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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Oil Addiction: The World in Peril - 9

by Pierre Chomat (Universal Publishers, 2004)

translated from the French by Pamela Gilbert-Snyder

Part I. Man's Egosystems

Chapter 9. Land of the Superfluous

How far can man's energy and egosystems take him? Very far! Very fast! Very high! To be convinced, we need only visit the Cape Kennedy launch pad in Florida or the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. But these egosystems are too specialized to provide an accurate picture of what our species has become. They might even give us a false impression of our level of development. Space centers are "exceptional exceptions". To examine human behavior in a more common, yet nonetheless extraordinary, egosystem, let us return to the land the Ohlones were forced to abandon to their colonizers: California. More precisely, to the San Francisco Bay region, a place of boundless creativity. During our visit we will see how a land once regarded as a Great Mother by the Native Americans, for whom the spirits of Nature ruled over all, was transformed in just a little over two hundred years into a vast egosystem in which Man rules over all.

Although the early pioneers were mainly looking for good farmland, many of the immigrants who flooded into California after the discovery of gold had other things in mind. They lost no time in turning the region upside down, bringing Nature further under their control so they could exploit it more fully. Accounts of immigrant adventures reveal an intense focus on acquiring riches. Those who tunneled through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and panned the rivers for gold were even more single-minded in this pursuit than were the sardine fishers of Monterey. The luckiest among them ended up with grand mansions in San Francisco; those who discovered that gold nuggets were far easier to spend in saloons than they were to find in the mountains are buried in the Mother Lode country.

Only fifteen years after gold was discovered, construction began on the transcontinental railroad linking San Francisco to the eastern United States. It, too, was the work of very determined entrepreneurs, and a source of enormous riches.

Although the gold from the mountains and the profit from the railroad constituted much of San Francisco's early wealth, there was even more money to be made in agriculture. Ardent pioneers began transforming California's immense valleys - the San Joaquin in the south and the Sacramento in the north, in particular - into gigantic farm fields. Today, with intensive irrigation networks, high-yield fertilizers and ideal amounts of sunshine, industrialized farmers manage to harvest several crops a year. California's factory farms produce nearly everything - from rice, tomatoes, artichokes and beans to oranges, peaches, plums, and almonds. Cattle no longer roam the range; they are fattened in feedlots, then sent to meat processing plants. Moreover, lest we forget, this colossal agricultural egosystem is an enormous sinkhole for ergamines.

In more recent years, however, the new rush for riches in the Golden State has shifted toward the region just south of San Francisco. In an area where a dozen or so small encampments of American Indians once coexisted peacefully for centuries, leaving the land mostly untouched, the entrepreneurs of the early 20th century found it necessary to transform even the local geography to make room for their egosystems. They went so far as to fill in large portions of the San Francisco Bay, reducing its area by one third. {a} Lots on this backfill sell today; for millions of dollars.

This region is now home to the amazing egosystem known as Silicon Valley. The word "silicon" refers to the material used to make "microchips". The valley in question, also known as the Santa Clara Valley, is among the most fertile in the world and by the 1920s was covered with rich orchards. Today it is largely covered with companies producing every imaginable sort of microchip device, the best known being personal computers. Sadly, these same companies have so polluted the valley that it now has more Superfund sites {19} than anywhere else in the nation and can never be farmed again.

But many industries besides chip manufacturers thrive in the fertile atmosphere of Silicon Valley, unraveling the mysteries of biology, achieving amazing medical advances, and mounting bold space research initiatives. Now the Valley is nothing more than a tremendous egosystem, one of the planet's most innovative, where high-tech employees are encouraged to share their personal ideas and research. Companies are no longer simply beehives of activity; they are also think tanks for developing new products and experimenting with new production methods and work relationships. Employees at all levels are encouraged to express their ideas; this self-expression has become a driver of innovation, a means of constant development. In this regard, Silicon Valley has been a resounding success. Although the area was hit by a major recession in 2001 , its industries are still extremely dynamic.

