Trees, 2015

This year my tree planting count is a bit complicated. Just like last year, I have a list (below) of trees I planted, working towards paying down my tree debt.

But this year I’ve also been doing two other things: 1) growing and distributing fruit trees (and shrubs/vines) for others and 2) direct-planting seeds of certain fruits (in particular Avocado and White Sapote). I’ve grown about (a rough guess) 500 potted fruit trees / shrubs / vines that others (hopefully) have now planted someplace. And have direct seeded about 300 seeds, among which I hope about half germinate and about half of those survive, for a net of about 75 trees. (I will follow up and see how many actually make it.) I’m not sure how to count these, so for now I won’t include them and will only count them when I know they are alive and are likely to survive for the long run.

The direct planted fruit seeds aren’t guaranteed to produce great fruit. In fact, especially with Avocado, they’re likely not to produce particularly good fruit. White Sapotes are a bit more likely to produce decent fruit from seed — apparently something like half of seedling trees produce decent fruit. Part of my hope is that in planting lots of seeds I’ll get lucky with a new variety that happens to be really good. But even if that doesn’t happen, the trees will still do all the good things trees do.

  1. White Sapote seedling (replaces vandalized redwood)
  2. Avocado seedling (replaces vandalized avocado)
  3. Fig (replaces diseased avocado)
  4. Nettie White Sapote (replaces capulin cherry)
  5. Nettie White Sapote (replaces kona sharwil avocado)
  6. Multi-grafted stone fruit (peach, nectarine, plum, apricot)
  7. Fuyu Persimmon
  8. Parfianka Pomegranate
  9. Lamb Hass Avocado
  10. Mexicola Avocado
  11. Dragonfruit
  12. Black Jack Fig
  13. Mammoth Pineapple Guava
  14. Cherry
  15. Walton White Sapote
  16. Vernon White Sapote
  17. Keitt/Lemon Zest Mango
  18. Solo Papaya
  19. White Malaysian Guava
  20. Cara Cara Navel Orange
  21. Gold Nugget Mandarin
  22. Janice Kadota Fig
  23. Multi-grafted Mango

400 and 76000

Three years ago I was wondering in a post about what it might take for society to take notice of peak oil and climate change. I thought maybe a “shock” of some sort, especially associated with physical phenomena, might do the trick. In that post I looked at three events that I thought would happen in 2015 or 2016. Let’s see how we’re doing.

1. 400 ppm CO2. Check.

2. Peak of global oil production by 2015. Appears likely. (We can’t know for sure until many years have passed.)

3. Near-zero sea ice. Didn’t happen, though it still seems likely in the next few years.

But in reflecting on it a bit more, it seems that none of these will actually affect the life of the average person, at least not directly, and as a result I was a bit naive to think that a physical event such as one of these, despite their obscurity and indirect impact on daily life, would be a wake up call for the public.

But I can say one thing for sure — those who are watching these indicators are wide awake.

Growing What Money Can’t Buy

Living in Northern California at a time when the tech industry is booming and at a time and place where the faux “sharing economy” (websites that let you buy and sell any service you can imagine) is all the rage, I’m reminded quite frequently how people expect that they can buy anything. It’s just a matter of having money and being willing to spend it. Want someone to come to your house and wash your socks and fold them while you stand and watch? No problem. Want to get a personal tour guide / door opener to the most trendy restaurants in a big city? No problem. As has been articulated by many authors, in effect what’s happening is that things people do that were not part of the money economy are now being monetized, and various intermediaries are taking their cut. When everything is for sale, there’s an expectation among people with lots of money to spend that they should be able to get anything as long as the price is right. And sure, GDP is increasing because these services weren’t part of GDP calculations before, but it’s not clear that this “growth” is good.

