Monday, June 25, 2007
Gore sees use of the Internet as one way to re-energize the practice of debate and unfiltered sharing of knowledge and ideas that the founders of our country relied on for keeping the republic healthy. I would agree, except for the fact that it still requires money and resources for access, and has too much potential for abuse by the powerful (not that I’m willing to stop using it).
One alternative, which has worked quite well since the founding the nation, is local debate and personal connection of people forming a network of discussion groups that can pass information and ideas. This “low tech Internet” has the advantage of helping to recreate communities, getting people to know their neighbors and become involved in their communities on a personal level. Media such as newspapers, books, and the Internet can be used for external communication of the views of these groups, but they are not necessary. Because they are decentralized and do not depend on resources that can be controlled by the powerful, the groups are virtually incorruptible. What’s more, politicians can easily connect with the groups (and vice-versa), without having to spend a lot of money – all it takes is a phone line or a visit.
Saturday, June 23, 2007
My wife and I saw the new movie “Evan Almighty” last night, which is a comical update to the Old Testament story of Noah and the flood, with a strong environmental message. I couldn’t help but think of people who believe a modern day equivalent of the great flood is about to strike, in the form of peak oil and global warming, and are resigned to building their own equivalents of an ark (sustainable communities far from other people) so that some part of civilization might survive. Like Hurricane Katrina and the attacks of 9/11, we have ample warning, but just as the Bush administration did for those emergencies (and the current ones) most of us are choosing to live in denial until it is too late.
Friday, June 22, 2007
Rated as extremely unlikely, very unlikely, likely, somewhat likely, very likely, or extremely likely, here are my guesses about each of the major options. Carbon rationing is extremely unlikely for the U.S. and very unlikely for the world. Micro-generation (home-based generation of heat and electricity) is somewhat likely in the U.S. and likely in the world. Large scale generation of electricity from solar and wind is very unlikely in the U.S. and somewhat likely in the world. Carbon sequestration is somewhat likely in the U.S. and somewhat likely in the world. Enhanced public transportation is very unlikely in the U.S. and likely in the world. Elimination of tourism is extremely unlikely in the U.S. and the world and very unlikely in the world. Finally, curtailing retail stores is very unlikely in the U.S. and somewhat likely in the world.
My confidence in each of the guesses is typically one rating category on either side of those given above. Converted to numbers, I would give my country’s chance of meeting the 90 percent emission reduction target as one in three, and the world’s chance of meeting the target as two in five.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
In Chapter 8 of his book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, George Monbiot makes a convincing case that worldwide use of biofuels would be disastrous. Rising food prices due to displacement of agricultural land would drive many people to starvation. The environment would be trashed as deforestation was accelerated to harvest palm oil, the biofuel most favored by the commodities market. Already, food prices in the U.S. are being driven up by ethanol production. The monitoring included in the energy bill might detect such adverse effects early enough to make a course correction, but why should we waste time and resources until that happens?
Monbiot argues that the best science on global warming points to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent of their present amount by 2030; the cost if we don’t can literally be measured in lives. To meet this target, Monbiot proposes a set of options that could preserve much of our modern society. These options include: carbon rationing; home-based generation of heat and electricity using a combination of solar and hydrogen technologies; large scale generation of electricity from solar and wind (transmitted through the newer DC power lines) and carbon sequestration from any supporting conventional plants we might need; adoption of more (and better) public transportation with ride sharing; virtual elimination of the tourist industry (especially air travel); and cutting back on large retail stores by using home delivery of merchandise from warehouses.
Monday, June 18, 2007
I was personally shamed by the movie. Though I have spent a lot of time studying “population loss” and financially supported groups trying to alleviate suffering in places like Darfur, my perspective has been far too abstract. There are real people dying, families being torn apart, and physical and emotional torture occurring on an unimaginable scale. “Population loss” is unmitigated, personal disaster for those involved, and we in the West are far closer to experiencing it than we would care to admit.
Any time someone suggests that a group of people should be killed to get them out of our way, or that another culture should be destroyed because it is an evolutionary dead end, we should have an immediate gagging reflex and then let that person know just how disgusting and vile the suggestion is. We should remind ourselves and our neighbors every day that tolerance is critical to our moral and physical survival.