It is almost as if Silicon Valley is under some kind of spell. People the world over are drawn there to try and establish their own egosystems. The greatest minds in electronics develop computer hardware and software there. Medical researchers design, build, take apart and redesign artificial kidneys and heart defibrillators. Each of them hopes to launch his system as quickly as possible into an even greater egosystem: the mass consumer market. To develop their inventions, they need venture capital, supplied by the independently wealthy or others who have made a fortune with earlier investments and are looking to make another killing. Even egosystems developed to produce products that benefit mankind are profit-driven.

The entrepreneurship of Silicon Valley has spread throughout the San Francisco Bay region, which is now one gargantuan egosystem. Each individual egosystem within it strives constantly to expand, to make an even greater profit. The region is like a giant clock, with many tiny interlocking gears that must not be tampered with at any cost, for they all turn together. A population of ten million keeps the wheels turning.

How did it all begin?

In the 1950s, Stanford University began promoting exchanges between its expanding research centers and industry. These arrangements were referred to, more aptly than they knew, as creative financing. Provost Fred Terman and two Stanford engineering graduates, William Hewlett and David Packard, were among the top promoters of this scheme. Their efforts eventually led to the creation of a high-tech industrial park filled with companies developing computer- related technologies. In the 1970s, research at these companies took off, resulting twenty years later in the high-tech revolution.

But the computer was not invented in California. The world's first "Electronic Numerical Integration Analyzer and Computer", known as ENIAC, was developed by the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania for the Ordnance Ballistic Research Laboratories of Aberdeen, Maryland. The first prototype was assembled in the fall of 1945. It is interesting to note that its thirty separate units, plus power supply and forced-air cooling units, weighed over thirty tons. Its 17,500 vacuum tubes, 1,500 relays, and hundreds of thousands of resistors, capacitors, and inductors consumed almost 200 kilowatts of electrical power. The city of Philadelphia reportedly experienced brown-outs when ENIAC drew power.

Nor was the first "computer bug" found in California. In 1945, "Grace Murray Hooper pulled a dead bug from a broken computer relay on the Mark II computer at Harvard University ... Continual cleaning of the computer relays was referred to as "debugging" the computer. The very first bug is still kept at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution". {20}

These "firsts" elsewhere notwithstanding, California is where the personal computer made its big splash. In the 1970s, artificial memory became essential to those who wanted to stay in step with the times. Personal computers entered daily life during this period, at work and at home. Strange expressions such as "memory storage capacity", "memory bank", "Read Only Memory", and "Random Access Memory" entered our common vocabulary. Artificial memory is perhaps the most powerful tool Homo sapiens has ever devised to accelerate the development and functioning of his egosystems. Silicon chips would henceforth be integral to all scientific development, both pure and applied. Databases grew and proliferated rapidly in computer networks and in the 1980s the Internet was made available to the public.

More than a revolution, what happened in Silicon Valley was more like an explosion, and explosions ate difficult to control. The California lifestyle that has evolved in the wake of the high-tech boom has aspects that are both puzzling and disquieting. The quest for the good life would be noble if the search ever came to an end or arrived at a place of wisdom or at least repose. But this particular search has no end, and the good life is never defined. On the contrary, the goal seems to be to foster perpetual dissatisfaction as a springboard to prosperity.

The great San Francisco Bay egosystem, like all egosystems, must continually produce and sell products or services in order to survive. To maintain their society, Californians must constantly consume. There's nothing unusual about this; mandatory consumption is the basic rule supporting all of industry. It corresponds to the principle of perpetual predation that sustains life in natural ecosystems as well. What is unnatural about egosystems is that consumption is driven mercilessly by money and can therefore never rest. Egosystems are condemned to move forward as quickly as possible, with no end in sight.

If Silicon Valley industry had sought to base its reputation on its products' long-lasting durability, as industries had in the past, it would soon have sold enough of its products, and business would have ground to a halt. Instead, it sought to develop devices with very limited shelf-lives, even programmed obsolescence; equipment, even if it is very expensive, is often programmed to be used for a limited time, sometimes only once. Food is no longer the only perishable. To ensure the future of Silicon Valley industries, computer hardware must become rapidly obsolete; software programs must be compatible for only a few years; medical equipment must be designed to be discarded after a single use; household appliances must be ever more complicated, with computers of their own. A simple life with simple tools is considered very old-fashioned. Throwing away the not-so-old to make room for the latest gadget is the new status symbol.

