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Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with The Oregonian journalist Scott Learn about the recent research expedition that I participated in to study plastic pollution in the North Pacific Ocean.  Last Thursday, February 7, the interview was published on the front page of the Living section of The Oregonian, under the title, “A voyage through the ‘garbage patch’.”  The online version of the interview can be viewed on the Oregon Live website:

http://www.oregonlive.com/living/index.ssf/2013/02/fishing_for_plastic_in_a_peace.html

Today, The Oregonian followed up with another article on the front page of the Living section, entitled “Plastics at SEA,” highlighting an exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) that my shipmate, Emilee Monson, is curating.  Emilee is giving public demonstrations Fridays and Saturdays, 10am – 5pm, to discuss plastic pollution in the ocean and what we discovered during our expedition.  Visit OMSI to learn more about our research!  You can read about Emilee’s perspective from the expedition in the following interviews:

http://www.omsi.edu/blog/plastics-part-I

http://www.omsi.edu/blog/plastics-part-II

On a related note, the day before I left for the Plastics at SEA expedition, there was another article by Scott Learn in The Oregonian about plastic pollution on Oregon beaches:

http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2012/09/seaside_activist_tracks_waves.html

Although the person interviewed, Marc Ward, was addressing the issue more from the standpoint of an activist rather than a scientist, this article helps to emphasize how this issue is truly global in scale.  Although I cannot say for certain where the trash on Oregon beaches originated, it is highly probably that much of it came from somewhere other than North America.  I personally have encountered quite a lot of plastic trash with Chinese and Japanese writing still intact and legible, and which likely traveled over 8,000 kilometers from its source to arrive at our home beaches.  Ocean currents and atmospheric winds connect us across vast distances and make it impossible to isolate ourselves from pollution created elsewhere.  Likewise, the pollution that we produce here affects humans on other continents and distant ecosystems thousands of kilometers away.  We all live downstream and downwind of somebody.  These problems cannot be resolved without a concerted and coordinated global effort by all major economies.

Last, one person who commented on my interview with The Oregonian pointed out that some research has found that plastics may actually be decomposing in warmer ocean waters, but not in the manner that organic matter would biodegrade.  Instead, some plastics are breaking down into toxins such as BPA and styrene monomers, known endocrine disruptors and carcinogens.  This study is especially alarming because it suggests that not only does plastic pollution in the ocean attract and accumulate existing toxins in the water, it also produces additional toxins that previously were not present, providing a “double hit” of potentially dangerous chemicals to marine wildlife.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/08/090820-plastic-decomposes-oceans-seas.html

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The Power of Duct Tape

My grandmother, Omi, once said, “Duct tape is like the Force:  Light on one side, Dark on the other, and it holds the Universe together.”

I recently received the following chain email:

http://teamstersonline.com/forums/community-lounge/16638-best-duct-tape-story-ever.html

“Best Duct Tape Story Ever!  During a private “fly-in” fishing excursion in the Alaskan wilderness, the chartered pilot and fishermen left a cooler and bait in the plane. And a bear smelled it. This is what he did to the plane.

The pilot used his radio and had another pilot bring him 2 new tires, 3 cases of duct tape, and a supply of sheet plastic. He patched the plane together, and FLEW IT HOME!”

Well, I would vote second best duct tape story ever.  I think Josh, Phil, and I have claim to the best story ever.  At least this guy had a radio and could have hitched a ride home with the other plane if he had to.  We had no stinkin’ radio, no human being for over a hundred miles around, surrounded by grizzly bear and wolf tracks, in the middle of the Brooks Range of the Alaskan Arctic, with our only map being a photo of a map on our camera, and our only form of transportation (other than foot) was a raft.  Unfortunately, the outfitters had supplied us with a broken raft pump with a torn hose.  And the plane that had dropped us off was long gone by the time we realized it.  The ONLY reason we had any tape on us (about a foot of duct tape, altogether) — or any adhesive at all, for that matter, with which to repair the pump hose — is because I had the prescience and foresight to wear a wind breaker with a massive gap in the back into mosquito-infested Alaskan wilderness and had to tape the damn thing shut to keep the mosquitoes out.  Thank you Phil!

In retrospect, I suppose if we didn’t have any duct tape, we could have used some pine tree pitch and moss to patch the hole in the raft pump.  As they say, necessity is the mother of all invention.

Here is Josh’s perspective on the “incident”:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/suffusive/465729219/in/set-72057594103335005/

“See Thom’s left hand on the tube? That duct tape? Yeah, that was a huge gaping hole in the hose.
Luckily for us Thom was an idiot and wore a jacket with a huge “breathable” slit in the back that he had to duct tape to avoid mosquito death immediately prior to departure from Bettles. This worked to our advantage because it was the only duct tape we had and without it we would have been hundreds of miles up the John River without a raft. I have no idea how we forgot to bring duct tape–duh.”