There may be a fraction of any population that will always favor the destruction of others so they can “come out on top.” It seems to be a perpetual struggle to keep them from doing too much damage. But the rest of us can not think of them or treat them as any less human because of it, because then we will be emulating them. We must focus on limiting ACTIONS, because it is the actions, not the people, who are evil. The rule of law, not of people, is what keeps our destructive impulses from wreaking havoc, and we must rededicate ourselves to strengthening, rather than weakening systems that limit the damage we can do to other people.
Saturday, June 16, 2007
The core assumption of my consumption model is that annual consumption of resources is proportional to the global ecological footprint. Is this true? This assumption has not been proven, though there are several good reasons to believe it; among them that global energy production, which drives consumption, tracks the footprint pretty closely (no pun intended).
The population projections of the consumption model are based on the observation that there seems to be a tight correlation between world population and cumulative consumption (the total amount of resources consumed over a period of time, calculated as the sum of annual consumption). Is this a true correlation, and if so, why does it exist? This question is particularly important because the most dramatic and potentially controversial prediction of the model is that after thousands of years of population growth in synch with consumption, the population will fall to zero as a consequence of too much consumption, and this will happen in less than 40 years.
My recent comparison of national statistics suggests that there may be an external variable driving both global ecological footprint and life span (a combination of individual power and awareness; what I have called “adjusted power”) and when this variable gets too high, life span will drop. Is this true, and if so, why, and what does it mean for the entire world? Does this validate or invalidate the consumption-driven population crash predicted by the consumption model?
Friday, June 15, 2007
The movie and panel discussion that followed were hosted by Environment Colorado, a local advocacy group whose main claim to fame is the passing of state legislation mandating the use of clean, renewable energy sources. The group is currently promoting a similar federal law being debated in the Senate. Much of the discussion focused on replacing a substantial fraction of energy we use, while almost none of it dealt with limits of what we could – or should – use. There was an oblique mention of the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth, and it was implied that this limit was too high to be a concern.
My own calculations of the amount of renewable energy that can be produced in the U.S. vary from one-seventh to 17 times the energy produced in 2000. If energy consumption grows linearly over time, I project that we will reach the maximum limit in the year 3965. The bulk of the growth in renewable energy consumption (by a factor of 18 over that in 2000) will, however, have to take place between now and 2021 to keep up with the depletion of non-renewable resources; by then, we will need to be meeting ALL of our energy needs with renewable resources.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
I was reminded of this exchange as I read Al Gore’s latest book, The Assault on Reason, and reflected on my own research into the role of accurate knowledge in the success of individuals in a population. Setting aside the supreme snobbery in the notions that everything should be owned and that those with the most money should have most of the control in society, it strikes me as inherently dangerous for any population (especially a democratic republic like ours) to have information in particular strictly controlled by a few people and dispensed to only those who can afford it.
The danger from restricted information (and through lack of education in critical thinking, the restriction of knowledge) lies in the inability of any small group to effectively process and use that information to handle the great complexities of the world. First, they can’t be in many places at once, so their data and control points are fundamentally limited. Second, they do not have the personal processing power to handle the information they do get. As a result, even if their motives are pure, they will be incapable of exercising their power reliably and without great risk. The obvious way to deal with these problems is to distribute control and knowledge throughout a large, spread out population. A good analogy is the human body (or any biological organism), where the brain, itself a distributed system, does not micromanage the activities of each of the body’s cells, but rather serves as a facilitator or coordinator of activity. Groups of cells that take too much control are usually perceived as diseases (such as cancer) that threaten the entire organism.
Anarchy, the excessive distribution of power to every individual, has its own problems. Survival is far more enhanced by cooperation to deal with aspects of the environment that cannot be managed effectively by individuals alone. Such aspects involve large threats, difficult to retrieve resources, and the general erosion of uniqueness associated with entropy.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
I live in two realities. In one of them, I am an outspoken challenger of basic ideas and perceptions; trying to find a cohesive view of the world and what is needed to make it better for everyone and everything that inhabits it. In the other reality, I am an upper-middle class professional, working with his family and business clients to meet personal and financial goals consistent with the current expectations of our society. In the first reality, I am an elephant hunter. In the second reality, I am aligned with the elephant deniers.
