Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Decade of Fear

For what it’s worth, I expect the first decade of this century to be remembered for the use of fear by terrorists -- both inside and outside the United States -- to gain and hold political power at the expense of the vast majority of the world’s population, present and future. Although a small group of religious extremists was responsible for the pivotal event of the decade, the attacks of 9/11/2001, it was a larger group of home grown ideological extremists that let it happen and then capitalized on it to accelerate their rape, pillage, and murder of the planet for fun and profit.

In this, the last year of the decade, the world’s political leadership -- bought and paid for by the real powers in the world, transnational corporations -- blew several chances to repair the damage wreaked by our wasteful culture. Financial reform, health insurance reform, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions were approached half-assed at best, even after a political power shift in the U.S. toward the party that claimed to know better.

Replacing the “family values” diversions of the first eight years, the corporate-controlled media taught us more about rich people’s sex lives than the growing slaughter of people and other species by poisonous plastics, gases, and industrial waste that has contaminated our food, air, water, and soil to a lethal level. Instead of working on ending this genocide, our government focuses on keeping a handful of potential murderers at bay, overreacting with unintended consequences that kill far more people.

Time is running out to avert the worst of all catastrophes, the extermination of the human species, and we squandered the period when we could have had the greatest positive impact.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tweaking the Future

Recently, two critical efforts to improve the future, healthcare reform in Washington and climate catastrophe mitigation in Copenhagen, hit a wall of compromise that proved (to me, at least) that our current model of relying on “leaders” to solve big problems does not work, and should not be expected to. The status quo simply has too much inertia for any small group of people to successfully challenge, especially if their livelihoods and personal power depends on maintaining it.

Unfortunately, it is the status quo that is killing many of us, demonstrably and unequivocally, and threatens to kill the vast majority of the rest in the not-too-distant future. Our dominant economic system, capitalism, with its relentless pursuit of exponentially increasing consumption, is depleting global supplies of everything, and its attendant waste is overwhelming the natural systems that make life possible on this planet.

Having adopted economic success as the basis of our values, we cede power to people for providing what we want rather than what we (and unrepresented future generations) need, regardless of their wisdom and ability to use that power responsibly. How else could a mere golfer and philanderer like Tiger Woods be a billionaire, and insurance companies with double-digit profits routinely deny health coverage for people who need it most and yet have a privileged influence on health care legislation? How else could corporate criminals that sabotage the world’s food supply and pedal planet-killing fossil fuels be allowed into the climate talks in Copenhagen, while environmental groups and representatives of poor countries being victimized by global warming are left out?

Our leaders are the people who represent our values, and if our values run counter to our survival, then the results of their efforts will too. This is because they will pursue the default strategy of tweaking an inherently flawed system. What is needed is a radical change in our values, and the taking of personal responsibility for the outcomes of our actions, however small. The system will only change when we -- all of us -- change, in our expectations, the way we think about the world, and ultimately our actions. If we no longer depend on “role models” such as people with economic power to show us how to live; and instead value everyone around us, along with the other species that share our identity with Nature and follow a path that preserves and encourages them to thrive, then we might have a chance at making it through this century, and offer a future worth living to another generation.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Living Our Values Every Day

Coming to terms with the fact that maximizing individual consumption and power over others is incompatible with maximizing the longevity of our species and the well-being of the most number of people, I’ve become increasingly revolted by the overarching promotion of consumption and competition in the socioeconomic system I currently inhabit.

Emotional reactions typically stem from a clash with one’s values. This might suggest that my values have changed, given that it is a major change from how I’ve reacted to fairly similar conditions over most of my life. There is however another, more likely, explanation: I valued the well-being of everyone all along, but mistakenly thought my behavior was in some small way helping (or at least not hurting) the world’s population now and in the future.

This revulsion has two major consequences. First, I find it harder to seek more participation in the feeding frenzy of an economy which gains whether people are hurt or helped. Second, I am motivated to spend more time and effort trying to envision and help create the kind of world I want to live in.

I recently became aware of how strongly what we eat affects both our health and the health of the planet. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables rather than processed foods (especially meat) can help us live longer as individuals and dramatically reduce the waste that is making us as dangerous as an Earth-impacting asteroid. Eating more responsibly is one very personal way we can “live our values every day” (a phrase my wife Debbie came up with that spells the acronym “LOVED”). Eating better, traveling less (and depending on less travel by others), and seeking more quality than quantity in what we produce all slow consumption while providing a better life for everyone.

Feeling loved is one thing we can all be attracted to, providing the needed opposite to the revulsion that crudely assigns a motive of hate (if not total indifference) to those who are increasingly poisoning us and other creatures. For me, self-loathing as one of the planet killers is being gradually replaced by self-respect as someone who is changing from that into a planet builder, whose actions match his values.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Superiority Illusion

One consequence of total honesty with ourselves and with others is the discovery that none of us is superior to anyone else when the entirety of our lives and long-term experience is taken into account. The only sense in which we are ever “better” is in our adaptation to a specific set of circumstances; but if those circumstances change, as they inevitably will, then someone else may be better adapted than we are. It is the reality of changing conditions which makes our cooperation with each other critical, since the presently stronger can help the presently weaker to survive and eventually return the favor when their positions are reversed.

If we value our holding a privileged position over other people, then we will seek conditions where we have an advantage, and try to maintain them for as long as possible. If by chance we have also spent most of our lives in such conditions, we may be deluded into thinking we are intrinsically superior to those who haven’t; and when conditions change we may vilify the better adapted as enemies trying to cheat us of our “rightful” place in the world.

Technology, psychology, and education are excellent tools for controlling the environment and enabling more people to survive and thrive over time. They have been so successful that the natural challenges to the superiority illusion have been attenuated enough for it to grow, manifesting most strongly in the groups of people who can marshal those tools most effectively. When we should be using these tools to improve our entire population’s chances of survival, we are enabling the delusional among us to reduce those chances.

As we reach the limits of technology due to our inescapable depletion of critical resources, whether now or years from now, reality will be forced on all of us, and it is imperative that we have enough diversity left in our population to have a chance that some of us will be able to adapt to the new circumstances. The best way to do this is to adopt a cultural imperative to constantly find and test our core assumptions about ourselves and our environment, adopt a set of values that incorporates the reality that emerges, and honestly share the results of this effort with everyone we interact with.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Looking True

There are at least three ways we can present ourselves to the rest of the world. We can “look good” by hiding or disguising anything that doesn’t match our perception of what’s positive about ourselves (where “positive” is defined by our values). Doing the exact opposite, we can “look bad” by displaying only the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. Third, we can “look true”: enable others to perceive us exactly as we are. In reality, each of us tends to be somewhere in the spectrum between these options, depending on a number of factors, including: our perception of ourselves; how we want others to respond to us; and our ability to effectively communicate, which determines how we are actually perceived, regardless of our intentions.

