Pulse by Robert Frenay

May 3, 2007 at 1:52 pm 4 comments

Apparently Pulse is available for free online now, hence Frenay seems to be turning his book into a meditation which is probably the right way to do it. Books these days are less fixed informational oddities than they are brand identities to be consistently added to (just look at Freakonomics). Pulse is for Frenay (a former jazz critic and music promoter amongst other things) a category for his evolving thoughts on complexity, emergence, and more surprisingly politics and the ethics of the everyday. Frenay refers to his subjects as “new biologists” and proceeds to characterize them as environmental zealots, waste is inefficiency in the world of Pulse. Nothing here will surprise those already familiar with small worlds, emergence, feedback, non-linear equations, and Herman Daly’s ecological economics. The book begins, like most tech books, with numerous descriptions of biological processes at work, Frenay is particularly obsessed with fish’s use of the swirling channels of water their fins leave behind as a means of further extending their propulsion. What makes the book unique, is that Frenay begins to extend his thinking into the politics of the everyday. Frenay wants more than just simple governmental policies to cover environmentalism and subsidies for the sciences, he wants a complete over throw of the previous generations reliance on simple causal methods of evaluation. He is, so to speak, working out a line of thinking that like the deconstructionists, wants to do away with platonic thought, but perhaps differs from contextual reasoning and Asian philosophy, by finding regularities or absolutes in the a-logical and non-linear. When Frenay applies this to farming for instance, he finds the organic farming methods and their reliance on hacking naturally occuring systems more satisfying than the current GM products of the green revolution. Frenay makes a rather good, and very impassioned, plea for the pros of organic farming, by simply making the case that nature is an intelligent and complex beast that is evolving. Every GM plant results in gene transfusion, weeds around round-up ready corn, develop immunity to round-up, a fungus equipped with a gene for ethanol successfully managed to kill an entire field of plants by transferring it’s ethanol gene to the plant’s fungus encrusted roots. Frenay’s point is that simple logical hacking is one sided, it doesn’t take into account the actions that result from it’s introduction, hence Frenay advocates a logic of assimilating complexity. As much as Doctors fear over prescribing anti-biotics so viruses don’t evolve resistance to them to fast, so farmers should be wary of introducing GM species as the resulting ecosystem will adapt to overtake them. I can’t remember the name for this, but essentially Mosanto is stuck on categorical logic, our GM plant is unconnected from the resulting system it’s introduced in, Frenay however believes in interdependent systems, to create good is to make bad, to introduce a gene is to create a system that will result in other opposing or complementary genes. For another argument similar to this check out Dave Pollard’s pieceon how the eradication of small pox has allowed for unsustainable population growth. What Frenay is suggesting is that actions can’t be taken only using the perspective of one object, you can’t modify a gene only thinking of the benefits it will have for the plant you’re modifying, you have to consider the results this action will have on the resulting system you’re introducing it too. Better regulation is needed, but Frenay thinks that an understanding of the environment, how natural cycles replenish the land, could lead to self-sustaining farming. Pulse makes GM and organic sound like races being run to feed the world, that’s hardly an exageration, but Frenay’s other points about the destruction of soil ecosystems, and using phermones for insect repellent are also intriguing.

Frenay’s other political arguments are interesting but flawed compared to his organic arguments. He mentions Kenyan activist Njoki Njoroge who complains of the IMF’s over prescription of the same crops in anti-poverty programs that caused a commodities drop meaning farmers who were part of the IMF’s program ended up worse off than they were before, this is true and Ms. Njoroge’s complaint against the IMF is valid, but Frenay seems to be stretching to connect ideas like emergence and biological metaphors to the problems of world trade and the incompetence of many NGOs when it comes to poverty relief.

Similarly, As much as I agree with Herman Daly’s insistence on waste as ineffeicney in economic systems, trying to introduce thermodynamics to economics seems like a long shot. Physicists right now are still trying to unify the micro world of quantum mechanics to the macro world of physics, hence going from sub-atomic particles to just atomic particles is a leap of faith to big for mathematics to conquer, much less going from the entropic informational exchange equations of quantuam mechanics, to atoms, to candy bar wrappers, to the system of grids that power the manufacturing of products, etc. Daly’s project of ecological economics is correct, but it’s problematic because of emergence and complexity. As wikipedia states about nonlinear systems:

Some nonlinear systems are exactly solvable or integrable, while others are known to be chaotic, and thus have no simple or closed form solution. A possible example is that of freak waves. Whilst some nonlinear systems and equations of general interest have been extensively studied, the general theory is poorly understood.

