Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Control and Maturity

It's safe to say that most of us hate when someone or something controls our lives without our consent. Such people include dictators, intrusive or over-regulating governments, and business monopolies. From the time we are born, we try to meet our needs and wants by reducing our dependence on other people and everything else, and we learn to resist anyone or anything that takes away what control we have won.

As we mature – if we mature – we learn to share our identity with a growing number of people, then species, and voluntarily limit how much of the world we will occupy. If maturity doesn't come, we don't stop seeking more control until someone or something stops us because we're too much of a threat: we've become what we hate.

Where we are able to overwhelm those who try to stop us, the mismatch between the complexity of our own biology and the systems we're trying to control will lead to the demise of the systems, ourselves, or both. For full control, we would likely have to become who or what we were controlling, which is physically impossible.

A common model of control is the computer, but even with that marvel of technology, only a very limited number of variables in anything close to a natural system can be controlled. If, as some people hope, we are one day able to achieve immortality by encoding our consciousness in something like a computer, and then grow its complexity and capabilities to take over more of the Universe, we would still be competing with other such entities, and we would still be subject to unbreakable natural laws.

Organizations, like people, are subject to the same constraints. History is full of examples of groups invading others, and over time adapting, losing their identity, and becoming more like those they vanquished.

Recognizing these facts is part of the process of maturity, and a lot of unnecessary grief, death, and destruction could be avoided if more us could achieve it. With the great amount of power available to many of us, the survival of the planet depends on it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Math Block

Regular readers of my blogs and Web site have no doubt noticed that there is a fair amount of math underlying most of it. Although very little is beyond what I knew in high school, I've come to understand that its use may be behind the limited popularity of my writing. Even my novel (“Lights Out”), an adventure based on an early version of my population-consumption model, has been reported as almost too technical by some readers, though I went out my way to focus on the very human implications.

I've used math as a way to understand the world from the time I was eight years old, when I took an active interest in predicting the positions and motions of the stars and planets. My father, who loved to challenge my thinking, bought me a toy armillary sphere, which simulated how stars change their position in the sky as a result of the Earth's rotation and orbit. I've used the knowledge I gained from playing with that toy a lot since then, both for fun (as an amateur astronomer and geographer) and work (as a radar test engineer).

When my father experimented with reinventing math to help my brother, he enlisted my help to first test his ideas and then develop new ones. It became the core of the business we started together, which sought to show everyone how they could use basic observation and logic to “learn all the math they need to know.” No one was perhaps more frustrated than me with the way math was taught in school, especially as I was learning college calculus while developing a more natural way of understanding it with my father. We understood, along with our generous business partners and supporters, that math was simply abstraction built on reality, which had lost its roots in academia's rush toward teaching it as pure abstraction.

I openly admit that algebra was the hardest subject I took in high school, but now I use it as merely another language, shorthand for a simplified version of reality I see in my mind. Nearly twenty years after my last-gasp attempt to teach that reality to kids with my father and the dear, retired teacher worked with us, it's too easy to forget that most of today's adults and children still see math as language without substance that magically provides answers to questions they can barely comprehend.

When we were tutoring kids, calculators were already being used to bypass thinking, and today's computers have become far more successful at blunting our collective mental prowess. The “magic” has been harnessed with our electronic slaves, making us even more helpless than my father feared we would become when he (among other things) was teaching in the 1950s. I'm both frustrated and saddened that we have sacrificed so much wisdom for so much power that we are collectively like children playing with nuclear bombs, both figuratively and literally.

I refuse to give up hope that somehow we can relearn how to learn in time to avoid the catastrophe we seem headed for, as projected by my own limited research along with that of much smarter people than me. One of the signs that such hope is justified will be increased acceptance of the existence of human-induced climate change. Another will be an increase in intelligent public discourse that values evidence and reflects an understanding about how the world really works along with a willingness to develop more. Maybe, in my own little part of the world, there will be more of an interest in math.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Delta World

In the language of mathematics, the Greek letter delta (∆) is often used to denote a change in a variable. For example, “X = 5” means “the change in X is 5.” In comparing the world we have with the world we want, the difference can be thought of as “delta world” (∆W).

