Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Significance of the Name Francis

Foreign Policy has suggested 'it may be the church's ambiguous stance during Argentina's last dictatorship, which lasted from 1976 to 1983, that has done the most to damage the institution's credibility.' Numbers show a decline in church attendance and also in the level of loyalty commanded from the populace. Anecdotal evidence seems to bear these out. The new Pope Francis, formerly Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, may bear some of the blame. On his watch, the Church has reinforced a moral regime to which the monied elite can comfortably pay lip service, while receiving medical treatment in private clinics, on an impoverished population.

The FP article is one of the very few ominous clouds gathering in the afterglow of the papal inauguration. It reaches to draw its conclusions, perhaps not unfairly in certain respects, but one has to wonder about the time-frames within which it moves. Any change over the period of a decade or so is inconsequential in the life of an international body that thinks in terms of centuries, and with an eye on forever hereafter. As readers of Saint Augustine City of God discover, those who attempt to discern the signs of the times end constructing their own destructive self-fulfilling prophecies. The Church will survive. In its collective wisdom, it knows that it ought to prepare for a much longer term than the editors at FP appear to be able to fathom. Absolute numbers are important, but of relative concern. Catholic priorities are radically different; so also must be the metrics by which you measure its successes.

Most of the media coverage has been positively jubilant. Did you know Pope Francis declined most, if not all, the special treatment accorded a pope? He rode the bus back from his presentation before St. Peter's Square immediately following his election. He returned in person to pay his hotel bill. He has chosen to wear a simple silver ring instead of the usual gold. He even called the Argentine vendor who delivered the daily paper to cancel his subscription. The media has devoured these acts of humility, taking them as signs of things to come. The papacy will be less remote, more open, much more available. Cynics may point out this is all for show. They are at least partially right. It is exactly that: all for show. As leader of the Catholic faithful, the pope leads by example. In principle, he expects nothing from his spiritual constituency he would not do himself.

The pope cuts a perplexing figure across the contemporary political scene. He is the archetypal public servant: formerly the head of Christendom, called the servant of the servants of God. The papacy is not a career goal one sets for oneself to achieve, but is ideally given in trust. Conservative on the big social questions, at least in the public exercise of the authority of his office, though there has been some suggestion his private convictions lie elsewhere, his concern for the poor marks him as liberal in economic matters. Many will disagree with him on certain of his stances, but he cannot be faulted for being inconsistent. The battered, broken, and vulnerable bodies of his fellow human beings, from the fetus in the womb, the starving child, the cripple, to the very aged all to command his attention.

This pope is also, oddly enough, a Jesuit. Members of the order takes vows not to seek higher office. Which is why, though the order was founded by St. Ignatius in the 16th century, it has taken until the 21st century to see one of its members sit on the throne of St. Peter. The Jesuit ideal is on full display for the world to see in the pope's actions. The first taste the world had may have taken the form of a joke: 'May God forgive you for what you have done', he is reported to have said to his fellow cardinals during dinner following his presentation before St. Peters.

The new pope indicated his priorities by choosing the name Francis. If the humble demeanor is characteristically Jesuit, it also harkens back to Saint Francis of Assisi. The same sort of split personality those of us who are prone to divide the world between political conservatives and liberals find in Pope Francis' head, we also find here. The British Catholic controversialist G.K. Chesterton, in his book on the life of Saint Francis, noted 'Saint Francis anticipated all that is most liberal and sympathetic in the modern mood; the love of nature; the love of animals; the sense of social compassion; the sense of the spiritual dangers of prosperity and even of property.' None of these things, however, explain Saint Francis' theological outlook, his vow of chastity, the stern self-imposed moral regime to which, by most accounts, he joyfully submitted. Nor do they make the slightest sense alongside the famous poem The Canticle of the Sun, which affirms which makes all things, not just human beings, equally children of the Creator.