If we believe we are something we are not, then we will almost inevitably be frustrated in presenting ourselves. Inaccurate self-perception is often based on assumptions we make about the world beginning in childhood, many of them taught by the people closest to us, beginning with our parents. Self awareness, built on identifying and testing our most fundamental beliefs, is therefore one of the most important things any of us can do.

Controlling how people see us can be, and often is, purposeful. Beginning with when we are babies, we expect people to treat us in certain ways, and their perception of us has a lot to do with how they do so. Our reasons can vary from avoiding conflict to acquiring something. We may even want to help everyone live their lives fully.

There are aspects of perception that are built into our biology that we cannot easily control, even if we are consciously aware of them. Our physical senses have clear limitations, having been fine tuned by evolution to enable us to survive in the natural environment. Our bodies (including our minds) are hardwired to be sensitive to some things more than others, enabling both our survival and the survival of our species (through our ability to procreate and protect our young until they can do the same). We have instinctive behaviors, such as “body language” that communicates information about our physical and emotional state; and actions that either reward people for giving us what we want, or punish them if they don’t.

Attempting to look mostly good or mostly bad is, in essence, dishonest and disrespectful. Its effect, if well executed and based on accurate self-knowledge, is to cause others to behave differently than if they knew the truth. Whatever the gain, it is bound to be short-lived if they have access to other sources of information and if, for at least part of the time, they are honest with themselves. If instead we are honest about ourselves, and everyone else is too, then we have the best chance of making decisions that benefit us all over the long term.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Invasive Species

In ecology, “invasive species” are species that evolve in one type of ecosystem and either move, or are moved, into another type of ecosystem. Once there, they typically wreak havoc by outcompeting native species. Humans are arguably the most successful invasive species on the planet; and will continue to be, until we either change, or finish driving ourselves extinct along with as many other species as we can take with us.

Our corporations and empire-building nations are perhaps the most visible cultural manifestations of this identity. Each measures success by how much of the world it can control to meet its needs and wants; how many people use its products, services, and cultural artifacts; and how many resources it can consume without paying full price for them (which often involves deceit, because deceit is easier than work).

On a philosophical level, a large number of us accept without question the notion that competition will solve all problems and maximize personal well-being. Only the latter part of this is true, and is only applicable to a rapidly shrinking fraction of the population. This is because competition by definition brings rewards to a small number of “winners” and penalizes the vast majority, who as “losers” will eventually be unable to survive on what’s left. In a resource-constrained world, competition is exactly the wrong strategy if the “problem” we are trying to solve is the long-term viability of the most number of people.

Other species, which don’t have a chance of competing against our tools and our intellect, are the ultimate losers in the “game” we are playing. Rather than cooperating with them, we treat them as resources to be consumed, or as competitors for what we want and they need to survive. Lost in our lust for total domination of the planet is the fact that our fate is ultimately tied to the fate of others. We are part of the larger community of Nature, which has supported us in unseen ways on the visceral promise that we will support it. That mutual support, which is far too complex for us to deal with on a purely intellectual basis, has now eroded enough to threaten the survival of the planetary biosphere which depends on it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

World Domination

I recently watched the movie “The World According to Monsanto,” which together with the movie “Flow” illustrates how corporations are acquiring as much power as they can, up to and including controlling the basic necessities of survival. It is apparently anathema to them for anything to be free and for anyone to not be totally dependent on them. This is the path to monoculture, and because it increases both consumption and the vulnerability of the entire population to single points of failure, total extinction.

If it weren’t real, the plot would be a top notch paranoid science fiction fantasy. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), unlike other organisms, are subject to ownership. Farmers who use them to grow food (or if the food is a GMO) must pay a royalty to the creators of the GMO. The natural interbreeding of organisms in the wild virtually ensures that GMOs will become ubiquitous. Theoretically, every farmer could ultimately owe a royalty for the food they grow. Because most of the world is poor and cannot afford to pay, only the most affluent farmers will be able to economically survive.

One way to foil this evil plot is for governments to better fulfill their traditional roles as protectors of the commons -- a set of resources and capabilities that no one can own and everyone can use -- which provides the basis for the survival of its citizens. This can and should include all the things necessary for good health, among them: food, water, air, the means to repair our bodies (healthcare). Because we are an integral part of the web of life on the planet, the rest of the biosphere should also be protected.

That governments are unable to do what’s needed is traceable to two interlinked problems: scale and accountability. Maintaining a global or even a national commons is simply too big a task for any small number of people. We must all do it, and be held accountable if we don’t. Accountability is a social function, where members of a group either reward or penalize other members of the group based on their behavior; and this too may be too large a task for a government bureaucracy subcontracted by its larger population.

In the totally sustainable world we will need to create over the next fifty years to avoid global population collapse, everything we use will be reusable or renewable (it will become part of the commons) and our population will remain constant. Critically, the energy we use to change the form of one thing into another and transport the end product to who uses it, the dominant activity of our economy, will need to be matched to its availability from renewable sources. The combined requirements of no waste and limited energy will abolish the profit motive for activity because profit itself -- synonymous with exponential consumption -- will be impossible, on average (without shrinking the world’s population, and this too has a limit). The concept of property, as exclusive use of something until it becomes waste, will be replaced with something more like loans, because the different forms of matter we create will need to be usable by other people in the present and the future. In short, avoiding catastrophe will require that we do away with the economic rewards for world domination.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Last Days of Capitalism

In his book “The Last Days of Ancient Sunlight,” author and radio host Thom Hartmann did the best job I’ve seen yet in summarizing the greatest challenges of our time, the reasons behind them, and what we can do about them. The book details the trends I’ve identified in my own research and provides a useful way of thinking about them, as a conflict between what he calls “older culture” and “younger culture” values.

Specifically, older cultures -- those that last thousands of years -- respect the right to exist of everyone and everything, embracing a view that modern science is only now proving, that we are all part of one great, interconnected and interdependent Universe. Younger cultures tend to last, at most, a few hundred years, and seek to maximize the power of individuals over each other and everything, viewing the world as a collection of resources that can be used up and waste that can be discarded -- which inevitably happens.

The crisis we now face, in Hartmann’s view, is directly due to the dominance of younger cultures over older cultures, the culmination of a process that started thousands of years ago when the invention of agriculture enabled people to use others as energy sources -- slaves. In recent times, many more of us have benefited from a different kind of slave: fossil reservoirs built up over millions of years that could be directly converted to energy. This new slave made it possible to exponentially increase its use (along with the number of people who could use it), and eventually its exhaustion.

