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.

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