We Are the Earth and the Earth is Us

I want to show you an image of the mind. Since that’s difficult, let me show you an image of the world instead, with my fingers crossed that the mind will be revealed in it if I give you the context. It’s an image of an abandoned rangeland fence high above Okanagan Lake. It speaks of the end of the ranching industry and the development of the land into a residential golf course resort. Given that this is the most sensitive and threatened grassland in the north of my valley, and one of the few left, this development required special approval. (In fact, the road built up the hill to service this resort destroyed an 8,000-year-old rattlesnake den, which seems to be way more than rude.) The way to get approval to build houses and golf courses on sensitive land is to sell ‘green’ or ‘environmental’ values that will ‘conserve’ species for ‘posterity’. Such conservation is pretty darned unlikely, but that’s why this stretch of land has been left ‘wild’ as ‘habitat’ for native species: it’s a social negotiation. In my mind, it’s less a living landscape than a zoo, but let’s just leave that, because this is Syilx land and thus sensitive in its own right. And just look at the view. As romantic as can be. You could sell $350,000-$1,700,000 golf course house lots like hot cakes with a view like this, especially to someone from cattle country, who’s changed his Angus herd in for a covey of oil wells and is missing them terribly. Fair enough, but that’s not the image of the mind I promised. That’s just a little background. Here’s the mind:

P1510311You see, the ‘wild’ness promised consists of a hillside overgrown by sagebrush (overgrazing in the past, combined with fire suppression) and trampled by deer (barred from the valley below by very operative orchard and vineyard fences) which have no business here where there is nothing for them to even nibble on. In other words, the ignorance that sees this rich landscape, transformed by ignorance into an impoverished landscape of weeds, is the same ignorance that the land displays in its weediness. The fence is the means by which that was accomplished. It remains, its work done, as something no longer extricable from the land. In other words, it too belongs in this transformed landscape, or this impoverished mind: just another weed, in a landscape of weeds. It is as if the land reflects precisely the attention given to it: settlers who come in as alien species, leave behind a landscape of alien species, and for images of beauty choose records of the moment of claiming a rich land, such as this fence and the bittersweet image of the loss of that richness (again, the fence). Now, let me make a proposal: it is exactly like that. The Earth is us and we are the earth. Calling the view in the image above “nature” is the problem, because that proposes an active force separate from human forces. It isn’t.

You Say Tomato, I Say Apple

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I’m still slowly picking and savouring this first crop of Benvoulin apples in 20 years. Here is one of them hanging out with the gals from the tomato patch, just for fun. There are three left on the tree, too. You can read the story of this unique apple here. The discovery, breeding, saving, grafting and distributing of apple varieties is an art form older than most others. It is illuminating to contemplate it beside such new forms of intervention with the natural world, such as farmer’s markets, community gardens, food banks, and university-based GMO breeding programs. Those are all social forms of art, while this is an individual, poetic one that comes from a man being the land he walks. I doubt any of the newer art forms would ever lead to an apple so powerful that one bite beats a $30 bottle of riesling— and yet which everyone can afford. In this respect, the simple image above is an image of wealth.

Teleportation, Anti-Gravity and Art

Defying gravity?P1540796

It’s a trick of light.

bright If the sun had moved its substance to earth physically, there would be no water and no life.

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Reforming itself in a new form, that’s the trick.

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The process of the sun transferring itself is not finished.

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At the moment, it is both here, and there. Look at it caught in this old, exploded star that my ancestors call, variably, water and Wasser and wetter and wody.

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It is the sun, defying gravity and moving itself across space by turning itself into energy, and then, through the lens of the earth, turning itself back.

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Art matters.

 

Wine Secrets

Wine making is such a romantic business.P1530740Noble Ridge Vineyard, Okanagan Falls

It’s a way of selling peasant culture as elite culture.P1530745It’s done within a metaphor of capitalization. Only industrialists need apply. It is very expensive.
P1530726Instead of people, it employs machines. This is part of the adaptation of agriculture to a capitalized model. Capital depreciation replaces wages. It is a way of concentrating flows of energy in single hands.

P1540498Vineyard at the Rise, Bella Vista

Standardization is part of this process. The image below is an image of what the contemporary social culture of Canada looks like.

P1540471Against that are the anarchists.

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This is a coyote vineyard access road. Every year it gets dug at a different spot. Every year it gets blocked, and the coyotes let it be, until a week before harvest, when they dig it again.

