Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Thoughts

This year was perhaps the most depressing one I can remember. Despite the fact that my personal situation didn't deteriorate (a small victory), world events and my research into the variables affecting the future of humanity made it clear that life will get a lot worse for everyone without some extreme changes to the way we live – changes that are extremely unlikely.

The focus for many people was on the huge wealth disparity caused by economic and political systems designed to concentrate and maximize personal power. Open rebellion surfaced in several countries, including my own, and those who have benefited the most from those systems predictably fought back. Redistributing wealth – the economic manifestation of power – and making politics more egalitarian (the essence of U.S. government, which has been corrupted here) may be the ultimate result if the disenfranchised get their way, but unless we reduce the overall ecological footprint of humanity in the process, their gain will be short-lived.

Feeling like there was unlikely to be a future worth being part of, stress overwhelmed me for several months this year. Rightly or wrongly, I dealt with it by attempting to live a normal life – normal for my particular socio-economic reality. Replacing and refurbishing the things and conditions in my life that were wearing out felt like binging, which I continued right through the holidays. I composed music that applied to normal situations, as opposed to the pieces created earlier as background for my apocalyptic visions (such as the subject of my novel "Lights Out"). My writing about the subjects that had preoccupied me suffered along the way, though I did keep up my reading, which in some respects was even more depressing.

I'm trying to get a better handle on visualizing and helping to create a future I can feel good about, and then share the results with others who are having similar problems and reactions. As a minimum, I've become better equipped to get to know the other creatures we share the planet with, which will be more healthy and informative. My writing over the coming year should reflect a more hopeful view of the world, where I will also share the results of my experiences. The year will, of course, be dominated by politics, and I expect to have a lot to say about that as well.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Above Tree Line

In the late 1990s, I was on a summer hike in the Rockies with a group of about a dozen people to a lake at an altitude of about 12,000 feet. As often happens on summer afternoons, a thunderstorm started to form. We were already at an abandoned mine about 800 feet below our destination when it became clear that the storm was coming toward us.

Any experienced hiker knows that the chances of being hit by lightning increase with elevation, and one of the most dangerous places to be is in an exposed area above tree line. It is also irresponsible to split up a group in such a situation. Half of the group defied both responsibility and safety, and chose to go up to the lake, while the rest of us waited for them at the mine, which had modest cover and was about 500 feet above tree line.

Less than a half-hour later, the storm moved in, just as we were joined by another group of hikers who were much less prepared than we were for both hiking and bad weather. Those of us with extra supplies helped out the newcomers, and showed them how to “hunker down,” making themselves a smaller target for the lightning. While waiting, we watched in horror as a lone climber on a nearby peak attempted to navigate along a ledge to get out of harm's way.

We debated whether to go back down the trail or stay at the mine. With so many people, there wasn't enough natural or artificial cover to keep us all from getting soaked and safe from the lightning. When the storm let up a little, we decided to make a dash toward the trees. The leader and a few others chose to wait at tree line while the newcomers and the rest of our group headed down the mountain.

Emergency vehicles were at the trailhead when we arrived, called by stranded hikers with a cell phone. We relayed our story, and waited for the rest of our group to arrive, which thankfully they did.

I recalled this story recently while working on my projections of world economic growth. Like hikers on a mountain, we are eagerly trying to get higher and higher.  Tree line represents the Earth's ecological carrying capacity, life's limit, beyond which we risk encountering lethal storms, such as those spawned by global climate change. We are currently above that point, and the storm is nearly on top of us. Some of us (climate change deniers) are in denial that the storm is dangerous, while others (business leaders and politicians) deny that we're even near the peak of a mountain, and like the hikers who split from the group are going higher regardless of the risk – perhaps even because of it. The trailhead is the safest place to be (the economy of a sustainable civilization), but it seems to be the last place anyone wants to stay.

We are already seeing casualties of the freaky weather we've gotten “closer” to. How many of us are smart enough to get below tree line and out of the rain before it's too late?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Half World

My projections of world consumption of ecological resources suggest that in 1961 the amount of economic activity per unit of consumption was at its historical minimum, translating into $1,425 per hectare in 2009 dollars. In 1980, when humanity was consuming all of the ecological resources produced by Nature (instead of that and the producers themselves, as we are now), a hectare was worth $2,288 and increasing. That number is now $4,123, and is expected to reach a maximum of $4,890 in 2029 when consumption, economic activity, and population also peak.

If it takes a minimum ecological footprint of 1.5 hectares per person to maintain a functioning society, then we could theoretically reduce average consumption to 56% of its current value. We would then be collectively consuming only 88% of what Nature can produce, with the extra as a reasonable amount for the producers to consume (as well as a margin for error). Economic activity, measured as Gross World Product (GWP), would be 26% of its present value if the historical relationship between consumption and GWP held, which would be 48% of current per-capita GWP.

Based on national ecological footprint data from the Global Footprint Network, an estimated 41% of the world's population consumed less than 1.5 hectares in 2007 (the world average was 2.7). In a fair world, their consumption would need to be increased at the expense of those of us with a surplus. Also in a fair world, population would stay constant along with consumption; the cost of increasing per-capita consumption for a few would unfortunately be taken in lives from others.

Of course, the real world is much more complex than this discussion assumes. For example, ecological resources are not evenly distributed around the world; it will take resources to either move resources where they're needed, or move people where the resources are. Pollution already in the atmosphere and water threaten to reduce the total amount of resources available, which would force part of the world's population below the minimum consumption threshold even in the best case. Obviously, I've ignored the huge political, social, and economic barriers to such a monumental redistribution of wealth, which will likely make the other complications moot.