Let's not forget that Pope Francis follows Saint Francis in his efforts to reach out to members of other faith traditions, including those not sheltered beneath the broad umbrella of Christianity.

Here is a portion of the very first homily delivered before St. Peter's Square:
The vocation of being a "protector", however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!
Whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility, whenever we fail to care for creation and for our brothers and sisters, the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened.
The Franciscan affirmation of the brotherhood of all God's creatures, e.g. Brother Sun and Sister Moon from the Canticle, can be heard between the lines. The points where the homily departs from the poem mark the modernity of the Pope Francis' message:
-- a hard distinction drawn between humanity and the rest of the world,
-- an emphasis placed on protecting creation beyond simply affirming solidarity with it, and
-- singling out the familial social configuration for mention.
Presumably the last point would have never crossed St. Francis' mind.

While the rest of us look on and wonder about the future of the Catholic Church and what declining numbers might mean, the Pope measures the success of his ministry on very different terms. Have we served our fellow human beings as we ought? is the question on his mind. If yes, redouble our efforts. If no, start over and do it right.

The nature of the 'ought' is going to be a point of contention, both with those inside and outside the Church. No doubt. But let's not misunderstand what the pope is signalling here. We crunch our numbers, pursue our pet peeves in that corner of the universe for which we claim a certain amount of expertise, or hum and haw about this or that narrow-minded preoccupation. But Francis is playing the very, very long game. Don't be deceived by his affable smile; it's owner is the shrewdest of operators.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Means and Ends of the Iraq War

I remember debating the merits of the Iraq War in 2003 at a special gathering of students and professors during my undergrad at Redeemer University College. The declaration of war was a novel enough event on the world stage to jolt academia from its erudite repose.

I remember also how surprised I was that the general consensus in the room seemed to be that this was a positive step forward, in particular, for the future of the region. What about collateral damage? I asked. The ends, which were the removal of a dictator from power, the establishment of democracy, and the opening up of a free society, in fact, justified the means. More to the point, I was told the end of Justice, with a capital 'J', justified the means.

Now, whether everyone in the room shared the spoken opinion, I cannot be sure. The voices in the room, though, all engaged in detached academic discussion over the ways an intellectual abstraction could be implemented on the ground in Iraq. It was a great day for Iraq--in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada.

Today, I am not sure what to make of the Iraq War itself beyond that it changed things. There's a silly game foreign policy wonks play among themselves, in which opponents are bested with counterfactual arguments. If X had not happened, then Y; or if X had happened, then Z. If the US hadn't gone into Iraq, then Saddam Hussein might still be in power angling to get his hands on nuclear weapons; and so on. These arguments obey strict logical formulations. They appeal to certain sets of correspondences between states of affairs, as they are generally understood to be true. The victor is usually the one able to point out the most obvious correspondence. But these arguments don't actually prove a damn thing. Just ask a historian. They will tell no human being has ever sketched the future state of things with anything more than the vaguest of impressions. At the distance of 10 or 20 years, all such intelligent prognostication amount to nothing more than blathering idiocy.

Though I am unsure what to make of the impact of the Iraq War on world affairs, watching it played a very large role in shaping the future course of my education. One of the first things I did was to read widely in Islamic history. I set up a Honours History independent study and wrote on Muslim Spain. I went to McMaster University and studied with the resident Ottoman specialist, eventually producing a research paper on an early modern French appropriation of the image of enlightened Turk as a criticism of the irrationalities of European society. My perspective may have broadened today into a general interest in the study of world religions. The lessons learned studying Islamic history, though, have not been lost.

I may not be sure what to make of the Iraq War itself, but I am quite sure the sort of arguments made in its favour amount to practical atheism. Not just the arguments that left such a bad impression on myself personally back in 2003, but the official position of the Bush administration, of the news anchors, of political commentators. By this I mean simply the means by which one achieves a desired end are so far out of step with the end itself that the means employed prevent the end being achieved. Persons speak in abstractions, without concern for the existing relations between persons. Such persons sees only ends, with little concern for the means. For example: the military doctrine 'Shock and Awe' was supposedly neither good nor bad; it is merely effective for achieving certain ends. Speaking from on high, from the seat of the Most High, such a person is a practical atheist.

