Saturday, November 23, 2013

Mick's somewhat more original thinking

Welcome to the Sustainability Thought and Deed Annex.

If you've arrived at this page it's either through following the link from the main page, or through a Google search of my name Mick Womersley. I'm a British academic who lives and works in the United States, and who thinks and writes about climate change, energy, and the future of civilization.

Presumably you are trying to find out more about what I think and do.

(If not, then this is a good time to leave.)

One of my many mentors, Professor Mark Lapping of the University of Southern Maine, is fond of saying that professors should profess, using the older, very Quakerish meaning of the word: to give testimony or to affirm faith.

Here's the Wiktionary definition:

  1. claim openly but often falsely that one has (a quality or feeling).
    "he had professed his love for her"

  2. affirm one's faith in or allegiance to (a religion or set of beliefs).
    "a people professing Christianity"
    synonyms:affirm one's faith in, affirm one's allegiance to, avow, confess More

I think that what Mark meant by this was that academics, especially college and university professors, should be sure to be true to our own ideals and ideas, instead of constantly referring to the academic literature or relying on the canon. Which, if we were being honest, is what most of us do and what our institutions expect us to do, unless we're total "rocket stars", academically speaking.

Mark thought instead that professors should have their own original ideas, or at least some of them.

This particular blog page acts as a repository for what I believe is the most useful of my academic work in recent years, which is the reflective writing I've done on Sustainability Thought and Deed.

This webpage therefore contains my profession, such as it is.

These writings are not what most people, and indeed, most academics, would consider at all important, academically speaking. They're not peer-reviewed, formal, published research. Nor are they critically acclaimed creative products.

That's because I'm rather an idiosyncratic and unorthodox academic, as far as the expectations are concerned for that particular role in life in 21st century American colleges and universities. Not very ivory-towerish. I'm just as interested in doing as I am in thinking, and in fact find a balance of both to be essential to my emotional health.

In fact, I notice that I tend to think a lot as I do things, and vice versa, which leads me to hypothesize that people that can't do anything particularly well perhaps cannot also think very well.

I also notice that unless I take time to reflect, I often make incorrect assumptions.This leads me to hypothesize that unreflective people make a lot of mistakes.

This idiosyncratic approach to thinking, rather strange for the academy, is mostly due to my background and education. I've had a much more varied working life than most academics.

I started out in the UK military, where I was a member of the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service and trained as an aircraft engineering technician at the RAF's Number 1 School of Technical Training, RAF Halton (intake APD 34). You'd have to have been both an RAF engineer or an RAF mountain rescue "troop" to really understand what kind of training this combination entailed. Most people would never be able to understand and it would take me a long time to explain. Suffice it to say that there was a time when I was supposed to be able to run up and down Ben Nevis in only a couple of hours, lead-climb the Matterhorn, accept responsibility for horribly injured people many miles from help and save them, fix fast jet fighters when they broke, and lead a squad of airmen in ground combat. I'll leave it your imagination to guess which of these I did particularly well.

I worked in servicing hangers, on flight lines, and on the mountains for just under seven years, before applying for and receiving compassionate discharge due to my developing environmental and political viewpoints, which could be quickly summarized as emerging horror over what the government of Margaret Thatcher was doing to the communities of my North British homeland. How I won my release is a story unto itself, but suffice it to say, I have an honorable discharge and kept my pension, more due to the very intelligent and understanding views taken by the RAF officers that dealt with my case, than to the case itself or the way I made it.

I then "bummed around" the communities and backwaters of the British and American counter-cultures for about three years, learning about home construction, renewable energy and farming by doing, all the while looking for an alternative to Thatcherism.

Finding none, I entered the academy, specifically the University of Montana, in the fall of 1989, to see, more formally, if an alternative could be found there. I went straight through the BA and MS degrees to the PhD. I eventually found the alternative to Thatcherism in the principles and theory of ecological economics, but remain confused as to how the world could ever get to the point where this more enlightened theory could inform events.

