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.