Monday, December 30, 2013

Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

Book Review: Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan  by Kazuaki Tanahashi (Shambhala 2012 – Kindle edition)

Ryokan is definitely my favorite of the Zen poets, perhaps of all poets. His simple poetry seems to have the strange ability to cut through and paint barren yet accurate pictures of reality but also often seems to manage to purvey a sense of contentment with simplicity. There is often sadness yet with a sense of slightly cheerful acceptance, without mincing words. Indeed his poetry can have the strange ability to invoke sadness and happiness at the same time. For me it is a great delight to read. This book is a biography as well as a collection of his poetry and several pieces of his unique calligraphy. There are also some fun anecdotal stories. The author/translator Tanahashi is also an accomplished calligrapher and a Zen practitioner. So in this collection, a detailed analysis of Ryokan’s calligraphy complements the text.

Ryokan (1758-1831) was also called Daigu, Great Fool. He lived alone most often in a small hut in the mountains rather than in a monastery. He was a beggar and pilgrim much of the time, had few belongings, and practiced frugality. He preferred to spend much of his time playing games with children. He also seemed to have a robust sense of humor. Tanahashi sees Ryokan, Dogen, and Hakuin as the three greatest figures of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Dogen (1200-1253) composed rules for monastic life and meditation training and founded the Soto Zen tradition. Hakuin (1685-1768) popularized Zen and systematized training based on koans (paradoxical questions) and is considered a restorer of the Rinzai Zen school. Ryokan spent 10 years in monastic training but then left for solitary practice. He did not found or restore a school and did not produce a dharma heir. Even so, his poems and the anecdotes of his simple hermetic life have inspired others, even during his lifetime.

“His poems eloquently reflect his experience of the seasonal manifestations of nature and the fragility of human life, as well as the joy of seeing friends and playing with children.”

He was honest about his loneliness and longing for human contact yet he acknowledged his preference for solitude:

It is not that
I avoid mixing
with the world;
but I do better
playing alone.

He was said to be tall, wore tattered clothes, rarely showed strong emotions, yet was a lofty spirit.

He studied calligraphy much and was said to practice sometimes with his finger in the air for at times he had no brush or paper. He would use twigs too. He was often asked to do calligraphy but would not always do so. He would most often do so for children. Once a child asked him to write on his paper. He asked the child what he would do with the paper. He said he would make a kite and fly it and needed words to call the wind. Ryokan wrote – “Sky above, great wind.”

Ryokan favored spontaneity and heartfelt expression in the arts over artificiality and professionalism: “I hate calligraphers’ calligraphy and poets’ poems.”

Ryokan was from a prominent family. His father was a village headman, haiku poet, and Shinto priest. Ryokan was able to read many books in his youth. He was unable to succeed his father as village headman. He escaped and became a Zen monk. One legend has it that he was distressed by seeing a criminal decapitated. Another suggested that he failed miserably in resolving a dispute and was seen as unfit for the position. Ryokan trained at the monastery under Zen master Kokusen who encouraged meditation, labor, and poverty. After his training he traveled as a beggar and pilgrim. He felt that most practitioners did not display the genuine spirit of dharma practice.

From age 39 to age 59 Ryokan lived in a hut behind a small Shingon (esoteric/tantric) school temple on the slope of a mountain. He was known to study Dogen’s famed Treasury of the True Dharma Eye and wrote poems about it. Dogen’s books were apparently forgotten for 400 years until a resurgence led by Ryokan’s teacher Kokusen – though Ryokan may not have been aware of it.

Anecdotes from Ryokan’s life show his carefree attitude that could be annoying, awkward, or hilarious.

Renouncing the world, renouncing the body, I have become a person of leisure.
Keeping company with the moon and blossoms, I spend my remaining life.
So clear – rain, clouds, and spirit.
I am awake, as are all things in the world.

In cultivating relaxation and contentment without goal or striving he has this to say:

As long as I don’t aim,
I won’t miss.
With the catalpa bow,
I shoot an arrow
toward the open sky.

At age 59 Ryokan moved further down the mountain closer to the village as he was getting too old to walk long through high snow to beg for food and was thus getting malnourished. He moved into a two-room hut at a forested Shinto shrine. He lived here for ten years and also inadvertently became the shrinekeeper and somewhat of a Shinto priest in order to be able to stay there. During this time period Shinto and Buddhism were more integrated. They would become more separated during the next century.

At age 69 Ryokan became too frail to collect firewood, water, and walk far to beg. He was invited by a patron to move into his house in the plain by the village. He accepted but insisted on staying in the firewood shed. Here he lived the last five years of his life. Here he was first visited by a young nun, Teishin, and exchanged poems with her. The author describes his relationship with her as a kind of love affair, though Platonic. He was more than 40 years older than her. She became his student. She wrote a memoir of Ryokan and a collection of his poetry called Dew on the Lotus. Their back-and-forth poems are contemplative and affectionate. Teishin visited him much and came to help tend him as he died. As is customary Ryokan wrote death poems. Here is one:

Showing its back
and showing its front,
a falling maple leaf.

The author gives Ryokan’s poems separated into periods of his life: wandering period (age 33-39), mature period (age 39-59), later period (age 59-69), and final period (age 69-74).

From the wandering period:

Past has passed away.
Future has not arrived.
Present does not remain.
Nothing is reliable; everything must change.
You hold on to letters and names in vain,
forcing yourself to believe in them.
Stop chasing new knowledge.
Leave old views behind.
Study the essential
and then see through it.
When there is nothing left to see through,
then you will know your mistaken views.

Here is another from the mature period exemplifying the life of a care-free hermit:

Rags upon rags,
tatter is my life.
I pluck my food on a country path.
My hut is buried in a tangle of weeds.
Looking at the moon, I hum all night;
deluded by blossoms, I forget to return.
Since leaving the monastery,
what a fool I have become!

Here is one from the later period at the Shinto shrine apparently by a bamboo grove:

A break-in

A thief took the han and futon from the thatched-roof room.
Who could blame him?
All night I sit alone under the quiet window –
rain sprinkles sparsely on the bamboo grove

This one is neat. A realization song perhaps:

On a quiet evening in my thatched-roof hut,
alone I play a lute with no string.
Its melody enters wind and cloud,
mingles deeply with the flowing stream,
fills out the dark valley,
blows through the vast forest, then disappears.
Other than those who hear emptiness,
who will capture this rare sound?

Ryokan was called upon to conduct a funeral for children killed in a smallpox epidemic. Many coffins were brought for cremation. He mentioned the horrible Imo, the Japanese god of smallpox and disease. He offered this poem:

disappears into
the heavenly sky.
A child’s image
is all that remains.

After chanting the Lotus Sutra for them that evening he offered this aspiration:

Please guide
all fallen children
to the Buddha’s
blossom seat.

After imagining for a while that he is someone who has lost a child he writes:

Seeing other people’s
children play,
I stand in the garden,
bottomless tears.

Here is a poem from the final period at the woodshed hut on a snowy night:

Reflecting over seventy years,
I am tired of judging right from wrong.
Faint traces of a path trodden in deep night snow.
A stick of incense under the rickety window.

Here is one I can relate to as I love to take a handful of ripe aronia berries on a hot summer day and pop them into my mouth, suck out the juice, and spit out the astringent skins:

I sneak into your garden
to eat aronia berries
(Please keep yourself hidden
until I go away!)

Ryokan suffered with diarrhea through much of his old age:

If I say it
it’s easy
yet my diarrhea stomach
is indeed
hard to bear.

The following two seem to be death poems:

What legacy shall I
leave behind?
Flowers in spring.
Cuckoos in summer.
Maple leaves in autumn.


Farewell –
I will jump
onto a lotus leaf.
Let people call me
a frog!

There is a section on anecdotes, some of which are rather funny:

“In the middle of summer, Ryokan announced: “I will air the entire Buddhist canon in the Five Scoop Hut. Please come and see.”
     “The villagers went to the hut, but there were no books of the canon; only Ryokan, lying naked. On his drum-like belly was written the phrase “Entire canon.” The villagers were dumbfounded.”