The source of difficulty is that my personality strongly favors empathy: When others are uncomfortable, I am too. The sad truth, which I am taking far too long to admit and deal with, is that I have no power to protect others beyond educating them. The “elephant hunter” must ultimately become my dominant role.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
In a time of crisis, where an attack is imminent, our system of checks and balances, of proof and arguments about motive, may operate too slowly to prevent mass death. Like many people I am a fan of the television show “24,” whose elaborate plots turn on this very premise. In such cases, no sane person would argue against quick response; the Constitution is meaningless if there are no citizens alive to use it.
The Bush administration would have us believe that we are in a perpetual state of crisis, where attack is always imminent. It uses this “fact” as the justification for its draconian detainment of “enemy combatants” here and overseas, its blanket wiretapping of U.S. citizens, and its tinkering with the election system to keep “weak” Democrats from gaining too much power (at the heart of the U.S. attorney firings; see “caging lists”). There is no credible proof of this basic claim that has been presented to the American public; we are expected to take the government’s word for it (and constantly remember September 11, 2001 as the shining example of how we can be killed if we are not excessively vigilant).
The United States has faced far greater threats in its past. For example, if one considers the fraction of a population (rather than the absolute numbers) that can be killed, weapons of mass destruction are nothing new. The Constitution was created by people who had lived through some of the greatest peril our country has ever faced, and its controls on power have stood the test of a variety of wars where Americans were at significant risk of being killed. The Constitution has also dealt remarkably well with criminals, whose methods are not unlike those of terrorists.
To throw aside the most basic protections and concepts of the Constitution would require that, ultimately, we believe in the infallibility of those who are currently in power (that they accurately perceive the threat and can effectively deal with it). Such infallibility is something our Founding Fathers knew was impossible, an expectation more than backed up by our experience.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
But there are also some bad things associated with faith. Among these is the encouragement of incuriousness and mental laziness (when you believe you have access to the answers to the big questions, you tend not to test your assumptions by learning more). Another is the potential of abuse by people who claim to be a conduit for the power and wisdom of the deity, effectively enslaving the faithful to their leaders. And, of course, there is the holding on to bogus knowledge that can result in people taking inappropriate action to achieve their goals and hurting others in the process.
Judging from statistics about the prevalence of religion, it is clear that the majority of people consider faith to be more beneficial than detrimental. Having been one of them, I can still agree – to a point. When any of us acquire enough power to affect more than our local group of people, we have a responsibility to rely more on facts than opinion, and to constantly work to improve our understanding of the world while increasing and refining our respect for other people and species. Technology has bestowed this power on a substantial fraction of the human population, yet far too many of the powerful have been slow to rise to their responsibility. It is the immaturity of the powerful among us that makes faith a liability, keeping us from meeting the monumental challenges to global survival that we face today.
In the case of Christianity, we are forced to take the word of a small number of people whose accounts of events are inconsistent (as in the various books of the New Testament, which were written long after the events), conditions of observation are questionable (extraordinary events witnessed after days of starving in the wilderness), and predictions vague enough to be useless. “God” as an explanation depends on people internalizing the questionable stories and because of its subjectivity cannot be applied consistently or broadly (consider the differences in interpretation between, say, Baptists and Catholics).
Common replies to these issues are that the Bible is “the word of God” and that “God’s ways are mysterious.” How do we know that the authors of the Bible were controlled by God in their descriptions of events, except by taking someone’s word for it? That there is mystery is obvious; a credible explanation would dispel these mysteries.
Another retort to the deficiencies of sacred texts is that every other alternative depends on faith. Because none of us can comprehend and use all of the observations, tools, and explanations of science, for example, we must accept what scientists say on faith. This is wrong: we don’t HAVE to; it is simply convenient to do so in many situations. Any time we use a microprocessor, send a spacecraft to another planet, or fly an airplane, we are not only assuming that the theories and the observations that support them are correct, we are TESTING them. Testing of explanations (which is all that the theories of science are) is critical to their success or failure in favor of better ones. In matters of faith, people accept automatically that there can be no “better ones” and therefore are not inclined to perform rigorous tests of their beliefs.