But sometimes process is more important than the goal. In my case, as a partial result of all this experience, I'm a competent mechanic and itinerant engineer, as well as a moderately competent builder and farmer. I still fix all my own cars and equipment (including a 43-year old Land Rover and a 41-year old tractor), and maintain my own home. I also build, and remodel buildings, for energy efficiency and agricultural use. I install and maintain renewable energy and energy efficiency equipment, perform building energy analysis, and measure the wind using huge anemometer towers for the state of Maine. I also have considerable experience in the British and American environmental movements as an activist, for organizations ranging from the UK Green Party to Earth First! I grow my own food, with my wife Aimee, on a small scale sustainable homestead in Jackson, Maine. I'm still active in search and rescue and will have been faculty advisor to the Unity College Search and Rescue Team for  fifteen years this fall. I just stepped down from several years as an officer of, and resource coordinator for, the Maine Association for Search and Rescue. I am the editor of the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Association's journal, On the Hill, the publication of my ex-serviceman's association, and have been for several years now.

I'm a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, or RSA, which as far as I know is the only professional organization in the world that believes that doing and thinking are just as important as one another, and advocates for this point of view.

Finally, and in many ways least important to me personally, I've had a wide range of experiences in the American academy, where I studied ecology, social science, policy and economics with leading academicians.

I spend a lot of time teaching others to do these kinds of things. I also spend a lot of time thinking about these kinds of things, and why the planet is the way it is, right now.

Hence the title, "Sustainability Thought and Deed." By now, you should be getting the idea.

What I can say about these writings is that they contain complex, nuanced ideas about the future of our planet. I think these ideas are useful and important. (But I'm biased.)

If you're interested, you'll read some or all of them. If not, no hard feelings.

Here are my favorite posts. Read at your own risk!

Advice to a mature student. I find myself reiterating this article in many if not most of my discussions with advisees. Read it now and save yourselves the trouble.

GK and GP
My proposal to the MIT Climate COLab contest, as it was in summer 2014. This proposal unites most of my geopolitical thinking about climate change in one swell foop. It's my best academic work, ever. I may just retire now, because I'm not sure I can improve in it in the future. The version available on MIT's web page is subject to change, as the rules of the contest require revising after receiving comments from the judges and membership.

Green Keynesianism and Green Protectionism
Ideas relating to the problem of how the world's free countries can protect democracy and the planet's climate at the same time. A precursor to GK and GP, above. Relatively succinct and to the point.

Principles of Sustainability Thought and Deed
More, earlier, meandering on principles and practice.

What kind of a problem is climate change?
A student's questioning made me review my attitude to the Keystone Pipeline controversy, with possibly generalizable results.

Key thoughts on climate change and education.
What will it be like? (Understanding likely climate effects)
What do I think is most likely to happen to our climate? Empirical sensitivity may be less than expected, but it would be dangerous to act on this because there may be hidden tipping points. I hope we will act, but if we don't, or don't act enough, I pray that the tipping points don't tip.

Some new tech ideas I like

Critical of thinking
Some notes on how to teach critical thinking to "millennials," if at all feasible.

On despair and its management

Climate problems are going to be very difficult to deal with. But every generation has faced down its own set of problems and this one will too.

Meditation, mental health, homesteading and sustainability

If we all thought more, we'd consume less, and be happier.

On the role of engineering and industry
Whatever happened to western engineering supremacy? Actually, we still have it. But you wouldn't know, considering all the buzz about China.

Green economics and the metaphysics of quality
Ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Don't. I once did, and it messed up my whole life.

Careers in green tech and how not to get one: A teaching philosophy

There are lots of green tech careers, but what is the proper attitude and training?

Divestment 2.0
A running list of how-tos to reduce fossil fuel emissions. (Not very original.)

PS: Here's my current CV

Academic bio:

(This biographical material was appended to the post above, but it was getting too long. Then I realized I was mostly just trying to list, and explain to myself, what all I'd done with my life to make me the very idiosyncratic person I am. So I moved most of it down to this second post. Again, read at your own risk.)

