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Re: [xmca] abolish schools?
On Apr 10, 2010, at 10:30 PM, Rafi Santo wrote:
> From the date on the article (March 22), I'd doubt that it was an April Fool's joke, though the author certainly does himself no service by using somewhat of tongue in cheek and polarizing argumentation strategy ("schools are broken, let's replace them with video games!", if I can paraphrase...).
My university library doesn't provide access to some important journals, but it does allow me to read Jonathan Gough's columns. I'm copying two here: in the first he solves the global energy crisis; in the second he muses on the wonders of capitalism. April Fool's joke? No, he is this witty and provocative every week, for a living!
The life & opinions of Julian Gough
I have decided to devote this column to doing only good.
I shall start by solving the energy crisis. Now, crisis is a terrible description and shortage is worse. The terms of this debate have been set by the oil industry, whose worldview was formed when atoms were solid. Oil industry executives still see cars as the solution to the global threat emanating from horses (who, scientists once predicted, would bury the world's cities under 20ft of manure by 1950). But how can you have a shortage of energy in a universe made out of nothing but energy? On a planet half of which is bathed in high-energy radiation at all times? A planet with a core of solid, crystalline iron, which rotates in a boiling slurry of molten rock so energetic it can burst through the earth's skin to consume cities? A planet with a moon that hauls entire oceans, whales and all, several meters up in the air, twice daily? Earth's air pours forth raw electricity, in billion-volt bolts, at a global rate of 100 times a second. Absurd excesses of energy lash us from every direction, it's a miracle we're not all dead. Shortage? The crisis is one of overproduction.
Yet people are faffing about attempting to run cars on soya oil. Stop it! It's embarrassing! Where is your pride in technological advance? Way back in the 1970s, spacecraft already used fuel cells and solar panels and elegant gravitational slingshots around distant planets and yet we, in the 21st century, are still trying to move forward by essentially lighting our own farts.
What is this obsession with the internal combustion engine, anyway? German engineers can perfect it all they want, they're still setting off explosions in a tin can, in order to rotate a stick, so that mechanical gears can turn a wheel, with a 15 per cent energy efficiency. It's Victorian. And nuclear power is no advance. Nuclear power plants are just used to boil water. They are giant kettles. We cracked the atom and we used it to make tea.
Why aren't we having more fun with this? Look, if we can't find a way to generate power from an iron sphere which is the size of the moon and as hot as the sun rotating in a magnetic field beneath our feet, then we deserve to sit in the dark until the fission reactor that floods us in energy rises the next morning.
For the love of God, our planet is flying through the sun's magnetic field at a shocking speed. While spinning. It's just a huge dynamo, waiting for someone to tap it. All you have to do is run 100,000-km wires out of the earth's magnetic field and into the sun's field. What? How? Make the wires out of stuff that's already up there. Use old nuclear warheads to blast a few iron asteroids into geosynchronous orbit around earth. Voilá! Tiny, fixed moons of solid ore. A little factory builds a big factory from the asteroid's material and off you go. Finally, gently lower one end to earth, at the equator, using space-elevator physics, and connect it to a global grid. Do I have to do everything for you?
It's an ideal way for America and China to rebalance their accounts with each other, while building something more productive than machines for spin-drying lettuce. America needs to replace its dilapidated 1950s electricity infrastructure, and China needs to generate electricity for a billion people without cooking the world. Not only would a global dynamo generate no greenhouse gases but the heat from the dynamo would be radiated into space. (Besides, in the next few years, America and China will need something exciting to do together that isn't a war.)
You also end up with the bonus of a space elevator, which lowers the cost of getting stuff into orbit a hundredfold, so only the first wire is really expensive. And the wires would look great at night: big glowing lines stretching off into the darkness. Especially if you hung ultrathin sheets of glittery solar panel off them too, doubling the energy return. Nature was fun while it lasted, but humans now own the planet. We might as well decorate it.
Sure, converting some of the earth's orbital and rotational energy into electricity would eventually slow the planet down, lengthening the day and the year,Â but we'll enjoy the lie-in. And we could declare the extra days holidays. No, no, your thanks are unnecessary. Just name December 32nd after me. (And before the protesters get started, tidal friction is already slowing the earth's rotation. Go picket the moon).
Much of the research has been done: many of the satellites passing over your head already use electricity and a kilometre-long wire dangling into the earth's magnetic field to raise and lower their orbit.
And one of the nicest things about this plan is, unlike burning all the oil, it's reversible. If we later found a cleaner, cheaper, more fun way to generate energy, we could push electricity back up the wires. Resistance would become assistance: instead of slowing us down, the sun's magnetic field would speed the earth up and haul us into our old orbit, as if it had never happened.
Well, that's the energy crisis solved. Next month, I shall bring about world peace.