An explanation typically defines a set of things that have observable characteristics that everyone can agree to. The explanation also defines a set of interactions between the things based on their characteristics (usually as a group of rules) as functions of space and time, since “events” are defined in terms of these two variables. Having done all this, the explanation then shows how the set of things and interactions generate the observed event to a level of detail at least as great as the best available descriptions of the event.
Explanations are most useful if they can reliably be generalized to a large number of events, including events that have not been observed (but may be). To be generalized to ALL events, they must use the fundamental interactions and characteristics of the Universe (in addition to space and time).
Because human experience is always changing, with more events and more detail observed, explanations must change as well. The most successful explanations are those that require minimal change to deal with new information.
Friday, June 8, 2007
I have personally attended events that were later reported in newspapers or on television and found significant errors or omissions. My own memory has been proven to be wrong, as I’ve learned when playing back recordings of meetings I’ve attended. Studies have shown that people witnessing the same events have different memories, and those memories were not just shaped by the events themselves but the witnesses’ internal processing of those memories based on other experiences. These considerations make it clear that we should be very careful when using eyewitness testimony to determine the facts of events. And this all assumes that people WANT to report the events accurately (that is, they don’t have an agenda that leads them to intentionally lie).
One way to determine the truth of an event is to find several people who recall the same details, have not collaborated to alter each other’s perceptions, and have no reason to lie. External “physical” evidence should also be available, something which can be checked by anybody. As a general rule, don’t take any one person’s (or group’s) word for something.
The standards should be even higher for events that either support or claim to disprove principles that many people are likely to use in their lives, because the consequences can be very great. Such events include those that prove the existence of a deity, the set of observations that support natural laws that predict how nature behaves and the actions of our leaders.
Thursday, June 7, 2007
The bulk of human experience strongly argues for a Universe that operates on a set of physical laws that can be mathematically described and applied predictably to a set of physical entities. We do not fully grasp these laws or have a complete picture of the entities they operate on, nor are we ever likely to. Like a computer attempting to do calculations to 10 digits of resolution and only having enough memory and processing power to handle four digits, we can only crudely approximate how the Universe operates (the results of the calculation). The approximate picture we have does not include a creator, nor is it required to explain what we see. If the presence of a divine creator is part of the Universe we can never comprehend, our innate limitations render this fact superfluous.
Personal experience is another way to test the existence of a creator, and even there the evidence is at best equivocal. Through biological or psychological (rather than supernatural) means, we can stimulate the same experiences of divine presence that the faithful report.
Reports of extraordinary events (what some have called miracles) are easily explainable by the laws of probability, if not outright exaggeration. Just because something is extremely improbable doesn’t mean it won’t happen; a classic example is physicist Richard Feynman’s observation that we observe very improbable combinations of letters and numbers on license plates every day. There is an entire cottage industry devoted to showing how human intuition is very poor at dealing with probability.
Given all of these considerations, I (and others far more knowledgeable than me) have concluded that the concept of a divine creator is a human artifact. The part of reality it is useful in explaining does not have to do with the origins or properties of the Universe, but rather the psychology and biology of humans, as well as the history that derives from the related perceptions of people.
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
I’d like to make a plea for open-mindedness and acceptance of my explanation that the views expressed here simply represent the picture that my extensive reading and thinking about the subject have generated. I’m always open to learning new things, further questioning whether my perspective is right. But after about three years of intensive investigation and another ten of using “targets of opportunity” to further refine my understanding, there is enough convergence to feel fairly confident that I am on the right path, at least for me.
Using the approach to learning that has served me best in the past I have concluded that the concept of divinity is a human creation, which serves a variety of important functions in the survival and growth of our species. Because it is best perpetuated by stories about people (or human-like creatures), this creation has taken on the quality of an internalized myth that protects the young, and prepares us reasonably well for productive interaction with each other. As a recipient of its protection and social education, I have the utmost respect for it, and continue to apply many of its lessons to positive effect in my daily life. In many ways, I am still a very good Christian.