The Daily Beast has published an article ('Iraq War, 10th Anniversary: The Last Grand Mufti') by a correspondent who spent seven years in Iraq covering all facets of the conflict. The article tells the story of Shiekh Hamza of Fallujah, killed in November of 2005 for his refusal to support the more radical action against occupying forces. The author concludes, though an Iraqi may have put the trigger,  American action put the venerable sheikh in harm's way. This is not the place for the counterfactual observation that had American's not been in Fallujah, the sheikh would still be alive today. (He probably would be, though there is no way to verify this.) It is rather to follow a series of actions and events leading up to the sheikh's death in order to understand how things came to they terrible conclusions that they did.

My take-away is that the road to hell truly is paved with good intentions--good, short-sighted, self-serving intentions imposed at will without consideration of the concerns of others involved. Service rendered to grand abstractions like A More Just Society means simple truths like doings to others what you would have them do to you get forgotten.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

History as Moral Science

Did you know that hippies in the 1960s were smelly Satan worshipers, the Ku Klux Klan were avid community service workers, or slaver owners were nice people (aside from the whole slavery thing)?

I didn't. Or, more precisely, I would have doubted these arbitrary descriptors got at anything essential about the demographics they characterized.

And now I do, all thanks to a Grade 8 textbook on American history titled America: Land I Love, published in Louisiana. This delightful addition to curious and quaint examples of Americana also informs me that hippies wore ragged unconventional clothing, fell under the influence of rock music, and belonged to Eastern religious cults.

On the balance of probabilities, and all other things being equal, the textbook is probably not lying outright. Some hippie probably thought the Devil a pretty groovy guy, some Klan members probably did do community service, and (perhaps a little more controversially) a few slave owners, according to the times in which they lived, probably weren't all that bad. As regards the hippies, some of them did no doubt smell, did listen to rock music, and did follow exotic spiritualities. The Salon report linked to above may not be wrong that this stuff 'doesn't belong in a history book', but it doesn't do a good job explaining why.

All of the focus on historical details misses the point. The sort of judgments being foisted on unsuspecting youngsters are the problem, specifically because they judgments of moral condemnation and exoneration. This type of history is written with an eye to the way the author wants to see the world, not to the way things actually were. (Yes, that was me, channeling Leopold von Ranke.) The opposition between what we want things to be and what things actually were may be a little simplistic, I grant you, but it remains a valid one.

The middle of the 20th century was a forum for some pretty interesting debates about whether a historian should also pass moral judgments on the people they were studying. Some historians held that the study of human history should aspire to strictly scientific standards of factual accuracy and impartiality. Others were willing to grant that pure objectivity was a pipe dream, considering the subject matter: the thoughts and actions of other human beings. It was hardly possible, for example, to talk about Adolf Hilter and the Nazi Party without passing some sort of moral judgment. And even if one doesn't pass judgement explicitly, there is always the question of what motivates persons to take up the study of Hilter et al. in droves instead say, of cathedral communities in 11th century Santiago de Compostella (a topic which I personally happen to find fascinating). Moral concerns also exert themselves in indirect ways and some account must be made of them. The better way, the second group of historians said, was to distance one's personal judgments from the history one tells as much as possible.

Valid points are made by many participants in these intellectual debates. It seems to me, however, most participants misunderstand the essential nature of a moral imperative. For example, if historians ought to aspire to the strict standards of scientific accuracy or ought to hold their personal judgments apart from the historical judgment, a moral imperative sneaks back into the study of history through a backdoor.