Apparently, many tried to coerce Ryokan to write some calligraphy for them but he was not always eager to comply. Here is one story:

“Ryokan went begging at a house around Sone Village. The man of the house was witty and thought of a trick to get Ryokan’s calligraphy. When he served the midday meal, he set a brush and paper at the side of the meal tray and said, “Rev. Ryokan. People say your calligraphy is getting worse and worse. What a shame! You need to practice some.”
Ryokan listened to him without words. After the meal, he took up the brush and wrote: “Medicine is bitter. Sugar is sweet.”

Here is an example of Ryokan blessing farmers with his magic:

“Ryokan had great respect for farming. In the seasons of plowing and harvesting, he reflected on the farmers’ labor to turn one grain of rice into many. He would draw paintings of farmers at work and then post them in his hut, offering incense and flowers. One of his waka poems says:

These days
rice seedlings are transplanted
In my hut
I paint farmers and
bow with offerings.

There is a section explaining the poetic forms and scripts used by Ryokan. The three poetic genres are the familiar haiku (mainly initiated a century or so earlier by the famed Zen master Basho), waka, and kanshi. Haiku is 17 syllables in three lines: 5-7-5. Waka is an ancient Japanese form which includes short poems called tanka and longer ones called choka. Choka is a repetition of five and seven syllable pairs. Kanshi is a Chinese-style poem written in ideographs but which is read in Japanese pronunciation. The ideographs have formal, semi-cursive, and cursive scripts. Ryokan’s complete collection of poems contains 107 haiku, 1350 waka, and 483 kanshi.

“Japanese poetry has three levels of expression: the poem itself, the script of the syllables, and the aesthetics of the calligraphy, including column breaks.”

The author goes into detail about these forms and offers many examples and critiques of Ryokan’s calligraphy. He shows the complexity of Japanese poetry where ideographs and phonetics are mixed in various ways offering further psychological nuance. He guesses that this feature may be unique to Japanese language.

Such a delight to read Ryokan’s musings!

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Book of Baphomet

Book Review: The Book of Baphomet by Nikki Wyrd and Julian Vayne (Mandrake 2012 – Kindle Edition)

I found this to be one of the better magickal books I have read in recent years. However, there is much unusual about it. Although the book gives considerable historical info about the mysterious figure known as Baphomet, there is much more about the evolving nature and possibilities of Baphomet as a god-form. I suspect that many could be put-off by the nature of the book as it jumps around and often seems off-topic. But there is much to admire here. Much of the seeming digression really offers support for the proposed new (or un-recognized) features of Baphomet – as the egregore of all life, as the god-form of life-sex-death, and the androgynous lord/lady composite of the totality of the biosphere.  

The first section of the book is a long contemplation of the history of the universe and the history of life as we understand it scientifically. Indeed this section takes up more than 10% of the book. It is an excellent summary. Science seems to be embraced and enjoyed by the authors. I am sure, though, it will leave others wondering what evolution has to do with Baphomet. The arising of the current configuration of the cosmos from the Big Bang and stellar brew and the arising and evolving of life from oceanic chemistry and beyond are recounted brilliantly. This is seen as the alchemical stew refined more and more. Chunks of matter joining and splitting over billions of years, becoming more and more complex. Joining and splitting are sex and death – eros and thanatos, and Solve Et Coagula – the alchemical words scribbled on the arms of Eliphas Levi’s Baphomet. The dance of DNA exploring new environments and finding new survival strategies is given in some scientific detail. Eventually, foreknowledge of inevitable death comes. The authors see their work as a means to repatriate us from our exile with nature. They see it as a collage, a patchwork – perhaps like Baphomet as an anthropomorphized patchwork of the totality of life. The book does shift about from fact to lore to history to science to personal accounts, art, poetry, and contemplations of symbolism. Discovery of the place of we humans in nature, in the universe, is an ongoing theme of the book. A related theme is that of ecology – the delicate balance and dance of production and consumption, of the interplay between spheres.

The authors note the appearance of Baphomet in history: with the persecution of the Templars early in the 14th century, in Eliphas Levi’s depictions and descriptions amidst 19th century occultism, in reformed magickal orders such as the OTO, and more recently in chaos magickians of the IOT (Illuminates of Thanateros).

The raiding and arrest of the Knights Templars in 1307 set the stage for the Inquisition as allegations of idolatry, blasphemy, sodomy, and orgiastic behavior aided in bringing down the Templars. They were accused of confessing to one another rather than to a priest. The first known written mention of Baphomet comes from a troubadour in 1265 where he names “Bafometz” as a supporter of the Sultan. The reference is likely to Mohammad and indeed much of the tradition seems to have been derived from the Saracens and the Templars’ dealings in and near the Holy Land.

“The irony that Islam, with its proscription against representation in religious art, should be the imagined origin of such idolatry raises a wry grin.”

Indeed idolatry is a recurring theme as well in the story of the Templars and subsequent secret societies:

“The theme of idolatry is an important one. Worshipping the visible, tangible world rather than an abstracted God vouchsafed to us through the interpretive powers of a priesthood.”

Cornelius Agrippa suggested that the Templars were guilty as charged with black magic and heresy. Dante favored their innocence. Johann August Starck (1741-1816) first identified Baphomet with Satan. Apparently, there was much speculation, beginning earnestly in Renaissance times, concerning the secret nature of the Templars and their mysterious rites. Their legend became firmly established in esoteric lore and later Masonic lore. The Builders of the Temple of Solomon the King is a key motif of the Masons. Solomon himself, as the authors explain was a bit of a rebel as he turned to favor the Canaanite Goddess Astaroth, equated with Astarte, Ishtar, and even Aphrodite – all goddesses of love and war. Astaroth was sometimes depicted with the head of an ass or bull and the breasts of a woman. She was demonized by the Jews and later depicted in Medieval Christian times as a ‘prince’ of hell. Solomon is a legendary magical figure and iconic King of the Jews with the mythic powers of a hero or demi-god. The authors suggest that:

“The Templars, as crusader knights, were re-connecting their European Christianity to its eastern roots.”

There are several accounts of the authors’ shamanic journeys or magickal experiments worked with vigor and intent with various aids such as entheogens and the isolation of deep caves. Mithras is mentioned and too the “rather dubious” association of Baphomet with Father Mithras. Crowley also made this connection with his magickally derived “BAFOMIThr.” The authors though suggest Baphomet as a god of wild life (like Pan) and Mithras one of cultured life – so in this sense Baphomet would be “older.”

There is given some examples in history of deep persecution against magic and ecstatic behavior from the persecution of Bacchic celebrants in Rome to Nero to the Christian emperor Valens. These are compared to the persecution of the Templars. Allegations of sorcery then became a successful strategy in the Middle Ages and helped to fuel the Inquisitions.

The legendary Templars came to influence the varying groups of modern magicians:

“Freemasons, Satanists, Thelemites, Wiccans, and Chaos Magicians all name check the Poor Knights in their lineages. “… these groups see in the Templars a mysterious organization with an initiatory tradition, that was in possession of arcane knowledge,”

The connection to Wicca, or rather traditional witchcraft, is postulated by Doreen Valiente as the Order of the Garter functioning as a sort of royal coven. Elias Ashmole connected them to and compared them to the Templars as another secret cult. Ashmole, in the 1600’s was a great collector of occult lore and co-founded the Royal Society of London. This society promulgated the Natural Philosophy that was later to become Science, as Roger Bacon, the famed empiricist, and Francis Bacon, the fashioner of the scientific method, were among its members as were many influential thinkers. Here science was forged from the Alchemy, astrology, Neo-Platonism, and magic of the past. They too, like the theological-oriented thinkers of the recent past, were reading the Book of Nature but interpreting it in new ways that veered more and more from the infallibility of the Church. For this reason and others, the authors explain, it was a secret society as well. Galileo, Copernicus, and especially Giordano Bruno were victims of trying to bring such things out in the open. 17th century Masonry became one veil behind which the natural philosophers and scientists could work. In the 19th century this all comes to a head with the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Darwin, the rise of science, and the relative weakening of the Church (at least in telling people how to think). It is in this climate that Baphomet re-emerges in the writings of French occultist Eliphas Levi. Here he gives the now well-known drawing of Baphomet as a human-animal hybrid – the key of the Mystery.

The authors mention a hidden cave-cell in England, rediscovered in the 18th century, where carvings and Templar symbols appear, including one of Saint Catherine, thought to be venerated by the Templars – presumably for her wisdom. Another is of an execution by burning – perhaps depicting Jacques de Molay.

