Graph: Investment in Alternative Energy Research vs. Cost of War

Investment in Energy vs War Costs

We need energy, right? And if the cost of oil rises too much it will wreak havoc with the economy, right? And oil’s going to run out eventually, right? And it pollutes, which costs us too, right?

I stole this graph from a site called Solar Energy Rocks. It graphs the amount of money we’ve spent on the war in relation to how much we’re spending on research into alternative energies.

Again, with this amount of money, we could have had a hydrogen infrastructure all across the country several times over. Also, as their page suggests, we could have built solar farms that would have provided 2/3 of our nation’s current energy consumption.

So what are we doing, really? Is it for oil? Yes. But not for the energy. For the profits. The profits to be made from the growing scarcity. As long as our motivation is fueled by profit alone, we’ll be living in a very sad situation indeed. This is the ultimate subsidy to the oil industries, and an incidental boon to the military industries, with the added benefit of reshaping our culture to perpetuate it indefinitely.

Bollocks

Captive Elevations

It’s a wonderful feeling getting caught up in something hopeful. But with this elation a feeling of trepidation often seems to linger, as if an unaccounted force waits beneath the high wire, willing and drawing a fall. Some would call this healthy conservatism, or caution. It is the degrees that matter, however; the height of the wire, its strength and thickness, and your balance that fuel the equations. It is also what actually does, or does not, lurk below.

I hate heights. That’s a lie. I avoid heights. I still remember the first time I climbed a ladder to the roof. My dad made me. It’s odd how weight becomes more tangible when distance from the earth grows. Becoming aware of every bend in the ladder with each step along the climb, and reaching the top you find no safe and easy way to achieve the final goal. You can only plan, and take that leap of faith, or resignation to fate. Forget coming down. You never expect a descent to be harder than a climb. Lunch is just fine taken on the roof. Mom can always throw up a sleeping bag, too.

It is very different, flying a plane. In planes, large engines vibrate and you are surrounded by metal and glass. You feel power against your body as you push the throttle, and the swift sink in the stomach as you pull back, while wings lift you almost immediately above the trees. You leave the scale of rooftops far beneath you. Height is no longer height. It is altitude now. And nobody fears altitude. The world is a different place, where even fast cars move in slow motion beneath you. Yet somehow, as you travel, the whole world seems to pass slowly by, even at high speed. The entire ground is encapsulated on an alternate plain, while you feel only the contours of the atmosphere you slice through.

When I first moved to the East Coast it was during the Reagan Era. I cannot think of other presidents who have their own Era. I was staying with a friend whose father was an executive at the FAA. His mother required and unending supply of frozen glasses for her Coke. He was a large, gruff man and always wore a suit. He was an alcoholic. I soon found out that everyone wore suits in Washington, D.C., even in the most stifling heat. There was business to be done. There were rules to be made and rules to be broken. There were appearances, and there were intentions. I suppose the uniformity of suits worked better than costumes.

My friend had a job which allowed me to wander this other Washington for hours each day. I watched the people there, and I listened to them. My clothing and expressiveness told them I was not part of any game to worry about. I asked them questions that they often found amusing and luckily for me, endearing. This was not my intent; I was being genuine. At first I thought their reaction to me was based in condescension. Later, it became clear they did not actually look down upon me. Instead, they were simply suffering from some form of extreme cynicism combined with the same dark humor of doctors and nurses who work exclusively with the terminally ill. Of course, they performed superficial banter admirably. But even then, a self-awareness of scorn seeped around the edges. I quickly became unhappy there, but learned a good many things.

I suppose my experiences were not much different from becoming indignant with a hard drug dealer who I discovered was cheating at a game of hearts. Or being in love with a prostitute who couldn’t stop turning tricks. It was basically the same theme. Only the clothes had changed. And the level of education. One side thought they were morally superior, while the other side thought they were smarter. Interestingly, you can switch those around, too. Then there’s me in the middle getting all surprised. I can’t believe you would do that to me!