But I have learned enough to doubt the details of the myth and had the audacity to try to find my own way drawing from more than what I learned in Sunday school. What I represent here is the result of that probing, and I do so primarily to share something valuable with others in the hope that we may all benefit from continued exploration and debate.
I’ve had a few experiences with meditation, and prayer is much like that. The focus and the feeling of ultimate goodness and nurturing are the same. I suspect that the emotional state of surrender to a positive, caring influence, and loving acceptance of one’s self as a valuable part of the Universe acts as a key to the improved integration of the mind. The result is a more full experience of the world and a deep respect for both who and what we don’t know first-hand. The latter result benefits both the individual and society: We individually experience less anxiety (fear), and society has fewer people trying to tear it apart for selfish gain based on a perception of other people as things to be manipulated.
I came to understand religion as the cultural manifestation of these realities, a way to explain them from an experiential (and not necessarily factual) point of view. It can teach practices that help people deal with their fears, increase their power, and strengthen their commitment to the welfare of their communities. Unfortunately, religion can also be (and has been) abused by those who perpetuate a simple lie: that the power of self-integration emanates from an external force that happens to be channeled through the manipulators. While the lie may be useful to initiate the process (like various myths aimed at children to keep them from hurting themselves until they become more aware), it must be shelved as soon as possible.
To argue against the lie in a public forum could threaten not only the power of the people who knowingly perpetuate it, but the success of the educational process it was designed to initiate. This is why, I believe, atheists like me are seen in a negative light by many people. While I have no problem with the former, the latter does bother me. We must find a better way to initiate people than to mislead them.
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
From the time I was in college, my “inner voice” would occasionally come up with things that I felt must have come from an external source because surely I wasn’t smart enough, or self-assured enough, to do so. Well, it turns out that I was, at least the subconscious part of me. As always I did some research, and discovered that the self-aware part of people’s minds is actually quite dumb; similar to the local memory that controls the display on a computer. It has some elementary computing power, but most of what it “sees” are the results of much more complex computations done by a microprocessor (or group of them). While consciously I have difficulty doing basic arithmetic, most of my brain is processing millions of points of data in complex calculations that our technology is still far from emulating.
I came to the inescapable conclusion that what I was attributing to “God” was really just a set of simple communications between the really smart part of my mind and the really dumb part of my mind. Quizzing other people, I concluded that they were probably the same. This conclusion is further supported by recent research identifying a physical part of the brain with people’s experience of spirituality.
When someone claims that “God” talks to them, I assume that they are simply not self-aware. Such lack of awareness is not necessarily bad; I did reasonably well through my thirties. But I attribute much of the huge increase in productivity and creativity I experienced since then to my discovery and the effort afterwards to improve the communications between the two parts of my mind. I can’t help but wonder if it might work as well for other people.
Monday, June 4, 2007
In his new book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, environmentalist George Monbiot spends a whole chapter exploring the roots of what he calls “The Denial Industry.” Monbiot makes a chilling case that there are a small number of people, bankrolled by the tobacco and oil industries and aided by an indolent world press, who have systematically sown most of the seeds of doubt about global warming. According to Monbiot, tobacco giant Phillip Morris attacked global warming (and several other controversial theories) in an attempt to discredit the EPA’s research on the hazards of second-hand smoke. The company set up a number of fake public interest groups (prominent among them, TASSC) to give the appearance of credibility to their claims. ExxonMobil and other members of the oil industry expanded on their tactics, and successfully utilized influence with the Bush Administration to quash any related regulations.
There is a significant amount of evidence on the Internet to at the very least casts doubt on the veracity of many of the deniers of global warming. The scientific enterprise welcomes disagreement and vigorously examines any all claims for empirical validity. Its debate – which has converged through this process on the most likely explanation -- should not be poisoned by lies (typically of omission) and gross distortions in the public sphere.
Saturday, June 2, 2007
My motivation was more than just a desire for growth and a fascination with the unknown. During my examination of beliefs following my father’s death, I seized on the fact that the settlement of other worlds is critical to the long-term survival of life born on Earth. The Sun is growing warmer, and a few hundred million years from now it will make our planet uninhabitable. To most people, this is far too long a period of time to be concerned about; but I understood that the extremely slow pace of evolution (yes, another reason to “believe in” evolution) did not guarantee that another species capable of leaving our planet would ever appear here. If someone was going to help life escape certain extermination, like Noah contemplating the great flood, it was going to have to be us.