As individuals, we can at least try to improve the situation. We can work on cutting our consumption as much as possible (starting with half), using the rest to pay off debt and then finding ways to get it to the people consuming less than the minimum. Our sources of income will need to migrate from resource-intensive (and especially extractive) activities to those that increase Nature's production. This will have an added benefit of reducing additional pollution and giving other species a chance to process the waste we've already dumped. For those of us who loathe the greedy actions of enthusiastic planet-killing sociopaths such as Wall Street bankers and leaders of the fossil fuel industry, our elimination of debt and unwillingness to purchase their products -- now and in the future -- will reduce the capital they have to do more damage. With any luck, what we do will have a cumulative effect large enough to make a significant difference, but at least we'll be able to sleep better at night with somewhat clearer consciences.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Peak Economy

In a recent comment about the 99% Movement (a.k.a. Occupy Wall Street), I introduced what I think is a fundamental problem with our economy. We have demonstrated a willingness and ability to assign arbitrary economic value to configurations of matter and energy as well as non-physical (virtual) things such as intellectual property and debt. The most “successful” people in our economy – those who can effectively consume whatever they want – are best at manipulating the value, manifested as demand, for the things (whether physical or virtual) whose supply they control. The ability to exchange virtual things of arbitrary value for physical commodities that are inherently limited, either in supply or access to them, poses the threat of potentially exhausting the physical commodities, leaving virtual ones which cannot by themselves contribute to people's basic survival.

For much of the last 50 years, Gross World Product (GWP), a measure of world economic activity, has grown faster than the world's consumption of ecological resources (total ecological footprint). GWP is now about 1.8 times what it was in 1980, when humanity was consuming as much ecological resources as the Earth could provide on a renewable basis, while consumption is nearly 1.6 times its 1980 value (population is 1.5). When we were consuming all of the “production” of the natural world, the value of the economy presumably embodied all of that consumption; simplistically, the GWP was equal to its value. GWP tracks with consumption in a predictable way, suggesting that the difference since then is due to value added to the resources we consume, that is, the creation of virtual commodities.

Generally, both GWP and consumption have been slowing down (consumption since 1960, GWP since 1989), yet the annual rate of GWP growth has fluctuated wildly, likely in response to the movement of virtual wealth. The recent fluctuations in the GWP growth rate are not unusually large, but they are unusual in that they've briefly gone negative, causing major economic and social upheaval, due mainly to how far from peak growth we have gotten.

If my projections are accurate, the average rate will continue steadily, inexorably, downward, though there may be more fluctuations. GWP, along with consumption and population, will reach a maximum (zero growth) by 2029, when consumption approaches the habitability limit, and take another 42 years to drop to zero. At the peak, GWP will be about 3.7 times its value in 1980, about twice what it would have been if it had kept pace with consumption and consumption reached the habitability limit. Put another way: The world economy will reach its maximum when the value of virtual commodities is the same as the value of physical commodities, where our consumption is at the limit where the remaining other species can just keep the planet habitable and survive.

Using virtual wealth to purchase all the physical wealth would be at least theoretically possible at the peak. Since virtual wealth declines after the peak, it's conceivable that such a possibility may be acted upon, driving the population down in the process as more and more people can't meet their physical needs from this and the resulting competition. Needless to say, this is a future we want to avoid.

In the commentary that introduced this concern, I suggested that we could begin dealing with it by more closely matching our economy to physical constraints. This is not a new idea; ecologically-minded economists have been making the case for a long time that we should account for the value of products and services that other species provide, viewing our economy as part of a larger system that includes the rest of Nature. I'm taking a bit of a short cut by assigning economic value to the ecological footprint (again, the basis of my “consumption” numbers). I'm also suggesting that we at least decouple virtual wealth from physical wealth (consumption) enough that people can retain enough physical wealth to survive and maintain a functioning society while keeping the overall amount low enough so we never get too close to the habitability limit.

Perhaps we could start by limiting the GWP to a value between what it was in 1980 and what it was at peak growth, in 1989 (27.2T to 39.9T in 2009 U.S. dollars). We would need to reshape the way we live so that everyone could meet their basic needs on 54% to 68% of the average current per capita economic activity, and preferably less than half. As unrealistic as this appears, it at least frames the scale of the problem we need to solve, and the sooner we can start figuring out how to do so with the minimum hardship, the better.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Conservatively Successful

If I were still a conservative, here is what I might be thinking...

We walk around with our smart phones, music players, and computer pads when we're not attending meetings with our personal computers primed to share our electronic creations with others while we drone on about abstractions aimed at manipulating the lives of others to achieve the half-conceived goals of our masters. Work in this artificial world allows us to keep a lifestyle that depends on increasing the amount and power of our abstractions at the expense of the physical world outside, where creatures and increasing numbers of people are forced to eke out a much harder living, and die younger from the pollution and decreasing resources we leave them with.

Although we are far from being the masters of the universe, we imagine someday being the next best thing. Competition is the key. Beat out more people, just like we pass cars on the highway, and we might have a shot at the top, or at least being very comfortable until we die at a very old age. Increasingly, we find ourselves out of work for months at a time, and must hustle to ingratiate ourselves with the masters or their minions, competing even from home for a chance of getting back into the game. Our high-tech tools keep us prepared for our inevitable re-entry, with fresh skills and the all-important appearance of success.

Rumors and a growing stream of finely filtered news suggest that our world may be teetering on the brink of collapse, but the consistency of our immediate environment belies this option, along with the outrageous, almost science fiction quality of the information. The polished promises of a better life, buttressed by realistic stories and multimedia descriptions, are much more believable than the apocalyptic predictions using complex, scientific reasoning that numbs our minds while trying to scare us into radically changing the world that gives our lives meaning. Still, the weather, the spiking prices of everything from fuel to food, and the increasing dissonance with reality that we feel when we hear our leaders speak, all contribute to the sense that we better not totally dismiss those scary suggestions.

Maybe we'll come out near the top if everything else goes to hell. It may be our only hope of survival. We have an obligation to try, don't we? Isn't that what life is all about? The alternative is to be a loser, like those other people, and that's totally unacceptable. They lost because they didn't hang on, or took more responsibility than they should have – responsibility for others, or the impact they had on others -- not just for their own success, personal responsibility, which is what really matters. If you care about other people, except your friends, family, others like you, and of course the masters of the universe, then you're doing the world a great disservice. At least, that's what Fox, Rush, and the real economic experts tell us.