Our dominant economic system, capitalism, evolved to maximize consumption by rewarding people who could produce the most stuff for the least effort by enabling them to consume more stuff made by others. “Least effort” was attained by both physical technology (energy extraction from fossil fuels) and social technology (organizing others to perform the most tasks while consuming as little as possible in payment). Further, our social systems have become warped so that status in younger cultures is proportional to one’s economic rewards. Capitalism is the exact opposite of natural (and sustainable) systems embraced by older cultures, which insist on cost equalling benefit, people having infinitely more value than what they consume, and everyone in a group taking responsibility for the welfare of everyone else in the group.

As Michael Moore’s movie “Capitalism: A Love Story” anecdotally illustrates, capitalism has had the net effect of devaluing many Americans to the point where their survival is jeopardized. A similar devaluation prompted the Revolutionary War that gave birth to this country, founded, as Hartmann eloquently describes, with an intentional mix of older culture and younger culture values. Moore warns, with compelling and disturbing evidence, that another such revolution may already be underway, and that our government may have become so corrupted by the ultra-wealthy that it is unsalvageable.

Hartmann holds out hope that we may have time to change our culture to promote a deep respect for all of Nature, including all of humanity as an integral part of it, before economically motivated social unrest, pollution-induced health and climate deterioration, or depletion of energy and fresh water supplies overwhelms us. If, however, it is too late, such cultural change -- beginning at the individual level -- might at least help some of us build a more rational society in the aftermath.

It seems to me self-evident that our values govern our behavior; and if our values are at odds with our long-term survival, then we will not last very long. I have personally taken a shortcut on this question: my core value IS the long-term survival of Earth-life, which goes hand-in-hand with that of our species. That humanity has become a planet-killing machine, like a cancer, has been the hardest fact for me to accept, and I’ve tried at length to find a way to justify the death we’ve wrought, such as our potential to spread life to the stars and thus avoid life’s certain extinction by an aging Sun. In light of these new insights, it is imperative that we do not project ourselves as a younger culture on other planets, as well as the rest of this one, since any such “colonies” would leave only death and destruction in the wake of their short existence. If we can change our values in time to save ourselves, then those values should dictate what to do next, and when.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thinking and Acting

Of all the things my parents taught me, it was the general rules of life that stuck with me the longest. Perhaps the first and most persistent of these was embodied by the admonition to “think before you act.” This could mean planning, as my mother interpreted it -- figuring out exactly what you will do and when, and then following the schedule as close as possible. It could alternatively mean striving to understand the variables involved in reaching the goal of the action -- my father’s approach -- and then updating that understanding in the process of acting, allowing also for an adjustment in the definition of the goal (or, as he sometimes said, “If you don’t get where you’re going, you’ll get someplace just as good”).

I chose to follow my father’s example; though I occasionally find myself emulating my mother, such as when driving to a new place. I also tend to spend much more time refining my definition of the goal before going too far, mainly in response to the negative results of not doing so that I’ve witnessed over the years, especially in business.

Refining a goal, counter to what it sounds like, usually results in a broadening of the definition. Again, my father provided the initial guidance, generalizing into one basic question the lessons he learned while studying value engineering: “What is it I really want to accomplish, stated in the most fundamental terms?” For example, buying food becomes “being able to feed my family,” which offers more options than just relying on the places that sell the stuff. More options translate into a higher chance of success, as well as allowing us to better determine whether the goal is even worth pursuing.

Sometimes it is good to act impulsively, when some thought has identified a higher cost to action than inaction, or when there just isn’t enough information available to even decide what to do. There is no excuse for ignorance, because the indicated action is to learn, which may involve gathering second-hand knowledge (through reading or asking someone) or simply just doing something and analyzing the consequences.

For most of my life I suffered from a serious lack of self-confidence, which in part was due to a deep awareness of how little I knew, or could ever hope to know, compared to my father. I was not rebellious by nature, and unlike most of my peers growing up, I tried to become more, not less, like my parents. I learned by reading and doing, and gradually, by thinking for myself; but I too easily let others set my goals, learning a lot of skills I really didn’t have much personal interest in, yet I was convinced were too important not to have.

The contribution that gave me the most pleasure making (and still does) was asking questions no one else thought of, causing everyone around me to discover something totally new in a situation they believed they understood. “Discovering the obvious” was a skill I had in equal measure with my father, and was something we enjoyed doing together as equals, personally and professionally, right until the time he died. This kind of discovery -- the elaborate interplay between thinking and action in both the most mundane and the most unusual circumstances -- has revealed that thinking before you act is too confining a rule, because it presupposes that thinking can stop when you start to act, and because it assumes that the point of thinking and acting should be merely to reach a specific objective (including avoidance of a negative outcome from acting without thought).

I have personally decided that, everywhere I am, I will continue developing and sharing a growing understanding of the world by both thinking and acting, and continue to do so for as many years as I can. In the process, I will help enable other people to do the same into as distant a future as natural laws will allow.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Name Calling

“They’re idiots!” I’ve long recoiled at such statements, partly because for the first 30 years of my life I often used them to describe myself, and partly because as I grew older it became clear that all of us have areas we can improve on.

Name calling is something we all learn as children. In my opinion, it serves two purposes. First, it enforces uniformity in a group while communicating one’s identity as part of the group. Second, it teaches simplistic ways of understanding the world by categorizing people according to a limited set of characteristics.

I’ve had two episodes as an adult when name calling was too prevalent to ignore. The first was when a coworker in a blue collar job I held for a few months insisted that another pair of coworkers were stupid because they were creationists. The second was when the Bush administration’s unwillingness and inability to accept reality led to wholesale destruction of life, liberty, and natural systems. To some extent, these two examples were related, because Bush and many of his supporters were also creationists.

I didn’t hear of creationism until the first episode in the early 1990s. Everyone I’d associated with were either well-grounded in science, or at least well enough educated in high school biology to know that evolution formed the basis of much of our understanding of the world. I was so surprised that someone would believe otherwise that I developed a dialog with the two creationist coworkers in an attempt to provide mutual education. I soon discovered that they not only assumed that evolution had been debunked, but that the laws of physics (particularly the speed of light) were intentionally altered by God to test people’s faith; in particular, stars are much closer (and apparently much cooler) than they appear. Particularly ironic was the fact that we all worked in a semiconductor clean room, whose existence depended on the laws of physics being correct.

Trying to keep an open mind, and finding that doing so made me a pariah among the literalist Christians, I finally concluded that faith had deluded these people into believing pure fantasy that could be easily debunked. Besides, if evolution as an explanation of empirical reality was flawed, it was because it was part of the ongoing process of refining understanding that defines science. Newton’s Law of Gravity may not be purely accurate, but it explains a lot, is still useful, and is subsumed in its more accurate successor, Einstein’s General Law of Relativity (which itself is in the process of being updated).

Whereas science flourishes and grows when problems are found with its tenets, I realized that the world view held by the creationists was like the proverbial house built of sand; all it took was a strong “wind” to destroy huge chunks of it, so any challenges must be met with full force. I came to accept that such unwillingness to challenge one’s beliefs is dangerous, not only to individuals but to all of society and must be fought just as hard. If it takes some name calling to chastise those immature enough for it to have an effect, then name calling is justified; but ONLY then.