Hence, one of the problems behind going from physics to economics is that the equations describing nonlinear behaviors don’t lead to the casual simple links that Daly wants to claim between the two. While it’s common sensical to assume a link between say the use of energy in a factory and increasing entropy in general, building an actual model that could describe how that all breaks down and then designing a system to take advantage of the feedback and other nonlinear phenomena occurring would be essentially impossible. But of course, that’s going to far. What bothers me more about Daly and Frenay using entropy in their arguments, is that ultimately energy doesn’t care what form it’s in, wether is pollution, nuclear blasts, clubbing seals, energy has little preference for it’s use or ultimate destination. For instance while rubber shred from tires might require energy to be re-used in the economy, from the stand point of entropy it still contains the energy put into it minus the energy lost to make it during manufacturing, if Seth Llyod’s concept of entropy as information holds, then the rubber still contains energy in the organized form of it’s structure and informational make up, untill this dissipates it has yet to become useless except in the economic sense.

Economists, like physicists, struggle to explain the macro and micro in their worlds, ecological economics demands that the macro be considered in every micro calculation, a feat well beyond the limits of most city halls, urban planners, and other ecologically minded folks. Daly has written a text book outlying how to work out common economics tools such as cost benefit equations using ecological economics, but the actual practice of ecological economics has little to do with the farflung world of entropy. I think sticking with uneconomical growth (the compiling of waste and other useless and valueless by products of manufacturing) and long terms costs is a better way of preaching the virtues of ecological economics. I also think that all businesses should have to list their by-products on closed loop exchanges (here is the Iowa Waste exchange) too. Finally, more stringment environmental laws (such as ones that make companies responsible for top soil erosion, water quality, etc.) would ensure that the cost of an item’s environmental impact would be reflected in price. Oh yeah, and while we’re at it water use and emissions markets would also be nice. Ecological economics needs to focus on the energy required to sustian the ecological economy. Physics aside, it’s the depletion of natural resources that matters, long after we exhaust every energy source or die in a fuzz ball of pollution the universe will still be working by entropic principles.

Frenay ends out with another political plea against corruption in the US Government. Again, I agree, but Frenay’s arguements seem bent at times and often lack exacting solutions, but merely prescribe a cultural change of mind-set. Perhaps the problem with Pulse is that Frenay moves to fast between subjects. While the links between new biology and technology are obvious as much as organic farming syncs with it well, he would have to go deep into the philosophical and cultural underpinning between the machine age and biological age to really bring about and show how today political’s spectrum is linked to these changes in ideas. After all, nature is probably as corrupt as any American house member and probably just as clever in harvesting new resources for their own gain.

Entry filed under: books, ecology, media. Tags: .

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. shreerangthergaonkar  |  February 19, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    I was pleasently surprised on account of its parallel theme with my conviction that “the linearized model” approach, cannot be used to understand the intrinsic complexity of the way nature works. i am of the openion that our inclination to look for highly conditioned linearized cause – effect linkages is the basis of our restricted/local views which can be essentially summed-up in two statements (1) food comes from the grocer and (2) heat comes from the furnace.
    This localization is also attributable to our explicit belief that scienc and technology are the only domains for searching solutions.That these are not have been amply exemplified in the chapter “growing problems”.
    Expecting a solution to the environmental crisis by concocting a druidistic broth comprising of the current advances in non-linear systems theory and other creations of the human mind (game theory, measure/game-theoretic economics and ecology, etc) without the added flavours of ethics, proper education, awareness, and effective legislation at all levels of human-environment interface-is impossible. That this is indded so because no amount of non-linear dynamics, etc, can prevent or contain the greed which is a product of extreme insinsitivity of humans towadrs nature and its processes.
    Simple adaptions, as recommendrd by visionaries like M.K. Gandhi, which essentially revolve around the themes “learn to distinguish between your needs and requirements” and “be aware and sensitive to the fact that the food that we eat and in fact the very energy which sustains life is from the furnace consisting of the loop of plants, decomposers and soil and fuelled by the sun”.
    I feel that the sole purpose of religion and religious practices is to keep us constantly aware of and sensitised to this basic loop. This awareness is embodied in what is called “ethical conduct” . Similarly, the sole purpose of legislation is to contain anthropogenic actions which may upset the stability and sustainability of the loop dynamics. Science and technology are natural offshoots of hightened sensitivity to nature and have the potential to (1) grow on account of intrinsic questions and (2) upset the loop dynamics if not contained by considerations of ethics.
    The sloution, therefore ,must mimic the loop stucture. This is the basis for a healthy industrial ecology: processes similar to nature, establishment of the “nurse-log” systems in industrial secnerio, ethical code of conduct and evaluation, and effective legislation.
    Shreerang Thergaonkar