In the last few years I’ve been spending a lot of time learning how to grow and growing fruits of various kinds, many of which are rare for one reason or another. What I’ve realized over the past few years of growing fruit is that what I’m growing (and what friends and acquaintances of mine are growing) literally can’t be bought. These fruits aren’t sold in any store, and they’re often not even grown by any commercial farm. They’re not even available at the farmers market. Fresh Passionfruits, Manzano peppers, Pineapple Guavas, Lemon Guavas, Chilean Guavas, non-Hass Avocados, White Sapotes, Sugarcane, and much more are delicious and hard to buy. The only way to get these fruits are to grow them yourself or to trade with someone who does. I suppose I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible to buy these fruits — I’m sure someone out there will sell them, and once in a blue moon I see some at a farmers market stand — but by and large the only way is to know a rare fruit grower. And rare fruit growers by and large don’t exchange money with each other — they trade and give gifts of plants and fruit, and the usual rules (if you can call them that) of informal trade and gifts apply here. I hadn’t really thought too deeply about it but it’s become so common for me now to give someone seeds or plants or fruit or scionwood and for someone else to give me seeds or plants or fruit or scionwood. It’s how a community works — there’s interdependency and sharing.

Those who are providing goods and services — in this case growing the plants and fruit — have a choice. They can choose to sell their fruit for money or they can enter into barter and gift relationships. Often they choose to do the latter because they don’t earn their living from growing fruit, and that’s actually key to the idea I want to discuss:

Luxury items are the place to start for barter and gift economies.

I know that might be counterintuitive — most barter and gift economies have traditionally been for staples, and even the various new barter systems that have been set up in recent years (such as part of Transition Towns) tend to focus on basics. But in relatively wealthy societies most people have the basics covered through the money economy, and it seems unlikely that’s going to go away anytime soon. However, to fight this trend of monetizing everything, perhaps the place to start is with things that people can do without (and thus have some special value to the producer). As someone who grows uncommon fruits (that meet all the standard definitions of luxury food: organic, locally-grown, rare), if someone offered me a lot of money for, for example, the Passionfruits I grow, there’s pretty much no price at which I’d sell. But I happily give them away all the time, most often to people who have no fruit to trade. I don’t know what a neoclassical economist would say about the calculation I’m making — probably that’s it’s not rational; Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets is a good exploration into this sort of thinking.

There’s a point to this: by forcing luxury items into the barter / gift economy, we force people to do something useful to get those items, especially those who earn money doing things that the money economy values but that are actually useless. (Take for instance someone who makes millions packaging and bundling questionable derivatives for a large bank.) Those very people who have money are the ones who will look to buy luxury items with that money, but those providing them don’t have to sell.

Trees, 2014

As I did last year, I’d like to catalog what trees I managed to plant this year (the ones marked as 0 replaced trees that died or had to be removed):

  1. Mammoth Pineapple Guava (replaces diseased Lemon)
  2. Fuerte Avocado (replaces mutant Lemon)
  3. Parfianka Pomegranate (replaces dead Queen Avocado)
  4. Parfianka Pomegranate (replaces dead Grapefruit)
  5. Ambrosia Pomegranate
  6. Fuyu Persimmon
  7. Meyer Lemon
  8. Eversweet Pomegranate
  9. Reed Avocado
  10. Washington Navel Orange
  11. Valencia Orange
  12. Manila Mango
  13. Mysore Banana
  14. Parfianka Pomegranate
  15. Hass Avocado
  16. Eversweet Pomegranate
  17. Coolidge Pineapple Guava
  18. Manila Mango
  19. Capulin Cherry
  20. Sir Prize Avocado
  21. Dwarf Cara Cara Navel Orange
  22. Mexican Cream Guava
  23. Kona Sharwil Avocado
  24. Ettinger Avocado
  25. Unique Pineapple Guava
  26. Nazemetz Pineapple Guava
  27. Cripps Pink Apple
  28. Bacon Avocado
  29. Gwen Avocado
  30. Hass Avocado
  31. Kona Shawil Avocado
  32. Pinkerton Avocado
  33. Reed Avocado
  34. Ice Cream Banana
  35. Janice Kadota Fig
  36. Lemon Guava
  37. Lemon Guava
  38. Lemon Guava
  39. Lemon Guava
  40. Strawberry Guava
  41. Manila Mango
  42. Fuyu Persimmon
  43. Nazemetz Pineapple Guava
  44. Seedling Pineapple Guava
  45. Seedling Pineapple Guava
  46. Unique Pineapple Guava
  47. Unique Pineapple Guava
  48. Parfianka Pomegranate
  49. Eversweet Pomegranate
  50. Chestnut White Sapote
  51. Santa Cruz White Sapote
  52. Walton White Sapote
  53. Reed Avocado

Efficiency as a Vice

In modern economic thought, efficiency is paramount. The goal of economic systems, and entities within those systems, is to maximize efficiency. Policymakers are supposed to remove impediments that are making markets inefficient, and cut government inefficiency.