The world I want starts with a definition of “good” as anything that maximizes the amount (“A”), variety (“V”), and longevity (“L”) of life in the universe; that is, the product of all three (W = A*V*L). There is almost certainly some physical limit to this (Wmax = Amax*Vmax*Lmax), but since we are only responsible for what we know and can change, the best we can do is to approach that limit and try to develop more capabilities through learning and creating tools. Put another way, we should try to minimize W = Wmax – W.

This approach to definition helps clarify differences between people's values. For example, there are some people who primarily value only people like them, or themselves and a very specific set of species that are useful to them (V and A are very small); until very recently I was one of them. The amount of disagreement two people might have on the aggregate of all issues might even be proportional to the difference between their ideal values of W, which would explain why education (affecting their ability to estimate Wmax) can only go so far in getting them to agree.

Even if we all agree on a definition of good, our individual knowledge, skills, and experience will create differences in our perception of the best course to take in achieving it. Because we are individually limited, it is critical that we communicate and collaborate so we can approximate a solution that has the best chance of success. This is the logic behind my insistence on cooperation over competition, where competition is limited to testing solutions rather than dominating the entire process. It is important to keep in mind that because agreement on values is a prerequisite for success, competition has the additional role of determining what those shared values are, and should be completed as soon as possible.

Much of the aggravation I personally feel about the course of our global society comes from the ongoing dispute about values which has increased the probability to near-certainty that we will reach the simplest configuration of the world, with a minimal amount, variety, and longevity of life. This is why I have focused so much time and effort on ideas rather than practical solutions; most of the knowledge is already available, but it will be irrelevant to most people, and the other species we share this planet with, if we're not all working toward a goal closer to the one I subscribe to.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The View from Home

Sometimes, it helps your thinking to just look around where you live. For all my study of ecology and culture, I have to admit a fair amount of ignorance about my local environment outside of the usual range of knowledge most of us have. For example, I didn't know until very recently the species of trees on one of the routes I frequently walk (the dominant ones, currently with leaves, are Blue Spruce, Western Larch, and Ponderosa Pine). Of course, knowing the name of something is mainly good for communicating with other people about it, sharing what you each know and perhaps taking action based on that shared knowledge. I have a number of books (not to mention access to the Internet) which can provide a lot more information, including the books I've used for identification.

I've spent a lot of time studying and thinking about the similarities and differences between what I call the natural world and the artificial world, and how the two interact. My focus has been mainly on how what we do with them is healthy or not, contributing to our survival or ensuring our demise (there is, of course, a lot more to care about; but given the currently high probability of our demise, I feel justified in my preoccupation). In the urban area where I live (metropolitan Denver), the natural world is clearly at a disadvantage: trees, shrubs, and grasses are planted, pruned, and watered wherever people deem they can be, and wildlife is tolerated wherever it isn't perceived as a threat to the way people think their environment should be. My state has done a fair job of protecting wild areas both inside and outside of settled regions, but even there you can see that plants and wildlife have clear limitations imposed on them by the artificial world, a part of which we all carry with us.

The recent disaster in Japan was a horrific reminder of how the the two worlds can seriously harm each other, and how that harm can potentially spread to every neighborhood due to the global reach of the artificial world and the huge influence it has over the natural world. My neighborhood has already seen extreme weather due to the climate changes caused by industrial activity all over the planet. The vacancies at local malls are part of the devastation caused by marauding Wall Street traders and irresponsible bankers who live many hundreds of miles away, and hint at more systemic problems. For a beginner naturalist like me, it's going to be tough learning what's normal for my area before it all changes, but at least I'll understand the changes better in the process.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lessons from the Brink

Words and pictures are never enough to accurately capture experiences, especially those that are totally out of the ordinary such as the combination of natural and human-enabled disasters that are unfolding in Japan. Yet, for those of us with even a shred of empathy, there is a need to share those experiences, to help in whatever way we can, and to relate them to our own lives so we can learn from them and make the future better for all of us.

The most obvious way to improve the future as a result of a disaster is to determine how to prepare for something similar so we can minimize, if not totally prevent, a loss of life and lifestyle. We can also use the disaster as a starting point for imagining related events that may be even more devastating, and prepare for them as well. Using the experience to better understand how the world works can be of immense help, expanding the range of possibilities. Given our physical and social constraints (competing priorities for resources), we can only do what's possible, and work toward reducing those constraints in the future. These approaches are best used for natural disasters, which almost by definition we have no control over.