I also became fascinated with the threats to our survival that could come from space. The most prominent and likely of these threats is from asteroids and comets that could lay waste to cities, nations, or our entire planet. These threats can be met by technology, and once again we are the only species capable of ensuring life’s future.
As a project for the Mars Society, I mathematically explored just how large our population could grow and how far we could reach if we choose to settle space. I also considered what might happen if we limited ourselves to this planet or the Solar System. One surprising outcome of this and my consumption studies is that the world’s population probably reached its highest growth rate (two percent) in the mid-1970s, which may only be surpassed if we can sustain a consumption growth rate of more than 3.6 percent until we reach our maximum speed. For me, the bottom line is that humanity will be forced to deal with rates of growth in consumption and population that are rapidly decreasing; and only long term choice is between sustainability and death.
Earth’s natural systems are showing signs of wear and tear, brought on by the exponential growth of resource use and waste by the human species. We are causing a mass extinction of species not unlike those brought on by asteroid impacts in the distant past, and we may be next. I now realize that environmentalism and its close cousin the “sustainability” movement are social responses to this crisis.
As a former physicist and engineer, I applied my favorite tools to studying the issues (in what I call a “consumption model”). I discovered that the cumulative consumption of resources by humans is closely correlated to the trajectories of population growth for our species and others, and that all populations may crash (drop to zero) in this century as a result. If somehow technology enables us to live without the natural systems that have supported us, consume entire planets, and travel near the speed of light, the conversion of mass associated with the kind of exponential growth we’re used to can only be sustained for a few hundred years at most, because we can not reach the required planetary and interstellar mass fast enough.
When I was 16, I participated in a program to get kids to understand the ongoing energy crisis. I revisited the issue in my forties and learned that fossil fuels will dry up in this century, even if we survive the ecological crisis we’ve precipitated. Non-environmentally destructive alternatives are urgently required to deal with whatever (hopefully small) demand for energy we might have.
I registered as an Independent and voted Democratic for the first time in my life, and then got very active in the Democratic Party trying to keep a similar mistake from happening again. We were unsuccessful in 2004, as people voted more from fear than reason. In 2006, the tide seemed to be turning as Republican greed, corruption, and incompetence convinced people that they had more to fear from their elected protectors than any external threats.
The evil acts on 9/11/2001 have been compounded by my beloved country’s paranoid aggression against anyone its leaders fear, regardless of provocation. To my shock, friends and family have advocated mass murder and cultural annihilation as horrendous as that threatened by the terrorists. My world was turned upside-down as I found evil and the seeds of evil in my own back yard.
In an effort to understand aggression and the pursuit of security against it, I discovered (through the development of a mathematical “security model”) that the amount of power and knowledge available to individuals in a population is directly related to how violent they are, how many resources they use, how long they live, and how happy they are with their lives.
Meanwhile, Nature dealt out its own share of disaster, spurred on by human activity, and responded to by cruel indolence and incompetence.
Friday, June 1, 2007
There are several common threads to both the opinions and the research: philosophy and personal musings; politics and current events; sustainability; and space exploration.
After spending most of my life accepting the religious and political views of my parents, peers, and friends, I began questioning everything. This was triggered by the death of my father, whose experiences and insights were unusually broad and deep. Until then, I had regarded people (such as my mother) who didn’t aspire to an objective, rational approach to life as being immature and hardly worth emulating. I discovered in a very short time just how wrong I had been: about him, about other people (especially women), and about myself.
As a result of my questioning, I discovered several things, among them:
- Most religions depend on having faith in other people rather than in a divine creator, since none of us, individually or collectively, has enough awareness or understanding to be able to even recognize a divinity.
- I have a profound sense of concern for others and humanity as a whole, which identifies me more with liberal Democrats than the conservative Republicans whose promotion of the individual above the group I had accepted as obviously right.
- People fall within a spectrum of feelings, experiences, and personalities, and everyone is deserving of respect so long as they do not willingly hurt others.
- Evil is the result of thinking of other people as objects with less value than oneself.