The section on Deep Ecology compares the American Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century to modern “back to nature” movements. The authors note the emphasis of the false distinction between natural and man-made:

“Not only are we natural, we are now a True Force of Nature….”

We have altered the world we live in inestimably. We are connected world-wide through communications technology. The Anthropocene is in its prime. The authors speak of a “…true Baphometic level of pooled awareness…”

Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall’s 19th century account Mysterium Baphometis described the Templars as Gnostic heretics. Levi described the various symbolism of the Baphomet figure and eased it into occult tradition – presenting Baphomet as a worthwhile deific representation of reality. Some think he got his ideas for the depiction from old gargoyles. He did make the observation that the gods of old become the devils of the new. Following descriptions from the early historian Herodotus Levi equated Baphomet with the Goat of Mendes, an Egyptian city with a goat-footed deity – though thought now to have had a ram’s head. There was said to be a tradition of the goat made to copulate with women – but of course Herodotus’s tales tell of many strange things. Levi called Baphomet purveyor of the Azoth of the sages, Azoth being the alchemical fluid. The woman trampling the head of the serpent, as in the Virgin Mary trampling the serpent to represent control of carnal desire, here is said to represent control of the alchemical fluid. The authors note that Crowley in his Lost Continent speaks much of the alchemical fluid as the Universal Substance, the Universal Seed, the Quintessence (and Crowley’s similar term Ararita). Baphomet as “baptism of wisdom”,  a well known etymology, is echoed in Crowley’s Gnostic Mass creed.

Also recounted is a hoax by a 19th century Frenchman called Leo Taxil who presented Baphomet as the deity of Masonic Satanists and apparently sent up a scare not too unlike the Satanic panic of the 1980’s with stories of elaborate orgies and child sacrifice. In this sense Baphomet has long been a popular subject to support conspiracy theories. The form of Baphomet became solidified as the Devil of the Tarot. For Christians the image of Baphomet is the Devil but for others it represents the horned god of nature, maybe Pan. Levi’s depiction of the pentagram with Baphomet also solidified that symbol as representative of magic, witchcraft, and Satanism. His explanation is of the regular (points down) pentagram as the venerable star of the Magi and the inverted pentagram as the symbol of Satan and “infernal evocations.” Baphomet was also associated with an octogram as was the goddess Inanna/Ishtar. The authors note overlapping symbolism of Inanna/Ishtar, Babalon, Chaos (as goddess), and even the more universal goddess of the witches and pagans. Indeed, as all, as totality, and as Androgyne, Baphomet is both god and goddess.

There is discussion of Baphomet as the mysterious head. The head of John the Baptist, the image of the head on the shroud of Turin, the head of a woman, even the head (or bones) of Christ himself have been suggested. The Templars were charged with, among other things, having a magical head that did things like make riches. Though not mentioned, it is perhaps more likely that the making of the head was symbolic of the spiritual quest as suggested by Idries Shah, the Sufi writer.

Margaret Murray’s Witch Cult in Western Europe published in 1921 and Charles Leland’s earlier Aradia or Gospel of the Witches probably did much for the revival of paganism in more modern times. Murray speculated that pagans existed covertly up into modern times. Certainly folk traditions did and a few in secret society fashion. By the 1970’s the Horned God was firmly re-established. Gerald Gardner in his 1954 Witchcraft Today asserted that the Templars practiced the Old Religion. Gardner was a member of Crowley’s OTO for a while and lifted some of Crowley’s material for direct use in his own cult. Crowley took the magical name Baphomet as head of the OTO. Crowley’s magickally derived spelling as BAFOMeTh numbered to 729 in Hebrew gematria – which is solar year 365 plus lunar year 364. Indeed Crowley refashioned much of the lore of Masonry, paganism, and occultism, including giving new attributes to Baphomet. The tradition continued with Kenneth Grant.

Founding chaos mage Peter Carroll first described Baphomet thusly:

“Baphomet is the psychic field generated by the totality of living beings on this planet.”

Carroll noted the role of the horned god (Baphomet) through the ages. The Chaos Magick current utilizes Baphomet in this general form as the one universal substance of all life.

Baphomet, seen as the deity of the life force of earth, can be magickally worked in many ways – the search for ecological balance, social justice, mental, and physical health, etc. In this sense, say the authors, the “Baphometic process” is one of adjusting our species for continued long-term survival and successful evolution.

With life comes death. Contemplated is the possibility that the death of a human is no more important (at least biologically) than the death of any other organism. They note that the magicians they have talked to generally do not seek out or embrace specific after-life scenarios. In other words, they are not so religious in their view. Perhaps, even death is impermanent and we live again as many conjecture. Panpsychism – the idea of a conscious World Soul is perhaps a key idea among mages.

“Consciousness is implicit in all aspects of the universe. In a simple sense this is the observer effect noted in physics, that observation structures the observed. Consciousness does not merely arise out of the physical structure of the cosmos; it is a fundamental quality of reality,….”

If consciousness is fundamental, the question remains: what happens to it after death? The authors discuss Near-death experiences noting that they occur in many cultures in a very significant percentage of those who have a close brush with death. However, it is also clear that the experiences are colored by both individual and cultural expectations. Experiences that can be similar to NDEs include electrical stimulation of the brain (ESB), prolonged (sensory?) isolation, and drug experiences – particularly with DMT and ketamine. The authors note that ketamine is used in palliative care and could possibly familiarize terminal patients with the NDE-like state. Strategies for dying are perhaps not typically well worked out among us humans although with the uncertainties one cannot help but wonder what is the best way to prepare. There is a neuro-chemical component common to the near death state where glutamate stimulates the receptors for N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA). Ketamine has a similar action. These chemicals are associated with memories and synaptic plasticity. Care of the dead and the dying is another important topic. The authors note that death is a strategy for life, of the species, rather than the individual. Often the individual dies by a virus which kills the virus keeping it from spreading to other humans.

In discussing trance/altered states and receptivity to gnosis it is noted:

“Trance is how we learn. When we enter a trance state we become ‘suggestible’, that is we can learn more rapidly from a given input.” “Trance is the tool of magick, of marketing, of propaganda, and of dreams.”

Entheogenic exploration is discussed with the idea that it is a sort of experimental alchemy – an exploratory shamanization. Recounted is a tale of entheogenic exploration in a group ritual context with Baphomet represented by the four elements, chanting of hir name, and the sacramental toad venom. DMT accounts are given. There is a short description of the Horns of Baphomet yoga made for the rite.

Also given is the Gnostic Chaosphere Ritual. In this schema there are five spheres: 1) Panpsychosphere – “The Panpsychosphere represents the realm of cosmic imagination from which emergent phenomena arise spontaneously and chaotically in all the lower spheres …” This sphere seems to represent the unmanifest as source of the manifest (quantum possibility?); 2) Noosphere, or Memesphere -  “… represents the sum of all ideas, beliefs, religions, philosophies, emotions, hopes, and terrors arising from all structures capable of creating them.” This is like de Chardin’s noosphere updated a bit. These are the emanations from beings - living, desiring, wondering beings like us; 3) Anthroposphere or Onusphere – the biomass of humanity and all of our creations. This anthroposhpere evolved from the biosphere. Each sphere is represented in the rite by a symbol. The anthroposphere is represented by the regular pentagram as man the microcosmos; 4) Biosphere – the sphere generated by all living things. It arose from the Gaia, the geosphere; 5) Geosphere – this is the sphere of the elements, of the matter and energy we utilize. As we can see – each sphere arises from the one below it in a sort of evolutionary way yet each is also intertwined. After the rite is given there is a section with ideas to explore each sphere in various ways – identifying how one interacts with each sphere, etc. This is not too dissimilar to utilizing the shcema of the qabalistic spheres.

Again this is an unusual book. For those inclined to the subject it is a gem. It is a contemplation of the idea, the evolving nature of the god-form, rather than a history. It does not seek so much to discern what exactly the Templars and their magical predecessors thought was their Baphomet but what this idolic god-form means to those who work with it now. Baphomet, as any god-form, is our tool to utilize for good or ill, to explore the scary and delightful aspects of our short time in these bodies. This is a great contemplation on deifying the qualities of sex and life/death and all that spins around those central ideas of our lives.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pain: The Science of Suffering

Book Review: Pain: The Science of Suffering by Patrick Wall ( Columbia University Press – Maps of the Mind – 2000)

I found this book to be fascinating, informative, and potentially practical, since pain and our anxieties about it, affect us all. The author is a medical doctor and a neuroscientist and one of the world’s foremost experts on pain. This book was written for laypeople and is not overly technical. He comes across as knowledgeable, sincere, and compassionate. He admits that there is yet much we don’t know about pain. There are many case histories given. The data show that pain is not simply physical. There is a rather inseparable mental component to all pain as well.