Time has taught me many things, and also revealed gaping holes of stupidity, with nothing to fill them. It is likely I appreciate things like our space program and the sciences around it in large part because the people involved are often focused upon ideals larger than selfish gains. They are like-minded in their curiosity and betterment, without their psyches being wrapped in indistinguishable suits and ties that belie a multitude of divergent and purely self-fulfilling undercurrents. They have a goal that is unquestionably good for us all. It is refreshing and restores my hope when people adhere to their better selves, despite adversity, and more than just on a Sunday. They know the path is difficult, yet they walk it anyway. Yes, this is idealized. But far less so than most. And, for a better cause.

A while back I wrote about walking around without corrective lenses, seeing the world as I would, with no other options. There is both beauty and fear, seeing things how they actually are. I didn’t mention the banged up toes and shins, though, from stumbling. Walking around in such immersion distracts from what is right below your feet. Usually I just end up bruised. Sometimes I break things. Always at one point or another I’m taken at unawares and must react, if I can.

Disasters happen. Things get set into motion to help. Para-military mercenary soldiers are deployed in Louisiana getting billions, while still so many people are homeless. New Orleans now has school vouchers. In California, the National Guard is long gone, deployed in Iraq. FEMA hosts a fake news conference, where they ask questions of themselves and provide the answers. Disaster relief is big business now. We don’t let in UN aid, but we’ll contract a company to build shelters, which sometimes come with a McDonald’s now. Usually these are the same companies who build our prisons and manage the inmates.

Washington State likes to consider itself very different from the rest of the country. We are nicer people, more connected to what is important and more focused upon humanity. We care about the world and its people, not just what we can take from them. Of course, there are those pesky Oregonians, always trying to one-up us from their little villages. They often succeed. Then again, it was Oregon who first managed to get activists and protesters labeled as terrorists, and prosecuted. And it is Washington State whose people just a few days ago, overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that legalizes farming out our prisoners to corporations for labor. I don’t understand how it could happen. I suspect it happened because we still have a degree of trust and idealism toward the faithful custodianship of our lawmakers and law enforcers. I know it happened because we do not always make the effort to thoroughly consider what is behind appearances. After all, we feel wind on the wings of our metal machine as we slice through the air, while the little toy people so far below mill about in whatever they do.

Washington State Prison Population TrendsWashington State Violent and Non-violent CrimesSo here, on one side, we have climbing to higher altitudes, while on the other side we have descent. More and more people are being put into prison, while fewer and fewer commit any violent crimes. Housing people in prison costs a lot of money. In fact, it’s the third largest slice of Washington State’s budget, approaching $1 billion per year out of the state’s general fund. Back in 1981, Correctional Industries, Inc. was founded by the state. Prisoners can apply to work there, and are encouraged to work there. They get paid between $0.45 and $1.50 per hour, most of which is taken back by the state to help pay for their incarceration and other expenses incurred by the state. A small percentage is put in the Crime Victim’s Compensation fund, and a small percentage is put into the prisoner’s mandatory savings account, which they receive when they leave prison to help them “get back on their feet”. On average, their savings seems to amount to about $100 per year. Meanwhile, Correctional Industries, Inc. has become a conglomerate of approximately 35 companies with 2007 sales projected to be $50 million. Recently they have experienced budgetary problems in their desire to upgrade their facilities and equipment to keep pace with the demand to produce more products and to employ more prisoners. Incarceration TypesThey see the upgrades as necessary with prison populations continuing to rise. They cannot sell their goods in the consumer markets, only to state agencies (including schools) and non-profit organizations. It was only a few years ago that companies like Microsoft and Boeing, and many smaller ones, were using prison labor. Even Starbucks was having their Christmas coffee packaged up at Monroe State Penitentiary. The Washington Supreme Court ruled that such things were unconstitutional, however, since our State Constitution specifically and clearly said that we could not participate in convict leasing.

It amazes me how Washington’s Senate Joint Resolution 8212 to amend our state’s constitution was passed so overwhelmingly by we voters. My father mentioned to me few days ago how it reminded him of the old chain gangs, where prisoners were routinely used as slave labor to companies in exchange for money, favors, or gains of some sort. Taken from Wikipedia, chain gangs were often justified by very sensible reasoning:

  1. Punitive punishment for crimes.
  2. Societal restitution for the cost of housing, feeding, and guarding the inmates. The money earned by work performed goes to offset prison expenses by providing a large workforce at no cost for government projects, and at minimal convict leasing cost for private businesses.
  3. Reducing inmates’ idleness.
  4. To serve as a deterrent to crime as well as satisfy the needs of politicians to appear “tough on crime”.