For the disasters we do have some control over, many of us will want to do whatever we can to prevent them altogether. The combination of increasingly powerful technologies and growing numbers of people who can use them has enabled us to influence global processes, precipitating what used to be purely “natural” phenomena such as hurricanes, sea levels, droughts, and – potentially – earthquakes and asteroid impacts. Our destruction of ecosystems in the process of settlement has exacerbated the effects of events we have no control over, such as amplifying the impact of hurricanes by destroying wetlands. On the large scale, the extinction of species is totally altering the planet in both foreseeable and unforeseeable ways, none of which can be good for most of us.

Japan was hammered by earthquakes and a tsunami that were geological in origin. As horrific as the loss of life was, it could have been a lot worse. Having previously dealt with both types of events, the country was largely prepared for each; though, it turns out, not totally for both, and at the magnitude at which they occurred. This information will be useful in the future, but should not be a distraction from dealing with the present or a tool for judging either the present or the past.

What may have a far worse impact on not just Japan, but the rest of the world, is the human-enabled disaster in progress at seven of the country's nuclear plants. As I write, several reactors are in partial meltdown and hundreds of tons of spent nuclear fuel are in danger of being dispersed into the atmosphere, despite the more-than-heroic efforts of workers at the plants. Anticipated effects run the gamut from somewhere between the Three Mile Island event and Chernobyl, to cancer on a global scale. In the worst case, there may be no way to adapt in time to avoid mass death.

The simplest way to keep this kind of nightmare from happening in the future is to stop using nuclear energy altogether. This proposal has been made and attacked by the usual defenders of the status quo, who argue instead for improving the safety of existing plants; and incorporating those improvements in future plants which, incredibly, are advertised as “green” alternatives to fossil fuels while even in the best case there are no safe ways to dispose of their nuclear waste.

It's hard not to see this as a variation of the classic battle between those who want to play it safe so the world can survive, and those who want to take risks so individuals can maximize their power over the world. In the case of the former, there is a sense of responsibility for one's actions on everyone (and everything else); in the case of the latter, there is a faith that a higher power won't let anything really bad happen to them. More crudely, there's a dichotomy between needs versus wants, and adults versus spoiled children who think their (absentee) parent, such as a deity, will keep them safe. The spoiled children will enthusiastically take risks to get whatever they want, which is why, in families (whose children live to reproduce), parents limit the power of their children to what they can use without causing harm to themselves or others.

Culture is perhaps our greatest technology, and one obvious way to harness it so we can avoid potential human-caused disasters is to do a better job of enabling us all to “grow up” as fast as possible. Barring this, the “adults” will need to manage an overall decrease in the amount of power we can each exercise, to a level where as few people as possible will be harmed by playing. Risks will always be necessary to find and deal with the unknown and the uncertain, but they should be managed so they don't jeopardize our ability to meet our needs. The alternative, the current status quo, is that eventually (if not soon) the consequences of taking excess risk and putting the wants of the few ahead of needs of all will limit our numbers in a drastic way.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Green" Economy?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “The green economy encompasses the economic activity related to reducing the use of fossil fuels, decreasing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the efficiency of energy usage, recycling materials, and developing and adopting renewable sources of energy.” This presumably reflects the thinking about “green” jobs in the real economy of the United States, which prioritizes the continued energy and material flow through our civilization and the availability of those parts of “the environment” that people directly use.

The use of the term “green” triggers imagery consistent with a natural setting dominated by plants, and by extension, more biodiversity. Rightly, many of us tend to associate this with a better life. Unfortunately, because the green economy as presently defined only peripherally addresses a few of the causes of our biosphere's degradation, and is likely to exacerbate others, the result is not likely to match our expectations from the imagery.

Biodiversity loss is perhaps the largest single manifestation of biosphere degradation. Habitat loss, population growth, and invasive species (three of the five largest causes) may actually increase as a result of green activities, and the continued reliance of green technologies on electronic technology may not alleviate the pollution problem (the fourth cause) outside of a very narrow range of harmful substances. Habitat loss is a consequence of our appropriation of land and other resources from use by wildlife, which is likely to increase as we mine more materials for new technologies, build more buildings, erect large-scale wind and solar installations (along with their distribution and transportation infrastructure), and devote land to the growth of biofuels. More efficient resource use tends to drive up consumption because people feel free to use more (viewing the savings as the equivalent of new resources); and as per-capita consumption increases, so does population (enabling full use of the available resources). Wherever people go, other species go with them, among them our favorite monoculture crops, often displacing the natives and sabotaging ecosystems. Now, with biotechnology and species bred for biofuel use, we can introduce a range of new species that may wreak even more havoc.