The unwillingness to challenge one’s beliefs was, I think, the main reason for the waste, destruction, and death that was caused by the Bush administration and the people who support it to this day. This isn’t to say that the rest of us don’t share some of the blame for what’s happened. We let the pursuit of personal power trump the survival of all because we accept certain core tenets of daily existence, many of them economic, that like Newton’s laws of physics are not adequate explanations for the phenomena we are experiencing in a world of observably and exponentially diminishing resources. The difference may be that we can recognize and draw complex abstract curves, while they choose to only recognize simple ones drawn by others; so we at least have a chance of figuring out a solution before all is lost.

A disturbing “name” has been floating into my consciousness more and more frequently lately: “planet killing zombies.” I recently used the term “vampire” to describe corporations which suck the life out of us through advertising-laden entertainment, basically turning many of us into what the new term represents. These epithets are simplistic and insulting, but they do embody certain characteristics that focus our attention, just as any simple theory only explains a part of reality that we choose to measure. This use of name calling, instructional as it is, therefore has some positive value if it helps challenge our beliefs and our images of ourselves as part of a process of finding more accurate ones and altering them through real action into more healthy ones.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Real Vampires

For several days a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were unable to get a remote control to work with our ancient TV. Unwilling to spring for a new TV, and addicted to certain shows, we forced ourselves to sit through seemingly endless commercials that sought to brainwash us into buying products and services we had no desire to have. I like to think I have more-than-usual self control, but I discovered quite the opposite: that I am just as willing as anyone to let the life get sucked out of me, 20 minutes per hour, for at least two hours a day.

When I think seriously about what I’m watching the rest of the time, which more often than not includes total lies about the way the world works (especially the supernatural ones, which often violate the laws of physics as well as logic), it becomes clear that this time is hardly better spent. My only consolation in these lucid moments is that at least I know the difference between what’s real and what my somnolent mind wants to believe; I’m not sure about other people. Considering that many of the ads are about other shows, including the news -- which is barely what I used to call “news” -- everything I’m watching really is designed to get me to consume more commercials, which will either influence my buying decisions or increasingly keep me from personally controlling what I do with the rest of with my life.

One of the supernatural fantasies that is gaining more airtime involves vampires. These fantasies expose and attempt to reconcile some fundamental dichotomies: good and evil, mortality and immortality, weakness and strength. The costs and benefits of having any of these things are exposed in simplistic form by the conflicts between various characters who are either human (the first element of each pair) or vampire (the second element). Things get really interesting when characters find themselves between the two states. To the extent that those who watch these stories are inclined to examine the real issues, the fiction is useful. If all the watchers get is a cheap thrill that doesn’t translate into internal reflection, then the time is worse than wasted, because it leaves them with a fake view of the world that could result in real harm.

Superficially at least, it’s easy to compare the corporations who sponsor and create the drivel on TV (and in its close cousin, the movies) and the fictional vampires that populate it. Both promise their victims a better life, and deliver instead a meaningless existence devoted to creating more victims who have only the appearance of life. The solution in reality as in fiction is the presence of light: knowledge gained from being awake, rather than an artificial dream state found in the dark of sleep.

Years ago, I chose to stop watching TV more than an hour or two a week, and filled the resulting free time with reading. That time corresponded with my own Great Awakening, when I questioned everything in my life and found new meaning in the answers to the questions. Now I find myself back in a similar position, but I now believe I understand the mechanism better that has led me back. The mechanism has to do with the fact that I simply don’t have enough energy left at the end of a typically long work day to do what I really want -- write creatively and help to create a better world -- this must wait until the weekend, when I have recharged my mental batteries.

What I really need, which I’ve known all along, is a different job. When I was unemployed and writing my own material sometimes up to 10 hours a day, I watched a lot less TV. While not the best economic option, something similar may be the best psychological option, as a way to keep the real vampires at bay.

Smart Technology

Yesterday I attended a workshop hosted by the IEEE focusing on the status of various alternative energy technologies from a business and employment perspective, especially in Colorado. There was a strong emphasis on the development of “smart grids” that could efficiently distribute and manage electricity generated from renewable sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal. Indeed, smart grids are seen as an absolute necessity for renewable energy to become more than a small part of what the United States consumes.

The good news for this effort is that most people can easily transfer their current skills into a new economy built on these technologies. This has long been obvious, given the fact that the economic model being used is almost indistinguishable from the status quo. Business today knows how to grow new ideas into products and services; and government regulation and tax structures can be tweaked to accelerate the development of new infrastructure and limit the unhealthy aspects of the way people use the current one. Business and government leaders involved in “green tech” and “clean tech” see boom times ahead, and there is a well-educated and skilled labor force ready and waiting to participate.

The bad news, however, is that demand is not yet high enough to sustain the growth required. Most in business, government, and the public don’t see the need for developing a new energy infrastructure, much less the lynchpin smart grids that will be required to route energy from alternative sources everywhere it has to go. One particularly scary graph showed per-capita U.S. residential energy use exponentially outstripping supply, a condition which typically means that time has run out to find new supplies and that limiting demand must be done first -- and immediately.

The topic of limiting consumption predictably came up only in the context of increasing efficiency, which the information technology contribution to smart grids (what makes them “smart”) is expected to address. Efficiency, of course, has two problems if demand growth isn’t stopped: (1) it eventually -- and arguably now -- needs to grow at least as fast as demand, reaching a hard limit at some value below 100%; and (2) it tends to cause people to consume more as it is economically interpreted as an increase in supply, causing its price to go down relative to other options. A smart grid system, even if it was now in widespread use, would at best delay a forced limit to demand; a prospect I never hear any discussion about among those pushing such technologies.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Niches and Comfort Zones

Discussions with fellow members of the Transition movement and ruminations about my future employment have led to some interesting insights about both my ongoing research into the future of humanity and my own potential role in that future.

The Transition discussions have centered on what kind of society the core members of my local group prefer to live in, setting the basis for a mission statement and the definition of an “energy descent plan” that most painlessly removes dependency on our omnipresent fossil fuel based economy and reduces the risk of catastrophic climate change. There is a growing consensus that the best of all future societies would resemble an ecosystem that is in synergy with the rest of Nature; unlike the economy we currently live with, which ignores Nature (other than as an infinite source of material, and an infinite sink for waste) and the well-being of the people the economy serves.

Meanwhile, I have been conflicted about how to advance professionally. Everything that defines who I am -- values, personality, capabilities, and knowledge -- motivates me to provide the exact opposite of what is favored in our economy: things of high quality, low material input and waste, meeting needs more than arbitrary wants, and lasting a very long time (having maximum reusability) thus keeping quantity small. In my view, adequate time must be taken, not only to realistically achieve the desired quality, but to responsibly evaluate and adjust for the impact of production, use, and disposal on human and (other) natural systems. I also tend to favor knowledge, understanding, and ideas (which I’ve lumped in with “things”) that don’t translate well into monetary terms.