In 1985, after nearly seven years' service, I left the UK's Royal Air Force (RAF) in protest against the policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. I was one of a handful of servicemen who did this during the mid-1980s. A particular catalyst was the women's peace camp and anti-nuclear protests at RAF Greenham Common. In particular at the time I was concerned about Reagan's placement of intermediate and short range nuclear missiles on British soil, but not controlled by British authorities. I was also concerned about Thatcher's economic policy, particularly the outrageous attacks she ordered on northern and mining communities. Those difficult days were the beginning of my development as a political economist, even though it was several years before I entered the academy to formally study the issues.

I remain in close contact with my unit and former colleagues, the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service, through their association. Of all the worlds so-called "Special Forces," there is none other that I would be more content to be associated with.

After leaving the military, I spent a year at the Findhorn eco-commune in Scotland, with mixed results. In particular, I worked with the Findhorn children and regional under-privileged youth through the Findhorn Foundation Youth Project.

Although this loving but muddled intentional community was a safe place to land after such a difficult experience, it was also very isolated from the real work problems I wanted to work on. As a result, I developed, among other things, a sense of how cults work and of how religion holds power over people's minds. (These concerns led in part to my eventual PhD dissertation about religious environmentalism in the United States, particularly religious environmental attempts to address climate change. But I'm jumping ahead in the narrative.)

I then emigrated to the US in 1986, and bummed around the west as a mountain guide and rescue technician, worked in various other western resource-based jobs, including short stints in a mine, a timber mill, and so on, and two years helping to manage a boarding school for troubled youth, before finally beginning attending the University of Montana at the age of 28 in fall 1989.

A Late Bloomer.

As an undergraduate student in Zoology, I worked for Dr. Alan McQuillan at Wilderness Institute, part of the University of Montana Forestry School. I helped out with various conservation, wildlife, and wilderness projects, including the Cabinet Mountains Fisher Reintroduction Project, and was the coordinator of the Institute's field programs, a wonderful job that gave full reign to several of the deeper threads in my life. I was also an Earth First! activist and journalist during the early 1990s, based in Missoula, MT, and published, with my ex-wife Beverly Cherner, several issues of Earth First! Journal.

My first graduate school was the UMT Forestry School, where I studied economic development and sustainability in northern Japan and the Highlands of Scotland. I then went to the Maryland Policy School for six years for a PhD. I did graduate research work under some fairly hi-falutin' academics and survived. One factor which may be a strength or a weakness is a breadth of influences. I'm not a name-dropper, but, for example, I took classes in economics from, and was mentored by, both Herman Daly and Carmen Reinhart.  If you know anything about economics, you will understand that this is an interesting combination, to say the least.

Interesting as in the (apocryphal) Chinese curse.

My PhD was partly funded by a NOAA Sea Grant Fellowship, and I was involved with a number of different social science research projects, mostly under the tutelage of Dr. Mark Sagooff and Mr. David Wasserman, JD, an odd-couple research team that worked together for many years during the 1990s with Sea Grant and EPA funding. The one thing David and Mark do have in common is that they are both Jewish, and bring that faith's ancient and abiding humanitarianism to their work. I sometimes refer to this period, tongue in cheek, as my "rabbinical" education, and value it highly. Towards the end of the PhD experience I was able to spend two semesters at the University of Georgia's Institute of Ecology, where I worked under some interesting academics on some new problems and was able to test out my teaching skills, another valuable experience.

Altogether, I have degrees from the University of Montana in Biology (BA) and Resource Conservation (MS) (the latter from the Forestry School), and from the University of Maryland (PhD) in Environmental Policy Analysis. 

I came to Unity College in the year 2000 as temporary Assistant Professor, while still an ABD PhD candidate. Assigned to general education classes in sustainability and the economics and policy classes, I soon found outlets for the other threads in my life, particularly through the Unity College search and rescue team, and through the engineering work associated with the college campus sustainability programs.