The question is why moral judgments always seem to be encroaching upon the study of history. The answer is fairly simple and straightforward: historians are human being talking about other human beings. Never escaping the circle of humanity reflecting upon itself and upon the nature of its existence, like natural scientists do when they study the natural world, things personal, things subjective, things moral, etc., etc., never actually drop out of the historians equation.

Where does this leave us with respect to the Louisiana textbook? If, as I am claiming here, the study of human history is a thoroughly moral enterprise, then we have to think about the nature of the person passing judgment and the nature of the person that gets judged. As usually happens in the study of human history, the former person is alive and the latter persons are long dead. And, we know the dead don't speak for themselves--which is just a part of what being dead means. (The hippies, of course, aren't dead yet, but the point still stands.)

Now, the person who accuses someone long dead of morally abhorrent behavior had better be sure that their condemnation of the dead is not itself morally abhorrent. The dead are dead and gone. In a certain respect, they have already paid for their sins by dying. So if we are going to disinter their memories, to hold them up to make a moral point that the dead, because they are dead, cannot themselves take to heart, we better have a damn good reason for doing so. Because if what we are really doing is fighting contemporary moral battles in the pages of human history, we are being both cowardly and duplicitous by talking away from ourselves and refusing to own our own beliefs.

Which is why professional historians tend to eschew passing moral judgment, and prefer instead to understand what people actually thought and did. Calling slave owners nice people doesn't actually get at what being a slave owner was about. Nor does calling hippies smelly Satan-worshippers get at what hippies actually thought about life. Though these things may very well reflect contemporary attitudes towards of a wealthy white population towards a perceived troublesome African-American population. They may also reflect contemporary attitudes towards the perceived excesses of disgruntled youth.

What cheap moralisms do not do is allow persons reading the Louisiana textbook to encounter persons as persons. If the only thing the textbook ever does is present persons as moral exemplars of what to do and not to do, it has violated perhaps the most universal moral statement humanity has ever possessed: the Golden Rule, which St. Augustine systematized by distinguishing human action from human nature--hating the sin and not the sinner--and is still enshrined in legal principles like due process, habeus corpus, and being innocent until proven guilty.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Kant's Very Modest Proposal for Achieving Perpetual Peace

An episode in the life of perhaps the most influential intellectual in the last four centuries, Immanuel Kant, serves to illustrate some of the confusion perpetuated by modern thinkers about the nature of religion. In 1794, Kant was informed that the Prussian king, Wilhelm II, would no longer tolerate his increasingly heterodox positions on the nature of true belief. His 'continued obstinacy', especially with the publication of Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (1793), had tested the patience of authorities long enough. Personally wealthy at this later point in his career and capable of supporting himself, Kant still took the threat of loosing his academic posting to heart. He capitulating to the demands of the Prussian king and his royal council.

Among his other duties and endeavors, a thus muzzled Kant turned his attentions to formulating what was necessary to achieve perpetual peace in a world full of nation-states. The document can be viewed as a whole here: Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795). It struggled with basic questions like how one translates a set of ideas in the heads of certain people into lived reality for everyone. The document concluded:
If it is a duty to make real (even if only through approximation in endless progress) the state of public law, and if there is well-grounded hope that this can actually be done, then perpetual peace, as the condition that will follow what has erroneously been called "treaties of peace" (but which in reality are only armistices), is not an empty idea. As the times required for equal steps of progress become, we hope, shorter and shorter, perpetual peace is a problem which, gradually working out its own solution, steadily approaches its goal. (Emphasis mine.)
Though Kant was explicitly instructed not to theorize about the nature of true religion, he was able to theorize about a quintessentially religious topic: the nature of a state of existence devoid of violence, characterized by perpetual peace, which had been called the Kingdom of God by former thinkers like St. Augustine, and would be called as much by later thinkers like G.W.F. Hegel. The irony was that the authorities do not seem to have objected, which was probably because they did not know enough to draw the connection themselves. Not free to question the peculiar dogmas of the Christian faith, like the deity of Christ, the character of worship, and the nature of morality, Kant was nonetheless free to theorize about a state of peace in which the self is one with the world and the world with the self.