In the course of my search for some simple and basic relationships that connect quality of life, the longevity of individuals, and the trajectory of world population over time, I found that there is a strong proportional correlation between measurements of happiness -- people’s satisfaction with life -- and average life expectancy. I was also able to define happiness in terms of the distance that a person might be from a preferred position (“comfort zone”) within a totally abstract spectrum of what I called “environments”: the closer the person is to the comfort zone, the greater the happiness, and therefore the longer the person lives. Unfortunately, there is a down side for the population: life expectancy increases logarithmically with per-capita consumption; and the more people consume, the less time it takes to deplete a non-renewable resource base.

If my satisfaction with life is low, manifested in how I relate to my society or job, how can I use the concepts of an ecosystem and a comfort zone to explain and then increase it without jeopardizing the future of humanity? Clearly I must consume less non-renewable resources over time, while getting the same utility out of the reusable and renewable resources I do consume.

Ecosystems are Nature’s tried and true mechanisms for reusing everything and getting the most use out of renewable resources such as sunlight. Each species has a role to play in this, a “niche” that is the equivalent of a job that allows it to survive the longest, but at a price to the individuals: each of them is both predator and prey. Those individuals that cease being prey survive just long enough to deplete the other species and non-living resources they consume; if they comprise the entire species, then the entire species goes extinct.

The lesson is clear for us, if we accept that we are part of a larger ecosystem (the biosphere): We can either redefine our individual well-being as how close we are to meeting our responsibilities to the biosphere (living within our niche), or we can use the definition we appear to have adopted, as individuals maximizing how long we live, and become the last of our species. For me as an individual who values the longevity of my species more than myself, this means finding the role I can best play to increase it, and accepting the personal consequence that there is a degree of comfort and corresponding life expectancy I will never be able to achieve.

Within the context of a social system that includes an economy functioning to determine who gets what and when, some people have warped the “personal responsibility” theme, similar to what I just outlined, to justify preying on members of our own species or letting them die if they cannot take care of themselves (or bribe enough other people to help them). This may be one of Nature’s way of keeping our species in check, but it can go too far and not serve the larger purpose of extending the lifetime of our species: If some person or group gets too powerful and lets too many others die who are lower on this artificial food chain, then they will die too.

I would like to think that we don’t have to resort to such extreme measures at this late date or wait for some killer disease to thin us out. Instead, we should reevaluate our relationship to the rest of life on this planet and find a way to support its continued existence, along with ours, into the far future. This will require an effort by everyone, and some personal and cultural decisions about how to provide that support with minimum (if any) harm to any of us.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Yesterday my wife and I took a guided tour of White Ranch Open Space Park, west of Golden, Colorado, led by a forest ranger who described the area’s ecosystem with a focus on two of its more famous members: ponderosa pine trees and Abert’s squirrels. Toward the end of the tour, he pointed out how, until humans settled the area, fire naturally kept the population of trees at a sustainable level. Now, with fire control, disease agents such as bark beetles tend to move in and do the job of thinning the trees. Several days earlier, a member of the writers group I run responded to my reading of one of my blog posts (“Twisting Paths: a Perspective on Space Exploration”) with sardonic reassurance that the H1N1 virus may do the same to us in the not-too-distant future.

I’ve heard this theme before. A leader of the peak oil awareness movement once told a group that a pandemic might be the most humane way to deal with peak oil and climate change, reducing world population and consumption to sustainable levels. If we can’t do it ourselves (peaceably or otherwise), the argument goes, then perhaps Nature will have to do it for us. Thinking about this, it’s hard not to flash back to one of my late father’s favorite sayings: “If you crap on the world, it will crap back on you, and it’s a lot bigger than you are.”

As a proactive person who values everyone, I cringe at any suggestion of the population being “thinned,” by Nature or by war; but as a thinking person who finds it critical to at least intellectually explore many possibilities, I can’t help but consider the implications. One is timing: If such an event occurs before we lose our industrial base due to resource exhaustion and pollution, there may be too few people remaining to adequately defuse the time bombs posed by understaffed technological infrastructure such as nuclear plants and oil wells (spelled-out in the book “The World Without Us”). I consider it more likely that we’ll be struck down when we are significantly weakened, after our civilization begins to disintegrate following the peak in consumption and population caused by business-as-usual, meaning that this may be a mechanism that leads to total extinction rather than a minimally recoverable crash.

Another implication is that the people who survive will need to have some advantage over those who perish in order for a thinning event to have a net benefit for our species. What such a benefit might be is anyone’s guess, dependent as it is on the specifics of what happens; but if there is no fossil fuel-based infrastructure to count on, then the survivors will almost inevitably need to be able to live on what’s left -- namely, the rest of the biosphere. The people today who practice radical simplicity may be the precursors of tomorrow’s rich.

An implication for the present, in the spirit of “planning for the worst case and hoping for the best case,” is that we should quickly retool our technology to reduce the risk of it causing an environmental disaster that could kill off any survivors of an otherwise survivable catastrophe. As a minimum, this means reducing or eliminating all sources of pollution, along with cleaning up existing pollution. Accelerated “energy descent” -- creating infrastructure that is not energy intensive and destructive of natural systems (including habitat loss from “development” of land) -- would help limit future sources of such disaster.

Recent history, highlighted by the flu pandemic and economic meltdown, suggests that we may have little time to act toward both enabling the best case and mitigating the worst case. It’s amazing what a walk in the park can teach you.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Unhealthy Community and the Health Care Debate

Few things define a community more than its members’ support of a minimum level of well-being for everyone within it. When they have taken care of basic needs such as food, water, shelter, and protection from large-scale threats such as hostile invaders, fire, and poisoning of necessary resources, the members of a community must deal with the maintenance of their health, which is affected by all of the rest (especially defense against microscopic “hostile invaders”). The debate about community-provided health care in the United States is therefore fundamentally about how much of a community we really are.

In several other countries, this is a no-brainer, as it should be. But here, we have a culture which celebrates competition between people and groups for dominance over everyone else. Everything -- including fulfillment of our basic needs and use of basic infrastructure, natural and built -- is up for grabs. In short, we have chosen the maximizing of personal well-being as our highest value, undercutting our identity as a community and, because it maximizes consumption in resource-constrained world, jeopardizing the long-term survivability of our population.

We have become so pathologically disconnected from our community instincts that many of us who yearn for the sense of community that universal health care symbolizes have resorted to the selling tactics of competitive corporations, including telemarketing and e-mail campaigns. Having forgotten how to interact with fellow human beings, we treat each other as tools to attain our objectives rather than as people whose interests are mutually entangled because we genuinely care about each other. It seems that the only time we see our neighbors is when we’re trying to get them to vote for something or someone with their money or their ballots.