Some suggest that if people and species die because of our actions, that makes us murderers. If we accept that everyone and everything is connected, then we are potentially all murderers. That can't be true, can it? They must be wrong, if we are to maintain our innocence or at least our perception of it. If we accept that our unwillingness to accept more than personal responsibility, our drive to the top, is causing most of the problems we hear about, then the guilt may be too much to bear. No, clearly they are wrong.

God clearly favors the rich and powerful, no matter what their faults. Therefore, it follows that they can't be wrong about the important things. Aside from the occasional lottery winner, liberal movie star, and trust fund baby who didn't get the right genes, the masters of the universe got to be the masters because they proved themselves worthy.

Giving the most people what they think they want and convincing them that it's worth more than it took for you to make it – that's the true test of success. “God helps those who help themselves,” after all. If someone can't do it as well, or doesn't accept that it's worth doing at all, then they will get what they deserve: poverty. As for those other creatures: they were put here to serve us; if they won't, then they deserve what they get, even if it's extermination. Yes, that's the way of the world, and we have nothing to feel guilty about.

At least that's what we tell ourselves, the true faithful. Yet, for some reason, we're getting smaller in number.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Are Scientists Stupid?"

The last place I expected to hear that question was in the clean room of a semiconductor manufacturer, spoken by a technician whose livelihood depended on scientists being a lot smarter than he was. I soon found out that he really meant biologists were stupid for accepting evolution instead of creationism as the best explanation for the complexity of life, especially when it came to humans. That was my first exposure to the possibility that functioning members of modern society could reject, on the basis of faith, hundreds of years of painstaking observation, testing, and thought. As a trained physicist, I easily determined that for their explanation to work, various laws of physics also had to be wrong. Essentially, God was testing people's faith and their intelligence by whether they would find the ways the Universe worked that were consistent with the literal translation of his words as related in the Bible. That scientists had reached the different conclusions after hundreds of years of painstaking research, thought, and testing just proved that they lacked both faith and intelligence.

There is a parallel and oddly similar argument, which I've recently encountered as part of a belief system shared by some people in the sustainability movement. Basically, it says that the complexity of the Universe is so great that it transcends explanation in the terms used by science. Instead, we, like other creatures, already have everything we need to appreciate and be a meaningful part of the Universe, or at least that part of it that supports life. There are a small number of basic patterns in Nature, that we are already intuitively aware of, that allow us, if we want, to use minimal, non-destructive technologies to be an integral, healthy part of our planet's ecosystems. We don't need anything else, and it's pointless – and harmful to the Earth – for us to seek it. The bottom line: scientists are stupid and dangerous.

Science is fundamentally a means of describing and explaining experience in abstract form, an extension of how we humans use language to communicate information about our experiences. The invention of mathematics, writing, and computational tools has enabled science to become both explanatory and predictive, to an extent far beyond what any one mind or group of minds can comprehend. I believe it is this transcendence beyond personal, visceral experience that is at the heart of both the arguments I cited, despite the fact that science and technologies using it have resulted in a progressively more benign environment for at least some of us.

Two basic needs are not being met by the increased power over our personal environments that science, technology, and the leveraging of group effort through economies have enabled. One of those needs is for meaning in life; the other is for the ability of people to meet their basic needs through direct influence. It is no more meaningful to be a consumer and a producer in an economy than it is to be a manifestation of mathematical probabilities in a multiverse of matter and energy. Most of the time we must rely on governments and corporations to provide our safety and sustenance, often from places and using technologies we can never hope to understand or manage.

A deity such as a personal god provides an easy way to, at least in concept, meet both needs: You are special to the creator to the Universe, and because of that, you can convince him to take care of you. Alternatively, you might see yourself as an integral part of that Universe, without whom it wouldn't be the Universe; you have what it takes to survive in Nature because Nature is you – all that's needed is to create a local, more ecologically healthy environment where you can use it. Ironically, pure science does not pretend to be able to define such a subjective thing as life's meaning, nor does it rule out a more personal relationship with one's environment or any other.

When empowered with adequate technology (such as supercomputers), science can do a pretty good job of simulating large systems; and with proper translation into experiential terms, it can give us insights into the impacts of our actions that our minds and bodies are simply not capable of doing anywhere near as accurately. To be responsible, and have any hope of being true to the values that we define for ourselves, we need to match the power of our actions with our knowledge of their consequences, and science currently provides the most reliable way to do that. If we are uncomfortable with this dependence, we must find a way to scale back our influence on the world to a point we no longer need to depend on it. If we want to rely on a deity of dubious existence, we must be willing to reduce our impact on others so we won't hurt them if or when our faith is found to be misplaced (if the deity's existence wasn't dubious, we wouldn't have to depend on faith).

Ironically, science is showing that we must collectively limit our influence over other species or risk driving most of them, and us, extinct. A world closer to the one we evolved in will be a healthier world, but at the expense of much of the power we've spent centuries accruing. As the tools needed to maintain and monitor our artificial environments falter, become unusable, and are replaced with more natural ones, I expect that science will continue to occupy an important niche in human understanding, but in a form much more usable by the majority of people. Perhaps at that point we will all be scientists (most of us something closer to what we now call naturalists), and the question that opened this discussion will never be asked again.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

New Infrastructure

It's no secret that the physical infrastructure of the United States is in bad shape. Recent predictions about global climate change show that even if it was up to par it would still be inadequate. Meanwhile, the president is pushing a jobs bill that would, in part, spend money on rebuilding the infrastructure which, like the economy it was designed to support, depends on cheap access to fossil fuels and other oil derivatives. Unfortunately, peak oil is here, which makes that dependency problematic.