The Kantian coup d'etat was accomplished through sheer force of intellectual modesty. Kant claimed not to be talking about ultimate bliss, harmony, or peace; he claimed to be merely sketching out how the same might be achieved in this world. This sort of argument only flies, however, if your audience already agrees with the basic premise that religion has nothing to do with what might be achieved in this world. The following passage illuminates the nature of Kant's this-worldliness:
The state of peace among men living side by side is not the natural state (status naturalis); the natural state is one of war. This does not always mean open hostilities, but at least an unceasing threat of war. A state of peace, therefore, must be established, for in order to be secured against hostility it is not sufficient that hostilities simply be not committed; and, unless this security is pledged to each by his neighbor (a thing that can occur only in a civil state), each may treat his neighbor, from whom he demands this security, as an enemy.
Here we find Kant thinking about an original state in the larger context of argument that thinks forwards towards a desired end state. The above passage contains reference to old ideas about 'the state of nature', which thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke once debated with serious intent. 'States of nature' were secularized version of the biblical narratives of the goodness of the creation and the human fallenness. Sometimes emphasis was placed on original goodness, in which case the state of nature was also a state of innocence. Other times emphasis was placed on original fallenness, in which case the state of nature was also a state of war.

Kant's attempts to describe how perpetual peace might be achieved was an inspiration for the failed League of Nations and the moderately successful United Nations in the 20th century. Tellingly, however, 'state of nature' is today nothing more than antiquary curiosity.

As I argued elsewhere, we think as if we are ahead of ourselves. We are either thinking ahead to better days or despairing of the possibility that things might get better; we rarely think backwards with anything more than antiquary curiosity about the bits and pieces our predecessors have left behind.

Kant's coup d'etat contributes to the modern reorientation of our mental landscape. His intellectual modesty has meant we no longer know how the past, present, and future hang together. Though he uses the language of the 'state of nature', Kant no longer means the ways things were in a hypothetical or mythical past. He means the way things are right now, if a universal civil authority over all the world's nation-states was absent. Hobbes and Locke, arguably, meant the something similar; but in deference to their religious heritage, they hypothesized as if the state of nature were found in the distant past.

The ability to think backwards and forwards from the present situation, comparing and contrasting the way things are with the way they might be, and even the way they ought to be, is at the heart of religious belief. That is why Kant's proposal for perpetual peace, though it should strike us as fundamentally religious, comes across, in fact, as a modest secular proposal.

Nothing audacious, nothing untowards. Just a slow ascent into a state of purely civil interactions between persons, each acting with restraint towards others, as if everyone else were autonomous, self-determining agents, and not means to some other self-aggrandizing end--be that fame, fortune, pain, pleasure, power, etc.--which, when you think about it really hard, does sound a lot like religious promises about a world better than the present one.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Interpreting the Holocaust

Human history is a record of many things, but especially a record of the evil humanity has inflicted upon itself. With most of the misery and death about which I read in histories up to the 20th century, I empathize with the those who suffered, and my anger mounts in proportion to the heinousness of the crime. The atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish people, however, leaves a profound disquiet to settle over me. It's a sort of saddened fury that wells up in the face of a feeling of utter powerlessness. Perhaps because, 60+ years hence, I am powerless to do anything; or because I search for an answer about how I would  act in similar circumstances, but cannot find one.

The politically correct answer is that you would oppose the Nazis to your very last breath, or would have, had to lived in Germany during the 1930s or Europe during the 1940s. Many did at the time; though, given the scale of the Nazi program, obviously not enough. Wariness towards snap judgments is needed. The politically correct answer is also an intellectually naive answer. Moral uprightness can be confused with blindly presumptive self-righteousness, which is what condemnation pronounced from a comfortable distance of 60+ years very easily becomes.

