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.