Thursday, September 28, 2006

Venture capital, oil capital and the environment

"Venture Capitalists Ignite Bitter Fight With Push for California Oil Tax" reads the headline of a Wednesday (9/27/06) page one story in the Wall Street Journal (by George Anders and Rebecca Buckman). The story describes a struggle over Proposition 87 in California, which will impose a 6% tax on oil output to pay for research and development of alternative fuels. Big backers of the proposition include Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist who made his money at Sun Microsystems; Google founder Larry Page;, Wendy Schmidt, wife of Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and John Doerr, "a prominent partner at VC [VC == venture capitalist] firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers." Oil companies of course are fighting back, with California-based oil giant Chevron taking the lead.

The struggle highlights one kind of split that is opening around environmental, and in particular, climate change, issues. In 2002, Joel Kovel wrote a book whose title, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (Zed Books), sums up one common line of thinking on the Left -- we either destroy capitalism, or it will destroy the world. As the publisher's blurb sums, "Kovel indicts ... capitalism as ecodestructive and unreformable." Capitalism is ecodestructive and unreformable in many senses, but splits like the one reported in the WSJ suggest another tack. And that is that a section of capital, maybe a decisive section, will recognize that capitalism and an environment capable of sustaining human life are not fundamentally incompatible. With a properly managed ecosystem, the expanded reproduction of capitalism can continue. All that is required for profit is the expropriation of surplus labor. Whether that takes place at an oil field or a solar panel factory is irrelevant.

If capitalism can negotiate the shift in the energy regime, in terms of the environment it can continue lumber along by creating a more and more tightly managed ecosystem. By "managed" I mean practices that will become increasingly aggressive over time, made possible by more and more sophisticated monitoring tools (e.g., satellites networks, ocean buoys, even microtransponders on insects -- see Radio frequency identification and tracking of individual ants engaged in colony scale division of labour); more use of genetically engineered organisms; computer-enhanced agri- and aqua- and silvi- and horti- culture (e.g., open ocean fish farms), private nature reserves, etc. Not all of these are "bad", the point mainly is that capitalism, or globalization-as-capitalism-in-the-age-of-electronics will create a new ecosystem, just as every production regime has done in the past, to maximize its continued existence (see The Ecosystem of Globalization for a bit more on this). Paul Burkett's 1999 book Marx and nature: A red and green perspective (New York: St. Martin's Press) is pretty good on the environment and the "limits of capitalism": "We may not like it, but the fact is that capitalism can survive any ecological catastrophe short of the extinction of human life." p. 192)

A chart accompanying the WSJ article mentioned above indicates a dramatic growth in VC investment in green technologies -- over $350 million in the first half of the this year, well beyond the slightly more that $200 million in all of last year. The WSJ article points out that Proposition 87 in California is being championed by sections of capital that have invested in green technology and stand to gain if it succeeds (money from the oil sector is transferred to the green energy sector). Prop 87 has become the arena in which this struggle between sections of capital are fighting out this struggle over the environment -- the natural conditions within which capitalism operates -- but this struggle takes place on capitalist terms. While we all benefit, I suppose, by now choking to death from smog or dying from heat exhaustion or drowning in coastal flooding or frying in UV radiation, the fundamental crisis is not resolved. And by fundamental crisis I mean capitalism's destruction of humanity (does this statement need to be justified?)

[An aside: venture capital has a connection to speculative capital (uses pools of otherwise idle capital, absorbs risk of new research, chance of big payoffs not through direct expropriation of surplus value but via the transfer of value due to either monopoly rents or individual value transforming into social value made possible by "intellectual property" monopolies, volatility of outlook for new firms provides playground for speculative capital, no doubt more connections)]


On the speculative capital front

-- Poor Brian Hunter and Amaranth Advisors. The 31-year-old trader lost about $5 billion of the hedge funds assets "in about a week" (see e.g. The Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2006, p. A1). "Brash" trades gone bad in natural gas futures highlight the difficulties hedge funds can face. It' not quite right to say "lost" -- the firm "lost" the money to other speculators.

-- Hank Paulson goes to China. In his trip earlier in September (2006), Treasury Secretary Paulson sought to head off growing anti-China sentiment in the U.S. The 9/13/06 reported that he "signaled he won't engage in China-bashing and will instead seek to persuade Americans that they stand to benefit from China's economic rise." Well not just "Americans" -- today's WSJ (9/28/06) reports that his former firm, Goldman Sachs, stands to make "buckets of money" from a $2.58 billion investment last May in the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, its "single-largest investment of all time." The bank is going public next month, and based on current interest in the IPO, Goldman Sachs is likely to double its money.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Which is more complicated...?

A question came up about whether it is fair to say "While the human-made artifact is no more complex than a plant or animal or even a rock, it is no less complex either" (in a piece on Goethean science and human artifacts). The human, machine-like order placed over raw materials is no where as complex as that of a natural substance.