Now a research team, beginning a number of years ago, has patiently documented evidence of more than 42,000 'ghettos, slave labour sites, concentration camps, and killing factories' established by the Nazis around Europe. Even people who study the Holocaust are surprised by the size of the number.

The number of locations represents between 15 and 20 million human lives cut short by policies directed at the purification of the German race. Approximately 2/3s of the total Jewish population of Europe, or 6 million persons, were slaughtered with extreme prejudice, in addition to a large number of others who did not meet Nazi standards of racial purity or physical excellence.

Though the number of Jews who died was less than 2/3 of the total number who died, the Holocaust is appropriately remembered as the Jewish Holocaust. The Nazi regime made it their specific goal to eliminate the Jewish people. Their greatest successes were in Poland, where almost 90% of the Jewish population was put to death.

What is surprising is that many are surprised the number of incarcerations sites is so large. Though we probably shouldn't be too surprised, as it speaks to a disconnect between the way things were, and the way we want to remember the past. How the story of the Third Reich is told gets mixed up with all kinds of other very immediate considerations.

Following the Second World War, the question of wider German responsibility for Nazi atrocities has been raised time and again. Was the horror of the death camps the result of the actions of a few who had managed to gain control of government? What did the average German know at the time?

The question of German responsibility is a slippery one. The distinction one might be inclined to draw between tacit acceptance and active participation. If responsibility also entails guilt, does guilt accrue to tacit acceptance of a state of affairs like the mass incarceration and extermination of a significant portion of the population? What about acquiescence to the actions of others that is not merely acquiescence to the actions of citizens, but to the actions of a governing authority whose legitimacy rests on the fact that citizens elected them into office?

But questions like these distract from the blindly obvious. In his masterful Third Reich Trilogy, Richard Evans relates the content of a speech by Joseph Goebbels recorded and broadcast across Germany,
Germany at least does not intend to quail before this Jewish threat; rather, to meet it with the timely, if necessary total and most radical exter . . . [correcting himself] exclusion of Jewry! [loud applause, wild shouting, and laughter.]
The 'threat' was a shadowy (because non-existent) cabal of 'International Jewry' who were supposedly pulling the strings in Washington, London, and Moscow. Hitler seems not to have understood, or to have wilfully misunderstood, why England and the United States would enter the war against Germany. The only possible explanation in his mind was a Jewish conspiracy, which was already supposed to have control of Stalin in Moscow. Goebbels' not so innocent slip-up and the crowd's response is fairly good indication that everyone knew what was going on, at least, at some level.  Even if people had only ever witnessed the extradition of neighbours--better yet, because they had witnessed the extradition of neighbours, and afterwards looted newly-ownerless properties--everyone knew.

Now, I won't pretend to be a hero. The relatively pampered existence a North American lives is a wonderful antidote to development of heroic qualities. Watching superhero movies--as entertaining as they are, or because they are nothing more than entertainment--cannot change that. I won't fool myself into knowing exactly how I would respond in similar circumstances.

I do claim, however, to know what tragedy is. The Holocaust was a tragedy of immense proportions. It was a tragedy because people were led like lambs to the slaughter in service of the perverted ideal of racial purity. It was also tragedy because the entire Western world seems to have lost the moral compass to find its way home to humanity. Only after the War, when the Americans and the British came face to face with camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald and were forced to draw the obvious Nazi rhetoric with the reality of actions taken against the Jewish population, did it seem capable of gaining its bearings once more.

I do also claim to have a reasonable picture of why the tragedy occurred  By the end of the 19th century, a quasi-scientific theory of evolution was being applied across Europe and North America to the social. It stood to reason, some argued, if our physics builds us better guns, then our biology can build us better humans. These arguments gained a wide hearing.