Interestingly, here are some of the “official arguments” presented to the voters on our 2007 ballot:

  1. Offenders should not just sit idle while they serve their time in state prison.
  2. They should work to reduce their burden on taxpayers for institutional costs.
  3. In addition to punishment, the most important purpose of our criminal justice system is to provide justice for victims. If SJR 8212 fails, victims will have to wait much longer, even decades, before receiving just compensation.

I suppose we’ve advanced a little. We’re at least taking that higher ground of money concerns instead of just wanting to punish. I just can’t seem to understand how we can justify turning prisons into big business at a time when big business is also mercenary armies, kidnapping and torture, and the use of the military/industrial complex to take over other nations. During this very dangerous point in history, we the people have spoken: even when more and more of us are being sent to prison for lesser and lesser reasons, it’s just fine if you put all those prisoners to work for corporations. Maybe I’m a lunatic?

The opposition’s argument was limited to purely financial implications. You see, some companies will be able to exploit slave labor, while other companies would not have that advantage. And that’s not fair. For example, companies who used slave labor could produce products or services with far less cost, giving them an unfair competitive advantage. Also, labor unions might have to compete against companies that didn’t have to pay their workers much of anything. If you dig a little deeper into the propaganda, you find out that many labor union leaders actually like prison labor. Apparently, they say it gives them trained and skilled workers once they emerge from prison and are looking for jobs.

Our government officials pushed this constitutional amendment through the house and senate very quickly, and nearly every one of them supported it. I mean, everyone. I’ll let you check into the history of the legislation yourself if you’re interested. But earlier this year a graduate student in the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington named Erin Campbell Henderson under the supervision of Professor Joaquín Herranz wrote a paper as part of their Master of Public Administration degree requirements entitled Jail Industries, Labor Unions and Business: Competitive Realities in Washington State. In this paper you will find a lot of the thinking going on behind the scenes related to this issue. This paper, like the proponents of the amendment, say a lot of things that sound very good and plausible. But the bias is clear and overwhelming. You often hear things such as, “inmates have an opportunity to work a “regular” job for the first time in their lives,” yet you never find any statistics. I did manage to find an actual reference to an older University of Washington study that said 50% of inmates never had a job. I couldn’t find the study, but the Department of Corrections cited “a University of Washington” study.

The rhetorical justification for convict leasing, as well as the justifications in this paper, are limited almost exclusively to economic considerations. These economic considerations are based almost exclusively in the Chicago School of Economics thinking, which is most certainly not all of Economics. The Chicago School advocates the dismantling of nearly all public institutions and handing them over to private ownership instead. It is the same thinking implemented in Chile when the US backed a coup against Allende, placing the dictator Augusto Pinochet in his place. Pinochet handed nearly everything over to private ownership and removed trade barriers, winning the praises of Chicago School people like Milton Friedman, who is also highly influential even still in US policymaking, particularly amongst the neo-conservatives and even the libertarians. Chile’s economy is growing steadily. However, the distribution of wealth between the rich and poor in Chile is staggeringly lop-sided. Chile is worth looking at as a model for Chicago School economic policies in action.

The money flow stuff is easy to see, though. What do we see when we look up at the Space Station, though? What do we see when we look at knowledge of our existence, just for the sake of knowing? Something compels us to ask questions, and something gives us an insatiable desire for exploration. Something lets us know that it is not all just about us. It’s about all of us. We have to remember as we keep our heads flying in our little planes, that there are people on the ground, and even in those slow-moving toy cars, each of them on their way to somewhere very much like we are.

