Wednesday, June 21, 2017


I fell in love with a steer, my daughter's 4-H project steer Sangria. This was not a wise thing to do, since I knew from the start, from the day we brought him home, that he was going to the slaughterhouse on a definite date.  But I couldn't help myself - he was so sweet-tempered a creature there was no getting around getting attached to him.  "Getting attached" when you are a rancher/professional predator is never a good idea.  It makes things complicated and messy.  It is emotionally dangerous.  It is even intellectually dangerous.  Not to mention impractical.
And yet "getting attached" is quite possibly the kernel and core of what it means to be alive.  If you are not helplessly attached to something, someone, someplace or even some idea, then maybe you aren't really living.  That's where I  have a fundamental disagreement with the Buddha. Avoiding suffering is no way to live a life.  Non-attachment is not the goal, even if attachment causes suffering. Attachments make the heart sing, and I'm happy to suffer for my attachments.
Now, you might say, "if you were so attached to that steer, why didn't you save him from his fate, from being slaughtered?"  But that would be to turn him into a pet and that, strangely enough - from my point of view - would be a form of disrespect.  It would be to deny the biological relationship between grass/herbivore/carnivore, which is the much bigger context.  Of course, that biological relationship has been massively twisted and even perverted by our civilization/economic system but deep under all the complexities and alienations that our civilization allows and imposes is an ancient relationship that is more significant than the individual lives of the plants and animals tangled together within it.
Which is all perhaps a long-winded justification, but here is the challenge: can we eat as if every bite of food had a name? As if every article of clothing or electronic gadget came from a cotton plant or vein in a mine that merited a name and all the attachment that a name implies?  Can we privilege the vitality of broader ecological relationships over a concept of prosperity that only values human prosperity?


rangster said...

The necessity of attachment, though guaranteed sorrow and pain, is at the root of the cycle of life. I don't believe you're at odds with Buddha in this regard. That we have the lives of domesticated creatures in our control, well the concept of domestication, nay- domination of the creatures and all else within reach, well yeah, sorry for your loss...attaching a name to things some would argue instantly makes it 'sacred'. At least to the namers and their syncophantic followers. Kids throw new names at other kids all the time until sometimes one sticks. Vibing with the personalities, or at least understanding and working with, the personalities of your livestock is the sidelong talent a little on display at the rodeo, but I know the real magic happens out there on the range, most always when you're least expecting it. And least of all witnessed by any but one.

rangster said...

I just learned nearly every mammal lives about the same length, 1 billion heartbeats, but humans are double. We consume enormous footprints and resources. We can be guilty, or we can grow food. Glad you're doing the latter. /// West focused on cities in his discussion of the newly discovered exponential scaling laws that govern everything alive. “We live,” he said, “in an exponentially expanding socio-economic universe.” Global urbanization has reached the point that there are a million new people arriving in cities every week, and that rate is expected to continue to midcentury. What is the attraction?

One reason for constant urban growth is that the bigger the city, the more efficient it is, because of economies of scale. With each doubling of a city’s size, the numbers of gas stations and power lines and water lines, etc. increase at a rate a little less than double. In other words, with every size increase there is a 15% improvement in energy efficiency. “That‘s why New York is the greenest city in America,” West said.

The same dynamics of networks explain how what is called “power-law scaling“ works in biology. The bigger the animal, the slower and more efficient its metabolism is, at a rate lower than 1-to-1 (“sublinear” in West’s terminology). This leads to some remarkable constants. Shrews weigh 2 grams, and in their 14-month life their heart beats a billion times. Blue whales weigh 200 million grams, and in their 100-year life, their heart beats the same billion times. Ditto for all mammals (except humans, who have achieved a lifetime average of 2 billion heartbeats, presumably for cultural reasons.)

In physical terms, cities are like organisms, enjoying sublinear economies of scale with each increase in size. But when you look at cities in terms of their social-economic networks, an astonishing finding emerges. Once again there is power-law scaling if you count patents, wages, tax receipts, crimes, restaurants, even the pace of walking, but instead of slowing down with increasing size, cities speed up with increasing size. Their increase is greater that 1:1. It is superlinear.

“Bigger cities are better,” West announced. Each time they increase in size, they are 15% more innovative socio-economically at the same time they are 15% more efficient in terms of energy and materials. Furthermore, they apparently live forever. They create most of civilization’s problems, but they are capable of solving problems even faster than they create them.

However, when you compare companies with cities, companies have similar metabolic efficiences of scale as they grow, but their innovation rate, instead of increasing with size, slows down as they get ever bigger. And they are mortal. The average lifespan of publicly traded companies is 10 years. They can grow prodigeously, but their net income, sales, profits, and assets can’t quite keep up—they are sublinear. Successful new companies start off like cities, full of innovation, but over time the nature of corporate growth leads them to focus ever more solely on exploiting their success, and eventually they taper off and die like animals.

The city feeds on their corpses and creates new companies.

—Stewart Brand

[Note: A linkable version of this summary is on Medium, here. You’ll find video and audio versions of Goeffrey West’s talk at Long Now’s website, here.]

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mgalimba said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments! The only problem I have with cities is that in their present format they exclude all forms of life except humans and rats and pets. Everything else gets turned into dead matter to feed the city. It makes for crazy humans. Doesn't necessarily have to be that way but would it still be called a city?