And Phil’s take on the power of duct tape:

“my pleasure (for noticing the duct tape on Thom’s jacket) 😉 . . . . although, i think me taping up a hole in my kayak somewhere in the middle of nowhere southeast alaska might take second place to rebuilding a plane.  my tape was blue . . ..  i was so discouraged, i drank a pint of jack daniels . . . brilliant patch job”

So, what does duct tape have to do with Orizaba Farm?  Well, it could be that I’m two sheets to the wind right now from a bottle of Brent’s amazingly delicious and very hard apple cider, but it seems to me that duct tape and sustainable farming both require adaptability, creativity, persistence, and a little bit of ingenuity to work out right.  And both make use of simple, inexpensive tools and readily available supplies to tie things together just well enough that everything works out and the job ultimately gets done.

If an invention as unassuming and simple as duct tape can salvage a wrecked plane in the middle of the Arctic, or patch a gaping hole in a kayak, or rescue a trio of adventurers rafting through the middle of Nowhere, then it does not seem inconceivable to me that it might be possible to create a viable, self-sustaining farm or a vibrant community garden with little more than some hand tools and seeds.  Indeed, that is what we are on the verge of doing at Orizaba Farm.  Of course, the additional ingredients in this recipe are equally as necessary:  sun, soil, water, and a lot of hard work, persistence, dedication, and adaptation.  And certainly a bit more planning than we employed on our Brooks Range trip.  Without the daily toil, copious quantities of sweat and exhaustion, abundance of blisters and callouses, and occasional (sacrificial) bloodletting, neither farming nor duct tape repairs would ever work out, and it would all go to the bears (figuratively, and in Alaska, literally as well).

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Machines are essentially complex tools that increase the efficiency of a given task, or permit the operator(s) to conduct missions that would otherwise be impossible or prohibitively dangerous due to limitations imposed by nature.  Although many people lament that machines have facilitated many acts of evil in this world, especially through their use in war, and have increased the laziness of humans in industrialized nations leading to an epidemic of preventable diseases, assessing their usefulness and moral value is not a straightforward mental exercise.

Indeed, as other philosophers have argued, the value of a machine is manifested not by virtue of any intrinsic property of the machine itself, but rather as a consequence of the intentions and actions of the human operator wielding the machine.  Thus, a superficially violent and destructive machine such as a naval ship or military aircraft, whose primary functions appear to be to destroy vast swaths of land and to kill numerous human beings, can in fact be utilized to achieve noble and moral ends, such as the safe delivery of humanitarian aid and disaster relief supplies, when under the command of an ethically-minded person pursuing a virtuous mission.

The previous example serves to highlight the complexity of this question regarding the nature of machines and whether they serve as a benefit or detriment to human society.  However, it is possible to outline specific characteristics of machines and the manner in which they are applied that together may determine whether a machine is in fact ultimately beneficial or detrimental to humanity.  We take it as axiomatic that a machine or activity is beneficial to humanity when it preserves or increases the ability of humans to live peacefully; reduces the net suffering of humans by alleviating economic, social, or civil conflicts; provides respectable, stimulating, and valued means of employment for workers; and protects the autonomy (independence and freedom) and creativity of individual human beings.  When evaluating the sustainability of machines and other forms of technology, we are concerned with long-term effects on inter-generational time scales, in accordance with the definition that an activity is sustainable only if it does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their basic needs.

First, in order to be sustainable and beneficial to humanity, a machine may not replace human labor and must be operated using skilled human labor, all the while making the operator more efficient at his or her work.  Many economists believe that one of the factors that contributed to the rise in unemployment and stagnation in real wages for American workers in the late 20th century was the replacement of skilled labor with complex machinery and computers.  Although the use of machines in this situation produced record profits for industry, this result was achieved in part as a consequence of reduced costs due to a decrease in wages for workers.  In this case, machines were demonstrably harmful to average Americans, whose jobs were outsourced to automatons and inanimate objects that did not require salaries, benefits, or a retirement package.

In contrast, many other machines have served to make the operators more efficient without eliminating the need for skilled human labor.  This goal has been achieved simply by replacing backbreaking or dangerous labor with a more efficient means of achieving the same ends, or by conducting jobs that used to be carried out by animals, while maintaining the autonomy of the worker.  For example, the production of two of the most fundamentally important classes of goods – agricultural and forest products – has been made infinitely more efficient without any noticeable cost to human labor or employment through the wise application of small machines, employed in tandem with skilled operators.  In agriculture, tractors and rototillers have effectively replaced draft animals, such as horses and oxen, or brute human labor as a means to till soil and prepare gardens or farms for planting.  Likewise, in forestry, chainsaws have replaced the incredibly labor intensive practice of felling and bucking wood with an axe and a crosscut saw.  Although humans are still required to operate the machinery, they are spared from many hours of exhausting drudgery and are able to refocus the resulting spare time on intellectual pursuits, such as better forest management, careful garden planning, or improved marketing for farm products.

