Sunday, June 22, 2014

Summer is Coming

" Studies such as these help us gaze into the uncertain future and ask if that is what we want for our children. Most of us don’t. A few of us actually try to do something to change it. For the rest, the lag time is comforting. The complexity of non-linear feedback systems gives us an excuse to procrastinate."

Why are zombies so ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture? The HBO mini-series, Game of Thrones, supplies one theory. Unlike in the AMC series, Walking Dead, or in the film, World War Z, the undead are not coming on like a Blitzkrieg hoard. Rather, the White Walkers are building slowly, as a rumor, sometimes killing the messenger and leaving the message undelivered. “Winter is coming” is an expression that hangs in the air, deepening the sense of foreboding.

One reviewer (for The New York Times) observed that “bringing in the White Walkers might be a way to ultimately point up the pettiness of politics — which is to say, no one cares who sits on what throne once zombies start eating people.” Thrones’ first four seasons of “people slicing, stabbing, axing, poisoning, eating, crushing and moon-dooring one another in every possible context,” underscore the point — that the pettiness of politics still rules the day. 

Game of Thrones resonates because outside the window is the drama of NATO expansion bumping up against retired Red Army vets in the Ukraine, the unmasking of shadow banks in the U.K. by the Financial Times and shadowing governments by Edward Snowden, or the sniper battle on the U.S. Republican right that is so entertaining to MSNBC and CNN. It is all much ado about nothing. Just North of our popular culture Wall is a climate juggernaut, building momentum.

Last month John P. Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, released the Third National Climate Assessment (NCA3). If you missed the news, it was because the report was all about the White Walkers no one wants to talk about.

By the end of this century, a 2.75°C to 5.5°C global temperature rise is projected, based on continued higher emissions — fracking, coal, deep ocean and other sources being exploited to the maximum (referred to as the “A2 scenario”) — and a roughly 1.7°F to 2.8°C rise under a cutback scenario (“B1”) — best understood as a Peak Oil/Financial Collapse scenario, because governments would never agree to such drastic measures — 80% in a decade or so —  if further stalling were an option. The NCA3 projections are based on results from 16 supercomputer climate models in a comparison study.

Both scenarios — business as usual and drastic curtailment — produce a temperature and climate regime that would likely be lethal for modern civilization, if not the human race. In the Cancun round of the Committee of Parties in 2010, United Nations high level negotiators produced a general agreement — over the opposition of the USA, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Israel and other obstructionists — that "recognizing that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet,” 2°C was the “line in the sand” beyond which global temperatures should not be allowed to climb. In the latest three rounds— Durban, Doha and Warsaw — there has been a strong push from the science and civil sectors to reduce the target to 1.5°C to avert potentially unmanageable risks of tipping points from which no recovery would be possible. Since Warsaw last December some of these points — the inexorable slippage of ice in Antarctica and the release of methane from permafrost to name two — have tipped. 

The NCA3 study is saying, essentially, we are in dangerous territory whether we stop emissions tomorrow or not. Summer temperatures in the U.S. have been rising on average 0.4 degrees F per decade since 1970, or about 0.2 C. Average summertime temperature increase has been 1°C overall, but the Southwest and West regions have borne the brunt of those increases, and temperatures have risen an average of 0.4°C, with a few localized areas warming as much as 0.6°C per decade. This is 5 times faster than the Earth as a whole warmed in the 20th century. North America, which lags other parts of the planet, is now in an exponential curve of accelerating change.

After release of the study, John Holdren told Yale 360:  
“There are a number of findings in this report that sound an alarm bell signaling the need for action to combat the threats from climate change. For instance, the amount of rain coming down in heavy downpours and deluges across the U.S. is increasing; there’s an increase that’s already occurring in heat waves across the middle of the U.S.; and there are serious observed impacts of sea-level rise occurring in low-lying cities such as Miami, where, during high tides, certain parts of the city flood and seawater seeps up through storm drains. These are phenomena that are already having direct adverse impacts on human well-being in different parts of this country.”

Studies such as these help us gaze into the uncertain future and ask if it is really what we want for our children. Most of us don’t. A few of us actually try to do something to change it. For the rest, the lag time is comforting. The complexity of non-linear feedback systems gives us an excuse to procrastinate.

Nelson Lebo, writing for Wanganui (NZ) Chronicle, says:
On a very large scale, most climate scientists say that much of the excess heat energy that the Earth is currently absorbing is going into the world’s oceans. They refer to oceans as “heat sinks.” The major concern with this situation is that the ‘sinks’ will become ‘sources’ in the future. In other words, the chickens (massive amounts of heat energy) will come home to roost (wreak havoc on us with extreme weather events).
While this energy is being stored in the oceans everything appears to us to be OK. It is a lot like running up a large debt. … This is the same strategy that U.S. President Bush (the second) used with the Iraq War. He did not tax Americans to pay for the war, but put it on the national credit card. There were few complaints at the time, but now after a trillion dollars we hear complaints about the “unsustainable levels of federal debt” in America.
Similarly, climate scientists continue to warn of “unsustainable levels of carbon debt,” but I suspect more and more people will echo them in the future, especially because another and perhaps more ominous delay is also built into the climate system.
Once fossil fuels are burned the carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for decades causing more and more warming. Many scientists say that even if we stopped burning all coal, oil and gas today that we would continue to experience the effects for the better part of most Wanganui Chronicle readers’ lifetimes.
Earlier this week investment guru CharlesHugh Smith told his readers: 
In my opinion, markets reflect a dynamic somewhat akin to the Heisenburg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, which holds that precision is fundamentally limited by Nature: the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. In an analogous fashion, the more precisely we can determine the likelihood of a trend change, the less precisely we can determine the timing of the trend change–and vice versa. 
Which takes us back to what we posted previously with respect to Dennis Meadow’s chart of non-linear responses. Like a coastal landscape shaped by extreme storm events, the Anthropocene arrives in leaps and droughts. We can tell the direction of the trend.  The timing is anyone’s guess.

And the White Walkers are just beyond the wall.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Empire on Empty

"If the US can cut the flow of Russian gas through Ukraine - letting Ukraine siphon off Europe’s supply would suffice - then the price will float to a point LNG transatlantic imports make sense."