 

The Tragedy of My Generation… And Its Hope

This is what our parents’ farms largely look like today, after we were taken away by promises of distant glories.oldfarmThis too is an image of war. Our parents came through the Second World War as children. We came through its consequence, the Cold War — again as children. After all of that, this. We left it for arts, of various kinds. That was also the story of war. Perhaps we come back to it with art as well. Perhaps that art has been cleansed. That tree is hopeful. That is one beautiful tree.

 

The Art That Insects Make

In the summer, light strikes the leaves of the dogwoods unevenly, as they flit about in their environment of light and shadow filtering through other leaves that move and shift with sun and wind and the turning of the earth through its days. Look at the result!P1540244Amazing!

P1540242There’s more to this story than just sun and light, and I’ll get to that in a sec, but for the moment look at how small patches of some of these leaves are delayed from maturing and shutting down photosynthesis in preparation for fall.
P1540241Frozen in time, that’s the thing.

P1540239Now, here’s the other player in these beautiful game. See the aphids on the underside of the leaves below, below the fruiting cluster?P1540233They are very responsive to light and growth and settle in the choicest spots, and then, as they divert the sap flow through their own digestive systems, they change everything. In effect, they become part of the plant, and the plant’s living processes are blocked and re-routed by the intervention of the insects and the whole year’s worth of redirected minerals.P1540227Aphids, light, shadow and the mysteries of an earth continually in motion.P1540224The scientist in me thinks this process could be put to use. The farmer in me knows it can. The poet in me is in love with the earth. The artist in me is just plained thrilled to see his body alive in the earth like this, down to the tiniest thing.

 

Romantic Images of Autumn

It is possible to read land by colour. The Douglas firs on the ridge line below are ready to pass through the coming winter. So are the yellow choke cherries in the gully in the foreground.P1520857

 

These grapes, growing just a hundred metres below and to the right of this image are not.

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They are responding to different climatic needs (from the Rhine and the Rhone rivers in Europe) and the petrochemical fertilizers that are their environment. When they lose their leaves to the winter, the winter they lose their leaves to will be as much the petroleum industry as the weather. There’s an interesting principle at work here. Notice how the grapes above are set up to catch the sun that their genetics and their fertilizer aren’t tuned for. A little mechanical intervention is meant to make up for the difference. In any other context this would be called art, or at least artifice or artfulness. Look at them from a different angle…

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See, they are designed to filter the cold down the hill, and away, and to catch the afternoon and evening sun, which comes in from the West (to the left of this image). Look how the bunchgrass and sagebrush, native to this place, do this.

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They do it by responding to the water when it is in abundance and to the sun when it is in abundance, through specific adaptations of their growth, including stem structures and growth cycles for the bunchgrass and water-trapping leaf hairs for the sage. Winter is not an issue for these plants, because it is part of them. Not so for this apple orchard halfway down this hill:

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The trees are trained like grapes, with vertical walls to catch the sun, and lots of nitrogen fertilizer to push sap through the wood of dwarf trees. The fruit would be bland and colourless, except that two weeks before harvest, all the new growth is cut off, to expose the fruit to the sun. You could do all this by growing big old apple trees that droop their fruit down on hanging limbs and drop their leaves in accord with water, light and temperature, but it wouldn’t fit with the desire to derive profit from the land, rather than to become it. The result looks provisional. That’s because it is. You can see that, perhaps, in the next image of the same apple orchard.

P1520565This is not really a living environment. The grass is barely surviving. The trellis system can’t cope. The trees aren’t thriving. In fact, they’re overgrown. The orchard was meant to turn land into an image of capitalism, and to be replaced after ten years. It has outlived that, but, such is the nature of capitalization when it hits the land, no farmer can afford to tear the trees out to start again. This is because the system is not designed to last. The image below shows a system that is designed to last. Here’s a gully, that harvests morning and evening sun, one flank at a time, to produce one long row of fruit watered by the forces of gravity at work in the slopes and the way they interact with light and heat.

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It will last forever. Instead of thrusting up above the land, it moves within it. Instead of creating a profit over ten years, or the myth of one, it creates a steady state over 1000s of years. The profit is the excess of production, which is naturally designed to carry the plants into new territory, but can be harvested by humans and other animals. In other words, you can have your profit in ten years (or not), in systems that are fragile and require an entire system of supports, or you can have it over thousands of years. You can take profit from the land or you can become the land. Anything else is a romantic image of Autumn as death, because that’s exactly what it is: the point at which the earth asserts itself over artificial folly. The inability of farmers to beat the ten year capital cycle is an example of that folly, and the earth’s retribution. Our folly as observers is to see the ruin after the cropping of this land as the bittersweet fruitfulness of Autumn. It’s not. It’s our culpability we’re looking at. A crop in balance with this place looks like this at this time of year:

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Choke Cherry in That Gully

That cherry is not our profit. That profit fell onto the soil, when we neglected to pick it. This berry is for a bird that’s going to need it mid-winter. A waxwing, most likely.