I enjoy Unity College students, who are generally unspoiled young people from practical backgrounds, concerned about the environment and social and political issues. They prefer practical solutions and practical education, for the most part, and respond as well to being outdoors and doing things with their hands as they do to being in class thinking about things. We get along. I was also the college's first sustainability coordinator. I'm now a senior faculty member, a "full professor," and a faculty leader. Our efforts over the years to make the college an example of sustainability are now garnering the attention of the world's media, and, as one of the people responsible for these efforts,

I'm quite proud of our small college's sustainability efforts -- I call it "The Little College that Could", and indeed, former Unity College president Mitchell Thomashow will shortly publish a book about our experiences in campus sustainability.

My formal research area is now in renewable energy planning, climate mitigation and related quantitative analysis, and my teaching is in sustainability, economics, and renewable energy.

I have a good deal of published research, and give a lot of formal presentations. Most recently I've been contributing in the area of pedagogy relating to sustainability, particularly quantitative analysis. Students are often terrified of math, and their ability to understand climate change and economics suffers as a result. I've been thinking about, and experimenting with, different ways to address this problem, and have had some success, publishing and presenting on the results at various conferences.

Related to this very broad and eclectic background, in an ongoing internal research project, I try to reconcile Keynesian economics with ecological economics in very practical terms, and hope soon to take a sabbatical to write my thinking up as a short book. I recently gave a conference presentation on this topic, but the majority of my writings, what I've had time to do, are published in this Annex to my main blog.

I also have a moderately significant technical research project in wind energy measurement and modeling, until recently funded by the federal government and the state of Maine. As a result I maintain a repository of Maine wind data for use in the public interest and provide wind energy analysis for regional and local planning.

I use my blog, Sustainability Thought and Deed, to unite research, teaching and and praxis as seamlessly as I can. When you dabble in as many areas as I do, and teach for a very small college that repeatedly asks you to take on new roles and new subject areas, you have to find a way to bring it all together.

I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in January 2014. This is a minor honor in the UK. The RSA is a venerable institution (est. 1754) for academics and practitioners from industry and commerce that are interested in societal problems, and in particular how they can be addressed using science and technology. You can read about it here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Table of Contents: An ecological political macroeconomics.

This is an annotated table of contents for a book I'm working on -- on the political economy and economics of sustainability. I'll work on it from time to time as my other workload allows. If you happen here and read these ideas and use or republish one or more of them, please make sure to cite them. People often steal my ideas without attribution, and it's very annoying, mostly because the operating rules of my workplace and the Academy in general require me to publish such ideas, or perish (professionally speaking), and only give me full professional credit for them after they are successfully published. As I've mentioned elsewhere in the annex, my high teaching and service workload prevents me from getting the kind of concentrated time required to do a really good job of writing an ecological macroeconomics, so the alternative is to eke it out in stages like this. In order to get some collaboration, and because I enjoy the intellectual freedom of the blogosphere, I choose to publish these ideas here, which then, unfortunately, makes it easy for you to steal them.

So. Don't steal: Cite.

Better yet, drop me a line at, or in the comments section and engage with me.

If you do cite, the formalities will be hard to wrangle into the requirements of your particular journal or other outlet. The proper form of the citation should probably be something like,

Womersley, Mick, 2014: Table of Contents: An ecological political macroeconomics, work in progress, retrieved from the Internet (your date here),

Working title: An ecological political macroeconomics. 

(I know I'll need something more creative than this, but A Guide for the Perplexed, Small is Beautiful and The Limits to Growth are already taken. I'm working on it.)

Table of Contents: 

1) The nature of the sustainability problem in the opening decades of the 21st century: How bad is it, really? What are we going to lose and what we will gain if business as usual (BAU) continues? How does the emerging climate-and-energy crisis interact with freedom and democracy? Where does the world stand with respect to freedom and democracy? Do we have enough of it? How could things be any better? What is my vision of a more just future?

