The Power of Engineering


Engineering is a wonderful thing. It designed my mobil home, but it can not stop the wind that is flapping the tin roof, and it can’t grow new leaves on the Dewberry bush — and if it could — we should not try until we understand the wind well enough to know if it would be a good thing or a bad thing for the future of human kind. There might be worse things than wind flapping the tin roof, and what could be better than the new green of Spring.

Many people believe that our science and our technology control the laws of nature. This is not true; in fact, it’s impossible. The human miracle is not that we control mother nature but that we have been given a brain with which to understand the laws of nature, and use our knowledge to help ourselves. Neither our brain, nor our engineering and technology nor all our knowledge, none of that can control natural law. What our amazing knowledge does do is permit us to use the laws of nature to make ourselves more comfortable. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it is not a good thing for the future of human kind.

So as humans, the most important thing we can do to sustainably improve the lives of ourselves and our communities is to learn to understand the most basic principles of natural law so we can prevent our leaders from using all that power just for themselves, or just for this generation, and help our leaders to build a sustainable quality of life for the future.

Our quality of life did not come by magic, and it will not stay unless we understand the natural relationships upon which it is based – the relationships of the individual, the community, the ecosystem. If we want to have some control over the quality of life of our children and grandchildren, we need to understand these relationships and how they function in nature, so we can make wise decisions today for the benefit of tomorrow.

In addition to the relationship laws, we need to understand the basic laws of energy – energy for ourselves to eat and energy for our cars to run, because the energy of the living system, including our cars, is not the unlimited fire of the sun. That old sun will keep right on firing away while we starve to death, if we do not recognize where our food comes from and what limits the amounts that are available. Surely, as parents and grandparents and leaders of the new world, we want to understand the real facts about how energy flows through the living system, so we can make wise decisions today for the benefit of food for tomorrow.

We have huge power in this age; therefore we have huge choices* to make.

*New York Times, Elizabeth Rosenthal

The Power of Choice

“Analysis has to do with the breaking down of (something) … into its component parts, but never forgetting that . . . these individual parts belong to a unit.”  Andrea Sabbadini, BBC Forum ,

Sailesh Rao, quoted in Dot Earth, pointed out that the “Macromyopia” of business that caused the financial crash is not very different from our attitude toward global warming. For any person who knows the truth — that growth in the absence of viable resources is not sustainable — it is very hard to understand why these supposedly brilliant leaders of the economic world would permit this crash to happen. And yet the (predictably failed) United Nations Ten Year Plan repeatedly stressed “sustainable growth;” the marketplace talks about sustainable growth; we have based our culture on the fiction of sustainable growth.  Perhaps it is indeed “Macromyopia,” that is the inability to see the big picture.  To me it is a solid wall of belief through which it is impossible for any real fact to penetrate.

Maybe the idea that human ingenuity is bigger than the big picture is based in a reverence for reductionist science, that is the belief by some scientists that we will learn how “everything” functions if we only can define all the little parts of it.   We can clone the genome.  But the more we know about the nucleotide sequences of the genome, the more we understand that we can NOT put all those nucleotides back together to make an animal.  Not even a cell.  Maybe the scientists and the economists have convinced us with their big words that they know more than we do.  It is true that the intricacies of their manipulations can not be understood by ordinary people, but the big picture is not rocket science.  Any farmer knows that he can not create life without seed and he can’t sustain livestock without grain, and nothing can grow forever on this earth.  As stated by Andrew Revkin in another blog on the same subject: “often common sense trumps experience and financial sainthood.” Clearly the power of common sense, based in fact, trumps the power of big words that are based in false ideologies.

This vessel of life, the earth, or Gaia if you will, can not sustain unlimited growth any more than Jack’s beanstalk can grow to the moon or your bathtub forever fill without overflowing.

And yet we diddle around trying to figure out where we will put all the people who will be added to the population in the next 20 years or 50 years, and the scientists are consumed with their reductionist thinking, we have forgotten the big picture.  There simply is not room for that many people eating the limited fruits of this earth.  Our options are not designed by ourselves; they are designed by the capacity of the earth and the fact that our energy to live comes from photosynthesis, not from a test tube.  Our power is not greater than that of the ecosystem; our power lies in choosing among the options that are available — not inventing scenarios that are not available.  Therefore, our power — that is our power to choose — relies entirely upon our understanding of how the ecosystem works and then deciding how we should behave, within that framework, to maximize our benefits.

So, where will we put all those people in the next 20 to 50 years?  There won’t BE that many people in the next 20 or 50 years.  We are running a Ponzi scheme with the living breathing people of the earth, and yes the population will crash in exactly the same way that there isn’t as much financial value now as there was before the crash. The earth can not support growth in the absence of real resources.  We have lost the power generated by the Green Revolution to build a world in balance.  We blew it.  We chose instead to build an unsustainable growth economy.

Our choice now is how to provide for the inevitable decrease.  Do we want to continue as we have been doing?  Letting people starve?  Do we want to kill them off in wars?  Genocide?  Epidemic disease?  Or maybe we might start thinking about not making so many babies in the first place.

The Green Revolution failed because we failed to take advantage of that space of time to make real choices. We have used up that power; we can not go back and do it right.   That choice is gone, and have not so many choices remaining and they aren’t as nice as they would have been.  But life offers always choices, and our choices are our greatest source of power.  Do we want to continue to just sit it out in lala land, everyone trying to prove that his view is right and all the others are wrong — or would it be better to take charge of our reality and think about the facts  and then talk among ourselves about our problems — and try to provide a soft landing for  the beautiful civilizations that we have created and the  people who are here now — living breathing souls upon the face of the earth.