Clearly, any efforts to build infrastructure must take into account the new reality we've created: one of scarcity and unpredictability as blowback from our sabotage of natural and cultural systems for short-term gains in personal happiness. This means not only assessing the impact on our current way of life, but having an honest, nationwide reassessment of our basic values and the kind of lifestyle that can support whatever we decide. The result of that assessment can be used to drive the design of the new infrastructure.

If we value life, including the community of other species that keeps our world habitable, we will favor a culture and an infrastructure with no negative ecological impact. This would require that we all at least become knowledgeable about the basics of how the natural world works, especially in our own regions. We must also work to understand and respect each other and other species, with a concentration on enabling all of us to meet our basic needs. Our physical infrastructure may become almost indistinguishable from the rest of Nature (and certainly usable by it, while we are using it or afterwards).

To the extent we don't value life, we will have to learn to deal with the consequences, which we will be doing in the extreme if we keep on our present course. Anything we build will need to survive worst-case conditions whose magnitude and probability have been completely and honestly anticipated.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Redefining Loss

In our personal lives, it's practically a given that we need to do everything we can to at least preserve what we have: our possessions, our consumption (starting with energy, food, and water), and our relationships with other people. Our present situation is the baseline for the future; to have less or to use less would be to “go backwards,” to “lose something.” We would be “failing.” As creatures who are sensitive to trends, it is natural and reasonable to be concerned if we have less stuff or capability today than we had yesterday or the day before. If this experience continues too long, we could end up with nothing, which would truly be disastrous.

The same logic applies to growth. If we are uncertain about the variables affecting what we have and what we are using, we will rationally attempt to gain more as a cushion against that uncertainty; and that gain then becomes part of the new baseline. If the uncertainty goes away, we will have become accustomed to having the additional amount. To gain less will therefore be considered a loss, which, if we extrapolate it, could at some point reach zero growth and continue into negative growth – a real loss. Thus we are forced into a pattern of exponential growth, which is inherently doomed to end by reaching a resource limit, sabotaging what we have by not devoting enough resources to maintain it, and by creating waste or competition that interferes with it.

Where a limit exists for what we can safely use, this analysis points to the need to redefine the baseline acceptable amount at a value less than the limit, which could very well be less than what we are currently using. We must therefore be able to redefine “loss” in such a way that it does not trigger attempts to avoid or reverse it.

Several related approaches include “redefining happiness”; calling attention to the diminishing returns in happiness of additional consumption beyond an “abundance” limit; scaring people with potential worst-case scenarios for business-as-usual; and using addiction therapy. Each approach has some success, but none is fully effective, probably because of the uncertainty triggered by new behavior and ideas – uncertainty which tends to have an effect opposite to what is intended.

Another strategy, used by the green movement, involves disguising the loss as a gain that more than offsets its accompanying uncertainty. Unfortunately the strategy risks higher consumption, as growing numbers of people may use more of products they like that individually have less embodied resources. To the extent that these products have an inherently limited consumption rate that is already being reached by the current, wasteful products, then this strategy could work. For products that do not have such limits (or whose limits are too high to benefit adequately from replacement), it likely will not.

These considerations suggest that the majority of us are more likely to approach a limit than to seek out a value below it. The mechanisms of competition, unhealthy waste, and sabotaging what we have in our pursuit of eternal growth may force us toward such a lower value, but we won't seek it out voluntarily.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Invasion of the Plaksorgs

In the classic worst-case sci-fi scenario, alien invaders take over the Earth by first convincing our leaders that they mean no harm so defenses will be lowered. They then demonstrate that they have superior force and destroy critical infrastructure so that survivors are unable to take care of themselves and must become slaves to the invaders just to survive. Not surprisingly, this scenario mirrors an all-too-common theme in human history, which happens to be playing out – today -- on a global scale.

The “aliens” are in fact human creations, organizations that find, use, and then discard everything and everyone who can contribute to their goal of world domination. To justify their actions, the people who identify with them assume that everyone is like them, or should be, and that the very act of competition will automatically make the world better by ensuring that only those who deserve to live in it will survive and thrive.

As it becomes more obvious that critical resources are being used up and our planet is becoming less habitable, competition is increasing and resistance to the planet-killing, sociopathic organizations -- “plaksorgs” -- is also growing. To counter the resistance, the plaksorgs have mounted a misinformation campaign, on the one hand arguing that the large-scale destructive impacts of their actions are instead “acts of God”; and on the other hand providing pervasive virtual experience designed to convince people that the world works in a much different way than it actually does.

The plaksorgs are winning, and we are collectively entering the endgame where the disastrous consequences of our greed, ignorance, and collective ambivalence about the fate of our fellow creatures will be unstoppable.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Safe Distance

When driving, I try to maintain enough distance between my car and the one in front of me so I can react to any problems that might come up. This has saved my life on at least two occasions, and avoided less serious accidents numerous more times, especially in bad weather.

For my current job, I do a lot of highway commuting, and spend as much time in stop-and-go traffic as going at high speed. I've noticed that it's becoming harder and harder to maintain a safe distance because other drivers don't recognize the need to keep such a distance; they instead seem to view the space I'm leaving as an invitation to dive in front of me.

I suspect that the growing number of accidents that routinely slow traffic to a crawl is partly due to people not driving with a reasonable amount of caution. The faster people try to go, the more they're willing to do to “get ahead” -- even by a handful of minutes -- the more likely it is that something bad will happen.

These observations have strong parallels in other parts of my experience, so much so that I think they are a useful metaphor for life in general. Take, for example, the willingness of corporations to push the envelope of what's legal, even to the point of trying to change that envelope through lobbying and influencing elections. Instead of limiting activity to within a safe margin, they try to redefine what people consider safe. When more people tailgate to get to their destination faster – the equivalent of competitive economic growth – it becomes the norm, and the increase in crashes becomes an expected cost of driving that everyone must pay.