The most glaring omission to me is the lack of any ethical concerns. In all my digging around on the issue of prison labor businesses which we now endorse, I was unable to find a single mention of ethics. The only ethics ever mentioned, and it was repeated again and again, was the “work ethic”. Actually, I take that back. I do remember one, other than some “work ethic”. I can’t remember where. It dealt with a utilitarian perspective on ethics, which I suppose is not surprising since so much of the reasoning is economically-based. Apparently, it’s okay to have prison labor because the public will benefit from having good, trained people afterward. Yes, that’s quite shaky.

And the devil in me is squirming. Let me ask a question around ethics: can we justify gaining a benefit from criminal acts? What are the wider implications of such reasoning? Or, more true to the point, can we justify benefiting from people held in captivity? What are the wider implications?

The obvious and myopic answer is, why not benefit? They did the crime. If we can get some benefit back from them, why not? First, this pre-supposes that they did a justifiable crime. Look at the number of people in prisons for dubious reasons. It’s very easy to come up with dubious reasons, insuring a population of captive workers. Particularly when radical sentencing systems with baseball metaphors like “three strikes, you’re out” are in place, which keep many people in prison for life, even when they have done very little, if anything, justifiably wrong. Second, it fails to consider the wider implications of creating a system where it makes excellent business sense to have lots of people in prison. This last one should need no more words of caution, particularly when we see how closely our legislators are tied to business concerns.

None of this really effects us though, does it? It’s just another crazy thing going on in the background somewhere. Just like the meeting in Seattle last Friday, where the FCC held public hearings about their intent to remove the last barriers in place that are holding off complete media consolidation. Just like the imminent vote in Congress to make corporations immune to any lawsuits when they help the government spy on us. Just like confirming a new Attorney General who believes in extraordinary Presidential powers, and can’t say if a given technique is actually torture or not.

I listened to Diane Feinstein’s reasoning behind her support for making corporations immune to our lawsuits for spying on us. She said, these poor companies have no way to defend themselves in court because of government secrets. Maybe she forgets that we people have no way to defend ourselves, either. Maybe the corporations really are more important. Maybe the Chicago School of Economics is right. Corporations should be unfettered. It’ll trickle down to our benefit. Just like the mean income in Chile, and their struggles with dictatorships.

Speaking of which, I recently ran across a neat lecture by Naomi Wolf at the University of Washington about her research into the historical techniques dictators employ during their gradual assumption of power. She has identified 10 techniques common to all, which she calls their “blueprint”. It is fascinating, and somewhat unsettling. I highly recommend it. Another Naomi, Naomi Klein, also has some remarkable insights in her book “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”. Did I mention that our prison-building, military-servicing, oily-mogul Vice President Cheney has an impeachment resolution in the Judiciary Committee right now? It would be a wet dream for me to see it become more than showmanship. God bless that little Kucinich. And here is his supporting documentation. Thank you Sheli 🙂 And one other thing that’s made me happy in a way that disturbs me: Donald Rumsfeld is suddenly having to watch everywhere he steps in the world to stay away from countries that might throw him in jail for war crimes.

Which brings me to something outrageous. President Bush showed up at NASA to welcome those most admirable astronauts home. He touched them, and caused them to interact with him. It’s as obscene a thing to witness as him shaking the hand of a soldier. Filth. The most vile duplicity. A juxtaposition of such monumental extremes, it would cause even Wilmot to loose his composure in the face of it, and wretch.

A few days ago I was talking with one of my dearest friends. He told me that he hardly ever says what he’s thinking or feeling. I didn’t need to be told that. I knew. It was something small, secret, and nevertheless something privately monumental to say. I told him that I knew. I told him also that it often worried me, thinking of him isolated in his own thoughts like that. It makes him sound weak when I describe him this way. He is weak, in some few ways. But you would have to know him. I have also never seen such strength, intelligence and compassion. All in the one man. All in that silent man. Maybe one day there will be a place for such beauty.

The Tree at the Top of the World

Some people root for sports teams. I root for geeks and freaks. Some people get so happy when a group of people manage to beat down another group of people. I get so happy when just one group of people manage to accomplish something never before accomplished by our species. Some people are amazed how a ball can possibly be passed successfully and gracefully from one person to another. I am amazed how we can cause something traveling at 17,000 mph to gently touch something else traveling at 17,000 mph, hundreds of miles above the Earth.