The West Point Interview, Annotated

NPR's Steve Inskeep interviewed President Obama when he was at West Point to deliver the commencement address last month. That address and the one he gave at UC Irvine yesterday point up the contradictions that anyone can easily see in the man, his policies, and the state of the American Empire as it peers over the precipice of petrocollapse.

STEVE INSKEEP: As you look at the moment of history that you occupy, do you think you can put into a sentence what you are trying to accomplish in the world?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I'm not sure I can do it in a sentence because we're fortunate in many ways. We don't face an existential crisis.

NOTE: Except for the impending extinction of life on Earth due to profligate resource usurpation by a single species, something that might have been averted if COP-19 in Copenhagen had not been torpedoed. That was arguably the most historic moment of the Obama presidency.

We don't face a civil war.

NOTE: Except for the imminent succession of Vermont. Oh, and maybe an uprising by the 99% unless Tim Geithner can come up with more bread and circuses. 

We don't face a Soviet Union that is trying to rally a bloc of countries and that could threaten our way of life.

NOTE: Except for Russian subs roving the Arctic with enough firepower to destroy every city in the US larger than Charlotte, North Carolina in less than 5 minutes, and at least two other countries working towards the same capabilities. 

Instead, what we have is, as I say in the speech, this moment in which we are incredibly fortunate to have a strong economy that is getting stronger, no military peer that threatens us, no nation-state that anytime soon intends to go to war with us. But we have a world order that is changing very rapidly and that can generate diffuse threats, all of which we have to deal with.

And I think that the most important point of the speech today for me is how we define American leadership in part is through our military might, but only in part, that American leadership in the 21st century is going to involve our capacity to build international institutions, coalitions that can act effectively, and the promotion of norms, rules, laws, ideals and values that create greater prosperity and peace, not just in our own borders, but outside as well.

NOTE: And drones.

Is your sentence then pursuing U.S. interests abroad without going to war?

Well, there are going to be times where we might have to go to war. And that's why I think it's very important for us not to get into these simplistic ways of thinking about it, [that] either we pull back entirely and we're isolationist, or alternatively, every problem around the world is ours to manage. Rather, you know, what we have to do is clearly define where is it in our national interests to use military force, sometimes unilaterally. And typically when we have direct interests, core interests, our safety, our security, our livelihoods, the protection of our allies, you know, international opinion matters, but we may have to act on our own.

When it comes to the kinds of issues, though, that dominate the headlines — a conflict in Syria, a Russian incursion into Ukraine, the kidnapping of 200 young girls in Nigeria — in those circumstances, we are going to be most effective when we use a wide range of tools — diplomacy, sanctions, appeals to international law.

NOTE: Legal, or at least legitimized, actions are our first recourse when there is no oil involved. If we are talking about oil, that is another matter.

In some cases, a judicious use of military force may make sense.

What should leaders like Syria's Bashar Assad or Russia's Vladimir Putin take away from this speech, in which you did speak passionately about not going to war unnecessarily and said you were haunted by the deaths of American soldiers?

Well, I think they can take away from it that they have to be on guard when they act outside of international norms, that we are going to push aggressively against them.

NOTE: Such as by setting up a CIA station under the guise of an embassy in Bengazi whose principal mission was to move arms to the Syrian contras and otherwise destabilize the government of Syria, a UN member country with an elected government. It is unfortunate, for the State Department, that the Bengazi Embassy got caught in a crossfire, but so far the White House is handling the cover-up quite well. Of course, with this crop of Republicans and Tea Party Mad Hatters, that is not difficult. Even Hillary could do it.

We're not always going to push using military actions initially. There may be circumstances in which we mobilize in the international community to take international action. But as I spoke about, when you look at events in Ukraine over the last two months, there is no doubt that our ability to mobilize international opinion rapidly has changed the balance and the equation in Ukraine. I just spoke yesterday to the newly elected president of Ukraine.

NOTE: This would be
Petro Poroshenko, our man in Kief, who was elected to succeed Ihor Kolomoyski, who was appointed by Yulia Timoshenko, whose ally (Arseni Yatsenyuk) was chosen by US regional station chief, Victoria Nuland, wife of Robert Kagan, Council on Foreign Relations member, and co-founder of the think-tank Project for the New American Century (of Iraq War fame) to lead the post-coup government.  Victoria Nuland is the former principal deputy foreign policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and later U.S. ambassador to NATO. The cost of her little coup in Kief was $5 billion US taxpayer dollars.

Mr. Putin has just announced that he is moving his troops back from the borders of Ukraine. And that's an application of American leadership that is sustainable, consistent and is most likely to produce the kinds of results we want.

NOTE: Moving the Red Army two steps back is not enough. The Project for a New American Century calls for expanding NATO into an encirclement of Russia. Ukraine is just the latest domino to fall. The February 22nd coup was engineered in Washington with assistance from rabidly anti-Russian Polish officials, and with the additional assistance of some fundamentalist far-Right Israeli-Ukrainians who were willing to work with Ukrainian neo-Nazis to get this done.

It's interesting about Ukraine, though, Mr. President, because a lot of analysts have looked at that situation and said this is an area where Putin may have had a weak hand, but he gained. He gained Crimea. He asserted his influence over Ukraine. You speak of Ukraine, though, as a success. Do you feel that you've been successful in achieving your aims?

You know, I think it's a mistake to think that somehow Mr. Putin reflected strength in this situation. Ukraine is not just next door to Russia. Ukraine, in the minds of most Russians, has been a central part of Russia for decades, for centuries. And from Mr. Putin's perspective, he was operating from a position of weakness. He felt as if he was being further and further surrounded by NATO members, folks who are looking west economically, from a security perspective. And even in Ukraine, the crown jewel of the former Soviet system, outside of Russia, an oligarchy that was corrupt was rejected by people on the streets. And so what you saw was a scrambling, a reaction to people in the Ukraine saying, we want a different way of life.

NOTE: And a Ukrainian Disneyworld would be nice, also.

The fact that Crimea, which historically is dominated by native Russians and Russian speakers, was annexed illegally does not in any way negate the fact that the way of life, the systems of economic organization, the notions of rule of law, those values that we hold dear, are ascendant, and you know, the other side is going to be on the defense.

