Stephen Hawking and the Union Bank of Switzerland
Unlikely bedfellows. Stephen Hawking and the Union Bank of Switzerland. But the world is a strange place, and might benefit from this unexpected partnership. On the website “Unlimited” thinkers ask questions about some of the most pressing issues facing the world today. As Hawking says in his introductory video entitled “What is the most important question you have ever asked yourself?” in launching the website, he uses the redolent phrase “cathedral thinking” to denote the modern equivalent of the grand buildings constructed as part of humanity’s attempt to bridge heaven and earth. Just like children, we have to learn to share…
I highly recommend watching Hawking’s four-minute introductory video before deciding for yourself whether the other links, essays and presentations are worth watching. The essay on the changing concepts of personal wealth and experience were especially relevant to me, because it describes a transition I have been personally making for the last two decades, especially in the last five years, when I’m absolutely convinced that young people today need a wealth of ‘learning experiences’ much more than ‘things.’
Of course, as a website sponsored by the UBS, it is perhaps unsurprising that most of the initial questions are about the nature of wealth, but the questions and the answers are philosophic enough to interest a wide range of readers.
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The Politics of Inclusion
If one reads the newspapers in Europe these days, it’s easy to imagine a world going unbalanced. Political chaos in Britain; the shock of Trump’s rise to political prominence in the US; the continued slaughter in Syria; the failed coup in Turkey; honor killings of women in the Middle East and South Asia; young girls kidnapped in the hundreds by a sinister cultish organization in Nigeria with hate and abhorrence of non-religious learning as its primary motivation; China flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea…the list goes on. The underlying cause of each of these symptoms is one and the same, the quest for economic power. In itself harmless, economic power, the accumulation of wealth, is such a basic human instinct that it was unquestioned long before Adam Smith came along to make it intellectually respectable.
What we should question, however, is the tendency of modern societies to equate development with wealth, and economic poverty with under-development. There will be conflict in the world as long as wealth accumulation is equated with development. No one wants to be under-developed, so development currently means increased exploitation of the world’s resources. Ultimately, it is the scramble for the world’s resources that fuels all the conflicts and emigrations we observe today. Interestingly, many of those people, mostly politically right-wing, who rage against immigrants these days invoke a past society free of injustice and racially pure. They forget, or are unaware that, for a species that genetically differs from a chimpanzee by only 1.3% of its genes, talk of racial purity is an absurd notion, absurd to the point of imbecility.
The politics of inclusion that most people yearn for, but don’t know how to create, actually begins with us. The process of inclusion begins with us, one person at a time. Perhaps that is why the process is so daunting, since we have to change ourselves first, before we begin to find the politics of inclusion that the majority of the world seems to be longing for. Check out this link to hear what geneticist David Suzuki has to say about modern economic thought.
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“In the beginning was the word,” the book of St. John begins, in the King James version. “And the word was with God and the word was God.”
In the Katha Upanishad (approximately 5th century BCE), OM is related to the first primeval sound and the creation of the Universe, in an eerie echo of modern physics and the sounds that presumably accompanied the Big Bang. However, this analogy cannot be drawn too far, since the word OM has multiple meanings and interpretations in the Upanishads and in Buddhist belief. The Huffington Post says “Om is also considered the mother of the bija, or “seed” mantras — short, potent sounds that correlate to each chakra and fuel longer chants (like, say, Om Namah Shivaya). Depending on who you talk to, it relates to either the third eye or the crown chakra, connecting us to the Divine. No wonder it is core to some Buddhist systems and other Indian religions. Some say it’s even among the sounds recorded in deep space — on NASA’s website, Earth itself sounds a bit om-y.”
Coming to the present day, which is our primary concern here, Lucia Graves writes in the Guardian (July 13th, 2016) “It used to be that you had to read between the lines to determine that Donald Trump was stoking racial resentments. And it used to be that the subjects of his racial animus were mostly immigrants. But now, increasingly, he’s casting a wider net and amping up his rhetoric.” Also in the Guardian of the same date, another headline says, “Labour’s Luciana Burger receives death threats telling her to ‘watch her back.'” Because she’s Jewish. Chilling news, seven decades after the horrors of the Shoah!
In Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, the language of intolerance has grown more strident in recent years, often drowning the voice of reason. The Islam of the Sufis seems to be disappearing from public discourse, and the all-embracing tolerance of Hinduism seems to be hardening at its edges. In the Middle East, the intolerant rhetoric of various groups has led to spectacular and bloody breakdown of civil society in the region.