But producing consumables and throw-away goods is not enough to keep the great egosystem churning, for it only does well if the "design - manufacture - consume - discard" cycle turns rapidly. Companies must now focus on products and services that are utterly superfluous. The automobile industry, in fact, has been completely invaded by Silicon Valley. There are now cars that speak to their drivers as soon as their door is opened, and they provide hundreds of instructions no one ever needed before in order to drive. New cars are fragile things that last only as long as their microchips!

To sell such goods, manufacturers must present them as being useful, necessary, or even indispensable, no matter how superfluous they really are. It helps to have aggressive advertising, which has become the egosystem's indispensable tool. Advertising is ubiquitous. It has great power, telling us how to lead the good life. It can convince us in no time at all to buy even the most blatantly unnecessary commodity.

A system that depends so heavily on advertising instead of need cannot be sustained over the long run. The San Francisco Bay egosystem produces so much that is superfluous that it may already be on the verge of collapse. It may be even more fragile than the sardine egosystem of the Monterey Bay. Superfluous products soon lose their luster; their appeal evaporates like a volatile perfume.

How long can an egosystem based on the sale and manufacture of transitory goods last? Keeping it going requires vast amounts of energy - based on ergamines, of course, which are just as ephemeral. The entire San Francisco Bay egosystem is about as viable as a sand castle. One day soon its rows of high-tech factories may well go the way of Monterey's sardine canneries, abandoned to the tourists.

San Francisco's egosystem is not the only bubble in the United States whose effervescence is sustained by superfluity. The superfluity is just a little denser there. To the uninitiated, it is hard to understand the purpose of these modem egosystems, or why they were conceived in the first place.

People in the Third World find it difficult to comprehend why the rich countries need so much energy. To do what? Make our lives more superfluous? An Algerian friend, Habib, once told me, "At the rate we are shipping off our petroleum, the Northerners must be using it to grow bananas in the snow!" Here at the start of the third millennium, Habib's bewilderment is keenly relevant, for, in fact, most of the ergamines consumed in the Northern hemisphere fuel devices and services that are utterly unnecessary to our lives. Although ergamines often play a positive role in society, they also drive a lifestyle that is devoid of meaning. Because petroleum is a cheap and abundant energy source, it is over-used, and is therefore transforming Homo sapiens into a powerful oil addict lost in trivial pursuits, never satisfied with the status quo. To survive, he must continue marching onward toward the infinitely superfluous - even if that march carries him off the edge of a cliff!

Today's Californians cannot afford to be content with the technologies that already fill their lives. They are condemned to perpetually improve them to ensure the future of their egosystems. The master has become the slave! We cannot stop turning the wheels of the system that feeds us, even if they begin to turn against us! Unlike the Ohlones, present-day Californians enjoy an unprecedented level of comfort and security of a certain kind. But what does their march toward the superfluous get them? Do their lives have meaning? Can their lifestyles be maintained? Do they have control over their own futures, or is that just an illusion? Are they not, instead, controlled by the massive egosystem they have created, which depends on vast amounts of energy to survive? Have they not gone too far?

The march toward the superfluous is fueled by energy, and Californians cannot allow Habib or his friends in Africa or the Middle East to stop the flow of ergamines. For if that happened, they would surely die.


{a} Save the Bay Organization. Internet site: "Ninety percent of the Bay's original wetlands have been filled, drained, or diked. Development has shrunk the Bay one-third in size."

{19} Congress established the Superfund Program in 1980 to identify and cleanup the most polluted hazardous waste sites in the United States. It was to be funded by a corporate tax and administered by the Environmental Protection Agency in cooperation with the individual states. The Bush administration has cut the number of Superfund cleanups by half compared to the previous administration. It has also opposed the concept that the polluters should pay the costs of cleanups, shifting the responsibility to the taxpayers.

{20} Electronic document accessed at:, December 2002.

Bill Totten


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