The size of the machine and the scale of its application are crucial factors to consider when evaluating its long term impact upon humanity.  Small operations can take advantage of small machines to increase workers’ efficiency and permit workers to refocus their energy on other critical tasks, without actually replacing human labor.  However, as the size of the machine and the scale of the operation increase, one quickly reaches a point of diminishing marginal returns, followed eventually by negative returns, with respect to the impact upon human labor.  It is clearly possible to scale machines up in size to a point where they begin to negatively impact human labor by replacing workers and eliminating their autonomy, as has occurred in much of industrialized agriculture with the advent of mega-tractors, combines, and assembly lines on factory farms.  Thus, machines must be utilized at a small size and human scale that is very close to the scale of traditional, non-mechanized operations, prior to the advent of efficiency-increasing machinations.

A second characteristic that must be met in order for machines to be sustainable and beneficial to humanity is that they must not create an absolute dependence upon non-renewable resources.  This characteristic acknowledges the reality that most machines are powered by cheap energy supplied through fossil fuels, a non-renewable resource. The supplies, and therefore the prices, of fossil fuels are fickle and prone to dramatic fluctuations, due both to the vagaries of the global market and geopolitical circumstances.  Eventually, these supplies will begin to run dry.  At their peak of production, supply rates will stagnate and begin an irreversible decline, causing demand for fossil fuels to permanently and drastically exceed supply rates, precipitating a potentially rapid increase in the market prices of fossil fuels.  An absolute economic dependence upon machines powered by fossil fuels and constructed from petroleum distillates (e.g., plastics) may cripple any industrialized economy once the era of cheap and abundant fossil fuels ends.

If humanity were to construct an economic system in which all labor were performed by machines powered by oil, and people became so accustomed to this system that they neglected all other means of production, abandoning their knowledge of traditional economies, then this system would become analogous to an addiction to oil, impairing our long-term health while serving an immediate need that is more imagined or contrived than real.  Once oil global supplies withered and energy prices escalated, the economic consequences of a dependence on this oil-based economic system would be devastating to all of humanity, as we would have long forgotten how to feed, shelter, and clothe ourselves without a cheap source of energy.  In order to avoid such an economic disaster, the machines that we utilize to increase efficiency must either be operated through human or animal labor or, in a pinch, be replaceable by human and animal labor to fulfill our production needs.  Only then can we be assured that, in the face of a finite oil supply, we will continue to be able to fulfill our basic needs.

To return to the previous example, any competent farmer or gardener in good health could, without much trouble, abandon their tractor or rototiller once oil prices become prohibitive, pick up a hoe or hitch a draft animal to a yoke, and resume the traditional means of plowing the soil and cultivating the earth for food.  Likewise, any logger worth his salt could, without reluctance or hesitation, resume the centuries old practice of felling trees with an axe and cutting lumber and firewood with a crosscut saw.  Although these pursuits, in the absence of machines and a cheap source of fossil fuel energy, require much more time and physical labor, they are still possible and critically necessary.  One can take reassurance in the fact that an economy based on such ultimately unnecessary machines is an economy that may be able to survive and thrive in a post-fossil fuel era.

Finally, to serve for the good of humanity over the long term, machines must permit — or better yet, empower — people to freely exercise their creativity, rather than replacing, hindering, or suppressing this creative drive that is distinctly and naturally human.  Our infinite fountain of human creativity is at most wholly unique to our species and at least highly distinguished among the animal kingdom in its complexity, its spiritually inspired chaos with unpredictable patterns and unquantifiable properties.  Perhaps other species can also utter beautiful songs with nuance, concordance, and subtle intonation, or exhibit graceful dances, majestic courtship displays, and athletic prowess.  But no other species approaches the plane of creative complexity encapsulated within Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, or expressed by a Baryshnikov performance.  As with so many other pursuits, humans have taken art, music, and dance to a level unprecedented in the long history of animal life, a grand testament to our vast reservoirs of unbridled creativity.  To supplant or stifle such high forms of human expression with mathematical computer algorithms and mechanized caricatures of art and literature, would be tantamount to cultural genocide.  As useful as machines may be for increasing the efficiency of work or for performing otherwise impossible or exceedingly dangerous tasks, they should never fully replace and can never improve upon that aspect of humanity which transcends metrics of efficiency and defies the limits of possibility:  human creativity.

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