Even those that claim not to buy into such thinking often still do without realizing it. There have been many hundreds if not thousands of papers and articles by critics of mainstream economic thought on how the “efficient market hypothesis” is wrong, and that markets today aren’t efficient or are broken in other significant ways despite their efficiency (e.g. “markets may be efficient but don’t consider human happiness”). However these critics are still buying into the framing of efficiency as king (and thus as the thing to inveigh against). Ultimately these arguments are saying that “if only we were to make change X to the system, then it will be properly efficient.”

A key aspect of photosynthesis is thought to have evolved only once. But that one time was enough, and was such an evolutionary advantage that we’ve had it and relied upon it ever since. However, it’s far from efficient — most plants only use a couple percent of the energy they receive from the sun.

Consider a highly-efficient solar panel farm — panels at just the right angles, tracking the sun, covering every inch of ground. From one perspective this is the pinnacle of technological development: shiny, “green” technology, silent and efficient (much more so than a plant’s leaf). But in ecological terms the landscape is a wasteland: no light is allowed to reach the ground for any other use, and as a result it’s likely next to nothing else will live there. (And we’re already seeing the impact of this — desert ecosystems are hurt where solar arrays are being built, and sometimes the carbon lost from the desert soils as a result is greater than the fossil-fuel carbon offset by the solar electricity production.) The landscape is efficient in a narrow sense, but it’s not clear that that’s what we should want.

Compare that to a forest’s use of sunlight, in which layer upon layer of foliage, from the canopy to the forest floor, take part in a dance of extracting what little they can from the sun’s rays, and sharing that with a huge diversity of species. Those species are arranged in a complex web of interactions such that no species is truly on top of a hierarchy — every species is in the middle of some part of the food web, and the density of connections between them ensures that the forest ecosystem can continue to function as these links disappear and new ones are created.

Consider the structure of network routing on the Internet. (Background: the Internet is decomposed into what are called ASes — Autonomous Systems — each of which is a large organization such as a company or university. Using the routing protocol BGP, ASes announce routes to IP addresses on the Internet to one another, and store the announcements they hear from others. When data packets arrive at an AS, it uses its knowledge of currently available routes to the packets’ destinations to forward them to the next AS along the path to the destination.) While the Internet is thought to be resilient — the apocryphal story is that it was designed to survive nuclear attack — the connectivity of the Internet is not nearly as resilient as is assumed. Specifically, there are roughly a dozen large ASes (the large telecom companies that provide most long-distance connectivity) that the Internet depends upon for its operation. Most paths between two destinations go up to a large AS and then back down to the final destination.

The networking specialist reading this might say, well wait a second — those individual autonomous systems are internally resilient, as they are composed of a large data plane of many thousands of routers. That’s true, and that does provide a degree of resilience — it’s why we don’t see huge outages on a regular basis. But they rely upon a single protocol for the control plane, and a handful of system administrators and programmers to keep that control plane in check. (The network’s data plane consists of the paths through wires and networking devices like routers and switches over which data — packets — flow for delivering useful service. The network’s control plane consists of the systems used to manage the network’s data plane; the control plane may be distinct from the data plane, or it may rely upon the data plane for its own communication.) Regional-scale disasters have had huge ripple effects in Internet connectivity — the Baltimore tunnel fire of 2001, the Taiwan earthquake of 2006 — while simple misconfiguration in a single spot has caused the entire Internet to go down. In each instance, network engineers put in place fixes to deal with the proximate cause of the outage, but the broader issues of a hierarchical, efficient, and un-resilient Internet remain. For the Internet to be truly resilient, in the way nature is, it would likely have to have less hierarchical routing, more backup network links, more diversity in ASes, and as a result would not be as profitable for the large corporations that carry much of the Internet’s traffic.

