Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Connecting Streams

With the prices of almost everything rising, it is almost overwhelmingly tempting to do more of the same: Work harder, longer, and for more money; cut back on luxuries; put pressure on government officials to cut taxes and find out whether corporations are making too much money; and support trade policies that keep jobs from being exported. Sadly, in this era of diminishing resources and a stressed biosphere the old strategies will only make things worse.

What we should be doing is looking for ways to connect ways to connect output streams to input streams. That is, everything we generate (including “waste”) should be made usable by someone or something else. We should avoid creating anything that does not propagate some value beyond its initial use.

This approach applies to services as well as products. When I do something for you, you should eventually be able to take some part of that and pass it along to someone else rather than getting exclusive use of it. Knowledge and understanding are intangible examples of this (which is why most things I write have strong educational and thought-stimulating components).

The quality of what we create becomes more critical as resources become scarce. This, to me, is the essence of “frugality”: optimizing the value of what we make because there isn’t much to go around.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Stuck in the Box

I find myself in a serious dilemma after becoming convinced that the majority of our economic system is geared toward damaging and unsustainable growth of material consumption that is at or near its limits. I want to work toward reforming (or replacing) the system so the destruction will stop; but I depend on the system for my family’s survival, as do the other people who must also make the reforms.

After losing my job last year, I felt an irresistible revulsion at the thought of going back into a similar situation. To use the precious hours of my life supporting an insatiable beast that devoured nature and people just to keep getting bigger did not feel like the right thing to do. For a few months I have been able to focus on what I believe I do well: constructing and purveying valuable ideas in written form.

I’ve done this with the full support of my wife, who is still (unfairly) locked into the system. Sensitive to her situation and having reached a plateau with my novel completed, I have begun a job hunt and found that the prospects for the kind of job I would like are not good.

An obvious place to start is with organizations that work to preserve natural systems and encourage sustainable living.

Most “environmental” companies tend focus on mitigating the negative environmental (and sometime social) impacts of business activities, tweaking rather than challenging the existing business model. Any efforts toward sustainability are limited to efficiency measures, “restoring” material extraction sites, “cleaning up” material outputs, and educating people about reuse. Because these companies must serve their customers, they are unable to do more than suggest alternative practices that necessarily support or enhance the customers’ existing goals.

Alternative technology companies are also constrained to the dominant business model, forced by the demands of investors to attempt to grow without limit. Because most are at a competitive disadvantage compared to traditional sources, they are often forced to rig the system (through subsidies, tax breaks, and lobbying for legal advantages), a process that corrupts the feedback consumers need to make good choices. Since most of these companies tend to only add efficiency (when you count all the materials that go into them) and perpetuate the social order that encourages increasing consumption, I consider them to be only transitional to a sustainable economy.

Non-profits are closer to my organizations of choice, though they tend to be very small and totally dependent on donors for their survival. They are therefore forced to rely more and more on commodification and viral advertising to reach their audiences. The denaturalizing box we are all stuck in is hard to escape, even for those on a selfless mission to help people.

This appears to leave government, whose preeminent job is to preserve the commons for everyone. Unfortunately, it too has been co-opted by the culture of consumption, increasingly treating citizens as customers rather than people, and converting the commons (which includes other species) into commodities that can be divided up among those with enough influence (“demand”).

What’s left? One option is to work for myself, but the time and resources required may be too limiting at this point. Another option is to get into any of the existing organizations and work for change from the inside; a “job within a job” (I wonder how many hiring managers would go for that).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Impact Costs

One way to account for human and resource impacts is to include them additively in the costs of products.

Resource impacts in particular could be assessed by assigning a monetary value to the sum of the biosphere processing and damage to the biosphere by materials that it can’t use (so-called “artificial” compounds). For sustainability, these costs would need to be paid back over the lifetime of the product, by renewing resources and repairing damage.

Biosphere processing is perhaps the easiest to measure. The global ecological footprint is the amount of equivalent land used by the biosphere to both regenerate resources and process waste. If we use the current cost of a kilowatt-hour of grid generated electricity as a standard, then the highest additional biosphere cost (in the U.S.) is for a person-hour of airplane travel ($33), and the second highest is for a pound of wool clothing ($21). For food, beef incurs the highest cost per pound consumed ($10), with fish a close second ($7). For household services, we would need to add more than 30% to the cost of entertainment, use of telephones and other electronic equipment, and insurance. Even our waste disposal would carry a cost, with aluminum the highest at $6 per pound. A gallon of liquid oil is the most expensive fuel, at 24 cents per pound, followed by fire wood at 17 cents per pound.

