Friday, January 29, 2010

Abundant Futures

From a strictly physical perspective, creating more life locally must involve either or both: (a) converting available mass and energy into biomass; (b) importing life or its constituents into the region. Diversity allows more of this conversion to take place, and the process of life feeding on other life minimizes losses to entropy (the unavailability of energy to do work).

Call this thinking two-dimensional (or maybe I'm just biased by my education), but this seems to be a pretty important dynamic to consider in any discussion of long-term survival of us and anything else. For example, within this simplistic framework (and I would never argue that it should be the ONLY one considered), "increasing abundance" is equivalent to assuring the continuous increase of biomass.

I have studied complexity theory enough to understand the basics (I'm one of those weird people who thinks math is cool). Nonlinear behavior is indeed the rule, rather than the exception, in determining the details of what we observe; this is one reason why I believe that "visioning" has limited value: if our expectation is to somehow create a SPECIFIC future, we almost surely will fail.

Self-replication of local patterns, one of the more interesting aspects of complexity, is an enticing tool to consider using in creating a KIND of future we might want. The key prerequisite, creating a present that has the key elements of such a future, is a valuable thing to do, no matter what the chances of it spreading elsewhere. But it would be supreme arrogance to expect -- or force -- others to accept our vision beyond a set of basic rules everyone can agree to (this is one reason why I spend a lot of time on the high-level definition and constraints of sustaining HUMAN life, because this is almost surely at or near the intersection of most people's values, and can encompass, through complexity, a wide range of detailed outcomes).

We can argue (and I would agree) that people's values should change, be more inclusive of the rest of the biosphere. To be successful, I believe we must start where everyone starts -- self-preservation -- and then show how caring about others is consistent with caring about our own welfare, and in fact enhances it.

What stands in the way of a healthy future is a totally different set of values which has become pervasive in our culture, represented by the sociopathic belief that a small group of people has the right (if not the duty) to dominate everyone else. This is proven by experience to be destructive, as a predator at the top of the food chain effectively destroys the "other" life on which it depends. If this is not dealt with, then as a book I just read points out, any self-sufficient communities we create (like such communities in "poorer" countries) will end up being among someone's last snacks.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Positive Futures

At a recent meeting of my local Transition group, I and others were asked to write a short description of a positive future. The example used was a set of imaginary observations made on the ground, which I felt incapable of emulating. So I deferred.

Those who know me or my writing might suspect that the problem was that I just couldn’t think of anything positive to say about the future. They might be surprised to learn that the problem was that I just didn’t feel honest about creating even a fictional description without first deriving it as a realistic extrapolation from the present (this is the approach I took with my novel “Lights Out”). It turns out that creating such a vision has been on my creative “to-do” list for a long time now, and I want to do it right.

At the same meeting, one of the members gave a presentation that summarized an approach to creating an “abundant” world, where Nature has been reinvigorated as the result of everyone working together, establishing a growing number of relationships in support of the larger system that includes us and the rest of the biosphere. I struggled to take it all in and accept his conclusions, even though I had read a fair amount about it already. The mechanism appears very similar to the growth of ecosystems.

Ecosystems, as I understand them, are very good at cycling mass and energy so that very little becomes unusable by the life forms that inhabit it. I appreciate the fact that this ability is a product of a large number of interdependencies between individuals and species, effectively “trapping” most of the energy by keeping it in complex rather than random forms (life versus heat). Increasing diversity is better for life (more of those “complex forms”) and its long term viability (minimal energy loss).

This is fine except for one thing: Change requires energy. This may be the mechanism behind the relationship I’ve observed between world population (or more precisely, the number of possible transactions of resources) and consumption. As the number of transactions and people to support them increases, so does the amount of energy used. An increase in relationships (read: transactions) may actually speed up our depletion of critical resources, unless we can derive what we need from other sources than the ones driving civilization -- particularly fossil fuels.

One way out of this dilemma is to gradually dismantle the most wasteful parts of our civilization and divert the savings into a creating a more ecologically sound replacement. It can be argued that this is already being undertaken, spearheaded by environmentalists and a growing number of other “sustainability” proponents, though the results are not yet substantially evident on a global scale.

Following this chain of reasoning, we can deduce that a better future will not resemble the present in several key respects. For one, the globalization of human activity, as a transactional enterprise, will eventually cease to exist. For another, the concentration of non-reusable and nonliving things as well as the hoarding of energy will be discouraged, if not banned outright. Other species, which are integral to the collection and reuse of energy, will be greatly valued, perhaps as much as people.

To the extent possible, toxic waste that has already been created will need to be cleaned up and safely isolated from all life that can be harmed by it. Reversing the ecological damage we’ve done (including taking habitat out of use through artificial structures and advancement of monoculture invasive species) will be critical to supporting our large population. As I’ve argued elsewhere, we need to replace current consumption of nonrenewable resources by 5% per year to avoid population collapse, and one way to do that is to replace it with renewable and reusable resources, and enabling natural systems may be our best hope of reaching this target.