So, remember, if you’re buying a product of the fall, and it comes from green leaves, you’re not buying sustainability. You can read it that simply, and that well.

 

The Most Beautiful Apple of Them All

Joy! Here she is… the Benvoulin apple. Lost, and then re-found. I left this apple in 1992, when I moved north, hoping that other people would care for her, but things being the way they are in this world, she was almost lost. I got some grafts, from a hunch, from an unidentifiable old tree, with twenty years of wobbly memory to guide me. (Three months later, the tree was cut down… call it fate.)

P1520895 And after two years of hoping that I had guessed right, I tasted her again, for the first time in 20 years.

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She is still the queen. She tastes like a fine glass of riesling, and look at how white her flesh is! I promise, I won’t lose her again. Here’s the story of her discovery, from my book Tom Thomson’s Shack (2000).

WILD APPLES

I worked for Hugh one year. Late one October day after picking apples I found an apple tree in a ditch beside Benvoulin road in Kelowna. The tree was fifteen years old, rising out of a tangle of overgrown wild roses. In the brambles was a carpet of yellow windfalls. Wasps were feeding on them, clustering, golden, around puncture holes in the skins. The apples were marvelously distorted, the flesh of each one cut by five deep lines, paralleling the five sections of the ovary. Never had I tasted an apple like that! With cars swishing past me, I clambered excitedly through a break in the brambles, over a rusted barbed wire fence, and into the field behind. There were two more old trees. One was broken down, overgrown with wild plums and the long, trailing vines of wild clematis. Its apples were shrivelled red husks. The other tree stood alone, surrounded by a thorny ring of her seedling daughters. As I walked towards her, a horse looked up at the far end of the field, then started walking, then running, towards me. We reached the tree together. There were still a few apples in this tree. I picked up an old ten-foot-long prop that was lying in the grass Ñ once used to support branches heavy with fruit Ñ and knocked an apple off. Before I could get to it, the horse had bent down and was eating it. Horses are big! I kept my distance! I knocked another apple off, and another, and another. In the end, of all the apples on the tree the horse ate half and I kept the other half in my pocket. It seemed a fair trade. The horse pushed roughly against my pockets as I left the field. As I climbed over the fence, and then up onto the shoulder of the road, he whinnied softly. I walked back down the road to my car. The cars that swished by me sounded like huge animals, roaring.

That night, as the room licked golden and orange in the firelight, we sat on chairs in front of Hugh’s fire. Hugh lit his pipe with a long sliver of wood he pulled from the flames, lifting it slowly to his mouth and drawing it in. His father slit each apple open from blossom end to stem end with a planter’s knife. As we bit into the apples, six different flavours burst on the tongue, slowly, one after the other, in a slow wash bursting farther and farther back in the mouth and cresting up over the palette like spray from a wave, until the whole mouth was as tender as a blossom.

“This is a great apple!” said Hugh, after biting into one of the apples the wasps had been eating in the ditch. “Maybe it’s related to Maiden’s Blush. There used to be apples in that whole area down there in the Benvoulin. And pears. It was the best pear land on earth. Once! Pear land makes good shopping mall land, too. They brought a lot of old apples here and tried them. Everyone almost went bust at first.”

The next morning snow lay two inches deep over the ground. I drove down to Benvoulin Road, cut some grafting wood off the tree and buried it behind my cabin. The next spring the Highways Department cleared the ditch. The tree was gone. I got there just in time! I’ve kept that wet walk beside the dark road in the rain, the cars pouring past me like salmon fighting up a spawning river, driven, and the feel of the apples in my pocket: the golden apples of the Hesperides, the apple that Paris gave to Helen when the three goddesses lined up and said, “Who is the most beautiful!” and he chose.

How Universities are Causing Global Warming and What to Do About It

I would like to show you the little valley I live in. I think the future depends on what we see here.view

 

Vernon Creek Valley, Okanagan Landing.

Okanagan Lake is to the right of this image. Downtown Vernon is to the left. My house is just off the right of the image, in the settlement of dark trees halfway up the image’s border.

Now, I don’t know what you see, but I’ll give you some context by turning you around gently. Look again. Different light, different colour in the grass, same hill.

P1520181Plus, there’s less cheatgrass (red) when you get this high. And what if we look more closely?

