Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Nature's Operating Instructions, the True Biotechnologies by Kenny Ausubel

Kenny Ausubel is a dyed-in-the-wool nature-worshiping "four legs good two legs bad" loon who is not above putting words in the mouths of his guests. I would strenuously decline to have him set the rules of society.

That said, he put together a mostly interesting and intelligent collection of writers who describe what they have done or observed to actually improve our use and reuse of resources.

I hate waste, and love to see efficient and robust ways to use and reuse things. It is fascinating to read about ways to retain rainwater, purify polluted water, bioconcentrate heavy metals. It is also amusing to read Amory and Hunter Lovins describing how large corporations (the devil incarnate to a lot of the other writers) have been developing energy saving measures, ways to reuse "waste" materials, new business models that offer things like rented carpet (only the worn is replaced, which means less down time for the customer; and they developed ways of high-level recycling carpet into carpet), and so on.

And many of the authors are correct that we need to pay attention to folklore and indigenous methods, as for instance the Miwok clam beds. North of San Francisco the Miwok collected clams from 11 beds until the government decided they could manage it better and compelled the Miwok to stop. Five years later, with only one clam bed still viable, they discovered that the harvesting method was also a form of tilling--the beds were essentially artificial.

This is not to say that everything the aborigines did was wise--the burning the West coast Indians did may have had benign consequences, but not so the slash-and-burn agriculture of the natives in tropical West Africa. Western science still has a great deal to offer, and most of the authors recognize it.

Almost every time a writer switched to spirituality or sociology the result was worthless mush. You may safely skip those. And Jim Motavalli (Reinventing the Wheel) seems to lose his way in the hydrogen economy--perhaps because he can't bring himself to use the n-word (nuclear). Energy has to come from somewhere, and wind and solar don't quite cut it.

On balance, about half the book is worthless. The rest includes a number of very interesting ideas and examples. I've been around the sciences for a few years now, and I recognize the signs of a puffed-up plan. You can often tell when the proposal has some down sides that the author has conveniently neglected to mention, though you don't necessarily know what they will be. Several of the descriptions of water purification have those tell-tale signs. But I don't really mind that much--let the pros go over it, give these things a real try and measure what the side effects are. Everything has side effects.

I'd recommend the book, with the caveat that the spirituality stuff is junk and that a global replacement of the word 'nature' with the word 'creation' would help considerably. And remember that the projects and plans won't be the cure-alls the writers suggest. Things don't have to be cure-alls to be good policy.

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