Police do a modest job of controlling recklessness; when they're present, traffic slows considerably, just as regulations in the economy divert money from growth to maintaining constant production. Take the police off the road, and individual people's speeds increase, resulting in more fatalities and property loss. Reducing the size of government by cutting taxes has an equivalent effect, as does the exertion of political influence to cut regulations and provide loopholes in their enforcement. For a relatively small number of individual drivers (or the irresponsible rich), this is a boon; for the vast majority of the rest of us (or the poor and middle class), it is increasingly dangerous.

Another consequence of not observing safety margins in our activities is the deterioration of the infrastructure that enables them. With fewer taxes, roads can't be maintained and they become less drivable. With less environmental protection, natural systems have a harder time keeping the Earth habitable. A few people can make more money faster, acquire a brief superiority in power over their lives and those of others, but eventually the system that sustains that growth becomes too deteriorated for anyone (or anything) to use it.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Power, Responsibility, and Climate Change

A recent article discusses the mortal threat posed by global warming, and scientists' frustration with people's indifference to that threat. Part of that indifference is due to the insistence by deniers that it's all a hoax designed to hoodwink the public into paying loads of money to environmental groups and a growing green industry.

Seen through the prism of responsibility and power (which I discussed in my last post), scientists and environmental activists are operating from a position of high responsibility, and trying to gain enough power to match it, while the climate deniers have high power and are trying to avoid responsibility by rejecting the impacts of their actions. Scientists are working on increasing responsibility among others, in the hope that they will turn their existing power toward meeting it. Deniers, not recognizing the legitimacy of responsibility, see them as fakes who are competitors for power.

Mixed into all this is a difference in tolerance for uncertainty. Scientists recognize that they will never be totally successful in their quest to understand the way the world works, and are able to live their lives with the knowledge that some day what they think they know may be proven false. There are others, however, such as the deniers and their audience, who can't stand uncertainty; they need to have black-and-white answers, even if those answers are more imaginary than real.

The recent debt ceiling crisis demonstrated that politicians aligned with the climate deniers have an arguably sociopathic lack of conscience by their willingness to jeopardize millions of lives and risk world economic depression to gain more personal power. In a smaller scale example: If they were on the Titanic, they would have steered the ship toward the iceberg, locked everyone else in steerage, and taken all the lifeboats, all so they could be the only ones alive. Unfortunately, in the case of global warming, our whole planet is the Titanic. Extending the analogy, the lifeboats won't last long, and any hope of rescue is based on total fantasy (even if the deity they expect to rescue them did exist, he would more likely set their boats on fire than welcome them onto his heavenly island).

Seeing this, many of us who feel more responsibility than perhaps is personally justified, are getting increasingly stressed out by the imminence of the danger and shrinking time to mitigate its worst effects. Recent news about melting Russian permafrost, coupled with the dying of the oceans and its potential for unleashing a global holocaust that would wipe out most of life on our planet, adds to the sense of urgency while suggesting that it may already be too late. We feel obliged to try to save lives anyway, no matter what the probability of success and the personal distress it causes, because ultimately it's better to leave a legacy of more life than death.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Power and Responsibility

As of this writing, the U.S. Government is dangerously close to defaulting on its debt, which would likely be devastating to a lot of people. The compromises I've heard about are less harmful, but harmful nonetheless. In my opinion, this entire brutal exercise is proof that our political system, like our economic system, has lost a fundamental level of reliability in performing its core mission. This is not because the concept of government is fundamentally flawed, as the political Right would have us believe. It is, like many of the world's problems, because the acceptance of responsibility has not scaled up with the exercise of power.

By “responsibility” I mean an obligation to maintain the life-giving functionality of the systems our actions affect, and accept personal blame or credit for the consequences of our actions on the people and other creatures within those systems. This is as true for organizations as it is for individuals, whether those organizations are businesses or governments. As individuals who are parts of organizations, the increased amount of power that comes from working with others becomes part of our personal power, and our responsibility extends to its use.

In the rest of Nature, responsibility is part of biology: creatures get what they need from an ecosystem in return for innate behavior (filling a niche) that keeps the ecosystem functioning. If they don't fill a niche, they can't survive and procreate. We humans are capable of a wider range of behavior, and therefore a greater amount of control over ecosystems, which we have typically used by reducing their complexity. Effectively, we have simultaneously increased our impact on other species and attempted to avoid our responsibility for that impact. As a consequence, we have progressively degraded the health of the world's ecosystems so that we are now threatening the health of the entire planet, which, if we continue, could ultimately result in our own demise.

The core mission of a government is to provide the basic needs for a functioning society, such as resources, security, and both physical and social infrastructure. Businesses, on the other hand, have a core mission to maximize the economic power of their owners by efficiently providing products or services to the rest of the economies of the societies in which they operate – the equivalent of an ecological niche. Each type of organization serves its own constituents, and has traditionally limited its accepted responsibility to those constituents regardless of their potential for harming others.

In healthy societies, like healthy ecosystems, survival takes priority; and government's mission – where it has the power and accepts responsibility for executing it – supersedes that of business wherever they are in conflict (in an artificial ecosystem like an economy, government enforces the equivalent of natural laws, which, unlike Nature, it gets to change). In unhealthy societies, on the other hand, the wants of the few supersede the needs of the society, making it – like an ecosystem with little diversity – vulnerable to collapse.

In an ideal world built from scratch, we would all accept responsibility as I've defined it. We would learn as much as possible about the way the world works so we could assess the impacts of our actions. To the extent that we couldn't do so, we would create and support organizations that could make up the difference and inform us in terms we could use, while also accepting responsibility for their impacts. Such a world is the only kind I can imagine where total freedom of the sort preferred by ultra-conservatives could survive. In the absence of universal acceptance of responsibility, we are bound to be stuck with something else, which is either healthy or unhealthy; and based on what I've been seeing in the news, it looks like we're settling for the latter.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Tests of Survival

One of the common retorts to warnings of resource exhaustion and environmental catastrophe is that humanity has overcome similar problems in the past, and will continue to do so, primarily through innovating and exploring that is driven by the promise of great rewards for those doing both. This ignores the historical record of collapsing civilizations, the huge advantages accompanying our access to cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels, and the growing signs that we have merely postponed the worst consequences of our excesses, not eliminated them.