The hardest thing to project is how day-to-day life will be experienced under these conditions, other than as a return to the way most humans lived until agriculture was invented, which I don’t consider viable. As it becomes clearer, I will share it, perhaps as another work of fiction.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Paths to Sustainability

Last year, I completed a set of mathematical projections of world population based on consumption of resources. These projections show graphically that we must either increase our supply of resources or suffer massive casualties. These “resources” have been both from the living and nonliving parts of our planet, and access to them is intimately tied to our technologies for their extraction and transportation. We are rapidly reaching the point where, to continue our historical growth, we will be entirely dependent on nonliving resources, because we will have effectively destroyed the rest of the biosphere.

The present trajectory of population suggests that we’re rapidly approaching a technological limit in our ability to reach and use resources. To survive, we must stop our growth in consumption and quickly as possible stop consuming nonrenewable resources. Since the biosphere is already finely tuned to process renewable resources and reuse everything else, and we don’t have time to create an entirely new system that does the same thing, the rational thing to do is to stop exploiting Nature and to reintegrate ourselves with it. In the process, we should try to repair the damage we’ve already done and release habitat to other species.

I have spent the intervening time reading what others have to say about these issues, and done much thinking about the real-world implications and how they relate to people’s personal values. To the extent I thought it would be useful to others, I’ve written about both what I’ve learned and my reactions as determined by my own evolving values.

The question I’ve struggled with most lately is what to do. I’ve made personal changes in lifestyle, become part of a community (Transition) that shares the same concerns, been politically active, and written extensively (including publication of my related novel, “Lights Out”), but this doesn’t feel like near enough. I still support the system that is destroying the planet in myriad ways: through my work life (providing technical services for a high-tech transnational corporation), consumption patterns (yes, I bought and got way too much for Christmas), and conforming to cultural norms that inhibit in-your-face criticism of the status quo. I’ve thought about possibly joining a green technology company; but this doesn’t make sense, primarily because no company or technology can be by definition “green,” and because it is an illusion that rewarding people with more consumption can ever be sustainable.

I just finished reading “What We Leave Behind” by Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay, which addresses many of the issues I’ve struggled with. The authors argue that humanity is part of Nature, Nature is a part of us, and that civilization has deluded us into believing otherwise, leading us to wage an unhealthy, unsustainable, and immoral war against the rest of the biosphere which we -- and almost everything else -- can only ultimately lose. Their solution is to actively get rid of civilization, returning to the sustainable ways of cultures that coexisted with other species for most of human existence. We must submit ourselves to the needs of the system by taking only what we need and letting other species in turn take what they need from us.

In terms of my modeling, Jensen and McBay are advocating the most direct route to maximum sustainability, coupled with a large decline in consumption which is almost certain to be accompanied by large casualties, primarily among those who refuse (or are unable) to adapt. Alternatively, the population crash resulting from business-as-usual may be considerably more catastrophic, with a reduced chance that anyone will be able to recover (especially with our air, water, and soil fatally poisoned by industrial pollutants).

I have held out hope (which Jensen and McBay would dismiss as “magical thinking”) that people can be voluntarily persuaded to change, based on the evidence. This has been the basic assumption behind my writing about the subject. But the evidence of my own life seems to reinforce their theme that people will only make such drastic changes if they are forced to: Consider how little I have changed my behavior, even knowing what I know. I don’t even have the courage of the fictional characters in my novels, who have no problem defying authority and other people’s opinions to say and do what they know is right.

Yet still, I have hope. One way to start might be to convince the millions of people currently unemployed (and currently “valueless” to the economy anyway) to develop a physical and social infrastructure that meets people’s basic needs for free, using natural ecosystems as tools. Permaculture, for example, offers a range of means of doing the physical part, but it must involve a minimum amount of resource-intensive activity (such as the use of municipal water and conventional transportation). Debt still poses a problem, so some “production” might be needed in a transitional way to deal strictly with paying off what people owe; I say this knowing well that in a just world, these debts should be forgiven. If at least the poor and the soon-to-be-poor can take care of themselves, then perhaps others might see the wisdom of following a similar path (or, if my consumption projections are correct, they will be forced to by circumstance). Reinforcing this effort would be the continued exposition of all the ways that our institutions are becoming incapable of meeting our needs anyway: government and industry can’t keep our food supply safe, or keep dioxins and plastics from contaminating us all, or fulfill the basic covenant between members of a community to protect each other’s health, or assure that some of us can’t steal from the rest of us.

I can already anticipate the comebacks to my optimistic schemes. The already-powerful and their not-too-bright minions will simply find a way to turn the unemployed into slaves (which is already happening with undocumented aliens). The powerful will argue that all wages should come down (which is currently being done in response to complaints about outsourcing). They will find some way to appropriate the land that people might use for self-sufficiency, just as they have -- and continue to do -- in poorer countries. Our socioeconomic system is rigged to keep everyone dependent on a decreasing number of powerful people who will stop at nothing to accelerate the consolidation of their power.

A comeback is one thing; ground truth is another. If I have a personal niche, it is as an idea mill, and I’m pretty good at testing assumptions too. Exploring and testing people’s world views with the goal of exposing a larger truth that serves them better is, I hope, a valuable contribution. Let’s test some of those ideas before we rule them out, and focus on providing a clear-eyed understanding of the world to as many people as we can in the process. At the same time, I’ll work harder on being less of a hypocrite, and share what works with others so they can do the same.