    Reply
  • 2. dignifieddevil  |  February 19, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    this is a great comment. Thanks for the feedback. Have you read any Herman Daly? Or The World With Out Us?

    Anyway, thanks,

    Andrew

    Reply
  • 3. shreerangthergaonkar  |  September 11, 2010 at 8:46 am

    The concept of buying or selling land appears to me as that of buying or selling the sky, the warmth of the sun, the fragrance of the soil after rain….do we own these? If we do not own them how can one buy/sell them? For that matter, do we “own” anything on the earth or are we “owned” by the earth? This subtle non-commutativity is an offshoot of the incorrect sense of “belonging” projected by the “economic man”. Look at the human body and its functioning.
    This is what Alexis Carrel writes in “Man, The Unknown”: “Glands, such as the thyroid, suprarenal (or adrenal), the pancreas, synthesize new compounds-thyroxin, adrenalin and insulin. They are the true chemical transformers. In this way, substances indispensable for the nutrition of cells and organs, and for physiological and mental activities, are produced. Such a phenomenon is as strange as if certain parts of a motor should create the oil used by other parts of the machine, the substances accelerating the combustion of the fuel, and even the thoughts of the engineer. To these glands is due the existence of the body with its manifold activities. Man is, first of all, a nutritive process. He consists of a ceaseless motion of chemical substances. Matter perpetually flows through all the cells of the body, yielding to tissues the energy they need, and also the chemicals which build the temporary and fragile structure of our organs and humours. Functions of the body are much less precisely located than organs. The skeleton, for example is not merely the framework of the body. It also constitutes a part of the circulatory, respiratory and nutritive systems, since, with the aid of the bone marrow, it manufactures leucocytes and red cells. The liver secretes bile, destroys poisons and microbes, stores glycogen and regulates sugar metabolism in the entire organism. In a like manner, the pancreas, the suprarenals and the spleen do not confine themselves to one function. Each possesses multiple activities and takes part in almost all the events of the body. An organ is not limited by its surface. It reaches out as far as the substance it secretes. Each gland extends, by means of its secretions, over the whole organism. An organ builds itself by techniques foreign the the human mind. It is not made of extraneous material, like a house. Neither is it a cellular construction, a mere assemblage of cells. It is, of course composed of cells, as a house is of bricks. But it is born from a cell that would set about manufacturing other bricks. Those bricks, without waiting for the architect’s drawings or the coming of the bricklayers, would assemble themselves and form the walls. They would also metamorphose into window-panes, roofing-slates, coal for heating and water for the kitchen and bathroom. An organ develops by means such as those attributed to fairies in tales told to children. It is engendered by cells which, to all appearances, have knowledge of the future edifice, and synthesize from substances contained in blood plasma the building material and even the workers. When half of the thyroid gland is removed, the remaining half increases in volume. The extirpation of a kidney is followed by the enlargement of the other one. If the secretion of a gland is insufficient, other glands augment their activity to supplement its work. Each element of the body adjusts itself to the others and the others to it through a correlation of the organic fluids and the nervous system. Each part seems to know the present and future needs of the WHOLE, and acts accordingly”.
    This is how all things are connected. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it and the earth does not belong to the man; man belongs to the earth.
    The “economic man,” in contrast, is fit agile, able-bodied, and unencumbered by domestic or other responsibilities. The goods that he consumes appear to him as finished products or services and disappear from his view on disposal or dismissal. He has no responsibility for the life-cycle of those goods or services any more than he questions the source of the air he breathes or the disposal of his excreta…Like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, the economic man appears to exist in a smoothly functioning world, while his real social, biological and ecological condition is out of reach in a desolate attic. He is a machine striving and fighting to own and conquer. In the process he is constantly contaminating his own bed and ultimately suffocates himself in his own waste. Whereas the “aware” also perishes but in the process he shines fired by the strength of the web of which he is a part and by the strength of the processes which brought him to this land. He is constantly striving to add feathers in his cap and trying to prove his worthiness by pulling appropriate ones. He is also consistently demanding certification of his abilities by way of fabricated evidences which in reality has no significance. He, therefore, exemplifies, represents and intensifies those processes which breed un-sustainability.