NOTE: They can decide their own futures, as long as that does not include democratically organized elections or referenda, such as the decision by an overwhelming majority — 96% of voters — in Crimea to rejoin Russia.

That doesn't mean that we think that Ukraine shouldn't have a good relationship with Russia. We think it should. And I have said directly to Mr. Putin we want, ultimately, Ukrainians to make a decision about their own futures, and that, I assume, will include strong relations with Russia as well as with Europe.

NOTE: Congressional chickenhawks, Fox and CNN want the US to become re-ensnared in Iraq now that ISIL/ISIS — jihadist zombies trained and equiped by the US to infect Syria — was drawn by the scent of blood to neighboring Iraq where it broke down the mall doors to get at the trillion-dollar Black Friday sale of abandoned military equipment and plush military bases, not to mention a bank job in Mosul that netted something north of $700 million.

The Obama Administration was quick to rule out re-insertion of Marines into Iraq, however. Strategic interests have now changed — Obama is being advised that the US will soon become the Saudi Arabia of natural gas (a Snake Oil  ruse if ever there was one) and the US strategic challenge will be to find foreign markets for all that gas. LNG transport makes gas very expensive (as would environmental controls on fracking). Only Europe can afford those kinds of prices, and they won’t as long as Russia can undercut the price with its Siberian gas. Déjà vu: the Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad plan that began World War I with British tank divisions taking Basra. If the US can cut the flow of Russian gas through Ukraine — letting Ukraine siphon off Europe’s supply would suffice — then the price will float to a point LNG transatlantic imports make sense.

You're going to make Russia give Crimea back. Do you have the ability or the leverage to do that? Well, you know, I think we're going to have to see how it plays itself out. I'm going to see Mr. Poroshenko, the newly elected president of Crimea — or newly elected president of Ukraine, next week, and I'm sure that'll be a topic of discussion.

NOTE: Petro Poroshenko, an Ukrainian billionaire businessman, is the fifth and current President of Ukraine.  From 2007 until 2012, he headed the Council of Ukraine's National Bank. Poroshenko owns, among a number of companies, a large confectionery business, which has earned him the nickname Chocolate King. Crimean State Council chair Vladimir Konstantinov is leading the Republic of Crimea until his parliament can choose a Prime Minister under the Crimean Constitution, which was approved by a parliamentary vote of 100 to 88 on April 11.

Let me ask about Syria, Mr. President… What, if anything, is different about the situation in Syria, as opposed to a couple of years ago, when some of your advisers wanted larger-scale training of the rebels, and I believe you declined.

Well, I think that's not an accurate portrayal of either what we have done or what the debate's been about…. Ultimately, I did not think then and I still do not believe that American military actions can resolve what is increasingly a sectarian civil war, and I also believe that, ultimately, the only way you're going to get a resolution that works for the Syrian people and the region is going to — is going to require some sort of political accommodation between the various groups there.

But what we can do is to work with the neighbors in the region — Jordan, Turkey, the Gulf states, Lebanon — to deal with the refugee flows that are coming out of Syria, to deal with the humanitarian crisis that exists there and to build on the framework, the progress that we have made over the last couple of years. We've seen some success in the Syrian opposition gaining more capacity, gaining more training, gaining more effectiveness; and building on some of that success, it is conceivable that in combination with the other work that is done on the diplomatic front, that we're able to tip what happens in Syria so that it's more likely that we can arrive at a political resolution.

Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan

Are conditions better now, then, for a more robust aiding of the rebels and training of the rebels than in the past?

Well, I wouldn't say the conditions are better. I think, in many ways, the conditions are worse. But the capacity of some of the opposition is better than it was before, which is understandable.

Think — think about who this opposition is. The moderate opposition, as opposed to the jihadists that have seen the chaos there as an opportunity to gain a foothold, those are hardened fighters. When you talk about the moderate opposition, many of these people were farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters who didn't have a lot of experience fighting. What they understood was, is, that they had a government that was killing its own people and violating human rights in, in the most profound way, and they wanted to do something about it.

But creating a capacity for them to hold ground, to be able to rebuff vicious attacks, for them to be able to also organize themselves in ways that are cohesive — all that takes, unfortunately, more time than I think many people would like.

You've made some statements recently, Mr. President, that it seems you've been trying to put yourself in a historical context, if you can. You've talked about hitting singles and doubles on foreign policy. You talked about handing a baton from one president or one person in history to another. I wonder if you're at a point in your second term where even though there is well over two years to go, that you have to think about narrowing possibilities and a more limited list of things that you can realistically accomplish in the time you have left.

Well, I think that's always been the case. That was the case the first day in the Oval Office. You know, you don't walk into the presidency and completely remake the world and ignore history and ignore the problems that are already sitting there in the inbox. So you have to make choices about what's important and what's not.

It's interesting, though, you know, the comment I made about singles and doubles I think is — is only a partial quote. What I said was that when it comes to foreign policy, that oftentimes the United States has made mistakes not by showing too much restraint but by underestimating how challenging the environment is out there, not thinking through consequences, that there is a lot of blocking and tackling to foreign policy, to change sports metaphors, or, if you want to stick to baseball, that a lot of what you want to do is to advance the ball on human rights, advance the ball on national security, advance the ball on energy independence, to put the ball in play.

And every once in a while, a pitch is going to come right over home plate that you can knock out for a home run. But you don't swing at every pitch. And we have opportunities right now, for example, and I talked about today, to advance an Iranian agreement on their nuclear program that could be historic. We may not get it, but there's a chance that it could still happen. I have not yet given up on the possibility that both Israelis and Palestinians can see their self-interest in a peace deal that would provide Israel security that's recognized by its neighbors and make sure that Palestinians have a state of their own.
So there are going to continue to be opportunities that come up. And what we want to do is make sure we're in a position to seize those opportunities when they arise. But in the meantime, the work that we do to help countries in North Africa secure their borders and root out terrorism…

NOTE: With drone attacks on wedding parties and funerals, for instance. Unseen terror from above.

… you know, that stuff's not sexy. It's not going to be on the front page of the newspapers. But in many ways, that's what's going to ultimately be most effective; that's going to be what's going to most determine whether or not the United States retains its primacy and its leadership on the world stage in the 21st century.