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At the top of this rare bit of remaining grassland, there’s this:

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So, that’s the context. So, let’s look at the valley again. I want to show you the ideal university of the future. It’s in the 33 acre abandoned orchard below the sagebrush hill, in the middle of the image, between the two 1970s-era subdivisions with their dark evergreen trees, and below the yellow splash of choke cherries in the ravine and the blob of dark poplars along Earl Grey’s old irrigation canal. Yeah, the tea guy. That’s right.

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I envisage it as a large outdoor classroom and laboratory, teaching farming, innovation, plant breeding, plant propagation, new plant species, new water regimes, new food processing opportunities, land-reading, agriculture (the intellectual version) and its appropriate spiritual components, along with appropriate engineering, mathematical, geological and artistic opportunities and interventions, as it supplies food for people and extends the deepest traditions of human culture forward in step with the earth. This is a form of Enlightenment, which was the process by which pre-industrial society in Europe was reformed along industrial and intellectual models. Some stuff was left out, for no good reason. The earth of today is a mirror of that process of leaving out. Here’s a cottonwood tree that was left out. In its place are some uses for cottonwood trees and some methods of observing cottonwood trees, but not ones which start from the actual energy of cottonwood trees.

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Cottonwood Tree on the Grey Canal

Hence, my farm university, or my university based on touching the earth.

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Earth Language. Repair Needed

Here it is from the golf course (to the right of the subdivision like a green island of trees).

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Unfortunately it is selling for $1,900,000, a price set by the standard of the golf course developers who have bought the hillside we’re standing on. It’s not a farming price. It’s a luxury price, set by the value of oil in the tar sands in Alberta. It’s a social price, which the retired farmer deserves, given the social context in which she must live. The culture that scars the boreal forest for oil, however, and sets such prices, is the same that uses the lake in my valley as a playground. Here’s an image of the lost wetland in my valley bottom, in the approach to winter. Forget this as an image of fall…

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Carving Pumpkins (Recreational agriculture.)

… this is the real image of fall in the valley:

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The golf course is not doing well, by the way. There might be a lost boreal forest behind it and a lot of aerial carbon and a lot of wealth created by this transformation, but, socially and ethically, the money created by it doesn’t flow very well. It’s like bitumen in a pipeline at times. They can’t even fix their road. Look.

P1510641This 3-metre deep gully was 10 centimetres deep 3 years ago. This is runoff from the golf course road.

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Our little gully is behind the dump truck up above. It is being filled with crushed “mantle”, or the ancient bedrock below its overburden of seabeds and volcanic flows and glacial till. They ignored the ditch (a metre deep at that point). They had some decorating to do instead…

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Crushed Mantle as a Decor Element

This is a replacement for landscaping with living things. This is called being “water smart”. It is called being ethically responsible.

Three years ago, one of the bankers holding the whole hillside in receivership could have fixed the gullet on a lunch break, by taking a bag lunch, driving up the hill with a shovel in the trunk, moving gravel for 1 minute, or even less, eating the lunch, and driving back to work, but, no. That didn’t happen. Now it’ll cost a few thousand dollars, with back hoes and dump trucks and what-have-you.

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What a waste. Now, a politically-correct and academically-correct (which means scientifically-correct) stance towards this bit of human self-absorption is to approach it neutrally, which is to say to observe it but nothing more. Here, let’s try that:

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Hmm

There’s an issue at play here. Humans, who do this observing, are social creatures. If they’re going to look at the earth, they’re going to see social stuff. This is social, for instance:

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Weedy Grassland Along the Grey Canal Trail

Observation works for social relationships, but it doesn’t mean that they develop into healthy ones. The gulch above is an unhealthy social relationship. Now, let me show you another unhealthy social relationship.

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The Green, Green Grass of Autumn

This cheat grass is growing on a deer trail. It takes all the water from the spring earth, reducing the earth’s ability to store water for an entire season, transfer it to the wetlands below, and support hundreds of species along the way. It reduces the ability of the land to support human populations, or any others. Socially, its presence is heavily tied with a crazy colonial social idea that things sprout in the spring and mature in the fall. Cheatgrass is smarter than that. In its social relationship with humans, humans are not. They don’t adjust grazing patterns or land use patterns to cheat cheatgrass out of its cheat. Ideology stands in the way of that, as does a cultural insistence on raising children in different environments. Concrete ones, for instance.

Forty auto minutes south of this point there is a university that trains thousands of students in the set of disinterested observational skills I mentioned above, extends those concrete worlds, and embodies some unhealthy social relationships. The result is this.

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The Enlightenment Botanical Garden Becomes Decorative …

… and then invisible. Not only is the earth, at this university that prides itself on ‘green’ values, a decorative element, but it’s mis-treated as well. What a change in 200 years!