The bottom line is that every civilization – and every species – has lived or died based on its ability to solve two basic problems: matching resources with demand, and safely disposing of waste. It is far from a sure thing that our global civilization will solve these problems, though plenty of potential solutions are known. Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the future may, at some level, depend on your confidence that solutions will be implemented before resources run out and we are overwhelmed by our waste.

Given the stakes – entire species at risk – it is tempting to think that motivation won't be an issue. Those who acknowledge the stakes and are advocates of capitalism, even the distorted form currently dominating the world, expect that the price associated with demand exceeding supply will be enough of an incentive to spur discovery of new resources and innovative new ways of using the ones we have. This is certainly happening in the “green” industries, which are also taking on the waste issue by creating connections between waste and production, and increasingly altering the nature of ownership so that they can control everything but the use of the products, which is leased to their customers. To anyone who knows – or is – a true innovator, the majority of incentive to create comes from the innovation process itself; but true innovation is all-too-often a very minor part of industrial systems, where it is far cheaper to exploit workers and customers' ignorance than to provide quality, long-lasting products.

That so many people remain in ignorance or denial of the critical condition we're in by definition suppresses innovation. Not surprisingly, the people most responsible for disinformation are those whose personal power derives from the status quo, which in addition to causing the looming shortages and excess waste that is sabotaging Earth's life support systems, has no constructive alternatives to provide. Instead, all they can do is reap the profits of diminishing supply, and promising what they can't deliver (and convincing people that no one else can) while appearing to try by further exploiting the resources in decline.

Really sustainable solutions, because of the universal availability of resources and durability of products, will not ultimately lend themselves to profit-taking and power concentration. This is understandably unacceptable to those who have learned to value the maximizing of personal power. One tried-and-true alternative, which provided legitimately high rewards in the past, is to locate other sources of nonrenewable resources that can be controlled. Since such resources are limited or too dangerous to exploit here on Earth (whether people accept that fact or not), it is natural to try to find them on other worlds.

Various nations have space exploration programs, well-funded private groups not far behind. As noble as the search for scientific knowledge is, there is a strong component of the space community that has argued strongly and explicitly for the exploitation of other worlds. Now that NASA is terminating its Space Shuttle program and looking for a grander mission than remote observation and measurement, the space exploitation advocates (one of whom I used to be) see an opportunity to gain traction in the exploration and eventual settlement of Mars. I now find myself in the strange position of offering lackluster, if any, support for the idea, mainly because I fear that humanity hasn't learned the lesson of respect for other life that would keep us from spreading death and destruction as far as our technology can take us.

Not that long ago, I found people with attitudes like mine to be dangerously naive, idealistic, and maybe a bit crazy, mainly because I figured that our unique opportunity to transport life outside the death zone of our expanding Sun was worth the risk, and not likely to be available for much longer. Besides, I reasoned, we might still learn the life-respect lesson along the way. Now I figure that if we're bound to kill everything in our path anyway, it's probably good for the Universe if we stay right here and limit the damage. Of course, I hope that I'm proven wrong, but we should take the time to find out. A sustainable civilization is likely a good civilization, at least to those who value life and quality of life beyond our own experience.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


For the better part of a month, I focused on creating a presentation about my work on understanding the relationship between population and consumption. It started out as a review of what I already knew, but the more I tried to explain it, the more doubts I had. I was asking and answering critical questions right up to the deadline, burning the proverbial candle at both ends.

The result, I think, was worth it. My model was totally revamped, fit into a larger context of values that had driven my research in the first place, and had a lot more explanatory value than its predecessors. I even opened up a promising new line of investigation. With excellent feedback from the live presentation, I then wrote a set of notes that described the concepts better than ever, which I posted on my Web site. The conclusion was inescapable:

The main thing I've learned since my Settling Space presentation is that our population might crash a lot sooner than I expected, likely due to our overwhelming the Earth's ecosystem. I also now consider the prospect of settling space much more improbable, and even unwise until we can at least tame our ravenous desire to consume everything. Even if a few of us do go into space, billions are stuck here, for better or worse.
Clearly, we are inflicting a great deal of harm on this planet's life. That can't continue, both because it is wrong and because it will result in our own destruction. Reducing our consumption seems like the only rational course, but we need to do so without killing each other. In the language of my model, we must reduce our extraction mass. Doing so is likely to come at a price many of us may not be willing to pay. The link between consumption and our own quality of life is, I believe, inescapable, and we will need to sacrifice some life expectancy and happiness in order to improve the chances of survival for us and future generations.
Our challenge as a species and as individuals is to transition to a way of living that is as responsible and as fulfilling as possible. Do we have the character, the courage, and enough time left to do so? One thing's for sure: We'll all be living -- or dying -- with the answer.
Following the presentation, my back went into a state of constant spasms that varied in magnitude but has continued to this day. A combination of stress-induced muscle tension and poor posture pinched a nerve in my spine, which I'll now need drugs and physical therapy to deal with. When I even think of some of the issues I raised in my research, pain intensifies in my back, shoulder, and right arm. I interpret it as a physical manifestation of the helplessness I feel about stopping the horrible things we are collectively doing to the world, which we will likely pay the ultimate price for in the not-too-distant future.

Especially here in the United States, we have selected sociopathic behavior as a prerequisite for success in our economy, our politics, and many aspects of our daily lives. As a consequence, we are forced to act as if we are in a state of perpetual crisis – the classic condition for increasing stress. The “games” we are playing to “win” are ensuring that the most enduring legacy of our hard work will be a swath of destruction that none of us who remain sane could ever honestly be proud of, if we could stop long enough to think about it.