NOTE: The way Star Wars was popular in the 20th Century. Drone Wars. A Galactic Empire. Darth Vader.

Mr. President, thanks very much.

I enjoyed it. Thank you.

NOTE: The President advised the students at UC Irvine yesterday: “You need to invest in what helps, and divest from what harms.” That was good advice.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Gathering of Silverbacks: Age of Limits 2014

"Whenever such large shifts in temperature occurred in Earth’s history, they were not gradual but came in lurches. Resilience is the capacity of a system to continue providing essential functions after receiving that kind of shock."

The first known use of the Infinite Improbability Drive was initiated by Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillian on the starship Heart of Gold. Its major consequence was rescuing Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect from open space, at the probability of two to the power of 276,709 to one against. Other events that occurred, including those that occurred at a time of abnormality, include:
  • Lots of paper hats and party balloons appeared from a hole in the universe and drifted off in space.
  • A team of seven three-foot-high market analysts came from the hole and died from a combination of asphyxiation and surprise.
  • 239,000 lightly fried eggs fell out of the hole and onto the famine struck land of Poghril in the Pansel system. This caused the one surviving man of the Poghril tribe to die from cholesterol poisoning some weeks later.
  • Arthur and Ford appeared to be at the sea front at South End, and were passed by a man with five heads and the elderberry bush full of kippers.
Gail Tverberg fields questions from Orlov and Greer
Improbability is something we just have to come to better grips with. When we were young, we learned from those around us, hairless baboons like ourselves who had been here longer, in some cases much longer, that they were once young like us and that now they had grown up and gone on to be something like what we would eventually become. We learned that is how the world works. As we studied history and listened to the tales we were told, we constructed patterns to explain the world in terms of linear progressions. History marches. Spot the trend and follow the chart. Skate to where the puck will be.

Now, arriving at this new century we have to throw out that rule book. We are in the realm of highly improbable events that almost daily transform our world. The world our children and grandchildren will inhabit, and the rules they must learn to live by, or even invent, will be very different than those of our grandparents and their grandparents. For these momentous changes, one needs to seek some kind of guidance, and it can be difficult to find.

Orren Whiddon
Somewhere up a wooded ridgeline following a dirt road in the Appalachians on the Pennsylvania/Maryland/Kentucky border, by a hillside where a strong river cuts a deep gorge through limestone cliffs, you’ll find Orren Whiddon building ceremonial circles out of huge monoliths. Orren was raised in a Texas farm family, became a  machinist, and now, 57 with a greying beard, has been methodically putting together a small colony of would-be Anthropocene survivors and assembling a village-scale doomstead.

He wears torn bluejeans held by leather suspenders over a striped shirt recently stained with grease and spattered with sawdust from the machine shop where he spends his time on custom work when not roaming the land or sitting at a computer browsing RSS feeds of world news. Half-read books pile up on his desk, amidst stacks of scientific paper reprints, mail and notepads. Four Quarters InterFaith Sanctuary is a retreat for native and non-native worshipers, a place of sweat lodges and Beltaine fire circles, home to a large annual music festival, and one other event of note — this annual Age of Limits conference.

Of course, most USAnians don’t believe in limits, so this small conference is sparsely attended. The demographic seems to be white middle class, generally 35-60, two-thirds male, half of that bearded. There is a large Midwestern component — to glance around, it could be an Amway seminar.

“There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits to the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder," said Ronald Reagan in one State of the Union address. Those assembled here would beg to differ. Orren has put together a roster of speakers — Dennis Meadows, Dmitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, Gail Tverberg, Mark Cochrane and others — who have been sussing out the challenges of climate change and peak everything and are preparing to field tough questions.

John Michael Greer
“When people insist, as so many of them do, that of course we’ll overcome the limits to growth and every other obstacle to our allegedly preordained destiny out there among the stars, all that means is that they have a single story wedged into their imagination so tightly that mere reality can’t shake it loose.” — John Michael Greer

Orren keeps talking about how hard dirt farming is, at the same time being skeptical of permaculture. As we go about preparing our talk we mull this paradox. Our view of the future is similar (and we are speaking personally here) to Professor Guy McPherson’s (a speaker at AoL 2013) — it is too late already for sustainability, whatever that word means — but our passing into the troubled future can be eased, just a bit, by whatever ecological restoration works we can accomplish and the redesign of human ecologies to sustain us within that remnant. We need not choose to live in ecovillages because we have moral responsibilities (Tolstoyan, Gandhian, Sarvodaya or Ananda Marga communities for example), although we do. We don’t choose because we are in the vanguard of a Great Turning, although we may be. We choose because these places, and the companionship they offer, are simply more fun!

Dmitry Orlov
This will form the core of our own two-hour talk — ecovillages as part of a shift from a K-type sere to an R-type sere such as John Michael Greer talks about in The Ecotechnic Future. By joining the next stage of succession early — moving from woody stemmed, overconsumptive, rapid growth pioneer species to more resilient, community-based, elegantly efficient, slow production varietals — we have homeostasis on our side.

In the green room (a.k.a the Loft at Four Quarters InterFaith Sanctuary), the night before his scheduled talk, a small group of us circled Dennis Meadows, the oldest of our group of silverback gorillas — as Orren is fond of calling us — and inquired about his lifelong apostate experience.

The findings of the famous 1972 study. Limits to Growth, and those that followed* concluded that the world can only sustain a limited human population and that at some point the planet’s ecological limit will be reached and then exceeded. These conclusions — arrived at by collaboration of some of the world’s best scientists — are still unpopular and largely ignored, if not ridiculed. 

Aurelio Peccei
For anyone unfamiliar with Limits to Growth, let us backtrack and mention the salient points of its history. The story really began with the remarkable insight of Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrialist who had joined the anti-fascist underground during the World War II and in 1944 had been arrested, imprisoned, tortured and almost executed. After the war he accepted a work assignment to South America that developed into a lifetime passion for long-range thinking that he applied to governments and private charities to tackle the problems of development. Peccei urged upon would-be movers and shakers a global perspective, for the long term, with a harder look at the cluster of intertwined problems he called "the problematique." At a meeting at Peccei’s home in April of 1968, the Club of Rome was birthed.