2) An indictement of modern economic theory, how it fails most of the world's people. How a supposedly scientific, positivist theory is really a biased political economy. But is there anything better? What are our options, for a generalized theory of how we should use scarce biophysical resources for competing human physiological and cultural ends? Business as usual capitalism? Socialism? Traditionalism? Other command economies? Anarchism? A mixed economy? All are fundamentally flawed, but capitalism may be less flawed than all the others when you consider the nature of human enterprise and the role that enterprise and entreprenuerialism plays in developing products and production processes. But how could capitalist economics be modified to work better under the conditions of a climate crisis, which may itself just be the first dose of a generalized human sustainability crisis?

A key insight: Is economics really about efficiency, or is it more just the rules of a game we play when we're not playing war? A plug for civilization, instead of war, should go here. A better, more nuanced explanation of how capitalism has served civilization is long overdue.

How well does this game work out for individuals and communities? Who are the winners and who the losers? A new political economy theory of capitalism: Winners compensate losers, or oppress them, in order to maintain the game and so prevent war. It works much as Rawls imagined it to work, but the reality is much more complicated than the theory, far too complicated and entwined in culture and language for any game theorist to game it out. And Rawls didn't concern himself much with oppression, which is clearly a big part of the game.

The result, in societies of the west, is a dynamic balance between the parties of potential or imagined winners and the parties of potential or imagined losers, and various complex cultural combinations thereof, who fight out the levels of compensation required, generally using party politics, sometimes using mob rule.

In the east, things tend to be more black-and-white: actual winners pretend to be, or are, benign dictators, while actively suppressing actual losers violently, using the state's apparatus of power, the legal system, prison, which eastern winners have co-opted, and of course the old favorites, torture and execution. Eastern winners have to always be alert to prevent powerful combinations of losers, especially losers with modern weapons, especially the ubiquitous AK47, and, worst of all, modern ideas, especially democracy. The problem for eastern losers is how to get any free space at all. The only alternative is to become a slave to the system.

(I understand the west-east dichotomy doesn't work that well -- India and Japan, for instance are important democracies, as is South Korea. I may work up a different nomenclature to use here, democratic versus non-democratic. But for now, it's helping me to work through the various problems.)

The problem for western losers and imagined losers, especially environmental and economic radicals is, the west is a much better place to be a loser -- not as free or as delightful as the winners or imagined winners would like us to believe, but still better. Losers, imagined or otherwise, are, for the most part, free to think, imagine, and organize. Or get drunk, do drugs, or religion, and generally exclude themselves from the debate thereby. (Alcohol and drugs having much the same effect as many religious approaches in this respect.)

This freedom is allowed not so much because of capitalism, but because of the systems of human rights in which western capitalism is required to operate. Systems of rights erect boundaries to the excesses of capitalistic winners over the losers, providing intellectual and biophysical spaces for losers and imagined losers to function in. A short history of the development of these systems is in order here. This is also where Amyarta Sen's ideas about personal actualization come in. There also deserves and needs to be a better explanation of the recent democratization of both credit and investment, which has both benefited western losers and imagined losers, and reformed the game of capitalism. Western radicals rarely like to discuss these ideas.

Eastern losers would love to have these rights and opportunities, and western technology, led by "evil" western capitalist corporations such as Google, Microsoft and Apple, as well as the western government-designed internet system, is actually helping them be better and safer activists in their battles against their various dictators. One consequence of the internet revolution is that ideas can now spread very much faster than they used to. If western radicals had their druthers in trammeling western capitalism and technology, one impact would be the loss of these meager but increasingly important opportunities for eastern activists to spread ideas. Luckily, western radicals are not going to get their druthers. But it's one example of the hypocrisy and nonsense of the radical position in the west that such things are thought of, and even muddled up in prescriptions for dealing with climate change.