My reply was:

I was trying to address that we lose sight of where the things around us come from -- not just non-human nature (not sure how else to say that) but also social processes. First, these artifacts do come from nature and by exploring that aspect of them we recover something, or maybe at least understand something of the human-nature relationship. Second, I am not trying to say that, say, one of those robo-dogs is as complex as a real dog as a dog. But I do think that history and social relations are expressed in the artifact, but that this dimension is generally obscured or lost. That dimension is very complex because it ties into a very large web (if not ultimately all) of human interactions, history, desires, etc., and expresses nature processes of a different sort than that of a dog. (And Goethean science helps us reach and experience that, etc. etc.)

(Also, this human dimension also exists for non-human nature to the extent that human beings have transformed ecosystems, species, etc.)


Saturday, September 23, 2006

Goethean science overview

The following is an excerpt from a longer piece I did, it gives an overview of Goethe's approach to science. The numbers in parentheses are page references to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Scientific studies, translated and edited by Douglas Miller (1988). - jd

Although Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's approach to science is primarily a way of knowing (Wahl, 2005), it implies at the same time a particular understanding of how the world is organized. In Goethe's world view, nature is "alive and active, with its efforts directed from the whole to the parts" (20). Everything is interconnected and dynamic and in a process of formation (bildung). Goethe's world view is monistic. Concepts, ideas, even the "archetype" (urphänomen) are not separate from phenomena, standing behind it, but part of the phenomena.

This living, dynamic, interconnected world is known first through the senses. The Goethean approach is strongly empirical, emphasizing the importance of direct observation and experience in knowing the world. The phenomena is central, but Goethe also recognized that perception is a participatory act, anticipating phenomenology by 100 years (Heinemann, 1934; Seamon, 1998). The observed works on the observer as much as the observer works on the observed. In a play on words ("an ingenious turn of phrase"), "objective thinking" for Goethe "means that my thinking is not separate from objects; that the elements of the object, the perceptions of the object, flow into my thinking and are fully permeated by it; that my perception itself is a thinking, and my thinking a perception." (39) The observer-as-subject does not disappear when "thinking objectively" (if even that were possible).

Empirical data is always understood within a theoretical framework, and so it is important for the investigator to be conscious of the framework being used. Goethe went a step further though, bringing his artistic sensibility to bear on the investigation. The careful, detailed observation of phenomena is complemented by what he called "exact sensory imagination" (46). Phenomena are processes that are in a constant state of formation, and empiricism can only examine parts of a process, snapshots in time. Because a process exists and develops through its interconnections, it has an integrity that cannot be grasped through dissection or reduction (although they may contribute to understanding). This is especially the case with living organisms. In order to grasp the living whole of the phenomenon, the investigator must bring the phenomenon to life in the imagination.

Experiments play an important role in Goethean science, but Goethe cautions against the easy temptation of drawing false conclusions. Experiments are properly used to recreate previous experience, or to coax new experiences out of phenomenon under specific conditions. Using experiments to prove a hypothesis is "detrimental" (15), because of the tendency to ignore experiences that fall outside of the hypothesis: "Thus we can never be too careful in our efforts to avoid drawing hasty conclusions from experiments or using them directly as proof to bear out some theory. For here at this pass, this transition from empirical evidence to judgment, cognition to application, all the inner enemies of man lie in wait." (14) For the investigator, phenomena are part of many causes and effects; the appropriate question is not one of causes or purpose ("what are they for?"), but of determining the conditions under which phenomena arise ("where do they come from?"). (121)

Goethe described different stages or modes of knowing, using different terms in various writings. In one place he describes a sequence flowing from "empirical phenomena", observations found in nature, to "scientific phenomena", where the phenomena is understood well enough to reproduce under controlled conditions, via experiments, to "pure phenomena", which is a purely mental process, where the heart of the phenomena is comprehended, and "the human mind gives a definition to the empirically variable, excludes the accidental, sets aside the impure, untangles the complicated, and even discovers the unknown." (25) Elsewhere he describes an empirical phase of careful study yielding to the necessity of visualizing internally the various observations in order to gain a sense of the whole. Empirical observation gives way to an intuitive perception:

If I look at the created object, inquire into its creation, and follow this process back as far as I can, I will find a series of steps. Since these are not actually seen together before me, I must visualize them in my memory so that they form a certain ideal whole.

At first I will tend to think in terms of steps, but nature leaves no gaps, and thus, in the end, I will have to see this progression of uninterrupted activity as a whole. I can do so by dissolving the particular without destroying the impression itself.

If we imagine the outcome of these attempts, we will see that empirical observation finally ceases, intuitive perception of the developing organism begins, and the idea is brought to expression in the end. (75)

Elsewhere, Goethe describes his general process as proceeding from empirical observation to archetype (118), and elsewhere, "of what nature bears within itself as law" (147).