Recent reports about people stocking up on guns instead of basic necessities in anticipation of a worsening economy highlight the threat we face by continuing our disintegration as a community. As conditions worsen, communities with strong bonds endure and find solutions, while others end up either fighting among themselves or suffering from too little personal power to survive or thrive on their own.

To confront this threat, we must reengage each other on the core issue and decide whether we will split off into smaller but more sustainable communities that interact in a healthy way, or whether we will recommit to supporting each other as a larger community that values every one of its members. The health care debate is a good place to start this discussion.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Twisting Paths: A Perspective on Space Exploration

I was a child in the 1960s as the United States manned space program was just getting started, and arguably reached its peak in the landing on men on the Moon. My father was active in the program as a lead engineer for RCA, so I was able to learn as much as my preteen mind could handle about what was involved. As Apollo 8 circled the Moon, I already knew more about the features of the Moon than I knew about my own country, whose political torment I witnessed firsthand during the Washington, D.C. riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Like many Americans, I saw the space program as a transcendent human activity, seeking knowledge and a foothold in the settlement of the Universe for everyone’s benefit. My lifelong interest in astronomy and science was sparked at this time based on what I later learned was a venture laced with much darker motives.

First, and foremost, the drive to the Moon was a thinly veiled attempt to prove the technological superiority of the U.S. over the Soviet Union and the rest of the world, which included the civilian development of weapons delivery and intelligence capabilities. When the bulk of this development was over, so too was the main thrust of the space program. Space enthusiasts have since lamented that it we could have moved on to Mars within 20 years of the last Apollo flight, that a great opportunity was wasted; and if our leaders had been as great as our citizens believed (and still believe) our nation to be, the future of humanity would have been their focus and we would likely have a permanent presence on Mars and we would not face the possibly premature death of our species along with the actual extinction of far too many others.

I abandoned astronomy as a career in the bicentennial year of the Declaration of Independence. As part of a National Science Foundation program to educate about 30 high school juniors about the ongoing energy crisis, I was the only student in the group to ask why we needed so much energy in the first place; and posited as the premise of my term paper for college credit that our population would be like gas in a heated bottle, prone to explode from too much pressure if we didn’t either limit the energy or release part of our population into space. I realized that the search for knowledge about space, while honorable, was far less important than try to forestall such a disaster.

The manned space program searched for meaning after Apollo, and so did I. As limited minds tried in vain to make space profitable instead of developing this vast new commons for everyone, I worked with my father to remove some of the limits on our minds. Our educational research company sparked creative yet disciplined thought, teaching math as an intuitive language instead of as a set of facts and rules, which opened up a universe right in our own back yards. As a small business, we learned to live on very little, yet we felt that we had so much more than others. This was a welcome contrast to the life I could have led as befit my day job at the time: finding problems with missile radar antennas used to show the Soviets just how tough we were as they starved to death under the weight of their own repressive government. While we were making do with less, so was the robotic side of the space program, and making remarkable progress in its purely scientific missions; for the most part cataloguing the solar system and gaining a better understanding of its dynamics, including the workings of its greatest constituent: the Sun.

As the Shuttle sucked money with little to show for it, so did the company I helped nurse through that period. Both ventures suffered from too much optimism and a lack of demand for their products. The Shuttle program’s optimism led to the Challenger disaster and years of needed organizational restructuring. My father and I couldn’t get schools or investors to accept our approach, so we field-tested products and restructured our company, moving to a more business-friendly state and bootstrapping a mail order augmentation of existing programs with local tutoring paying for research and development. The need to meet schedules and follow a business model lowered everyone’s sights, it seemed.

My father died, and eventually I had to give up on our company. The manned space program signed on to the space station, which many space professionals and politicians alike concluded was a boondoggle of enormous proportions. Unmanned missions, with a few spectacular exceptions such as the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mars rovers, suffered from cost cutting and a lack of strategic vision. I meanwhile was in the midst of reexamining my entire life, and reactivated my interest in astronomy. Like many others, I was stirred by the widely observed collision of a comet with Jupiter and the possibility that something similar could happen to Earth; this sparked the thought that life needed to be defended, and helped define my ultimate core value as the long-term survival and thriving of as much life as possible, especially human life. In this context, astronomy and space exploration became urgent necessities, especially when the limited lifetime of the Earth was taken into account; and when I connected with space activists pushing the settlement of Mars, I understood instantly why it should be pursued.

Gradually, the Mars activists gained sway with those who could do something about it; indeed, many of them were already part of the professional space establishment. The space program had its strategic vision and was finally moving in a direction that might enable people to again visit another world. The professionals and activists quibbled over the details, arguing whether we should go straight to Mars or first use the Moon as a training and development way station. The latter approach seemed to hold sway.

I considered it ironic that the president who had done the most damage in almost every other respect happened to be the one to sign on to this important goal. George Bush awakened my fear for what humans could do to our planet, and then I learned just how much harm we already had already done. I suddenly felt greatly conflicted. As an engineer and believer in the manifest destiny of our species to take over the Universe, I had shared the conviction of many of my peers that we (humans, Americans) were always the “good guys,” and technical and scientific “progress” was always the way to a better future. My high school questioning of whether more was better came back to haunt me, and I now had to reconcile this point of view with the facts I had learned. It had been easy to scoff at people who claimed we should learn how to clean up our planet before going to another one, because surely all we needed was better technology to do both. What if the desire to take over the Universe was itself wrong, and the application of technology without due consideration for its consequences caused more problems than it solved?

I attempted to theoretically derive the constraints on population size and surviving as long as possible, starting with reasonable scenarios for space settlement, and discovered that the main constraints on both population size and overall longevity of the population are the availability of natural resources and how fast we consume them. Technology affects both availability and consumption rate, but itself is limited by the laws of physics, the most critical being the inability of matter to travel at the speed of light or faster, which fixes how many resources we can consume in a given (reasonable) period of time. Of course other things affect population growth, which sets the scale of resources we need -- the more of us there are, the more we consume -- and I also found a convenient, if controversial, way to model them, which linked back to consumption.

My research showed that if we stop the growth of our population and our consumption without limiting our access to new resources, humanity can last a very long time (the preferred size of the population is then the main determinant of just how long). I also discovered that how much people thrive (which is proportional to how long they live) is increasingly costly in terms of consumption, so we would also need to hold this number near an acceptable value and accept the resulting lifetime of our species.