The author recounts anecdotes and interviews with trauma victims, including his own work with combat amputees. He recounts stories where people felt no pain until long after their injuries, some as serious as loss of a limb. Even Ronald Reagan noted no pain when he got shot, to his own astonishment. Among amputees, apparently, nearly all, felt, or feel a “phantom limb” that is not really there and most feel pain in that phantom limb, often for a lifetime. Such things are perplexing. Even animals will go on after trauma as anyone who has seen a deer get hit by a car and get up and run away will know. The author also examined emergency room patients along with a psychologist colleague. Significant percentages of victims (though quite less than half) did not feel pain or had limited pain even with deep tissue injuries, stabs, fractures, and sprains. Most felt pain within an hour but some pain was delayed for several hours. I remember once as a kid as I was in an emergency room for a tetanus shot after running a long rusty nail into my foot when a guy from a motorcycle crash came in with severe burns which shriveled his legs. He was coherent and speaking but obviously in a lot of pain as his moans revealed. The bottom line of this chapter, says Wall, is that: 

“… tissue damage and pain are not so intimately linked that the two can be considered equivalent.”

Wall summarizes sudden injury in the following way:

“… sudden injury may or may not be painful. The victims can be coherent and rational throughout. There may be no pain from the moment of injury. The pain-free state is localized precisely to the site of injury. And all victims are eventually in pain.”

He notes that pain is typically accompanied by other stresses, anxieties, and fears. There is also the factor of ‘public display’ which involves socially acceptable ways to deal with pain in a social setting.

He briefly discusses torture and reactions to it. When one is helpless and uncertain of the future there is fear and often shame too. He notes that fear of the manner of dying is often much greater than fear of death itself. He also discusses masochism and even notes that that athletes, with their “no pain, no gain” mantra can also be masochistic in a sense. There are sexual masochists who associate pain with sexual pleasure. There are also religious ‘flagellants,’ masochists, and ascetics who associate pain with redemption and symbolic atonement for sins.

He discusses the philosophy of pain, mostly mind-body dualism and particularly its flaws, but concludes that pain is best studied in terms of an integrated mind-body-sensory system. Our language may express this dualism as in the statement “my foot is hurting me,” but really mind and body can hardly be separated. According to Descartes, sensation was simply the mental representation of a stimulus. Descartes came up with all sorts of mechanisms to describe the mind-body connection in terms of his dualistic idea but was stumped even in his own time by such things as phantom limbs – which he explained away as “false signals.” The author suggests that mind-body dualism was reinforced by the Church as an integrated body-mind would be thought heretical. More modern dualists (he mentions John Eccles and Karl Popper) tend to see the body as being directed by the conscious mind. Bertrand Russell suggested sensation as a passive input analyzed by an active brain – but the author notes that there is evidence that brain activity controls the input. Thus he concludes that sensation includes active participation of both mind and body. Also discussed are trance-like behaviors such as peak athletic or artistic performance. Here complex motor activity is performed in a relaxed “mindless” state. These are perhaps examples of optimum mind-body integration states.

Aristotle generally defined six types of tactile sensation: touch, warm, cold, pain, tickle, and itch. Each sensation was thought to be a combination of those ‘primaries’ but the author notes that the terms are not comparable as some describe the stimulus (touch, warm, cold) and some the sensation (pain, tickle, and itch). The International Association for the Study of Pain came up with a definition of pain:

“Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage.” They also added that:

“Pain is always subjective… This definition avoids tying pain to the stimulus.”

The classical view has it that stimulus leads to pure sensation which leads to perception but the modern view notes that these events may or may not lead to the others. Tissue damage does not directly correlate to pain. Sensation and perception can hardly be separated.
Ronald Melzack classified types of pain based on descriptions. He came up with 10 types of sensory pain: temporal (such as throbbing), spatial (such as shooting), punctuate pressure (such as stabbing), incisive pressure (such as cutting), constrictive pressure (such as crushing), traction pressure (such as tugging), thermal (hot or cold), brightness (such as stinging, tingling), dullness (such as sore), and misc. (such as tender). In addition, he describes 5 types of affective pain: tension, autonomic, punishment, and misc. along with words that evaluate pain on a scale- ie. mild to excrutiating or annoying to unbearable. Indeed each classification has words along a scale from mild to severe. The chart is given and is known as the McGill pain questionnaire and it has been noted that patients exhibiting certain diseases and maladies will describe the pain similarly. Melzack noted the three ways people described their pain: sensory, affective, and evaluative.

The next chapter title is: The Body Detects, the Brain Reacts. This is the most technical chapter and notes what happens in the body when tissue damage occurs. Her are described structures and functions that relate to sensory experience, the immune system, and bodily healing strategies. The sensory nerve fibers signal the spinal cord by two methods: 1) production of nerve impulses and 2) chemical formation and transport from zones in and around (damaged) tissue – much slower than nerve impulses. Immediate response to tissue damage involves nerve impulses propagated along nerve fibers. Three changes may invoke the pain: pressure, temperature, or chemical (ie. hot pepper, insect sting, etc.). Secondary responses include the emitting of peptides which dilate blood vessels. Tissue damage creates damaged cells which leak their chemicals into other tissue. Such leakage and breakdown of the chemicals by enzymes into smaller chemicals is a major cause of pain. A very common tertiary response to tissue damage is inflammation, characterized by swelling, redness, heat, and pain. Leaking fluid, white blood cell invasion, and chemical breakdown products are causes of inflammation. The final stage is the reparation process which involves structures called C fibers and scarification tissue building blocks called fibroblasts. The spinal cord is the two-way communication pathway between nerves and brain. Interestingly, he describes the biological/neurological basis of rubbing/scratching/massage/cold water for immediate pain, say in the case of hitting one’s thumb with a hammer: “You are stimulating large, low-threshold A beta fibers, which in turn are stimulating the small white cells that diminish the firing of the big white cells.” Apparently the brain can send other signals that may mitigate the feeling of pain through distraction. Bombardment of C fibers aided by emission of peptides leads to a secondary pain that comes later, after the initial (usually sharp) pain. In surgery the initial pain is anesthetized but the second phase comes after surgery. Cut nerves may cause a tertiary phase where excitability of the spinal cord transmitting system is enhanced. Sensory messages (in both directions) involve multiple parts of the brain. Wall seems quite certain there is no single “pain center” in the brain as Descartes suggested. Wall’s summary is as follows:

“When tissue is damaged, a sequence of events produces inflammation with pain. The spinal cord is informed of tissue damage by way of sensory nerves. Cells in the spinal cord react immediately to the input, but the amount of their output depends on small cells  that can enhance or diminish the output message.”

Spinal cord cells become sensitive after receiving injury messages. Further messages from the brain either amplify or reduce the output messages.

Conscious awareness of pain is often a focused state. Wall notes the ideas of psychologist William James in describing some emotions as awareness of body reactions to an event. If a stimulus occurs we may have a startle response. We may orient and explore the stimulus. We may have hyper attention or a muscle response.

“Attention is an integral part of pain. Pain captures and monopolizes attention and includes an interruption of any activities not directly related to pain relief.”

People, most often children, with a very rare condition called - congenital analgesia – do not feel pain, yet they learn to avoid certain responses. The condition may fade as they get older but if it doesn’t they can suffer tissue damage that does not heal, becomes infected by bacteria, and kills them. They do not feel the first phase of pain. The damage is caused because the second phase of pain, which they also do not feel, has an inflammatory then restoration function which does not occur because they do not protect, and hold still the injured area which provides a protective function against infection. So pain has a protective role, not in the acute stage but in the secondary phase that bids us to avoid re-damaging currently delicate tissue.