History is happening, all around us. Whether time exists, or is simply a trick of our human perception; what we do now, in all our accomplishments and all of our failures, will ripple far into any future our progeny will inherit. This leaves us with the most intimate of questions: to what are we devoting our brief and uniquely capable lives toward?

We all remember dreams of what might one day be, lurking in the murky memories of our youth. The youth amongst us enticed by simple and short-term fulfillment. The middle-aged left wondering if there might ever be more than, just this. The old, resolved within their lot and making the best of days. In the broadest terms of an individual life, these thoughts are our destiny when determinism prevails. When one billiard ball collides with another, ricocheting off three more, then bounces off a wall, finally coming to rest in a corner pocket, the game is done. Except for that incessant magic eight ball. Except for the scratch.

As you know, I have been tracking every detail of the latest International Space Station mission. In fact, earlier today the printer on the shuttle ran out of black ink. They had already used up two cartridges and swore they had requisitioned a third for this flight, but nobody could find it. Ah, the travails we must endure. Mission Control paged the people in who were responsible for printer cartridges to learn if they might actually be stored someplace else, unexpected, on the shuttle. Alas, the prospects seem grim.

I recognized the Capcom in Mission Control. I can’t remember her name. You can see the weight of years upon her now. She was an astronaut, and a scientist. The first woman in space, actually. She went to Skylab, the US’s first orbiting station. She is famed for her observational prowess, having made incredibly detailed observations on paper when the instrumentation she was intended to use failed. Her determination, quick thinking, and training as a scientist, more than as an astronaut, saved the experiments. Today, she was dragging in the printer cartridge people by their ears for her fellow astronauts in space.

You often hear astronauts talk about the vacuum of space. They think of their space suits as little personal space ships. They’re a little bit wrong, though. Space is not a vacuum. There is always something, somewhere, even if it’s just a hydrogen atom a few feet away. Our bodies don’t like that. Without something pushing down on every square inch of us, and pretty hard, too, our blood and cells would rupture and boil. And even with our sun distanced years away at high velocities, without the blanket of our atmosphere, or our little space ship suits with environmental controls, we would either burn to death from the heat, or freeze in the shadow of our world.

Scott Parazynski and Doug Wheelock STS-120 - Hi

But no true vacuum exists in space. There is always something, somewhere. From way up high, you can see a lot of these little somethings all mashed in together in what looks like a perfect sphere of mostly blue. That’s where our bodies work. All the little bits are attracted to one another, and they press on in. Before Galileo, objects fell because they longed to be united with the Earth. Nowadays they fall because objects warp the fabric of space-time, and they just naturally “roll” into each other. Either that, or little graviton particles shoot out between all objects, pulling them together. Who knows? And if space is just nothingness with bits of something floating around in it, how can it warp? Or, what is it made of, to warp? Surely if something is sitting in the middle of something else and warping it, there would be some degree of friction as it moves. Interestingly, there may be some truth in that. I don’t know what to do with the shooty little gravitons though. Then again, neither does anyone else. It seems to work on paper, though.

But paper is not space. And objects moving through space-time eventually end up someplace else, later. All the while, the metaphysics of mathematics helps us to control and predict, to varying degrees, just what, exactly, in this menagerie of unknowns might propel us to perspectives and understanding that could be considered at least somewhat more precise, even if not entirely true. For it seems that, for the moment, truth is more like calculus; we can get infinitely close, but never quite there. This is why you see all the bearded and aged philosophers hiking up their robes and doing the told-ya-so dance. Well, ok. Maybe not the robed ones.

Scott Parazynski - Tree on Top of the WorldThat is the metaphysical. But we like to touch things, taste them and smell them. We like to rub things all over us. We’re more comfy with that. At least, the 9 to 5’ers are. The other day Scott Parazynski got himself lifted way up above the space station to fix a solar array. It was a long, slow ride with his boots strapped on to a multi-jointed robotic arm proudly made in Canada. No human has ever experienced the perspective he did that day. The wireless camera on his helmet recorded what little it could. The view was wholly unearthly, yet at the same time, quintessentially earthly. Scott is a highly educated, obsessive achiever. “Wow,” he says. “Wow,” again. He has seen plenty of space movies and documentaries. “There’s no ways words can describe this. At least my words.” He was being held far above the space station, looking down upon it, floating high above an intensely glowing blue and white orb. “I hope you can see this.”

