Organizing a Renewables Manhattan Project

A Foundation:  Stewardship of the Earth

I’ve seen two estimates of the number of species now on the earth:  7 million and 30 million.  I have a sense that most of these millions of species will become extinct with too much climate change, probably in 100 years. 

You can look at this environmental catastrophe in different ways.  Humanity owns all of this in perpetual trust for all future generations of our children, and we’re called to not spend our children’s inheritance, not on a mess of pottage.  We’re supposedly the richest generation in history.  Can we not afford to hang onto these many species, some of which took 100 million years to develop?  Extinction is forever.

Walk through a dead forest.  We have them now, the victims of pine beetles and other bugs.  Dead forests lead to vast burned out former forests extending halfway through the suburbs of Colorado Springs.  Is this nothingness a fit gift to our great grandchildren? 

Climate change is a poll tax upon the poor, a cost not reflected in the fuel’s price that the poor often bear more than the rich.  The 700 people who drowned in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina were generally poor people who had nowhere in particular to evacuate.  A few fossil fuel company owners may prosper, but people in the central Philippines suffered in last year’s super-typhoon.

Climate change isn’t righteous before God.  Creation belongs to God.  We have no right to mass extinction.  This is God’s garden and we’re just creatures in it.

How do you really feel about climate change?  Is there a moral imperative to save beauty on the earth?

A Foundation:  The Blessed Community

Have you heard the Quaker joke about Henry?  Henry was a young man, sitting in meeting for worship one First Day, when he felt a stirring to get up and say something.  He fought the stirring back.  A while later, someone across the room stood and said almost the exact same thing.  At the end of the hour meeting broke and people shook hands.  Then a nearby elder said to Henry, “The next time, Henry, say it thyself.”

It gradually dawns on new people that Friends live within a loose sense of community.  We wash dishes or dry dishes after a potluck not because we signed up, but because the work needs to be done and we’re available.  People with gifts in calligraphy, bookkeeping or carpentry often wind up with specific sets of tasks in the meeting.

Next, it dawns on people that, in our world of meditation and prayer, we live in a blessed community in our meetings and on earth.  Some (or possibly all) people have a guide or a divine presence that tells them what they should do, and sometimes they reply NO!, or at other times they act a bit tired or grumpy but they say Yes Lord, and then there’s every possible response in between.  The Holy Spirit usually wins out.  Individuals are called to take principled stands against war and against social injustice, and when they do, they’re doing the work of the blessed community as surely as the people washing dishes.  Mohandas Gandhi would go to jail for his beliefs, but in one intentional community people were a bit shocked when Gandhi cleaned the toilets.  We’re grateful that Pete Seeger left Harvard and rode the rails with Woody Guthrie.  Pete had his money-making musical career pretty well smashed when he was blacklisted in the 1950s, but he went on, living at a subsistence level on a plot of land with his family.  In the end, Pete commanded a vast respect that his accusers never achieved.  We can say the same about Henry David Thoreau.  Jesus of Nazareth lived with the poor, healed people and preached nonviolent resistance against Israel’s military occupiers.

I argue that in just about all such cases, in the people who have gone elsewhere for community development work, in the people who have chosen to go to jail and in the people who have been martyred for their faith, they were simply doing some of the blessed community’s work.  They were in a proper position and in a proper frame of mind to do that particular task.

Early Friends’ Business and the Blessed Community

Early Friends saw abject poverty inside their meetings.  Thousands of Quaker farmers had been disowned of their land by the British government.  In the short term Friends were led to feed the hungry among them.  In the longer term they were often led to found businesses, to apprentice each other, and finally to financially set up meeting members one by one in business. 

Friends thereupon learned some hard lessons about communities and business.  Individual Friends would occasionally go bankrupt for diverse reasons.  Some would escape their debts by moving to London.

Friends also had noble community aspirations that only sometimes worked.  At least one early American commune collapsed because nobody was motivated to do the work.  The town of Philadelphia was an architectural marvel, but the colony of Pennsylvania couldn’t pay off its creditors.  William Penn lived a year in debtors prison in England in order to save Pennsylvania, which didn’t turn a net profit, before Friends settled with Pennsylvania’s creditors.