Since one’s values are the measure of “right" and “wrong,” and I was now equipped with some knowledge about what would bring the world more in alignment with my core values, I could begin to resolve the conflict I felt between the urge to support growth in space and technological advancement, and to make the most of what we have on Earth. I realized that the underlying issue was the common belief that growth -- especially exponential growth -- is always good. Because exponential growth in population, and therefore consumption, tends to quickly burn through resources, it will always cut short the lifetime of most members of a population and is therefore bad. I could, however, sign on to spurts of growth as a way to gain access to more resources (or more efficient use of resources) and to reduce the chances of everyone being killed by a single cause (such as the Sun expanding or a comet colliding with the Earth). In other words, to be acceptable, such activity had to have a defined purpose and be sufficiently controlled to reduce the risk to the population at large.

As the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing approached, the space program and I had each found a path, and for me they were sadly divergent. Further study had convinced me that the world was dangerously close to approaching the limits of its most important resources, from fresh water to precious minerals to energy, and it might already be too late to bring growth of consumption under control before mass death became inevitable. There was some hope that declining birth rates might account for much of the projected population loss, as it did leading up to the population peak, but there was already evidence that civilization was on the brink of something hellish, reflected in the economy, global warming, and a lack of sufficient preparation for survival without the resources it so heavily depended on. With time running short to do such preparation, I considered it irresponsible to support provisioning expeditions to other planets unless they could contribute to the direct and immediate remediation of the problems facing this world. I resolved to focus on the immediate future, and hope that the world could find a better way to live that could eventually allow for the continued expansion into space.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century

As the first decade of the 21st century began, most major natural resources were on the verge of becoming scarce; while human-created waste, most of it greenhouse gases, began to overwhelm the biosphere. These factors were both influenced by, and contributed to, a large inequality in both physical wealth and social power on a global scale enabled by the dominant social and economic philosophy of maximizing personal gain. Attempts for more than 20 years by nations and international corporations to secure more access to natural resources led to the century's first wars.

Over the course of the decade, in response to the approaching resource limits, per capita consumption began to slow down. The financial sector of the U.S. economy, having amassed a great amount of debt in expectation of accelerating growth, was caught by surprise and suffered losses that triggered a world recession. Governments led by the U.S. attempted to artificially increase consumption by building infrastructure and assuming the financial sector's debt; but because they only peripherally addressed the resource and waste problems, the recession continued to worsen and by the early part of the second decade became a full depression.

Desperation led to acceptance that some natural and human services needed to be freely available to everyone without being diminished by their use; this included maintenance of the infrastructure, people, natural resources, and species that those services depended on (“the commons”). As a result, most nations instituted variants of the Commons Development and Maintenance Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (CDMA), which required all adult citizens to give one in seven days of their time to building and maintaining the commons. This joint project largely defined the rest of the century, narrowly averting climate catastrophe due to global warming and leading to achievement of near-total sustenance of the world's population by common services in 2100.

As insurance against extermination of humanity due to extraterrestrial events, a self-sustaining settlement was established on Mars which used and replaced what it needed with minimal impact to its environment based on the new understanding that to qualify as a highly evolved species, humans would be virtually indistinguishable from the rest of nature, whose principal goal is extension of life into the farthest future.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Inner Journey

In “Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation,” educational activist Parker J. Palmer makes a good case that to live fulfilling lives we must learn about and develop respect for ourselves instead of catering to other people’s expectations of who we should be and what we should do. This requires brutal honesty about our strengths and our weaknesses, our proclivities and the things we are disposed to avoid. In the process, we are better able to know and respect other people, allowing us to become an integral part of a healthy community.

My own first introduction to Palmer’s premise was in a weekend workshop called “Actualizations” which I took in college at my father’s urging. The workshop effectively created an instant, safe, and supportive community of people who could discover and take control of basic assumptions that had shaped their lives (especially in a negative way) without their conscious assent. I had two such assumptions which it took more than 20 additional years to test and discard: that emotions should (and could) be replaced with objective, logical thought; and, related to the first, that there is an objective way to decide the right thing to do without invoking values.

Taking the inner journey of discovery can be both profoundly rewarding and disturbing, but it is absolutely necessary to uncover the biases that underlie our world views. After starting the journey (which ever ends), it becomes easy to spot others who are suffering from the near-blindness of self-delusion, the most obvious sign being open and unacknowledged hypocrisy. Helping them see -- exposing the “blind spots” I’ve discussed elsewhere -- becomes a natural part of our relationship with them, which, as Palmer warns, must be done respectfully (if not always easily).

The objective of Palmer’s book is to encourage people to be true to who they are in the kind of work that they do; otherwise, they do more harm than good in the long run, to both themselves and to others. One of the greatest tragedies of our economic system, amplified as it now sinks toward depression, is that survival forces people to work wherever they can, accommodating an obsolete and inaccurate factory model that treats people as objects that can be standardized and interchanged to meet the wants, if not the needs, of another set of objects: customers. People as individuals, or members of a larger community that have more value than the things they can produce and consume, have no place in this system that almost by design must eventually self-destruct, along with those who depend on it. This last point emerges from “The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth” by economist Mark Anielski, which shows a decline in well-being indicators over more than 30 years even as the primary measure of economic progress, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), has skyrocketed. We are essentially paying for the destruction of the commons -- human, environmental, and built -- that civilization depends on, and it can’t continue that much longer.

To me, the inner journey is intimately connected to the external one. If we are open and honest with ourselves, we will come to know and accept who we are and what we have done. We will be able to choose what comes next, based on a knowledge of what we can and can’t do, what we can get excited about and what we can never sustain enough interest or effort to do well. Recognizing that we require community to augment our awareness and abilities, we will seek out others with similar values and strive together to live according to those values. I hope that to the extent we are part of a world community, one of those values will be the long-term surviving and thriving of the human species; if so, then we will act with mutual support and respect, preserving that which we all depend on, and exchanging that which we can mutually afford without sacrificing the future or our value as human beings.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hostages to Hope

As the United States celebrates 233 years as a unified group of people attempting to live the ideals spelled out in its Declaration of Independence from the British Empire, a growing number of its citizens are discovering that it has become like those who oppressed it. Students of history, this cadre of new patriots understands that, like the British Empire, the American Empire cannot long survive, especially since the cheap energy sources that drove its growth are now on the path to becoming scarce.

As the intellectuals among the Founding Fathers understood, most social problems are not the fault of any particular group of people, but rather the false ideas they live by and the power they have to enforce those ideas on others. Even the most destructive among us tend to believe what they are doing is right, and will seek whatever means are necessary to keep doing it.

Our hierarchical social systems are the main source of power. At work and in public life, we follow the lead of others, executing orders regardless of how we feel about them, and translating any discomfort we may have into a drive to attain a higher position in the hierarchy so we can issue the orders that we want. By habit and training, most of us are hostages to the hope that those with the most power have the wisdom to exercise it (through us) responsibly and with positive effect. Recent events have shown us, as similar events did our forebears, that such hope is unfounded -- yet we still cling to it, hastening our demise and that of the rest of the planet.