At around the same time, Jay Forrester, a computing pioneer, was working with John Collins, who had just retired from being mayor of Boston, on a book, Urban Dynamics, that appeared in 1969. The book dealt with population dynamics using advancements in computer processing power to model migrations. Forrester attended a Club of Rome meeting in Berne, Switzerland in 1970 and offered them his method. On the flight back to Boston, he created a very simple global model that he called “World-1.”

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Dennis Meadows assembled a team of 17 to take that preliminary model and elaborate it into a scientifically substantive and respectable tool for thinking about the future. They took two years to produce the first Limits study for the Club and a model called World-3. Immediately economists, scientists and political figures criticized the methodology, the computer, the conclusions and the people behind the project. Even many who agreed that growth could not continue indefinitely argued that a natural end to growth was preferable to intervention, or that, driven by classical economic theory, technology would solve all problems.


The other silverbacks asked: after his work was derided by the chattering media, and then by otherwise serious scientists, economists, politicians and world leaders, how had it affected Meadows?  The professor looked down at his chest and gave the question thought for a moment. Then this conversation ensued:

Dennis Meadows: One of the truisms of life is you should play the cards you are dealt, and not wishing you had another deck.

Gail Tverberg: We are not dealing with a closed system. We are getting energy from the sun all the time. Nature abhors a vacuum and nature also abhors energy that has not been dissipated. And one of those things that dissipates energy extremely well is civilization. So its not as though you said it wrong. It is as though you are trying to fight a hurricane.

Meadows: Well, there are some physical phenomena that people understand. Gravity, for instance. People have a visual, intuitive understanding of what happens when you drop something. And if you want to catch it (makes motion of dropping from one hand, catching with the other) what you have to do, and so on. Or, when you are driving a car, you have some sense about momentum. But entropy, which is what you are talking about, is sufficiently abstract that most people do not grasp….

Tverberg: But this is not just closed system entropy. This is a dissipative system. This is dealing with the world as it really is, with the sun coming in and energy going back out again. 

Mark Cochrane
Dr. Mark Cochrane: But what you are saying in terms of fossil fuels, what we are expending in terms of energy is only 1/20 of what comes from the sun every day. So we are not dissipating — we are actually accumulating.

John Michael Greer: Well, the reference to dissipative systems, as recently applied to civilizations, I mean, come on. A hurricane is a dissipative system, but it has properties like tending to maintain itself, and behaving according to its own internal dynamics, and there is not much you can do to it to disrupt that process until it runs through to its conclusion. In the same way, if I am understanding you correctly, you say a civilization is like a slow hurricane.

Tverberg: Yes.

Greer: And once it gets started, it is going to go through a certain swath of destruction until it finally peters out. There has actually been quite a lot of work along the same lines with regard to civilizations. I refer you to the work of Arnold Toynbee. I refer you to the work of Oswald Spengler. They are in fact arguing that civilizations have a predictable life cycle, as a hurricane does.

Meadows: The big point here is that these are issues that are never going to be subject to black and white proof, and which are extremely difficult, maybe even impossible, for many people to understand, never mind incorporate into a new pattern of behavior. So, that’s the world we live in. We have our perceptions, which, it seems to me, are more or less correct. And then comes the question, so what do we do about it?

Greer: I have been arguing since some time in the 1980s that we passed the point where we can make corrections. So, barring neat science fiction ideas and ad hoc arguments, where are we headed?

Dennis Meadows
Meadows: Or to put it more concretely, given that I am giving a speech tomorrow to a group of people that generally share our views, what is some useful information to convey to them? I personally have been looking forward to this opportunity because for the first time, literally the very first time, after 42 years and thousands of speeches, I don’t have to make the case that there are limits and we are past them. This crew accepts that, and they want to know what to do about it.

I think the people who are going to be there tomorrow hear about the future but a principal amount of them are wondering what they should be doing. I think Orren captured it well when he said, I used to be doing this for my grandchildren, and then I started doing it for my children and now I am doing it for the younger members of the population of the farm, but two years from now I may be looking out for myself. That is, as a principal motivation.

This place, or places like it, succeed. They are useful models and also they provide some stability and resilience to the larger system. Nonetheless, the principal motivation is, what should I do with my money?

Greer: I think you will find it is more diverse than that. There are people who are worried — oh my god how am I going to put food on the table? And there are people with a wider range of motivations. There are positions outside save myself and save the world. There are a few people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do something. There are lots of things we can do apart from personal survival to mitigate the worst. Rather than sit around and chat away merrily that we will all be dead by 2030 or surely fusion reactors will come along…

Cochrane: Thorium…

Greer: Thorium reactors! Unicorn farts. There is a herd of unicorns galloping here from Alpha Century and we will get though just as soon as we figure out how to extract twinkle dust from their flatulence and that will give us enough to power the solar system. I promise you that is about as rational as thorium reactors.

Dennis Meadows

The next morning, in the large outdoor pavilion at Four Quarters, Meadows perched on a stool and began by reiterating that he was grateful to be singing to the choir, for a change, but not at all sure where it might go. He began with a recollection of an overland trek that he and his wife, Donnella, had made from London to Sri Lanka and back in 1969-1970.

“And I still remember the amazement with which I came to know that at a certain point in the Central Valley in Afghanistan, I was standing on a piece of ground where at least 50 major civilizations had prevailed … had come and said, ‘Okay, this is it, we’re the best, we’re the last, don’t worry about what comes next because this is it,’ and then they all disappeared. That was very interesting to me.”

In 1972, the team of scientists he assembled for the original Limits to Growth study concluded::

  • If present policies are sustained, the limits to physical growth on this planet will be reached within the next 100 years.
  • The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.
  • It is possible to alter these policies and establish a condition of ecological and economic stability.
  • The sooner we start working to attain that condition, the greater is our chance of success and the more attractive will be the options available to us.

This is old news. Meadows queried the audience. “What do we do now? Here we are. We see what’s coming. What do we do? How much time do we have? What are the likely outcomes of our actions?”

Meadows asked everyone to put down their pen and paper and cross their arms. “Look down and see which wrist is on top.” He then had them unfold, and repeat the movement.

“How many of you had the same wrist on top both times?” Most.

“Everyone who had your left wrist up both times, raise your hand.”

“Everyone who had your right wrist up both times raise your hand.”