Far worse from a Quaker perspective, the children and grandchildren of wealthy Friends often decided to enjoy their inherited wealth and ignore the Quaker call to a Blessed community.  Wealthy society would accept these descendents to the extent that they participated in the small community of wealthy society.  This same social pressure encouraged a quietist philosophy.  Meetings now had some financial stature in society worth protecting, worth keeping the riffraff out of meetings.  Meetings disowned people for owning pianos, for having moustaches and for marrying out of meeting.  Friends occasionally disowned abolitionists, and the Hicksite and Guerneyite branches of Quakerism disowned each other.  By the year 1900 the Quaker influence in America had vastly diminished.

I see Friends’ ancient dangers when I look at modern business.  I also see a wealthy world with a shocking number of starving people, people without jobs, and I see almost nobody doing a job that they really like.

A Modern Friends’ Approach to Business

We desire an open community that reaches out and heals people that don’t yet know they’re a part of this community.  At meeting I see great numbers of doctors, nurses, teachers, librarians, social workers, psychotherapists and alternative healers, all varieties of healers doing the good work.  I also see people going into fields, into places in our wider community, where there are no Quakers.

I see our Quaker community’s attitude toward business as partly, we want our community to survive, and so we do business when we must.  Friends are willing to manage schools, retirement communities and political advocacy organizations.  None of these businesses are privately held.

And so I see Friends as being constrained to obey any law that God has not called them to disobey.  In the same way, I see Friends as being constrained to fit into the social mold, into the larger society where we do business, in any way that God has not called us to avoid. 

However, we see the hazards both to society and to our smaller Blessed communities of leaving business to unscrupulous individuals.  We see massive structural unemployment and know that it’s wrong.  We see members and attenders of our meeting without jobs, or taking on any available job.  We see a veering off of society’s goals from “better living” to “more money”, and so certain parts of society defraud the other parts.  We see elections being bought by grafters so that national, state and local governments may be looted.  We see the world’s society separating into an incredibly rich inherited class, a middle class in certain privileged countries and a starving, war-ravaged class in the poor countries.

And so, we may want to do a limited amount of business within our wider community, recognizing the spiritual risks of this work. 

Business Principles

We want everyone, and people in our meetings also, to at least have an honest chance at a career.  We’re moved by love of people that we know, and by regret when people are hurt, to create these jobs. 

Business is seen as an enormous risk.  It’s capable of bankrupting people.  We shouldn’t lay the combination of incredible financial burdens plus high risk on our young individuals starting out.  What was so wrong with the traditional system of apprenticeships in going business concerns?

A company should be of mutual benefit to all concerned stakeholders.    We are not to feed carcinogens to our customers, nor should we disable our workers and then discard them.

A company should benefit humanity’s future.

If having an exclusive goal of investor profit causes us grief, we should find ways around this problem.  Perhaps we want to set up social entrepreneurships where, in traditionally for-profit fields, a community bank holds stock in individual businesses.  Slices of power on the board of directors should be given to consumers, to workers, to neighbors, to representatives of the environment.

Business Methods

We respect consensus process as a method of discerning wisdom. 

We recognize that at certain times a committee of Friends has made a bad business decision.  Most early Friends enterprises were single proprietorships or partnerships, our modern love of the Delaware Indians’ consensus process notwithstanding.  We should be committed to running forensic audits of what went wrong in those instances, toward the end of improving Friends’ business process. 

We recognize that at times minor business decisions are best made quickly and by one or two people.  Also, some decisions require a degree of specialized knowledge that only a few of us may possess.

We recognize that at times new, strange ideas need to gain traction or buzz.  We don’t shut out new ideas simply because we don’t have immediate consensus.

Tenure Track Research Versus a Manhattan Project

I’ve discovered that tenure track positions never get awarded to technologists.  Tenure gets awarded to the field’s librarians, to the field’s numbers gurus, sometimes to the field’s jungle fighters and sometimes to whoever can cozy up to the billionaires.

However, our world needs Manhattan Project technologists in the mold of the original Manhattan Project staffers, people willing to lose themselves in the mundane details of getting things to work reliably and of solving real-world problems as they crop up.  We need to bring helpful, buildable things into the world this time. 