Biosphere damage is perhaps best measured by cleanup costs associated with toxic pollution. This has been a primary focus of environmental laws and related technology.

Human impacts can most crudely be measured by changes in lifespan or happiness, with infrastructure creation and maintenance added in (to some extent, this latter cost is borne by government, which is funded by all of us).

Monday, April 21, 2008

AVID Consumption

One of the key insights in the nascent study of consumption is that social and environmental damage is enabled by people not having complete, accurate, and meaningful feedback about the social and environmental impact of products that they purchase. There are several reasons for this (detailed in the book Confronting Consumption), perhaps most important among them that such information is not generally collected and disseminated among suppliers and intermediaries in the process of creating and distributing most products. This state of affairs is exacerbated by the propensity of our dominant economics to increase the number of suppliers and intermediaries (called “distancing”) and to reward ambiguity in the information that is passed along (called “shading”).

There is an insidious fact of life that makes this almost inevitable: after an immense amount of data processing, humans simply cannot be consciously aware of more than three to seven pieces of information at a time. This forces us to simplify everything that we communicate to each other; and as errors inevitably creep into our communication, the information any of us receives is unlikely to be more than a distorted caricature of what the original sender intended. It’s therefore no wonder that the information used our buying decisions has no more than three dimensions: supply, demand, and value (with the first two generally folded into one, price, allowing cognitive room for us to expand the value dimension on a product-specific basis). Any information about how resources are extracted and the various impacts on the people involved in extraction, processing, and distribution tends to be included in “value” – the satisfaction purchasers have related to a product’s intended use – IF the purchasers actually care enough about these things to significantly influence demand.

If a goal as a society is to limit the damage we do in addition to meeting our personal wants and needs, then one possible solution would be for each of us to include the following dimensions in our purchasing decisions:

V = value of the product to the individual
L = labor = (number of people involved in production and distribution) * (health of laborers)
D = demand = number of people wanting the product
R = resources = (supply of resources) * (renewability of the resources)
A = ambiguity of the other measures

This number of dimensions may be too high to be practical. Multiplying resources and labor to get a variable called “input” could reduce the number, with the result summarized by the acronym AVID (ambiguity * value * input * demand). Here, input effective replaces supply in the traditional set of variables, but with deeper significance.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Less than Human

Is it possible for one person to be less human than another? As I argued in The Root of All Evil, such objectifying of people often leads to the most heinous acts of violence and murder, but yet it persists even in an “enlightened” culture like that in the United States. The following thought experiment illustrates my reason for believing that the answer is “no.”

Imagine discovering that the person you trust and love at some point before meeting you was responsible for the deaths of many people. That person, like every one of us, was born perfectly innocent and lived that way through childhood. To meet psychological or physical needs, the deaths of others became logically necessary. Afterwards, the person discovered other ways to meet those needs and became the person you know today who you believe to be incapable of such acts in the future.

Does knowing the person’s past change in any way the experience that you’ve shared, or the experience of the person before the transformation that led to the murders? Is the person any less “valuable” to you as a result? Is it “right” to execute such a person, effectively throwing away the rest of the person’s life just as the earlier murders stole the lives of others; and if so, for what reason if not self defense? What was evil when the murders were committed: the person, the conditions that changed the person, or the act itself?

One line of reasoning would add up the value of every action in one’s life and ascribe a total value based on the result. If this were done, regardless of the criteria, then practically every one of us would fall short of the greatest value. An arbitrary value for being fully human would then need to be assigned. By extension, shouldn’t killing a “less human” person count less than killing a “fully human” person? And isn’t this the same logic that many murderers use for justifying the killing of others, the difference being who got to set the standards?

In my view, the totality of humanity, past through future, defines what it means to be human. We all have equal “value” despite our differences and our experiences. Killing one person is equivalent to killing another person. The act is wrong, regardless of the reason, because it diminishes the number of humans already alive. We cannot, by definition, be less than human; but we can have fewer humans.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


Recent Congressional testimony about the situation in Iraq reminded me of a strategy I used to see over and over in industry. Incapable of admitting that it had set a goal it was incapable of reaching, management would do everything possible to deflect blame, finding as many alternative explanations as possible for the lack of achievement.