I think it would be fair to say that this university represents a culture that has turned from the earth. I think it’s a powerful culture. I think it has many strengths. I also think it has a tragic flaw. I also think we can turn this thing around. To do that, let’s look at the set of intellectual approaches it has laid over the earth. First, the valley again …

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… and now the annotated version, showing a little of what I see here…

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I suggest opening the image in a new window (or just clicking on it) to see the details. When you do, I hope you will notice that barely one single thing here, short of the deer, coyote and bear trails squeezed up onto a hillside where none of them belong, represents an ability to work with the earth. Even the grazing lease and the no trespassing areas are heavily compromised and nearly non-productive. There are a few remaining farms, although heavily industrialized and producing petroleum-dependent and nearly-unaffordable food, and the habitat in the ravine and in the subdivisions is important, but beyond that? There’s a tiny riparian area winding through the stream in the residential areas on the far side of the airport, and a bit of weedy grassland on the hills across from us. I hope you will see as well that all this stuff represents an application of university culture, or, rather, the culture the university serves, and which we need it to do a better job of challenging or re-imagining. That’s where that $1,900,000 farm comes in. It has the potential to change everything and to build, on a rigorous foundation of practical, scientific and artistic work, a new paradigm, and, in a century, a new valley. Here’s the current state of affairs…

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Still Fixable

From foreground to background: deer fence, weedy grassland, vineyard designed to raise house prices, two abandoned orchards, a productive ravine full of coyotes and hawthorns, and just the hint of the beginnings of the city housing in the wetland below.

We can do better. We must do better. It’s a matter of ethics, and survival. The university’s stance, of ethical disinterestedness, has lead to powerful technical science (in this sense, psychology and the arts are powerful technical tools as well) and an ethical situation that is far from disinterested. Here, let me show you. The depth of magenta in the image below indicates the depth of ethical compromise present in the land. Notice that the closer one gets to water, the more compromised, ethically, land use becomes. Notice as well the green areas.

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The green oval is Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park… the only piece of permitted human habitat in this scenario. Even there, however, the grasslands are being heavily taken over by trees and park staff spend their time making urban social amenities (paths, picnic areas, shooting cougars, and so on).

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Kalamalka Provincial Park: In a Grassland, Trees are Weeds

It’s a strange kind of “nature” or “wilderness” that allows the replacement of the only habitat for butterflies, succulent plants, edible bulbs, and hundreds of other species, to be replaced by over-crowded, fire prone groves of low-value trees and only a handful of other species. This is actually called desertification. The only ‘nature’ it displays is ‘human nature’ and the ethical stance it displays is ‘disinteredness.’

But, again, our ethical valley.

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The green line in the foreground is the only allowable natural animal habitat outside the land use grid. Note how it dead ends, without access to the water it leads to (the water goes underground from there, but life doesn’t follow it.) Every scientific approach and attitude is an ethical decision. Every view of the land is ethical at heart. The current university teaches young people how to benefit from and fine tune the predatory land use shown above. It is a form of schooling, in, I may add, an attitude that has an end date. Predatory? Yes. Humans are predating on the earth. And, may I say, also on themselves and their ability to form social bonds with the earth. Here, this is another social image:

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On a  healthy planet, it will be recognized as having equal social value to humans as inter human relationships. Instead, it is called “nature” or “art”. That’s a start, but after a couple hundred years of separating that from scientific procedure, it has led to an overly-disinterested science, so technically powerful that its power has blinded it to all of which it is ignorant, including that “nature” or that “art”, and because it is all-powerful, those unseen elements become obliterated.

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Road Overspill

This is the best that environmental science can do to save a riparian area in a dry grassland hill.

I think a correction can and should be made. Opposition to the blind spots of disinterested science is why I have been arguing for a different kind of science, not to replace science but to rebalance its abilities to allow for outcomes that include the earth and the wealth of resiliency, and why I propose a different kind of university. It’s time to remake the earth. Remaking it, and ourselves, in the image of an android phone is a dead end. That path leads only to the replacement of humans and this …

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… with robots, or at least with robotic intellectual tools, which, ethically, is almost the same thing. That work is nearly complete. Global warming? Well, when one removes the ability of the earth to utilize solar energy and translate it into cooling ecosystems, what do you think is going to happen? Oil is not the cause. It is the symptom. This is global warming:

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Eroding Vineyard Hillside

Ten years ago it looked like this:

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Ten years ago it stopped water and the sun in their tracks and turned them into life. We can still repair that loss.