Wall mentions the work of Claude Bernard and Hans Kosterlitz who surmised that plant poisons led us to discover similar mechanisms in the body such as the chemical acetylcholine that causes muscles to contract. Later, naturally occurring opiate-like compounds (endorphins and enkephalins) were discovered and these brain-made narcotics explain the pain relieving function of concentrated narcotics. Apparently modern PET scans of the brain responding to pain show that classical definitions of the mechanism of pain and pain relief are lacking. Experiments show that humans all have more or less the same pain threshold. The difference is what happens after that threshold is crossed. Psychological tolerance to pain varies. Pain tolerance may be influenced by culture as in the behavioral ideal of the hero who tolerates pain and difficulty. Tribal initiations can include pain induction. One may be inspired by others or simply resolve to be Spartan and Stoic and accept pain as a duty. The author does note that much of culturally-induced pain tolerance is temporary and situational as later in life heroes may wimper at mild discomforts! Another form is that of Christians who attempt to emulate their hero Jesus by undergoing his sufferings in various ways from ritualistic emulation to simply being more stoic. The author states that he does not believe in the existence of pure sensation divorced from perception and I would definitely agree. He notes also that there is no evidence that genetics play a role in pain experience. Indeed, pain varies in the same person depending on circumstances. Studies that show differences in pain tolerance of different ethnicity are in doubt by the author. He thinks that the differences are simply cultural differences in public display of pain. People are simply bound by custom in this regard.

Wall explores hypnotism and acupuncture as anesthesia. He concludes that they have very real anesthetic effects but that the key to these affects is mainly the placebo effect in conjunction with the anesthetist-patient trust/expectation relationship. Verbal cues can be a key to hypnosis as well.

Recent fMRI images of the brains of people subjected to the same pain stimuli show quite varied responses in the brain. This was surprising. The amount of pain reported by the subjects also varied. This suggests that we each have different personalized strategies to deal with pain.

He discusses pain after surgery and notes that post-operative treatment has improved in that doses of pain relievers are now often tailored to the needs of the individual rather than giving set doses at set times. There are psychological difficulties too as immobilized patients feel helpless and can suffer shame.

Pain with obvious causes is examined. A scratch, a twisted ankle, a toothache, a heart attack, osteoarthritis, childbirth (an example of pain without illness), cancer, and amputation are discussed. Cancer may or may not be painful, especially in its early stages. Childbirth is rated high on the pain scale rather universally. In many situations/conditions the causes of pain migrate as they are related to sequential changes in the body. In the case of amputation the brain invents a phantom limb after receiving false signals that it is still present. Wall notes that the pain one feels is influenced by the pain one expects to feel with a given injury. The expectations of others, including doctors (especially when a patient still feels pain long after treatment), also influence one’s pain tolerance, emotional reactions, and public display.

Pain without known causes is also discussed. Headache, back pain, repetitive-stress injury, fibromyalgia, myofascial pain, and orphan pains are analyzed. Though there are many known causes of headache and back pain there are also unknown and undiscovered causes of these and the others. This has created much difficulty and frustration with diagnosis, insurance appropriation, and lack of pain relief. Some have attributed some back pain and repetitive-stress injury to self-inflicted psychological causes. While psychology may be part or much of the cause it is still real pain and should not be brushed off and left untreated, says Wall. He thinks orphan pains (symbolic pains invented by the psychology of the patient) are actually rarer than the literature depicts. Those pains may have an undiscovered cause or a cognitive component but are not strictly fictions of the mind as some have suggested, he thinks.

In discussing medicines Wall notes the difficulties in testing them, often against placebos. The history, use, and mechanism of aspirin and its antecedents as an anti-inflammatory medicine are recounted:

“… a crude herbal mixture was used for two thousand years, a purified extract for a century, and the precisely synthesized chemical for another seventy years before the rational for the use of aspirin was discovered …”

“Aspirin has a subtle effect on only one part of the inflammatory pathway, but it reduces pain and swelling and fever.”

It was shown that aspirin works by blocking a pathway through which damaged cells make prostaglandins during the inflammatory process.

The use of opiates is covered. In the middle of this century it was thought by doctors that opiate use was dangerous due to addiction but others figured out how to use lower doses for the analgesic effect. Dame Cicely Saunders, a founder of the modern hospice movement, championed their use among cancer patients and the terminally ill in pain. Now it is also common to have weaker narcotics combined with aspirin given in hospitals and pain prescriptions. Even cannabis is now being used legally and successfully as relief for many aliments. Similar to the situation with opiates, the brain produces chemicals similar to the cannabinoids of cannabis. Antidepressants work by increasing the level of certain neurotransmitters such as serotonin. These may improve mood but also may decrease incoming pain signals from the spinal cord. Research with pain relieving drugs is aimed at increasing the analgesic effect and reducing side effects.

Also discussed are surgical operations to reduce pain. He recounts some of his own experiences in this regard as well, with varying levels of success. Some surgery may even make the pain worse.

Other therapeutic methods are covered including yoga, massage, relaxation, exercise, acupuncture, manipulation, osteopathy, and stimulation. Each seems to have merits and limitations in regards to pain.

I found the chapter on the placebo response to be quite interesting. He notes that the placebo/nocebo effect is based on expectation. Its association with quackery is rather unfortunate and many doctors seek to trivialize it or to suggest that it only works for imagined pains. But the evidence is to the contrary. He notes that new drugs need to be proven to be better than a placebo and that this is much more difficult than it appears. Studies designed to test the placebo effect have yielded fascinating results. The placebo effect can also be implicated in other therapies and even in the success or failure of surgery. Apparently, the body can react to our strongly held expectations. Certainly we are conditioned by our experiences which influence our expectations. Placebos can mimic the physiological effects of drugs, even of potent narcotics. Fake surgery has given long-term results in some cases due to the power of expectation. Interestingly, experiments have shown that placebo/nocebo responses also occur in animals. They too have expectations based on previous experiences. This led to the effect being explained as a form of Pavlovian classical conditioning. Certainly, such conditioning is an aspect of the effect, but Wall strongly thinks there is more to it:

“The placebo response is the fulfillment of an expectation. Expectations are learned by individuals, and if enough individuals share the same expectations it is called a culture.”

The doctors in their white coats tend to support an expectation of healing. “Society itself is changed by its belief in medicine and surgery.”  “The placebo response is played out on the stage of expectation, which is created by the patients and their experience and culture, by the reputation of the therapy and by the attitude of the therapists.”

One experiment in 1978 used a narcotic suppressant to show that the pain relief due to the placebo response was indeed produced by the body’s endogenous narcotic system through the release of endorphins. This study conclusively showed that expectation can cause very real and powerful bodily reactions.

Wall is convinced that there is a cognitive component to the placebo response, that it is not simply a conditioned response. Belief and expectation are certainly cognitive in nature. The effect is not simply mechanical as some have suggested, it is learned and shaped by previous experience and individual and cultural expectation. The author also points out that in any therapy there is a placebo component.

Wall states that understanding the basis of one’s own pain can have a therapeutic effect. In describing the necessity of attention in experiencing pain he notes that all species seem to have a set of rules for selective attention to the vast input of the sensory world. He suggests that like large, sudden, and novel movements are noticed by our survival oriented  awareness so too is tissue damaged dealt with (noticed) by bodily actions. Our attention mechanism scans and selects. It may order attention which may explain some painless injury where overcoming tissue damage in order to get out of danger overrides pain. Injured warriors and athletes can sometimes perform quite well. Pain demands attention. Distraction has been a successful therapy to pain at least temporarily. This is the basis of many folk remedies (like certain balms) and often how we deal with injuries of toddlers. Cognitive therapy is a form of distraction therapy too as pain can be daydreamed away to some extent with training. When pain appears the body is on alert and reorganizes/reorients. The body stiffens. The painful area is explored with mind and often with hands. The protective role of the inflammation process may become maladaptive when prolonged which may lead to chronic pain. The body has a strategy of holding the body part or area of injury still by stiffening muscles to facilitate the healing process. This may be overemphasized and result in further pain. Such pain can be eased by biofeedback training where one may learn to relax the stiffness. The over-stiffness is accompanied by a belief that the pain caused by moving an injury will lead to further injury. This is often not the case, says Wall. I experienced this recently after taking a fall on the ice and hurting my wrist. Having plans for a blues guitar jam the next day I thought I might have to cancel but I moved it around and it turned out OK – however side plank in yoga class on that side was not an option.

Wall proposes an alternative theory to how we deal with pain. He says that:

“The brain analyzes the input in terms of what action would be appropriate.”

