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.

No comments: