasing destruction. There is an alternative to that fearful way of seeing, but one of the effects of fear is that one can rarely see alternatives to being fearful.

America is now in dire need of enlightenment. Whether enough people will see the light to turn the country back onto a more wholesome course remains to be seen. As the country descends into deeper darkness, there will always be some of us holding the country in the light.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Is nuclear energy a solution to global warming?

The MIT study

In 2003 an interdisciplinary study group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a study called The Future of Nuclear Power. The study is worth reading in full, but what I would like to focus upon here is a few of their observations and one of their important underlying assumptions.

First, the conclusion that the study reaches is that global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions as a result of human energy consumption is a serious problem that must be addressed. In that context, the study says that are there are possible strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and that at this time none of those strategies should be rejected. The four strategies are:

  1. increasing efficiency in electricity generation and use;
  2. expanding the use of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal;
  3. the sequestration of carbon, that is, capturing carbon dioxide emissions at coal-fueled electrical generating stations and isolating it in places where it cannot easily enter the atmosphere; and
  4. increasing the use of nuclear power.

Of those four strategies, all of which the study advocates using, the only one it studies in some depth is the use of nuclear power. It's recommendation is that at this time the best strategy would be to have 1000-1500 nuclear reactors around the world in use by the year 2050.. As of 2003, says the report, there were 366 nuclear reactors in service. So the recommendation is that during the next 43 years the number of nuclear reactors in the world be a little more than doubled at least and a little more than quadrupled at most. This would require the building of somewhere between fifteen and twenty-six nuclear reactors every year between now and 2050.

Hazards of increased use of nuclear power

The MIT study outlines several hazards of the increased use of nuclear-generated electricity. The principal concerns as with safety of using nuclear power, security risks of producing and storing nuclear fuel, and unresolved problems of waste disposal.

Safety

No nuclear plant design, says the study, is totally risk free. The possibility of leaks of hazardous levels radioactive materials into the environment arises from two realities: 1) any complex technological system is prone to having flaws in the design, and 2) any technological system operated by human beings is prone to human error. The most one could hope for, says the study, is to keep the probability of accidents down to an acceptable level. The acceptable level they suggest is one serious accident per fifty years. This level represents a ten-fold reduction in serious accidents from the level that has been attained up to this time.

It is worth asking how likely it is that a ten-fold reduction in the rate of accidents could be achieved. Even maintaining current levels of safety would require a steady repair of already existing nuclear plants, many of which in the United States are already older than the forty years for which they were designed to operate. Of at least equal concern is that maintaining and operating nuclear power facilities would require constantly educating people to serve as operators. In an atmosphere of general decline in education in the United States in mathematics and the sciences and technology, there is no reason to be optimistic that reliable operators will continue to be trained in the United States. In many important ways, the culture of expertise in the United States is in decline, and there are at present no signs that this trend will soon be reversed.

Waste management

Under this heading the report says:

The management and disposal of high-level radioactive spent fuel from the nuclear fuel cycle is one of the most intractable problems facing the nuclear power industry throughout the world. No country has yet successfully implemented a system for disposing of this waste.

At present there is only one site for high-level waste management in the United States, namely, Yucca Mountain in Nevada. To accommodate the proposed increased use of nuclear power, says the study, there would have to be similar storage facilities created somewhere in the world every three to four years. Moreover, the problem of safely moving radioactive waste from nuclear plants to these facilities would have to be solved much better than is now the case. While the short-term risks ofradioactive contamination are not too serious, says the study, the long-term risks are much more serious. Again, maintaining disposal sites requires the very best in technology and in human training and moral integrity. In a rapidly changing world such as ours, neither of these requirements can be counted on.

Security risks

Another hazard that has yet to be resolved satisfactorily is the likelihood of enriched uranium and plutonium falling into the possession of people who would not use it for peaceful purposes. It appears that the current trajectory of human civilization is not in the direction of greater co-operation and harmony. Even if hostilities around the world did not rise from their current levels, the likelihood of discontented groups of individuals breaching nuclear facilities or fuel-generating plants with catastrophic consequences for thousands or millions of people is a sobering reality.

Availability of fuel

One further point the study makes, albeit as a positive point, is that one can expect the world's supply of easily available uranium to last for approximately fifty years. After that, resources will be most probably become scarce. What the study does not say spell out is that when uranium becomes scarce, then a world that has become dependent on it for electrical production will be as likely to fight over scarce nuclear fuel as it has been to fight over dwindling fossil fuel resources. In other words, the nuclear solution is another short-term solution. Unlike others, however, it is accompanied by serious potential risks of catastrophic consequences, especially in the long term.

Unexamined presupposition

Despite all these potential risks, the MIT study group concludes that increased use of electricity produced by nuclear processes is less likely to produce disastrous consequences than the continued use of fossil fuels at current levels. That conclusion is very sobering for two reasons: it highlights just how serious the consequences of continued use of fossil fuels are, and it makes it sound as though there is no alternative to living in a world that is increasingly compromised by human consumption of energy.

What the study assumes is that human beings will continue to use electrical energy at the same rate of acceleration as it has during the past fifty years. Energy consumption in the United States has quadrupled during the past fifty years, as the population of the country has doubled. That means per-capita energy consumption in the United States has doubled. No responsible scientist of policy maker believes our current level of energy consumption is sustainable. It simply cannot continue to increase. Itcannot even remain at anything near its present rate.

Conclusion

Unlike the MIT study group, I am inclined to say that increased use of nuclear-energy-fueled electricity production is not a strategy that it would be responsible to pursue in the United States or anywhere else in the world. We who are living now owe it to future generations to find a way of living that dramatically reduces our negative impact on the environment. The increased use of solar, wind and geothermal energy is something to pursue. But even more important is a significant reduction of our use of electricity and other alternatives to using the energy of our own muscles. The human being is not designed to do as little physical work as most people in “developed” countries now do. When a human body does too little walking, lifting, carrying, reaching and moving, it tends to become overweight and to suffer a wide range of threats to health.

The next time you go to the gym to use electricity-driven machines to do some kind of exercise that could much better be done by using your body to do work and by using the legs to get from one place to another, ask yourself: What is wrong with this picture?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

America's report card

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass contains a poem entitled Song of the Broad-Axe. The fifth canto in that poem describes the place where the great city stands. The great city, Whitman says, is not the place of great commercial enterprises, nor the place of the biggest and most splendid buildings, “Nor the place of the best libraries and schools—nor the place where money is plentiest, Nor the place of the most numerous population.”

The place of the great city, says Whitman, is the place where we find the following:

  1. Where thrift is in its place
  2. Where prudence is in its place
  3. Where the men and women think lightly of the laws
  4. Where the slave ceases, and the master of slaves ceases
  5. Where the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons
  6. Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority
  7. Where the citizen is always the head and ideal—and President, Mayor, Governor, and what not, are agents for pay
  8. Where children are taught to be laws unto themselves, and to depend on themselves;
  9. Where equanimity is illustrated in affairs
  10. Where women walk in public processions in the streets, and enter the public assembly and take places the same as the men

Taking a couple of these as criteria, let's see what grade a fair-minded teacher would give contemporary America on its report card.

Thrift

When I was a child, the adults in my life hardly ever turned on the electric lights during the daytime hours. They relied on sunlight that came in through windows. When my family finally got a television set, we agreed that we would watch it no more than an hour an evening. (If we opted not to watch it at all on some evenings, we allowed ourselves to apply the time to other evenings. When the television was off, it was completely off. When it was turned on, it took about a minute to warm up. Nowadays, even when most televisions are turned off, they are consuming electricity, because a small amount is used to keep all the circuits warmed up. The same is true of several other appliances. (Learn more about hidden electrical bandits.) Nowadays lights are left on routinely, although recently awareness of this seems to be on the rise. Michael Hodges reports that America's consumption of energy has nearly quadrupled since 1955. During that same time the American population has not even doubled, which means that each of us is using on average more than twice as much energy as we used fifty years ago.

Bankrate.com reports that the average household in the U.S. is about $14,500 in debt, not counting mortgage debts. Sixty years ago hardly any households were in serious debt, while now about 40% of American families annually spend more than they earn. The United States as a nation is a little more than 13 times more in debt than it was in 1940. (This figure is corrected for inflation; without that correction, the absolute debt is, of course much higher. A fuller explanation can be found on Ed Hall's national debt clock FAQ.) Conclusion: As individuals and as a nation, Americans have completely lost sight of thrift. So by Walt Whitman's first criterion of a what makes a great city, we must give the USA an F.

Has the slave and the slave-owner ceased?

Walt Whitman lived to see the end of the ownership of kidnapped Africans forced to work for wealthy families who owned them (families that included several signatories to the Declaration of Independence and a number of America's first presidents). Whitman rightly called slavery “the foulest crime in history known to any land of age” (See This dust was once a man.) It might, however, be premature to say that America has abolished a slave-based economy. True, human beings are no longer formally owned by others, but the American economy depends heavily on an underpaid workforce made up of citizens who work at wages that keep them below the poverty line and of non-citizens who migrate here to do black-market labor. When 13% of the US population lives below the poverty line, giving the United States one of the highest poverty levels in the industrialized world, and when a significant number of families cannot afford health care, it is not unreasonable to say that conditions barely better than slavery still prevail. In a spirit of generosity, a fair-minded teacher might give the country a C.

Does the populace rise at once against the never-ending audacity of elected persons?

A recent report on the Bill Moyers Journal stated that 45% of Americans favor impeachment hearings for President Bush and 54% favor impeachment for Vice President Cheney. While those numbers are encouraging in some ways, they hardly serve as evidence that the population as a whole has risen against the audacity of elected officials. And if they have risen at all, it has certainly not been at once. The response has been sluggish and reluctant, and there is little reason to believe a) that our elected representatives in the Congress will vote for impeachment, or b) that the American electorate will vote their elective representatives out of office for their failure to impeach even when the grounds for so doing are probably as strong as they have ever been in the history of the nation. Conclusion: As individuals and as a nation, Americans have become jaded about the audacity of their elected officials. So by Walt Whitman's fifth criterion of a what makes a great city, we must give the USA no better than a C minus.

Does outside authority enter always after the precedence of inside authority?

George Fox, founder of the Quakers, claimed that any external authority is only as good as the insight and wisdom of the person who interprets it. This is a classical statement of what people nowadays call theological liberalism, that is, the position that individuals are free (liber) to interpret scriptural authority by their own lights. This is not so much a claim of policy as it is a claim of fact. That is, it is not claiming that people ought to be free to interpret authoritative statements so much as it is claiming that people have no choice but to interpret everything they encounter, for there is no such thing as any belief that is not a personal interpretation of something.

While it is obvious to theological liberals that we all swim in a sea of personal interpretation (most of which is, of course, conditioned by our desires to fit in with people around us), there are people who believe that it is possible just to read the Bible, or the US Constitution, and know immediately, without intervening interpretation, what an authoritative source means by what it says. Such a conviction is part of what we mean by the concept of fundamentalism.

So how fundamentalist is the United States? To what extent does the populace of the United States admit that they appeal to external authority only after appealing to internal authority, and celebrate that they approach authority in this way? A clue is provided by an article on the website of Copernicus Marketing, where we read:

Copernicus discovered that among the general population, the number of Americans who consider themselves religiously liberal increased much more dramatically over the course of 30 years while the number of fundamentalists increased only marginally. Liberals expanded from 18 percent of the population in 1972 to 29 percent in 2002, while fundamentalists grew from 27 percent in 1972 to 30 percent in 2002.

Although the emphasis in the wording of the paragraph above is on the percentage growth among theological liberals in the United States, it is worth noting that the number of self-identified fundamentalists is still 1% higher than the percentage of self-identified liberals, and that fundamentalism is still on the rise, even if less rapidly than theological liberalism. Conclusion: As individuals and as a nation, Americans have never been as good at thinking for themselves as they sometimes like to believe. The United States is still, to a large extent, a nation of sheep. So by Walt Whitman's sixth criterion of a what makes a great city, we must give the USA no better than a barely passing C minus.

Is equanimity illustrated in affairs?

Given that nearly every commentator on the contemporary scene has pointed out how polarized the US population has become, and given that polarization is rarely the outcome of careful, balanced thinking and equanimity, I think it is clear that, the United States is dangerously close to failure. At best, the United States is currently doing no better than D minus.

Are the genders equal?

As this is written, a woman is the leading contender to be the Democratic Party's presidential candidate, and for the first time a woman is Speaker of the House. More women than men are graduating from high school and entering college. Women are routinely in public view as news commentators, journalists, higher-level educators and political candidates. About all this, Whitman would no doubt be pleased. Women are still, however, dramatically underpaid in comparison with men who do the same jobs. The nation has been heading in the right direction for the past few decades, but there is still room for improvement. Not wanting to give a grade on this issue without consulting my wife, I asked her what grade she would give America in the area of gender equality. Her grade was exactly the same as I was thinking before asking her. So the answer must be right: in gender equality America gets a B.