 About half and half.

“That’s normal. Crossing your arms is a habit. A habit is a pattern that you adopt subconsciously to free your conscious mind up for more important matters. And when you don’t need to use your two hands for anything, it's a habit to cross your arms to get them out of the way.

“So, cross your arms the other way” (pause while people grope to get it right, laughter).

“Okay, this illustrates three points which I think are also appropriate for this conversation we are going to have about collapse. 1. It is possible to change your behavior. You all managed to do it, by and large. 2. It does, however, take some effort and some thought to change your patterns of behavior. Expect to make mistakes. 3. It doesn’t feel as comfortable at first. A new pattern of behavior, if scrutinized, is stressful at a subliminal level.

“The things we have to do to prepare for what I will loosely term collapse have, I think, those three features. We can do them, but it isn’t going to be easy. And we absolutely should not expect to avoid mistakes. Actually you learn from your mistakes. You don’t learn from your successes.

“We shouldn’t expect that we are going to have a conversation and then everyone is going to simply head off in a new direction. That is not how it works.”

In 1972 there were two possible options provided for going forward — overshoot or sustainable development. Despite myriad conferences and commissions on sustainable development since then, the world opted for overshoot. The two-leggeds hairless apes did what they always have done. They dominated and subdued Earth. Faced with unequivocable evidence of an approaching existential threat, they equivocated and then attempted to muddle through.

Global civilization will only be the first of many casualties of the climate the Mother Nature now has coming our way at a rate of change exceeding any comparable shift in the past 3 million years, save perhaps the meteors or supervolcanoes that scattered our ancestors into barely enough breeding pairs to be able to revive. This change will be longer lived and more profound than many of those phenomena. We have fundamentally altered the nitrogen, carbon and potassium cycles of the planet. It may never go back to an ecosystem in which bipedal mammals with bicameral brains were possible. Or, not for millions of years.

Meadows says that in 1972 we had reached about 85% of Earth’s carrying capacity and today we are about 125%, and every month we delay in getting back within limits erodes Earth’s further ability to tolerate us. “The reason we don’t have a response to climate change,” he said, “is not because we don’t have better models. It’s because people don’t care about climate change.” That may be our epitaph.

In 2012, The Club of Rome released an update taking the famous 1972 study out to 2052. — 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. Why 2052? Jorgen Randers, one of the authors, said he wanted to know what the rest of his life would be like. He’d be near 100 then. Now he knows.

  • While the process of adapting humanity to the planet's limitations has started, the human response will be too slow.
  • The current dominant global economies, particularly the United States, will stagnate. Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and ten leading emerging economies (referred to as 'BRISE' in the Report) will still progress, slowly, based upon available local resources.
  • China will be a (short term) success story, because of its ability to muster coordinated action.
  • Despite all efforts to the contrary, there will still be 3 billion global poor in 2052.
  • Global population will have peaked at 8 billion a decade earlier, in 2042. The birthrate will be marked by falling fertility in urban areas, the death rate by increasing numbers of those ill from malnutrition and without access to health care. Famines will most affect the poor — those unable to keep up with the price of food.
  • Global GDP, while not immediately reversing, will grow much more slowly than expected, because of slower productivity growth in mature economies. The new growth will be a product of population growth and desperate expenditures of labor and treasure to mitigate or adapt to climate shocks.
  • Despite never-ending high-level meetings, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will continue to grow and cause a rise in temperature of +2°C by 2052; +2.8°C in 2080, by which point climate change may have become irrevocably self-reinforcing. After that the word “limits” will have outlived its usefulness.
Meadows says he agrees with some of Randers' forecasts and disagrees with others. He thinks the “update,” which is completely unrelated to the original or later Meadows models, made some serious mistakes in its assumptions, most especially about climate change and energy. Randers seems to think the climate impact, like a lumbering elephant, will not be very important prior to 2052 but the second — peak net energy and the inability of renewables to fill the industrial gap — will be extremely important. Meadows believes  climate change is already having important impacts and that well before 2052 we will see truly calamitous consequences from it.

Some speakers who are less familiar with the dynamics of non-linear convecting fluid dynamics pulled out old canards that really should have been retired by now. Gail “the Actuary” Tverberg, whose views are very much in step with many in the peak oil world, said, “It could be caused by solar heating, we don’t know,” (easily debunked by solar observation data) and “there is no way we could find as much carbon to burn as the IPCC has in its scenarios” (the IPCC report runs all its scenarios against an abrupt cessation event and relatively little changes because of the built-in inertia). 

Even John Michael Greer trudged out his tired old line about “don’t you remember 30 years ago when everyone was saying we would get another ice age — maybe fast? Show of hands? See! Climate science has no credibility.” Mark Cochrane, Senior Scientist at the Geospacial Sciences Center, thankfully addressed this in his later talk by noting the difference between science-fiction writers and actual climate scientists.

Meadow’s talk included a chart showing the catabolic step we might expect of climate change about mid-21st century. He pointed out that whenever such large shifts in temperature occurred in Earth’s history, they were not gradual, coming in lurches, rather than smooth waves. He gave the example of a reagent being slowly added to a beaker until suddenly, saturation is reached and color or something else abruptly changes. The smooth comfort of the Hubbert bell curve is unlikely when net energy extraction or compounding climate feedbacks are considered.

It is urgent, he said, to increase the resilience of our systems. He went on to define resilience as the capacity of a system to continue providing essential functions after receiving a shock from some problem.

There are two ways to increase resilience:

  1. Change the structure of the system
  2. Define different essential functions

His final slide was a partial list of ways to alter the structure for increased resilience:

  • Raise Efficiency — spend smart, not more
  • Build Barriers — determine where your vulnerabilities lie and decouple from risks
  • Increase Redundancy – hedge your bets as best you can
  • Add Buffers — stocks that reduce urgency in times of supply crunches
  • Predict Future Shocks — knowing that you can’t predict everything

Catering to the crowd at Age of Limits
These steps can be taken at all scales and by investing in both physical and social capital. Had the presentations been in better order, this would have been a nice segue into our own talk, or Dmitry Orlov’s, which were about placing greater value on small communities, and working to build resilience as villagers, not as lone individuals or megacities. We hardly needed to make that point, however. Four Quarters villagers, laboring to supply us with freshly baked breads, gluten-free entrees, home-brewed meads in 6 different flavors and local string music late into the nights made the point for us.