Goethe's concept of "archetype" is one of his more difficult concepts. In his "Maxims", Goethe describes the archetype in four ways: as "ideal" in the sense of the "ultimate we can know"; "real" because we experience its expression; "symbolic" because it represents all instances; "identical" because it is identical with all instances. The archetype is expressed concretely through phenomena. The archetype describes an inner lawfulness or logic or coherence, a "structural range" (120) within which the archetype can be expressed. Naydler (1996) describes it like this: "The Archetypal Phenomenon is experienced when a group or sequence of phenomena real an underlying meaningfulness and internal coherence which is grasped by the intellect in a moment of intuitive comprehension." (p. 103)

Goethe sought to identify archetypes for minerals (Amrine, 1998; Steiner, 2000), plants and animals. Through the emphasis of one aspect over another, the archetype manifests in various forms. Goethe described his archetypal plant in a 1787 letter: "The primordial plant is turning out to be the most marvelous creation in the world... With this model and the key to it an infinite number of additional plants can be invented, which must be logical, that is, if they do not exist, they could exist, and are not mere artistic or poetic shadows or semblances, but have an inner truth and necessity. The same law is applicable to every other living thing." (328-9)

The archetype should not be considered as a Platonic ideal form standing behind phenomena (Heinemann, 1934). Nor is it a blueprint or formula, or an abstract or symbolic rendition separate from the phenomena. Nor is it a statistical average or composite. The archetype is not separate from the phenomena. When challenged by Schiller that his archetype "was not an observation from experience" but "an idea," Goethe retorted, "Then I may rejoice that I have ideas without knowing it, and can even see them with my own eyes." (20)

The unification of object, perception and thought achieved through "exact sensory imagination" is a direct way of knowing. "Let us not seek for something behind the phenomena -- they themselves are the theory" (307), where theory is understood in its traditional sense as a "way of seeing" (Amrine, 1998). "There is a delicate empiricism that makes itself identical with the object, thereby becoming true theory." (307) In fact, for Goethe the observer has little say in the matter:
When in the exercise of his powers of observation man undertakes to confront the world of nature, he will at first experience a tremendous compulsion to bring what he finds there under his control. Before long, however, these objects will thrust themselves upon him with such force that he, in turn, must feel the obligation to acknowledge their power and pay homage to their effects. When this mutual interaction becomes evident he will make a discovery which, in a double sense, is limitless; among the objects he will find many different forms of existence and modes of change, a variety of relationships livingly interwoven; in himself, on the other hand, a potential for infinite growth through constant adaptation of his sensibilities and judgment to new ways of acquiring knowledge and responding with action. This discovery produces a deep sense of pleasure and would bring the last touch of happiness in life if not for certain obstacles (within and without) which impede our progress along this beautiful path to perfection. (61)

The "many different forms of existence" require different modes of thinking to fully know the object, including poetic and scientific modes (Root, 2006). In knowing the object, the object becomes "an organ of perception," a new way of sensing the world.


Amrine, F. (1998). The metamorphosis of the scientist. In Seamon, D. and Zajonc, A., eds. Goethe's Way of Science: Towards a phenomenology of nature.

Heinemann, F. (1934). Goethe's phenomenological method. Philosophy. (9) 67- 82.

Miller, D. ed. and trans. (1988). Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Scientific studies. New York: Suhrkamp Publishers.

Naydler, J. (1996). Goethe on science. Edinburgh: Floris Books.

Root, C. (Spring, 2006). Conversation between friends: An inspiration for Goethe's phenomenological method. In context. 15. Ghent, NY: The Nature Institute.

Seamon, D. (1998). Goethe, nature and phenomenology: An introduction. In Seamon, D. and Zajonc, A., eds. Goethe's Way of Science: Towards a phenomenology of nature.

Steiner, R. (2000). Nature's open secret: Introductions to Goethe's scientific writings. Hudson, NY: Anthroposophic Press.

Wahl, D. (Summer, 2005). "Zaire Empirie": Goethean science as a way of knowing. Janus Head. 8(1).

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Goethean science and human artifacts

I wrote up an essay sort of thing on Goethean scienec and how it might be used in the investigation of human artifacts. Here's the link: Talking with history: Using Goethe's scientific approach with human artifacts


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Salsa recipe

What is cooking if not interconnection? This recipe came from Liz. (Thanks Liz).

Liz's Salsa

6 jalapeno peppers
1 12-oz can Hunt's whole tomatoes
1/2 large sweet onion, chopped
1/2 bunch of cilantro, chopped
Juice of one lime
Garlic powder (maybe a tablespoon?), or few cloves fresh garlic
8 shakes of salt
some black pepper

Boil the jalapeno peppers in water until army green (or less), remove stems.

In a blender, combine everything and blend away.

Heat will vary w/ jalapenos, you can also adjust by number of peppers; lime juice cuts the heat. Salsa will mellow overnight (refrigerate of course).

The hot part of the peppers is the white stuff that holds the seeds, so you could do a nice salsa fresca by removing that part of the fresh jalapenos, and use fresh tomatoes instead of canned in above recipe. I've never tried it, but...