The consequence of evolutionary arguments was that human beings were regarded as nothing more than animals, their bodies fodder for a super-race that would inevitably replace them. The very people who gifted Europe with the idea that the human being was more than an animal, was created in the image of a God who could not be imaged in the form of anything, were sacrificed in the pursuit of new gods that were nothing more than animal specimens of physical excellence.

And most everyone seems to have been blind to the obvious depravity of it all.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Flywheel Energy Storage

The well known science fiction author Neil Stephenson drones on at a low, bemused ebb about how we have lost the ability to dream big. Within a couple generations, we went from not being able to fly to putting men on the moon. The same length of time since that initial burst of creativity, between putting the first man on the moon and the present, has been far less creative. Today the best minds on the planet, Stephenson drily observes, dedicate their significant mental energies to coding spam filters.

Stephenson's idea of dreaming big entails building a really tall tower, in the spirit of the biblical Tower of Babel. If you have read his book Snowcrash, the biblical reference is entirely explicable. Stephenson wants to launch pay-loads into orbit from a height of 15 or 20km, depending on complicated calculations that factor in the force the Jet Stream exerts on the needle-like edifice, into the vast unknown where the gods were once believed to dwell. The energy required to achieve orbit, and so also the cost, would be greatly reduced. The idea attracts him because, he says, it is entirely within our technical capacity to accomplish. In principle, we can do big things. The only thing missing is political will.

If dreaming big means finding ways off the planet's surface, though, I have to wonder whether it covers over a deeper despair. It's fairly obvious from the talk Stephenson harbours a great deal of pent up frustration towards other people--politicians, businessmen, and the like--who don't think things through with the clarity of a natural scientist or an author of science fiction. So it's not surprising his idea of thinking big involves leaving home.

Flywheel energy storage technology is another such project within our technical capacity to achieve. It's also a lot closer to home than are the supposed promises of a new Babel. Flywheel technology is a mechanical form of energy storage, which promises to regularize demands on energy supply between peak and off-peak hours. A rotor suspended in a near-frictionless, vacuum-sealed container is speed-up by excess electrical power during off-peak hours and energy from the rotor is fed back into the energy grid during hours of peak demand.

Flywheel technology has the potential to smooth out large the cost differential between base-load (coal, hydro-electric, nuclear) and peak-load (usually older natural gas plants) power-production. This will allow for the integration of intermittent forms of renewable energy production--especially wind, solar--with an distribution network that demands a regular supply.

It would also throw into question one of the basic tenets of the calculus of electrical supply and demand: electricity cannot be stored. That's big. Like really, really big. The way the electrical production industry responds to new demands on existing supply could be entirely rethought. And right now some sort of creative thinking along these lines is needed. More than 1200 new coal-fired power-plants are being planned at the same time as smog in China has been renamed the 'airpocalyse'. To put this as crassly as possible, capitalists everywhere should be thinking about how to make money off Chinese (or Brazilian, Indian, Indonesian, Mexican, heck even American) children starving for breathe a fresh air. Now. The planet will thank them.

Development of flywheel technology will occur quite close to my childhood home. Last December, the Wall Street Journal reported one Ontario firm, NRStor, has partnered with Ontario Power Generation, along with a couple of other companies, 'to accelerate the commercialization of energy storage technologies through the planning and development of energy storage solutions.' Admittedly, the language is evasive. It doesn't actually say things are going to get done. But someone out there, at least, is thinking big in ways that don't involve us banking that technological spin-offs from space exploration will be a tide that automatically lifts all boats down here on earth. (There's a biblical Flood metaphor in there somewhere.)

The press release reports that a one-acre plot of land will be developed near the town of Sarnia. The rationale it provides is couched in terms of responding to future market pressures. As the costs of fossil fuel energy production as still quite low, this sort of technology is not likely going to establish itself overnight. But North Atlantic governments should stop behaving as if their sole priority was the maintenance of something called 'the economy'. They should start thinking more about other public goods; flywheel technologies, for example, could be incentivized. The payout for 'the economy' over the longer term is obvious.