Our only real power lies in our choices from among the factually available options.

Of course, we must continue our efforts to save our beautiful civilizations as we are now doing.  But blindly?  We are the only species with the brain to deal with this earth as it is.  Let’s use it to save our todays and our tomorrows.


A day after Obama’s call to use our huge national power to make things better, I spent the morning reading the political news, as required by my current podcasting course, and I am very discouraged.

If the reporters think this whole thing is nothing more than a game — well all I can say this morning is that as a scientist I know that it is real and it is about lives and about suffering, and we could be doing better using the power of our brains to do something more useful than just diddle around playing games.

James Lovelock, British scientist, speaking on the BBC Today show, understands very clearly what is happening, and he isn’t discouraged.  But he seems to think everyone else is as rational as he is, and I know some people don’t even care to listen to the facts of life on this earth.

If you won’t listen to the facts, if you think opinions are the same as facts, then you hardly have any power at all to cope with real, immutable facts.

President Obama – February 24 2004

If I were Jodi Kantor and the New York Times assigned me to write about Michelle Obama’s upper arms the day after one of the most important speeches of our fledgeling 21st century, I would be mortified.

“Michelle Obama Goes Sleeveless Again”

Do we have something important to think about or do we not?

“, , , it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we will be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament.”

I haven’t listened to a political speech for about 10 years, so I do not have a comparator, but I liked  President Obama’s speech to the joint houses of Congress on Feb 24.  If we believe that political power is the power to get things done among the people, then there are two sides to it, and the first side is to recognize what we want to get done.  That requires:

1. taking a good look at what is wrong

2. trying to figure out WHY it is wrong

3. and after we understand the problem,  making a sensible plan to fix it.

And then of course begins the second task of getting people to help themselves to a better future.

On that scale, Pres. Obama seems to be at least half of the way toward fixing our basic problems, which is further than anyone else has gone for some decades, and solving them within the context of what is important (to me at least) about the United States of America.

I am thrilled to have a President who genuinely believes in the ideals for which I have sacrificed.

I am relieved to have a president who understands the difference between short-term temporary fixes and the long-term challenges that must be met if we are to survive as a United States of America.

I am very impressed that our President clearly understands that all of our problems are interdependent.

And I’m really pleased that he can correctly pronounce the name of The United (not Unined) States of America. It will make speech-listening much more comfortable for me.

Whether or not President Obama (or anyone else) can succeed in accomplishing the necessary goals is somewhat over my head, but I am sure he stands a better chance than someone who doesn’t understand in the first place that we really do have problems, nor in the second place what they are.

Our obsession with upper arms is not one of them.  Is it?

Knowledge is Power, very much so

But power to do what?

Here’s a quote from Jeremy Pearce’s piece, “Konrad Dannenberg, 96, Top Rocket Scientist, Dies”

“For his part, Mr. Dannenberg, who was not a member of the Nazi party, said that the Peenemünde team had not been involved in the factory brutality, that the rocket science was pure, and that the German ‘army was the only rich uncle with enough money to pay for the things we wanted to do.’”

As a “pure” scientist myself, I find that quote to be quite typical and not restricted to the scientists of Nazi Germany.  Of course in this day it’s almost impossible to be successful in science without devoting all your energy purely to the science.  There is no time to keep up with personal obligations, much less to worry about how your results might be used in the areas of technology, big business and big ugly politics.

Some do.

The question is discussed.

But not enough scientists or citizens recognize their obligation to the potential power, for good or ill, that is generated by their research.

The Power to Control the Universe

It is Bitsy’s opinion, when she sits on top of the hay on top of the pickup — and nothing can convince her otherwise — that she has the power to control the whole universe.


We jumped into the pickup this morning, Bitsy whining her delight, and drove a mile or so down the road, across the cattle guard and slowly through a little herd of multicolored Texas cattle. Visualizing (well I was visualizing, Bitsy was probably thinking about running and chasing) the amazing biology of the pigment cell. Red cows, beige cows, brindle cows, black, and an outstanding grey individual I could not imagine the genotype.

But the rancher said, while he tossed the square bales of coastal into the back of Bitsy’s pickup and I was already wondering about next year, he said that it might not rain at all this year.

If not, there won’t be any hay.  He’ll have to send his cattle to market, and we will have a problem filling up the pickup.  There will be nothing for Bitsy to control.

Asking the Right Questions?

Hiroko Tabuchi reports on the deflation that results when consumers fail to heed the advice of the growth economy and begin to live within their budgets and long-term rational expectations.  Actually most of that first sentence represents my own opinion upon reading the article.  The author never questioned the desirability of infinite growth, not the shadow of doubt, and the subtitle of the piece is “Japan offers a peek at how thrift can take lasting hold of a consumer society, to disastrous effect.”

Disaster?  I’d rather see a little disaster now than a huge one later.   I wonder why we bow to this corporate mentality that devours our resources in order to produce short-term irresponsible wealth for themselves, while ignoring the fact that it simply is not sustainable into the future.   It’s mathematically impossible to grow forever, and the sooner we start thinking sustainability the lesser will be our pain when it hits the fan.  Our options for making positive change narrow with every delay.