Meadows went to pains to say that the World-3 model made no attempt to predict what would occur once limits were exceeded. “At that point,” he said, “we are into unprecedented things.” Indeed, we are into the realm of non-linear, infinitely variable, coupled systems, which not even the most powerful supercomputers can accurately model. Well, perhaps the Hitchhiker’s Guide, under the heading “Infinite Improbability Drive.”

Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J., and Behrens, W.W., 1972, Limits to Growth (Washington: Potomac Associates)
Meadows, D.H., Randers, J., and Meadows, D.L., 2004, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (White River Junction VT: Chelsea Green and Earthscan)
Bardi, U., 2011, The Limits to Growth Revisited (London: Springer)
Randers, et. al., 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (Club of Rome Report, 2012)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Cone Pit Method

"We wondered, before going to the expense of building a steel wok like they use in Japan, what if we build a pit like Josiah Hunt but shape it like a cone kiln?"

Charles Eisenstein, writing for Resurgence, says:
Please, my argument here is NOT “Various greenhouse-gas curtailment schemes have failed, so we shouldn’t even try.” I am, rather, proposing that these failures have something in common – they emphasize the global over the local, the distant over the immediate, the measurable over the qualitative – and that this very oversight is part of the same mentality that is at the root of the crisis to begin with. It is the mentality that sacrifices what is precious, sacred, and immediate for a distant end; it is the mentality of instrumentalism that values other beings and the Earth itself in terms of their utility for us; it is the hubris of believing we can predict and control the consequences of our actions; it is the trust in mathematical modeling that allows us to make decisions according to the numbers; it is the belief that we can identify a ‘cause’ – a cause that is something and not everything – and that we can understand reality by dissecting it and isolating variables.
What would happen if we revalued the local, the immediate, the qualitative, the living, and the beautiful? We would still oppose most of what climate change activists oppose, but for different reasons: tar sands oil extraction because it kills the forests and mars the landscape; mountaintop removal because it obliterates sacred mountains; fracking because it insults and degrades the water; offshore oil drilling because oil spills poison wildlife; road building because it carves up the land, creates roadkill, contributes to suburbanisation and habitat destruction, and accelerates the loss of community. On the other hand, many of the technologies I find beautiful might also be justified on climate change grounds: agricultural practices that regenerate the soil; restoration of forests and wetlands; smaller homes in higher density communities; economies of reuse, upcycling, and gift; bicycle culture; home gardening.
Yesterday our 2014 ecovillage apprentices, still caked with clay plasters from upcycling our Prancing Poet Ecohostel, helped us perform an experiment we have been inching towards for a month. Like most experiments, there was no real success or failure involved, just the harvesting of new knowledge. Still, we were grateful that it turned out even better than we had imagined it might, and now we are eager to pass along the results.

The problem we are addressing is multilayered. At its most general layer, there is an observable imbalance in Earth’s climate systems that is an existential threat to all of us.

... and lift-off
We attribute this imbalance, now calibrated with a high degree of certainty, to the corruption of “normal” atmospheric chemistry with a superabundance of waste elements from the biological processes of a single, invasive, overly fecund species, you know, the two-legged ones. Since this species shows no sign of going away before it causes irreparable harm to its host, we few revolutionary cells, acting as antibodies in the greater system, are working towards effective and timely mitigation by finding ways to reduce and reverse the damage wrought by our deluded or disengaged brethren.

The dilemma is, as Eisenstein opines, global, distant, distressingly measurable, and spawned by hubris that is seemingly intractable. Nonetheless, the way out is beautiful, elegant, sublimely local and relies on millions of farmers and gardeners awakening like a peasant permaculture army and simply doing what they do best — grow food.

One of the most promising (and most tested) ways we know to reverse the effects of runaway source emissions is to increase the strength of nature’s counteracting sinks. At the planetary scale, carbon has four mega-repositories: deep earth (including fossil hydrocarbons); shallow earth (topsoil and the subsurface microsphere); oceans; and vegetation. Deep earth is where half the problem originated, but returning carbon there once it has gone to the atmosphere, while technically feasible, is stupendously expensive (as we described here two years ago). The Ponzinomics of “clean coal” scrubbers, or artificial trees, may yet provide windfall profits for the 1%, but it comes at the expense of everyone else, and all our relations.

Oceans are the sink that has shouldered the greatest burden for the past century or more, but even oceans have reached their unfathomable limit and now, as they warm, not only will not accept more from us, may join us as fellow sources. Oceans, while remaining net sinks, are already starting to return excess carbon back to the atmosphere through methane effervescence and plankton die-off. This is a frightening, self-reinforcing feedback demonstrating all too cogently the penalties of our dalliance. Soon, only two viable sinks will remain — shallow earth and vegetation — to pick up the slack and get us back to 350 ppm or below.

We need to net sequester from 5 to 10 gigatons (or petagrams, or billion tons) of carbon annually to dial back the danger as quickly as we can. The only way to get plants and soils to perform that trick is to baby them with water, healthy microbes, and TLC. Burning soils with chemicals just adds deserts, to say nothing of driving the nutrition out of food. We need more organic gardens, more forests, and also — something that would assist in the creation of both of those first two — more biochar, or recalcitrant carbon, to work as an alternative to petrochemical fertilizers while intercepting short carbon cycles and replacing them with longer, slower, more earth-friendly ones.

For the five billion people on the planet who grow food, and the six billion who work in some fashion with the more than 50,000 species of bamboo, this is good news.

Growing Local

Each type of of biomass provides a unique cellular signature
At the Ecovillage Training Center, the apprentices have been busy since early March harvesting all of the dead culms of our bamboo left by an exceptionally harsh winter. Not all varieties are the same — some have lower temperature tolerance and did just fine, while others froze and died back. Having a wide variety is an excellent hedge for any grower.

Bamboo is the second fastest growing plant on Earth, after microalgae. It will double its biomass every year if conditions are right. Running varieties can expand as far out from their base in one year as they are tall, and do it again the next year, and the next.