    Reply
  • 4. shreerangthergaonkar  |  September 11, 2010 at 8:52 am

    The concept of buying or selling land appears to me as that of buying or selling the sky, the warmth of the sun, the fragrance of the soil after rain….do we own these? If we do not own them how can one buy/sell them? For that matter, do we “own” anything on the earth or are we “owned” by the earth? This subtle non-commutativity is an offshoot of the incorrect sense of “belonging” projected by the “economic man”. Look at the human body and its functioning.
    This is what Alexis Carrel writes in “Man, The Unknown”: “Glands, such as the thyroid, suprarenal (or adrenal), the pancreas, synthesize new compounds-thyroxin, adrenalin and insulin. They are the true chemical transformers. In this way, substances indispensable for the nutrition of cells and organs, and for physiological and mental activities, are produced. Such a phenomenon is as strange as if certain parts of a motor should create the oil used by other parts of the machine, the substances accelerating the combustion of the fuel, and even the thoughts of the engineer. To these glands is due the existence of the body with its manifold activities. Man is, first of all, a nutritive process. He consists of a ceaseless motion of chemical substances. Matter perpetually flows through all the cells of the body, yielding to tissues the energy they need, and also the chemicals which build the temporary and fragile structure of our organs and humours. Functions of the body are much less precisely located than organs. The skeleton, for example is not merely the framework of the body. It also constitutes a part of the circulatory, respiratory and nutritive systems, since, with the aid of the bone marrow, it manufactures leucocytes and red cells. The liver secretes bile, destroys poisons and microbes, stores glycogen and regulates sugar metabolism in the entire organism. In a like manner, the pancreas, the suprarenals and the spleen do not confine themselves to one function. Each possesses multiple activities and takes part in almost all the events of the body. An organ is not limited by its surface. It reaches out as far as the substance it secretes. Each gland extends, by means of its secretions, over the whole organism. An organ builds itself by techniques foreign the the human mind. It is not made of extraneous material, like a house. Neither is it a cellular construction, a mere assemblage of cells. It is, of course composed of cells, as a house is of bricks. But it is born from a cell that would set about manufacturing other bricks. Those bricks, without waiting for the architect’s drawings or the coming of the bricklayers, would assemble themselves and form the walls. They would also metamorphose into window-panes, roofing-slates, coal for heating and water for the kitchen and bathroom. An organ develops by means such as those attributed to fairies in tales told to children. It is engendered by cells which, to all appearances, have knowledge of the future edifice, and synthesize from substances contained in blood plasma the building material and even the workers. When half of the thyroid gland is removed, the remaining half increases in volume. The extirpation of a kidney is followed by the enlargement of the other one. If the secretion of a gland is insufficient, other glands augment their activity to supplement its work. Each element of the body adjusts itself to the others and the others to it through a correlation of the organic fluids and the nervous system. Each part seems to know the present and future needs of the WHOLE, and acts accordingly”.
    This is how all things are connected. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it and the earth does not belong to the man; man belongs to the earth.
    The “economic man,” in contrast, is fit agile, able-bodied, and unencumbered by domestic or other responsibilities. The goods that he consumes appear to him as finished products or services and disappear from his view on disposal or dismissal. He has no responsibility for the life-cycle of those goods or services any more than he questions the source of the air he breathes or the disposal of his excreta…Like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, the economic man appears to exist in a smoothly functioning world, while his real social, biological and ecological condition is out of reach in a desolate attic. He is a machine striving and fighting to own and conquer. In the process he is constantly contaminating his own bed and ultimately suffocates himself in his own waste. He is constantly striving to add feathers in his cap and trying to prove his worthiness by pulling appropriate ones. He is also consistently demanding certification of his abilities by way of fabricated evidences which in reality has no significance. He, therefore, exemplifies, represents and intensifies those processes which breed un-sustainability.
    Whereas the “aware” also perishes but in the process he shines fired by the strength of the web of which he is a part and by the strength of the processes which brought him to this land.

    Reply

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