As a final example, a couple of years ago I looked at the challenge of using nuclear energy in hard times. Operators of such plants frequently ask and receive the go ahead for power uprates — they rely on the fact that each plant was built with some amount of safety margin, and cut into that safety margin so as to operate at a higher power yielding greater profit. (In re-reading my post on nuclear, I’m sad to say that large-scale solar thermal — which I was hopeful about — is looking more problematic than I thought then. Still, small-scale solar thermal works great and is even simpler.) Once again, the temptation to reach for efficiency, which is currently the primary virtue for any organization, trumps other concerns.

It seems to me that we need to openly begin questioning the dogma of efficiency as the main aim for all systems — economic, technological, social — a dogma that permeates modern life in many spheres — political, corporate, academic — even when it isn’t acted upon in every case. Instead, perhaps we can aim for inherent complexity in our systems, just like nature, ensuring resilience over efficiency.

The Societal Cost of Computer Science

It’s often said as a joke among computer scientists (especially among those who work on systems, as opposed to theory) that there are really only two ideas in the field: abstraction and indirection. I’d like to explain what happens when these ideas (more about which in a moment) are applied not just in the abstruse confines of software and hardware and computer systems but instead are applied to a society as a whole. While it might seem like a leap to say that such academic principles of computer science impact society, I’d like to make that case that that’s exactly what’s happened while we weren’t looking.

Computer science is an odd field — it consists of everything from pure mathematics (e.g. computational complexity theory), applied mathematics (e.g. algorithms and cryptography), engineering (e.g. distributed systems), and even some of what we might traditionally call science (e.g. Internet measurement). Computer scientists might bristle at the following, but to a first approximation subfields within computer science fall broadly into two categories: theory and systems. My academic background is in the latter, though I’m also fairly familiar with theory as well. Theory includes algorithms and complexity theory.

There’s been a movement of sorts for the last decade to attempt to quantify everything, as technologists expand their vision and reach and dominance in society. From crime fighting to education to governance to personal health to many many more fields, computer scientists have jumped in with both feet, and more than that, people have welcomed their dominance, perhaps from a perspective that “data will set us free.”

The DIKW — Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom hierarchy — is a nice classification, and one that I think more computer scientists should consider. To put it simply, I think we’ve seen a replacement of a smaller amount of knowledge and wisdom for a larger amount of data and information, in the hopes or claims that more is better. We have shoes that will tell us how fast and how far we’ve run, phones that can and do monitor everything from what we’re currently doing to what someone else is typing nearby, purportedly crime-fighting cameras and microphones, and much much more. But it’s not clear that any of this is turning into knowledge or wisdom — my hypothesis is that knowledge and wisdom have a fundamental limit, in that they are generated by slow processes of human minds and human interactions, and more data or information won’t help speed that up.

But I think the impact of computing on society goes deeper, and its root is the two concepts of abstraction and indirection.

Abstraction in computer science terms, roughly speaking, is the process by which some computational object — anything you can represent in terms of some data stored in a computer — is boiled down to a set of data fields that describe it. Think of any concept stored by a website you use, and there’s lot of abstraction going on, a lot of it visible from the outside if you know what to look for. For example, many companies publish APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), which are the means by which you can integrate with their software / systems. Those APIs come with descriptions of the abstractions they use to convey information. Want to see what your friends look like to Twitter? Just look at their API — your friends are just a list of numbers. The benefit of abstraction in computing is that it enables code to be written generically and modularly — a friend in code is a simple abstract concept that can be described with a few data fields, rather than a real complex human relationship around which code must be adapted.

Indirection in computer science terms is the process of interposing on some communication — the process of decoupling two things that were coupled and sticking a layer in between. The benefit of indirection is that it can enable flexibility. For example, Amazon to a large extent relies upon indirection — many of the warehouses they operate are not actually run by them, but by warehouse contractors under their direction, and the products they sell aren’t made by them, nor are the reviews written by them. The benefit, so far as there is one, is that by creating many layers of indirection in between, they enable their users to learn about and purchase just about any products manufactured anywhere in the world and stored at some large warehouse out there.