Julian Gough is the author of "Jude: Level 1" (Old Street Publishing) April 30, 2009
The sacred mystery of capital
BYLINE: Julian Gough
LENGTH: 1962 words
Many prophets foretold the disaster. Rending their garments, they cried that these works of man deviated from all that was good and proper, and would bring destruction. The prophets were mocked. Some were even driven into the wilderness. But then it came-a freezing of markets, a collapse of structured products, a destruction of asset classes and a global credit crunch. Foretold by the prophets, yet somehow unpredicted by the risk models of banks and governments, it wiped trillions of dollars from the value of houses and dumped families out in the street in numbers far exceeding those of Exodus. The crisis threw communities, and commodities, into chaos-from New Zealand to Iceland, from soya to oil-and many bankers were fired and great was their woe.
Of course, the idea of economics as a religion is not new. As Max Weber pointed out early Protestants saw economic success as a sign from God that one was of the heavenly elect. It was a small step from there to seeking success to ensure one would be saved. Capitalism, as Walter Benjamin said, silently took over Reformation Christianity and replaced the religion with itself: it became a religion, the western religion. So when Protestantism arrived in America, in its purest form, so did capitalism: the Catholic Spanish Americas never thrived economically, in contrast to Protestant, Anglo-Saxon North America. My own experience bears this out-the collapse of Catholicism in Ireland in the 1990s mirrored the rise of capitalism: the Celtic tiger was Protestant.
But religions evolve, and recent events show that capitalism has begun to evolve less in the manner of the Galapagos finches (whose beaks adjusted over millennia to suit the berries of their individual island), and more in the manner of the Incredible Hulk. Incredible Hulk capitalism can expand the muscle of its credit so swiftly that its clothing of real world assets cannot stretch fast enough to contain it. Expansion, explosion, collapse-Incredible Hulk capitalism sprawls, stunned and shrunken again, in the rags of its assets.
Or, returning to our religious analogy, if capitalism was a religion, it would now be a delightfully demented pseudo-scientific cult. Incredible Hulk capitalism is to the capitalism of Adam Smith what Scientology is to the Christianity of Christ. Both modern high finance and Scientology use the language and tools of science to ends that are religious, not scientific. Both meet a need, a yearning which the old forms of religion and capitalism no longer meet. The need for a mysterious power greater than us, in which we can believe. It must be powerful-but it must also be mysterious. And mystery has been vanishing from the world ever faster, ever since Galileo.
We know what the stars are made of, and can compute their course through the heavens for the next 10,000 years. We can explain the storms and floods that were once evidence of the wrath of God. But as the advance of science has removed the divine mystery from much of life, the advance of free market capitalism has put it back. Only modern economics can now provide forces that we don't understand. And we need that in our lives.
Critics such as Naomi Klein are almost exactly wrong when they say that the giddy boom and bust cycles of modern capitalism are forced on unwilling people by big corporations. On the contrary, we the people impose these rhythms on capital. We've always wanted higher highs and lower lows. That's why we drink and take drugs. A flat life is no life; that's why people kill themselves in Scandinavia. Boom and bust, party and hangover: they are human nature, as natural as the seasons or the clap. Modern capitalism just magnifies our urge to binge and purge, on food, on housing, on commodities, on life. Don't listen to what people say-we always complain, when free to do so-look at what we do. In any situation where there is a
barrier between capitalism and the communist/Islamist/Christian/self-sufficient agrarian alternative, in which direction do the people jump, tunnel, swim, smuggle themselves and their children?
Capitalism is seen as arrogant, but that is merely the rage of Caliban on seeing his reflection. The extraordinary thing about capitalism is its humility and refusal to judge. It will give us what we want; it will not force on us what it thinks we need. Often we are disgusted by what we discover that we want-but that reflects on us, not on the servant who brings us our fetish gear and saturated fats. It would bring us organic turnips just as happily. If we cease to desire a product, the producer changes, or ceases to exist. There is nothing more powerless than a corporation.
So how has something so powerless spread so fast? From Adam Smith to now is little more than 200 years. Islam, Christianity and the religions of the east took far longer to cover far smaller territories. And, even more interesting, why has modern capitalism suddenly, explosively, sped up its spread in the past 30 years?
For a system to bloodlessly replace an entrenched system, the newcomer must offer some significant improvement. And it must offer it to everyone. The religion of Abraham and Moses did not explode across the globe until Paul decided to make the version of Judaism preached by Jesus open to everyone, regardless of birth. Likewise, old-style capitalism was incapable of becoming a universal religion, because it did not offer the hope of salvation to all. Only those born into an elite of landowners and capital owners could access capital. But the recent rise of venture capital threw capitalism open to all, and made it at last a potentially universal religion.