Scott Parazynski and Doug Wheelock STS-120After the repairs were completed, a momentous historical event largely unappreciated by all the creatures milling about so far below, he was riding back down in darkness to where his friend Doug (Wheels) was waiting for him below. In the black outline of the earth, small but intensely bright flashes of light could be seen as lightning in the atmosphere discharged to the surface of the planet. During the inventory of his equipment he pulled out the “hockey stick” wrapped in non-conductive tape which he had used to both pull the array closer to him for work, and to keep it away to avoid electrocution. The mission commander said over the radio, “that hockey stick’s been your best friend out there today.” “Yeah, well, Wheels is here,” Scott said. “Yeah, Wheels is your best friend,” agreed the commander, and they all got a little mushy.

Perched on high with the sun burning over the delicate slope of our Earth, Scott’s helmet camera crackled with interference. “This is God’s eye view.” I do not know if Scott is religious, but somehow I doubt so, in the traditional senses. Maybe some things we end up seeing are just too large for us to grasp. I can only imagine, looking down upon such immensity, breathing in my self-contained bubble of Earth’s atmosphere, with my best friend Wheels looking up, saying, you look good up there… I can only imagine: our humanity is all we really have. And look what we’ve done, we wild mixings of debris bound together on such a lush oasis. Look what we can do!

We have so much more to experience and to learn. I do not believe that, deterministically, we are trapped within the ends that so often appear inescapable, both as a species, and even individually. We must not allow the cynicism and pessimism wrapped so tightly around us, blind us from our far greater potentials. We must look higher than one group of people dominating another. The higher places are already there. It just takes us looking. Together.

Clay, the goofy but lovable astronaut, in space for several months now, left the station early this morning to return to us here. He could hardly speak for the tears, and he was not the only one of them so afflicted. “What we are doing is very important for humankind. It’s worth the risks and worth the cost. […] Constantly look toward the heavens, for it is there that you’ll see your future. […] Thank you. You are indeed the best and the brightest that our world has to offer.”

In the past few years, inspiration has been rare. We devote enormous resources, both collectively and individually, toward selfish, small and short-sighted gains. We actively destroy each other and the world around us with indifference, through weak or erroneous rationalizations. We should not learn to be content with such things. We should not allow those with myopic and selfish needs control the destiny of humanity. The best and brightest of our world… look what we have accomplished! Can we, any of us, ever stop becoming our best selves, and our brightest? What does it mean, for ourselves and for others, if we do?

But in the meantime, our latest band of explorers and builders are heading back home to the biosphere from which we emerged. The air around us will blanket our bodies, holding us within our living forms. The Earth will sprout nutrients. And at night, we will look far into star-filled emptiness, perhaps catching a glimpse of our home away from home. A place where we might gain the perspective to look back upon ourselves, seeing far more than we imagine. A place where we are, not quite yet.

“It was like I had climbed a tree, on the top of the world.”

forest_path.jpg


Asides:

  • ISS-16 is the first International Space Station crew commanded by a woman. Peggy Whitson says she’s happy to play this “special” role for women, but it is apparent from interviews that such a distinction upon her personally is better considered irrelevant. As with nearly all minority groups who gain institutional validation, they are quite content to leave behind any arbitrary distinctions that had previously caused them to be considered separate. As such, I mention this not because Peggy is the first woman to command the ISS. I mention this to express my sympathy and empathy for her having to endure endless and nearly unanswerable questions like, “what’s it like to be the first woman commander?” while her primary concerns are rightly focused elsewhere.
  • Also, George and Barbara Bush, the parents of our reviled President, visited NASA’s Mission Control while STS-120 was docked. The shuttle crew was loading garbage that had accumulated aboard the ISS onto the shuttle for return and proper disposal on earth. “Why can’t you just throw it…” she started to ask, then stopped, as an awkward pause ensued.