If we were to more broadly define the goals of a green economy to include a healthy biosphere where people use only what can be replenished without harm to each other and other species, we might truly have a healthier world as a result. It is almost certain to be very different from what we currently have, so different perhaps that a job classification system like the one used by our government wouldn't even be meaningful.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Biases in Pastcasting

One of my most vivid memories of college is a warning I received during an introductory course in history (which ended up being my minor): Don't impose the judgments of the present on the past. We are all biased by our personal experience, which is shaped by a variety of influences, most of which we aren't even conscious of; this can be a great impediment to the historian's job of finding and accurately describing how people in earlier times were living their lives.

I found myself remembering this warning as I pondered the apparent disconnect between my projections of low happiness in the past with evidence of more happiness reported by small, isolated communities in the present. As I speculated in “Practical Revolution,” this was likely due to the isolation of those communities. Even the countries in the data, none of which is individually isolated, have considerable variation around the statistical relationship between happiness and per-capita consumption (technically, the ecological footprint). The individual differences have suggested the possibility of replicating the conditions of the happiest, least consumptive countries, for the whole world in the hope of salvaging something like our civilization in a future severely constrained in resources. If you've studied my work, you will recall that the correlation I found between population and per-capita consumption has this same characteristic, which is why I've stressed the condition of total isolation for its validity, and presumably the validity of the correlations between per-capita consumption and both happiness and life expectancy. Now, take this reasoning a step further, which is what I did when I generalized these relationships to the past and the future, and you can see why the warning about just such generalizations popped into my head, especially given the suggestion of an exception in the present-day.

In the case of my math, I'm making a clear statement of bias when I claim that the relationships I found are generalizable to the Earth as an isolated system over all time. I've never knowingly suggested that this claim shouldn't be tested, just that it matches the available data that I'm aware of. Because my projections into the past (“pastcasting”) are only really applicable to the last 2,010 years, such testing could possibly be done by historians, or a combination of historians and archaeologists. I expect that the trends I've identified will be vindicated on a statistical basis for societies living in that span, which is why I've labeled my pastcasts as “simulations” (such as the most recent effort, which goes back to the 1800s). Specific details like those I've identified so far should be falsifiable by a search of the evidence; a preliminary search, like in my recent effort, at least shows that they're plausible.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Brad's Blogs

You've probably noticed that I now have several blogs.

Idea Explorer, my first and favorite, is a venue for discussing ideas about how the world works, with an emphasis on their implications for the future of humanity, which I believe is very much in jeopardy.

Land of Conscience focuses on my own personal struggles with living a responsible life in our dysfunctional society, aimed at helping create a land shaped by highly developed conscience rather than the pursuit of personal power.

Brad's Pithy Comments captures random thoughts, some profound, others silly, usually taking the form of a rule or observation that either exaggerates how I'm feeling at the moment, or preserves a nugget of meaning I might explore in more detail in other venue.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Practical Revolution

While our policy leaders grapple with the problem of keeping the status quo of political and economic power in place, a revolution is gaining momentum that will hopefully have a healthy alternative in place by the time it becomes impossible to maintain it. That was my takeaway message from a recent conference on the “local economy in Transition.”

The Transition (or “Transition Town”) movement is only one manifestation of the revolution, which has been in progress for several decades. Predictions of the end of cheap energy (“peak oil”) have been refined since M. King Hubbert first proposed it in the 1950s. Combined with evidence of widespread environmental degradation (which spawned the “environmental movement,” and is only now becoming most evident in the acceleration of global climate change), mainstream citizens from around the world are preparing for what will either be a massive catastrophe or the beginning of a new, healthier, and more responsible way of life. Most of us are hoping and working to ease the “transition” to the latter.

The focus of Colorado's Transition contingent is on developing the ability to feed people with local resources, since food is the most critical need we have. Boulder County is the epicenter of the movement, both geographically and culturally, the first and most active such group in the United States, and the conference dealt mostly with the details of feeding that specific place. In the spirit of the movement, which is really more of a network than an organization, local lessons and experience will be shared with everyone else so they can use what might be practical for their situations, recognizing full well that each locality will have its own unique problems and solutions.