The world as we know it began with words. Even so, the unraveling of our world and civilization as we know it, also begins with words. It begins with the language of the bigot, the language of the nationalist, the language of the religious fanatic speaking on behalf of God (presumption or megalomania?), the language of the intolerant, the language of politicians looking to increase their grip on power. In politics today, the language of intolerance seems to be gaining ground, becoming socially acceptable. Socially acceptable? That means us. That we accept it. Unless we emphatically refute it at every encounter. By casting votes, by speaking up, by voting with our feet. The last case scenario is, sadly, what prompts the widespread immigration we see today.
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What’s going on in the world today?
Here’s a Sufi story to answer the question so many are asking these days, post-Brexit, pre-Trump, pan-ISIS, mass shootings; what’s going on in the world today?
“We have a word,” said the Sufi, “which sums all this up. It describes what we are doing, and it summarises our way of thinking. Through it you will understand the very reason for your existence, and the reason why mankind is generally speaking at odds. The word is Anguruzuminabstafil.” And he explained it in a traditional Sufi story.
Four men – a Persian, a Turk, an Arab and a Greek – were standing in a village street. They were travelling companions, making for some distant place; but at this moment they were arguing over the spending of a single piece of money which was all that they had among them.
“I want to buy angur,” said the Persian.
“I want uzum,” said the Turk.
“I want inab,” said the Arab.
“No!” said the Greek, “we should buy stafil.”
Another traveller passing, a linguist, said, “Give the coin to me. I undertake to satisfy the desires of all of you.”
At first they would not trust him. Ultimately they let him have the coin. He went to the shop of a fruit seller and bought four small bunches of grapes.
“This is my angur,” said the Persian.
“But this is what I call uzum,” said the Turk.
“You have brought me inab,” said the Arab.
“No!” said the Greek, “this in my language is stafil.”
The grapes were shared out among them, and each realised that the disharmony had been due to his faulty understanding of the language of others. (From: Idries Shah – The Sufis)
Perhaps now, more than ever, is the time for us to learn the language of “others,” and this involves two kinds of listening. This might also be a Sufi parable for the European Union.
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Oceans of Lithium
Salar de Uyuni in Southwest Bolivia contains an estimated 43 % of the world’s easily recoverable lithium. Together with neighbors Chile and Argentina, the three countries contain 70% of the planet’s reserves. As most people are aware by now, the renewables revolution is gathering momentum, and the world needs lithium, lots of it. The people who follow these trends estimate that Tesla’s Gigafactory alone, when it comes into production, will double world demand for lithium, whose prices have shot up just in the last two months of 2015 (from US$ 6500 to 13,000 a ton in November/December). American, Japanese, Chinese and South Korean companies are already mining around 170,000 tons of lithium worldwide. The Argentinian salares, or salt flats, comprise thousands of square miles in the provinces of Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta. The Salinas Grandes in the latter province is estimated to be the third largest in the world. But the grand-daddy of them all is the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia that stretches over 10,000 sq.km. To paraphrase Exupéry, Salar de Uyuni is made up of salt, salt salt, and more salt, to a depth of one meter or more. In addition to common salt (sodium chloride), the salars contain other useful chlorides; potassium, magnesium and lithium chloride. The estimated 9 millions tons of lithium contained in this salar, conveniently concentrated by natural evaporation, should be enough to power a global energy revolution or two, but at what cost? Bolivia has suspended mining operations after the local residents opposed it, and Chile is granting no new concessions. These are understandable steps, in the light of what economists call ‘the resource curse.‘ In a nutshell, the resource curse or the resource paradox is that often countries with non-renewable natural resources (like minerals and oil) tend to have lower economic growth and less democracy than countries with fewer natural assets.
Understanding the resource curse does not help the international battery industry or alleviate the world’s need for non-polluting sources of energy, however. The increasing price of lithium is driving research into methods of obtaining it from the most abundant source on the planet, the oceans. Industrial ecologist Robert Ayres confidently predicted to me more than a decade ago that we would get all the lithium we need from the ocean. “There’s billions of tons there,” he said. True, there is an estimated 230 billion tons of lithium in seawater, but at a concentration of 0.14 to 0.25 parts per million, I did not believe it possible to extract it in meaningful quantities at reasonable cost. Changed my tune this week.
Many companies worldwide have been experimenting with various reverse osmosis technologies (the same technology that’s most often used to desalinate seawater) to produce brine concentrates dense enough to make lithium extraction economical. Now there are reports of several companies in a dozen countries that envisage producing lithium from brine concentrates at prices ranging from $1,500 to 5,000 per ton. Here’s an article about one of them.
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