For these reasons, we must constantly test the validity of our ideas and challenge our leaders to defend their decisions. But, more than that, we must take responsibility for our own actions and their impact on others, finding the courage to break out of the social systems that we currently depend on for our survival and try to create new ones, like the Founding Fathers did.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Plan C-B

“Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change” by Pat Murphy is one of the most well-researched and comprehensive books I’ve read on the causes of the major crises threatening humanity and what to do about them. The book was recommended by one of the founders of my local Transition group, who found in it concrete suggestions about how to go through “energy descent,” one of the primary goals of the community oriented international Transition movement (Murphy himself runs Community Solutions, a like-minded organization).

If you enjoy detailed analysis full of facts (especially numbers) like I do, you will find “Plan C” to be a treasure-trove. What’s best, in my view, is that Murphy fairly lays out the logic and data behind what he sees as the four main responses to peak oil (the point in time where supplies of oil will start to inevitably decline) and global warming (climate change caused by excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere), and why he favors just one of these responses -- reducing consumption quickly to a sustainable level (energy descent, equivalent to “radical simplicity”). Of the other options, he gives the most attention to the low probability of finding new technologies that could maintain something like our current standard of living (Plan B); describes how continuing business-as-usual (Plan A) will lead to disaster; and briefly mentions that some people might simply expect the worst and do their best to survive (Plan D).

Based upon my own research, I’ve advocated a variation of Plan B: Developing a way of living based on renewable and replaceable resources. I dismiss Plan A for much the same reason Murphy does, because population collapse is a virtually certain result; and the close tracking of world population and consumption has led me to shy away from a generic Plan C because it follows that a loss of population would accompany less consumption.

Having documented Cuba’s survival of its own “peak oil,” Murphy suggests that the world could survive by similar means, with the rebuilding of community and a return to a more frugal way of life. This assumes that population and consumption can be decoupled from each other; but I can imagine an alternative explanation that maintains that coupling: There is a fraction of consumption, determinant of overall health and well-being, that is proportional to overall consumption on a global scale (or at least in closed systems); this fraction may be as low as 20%, based on a comparison of U.S. waste data from 1997 quoted in Murphy’s book, ecological footprint data for countries from the World Wildlife Fund in 2003, and my own projections of world per capita consumption. It turns out that more than 80% of U.S. waste is in carbon dioxide (by weight), the main human contribution to global warming, which easily accounts for the remaining amount if extrapolated to the rest of the world (in fact, as Murphy discusses in-depth, most of the carbon dioxide is generated by the richest countries like the U.S, who are rich because they have access to the most fossil fuels). These considerations don’t offer me much comfort, however, since my projections are based on the 20% we directly use, and they show that amount (along with population) reaching a peak in a dozen years; while fossil fuel use is expected by the peak oil experts to reach its maximum imminently, if it hasn’t already.

It is likely that the carbon dioxide we’re putting into the atmosphere will have the effect of cutting back on our available time due to the use of more resources as we adapt to the resulting climate changes. The best way to reduce this threat is to curb consumption of fossil fuels; but to keep the world population from decreasing, we will need to maintain the remaining 20% of consumption while more renewable and reusable resources are brought into use. Those who consume more fossil fuels will necessarily bear the brunt of this effort, which will likely also, according to my research, buy a few years as the statistical distribution of consumption within the world’s population becomes less lopsided toward excess consumption (this is a much smaller gain than I suspect Murphy and others like David Korten would be comfortable with, but it is 25% of the time I estimate we have left before the population peak). We will need a good “Plan B” to carry us from there, but with a very different vision of the lifestyle we want to maintain than the one driving the “green” technologists of today.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Taking Time to Make Time

I recently rediscovered the fact that there is a universe of fascinating things and people awaiting us in our own neighborhoods if we just take the time to find them. Slowing down and getting to better know what’s already around us is much more fulfilling than the fleeting artificial experiences we routinely buy and sell at great cost to our planet, our health, and our humanity.

TV and movies come to mind when the term “artificial experience” is used, but even quick trips to hike or visit “must-see” tourist attractions should be included. In such cases we come away with limited memories and knowledge, which there is great pressure to replace with something different or new that someone else has created or at least enabled.

The best experiences are the ones we create for ourselves, making them part of us, and us part of them. This takes time and effort, but ultimately has more staying power, and is most easily done around where we live. Familiarizing ourselves with other people and species, and letting them do the same with us, also establishes bonds that tie us together as a community or an ecosystem.

It is nearly impossible to not have an impact beyond our localities, and to be fully engaged and responsible citizens of the world we have an obligation to know its extent, in lives and places touched. If we took the time to do such research, before we bought something or elected someone for instance, we would most likely reduce both the amount and the deleterious effects of our actions. We would also feel empowerment from the knowledge along with a visceral connection parts of the Universe we can’t directly know, what might be called spirituality.

Living more completely takes time; and because it takes fewer resources and connects us more strongly to the world, it also makes time through improved chances for the longevity of those whose lives we are part of, adding to their richness of life as a bonus.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The World I Want to Live In

I've pretty much concluded that the kind of world I want to live in will be a cooperative community of people who provide for each other's basic needs and those of future generations to the extent physically possible, and then using what's left (or finding more) to provide opportunities for everyone to optimize their personal happiness without diminishing that of others. By contrast, the world we currently live in is largely based on individual competition without enough concern for the consequences to others, now or in the future.

From all the study I’ve done, the most convincing approach to creating such a world is the cultural emulation of an ecosystem, whose parts survive the longest that are best at maximizing the long-term survival of the system. Individuals and species may perceive that they are merely pursuing their own self-interest, but the range of ways they can do so have been restricted by the demands of sustained survival.

It is self-evident that much of humanity does not recognize any restrictions on its behavior, and is in fact dedicated to removing as many as possible. It sees its self-interest as served by the subduing and eventually replacing of the rest of Earth’s ecosystem (the biosphere) with its own creations, extending to those of other planets when possible. Like a virus eating away the body of the planet, it must spread to another host to survive.

Capitalist economies have evolved so that people can maximize their ability to meet their needs and desires by minimally helping others to do the same. Democratic governments co-evolved to offset the worst consequence of this, the starving of the majority of the population to the advantage of the few (though not always successfully, as recent history demonstrates). These two components of society, even when functioning well together, do not adequately (if at all) account for the world they live in, merely its current human inhabitants; they are therefore fundamentally incapable of surviving for very long, because they allow the pursuit of a physical impossibility: perpetual and exponential growth.

A cultural ecosystem would be the kind of world I mentioned at the beginning, where people identify their self-interest with the long-term survival of everyone and everything on the planet, whether consciously or by training. To the extent that we were limited in our awareness, we would live in groups whose size and power allowed us to responsibly operate without our ignorance adversely affecting the whole, just as the biosphere does with localized ecosystems. The net result would be a restructuring of our perception so we can accurately feel that we are helping ourselves while helping others.