Whenever I hear someone say, like General Petraeus told Congress, that progress has been “fragile but reversible,” I see a big red flag that reads “I can barely treat the symptoms of the problem, and I am incapable of dealing with its cause.” With thousands of lives and billions of dollars being spent in the unsustainable occupation of Iraq, is this a strategy that we should support?

If citizens are to government as stockholders are to management, as is arguably the case in our representative democracy, then perhaps we should do what a company’s stockholders would do if they had the guts: Convince the Board of Directors (Congress) to fire management (the administration) and redefine our goals so that they align with reality. The main tool that stockholders and citizens have is the vote, and as “stockholders” we can change the makeup of both the Board and management. Clearly too many members of our “Board” don’t have the stomach to fire management, especially with an election so close, which makes a good case for replacing them as well as management.

When the tools you have are not doing the job, you need to find other tools. A growing parade of people with experience in foreign affairs and the military has been screaming that the military can only set the stage for political progress in Iraq, it can’t substitute for it; and political progress is absolutely required for a satisfactory conclusion. The Bush administration’s inability to “play well with others” (or more specifically, to respect and work with those they dislike) guarantees that it will not be politically constructive. It promised something that it could not – or would not – do, but that doesn’t mean that the goal of a stable and non-threatening Iraq is fundamentally unachievable. Replacements for the administration (and its minions in Congress) must recognize that we and our culture are not gods to be emulated by the world, but simply parts of a larger whole that must work together, and entertain changing in fundamental ways, in order to survive and thrive.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Urge to Grow

The urge to grow appears to be built into all of us. This amounts to an increase in our impact on the world, either in terms of what we consume or what others can identify with us (such as artifacts we create or offspring that carry our DNA).

Growth is typically either linear or exponential. If each day we acquire one new thing that is equivalent to each of the things we already possess, then our growth is linear. If, instead of one new thing, we acquire a constant fraction of what we had the day before, then our growth is exponential.

It would appear from history that people prefer exponential growth over linear growth; yet linear growth is more likely to be sustainable, whereas exponential growth is always and inevitably unsustainable.

One reason we grow is to offset potential losses. Throughout human history, populations have been subject to losses due to a variety of causes that include disease, predation by all species (including our own), and lack of food. To maintain a constant population, we must increase the population by the amount of the losses. Increasing a population beyond its losses requires an increase in resources. We also have the option of reducing the losses by disabling the mechanisms responsible for them.

Another reason we grow may be a prevalence of what I call relative thinking. Relative thinking is the tendency to define what we have as equivalent in value to what we’ve had before. For example, I perceive the person I am today as the same person I was as a child, even though by all objective standards we are radically different. Each year that we “improve ourselves,” the “new” us becomes the standard that needs improvement. Exponential growth follows from this when we conflate value (or quality) with quantity: we want to grow by the same amount, as a fraction of what we have now.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Novel Points of View

I devoted almost all of my “working” time over several weeks to completing my first novel, Lights Out, which I now intend to get published. This came at the expense of updating my blog and my Web sites, yet still fed my personal mission to explore issues important to the survivability of the human species.

Many of the models I’ve developed over the past two years have been done in tandem with my writing of the novel, which is as much a report on a simulation as a work of futuristic fiction. Indeed, my desire to make the novel realistic has driven the development of those simulations. For example, the power model actually started as an attempt to objectively determine how my characters would interact in a changing environment, and has now become a cornerstone of my understanding of how we might create an ideal world (and alternatively how people might behave if the world continues on its current path toward a resource crisis). Working in the other direction, the model I developed to predict changes in population size as a result of resource depletion became a critical part of the novel.

While I still intend to use more conventional routes to shop my models around, I see fiction as a valid and potentially effective way to get my ideas into the public debate. I also just happen to love writing it (and judging from random reviews of some of my work, may actually be good at it).

I’ll be switching into marketing mode in an attempt to improve the chances that I can continue writing on a full-time basis about the things I care about. As the spirit moves me (and time is available), I will continue blogging and sharing any new (and hopefully valuable) insights as they come up.