Overall assessment

Averaging all the above grades according to Walt Whitman's poetic criteria of the place where the great city is found, we come up with a D+ for the United States of America as a whole. While that is strictly speaking not a failing grade, it is not high enough to earn a credit in a required course. The case is not hopeless, but there is a great deal of work to be done before a satisfactory grade can be given. The United States should perhaps have a tutor. I recommend turning for high-quality mentoring to Canada, the Netherlands, and Sweden for a start. Later, when a good foundation of social and political knowledge has been reached, the United States can turn to other countries for help.

As with any student in danger of failing to make the grade, the biggest question with the United States is: is the student willing to learn? Only time will tell.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Is America ready for Democracy?

There are those in the United States who are enthusiastic about the project of supporting democracy in various parts of the world. Supporting democracy is a project about which I can muster some enthusiasm, but only if the circumstances are right. A democratic government is only as good as the general electorate is informed. At the very least, a voting citizen should be informed about the laws of her land, the historical circumstances that led to the making of those laws, and the geographical features of the nation in which she is casting a vote. If one is a voter in a nation that has ambitions of becoming the center of an empire, as the United States does, then a voter is obligated to be well informed about the geography of the world as a whole, and the histories of the many nations with which there is interaction.

There is mounting evidence that many of the people eligible to vote in the United States since the passing of the 26th amendment to the Constitution in 1971 (the amendment that gave the right to vote to every citizen of the United States who is 18 years of age or older) are not sufficiently well informed to make informed decisions about those who represent them and preside over them. It has been well documented for years that young Americans consistently get among the lowest scores in the world in internationally adjudicated math and science tests. More recently there have been stories about the astonishingly poor knowledge of geography that young men and women in the 18–24 age group have.

One such story can be found on the CNN Education site. On this site we learn, among other things, that 44% of Americans in the 18–24 range were unable to locate on a map even one of the countries Iraq, Iran, Israel or Saudi Arabia. Some 57% of Americans in that age range were unable to locate the state of Ohio on a map, and only 50% could find the state of New York. These results did not surprise me much. I recently asked a group of students who were taking an upper-level undergraduate course on Buddhism how many of them could find India, China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea on a map of Asia; the majority said they would be unable to find Korea, Japan and Vietnam, but most thought they would be able to find China or India. It is reassuring to know that these American students could find the two most populated countries on the planet, countries in which about 36% of the world's population lives, but I wonder how many would know that India and China together have a population about seven times that of the United States. And how many would know that most college students in those countries know far more than the average American college student knows about world geography, world history, math, science, and quite possibly American geography and history.

While I have not seen any statistics recently on how many young American adults could pass a citizenship test if they were required to, my guess is that many could not. This raises the question: if the United States does not allow immigrants to vote in US elections until they have passed a citizenship test, why are citizens allowed to vote before they can pass the same citizenship test? Never shy of recommending adjustments that might be made in US law, let me suggest the following policies that might be tried out:

  • Make periodic citizenship mandatory tests for everyone. If people must pass tests before they are entitled to drive an automobile or a truck or motorcycle, it seems quite reasonable that they should pass tests periodically to prove they are fit to cast a vote in a municipal, state or federal election.
  • Allow people from every country in the world to vote in US federal elections, provided they can pass a citizenship test. After all, just about everyone in the world is affected by policies made by US presidents and by the US Congress. It seems unreasonable to deprive them of a voice in their own destinies, provided they are knowledgeable enough about world events and current affairs.

Normally, I would suggest a policy of improving America's domestic educational system, but it is unlikely that Americans will ever be smart enough to elect people who will make education a priority, rather than waging aggressive wars around the world and trying to achieve regime change in “developing” countries. While it might seem like a good idea to divert some of the $400,000,000,000 the United States spends on the military every year to the education budget, which is about 10% as large as the military budget, there are probably not enough American voters sufficiently educated to insist on voting only for presidential and congressional candidates who value books more than guns and who realize that the best possible way to have a safe and secure country is to contribute to the well-being of people around the world rather than terrorizing them with knowledge that an unfriendly giant has the capacity to obliterate them.

If you have not yet seen it, check out the Oreo cookie demonstration that puts all this into perspective. It is reminiscent of the classical BB demonstration that Ben Cohen gave to give some idea of how large the nuclear arsenal of the United States is.

If you are a US citizen, please write to your senators and congressional representatives right away and insist that they support legislation to require citizenship tests of all voters, not just those who were born outside the country. But first, why not try your hand on some questions from the citizenship test that is given to people seeking US citizenship?