Building a bamboo fence

The first use we made of our Spring bamboo harvest was for fencing around our poultry area, enclosing the chicken coop and duckling ponds. The second use came from taking the slightly larger widths — 2 to 3 inches in diameter — and splitting them to make plaster lathe for the building we are currently reviving. Some prime pieces ended up as walking sticks, garden stakes or finishing trim — or future bambitats — and then, finally, what was left became the scrap pile — whatever odd shapes and sizes were without immediate other uses — and that was set out to dry. It is now early May and that pile was sufficiently large and dry — 12 cubic feet — that the time had come to turn it into biochar.

Building a bamboo building (Pachamama, Colombia 2013)
We have been adding biochar to our gardens since 2006 and we swear by it. Bamboo biochar is especially great, because those big pores in bamboo’s cell structure translate into a heavenly microbial habitat when it is charred, charged, and dug into the garden. Just by way of example, we had a Discovery Channel crew here shooting a piece on biochar stoves in mid-March. We had a dozen small tomato starter plants — no more than 3-4 inches tall at the time — that we filmed being transplanted into 1-gallon containers. The lower half of the container was composed of biochar that had been steeped in urine for the previous 4 months, then turned with a mix of weathered sawdust, kitchen compost and composted horse manure before being deployed as container fill. The top half of the container was just the tiny, fragile tomato plant surrounded by garden soil.

Bamboo cup
Too bad the Discovery Channel was not able to return 4 weeks later, in mid-April, when we moved the tomatoes from the greenhouse out to our garden beds. By then they were chest high, all leafed out, and in need of stakes or cages to support their weight. No MiracleGrow or other synthetic fertilizers were used in the making of this testimonial. Just biochar from bamboo and a little compost.

Yesterday, with storm clouds gathering from our Southwest, we decided it was a good time to take the dry bamboo to the kiln. We could not get any more solar drying done this week and the summer garden will be wanting more biochar soon.


We have experimented with a number of stove designs, from oil drums to TLUDs, Beaners and Biolites to ceramic ovens, but lately we have been most intrigued by the large wok design used by the Hozu farmers cooperative in Japan to turn bamboo into biochar for their “Cool Vege” label.

Our friend Kelpie Wilson out in Oregon made one of those “cone kilns” and reported the results on her blog. In January she traveled to Simi Valley, California to see Michael Wittner’s BlueSky Biochar burn at the Simi Community Garden. Michael also used a cone kiln, and as he did the burn he narrated the physics of the process and described how the cone shape created an oxygen-free zone at the base. He demonstrated a layering technique that kept enlarging the zero-O2 zone until he was getting a smooth torus of flame with no appreciable smoke.

Some partially charred pieces reveal the source fuel
Two weeks ago, Kelpie described a test burn by Kamal Rashid, CEO at Zanjabil Gardens in Pembroke Township, Illinois, using a giant homemade cone kiln —  59" top diameter,  24" bottom diameter, and 24" high. The kiln made 133 gallons of biochar (17.7 cu ft) in about 4 hours, using cordwood. Kamal reports that it took 30 gallons of water to quench the kiln.

Some years back, with support of The Biochar Company's CEO Jeff Wallin, “Biochar Bob” Cirino went to Hawaii and made a video of another friend of ours, Josiah Hunt, who makes commercial biochar for the Hawaiian home market.  Biochar Bob is the spokesperson of CAFT: the Char Alliance for the First Tier. The First Tier represents organizations around the world that have working demonstrations and adoptable business models for using biochar in the developing world. Check out the Biochar Bob series on YouTube (Biochar Bob Goes to Haiti, Biochar Bob Goes to Costa Rica, Biochar Bob Goes to Brooklyn…).

In Josiah’s Hunt’s method, a shallow pit is dug in the earth, filled with woody biomass, ignited, and then covered to smolder. This is not much different than the method practiced by indigenous societies for at least the past 1000 years as related in The Biochar Solution.  It is pretty labor intensive and slow, but it yields a consistently large amount of biochar.

We wondered, before going to the expense of building a steel wok like they use in Japan or at BlueSky or Zanjabil (estimated about $400 in costs to fabricate), what if we build a pit like Josiah Hunt but shape it like a cone kiln and use the type of layering technique that Michael Wittner demonstrated?

That was our experiment, which we are calling Cone Pit method. We dug a cone-shaped pit — 54" top diameter, 24" bottom diameter, and 16" deep. The burn began with a single match and some cardboard boxes, along with a few small, very dry bamboo sticks. Within a few minutes it had grown to fill the bottom of the pit and we quickly started adding more and bigger bamboo to the fire. We watched for signs of it going white – indicating ash formation, and then we would throw on another layer of bamboo.

If we had more bamboo we could have probably made 10 times what we did, but we started with about 12 cubic feet of loosely piled dry bamboo and we used that in the course of the 12 minute burn. Then, with no more fuel, we started quenching at the edges and anywhere we saw white ash, and gradually worked the spray toward the center, ending the process after approximately 15 minutes. We quenched the fire thoroughly, left it out in the overnight rain, and then allowed it to drain into the ground for a full day before collecting and weighing what we had. It was 30 pounds dry weight.

The urine vat receives liquid from an ecohostel pissoir
From there the fresh biochar went to a urine bath. Even though it was quenched with water and was rained on during the night, biochar coming directly from a pyrolytic kiln will be hydrophobic – meaning it repels water. By soaking it in a vat of urine for some days or weeks before mixing it into our compost pile we can be certain to convert it from hydrophobic to hydrophilic. Now when it reaches the garden it will work like a sponge, soaking up water when it rains and releasing it back slowly to the plant roots as needed, along with all the minerals and nutrients being brought to the “reef” and stored there by the families of microbes.

It would have been better if we had found a good use for all the heat we generated in that 15 minutes — a good excuse for further experiments — but our fire was still relatively clean, producing nil carbon dioxide and keeping most of the plant carbon out of the atmosphere for the next 1000 years, hopefully time enough to change our renegade species’ wicked ways.

It may be, as Charles Eisenstein says, that the world is not going to be saved by international treaties or retooled economic initiatives that purchase megacorporate buy-ins, but by agricultural practices that regenerate the soil; restoration of forests and wetlands; smaller homes in higher density communities; economies of reuse, upcycling, and gift; bicycle culture; and home gardening.

Here is our short video:





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