I met a number of local farmers, government officials, business experts, and people like me who have more than a passing interest in the subject. We each have our own perspectives, and were able to share them. The global perspective (my favorite) hung over all of us, since it is framing the timing and severity of the changes we must plan for. The conference opened with a new movie that addresses it, “The Economics of Happiness,” which argues that economic globalization is perhaps the single greatest contributor our present condition. In isolated cultures, people are self-sufficient, sustainable, and very happy; and when those cultures are exposed to the dominant global consumer culture, they become very unhappy, unsustainable, and are subject to a host of other maladies. The movie highlighted a core belief among sustainability advocates that happiness, among other indicators of health and wellbeing, decreases with wealth. Having studied the statistical evidence (which in the aggregate suggests otherwise), I attribute the difference to how isolated a population is: In a closed system, whether it be an isolated society or our entire planet, the trends will be as I expect (though perhaps with unique growth parameters); whereas, in an open system, the equivalent of a temperature gradient will develop between regions of different resource concentration, altering the perceptions (and other characteristics) of the smaller group to more match those of the larger one.

The first full day of the conference started with a presentation by Nicole Foss from The Automatic Earth, who described how the global economy is likely to collapse, and soon, due to over-speculation and the realities of energy availability. A large part of her evidence took the form of graphs showing the life-cycles of economic bubbles, and how the global economy resembles them. I was particularly struck by the resemblance of those curves to the graphs of population over time that I've derived, especially where the bubbles burst. Foss had a list of recommendations that match the best advice I've seen, regardless of one's economic situation, key among them staying out of debt and building a reserve of cash and physical assets that could be useful when the collapse occurs. I shudder at how naive those last words appear, imagining someone building a tiny snow shelter to protect against an avalanche hundreds of feet deep.

A friend of mine was on a panel about relationships, which dealt with the psychological aspects of the transition: how we can personally cope with living in two worlds at once, and how our relationships with each other and the natural world can help make us resilient. One piece of advice became a theme throughout the conference, to find a way to share food with neighbors as a starting point in building relationships, which could expand to include small groups of people. Without a clear notion of how fast the transition would need to occur, it seemed that fostering generally healthy behavior was the solution most favored, including one of my favorites, play, which I had a chance to explore in more depth at the end of the conference (and affected my overall reaction when I got home).

Michael Brownlee, perhaps the most visible face of Transition Colorado, led the conference, and did a masterful job of interweaving themes from the global and local viewpoints into a laser-like focus on the challenges facing Boulder County in achieving sustainability. This included a sober assessment of the area's local “foodshed” and how unprepared it currently is to meet its own food needs. He enlisted the help of Michael Shuman, an economist from the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), who had done an analysis of Cleveland, Ohio to find out how to meet even 25% of that community's needs. Interestingly, despite Boulder's agricultural base, Cleveland is better prepared. Shuman described what he saw as the best approaches to achieving even that modest goal, which included getting active participation from businesses, non-profits, and academia. Much of the discussion was oriented around how much communities depend on long supply chains for even their most basic needs such as food, both in terms of how expensive this is from a resource point of view (not just energy), and how vulnerable it makes them to sudden and uncontrollable disruption.

Delving more into the “revolution” idea, Woody Tasch from Slow Money compared what is happening now to the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, and the predictions of movies such as “Network.” His organization is attempting to get one million people to invest one percent of their assets in local food enterprises within a decade, which in conventional terms is fairly radical, but I fear not near radical enough. He reacted to the “radical” label attached to people advocating support of local economies by pointing out how radical it really is (and I'm paraphrasing) for people give their money to strangers to invest in something they don't understand, somewhere they've never been, hoping that those strangers will deliver what they say they will subject to conditions they have no control over.

I learned in several sessions that the local food infrastructure has been dismantled by globalization and how it will effectively need to be rebuilt. Local farmers and government officials associated with Boulder's open space management debated the details, including how to process, store, and deliver food to people, not to mention revitalizing soil which has been leached due to large-scale agribusiness practices. More of us will have to participate, directly and indirectly, in the process building human-scale relationships across the state. With only about three days of food available in the event of a major disruption, this effort will need to progress as quickly as possible.

For a long time now, I've had the sense that our civilization has been systematically disabling past ways of surviving as it relentlessly pursues new technologies and cultural norms that increase its energy flow. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness that doing so may end up killing us all, and we should start reconstructing them (or hopefully, something better) – and soon.