Another problem for western activists is that western military power sets boundaries to the expansion of the eastern dictators' various empires. Western activists, some of whom are real losers, others of whom are just self-imagined losers, dislike western military power and deny it as a force for good. For good reason, since it is often used to control them. The west is not free of oppression, just relatively free of oppression. They resist this power and refuse to serve it. This is another kind of nonsense, though, because although there have been horrible moments of betrayal, wherein some of the stupider westerners in the military have committed horrible atrocities, various My Lais and Abu Ghraibs, or wherein western governments have betrayed their own rights systems, such as in Guantanamo Bay, for the most part western military systems are a force for good, since they exist to protect systems of rights. Unfortunately, by doing so, they also protect capitalism, and which one they are protecting at any given time is muddled. But when they do protect systems of rights effectively, they are a force for good.

Hence the rescue system which I served for many years and still do, as a civilian paramilitary rescue worker. Hence the various peacekeeping and disaster recovery efforts, and on, and on. And of course, the fully necessary boundary-policing function mentioned above. If western activists had their druthers, all this would come to an end, or at least be modified greatly, so, for instance, the vaunted American military would become more like the feeble Dutch one (that failed so spectacularly in Rwanda), or worse. But I don't think we're going to be able to do without the western military arm, especially as climate change continues. We'll need to keep the dictators at bay, occasionally we'll need to supervise the transition of a former dictatorship to democracy, and we'll need to provide increasing amounts of military and paramilitary disaster rescue and recovery. Somewhere in here a better Keynesian and Marshallian explanation of military peacekeeping and transition operations, as well as military and civilian-but-paramilitary rescue and disaster recovery is deserved.

3) Alternatives to unrequited western capitalism: Macro: The macroeconomics of sustainability. Dalian economics and the biophysical nature of credit. What is money in the biophysical world? How should we think about fractional reserve banking, monetary policy, interest rate manipulations, open market policies and the like, in a world where there are biophysical limits to growth? A new New Deal and a new Marshall Plan for climate change, as well as market reforms required to make sure the new system isn't gamed before it even gets going. A better, more realistic idea of how these reforms can be implemented without taking capitalism head on, a tactic sure to fail. (Some description of why this is sure to fail.)

4) Alternatives to unrequited western capitalism: Micro: A better explanation of the microeconomics of climate change and sustainability, taking into account the democratization of credit and investment: how policies and processes can be rearranged. Where is the microeconomic space that can be coopted by the losers and put to work to make western society more egalitarian? Some notes and how-tos on divestment, on worker's cooperatives and credit unions, on small-scale farming and industry, on how to dissent creatively within and without corrupt, unrequited capitalist concerns, are long overdue here.

5) Alternatives to unrequited western capitalism: Trade: A Climate Free Trade zone. How we can use protectionism to isolate and pauperize the dictators and reduce emissions at the same time. How this might backfire, and what steps we should take to prevent this.

6) Unspinning: How to be a real climate radical in this complex world: Where are the real front lines? In the boardroom, or the boiler room? In front of the barricades, or behind them, in the military or civilian rescue services? You can't succeed with literary and artistic notions of radicalism alone, and we have to stop spinning things, or at least, teach students to better sort out the spin from reality. Some applied engineering is helpful here. To fix climate change we're going to have to know how the engine works, get our hands dirty, try fixing something or making something, try setting up production for something, anything useful, and doing so without using fossil energy, or not very much of it. Old fashioned engineering gumption isn't out-of-date, it's more relevant than ever, and we're going to need it to work better than ever before to survive climate change with any vestige of civilization left. Sure, the artist or writer serves civilization too, but where would we be without the builder or mechanic? A plug for vocational schooling long overdue here. How technology and engineering knowledge are being democratized, the possibilities of a post-industrial society, of the 3-D printer and the open source and "maker" community, how democratized credit and investment plays a role.

7) The role of meditation and moderation: How losers can win -- in their own heads, and how winners actually lose, by being so caught up in their own acquisitive craziness, they never smell the roses. The proliferation of good states of mind: Keynes was a snob, but he was onto something that, if democratized, is worth billions. But its over-enthusiastic application could also cause the worst recession ever. How can we downsize and "degrowth" without causing a recession?

6) Wrap-up: My imagined world of the future, post-climate change.