There’s obviously a dark side to both abstraction and indirection, and it’s been written about a lot, but I think it hasn’t been recognized as such. That is, the systems that employ abstraction bother us at a gut level — the fact that Facebook has cheapened friendships, that Amazon commodifies all products and all sellers — but it’s not often recognized that at its root it’s just abstraction gone awry. The same goes for indirection. Cloud computing is a good example of the use of the two systems ideas together — your data is held in some abstract conception of a data storage system — the cloud — and you don’t even communicate with the cloud servers directly but rather through a labyrinth of intermediate systems and layers all with a friendly face on them. Virtually every website, Internet service, and tech startup leverages abstraction and indirection; they abstract the previous provider of the service and become the layer through which the two sides interface — take Uber, which abstracts away the Taxi driver and inserts itself as the middleman in the transaction and takes a hefty cut. (Note, however, that traditional software doesn’t do this — an old fashioned calculator program, for example, is abstracting and indirecting much less.)

Those that don’t insert themselves as the middleman in a previous paying relationship create a new one via advertising (and apply indirection there). It’s been said by Bruce Schneier that the business model of the Internet is surveillance. That is, many companies make money on the Internet by collecting data on people so that they can sell better advertising. I think this is true, and again I think the fundamental issue here, the cause of the structure of business on the Internet, is these two key ideas of computer science. Understanding those ideas might be important in a range of challenges we face as a society — both the obviously related ones like surveillance and less obviously related environmental and socio-economic challenges.

Am I saying as a computer scientist that we should abandon the field? No. But perhaps there are a few things we — both computer scientists and the broader public — need to discuss:

a) that data and information are just representations of the real world, and our current society tends to favor these representations over the messiness of reality,
a’) and we need to resist this.

b) that intermediation on things in the abstract world can intermediate things in the real world,
b’) but it’s possible to apply this idea in reverse and disintermediate and
b”) it’s possible to identify and remove computers in natural systems and human society and remove them if the only reason the computers are still present is legacy.

Should we perhaps move towards building computing tools rather than computing systems?

No True Permaculture

I do a fair bit of gardening in public or semi-public spaces — sidewalk strips, parking lots, yards of large buildings, rooftops — and over the last couple of years I’ve had a lot of conversations with people passing by about gardening, fruit trees, sustainability, and lots more. One topic that has come up infrequently but consistently with those with a serious interest in gardening is permaculture. Sometimes it’s just a discussion about permaculture, sometimes it’s about the person having done or planning to do a permaculture design course (PDC), sometimes it’s about various techniques that are associated with permaculture (e.g., herb spirals, swales, perennial polyculture, etc.).

But more than all that, I’ve been asked a question a few times that I’m never able to answer: “Do you do permaculture?” I usually go quiet for a moment, think about it, and eventually give a few caveats but answer “No, I don’t do permaculture.” There are a few reasons I answer that way — I’ve never taken a PDC, I don’t specifically try to do permaculture but pick and choose from whatever I find promising, etc. — but none of these are related to my main reason: I don’t know what is and isn’t permaculture. (Sometimes I think this is because I don’t have a lot of years of active gardening under my belt, but sometimes I think it’s deeper, and it’s the latter notion I want to explore.)

I look at what I do in some garden settings, where true sustainability isn’t possible (i.e., a garden that would continue growing for many years without human intervention — rooftops especially), and I wonder how that could ever be called permaculture. But then I see discussion of permaculture roof gardens and the like and get confused. I imagine that if one were to analyze many of these types of unconventional gardens according to the principles of permaculture, they wouldn’t hold up well. When I read about gardens / farms in which people try to get high yields using permaculture-associated techniques, and then see rebuttals that those projects weren’t really permaculture, I’m left to wonder whether the No True Scotsman fallacy applies to permaculture. That is, any project or site that is unsuccessful or undesirable from the perspective of the reviewer can be deemed to not be “true permaculture”. This excellent post gets at a number of concerns and confusions I’ve had, and points out the claim made by some permaculturists that failed or failing projects aren’t permaculture — again, the No True Scotsman fallacy.