We might remember the devotion that early radiologists brought to their field.  They knew, in the sacred task of saving many other people’s lives, that they themselves would almost surely die an early death from the X-rays.  Solar technologists may save the entire planet without ever sharing the radiologists’ fear of dying for their work, but I expect that none of us may be recognized with tenure and few of us may ever be properly funded.  I invite people of conscience to boldly enter into the renewables Manhattan Project despite every possible financial disincentive that our earthly governments can possibly muster.  An admiral in the Civil War once cried, “Damn the torpedoes!”  Again, we won’t have to risk bodily harm, only the predations of poverty.  And weren’t 8,000 early British Friends once dispossessed of their farms or jailed in their moral need to be Friends of the Truth?

A Call to a Renewable Energy Manhattan Project

I’ve been working on solar inventions.  I believe that the world faces a climate crisis, and that lowering the cost of common renewable energy applications is a direct route to permanently solving this crisis.  I believe that our community would want me to try to invent.  I don’t serve on any committees in my meeting.  I serve as golf cart co-coordinator at FGC in part because I need to speak out to Friends at FGC.

If it should prove that my improvements lower the cost of stored solar heat and solar concentration, with applications in generating electricity at night, in growing crops in winter and in growing algae for biodiesel production, then I believe that we want a number of people to be released from other community duties to implement such inventions at a reasonable speed. 

What I believe that I’m explicitly called to do is help other people, in their feelings of weakness and aloneness, into a position where we can work together to inhibit and eventually to end climate change. 

I believe that we’ll want a number of people to examine the actual inventions.

It's not enough to invent in a vacuum.  The ideas need to be real products that people can afford.  Only then will ideas change the world for the better.

 Would you be available for a task?  Can you nominate a friend?

The Targets

1.  The current state of no-heat solar greenhouses includes walapini, roald gundersen triangle greenhouses and New Alchemy designs.  My concentrating reflectors work with all sorts of greenhouse designs, but they also create their own category.  The price of no-heat solar greenhouses can be lowered to the point where using diesel trucks to bring tennis ball-flavored produce from Mexico will become uneconomical.  We had tomato sprouts in my Attleboro prototype in the winter of 2010 with no fossil fuel heat.

1a.  These greenhouses are wonderful to live in.  People will ask why all buildings can’t be this well daylighted and heated.

1b.  My algae option for greenhouses drops the price of algae for raising tilapia, chicken feed, for affordable biofuels and eventually for mass carbon sequestration. 

2.  More robust solar reflecting tracker technology is needed for daylighting and for helping to heat almost all existing buildings.  So, let’s build it.

3.  Solar thermal storage units are the key to heating office buildings at 6:00 a.m. in the winter.  Heating is 1/3 of all energy use.  I’m close to completing my Warwick prototype.

3a.  Solar thermal storage can also generate electricity on demand, either by creating steam or with a Stirling engine such as Dean Kamen’s Slingshot brand generator.  Electricity when the sun shines is 10% of all fossil fuel use, but stored electricity is another 20% of all fossil fuel use. 

3b.  Solar thermal storage can power a solar chimney that runs up the side of a mountain.  See the Manzanares, Spain solar chimney as an example.  Their costs were $.25 per kwh because building anything 600 feet high costs money.  A rubber tube running up the side of a mountain lowers the cost to perhaps $.02 per kwh, and it runs in the evening.  Would you like to build a little one up a hill?  How about working on various subsystems?

4.  Transportation is 30% of fossil fuel use.  An above-grade automated gondola system might lower short-range transit costs by a factor of 10, plus deadly accidents might drop by a factor of 100 or better.  For now we need an HO-scale model and computer modeling.

5.  Save the species.  We need to freeze the egg cells of millions of species in liquid nitrogen or else keep them in micro-zoos. 

6.  Environmentally sensitive geoengineering. 

6a.  We need to draw heat out of the Arctic Ocean and into the Arctic winter air, so that the ice pack again grows to its natural thickness.

6b.  We need to develop two types of white parking lot and breakdown lane paint.  One type is permanent and cools tropical asphalt parking lots.  The other type of white paint lasts six months and biodegrades in the fall, so that black parking lots clear themselves of snow each winter.

6c.  If we could have wind-powered pumps that created artificial snow, we could coat sections of the Arctic tundra white earlier in the fall and later in the spring, reflecting a bit more sun back into space.

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