I have thought about it, a lot, and like the spasms in my back, the resulting pain is trying to restrict motion. Unfortunately, because survival demands more motion, I was ignoring the pain and trying to continue business-as-usual. Until, that is, the pain became too great. Our civilization is rapidly approaching the point where the pain will be too great. When we get to that point, we will either have to slow down (as I'm doing by recuperating at home), or suffer in ways that are beyond the imagination of most of us in the “developed world.” The macho part of my own brain which drives me to “play” when hurt is like the sociopathic leaders who care more about personal power than the fate of those whose lives they're affecting; if we push beyond the pain threshold, we increase the risk of catastrophic failure (as if I tried driving while distracted by pain, and then caused an accident).

It's been tempting to try to think “happy thoughts,” putting out of my mind the issues which have contributed to my stress. If I was still a Christian and thought I could offload my concerns to an omnipotent, caring deity, my life might feel a lot easier. Instead, I've chosen a path where I have to define the destination, the approaches to it, and take responsibility for everything that happens along the way that I might remotely have some control over. I realize that asking others to do the same, either directly or by challenging their beliefs, is to invite more stress (and its attendant pain) into the world.

As my back spasms remind me, pain has a purpose: to force us to either eliminate or escape its source. Pain medication, like delusions of divine aid and pleasant distractions, should only be used to manage the pain while the source is dealt with. If we become too comfortable with it, or are blinded to the existence or identity of the source, then we risk many more problems that we may not be able to mask, or even deal with effectively when we choose to face them.

I'm personally going to take a lot more breaks, focus on getting healthier, and look for ways to do both while continuing to face the problems that loom over all of us.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Reality Check

I've spent a lot of time lately on one of my favorite themes: the future of humanity, and what my admittedly simplistic mathematical models say about it. My recent examination of how those models apply to the future of other species has been especially enlightening – and controversial – although I see its convergence with emerging scientific understanding (particularly relating to global climate change) as a sign that my reasoning doesn't necessarily match that of, as one critic put it, a “crackpot.” I've never (intentionally) portrayed my work on these issues and elsewhere in my blogs as anything but an attempt to make sense out of the world in my own way, sharing what I've learned so that others might find something of value to their lives, and perhaps ask a few more questions (and seek a few more answers) in the process.

That said, there is a considerable amount of verifiable fact mixed into my speculations, mainly because I intentionally want my world view to reflect reality as much as possible (for fiction, you can check out my Art page). My research, in all its gory mathematical detail (including references), is laid out on my Bigpicexplorer Web site. Note that much of it is based on “curve-fits,” mathematical descriptions of data that suggest relationships between variables. I've attempted to tease out what's real and what's an artifact of the analyses, both on the site and in my blogs, in some cases testing the reasoning by putting it into a narrative along with related facts to see if it made sense (and hopefully elicit some helpful comments from readers if it didn't make sense to them). Readers are effectively witnessing the evolution of a theory in these cases, beginning with observation, developing hypotheses, and testing those hypotheses against other knowledge and new data.

Because what I do isn't pure science, I've also exercised my prerogative as a writer to explore the possible implications of things found during the process, often suggesting avenues for future investigation or speculation. I haven't been afraid to address philosophy, values, faith, economics, politics, and anything else that interests me (which is a lot), much of which can't be tested to even the modest level of rigor I've applied to my research. I intend to continue doing so, because these are much of what makes the rest relevant to our subjective experience of life.

Note that I started Brad's Pithy Comments, the Land of Conscience blog, and the Comment of the Day (which now is more like, “This is what last pissed me off about the news,”) to divert my more subjective commentary away from the serious observations and speculation I want to reserve for Bigpicexplorer and the Idea Explorer blog. Spillover between the blogs and related communications has been perhaps unavoidable (such as my growing, and to some, irritating use of the term “planet killer”), mainly because most of my discussion is motivated by my developing value system. For example, if our collective actions are driving other species extinct, an action I perceive as far more heinous than genocide, and I happen to be describing the destruction of ecosystems in scientific terms, I won't be afraid to comment about how I feel about it – and why.

Now, back to the fun stuff.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Climate Threshold

The news about global warming has been getting progressively worse, as detailed in a number of places, especially Climate Progress. It appears that severe climate change may be unstoppable, and could get much worse if we don't take immediate and drastic action to reduce our carbon emissions. This is largely due to the growing threat that permafrost will melt that contains the potent greenhouse gas methane, releasing it into the atmosphere. Within the next few decades, adaptation may be all but impossible for us and many other species; and for those species who can't adapt, entire ecosystems could collapse due to their absence. The Earth, for them and us, will become uninhabitable.

Both what we use and what we waste comprise our consumption of resources, and particularly our ecological impact (which I've been calling “consumption of ecological resources”; or, more recently, just “consumption”). Based on recent data, carbon dioxide emissions appear to be proportional to the square root of the cube of consumption (consumption to the 1.5 power), and the range of projected temperature rise due to global warming appears to be roughly proportional to the cube of consumption (the square of emissions).

Interestingly, the assessment by climate scientists of how much climate change we and other species can adapt to coincides with my estimate of our consumption of all global ecological resources (see “Habitability Limit”). If we somehow are able to keep our consumption growing, despite loss of ecological services provided by other species, we will drive them – and us – toward extinction, with the rapid increase in temperature acting as a proximate if not ultimate cause.

What I consider more likely is that our consumption and population will peak just before we can compromise other species' ability to maintain habitability. When our consumption drops to preindustrial levels, temperature may still be high due to the persistence of our previous emissions, the trapping of heat by the atmosphere, and the feedback effects we have unleashed. The populations of other species may not recover as expected for similar reasons: artificially modified areas take time to revert to natural habitat; devastated populations must breed and adapt to new conditions through evolution and learned behavior; and broken relationships between species due to death, migration, or ecosystem collapse may cause further devastation. Even if we manage to reduce our consumption without killing ourselves off, what to me is our most urgent priority as a species, the Earth will likely take a long time to heal.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Habitability Limit

Before humans had any significance influence on our planet, the population of a typical species was about two-thirds higher than in 1980, when humans began routinely consuming all of what other species “produced” (1 Earth). The total of other species with populations of 1980's size consumed nearly 1.9 Earths, which was all turned into biomass that could be consumed by others. That and the extra population consumed and recycled a total of 3.1 Earths, a measure of the total ecological resources of the planet.