Only one other change was necessary, and it came in 1971. For as long as money had to be backed by gold, economics was rooted in the material world (just as Christianity was merely an interesting philosophy for as long as Christ was alive). The abandonment of the gold standard was the crucifixion and resurrection of capitalism; the traumatic and liberating event which allowed capitalism to be purely religious and entirely driven by faith. As with all religions, once its link to the physical world was severed, free market capitalism mourned briefly, then experienced a surge of energy and expansion.
In an explosion of credit markets, deficit spending and faith-based money, it overwhelmed Soviet and Chinese communism and shook Islamic societies to their roots. It expanded further and faster than Islam after the death of Muhammad. The IMF and the World Bank sent their missionaries to every nation. And their language has now replaced Latin as the universal language, spoken by a sombre, dark-clad priestly caste, but mouthed without understanding by the ordinary people. People need that, they hunger for mysteries, a priesthood, shamans in touch with great forces. And modern high finance, like the Latin of the Christian Church, has profound mysteries at its core. Not even bankers know what a collateralised debt obligation cubed really is.
Where once the essential mystery was contained in the phrase fiat lux-let there be light-now it is contained in the phrase "fiat money." Money, that weightless thing, that spirit that is everywhere and nowhere: that nothing in everything, is the Holy Spirit of capitalism. And its touch can transform you in this life, giving it a big advantage over earlier religions, which offer you only consolation in the next. A bank with a capital base of $10bn can loan out $100bn. Yet with that money, people build real houses, drive real cars, eat real bread and drink real wine. Is this not an act of creation? Is this not a mystery worthy of God?
A banker can make a $1bn loan to a mining company. This faith-based money, backed by nothing, electronically transferred, is used to turn hills into holes. The mining company ships the resulting ore around the world. We live in the first age in which faith can literally move mountains. But as with all religious expansions, success bred hubristic dementia. The elevation of metaphysical above physical turned into a kind of contempt for the physical.
The world in which over $500 trillion in credit default swaps could be created by mostly US banks was also the world in which the US hadn't built a new oil refinery or nuclear reactor in 25 years, and whose bridges and levees were collapsing through lack of maintenance.
In any given era, the one true religion is so all-embracing, so saturates every area of life, that it almost vanishes. God accompanied the medieval Christian to the toilet, to bed, judged his thoughts, every action. Communism was so all-pervasive that husbands and wives censored private conversations (I live in east Berlin, and even today you can tell the older East Germans by the way they pause before replying to a question, as though they must still weigh up all the implications of speaking honestly).
Critics of consumer capitalism despair over the foolishness of the masses, who buy what they want packaged as what they need. But this is to misunderstand the transaction. We pray with our money, which is backed by nothing but faith, and a miracle happens-our baskets fill with goods, far more things than we could ever make or grow ourselves. In all other religions, you go to the temple and give the guardians food that, with difficulty, you have grown. Under this new, improved religion, the temple gives food to you. What happens, every time we shop in Tesco, is a miracle on a par with the loaves and the fishes.
Like all true religions, capitalism has entered into the cracks between people, filled the air, so that we can no longer find a place to view it. Except perhaps the desert... A few years ago I attended the Burning Man festival in Nevada. A city housing 30,000 people is built in the desert, for a single week. A Xanadu, dreamed into being every August. Burning Man's most interesting experiment is to run on a gift economy. Coffee and ice are the only products for sale. Every other need must be met out of your own resources or by gift from another. After the festival I helped take the city apart, leaving no trace that it had ever been. While doing so, I led a life that resembled that of a monk. I saw no money for those two weeks. When I was hungry, I was fed. If I needed clothes for the night, or tools to do a job, I asked, and I received.
Eventually, I returned from the desert, in a 22-wheeler truck. The truck stopped at a truck stop. I went in and took the food and water that I needed. As I walked out, a man standing behind a counter stared at me as I passed. And I stopped, and realised that I would have to find tokens made of paper and hand them to this stranger, and that all the complex human interaction involved in feeding a stranger, and all the difficulty and sweat of raising the food, had been replaced by an entirely symbolic exchange of green paper strips bearing an eye and a pyramid. And it seemed as wonderful and arbitrary as it must to an Amazonian tribesman encountering the city.
Back in my city, I switched on my miraculous electric light ("fiat lux!") and looked out across the miraculous city which no individual could have built. I saw miraculous light in the window of the rich and the same light in the window of the poor. Many talk about the inequalities of modern capitalism. But the truth is more subtle, and strange. Christianity once preached the equality of man, but could find no way to make the vision real. Communism tried, and failed, to force equality upon us. But only our modern, excitable, faith-based capitalism has delivered this degree of uniformity and equality. Ikea, with its Û6 chairs, is delivering not only the Christian but the communist heaven: everyone equal, sitting on the same chair, illuminated by the same lamp, all over the world._______________________________________________
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