The parts of the brain associated with motor planning are implicated in reaction to pain. The brain scans for motor action that would be appropriate to the input, he says. The same motor planning system is involved in mimicry and learning by copying. He even suggests that all sensory events may be analyzed by scanning and selecting the appropriate motor responses. He then gives what he sees as the appropriate motor responses to an arriving injury signal:

“… first to remove the stimulus; second, to adopt a posture to limit further injury and optimize recovery; and third, to seek safety, relief, and cure.”

Through learning, growing up, and cultural influences we learn to hone our expectations. We learn that particular actions are followed by relief and so we apply them when needed. Thus, we each develop a particular strategy in responding to pain that is colored by our previous experiences.

“Pain is then seen as a need state, like hunger and thirst, which are terminated by a consummatory act.”

Pain is almost always accompanied by fear and anxiety. Fear of debilitation can be a factor and lead to further anxiety. These anxieties can focus the attention on the pain. Chronic pain sufferers may fall into depression. Feeding these emotional states back into attention on the pain can make pain harder to bear, suggests the author. It is psychosomatic (like the placebo effect) and can be quite powerful. Treating these emotional states may not make the pain go away but can make the pain easier to deal with. Strategies for coping with pain are needed. The first step in coping is to successfully deal with the accompanying fear, anxiety, and depression. Pain is a syndrome in this respect and each aspect of the syndrome should be treated.

There is an interesting section on dealing with the pain of others. Caregivers can help others deal with pain but they can also be negatively affected by the person in pain and their emotional orientations. Misery tends to be privatized in many modern cultures so that can be a barrier to therapy. Sometimes alternative therapies can be more effective than medical ones. This may be due to the therapist giving more time and attention to the patient and the buildup of expectations of success. It seems that coping is the key. Just as the brain has a strategy for finding the appropriate reaction to injury and that strategy may be the origin of pain, the mind can develop a strategy for coping that can be fine-tuned. In contemplating this, it seems to me that everyday life is a coping strategy! I have noticed too that animals will mask pain. This may be for survival reasons as injury is a vulnerability that can be exploited.

He goes through the medical profession’s strategies for dealing with pain. He notes that pain relief is not emphasized enough as are cause and cure. He thinks it is not studied enough in medical schools – after all pain is the primary reason someone visits a doctor. Some hospitals now have acute pain teams. There are pain clinics. There is hospice care and palliative care. Focus on rehabilitation can be useful. Patients groups are an option. He suggests that the early days of pharmaceutical companies led to many important medical discoveries but now they are overly focused on profits. Newer biotech firms may take up the discovery spirit. He wants more researched focused on pain and pain relief. Society (and insurance companies) may belittle people’s pain, especially if the causes are not clear. There are also people who believe that people such as that are faking pain for various reasons or it is entirely imaginary. This relates to the depiction of people on welfare and disability as being frauds or fakes – most of whom are not.

“Pain is one facet of the sensory world in which we live. It is inherently ridiculous to consider pain as an isolated entity, although many do exactly that. “… Pain is not just a sensation but, like hunger and thirst, is an awareness of an action plan to be rid of it.”

I am glad I read this one. I agree that knowledge of such a subject as pain might be therapeutic as learning to cope can be a key to dealing with it successfully. May all those dealing with pain deal with it well and learn to be pain-free.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Powering the Future: A Scientist's Guide to Energy Independence

Book Review: Powering the Future: A Scientist’s Guide to Energy Independence  by Daniel Botkin (FT Press Science – Kindle Edition 2010)

This is an assessment on the future of energy production by a prominent environmental scientist who is also an environmentalist. He describes himself as an ecologist with a background in physics. This book provides data and analysis toward the gradual development of a post-fossil fuel society. While his analysis of the viability of various energy sources is generally considered reasonable he is decidedly against promoting natural gas as a bridge fuel. His work with the DeSmogBlog (an anti-fossil fuel group) shows that he is clearly among those who seek to discredit natural gas extraction as overly destructive to the environment and climate. He does state here though that this book looks at energy as an engineering issue and not an ideological one.

Botkin gives an account of the blackout in the northeast US in August 2003 which was the result of hot weather, air conditioner usage, but mostly of the inadequacy of the grid to handle varying demand. Power grid instability is a threat due to much of it being outdated, used in ways it wasn’t designed for, and inefficiency due to low tech. Many people think that the addition of more wind and solar will further de-stabilize the grid due to storage issues but solar can also help stablilize the grid during midday peak demand times.

Botkin gives four parts to our energy crisis: 1) lack of adequate sources of energy; 2) the need to move away from dependence on fossil fuels; 3) lack of adequate means to distribute energy safely, reliably, and consistently; and 4) inefficient use of energy, with major environmental effects.

He defines energy as the ability to move matter but also notes that it itself is unseen and different energy sources are measured in different ways with different units.

He gives the interesting example of ancient Greece where climate was relatively benign. Even so, houses were heated rather inefficiently in winter with charcoal made from wood and that by 500 B.C. deforestation was becoming common enough that fuel shortages were occurring. By 400 B.C. firewood was being imported. During that time the Greeks began building houses facing south to take advantage of passive solar for winter heating and summer cooling. Apparently, the Romans did the same: used all the wood, then imported it, utilized passive solar, then added glass windows which blocked wind and trapped heat via the greenhouse effect. Energy abundance has been a key feature of the development of successful civilizations.

This book is filled with graphs of energy usage by type of energy and various projections. It is a comparison of all forms of energy from fossil fuels through renewables and estimates of their ultimate monetary, social, and environmental costs.

The first fuel evaluated is oil, or petroleum. It is the most energy-dense of the fossil fuels. Consumption statistics are given. Its origin and emplacement are discussed. Some significant changes to domestic oil production stats have occurred in the few years since this book was published due to the success of “tight oil” from shale in the U.S. Oil is the main transportation fuel in the world. How much oil can be accessed is debatable and depends on possible future discoveries, technical improvements, and costs of extraction. The author thinks that oil production will end in the U.S. around 2060 (or at least by 2100) and in the world soon thereafter due to monetary energy costs of extraction exceeding benefits. According to the author “peak oil” is predicted worldwide between 2020 and 2050 and may have already occurred in the U.S. There is much disagreement about this. Even slight improvements in recovery efficiencies would increase access to vast quantities of more oil as current recovery is low. Increased demand from the transportation sector of developing nations such as China and India may change consumption estimates. Oil shales and tar sands are also discussed. These types of oil mining create much more CO2 emissions and pollutants in their extraction than conventional oil. They also contribute to greater environmental destruction. With petroleum in general there are several possible avenues toward pollution. Spills occur. Waste accumulates. Refining and burning creates air pollution and greenhouse gases. He gives the three most polluting energy sources as coal, nuclear, and oil.

Natural gas is next examined. He gives 60-65 years of supply. Gas is our main home-heating fuel. Some gas is used for transportation. Gas is increasingly used for power plants to make electricity. He explores natural gas vehicles but in a rather negative way without much substance. With adequate infrastructure and fuel storage compressed (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG) currently offer significant savings over gasoline and diesel as well as significantly less emissions. The author suggests there will be supply problems but this certainly has more to do with available infrastructure than actual supply. His argument here is very weak. His gas supply numbers for more intensive gas-powered transportation (in the U.S.) are also much lower than current predictions - as gas supply predictions have increased much in the U.S. due to shale gas successes. Natural gas vehicle fleets have successfully reduced smog in several cities throughout the world. He examines gas hydrates – recovery does not seem likely at current tech levels. Coal-bed methane is examined. This has been going on for years and offers some addition to gas reserves. What he calls shale-bed methane, or dry gas from shale, is currently producing nearly half of the gas in the U.S. and this has come quickly. There is also shale gas as gas associated with production of oil from shale. The author mentions the possible environmental problems associated with shale gas production: water usage, liquid waste, possibility for water contamination, etc. He does note that natural gas as the cleanest of the fossil fuels should be emphasized yet he seems to de-emphasize its importance in the long transition to renewable energy establishment.

Coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, continues to find increased usage throughout the world as a whole. The oldest and most polluting coal-burning power plants are being retired in the U.S. with few new ones to be built and those must be efficient and reduce emissions. Unfortunately, China, India, Europe, and other countries continue to utilize coal as it is cheaper than gas in many places. Coal supplies are projected to last 150-300 years but the greenhouse gas emissions and pollution are worse than any other fuel, except maybe wood. In the U.S. coal has been steadily losing its share of electricity producing capacity due cheaper shale gas and CO2 emissions as well as particulate pollution have declined as a result. China has surpassed the U.S. in coal use for electricity production although the smog levels in China are apparently perturbing their citizens. There are other serious environmental problems associated with coal: coal ash piles, mountaintop removal as massive landscape destruction, acid mine drainage, strip mining, deforestation, soil erosion, habitat destruction, explosions, cave-ins, underground coal fires, groundwater pollution, black lung disease, soot, land subsidence, dust from blasting, acid rain from high sulfur coal, high amounts of lead, arsenic, mercury, particulates, SO2, NO2, CO2, methane, hydrogen fluoride, hydrochloric acid, chromium compounds, etc. So-called “clean-coal technology” or coal gasification is not currently economically or even energetically feasible. CCS, or carbon capture and storage, also called carbon sequestration, is a technology with many current pilot projects but will probably have limited application overall. Some estimate a carbon price (tax) of $75 per ton will be required to make CCS economically feasible. For these and other reasons many suggest that CCS can only cover about 10% of coal burning and that is over the next few decades. Currently (2009-2010) coal provides 25% of world energy use and 40% of world electricity. About 2% of U.S. coal is used to make steel since the carbon in coke, a coal byproduct, is utilized in the steel formula to harden it. The abundance and low cost of coal keeps it being used around the world, especially for electricity. In a world of carbon emission costs through taxes, cap and trade, or another mechanism – coal will be far less used. But it needs to be replaced. Natural gas is the obvious short-term solution and back-up power, as renewable and distributed renewable facilities are built.

Water power provides a certain amount of power throughout the world but that amount is not likely to increase much since the best sites have been taken. According to Botkin about 19-24% of electricity worldwide and about 10% in the U.S. comes from hydro-power. New damn projects threaten to submerge habitat and indigenous people’s land. Some existing dams have negatively affected habitat, especially for fish. Widespread flooding can also be a result of large dams such as the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China. This is a large project that makes as much electricity as 18 coal power plants and with no emissions. It has also displaced 2 million people, inundated and destroyed famous picturesque land, and is in an earthquake-prone area. Smaller scale hydropower projects continue to be researched and developed but will probably not provide large amounts of energy. These include floating turbines harvesting river currents and tidal power. Water can also be pumped uphill by solar and wind power to be stored for later use as is done in Norway.

Nuclear power obviously has some serious issues. It is very expensive, dangerous, has serious accident potential, and the waste is extremely toxic. The dismantling costs are said to be more than the building costs. The current plants are rather short-lived (30-40 years). However, nuclear power does not produce CO2 and other greenhouse gases, which is why people like Stewart Brand, James Lovelock, James Hansen, and even one of the founders of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, have all come out in favor of it. They have suggested nuclear as the best replacement for coal for baseload electricity capacity – due to the price volatility of natural gas – but due to recent gas supply abundance, it seems likely that gas price will stay low for several more years, climbing gradually, and would still provide a cost advantage, especially if there were a price on emissions. Many believe nuclear has become safer but the ongoing disaster in Japan put that thought into doubt (though after publication of this book). There is also a limit to supplies of uranium ore. This suggests that nuclear could only replace a small percentage of fossil fuels and this only for a short time. So called “fast reactors” or “breeder reactors” would require less uranium but this technology is not thought to be ready. France, Belgium, Sweden, Spain, and South Korea get the highest percentage of their electricity from nuclear energy. The U.S. is 10th. The author notes his own work when he was younger with radioactive waste where the means of disposing of it was to dilute it as much as possible and pour it down the sink! Thus arises his doubt as to our ability to deal with highly toxic waste. The author goes on to characterize the problems of nuclear waste disposal, radioactive toxicity, and the accidents that have occurred such as the one at Chernobyl. New nuclear plants take so long to build that they could not offer a short-term solution to a transition to clean energy.

In 2007 renewable energy produced about 7% of the energy in the U.S. Of this 7% about half was provided by wood (considered a biofuel), about one quarter by other biofuels, and about 10% provided by biomass or biological waste. 8.1% was provided by geothermal, 7% by wind, and a mere 1.8% by solar/PV. Of course wind and solar have increased much since then but have a very long way to go to even make a dent in overall power production.

Wind is the cheapest form of renewable energy at present. It is cost-competitive with fossil fuels in many areas. One 22-story high wind turbine can produce electricity for about 500 homes, says the author, but he also notes a wind farm in California with 5000 turbines produce power for up to 350,000 people, which suggests that each turbine can produce power for up to 210 people, if we estimate 3 people per home. In any case these estimates differ considerably. Small scale wind applications offer limited local energy solutions and wind can also be harnessed on the sea in efficient ways. The author gives stats for wind potential in the U.S. but does not consider efficiency factors and intermittency when comparing to fossil fuel plants. Generating capacity is far less for wind but could be increased with upgrades to a “smart grid.” Wind energy does offer tremendous potential worldwide for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. He does give some interesting history of wind power and comparison of wind energy in various U.S. states. He mentions a payback period of 6-30 years for small-scale wind turbines for homeowners – hardly a great deal at the longer end. NIMBY concerns with wind power have been expressed, particularly with offshore wind power – which may also affect fish. Wind turbines are notorious for killing birds but siting away from migration routes can mitigate this to some extent. Wind is currently the least expensive and most feasible of renewable energy types.

Solar power is growing quickly but is still the most expensive off-grid electricity option. Solar has many small-scale local applications, particularly in rural areas in less developed countries to offer limited power. Botkin discusses some of the larger solar farm projects and compares types of solar energy including PV and solar thermal. In 2008 solar energy provided just 0.02% of U.S. electricity and 0.003% of total U.S. energy. That is a mere speck. In contrast wind energy provided 1.34% of U.S. electricity and 0.86% total U.S. energy. From these numbers it is quite clear that it will take considerable time and money to ramp up these power sources. Throughout the world (assumed 2009-2010), solar provides less than 1% of electricity and about 0.1% of total energy. The author, among several optimists (such as Mark Jacobson of Stanford) thinks that solar energy can provide vast amounts more. This is likely true but time and cost will be massive. Like Jacobson he thinks the calculations show potential but I am not sure if he is considering maintenance, loss of efficiency of panels, toxic manufacturing waste, increased mining demands, etc. He compares off-grid and grid-tied solar. Off-grid is more applicable to rural areas. He explores the successful implementation of small-scale solar projects in rural areas around the world – quite useful – but hardly adding to worldwide energy production. He does discuss the downsides to widespread implementation of solar PV technology. The obvious one is cost, although that seems to be improving at least slightly year by year. Next is manufacturing limits. Vastly increased demand could easily outpace manufacturing capacity. Another huge issue with solar (and wind) is energy storage. Grid-tied systems could store in the grid (for a fee). Batteries, pumped water for hydro-power, and hydrogen fuel cells are other possible options. Large solar parks/farms may also be criticized by NIMBY folk, for excessive land use, and for possible habitat destruction. Silicon mining for solar panels creates dust and other mining creates pollution. Germany and Spain have been having some success in widespread implementation of solar power and these make good case histories for the immediate future.

The author seems enthusiastic about ocean power, particularly the harnessing of wave and tidal energy. He thinks the U.S. could use it for 15% of electricity at current technology and much more if near-shore wave energy could be utilized. There is also research being done to try and harness energy from temperature differences in different parts of ocean water. Of course, this stuff is mostly in the R & D stage and things like efficiency (what percentage of the energy could actually end up as electricity) and costs are not at all clear. There are technological, mechanical, and maintenance issues as well. Tidal power has been successful and reliable in a few prime areas such as off the coast of Britain and in British estuaries. Ocean energy will likely add to the renewable energy mix but it is as yet unclear how much. Investment in this area has not been huge or widespread so it appears the feasibility is not up to speed just yet.