I should step back and say that I’ve learned a lot from reading some permaculture gardening books (especially Gaia’s Garden), but that these days I find I’m learning the most by reading and participating in rare fruit growing forums/groups, and have had the most success from simple trial and error. Despite all this, I hope that there is a next wave to come — in the form of new ideas, techniques, principles, or something else entirely — that advances everyone’s thinking about sustainable horticulture beyond the plateau we’ve reached today, whether it’s permaculture or not.

The Energetic Basis of Wealth

Last year I did an analysis to try to understand whether it’s possible to feed the world sustainably. Today I’d like to try to understand what happens to countries as they must rely upon the sun for energy (and, indirectly, wealth).

An old proposition in the sustainability community is that the material wealth we enjoy today in industrialized nations is based in large part on our energy consumption. Take that away, and our vaunted industrial, intellectual, and entrepreneurial prowess will do little to sustain our material wealth. I think there’s quite a bit of truth in this claim, and the data at least supports the notion that there is a correlation — Gapminder enables charting of fairly-recent energy and economic data; this chart shows energy use per capita vs. GDP per capita. (One thing you can see, if you move the year slider at the bottom of the chart, is that while individual countries have moved up or down over the years, the correlation has remained remarkably constant.) In any case, for the purpose of this post, I’m going to set the validity of the claim aside and assume that it’s true. I’m also going to set aside the problem with using GDP to measure wealth, as it doesn’t really matter for the analysis below.

So, supposing that wealth (per capita) as we currently conceive of it is based in the flow of energy (per capita), where does that leave us in a world with few or no fossil fuels? Well, we could look to alternative energy sources, but I’m going to take Odum’s assertion as a given: “The natural conversion of sunlight to electric charge that occurs in all green-plant photosynthesis after 1 billion years of natural selection may already be the highest net emergy possible.” This means that we can assume in pure net emergy terms that growing plants to fuel society directly and indirectly is more efficient than most alternative energy schemes. (I’ll come back to the case of Iceland later.)

That brings us back to what the land can yield. In my calculations last year, I estimated that arable land yields about 1-2 W/m^2 of harvestable energy. Given that, we can then estimate the potential energy (really power, since it’s in terms of Watts) yield per country by looking at the arable land available per capita. This dataset from the World Bank provides hectares per person for the countries of the world.

At the top of the list is Australia, which, if climate change doesn’t hit its arable land hard, will have a huge 2.13 hectares per person to work with. Multiplying the land energy yield of 1-2 W/m^2 and we get 21.3 kW to 42.6 kW per person — a huge potential value. The United States, at 0.51 hectares per person, would be at 5.1 kW to 10.2 kW per person; today the U.S. uses about 10 kW per person, so this isn’t far off. China is at 0.13 hectares per person, which would be 1.3 kW to 2.6 kW per person — also not far off from today. The countries that are most obviously in trouble, by this calculation, are those that have extraordinarily high energy use today but little arable land — many nations in the Middle East and small, wealthy nations like Luxembourg and Singapore fall into this category. Earlier I said Iceland is a special case; it has high energy use but may be able to sustain it because of its unique geothermal resources.

Granted, this calculation assumes intensive cultivation and doesn’t account for the need to feed the people (and animals) that do the work, and there’s a diminishing return on hectares per person (that is, it’s unlikely that a single person will be able to double their personal energy yield going from 1 hectare to 2 hectares, since it’s just too large for one person to intensively cultivate at that point). I think it’d be fair to halve the values, at a minimum, to account for this. And due to the need for a large fraction of the population to be involved in growing plants at least part time, there’d necessarily be less time for other work, and that would likely shrink the range of specialized occupations from what we have today. Despite all this, the calculation still indicates that a country like Australia could be in good shape — not far from where it is today — if it were to really transform itself economically so as to base its wealth on sustainable horticultural practice. That is, it might be able to achieve a fairly high equilibrium state of both energy use per capita and wealth per capita. And even the United States wouldn’t be that far off — perhaps 50-60% lower than today.

What does this mean for the future? I’m not sure, but I think it indicates that when the fossil fuel trapdoor opens there’s potentially a floor not far beneath our feet, one that’s available to us if we’re willing to do the hard work to base society’s wealth on what the sun provides to us through plants.