As human consumption grew, other species had to do with less. The pressures of habitat loss, introduction of destructive species, pollution, and direct killing by humans caused their populations to decline, and in an increasing number of cases, go extinct. The survivors still needed the same amount of consumption for basic survival and, by extension, fulfilling their roles in maintaining the planet's habitability; but they needed to consume more resources to do so, since food was harder to find, and there was greater competition for what was left. Thanks to humans, the amount of remaining resources was shrinking a little slower than their populations, and they used all of it.

That's the picture that emerges from my latest research, based on projections of the Living Planet Index using my population-consumption model. We humans are currently consuming nearly 1.6 Earths, leaving 1.5 Earths for other species, of which they need a minimum of 1.2 Earths for survival (and are using the remaining 0.3 Earth to attain it). Because their minimum consumption is converted into both mass and function, at least 1.0 Earth is needed to keep our planet habitable (in economic terms, the “production” equivalent of their “capital”); this corresponds to human consumption of about 1.8 Earths.

If this analysis is correct, then we need to do everything we can to avoid reaching the maximum by lowering our consumption, preferably without casualties to our own population. My worst-case curve fit to our consumption over time shows that our consumption would peak when we're only within 6% of the maximum, which is close enough to add credibility that it is a real limit.

Monday, May 23, 2011


Several years ago, in “Half-Life,” I projected that the populations of other species, measured by the Living Planet Index (LPI), would reach the half-way point by this year (relative to its value in 1970). That isn't going to happen, mainly because humanity would need to be consuming 1.9 times the ecological production of the planet (“Earths”), and we are only consuming about 1.6.

This expectation is based on the notion, common in sustainability literature, that the sum of the ecological resources consumed by all species (including ours) is a constant. Further, it assumes that the consumption by other species are related to the size of its population as my current population-consumption model describes for humans. As I discussed in “Approaching the Peak,” our consumption appears to be climbing to a maximum of 2.0 Earths, which corresponds to an LPI of 0.46. I now project that if we manage to consume a little more than 3.1 Earths in a given year (a number very close to the constant pi), the LPI will be at zero, which is a euphemistic way of saying that we will have effectively killed the planet, and almost certainly ourselves. Note that this is another one of those strange rules of thumb: Consume up to one Earth to live sustainably; consume two Earths as a natural target (which may still coincide with consuming Nature's producers that we most depend on, and result in our population crashing), and consume three Earths to wipe out everything.

The U.N. recently reported its own projections for population and consumption in 2050. I was able to reproduce its numbers by performing curve fits on population and the consumption that I had derived in my recent modeling (see “Discontinuity”). As I did, they may have used three possible scenarios for population and consumption to derive their expected values. In my case, one of the scenarios is a “worst case” curve-fit, showing our population peaking in 2028 and dropping to zero by 2073; as our consumption falls, other species will have more to work with and their populations will rise after bottoming out at an LPI of 0.57. Another scenario is my population-consumption model's gradual leveling off as consumption stabilizes. The last scenario is a best-case curve fit, with our population and consumption rising rapidly, at the expense of other species, who die off by 2029. Combining these three scenarios using a PERT estimate is what yielded the U.N. estimates, which, if it meets the definition of “expected case,” will finish off other species by 2041, and likely us too.

Monday, May 16, 2011


We all have limited experience and knowledge, but this doesn't keep us from having to make decisions about things we are personally next to clueless about, or powerless to directly affect. For such decisions, we often depend on others we trust, who appear to have relevant knowledge, abilities, and experience that we don't. That trust tends to be based on our assessment of how much those others would agree with us on things we do know about. Conversely, the more different someone is from us, the less likely we are to trust them to do anything, especially if the potential cost of letting them is especially high. This dynamic applies to a wide range of situations, including who we vote for (in a representative democracy), what we buy at a store, and who is guilty in a court trial.

Trust also depends on our shared values. In my personal value system, a “good” decision is one that maximizes satisfaction and health for everyone who will be affected by the actions taken in its aftermath, with priority placed on the latter. Some would argue that it is they who should experience maximum satisfaction, and it doesn't matter what happens to anyone else as a result (they might even consider the diminishing of other people's health as a source of satisfaction). Others might quibble that “satisfaction” includes “health”; I've included both to ensure that health is taken into account regardless of the immediate goals of the decision.

As our experience builds with those we trust, we will either gain or lose confidence in them, and will either limit or expand their role in future decisions. Sometimes, however, we have no choice, such as when children must trust their parents or guardians to keep them safe. In such cases, the trust is often backed up by a society that imposes strict penalties for abusing it.

Our societies and their institutions are also held to standards of trust, by the citizens who are part of them, and dependent on them for what they can't do themselves. For example, the economic crisis that started in 2008 was precipitated by the abuse of trust by banks and their insurers. The U.S. government – as an agent of society – was entrusted with keeping them honest and their customers safe from fraud; yet that trust too was abused, and to date neither the institutions nor the government have taken adequate steps to ensure that they can be trusted about such things in the future (though people still depend on them, largely because they have little choice).

This brings up the question: What can people do if they have no one to trust when they are lacking what it takes to meet their needs on their own? Under such conditions, they may begin to form new associations, or even new communities, that are more trustworthy. The alternatives may even coexist with the original, untrustworthy ones until either trust is restored in the originals, or the originals lose all their power because no one trusts them any more. If no alternatives exist or can be constructed, then tragedy may result: slowly, if the originals still have some capability to meet people's needs; or quickly, if they have already fallen (the political variant of the latter is anarchy, where it's literally “every man for himself”).