Biofuels have replaced a very small percentage of fossil fuels for transportation. There are basically three types of biofuels: 1) organic waste that can be burned; 2) crops grown to be fuels (agrifuels); and 3) firewood. Agrifuels make up less than 1% of America’s energy. Agrifuels may take more energy than they make while providing very small emissions benefits over gasoline or diesel. They also use up arable land that could be growing food. Corn ethanol can drive up corn prices. Cultivation of palm oil for biofuel in Indonesia and sugarcane in Brazil has destroyed large swathes of habitat. The author notes that woodstoves in the U.S. contribute 6% of the total particulate-matter pollution. Ethanol from waste agricultural products is a bit better for the environment overall but costs and ability to efficiently convert sugars to alcohol is often problematic. Waste, or biomass, adds a small amount of total energy production but is not likely to increase very much overall. Waste oil recycling, trash waste-to-energy plants, and other biomass ideas will likely assist small-scale energy production on the local level. Botkin notes three types of efficiency when evaluating biofuels: 1) cost efficiency; 2) energy efficiency – energy invested vs. energy returned; and 3) area efficiency- energy yield per acre in the case of agrifuels. There is disagreement on the efficiencies of agrifuels, with some very questionable whether they provide any benefit at all. Biofuels are also water and fertilizer intensive. Agrifuels have even made fertilizer component prices rise such as phosphate rock which is mined. Biofuels derived from algae and bacteria seem to offer some benefits in efficiency but are still in the R & D phase. Finding strains of bacteria that can quickly and effectively break down the organic matter is a hurdle for several biofuels. Indications are that ethanol from algae may one day be able to offer 50% more energy output than input. The author thinks that this source will one day be preferred for air travel – which requires a transportable liquid fuel of high energy-density. Even large energy companies like Exxon are investing millions into algae-derived “biocrude.” Some of the popularity of biofuels can be attributed to PR by “Big-Ag” and some due to government subsidies which make it seem cheaper than it is. Interestingly, he also notes that biofuels are limited to the efficiency of photosynthesis itself (which he calculates at just 3%) which stores and converts solar energy. Thus, it will be difficult to ever get biofuels to compete with crude oil as a ready energy dense resource, especially in the near term, without massive scale-up, which would create other problems. Biofuels will continue to have niche uses and perhaps the most efficient ones, such as those from algae, will be scaled up.

Transportation and storage of energy is next examined. Oil pipelines, gas pipelines, and electrical transmission lines make up vast networks. Although oil and gas pipelines have a very good safety record there are accidents and some can be deadly and destructive. Some of the pipelines and much of the electrical grid is out of date and due for upgrading. There is much loss of efficiency in power lines and loss of methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas – particularly in old natural gas distribution lines to end users. Pipelines are the most efficient, safest, and least carbon intensive ways to get hydrocarbons to refineries and from refineries to market. Diesel, jet fuel, and gasoline are also transported via pipeline and now some bitumen crude from Canadian tar sands projects.

Botkin also discusses the future of our electrical grids. He cites studies that suggest the grid is not prepared for the power load of the future. He stresses that smaller microgrids, distributed locally will be required as well. Strategies to deal with the intermittency and storage issues of wind and solar power will need to be implemented. The ability of solar  to provide more power capacity at daytime peak demand will be important. Currently, microturbines (often powered by natural gas) are used to assist peak demand. Upgrading to smart grid technology, though expensive to install, will be required for the future, This will pay for itself (eventually) by decreasing power outages, making wind power more efficient, allowing power to flow in different directions through computerized switching, and working in tandem with microgrids to increase efficiency by decreasing power loss. Integrating energy production, transmission, and storage is the key. New storage strategies include: “… huge flywheels and underground compressed air in caverns and superbatteries and elevated water reservoirs.” Low temperature superconductor cables are more efficient in transporting energy and reducing power loss. A full nationwide upgrade to up-to-date smart grid technologies could cost nearly a trillion dollars. Solar and wind energy are more amenable to microgrids and off-grid applications. Off-grid technologies will likely be a big part of our energy future, particularly in rural areas. Hydrogen will likely play some role in energy storage but adoption of a full-blown “hydrogen economy” is likely only on a small scale in localized areas.

The section on transportation notes that in the U.S. about 28% of energy use is for transportation and that more than 6% of all energy used in the U.S. is used to transport coal. He compares transportation efficiencies. Railroad and ship are efficient for moving cargo. Inner-city bus is efficient for moving urban folk. He stresses, as have others, mandatory increases in mpg for vehicles and simply driving less as key ways to reduce energy use.

He puts big emphasis on railroads as a way to mitigate energy usage in the transportation sector. He and the US DOT think that passenger rail travel will increase drastically by 2020. He explores costs (the main hurdle) and compares them to the costs of restoring and upgrading infrastructure – ie. roads, bridges, tunnels, water lines, sewage lines, etc. Shipping cargo by rail is more efficient, saves money, and reduces truck traffic. He suggests that the government has neglected railroads when upgrading infrastructure. He makes a good case for investing in passenger and cargo railroad travel – light rail for cities, passenger rail, and high-speed rail.

Botkin suggests that “eco-friendly” folk would be better to discourage car and truck over-usage than air travel since air travel has become vital to our economy on both micro and macro levels. He makes a good case for urban travelers to embrace inner city buses and bicycle travel. Upgrading and expanding bike paths and bike lanes and bike sharing offer opportunities to save energy as well. The author thinks that re-organizing transportation to disfavor cars and trucks and to favor bikes, buses, and especially trains, can be one of the best ways to conserve energy in the near term. He notes that replacement of trucks by rail could conserve vast amounts of energy.

Increasing energy efficiency in buildings also offers vast opportunity for conserving energy and saving money. Passive solar design and taking advantage of microclimate are good strategies for energy conservation. He notes the energy-to-comfort ratio advantages of a radiant heating system over a forced hot-air system. Green buildings and city design are examined also with emphasis on reducing pollution and conserving energy. Much of this is “no-brainer” stuff as energy savings=cost savings. One of the biggest hurdles these days to efficiency is overcoming the initial cost needs, as payouts come gradually.

Deep geothermal provides less than half of 1% of U.S energy capacity. There are limited areas where this is applicable and there are serious issues such as water-injection induced earthquakes. Even the most optimistic estimates put deep geothermal potential at less than 10% of U.S. energy production. Most of the potential for this zero emissions energy is out west where population is sparse.

Shallow geothermal for home and business application offers more potential but mostly for rural homeowners or places where there is space enough to bury the pipes. He discusses energy savings form geothermal heating/cooling systems and determines that they could save up to 70% in heating costs and up to 40% in air conditioning costs.

“The simple answer to our energy problem is for Americans to learn to live happily using just 6% of our current per capita energy use” Yeah good luck with that!

In considering solutions to our energy/climate dilemma he notes the need for a smart grid – “… a renovated and modernized system to transport energy.”

He considers three scenarios of energy production/consumption leading up to 2050:

Scenario 1: Business as usual – if population and energy demand increases then fossil fuels will be used and depleted faster. Climate change will also be accelerated. Grim.

Scenario 2: Per capita use unchanged, but solar and wind replace fossil fuels – a daunting task, especially trying to keep up with demand and costs. This will cost vast amounts compared to scenario 1.

Scenario 3: Per capita use drops 50% and solar and wind provide two-thirds. This is actually a more practical scenario rooted in conservation and efficiency. Doing the numbers he demonstrates that this is do-able but the key is to reduce consumption. Costs for this transition will likely be one third of costs for scenario 2.

The author again de-emphasizes natural gas and I think that is his biggest mistake. For some reason he thinks gas is about to run out though record supply and reserves contradict his assertions, his bias as I see it.

The biggest challenge is to reduce per capita energy consumption. Much of this reduction will be technological. Wasting energy will likely get more expensive in the future. Energy efficiency consultants are being used more and more for businesses and buildings. Putting a price on carbon, the government, efficiency consultants, innovative engineering, and the individual consumer can all contribute to reduced energy usage.
He thinks energy will eventually be seen as a combination of social service and commodity, an efficiently and modestly regulated free market commodity.

He suggests that the government build a 10MW solar plant with the sole purpose of producing gas and liquid fuels in preparation of oil and gas running out. While this could be useful and R & D should continue, I think it is at least a few decades too soon to do this on any large-scale basis. He gives several other suggestions as well as a list of what will not work. Once again he mentions natural gas as very limited in quantity, not useful for an energy transition, and environmentally damaging – three statements with which I strongly disagree. Other than this rather inexplicable bias I agree with most of his assessment.

Overall a good book discussing our energy future in a general way.